Saturday, July 30, 2011

Next steps for the book club

I've been thinking about what book to do next, now that I've had a good break from the prior book series. In my mind, it comes down to two contenders: Les Miserables or the Bible. Right now I'm leaning towards doing the bible, which would obviously take a very long time to finish. Probably a couple years. So if anyone has any preferences or suggestions, post them as comments to this. I will probably start the new series within the next 2 weeks.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Riding on a bus with no seat belt

Today I was riding home from work in a company-sponsored shuttle (I work at a large tech company that does all sorts of fancy things like that for their employees, it's pretty nice), and upon entering the bus I discovered that, as is true for many buses, this bus did not have seat belts.

And then, as I often do, I delved immediately into the philosophical implications of seat belts. It reminded me of when I was growing up, and how my mom would always make me wear a seat belt no matter how far we were going or where we were (rural, urban, near or far, though given where we lived in a city, it was mostly urban and mostly local travel). But upon reflection, I clearly saw how my mom's influence had driven me towards being a more... "careful" person in general. I can clearly see this pervading force in her life, this drive towards being careful in everything, and how strongly she attempted to impart that same drive into both me and my siblings.

I see it in many, many of the different aspects of how I relate to life and other people. I am always calculating probabilities and trying to find safest paths to wherever.

Some funny childhood stories to back this up. First, I should mention that all of this occurred before I became (or ever thought about becoming) Christian. My first story is how I had a particular stuffed animal whom I related with closely, and after seeing some forgotten horror movie or other, I decided it was possible that this stuffed animal might actually have a spirit or be alive in certain circumstances. So what I did was try to negotiate an agreement with the animal that if it would help protect me from evil spirits, I would always keep it in an open cupboard. I am not making this up.

The next story is that when I was somewhat older, I also considered the possibility that there were evil spirits who lived in our house's basement. This feeling was exacerbated by all of the bizarre and sometimes undecipherable graffiti left by the prior owners. Now on this point, I have some objective support because the prior owners were truly strange people who left some genuinely mystifying graffiti, including pencil drawings of twisted and malformed men, spray painted words and their names, and a variety of bullet holes in the bathroom we never used, near the broken glass. So as a young child, I think it's understandable that I would have some moderate fear of the place.

Add in to that, my mom's repeated assertion that I must always wear shoes down there to prevent myself from accidentally stepping on nails in the floor. This is perhaps a strange warning to give, since it was a linoleum tiled floor and there were no nails to speak of in the entire place, but then I've already written about my mom's tendency to fear every possible threat (and many impossible threats) of bodily harm. So with her warnings on the one hand, and my fear of evil (or at least strange) spirits on the other, I did what any rationale child would do and made a bargain with those evil spirits. I offered to always walk in the basement wearing shoes if they would agree to never harm me. I also stipulated that they were not allowed to leave the basement if I left the basement door locked.

(This is getting really long but I'm not done yet)

Then, when I was a little older, I made yet another bargain. This time I went straight to the top of the power chain and made a deal with God. This one is a longer story than the other ones, so I will give it in brief. On two occasions, I made particular assertions to a friend that he found non-credible. They were both, of course, complete lies, but I was not going to let that get in my way. As an effort to convince him, I made the highest oath possible to a child of that age: "I swear to God that is true". This was the thing that you said if you meant to be taken seriously. I don't remember anymore whether it worked, and it was about some childish thing or other so it doesn't actually matter. But I remember very vividly that some short time after the first occurrence of my "swearing by God" of a lie that I received some sort of unusual and painful injury. I remember even more vividly that after the second instance, I ended up cutting my thumb on an old, inactive lawnmower that we had in the yard while my mom was doing yardwork. Compared to other possible injuries, it was very light and non-life-threatening. But compared to what I had suffered before, it was very dramatic, involving blood gushing forth and an emergency room visit. I required some number of stitches (maybe 6-10 or so) and a big old cast and I couldn't use my thumb for some weeks after that while it healed. I still bear a scar from that cut to this day.

This was, to me, a wakeup call about how I was living my young, pre-pubescent life. I decided to get right with God, the only way I knew how: by making a deal with him. I wish I were lying, but I'm not. I thought, the only reasonable course of action is to make a deal with this omniscient God, as follows: I would always and henceforth admit that he existed, if he agreed to not do anything horrible to me like what I had just gone through.

As a funny coincidence (I use that term ironically), this story later played a surprisingly substantial role in my later conversion to Christianity, but that is also a very, very long story and is somewhat unrelated to my point in this post.

