Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

Book #93: The Devil and Miss Prym

Paolo Coelho has captivated me for a long time. I started, like, I think, most people have, with The Alchemist. I loved its simplicity. It felt like I was reading a fairy tale, but also like I was getting at the heart of some ethereal, philosophical idea that was so important. I’ve since read quite a few of his other books, and they always make me feel the same way.

The Devil and Miss Prym is a story about good and evil, and about temptation. In an idyllic village appreciated by tourists for its quaint, old-world simplicity and slightly resented by its ever-aging population for the way it has trapped them and made them stagnant and isolated, a stranger arrives. With that stranger comes temptation – if the village will kill just one of its members, he will give them 10 gold bars. This is part of the stranger’s experiment to discover an answer to the age-old question: are people inherently good or evil?

His vehicle for temptation is the young barmaid Chantal Prym. She is one of the youngest people left in the town, a young woman whose friends have left her behind and is keenly aware of the entire world she is missing out on while she remains trapped in her native village. Anyone who’s ever grown up in a small town and had the sense of “someday I’ll get out of here, kick the dust of this crazy old place off my boots and go out into the world and actually be somebody” will probably sympathize with her. The one gold bar the stranger promises Chantal for delivering the message of temptation to the village (and convincing them to commit murder) will be more than enough to send her into the world to start her real life.

The novel basically revolves around the villagers debating whether or not to commit murder, and who to kill if they do decide to do it, while Chantal and the stranger wrestle with their consciences and the angels and devils who speak in their ears. This provides Coelho ample opportunities for reflection on good and evil as all the characters wrestle with the same problems.

I think what I like most about Coelho’s writing is that he introduces such simple conflicts and storylines to drive his ideas forward, but they also leave plenty of room for nuances that lend themselves so well to discussing big philosophical ideas. I’ve always been interested in philosophy, but I tend to find it really inaccessible. I work better in narratives and allegories, I guess, so reading Coelho has always opened the door to more philosophical readings and musings for me. I like that.

Also, I’d read The Devil and Miss Prym before. I read it during the early days of my English degree, when I was in a MAJOR annotations phase, and when I started to read my old copy, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that even though I read it for leisure, I’d annotated it. I was a little embarrassed to see how easily impressed I was with flowery language and “big” ideas back then, most of my annotations were either “Oh my gosh, capacity for evil is IN ALL OF US!” or “WHOA!!” I suppose that’s what I was getting out of the book back then, and it was kind of fun to see the parts where my opinion differed this time around, or even how I read or appreciated certain parts differently. It sort of made me want to get back into annotating books. Part of the reason I’m doing this blog is so I can always go back and reference what I thought about different things I’ve read and see if my opinion changes, but there’s something so cool and immediate about watching my past self react to different things on the physical page.

Rating: ****
Up Next: A rant about Ulysses. After that, The Little Prince

Book #91: War and Peace

I was really excited to start this set of books, because it was leading up to Book 100. And then when I went through and selected them, it looked like it was going to be the worst. group. ever.

First I had to read War and Peace, then two books later Ulysses. I wound up losing the rest of the list, but I know that Sartre and Beckett were also on there. Definitely tested my resolve.

Anyway, I’d never read Tolstoy, but I had some experience with the Russians and I had some idea of what I was getting into here. Lots of suffering and cold and philosophizing mixed in with some plot. I wasn’t wrong. That’s pretty much what War and Peace is. There’s some war, then there’s some peace, then there’s more war, people die, there are some Freemasons and some rich people then there’s some tragedy, and everything ends eventually.

I had a bit of trouble getting into War and Peace for the first 100 or so pages. It’s the story of a couple different Russian families and their experiences during the Napoleanic Wars. I had trouble keeping the characters separate and figuring out who went with which family and how they were all connected. The edition I was reading didn’t have one of those handy “Here are all the characters” things in the front. I tried to make notes to sort it all out, but it was too confusing. I just went with it and by the time I was 300 pages in, I had it mostly worked out.

For all the impenetrability of the Russian names and Tolstoy’s insistence on bursting out of the narrative at particularly symbolic points to be like, “Hey, see what I did there? Did you get that? Did you? This is what I meant. See? Get it?” I really liked War and Peace. Probably because it dealt a lot with the questions of how history is recorded and interpreted. I go nuts for that kind of stuff.

A big focus of the novel was how lots of smaller events and individuals eventually lead up to the huge events we see as “history,” but historians hardly ever study the causes of history, mostly just the effects. Given that I want to be a historian, it was really interesting to think about.

I’ll end with one “practical” bit of advice for anyone who wants to read Tolstoy (or probably any other books written in this time period): If you have to read something like War and Peace (and I noticed that Hugo did it in Les Miserables too), but you got too busy with other things besides reading a 1000-page confusing Russian novel and you really need to understand the point of it well enough to discuss it in class, just read the epilogue.

