The 2019 Massey Lectures were delivered by Sally Armstrong. You can listen to them on CBC radio by using the free CBC app. A book on the lectures is already out called Power Shift: The Longest Revolution. The theme of the lectures was the arrival of women’s fundamental equality. Armstrong argues The better off women are, the better off we all are.
Many parts of it were very interesting. The last 5 minutes of the last lecture were one example. With passion she concluded her lecture series this way:
“Man the hunter is bogus. There is no evidence that woman was not right there beside him hunting. The ancient past is a flawed account that was history recorded mainly by men and mostly about men. In fact, for millions of years we now know that men and women had equal status. And then they didn’t. It was during the agriculture era when food became plentiful, when they could focus on development rather than sheer survival until tomorrow, then both men and women realized that the future depended on producing more labourers and only women had the sexual reproductive capacity to deliver a child. Pregnant women were appropriated by men to produce the next generation, as much as land was prioritized and acquired by men at that time. That was the birth of patriarchy and subordination of women. That subordination was heightened when religion was formalized and institutionalized in the early legal codes. It has taken 10,000 years and a million years to right those wrongs. The power shift came from goddesses and priestesses, seers, diviners, nuns, healers, writers, reformers, activists, suffragettes, and feminists who took on the prophets and the kings, the orators and the philosophers, the politicians and the bullies, to find justice, fairness, and equality for all. It has been indeed the longest revolution.’
It really is time for male dominance to end. Even men would be be better off if that happened.
When I saw the title of a book, The Monarchy of Fear, I was immediately attracted to it. Then when I saw who wrote it, I had no choice; I had to buy it. The author is Martha Nussbaum, considered by some, to be the finest philosopher in the United States. I had read an article about her in the New Yorker, but had not read any of her books. In that article I learned that she liked to write about emotions. To me, a graduate in Philosophy some 5 decades ago, this seemed unlikely. I was wrong. Emotions are important in so many ways and it is good that philosophers opine on them.
For quite some time I have thought fear is an emotion that can have extraordinary consequences, particularly in the modern political context. Fear is a natural product of the age of anxiety or the age of anger. What could be more important than that?
Nussbaum had important things to say in the very first paragraph of the book. Here is what she said,
“There’s a lot of fear around in the U.S. today, and this fear is often mingled with anger, blame, and envy. Fear all too often blocks rational deliberation, poisons hope, and impedes constructive cooperation for a better future.”
This struck exactly the right note from my perspective. The real problem with fear is that it interferes with rational decision-making. And we see it everywhere. In Canada just like the United States, but I think it is particularly prevalent in the United States. That country is the richest in the world, has the best armed forces that money can buy, spends more on prisons and police than any other nation by a long-shot. Yet it seems to me to be a country infused, no saturated, with fear. Americans like to call themselves the ‘land of the brave,’ but over and over again, from gated communities, to elaborate armies, the country is hobbled by fear to such an extent and with such intensity that it constantly surprises. And as Nussbaum suggests, such fear often “blocks rational deliberation.” Nowhere is the effect of this powerful more evident than in the election of Donald Trump. What rational deliberation could have ushered in his presidency?
Nussbaum boldly asserted the following:
“What is today’s fear about? Many Americans, themselves powerless, out of control of their own lives. They fear for their own future and that of loved ones. They fear that the American Dream–that hope that your children will flourish and do even better than you have done–has died, and everything has slipped away from them. These feelings have their basis in real problems: among others, income stagnation in the lower middle class, alarming declines in the health and longevity of members of this group, especially men, and the escalating costs of higher education at the very time that a college degree is increasingly required for employment. But real problems are difficult to solve, and their solution takes long, hard study and cooperative work toward an uncertain future. It can consequently seem all to attractive to convert that sense of panic and impotence into blame and the “othering” of outsider groups such as immigrants, racial minorities, and women. “They” have taken our jobs. Or: wealthy elites have stolen our country.”
How many of the important social problems of the day are encapsulated in that paragraph? There is a lot to chew over in that paragraph.
And of course with such fears rational deliberation is unlikely! It is hardly surprising as a result that the United States, in its moment of fear, has turned to a man who is probably more unlikely to solve its problems than anyone else we could consider. As a result of fear they made the worst possible decision imaginable. That is the monarchy of fear!
