Saturday, December 22, 2012

XL Pipeline Hike: Day 93: The Breaking of the Fellowship

Ken Ilgunas: Day 93: The Breaking of the Fellowship: (Francis Gardler / Lincoln Journal Star) (Francis Gardler / Lincoln Journal Star) When the governor and I began our journey, the day...

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Riding the Bus With My Sister by Rachel Simon; a Review.

        "Mentally retarded."  Words we said about my sister, but never said to her.

As children it hadn't mattered to Rachel Simon that there was "something wrong" with her sister Beth.  Beth was only eleven months younger and they were good playmates. But over the next two decades their lives went very different ways.  Rachel was ashamed and embarrassed at school where other children laughed and mocked the "retards,"  which led her  to a sense of separateness and difference, even resentment.  Then their father, a college dean, left the family, pointedly not taking the four children. He'd "met someone." The profoundly depressed mother eventually lost all semblance of function and one by one the older children left, but Beth on. The mother's circumstances disintegrated, until at last Beth was rescued by her father from a nightmarish situation, but not unscarred or unscathed.  Rachel was nearly forty when she began to get to know Beth, her "retarded" sister again.

There was far too little in the book about the father's ordeal during the twenty years he tried to do his best with the maturing Beth. She was not docile; she was not cooperative; she definitely did not fit that cliche about the retarded people: "God's little angels."  And Rachel Simon tells maybe too much of  her own personal story instead of the larger picture, but it's the larger picture—with Beth as the heroine, not Rachel—that makes this book worthwhile.

Beth is at last living independently in an urban setting when her sister, the author, decides to try to get to know her again.  It is not an easy decision because Beth is neither mild and sensitive. She is—at 39—overweight, loud, very often obnoxious, especially to anyone from whom she detects criticism.  She wears the clothes an unsupervised nine-year-old might choose, including shorts and flipflops if the weather's "over forty." Her diet is also similar to that of a nine-year-old.  She is not healthy.  Her main interest and activity is the city buses which she rides from early morning till night.  Its drivers are her social world and their schedules are her schedule.  Although Beth has learned to read and write, and could conceivably hold a menial job like clearing tables at fast-food restaurants, she doesn't, and from what we see of her, it would be unlikely that she would work in public smoothly.  What she does is ride the buses.  Her only friend outside the bus system is her boyfriend Jesse, also mentally retarded.  Jesse rides bicycles instead of buses.  And yes, they are lovers—that is, the forbidden and fearful topic of "sexual congress" is part of their lives.

Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the book is what seem to be accurate transcriptions of the bus trips Rachel takes with Beth; Beth's behavior and conversation were vivid in Simon's writing and certainly underlined the main point of the book:  there is no easy categorization of people afflicted with "mental retardation" according to some abstract scale--"mental age," extent of disability, or any other single factor. 

But in the same way in which the narrator hovers on the threshold between loving acceptance and frustrated rejection of Beth, so the book also hovers on the line between an empathetic portrait of Beth and objectification.  It's tricky any time a writer tries to sketch someone whose experience is foreign to both writer and reader.  However well Simon succeeds in disabusing her own ignorance and thereby the reader's, she remains—and thus the book does—noncomprehending.  She learns, and communicates, why "mental age" is an inadequate measure of the quality of life for any given individual and just how individual, even unpredictably eccentric, a developmentally disabled person can be. 

She learns how little she had actually ever understood the challenges facing Beth at every level, as well as how difficult is any assistance effort that respects the individual's freedom of choice.  And why such respect for that freedom is important.  The beginning of coercion is always the beginning of a bad story. The portraits she draws of Beth and of her boyfriend Jesse enlighten us about those challenges.  Beth is childish in her resistance to seeing a dentist, choosing a healthier diet for her weight and cholesterol, dressing "sensibly," or foreseeing danger or sickness, or understanding how her behavior offends and bothers other people because of the boundaries she violates with an almost utter lack of empathy.  But she is also childlike in her indifference to appearances, to judgments of others based on her manners and niceties;  she is childlike in her energy and enthusiasm, her enjoyment and eagerness, her tenacity and her concern for those she cares about.

We don't get to know Jesse as well although he seems more serious, more aware of consequences and sensitive to the nuances of relationships.  A display of his startling skills in a martial arts routine gives both Simon, and the reader, tangible evidence of the unpredictability of each "disadvantaged" individual. and of the complexities that should unsettle easy stereotypes.

