Happy New Year!
You may remember from my post in December that, this year, my themed reading is World Religions. The first text is Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching, A New English Version published by Harper Perennial. The Tao Te Ching is a central text to Taoism (Daoism), but as a secular Buddhist, I’m very much looking forward to beginning the new year with this seminal text from Lao-tzu.
Known as The Book of the Way, the Tao Te Ching (pronounced Dow Deh Jing) is a selection of short verses that are meant to offer balance and perspective. Its primary goal is to help readers and practitioners “to work for the good,” with skill that becomes effortless when one becomes in sync with the Tao, or the basic principle of the universe. Is there a better way to begin a new year than in pursuit of a “serene and generous spirit”? I certainly can’t think of one.
Not much is known about Lao-tzu, though some believe he was a contemporary of Confucius (551-479 B.C.E.). He left little information about himself, his life, or even his work, though some believe he may have served as an archivist. Others imagine he was a hermit, but if this was true, he was a hermit deeply concerned with humanity and society, or at least the welfare of others. What is most important, I suppose, is this text of ancient Chinese wisdom, which is really human wisdom, that he left behind for the benefit of individuals and of all mankind.
My edition of the Tao Te Ching contains 81 short verses. Since there are 30 days in January, that comes out to about 2.5 verses per day. Here’s a general plan for reading that I hope to follow, and I offer it to any who might be interested in joining me this month.
P.S. Don’t get scared by the number of chapters. Each “chapter” in the book is less than one page long.
This year sucked in most ways, let’s be real. But one area of my life that was decidedly un-sucky was my reading. I had a goal of reading only a dozen or so books, because I knew how busy my schedule was going to be this year. Then, wouldn’t you know it, a pandemic struck and reading became not just more possible, but so very, very necessary. So, here’s what happened in my year of reading:
In Of Love and Other Demons, Marquez, or the narrator at least, seems generally critical of faith and religion. It is interesting that the most faithful (or faith-filled?) character in the novel is the atheist doctor. Late in the novel, when Delaura asks Abernuncio why the doctor is so kind to him, particularly given how critical the church is of atheists and of learned men (Abernuncio having a library of “forbidden” texts), the doctor responds, “because we atheists cannot live without clerics” (121). The retort might come across as flippant, except that Abernuncio soon explains that he cannot articulate his own beliefs and that his primary concern is for his patients, and whatever it is that they need in order to heal and be well. For his part, that’s treating them with science and medicine. But he also seems to understand that many of his patients require faith of some kind, too.
Perhaps Marquez is suggesting that faith and religion are characterized by the beholder. They are useful tools, but they are also damning ones. Faith and religion can be oppressive, even violent, as we see in this story’s treatment of characters who do not share the Christian faith; but they can also be forces that drive characters toward positive change, as might be the case for the Marquis, who couldn’t quite give up his faith, though he tried. A writing professor once told us, “themes usually grow out of the material in an organic manner.” That couldn’t be more true of how the thematic conversation over faith, religion, and science/medicine are treated in Marquez’s narrative. Each of the main characters begins and ends in a different place as regarding their original stance on faith, with the exception of the the Bishop, whose inability to change is, I think, repudiated by the way the narrator describes the Bishop’s performance during the exorcism. It is he who comes across as devilish.
If there is a battle between good and evil in Of Love and Other Demons, it might be organized Christian religion versus native/pagan religions. Sierva Maria seems to be the central character around which everyone else revolves. We learn most about the characters in the story, and their goodness or lack thereof, by how they treat Sierva Maria. For example, her father the Marquis, for all his faults, does what he needs to do in order to get her help. In this way, despite his lack of agency and weakness of character, he can be seen as heroic. So, too, Cayetano Delarua, who is the character who changes the most over the course of the story. His relationship with Sierva Maria causes him to question the Bishop, if not his own faith. He still repents when he thinks he has done wrong, but he doesn’t take the Bishop’s commands on instinct anymore. Bernarda, who does have a soft moment late in the narrative during her reunion with the Marquis nevertheless seems to end her life unchanged. We see this when Delaura comes to their home for help and she rebuffs him almost on impulse. Despite gaining some insight and understanding into her late in the story, which does create some empathy, she is ultimately unredeemed. Last is the Abbess, who is committed to viewing Sierva Maria as a demon and to treating her that way. Contrast this with the other inmate, who cares for Sierva as the child she is, and we find a clear distinction between the goodness of the common person and the drive toward inhumanity by those who represent the larger “Church.” The good, then, seems to be the simple human who is capable of changing based on exposure to new information; the evil, then, is religious dogma and those who adhere to it, who refuse to reassess a situation that they’ve already prejudged.
I am not sure the book is making a final judgement about the quest for love or what it will absolutely do; instead, I think it suggests that each of these–transformation, annihilation, insanity–is a possibility. Perhaps more importantly, though, is that the act of love is a catalyst for change. That change could be positive, negative, or neutral. It might depend on the motivations behind these acts. For example, the Bishop and the Abbess would call their actions “loving,” because in Christian terms, and in viewing Sierva as the do, they believe they are loving her by expelling her (non-existent) demons and saving her soul from damnation. Abernuncio’s actions as a doctor and his willingness to trust Delaura and invite him into his home, thereby exposing himself to severe punishment because of the illicit library he keeps, is another act of love, as are his attempts to care for his community. Can we judge the loving actions of these diverse perspectives the same way? None of these characters is transformed by their acts of love, but Delaura is. Delaura is perhaps the only one who changes in any significant way, and it is by exposure to acts of love from all sides, the religious, the pagan, the lover/protected, the citizen father. When he is reciting poetry with Sierva Maria, he says, “I reach my end, for artless I surrendered to one who is my undoing and my end” (126). He does not lament this surrender, though he does call it artless. I think it’s significant that the “undoing” and the “end” referred to here are not just his turning away from the Bishop and the Church, but ultimately his literal end, and Sierva’s too. Death is a kind of annihilation, but it’s important to note that his transformation happened first. He died being the kind of man, the loving person, that was otherwise absent from Sierva Maria’s life, except for the Black servants who cared for her as a child and taught her their ways, when no one else would teach her at all.
