The Stack Project, July 2015

See this post for information about the Stack project.  This is and update covering the last couple months.

  • Belle & Sebastian: I was already a fan, mostly due to the album `Fold your hands child, you walk like a peasant’ which I borrowed from a friend in 2003 and listened to extensively. My exposure to the rest of the catalogue was limited. I understand this is odd, since most fans look back to `If You’re Feeling Sinister’ as the early masterpiece. I listened to that album, as well as two other early offerings: ‘The Boy with the Arab Strap’ and ‘Tigermilk’. On each, I adored a number of tracks and found most of the rest to be pleasant filler. I also listened to the (slightly) more recent `Life Pursuit’ and was quite surprised by the change in style. Before looking at the dates, I assume that it was a very early recording and represented a style which the band had abandoned. Instead, it was an experiment with a new sound. All in all, I prefer the older sound. I find that smooth and polished, light vocals and harpsichord, all-things-twee style of Belle & Sebastian adorable.
  • Blue Rodeo: My previous experience with Blue Rodeo is limited to a few popular singles and performances at Folk Fest. The latter was very positive; they are a great live act and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed both times I’ve seen them. However, I’ve never really listened to their albums. I started (foolishly perhaps) with a Greatest Hits disc, which was, unsurprisingly, the most familiar. It was alright. I also listed to the classic and popular album `Five Days in July’, which was also alright. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the more recent (still 15 years old, though) `The Days in Between’. There are a number of great songs on this album.
  • The Books: I spent over half of our Europe trip listening to four albums from the strange quasi-electronic band The Books. I am super-impressed. The music is strange, to be sure. Most of the songs are composed of four elements. The first three are relatively conventional: acoustic guitars and other string instruments; softly sung folksy vocals; and acoustic drums (at least they sound acoustic — I have no idea if they are played live or sequenced). The fourth component is samples, mostly of monologue or dialogue from films, speeches, newscasts, and other random old sources. These components are all electronically put together to produce a very unique and enjoyable effect. `The Lemon of Pink’ is the strongest album, followed by ‘Thought for Food’. ‘Music for a French Elevator’ is a truly bizarre collection of short works; in one track, all the samples are off-hand comments from characters in a British mystery/horror film; in another, an old self-help tape is mixed up to comic effect.
  • Bright Eyes: I am very fond of two albums: `I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning’ and `Lifted’. For the stack project, I went back and listened to the debut album `Letting Off The Happiness’. In short, I feel that he improved greatly by the time he recorded the later albums. I can see the seeds of future brilliance, but `Letting Off The Happiness’ itself is entirely forgettable.
  • Bruce Springsteen: Bruce Springsteen is great. I mean, I don’t always go for the 80s rock-pop anthems, but Dancing in the Dark is amazing. I know this isn’t news to anyone.  However, I’ve always been familiar with Springsteen by his reputation instead of his music. High time I remedied that problem. I listened to a Greatest Hits CD, which was heavy on the 80s content but still excellent. I also listened to and enjoyed the more recent (comparatively) disc `The Rising’.
  • Calexico: I listened to `The Black Light’ and `Convict Pool.’ This is amazing mood music. I’m not particularly fond of any of the tracks as songs in themselves, but the atmosphere of the whole recording is amazing. It feels like background or soundtrack music, but in the best way possible.

What is Science Fiction?

When I wrote the review of Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go some time ago, I ignored a tangent about the definition of science fiction.  This post is picking up that tangent: what is science fiction?  When is the term used?  What about fantasy?  What about the new catch-all term speculative fiction?  I’m sure places on the internet are full of lengthy threads debating these subtleties with great vigor; in a more relaxed environment, I thought I’d give my thoughts.  One point of context: I read and enjoy science fiction and fantasy (whatever is it), but not exclusively.  I feel I have enough experience to talk about the genres as an insider, though by no means an expert.  Since I tend to enjoy literature that pushes some conventional boundaries of the genres, I am certainly biased.

First, and most importantly, I think getting upset about the use of the terms is rather ridiculous.  I’m no purists and emotionally, I’m not particularly invested.  Unless you are writing or selling fiction, where a genre distinction or lack-there-of can mean a great deal to your sales, I don’t see the point of getting upset.  However, I do find the discussion interesting, hence this post.

