#25: Ecce Homo by Friedrich Nietzsche

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Well over a week ago I finished my twenty-fifth book of the year.  I usually greet this milestone with some sort of fanfare, but this year I let it slip by unnoticed.  The reasons are many, with the end of the school year occupying much of my time last week, beginning to study for the GRE (which I take at the end of this month), looking at graduate schools in earnest, and getting hooked by another book before I had blogged about my previous conquest.  Today I emerge from my technological slumber and finally post about number twenty-five.

Friedrich Nietzsche has been one of my most frequently read authors over the past few years.  His writing is always engaging and entertaining, and his philosophy is always challenging and stimulating.  Ecce Homo is no exception to that rule.  This is Nietzsche’s short intellectual autobiography, written shortly before his descent into madness.  The title is a latin phrase meaning “Behold the man”, which is uttered by Pontius Pilate when he presents the beaten and bloodied Jesus to the crowd shortly before his execution.  The book contains a short preface and four chapters with such bold titles as “Why I Am So Wise” and “Why I Write Such Excellent Books”.  Coupled with the title of the book itself, these chapter titles insinuate a certain amount of braggadocio on the part of Nietzsche.  The text of the book reveals a surprising amount of humility.  Nietzsche presents himself not as some towering intellect or incomparable thinker.  The quality that sets him apart is the courage to take his inquiry to its reasonable conclusion, despite the suffering that can accompany such intense inspection of the belief system surrounding an individual.  Nietzsche believes that the physical and emotional suffering he endured through the course of his life gave him the strength to pursue his philosophy through any intellectual suffering.  He paints himself as a new kind of philosopher, one that actively says yes to all of life.  This is very different from the priestly or purely academic philosophers preceding him.

I found this book to be wonderfully insightful about Nietzsche as a man and a philosopher.  It is definitely one that should be read after most of Nietzsche’s other books, as he offers specific commentary about each of his major works.  There are only a few I have not yet read and I intend to return to Ecce Homo after having done so.  I would recommend this book to any seasoned veteran of Nietzsche but would caution any Nietzsche novices about diving in too soon.

The Current Count

25 Read, 75 To Go

#24: Secrets of the Heart by Khalil Gibran

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I went with another quick read for my twenty-fourth book of the year, choosing Khalil Gibran’s Secrets of the Heart.  Based on my previous experience with Gibran, I expected a deeply philosophical book written in beautiful figurative language.  As usual, Gibran did not disappoint. 

Secrets of the Heart is a collection of poems and short stories that reflect Gibran’s general philosophy of renouncing worldly goods in favor of universal brotherhood.  He writes in language that is both wonderfully symbolic and ageless.  My favorite selections from this particular book were “Dead Are My People” and “John the Madman.”  “Dead Are My People” is a poem about the death and suffering of the people of Lebanon during World War I and Gibran’s guilt about escaping that suffering by moving with his family to America.  “John the Madman” is a short story about a young farmer in Syria who reads the New Testament in his spare time (against the orders of local priests).  His observations of the real world and the sermons preached by the priests do not align with his own scriptural readings.  When he (rightfully) speaks out against the corruption and wickedness he sees, he is dismissed as a madman and shunned.  Both of these stories are well written and very profound.  Even if the other selections offered in Secrets of the Heart had no value, I would recommend the book based on these two stories.  Fortunately, the entire book is wonderful.  Although I would recommend The Prophet or The Madman more highly, Secrets of the Heart is well worth reading.

The Current Count

24 Read, 76 To Go

#23: One Hundred and One Famous Poems, edited by Roy Cook

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Despite being a certified English teacher who ostensibly taught poetry to a group of 10th graders last year, I have read very little English poetry apart from Shakespeare and Milton.  I occasionally get the urge to correct that shortcoming and branch out a bit in my reading.  My most recent selection is one of those efforts.  One Hundred and One Famous Poems is exactly what it sounds like– a collection of one hundred and one famous poems.  It includes some well-known classics I had encountered before, such as Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade, Poe’s Raven, Whitman’s O Captain! My Captain!, Henley’s Invictus, and Kipling’s If.  It also includes several that I had never encountered.  My favorite of these was either I Have a Rendezvous with Death by Alan Seeger or Horatius by Thomas Babington Macaulay.

