Saturday, July 14, 2018

Never Let Me Go

It's always a question whether a novel has been long enough in the world that its "twists" should be discussed without some sort of spoiler alert.  Never Let Me Go is probably a novel best experienced with no expectations.  But I didn't read it that way, and the gradual "reveal" of the novel's fundamental premise isn't, ultimately, what the novel is about.  So I suppose I should say, "spoiler alert" for those who wish to read the novel (or see the movie) without preconceptions.

I've never read Ishiguro before this, except through the indirect medium of the film treatment of his Remains of the Day.   I think you would call Never Let Me Go dystopian fiction.  It takes place in the immediate past of the 1970's through 1990's, but in an alternative past, which began deviating from our own in the 1950's.  In the world of the novel a number of medical breakthroughs after the second world war, centered on organ transplanting, led to a dramatic decrease in human mortality, and a considerable lengthening of human life-spans.  Hand in hand is a precocious advance in cloning technology.

But the novel begins with with no references to these changes, or any clues, for quite some time, that it takes place in any but our own world.  It begins as our narrator, Kathy, looks back on her childhood at a boarding school, Hailsham, and her story revolves around her best friends  Ruth and Tommy, following conventional lines of friendship and jealousy among children and teenagers.

But fairly early we also begin to glean the meaning of Hailsham--it is a school for clones, who are given a happy and healthy childhood before, in their twenties, beginning their "donations"--the removal of increasingly vital bodily organs, so that the second or third donation is invariably fatal.

The details of this horrifying premise are only slowly sketched out, to the reader as to the characters.  But, unlike the reader, the characters are brought up to accept their fate as normal.  And quite differently from most dystopian novels, where the protagonists rebel and resist when they realize the true extent of their predicament, there is little more than sadness and regret among these young people as they approach the predestined ends of their lives.

It is this acceptance of their fate, and the acquiescence of those shamefacedly but unhesitatingly shepherding them toward it, that gives the novel, for me, its bitter bite.  Ruth in particular expresses anguish, in one scene only, at first seeing herself as something to be used and thrown away, and is shocked and dismayed to find out that the outer world has occasionally taken a mild interest in whether the clones might possess souls.  Much of the dramatic tension of the novel turns on the hope that those who show evidence of a soul might earn a temporary reprieve-- a year or two of adult happiness.

There is one convention that Never Let Me Go does share with other dystopian novels--the final scene where the protagonists ask their questions and receive explanations.  Here, almost at the end, the young people learn from their now-retired headmistress something of the ambivalence of the outside world toward them, of the debates about--not the morality of what is done to them--but how they should be treated, what dignity should be accorded them, over their short lives.

But one consideration trumps all:  "How can you ask a world that has come to regard cancer as curable, how can you ask such a world to put away that cure, to go back to the dark days?"  This is how what, to the reader, is plain murder, the preying on the young for the gratification of the old, becomes unquestionable.  The headmistress was one of the good people, founding Hailsham as an experiment in giving the clones happy lives, meaningful human lives--an experiment apparently in the process of being rejected.    But even for these reformers, these tender good people, the students must, regrettably, give up their lives.

And that, to me, is the greatest horror of the novel, that apparent plasticity of right and wrong, the common acceptance of the once-unthinkable when some great benefit beckons, the ease with which a world murdering its young can't bear to return to what it thinks of as "the dark days," and the inability, ultimately, to distinguish the light from the dark.  

These themes underly a quiet, subtle and thought-provoking story, which I heartily recommend.

I should add that the novel has been made into a movie, a pretty good one, but one, typically, falling far short of the book.  The movie, not surprisingly, emphasizes the love triangle.  That's there in the novel, but with a really more interesting "friendship triangle" going the conventional way only toward the end.  But I also found in the movie's last scene a sort of pulling back, a substitute gee-don't-we-all-really-live-brief-lives meditation that unforgivably blunted the hard questions of the novel.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Notre Dame de Paris

I have just recently finished Hugo's Notre-Dame de Paris.  Its title of course somehow got into English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which is curious because, as I think I noted in an earlier post, Quasimodo, the poor deaf bell-ringer, though an important figure in the novel, is by no means the center of it.  Surely that role has to be assigned to Esmeralda.

It is in many ways a mess of a book--lurid, garish, twisted and, in the end, wrenchingly cruel.  When I first read it, in English translation, I found it awkward and melodramatic, almost embarrassing in its studious and unrelenting pursuit of the picturesque and grotesque.  In French--perhaps because of my elementary grasp of the nuances of the language--I found it touching, and often moving (though I never caught myself on the verge of weeping, as I did at the conclusion of Les Miserables).

