Tag Archives: society

The Power of Words in “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak

It’s been a while since I published a blog post. I’ve been quite busy with work and travel (went to Spain, which was “fantastico”). Anyway, amid the craziness and busy-ness, I managed to read The Book Thief. My daughter had loaned it to me, saying that she loved the book and felt I would love it too, which I certainly did. I had seen the film, but as usual, the book was WAY better than the movie.

The first thing that struck me about this book was the narrative voice, which is the voice of Death. Omniscient narrators are nothing new, but Death as a character certainly provides a unique vantage point from which to tell a tale, particularly one set in Nazi Germany during WWII. The narrator exudes a strange sense of detachment and sadness, which if you are the Grim Reaper is probably how you would need to be. You would need to detach yourself enough to reap souls, but it would be cruel to do so without some feeling of sadness at the many lives cut short.

While this story is so rich and offers much to explore, I’d like to focus on the power of words as presented in the text.

As a writer, I am keenly aware of the power that words have. They are symbols that evoke images, sway opinions, enlighten, and mislead. When people say that the pen is mightier than the sword, what is actually meant is that words are the most powerful weapons anyone can wield.

Yes, the Fuhrer decided that he would rule the world with words. “I will never fire a gun,” he devised. “I will not have to.” Still, he was not rash. Let’s allow him at least that much. He was not a stupid man at all. His first plan of attack was to plant the words in as many areas of his homeland as possible.

He planted them day and night.

He watched them grow, until eventually, great forests of words had risen throughout Germany. . . It was a nation of farmed thoughts.

(p. 445)

The protagonist, Liesel (the book thief), loves books. But at the height of her despair, she has an epiphany where she fully grasps the power of words as tools to spread evil.

She tore a page from the book and ripped it in half.

Then a chapter.

Soon, there was nothing but scraps of words littered between her legs and all around her. The words. Why did they have to exist? Without them, there wouldn’t be any of this. Without words, the Fuhrer was nothing. There would be no limping prisoners, no need for consolation or wordly tricks to make us feel better.

What good were the words?

She said it audibly now, to the orange-lit room. “What good are the words?”

(p. 521)

Words, like swords, are double-edged. They can cause immeasurable suffering, but can also heal the deepest wounds. This is why when I see people throwing words around on 24-news stations or on social media, I cannot help but feel concerned. If people would only pause and consider before reacting with words, we would avoid a lot of pain and conflict.

We all need to choose our words more carefully. I, for one, will try to be vigilant regarding how I use these powerful tools, and hopefully I can use them to advance society and humanity.

Thanks for taking the time to read my “words.” Cheers!

Advertisements

4 Comments

Filed under Literature

“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 33” by Lao Tzu

He who knows men is clever;
He who knows himself has insight.
He who conquers men has force;
He who conquers himself is truly strong.

He who knows when he has got enough is rich,
And he who adheres assiduously to the path of Tao is a man of steady purpose.
He who stays where he has found his true home endures long,
And he who dies but perishes not enjoys real longevity.

This is one of those passages where every word resonates with truth. I read this short section three times and found it so perfect in its brevity and wisdom.

The second line really made me think about the word “insight” in a way I never really did before. To have insight is to see beneath the surface, to peer deep within yourself, and grasp the true nature of your being. To have real insight is a tremendous accomplishment. I feel like this word has become trivialized through overuse. If you stop and think about it, very few individuals gain a deep understanding of themselves, hence very few of us ever gains true insight.

The first line of the second stanza also struck me as profoundly true: “He who knows when he has got enough is rich.” We westerners, ensconced in our consumer society, never seem to feel we have enough. There is always something else to strive for, something better which we desire. But how much material stuff do we need, and is real wealth measured by how much stuff or money you have? I suspect that to be rich in the way Lao Tzu is describing is to be content with having your necessities met, and being fulfilled spiritually.

Finally, I thought about the last line a lot. What does it mean to die, but not perish? At first I considered that it may mean becoming one with the divine source after leaving this mortal world. And this is still a valid interpretation. But then I wondered if death here symbolizes something else, something that is connected with the rest of the passage. I began to suspect that maybe to die, as Lao Tzu suggests in this passage, means to end the constant materialistic striving which defines the lives of so many of us. Maybe dying is letting go of our grip on the material world and embracing the spiritual. Doing so will fill us with wisdom, a treasure which remains with us after we free ourselves from the body.

2 Comments

Filed under Literature, Spiritual

“American Gods” by Neil Gaiman: Issue 04

I recently had a discussion with my wife regarding the founding of the United States. We came to the conclusion that, although many Americans like to think the country was founded upon the principles of freedom, it was actually commerce and enslavement that were the driving forces that led to the founding of America. With that still fresh in my mind, I came upon an interesting passage while reading this installment of Gaiman’s “American Gods” series.

