Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Old Books 2: The Brothers Lionheart

The first three chapters of The Brothers Lionheart, by Astrid Lindgren, were serialized in very early issues of Cricket magazine, which is where I ran into it. I got it as a book for Christmas the winter of fourth grade. The story is a sad one, and it gets sadder the older I am. I remember crying over it when I was nine.

The book does what I've never seen any other book do, in resolving the "how to get rid of he parents" question. It kills the kids. Given that much of the book is grounded in the basic heroism of being human  ("Some things you have to do or you're nothing but a bit of filth" is a running line), the heroic deaths of Jonathan Lionheart make sense. What Lindgren does that's so unusual is to then follow on to their next adventure.

The last time I read the book, several years ago, I got a strong whiff of Scandinavia's time in World War II. Lindgren doesn't acknowledge this as a source, but just as Tolkien's Sauron and Saruman owe a great deal to the fascist and communist totalitarians of the mid-20th Century, so too with Lindgren's Tengil. But the whole book has an oddly stylized quality to it, and so the evil doesn't carry the same visceral punch you might expect.

What does pack a punch is the juxtaposition of joyful love of life, and death. I remember the scene at the beginning of chapter 3, when the 10-year-old narrator, who has arrived in Nangiyala after dying of tuberculosis, discovering he had straight legs, no cough, and could swim and ride— it's like a miracle story or a fairy tale, but told in the first person. It's utterly deliriously beautiful. On the other hand, the ending, where the brothers agree to commit suicide, to "jump into Nagilima," this next world's next world, just puts a capstone on a story where, before they turn 14 and 11 respectively, they both will die twice. It's very unsettling, the more you think about it.

Astrid Lindgren has written about her sources for the book: a train ride along Lake Fryken with a sunrise of unearthly beauty, and a cross in a cemetery in her home town of Vimmerby, memorializing two brothers who died young.

This is what I take away from this book: the terrible sad beauty of boys who know how to do good in the face of evil, who know how to be the hero of the saga, and who give their lives not happily, but willingly, because in the story they are living it is the necessary thing to do. All those boys, a long line of them, following a clear road that was paved before they arrived, and not coming back.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Old Books 1: Siddhartha

I'm going to read through some of my old touchstone books over the next few weeks and report back. This is my first book report...

Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse, was the first explicitly spiritual book I read that grabbed me. Actually, such books make a pretty short list —explicit spirituality tends to turn me off in prose.

The last time I read it through was probably in college. I wrote a paper for Religion 101 about viewing the novel through the lens of the seven Kundalini chakras. In coonventional kundalini practices, the goal is an upward movement from root (animalistic tooth-and-claw existence, centered in the anal area) up through the body and out of the crown (the top of the head, representing unity with universal consciousness). My point was that the character of Siddhartha begins as a young Brahmin living in those top chakras, without really living into the worldly chakras. Then he shifts course and becomes a successful businessman and lover. Finally, in despair, he finds a middle road, a balance point centered in the direct experience and love of other people. Once his heart is full, he can understand the unity of all...

That was when I was 20.

On rereading it, I tried summarizing the plot to Ingrid, who asked, "Does he have anyone?" And the answer is, not really. Not as a companion. Indeed it's a major point of his journey that he lose his childhood best friend, his lover, and his son. Only the loss of his son really breaks his heart.

Siddhartha's journey is one I think I internalized as a model for a "spiritual path," and it is really a problem... that the path is about going solo. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with going solo, and it does make it more possible to follow the thread through the labyrinth, making the sharp corner turns that that kind of devotion to a path implies. But it does imply that the "true path" is a lonely one.

One of the books I'll be reading later, Diana Wynne Jones's Homeward Bounders, makes as similarly bleak point... the narrator's final line is "But you wouldn't believe how lonely you get."

There's something off about this. I buy Siddhartha's journey as absolutely authentic to who he is, but it's worth noting that his final teacher, the one who shows him how to listen and understand the river of time as one unity, is a widower and ferryman, not a lonely hunter. Vasudeva had been happily married. No, the point is more that this lonely path was Siddhartha's choice. There was something in him that demanded he go solo, not in the path towards full enlightenment.

But I was reminded what a beautiful book this is. At each stage, Siddhartha goes through anguishes of despair, followed by a liberating joy in what is to come and in having become something new. That's the other thing that strikes me now... how many times in his life he felt the joy of "now I've finally gotten it right!" It made me think how great it would be to bottle that specific feeling, separate from actually discovering something new. I'd love to see a philosopher or psychologist of religion looking just at that transformative moment.

