Apocalyptic Planet/The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person (Books Acquired, 9.14.2012)

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Two new review copies from the good people at Pantheon.

First, Apocalyptic Planet, which looks pretty cool. Pub copy:

The earth has died many times, and it always comes back looking different. In an exhilarating, surprising exploration of our planet, Craig Childs takes readers on a firsthand journey through apocalypse, touching the truth behind the speculation.Apocalyptic Planet is a combination of science and adventure that reveals the ways in which our world is constantly moving toward its end and how we can change our place within the cycles and episodes that rule it.

In this riveting narrative, Childs makes clear that ours is not a stable planet, that it is prone to sudden, violent natural disasters and extremes of climate. Alternate futures, many not so pretty, are constantly waiting in the wings. Childs refutes the idea of an apocalyptic end to the earth and finds clues to its more inevitable end in some of the most physically challenging places on the globe. He travels from the deserts of Chile, the driest in the world, to the genetic wasteland of central Iowa to the site of the drowned land bridge of the Bering Sea, uncovering the micro-cataclysms that predict the macro: forthcoming ice ages, super-volcanoes, and the conclusion of planetary life cycles. Childs delivers a sensual feast in his descriptions of the natural world and a bounty of unequivocal science that provides us with an unprecedented understanding of our future.

I suppose I’m less enthusiastic about Harold Kushner’s take on The Book of Job

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Here’s the pub copy:

From one of our most trusted spiritual advisers, a thoughtful, illuminating guide to that most fascinating of biblical texts, the book of Job, and what it can teach us about living in a troubled world.

The story of Job is one of unjust things happening to a good man. Yet after losing everything, Job—though confused, angry, and questioning God—refuses to reject his faith, although he challenges some central aspects of it. Rabbi Harold S. Kushner examines the questions raised by Job’s experience, questions that have challenged wisdom seekers and worshippers for centuries. What kind of God permits such bad things to happen to good people? Why does God test loyal followers? Can a truly good God be all-powerful?

Rooted in the text, the critical tradition that surrounds it, and the author’s own profoundly moral thinking, Kushner’s study gives us the book of Job as a touchstone for our time. Taking lessons from historical and personal tragedy, Kushner teaches us about what can and cannot be controlled, about the power of faith when all seems dark, and about our ability to find God.

Rigorous and insightful yet deeply affecting, The Book of Job is balm for a distressed age—and Rabbi Kushner’s most important book since When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

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“Half Horse Half Alligator” — I Review Charles Olson’s Inimitable Melville Study, Call Me Ishmael

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The classical Greeks understood that literature is a form of competition. The eminent literary critic Harold Bloom folded a bit of Freudian psychology into this insight, describing the “anxiety of influence” that lurks beneath the impetus to write, the motivation to enter into an agon with the history of letters, to Oedipally assassinate—or at least assimilate—one’s literary forebears. To put this another way: What does it take to write after, say, The Odyssey? How does one answer to The Book of Job? The gall to write after Don Quixote, after Shakespeare, after Dostoevsky, after George Eliot . . .

What about Moby-Dick? What are the possibilities of even writing about Moby-Dick? (One thinks here of Ishmael’s own futile attempts to measure whales). How could Melville write after Job? After Lear? After Moby-Dick? How did Melville assimilate the texts that presented the strongest anxieties of influence in his opus? Could Melville survive the wreckage of The Pequod? These are the questions that poet-critic Charles Olson tackles—sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely, and always with brisk, sharp language—in Call Me Ishmael, his study of Melville and Moby-Dick.

Here’s one answer to my list of questions. It comes early in Olson’s book:

The man made a mess of things. He got all balled up in Christ. He made a white marriage. He had one son die of tuberculosis, the other shoot himself. He only rode his own space once—Moby-Dick. He had to go fast, like an American, or he was all torpor. Half horse half alligator.

Melville took an awful licking. He was bound to. He was an original, aboriginal. A beginner. It happens that way to the dreaming men it takes to discover America . . . Melville had a way of reaching back through time until he got history pushed back so far he turned time into space. He was like a migrant backtrailing to Asia, some Inca trying to find a lost home.

We are the last “first” people. We forget that. We act big, misuse our land, ourselves. We lose our own primary.

Melville went back, to discover us, to come forward. He got as far as Moby-Dick.

This passage illustrates Olson’s forceful, often blunt prose, the kind of language that cracks directly at Melville’s own impossible prose in Moby-Dick. I think here of the critic James Wood’s notation in his essay “Virginia Woolf’s Mysticism” that

The writer-critic, or poet-critic, has a competitive proximity to the writers she discusses. The competition is registered verbally. The writer-critic is always showing a little plumage to the writer under discussion. If the writer-critic appears to generalize, it is because literature is what she does, and one is always generalizing about oneself.

Olson may generalize as he shows a little plumage to master Melville, cutting through huge swaths of history and making poetic leaps into strange similes, but Call Me Ishmael is ultimately keenly attenuated to detail, to the processes of Melville’s constructions at the historical, economic, psychological, religious, and, yes, literary level. Although a slim 119 pages in my 1947 City Lights edition, Call Me Ishmael nevertheless vividly conveys the sources Melville synthesized to create Moby-Dick.

