Lola Lolita

LolitaAs a father, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is difficult to read. With Banned Book Week upon us, however, and with my wife suggesting I read Reading Lolita in Tehran, I figured I’d better read Lolita in New Jersey first. It’s not the kind of book you want to be seen reading on the bus. As is well known, the novel is written from the sympathetic point of view of a pedophile. It is distinctly creepy and yet also strangely sincere. Effacing the distinctions between love and lust and healthy and ill psyches, the story draws you into the life of a single-minded Humbert Humbert and his twelve-year-old obsession. I had been prepared for the end of the story, having seen Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic version some years ago, still, this tale distresses. Banned books take us to places we’d rather not be, and cause us to linger there. This is part of their secret appeal. These authors are honest enough to make us question assumptions. You have floated out of sight of land.

Lolita, through euphony, if not something more, reminds me of “Lola.” The Kink’s hit. I first heard “Lola” while I was in seminary, although it had been released a decade and a half earlier (I tend to run a little behind the times). When I listen to songs I pay attention to the lyrics, and I was disturbed to find that “Lola” was a catchy tune with a (to me, at the time) disturbing message. I confessed to a friend that I liked the song, but wasn’t sure that I should. We ban songs just as we ban books, because they bring us to a place where we question what we thought we knew. In my case, it often doesn’t take much. My friend Dave gave sage advice not to overthink the whole thing. If you like a song, you like a song. Let the music play on.

“You say you’re afraid for children,” Ellen Hopkins’s second stanza of “Manifesto” begins. (I confess to following a different scansion of the poem, call it poetic license.) I believe, however, our fear is for ourselves. We know that we could have a monster lurking inside. Lolita does not encourage pedophilia. Like many social crimes, pedophilia is the manifestation of an illness that some people, like sociopaths, unfortunately suffer. The lack of empathy for others is a frightening thing indeed. It makes for some of the scariest movies, and headlines, that I have ever seen. We do ourselves no favors, however, by pretending it doesn’t exist. I know little of the life of Nabokov, but I know that he died in Montreux. I know that he could afford to live there at least in part because of the royalties from Lolita, a novel whose manuscript he had once attempted to burn. And I know that in Montreux “some stupid with a flare gun,” well, you know the rest.

Acts of Apostles

“Manifesto,” the poem that launched Banned Book Week 2010, was written by banned author Ellen Hopkins. As a perspicacious undergraduate I know pointed out, each stanza of this poem addresses an aspect of that strange cultural fear known as Banned Book Week. Her line, “false
patriots who live in fear of discourse,” in stanza one makes me tremble each time. You see, it is easy to believe that censorship applies only to Nazis goose-stepping around bonfires with books flying through the air like a Steven Spielberg movie, or even, more recently, The Book Thief (the book is better than the movie), or godless Communists. That fear, however, travels both forward and backward in time. The Patriot Act has been at work effacing liberty for several years now, and people too fond of fear are unwilling to withdraw it. The world of frightening ideas in which we live, however, is nothing new. Literary artists bring us to uncomfortable places. That’s why we read them.

If we turn history’s pages back to the Nazis, we find ourselves sitting in judgment over their cowardly act of book burning. Those who never read of the phoenix are swift to recreate the myth. But we do history a disservice if we stop there. I was recently reminded that burning books has a biblical precedent. According to Acts 19.19, while Paul was performing miracles in Ephesus, those who were converted brought out their books of magic and burned them, to the approval of the nascent Christian movement. A Bible that advocates the burning of books is ironic, for the Bible itself has been banned in parts of the world. What greater crime against humanity can there be than the deliberate destruction of its own cultural heritage? We don’t believe in magic any more, but we still burn books.

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Owen Davies, in his book Grimoires, shows that the practice goes back even further, with Romans burning books of magic as early as 186 B.C.E. There is a perverse symbolism at work here. As someone who admires, but can’t afford, antique books, the thought of ancient documents intentionally destroyed appears as one of the most easily preventable of cultural crimes. Sometimes as I hurry through the Port Authority Bus Terminal to reach my gate, I see the military guards with machine guns and full combat fatigues and I hope that they don’t stop me to search my bag. The only thing I’m carrying is books. Books, however, convey ideas. Banned Book Week reminds us each year that ideas are essential to the life of the mind. They may be burned or banned, but they will live on. The cost, however, may never be fully recovered by the society that permits its ideas to be incinerated.

All Things Being Equal

Today the light and darkness are equal. The equinox is the great equalizer of the year, the day that reminds us summer’s ebullience is always, and ever will only be, temporary. From this day forth, for six months, night will dominate day. Religions the world over have offered responses to the increasing darkness. Autumnal festivals are among the most poignant as we can see the light diminishing, but we know nothing we can do will prevent it. Time alone cures this growing tenebrous atmosphere, until, as the solstice arrives, we dance, and sing, and drink, and burn candles to encourage the light to return. Return it does, on our universe’s ever rotating axis, bringing us around once again to when days lengthen and we turn our thoughts toward shallower things.

