El Monasterio de Piedra

El Monasterio de Piedra

 

The bus crawled out of Zaragoza’s main bus terminal, Delicias, and quickly left the city limits. It was early morning. The landscape was entirely shrouded in fog. It wasn’t long before I gave up trying to see the countryside and fell asleep. When I awoke—with a headache and a nasty taste in my mouth—we had parked in Catalayud, a small town midway between Zaragoza and my destination, where we had to transfer buses. I was on my way to the Monasterio de Piedra.

I was still in a daze. That morning I had awoken at an ungodly hour to walk all the way across the misty city to catch an eight o’clock bus. I still felt chilled from the early morning air, but I couldn’t warm up, since it was nearly as cold inside the bus station as it was outside.

I looked out the station window to check if there was anything to see, but the fog acted as an impenetrable veil. This was a shame, since I had noticed Calatayud from the highway on the drive to Zaragoza, and immediately became intrigued. The town is nestled beneath towering cliffs, on top of which stands a commanding castle, whose walls look like they sprung spontaneously out of the rocks. This, it turns out, is the oldest and largest Moorish fortress still existent in Spain.

It wasn’t long before we boarded another bus. Again, I fell asleep immediately, only coming to my senses as we approached the monastery. The fog had cleared by now, and I could see that our bus was creeping along a fairly narrow road, situated above a river; red cliffs ran along the other side. This dramatic scenery was an omen of what was to come.

Finally we arrived. We all shuffled out of the bus and made our way past the walls and into the complex. I waited in line and bought a ticket, still fairly ignorant of what I was paying for. I had come here on the recommendation of friends; and as usual I hadn’t looked up any information about the place before coming.

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The Monasterio de Piedra is situated at the confluence of the rivers Piedra (thus the name) and Ortiz, in a remote spot within the Iberian Mountains. Founded in the late 12th century by the Cistercians, the monastery was a symbol and outpost of the accelerating Reconquista, the Christian push southward against the Moors, who then controlled all of Aragon and beyond. As such, the monastery was liable to being attacked, which is why defensive wall surrounds the complex.

During the centuries of its use, as the Cistercian monks worked and prayed along the banks of the Piedra, steeped in the cool mountain air of the region. The Moors, who had so long controlled and shaped the Iberian Peninsula—it was the Moors, for example, who established the city of Catalayud that I passed through—eventually lost control, and the small Christian principalities and kingdoms were merged into larger and larger states. It wasn’t long after the “reconquest” was completed, and Castile and Aragon were unified under the “Catholic Monarchs,” that Columbus made his famous voyage to the “Indies,” thus commencing Spain’s brutal colonization of the New World. It was here, in this monastery, that chocolate was first made in Europe, after Hernán Cortes send cacao beans and an Aztec recipe to the monks here.

Three hundred years later, Spain was again divided. In 1833, the first Carlist war commenced, a war between two contending successors to the throne, Carlos de Borbón and Isabella II (who won, and was eventually deposed). Heavily in debt from the prolonged civil war, the Spanish government commenced another of its desamortizaciones, or confiscations, of Church property. Besides the financial incentive, the conservative Church hierarchy supported the reactionary Don Carlos, so this move had both financial and emotional appeal. In any case, it was during this desamortización that the Monasterio de Piedra was seized and sold, thus putting an end to its Catholic history.

For reason of pure anti-clerical fervor, I presume, the church building itself was burned. Now all that remains is a ruined shell of a building. This is a shame, since was fragments that remains give some hint of a glorious medieval edifice. Some of the ornamental friezes around the doorways, for example, are of the finest quality. Now, however, the building’s appeal is Romantic rather than Romanesque. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, ruins have a strange power to evoke feelings of mysterious awe. Certainly I felt this as I sat facing the destroyed altar, the walls reaching up to a vacant ceiling, the sky gaping overhead. It was like stepping into one of Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings—a timeless, fossilized wreck.

Piedra 8

If the burnt church building is unintentionally romantic, the rest of the monastery is quite intentionally so. After briefly being owned by a wealthy Catalan merchant, who mainly used it for agriculture, it passed into the hands of Juan Federico Muntadas.

A well-educated and original man—among other things, he created the first fish farm in Spain—Muntadas was born in 1826, and was thus roughly of the same generation as Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer. And, like Bécquer, he was a Romantic. If you, for example, compare the royal gardens of Aranjuez or La Granja with Muntadas’s creation in the Monasterio de Piedra, you can get some idea of the mental difference between the Enlightenment and the Romantics. Whereas the royal gardens are neat, orderly, symmetrical, with clearly delineated plots for plants and paths for people, Muntadas molded a space that creates the sensation—if not exactly the illusion—of untrammeled nature.

Piedra 1

The walking path through the monastery grounds takes about an hour. Though it was winter, the place was still quite green. Shallow ponds reflected the twisted and bare forms of tree limbs, while the verdant underbrush was speckled with red, crinkled fallen leaves. Small wooden bridges led the walker through this marshy area to the main attraction: the waterfalls.

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Using the diverted waters of the Piedra and the Ortiz, Muntadas created a dazzling series of cascades. Varying in size from ankle-level to the size of an apartment building, these waterfalls are some of the prettiest I have ever seen. The rocks have been carefully placed to divide the stream into several rivulets, creating a dancing pattern of sparkling, splashing streams.

Piedra 4

The path took me up beside one of the larger waterfalls and up a staircase in the adjacent rock face. Ivy, branches, and leaves were draped around the water, as if thirsty for a drink. Once at the top, we passed over a shallow stream, and followed it down again as it accelerated into a whooshing, multi-layered cataract, the stairwell winding its way downwards beside the water. Children and parents were crowded on the slippery steps, posing for photos. Along the way I caught a glimpse of the surrounding area, whose red rocky cliffs and rolling hills stretched into the far distance. The path continued, becoming narrow as it navigated the hillside, until finally we were led into a cave.

Piedra 5

This cave—full of stalactites and stalagmites, green with algae, the jagged rock edges worn into eerie undulations by the water—was under the largest of the waterfalls. Water poured down at its entrance, filling the place with a ceaseless mist. I had to take off my glasses since they got so covered in droplets. We came out of the cave the same way we went in; then, after a walk through a long tunnel, I found myself by the famous Lago del Espejo, or Mirror Lake.

Piedra 6

The shallow water, only inches deep and filled with aquatic plants, was uncannily reflective. And there was plenty to reflect, since the lake is situated underneath impressive rock faces, stretching up far above us and casting imposing shadows. By this time I had completely fallen under the spell of the place. The impression created by so many manipulations of water and stone was that of deep, almost meditative calm. I felt perfectly relaxed and refreshed.

Piedra 7

Finally I ended up where I had begun: by the old, burnt church. Quite hungry by now, I went to the restaurant near the visitor’s center, which had quite a good—and affordable—daily menu. Then, stuffed and exhausted, I boarded the bus to go back to Zaragoza.

Remote and difficult to get to using public transportation, El Monasterio de Piedra is yet another example of Spain’s seemingly inexhaustible treasures.

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Review: The Spanish Labyrinth

Review: The Spanish Labyrinth

The Spanish Labyrinth: An Account of the Social and Political Background of the Spanish Civil WarThe Spanish Labyrinth: An Account of the Social and Political Background of the Spanish Civil War by Gerald Brenan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Civil War was an appalling calamity in which every class and every party lost.

The longer I live, work, and travel in Spain, the harder it is to believe that, less than a century ago, the entire country was torn apart by a bloody war. What set of circumstances could prompt a nation of ordinary, law-abiding people to explode into conflict and kill each other by the hundreds of thousands? This, of course, is just a specific version of a more general question: Why do people wage wars? I may sound naïve, but I do find this perplexing—since, as Brenan points out, in the destruction wrought by war, especially modern war, there are only losers.

Brenan’s work was one of the first serious analyses of the Civil War to be published (in 1943, just four years after the war’s conclusion), and has remained in print ever since. Nevertheless I was somewhat hesitant to read it. I found Brenan’s famous memoirs, South from Granada, to be underwhelming, so I assumed that this book would be as well. Happily I was mistaken. The Spanish Labyrinth is a comprehensive and penetrating work, easily one of the best books about the Civil War—or indeed about Spain—that I’ve had the pleasure of reading.

This does not mean it is accessible. Brenan chose his title well. The events leading up to the Spanish Civil War are intrinsically complex. So many different parties were involved in the accelerating dance of political turmoil that even the most skilled popular writer would have trouble seamlessly weaving it all together. And Brenan, though a strong writer, was too close to the events described to even approach a popular account. As a result the book itself can feel labyrinthine—with valuable comments and data tucked away into footnotes, with several miniature appendices per chapter and a longer one at the end of the book, and a seemingly endless cast of characters, organizations, and movements. Certainly this book, like any excellent book, will repay careful rereading.

Brenan’s take on the Civil War can be helpfully contrasted with that of George Orwell. Orwell, who was in Spain a matter of months and who never learned Spanish very well, saw the Spanish Civil War in terms of the wider struggle between the Right and the Left. For him, it was a straightforward class conflict between the poor workers and the rich fascists, a struggle that was playing out all over the globe. Brenan, on the other hand, who spoke fluent Spanish and who lived in Spain for a decades, saw the war as a particularly Spanish affair; and his analysis focuses almost exclusively on internal factors. (Both authors, incidentally, did share a distaste for Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia.)

