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From Present Moment, Wonderful Moment

Thich Nhat Hanh

Sometimes when we are on the computer, it is as if we have turned off our mind and are absorbed into the computer for hours. Mind is consciousness. The two aspects of consciousness, subject and object, depend on each other in order to exist. When our mind is conscious of something, we are that thing. When we contemplate a snow-covered mountain, we are that mountain. When we watch a noisy film, we are that noisy film. And when we turn on the blue light of the computer, we become that computer.

I tend to read such things in a very metaphorical sense, and I must preface any further comments by saying that it may not be the intent of the author to be metaphorical. There may be some elusive sense in which he is being quite literal. Not being Buddhist, and reading this passage from a strictly Catholic point of view, I see exposed (metaphorically) a fundamental truth. Neuroscience has pretty clearly demonstrated that so called multitasking is no more multitasking than it was (or perhaps still is) on previous generations of Pentium chips. It simply isn't biologically possible to truly multitask--take the incidence of traffic accidents while using cell phones as an exemplar.

We become, not physically, but in some sense mentally, what we engage with. When we shoose to be a part of something, we give a part of ourselves to that something. This is a difficult truth and it is the truth that lay behind custody of the sense. When we give ourselves over to indulgence in the sense, we cannot rise above them and we find ourselves driven by them. This can be an ugly and fearsome thing. Thus, the investment of energy is a profound investment of a part of ourselves. In investing that energy, we become in some sense part of what we are investing in. We betray ourselves when the object is not worth the investment.

To paraphrase George Harrison, "You know that what you do, you are." And this is true in a very substantial way--do worthy and worthwhile things, you tend toward doing more of the same. Do less worthy things, the tendency towards less worthy becomes more pronounced.

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A Reminder


For those in search of Christmas Gifts and good causes to support, Madeleine Scherb's--A Taste of Heaven provides a nice guide to foods and goods made by cloistered Monks and Nuns. The book itself might make a nice gift!

I was reminded of the book by the person who sent it to me, and I think enough of the book to have recommended it even without the reminder.

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Making Idols


I've found myself reading a lot of Timothy Keller recently, and if the books I have read so far are any indication, it is entirely like that I shall be reading more in the near future.

from Counterfeit Gods Timothy Keller

Why did we completely lose sight of what is right? The Bible's answer is that the human heart is an "idol factory."

When most people think of "idols" they have in mind literal statues--or the next pop star anointed by Simon Cowell. Yet while traditional idol worship still occurs in many places of the world, internal idol worship, within the heart, is universal. In Ezekiel 14:3, God says about elders of Israel, "These men have set up idols in their hearts. Like us, the elders must have responded to this charge, "Idols? What Idols? I don't see any idols." God was saying that the human heart takes good things like a successful career, love, material possessions, even family, and turns them into ultimate things. Our hearts deify them as the center of our lives, because we think they can give us significance and security, safety and fulfillment, if we attain them.

And who can deny it. It's like a playdough factory, we no sooner press out and reshape one idol than another one, one that we never suspected lurked within, takes its place.

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A Review of Anne Rice's Angel Time


Can be found here.

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A Review of Ron Hansen's Exiles


is available here.

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An Insight from Godot


I have the feeling that Godot is much more referred to than read, so I'll share with you a thought:

"There's man all over for you, blaming on his boots the faults of his feet."

And then later in the same monologue by Vladimir,

"One of the thieves was saved. It's a reasonable percentage."

Both quotations from Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett

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Other than to acknowledge that I have read the book, it seems presumptuous on my part to make any attempt to add to the already voluminous and sometimes vitriolic field of Hemingway studies. Perhaps the best thing I can do is to record a few prejudices and impressions and let it go with that. And perhaps I should record my strongest impression up front--upon closing the covers of the book after the last page, I had the impulse to open it again and begin leafing through and rereading in whole or in part. I longed to find my old college copy so that I could mark it up in arcane ways that are not possible with a library copy.

I have never been fond of Hemingway's style nor, for the most part, of his subject matter. I don't know that much has changed in that respect. I have more patience now than I once did with the ultra-minimalism that seems at times to make the symbols stand out like boils. If one were to take this simplistically, one could read the novel as a series of parables with meaning explicated within the text (take my example of the gored steer). However, even though it is very clear when Hemingway is using an object as a symbol, and even though that symbol is often explicitly linked to a meaning, the meaning suggested in the text is not the only meaning, and there is a depth beyond the surface of a parable. It's a subtle and interesting effect.

I don't much care about the subject matter--bull-fighting and promiscuity among a set of young expatriate Americans. Oh, and let's not forget unrequited love--or requited but unconsummated and unconsummatable love. But again, what Hemingway manages in this slight novel is to give us a sense of where it began to go wrong and how. It being civilization and we being the offspring of The Lost Generation, we might refer to it as the Lost Civilization. And it comes as a somewhat gratifying surprise (or not depending on your historical perspective) that it was not the 1960s that gave it to us.

But I think the most important thing to disclose is that I enjoyed the book. Very much. Despite all of the individual things that are not to my taste--spending the time to read it carefully and properly, gave me insight into the operation of literature, and perhaps even a little insight into people.

