Monday, July 27, 2009

House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III

Picked this one up at the library’s semi-annual book sale and couple of years ago. I saw the movie and remember liking it—especially Ben Kingsley’s portrayal of Colonel Behrani—so I decided to read the book. Funny thing. When I was about halfway through the book I accidentally left it on an airplane and had to order another used copy through Amazon. Based on the library’s prices, at most I paid fifty cents for it the first time I bought it. On Amazon, the used copy was one cent, plus $3.99 shipping and handling. So, worst case, the book cost me $4.50, compared to its $14 cover price.

It’s worth a lot more. According to the paperback version I have, the novel was a finalist for the National Book Award, but evidently didn’t win it. Even not knowing what competition it was up against, and even though I enjoyed the novel immensely, I think I can see why it didn’t win.

The back cover talks about three main characters coming into conflict with one another—Colonel Behrani, once a wealthy man in Iran, now a struggling immigrant willing to bet everything he has to restore his family’s dignity—Kathy Nicolo, a troubled young woman whose house is all she has left, and who refuses to let her hard-won stability slip away from her—and Deputy Sheriff Lester Burdon, a married man who finds himself falling in love with Kathy, and becomes obsessed with helping her fight for justice. But I think the novel is better interpreted has having only two main characters who are in conflict with one another—Behrani and Kathy—with Lester as a lesser character, a kind of hapless Iago who inserts himself into the conflict and brings the final and ultimate tragedy.

Dubus himself seems to support this interpretation through much of the novel by switching the first-person narrative back and forth exclusively between Behrani and Kathy—an appealing and well-crafted technique that really lets us see and understand these two central characters and the forces that have shaped them. Lester only begins to come into the same kind of focus at the beginning of Part 2—more than halfway into the novel—but only from the third-person perspective of an unnamed narrator. We certainly learn more about Lester in these passages, but we obviously don’t hear his thoughts in the same way we continue to hear Behrani’s and Kathy’s. In making this narrative decision, Dubus technically keeps Lester positioned as an interloper between the two protagonists, but the lines between them all begin to blur and the casual reader can be excused for losing track of who bears the final responsibility.

To me it’s clear. In both the book and in the movie, it is Lester who manufactures the problem and who turns it fatal by trying to address it in a ruinous and sometimes ridiculous fashion. The fact that Lester is a deputy sheriff is played to greater effect in the movie, where this viewer was left with the disturbing impression that it was Lester’s perspective as an officer of the law which directly resulted in the tragedy—his need to impose his “good guy” and “bad guy” labels on the situation and then to act in accordance with his rigid training and procedures to resolve it. In the book it is more obvious that Lester is acting entirely outside the boundaries of the law, making his status as a police officer more ironic than central to the rising action.

What I like best through the bulk of the novel is the way Dubus seems to refuse to take sides in the Behrani/Kathy conflict—showing both their redeeming qualities and their selfish flaws in equal proportion, and leaving it up to the reader to decide who is in the right and who is in the wrong. This overall perspective is maintained even as Lester begins to insert himself into the conflict, and even as the tragedy unfolds. Through Lester’s actions, Behrani’s son is mistakenly shot and killed, Lester is arrested, and Behrani murders Kathy out of vengeance and then commits murder/suicide on his wife and himself rather than face the shame and sorrow that has engulfed his family. The novel could and should have ended with Lester in his jail cell in protective custody, reflecting on all that had happened and drifting off to sleep on his bunk.

After what seemed a long while, Lester’s body began to feel like part of the bunk. He was breathing deeply through his nose, and as sleep began to take him he mouthed a prayer for Esmail [Behrani’s son], for his full recovery [Lester not knowing that Esmail had died from the gunshots], and he saw himself holding and kissing Bethany and Nate [his children]. Then he was in a boat on some river and Carol [his wife] and Kathy were lying beside him and there were thunderheads in the sky but there was nothing to do about them, and so Lester closed his eyes, one arm beneath each woman. Something rumbled far off in the eastern sky. The air began to turn cool. He breathed in the smell of fish scales and perfume and damp wood. One of the women let out a whimper, as if in the middle of a bad dream, but Lester just settled deeper into the bottom of the boat and waited, waited for the river to take them where it was going to anyway, to the inevitable conclusion of all he had done and failed to do, the air cooler now, almost cold, the boat beginning to rock.