Why I relate these stories, and how they relate to the seat belt on the bus, is quite simple. Each of these situations was me attempting to take control of what is essentially an uncontrollable situation. I wanted to make "deals" with evil spirits that I did not fully recognize as existing primarily as an effort to control my nascent childhood fears and anxieties (I would tell myself, "why be afraid if you have a pact with the evil spirits?"). It meant nothing to my logical mind, but would pacify my emotional mind. And at the end of the day, fear will always come from your emotional mind and so no matter what logical garb these pacts might wear, they were not fundamentally intended towards logical soundness.

I wanted to make deals with these evil spirits because I wanted to feel that they had some sort of obligation towards me, that they were not free to impose their supernatural torment on my limited, natural self. And for the same reason I made a deal with God. All of these "deals" were completely bogus of course: who in their right mind would suppose that God cares whether you "believe in him" or not, such that you could control his actions by threatening to take away that belief? Who supposes that evil spirits care whether you touch the floor of your basement? But I wanted control, I wanted safety, and I wanted assurances that nothing bad would happen to me if I took some action or set of actions. And I feel nearly the same way about seat belts.

I would wear a seat belt to form some sort of inner assurance that as long as I take this one little step, nothing bad will happen to me. The car might get into an accident (as has happened when my mom would drive me to school), but the seat belt would protect me. Bad things might happen in life, but these little protective measures would always be able to keep me safe. I had a vague and disquieting recognition that worse accidents were possible, accidents that even a seat belt can't protect you from, but I would shut out these thoughts for the simple reason that, if nothing I can do can stop them from harming me, then there's really no point thinking or worrying about them. But at the same time, if you shut out those thoughts it can give you a false sense of security, and you can falsely associate your protective actions (wearing a seat belt) with the non-occurrence of very-bad-things (a semi-tractor-trailer smashing you and your car into tiny bits). This leads to a sort of modern mysticism, where your token or ritualistic actions provide irrational comfort with respect to totally unrelated events, and the non-occurrence of those unrelated events only strengthens the mysticism.

But what I have come to recognize more and more when growing up, particularly after becoming Christian, is that there are many, many events in life for which you simply have no protection. Or to relate it to my initial story and title, there are some buses in the world of life that have no seat belts, and never will. These buses come with different names and in different places (cancer, drunk drivers, asteroids from space, various diseases, crime) and some of them have partial mitigating steps you can take, but some of them there is really very little anyone can do to prevent their occurrence to at least some minority of people.

For me, and from a Christian perspective, this whole issue is related to the debate between faith-based actions (being "led by God") and wisdom-based actions (being "led by personal wisdom"). If I had more time I would go into more detail, but suffice to say I have a large number of friends who have been directed by God into specific situations, which are often much more dangerous than suburban America where many of us currently live. But this comes out of a fundamental realization that safety is not found solely through the application of human wisdom, but it comes from following God's leading and following his spirit. This is a topic of books and I'm just writing a paragraph, so forgive my lack of clarifying statements and specificity.

For example, I have a friend who, for many reasons, has chosen to live in Haiti. Haiti is statistically less safe than America (to put it blandly), so from a selfish point of view, you can question this decision. But he distinctly felt God lead him to go to Haiti, so he did. It might not make sense in human terms, but in spiritual terms, it does. And this is the heart of the issue. What if God leads you into a situation where your wisdom recognizes an increase of personal risk of injury? You don't have to decide what you will do, you have to decide by what criterion you make that decision. It is the criterion itself that, when chosen, makes the decision for you.

As Christians, my friends and I are often led into situations where the physical risk is greater than what it would be in other alternatives. In other words, I am led into situations not where there is no seat belt, but where God is positively asking me to remove my own seat belt, stand up, and walk up the bus while it is in motion to go talk to someone: a voluntary acceptable of extra personal risk.

All of this risk is justified through a single principle: the divine assurance that God will always be with me, to the very end of my life and even beyond. Or at Jesus puts it, "And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."

I can say with only a tiny bit of facetiousness that truly Jesus is the ultimate seat belt in life. No matter where I am or what I'm doing, he will always be there to protect me if I get into an accident. This is what justifies going to Haiti, this is what justifies going to south Sudan, this is what justifies eating and drinking in a garbage dump outside Manila, where you're just as likely to get parasites as anything else, this is what justifies living 3 years in Nicaragua on behalf of people who can never repay you. Without the ultimate seat belt, none of these decisions would make any sense to any rational thinker. With the ultimate sense, it absolutely makes sense to voluntarily give up your life on behalf of others, because God is your protector and he will never fail you. Not even if you get hit by a semi-tractor-trailer and you and your car are smashed to bits, because God knows where every bit is and where it belongs, and he knows how to put you back together.

