Thursday, December 31, 2015

Zen Humor

This strip is not focused on Zen as a rule, but the humor of this one is a bulls-eye if you practice. Laughed out loud when I read it, and thought I'd share.


Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Emile Zola - 'Doctor Pascal'

translated by Mary J. Serrano
After just over five years, I have come to the end of my project of reading the entire Rougon-Macquart Cycle by Emile Zola!

The Rougon-Macquart is a series of twenty novels set in Second Empire France which purport, by way of demonstrating the effects of heredity on individuals, to provide a complete history of a single family over five generations and the society in which they lived. They are often bleak novels, but it's been a worthwhile effort. After reading all twenty novels, I'm convinced Zola's Cycle is one of the greatest achievements in post-industrial literature. Any serious reader of literature should have at least two or three of these novels under their belt, especially if they are interested in late 19th Century fiction, social justice, or realism.

For those who wish to go further and tackle the entire Cycle, there are two ways to do so: in the order Zola published the novels or in the order in which he preferred them to be read. I would strongly recommend the latter as it provides much better insight into Zola's overall structure. Whichever way you choose to go, however, no one should read Doctor Pascal first. It should always be read last, whether you take on the whole Cycle or just a few of the best entries.

There are two reasons for this. First, Doctor Pascal doesn't work all that well as a stand-alone novel. The characters are well-drawn, but the plot is not as engaging or hard-hitting compared to many of Zola's other works. Second, Doctor Pascal's true purpose is to function as a thematic capstone. As a result, a good deal of exposition is dedicated towards Zola's themes of heredity and the engines of society. This material is only loosely integrated into the plot by way of being presented as the life's work of Doctor Pascal in maintaining a well-researched Rougon-Macquart family tree. This means that long stretches of several chapters will, frankly, be of little interest to anyone who doesn't have a high level of familiarity with the Rougon-Macquart family.

The plot primarily concerns the titular character and his niece Clotilde Rougon, who form a romantic relationship (with surprisingly minor repercussions). Sub-plots involve a relatively large number of other family members, much like the Cycle's introductory novel The Fortune of the Rougons (which also should be read only if you plan to get a deeper feeling for Zola's overall accomplishment). The sub-plots update us on the lives of Felicite Rougon (as shrewdly obsessed with appearances as ever), Adelaide 'Dide' Foques, Maxime Rougon, his illegitimate son Charles, and the reliably white-trashy Antoine Macquart. I won't spend much of my post discussing the specific plot and sub-plots because my interest in Doctor Pascal was entirely wrapped up in its role as a thematic capstone.

Zola's Rougon-Macquart family tree
While The Fortune of the Rougons provided the initial stories and background of most members of the family, Doctor Pascal ties up loose ends. Of course, many Rougon-Macquart family members died or had their fates clearly resolved within their specific novels. For those who did not, Doctor Pascal contains a series of 'epilogues'. Again, much of this material has little or nothing to do with the plot of this novel, so it's hard to imagine anyone without a lot of background in the Cycle being interested in these epilogues.

From my standpoint, however, I loved it! The epilogues relate the ultimate fates of Eugene Rougon, Sidonie Rougon, Octave Mouret and his wife Denise, Helene Mouret Grandjean, Jean Macquart, and Etienne Lantier. Some of the characters have died, while others are still making their way in life and having children. Elsewhere we receive updates: Aristide Saccard is still a greedy slime preying on the weak, Victor Saccard has vanished into the shadowy underworld of Paris, Serge and Desiree Mouret still enjoy their marginal existence, and Pauline Quenu is thriving at the heart of the dysfunctional Chanteau family.

Pascal's work in researching and maintaining the family tree serves a couple purposes Zola has on his agenda. First, it allows him to put his themes and viewpoints into Pascal's mouth as dialogue. While Zola handles this quite well, that doesn't excuse his usage of such a ham-fisted means of conveying ideas. To someone coming to Doctor Pascal without much background from the Cycle, this material (and there's a lot of it) will seem pedantic, preachy, and boring. As an example of this content, in Chapter 2 Pascal voices Zola's philosophy on life in opposition to the religious views promoted by Clotilde:
"I believe that the future of humanity is in the progress of reason through science. I believe that the pursuit of truth, though science, is the divine ideal which man should propose to himself. I believe that all is an illusion and vanity outside the treasure of truths slowly accumulated, and which will never again be lost. I believe that the sum of these truths, always increasing, will at last confer on man incalculable power and peace, if not happiness. Yes, I believe in the final triumph of life."
Zola could be Doctor Pascal at his desk
As you can tell, this 'dialogue' is really a very thinly disguised manifesto. Pascal - and, thus, Zola - go on to explain that Life is "God, the grand motor, the soul of the universe. And life has no other instrument than heredity." Zola is not a narrow determinist, however, as he later acknowledges that heredity is "an effort towards resemblance thwarted by circumstances and environment." So he allows that we are more than our genes. Whether he believes humans possess any true free will or that we are merely actors driven by a blend of genetic and environmental influences is something that I could not guess at without reading a biography about him. Getting back to the Cycle, one of Zola's objectives in writing it is to use the analysis of the family as a metaphor for Second Empire France. For this reason, Zola goes into great detail about how he believes heredity works via Pascal's character-by-character synopsis of the entire family.

Pascal's family tree project also provides Zola with a platform from which to defend - or perhaps justify - the reason for his magnum opus to even exist. For example, towards the end of Chapter 5, Clotilde finally forms an "understanding of him [Pascal] at last, and confessing to herself that he was attempting in this an immense work. In spite of everything, it was a cry of health, of hope for the future." After reading some of Zola's 'light-hearted romps', it's not surprising the author felt a need to defend his decision to write at length about so many depraved and vice-ridden characters. This need was likely increased by the genuine shock and outrage several of his novels incited upon publication. Even in today's context of cynical post-modern angst, many of Zola's characters are pretty appalling. But Zola claims to "preserve the impersonal and correct attitude of the demonstrator." In other words: I'm showing you reality; don't blame me if you don't like it! Again Zola uses one of his characters - Clotilde - to voice his ideas, in this case to recognize the 'immensity' and honorable motivation behind his work. That Zola also scripts the religious Clotilde yielding to the judgment of the agnostic or atheistic Pascal provides Zola a vicarious means of accomplishing a victory of reason over religion. These are all questionable literary tactics, but one can kind of forgive Zola given that he was writing Doctor Pascal as a thematic capstone rather than a traditional novel.

Despite the often unsavory - or in some cases non-existent - morality of his characters, Zola's view of life is stated as: "One must live for the effort of living, for the stone to be carried to the distant and unknown work, and the only possible peace in the world is in the joy of making this effort." In essence, Zola views individuals as cogs in the wheel of a much larger human action. This is not a view that will sit well with anyone who espouses the ascendancy of the individual, but it's hardly surprising coming from Zola since it's questionable whether he credits any of us with true free will. This position is problematic, however, because one could argue that Zola has merely replaced religious faith in a deity exercising a divine plan (which he rejects) with society propagating itself as a force beyond any one person. I'm not sure the functioning of humans or society would be much different under the two viewpoints. Only the 'window dressing' would be radically altered.

Despite all this, Pascal/Zola have hope related to their work and to mankind overall. At the very end of Chapter 5 after Pascal has revealed everything to Clotilde about his beliefs and his research, he "remained alone, and he asked himself suddenly, seized by infinite discouragement and sadness, if he had done right in speaking, if the truth would germinate in this dear and adored creature, and bear one day a harvest of happiness." The novel seems to suggest that this is indeed possible through the constant hope expressed that one of the newly born progeny of the Rougon-Macquart family - perhaps even the child Pascal and Clotilde have - may represent a new and better direction for the future. In Zola's case, the fact that his works have lasted suggests there is indeed hope that ideas can bear a harvest one day.
Visiting Zola's grave in Montmartre Cemetery

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Acoustic Guitar Journal #8: Progress!

