Tag Archives: society

“Words are Stones” by Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco

What I love about Umberto Eco is that he was able to look at social and political trends and identify the root causes of the trends. In this essay, he shows how fundamentalism stems from literal interpretations of symbols, specifically words.

He begins by pointing out that words are powerful symbols, but that in our current world culture, many people have lost the ability to recognize the subtlety and distinction when interpreting words. We want everything to be black and white, while words exist in the realm of grey, open for interpretation. (Turning Back the Clock: pp 214 – 216)

He then observes that religious fundamentalist movements are based upon strict literal interpretations of text, which by their nature, are highly symbolic.

In historical terms, fundamentalism is bound up with the interpretation of a holy book. Protestant fundamentalism in the United States of the nineteenth century (which survives to this day) is characterized by the decision to interpret Scripture literally, especially regarding notions of cosmology. Any form of education that undermines faith in biblical texts, like Darwinism, is rejected. Muslim fundamentalism is also based on the literal interpretation of a holy book.

(ibid: p. 219)

The problem that Eco sees is that fundamentalism often leads to integralism, “a stance whereby one’s religious principles must become the model of political life and the basis of the laws of the state.” Integralism can lead to theocracy, which ultimately leads to totalitarianism. “Every form of integralism contains a certain amount of intolerance for those who don’t share its ideas, but this amount reaches its peak in theocratic forms of fundamentalism and integralism. A theocratic regime is destined to be totalitarian.”

(ibid: p. 219)

As more laws are being passed that are solely based upon religious fundamentalist beliefs, we seem to be moving closer to a threshold that once crossed will find us in the realm of theocracy. This would land us in very dangerous waters, indeed.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading.

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“The Laws of Spirit” by Dan Millman

New age books can be hit or miss. This one has been on the shelves for a long time. Someone had given it to my wife as a gift. Anyway, I was looking to read something spiritual and this was nice and short, so I gave it a quick read. I have to say, it was better than I had expected.

The book adheres to the tried and tested format of the seeker meeting the sage, and they have an ensuing conversation where the sage has the answers to life’s questions. It’s kind of hackneyed, to say the least, but is saved by the fact that the chapters are very short and focused. Each chapter averages about eight pages in length. Also, Millman gets right to the point and does not wander off on tangents, which is appreciated.

As with most books of this nature, you get out of it what you bring to it. For those starting on a spiritual path, many of the concepts may be new, fresh perspectives. For me, it was more a refresher, which I confess I regularly need. It’s easy for me to get caught up in life and forget the fundamental principles I have learned.

The first passage I want to share from this book that resonated with me is about how all religions are one, that they essentially all teach the same spiritual principles, just using different languages and symbolism.

“You don’t have to believe in the sun to delight in the warmth of the morning light. It is simply obvious. That is how I know God. And as to my religion,” she continued, gazing into the distance as if remembering times past, “I’ve sat in the shining temples of the Israelites and under the glorious spires of the mosques of Islam; I’ve knelt in the great cathedrals and bathed in the light of Christendom; I’ve sat in sweat lodges and passed the pipe, lived as a shaman on the African plains, meditated in Buddhist temples, and inhaled the sweet aroma of incense on the banks of the Ganges. And everywhere, I’ve found the same Spirit in all religions—a Divine Will that transcends time, belief, and culture—revealing the universal laws that are the treasure of God.”

(p. 6)

And just as all religions are one, all spiritual paths ultimately lead to the same destination, you just learn different lessons based upon the path you choose.

“You lead for a while,” said the sage.

“But I don’t know where we’re going.”

She looked at me and smiled. “An interesting belief, Traveler, but I think you’ve always known where you were going, whether or not you were aware of it. So, which path will you choose?”

“Does it make any difference?”

“Ultimately? Not at all,” she replied. “In the end, all paths lead to the same destination. But one of these paths may lead into a green valley, another to a rocky peak, and the third into a dark woods. You can’t be sure where each trail leads; still, you must make a choice.”

(p. 18)

This life is filled with challenges, on individual levels as well as globally. But it is important to remember that these are just challenges, and that ultimately, things will balance out if we but persevere.

As the sage finished speaking, the rain stopped. Stepping out from under some trees into the warm sunlight, I felt an extraordinary sense of calm and well-being. In that moment, I knew that despite the challenges and tests confronting humanity, our world was in the hands of Spirit, unfolding, like a flower, toward the Light.

(p. 56)

As I mentioned earlier, this is a very short book, just over 100 pages, but there is a fair amount of insight inside, presented in clear and easy-to-understand language. It’s definitely worth a read, in my humble opinion.

Thanks for stopping by.

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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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“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 “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer

My daughter gave me this book as a gift, and I have to say, I loved it. She obviously knows me well.

Kimmerer is Native American and a Professor of Environmental Biology. So this book is essentially a weaving of environmental science writing and spiritually based storytelling. Science and spirituality used to inhabit opposite ends of the spectrum, but not anymore. The people who are at the forefront of each discipline are exploring the relationships between the two, and Kimmerer’s skill as a wordsmith makes this book a joy to read, even when she addresses painful issues, which are unavoidable when writing about environmental topics.

