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There is more than one way to burn a book June 6, 2012

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Freedom, Literature.
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Ray Bradbury died yesterday, at the age of 91. The following is from the coda (written in 1979) to Fahrenheit 451:

There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist / Unitarian, Irish / Italian / Octogenarian / Zen Buddhist, Zionist / Seventh-day Adventist, Women’s Lib / Republican, Mattachine / FourSquareGospel feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme…

For it is a mad world and it will get madder if we allow the minorities, be they dwarf or giant, orangutan or dolphin, nuclear-head or water-conversationalist, pro-computerologist or Neo-Luddite, simpleton or sage, to interfere with aesthetics. The real world is the playing ground for each and every group, to make or unmake laws. But the tip of the nose of my book or stories or poems is where their rights end and my territorial imperatives begin, run and rule. If Mormons do not like my plays, let them write their own. If the Irish hate my Dublin stories, let them rent typewriters. If teachers and grammar school editors find my jawbreaker sentences shatter their mushmilk teeth, let them eat stale cake dunked in weak tea of their own ungodly manufacture.

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All right, then, I’ll go to hell July 30, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Literature.
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In Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck faces a difficult dilemma when his companion, the runaway slave Jim, is betrayed and caught. Huck considers writing to Jim’s owner Miss Watson (“I said to myself it would be a thousand times better for Jim to be a slave at home where his family was, as long as he’d got to be a slave”), but realizes that it wouldn’t turn out too well for Jim (“everybody naturally despises an ungrateful nigger”) — or for himself, either:

It would get all around that Huck Finn helped a nigger to get his freedom; and if I was ever to see anybody from that town again I’d be ready to get down and lick his boots for shame. That’s just the way: a person does a low-down thing, and then he don’t want to take no consequences of it. Thinks as long as he can hide, it ain’t no disgrace. That was my fix exactly. The more I studied about this the more my conscience went to grinding me, and the more wicked and low-down and ornery I got to feeling. And at last, when it hit me all of a sudden that here was the plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven, whilst I was stealing a poor old woman’s nigger that hadn’t ever done me no harm, and now was showing me there’s One that’s always on the lookout, and ain’t a-going to allow no such miserable doings to go only just so fur and no further, I most dropped in my tracks I was so scared. Well, I tried the best I could to kinder soften it up somehow for myself by saying I was brung up wicked, and so I warn’t so much to blame; but something inside of me kept saying, “There was the Sunday-school, you could a gone to it; and if you’d a done it they’d a learnt you there that people that acts as I’d been acting about that nigger goes to everlasting fire.”

It made me shiver. And I about made up my mind to pray, and see if I couldn’t try to quit being the kind of a boy I was and be better. So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn’t come. Why wouldn’t they? It warn’t no use to try and hide it from Him. Nor from me, neither. I knowed very well why they wouldn’t come. It was because my heart warn’t right; it was because I warn’t square; it was because I was playing double. I was letting on to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all. I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing and the clean thing, and go and write to that nigger’s owner and tell where he was; but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can’t pray a lie — I found that out.

So Huck sits down and writes a letter to Miss Watson, telling her where to find Jim. At first he feels “good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life,” but then he gets to thinking about all the kindness Jim had shown him along their journey, and how he is the only friend Jim has.

It was a close place. I took [the letter] up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll go to hell” — and tore it up.

So Huck decides to take up wickedness again — and steal Jim out of slavery…

The incomprehensible is incomprehensible April 1, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Language, Literature.
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Kafka’s “On Parables:”

Many complain that the words of the wise are always merely parables and of no use in daily life, which is the only life we have. When the sage says: “Go over,” he does not mean that we should cross over to some actual place, which we could do anyhow if the labor were worth it; he means some fabulous yonder, something unknown to us, something too that he cannot designate more precisely, and therefore cannot help us here in the very least. All these parables really set out to say merely that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already. But the cares we have to struggle with every day: that is a different matter.

Concerning this a man once said: Why such reluctance? If you only followed the parables you yourselves would become parables and with that rid yourself of all your daily cares.

Another said: I bet that is also a parable.

The first said: You have won.

The second said: But unfortunately only in parable.

The first said: No, in reality: in parable you have lost.

Ian McEwan in Jerusalem February 23, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Literature.
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Ian McEwan attended the Jerusalem International Book Fair this week, where he accepted the Jerusalem Prize for “Freedom of the Individual in Society.” (Previous recipients include Bertrand Russell, Jorge Luis Borges, Susan Sontag, Arthur Miller…) I attended a public talk between McEwan and Israeli writer Meir Shalev.

While discussing how they came to be writers by first being readers, Shalev recalled being given David Copperfield by his father around the age of twelve, but being unable to get past the part where young David is beaten by his stepfather. McEwan then told of reading Beatrix Potter’s Tale of Benjamin Bunny to his young son. When they reached the part where Benjamin’s father beats him with a switch (for going back into Mr. McGregor’s garden with his cousin Peter Rabbit), McEwan’s son was shocked, saying: “How could he hit him? He’s his father!” McEwan admitted that this reaction caused him to blush with pride.

The subject of human morality and cooperation kept reappearing throughout the talk. McEwan said that the work of Isaiah Berlin (another recipient of the Jerusalem Prize) taught him to be wary of utopian thinking: those who believe they will bring about the perfect human society often think that 20 million deaths along the way is a small price to pay. (Omelets and eggs, as they say.) In his writing, McEwan often examines the moral dilemmas, large and small, that are thrust upon us. In Enduring Love, inspired by a true incident, several strangers find themselves holding on to a runaway hot air balloon with a child inside. If they all stand fast, they can keep it down; but if some let go, the balloon will get away — and you don’t want to be the last one still hanging on. McEwan observed that being moral is easy when everyone is doing it; but when others behave immorally, looking out for yourself begins to seem more and more rational.

There is a strong undercurrent of chance in McEwan’s writing as well. Shalev asked him if he sees religion or God playing a part in human stories. “I have no God,” said McEwan. “But maybe God has you?” suggested Shalev. “Only the God I invented,” replied McEwan: “God is man-made.” In Atonement, Briony must come to terms with the fact that there is no one greater than herself who can forgive her for the injury she caused.

McEwan sees the novel as an inherently secular medium, where “coincidence or human machinations, not God, order destinies.” We are all, to a great degree, products of randomness: we would not even exist if our parents had not happened to meet. McEwan recalled that whenever he drives by a car accident, he recognizes that if he would have left home a mere 90 seconds earlier, he might have been involved in the disaster himself; and yet, he doesn’t think the world is all about him — that someone meant for him to be saved while others died. It’s just chance.

Both writers acknowledged how ideas come to them in random times and places, which is why they always carry a notebook and pen. Shalev recounted how a pickpocket in Italy once stole a notebook containing ideas for the novel he was working on (while leaving his wallet). Shalev was devastated. Then he thought: What would an Italian pickpocket do with a notebook full of Hebrew? He’ll surely throw it away. After wandering the streets for half a day, Shalev finally found his ideas in a garbage bin. At first he was insulted, but then he felt a surge of happiness and relief — like finding a lost child.

McEwan then told the story of how, when jet-lagged in a foreign country, he once left his notebook beside his cup of coffee on a restaurant table while he went to the bathroom. When he returned, only the coffee remained. He was convinced that the notebook had been full of great writing that he would never be able to reconstruct. Eighteen months later, the notebook was shoved through his letter box inside a plain brown envelope. McEwan flung the door open, but there was no one in the street. He opened his long lost notebook and reread what he had written — only to discover that it was full of banalities.