12 February 2012

"Tarnsman of Gor," "The Way of Zen," "Blood, Bones, and Butter," "Betrayal of the Spirit," "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," and "Tamerlane."

Tarnsman of Gor, John Norman
The Way of Zen, Alan Watts
Blood, Bones, and Butter: the Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, Gabrielle Hamilton
Betrayal of the Spirit, Nori J. Muster
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace
Tamerlane, or Timur the Great Amir, Achmed Ibn Arabshah

Tarnsman of Gor, John Norman

Some people might read Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars and think to themselves, "Hey, this is really good, but what it really needs is more misogyny."  If you are one of those people, then I want you to know that I do not want to be your friend, but I have just the book for you.

"Surely you are familiar with a slave whip?" I asked, picking it up and, with amusement, slapping it once or twice in my palm.
"Yes," she said, regarding me evenly. "I have often used it on my own slaves. Is it now to be used on me?"
"If necessary," I said.
"You wouldn't have the nerve," she said.
"More likely the inclination," I said.
She smiled. Her next remark astonished me. "Use it on me if I do not please you, Tarl of Bristol," she said. I pondered this, but she had turned away. In the next few days, to my surprise, Talena was buoyant, cheerful, and excited.
In John Carter of Mars (coming soon to a theater near you, by the way), the eponymous hero, a veteran of the Confederate Army, is mysteriously transported to the red planet.  Once there, he discovers that the lower gravity and his own warrior spirit make him a paragon of fighting ability, and he crashes through adventures with the various warring peoples.  Martian technology is superior in some ways, and inferior in others - most of their advanced technology, the vestige of a long-past golden age, is devoted to warfare.  John Carter eventually finds love in service and devotion to the princess Dejah Thoris, and realizes that he has a new home.

Tarnsman of Gor is a lot like that, only terrible.

Tarl Cabot, indifferent British academic but expert fencer, finds a mysterious blue envelope in the New England woods.  It transports him to another world of Gor, or Counter-Earth, where he soon finds his long-vanished father.  Our author, John Norman, an academic himself, saw fit to discard that tired old cliche of "natural exposition," where the reader organically discovers the nature of a created world through the narrative.  Instead, Tarl Cabot's father just sits him down and indulges in a lengthy sociological description of the world of Gor.

Gor is fabulously advanced in technology, except when it comes to weaponry.  Incredible devices exist to translate language, heal fatal injury, and conduct other near-magical effects.  But no weapon is allowed that is more advanced than the crossbow.  The rulers who enforce this edict and rule all from an unseen vantage are the mysterious Priest-Kings, who use fire from the sky to destroy those who dare invent gunpowder.  The residents of Gor use swords, spears, and arrows.  Similarly, no form of transportation is permitted, so Goreans ride enormous birds (the tarns of the title) and giant lizards.

Gor is divided into many city-states and stratified in a caste system: there are Assassins, Priests, etc.  But the most notable feature of Gor is the ubiquitous slavery.  Tarl Cabot, the protagonist, displays some mild dislike of the institution at the beginning of his time, but by the midpoint in the book he has begun patronizing "pleasure slaves," and near the conclusion he has actually enslaved a woman himself.  His slender concern about the horrific injustice of Gor's system is gone almost before it begins.

Impaling the stranger is a not unusual form of hospitality on Gor. Moreover, owing to the almost universal hatred borne to the city of Ar by most Gorean cities, it would be imperative in any case to keep the identity of my fair companion a secret. Theoretically, given the seclusion of the High Caste women of Ar, their gilded confinement in the Walled Gardens, it should be reason ably easy to conceal her identity. But I was troubled. What would happen to Talena if, we did, by some outstanding stroke of fortune, reach Ko-ro-ba? Would she be publicly impaled, returned to the mercies of the Initiates of Ar, or would she perhaps spend the rest of her days in the dungeons beneath the cylinders? Perhaps she would be permitted to live as a slave?
Perhaps we should forgive Tarl, though, and levy all our blame on author John Norman.  We can hardly blame Tarl for being complacent about slavery when the slaves themselves are happy with their lot in life, as indeed they are.  When Tarl, now a warrior-for-hire, accompanies a merchant's slave shipment to the end auction, he witnesses the happiness of the slaves who are being sold and who validate their worth by the price for which they're sold.

