Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Book Review: Day by Elie Wiesel Part Two

Quite frankly, there is not much of a story in Day. Mostly it is the portrait of a haunted man. Again, it seems written for the sake of catharsis-for the sheer release of removing thoughts from one's head and putting them on paper. It comes across as a journal in the guise of a story. The story does come to something of a conclusion, but mostly it just ends. In proper existentialist fashion, a path away from suffering is suggested without in any way negating the bleak vision of existence. However, there is little indication that Eliezer will take this path-exorcising his ghosts (the memories that haunt him) and opening himself up to others: "Maybe God is dead, but man is alive. The proof: he is capable of friendship" Instead it appears that he will remain in a closed-off state of suffering (self-pity and resentment)
   While the narrative falters and the ending is unsatisfying, Day is not without merit. Not only are there elements of Wiesel's writing that help redeem the shortcomings, we are reminded what traumatic suffering can do to a person. We should leave this book behind with a renewed sympathy for victims of cruelty.

Book Review :: Day by Elie Wiesel Part One

Day is a powerful, haunting book. It is NOT, to say the least, a light read. Life is presented, at times, in its ugliest form-no sugar coating here. This bleak tale is full of poetic, descriptive language. Here are two examples: "I closed my eyes. Suddenly I became conscious of the pain that was torturing me. I had not realized it before. And yet the suffering was there. It was the air I was breathing, the words forming in my brain, the cast that covered my body like a flaming skin." "I still had a desire to leave. But why run away? And where to? The desert is the same everywhere. Souls die in it. And sometimes they play at killing the souls that are not yet dead."
   Day appears to be a thinly-veiled autobiography, like an addendum to his explicitly autobiographical Night. He admits in the preface that the main character and he share similar life circumstances. They even share a name. Eliezer (the character) is a sick man, full of disgust and rage directed toward existence itself. He is unable to forgive. The question arises, Is this Wiesel, or does he put forward the darkest aspects of himself as a form of catharsis?
   Here is a quote from Night: "But now, I no longer pleaded for anything. I was no longer able to lament. On the contrary, I felt very strong. I was the accuser, God the accused. My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man. Without love or mercy. I was nothing but ashes now, but I felt myself to be stronger than this Almighty to whom my life had been bound for so long." This haughtiness is echoed in Day: "I felt very calm, completely controlled. If I had searched further I might have discovered that my calm also hid the satisfaction, the strange joy-or was it simply humor?-that comes from the knowledge of one's own strength, at one's own solitude." He continues the theme of condemning God as well: "Suddenly she turned her darkened eyes toward me: God was still in them. The God of chaos and impotence. The God who tortures twelve-year old children." "Why should God be allied with death? Why7 should He want to kill a man who succeeded in seeing Him? Now, everything became clear. God was ashamed." These last quote are taken from a portion of the book that is particularly hard to read, the story of Sarah, a prostitute who was violated as a 12-year old in a concentration camp. She repeatedly makes reference to men's affinities for 12-year olds. One can almost picture this hollow, tortured creature as she states simply and emphatically: "Men like to make love to women who are twelve" Why does he include this anecdote about Sarah when it adds nothing to the story? Perhaps only to shore up his case against God (against Life).

Monday, May 30, 2011

Just A Story? (Some Brief Thoughts on the Significance of Fiction)

   I asked a man the other day if he had read any good fiction. He told me that he couldn't stand to read anything that wasn't true. A bit surprised at his answer, I responded that while fiction is not "true" in the sense of presenting facts, it is true in a different sense because it truly gives an account of human experience.  What I was trying to express was that, while it uses imaginary setting and characters, fiction describes what people really experience-not only life events but the inner world of man: emotions, thoughts, impressions.
   Through fiction, we learn about ourselves. While the characters are derived from eh psyche of the author, we can learn from writers who made the effort of going inward and describing what they found. "Good literature is an education in self-understanding" (Aldous Huxley, "Literature and Modern Life")
   Through stories, we broaden our perspective and learn about other cultures, time periods, and types of people. Case in point: while I obviously can never know what it's like to be a mother, I can-as much as it is possible-enter into that mindset through a well-developed character. I'm thinking specifically of Jodi Picoult's The Pact: she presents in depth the thoughts and reactions of a mother whose son is convicted of a very serious crime and sent to trial. My interior landscape has been enriched and enlarged by this ability to peek into different viewpoints via the experiences of fictional characters.
   Stories can also be used to teach or to present a worldview. We are taught life lessons and forced to consider ethical issues-from the simple morals of Aesop's Fables to the prophetic warnings of 1984 and Brave New World to the complex moral question raised by such great writers as Tolstoy and Steinbeck. In ancient times, stories were used to express the beliefs of a people. Myths and allegories were the primary medium used when attempting to explain the world and suggest how we should live in it. In modern times, thinkers have used fiction to expound their philosophies. Conspicuous examples are the existential novels of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. The ways in which fiction can be utilized to instruct or to express ideas are endless.
   There is a time for Non-Fiction (History, Journalism, Essay, etc.), but the "truth" is limiting. Coming from a different angle and using its own (wider) set of rules, fiction is just as true, if not more so, than "the facts"

