Books read June 2018

Walt_Whitman_-_.jpgWalt Whitman

Walt Whitman: Leaves of Grass: The First (1855) Edition, Camberwell, Penguin, 1959 [1855]

Walt Whitman (American poet, 1819-1892) may just be the true poet of the post-modern age.  His vast rambling poem Leaves of Grass went through many incantations and revisions throughout his life.  Most scholars seem to agree that he might have done better to leave well alone and that this 1855 first version of the poem is the best.

Leaves of Grass is a vast, rambling, wildly energetic and boisterous paean to America and to American life in the mid nineteenth century. It commences with a substantial prose essay which is equally rambunctious, opinionated and at times difficult to comprehend praise of the American poet. Why do I say the poet of the post-modern age?  Consider this passage from his opening essay (p22) [ Note: the series of ….’s are in the original]

There will soon be no more priests. Their work is done. They may wait awhile…perhaps a generation or two…dropping off by degrees. A superior breed shall take their place…the gangs of kosmos and prophets en masse shall take their place. A new order shall  arise and they shall be the priests of man, and every man shall be  his own priest. The churches built under their umbrage shall be the churches of men and women. Thought the divinity of themselves shall the kosmos and the new breed of poets be interpreters of men and women and of all events and things. They shall find their inspiration in real objects today, symptoms of the past and future…They shall not deign to defend immortality or God or the perfection of things or liberty or the exquisite beauty and reality of the soul. They shall arise in America and be responded to from the remainder of the earth. Hmmm!

Similarly on p 15 I note: Whatever would put God in a poem or system of philosophy as contending against some being or influence is also of no account. The great master has nothing to do with miracles. 

The poem Leaves of Grass, subtitled in later editions, Song of Myself, runs along similar lines and themes as it celebrates the sheer beauty of human life, man, woman, creation, work, sex, breathing, the outdoors, the cities,  every conceivable occupation including prostitution, the lunatic, music, art, sailors, lovers, fighters, martyrs, the dying, everyone and everything. So Whitman writes

I know perfectly well my own egotism,

And know my omnivorous words, and cannot say less, 

And would fetch you whoever you are flush with myself.   [lines 1079-81, p74]

The editor of this Penguin edition, longtime literary editor Malcolm Cowley, compares Whitman’s writing with Hindu philosophy especially as it is found in the Bhagavad-Gita and I agree there are many similarities. There is a strong sense of metempsychosis and what goes around comes around, there is a divination and spiritualization of absolutely everything, even what is evil and cruel, there is a genuine identity of the self  with a universal spirit.  Whitman was not familiar with Hindu or Buddhist philosophy when he wrote this first edition of Leaves of Grass but in later editions he began to use specific terms from Hindu philosophical writings. Cowley is not suggesting  that Whitman was a Hindu devotee ..there is nothing about the Hindu pantheon of gods or indeed of Atman or Brahman in Leaves of Grass but there is plenty of “world soul”.  Consider these lines which would be quite at home in the mouth of Krishna speaking in the Bhagavad-Gita.

Swiftly arose and spread around met the peace and joy and knowledge that will pass all the art and argument of the earth; 

And I know that the hand of God is the elder hand of my own,

And I know that the spirit of God is the eldest brother of my own,

And that all the men ever born are also my brothers…. and the 

women my sisters and lovers,

And that a kelson of the creation is love; 

And limitless are leaves stiff or drooping in the fields,

And brown ants in the little wells beneath them,

And mossy scabs of the worm fence, and heaped stones, and elder 

and mullen and pokeweed.   [lines 82 – 98, p29]

Whitman also reminds us existentially that art and  poetry is only art and  poetry is only poetry when it is read, observed  and thought about.

All doctrines, all politics civilisation exurge from you,

All sculpture and monuments and anything inscribed anywhere

are tallied in you,

The gist of histories and statistics as far back as the records reach is

in you this hour — and myths and tales the same;

If you were not breathing and walking here where would they all be?

The most renowned poems would be ashes…orations and plays 

would be vacuums.   [lines 88-90, p92]

What is slightly less post-modern perhaps is Whitman’s trenchant determinism.

The law of the past cannot be eluded,

The law of the present and future cannot be eluded,

The law of the living cannot be eluded….it is eternal,

The law of promotion and transformation cannot be eluded,

The law of heroes and good-doers cannot be eluded,

The law of drunkards and informers and mean persons cannot be eluded.  