I've switched guitar teachers, and my new teacher has focused me on several areas that have added new dimension to what I can do on a guitar. First, we're doing a lot of work with a lot rhythm patterns. He's given me 12-15 different patterns with different chords in each one. So it's not only about learning rhythm but also continuing to keep my chord changing sharp. I really enjoy this part of practicing, and it's also made me rethink how I play my own songs.

Another new aspect to my lessons is using a pick. My new teacher pretty much assumed from the start that this is how we would work, so I've gone along. I like strumming with my fingers, but the pick creates a much louder, stronger sound and I can do a lot more with it rhythmically. With this focus on rhythm and using a pick, we've worked through the rhythm guitar patterns on a bunch of songs: "Southern Cross" by Crosby Stills & Nash, "Let It Be" by the Beatles, and "Vienna" by Billy Joel. In most cases I quickly get to a place where I can play the rhythm part, and he can solo over it. I like playing rhythm; you just start to ride a wave within the song and that feels sweet! I've also begun learning some songs on my own: old country standard "Silver Threads & Golden Needles" and k.d. lang's "Constant Craving".

Latest push is barre chords. I'd been faking them so far (e.g., playing F by using finger one on only the two highest strings and such), but it's pretty clear to me that if I really want to play some of the more interesting songs out there that I have to learn how to do barre chords. "Vienna" has several, and I'm trying to force myself to play F and other chords like it as barres. It's difficult and doesn't come naturally to me at all. So sometimes I end up just changing chords over and over between regular and barre chords. The more I do it, the better I should get at it.

I also started taking voice lessons a few months ago. It just got to a point where I had to try again. I don't know if the sinus surgery I had changed how things resonate, I have a better teacher, or possess more confidence (or all three), but I have improved dramatically in just a short time. I'm hitting my notes, so my fear that I was tone deaf to my voice was utterly unfounded. I have a vibrato going, and when I playback recordings of myself it sounds reasonable! My teacher even asked me to perform at a recital the studio is doing. I held off on that; I need to feel a bit more confident.

I've also performed some of my songs for my voice teacher, accompanying myself on guitar. My self-accompaniment is pretty poor but it serves its purpose. Singing in correct style and in front of someone is reshaping how I sing my songs. With several, I've stopped practicing them altogether so I can focus on a few songs, improve my melody lines and polish my technique.

Sometimes I have to pinch myself. Deep down, I fully expected to take a few months of voice lessons and learn once again that I simply lack vocal talent and cannot be made to improve. To finally be on my way to singing, something I have dreamed about all my life is an incredible feeling.

It's never over until it's over.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Emile Zola - 'The Debacle'

The Battle of Sedan
In the second to last book of his Rougon-Macquart Cycle, Zola continues the story of Jean Macquart. Very little time has elapsed between The Earth and The Debacle, in which we find Jean has joined the army to fight in the Franco-Prussian war (the titular 'debacle').

In a brief span of time - and without hitting us over the head - Zola illustrates for the reader the incompetence of the French army's leadership. This incompetence ends in a series of truly humiliating defeats for the French, in which thousands of soldiers are massacred. As the plot takes us through the inevitable disaster, Zola does an amazing job painting the horrors of the battlefield, prison camps, and an insurrection in Paris which leads to the city being set on fire. In the midst of these historic events, Zola creates a touching friendship between his two main characters: Jean and the somewhat aristocratic Maurice. Initially at odds, the relationship between them slowly develops until they are like brothers. They bring humanity to this historical novel and render the tragedy much more affecting as a result, as Zola weaves his plot and historical elements together brilliantly. He creates a panorama of characters, including the Emperor himself, that allows us to be in the middle of the action at all times. The Debacle is a powerful novel about the folly of war.

At the same time, The Debacle works brilliantly as a product of Zola's Naturalistic school of writing. On the one hand, it is yet another portal back into time allowing us to view an aspect of Second Empire France in tremendous detail: the military and war. The Debacle also figuratively and very literally closes the curtain on Second Empire France, as the French defeat cascades into a sort of anarchist civil war within the confines of Paris. While the section between the end of the war and the beginning of the insurrection of the Communards is way too heavy on exposition and starved of plot details, the novel does return to full power for the burning of Paris. Part of the reason this part of the novel is so impactful is that - throughout his Cycle - Zola has made us so well acquainted with the Second Empire Paris of which he pens the destruction.

I remember watching an featurette about the making of Brian De Palma's movie Carrie. In it, De Palma (or someone talking about his direction of the movie, I can't remember which), discusses the power of the prom scene. The person speaking pointed out that De Palma starts the prom scene with a long pan showing us the entire gym and all the characters in it, the stage, the rock band, the decorations...everything. The comment was - and I'm paraphrasing - that the scene worked so well because De Palma spent that pan (and in truth the entirely of the movie leading up to that moment) displaying the world he was about to destroy. By making us aware of the people and the setting, it was much more dramatic when Carrie unleashes her rage.

The same thing is true about Zola and the burning of Paris. Throughout the Cycle, Zola has illustrated every nuance and shade of Paris: the mansions of the rich in The Kill, the middle class neighborhoods of Pot-Bouille, and the hovels of the poor in L'Assommoir. The retail paradise of The Ladies' Paradise, the food markets of Les Halles, and the squalid 'store' operated by Sidonie Rougon. The artistic circles, theaters, massive gentrification projects, the Bourse, the railroads, the Salon, and the streets of the city itself. Through all of this, we have walked with Zola's characters in Paris, lived with them, watched them work, build their fortunes, face defeat, and/or sink into oblivion. After experiencing all of this, it is truly and monumentally disastrous to read about Paris burning...especially in the hellish way Zola writes about it.

Zola uses the burning of Paris to once more extol his theme about the need for destruction to occur in order for new life or growth to take place. The only odd thing about Zola's treatment of this theme in The Debacle is that he positions the peasant Jean as the sort of honest stock that can be trusted to rebuild France from the ruins. This sentiment is a little hard to swallow after Zola spent 500+ pages depicting peasants as depraved, grasping bottom feeders in The Earth.

Along this theme - and as I hinted in my entry about The Earth - I noticed that Jean is one of the few Rougon-Macquart family members to be a principle character in two novels. After thinking about the structure of the entire Cycle, this fact led me to some interesting analysis because while Nana Coupeau and Claude Lantier have notable roles in books beyond the on in which they 'star' (L'Assommoir and The Belly of Paris, respectively), there are actually only three characters who are truly the focus of more than one novel. Interestingly, these three characters each come from one of the three families in the Cycle. Jean Macquart (The EarthThe Debacle) is from the lower class Macquart family, Octave Mouret (Pot-BouilleThe Ladies' Paradise) is from the middle class Mouret family, and Aristide Saccard (The KillMoney) is a member of the wealthy/privileged Rougon family. What these three characters have in common and what their two novel vehicles share is very interesting.

Aristide, Octave, and Jean are each introduced in novels that present them within a panorama of characters used to dissect their class. In The Kill, Aristide takes a backseat to his second wife Renee amid the decadence and out of control acquisitiveness of the upper class who graft and spend their way through millions. Octave is introduced in Pot-Bouille among a vast cast of characters representing the hypocritical and social climbing middle class. In The Earth, Jean is presented as part of the peasant class, who are replete with animalistic vice and depravity. All three of these Rougon-Macquart characters are assertive and lack the laziness, inertia, or mental instabilities that undermine most other members of the family.

The second book each character appears in uses the character to speak to Zola's theme of the need for destruction and death to allow progress. For example, in Money Aristide takes center stage and his predatory nature - well-established in The Kill - achieves its fullest expression as he foments a ponzi scheme that leads to a financial meltdown. People's lives are destroyed and the economy is harmed on a large scale. Octave's lusting ambition is clearly delineated in Pot-Bouille. In The Ladies' Paradise, we see the apotheosis of this trait in his creation of a voracious department store that destroys all his competitors.

