The New Old Thing

After I finished reading about apocalypse-by-bee, I picked up Level 7, by Mordecai Roshwald. I can not seem to help reading in themes – Herzog’s book wasn’t even the start. When I read these books I was knee deep in a study of Revelations.

 

Level 7 is a thin, black, hard back published in 1959. My great-grandmother, from whom my grandfather received a large number of his collection, has written a lengthy epistle all over the fronts piece and title page. Her letter made a touching preface, helping me sink back in time to a place where the threat of utter annihilation by bomb was very, very real.

Even with that as a warning, I was still unsure of what the book was for the first few pages. Was this a real life account? Did this actually happen? Only when the main character was sealed up in a sterilized town thousands of miles below the surface of the Earth did I finally feel confident in proclaiming it pure, if informed, fiction.

The sum of the story is simple enough. The main character is a button pusher for the military, trained to launch missiles at The Enemy if the worst should come and they found themselves under attack. He and about 200 other people are more or less tricked into populating an underground safe house where they are told they must pass out their days. The first half of the book is a methodical journal of the daily life of these people. It’s fascinating, but in a morbid kind of way. The 50s were not kind to interpersonal relations, and none of the 200 people feel real. The women are as bad as the men, except they talk more and so expose themselves more openly. No, I take that back. The main character talks the most, and I found myself torn between sympathy, frustration, and amusement over his plight, naivety, and assumptions.

 

The second half of the book is an equally methodical detailing of the world going to pieces at rocket speed. In case you haven’t already gathered, this is not a cheery, feel good book. Everyone dies: some just die slower than others. And of course the real tragedy is that it’s all for nothing. Well, naturally: if everyone dies this must be so. But even beyond that, the first missile was launched accidentally by a computer – a simple coding error that started a chain reaction of automated destruction. With the amount of thought that went into building these machines, it is not surprising that there was so little left over to design defenses. We take it as a matter of course that none of the precautions put in place to protect civilians from the fall-out worked – the radiation penetrated the shallower shelters and poisoned the water of the deeper stations. But the dernier cri, the ultimate expression of irony, was that our little subterranean town was completely safe from the atomic fallout caused by their actions. They only died of radiation poisoning becasue their nuclear generator developed a leak.

The last pages of the story are written by our doubtful hero as he lies in bed, dying. . . .

 

It was rather subduing. I’ve always said I was a passivist, not a pacifistic. The idea that selfish people can share a planet without dissolving occasionally into fist fights seems dangerously naive to me. But as I read books like this, and ones like Connie Willis’ Lincoln’s Dreams and Wouk’s The Hope, I find war stripped of any younger associations with glory and valor. It can be honorable to fight, I still believe there is a time when we must answer war with war, but even more obvious is the importance of cultivating meekness in our interactions with others. True honor, whether in a conqueror or a servant, comes from humility not pride. From defending another’s rights, not extending the limits of your own. Nobody wins in war. Only when peace means turning a blind eye to human suffering should such a sorry stalemate be sought after.

 

This was book 2 out of 12 for TBR 2016. Read in March, I’m still currently reading my third book for the challenge – a modern, non-fiction book which is both exotic and exasperatingly familiar. Will I be able to make up my two month deficit? Stay tuned to find out . . . .

The Latest Buzz

Another belated posting of an older piece, this one from mid-January. Spell checked and published to, hopefully, get me back into the thick of things.

It’s a quiet evening, and I have all the weariness you would expect in a body after working and then coming home and washing dishes for an hour. And yet, there is a strange thread in my limbs that is screaming for action. It is this silent, insistent need to create which has sent me here, to drivel across the page. So here I am, driveling away.

It’s a strange task to assign to a list-maker: to wander aimlessly down a page meant for other people to view. No outlines, no matching topic sentences. Just words leading to words leading to . . . well, nowhere really.

It’s so unnatural I just have to stop and fill up space with something. Something like, say, a review of Arthur Heizorg’s The Swarm, a la 1975.

