Sunday, March 24, 2019

Talking About Disagreement

I do not hesitate to post about controversial issues. Though I mostly keep my posts on this blog to the subject of books, I tend to read some books that cover contentious topics. I read books on the subjects of race, gender, politics, religion, etc. Even books whose focuses are not on these issues sometimes touch upon them. For instance, sometimes history books delve into the issue of colonialism, race, gender, etc.  Those who know me on Twitter also know that I do not shy away from controversial issues there. 

Sometimes bloggers write or tell me that they stay away from posts about controversial topics. However, since books touch upon all of these things, it would be impossible to properly write about them without commenting on these issues. Likewise, on other social media, I tend to freely express my opinions. Expressing myself is one of the great joys of life. 

There are many reasons that folks stay away from such topics. Online, there is always the possibility that one may receive hateful or at least angry comments.  With that, these are fairly uncommon when it comes to book blogs. I think that for many, there is more of a fear that people may disapprove of their opinion. People sometimes fear that a difference of opinion means someone will not think well of them as individuals. 

I find that there is a fear to disagree with one’s own tribe. In other words, liberal folks will tend to shy away from criticizing folks on the left, conservative folks will likely shy away from criticizing folks on the right. On issues of race and gender there is often the fear that one will be seen as racist or sexiest if one takes certain positions. It is possible that bias may creep into even a well-intentioned person’s discourse. Thus, I think one should think carefully about one’s opinions on these sensitive issues, listen to other people's points and employ logic, ethics and empathy.  At that point,  one should not shy away from speaking their minds if one truly believes something. There will always be people who agree and there will always be people who disagree. 

There is a larger issue of social media harassment and mobbing. The political and social right and the left seem to have their own sets of really bad people out there. I will be posting more about that in the future, but I want to keep this particular post restricted to general disagreement and the hesitancy to express opinions. 

This brings me to the main point of this post. It is OK to disagree as long as you do not get nasty and as long as you do not engage in personal attacks or even worse behavior.  Issues relating to politics, religion, race, gender, etc. are very complex. People also have their own experiences which often help to shape their opinions. Unless two people are ideologues, it is impossible for any two individuals to agree on everything. I disagree with my friends, my family, even my wife on multiple topics.  I am a traditional liberal in the American sense of the word. However, I am also critical of various trends that I see emerging on the on the left such as postmodernism, an extreme form of identity politics, etc.  I am also an atheist who does not agree with the generalizations that I often hear about various  religions, whether those generalizations are good or bad. However, I  also strongly defend those who criticize religion. It is impossible to imagine any one person agreeing with me on everything, especially with my mix of views. 

Disagreement is often the source for finding the truth or coming over to more reasoned positions. Thus, as I have written before, if I take a position that anyone disagrees with, they should feel free to tell me in the comments section. 

I generally do not read books that are too tied to current events. I try to read books that I think will be relevant 50 or 100 or 150 years from now. In my original draft of this post I had written that I was thinking of reading The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism by Russell Blackford. That book delves into the pressure that modern society exerts against those who speak opinions that are unpopular. I am a fan of Blackford’s Tweets as he expresses opinions somewhat similar to those that I have expressed above. In the meantime I have actually read and finished the Blackford's book. I will be posting about it in the coming weeks. I want to note that I have not changed anything in the preceding paragraphs as a result of reading that book, as I wanted to present this post as it was originally intended, before wading into Blackford's ideas. 

There will always be people who shy away from disagreement. There will always be people who embrace it. Social media raises all sorts of new questions and issues that relate to it.  I will continue to try to use my blog as a vehicle for opinions while trying to be open to the views of others. 

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

This post contains some spoilers. 

Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling is the fifth book in the series. I thought that, while slow in its early parts and a bit on the long side, the book was very good and that it ended on a very strong note. I found that Rowling displayed some of her best writing and characterization in the last part of the book. 

During the first two thirds of the story, very little new happens. The narrative mostly consists of Harry’s day to day interactions at Hogwarts. The evil Voldemort is still hovering around the edges of the story. He seems be establishing a psychic connection to Harry. A group of adult wizards, known as the Order of the Phoenix, has reformed and is dedicated to fighting Voldemort.  The order consists mostly of Harry’s adult friends who are at odds with other wizards that are in denial about Voldemort’s return. This time around, Harry’s enemies at school have gained in power and are making life miserable for the young protagonist. Even Harry’s friends seem to be underappreciating him. Harry reacts with some resentment and lashes out a bit. Though he encountered bullying and really bad treatment from both his peers and adults in all of the books, the escalating and constant parade of bad treatment and even abuse that Harry suffers in this book is a major plot point.