I have Bruce King’s portrait of Skywoman, Moment in Flight, hanging in my lab. Floating to earth with her handful of seeds and flowers, she looks down on my microscopes and data loggers. It might seem an odd juxtaposition, but to me she belongs there. As a writer, a scientist, and a carrier of Skywoman’s story, I sit at the feet of my elder teachers listening for their songs.

(pp. 5 – 6)

We live in a society that is detached from the sources of that which we consume. As a result, we do not have to think about where everything comes from, and the true cost to our world in the mass production of commodities that are destined for landfills. But as Kimmerer points out, almost everything that we use, every item that finds its way into our homes, is made at the expense of another living entity.

Just about everything we use is the result of another’s life, but that simple reality is rarely acknowledged in our society. The ash curls we make are almost paper thin. They say that the “waste stream” in this country is dominated by paper. Just as much as an ash splint, a sheet of paper is a tree’s life, along with the water and energy and toxic byproducts that went into making it. And yet we use it as if it were nothing. The short path from the mailbox to the waste bin tells the story. But what would happen, I wonder, to the mountain of junk mail if we could see it in the trees it once had been?

(p. 148)

There is a long section later in the book that is worth quoting. Kimmerer uses the myth of the Windigo as a metaphor for our current state of mindless consumption.

No matter what they call it, Johnston and many other scholars point to the current epidemic of self-destructive practices—addiction to alcohol, gambling, technology, and more—as a sign that Windigo is alive and well. In Ojibwe ethics, Pitt says, “any overindulgent habit is self-destructive, and self-destruction is Windigo.” And just as Windigo’s bite is infectious, we all know too well that self-destruction drags along many more victims—in our human families as well as in the more-than-human world.

The native habitat of the Windigo is the north woods, but the range has expanded in the last few centuries. As Johnston suggests, multinational corporations have spawned a new breed of Windigo that insatiably devours the earth’s resources “not for need but for greed.” The footprints are all around us, once you know what to look for.

(p. 306)

We all have important decisions to make, and every choice, regardless of how insignificant it may seem, will have lasting consequences. We are indeed at a crossroads, and we no longer have the luxury of complacency. Every one of us has a responsibility, to begin the healing process and start undoing the damage that we have done as a collective species.

We do indeed stand at the crossroads. Scientific evidence tells us we are close to the tipping point of climate change, the end of fossil fuels, the beginning of resource depletion. Ecologists estimate we would need seven planets to sustain the lifeways we have created. And yet those lifeways, lacking balance, justice, and peace, have not brought us contentment. They have brought us the loss of our relatives in a great wave of extinction. Whether or not we want to admit it, we have a choice ahead, a crossroads.

(p. 368)

I strongly encourage you to read this book. It will inspire, outrage, and motivate you. Remember, everything that you do matters. Act accordingly.

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“The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” by Alan Moore

I watched the film adaptation of this graphic novel many years ago, before I even knew about the graphic novel. I liked the film a lot. It spoke to my interest in science fiction, adventure tales, and 19th century literature. All of these things are brilliantly blended together in this book, which is lavishly illustrated by Kevin O’Neill.

This omnibus edition includes two full volumes, as well as a wealth of supplemental material that is all worth exploring. There are coloring pages, games, instructions for crafts, everything that an intrepid nerd could ask for.

In addition to all the fun material and the brilliant artwork, there is Moore’s incredible writing, which flows effortlessly while focusing a lens on human nature, and also touching on the mystical and unusual in experience.

Moore uses the character of Miss Mina Murray as a voice of criticism against the male-dominated society of the 19th century.

Mina Murray: “Why are men so obsessed with mechanisms that further nothing but destruction?”

Here she is not only speaking out against patriarchy, but she is also making a bold comment on the industrial revolution, and the negative impacts that it had on society. She then goes on to express how challenging it can be for women in positions of authority.

Mina Murray: “The point is that I’m supposed to be the person organizing this… this menagerie! But that will never do, will it? Because I’m a woman! They constantly undermine my authority, him and that Quatermain…”

Shifting the focus away from social criticism, I want to share a well-written passage describing Allan Quatermain’s drug-induced altered state of consciousness.

Quatermain had felt the consciousness torn from his body, gripped by the drug’s phantasmal diamond fist. He’d heard Marisa scream and then the awareness was dashed from him by a cold, obliterating light. Now he was lost. As sensibility returned, he found himself afloat, a ghostly form amidst a shimmering violet limbo. What had happened? This was not the breathtaking immersion in past incarnation that the drug had hitherto provided. All about him dream-like forms congealed from viscous twilight, half-materialized before once more dissolving into opalescent nothing. Smoldering ferns and mollusk spirals, scintillating on the brink of substance.

Describing the experience of a shift in consciousness is not an easy task for a writer, since the nature of this experience is generally beyond words. But Moore does a great job is conveying the experience.