Now here is a book to discuss. It is, in essence, a beach book. A mass market thriller full of the imminent destruction of man kind. Or at least, of people in the USA – for some reason the bees were very respectful of the Canadian border.

  Yes, The Swarm is about bees. Specifically it’s about jumbo, mutated African bees (old adansonii) that have adapted to use plastic in their hive walls in order to survive the winter, and military grade, top secret chemicals in their sting in order to better survive us. Or out survive us, as the characters in the book start to fear. The whole thing should have been one long eyeroll. Instead I feel quite educated. The book is written to be as histor-real as possible, with footnotes scattered throughout to properly cite and defend all scientific information. Real citations, too, or at least this one was. This is a fast paced, high stakes, drama peopled with the lowest of the nerd pool – entomologist, geneticists, chemists, and medical practitioners. And not one person ever bemoaned or otherwise called attention to their narrow, intellectual way of life. In a world in which geek and nerd have become utterly meaningless, I found this refreshing. The atmosphere of the book was excellent.

As an aside: It also had an interesting perspective on females and their position in the world. The token female (she generated maps of the bee invasion) was a highly capable scientist in her own field and yet was continually disrespected and outright ignored by the majority of her peers. Living in a wonderfully uncomplicated subsection of the universe, a large number of social issues seem rather too dramatic to be taken seriously. This kind of understated writing lent credence to a concept I normally find surreal.

Nothing is perfect, of course, and there were some bits of the book that I appreciated less. The use of the bee’s long forgotten genetic origin, instead of their Latin name, vaguely annoyed me toward the end. And the obligatory love-story was both off-screen and yet too present. I realize this is what I expect from sci-fi books – the outline is all that’s needed since the relationship is not the main focus of the story. In some ways I respect this, but I think the better answer is just not to include it at all. The worst thing about this book though is its ending. The last third of it felt like an all-nighter – indeed, the cast pulled quite a few to fill it. The characters died for stupid reasons, their plans failed for stupid reasons, and the whole nation was saved by some stupid reason or other. The delicate balance of terror and hope that managed to exist in the first part of the book crumbled as the bees toppled one obstacle after another like a never ending wave of over-powered heroes gone bad. With the falling away of suspense went the need for hope – the magical trance in which I had been held could not sustain itself alone for very long. I lost belief in the world, and with belief went enjoyment.

My favorite of all the silly things in the book was that the whole attack plan was manned by dozens and dozens of faceless laborers and about five specialists. As the months dragged on and the crisis grew, those five people struggled on in forced hermitage (about three hours away from D.C.) with less and less sleep. Two people died for no other reason than the lack of personnel. For this alone the bees probably should have won.

 

This was my first TBR book of 2016. I’m pledging for twelve this year, and saying that eight of those have to be non-fiction. Like all the future books I’ll read, this book was a gift from my grandfather. Curious to see what I’ll read next? So am I.

 

 

Milk Tea


A few days ago an influx of water turned my smooth, green, mirror like lake surface into an unsettling pale and creamy puddle. It has been almost a week and the turbidity, the opaqueness of the pond, has only just now started to improve, tinging the pond green.

 

I’ve just read Fathers and Sons, which is a curious Russian novel from the late 19th century. It reads a little like an English novel from the early 20th century, so the Russians can certainly congratulate themselves on being progressive. It has lovely, quotable lines, and a barely disguised didactic nature which puts me immediately at home. The whole thing is doomed to tragedy from the start1, and yet, the characters all have, underneath it all, such a foundation of wholesome love that I can’t help feeling the survivors will do very well indeed. Against all common sense I trusted this author by page 30.

 

This is TBR number 7 for me, since whilst reading the Magellan bibliography I remembered Oppenhiem’s Fortunate Wayfarer, half-finished on a previous encounter, and gobbled it up in a night. So I only need sixteen more books to finish the challenge. I am combing my shelves for thin works.

