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Symbolism in “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway

“It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It’s not really an operation at all.”

“You’ve got to realize,” he said, “that I don’t want you to do it if you don’t want to. I’m perfectly willing to go through with it if it means anything to you.”

Over the years, I’ve read Hemingway’s classic short story several times, each time in awe of how he masterfully uses conversation to drive the narrative. The subtlety of the text allows the man and woman to dance around the topic of abortion, without ever mentioning the proverbial elephant in the room.

For years, I have seen the hills like white elephants as a symbol for a pregnant woman’s body, while also representing that elephant in the room which the couple does not want to mention out loud. But recently, I realized there is a third level of symbolism that I had not been aware of.

During the past holiday season, I went to a holiday gathering that has a white elephant gift exchange. This prompted me to wonder why these gift exchange events were named after white elephants. A quick online search provided the answer.

The term white elephant refers to an extravagant but ineffectual gift that cannot be easily disposed of, based on the legend of the King of Siam giving rare albino elephants to courtiers who had displeased him, so that they might be ruined by the animals’ upkeep costs. While the first use of this term remains a matter of contention among historians, one theory suggests that Ezra Cornell brought the term into the popular lexicon through his frequent social gatherings as early as 1828.

(Source: Wikipedia)

As soon as I read this, I immediately thought of Hemingway’s story. The pregnancy is a gift, albeit one that was not actually wanted and one that “cannot be easily disposed of.” Despite the talk of it just being a simple operation, it really was not that simple. In addition to the emotional and psychological considerations, the procedure was risky in 1927 when the story was written.

I love uncovering new layers of symbolism in literature. It is why I reread certain pieces, because each time I do, I bring more knowledge and life experience to the story. And who knows, maybe next time I read this masterpiece in short fiction, I will discover yet another layer of meaning.

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Monstress: Issue #13

It has been quite a while since the last publication in this series, which is acknowledged by the writer and artist.

It’s been a very long break. Maybe too long, but I hope you’ll agree that we used the time wisely to bring you another arc filled with Sana’s extraordinary art, and a story that brings you deeper into Maika’s increasingly perilous quest.

Yes, it was worth the wait. The artwork is stunning and intricately beautiful, while the writing and storytelling are as impeccable as ever. I personally feel that women are doing the most creative work in this genre right now, and Marjorie and Sana exemplify the beauty and complexity that creative women are bringing to the world of graphic storytelling.

There are a couple short but powerful political quotes in this installment that I want to share.

In politics one must be supremely…flexible.

In seven words, this sums up the problem with our current political situation. There is no longer flexibility, and both sides of the political divide have become so polarized and hostile that nothing meaningful gets accomplished anymore. It has turned into an all or nothing game, where staunch opposition is considered a sign of strength. But Taoist thought tells us otherwise. Flexibility and the ability to move with the current instead of against it is a sign of true strength in a leader.

The people just want to feel safe…and believe their government is behind them.

If I had to try to identify the dominant paradigms in today’s society, I would have to say they are fear and a sense of insecurity. And while I believe that much of this fear and uncertainty is manufactured by the media with the intent of keeping people glued to the screen, the feeling is real and affects almost everyone to some extent. This is why people are turning to governments for safety and security, and why they are willing to sacrifice freedoms and humanitarian values in the vain attempt to allay their fear. Sadly, though, I suspect that they will find neither, and in the end will look back with regret on the choices they made.

Anyway, I’m glad that Monstress is back on the shelves. I look forward to the next issue.

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“Hayduke Lives!” by Edward Abbey

This book was difficult to find. I had been keeping an eye out for it for a while, since I am a fan of Edward Abbey and particularly enjoyed The Monkey Wrench Gang, of which Hayduke Lives! is the sequel (published posthumously in 1990). I eventually found a copy at Blue Bicycle Books in Charleston, SC, a cool used and antiquarian bookstore. Anyway, I bought the book and finally got around to reading it.

