Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Brave New World

            We’re huddled around a candle-lit table at the Headless Horseman bar in Union Square. I’m disappointed because everyone around me has a head and I don’t see any horses. My friend Matt is being a pig though, because he’s the only one that orders food. This is our first book club meeting (me, Matt, and Will), and we each hold a copy of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World* in our hands, eager to talk about what the moral code of a dystopic society looks like as long as the waitress keeps replenishing our beers (amiright).
           
            I read this novel for the first time four years ago, simultaneously witnessing the sun rise through the slit in my deer stand as I hunted with my dad. I finished right before I shot and killed a coyote. I’m from Texas, so I can say these kinds of things. At the time--blinded by the picturesqueness of the moment and the thrill of a first kill--I really enjoyed it. Now that I read more critically and have read enough of Huxley to understand his own philosophy, I think the book is very meh. I only truly started to enjoy it when the three of us were able to tease out and extrapolate some of his ideas; standing on its own, the novel is (sometimes) repetitive, dull, and a bit simple in retrospect.

            Before I rant about its shortcomings and rave about its successes, I’ll offer some context. Brave New World uses third-person perspective to introduce a society whose main goals are efficiency and stability. Anything (or anyone) that disrupts those objectives is eliminated. In consequence, their world is structured starkly different from today’s world. Humans are mass-produced--genetically and emotionally conditioned to behave and think in a specific way that best fits their role in the socioeconomic system. As such, there are castes distinctly identified by dress and appearance. But this isn’t India; people do not have the capacity or opportunity to experience undesirable emotions, so they are not jealous of other castes. If they begin to feel any tingling of discontentment, they take a ration of “soma”, a hallucinogenic drug that transports the user into a blissful state of mind without any hangover. Despite being published almost 20 years apart, “soma” sounds eerily reminiscent of Huxley’s mescaline descriptions in The Doors of Perception.

            Of course, in a dystopian fiction there are select disgruntled and confused citizens within the well-ordered society. Here are the types that Huxley chooses to focus on: 
  • Bernard Marx (think Karl Marx—political insinuations abound in this novel): an Alpha-Plus whose abnormal height leads to rumors that something went amuck in his genetic conditioning. He is dissatisfied with the nature of society not because he is fundamentally, philosophically opposed to its structure, but because he doesn’t belong. He is a stagnant character-- more non-conformist by fate rather than choice.
  • Helmholtz Watson (think behavioral psychologist Watson): a propaganda writer at the College of Emotional Engineering who begins to feel that there is more to life despite his ability to seamlessly fit in.
  • Lenina Crowe (think Lenin): suuuuuuch a basic bitch. She is lucky to be surrounded by intelligent men in a sea of sameness, yet she can’t break out of the bubble. She is a victim that you don’t feel sorry for—a woman with the tools to contemplate life seriously who doesn’t end up picking up the wrench.
  • John (think John the Baptist): a “savage” displaced from a reservation intentionally untouched by the new global way of being. He has an affinity for Shakespeare (which is where the phrase “brave new world” stems from—The Tempest) and is openly disgusted by the banning of literature in this so-called New World. Originally, he is fascinated by society; quickly, he understands that his values totally contradict society’s set of conditions. He does not want to forgo emotional intensities for the sake of blanket, unquestioned, disingenuous serenity.  

            When Huxley wrote this novel—in 1931 during a depression in Britain—he truly believed that a world like this was imminent. He felt this all the way up to 1963, when he asked his wife for some LSD at his deathbed (swag). While I see some resemblances in terms of large-scale consumption, information overload, and pleasure-seeking habits, I am not as fearful as he was. I think (hope) that humans value freedom of choice enough to reject such a system. I’m sure that at the time of publication, this novel introduced unheard of cultural ideas and radical notions of government control. Now, having been more readily exposed to dystopia as a genre, I also considered the plot itself, which is wasted and lackluster. He focused so much on providing a philosophically shocking setting that he failed to make anything actually interesting happen within that setting. It’s like having a pizza with badass Mellow Mushroom crust and then topping it with mayonnaise and olives. As a philosopher, Aldous (if I may) is brilliant. As a novelist… I’m unimpressed.

