Archive for the ‘booklog’ Category

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Booklog: I and Thou

September 10, 2007

I and Thou
Martin Buber
Read: 8.17.07
Rating: Good

This being my third attempt at I and Thou, I decided for a reason (hence lost to me) to begin without reading the Prologue. I don’t have a rule about reading introductions or prologues, typically just acting on whim, so this isn’t unusual. The Prologue to I and Thou is atypical, however, in that it has a title of it’s own, “I and You,” and is written by the translator (Walter Kauffman) in a style similar to the text itself. It begins: “Man’s world is manifold, and his attitudes are manifold” — a response to Buber’s opening sentence: “The world is twofold for man in accordance with his twofold attitude.” This beginning led me to believe that the Prologue was a work unto itself, one that was more a response to or continuation of Buber’s text — so I ignored it and dove right in.

Had I read the Prologue, this following translator’s note, which Kauffman placed on page 164, a mere four pages from the book’s conclusion, would not have struck me as a revelation:

The main problem with this kind of writing is that those who take it seriously are led to devote their whole attention to what might be meant, and the question is rarely asked whether what is meant is true, or what grounds there might be for either believing or disbelieving it.

An odd translator’s note, this. I imagine that Kauffman must have been tempted to unleash it much earlier in the text, but managed to hold off until he nearly reached its conclusion. Had I read the Prologue, in which Kauffman deals at length with the difficulty of the book’s language and the near impossibility of discerning what numerous passages mean, I would have been spared the trouble. It was liberating to discover, on page 164, and subsequently in the Prologue, that the translator thought of the book in much the same way I did: that the obscurity of I and Thou‘s language is tantalizingly difficult, almost excitingly obtuse, but all too often simply impossible.

One of the easiest things to grasp is the basic outline of the book’s vocabulary: the “twofold” world mentioned in the first sentence. Buber splits the world into two different “word pairs”: I-It and I-You. I-It is the world of experience, objects, content and information (“O piling up of information! It, it it!”). I-You is the world of relation, and it is described in mystical terms: unquantifiable, it approaches but cannot be approached, it arrives but cannot be sought, etc. I-it is anchored in the past, I-You is always present. Buber’s split is not the separation of the world into “matter” and “ideas” or something similarly Platonic; both of these would fall into the It world. The world of “I-You” is not transcendent in terms of location, but it is similarly separate from everyday experience. It is certainly supernatural — it is important to keep in mind that Buber is a religious mystic, and the state (relationship) that he attempts to describe is one that lacks content. Here is a typically beautiful passage:

There are moments of the secret ground in which world order is beheld as present. The the tone is heard all of a sudden whose uninterpretable score the ordered world is. These moments are immortal; none are more evanescent. They leave no content that could be preserved, but their force enters into the creation and into man’s knowledge, and the radiation of its force penetrates to ordered world and thaws it again and again. Thus the history of the individual, thus the history of the race.

These ideas (the mystical ones), as expressed by Buber, are very appealing from the perspective of the creative process and the creation of art. Buber describes art as a process in which “a human being confronts a form that wants to become a work through him,” a process of actualization of an eternal form that confronts the artist. This is a familiar description, one that I’ve always liked, and one that was all over Gaddis’s The Recognitions, so I was excited by the possibility that Buber was really onto something. Unfortunately, as I read on I didn’t see how much he was actually contributing to this idea with his framework. For many people, fitting a theory about the creative process into one about religious experience is very important; for me it’s the other way around, so Buber wasn’t quite the fit I was initially hoping for.

My favorite part of Buber’s twofold paradigm is how it speaks to the individual’s existence in the world, and his relations to other individuals. Where Buber strays into the territory we typically associate with existential philosophy, he’s brilliant. Buber believes that relations to other people can be, and on a level always are, I-You relationships, because there is something eternal and unquantifiable about each member of the encounter. He sets the act of love against mere experience and utility. This is my favorite passage in the text:

Feelings one “has”; love occurs. Feelings dwell in man, but man dwells in love. This is no metaphor but actuality: love does not cling to an I, as if the You were merely its “content” or its object; it is between I and You. Whoever does not know this, know this with his being, does not know love, even if he should ascribe to it the feelings that he lives through, experiences, enjoys, and expresses. Love is a cosmic force. For those who stand in it and behold in it, men emerge from their entanglement in busy-ness; and the good and the evil, the clever and the foolish, the beautiful and the ugly, one after another become actual and a You for them; that is, liberated emerging into a unique confrontation.