I have still not got over Toni Morrison’s novel–Love. It is that disturbing. The novel is actually much more about its opposite. Hate. It is about a specific kind of love—love that is transformed into hate. How can that happen?
Morrison has a fine understanding of hate. She described how the Cosey girls fought over the coffin of Bill Cosey, the patriarch of the family , until one of the women, L (does that stand for love?) restored order. But the hate lived on. Hate is darn hard to destroy. Morrison described the haters this way: “their faces as different as honey from soot, looked identical. Hate does that. Burns everything but itself, so whatever your grievance is, your face looks just like your enemy’s.”
The novel is deeply imbedded into a racist society infused with white male dominance, even though there are very few white characters in the novel and none of them is a major character. The natural product of such a society is that the dominated black males turn to dominate those “beneath” them. And of course that is only other non-whites.
The man at the centre of the novel is Bill Cosey a 52-year old black man who rapes an 11-year old black girl with the consent of her family. The girl is so young and ignorant that she “grinned happily as she was led down the hall to darkness, liquor smell and old man business.” And as so often happens, the young victim ends up hating herself after the abuse. “I must have been the one who dreamed up this world, she thought. No nice person could have.”
Heed and Christine–11 and 12 year old friends—end up competing for a 52-year old man, entirely unworthy of either of them, and the two become transformed into enemies in the process. They learn to hate. “The eyes of each are enslaved by the other’s. Opening pangs of guilt, rage, fatigue, despair are replaced by a hatred so pure, so solemn, it feels beautiful, almost holy.” Can you imagine a hate that is “almost holy”? Even the holy is turned perverse in a world ruled by hate and dominance. The dominance of whites over blacks turns the blacks into dominating other blacks. That is the world that is a product of hate and in such a world even the holy turns evil.
Heed and Christine had a hard time maintaining their hatred for each other. Hate does not come easily and it is difficult to maintain. As Morrison said, “Like friendship, hatred needed more than physical intimacy; it wanted creativity and hard work to sustain itself.” They had “bruising fights with hands, feet, teeth and soaring objects…once–perhaps twice–a year, they punched, grabbed hair, wrestled, bit, slapped, never drawing blood, never apologizing, never premeditating, yet drawn annually to pant through an episode that was as much rite as fight. Finally they stopped, moved into acid silence, and invented other ways to underscore bitterness.”
Both of them ultimately realized that neither one could leave. They were married to each other in a dark perverse marriage. They both had “an unspoken realization that the fights did nothing other than allow them to hold each other.” That is what undying hatred is all about. It bonds the two in unholy matrimony. “There in a little girl’s bedroom an obstinate skeleton stirs, clacks, refreshes itself.”
I came to appreciate Toni Morrison late in life. That is a pity. But at least I did it. I finished her book, Love, just a couple of days before she died.
Love is one of the best novels I have ever read. Of course, I think I have now said that about every one of Toni Morrison’s novels that I have read. She was a brilliant writer. When I started to write this review I said, “she is the finest living novelist.” The only writer I could think of to compare her to was Marilynne Robinson. Both of them were astonishing writers.
Loveis a difficult read. I was half way through the novel when I realized I had to start over from the beginning. I was missing too much. I had not caught on to enough. I hate to start over, but sometimes I just have to do that.
Though difficult, the novel, like any great novel, rewards the effort to understand it. That does not mean the reader has captured it. Far from it. It cannot be captured. But the reader can be captured by it. the novel is about 2 “love” stories. But they are hardly ordinary love stories.
The novel is a story about women and how they relate to a powerful man. The novel is told through or from the point of view of those amazing women and centres around a horrid incident at its core. Ultimately it is about the violence and its consequences inflicted on one of the women–but really all of them–by that strong man at the centre of the novel. It is a violence that is as unredeemed as it is chilling.
The man at the centre of the novel is Bill Cosey—“the Big Man who with no one to stop him, could get away with it and anything else he wanted.” He is a 52-year old man who can molest an 11-year old child with impunity and then marry her to make it ‘all right’. her 12 year old friend saw this as a “real betrayal,” by her “friend who grinned happily as she was led down the hall to darkness, liquor smell and old man business.” She was only 11 and did not know better so she “grinned happily.” After all the adults who loved her would not abandon her to such a ravishing would they? Yes they would. As so often happens the young victim ends up hating herself after the abuse. She concludes, “I must have been the one who dreamed up this world, she thought. No nice person could have.”
