I am now blogging at a new blog: erdman31.com

If you post comments here at Theos Project, please know that I will respond and engage your thoughts in a timely manner.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Chastity and Political Orthodoxy in 1984

Unlike Winston, she had grasped the inner meaning of the Party’s sexual Puritanism. It was not merely that the sex instinct created a world of its own which was outside the Party’s control and which therefore had to be destroyed if possible. What was more important was that sexual privation induced hysteria, which was desirable because it could be transformed into war fever and leader worship. The way she put it was:

“When you make love you’re using up energy; and afterwards you feel happy and don’t give a damn for anything. They can’t bear you to feel like that. They want you to be bursting with energy all the time. All this marching up and down and cheering and waving flags is simply sex gone sour….”

That was very true, he thought. There was a direct, intimate connection between chastity and political orthodoxy.

From next month's novel of the month, 1984 by George Orwell

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Meditation and the turn outward

Some speak of meditation as being a practice that brings us into awareness with our "true self." The idea of a true self seems tricky to me. Tricky I say, because the notion of a true self seems to be the self that is buried deep beneath the rubble of all of the external influences that have shaped us. The true self is the self that is deeper that the part of us that has been molded by our culture, society, and environment.

While I do not deny the existence of a “true self,” in some form or fashion, I find it problematic to draw a hard and fast line between “true self” and “conditioned self.” Whatever the true self is, it isn’t what it is without the conditioning of our lives. Nor do I think a self is less true if it is conditioned. Living a contemplative life, engaging in a deeper spiritual and psychological awareness, should not be a practice of seeking to bypass the concrete realities around us or to despise the part of us that has been conditioned by the experiences of life. In short, meditation should not simply be an escape. If it becomes mostly about escape, then it differs little from other methods that people use to hide or themselves to the world.

Meditation seems to me to be as much about connecting to the external world as it does to go deeper into one’s self. I do believe that meditation should be an experience of going deeper into one’s self. Yet it is simultaneously a way in which a person develops a deeper awareness of what is going on around them.

In the hectic ebb and flow of life in our highly connected Western society, many people appear rather checked out, disengaged from life. They be unable to really be present to someone else’s thoughts and emotions, or, conversely, they may be unaware of the thoughts and emotions that they have, becoming lost in the world of others. Ironically, losing one’s self in the world also tends to miss a vital connection with others, since others in the world are serving as an escape route.

Meditation seeks to develop a greater sense of awareness. To become aware of one’s own thoughts and feelings as well as the thoughts and feelings of those around them. As such, it is not merely a practice that allows one to become lost in one’s self. It is a way of practicing an acute sense of ourselves, carrying over into an ability to tune in to others in a meaningful way.

Personally, my method of dealing with the world is to seek to escape it, to withdraw and distance myself from it. Sitting in meditation comes easy for me, but not necessarily for all of the right reasons. It can become merely an avenue for escape. However, what I have certainly noticed since I began practicing regular meditation (almost a year or so ago?) is that I have very gradually developed a better awareness of what is going on in and through others. I can be in groups or in one-on-one conversations and drop out of sight, disconnect.

For me, meditation has been a way that I have been able to concentrate on my awareness of the present moment, and to become aware of the times when I am disconnecting or want to withdraw from what is going on around. So, for me the benefits of meditation have had as much to do with going outside of myself as it has for going within myself. The experience of growing in awareness, I believe, is different for various people and personality types. For all, though, awareness is both of self and of the external world outside of one's self; and, there is a very real sense in which there is no difference.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Coming Attractions -- 1984

The novel for next month is George Orwell's 1984. I read Animal Farm in the context of attending a private, Christian (evangelical) high school. The general vibe I was always given is that Animal Farm was a treatise against both Communism and Socialism (the two were often conflated). Interestingly, Orwell was a Democratic Socialist. His critiques were not leveled against socialism or capitalism but against the abuses of totalitarianism found in 20th century forms of Communism and Fascism.

