Thoughts: Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

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. 

Thoughts: The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

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. 

Thoughts on Dune by Frank Herbert

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.

2021 Themed Reading: World Religions

As you might know, every year I try to read a substantial number of works from within a particular genre, category, or what have you. This year, for example, I focused a lot of my attention on Southeast Asian literature and on poetry (often a combination of those two). Next year, I will be focusing on world religions. I have chosen 6 texts in particular that I plan to explore, and I would love to invite you all to join me in a read-along for one or more, or all, of them, as your interest and schedule dictate. 

The books:

  1. JANUARY: TAO TE CHING: This Chinese text is known as “the original book of mindfulness.” What better way to begin a new year than to focus on being mindful and present? The Tao Te Ching dates back to the 6th-Century BC and is purportedly written by a sage named Laozi, though this is debated. The oldest dated portion, however, does indeed date back as far as the 4th century BC. The Tao is one of the fundamental texts of Taoism, which is both a religious and philosophical practice that focuses on “The Way,” or the essential process of the universe (and our individual place in it.) Taoism influenced Legalism, Confucianism, and Buddhism, so it seems an added bonus to start here, since the second text of the year will be a collection of Buddhist Scriptures. I will be reading Stephen Mitchell’s translation, New English Version, published by Harper Perennial. ISBN: 9780061142666.
  2. FEBRUARY-APRIL: BUDDHIST SCRIPTURES: Buddhism has no central text comparable to the Bible or Koran; however, there is a body of scripture from across Asia that encompasses the dharma, or the teachings of the Buddha. These teachings range from original works in Sanskrit, Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, Pali, and more. Often, they describe elements of the Buddha’s supposed origin story or of his past lives, including explorations on the qualities or qualifications of the bodhisattva, or person who attains enlightenment, including, for example Buddhist monks. Enlightenment itself is also a subject of the scriptures. The edition I’ve chosen is the Penguin Classics, edited by Donald S. Lopez. It covers all these topics through historical and geographical lenses. ISBN: 9780140447583.
  3. MAY: THE HOLY VEDAS: According to Pandit Satyakam Vidyalankar, “The four Vedas contain the divine, infallible knowledge revealed to those primal men whose soul was specially illuminated to by the grace of god to receive and impart humanity the words of almighty god.” The Vedas of Hinduism are the sacred heritage of India. In this book an attempt has been made to bring together representative hymns which encompass all the aspects enshrined in the Vedas. The author has tried to retain the spirit of the original Sanskrit mantras in English renderings and to impart some of the holy ambience of these sacred texts which are the fountainhead of Hindu philosophy and culture.” I am using the illustrated, versified edition from Clarion books, which I recognize is not directly translated and which, apparently, intermixes the four Vedas for the benefit of western audiences. It seems a good place to start. ISBN: 9788193935590.
  4. JUNE-AUGUST: THE TALMUD: One of the most significant religious texts in the world, The Talmud is a compilation of the teachings of major Jewish scholars from the classic period of rabbinic Judaism. In a range of styles, including commentary, parables, proverbs, and anecdotes, it provides guidance on all aspects of everyday life. The edition I have chosen is another from Penguin Classics (because I trust them.) According to the description, this is a selection of the Talmud’s most illuminating passages. It is intended to make centuries of Jewish thought accessible to modern (western) readers. Particularly helpful, I think, will be the introduction that includes information about The Talmud’s arrangement, social and historical background, reception, and authors. ISBN: 9780141441788.
  5. SEPTEMBER: RELIGION FOR ATHEISTS: What if religions are neither all true or all nonsense? The debate between fundamentalist believers and non-believers is the starting point for de Botton’s book Religion for Atheists: a Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion. The quest begins with the premise that supernatural claims of religion are false – and yet that religions still have some very important things to teach the secular world. Religion for Atheists suggests that rather than mocking religions, agnostics and atheists should instead steal from them – because they’re packed with good ideas on how we might live and arrange our societies. The major topics range from building a sense of community without a church, to the spirituality of travel, to finding purpose in art, architecture, and music. The edition I’m using is published by Vintage. ISBN: 9780307476821.
  6. OCTOBER-DECEMBER: THE QUR’AN: The final text of the year will be the foundational text of Islam and the one most important to the Muslim world, The Qur’an. I’ve chosen the Oxford World’s Classics latest edition, translated by M. A. S. Abdel Haleem, as it comes with high recommendations for its accuracy and ease of reading. In this edition, for example, dialogue addressed to the Prophet is identified to aid western readers, paragraphing and punctuation have been included, and verses are marked for reference but in superscript, which allows for uninterrupted reading. This edition’s introduction also provides a history of the Qur’an, including its important features, to aid understanding. ISBN: 9780199535958.

As you can see, three texts are scheduled in single-months, while the other three are scheduled over three months. This is because, upon examination (and in simple page length), three of them are rather short and seem to require much less time, while the other three are longer and more complex. I wanted to be sure to give myself (and anyone joining me) enough time to spend with those more complicated texts. I’ll likely be doing some secondary source reading as well, to help me understand what I’m reading, just as I’ve done when reading the Christian bible, for example. 