Heed the Night, as she is called, has learned that this world into which she has been thrust by her family with the connivance of his family, is a terrifying world where evil catches fire and is doused with sugar creating a sickening black “caramelizing evil.” It is a world haunted by perverse love. It is impossible for her to escape, so Heed became “grown-up nasty.” How else could this have turned out? Christine, Heeds friend, who is 12 years old, and is one of those women who betrayed Heed and ends up with a mother-in-law who is her friend but younger than she is. Of course as Christine says, “most people married young back then (the sooner a girl was taken over by a man, the better.” In the end we learn a bitter black truth in which “the problem for those left alive is what to do about revenge–how to escape the sweetness of its rot. So you can see why families make the best enemies. They have the time and convenience to honey-butter the wickedness they prefer.” That sweet caramelized evil.
Heed and Christine–11 and 12 year old friends–competing for a 52-year old man are transformed into enemies. They learn to hate. Only hate is natural in this most unnatural world. “The eyes of each are enslaved by the other’s. Opening pangs of guilt, rage, fatigue, despair are replaced by a hatred so pure, so solemn, it feels beautiful, almost holy.” Even the holy is turned perverse in a world so infused with dominance. The dominance of whites over blacks turns the blacks into dominating other blacks. The topsy-turvy world is a product of hate where even the holy turns evil. “There, in a little girl’s bedroom, an obstinate skeleton stirs, clacks, refreshes itself.”
There is another “love story,” if the first can be called a love story. This is a passionate love story. Young lovers this time. Such love should be pure and innocent. It is the story of Junior and Romen. When Roman sees Junior, “she seemed to him as beautiful as it is possible for a human to be.” It starts out innocent, but nothing in the novel is innocent for long. In such a world how could it be different? All the principal characters in the novel are African-American. Of course, all are victims of white dominance and oppression that transforms their lives in the most ugly way imaginable. Mainly that oppression is entirely overt, but it is real. It curdles all love into caramelized evil where love is transformed into hate. Perverse love is the bastard child of oppression. As Women says, Junior “plays hard, that’s all. I mean she likes being hurt…She didn’t just like it. She preferred it.” And Romen in response, was “cold, unsmiling, watching himself inflict pain and suffer pain above scream level where a fresh kind of joy lay.” No wonder that when in the abandoned hotel she undresses for him she keeps on her socks, then ties one around his neck and into the other inserts her foot and “the foot she slipped into the sock looked to him like a hoof.” His innocent passionate lover becomes the devil incarnate–caramelized black evil again. After all, “A dream is just a nightmare with lipstick.” And he becomes her “Sugarboy.”
In the novel family is as twisted and s curdled as love. Junior is assaulted by her uncles (“the howling uncles”) who are “idle teenagers whose brains had been insulted by the bleakness of their lives, alternated between brutality and coma.” They are the products of a racist society. The uncles threatened to turn Junior over to another old man–Vosh. This woke her up. The threat was real. As she thought, “the possibility that it could happen, that she could be handed over to the old man in the valley who liked to walk around with his private parts in his hands and singing hymns of praise, jolted her up from the floor, out of reaching hands and through the door.” For Junior prison is a reprieve from the maniacal madness of family. Prison is better than life with her family!
The world of love is no paradise. “People with no imagination feed it with sex–the clown of love. They don’t know the real kinds, the better kinds, where losses are cut and everybody benefits. It takes a certain intelligence to love like that–softly, without props.”
One of Morrison’s novels is called Paradise. This is certainly no paradise. But it is real. It is the product of a profoundly racist society where those at the top dominate with impunity and those at the bottom accept the dominance while “grinning,” because they don’t even know anything better.
Gray Mountain, by John Grisham, is in some ways a traditional Grisham novel. He often has great ideas that get you interested right off the bat. This was no exception. A Young Wall Street Lawyer gets laid off after the Financial Crisis of 2008. As a severance perk the firm pays for her health insurance if she agrees to work pro bono for a charity. As a result she finds a job with a Legal Aid firm deep in Virginia. There she discovers Appalachia and all that comes with it, including coal. The coal industry is up to its old tricks and some employees need legal help in dealing with Big Coal.