Things pick up in the latter third of the book.  There is an epic battle between Harry and his friends and Voldemort’s supporters that becomes brutal.  Harry’s surrogate father, Sirius Black, is killed. Some of his friends are seriously injured, and Harry is exposed to other shocks. Harry responds by displaying serious grief, anger and perhaps some signs of post -traumatic stress syndrome. 

As in Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire, the story has turned darker. Tales of Voldemort’s torture and murders abound. Malicious teachers and students begin to run rampant at Hogwarts. The authoritarian Professor Umbridge wrests control of the school from the benevolent Albus Dumbledore and begins meting out physical abuse upon Harry and others. 

This is the longest novel in the series so far. The book does seem long. At times, the plot feels like it is meandering on. I agree with what I have heard from others that this novel would have been better if it was shorter.

I thought that the book got a lot better in its last third. First, Rowling introduces several interesting ideas. One particularly intriguing concept involves bullying and the way in which people fall into being the perpetrators of it.  Throughout the series, Harry and his friends are targeted by bullies on every level. Harry’s family, his school peers and some teachers are merciless bullies. In this book, these folks find that their power to be on the rise and the vitriol that they direct at Harry is redoubled. Things take a further ironic turn. At one point, Harry, gains access to Professor Severus Snape’s memories. He is shown a vision of Hogwarts twenty in the past where he sees that his father, James Potter, as well as the beloved Sirius Black, were themselves bullies and tormented an adolescent Snape. Harry observes as Snape is targeted, 

Snape’s wand flew twelve feet into the air and fell with a little thud in the grass behind him. Sirius let out a bark of laughter. 

‘Impedimenta!’ he said, pointing his wand at Snape, who was knocked off his feet halfway through a dive towards his own fallen wand. 

Students all around had turned to watch. Some of them had got to their feet and were edging nearer. Some looked apprehensive, others entertained…
 ‘How’d the exam go, Snivelly?’ said James. 

‘I was watching him, his nose was touching the parchment,’ said Sirius viciously. ‘There’ll be great grease marks all over it, they won’t be able to read a word.’ 

Several people watching laughed; Snape was clearly unpopular. Wormtail sniggered shrilly. Snape was trying to get up, but the jinx was still operating on him; he was struggling, as though bound by invisible ropes. 

‘You – wait,’ he panted, staring up at James with an expression of purest loathing, ‘you – wait!’ 

‘Wait for what?’ said Sirius coolly. ‘What’re you going to do, Snivelly, wipe your nose on us?’ 

Snape let out a stream of mixed swear words and hexes, but with his wand ten feet away nothing happened. 

‘Wash out your mouth,’ said James coldly. ‘Scourgify!’ 

Pink soap bubbles streamed from Snape’s mouth at once; the froth was covering his lips, making him gag, choking him  

In the present day, Snape is now a bitter and angry character who bullies Harry to the point where it can be described as verbal abuse. (Snape’s  character is much nastier in the books as opposed to how he was depicted in the films). However, in the above passage, Harry comes to understand why Snape has come to hate the Potter family.

Later, Harry confronts Sirius about the incident. Sirius guilty explains that it occurred a long time ago and attempts to rationalize it in other ways. It seems that Rowling is saying that there are a lot of people who did very questionable things in the past. Even those who we idolize are imperfect. She also seems to be observing how easy it is for some to fall into the role of a bully. I thought that this plot twist was very well done and added depth to this story. 

This book continues the somewhat dark trend and introduces some more complex themes that are in line with what I wrote about Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire here. I think that Rowling continues to draw parallels with her wizarding world and the real world. At one point, Dumbledore observes how non-human creatures, such as elves, giants, goblins etc. have been terribly treated by human wizards throughout the centuries. Some of these creatures are now joining Voldemort.  This situation seems akin to the treatment and ensuing consequences of non-Western peoples by the West.

As noted above, the novel ends very strongly. The interesting and complex themes that I mention above come to the forefront. There is a magical battle between Harry and his friends on one side and Voldemort’s followers on the other. The fight is superbly written and conveys the chaos and violence that is inherent in a real-life street fight.  This fracas is one of the highlights of the novel. 

Though this book starts out a bit tedious and unoriginal, it eventually gets very good.  Some interesting themes are also introduced. Rowling also displays some of her best chops towards the ending. This is another entertaining entry in the series. 