I still feel a little nervous when riding in a bus with no seat belts. It's habitual, really. But I feel better about it now than I used to.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Phantastes - Chapter 25

This is the end, the last chapter.

At last, MacDonald explains that the Fairy Land was meant all along to be a parallel and a metaphor for the real world, as I quote:

Or must I live it all over again, and learn it all over again, in the other forms that belong to the world of men, whose experience yet runs parallel to that of Fairy Land?
And just as that explains the metaphor of Fairy Land, I believe that with this quote MacDonald summarizes much of the story of this bo
ok: "Thus I, who set out to find my Ideal, came back rejoicing that I had lost my Shadow."

Another great quote that draws together more aspects of the book: "I have come through the door of Dismay; and the way back from the world into which that has led me, is through my tomb. Upon that the red sign lies, and I shall find it one day, and be glad."

And the last quote, which I copy here for the sake of repetition, is thus: "What we call evil, is the only and best shape, which, for the person and his condition at the time, could be assumed by the best good. And so, FAREWELL."

With that is the end of the book. There's not much I can write now, as I have written much in all of my past posts about the various chapters in the book. I will edit this post and add additional comments as they come to me. For now, I will need to spend more time pondering the conclusions of this book.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Phantastes - Chapter 24

I feel like I cut off my last post somewhat prematurely. I will add a few brief comments about chapter 23 and then move on to 24.

I feel like the protagonist's death at the very end is symbolic of his prior "pride death" and emergence of humility. In fact, he says to himself that he considered his life of very little account and therefore gladly gave it up to destroy the evil that he saw in that temple. So in that sense his death is fitting, even though it is mournful for the readers.

This is not the first time in the book that the protagonist faced the possibility of death. He was nearly killed by the Alder/Ash tree spirits and was nearly killed again by the giants. He attempted to commit suicide by jumping into the sea from the rocks, but his life was spared by the boat that floated to him.

And there is an interesting parallel when one considers that earlier attempted physical death (through drowning) and how the protagonist later dies to himself and to pride, after being imprisoned. Both of them occurred during severe bouts of depression and both times he was spared.

And then of course there was the time the protagonist "died" as one of the characters of the books he read, Cosmo. In that instance, he died in the act of freeing a woman he loved from the magical enchanted mirror. In that instance as well, one sees the inner struggle between his desire for control of the woman and his love of her (which requires sacrifice to fulfill it). All those other times, his life was spared, but this time it was not.

Chapter 24 continues the story as it must, with the death of the protagonist. It stirs my heart to see the protagonist once again see his Marble Lady, but now only after death. He had not been in her presence the entirety of the book since he departed the Fairy Palace (not withstanding his later vision of her in the old lady's hut).

Maybe, in some way, his death could be what seals his transformation into the knight, the better man, whom the lady loves. Of course, as I had hinted (but not directly spoken) in prior posts, the protagonist never captures the heart of the Marble Lady. In fact, it appears that the gremlins were correct: the Marble Lady was for a better man, for the knight whose armor was polished from its rust by blows from his enemies. And in that sense, perhaps giving up the Marble Lady to this better man was the final sacrifice required of Anodos (the protagonist) to fulfill his transformation. That it was the giving up, not of his own life, but of his ownership (to quote, "I no longer called her MY Marble Lady", emphasis his) of the Marble Lady to fulfill the death of self that was required to find peace. To quote:
The very fact that anything can die, implies the existence of something that cannot die; which must either take to itself another form, as when the seed that is sown dies, and arises again; or, in conscious existence, may, perhaps, continue to lead a purely spiritual life.

And he does find peace, as this chapter firmly and repeatedly states. He finds the peace of stillness and the cease of earthly strife and toil. Here is another passage that I find to be very strongly written. It speaks of the love that remains within his heart for the Marble Lady, and of the sense of closure that he finds in his death.

