Sunday, October 21, 2012

A Separate Peace


First of all, I love this cover. It’s from 1959, and it’s so gorgeous and of that time. I think it’s great that the Google image of this cover was also cracked in the same places that mine is. I got mine from the dollar bin of used books at our local Hannaford store, but it could easily have been the version that my parents used. I actually read this several weeks ago but was too busy to write about it. But it seems like a perfect time now, on this immaculate fall day when the sun is shining in a blue sky and the yellow maple leaves are as bright as they’ll ever get and constantly swirling through the sky on the autumn breeze as they fall…this book makes me poetic.

I hadn’t read this book since high school, and I didn’t really have many memories of it except the vague idea of some boys in a tree, one who breaks a leg, and one who goes to war and comes back crazy.  I wasn’t prepared to actually love this book and I’m not sure I can fully articulate why I did. But a big part of it was definitely it being set in New Hampshire. Despite all my grumbling about the cold, I love New Hampshire and I always had to come back here. Knowles really captures the beauty of NH and makes me love it even more. Maybe that’s a gift of people who weren’t born here, like Knowles and Frost, because they can appreciate it that much more.

I also love that the setting is based on a real place. Knowles is from West Virginia, but he went to Phillips Exeter academy as a boy. And even though it’s a place that I’ve never been, except to drive by, and I never went to boarding school, everything about the landscape and the seasons and the people that he describes is so familiar that I felt like the story could have been about me, or my parents if they had grown up here. It’s easy to love NH on a gorgeous day, and the way Knowles tells it, every day of that golden summer was gorgeous. It helps me get how they could be in the midst of war and still be almost oblivious to it.

So there’s Gene, the narrator. Gene is the guy who represents you and me. Aside from doing that horrible thing and bouncing Finney out of the tree, or maybe because of it (I’ll get to that) he’s a pretty average guy.  I guess he’s our access to the story-our window. He’s not a New Englander, but he’s part of the community so he’s both inside and outside. And for some reason Phineas chooses him for his best friend. They become so close that Gene actually begins to see the world through Finney’s eyes, even when he knows better. He accepts Finney’s truths over his own.

I’ve never known anyone like Phineas. I don’t know if anyone has, outside of fiction. There’s something so Peter Pan about him. The way he tries things that no one else would dare, and succeeds. The way he gets so lost in his own thoughts that he literally doesn’t hear people when they talk, and yet he lives so much in the moment. Of course, Finney’s story was heartbreaking, and of course it’s a symbol-for loss of innocence, coming of age, etc.-but there is something so palpable and real about him in that moment when he finally admits to all the things that he had been trying so hard not to acknowledge. When his spirit is finally broken. His literal fall is also a fall from innocence. And I can’t help but relate to it because don’t we all try so hard every day to keep down our fears and not let people know what we know? Don’t we all wear masks to avoid facing dark truths?  

What really drove Finney over the edge was not being able to fight in the war because of his injury, which I’m not sure how I feel about. I don’t ever want to fight in a war, and I don’t want other people to either. But Finney was so disappointed that he couldn’t fight that he pretended the war wasn’t even real, just so he wouldn’t have to face the reality of his own disability. Or was it just that the situation of the war made his disability more poignant to him? He demonstrates his patriotism early on, even as he orchestrates the golden summer for the boys not yet old enough to enlist. But was he really that brave? What would it have been like for him if he had made it to the war?

We see the contrast of how this generation views war with the previous generation when the father of one of the students comes to the school. His attitude toward war is that it is not only a duty, but it’s a life experience that is necessary and in some ways even pleasurable. This is the time of your life. Don’t blow it by being afraid or sissy. How much of that is machismo, and how much of it is selective memory-not allowing yourself to remember how terrifying and brutal it was, and what you lost? I guess there’s a necessary bravado involved in facing something terrifying and unknown and inevitable. I imagine it’s a way of coping, but I wouldn’t really know. There’s no way of knowing how you would react to something like that until it happens.