Tolstoy spent probably the last 100-150 pages of War and Peace being like, “Hey. Hey this is what the books is about. Hey. This is the point of the book. This is the moral. Didja get it? Didja? Didja? Hey. See what I did there. Hey. This is what this means. Reader, reader, reader, reader…hey…hey…this is my point.” He rehashes pretty much every major take-home point of the book in that epilogue, in case you weren’t paying attention for the last 900 pages or so. That was actually my only real beef with the book, in the end. I found myself wanting to scream GET ON WITH IT at Tolstoy because I read the book. I got it. But I guess he just wanted to make really sure.

So there’s my helpful “study” tip for anyone out there who may be desperately trying to get caught up on reading for English class. Just skim the epilogue. It won’t help with the plot, but you’ll get ALL the interpretation.

Rating: ****
Up Next: The Time Machine

Book #84: The Glass Bead Game

Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game was a really interesting read.

It’s written as an academic retelling of the life of Joseph Knecht, the greatest master of a purely academic society’s greatest achievement – the Glass Bead Game. The plot is almost as hard to describe as the society and Game it involves.

In the future, society has been divided into two classes – the academic-minded who devote their lives to learning and philosophy, and the ‘laypeople’ involved in politics, medicine, and the rest of society. The division is reminiscent of the monastic societies of medieval Europe. Gifted children are chosen at a young age to enter these special schools in Castalia, the academic society.

Joseph Knecht is was a peasant boy who was very gifted in music who entered Castalia and wound up working his way through the strictly regimented learning regime up the strict hierarchical ladder to become Magister Ludi – Master of the Glass Bead Game – the highest rank in Castalia.

The Game is, essentially an exercise in thought and philosophy which tries to synthesize all human learning into one game. The game mirrors the early abacuses used by mathematicians. Everything is boiled down to beads and symbols – an idea, generally philosophical or musical in theme, is introduced as the opening problem to the Game. Then players, using the beads in some undescribed way, state associations and variations on the opening theme, much like musicians alter the main theme of music in compositions.

The rules and mechanics of the Game are never explained throughout the novel, only the Game’s importance in bringing nuance, delicacy, and beauty to the forefront of thought during the annual tournament of the Glass Bead Game that brings together players from all over Castalia.

The story is told in the form of Knecht’s biography. Hesse never loses the academic tone, which fits nicely with the intense, isolating academia that permeates Castalia. It’s hard even to write about the Game and plot of the book without lapsing into the academic vernacular I was used to in college.

This, actually, is part of the point of the book. I got the sense throughout The Glass Bead Game that Hesse was mocking the academic world. In his analysis of a life and the importance placed on the Game and learning as an almost monastic pursuit, rejecting worldly pleasures in favor of strict learning and hierarchy, there is something almost mocking in the tone. Knecht’s life could be (and is!) a great story. But something is lost, a little, with the academic tone. It doesn’t read like an awesome dystopian novel, but instead like a cumbersome biography.

For some people, I think, this could take away from the book. However, I didn’t think so. I enjoyed it and thought it was a bit of a clever commentary on academia, and it was interesting to read this cool story through the academic lens.

Rating: *****
Up Next: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

Book #56: The Drowned and the Saved

As I think I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big fan of Primo Levi. I spent the whole spring of my senior year picking apart his first memoir, If This Is A Man (American title Survival in Auschwitz), for my senior paper.

I’ll probably give a more in-depth bio of Levi when I review that book, but here’s the short version for context:

Levi was an Italian Jewish chemist. In World War II he joined the Italian resistance movement. He was captured and sent to an internment camp in Fossoli. From there he was sent to Auschwitz in 1942. He survived there until the camp was liberated in 1945.

The Drowned and the Saved is much different from If This Is A ManIf This Is A Man was Levi’s first book, and he wrote it in the first few years after he’d left Auschwitz. At that point, he would have been focusing more on writing what happened and getting the memories on paper and trying to make sense of what happened. It’s very disjointed, and you get the sense that Levi just wants to get the book out of him. It’s beautiful and there are some good reflections, but at its core, If This Is A Man is more musings than analysis.

By the time Levi wrote The Drowned and the Saved, he’d had time to process Auschwitz a little more. This, I think, is why it’s so much more philosophical and so much less of a memoir. In The Drowned and the Saved, Levi mostly talks about  trauma and how we think about things that have happened to us. He talks about the different ways people survive trauma, and how survivors of trauma both remember and deal with what happened to them.

In this way, The Drowned and the Saved is much more a meditation on memories and how we remember them than a recounting of Levi’s memories. This was interesting. Anyone studying Holocaust memoirs in any depth at all will quickly come up against this question of memory and trauma. What does trauma do to our memories? How do we make sense of a traumatic event after it happens (because really, we can’t understand traumatic things as they’re happening; only in the aftermath)? How accurate are our memories of these things and what purpose do they serve?

These questions apply not only to Holocaust literature, but also to everyday life. It’s an interesting and disconcerting thing to think about memory, and Levi addresses this topic, through the filter of perhaps one of the most traumatic events in history, very adeptly.

Rating: *****

Up Next: Great Expectations 

Book #55: Notes From Underground

I didn’t enjoy Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground nearly as much as I expected.