Moreover, to add to the ambivalence, Rachel Simon is only too well aware that at the same time she finds Beth pitiable and criticizes her insensitivity, she sees that Beth has devoted friends among the bus-drivers and her caretaking social workers,  and unlike her older sister, does have a settled love relationship.  Simon on the other hand was unhappily single, a workaholic, and at burnout flashpoint when the bus-riding year begins.

There are at least four storylines at work here.  First, the portrait of a complex adult with mental disabilities; second, the difficulties encountered within the Simon family in relation to Beth; third, the particular dysfunctionalities within that family that further complicate their lives, and fourth, the author's use the story to increase readers' comprehension of the multiple realities of lives of the "retarded."  A fifth storyline cuts across these and blurs them: that of the author's evolution and emotional "salvation" during and because of this year of "Riding the Bus" from a lonely, unhappy workaholic to a blissful woman about to be married.  True or not, it seemed sappy and detracted from Beth's story.

All of the stories, in fact, come at some expense to the others.  The author's happy reconciliation with an ex-fiance was irrelevant hokum to me, no matter how true;  I would have preferred more reflection on the general theme of the functionally disadvantaged and their impact on families of origin and vice versa.  Her happy ending seemed to me to be of a piece with the "easy cliches" she seems to want to debunk. Now her happy ending probably goes quite a bit further:  with the Rosie O'Donnell film directed by Anjelica Huston, the happy ending  probably went all the way to the bank.

The book made me ponder how our "advanced" civilization, our "progressive" society, has made wounded, injured, invalid or nonfunctional family members an impossible or nearly impossible burden in the busy nuclear family or its remnants. In Nebraska several years ago legislation was passed which was meant to save unwanted infants' lives by offering safe haven for parents to surrender children at hospitals without penalty.  Within less than three months fourteen children were left at hospitals:  seven of them teens.  Legislators and other conservatives called this irresponsible: "they [such parents or grandparents] were tired of parenting," one person sniffed.  The truth is that severely depressed or manic or otherwise mentally ill or disabled children are almost unmanageable by parents, especially since almost all adults must be working to support the family.  Laws designed to protect children from abuse sometimes go so far that the guardians are prevented from using the only recourse, physical restraints. And with the absence of universal healthcare so that psychiatric help could be obtained and, of course, since the complete dismantling of public psychiatric care in these neo-con decades, the situation is desperate.  If you have not witnessed first-hand the craziness of a grandmother or a single parent trying to help defiant and depressed, and sometimes aggressive, children, you probably cannot imagine the circumstances.  The Nebraska guardians surrendered those fourteen children hoping that they would therefore get the care they needed.  Of course, Nebraska—the last state to pass a safe haven law—quickly adjusted it to rival the strictness of the law in other states: it now applies only to children under thirty days old. And the discussion of the desperation that had been uncovered was quickly silenced.

I've digressed.  This book will make you do that. Which is to say that it is a compelling  non-fiction examination of a largely hidden and mysterious corner of society to those of us who don't have intimacy with the mentally retarded, the developmentally disabled. It was a good book to read for the insights and information it offered.  Evaluating books is like evaluating tools.  It's not just whether or not it's "good."  It's what it's good for.  This won't thrill you as literature.  But you will probably be glad you read it.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson; a Review.

After I saw the American film with Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig, I immediately checked out the book which I saw I had needlessly avoided. Only two people recommended it to me, both men, and one of them, my son, said he wasn't sure I would like it because of the sexual violence; both circumstances added to my discomfort with the title which  was a turn-off to my feminist self.   A book written by a man about a "girl"—this is a bad start.   Then the title distinguishes "which"  girl by her tattoo, especially when the particular tattoo—a Dragon!-- seems baited with erotic pull.  Not my world.  Well, I was wrong, my son was wrong, and my friend was in this case right.  Great book:  good thrilling mystery, great gender reversals, solid counter-culture political grounds of feminism, class consciousness, and ethical appraisal of neo-conservatism's financial speculators.  