But the book doesn’t end there. What follows is 17 more pages of Kathy—who isn’t dead after all. Behrani strangled her to unconsciousness, evidently, but not death. These extra pages feel a lot like band-aid and a betrayal. They betray the consistent tone of not taking sides Dubus had expertly maintained through the rest of the novel. As dismal as her life now is, Kathy is alive and Behrani is dead—and that’s not fair given the rules initially set. And they’re also a kind of Hollywood band-aid slapped over the open wound that we would have otherwise been left with. This reader would have certainly preferred the open wound, and I suspect the National Book Award Committee probably would have, too.

+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +
House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III
on Amazon
on Wikipedia
+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +

Sunday, July 19, 2009

God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens

Oh, wearisome condition of humanity,
Born under one law, to another bound;
Vainly begot, and yet forbidden vanity,
Created sick, commanded to be sound.
—Fulke Greville, Mustapha

So goes one of three epigraphs Hitchens chose to precede his polemic against belief in God and the role of religion in society. And in it, he comes out swinging. This is on page 7, in his introductory chapter titled, sardonically, “Putting It Mildly.”

While some religious apology is magnificent in its limited way—one might cite Pascal—and some of it is dreary and absurd—here one cannot avoid naming C. S. Lewis—both styles have something in common, namely the appalling load of strain that they have to bear. How much effort it takes to affirm the incredible! The Aztecs had to tear open a human chest cavity every day just to make sure that the sun would rise. Monotheists are supposed to pester their deity more times than that, perhaps, lest he be deaf. How much vanity must be concealed—not too effectively at that—in order to pretend that one is the personal object of a divine plan? How much self-respect must be sacrificed in order that one may squirm continually in an awareness of one’s own sin? How many needless assumptions must be made, and how much contortion is required, to receive every new insight of science and manipulate it so as to “fit” with the revealed words of ancient man-made deities? How many saints and miracles and councils and conclaves are required in order first to be able to establish a dogma and then—after infinite pain and loss and absurdity and cruelty—to be forced to rescind one of those dogmas? God did not create man in his own image. Evidently, it was the other way about, which is the painless explanation for the profusion of gods and religions, and the fratricide both between and among faiths, that we see all about us and that has so retarded the development of civilization.

Reading Hitchens’ prose is a delight in and of itself—he is a master at turning a phrase. But it becomes all that more appealing as he uses that razor wit to skewer the religious rituals and taboos of our human societies.

Across a wide swath of animist and Muslim Africa, young girls are subjected to the hell of circumcision and infibulation, which involves the slicing off of the labia and the clitoris, often with a sharp stone, and then the stitching up of the vaginal opening with strong twine, not to be removed until it is broken by male force on the bridal night. Compassion and biology allow for a small aperture to be left, meanwhile, for the passage of menstrual blood. The resulting stench, pain, humiliation, and misery exceed anything that can be easily imagined, and inevitably result in infection, sterility, shame, and the death of many women and babies in childbirth. No society would tolerate such an insult to its womanhood and therefore to its survival if the foul practice was not holy and sanctified.

Time and again, he sets it up just like that—illuminating the sickening folly of it all in ways most would rather not see—and then drives home his telling and crucial point.

Richard Dawkins created quite a controversy when he wrote in The God Delusion that indoctrinating a child into a religion was a form of child abuse. Hitchens goes even farther and, even though both men are clearly eloquent, Hitchens makes the point much more savagely than Dawkins probably dared.

