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“Between Dr. Watson and Lawrence of Arabia” by Umberto Eco

While they sit quietly in their apartment, Holmes suddenly says, “You are right, Watson, it does seem a very preposterous way of settling a dispute.”

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 203)

The quote is from another brilliant essay written by Umberto Eco and included in Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism. Eco is citing Sherlock Holmes, who deduced that Watson was thinking about how war is a foolish way to deal with a problem. And I agree.

Eco goes on to explain that the biggest problem with the way most countries wage war is that they rely on brute force, as opposed to studying and learning the culture of the opposing country and then addressing the conflict on a socio-anthropological level.

And don’t tell me that when a country is at war, there’s no time to listen to social anthropologists. Rome clashed with the Germanic tribes, but she needed Tacitus to help her understand them. When it comes to clashes between cultures, the conflict can be tackled not only by manufacturing cannons but also by financing scientific research, and this is something that the country that managed to get its hands on the best brains in physics—while Hitler was trying to send them to concentration camps—ought to know perfectly well.

(ibid: p. 206)

But there’s the rub. Too many Americans have a distrust of the intelligentsia, calling them “elitists” with venomous disdain.

The war in Iraq seems to be a conflict begun without consulting the universities, due to the American right’s ancestral mistrust of “eggheads” or, as Spiro Agnew called them, “effete snobs.”

(ibid: p. 208)

It’s been more than 15 years since Eco wrote this, and it feels like the issue that he described has only become more stark. I can only hope that these are the last death throes of a dying paradigm that is about to shift. It’s high time we began valuing intelligence instead of blindly worshipping might and power.

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Thoughts on “The Power” by Naomi Alderman

One great thing about being in a book club is getting to read books that would have otherwise not been on my radar. This is one such book. I don’t think I would ever have read it if it wasn’t the selection for this month.

The story is dark sci-fi, about a future world where women have physically evolved so that they are able to generate electrical energy within their bodies. This new power causes a paradigm shift where women become the dominant gender. But as we all know, power corrupts, and the women become abusive in the same way that men are abusive in a patriarchal society.

Social change almost always happens at a grassroots level.

“There is a scent of something in the air, a smell like rainfall after a long drought. First one person, then five, then five hundred, then villages, then cities, then states. Bud to bud and leaf to leaf. Something new is happening. The scale of the thing has increased.”

(p. 108)

A great metaphor for social change is the wave. Waves begin small, as ripples, like the beginnings of a grassroots movement. But then the wave grows until it becomes a powerful force, obliterating the old paradigm.

“It was like being part of a wave of water,” she says. “A wave of spray from the ocean feels powerful, but it is only there for a moment, the sun dries the puddles and the water is gone. The only wave that changes anything is the tsunami. You have to tear down the houses and destroy the land if you want to be sure no one will forget you.”

(p. 148)

Changing a power structure is never easy. Like an old tree, its roots and branches spread out and become entwined in society in ways that are not always obvious.

She sees it all in that instant, the shape of the tree of power. Root to tip, branching and re-branching. Of course, the old tree still stands. There is only one way, and that is to blast it entirely to pieces.

(p. 364)

And often, it is only when historians look back on events, can we get a perspective on how the power structure shifted and what events might have contributed to the shift.

When historians talk of this moment they talk about “tensions” and “global instability.” They posit the “resurgence of old structures” and the “inflexibility of existing belief patterns.” Power has her ways. She acts on people, and people act on her.

(p. 370)

This book makes me think about the power structures in the world today: political, social, economic, etc. As change seems to occur faster and faster in our high-tech world, I cannot help but wonder just how much longer our current hierarchies of power will last. Sometimes I feel that the tsunami is racing toward our shore. I suppose I can only wait and watch.

Thanks for stopping by.

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“Chronicles of the Late Empire” by Umberto Eco

This short essay is included in Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism. It’s an amazing book, and I have been slowly working my way through it, reading the occasional essay between my other literary indulgences.

In this piece, Eco looks at how Silvio Berlusconi, the former Prime Minister of Italy (who Eco jokingly calls the Great Communicator), created his own media scandal around his wife’s affair with another man. Essentially, Berlusconi disregarded the boundary that separates one’s personal life from the affairs of state, something that was en vogue in ancient Rome at the height of Roman decadence. He contrasts this to how Bill Clinton sought to keep his personal affairs separate from his affairs of state.

But the issue is of historiographic importance. Usually, politicians do their best to keep their domestic problems separate from matters of state. Clinton got caught with his underpants in his hands, but he glossed over the matter and even got his wife to rally around and say on television that it was an insignificant affair. Mussolini was what he was, but he worked out his problems with his wife within the four walls of his home, he didn’t discuss them before the crowds in Piazza Venezia. When he sent off a whole lot of men to die in Russia, it was in pursuit of his own dreams of glory, not to please his mistress Clara Petacci.