I ran across—oh, well, all right, I saw it on Wikipedia--a great article by Laurie Penny in New Statesman (9/5/2010) entitled "Girls, Tattoos and Men Who Hate Women" which more articulately echoed my reaction to the title, and which pointed out that the Swedish title, Män som hatar Kvinnor, would translate to Men Who Hate Women.  Definitely a less sexy title, and definitely less sexist in implication but therefore truer to the spirit of the book, which is subversive and outfront, "simplistically," about the ubiquitousness and hideousness of misogyny's crimes.  Penny also expressed regret that  the book didn't deal enough with ordinary social misogyny, or maybe that's the problem with gender hatred and objectification—it's not all that dramatic most of the time.  She manages a savage little quip about the English title too:
            [M]ost men who see women as objects don't dismember them
            and stuff them into rucksacks.  They visit strip clubs. They watch
            degrading pornography.  If they work, for instance, in publishing, they
            might reject a book title that draws attention to violence against women
            and replace it with one that infantilises the female protagonist and focuses
            on a trivial feature of her appearance. [emph. mine]

I disagree with her complaint that the book doesn't deal with ordinary misogyny; that's like saying that a book about the Holocaust is problematic because it doesn't deal with mundane anti-Semitism, or that the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site can be criticized for not talking about everyday racism toward Native Americans.  But her point is valid that it is hard to make people clearly see the link between "ordinary" prejudices and their ugliest expressions. All in all, however,  her essay is entertaining and intelligent  and her site worth visiting.

Of course, there is sexual violence in the book, as charged, and quite graphic sexual violence in the movie, but if a writer's intention (and a director's in the case of the film) is to make such violence repugnant, rather than erotic and entertaining, then I have no qualms about it and don't see any moral or ethical grounds for objection. Especially when both writer and director have the skill to make their work serve their intentions.  There are some relevant objections to particular kinds of graphic presentation of suffering, but I think they are mostly not applicable to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  

For example, the scene portraying Lisbeth's rape by her "guardian" attorney avoids all the subtle cues that can eroticize and make literary and cinematic sexual violence pornographic:  for one thing, Salander's hostile resistance, kicking,  pounding and shrieking into the gag is quite the opposite of the deer-in-the-headlights white-eyed distress of an eroticized victim. Screaming in rage is not empowering to the aggressor. Her response is not "girlish" in the least, or–in the context of The Hunger Games—perhaps I should say that it redefines "girlish."  And a later  scene in a cellar, with its unexpected and anti-stereotypical "victim," subverts and overprints the "expected" with grim grotesqueness.  Trust me on this, which is all I can say without "spoiling" the climactic hunt for a murderer. 

Lisbeth Salander's refusal of victimhood, her strong agency in her life, stunned me: it's so unusual in a script that an "oppressed" character takes charge realistically and without emotional drama, a true turning of the tables.  She doesn't become the oppressor: she uses his oppression as a step towards greater control of her own life. That section of the book is entitled, by the way, "Analyzing the Consequences," a title that further lays out the strategy of self-empowerment.  Some might see her actions as vengeance; I saw them as self-defense, the one area in which I am not a pacifist.  She also uses the attacker's criminality to protect his future victims.  Gruesome it is.  So is biting off someone's tongue or gouging out their eye, or crushing testicles: but in self-defense against a violent attacker, it's "by any means necessary."

It's also noteworthy that both the book and the film avoid the kind of sexualizing or salaciousness or even melodrama that could quickly condemn these scenes to "Adult Entertainment" category.  Look for the words that are not there, the camera's careful masking,  and the subtly sophisticated choices of shots:  book and movie aimed for realism, not for sensationalism, and there is a world of difference.  

I saw Director David Fincher's movie first, so I admit that my thoughts about the book are inherently contaminated with images from the film and its altered plot lines.  Most particularly film actress Rooney Mara played the role of Lisbeth Salander so vividly and with such eccentric, such visceral realism that any discrepancies between the cinematic Salander and the book version are in my mind resolved in favor of Mara's performance.  In other words, where the book Lisbeth differed from the film Lisbeth, the book was just plain "wrong."  (I overstate the case for emphasis, but my memory insists on retaining the movie's images.)

The plot hinges on the conviction of reporter Mikael Blomkvist on libel charges for an exposé he and co-editor Ericka Berger publish at their magazine Millennium. Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is sentenced to a hefty fine and a short prison term, besides having his reputation seriously tarnished and the magazine itself embarrassed.  Coincidentally, it seems, he is invited to a meeting with Henrik Vanger,  the retired CEO of once-mighty Vanger Industries.  A  job offer is made: a search for the murderer of Vanger's young niece forty years ago, a seemingly impossible goal.  Blomkvist's sleuthing is to be masked under the pretext of writing a biography of the 80-year-old millionaire, for he is assured that the murderer must have been someone in the family.   He is lured by a dazzling salary for a year, and above all, with documented information incriminating the financier who had won the libel case, Hans-Erik Wennerström. 

