Monday, April 27, 2009

The First Man to See

“I render infinite thanks to God for being so kind as to make me alone the first observer of marvels kept hidden in obscurity for all previous centuries.”  (p 6)  

These words of Galileo Galilei appear early in the book, Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel.  Think of the feeling Galileo must have had when he became the first person ever to see the valleys and mountains of the moon, the dark masses of sunspots moving across the face of the sun, and the moons, (which he referred to as planets), of Jupiter. Imagine living in a world with no concept of gravity, with no true common understanding of the physical make-up of  your own planetary system or even of your own body.  A few years before Galileo's telescope, Copernicus used mathematics and his own genius to posit a sun-centered universe.  Soon after, Galileo looked through his telescope to reveal the truth, unpopular though it was at the time.  What bravery it takes to speak the truth to people who don't want to hear it.   Out of the darkness of centuries of common ignorance, a few men intuited, and some later proved, truths that were once believed to be only the province of the gods.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

Last night, I read Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli. My daughter had read about half of it and quit. She seemed frustrated and angry with the book, and I wanted to know why. It's a great parable about the importance of being yourself. I understand why my daughter stopped reading. The way the teenagers in the story treat the one who is different is infuriating. It also is a bit of an exaggeration. I know that nonconformity is frowned upon and ridiculed in society in general, and especially in high school, but I don't think it is realistic to suggest that almost every single person in a high school would, en masse, shun another person. Even in the most main-stream American high school (like the one my son attends), there is always a small contingent of kids who revel in their otherness. In the book, those kids are represented by only one person. The uniqueness of Stargirl is itself also hyperbole. These exaggerations are why I call the book a parable. They also don't matter. The lesson of the book, and its beauty, make it a worthwhile quick read, especially for teenagers. It helps reinforce one of the lessons I want my kids to learn: "To know what you prefer instead of humbly saying Amen to what the world tells you you ought to prefer, is to have kept your soul alive." (Robert Louis Stevenson)

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Does This Mean I'm Not Very Smart?

Finally, I finished Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz. It has taken me almost all of April. I can't explain why I feel less than happy about this book, nor can I explain why it took me almost four weeks to read. The language is not difficult, nor are the concepts. I did not like the characters, nor did I understand their motivations or their principles. I felt like much of the book revolved around placating the dictatorial father who lived his life making mountains out of molehills. I do realize that I often won't like a new book or a new song until I have read or heard it enough to become more familiar with it. This book is certainly unfamiliar to me; I don't relate to the people, place, time, beliefs... at all. I usually like to find some beauty or some inspiration in what I read, and I did not find that in Palace Walk. I can see why the book is considered a classic. Mahfouz certainly paints a picture of a place, time, and culture. It just happens to be a culture I don't understand or agree with. Mahfouz not only seems sympathetic to the misogyny found in the male characters, he seems almost to celebrate it as something worth trying to recapture in society. To love a work of art, a book, a piece of music, I need some feeling of goodness and hope to come out of what I see, read, or hear. This book did not inspire even a hint of goodness or hope in me. It did make me thankful for the time and place in which I live.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Not As Easy As It Looks

I am still plowing through Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz. I've been at the beach for the last few days, and Palace Walk is not beach reading. The book seems to be psychological insight that is uncomfortable to me, and I often feel lost in loops of thought as I read. I have to re-read and read more slowly than usual. I remember feeling this way a few years ago when I tried to read Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie. I finally gave up on that. I need to try again now that I am older and more patient.

In Palace Walk, the characters, their lives, beliefs, and attitudes are so foreign to me. I am amazed by the women's acceptance and belief in the total domination of the men. The main character is a dictator in his home, and his family believes this to be the proper role for him and believes their role as submitters to be established by God. At one point, the author compares the relationship between the father and his children to the relationship between a trainer and a wild animal (p. 161). I can see why this cycle of domination took root in society and propagated itself for so long, but I am glad to live in a society that has evolved beyond this type of mindless authoritarianism.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Comfort Without Complete Understanding

Madrigal Written In Winter
by Pablo Neruda
translated by Donald D Walsh

In the depths of the deep sea,
in the night of the long lists,
like a horse your silent
silent name runs past.

Lodge me at your back, oh shelter me,
appear to me in your mirror, suddenly,
upon the solitary, noctural pane,
sprouting from the dark behind you.

Flower of sweet total light,
bring to my call your mouth of kisses,
violent from separations,
resolute and delicate mouth.

Now then, in the long run,
from oblivion to oblivion the rails
reside with me, the cry of the rain:
what the dark night preserves.

Welcome me in the threadlike evening,
when at dusk it works upon
its wardrobe and in the sky a star
twinkles filled with wind.

Bring your substance deep down to me,
heavily, covering my eyes,
let your existence cut across me, supposing
that my heart is destroyed.