I enjoyed my brief foray into the world of the poetic.  I appreciate the value of a well-crafted poem, one in which every word must be carefully considered to extract every bit of poetic meaning.  If you are looking for a nice sampling of English poetry, I would recommend this book.  That said, I would much rather read a novel.

The Current Count

23 Read, 77 To Go

#22: The Art of the Commonplace by Wendell Berry

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It is a well-known fact for teenage students that all assigned work (particularly assigned reading) is designed to waste their time for no good reason.  As a teacher (who has almost attained the wizened old age of 26) I get to see the reverse of that medal.  Much to the surprise of my teenage self, most of the work assigned by teachers in both high school and college really is meant to help the student.  While I stand by my 10th grade decision not to read Harry Potter as assigned in English class, I do recognize many missed opportunities for intellectual and personal improvement that resulted from that natural mistrust of authority in my youth.  In the spirit of that realization, I decided to revisit a bit of assigned reading.  The Art of the Commonplace by Wendell Berry was assigned by the Baylor University Honors Program as a summer reading project for incoming freshman back in 2004.  We were supposed to read the book and write an essay over the course of that summer and then participate in a discussion group during our first week on campus.  Eighteen-year-old Me skimmed enough of the book to write a thoroughly unremarkable essay and made no references to the actual text during the discussion group.  Score one for teenage apathy.  Last week I revisited this relic of my rebellious youth.  As it turns out, those honors professors weren’t just wasting my time.

The Art of the Commonplace is a collection of essays by noted novelist, poet, philosopher, and farmer Wendell Berry.  This collection includes previously published essays that span Berry’s five decade career and is intended to give a comprehensive (if superficial) overview of his agrarian philosophy.  As such, the book is divided into five general sections.  The first is entitled “A Geobiography” and provides context for Berry’s writings. Berry operates a farm outside of Port Royal, Kentucky near where he grew up.  This same area was home to his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.  This long connection has given Berry an intimate knowledge and abiding affection for the land he occupies.  It is also important to note that Berry has not always lived on this farm.  He was once a successful writer and professor in New York City, Mecca of intellectuals.  He gave up that prestigious position to return to his native Kentucky.  That decision and his connection to the land have inspired and informed his subsequent philosophical efforts.  This first section illustrates that influence.  I appreciated the inclusion of this section, as it lends an authenticity to Berry’s other essays that would not be so apparent without its presence.

The second section of The Art of the Commonplace is “Understanding our Cultural Crisis”.  It includes essays that identify and discuss a variety of modern cultural issues, including environmental concerns, racism, gender discrimination, and overdependence on technology. Berry outlines a connection between these problems of culture and problems in agriculture.  The abandonment of the agrarian ethos fundamentally altered the way society looks at work.  In a society rooted in agrarian rather than industrial ways, physical labor and careful work are viewed as dignified.  Industrialism discredits physical labor.  Those who can avoid physical labor must be better than those who do such menial work.  The result is a discrimination against those employed in these jobs.  The root of racism, according to Berry is not that slaves were black, but that blacks were slaves.  Agrarian culture recognizes the importance of the health of our land and our communities.  Quality and sustainability are valued over quantity and immediate profit.  The industrial mindset replaces this careful approach with an exclusive focus on profit.  The result is a society more concerned with cash than character.  As a small-town boy turned city dweller engaged in a nonphysical job, I tend to be a touch skeptical that all of our cultural ills can be traced to the abandonment of the agrarian lifestyle. Berry’s arguments are very interesting, however, and certainly merit consideration.  I particularly agree with his notion that the shift in focus from quality to profit has certainly had a negative impact on the character of most people.  So many students in both high school and college are focused only on economic eventualities.  As a result they miss out on the true goal of education: enlightenment. 

