On Death and Dying Review by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

It has become cliché to say we live in a society that denies death. From her experiences with dying patients, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross sheds insight into how we face, or not face, death. She details the famous Five Stages --denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance--through case studies of patients. The Kübler-Ross Model, for better or worse, have become the model from which academics and lay people understand the process of dying. But more than the model, the book forces us to gaze death in the eyes and confront our fears. Only then can we integrate death into life and realize that death is part of our life and indeed a vital part. If we deny it or even just neglect it, our lives become incomplete. We don’t have to obsess over death just as we don’t just focus on our health to the neglect of other parts of lives. When death becomes an integral part of our beings, our lives become more dynamic.

Great insight into the psychology toward our ultimate end. On Death and Dying is not only for those facing death and their close ones, but for everyone, to prepare our journey to the end, and thus to gain strength in living our lives and in caring for those around us.

Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle

In a world where the Axis powers won W.W.II, Germany rules Europe and Japan Asia and the Pacific and they split the United States. Then, as in the Cold War, Germany and Japan rival for world domination. But the playground is the U.S. rather than Germany. The Man in the High Castle takes place in Japan-controlled San Francisco and the neutral Rocky Mountain States between the Pacific States of America and the East Coast of America. Germany plans to subdue Japan by creating an incident in the Rocky Mountain States, but a faction within the government sends a spy to warn Japan. In this world Germany’s final solution in Africa wipes out the continent and the country continues to persecute the Jews throughout the world, the remnants fleeing to the Rocky Mountain States and the Pacific States of America. The I Ching, the oracle that has replaced Christianity and the horoscope in the Pacific State of America, guides the masses in their decisions and through the ancient Chinese scripts answers their questions about life and death and the vagaries of living. This ancient scripture consumes the people’s imagination. In The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick created a world where the power players have shifted roles but familiar brinkmanship and subterfuge remain.

The World in The Man in the High Castle

Within the novel is another book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy by Hawthorne Abendsen, the man in the high castle. This novel within a novel delineates an alternative history to the one above. What if Germany and Japan lost W.W.II? Not a Cold War between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. Not the victory of the communists in China. Rather, The Nationalist defeats the Communists in China, establishes a right-wing regime and allies with the U.S. The British retains most of its empire and continues to expand its dominance. Indeed, a Cold War develops between the U.S. and the U.K. with the latter eventually dominating the former. What is interesting is that this alternative to an alternative isn’t our history. So even with Allies victory, many scenarios can play out.

Dick’s comment on the Nazis is thought provoking.

“They want to be the agents, not the victims, of history. They identify with God's power and believe they are godlike. That is their basic madness. They are overcome by some archetype; their egos have expanded psychotically so that they cannot tell where they begin and the godhead leaves off. It is not hubris, not pride; it is inflation of the ego to its ultimate — confusion between him who worships and that which is worshiped. Man has not eaten God; God has eaten man.”

The Man in the High Castle is not just science fiction, but a thought-provoking look into the nature of humanity. Of course, as with other works of Dick, the cultural nuances and biases of the 60’s rear their heads throughout the novel. Nevertheless, a novel worth reading.

Ursula K. Le Guin's The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

Omelas's citizens have all the blessings we could imagine and they are cultured and wise but the price of having these good fortunes is one child's misery. A "scapegoat" to take on the "sins" of the city. Similar to the Biblical idea of the Savior taking on the sins of the world.

Though at first appalled at the barbarity of such a bargain, we may begin to realize that in our civilization, though not in such an extreme way, the majority benefits from those who sacrifice to make their lives better.

Ursula K. Le Guin (Photo by Eileen Gunn)

Policemen and policewomen put their lives on the line so we may live in a safer society and though we pay taxes for their services and they choose their profession, we are nevertheless benefiting from their "sacrifices."

Adults and children from Bangladesh may choose to work in garment factories but they didn't choose the poverty they were born into. And we as a society benefit from the relatively cheap clothing.

We may avoid buying clothes from Bangladesh but if we are to live in a society we cannot avoid benefiting from others' services. Ursula K. Le Guin's tale reminds us that our blessings come at a cost but also cautions us not to move toward Omelas, that "utopian dystopia." As in Omelas, some will choose to walk away from our society. But if they try to form another utopia, they will face similar dilemmas. That is not to say that we shouldn't look for solutions, but that those who walk away will bring the problem to their paradise.