 

In between reading I have been tracing. My mother acquired some Swedish tracing paper, which she carelessly allowed me to pinch, and I have been tracing Rosalie stockings and Gertie’s Wiggle dress. It is lovely stuff, the tracing paper, pushing me on towards such daring things as grading between sizes and “drafting” a new neckline.  I’m afraid I didn’t pay proper attention to where I was grading, and likely the waist on the front will be higher that the waist on the back, but it is so hard to tell since, of course, the pieces are flat and the finished object won’t be.

As predicted my weekends have been busy, and the ones I’ve had free have been spent in that desperate, headlong way that shows a true lack of foresight. I am looking forward to this coming weekend’s activities, though, and even more to seeing myself continue to grow a little wiser each day.

Potato Plant, second growth this year.

Hello There

 

Socks Off    (↵ returns to text)
  1. It helps when you’ve skimmed its wiki entry

TBR: Just for Shaw

This is another of those posts, written ages ago, which I am only just now putting up. Please bear with any references to dates or times and try not to chuckle too much over my optimism as I predict the future.

TBR: 4 /20

Following right on the heels of the Kabbalah, here is a text of a completely different sort: three plays of George Bernard Shaw. It’s difficult to know even what I am expected to review here. There is so much, but it feels rather more conducive to a book club than a book review because these plays (all accompanied with lengthy explanations by the author) are really just chock full of social commentary that begs to be debated. And yet, the commentary is rather the worse for being wrapped in the absurdities and witticisms that make them so delightful to read. For instance, despite Shaw’s lengthy introductory letter to his Man and Superman, I still cannot say for certain what the take away from his play was supposed to be except that: a) women are all devious and conniving in one way or another and, b) Hell is not an awful place nor even so very distant from heaven.

Interestingly, it’s opinions about religion and the sexes, and not eugenics or socialism or politics in general, that are spoken loudest throughout his plays. The quite frightening concept of Hell is repeated in his play Saint Joan, alongside a strange mix of cheap shots at, and blatant respect for, the catholic church. He spends his entire introduction defending the court that tried Joan originally and takes great pains to display them in the best light possible in the play itself, showing a consideration not just for the culture which would  surely have existed at that time, but for the heart and soul of the church itself. A soul that is in perfect odds with the apparent spiritual blindness of everyone else in the play, Joan excused – a disturbing reminder that, when faith is expected, it is very often only skin deep.

While that dichotomy warred its way through my brain, his proposition that Joan cemented not just protestantism, but also nationalism, filled me with delightful confusion. The idea of nationalism not being an idea is  . . . . difficult to imagine. Hasn’t it existed since Cain? How could the English and the French not think of themselves as such? But his reasoning, at least within the play, is quite clear, and it is hilarious to see the bishop unaware of how acknowledgment of the king as owner of the land, rather than the feudal lords, would lead to the dissolving of nobility (just as it’s rather sad to see his conclusion that the natural outcome of Protestantism would be a dissolution of all religions into one). If anyone knows of any books about the development and impact of nationalism as a concept in Europe, or any other nation, please share.

To summarize the other plays: Man and Superman makes a rather ambitious political statement about what romance really is, that is, woman’s compulsion by Nature to secure the best possible situation for having and rearing children. It is hard not to remember Chesterton’s comment about replacing God with a Goddess, for nature is a real force in this work, more real than any god or devil, and the characters can be divided into those who worship her and those who don’t. In the first camp we find thoughtless ignorants who mean well but see little and intelligent revolutionaries who see all but somehow still bungle everything. In the second camp there are women.