Now, religion professes a special role in the protection and instruction of children. “Woe to him,” says the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, “who harms a child.” The New Testament has Jesus informing us that one so guilty would be better off at the bottom of the sea, and with a millstone around his neck at that. But both in theory and in practice, religion uses the innocent and the defenseless for the purposes of experiment. By all means let an observant Jewish adult male have his raw-cut penis placed in the mouth of a rabbi. (That would be legal, at least in New York.) By all means let grown women who distrust their clitoris or their labia have them sawn away by some other wretched adult female. By all means let Abraham offer to commit suicide to prove his devotion to the Lord or his belief in the voices he was hearing in his head. By all means let devout parents deny themselves the succor of medicine when in acute pain and distress. By all means—for all I care—let a priest sworn to celibacy be a promiscuous homosexual. By all means let a congregation that believes in whipping out the devil choose a new grown-up sinner each week and lash him until he or she bleeds. By all means let anyone who believes in creationism instruct his fellows during lunch breaks. Bu the conscription of the unprotected child for these purposes is something that even the most dedicated secularist can safely describe as a sin.

And when Hitchens turns to the child molestation and abuse scandals currently rocking the Catholic Church, his arrows grow additional barbs.

“Child abuse” is really a silly and pathetic euphemism for what has been going on: we are talking about the systemic rape and torture of children, positively aided and abetted by a hierarchy which knowingly moved the grossest offenders to parishes where they would be safer. Given what has come to light in modern cities in recent times, one can only shudder to think what was happening in the centuries where the church was above all criticism. But what did people expect would happen when the vulnerable were controlled by those who, misfits and inverts themselves, were required to affirm hypocritical celibacy? And who were taught to state grimly, as an article of belief, that children were “imps of” or “limbs of” Satan? Sometimes the resulting frustration expressed itself in horrible excesses of corporal punishment, which is bad enough in itself. But when the artificial inhibitions really collapse, as we have seen them do, they result in behavior which no average masturbating, fornicating sinner could even begin to contemplate without horror. This is not the result of a few delinquents among the shepherds, but an outcome of an ideology which sought to establish clerical control by means of control of the sexual instinct and even of the sexual organs. It belongs, like the rest of religion, to the fearful childhood of our species.

Part of me feels I should comment on this, but Hitchens states the case so well and so clearly, I’m not sure my additional commentary is necessary. Perhaps I’ll settle for my own tired refrain. When will the Catholic Church be held responsible for its crimes against humanity?

In this same vein, Hitchens attacks a lot of religion’s other sacred cows, and the myths it has perpetrated about itself in our culture. An extended section is about religion’s role as the source and supporter of slavery, despite the fact some of the abolitionists of the 1850s-60s were motivated by their deep religious faith, and the resulting cultural myth that it was religion that brought slavery to an end. Hitchens draws a much different conclusion when he takes into account what the deep religious beliefs of generations of people on the pro-slavery side had done.

Whatever may be the case, the very most that can be said for religion in the grave matter of abolition is that after many hundreds of years, and having both imposed and postponed the issue until self-interest had led to a horrifying war, it finally managed to undo some small part of the damage and misery that it had inflicted in the first place.

Another section examines male circumcision. I mention this only to correct what I think might be a mistake in Hitchens’ text. In addressing objections to interference with something that god must have designed with care—the human penis—Hitchens says that believers of long ago invented the dogma that Adam was born circumcised and in the image of god.

Indeed, it is argued by some rabbis that Moses, too, was born circumcised, though this claim may result from the fact that his own circumcision is nowhere mentioned in the Pentateuch.

Well, here’s a few verses from the English Standard Version of Exodus 4:

24 At a lodging place on the way the Lord met him and sought to put him to death. 25 Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son's foreskin and touched Moses' feet with it and said, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” 26 So he let him alone. It was then that she said, “A bridegroom of blood,” because of the circumcision.

I quote this because I’ve heard at least one Bible expert say that “feet” is a purposeful mistranslation of the original “penis,” changed by some of the more puritan defenders of the faith. Supposedly, the reason the Lord sought to put Moses to death in this cryptic little story is that he was uncircumcised, and Zipporah’s actions placated the violent Yahweh, symbolically circumcising her husband by touching the bloody foreskin of her son to his member.