Where in history do we find such a fusion of political power and personal affairs? In the Roman Empire, where the emperor was the absolute master of the state. No longer controlled by the senate, he needed only the support of his praetorians, and so he could kick his mother, make his horse a senator, and force all those courtiers who didn’t appreciate his poetry to slit their wrists…

(Turning Back the Clock: pp. 196 – 7)

We are still living in a time when we assume that a leader’s personal life should be made public to validate whether that person is moral enough to serve the state. While I agree that crimes should not be ignored because a person is in a position of political power, that person’s spiritual beliefs, family life, sexuality, and so forth, should be their own business and not part of the media spectacle that we call politics these days.

Eco’s wit and brilliance is unique. While I’m sad that he is no longer with us, I’m glad he left such a volume of work for us to think over.

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Thoughts on “The Scripture of the Golden Eternity” by Jack Kerouac

As I was doing a clearing of some of my bookshelves, I came upon this small book hidden away between my larger tomes. It had been many years since I read this, and since I have been meditating daily for a few years now, I thought I should go back and read it again.

This book is a very short collection of “scriptures” that Kerouac penned regarding his explorations into Buddhism and shamanism. What is really cool about the text (in addition to the spiritual insights) is the glimpse it provides into the writer’s thoughts and practices that clearly influenced his work.

I figure I’ll share a few scriptures along with my thoughts on them.

Scripture 3

That sky, if it is anything other than an
illusion of my mortal mind I wouldnt have said
“that sky.” Thus I made that sky, I am the
golden eternity. I am Mortal Golden Eternity.

Everything that we perceive is nothing more than a construct of our minds. Basically, we create our individual and shared realities. That’s why everything that we sense must be considered illusion, because it is nothing more that our thoughts projected onto the canvas of the universe.

Scripture 12

God is not outside us but is just us, the
living and the dead, the never-lived and
never-died. That we should learn it only now, is
supreme reality, it was written a long time ago
in the archives of the universal mind, it is already
done, there’s no more to do.

Everything is not only connected; everything is one. There really is no separation. Separation is yet another illusion and construct of the mind. We only perceive ourselves as separate, and this perception is what leads to suffering.

Scripture 40

Meditate outdoors. The dark trees at night
are not really the dark trees at night, it’s
only the golden eternity.

First off, I love meditating while out in nature. It is just easier for me to connect with spirit. And there have been times when I experienced what Kerouac succinctly describes here: the melting away of the illusion of perception, where everything dissolves into oneness. That blissful moment where the lines of separation blur and, to quote Blake, “every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite.”

If you are at all interested in spirituality, or like the beat writers, then you should check this book out. It’s short enough to read in a sitting, but worth taking your time and pondering the wisdom within.

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Thoughts on “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho

I had always heard good things about this book, so when I saw it on sale at the bookstore, I grabbed a copy and moved it up to the top of the pile. I actually read most of it while traveling to California. On one of the flights, a woman next to me commented that this was her favorite book of all time. As Coelho would say, “It was an omen.”

The book is short, and a deceptively easy read. While it is not a difficult text, it is rich in imagery and spiritual insight. So my problem is, there is so much here, I’m not sure what to write about in a short blog post. I guess I’ll offer a couple examples that illustrate some of the central themes in the book.

Early in the story, the importance of dreams is established.

“You came so that you could learn about your dreams,” said the old woman. “And dreams are the language of God. When he speaks in our language, I can interpret what he has said. But when he speaks the language of the soul, it is only you who can understand. But, whichever it is, I’m going to charge you for the consultation.”

(p. 15)

If dreams are the language of God and the soul, then that is the way that the human psyche can communicate with the ineffable. Interpreting the messages that come in the form of dreams is always a challenge, because of the symbolic nature of the communication. But through contemplation and deep meditation, we can get a sense of what the dreams are trying to convey to us.

Another theme that stood out for me is how the divine is manifest in the material world.

“The wise men understood that this natural world is only an image and a copy of paradise. The existence of this world is simply a guarantee that there exists a world that is perfect. God created the world so that, through the visible objects, men could understand his spiritual teachings and the marvels of his wisdom. That’s what I mean by action.”

(p. 131)

When I am out in nature, that is the time I am most aware of the divine presence in the world. On my recent trip to California, as I stood among the redwoods and gazed at their magnificence, I was overcome with awe at the grandeur of God in nature. Even a blade of grass, when you slow down and look at it closely, you can see perfection and beauty within. For me, that is my strongest connection with the divine.

