Review of “The Wall” by Marlen Haushofer

(Reader’s note:  I wrote a series of notes on this review shortly after I finished reading the book, nearly a year ago, but I never managed to publish my thoughts until now.  Enjoy!)


The Wall

Now that I have finished reading The Wall, I will never think about our yearly vacations to the Austrian Alps the same way again.  It has been a growing tradition in our family to try to go skiing twice a year, once on Thanksgiving weekend and then again in March, at the end of the season.  For a couple of years we managed to do this yearly routine.  We would stay in a small village along the main road leading into the Oetztal valley. A small mountain brook fed by a waterfall some three hundred meters from the bedroom window and balcony ran by the vacation apartment where we stayed.  On the night of our arrival, we would go to bed early to have the chance to get to the slopes the following morning.  From there, we’d ski the whole day until before the last ski gondola would return to the valley below.  The view was always something to see.

Mountain pass panorama

Here is a panorama I took of the Austrian Alps the last time I went skiing in 2013.

I remember the first time I went skiing in the Alps.  Shortly after we’d arrived at the tallest lift station on the mountain, the wind picked up and a cold weather front came up over the neighboring mountain range.  It was really ominous, watching those milky clouds roll over the mountain like that.  I’d never seen clouds move the way they did.  There was nothing we could do but ski downhill.  We were in the mountains, and it was becoming clear that this would be my rites of passage, so to speak.  My partner went down the mountain with a cat-like grace, weaving this way and that. Clearly, thirty plus years of experience guided her the whole way down.  I could barely make a sweeping turn, on the other hand, what with this being my third time on skis.  I felt ridiculous as more and more experienced skiers passed me by.  What the hell am I doing way up here, I thought on more than one occasion.  Once, I had to side-step my way down the slope; it was just too steep for my skill level.  This and the pending doom that the clouds forbore only made me more anxious — and annoyed.  I still blame my partner for taking me down a red-diamond slope with a snowstorm just off the horizon. I would be lying though if I said I didn’t enjoy myself; after all, I did survive to tell the tale. What an adventure that snowstorm turned out to be, too.  A complete white-out at 2,500 meters.  I could barely see my hand in front of my face, let alone the path that I was skiing on.  There was nothing but raging snow, blowing this way and that, to remind me that I was on top of a mountain.  It was all one big blur, the whole three grueling hours of it.  Eventually I made it down to the middle station, drank a lot of Jägertee to calm my nerves and relaxed in the end at a thermal spa that evening, where I gave my aching muscles the rest they deserved.

Coming back to this book The Wall by Marlen Haushofer, I could think of nothing but my own experiences in the mountains as I read it.  How rugged and hazardous living there could be, especially if it was without the support of some fraction of civilization.  The thought of living alone, the way she does in the novel, with no one to aid, comfort or console you, is tormenting, not only for her but for us as readers, as well.  To consider how this story came to be is somewhat puzzling, too.  From one day to the next, she is alone, terribly alone, because of the wall:

I couldn’t see what he was so frightened of.  At this point the road emerged from the gorge, and as far as I could see it lay deserted and peaceful in the morning sun.  I reluctantly pushed the dog aside and went ahead on my own.  Fortunately, thanks to Lynx’s [the dog] obstruction, I had slowed down, for a few paces on I gave my head a violent bump and stumbled backwards.  Lynx immediately started whining again, and pressed himself against my legs.  Baffled, I stretched out my hand and touched something smooth and cool: a smooth, cool resistance where there could be nothing but air.  I tentatively tried again, and once more my hand rested on something like a window-pane.  Then I heard a loud knocking sound and glanced around before realizing that it was my own heartbeat thundering in my ears.  My heart had been frightened before I knew anything about it  (Haushofer 8).

From this point on, this unnamed narrator struggles to survive in a world where only her and her animals exist.  All other traces of humankind are frozen on the other side of the wall, an invisible barrier that keeps her trapped within a mountain valley.  At one point during her survey of the valley, she describes a man she finds on the other side of the wall: “The man by the stream had fallen over and now lay on his back, his knees slightly bent, his cupped hand still on his way to his face.  He must have been knocked over in a storm.  He didn’t look like a corpse, more like something excavated from Pompeii…. rather like things that had never been alive, entirely inorganic” (Haushofer 45).  In the end, she finds companionship with the animals living with her inside the wall, her dog companion, Lynx, and several cats, who all help her maintain her sanity.  That, however, does not go untested without its trials and tribulations.  There is a return to nature of sorts in this novel and that means more than simply existing.  She is no different from the animals she natures and cares for in the novel, but at the same time, she is more than that.  She mostly tells us about her experiences behind the wall through a reflective journal, but traces of her thoughts, her memories are periodically forced to the surface throughout the text to reveal clues to her past.  And she struggles with those memories, for better or for worse.

Snowfall

Ultimately, she is alone.  Except for the many animals around her, she is terribly alone.  These animals become characters.  They take on a life of their own.  She survives because of them and they because of her.  The tragedy at the end of the novel rips the reader from the comfortable complacency that settles and takes hold and forces us to loath what happens — more so, how it happens.  To reveal this point in the plot would spoil the whole novel, but it is in this moment at the end that the strength of this female protagonist comes shining through.  Even after something tragic like this happens, she still goes on living.

Whether you look at the book from a feminist point of view, with the female protagonist struggling to survive in the mountains behind an invisible barrier or from a psychoanalytical viewpoint, with a hint of her isolation being self-imposed, almost as if she is living in a personal hell, if you will, one thing remains certain of this book:  it is not easy to analyze.  Some would argue that the novel is SF (science fiction), but the only reference that suggests any possibility for such a genre classification lies in the very early parts of the book, where she says something about “nuclear wars and their consequences” (Haushofer 3), but claiming it to be such is a bit far removed from any SF sub-genre I can think of.  It could very well be an existential novel, one where she must learn to find her place in nature.  There is one point in the book that I found to be supportive of this idea, and it rests with the appearance of a white crow:

This autumn a white crow appeared.  It always flies a little way behind the others, and settles alone on a tree avoided by its companions.  I can’t understand why the other crows doesn’t like it.  I think it’s a particularly beautiful bird, but the other members of its species find it repugnant.  I see it sitting alone in its spruce-tree staring over the meadow, a miserable absurdity that shouldn’t exist, a white crow…. It can’t know why it’s been ostracized; that’s the only life it knows.  It will always be an outcast and so alone that it’s less afraid of people than its black brethren.  Perhaps they find it so repugnant that they can’t even peck it to death.  Every day I wait for the white crow and call to it, and it looks at me attentively with its reddish eyes.  I can do very little for it.  Perhaps my scraps are prolonging a life that shouldn’t be prolonged.  But I want the white crow to live, and sometimes I dream that there’s another one in the forest and that they will find each other (222).

The white crow showing up is no coincidence in terms of the plot development, either.  It appears just before the tragedy and becomes a point highlighted by the narrator even again in the final lines of the story, after she’s lost everything else.  “The crows have risen, and circle screeching over the forest.  When they are out of sight I shall go to the clearing and feed the white crow.  It will already be waiting for me” (244).  It would be easy to link this white crow to her own character, an outcast of sorts, left to die alone, outside of the security of the flock.  The black crows are bully-ish, scavenging and taking what they want for themselves, carrion opportunists that would eagerly jump at the first chance for a meal.  But, this white crow is different.  It separates itself from the flock, much like our narrator, contrary to exile being involuntarily imposed on her.  Perhaps the ostracized bird is forced to stay away, too, a thought worth thinking about.