For similar reasons, the book’s Second Part is the best of the three, for it concerns the question of the individual and his relationship with the world. Buber eloquently regulates and demotes the typical “saviors” of man, especially the societal and governmental, to the It-world. Experience, the piling up of information, hardly helps, for it takes a man farther from the world of relation. There are no solutions in this section, just the tearing down of worldly idols. Here is Buber’s conclusion: “Thus feels man in the hours when he collects himself: overcome by horror, pondering, without direction” — a classic case of alienation.

What will help is relation to the “eternal You,” that is, God — “the supreme encounter” of mystical experience. Buber makes his intentions clear early in the Third Part (the God Part). He does not believe that it is possible to say what is needed, at least not by way of prescription. Rather, things need to be given up: self-affirmation, the love of things, all that is particular. What I like best about Buber’s mysticism is that it is decidedly not an escape; it is not even a search: “in truth, there is no God-seeking because there is nothing where one could not find him.” There is only longing and encounter. No flight from the world is necessary. This is a fine line for Buber to walk, considering his It-You dichotomy, but I believe he pulls it off, and I think this is pretty impressive.

If and when an encounter with the eternal You does occur, it involves “the inexpressible confirmation of meaning. It is guaranteed. Nothing, nothing can henceforth be meaningless. The question about the meaning of life has vanished.” No content is conveyed, so it cannot be expressed or even experienced, but no definition is necessary. The meaning here is not otherworldly, “but that that of this our life, not that of ‘beyond’ but of this our world.” The end result of such an experience is only manifest in actions:

We cannot go to others with what we have received, saying: This is what needs to be known, this is what needs to be done. We can only go and put to the proof in action. And even this is not what we “ought to” do: rather we can — we cannot do otherwise.

This is where understanding runs into a wall, probably the very one Buber describes. For much of the book’s Third Part, Buber is explaining what it is like to have a religious experience, something that he clearly is familiar with. He insists that there is no prescription, that the relation has no content, but this is the very problem with attempting to describe ones own mystical encounters. Buber uses some wildly creative and beautiful language in his attempt to do so, but I eventually return to:

The main problem with this kind of writing is that those who take it seriously are led to devote their whole attention to what might be meant, and the question is rarely asked whether what is meant is true, or what grounds there might be for either believing or disbelieving it.

This brings me back to the question of art, specifically writing, for what Buber is attempting to do is bring the form of his encounter into words. It’s not as abstract as a novel or a sculpture, but the basic attempt is the same. How does one form an experience, one that lacks content, into a string of words so that the meaning (content?) is conveyed to the reader?

Two novels I’ve read recently tackle this problem directly. Gaddis, in The Recognitions, treats what Buber would call the “world of I-It” with ruthless disdain, using satire and bitterness to destroy the reader’s faith in things he would typically turn to for meaning. The book’s protagonist, Wyatt, calls for an entirely new way of thinking and talking about what is good and true, and attempts to capture it in his paintings. Also, the “recognitions” that populate the book are extremely similar to the description Buber gives of art. On a different level, Virginia Woolf, who I believe is, like Buber, concerned with mystical experience that takes place firmly in the world and not out of it, searches for unity in Jacob’s Room. If man is to achieve unity, despite the alarming number of particulars that occupy his existence, it will only be through attention to detail and impression, truly occupying the present, and putting into words the fleeting moments of almost mystical unity that are more than just experience, but something much greater and more fulfilling.

I love Buber’s attempt. I don’t find it wholly successful, partly because I am disinclined towards religion, but mostly because his writing, though it is occasionally beautiful, is too often impenetrable. Problematically, when it is penetrable, it frequently disintegrates into platitudes. Buber has more than his share of brilliant flashes, but I don’t think their brilliance is sustainable.

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Booklog: Blood Meridian

August 13, 2007

Blood Meridian
Cormac McCarthy
Read: 8.4.07
Rating: Very Good

Blood Meridian is a multi-faceted assault on meaning. Certainly, it is well-known for being a deconstruction of the “myth of the Western,” and its fetishized violence, but below this surface, the text sets itself against all efforts to extract meaning from nature, from violence, from history and even from life itself. Any meaning present in the world, according to Judge Holden, whose voice dominates the book, is imposed upon the world by the man who is wise enough to realize that life itself has none.