Jean's story is a bit more sympathetically presented in that he is never really part of the morass of slime Zola paints in The Earth. He comes off as a decent, hard-working man who leaves the farming community partially out of disgust. In The Debacle, this steadfastness serves him well as he survives the events of the war. Unlike the other two characters, Jean does not create the predatory or destructive forces the unfold around him. This makes sense given his low social position; he simply doesn't have the power, money, or influence to wield such force. Instead, after everything collapses, Zola presents him and his honesty and diligence as part of the growth and progress that will come after destruction has burned away corruption.

I have to believe this two-novel device was intentional, as it is far too structurally sound to have occurred by chance. These sorts of pan-Cycle analyses - of which I've laid out several examples in my posts about the Cycle - are one of the reasons Zola's magnum opus is so impressive as a work of literary genius. The Cycle is not just a set of twenty loosely connected novels; they form a whole of which different parts resonate with others and hold together to create a structure that has emergent qualities in theme and social commentary that are not as powerfully or comprehensively spoken to within a single novel. The point of Zola's Cycle, therefore, is in the cross-referencing of characters, classes, heredity, and social institutions in understanding human society as a whole.

On a final note, another recurring characteristic of the Cycle novels is how often they speak to modern society. This is something I've noted in posts on several of the novels. The overall theme of destruction leading to progress can be applied to today's world in some disturbing ways. The culture of the United States today is in pretty bad shape: political dysfunction, yawning gaps between haves and have-nots, willful ignorance waved as a patriotic banner, and arrogant corruption flagrantly oozing out of businesses and institutions all around us. One wonders what form of destruction lies ahead for the United States in order to make room for the inevitable progress of a renewed path forward.

Zola would suggest we should not only expect such upheaval, but that we should not shed too many tears over the lives trampled as human society evolves and pushes for progress. It's not at all an idealistic or compassionate way to view human beings, but then Zola wasn't much interested in ideals. He preferred reality, uncompromised by sentiment.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Emile Zola - 'The Earth'

Jean-Francois Millet Man With a Hoe 1862
Oil on canvas, 80 x 99 cm
The eighteenth novel of Zola's twenty novel cycle about France's Second Empire period, The Earth focuses on the final member of the Macquart family: Jean Macquart. In The Fortune of the Rougons, Jean was introduced as a hard worker and a slow learner. His diligence eventually allows him to earn a trade in carpentry, but Zola makes it clear he'll never be more than a 'worker bee'. His father forces Jean to toil away, only to gamble and drink away his pay. He also flirts with any girl Jean shows an interest in, humiliating his son. One day, Jean gets his pay and runs away from home.

In The Earth, we pick up Jean's story after a good deal of time has passed. He is now twenty-nine, with a job as a farm laborer in the small town of Beauce. Since most of the townspeople grew up in Beauce, Jean is something of an outsider. The locals seem to have accepted him and nick-name him 'Corporal', referring to the fact that Jean spent a good deal of time in the army before turning to farming. He remains hard-working and raw, a true 'peasant' (which is how he comes across to the more polished and educated Maurice in Zola's next novel The Debacle).

The Earth is very well-written, with a broad scope both in terms of characters and subject matter. The cast includes all levels of the agricultural field: large landowners (Hourdequin), family farmers (the Fouan clan), subsistence farmers, even laborers and migrants. Zola spends a great deal of time painting the inter-relationships and social mores of the farming community, using the extended Fouan clan as a centerpiece. The family dynamics are - as expected - front and center. However, Zola also explores the economic issues and changing agricultural technology of the times. These, as well as the shadow of the Franco-Prussian war, influence life in Beauce but do not really alter it. Zola repeatedly links his characters to the earth itself, and it is the unending toil on the land that defines their existence. Everything else seems very far away, and characters that return to the town after going to live in Paris are almost treated like aliens from another planet.

A scene from La Terre, directed by André Antoine (1921)
Zola's massive scope allows him to successfully accomplish his obvious goal of painting a naturalistic portrait of the peasant or agricultural class (of which most of the characters belong, regardless of the internal hierarchies or pretensions some create amongst themselves). Despite this, The Earth is not as fully satisfying a novel when compared to other entries in the Cycle.

There are several reasons for this. First, there's little character development. The characters get older, marry, have children, pursue ownership of land, and (some) die. Through all of this, however, they are fundamentally unchanged. There is no growth or trajectory to their repetitive lives. They are like ants, working the land as if chained to it. This was certainly Zola's intent, as he wished to paint the drudgery of their work and poverty. However, it's a lot harder to stay interested as a reader.

In addition to the lack of character development, virtually all the characters are unsympathetic...and stay that way. The vast majority are depraved, greedy, miserly, and/or petty. They turn insignificant squabbles into multi-generational vendettas. They viciously betray and claw at each other - even the closest members of their own family - with very little prodding and usually for little (or no) gain. Finally, there is little at stake in this viper pit of a family. Zola paints his picture of Beauce implying that the depraved drama of the Fouans and the other families of the town will continue to play out year after year, generation after generation. The earth will always be there, while the people inhabiting and working on it are born and die. Even this is not a progression; it is simply bodies replacing bodies. And these new people will stir up new versions of the same depravity and jealousies as the prior generation did. So there is also no true resolution to the stories Zola tells in The Earth. His setting is a purgatory with no beginning or end. Jean's departure is one of the few true character-driven decisions in the entire novel (which is not short).

Structurally, The Earth performs a critical role in Zola's Cycle, as it completes a triad of social class analysis. The Earth shows the blackness of character among the poor of the Second Empire. Pot-Bouille and A Love Episode did the same thing for the middle class, while The Kill and - to some extent - His Excellency, Eugene Rougon did so for the wealthy class. Of course, almost all the books in the Cycle make bleak commentary about one class of society or another, usually with a member of the Rougon-Macquart family at the heart of everything. Given this role of the novel, I thought it was an odd choice for Zola to place Jean at the periphery of the cast of characters. It is the Fouan family, not Jean or any member of the Rougon-Macquart, that comprise the center of The Earth's plot and family dynamics. Jean plays a minor role in the novel until he contemplates marrying into the family. As I started reading the next novel The Debacle, which also features Jean Macquart as a main character, I formed a theory as to why Zola did this...but more on that in the post for The Debacle.

As well-written and well-conceived as The Earth is, I would not recommend it as a starting point for reading Zola or the Cycle. It's not that the story doesn't move or that Zola doesn't have a great deal to say within its confines. Rather, it's display of petty cruelties and corruption isn't a satisfying enough focus, aside from the shock value from the vileness of the characters. Some of their dysfunction is truly awful, and at times the work came off like an exploitation novel pandering to the prejudices and fears of the middle class. Zola is just as shocking and naturalistic in other books about the lower classes (e.g., L'Assommoir, Germinal, Nana) and yet he also delivers more of the trappings of a traditional story.

Reading The Earth is probably best done after getting the classics of the Cycle under your belt. By the way, I read the Douglas Parmee translation published by Penguin Classics and found it to be excellent.

On a related point. I only have two more Rougon-Macquart novels to go!!!!! What on Earth I'm going to do with all the extra time I'll have on my hands after I finish this challenge of reading the Rougon-Macquart Cycle is entirely beyond me!


Sunday, July 5, 2015

Form and Ritual in Zen

Many forms and rituals can be used in Zen
The latest issue of Bodhidharma magazine is dedicated to exploring form versus practice, that is, the way we practice versus the practice itself. All religions wrestle with this, and the magazine provides some great thought around the questions entailed. How important is form/ritual? What should it consist of? What do you do to practice your faith? Is there a better or best way? Are there certain things you should not do? Practice usually leads to many such questions about form. My belief is that - in Zen Buddhism - form is irrelevant. In other words, any form you choose is acceptable as long as it doesn't become an impediment to practice.