The man himself.

The third section, “The Agrarian Basis for an Authentic Culture”, expands on the breakdown of culture as a result of abandoning agrarian practices.  Agrarianism recognizes that human beings do not exist in autonomous isolation.  Every person is inextricably linked to other people, other creatures, and the Earth at large.  Industrialism transforms complex, interrelated people into individual consumers. Berry argues that we must recognize and accept the responsibility of our interconnectedness if we are to repair the cultural damage of industrialism.  Only by forming close-knit communities that develop and maintain the awareness of these connections can we make real progress towards cultural and ecological health. Berry’s vision of communities in which “people belong to one another and to their place” is appealing.  My concern is with freedom from conformity. Berry argues that “A community, as a part of a public, has no right to silence publicly protected speech, but it certainly has a right not to listen and to refuse its patronage to speech that it finds offensive.”  That makes sense.  People are free to say what they want and I am free not to listen. Berry later states that

A general and indiscriminate egalitarianism is free-market culture, which, like free-market economics, tends towards a general and destructive uniformity.  And tolerance, in association with such egalitarianism, is a way of ignoring the reality of significant differences.  If I merely tolerate my neighbors on the assumptions that all of us are equal, that means I can take no interest in the question of which ones of us are right and which ones are wrong; it means that I am denying the community the use of my intelligence and my judgment; it means that I am not prepared to defer to those whose abilities are superior to mine, or to help those whose condition is worse; it means that I can be as self-centered as I please.

In order to survive, a plurality of true communities would require not egalitarianism and tolerance but knowledge, an understanding of the necessity of local differences, and respect.  Respect, I think, always implies imagination—the ability to see one another, across our inevitable differences, as living souls.

This notion of communities seems to require a certain amount of homogeneity amongst the community members.  What of those individuals who differ or disagree with prevailing community standards?  To say that a community respects all members as living souls and is capable of appreciating the value of differences ignores the tendency (supported by historical examples) to divide communities over differences rather than coexisting with them.  To argue that those were not true communities because true communities must respect differences does not answer the practical question—How can we create these perfect communities?

The fourth section is titled “Agrarian Economics” and is largely a critique of the prevailing economic order. Berry excoriates the industrial mindset of the present global economy on practical and moral grounds.  These criticisms apply to both free-market capitalism and traditional communism.  The practical criticism basically states that the current economic system exploits the environment and the consumers in the interest of maximizing profits.  Rather than seek the most sustainable methods of manufacture and production, corporations seek the cheapest.  This mindset creates an inherently unstable system.  Producing goods in the cheapest possible manner often involves stripping the land of its ability to produce the very commodities needed to produce those goods.  Eventually we will run out of those resources, which will be a catastrophe from which this economy will not recover.  Another practical flaw in our economy is the emphasis on competition.  There is a well-established notion that competition in a free market is inherently fair and inherently just. Berry argues that this simply cannot be true.  That notion assumes that all competitors are equal in opportunity and resources, distinguished only by their natural ability and effort.  Unfortunately, this is not the case.  In an economy based on competition there must be winners and there must be losers.  The winners accrue tremendous profits that allow them to defeat other less advantaged competitors.  This concentrates wealth and economic power in the hands of a very few corporations.  This again leads to instability as the unsuccessful and economically disadvantaged eventually refuse to accept this situation, generating potentially severe civil unrest.  The moral critique is very simple.  An industrial economy based on competition does not have room for concerns of morality.  Ethical considerations cannot be plotted on a profit-loss spreadsheet.  History shows that companies can and will violate moral considerations to the detriment of humanity at large in the interest of profit.  This system rewards those most willing to consider pure profit.  I must admit that I am not a fan of capitalism.  I have never considered it a just system.  In many situations, the free market does indeed reward those most willing to take risks and put forth tremendous effort.  Just as frequently, the rewards go to people who put in little effort and do no actual work.  It baffles me that a system in which tremendous profit can be generated simply by possessing large sums of money can be called fair.  Don’t get me started on the pitfalls and moral implications of an economic order that has the generation and perpetuation of debt as one of its primary foundations.  This doesn’t mean that I am a communist.  I think communism is even worse for many reasons (that I won’t extend this blog post by enumerating).  I do not know what would be better than the status quo, but there must be something.  Perhaps Berry has found that something.