Before the Civil War, political instability plagued Spain for generations. This was, in part, a consequence of economic backwardness; and this backwardness, in turn, had its roots deep in Spanish history—Spain’s commitment to New World gold at the expense of industrialization, and to merino wool at the expense of agriculture. (By the way, Spanish shepherds still hold onto their special privileges, which they demonstrate every year in the Fiesta de Transhumancia, during which sheep are herded straight through the center of Madrid.)

The Church came to identify itself fully with the rich and powerful, alienating itself from the people. As a result, anti-clericalism has played nearly as big a role in Spanish history as the church itself. The army, meanwhile, through a series of pronuciamientos and coups d’etat, came to see itself as the guardian of traditional Spanish values, able and willing to topple any regimes they deemed unsatisfactory—and, as history amply shows, it is always bad news to have a politically active military.

During all this time, Spain was plagued by a long-standing agrarian crisis. In one of Brenan’s most brilliant chapters, he details how different farming traditions sprung up in different regions of the country, partly in response to varying soil and climatic conditions. Unfortunately, many regions of Spain are—either from lack of rain or inferior soil—rather poor for agriculture; and distinct social arrangements (such as small-holding minifundios or large latifundios) are appropriate for these different climatic conditions.

In the hot and dry south, for example, farms are usually quite large; and the work required is seasonal, not year-round. Since a small number of wealthy families controlled these large estates, the vast majority were left to subsist on badly-paid seasonal work, thus leading to inequality and violent political tension. (As I discovered from Gilmore’s The People of the Plain, these agrarian problems persisted until the end of Franco’s reign.)

In addition to the inefficiency and inequality of Spanish agriculture, there was the ever-present problem of Spanish regionalism. Brenan follows Richard Ford and Ortega y Gasset in seeing regionalism as one of the defining features of Spanish political life. (Those watching the Catalan independence movement unfold today will be little disposed to disagree.) Spain is crisscrossed by several mountain ranges and sudden changes in elevation, thus leading to jarring climatic juxtaposition. I have experienced this myself: one moment I will be driving through a windswept mountain range, and the next I will be on the verdant coast. This is one culprit for the famous Spanish regionalism.

Another is Spain’s history. When Fernando and Isabel were married, thus uniting all of Spain for the first time, their separate kingdoms, Castile and Aragon, had distinct political traditions. As the historian J.H. Elliott describes in his excellent book, Imperial Spain, the Castile of Isabel, with its history of centralized rule and its emphasis on military power, was bound to conflict with Catalonia’s history of liberalism and commercial capitalism. The industrial revolution further fueled these regional tensions, as Bilbao and Barcelona became heavily industrialized while the interior and the south remained mainly agricultural.

These divisions in Spain—climatic, historical, and political—translated into splits in leftist movements in the years leading up to the Spanish Civil War. The fundamental split was between the socialists and the anarcho-syndicalists. The socialists tended to be more reformist, while the anarcho-syndicalists were straightforwardly revolutionary. Each party had its associated union, respectively the U.G.T. and the C.N.T., which most often refused to work with one another as they attempted to bring down the capitalist system using general strikes. Brenan’s histories of these movements—their origins, development, and leaders—constitutes the central portion of this book, and is absolutely first-rate.

On the conservative side, in addition to the wealthy landowners and the Church—not to mention the army—there were the Monarchists and the Carlists. The presence of Monarchists, in a country which still had a king living in exile, requires no explanation. The Carlists, on the other hand, were a distinctly Spanish product. The death of Fernando VII, in 1833, set off a series of civil wars (the war in 1936 was hardly the first in Spain) between two contending lines to the throne. Those who supported the pretender Don Carlos became known as Carlists. Theoretically, Monarchists and Carlists were arch-nemeses; but since, by the 1930s, the last living Carlist claimant was old and without an heir, the distinction had worn thin.

Trapped between these arch-conservative and revolutionary-leftist forces were a comparatively small group of liberals, who attempted to create a Republic in 1931. But they were doomed from the start. First, as Brenan notes, liberalism has historically had little appeal in Spain. What is more, the economic downturn—caused by the great depression—severely limited whatever resources the government had to work with. Meanwhile, forces from every side were determined to undermine or dismantle the nascent state. Go too far to appease one side, and they risked severe retaliation from the other. Threading its way between this Scylla and that Charybdis, the ship of state crashed and sank.

From this rather pathetic summary, I hope you can at least get a taste of how complex a story Brenan had to tell. Climatic and cultural regions, revolutionary movements, workers’ unions, political parties, the army, the Church, economical classes—all of these were involved in the conflagration. There do not even appear to be any outstanding individuals towards whom you can orient your gaze. Franco himself was notoriously uncharismatic. The final result is confusion—labyrinthine confusion—and given all this, Brenan did a terrific job in his analysis.

The book is flawed, of course. Like Richard Ford, and like so many foreign writers, Brenan is pre-disposed to find some essential core to the “Spanish personality,” which can be used as a catch-all historical explanation. More often these are crass stereotypes (Spaniards are lazy, excitable, etc.), or otherwise Romantic wishful thinking—for instance Brenan’s insistence on the Spanish abhorrence of the modern world. Another flaw is Brenan’s focus on the Left. Though his histories of socialism and anarcho-syndicalism are masterful, his analysis of the Right leaves a lot to be desired. One certainly does not get any clear picture of Franco’s program from these pages. Finally, by focusing so exclusively on Spain, Brenan ignores the wider international scope of the conflict. The rise of the communists from an obscure party to the most influential organization on the Republic side, for example, cannot be explained without turning one’s eye towards the Soviet Union.

But it won’t do to dwell on these shortcomings. Given that this book was written, not by a professional historian but an amateur, and that it was written so soon after the conflict came to an end, it is a near miraculous achievement. I may not be any closer to understanding war in general; but I do think I’ve come a long way towards understanding this one.

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A Puente in Zaragoza

A Puente in Zaragoza

In the center of the province of Aragon, on the banks of the second longest river in the Iberian Peninsula, the river Ebro, sits the city of Zaragoza. (In Spain, the name is pronounced “Tharagotha.”) The fifth largest city in the country, Zaragoza is comparatively ignored by tourists. Yet the city is well worth a visit. Populated since Roman times, conquered and ruled by the famous warrior, El Cid, and then governed by the Muslim Almoravids until reconquered by Alfonso I, the city has a long and important role in Spanish history.

But all I knew about the place, when I visited, was that it is relatively cheap and relatively close to Madrid. So one puente (a long weekend) in December, I decided to explore the city.

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The drive to Zaragoza took us through Soria—“the ugliest part of Spain,” said the driver of my blablacar, who didn’t like the Martian red soil of the province (I disagreed). Zaragoza itself is situated betwixt several mountains, which protect the city from rain but do not shield it from the mist that drifts down during winter. The city huddles around both banks of the Ebro, a wide and powerful river that is periodically spanned by low-lying bridges, connecting both halves of the city.

Zaragoza Bridge 2

I arrived fairly late in the day. The city was chilly, a fog hung about the air, some snow had recently fallen but little remained. My Airbnb host recommended a nearby walking path. I took her advice, having more than enough time to explore the city later. This path was called La Alfranca, and quickly led me outside the city and into the fields beyond, following the course of the Ebro going southeast.

Zaragoza field

This was my first trip alone in Spain. I enjoyed the solitude and the silence of the countryside. The skeletal forms of winter trees, arranged in neat rows, bisected fields of wheat. A lonely man in a tractor dug up a field. Joggers went by occasionally, but for the most part I was alone on the path. La Alfranca stretches 15 kilometers in total but I decided to turn back long before that, returning on the opposite bank of the Ebro.

Walking on in this way, I came back to the city. Eventually the magnificent form of Zaragoza’s famous basilica, Nuestra Señora de Pilar, rose up on the other side of the river, its four towers lit up from underneath with a pale yellow glow. I crossed over the Puente de Piedra, the oldest standing bridge in Zaragoza, which leads directly to the basilica. The design of this bridge is very similar to the Roman bridges that can be found in Spain, such as in Mérida or Córoba or Salamanca, but it was built in 1440, long after the Romans. There was, indeed, a Roman bridge that used to span the Ebro near that spot, but it was destroyed in the ninth century.

El Pilar_Fotor
El Pilar

I found my way to the Plaza de Pilar, Zaragoza’s central square, which stands in front of the basilica. The place was bustling with life. A Christmas market, selling nativity figurines and specialty foods, surrounded the periphery. In the middle was a life-sized nativity display, fenced off, which you had to pay to enter; there was a long line of eager families waiting. On one end of the square was a skating rink, full of people slipping and circling, and on the other side there was a large artificial hill where children and adolescents could ride down on inflatable red sleds.

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Kids sledding, with Le Seo behind

I went up to the food stand and ordered “hot wine,” which was warm and sweet, the perfect winter drink, and then I decided to eat dinner there. As I ate, the sound of music attracted my ears. A band, playing a fusion of traditional and rock music, was on stage performing; an accordion and a mandolin player supplemented the usual rock trio. I quite liked it. I stayed to watch the whole performance, and later, when it finished, a big group of amateur flamenco musicians set up chairs below the stage and began to sing and play. I must say I love encountering flamenco in this way, as a genuine part of daily life here in Spain. It is such a raw and gripping music, at once dramatic and unpretentious.

This was my first day in Zaragoza, a lovely walk followed by a lovely encounter with community life in the city. Already I had decided that I quite liked it here.

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Day two. Now it was time to explore the city’s monuments. My first stop was, of course, Nuestra Señora de Pilar.

