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Friday, February 19, 2010

Joel Osteen and Norman Mailer: Uncommon Common Ground

The other day I picked up Norman Mailer's "God: An Unusual Conversation," where, for the lack of a better term, Mailer becomes a believer. That is not to say he never believed before--I didn't know the man personally, despite the fact that I devoured all of his books one fateful summer of personal crankiness and foul contempt for the world (yes, Mailer would have been proud). This book, which actually was "composed" out of recorded conversation with his literary executor, Michael Lennon, is a beautifully, yet eccentric way of seeing spirituality. Sort of the "do-it-yourself" belief in God that the organized religions deplore so much. Mailer makes some very insightful comments here. For example, why does modern Christianity related social/economic success on God's blessing? Mailer being Mailer, he goes on a tour d'force against organized religion, debating, with great aplomb, the necessity and dependence the Church has on the financial offerings people give every Sunday, etc. I am sure people will jump and claim that to be an over-simplistic argument, a claim without a warrant. Well, I see his point, however, quite clearly being exercised in living color right before my eyes. The Catholic diocese covering the region where I live is closing down numerous churches and parishes, to the great alarm of people and family generations who have attended those closing churches for years, often times over 100 of serving the community. And the bottom line reason: finances. Lower parishioners mean lower gifts, donations. But instead of the Church officials going out there and knocking on doors and offering that same type of community and place of gathering that used to provide the financial means for the church, the Church administration has decided not to appeal to those who do not come to church, or perhaps come only in Easter and/or Christmas. I am not a Catholic, but Mailer's argument rings true to me. There's a hierarchy, or at least there seems to be one, whose sole purpose is the running of the church as a financial corporation. While I may not ascribed to all Mailer says, what he describes in this book is enough to make anyone sit down and ponder (which was what Virgin Mary did when she found out she was with child from God).

Joel Osteen's series of books celebrates the fact that those who are successful must have done something to please God, and it behooves them to continue to do it. I haven't read any of his books, but I have watched him intensively on the television. And it is true, very true that the connection between personal finances and faith have been blurred to the extent that one doesn't know what to think, or, in other cases, one doesn't think before offering to the church. I am not saying finances and the church shouldn't be mixed--it's a reality that he church needs our offerings to continue to function, and that there are many social programs that reach needy people by means of the church. But other issues are at stake here. Overseas ministering strikes me (and to some degree Mailer) as religious colonialism of the ancient kind. There are still missionaries (funded by members the church) rounding the globe with the purpose of converting indigenous peoples into the full knowledge of Jesus Christ. What pains me about this is that we do not learn from our mistakes--indigenous cultures are what they are, they don't need us to come in there and Topsy-Turvy their world, traditions and cultures to our liking, Jesus Christ notwithstanding.

What Mailer (and I think myself to a degree) opposes is the shift on priorities: Churches are not a place to worship, but a place to make a contribution in order to worship. Recently, a friend of mine invited me to a Christian/Protestant church and some of what the pastor was engaged in discussion had to deal with the church's finances. Handouts were passed out, and, to my surprise one of the explain, in full detail and with concordances to the Bible, exhorting those who are unemployed to still give to the church. Needless to say, that didn't sit well with my Mailersonian perspective of these issues after reading "On God: An Unusual Conversation."

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Saturday, February 13, 2010

Ransom by David Malouf

"Ransom" is a jewel of a novel bringing, once again, the vitality and ageless story of Homer's classic tale of courage, defeat, victory and human emotion to life. The action begins on Book 22 of "The Illiad" (for those of you who might be purists of the art form). Beginning so deep into a narrative might create all sorts of pitfalls for a writer trying to personify these characters while staying true to the form of the plot. In "Ransom," David Malouf's prose is so personal, so intricately and psychological that all the grief, pain and humiliation of Priam at the feet of Achilles is powerful without losing the essence of the scene, and the respect each man had for the other. The novel is based on the events after Achilles defeats Hector in battle and then proceeds to drag his body around the walls of Troy. This was a terrible spectacle, unwarranted for a warrior of Achilles' rank, but Malouf makes an Achilles so human, so complex in his grief and rancor, that his relationship to Patroklos (Hector had killed Patroklos thinking it was Achilles, Patroklos was wearing Achilles armor) makes for a psychologically infused Achilles, his love for his boy friend (and I don't mean it in today's meaning of those words) becomes our grief. I found myself asking, but how all of this circumstantial boola-boola create such a painful result for all involved. The gods must have been taking the day off.

Among the other characters from "The Iliad" brought down to the level of mortals is Priam, King of Troy. Malouf's novel "Ransom," begins with Priam's plan to recover the body of his son Hector and grant him proper burial. He devices a plan which main premise is to appeal to the best of Achilles, his soul, his good will, his compassion for a father seeking to retrieve the body of his son from further humiliation. So this is a compact novel about "The Iliad" not just because it only covers that part of the great battle for Troy. It shows every single character (even the mule driven carriage's driver, Somax, who is made the King's herald on the mission to recover Hector's body. He is as complex as the more 'advanced' characters, and much of Priam's insight about the 'real' human condition he learns from Somax on the way to Achilles camp. The gods make a small, very small appearance in the form of a playful Hermes. Yet, the core of the story really takes place in the exchange between Achilles and Priam. The mule driven carriage had been filled with gold and all sorts of valuables, but that is inconsequential to Achilles. The men share a meal together and talk--the level of palpable human-like characteristics in this scene, as well as in all the others, makes "Ransom" a novel everyone MUST read. Whatever questions you may have about the role of classical texts in today's society will slip quietly back to one's least worries.

