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Thoughts on “The Magicians” by Lev Grossman

I’ve had my eye on this trilogy for a while. Everyone I know who has read Grossman’s Magicians Trilogy has raved about it. I’m just always hesitant to commit to a trilogy. But at last, I bought the first book and read it, and I have to say that it certainly lived up to all the hype.

Basically, Grossman takes aspects from some of the best fantasy books and weaves together a tale that is unique, yet seems familiar. I had impressions of Harry Potter, Narnia, Game of Thrones, and Lord of the Rings. But there is also a modern edginess to the book, which works well in my opinion.

There is a lot that can be explored in this text—addiction, power, corruption, escapism—just to name a few. But since brevity is the soul of wit, I’m just going to focus this post on the topics of magic and the multiverse.

Early in the book, Quentin enters a school of magic, and one of the professors offers an interesting definition of magic.

“The study of magic is not a science, it is not an art, and it is not a religion. Magic is a craft. When we do magic, we do not wish and we do not pray. We rely upon our will and our knowledge and our skill to make a specific change to the world.”

(p. 48)

This definition resembles Aleister Crowley’s, which states that magick is “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.” And as Quentin continues his studies, he learns that the actual practice of magic is quite difficult, and is not something that comes easily, which is how magic is often depicted in books.

One thing had always confused Quentin about the magic he had read about in books: it never seemed especially hard to do. There were lots of furrowed brows and thick books and long white beards and whatnot, but when it came right down to it, you memorized the incantation—or you just read it off the page, if that was too much trouble—you collected the herbs, waved the wand, rubbed the lamp, mixed the potion, said the words—and just like that the forces of the beyond did your bidding. It was like making salad dressing or driving stick or assembling Ikea furniture—just another skill you could learn. It took some time and effort, but compared to doing calculus, say, or playing the oboe—well, there really was no comparison. Any idiot could do magic.

Quentin had been perversely relieved when he learned that there was more to it than that.

(pp. 148 – 149)

As a writer, I understand that words are just symbols intended to represent aspects of our reality. Which is why I was intrigued by a passage that asserts that magic somehow dissolves the boundaries that exist between language and reality, that it merges the symbol and that which the symbol represents into a single form.

“But somehow in the heat of magic that boundary between word and thing ruptures. It cracks, and the one flows back into the other, and the two melt together and fuse. Language gets tangled up with the world it describes.”

(pp. 216 – 217)

After graduating the school of magic, one of the young magicians, Penny, discovers a way to access parallel dimensions of reality, or what theoretical physics would call the multiverse. He terms this portal to the other dimensions the City (also Neitherlands), which seems like a type of matrix that allows one to pass from one reality to another. Penny goes on to explain to his friends what this means to our limited view of reality.

“The thing is, the more I study it, the more I think it’s exactly the opposite—that our world has much less substance than the City, and what we experience as reality is really just a footnote to what goes on there. An epiphenomenon.”

(p. 250)

Penny proposes exploring an alternate world (Fillory), which was described in a book that the other young magicians had all read. Quentin is reluctant, but Penny pushes the issue, stressing that the exploration of hidden dimensions is truly the greatest quest that humans can embark upon.

“So what?” Penny stood up. “So. What. So what if Fillory doesn’t work out? Which it will? So we end up somewhere else. It’s another world, Quentin. It’s a million other worlds. The Neitherlands are the place where the worlds meet! Who knows what other imaginary universes might turn out to be real? All of human literature could just be a user’s guide to the multiverse! Once I marked off a hundred squares straight in one direction and never saw the edge of this place. We could explore for the rest of our lives and never begin to map it all. This is it, Quentin! It’s the new frontier, the challenge of our generation and the next fifty generations after that!”

(p. 260)

As Hamlet so eloquently put it: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” I strongly suspect that there are multiple universes existing beyond our current scope of perception, and just maybe, ancient mystical arts once provided glimpses of these hidden realms. It certainly warrants further exploration. If we dismiss ideas and potential knowledge because they conflict with our present paradigms, we are doing so at our own risk.

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Thoughts on “Burmese Days” by George Orwell

This book has been sitting on my shelf for years, waiting to be read. A friend of mine, Dave, gave it to me before he moved. Every time I would see it nestled among the other books, I would think “Oh, I should read that,” but then got sucked into another book. But finally, I got around to it.