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The ember months, September, October (by association), November, December, each with an increasing sense of solemnity, invite us to read. Today begins Banned Book Week. I’ll be posting about banned books since, although my books deemed fit to print are so mundane as to offend no one, I stand in solidarity with any writer who has ever been told that her or his book is too violent, sexy, or depraved to be read. What thoughts are too dangerous to think? Religions will tell you, and so will pseudo-religions. Thoughts, however, are not so easily stopped. As an editor, I am a gatekeeper of sorts. Still, I know as an author that those I turn aside will persist. They will find their publishers. Their words will not be banned.

As an erstwhile writer I know that some of myself resides in each work clacked out on this keyboard. Those lucky enough to court editors with their efforts find the larger readerships. Some authors don’t even write their own books any more. Anyone can be imitated. The truly original, however, will always end up on someone’s banned book list. Our minds resist being challenged. We don’t want assumptions to be wrong. It’s too much work to have to think through all of this. It is easier to ban books than to have to try to comprehend them. As the darkness increases over the coming months, I will stockpile candles and light bulbs and huddle down next to a stack of books, secure in knowing that most of them have offended somebody along the way. And reading those books will only cause the light to grow.

Bargain Basement

Signs, in my experience at least, lend themselves to being over-read. How often a heedless moment suggests something more than was intended—signs try to say too much in too few words. Indeed, poets rather than marketers ought to be sought. I found myself in Barnes and Noble recently, since Borders is gone. In all fairness, I attended two independent bookstores as penance afterward. Nevertheless, in the corporate atmosphere of the last major brick-and-mortar chain, I saw a sign. Several, actually. One of the most obvious is how many tchotchkes the store had, as opposed to wall-to-wall books. Barnes and Nobel has never been particularly imaginative in its selection of floor stock, but now it is a great place to buy toys, electronics, and coffee. Maybe pick up a book as an afterthought on your way out.

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The front space just inside the door of a bookstore is prime real estate. Publishers have to pay extra to have their books displayed immediately inside the doors—something they reserve for sure-fire rapid sellers. The average customer will walk in, down the center aisle and there they will find promoted (and demoted) items, laid out on their own tables. So it was that I saw a sign reading “Religion & Spirituality Bargain Priced.” In fact, they’re free. Not the books, but religion and spirituality. Even in this secular world, people are not shy about buying books in these categories. Step into the religion aisle sometime. You may be surprised how much you find there. In fact, those who track the industry often include Christian books as a third major category besides fiction and non. We trust those who know enough to write books about such matters. The Bible, despite its detractors, is a bestseller by any measure.

Do we, however, value religion and spirituality? So often religion is portrayed as the root of all extremism while spirituality is relegated to the weak-minded. The science section generally takes up only half the shelf space of religion. People want to know what it’s all about. The rates are anything but bargain priced. Some religion may indeed be simple, but most religions are unexpectedly complex. Those who engage them seriously know there is more to life than just fact and fiction. There are middle grounds and outer limits. There are places that have yet to be discovered, let alone explored. We are in the infancy of intellectual awakening. Of course that shows in how quickly we’ve abandoned our bookstores and gone off after less weighty things. If you have a moment, though, on your way to the coffee bar, you might pick up some religion cheap, and who knows where it might lead?

Banned Magic

Grimoires“If you believe in the power of magic,” Eric Woolfson plaintively sang, “then I can change your mind.” A song that bewitched my younger years, when the atmosphere is just right, it can still bring a silent tear to my eye. Magic is a powerful elixir.

On my own personal almanac of holidays, Banned Book Week is one that takes the most preparation. In anticipation, for it is next week already, I read Owen Davies’ Grimoires: A History of Magic Books. Since this blog doesn’t get nearly the readership of a banned book, I might explain that witches are among my favorite topics. Despite that, and despite growing up with constant curiosity about religion, I only learned about grimoires recently. Davies makes it clear in his book that apart from some standard texts that have been around for a few centuries, the idea of a magic book is really relatively recent. Yes, the Egyptians and Mesopotamians had books of magic, but the concept of a grimoire only really fits the Zeitgeist of medieval Europe particularly well. Such books may draw on or cite oriental wisdom, frequently stepping into the forbidden territory of Arabic learning and alchemy, but they reflect the worldview of the Middle Ages when magic still seemed possible. In earlier centuries conjuring seems to have been subsumed under the miracles associated with Jesus, and we don’t hear much about magi beyond people like Simon Magus.

Davies packs a lot of information into his book, but my reason for focusing on it here, now, is the banned nature of grimoires. Many of them are considered rare and valuable books today, but in their day they were dangerous and forbidden. The concept that an idea can be suppressed is an odd one. In fact, many ideas have a very difficult time finding receptive minds. Once it is written down, however, an idea can circulate. The surest way to guarantee that it will is to ban it. People want to know what is so dangerous about this idea that it must be kept hidden. It makes an idea powerful, esoteric. Forbidden fruit, we all know if we’ll only be honest, is the sweetest.