Which brings us to Leper. Poor, gentle, Leper. He tried to be so brave. He accepted his fate, but he couldn’t handle the reality of it. I relate a lot to Leper, actually. He’s sort of the weirdo loner. I always had friends, but, ok, think about this. You know that Gene and Leper are acquaintances, but at one point in the story, toward the end, it becomes clear that Gene and Leper were actually best friends, at least until Phineas came along. I’ve had close friends who “moved on” from me before and I know how that feels. I think it’s a natural part of relationships, but it still hurts. And when Gene moved on Leper was left on his own to deal not only with school life, but with his impending draft. He did his best to face it, but it was too much for him. So if you’re in the Hating Gene camp, consider his apparent desertion of Leper as well.

And speaking of Gene-what kind of jerk is he anyway, knocking Phineas off of the tree branch in the first place? What does it mean? I think this act in its literal form is the equivalent of that feeling when you look over the edge of a bridge and think about jumping off. Except you don’t jump. But the narrator did jump and it was Phineas who fell. Metaphorically, I think it’s about the dark places that we go in our minds, mostly because we are afraid, and the consequences of that darkness, and how uncontrollable it is. Bad things do happen to good people. And we are powerless to stop them, even though it seems like we should be able to. We should be in control of our own minds and limbs, just as nations should be able to control their circumstances enough to avoid war, but they can’t or won’t or just don’t. And there are always innocent victims.

On that cheery note, I guess I’ll end. But I have to say this is one of my favorite “war stories”, which I generally cannot stand. Because it speaks the truth that I feel, which is that war is meaningless, mindless, and endless, and I can understand losing my mind if I had to face it.

Here are the last few paragraphs of the book. Enjoy if you wish.

I never killed anybody and I never developed an intense level of hatred for the enemy. Because my war ended before I ever put on a uniform; I was on active duty all my time at school; I killed my enemy there.

Only Phineas never was afraid, only Phineas never hated anyone. Other people experienced this fearful shock somewhere, this sighting of the enemy, and so began an obsessive labor of defense, began to parry the menace they saw facing them by developing a particular frame of mind, “You see,” their behavior toward everything and everyone proclaimed, “I am a humble ant, I am nothing, I am not worthy of this menace,” or else, like Mr. Ludsbury, “How dare this threaten me, I am much too good for this sort of handling, I shall rise above this,” or else, like Quackenbush, strike out at it always and everywhere, or else, like Brinker, develop a careless general resentment against it, or else, like Leper, emerge from a protective cloud of vagueness only to meet it, the horror, face to face, just as he had always feared, and so give up the struggle absolutely.

All of them, except Phineas, constructed at infinite cost to themselves these Maginot Lines against this enemy they thought they saw across the frontier, this enemy who never attacked that way-if he ever attacked at all; if he was indeed the enemy.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Guns, Germs, and Steel: Part 2

Ok, life has been really busy, but I have been reading GGS and it's been really interesting. I have to say, though, Diamond seems to repeat himself quite a bit and sometimes I just want to say, “ok, ok, we get it already!”. It makes me think of a Freakonomics podcast that I heard recently where one of the Stephens was saying that most (non-fiction) books are so repetitive that he figures chapters 7, 8, and 9 are superfluous and he doesn’t bother to finish them, ha ha! I don’t think that’s the case exactly here, but we’ll see because I haven’t actually finished it yet.

So, we have the basic idea that societies almost inevitably grow bigger due to increased food supply, conquest, or joining with other groups (usually out of fear of conquest). The only societies that were able to remain small were those that were not able to create an abundant enough food supply to increase population and were sufficiently secluded from other groups.

One thing that I found interesting about these small societies (tribes of a few hundred people or less) is that they are the most egalitarian societies that I’ve ever heard of, mainly because they’re too busy finding food and dealing with basic human needs to worry about who’s in charge. Diamond says that you can’t even pick out the chiefs in these communities because they look and act just like everyone else almost all the time. They don’t wear any special garments and they have to work and find food just like anyone. These societies are small enough that decisions can be made communally, like in a town meeting format. Pretty amazing!

Another thing I found fascinating was how population size affects crime and how it’s dealt with. He said that small communities tend not to have formal law enforcement, but because the community is so small almost everyone is related to each other in some way, and when disagreements arise there is usually someone with kin on both sides who will put pressure on the combatants to prevent them from becoming violent. They don’t all kill each other because someone with a personal stake stops them. I never thought of it this way, but in a society as big as ours we don’t have as much at stake to make us get involved in strangers’ issues. In our much larger society we rely on centralized law enforcement to prevent crimes because we don’t have the inclination to do it ourselves.