Sadly, like most Grisham novels in my opinion, he starts off with a great idea that fizzles because he does not know how to finish it. Grisham is like a good starting pitcher who needs a closer. This book is in that strong tradition. It fizzles at the end. In the meantime it did provide an entertaining read.
Before it ends, the heroine, Samantha helps a number of indigent people who were getting screwed. The saddest of her cases involves a coal miner who contracts Black Lung disease for which he is entitled to be compensated, but the system, and all embroiled in it, use that system to deny benefits. Samantha in the best tradition of the law tries to get redress. Big Coal resists. As Grisham writes, “coal companies are brilliant when it comes to finding new ways to screw people.”
As Grisham writes:
Chester said, “it’s a favorite trick in the coalfields. A company mines the coal, then goes bankrupt to avoid payments and the reclamation requirements. Sooner or later they usually pop up with another name. Same bad actors, just a new logo.”
“That’s disgusting,” Samantha said.
“No, that’s the law.”
Grisham is nothing if not cynical about lawyers and the law. But in recent years he has also painted the other side of the story, with lawyers like Samantha. There are some good lawyers too. This is what she learns from another lawyer, talking about court rooms, “I love them. It’s the only place where the little guy can go toe-to-toe on a level field with a big, crooked, corporation. A person with nothing–no money–nothing but a set of facts can file a lawsuit and force a billion dollar company to show up for a fair fight.” That is the majesty of the law. Even if the fight is not always fair, often it is. Often it brings justice. That is a pretty good thing.
For another client she helps, when no one else will, Samantha realizes this on her way home:
“As she drove away from the Starlight Motel, Samantha realized she had spent the better part of 12 hours aggressively representing Pamela Booker and her children. Had she not stumbled into the clinic that morning, they would be hiding somewhere in the backseat of their car, hungry, cold, hopeless, frightened, and vulnerable.” Again, a pretty good thing.
Sometimes– maybe not often enough, but sometimes–lawyers can be proud of what they do. Damn proud.
Though the wonders of the CBC Radio App, I listened to a fascinating interview on CBC with an old friend whom I have never met–Len Deighton. I never met him but I grew up with him. Deighton was the writer of spy novels from the 1960s to 1980s. He was in my opinion a great writer. He was right up their with another favortie John LeCarre. Both of those writers broke the protocol of spy novels in suggesting that the good guys–the British and America spies–were just as morally corrupt as the bad guys–the Communists. Who would ever have thought that?
Listen to this conversation between Bernard Samson and his boss Dickie Cruyer in British intelligence, who Phillip Coulter described as having “a PHD in office politics,”
Bernard: Who pays him?
Dickie: He’s not for sale Bernard.
Bernard: Then he’s no one I know.
His first novel, which he actually wrote for himself because he did not intend to publish it, did catch the public attention after he did publish it. He described blink and dingy streets of Berlin soaked with betrayal and paranoia. As Philip Coulter said, his books described “a broken down society at war with itself in which the greatest dangers were from within.”
Deighton realized that one of the most most common fears of our policial leaders was a fear of a lack of information. He likened this to a fear of the dark or a lack of confidence that our future unknowns will be benign. That opened up a lot of room for intelligence services (at least until the arrival of Donald Trump who relies instead on his own personal ‘intelligence.’)
Deighton described this in the first of the fabulous trilogy Game, Set & Match where the spy Bernard Samson had sent a young and inexperienced spy, McKenzie, to a situation in which he was murdered. After that Bernard had terrible visions of McKenzie’s brains spattered on the wall behind his corpse. The visions came back to him at night and he shuddered. “I felt guilty and as I prepared for bed I suffered the delayed reaction that my body had deferred and deferred. I shook uncontrollably. I did not want to admit even to myself that I was frightened but that image of McKenzie kept blurring into an image of myself. And my guilt was turning into fear for fear is so unwelcome that it comes only in disguise and guilt is its favourite one.”
Coulter interviewed Deighton in the London Travellers Club dining room where well educated and well to do Englishmen who had travelled abroad met to discuss their travels. The club was a vital a cog in the British class system. It had a huge library with books that went right up to the ceiling. However, like the books in British aristocratic manors, many of them were seldom read. They were not really there to educate their owners; they were there for decoration. As Coulter said, “Fake books. A Library not used for the purpose of imparting knowledge are in some ways metaphors for the themes in Len Deighton’s novels. Worlds where things are seldom what they seem where those with the trappings of power and competence actually rarely have those skills. The room too is emblematic of the class tensions that run through Deighton’s books. The tension between a natural aristocracy with wealth and power and the classes below them with little or none.”
