Category Archives: Curiosity

Gods, Power and Knowledge

Throughout human history we humans have created gods to help explain our existence. We look to these deities to give meaning to our circumstances, our actions, our past and future, our blessings and our sufferings. That these gods, with their immortality and their extraordinary powers, are often given human form is an interesting paradox: we create them because they are NOT like us, and yet we domesticate them by giving them our bodies and other human characteristics.

The Greeks set the barre high when it came to numbers of immortals. They had gods for almost all aspects of human existence: love, war, hearth and home, harvest and hunting, wine, fire, message delivery, wisdom, fertility, and much much more. The Egyptians put up a stiff competition, so, too, the Romans. Then came the Jews, and after them the Christians and Muslims who dispensed with all but a single omnipotent being – though the Christians with their Trinity might be thought to be having two bob each way.

The Greek gods, despite their immortality and godly powers, reveal a range of familiar human characteristics. They are jealous and envious, they lie and deceive, they love and hate, they play favourites, they protect and they bully, they can be shockingly violent and they can soothe and heal. What is fairly consistent across all the gods, and humans too, is that if they have power, they want to hold on to it, while those who are powerless strive to get it. The problem for both gods and humans is you can’t have it all. As Shelley so aptly wrote in his Prometheus Unbound:

The good want power, but to weep barren tears.
The powerful goodness want: worse need for them.
The wise want love; and those who love want wisdom;
And all best things are thus confused to ill.

Shelley’s verse drama, Prometheus Unbound, takes off where Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound finishes. Prometheus Bound is the first and only surviving play of a trilogy known as the Prometheia. While there are distinctive differences in the approaches taken by Aeschylus and Shelley, they both present a Zeus who is stubborn and violent and vindictive, and a Prometheus who is wise and generous, also inclined to stubbornness, but always humane. (In some versions of the story, Prometheus, one of the immortals himself, fashions the mortal humans out of clay. He is often referred to as the creator of humankind. It seems entirely apt, albeit anachronistic, to describe him as humane).

The story of Prometheus is shaped around the enduring conflict between those with power and those with curiosity; the authority of rulers on the one hand, and the free will of ordinary people on the other; the exercise of the intellect versus god-given laws. The story is also concerned with the power that comes with knowledge.

There are several different versions of the Prometheus story, but all versions agree that Prometheus defied Zeus by giving the pitiful, uncivilised mortals fire. The story is set at a time not long after the creation of the world out of chaos. The humans in these times were a wretched, barbaric underclass. Prometheus took pity on them. He taught them how to build shelters, how to sow crops, how to hunt. Zeus ordered that whatever help Prometheus gave, he was not to give the humans fire. Zeus knew that fire was an immensely powerful possession.

Prometheus disobeyed. He hunted out the source of fire and carried it to the humans, ‘And fire has proved/ For men a teacher in every art, their grand resource.’ With fire the humans learned to make proper tools, to cook their meat, defeat cold and disease; fire enabled them to pursue science and culture.

Zeus was furious. He ordered that Prometheus be chained to a mountainous crag, there to remain for all eternity, forced to suffer winds, ice and heat. And if this were not punishment enough, an eagle would attack every day and eat his liver; the liver would regenerate every night only to be attacked again come daybreak. Zeus, along with the ancient Greek dramatists could fashion highly imaginative violence.
Hephaestus, the god of fire, was ordered by Zeus to carry out the punishment. He didn’t want to do it, but like those at Nuremberg several thousand years later, he excused himself by saying he was only following orders. He acknowledged that ‘Power newly won [like Zeus’] is always harsh’ (line 31), but authority is authority and orders are orders. Hephaestus does what Zeus commanded him to do, and Prometheus is chained to the rock.


Prometheus defies the authority of Zeus and cops the punishment. But what is he being punished for? Is it because he disobeyed Zeus? Is it because he saved the human race (who might later constitute a threat to Zeus)? Is it because he exercised his own free will? Or is it because he gave the gift of knowledge to humankind and thereby empowered them? Or perhaps a combination of these possibilities? In which case, Prometheus’ actions resulted in multiple threats. (And there’s an additional element in this story that further threatens Zeus: Zeus knows that Prometheus holds the secret to his own eventual downfall.)
Similar themes percolate through the story of Adam and Eve, two more ‘first’ humans. Adam and Eve defy God’s authority by taking the apple from the tree of knowledge. Maybe they could have got away with a potato from the soil of stupidity – but not knowledge, not wisdom. Knowledge is power, wisdom even more so.

