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.

Wittgenstein

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 Universit√† 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.