Burmese Days was Orwell’s first novel, published in 1934, more than ten years before Animal Farm or 1984. It is a tale of British imperialism and expresses some of Orwell’s ideas which would become dominant in his later more popular works.

The central location in the story is an English Club in Burma, which has been instructed to start allowing native people in. The result is tension that seethes with racism.

“… Anyway, the point’s this. He’s asking us to break all our rules and take a dear little nigger-boy into this Club. Dear Dr. Veraswami, for instance. Dr. Very-slimy, I call him. That would be a treat, wouldn’t it? Little pot-bellied niggers breathing garlic in your face over the bridge-table. Christ, to think of it! We’ve got to hang together and put our foot down on this at once…”

(pp. 23 – 24)

This attitude of racial superiority is offensive on so many levels, but was the dominant paradigm at the time. This feeling of racial superiority is manifest in the concept of the “white man’s burden,” the belief that it is the job of the white man to civilize blacks and indigenous people. But as Orwell points out, this is nothing but a lie intended to justify the exploitation of people, cultures, and resources.

“Seditious?” Flory said. “I’m not seditious. I don’t want the Burmans to drive us out of this country. God forbid! I’m here to make money, like everyone else. All I object to is the slimy white man’s burden humbug. The pukka sahib pose. It’s so boring. Even those bloody fools at the Club might be better company if we weren’t all of us living a lie the whole time.”

“But, my dear friend, what lie are you living?”

“Why, of course, the lie that we’re here to uplift our poor black brothers instead of rob them. I suppose it’s a natural lie enough. But it corrupts us, it corrupts us in ways you can’t imagine. There’s an everlasting sense of being a sneak and a liar that torments us and drives us to justify ourselves night and day. It’s at the bottom of half our beastliness to the natives. We Anglo-Indians could be almost bearable if we’d only admit that we’re thieves and go on thieving without any humbug.”

(p. 39)

Orwell asserts that we have lots of freedoms, but these “freedoms” are only meant to be distractions, and that true freedom, and the freedom that matters, is denied.

It is a stifling, stultifying world in which to live. It is a word in which every word and every thought is censored. In England it is hard to even imagine such an atmosphere. Everyone is free in England; we sell our souls in public and buy them back in private, among our friends. But even friendship can hardly exist when every white man is a cog in the wheels of despotism. Free speech is unthinkable. All other kinds of freedom are permitted. You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a fornicator; but you are not free to think for yourself.

(p. 69)

Orwell also addresses the relationship between money, power, and fame. People who are truly obsessed with money see it as a way to attain power and fame. This results in a vicious cycle of corruption where individuals will do anything and destroy anyone to get what they want.

“Money! Who is talking about money? Some day, woman, you will realise that there are other things in the world besides money. Fame, for example. Greatness. Do you realise that the Governor of Burma will very probably pin an Order on my breast for my loyal action in this affair? Would not even you be proud of such an honour as that?”

(p. 140)

The rest of the book reads like a Shakespearean tragedy. Plots are set in motion, tragic events unfold, and the book ends on a sad and unsettling note. But what is most unsettling is how little our cultures have changed. These prejudices, the disregard for others, and the striving for personal gain at the expense of others is still rampant. Orwell must be squirming in his grave.

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Thoughts on “Don Quixote” – Part 8: Anti-Government Sentiment

donquixote_cover

I think it is a pretty safe assertion that most people today at one point in their lives have had a negative view of government. We see the corruption, the bickering, the greed, and the meanness that permeates the institution. Well, if it is any consolation, these feelings have been around probably as long as there have been governments, so it’s not surprising that we find instances of anti-government sentiment in Don  Quixote.

The first one I will share is when Sancho is telling his wife of his plans to become a governor. Teresa’s anti-government stance is borderline anarchist, where she feels that no government is good.

“Nay, then, husband,” said Teresa; “let the hen live, though it be with her pip, live, and let the devil take all the governments in the world; you came out of your mother’s womb without a government, you lived until now without a government, and when it is God’s will you will go, or be carried, to your grave without a government. How many people are there in the world who live without a government, and continue to live all the same, and are reckoned in the number of people…”

(p. 574)

It is later asserted that even an idiot can become a governor, that education and intelligence are not requisite for being in the government.