The basilica gets its name from a legend. Saint James the Greater was in Spain, attempting to convert the (then Roman) citizens to Christianity. Dispirited by failure, he began to pray at the banks of the Ebro, and the Virgin Mary appeared to him in a vision, holding in her hand a column of jasper. According to tradition, James then established a small chapel in Spain—the first ever church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. In the center of the beautiful main altar is a small wooden statue of Mary standing atop a small jasper pillar, believed to have been given to James by Mary’s accompanying angles.

One need not believe this story to believe that the basilica has an impressively long history. After Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire and eventually made the state religion under Constantine, a basilica was built on the spot. This basilica subsequently underwent all the stylistic changes of Spanish history: Romanesque, Gothic, Mudéjar. In the fifteenth century a fire gutted and damaged the previous building; and thus the current edifice mostly owes its shape to the Baroque. Four high towers stand on each corner of the cathedral; a central dome, not quite as tall as the towers, is flanked by several smaller cupolas. The result is undeniably magnificent, giving the impression of tremendous size and elegant design.

The interior is equally grand, with white walls and long naves, flanked by rounded arches and topped with cupolas that let in the daylight. The decoration has none of that excess or horror vacui commonly associated with Baroque; rather the friezes and moldings are neoclassical in their symmetry and restraint. The floor-plan of the building is not a crucifix, but a grid, with several impressive altars nestled in different chapels.

When I entered, mass was being held in one of these, the Chapel of the Virgin. The priest stood before a statue of Mary, as she is carried up to heaven on a cloud, surrounded by a halo of golden sunlight. Along with El Transparente in the Cathedral of Toledo, this whole chapel, by Ventura Rodríguez, is one of the masterpieces of Spanish Baroque, clearly bearing the influence of Bernini.

Capilla de Pilar
Photo by Davas27, taken from Wikipedia Commons

The insides of the cupolas are decorated with colorful frescos showing scenes of heaven. A young Francisco de Goya was one of the painters who worked on these, though to my ignorant eyes his fresco does not have any of the distinctive marks of his later style. Among this embarrassment of riches, my favorite work was the main altarpiece, a colossal and stunningly intricate carving in alabaster. It is this altar that holds the legendary statue of the Virgin. My mind boggles as I contemplate the amount of time it would take to carve something so big and so finely detailed. One would think a lifetime would be needed for such a task; but the sculptor Damián Forment did it in just six years, from 1512 to 1518, mixing late Gothic and early Renaissance elements in the style.

Main Altar
El Pilar main altar

My next stop was Zaragoza’s cathedral, La Seo. Its real name is the Catedral del Salvador, but it is commonly call “La Seo” (Spanish for “Episcopal see”) to differentiate it from El Pilar. Somewhat unusually, Zaragoza doesn’t have one cathedral; instead El Pilar and La Seo share co-cathedral status.

La Seo
La Seo

From the outside La Seo is nothing compared with El Pilar. Indeed for a cathedral it is quite diminutive and inconspicuous. This is not to say that it is unattractive. The main entrance is, admittedly, adorned with a somewhat bland neoclassical façade; but the campanile is really lovely, an elegant Baroque structure whose tan outline cleaved the foggy sky. I particularly liked the floating angels who hold up the central clock. On the other side of the building you will be surprised to find a mudéjar exterior, complete with geometrical patterns and six-pointed stars. About one thousand years ago, a mosque occupied this spot; and the influence of the Moors can be seen still.

Leo Seo by Ecelan
Mudéjar exterior of La Seo. Photo by ecelan, taken from Wikipedia Commons

This stylistic jumble is a foretaste of what the visitor encounters on the interior. I still feel bitter that I was prevented from taking photos—I don’t know why some monuments prohibit them and others do not—since the chapels in La Seo are some of the most ornate and stunning that I have ever laid eyes upon.

Every chapel is in a world unto itself. Each one is executed in a different style. On the pillars and walls surrounding some were friezes of almost nauseating detail, full of vegetable patterns and gruesome figures, bodies and vines woven around one another in an intricate tapestry (this is called Churrigueresque). Not every chapel was so lavish; other were neat, orderly, and harmonious, and no less visually pleasing. I found myself staring in wonderment, spending a long time at each chapel, doing my best to disentangle the layers of images and commit the chapels to memory.

Considering that the visitor can find examples of so many different styles—Romanesque, Gothic, Mudéjar, Baroque, Churrigueresque, Plateresque, Aragonese Renaissance, and Neoclassical—La Seo is a veritable history of Spanish architecture in miniature. Its interior is just as impressive as the exterior of El Pilar.

My last stop was the Aljafería. This is the Alhambra of the north, a fortified castle that contains a Moorish interior. From the outside it is an imposing military edifice, complete with a moat (empty of water) and high walls. Though impressively massive, there is little to distinguish these walls, in my eyes, from other castles I’ve seen, except for a few horseshoe arches.

But this is far from true of the interior of the palace. Here you will find the greatest example of architecture from the Taifa period of Moorish Spain. This was the period after the fall of the Caliphate in Córdoba (1031), when power in the peninsula was highly decentralized, divided into many small “Taifa” kingdoms. The palace within the walls was mostly constructed between 1065 and 1081, under the auspices of Abú Yafar Al-Muqtadir.

Aljaferia

This palace is the most magnificent example from this period in Spain’s history, and each room merits deep study. Unfortunately my ignorance only allowed me to gape with admiration as I walked through, appreciating much but understanding little.

Aljaferia interior

One thing I did notice was that most of the arches were not the typical horseshoe shape I had come to associate with Moorish architecture. Instead, they are pointed arches, with a series of miniature arcs that provide ornamentation. (I believe the technical name is “mixtilinear arch.”) As is typical in Moorish and Mudéjar architecture, intricate stucco-work decorated the walls with fancy geometrical patterns and exotic arabesques; and the ceilings are the elaborate wooden type I have seen in many buildings across Spain. All of these features can be seen in the Golden Hall, the former throne room. Also characteristic was the garden courtyard, a cool interior space adorned with symmetrically arranged plants: this is the Patio de Santa Isabel, named after Isabel, canonized queen of Portugal (1282 – 1325), who was born in the Aljafería.

After inspecting this lovely space, I ascended some stairs and found myself in an entirely different world. This is the adjoining palace of Peter IV of Aragon, a Christian king of the 14th century. (Christians had conquered Zaragoza in 1118.) Though aesthetically quite different—closed spaces as opposed to open-air, for one thing—this palace is quite as lovely as the original, mixing Gothic and Mudéjar styles into a distinctly Spanish combination. The most impressive room is, as usual, the throne room, which is covered with a brilliant coffered ceiling—complete with six-pointed stars and hanging golden pine cones. This is a style of decoration called artesonado, heavily influenced by Moorish precedent and employed in many buildings in Spain.

Throne Room Ceiling
The ceiling of the throne room.

As you can see, the Aljafería has served as the seat of power for Muslim and Christian rulers alike. And it continues that function today, as the home of the Cortes of Aragón, the province’s regional government. Considering the huge lines that often attend visiting the famous Moorish monuments of the south—the Alhambra, the Alcázar, the Mezquita—I would say that the Aljafería is well worth your time, since there was no line at all.

Now it was lunch time, and I’m afraid my story takes on a farcical tone at this point. I was feeling somewhat lonely, and what’s more I wanted to treat myself, since it was my first trip of the school year. So I went to Zaragoza’s famous eating neighborhood, a street called El Tubo, and found a mall that had an Arrocería (a paella restaurant). I ordered myself paella and some patatas bravas—fried potatoes covered in a mild sauce. But I found that this was far more food than I anticipated. The quantity of potatoes was obviously meant for two people. But I was treating myself, so I decided that I would overeat and try to finish them all. Despite my typically American ability to stuff myself, I couldn’t quite do it; my stomach was full to bursting. After that, I went to get a coffee and cookies.

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A giant plastic statue of Caesar Augustus, wishing you Merry Christmas

Uncomfortably bloated and feeling a little sick, I waddled my way to my next stop: the Museo Pablo Gargallo. I actually had no idea what this was, and only went because of its high rating on Trip Advisor—such is modern tourism. Pablo Gargallo (1881 – 1934), it turns out, was one of the greatest sculptors of twentieth century Spain; and his museum, much like the Musée Rodin in Paris, is a grand collection of his works in an attractive historical building (in this case, a former palace).

Gargallo’s style wavered between classicism and modernism, combing traditional and cubist elements. His most famous work, El Profeta, is an excellent example of this: a moving mixture of Picasso and the Old Testament. (There’s a copy of this work in the Reina Sofia.)

But I was in no mood to deeply analyze his work. I was in pain. My stomach felt like it was filled with lead. Bullets of sweat were dripping down my back. Meanwhile, I was faced with an odd assortment of grotesque statues—twisted bodies, fragmented faces, simplified expressions—and I couldn’t help feeling unnerved, as if my suffering was somehow manifest in this museum.

Pablo Gargallo

Finally the pain got so bad I had to sit down. I unbuckled my belt and sat back, breathing hard. I couldn’t fool myself any longer: my day was over. When the agony abated somewhat, I got to my feet and left the museum. I was going back to my Airbnb; and since I wasn’t familiar with the public transportation system, I had to walk. So, clutching my belly, I slowly made my way through the winter streets, pausing now and then to recover myself.