Plotwise, Blood Meridian is loosely based on historical events that took place around the border of Texas and Mexico in the middle of the 19th-century. The action follows the path of “the kid,” a fourteen-year-old drifter who falls in with a band of scalphunters led by the ruthless John Glanton; but the dominant character is certainly”the Judge, an otherworldly figure who is responsible for nearly all of the book’s main passages and who leads the assault on meaning. Among the book’s characters, the majority of whom are impossibly reticent, only the judge understands, interprets, and speaks. The other members of Glanton’s gang pass through life, doing their best to remain unimpressed by it: killing, drinking, whoring, but never thinking — in short, doing their best to avoid meaning in all its manifestations.

The assault on the meaning of nature is voiced specifically by the Judge early in the book, yet it also is prevalent throughout the narration. As Glanton’s group of scalphunters traverse the terrain, the Judge often acts as botanist and historian, taking samples from the landscape and sketching them into his book; he then typically destroys the specimen. When a member of the party asks his purpose, the Judge replies “Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent,” and goes on to expose the view that “Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth.” To the objection that the task of understanding everything on earth is impossible, the Judge explains:

The man who believes that the secrets of the world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down. The rain will erode the deeds of his life. But that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world and it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate.

It is important to note that the Judge does not merely study nature as a means to understand it — he wages war against nature with the intention of defeating it and bringing it into submission. The only meaning that it has for him is as an enemy.

For the Judge, war is both meaningless and the only chance man has to enforce his meaning on the world. It is meaningless in that it is always present, and it is useless to discuss it:

It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting the ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.

War is thus also compared to stone in its actuality; thus, it is another thing to enforce meaning upon. In war, the Judge has an arena in which to set himself against others and dominate them. The only possible meaning of life is existence over non-existence, and war continually feeds his need for enemies against which to test his continued existence.

When considering the significance of Blood Meridian, it does not do to consider only the words of the Judge, for it is clear that he is an evil character, and that whatever moral compass the text does have points away from the Judge and towards something else. However, the fact that no other voice counters his, and that the even-toned nature of the text does not encourage the elucidation of other meanings, leads me to believe that the assault on meaning is not only voiced by the Judge, though it may be led by him. Consider this passage, typical of the book’s narration, which describes the party’s march across the desert:

The horses trudged sullenly the alien ground and the round earth rolled beneath them silently milling the greater void wherein they were contained. In the neuter austerity of that terrain all phenomena were bequeathed a strange equality and no one thing nor spider nor stone nor blade of grass could forth claim to precedence. The very clarity of these articles belied their familiarity, for the eye predicates the whole on some feature or part and here was nothing more luminous than another and nothing more enshadowed and in the optical democracy of such landscapes all preference is made whimsical and a man and a rock become endowed with unguessed kinship.

First allow me to say that this is magnificent; McCarthy’s prose, at its peak, is unrivaled. The phrase “optical democracy,” wedged within this passage, speaks marvelously to the book’s depictions of the landscape and the culture in which Blood Meridian is set. In this land where difference is annihilated, and rock and man approach sameness, the importance of the Judge’s quest for dominion resonates.

The violence of Blood Meridian is breathtaking in its banality and the casual nature in which it is committed and described. Anyone approaching the text looking for “redemption through violence” (I’m not sure what this means) will find none. Violence itself has no meaning, and no one group or person is above another in the committing of it. Glanton’s band is originally hired to hunt down Apaches, who are depicted as ruthless killers who not only kill and scalp but hang dead babies in trees as a warning to their enemies. Clearly, one would not have to climb very far to reach the moral high-ground with these “savages,” as they are unflinchingly called, as an enemy. But the members of Glanton’s scalphunting troupe are not interested in morality; they kill, rob, and plunder with the same thoughtlessness as the Apaches. The only person in the text who succeeds in rising above thoughtless killing is “the kid,” who still kills, but is often depicted as hesitant, and in one case spares the life of a man he was meant to eliminate. However, the kid’s voice is never sufficiently fluent, and his reasons for his action or inaction remain mysterious to the reader. In contrast, the Judge not only explains his own thoughts and motives but those of the kid as well:

You came forward, he said, to take part in a work. But you were a witness against yourself. You sat in judgement on your own deeds. You put your own allowances before the judgements of history and you broke with the body of which you were pledged a part and poisoned it in all its enterprise. Here me, man. I spoke in the desert to you and you only and you turned a deaf ear to me. If war is not holy man is nothing but antic clay.