As I indicated above, there is less a protagonist that a central figure, Esmeralda.  She is the sun around whom the other characters revolve:  Pierre Gringoire, the poor student-poet with whom she makes a nominal marriage in the Cour des Miracles, to prevent his being hanged by the Truands; Claude Frollo, archdeacon and alchemist, seized by a relentless and murderous lust; Phoebus de Chateaupers, the callous young captain whose attempted seduction leads to her death sentence, and of course Quasimodo, to whom she shows mercy on the pillory, awakening a tender (and ultimately futile) care and a painful deepening of his isolation.

This is a narrative form that is echoed in other well-known French works.  In Madame Bovary--in approach as different a novel from Notre Dame as imaginable--there is again a central female figure, Emma, married to the hapless Charles, seduced by Rudolphe and Leon, and financially ruined by Monsieur Lheureau  Or in film, in Carne's great Les enfants du paradise, the courtesan Garance is pursued by the mime Baptiste, the actor Frederick, the thief Pierre, and the aristocrat, Edouard, compte de Montray.  And at this risk of dragging this out even Bertrand Blier's mid-seventies farce, Preparez vos Mouchoirs comes to mind, the baffling melancholy of the beautiful Solange leading to increasingly desperate measures from her husband Raoul, his newly acquired Mozart-obsessed pal Stephane, and their unnamed neighbor, ending in the unforeseen machinations of a Mozart-like pre-teen prodigy, and seducer.

In all these stories the female central character is, to various extents, passive, arguably reflecting common stereotypes of the feminine.  Hugo in Notre Dame is plainly aware of this essential passivity, but also extends it to all his characters, through a motif announced in the novel's preface:  "Il y a quelque anneés qu'en visitant, ou, pour mieux dire, en furetant Notre-Dame, l'auteur de ce livre trouva, dans un recoin obscure de l'un des tours, ce mot gravé á la main sur le mur:  ΆNANΓKH.”

In the Greek word for fate, necessity, compulsion, bondage, fatality, Hugo seems to anticipate Burkhardt's assertion that only after the Renaissance did the "individual," in the modern sense, appear.  Hugo characters here are more "types" than individuals, some would say stereotypes, the puppets of a medieval mystery imagined by a humane progressive of the nineteenth century.  In contrast to the theme of redemption in Les Miserables, these characters seem doomed from the start.  

And yet they continue to live, even if in odd forms.  Film has loved this story, and though I've seen bits and pieces of the classic treatments starring Lon Chaney and Charles Laughton, I've never been able to sit through either film in its entirety.  Neither have I seen the cartoon musical put out by Disney.  But, having read a plot summary, I'm afraid a lot of kids are going to be in for a shock when they decide to go on to the novel.

NOTE ON THE PICTURES:  The exotic world of Notre Dame de Paris has always attracted illustrators.  The edition I just completed was published by Collection Metamorphose and extensively illustrated by Benjamin Lacombe.  I have already used a few of his images in this blog, a shot of the cover at the end of the post for October 14, 2015, another on July 7, 2017.The image at the top of this post is also from Lacombe.  Very different, but equally arresting, is the set of illustrations made by Bernard Lamotte, taken here from an English translation published by the Easton Press.  Three of those illustrations are reproduced below.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

From Peter Ackroyd's Life of Thomas More

"Some years later [Thomas More] advised Thomas Cromwell that, in serving the king, 'ever tell him what he ought to do but never what he is able to do...For if a lion knew his own strength, hard were it for any man to rule him.'  This is similar to the recommendation given by Thomas Wolsey to another royal servant:  'I warn you to be well advised and assured what matter ye put in his head; for ye shall never pull it out again.'  Wolsey, too, dwells upon the cupidity of the king--'rather than he will either miss or want any part of his will or appetite, he will put the loss of one half of his realm in danger.'  Both men spoke of a man whom they knew intimately, but perhaps even they could not have guessed the carnage and destruction which would follow their own deaths."

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Our "Muslim Problem," Part Three: Islam as a Civilization

Christianity is not Christendom.  Christianity is a religion.  Christendom is the civilization that Christianity formed.