Blomkvist accepts, partly to make it seem that he has left his magazine in shame and defeat to induce Wennerström to lighten his attack on their advertisers.  Mostly, however, it's the temptation to get material on Wennerström with which to redeem his career and reputation.  It's also true that he is exhausted and depressed after the proceedings, and not looking forward to prison. "Let it look like running away," he suggests to co-editor Ericka; in a sense, it is.

What Blomkvist learns about the Vanger family empire in interviews with Henrik, a widower with no children of his own, is the kind of information that relates to Stieg Larsson's background  as "a leading expert on antidemocratic right-wing extremist and Nazi organizations" (blurb).  Vanger's family is a rat's nest, by Henrik's own account; two of his three brothers were in the vanguard of the Nazi movement in Sweden, one having early on joined the Swedish National Socialist Freedom League. Henrik (played beautifully by Christopher Plummer in the movie) remarks drily: "Isn't it fascinating that Nazis always manage to adopt the word freedom?"  Further, he says, he detests most of his family: "They are for the most part thieves, misers, bullies, and incompetents."  This is consistent with Larsson's minimal respect for the upper class;  he is guilty as charged of writing about "the moral bankruptcy of big capital,"  although his main target will be unveiled in the final showndown with the Wennerström Group.

When Blomkvist uncovers enough intriguing leads in the Vanger family research, he asks for a research assistant.  His employer suggests they turn to the person who did the background on Blomkvist himself before Vanger hired him.  Blomkvist reads the report, sees that it is flawless and expert, and knows that the only way the researcher could get some of the material was by hacking his computer.  Instead of being angry, he secures her assistance by asking for her  help "finding a murderer who kills women."  She is Lisbeth Salander.  She has a photographic memory, investigative intelligence, computer savvy and "undercover" contacts who provide her with equipment even beyond the arsenal of the Security company she works for. She is twenty-four, and only the English title of the book/movie and those characters who judge appearances wrongly refer to her as a "girl."  She is neither naive nor innocent, and certainly not flirtatious and sweet.  She is not infantile, in other words. To go much further gets into the unfolding of the plot which is wickedly convoluted and sinister.  

I read somewhere a justification for altering the title from its original with the excuse that the title seems to "oversimplify" the book.  I don't think it is an oversimplification to find the book explicitly feminist in many regards.  Background biographical information intimates that Larsson witnessed a young woman gang-raped when he was young, and that he never got over his sense of guilt for not intervening.  The woman's name was Lisbeth.  I don't think we oversimplify to see Män Som Hatar Kvinnor as a gesture of atonement and an expression of his personal revulsion toward sexual violence.  Certainly the book's four "preface" statistics about the prevalence of violence against women and sexual violence explicitly as well as its underreporting emphasize the feminist intentions of the text.  The statistics are from Sweden, of course.
            1) Eighteen percent of Swedish women have been threatened by a man.
            2) Forty-six percent have been subjected to violence by a man.
            3) Thirteen percent have been subjected to aggravated sexual assault outside
                        of a sexual relationship.
            4) Ninety-two percent who have experienced sexual assault have not reported
                        the most recent violent incident.

I cannot fully account for the way in which these epigraphs function to alter the perspective from which the novel is read, but they do. They also should be an early cue to a reader in search of entertaining sexuality (I mean, after all, Dragon Tattoos!!) that he [sic] has come to the wrong place.  The statistics introduce the hovering presence of a political and moral fable in the story.  Moreover, the perpetrators here, I think I can say without giving much away, are not lone psychopaths of the underworld, homeless tramps or obsessive loners but socially respected and amiable professionals and businessmen.

In fact everything in the story subverts U.S. Media-Ideology about criminality: who is heroic and why; who is a victim and why; and above all what "they" look like.  The smartest, bravest, most cool-headed characters are not the handsome male investigative journalist and not even the magazine editor Ericka, a tall, sleek blood, wealthy and intelligent and sexually liberated.  In other words, not Bond and not Charlie's Angels either.

