Posted by: Dan | October 2, 2011

September Books

1. Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives by Phyllis Trible.

This is one of those books you read about in a lot of places and so, coming across it in a friend’s library this last week, I thought I would give it a read.  For those who know the literature around OT scholarship or feminist-critical readings of the B.I.B.L.E. there probably isn’t that much new here — so many people have picked up and ran with what Trible wrote since this book was published that a lot of people have probably pretty much read this book already.

However, that doesn’t take away from any of its significance.  More than most I know, Texts of Terror is the sustained work of exegesis that absolutely damns any superficial understanding of the Bible as the plain and simple, divinely inspired Word of God.  In exploring the stories of four women — Hagar, Tamar, the unnamed raped, murdered and dismembered concubine of a Levite, and the daughter of Jephthah — Trible demonstrates not only the atrocities and violence performed by the human characters within the stories but also of the narrators and of God as God is portrayed in those stories.  Any acritical approach to the the biblical stories is pretty much impossible after one encounters Trible’s text.  And thank God for that.

2. Time Regained (Vol 6 of “In Search of Lost Time”) by Marcel Proust.

I’ve gotta say that, after Vols 4 & 5, I was pretty nervous to get into the conclusion of In Search of Lost Time.  Those contributions were so disappointing that I was worried the story would continue its downward slide and end in disappointment.  Thankfully, however, this volume really does rise up to meet the expectations set by the first two (maybe three) volumes.  Once again, the sort of insight Proust demonstrated earlier surfaces and some of his descriptive moments put into words things that we take for granted but perhaps would never know how to actually express (here Proust lives up to the role of the writer as he describes it in this volume: “The function and the task of a writer are those of a translator”).

I very much enjoyed this volume and, all in all, am glad that I undertook the reading of this story. I very much enjoyed Proust’s reflections not just on time but on the ways in which people move through time, the ways in which people construct their identities, and the ways in which each individual person is, in fact, a whole host of beings — (each one a multitude that signals: “I am legion” to borrow from Hardt and Negri’s borrowing from the Gospels).  Thus, we are, all of us, constantly in the process of creating and recreating ourselves and others and, at any given moment, who we are is rather different depending on who describes us (and who is to say whether one person’s description of us is more accurate than any other person’s description or our own?  Are we not, rather, all at once, everything we are taken to be?).  To share simply one quote from this volume in this regard:

As I made my way home, I reflected upon the speed with which conscience ceases to be a partner in our habits, which she allows to develop freely without bothering herself about them, and upon the astonishing picture which may consequently present itself to us if we observe simply from without, and in the belief that they engage the whole of the individual, the actions of men whose moral or intellectual virtues may at the same time be developing independently in an entirely different direction.

Consequently, Proust sets out to explore the “notion of Time embodied, of years past but not separate from us.”  In this regard, memory is also an ongoing theme throughout the book as, for example, demonstrated in this passage:

I understood that the reason why life may be judged to be trivial although at certain moments it seems to us so beautiful is that we form our judgment, ordinarily, on the evidence not of life itself but of those quite different images which preserve nothing of life–and therefore we judge it disparagingly.  At most I noticed cursorily that the differences which exist between every one of our real impressions–differences which explain why a uniform depiction of life cannot bear much resemblance to the reality–derive probably from the following cause: the slightest word that we have said, the most insignificant action that we have performed at any one epoch of our life was surrounded by, and coloured by the reflexion of, things which logically had no connexion with it and which later have been separated from it by our intellect which could make nothing of them for its own rational purposes, things, however, in the midst of which… the simplest act or gesture remains immured as within a thousand sealed vessels, each one of them filled with things of a colour,k a scent, a temperature that are absolutely different one from another, vessels, moreover, which being disposed over the whole range of our years, during which we have never ceased to change if only in our dreams and our thoughts, are situated at the most various moral altitudes and give us the sensation of extraordinarily diverse atmospheres.

To close things out, here are a few final references and quotations.

