Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Problem of Pain, How Human Suffering Raises Almost Intolerable Intellectual Problems, by C. S. Lewis (published 1940)

As I've mentioned elsewhere, many years ago I was a self-professed atheist. Yet I considered myself open to opposing views. It was in this spirit of open mindedness I accepted a short work a friend and mentor loaned me called Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis. Directed to skeptics who seek intellectual reasons for faith, it forced me to question my disbelief. It would be another decade before I squashed my pride, confronted its truth, and converted. (Guess I wasn't so open minded after all.) But that's another story that deals more with the heart than with the head.

I'm convinced that Lewis' conversion from atheism to Christianity contributed to his insight and argumentative powers. Such converts, whether it's the great economist Thomas Sowell (having first been a Marxist before embracing capitalism), tend to speak and write with more authority than those who carry the same political or religious views from cradle to coffin.

I'm not suggesting converts ipso facto make for persuasive writers. Nor does doing an ideological about-face necessarily mean one is more objective or sincere than the next guy or gal. But a lot can be said for having not only examined and lived opposing doctrines but articulating what precisely changed one's mind.

Lewis begins The Problem of Pain with the strongest case for atheism I've ever read. In fact, ironically, I haven’t come across a more compelling argument than the one this former atheist poses. Lewis then goes on to show how such an argument is not only too simple but self contradictory.

The Problem of Pain isn't a self-help or how-to-grieve type work. Nor is it for everyone. Those who lack faith in God or a fundamental knowledge of theology will be as lost as the student who skips basic math and jumps straight into physics. This is for people of faith who want rational answers to perhaps the most challenging question facing believers – why we suffer.

It's no wonder fifty years after his death, Lewis is still widely regarded as the preeminent standard-bearer for apologetics. He's a thoughtful, articulate, persuasive writer, and reading this book made me want to be a better Christian. That alone should recommend it to fellow believers.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller

We've all known our share of walking rain clouds. Happily for me, those relations never lasted. Sure, I'll be the first to acknowledge the world is full of cruelty and corruption, but I'd rather celebrate the good than bemoan the bad. To fixate on the tragic, or worse, to claim only the brutal and the vulgar constitute all there is to life, is not only shortsighted but makes for a grim personality, not to mention a depressing read.

First published in Paris in 1934 and subsequently banned in the U.S. until 1961, Tropic of Cancer charts Miller's experiences among the French bohemians during the early '30s. Full disclosure, I served in the U.S. NAVY. I've seen it all. Hell, I've done more than I'd confess to in mixed company. Still, Miller's attitudes and indulgences easily exceed my humble excesses. Such lapses in judgment were the stage dressings of my experience, not the main attraction. For Miller, it's the other way round. His chronicling of coitus, fellatio, cunnilingus, menstruation, flatulence, and defecation makes for the sort of work an exhibitionist or performance artist might compose on a dare. Termed 'autobiographical novel' (which I'm told is a genre), this book, rather than simply pushing the envelope for obscenity, laces the envelope with Ricin and sets it on fire.

In fairness, the average vocabulary is small enough without us banning words or censoring writers. So I'd never call for a moratorium on terms or demand someone's silence for uttering inflammatory language. Indeed, one of the bonuses to free speech is giving fools a forum to unwittingly identify themselves. How else will the rest of us know to avoid them? I'll defend this writer's liberty to voice his drivel until the angry birds come home.

Besides, I don't object to the obscenity so much as the hatred. Miller uses the Inn word to refer to knee grows, calls nearly all women cunts, has nothing but contempt for The Jews, and in one passage, writes, “... because every now and then I meet little yellow men from Cochin-China – squirmy, opium-faced runts peeping out of their baggy uniforms like dyed skeletons packed in excelsior.”

A third of the way into the book the curtain falls utterly.

Hello! Are you Henry Miller?” It's a woman's voice. It's Irene. She's saying hello to me … For a moment I'm in a perfect panic.

As a reader, so am I. Henry Miller the writer and Henry Miller the protagonist are one. This struck me as problematic since Miller, or at least the Miller Miller represents, never fails to ridicule his bohemian friends, pointing out how depraved, lost, hopeless, and foolish they are – all the while both demonstrating the same depravity and relying on their sporadic charity for his livelihood.

The madness doesn't end there. In an interview, Miller said he dabbled with the title Crazy Cock. As to why he settled on the published title:

...to me cancer symbolizes the disease of civilization, the endpoint of the wrong path, the necessity to change course radically, to start completely over from scratch.”

If civilization is diseased as Miller tells us, if we must start over as he says, I assume these pronouncements are an indictment on human behavior, hypocrisy, and the like. So what remedy can we expect from cataloging characters with lice? Throughout the book, not an insect escapes Miller's eye. Every louse and cockroach is commented on. Rats make frequent cameos too. And what precisely accounts for his hostility toward birds?

Every time I pass the concierge's window and catch the full icy impact of her glance I have an insane desire to throttle all the birds of creation.

When toward the end of the book Miller has an opportunity to do a good turn, he takes the low road, betrays a friend's trust, and, perhaps worst of all, has no moral qualms whatsoever about doing so.

If you don't mind reading what could essentially pass for alcohol-induced exchanges between sexually frustrated college frat boys or dictation taken at a cocaine laced swinger's club, or, better yet, if you're encouraged (as one Amazon reviewer promised) reading the rants of a foul, self-absorbed, male chauvinist, racist leech who resents those whose help he needs most while simultaneously depicting them as degenerates, you might have a more favorable impression of this depressing read. For me, the line between constructive criticism and wanting to burn the whole world to the ground is not so fine or gray. It's the difference between the sage and the serpent.

The Lyre of Orpheus, by Robertson Davies (1988)

Should I ever become rich and famous (insert laughter here), this is one of the many posts some readers might wish to use against me for ...