The kid’s resistance to the voice of the Judge is the book’s main act of heroism, but it too is a rejection of meaning, not the creation of it. The Judge here speaks of history, hinting that if there is any meaning to be drawn from events, it is applied after the fact. The kid’s insistence on making judgments on his own actions, instead of simply acting and surviving, is to the Judge a sign of weakness and will lead to his annihilation.

As is hinted in the quote above, Blood Meridian also contains an assault on history. The kid and his thoughtful approach towards violence will not make the history books. This is textually rich on two levels. First, Glanton and the Judge, Blood Meridian’s two most violent characters, are the only ones based on historical fact (although from what I have gathered the history is very sparse). Second, it must be remembered that the kid is the book’s main protagonist, and its hero if it has one, so passages like the following have double-meaning. The kid lies in a swoon, recovering from surgery:

Whatever his antecedents he was something wholly other than their sum, nor was there system by which to divide him back into his origins for he would not go. Whoever would seek out his history through what unraveling of loins and ledgerbooks must stand at last darkened and dumb at the shore of a void without terminus or origin and whatever science he might bring to bear upon the dusty primal matter blowing down out of the millennia will discover no trace of any ultimate atavistic egg by which to reckon his commencing.

In short: even history will not provide meaning. But should we expect the text itself, which “heroizes” the kid, to do so?

During the book’s final section, which takes place over a decade after the demise of Glanton and his gang, the kid, now referred to as “the man,” encounters the Judge, who is eager to reminisce. The setting is carnivalesque, and the Judge, looking around, offers his opinion that life is analogous to a dance in which we all participate, “and none here can finally comprehend the reason for his presence for he has no way of knowing even in what the even consists.” In the pages that follow, the Judge’s assault on meaning is made manifest, and takes on a larger target: life itself. He tells the man that they are playing

A solitary game, without opponent. Where only the rules are at hazard. Dont look away. We are not speaking in mysteries. You of all men are no stranger to that feeling, the emptiness and the despair. It is that which we take arms against, is it not? Is not blood the tempering agent in the mortar that bonds? The judge leaned closer. What do you think death is, man? Of whom do we speak when we speak of a man who was and is not? Are these blind riddles or are they not some part of every man’s jurisdiction? What is death if not an agency? And whom does he intend toward?

Again, and more clearly, meaning is assaulted, and only existence is propped up in its place. The Judge lives life as if it were a game where the enemy is death itself, and there is nothing more. Therefore, when the book comes to a close, and the Judge finally succeeds in killing the man, his victory is complete. The book’s final words are: “He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.” He is the winner; meaning, and its last resort, death, are both defeated.

What is one to make of a book whose message is so impossibly bleak? James Wood, one of my favorite critics, asserts that the Judge should not be confused with McCarthy, and I am certain that this is true. However, it is very troubling that no other voice is included in the text to counter the sever eloquence of the Judge. Wood believes that this is a serious flaw, present in McCarthy’s work as a whole:

But there is often the disquieting sense that McCarthy’s fiction puts certain fond American myths under pressure merely to replace them with one vaster myth—eternal violence, or Bloom’s “universal tragedy of blood.” McCarthy’s fiction seems to say, repeatedly, that this is how it has been and how it always will be. In “Child of God,” we get this assurance: “As in olden times so now. As in other countries here.” The mercenaries in “Blood Meridian” are said to ride “like men invested with a purpose whose origins were antecedent to them, like blood legatees of an order both imperative and remote.” The inflamed rhetoric of “Blood Meridian” is problematic because it reduces the gap between the diction of the murderous judge and the diction of the narration itself: both speak with mythic afflatus. “Blood Meridian” comes to seem like a novel without internal borders. (source)

I agree wholeheartedly: Blood Meridian has no borders within the text, and the effect is absolutely crushing. The only possible counterweight to the voice of the Judge is the conscience and judgment of the reader, who must surmise a method of responding to the book’s assault. It is a deeply personal struggle, and a difficult one.