[lines 84 -89, p102]

Whitman had a huge impact on the poets of the beat generation and writers like Hart Crane. It may be that he will find  a vast new crop of readers in the post-modern and world-weary West.   For me there are scattered jewels of brilliant insight but the breath-taking relentless onrush of verbalisation becomes wearying.  He would have done well to be more succinct methinks.  I leave my Whitman analysis with this gem.

Why would I wish to see God better than this day?

I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four,

and each moment then,

In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face

in the glass; 

I find letters from God dropped in the street, and every one is 

signed by God’s name,

And I leave them where they are, for I know that others will

punctually come forever and forever.        [lines 1276 – 1280, p83]

Samuel Butler: The Way Of All Flesh, New York, Airmont, 1965  [1903]

 

Samuel Butler.jpegSamuel Butler was the son and grandson of Anglican clerics and this semi-autobiographical novel tells the story of Earnest Pontifex, child of a strict clerical father and grandfather who rebels against this family tradition at some cost to himself. After graduating impressively from Cambridge Butler  broke completely with his family and left England for New Zealand successfully running a sheep station for five years. Surprisingly successful Butler returned to England independently wealthy and spent his life alternating between painting, extensive travelling in Europe with various close male friends and writing novels, literary and artistic criticism, criticism of traditional Anglican theology and works critical of Darwinian evolution.

Strongly critical of Victorian religion and morality, The Way of All Flesh was published posthumously in 1903 to protect his family. The novel is by degrees funny, sad, clever, tedious, at times horrifying  but  always manages to hold the reader’s interest. Butler’s criticism of Victorian Anglicanism and his account of evangelical/high church divisions demonstrates a detailed knowledge of Biblical narrative and of mid-C19th theological debate especially around Evangelical and High Church Anglicanism as well as varied Christian responses to Darwinian evolution.  Butler also wrote the satirical novel Erewhon, based on his life in NewZealand and on his return to England he wrote works on Italian art, Homer, Shakespeare and music as well as anti Darwinian but not anti evolutionary semi scientific works which attempted to defend a neo-Lamarckian view of evolution going back to Buffon.    This lengthy novel has never been out of print and reflects an agile, multi-layered, well-travelled and intelligent mind. He was effectively a moral philosopher.   4 stars.

Nina Wilner: Forty Autumns, London, Little Brown Book Group 2016

Factual account of a family torn in two by the establishment of a totalitarian Communist State in East Germany following the overthrow of Nazi Germany at the end of World War 11. Germany was partitioned between the Soviets and the Allies. The Soviet Government installed a Communist Government in East Germany led by Walter Ulbricht and later Erich Honnecker. The German Democratic Republic became increasingly isolationist eventually completely closing all foreign borders and isolating Eastern Berlin from West Berlin by a vast concrete wall which became increasingly  protected by lights, barbed wire, inspection towers, guards,  weaponry, tanks and a substantial cleared no-go guarded area on the East German side. Over forty years of isolation, more than one sixth of the East German population fled to the West and some 170 would be “escapees” were shot trying to get into East Berlin. The East German secret service (The Stasi), became increasingly involved in mind control, terror, murder and victimisation, with significant rewards going to those who signed up to become party members and significant persecution and harassment of those who did not.

Hannah Wilner was the second oldest member of 9 children of Opa and Oma Willner and was of an independent mind and spirit. On her third attempt to flee into West Germany she was successful and eventually married a German Jewish Nazi survivor and settled down in the USA seeing her East German family in the flesh only once in those forty years. Hannah’s daughter Nina, also a strongly independent and spirited person grew up in the USA and eventually was accepted into the US Military, and became a spy for the Western powers in Berlin, leading sortées into East Germany on many occasions.

Following the American/Russian détente at the end of the Cold War, much due to the efforts of Gorbachev and Reagan,  Hanna and Nina were reunited with their extended family and a remarkable tale unfolded of forty years of survival of the Willner family who became teachers and office workers,  one an East German cycling olympian, others just quietly surviving and keeping their heads down. Nina Willner’s book is meticulously researched and documented and contains an excellent family photographic record and family tree. It is a heart-warming, at times tragic and always a very tense and exciting account of courage, determination, survival, honesty, idealism and commitment. An absolute page turner proving once again that historical truth is stranger by far than fiction.  5 stars.

Isabel Allende: The House of the Spirits, translated Magda Bogin, London, Black Swan,1986 [1985].