Yet Deighton was actually ambivalent about that class system. He saw the good and the bad of that system and saw himself as a referee between the classes. He is a spectator. As Deighton said in the interview, “If we look at history we see that the upper classes provided people with a sort of dignity, knowledge, self-respect and honour that is completely absent from the political world today and the world has grown much poorer in practicalities.”
Deighton’s complex view of classes is a familiar theme right through his books, filling them with humour, delight, and wonder. As Coulter said, “Yes he believes that there should be a leadership cadre, but no it shouldn’t be closed. Those who lead bear responsibilities not legislated but moral.”
This ambivalence in his novels is exemplified best by his main protaganist Bernie Samson. Sampson is constantly wracked by that cruel division. After all he is the one who failed to go to one of the better British schools and had this constantly held over his head and his career by his superiors in the office and inferiors in life. “His office wars revolved around the occasionally inept but well educated bureaucrats who are his bosses.” Here is a delightful example, in a description by Bernie Samson:
“On Wednesday afternoon I was in Brett Renssalaer’s office. It was on the top floor not far from the suite the DG occupied. All the top floor offices were decorated to the personal taste of the occupant. It was one of the perks of seniority. Brett’s room was modern with glass and chrome and gray carpet. It was hard, austere, and colourless, a habitat just right for Brett with his dark worsted Saville Row suit, and the crisp white suit and club tie and his fair hair that was going white and the smile that seemed shy and fleeting, but was really the reflex action that marked his indifference.”
Deighton knew this world of spies from London was interesting, sly, and vicious, but above all complex. It is a world well worth inhabiting with a master guide like Len Deighton. He is well worth reading.
I have wanted to go to the Tucson Festival of Books for many years. Every year they have some very interesting authors. So this was the year we decided to go. I was unable to secure tickets in advance. This was a mistake. But, I figured, that should not be a problem; after all for each venue they reserved 25% of the tickets for walk in traffic. We would just walk up right? Wrong!
To begin with we were late getting off by about 30 minutes and we missed the first event called “Sizzling Suspense” and featured 3 authors. We only knew one of them. That was J.A Jance as one of the authors. Chris and I had both read at least one of her books and liked them. However when we arrived we had a very difficult time finding parking. We had been told it was Spring break so parking would be easier. Wrong! Maybe it was easier than it was regularly, but it was definitely not easy.
As we were walking in we noticed there were a lot of people here. As we walked beside some enthusiastic attendees we were assured we would have a great time. One said she came very year and loved it. We were getting exciting despite the late start.
First, we were amazed at how many outdoor booths there were. Most were related to books or reading. All kinds for all kinds of readers. Childrens’ books, University of Arizona books, nature books, mystery books, religious books, non-fiction, etc. There were Mormons trying to give away information about tracing our ancestral roots. Maybe they wanted to convert our dead relatives. That’s what people back home say they like to do. How do you convert dead people? There were more traditional religious nuts warning us to repent. You name it there was something there for your taste. The crowds were large. There was a busker in a pedestrian underpass under a street who played wonderful music. The acoustics were astounding where he stood. Even cheap Mennonites tipped! This actually was the highlight of the festival for me. Now you know it did not end well. I also loved some bumper stickers: “He’s not My President.” “Reading is sexy.” ”Keep the Immigrants. Deport the Racists.”
Eventually we found parking, not that far away from the site but we missed the first event. Still no problem as we took time to review the brochure. We took so much time that we got to it “only” about 15 minutes before it was scheduled to start, but that should be enough time. Right? Wrong! The subject was “Is Democracy in Danger?” I thought that could not be very popular. Wrong once more! I went to the end of the line while Chris sat down near the entrance to the Hall. It was a very long line. I was getting doubtful about this process. About 25 feet from the entrance, after about 20 minutes of standing in line, it was announced that we would not get in. The line had been too long. It sucks to be us.