I think I will have to go back and read it again for a better impression, for I started out by hating Anne and hoping Jack could be well clear of her and finished by condemning him to her and thinking marrying her was exactly what he needed, and yet I’m still not sure what made me change my mind. Probably Jack’s complete surety that he had all the answers and was perfect and self-sufficient – see following paragraph. Obviously, the idea that women have nothing to do in the wooing process but sit and look pretty has never been anything more than 1bunk (though sitting and being pretty are certainly good cards to play if you have them), even before the modern laws that Shaw constantly references as putting the power in woman’s hand so that men, at least in matters of home and hearth, are hardly their own masters once married. Any doubts, please see Dido. Or Ruth. Or any Austen book ever. All written years before Shaw was born. This being the case, it’s hard to take Anne’s aggressive wooing with anything but a raised eyebrow. However, Shaw himself fully admits that he has written Anne in response to a particular play, and that I am sure explains all her tasteless indiscretion away. It does not, however, make me very eager to read his inspiration.

As for Pygmalion, I have actually read this one before, though I was not then able to fully catch all the meanings. More to the point, there was a period some years back when we watched My Fair Lady all. The. Time. It was funny to see the lines I was so used to hearing, and to watch them be lengthened or shortened or put in a different context or, even, in a different mouth. I’m sorry that My Fair Lady didn’t emphasize more that Freddy was stone broke, for somehow it makes him more helplessly lovable and his inevitable marriage to Eliza more acceptable, whereas in the movie it is only a little pathetic. Eliza is too thoroughly modern for a Cinderella story, but Freddy is so old fashioned there seems little harm in making him a Cinderella man. And what in the world did H. G. Wells write?

Anyway, I feel Shaw basically shot himself in the foot at every turn with this play, for he proposes that it is meant to bring awareness of phonetics to the public attention when, really, it makes the matter somewhat of a silly hook (to an American in the 21st century) and instead illustrates the unthinking, shortsightedness of the main “educated” characters and the rather more practical bent of the flower girl from the gutter. That he calls it a romance is unfortunate, and shows that he himself suffers a little from shortsightedness. Seriously, if you consider the great majority of your audience as uneducated, as Shaw clearly does, why would you expect them to have any other assumption than “love story” when they are promised a romance? Luckily it is not that kind or romance (or really, any kind of romance), for Shaw is right: only that innate desire to show up insufferable egotists can lead us to match Eliza with Higgins. This is the same desire that rises in us occasionally with Sherlock (though, he is really much better than Higgins), or any other “Darcy” type (which, by the way, is a term which must go, for Darcy was never self-absorbed and only occasionally rude). I suspect when we do this we are casting around for a way in which to show such characters that they are not a man-among-men and love just happens to be the most convenient and most humiliating blight at hand. Plus, it implies a happy ending, so win-win. However, it’s not fair to Eliza to make her live with someone who will only ever care for her in the manner which he cares for his slippers just because he gets our backs up, and it is refreshing to see a character who can realize that’s so and therefore deftly nix the possibility in her head and heart and marry the man who is slavishly devoted to her. Rather like seeing another Elizabeth discard any plans of marrying Wickham when her aunt asks her what kind of income she expects him to have. Would that human’s were more often represented as having this much insight and control over their emotions.

So, the verdict: these plays are definitely worth reading. They are well written and full of concepts with which to stimulate our stagnating brains, or else merely put us in convulsions of laughter if the brain is too tired to come out. My favorite was Saint Joan, simply because it was new and such an interesting problem. It’s nice to read someone who you can understand, at least in theory, but still completely disagree with. It keeps the grey cells alive and working.

Having had such success with plays, I think I’ll move on to my three volumes of Shakespeare, cravenly choosing the more modern bard over some frightfully classic tragedies. Part of this is mental laziness, and part of this is the hope that familiarity will lend me speed. In theory I should be 14 books in by the end of July, but I think I’ll settle for 10 by the end of August.

Socks Off    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Footnote: Or should I say, Buncombe? I seem to be using this word an awful lot lately, and so I finally gave in and looked up its etymology. Guess what, it’s not British! Jolly rum discovery that, wot?

TBR: Kabballah

This is one of my posts  I wrote in the summer and never posted. It has been severely edited becasue my memory no longer contains the information necessary to continue certain trains of thought, but I trust that the reader will find this an improvement.