What does this mean? Let's take zazen as an example. Some Zen Buddhists practice with their eyes open and others prefer to close their eyes. Some emphasize breathing while others ignore it. Some people practice zazen while seated in a specific place, while others do so while walking down a street, working out, or in any place they feel like. None of these forms are better or worse than the others. We're free to practice zazen standing on our heads with clown hats on our feet if we want, so long as we successfully discipline our minds and enter samadhi.

However, form encompasses more than just how we meditate. It also includes ritual and 'things' that go with ritual. Do we tap a gong to start and stop zazen? Do we light candles? Are there certain clothes we must wear? Do we play music? Do we chant mantras? Are all of these things to be avoided? Just as with the form of zazen, the accouterments of its ritual (or lack thereof) is neither good nor bad, so long as we successfully discipline our minds and enter samadhi.


Given these points, it is clear that form is irrelevant to zazen and - by extension - to Zen Buddhism more generally. Some may balk at this, but the fact is that it would be silly to say no one can effectively sit in zazen while playing music (or not playing music). That one must be in a group (or alone). That one must chant, or light candles, or have a 'special Zen spot' (or that any of these things absolutely preclude successful zazen). Bottom-line: Disciplining the mind does not have anything to do with details of ritual or form, so we can never designate a particular form as a requirement.

That doesn't mean ritual and form are useless. In fact, they are often extremely positive aspects of practice. Some Zen Buddhists find some or all of the items mentioned above very useful in practicing zazen and reaching samadhi. As such, they are helpful and should not be categorically rejected. Form and ritual are never a problem unless they become an impediment to zazen practice or if we endow them with intrinsic importance. In other words, if we view a form or ritual as anything other than a tool or a means to an end, then it will become a barrier to effective practice and are detrimental. We cannot forget that practice only requires what is inside us; it never demands a ritual or an object outside of us.

When we assign intrinsic importance to ritual and form, then they are naturally used to assess the quality of practice rather than focusing on the actual practice itself. We will find ourselves thinking things like: "I can't sit in zazen today because I ran out of candles" or "I can't reach samadhi today because group meditation was cancelled" or "until my iPod is fixed, I won't be able to play the music that quiets my mind enough to practice." When put in this way, we see how negative the reliance on any form or ritual can be. It distracts us from the fact that we can achieve samadhi at any time and in any place.

So while form and ritual can be very helpful, we must always keep them in their proper - and non-essential - role. A person who cannot achieve samadhi or quiet their mind without the right ambiance or the proper ritual possesses a questionable level of mental discipline. Such is person is unlikely to bring the mind state they achieve in zazen into day-to-day life and, as a result, will reap minimal benefit from their studies. And if we are unable to apply what we learn or the wisdom we gain, then it is it questionable whether we have learned anything or possess wisdom.

So how do we navigate ritual and form with other practitioners? Must we set up rules or dogma about what is and is not correct? Should we debate these rules with others? Should we discourage what we judge as ineffective practices when we encounter them? The answer is a resounding "NO!"

Since form and ritual possess no intrinsic value, there is never any justification for debating about them with other practitioners or concerning ourselves with them beyond what we like to do in our own practice. For example, if I enter a zendo where practitioners chant mantras and that is something that I see little purpose in, then my proper action is to "go with the flow". The forms may help those around me, and I should be disciplined enough so that engaging in them will have no negative impact on my practice. If the fact someone lights a candle or engages in a ritual prevents you from sitting in zazen with them, it is not their fault. It is yours! Work harder to discipline your mind.

Of course, following this line of thinking is hard (perhaps impossible) to those who are just getting started. Quieting the mind during zazen and achieving samadhi takes much practice, and if we find that certain rituals or forms help us get the hang of it, then we should most certainly use those rituals or forms. If we find ourselves in a challenging environment, we should look at it as an opportunity to see how disciplined we have become.

All practitioners, new or old, must always guard against any ritual or form hardening into dogma or being mistaken for the discipline we are developing. The latter - not a lit candle or a successfully followed ritual - is the true measure of the effectiveness (or lack of effectiveness) in our practice.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Gay Marriage Legal in the US!

In the early nineties, I came out while living in a college dorm. People in the community were surprised at the guts it took to do so (back then it was a big deal). Also at that time, there was no thought of being able to marry or adopt children. Furthermore, plenty of people still referred to AIDS as a 'gay cancer', people could be fired and kicked out of housing for being gay, and families sometimes swore off children who came out or kicked them out leaving them homeless. I personally was discriminated against when I was outed to one of my first post-college employers. Back then, being gay was something you had to keep hidden, and that secretiveness allowed bigots to call us pedophiles, perverts, and deviants - anything they liked - and get away with it.

Yet, despite all of that negativity, I knew then and believe now that coming out was one of the best things I ever did. A person simply can't function in a healthy manner when they hide their 'truth' and, after coming out, I quickly learned that the feelings I had hidden for so many years were nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, there were millions of people just like me all over the world and in all walks of life. My feelings were natural and good and denying them was unnatural and self-destructive.

As recently as even a few years ago, I had no notion that we'd reach this point and that - in my lifetime - I would see the LGBT community allowed to have the same rights as other Americans. But this week I am so happy to see that I was wrong and that change can happen, though it takes time and work to move the minds of decent, fair-minded people and to trounce the hate of bigots.

What was so amazing about this Supreme Court process was that the coverage of the testimony before the Court revealed just how hollow the arguments of the bigots rang. They truly lacked any credible position once they actually had to defend their bigotry against a vocal opposition. That vocal opposition was made possible by the hard work of committed activists, but it was also made possible over decades by the quiet efforts of the varied members of the LGBT community who stopped keeping their truth hidden. As more and more of us came out and spoke out, the ranks of our straight allies expanded. The more they saw that gay people - while different - were in all important ways - exactly the same as themselves, the more impossible it became for bigots to scare anyone into continued discrimination.

To me this fact and the ruling shows the truth of a slogan that originally arose in the LGBT community during the fight against HIV/AIDS. Later it became something of a rallying cry for coming out, speaking out, standing up for oneself, and being proud of who you are in order to affect change: Silence = Death.

While the United States is not perfect and we do make mistakes...this is one day and one act that I can point to as proof that what we try to be as a country is good and just. It's also an example of us embodying our principles in a positive way, and by that example leading the world. It reaffirms my pride in being an American.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Proud to Run 5K

With the Supreme Court coming down in favor of gay marriage, I don't think it's exaggerating to say this year's Gay Pride takes on a special significance. So it was wonderful to be a part of things by joining in the Proud to Run event, my second 5K since I started jogging in December.

Rain threatened to ruin the day all week long and, even as late as the night before, the weather was pretty awful. In the end, aside from a cold wind in the early morning before the race, the sun and the weather cooperated and we had a great race day.

This time I ran the entire 5K course, without walking. I also felt as if I recovered very quickly. Within a few minutes, I'd caught my breath and didn't feel wiped out at all. Despite all these successes, I unfortunately did not improve on my time. I completed the course in 32 minutes, about a minute slower than my last 5K. Nevertheless, it was great fun!

Given how quickly I recovered, I'm thinking that my next race should be a 10K!



Monday, May 25, 2015

Emile Zola - 'Nana'

I believe Nana was my introduction to Zola roughly two decades ago, but I just read the Douglas Parmee translation (pictured). I'd initially read Nana all those years ago because Ayn Rand repeatedly referenced Zola in her book The Romantic Manifesto. I sampled a lot of authors based on references Rand made in that book. It was clear she reviled Zola on every level, meanwhile she had heavy criticisms to make of Tolstoy's philosophy while praising Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, and Henryk Sienkiewicz. I ended up reading and enjoying all of them.