            Thankfully, because he did present such a thought-provoking framework from which to bounce off of, the novel served its purpose well as a “book-club book”.  We discussed the consequences of abolishing the spectrum of emotions, how Huxley transformed and utilized tenants of religion, what “true freedom” means, how Huxley felt about “extremes” in general, the sarcastic nature of the title, and where we should go to dinner to watch the Rangers hockey game. I was initially inclined to give the book a “2” because of my disappointment in the story. Instead, I give it 3 out of 5 camel humps. I think the fact that it is a classic “must-read” in the dystopian fiction world bumps it up a hump. Even if you don't enjoy it, its practical political, moral, and religious ties mean that thinking about why you don’t enjoy it can also be rewarding and intellectually provocative.


*Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 1932. Print.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Slaughterhouse-Five

           Vonnegut is a very polarizing author; you either love him or you hate him. In my opinion, he is a goddamn literary genius and you are tripping balls if you don’t agree. (Side note: you know you are a thorough writer when you perform a little CTRL-F action to make sure you haven’t overused the phrase “tripping balls” in your blog. To my surprise, this is the first time. To your benefit, it won’t be the last). I first introduced this author with my post on Cat's Cradle and I’ve been a little cultishly obsessed every since. My next read will be Breakfast of Champions, which I’m hoping is a novel exclusively concerned with bacon.

The reasoning behind my Vonnegut fandom is four-fold… 

A)                       I’m a big fan of philosophy because, I dunno, it kind of helps explain why we exist, do what we do, think the way we think, and know the things we know. There are plenty of enjoyable “philosophy books”—throw me some Thus Spoke Zarathustra any day—but sometimes they get too murky and they start to hurt your head. When that happens, a good alternative is *philosophical fiction*-- a discussion of philosophical ideas within a more entertaining, consumable, fictional setting. Vonnegut is particularly adept at this genre.

B)                      He has a tendency to incorporate elements of science fiction in a nuanced way. In general, I’m pretty indifferent towards sci-fi, but I love that his incorporations are bizarre but light-hearted.

C)                      He utilizes the “unreliable narrator” technique in which the person telling us the story isn’t entirely credible, either by their own admission or by the fact that they are too wound up in the plot to notice their own biases. This literary approach is masterfully employed in previous novels I’ve reviewed such as The Brothers Karamazov, Gone Girl, Lolita, and more. In my opinion, it is implemented most beautifully in Death with Interruptions. It is a very enjoyable device in that it lets readers feel they are experiencing the fictional journey alongside a human narrator.

D)                      He never fails to make sardonic social and political critiques that stem from his staunch humanistic beliefs. Humans for the win! 

Enough about how awesome I think Vonnegut is and more about this book in particular. It follows Billy Pilgrim-- a WWII POW in Dresden, Germany when a massive bombing occurs in the city. This was a historical event that happened to Vonnegut himself. Because it’s a war book, there’s obviously speculation as to the meaninglessness of life and usage of fatalistic themes that so often accompany mass-slaughter. While it would be easy to introduce those themes straightforwardly, Vonnegut embodies them in an alien race of Tralfamadorians who, fittingly, live on Tralfamadore. Pilgrim is prone to narcolepsy, and when he falls asleep, he travels in time. At one point, he is captured and transported to Tralfamadore, where they each learn about each other’s way of life.

Turns out, the Tralfamadorians know what’s good. Their perspective of the universe centers on a basic principle:  “All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will” (Vonnegut, 27). Because they can see all instances of life simultaneously, “[they] can see where each star has been and where it is going, so that heavens are filled with rarefied, luminous spaghetti. And [they] don’t see human beings as two-legged creatures… they see them as great millipedes—with babies' legs at one end and old people’s legs at the other” (Vonnegut, 87). That might seem overwhelming, but Tralfamadorians are perfectly equipped and content with their perspective. In fact, they think that the Earthling perspective is so terribly limited and fixated. I kind of wish that I could see my baby legs and old-person legs at the same time because then I’d look hilarious running on a treadmill. Admittedly, I already look hilarious running on a treadmill as it is.