220px-Isabel_Allende_-_001.jpg

A prolific writer Isabel Allende, born 1942, is living an extraordinary life. Allende was  born in Peru, of Chilean parents. Her diplomat father, a cousin of Salvador Allende, mysteriously disappeared when she was three years old and her mother moved to Chile and married Ramón Huidobro, a Chilean diplomat serving in Bolivia, Lebanon, Argentina and Chile thus ensuring that Isabel had a truly international education.

 

Isabel Allende married engineering student Miguel Frias and worked in Europe, Chile and Venezuela for the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation, and as a translator, TV personality, dramatist and journalist.   When Salvador Allende, Chile’s first Socialist President, was murdered in a CIA backed Military Coup in 1973 which installed Army Chief Augusto Pinochet as leader, Isabel, then living in Chile,  assisted her parents in providing safe  passage for opponents of the Coup to safely leave Chile. Eventually her own name was added to the hit list and she fled to Venezuela where she again worked as a journalist. In 1988 she married again , this time to American attorney Willie Gordon and eventually became an American citizen.

The House of Spirits was inspired by the imminent death of her 99 year old grandfather who had lived through a century of both inspiring and tragic Chilean history. In her own words Allende wanted “to exorcize the ghosts of Pinochet’s dictatorship” in Chile. Unable to find a publisher in the United States, the book was eventually published in Spain.

Spanning three generations but never straying far from the patriarch Esteban Trueba, The House of the Spirits is a complex, funny but always compelling tale of love, lust, political intrigue,  history, terror and courage. With much more than a nod to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s A Hundred Years of Solitude, Allende blends magic realism, historical insight, mystery and a remarkable cast of characters young and old to tell the savage political story of Chile in the second half of the twentieth century. The narrative centres around a rural estate and a classically designed urban mansion which accumulated many additional rooms and corridors over the years and provides a mysterious and fertile mystery house  from which many dramatic events emerge and in which many secrets are hidden. The moving spirit who upheld the spirit of opponents of the Pinochet Coup called simply “The Poet”, is clearly intended to be Pablo Neruda.

How much does a man live, after all?

Does he live a thousand days, or one only?

For a week, or for several centuries?

How long does a man spend dying?

What does it mean to say “for ever”?

Pablo Neruda

The first three quarters of the novel drift along in a somewhat dreamy and mysterious ‘magic realist’ mode which sometimes only barely holds the reader’s interest as the cast of characters mounts throughout the text.  The tension heightens significantly in chapter 12  (”The Conspiracy”)  and the novel assumes more realistic and tragic proportions. The complex politics of late C20th Chile with conservative, left-wing, Marxist, industrial and military factions interacting with sophisticated complexity is deftly described.  Allende’s novel achieves a  profoundly moving expose of the genuine terror of the Pinochet coup. The “disappearance” of many thousands of opponents of the regime has left a permanent mark on the Chilean psyche and joins with the Rwandan, Cambodian, East German, Korean, Balkan and now Afghan and Syrian tragic trajectory of post-world war 11 realpolitik.

Whilst I am not a great fan of magic realism the  brutal scope of the Chilean terror can perhaps only be countenanced and assimilated with a technique such as that mastered first by Marquez.I am surprising myself in giving this novel  5 stars!

Isabel Allende: Eva Luna, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden, Ringwood Au, Penguin, 1989 [1987]

Chilean author, now American citizen, Isabel Allende has written prolifically about fictional characters set in and around political  events in the last half of the C20th in South America and Europe. The major location in this novel is an unknown South American country with elements that fit at times with both Chile and Venezuela in both of which countries Allende lived for many years.

Once again there is to a degree an element of magic realism style in this novel but far less than in The House of the Spirits reviewed above. All sides of the political spectrum are considered …the conservative élite, the Indians, the left, the new rich, the guerrillas and the military and political leaders. Unlike the significantly large cast in The House of the Spirits this novel follows closely the adventurous and at times chaotic life story of Eva Luna from her birth to her mysterious and luminous mother Consuela to her eventual marriage to news cameraman Rolf Carlé.

The themes are more contemporary in this novel including much more racy sexual encounters and a key transgender character as well as characters at home in a modern media world. In general it is fair to say there is a degree of amorality in Eva Luna which is stronger than in The House of the Spirits.  Thus while rape, prostitution and sexual encounters occur in both novels Eva Luna herself seems to manage to have a sexual encounter with just about every major male person that enters her life. In addition the Catholic Church takes a beating in this novel.