My interest in reading Zola arose from how Rand appeared to consider him and Naturalism as the antithesis of Romanticism (and everything decent in the world). Whenever she needed a polar opposite of an "exalted sense of life" or the "larger than life" hero, Zola - or a reference to him - seemed to pop up. For example:
"The choice of subject declares what aspects of existence the artist regards as important - as worthy of being re-created and contemplated. He may choose to present heroic figures, as exponents of man's nature - or he may choose statistical composites of the average, the undistinguished, the mediocre - or he may choose crawling specimens of depravity. He may present the triumph of heroes, in fact or in spirit (Victor Hugo), or their struggle (Michelangelo), or their defeat (Shakespeare). He may present the folks next door: next door to palaces (Tolstoy), or to drugstores (Sinclair Lewis), or to kitchens (Vermeer), or to sewers (Zola)..."
One certainly cannot argue with Rand's analysis; Zola's novels are not about palaces or heroic triumph. At bottom, her rejection of Zola is an intellectual version of the reaction many readers likely have: "Yuck!" Rand saw no valid purpose for an author to focus on this kind of subject matter.

Nana is definitely one of Zola's 'yuckier' books in the Cycle. In fact, I'm astonished he was able to publish it in 1880 at all (especially Chapter 13) without ending up in jail for lewdness or some such crime. Unlike many 'shocking' books from the period that have lost their edge over time, the frankness of Nana would shock a good number of people even today. In fact, by doing nothing more than updating the carriages, gas lights, and other 19th Century accouterments, Nana would be just as relevant today - as social satire if nothing else.

For example, it is easy to see Nana as a Anna Nicole Smith or some other similar 'non-celebrity' of recent years. Beyond the anagram of their first names, there are an amazing number of similarities between the two women:
  • A girl of questionable background making a fortune off wealthy (and foolish) men
  • Massive celebrity despite minimal - or no - talent
  • Considerable 'star power' activated by others 
  • An entourage that includes a: sickly son who dies young, lesbian, and little lap-dog
  • Smith's agent/boyfriend could be Fauchery or Labordette (or perhaps even Fontan)
Of course, one could draw parallels between Nana and any infamous/famous female personality of the present, because Nana is ultimately about a directionless bimbo whose crass sexuality casually conquers and destroy everything she touches. I'm sure a weighty academic paper could be written pairing a literary analysis of Nana and today's reality-TV-based popular culture.

But I digress. Taking a more literary view of things, a parallel Zola purposefully drew within the confines of his Cycle was between Nana and Renee Saccard, the second wife of Aristide Rougon Saccard in The Kill. Both women are kept in opulence by men who need them. Both amuse themselves by driving carriages around the Bois de Boulogne. I can't recall Zola mentioning that locale or past-time in any other book in the Cycle. The Bois may have simply been where wealthy female socialites with nothing better to do went in the afternoon, but I find it hard to believe he placed these two characters in the same milieu without intending that we would pick up the parallel. The parallels between the two characters go much deeper, too. Both women are what Zola would consider sexually deviant. Renee has an adulterous affair with her stepson, while Nana is a high-priced and promiscuous prostitute who engages in sadism, bisexuality, and masochism. Both also have affairs with young, effeminate men (Renee with Maxime, Nana with Georges). These parallels cannot all be coincidence.

However, it is the one key difference between the characters than makes the parallels worth noting. Renee - and her fortune - are consumed by her husband Saccard without any particular concern by her lover, Maxime. In fact, the two seem to take a 'bro's before ho's' attitude about Renee's adultery after it becomes known. Nana, in contrast, is victimized by none of her wealthy admirers. In fact, it is she destroys them financially, socially, and/or psychologically. Two even die as a result of her. She "gobbles them up" as Zola phrases it.

Edouard Manet Nana 1877
Her public image is the title character of the musical play that makes her famous: the blond Venus. More accurate is the image of the 'golden fly' that her on-again off-again journalist friend Fauchery creates, describing her as:
"...a tart, the offspring of four or five generations of alcoholics, her blood tainted by a long heredity of deep poverty and drink, which in her case had taken the form of unhinging the nervous balance of her sexuality...a tall and lovely girl with a magnificently sensual body, like a plant flourishing on a dung-heap, she was avenging the poor, underprivileged wretches from whom she'd sprung...She would carry this pollution upwards to contaminate the aristocracy. She was turning into a force of nature and, without any intention on her part, a ferment of destruction; between her plump white thighs, Paris was being corrupted and thrown into chaos..."
The gold of the fly described is not the color of precious metal, but the color of dung. She rises from the squalor of the lower classes, covered in corruption and despoiling everything she touches.

To start: it's extremely rare to find a female character of this kind in period literature that is not a victim. Nana is never depicted as a good girl tragically making her way in a world set against her (e.g., Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Nancy from Great Expectations). She is a morally bankrupt, acquisitive conqueror, who controls everyone around her by means of her sexuality. Zola makes this clear in graphic language throughout the novel, but also in his scene setting. At the horse race in Chapter 11, the Empress is present but it is Nana who rules the scene. At a formal ball thrown by the Muffats, she exerts influence over everyone without being present. The guests even 'dance to her tune' at one point when a song from "The Blond Venus" is played.

The Varietes theatre, where much action in Nana takes place
Despite the power of the titular character, Nana is not a feminist novel nor the titillating history of a man-eating bitch. Zola does describe Nana as a man-eater, but he always makes it clear her course of destruction is unintended. She has no thought of hurting people any more than she has a concern about them once they are hurt. In fact, Zola's tone as a narrator drips with contempt for Nana. He constantly calls out her stupidity, lack of taste, non-existent talent, and social ineptitude, all while insisting that she is a "good sort of girl". Cruel and destructive, shallow and self-centered, Zola nevertheless doesn't give Nana the psychological depth to be a villain.

As another brick in the wall of the Rougon-Macquart Cycle depicting a family in Second Empire France, Nana was first brought forward by Zola in L'Assommoir. There Zola gives an ample view of the dung pile from which Nana rises. By the end of the book, she is a promiscuous teenage girl well on her way to being the young woman we meet in Nana. In a bit of foreshadowing, Nana unknowingly causes her father to have a tragic accident that leads to the disintegration and destruction of her entire family. Even here, Nana is as deadly as Typhoid Mary and as unaware of what she does.

In terms of the heredity that Zola seeks to explore, Nana possesses several of the Rougon-Macquart traits which, mixed in her, provide yet another permutation of the disease of the family. Her love of luxury matches that of Pierre and Felicite Rougon, Antoine Macquart, or Aristide Saccard. She has an insatiable desire for material possessions, but she draws no particular pleasure from them. As soon as she acquires one thing, she loses interest in it and wants something else. One could also say that Nana has her mother and grandmother's work ethic as she labors for what she wants, albeit not in a way usually credited as honest work.

During the middle portion of the book, Nana even comes close to following in the footsteps of her mother, grandmother, and great grandmother in supporting a deadbeat and/or abusive husband/lover. She sells herself on the street to make money to support the rogue actor Fontan, who beats her. However, this doesn't last long. Nana eventually upends this cycle of women supporting worthless men. For most of the novel, the men support Nana without getting much more than abuse in return. I'm curious whether Zola realized this role-reversal had occurred in his novel. Part of me believes that, in his zeal to portray Nana's corruption, he didn't realize he had Nana acting against her heredity!

More broadly, Nana also continues a pattern to be found in several of the novels about Gervaise's children: foreshadowing of the fall of the Empire. As in La Bete Humaine and Germinal, the novel ends with omens of disaster. In this case, the wake of a prostitute is juxtaposed with the declaration of war against the Prussia, a war that will hasten the end of the Empire. As a novel, Nana is showing us the corruption of the aristocracy of the late Empire: the fecklessness of monied aristocrats such as la Faloise and Vandeuvres, the recklessness of financier Steiner, the Muffat's veneer of respectability, and the cynical grasping of the Mignon's. Even the thrills of the horse race in chapter 11 sit atop a deep undercurrent of fraud and graft.