About ten minutes into the walk I began to gag. Stomach acid scorched my throat as I choked it down. I knew it would feel good to just empty my innards; but I was surrounded by people and mortified by the possibility of vomiting in broad daylight. The gagging came stronger, I resisted, and it came stronger still. I was determined not to throw up; my belly had the opposite idea. Finally, after a heroic effort, I forced down an eruption. Suddenly the pressure let off; I thought I was in the clear. But then without warning it all came rumbling up, and I emptied my insides all over the street, my shoes, my scarf, and my coat. I was covered in it.

I looked bad, and smelled worse. I began to walk at full speed, keeping my eyes on the ground, determined not to make eye contact with anyone on the street. I still had a ten-minute walk ahead of me. I couldn’t even handle my phone since my hands were sticky and wet. Those minutes passed like hours. My adrenaline was pumping like mad, filling me with a nervous excitement, my fight-or-flight response temporarily suppressing my embarrassment and my disgust.

Finally I got to the apartment. I rushed up the stairs, nearly fell into the bathroom, and threw all my clothes into the shower. After an hour of frantic cleaning, I went wearily to my room, dwelling on my miserable condition.

So ended my trip to Zaragoza. Despite my mishap, I was extremely impressed. The next day I was going to Zaragoza’s famous nature preserve, El Monasterio de Piedra. But that’s for another post.

Review: Storm of Steel

Review: Storm of Steel

The Storm of SteelThe Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

War means the destruction of the enemy without scruple and by any means. War is the harshest of all trades, and the masters of it can only entertain humane feelings so long as they do no harm.

Ernst Jünger was a born soldier:neither risk-averse nor foolhardy, able to command the loyalty of others and to follow orders without question, able to fight without malice and kill without scruple. These are his captivating memoirs of fighting during the First World War.

The consensus of posterity regarding this war is that it was bloody, tragic, and ultimately inconclusive—the exemplar of a brutal, pointless war. Erich Maria Remarque, who fought on the same side and on the same front as Jünger—albeit far more briefly—writes of his experience with trauma and disgust. Yet Jünger’s memoirs, equally as bloody as All Quiet on the Western Front, are strangely warm and cheery. A born soldier, he felt right at home.

As regards the basic experiences of the war, Jünger’s memoirs cover all the bases: bloody hand-to-hand combat, endless artillery shelling, taking cover in shell-holes and scrambling to put on one’s gas-mask, swarms of flying shrapnel and bullets, and death forever prowling. But out of this basic fabric of experiences Jünger weaves a heroic and even jaunty tale, a battle narrative of gallantry and daring. Each soldier, in Jünger’s archaizing eyes, is a knight locked in a gentlemanly joust with an enemy, motivated by duty and honor. I often wondered whether this quaint way of viewing the war was some kind of subtle psychological defense mechanism, shutting out its horrors with a chivalrous fantasy; but Jünger seems to have carried this perspective with him before the fight even began.

In many ways Jünger reminds me of Patrick Leigh Fermor. Both war heroes, both adrenaline junkies, both of a seemingly inexhaustible vitality—Leigh Fermor lived to 96, Jünger to 104—and both obscenely well-educated, these two authors tend to see life as a legend. Jünger’s prose has little of that cinematographic immediacy as has Remarque’s. By comparison his writing is highly stylized, like a Byzantine mosaic or Homeric verse. Admittedly, this is more true of the first half than the second, which becomes quite thrilling. In any case it takes a special kind of person to compare an artillery bombardment to “a witch’s cauldron,” or to motivate oneself in battle by quoting a verse from Ariosto.

The ending of the book contains, in brief, some of Jünger’s thoughts on the significance of the war. Clausewitz’s famous aphorism, that war is “politics by other means,” seems to have been lost on Jünger. For him the war’s value was not in accomplishing any concrete objective—which was, in any case, foiled for Germany—but in hardening the fighting men. You might say that, for Jünger, the war was valuable for its own sake. The extreme circumstances of war roused in the soldiers an equally extreme dedication to an ideal beyond themselves, the ability to yield themselves completely to their Fatherland; and he thought that future generations would look on the soldiers much as saints:

And so, strange as it may sound, I learned from this very four years of schooling in force and in all the fantastic extravagance of material warfare, that life has no depth of meaning except when it is pledged for an ideal, and that there are ideals in comparison with which the life of an individual and even of a people has no weight.

Personally I find this view disturbing, as I’m sure many do. The nationalistic dreams of Kaisers are nothing in comparison with even one life. In any case I think history has amply proven Jünger mistaken; the very hardening anvil of war he praised led, in just a few years, to another, even more deadly war—under a regime which Jünger himself despised. And whatever we may think of the heroism displayed by individual soldiers, it is outweighed by the sheer horror of it all. I also must say that I am incredulous that someone who lost so many friends and comrades—and who himself narrowly escaped death, getting wounded 14 times—could talk in such fanciful, romantic, and vague terms about the lessons of the war—and again I wonder, was this some kind of defense mechanism?

In sum, this must be one of the oddest war memoirs ever published, equal parts exciting, off-putting, and exacerbating. For those interested in the First World War, certainly it is required reading.

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Review: Rimas y Leyendas

Review: Rimas y Leyendas

Rimas y leyendasRimas y leyendas by Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I know a hymn, giant and strange, that announces an aurora in the soul’s night; and these pages are from that hymn: cadences which expand in the overshadowed air.

Bécquer is an example of that species of national writers, almost universally known in their own countries, almost universally obscure elsewhere. Here in Spain he is the second most commonly assigned author in schools, only bested by Cervantes himself. But how many readers—even avid readers—outside of Hispanophone countries even know his name?

For an iconic Spaniard, Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer has a curiously Germanic name; change a few letters and you have Gustav Adolf Becker. Indeed, “Bécquer” wasn’t the name he was born with, but one he adopted later in life. (It was his father’s mother’s last name, of Flemish origin.) To me this Germanic tinge is singularly appropriate, since Bécquer was a prophet of Romanticism, an intellectual movement I most strongly associate with German authors.

Notwithstanding this Teutonic whiff, the writer who, in many ways, most closely resembles Bécquer is Edgar Allen Poe: both of them are authors of creepy tales and charming verses. Romantic writers to the bone, they both died relatively young (Bécquer at 34, Poe at 40), although Bécquer perhaps beats Poe by never having achieved widespread fame during his lifetime. This book, Bécquer’s most famous, is a collection of his most popular short stories (“Legends”) and several dozen short poems (“Rhymes”). Poetry was his first and truest love. Yet, as befalls so many of us, penury forced him into prose.

I read the Legends before the Rhymes. These are distinguished, most of all, by their atmosphere. The plot, the dialogue, the characters, the description—everything is subordinate to a certain mood, a mood of mystery and foreboding. The characters wander, wide-eyed and wondering, through haunted glades, enchanted monasteries, and cursed dens. And as is so common in literature written by men, beautiful women are mixed up with these demonic haunts; and Bécquer’s women are always surpassingly beautiful—with pure white skin and pure black hair. Added to this medieval twilight is a strong dose of Spanish Catholicism: beautiful Jewish and Moorish maids are whisked away by their Christian paramours, saved from their heathen fathers.

Some examples might illustrate these tales. In “El Rayo de Luna,” a wandering poet, who walks aimlessly from dawn to dusk in his aesthetic quest, encounters a beautiful woman, chases her until she mysteriously disappears, and then spends the rest of his life comparing everything to “a moonbeam.” In “Tres Fechas,” the Narrator spends most of his time in extended descriptions of old buildings in Toledo, only to be interrupted, three times, by a fleeting vision of a beautiful woman—with ivory-white skin, of course—until finally he encounters her taking the vows of a nun. In “Creed en Dios,” a young atheist kills a priest, gets lost in a forest, is overwhelmed by a cosmic vision, and suddenly awakens to find that generations have gone by—a sort of Catholic Rip Van Winkle. You get the idea.

Although I enjoyed the overwrought atmosphere of these legends, I must say I was surfeited by the end. The Rhymes, on the other hand, are absolutely charming from first to last. The poems seem to have been especially written for Spanish students, since they are surprisingly simple and easy, while maintaining a high quality throughout. In form they are as simple as can be, rhyming couplets or alternating ABAB patterns, sometimes with a refrain. In subject matter they concern themselves with the usual holy trinity of poetry: death, immortality, and love:

“What is poetry?” you ask while
You fix in mine your eyes of azure
What is poetry! And you ask me this?
Poetry… is you

It is light and airy, and appeals to the teenager in all of us—sometimes even to the wistful adult. For any students of Spanish, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

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Review: All Quiet on the Western Front

Review: All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western FrontAll Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All Quiet on the Western Front is an extraordinary war novel. It has everything you would expect from a book about World War I: the mixture of boredom and fear; the constant specter of gore; the unrelenting threat of death from every direction; the strong bonds between fellow soldiers and the hatred of superior officers; the reduction of life to its most basic elements; the depersonalization of oneself and one’s enemies; the feeling of apathy and pointlessness; and the difficulty in re-adjusting to civilian life. This, by and large, is the common image of the First World War nowadays, so it is surprising to me that this novel sparked controversy when it was first published. The Nazis eventually burned Remarque’s books, and later decapitated Remarque’s sister.

