Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Bible blogged

I could have titled this Blogging the Bible but that is the name of David Plotz's contribution to blogdom. The Bible is a great work of Literature, it is the foundation of several religions, it is the history (with all its biases and myths) of a people. It is worth reading. But not many of us read it. As Plotz says we tend to be lazy in the west about our religion and even lazier about reading what we perhaps see as a boring document that we already know a lot about. If we go to church on a regular basis we get excerpts -chosen for us by the powers that be. But what about the rest - the dark corners of the book that we never pull out into the light of our reading lamp? Plotz decided it was time he took a look. His goal, he says

... is pretty simple. I want to find out what happens when an ignorant person actually reads the book on which his religion is based. I think I'm in the same position as many other lazy but faithful people (Christians, Jews, Moslems, Hindus). I love Judaism; I love (most of) the lessons it has taught me about how to live in the world; and yet I realized I am fundamentally ignorant about its foundation, its essential document. So, what will happen if I approach my Bible empty, unmediated by teachers or rabbis or parents? What will delight and horrify me? How will the Bible relate to the religion I practice, and the lessons I thought I learned in synagogue and Hebrew School?

Don't expect academic commentary, only fresh eyes on the old text, some humour and often some original insight. Here's a sample from his look at Genesis:

First murder—that didn't take long. I never realized there was a vegetarian angle to Cain and Abel. Cain offers God the fruit of the soil as an offering, while Abel brings the choicest meat. God scorns Cain's vegetarian platter, so Cain jealously slays his brother.

Here is a more charitable reading of what kind of father God is. He's not indulgent or lax. He's laissez faire. His job is to push the children in the right direction, but in the end, He understands they must be free to make mistakes. When He rejects the vegan special, God chastises Cain with this advice. "Sin couches at the door; Its urge is toward you, Yet you can be its master." This is just about the best advice you can give anyone. It is conservative idealism, compressed into a sentence: We must decide for ourselves to do right. Not that Cain pays attention: He kills his brother in the very next verse.

Later, Plotz considers the story of Noah:

6:13-7:5: God's specific commands to Noah about how to build his ark and what to bring on it. As an inveterate reader of owner's manuals, I find this passage compelling in its specificity and precision. Now I know why people are always building replicas of Noah's ark—it's perfectly clear what it looked like.

Chapter 7
The grimmest verse so far: "All in whose nostrils was the merest breath of life, all that was on dry land, died. All existence on earth was blotted out—man, cattle, creeping things, birds of the sky; they were blotted from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark."

What a chilling account of the flood, and of the loneliness of Noah. Even the good man, even the righteous man, is alone in the world, and always subject to God's awesome power. This is pretty raw. It also seems to me to offer at least a clue about why God destroyed the earth. It seems clear that the Pre-Deluge evils were not crimes of men against other men, but crimes of men against God. As men mastered agriculture and metalwork and built cities, which earlier verses suggest they did, they felt they didn't need God. They came to see their laws, achievements, and prosperity as their own, accomplished independently of God. So, perhaps the point of the flood was not to restore ordinary moral behavior—day-to-day decency, law, etc.—but to restore faith, or at least fear. We thought we didn't need God, and that was what angered Him. The Flood—this verse in particular—reminds us (or at least the one righteous man who is permitted to live) that we are never independent of God, but always floating alone, vulnerable, at His mercy.

There is some interesting discussion about Plotz's posts too.

I haven't read the whole series yet but I would like to. I should, of course, also get out my bible and read along with him.

Reality trumps fiction

When my book circle discussed Never Let me Go there was some discussion about whether the scenario imagined by the author would be tolerated in our "progressive" society. One of our members had the rosy view that no, we, our society, would never contemplate such a donor class. I think I mentioned at the time that it was already happening in China where prisoners' organs were being "harvested" but my argument I think was discounted because after all that was China not "The West". Well, here is a story from the Netherlands ( often touted I believe as being very progressive) about a reality show where people are competing to be the recipient of a donor organ. Only a hop, step and a jump from there to Ishiguro's vision.