Every religion has some effect on its social and political environment.  Christianity and Islam are religions that obviously have had something more than "some effect."  The Islamic religion has indisputably formed a large, distinctive "world-historical" civilization.  For some thirteen hundred years it has held sway over a great swath of the globe, beginning in northern and western Africa, through the "hot deserts" of the Near East and Arabia, up across the Iranian plateau, into northwest India and through the "cold deserts" of  Central Asia and China.  And it would tempting to call it the "Civilization of the Great Deserts" were it not for the fact that the largest single Islamic nation is Indonesia, an equatorial island archipelago between the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Just as Latin and its progeny shaped Western Christendom, the Arabic language has been a unifying factor, sometimes displacing older languages (such as Coptic in Egypt), but more often supplementing the native languages of Berbers and Persians and Turks.

It some sense I've been a little paralyzed by the apparent hubris of summarizing Islamic civilization in a blog post.  I have little real familiarity, other than some grasp of the history--much of it through interaction, positive and negative, with Christendom--and odds and ends that have become popular in the West--I'm thinking of the Arabian Nights--and some familiarity with the impressive philosophical tradition that both bridged the gap between Aristotle and Aquinas and raised in a unique way how we came to think about existence and essence, necessity and contingency, eternity and temporality.  No decent account of Western philosophy would be complete without the names of Al-Farabi, Avicenna, Al-Ghazali and Averroes.

In addition to the high culture of Islamic civilization--literature, philosophy, theology, mathematics, medicine, architecture--there is the complex inheritance of the cultures that adopted Islam--the desert-dwelling Beduin of Arabia, the cosmopolitan Arabs of Egypt, the Persian successors of the Achaemenids and Parthians, the various Turkish sultanates all along the Silk Road.  There are also the distinctive political cultures of the great dynasties and califates--the Umayyads of Damascus, the Abbasids of Baghdad, the Fatimids of Cairo, the Almohads and Almoravids of Al-Andalus, the Mughals of Delhi, and the empire of the Ottoman Turks, who eventually appropriated to themselves the riches of Byzantium.

Because these were Islamicized cultures and polities, we associate their laws and folkways, their virtues and vices, their characteristic successes and failures with Islam.  The prohibition against images has been very widespread in Islam, for instance.  But I don't think it's in the Qur'an.  And it obviously hasn't been universal (see image above).  But all Islamic governments issue passports with photos.  Most allow televisions and movies.  For all our ideas about what Islamic civilizations require, they change and make allowances like almost all polities.

Now there's no question that Islam has more often than not been bound up in what we would consider secular governance.  And, from my perspective as a Christian, Christianity benefited from existing its first three centuries as, not only a non-governing faith, but an outlaw faith.  Admittedly, during the next fifteen hundred years the Christian faith became tightly interwound with secular governance, but there was always a sense of separate roles, and ecclesiastical independence, and the decoupling of such long-standing entanglement over the last couple of centuries suggests to me that the same thing can happen with Islam.  It's not a necessary development; I don't believe that hardly anything human must necessarily happen.  But the mere existence of Islam outside of the Islamic world means that an Islamic government isn't a necessary condition to being a good Muslim.

So, is there a reason to fear that Muslims, coming from countries governed by pervasively Islamic governments (by profession, at least), cannot be good Americans, and live under a religiously-neutral government?  I don't think so.  Will Muslims bring new and different perspectives to our social life?  Of course.  Would I judge all of them to be positive?  Certainly not.  But might they contribute as well to the improvement of American life from their unique experience, as so many immigrant groups have done?  Undoubtedly.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Pluggin' On

I am happy to note the publication of a new book by Dr. S. J. Allen, also known to me as "my little sister":  An Introduction to the Crusades.  The book appears designed for undergraduate courses in medieval history, and can be read alone or in tandam with a sourcebook on the crusades edited by the said Dr. Allen and her distinguished colleague Emily Amt, as previously plugged on this blog in October 2014.

My first real introduction to the crusades was reading Stephen Runciman's three-volume history a couple of decades ago ("The First Crusade," "The Kingdom of Jerusalem," and "The Kingdom of Acre"), a beautifully written, clearly sourced and straightforward history published in the 1950's.  It can now fairly be called a classic, but it is also a daunting read, and my sense, when reading it, was of being largely overwhelmed by the flood of unfamiliar names in a distant century among foreign mores, telling a detailed story of murky motivations, multiple military campaigns over generations, repeated clashes of class and culture--peasant and noble, Frank and German, Arab and Persian and Turk and Mongol--in what looked at first like a lengthy narrative but which, in retrospect, was a lot of event in a small space.

