Sunday, September 9, 2012

four book reviews

four book reviews

Islandia, Austin Tappan Wright

Islandia was a pure find. Idling by Bent Books in Brisbane's West End, I decided on a quick browse, spotted the hefty orange tome and thought it looked interesting - and how!

Austin Tappan Wright was a lecturer in law at Berkeley and Islandia is the edited collation of thousands of pages he wrote as a side project before his death in a car accident in 1931 at the age of 48. It's as if Austin's professional meditations on America's legal framework fuelled his imagination regarding what is practically possible regarding the organisation of society. Islandia - a modern Arcadian idyll - is the result, and it is the best, most fully realised work of utopian fiction I have read.

The fictional Islandia is a country that has thrived on its geographic isolation. Situated in the Southern Hemisphere, it is shielded by a mountain range from the rest of the continent it forms the southernmost spur of. The novel is told through the eyes of a young Harvard educated (Wright was also Harvard educated) American whose university friendship with an Islandian on scholarship leaves him in good stead to take on a cultural post there after his studies.

John Lang, the young American, is to find out how to open up Islandia to American business. His friendship with Dorn, the native Islandian, soon begins to create a dilemma for John, a conflict between his role as imperial vanguard and his affectionate respect for the country of which he is a guest. For Islandia is a country untrammelled by rampant technology and uninterested in the rapacity of big capitalism. On Islandia everyone has a strong connection to their family farm, spending an extended amount of time there every year. These farms have, over generations, become a perfect blend of artifice and nature. Man's gentle hand at work over centuries has produced such an idyllic result that John Lang cannot help but be seduced by the beauty, tranquility and the unsentimental love with which these humble folk care for the land and each other.

Part of the genius of Wright (and his wife and daughter who edited the manuscript) lies in the way he balances the narrative with details of the workings of Islandia. Wright includes a weight of political, economic, legal and social particulars about the country but these details are always in context and never derail the narrative momentum (which is borne most strongly by the emotional content of Lang's romantic experiences). For instance, the political system of Islandia is similar on the surface to our own - a bipartisan system of conservatives and progressives. The chief difference is that both parties see themselves as Islandians first and politicians second. Their conduct is universally honourable, intelligent, considered. There is no disrespect for the opposition as it is always recognised that the political body as a whole is unified in its role as guardian of the people of the country. Islandia does not suggest a new system of life for our contemplation, rather it shows us the possibility of approaching life in a different spirit.

As I mentioned earlier, another crucial aspect is that each Islandian is of the land. He and his family have a deep and abiding connection with a particular piece of land and it is this universal which is the spiritual fundament of the society - the ballast which prevents the social ship from listing and foundering. The Islandians have no need of formal religion for their religion is active, implicit: the intelligence and beauty of nature are their living holy book. They are a people in harmony with the Tao.

And this harmony with nature is also a harmony between man and woman. It is this area that challenges John Lang most - a product of Victorian mores. The women of Islandia are as free as the men in every way, and love on Islandia is a more mature affair than in the naive and prudish West. In Islandia love is categorised triply:
                Apia - strong sexual attraction.
                 Ania - deep love and a commitment to each other.
                 Alia - the highest love; a synergistic union such that the couple enhances one another and acts as a force for good for the whole land; a love that becomes a lens through which all is rendered sacred.

John's dalliances are for him a source of inspiration and consternation in equal measure, and the deftness with which Wright explores the evolution of Lang in this respect is what makes Islandia a great book where it would otherwise have been merely very interesting. Lang, in short, has to grow up out of the infantile culture he has been sprung from. Sentimentality and romanticism slowly fade and heartache is the transformative energy that brings him to maturity - a disillusioned readiness.

For it is love, and especially the love between man and woman, which is the other part of the spiritual picture here. The masks that render authentic engagement difficult for us in the West are not present in Islandia. There is a nakedness of soul, and body too, and where there is no guilt there is no crime. For as Anais Nin so astutely saw, it is the wars between husband and wife, between lovers, between families, which cumulatively externalise into World Wars. The neurotic character of the modern individual is unconsciously projected onto 'the world' and it is here that our complicity with murder is rooted. The emotional reactivity of modern relations is pathological and, if not made conscious, completely destructive.

John Lang's journey towards himself, towards love, towards home, are all the same journey. The psychological subtlety which Wright brings to this journey is so wonderful and complete that the book reaches the status of prophecy, for in the character of Lang we see mirrored what is real and best in ourselves triumphing over the phantasms of pride and prejudice. Islandia is a magic spell, an incantation, a shield and a guide. It is a privileged glimpse of the new Earth, that reality which even now has taken root in so many hearts and is spreading its delicate tendrils ever further in search of    fertile souls.

Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky       
Dostoevsky is the future or, as Oswald Spengler put it, the future belongs to the Christianity of the Dostoevskys of the megalopolis. In Crime and Punishment we have the entire arc of this Christianity - the emergence of this Christianity in one man, Raskolnikov, recorded with the poetic precision of a master artist-psychologist

Nietzsche revered Dostoyevsky, as did Henry Miller. His value is born, as always, of who he was - what he lived. Dostoevsky was exiled to Siberia for being part of a liberal intellectual group and was then sentenced to death. He and his comrades were actually before the firing squad when the sentence was commuted to four years hard labour. This experience - can you imagine? - would have been a rebirth for Fyodor: the suddenly trivial concerns of the ego shed like an outgrown skin. It was here, I imagine, that his destiny as a great writer was sealed. Reduced to zero, he became infinite, all encompassing.

