Friday, September 12, 2014

Narziss and Goldmund: The Spiritual Life and The Secular Life

Goldmund could not fit into the Mariabronn Monastery anymore than a square peg could fit into a round hole and soon left the cloister for the vagrant life. By sleeping in the woods, killing Viktor the thief, meeting the plague, studying under Meister Niklaus and romancing with Lydia and Julie, Lene and Agnes, he explored the sensual life as an artist. When Agnes rejected the old man that he was, he returned to the monastery to meet his friend and mentor Narziss before leaving the world.

Calw, Germany

On the other hand, at home in Mariabronn with the chestnut tree and knowing that his way differs from that of Goldmund, Narziss, isolated from the flesh’s pleasure and pain, lived out the monastic life, praying, meditating, searching for enlightenment through intellectual and ascetic disciplines. The way of the mystic was for Narziss as much as the way of the artist was for Goldmund.

Hermann Hesse

Hermann Hesse, throughout his life, sought Goldmund’s artistic way¾ the emotional, prodigal, active, and sensual path¾ but ended up with Narziss’s mystical way¾ the intellectual, disciplined, contemplative, and ascetic path.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Buddenbrooks: The Saga of a Family

Thomas Mann's Novel on the Decline of a Family


Thomas Buddenbrook was a businessman, who followed in the family’s bourgeoisie pragmatism and achieved moderate success. But his brother Christian was the prodigal son, who squandered time and money in theater. And Thomas’s son Hanno, escaped harsh reality into the world of music. The conflict between the pragmatic and the ideal, reflected Thomas Mann’s struggles, and would surface again in The Magic Mountain.

Hamburg

The reader sees the family’s decline in Christian’s worsening pain, in Thomas’s gloom, in Hanno’s unhealthy teeth, and in the failed marriages of Tony, Thomas’s sister. Although Tony tried to leverage her and her daughter’s marriages to uplift the family status, their failures pointed toward the finale, where Christian was permanently institutionalize and Hanno died without children. Not only had the wealth dissipated, but also there was no heir.

Buddenbrooks is a monumental family saga.

Thomas Mann

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Franz Kafka's The Trial


K was accused of an undisclosed crime, based on a hidden law, by an unreachable court. Trying to uncover his crime, he encountered gatekeepers dedicated to blocking his eyes from not only the crime but also the law. At first, shocked or tickled by such a nightmare, the reader soon realized that his biases, prejudices and presumptions are those of K and that to the court administrators, K was the lunatic whose delusion had clouded his eyes.

The Court (Photographer: Matt Wade)

How could we be guilty of violating a law we don’t know of? How could there be a crime without a law? Perhaps K was guilty of holding onto such biases as logic and causality or merely of existing. Whether he understood the law or accepted the sentence, he couldn’t avoid the punishment just as a boy couldn’t avoid growing up.

Locating the crime, the law or the court pales against our discovering the colored glasses with which we see the sea and the sky, the banknote and the meatloaf, Napoleon and Genghis Khan, or for that matter, the man or woman in the mirror.


We created natural laws to rein in protons and electrons; we created civil laws to rein in John and Jane; we created ecclesiastical canons to rein in God. Then we organized these absolute truths to rein in our fears, hopes and humanity. So once in a while we should enjoy the shock as from The Trial and realize that we still could create absolute truths when we’re bored texting or twittering.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Brothers Karamozov: Dostoevsky's Epic Philosophical Novel


The crime: someone murdered Fyodor Karamozov, the wanton, irritable, and sadistic patriarch.

The punishments: Smerdyakov, the illegitimate son, committed suicide after killing his father. Dmitri, the eldest son, passionate and immoderate like his father, whom the court found guilty of the murder, was condemned to Siberia. Ivan, the second son, who was "enlightened" and rational, struggled with the guilt of convincing his half-brother Smerdyakov that since God didn’t exist, everything, including patricide, was permitted.

Optina Monastery (Photo by Иерей Максим Массалитин)

But as the dying monk Zosima had revealed and Dmitri soon realized, everyone was complicit in and thus implicated for the crime, since, for Dostoevsky, the web of sin entangled young and old to the extend that even children suffered from their peers’ sadism.