Part of this foreshadowing is that, unlike many of the novels in the Cycle, Nana follows an upward arc. This is similar to Germinal, only more pronounced. In Germinal, Etienne ends up better off than he was at the start; a joyous conclusion given the usual fates of Zola's main characters. Nana's success is total. The comet of her celebrity is astounding and lifts her so high that she leaves the confines of Paris (and the novel). While her physical end is hideous, one can hardly see her story as tragic (at least as far as she herself is concerned). For the aristocracy she pollutes, she is a disaster.

Another pattern from the Cycle brought to the fore in Nana is the near inability for the Rougon-Macquart family to propagate itself in the final generation. Aristide gives birth to the effete Maxime and the violent Victor. Sidonie Rougon has an illegitimate child who dies young in The Dream. In Abbe Mouret's Transgression, there are the dead-ends of Desiree Mouret and Serge's stillborn child. Claude Lantier's son is deformed and dies young in The Masterpiece. Similarly, Nana's illegitimate, mentally backwards, and sickly son Louis dies young. She also has a miscarriage. The poisons of the family heredity seem to be burning out its ability to continue the line, much as the corruption of the Empire itself brings about its demise.

Nana is an incredible read, a story where a vast cast of characters is given over the the documenting of decay, a society of privilege and aristocracy rotting from the inside out. Douglas Parmee's translation is wonderfully readable, and I have to admit I chuckled wondering what was going through his mind while translating something like Chapter 13 ("For this, I studied French and became a translator?"). This is one of the very best novels in the Cycle, a great place to get a feel for Zola as a writer, and one of the novels in the Cycle that has definite relevance today. Highly recommended.

But wear boots while reading it.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Islamophobia (A Five-Part Post)

Part 5: Implications for the United States

To conclude this five-part post, those who are concerned about combating terrorism should not allow themselves to be led into Islamophobic beliefs. Islamophobia is the dead end of bigotry. In the case of terrorism, such bigotry is a form of self-sedation that gives a person permission to sit on the sidelines and demonize a group of people rather than tackling terrorism.

Bigotry and racism are appealing to some because they provide a way to express fear without admitting one is afraid. However, the history of civilization shows that bigotry and racism have never once solved a challenge faced by mankind or led to anything positive. In fact, such thinking usually makes things worse by muddying the water with a cloud of hate, injustice, and emotionalism.

So to effectively defeat terrorism, we must resist Islamophobia. We must remember that terrorists have varied backgrounds and agendas. While it is true that most of today’s high profile terrorism is committed by Muslims, it is also true that most of it is committed by men and by heterosexuals. It makes no sense to attempt fighting terrorism by vilifying Muslims, men, or heterosexuals.

In terms of implications for the United States, if we need to be on our guard against anything related to terrorism, it is the poison of theocracy. Theocracy can encourage terrorism, because it allows:
Fundamentalist thought to move from the fringe into a position of power
Religious intolerance to drive national policy
Violence to become an acceptable means of influence

The US has a theocratic Christian fringe. While it is a long way from having the power of the extreme Islam that plagues the Middle East, the insistence of evangelical Christians and the far right that the United States is a ‘Christian country’ is a step in the direction of theocracy. There is ultimately little difference between a country that holds one religion in esteem over others so that that religion influences policy for all citizens, regardless of their faith, and a theocracy.

The Founding Fathers were not as devout as today’s evangelicals. However, even if they were, that devotion had little influence on their thinking related to the founding of the United States. While they made theological references (e.g., referring to a ‘Creator’, etc.), in action they built a massive wall between religion and government through the policy of separation of church and state. Even if the United States was founded on Christian morals, it was founded in such a way as to prevent Christian faith from influencing our country’s development. Despite their beliefs, the Founding Fathers chose to set up the United States as a rational and secular country based on laws, not faith.

As such, the United States never was a ‘Christian country’ and it can never become one without perverting the principles upon which our nation was built. We should be happy about this, because the sharp clarity in separating church and state is what has kept the United States free of the toxic extremist influences and religious wars that have plagued other countries.

To preserve that separation, the law of the land must prevail in any question between law and faith. Disagreeing with a law on religious grounds is not justification for flouting it or being exempted from it, because this places religion above law. That can never be allowed in a country that values freedom of religion and, more importantly, freedom from religion. Americans are citizens first and religious entities second. However, the increased desire of evangelicals and far right thinkers to place their religion above the law is opening a Pandora’s box that could turn the wall between church and state into a tattered scrim.

All Americans must decide which they value more: American liberal democracy or their religious precepts. And the decision most have reached is clear: Americans repeatedly reject using one religion as the sole foundation for legislation and candidates who run for national offices on such platforms invariably do poorly.

However, extremists do not have a history of allowing free will to stand in their way. Continued failures at the ballot box and harsh responses from society to wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing ‘religious freedom laws’ could eventually lead some extremists to use fear, intimidation, and violence as a way to break down the wall between church and state and enforce their religious views on others. In short, theocratic beliefs and mindsets can open the door to terrorism in the United States just as they can elsewhere.

In this context, abortion clinic bombings and repellent protests at the funerals of soldiers could be either the stench of a fading orthodoxy or the first sparks of a new breed of homegrown terrorist activity. Hopefully it is not the latter, but we can only avoid such an outcome if we hold true to our principles as Americans.

To bring the theme of these posts full circle, let’s suppose that the terrorist movement described above does in fact arise. It would be incorrect and bigoted to refer to such people as ‘evangelical terrorists’ or ‘Christian terrorists’, even if the majority of those who are part of the movement are Christian evangelicals. We would have to recognize that not all Christian evangelicals are prone to such violence. To combat such terrorism, we must avoid losing focus by demonizing a group of people. Vilifying Christians in this example would be pointless, just as Islamophobia is a waste of time in dealing with the terrorism of the world today.

Hopefully, as the world grows more interconnected through trade pacts, the Internet, porous borders, reduced racial tribalism, and a shrugging off of nationalism, we will see Islamophobia – and all forms of bigotry and racism - disappear. However, as writers like those in The New Criterion make clear, the lessons of history are not easily learned and we have a long way to go.


Saturday, May 9, 2015

Islamophobia (A Five-Part Post)

Part 4: The Cause of Terrorism in the Middle East

In the previous post of this series, I wrote that one problem with an Islamophobic response to terrorism is that it makes demonizing a group of people the focus of discussion, rather than the real causes of terrorism. As a next step it seems reasonable to offer up what I believe the real causes of terrorism are and, if I believe Islam isn’t the root cause, explain why so much of it seems to spring from the Middle East.

To locate the real causes of terrorism, we first need to revisit what it is. The word ‘terrorism’ is thrown around far too freely in today’s emotionally charged political outbursts. It’s almost reached a point where any violent criminal is labeled a terrorist. This only feeds the hysteria around terrorism and makes it more difficult for people to think about it rationally. So, paraphrasing the FBI definition, terrorism is:
1. A violent act which is both dangerous to human life and breaks the law, and
2. Is committed with the following objectives: a) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, b) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, or c) to affect the conduct of a government

An act of terrorism is therefore a violent, criminal act that is undertaken for purposes of forcing a group of people or a government to act in a certain way, often towards a political end desired by the terrorist. Applying this definition to several high-profile events helps clarify what is and is not terrorism:
The Unabomber: A campaign of murder and violence to disrupt technological development for reasons outlined in a manifesto. Meets both parts of the FBI definition; it’s terrorism.
The Boston Marathon bombing: Some suggest an Islamic group was behind this but, even if one was, no one – not even the perpetrators – cited a political motivation for the bombing. As a result, it doesn’t meet the second part of the FBI definition. It’s a hideous act of violence, but it is not terrorism.
9/11: This disaster was part of an ongoing effort by al-Qaeda to strike fear into the US and coerce us into changing our foreign policy. That fact – not the depravity of the plotters or the death toll – is what makes this terrorism.
The Fort Hood shooting: This shooting was not committed as part of a political agenda. Therefore, while it’s a national tragedy it is not terrorism.
The Parliament Hill shootings: The shooter left a videotape explaining that he committed these crimes to protest Canada’s Middle East policy. Again, it’s the violence paired with a clear political motive that makes this terrorism.