The Tralfamadorian conception of time is expressed through Pilgrim’s time-traveling pilgrimages. During his time on earth, he wants to share the Tralfamadorian way with others, “prescribing corrective lenses for Earthling souls” (Vonnegut, 29). After all, it certainly makes dealing with death easier. Everyone lives forever because even though you might be dead in one moment, you are very much alive in another. Asking “why” things happen is futile—when something happens, it is simply because “the moment was structured that way” (Vonnegut, 117). Of course, the notion that humans have no free will is scary and not easily accepted. But even if you don’t fundamentally believe in the possibility of Tralfamadorianism (and of note, I don’t think Vonnegut does either), isn’t there something beautiful, comforting, and eye opening about their perspective? They don’t overthink life and they’re able to fully enjoy the good times and fully accept the bad. Things aren’t always peachy—one Tralfamadorian admits, “on [some] days we have wars as horrible as any you’ve ever seen or read about. There isn’t anything we can do about them, so we simply don’t look at them. We ignore them. We spend eternity looking at pleasant moments…” (Vonnegut, 117). That seems pretty chill. This is what chill looks like, according to Vonnegut:
I won’t give any more of the plot away but trust me, it’s totally awesome and just as weird as everything I’ve described above. Vonnegut is not for everyone, but you should definitely give him a try. Cat's Cradle is excellent, but I’ll give Slaughterhouse-Five* a slight edge—although that might just be the recency effect. Both books earn the coveted 5 out of 5 camel hump label and should be a staple of any bookshelf. 

*Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York: Dell Publishing, 1969. Print.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Your Movie Sucks

            A review of an anthology of reviews, how meta! Your Movie Sucks* consists of Roger Ebert’s most scathing reviews of movies that earned two-stars or less. The collection comes seven years after I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie and five years before A Horrible Experience of Unbearable Length, which cover different time frames but have the same agenda. There are a lot of movies that suck and Ebert wants you to know about them so you can run far, far away and save the $12. Good looks, Roger Ebert.

            Unlike me, who is only “qualified” to write book reviews insofar as I read a lot of literature because my roommates and I can’t afford cable, Ebert wields over forty years of film criticism experience in an official capacity. He began as a critic for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967 and ended up as a household name. Indeed, he was the first of his kind to earn the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Maybe if I complain about not getting bagels at 9 AM staff meetings enough, I’ll get a prize for criticism too. #Hangry.
           
            I was first drawn to this book when I saw it listed on oysterbooks.com. Anyone who has heard me rant about electronic reading mediums knows that I am fundamentally against e-books in that it renders the reading experience inauthentic. I like to support local bookstores, hold an actual book in my hand while I read it, and place it in my bookshelf to either lend it to others or revisit it later. At the same time, there are plenty of books that I’m only mildly interested in—material that I think would be entertaining but not high enough in the queue to purchase. There are also moments in my day in which reading a physical book is impossible. Like when the subway is so crowded that I’m nuzzling a stranger’s chest, or when I’m at my desk allegedly doing work. Acknowledging these evil forces vying to prevent me from peeling open a paperback, I succumb to using Oyster only when the alternative is not an option. You can succumb too by using my link for a free trial for both of us. *Shameless*.

            I’m no movie buff, but I immediately respected Ebert’s opinions when I discovered we shared an extreme distaste for Adam Sandler, who is so desperately unfunny that it pains me to watch him on screen. But even without this communal bond, I found Ebert’s reviews impressive. He exudes a commanding presence in his writing, creatively attacking every movie without missing a beat. Each assault is new and imaginative, even if the underlying problems in some of the films are the same.