The book begins with an unsourced account of the whaleship Essex, attacked and destroyed by a sperm whale in the Pacific in 1820, a year after Melville’s birth. Olson trusts his readers to connect The Essex to The Pequod. Unlike so much literary scholarship, Olson’s Ishmael doesn’t torture every element of the text into overwrought explications. He provides an overview of the importance of whaling-industry-as-world’s-fuel source in a chapter that reads more like a prose poem than a stuffy history book, and then, in a chapter appropriately titled “Usufruct,” offers up entries from Melville’s own journals as primary evidence of the material that led to Moby-Dick. Olson rarely sticks his nose in here, letting the reader synthesize the selections.

Olson then plumbs Moby-Dick’s literary roots, delving into Shakespeare, particularly Lear and Antony and Cleopatra. He attends to Melville’s own annotations to Shakespeare, and then points out Melville’s literary/political condensation:

As the strongest force Shakespeare caused Melville to approach tragedy in terms of the drama. As the strongest social force America caused him to approach tragedy in terms of democracy.

It was not difficult for Melville to reconcile the two. Because of his perception of America: Ahab . . .

Ahab is the FACT, the Crew the IDEA. The Crew is where what America stands for got into Moby-Dick. They’re what we imagine democracy to be. They’re Melville’s addition to tragedy as he took it from Shakespeare. He had to do more with the people than offstage shouts in a Julius Caesar. This was the difference a Declaration of Independence made.

The Shakespeare section of Call Me Ishmael marvels: Olson’s perceptive powers simultaneously enlighten and make seemingly-familiar territory dark, strange. He then moves into a discussion of post-Moby Melville, a man perhaps crushed by his own achievement—not by any financial success, no, definitely no, but the metaphysical success. Like a Moses, Melville had found the god he so desperately needed:

Melville wanted a god. Space was the First, before time, earth, man. Melville sought it: “Polar eternities” behind “Saturn’s gray chaos.” Christ, a Holy Ghost, Jehovah never satisfied him. When he knew peaces it was with a god of Prime. His dream was Daniel’s: the Ancient of Days, garment white as snow, hair like the pure wool. Space was the paradise Melville was exile of.

When made his whale he made his god. Ishmael once comes to the bones a Sperm whale pitched up on land. They are massive, and his struck with horror at the “antemosaic unsourced existence of the unspeakable terrors of the whale.”

When Moby-Dick is first seen he swims a snow-hill on the sea. To Ishmael he is the white bull Jupiter swimming to Crete with ravished Europa on his horns: a prime, lovely, malignant white.

Olson agrees with an 1856 journal entry by Nathaniel Hawthorne that he cites at length: Melville “can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief.” In Olson’s analysis, after having found god-in-the-whale, Melville plummets into an existential crisis. He gives over to his inner-alligator, torpid, enervated, numb, but still fierce and potent and monstrous. “He denied himself in Christianity,” writes Olson, linking the downward spiral of Melville’s career and family life to this religion.

To this end, Olson is too dismissive of Melville’s later work; when he can find nothing of the “old Melville” to praise in Benito Cereno, Bartleby, or Billy Budd, it’s almost as if he’s willfully ignoring evidence that contradicts his thesis. These are marvelous books, and if they can’t win a contest against Moby-Dick, it’s worth pointing out that little of what’s been written after that book can.

And yet we can write after Melville; we can even write on Melville. The will and vitality of Olson’s forceful, intelligent prose opens a way, or at least exemplifies a way. At the same time, paradoxically, a reading of Call Me Ishmael seems to foreclose the need, if not the possibility, of reading another study of Moby-Dick. This statement is not meant to be a knock against Melville scholarship. Here’s the thing though: life is short, time is limited, and if one plans to read a book about Moby-Dick, it should be Olson’s Call Me Ishmael. It’s great, grand stuff.

The Tree of Life — Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick’s beautiful, moving new film The Tree of Life explores humanity’s need to find metaphysical, spiritual, or psychological solace in a physical, natural, phenomenal world whose God remains silent, if not absent. The film begins by quoting the Book of Job: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation . . . while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” The line is God’s rejoinder to Job’s despair, a non-answer that recalls God’s response to Moses in Exodus when Moses asks his name and he replies: “I am that I am.” God is tautological; there is no analogy, no metaphoricity for God. Similarly, as in Job, it is not for us to understand God’s creation; rather, we are part of its mystery, and part of that mystery is to find meaning against a Darwinian backdrop. Malick’s project in The Tree of Life is to find meaning—but not explanation—through the beauty, grace, and the glory of nature, even as the film acknowledges the violence, injustice, and inconstancy of the natural world, a world that will never directly answer existential questioning.

The film begins with the O’Briens learning that one of their three sons has died. He is only nineteen years old, and the grief of his early death overwhelms his parents; it also casts an ever-present existential gloom over his brother Jack, who will become the ersatz protagonist of the film. Jack (portrayed as an adult by Sean Penn) is an architect in a big city. On a day that seems particularly freighted with significance—perhaps his brother’s birthday or deathday—he is unable to communicate with his wife or colleagues. Through Malick’s trademark interior-monologue whispers, Jack questions God again and again, trying to find meaning in his brother’s death.