This leads to some really interesting stuff about material goods as well. In small tribes people may still have an uneven distribution of goods due to varying skills and opportunities, but because the community is so small they are able to distribute the goods amongst each other themselves by sharing and trading directly with each other. However, one of the things that leads to large, centralized governments is when a society gets too large to efficiently distribute goods to all members, especially when there are specialized workers who are not gathering food themselves. The government becomes the means by which goods are both collected and distributed (ie. taxes).

Of course, one of the things that happens is that the leader of these larger societies does not always distribute goods in the way that people want, and may keep an unequal portion for himself at the expense of the people. Diamond calls this a kleptocracy-great word! I was really struck by how relevant this is to our never-ending political controversies. Not that Obama is living it up on our dime in the style of Aztec rulers, but how to redistribute wealth does seem to be the central question of our government.

Another point about growing societies is the development of religion. Diamond says that religion is a luxury that most small tribes cannot really afford. Having religious people, or any people, in the community who do not gather food is just not feasible until a certain population density is reached. When an adequate population size is reached, religion develops, but I have to say that it’s not a happy story. It seems as though (and maybe this is only what one would expect) religion tends to become a tool of the government to endorse conquest and slaughter of other peoples.

An example that Diamond gives is the Spanish defeat of the Incas at Cajamarca in Peru in 1532 (and this is just one example of innumerable others, continuing to today of course). The Spanish came supposedly on a missionary quest to bring heathens to god, and they decimated the Incas while only suffering single digit losses themselves. Some disturbing details-the natives were basically unarmed or used stone tools and the Spanish had guns and just mowed them down; also, the friars absolved the soldiers of the sin of killing other human beings before the battle took place, saying that by conquering them they were saving their souls. Yikes. It seems that so much of the world now is still trying to recover from these “exploration” era conquests.

This made me think about how they could even communicate with each other accurately, and Diamond doesn’t really get into who or how things were translated, but there must have been people who could translate, I think. Still, there must have been so many times where people just didn’t understand each other and I have to wonder how much bloodshed these misunderstandings caused. One thing I’ve felt from my work is that not speaking the same language is a major factor in people feeling estranged from one another, and that makes it so much easier to be callous to each other. Diamond has a really interesting (to me) section on the development of language which I highly recommend, but I’m not going to go into it here.

Lastly, there was some really interesting discussion of germs and the role that they play in different societies, and population size is a factor here as well. I totally nerded out with this section, and thought of my mom a lot, who’s a microbiologist/virologist and totally awesome.

Ok, so maybe I’m just ignorant, but I didn’t realize that a lot of our diseases come from animals, and societies with domesticated animals therefore tend to get these diseases, whereas societies without domesticated animals often don’t. That goes a long way towards explaining why diseases from complex societies decimated small tribal societies during exploration and conquest, and not the other way around. For one thing, people in the complex societies would have been exposed to the disease and developed immunity, whereas people in small communities would not have. Also, smaller communities simply don’t have the numbers to survive an epidemic, whereas larger societies will have more survivors just be sheer number of people, some of whom might have natural immunity and some of whom might be saved by modern medical care and distance from infected parties.

Diamond discussed how ingenious diseases can be. For example, inducing symptoms that cause the spread of the disease from person to person, like open sores and sneezing. I also found it really fascinating the way that diseases mutate over time to further themselves. For example, Diamond said that leprosy used to be a disease that caused rapid degeneration of bodily tissue, but when the person died the disease lost its host, so leprosy developed into a slow degenerative disease that allows the host to live longer and infect many other people before it dies. It’s fascinating to think about something like leprosy, which seems unlikely to affect anyone I know, but sad when I think that AIDS works the same way.

