Sunday, May 15, 2011

John Lukacs: The Future of History

John Lukacs has written another reflection on history as a discipline and as a cultural phenomena. Regular readers of Lukacs will not find a great deal new here, as he's addressed many of these issues in the past. On the other hand, I do not tire of reading Lukacs on this topic. Indeed, given his style, it's almost as if he's sitting by the fire speaking informally to a gathering of confidants on a topic about which his mind has been quite fertile for many decades. While the topics have been addressed in the past, the fertility of his mind keeps the topic fresh and relevant. Topics like how historical consciousness has risen in modernity, how history relates to literature, how we think of what constitutes history: all of these are topics deserving of careful and repeated consideration, and Lukacs provides us with another take on these topics that makes this book worthwhile. For someone new to this master, reading this book will provide a brief introduction to the fertility of his thought on these topics. Now into his 80's, one has to consider each of these books as a real treasure.

Ursula LeGuin: The Lathe of Heaven

A recent trip to the Pacific Northwest to help 1HP celebrate her birthday included a trip to Portland. Portland gave us fun food carts, beautiful gardens, interesting restaurants, some local brews and Powell’s Bookstore. The later is famous and proved fun. In honor of the person I consider Portland’s most famous author (and one of my personal favorites), I purchased Ursula K Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven. (Darned, she was on the marquee for making an appearance shortly after our trip there.)

The Lathe of Heaven isn’t just by Portland’s most famous author, it’s also set in Portland. From this rather mundane setting (Portland isn’t all beautiful scenery), Le Guin tells her tale of the young protagonist who experiences “effective dreaming”; in other words, his dreams come true, in a very literal and often disturbing way. As one would expect in our society, he tries to stop this weird occurrence with drugs, and he ends up with a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist, once aware of this unusual gift (if one can call it that), tries to harness this power to the good of humanity. From this premise, Le Guin spins yarns of alternative and dystopian futures, as rationality cannot master the world of the dream. Le Guin, however, masters a blend of the contemporary quotidian, current politics, reigning zeitgeist, and the fantastic, weaving them together so that one hardly blinks at the juxtaposition of the fantastic and the ordinary.

Le Guin’s book was a delight to read while visiting Portland (although finished in Seattle). I never leave one of her stories without a sense of having been caught up in a compelling story, well told, yet I also find myself continuing to ponder what I've just read because she offers a perspective on the world that always challenges us and the reality that we live in. In this case, she challenges us with the world of dreams; not just the dream world of Freud or Jung, with their sometimes too easy interpretations, but the world of dreams suggested by the Tao Te Ching (of which she has written a translation), Chuang Tsu, Victor Hugo, and others.

A trip to Portland for those of us in the Midwest doesn’t happen very often, but you can read The Lathe of Heaven to take a virtual trip to Portland and far beyond.

Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong’s The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness (2004, 306 p.) is an extraordinarily engaging memoir. Ms. Armstrong recounts the time from when she left a Roman Catholic convent in about 1969 to her transformation into one of the leading writers about religion. However, this is not a story all filled with grace and light. In fact, she tells a story of struggle, hurt, and misfortune, although I would say it is one of ultimate success, and I believe that in the end, she must appreciate the immense contribution that she has made to religious understanding.

Armstrong left the convent feeling a bit of a failure as a religious, never having found God has she had hoped and expected. She left Oxford without a Ph.D., thus never having qualified for the academic career that she had pursued, and she was eased out of a secondary teaching career without any apparent alternative available to her. Along the way, hide-bound and insensitive nuns, dull-witted psychiatrists, arrogant professors, and penny-pinching administrators contributed to her woes. She does not berate them, and in the end, despite obvious cruelty and arrogance, one almost secretly rejoices that these impediments led to so many misfortunes, since she might not have turned to the career that I’ve found so enriching.

Only by chance and not really by choice (intentional, anyway) did she turn to religion as a subject for her career as a writer. With her book, A History of God: The 4,000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, in which she writes a parallel history (so much as history allows) of the three great monotheistic religions she turns again. (I use this phrase because she the first portion of Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” serves as the epigram for the book and names the chapter titles.) She comes to the conclusion that religion is not about belief, but about practice; not about conflict, but about compassion; that self-emptying (kenosis in the Greek) comes through compassion as much as through meditation; and understanding comes from the inside, from making myth into ritual, and not from a mere recital of facts or creeds. In the end, this book is like a grail quest, altered, of course, by the age in which we live and that Eliot reflects in much of his work.

I’ve put off reviewing The Case for God (2009, 390 p.), so I’ll do that now as well briefly. First of all, although I have a hardback of this book, I listened to it on audio, with Armstrong reading it. Her reading added delight. Even though I had not yet read The Spiral Staircase, one gets a sense of her from her books, and that is enhanced by her reading, which is quite good. (One of her careers, after secondary school teaching and before full time writing, was as a television presenter.) Her firm authorial voice reveals itself fleetingly in print, but clearly in her reading.

This book takes us from the earliest cave art to the present, suggesting ways of understanding God that I mentioned above. She does not pretend to prove or disprove God’s existence; instead, she seeks to understand what all of this God-talk can be about and how it might all go astray or lead us to a better life. Modernity, which brought so many benefits into the world, also made us terribly literal-minded. Religion, as myth and ritual giving shape and substance to lives, went astray (for the most part) because of this mindset. She, like me, believes that the mystics, those who find God a paradox and elusive (not magical), have the deepest insights, but they are a minority in any religious culture.

These two books, like others of hers that I have read, give us a profound insight into what religion can and should be. I highly recommend both of these books.