In what may or may not be a daydream of Jack’s, the film then undertakes representing the creation of the universe, the expansion of galaxies, the formation of our own planet, and the subsequent life that evolves there. The segment is breathtaking, overwhelming, and worth the price of admission alone. In one shot, a giant dinosaur lies beached; the camera pans to reveal his side bloodied and bitten. The film then cuts to a shot of hammerhead sharks swarming in the deep. This Darwinian depiction is echoed and then contrasted in another shot, as one dinosaur finds another, of a different species, dying on a riverbed. The first dinosaur places his foot over the second’s neck, but then chooses not to kill the dying dinosaur, who struggles for life. There are perhaps two attitudes here toward life, one which is essentially a Nietzschean will-to-power, and the other Jesusian, an impulse born of empathy, identification, and ultimately radical love.

These contrasting ideals are embodied in Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien, and showcased in the next segment of the film, which is likely part of Jack’s memory, or maybe more accurately the idea of Jack’s memory. In a rushing flow of images and music, Malick captures the deep beauty, excitement, and confusion of early life. The episode might find a literary analogy in the early chapters of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which also attempts to show what early consciousness might be like. Malick’s syntax is typically Malickian, yet it fits its subject better here than it did in The New World or The Thin Red Line. The life of the young family is overwhelming in its natural beauty; however, the context of one of the boy’s impending death begins to throw shadows over the beauty. Thus we have the central apparent philosophical problem of the phenomenal world—what does it mean to die? This question in turn entails another—what does it mean to live?

For Mr. O’Brien, life is a Darwinian contest: “You can’t be too good,” he admonishes his boys. He keeps an ever-present stern hand around the back of Jack’s neck. The gesture is deeply ambiguous: it is at once a loving father’s guiding hand and at the same time a choking, killing noose. Mr. O’Brien dreams of becoming a big man, a successful man, a wealthy man. He is strict with the children, and instructs them toward a philosophy of self-reliance that is more Nietzsche than Thoreau. In contrast, Mrs. O’Brien takes a loving, playful, relaxed approach to her children (and life in general). She evokes something of a nature spirit, an earth mother able to recognize the beauty and glory in each transient moment. Where Mr. O’Brien grieves the could-have-been and pines for the will-be, Mrs. O’Brien finds meaning in the evanescent inconstancy of life.

These contrasting views come to a head as Jack approaches puberty. The film slides into an understated Oedipal drama. After a friend of the boys drowns, Jack wonders why he should be good if God isn’t. The Oedipal drama is thus capitulated not just at Jack’s parents, but at Jack’s internalization of a God-figure, which he dallies with rejecting, or at least defying. He becomes cruel at times to his brothers. He assaults an animal. He breaks windows. He sneaks into a neighbor’s house and (implicitly) masturbates over a piece of lingerie, after which shame and anger drives him to flee. In a painful, short scene, he acknowledges that he’s changed, that he can no longer talk to his mother. Jack pines for his lost innocence (“Why can’t I be like them again?” he asks God, presumably referring to his younger brothers), realizing that his isolation and loneliness is part of a larger existential dilemma.

Malick here complicates the earlier innocent joy of his film, acknowledging and dramatizing the deeply ambiguous, confusing, and painful realities of growing up. At the same time, The Tree of Life does not exactly grow dark during these scenes: Malick works to show the beauty of the natural world, of each moment in life, even as those moments are profoundly complicated by morality and personal perspective. Malick’s portrayal of the O’Brien family’s life in Waco, Texas in the late ’50s is rich, detailed, and intricately nuanced. It is real, and much of the credit must be given to the naturalistic performances of the boys (which elide all surfaces of “performance” as such), as well as outstanding turns by Jessica Chastain as Mrs. O’Brien and Brad Pitt as Mr. O’Brien. The real star of the film though might be the cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, who deserves great praise for bringing vibrant life to Malick’s vision.

I have already over-summarized here, when what I really mean to say is: Go see The Tree of Life. Go see it in a theater. It’s beautiful. I will summarize no further, and only add that the film concludes with a metaphysical vision that testifies memory’s ability to give meaning to both life and death. The Tree of Life ultimately suggests that we should love our lives, love our families, and do our best to love existence despite life’s difficulty and inconstancy, despite an apparently indifferent God who will never respond directly to our questions. The film does not attempt then to deflect the grief or explain it away or even to understand it, but rather  to show us that suffering is part of grace and glory, and that there could be  no grace and glory without suffering. Like Frank Capra’s masterpiece It’s a Wonderful Life, which it strongly recalls, The Tree of Life is able to deliver such an apparently simple—and potentially facile—message in a way that genuinely communicates the underlying complexity of such a message. Our lot in life is always Job’s lot; we are always on the path to or from grief—and yet this grief is deserved and appropriate precisely because life is glorious in the first place. Very highly recommended.