Monday, August 20, 2018

Book Review: The Adventure by Giorgio Agamben

I was surprised by how cheap this book was, much cheaper than most philosophy hardbacks, so I actually ordered it rather than got it through the library like usual. Then I found out why it was so cheap: it's the size of a box of Pocky! I'm glad I do own it, because I started marking it up with my green pen instead of using my traditional Post-its for "stuff to remember." By the end of the book almost everything was green and I could write in marginalia like a medieval monk. I would eat this book (slowly) if I could.

The Adventure is not easy reading because Agamben's focus here is on medieval romantic literature (which I don't really know) and he connects it to writers like Heidegger and Goethe (whom I haven't really read), and then it's all translated from Italian so that there are some issues with specific words (I had to keep reminding myself that "demon" comes from "daemon" and is not necessarily a bad thing in classical lit!). Reading this book is like going on an adventure yourself. At first, you're bushwhacking through the trees and dodging wandering trolls, but then -- then you get to the mountains.

In the second half of the book, the questions are fascinating: Agamben asks why Dante never uses the term "adventure" in the Divine Comedy, and why in an early representation of the grail myth, the grail wasn't really important at all. That last point bowled me over because Agamben explained one of the central plot points of my favorite movie of all time (The Fisher King) in a way I had only grasped intuitively. That revelation was extremely meaningful to me.

Finally, at the top of the mountain is one of the Big Questions: What Does It Mean to Be Human? That's the exact question I'm asking right now and to find it at the end of this book was like opening a treasure chest (and, yes, finding it full).

This is one of the few books that I immediately flipped through and read my highlights again upon finishing, and that I have kept in my reading stack for reiteration and review. Word for word, it is one of the most efficiently mind-blowing books I've ever read.

Book Review: I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown

My wife said I should read this, and it would be a fast read. It was indeed a fast read but it wasn't an easy one. Channing Brown has a voice that needs to be heard. In the last chapter she ties everything back to love, the solid three-dimensional love of the cross, against a world that "sees love as a prize it is owed, rather than a moral obligation it must demonstrate." That's solid theology. I'm not here to critique or review this book. I'm here to say to you like my wife said to me: you should read this book and hear this voice. We need it.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Book Review: We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families by Philip Gourevitch

With its long but searingly memorable title, I've been meaning to read this book for a long time. I wish I had read it before I went to Burundi (Rwanda's sister country), but it's valuable enough at this late date. Unfortunately it's not as deep an exploration of the problem as it could be. Gourevitch is insightful and hits the right level of description in his narrative, so the problem isn't the writing. The problem is the problem itself, and a few shades of issues with trust and blame: Gourevitch takes people at their word and events at their appearance just a little too often. He actually compares Paul Kagame to Abraham Lincoln at one point, which does not age well considering that now, twenty years later, Kagame is one of the many "President-for-Life" leaders in East Africa, and is definitely on the oppressive end of even that spectrum. Gourevitch veers too much toward demonizing Hutus and lionizing Tutsis. Considering that the fault for the events of the mid-90s clearly lies with the Hutu Power movement (and considering he was writing then), I understand why he'd do that, but again, it doesn't age well into the tangle of 2018 East African politics. I found this review by Rene Lemarchand to be shorter, more confusing, but also closer to the truth. Rwanda and Burundi are textbook cases of the singularly human tendency to cycle and amplify vengeance, and I'm frustrated with my own attitude that takes as a victory the mere fact that genocide hasn't happened on a large scale in two decades. Gourevitch touches on the human soul just a bit at the end of the book, and again, I don't blame him for not having an answer. This book is a window into the tangle of hate, power, and need, and that is service enough. But if there is an answer, it lies in costly forgiveness and in the choice to pour out your own life rather than cling to your own vision of justice. It's a mess. Who will rescue us from this world of death?

Book Review: Why Love Hurts by Eva Illouz

Here a sociologist and feminist deconstructs why so many people are so obsessed with romantic love, and so depressed and insecure when disappointment ensues. Illouz contrasts the social structure of Jane Austen with Internet forum talk of today (she has a gift for zeroing in on telling online snippets and a soft spot for the New York Times's Modern Love column). She concludes that, for all we've gained, we've lost a lot as well. What's particularly interesting to me is how Illouz's conclusions line up with those of other critics of modernity who start from very different points. It seems like a case of convergent evolution to me. Illouz concludes that modern structures hurt women more than men and create incentives for men to hold back from commitment. Her case is rooted in biology (but don't worry, not in a hand-waving ev-psych way). She's right that, at some point, our most important personal question has changed from Rene Decartes's "Do I exist?" to Bridget Jones's "Will anybody love me?". Illouz suggests that an ethical reformation will protect women from this bruising, technocratic economy of radical choice. The closest parallel I can come up with is another book that impacted me deeply with its wide-ranging secular critique of modernity: David Bosworth's The Demise of Virtue in Virtual America. When all these different authors from all these different vantage points come together in a critique of libertarian reductionism and modern malaise, I'm left asking the authors, well, we're all here. Now what? I have some ideas if anyone's interested.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? by Susannah Gibson