Reluctantly I took Talena to the great tent of blue and yellow silk, and we pressed in among the hot, smelling bodies of the buyers, forcing our way toward the front. There Talena watched, thrilled, as girls, several of whom she had known in the caravan, were placed on the large, rounded wooden block and sold, one by one, to the highest bidder. "She's beautiful," Talena would say of one as the auctioneer would tug the single loop on the right shoulder of the slave livery, dropping it to the girl's ankles. Of another, Talena would sniff scornfully. She seemed to be pleased when her friends were bought by handsome tarnsmen, and laughed delightedly when one girl, to whom she had taken a dislike, was purchased by a fat, odious fellow, of the Caste of Tarn Keepers.
To my surprise, most of the girls seemed excited by their sale and displayed their charms with brazen gusto, each seeming to compete with the one before to bring a higher price. It was, of course, far more desirable to bring a high price, thereby guaranteeing that one's master would be well-fixed. Accordingly, the girls did their best to move the interest of the buyers. I noted that Talena, like others in the room, did not seem in the least to feel that there was anything objectionable or untoward in this commerce in beauty. It was an accepted, ordinary part of the life of Gor.
Ugh.  It is the crudest sort of philosopher who attempts to justify himself by creating a world in which he is right and everyone is happy about it.  Tarl thinks the author's thoughts when he watches the auction:

I wondered if, on my own planet, there was not a similar market, invisible but present, and just as much accepted, a market in which women were sold, except that they sold themselves, were themselves both merchandise and merchant. How many of the women of my native planet, I wondered, did not with care consider the finances, the property of their prospective mates? How many of them did not, for all practical purposes, sell themselves, bartering their bodies for the goods of the world?
In other words, this is the grossest yet most acceptable form of misogyny: the kind that concludes that all women are whores and slaves anyway, so it's better to be "honest" about it.  It's the sort of thing you hear from every scruffy asshole who was ever rejected after a date and bitterly snarls about it over a beer, declaring, "You have to buy them dinner and presents, so isn't it really just prostitution anyway?"  And in Tarnsman of Gor, it achieves the ultimate level of nauseating self-satisfaction when Norman writes the climactic love scene:

"Call for the iron," she said. "Brand me, Master."
"No, Talena," I said, kissing her mouth. "No."
"I want to be owned," she whimpered. "I want to belong to you, fully, completely in every way. I want your brand, Tarl of Bristol, don't you understand? I want to be your branded slave."
I fumbled with the collar at her throat, unlocked it, threw it aside. "You're free, my love," I whispered. "Always free."
She sobbed, shaking her head, her lashes wet with tears. "No," she wept. "I am your slave." She clenched her body against mine, the buckles of the wide tharlarion's belt cutting into her belly. "You own me," she whispered. "Use me."
This is a very bad book with a very bad philosophy.  You should read it only if you have the some kind of gawking, disgusted curiosity that motivates me to explore terrible texts.

The Way of Zen, Alan Watts

I wanted a simple, good, thorough explanation of Zen.  I found it.  Alan Watts' book traces Zen from its furthest roots to its full modern flowering, writing in clear but sophisticated prose.

Zen Buddhism is mysterious, magical, and alien.  For these reasons, it has had a particular fascination for the West.  But because it is derived from Buddhism and influenced by Taoism, two religions that incorporate some ideas that are completely foreign to most westerners, it is hard to really grasp the principles of Zen if you examine it in a vacuum.  A serious primer must look first at the garden before it can examine the flower.  As Watts says:

In default, then, of a fundamental, orderly, and comprehensive account of the subject, it is no wonder that Western impressions of Zen are somewhat confused, despite all the enthusiasm and interest which it has aroused. The problem, then, is to write such a book–and this I have tried to do since no one who understands the subject better than I seems willing or able to do so. Ideally, I suppose, such a work should be written by an accomplished and recognized Zen master. But at present no such person has sufficient command of English. Furthermore, when one speaks from within a tradition, and especially from within its institutional hierarchy, there is always apt to be a certain lack of perspective and grasp of the outsider’s viewpoint. Again, one of the biggest obstacles to communication between Japanese Zen masters and Westerners is the absence of clarity as to difference of basic cultural premises. 
Watts examines Hinduism and the idea of a world of illusion, before moving on to trace the development of Buddhist doctrines and their travel from India to China, while at the same time looking at the evolution of Taoism and its mystical ideas, well before he even begins to examine Zen itself, at the book's midpoint.  In so doing, he brings the reader into an understanding of all the building blocks from which Zen was built.  I had thought, before I read this, that I understood some little about Zen.  But The Way of Zen showed me that I had fallen prey to some of the common misunderstandings about the philosophy.

Rather than relying on quoting authorities - of which there are many and contradictory - Watts concentrates on the historical evolution and applies reasoning to work out the development of doctrine.  He is concise but not clipped, referencing past ideas in an easy-to-follow manner, as in his description of a Zen koan.

From the earliest times the Zen masters had shown a partiality for short, gnomic poems–at once laconic and direct like their answers to questions about Buddhism. Many of these, like those we have quoted from the Zenrin Kushu, contained overt references to Zen and its principles. However, just as Tung-shan’s “Three pounds of flax!” was an answer full of Zen but not about Zen, so the most expressive Zen poetry is that which “says nothing,” which, in other words, is not philosophy or commentary about life.

A monk asked Feng-hsüeh, “When speech and silence are both inadmissible, how can one pass without error?”
The master replied:
I always remember Kiangsu in March–
The cry of the partridge, the mass of fragrant flowers!

Here again, as in painting, is the expression of a live moment in its pure “suchness”–though it is a pity to have to say so–and the masters frequently quoted classical Chinese poetry in this way, using couplets or quatrains which pointed, and said no more.
If you are interested in Zen Buddhism or in expanding your knowledge of the world in a very real way, then I strongly recommend you check out The Way of Zen.

Blood, Bones, and Butter: the Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, Gabrielle Hamilton

One of the injustices of literature is that you are inevitably compared to those who came before.  This is true both in the historical sense - everything looks bad compared to Moby-Dick - and in a more local way when it comes to a trend.  If you write a memoir about recovering from addiction, it will be compared to A Million Little Pieces.  If you write shock-porn books about strange jobs, they will be compared to Chuck Palahniuk.  And if you write an autobiography that's about your rough-and-tumble introduction to the life of a chef, like Gabrielle Hamilton did with Blood, Bones, and Butter, then it's going to be compared to Anthony Bourdain's 2000 book, Kitchen Confidential.  Thankfully, Blood, Bones and Butter does okay by the comparison, helped along by Hamilton's growth from her drug-filled riotous early years into a more complex narrative.

Hamilton never intended to be a chef.  Instead, she grew up dreaming of being an author, and in her youth filled countless journals with her amateur efforts.  As an adult, Hamilton even went for her M.F.A., although she ended up concentrating on her career and restaurant instead.  Until now, of course.

The author's study of writing might explain the self-conscious arrangement of the text.  The three sections each focus on one aspect of her life and each allude to one particular anecdote, in the very well-arranged but artificial manner of the erudite writer.

"Blood" is devoted to her childhood, her parents' divorce, and its ugly and messy consequences.  The central metaphor is the image of her neighborhood butcher, and the potent impressions of a hearty and warm life that the big friendly proprietor left with her.  Hamilton details an anecdote of the rustic back workroom, where an employee brings a heavy cleaver down through some ribs, while at front the owner pours a free double handful of sweet peas into the hands of the author as a child.  The idea is that as pleasant as it is in the front, there's a hidden conflict and severance behind the scenes.