While I do not think the book is as good as The Monkey Wrench Gang, nor as good as Desert Solitaire, it is decent and worth the read. Basically, the old gang from the first book teams up again to save the environment from the evil government-backed corporate interests seeking to destroy the pristine wilderness for the quick extraction of resources.

The first thing that struck me about this book is how little has changed in the 27 years since it was published. People still believe the lies that raping the environment will create jobs, and that jobs are more important than protecting the planet.

…”good folks of southern Utah and the Arizona Strip, listen to me. I’ll only take a minute, just like everybody else I’ll speak my little piece and let you go. [Crowd resumes seats.] Thank you. Now we heard a lot today, especially in the last ten minutes, from those good neighbors of ourn, Mr. and Mrs. Kathy Smith [laughter] about how dangerous this nuclear industry is. Uranium is poison, they say. Well I want to tell you folks something different: that uranium smells like money to me. [Cheers!] It smells like jobs to me. [More cheers!] Hundreds of jobs right here in Hardrock and Landfill County and and just across the line in northern Arizona. Hundreds? I mean thousands of jobs. [Thunderous applause!]

(p. 22)

Abbey appears to be very critical of the news media. At one point, one of the characters asserts that the only intelligent part of a newspaper is the Letters column.

When looking for wit, wisdom, knowledge or intelligence in a newspaper, any newspaper, your only hope is the Letters column.

(p. 99)

Sadly, though, this is no longer true. With the proliferation of social media and online commenting, comments and letters have sunk to a new low. People now use online commenting to spew vitriol based upon pre-established beliefs about biased news articles. It seems that every day it becomes more and more difficult to find thoughtful and unbiased information regarding world events. It’s kind of sad.

As the book progresses, Abbey paints a bleaker, misanthropic view of humanity. It appears that he acknowledges the good of individuals, but sees the whole of humanity as petty, mean-spirited, and just outright dangerous.

“People are no damn good,” agreed Seldom. “Take ‘em one at a time, they’re all right. Even families. But bunch ‘em up, herd ‘em together, get ‘em organized and well fed and branded and ear-notched and moving out, then they’re the meanest ugliest greediest stupidest dangerest breed of beast in the whole goldang solar system far as I know.”

(p. 228)

Without giving away the story or spoiling anything, I will say that the gang is seeking to stop a machine called GOLIATH, which is a giant earth mover used in strip mining. Symbolically, I see the machine as representing America as controlled by massive corporations, a mindless machine whose only purpose is to acquire and consume in an endless cycle until nothing is left. Abbey implies that it is only through radical action and anarchy that our country has any chance of defeating the leviathan of greed that dominates our world.

He waited, frowning into the gloom, looking two miles west at the glinting strobe light of the Super-G.E.M. He heard no roar of motors. GOLIATH had paused. Was down, waiting. Waiting for him, Hayduke, George Washington Hayduke, father of his country. Not the America that was – keep it like it was? – but the America that will be. That will be like it was. Forward to anarchy. Don’t tread on me. Death before dishonor. Live free or fucking die. Etc., etc.

(p. 274)

Edward Abbey’s earlier works inspired the Earth First! movement, so it was interesting to read Abbey’s commentaries on the movement which were woven into this book. In fact, Earth First! founder Dave Foreman makes a cameo character appearance in the text.

Abbey once stated that “If wilderness is outlawed, only outlaws can save wilderness.” Our planet is still in peril and there is a lot of work to be done on the environmental front. I encourage everyone to do their own small part.

If you want to learn a little more about Edward Abbey, here is a good article on Wilderness.net:

Edward Abbey: Freedom Begins Between the Ears

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Thoughts on “True Hallucinations” by Terence McKenna

This book has been on my shelf for a while. I picked it up years ago from a used bookstore called Reader’s Corner that was next door to where I worked at the time and is now closed (the sad fate of too many bookstores). I had heard of McKenna but had not read any of his work. Anyway, in my current quest to reduce the number of unread books straining my shelves, I decided to read this one.