The film visuals, by the way, are brilliantly suited to the primary thrust of the book, which is subversion.  Reviewer R. Dessaix in a Sydney newspaper, 2008, succinctly wrote that Larsson's  "targets are violence against women, the incompetence and cowardice of investigative reporters, the moral bankruptcy of big capital, and the virulent strain of Nazism still festering. . . in Swedish society."    Toward the end of the book, a reporter asks Mikael Blomkvist (Craig) if his exposé of a financier was worth driving the Swedish economy toward a crash.  "The idea that Sweden's economy is headed for a crash is nonsense," Blomkvist says. "You have to distinguish between two things—the Swedish economy and the Swedish stock market. The Swedish economy is the sum of all the goods and services that are produced in this country every day. . . The Stock Exchange is something very different."  But doesn't it matter, the reporter urges, "if the Stock Exchange drops like a rock?"
            "No, it doesn't matter at all . . . It only means that a bunch of heavy
            speculators are moving their shareholdings from Swedish companies
            to German ones.  They're the ones who are systematically and perhaps
            deliberately damaging the Swedish economy in order to satisfy the
            profit interests of their client."

Refreshingly, and sanely, the rich and middle class are not under threat from sinister foreign agents or underclass discontents.  Women are the victims of misogynist insanity, true, but they are not merely victims.  We never once have to endure the annoying and ubiquitous scene in which a terrified heroine runs, stumbling, tripping and falling as she flees the pursuing villain.  The movie takes this even further in reversal, with heroic Daniel Craig  (a faint trace of James Bond ambience floating about him) in the clumsy flight  role.

Salander's role in the climactic challenge to the financier/speculator  Hans-Erik Wennerström is essential for Blomkvist's victory, and then she goes one step further on her own.   Her shrewd maneuvers to bring the Wennerström Group down completely are impressively intelligent, shrewd, and gutsy.  Moreover, the visual power in the film of Salander's transformation from sullen punk rocker (or is it Goth?) to a masquerade as a million-dollar moll is a stunning reminder that Rooney Mara is an actress, not just someone who "happens to look like" Salander's usual self.

All in all, I thought the book much less outré than the buzz, and at the same time a better mystery, more subversive of genre and crime ideology, more feminist, than I expected.
The movie, however, was the knock-out; it read the tone of class clash and gender-bender in the book and translated that tone to a brilliant handling of standard class and gender cinematic codes.  The cast was uniformly wonderful; kudos to director David Fincher. The book, however, is what enabled that movie and I look forward to reading the next two in the Millennium trilogy. 

It is sad that Larsson died without seeing the impact of what he wrote, and before he could write more.  I did find myself wondering about Stieg Larsson personally and how in the world a man wrote this book.  There has been bruited about recently unconfirmed rumors that Larsson's mistress/lover/companion claims some amount of authorship.  It might explain how this book developed its quality of being equally masculine and feminine—or, better, of coming from a mind both male and female, as Virginia Woolf suggested was necessary for a powerful writer.  She saw Shakespeare as one such writer; I would suggest Toni Morrison and David Foster Wallace.  And—although the Larsson Girl trilogy is "merely" a complex take on the mystery genre, perhaps Stieg Larsson, or Larsson and the woman he loved.  Or in retrospect, considering the story about the girl he failed to save from gang-rape, perhaps that girl, also named Lisbeth, was the female component, the woman in the man's mind.

Friday, June 15, 2012

A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, a Review.

At long last I have finished reading Bertrand Russell's monumental work, A History of Western Philosophy (1945). It was a gratifying experience and I gained a superlative overview of the history of European-influenced ideas. I retained, however, not much, or at least not much detail. In fact, when I first embarked on this over a year ago, I was amazed to find my own marginal comments up to about midway through the book, revealing that I had been this way once before without any memory of it. Let me say right away that my lack of retention is not the fault of the author for I doubt there could be a much more lucid presentation of the information without losing most of the careful summation and meticulous critique. The fault is that, like Peter Wimsey in his interview with the Warden of Harriet Vane's college in Gaudy Night: "I have not the philosophic mind." I would like to learn but whatever I learn that doesn't reenforce what I already think dissolves and returns to sand. I do make paths through the sand, however. In what follows I will not attempt to summarize the philosophical issues for obvious reasons, then, but will instead concentrate on describing Russell's methods and his inimitable style to some extent.

The sober and complex philosophical and historical proceedings are occasionally leavened with candid and often ironic comments. For instance, summarizing "what we are to think" of Socrates as portrayed by Plato, Russell remarks that despite apparent merits such as indifference to worldly success, fearlessness, and a calm humor, Socrates has "some very grave defects." Among the defects, Russell finds that Socrates "uses intellect to prove conclusions that are to him agreeable, rather than in a disinterested search for knowledge." The final verdict? "As a man, we may believe him admitted to the communion of saints; but as a philosopher he needs a long residence in a scientific purgatory."