Fiction is, to paraphrase Picasso, "the lie that tells the truth." In a way that nonfiction cannot, fiction tells the truth about eternal things. Reading great literature, real art, gives insight into that truth--a deeper insight than is possible knowing the facts about a matter. And I think that this is sometimes the most frightening and off-putting of the features and shape of fiction.

In a deep paradox one may find that one can learn more by reading the great writers of fiction (about the things that really matter) than by reading the entire psychology and sociology sections of a library. And fiction carries this advantage--it doesn't pretend to tell you how to fix things, because wise fiction knows that any fix to a situation will only bollix it up in a new way. You don't read fiction looking for solutions--if you're a student of human nature you read it to come to an understanding of what the core problem is.

And perhaps that is where Hemingway is most successful. Because so much is stripped down and laid bare, it is relatively easy to see where the problem lies. To quote another wise man, "The fault lies not in the stars, but in ourselves." And the problem is that it isn't a "tragic" flaw of enormous proportions--overweening pride, lust, avarice. No, for most of us, as demonstrated in Hemingway's book, the fault is in the single choices made one by one that lead us away from the center. Most of us never leap into full-fledged rebellion, rather we find ourselves outside the gates by inches--by single choices, single bad choices, made over time--one-by-one. Choices of which we choose to be unaware, but if we were to take the bearings of them, we would find send us subtly off-course. And choices that always seem at the time innocuous or even good. This is the Devil's most successful work--to transform us into martyrs of the moment and allow us to think that the errors we commit are noble sacrifices.

Interestingly, and perhaps most appealingly, it seems that most of the characters in Hemingway's book do not manage to convince themselves of their own innocence. They look at their choices and say they have no choice (a different form of deception), but they don't lie to themselves and say that the choice was good.

So, as you see, not an analysis of Hemingway, but just a note to say that I enjoyed the book despite myself, found much more in it than I could ever have done as a college student, and I recommend it to the attention of all. It is not a struggle to read and it has moments of insight that are startling--particularly when you never expected to see yourself in a book by Hemingway.

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Who is the Gored Steer


You probably don't care much about my reading, but it seemed good to share some of these thoughts about the book along the way. This passage may be one of the most evocative and sad of the entire book, and may give us a key to understanding much of what goes on. Then again, my reflections on it may simply be overwrought.

from The Sun Also Rises
Ernest Hemingway

The steer was down now, his neck stretched out, his head twisted, he lay the way he had fallen. Suddenly the bull left off and made for the other steer which had been standing at the far end, his head swinging, watching it all. The steer ran awkwardly and the bull caught him, hooked him lightly in the flank, and then turned away and looked up at the crowd on the walls, his crest of muscle rising. The steer came up to him and made as though to nose at him and the bull hooked perfunctorily. The next time he nosed at the steer and then the two of them trotted over to the other bull.

When the next bull came out, all three, the two bulls and the steer, stood together, their heads side by side, their horns against the newcomer. In a few minutes the steer picked the new bull up, quieted him down, and made him one of the herd. When the last two bulls had been unloaded the herd were all together.

The steer who had been gored had gotten to his feet and stood against the stone wall. None of the bulls came near him, and he did not attempt to join the herd.

This passage is followed near on by a fairly aggressive verbal attack by Mike (Brett Ashley's present husband) against Robert Cohn (her one-time pickup) in which Mike uses the following line:

"Tell me, Robert. Why do you follow Brett around like a poor bloody steer?"

So, an obvious and overt reference. However, the passage above has stronger and more lingering resonances within the work as a whole. Jake Barnes has suffered a wound during the war which makes it impossible for him to consummate his relationship with Brett. Thus he is the physical steer of the group. It is also possible that his animus toward Robert Cohn is a result not of his jealousy of Brett, but of his jealousy of and confused thoughts about Robert. This is more tentative, and only gotten at by straining against some of the borders of the text. However, it is provocative that the chief sign here is that of the gored or penetrated steer. This same steer is excluded from the crowd in a way that both Robert and Jake are excluded. But Robert continually makes feeble attempts to join the herd, and Jake while more accepted does see himself standing outside.

Another point that this attraction (if it exists) might help to explain is the reference, quoted in the passage yesterday to being a bad Catholic and possibly never being a good one. If the matter were merely Brett Ashley, it is possible that Jake could think of himself that way--especially as the passion is adulterous. But the hope of being a good Catholic is not forlorn, knowing that Brett is fickle and likely to run through another husband or two in time. But if there a mixed and uncertain feelings about Robert as well, that would clinch the deal.

I won't push this as an understanding of the book, merely as a possibility suggested by this key passage. Obviously other parts of the work would need to be brought forward to support the thesis. It may not sustain close scrutiny, but the thought that Jake may entertain thoughts, perhaps not overtly homosexual, but perhaps a certain attraction to Cohn for looks, character, and ability, does help to explain why he ultimately betrays Cohn by presenting Brett to Romero (also attacking at the same time the obnoxious Mike, who, as noted in the passage above, attacks Robert). It's complex, but it isn't out of the question. The question is, will a close reading of the rest of the book support it. If not, it is at least an interesting speculation arising from the close juxtaposition of passages and symbols.

Oh, and it is an interesting coincidence of no meaning whatsoever, that the gored steer stands against the stone wall (Stonewall). (What other sort of wall would there be in Pamplona in the late 20s early 30s--but still, amusing if one wishes to force a reading on the text--Hemingway as prophet.)

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