The fifth and (mercifully) final section is “Agrarian Religion”.  It is primarily an appeal to religious communities, and especially Christian communities, to recognize the sanctity of every part of Creation.  Once this sanctity is acknowledged, it is impossible to blindly accept the ecological abuses perpetrated by the industrialist economy.  The only solution is to embrace the agrarian mindset that focuses on the holiness of the Earth.  Recognizing the miraculous cycle of life embodied in the natural world is absolutely essential to a sincere religion.  I thought Berry’s appeals were very persuasive and should be taken very seriously by all religions.  Focusing on spiritual concerns tends to devalue the physical world.  The result is disrespect for the environment that does not line up with a religion that values all of the works of the Creator.

Overall, I loved Berry’s book.  It is very thought-provoking and insightful.  I don’t agree with every aspect of Berry’s philosophy, but I definitely think his ideas demand consideration.  My chief complaint with this book is that it is somewhat repetitive and occasionally disjointed because it is an assemblage of essays from throughout his career.  It was an excellent introduction, however, and I look forward to reading more of his work in the future.  I fully appreciate the choice of this book by those professors eight years ago (but am glad I waited to read it until I had a bit more intellectual maturity).  Perhaps this epic blog post makes up for the crap essay I produced that summer.

The Current Count

22 Read, 78 To Go

#21: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

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Nearly a week ago I finished reading Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream but have only now found the time to sit down and write my review.  I picked this play for several reasons.  First, I love Shakespeare and am slowly working my way through all of his plays.  Second, this is one of the most frequently performed of his plays and I wanted to correct this gap in my literary knowledge.  Third, I wanted something short, quick, and entertaining.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream definitely met the last requirement.

To say that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is about relationships would be a bit of an understatement.  There are relationships piled on top of relationships in this particular play.  There is Theseus, Duke of Athens, who is engaged to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons.  There is Hermia, and Athenian maiden whose father has pledged her to marry Demetrius but who loves Lysander.  There is Helena, who loves Demetrius but cannot sway him from his desire for Hermia.  There is Oberon, King of the Fairies and his queen, Titania.  Finally, there is Pyramus and Thisbe, the main characters in a (supposedly) tragic play-within-the-play acted out by some humble Athenian craftsmen.  These relationships frame the action throughout the play and offer many opportunities for comic misunderstanding.

These relationships form three plotlines that are woven together.  The first plotline revolves around the Athenian lovers.  Hermia wants to marry Lysander but has been pledged to Demetrius by her father.  Her father uses an ancient Athenian law to force his daughter to choose between marrying Demetrius or death.  Theseus, as duke, is forced to resolve the issue.  He gives Hermia the choice between marrying Demetrius or becoming a nun in the service of Diana.  Lysander and Hermia plot to flee Athens and get married in the woods outside of Theseus’ jurisdiction.  Helena, in a fit of jealousy, informs Demetrius of the plans of his supposed bride in the hopes that he will be so grateful that he abandons Hermia in favor of Helena.  Demetrius and Helena prepare to pursue Hermia and Lysander.  While all of this is occurring, a group of simple Athenian craftsmen makes plans to rehearse a play in honor of the impending nuptials between Theseus and Hippolyta.  Their chosen rehearsal location is the very same clearing in the woods at which Hermia and Lysander plan to wed (and Helena and Demetrius plan to confront them).  Confused yet?