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Booklog: Franny and Zooey

July 30, 2007

Franny and Zooey
J.D. Salinger
Read: 7.3.07
Rating: Very Good

I suspect that most readers have a work of fiction they turn to for comfort and rely on for encouragement; Franny and Zooey has, for many years, been mine. I suspect that the time is coming when it will be replaced by some as-yet-unknown book, but Franny and Zooey has served me well for six or seven years, and I will be sad to see it supplanted.

I typically read Franny and Zooey right after reading The Catcher in the Rye, during the summertime, when I am in a state of mental disarray. I admit that it is often reading The Catcher in the Rye that puts me in a state of mental disarray — or at least pushes me further into one — so it’s only fitting that Franny and Zooey should be part of the solution. If The Catcher in the Rye is an dear choleric friend whose monologue reveals the sadness of life, Franny and Zooey is the older, more detached, friend who has “been through it” and can offer a charming, almost inspirational antidote.

That being said, Franny and Zooey does not hold as much meaning for me as it once did. The revelations at the end, that the fat lady is Christ himself, for example, now seems a little silly, and a lot unhelpful. Now the earnestness of Salinger’s prose, which is hopelessly clever and heartwarming, is the main attraction. I do not grow tired of the narrative voice adopted by “Buddy Glass,” nor do I lose any affection for the two main characters. It’s an affection that Salinger himself clearly shares: I can’t think of a writer who is more obviously fond of his characters, which makes his narrative voice of the loving older brother a particularly good choice.

Franny and Zooey is a deeply spiritual book, in a way that most works of modern fiction don’t dare to be. The personal religious hodge-podge adopted by the Glass family is deeply personal and idiosyncratic, specifically in that it rolls religion and the making of art into one giant ball, rolling it towards the phony disappointments of life, trying to knock them all down at once. The target is familiar from The Catcher in the Rye, with the adversarial word here being “ego” instead of “phony.” Like its predecessor, Franny and Zooey rails against the superficial, the surface, and anything that you could call “the earthly.” My paraphrase of the problem is: “What can one do without feeling like a terrible phony? without hating it?” The “answer,” or at the very least the coping mechanism, presented here, is this:

The artists only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else’s.

Singleness of vision. A sense of personal goodness, and the ability to pursue it despite the phonies that surround you, and the phoniness that is within in. Is this a satisfactory nugget of wisdom? I used to think so, and I still do think it’s helpful. But I think it’s appropriate that as I age, I find more enjoyment in Salinger’s art itself than in his pronouncements about what it should be.

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Booklog: The Natural

July 9, 2007

The Natural
Bernard Malamud
Read: 6.27.07
Rating: Fair

Sometimes a book disappoints, either because it does not live up to the expectations I held before I began reading, or because it displays signs of promise early on only to falter towards the middle and/or end. Alas: The Natural was disappointing in both ways.

As moviegoers know, The Natural is a baseball story. What the reader should know is that the novel on which the movie is based is less a baseball story than a quintessentially American tale of myth, heroism, and failure — topics that are perfectly suited to post-war era baseball, the Golden Age of America’s greatest sport. In this near-mythic setting, Malamud chronicles the rise, fall, second rise, and final fall of his folk hero, Roy Hobbs, in a winning (at first) style that attempts to create a folk mythology with vernacular-laced, stripped down diction. The style takes some getting used to, but after a few early successes, I took to it, and it seemed that Malamud had really accomplished something. Take this sentence for example, that describes the third strike that the young Roy Hobbs tossed to strike-out “the Whammer,” baseball’s leading hitter:

The third ball slithered at the batter like a meteor, the flame swallowing itself. He lifted his club to crush it into a universe of sparks but the heavy wood dragged, and though he willed to destroy the sound he heard a gong bong and realized with sadness that the ball he had expected to hit had long since been part of the past; and though Max could not cough the fatal word out of his throat, the Whammer understood he was, in the truest sense of it, out.

This is very nice, and I underlined with great relish, looking forward to another 200 pages of Malamud’s folk hero-mythology.

