Wednesday, June 29, 2011

2011.06.28 — Beyond Fate by Margeret Visser — finished

Begun 2011.05.26.
Margaret Visser.
Beyond Fate,
Toronto: House of Anansi Press Inc.
ISBN 0887846793

☆☆☆☆☆ out of ☆☆☆☆☆.
Margaret Visser's premise is an excellent one, which is that we as citizens of a 'free' society are using that freedom to choose to revert back to being victimized by fate. We don't call it fate. Instead we have with encouragement from the media, economic experts and the like, chosen to call it 'globalization' or 'technoloighy' or 'meaninglessness.'

After having so thoroughly enjoyed Visser's Much Depends On Dinner, I confess to having been a little disappointed with the first lecture. I wrestled with what I didn't like, and I tentatively think that I found that her style of oral presentation had not translated well to the written word. A bit too repetitive, and a few too many returns to the opening theme.

But her ideas, and the philosophical and linguistic associations and cultural meaning she discusses are genuinely interesting. For example, Visser examines how the Greek (and hence Roman) thinking was rooted in fate via the ideals of honour/shame, place/revenge, and how that zeitgeist imprisons the citizenry in a status quo concomitantly with endless cycles of honour saving revenge. (See Begun 2011.05.26 for a look at Greek fatalism.)

Visser articulates the idea with the image of a line contrasted against the closed line (circle). By the end of the book she has tied the idea very well to present practices and habits of thought.

An example of one of these interesting and important points she makes in the first lecture is the role that Christian beliefs founded in Judaism had in breaking the trap of the shame/revenge cycle:

An important aspect of the Christian revolution was a new resolve to break out of the ancient Greek and Roman view that human beings are in thrall to fate. Christianity's roots in Judaism provided it with a perennially powerful story about hope and freedom: that of the Exodus, or Way Out. The picture is of a journey of a people out of bondage to liberation. The journey took time, forty years — the number forty being a Jewish symbol for enough time, "the time it takes." This epic of liberation from captivity — through vision, determination, trust, and agreement to obey God's law — is a radical alternative to fatalistic thinking, to believing that the way things are is necessarily how they must continue to be. The biblical account of the Exodus made linear time, rather than cyclical time, a foundational metaphor for the West, and hence for any society influenced by the cultures of the West. Implicit in it is the concept of progress: human beings are able to free themselves, to learn, to achieve enlightenment. The road metaphor is kept but its meaning changed(20-1)
The second lecture, 'Fate and Furies' redeems the book. It is simply brilliant but not as good as the third lecture, 'Free Fall.' Visser articulates the difference between shame and guilt and why knowing the difference is important. Shame is conferred onto the person by the society — it requires an audience. Guilt, on the other hand, is felt by the individual, and is invisible to the society. This is important, Visser argues, because shame demands a revenge in order to recover the lost honour, whereas guilt demands self knowledge and repentance. It also allows for, but does not demand, forgiveness. The former binds the person to his or her fate, whereas the latter allows for the individual to change and grow. Guilt, repentance and forgiveness empowers the individual to move beyond his/her own failings and to redeem his or herself, i.e. to grow, independently of how the society sees that person. Fate does not allow for that, and Visser effectively argues that we are societally reverting to fate language, fateful thinking, and feelings of being imprisoned by forces beyond our abilities.

From 'Fate and Furies:'

An honour system is communal, close, warm — even fiery. It insists on selfless loyalty to all those defined as being one's own. Individualism, on the other hand, can often feel cold and lonely. It seems at times to undermine every attempt at community. In an individualistic society, the very same diagram as that of the jigsaw we referred to earlier lies behind many metaphors for social patterning. Only here what is being said by the diagram tends to be that each area, each life, is complete in itself, separated from all the others, responsible for itself. Impingement upon others is discouraged, and the invasion of one's own privacy is experienced as an outrage. The image is like the one we looked at earlier, of a table set for dinner. Or a demand that others — especially strangers, of course — should not nudge or pat me too often, or stand too close while speaking to me, or sit down right next to me when I was hoping to be all alone on the beach. Individualism tends not only to protect but to isolate; it can trap people behind the walls that separate each person from every other.

What individualism demands — just as the whole point of guilt is the possibility of forgiveness that it offers — is for people to feel safe enough, ready and willing and free enough, to open up those protective barriers in order to notice, take care of, and finally love other people, even those not felt to be immediately rewarding or appealing. The outstanding characteristic of Christianity is its placing the highest value of all on love, not only for one's family or group, but for everyone — including people who do things like chew with their mouths open. This insistence that love is greater than all the other virtues was, in the context of classical culture at the time of Christianity's beginnings, a revolutionary notion, since it appeared to downplay bravery, loyalty, honesty, obedience, dignity, and all the other ideals of ancient Rome. One of the social or structural reasons for the Christian insistence on love was the immense push that the new religion simultaneously gave to individualism. Without the transcendence love provides, individualism becomes a prison. Individualism requires transcendence so that the "walls," so wisely and carefully raised in order to shelter the individual from incursions by others, can remain — but be surmountable, for higher ends (49-50).
I highly recommend this book, even though the first lecture is a tad hard to get through. Her concerns about a strong return to fatalism is I think, well founded and well argued.