The action then moves to the woods, where we encounter Oberon, King of the Fairies.  Oberon is in the middle of a dispute with Titania, Queen of the Fairies.  Oberon is angry with Titania because she refuses to give an Indian changeling who was the son of one of her followers to Oberon to act as his knight.  Oberon plots a bit of trickery to punish Titania for her obstinacy and sends his servant Puck to retrieve a magical flower whose juice can be applied to a person’s eyelids while they sleep, causing them to fall in love with whatever they see first upon awakening.  His plan is to make Titania fall in love with a woodland creature and then shame her back into obedience.  While plotting this revenge, he overhears Helena’s struggle to win Demtrius’ favor.  He tells Puck to apply the juice to Demetrius’ eyes as well so that he will return Helena’s love.  Puck accidentally applies the magic juice to Lysander’s eyes instead, who sees Helena when he awakes.  When Oberon learns of the mistake, he charms Demetrius’ eyes and sends Puck to retrieve Helena.  Demetrius falls for Helena and challenges Lysander to a duel to determine whose love is greater.  Fortunately, Puck distracts the two men until all of the lovers fall asleep and Oberon removes the charm from Lysander.  That leaves Lysander and Hermia paired, and Helena and Demetrius together. 

While all of this is happening, the six craftsmen are practicing their play.  Puck changes Bottom, a weaver playing the part of Pyramus, into a man with the head of an ass (my older brother has sported that look for years).  Titania, under the influence of the magic flower, falls in love with the transformed Bottom (that would make a great name for an exercise program).  While she is thus distracted, Oberon steals the changeling.  He then transforms Bottom back to his natural state and lifts the spell from Titania.  Puck arranges for the Athenian lovers to believe that everything was only a dream. 

The action then returns to Athens, where the happy couples of Theseus and Hippolyta, Lysander and Hermia, and Demetrius and Helena are all married.  The craftsmen act out their play, the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe.  The lack of skill and rehearsal, and hypersensitivity to the women in the audience render the tragic play laughable.  The newlyweds watch the play with glee and then retire to bed.   Oberon and Titania, now reconciled, visit the house of the duke and bless the weddings.  The play concludes with Puck apologizing to the audience for any offence and reminding them it all may have been just a dream.

I loved this play.  Shakespeare is always a pleasure to read by virtue of his language, but this play was enjoyable because it is just plain fun.  The plotline borders on the absurd and the characters are somewhat ridiculous, resulting in a play that is lighthearted and farcical.  That said, it still explores the complex nature of relationships and the importance of love.  The final act, in which the newlyweds laugh at the ridiculous tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, is a wonderful bit of irony.  I would definitely recommend this play for anyone looking for a pleasant afternoon read.

The Current Count

21 Read, 79 To Go

#20: The Plague by Albert Camus

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After an unsatisfactory taste of existentialism with my nineteenth book of the year, I decided to give the movement’s literary arm a try.  Although he rejected the label, Albert Camus is generally considered to most significant existential author.  My exposure to Camus has so far been limited to The Stranger, which I read a part of my 100 Book Challenge in 2010.  I enjoyed that novel tremendously, and the memory of it inspired me to pick up The Plague at Half Price Books.  I finished reading it several days ago but have been a bit lazy about posting.

The Plague is a novel set in the Algerian port of Oran during the 1940’s and is narrated by an anonymous citizen of the city who wants to give an impartial picture of events.  On an otherwise ordinary April day, the rats in the city begin emerging from their hiding places and dying in the streets.  This rat epidemic is treated as a mere curiosity by the populace (apparently unaware that they were in a book entitled The Plague) and this warning sign is largely ignored.  When a strange fever begins to spread amongst the human population, the town again fails to recognize the danger.  Despite warnings of plague from a few of the city’s doctors, the administration is slow to react.  By the time the threat is recognized it is too late to stop the epidemic.  The town is placed in quarantine and the gates shut, effectively cutting off the population from the rest of the world.  The plague rages through December, leaving huge numbers of dead in its wake. 