"Bones" advances to her efforts to find her place and the start of her real career in cooking, as well as the beginning of her marriage.  There is another anecdote-as-metaphor at work here: when Hamilton was a girl, her parents would throw big barbecues.  Her father prepared the lambs and hung out by the fire for hours, basting them and carousing with his friends, while inside her mother made huge vats of the necessary side dishes and handled all the other thousand arrangements - "the bones of the thing," as her father called it, referring to the vital structure for the pretty meat of his own contribution.  The metaphor, again embedded with subtlety but clear intention by Hamilton, is that her early crazy life was flashy and interesting, but it wasn't a real life without some structure, any more than an unaccompanied pile of meat is a person.  Her story of the creation of that structure ends in the twin achievements of a strange marriage to an Italian expat and the success of her restaurant, "Prune."

Oddly, while she speaks on at great and enjoyable length about her restaurant, its philosophy, and the gritty world of cooking, she leaves all sorts of unanswered questions about her marriage.  Hamilton describes her husband and their courting at length, and talks about the challenges of managing a relationship while in a high-intensity job, and other aspects of her marriage.  But for half of the book, she is an ardent lesbian in a long-term relationship.  It is impossible not to notice when a long-time lesbian is silent about why she has an affair with, and then marries, a man.  There's nothing wrong with that, but it does demand some comment.  Hamilton never provides any, and it is a glaring flaw in a book that otherwise takes such care in answering all the reader's questions.

"Butter," the last section, works around an experience she had in Italy with her mother-in-law cooking and the rich butter they had there.  It is a deeply satisfying conclusion to the story, as in this section she falls head-over-heels in love with her husband's happy family, and in the process comes to terms with her own family and her inexplicable hatred for her mother.  That hatred had been hinted at throughout the book, effectively alluded to but carefully avoided, and the catharsis from its resolution is great - and another reminder of how well-organized is this text.

Hamilton has a true love of good food and good description, and her luscious account of her life indulges the reader in rich passages of both.  Blood, Bones, and Butter is one of the better memoirs I've read, and I think most people would enjoy it.

Betrayal of the Spirit, Nori J. Muster

There is something wrong with Nori J. Muster.  There, I said it.  I thought it the entire time I was reading this: there is something wrong with Nori J. Muster.

No one lied to her when she was joining the Hare Krishnas.  She was a feminist who entered a religion that taught that men are superior because women's brains are smaller, and that taught that women must be submissive and sit in the back and dress modestly so as not to tempt men with their foul carnal natures.  She knew this, and got in anyway.

Nor did anyone lie to her when she was joining about the recent death of the founder of the movement, Swami Praduphada, or about the fact that from then on it was a collection of young American men in their twenties who would be running the organization and serving as godlike gurus for all new initiates.  She knew this and was uneasy about it, and got in anyway.

Yet throughout Muster's memoir of her time in the Hare Krishnas, there exists this perpetual sense of bewilderment.  She seems to wonder why women are treated as inferiors and why the dozen young men in charge of the group were behaving like power-drunk young idiots.  There is something wrong with Nori J. Muster.

Unfortunately for the reader, Muster's lack of awareness and her continued respect for the Hare Krishna ideals means that this is not as juicy a memoir as most cultist memoirs.  She was clearly taken advantage of, as her college friends told her right after she joined and donated all her money and possessions.  Muster and her compatriots would spend many hours each week at the airport or in front of their temple, lying to sell books or canvassing for money, while their leaders bought mansions and cavorted with celebrities.  They had no control of their lives, but did the bidding of unscrupulous men who used many of the ladies as a private harem while dangling spiritual fulfillment as a carrot to urge more work.  But Muster never really seems more than mildly irritated, because she still deeply believes in the philosophy of the Krishnas, if not the organization.  The "betrayal of the spirit" is the group's betrayal of the true Krishna spirit, not her own.  It is deeply sad.

I enjoyed it, because I have a fascination with cults and religion, but most readers would be better advised to seek out something with a little more rage.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace

The most interesting thing about this collection of nonfiction by David Foster Wallace (it was his first) is his evolution into... well, David Foster Wallace.  The essays are on a variety of topics (tennis, television, David Lynch, the Illinois State Fair) and in a variety of styles: the opening offerings seem almost like juvenalia, lacking in the denseness and obsessive style I've come to expect from his work.