I prefer a broad definition of science fiction and fantasy.  Any setting which includes a slightly unreal environment for stories satisfies.  Dystopian fiction certainly qualifies: 1984, Brave New World, The Handmaiden’s Tale are all science fiction.  Kafka’s Metamorphosis is science fiction.  Shelly’s Frankenstein certainly is.  I don’t think science fiction has to be directly about the changed environment.  Science fiction in space doesn’t have to be about space travel or adventure.  Science fiction based on a technological advance doesn’t have to be about primarily about that advance.  Ursula Le Guin is one of my favourite authors; she very intentionally uses her new settings to tell stories about fundamentally human characters and their relationships.  That’s some of my favourite science fiction.  In reference to the inspiration for this post, Never Let Me Go is certainly science fiction, even though it doesn’t share any stylistic conventions with most of the genre and leaves the technological details of the alternate timeline almost entirely mysterious (horrendously, tragically mysterious).

I also like the term `speculative fiction.’  It’s a nice catch all and it’s easier to say than `science fiction and fantasy’.  It can include Magical Realism.  It can include wonderful things like Totoro.  It can include myth and all mythically informed fiction such as Gaiman’s Sandman.  It can include basically all comic book genres, for that matter.  Maybe the term is too broad, but I approve of labelling the distinction that something is different from the usual world.

I don’t think that fantasy or science fiction are descriptions of style.  A story about elves and goblins can be told in as wide a variety of styles as any literature but still be fantasy.  I think policing style or insisting that stylistic conventions define the genres is far too limiting.

I very strongly reject any argument that science fiction, fantasy or speculative fiction are in anyway unable to produce the very best of human artistic endeavours.  The fact that our canon includes very few works of speculative fiction is a weakness in our canon, not a reflection of the inability of speculative fiction to be excellent literature.  I also reject the argument that speculative fiction is inherently escapist, as opposed to more serious mainstream literature.  It can be, but it also can be desperately immediate and humanizing.  Following Le Guin, I like the idea that it can often be easier to tell a truly human story by altering the setting.  It allows for a focus which can be difficult to construct in the so-called conventional world.  An excellent  example is issues understanding gender with Le Guin’s `ambisexual’ race in The Left Hand of Darkness.

Giving examples brings us back to Never Let Me Go, which is one of the least escapist books I’ve ever read (as well as one of the most amazing). The new setting tells stories about human cultures and what they are willing to do for their betterment.  It tells stories about humans stuck in a system so deeply that they can’t imagine even attempting to get out of it.  It tells of the noble attempts of small groups to call out injustice and how their efforts can be tragically crushed.  It tells these humans stories sublimely well because of its altered reality.

For further reading, Atwood’s collection of essays `In Other Worlds’ is recommended, even though I don’t agree with everything Atwood has said about the Science Fiction.

Book Review on Vacation

Vacations are for reading.  This trip’s epic undertaking was Thomas Mann’s `Joseph and his Brothers’.  However, I’m only 1000 pages into the 1500 of that novel, so it’s review will have to wait.  (It will come, though — I have many things to say about this novel.)  I did read two other books, about which I’ll share a few comments.

The first of the two was `The Secret Life of Bees’ by Sue Monk Kidd.  (Spoilers here.)

This is a fairly well known and well received American novel from a decade or so ago.  I also understand it was made into a relatively successful film.  I enjoyed the book well enough, but I have some serious reservation about certain aspects of it.

First the good: the main character was engaging, the prose was functional for the most part and occasionally exquisite, mostly when talking about the bees.  I like bees, honey and beekeeping, mostly due to some very, very early childhood memories about the bees my parents kept.  The title isn’t just a slight reference: there is a great deal of material in the book actually about bees.  Almost of all of the bee-related material was lovely.

The religious content was quite interesting.   The Black Madonna, a religious tradition that I was previously unaware of, plays a central role.  A number of the characters form a home grown Christian-influenced religion based on their experience of a Black Madonna statute.  This religion and its practice heavily inform the arc of trauma and recovery in a way I found fascinating.

Finally, the emotional arc of the novel was compelling as well; the best written scenes drew tears and I cared about the pain of the characters.