Patrick Süskind's Perfume

Jean-Baptiste Grenouille has no scent but can identify the minutest one. To create a perfume that would seduce people into loving and worshiping him, he searches far and wide for the perfect ingredient. When he found that scent on a teenage girl, he intended to extract it from her even if that meant killing her.

In Perfume, Patrick Süskind has created a Gothic tale as dark as Frankenstein, but a tale of creation of the perfect perfume rather than the perfect man. Scents and fragrances dominate the book and details of the extraction processes make the book a good read. But Grenouille is a greater monster than Dr. Frankenstein’s creation. Through his misery and suffering, Grenouille learned to hate humanity and to take revenge upon it. He has no conscience and his only goal is to create the perfect perfume. If he had to kill innocent girls, so be it. He aspires to be God. He wanted the people to love and worship him. He succeeds. He becomes all-powerful, but without his own smell, he has no identity. That is his grief. In the end, he destroys himself.

Ten With a Flag by Joseph Paul Haines

What if we can find out everything about a fetus: its potential health problems, including longevity; its skills and potential careers; its characters and temperaments? In Joseph Paul Haines’s “Ten with a Flag,” the government health organization has rated a fetus a ten--indicating potential greatness: an Mozart or an Einstein--but a flag hints at potential complications. And the parents have the option of aborting the fetus. To complicate the situation, their social status will depend on whether they have the baby: having it will raise them to status level eight--ten the top level.

We’re learning more and more about embryos through DNA mapping and technologies will advance to give us more information about a fetus’s health and perhaps its innate skills. Should parents get and view the information? What should they do if they find out their baby has a high risk of heart attack or Alzheimer’s disease? A situation similar to whether we should look into the future if we can. Will the information help us plot a course to minimize the risks? Or will it stifle us with fear and worry? And what are the moral implications? These are not easy questions though in general we should go through life with our eyes open. But we are humans and we fear and worry and indeed sometimes knowledge chokes us. May we have the wisdom and maturity for greater knowledge.

Shirley Jackson's The Lottery

In Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, though the stoning reminds us of the Old Testament punishment, its original intent has long been forgotten. We view with horror at the barbarity and insanity of the custom, just as we consider the Romans barbaric for entertaining themselves with gladiators. But perhaps a visitor to the U.S. without previous exposure may find American football, shoulders banging into heads and players piling on top of each other, also “barbaric and insane.”

We do not question our customs and habits just as the villagers in the story do not theirs. What we view as “normal living” may be considered insanity to foreigners, and vice versa.

We sit in the traffics for hours, stare at the TV or computer or tablet until bedtime, and text 24/7 to feel connected with some body. Just because everyone else is doing it? Just because our parents or grandparents have been doing it for years? Just because TV ads tell us it’s the good life? Or because it’s the path of least resistance?

Through Jackson’s story, the reader reflects on his or her customs and habits, most of which are detrimental only when gone through without understanding their purposes. We may realize how silly some of our routines are. And also others’ habits and customs may no longer be as “strange.”

The Blue Religion: New Stories about Cops, Criminals, and the Chase Edited by Michael Connelly

The collection of police crime fiction includes Law & Order type police procedural such as Persia Walker’s “Such a Lucky, Pretty Girl” to capers such as Bev Vincent’s “Rule Number One.” But all the stories are about cops and criminals and the onus and responsibility of the badge. And there is even a provocative story by Diana Hansen-Young, “Oaths, Ohana, and Everything,” about the handing-over of Hawaii to the United States. A great collection for crime fiction fans.

Philip K. Dick's The Minority Report

What if we can detect crimes before they happen? What if we can arrest criminals before they commit crimes?

Anderton is the commissioner and founder of Precrime, the police force that arrests criminals before they have a chance to commit crime. Computers manipulate “gibberish” from three “precogs,” each one seeing into a possible future, and Anderton determines whether a crime will be committed. When two or more “precogs” agree on an outcome, the resulting agreement is a majority report and the police can act on it. The system has been working fine until one day a majority report indicates Anderton will murder a retired general.

When he reviews the reports and tried to understand how the minority report differs from the majority. He realizes the fact that he, unlike other criminals, could see the report has altered the results. The first report gives the situation where he doesn’t know he will kill the general and in this scenario he would kill the general to prevent the military from taking over. But the second report, the minority report, considers his seeing the first report and therefore changing the outcome and in this scenario he wouldn’t kill the general. Then the third report, which consider his seeing the minority report, indicates he would kill the general. The very fact that he could see into the “future” changes it.