Alexander Pope wrote in his Essay on Criticism: ‘a little Learning is a dang’rous Thing’. Knowledge as something radical, that threatens the status quo, pervades the Christian era. This belief is still prevalent today in certain religious sects.

With the rise of fundamentalist interpretations in Christianity, Judaism and Islam across the globe, more and more people are forfeiting their free will to authority. Fundamentalism is exactly that: a way of life based on certain finite fundamental beliefs and behaviours. Fundamentalism holds things in place while world events whizz past at an ever increasing rate. Fundamentalism holds the believer in place while others grapple with the uncertainties and demands of contemporary life. For true believers doubt does not exist – and what a relief that is. There is no need to question, because all the answers are already at hand. Reason, memory, individual and idiosyncratic attachments are all neutralised. Religious authority cannot be questioned, its laws are immutable. All is pre-determined. Knowledge beyond religious lore is unnecessary, wisdom is heresy. Followers feel safe. And yet from those on the outside, they appear to be enslaved.

The certainties of structured religion keep adherents ignorant. But for the believers, far from feeling ignorant, they possess the truth, they have all the answers. Anyone who has tried to have a discussion with a fundamentalist of any sort – and fundamentalism is not the sole province of religion, there are plenty of political fundamentalists to be found, as there are fundamentalists on certain social issues such as abortion – knows that they argue from a closed position where everything is self-evident. There can be no argument.
People often wonder about the continuing relevance of the Greek myths to we moderns. Prometheus demonstrates free will, wisdom and courage; he shows the power that comes with knowledge. An immortal himself, he teaches by example what humans can achieve with courage, with risk-taking, with taking a stand for what is right. Zeus, in contrast, is the fundamentalist preacher/Ayatollah/Rabbi shoring up power, building a compliant army of the faithful, who will obey their leader without question.

Followers like this will burn down villages, they’ll rape and maim women and children, they’ll set fire to abortion clinics. Followers of fundamentalism will feed their children breakfast, strap bombs to their waist, wrap them in warm coats and kill them before lunch – and not need to give it any thought at all.

 

INTELLECTUAL HEROES

In human behaviour there are unforgiveable acts and unforgiveable qualities. Lying, cheating, brutality and torture, betrayal and treachery occur in a staggering variety of manifestation, while superficiality, laziness and self-obsession are distressingly common. But unforgiveable acts and qualities do not necessarily lead to a permanent rupture between people (or communities, or countries) – nor should they. In my last three novels there are several instances of unforgiveable acts: between parents and children in The Prosperous Thief, between friends in Reunion, and between married couples in The Memory Trap. In nearly all these instances the relationship endures.

I am reading A Long Saturday (University of Chicago Press, 2017), a slender book of conversations between the literary scholar and critic, George Steiner, and the French journalist, Laure Adler. (‘Conversations’ is the term used on the cover of the book; more accurately, Adler interviews Steiner, and she does so with familiar ease and admirable perspicacity.) George Steiner has been a lifelong companion for me, an enduring love. From the time I first read his Language and Silence as a twenty-year-old, through his many essays and monographs, right up to this week when I have been reading his conversations with Laure Adler this man has afforded me pleasure, stimulation, understandings, excitement, inspiration, questions. Steiner feeds and awakens my curiosity. No long-term partner could have been so consistently rewarding.

I was happily immersed in this latest book, acknowledging familiar Steinerisms, delighting in new offerings when I came to a section where, in a single page (p.48), Steiner is rudely dismissive of Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt and Simone de Beauvoir. Three women scholars discarded in a handful of lines. In recent years Steiner has been far more mindful of women, acknowledging among other things, their historical lack of opportunity in intellectual life. But no male writer in A Long Saturday warrants such curt dismissal as Steiner gives these women.

It would seem that Steiner remains a man of his generation (he was born in 1929), whose own heroes are exclusively men. I find myself wondering if his recent inclusiveness of women is nothing more than lip-service, something he knows he must be seen to be doing. So, for example, he is critical in this book of the former Oxbridge tradition of seating men and women separately, but nonetheless, he joined in the practice for decades. He’s a scholar who has argued persuasively both in the present volume and elsewhere about the importance of polyglottism, of reading (knowing) the greats in their original language. Yet this man who confesses to being unable to read Russian (p. 40) cites Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva as women ‘to admire’. These are the only women who receive his praise in this volume, but given he can’t read them in the original it is questionable praise, even demeaning praise; he seems to suggest that their work does not warrant a reading in their original language. It leeches both the poets and the critic of dignity.