On a side note to my existential thoughts here, the crow was once commonly known to be white in Greek myth.  It was only through tragedy that the black crow was born.  According to Cassandra Eason from her handbook on Fabulous Creatures, Mythical Monsters and Animal Power Symbols, the story goes that Coronis, the daughter to Phlegyes, became pregnant by the god Apollo, who left a white crow to watch over his beloved mistress at the city of Delphos.  Coronis, however, went off and married the hero, Ischys, despite her previous affections for the god.  Upon learning from the white crow that reported everything to him, Apollo slew Coronis and Ischys, and in his anger turned the crow black for being the bearer of bad news.  Apollo claimed the child born unto the world and named him Asclebius, who later became the healer semi-deity (66).  Seeing the symbolism of the white crow here as the bearer of bad news might help to foreshadow certain events in the novel, but that would require a certain amount of knowledge on Greek mythology to see it coming.

Whatever way you look at the book, there are many reasons why I feel this book is a genuine work of art.  Written by an Austrian writer who clearly had a way with the world she was raised in, Marlen Haushofer told a tale of isolation, despair, but above all else hope that is so convincing, it may very well bring you to tears.  If nothing else, it will leave you thinking about it for a very long time. This is the perfect novel to read on a cold, wintery day, albeit I would not recommend it for those who may be weary at heart or who find themselves easily depressed.  In fact, I would recommend drinking a hot cup of tea (perhaps a Chai) while reading it or going for a run once you’re done.  Whatever you do, though, go out and meet a friend or talk to a neighbor.  Go out and be social, because there’s nothing worse than feeling like you’re alone, or taking for granted what may not be there someday.

Works Cited

Eason, Cassandra. Fabulous Creatures, Mythical Monsters and Animal Power Symbols: A Handbook. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2008. Googlebooks. Web. 08 Aug. 2013.

Haushofer, Marlen. The Wall. Trans. Shaun Whiteside. Berkeley: Cleis Press, Inc., 2012.  Print.

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Am I really “reading” an audiobook?

1188223_microphoneWith a busy semester work load ahead of me, my son demanding more of my attention, and my regular household responsibilities — the usual routine stuff — I find that I have little time for some of the more personal pleasures in my life, such as this blog; but, I imagine this is the case with most writers. It is about time management and priorities, after all. If I am not able to create, I can at least consume. Several months ago, I discovered the Overdrive Media Console app, which allows one to borrow and download audio- and eBooks from his or her local library, if such a service is rendered. When it comes to reading, I will always prefer a physical paper or cloth book over an eBook, but the audio format is proving to be most valuable during this busy time.  In fact, these book types are helping to fill what is otherwise a void in my reading habit. With my earphones jacked into my Samsung, I can listen to the audiobook while I do the dishes, for example, or while I drive the car to go to class (a word of caution here, though, as it is easy to be distracted), instead of listening to the radio which offers nothing worth listening to. I have also listened to my audiobook in the evenings, while I was bringing my son down for bed. I have found that there are many moments in my day which are lost to mundane tasks that can otherwise be supplemented with the narrations of an audio book reader. As a result of this discovery, I have read four novels in just under a month, which is quite an incredible feat for me.

But, this begs the question, am I really reading? This is a point I feel I have to ask myself, because it is not the same experience listening to an audiobook as it is to read the words off of the page for myself. Yet, the narrations are read out loud, using vocabulary from the text that is otherwise often excluded from any normal conversation or dialogue, words that one typically only finds in written form, so the narrator remains true to the text of the book. Another point about audio books worth mentioning is that I am just as involved with listening, taking in every word, the same way I would be committed to visualizing with my eyes the words that emerge from the page. The added advantage to this is that I can do other things, tasks that don’t require so much of my mental capacity to concentrate, while “reading” my book. A level of concentration is still needed, though, to register and process what I am listening to. In some cases, I miss certain points in the reading that I have to backtrack to in order to follow along with the narration, a part of listening to an audiobook that I don’t see any differently from jumping back a page or two to reference a point previously mentioned. This is one of the only drawbacks that I am noticing about “reading” an audiobook — that other senses are always competing for my attention, something that you may know from my previous posts can be problematic, what with my absent-mindedness, especially while driving. In fact, I drive a lot slower when I listen to an audiobook than when I do not. I usually reserve the audio book for any type of extended driving I have to do. If I am on the highway, the audio book comes out; it stays off if I am driving in town. The last thing I need is an accident.

The dangers of listening to audiobooks aside, I don’t feel like retention for what I am “reading” is a problem, as I am focused on the book being narrated, the reader’s voice often compelling and pragmatic. I have found myself adventuring with genres of books that I previously invested little of my efforts into. My focus in reading has often been with fiction, but I do not feel the same elation from listening to an audio work of fiction as I do with actually reading one. This is partly because of the figurative nature of literature that I enjoy so much, savoring an author’s use of symbolism and metaphor the same way a taster might relish a gourmet delicatessen. Non-fiction, the books I find myself listening to more, delves into another literary form on its own, one comprising of fact and personal account. While these works can take on creative twists in their own way, the primary purpose is to convey information about their given subject matter, so an author’s tone and use of syntax is arranged differently. I don’t think a book like The Satanic Verses with its fragments and colloquialisms would work as effectively in non-fiction form (or in an audio format, for that matter). After all, the poetic license afforded to a work of fiction like Rushdie’s novel is what gives fiction its unique appeal, something I feel I enjoy more when I have the chance to sit down and explore it more thoroughly, flipping back to previous pages to encounter the beautifully written prose over and over again. With audio books, this is not as easy to do. “Reading” an audiobook is solely for the sake of listening and learning in my opinion. Since the beginning of the year, I have read: two biographies — one about Jack London, the other regarding Carl von Stauffenberg; one band biography about Metallica; and a survey on the cultural history of rabies. The next in line is the autobiography on Gandhi.   All of these books have been easy to read because they are presenting information in more of a chronological manner. Fiction gets easily lost in the mental traps of its protagonists, so much so that it is easy to lose place, especially if multiple points of views are being expressed. I don’t know how an audio work of literature, say The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky, would “read” if I were to listen to it. I don’t know that I would want to experience a classic work like this in audio form, anyway.

I guess I answer my question. While I am listening to someone else read aloud what has already been written, I am still encountering those same grammatical forms that distinguish writing from the dialogues of conversation. My concentration is still focused on the material as it is being presented to me, whether it be from the monologues of one reader or the voice-overs of each “character” in the book, much in the same way a radio theatrical production was done in the olden days — a form of reading, I might add, that I don’t really like, nor should the book include any musical score set to fill the space between chapters or to heighten dramatic effect. I prefer a single reader over many — a quietly edited book, if you will — since this is what mirrors my own mental voice as I read a physical book. When I allow my eyes to skim across the lines of words on a page, taking in their meaning and relating these words to one another, I don’t imagine the voices of children or women playing out their roles; rather, their voice is my own. Nor, do I imagine some underscore of violins amplifying the dramatic mood of a scene. The only thing that occupies my mind while I read are my thoughts. I am glad to have this technology to allow me to enjoy a good book, even if I do not really have the time to do so in any other form.

Image source: McNally, Victoria. “Recording your Audiobook, part 1: Setting up.” Bookworks: The Self-Publishers Association. WordPress.com. 04 Mar. 2013. Web. 15 Dec. 2014.

Candied Almonds at the Christkindelsmarkt 2014

I have written this story to thank an unknown vendor for a kind service rendered at the Christmas market this year.  The story is a bit off topic from what I usually post here, but I thought I would share the story for the holidays.  Season’s Greetings, good readers!



“So, can anyone tell me how to get to the bus depot from — let’s say — here, at the shopping center?” I scanned the room, looking for anyone willing enough to give the lesson a try.

I caught Gretchin out of the corner of my eye, who seemed moderately interested and brave enough to give the directions I was asking for.

“Gretchin, would you like to try it?”

