The Nun by Denis Diderot
Through the halls and cells of a convent, guarded by high walls and austere religious customs, we follow a young nun making arrangements to escape a future that was imposed on her. She has a knack for logic and no ear for vocation, so she is not able to find any justification for all the suffering and pious rules that govern her. In her fight for freedom she uses all the means of revolt there are: open protest, rigid obedience, lawsuit, relocation etc. Embracing her destiny is not a viable alternative and even an ungodly reader prays with her that it will not become one.
Our habits and rituals may seem ridiculous to an outside observer, all the more so, when there is no reason behind them. The church’s aberrations are rarely so vividly coloured as in the journey of this nun, who happens to find herself surrounded by odd habits of nunneries and can’t make sense of them. She is as close to a spring of meaning as it gets and everything she encounters forces her to drink from it: old traditions, that must have some sense to have lasted for so long and to be so highly respected; the lives of fellow nuns that must be meaningful in some way. Nevertheless she finds none for herself and remains detached. There’s no hidden, internal logic of such a closed system, just an obliviousness to the general laws of the world.
Although this novel is an epitome of all the wrongdoings of religious institutions to a degree that it made me laugh, I still felt a bit cheated by the final twist; but in a most charming way there is. I wanted to go back in time when stories emerged in passing and there was still as much effort put in personal pursuits as it was in professional ones… If, of course, such a time ever existed and it was not reserved for the chosen few who might as well be living today.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Power and simple mindedness are terrible companions. No matter what aspect of life they inhabit, it is rarely with festive consequences; if they work on a smaller scale, the experience only becomes more personal and therefore tragic. This one certainly can’t get gloomier. Everyone wins the sad competition – the author, with his all encompassing vision of sadness, the readers, forced to accept his vision of human existence (worse things do happen every day in some places) and most of all, the characters. They dream of a world where everything would be different, but every time something new happens, it only increases their bitterness. I was always curious about the outcomes of Lessing’s fifth child living in a different environment and this book has provided me with an answer – distance doesn’t matter.
I assume every reader knows what this book is about right from the start, even if he is unfamiliar with the plot. One can’t escape the charged atmosphere, electrified by contrasting the indifferent, all-embracing nature to the human world, and an ominous feeling of increasingly tragic events. What’s magical about Steinbeck’s writing is that while the events keep moving faster with each page, they nonetheless remain perfectly still. This paradoxical stillness resembles a calm before an earthquake. With an alertness of an animal anticipating danger, the reader doesn’t need to change the position to see what’s on the other side; everything is already there at the beginning. Perhaps the story was almost too neat, which is why it was easy for me to get detached.
Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis by Erich Fromm
If you can guess that what Zen and Psychoanalysis have in common is their aspiration towards fuller awareness, you might as well pick a more thorough book. However, if all you need is a straightforward introduction to philosophy, or more specifically, a simple sketch of Western and Eastern forms of humanism, this paper can aid you in this task. With slow, undemanding progression that underlines the crucial aspects repeatedly, it tells us the familiar story about why all modes of being, without proper guidance of trained healers, are left in a state of lower consciousness or if one is particularly unlucky, in madness.
Though I think the focus on the differences rather than the similarities between these distant forms of thought would make the book much more substantial, the author doesn’t want to enlarge the gap between them even further and contrasts them only with the aim of moving them closer. In the more rewarding end, the asymmetry finally outshines his aim – what psychoanalysis or Western thought lacks is awareness that in order to become a united, fulfilled person doesn’t simply mean to dig for one’s faults and traumas and make them productive, but a deeper, positive change of personality, where these faults don’t need a special treatment, but a general one with the rest of one’s traits. Fromm’s vision of psychoanalysis being the basis for further Zen trainings seems a bit far-fetched in this regard, since Zen’s interpretations of human’s shortcomings are entirely different.
Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles
What at first seems as a sequence of peculiar acts and events, occurring without an explanation and disappearing without a trace, soon reveals its substance and connects causes with effects in a most unconventional manner. It is briefly mentioned in the book as a »dispensation from the world«, but its presence radiates through every sentence.
The world as known to common people, without enough luck or money to follow every impulse to the end, is quite foreign to the two serious ladies. They posses wealth and with it a chance to create their own universe; they are free of worries about their future, consistency and composure. Without external obstacles to overcome and goals to reach, their reality is entrapped in the present flow of affairs. They don’t know the need to escape anything that happens. Everything is interesting to them, if anything is interesting at all. A lack of any but prosaic initiative of their own, brings their fears to the surface and their world becomes as claustrophobic as it is free. If in a way their experience is similar to that of a child – their pride and self-respect are subdued to an interest in what each opportunity can provide -, it differs in one crucial aspect. The child learns by trial and error, while they know no errors. The more they try to change something for sanity’s sake, the more it becomes obvious that their errands have ends only in themselves.
If at the beginning of the book I couldn’t care less about this imaginary life-style, I felt like walking through a funfair with them later. I’m not sure whether I could stay there for long, but I certainly lingered on the question “Who of us is freer and merrier?” for more then a while.
