Friday, November 19, 2004

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Another audiobook from the library. I’d heard of it vaguely before but knew nothing about it before listening to it. I like doing that. It’s nice having no pre-conceived ideas and letting the story tell itself. This was a good story but a totally ridiculous premise. You’re not supposed to rip the premise of these kind of novels, so says a literary website I looked up after finishing it. I like doing that, too. Listening to the story and then do some small amount of online research to learn more about the context.

This is a “dystopia” novel, like Brave New World and 1984, in which one utopian vision of the future has gone terribly wrong and is squashing the natural human spirit. You’re not supposed to judge the premise of such books, because the premise is not the point. The point is the ultra-orthodox views that are allowed to run wild in a way they never could in the real world and how horrible they are. I can respect that, and I don’t really have a quibble about how unrealistic the premise is. I shouldn’t complain if the premise is far-fetched, the premise is supposed to be far-fetched. But the world in which the characters live is unrealistic, and that is something I should quibble with.

Gilead is supposed to be America after the Christian Right takes over completely, but the characters talk and act as if they are British. That’s a fairly minor fault, but it really got in the way of me enjoying the story. The writing is good, and the characters are engaging, but the knowledge that Atwood wrote the book in reaction to Reagan being elected president (something I learned from a website) has really tarnished my memory of the experience. I’m sure the book was cheered in our institutions of higher learning, but I’m sorry, to think that the forces that brought about Reagan’s presidency could have made something like Gilead possible, no matter how dystopic the premise, is a fantasy based on irrational fear more than logic. Twenty years of hindsight sure goes a long way when it comes to judging the effects of social reform in our society.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

The Portable Medieval Reader assembled and illuminated by James Bruce Ross and Mary Martin McLaughlin

Yeah, I’ll take that book. I love medieval literature. What the hell was I thinking? This is one of those books I forced myself to read a few pages of each night just to get through it. Why bother? No one knows. I started out at 10 pages and then dropped it down to four. 690 pages later, what do I remember? Impaling children alive on fence posts. As in:

They tore children from their mothers’ arms and impaled them on fence poles where the little ones died in great misery, kicking and screaming.
Unknown, How the Prussians Devastated the Lands of Duke Conrad of Masovia and Kujavia

Before having children, this is the kind of sentence I would have read over and forgotten just as quickly. Now that I’m a father, however, the visual image evoked by this statement troubled me a great deal. Because in my mind’s eye, it wasn’t just any child, but it was my child, torn from my wife's arms, impaled on a fence post, kicking and screaming in terror and agony. And I wonder, is there anything more horrible in the world than this, than the callous and sadistic murder of children in front of their parents? I don’t think so.

Here's a few other items I took a moment to note:

Come now, brother, what is this body which you clothe with such diligent care and nourish gently as if it were royal offspring? Is it not a mass of putrefaction, is it not worms, dust, and ashes? It is fit that the wise man consider not this which now is, but rather what it will be afterwards in the future, pus, slime, decay, and the filth of obscene corruption. What thanks will the worms render to you, who are about to devour the flesh you nourished so gently and tenderly?
Peter Damiani, The Monastic Ideal

It is well known that love is always increasing or decreasing.
Andreas Capellanus, The Art of Courtly Love

The source of merit is not in riches or in power; these are the gifts of fortune; but virtue only gives worth and excellence.
Heloise, On the Fame of Abelard

My youth was gone before I realized it; I was carried away by the strength of manhood; but a riper age brought me to my senses and taught me by experience the truth I had long before read in books, that youth and pleasure are vanity—nay, that the Author of all ages and times permits us miserable mortals, puffed up with emptiness, thus to wander about, until finally, coming to a tardy consciousness of our sins, we shall learn to know ourselves.
Francesco Petrarca, Letter to Posterity