In this story, Philip K. Dick questions the validity of “seeing into the future.” If we could “see into the future,” we have the opportunity to change that future and therefore create a different future. Hence, the paradox.

I enjoy reading Philip K. Dick because his stories spurs to think about issues in our existence. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, it is the nature of being alive and being human. In Ubik, it the nature of reality. And here, it is the paradox of knowing the future.

Stephen King's Novel 11/22/63

When Jake Eppings, a high school teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine visits Al, the owner of a local diner, the latter reveals a time tunnel in the diner’s kitchen, which could take him back to September 9, 1958, specifically at 11:58 a.m.  Al has traveled through the tunnel several times to buy cheap beef for his diner but in his latest trip, he tried to prevent John F. Kennedy’s assassination. When his health begins to deteriorate, he returns to tell Jake everything and asks the teacher to take on the mission. Jake at first hesitates but eventually agrees to save Kennedy from Lee Harvey Oswald, and using Al’s notes, he carries out the plan to stop the assassin. What Jake didn’t realize is changing such a momentous event redirects the course of history, the Butterfly Effect.

John F Kennedy in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963

Time travel isn’t new in literature and through nitpicking we can always find technical flaws. In this case, given the asymmetry of the time tunnel, it is interesting to ask: if someone at Lisbon Falls on September 9, 1958 steps into the “rabbit hole” what date and time would she emerge into?

Lee Harvey Oswald in Custody

But nitpicking aside, Stephen King, through his research, succeeds in painting a picture of the cultural and social environment during the late 50s and early 60s, particularly in Maine and around the Dallas/Fort Worth area. King has delayed writing the novel for years because he needs time to research that era and he has succeed in the effort and written a novel that immerses the reader in the local climate of that period. And the characters come alive because of the local flavors.

The Butterfly Effect

After reading the novel, the reader would reflect on the causality of historical events, i.e. the Butterfly Effect on a global scale. What if Hitler didn’t rise to power? What if Gandhi remained a lawyer in South Africa? Would the world be better or worse in either case? We don’t know. We observe a triumph or a tragedy in history and we evaluate it according to our values and biases but a triumph may lead to a catastrophe and a tragedy a breakthrough. I wonder whether one day our supercomputers can predict the course of human history through Genetic Algorithms, Dynamic Programming, and other stochastic estimation methods. But at any moment in history, without knowing the “global optimum,” we like Jake Eppings would still strive for the “best” according to our values. We are human. We are only human.

Germinal: Emile Zola's Realist Literature

The wobbly cages descending into the pit, miners half-naked toiling in the scorching darkness of the mine’s galleries, the veins bursting and flooding the passages, the meager wages the miners receive at the end of the day, the wives desperately scouring for gruel each meal, the parents giving their daughters to the grocer to get flour and sugar; all recounted in a calmly detached voice.

Etienne, a vagrant worker, joined the fraternity and dissatisfied with the inhuman daily drudges and ambitious to rise above these defeated and resigned miners organized them into a union and led the strike. But the strike revealed as much the indifference of the owners and managers as the ignorance and violence of the miners. After many lives perished, many families shattered, many mines destroyed, the strike failed, the miners returned to work and Etienne left. In Germinal, Zola harmonized the detached narrative voice with the miner’s sub-human existence and their potential for gratuitous evil to evoke a chilling sonata that would haunt the reader long after the novel’s conclusion.

Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time: Memory Dispersed in Space and Time

Proust's Masterpiece on Memory and Time and Space

More than a commentary on Swann’s jealousy or M. Charlus’s homosexuality or the frivolity of the Guermantes’ sorties, Marcel Proust’s monumental work In Search of Lost Time paints the unsuccessful reconstruction of a forgone world and a lost existence from fickle memories, which like morning mists would fade with the rising sun. The narrator Marcel, longing for a past that didn’t exist but must be created, sought to experience Bergson’s continuous time rather than the fragmented and still-framed instantaneous moments by attempting to blur the boundaries between Cambray and Paris, childhood and adolescence, and Swann and himself and integrate here and there, before and after, and him and me through memory fragments of previous objects, people and sensations. As in a neural network or a mind-map, the madeleine linked his aunt to his mother, who in turn was linked to Albertine through jealousy, which also connected Marcel with Saint Loop and Swann, who, as with his (Marcel’s) grandmother, linked his childhood and adolescence. And through recollection, Marcel would try to relive the buried years and resurrect his grandmother and Albertine.