One of my favorite archetypal symbols is the quest, which is presented nicely in this book.

“Every second of the search is an encounter with God,” the boy told his heart. “When I have been truly searching for my treasure, every day has been luminous, because I’ve know that every hour was a part was a part of the dream that I would find it. When I have been truly searching for my treasure, I’ve discovered things along the way that I never would have seen had I not had the courage to try things that seemed impossible for a shepherd to achieve.”

(p. 135)

For me, this conveys the most important truth about a quest: It is not the achievement of a goal that is important, it is what you learn and experience along the way. The joy and wonder is in the journey, not in the acquisition.

This post truly only scratches the surface of this book. There are so many wonderful passages and ideas and insights to explore and contemplate. This book has earned its place beside The Prophet on my shelf, as one of those books that I will read again and again.

Thanks for stopping by, and if you have read this book, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Thoughts on “Strangers Drowning” by Larissa MacFarquhar

This is the latest book that I read for the book club to which I belong. It’s a look at people who dedicate themselves to doing the most good that they can possibly do, often sacrificing their own happiness and well-being, as well as that of their families, for the sake of assisting complete strangers. MacFarquhar refers to this type of people as do-gooders.

She begins the book with her definition of a do-gooder.

This book is about a human character who arouses conflicting emotions: the do-gooder. I don’t mean a part-time, normal do-gooder—someone who has a worthy job, or volunteers at a charity, and returns to an ordinary family life in the evenings. I mean a person who sets out to live as ethical a life as possible. I mean a person who’s drawn to moral goodness for its own sake. I mean someone who pushes himself to moral extremity, who commits himself wholly, beyond what seems reasonable. I mean the kind of do-gooder who makes people uneasy.

(p. 3)

So why would a person who wants only to do good in the world make others uncomfortable? That’s a legitimate question, which MacFarquhar also addresses early in the book.

One reason may be guilt: nobody likes to be reminded, even implicitly, of his own selfishness. Another is irritation: nobody likes to be told, even implicitly, how he should live his life, or be reproached for how he is living it. And nobody likes to be the recipient of charity. But that’s not the whole story.

(p. 6)

The rest of the book explores the personal stories of various altruistic do-gooders—their motivations, challenges, and so forth. They are all really interesting, and many are inspiring, but when MacFarquhar examined social workers, it hit a little close to home for me.

At first the social worker may become too emotionally involved with his clients, so that when they fail he suffers, both because they are unhappy and because their failure is his failure, too. It’s hard to spend his days confronting devastating problems that he cannot fix—the misery and helplessness rub off on him.

Gradually, he learns to be more detached. He realizes that he needs to be tough, and to develop a thick skin. But if he becomes too detached, he stops caring about his clients at all.

(p. 163)

Many years ago, when I decided to go to college in my late 20s as a non-traditional student, I intended to go into counseling. As I started taking my basic required classes, I also took on a part-time job as a mental health technician in the chemical dependency ward at a local hospital. I had a strong desire to help people, and the primary residents in this program were pregnant teenage girls addicted to crack cocaine, so there was no shortage of suffering individuals to whom I could offer help. But the turning point for me was when one young woman completed the 28-day program, was released, went to a crack house, and got shot in the stomach. Her baby died inside of her. I had gotten to know this person fairly well during her four weeks there, and I was devastated. The pain and sadness were so intense, I realized that I could not do this job with the level of detachment needed to be effective, and maintain my levels of compassion and empathy for others. I decided then and there that I would need to pursue a different career path.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. Not only is it thought provoking, it is very well written. It challenged me to look at how much I am doing for the overall good of the world, and how much more I could possibly do.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading challenging stuff.

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Monstress: Issue 20

Since yesterday was International Women’s Day, it seemed apropos to read the latest issue of Monstress this morning. I’ve been reading this comic since its inception, and it is one of my all-time favorite graphic stories. Written and illustrated by two women—Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda, respectively—the comic recently won an impressive five Eisner Awards, including Best Writer for Liu, the first time this award has gone to a woman.

I cannot sing the praises of this comic enough. The artwork is visually stunning, and the writing evocative and thought-provoking. If you are even slightly interested in the graphic novel genre, I highly recommend reading these books.

The cover artwork for this installment, and a couple quotes from the issue, should suffice to support my claims regarding the magnificence of this work.

“When two people are one in their innermost hearts, they shatter even the strength of iron. When two people ally with each other in their innermost hearts, their vows are stronger than poems.”

 

“Short-lived beings… and their inventions. I will never understand that desire… to defy and overcome… the limits of flesh. Such a primitive need for power.”

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