I also am sorry for his father and wife and son. I can't imagine it's a great thing to love someone whose spiritual path is higher than you.

Sunday, December 16, 2012


It's been eleven years since I was this angry, sad, and generally rendered incapable of much useful work. It's shocked me how hard the last two days have been: I mean, yes, it's awful—twenty first graders shot dead in their classroom, and the teachers and principal and so on. Of course it's awful. But there have been lots of awful things over the last ten years.

I'm not alone in this. Something about the events in Newtown have made us as a nation viscerally, boiling-over angry in a way that we haven't seen since 9/11/01. We are grief-stricken in a way we don't know what to do with.

I realized tonight that underneath the weeping for those 20 six- and seven-year-olds is something bigger. I am weeping for my country. I am weeping for the sense that this is becoming a place that isn't mine anymore. But I'm not from anywhere else. This is my home. I'm an American.

It isn't cheap political rhetoric. I spent a few days in Toronto on September, and it was such a startling weight off of me, walking through the streets of a very urban, gritty, full-of-urban-problems city, and not feeling the sense of anxiety that hangs even over my nice hometown of Minneapolis. It was like losing a headache I'd forgotten was there.

Toronto's no paradise. Canada's no paradise. I'm probably never moving to Canada. But I just don't get how so many people, including some of my friends, look at Canada and Western and Nothern Europe, and sneer at universal health care and pooh-pooh the lack of gun violence. I could quote figures at you, but I don't want to here. That's not the point. The point is, I felt more at home and at peace in a strange city than I do in my own front yard. I found that profoundly unsettling.

I am angry, angrier than I've been willing to admit to myself. I cover it up pretty well most of the time, I think—both from others and myself—but what I've seen in some of my liberal friends—the bitterness and fatalism—well, I worry I'm coming down with it too. I love my country, and I want it to be a place of love and peace. That's the picture I grew up with, and as I get older, I realize most of my fellow Americans have either given up on that vision as childish, or never had it in the first place. Instead it's a nation filled with demons needing to be stomped out with vigor. No dream of a better place in the here and now, just a resigned sigh that the battle is never won, and hope for peace in the next world.

But we're the nation that made a great industry out of dreams and fantasies. You'd think we'd know better, that we could learn to harness this great national talent for self-invention, and become a nation of Ray Bradburys. But we're not. We produce Ray Bradburys in a way no other country could, but the fantasies we adopt as our national scripts are full not of magic and hope, but of moralizing and fear and brimstone.

We are not the Greatest Nation on Earth. Whoever said that anyway? It sounds like a P. T. Barnum line. It's cheap boasting, and we've always been good at that. But we've also been good at self-deprecation, and we've been sorely lacking that in our national debate lately, outside of Comedy Central. Maybe we were the greatest nation on earth for a while after World War II, but we didn't even get to enjoy it, because we were so consumed with hate for dissent and fear within ourselves.

I love my country, but my country lies to itself. It hates itself. It's like loving someone with anorexia: their body image doesn't match their body, and becomes an ugly tool of self-mutilation, instead of a guide to positive change.

I am angry that we need revisionists like Howard Zinn (We who live in a nation that prides itself on a clarity and practical know-how. No fancy theories with abstact thises and thats—we leave that to the old world. No outdated, ossified social hierarchies). But we need the Howard Zinns to to show us how we have lied and lied again to ourselves. Lies upon lies. No fancy theories, just plain bald-faced ignorance of evidence and stubbornness. We let people say science is just someone's opinion, and all opinions are equal, and so it doesn't matter a whit how much research and effort you've done.

Jonathan Haidt thinks liberals don't care about sanctity and loyalty and respect. We do. I do anyway. And it hurts to think that what was sacred, what I want to be loyal to, and respect, has been dragged through the filth, betrayed my loyalty, and unearned my respect.

I want to live in a country where ideology is not king, especially ideology that masks rapaciousness and greed. I know we're never going to be rid of ideologues, and that's OK. But the floor of our national sense of self is rotting from underneath, and all we seem to be able to summon the collective will to do is tap on the floor with our foot and complain about the funny smell, and argue about whose job it is to hire the contractor and whether we really ought to pay for new sills.

And weep when twenty children fall through the hole and into the basement, gone forever.