First, of all, on a somewhat interesting trivia note, I found it interesting that Proust refers to the air battles fought over Paris during WWI with several references to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.”  Of course, Francis Ford Coppola ended up using that same piece of music for what might be the most famous scene in Apocalypse Now–when the American helicopters fly in and assault a Vietnamese village.  The parallels are pretty striking and I reckon he must have borrowed this from Proust.

Secondly, in this volume, characters reflect in more than one instance about the role that media plays in the formation of perceptions that people than internalize and take to be their own.  To quote M. de Charlus: “”What is astonishing,” he said, “is that this public which judges the men and events of the war solely from the newspaper, is persuaded that it forms its own opinion.”  I reckon the same is true of people today, although the nature of the media has changed — instead of newspapers, people rely on sources like twitter, facebook, and wikipedia in order to discover their own opinions.

M. de Charlus also as some good things to say about war:

The creation of the world did not take place once and for all, you said, it is, of necessity taking place every day… ‘Now that Germany has determined on war, the die is cast,’ the truth is that every morning war is declared afresh.  And the men who wish to continue it are as guilty as the men who began it, more guilty perhaps, for the latter perhaps did not foresee all its horrors.

Something that we should keep in mind today both as we sustain old wars and create new ones (pardon the overlap with our contemporary context but, as Proust also observes in this volume: “In reality every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self.  The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have perceived in himself”).

Moving on to a related theme, I also enjoyed the following passage on love, wherein Proust quotes Jean de La Bruyère:  “Men often want to love where they cannot hope to succeed; they seek their own undoing without being able to compass it, and, if I may put it thus, they are forced against their will to remain free.”  Although, some pages later, Proust slightly alters what this may mean in his own reflections on love: “to the woman whom we have loved most in our life we are not so faithful as we are to ourself, and sooner or alter we forget her in order… to be able to begin to love again.”  This, quite a bit later, leads to further reflections upon love in relation to the ways in which we construct our selves:

In the past the fear of being no longer myself was something that had terrified me, and this had made me dread the end of each new love that I had experienced (for Gilberte, for Albertine), because I could not bear the idea that the “I” who loved them would one day cease to exist, since this in itself would be a kind of death.  But by dint of repetition this fear had gradually been transformed into a calm confidence.  So that if in those early days, as we have seen, the idea of death had cast a shadow over my loves, for a long time now the remembrance of love had helped me not to fear death.  For I realised that dying was not something new, but that on the contrary since my childhood I had died many times.

So, anyway, I hope that you all get a glimpse of Proust’s ability to write well and also see the ways in which he anticipates many of the themes that arise in twentieth-century social theory, philosophy, and hermeneutics.  Really it is quite incredible and I am glad that I undertook the task of reading this book.

3. The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare by G. K. Chesterton.

Not that long ago, I read an essay by Žižek reflecting on this story by Chesterton.  So, seeing it sitting on a friend’s shelf, I sat down and read it the other day.  I can’t say I found it all that exciting.  In fact, I found it mostly mildly annoying.

On the meta- level, Chesterton is reflecting upon questions about good and evil and how such things can exist in the company of a God who is both powerful and loving.  He does this by writing a story about secret police officers (who belong to the special “thought police” section of the force) who are on the tail of an international anarchist conspiracy.  Neither level of the story plays out all that well.  In relation to matters of evil, this isn’t entirely Chesterton’s fault.  As far as I can tell, nobody can offer a satisfactory answer to that issue.  Chesterton’s proposal is that when we focus in on evil and suffering and pain, we are basically seeing the back of God — or of the world — which appears monstrous, but our encounter with the face of God makes everything seem beautiful and playful and makes the monstrous stuff appear as some sort of joke just awaiting its final revelation.  So, for those who are desperate for some sort of romantic ideological overcoding of life, I suppose this might sound nice… but, for myself, it just sounds like the sort of story told by people who don’t want much to do with suffering.