Dealing with Plato's "cosmogony" in the Timaeus, Russell remarks drily that "this had more influence than anything else in Plato, which is curious, as it certainly contains more that is simply silly than is to be found in his other writings." Among these "silly-gisms" (the "silly" pun is mine) is the theory that every soul has a star (or vice versa) and if a soul overcomes its "sensations, love, fear, and anger," it lives righteously and goes to its star to live happily ever after, but if not, "he will, in the next life, be a woman." Russell's occasional lapses from reverence never, however, cause him to stint on careful and respectful summaries of philosophers and philosophical issues, nor to be cavalier in his critical analyses and responses. His dry quips and clever turns serve only as salt and savor to the reading.

The structure of the work is helpful; it is logically, and chronologically, straightforward. The segments lead into each other, with comments that relate each stage of development, and the Index is unusually complete. There are three "Books": Ancient Philosophy, Catholic Philosophy and Modern Philosophy. Each Book is set out in several sections, generally historical; for example, the subsidiary parts of Modern Philosophy are "From the Renaissance to Hume" and "From Rousseau to the Present Day." Moreover Russell is concerned throughout to provide a geopolitical history of each era, providing a context for the philosophies, without subscribing to any specific theories of cause and effect, but certainly providing the material that a reader may use to good purpose in understanding how ideas evolve with sociopolitical and technological changes. It is also salutary to have reference occasionally to "the rest" of the world, as Russell is careful to remind the reader sometimes that this history is of "Western Philosophy" only.

         Our use of the phrase the 'Dark Ages" to cover the period from 600 to
         1000 marks our undue concentration on Western Europe. In China this
         period includes the time of the Tang dynasty, the greatest age of Chinese
         poetry, and in many other ways a most remarkable epoch. From India
         to Spain, the brilliant civiliation of Islam flourished. What was lost to
         Christendom at this time was not lost to civilization, but quite the   
                                                                           (p 399, Clarion PB, 1945)

To this remark which is remarkably enlightened for a European writing in 1945, he adds: "To us, it seems that West-European civilization is civilization, but this is a narrow view."

Book One on Ancient Philosophy is tripartite: a kind of before, during, and after. Pre-Socratics, then Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and finally the ancients After Aristotle. Russell spends ten chapters and 81 pages dealing with all the Pre-Socratics, including the historical and geographical material underlying the culture of Greece. Then he spends fourteen chapters and 137 pages on just the three Big Names. His method is the same throughout: first prefatory material, then detailed summation, and then critique. Russell clearly lays out the Platonic belief that it is not our perceptions that lead us to knowledge, but our concepts, for instance, and that a "true" concept has an existence that is purely non-material. That is to say, if we know what a table is, it is because an ideal table, or a pure table idea, exists. Thus I was at last enabled to grasp philosophical Idealism. Only after careful explication does Russell then offer his objections or approval.

Russell is more respectful toward Aristotle than to Socrates and Plato, and he characterizes Aristotelian philosophy as "Plato diluted by common sense." Despite Aristotle's merits with regard to his predecessors, Russell suggests that his successors made his heritage of equal demerit. It was nearly two thousand years before the west produced a philosopher of such stature as Aristotle, but, on the other hand, excessive posthumous fame became a serious obstacle to progress, and "since the beginning of the seventeenth century, almost every serious intellectual advance has had to begin with an attack on some Aristotelian doctrine." Stephen Jay Gould often draws the same conclusion; in fact, his book The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox traces the antagonism between the sciences and humanities back to the polemics of the scientific method proponents starting with, for example, Frances Bacon who deplored the fact that knowledge seemed enshrined in "the classics."

The long evolution by which Platonic and Aristotelian ideas were transmitted, transmuted, and translated during the Roman period, medieval Neoplatonism incorporated in Catholic theory, and then the reintroduction of Aristotle by the Scholastics (Abelard, Duns Scotus, Thomas Aquinas) until the European Renaissance rediscovered the Greek and Roman sources is an intricate story of the dispersion of Alexander's "Greek" influence after the conqueror's death, the interest in Greek philosophy shown by Arab scholars and translators and a few early Christian thinkers, but especially by the Islamic philosopher Averroes.