He dismisses Hannah Arendt as follows: ‘I was unfortunate enough to meet Hannah Arendt. Very little of her work is first-rate, in my opinion. A woman who writes a huge volume on the origins of totalitarianism and doesn’t say a word about Stalin because her husband was a true Stalinist-Communist? No thank you.’

Hannah Arendt, like Steiner, is one of my intellectual heroes. But rather than leaping to her defence, I am wanting to silence Steiner, to stopper these appalling statements that condemn him far more than they do her. So he doesn’t like Arendt as a person, but you don’t have to like your heroes. (Not that I’m suggesting Arendt could ever be one of Steiner’s heroes!) The fact is you get the best of a writer in her/his works, those works over which s/he has pored and thought and considered and redrafted. Conversation, on the other hand, while drawing on years of scholarship, nonetheless is marked by spontaneity; there’s no second or third or tenth draft to refine the argument and smooth the syntax. I’ve always been happy enough not to meet my heroes. So it is of no import that Steiner did not like Arendt, but as for his next complaint and the sole example he provides as to why he dismisses her work, this I do not understand. The third part of Arendt’s work on Totalitarianism is devoted to National Socialism under Hitler and Bolshevism under Stalin. Far from Arendt ignoring Stalin, Stalin, along with Hitler, is the major focus of this third part of her study.

When Steiner turns his attention to Weil, again he begins with a personal aside. ‘General de Gaulle said, “She’s mad!” Which is an opinion difficult to refute.’ Like his throwaway comment about meeting Arendt, this quip does no-one any favours. Steiner continues: ‘She [Weil] writes some very fine things, but very little.’ This comes across as insulting, underscored by his use of the term ‘things’ to refer to her work. He continues: ‘…allow me some blind prejudices. A woman who refuses to enter a Catholic church, saying she is too Jewish, at the time of Auschwitz? No thank you. It’s inexcusable! If there is a last judgment, that woman is in a lot of trouble.’

Yes, I expect this is the voice of ‘blind prejudice’, a stance Steiner would be quick to criticise in others. But as well, it is a statement that lacks Steiner’s usual clarity; indeed, I remain unsure what he means.

All he deigns to say about Simone de Beauvoir is, ‘She was a great woman. She was very lucky to live with Sartre! Very Lucky! That was a truly intelligent choice.’ That is, her greatness lies in her choice of Sartre. This is so sarcastic and so utterly contemptible, I read it three times to make sure I’d not misunderstood.

Steiner’s swipe at de Beauvoir suggests that Sartre is a writer he does admires. And this is, in fact, the case. Later in the book Steiner criticises Sartre for his blind support of the Soviet regime, but unlike Arendt, de Beauvoir and Weil, Sartre’s political views do not contaminate Steiner’s appreciation of the work.

Sartre was a good philosopher, perhaps even a great one, but as a novelist he was ordinary. I read all his novels in my twenties, but they resist a second reading. Sartre was not a good novelist; the philosophy paralyses the fiction, there are long static sections, the temperature and tone remain caught in an existential trough. This notwithstanding, while Steiner disposes of de Beauvoir (both person and work) in a flippant sentence, Sartre’s work, it seems, is beyond reproach.

This is the crucial fact about heroes. They may let us down, they may betray our belief in them, yet nonetheless we keep them in our personal pantheon. As I am doing with Steiner. I’m not tempted to throw him over, rather I wish he hadn’t made his appalling comments.

We pardon our heroes their failings because of what they do give us. It is like the beloved partner who strays and then wants to return. You don’t need to forgive her or him, all you need to do is work out whether your life is enriched by their presence, whether you are enriched by their presence. Their act was unforgiveable, unpardonable, but in the end you take them back: you want them like you want your intellectual heroes, right there in the centre of your life.

One of my heroes has disappointed me, let me down, betrayed my faith in him. This intellectual lover has done me wrong (one feels it so personally). But I know I won’t do to Steiner as he has done to Arendt, Weil and de Beauvoir, I know that the occasional lapse, and yes there have been a few over the years, is insufficient for me to end this affair. Steiner can be pompous, he can be unnecessarily obscure, his sentences can become clotted, and at times his male Weltanschauung clouds his judgment, but my life is richer for George Steiner: he’s earned his place in my pantheon. Yet as I continue through the book and come across a few more personal comments I wish had been edited out, I find myself wondering about intellectual heroes. After all, it is the work that matters, so why have intellectual heroes at all?