Dostoevsky is one of those literary names that I always associate with greatness. I assume that anything of his is going to be mind-blowingly good. I found that that is not necessarily always the case.

Maybe I didn’t enjoy Notes From Underground because I read part of it while sitting in a cafe in Vienna with freezing, soaking wet feet after I’d been walking around for 5 hours. I read the rest in my hostel when I couldn’t sleep.

But basically, Notes From Underground is the story of a bitter, misanthropic man. He thinks too much, longs to be important and intellectual, but instead he’s filled with self-loathing and spite. So, Notes From Underground is pretty much his thoughts. And his thoughts are mostly rants about philosophy, the sublime, modern society (modern for him, so 1860s St. Petersburg), and everything else. Basically, the dude’s a cynic.

He claims that every man who is well-educated should, in the end, be just as miserable as he is. Although he’s basically resigned himself to being miserable and maligned, he wants to change his life, but whines about how nothing can ever change. He will never become anything, because he’s stagnating.

I wish I could say more about the book itself and my thoughts on it, but I just didn’t like it. I will say, though, that I think I’d be willing to give it another go. I just don’t think I was in the right frame of mind to want to interact with this type of book. It does seem like the sort of thing I’d enjoy in a different time and place, though.

Rating: ***
Up Next: The Drowned and the Saved

Book #52: Ignorance

Milan Kundera is a pretty cool guy. From what I’ve read of him so far (Ignorance and The Unbearable Lightness of Being), his stories are the perfect blend of plot and philosophical musings. I want to put him in the same category as Paolo Coelho.

In Ignorance, Kundera deals with a lot of things that are particularly close to my heart right now. The book really captures what it is to be an expat. It deals with memory, our sense of home and where we belong, how our memories match up with those of other people, and how (and why…or if) we miss the places we come from.

The plot, basically, is about two people who return to Prague after the emigrated when Czechoslovakia became communist. After the Velvet Revolution, both came back to see their families, after several decades of living abroad.

What the main characters find is that they can no longer relate to the people they left behind. Irena, the female lead of the story, returns to Prague for a visit, only to find that after 20 years apart, her friends want nothing to do with the “new” her. They’d rather, as she describes it, “amputate” the 20 years she was gone and try to pick up where they left off, rather than ask her about her time in France and try to get to know the person she’s become.

I certainly can’t relate to being a refugee forced to leave my native country. I can’t even relate to being gone from my country for 20 years – hell, I haven’t even been gone a year! But I found myself nodding a lot and relating to Irena and Josef (male lead, by the way). I haven’t yet returned home after a super lengthy absence, but I’m sure it’s going to be a weird experience when I go back to the States at Christmas. My friends will have had a year of adult life under their belts. I’ll have a year of living abroad and avoiding starting any sort of permanent, non-peripatetic life. It will be weird. There will be a disconnect of sorts. And we’ll all have to figure out how to get around this.

I think because of this, for me, Ignorance was more about what happens when you try to go home after a long absence and the way you remember and try to reconnect with the people and places you loved and left than it was about memory itself. So it goes.

Rating: *****
Up Next: Drop City

All right! I’m “back.” I promise I’ll try to be better about updating.

Movie Tuesday #3: Cloud Atlas

We’re gonna try to be back with Movie Tuesdays after a brief hiatus.

Though there might be another hiatus soon. I’m so busy, guys. And next month I’ll finally be teaching full time, so it’s only gonna get busier!

Anyway, my flatmate and I watched Cloud Atlas last weekend.

I read Cloud Atlas way back in January, so I didn’t remember all of the plot. My flatmate just finished it a few weeks ago, so she was able to refresh my memory about certain things that did and didn’t happen in the book.

Going in, I was wondering how on earth the Wachowskis were going to manage to make such a complex, layered book into a movie that was even remotely comprehensible. I honestly wasn’t sure how they could make a movie that people who hadn’t read the book could follow. But they did (I think. I guess, not having watched the movie without having read the book, I can’t be sure). And what’s more, it made me appreciate the story in a whole different way.

While in the book, I was more focused on truth and literature and how stories can connect, the movie focused me much more on the idea of reincarnation and rebirth. It connected me with that awesome, scary, deep, holy shit place where I go when I read things that excite me spiritually, like William Blake or Walt Whitman or T.S. Eliot. It made me philosophize. I loved it.

They reused almost all of the main actors in each storyline. This really brought out the reincarnation theme well. It made me think about how these same souls kept interacting in different ways. The people and the contexts changed, but in a way, it was still all the same. This, combined with several quotes, chosen directly from the novel, about karma and rebirth, made the movie absolutely fantastic for someone like me, who loves to consider these types of things.

Overall, “Cloud Atlas” was a very, very pleasant surprise. I’m glad to have watched it. And I really can’t wait to see it again.

One last thing. . . with all the makeup and special effects they did with reusing the actors, it sometimes felt like a “Find Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, and Hugo Weaving Easter egg hunt.” Seriously, you should try it. You won’t believe who Hugo Weaving is in the Cavendish story. Or Halle Berry in the Sonmi story.

Rating: *****

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