Book Two: Catholic Philosophy, although it occupies less than 200 pages (of 836), demanded the most time and effort for me because I had not thought about the period between "the Greeks" and the Renaissance since I took a one-semester World History class in college long ago. In Chapter I, The Religious Development of the Jews, Russell sharply emphasizes the then-unique evolution at about the time of Jeremiah and Ezekiel of a harsh insistence on One and Only One, Jealous, God-THE-Father, a concept that will make religion in the intervening years as active a participant in wars and persecution as any merely worldly doctrine or human ambition. It is clear from Russell's historical tracing that a primary target of the strictures about "other gods" was the multiple cluster of female divinities, Astarte, for instance. Russell quotes Jeremiah's fulminations that women "knead their dough, to make cakes to the queen of heaven [Ishtar]." Jeremiah tells the Jewish refugees in Egypt that "Yahweh will destroy them all because their wives have burnt incense to other gods." Ezekiel expresses horror at a vision of "women at the north gates of the temple weeping for Tammuz (a Babylonian deity)."

In this way, the post-Jacob story becomes more clearly a strengthening of patriarchy and the forerunner of the work of Paul, who did so much to introduce patriarchal aspects into the Christ message. Some time in the last year I read The Red Tent and the new insight Russell provided into the Jeremiads' emphasis made me reflect that I had not sufficiently appreciated the author's historicity in this respect. Although I was entertained by the imagining of Biblical women's lives from their own viewpoint I was not sufficiently aware that the conversion of Jacob to fanatic patriarchy and monotheism represented in fact such historical significance.

Russell's survey of the development of Christianity in ensuing chapters examines a number of "The Fathers of the Church" in close textual detail: Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, Benedict, and Gregory the Great. I was taken back by the deep and cynical misogyny, amounting to a kind of cultural psychosis about women, sexual congress, and even children, childbirth and menstruation. Jerome, for instance, "St. Jerome" as we are to call him in the Catholic Church, was almost obscenely obsessive about female chastity, and Augustine's long polemic about the disgusting sinfulness, greed and lewdness of infants made me for a moment wonder if this were a parody, it seemed so ridiculous. Augustine, of course, dallied excessively with women, threw off one mistress with whom he had children because the relationship was so sinful, and yet immediately took up with another woman. Such hypocrisy of a man blaming his own appetite on that which he lusted for, sadly, was not an isolated phenomenon. I think of the very recent NYPD bulletin that women were to blame for rape because they often "dressed provocatively," a type of blaming the victim mentality that feminist organizing and influence had pushed back for so long in the seventies, eighties, and nineties.

The whole parade of venery and intolerance in the birth of Christianity provoked me to serious reflection on the long pedigree of ideas that still plague us with intolerance and persecution. Thus the reading—although not the writing—was strongly emotional, and I could usually take in only a few pages each week, with copious notes and reflections. I wish all Christians would make this tour of the origins of the faith. Russell of course includes Islam in a similar historical examination of both the ideologies and the geopolitical history.

Most of the second half of A History of Western Philosophy (pp 491-836) entails Book Three: Modern Philosophy. This history was mostly of periods and developments more familiar to me, although Russell taught me a great deal about Philosophical Liberalism, especially the influence of John Locke. I also had to readjust my ideas about Jean-Jacques Rousseau who early in life I identified as one of my philosophical heroes, but for reasons which are now thrown into doubt. In fact the whole Romantic Movement was placed in a new, and more scathing, light.

What I knew of Romanticism was its reaction against industrialism, and its English poetry contingent: Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron. Thus I linked it to Mary Wollstonecraft and A Vindication of the Rights of Women, and to the French revolution's rebellion against monarchy and oppression, and the revolutionary motto of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. The reign of terror was scanted in my study of history, and I clearly did not fathom the linkage between Romantic philosophy and directions taken in German Idealism which lead to, and culminate in, the philosophy of Nietzsche--if indeed, we should call the pitiful neurotic conjurations of a pusillanimous invalid a "philosophy."

My argument against Nietzsche existed prior to this reading, but certainly Russell's insights, and his deconstructions, strengthened my dislike. Not only is Nietzsche's nihilism and machismo cynical and destructive, but the Nietzschean emphasis on Will, as in willfulness perhaps,by which word he designates a refusal of social bonds much more radical than Macchiavelli's realpolitik, and its feverish idolatry of a "Superman" directly fostered the climate in which Fascism and Hitler could root themselves. Not coincidentally, Triumph of the Will is the title of an insinuatingly celebratory Leni Riefenstahl film glorifying the Fuehrer and the Reich. Viewing this film is profoundly enlightening, and depressing.