      But even during the narrative, Marcel realized memory’s willfulness and the variation in hues, shapes, pitch and timbre between the actual object and its mental reconstruction. When he encountered an old friend, the facial features were so different from his recollection and reconstruction, for better or for worse pregnant with all the emotions, preoccupation, biases, that he could not match face with voice.
Because recollected sensation can never equate with the actual experience and time, like a patient thief, steals memories a morsel at a time until one day the owner would realize he was ruined, Marcel ultimately would fail to recapture and assemble stolen sensations and decayed seconds and in the end, must create new moments, new sensations and ultimately a new biography, through the synergy between past experiences and creative imagination. From those deceased hours and decayed memories sprouted In Search of Lost Time, not only Proust’s novel but also that of the narrator.

      Whether we savor Marcel’s frailness, Swann’s infatuation, Charlus’s pompousness, Franscoise’s independent-mindedness, the sorties’ frivolousness or the social revelation of the Dreyfuss Affair, we can enjoy Proust’s classic without resorting to Marxist or Freudian or Feminist critique. And the sentences, like the serpentine Amazon, seemed to flow unceasingly into the distant horizon carrying with it the sparkling sunlight. Although ascending the novel’s three thousand pages appears precipitous, the effort will be well worth the while and, at the end of the adventure, the reader can rest on the crisp apex and savor time’s transience and memory’s playfulness as if they were mountain breezes.

Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake

Book Review of Oryx and Crake

“Oh, Snowman, what happened to Richard Nixon?”

“Shit! I mean, egad. He has offended Almighty Crake and His wrath was upon him. The spraygun is holy unto Crake and only Snowman could touch it. As Dick touched it, the Great Crake smote him unto death.”

“Oh, Snowman, tell us what we must do to please Almighty Crake.”

“Well, Abe, first off, get Snowman four fish daily, make that six. You must understand the more fish, the more it would please Crake. And hear this all Crakers. Never touch the spraygun or thou shall be struck dead like Dick.”

“But oh, Snowman, why this object and not others?”

“Thus spake Crake, Thou shall not touch the spraygun.”

“Oh, Snowman, how did this world came to be?”

“What? Well, Marie, in the beginning, there was Crake and He…”

Damn Crake, it all your fault. You created this mess and now I have to clean up your cesspool. I should’ve killed you earlier. I just want to eat my ChickieNob and drink my Happicuppa coffee. But no, you have to create a new heaven and a new earth.

“And where did Crake come from?”


Snowman knows he will soon follow the footsteps of the dinosaurs and the Crakers will inherit the earth. He must leave them before he dies. And they would say he has rode a chariot of fire into the heavens where Crake dwells. They would venerate him as The Prophet and tell stories of how he slew the dragons, well, maybe just the wolvogs and pigoons.

                                             Margaret Atwood (Source: Vanwaffle at Wikimedia)

Oryx and Crake is Margaret Atwood’s apocalypse, a bioengineering nightmare of wolvogs and pigoons and rakunks and of viruses embedded in aphrodisiac pills. Crake engineered a new species, the Crakers, and eliminated humans with an eboli-type virus. After killing Crake to avenge the death of his beloved Oryx, Snowman became the guardian of the new species and must protect them against the genetically engineered beasts as well as from knowledge and wisdom. When he discovers three human survivors, he must decide whether to befriend them or eliminate them.

Emily Antles in the nonfiction Frankenstein’s Cat depicted the current advances in genetic engineering. Today, bioengineers have created balding mice, glow-in-the-dark cats and cows that give therapeutic milk and they could just as easily make wolvogs, pigoons and rakunks.

The novel’s premise supplies food for thought, and though the writing isn’t as compelling as that in The Handmaid’s Tale, it is a worthwhile read.

Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

What does it mean to be alive? In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the androids can be as intelligent as humans and the Nexus-6 models embody the next improvements. And they are certainly smarter than the “chickenheads,” humans whose brains radiation has damaged. But in this world, androids couldn’t empathize as humans could. In Star Trek, the Next Generation, the android Data sought to be human through the “emotions chip,” but here Philip K. Dick stresses empathy over other emotions such as fear and anger. A more interesting question, as suggested by the title: can androids dream? And can they reflect on the self and reflect on the reflection? Through this novel, Dick raises a question that, as technology advances, becomes more relevant. What defines humans?