This was frustrating but we decided to get in line for the 3rd event even earlier so we could get in. This event was called “Lets Get Real” and featured writers from the southern border. Although this was currently a very popular subject of debate, given Trump’s declaration of an emergency on the southern border, I thought there would not be big crowd for this talk. Wrong again! I was not there early enough. Many people support the wall; many do not. Same story. Just before getting to the entrance it was announced we would not get in, even though I had been in line for nearly half an hour. So the day was half over and we had got into zero events. Needless to say I was frustrated with how this worked. I confess I even said a few bad words. I am not a very good Mennonite. Me bad. No. Tucson Festival of Books bad.
I wanted to hear Noam Chomsky, one of my favourite political writers, and the featured speaker, who would be talking in the evening but I feared the same problem. I had been enough line-ups. I told Chris, “We are going home!” Wisely, she said, “no.” Lets go to Madera Canyon so we get something out of our 90-minute drive to Tucson. Good thinking Chris. So we left without seeing 1 single event. We walked around, ate some food, looked at some weirdos and left.
It was not a total waste however. I figured out that there was no purpose in going to this Festival without tickets. Had I bought them I realized I would still have to stand in a lineups, but only for a few minutes. There was a special line-up for ticket holders and provided people were not late they would get in.
The Festival often have some very interesting authors. Here is a very partial list from years past:
2011 – Elmore Leonard
2012 – Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana
2013 – R.L. Stine
2014 – Richard Russo
2015 – Mitch Albom, Dave Barry, Sam Barry, Greg Isles, Ridley Pearson, Amy Tan & Scott Turow -The Rock Bottom Remainders
2016 – J.A. Jance
2017 – T.C. Boyle
2018 – Billy Collins (America’s Poet laureate)
That is a pretty impressive list.
I also realized this was an immensely popular festival. The 2010 United States Census put the population of Tucson at 520,116, while the 2015 estimated population of the entire Tucson metropolitan statistical area was 980,263. That is similar to Winnipeg in other words. Yet this festival was huge. Many writers. Thousands of attendees. Everything free! Even parking (after we found it) was free.
What really amazed me though were the thousands of people who showed up. People of all ages. Not just intellectuals. Kids. Moms. Pops, odds and sod, Hundreds of friendly volunteers. How could there be so many people to come to hear about books? I was stunned. Yesterday when we told a friend where we were going today he was perplexed. “Why would you do that?’ he asked. Tucson has many intelligent people that was my conclusion. I hope to try it again when I am wiser.
When I first heard about Louise Penny I was very surprised. She had been an unexceptional host on CBC radio in Winnipeg. As a regular CBC listener, I listened to her nearly every day. I heard she had moved to Quebec. Much to my surprise she wrote a book called Still Life. It was a murder mystery that took place in a small fictional village in the eastern townships called 3 Pines. I found it a little difficult to believe that she could be any good. How could a young woman from Winnipeg be a good mystery writer? That prejudice shows you how stupid I can be. Later I learned she was on the New York Times bestseller list. That did not seem improbable; it seemed impossible.
Sometimes it pays to listen to your spouse. Chris became a Penny fan and suggested I read her too. It took me a couple of years to follow her suggestions. Funny, how suggestions from a spouse are the last that are followed. And Chris says, “Should be the first to be followed. As a matter of fact, since Chris is a big mystery fan, when I learned this Winnipeg woman was an internationally respected mystery writer, I suggested she read her. Now Chris has conveniently forgotten my suggestion to her! Funny how that happens!
Eventually I read her first novel and concluded Penny is indeed a very good writer. Chris was right. Again I have to admit that. I have started to read her series now. Chris has read them all. This year I read the second in the series, Dead Cold. This convinced me that Penny is an exceptional writer.
One of the great pleasures of the series is Penny’s description of this small town in Quebec and it’s many fascinating inhabitants. This is how she describes the small town in her second novel:
“Three Pines had what she craved.
It had croissants and café au lait.It had steak fries and the New York Times. It had a bakery, a bistro, a B & B, a general store. It had peace and stillness and laughter. It had great joy and great sadness and the ability to accept both and be content. It had companionship and kindness.”