Note that even the few examples of terrorism listed above were not all committed by Muslims, nor was religion even the primary motive. Politics, and in the case of the Parliament Hill shootings, mental illness were the main issues. So even from these few cases, it’s clear that to broadly cite religion as the motive for terrorism - which is what Islamophobes do – is totally incorrect.

The fact is that different terrorists are formed by different forces, and then propelled in different directions by their objectives. Most often terrorists are formed by a combination of toxic forces: religious zealotry, political extremism, mental illness, racial/ethnic intolerance, alienation, support for tyranny, etc. These individual beliefs – not an ethnic background or religion – are what fuel the decision to trade passionate activism and protest for bombs and guns. This further clarifies why it is ridiculous to dump any act of terrorism at the doorstep of a religious group and why the term ‘Islamic terrorism’ is idiotic (see also the discussion in the prior post of this series).

So we’ve broadly established the motivations for terrorism and identified that there is no single explanation as to what causes it. However, this does nothing to explain why most of today’s terrorists are Muslims. Why isn’t there an African version of al-Qaeda? Why don’t Christians engage in terrorism? The answers are that there is and they do. Boko Haram takes Islamic State as its role model in Nigeria, and Christians bomb abortion clinics in the US. However, one would (rightly) counter that despite these examples there is no denying the majority of today’s terrorism is hatched by Muslims. Why is this?

To start, let’s review some of the worst examples of religious-based terror, holy wars, and violence:
The Roman Empire – State religion persecuted and killed Christians
The Inquisition – The Catholic Church tortured and killed ‘heretics’
The Crusades – The Catholic Church waged holy wars against Muslims
Nazi Germany – An atheist state devised an ‘ultimate solution’ for Jews
The Soviet Union – An atheist state persecuted people of all religions
Islamic State – Muslim jihadists kill those who resist their brand of Islam
All of these examples have many causes beyond religion. Also, as with the recent acts of terrorism outlined previously, no one religion is behind them all. What they do share is that they were enabled by a particular religion (or anti-religion) being enshrined within government.

Similarly, the Middle East is made up of countries where one form of religion imposes itself on all via government authority. I would suggest that it is not religion itself, but the institutionalization of religion in government (i.e., theocracy) that explains the disproportionately high frequency of terrorism enacted by Muslims. This also explains why there are relatively few acts of terrorism enacted by today’s Christians; there are no Christian theocracies. That said, we have crystal clear hints of what Christian theocracy would look like today based on the death penalty laws enacted against homosexuals in several African countries thanks to the influence of Christian evangelists.

The Spanish Inquisition
Proof that Christian theocracy is just as capable of depravity as Muslim theocracy can be found in history. The Inquisition, the Wars of Religion in Europe, and the Crusades demonstrate how - when enshrined in government - Christianity engages in holy wars and violence with a rabid blood lust that makes jihadists of the Islamic State look half-hearted by comparison. Christian versions of jihad and terrorism were so bad that people fled by the thousands from Europe to the New World. Once here, they founded a country that explicitly kept religion out of government in order to prevent a Christian theocracy from occurring in the US (a founding principle today’s Christian extremists and ultra-conservatives eagerly work to destroy).

In the end, I’m not positioning theocracy as the sole cause of terrorism, in the Middle East or elsewhere. It’s also most likely true that theocracy, mixed with inequitable social structures, political tyranny, racial prejudice and other toxic forces are the roots of terrorism. However, it does seem likely that theocracy helps explain why today’s terrorism seems to take root more easily in the Muslim World.


Part 5 of this Five-Part Post (“Implications for the United States”) will be added soon.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

First 5K Run

Heading into the finish
I have kept running since I started over the Christmas holidays (excepting a week or two where the temperature never rose above the single digits and the wind chill was well below zero). Running has become a lot more enjoyable than I expected it would be. Not that there aren't some days where I groan at the idea of getting out there, but it is a nice way to make sure I get outside more. As the weather has improved, it's great to be outside and running is one more way to do that. Running has also proved to be a great way to enhance cardiovascular fitness, and it helps me calm my mind and face the day with positive energy. I've even noticed that my legs have become harder (i.e., stronger) and my sense of physical balance is improving a lot.

It was slow going at first, but I'm now running close to two miles each time I go out. This is an important goal, because the train station is two miles away from our house. So, if I can do two miles, then I could sometimes run home from the train station instead of taking the bus. That would increase the number of runs I do each week in a convenient way and further increase my endurance.

Over the past few months, I've learned a lot about running. Pacing is really important. It's easy to burn out by running too hard, too fast. Breathing is key, too. Of course, it's kind of hard to succeed at anything if you stop breathing! However, in running I had a tendency to gulp air or breath shallow. It's important to pay attention to breathing and keep it as natural as possible. That is very similar to what some people do in meditation.

This weekend, the work all paid off. I ran my first 5K run and completed it in 31 minutes! Quite a milestone since I ran almost the entire race (very little walking), even though it was a longer course than I'd ever attempted before. So I suppose I need to find ways to keep pushing myself.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Emile Zola - 'Germinal'

After almost exactly a year, I have returned for what may be the home stretch of my project of reading Zola's twenty novel Rougon-Macquart cycle in the order in which Zola intended them to be read. I began this project back in summer of 2010, not long after I started Zen Throw Down, and have written posts about each novel as I've read it. There are also posts on the blog related to available translations, the family tree of the Rougon-Macquart, etc. It's definitely been a long term effort!

Germinal is the sixteenth book in Zola's ordering of the Rougon-Macquart novels, and it is one of the better-known books to English-speaking audiences. Germinal picks up the story of Etienne Lantier, continuing the chronicle begun in the thirteenth novel (the infamous L'Assommoir) of the alcoholic laundress Gervaise Macquart Coupeau and her offspring. Zola first introduced Etienne in L'Assommoir as one of Gervaise's illegitimate children with Auguste Lantier. Gervaise and Lantier moved to Paris to escape the physical abuse and manipulation of her father, but Lantier soon abandons Gervaise and the family. Etienne is eventually sent away to earn money as a laborer while Gervaise sinks into alcohol-drenched poverty and prostitution.

In Germinal, Etienne is in his twenties and unemployed due to a massive economic slump throughout France. He is wandering the countryside, starving and desperately looking for work. Late at night, Etienne arrives at a cluster of mining villages and manages to land a job in a mine called Le Voreux which, according to the notes, means 'voracious'. In this way, we are introduced to the other focus of Germinal: industry and, specifically, mining. Just as each Rougon-Macquart novel tends to focus on one character of the family, so each novel focuses on one aspect of French society during the Second Empire. Here it is the working classes in heavy industry. The novel weaves a large and engrossing cast of characters with multiple plot lines to give us an insider's view of this world and of a horrific strike that erupts when the miners are pushed too far.