I knew that the helpers had gone, and that the knight and the lady remained, and spoke low, gentle, tearful words of him who lay beneath the yet wounded sod. I rose into a single large primrose that grew by the edge of the grave, and from the window of its humble, trusting face, looked full in the countenance of the lady. I felt that I could manifest myself in the primrose; that it said a part of what I wanted to say; just as in the old time, I had used to betake myself to a song for the same end. The flower caught her eye. She stooped and plucked it, saying, "Oh, you beautiful creature!" and, lightly kissing it, put it in her bosom. It was the first kiss she had ever given me.
I will quote MacDonald again, because this is truly the culmination of the book. It's the culmination of the rise of humility in the protagonist's heart, and therefore it deserves repeating for the sake of emphasis, as well as the quality of the prose.

The sun was below the horizon; but his rosy beams yet illuminated a feathery cloud, that floated high above the world. I arose, I reached the cloud; and, throwing myself upon it, floated with it in sight of the sinking sun. He sank, and the cloud grew gray; but the grayness touched not my heart. It carried its rose-hue within; for now I could love without needing to be loved again. The moon came gliding up with all the past in her wan face. She changed my couch into a ghostly pallor, and threw all the earth below as to the bottom of a pale sea of dreams. But she could not make me sad. I knew now, that it is by loving, and not by being loved, that one can come nearest the soul of another; yea, that, where two love, it is the loving of each other, and not the being loved by each other, that originates and perfects and assures their blessedness. I knew that love gives to him that loveth, power over any soul beloved, even if that soul know him not, bringing him inwardly close to that spirit; a power that cannot be but for good; for in proportion as selfishness intrudes, the love ceases, and the power which springs therefrom dies. Yet all love will, one day, meet with its return. All true love will, one day, behold its own image in the eyes of the beloved, and be humbly glad. This is possible in the realms of lofty Death. "Ah! my friends," thought I, "how I will tend you, and wait upon you, and haunt you with my love."
I have quoted this passage in prior blog posts (unrelated to this latest Book Club analysis) because of the substantial meaning in this passage. I won't rehash those points. But what I will say is that again, this concludes the protagonist's arc into humility from a position of pride.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Phantastes - Chapter 23

In this chapter, the protagonist becomes a squire. This seems very fitting to me, although as a turn of events it is also rather peculiar and perhaps unpredictable. Yet, it is fitting with the new burst of humility. Throughout the entire book, from the very beginning in the protagonist's castle, when he inherited his father's estate, to when he stayed in the Fairy Palace in his own room, to when he was knighted by his father the king, he was always the one being served by others. Of course, he was often in the need of service, but yet he always received it.

So it seems fitting, now that he is seeking humility and the death of self, that he would now for the first time in this writing be the servant of another. It certainly gives the book a very different character now that he takes orders from another, now that he is not serving himself but he has to maintain the interests of his lord above his own. Even the simple act of walking behind the mounted knight denotes a humility and sacrifice that he would choose a dishonored position.

And even then, all he sees is the honor and the strength, courage and love of the knight whom he serves. And this act, of seeing greatness in another, is also a testament to the growing humility in his heart. For it is from a position of humility that one can see the greatness of others.

On another note, in case you're confused as I was, the beggar-girl referenced in this chapter was very briefly mentioned when the protagonist saw a vision of the Marble Lady with this Knight during his stay at the old woman's hut. It was mentioned that the Knight, as he returned, was coming back from being "taken away" by the beggar-girl for some purpose.

I think the story of the butterfly girl is incredibly cool, but I don't see any particular allegory in it. If anyone else has thoughts on some interpretation, I'd be interested to hear it.

And next, when they come upon the temple of trees and the throne. I won't recount all of the details, except for what sticks out to me. First, I again question whether there is an allegory here. I think the answer is probably yes, but not of a very direct sort. For one thing, he mentions the rotten wood of the throne when he tears it. So that signifies decay from within (much like the Alder tree witch). In this case, due to the religiosity of the descriptions, I get a sense that he is making a subtle criticism of somehow decayed or corrupted religion. Again there is a reference to pride with the carved figure on the throne gazing down upon his followers, and there is the priestcraft that conspires to kill innocents as part of their ritual.

The entire premise of the murder is that it is deceitful and while it is performed openly for all to see, the destructive aspects are too far away for people to see. If they were more perceptive (like the protagonist) they would see the fear of the victims and rise up against it.

But whether the author is speaking of Catholicism or Protestantism or Islam or whatever is non-obvious and perhaps in that sense he is not interested in targeting some particular sect at all.

At the very end is the death of the protagonist, which again I simply did not predict as this doesn't seem to follow any sort of "standard storyline" as told by other books. In that sense, this is yet another reason why I love this book because the author seems to have no problem changing directions suddenly and often.