That is the basic plot of The Plague.  This is definitely not a novel that revolves around plot alone.  Instead, this is a study of humanity under duress.  Camus creates a diverse cast of characters that respond to the ordeal in many different ways.  Each character has an authentic quality that lends realism to the entire work.  They seem like people the reader might actually know, rather than characters invented by an author.  They seem so real that the reader cannot help but emote with them as they struggle to retain some understanding of life and humanity in the face of utter despair.  Camus keeps the identity of the narrator a secret until the very end of the book, which creates some interesting questions of perspective.

I found The Plague extremely engrossing and highly enjoyable.  Despite a very morbid subject matter, the book is somehow hopeful and even occasionally humorous.  I can’t vouch for Camus’ existentialist credentials, but I can definitely say that he is a wonderful writer.

The Current Count

20 Read, 80 To Go

#19: A Short History of Existentialism by Jean Wahl

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The motivation behind my resolution to read 100 books was to keep myself mentally fit during the interlude between my undergraduate studies and graduate school.  For that reason, I try to select books that will challenge me and will broaden my intellectual horizons.  That inspired such choices as Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, seven books by Nietzsche, and Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.  Having conquered such giants of erudition, I thought a slender volume by French philosopher Jean Wahl entitled A Short History of Existentialism would be child’s play.  It seems my reach has exceeded my grasp.

Wahl’s book begins with an examination of Kierkegaard and his philosophy, which is generally seen as the beginning of existentialism.  Wahl then discusses the philosophies of Heidegger and Jaspers in relation to the foundation laid by Kierkegaard.  The author then examines Sartre’s philosophy and concludes with a brief critique of the movement.  Brief statements about Wahl’s essay from other notable intellectuals are also included.  All of this is delivered very matter-of-factly, as though it were exceedingly simple.  I did not like it.

My critique of Wahl’s essay is based on two complaints.  First, Wahl uses far too much existentialist jargon.  I understand that philosophers often use particular words in a very specific fashion.  The best philosophers explain the manner in which they use such terms.  Wahl is not offering his own philosophy.  Instead, he is summarizing the development of a philosophical movement (of which he is a part).  In doing so, he assumes a certain understanding of existentialist language on the part of the reader.  Having read only one work by Kierkegaard and none by Heidegger, Jaspers, or Sartre, I lacked that understanding.  Without a background in existentialist readings, the reader will lack the necessary context to fully understand Wahl’s essay.  My second complaint is that Wahl’s treatment of existentialism was extremely shallow.  Granted, this is a short history of the movement, but brevity does not have to mean superficiality.  Part of the reason the jargon was so confusing is that Wahl does not explore the concepts involved at a deep enough level to allow for real comprehension.  I am sure that a person well-versed in existentialist literature would find Wahl’s treatment pleasantly concise, but I found it to be a bit too sparse.

Ultimately, I would not recommend this book unless you are already equipped with a solid understanding of existentialism (which would render Wahl’s book unnecessary).  That is the paradox of Wahl’s essay.  It is too shallow and too specialised to be understood by the general reader, and too brief to be of any real value to the seasoned existentialist.  My advice would be to read the philosophers themselves.  I intend to do so.

The Current Count

19 Read, 81 To Go

#18: Pictor’s Metamorphoses by Hermann Hesse

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For my eighteenth book of the year I decided to go with Pictor’s Metamorphoses and Other Fantasies by Hermann Hesse, marking my fourteenth book by the German-Swiss Nobel laureate.  Hesse is an author who never seems to disappoint, and Pictor’s Metamorphoses is no exception.  It is a collection of short stories from throughout Hesse’s life (including one from his childhood).  Although the subject matter is diverse, they are united by certain magical or fantastic characteristics.  Most of the stories are only a few pages long, and the longest are only a few dozen pages in length.  This makes for a quick and relaxing read that is highly enjoyable.

