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On the Road with Reason

The Swerve, by Stephen Goldblatt (Norton, 2011), Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity, by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein (Random House, 2006), The Coffee Trader, by David Liss (Random House, 2003) and Italian Shoes, by Henning Mankell (Vintage) – The Enlightenment – that period in the middle of the last millennium when rational, scientific thinking stomped into the living room of Western religion with mud on its boots – has been much documented, debated, fictionalized and committed to film. Everyone has a favorite iconoclast, from the ever popular Pope-bashers Martin Luther and Henry VIII to such relatively obscure footsoldiers as Poggio Bracciolini, hero of last year’s exquisite The Swerve, by Stephen Goldblatt … [Read more...]

Jurisprudence

Assassins of the Turquoise Palace, by Roya Hakakian (2011) – Many Americans – maybe most – understand that Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution left that ancient nation with a regime more repressive than the one it ousted. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had promised, upon his return from exile, to be a gentle presence, a mere student of the Koran. Instead, he quickly became a mini-Stalin, viciously pursuing a long hit list of political enemies with the putative goal of “defending” Islam itself. Dissident students and defiant intellectuals who had been the very backbone of the revolution, resisted the theocratic repression just as strongly as the Shah’s secular tyranny. Those who failed to emigrate were jailed, tortured, killed. Those who did get … [Read more...]

Close to Home and On the Open Road

Frottage and Even As We Speak, by Mona Houghton, 2012 – Frottage, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is the practice of touching or rubbing against the clothed body of another person as a means of sexual gratification. It is also the artistic technique or process of transferring an image from one source to another by rubbing. Transference, according to the same source, is the transfer from patient to analyst of repressed or forgotten emotions previously (in childhood) directed at some other person or thing. Loosely, transference is the emotional aspect of a patient’s relationship to an analyst. Frottage is all of this and more. Claire, in Mona Houghton’s epistolary novella, lets us into her internal maze, as she puts it, … [Read more...]

The Emergence of a New Structure of Feeling

On Creaturely Life: Rilke, Benjamin, Sebald, by Eric Santner –  The shiver of political anxiety that winds through Eric Santner’s book On Creaturely Life: Rilke, Benjamin, Sebald arises from the work of German jurist and philosopher Carl Schmitt, whose theory of the “state of exception” figured prominently in the juridical foundations of the Third Reich. Santner’s anxiety is shared by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben in his important work Homo Sacer, and by Jacques Derrida in his lectures on The Beast and the Sovereign, and it concerns the way Schmitt’s thesis is once again expressing itself in the world, particularly in America’s “war on terror.” Santner contextualizes Schmitt’s thinking by examining an impressive slate of German … [Read more...]

Elevating the Ordinary

Gryphon: New and Selected Stories, Charles Baxter, Pantheon Books (2011) I have had the pleasure of hearing Charles Baxter read his work many times. He is very often introduced as a rock star of the short story. Another assertion is that he is regionalized. The stories are grounded in the Midwest and generally peopled with likable characters that lead small lives in which ordinary and yet poignant things happen. I often feel that I too am a Baxter character. Gryphon is a collection of twenty-three stories, new and selected. I have read these stories without hurry or care to reach the end; only to be astounded by the steady unveiling of character, spot on dialogue and the unembellished articulation of what it means to be human. The … [Read more...]

Carnival Darwinism

Swamplandia!, Karen Russell author, Knopf (2011) It’s hard to get your bearings in Swamplandia! The story is a fantasy that is partially narrated by the book's protagonist, a thirteen year old girl, Ava Bigtree. This is not material that would normally interest me, but when it came highly recommended by a trusted source, off I went with the Bigtree family and their odd assortment of calamities. Forebear of the Bigtree clan, Grandpa Sawtooth Bigtree, née Ernest Schedrach, was born the son of a white coal miner in Ohio, who, after losing his pulp mill job bought ‘farmland’ off the coast of southwest Florida, sight unseen. It turned out to be mostly covered by water with a small habitable island (part of the Ten Thousand Islands) and he … [Read more...]

Reading Truman Capote

Tap-Dancing Across Genres –  When a part of my bookshelf came off its hinges, I emptied the shelf, removed it from the wall and put a picture in its place. Looking at the odd assortment of books on the floor, I endeavored to expand the project. Soon great stacks had to be negotiated in order to move from one end of the room to another. It was during the weeding out process (antiquated nonfiction like the Encyclopedia Britannica, Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care, texts on economics, perennial gardens and human health were to be boxed and donated ) that I came across In Cold Blood.  I had always meant to read In Cold Blood, but I was afraid of the material. Scary stuff, I thought. My edition was hardbound and dusty, the paper book sleeve … [Read more...]

A Very Impressive Gentleman

Confession of a Buddhist Atheist Reading Stephen Batchelor’s Confession of a Buddhist Atheist is likely to have an irreversible impact on your image of the historical Buddha. Far from a demi-god who woke up one day beneath the Bodhi tree and lived out his life in an alternate universe defined by bliss and ease, Batchelor’s earthy and forceful Siddhattha Gotama exists within a Shakespearean landscape defined by passionate treachery and high political intrigue. While Batchelor takes pains to present this figure as one of many legitimate pictures of the Buddha, the picture he paints couldn’t be more bracing. Toward the end of Confession, for example, Batchelor tells of an old king who, when visiting Gotama, hands his sword and turban to … [Read more...]

Poetry in Translation

One of the pleasures in reading Christopher Isherwood is the ease with which he writes in the first person. He creates an atmosphere of intimacy where one is privy to all kinds of internal and external dialogs. The reader becomes complicit in a constant barometric recording of success and failure. Unfolding narratives explicate on topics ranging from sexual aspiration, neurotic deliberations, spiritual sleuthing or (most satisfying) his own grappling with the writing process. Here is an excerpt from My Guru and His Disciple where he shares an aha! moment, a discovery that allows him to move forward with the translation of the Bhagavad Gita text. What starts out as a pedantic laborious effort at transcription … [Read more...]