This is a book about what happened when science discovered the creatures inbetween the kingdoms of life, and inbetween life and death: polyps, Venus flytraps, and fossils. It's really about fitting nature with words, and what happens when the words are old wineskins that cannot contain new wine. Yet the author's focus is on nature, not on the human minds observing nature, which are far more interesting. The human-mind debates about God's action and nature of creation are so simplified as to almost evaporate away. I enjoyed the descriptions of the experiments the scientists did, but the author takes an Epicurean view of "what it all means"* as such a foregone conclusion that the history ends up as static as the old fossils described in Chapter 4. Just as the old experiments challenged the old scientists, the new experiments of the unity underlying the different kingdoms should challenge us in the opposite direction: polyps, Venus flytraps, and fossils all use essentially the same amino acids, sugars, and genetic code. That means something. But this book is all description and no challenge or extension. It assumes an opposition between God and matter that isn't necessary, and then assumes because we know a lot about matter that we have no need for God. That's fine for Laplace but I'd like to think about what it means for us today. It means so much more than this book gives it a chance to mean.

*Greenblatt's The Swerve is quoted admirably. See my review of that book for what I think of that!

Monday, July 30, 2018

Book Review: The Girard Reader edited by James G. Williams


I finally decided to read Rene Girard, and all I can fit into a one paragraph review are statements, so let’s just make them bullet points:

n  Girard thinks like Darwin. I don’t mean that he’s as important a thinker as Darwin was, but that he has a simple but effective mechanism that may tie the social level together the same way Darwin’s mechanism tied together biology. Girard’s scapegoat mechanism functions like Darwin’s variation + selection. (One could argue both are Malthusian.)

n  It’s highly significant that Girard came to his Catholic faith through his academic work. It’s hard to find these stories, but it shouldn’t be. They’re surprisingly common.

n  This particular selection answered most of my questions. I was curious about the implications for the creation of humans and also how this fits with scripture. I would have liked a little more on the former is all, but otherwise this Reader is remarkably balanced. The sections on literature and Freud/Nietzsche were less relevant but the inclusion of the interview at the end is perfect – in fact, I read it first and recommend you do the same.

I’m still digesting Girard but I only get rocked by a new (to me) thinker about once per year, and this is Girard’s year. You’ll hear more about Girard in my future scribblings, of that I’m sure.

Book Review: A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin


I had put off reading this, because if there’s one thing I didn’t necessarily want to read from Helprin, it was a war novel. Not because it wouldn’t be well written – because it would be too well-written, or at least too affecting. Helpin specializes in intense, over-the-top decriptions, lush to the point of irrationality, but always beautiful even in their ugliness. Helprin’s great at writing chases, in which I feel as if I’m running with his characters, but when he writes about fights, I feel as if I’m the one being hit. I just didn’t want to read a whole novel like that. I was wrong.

A Solider of the Great War is about World War I, and takes its structure from Dante’s Inferno, so here we have Mark Helprin describing the events that traumatized J.R.R. Tolkien (for example) for his entire life. Yet, Helprin is Helprin, so there’s more beauty than horror (and even beauty in the horror). Only one short section takes place in the dead marsh-- I mean, the trenches. Around that you visit Sicily, Venice, the Alps, and again and again, Rome herself, which comes alive almost as much as New York City in Winter’s Tale (almost!). By the end it all comes together, so that this may have the best overall structure of Helprin’s “Dante trilogy.”

As in all of Helprin’s books, he is second to none at describing how men fall in love. For that alone he deserves to be read. An important subtheme is believing in God, or rather, how believing in God is not really the right term, since faith and hope are far more than assenting to propositions, it’s immersing yourself in the gift of God’s world. And again, as with all Helprin’s work, there are flaws. But I can’t help it, I love this book. Right now it’s my third favorite Helprin behind Winter’s Tale and the Kingdom Far and Clear trilogy. I’ve convinced myself it’s gotta get five stars. So sue me.