Overall, I liked the book. It was certainly well written and the subject is fascinating for me. I am very interested in shamanism and consciousness, and McKenna explores these topics through the lens of psychotropic plants and mushrooms. My one criticism, though, is that he sometimes slips down the rabbit hole of truly bizarre ideas, but I suppose that is par for the course considering the subject matter. Anyway, for this post I will focus on the parts that I thought were interesting and gloss over the weirder stuff.

I have been fascinated by the metaphor of the jungle as a symbol for the subconscious and primordial mind. As McKenna recounts the arrival in the Amazon, he senses the jungle not just as a symbol of the subconscious, but as an actual manifestation of the deeper consciousness.

Everyone in our small expedition felt, I think, the sense of something opening around us, of the suspension of time, of turning and turning in a widening green world that was strangely and almost erotically alive, surrounding us for thousands of miles. The jungle as mind, the world hanging in space as mind—images of order and sentient organization came crowding in on all sides. How small we were, knowing little, yet fiercely proud of what we knew, and feeling ourselves somehow the representatives of humanity meeting something strange and Other, something at the edge of human experience since the very beginning.

(pp. 71 – 2)

Something that has always intrigued me is the ability of sound vibrations to alter consciousness, and hence alter reality. This is done through chants, incantations, and certain types of music (shamanic drumming, binaural beats, etc.). McKenna describes how they used sound vibrations to affect space and experience dimensional shifts.

Further experiments with the psycho-audible warp phenomenon yesterday raise some interesting new questions and enhance our ongoing understanding. I choose the term “audible warp” because my experience thus far, coupled with what I have been told, leads me to believe that this all has to do with vocally generating a specific kind of energy field which can rupture three dimensional space. I do not understand if the field is electromagnetic, but it seems to bend space in such a way as to turn it upon itself through a higher dimension.

(p. 81)

I firmly believe that, as a species, we have barely scratched the surface of consciousness and its power to mold reality. I can’t help but wonder if ancient civilizations had a deeper understanding of the potential of human consciousness. McKenna certainly shares these thoughts.

Perhaps the shamanic traditions of this planet are the keepers of an understanding that uses the human body/brain/mind as its vehicle, leaving the present state of the art, which our own “scientific method” has achieved, a very poor second. This is really an old idea—the siren song of Pythagoras—that the mind is more powerful than any imaginable particle accelerator, more sensitive than any radio receiver or the largest optical telescope, more complete in the grasp of information than any computer: that the human body—its organs, its voice, its power of locomotion, and its imagination—are a more-than-sufficient means for the exploration of any place, time, or energy level in the universe.

(pp. 84 – 5)

The rest of the book goes quite deep into the exploration of consciousness through altered states. There is a lot packed in to the just over 200 pages, and if this is a topic that interests you, it’s worth reading. But be forewarned—there are some very strange ideas put forth here, but if you have the fortitude to sift through it, you will discover some interesting ideas regarding the mind and its hidden potential.

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“Richard III” by William Shakespeare: Deformity and Evil

To really understand this play, you must have a basic understanding of the concept of the great chain of being.

For Medieval and Renaissance thinkers, humans occupied a unique position on the chain of being, straddling the world of spiritual beings and the world of physical creation. Humans were thought to possess divine powers such as reason, love, and imagination. Like angels, humans were spiritual beings, but unlike angels, human souls were “knotted” to a physical body. As such, they were subject to passions and physical sensations—pain, hunger, thirst, sexual desire—just like other animals lower on the chain of being. They also possessed the powers of reproduction unlike the minerals and rocks lowest on the chain of being. Humans had a particularly difficult position, balancing the divine and the animalistic parts of their nature. For instance, an angel is only capable of intellectual sin such as pride (as evidenced by Lucifer’s fall from heaven in Christian belief). Humans, however, were capable of both intellectual sin and physical sins such as lust and gluttony if they let their animal appetites overrule their divine reason.