While references to other members of the Rougon-Macquart family are virtually non-existent in Germinal, we slowly learn how Etienne fits into Zola's theme of heredity. Most obviously, he has inherited his mother and grandmother's work ethic. This leads him to become one of the best workers in the mine. However, Etienne also carries a muted form of several darker Macquart traits. First, he possesses hints of the bloodlust that turned his brother Jacques into a serial killer (see La Bete Humaine). Etienne is not a serial killer nor a violent man but, in his rivalry with the lout Chaval, Etienne wrestles with murderous urges. For example, in part 6, chapter 2, Etienne brawls with Chaval. During the brawl, "a dreadful voice rising from deep inside him deafened him. It came from the pit of his stomach, and throbbed like a hammer inside his head, shrieking its frenzied lust for murder, its need to taste blood...and he fought down this hereditary evil, shivering desperately like a crazed lover teetering on the brink of rape." While this echoing of Jacques' mental issues doesn't rise even to the level of subplot in Germinal, it recurs with increasing intensity until the last chapters of the book. Its presence also suggests alternate ways of interpreting Etienne's motivations throughout, including his instigation of the strike against the owners of the mine.

Etienne also has a weakness for alcohol. Again, the trait is much muted compared to other characters from the Rougon-Macquart family and is not a key plot point. However, during the miners march, Etienne repeatedly urges the mob to refrain from damaging property or harming anyone until a canteen full of gin is ransacked. Etienne and the starved mob drink it all. "Gradually his eyes because bloodshot with the unhealthy intoxication of a starving man, and his teeth seemed to stand out like the fangs of a wolf between his ashen lips." Drunk, he ends up "launching his men to attack the pump which he had saved just a few hours earlier." This physical intoxication, combined with an intoxication from the power of the mob, leads him to lose control of himself and the strike. Though whether anyone can truly control an enraged mob like this is another question raised by Zola's narrative.

Third and finally, Etienne has flashes of the impractical dreamer. Like many members of the Rougon-Macquart family, he builds castles in the sky which he cannot bring to reality. Yet again, this trait is muted in Etienne, for he is definitely a man of action. Throughout the strike he propels his visions forward in a way that was impossible for his brother Claude (The Masterpiece). From this standpoint, it is interesting to parallel Etienne (a Macquart) with Aristide Saccard (a Rougon). Both have lofty ambitions, and both achieve a mixture of success and failure. On the debit side, Aristide is the perpetrator of a ponzi scheme and a financial market meltdown, while Etienne's strike leads to death and disaster. At the same time, Aristide achieves his ultimate goal of attaining a wealthy lifestyle, and Zola makes it clear that Etienne's strike has sown the seeds for more impactful resistance in the future.

Nicolas Toussaint Charlet Interior of a Coal-Miner's Hut 1829
Which brings us to the question we're left with at the novel's conclusion: what should be our final assessment of Etienne and the miners' strike he incites? Unlike many of the Rougon-Macquart family, Etienne is neither an amoral villain, an impotent dreamer, or a psychologically broken person. He plans the strike based on a sense of justice. From his first descent into Le Voreaux, he is appalled at the working conditions, the risk of death, and the backbreaking labor the miners are subjected to for a level of pay that barely keeps them alive. At the same time, he is repelled by the petty rivalries and promiscuity of the miners, and his distaste grows throughout the novel as he furthers his education on a steady diet of opposition journals and radical philosophy. So he possesses a moral compass, and his actions are driven by it.

However, as the strike progresses, things become a little blurred. As Etienne's role catapults him to a position of leadership and respect within the community, self-interest becomes an increasingly important factor in his choices. He takes pride in his popularity among the miners, and his actions are sometimes focused on preserving this popularity. As the chances the strike will lead to victory become more unlikely, Etienne continues to mesmerize the miners with speeches about the end of the capitalists and the rise of the workers. He dreams of making a career as an agitator around workers' rights, and often judges the strike in terms of how it might aide him in attaining this goal just as much as its benefit to the miners. One could even argue that by spinning dreams of equality for the miners, Etienne makes it impossible for them to rationally assess their chances. This view is supported by the presence of the new priest in the mining village, who utters nutty prophecies of the miners rising to bring God back to France in some undefined religious revolution. It's impossible not to view these clueless rantings as a parallel to Etienne's naive idealism. While the mine is repeatedly described a devouring people, Etienne's predatory trait and ulterior motives hint that he is exploiting the situation - and the miners - himself.

So is Etienne a hero or a villain? A liberator or an exploiter? A beacon of hope or a fool? Is he both and neither? It's true that Etienne has many honorable and positive characteristics, but he also lets his ideas carry him away without thinking of the consequences. Even in the face of warnings from veteran tavern-keeper Rasseneur that Etienne is playing into the hands of the owners and that the miners will be deeply hurt by the strike, Etienne continues. By the time Rasseneur's predictions come true in horrifying form, it is too late to turn back. While Etienne's cause is just, his execution is misguided and is later undone to a degree by self-interest.

From the broader standpoint of the entire Rougon-Macquart cycle, Zola has repeatedly included exposition from the characters to the effect that destruction is necessary to progress. Whether it is the razing of homes to make way for the new Paris (The Kill), small businesspeople being crushed by the rise of the large department store (The Ladies' Paradise), the realities of economic speculation (Money), attaining power in politics (His Excellency Eugene Rougon), or political revolution (The Fortune of the Rougons), the victor's path is strewn with the bodies of victims both intended and unintended. As such, while the strike is a humiliating failure for the miners and inflicts deep loss on all of them, it succeeds in laying the groundwork for future success. Etienne uses their misery to drive his own success, though again not in a wholly premeditated, amoral manner. At the same time, the last several pages of the novel describe spring arriving with language that describes the miners as newly born plants rising from under the earth and into the light. It's a hopeful note, but it's also a grim image that has the miners buried in a graveyard for the living.

We are also given indications that the strike inflicts a wound upon the society that condones the exploitation of the miners. Further, Cecile's death provides a specific instance of how the strike has not left the wealthy unscathed. It is even hinted that the government of the Empire is affected. In this way, the end of Germinal like the end of La Bete Humaine includes foreshadowing of the Empire's fall.

Zola is too much of a realist to write a clear-cut victory. For example, the miners' march finishes with the wealthy characters finally able to sit down to an interrupted dinner, an image that initially suggests the march has made no impression on them at all. Ultimately, the strike may be neither a victory nor a defeat. The miners are painted as neither morally superior to nor inferior to the owners; Zola inserts plenty commentary from his characters suggesting the miners simply want to be the wealthy themselves, not eliminate inequity. This makes it impossible to view them as saintly underdogs. Similarly, Etienne may be neither a hero nor a villain. He is simply a person, borne of the mix of hereditary traits alchemizing with the situation he faces (which is the entire point of Zola's Cycle). That said, Etienne's story ends on an upward arc which is fairly rare in the Cycle, especially from the Lantier branch.

Gerard Depardieu as Maheu in the critically acclaimed
1993 film adaptation of Germinal
About this edition of the book: I read the Oxford University Press translation by Peter Collier. While the introduction by Robert Lethbridge is twenty pages of palaver, Collier's translation is wonderful. He captures Zola's manner of showing versus telling, especially in conveying the miserable existence of the miners of Le Voreaux. Though this, we are again reminded how talented and committed Zola is as a writer compared to the melodramatic cotton candy of many English-speaking writers with a social agenda (e.g., Dickens, Gaskell, Stowe, etc.). Zola never takes the easy way out by creating obvious villains against which he sets saintly protagonists; he is merciless with his reader. While the first two-thirds of Germinal is stunning in it's stark depiction of poverty, it is when the strike spirals out of control and crashes towards defeat that Zola uses the horror of the miners' lives to draw the reader into an emotional - and ultimately literal - abyss. This is all the more impactful because we can't truly pick many of these characters to identify with on their own merits. The ravenous mine itself is the true - and mindless - antagonist for all the characters, whether they work in it or attempt to make money from it. Collier's translation conveys these subtleties which I'm assuming, with good reason I think, were part of the original French.

Germinal is a powerfully written novel about the lives of miners in the late nineteenth century. It is a novel about social justice, but one that does not rely on religion or easy answers to paint its portrait of a large cast of characters caught up in the turmoil of social change. It's required reading for anyone interested in the social writing of the period.