The important thing to remember about American history is that it is fictional. It is a fine fiction that America was founded by pilgrims seeking the freedom to believe as they wished. In truth, the American colonies were as much as dumping ground as an escape. In the days when you could be hanged in London for the theft of twelve pennies, the Americas became a symbol of clemency, of a second chance. Transportation, it was called: for five years, for ten years, for life. You were sold to a captain and shipped to the colonies to be sold into indentured servitude–but at least you were free to make the most of your new world.

Another part of this comic really interested me was the three sisters. Gaiman based his three characters on the Slavic myth of the two sisters who watched the stars for a sign that the universe was about to end.

In Slavic mythology, the Zorja (alternately, Zora, Zarja, Zory, Zore = “dawn”; Zorza in Polish, Zara-Zaranica (Belarusian: Зара-Зараніца), Zvezda, Zwezda, Danica = “star”) are the two guardian goddesses, known as the Auroras. They guard and watch over the winged doomsday hound, Simargl, who is chained to the star Polaris in the constellation Ursa Minor, the “little bear”. If the chain ever breaks, the hound will devour the constellation and the universe will end. The Zorja represent the Morning Star and the Evening Star.

The Zorja serve the sun god Dažbog, who in some myths is described as their father. Zorja Utrennjaja, the Morning Star, opens the gates to his palace every morning for the sun-chariot’s departure. At dusk, Zorja Vechernjaja—the Evening Star—closes the palace gates once more after his return.

(Source: Wikipedia)

In Gaiman’s retelling of the myth, he adds a third sister. It seems that Gaiman did this to also tie in the mythologies of the triple goddess, the three fates (Moirai), and possibly the three witches from Macbeth.

You wanted to know what I was looking at. The Big Dipper. Odin’s Wain, they call it. The Great Bear. Where we come from, we believe that it is a thing, not a god, but a bad thing, chained up in those stars. If it escapes, it will eat the whole of everything. And there are three sisters who must watch the sky, all the day, all the night. If he escapes, the thing in the stars, the world is over.

So far, I really love this series. Even though the artwork is a little weak, the quality of the writing makes up for it, and then some. I think I will have to reread the original text of American Gods at some point when this graphic series is finished.

3 Comments

Filed under Literature

Vampirella: Issue #3

This issue could have been called “Campirella.” It’s a nod to the pulp fiction genre that began in the late 1800s and continued through the 1950s. The artwork, style, and content all recall the campiness of the genre.

Pulp magazines (often referred to as “the pulps”) were inexpensive fiction magazines that were published from 1896 to the 1950s. The term pulp derives from the cheap wood pulp paper on which the magazines were printed; in contrast, magazines printed on higher quality paper were called “glossies” or “slicks”. The typical pulp magazine had 128 pages; it was 7 inches (18 cm) wide by 10 inches (25 cm) high, and 0.5 inches (1.3 cm) thick, with ragged, untrimmed edges.

The pulps gave rise to the term pulp fiction in reference to run-of-the-mill, low-quality literature.

Pulps were the successors to the penny dreadfuls, dime novels, and short-fiction magazines of the 19th century. Although many respected writers wrote for pulps, the magazines were best known for their lurid, exploitative, and sensational subject matter. Modern superhero comic books are sometimes considered descendants of “hero pulps”; pulp magazines that often featured illustrated novel-length stories of heroic characters, such as The Shadow, Doc Savage, and The Phantom Detective.

(Source: Wikipedia)

Growing up, there were still pulp magazines available at the local stationary store. I used to read the campy detective magazines, as well as the graphic horror and science fiction. Although these publications were deemed the antithesis of literature, they did foster a love of reading for me which continues to this day.

There is something disturbingly timely in this bizarre throw-back issue. Vampirella is imprisoned in a concentration camp along with a variety of other individuals deemed to be social deviants. This included people of different ethnicities, LGBTQ persons, as well as individuals of different religious beliefs. And while the work camp is clearly a reference to the Nazi concentration camps, the people who are imprisoned there are the same groups who are currently being targeted here in the U.S.

At one point, the Commandant tells Vampirella why there will always be people to keep the factory running.

We have the world to choose from. There will always be malcontents.

The terrible truth of this statement is that a fearful and intolerant society will always find individuals and groups to direct their hatred and fear toward. Humans continue to exploit those who they see as different, and blame the “others” for their difficulties. Hopefully, one day we will transcend this cycle, at which point magazines like this will become a curiosity instead of a sad social commentary.

5 Comments

Filed under Literature

The Black Monday Murders: Issue 05

In our current environment, a tale about dark occult influences on the mega-wealthy and powerful individuals that manipulate and control global economics is bound to be interesting. But this graphic series is much more than just an entertaining look at some conspiracy theory; it’s a deep probing into mystical thought and the symbols associated with money and power. The writers of this series took an extended break since issue 4, which was released back in November of 2016, but they are back now with another engaging installment in the arc.