            He is also pretty funny, which supplements his expertise in a way that makes the book more enjoyable to someone with a less methodical approach to the movies. For instance, with regards to the 2001 film Company Man, Ebert applies “Gene Siskel’s classic question, ‘Is this movie better than a documentary of the same actors having lunch?’ In this case, it is not even better than a documentary of the same actors ordering room service while fighting the stomach flu” (Company Man, section C). Let’s goooooo. He’s not afraid to call a shitty movie out for its shittiness, as when he declares, “to call [A Lot Like Love] dead in the water is an insult to water” or when he notes, “Elements of [No Such Thing] seem not merely half-baked, but never to have seen the inside of an oven” (A Lot Like Love, section L; No Such Thing, section N).

            Not only are his derisions amusing, they’re also well informed. Ebert is obviously very knowledgeable in his field. He consistently reveals how certain character names or attributes are subtle connections to past films and he is thorough in explaining why remakes or prequels/sequels pale in comparison to the originals. Because of his film-familiarity, he is fair in his critiques, giving credit to writers/directors who have made good movies in the past yet still relentlessly berating them for a flop. Interestingly, he generally deflects blame from the actors and on to the screenplay itself and the director behind it; he accuses the “character” rather than the one who plays it. He has seen so many movies at this point that he is especially attune to recycled clich├ęs—formula films that draw on a number of unoriginal devices to garner a laugh or secure a scream from the audience. As such, horror films take a big hit.

            Most importantly, I trust him. A good review gives you some context and perspective, but leaves a sliver of wiggle room to figure out for yourself if this (book, movie, or otherwise) is something you might be fond of. There is a method to his madness—he takes notes during films and peruses the reviews of his colleagues (House of D, section H). And he doesn’t look at the entertainment factor alone; he also considers gender and racial politics, as well as larger moral implications. Despite this high praise for his process, I’m thankful that he allowed me wiggle room to disagree with his low ratings on the following films: Crossroads (I mean, it’s Britney, bitch), The Hills Have Eyes, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Pearl Harbor (hiiiii Ben Affleck), Serendipity, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (although I will admit the OG version is best).

            These minor qualms aside, I enjoyed his book. He’s witty, not afraid to be honest even if it means making enemies, and meticulous in his ratings. If you’re movie savvy, you will recognize most of the films and relish in their degradation; if you’re like me-- where you watch a decent amount of movies but don’t pore over the details—you’ll think it’s good for what it is, but not spectacular. It is alphabetically organized, and once I reached “W”, I felt the redundancy of the negativity. So, for me, Your Movie Sucks clocks in at a solid 3 out of 5 camel humps.


*Ebert, Robert. Your Movie Sucks. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC, 2009. https://www.oysterbooks.com/book/7QQehfsJYvCBEVV4p9WyiV.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

            Imagine yourself as a Jew in first century Palestine. You’re probably wearing some badass, strappy leather sandals, weaving a basket, and gossiping about the one thirteen year old girl who is still not married. Someone get this girl the Coffee Meets Bagel app; or rather, in that time period, the Barely-Alcoholic-Wine Meets Flat Bread app. *Young love*. Anyway, historically speaking, you’re also pretty pissed off about the Roman occupation beginning in 63 B.C.E. Sure, they let you retain your Temple rituals with supervision; but this is the Promised Land reserved solely for God’s chosen people, not some pagan Romans. You all got the sweet taste of sovereignty for about a hundred years, and then the Holy City was flooded with heathens who stripped you of your property and put you to work.

            Clearly, the situation was not on fleek, but mama didn’t raise no bitch. Embittered Jews broadcasted apocalyptic claims emphasizing Roman downfall and hundreds of insurrectionists known as “bandits” began to fight back with sharp words and even sharper swords. Several bandits went so far as to call themselves messiah, which was “tantamount to declaring war on Rome” (Aslan, 19). Biblically, the messiah was tasked to finish what King David had started, purging Israel of foreigners in order to reestablish divine dominion. So, it’s actually quite remarkable that Jesus of Nazareth is so remarkable. He was preaching zealotry—a fanatic adherence to Jewish law—and making messianic declarations that were very commonplace in an era of Jewish persecution. Similarly, he was practicing magic healings and exorcisms in a world overrun with “wonder worker” vocations.