… and moreover, we know already ample experience that it does not require much cleverness or much learning to be a governor, for there are a hundred round about us that scarcely know how to read, and govern like gerfalcons.

(p. 803)

And finally, one that made me chuckle. When discussing whether Sancho should bring his donkey Dapple with him to govern, Sancho point out that there is no shortage of asses in government.

“Don’t think, senora duchess, that you have said anything absurd,” said Sancho; “I have seen more than two asses go to governments, and for me to take mine with me would be nothing new.”

(p. 814)

As I watch how uncivil our government and democratic process have become, it becomes apparent that it is the loudest, craftiest, and most offensive who are winning in the political arena. With that in mind, I’ll leave you with one last quote:

God help us, this world is all machinations and schemes at cross purposes one with the other.

(p. 775)

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Doctor Strange: Issue 07 – The Last Days of Magic Pt 2

DoctorStrange_07

I just wanted to share one quote from this issue:

Apparently science makes monsters of men just as easily as magic.

Science and magic are both means of acquiring and using power, whether that is knowledge or physical energy. And as the old adage goes–power corrupts. It is important to stay grounded and centered in humanity when engaged in scientific or metaphysical exploration.

Cheers!

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Thoughts on “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace – Part 6

InfiniteJest

Let the call go forth, to pretty much any nation we might feel like calling, that the past has been torched by a new and millennial generation of Americans…

(p. 381)

I’ve thought about this quote a lot since I read it. And while I agree with the essence of this statement, I am not sure whether this torching of the past is a good thing or a bad thing.

On one hand, I agree that we need to break from the social mores of the past if we are to evolve as a global society and face the challenges ahead. As such, I am all for torching the antiquated ideologies to which we cling that no longer serve the better interests of our world. If we live in the past, we will never be able to successfully move into the future. We must, of necessity, break free from the chains of our past in order to move forward.

But here’s the rub…

I have observed a tendency among some millennials to use this as a justification for apathy. Since all candidates are part of the political machine and you are basically voting for the lesser of two evils, then why bother voting at all. It is better to completely reject the corrupt and antiquated system. But is it? And what I find most unsettling is the backlash against the social change that millenials represent. Personally, I feel that much of the right-wing radicalism and fundamentalist fervor is a response to the threat that the “old guard” feels when confronted by a generation that clearly rejects their way of thinking and their set of values. When I see angry people demanding that we “take back our country,” I must ask from whom do they wish to take it back. It seems logical that they want to take it back from the “new and millennial generation.”

I sense that we are on the cusp of a major shift in humanity, but I have no clue what direction that shift will take. I see humanity collectively standing on a tightrope, teetering, and it is not clear whether we will fall to the left or the right. But inevitably, we will fall, one way or the other.

These are interesting times, that much is certain.

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“For Whom the Bell Tolls: A 2001 Appeal for a Moral Referendum” by Umberto Eco

UmbertoEco

So it’s officially 2016, which in the US means it’s an election year, and already the battle lines are being drawn. People are choosing who they will support and social media is buzzing with political memes. And sadly, I am seeing the beginning of what promises to be a polarizing and divisive election. Who will end up suffering as a result? We will, of course. Which is why this essay written by Eco 15 years ago resonated with me. It’s almost prophetic.

In this short essay, included in Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism, Eco looks at an election in Italy, the influence of media on the electoral process, and the groups of people who form various factions of the electorate. One of the categories of voters he calls the Mesmerized Electorate, and this is a group that I see playing a prominent role in the upcoming US election.

The second category, which I call the Mesmerized Electorate, the most numerous, has no defined political opinion but has based its values on the creeping form of “culture” imparted for decades by the various television channels, and not only those owned by Berlusconi. What counts for these people are ideas of well-being and a mythical view of life, not unlike that of the people I would call generically the Albanian immigrants. The Albanian immigrant wouldn’t have dreamt of coming to Italy if the TV had showed him for years only the Italy of Open City, Obsession, or Passion—he would have steered clear of this unhappy country. He comes because he knows Italy as a country where a colorful television hands out easy money to those who know that Garibaldi’s given name was Giuseppe: a rich, showbiz Italy.