Through his dream of the hungry and suffering children, Dmitri realized his guilt in the desire, that mustard seed in his mind, to kill his father and therefore willingly took upon the punishment for the crime he didn’t commit. In doing so, he assumed a Christ-figure, accepting punishment for another’s crime.

The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor revealed Ivan’s enlightened rationalism for a humanistic dystopia, the socialist utopia that Dostoevsky condemned. Only when, in a hallucination, the "devil"--Ivan’s dark side-- revealed the parable of the learned atheist and thus rationalism’s arid futility did Ivan realized his guilt in rationalizing patricide and prodding Smerdyakov to commit it.

Fyodor Doetoevsky

And Smerdyakov, who mirrored Ivan’s unconsciousness and who carried the latter’s reasoning to the logical conclusion, like Judas, would not have the chance to repent or atone for his crime. In the end, Dmitri assumed his punishment.

Through the tormented consciousness of Dmitri, Ivan, Smerdyakov and other characters, Dostoevsky grabbled with morality in an enlightened but Godless world, a world that he could not accept.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Anna Karenina Book Review

To seek happiness Anna left the proper and dull Karenin for the dashing and exciting Vronsky, but in the end, committed suicide to end her misery. Rather than a comment on morality, Tolstoy through Anna Karenina, as in War and Peace, sought to contrast those who like Anna ignored or opposed the ubiquitous force which direct the destiny of individuals and nations and those who like Levin flowed with it. Both Anna and Levin, unlike Stiva and Dolly, could not passively regurgitate accepted behavior to satisfy social conventions and accept a banal existence, but they paved their paths one to the north and the other to the south.

Red Square, Moscow

Passion directed Anna to oppose social conventions and with all a rebel’s defiance pursued in Vronsky’s arms the happiness that Karenin could not provide. They would love as if the whole world belonged to them. But in the end she could not live like Robinson Crusoe and was not strong enough to fend off social forces, which proclaimed reality’s omnipresence.

Levin sought to transform himself and love Kitty as social conventions could only imitate. He sought to transcend social conventions, which were not in sync with the force that directed destinies, to attune to a higher melody, one that resonates wit the natural order of things.

Leo Tolstoy

The diametrically opposing destinies of Anna and Levin revealed, as in War and Peace, Tolstoy’s search to harmonize with a natural force greater than reason, passion or will. For him, to raise the sword against that force would be to embrace the inferno.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Animal Farm Book Review


"All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others."

Joseph Stalin

In Animal Farm George Orwell reenacted the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, Major, Napoleon, Snowball, Jones, and Frederick incarnating Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Tsar Nicolas II and Hitler. But through the fable, Orwell critiques not only communism but also any corruption of power, leaders highlighting real or imagined threats to instill fear in followers and solidify power.

Leon Trotsky

As often repeated throughout history, people out of fear often would submit to the state’s unchecked power in exchange for security real or imagined. In the end, Napoleon exploited the animals just as Farmer Jones previously had and even emulated humans when he gave a dinner to neighboring farmers, who represented the leaders of other nations and would gladly play poker with the tyrant as long as they can benefit from the friendship. Animal Farm is a lighthearted fable for a serious subject.

George Orwell

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Black-Naped Oriole in Hokkaido Snow

After a tsunami has taken his daughter and leukemia his wife, Yasahiro Kobayashi goes to the mountains of Hokkaido to commit seppuku, but not before he rescues an old man from several delinquents. "Black-Naped Oriole in Hokkaido Snow" is a story of a man wrestling  with love and lost, and life and death.


For the full story, go to the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore.



Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Plague: Camus's Masterpiece on the Human Predicament

When the plague stealthily but mercilessly struck Oran, Dr. Rieux and his friends had to fight in the dark a noiseless enemy and could only rely on their courage and resilience. Whether the plague symbolized the Nazi occupation of France or the general suffering of our human condition, Camus focused on the internal character and strength of Rieux and his friends rather than the storm’s force and direction. Tarrou organized the sanitation team and Grand joined even though, as Rieux noted, their surviving it was only one in three. And the journalist Rambert could have left the city and returned to Paris, but was willing to risk not only his happiness with his girlfriend but also his life to struggle alongside Oran’s inhabitants to defeat the plague.