“I will. Go out onto the street and turn right.”

“Good, and then?”

“Walk straight along the road to the intersection and turn left.” There was a slight pause as she thought a moment about the next step.

“Yes, and then?”

“The bus stop is in front of the hill,” she said, wincing at her uncertainty for this last part.

At the top of the hill,” I corrected.

“The bus stop is at the top of the hill,” she repeated, a little discouraged by her mistake but thankful for having the opportunity to have another go at it. A few of the others were diligently writing in their notebooks.

“Well then, everyone, I do believe we are running out of time,” I said, noting the relief in everyone’s faces, “so my last question for the day will be — where’s the Christkindelsmarkt?”

Everyone chuckled at the suggestion, and immediately began gathering their things. I too set to the task of straightening up, eager to join my students for a nice evening at the Christmas market. I hadn’t had the chance to visit the market yet, and it was already two weeks into the season for it. Judging how quietly most of my students reacted during this evening’s lesson, I would say we were all in need of a spiced wine.

I took my jacket down from the coat rack and pulled it on over my shoulders as I hoisted my leather tote, bulky and cumbersome from the weight of a whole day’s worth of English lessons, and made my way for the door, switching off the lights as I left. All of my students approached me the week before, asking if I would be interested in joining them after this evening’s class for a festive outing at the Christmas market, and I humbly accepted the invitation. It was a nice feeling to know that my relationship with them was being taken to a new level.

*****

We all walked down the steps together and made our way for the main entrance. I dropped off the CD player with the School’s caretaker, bid him a nice evening, and caught up with those who were making their way out of the door. The weather outside was frightful, and the misty dew made the evening air cold and clammy to the touch. One could see the mist swaying this way and that under the sodium lamps, the orange tinted glow taking the edge of the chill the moisture created. We walked together down the main street to the pedestrian zone, making small talk along the way.

Not even five minutes later, the cobble-stoned streets turned into the first signs of holiday festivities. Hanging over the street, from store front to store front, were the first ornaments leading one to the Christmas market. Wreaths adorned with holly berries and mistletoe hung from lighting fixtures at intervals of a few feet all the way down the street, marking the way through the city’s center to the marketplace where the kiosks could be found. People were coming and going from shops, large shopping bags showing their agendas, as we made our way closer to the market’s edge.

Finally, our group stood before the Christkindelsmarkt. We slowed down and stopped at the edge of the market to take the scenery before us in. The constant chatter of people talking, conversations that were muddled out by other conversations, filled the night sky. All of the eateries and stands were centered around a gigantic conifer tree that towered well over a few of the storefront buildings along the marketplace’s edge. The tree was adorned with large glass-ball ornaments in varying shades of red, green and violet; long strands of lights were draped from head to toe, illuminating the tree to reveal its magnificence.

I scanned my students, taking in their reactions, and waited for them to make the first move. It was soon clear that we didn’t have a plan of any sorts, so we decided to meet back up in ten minutes time to allow everyone a chance to fetch something for themselves. Most of them went for the eateries. I headed to the first spiced wine stand I could find. It wasn’t long before I was sipping on a steaming-hot mug of mulled wine, the savory taste of the wine lifting my spirit.

As everyone started to make their way back to our meeting point, we started to settle into our niches. Some of them were interested in practicing their English, so we conversed the majority of the evening on a wide range of topics. One of my colleagues from the school stopped by to join us, and she added all the more to great conversation that was developing from the evening.

I took a look around at the various stands, my wine having since been empty some minutes before, when I noticed people around the stands thinning out. More and more people were beginning to part ways. “Seems to be clearing out,” I commented, as the others turned around to look. The eight o’clock church bells started to ring out into the night, marking the closing of the Christmas market.

“Well, I must go home now,” Terrence said politely, addressing each of us, shaking everyone’s hand in turn. From there, it was a chain reaction of departures, everyone seeming to buzz still with the last vestiges of the festive outing. Suddenly, it dawned on me. I was forgetting something. Knowing that I was going to the Christkindelsmarkt that evening, my wife instructed me to pick up a bag of candied almonds. The last strike of the eight o’clock bell was like a light bulb going on in my head.

“Oh crap! I forget to buy almonds! I’ll be right back everyone.”

*****

In a mad dash, I raced through what remained of the Christmas market, but it seemed I was too late. Most of the kiosks had already closed up their stands, heavy blinds keeping me from fulfilling my promise. I paced the market aisles, running from one row to another, in the hopes that around the next corner would be a stand still open for business. By the last row, I had lost hope. I had forgotten to buy candied almonds, and my wife would be disappointed for it. “What luck,” I said to myself out loud, disappointed in myself for having gotten too wrapped up in the festive moment. Suddenly, I saw them.

“Wait! Please, wait,” I yelled, nearly out of breath from rushing over to them.

Two men were wrapping a tarp over the open side of their stand, both vendors struggling to fix the tarp in place. They stopped what they were doing to listen.

“Please, I made a promise to buy almonds for my wife this evening, and I nearly forgot. Would you be so kind to sell me some before you close up for the evening?” I pleaded, hoping they would make the transactions.

Both vendors looked at each other, when I added, “I know you’re closing up for the night, but I would be very grateful if you would sell me a bag.”

“Alright. No problem. We will sell you a bag,” said the man closest to me, a tall fellow in a winter vest and ski cap. He looked at his colleague, who immediately looked annoyed at his statement.

“You have no idea how much you’re helping me. Thank you.” I added, hoping to smooth things over a bit.

The other vendor, now behind the display, asked what I wanted. I took a look at the prices and opted for the more expensive bag, in hopes that my selection would at least show my gratitude for their service.

The man began shoveling candied almonds into the bag, setting it upon a scale for measure, and started closing it up, when his colleague closest to me said rather curtly, “This man asked for a large bag of almonds.”

With a mounting tension in the air, I listened as the vendor with my almonds exclaimed something back to his colleague in Russian, a language I didn’t need to understand to know just what was happening. I took a quick look at the scale and saw that the balance has tipped for a lesser weight. He was planning to rip me off a few almonds, no doubt for my disrupting their closing time.

I cast a quick look at the taller man next to me to see what his reaction would be and his glaring gaze at his colleague was colder than the night air where we were standing. I turned back to the vendor behind the display and asked how much it would be for a large bag, knowing full well the price was marked right in front of me.

I pulled out another bag, a larger bag, and began loading more almonds into my request, seemingly disgruntled at having been called out for his actions. Once he finished, he placed the rightful amount of almonds up on the glass counter and said, “5 Euros.”

I quickly paid the man, nodded to his friendlier colleague, thanking him for his kindness, wished them both a nice evening and ran back to my friends. Of course, they were waiting, perplexed by my sudden disappearance, as they knew I was coming back but they didn’t know why I had run off in the first place, so I owed them an explanation. I told them about my promise and why I needed to run off the way I did, and they all laughed with me.

*****

It was easy to shrug off what had happened just then in the presence of my new friends, but I couldn’t help but wonder on my way home that evening if I had set things in motion that would change the way those two men would come to work with one another. I wouldn’t have been none the wiser if that vendor had indeed cut me short on my request. The fact that his colleague stepped in to defend me, a customer — no doubt for something as simple as a bag of almonds — when he could have turned a blind eye to the own ordeal leaves me thankful for all of the honest people that exist out there in the world today.   It’s the principle of the matter that counts here, so I have written this piece to thank him, whoever he may be, for doing the right thing, even when it was at his expense in the end.

Image source: ReneS. “Christmas Market in Jena.” Wikipedia.org. Wikipedia foundation, Inc. 21 Dec. 2007. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_market#mediaviewer/File:ChristmasMarketJena.jpg]

Review of “Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife” by Eben Alexander, M.D.

Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey Into the AfterlifeWhile I was in graduate school, my dissertation supervisor recommended that I read her book on trauma and psychoanalysis (no surprise there).  It was a good recommendation for the direction my thesis was going, and I learned a lot about psychoanalysis from it. But, by the end of the book, I noticed something that immediately peeked my interest.  In her final chapter, she wrote about her experiences as a victim of the London city bombings back in July of 2005 and the dissociation that came from it.  She was traveling on one of the buses when a bomb planted by a suicide bomber detonated near her.  She wrote a few months later in the closing chapter of her book about having survived the attack:

“I can talk about the bag, blown open, like the picture of the one on top of the bus, with smoke and white yellowy sick oozing out all over it.  And yet, how to talk about such a near encounter with death, about you and me in the carriage?  So near and yet, I was so far away.  I climbed out of my body when the explosion happened and hovered somewhere above my head, looking on as the film unrolled.  As I write, it is just over three months now and I am no nearer to working out what this has meant, or how I explain it, least of all what I think or feel about you” (Campbell 189).

The you in this narrative would appear to be the terrorist responsible for the bombings, and this is her way of dealing with her situation.  This story reveals how she copes with the anger she feels toward her would-be attacker.  She later goes on to write:

“I feel cemented to my seat alongside the crowd, bearing witness to your death drive as some kind of avant-garde, awe inspiring act.  And so I reject that narrative; I don’t want you up there as some avenging angel.  Who wants to live with that kind of fear or hate?  Besides, I don’t want to write about, or be read into, being your victim” (189).

What immediately drew me to her story was how up-close-and-personal she was with death; and here was a woman whom I spoke with on a weekly basis for help with my dissertation.  I felt empowered by her story, empowered by the fact that she lived to tell about it, so when I encounter stories like hers or Sonali Deraniyagala’s (I wrote about her memoir a while ago), I feel compelled to try to make the most of my own life because of them.

But it isn’t easy for people like Campbell or Deraniyagala to simply go on living.  The trauma they experienced makes that difficult for them.  The dissociation Campbell felt immediately after the bombing had a lasting impact on her body, both physically and psychologically.  It will be a moment she will have to deal with for a very long time. Near-death experiences (NDE) like hers are not so uncommon, though.  In fact, one could say they happen all the time.  Films like Hereafter (2012), directed by Clint Eastwood,  or Flatliners (1990), by Joel Schumacher, are good examples showing the ways mortality and NDEs captivate our imaginations.

A near-death experience, I imagine, is a very subjective thing when you stop to consider the circumstances involved with such an experience.  Some people describe their moments with crystal-clear depictions for what happens to them, while others fail to find the words to describe theirs.  A simple search online for the testimonies from people who’ve undergone NDEs will reveal one thing for certain:  a lot of religious rhetoric about having “found God” or about having “spoken to Jesus” or possibly even about “Hell really existing” persists around this topic.  Whether Campbell spoke with God during her out-of-body experience or if Deraniyagala saw Jesus Christ helping her out of the tsunami waters remains to be seen (they never disclosed this information in their narratives); however, no matter what way you look at such experiences, it is difficult to ascertain the universal truth to anything other than what may (or may not) be considered an overly emotional reaction to having cheated death.  Unfortunately, the subjective nature of the stories that come from NDEs, in my opinion, aren’t adequate enough to prove, much less to validate the existence of a higher power, no matter what level of educational and professional experience a person on this planet may have.

Enter Eben Alexander, M.D. with his book Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife.  I was intrigued by this title for one reason — a learned man of science experiences a near-death situation and writes a book about it.  I assumed the book would hold some potential for an empirical inquiry into such a narrative, which the author moderately attempts to do, yet as most of these NDEs go, it falls short by making claims that are unsubstantiated with anything other than a feeling, however overwhelming it may be.  Alexander goes through great efforts to describe different perspectives during his time in coma, using names for these unearthly realms like “Gateway,” “the Core,” or “the world of the Earthworm’s Eye-view.”   It seems clear to me that this man struggled to find a concrete way to describe his situation, maybe even getting caught up in the rhetoric of a Christian dominated theme.  After all, have the Christians not preached the fire and brimstone version of Hell and the splendor and magnificence of the pearly gates of Heaven for over six hundred some odd years now?  It would be easy to jump on that bandwagon after coming out of a seven-day coma, especially if what happened was emotionally moving.  No doubt, it was.

I must give some credit to this man’s story, though.  While I personally do not buy into his visions of the afterlife, that does not mean that the tension created by his having contracted an extremely rare and severe case of E. Coli bacterial meningitis “out of thin air” (Alexander 24) is not compelling.  On the contrary, his situation is a dire one, filled with dramatic moments that his family no doubt had to deal with.   Being in coma is no laughing matter, and this story illustrates well the strain such situations cause a family to go through.  But, like so many other critics of the book, I don’t believe his hypothesis on the afterlife, which is unarguably the sole reason he wrote the book.  As one critic for Scientific American wrote, “The fact that mind and consciousness are not fully explained by natural forces… is not proof of the supernatural. In any case, there is a reason they are called near-death experiences: the people who have them are not actually dead” (Shermer).  In the end, he is a neurosurgeon who went into coma due to a unique illness, experienced a NDE because of it, and seeks to lay claim to a universal truth that will undoubtedly be true only to him.  Until I have my own NDE and experience similar things for myself, I remain the skeptic that I am.

Works Cited

Alexander, Eben. Proof of Heaven. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012. Print.

Campbell, Jan.  Psychoanalysis and the Time of Life. London: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Shermer, Michael. “Why a Near-Death Experience isn’t Proof of Heaven.”  Scientific American. Scientific American, Inc., 19 Mar. 2013. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.

Review of “In the Country of Last Things” by Paul Auster

In The Country Of Last ThingsI’m a fan of utopian and dystopian literature, so when Paul Auster’s 1987 novel In the Country of Last Things was recommended to me, I dropped what I was reading at that time and set to it immediately.  I was drawn into Auster’s imagery right away from the beginning; in fact, many of his descriptive passages were quite harrowing, setting the scene of this futuristic no-named city well, but I found that the more I read, the more the book started to wane from the expectations this scenery was creating.  I wasn’t expecting the book to start so slowly, given we don’t actually learn about Anna Blume, the central protagonist in the story, and the reasons for her predicament until around page 41, when she reflects back on a meeting with the editor from the newspaper her brother works for; given this book is only 188 pages long, I consider this to be a late start.  While the introduction was a bit long-winded, telling, rather than showing us, how this imaginary society is, this wasn’t what bothered me about the book. I found the scope of the world Auster created to be extremely limiting.

I can’t help but call out a few of the inaccuracies in this novel.  Moments that are explained to us early on turn out to be something else later in the story.  For example, her brother worked for a newspaper which sent him off on assignment overseas to cover an exclusive story, but he ends up missing in the end.  Having followed him to the city where our story takes place, in hopes of finding him there, Anna tells us a bit about where she is:

“this country is enormous, you understand, and there’s no telling where he might have gone.  Beyond the agricultural zone to the west, there are supposedly several hundred miles of desert.  Beyond that, however, one hears talk of more cities, of mountain ranges, of mines and factories, of vast territories stretching all the way to a second ocean.  Perhaps there is some truth to this talk” (Auster 40).

She then goes on to tell us how she ended up in the city in the first place, having taken a lead from her brother’s employer, an editor named Bogat who “exud[es] an air of abstracted benevolence that seemed tinged with cunning, a pleasantness that masked some secret edge of cruelty” (Auster 40), a description consistent to the rest of Auster’s style.  His comments, she recalls, offer some sense of foreshadow, when he states, “Don’t do it little girl… You’d be crazy to go there…. No one gets out of there.  It’s the end of the goddamned world” (41).  And, he was right.  We never learn if she ever leaves, but this is not what bothers me so much.  It’s her failed sense of geography.