However, let’s talk about the pain of the characters.  This is a childhood trauma novel: it’s about a adolescent with a terrifying early childhood experience.  At age five, she accidentally killed her own mother with a pistol.  She spends the next decade repressing the memory and living with a emotionally distant and often abusive father.   The book, essentially, is about her coming to deal with this trauma.  It’s about starting to heal core wounds, in the language my own mother uses.  While a compelling and classic archetypical story, it’s also one that I tend to approach skeptically.  As I said before, the novel is well written enough that I was often caught up in the emotional journey.  At other moments, though, the severity of the situation serve to remove me as a ready.  The trauma is so extreme is it almost ridiculous. Sometime when reading these novels, it feels like there’s some competition between authors to see what’s the worst kind of childhood trauma they can throw their characters into.  Pushed too far, it feels like unintentional satire.

The other main issues with the book are about race.  The book takes place in the 1960 in the southern US, shortly after the passage of the Civil Rights Act.  Violence towards the supporting black characters is frequent and horrendous.  However, it’s still essentially a book about a white child protagonist and the issues (however horrendous) of her white family.  The black characters are all supporting and their struggles and sufferings secondary.   In addition, the protagonist finds her salvation in the support and wisdom of a black community.  This immediately set off alarm bells for me: I’ll let TV Tropes and their Magical Negro article sum up the issue:

This can work somewhat as An Aesop about tolerance and not dismissing individuals from underprivileged groups, and it’s certainly an improvement on earlier tendencies to either never depict minority characters at all or make them all villains. However, ultimately it’s usually a moral and artistic shortcut, replacing a genuine moral message with a well-intentioned but patronizing homage to the special gifts of the meek. Minority characters still all too often aren’t portrayed as the heroes of their own stories, but as helpers of standard white, able-bodied, middle-class heroes, and they aren’t depicted as, you know, actual people with their own desires, flaws and character arcs, but as mystical, Closer to Earth plot devices.

The second book was the short story collection (in translation) entitled `Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman’ by Haruki Murakami.

I’ll be more succinct about this second book.  Many of the stories were well structured and I appreciated the relaxed, nonchalant style of the writing.  Reminiscent of Douglas Copland, it wasn’t what I expected from a Japanese author.

However, the collection suffered from one very serious flaw, which I feel I can simply label as Male Gaze.  Most of the stories are from male perspective, and in those stories, female characters almost always are presented a available and willing sexual partners.  It felt like every man in the stories was non-descript and every woman was given explicit physical description, (almost always including the shape and prominence of her breasts, sooner or later).  By halfway through the collection, whenever a woman was introduced, I was asking how many paragraph would it take before she and the protagonist were having sex (or at least, she had offered to have sex with him).  Even in the (two or three) stories with female protagonists, the same problems arose.

In general, I’m happy with stories about sex.  Sexual relationships are so strange, rich and complicated that a collection of short stories about people and their sex lives is perfectly natural.  However, they need to be about pairs of real characters, not default men and always-sexually-willing-and-available women.  This collection, at many moments, felt like a sexist muddle of wish-fulfillment stories from the mind of an adolescent (heterosexual) male.

Europe Trip 2015

We returned from our vacation yesterday.  We spent the last 17 days in Europe, seeing both friends and sights.  Visiting and staying with friends was fantastic: many thanks to Anne, Del, Malcolm and Anne.  As for the rest of the trip, we were moving quickly between many destinations.  Instead of a full travel report, I have a series of quick, point-form observations and notes.

 