Of these essays, the best are almost certainly "Getting Away from Pretty Much Already Being Away from It All," his account of the a state fair, and the titular "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," Wallace's lengthy discussion of his experience on a cruise ship.  Both essays, originally commissioned by Harper's, have the misanthropic and whimsical tone that is Wallace at his best.  He absorbs and appreciates and thinks at untold depths about the fair and the cruise, two mass-market experiences of quintessentially American indulgence.  Somehow, despite feeling disgusted and terrified at so much of the world, he never seems spiteful.  Perhaps he's shielded from appearing malicious by his own failings, also offered in analyzed detail.  Or perhaps we simply forgive the clever.

New readers are advised to find these essays online (where they are freely available) to see if they enjoy his style.  If so, go pick up Consider the Lobster, his second collection.  Devoted fans of the author, on the other hand, should certainly pick up A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, to see the evolution of the author and read his influential (if dated) "E Pluribus Unum," his discussion of the influence of television on pop culture.

Tamerlane, or Timur the Great Amir, Achmed Ibn Arabshah (trans. J.H. Sanders)

When I read Jason Marozzi's lousy biography of Timur the Great, one of the things that struck me was that the best parts of Marozzi's book were when he quoted the work of a Syrian contemporary of Timur, Ahmed Ibn Arabshah.  I said:

The writing itself is also problematic.  His prose is correct and clear.  But it's also uninteresting, especially when set next to the words of Achmad ibn Arabshah, a contemporary of Timur who saw the conqueror sack his home of Damascus, and whose text is alive with hate and awe.  A reader can't help but compare the lukewarm porridge of Marozzi to Arabshah's fiery broth, and Marozzi comes out the worse for it. 
A translation of Arabshah's 1435 book was hard to find.  There wasn't a copy in the whole country, so I had to place an interloan order from Melbourne to get it.  When it got here, though, I was delighted to find it was everything I had expected.  Written by a man who saw Timur pillage his home of Damascus, every chapter bristles with hatred for the subject.  He is called "the tyrant," "that bastard," "the treacherous imposter," and "he in whom Allah instilled no mercy or goodness," among many other epithets.  Yet even though Arabshah pours out his scorn on Timur, he does not seem to twist the facts.  The actual events accord with what was outlined in Marozzi's modern text - they're just related with a lot more vim.

One good example of that vim might be found in Chapter 39, titled "How He Returned to His Home and Sought his Own Country After Concluding His Destruction":

And when nature, like a tire-woman, had decked the place like a bride and the adorner of the dry earth had raised the season to its height and the growing strength of things was roused and the high peaks had decked themselves and the dust was kindled and reptiles crept, that viper [Timur] roused himself to movement and spat poison at all the dead serpents of winter with his live armies; and lo! when this viper moved, the drum was beaten, and its echo gave back a mighty thunder and corslets shone like mirrors, from which rays were reflected, blinding the sight like lightning, and the flash striking the shields threw a rainbow round the hills. And his cavalry advanced in corslets, and squadrons of horsemen, like hills of sand, riding through tracts of roses and fragrant herbs, circled in that distant country.
Just marvelous stuff!  Certainly, some of the similes seem to have suffered a little in translation, and this 1936 translation of a 1435 text is badly organized in the manner of many classics, stuttering along from incident to incident.  But these are small things, and the writing could cover a host of greater evils.

Timur was tall and lofty of stature as though he belonged to the remnants of the Amalekites, big in brow and head, mighty in strength and courage, wonderful in nature, white in colour, mixed with red, but not dark, stout of limb, with broad shoulders, thick fingers, long legs, perfect build, long beard, dry hands, lame on the right side, with eyes like candles, without brilliance, powerful in voice; he did not fear death; and though he was near his eightieth year, yet he was firm in mind, strong and robust in body, brave and fearless, like a hard rock.  He did not love jest and falsehood; wit and sport pleased him not; truth, though troublesome to him, pleased him; he was not sad in adversity or joyful in prosperity.
I am not sure I can recommend it to most; it has that knotty difficulty of many old works.  But if you are serious about history or curious about one of the great warriors of the ages, you might try to find a copy of this (prepare for a long search).

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