And if that’s not true, then at least consider this version from the King James Bible:

24 And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the Lord met him, and sought to kill him. 25 Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me. 26 So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision.

In which it can be more reasonably argued that Zipporah’s actions are meant to show Yahweh that Moses had been circumcised, the proof of “his” bloody foreskin lying at his very feet.

Whatever. It’s a minor point and I’m probably misremembering what I heard. It’s hard to fault an author too badly who fills his book with pithy little observations like this:

In the United States, we exert ourselves to improve high-rise buildings and high-speed jet aircraft (the two achievements that the murderers of September 11, 2001, put into hostile apposition) and then pathetically refuse to give them floors, or row numbers, that carry the unimportant number thirteen.

In other words, if we lived in a world where the number thirteen had to power to harm us, it wouldn’t be very likely that we could master the engineering and mathematics necessary to build tall building and airplanes. Those things work because the world is orderly and predictable, operating in ways that can be understood and leveraged to the advantage of our own internal visions. Despite the protestations of the faithful of all stripes from the beginning of time, the world is not run by magic.

The various forms of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people to be equally true, by the philosopher as equally false, and by the magistrate as equally useful.
—Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +
God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens
on Amazon
on Wikipedia
in The New York Times
+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Rembrandt’s Eyes by Simon Schama

This is a remarkable book. Ostensibly a biography of the Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn, it is also a fascinating study of Rembrandt’s work and techniques, as well as a mini-biography of Peter Paul Rubens—whose paintings and reputation would dog Rembrandt for his entire life and continue to do so to this day—and a kind of political and religious history of the Netherlands before, during and after Rembrandt’s life.

Before reading this book, I knew next to nothing about the role the Netherlands played in the history of Europe. I don’t feel like I know a lot more about it now, but my interest sure had been piqued. It had a central role to play, apparently, in opposing the Spanish Inquisition, and struggled through this difficult period with conflicts and wars between religious fundamentalists and religious liberals. As the author describes at one point, it sought to answer the question, “Was it to be a republic dominated by Calvinist Protestantism, or a place where no one single Christian confession had coercive power?”

But that’s not the focus of the book. Rembrandt’s work is—and Schama’s in-depth analysis and evocative prose helps a layman like me understand why Rembrandt’s work is truly so remarkable. The title of Rembrandt’s Eyes was especially well chosen.

All his life, Rembrandt would be fixated on the idea of spiritual, inner blindness, even among those who supposed their physical vision to be acute. This was but one of the qualities which set him apart so drastically from the mainstream of Dutch painting, which defined itself strikingly in terms of optical precision. His own perception, even in his stripling years, was shockingly acute, as those donkey teeth bear witness. But he was already haunted by a paradox. The light that came to us in the clarity of the day, that led us to embrace the material, visible world, was a gift of immense power, but it faded into insignificance beside the other light, the interior light of the Gospel truth, the enabler of in-sight, especially strong in Protestant culture, though inherited from a tradition that went back all the way to Augustine, that the power of sight was spiritually dangerous: a sorcerer’s spell.

“Those donkey teeth” refers to an early painting Rembrandt made, Balaam and the Ass (1626), depicting a story from Numbers in which God opens the eyes of the Moabite Balaam to the angel He sent to keep Balaam out of Israel. But the painting depicts the scene just before Balaam’s eyes are so opened, and they are shown as nothing more than dark crevices.

It is a theme he would return to again and again, this juxtaposition between earthly sight and divine blindness, between earthly blindness and divine sight.

Again in 1626, with Anna, Tobit, and the Kid, in which the blind prophet Tobit prays for his own destruction moments before he is cured of his blindness by the archangel Raphael.

In 1628, with The Supper at Emmaus, when a disciple’s eyes are opened to the knowledge that the passer-by he has been dining with is in fact the risen Christ.

And, most hauntingly, in 1629, in The Artist in His Studio, where he shows his own eyes as nothing more than black holes—“cavities behind which something is being born rather than destroyed.”

