Category Archives: Literature

Here Before

Déjà vu can be quite disorienting. Déjà vu can be quite disorienting. One of the categories for my 2018 reading challenge is a book you can read in a day. Maybe it’s just me, or creeping middle age, but books seem to be getting fatter these days. Despite the amount of time I spend reading, I’m slow at it and it’s a real struggle to find something I can actually finish on a three-hour bus ride. That’s why I thought of a play. Plays are meant to be performed in one sitting, so you should, in theory, be able to read one in a few hours. My first thought was Shakespeare, but the books of Shakespeare you can find these days all have added pages of commentary and interpretative material and the books seem to have put on weight since the Bard’s day.

So I settled on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard. My wife had a used copy from college days and I’d been wanting to read it for some years. Here was my excuse. Then the bus ride began. Starting Act One I was sure I had read this before. It wasn’t just an inkling, like déjà vu often is, but an overpowering sensation. Of course I could tell what was going to happen—I’ve read Hamlet a time or two—but it was more than that. The sense that I had not long ago read this very sequence of words was nothing shy of overpowering. Uncanny even. As I moved into the latter part of the act, the feeling went away. This was new territory after all.

Consciousness is mysterious. Even with all our instruments and equations and theories, we still don’t know what it is. Materialists insist it must be simply a function of the brain, but that’s certainly not what it feels like. One of the hazards of reading a lot in middle age is that some things do start to blend together in your gray matter. Research, for example, means reading many books on the same subject with repeated ideas common among them. For fiction, however, we often hold a higher standard. Uniqueness and creativity are highly valued, even if the play you’re writing is a riff off the old Bard. In the end, I was able to finish the play in a day’s reading on the bus. Staring out the window after I’d finished, I was thinking how déjà vu can be quite disorienting.

The Power of Literature

Among the uber-wealthy families that America has produced were the Dukes. Most famous for the university that bears the family name, they made their money in tobacco and then electricity. And what a lot of money it was! Although many people can point to North Carolina as the home of Duke University, many don’t realize that they liked to vacation in New Jersey. A large property, regally landscaped, rests just outside the unlikely town of Hillsborough. When the last Duke heir died, the foundation opened the property to the public, taking Green initiatives to heart. It’s good to see money with a conscience once in a while. Since we’re not far from Hillsborough, when cabin fever sets in and there’s actually sunshine on a late winter weekend, Duke Farms is a convenient getaway for a few hours.

Surrounded by a rock wall, the main property once housed luxury that most people will never experience. Ancient sycamores line one avenue that leads to a coach barn far nicer than the houses hoi polloi live in. Although we’ve visited the grounds many times, we haven’t seen all of it by a long stretch. Over the weekend we came across a gravel trail we’d never taken. The main avenues are wide, blacktop, pedestrianized boulevards that lead past aging structures, fountains, ponds, statues, and quaint bridges. The gravel trail meanders back and forth through small hills and glens, and it’s easy to believe you’re in the middle of the woods from time to time. At the top of one of these hills we came to the pet cemetery, amid the leafless trees.

We can all understand the emotional attachment to pets. Even the wealthy feel it. The cemetery was large for non-humans, with stones going back to 1953. Even a pair of camels were buried there. I can’t visit a pet cemetery, however, without thinking of Stephen King. It was a blustery, chilly day. We were alone on this remote trail we’d just discovered, and thoughts of resurrection didn’t seem that far fetched. The rich, after all, can do anything they please. Nevertheless, there was a pathos here. We were being given a glimpse into private lives. The names of other people’s pets, and sometimes their species. The things that had touched the monied class deeply. I’ve buried a few pets in my time, and it is always a solemn activity. One from which not even wealth can protect anyone. And here was another testament to the power of literature. Groping for a way to understand this place, a favorite horror novel seemed just about right.

Testamental Annihilation

I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t tell you there may be spoilers below. The book to which I alluded last week—the one made into a movie—was Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation. I first saw the book in a Green store in Ithaca, New York. I figured it must have a planet-friendly message if it were being sold at such a venue. I’ve finally had time to read it. There may be spoilers, so if you plan to see the movie, be warned.

