Sunday, June 20, 2010

Remembering Saramago

Here are a few gems from Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago, who died Friday:

"I think we are blind. Blind people who can see, but do not see." -from Blindness

"I always ask two questions: How many countries have military bases in the United States? And in how many countries does the United States not have military bases?"

"Since the world began, for every person who is born another dies." -from The Gospel According to Jesus Christ

"After watering and feeding the donkeys, the travelers finally sat down to eat, the men first, of course. How often we need to remind ourselves that Eve was created after Adam and taken from his rib. Will we ever learn that certain things can be understood only if we take the trouble to trace them to their origins." -from The Gospel According to Jesus Christ

"The attitude of insolent haughtiness is characteristic of the relationship Americans form with what is alien to them, with others."

"Americans have discovered the fragility of life, that ominous fragility that the rest of the world either already experienced or is experiencing now with terrible intensity."

"In effect I am not a novelist, but rather a failed essayist who started to write novels because he didn't know how to write essays."

"All dictionaries together do not contain even half of the words we needed to understand each other." -from The Double (and posted on Saramago's blog less than a month ago under the header "Babel")

Monday, June 14, 2010

Latest addition

I may not yet boast a kitchen table or even living-room chairs, but I am the excited new owner of a neighborly Schwinn, which fits nicely in the empty space between the fridge and Dash's favorite window.

As someone who really hasn't ridden much since childhood, and mostly on trails, it's going to take me a little while to get used to cycling right beside city traffic. Signaling turns with my arm feels pretty strange, and sometimes I want to hop on the sidewalk and join the pedestrians. Tomorrow morning will be my first bike-to-work day, so that will be something of a test, even though the trip is only a couple miles.

After a tentative afternoon of riding to lunch, to the library, to coffee and to the post office, I happened upon some confidence-building guidelines online, as well as some really complicated and frightening (albeit amusing) suggestions and statistics at I also ran across, and am deeply impressed by these folks.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Not Hedges' best

In his intelligent but unfortunately titled book I Don't Believe in Atheists, former war correspondent and divinity student Chris Hedges pinpoints several important parallels that link religious fundamentalists with those who would appear to be their clearest opponents--the "new atheists," typically represented by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and others who've authored books with titles like The God Delusion and The End of Faith. In tracing these patterns, Hedges draws on a substantial stack of indicting evidence against new-atheist convictions.

"They divide the world into superior and inferior races, those who are enlightened by reason and knowledge, and those who are governed by irrational and dangerous beliefs," Hedges writes in the introduction. "Hitchens and Harris describe the Muslim world [where Hedges notes that he himself spent seven years as a bureau chief] in language that is as racist, crude and intolerant as that used by Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell. They are a secular version of the religious right ... Human beings must become like them, think like them and adopt their values, which they insist are universal, or be banished from civilized society. All other values, which they never investigate or examine, are dismissed."

Intolerance, other-izing, arrogance, unwarranted certitude and utopian faith in humanity--these negative attributes definitely do show up in the examples of new-atheist thinking that Hedges goes on to cite. But the tongue-lashing Hedges gives these secular fundamentalists in I Don't Believe in Atheists rings hollow by the last page, where Hedges concludes simply, even simplistically, "Religious thought is a guide to morality. It points humans toward inquiry. It seeks to unfetter the mind from prejudices that blunt reflection and self-criticism ... Utopian dreamers, lifting up impossible ideals, plunge us into depravity and violence. It is those who are broken, those who see the shifting sands of our inner lives and fictive narratives we hide behind, who can save us ... They talk not of power but of the transcendent. They talk of reverence. And in their words we see the limits of reason and the possibilities of religion."

Hedges' book is a call for moderate voices on these weighty issues, and there are of course many echoing that vital call. Perhaps it's that very cultural resonance that leaves me less than satisfied with the book, because I close it feeling like I've read yet another treatise on the polarization that marks the public sphere and how truly alarming the loudest participants are at either end.

But there's another reason I'm critical of the book, and that's that many of Hedges' statements seem to fall prey to the very trends he decries, particularly caricature. Consider this conclusion, near the back of the book, about the state of contemporary society: " ... in the Middle Ages people were manipulated and informed by stained glass images and graphic paintings of religious suffering and redemption. We, too, are hostage to images. We are inundated with pictures of excess wealth and consumption. The pious in the Middle Ages genuflected before the awful authority and majesty of the church. They feared the wrath of God. We genuflect before celebrity, prizes, money and status, held out to us like bait. Profligate consumption is not only desirable, but also the only life that offers worth and meaning ... The mass of citizens who do not become wealthy and powerful, who buy Tom Ford's products but never become him, harbor feelings of failure and worthlessness." (My apologies for the long quotes, patient reader.)

To the extent that Hedges is simply giving those on the far right and left a dose of their own medicine, fine. But it's difficult, I think, for most readers to find such a black-and-white characterization of what's wrong with the modern world and how we find meaning in bleak times a convincing aspect of his case. Do we masses truly harbor "feelings of failure and worthlessness" because we are so crushed not to be famous millionaires? Is this notion of the harmful proliferation of images really accurate? Aren't we more often depressed as a result of far different, and far more real, things--things like the pain of a friend or family member, the nature of modern warfare, the spewing of a constant stream of oil into a beautiful ocean, or deep personal regrets?

I was much more taken with Hedges' 2002 book, War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, which was a finalist for the nonfiction National Book Award. And because Hedges wrote such a book I am both forever in his debt and somewhat disappointed in this more recent project. The former left me with so much of worth to ponder, complicating world events and issues that I had all too easily cut and dried in my head. I Don't Believe in Atheists just isn't on the same level. But all that said, it's still worth a read. Just make sure to read War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning as well. It's one of the more troubling and informative and necessary books I've encountered.