A Quote from The Plague

Unlike Meursault in The Stranger, who stood alone and alienated, Dr. Rieux fought the plague alongside his comrades Tarrou, Grand, Rambert and Castel. Though in the end, the plague took Tarrou’s life and those of several acquaintances, camaraderie had strengthened their resolve to fight this unknown and powerful enemy and highlighted the hope that in tumultuous hours and charred wastelands a few good men and women might sacrifice for the common good. And though when the city celebrated its victory, Rieux must mourn the loss of his wife, not through the plague but through a previous illness, newborn aroma seeped through the stench of the plague. As Rieux noted at the novel’s conclusion, the enemy might return; and in the next battle victory might escape beyond the city, but their courage and sacrifice would carry the fight across desert and sea.


An allegory of our existential condition, The Plague sprinkles hope without relying on Pollyanna.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

War and Peace Book Review

Beyond the panoramic Battles of Austerlitz and Borodino, the muffled burning of Moscow and Napoleon’s dilapidated retreat, Tolstoy in War and Peace painted the Napoleonic War’s dislodging the cast of characters from their apparel concerns, gossipy sorties, troubled marriages and career ambitions and through their social clumsiness, oppressive ideals, spiritual dullness and determined naivete, extorted their unavoidable responses to these tidal waves.

While Napoleon sought to drive history’s course through his lashing will and reining determination by marching onto Moscow, Kutuzov by sensing and attuning to the historical current tactically retreated beyond Moscow and after the Napoleonic army’s natural dissipation trailed its chaotic retreat. Tolstoy, who believed historical crosswinds to be too complicated for any Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan to align, favored Kutuzov’s naturalistic craftsmanship and through Pierre, applied it to personal destiny.

French Retreat from Russia by Illarion Mikhailovich Pryanishnikov

After his wife had left him, Pierre’s clumsy and sometimes-comic search for meaning led him to freemasonry, whose esoteric philosophy failed to pave a new path beyond the thorns and thistles. Although he accepted life storms serenely, his what for and so what would continue to harass him until he met Karataev, who showed him the life unified to the land, the sea and the air and harmonious with their rhythms¾a mystical naturalism favored by Tolstoy. However, at the novel’s conclusion, our hero’s life as a conscientious nobleman, a contributing intelligentsia and an accommodating family man, perhaps a sign that age would squander aspirations and the years would sap physical and emotional energy, smelled of defeat to his previous pilgrimage.

The Battle of Austerlitz by François Gérard 

On the other hand, Andrei’s escaping from marriage, career and the mundane drudgery, and impulsively grasping after the wintry Polaris led to the battlefield where he almost died. Although Natasha’s love provided respite, her unfaithfulness confirmed his suspicion of an earthly Eden. In the end, even though he had forgiven her, he gave up that love for the ultimate rainbow, death, wherein he finally could rest. If he had not died, he probably would have been disillusioned by his love for Natasha.


It is sad that Andrei had given up youth, love and the possibilities of life, but it is equally sad that Pierre had decayed into a Nikolai Rostov after his courageous journey through what for and so what. Must we like the samurai commit seppuku to immortalize youth, vitality, creativity and aspiration so as not to decay into a grumpy and lecherous old man or a jealous and nagging old woman? Tolstoy’s determinism would dictate that Pierre would ultimately return to the natural cycle of birth, growth, education, career, marriage, procreation, contribution, decay and death. But whether we agree with Tolstoy or not, War and Peace would continue to tower above the greatest novels.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

1984 Book Review: The Ultimate Dystopian Novel

"Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four."

Under Big Brother’s omniscient eyes, Winston Smith tried to ignite his only freedom, the freedom to believe in "obvious" truths, but by the novel’s end, at the café Winston was unsure what two plus two would make, a sign that O’Brien had successfully reintegrated a "lost soul" and Winston had become like his friends and neighbors, unable to question and thus unable to revolt. What sends shivers down our spines is not the various tortures O’Brien performed, but after these tortures, Winston’s total capitulation¾mind, body, and soul¾to Big Brother. When the mind kowtows to external authority and ceases to reflect and question, then the individual had successfully metamorphosed into a machine.

