Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Review of "The Empathy Effect"

Hub Magazine, Issue 137, contains my review of The Empathy Effect by Bob Lock.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Elif Batuman's "The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People who Read Them"

The impetus for writing springs from reading. Reading and writing are part of the same process. Robert D. Richardson in First We Read Then We Write quotes Emerson:"There is then the creative reading as well as creative writing.Emerson's method of archaeology devolves from first choosing the word and then constructing the sentence. In choosing the word, 'a writer needs to get in as close as possible to the thing itself.' Emerson insisted that 'words do not exist as things themselves, but stand for things which are finally more real than words.'(Richardson 49) This belief, of course, is a form of idealism; an idealism that flows from Plato through the German Idealists to Emerson.In idealism ideas alone are real; man thinks the world; man is the center and nature is a form of dream or spirit of man. Emerson wrote: 'the Universe is the externalization of the soul.' When the poet writes he/she creates soul which gives birth to Nature.But first there is the reading and Emerson was a voracious reader, consuming anything and everything that fell within his reach. As Richardson notes he checked more books out of the library than he could read in the allotted time and we have a record of his charges to Boston Athenaeum, the Harvard College Library, and the Boston Society Library. From these records he read hundreds of books and of those books he re-read a favorite few over and over again.

I found myself thinking of Emerson and Richardson as I read Ms Batuman's book of essays about her adventures in reading, writing, and studying--first at Harvard and then at Stanford University. What becomes obvious is that she is passionately committed to language and reading and that her writing interests arise from her reading. She seems to be one of those persons whose reading becomes as important as everyday experience and colors and dominates the quotidian.As Cyril Connolly wrote: "Words are alive and literature becomes an escape, not from, but into living." My sense of Ms Batuman is that she has purposed to focus her attention on a deep reading of books and life rather follow what she calls a path of mimetic desire. She explicitly states her theme at the end of her introduction: "instead of moving to New York, living in a garret, self-publishing your poetry, writing book reviews, and having love affairs. . . .what if instead you went to Balzac's house, read every word he ever wrote, dug up every last thing you could about him--and then started writing? That is the idea behind this book."

And a very good idea it is, too. As she leads us through her studies of Russian literature, we discover increasingly interesting connections that prove that real life is indeed stranger than fiction. Two examples illustrate her project's purpose: in her chapter entitled "Babel in California," she recounts a find in her reading and researching of Babel's documents of a reference to a captured American pilot named Frank Mosher. Frank Mosher was an alias used by Captain Merian Caldwell Cooper, the creator and producer of the film King Kong. In the 20s he fought on the side of the White Russians and Poles against the Bolsheviks. With this information she finds a wealth of information that informs the making of the movie and its politics. In her final chapter, entitled "The Possessed," she uses her reading of Dostoevsky's Demons to explain one of the central ideas of the book: that desire for the other is the impetus behind our need to be the other. She uses this psychological phenomena to explain certain writers' choice to not only write but the manner and method in which they write. "Don Quixote, it turns out, doesn't really want any of his ostensible objects; what he wants is to become one with his mediator: Amadis of Gaul." (264) She continues by quoting René Girard, author of Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, who believes "mimetic desire is the fundamental content of the Western novel." And who also concludes that this mimetic desire in fiction leads to conflict and ultimately transcendence. As Girard concludes: "The hero sees himself in the rival he loathes; he renounces the 'differences' suggested by hatred."

Girard's thesis controls and supports the thesis of the book, which explains the conclusion. She writes:"If I could start over today, I would choose literature again. If the answers exist in the world or in the universe, I still think that's where we're going to find it."

If you like literature and traveling, this book is for you. However, there is much more to this collection: there is an almost metaphysical examination of writing, reading and their impetus. There is also the beginning of a trend; a whiff of the zeitgeist, signaling a change in the wind. In the world replete with escapist fiction and film, I feel a turning--a shift toward more serious subjects and a call for closer reading. As Coleridge once explained, there are four types of readers: the hourglass, the sponge,the jelly-bag,and the Golconda. Ms Batuman is obviously the latter; a Golconda is the reader par excellence--a person who, like a "high-grader," the person who goes through a mine and pockets only the richest lumps of ore.

Friday, April 1, 2011

A Re-Read of Ernst Jünger's "Aladdin's Problem"

Aladdin's Problem appeared in 1983 when Jünger was eighty-eight years old. After it, he would live fourteen more years and write four more books.

I have entitled this review a re-read because the novel demands to be read over and over again, to be savored and studied. Because, as soon as you complete the novel, which is relatively short, you realize the ending, which is oddly consistent and logical within the magic realism of the book, has undermined your initial understanding and requires a return to the first paragraph. You also quickly understand that the novel is constructed like a poem or a series of aphorisms that must be savored and pondered. Jünger, who admired Nietzsche, calling him Old Gunpowder Head and carrying Thus Spake Zarathustra through the trenches of the Western front, is the master of the aphorism. And just like Nietzsche (maybe because of Nietzsche), Jünger employs aphorisms to carry his meaning, his themes, his exquisite metaphors and images.

The narrative is standard Jünger. A young man, Freidrich Baroh (read baron), born in Poland, joins the army, climbs within its ranks, and then defects to the West, settling in Berlin, where he attends university to study advertising, statistics, computer technology, insurance and journalism. These studies complement the age and fit within the Titanic revolution which ultimately overcomes Baroh, just as it did Prometheus. We are to understand Baroh as a very modern man, an individual, like Prometheus, who ultimately favors mankind over the Titans. As an aside, the theme of titanism runs throughout Jünger's novels and it is important to understand it as theme; just as it is equally important to understand his concepts of the Anarch,Waldgänger and Arbeiter.

Once Baroh finishes university he finds work with his Uncle Fridolin, who owns and operates Pietas Funerals. As he informs us early in the novel, Baroh is a climber. Just as he climbed through the ranks in the army, he puts his very modern skills to work in the funeral business. It is at the point that the novel "slips," to modify Bruce Sterling's term and leads us through several logical steps into the fantastic. But as the business of death grows, becoming a world onto its self, Baroh becomes aware of his problem, the same problem that he alerted us to in the first paragraph when he says: "It is time I focused on my problem." His problem is one of meaning or, more precisely, a disconnection between modern life and meaning. On a Jungian level, Baroh spends his early life enhancing his career and dealing with the material. As he ages, death becomes a reality and he becomes interested in depth, in meaning. His building of the necropolis Terrestra is the exciting force (Jünger believes the ritualization of death is the beginning of culture); the moment he realizes that "man is alone" and that modern Titanic society has destroyed all of those institutions that once presented illusions of solace, madness descends upon Baroh and he becomes nihilistic. Soon, he is visited by a spirit, by Phares, the bearer of light, who instigates an inward journey toward meaning.

Ultimately, what is Baroh's problem? He says:"madness is only part of my problem . . . . .A loss of individuality may be an additional factor." Madness arises from a split between his dream world and reality, while his role in the modern Titanic (nuclear) society is the cause of his disconnectedness. To achieve individualization he must leave and become a Waldgänger, one who walks away, a Zarathustra.

"Aladdin's Problem" presents us with a poetic statement of the modern problem and proposes a method to achieve an individual solution. But it is not didactic. It a well-constructed novel that stands firmly on all four legs of fiction, while at the same time promulgating Jünger's philosophy and obsessions.