Tuesday, March 27, 2018
The Witch And Other Tales Re-Told by Jean Thompson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Fairy tales carry us back to a primordial kind of attention, the attention we gave the world when everything was “for the first time.”
We accept the irrational elements of fairy tales and its enchantments in the same way we acknowledge that parts of our minds are unconscious—unknown and unknowable to us—and yet very much there, extant, real, true, significant.
In a 2012 lecture, Jack Zipes said that fairy tales are examples of what he calls "childism.” He suggests that there are terrible aspects to the tales, which, among other things, have conditioned children to accept mistreatment and even abuse. Which may help explain my affinity for the title story and why it resonated so much with me.
As a boy I can remember numerous times when my brother and I were left alone in a parked car while our father was away ‘visiting’ a new house in some new neighborhood, always cycling back around by the end of the week however, and then coming out hours later and simply leaving. No explanation was ever given as to why we were there or what he was doing there or why we weren’t allowed in with him, although we speculated wildly at times as to the reason for our visits, much like Jo and Kerry, whose father neglects them daily by leaving them in the car alone for hours while he spends his days in a bar. Years later it was revealed he was simply going door to door trying to get pain medication to feed his addiction, an addiction he still struggles with today. It’s a wonder we survived our childhood at all now that I reflect on it.
According to the most reductive notion of how archetypes work, the stories in “The Witch” are what fairy tales are really about; they convert the tales’ figurative fancies into literal fact. “Candy” is really a warning of the perils that adult male sexuality poses for young girls. “The Curse” asserts the impossibility of protecting our children from the world’s dangers.
The psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, in his 1976 book “The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales,” argued that the recurring motifs of the form, particularly the wicked stepmother, offer children a symbolic language with which to understand the confusing and sometimes frighteningly mercurial world of adult behavior: “Although Mother is most often the all-giving protector, she can change into the cruel stepmother if she is so evil as to deny the youngster something he wants.” In the fairy tale world, the dramas of the psyche are externalized and the contrasting sides of a single person become literally two different entities: loving Grandma and the predatory wolf dressed in her clothes.
The moralizing strain in the Victorian era however altered a lot of these classical fairy tales. Which ended up weakening their usefulness for both children and adults as ways of symbolically resolving issues.
In a quote from his childrens novella Coraline, Neil Gaiman said that, “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
People, children especially, need to know that no one is coming to save them, not their fathers, not the police, and certainly not their gods, and stories like these show them that the worst really is possible. It also shows them that occasionally the world can be made better, but it’s up to them to make it happen.
Thursday, March 22, 2018
Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence by David Benatar
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
What moral obligations could we possibly have to people who do not yet exist?
David Benatar seems to think a lot. But I myself don’t find his moral arguments against procreation very compelling. His arguments are too utilitarian. His solutions only solve problems by way of eliminating the people who the problems are for. It’s a philosophy that sets out to solve a problem and ends with the destruction of the world as the solution. I guess technically we could “cure” cancer by killing the patient, but that’s hardly the solution anyone is looking for.
I may disagree with his arguments but I do however agree with his conclusions.
I find the fact that life is ultimately meaningless a much more compelling reason against procreation. It’s like what Rustin Cohle says in the HBO show True Detective, “I think human consciousness, is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware, nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself, we are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self; an accretion of sensory, experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody.”
The knee-jerk response to an observation like this is, “If life is so bad, why don’t you just kill yourself?” Benatar devotes a forty-three-page chapter to proving that death only exacerbates our problems. “Life is bad, but so is death,” he concludes. “Of course, life is not bad in every way. Neither is death bad in every way. However, both life and death are, in crucial respects, awful. Together, they constitute an existential vise—the wretched grip that enforces our predicament.”
Unpleasantness and suffering are too deeply written into the structure of sentient life to ever be eliminated. We are asked to accept what is unacceptable. It’s unacceptable that people, and other beings, have to go through what they go through, and there’s almost nothing that they can do about it and more importantly there is no point to any of it. No grand narrative. Nothing. Just one long night of sorrow.
Monday, March 19, 2018
Reading in Bed by Steven Gilbar
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
So much of our lives are lived for others. We learn what they want us to learn, and do what they want us to do. All the reading I did as a child, behind closed doors, sitting on the bed while the darkness fell around me, was an act of reclamation. This and only this I did for myself. This was the way to make my life my own.
I looked to books for reassurance. But sometimes all I found was not so much reassurance as nearly extinction.
Books are symbols of the life of the human spirit. That’s why libraries and bookstores are so important, even if no one ever used them. They are places of communion, repositories of humanity.
To be transported but also transformed by a piece of writing is a magic that can’t be easily dismissed or comprehended.