Ok, that’s more than enough for now. But suffice it to say that I think this book is really interesting and I definitely recommend it. The last part of the book, which I am about to read, is called “Around the World in Five Chapters”. It tells the history of different parts of the world individually (Australia and New Guinea, East Asia, Austronesia, Eurasia vs. the Americas, and Africa). If I have something to say about those then I may post again. If it’s repetitive then I might not, ha ha! Hope you enjoy this as much as I did!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Guns, Germs, and Steel: Part 1

Reading Guns, Germs, and Steel (by Jared Diamond) has blurred the claims of Ishmael. There’s a lot of information in this book, so I’m going to talk about the first half now and then keep reading. Basically he’s gone into the ecological, climatological, and zoological reasons why some cultures developed sedentary cultures and some didn’t, and the differences among them. 
One of the major things that I noticed was that Quinn in Ishmael describes a sharp line between hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists, and agriculturalists were clearly the bad guys. Diamond provides a much more detailed and objective view, which makes sense as it is a scientific, not a philosophical account, and he shows how things are actually much more complicated than a strict dichotomy. I will give some examples of that.
One blurry line is this idea that Quinn puts forth that hunter-gatherers live in harmony with the earth whereas agriculturalists work against it for their own gain. In fact, Diamond shows that even before agriculture, humans had developed advanced methods of hunting which resulted in the extinction of large game in many parts of the world, including North America, which, he says, once looked like the African plains because it was so teeming with large animals. This seems to me to clearly fall under Ishmael’s condemnatory behavior (taking over large pieces of land, wiping out other species for our gain, etc.) and yet it is in no way associated with agricultural life.
Also, the idea that a group of people has to be either hunter-gatherer or agriculturalist but not both has been shown to be untrue. There is historical evidence of many cultures that did some of each because they could not subsist well with one way alone. Also, there were usually transition periods when a group of people was adjusting to agricultural life while still depending heavily on hunting and gathering. Quinn makes it sound like agriculture spread mostly by means of agriculturist cultures dominating hunter-gatherer cultures and either taking them over or destroying them completely, but the evidence shows that in many cases agriculture just spread as a way of life and was accepted willingly by new cultures. I think Diamond shows that humans, like all animals, take advantage of whatever efficient means are at their disposal to help them survive. If growing crops and domesticating animals was not efficient and effective, they would not do it. If it was, they would.
Furthermore, some cultures developed sedentary existences that were supported mostly by the domestication of animals (like sheep, goats, cattle, etc.) that could provide most of the nutrients they needed, and was not dependent on crop development. Those people did not practice agriculture as we know it, but they were still able to develop settled ways of living which led to proliferation and sophisticated culture, all that Quinn condemns. Yet, in the biblical story, Abel was a shepherd and his way of life was a symbol of living in harmony with the earth.
I think these points illustrate two things. Firstly, I would say that Quinn uses a scientific and historical foundation but does not explore the nuances the way that Diamond does, which, as I said, is natural to their respective writing styles. But also, their goals are different. Quinn’s point was to give an idea of the ways in which human development has been harmful to other species and to the planet, and not necessarily to denigrate a particular way of life. Toward that end he took a well-known mythology and extrapolated it for the edification of his point. Diamond is purposely trying to avoid value judgments, and instead he tries to trace the history of human development in order to explicate phenomena that we see today.
At some points it gets a bit dry as Diamond goes into minute detail about (for example) why corn took so long to spread from Mezo-America to North America. But on the other hand it is quite amazing what we can discover from physical evidence. Scientists figured out how and when crops spread throughout the world by using radiocarbon dating and DNA analysis (to follow mutations). They’ve done the same with animals using forensic analysis and DNA to track the routes of domestication.
I have to say, when Diamond explains in details what domestication of plants and animals really means, I sympathize with Quinn’s message. Diamond makes a distinction between plants that people select as gatherers, which may then propagate more because of us spreading their seeds, and domesticated plants which are genetically altered to feed humans. I don’t mean in a lab, not originally anyway, but humans would choose a mutation that in the wild would prevent the species from surviving but which made them desirable to humans, and grow that variety exclusively, often to the detriment of other varieties or plants in the area. 
For example, (I didn’t know this) wild peas developed to have exploding pods that would disperse their seeds (the peas that we eat) in order to grow more pea plants. A genetic mutation produced plants whose pods don’t explode and humans selected those to grow as crops so that they could eat the peas and not have them spread all over the ground. Now, all the domesticated pea plants (which I imagine is a lot) have this mutation, but they would not survive in the wild. The same is true for domesticated animals, like dogs, which have been tamed and selected for various traits besides survival, like for working, hunting and companionship, and to be used as meat. 
I think that other species must influence the planet in the first way, by selecting foods that support them and thereby spreading their seeds and helping them to propagate. However, I don’t think that other species besides humans really domesticate plants and animals in the ways that Diamond describes. I think this might be the difference that Quinn was getting at. 
I think this is the point where many people say Oh suck it up! Humans are smarter and stronger and they won. That’s just how it is, so stop being such a bleeding heart! Maybe that’s true, I don’t know. But I do think there is something different about humans. I’m purposely not using the word “special” because I want to avoid any religious connotations, but let’s face it- we ARE the only sentient beings that we know of, and the only ones currently capable of the level of domination that we have achieved. Whether this is positive or negative, I think, is equivocal.
Ok, I’ve gone on long, way too long, so I’m stopping here, but there really is a lot to say about this, and I’ll continue reading and then write some more.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