  • Oxford was impressive and heavily steeped in tradition.  I am ambivalent about academic tradition, but I enjoyed parts of it.
  • The highlight of Oxford for me was going to a high Anglican choral Evensong service at Exeter College.  In addition to the regular service material, the choir sang an amazing anthem from Benjamin Britten.  I also really enjoy Anglican psalm chanting, so it was lovely to hear it live in a very traditional setting.
  • Luton Airport is just as miserable as everyone says.  Flying cheap European airlines is still cheap and still annoying.
  • By contrast, travelling by train, particular high-speed train, is the epitome of civilization.  (Or, I suppose I should say, civilisation.)
  • Walking around Utrecht and seeing our old haunts was way more fun that I expected.  Thanks to Steph to insisting we do this.
  • Heidelberg is a lovely city.  It is exquisitely placed in the hills at the edge of the broad Rhine valley.  The castle is impressive; in particular, it is much more expansive than I expected.  I could have spent a whole second day walking around the old town and its environs.
  • Strasbourg is a very civilized city for cycling, though the signage in the old town could use some work.  It’s a beautiful city.  We saw otters in the canals.
  • The mixture of French and German culture and history in Strasbourg is amusing.  Our hosts kept joking about it, asking us how we were enjoying our time in Germany.
  • Paris was as lovely and hectic as ever.  We failed to enact any of our plans in our first full day, but had a lovely time just walking around.
  • Musée d’Orsay is a great place to spend half a day.  Having missed it on previous trips, I was very happy to get there this time.  The building itself is worth experiencing, to say nothing of the excellent collections.  I like the impressionists.
  • I like art museums more than historical or archeological museums.  Steph is the opposite (though she also does like art museums).  However, it all works out.  We balanced it out, doing Orsay for art and archeology/history at a museum in Stuttgart.
  • Iceland is the perfect destination after the population density of Paris.  Plenty of room to breath.
  • Iceland is also ridiculously expensive.  We were told this before hand, but I still wasn’t really prepared.
  • Iceland is also amazingly beautiful.  Again, we were told this, and again I still wasn’t really prepared.  We rented a car to drive around for day, which was a great choice.
  • Gullfoss is the most impressive waterfall I’ve ever seen.
  • The landscape along Iceland highway 42, to the south-west of Reykjavik, might be the actual highlight of the entire trip.  I can’t even begin to describe it, and I feel that pictures will never capture the sensation.
  • The Blue Lagoon is a lovely hot spring and sauna with great ambience.  However, I found it didn’t live up to its hype or it’s price tag.  In addition, we’re spoiled in Alberta/BC.
  • Travelling with Steph is awesome.
  • It’s nice to be home.

Brief Hiatus

I’ll be away from regular computer access for a bit, so expect a lack of content for a couple weeks.

To bide the time, presented without any comment or context, here are three self-reflexive sentences from the first chapter of Douglas Hofstadter’s 1985 collection of articles entitled “Metamagical Themas.”

  • This sentence would be seven words long if it were six words shorter
  • This sentence now before your eyes spent a month in Hungarian last year and was only recently translated back into English.
  • This sentence contradicts itself–or rather–well, no, actually it doesn’t.

Morality Looks Inward

The Christian Church has a long history of telling people what to do.  During many periods of history, the priests and hierarchies of various denominations have considered it their responsibility and obligation to proscribe and dictate the moral behaviour of their populations.  This rhetoric is alive and well in North American politics, though much more virulent in the United States than in Canada.  Take the US religious right on marriage equality: they feel that marriage outside of a conventional cis-gendered heterosexual context is morally evil and they feel they they have the right and responsibility to insist that their moral conclusion be imposed upon the general populace by force of law.

The argument I wish to make today, which many have made before me, is this:  the idea that social authorities (governments, churches, priests, teachers, leaders) have moral responsibility for their membership or the general public is at odds with core teachings of the Christian tradition.  There is a very reasonable reading of Jesus, Paul and various Christian writers through the centuries that leads to the conclusion that morality must be directed inward.  The most explicit source for this (at the risk of proof-texting, which is dangerous at the best of times) is in Matthew 7 (NSRV quoted):

‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbour, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye.’

I interpret the passage as saying this: other people’s sin isn’t really my business.  My role is not to set myself up as judge over their sin; my role is to worry about my own actions.

I’m most concerned about this for the sake of inclusion in community, hence the focus on social authorities.  Once a community has decided it has the moral authority and responsibility to police its members, it almost inevitably uses that authority to enforce boundaries: to decide who is welcome and who must be shunned.  Letting aside numerous enormous problems with implementing such a scheme (the focus on particular sins, mostly notably sexual sins, the inevitable hypocrisy of the process, the inevitable corruption of welcome to the powerful, etc.), I feel the idea of centrally held moral authority is incompatible with the image of the community of God.

One of the great revelation of Christianity is the fact that we all are sinners; the community of God is a community of sinners.  Christianity should seek to break down barriers and say that all, really all, are welcome.  We are all welcome as we are with no strings attached.

Some have taken this to mean that all penitent sinners are welcome, but evidence of contrition is first required.  This attitude still requires the community to stand in moral judgement; now, instead of moral judgement over particular sins, it is moral judgement over whether or not you display an appropriately contrite attitude.  Moreover, this becomes impossible to separate from an appropriately submissive attitude to the authority of the community and leads to the same problem of exclusion.  The result is often the same: barriers and boundaries arise since the leadership claims to stand in judgement and can decide who is welcome.