I have never been in battle, thank heavens, and I hope never to be. Thus the conditions described by Remarque, though doubtless true enough, often struck me as unreal—ghoulish nightmares rather than reality. Indeed, the First World War in general is hard for me to wrap my mind around. That so much carnage could result from such petty causes—it makes my stomach tie itself into a knot the more I think about it. And then there is the, for me, strange collision of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries: Kaisers and the aristocracy, cavalry charges, bayonets, juxtaposed with gas bombs, land mines, and heavy artillery. Technologically, it seems that defensive weapons far outpaced offensive ones. There were heavy artillery and machine guns, but neither were portable and so of limited use in an attack. Thus the endless trench warfare and the pointless offensives, as both sides could beat each other back but neither could win a decisive victory.

The final effect for the soldier, if he escaped with his body intact, was trauma. This was a world before PTSD; back then it was called “shell shock,” and poorly understood. But as Remarque describes the conditions on the front line, it is no wonder that recruits were traumatized; rather it would be a wonder if they weren’t. The carnage—bodies stabbed, shot, blown to bits, and wounded in every other imaginable way—was ever-present and horrific. Added to that is the constant fear—of artillery, snipers, landmines, electrified barbed wire, or merely getting separated from your fellows and lost in no-man’s land. And then the soldier must endure the loss of his friends—his fellow soldiers, with whom he forms bonds of terrific strength—as the war takes more and more men.

The worst part, perhaps, is that after enduring all this, the soldier cannot easily return to civilian life. In war, life is reduced to its bare essentials: the search for food, warmth, safety. Every moment, even those of rest, is part of a struggle to survive. Thus the soldier is shocked when he returns to his home. Civilian life, though enviably safe and comfortable, also seems terribly artificial, oriented towards goals that, to a soldier accustomed to struggling for bare survival, can seem superficial and even despicable. Remarque portrays this brilliantly, as the returning Narrator finds himself unable to communicate his experiences when he goes home on leave. After reading Proust’s novel set during the First World War, which focuses on the ridiculous pontifications of the socialites far behind the front lines, treating the war as just another topic for gossip, I can see why returning soldiers could feel disgusted.

Just thinking of how young these soldiers were—just eighteen when they began fighting—one realizes that a whole generation of men spent some of their most formative years in the most brutal conditions imaginable. It is no wonder they considered themselves the Lost Generation. And what was it for? Although admittedly the propaganda seems to have been quite effective in whipping up anti-German, -French, or -English sentiment, many soldiers must have felt like Stefan Zweig did—that the conflict was pointless. Remarque captures the absurdity of the situation: powerful men in ornate rooms, signing pieces of paper that result in thousands of young men fighting and killing thousands of other young men, not because any of them have any grievance against one another, but for the sake of the Fatherland.

Remarque conveys all this with a gripping immediacy. The story moves forward at lightning pace; and yet there is nuance and depth, too, in this short novel. Even though this is hardly a story of adventure, you realize that merely to keep on going required a kind of daily heroism—an unglamorous, grueling, thankless heroism—the loyalty to one’s fellows and the determination not to succumb to despair. War brings out both sides of the human character: our enormous capacity for violence and destruction, and our capacity for selfless devotion and extraordinary endurance. This is why war has formed one of the most popular themes of literature, going all the way back to Homer. But between those two extremes we often forget that war is long, boring, and terrifying, and that many people lose everything. It is this daily horror, and the daily heroism required to live through it, that Remarque captures.

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Review: The Analysis of Mind

Review: The Analysis of Mind

The Analysis of MindThe Analysis of Mind by Bertrand Russell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When you drop a weight on your toe, and you say what you do say, the habit has been caused by imitation of your undesirable associates, whereas it is brought into play by the dropping of the weight.

It is a puzzle of our modern scientific worldview that we have been extremely successful in explaining things remote from our experience, and yet have made comparatively little headway in explaining our experience itself.

We begin with physics, the king of the sciences. Here we are dealing with things like force, time, mass, charge—abstract qualities which we can define precisely and measure accurately. Using these variables we can, and have, constructed theoretical edifices which continue to astound me and the rest of the world with their surpassing precision and elegance. Yet it is in physics that we have found that our everyday notions are most flawed. Seemingly solid objects like tables and people are, it turns out, mostly empty space. Under certain circumstances, time slows down, objects become foreshortened. Space itself is not wholly distinct from time, but forms a four-dimensional fabric that bends in response to matter. And even our basic logical notions, like that of identity, fail miserably when confronted with the probabilistic world of quantum mechanics.

Things get a bit more orderly when we move up the scale of complexity from physics to chemistry. No longer are we dealing with matter in the abstract, but specific types of matter, with their own specific, recognizable qualities—smell, hardness, color. Here we can at least picture specks of matter, arranged into three-dimensional structures, changing and rearranging like grains of sand on a storm-tossed shore. Our ability to predict and explain the universe on this scale is less precise, and perhaps less elegant, than in physics, but it is nonetheless impressive. Yet as we climb the rungs of complexity from hydrogen to organic chemistry, up through biochemistry, we somewhere reach the frontier that separates life from inanimate matter.

Where we draw the line is, in part, merely a question of semantics; but it is also a scientific question, since we are interested in explaining the origins of life—and we can’t decide when life arose without deciding what life is. Viruses seem to sit right on this troubling boundary; but let’s put them to the side. We arrive, then, at bacteria, organisms too small to sense, but which still form the majority of life on earth, both in mass and variety. These little bitty dots of life float to and fro, performing their limited array of behaviors; and yet, simple as they are, do we have equations that could tell us exactly when a specific bacteria will divide, or exactly what direction it will turn next? And is not our knowledge of what life is even now so limited that we are still surprised, year after year, at the strange and inhospitable places we find bacteria happily residing?

Once we arrive at things like trees, mushrooms, bison, and baboons, all bets are off as far as predictive precision is concerned. It is true, we do have Darwinian evolution, which admirably and elegantly unites all of these phenomena into an orderly framework. Nonetheless, our knowledge here is qualitative, not quantitative; and when dealing with something like, say, animal behavior, biology sometimes approaches what can be called “natural history”—the mere collection of facts. Unlike in physics and in chemistry, where nearly every new particle or element is predicted beforehand—not only its mere existence, but its precise qualities, too—in biology, every new species discovered is a surprise. And even when we have good evolutionary grounds for predicting an ancestral species, the exact qualities of said species cannot be simply deduced from a theory; they must be inferred from remains and analogs.

Finally, we get to our own behavior—and here things get really messy. Because we humans exhibit such behavioral flexibility, we can’t quite decide where genetic influence ends and environmental influence begins. Nor can we even make definitive statements about the limits of our behavioral flexibility, as shown by the Westerners who were continually flabbergasted at the discoveries of cultural anthropologists. Moreover, our dominant theories of human behavior in the social sciences contradict one another. The premises of economics run counter to those of anthropologists; evolutionary psychologists and sociologists make different assumptions and operate within incompatible paradigms. Thus we are left with the ironic result that we can predict the behavior of an electron, which nobody has ever seen, with enormous precision, and yet cannot predict the behavior of our spouses, who we see every day, despite our most valiant efforts.

This isn’t a pretty picture; but the next step in our journey is even uglier. When we arrive at the threshold between body and mind, we are stumped completely. How does consciousness arise from a blob of neural tissue? How do chemical signals and electric jolts, when arranged in a sufficiently complicated network, give rise to awareness? How on earth do we explain choice, will, fear, hope? We reach for science, but here our typical scientific approach encounters an obstacle. Science, which is a method for achieving objective results, is being asked to explain subjectivity; a technique for paring away our biases and partialities, leaving only the truth, is being applied to the very center of our biases and partialities. In short, the only indubitable evidence we have of our awareness is purely personal, and yet such evidence—namely, eyewitness testimony—is inadmissible in the scientific enterprise.

In these paradoxical territories, where we cannot yet achieve satisfactory results using empirical research, philosophy makes its home. And here is where Bertrand Russell enters. Published in 1921, The Analysis of Mind is Russell’s attempts to muster the greatest science and philosophy of his day to explain the human mind. Relying not only on his own techniques of logical analysis, Russell draws on David Hume’s empiricism, William James’s psychology, Freud’s psychoanalysis, and the recently-developed behaviorism, quoting scientific papers more often than other philosophers. It is a valiant effort, and I’m not sure how much better Russell could have done given the knowledge available at the time.

Nevertheless, from the perspective of our own day, this book is quite clearly outdated. The most general flaw is that Russell doesn’t posit nearly enough complexity in the mind to account for the richness of mental activity. Again, this is as much the fault of Russell’s influences as Russell himself. Hume thought the mind was merely a succession of sensations and images; William James mainly relied on habit to explain human behavior; Freud divided the mind into the conscious, the unconscious, and the censor, reducing all motivation to the sex drive; and behaviorism, of course, attempts to circumvent the mind completely, explaining everything through observable actions.

Russell more or less attempts to put these theories together, fiddling with one here, another there, trying to find the right combination to account for the human mind. The result is, I’m sorry to say, supremely unconvincing. For example, a ubiquitous feature of human behavior is language, which certainly cannot be accounted for by mere stimulus-and-response, as Russell attempts to do here. Language is not a mere habit, the way that biting your nails is. This has been evinced by the extraordinary difficulty in constructing translating programs—something which, of course, was far in the future when Russell wrote this. Also flat-footed was Russell’s attempt to built up all the contents of the mind with mere sensations and images (imagined sensations). For example, how could you build up something like happiness from sights, sounds, and tactile sensations? Could you construct despair out of moonlight, a minor chord, and the smell of mould?