I think that our discussion of 1984 will be particularly timely, in light of many of the debates that take place in the current U.S. political climate. I often see ideological debates about the merits of socialism or capitalism. Discussions of the abuse of government are usually merely an attempt to criticize someone else's ideology. That is, I find it rare that we can put the labels "liberal"/Democratic or "conservative"/Republican aside long enough to have honest discussions about the degree to which government is intruding on freedom and civil liberties.

Jean Francois Lyotard some thirty years ago wrote his classic The Postmodern Condition, which has become a definitive postmodern text. Lyotard says that information will be central in the years to come. He goes so far as to say, "It is conceivable that the nation-states will one day fight for control of information, just as they battled in the past for control over territory, and afterwards for control of access to and exploitation of raw materials and cheap labor. A new field is opened for industrial and commercial strategies on the one hand, and political and military strategies on the other."

The central character of 1984 is Winston Smith. He works as in the "Ministry of Truth" to revise historical records in order to advance the propaganda of The Party. Knowledge, information, politics, government, and the struggle for freedom are all interconnected. This is as true today as it ever has been.

Happy reading.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Works of the Law

I am going to deliberately confuse my translation of Paul:

"Knowing that a person is not dikaioutai through the works of the law but only through (the) faith(fulness) in/(of) Jesus Christ, and we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order that dikaiothomen might be of (the) faith(fulness) in/(of) Christ and not of the works of the law, because by the works of the law no flesh will be made dikaiothesetai." (Galatians 2:16)

This post continues my commentary on Paul's book of Galatians. I deliberately confuse the translation, because interpretation is not a straightforward venture for this passage. Is Paul talking here (and in the whole letter to the Galatians) about "justification," a legal declaration? Or is there something deeper? And how do we get this righteousness/justification? Is it through faith in Jesus Christ, an action on our part of having faith or the possessing faith? Or is Paul here saying that we have righteousness/justification through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ? In which case, it has more to do with Christ than with us?

What does Paul mean by these dikai- words, words we usually translate as "justification" or "righteousness"? Is it a mere forensic "justification," that God is saying "you are now justified," and then slams his hammer upon the gavel? I don't like that take. I don't like it because it makes righteousness a one-and-done process. Taken as a whole, Paul's theology is more focussed on living a life of transformation. For me, seeing faith primarily as a forensic declaration makes it very transactional and less transformative. I don't mean to say that there is not some sense of forensic justification in Paul's theology, but the real heart of Paul is the life of the Spirit, ushering a radical "new creation." Paul's vision is for something radical.

As I write more about Galatians, I will discuss more what I think the dikai- words mean. For this post, I wanted to discuss "the works of the law" (ex ergon nomou). Whatever this righteousness/justification is, it is not to be sought through the works of the law. Christianity was a Jewish faith, in the beginning; but it spread to the Gentiles, and Paul saw his mission as aimed at spreading the Gospel to Gentiles. There was conflict, though, between Jews and Gentiles. Jews tended to see their Jewishness as an essential component of Christianity. This new "Way" of Jesus was not a radical break from being a Jew, so observing the law and customs of Judaism was natural for a Jewish Christian. Naturally, as Gentiles came into the churches, Jews just expected them to adopt a Jewish Christianity, complete with Jewish observations of the law. This, again quite naturally, turned into a somewhat legalistic thing: you can't be real member of the church without adopting Jewishness. Paul takes exception to this.

For Paul, though, "the works of the law" can probably be extended to any religious practice that attempts to gain righteousness, justification, or goodness based solely on doing. Paul is clear about this later in his life when he writes to the Christians in Rome. In Romans 4, Paul says that when a person works for a wage, the payment given them is based on what they have done. But this isn't the way faith works. It isn't a quid-pro-quo.

For Paul, faith isn't a transaction. This is central to Paul's Gospel of Jesus Christ.

But if we cannot get this righteousness/justification based on a concrete transaction, then it leaves things quite up in the air. Everything is suddenly a bit less defined. The life of faith becomes a bit less concrete......which seems to be the point of much of Paul's discussion of the Gospel.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Thus far in my novel project, I have not yet encountered a novel that illustrates so tragically the brokenness of a single individual. In Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Humbert Humbert is that individual: a pedophile, a poet, and a depraved predator. In January, I reviewed A Thousand Splendid Suns, a tale of the heroism of women who are victims of abuse and objectification. Nabokov’s novel is the reverse perspective.