(Source: Wikipedia)

To emphasize the importance of this concept, Shakespeare uses the word “knot” extensively throughout the text, symbolizing things from marriage to physical form. And just as Shakespeare and other Renaissance thinkers believed in the correspondence between the worldly and the divine realms, they also believed that the physical and the spiritual aspects of an individual were also knotted together.

Richard is a despicable character who seems to lack any redeeming qualities. He revels in his depravity and it is impossible to feel any sense of empathy for this person who is presented as the English equivalent of a Caligula. But what I find the most interesting is that Shakespeare establishes a clear connection between Richard’s physical deformities and his evil nature. In fact, during Richard’s opening soliloquy, the connection is immediately established.

But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other:
And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false and treacherous,
This day should Clarence closely be mew’d up,
About a prophecy, which says that ‘G’
Of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be.
Dive, thoughts, down to my soul: here
Clarence comes.

(Act I: scene i)

We can contrast this with a description of Edward, whose physical beauty reflects the nobler qualities of a human being.

Hath she forgot already that brave prince,
Edward, her lord, whom I, some three months since,
Stabb’d in my angry mood at Tewksbury?
A sweeter and a lovelier gentleman,
Framed in the prodigality of nature,
Young, valiant, wise, and, no doubt, right royal,
The spacious world cannot again afford
And will she yet debase her eyes on me,
That cropp’d the golden prime of this sweet prince,
And made her widow to a woeful bed?

(Act I: scene ii)

And again, Shakespeare reiterates that an individual’s face, or physical expression, is a direct reflection of what that person is like inside, and the thoughts and feelings that the person has within.

I think there’s never a man in Christendom
That can less hide his love or hate than he;
For by his face straight shall you know his heart.

(Act III: scene iv)

In our modern society, we want to tell ourselves that we do not judge others by their appearances, when in actuality, we still do. Studies have shown that individuals are considered more trustworthy if they have a nicer appearance. And there is the whole issue of judging blacks and people who look Arabic strictly upon how they look. We are not going to change this part of our collective being overnight, but we need to acknowledge this tendency and work toward changing it.

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“A Path with Heart” by Jack Kornfield

I recently attended a party at my friend Sonia’s house, and she had a copy of this book on her living room table. Since I am ever fascinated with books and which ones my friends are reading, I picked it up and scanned it quickly. I immediately realized that it was a book I needed to read, so on my next trip to the bookstore, I purchased a copy.

The book is essentially a how-to guide for meditators, offering practical suggestions for how to develop your practice and address certain challenges that may arise. In addition to being insightful and helpful, it is extremely well-written. Jack weaves in wonderful stories to elaborate upon his ideas, and does so in a style that is engaging and never dull.

There is a wealth of rich material in this book, and if you are interested in meditation, I encourage you to read it. But I would like to share a few passages that really resonated with me.

The first passage I would like to share concerns the pitfall of dramatic spiritual experiences.

The dazzling effect of lights and visions, the powerful releases of rapture and energy, all are a wonderful sign of the breakdown of the old and small structures of our being, body, and mind. However, they do not in themselves produce wisdom. Some people have had many of these experiences, yet learned very little. Even great openings of the heart, kundalini processes, and visions can turn into spiritual pride or become old memories. As with a near-death experience or a car accident, some people will change a great deal and others will return to old constricted habits shortly thereafter. Spiritual experiences in themselves do not count for much. What matters is that we integrate and learn from the process.

(p. 129)

I have had a fair amount of powerful and profound spiritual experiences, and I confess in my younger days they lured me into complacency, as well as down some less-than-wholesome paths. But it was all a learning process that brought me to the place I am today. I now try (yes, I only try) to practice humility as I progress along the path, and I am searching for ways to incorporate what I learn from my spiritual practice into my daily life. Because, really, all we have is this moment and we need to be the best we can be right here and right now.