Poems are like jigsaw puzzles. Some of them have only 50 pieces, and you can work them in one short sitting. Some of them have 1000 small white pieces that you think you can never finish. The truth is that neither the 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle, nor the poem you are trying to understand is impossible. They both just take patience, confidence, and time. You have to accept that you're not going to get it immediately and believe that you will eventually come to at least a partial understanding.

A poem like the Neruda above continues to be a revelation, no matter how many times you read it. At first, I just liked the imagery and music of the language: "Alojame en tu espalda, ay, refugiame (Lodge me at your back, oh shelter me...)" and "Flor de la dulce luz completa (Flower of sweet total light...)." Then, the more times I read the poem, the more meaning I began to grasp. There were and still are passages that I don't completely understand. This lack of understanding doesn't matter. It just means that the poem still has something to teach me, some comfort to bring me. What matters is that sometimes, when I feel "that my heart is destroyed," I find comfort in the thought of being sheltered by someone else.

Note: If you read Spanish, find this poem in Spanish. It is even more beautiful in its original form.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Hatred and Forgiveness

"In that house, he had loved his mother in a way that could not be surpassed. In it an obscure doubt had crept into his heart. There the first seeds of a strange aversion had been cast into his breast, the aversion of a son for his mother.These seeds were destined to grow and mature until they changed in time into a hatred like a chronic disease." p. 78

"He closed the door of forgiveness and pardon on her and barricaded it with anger and hatred." p.81

Chapter 13 of Palace Walk explores the feelings that one of the main characters, Yasin, has for his estranged mother. He spent his formative years with his mother, who was a divorced woman in a society where divorce alone can condemn a woman to the status of a prostitute. Yasin views women through the prejudices he developed because of his hatred for his mother, but he lusts after them without respite.

I was well along in life before I realized that some men, especially religious men, often blame women for their own lust, as if you can blame the ocean for its waves or the sunset for its beauty. I think the problem here is not the lust, but the guilt that comes from a perverse view of human sexuality. This guilt, this perverse view of right and wrong, can destroy us if we let it. Think of holding on to the kind of hatred Yasin holds on to and of continuing to obsess on it. Whose life is ruined by that hatred? Hating anyone takes so much energy that could be given to life. When you forgive someone, you give yourself a gift.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Gravelly Run by A R Ammons

In addition to prose, I often read poetry and will try to post some of my favorite poems. Today's poem is by A R Ammons who was from Whiteville, NC and graduated from Wake Forest University.

Gravelley Run

I don't know somehow it seems sufficient
to see and hear whatever coming and going is,
losing the self to the victory
of stones and trees,
of bending sandpit lakes, crescent
round groves of dwarf pine:

for it is not so much to know the self
as to know it as it is known
by galaxy and cedar cone,
as if birth had never found it
and death could never end it:

the swamp's slow water comes
down Gravelly Run fanning the long
stone-held algal
hair and narrowing roils between
the shoulders of the highway bridge:

holly grows on the banks in the woods there,
and the cedars' gothic-clustered
spires could make
green religion in winter bones:

so I look and reflect, but the air's glass
jail seals each thing in its entity:

no use to make any philosophies here:
I see no
god in the holly, hear no song from
the snowbroken weeds: Hegel is not the winter
yellow in the pines: the sunlight has never
heard of trees: surrendered self among
unwelcoming forms: stranger,
hoist your burdens, get on down the road.

Though I don't know that I believe in immortality, at least not in immortality as it is understood by our culture, I like the idea of the self existing before and after death and the idea of life's having "found" us. This idea brings to mind Wordsworth's Intimations of Immortality: "Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting. / The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star, / Hath had elsewhere its setting, / And cometh from afar: / Not in entire forgetfulness, / And not in utter nakedness, / But trailing clouds of glory do we come / From God, who is our home..." Regardless of what you believe (or don't believe), that kind of beautiful imagery, along with "losing the self to the victory of stones and trees," brings comfort, even to those of us with "winter bones."

Sunday, April 5, 2009

We Don't Like to Think Too Much, Part Two

Still in Palace Walk:

"Thought, however, was a burden and revealed how trivial his knowledge of his religion was." (p.43)

This sentiment is exactly why I feel so alienated by religion in America today. So many people profess to believe in what they don't understand, and they don't want to do the hard work of looking closely at their faith or of questioning why they believe as they do. Faith is not a picture show or an ornament you wear for all to see. It lives deep in the heart of us and is fed only by truth.

We Don't Like to Think Too Much - Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz

"He was not accustomed to busying himself with introspection or self-analysis. In this way he was like most people who are rarely alone. His mind did not swing into action until some external force required it: a man or woman or some element of his material life. He had surrendered himself to the busy current of his life, submerging himself totally in it. All he saw of himself was his reflection on the surface of the stream." (p.41)

What a perfect description of the manner in which most people avoid the hard task of self-knowledge and an accurate explanation for why many people are afraid to be alone.

Less Sure About Less

" And at fifty, Less muses drowsily, you're as likeable as you're going to get." I experienced a strange transitio...