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Monday, February 08, 2010

Norman Mailer's "The Deer Park" What a Painful Experience.

"The Deer Park" by Norman Mailer is not so much a disaster of a novel as it is (above all) dated. The several problems exhibited here are representative of the fact that this is NOT Mailer's best. One becomes accustomed to greatness and it is hard to believe the writer can do anything less than perfect time and again. The novel is highly dated. The back cover describes the novel as "The daring novel by the author of "The Naked and The Dead" which has something new to say about Hollywood, Love, Sin and Sex." Perhaps it was new to the audiences of 1955 (when the book was published), but what I found in this little novel was the work of an author deemed "great" a little too early. Of course, this is not the same Norman Mailer who wrote "The Executioner's Song," or "Harlot's Ghost," or even the highly praised "Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery." This novel represents a Mailer just spreading his wings as an author. It is not hard to believe that this was his third published novel. (Although I have to say that "Tough Guys Don't Dance" which was published much later in his career was just as dull). I am not being harsh when I say these things because I believe NO ONE could make Mailer feel bad about anything at all. He was a man's man, a highly literary World War II combat veteran who joined the other bohemians in the Village to try and define (like the Lost Generation of the 1920s) a new American literature, as fresh as it was abrasive.

"The Deer Park" ended up being re-written as a play later on in Mailer's career, and I think (not from the experience of seeing it, but rather from the famous commentary by the author "The Merits of 'The Deer Park'" which you will find by clicking HERE. Mailer felt insecure about the novel once the high praise came from people such as Malcolm Cowley, not because he considered his writing bad, but for the mere reason that he rather felt early on it was not one of his best efforts.

The story is fast, characters many, and the narrator seems to disappear for chapters, only to appear later on with more knowledge of the other characters' lives than his own. The protagonist, an orphan turned World War II ace pilot, carries the name Sergius O'Shaugnessy. He wins $14,000 playing poker and decides to spend a relaxing time in a place called Desert D'Or. Like most places where people go to relax, the atmosphere is intense and quite rapid. Our hero ends up in a party by one Dorothea O'Faye which is packed by hundreds of people from "the capital" (a sub-name for Hollywood). There he meets Dorothea's son who turns out to be a philosopher pimp. Sergius also meets Charlie Eitel, a film director of some fame now involved in McCarthism (although not called by that name) hearings in Congress. He is a cross between Kazan and Liberace, although not as gay. What happens after the first few chapters is a roller coaster of relationships, false sex, promises of marriage here today and then long forgotten. The plot appears like the relationships in the sit-com "Friends," where everyone seems to sleep with everyone and still remain relatively, well, for lack of a better word, friends. Several women in the novel get passed around like hats; most of them within the protective circle of pimps, actors, directors, producers, wanna-bes and other associated birds of questionable provenance. I read this novel knowing that much of it was the reason why in the late 1960s and 1970s, the feminist movement targeted Mailer the way they did.

The novel ends flat with Sergius wanting to become a writer. I don't really know what else to say about a novel that never really got my attention, and it was like drinking a spoonful of castor oil on an empty stomach. Sorry, Norman... not your best.

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Monday, February 01, 2010

Faithful "Whity Family" Coffee Mug and Spoon

It was August 1994, the hottest summer in the recorded history of Japan. I was sweating bullets in Hikone, Shiga-ken, studying the fine art of ancient warriors ways, language and culture. This was probably one of the best summers of my entire life. I found a coffee mug with a little spoon resting on a table marked as "FREE." These were the things that people couldn't take with them from the dorm when they concluded their studies. I liberated the coffee mug and the little spoon in the name of the Republic and since never used a different coffee mug.... until January 31, 2010 when I finally decided to retired this faithful friend and confidant of so many secrets.

We traveled a trajectory so rich on history and detail that a complete memoir could be written about the year after year journey. Now, the Faithful "Whity Family" mug and the little spoon rest on my desk as a pencil/pen holder. Of course, many people will think this is an undignified way to go, but I beg to differ. You see, the mug was always at risk of being dropped, or kidnapped by people who came in and out of my life. Once, a person dear and near to me decided that the mug was "offensive" and "politically incorrect." No such thing could ever be true. The illustration on the mug is that of a family of bears preparing breakfast. The father is shown carrying a frying pan, tripping on something and the fried egg flying through the air as "Junior Bear" tries to catch it with his plate. "Mama Bear" and "Sister Bear" are also there. The Japanese inscription reads: (in Roman-ji, meaning Romanized pronunciation of the Japanese) "Oniichan abunai. Otosan gambette. zyunbionotokikara tanosii wagaya no yugohan." In the Queen's English it means: Be careful brother. Good luck father. It is fun from the time we begin preparing our dinner." Now, you probably have not heard of a website called www.engrish.com so there's the link. The Japanese have tendencies of translating and using very weird Roman-ji print copies. Some of the signs and announcements are simply hilarious.

I never considered my keeping this specific mug a "fetish," or a "personal relationship with an inanimate object". The mug went from Japan back to college, then to graduate school in Washington DC, and back to Ohio with me and in the middle of all those times, the comfort of drinking coffee in the mornings became a ritual of sorts. This mug, with its accompanying spoon, now holds a place of "prestige" next to me on my writing desk. August 1994 -- January 31, 2010. To some people, that's a lifetime.

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