Dr. Allen's Introduction is, more modestly, a true introduction.  Its first sixty pages contain the briefest summary of the events of the crusades, followed by chapters on the logistics of going on crusade (and living through one), the details of medieval combat, a case study on the negotiations between Richard and Saladin regarding Jerusalem in the Third Crusade, and a final section on how the crusades have been understood and rhetorically used, from the Reformation to the present.

There are maps, the occasional half-page topical "box" (on, for example, Prester John, or the Children's Crusade), and, toward the end, a 6-page chronology, an 11-page glossary, and an 8-page "Who's who."  It's the kind of thing that I wish I had had handy when reading the "God's Plenty" of Runciman.

The Introduction can be read alone, or, as noted above, in tandem with the 400-odd pages of the Reader, a good way of putting contemporary and eye-witness flesh on the bones of the Introduction.  And for those whose appetite is then whetted for one of the most controversial, most colorful, and most consequential encounters in our history, it provides a good solid foundation for further reading.

I highly recommend it.  But, admittedly, I am not without my bias in favor of the distinguished author.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Apologies and Excuses

Just a quick post to say that I haven't abandoned the old blog.

It's partly laziness, partly busyness.  Much of what is happening leaves me speechless, but at other times there seems so much to say that I feel like the proverbial ass who starved to death because he had no sufficient reason to choose between two equidistant bales of hay.

And it's not like the world is suffering from any lack of talk.

So, to the happy few (or perhaps the increasingly-unhappy fewer) I will try to get back on a regular schedule of posting in the fall.

Ave, atque vale.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Est-ce que ceci tuera cela?

I have been reading Victor Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris.  In a 2009 post, having just completed Hugo's Les Misérables, I noted Hugo's love of digressions.   Notre Dame isn't as chock-full of them as Les Mis, but Hugo engages in some major frolic and detour in the second chapter of Part Five in a section entitled "Ceci tuera cela."

"This will kill that."  The printed book will kill architecture. 

Here Hugo exemplifies a favorite approach to discursive writing:  take a simple, smart observation and then run it into the ground.

It is a commonplace, I think, to see the great churches of medieval Europe as the books of the illiterate, the great bibles setting out, in light and sculpture and music and stained glass, the stories and dogmas of the faith.  I say it is a commonplace because I'm not sure that it was so in Hugo's day.  And though Hugo himself was very much the advocate and harbinger of a liberal and progressive era, he was unusual in his appreciation of the beauties of the Gothic, and arguably working against his progressivism in practicing, and arguably, in France, inventing, the genre of the historical romance.

But he sees the book and the edifice in opposition.  And he puts the observation in the mouth of Claude Frollo, his clerical villain, foreseeing the satirical jibes of Erasmus eliding into the unprecedented waves of polemic and counter-blast of the Protestant Reformation, all made possible by the printing press.  It is an accurate observation, but it stands independent of the status of architecture.

And obviously building didn't stop.  So Hugo turns the argument from the destruction of architecture to its decadence, asserting the inferiority of the Renaissance style to the Gothic (in this he was famously seconded by Ruskin).   The great domed churches he reduces to a formula, "the Pantheon heaped on the Parthenon,"  again and again and again, paying tribute to Michelangelo's St. Peters as the one work of genius that inspired the series of imitations.  But the formula, however clever, hardly accounts for the originality of the centuries of Renaissance and Baroque and neo-classical work that followed.

Hugo also can't help but acknowledge the monumental works of literature that tended to define their culture.  Are the great epics of Homer somehow less constituative of the Greek spiriti than the Parthenon? 

It's in that ambiguity of "press" and "book" that Hugo arguably comes a-cropper.  There is a real change between the medieval and modern world that is less the case of press destroying architecture than of an explosion of options and expressions that makes the relative uniformity of the pre-medieval world no longer an option.  The pre-modern world tended to have what can be called a narrower canon, a more manageable set of fundamental writings, a characteristic arguably attributable in part to the limited dissimulation of written work in manuscript.  And similarly, the magnificent architectural monuments of the pre-modern world were part of a comparably limited "canon."  Medieval Paris was full of churches, but each represented more than a generation of devoted work.  Our modern building can't shoot up as quickly as an edition of a new book can be printed.  But it's difficult to think of any architectural project of the last four hundred years that would have been undertaken if, like Paris' Notre-Dame, or Florence's Santa Maria di Fiore, its completion was not expected for more than a century.

The technical power of the modern world makes more possible faster.  Whether more and faster leads to better is an open question.  Happily, the book never killed the edifice.  But both acquired an arguably less massive inertia, reflected in the accelerated series of revolutions that perhaps best define the modern world.