I know, you’re probably thinking — what does that have to do with anything, especially in a fictional world?  Yet, for all of this talk about her brother going off to a foreign land to report, and herself traveling there in hopes of finding him, you would think her knowledge of the world would be better than how she leads on.  She doesn’t even know if there is a second ocean on the other side of the country she’s in — “Perhaps there is some truth to this talk,” she says.  I find this to be a bit hard to believe, since it doesn’t come off as a story set in the 15th century, where cartography and exploration of the planet were still in their infancy, but rather a futuristic tale where libraries, newspapers, and even airports exist.  The way I see it, she doesn’t have an excuse for not knowing.

This is but one of a couple of inconsistencies I found to be in this story of survival.  Where the story lacks in plausibility, it makes up for it in Auster’s strength in characterization and imagery, though.  One example of this can be found when Ferdinand dies.  Anna, struggling in the streets, alone and impoverished, is offered shelter by an old, married woman, Isabel and her husband, Ferdinand, both of whom take her in for a considerable part of the story.  Ferdinand proves to be an old, embittered tyrant of a husband, however, so this creates quite a bit of tension in the story.  Once Ferdinand dies, we learn a lot about Isabel’s relationship to him, more so at this point than at any other when he was still alive.  Auster reveals deeply embedded feelings about their life together in the simplest manner of expression:

“Isabel spent the rest of the morning fussing over Ferdinand’s body.  She refused to let me help, and for several hours I just sat in my corner and watched her.  It was pointless to put any clothes on Ferdinand, of course, but Isabel wouldn’t have it any other way.  She wanted him to look like the man he had been years ago, before anger and self-pity had destroyed him…. Isabel worked with incredible slowness, laboring over each detail with maddening precision, never once pausing, never once speeding up, and after a while it began to get on my nerves.  I wanted everything to be done with as quickly as possible,  but Isabel paid no attention to me. She was so wrapped up in what she was doing, I doubt that she even knew I was there” (71).

The meticulous manner in which the matronly Isabel sets to preparing her husband for death, not a funeral per say, as dead bodies are policed up off the street like garbage and sent to the outskirts of town, but for something more than ‘processing’.  Auster captures the ritual involved with preparing the dead so well in this scene that it creates a deep feeling of nostalgia and inner-peace for Isabel as one could only hope for the now widowed woman.

There are some intense moments in the story, some which left me cringing from the suspense Auster’s dramatization creates.  There are also some dull points in the story, as well.  While I enjoyed reading about the characters in this story, it is safe to say that I found it a bit lacking to believe in the dystopian world he creates, a world with no-name and no sense of itself.  A bit disappointing really, but I won’t let this novel keep me from reading any of this other books.  He has a great writer’s voice; it’s just that in the end, this fallen society leaves me wanting more.

A Toast to Writing

A Scotch Whiskey Glass from thechoppingblock.com

The purpose of this post is to simply write about anything I want –writing for writing’s sake — to help motivate me to write a bit more frequently, to see what comes from free writing.  Typically, when I sit down to write a piece, I invest myself in the planning, the layout, the presentation; I look up words that I think may make sense in the context I am trying to use them in; I even reverse outline my drafts to ensure that I have catered to some sense of organization.  One article I wrote took me well into a week before I even considered posting it to the public.  To write like this — more openly, more freely, letting loose my thoughts and allowing myself to say what I want — I find, requires more effort.  In all respects, I am not used to chronicling my thoughts on a more sporadic basis, and I find it telling to simply hold up with the challenge I have set for myself to write more.  It’s hard for me to just let go.

Take this post, for instance.  I am writing this for the sake of free-writing my way into this piece.  A motivation piece, if you will.  Yet, I do not feel all that motivated to let go of myself.  I have never felt like the type of person to simply let go of my reserve, always staying in control of my environment, aside from the occasional run-in with a bottle of Scotch.  Perhaps, therein lies a truth to my dilemma for want of a better word.  Whenever I drink, I do it to relax, to enjoy the savory flavors of the alcohol, whiskey being my current poison.  In my youth, I would indulge a bit too heartily into the mirth that comes with social drinking and would inevitably find myself hung-over the next morning with little recollection for the night before.  I have always been a happy drunk early on, then as the fresh air and perpetual motion of the world around me set into place, my head would become the center of gravitational forces my drunken stupor failed to understand.  I almost always became the hopelessly pathetic drunk, a clear sign that I had overdrawn my limit.  Could this be compared to writing in anyway?  Could it be possible to get drunk on words in the same way one gets drunk on alcohol, to let these words — all words — course through me like the first stinging swig of whiskey, settling on the tongue with its oaken and smoked luster?  In finding my muse I would find that same relaxed state of mind that comes after a couple of drinks.

Perhaps this is why so many writers have been known to be raging alcoholics.  To sit before a writing desk or table and commit one’s self to the writing of a novel, to the characterization of memories invoked as protagonists, bringing with their creation the hardships that serves as the basis for their existence, evoked through the need to write something, anything.  It’s in the alcohol that the true work of an artist emerges.  The reserve that comes with sobriety,  of being self-conscious of the world around, of the people listening and watching, of social expectations, of responsibilities — this reserve holds back those who seek to let it out on paper.  In reading Jack London’s biography, he occasionally drank the drinks of men, hitting the saloons along the sea ports wherever he was, whiskey helping to maintain the social call.  Ernest Hemingway, another one of literature’s great writers, was notorious for his love of the drink.  In a letter he wrote to Ivan Kashkin in 1935, Hemingway describes what drinking meant to him, by this point a lifelong admirer of the bottle: “When you work all day with your head and know you must work again the next day what else can change your ideas and make them run on a different plane like whisky?… Modern life, too, is often a mechanical oppression and liquor is the only mechanical relief” (qtd. in Willett).  If these men and many others like them of equal caste, no doubt, were drinking as often as they were and were able nonetheless to produce some of the greatest works of fiction and non-fiction the literary world has known, no doubt there must be some truth to alcohol’s role as a provocateur of men.

I have often heard that a writer has not really mastered the art of his craft until his muse has taken him over, producing a work entirely uninhibited by restraint.  Giving in to the moment, the writer is consumed in the act of writing, letting his body serve only as a conveyor for the thoughts pouring forth from his mind.  Thought transference at its finest.  Nothing else matters but the moment in which the mind takes over the body and produces a work of fiction, the characters as real as those standing nearby.  Whether alcohol of any sort is useful in evoking such experiences is hard to tell, what with the many variables associated with alcohol consumption and the merriment, melancholy or stupor that often comes with it.  No doubt, though, it is not needed so long as you are able to find a hook, something to pull you into the moment where you stop thinking about yourself and start to focus on the writing you want to do.  Looking back at where I was 170 words into this piece, I see how effective it is to let oneself go for a moment, forgetting about the body and its needs and allowing the mind to work how it wants.  And this, I might add, was done without the influence of alcohol.

Works Cited

Willett, Megan. “In the Post-Script of a Letter, Ernest Hemingway Explained his Deep Love of Alcohol.” Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc. 02 Jul. 2013. Web. 20 Jan. 2014.