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Orientalism by Edward Said

I am doing some reading on the subject of colonialism. As part of this larger project, I am including some key books that are part of the viewpoint known as postcolonialism. Orientalism by Edward Said is often cited as such a source. Some describe it as the most important work of postcolonial nonfiction. I found it to be an interesting but esoteric argument concerning bias with some postmodernist views thrown in. 

This book was originally published in 1978. My edition contained additional material written by the author in 1994 and 2003.  Some comments that I have read contend that the book is out of date. However, it is still considered a key text in regards to postcolonial theory. In addition, much of the book is an analysis of writers and thinkers who were active during the early twentieth century and earlier. The added essays by the author also try to bring the book up to date. 

Said was a was a professor of literature at Columbia University. He wrote numerous books. Multiple sources credit him as one of the founders of postcolonial theory. He died in 2003. 

The basic preposition of the work is that in Europe and America, a basic view and body of work has arisen over the past several hundred years known as Orientalism. That body of work is dedicated to understanding and analyzing Asian history, culture, ideology, etc.  Said contends that Orientalism is based on all sorts of false propositions and is biased. Furthermore, the entire field of Orientalism has aided and abetted the domination of colonized nations by Europeans. The author contends that Orientalism is based upon stereotyping and a false sense of European superiority, that it is not based upon evidence, that it represents an unchanging picture of the orient, and views the region and people of Asia as a threat to Europe and America. The author, and many theorists who followed him, contend that these conclusions can be extrapolated and applied to Western interaction with other parts of the world. 

Said takes all sorts of writers and intellectuals to task. He writes,

a very large mass of writers, among whom are poets, novelists, philosophers, political theorists, economists, and imperial administrators, have accepted the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, “mind,” destiny, and so on.

Said devotes pages and pages to analysis of writers and thinkers. He covers such prominent people as Karl Marx, T. E. Lawrence, Richard Francis Burton, Friedrich Nietzsche, etc. He also covers a lot of fairly obscure thinkers such as Gustave Flaubert, François-René Chateaubriand Louis Massignon, H.A.R. Gibb, Ernest Renan, Silvestre de Sacy and many more. The author piles up copious evidence, references and analysis to prove his points. 

Said argues that this bias and misrepresentation is not trivial. The body of knowledge known as Orientalism has driven colonialism, domination and all sorts of other bad actions and decisions by European powers and the United States. 

Said goes on.

My contention is that Orientalism is fundamentally a political doctrine willed over the Orient because the Orient was weaker than the West

Said has certainly convinced me that there has been a lot of bias and bad scholarship out there. Furthermore, some of it was influenced by, and has itself influenced, unethical and ill-advised actions of national governments. 

Said leans heavily on the writings and belief systems laid out by Paul-Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. He often cites postmodernist theory but also occasionally criticizes it. 

One of Said’s ultimate conclusions is postmodernist. That is, he questions the very nature of truth. The author goes beyond the contention that the Orientalists were biased. Instead, he contends that a true representation of this sort is impossible for anyone.  He writes, 

the real issue is whether indeed there can be a true representation of anything, or whether any and all representations, because they are representations, are embedded first in the language and then in the culture, institutions, and political ambience of the representor.

I disagree with the above. This gets to the heart of the disagreements that I have with postmodernist theory. I will not say more about this in this post, but I do plan to read both Foucault and Derrida soon. Stay tuned.  Despite my opinion on the above, Said does make a convening case that at least some of the Orientalists were extremely biased and were not really on the trail of truth. 

I have also read a few articles and pieces by Said’s critics. There is a general contention among many of them that while Said is on to some truths, he overstates his case and he cherry picks his evidence. 

Robert Irwin has written here that,

Orientalism amounts to a sustained libel on the past.

Irwin has written his own book, Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents, which I have not read. I understand that Irwin argues against many of Said’s contentions in his work. At this point, I do not know enough about these subjects in order to evaluate what I think about these arguments. 

However, it seems that, based upon my reading of some criticism of Said, despite the enormous number of thinkers that Said examines, he leaves many important writers out of his analysis. 

While I found it to be interesting, this work is filled with fairly arcane knowledge and arguments. It is not for everyone. However, is a vital read for anyone interested in postcolonial theory. Even many of Said’s critics seem to agree that he sheds some light upon a lot of bias here.  Even if one disagrees with Said, this book is important because of its status as one of the key works that make up postcolonial theory. 

Saturday, March 2, 2019

The Red and the Black by Stendhal

The Red and the Black by Stendhal is the story of Julien Sorel, a young Frenchman of middle - class origins. The tale centers on his love affairs and his attempts to socially advance himself in a mostly aristocratic world.  I found this to be brilliant book and character study. The novel worked on several levels. 