Book Review: Elie Wiesel's Dawn

   Like similar stories from Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Andre Malraux, Dawn examines, in fictional form, the time preceding and following a murder. These murders are not just random killings, but ones done in the name of revolution-killings ordered by one's superiors. Dawn is written like Night-stark and straightforward. It has the feel of non-fiction, of autobiography. In fact, Wiesel mentions in his preface that the story was written as his own alternate history: What if he had been "drafted" from Pairs to fight in his homeland? What if he had been forced to face such a situation as the main character, Elisha"
   The only detour from the simple, realistic style of storytelling is Elisha's interaction with his "ghosts." The remembered dead in his own mind come to life, like the dead at midnight in the Jewish folktale mentioned in the story, to "talk" to him. This element of the book was a bit confusing to me; I don't know if it added anything to the story. However, I will not criticize this inclusion-others may consider that it bolsters the narrative.
   The final scene, where killer and condemned come fact to face, is powerful, and it emphasizes the blurry ethical lines involved in the revolutionary struggle, in war. The concluding words echo the haunted feeling from the final line of Night. But what is haunting to the reader, what remains with us, are the words of pity that the killer repeatedly hears, including the "Poor Boy! Poor Boy!" of his dead mother that echo in his head. These words reveal to us that, while Elisha is not the one dying, he is truly the one condemned.

This Is What I Think of as "Postmodernism" in Literature

   The following is found in Aldous Huxley's Literature and Science (from Aldous Huxley: Complete Essays Volume VI 1956-1963, Ed. Robert S. Baker and James Sexton. Chicago:Ivan R, Dec, 2002) the description of "Dadaism" closely corresponds to the idea I have in my head of "Postmodernism" If any one has a clearer definition of postmodernism (i.e. where Modernism ends and Postmodernism begins), please e-mail it to me and/or link to it in the comments section. I am thinking of the worlds of James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, et al-writings which are virtually unreadable but are notable for their attempt to convey words in a whole new way . . . As for me, I believe it is perfectly fine to convey words in the "old way" as long as we understand and accept the limitations of language and reason (i.e. we do not "absolutize that which is relative"-Dr. Glenn Martin) There is still plenty to be said, in fiction and non-fiction, without abandoning logic and clarity.
   An ultimate and total verbal recklessness was advocated by the founding fathers of Dada. In an essay published in 1920, Andre Gide lucidly summarized the Dadaist philosophy "Every from has become a formula and distills an unspeakable boredom. Every common syntax is disgustingly insipid. The best attitude to the art of yesterday and in the face of accomplished masterpieces is not attempting to imitate them. The Perfect is what does not need re-doing . . . Already the edifice of our language is too undetermined for anyone to recommend that thought should continue to take refuge in it. And before rebuilding it is essential to cast down what still seems solid, what makes a show of still standing. The words that the artifice of logic still lumps together must be separated, isolated . . . Each vocable-island on the page must present steep contours. It will be placed here (or there, just as well) like a pure tune; and not far away will vibrate other pure tunes, but without any inter-relationships. So as to authorize no association of thoughts. Thus the world will be liberated from all its preceding meaning, at least, and from all evocations of the past" Needless to say it was psychologically and even physiologically impossible for the Dadists to practice consistently what they preached. Do what they might, some kind of sense, some logical, syntactical, associational form of coherence kept breaking in. By the mere fact of being animals biologically committed to survival, of being a human being living in a certain place at a particular moment in history, they were compelled to be more consistent in though and feeling, more grammatical and even more rational than, on their own principals, they ought to have been.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Addendum to "Why Do We Believe What We Believe?