Set in a kind of edenic dystopia not far from now, the novel gives none of its characters names. The narrator is the biologist of a four-member team sent into Area X—a region in the south from which no expedition has returned. Clearly intended to be part of a series, the novel does leave quite a few things hanging. Among the many unanswered questions is what has happened here. One of the problems with having Bible-radar is that you can’t overlook references to the Good Book. Without going into too much detail, the story has mysterious writing on the wall. That itself is a biblical trope, of course, but when the biologist discovers notebooks from previous expeditions, she considers that the writing is like something from the Old Testament. This description made me pause and ponder. The Hebrew Bible has, in the popular imagination, been cast in the role of a harbinger of doom and gloom. Granted, there are many passages that have earned that reputation, but on the whole it’s a very mixed bag. Still, in popular culture “Old Testament” means things are going wrong.

While not a horror novel, there are elements of horror here. People transforming into plants and animals, sloughing human skin. And resurrection—how New Testament! This made me think that maybe a penchant for horror isn’t such a strange thing for a guy who spent a decade and a half teaching the Hebrew Bible. My motivation for going in that direction had more to do with my interest in origins, but nevertheless, I also grew up watching monster movies. Maybe, unbeknownst to me, I was bringing the two together in this field of study. It’s difficult to tell at the end of book one what the overall message will be. But since I’m discussing the Hebrew Bible maybe I’ll take a stab at prophecy and predict that the second book of the series will be in my future. And I wouldn’t want to be a hypocrite.

Evil Masters

Whoever Modern Mrs. Darcy is, she keeps me honest. This is my third year of doing her reading challenge, and in an effort not to go out and buy all the books I want, I try to select from among my own pre-existing collection tomes I’ve never read. One of the categories this year was a classic you’ve been meaning to read. I spied on my shelf a copy of Jules Verne’s Master of the World that I bought before my high school years but had never actually consumed. I think I was a bit put off by 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. Don’t get me wrong—that’s a great book, but it’s dense and long and very detailed. And I was probably too young when I read it. Master of the World, like 20,000 Leagues, was part of Verne’s magnum opus Voyages extraordinaires, a set of fifty-some novels recounting, well, extraordinary voyages.

What makes Master of the World topical to this blog is the Devil. I’d better explain that. The story surrounds a somewhat naive detective trying to solve the mystery of a great, inaccessible, hollow mountain in North Carolina. While investigating this mountain (prior to the age of heavier-than-air flight) he learns of an automobile that is terrorizing the United States by driving 200 miles per hour. The credulous colonials seriously think that perhaps the Devil is driving this car. While that may be but passing fancy, it’s an image that replays itself throughout the book. Anyone who recklessly drives so fast—and the car can transform into a boat, submarine, and airplane as well—must be diabolical. The Devil’s amusements seem pretty tame, and the driver isn’t supernatural after all, once he’s discovered.

Robur the Conquerer is Master of the World, in his own opinion. At the climax he flies his marvelous machine into a hurricane, proclaiming his mastery like a good mad scientist. The machine, called The Terror, is destroyed and Robur is presumably killed in the storm. When our narrator returns home after several weeks missing (he was kidnapped by Robur and thus learned a bit more about the driver’s madness), his housekeeper has the last word. She declares that although Robur was not the Devil he was worthy of being so. The Devil has become a lot more nasty since Verne’s day, apparently. Why, our own government makes Robur the Conquerer look like an amateur demagogue. Either we’ve become terribly more accepting of everyday evil, or the dark lord has grown even worse over the century. I, for one know which one to believe.

Jewish Annotated

A project with which I have some small acquaintance is the second edition of the Jewish Annotated New Testament (some of you may be noticing an annotated theme lately). The idea behind it is deceptively simple: most of the writers of the New Testament were Jews. What do modern day Jewish scholars see in the text? This annotated Bible gets adopted into both Christian and Jewish courses, and many seminaries have an interest in learning what the writers might have been thinking as they were composing “the other testament.” So far, so good. I was looking at the Amazon page for the book the other day, specifically for the Kindle edition. As usual, you can’t please everyone, and some of the negative comments had to do with functionality. Then one said simply, “There is no such thing as a Jewish New Testament.”

I’m not so naive that I don’t know what trolls are, but I got to thinking about this comment. It didn’t come from a “certified buyer,” so it could be an opinion piece. The mononymed reviewer might be Jewish, Christian, or neither. From a Jewish perspective s/he might mean: Jews don’t accept the New Testament as scripture, so what else is there to talk about? From a Christian perspective the point might be: this is a Christian document so it doesn’t matter what Jews think about it. Either way there’s a call for some exegesis here. Both perspectives can be argued against. Jews have a very real interest in what Christians say about them. And, like it or not, the first Christians, and even Jesus himself, fell squarely within Judaism.