Winston, by editing previous documents to conform to Oceana’s present position, such as whether Eurasia is friend or foe, had helped the regime’s guardians, who like O’Brien believed "who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past," mold the citizens’ minds. But Oceana, like other totalitarian regimes, also turned to the indispensable tool, fear, to chisel its citizens’ minds and hearts to its agenda’s shape and form. To stimulate fear and rouse its citizens to a common cause, it would when necessary create fathom enemies, either Eurasia or Eastasia, even though these totalitarian regimes also had similar ideologies, or rather, like Oceana, no ideologies.

Oceania Society

Under 1984’s dystopian sky, Winston must bow, not only because of Big Brother’s overwhelming power and presence, but also because of Winston’s inability to form any ideologies. Even though he wanted to think freely, he lacked the training and thus the analytical mind to counter O’Brien’s offenses. In the end, his mind followed the path of least resistance.

George Orwell

Orwell’s 1984 is a dark apocalypse of sub-human society where homo-sapiens had replaced machines to operate an efficient hierarchy, an apocalypse which any people would usher wherever and whenever they ceased to question "intuitively obvious truths."

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle

In Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut through humor jabs at science, religion, and government. Bokonon, founder of the religion Bokononism, stated, “If I were younger, I would write a history of human stupidity…” A summary of Vonnegut’s theme in this novel.

Cat's Cradle

When the narrator John sets out to write a book about what important people were doing during the Hiroshima bombing, he begins a journey into human destruction. Through the children of Felix Hoenikker, a co-founder of the atomic bomb, he learns of the mad genius of this nuclear physicist. And stumbles upon the man’s invention, ice-nine, a substance when in contact with water changes it to ice. Like the atomic bomb Vonnegut was alluding, ice-nine can destroy the world. Indeed, it did, changing the seas and oceans into ice, killing anyone whose lips touches it. That potential for human destruction has only increased since Vonnegut wrote the novel. We no longer doubt that we can tilt the earth’s axis, contaminate our food and water, and change the earth’s climates.

The Possibilities of Ice-Nine

When John travels to San Lorenzo, a Caribbean island, he learns about Bokononism, a religion of absurdity and contradictory wisdom, invented by Bokonon, born Lionel Boyd Johnson, a friend of US Marine deserter Earl McCabe, who found the nation of San Lorenzo. Its nihilistic and anti-religious wisdom gives the natives the illusion of hope that they needed so much to endure their poverty, illiteracy and suffering. Absurdity: the government has banned the religion but the dictator practices it. Absurdity: the nation’s official religion is Christianity, but everyone practices Bokononism. Absurdity: Bokonon, the founder of the religion, advised the ruler to ban the religion to instill the people’s fervor for the belief. Indeed, Bokononism succeeds in what institutionalized religions should do: give people hope what reality is too difficult to bear.

San Lorenzo

San Lorenzo is not much different from other banana republic. Colonialists came upon the natives and took over the land. They set up a government and imposed their religion, language, and values. They left or died off, leaving room for a dictator to seize power and oppress the people. The dictator allies himself with a superpower and can do whatever he wants within his country. But of interest here: the dictator “Papa” Monzano’s ice-nine frozen body drops into the ocean to destroy San Lorenzo and the rest of the world. A symbol that even after he had died, he still could wreck havoc.


Cat’s Cradle is Kurt Vonnegut’s dystopian novel. His humor only adds to the novel’s poignancy. The theme is as relevant today as when it was written decades. In trying to advance civilization through science, religion and government, we may instead destroy it. A vision worth considering.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X



When Yasuko Hanaoka’s ex-husband shows up to exhort money, she and her daughter kill him. Her neighbor Tetsuya Ishigami, a high school math teacher, volunteers to help dispose of the body and divert the police’s attention. What results is a scheme to deceive the police into solving the wrong crime.