Most troubling, though, was Russell’s attempt at monism. Now, to backtrack a little, in philosophy two approaches have been offered to supplant the mind-body problem. The first is materialism, which considers everything supposedly mental to be, at most, the mere byproduct of something physical; and the second is idealism, which takes the opposite approach—namely, considering everything in the universe to be really mental. Spinoza famously tried to steer a middle course, and proposed that matter and mind were two forms of the same thing, a doctrine which has been called “neutral monism.” This idea was much later taken up by William James, and is put forward here by Russell, under James’s influence. The problem, however, is that in positing something intermediary and more fundamental than matter and mind, Russell does violence to both.

Russell’s solutions is essentially to reduce everything to sensations. Physics deals with the behavior of sensations from every possible perspective, whereas psychology deals with the behavior of sensations from only one perspective. Thus, a table in physics is just a table seen from every possible angle, under every possible light, and so on; and a single person’s experience is a successions of sensations—a table, a chair, a pizza—seen from one vantage point. Note the advantage: if mind and matter are just two aspects of the same thing, the mind-body problem is solved. In keeping with this view, Russell suggests that matter is, in his words, a “logical fiction,” which physicists merely posit as the glue to hold the data of sensations together. In his words:

Instead of supposing that there is some unknown cause, the “real” table, behind the different sensations of those who are said to be looking at the table, we may take the whole set of these sensations (together possibly with certain other particulars) as actually being the table. That is to say, the table which is neutral as between different observers (actual and possible) is the set of all those particulars which would naturally be called “aspects” of the table from different point of view.

I have very little sympathy for this view, as perhaps do most other people nowadays. Making sensations fundamental puts humans at the very center of reality. The world was around a long time before life arose, and thus cannot be explained as a collection of sensations. Moreover, our current understanding of physics requires that certain things, far outside of our experience, be treated as fundamental; and even though these entities are merely deduced, never directly observed through our senses, by using them we can formulate predictions of extreme precision and accuracy, which is the goal of science.

Russell might respond that, in the interest of applying Occam’s razor, we should ideally have a science that rests on directly observable data (i.e. sensations), since every microscopic particle we posit is an extra, hypothetical entity. Nevertheless, such a thing doesn’t seem possible—which isn’t surprising, considering that, so far as we know, the way we perceive the universe is accidental, limited, and imprecise, the result of the needs of an ape species living on a small planet orbiting an ordinary star. But Francis Bacon, writing 400 years ago, might have said it best:

But by far the greatest hindrance and aberration of the human understanding proceeds from the dullness, incompetency, and deceptions of the senses; in that things which strike the sense outweigh things which do not immediately strike it, though they be more important. Hence it is that speculation commonly ceases where sight ceases; insomuch that of things invisible there is little or no observation.

In fact, the relationship of what we actually sense to modern physics is fairly tenuous. When we are, for example, running an experiment and using a detecting device, what matters is the information the device displays, not the sensations we experience. For example, the detector might display its readings in neon green lettering, in roman numerals, in Chaucerian English, in Egyptian hieroglyphics—in whatever language you want. These would all be quite different sensations, but would all signify the same thing. In short, it is what we deduce from our experience, rather than our experience itself, which is significant.

This, of course, brings us back to our initial paradox—namely, that we can deduce the origins of the universe from our experience, but we cannot explain how our experience arises from our brains. Well, at least Russell cannot; and if he can’t, what hope do I have?

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Review: Titus Andronicus

Review: Titus Andronicus

Titus AndronicusTitus Andronicus by William Shakespeare

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This play is famous for being Shakespeare’s dud, not only bad by his lofty standards but by any standard. Even Harold Bloom, who worships Shakespeare this side of idolatry, calls Titus Andronicus “ghastly bad.” The plot is mechanical and clumsy—but admittedly that’s true of many Shakespeare plays. More important, the characters are bland and flat, with the notable exception of Aaron the Moor, who nevertheless is still leagues behind the serviceable villains Iago and Edmund. But the main problem, for audiences and critics, has been the violence. This play is a bloodbath; character are not just killed, they are hacked to bits.

True idolaters of Shakespeare have attempted to defend him from this play. The most obvious defense is that he didn’t write it, or that he collaborated with someone else and only wrote the good bits. Unfortunately the available evidence seems to support the Bard’s authorship. This would hardly be surprising, given the time period. Elizabethan audiences were quite fond of bloodshed; and this play was wildly successful in Shakespeare’s lifetime. Harold Bloom takes a subtler approach in Shakespeare’s defense, and asserts that Shakespeare wrote this to free himself from the influence of Christopher Marlowe, by parodying Marlowe’s style to excess. This reading does have its merits. Many passages are nearly impossible to read straight:

Come, brother, take a head,
And in this hand the other will I bear
And, Lavinia, thou shalt be employ’d
Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between thy teeth.

I agree with Bloom that these lines, the last in particular, cannot be read without a shocked chortle. And Aaron the Moor, devious plotter, is as ridiculous as Dr. Evil in his famous monologue:

Even now I curse the day—and yet, I think, / Few come within the compass of my curse— / Wherein I did not some notorious ill; / As kill a man, or devise his death; / Ravish a maid, or plot a way to do it; / Accuse some innocent, and forswear myself; / Set deadly enmity between two friends; / Make poor men’s cattle break their necks; / Set fire on barns and hay-stacks in the night, / And bid the owners quench them with their tears. / Oft I have digg’d up dead men from their graves, / And set them upright at their friends’ door / Even when their sorrow as almost forgot, / And on their skins, as on the bark of trees, / Have with my knife carved in Roman letters / “Let not your sorrows die, though I am dead.” / Tut, I have done a thousand dreadful things / As willingly as one would kill a fly; / And nothing grieves me more heartily indeed / But that I cannot do ten thousand more.

And yet the play is rarely funny, not even unintentionally funny. Indeed, some lines have a certain gravity and grandeur, though they are often marred by melodrama. Titus’s impassioned sorrow, too, does contain a faint hint of Lear’s magnificently mad grief:

If there were reason for these miseries
Then into limits could I bind my woes
When heaven doth weep, doth not the earth o’erflow?
If the winds rage, doth not the sea wax mad,
Threatening the welkin with his big-swoln face?
And wilt thou have a reason for this coil?

But even the most charitable appraisal must rate Titus Andonicus far behind the other tragedies. Of all Shakespeare’s plays that I know, it is the most marked by its Elizabethan origins, the least able to transcend its epoch. The only indication that this playwright will go on to do bigger and greater things is Aaron the Moor, by far the most “Shakespearean” character in the play, whose tenderness for his newborn son adds an extra dimension to his villainy.

All this being said, I still must say I quite enjoyed Titus Andronicus. This is probably because we are nowadays swinging back around to Elizabethan sensibilities. In a world where Game of Thrones—far more bloody and gruesome than this play—is the most popular show in the world, Titus Andronicus is neither intolerably gory nor overly melodramatic. Indeed, I think if HBO did a production of it, they could make a lot of money.

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Review: Working

Review: Working

WorkingWorking by Studs Terkel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

They ask me if it’s true that when we bury somebody we dig ‘em out in four, five years and replace ‘em with another one. I tell ‘em no. When these people is buried, he’s buried here for life.

—Elmer Ruiz, Gravedigger

It is not really accurate to call Terkel the “author” of this book. The real authors are the 133 subjects of Terkel’s interviews. Terkel serves as a stenographer and redactor, recording interviews and editing them into readable format. This is no mean feat, of course. The ability to get everyday people to open up and share their private thoughts is an uncommon skill. And considering how messy, faltering, and scatterbrained most ordinary speech is, rare talent is required to edit it into readable form while preserving the subject’s voice. Terkel is the ideal person for this task, able to ask probing but open-ended questions, creating interviews that follow the train of the subject’s thoughts without straying off topic. The result is a panoramic view of people and professions, encompassing nearly every imaginable attitude towards work, representing a wide swath of the public without reducing variation to a single narrative.

Books like this are especially valuable, considering how prone we are to taking work for granted. Work, as an institution, is a fairly recent phenomenon, the child of the Industrial Revolution. Back when the vast majority of the populace were farmers, “work” did not exist. Farmers work very hard, of course, but the rhythm of their work is dictated by the seasons; there are no set hours and no salary. The way we make our living is radically different from how our ancestors did; and yet work, nowadays, seems like the most natural thing in the world, more eternal and more important than marriage. This lack of scrutiny is especially striking, considering that our jobs dictate our social status, consume most of our time, and are usually the number one thing we complain about.

So what are the common themes of these interviews? One is boredom. Adam Smith famously proclaimed the economic benefits of the division of labor, which allows workers to be orders of magnitude more productive by dividing up tasks. But Smith was also wary of the dangers of this division:

The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.

Well, as Terkel shows, this is not quite accurate. Even the workers who have worked their whole lives doing very repetitive work show themselves thoughtful and humane in their interviews. Mike Lefevre, an astonishingly articulate steelworker, says “It isn’t that the average working guy is dumb. He’s tired, that’s all.” The real danger is not stupidity, but profound boredom, which is arguably worse. I know this from experience: though apparently harmless, boredom can be hellish, and can wreak serious harm on your psyche. And it is a ubiquitous malady, either from repetition or simple inactivity. Nora Watson, an editor in an advertising agency, says:

Jobs are not big enough for people. It’s not just the assembly line worker whose job is too small for his spirit, you know? A job like mine, if you really put your spirit into it, you would sabotage immediately. You don’t dare. So you absent your spirit from it. My mind has been so divorced from my job, except as a source of income, it’s really absurd.