So what went wrong? First of all, Malamud has no ability to describe the sport that is his main subject. When his style strays from the mythic into the descriptive, it’s clear that he hasn’t really understood baseball and how it is played or spoken of. It’s possible that his slang is accurate — hard to tell, since it’s fifty years old — but when he writes about the game itself or the people who play it, it’s hard to read. A deeper problem is that Malamud’s folk mythoheroic style is dense and murky by default, especially in regard to his characters and their motivations and thoughts. Roy Hobbs is clearly meant to be a vague figure, but this is very problematic, for his choices and his character, especially his love affairs, are what drives the book’s plot and meaning.

The Natural‘s failures are oddly appropriate to its structure, and analogous to its hero: it begins with an appealing strength and freshness, and surges during its early career, only to stumble when it should clinch. The book’s final act is a disappointing failure, which is richly ironic, given that disappointment and failure are the book’s main themes.

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Booklog: The Catcher in the Rye

June 20, 2007

The Catcher in the Rye
J.D. Salinger
Read: 6.17.07
Rating: Excellent

This is the fifth or sixth summer in a row that I’ve read The Catcher in the Rye, and that’s in addition to my canonical reading in high-school, so by now it feels a lot like meeting up with a friend I only see once a year: I notice how I’ve changed since the last encounter, and even how the text itself reads differently each time. Many of you likely read this book as a teenager or student, and found yourself identifying with Holden Caulfield in a way that was both exciting and a little frightening. As a result of so many people having this experience, the text has acquired a connotation that I really don’t think it deserves, that of being synonymous with “teenage angst” or some other such foolishness. Those who come to it with a more critical eye tend to realize that Holden, in addition to being a uncertain teenager, is mentally unstable and clearly suffering from heavy depression (don’t forget that he clearly mentions that he is writing from a sanatorium at both the very beginning and very end of the book — something that is easy to forget as he tells his actual story); this reading, The Catcher in the Rye as a chronicle of depression, is, I believe, equally dismissive and unhelpful.

A good exercise when reading The Catcher in the Rye is to distinguish between the things Holden says and does that display signs of depression and those where he is simply unable to cope with someone or something being phony and unbearable. In the latter case, Holden is deconstructing social norms and exposing them for the exercises in affectedness they really are. For example, having to say “Glad to have met you” to someone you’re not at all glad to have met. Most of us are able to do and say things that we know to be phony without any trouble: either because we’re not thinking about it, or because we know that “that’s just what you do.” Any of you who were even mildly rebellious teenagers know that once you start fully understanding why adults act the way they do, it’s hard not to get really upset about it and want to forge into a new way of being.

Further, it’s helpful to think of Holden’s struggles with “phonies” as an example of the trouble we all have — young people especially — of dealing with the problem of “other people.” How do we know what others are thinking? Are the really saying what they mean? Usually, it’s best not to overanalyze, but once you start thinking about motivations and the masquerades that hide them, it’s not hard to cast every action and word into a cynical light. Then there is the problem of trying not to do or say anything phony yourself — and the confusion that results when you do — as you learn how to see yourself in the eyes of another, combined with the rather low opinion of yourself that results, and you have a hell of muddle. No wonder Holden is depressed.

Many of things about himself and the world that Holden does not understand could be easily dismissed by a detached, analytic viewer (not that this would help him feel any better). To take a simple example: it’s not mystery why he necks with girls he considers “terrific phonies,” even after promising himself he won’t do it again — he’s a teenage boy. More meaningfully, his attachment to his sister Phoebe and his life-dream of being “the catcher in the rye” who saves kids from falling off a cliff, is clearly a psychological result of his younger brother Allie dying not too long ago (Holden himself almost seems to recognize this). It wouldn’t be hard to view the entire novel through this lens: Holden is overly attached to childhood and its innocence, and can’t get along in the adult world until he achieves some sort of “closure” about his brother’s death. Fair enough, but this reductionist view — and others similar to it — is not very edifying, and it certainly doesn’t begin to explain why the novel is so incredibly good.

For, as you read, you can’t help but agree with Holden and his observations: surely boys at pep schools are really mean, headmasters do favor rich parents over poor ones, and the way people act when going to see highly-regarded theater is completely absurd. You and I know this, but we don’t take it as hard as Holden, because he’s depressed. Holden’s unreliability and lovability as a narrator are inseparable. Sure, he’s deeply depressed, but he’s also deeply perceptive, and right about the world more often that not. The trouble, obviously, is his reaction to it.