A dead body whose face is smashed to hide the identity shows up near the river and Detective Kusanagi must identify the murder and find the perpetrator. On reaching a dead end, he solicits his friend and schoolmate, physics professor Dr. Manabu Yukawa, to sift through the clues and red herrings. Thus, pinning the two masterminds against each other.

In The Devotion of Suspect X, Ishigami and Yukawa try to outwit each other in this cops and robbers game. What Yukawa couldn’t fathom is the depth in which Ishigami is willing to devote himself to and ultimately sacrifice for Yasuko. This mystery is among the handful of mystery novels whose plots surprise me. And though I wish the key characters have more depth, the plot more than compensates for that flaw and the sparse prose pushes the plot along without extraneous verbiage. Smart and powerful. I almost wish Ishigami could triumph over Yukawa.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Albert Camus's The Stranger

Meursault, an alien not of France or Algeria but of the world, shot the Arab and after the man had fallen, pumped four more bullets into the body. The sun made him do it just as if El Nino toppled the financial markets and urge disgruntle employees to shoot their colleagues and managers. He showed the same nonchalance toward a possible promotion, his mother’s death, his making love with Marie the first time, his neighbor Salamano’s beating the dog, and his friend Raymond’s beating his wife as toward killing the Arab. During the trial, contrary the social convention he offered no convincing motive and refused to defend himself against he crime.

To prevent him from contaminating society, from spreading meaninglessness and detachment to others, the jury found him guilty of callousness and condemned him to death for being a stranger to his mother, his lover, his friends, moral codes, social norms, and cultural conventions.
Arzew, Algeria

For the generation after WWII, for the survivors after the stench of Hitler and Stalin and the taste of Aushwitz, Nanjing and Hiroshima, what could be more seductive than embracing absurdity and thrashing humanity?

Nineteenth century optimism had crashed into a stonewall; utopia had metamorphosed into the Holocaust; the unlimited possibilities of reason, science and humanity had created the machine guns, the gas chambers, and the atomic bombs. Stranger, welcome to the brave new world!

The Guillotine

Just as a starving child would ignore Zeno’s problem or Fermat’s Last Theorem, so a stranger would neglect the alien faces and tunes, desiring to smell his home soil, to shake his kinsmen’s hands and to hug his "ground of being." In an absurd world, moral, social and cultural contracts would appear frivolous and irrelevant, and those who had feasted upon absurdity may view the world with a different pair of colored glasses and appreciate the Meursault’s methodic actions and orderly world.

When you are among lunatics accusing you of being insane, can you maintain your sanity? What is absurdity but a relative evaluation based on preconceived and accepted norms. Who really is the stranger in the world, Meursault or Marie or the prosecutor or the magistrate or the chaplain?

Albert Camus

In The Stranger, a must-read to understand one view of the human predicament, Camus depicted the post-modern mileau where the Holocaust had dethroned and demythologized reason and science and the mutual critique among various claims to truth and meaning¾religion, politics, science, etc¾would result in a pluralism of absurdities that would provide new insights to humanity.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Miyuki Miyabe’s All She’s Worth

While Police Detective Shunsuke Honma is on leave after he injured his leg, a distant relative of his late wife appears and asks for help. His fiancée Shoko Sekine has disappeared after a bank rejected her application for a credit card, revealing her past bankruptcy.

Tokyo

Honma’s investigation reveals the woman’s descent into debt, a common problem in Japan’s consumer driven economy. But soon he finds out the fiancée might have murdered the real Shoko Sekine and taken over the woman’s identity. When he digs out the imposter’s background, he realizes that her family’s financial problems had driven her to assume the new identity.


Though the pace is slow and parts of the novel can be taken out without much loss, the search for the identities and backgrounds of the two women is interesting. But what really holds the story together is the problem associated with debt-driven consumer-oriented economy, the common link between the two women, the real and the fake Shoko Sekine. The desire to escape from debt, driving their lives to the sad ending. The issue is as relevant today as it was in the 1990’s.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit

“Hell is other people.” What if hell is not an inferno but being trapped in a room with people who judge and condemn you? In Sartre’s play No Exit, three condemned souls must stay with each other for all eternity, watching, condemning, torturing one another. Garcin seeks understanding from Inez for deserting the army but only receives her judgment. Estelle, who killed her newborn baby and caused her lover to commit suicide, seeks Garcin’s affection to define who she is, but only receives his snub. Inez tries to seduce Estelle, but only scares the latter. They seek redemption through others but only receive condemnation. For Sartre, that is the picture of hell, and hell exists not in the afterlife but here in this life.