Connected to this boredom is a kind of brutish narrowness. Every person, even the most ordinary, is radically unique, with their own perspective, talents, and propensities. Jobs, on the other hand, often require only a very limited set of skills, forcing the worker to neglect a large part of their potential and to put aside their own priorities and preferences. Thus workers in this book often report feeling like “machines” or being “dehumanized,” such as Eric Nesterenko, a hockey player:

I know a lot of pro athletes have a capacity for a wider experience. But they wanted to become champions. They had to focus themselves on their one thing completely. His primary force when he becomes champion is his ego trip, his desire to excel, to be somebody special. To some degree, he must dehumanize himself.

Some workers feel dissatisfied because of the disconnect between their jobs and the rest of their lives. Kay Stepkin, director of bakery cooperative, says: “I see us living in a completely schizophrenic society. We live in one place, work in another place, and play in a third. You have to talk differently depending on who you’re talking to.” Other workers lament the separation of their work and the final product, such as Mike Lefevre: “It’s hard to take pride in a bridge you’re never gonna cross, in a door you’re never gonna open. You’re mass-producing things and you never see the end result of it.” The common theme is social compartmentalization and the feeling of isolation that results, something that the philosopher John Lachs thinks is responsible for modern alienation.

It goes without saying that inequality—economic, social, political—is a major source of concern. Roberto Acuna, a farm worker, has this to say:

I began to see how everything was so wrong. When growers have an intricate watering system to irrigate their crops but they can’t have running water inside the houses of workers. Veterinarians tend to the needs of domestic animals but they can’t have medical care for the workers. They can have land subsidies for the growers but they can’t have adequate unemployment compensation for the workers. They treat him like a farm implement. In fact, they treat their implements better and their domestic animals better. They have heat and insulated barns for the animals but the workers live in beat-up shacks with no heat at all.

Curiously, the bosses and elites on the other end of the differential, though more satisfied with their work, sometimes displayed alarmingly unhealthy or superficial mindsets:

My interest in motorcycles was for the money originally. I saw this was going to be a big field. Later, business becomes a game. Money is the kind of way you keep score. How else you gonna see yourself go up? If you’re successful in business, it means you’re making money. It gets to the point where you’ve done all the things you want to do. There’s nothing else you want to buy any more. You get a thrill out of seeing the business grow. Just building it bigger and bigger…

In America, where our jobs are one of the main determinants of our social standing, it is no surprise that status anxiety plays a big role in worker dissatisfactions. Dave Stribling, who works in an automobile service station, doesn’t like telling people what he does:

What really gets you down is, you’re at some place and you’ll meet a person and strike up a conversation with ’em. Naturally, sometimes during that conversation he’s going to ask about your occupation, what you do for a living. So this guy, he manages this, he manages that, see? When I tell him—and I’ve seen it happen lots of times—there’s a kind of question mark in his head.

And then there is that universal blight of modernity, the lack of meaning. The feeling of being useless, of wasting your talents, of working solely for profit or a paycheck, plagued many of the subjects in this book. This was most heartrending when expressed by the older subjects. Steve Dubi, a steelworkers, says: “What have I done in my forty years of work? I led a useless life. Here I am almost sixty years old and I don’t have anything to show for it.” And here is Eddie Jaffe, a press agent: “I can’t relax. ‘Cause when you ask a guy who’s fifty-eight years old, ‘What does a press agent do?’ you force me to look back and see what a wasted life I’ve had. My hopes, my aspirations—what I did with them. What being a press agent does to you. What have I wound up with? Rooms full of clippings.”

The modern remedy for this feeling of meaninglessnes, to “follow your passion,” also left many feeling lost and confused. Here is Sharon Atkins, a receptionist: “I don’t know what else I’d like to do. That’s what hurts the most. That’s why I can’t quit this job. I really don’t know what talents I have. I’ve been fostered so long by school and didn’t have time to think about it.” And some, like the unforgettable Cathleen Moran, a hospital aide, are just annoyed by the idea: “I don’t know any nurse’s aid who likes it. You say, ‘Boy, isn’t that rewarding that you’re doing something for humanity?’ I say, ‘Don’t give me that, it’s a bunch of baloney. I feel nothin’.’ I like it because I can watch the ball games in the afternoon.”

By the end of this list, it is easy to see what Studs Terkel means with his opening lines: “This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence—to the spirit as well as to the body.” But Working is not totally bleak. There are many workers, often in very ordinary jobs, who report great satisfaction. This seemed to be associated with jobs that require a lot of social interaction. I experienced this myself, when I switched from a desk job to teaching. It is hard to feel isolated and useless when you’re constantly dealing with people. Dolores Dante, a waitress, enjoys the constant waves of new customers: “I have to be a waitress. How else can I learn about people? How else does the world come to me?”

Another obvious source of satisfaction is expertise. One of the most satisfied subjects in this book is Babe Secoli, a supermarket checker. She is satisfied with her work because she does it well. In the days before barcodes and digital cash registers, Babe memorized all the prices in the store: “I’m not ashamed that I wear a uniform and nurse’s shoes and that I got varicose veins. I’m makin’ an honest living. Whoever looks down on me, they’re lower than I am.”

But perhaps the biggest source of satisfaction is the feeling of helping others. This is what Jean Stanley, a cosmetics saleswoman, takes pleasure in, despite not considering her job very important: “You would have liked to do something more exciting and vital, something you felt was making a contribution. On the other hand, when you wait on these lonely old women and they leave with a smile and you feel you’ve lifted their day, even a little, well, it has its compensations.”

This book certainly shows its age. There are many professions which no longer exist, mostly due to automation. But as a portrait of work, as a modern institution, Terkel has given us something timeless.

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Review: In Search of Lost Time

Review: In Search of Lost Time

In Search of Lost Time  (À la recherche du temps perdu #1-7)In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In reality, every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have perceived in himself.

I struggled with Proust, on and off, for three years. I read these books sitting, standing, lying down, in cars and on trains, waiting in airports, on commutes to work, relaxing on vacation. Some of it I read in New York, some in Madrid, Lisbon, Vienna. By now this book functions as my own madeleine, with different passages triggering memories from widely scattered places and periods in my life.

I am surprised I reached the end. Every time I put down a volume, I was sure I would never pick up another; each installment only promised more of the same and I had already had more than enough; but then the nagging sense of the incomplete overcame my aversion and, with mixed feeling, I would pick up the next one and repeat the experience.

Throughout this long voyage, my response to Proust has been consistent—I should say consistently inconsistent—alternately admiration and frustration. There are times when I fall completely under Proust’s spell, and times when I find his writing intolerable. Probably this mixture has much to do with what Harold Bloom called the “anxiety of influence,” since almost as soon as I finished the first volume, I started working on a novel, a novel which very clearly bears the traces of Proust’s influence. It may be that, with Proust, I have something of an Oedipal complex, and I need to lodge criticism at his work in order to clear the air for my own—though I don’t know. What I do know is that my reactions to this book have proven tempestuous and I have yet to spur myself to write a fair review.

When approaching a novel of this size and complexity, it is difficult to know where to start. Can In Search of Lost Time even be called a novel? In a writing class my instructor told us that any story needs to have a protagonist, an objective, a series of obstacles, a strategy for overcoming these obstacles, a sequence of failures and successes, all of it culminating in a grand climax that leads directly to a resolution. If you look carefully, you can, indeed, make out the bare outline of this dramatic pattern in Proust’s work. But, like the slender skeleton of a peacock buried under a mountain of feathers, this outline serves as a vague scaffold over which are draped colorful ornament; and it is the ornament that attracts our attention.

In most novels, any given passage will serve some dramatic purpose: characterization, description, plot. However, there are times when the author will pull back from the story to make a more general comment, on society, humanity, or the world. These comments are, very often, pungent and aphoristic—the most quotable section of the whole book, since they do not depend on their context. Some authors, like Dickens, very infrequently make these sorts of remarks; others, like George Elliot, are full of them: “Will not a tiny speck very close to our vision blot out the glory of the world, and leave only a margin by which we see the blot? I know of no speck so troublesome as self.”

Elliot’s masterpiece, Middlemarch, is distinguished for being simultaneously didactic and dramatic, equal parts analysis and art. Proust goes even further in the direction of analysis, totally overwhelming every other aspect of the book with his ceaseless commentary. No event, however insignificant, happens without being dissected; the Narrator lets no observation go unobserved, even at the cost of being redundant. This endless exegesis, circling the same themes with relentless exactitude, is what swells this book to its famously vast proportions. Tolstoy, no laconic writer, used less than half the length to tell a story that spanned years and encompassed whole nations. The story Proust tells could have been told by, say, Jane Austen in 400 pages—although this would leave out everything that makes it worth reading.

Different as the two authors are, the social milieu Proust represents is oddly reminiscent of Jane Austen’s world, being populated by snobby aristocrats who jostle for status and who never have to work, a world of elegant gatherings, witty conversation, and artistic dilettantism. Austen and Proust also share an affinity for satirizing their worlds, although they use different means for very different ends. In any case, both Austen’s England and Proust’s France are long gone, and it can be very difficult for the modern reader to sympathize with these characters, whose priorities, manners, and lifestyle are so distant from our own. Why should we care about soirées and salons, dukes and duchesses, who do nothing but gossip, pursue petty love affairs, and pontificate ignorantly in their pinched world?