This struggle between earthly and divine sight is not the only struggle Rembrandt would face as a painter. Harkening back to the role of the Netherlands as a place of religious opposition to the Catholic Inquisition, Rembrandt often found himself struggling to please his Protestant patrons with his demonstrably “Catholic” style. To whit:

But this laboriously additive collection of Catholic motifs only points up Rembrandt’s painful difficulty in converting the conventions of the public, inspirational Catholic altarpiece into a Protestant, private devotional painting. The most acute problem turned on the place of sacred spectacle in the strengthening of faith. For Catholics, pictures had to be powerful enough to give the beholder a bodily sense of participation in the Passion, so that the boundary between their own persons and that of the Savior, the Virgin, and the apostles all but dissolved. But that was precisely the boundary which Protestantism insisted on respecting, believing the Catholic ardor for physicals, rather than symbolic, communion an act of presumptuous sacrilege. Luther and Calvin had both dismissed as deluded, if not actually blasphemous, the notion that salvation could depend at all on the actions of Christians. Instead, it was argued, salvation was bestowed by grace alone. Faith, as St. Paul had taught, became essentially a passive condition: the meek acceptance of sin and unworthiness; the hope that God’s abundant mercy would redeem the sinner. Protestant painting, then, ought to have no pretensions to transport the communicant into the material presence of Christ. It should instead point up the virtues of watching, waiting, believing; it should illuminate not the closeness between mortal man and the Son of God but the insuperable distance between them.

It was an order Rembrandt would ultimately be unable to fill, as his natural style focused on the direct, intimate physical experience, on domestic details which bring the figures painted within the compass of human experience. Schama describes Rembrandt’s The Holy Family (1634) as follows:

Like any new mother’s, the Virgin’s left hand plays with the Christ child’s toes; her breast touches his forehead. Joseph, at once part of the mystery and separated from it, leans carefully toward the baby, his hand going no further than the crib blanket. And all around the room are the tools of his trade as well as a cut branch—allusions, for those searching for them, to the Crucifixion, the ultimate meaning of the birth of the Savior, but embodied in the commonplace clutter of a carpenter’s shop.

Despite these difficulties, Rembrandt’s fame would grow until he almost destroyed it with perhaps his most famous painting of all—1642’s The Night Watch.

It violated every convention for group portraiture at the time. As Schama says:

Classicist critics were right to be appalled by The Night Watch because, despite its fine calculations of color, tonal values, composition, and form, it pays such scant attention to the rules of decorum. It was the most immodest thing Rembrandt ever did, not in self-advertisement but in terms of what he thought he could achieve in a single work. It is the acme of Baroque painting because it does so much, because it is so much. It is group portrait, quasi-history painting, emblematic tableau, visionary apparition, and, not least, I think, a personal statement about the transcendent, living quality of painting itself. All this happens on one canvas. It is a painting of Rabelaisian inclusiveness, one that mocks the academic hierarchy of genres in favor of a display of social performance. It is a noise, a brag, a street play. It is how we all are. But because it’s all that, it’s a picture that keeps threatening to disintegrate into incoherence. For it takes the chance that all the picture types that it wants to bring together will end up, not in agreement, but at war with each other. Instead of sublime synthesis, there might be a dissonant rout. And that is exactly how its hostile critics through the centuries have written it off as the most overrated painting in seventeenth-century art.

And it was mostly downhill from there, a slow slide into obscurity and poverty as Rembrandt’s genius continued to grow but outpace the conventions and fashions of his time. His later works are almost Impressionistic in their use of color and paint. Look at this Portrait of Jan Six (1654):

The picture is, then, a virtual encyclopedia of painting, from the loosest handling to the dry brush, sparely loaded with yellow, dragged over the surface at the edge of Six’s right cuff; from the finest detail to the most impressionist daring. Yet Rembrandt manages to bring all this diversity of technique into a totally resolved single image. So that Jan Six does indeed stand before us much as we would dearly wish to imagine ourselves, all the contradictions of our character—vanity and modesty, outward show and inward reflectiveness, energy and calm—miraculously fitted together.