Jean-Paul Sartre

The most poignant moment in the play is when the door is opened, but Garcin doesn’t leave the room to escape his hell. He remains to persuade Inez to accept his cowardice, his betrayal of his country and his wife. This is Sartre’s vision of the contemporary person, unable or perhaps unwilling to escape his hell for fear of taking on the responsibility of defining his own person. As Erich Fromm has said, freedom can be frightening when we have to accept the responsibilities associated with that freedom. Ultimately, for Sartre, hell is when others, friends and family, career and leisure, society and culture, religion and government, define who we are.

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone deBeauvoir

Saturday, May 31, 2014

All Quiet on the Western Front: Book Review

Remarque's Modern Classic on the Horror of War


The horror of poisoned skin and flesh, mangled arms and legs, whistling shells, hopeless moans, and ubiquitous filth complemented the sterile wall between Paul Baumer and his father and mother and sister when he was on leave. The war had destroyed his youth and any hunger for sunlight, twitter and soft skin. When he turned the schoolbook pages, he realized all the texts’ fragrances sweet or pungent had fled into the misty dawn. His past had fallen away and his future withered, leaving him in a limbo of body parts, scorched earth and bomb fragments. Only when he returned to the trenches could he feel at home. But when he looked into the enemy’s eyes, he would see himself, a soldier fighting for a country that would no longer recognize him, a future that would expel him, and a new generation who could not understand him.

W.W.I. Trench

    Remarque depicted not just the horror of W.W.I but that of all wars, no matter how noble and inspiring the rhetoric. Whichever side triumphs, the soldiers on both side will lose; he will lose his youth, his innocence and his belief in human decency. All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the, if not the, greatest war novel.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Thoughts on Bram Stoker's Dracula

In Dracula, Bram Stoker, amid the rising demand for women's equality, tried to portray Mina as the new breed of woman who has "come of age." She is an assistant schoolmistress and therefore might not have to depend on a man. She could use the typewriter and therefore sought to better herself. But in the end, she subordinates herself to Harker and only seeks to support him with her skills. Her mentality confines her to be a "proper" lady in Victorian England. So, she remains the ideal for the nineteenth century man, who seeks a wife to support him in his enterprises. Furthermore, Stoker portrayed all the other female characters, Lucy and the "Brides of Dracula," as objects of sensuality. So, the spirits of the times confined Stoker's vision of women even as he sought to be more enlightened and through his novel, he reflected much of that period's cultural norms.

Vlad the Impaler

Stoker's portrayal of Dracula reflects the fear of "enlightened" Western Europe toward the "unenlightened" world. During the period just before W.W.I., Europeans were worshipping reason and science as the golden fruits of Enlightenment and they believed in the unlimited potentials of mankind. They had not experienced trench warfare, the depression, the holocaust or the atomic bomb. But the unenlightened world was mysterious and threatened to destroy European achievements. The Balkans was seething with disasters and indeed history shows it to be the spark that ignited the World War. Of course, not only the Balkans. Africa and India and China, wherever the British and the Europeans had their presence, these lands were also mysterious, their customs threatening. Western Europe must enlighten these cultures and overcome their superstitions and darkness. Dracula, the foreigner from a strange land, epitomizes the evil that lurks around enlightened Western Europe. And in killing Dracula, Dr. Van Helsing and his band was destroying the darkness that threatened centuries of Western European enlightenment.

Bela Lugosi as Dracula

In reading Dracula, we begin to understand more about Bram Stoker's values and perceptions, which he might not have been aware of, and also more about the fears and anxieties in late nineteenth century Great Britain, and other Western European countries. That understanding will allow us to reflect on our fears and anxieties and access how much we have progressed a century later.

Bram Stoker