I think that organ donation and other "practices" such as abortion and euthanasia are ones that can be easily rationalized in a society where pressures (whether governmental or societal) are exerted beyond individual conscience. And we live in an increasingly pressurized mono- culture where our thoughts and opinions are subtley shaped by our media. We know we are being manipulated but we rarely resist it as we should. It feels so comfortable, even peasurable.

But one reviewer (in the Guardian) thinks Isiguro's book isn't about the cloning or the donor issue at all but about something else. I think perhaps it was both. I have to share these wonderful insights:

Ishiguro's contribution to the cloning debate turns out to be sleight of hand, eye candy, cover for his pathological need to be subtle. So what is Never Let Me Go really about? It's about the steady erosion of hope. It's about repressing what you know, which is that in this life people fail one another, grow old and fall to pieces. It's about knowing that while you must keep calm, keeping calm won't change a thing. ...

This extraordinary and, in the end, rather frighteningly clever novel isn't about cloning, or being a clone, at all. It's about why we don't explode, why we don't just wake up one day and go sobbing and crying down the street, kicking everything to pieces out of the raw, infuriating, completely personal sense of our lives never having been what they could have been.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Never Let me Go

A sad book. Everyone agreed on that.

I re-read The Remains of the Day -also a sad book-before reading Never Let me Go and at first I thought the books were not at all similar. But thinking more about the main characters and their "place in life", their dedication and resignation to it, I realised that the attitudes of the products of Hailsham were in many ways like the self abnegating dedication and resignation of the butler of Darlington Hall who was of such great service to his various masters.

It is not surprising to me that people can be socialised in this way. I see it every day. In myself even. People can be moulded by society's expectations to do thing that are not at all in their self interest, or to do things that at another time and place they would never guess they would be capable of doing. Think of slave traders, or Nazi Germany, or suicide bombers. People have also been encouraged by society to do what we (at least sometimes) think of as good or helpful things in a self sacrificing way. I think of nuns, missionaries, volunteers of all kinds, firemen, doctors, people like Wilberforce, and yes, even soldiers. So the idea of a donor class you might say, a donor cult of parentless clones, is not so outlandish. Not to be wished for but not beyond the imagination.

In Never Let Me Go Ishiguro doesn't shed very much light on the society that raised and used the donor clan he created in his mind's eye. That is left to our imagination. What would it be like? Would it be hideous? Perhaps only in foresight or hindsight. If you were raised in it of for it it would probably seem quite natural and ordinary. The ability to recognise evil when you are part and parcel of it is given I think to few of us. Ishiguro seems to have the gift.

Monday, May 14, 2007

I was cleaning up

... and found what I managed to write for my last writing circle meeting, inspired by Colville's Horse and Train painting. I thought since I had talked about it here I might as well post it.

Society’s train of thought is not my thought.

The world - friends, relatives, children- are aboard, helpless passengers on that train,

Engineered by unwitting enemies, fueled with black lies, chugging, now slower, now faster, but headlong down a seemingly inexorable track into the future.

There are no signal lights, no switches leading to some safe siding,

No station in sight where one can rest, change trains, just get off.

This dark, man-made, man centered creation proceeds mindlessly with much noise and only one eye, leaving black smoky smudges of itself in the air, on the news I hear and read every day.

But I am the dark horse, of course,

Not a passenger.

I am constantly offered a free ticket but I will not go along for the ride

And now having refused would I even be allowed aboard?

Perhaps. Not in the club car but

Relegated to the cattle car, destined for the ovens.

I can only be an outsider,

alone, separated from the herd,

a horse of another colour,

a creature of different design,

made of God, not man.

I want to be off the track, oblivious, in some sunny upland meadow, ignoring this behemoth.

Let it be upon their heads.

But should I not, following many before me, confront it? Charge it?

Foolish courage. Foolish duty. Foolish fool.

Put action in the picture, run the tape forward, there can be only one conclusion. The same conclusion we have seen countless times before. Vimy, Dachau, Dunkirk, Sarajevo, Rwanda. Bones not even remembered or mourned by descendants.

But I would rather die the beaten dark horse than live a passenger on this train.

Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Romania.
Dorothy Parker, Not So Deep as a Well (1937)