A related question is the ethics of bounty-hunting androids. To the extend that androids are human, bounty-hunting becomes less legitimate. The police catch criminals and the courts try them before deciding on the punishment. To what extend do androids have rights to a fair trial? A broader question is what right they have? In the novel, they are only slaves and certainly do not have the right to liberty. And since organizations like the Rosen Association create these androids, is it ethical for these manufacturers to consider them properties?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, like Philip K. Dick’s other novels is provocative and mind-bending and the reader would, after reading it, ponder on existence and reality. This is a great sci-fi read.

Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin

Iris Chase in her old age wants to let her alienated granddaughter know that the latter’s grandmother was actually Iris’s sister Laura. She tells the story of her unhappy marriage to Richard Griffen and his affair with Laura, who submitted to the man only to save Alex Thomas, a communist running from the authorities.

Iris publishes the novel The Blind Assassin, the affair between her and Alex, in Laura’s name, perhaps to compensate for Laura killing herself after learning of the affair. When we learn of Laura’s death in the beginning of the novel, we know it wasn’t an accident and suspect suicide. Midway through the novel, we may have suspected she killed herself because Richard had raped her, but the real reason was more powerful. Laura realized Iris and Alex had betrayed her.

The Blind Assassin is about the plight of women in an age when they were considered men’s possessions and their only goal was to satisfy them. There are plenty of novels and movies that tell of the suffering and dehumanization, but such a theme is worth telling and retelling.

When I read of how Iris married Richard Griffen hoping the businessman would save her father’s business and how she continued to submit to him even after she found out he had cheated her father and caused him to commit suicide, I wished she had the courage and strength to free herself from his grasp. I wished she Laura rebelling against the forces that repressed her. But she is Iris and not Laura. And she rebelled in the only way she knew, by having a secret affair with Alex Thomas and living a double life.

Margaret Atwood (Source: Vanwaffle at Wikimedia)

The Blind Assassin is a tragic tale and the greatest tragedy is Laura committing suicide after learning of the affair between Iris and Alex.

The tale-within-a-tale that Iris wrote and attributed to Laura misleads the readers to believe that Laura had the affair with Alex. What strikes me is the quality of writing between the main narrative and Iris’s novel, the former demonstrating Atwood’s skills and the latter Iris’s lack of. Perhaps Margaret Atwood wants to show Iris’s hollow life through the writing. The lovers in Iris’s novel come across as aloof and flat and they seemed out of the reader’s reach.

Though both Iris and Laura suffered and sacrificed, I like the latter more perhaps because she fought harder against overwhelming odds.

Book Review of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest

James O. Incandenza created the film Infinite Jest, a.k.a. “the Entertainment,” so addictive that anyone watching it couldn’t take her eyes off it and eventually dies from lack of food and water. Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents (A.F.R.), or the Wheelchair Assassins, a Québécois separatist group seeking to have Canada secede from the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.), searches for the master copy and intends to distribute copies and use the film as a weapon of mass destruction. David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is a satire about our contemporary culture. Specifically, addiction. And not only to entertainment, i.e. the film Infinite Jest. The novel depicts the addicts in The Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House trying, or not trying, to recover from cannabis, cocaine, Demerol and other drugs. And in nearby Enfield Tennis Academy, many students are on drugs. Wallace’s writing is humorous, but beneath the events, sadness flows.

Brighton, MA

While thinking about the power of entertainment in our culture, I recall Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, where he describes how TV, and more generally, visual entertainment, has transformed the way we think and process information. Whereas reading requires us to process the words and sentences and to imagine the scenes, we can “absorb” the information much quicker when we view a picture or watch a video. But just as taking too much easily digestible sugar rather than complex carbohydrates isn’t good for the body, watching too much TV may be harmful to the mind, from not exercising the muscles in the brain. We have the Internet and we don’t lack information, but what’s more important than information is the ability to analyze data, qualitatively and quantitatively, and to imagine new ideas and possibilities.

John Hersey’s Hiroshima

Through the stories of six men and women in Hiroshima who survived the atomic bomb, we glimpse into the horror of war and in particular, that of weapons of mass destruction. Those whom the bomb disintegrated were the lucky ones. Those who survived suffered, some longer than other, some through burning and deformation, others through radiation sickness that eventually caused cancer and deformed births. As in all wars, civilians suffered, not by choice, being swept away in the current of history.