My favorite story in the collection was “Bird”.  This story is about a unique bird that lives in a Swiss town and becomes something of a symbol for the area.  Eventually he becomes a legend and attracts the attention of a curious noblemen from the North.  A bounty is placed on the bird’s head, and the townspeople struggle with their desire to earn the easy money and their respect and love for their mascot.  One citizen in particular has had a special bond with Bird over the years, and decides to capture him.  He readies a gun with the finest birdshot to be found and waits.  Eventually Bird appears to him and the man shoots.  Bird disappears, without leaving so much as a feather behind.  He is never seen again.  Hesse’s descriptions of the communal spirit and the relationship between tradition and modern issues are poignant and thought-provoking.  His ability to create an authentic and enchanting atmosphere is unrivalled.  I would recommend any book  by Hesse, including Pictor’s Metamorphoses.

The Current Count

18 Read, 82 To Go

#17: The Antichrist by Friedrich Nietzsche

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I once again find myself in the position of apologizing after being absent from the blogosphere for nearly a month.  I can’t claim Jeopardy as an excuse this time.  Instead, I will blame it on my unwavering commitment to devote the best of my energies towards educating the young minds of today into the future leaders of tomorrow.  I can actually see the sarcasm dripping from the computer screen as I read the previous sentence.  To be perfectly honest, I just needed a break.  I have been busy with teaching and taking students to debate tournaments, but that is true for most of the year.  For the past few weeks I deliberately took a step back from reading and did a bit of vegetating.  That came to an end over the past weekend, when I completed The Antichrist by Friedrich Nietzsche.

Nietzsche wasn’t overly concerned with making friends with his philosophical writings, and The Antichrist is a prime example of that alienating tendency.  It should be noted that the title has a dual meaning, with Antichrist in German meaning both Antichrist in the personified sense and Antichristian.  In this book, Nietzsche establishes himself as a sort of Antichrist by developing a directly Antichristian line of philosophical thought.  Nietzsche’s disdain for Christianity goes beyond the merely intellectual into the realm of personal antipathy.  His delight in tormenting the Christian world is palpable as you turn the pages.  He really, really does not like the Christian Church.  As someone who comes from a Christian background, I was hesitant to read a book that I knew would be so challenging to the belief system that has surrounded me since birth.

Nietzsche’s criticisms are based on the notion that the early Christian church distorted the teachings of Jesus in an effort to empower the weak and suppressed elements throughout the Roman Empire.  Nietzsche argues that Jesus never spoke of sin and punishment or of a denial of the material world.  Instead, he believes that Jesus was a psychological type known as the redeemer.  The redeemer displays an absolute intolerance for pain.  Resistance leads to pain, and the redeemer therefore avoids resistance at all costs.  This avoidance leads to a willing acceptance of the world as it is, including the powerlessness of the redeemer.  This inspires a feeling of peace and happiness that constitutes “the Kingdom of Heaven.”  Nietzsche thinks this redeemer is an imperfect type, but prefers it to the image of Christ developed by the church.

According to Nietzsche, it was the early church fathers (particularly St. Paul) who distorted this simple message in an effort to exert power from a position of weakness.  This is an extension of the philosophy or religion of resentment (of which Judaism is the prime example) that Nietzsche had previously discussed in On the Genealogy of Morals.  These early fathers used the idea of an afterlife (not mentioned by Jesus according to Nietzsche) to force adherents to follow a strict set of rules (also not mentioned by Jesus) that center around denying the urges and instincts of the body.  This denial of the body stems from weakness.  The early Christians lacked bodily strength and worldly power, so they established the possession of such power as proof of a sinful way of life.  Ultimately, this denial is the root of the nihilism that Nietzsche thought was omnipresent in the Europe of his day.  These arguments are all made with a great deal of vitriol.