The work was first published in 1830 in French. I read the Burton Raffel translation of this novel. As is the case with many famous books, there is a lot of disagreement  about the quality and accuracy of translations. Thus, as I went, I reread some passages from the Horace B. Samuel translation to try to get a little better feel for the original.

Julien is a carpenter’s son. His father and brothers are abusive to him and his family does not understand his bookish ways. Early on, he develops a strong desire for social advancement. While still only eighteen, he begins an affair with Madame de Rênal. She is a woman married to an insensitive and boorish man. She is trapped between her love of Julien and guilt over the affair. 

When the affair is discovered and runs into other difficulties, Julien flees and enters a seminary. He does not do this out of religious devotion as he has no faith. Rather, he believes that a religious occupation is the only way that a man of little means can advance in the world. As he romanticizes the recent past, he often laments that in Napoleon’s time, he would have been able to advance in the military. Thus, some interpret the book’s title to relete the black to the clergy and red to the military and glory. 

Julien finds corruption and petty jealousy at the seminary and thus, after about a year, leaves for a clerical/religious position working for Marquis de La Mole, a wealthy nobleman involved in politics. Julien becomes trusted assistant to the Marquis. He makes friends and earns the admiration of people in the highest echelons of society.  He also begins a clandestine affair with the Marquis’s daughter, Mademoiselle de La Mole. This young woman has a volatile, changeable personality. Her character is also complex and marvelously well drawn.  The relationship undergoes a lot of ups and downs. When Mademoiselle de La Mole’s father discovers the affair, Julien runs into terrible trouble due to his non - aristocratic origins. 

Julien is a marvelously drawn character. However, he is often unlikable. Early on, his prime motivation is to climb in the world socially to the exclusion of all else. He enters a seminary despite that fact that he has no faith because he believes that the religious life is the best way for him to achieve social and financial success. However, when he begins to fall in love, he does begin to humanize and show a few positive virtues. 

Julien romanticizes the previous Napoleonic era. He laments the fact that in that era, a young man of modest means could have achieved great success in the military, a path now only open to the aristocracy. He also professes to believe in Republican ideals. This is a key facet of his worldview and personality. 

The portrait of Julien is interwoven and works well with Stendhal’s tone and prose style. The narrative is third person but often gets into the minds of the characters, especially Julien and his girlfriends’, by placing their thoughts into quotations.  

The prose is playful and lively. It is surprisingly so, especially for a book that was written in 1830. One reason that I delved onto the Samuel translation, which is much older than Raffel’s version, was to try to ascertain the true tenor and tone of the original writing. Though the Samuel translation seems a little more restrained then Raffel‘s, both exhibit a certain amount of playfulness and cynicism that I assume is inherent in the original French. The narrative is full of criticism, sometimes light and humorous, of the society that Julien finds himself in. 

At one point Julien attends a dinner party also attended by a host of intellectuals,

"The dinner was mediocre; the conversation irritating. “It’s a bad book’s table of contents,” Julien thought. “They proudly tackle all the important themes of human thought. But after you listen for three minutes, you have to ask yourself which stands out more clearly, the speaker’s sheer bombast or his abominable ignorance.”"

I believe that in the above passage, Stendhal is taking shots at the dinner party guests and Julien’s tendency to be a smart alack. 

Conventions, ideas and religion are also poked at. Later, when Julien is contemplating death,

"“if there is another life? Oh, if what I find is the Christian God, I’m ruined. He’s a despot, so He’s obsessed with revenge: all His Bible talks about is atrocious punishments. I’ve never loved Him; I’ve never even wanted to believe anyone honestly loved Him. He’s utterly devoid of pity (and here Julien remembered several passages from the Bible). He’ll punish me with abominations.”"

The above illustrates a lot about the way in which Julien thinks. He tries to punch holes in the universe. He does often so irreverently. 

This book is also an examination on love. Stendhal wrote a work of philosophy called On Love. I have not read that work, but a little research indicates that the author identified four types of love in it:  physical love, love as a social game, vanity love and passionate love. Julien and his two lovers seem to transition between all three forms throughout the narrative. I would need to devote a separate post to this subject in order to do it justice.

A basic knowledge of late Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century French history will be helpful to readers of this novel as much this history is intertwined with the book’s plot, characters and themes. Julien is obsessed with the past. He also rubs noses with a lot of political and religious figures who are very involved with political and social situation in France during the period known as The Bourbon Restoration.

This book is a brilliant character study. It is also an interesting examination of relationships. It is a lively social commentary. In some ways, it seems very much ahead of its time. I highly recommend this to those who like the above attributes in novel.