And this, The Oath-Swearing of Claudius Civilis (1661-62):

which had been intended for a tremendous corner lunette in Amsterdam’s city hall, but which had so shocked its patrons that it was quietly rejected outright and cut down dramatically in order to be suitable for handing in some eclectic collector’s house.

Indeed, many of Rembrandt’s later works were cut down from the original artistic vision in order to make them sell-able and able to please to prevailing tastes of the time, perhaps none more appalling so than The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Jan Deyman (1656).

Rembrandt was already struggling for commissions at this time, and he received this one probably because of the fame he had garnered from an earlier group portrait, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp (1632). But Rembrandt the artist had grown well beyond this popular acclaim.

In fact, this later anatomy was as startlingly unconventional as the earlier one. But the focus of Rembrandt’s vision had changed from animated action to interior self-examination. Dr. Tulp had been all about the divinity of dexterity, with the instruction to reflect on mortality indicated only by the meaningfully pointing finger of Dr. van Loenen. In the Deyman anatomy, the mortal element, as well as sense of judgment, conveyed by the solemnly gathered figures is overwhelmingly present. The exposure of the brain of the subjectum anatomicum suggests that thought, even more than dexterity, the sapient mark of humanity, was both a mass of viscous, blood-filled matter and a supreme marvel of God’s work. For Rembrandt has made a church of this anatomy theater lodged in the upper story of the Meat Hall, and the painting is its altarpiece. The low angle of vision in front of the painting hung up in the chamber of the surgeon’s guild would have obliged the beholder to look up over the startlingly foreshortened feet and directly into the deep shadowy cavity of the eviscerated stomach, still supported like a tent by the intact rib cage. The foreshortened large hands and trunk and the incongruously serene face, painted as though shrouded in a veil of grace, are unmistakably reminiscent of the depiction of dead Christs, in particular those of Borgianini and Mantegna. And the body has been lined up (at ninety degrees to the picture plane) directly with Dr. Deyman himself, who stands, paternal and godlike, over the head of the miscreant, lovingly peeling back the dura mater membranes and separating the two cerebral hemispheres as if administering a benediction. The touching but unsettling sacramental quality of the scene is completed by the assistant surgeon, Gijsbert Calkoen (the son, no less, of Matthijs Calkeon, whom Rembrandt had shown leaning close to Dr. Tulp’s right hand in his earlier anatomy), holding the detached skullcap tenderly in his palm as if it were the cup of the Eucharist.

There are more paintings, dozens more, that I could describe here, all illuminated in-depth by Schama’s wonderful prose. Through these pages, it felt somewhat like Rembrandt himself had come alive, striking me as someone I would very much liked to have known.

Even so, no painter of his time was more bookish, or, perhaps more accurately, more scriptural, then Rembrandt; none more obviously besotted with the weight of books, moral and materials, their bindings, clasps, their paper, their print, their stories. If the books were not on his shelves, they would certainly be everywhere in his paints and prints: piled high on tottering shelves; reposing authoritatively on the tables of preachers or anatomists; clasped in the hands of eloquent ministers or musing poets. No one would better describe the moment of imminent writing (for many of us, lasting too many hours of the day), the quill poised over the page. And thought the subject of reading was popular with his contemporaries, no one would make it such an act of intense, transfiguring absorption as Rembrandt. One of his old women, usually characterized as his mother, Neeltgen, but certainly in the persona of the aged prophetess Anna, who frequented the Temple around the time of Christ’s birth “day and night,” is shown by Rembrandt in a painting in his Leiden manner deep in her Scripture. Anna mattered to Rubens, too. He had included her in the scene on the side panel of The Descent from the Cross together with the high priest Simeon, for she too had recognized the infant Jesus as the Savior. But for Rubens, Anna’s source of light is of course the body of Christ. For Rembrandt’s Anna, the radiance lies on the glowing page.