Moving to the details of the story, Chesterton shows (a) an obvious love of law-and-order and (b) a total lack of comprehension about anything related to anarchism as a political philosophy or as something that has inspired people to try and act on behalf of life-giving change in the world.  Really, he ends up sounding like one of the “good old boys” who seems to think that British imperialism is essentially a benevolent force for good in the world (speaking of being a good old boy, Chesterton’s story also lacks any significant female presence — just one woman shows up for a few pages at the start and then is mentioned again at the very end — all the other main characters and speaking parts are male; plus, a lot of the story seems like a school boy’s fantasy about running around saving the world from bad guys [like “anarchists”] and wearing flashy clothes and carrying a sword will sitting on a throne or a horse… yippee).

Of course, Chesterton realizes that just doing what you’re told to do seems less flashy and exciting than being involved in some sort of revolutionary action, and so that’s why the God in his story goes around creating a plot that adds a whole lot more excitement to the lives of those who both follow and enforce the laws of society.  “I was just following orders… and, boy, was it exciting!”  Unfortunately for Chesterton, this line of thinking is about as accurate as R. R. Reno’s recent assertion that the true way to demonstrate a preferential option for the poor is to wear a tie and not watch trashy TV.

Not really recommended reading.  Also not really something that makes me interested in reading much of anything else Chesterton wrote.

4. Soldier X by Don Wulffson.

This book is the story of a German soldier who fought on the Russian front during WWII.  I enjoyed it quite a bit because it brings a human face to people — German soldiers/Nazis — who are generally treated as animals or as those who deserved to die, in our more culturally dominant reflections upon that war.  This story is written as fiction, but the author claims that what occurred accurately reflects the experiences of two people.  I don’t want to say too much about the plot because there are some very interesting twists that make this story a little different than other war memoirs I have read… and because the book is so small that you could sit down and read it in a few hours to find out for yourself what it says.  All I can say is that war is fucking hell, I have no ability to imagine what it is like to live through something like that, and I hope I never find out.

5. Hey Nostradamus! by Douglas Coupland.

Coupland tends to have a bit of a cult following up here in Canada and Hey Nostradamus! has probably become his most highly praised novel (prior to that, I think it was Life After God).  Some of my friends really love this guy and can offer pretty captivating readings of his books, but I’ve always had a bit of trouble connecting with Coupland’s writing.  This book wasn’t really that different than his others in terms of the impact I felt from it.  It was… good… not great or stunning.  There were moments when it began to verge on something more exciting and the writing started to feel like it was rising to another level, but those came and went quickly and mostly it remained in the realm of… good.  Enough to keep you turning the pages and feel interested, but that’s about it (the story, by the way, centres upon a high-school shooting that occurs in the ’80s and the impact that has upon four related characters over the years).

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Responses

  1. I read The Man Who Was Thursday a couple months back, it seemed pretty weak to me as well, for the same reasons. Both aspects of the novel (the political and the religious) have been better done elsewhere; the former aspect in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, the latter in C.S. Lewis’ ‘Til We Have Faces.

    And I’ve finished Swann’s Way, and will be starting on book two come Christmas. Your reviews have encouraged my progress.

    • I haven’t read that book by Conrad (although “Lord Jim” was a book I really enjoyed back in the day) but I did love “Til We Have Faces.” Definitely one of the better takes on suffering that I have read. Probably about as close as one can come to expressing the possibility of some sort of happy resolution to this whole mess of things.

      I’m having trouble seeing what people find so exciting about Chesterton — other than the possibility that he permits some people to feel excited about a mundane (and actually deeply violent-but-law-abiding) existence. The police are the true revolutionaries! Wearing a tie is proper solidarity! Blech.

  2. “So, for those who are desperate for some sort of romantic ideological overcoding of life, I suppose this might sound nice… but, for myself, it just sounds like the sort of story told by people who don’t want much to do with suffering.”

    My sentiment exaclty. Any chances that we might read a revew of “The rebel: an Essay on Man in Revolt” by Albert Camus on your blog? It’s got an awesome understanding of Dostoievki’s Aliocha for a start. I’m so much on the dark side these days, only Camus gets me. Kafka’s “Letter to his father” would do me too… Standin’ in the need of prayer, you bet!


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