A God By Any Other Name

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On Mysticism, by Jorge Luis Borges

For many, mysticism conjures laughable things. Others allow it to be the freeway to their concept of God. In Borge’s thinking, at least as far as this thin volume of essays goes, mysticism in hidden somewhere in the plumbing of science, philosophy, novels, poetry, or perhaps the urge to idealism. He can’t seem to divorce himself from something to analyze here, whether it be bardic poems, the multifold pronouncements of poets, even in a young man who has met with a tragic, crippling accident.
But what he doesn’t seem to understand, even in his reply to an interviewer’s request, is his concept of God. Borge says, “I don’t know if God is in the beginning of the cosmic process, but possibly he’s at the end.” This is altogether in keeping with futurist architect Paolo Soleri’s thought that God is still in the process of inventing him/her/itself. Both men seem to imply that mysticism, and its end result, a nestling into Godhead, is to be found in the individual human’s experience, whether that experience is pointedly directed toward a concept of God or not.
This is the way of the most adventurous thinkers, certainly; i.e., to explore manifest reality in an attempt to understand reality at its root. Eventually that exploration leads along its many paths to a sense of something transcendent, to a sense of the eternal. Borge did come across this sensibility in his essays, but he seems to have ignored it, looking instead for something to quantify.

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Such books, whether you agree with their philosophic approach or not, are worth reading. Their authors are attempting to bring something unquantifiable into the realm of the human mind, as if this unquantifiable substance were an object to be weighed, tested, and assayed like a strange new mineral or gem. As you read, watching the authors go through their mental gyrations is like watching an arrow leave an archer’s bow to arch in flight and finally strike near, but not into the target’s center. I’m reminded of a poetic lyric from a long-ago piece of operatic-type music in which a story is being told of a seeker who finds a mystic he’s been searching for and asks him the meaning of life. The mystic tells him he much first spend years in study and contemplation, which the seeker does, then returns, asking once more the meaning of life. The mystic answers , “Well, my son, life is like a beanstalk…isn’t it?” Meaning such searches are futile without some sort of pure experience of the thing one is seeking.

 

My rating: 16 of 20 stars

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A Shot to the Gut

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Nutshell, by Ian McEwan

One of the challenges to writing fiction is deciding on a narrator. Is it your protagonist? The author – on the outside looking in? Some wild and wacky personage – dare I say improbable?
McEwan, always inventive in his compact little novellas, has decided to have an unborn child narrate Nutshell. Now, before anti-abortionists begin to claim all sorts of talents gestating within such a fetus, we must be reminded that they emerge as tabula rasa, a blank slate. But McEwan’s future child is an expert on wine and whiskey (drunk by his mom), the bits and pieces of poetry and music he hears, human psychology, and various sex acts that occur only a skin thickness away. But to what end, you ask?

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His mother, Trudy, is estranged from the kid’s father, John, and is in an affair with the father’s brother, Claude. Claude is a victim of his senses, a ne’er-do-well, John a failed poet. But John owns a rather expensive but dilapidated town house in London, something Claude lusts for. As a result, Trudy and Claude are planning to murder John in order to reap millions from the sale of the town house. The unnamed babe waxes philosophic in his helplessness, caught in the quandary of devotion to Trudy and a desire to escape hers and Claude’s plot
The ending is somewhat typical of McEwan’s other novellas, but the truncation leaves a loose end or two, something he rarely does. Still, as always, he accomplishes more in less that 200 pages than most authors do in hundreds more.

My rating: 17 of 20 stars

 

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A Very Brief History of Burned Books

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A somewhat obscure placing for a news item of this import: in my local paper, a quarter column piece revealed that the Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar (anything to draw people to books) had been broken into. The miscreants, of course, had made off with some $500 and apparently some of the champagne. Somehow – and we’re not sure we can blame this on the burglars – a vacuum had caught fire and set off the store’s sprinkler system, damaging several thousand books.

We’re in an era in which by all rights books should be disappearing in favor of the digital and audible varieties. Not so. Readers still want to hold the book, turn its pages, feel the paper’s texture. Libraries are still a core resource in most communities. I can pass by the downtown library at most any hour and see readers inside, researchers plotting ideas, justifying opinions, or just looking for a thought-provoking read.

But libraries – and books – have lived precarious lives. The famed library in Alexandria, Egypt, burned in or around 642 AD, destroying manuscripts dating perhaps a thousand years into antiquity. But this wasn’t the first time the library had tasted fire, but the fourth. Conquerors knew the best way to dominate a conquered culture was to destroy its books and manuscripts.

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In the era prior to the year 1000 in Muslim Spain, Cordoba, to be exact, the library of al-Hakam II, reputed to contain some 400,000 volumes, suffered a deliberate burning: the manuscripts were hauled into the street and burned to please religious officials, who mistrusted the philosophies they contained. (btw, go to your local library and look up Cordoba of that era. Prepare to be amazed at the civilization maintained by that Muslim culture.)

In the heady sixties, it was James Michener, I believe, who, in a knockdown argument with campus radicals bargained thusly, “All right, burn the ROTC buildings. Gut the administrative edifices. But please don’t touch the libraries.” Fortunately, they heeded his plea.

All this to say that books – and their repositories – are the cultural bedrock of any culture, and they should be protected as such.

 

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Reading as Conversation

Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.
~Joseph Addison ~

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I’ve always believed this. Reading is very similar to an engrossing conversation with a friend in which you both explore ideas, some of which you may not agree with. And the conversation is always there, to be redone again. As such, it can be a barometer of your philosophic growth and strength.

