Hawking Up Hairballs

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Great Transformation

I just finished reading “The Great Transformation: The Beginning of our Religious Traditions” by Karen Armstrong. She has written a number of books on religious and spiritual matters. In this one, she addresses the origins of the world’s religious traditions. As she puts it in the introduction, “From about 900 to 200 BCE, in four distinct regions, the great world traditions that have continued to nourish humanity came into being: Confucianism and Daoism in China; Hinduism and Buddhism in India; monotheism in Israel; and philosophical rationalism in Greece.” Not only that, but she attempts to show that each of these traditions went through the same stages of growth, and that each of them came to the realization that all is one, which led each to formulate a variation of the Golden Rule as the guide to a virtuous life.

It’s a nice try, but it doesn’t really work for me, and many of the parallelisms seem forced. They work best when she compares the traditions of India and China. Both civilizations arose along fertile rivers that generated lots of agricultural surplus. That favored the growth of a despotic eliet, and the resultant spiritual traditions were bound to be broadly similar since they were responding to similar geopolitical conditions. For example, the overwhelming majority of people in both of those civilizations were peasants living in a condition of serfdom. They felt oppressed and likewise felt utterly unable to do anything about their condition. Any spiritual tradition that took root there had to address that situation.

It was somewhat different in Greece. There the land was not good for agriculture, which meant that there wasn’t much of a surplus. That in turn inhibited the growth of a class of rulers who lived off of the surplus. As a result the Greek spiritual tradition was more individualistic, and I don’t really buy Armstrong’s assertion that their philosophical tradition reached the stage where they realized that all is one. Neither Plato or Aristotle asserted anything of the sort.

As for Israel, Armstrong doesn’t even discuss Judaism in her chapter on the “All is One” stage because the sort of pantheistic insight that the phrase implies is not really present at all in the Old Testament, nor in the New Testament for that matter. Neither Old Testament Judaism nor Greek philosophical rationalism fit her schematism.

As I mentioned above, Armstrong asserts that all of these traditions came to some variation of the Golden Rule as their guide to virtuous conduct. Christians might say that one should love others as one loves himself. Buddhists might go a bit further and say that one should love all living things as one loves oneself. However, it seems remarkable that all of these traditions should come to the same conclusion.

“Seems” is the operative word there. A good while back I watched a talk on CSPAN2's Book TV. I forget the author’s name and the title of his book, but his contention was that the Golden Rule was hardwired into the human brain. His argument went something like this. We humans are able to recognize something like 150 people. That doesn’t mean that we know them all, but that we recognize them as familiar. Anthropological studies show that when primitive tribes approached that number, a dispute would arise and they would split into two separate communities. Sociological studies of other groups has shown something similar.

When humans are forced to live in groups larger than that 150, they view people that they are familiar with as “us” and people that they don’t recognize as “them”. In groups and out groups arise, and we all know where that leads.

The author that I was watching maintained that the Golden Rule is the natural rule for life in communities small enough such that everyone recognizes everyone else. Not everyone lives according to that dictate, of course, but they come a lot closer to living by it than do people in larger groups. He maintained that all of the great religious traditions basically maintain that we should treat all people as part of the community of people who are “like us”. In other words, they are saying that people should apply the same ethic to all people that they apply to their families. Hence, the Golden Rule is an extension of something that is wired into our brains.

The formulation of that rule that strikes me most forcefully is: Treat everyone as though they are as important as you. When I read it put like that, I have to take a deep breath. I don’t even come close to being able to live like that, and I don’t know that I ever will be.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

You Bright And Risen Angels

I don’t get the appeal of William T. Vollman. I’ve slogged through Europe Central and now You Bright And Risen Angels, but that’s it. I won’t be reading anymore of his books.

It’s not that Vollman lacks talent as a writer. He is obviously a man of great intelligence, and writing seems to come easily to him, and that may be the problem. He seems to be compelled to write, and at great length, about anything that captures his fancy. For example, he recently published a non-fiction book, a commentary on the mathematical writings of Copernicus, even though he admits that the doesn’t really understand them. That’s all well and good but why inflict it upon the world? To recycle a bad joke, if you look up “logorrhea” in the dictionary, you’ll see Vollman’s picture there.

As regards You Bright And Risen Angels, I found it to be more interesting than Europe Central. It’s the story of the forces of electricity, led my the ruthless reactionary, Mr. White, against the revolutionary bugs of the insect world. As one might expect from such a description, this is a surrealist narrative, a surrealism of the sort in the prose poetry of Leautreamont, who is one of Vollman’s icons.

There are other influences as well, like H. Rider Haggard. The spirit of his adventure novels is apparent here, but even more so are the conventions of the comic book. Vollman’s story is characterized by their stark Manicheism, with is good versus evil view of the world. There’s the same outrageous fancy of the Superman versus Lex Luthor battles, and the same adolescent contravention of all physical restraints. The characters, good and evil, are little bound by the constraints of space and time.

That might explain the appeal of this novel to a younger generation. Many of them take comic books seriously, even going so far as to call them graphic novels. I frankly fail to understand that. I’m an old fart, but I also devoured comic books as a kid, though I never considered them to be anything more than simple entertainments.

The source of Vollman’s antagonists is obvious, as revealed by an interview he gave in which he stated that he wrote most of the novel while working as a computer programmer. In the world of computing, a defect in a program is called a bug. The origin of the term is interesting. The first electronic computer appeared in World War Two. It worked with vacuum tubes, which were rather fragile devices compared to today’s electronic components, and one of the big problems with this first computer was roaches. They would get into the circuitry and short it out. Hence, hardware problems came to be termed “bugs”, and the word soon migrated into the world of software. Hence, we have Vollman’s forces of electricity versus the bugs.

I would call You Bright And Risen Angels a comic novel, though I have to say that it left me dry. For example, Mr. White rules the world through the offices of his corporation, White Power and Light. Ouch. That’s just plain corny. Vollman engages in a lot of parody as well, but I didn’t get it. He parodied the corporate world, but also the revolutionary groups of the sort that were active in the 1960's and ‘70's, but I found myself asking what the point of it was. The most effective parodies are those that are used to make a point, and I couldn’t figure out what Vollman’s was. He might have been wishing a plague on both of their houses, but I didn’t really get that feeling. I might get a better handle on it if I reread the book, but I can’t bring myself to do that.

I’ve seen You Bright And Risen Angels compared to Pynchon’s works. He also writes long, rambling books characterized by a lot of surrealism, but that’s where the comparison ends in my opinion. Pynchon is a notoriously reclusive figure, and little is known about his personal life. However, quite some time ago, Pynchon ran off with his best friend’s wife. The cuckolded friend responded by giving an interview in which he offered a lot of personal information about Pynchon. At one point he said that Pynchon picked up a copy of his Gravity’s Rainbow and, while paging through it, said that he couldn’t remember what he meant by a lot of it because he was so stoned while he’d been writing. Likewise, Vollman has claimed that he wrote most of You Bright And Risen Angels while high on crack. To me that explains the difference between Vollman’s book and Pynchon’s work. Pynchon tends to become absorbed in the moment, playing off the imagery he finds there, mining it for deeper meaning. Vollman, on the other hand, is always moving on, moving on. He’ll run off on some tangent, leading the reader through any number of seemingly unrelated escapades, only to circle back around to around to the main narrative. I like to think that Pynchon’s surrealism is centripetal, while Vollman’s is centrifugal. I’m a brooder, and I prefer Pynchon.