Grimoires were considered most efficacious when written by hand. Although it took the printing press to proliferate such books, magic was believed to be most potent in the hand-written form. By writing text, one engages intimately with it. This is a reality we are in danger of losing in the computerized age. I grew up with only a second-hand typewriter acquired by my family when I was in high school. Most of what I wrote—for inspiration seldom comes when you’re sitting at your desk—was done by hand. My own little grimoires. Now we’ve added the interface of a keyboard. It is faster, and more efficient. Clinical even. But often the magic seems to be gone. And that is testified in many banned books. They especially, I would aver, believe in the power of magic.

Centuries and Millennia

This past week I had a look at Christian Century. It has been about a century since I’ve read it, so I noticed quite a few changes in that time. Magazines in general, I’ve noticed, have been on a weight-reduction program. They are thinner and more direct than they used to be. Also, the last time I looked at Christian Century, perhaps in my college days, it was still assumed that Christianity was the dominant paradigm for American society. Church attendance wasn’t stellar, but it seemed pretty solid. In my town, in any case, pretty much everything was closed on Sundays. There was a sense of status quo ante, perhaps it was just that social changes of the sixties and seventies were taking a while to settle into the cracks. My college town was pretty far from the forefront of theological, or even social developments, and enough other places must have still been as well. There was no denying that you had great odds of finding Christians, self-professing, in places outside the halls of government.

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It was almost sad that Christian Century felt so diminished. Inside I was surprised to see so many ads and reviews concerning themselves with secularism and/or atheism. Attempts to understand, or convert, were the foci of seminars and books. Get things back to the way they used to be. A century ago. One gets the sense that subscriptions might have slipped a bit. The consensus is breaking up. Too much information—too many choices. People aren’t sure what they will choose after all. The Christian Century seems to have been the nineteenth or twentieth. We are sadder but wiser.

It could be that I’m misreading this whole thing. After all, a couple of the articles were written by big name scholars teaching at big name institutions. One of them, however, is admittedly not a Christian. Those who are are, it seems, trying to learn about this sea change that happened around them while they perhaps supposed everything was progressing as normal. Growing up where I did, I know that I was unaware that people could not, in great masses, not go to church. That other religions were not but minor blips in an otherwise uniformly Christian country. Considering the posturing of many televangelists, I’m not the only one who thought so. It may be that another Christian century is to come. Or even a millennium. Until that happens, however, the institutions that look backward instead of toward a future approaching very fast will feel, I suspect, that a century quickly slipped by and left them wondering in its wake.

ET vs UAC

When I first heard of “unaccompanied alien children,” I hope I might be forgiven for thinking about ET. Or EBEs as they’re sometimes called, “Extraterrestrial Biological Entities.” Instead UACs are serious enough to be assigned their own acronym, and serious politicians are making themselves frantic over the proper response. Should we allow children refugees from Latin America into the “land of opportunity?” This is a matter that calls for immediate debate! But should it? I am an American, but I am also a human being. And a parent. To me few things are more depressing than politics getting in the way of care for children. We fear their Spanish-speaking ways and incipient indigence. At the same time we as taxpayers fund Fundamentalist Mormons in their polygamy, reproducing beyond their ability to pay for themselves. The IRS turns a blind eye to those who claim food stamps and eschew birth control. There are children with nothing in this world standing at the door, and we debate whether to let them in.

I saw a recent opinion survey of major Christian bodies in the United States and their opinions on whether the children should be allowed to enter. White evangelicals came in dead last for the compassionate response of sanctuary. Meanwhile, reading the humanist literature, there is a strong sense that the ethics of this situation demand a, well, humanistic response. These are children, not political chattels. We will not purposefully endanger our own children. In fact, it is a criminal offense to do so. When it comes to somebody else’s children, we fuss and fume and I don’t hear many Fundamentalists saying “What would Jesus do?” in this case. Probably because the answer is clear: let the children come unto me.

Some decisions should be easy to make. Children are not political liabilities. They are often victims of adult complications of a world where a hug would solve many more problem than a gun or a bomb. I’m not sure when compassion became so calculating. I’m old enough to know that there are no easy answers, but I do believe some difficult decisions can be made much easier. Excepting Native Americans, all of our ancestors once entered this continent, largely without permission, as outsiders. Granted, they felt compelled to come—some voluntarily, some not. When their hosts suggested the party was over, they refused to leave. Now their descendants can’t decide whether children are a threat or not. We insist on their right to be born, but we don’t necessarily want to give them a home. When ET went home we all cried. Our tears for our own kind, apparently, are a scarce resource on this planet.

Are we all really just another brick in the wall? (Photo credit: Noir, WikiCommons)

Are we all really just another brick in the wall? (Photo credit: Noir, WikiCommons)