It has been the tendency of many Christian writers since Nietzsche to dismiss him as a heretic or atheist and condemn his arguments altogether.  I think this is a logical fallacy.  To argue that because Nietzsche is wrong in his disbelief of God he must also be wrong about everything else is a hasty generalization.  A thinker of Nietzsche’s influence and intellectual ability deserves a reasonable consideration.  I don’t intend to take on the role of Nietzschean apologist, but I will admit that I like the man.  His writings are entertaining and thought-provoking, even if not always right.  In the case of The Antichrist, I agree with some of Nietzsche’s arguments but oppose his general condemnation.  His chief concern throughout most of his works is to combat the denial of the body and its natural senses and instincts.  This has always been one of my concerns with religion.  I have never understood why so many Christian theologians throughout history have been so diametrically opposed to the body.  The idea that we were all hopelessly corrupted by original sin has always troubled me.  I cannot believe that an omnipotent and omnibenevolent creator would condemn his entire creation to a lifetime of depravity based on the mistakes of the original man.  I do not, however, think that condemns Christianity as a whole.  I think it is possible to embrace the Christian ideals of love and kindness without denying that there is a natural value and worth in our physical world and our natural urges.  These urges can become corrupt and overpowering, but should not be condemned outright.  Happily, I think there has been a tendency in some circles of Christian thought to place less emphasis on sin and condemnation and focus instead on living out the generous ideals that constitute the real foundation of the faith.  This is a very abbreviated discussion of the issues raised by Nietzsche and my responses to them, but I think this post has gone on long enough. 

The Current Count:

17 Read, 83 To Go

#16: Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy

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Today I finished the third volume in Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, Cities of the Plain.  This book brings together John Grady Cole, the central character of All the Pretty Horses and Billy Parham, the central character of The Crossing.  Cities is set roughly three years after the events of All the Pretty Horses, and almost a decade after The Crossing.  Billy and John Grady both work on a ranch in southern New Mexico, not far from Juarez and El Paso.  The two men have formed a strong friendship, and the reader sees echoes of Billy’s relationship with his brother Boyd (who died in The Crossing).  They both seem at home in their cowboy lifestyle, despite the looming shadow of a government takeover of the ranch for use in military testing.  This threat is largely ignored by John Grady and Billy, as well as their fellow ranch workers.  They all have the same response: if it happens, we will find something else to do.

The threat to the ranch is a footnote to the main plot.  John Grady falls in love with a young Mexican prostitute, and the two agree to be married.  Unfortunately for John Grady, the manager of the brothel in which the girl is forced to work is also in love with her.  His name is Eduardo, and Billy attempts to negotiate for the girl’s release on John Grady’s behalf.  Eduardo refuses and makes it clear that he will not allow her to leave him without a fight.  Despite the threats from Eduardo, Jon Grady and his love continue with their plans.  Eduardo eventually murders the girl rather than lose her.  Heartbroken and enraged, John Grady confronts the pimp and the two engage in a back-alley knife fight.  John Grady is severely wounded but manages to kill Eduardo.  John Grady tries to flee but is too seriously injured to survive.  He is able to contact Billy, who sits with him until he dies.  Billy leaves the ranch for good a few days later.  The book has a lengthy epilogue in which we see Billy as an old man.  After bouncing from town to town and job to job, he eventually winds up as a homeless man.  As he nears death he is taken in by a kind family who provide comfort and seem to genuinely appreciate him.

Cities of the Plainis an excellent book, although I enjoyed the other two volumes in the Border Trilogy more.  I loved the interplay between John Grady and Billy and the poignant image of a dying way of life. All the Pretty Horsesleft off with John Grady uncertain of where to call home, with the strong sense that he left his heart in Mexico. Citiesbrings that notion to culmination, with John Grady ultimately losing his life in Mexico over an affair of the heart.  Billy is again a tragic figure, losing everything he loves to the violent and headstrong country south of the border.  The entire trilogy is as much a story of individual heartache as it is the story of the disappearance of the last vestiges of wild and free America.  Despite his incredible resourcefulness and strong will, Billy ultimately becomes a hobo, unable to integrate into modern America.  He is a relic of a dead way of life, suggesting that a part of him passed away in these books as well– his utility.  McCarthy has reminded us all that the world we know is as fleeting as our own individual happiness.

The Current Count

16 Read, 84 To Go