I’m very much looking forward to reading these important voices across disparate religions and non-religions alike. I’m going to do my best to treat each text fairly and delicately, and to avoid any offense as I communicate my thoughts about them. That said, I should also explain that I’ll be reading these texts as literature and philosophy rather than taking any religious perspective on/from them.

As to the reading itself, I have no plan, yet, to compare and contrast them, but instead think I’ll take each of them at a time and see what happens as I go along. Who knows, by mid-year I might start synthesizing as my reading, and the ideas borne of it, progresses. 

Care to join me? 

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

To begin, I’m not much a fan of Henry James’s writing. He’s verbose, long-winded, and indulgent in a way that irks me. This is not especially unusual in Victorian fiction, to be fair. I often have to remind my students, when we’re reading classic literature, that, well, this was the entertainment of the day.

Verisimilitude and detail and heightened realism were not just expected in the form, but desired, because quite frankly there wasn’t much else for most people to do; certainly there might have been concerts or opera, but even those were reserved primarily for the wealthy or for special occasions, not the way we might put on a movie or pop in a video game (or I suppose, “stream” a movie and “download” a video game is more appropriate, now). So, in a world with very little competition for entertainment and past-time, novels had little competition and could be–maybe even should be–as full an experience as possible. But, honestly, just look at this opening line:

“The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as on Christmas Eve in an old house a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to note it as the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child.” 

I’m exhausted already! 

Still, Henry James has always just rubbed me the wrong way. As one of American literatures giants, and a closeted homosexual one at that, I know I should be championing him, but alas, if I never read him again, I won’t cry over it. (But of course I’ll read him again.) That said, while I didn’t exactly enjoy The Turn of the Screw, even finding I had to force myself through it at times, which is odd for me in general, especially with such a short work, there are some reasons to appreciate it. 

In the first place, the novel is billed as a ghost story, but it’s really a much more complex plot than that, littered with complicated themes about sexuality and perhaps abuse. The ghosts in this novel are, I think, either psychological remnants of a particular kind of hell that little Miles suffered, or they are projections of Miles and the Governess’s own sexualities, what at the time would have been classified as deviancy. In this way, the book is far superior to this year’s Netflix adaptation, which followed the enormously successful adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House

Where Netflix got it absolutely right with Jackson was in keeping true to the general tone and atmosphere of the original work, even while modernizing the story. At the height of Hill House are issues of gender, sexuality, and mental health. Those same themes are at the heart of the Netflix adaptation; so while the adaptation is a “loose” one, sharing some character names and relationships, for example, but otherwise straying from the original plot, the general feeling of it is spot on: Eerie, confusing, beautiful. The adaptation for Haunting of Bly Manor attempts to do the same, but where they update the story, they fail spectacularly. Rather than eliminating the purely supernatural antagonist (as Hill House does), they take what is actually not supernatural in the book, and add it to the film adaptation. This leaves out the true horror of the original text, the confusion at its core, and makes for a weaker interpretation. It’s a lazy bogeyman that the story simply didn’t need. 

So, I suppose that it’s a good thing I read the book just prior to watching the Netflix adaptation, because the adaptation makes me appreciate the original work much more than I would have. The main issue this short novel deals with–homosexuality (and perhaps a bit of feminism dashed in)–is an incredibly daring one at the time. I’m not sure how many readers would have grasped what James was getting at, though certainly early reviewers made it clear that they knew exactly what the subject was, and they were horrified by it. “In proper society…” blah blah blah. In that case, maybe this is a classic horror novel, and a damn good one at that. After all, it certainly jarred its original audiences. For contemporary readers, it might fall just a bit flatter, but the main questions, and especially the last few pages, are stupendous. 

Confession time? I read this little book more than a month ago, and here I am now, still thinking of it and sitting to write about it. If that’s not the sign of something, I don’t know what is. “No, no—there are depths, depths! The more I go over it, the more I see in it, and the more I see in it, the more I fear. I don’t know what I don’t see—what I don’t fear!”

Notable Quotes

“He had broken a thickness of ice, the formation of many a winter; had had his reasons for a long silence.” 

“Of course I was under the spell, and the wonderful part is that, even at the time, I perfectly knew I was. But I gave myself up to it; it was an antidote to any pain, and I had more pains than one.”

“The summer had turned, the summer had gone; the autumn had dropped upon Bly and had blown out half our lights. The place, with its gray sky and withered garlands, its bared spaces and scattered dead leaves, was like a theater after the performance–all strewn with crumpled playbills.”

“I call it relief, though it was only the relief that a snap brings to a strain or the burst of a thunderstorm to a day of suffocation. It was at least change, and it came with a rush.”

“I seemed to float not into clearness, but into a darker obscure, and within a minute there had come to me out of my very pity the appalling alarm of his perhaps being innocent. It was for the instant confounding and bottomless, for if he were innocent, what then on earth was I?”

 

 

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