There is much to discuss in this novel, but the one theme that I wish to stress in this review is the role of the reader. What responsibility does a reader have? Lolita forces on us certain ethical concerns; ethical concerns, yes, but there are also certain human concerns, or even spiritual, I might say. More than any novel that I have reviewed thus far, I am impressed with how much interpretation hinges on the reader. I think this is always the case, but Lolita demands something from the reader, not allowing the reader to remain ambiguous or apathetic in interpretation.

In light of my recent readings of Afghan women in A Thousand Splendid Suns, I was delighted that my intellectual partner (and my new fiancé) Tamie recommended to me a book by Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran. This is a memoir of a book club for women in Tehran, who met in secret to discuss the great works of western fiction. I resonate with much of Nafisi’s thinking about Lolita, so I will be citing her throughout the review.

Humbert Humbert fantasizes about young girls. “Nymphets” he calls them.

“My mind rejected my body’s every plea.”

“Taboos strangled me.”

Humbert is an academic with a poetic imagination. In private, he obsesses about his desires; his “excruciating desires and insomnias” torture him. The novel is his private memoir of his encounter with Lolita.

The following quote describes well the way desire shapes Humbert. He describes a “gap” between what he has and what his imagination promises him. With desire, the gap between reality and possibility is ever-present, which makes desire a lustful quest that never ends.

“It may well be that the very attraction that immaturity has for me lies not so much in the limpidity of pure young forbidden fairy child beauty as in the security of a situation where infinite perfections fill the gap between the little given and the great promised—the great rosegray never-to-be-had.”

Art? Or Pornography?

On this blog, we have discussed the question of how to define pornography. What is the line between art and pornography? Is all erotic film and literature pornographic, by definition?

Nabokov himself addresses this question. For Nabokov, art is beautiful regardless of subject matter. Pornography is cheap and commercialized. There is a formula approach that lacks any sense of the artistic. “…in modern times the term ‘pornography’ connotes mediocrity, commercialism, and certain strict rules of narration. Obscenity must be mated with banality because every kind of aesthetic enjoyment has to be entirely replaced by simple sexual stimulation which demands the traditional word for direct action upon the patient.” (Cited on p. 69-70 of “Lolita Turns Thirty,” in What Do Women Want? by Erica Jong) Pornography is a means to an end: “simple sexual stimulation” resulting in “direct action upon the patient.”

Pornography, according to Nabokov is also formulaic. In this sense, it is not unlike other forms of commercialized entertainment, like the popular detective stories of his day. “Old rigid rules must be followed by the pornographer in order to have his patient feel the same security of satisfaction as, for example, fans of detective stories feel—stories where, if you do not watch out, the real murderer may turn out to be…artistic originality…” Pornography, like all mass produced art, is cheap and cliché. “Thus, in pornographic novels, action has to be limited to the copulation of clichés. Style, structure, imagery should never distract the reader from his tepid lust.”

Erica Jong agrees with Nabokov, but puts it a bit more bluntly: “Those who can’t tell the difference between masturbatory stimulation and imaginative literature deserve, I believe, the garbage they get.” (p. 70 of “Lolita Turns Thirty”)

I think Nabokov is onto something here. Pornography is produced as a means to an end: sexual gratification. In this sense, however, much of what we call “entertainment” fits the bill as porn. In fact, many of the products we purchase that we believe we “need” would become porn. The books we buy and never read, the gadgets for the kitchen and garage that we use once or twice, the DVD’s that we only watch a few times or none at all. So much of our economy turns on impulse buys that gratify our itch to have a cool new something-or-other….but I digress….

There is a sense in which I would add to Nabokov’s definition, because I think there is a bit of a problem with defining good art as non-pornographic; namely, that this definition fails to take the reader into account. In other words, even if a piece of erotica is tasteful, beautiful, and poetic, I think it is still reasonable to suggest that it could be used as porn and not appreciated as art.