Instead of this community of judgement, I feel the core Christian teaching is the opposite.  Judgement is not our responsibility; instead, hospitality is our responsibility.  And hospitality is welcome, completely regardless of status, evidence of the appropriate level of contrition, or submission to an authority.

A recent inspiration for this kind of thinking comes from my readings in various mystical traditions.  As far as I can tell, the theme of non-judgement is very strong in the mystical traditions.  Many of these traditions focus on meditation to get beyond the categories of the world; this includes the judgement into categories of sinner/saint. For example, I recently read a collection of aphorisms from the 4th century desert mystics, collected by Thomas Merton.  I was struck by the extremely strong focus on non-judgement in those aphorisms: many of the quotes focused on the need to avoid judgement at all costs and the greatest saints where those who stood in judgement over no-one.  The renunciation of retreat to the desert is not just a renunciation of wealth and worldly standing; it is also a renunciation of judgement.  For example, here are two such aphorisms:

One of the brethren had sinned, and the priest told him to leave the community.  So then Abbot Bessarion got up and walked out with him, saying: I too am a sinner!

A brother in Scete happened to commit a fault, and the elders assembled, and sent for Abbot Moses to join them.  He, however, did not want to come.  The priest sent him a message, saying: Come, the community of brethren is waiting for you.  So he arose and started off.  And talking with him a very old basket full of holes, he filled it with sand, and carried it behind him.  The elders came out to meet him, and said: What is this, Father?  The elder replied: My sins are running out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I come to judge the sins of another!  The, hearing this, said nothing to the brother but pardoned him.

And important caution must be noted in what I’ve written: the targets of this criticism are those in position of power who stand in judgement (myself included, having been born into a position of great relative privilege).  Those who find themselves in positions of authority in communities are those who must refrain from judgement, since they have the power to create the boundaries.  The Jewish and Christian traditions are full of holy, prophetic voices calling for justice for the marginalized: the poor, sick, and socially powerless.  Here there is a strong role for judgement, but it is the judgement of the oppressed calling out against their oppressors.  The call for non-judgement should not be used as a tool to silence those who point out the injustices of the world.

Brief Thoughts on New Teacups

Steph bought some china teacups yesterday.  I brought some of them home for her, since room was limited in her panier.  I unwrapped them from their paper and put them on the island in our kitchen.  They are really pretty!

This led me to two thoughts.  First, I was amazed that we can acquire detailed, elegant, highly decorated objects for relatively little money.  I thought about the place of porcelain in history: how it was one of the finest arts in ancient China, how it was a symbol of wealth and status, how fine decoration and workpersonship was individual and painstaking.  The mass production of detailed elegant patterns has amazed me since I was a child.  I remember wondering, when I was quite young, who had painted our placemats.  The realization some months or years later that such objects were mass-produced was a revelation.  At some level it still is.

Second, I wondered how much appreciation of fine china is a class marker.  It has associations of elegant tea parties with elaborate dainty treats in addition to refined, perhaps stifling, manners.  I have no conservative yearnings for Victorian social practice.  Yet elegant teacups are pleasant objects to me.  High Tea at the Rutherford House (alas, no more!) was a highly anticipated experience.  The caché of the Duchess is class and elegance and works for me.  How is it that these superficially anachronisms of high-class societies appeal?  Do I subconsciously yearn for the advantages of privilege in a rigid class system?  Consciously, I find the idea of rigidity in social categories repulsive and I praise the slow (very slow) softening of class barriers.  But I like Victorian tea parties?  I’m somewhat confused, but still happy that Steph bought new teacups.

Book List

Books Read Since 2008

The above link leads to a list I’ve kept since 2008 of all the books I’ve read.  Other than a couple which were likely forgotten, the list is the near entirety of what I’ve read in the last seven years.  The only notable items left off the list are mathematical books which I’ve read professionally.

I’ve kept the list for myself, since I find it easy to forget what I’ve read.  So far, I’ve kept it to myself.  It occurred to me to post the list here.  Then it occurred to me to wonder why I should post it publicly.  Two reasons occur immediately.

First, some people just might find it interesting.  I’m curious what my friends are reading.  Over the last couple of years, I’ve been serious about asking for recommendations and actually reading most of the recommended books.  I’m lucky enough to know amazing people with a wide variety of opinions on reading; it’s good for me to know what they really enjoy in books.  So, people might want my reading list for a similar reason.  Or for any other reason, even if that reason is simple curiosity.  Being curious about what our friends do is natural, and I’m happy to let people know what I’ve chosen to read.