Christianity has become a religion of privilege. That happens when you’re the biggest religious body in the world. Christians get a bit testy when Islam begins encroaching on its numbers. There’s still some hard feelings about the Muslim expansion of the seventh and eighth centuries, too. Being an imperial religion will do that to you. Thoughtful Christ-followers, however, have begun to look back and wonder how this whole thing got started in the first place. Without Jews there would’ve been no Christians. Nobody’s claiming the New Testament is Jewish scripture. Neither side wants that. It’s simply a recognition that we might have something to learn from each other. And that’s not a bad idea. In fact, if we were willing to listen a bit more than talk, who knows how much true understanding might come to pass? The Jewish Annotated New Testament is one possible place to start.

Frankenfear

While re-reading Frankenstein the uncomfortable thought kept recurring that our tendency to save lives leads to undiscovered fears. I’m not suggesting that we should just let people die, but even from my own experience of doctors, the sense of personal agency has become somewhat eroded. You go to the doctor and s/he tells you, “You should have this done.” I’m still too busy trying to figure out what this box that’s attached to my TV should be called, so how am I qualified to assess a professional opinion about my health? We mend bodies with plastic and metals and chemicals. Some modifications, like fillings and glasses, seem no brainers. But what about plastic tubes and computers to regulate body functions? They’re all good, but have we thought this through, I can hear Mary Shelley asking.

Religion, which is now also eroding, was a traditional way of coping with the fact of our own mortality. Everyone dies. From the beginning of the world, with the possible exception of Elijah—and even he had to come back—everyone has died. Religion traditionally said that it wasn’t the last word. The body wears out, and in a materialist world there’s nothing that can be left. Technology can prolong life, but some may not want it to be prolonged beyond a certain point. I’m not being morbid; I just don’t like arguing with what can’t be changed. Religion, it’s easy to forget, is about finding peace. Some people misunderstand that, for sure, but that doesn’t change the facts.

Did Prometheus overstep his bounds? Mary Shelley seemed to think so. In her recollections the story was intended to scare, not to predict. Victor Frankenstein creates the monster simply because he can. He does it alone, without thinking through the consequences even with a convenient Igor. Religion has often been cast as that annoying, moralizing sibling to science. (Philosophy could well join the ranks too, as some prefer it to religious thinking.) Without that sibling, however, how can we make informed decisions? Science, by its very definition, can’t tell us what should be done. The only values it knows are quantifiers. We live in a piecemeal world where some parts have been removed while others have been added. We don’t know if this is right or wrong since religion is one of the pieces excised without being replaced. Prometheus, ironically, translates to “forethought.” The problem with Frankenstein is precisely that Prometheus is missing.

Hey Jude

Reading Jude the Obscure was, at times, like reading my own biography. Authors strive for that effect, to be sure, but Thomas Hardy hits close to home on this one. I don’t mean in the aspect of marrying the wrong woman and losing his true love, but rather in the sense of what Jude was meant to and couldn’t be. For any readers behind on their Hardy, Jude Fawley was an orphan who grew up with scholarly abilities but no connections to university folk. Teaching himself Greek and buying what books he can afford, he eventually moves to Christminster (Hardy’s version of Oxford) in order to begin his studies at the university there. His application is summarily rejected because he is a working-class nobody who would be happier not overreaching himself. He then decides to try to become a parson only to find that path blocked to him as well.

Okay, so that’s a bit brief for a 400-page novel, but you get the gist of it. Hardy, according to the introduction, added the university theme later since the novel’s main focus is on the hypocrisy of the church regarding marriage. Both Jude and his true love (and cousin) Sue end up marrying other people who make them miserable. They each separate and then live together and raise children until tragedy causes Sue to have a religious conversion and return to her first husband. Jude dies in obscurity, as the title warns. Hardy was famous for his anti-church sentiments and Jude the Obscure was one of his most criticized works. The university theme, however, was the part I just couldn’t let go.

Being from the working class you may not have any idea how higher education functions. Even with raw talent and ambition, there are so few places available that you can easily find yourself in the rejected pile. Jude fatefully moves back to Christminster, hoping on some deep level that he’ll be accepted. That never happens although his fellow stone-cutters know that he is just as learned as the professors who regularly parade through town. The author didn’t intend to write cheerful stories. The friend who first suggested I read Hardy’s work knew about that tendency. The world is a place of comfort for some and struggle for others. Like Jude, those on the outside just can’t see what’s wrong with their own earnest application to be counted among the educated. Like any country club, however, the real point of it all is to learn how to game the system. Like taking a sad song and making it, well, better.