What I am suggesting is that the question of porn does not have to do with the text (or film, etc.) itself. It isn’t isolated to the novel in question or the movie in question. I am suggesting that something does not really become pornographic until there is a reader to make it so.

Whether cheap or artful, I suggest that pornography is in the eye of the beholder, which puts responsibility on the reader. How are we reading a work? Pornography is not just a matter of good or bad taste: there is something else going on, a more sinister and lustful intention by those who are reading or viewing the material.

I think good art is more beautiful than cheap, instant-gratification entertainment. The latter can easily be called “pornographic” when compared with the former. This is a good start; but we cannot let the reader off that easily. Readers are a part of the artistic process. We have the power to turn good art into a cheap commodity.

Lolita, The Double Victim

Many readers find that they sympathize with Humbert. A female friend of mine, Nicole, recently read the novel. When we talked about Humbert as a sympathetic character, she was blunt and to the point: No. Humbert was not a sympathetic character. Yet it is also true that many readers find something charming about Humbert.

Humbert is funny and self-deprecating, he is poetic and wistful, and he comes to us as someone who seems mostly harmless, at least at the beginning of the novel. Humbert has desires like anyone else. He lost his love at a young age, and he has been sort of stuck in those pre-adolescent years.

The desire to create a sympathetic character is no doubt the intention of the author, but this creates a serious ethical concern, especially as the novel progresses and Humbert is transformed into a maniacal predator. How can we sympathize with Humbert when he objectifies a person? Lolita, in a unique way, makes the reader reckon with themselves as a reader. What is the appropriate way to read?

The structure of the novel itself seems intent on putting the reader in an awkward situation. Even as the novel progresses and Humbert becomes evil and abusive, the reader might be tempted to sympathize with him, because he does in fact repent. Humbert himself finds to be reprehensible. But as I see it, the problem is that it is not merely Humbert, but the structure of the novel itself, that objectifies Lolita. As such, the reader is put into an ethically compromising situation, for to sympathize with the structure of the novel seems to be an immoral act.

Azar Nafisi comments on this from the perspective of the underground women’s reading circle in Tehran. “The first thing that struck us in reading Lolita—in fact it was on the very first page—was how Lolita was given to us as Humbert’s creature. We only see her in passing glimpses. ‘What I had madly possessed,’ he informs us, ‘was not she, but my own creation, another fanciful Lolita—perhaps, more real than Lolita…having no will, no consciousness—indeed no real life of her own.” (p. 36 of Reading Lolita in Tehran)

There is a power differential, and this is crucial, between Humbert and Lolita. It is a violation. And yet the novel itself sides with Humbert. It is Humbert’s story in Humbert’s words. Lolita is whatever Humbert will make of her. The reader ratifies this at the very point that s/he sympathizes not only with Humbert the fictional character but also with the structure of the novel.

Nafisi continues: “Like my students, Lolita’s past comes to her not so much as a loss but as a lack, and like my students, she becomes a figment in someone else’s dream….Lolita on her own has no meaning; she can only come to life through her prison bars.” (p. 37)

“She [Lolita] becomes a double victim: not only her life but also her life story is taken from her.” (p. 41)

The philosopher Richard Rorty also sees this in the novel. There is a story in the novel that reveals how disconnected Humbert has become from his surroundings, so consumed by lust and drawn inward with paranoia and fear.

Rorty cites this portion of the novel. Humbert is speaking, revealing how disengaged he has become from the world around him:

“In Kasbeam a very old barber gave me a very mediocre haircut: he babbled of a baseball-playing son of his, and, at every explodent, spat into my neck, and every now and then wiped his glasses on my sheet-wrap, or interrupted his tremulous scissor work to produce new paper clippings, and so inattentive was I that it came as a shock to realize as he pointed to an easeled photograph among the ancient gray lotions, that the mustached young ball player had been dead the last thirty years.”