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The Sensitive But Violent Artist

 

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The Painter, by Peter Heller

It’s always interesting to read the second novel by authors whose first was highly praised. For various reasons too numerable to name here, there’s something of a sophomore jinx afoot that trips up writers who receive literary praise perhaps too quickly in their careers. This is the case, I think with The Painter, and with Peter Heller.

Where The Dog Star established Heller as a writer with a consistent, wickedly humorous voice, as a formidable scene setter, and writer with philosophical underpinnings, this second novel shows those strengths fraying a bit. He’s adopting a voice here that isn’t always his own; he toys with his sentence structures, their nature that of Hemingway and Raymond Carver, and the effect is a bit clumsy. However in the book’s second half he returns to vestiges of his first novel’s voice and overarching sensibility, and this is where his story becomes compelling.

Heller’s protagonist, Jim Stegner, is an unschooled but talented painter who struggles with drink, with womanizing, and with his temper. These traits have led him to be a killer, although Heller goes to great pains to let us know these acts are not premeditated. They’ve also, in accordance with these United States’ innate streak of violence, allowed him to be a cult figure – a talent around whom one feels it necessary to walk on eggshells. (For what it’s worth, this trait is to this reader and social observer the cause of a hollowness within the national psyche.) Stegner wants atonement for his acts, but he doesn’t know how to go about that. So Heller must allow Stegner to be the subject of retributive violence, which allows the painter, as might happen to a pre-adolescent child, to have atonement forced on him. Stegner is as a person and as a literary creation, a mess. Perhaps Heller intends him to be a faux Hemingway: hard drinking, bullying and a crybaby when those tables are turned on him. Stegner doesn’t seem to have the backbone about which an anti-hero’s fatal flaws can be built, though; he’s too much at the whims of fate for that. Heller tries to create philosophical depth for Stegner, but these attempts ring hollow. What he has created in Stegner, however, is a depiction of an instinctive artist, something the American psyche always seems to want from those of an artistic bent: talent and success untrammeled by subjecting the artist’s potential to training and the lessons of culture and history. That Stegner is, in the end, a talented but pitiful figure, should tell the reader something very important: instinct that refuses at least a small measure of acculturation eventually become debased.

That I can write all these things about Heller – and Stegner – speaks to the talent that still lies untapped in Heller, who may yet become a great voice in American literature.
My rating: 15 of 20 stars

 

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Taking on Today’s Sophists

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Plato At The Googleplex – Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away, by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

There are times when I want a challenging read, and when Goldstein’s book came out, with hot to tepid reviews, I knew I had to read it. Philosophy, you see, has been an interest of mine for quite a while, particularly the proto-philosophy of Plato. The book did prove a challenge, as any by an academic might, but it proved well worth the effort.

So how did she put forth her position that philosophy is here to stay? She took an indirect path, pitting a 2400 year-old Plato against various intellectual disciplines from a Google coder to a Bill O’Reilly sound-alike to a scientist involved in brain studies. These rather charming inventions alternated with Goldstein’s own take on Plato and his mentor, Socrates, depict the modern intellectuals she allows Plato to take on as neo-sophists. In each fictive account, the author has Plato wait politely for his adversaries to stake out their positions and defend them with gaping holes in reasoning, then gently guide these intellectual miscreants back toward the beauty of truth.

Is there a fault in Goldstein’s depictions? Just one, in my view: that today’s sophists are likely to remain in their argument’s bubbles, never open at all to reason. And likely we’re now entering an age in which emotion and power prevail over a desire for truth, one in which Plato and Socrates would be seen by too many as kooks and intellectual provocateurs. But then this is very likely the same situation these two ancients put themselves into over two millennia ago.
My rating: 17 of 20 stars

 

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Provoking, Informing, and Magazine Success

The Atlantic, March 2014

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In a world in which magazines are closing their doors daily, a few have found the key to success, and The Atlantic seems to have that key firmly in its grasp. What makes its mojo work, then? Simple – find a way to entertain as it informs, and do so in a fairly concise fashion.  Sometimes this involves provocation for the sake of provoking. We all remember what makes our blood boil, it seems, as in the case of Jonathan Rauch’s brief, “The Case for Corruption.”

Did you know that WalMart claims that nearly half its purchases are made on smart phones? Neither did Alexis Madrigal, in a quickie interview with WalMart’s Gibu Thomas.

James Parker tries to overlay today’s polarized political TV talk shows over the film, Network.  He has a point, I think, but it’s a strained one.

This issue takes on hockey, of all things (a sport I liken to professional wrestling), but as Chris Koentges depicts the sport in “The Puck Stops Here,” a Finnish promoter has transformed it from a brawl on ice to  international prestige.

Paul Bloom, in “The War On Reason,” rings my bell loudly by explaining that philosophy, the bedrock of Enlightenment reason, has drifted away from logic and reason into a physiological abyss. In this semi-philosophical world, reason seems devoid of  worth, but Bloom seems to hold out hope: our human need for moral values will trump this straying and bring reason back in new clothes.

I remember how the KA fraternity partied till they puked in my college days. Those well-oiled frat rats even killed a famous horse in the process. In the lead article, “The Dark Power of Fraternities,” Caitlin Flanagan tells us things are even worse, many frat peccadilloes now ending in court.

I’m a Southerner, despite all attempts to be a one-worlder, and I’m compelled to say that Ron Rash’s story “Where The Map Ends,” the story of two escaping slaves in the Civil War South, is the finest piece of short fiction I’ve seen in a magazine in a long while.

These are but my highlights in another fine issue of The Atlantic.

 

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