Atomic Bombs Explosions (Photo: Charles Levy)

As we face the refugee crisis in Europe, we are reminded that the ambition, greed, hatred and fear of a few can sow the seeds of suffering for thousands who were born in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Hiroshima After the Bombing

Even after thousands of years, we still have trouble resolving differences and conflicts through negotiations and compromises. Too often, we believe in “winner takes all” and assume that the victor must vanquish his enemy to prevent revenge and secure permanent victory. Millions have died in Europe and Asia during W.W. II, but today, seventy years later, conflicts that kill and displace civilians continue. Force that induces fear to stop violence is double-edged sword, and it has led to greater violence. In light of our current condition, stories in Hersey’s Hiroshima, like other accounts of war casualties, remind us that we have to work harder toward becoming more civilized.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial

Truman Capote's In Cold Blood Review

Haunting, chilling, inconceivable, In Cold Blood, thanks to Truman Capote’s creativity, reads like fiction. If the killings hadn’t happened, the book would have required great imagination. Indeed, in this case, the truth is stranger than fiction.

The Clutter Home at Holcomb, Kansas (Photo: Spacini at Wikimedia Common)

Charming, gregarious, streetwise, Richard Eugene Hickock couldn’t empathize; others only existed to satisfy him. He enjoyed food, women and other pleasures in life. He passed bad checks to support his ideal lifestyle. He wanted to rob the Clutters for the same reason and even if he didn’t get the money, he wanted to rape the girl.

Moody, shy, erratic, Perry Edward Smith reacted against imagined slights toward his victims as if he were avenging himself of his father or mother who had abandoned him or of the nuns who had abused him. He never felt comfortable in his skin or in the world and he found solace in his dreams where a yellow bird would save him from his abusers. He agreed to rob the Clutters so he could get enough money to go to Mexico and hunt for treasures. He could be sentimental as when he prevented Hickock from raping the girl but he was the one who slashed Herbert Clutter’s throat. Not because there was no safe or money, but just from impulse that he seemed unable to control.

Lansing Correctional Facilities (Formerly Kansas State Penitentiary) (Photo: Americasroof at Wikimedia Common)

Together, these two criminals slaughtered the Clutter family for less than fifty dollars and a radio. They changed the lives of the Clutters’ relatives, friends and acquaintances, and shocked the nation. Cold-blooded they were indeed.

Truman Capote (Photo: Eric Koch / Anefo; Nationaal Archief)

Capote presented the events surrounding the killings with such details that we might wonder whether we’re indeed reading fiction. But these details impress upon our minds the brutality of the crime and the criminals’ lives on the fringes. Capote profiled these criminals’ backgrounds and thoughts with such clarity that we could only marvel at these twisted minds. From the tragedy of the Clutter family, Capote has created an American classic.


Ludwig Wittgenstein turns philosophy from searching for knowledge of reality to exposing and challenging the shared presuppositions of the disputing parties, particularly the problems of language. To him, philosophical problems arise through the difficulties and misleading features of language. And the purpose of philosophy is to find those conceptual confusions in language and clarify them. The philosophical problem will then dissolve.

For Descartes, the I in “I think therefore I am” refers to the mind. But Wittgenstein attacks this Cartesian idea of mind-body duality. For him, neither the mind nor the body experiences pain, but the entire person. Our thoughts and feelings are logically connected to our behaviors and therefore behaviors provide the logical criteria for saying a person is thinking or feeling such and such.

By rejecting the mind-body duality, he also questions the private ownership of experiences. For example, he considers the phrase “I have a pain” problematic. Being in pain is a condition of the suffering person and she does not own it as she would a pen.

"The limits of my language means the limits of my world." Ludwig Wittgenstein

He exposes the language-game, where “I have a pain” becomes a description like “I have a pen.” And he points out that the statement is an expression (the person proclaiming his condition) rather than a description (the person describing his characteristic).

This book glimpses at some of Wittgenstein’s basic ideas. But to understand his method (the slightly Zen-flavored thought experiments), we have to delve into his works.

"Having an enemy is important not only to define our identity but also to provide us with an obstacle against which to measure our system of values and, in seeking to overcome it, to demonstrate our own worth. So when there is no enemy, we have to invent one."