A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch
What ties people together when they by choice or necessity escape the security of their own habits and find comforts of domestic life insufficient? The author seems to answer this question in a row of equally unlikable characters mixing up together in an accidental way, where no emotion is strong or lasting, no relationship reliable or inconvenient and no thought independent of other people’s whims. In a new-found freedom we don’t, as expected, witness autonomous, powerful beings, but the ones suffering from despair and restlessness. None can now be overly cautious of everyone else, since this becomes the only way of orientation in a newly opened horizon where previous patterns of behaviour are gone and foreign rules take charge (of which ‘the severed head’, coming from one of her distant tribe-expeditions, is the symbol).
Seeking for humanity when attachment is not a necessity anymore, the protagonists have to find comfort in ‘I suffer, therefore I care’ mentality, yet they are suffering from nothing but vanity, jealousy and leisure. The initial crossing of borders opens them only to fleeting and disappointing experiences, but after the painful rearrangements, a little gratification can nevertheless be found.
The Hating Game by Sally Thorne
The problem I have in reviewing books of this genre is that the characters’ introspective inspection is nonexistent by default and so is my patience with them. Why are they the last to know about their first and single occupation, which is of course love? Maybe I don’t get the foreplay – the endless struggles, tons of misinterpretations of one’s eyebrow movement, all kinds of games (where the only unexecuted one is “Just kill each other already”)…
Other then that, the book was witty and enjoyable, discounting the end where I witnessed some melodramatic healing of childhood wounds in the midst of admissions about painting His bedroom walls in the colour of Her eyes.
The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell by Aldous Huxley
Based on his own experience with mescalin, Huxley informs us about the true nature of reality, that is, the sheer scope of it. He doesn’t stop at great works of art, schizophrenia or religion, but freely attaches his intake to an ambitious bundle of themes in order to supplement them all. Drugs and transcendence/life in general had always have much in common, but his way of portraying is exactly like what his drug encounter warns him against.
The description of his adventure would be much more revealing, if it hadn’t elevated into a lecture about two ancient categories of being, one experienced through our everyday life, where language represents a barrier between us and the world, and the other one of true essence that can be reached only through some transcendental activity such as taking drugs. Although his expedition to the sphere of “pure perception” shows him the limitations of words and all our classifications, it seems he identifies his trip with as many concepts and theories as he possibly can. He makes a paradigm of unvailed awareness out of it, which selfless as it is, is based on one sole experiment of his humble self. Little is left of this experiment but widespread doctrines, which just fit too neatly. I wonder how much previous knowledge affected his experience or how much posterior interpretations transversed it and I got the feeling he didn’t quite catch it in its uniqueness, or as he would said, suchness.
The End of the Road by John Barth
The first quarter of this book was as good as the last was bad. The opening two chapters were hilarious (and I don’t use that word lightly), but then my enjoyment started to deteriorate until it reached bottom with the introduction of THE GUN. Of course all existentialistic novels deal with death in some way or another, sooner or later, however to bring it up just like that, like nothing had happened, with a casual emergence of this silly object that just shows up and occupies all the minds of all the characters, is just too much. The little essence they haven’t lost up until this point is gone and all that is left are the mannequines of author’s copied philosophical ideas. I always hate when ideas become predominant and make the story itself unimportant and incoherent, yet it is rarely done in such a transparent way.
Daisy Miller by Henry James
To condemn values of Victorian origin it is necessary to demonstrate that they cannot overcome some of their essential antagonisms. If a critique of questionable morals is the intention of this book, the second part is more vague, since it lacks any struggle worth struggling for. We get to meet a young woman without many redeeming qualities that lives only to charm man-kind. She fights for nothing but her right to annoy, which meets some reservations among others, readers as well. “All I want is a little fuss” she tells us and summarizes her motives.
If the author’s intention was to show that any person, no matter how superfluous she may be, deserves freedom and acceptance, it would be a wonderful book, with all the steady rhythm and clarity of style. But he seems to claim the opposite – all that lies under the petty social judgments are some innocent actions performed by harmless girls, and so such social standards are worthless. And although he tries to make a tragic hero out of her, he lets her stand out only in her poise, for her mind stays old-fashioned, as men remain her only interest. Maybe that’s how changes always form, first comes form and then comes the content. But I think it would be better if he just put less fantasy and more life into it.
A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh
The perfection of this novel lays only in its title, for a handful of dust is the exact description of the reading experience it provides and to some extent, its content. The fragile remains of the barely lively activity called reading this book would be swept away with the last page, if not for the purpose of writing this review. The book had so little impact on me that I, after finishing it last night, already have troubles remembering the theme.
It’s a story about privileged people of the last century, their deceits and similar troubles, built on lots of external happening, chattering and characters that are like the buzz in the spring – all over the place, but without knowing where they’re coming from or going to. Their final destination sure is surprising and constitutes one of the best parts of the novel, but before we reach it, gossip serves as the only tool to get in touch with them. As it is with gossip, it slips away with the change of perspective. It could be a witty conduct, but is just boring and unavailing.