"Much of what we do as adults is based on this imitative absorption during our childhood years. Frequently we imagine that we are behaving in a particular way because such behaviour accords with some abstract, lofty code of moral principles, when in reality all we are doing is obeying a deeply ingrained and long 'forgotten' set of purely imitative impressions. It is the unmodifiable obedience to these impressions (along with our carefully concealed instinctive urges) that makes it so hard for societies to change their customs and their 'beliefs' Even when faced with exciting, brilliantly rational new ideas, based on the application of pure, objective intelligence, the community will still cling to its old home-based habits and prejudices. This is the cross we have to bear if we are going to sail through our vital juvenile 'blotting-paper' phase of rapidly mopping up the accumulated experiences of previous generations. We are forced to take the biased opinions along with the valuable facts."
--Desmond Morris: The Naked Ape; McGraw-Hill: New York, 1967

My response to the quote: So the unfortunate by-product of the process of absorbing essential knowledge in our youth is that we imbibe the attitudes and prejudices of those in our environment (especially our parents) This would mean that to meet the ideal of objectivity (freedom from bias), we would then be stupid and helpless...Another dilemma of being human.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Note On Essays

Robert M. Adams, in his commentary on "Prose of the Seventeenth Century," state that Michel de Montaigne was the first essayist. What is an Essay? "Montaigne, in titling his writings Essais, emphasized the tentative and explorative nature of his though? (The Norton Anthology of English Literature. pg 1562) Adams writes, more generally, "that men were now trying out their selves in 'essays' (the world implies something tentative)" (Pg. 1556) Let us turn to the Oxford American Dictionary:
    1) A composition, usually short and in prose, on any subject
    2) An attempt
So in the meaning of the word, including in its use by the creator of the form, the notion of Final Truth is absent.

Why Do We Beleive What We Believe?

V.   Conclusion
   Just about anything that anybody says, ever, needs to be taken with a grain of salt-especially when it comes to the "Big Questions" Even this discussion of belief and truth is a reflection of my assumptions and prejudices, including my tendency to question and analyze. That being said, I am not advocating an extreme skepticism or suggesting that no assurance of any kind can ever be found. This is a call for humility and tolerance, though., as well as self-reflection. There is a healthy skepticism wherein we examine even our own convictions. So when we disagree, let us do so amicably, remembering that others see things from within their contexts and that their "truths" are as true to them as ours are to ourselves.

Why Do We Believe What We Believe?

IV   Tying It Together
   "If we are what we are and live where we live [and believe what we believe] it is not exclusively because of our upbringing nor exclusively because of our biological inheritance. It is because we were born into a certain position in the complex pattern of human variability, and have lived in the environment of a particular culture, a specific community and family" (Huxley, Where Do You Live?) With my particular mix of nature and nurture, there is simply not much room for variation in how I see the world. My though  life comes in the context of my individual "framework" Others have their own frameworks. With our unique selves, we see "truth" in a particular way.
   A strongly held belief may depend on a cultural or personal whim. Albert Camus went so far as to say, "All great deeds and all great thoughts have a ridiculous beginning." (The Myth of Sisyphus) It is rare that we look into what -deep down- causes us to be attached to certain propositions. Things seem so clear, so obvious. In reality, thought, "Of course it's right" just means "It makes perfect sense to me"

Why Do We Believe What We Believe?

III. Environment and Upbringing
   Our experiences happen in a given environment. Aldous Huxley writes of "social heredity-the sum of cultural and linguistic influences, to which an individual has been predestined by the mere fact of having been born here rather than there, at this time rather than that." (Where Do You Live?) Most people simply believe what they are taught to believe, but everybody is deeply influenced by "social heredity." For example, I was born into a middle class family in the American Midwest in the late 20th Century. That fact alone determines how I view the world in such a significant manner that I doubt I could ever get to the bottom of it (How am I a product of my social heredity? Let me count the ways...) I have only the slightest resemblance (psychologically) to, say, an ancient Indian or a 10th Century Aztec.
   The time and place of our birth only accounts for so much. The way we are raised contributes strongly to how we see the world. As I mentioned above, the probability is very high that an individual will believe very similarly to those who raised him or her. While this is less true in our changing culture, the fact remains that we derive our beliefs from what we are taught-it's just that there are a wider array of influences and more tolerance for "dissent"
   Beside what we are taught, or what we imbibe, there are the things we experience. An untold number of events influence what we become and how we believe. Looking back, we see that changes in how our lives played out could've affected us deeply and changed our whole perspective. As extreme examples, consider the possibility of a car accident that severely impairs one's mental or physical capabilities, or think of how a product of abuse could've been different given a loving, safe environment. Returning to myself as an example, I was raised in a safe, secure home with relative wealth where education was highly valued. I was encouraged to read; I attended quality schools and was supported in attending college. Perhaps my parents got more than they bargained for when they embroiled me in the world of scholarship and literature; nevertheless, these factors-and a multitude of others that we don't have time to consider-contributed to how I see the world, as manifested in the very blog.