Photo source: Ufficio Stampa Università Mediterranea di Reggio Calabria

Umberto Eco, Inventing the Enemy

Noam Chomsky’s Language and Thought

In the Anshen lecture, Noam Chomsky’s lays out his basic thoughts and concept on linguistics. For him, language isn’t communal. For example, a lay person’s conception of water is different from that of a chemist. Language is an agent’s perspective on the things of the world, rather than a reference to them. A many-to-one mapping of representations or symbols to an object. As such, he believes that we should focus on syntax rather then semantics to understand the nature of language. “In the study of language, there is new understanding of the computational systems of the mind/brain, including those commonly called ‘phonetic’ or ‘semantic,’ though in fact, all are ‘syntactic’ in the broader sense that they have to do with mental representations.”

"Chomsky" by Duncan Rawlinson - http://flickr.com/photos/thelastminute/97182354/in/set-72057594061270615/. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chomsky.jpg#/media/File:Chomsky.jpg

In the language faculty, “the cognitive system stores information that is accessed by the performance systems, which use for articulation, interpretation, expression of thought, asking questions, referring, and so on.” For Chomsky, the linguist should identify the principles of languages underlying grammatical constructs, principles that may be reduced to more general ones. And we can learn from those principles and construct systems based on them.

This lecture introduces Chomsky’s thoughts and concepts and I recommend it to anyone who wants to dig into linguistics.

Podcast of Black-Naped Oriole in Hokkaido Snow

For those of you who are interested, the podcast of Black-Naped Oriole in Hokkaido Snow is available at Pilcrow & Dagger. Enjoy.

Mikhail Bulgakov's Novel: The Master and Margarita

Woland (Satan) and his crew come to 1930s Moscow and wrecks havoc on the city, targeting the MASSOLIT (Moscow Association of Writers) and the Variety Theater. He enlists Margarita as hostess of his Grand Ball. But her only wish is to find her lover, the Master, who wrote about Pontius Pilate’s trial of Yeshua Ha-Notsri and whom the secret police has taken away.

The Master and Margarita is a slapstick comedy worthy of Albert and Costello, but also a social satire that targets not only the artistic establishments under the Soviet Union but also of our entire modern society. Woland (Satan) comes to Moscow to punish Berlioz, Likhodeyev and other literary and artistic figures for their greed and cruelty. The Master wrote about the meeting between Pontius Pilate and Yeshua Ha-Notsri to seek spirituality amid the Marxist materialist culture but ends up in jail and then the lunatic asylum.

The Master and Margarita is about good and evil, where one evil overcomes another, but is also about love beyond life. Even when Margarita wasn’t sure whether the Master was dead or alive, she devoted herself to him. And in the end, they both die from the poison wine, but their spirits spend eternity together in limbo, eternal love in the wasteland of existence.

The Master and Margarita is magical realism but also a grim depiction of life where the wicked is punished by a greater evil. We are amused when Woland punishes Berlioz and his colleagues, but we couldn’t find light amid the darkness.

Mikhail Bulgakov

We may laugh at the absurdities that befall Belioz and his friends; we may tremble at the ways Woland and his gang punish the wicked; we may lament that Ivan gives up writing poetry; we may shed tears when the Master and Margarita die and we may cheer when they can spend eternity together. We can read The Master and Margarita at many different levels and can reflect on the starkness in our modern society but at the same time we can enjoy the amusing and moving story.

Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum

Casaubon, Belbo and Diotellevi become bore with reading occultist manuscripts, and decided to connect various documents to create the Plan, a Knights Templar conspiracy to take over the world. According to the Plan, the Templars have found the Telluric Current’s source, the center of earth’s energy, and they partitioned a map of its location into six pieces. When placed under Foucault’s Pendulum in Paris’s Conservatory at a specific time, the intersection of the pendulum’s arc and a light beam would reveal the location.

When Belbo disappears and then calls Casaubon for help, the latter realizes the Diabolicals believed in the Plan and kidnapped his friend to find the map. As he searches for his friend, he learns about Belbo was obsessed with a magical moment during his childhood and wanted to relive it helping to create the Plan.

