Samuel Beckett, David Shenk, Jostein Gaarder (trans. Anne Born), Martin Palmer, P.G. Wodehouse

Endgame and Act Without Words, by Samuel Beckett: I went to see the Cutting Ball Theater production of Endgame in San Francisco with Steve, who later lent me his copy of the play since I hadn’t read it prior to the performance. I don’t know how I would have reacted if I read the play without any a priori impressions, but I suspect that it makes more sense when seen on stage. The dark humor of the play is inherent in the script (which, in fact, did include fairly detailed stage directions that account for almost all of the actions I saw, down to the folding of Hamm’s handkerchief) but I think it’s funnier when given inflection and pausing. All that being said, it’s a rather depressing play, but then again, what else does one expect from Beckett? I also noticed that there were puns in the dialogue that I hadn’t picked up on during the performance (not discounting the possibility that I’m seeing wordplay where it doesn’t actually exist).

The volume also included Beckett’s Act Without Words, which indeed has no dialogue. The whole pantomime seems rather like a post-existentialist satire of Camus’ assertion that the only philosophical question of any importance is the question of suicide. The lone actor, in confronting the futility of his actions, tries to commit suicide but even this option is denied him. Camus at least gives us the will to choose suicide if we so wished, but Beckett seems to be saying that we aren’t even permitted that escape. The actor ends up on the floor, paralyzed and unresponsive. What I would dub the modern nightmare.

The Immortal Game: A History of Chess, by David Shenk: The book calls itself a history of chess, but it doesn’t simply relate the development of the board game alone but frames it in the context of why people have obsessed over this game for centuries. Chess as metaphor, chess as cultural phenomenon, chess as a mirror of sociopolitical and intellectual history (e.g. the rise of “courtly love” under Eleanor of Aquitaine, the French Enlightenment and subsequent revolutions), chess as rational system. The book describes myths and legends associated with chess (the caliph who did not evacuate his burning palace because he was engrossed in a game of chess), as well as famous games (the “Immortal Game” of the title describes a match between Anderssen and Kieseritzky in the nineteenth century) and grandmasters (the personal history of Bobby Fischer). It also talks about the evolution of game rules and strategy over time–I was fascinated by the four historical “stages” in chess style–and the appearance of chess in literature and computer science. All in all, an excellently written book. Shenk likes to dwell on the implications of chess as a game representing the power of free will (versus games of chance, like backgammon) and by extension, the triumph of civilization and rational thought, which he freely admits carries a personal meaning for him in the wake of 9/11. I’m not sure if the more memoirist parts of the book strengthen or weaken it (after all, he also talks about how the obsession with chess can be all-consuming and how chess geniuses lose their sanity), but I did like reading about his own attempts to improve his chess game.

Vita Brevis: A Letter to Saint Augustine, by Jostein Gaarder (trans. Anne Born): In the introduction, Gaarder purports to have found and translated a letter written to Augustine from the “concubine” whom he mentions in his Confessions. I actually took him at his word at first, but if you read the book, it becomes clear that the letter is a fictional vehicle in which Gaarder can criticize Augustine and his influence on Christian theology. Despite Gaarder’s conceit of including “footnotes” citing the original Latin phrases, it’s clear that Floria, the supposed letter writer, sounds like Gaarder (or at least like Gaarder’s usual English translator) and has surprisingly modern ideas that coincide nicely with Western liberal opinions largely held today. I’m no classics expert, but I doubt that a letter originally written in Latin would ever “translate” into the style that Floria adopts. I suppose I’m annoyed because if Gaarder was going to make the pretense of having found a letter to Augustine as some sort of metafictional device, he could have done a much better job of it. It would have been brilliant if he executed the writing well enough to really make the reader believe his framing story of buying the manuscript at a book fair in Argentina. (Choice of country a nod to Borges?) As it is, all it becomes is a tiresome rant on Augustine’s extreme Platonism. Floria basically says (over and over again, while quoting extensively from Confessions) that believing in a Creator God who loved his creation means not denying the physical world and the facts of our physical existence; in fact, it is as much a sin to hate the world as it is to love it too well. Chesterton made the same point in his biography of Aquinas much more eloquently and with much more subtlety. Also, like most poor arguments, the whole book started making me sympathize with Augustine. I mean, I think Augustine’s conception of religion as divorcing oneself completely from the material world as much as possible is a little ridiculous, but I also think that he was genuinely trying, in his own fashion, to devote himself completely to God. And honestly, do we really need to blame all the excesses and mistakes of the Church on Augustine? As Chesterton points out, there are historical reasons for why Augustine’s brand of Platonic Christianity had such great appeal. Then again, I suppose we don’t like to accept that theology can have relativity without being untrue. (Oh, the poststructuralist paradox.)