The answer lies, I believe, in the intimacy of reading, the unparalleled intimacy of reading. These heroes creep up on you. Hour after hour there’s just you and the author in a connection that proceeds at your pace, that draws on all that is in your mind, spurred on by all that is in the author’s work. Over the course of my adult life I have spent days and weeks at a time with Steiner. I have witnessed the reoccurrence of certain themes, certain books, certain authors, certain composers and I feel I know something of the man. If asked, I would say that I have spent the day or week with George Steiner, I rarely say I have spent the time with, say, No Passion Spent or Real Presences. I have attended a Steiner lecture, I have listened to recordings, I know his voice. Sometimes when reading a difficult passage in one of his books I hear his voice in the process of my deciphering his meaning.

People will say they are a devotee of Henry James, or an ardent follower of Jane Austen – or Virginia Woolf or Proust or, indeed, George Steiner. When it comes to literary and scholarly loves, when it comes to creative loves (whether writers, artists, composers), it is the person we tend to cite not the work, it is the person we bond with. ‘I’ve been reading the new George Steiner,’ I will say. For this reader, the man and his work are inseparable. And if now and then the man steps up centre stage and makes an unforgiveable aside, the work saves him as it has often saved me.

As for this latest volume, it now carries my underlinings and marginalia. Pencilled in are agreements and arguments, ideas to ponder and others to follow up. In short, for all my quibbles, A Long Saturday, is an provocative and satisfying book. Steiner’s words have inspired, Steiner has inspired. This is what heroes do.

The Passions of Alberto Manguel

Passions require time: time to develop in the first place, time to be expanded, time to be enjoyed. Passions, like any experience/activity that requires prolonged attention and an active imagination, can be tripped up even before they’ve found their legs in our contemporary fast-paced world. It is fortunate then, that the pleasures of passionate engagement whether with music, reading, maths, theatre, people or just being alive are such that even a short exposure is generally enough to hold a person for a life-time.

There have always been people who appear to inhabit lives of uniform colour and temperature, who can walk a glacier or climb a mountain and be occupied, not by the magnificence surrounding them, but their growling muscles. There have always been people who hear Bach or read Dickinson and complain of boredom, or see a flamboyant parrot or a scampering lyrebird and remain unmoved.

And there have always been people who inhabit the world as if on alert. Nature, art, people, so many experiences elicit from these people responses that are invariably high-octane. These are exciting people to be with, their enthusiasm rubs off, you feel more alive, more geared to possibility when you are with them.

There are friends who belong in the passionate category, and there are authors too. I have thrived in the company of Iris Murdoch, Virginia Woolf, Oliver Sacks, Walt Whitman, and many others. I’m excited when there’s a new book from, say, John Banville, Ann Patchett or Justin Cartwright. And even if their latest is not among their best I still enjoy moments walking the high peaks with them.

Alberto Manguel is one such writer. Recently I reviewed his latest book Curiosity. Even if I had not known his work, the title would have lured me in. Below is the review, published in Australian Book Review, September, 2015.

 

CURIOSITY by Alberto Manguel.
Yale University Press, $44.95 hb, 377pp, 9780300184785

There are two broad approaches to reading Alberto Manguel’s, Curiosity. The first type of reader will study the book – or rather, the text – assiduously connecting the personal narratives that introduce each chapter with the books Manguel references in the more theoretical and discursive aspects that follow. Dante’s Commedia is a constant presence in Curiosity, so they will have their Dante in easy reach for ready consultation, and they will strive to connect Dante’s journey with Manguel’s chapter titles, all of them questions: ‘How Do We Reason?’ (Ch. 3), ‘What Is Language?’ (Ch. 6), ‘What Is an Animal?’ (Ch. 11), ‘What Comes Next?’ (Ch. 15). They will make notes as they read, in an attempt to harness the voluminous material. And they will keep a separate list of the surprisingly numerous literary references that are unknown to them. This type of reader will try to get on top of the material, bring it to heel, master it.