Judging a Book by its Cover: The Penguin Classic Deluxe Edition of “the Communist Manifesto”

20130714_115813While I was perusing the bookstore the other day, I came across this book cover, curious to say the least.  No doubt it did its job; the cover caught my attention.  Wincing and tilting my head to make sense of it, I was drawn to its surreal and uncanny artwork only to find upon further inspection that it was a Penguin Classic — deluxe edition, no less.  As if that was not enough, it is the 2011 edition of the Communist Manifesto written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848; I presume no introduction to these iconic figures is necessary.  The cover art for this edition of the book was done by an artist named Patrice Killoffer, who prefers to go simply by his family name.  Here then is a comic book artist who has illustrated for Penguin Classics a rendition of a man, a proletariat in red, if you will, being crushed under the heel of a black boot, no doubt worn by the bourgeois.  Don’t forget the pigs in top hats found in the lower right-hand corner, or the train choo-chooing across the top of the page.  The type set used for the title of the book couldn’t be any more flippant, either.  I feel I understand why the book was illustrated the way it was, given it has always been viewed with intense scrutiny since its initial publication in 1848, but that doesn’t mean I like the cover art for this particular copy, what with its squiggly lines and child-like depictions.

In fact, what astonishes, and even irks me a bit about this book cover is that it diminishes the importance this book has held in the philosophical development of the human race.  Here is a book, a manifesto, a living document that at the time sought to motivate people politically to change the way they lived.  It became the basis for a major political movement that swept over the planet and was the cause for many major wars during the 20th century.  In my opinion its intentions as a pamphlet were meant for the greater good, as it sought to change the current (from an 1848 perspective) social conditions — in theory it sought to change the world for the better; however, in practical application, it did not take into account abuse of power and the corrupting nature of greed.  As Stephen Holmes from the London Review of Books reminds us, it may be difficult to read this book with a fresh set of eyes, considering the damage wrought by its implications during the Cold War, but that doesn’t mean we should debase the influence and importance it has had in shaping our identities.  In fact, many scholars would argue to the contrary.  Eric Hobsbawm is one such scholar who “urges us to experience the work as a stirring piece of ‘literature’. Admitting that it is ‘a historical document, out of date in many respects’, he invites us to appreciate its rhetorical élan and even to feel its ‘Biblical force’” (qtd. in Holmes).  Sympathizing with Holmes and Hobsbawm, I cannot help but feel that this book cover is bias toward an anti-communist mentality, immediately imposing on any reader of this important document these sentiments.

This is one case where I would urge someone NOT to judge a book by its cover.  If you really want to learn what the Communist Manifesto is about, read it for yourself.  Don’t let some book publisher and a flippant comic book artist warp your judgement of an idea before an your own opinion of it can even be made.

“The Guest” from Exile and the Kingdom by Albert Camus

Exile and the Kingdom

Are we ever really alone?  There comes a point in your life when you realize that people are dependent on you, or vice verse.  Children are dependent on their parents; parents, in turn, are dependent on social commitments, for they have responsibilities to those whom they provide for.  Even if you don’t have children, you seek out connections with other people, whether those are through common interest or romance.  We want to feel connected to other people, and for good reason.  You’ll see this in a cafe, where people meet to socialize — in an office, where people are working together to see a task through — in a school, where children are learning about the world they live in — even in the “Lonely Hearts” column of a newspaper, where men and women of all ages seek out partners with subtly written adverts about themselves.  What I am doing right now, writing this critique, alone and to myself in the basement of my home, is a way for me to feel connected to others, such as yourselves, even if I don’t know you. 

David Copper, a professor of philosophy at the University of Durham, tells us that “a perennial concern of philosophy has been to confront an alienation of man from the world which science, language or metaphysical speculation may threaten…. Either man is just one more kind of thing in nature, or nature is itself a constituent of his consciousness” (Cooper 25).  To think about my desire to be surrounded or noticed by other human beings leaves me to think that it is inherent in my sense of self to do so.  After all, do I not learn a sense of who I am through others?  But, not everyone longs for this sense of connection.  There are those who desire to be distant, alone, introvert.  “The Guest” by Albert Camus, originally published in his collection of short stories Exile and the Kingdom in 1957, the same year he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, is clearly a story where the protagonist, Daru, is at odds with humanity.  He desires solitude, and that is what this story delivers, even at the expense of the moral consequences involved.

Largely inspired by the Algerian War during the 1950s, Camus writes about his protagonist’s struggles to accept what he is ordered to do in what would appear to be sympathies toward an Arab prisoner.  Whether those sympathies are drawn from his devotion toward helping others in need — the protagonist is after all a schoolmaster — or if they are more politically motivated, something that would not fall short of Camus’s talent, this remains unclear.  But, what we learn from the story is the protagonist’s desire to alleviate himself from this burdensome task.  No doubt, an analysis on the effects of isolation can be drawn from this story, even if Camus never intended for such a reading. 

The story begins with Balducci, an Army officer, bringing an Arab prisoner to Daru, the main protagonist who runs charity for impoverished people from a schoolhouse in the middle of the desert upon a plateau.  It is clear from early on that he wants to be alone at the schoolhouse, for his demeanor toward this officer and his charge are in the least bit welcoming.  He is astonished even when Balducci explains that the reason he is there is to pass the responsibility for the prisoner over to him, to take him to Tinguit, a nearby town, where both of them are expected at police headquarters.  This doesn’t settle well with Daru, so much so that he revolts against Balducci by refusing to hand this captive over to the authorities, even against the orders set upon him.

To Daru, this Arab prisoner placed in his charge disrupts the solace he has had upon this plateau in the desert.  Cooper summarizes the early nineteenth-century philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel by telling us how alienation remains a fundamental feature of man’s consciousness.  That by separating himself, and thus opposing his very nature, he can remove himself from his natural life and become recluse in the new environment he finds himself in.  He quotes Hegel:  “Its subsequent history is that of further ‘withdrawal out of its happy natural life, into the night of self-consciousness’; followed by the long attempt to ‘reconstruct… the reality… from which it has been separated'” (qtd. in Cooper 26).  The Arab, suddenly in Daru’s presence, seems to represent “the night of self-consciousness” that Hegel discusses, for his company on this evening seems to upset the way Daru has chosen to live his life.  By living remotely in the desert, atop a plateau no less, Daru feels uneasy now when social obligations require him to watch an Arab prisoner, a person whose name we never even learn.

In the middle of the night, Daru was still not asleep.  He had gone to bed after undressing completely; he generally slept naked.  But when he suddenly realized that he had nothing on, he hesitated.  He felt vulnerable and the temptation came to him to put his clothes back on (Camus 253). 

In this first instance, he is made conscientious of his nakedness, a thought that never occurred to him in his isolation and a further indicator of how removed he is from society.  Could his hesitation be a sense of shame that he feels in the presence of another human being?  The Arab’s presence even rekindles thoughts of his life before he became secluded in the schoolhouse in the desert.

In this room where he had been sleeping alone for a year, this presence bothered him.  But it bothered him also by imposing on him a sort of brotherhood he knew well but refused to accept in the present circumstances.  Men who share the same rooms, soldiers or prisoners, develop a strange alliance as if, having cast off their armor with their clothing, they fraternized every evening, over and above their differences, in the ancient community of dream and fatigue (Camus 254). 

But the schoolmaster is not able to sleep, unlike the Arab who finds solace in company.  After all, there are subtle hints in the narration that reveal Daru’s nonchalant demeanor toward the prisoner.  He doesn’t fulfill the role of a jailor in the same sense as Balducci from earlier in the story; rather, he is annoyed by the Arab and seeks to distance himself from the prisoner by remaining defiant against the orders issued to him.  The Arab knows his sense of purpose, even if that is to live in confinement as a prisoner.  Daru, however, is at odds with his new-found responsibilities, for he doesn’t recognize his obligations in the same way.  He motivates himself only in ways to be rid of his commitment to this prisoner. 

His final decision in the story is what releases him of his association to the prisoner, allowing him to return to the life he had before.  His thoughts are clear on his motivations for this decision, too, when it is made known:

That man’s stupid crime revolted him, but to hand him over was contrary to honor.  Merely thinking of it made him smart with humiliation.  And he cursed at one and the same time his own people who had sent him this Arab and the Arab too who had dared to kill and not managed to get away (Camus 255). 