Why Do We Believe What We Believe?

II. Heredity
No matter how you slice it, your genetic makeup plays a significant determining role in how you view the world. Your given personality, even your body type, contribute to how you see things, to what beliefs you will latch onto. For instance, if someone is muscular and athletic with an inborn competitive drive and an extroverted personality, it is unlikely that this person will become a Buddhist monk (i.e. contemplative). Personally, I have a naturally thin frame (almost frail), with little propensity for athletics. I am introverted and analytical, prone to spend a lot of time alone inside my head. It is not surprising-just looking at me would be an indication-that I have an "intellectual" view of the world and that I appreciate contemplative writings (i.e. that I am drawn to perspectives that highlight the inner life of man).

The way our brain works, how we put thoughts together, derives from our particular brain chemistry. The material we are born with is the clay that is shaped by our unique experiences to make us who we are-specifically, how we believe.

Why Do We Believe What We Believe?

Introduction: It is tempting to believe that we accept our convictions based on cold, hard reasoning, weighing the factors intelligently and choosing the correct proposition. HA! I don't know if anyone actually thinks this way, but neither do I think many are properly aware of the non-rational factors that underlie even our most cherished beliefs. Let us examine the manifold contributors to what we consider true.

Quote from The Myth of Sisyphus

" One of the coherent philosophical positions is thus revolt. It is a constant confrontation between man and his own obscurity. It is an insistence upon an impossible transparency. It challenges the world anew every second . . . It is not aspiration, for it is devoid of hope. That revolt is the certainty of crushing fate, without the resignation that ought to accompany it." --Albert Camus

Opening lines to KMFDM's "Anarchy"

"you break my back; you won't break me. All is Black, but I still see."

Quote from Dark Maze

"Forget what you might have heard-there's never been an age of reason. Life in the human race is pretty much spent in a dark maze, where we keep getting surprised by the same old things." --Thomas Adcock

Quote from the Iliad

"The generations of men are like the leaves of the forest. Leaves fall when the breezes blow, in the sprintime others grow; as they go and come again so upon earth do men." --Homer

Quote from Three Sisters

"Yes, they will forget us. Such is our fate, there is no help for it. What seems to us serious, significant, very important, will one day be forgotten. And it is curious that we can't possibly tell what exactly will be considered great and important, and what will seem paltry and ridiculous. Did the discoveries of Copernicus or Columbus, let us say, seem useless and ridiculous at first, whilst the nonsensical writing of some wiseacre seemed true?"
--Anton Chekhov

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Quote from Cadillac Beach

"Life makes no sense! The world is a madhouse! Once you accept that, you can start being happy. Expect logic and fairness, and it's nothing but a heartbreak."  --Tim Dorsey

Quote from Freedomland by Richard Price

"The world don't owe you nothin' but hard times and bubblegum...And it's fresh out of bubblegum."


"Yeah, well, it's lonely at the bottom too."  --Author Unknown

An Greensboro Jail Inmate's advice

"There's always someone smarter and with a little more power than you." --Brian Taylor

Quotes from Life Expectancy

"Comedy and tragedy, the very tools of a clown's art-that is the essence of life."

"There are days when it seems to me that in literature the most convincing depiction of the world in which we live is to be found in the phantasmagorical kingdom through which Lewis Carrol took Alice on a tour."             --Dean Koontz


"Life is a comedy for those who think, a tragedy for those who feel."  --Author Unknown

Quote from Bad Boy

"Sometimes there are landmarks along the way to doom and destruction, seemingly innocent paths along which we merrily tread, smiling as we go into the pits of Deepest Hell."  --Walter Dean Myers

Monday, May 9, 2011


"Life is an unrelenting comedy. Therein lies the tragedy of it." --Martin Stillwater

Prison is Interesting

"Prison need not be the end of the road, but the beginning of an interesting and productive live"
--Dr. Karl Menninger

The Ultimate Measure of a Man

"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy." --Martin Luther King Junior