Near the end of the book, she astutely links 'boredom' with exacerbating fatalistic thinking and actions. And she proffers an antidote to the drift towards powerlessness! And no, not just affirming mantras of power and adequacy:

Escape from fatalism and its twin warders, boredom and embarrassment, begins simply with consciousness — with paying attention. To be disinterested — that is, to be interested in things in and for themselves, and not because of possible profits for yourself — and especially to pay attention to what is supposed to be boring or taken for granted, is to begin to effect a minor revolution, another word for which is 'conversion.' Notice immediately that paying attention is an action: we are free to do it — or to turn away(143).
She elaborates three other actions and another state of mind as tools to combat fatalism in thought and action. (But I find it very evocative that her first action is what Cesar Milan tries to teach his dog owners: to be fully aware of their actions and their dogs real needs.)

Friday, June 17, 2011

2011.06.17 — The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood: Finished

Margaret Atwood.
The Year of the Flood.
UK: Virago Press (Little, Brown Book Group), 2010.
ISBN: 1844085643.

☆☆☆☆☆ out of ☆☆☆☆☆.

TYotF is an excellent companion to Oryx and Crake. Actually, it was so good that I finished the book before I had time to create my 'begun reading' blog.

At a high level, it was fun to see how, and how effectively, Atwood played with the characters crossing between the two books. At a more subtle level, how Atwood dexterously extended and deepened the shallowness of the pleeb world was extremely funny, very sad, and disturbingly reflective.

This world resonated with me more than that of O&C's, including the characters. In part because it is more close to the world that I see around me including the seeds of her descriptive dystopia. I found Atwood's slightly exagerated characterization of the lunatics and their groups to be on point and very real. The Gardener's Hymn book was a source of aeternal delight because it was both satirical and true at the same time.

Also the product names and uses, the social past times and entertainments, all delightfully echoed our marketed world. And at the same time Atwood somehow managed to pay a delightful homage to the world described by Orwell in 1984, while taking it along its own self-consistent path.

I think that the characters were more finely drawn in TYotF, and not just the females. Adam One and Zeb began flat, but this was perfectly described as if through the eyes of the resourceful, ever sceptical Toby. And as Toby grew the men became characters and not caricatures.
Atwood's characterizations are powerfully, simply done. For example, the vanity of Ren's mother is delightful described by a daughter with a wisdom that is beyond her years and not quite grounded, but is at the same time told as if by someone still innocent as they would be after having lived in the Gardener's hippy-like commune:
'What are you doing in the closet, darling?' said Lucerne [Ren's mother]. 'Come and have some lunch! You'll feell better soon!' She sounded chirpy: the crazier and more disturbed I acted, the better it was for her, because the less anyone would believe me if I told on her.

Her story was that I'd been traumatized by being stuck in among the warped, brainwashing cult folk. I had no way of proving her wrong. Anyway maybe I had been traumatized: I had nothing to compare myself with (252-3).
Atwood's use of voice in the book is interesting. The young girl who becomes a women in the story, Ren, is told in the first person present. Toby, who begins as a young women is told in third person past. I'm not sure why this worked, but it did. I've thought about it, and I think it worked because Atwood was emphasizing the voice of the innocent child with an unconscious wisdom as being alive in the immediate present. Whereas Toby felt dislocated and outside of her existence throughout the book. I've given a small example of Ren abve, and now for Toby's character. Atwood's description is masterful, and takes the entire book. I'll begin with Ren's childhood description:
... The Gardener kids had nicknames for all of the teachers. Pilar was the Fungus, Zeb was the Mad Adam, Stuart was the Screw because he built furniture. Mugi was the Muscle, Manushka was the Mucous, Rebecca was the Salt and Peppler, Burt was the Knob because he was bald. Toby was the Dry Witch. Witch because she was always mixing things up and pouring them into bottles and Dry because she was so thin and hard, and to tell her apart from Nuala, who was the Wet Witch because of her damp mouth and her wobbly bum, and because you could make her cry so easily.
We could never make the Dry Witch Toby cry. The boys said she was a hardass — she and Rebecca were the two hardest asses. Rebecca was jolly on the outside, but you did not push her buttons. As for Toby, she was leathery inside and out. 'Don't try it Shackleton,' she would say, even though her back was turned. Nuala was too kind to us, but Toby held us to account, and we trusted Toby more: you'd trust a rock more than a cake (74-5).
Now, here's Toby through her own, 3rd person eyes:
Gradually, Toby stopped thinking that she should leave the Gardeners. She didn't really believe in their creed, but she no longer disbelieved. One season blended into the next — rainy, stormy, hot and dry, cooler and dry, rainy and warm — and then one year into another. She wasn't quite a Gardener, yet she wasn't a pleeblander any more. She was neither the one nor the other (116).
And, finally:
How old will I be, thought Toby, before I can be that calm? She felt cut open (127).
Toby's ambivalence was perfeclty described, and made the Gordener's ostensible silliness both more real and more endearing. This was no small feat of writing!

I won't say that this book is better than O&C, but rather that reading both books elevates them above what they are if read singly. I am strongly tempted, now, to re-read O&C to seek out the extended subtle overlaps between the two.