Rorty turns the table on the reader: "The reader, suddenly revealed to himself as, if not hypocritical, at least cruelly incurious, recognizes his semblable, his brother, in Humbert and Kinbote. Suddenly Lolita does have a 'moral in tow.' But the moral is not to keep one's hands off little girls but to notice what one is doing, and in particular to notice what people are saying. For it might turn out, it very often does turn out, that people are trying to tell you that they are suffering. Just insofar as one is preoccupied with building up to one's private kind of sexual bliss, like Humbert, or one's private aesthetic bliss, like the reader of Lolita who missed that sentence about the barber the first time around, people are likely to suffer still more" (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. 163-64, emphasis added).

My suggestion is that the reader must take responsibility as a reader for his or her sympathies. The structure of the novel is no doubt intentional, to put the reader into this bind. It is as if the novel were carefully crafted in order to force the reader into responsibility for the very manner in which the novel is read.

“Obsession has a life of its own”

“Obsession has a life of its own: the object, however irreplaceable and particular it seems, can change, though it is in the nature of obsession to recognize that.” (Erica Jong, p. 73 of “Lolita Turns Thirty”)

Let us take a more careful look at the progression of Humbert’s desire. I think that the progression of lust is an objectification of Lolita and an increasing disconnect from Lolita as a person. Lolita is Humbert’s object, and she becomes increasingly so the more Humbert acts on his lust. The result, however, is that Humbert becomes increasingly disconnected from himself. He changes and morphs into something grotesque and vile.

“Humbert is the hero with the tragic flaw. Humbert is every man who is driven by desire, wanting his Lolita so badly that it never occurs to him to consider her as a human being, or as anything but a dream-figment made flesh—which is the eternal and universal nature of passion.” (Elizabeth Janeway’s review in the New York Times Book Review, cited on P. 77 of “Lolita Turns Thirty” in What Do Women Want? By Erica Jong)

Throughout the novel, Humbert’s desire for Lolita drives him mad. Increasingly, Humbert disconnects from Lolita, as he increasingly objectifies her. As his objectification increases, he also disconnects from himself. The result is a downward spiral of abuse, terror, and psychosis.

At the beginning of the novel, Humbert thinks of himself in gentile terms. He is not a violent killer, rather “the majority of sex offenders that hanker for some throbbing, sweet-moaning, physical but not necessarily coital, relation with a girl-child, are innocuous, inadequate, passive, timid strangers who merely as the community to allow them to pursue their practically harmless, so-called aberrant behavior, their little hot wet private acts of sexual deviation without the police and society coming down upon them. We are not sex fiends! We do not rape as good soldiers do. We are unhappy, mind, dog-eyed gentlemen, sufficiently well integrated to control our urge in the presence of adults, but ready to give years and years of life for one chance to touch a nymphet. Emphatically, no killers are we. Poets never kill.”

And yet by the end of the novel, Humbert is both a rapist and a murder.

Also early in the novel, Humbert describes his relationship with Annabel Leigh, his young first love: “The spiritual and the physical had been blended in us with a perfection that must remain incomprehensible to the mater-of-fact, crude, standard-brained youngsters of today.” Humbert ironically becomes more of a “mater-of-fact, crude” character when his relationship with Lolita descends into a deep disconnect with her mind, heart, and anything spiritual in her soul. He clearly becomes a “mater-of-fact, crude” kind of person that he sneers at.

Even as he progresses in his kidnapping, Humbert still wants to think of himself one way (“I am not a criminal sexual psychopath taking indecent liberties with a child….I am the therapist.”), all the while acting in another way. Humbert’s original intention was to molest Lolita while she was drugged and in a deep sleep, so as to make her as innocent as possible…but he abandons even this smallest of good intentions. The result is an increasing disconnect of himself from himself.

Humberts desires and lusts increase, gradually; and because of this, Lolita increasingly disconnects from him. Eventually he becomes abusive, not just sexually but physically. He enters “a new stage of persecution” while all the while not seeming to recognize what he is doing. Humbert becomes obsessive, paranoid, controlling, and irrational. After he loses Lolita, he has a psychological breakdown. He follows every shred of clue he can find for years…he nearly guns down a professor on only a hunch, then checks himself into a sanatorium…he becomes a maniac.

By the end of the novel, Humbert is both a rapist and a killer, two things that he, as a “poet,” swore he was not. There is a sinister transformation.