Yet this narrow social milieu, though always in focus, only forms the backdrop for Proust’s real purpose; and this purpose is suitably universal: to create a religion of art. A new religion was needed. Proust was writing at a turbulent time in European history: in the aftermath of the Death of God, as the fin de siècle high society of his youth was shattered by World War I, as new notions of psychology overturned old verities of human behavior, as every convention in art, music, and literature was being broken. Even the physical world was becoming unrecognizable—populated by quantum fields and bending space-time. It was the world of Freud’s unconscious, Einstein’s relativity, and Picasso’s cubism, when new theories about everything were embraced. Granted, Proust may have been only peripherally aware of these historical currents, but he was no doubt responsive to them, as this novel amply proves.

In this book, Proust sets out to show that our salvation lays in art. This means showing us that our salvation does not lay in anything else. Specifically, Proust must demonstrate that social status and romantic love, two universal human aspirations, are will-o’-the-wisps. He does this subtly and slowly. First, as a young man, the Protagonist is awed by high society. The names of famous actresses, writers, composers, and most of all socialites—the aristocratic Guermantes—hold a mysterious allure that he finds irresistible. He slowly learns how to behave in salons and to hold his own in conversation, eventually meeting all the people he idolized from afar. But when he finally does make the acquaintance of these elite socialites, he finds that their wit is exaggerated, their knowledge superficial, their opinions conventional, their artistic taste deficient. In short, the allure of status was empty.

And not only that, temporary. In the final volume, Proust demonstrates that status waxes and wanes with changes of fashion, often in unforeseen ways. By the end of the book, Rachel, who began as a prostitute, is a celebrated actress; while Berma, who began as a celebrated actress, ends as a broken down old women, still respected but no longer fashionable. The Protagonist’s friend, Bloch, who is a flatfooted, stupid, and awkward man, ends the book as a celebrated author, despite a total lack of originality or wit. The Baron de Charlus, an intensely proud man, ends up doffing his hat to nearly anyone he runs into in the street, while the rest of society ostracizes him. Status, in other words, being based on nothing but mass whim, is liable to change whimsically.

Proust’s views of love are even more cynical. The Protagonist does have a genuine affection for his mother and grandmother; but these are almost the only genuine bonds in the entire long novel. When Proust looks at romantic love, he sees only delusion and jealousy: an inability to see another person accurately combined with a narcissistic urge to possess and a paranoia of losing them. The archetypical Proustian relationship is that between Swann and Odette, wherein Swann, a figure in high-society, has a casual dalliance with Odette, a courtesan, and despite not thinking much of Odette, Swann nearly loses his mind when he begins to suspect she is cheating on him. He marries Odette, not out of romantic passion, but in order to gain some measure of peace from his paranoid jealousy.

Summarized in this way, Proust’s views seem, if somewhat disenchanted, hardly radical. But the real thrust of Proust’s thinking depends on a truly radical subjectivism. This book, as Harold Bloom points out, is wisdom literature, firmly rooted in the introspective tradition of Montaigne. But Proust is more than introspective. A true Cartesian, Proust is solipsistic. And much of his rejection of worldly sources of happiness, and his concomitant embrace of art, depends on this intensely first-person view of the world.

In his emphasis on the subjective basis of reality, Proust’s thought is often oddly reminiscent of Buddhism. Our personalities, far from being stable, are nothing but an endless flux that changes from moment to moment; each second we die and are born again. What’s more, we perceive other people through the lens of our own desires, knowledge, opinions, and biases, and therefore never perceive accurately. There are as many versions of you as there are people to perceive you. Thus we never really know another person. Our relationships with friends and lovers are really relationships with mental constructions that have only a tenuous connection with the real person:

The bonds between ourselves and another person exist only in our minds. Memory as it grows fainter loosens them, and notwithstanding the illusion by which we want to be duped and with which, out of love, friendship, politeness, deference, duty, we dupe other people, we exist alone. Man is the creature who cannot escape from himself, who knows other people only in himself, and when he asserts the contrary, he is lying.

You might think that this is a shockingly cynical view, and it is; but Proust adheres to it consistently. Here he is on friendship:

… our friends being friends only in the light of an agreeable folly which travels with us through life and to which we readily accommodate ourselves, but which at the bottom of our hearts we know to be no more reasonable than the delusions of the man who talks to furniture because he believes that it is alive…

And love, of course, comes off much even worse than friendship:

Almost everyone was surprised at the marriage, and that in itself is surprising. No doubt very few people understand the purely subjective nature of the phenomenon we call love, or how it creates, so to speak, a supplementary person, distinct from the person whom the world knows by the same name, a person most of whose constituent elements are derived from ourselves.

In the dissolving acid of Proust’s solipsism, one can see why he considers both social status and romantic love as vain pursuits, since they are not, and can never be, based on anything but a delusion.

Of course, status and love do bring people happiness, at least temporarily. But Proust is careful to show that all happiness and sadness caused by these things have nothing to do with their reality, but only with our subjective understanding of that reality. Depending on how we interpret a word or analyze an intention; depending on whether we hold someone in esteem or in contempt—depending, in short, on how we subjectively understand what we experience—we will be happy or sad. The source of all suffering and bliss is in the mind, not the world, but we are normally blind to this fact and thus so on mistakenly trying to alter the world: “I had realized before now that it is only a clumsy and erroneous perception which places everything in the object, when really everything is in the mind…”

As you can see, we are moving in a strikingly mystical direction, where love and success are just egotistic delusions, hypostatized mental artifacts that we mistake for solid reality. Proust’s answer to this predicament is also mystical in flavor. Normally we are trapped by our perspective, thinking that we are viewing reality when we are actually just experiencing our own warped mental apparatus. To break us out of this trap we must first experience unhappiness: “As for happiness, that is really useful only in one way only, by making unhappiness possible.” And unhappiness results when something we mistook to be solid—reputation, love, even life itself—is shown to be fleeting and unreal, that our everyday reality is based on nothing but lies, mistakes, and misunderstandings. You might say this is Proust’s version of Christian consolation. For in the despair that opens up during these crises, we can give up our fantasies and partake in Proustian mysticism.

This mysticism consists in reconnecting with our basic sensations. To do this, Proust does not, like the Buddhists, turn to meditation on the present moment. Instead, he relies on art and memory. Normal language is totally inadequate to this task. Our words, being universally used, only convey that aspect of experience that is common to everyone; all the individual savor of a perception, its most essential quality, is lost. But great artists—like the fictitious Vinteuil, Bergotte, or Elstir—can use their medium to overcome the usual limits of discourse, transmitting the full power of their perspectives. Even so, this artistic communication can only act as a spur for our own introspective quest. Shorn of illusory happiness, inspired by example, we can probe our own memory and experience the bliss of pure experience.

Memory is essential in this, for Proust thinks that it is only by juxtaposing one experience with another that we can see the perception in its pure form, without any reference to our conventional reality. This is why moments of involuntary memory, like the madeleine episode, are so important for Proust: it is in these moments, when a present experience triggers a long-buried memory, that we can re-visit the experiences of our past, free from delusion, as a pure impartial spectator. The final Proustian wisdom is essentially contemplative, passive, aesthetic, able to see the ironies of human life and to appreciate the recurring patterns of human existence.

Proust’s goal, then, is to do for the reader what Bergotte, Elstir, and Vinteuil did for his Narrator: to create art that acts as a window to the self. And his style is exactly suited to this purpose. In my review of a book on meditation, I noted what I called the “novelistic imagination,” which is our tendency to see the world as a setting and ourselves as the Protagonist, beset by trials and tribulations. Meditation aims to break out of this rather unrealistic mindset by focusing on the present moment. Proust’s aim is similar but his method is different. He takes the narrative tendency of the novelistic imagination, and stretches and stretches, pulling each sentence apart, twisting it around itself, extending the form and padding the structure until the narration is hardly narration at all, until you are simply swimming in a sea of sounds.

By doing so, Proust allows you to feel the passage of time, to make time palpable and real, and to feel our memory processing and being activated over and over again in response to passing sensations. This way, Proust hopes to bring us in contact with reality: “An hour is not merely an hour, it is a vase full of scents and sounds and projects and climates, and what we call reality is a certain connection between these immediate sensations and the memories which envelop us simultaneously with them…”

This is my attempt to elucidate Proust’s aesthetic religion. Of course, like any religion of art, it is objectionable for manifold reasons: it lacks any moral compass, it is elitist, it is purely passive. Not only that, but Proust connects with his religion a solipsism that is questionable on philosophic grounds, not to mention cynical in the extreme. It is a cold, antisocial, unsympathetic doctrine, with appeal only to disenchanted aesthetes. But of course, this is ultimately a work of art and not of philosophy; and so In Search of Lost Time must be judged on literary grounds.

When it comes to the criteria by which we judge a usual novelist—characterization, dialogue, plot—I think Proust is somewhat weak. There is, of course, little plot to speak of. And although Harold Bloom thought that Proust was a rival of Shakespeare when it came to characterization—a judgment that baffles me—I felt very little for any of the people in this novel. They all speak in Proust’s longwinded voice, and so never came alive for me. It always seems as if I am overhearing Proust describe someone rather than meeting them myself.

But of course one cannot appraise Proust using these standards. This novel is, above all, audacious. It is a modernist tour de force, which turns nearly every novelistic convention on its head. More than that, it is a novel of ideas, which puts forward a radical view of the human predicament and its own answers to the perennial questions of life. It is wisdom literature rooted deeply in tradition, while being absolutely original and uncompromising in its newness. It is both intensely beautiful and intensely ugly—hideously sublime. For anyone who can pull themselves through all its pages, it will leave them deeply marked. I know I have been.

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