Second, and more concerning, I might be trying to enforce an impression about my character by my reading list.  It’s pretty easy to judge people on the book they read (or whether they read at all), and that’s a game I’m simply not interested in. If you only read fiction, that doesn’t mean you are shallow on uninformed.  If you only read genre fiction, that doesn’t mean you have poor taste or don’t have the depth to appreciate `real literature’.  If you only read non-fiction, it doesn’t mean you have no imagination or creativity.  Alternatively, if you read serious, depressing and dramatic novels, it doesn’t mean you are deep or emotionally mature or thoughtful.  If you read three nonfiction books every week, it doesn’t mean you are more intelligent that those who don’t. You are not determined by the books you read.  Yet, these tapes play in many people’s heads, both the positive and negative versions.  Psychologically, I have them myself; I can take pride in my love for Russian novels by thinking that reading them makes me come across as intelligent, sophisticated and deep.  This is nonsense, and I need to be in the habit of checking my own ridiculous self-deceptions.  I don’t really want to post the list if self-aggrandizing is the basic purpose behind it.

I think, for the most part, I choose to read books either because they are recommended or because I think I will enjoy reading them.  I often choose lengthy, complicated and emotionally heavy novels because, for some strange reason, I seem to enjoy reading them.  I get ridiculously excited about meta-fictional books.  I seem to enjoy non-linear narratives and books which sacrifice conventional plot for style or character.  Of course, maybe the desire to present a certain character by my reading is subconsciously turned into these simple desires.  I can’t be certain that the second reason isn’t the main subconscious purpose.  I hope it isn’t, and, in the balance, I thought it was worthwhile to post the list.  I hope some people enjoy looking at it.  The link is to a dynamic document, so the list will be regularly updated at that same link.

Stats are kept in four categories: Gender, Fiction/Non-Fiction, Canadian Authors and Books in Translation.  I’m quite content with the mix on the latter three, but the fact that 75% of the books I read are written by men seems problematic.

Music Review: Beat the Champ

Beat the Champ is the latest release (April 2015) by The Mountain Goats.

This one is very biased; I am very fond of the Mountain Goats.  That said, there was perhaps a chance for an unfavourable reception due to the subject material.  This is a concept album about professional wrestling.  My interest in professional wrestling is basically zero; in my childhood, I might have thought that André the Giant was cool, but it was entirely due to his depiction of Fezzig.  I liked Aronofsky’s film ‘The Wrestler’, but that hardly counts.  Could The Mountain Goats write an album which nostalgically celebrates and revels in professional wrestling while still appealing to my musical tastes?

Turns out that John Darnielle is more than up to the challenge.  I loved the album, in spite of the ridiculous pro wrestling content.  Maybe sometimes because of said ridiculous content.  I listened to ‘The Legend of Chavo Guerrero’, a tribute to childhood Darnielle’s favourite wrestler, about ten times on repeat.  As all good poetry does, the lyrics transcend their immediate purpose (here describing wrestling scenes) and move on to sublime and transcendent reflections on the human condition.  Chavo Guerrero isn’t just a childhood hero; he’s the contrast with the horrendous stepfather: “You let me down, but Chavo never once did.”  Amid a injust, ambiguous and complicated childhood, Chavo’s victories are moral hooks on which to hang hope: “I need justice in my life; here it comes” into the chorus of “Look high, it’s my last hope // Chavo Guerrero, coming off the top rope.”

This effect continues throughout the disc.  ‘Heel Turn 2’ is about losing ethical integrity in the moral vagaries of general existence as much as it is about playing the villain in the ring:  “You found my breaking point: congratulations // Spent too much of my life now trying to play fair // Throw my better self overboard; shoot him when he comes up for air.” The album culminates in two of the three tracks which explicitly get behind the superficials: ‘Hair Match’, which perfectly captures a deep empathy for the defeated; and ‘Unmasked’, which literally get behinds a persona by removing the mask: “Peeking through the eyeholes // Seeing the real you.”

I have no idea what it is about Darnielle’s poetry than I’m so impressed with.  My appreciations of The Mountain Goats is certainly lyrically driven, though the musical aspects of the songwriting are certainly solid.  Consistently through the ten or so albums I’ve listened to, the poetry always finds a sweet spot.  Even here: I didn’t think a bunch of poems about wrestling would speak to me, but these ones certainly do.