I find the Humbert’s act of murder significant, for several reasons. It is the point at which he transgresses his emphatic declaration that he is not a killer. However, it is also an extreme act of clutching at the past.

“I was weeping again, drunk on the impossible past.”

Humbert could never let go of his desire. Desire, almost by definition, cannot be satisfied. It is the gap (as Humbert says) “between the little given and the great promised—the great rosegray never-to-be-had.” As such, Humbert’s murder of Quilty (the man who managed to free Lolita from Humbert’s talons) becomes his desperate attempt to reach back into the past and once again posses Lolita as his own. The murder is an act of revenge, yes. It is a psychopathic shooting, true. It is complicated. But it is significant that after Humbert is arrested, he seems to find some sense of relief, a brief sense of peace. It is as if there is nothing left for him to cling to.

There is something here, I think, that is significant about desire. The ability to truly appreciate anything is compromised by clinging to it, by clutching it with all of our might. Only by setting the object free can we truly appreciate it on its own terms, and by doing so enter into an engagement with what is most truly precious about the person or thing.

This is what differentiates love from lust. Lust objectifies the other, it possesses it and owns it for its own gratification. This is what is pornographic.

But love is artistic. Love sets the person or thing free to be appreciated for what it is, not as a means to an end. Lust demands that full attention be given to its object of desire. Love, on the contrary, engages the person on their own terms.

Finding Love

Humbert dehumanized Lolita. She disconnected from him, and she disconnects from her own desires and her own sexuality. During intercourse, she would read magazines, while Humbert was in the midst of his ecstasy. Lolita has a promising role in the school play and quits just before the opening night. It is as though she cannot reach the climax of the event, as though she is disconnected from the climax of her own desires.

Most tellingly for Humbert, every night Lolita weeps when she thinks Humbert has fallen to sleep. She has no place to go. She is trapped.

Eventually, Humbert begins to gain some measure of clarity and insight into what he has done to Lolita, or “Dolores Haze,” her real name. He realizes how cruel he was to her. He realized how little he knew of her heart and mind. Humbert consults with a priest to gain some measure of relief. Though he finds some solace, he has a profound realization that haunts him:

"Unless it can be proven to me that in the infinite run it does not matter a jot that a north American girl-child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac, unless this can be proven (and if it can, then life is a joke), I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art."

Humbert realizes, at last, the deep interconnectedness of all things, of all people. When he turned inward, to cultivate desire, he turned away from the human reality of others. The more he did this, the more he went mad, and the results were casualties that could not be reversed. Who Humbert was and what he did mattered significantly, especially to Delores Haze. “Life is a joke” if our actions are isolated from others.

Spiritual enlightenment (or the life of the “Spirit” as it is called in Christianity) seems to be precisely that process whereby we recognize that our spiritual fate is bound up with how we relate to others. Our spiritual and psychological state cannot be cultivated in isolation, apart from others; rather, it is defined as we relate with others.

Concluding Thoughts

“Oh my poor, bruised child. I loved you….I was despicable and brutal….There were times when I knew how you felt, and it was hell to know it.”

Even in his repentant state, even in his moments of deepest regret, I still cannot find it ethically acceptable for a reader to sympathize with Humbert. Oddly, though, I do think we can love Humbert. To sympathize with Humbert and with the novel is to lend credence to the notion that we can objectify and dehumanize another; but love is different. Love can respond with a broken heart to the brokenness of others, no matter what their frame of mind.

Nabokov’s novel is written to make the reader reckon with how s/he reads. So I read Humbert’s life as a tragedy. I read Lolita’s life as the voiceless victim. There are lessons to be learned from Humbert, lessons of lust, desire, and true love. Ultimately, true love escapes Humbert, and his desire consumes him. Although I cannot sympathize with Humbert, or with the structure of the novel, I believe that there is some sense in which we can read the novel with love. This may be something of an agape hermeneutic, to use the Christian term. A hermeneutic that can love both the victim and the victimizer, and in doing so understand the tragedy that occurs when we objectify and dehumanize others.

Though a tragedy, this is a deeply human novel, if the reader approaches it in order to humanize its characters. To love is to humanize.