Russell misrepresents Darwin to some extent, I think (from my reading of Stephen Jay Gould), gives serious consideration to Marx's political philosophy, but curiously omits any reference at all to Freud whose hypotheses about human psychology has perhaps been more culturally significant than even Hegel's theory of historical progress toward the Ideal.

Hegel is nominated as probably the most influential of modern philsophers but I admit, sadly, to being completely unable to grasp Hegelian theory. I was sorry to see Russell rush to conclusion without what I think would have been an adequate look at "Modernism" as a category in philosophy, although he treats of Bergson, William James, John Dewey and his own loose school of "Logical Analysis" perhaps best represented by his glance at Rudolf Carnap. His own book Principia Mathematica, which  Russell wrote with Alfred North Whitehead, might be the best reference for these latter ideas.

Russell was writing A History in 1943, however, before the conclusion of World War II and the success of Gandhi and India's resistance to Britain, both of which dates may be taken as markers for the gradual ending of Modernism and Colonialism, respectively, and the birth-labors of Post-Modernism/ Post-Colonialism generally. I suggest that Michael Ondaatje's brilliant novel The English Patient can be read as an illuminative emblem for this period of world flux. The violent ideological crisis for the character Kip, as a Commonwealth soldier from India trying to grasp how the nuclear holocaust could have been visited on the Japanese, is a brilliant image of that collision of realities throughout the Colonial and Imperial world. Russell at the moment of writing his history was inevitably unable to summarize the coincidence of Modernism and Colonialism as succinctly as he traces the interrelationship of Philosophical Liberalism and Capitalism, or Romanticism as a reaction against Capitalism in its Industrialist Stages, for the reactions of and toward his own era had not yet matured.

Bertrand Russell first entered my awareness back when I was reading Aldous Huxley in the late sixties and learning a little about the activist history that preceded my own generation of anti-war activists. Russell had long opposed imperialism, nuclear weapons, war, Hitler's German dogmas, and was in fact opposed to U.S. aggression in Vietnam before I was properly aware of it. Of course it might be claimed that his book and his philosophy is colored by his opposition to war and exploitation, and his insights into the dangers of idealism, but I would claim, to the contrary, that it is his philosophical insights and piercing intelligence that colored his lifelong pacifism and opposition to superstition, dogma, and fanaticism.

Morton White in The Age of Analysis (1955) pays Russell a handsome tribute: "he has been one of the most prolific and distinguished writers of English prose in this century. . . he has used his immense talent in the cause of rational and humane liberalism for over a half century. . . .His unconventional life and his hatred of political and social tyranny is reminiscent of Mill; so is his honesty and his desire to get to the (preferably clear) bottom of things. . . . No philosopher has had a more salutary influence on the intellectual life of the twentieth century."

I recommend this book highly for Russell's acute insights into the interconnections of material, economic, and technological changes with political, religious, and philosophical developments. Perhaps you will only find it useful as a kind of inside-track encyclopedia. But if you decide to read it through, be prepared to spend adequate time. There are 836 pages in the Clarion paperback I have, which is now housed in an envelope like a few of my other thoroughly-read treasures like John Howard Lawson's Theory and Technique of Playwriting and Marge Piercy's To Be of Use, because--to respectfully trivialize the title of Chinua Achebe's important book--Things Fall Apart.

Russell concludes the book with remarks on the tentative nature of "truth" in the scientific method, which he believes essential to philosophy: using it, he suggests, "we can make successive approximations to the truth, in which each new stage results from an improvement, not a rejection, of what has gone before:"

         In the welter of conflicting fanaticisms, one of the few unifying forces is
         scientific truthfulness, by which I mean the habit of basing our beliefs
         upon observations and inferences as impersonal, and as much divested
         of local and temperamental bias, as is possible for human beings. . .
         The habit of careful veracity acquired in the practice of this philosophy,
         can be extended to the whole sphere of human activity, producing
         wherever it exists, a lessening of fanaticism with an increasing capacity
         of sympathy and mutual understanding. In abandoning a part of its
         dogmatic pretensions,philosophy does not cease to suggest and inspire
         a way of life.                 (Russell, p 836.)