Book Review: Fields of Blood

Fields of Blood by Karen Armstrong is a historical survey of religion and violence.  I was drawn to the book when it was announced last year, having previously read Armstrong’s History of God.  I have great respect for Armstrong’s ability to capture the broad currents of religious history, so I was very interested what she would make of the difficult and important topic of how religion relates to violence.  The book did not disappoint: it is an excellent popular treatment of the subject, deep in its investigations and amazingly ambitious in its scope.

Armstrong’s major thesi seems to be this: the relationship between religion and violence is complicated; don’t over simplify.  In particular, she is writing against the popular polemic coming from Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher, et. el, that religion is the primary source of violent behaviour throughout history and violence is reduced by reducing religion.  (This of course is not a new thought; Armstrong mentions version of this polemic as early in the modern period as the modern definition of religion, specifically the secularism of the French revolutionaries.)  Her consistent argument throughout the book is that religion has been invoked both for and against violence as long as religion has existed and that all religion wars and conflicts also have political, social and economic causes.  From my perspective, this is a completely sensible and almost painfully obvious thesis; however, I can appreciate the need for  a popular book to speak against the aforementioned polemic.

Even though I’ve just presented her thesis as `almost painfully obvious’, there are many subtleties explored in the book. Among these is the observation that the machinery of cities/states/nations/empires absolutely requires violence.  This idea is presented in the first part of the book dealing with ancient civilizations in the Mediterranean, Persia, India and China.  She recognized the non-violent themes in the great sages of the Axial Age: Confucius, Lao Tzu, Zoroaster, Gautama Buddha, the Greek Philosophers and the Hebrew prophets, among others.  Most of these non-violent teachings morphed into official religions of kingdoms and empires, all of which used them to justify their status quo of violence.  Typically, I’ve viewed this as empires co-opting and perverting religion.  Armstrong would mostly agree, but gives some thought to the reasons and mechanisms.  Particularly through the example of Maurya Emperor Ashoka in India, Armstrong makes the observation that the leaders of these empires may have consciously realized that their entire political structure was completely impossible without its systemic violence.  The only alternative they could imagine to the domination of empire was the anarchy of constant fighting between hundreds and thousands of local princes, warlords and thugs.  The choice in early human history (and perhaps in all of human history) may not be violence/non-violence, but which kind of violence.

This part of the book is where Armstrong leans most strongly toward the thoughts of René Girard.  She mentioned Girard explicitly at the very start of the book and end the last paragraph with Girardian language; however, I was hoping for more explicit interaction with Girard throughout the book.  There is a strange and powerful Girardian thesis that the original idea of sacred was violence made holy through a scapegoating processes saving early communities from their own destructive in-fighting.  I was fascinated by this idea when I read Girard last year and  I was hoping Armstrong would deal with it explicitly.  I was mildly disappointed on this score.

Armstrong writes as a very broad generalist, a style which I found somewhat unsettling in this book as in `History of God’.  She covers huge swaths of human history in a 400 page book; by necessity, she summarizes everything.  I’m much more accustomed to reading something in detail on a particular topic; the constant summarizing feels strange and often superficial.  While I’m sure that historians and theologians could argue with the necessarily simplifications of almost every summary, I appreciate the goal of trying to talk about currents and trends throughout many eras and locations of human history.  It seems to fit her goal of writing a holistic and accessible work (though even at that, the focus is almost entirely on Europe, the Middle East, Persian, India and China).  The overall effect of getting small pieces of stories and summaries from thousands of years of human history is a powerful effect.  It’s also has a very useful humbling effect in that it remind me how little I know about all the many details, events and causes of human history.  Impressively, this is accomplished without the tone of the book feeling distant or patronizing; many, many names are mentioned without giving the sense of name-dropping to establish authority.

The later half of the book focuses on modern and contemporary examples, particularly the recent history of Islam, terrorism and jihad.  This isn’t surprising given her goal to address the current of thought which blames the religion of Islam for much of the violence of the modern world.  Armstrong does excellent work giving just a brief introduction to many recent violence histories; enough to remind us that the simplistic narrative of our newswriters and politicians are not necessarily well informed, that much of the violence of the middle east cannot be understood without also considering secular movements, economic exploitation and colonial repression.  Moreover, she reminds us that Islam (like all major world religions) has inspired great peacemakers as well as reprehensible warmongers. Religion and violence: it’s complicated.