At the end of the book, Holden receives a lecture from his old teacher, Mr. Antolini, in which he encourages Holden to go back to school and become a scholar:

Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused or frightened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, many of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them — if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry.

Indeed. Mr. Antolini’s words may seem a little trite, but they’re probably just the right thing for Holden’s teenage ears. Neither deep depression nor the certainty that everyone is a ruthless phony is a new idea; the truth, as Holden is right on the verge of knowing, is much more complicated, and irreducible. It’s a lesson we could stand to learn, too.

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Booklog: Blankets

June 18, 2007

Blankets
Craig Thompson
Read: 6.8.07
Rating: Very Good

It’s a rare thing, reading a book that aligns so closely with one’s own experience. It’s also deeply unsettling. As I turned the pages of Craig Thompson’s admirable Blankets, I couldn’t help but marvel at its resonance with my own teenage years. If I aligned the text with my own life, the point for point matches wouldn’t be all that many, but a heavy handful of the scenes and episodes depicted so perfectly in Blankets were eerie in their similarity; I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was reliving key events that are now distant memories.

Craig Thompson’s 582-page “illustrated novel” works back in forth in time between the childhood of the narrator (also named Craig Thompson, so this clearly borders on memoir) and his senior year of high-school, when he meets and falls in love with a girl named Raina. Thompson has said that his novel is primarily about the experience of sleeping with someone for the first time, and it is a love story first and foremost, but the teenage Craig’s emergence from a childhood full of fervent evangelical Christianity is what gives Blankets its emotional depth. Craig and Raina meet at a Christian winter camp: she is clearly, of the two, the less enraptured of the with the whole scene, and her free-loving attitude brings Craig out of his half-committed, half-doubtful shell. Sadly, the week too quickly comes to an end, and the new lovers — who are clearly infatuated with each other but not willing to assign the “girlfriend/boyfriend” label — must part: Craig lives in Wisconsin, Raina in Michigan. They commence a fruitful correspondence, sending sketches (Craig), poems (Raina), mix-tapes, and letters to one another, before Craig arranges a visit to Raina’s house over Christmas break. This one-week of pure bliss, as the two savor in each other’s company as only first-time lovers can, is the book’s centerpiece.

Raina’s parents are newly-separated, and planning to divorce: this unfortunate circumstance gives the young lovers a glorious stretch of unsupervised freedom. One the second day of the visit, Raina asks Craig to sleep in her bed, so that they do not have to say goodnight and part ways, and he hesitates but agrees after they decide to set the alarm for 5 am so Craig can slip back into the guest room undetected. This stretch of panels was my favorite part of the book, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tearing up as I read. As Raina is getting ready for bed, Craig changes into his pajamas and he recites appropriate Bible verses to himself: “Flee fornication. Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that commiteth fornication sinneth against his own body” (1 Corinthians 6:18); “Can a man take fire into his bosum and his clothes not be burned? — Can he go upon hot coals, and his feet not be burned?” (Proverbs 6:28). He begins to sweat as he considers his fears, but then Raina reenters, and on the next page she is drawn as an angel in white, and Song of Solomon comes to Craig’s mind: “All beautiful you are, my darling; there is no flaw in you. You have stolen my heart, my sister, my bride; you have stolen my heart with one glance of your eyes” (4:7,9). After a night of pure bliss (there is no fornication; they merely fall asleep in each other’s arms), Craig returns to the guest room, offering prayers of thankfulness to God. He stops to think, “Perhaps I should feel guilty” but realizes that this is false; he in fact feels “as clean and pure as the snow” which is falling outside.

Blankets beautifully tells the story of a young man who overcomes his upbringing, and the feelings of distrust towards the earthly and the body that dominated it. Through a tale of new love and self-discovery, Craig emerges victorious, triumphing over the limited, demeaning world-view that shaped his childhood. I could offer a few passing critiques about Thompson’s style and the few times his sweetness becomes saccharine, but instead I’ll say this: if you’re looking to break into the world of graphic novels, but don’t consider yourself a reader of comic books, Blankets would be a fantastic place to begin.