I re-read Ishmael (by Daniel Quinn) and I feel like I have a better handle on the ideas now. Quinn basically presents the argument (through his main character, Ishmael) that when humans developed an agricultural way of life they became exempt from the laws of nature and are consequently destroying the world. Let me unpack that a bit.

When people can grow their own food they not only settle and develop complex societies, they also grow more food than they need in order to prepare for the future. The surplus in food translates into population growth, which in turn requires a greater surplus to be grown the following year, which creates more population growth, repeat ad infinitum. As a result, we take over more and more of the earth in order to feed and house ourselves. 

Quinn says that no other animals besides humans have allowed themselves to grow unchecked because they follow the rules of nature. He points out that when other animals don’t have enough food to survive, they starve and die, thus keeping their population in check and allowing other animals to survive. Quinn indicates that by using our superior intelligence to survive famines we are throwing nature off balance and this is an evil behavior that we need to change. 

Firstly, I don’t know if it is actually true that no other animals have done this, but I also think there’s a fundamental difference between a lion dying for lack of food and a human dying for lack of food because we are conscious of it and we can do something about it. A lion might feel sad (or I could be anthropomorphizing) about a member of its pride dying, but I doubt it feels responsible for another lion’s death due to a lack of resources and there’s not much it could really do about it anyway. We, on the other hand, can know and feel and act on the situation if we see someone suffering and can feel guilt if we don’t. 

Quinn says that we have lost touch with mother nature and fail to accept natural laws because we think we are above them, so we refuse to die when we should. He also points out the hubris involved in this, that humans think they should live and increase and rule the world. I do agree that people have done horrendous things to the earth and that the rate of population growth is basically unsupportable. I just don’t see what to do about it without being horrible and I don’t think Quinn provides much of an answer to this either. 

A note about birth control here. Quinn talks about it a little bit, and how we basically fail to use it to the extent that we should given that our population growth is out of control. Yet I think to many people birth control feels like an unnatural act, going against nature. Which it is, biologically. I think humans are trapped in this limbo between being animals and being intellectual or spiritual beings and it can make things like this so ethically confusing. 

We have seen governments make laws to control population growth and many of us recoil from it in horror, yet aren’t they just trying to be responsible? I have thought a lot about whether I want to have children and whether I should have children, and I often feel that there is no need...and then I see a baby and just get all gooshy. I think this is our essential conflict as humans, at least at this stage- to determine if we are animals driven by physical needs and instincts, or creatures that can use their minds and hearts to create their own way of life. And of course, we are both, but in every moment I think we make that decision, sometimes one way and sometimes the other.

The book ends with a call to action, both to the human character in the story and, by extension, to the reader. The solution that Ishmael gives is not to revert back to a hunter-gatherer way of life. He admits that that would not happen and is not feasible. He also isn’t against farming itself; he acknowledges that animals and even some human societies have agriculture without causing damage to nature. His request is simply to get this message out there. But I don’t see a real practical explanation of how humans can change in order to live in accordance with nature without reverting to a “primitive” way of life. Maybe the point was just to get us thinking about small practical changes, like recycling or etc., but that seems so mundane after the grandeur of the whole story.

I am looking forward to getting into Guns, Germs, and Steel now and leaving these questions aside, philosopher though I am. I could use some science right now and will be happy to let some of the ethics smolder for a while.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Guns, Germs, and Steel, But Not Yet

I started reading Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond this week, a loan from Dave, which is supposed to be about how cultures in the world developed differently from one another. 