There was one outstanding incident in Dead Cold that I want to mention. It involved Clara, a recurring character in the series. Clara is an artist. So far she has toiled without success. She does not know if she is any good or not. Naturally she was insecure. She asked CC, who Clara wrongly thought was a friend, to introduce her art to a Montreal art critic. Then one day she encountered CC on an escalator in a Montreal department store, and CC, her erstwhile “friend” pretended to be talking to the critic as she was travelling down the escalator and Clara was travelling up. She led Clara to believe that the critic had dismissed her art as “amateur and banal.” It was cruel gesture and entirely deflated Clara. Clara was “murdered by words.” She “knew” her art was crap.
A few minutes after this painful incident, Clara encountered a homeless bum on the streets of Montreal. The bum was lying on the ground covered in vomit and excrement. The bum was an old woman. Clara intended to give her a bag of food. She almost stopped; the smell was so bad. Yet she continued and placed the bag beside the old woman. Amazingly, the old woman turned up to Clara and said, “I always loved your art, Clara.” How could that be?
For some reason, Clara was convinced this bum was God. The shit-covered bag lady was God! She thought she had met God. In my opinion Clara was wrong. She had not met God; she had become God. By offering food to the bum she became God. The Buddhists say that we must learn to become the Buddha. This is what Clara had done, and in the process she was redeemed. This is what we should do; we should become God. I believed that this is what genuine religion is all about. Religion leads us to the God within.
All of this in a mystery novel. Funny how that happens.
Like the Republic of Imagination that I read last year, this book, Reading Lolita in Tehran that I read this year in Arizona, was brilliant. Both are written by Azar Nafisi. This one is an odd little book. It is written by a young Iranian professor of English literature who now teaches at an American University, but tells us about her first years as a professor in Iran during and after the time of the Iranian Revolution. She started sort of a book club at her home when she felt suffocated by the oppressive regime while teaching in the University of Tehran. She went home to escape and took some of her female students with her. The professor and her students rebelled. They rebelled not with guns, bombs or conspiracies. They rebelled by reading American and English literature! In their hands that was a revolutionary activity.
All of the women lived in a totalitarian society where officials were wary of the Professor but didn’t really know what to do about her. Some of them learned how to resist. Some of them suffered serious consequences, but that is not really what the book is about. The book is about literature as rebellion.
Nafisi denied that a book was in the ordinary sense moral. She did say this, “it can be called moral when it shakes us out of our stupor and makes us confront the absolutes we believe in.”
One of the most amazing scenes in the book is when her class at the University decides to put the book The Great Gatsbyon trial. Her students play the roles. The prosecutor is a strict straight-laced Muslim regime supporter. The defense counsel is one of her more radical female students from her book club. It is a remarkable achievement. According to Nafisi, “a great novel heightens your senses and sensitivity to the complexities of life and of individuals , and prevents you from the self-righteousness that sees morality in fixed formulas about good and evil.” It is a revolt against moral hubris in favor of what I have come to call moral humility or restraint.
The Iranian officials tried to prescribe what all the people should do, how they worship, how they love, what they read, and what they think. It tried to restrain them totally. The women became revolutionaries not by any overtly political acts, but only by readingand thinking. None of them fired a gun. Yet, the women learned how literature can defeat ideology. This is what Nafisi in her second book called “the Republic of Imagination.” Nafisi sees literature as revolutionary force opening the mind to possibilities. Imagine please, Jane Austen as a revolutionary!
Its books like this we should read when we are forced to confront authoritarianism. Times like now.
If you read this book it may be the best book you read this year. It is written by a Canadian lawyer, but don’t let that stop you from reading it. Or go to the CBC Radio archive and listen to the CBC’s 2017 Massey Lectures. The book contains those lectures. It is a delightful combination of personal reminiscences of himself and his family and his life as a UN human rights prosecutor and reflections on his experiences.
The book starts out with a wonderful and humorous description of how his family fled Iran as religious exiles fleeing persecution after their revolution. He was a young lad and did not realize why they were leaving the country he loved, but he was excited to go to Canada. His first impression was from 30,000 ft. in a jet.
Sadly, he found that Canada was not the country of unabashed welcoming of refugees. Instead in the schoolyard he was bullied as a “Paki.” Ignorant Canadian school children did not know better. He was different; so he was mocked. He spoke funny, that meant he must be ready to be made fun of. He thought the Hockey Night in Canada song was our national anthem. Maybe he was right.