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Booklog: Where Angels Fear to Tread

June 13, 2007

Where Angels Fear to Tread
E. M. Forster
Read: 6.4.07
Rating: Very Good

E. M. Forster’s first novel was published in 1905; he was twenty-six years old. The mystery of how a man my age could write such a mature, worldly, and wise novel is one that remained at the forefront of my mind as I read Where Angels Fear to Tread. (Also, Keats wrote “Ode to a Grecian Urn” when he was 24 — think upon that, ye mighty, and weep.)

At the start, Where Angels Fear to Tread is a criticism of proper Edwardian English society and morals (represented by the matriarch Mrs. Herriton), and the thin, constrained life it offers, especially as compared to the ancient nobility and beauty of Italy, where most of the book’s action takes place. Caught in between the two worlds are Lilia Herriton (who has married into the family, and is now a widow) and Philip Herriton, the family’s youngest, a “champion of beauty.” As the novel begins, Lilia embarks on a tour of Italy, accompanied by a friend of the family, Miss Caroline Abbott. Lilia’s trip was suggested by Philip, who has spent quite a bit of time in Italy, and has returned from his travels with a mild rebellious streak. He has great hopes for Lilia, trusting that she will return from her visit to Italy changed by its beauty, just as he was.

Lilia does fall in love with Italy. Indeed, she falls in love with an Italian, Gino, the son of a back-country dentist, and secretly marries him. When this news reaches the Herriton’s in England, Philip is dispatched by his mother, who hopes to protect the family name by bribing Gino and forcing an end to the romance — but when Philip arrives, he is helpless: Lilia and Gino have already wed. The marriage is a most unfortunate one from the perspective of all parties; Lilia is soon miserable, and dies giving birth to a son. When this news reaches Mrs. Herriton, she attempts to intervene and “save” the child, again sending Philip to Italy, this time accompanied by his sister, the stubborn-beyond-proper Harriett, and Miss Caroline Abbott, who, having failed to prevent the first disaster of Lilia’s marriage, hopes to atone in some way by helping with the mission to obtain the baby.

The novel’s plot is small, well-executed, and fully engaging, but the heart of Where Angels Fear to Tread beats in its main character, Philip Herriton. Philip is opposed to what he considers the limiting, old-fashioned customs of “proper” English morality and society — preferring to think of himself as possessing a level of detachment and lofty ideals unknown to his mother and sister. He loves beauty, and life’s beautiful things, but he appreciates from a distance. His composure is deeply rattled by his third trip to Italy, as he finds himself taking sides with his mother and sister, in opposition to the charm and beauty of Italy. Also troubling are his conversations with Caroline Abbott, who is more impulsive, and less proper, than Philip had expected, both in that Miss Abbott challenges his detached, humorous stance towards life, and because he begins to find an intoxicating hint of romance in the relationship. As Miss Abbott criticizes his idle speculating, asking him to actually make a firm choice — “to settle what’s right and follow it” — he is forced to face the shortcomings of his detachment.

Far more than mere social criticism, Where Angels Fear to Tread is ultimately a novel concerned with two opposing attitudes towards beauty. Philip appreciates beauty from a distance, but is never able to love actively: Miss Abbott tells him “you look on life as a spectacle; you don’t enter it; you only find it funny or beautiful.” Lilia, on the opposite side, also loves the beauty of Italy — and her method of entry is very active. Neither method is championed by Forster: Philip’s detachment is rightly mocked, although the particular joys afforded by this stance are honestly portrayed (Philip is praised by Miss Abbott as having a “view of the muddle” unavailable to her). Lilia’s rashness results in a miserable marriage and a premature death, but we feel a particular sense of joy when reading of her lack of concern for what her in-laws may think (“thank goodness, I can stand up against the world for now, for I’ve found Gino, and this time I marry for love”).

Here we find the see that blossomed into the Forster’s great novels, particularly Howard’s End. In Where Angels Fear to Tread, we learn that it is not enough to merely appreciate beauty from a distance, but at the same time it is unwise to fly into it without forethought. The answer, as always, lies on neither side. But also, as we know from Howard’s End, it is not “halfway between” either: “It was only to be found by continuous excursions into either realm, and though proportion is the final secret, to espouse it at the outset is to insure sterility.”