These are extraordinary times for a spiritual seeker. Modern spiritual bookstores bulge with texts of Christian, Jewish, Sufi, and Hindu mystical practices.

(p. 157)

How true! And this does not even consider the wealth of digital texts available through online libraries. Rare texts that were once only available to academics and clergy are now readily available to those who seek the wisdom and insight. I have often pondered why I was fortunate enough to make it through the difficult stages of my life, especially when I saw many of my friends suffer an early demise. I can only assume that I was meant to be here, to explore the vast abundance of spiritual wisdom that is now a click or purchase away. It is certainly a great time to be alive, in spite of all the obvious social and environmental challenges that we face.

And with that, I would like to close with a quote that succinctly sums up the power of spiritual practice.

Spiritual practice is revolutionary. It allows us to step outside the limited view of personal identity, of culture, and of religion and experience more directly the great mystery of life, the great music of life.

(p. 325)

Yes, I believe that the next human revolution (or evolution) will be one of the spirit. Our species cannot survive unless we let go of our fear, our greed, and our hatred, and instead embrace and nurture that which we all share—the spark of the divine which exists within each and every one of us.

Thanks for taking the time to share my thoughts. I hope you found them inspiring.

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“Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders

My friend and bandmate, Terry, loaned this book to me. She said that I would really enjoy it. She was right.

The book is a work of historical fiction, with some mysticism woven in. It is about the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, who gets stuck in the space between death and rebirth. Having recently read the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which goes into a lot of detail about the bardo state, I was able to relate to this book on a deeper level.

The book is a quick read. It is essentially constructed of short snippets of text, some from historical sources and others fictionalized to reflect the consciousness of the characters. Stylistically, it works very well, and the inclusion of the historical references definitely added a level of verisimilitude to the work.

One of the things that I got out of this book was the affirming of the fact that every single person, every life, has an impact on the world. We may feel that our existence is insignificant; but that is not so. Throughout our lives, we have an influence on every other living being with whom we come in contact.

What I mean to say is, we had been considerable. Had been loved. Not lonely, not lost, not freakish, but wise, each in his or her own way. Our departures caused pain. Those who had loved us sat upon their beds, heads in hand; lowered their faces to tabletops, making animal noises. We had been loved, I say, and remembering us, even many years later, people would smile, briefly gladdened at the memory.

(p. 71)

One scene in the story I found particularly interesting and creative features a military officer stuck in the bardo and attempting to communicate with his wife in the form of a letter. His words express the emotions associated with being trapped in a dismal space, desperately longing to move on.

O my dear I have a foreboding. And feel I must not linger. In this place of great sadness. He who preserves and Loves us scarecly present. Since we must endeavor always to walk beside Him, I feel I must not linger. But am Confin’d, in Mind & Body, and unable, as if manacled, to leave at this time, dear Wife.

I must seek & seek: What is it that keeps me in this abismal Sad place?

(pp. 137 – 8)

The last passage I want to share is an excerpt from Abraham Lincoln’s consciousness, where he is contemplating the transitive nature of life, how we emerge from non-being into being, and maintain a state of constant change through our short sojourn in this life.

I was in error when I saw him as fixed and stable and thought I would have him forever. He was never fixed, nor stable, but always just a passing, temporary energy-burst. I had reason to know this. Had he not looked this way at birth, that way at four, another way at seven, been made entirely anew at nine? He had never stayed the same, even instant to instant.

He came out of nothingness, took form, was loved, was always bound to return to nothingness.

(p. 244)

As I think about this passage, I think about all the changes I have gone through in my life—some major and others so subtle they were barely noticeable. And I think of the changes I have seen in the people around me, and in the world as a whole. It is the single constant, and the one thing for which we can be certain. We will experience change throughout our entire lives. And when we reach the end, it will be yet another change and transition as we cross the threshold into the bardo.

Thanks for stopping by, and have a blessed day.

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