He began by talking about two Polynesian island civilizations that came from common ancestry around 1000 AD. One, the Maori, settled in a place hospitable to agriculture and they continued their tradition of being an agrarian society. The other, the Moriori, settled in a place where agriculture was difficult and they therefore became hunter-gatherers. The Moriori developed into what we would call a primitive society, without sophisticated habitats, technology, or culture, because the hunter-gatherer life required them to move around constantly and did not support specialization of labor. The agricultural ways of the Maori, on the other hand, encouraged people to stay in one place and develop sophisticated tools in order to work the land. That led to abundance, the opportunity for specialization of labor and the development of more sophisticated culture. The Moriori maintained a society based on peace and non-violent accords. The Maori appeared after almost a millennium of independent cultural development on both sides and violently destroyed the Moriori with their sophisticated tools and weapons.
Upon reading this I immediately thought of three things. One was our trip to Hawaii (another Polynesian island that Diamond mentions) and seeing the conflict there between the natives and the European colonists who now live there. I didn’t know how to feel about it at the time and I still don’t, except somewhat guilty, though exactly for what I’m not sure.
I also thought of a book that I read in college, I think for a religion class, called Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. Now, if you’ve never read it you should know that this is an extremely didactic work full of “hippie nonsense”. I like the book, but I’m an academic and a teacher so didactic works for me. But what I remembered about it was this idea that humans have diverged from a “primitive” way of life, a way in which we were one animal among many, and become masters/destroyers of the world because of a mythology that we built for ourselves that we are the intended rulers of it. The point of this divergence was the development of an agricultural way of life, as opposed to a hunter-gatherer way of life.

The third thing that I thought of was the story of Cain and Abel from the Bible, in which Abel became a shepherd and Cain became a farmer. God looked favorably on Abel, but rejected Cain’s offering. Why this should be is not explained, but Cain was understandably hurt. According to The New American Bible, God said to Cain, “Why are you so resentful and crestfallen? If you do well you can hold up your head; but if not, sin is a demon lurking at the door: his urge is toward you, yet you can be his master.” (Genesis 4:6-7). 

I am not a biblical literalist; I see this as a story with cultural significance. And it makes me wonder why, all those years ago, someone made a point to say not only that there were two kinds of people, but also that one path was going to be more of a struggle than the other. The message seems to be that agriculture leads to temptation. To sin. And indeed, the next thing that happens in the story is that Cain kills Abel, his brother, and lies about it to God: two terrible sins. 
What happens next is interesting. Cain is cast out and Abel is dead. God has banished Cain from the soil and he becomes a nomad. The notes in my New American Bible say that Cain was both an archetype of Nomadic people as well as “the prototype of sedentary peoples with higher material culture”. He is a cautionary tale. Although he was banished from working the land, he establishes a city and his descendants “forge instruments of bronze and iron”, which sound like farming tools and/or weapons to me, instruments of complex culture. Lamech, the last descendant of Cain’s that is mentioned, told his wives, “I have killed a man for wounding me, a boy for bruising me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” (Genesis 4: 23-24). His people have clearly not changed their ways.
Meanwhile, Adam and Eve have another son, Seth, whom it says God gave to them to “replace Abel” (not Cain). And the next chapter goes on to show that although Cain had children, it was the descendants of Seth that led to Noah and Abraham, God’s chosen people. What this tells me is that there was an awareness even then humans had the potential to destroy each other and the earth, and there was a way to live to avoid that and a way to live to promote that. 

So are we, meaning Americans, Europeans, “civilized” people, descendants of Cain or Seth? Whose story are we enacting? I think that Judeo-Christian culture tells us that we are descendants of Seth, that we are God’s people. But Quinn tells us that we are descendants of Cain, the agriculturalist who created the first city and metal tools. And murder.
I need to think on this more, and I decided to re-read Ishmael before getting back to Guns, Germs, and Steel. It is somewhat annoying to read because the student character is sort of a dope, but I want to sharpen my understanding of Quinn’s message before getting back to Diamond and his more scientific approach. So my next post will probably be more about Ishmael, then something about Guns, Germs, and Steel will follow after that.