The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist Christianity, by Martin Palmer: The subject matter of the book is quite fascinating since it traces the history of early Christianity in China centuries before any Jesuit missions. It describes a Christian tradition that developed separately in the Middle East, India and central Asia and is hence not continuous with the history of Catholic church (and subsequent Protestant denominations) in the West. It’s unfortunate though that the writing wasn’t very compelling and used phrases like “the Church of the East”, which implied an orientalist attitude that grated on my nerves. I think the book was also extremely disorganized: Palmer kept jumping from his personal account of discovering the ruins of an indigenous Christian monastery in Western China, to recounting the history of how Christianity entered China and merged with Taoist and Buddhist doctrines, to summarizing and translating the “Jesus Sutras” (Chinese texts that refer to Christian scripture and liturgy) without providing an overarching flow to his argument. I wish he had chosen a more academic tone and stripped the personal commentary from his book. I also wish he didn’t analyze the Sutras prior to providing the translated text; it seems to be dodgy academic practice to try to bias the mind of your reader with a particular interpretation of a text (given that he can’t exactly assume that his reader is already familiar with the texts in question). Mostly, what I found most irritating was that he built up my expectations with his claims that the Sutras were an important contribution to spiritual literature. Granted, I have no idea how the original Chinese reads, but the English translation sounded awkward and uninspiring to me. Also, I didn’t find the blending of Christian theology with Buddhist and Taoist (more Buddhist than Taoist, in my opinion, despite the title) philosophy to be all that radical. It’s easy to find common points among all religious doctrines; the question is at which point do you end up generalizing so much that you end up becoming nondenominational. If Palmer had seriously addressed whether or not this “adulteration” of Christian theology can still be called Christian, I would have liked the book a lot more. (Are you still Christian if you diminish the historical existence of Christ and turn him into an abstract Savior? Conversely, are you still Christian if you emphasize the humanity of Christ and overlook his divinity? I don’t know the answer. To be honest, I don’t think I’m capable of grasping the dual nature of Christ; instead I slip into the fallacy of believing in two different Christs, one human and one divine.)

I should add that of course, one could say that Catholicism (and the Protestant sects which it spawned) is the adulterated form–and I think to a certain extent, that is Palmer’s contention. The Christian message has become distorted and politicized in “the West”, and hence we ought to look to “the East” to revive Christian spirituality and return to a more original form. But I find that whole attitude aggravating: Buddhism and Taoism have been equally subject to distortion, and I would presume a “Taoist Christianity” would be no different. No matter where you go, religion has been a tool for power.

Mike at Wrykyn, by P.G. Wodehouse: The prequel to Mike and Psmith, although I don’t know if it can rightly be called a prequel since I believe the two books were originally published together as Mike. The book talks about Mike’s first year at Wrykyn as he makes his mark through his superlative cricket skills, while juggling relations with his brother, an overbearing head of house, his roommate (an upperclassman known for getting into trouble) and the Wrykyn cricket captain. Schoolboy pranks included, although not as many as I expected, since the book is in fact mostly about cricket. I wish I knew more about cricket but the book is still enjoyable without any knowledge of the sport.

Leave It to Psmith, by P.G. Wodehouse: Switched from reading about Jeeves and Wooster to reading about Psmith, who is absurdly and delightfully verbose. He is able to get away with anything by simply never losing his composure; in the stickiest situation, he always makes everyone else feel that he has the upper hand. That’s the charm of a thoroughly arrogant character, of course. I suppose the trick is that he never irritates the reader with his arrogance, although other characters certainly find it infuriating. I liked that Wodehouse also finally created a strong female character, who is assertive and independent, without including any criticisms that come off as subtly sexist. (Female characters that are as spunky as Eve in the Jeeves and Wooster books come off as irresponsibly mischievous or domineering or scheming to entrap Bertie in marriage. Along the same lines, the weepy poetic female character in this story turned out to be a thief, whereas in a Jeeves and Wooster book, she would simply have remained soppy all the way through.) I also hadn’t realized that Freddie Threepwood was such an idiot; I read a later Blandings short story where he becomes much more competent.

Comment (1)

  1. daimira wrote::

    I agree with what you said about Vita Brevis. The whole time, I was thinking, “Aw, come one, Floria! Leave Augustine alone *sob*” because she just came off bitchy :P

    I liked some of the points made in the book, and some passages were literally quite pretty (the reason why I like Gaarder novels so much). But really, Floria/Gaarder. Take it easy on the poor guy!

    Tuesday, May 6, 2008 at 23:31 #