Eva Luna is more a “search for love and meaning” story with a political background rather than a coherently historical saga after the style of The House of the Spirits.  Even so, perhaps due to the translation factor, the character of Eva Luna is so multi-faceted that it is hard to close the novel with a total sense of one “mastering” the character of Eva.  Some of the relationships and renewed meetings after many years appear somewhat contrived. In the novel, Eva Luna herself becomes an accomplished and published writer after many struggles and as one reads this novel there is the thought that parts of the narrative may be somewhat autobiographical. 3 stars.

Voltaire  [François-Marie Alouet]: Candide or Optimism, translated by John Butt, Mitcham Au, Penguin Books, 1947 [1759].

Unknown.jpegTranslator John Butt tells us that French philosopher and wit Voltaire wrote Candide at the peak of his career whilst living in Ferney in eastern France near the border with Switzerland , having been twice imprisoned and found unwelcome in Paris. In Ferney, he also wrote his dialogues, various short tales and his Philosophic Dictionary. Voltaire eventually returned in triumph to Paris in 1788 not long before his death.

Candide is an outright philosophical rejection of C18th optimistic philosophy represented in particular by Leibniz, who is mentioned specifically at the end of chapter 28 as one who cannot be wrong (p136).  Optimistic philosophy was also championed in the C18th by German polymath philosopher Christian Wolff and extraordinary C18th English social reformer Anthony Ashley Cooper, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury.

The key characters in Candide are Candide himself, the luckless son of a German baron of Westphalia, his beloved and very beautiful Cunégonde, whom he tracks all over Europe and South America finally marrying her in her ugly old age, and the irrepressible Dr Pangloss, philosopher extraordinaire representing Leibniz’ eternally optimistic view of life. The long essay satirically describes the fatuousness and brutalising stupidity of internecine warfare, the corruption of European hegemony in South America, the violence and pointlessness of the Franco-Prussian war, the natural? greed and lustfulness of men given the opportunity and, in the perfect hidden community of Eldorado a biting satire on the folly of faith in riches and the impossibility of protecting them from theft and eventual destruction.

One would need to be expert in C18th political life and literature to catch the meaning of all of Voltaire’s satirical barbs but, even in translation, the humour and the clear vitality  of his writing is evident on every page. His attack is not so much directly on Christianity as on man’s innate ability to corrupt the good and the fragility of moral human intention in the face of sexual and monetary temptation. A thoughtful and humorous read even after 250+ years. 4 stars.

Ed Shaw: The Plausibility Problem: the church and same-sex attraction, Nottingham, IVP, 2015

Ed Shaw is an evangelical church leader who is same-sex attracted and celibate. This remarkably honest and carefully written book documents his deep desire to express his same-sex attraction in sexual union with another man which is in conflict with his Christian commitment to what he regards as clear-cut Biblical teaching on this issue.

Shaw writes with a full realisation that some significant evangelical writers have found a way to maintain their evangelical commitment to the authenticity of Scripture and also accept same-sex marriage. These writers include Rob Bell and Steve Chalke (p.30). As Vaughan Roberts writes in his Foreward (p 15) his sights are not set on the predictable target —compromising liberals— but on those who belong to his own evangelical tribe.

The book is called The Plausibility Problem because in the C21st it is so plausible to see same-sex  marriage as the natural outcome of a blossoming of love between two people independent of their gender and this is the way it is seen by an increasing number of church denominations, especially in the United States but increasingly elsewhere. Shaw notes that in the evangelical churches in the 1990s same-sex attraction was a no-go area whereas today many churches are simply arguing that love is what matters, not outmoded Biblical teaching.

The major thrust of Shaw’s argument is that the evangelical church has magnified the problems of same-sex attracted people by nine “missteps” all of which need to be taken very seriously but the church today.   These ‘missteps’ are carefully argued, well documented and provide a very strong critique of the standard evangelical rejection of same-sex attraction. The missteps are as follows:

(i)  ‘Your identity is your sexuality.’  For individuals to call themselves “gay” is to define their identity sexually whereas to call themselves “same-sex attracted” is no different in reality from saying they are attracted to  beautiful women, pyromania or cleptomania. The misstep is the danger that some evangelicals often fall into of more generally defining ourselves as sinners rather than saints; as those in rebellion against God rather than his permanently adopted children. (p40)

(ii) ‘A family is Mum, Dad and 2.4 children.’ Many successful evangelical churches play to families/teenagers/young adults/young marrieds and families. They often struggle with singles especially younger singles who often feel estranged from church programs and proclamation. (p45) The church should rather be a real family…fully embracing all of its members.