 

 

I’m not sure if I approve of long, light filled summer days that seem to stretch endlessly on and on, inviting one to go from one indulgence to the next because, after all, there is still time. Not that I can really blame them, since I am quite aware that reading takes time and I know – a word which here means feel the shudder of my bones and the low keeling of my soul and cannot ignore their meaning – that I am only trying to put off cleaning my kitchen. Yes, even though armed with a new sponge and laden with limes to appease the foul-smelling imp that has taken up residence in the garbage disposal. So I should not blame the light, the lingering rays of gold that brighten the room, for making it so easy to say “it’s still but late afternoon, I can read one more chapter,” until the book is finished and it’s eight o’clock precisely.

In summary: reading takes time and we are good at putting off what we don’t want to do in the first place. But what about those things we do enjoy, even though they require effort. Even though they are a little irritating in places? We drag our feet and meander down the road just looking for little rabbit trails to deter us, but eventually we reach the end and can only wonder why we dragged it out so long. So has been my reading of On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, by Gershom G. Scholem. It is done. I finished it a few days ago (. . . . from when I wrote this, which was three months ago. But I digress).

TBR:  3/24

Okay, so stepping back to a sparser English, let’s look at the facts. First, what is this book? I honestly have no idea. It was not meant for the lay person (i.e. me) who has little to no foundation in the Kabbalah or even Judaism (again, me). It appears to be a compilation of essays that build upon each other to produce a kind of rough basis of what Kabbalism is. Only Scholem is not defining it, so much as defending his interpretation of it to other scholars who have their own, equally obscure, notions on the subject. To say this book is a bit inaccessible is an understatement. Even setting aside the words he used which I was unfamiliar with (I did look up a few but it was rather like trying to shuffle new cards. I kept dropping the gist and so gave up the practice), his sentences were often so crammed with assumptions that even reading them four or five times couldn’t make them clear.

The book starts with a kind of outline and then 1) proves that the Kabbalist is both a conservative and a rebel (or rather, thinks he’s the former but is, without really meaning to be, the later),  2) which leads in to how such people generally see the torah and 3) the fabric of their religious history, nicely curtailing into 4) the Kabbalists’ traditions and why they were so popular among the masses. Chapter 5 ends rather anticlimactically with the history of golems which, while interesting, seemed like a completely separate work. That, in a nutshell (or five) is the book.

Okay then, what is Kabbalism? Literally Kabbalah is tradition (tradition!). What it has come to mean, through the work of medieval Jews ( waaaaaay late to the party but not shy at all about crashing it), is Jewish mysticism. The thing is it’s not one, solid, consistent idea but, rather like America, contains all sorts of people who, though similar in some fairly obvious ways, still manage to clash a bit. So when we say Kabbalism believes this, or Kabbalist say that, we can only mean in a general way that the major of Kabbalisitc writings imply such a thing and not too many people have made a fuss about it.

That’s as clear as I can get without getting convoluted.

I always think of the mystical as things which are slightly ambiguous, in a supernatural way. Like smoke from incense, or fog on a dark, abandoned road. Or Professor Trelawney’s bottle-bottom glasses. Mystics, in this largely self made definition, are people who look, and generally find, the ethereal wherever they go. Mysticism then is the art of seeing the eerie and supernaturally mysterious. When Scholem describes Kabbalism as Jewish mysticism I can see what he means. The Kabbalist love to find traces of divinity in every little line and thought. From my reading of Potok’s Book of Lights I know they are associated with visions and trances, which Scholem usually refers to rather obliquely as “ecstasies,” preferring to talk about the legend and theory rather than the actual practice and experience of the act.

Obviously, people who have visions are going to be generalized as mystics, but I still struggled with the idea of them creating myths. Jews shouldn’t need to invent myths. Their past is all written out, not as myth, but as historical-religious fact. The Kabbalist,  I thought, can’t have myths because they have history.