Foucault's Pendulum in Paris

In Foucault’s Pendulum, “the thinking man’s DaVinci Code,” the three friends remake history by manipulating texts and Eco satirizes the search for knowledge through historical documents. In his manipulating and interpreting historical texts, we can see Jorge Luis Borges’s influence, particularly his short story "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius." In this novel, Eco sows the seeds for his later novel The Prague Cemetery, where Simonini forges “historical documents,” particularly the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. To read Foucault’s Pendulum is to journey into the occultist society and to understand the how unreliable historical texts may be.

Foucault’s Pendulum is an Indiana Jones adventure without the snake pits, rolling stones, or Nazi treasure hunters, but with plenty of secret societies and conspiracies. I recommend this novel for the intellectual thrill and for the reflection on how we understand the past through historical documents.

Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We

We came before Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984, and Yevgeny Zamyatin proved himself a master of the dystopian novel so popular today. The novel tells of the protagonist D-503 coming-of-age, becoming more and more aware of his desires, imagination and individuality, until the Operation returns him to the collective.

In We, the One-State removes its citizens’ individuality by assigning alphanumerical designations to them and so it dehumanizes them more than the governments of 1984 and Brave New World their citizens. The mathematical-speak throughout the narrative adds to the sense of alienation. For example, the spaceship is called the Integral. “Integrating the grand equation of the universe: yes. Taming a wild zigzag along a tangent, toward the asymptote, into a straight line: yes.” This is poetic science.

D-503 dreads the square root of –1 because the imaginary number doesn’t relate to any quantity in real life and it symbolizes the imagination, as opposed to facts and analyses that one can grasp and control.

Throughout the journal, D-503 mentions Frederick W Taylor and his Scientific Taylorism in which he applies mathematics to production (ex. linear programming to achieve operation efficiency) and Behaviorism to management (X style of management). The One-State guarantees its citizens’ “happiness” by removing their desires and imaginations but turning them into means of production and cogs in the bureaucratic machine, no longer humans but robots that follow the Table of Hours and repeat the tasks day after day.

Yevgeny Zamyatin reveals to us a possible future where efficiency and precision trump creativity and emotions, a future that haunts us to this day.

Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore

To read Kafka on the Shore is to weave through the malleable boundary between reality and fantasy, to meet philosophical prostitute, talking cats, and characters like Johnny Walker and Colonel Sanders, to dream of the dialectics of Hegal and the continuous time of Bergson converging with the Oedipal complex, to journey into Haruki Murakami’s imagination.

I want to know whether Kafka killed his father, whether the librarian was his mother, and whether he was dreaming when he met his mother. I want to know whether Nakata was just fantasizing that he could talk to cats. But as in Murakami’s other two novels, The Wind Up Bird Chronicle and Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, reality and dream synthesize into a world that transcends truth or illusion. And Murakami takes us along his wonderland and shows what we too could imagine if we free our minds from the biases, the limits, and the cannots we have accepted as truth.

Reality almost seems sterile when we immerse ourselves in Murakami’s surrealism. And I invite you to dream along with Murakami on a shore far into the sea of imagination where a song’s lyrics echo back into reality.

Book Review of Michael Tanner's Schopenhauer

Michael Tanner in Schopenhauer introduces the philosopher’s idea for readers who may want to read The World as Will and Representation.

Like Kant, Schopenhauer believes that through our senses we can only experience the representation of the world, in Kant’s words, the phenomenal world. But he departs from Kant in his concept of will and willing. For him, willing is the root of all suffering. We seek to satisfy our needs, but once they are met, we become disillusioned and seek to satisfy greater needs and the process never stops. The most common example is that we eat to satisfy our hunger, but having eaten we would feel hungry again. For Schopenhauer this never ending striving and the swing between hope and disillusionment create suffering. His ideas has influenced thinkers like Thomas Mann whose novel The Magic Mountain reflects that search and striving and the resulting suffering and disillusionment.
The World as Will and Representation

For Schopenhauer, the Will, as the summation of individual wills, is a unified cosmic principle under all representations, a mindless urging toward no definite end. And such an idea had influenced thinkers like Hartshorne and Whitehead.

Arthur Schopenhauer

But Schopenhauer not only influenced thinkers, but even more so, artists and perhaps musicians. The ideas of ceaseless striving and the cycle of hope and despair appears to lend expressions to the various arts.

However, as Michaal Tanner points out, Schopenhauer’s thought process is not as rigorous as philosophers like Kant and at times, the philosopher makes claims without leading the reader through the logical links.

 I recommend this book for readers interested in surveying Schopenhauer’s ideas before diving into The World as Will and Representation.