(iii) ‘If you’re born gay, it can’t be wrong to be gay.’ Shaw quotes Richard Hayes: the very nature of sin is that it is not freely chosen….we are in bondage to sin but still held accountable to God’s righteous judgment of our actions. ..it cannot be maintained that a homosexual orientation is morally neutral because it is involuntary. [in The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics, New York, HarperOne, 1996, p390] quoted on p.60.  The misstep is not spelt out in this chapter but presumably the Evangelical church has started to give away the doctrine of judgment.

(iv) If it makes you happy, it must be right.’  The misstep here is that the priority of happiness has infiltrated the evangelical church. Whereas three generations ago divorce was unacceptable in the church apart from the extremes of serial adultery or spousal abuse today in many churches it has become routine. Similarly although evangelicals claim to oppose the prosperity gospel we’ve joined the world around us in believing that money buys happiness. So we’ll  give away what we can afford, but only after we’ve paid for what we no longer consider luxuries …the third pair of shoes, the latest phone, the foreign holiday, the private school fees, the safest pension etc. …in many church contexts, the main group who are still being asked to do something that makes them unhappy are the Christians who experience same-sex attraction.(p24)

(v) Sex is found where true intimacy is found’….intimate friendships and relationships do not have to be sexual relationships.

(vi) Men and women are equal and interchangeable’…Shaw argues that men and women are equal but not interchangeable. It is a massive challenge to articulate the equality of the two sexes at the same time as the differences, and then to explain the importance of these differences and why we need to preserve them.

(vii)  Godliness is heterosexuality’….the call to sexual purity is a sub-section of godliness, not “the” defininition…..True, Chriat-like sacrificial love means saying ‘No!’ to any sexual activity outside marriage (p99)….we need to to measure Christianity by Christ-likeness (p100) …a constant recognition that at heterosexual  sexuality does does not guarantee godliness….(p103).  .The evangelical  church largely discounts this idea but goes hard on same-sex attraction….homosexual sex outside marriage is perceive as a much greater sin in our churches that heterosexual sex outside marriage. (p104)

(viii) ‘Celibacy is bad for you.’  Shaw writes: Pastorally, I ‘ve actually discovered more loneliness in marriages than among single people. (p109) Genesis 2:4 is stressing [man and woman’s] permanent (and sexual) union rather than saying they were incomplete beforehand….If we don’t communicate that celibacy is a plausible way of living, we make it almost inevitable for same-sex attracted Christians  (and those who care for them) to embrace ‘gay marriage’). The good sermon we’ve never heard that promotes lifelong singleness is there in 1 Corinthians 7. Paul is the preacher and he manages to promote with the gifts of marriage and singleness at the same time…(p110)…Singleness is a gift you have, unless it is taken away by the gift of marriage. (p110)

(x) ‘Suffering is to be avoided’.  ..following Jesus is no longer about our sacrifice and suffering. Western Christians have, by and large, stopped denying ourselves—we now talk more about our right to be ourselves. (p118)  We should ask What did Jesus do? not what would Jesus do?  (p119) So what have you denied yourself  to follow Jesus? There must be something. If there’s nothing, then you are not really following the Jesus who speaks to you here. (p119)

Conclusion: instead of keeping very silent on the issue of homosexuality, hoping to avoid all of the controversy that it brings us, we should begin to see both the people who experience it and the controversy it brings as a gift to the church. A divine gift, because it’s just what we needed at this time in our history to help us to see the whole series of tragic missteps we have taken, to the detriment of us all, as well as to the detriment of the world we are trying to reach.

Shaw’s book has helpful appendices:

  1. A useful essay on the plausibility of the traditional interpretation of Scripture’s account of human relationships – effectively a very useful summary of the Scriptural story (pp 136-154…very useful for a study group. 

2.  An essay on the implausibility of the New interpretations of Scripture in regard to human relationships.  Shaw suggests these “interpretations” are based on emotion (p156); polarisation (p157) and doubt rather than rejection of traditional biblical interpretation. (p158) In this section he argues that biblical passages are not interpreted in their full biblical context (p160); they rely on extra-biblical sources e.g. suggesting that Romans 1 is a response to Caligula’s excesses (p 161); they pitch scripture against scripture (p162) ..”repugnant” according to Anglican article 20!

Shaw also includes a very useful collection of recommended readings as well as the readings of his opponents. This is a brave,practical and clear book. Evangelicals ignore it at their peril!  5 stars!

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