Oh, how wrong I was. We can’t take the Bible literally all the time – it was, after all, written by people, poetic people, and we humans can’t even use the word “literally” in the correct context without dramatization – but, seriously, you have never seen interpretation like the Kabbalist do it. In fact, the Kabbalist didn’t even have to do anything very radical to create their myths, they merely continued on the traditions that had been handed down to them. Like good Jewish scholars they read their midrashes – those commentaries on the Torah – and their interpretations of those ancient interpretations led to such wonderful works of logic as the deduction that the Torah is not a revelation but a direct manifestation of the Divine. In this view, the Torah is infinite, but it’s also limited by the context it is in. The logical conclusion of this belief is that there is really more in the Torah, beyond the limits of this reality, than what we see – the white spaces around the words, as one person put it. Not only that, but as it can only speak to us through context so even the phrases which we do see are not really the actual Torah but only a kind of dress to clothe the purity of the Divine,  or what not, which the patient scholar can eventually learn to remove. Some Kabbalist used the symbolism of nuts for this explanation – the shell, the thin covering, the seed itself. In fact, I found this portion the most fascinating on a technical note because Scholem kindly documents how this classification of levels directly mirrored the current Christian theories of Biblical interpretation. But for the purpose of this short summary what I want to impress upon you is that the Torah is generally thought of as female. This is important mainly becasue it lets me segue into the Shekhinah (as in, the Shekhinah glory – the present presence of God), which is also female, and is the tenth of the Seifrah. These Seifrah are defined in the book in a nicely befuddling, backwards way, but basically they are a more mystical version of the trinity (so, since there are ten, a decacity?). Oh, and sometimes they are time periods instead of division of the Divine. We’re in the second such period, judgement, between Mercy and Grace.

For the Kabbalist, the most important Seifrah is the Shekhinah. This is becasue when God made our universe it was too fragile and everything shattered and the Shekhinah glory was exiled in earth and now every time we do anything right we help bring it a little closer to home. A lot of the Kabbalist traditions, as you might imagine, focus around the Shekhinah, and Scholem has some rather lovely thoughts on why this is and how the Jews, adrift in exile and far from all the geographical and agricultural things so necessary to their traditions, would have found the idea of an abandoned goddess quite appealing.

As an aside, it must be pointed out that Scholem never once refers to the Shekhinah as a goddess, but he might as well have. Instead he explains that in Jewish tradition the Shekhinah was closely tied with the nation of Israel. A busy lady, then. But this assumption allowed the Kabbalist to interpret the Song of Solomon as between the Shekhinah and the main portion of Divinity, since it had been previously established that the female part of that drama represented Israel.

But to return to the Shekhinah’s exile: the Kabbalist, accepting her sadness as their own, added rituals of weeping and mourning for the Shekhinah – with the Shekhinah. These were balanced by more joyous sabbath observances  – since, of course, the Shekhinah was reunited with the rest of the Divine, occasionally referred to allusively as her bridegroom, every Sabbath.

Organized religion is weird enough, but then people have to go and get creative.

Fascinated horror aside, I did enjoy this book and would heartily recommend it, just not to everyone. You need either a thick skin or a pig’s head, and of course you must care even a teeny-tiny bit about the subject. The writing was a delight and a challenge which I rather enjoyed.

My next book has got to be something more frivolous if I ever hope to finish by December.

A lot of the ideas were stimulating, and the rest of them gave depth and drama to a past which, sadly, is usually rather flat and dreary to us non-historians. On top of all this, Scholem is a master of footnotes. Not only do they add clarity and context but they are just really delicious. If only he could pull a reverse Lewis Carroll.

This book was published in the 1960s, during the last bit of Wouk’s The Hope. It’s possible the main character in Potok’s work could have written it; he would have been around 45. It’s strange to read this academic book and know what else was going on in the world around its author and yet to have none of that drama on display. Not one mention of Israel reclaimed. A historian, completely focused on his work and the past.