Instead of delivering him personally to the “administration and the police”, to save his face from the statements he made to Balducci earlier in the story, he releases him — gives him food and money even — to turn himself in to the authorities for his crime.  Confused by this at first, the Arab reluctantly goes off into the distance and eventually disappears, the reader not knowing if his journey will be a liberating one.  Daru, however, is glad to be rid of the responsibility forced onto him and returns back to the school.  We find traces for his reluctance to leave made known to us earlier in the story:  “This is the way the region was, cruel to live in, even without men — who didn’t help matters either.  But Daru had been born here.  Everywhere else, he felt exiled” (Camus 248).  There are many reasons for his staying behind: his sense of honor keeps him from going to town to deliver his prisoner; his home being the only place where he feels at ease and himself; and his reluctance to give up his solitude.  As Cooper points out about the Existentialist, the only way to really exercise a true sense of freedom is to break away from the “‘Public’, the ‘herd’ or the ‘they'”, which will undeniably cause confrontation when he finds himself in contact with society again (33).  I think this is true of Camus’s protagonist, a character for whom we find taking extreme measures to remain in isolation, to remain distant and removed from society.  They are extreme in that his decision, his sense of honor even, goes against the moral reasons for the prisoner being in his custody to begin with.  This man committed a crime — he murdered his cousin — so to release him the way Daru does conflicts with society’s laws, but this is nothing he concerns himself with.  He takes these measures for the sake of remaining in his solitude.  In essence, he is a hermit, alone on his plateau.  He chooses to remain alienated and distant from everyone else, regardless of the consequences he may face for having done so.  The last line of the story ends with the very word that we can imagine is on his mind the whole time: alone.

It remains a relative question then as to whether a person can really be alone.  There may be a desire to distant one’s self from family or friends, much like Daru has done by taking up residence at the schoolhouse in the desert.  Society, though, will always be there and will always keep tabs on its constituents, much like the officer Balducci does, when he comes bearing orders for Daru.  This implies that Daru was thought about at some earlier point when the Arab prisoner was apprehended.  While Daru may have been alone in his schoolhouse, someone in town was thinking about him.  Why else would the officer take the prisoner up to him in the first place?  If nothing else, it serves as a good backdrop for a narrative, which Camus has made into an enjoyable story.  As to the question of whether someone can ever truly be alone, at least in my mind, it remains to be seen. 

Works Cited

 Camus, Albert. “The Guest” from Exile and the Kingdom (1957). eFictions. eds. Joseph Trimmer, C. Wade Jennings, and Annette Patterson. Boston: Thomson Learning, Inc., 2002. 247-256. Print. 

Cooper, David A. Existentialism: A Reconstruction. 2nd ed. Malden: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1999. Print.

 

Longing to read when books keep me from doing so…

Stack of booksBookstores are dangerous places for avid readers.  If you’re anyone like me, then you have a long list of books you’d like to read.  Compound this list with the new books you check out from the library or the books that arrive by mail from your late night online shopping spree, and your monster-of-a-list keeps growing.  I told myself at the start of the year that my resolution would be to read 10 books before I purchased anymore.  I tried, I really did, but I only read 8 books before I started purchasing the next to be lined up.  Like so many others, I face a dilemma.  My problem is not that life keeps me from finding the time to read; rather, my rate of consumption does not match the rate at which books accumulate on my shelves.  You see, I am a book addict.

Sure, I find myself working a lot more these days, now that I have to commute to my place of employment;  I also want to spend time with my family whenever I’m not working; I have to invest into the garden, too, since Spring is upon us; and I have to sleep from time to time.  This last one is usually forced on me, as I find myself rereading a lot of pages from the books I have started just before dozing off.  If only reading worked like osmosis.  But, these are not issues in the same way that other books are.

I always manage to find time to read.  One solution to compensate for life’s callings has been to listen to audio books.  I simply tune in to an audio book from the Overdrive Media Console while on my way to work.  This simple app allows me to download audio MP3 books from the library I check out books from, and I listen to them on my hourly commute to work.  It’s great because I get to read a book almost every week, depending on its length.

No, where the real problem lies is when I finish reading a physical book.  The decision on which to pick up and read first is almost always a daunting process. I can never decide on which book because I own so many.  Quite a few of the books I pick up with the intention to read get placed on hold for more immediate books that I have come into contact with, either from the free BargainBook box at the library or from what I buy at the various bookstores I frequent.  There’s a used book store I like to visit that almost always contains a gem-of-a-book whenever I shop there, which I always feel pressured, self-imposed no doubt, to read once I bring it home.

Some books are more engaging than others, though.  I usually read multiple books at any given time to compensate for those that require more attention.  I like to read short stories, so I’ll read a story here and there (one over a cup of coffee in the morning, perhaps).  I have several collections of essays that I enjoy reading through.  I have been reading The Oxford Book of Essays off and on for well over a year now, but I don’t feel pressured to read it in its entirety.  They’re essays, after all.  Then, there’s the book I read just before I go to bed.  This one takes the longest to work through for some reason.  I have my books I simply want to read to savor and enjoy; my poetry books that I like to read when time permits for such leisurely reading; my books I need to read for work; my books to help advance myself professionally; my books for the personal research I’m doing.  Looking at it like this, I think I need to focus my reading habits a bit more.

But then, there are books like this one.  I am very excited to start reading this one book, the book I ordered from Amazon before I finished my reading resolution for the year.  Umberto Eco’s The Book of Legendary Lands by Rizzoli exlibris publishing, 2013, finally arrived by post and what a beautiful book it is; so much so that I want to share some of its more enticing features with you:

The book cover is by Thomas Cole from The Voyage of Life: Childhood (1842) located in the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Eco book cover

The images throughout the book (shown below) are rendered in the most pristine quality, making their colors vibrant and an absolute pleasure to behold.

Eco page example

Here is another example of the beauty this book reveals.  This marvel of a work is from Gustave Dore The Celestial Rose (1867), out of The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, canto XXXI.

Eco page example 2This book will most certainly be a real treat, and I will likely move it up my reading list to start it right away.

I love books like this one by Eco, but they don’t help me make headway with those other books I’ve been collecting over the past couple of months.  No, these books, like so many others before them, will be placed on hold, so that my curiosity about legendary lands, places I’d often read about as a boy, may be sated.  Books like these only further my dilemma, but it is a dilemma I can learn to deal with.  I may be slow and methodical in the way I read, what with all of the other obligations keeping me from working through my reading list; I may also find myself curious about newer books that are being published (or older ones that were once forgotten), but I love to savor a good book, regardless of what life throws my way.  That, and I love to be surrounded by books, knowing full well that there will never be a dull moment in the near future.  After all, there’s always a good book to be read.

Review of “On Killing” by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman [Audio]

On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and SocietyThere’s something primal about the act of killing another animal. An instinct set deep within the psyche, killing an animal takes a considerable toll on a person who may not be hardened by experience to the act, as if one is ever prepared for such a thing. Not long ago, I came across a pigeon in our backyard that had been mauled by a cat, but had lived through the experience. I’d say I scared the cat away while it was playing with its prey; otherwise, I think the cat would’ve finished what it had started. So, here I was watching this bird. The pigeon could not fly, nor could it really walk; it simply flapped frantically on the ground, afraid of anything and everything that came within its line of vision. I fetched my neighbor who was in his driveway, and we watched it, contemplating what to do about the bird. We decided it best to put the poor animal down. He fetched his air-rifle, while I put on garden gloves and picked the injured bird up. I was mesmerized by the rapidity of this bird’s pulse, its rigid body anticipating the next move to come. I watched on, as my neighbor returned, aimed his rifle, looked at me to see if I was ready and pulled the trigger. I have never felt worse about a single moment like the killing of that bird. I was miserable the whole day, as I tried to rationalize what my neighbor and I did to the bird. It was in pain, for sure. The cat did a number on its wing, almost severing it from its body, and the bird’s eye had been clawed. The cat was toying with its food; I didn’t cause this, yet I couldn’t help but wonder about what I had done that afternoon. Was I wrong for having put the bird out of the misery it had endured from the cat that ravaged its body?