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 117)

Here in the US, I picture people in this category sitting on the couch, remote control in hand, switching between reality TV, game shows, and FOX News. They are fed a constant stream of how great things are, the threats to their imagined way of life, and how their life should be, yet are distracted from the realities that are growing around them.

While the image of a Mesmerized Electorate is unsettling, I find the Discouraged Electorate to be much more disturbing.

We are faced with the Mesmerized Electorate and the Motivated Electorate of the right wing, but the greatest danger to our country is the Discouraged Electorate of the left (I mean the left in the broadest sense of the term, from the old secular republicans to kids in Rifondazione Communista, down to Catholic volunteers who no longer have any faith in politics). This electorate is made up of that mass of people who know all the things said here (and don’t need to hear them repeated) and are disappointed with the outgoing government. They castrate themselves to punish their wives. They ensure the victory of the de facto regime to punish those who failed to satisfy them.

(ibid: p. 119)

Unfortunately, I know many people who fall into this category: people who supported Obama and felt they were let down; people who think Hillary Clinton is a liar and untrustworthy; people who feel Bernie Sanders is too far to the left; and those who are so disillusioned with politics that they view all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, as part of a corrupt political system which they no longer want to be a part of.

As the rift between voters in this country widens, the debate becomes more vitriolic. Personally, I do not see this as helpful to the advancement of our society. I encourage everyone to read broadly, learn as much as possible, and keep an open mind between now and November. Try not to let emotions, fear, or the media cloud your judgment and lead us farther down this path.

“And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.” (John Donne)

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“Euthyphro” by Plato

Euthyphro

This is a short dialog that takes place between Socrates and Euthyphro as Socrates is awaiting trial for corruption of Athenian youth. Euthyphro is a seer and an expert on religion who is about to bring manslaughter charges against his own father. This leads to the debate over what is piety, which may also be interpreted as holiness.

Socrates seeks to grasp the ideal of piety, but all Euthyphro is able to provide are examples of pious acts. For Socrates, this fails to get at the essence of what piousness truly is.

Socrates: Well, then, do you recollect that what I urged you to do was not tell me about one or two of these many pious actions, but to describe the actual feature that makes all pious actions pious? – because you said, I believe, that impious actions are impious, and similarly pious ones pious, in virtue of a single characteristic. Or don’t you remember?

Euthyphro: Yes, I do.

Socrates: Then explain to me what this characteristic is in itself, so that by fixing my eyes upon it and using it as a pattern I may be able to describe any action, yours or anyone else’s, as pious if it corresponds to the pattern and impious if it doesn’t.

As the dialog continues, Euthyphro attempts to argue that what is pious is that which is loved by the gods. Socrates disproves this based upon the assertion that being loved by the gods is an attribute of piousness, but not the essence.

Socrates: But if what is god-beloved were identical with what is pious, my dear Euthyphro, what is god-beloved would be loved because it is god-beloved; and if what is god-beloved were god-beloved because it is loved by the gods, then what is pious would be pious because it is loved by them. As it is, you can see that the relation between them is just the opposite; which shows that they are entirely different from each other. The one is loveable because it is loved, and the other is loved because it is loveable. I rather think, Euthyphro, that when I asked you what piety is you were unwilling to disclose its essence to me, and merely stated one of its attributes, saying that piety is the attribute of being loved by all the gods; but you have not yet told me what it is that has this attribute. So, if you have no objection, please don’t conceal the truth from me, but make a fresh start and tell me what piety is that it is loved by the gods or has any other attribute – we shan’t quarrel about that –; tell me without reserve what piety and impiety are.

After the discussion goes around several times, Euthyphro gives up and takes his leave. There is no resolution and the essence of piety is never uncovered. I suspect that the reason is that it is ineffable, as are other ideals. The true essence of an ideal, just like a form or an archetype, exists beyond the grasp of our comprehension. We can only see manifestations of the ideal or the form, but not the thing itself. I personally would venture to assert that these ideals are also subjective, just as beauty and ugliness are subjective. We can claim that something has the attribute of being beautiful, but that does not tell us what beauty is.

OK, that’s enough mental gymnastics for one day.

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