This one is a hefty little novel, tackling religion, science, slavery, power, atheism, race, and class.
Here’s a little horror novel that was nothing like what I expected. It is at the same time a contemporary psychological thriller with horror elements and a treatise on some of what I think are foundational, critical elements of Native American ideology. At its heart are themes of fear and retribution, and the deep connection between man and nature. Native American writer Tommy Orange remarked that The Only Good Indians was “more than [he] could have asked for in a novel,” and I couldn’t agree more; this is not just a novel, it is philosophy-as-raw-nerve.
I first heard of this one from young adult writer Andrew Smith, who raved about it early in the summer, back when the book was first released. He also recently cited it as one of his favorite reads of 2020. I read a lot of what Smith recommends because he’s one of my favorite writers, so it makes sense that I can trust his recommendations. Like Andrew, I was caught off guard by this one. At first, I was disappointed that it didn’t read like a traditional American horror novel, a la King, Koontz, etc. I think what The Only Good Indians does so well, though, is that it carves into the genre from a unique perspective and with unheard stories to deliver. It is similar to another horror novel released to wide acclaim this year, Mexican Gothic (my review of which will be available soon) in that the heart of its tale is not horror for horror’s sake, but the specific horror manifested by a particular culture, time, and place. These are stories that couldn’t be told by anyone else and, if they were, they’d lose the importance and the charm they carry across so effectively.
The story itself revolves around a group of friends who commit an atrocity against nature and tradition. Years later, on the anniversary of this terror, they suddenly find themselves prey to an unnatural and insurmountable force that has come to seek retribution for what was done. Some of the friends are eliminated quite quickly, while others are teased and toyed with, and then eliminated. There’s a deep discomfort in the way they are hunted that is metaphorically indicative of the terror that human hunters bring to their own prey. I thought Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” was the best rendered version of this tale imaginable, with the likes of The Hunger Games and Battle Royale coming in close, but Stephen Graham Jones really turns this theme on its head. Never have I felt truly vulnerable as a human being, the way animals must feel when we come for them, and their children.
I will admit that I found the structure of the story a bit underwhelming. The parts develop into more and more complexity, with additional characters added into each of the friends’ storyline, and then in the final section, the original happenings, those that were the impetus for the friends’ downfalls, is recounted. I couldn’t help but find myself wishing for a more linear and balanced segmentation; but that said, the ingenuity, the raw emotion, and the cultural significance of this one are impossible to ignore. For fans of horror, Native American folklore, ecoterrorism and conservation, or any combination of those.
In my life, I think I have only read a couple dozen science-fiction novels. I look back at my science-fiction categories here on the blog and notice that, in retrospect, I’m not sure I’d even still label some of them as sci-fi at all! So, let’s say I can count my experience with this genre on my two little hands. What made me pick up the likes of Dune, then, you ask? What a great question!
The truth is: Timothée Chalamet.
Look, I’m a little obsessed with him. He’s a stellar actor who picks amazing projects. Lady Bird. Beautiful Boy. Little Women. The King. And of course, Call Me By Your Name. I won’t hide my heart-filled eyes or deny that the reason I finally picked up Herbert’s Dune, after allowing it to sit for decades on my TBR shelf, is because the film was supposed to release this winter, and Chalamet is cast as the hero, Paul Atreides–the Muad’Dib. After seeing the first trailer, I rushed to my bookshelf and got to work, and what a great decision!
For anyone as woefully out of the loop as I was, Frank Herbert’s Dune is considered to be one of the canonical works of the science-fiction genre, if not its bible. In many ways, it reminds me of what Lord of the Rings did for the fantasy genre. Herbert creates an entire world, well, multiple worlds, with its own languages, cultures, geographies, politics, histories, and all the rest. While it does not go into as much detail or description as the Tolkien books do (who could!?), it nevertheless successfully immerses its readers in an entirely different and yet relatable story, a kind of alternate and futuristic timeline that has as its ancient roots the planet earth and Christianity.
It is great fun to see how these evolved earthlings plus other humanoid species are imagined singularly and in cooperation with one another. The classic palace intrigues, the intricate politics, the subtle espionage. Nothing that one would expect from the study of a race and time, a history of a people, is missing. It just so happens that this history is from the future. A boy foretold, much like Jesus Christ, is born and comes of age on a dry and desolate planet. That boy, Paul, becomes the political leader Muad’Dib and the spiritual force Kwisatz Haderach. He is the one who will bring order to the system, who will end a corrupt reign and liberate a people.
If the pure fun of the tale isn’t enough, Dune is also littered sublimely with philosophical wisdom on the self, the environment, and the spirit.
“Fear is the mind killer,” Herbert writes, and he couldn’t be more right. The film has sadly been postponed, but I can’t wait to see it.
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