The second type of reader will plunge in. They will not feel the ground beneath them, rather they’ll be swept up in Manguel’s narrative. As Virgil guides Dante, and Dante Guides Manguel, so Manguel guides this type of reader. It is an unpredictable journey. In the first chapter alone, ‘What Is Curiosity?’, Manguel saunters from Dante to Thomas Aquinas; he makes a quick digression to Augustine and Aristotle before slipping past Dante to David Hume and Diderot and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, Diderot’s co-editor of the Encyclopédie (I had always thought Diderot did the job alone); there are nods to Boccaccio, Isaiah Berlin, Seneca, Socrates, and several others like Covarrubias (a Spanish lexographer who wrote an etymological dictionary in 1611), previously unknown to this reader. This is a journey without an itinerary. A risky odyssey, it is impossible to anticipate where Manguel is heading. But this second type of reader, trusting that Manguel knows what he is doing, goes with the current. These readers are so immersed in Manguel’s wanderings, they might be in a trance as they read – this book is their entire reality – they’re prickling with awareness, in a world bathed in a golden, if sometimes opaque light. These readers are guided by Manguel but, at the same time, they are nudged along by books they’ve read themselves, experiences they’ve had, and thoughts and ideas that surface without warning.

The first type of reader seeks control of the material, the second, although no less hungry for understanding, can tolerate the mystery of the not-yet-known (and perhaps never to be fully known) and the uncertainties of an intellectual quest without a plot.

The capaciousness of Manguel’s curiosity, his voracious reading, and his eagerness to share both with his readers are simultaneously wonderful and daunting. This is old news to those familiar with Manguel’s earlier work. With an author who can leap from the mid-thirteenth century Spanish scholar Abraham Abulafia to Borges in a single paragraph, any attempt to control the material is, I believe, counter-productive. Too much in the way of analysis somehow annuls the meaning and sense of understanding that arises from this material. Trust Manguel: in The City of Words, A Reading Diary, A History of Reading and A Reader on Reading*, he has proved to be not simply a reliable guide, but the best there is outside Dante’s first circle of Hell.

Manguel, driven by his own ravening curiosity, ranges here, there and everywhere in Curiosity, so it is somewhat amusing that he adheres to a strict format in the structure of his latest book. It is comprised of seventeen chapters, each titled with a question, and each beginning with a full page illustration depicting a woodcut from the 1487 printing of the Commedia (with commentary by Cristoforo Landino). I am wedded to Doré’s illustrations to Dante, their detail and lyricism form a perfect duet with the poem. These fifteenth century woodcuts do not speak to me in the same way; they simply do not – to me – depict the terrible horrors that are related in the Inferno, nor the sublime joys of Paradiso. I am curious as to why Manguel chose them over Doré’s plates. Sometimes the connection between the particular canto from the Commedia and the chapter question is obvious, sometimes it becomes clear by the end of the chapter, and on other occasions a second or third reading will be required. Understandings surface when one reads Manguel.

The text of each chapter begins with a page or two of personal material: a happening from Manguel’s childhood, a recent illness, sexual discrimination in his childhood books (Anne of Green Gables for girls, The Coral Island for boys), Argentina’s dirty war, the economic crisis in Argentina in 2006, concern over the environment, animals, injustice in the world. Following the personal snippet are approximately ten pages during which Manguel wanders through art and literature gathering material that enhances and elaborates on the chapter question. The dynamic is reminiscent of musical improvisation.

Questions, as Manguel makes clear, are far more saturated with meaning than answers. Curiosity is short on answers. What it has are intellectual explorations triggered by all the crucial questions that comprise the human project; indeed, most of the chapter questions have inspired entire schools of philosophy. No précis nor synopsis would do this book justice. Suffice it to say that for readers of Manguel, his favourites are here – Montaigne, Plato, Alice, Don Quixote – and his customary concerns: how we make sense of the world, how we can understand one another. There are many delights. In the chapter ‘What Are We Doing Here?’, Manguel reveals Dante as an environmentalist (with a touch of Paganism) and the Commedia as an environmentalist tract. And surprising thoughts. After reading his account of Nimrod and the building of the Tower of Babel, atheist that I am, I found myself thinking that God made a big mistake, that he should have found a different punishment for the people’s heresy, anything but the confounding of language and meaning. How much more difficult it would be for hatred, prejudice, brutality and corruption to occur if we shared a common language.

The last two chapters of Curiosity, ‘Why Do Things Happen?’ and ‘What Is True?’ represent, at least to me, Manguel’s narrative assent into paradise. As I closed the book, I felt a little as Dante did when brought into the presence of his Beatrice.

 

*Reviewed by AG in ABR, May 2010.