Later the bigotry of Canadians morphed. He described it this way, “As my school days came to a close, the all-purpose pejorative “Paki” label was given way to a more sophisticated taxonomy of bigotry. Thanks to the simplistic sound bites and sensational images that passed as evening news, Arabs and Iranians were merging in the popular imagination as a barbaric race of crazed terrorists. Instead of getting better the ordeal by association was getting worse. It didn’t matter that we were actually the biggest victims of those same bearded fanatics appearing on their television screens, or that Western leaders had sabotaged secular democracy in our countries. Our story was irrelevant. We were merely a blank screen on which others projected their psychological needs, of either scorn or of pity.
Whether in the schoolyard or in global politics the clash of civilizations is a convenient escape from the visceral fear of embracing others. The bully and the bigot, the tyrant and the terrorist need to inflict pain on others to escape their own pain. Connecting with others renders us vulnerable; accepting differences challenges our way of life. The cowardly way out is to make enemies rather than doing the hard work of learning and growing. Why struggle to discover a deeper identity when hatred is within easy reach?”
In the book Akhavan meanders through many examples of a failure to empathize. Arabs and Israelis. Serbs and Croats. Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda. Western European settlers and North American indigenous peoples. And many more. Invariably he adds value to the discussion of these conflicts. But he always comes back to the central concept of empathy. He quotes Persian philosopher Rumi: “the wound is the place where light enters.”
Here is what he says about the West and Islam,
“For much of history, Islamic civilization has been the enduring “other” of the Western world, and Western civilization the enduring “other” of the Islamic world. But the reality today is that the irresistible forces of globalization, the inexorable expansion of our collective unconscious, is infusing diverse peoples with an ever-broader sense of belonging. That is exactly why the extremists are panicking. In these times of accelerating change, they need each other more than ever. The white crusaders and the wicked jihadists are inseparable dancing partners, entangled in an awkward tango of mutual disgust. Whether they like it or not, identities are not fossils in a museum. They are inherently dynamic constantly shaping and being shaped by others in a never-ending exchange of perspectives. Amidst intensifying interdependence, parochial identities will invariably give way to a wider loyalty. Then better to negotiate the inevitable by dialogue rather than violence. The xenophobic hissy fit of identity warriors is futile avoidance of a shared future.”
Akhavan finds empathy as the basis of human rights. As an immigrant to Canada, during a time when brown people were rare and exotic, he understands from deep personal experience, that “multiculturalism is a messy affair.” It is often difficult and challenging. But is there any reason to believe that we are not up for the challenge? Akhavan points out,
“We each have a unique path, but when our journeys occasionally converge, we may discover that we also have a shared humanity; that we all suffer; whatever our identity may be. The universality of human rights means that despite our differences, we all deserve to be treated with the same dignity. We should not project demeaning stereotypes on others, portraying them as savages to justify our bigotry. But in celebrating diversity, we should also not become apologists for those that abuse others in the name of tradition.”
It is a fundamental theme of the book that we must recognize that other people suffer, just like we do. He knows, as Shakespeare’s Shylock did, that each of us bleeds in the same way. When we recognize that, we empathize. As the original meaning of the word “sympathy” indicates, “we suffer with.”
That is precisely why we have to be skeptical of claims from our leaders that “we” are different from “them”. No matter how much they want it otherwise, this is not a matter of “us” against “them.” This is a matter of “we.” We are in this together. We really are one human race, no matter where we come from, no matter what the color of our skin, and no matter how we worship (or not) our gods. We are fellows.
Akhavan says that our encounters with human rights atrocities have a lot to say about who we actually are, as opposed to who we pretend to be. That is why Akhavan explores how the pursuit of a virtuous self-image affects our perceptions of suffering at the periphery of our society. This is a version of the thought, now often accepted, that a civilization is judged by how it treats the most vulnerable–i.e. those who suffer at the periphery.
Akhavan points out that many of us are no longer able to define the sublime by reference to the divine. Therefore, to many, they are unable to find moral certainty. As Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov said, “If God is dead then all is permitted.” To such thinking Akhavan responds as follows:
“Disabused of the catastrophic illusions of the past, in our post-modern search for transcendence we have embraced human rights as the secular sacred. Having shunned absolute truths, we navigate the stormy seas of moral relativism, weary of foundering on the forbidden rocks of individual autonomy and cultural diversity. In this disenchanted universe, belief in the inherent dignity of humankind is the magical island where we can still find refuge amidst moral uncertainty.”