            Like his rebellious predecessors, Jesus was enraged with both the Roman rulers and the high priest Caiaphas. Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate appointed Caiaphas, who tainted the coveted priestly position by serving foreign interests over the one, true God. When word got around that Jesus held kingly ambitions, he was squashed for sedition just like all of the other hundreds of rabble-rousers—by crucifixion. People got crucified on the regular, as Rome was determined to stop any sort of uprising in its tracks.

            Then comes the resurrection. We aptly celebrate it now by coloring Easter eggs and taking uncomfortable pictures with enormous rabbits. Whereas beforehand, Jesus was just another zealot opposing the current order, he now emerged unique and unprecedented. Aslan explains that Jesus’s death completely undermines the Jewish conception of “messiah” as one who liberates Israel (Aslan, 164). Jesus died a shameful death without restoring God’s kingdom… by definition, he did not fulfill messianic exigencies. Fortunately for Jesus—if he’s into that whole being famous thousands of years later thing—his teachings posthumously fell into the hands of a Hellenistic Jew named Stephen. Stephen spoke Greek, did not live in Jerusalem, never met Jesus, and had no official scholarly knowledge of the Torah. “As such, he was the perfect audience for this new, innovative, and thoroughly unorthodox interpretation of the messiah being peddled by a group of illiterate ecstatics” (Aslan, 167). Jesus’s disciples excitedly claimed that he had risen from the dead and there was a group of people eager to receive this new messiah-type—one who would save the Israelites on a more permanent, metaphysical plane. And voila! Now we have a new religion popping off from the fervent Judaism Jesus himself espoused. Jesus’s followers during his lifetime were uneducated peasants with limited resources; thus, “the task of defining Jesus’s message fell instead to a new crop of educated, urbanized, Greek-speaking Diaspora Jews who would become the primary vehicles of the expansion of the new faith. As these extraordinary men and women, many of them immersed in Greek philosophy and Hellenistic thought, began to reinterpret Jesus’s message so as to make it more palatable both to their fellow Greek-speaking Jews and to their gentile neighbors in the Diaspora, they gradually transformed Jesus from a revolutionary zealot to a Romanized demigod, from a man who tried and failed to free the Jews from Roman oppression to a celestial being wholly uninterested in any earthly matter” (Aslan, 171).

Overall, Aslan reveals how the true message of Jesus was transmuted over time, driven by historical impetuses. As the political climate shifted after Jesus’s death, his teachings were adapted to meet new needs in order to survive and wield influence. Jesus died in 30 C.E. Almost every gospel story was composed after the Jewish insurrection in 66 C.E. The Jews had reached a tipping point in tolerating tyranny when they successfully revolted. Two years later, in 68 C.E., the Romans regained control and they were not having it any longer. Radical nationalist sentiments like that of Jesus started to die out. If the Christians wanted to hold on to Jesus as their messiah, they had to temper his message and reinterpret his revolutionary zeal, or else Roman reprisal would have been swift and totalizing.

Accordingly, Aslan concludes that the New Testament we have now does not accurately historically reflect Jesus’s actual message. He says, “Paul’s portrayal of Jesus as Christ may sound familiar to contemporary Christians—it has since become the standard doctrine of the church—but it would have been downright bizarre to Jesus” (Aslan, 189). In a nutshell: what Paul propagated is a dissociation from the Jewish Cult that Jesus was apart of; what he propagated is not what Jesus himself propagated. 

            So, we have two bold claims made by Aslan. Claim 1: The historic Jesus is not the same guy as the Christian Jesus. Claim 2: Jesus himself would scorn the doctrine that filtered down from Paul’s interpretation. These are not wholly new claims. We’ve heard various versions of these notions before; however, it is arguably the first time that this assertion of New Testament deviation has weaseled its way into mainstream discourse. This book got a lot of attention, thanks to the help of a ridiculously misguided Fox News interview, and became a #1 New York Times bestseller. Though it is a book about a religious figure, it is known outside of religiously minded circles, which is impressive in its own right.