There is an abundance of rich text, artwork, and ideas crafted into this issue. Much of it is connected to the various threads which woven together create this complex story and would be difficult to convey without spending a lot of time and page space explaining the back story. But there is a great section that I want to share that I think adequately conveys the complexity and thoughtfulness of this series. It’s a discussion about the difference between the disciples Judas and Peter.

Doctor: Then you know of Peter — on whose back Christ’s church was built – and Judas – who with a kiss – betrayed him for thirty pieces of silver. It’s fascinating to me how many people misinterpret the point of their story. Haven’t you ever wondered why Judas – who only betrayed Christ once – is the fallen sinner of the story, and Peter is the redeemed? After all, Peter denied the Son of God three times – each denial a separate betrayal. Can you guess, detective… why the greater offender became a saint, while the other hung from a tree?

Detective: I have no idea.

Doctor: Judas, you see… he took the money.

Detective: I don’t see how that –

Doctor: If you’re going to understand how all this works, detective, then you’re going to have to remember one key thing: money is the physical manifestation of power. And when I say power, yes, I mean powers beyond our mortal ken.

This conversation really struck me and caused me to think. There are many reasons why a person might deny the spiritual and the divine, such as fear, doubt, suffering, obsession with physical pleasure. The list goes on. So what makes the rejection of the divine for the sake of wealth so much worse? Christ famously stated: “And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” And remember how angry Christ got about the moneychangers? If I recall, that was the only time that he lost his cool. I think that all this is pointing the fact that money and wealth symbolizes power of an individual over a large group of people. If humans are beings made in the image of God and filled with the spark of the divine, then it must be the epitome of evil to exercise dominion over people who are in essence divine spiritual beings.

6 Comments

Filed under Literature

“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 32” by Lao Tzu

Tao is always nameless.
Small as it is in its Primal Simplicity,
It is inferior to nothing in the world.
If only a ruler could cling to it,
Everything will render homage to him.
Heaven and Earth will be harmonized
And send down sweet dew.
Peace and order will reign among the people
Without any command from above.

When once the Primal Simplicity diversified,
Different names appeared.
Are there not enough names now?

Is this not the time to stop?
To know when to stop is to preserve ourselves from danger.
The Tao is to the world what a great river or an ocean is to the streams and brooks.

Sometimes when you are reading, you come across a small snippet, maybe a line or two, that really strikes something deep within you. That happened to me as I read this passage. The section that really resonated with me is:

Is this not the time to stop?
To know when to stop is to preserve ourselves from danger.

I’m a runner, and as much as I want to run every day, I know that I need to stop and rest in order to prevent injury to myself. As a collective, humans have not developed this skill. We constantly strive for more and more and more, pushing ourselves and plundering the earth’s resources and not stopping to allow ourselves or the environment time to replenish and rejuvenate. We can even apply this concept to our current political situation. The right and the left are at constant odds, fighting each other tooth and nail relentlessly. We need to stop, take a step back, and approach our differences from a place of respect and then begin working together to address the challenges we face as a global society.

If we choose to continue at this frantic pace, we do so at our own risk. I for one will continue with my commitment to meditate regularly, read, go for walks in the woods, and take the time I need to keep myself healthy and centered. I hope you will do the same.

2 Comments

Filed under Literature, Spiritual

“American Gods” by Neil Gaiman: Issue 03

As I finished reading this third installment in the arc, I concluded that while the artwork is kind of flat, the quality of Gaiman’s writing certainly compensates for that shortcoming. He is able to create wonderfully evocative text that conjures rich imagery in tight, neat snippets. A great example is the description of what it is like to arrive in Chicago by car.

Chicago happened slowly, like a migraine. First, they were driving through countryside, then, imperceptibly, the occasional town became a low suburban sprawl, and the sprawl became a city.

The focus of this issue is the exploration of forgotten gods, gods who were once important and then faded from memory. When we forget our gods and do not feed them through our consciousness, they die and disappear from existence.

These are the gods who have been forgotten, and now might as well be dead. They are gone. All gone.

These are the gods who have passed out of memory. Even their names have been forgotten. Gods die and when they die, they are unmourned and unremembered. Ideas are more difficult to kill than people, but they can be killed in the end.

Since America is a country founded on immigrants, the people who came to America brought with them their old gods. These gods remained for a while, but eventually they were replaced by a new set of gods, or ideas, that arose along with the new country.

No, we are all relatives. We come over here together. Long time ago. First, we come to New York. All our countrymen go to New York. Then, we come out here, to Chicago. Everything got very bad. In the old country, they had nearly forgotten me. Here, I am a bad memory no one wants to remember.

As I observe what is happening in the world around us, I cannot help but sense that these recent gods we created in our modern world are about to collapse. There appears to be a paradigm shift beginning, one that will reshape our dominant ideas. I think this is why there is such a heightened sense of fear and urgency in our global society. I do not know how it will all play out, but it is definitely a fascinating time to be alive.

Leave a comment

Filed under Literature