So to Raskolnikov. Raskolnikov is a young, intelligent, penurious man. His life is hamstrung - it seems to him - by his lack of means. The ambition and passions natural to a young man are stymied by his poverty and his idealism. He becomes feverish in body and mind and determines to commit a crime in order to free himself from his subjugation at the hands of his shadowy slave-masters.

This crime then becomes his succubus. The horrific act enslaves him, consumes him, all the more as he tries to conceal his guilt. His sickness intensifies and eventually he completely disburdens himself of the secret, thanks in large part to the subtle psychological outmanoeuvring of the police inspector.

Raskolnikov's story is one for our times because it is the story of the morality of our times. If God is dead, and for most he is, then everything is permissible. Therefore grab what you can, the world is yours for the taking, what is holding you back? Those that are most ruthless in this regard become rich and powerful and we laud them as much as we revile them.

But there is a cost, and the cost is your soul. You cannot escape who you are, what you are, no matter what the pronunciations of Science. As Wittgenstein said, the world is not mystical because of how it is, but because it is! There is a mystery at the heart of everything and thou art that mystery, and that mystery in the past was called God.

So Raskolnikov loses his freedom but in the end gains his soul, thanks to his honesty and contrition, and the unconditional love of one woman. This soul he comes to possess is something he had not possessed earlier, for the soul has to be brought into being.

....and the immortal lines toward the end:
'He was, however, unable to give much prolonged or continuous thought to anything that evening, or to concentrate on any one idea; and anyway, even had he been able to he would not have found his way to a solution of these questions in a conscious manner; now he could only feel. In place of dialectics life had arrived, and in his consciousness something of a wholly different nature must now work towards fruition.'

This fruit is the Christianity of the Dostoevskys of the megalopolis: the clear vision of the blossoming heart, displacing the oscillations of a naive and usurping intellect.

For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway
For Whom the Bell Tolls is set in Spain during the Civil War. This period, just prior to and partly causative of WWII, is a seminal point in the continuing story of humanity's emancipation from tyranny. People from all over the world, mostly non-soldiers, came to help the Republicans defend their elected government against the Fascist forces of Franco. In the end the combined wealth and power of the Catholic Church, Hitler and Mussolini helped Franco to victory, installing his despotic regime for the next 40 years.

Robert Jordan, an explosives expert, is an American that travels to Spain to help defend the republic. Robert is assigned to blow up a bridge in Segovia to stop the advancing Fascists. His task is beset by difficulties of many kinds but it is leavened by a young woman, Maria, with whom he shares brief but beautifully tender moments. Hemingway himself reported from Spain during the civil war and his trademark style - unornamented yet affecting prose - is never more intensely felt than in this his best book.

The tale is replete with vignettes that Ernest may well have heard during his reporter days. Atrocities on both sides are recounted honestly, heroism too. The cruelty, stupidity and tragedy of war are on show here but there is also honour. On one side, the honour of the Fascists: believers in hierarchy, power, obedience and the essential corruption of man. On the other side the Republicans: completely under-resourced compared to their opponents, their impending doom becoming all the more apparent and yet they continue regardless. Their honour is borne of the shared belief in the innate goodness of man when he is free.

The climax is famous and very touching and triumphs over death itself. Because, whether we acknowledge it or not, we are all at war, this same war, this war between the belief in the essential goodness of man and its contrary, that conception of man as originally evil, a being who must be guided against his own nature towards salvation. And no matter how many millions are killed in the name of Fascism, God or 'Freedom', every person who does not renounce his faith in his friends, his faith in humanity, each of these people meets death serenely and helps the Earth move one step closer to peace.

The Razor's Edge, Somerset Maugham

A dear old friend put me onto this classic novel, which was also made into a film starring Bill Murray as Larry, the humble hero of the piece.

Larry is, like Jeff Lebowski, a man for our times. After his experience as an ambulance driver in WWI he returns home to the US, disillusioned and confused. All he knows is that the concerns and pretensions of his upper middle class milieu no longer interest him. He decides to go and live in relative squalor in Paris, working at a variety of jobs to survive and buy the hundreds of books he devours in an effort to understand this mysterious existence.

The author maintains that Larry is a real person whom he knew quite well and Somerset, therefore, is present in the narrative as himself, a slightly cynical, detached presence, his modest fame enough to open the gilded doors of society to him. This first person immediacy lends an intimate authenticity to the narrative and makes of Larry's gentle ebullience a tonic, his humble good-humour a constant antidote to the status-anxiety that infects nearly all those around him.

Larry's journeyman trail leads through farms, fish markets, coal mines (where a fellow miner introduces him to the Upanishads), and eventually to India where he makes his way to a mountain monastery, and it is here that his spiritual hunger is finally sated (the film caricatures this, as always read the book first).

What Larry and his joys and tragedies illuminate (his two love interests form the emotional core of the book and serve as his biggest test, and ultimate triumph) is that dimension of existence that transcends the mundane worries of life that so often obscure all else. For Larry life is a continual gift, he is without ambition and his only gesture to worldly immortality is a small book he publishes by himself for the edification of a handful, the author included. In Larry the heroic is revealed as that mode of being where one gladly installs oneself in the ordinary - joyous, healthy and aware that there is no such thing as ordinary.

The Razor's Edge reveals, like all great books, that the world is pregnant with meaning and that it is up to us to be the midwives of this meaning, an extended birth process which culminates in our giving birth to ourselves.

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