Voltaire said that writing is, “...painting with the voice.” And Lauren DeStefano, author of Burning Kingdoms, said, "Give someone a book, they'll read for a day. Teach someone how to write a book, they'll experience a lifetime of paralyzing self doubt." I feel it’s the same with a terrible book or rather a book not meant to be read by us at that particular time. The mystery and the wonder of it is that, somehow or other, the books one needs are the books one finds.
I always feel a little depressed after reading, or attempting to read, a ‘bad’ book as if it’s my fault somehow that I didn’t enjoy it, and maybe it is, but the guilt isn’t so strong that I push through it to the end. I’m a book adulterer in that sense. A good rule of thumb that I’ve found that works for me is read what you want, life is short.
Reading is one of the best ways I know of to learn how to examine your life and reading the first words of a novel is like glimpsing the first crack of light along the edge of an opening door.
But the act of wrestling with a book can be a daunting task and at times that’s very much what it feels like. To fight with meaning and interpretation. Although if the book is well written we don’t readily notice the struggle, sometimes not at all, the story over powering the mechanics of the writing itself, but the joys are bountiful to be sure and those of us who treasure the written word may be an endangered species in a world of aliteracy but, we endure.
Saturday, March 10, 2018
Confessions of a Mask by Yukio Mishima
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Behind the mask of beauty lies death. Beauty is a thing that overpowers and conquers and ultimately destroys.
Dostoyevsky, In The Brothers Karamazov, said that, “Beauty is a terrible and awful thing. The dreadful thing is that beauty is not only terrifying but also mysterious. God and the Devil are fighting there, and their battlefield is the heart of man.”
And so begins this psychodrama about the conflicting aspects of the self.
This novel mirrors, as most novels inevitably must, the political context of its time through exposing the difficulties the protagonist faces in creating a viable identity that is in line with a politically promoted idea of masculinity.
But Kochan’s ‘mask’ is the paradigm of masculinity itself. His failure, and indeed the failure of every man, is a failure to maintain this performance and our punishment for this non-concordance is a lifetime of masochistic submission to societal norms and dictates to which are not our own.
But we all wear a mask.
Oscar Wilde said, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” But with Mishima it’s the inverse, ‘Give a man a mask and he’ll tell you a lie.’
So the question then becomes is there even a stable “truth” about the person wearing the mask to reveal?
Separating the life of the writer from his work is not always an easy one as is often the case with fiction. A novelist might be able to explore the negative emotions, vulnerabilities and flaws of fictional people while all the while expending enormous social energy in hiding his own weaknesses from those who surround him in life.
“Confessions of a Mask" is a highly autobiographical piece of writing. When you read the books of nonfiction which have been written about Yukio Mishima's life, both as a writer and as an individual, many of the events in "Confessions of a Mask" can be discerned very easily.
But “Confessions of a Mask" is more than just another autobiographical novel. Many of the ingredients of Mishima's later novels have their origins in this book. Violence, sexuality, a romantic longing for death at an early age are all present in this novel.
Mishima himself, in a failed coup attempt, ended his own life by committing ritualistic seppuku. His biographer and translator, John Nathan, suggests that the coup attempt was only a pretext for the ritual suicide of which Mishima had long dreamed and his notions of making death meaningful continues to have a powerful draw on the imagination, as reflected by the novels protagonist, and the fear of an ignominious death will drive people to do eccentric things. Petrarch said it best when he said, “A good death does honor to a whole life.”
So Wilde’s statement, through an elaborate performance, becomes true. Sometimes when you are hidden is when you are the most revealed.
Saturday, March 3, 2018
Death: A History of Man's Obsessions and Fears by Robert Wilkins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
We can’t imagine our own deaths. Not really. We can’t really imagine what it’s like to be dead. And because of this failure of imagination death can seem to us like an impossibility.
If we can imagine a thing we can begin to gain some control over it, however illusory. This is how we become obsessed with death. It’s something we are psychologically disinclined to understand let alone imagine and the mind has a tendency to revisit things it doesn’t understand over and over again.
It’s been said that if we thought too much about death however that we would rush to embrace it. It’s like what Boswell asked in from The Life of Johnson, “But is not the fear of death natural to man?” To which Johnson replied, “So much so, sir, that the whole of life is but keeping away the thoughts of it.”
Death will forever remain as one of the most terrible things that can ever happen to anyone of us, also strangely enough perhaps one of the most meaningful. So great is this tragedy that we spend the majority of our lives trying to forget what it is that lies ahead of us.
Modern medicine has made death even more remote from our everyday experiences and yet perhaps for this very reason we remain acutely conscious of our own mortality, and the very idea of death still arouses feelings of enormous unease.
It is uncomfortable to think that we will not be alive one hundred years from now; it is even more disturbing to think that hardly anyone then alive will remember that we even existed at all. The lot of most of us is to be remembered by our grandchildren and be forgotten by our great-grandchildren.
But in the fashion of the times, our lives will be condensed into a name, a date of birth, a date of death, and a number for the cemetery staff to identify the site in their registers.
The conqueror worm always wins.