            Reza Aslan, whose name cannot be uttered without immediately thinking of the giant lion from The Chronicles of Narnia, spent two decades researching for Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth*. 
Yes, I made that myself. Yes, I actually tried hard. No, I don’t understand my new Mac at all.  Yes, I should probably stop calling it my new Mac considering I’ve had it for 7 months. Regardless of lion-likeness, the fact that Aslan is well versed in the texts and fully qualified to speak on the historicity of Jesus is incontrovertible. But that does not mean that his interpretation is infallible. Just as scholars approach the Christian cannon skeptically, so should we approach Aslan’s book in a critical manner. For example, while he has over fifty pages in notes listed in the back to accompany his assertions, we must remember that there is not a whole lot of historical material from this time period that references Jesus in the first place. Of course, he tries his best with what he has, but there is always room for doubt. It is also difficult in some cases to glean whether or not he is relying on a widely held scholarly opinion. Lastly, though he was incredibly thorough in removing the theological overlay from each milestone in Jesus’s life (virgin birth, his desecration of the temple, his following of John the Baptist, his relationship with women, etc.), I was disappointed that so little was said about Judas Iscariot’s betrayal.

            On to a buzzing question—can both believers and nonbelievers appreciate this book? I feel that regardless of religious background, this book can appeal to you as long as you are A) vaguely interested in religion, whether or not you adhere to a particular one or B) interested in the tumultuous history of a land that is a hotbed of religious fervor and political turmoil. His book is not an all out attack on Christianity; it simply says that the common claims about Jesus in the church today are ahistorical. He’s not trying to proselytize atheism by destroying Christianity; rather, he strives to embolden a historical perspective. Of course, there are glaring historical inaccuracies and outright cultural absurdities in the Bible that are acknowledged by both scholars and believers. But Aslan is not here to address faith itself. He lays all the facts on the table as he sees him, articulating who he understands Jesus to have been, and lets us do what we want with that information. If you want to add faith to the mix, add it. If you don’t want to, don’t. As I was reading, I thought about how Aslan’s claims of incompatibility between Jesus as a person and Jesus as the Christian Jesus don’t entirely alienate believers. Some might say that God intended and divinely guided this transformation; again, he leaves some wiggle room for faith. In fact, Aslan’s wife is a Christian and Aslan concludes at the end of the book that “Jesus of Nazareth—Jesus the man—is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone worth believing in” (Aslan, 216).

At the very least, this book serves as a reminder that we receive all religious doctrine through a highly selective filter that is shaped by the political/emotional/social context of the time period it was created in, as well as the subsequent generations it was passed down through. The canonized versions we experience and interact with now are the painstaking products of retrospective transpositions, redactions, etc. In order to truly examine the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth, we cannot take the gospels at their face value now, through the lens of a 21st century millennial. We have to go back to the root of his existence; we have to understand how his words/claims/actions would have been perceived by his fellow Jews and the Romans who occupied Jerusalem. We have to make educated guesses about why he presented himself in certain ways. Context is crucial. What might contemporarily read as a plea for peace could very well be a call to violent revolution in the age in which it was spoken.

Taking into account Aslan’s careful ability to both question and respect a religion that rules the lives of billions, as well as my personal interest in the subject matter, I give the book 4 out of 5 camel humps. The mark of good nonfiction is that it not only piques my interest and drives me to continue reading, but it also inspires me to dive even deeper and ask questions that require further study. Of course, my review has only given a general summary of Aslan’s thesis, and the specific texts that he meticulously picks apart are fascinating and worthy of a read.

*Aslan, Reza. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. New York: Random House, 2013. Print.

*martysoffice. “Fox Anchor Attacks Reza Aslan: Muslim Writing Book About Jesus Like ‘Democrat Writing About Reagan’”. Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube, 28 July 2013. Web. 6 May 2015.