I hunted when I was younger. Born and raised in a small rural community in the Midwest, I have known from an early age what it is like to shot guns for recreation and survival. Like my father taught us, a deer tag in one season was lucrative for us, as it beat the prices for the meat we would pay to buy beef from the local butcher, had we not hunt for ourselves. A deer tag meant filling the freezer with venison that would last the whole winter, and that alone saved my family a lot of money to be spent on other things. Hunting literally fed the family for us. It wasn’t a sport done to collect trophies; my father made sure that I understood that. This was where meat came from. This was his life lesson parted onto me. So, why did I feel remorse for this pigeon?

I vividly remember the pace of the bird’s pulse, even to this very moment as I type out these words, and that was what affected me the most. Quite literally, I felt the life of this bird fade away. I watched the glean of its eyes vanish into lifelessness, and the experience touched a nerve. It was the closest moment I have ever had with death. It was physical, and I felt it. I don’t feel ashamed for having ended this bird’s suffering. The cat would have killed it, had I not interrupted its playful banter. I recall feeling after the shot, though, that this animal deserved every right to live and breath as the next animal, as myself, and I played a part in taking that right away, albeit for what my neighbor and I rationalized to be a good cause — to end its suffering. Nevertheless, it bothered me, because living is a powerful thing, a thing we can easily take for granted, getting caught up in our daily affairs. Working to earn money to buy things and goods to make our lives easier, to occupy our time:  all of these seem only as mere distractions from what really matters — to simply live for the sake of living.

Understanding the Act

For this reason, the book On Killing by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, published by Back Bay Books in 2003 (first published in 1995), is an instrumental lesson on the psychological costs of killing another animal, moreover another human being. This one-of-a-kind book, a study about killing, written from the expertise of a trained psychologist and U.S. Army Ranger, reveals several narratives from veterans who were forced into situations in Vietnam and other conflicts that have left them struggling to come to terms with their deeds ever since. Not only does the book seek to expose the effects that militaristic and behavioral conditioning have played on soldiers as they trained to become something their conscience would not willingly allow them to become, it also recognizes how killing became more efficient as a result of psychological conditioning, where soldiers often didn’t even realize it was happening, thus overstepping the moral dilemmas that often set in.  As combat situations have escalated throughout the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries, so too have the reparations for becoming more effective in killing taken a major toll on veterans in such conflicts, more-so than veterans from wars like World War II and Korea. The author argues that military conditioning comes with a price; the more hardened the soldier is made to killing, the more likely they are to suffer for their deeds later in life.

In On Killing, Grossman tells us that the military has made their rate of fire against enemies more accurate and efficient, upwards to a 93 percent kill-ratio, in comparison to times before when posturing, or firing over the enemies’ heads to scare them away, was more typical of the battlefield. Each modern battlefield became more proficient, as behavioral studies revealed more ways to refine, reward and hone conditional aspects to learning. Killing becomes muscle-memory to a soldier who repeatedly drills the process of shooting human-shaped targets over and over again on a range. But, this is an important point in his book. This military training is controlled, highly regulated and with severe consequences to anyone who breaks the rules of engagement. This reward/punishment system, he argues, is what keeps veterans who learned to kill and who may have had to kill in a time of conflict from doing so outside of the line of duty. The same principles can be found in law enforcement.  The responsibility to keep these trained skills at bay is a testament to this type of positive and negative reinforcement.

The premise of the book is welcoming, as it seeks to explain that killing and death are integral to life, a natural part of it, and our understanding of this back in the ol’ days was all the better for it. While reproduction and sexual relations, all of which pertain to creating life, have been studied extensively for several decades, this book’s author argues that death is seen moreso as a taboo subject, one that is often coveted in ritual, a process not openly discussed. Therefore, it is a subject that scholars have yet to fully recognize and understand. It is important to remember the olden ways of living, he argues, where families were readily open to slaughtering their own livestock, teaching and instilling the lesson of respect through the ritual of the slaughter, while showing children where their food came from. Now, we hide the process of the slaughter behind the façade of super markets, shopping centers that shrink wrap slabs of meat within little Styrofoam trays, neatly trimmed and blood-free. The process has been taken out of our daily lives, and no one is made to feel uncomfortable or squeamish by the acting of killing another living thing. This comes with a price.

Dealing with the Consequences

Grossman warns the reader that by recognizing the act of killing as a shameful process, a taboo to be avoided, we are thus instilling and harboring a morbid fascination for it. As Hollywood and the video game industry produce violent media outlets that encourage and reinforce in similar ways what the military has taught its soldiers, young people look on with a deep sense of intrigue, innately recognizing the power that comes with taking a life. Going to the movies to see desensitizing violence on the big-screen only reinforces the act. Here, we bring our families with us, buy popcorn and candies, and laugh or cringe often at the folly of the weak protagonists who allow themselves to be victimized. The sensation for more extreme and brutal violence is only made worse, building on what previous films had done in order to heighten the experience. Compounded by this association with our loved ones being near watching with us, violence on the big screen emboldens us, makes us crave the rush that comes from the horror of it all.  While the soldier on the range learning to shot targets that appear human in form is conditioned through discipline and punishment, no one reprimands us for cheering as a head is severed from the body of an evil-doer on the big screen.

The interactive nature of video games is much worse. Most people screen what their children see at the movies, with enforced rating systems in place to keep inappropriate content away from impressionable minds. The accessibility to video games, however, remains an issue. While most retailers only sell age-appropriate games to children, there are still parents who buy the latest games, not knowing that those games are violent and aggressive in nature. I remember watching a woman buy God of War III for her son, no more than 10 years old, in the checkout line in front of me once while at the store. If you know anything about this game, you would have had the same reaction I did at the moment, watching this unsuspecting mother buy this game for her boy and his friend. They were giggling with excitement about playing it when they got home. Games like these reinforce acts of violence through achievements — the more head shots in a first-person-shooter, for example, the more prestige. Combine this principle with leadership boards linked to social-networking websites, and the behavior is further reinforced. Grossman goes on to cite some very fascinating studies about the impact incarceration has on keeping extreme violence at bay, the prison system serving as a deterrent to some degree, much in the same way the military instills discipline in its own soldiers. But, this is a problem of considerable degree, not a solution to it. The point should be to keep people out of prison, not placing them there for having committed an act of violence to begin with.

I feel this is an important book, because it reveals what the psychological consequences of killing are. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder is a major theme throughout the book, and it describes many situations from the perspective of interviewed veterans who suffer from PTSD, offering insight into a disorder and its severe consequences over a person’s psyche. The problems addressed in this book are very real, and Grossman handles the topic maturely, even engaging the families of people who know someone who’s been placed in a position to kill. Returning soldiers from Iraq or Afghanistan often faced such situations, and this book is devoted to helping family members and spouses understand and attempt to relate to what their soldiers went through when faced against their enemy. Taking a life, regardless of whether it is a pigeon or a human being, is a serious matter and should be regarded and taught as such, not as some estranged act that we should downgrade and shun. By doing so, we only enlarge the gap to understanding what killing does to a person, the consequences of which our society would do well to acknowledge, to help with understanding the repercussions for such acts. This book is well worth the time.