One of the characters in this book is Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde. As the tale progresses, Jekyll fades out of the story and Hyde becomes the dominant character. This symbolizes what happens when the dualistic nature of humans gets out of balance. As Hyde points out, there has to be a balance. If the light becomes too strong, or the dark becomes too strong, then there are negative effects on the individual.

Hyde: “Anyway, what that silly bastard did , he thought is he quarantined all these bad parts, what was left would be a ****ing angel. huh-huh.”

Driver: “Hang on. If you’re this chap’s sins, how did you end up so bloody big?”

Hyde: “Good point [chlop]. That’f a very goob poimp. I mean, when I started out, good God, I was practically a ****ing dwarf. Jekyll, on the other hand, a great big strapping fellow. Since then, though, my growth’s been unrestricted, while he’s wasted away to nothing. Obvious, really. Without me, you see, Jekyll has no drives…and without him, I have no restraints.”

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. I will say, though, that the last section is very long, comprised entirely of small-type text and is intended to mimic a travel almanac. While you may be tempted to skip over this somewhat tedious part of the book, I found it worthwhile to read through it. It is brimming with literary and pop-culture references to fictional locations, and is done so in a very creative way. It is not easy to read, but I think it’s worth it. I found lots and lots of subtle allusions to books I had read in the past, which stirred some good memories for me.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading stuff.

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“The Invisible Man” by H. G. Wells: Belief in the Unseen

I figured I would start out the October spooky reading with the classic sci-fi tale from H.G. Wells. Not surprising, Wells weaves some thought-provoking social commentary into his story. While I discovered a lot of philosophical ideas within the text, the one that really stood out for me was the question of whether things unseen (such as God and the spirit) can exist.

My sense is that during the time Wells was writing, the dominant scientific belief was that if something truly existed in the universe, then it could be scientifically observed and studied. There was skepticism that unseen phenomena, such as God, could exist.

After the first gusty panic had spent itself Iping became argumentative. Scepticism suddenly reared its head—rather nervous scepticism, not at all assured of its back, but scepticism nevertheless. It was so much easier not to believe in an invisible man; and those who had actually seen him dissolve into thin air, or felt the strength of his arm, could be counted on the fingers of two hands.

(H. G. Wells: Seven Novels; p. 197)

I addition to a skepticism of the existence of things unseen, there is also social stigma attached to those individuals who do perceive beings that are invisible (angels, demons, spirits, gods, etc.). These people are often considered delusional or mentally ill, and that the unseen entities with which they are conversing are just creations of a diseased mind.

This stranger, to the perceptions of the proprietor of the cocoanut shy, appeared to be talking to himself, and Mr. Huxter remarked the same thing. He stopped at the foot of the Coach and Horses steps, and, according to Mr. Huxter, appeared to undergo a severe internal struggle before he could induce himself to enter the house.

(p. 198)

After Kemp, who symbolizes the scientific thinker, encounters the invisible man, he begins to ponder the existence of invisible entities. Essentially, he is contemplating whether the existence of God is a possibility.

“Invisible!” he said.

“Is there such a thing as an invisible animal? In the sea, yes. Thousands! millions. All the larvae, all the little nauplii and tornarias, all the microscopic things, the jelly-fish. In the sea there are more things invisible than visible! I never thought of that before. And in the ponds too! All those little pond-life things—specks of colourless translucent jelly! But in the air? No!

“It can’t be.

“But after all—why not?

(p. 223)

Another interesting point about this passage is that Kemp claims that the sea has more things invisible than visible. The sea is a common metaphor for the subconscious mind. Psychologically speaking, there is so much happening in the mind that is beyond the grasp of our ordinary consciousness. Science has not even scratched the surface of the deeper realms of consciousness. There is much there that is still invisible to us.

For me, the most powerful passage in the entire text is when the invisible man reveals to Kemp his plans for establishing a “Reign of Terror.”

“Not wanton killing, but a judicious slaying. The point is they know there is an Invisible Man—as well as we know there is an Invisible Man. And that Invisible Man, Kemp, must now establish a Reign of Terror. Yes—no doubt it’s startling. But I mean it. A Reign of Terror. He must take some town like your Burdock and terrify and dominate it. He must issue his orders. He can do that in a thousand ways—scraps of paper thrust under doors would suffice. And all who disobey his orders he must kill, and kill all who would defend the disobedient.”

(p. 251)

Here Wells is making a dual criticism. On one level, the passage expresses his views on the concept of a vengeful God, one that hands down orders “on scraps of paper” (symbolizing scriptures) and then doles out severe punishment to the people who fail to heed the word of God. Additionally, Wells is criticizing the concept of divine rule as embodied in an absolute monarchy. These rulers live in palaces, unseen by the common folk, and hand down laws (more scraps of paper) and decree punishment upon those villagers who fail to obey the laws.

What makes this book such a masterpiece is that it is a great story, and it also has deeper meaning if you look beneath the surface. As always, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section. Have a great day, and keep reading cool stuff.

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