Wednesday, March 26, 2014

"Endeavor to always transform our tears into knowledge"

While randomly browsing through the humanities section (I loosely use the term in this situation, however) of a National Bookstore branch, I pulled out Alain de Botton's How Proust can Change Your Life and then I realized that he had several other books all lined up together in that shelf. What caught my attention foremost were Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion and this one so I bought them together immediately.

I really thought that reading this book will be understandably slow since it touches upon philosophy subjects, but I'm more than patient to see it through because I've researched about the author as soon as I bought his two books, and there are great things said about his writings. And upon getting started on The Consolations of Philosophy, I certainly saw for myself why: de Botton makes complex subjects more accessible and easier to comprehend and personally connect with, unlike with any of your average college textbooks.

In The Consolations, de Botton divides philosophers into the particular day-to-day challenges that their philosophies can be applied to: For unpopularity, we have Socrates to turn to; Epicurus for material possessions and financial troubles; Seneca for frustrations; Montaigne for different kinds of inadequacies; Schopenhauer for mending broken hearts after rejection and failed romances; and Nietzsche for lack of faith in facing difficulties. There is a formula to de Botton's approach for each philosopher and the specific problem he tackles. He would first introduce the life of the philosopher and the criticism and challenges he faced during his time, and then expand as to how he formed his philosophy and why we can adapt that to our own lives so we can cope with the same kind of dignity and transcendence as they had. The book also provides visuals and illustrations, perhaps to ensure that the chapters will not be too textual for a casual reader who may find it a bit hard to keep up with the analyses and explanations for each chapter.

However, it must be stated that de Botton's graceful passages never gets dull at all. He never overwhelms readers with unnecessary verbosity, and he manages to communicate ideas and deliver each philosophy with a precision and insight that allows any reader to digest and appreciate the teachings of even the most obscure of philosophers.

My favorite discussions were on the Consolations for Inadequacy with Montaigne's writings on sexual, intellectual and cultural inadequacies that plague everyone (it's the longest chapter of the book devoted to the nature of prejudice, discrimination and intolerance, and how these shortcomings could destroy us and other people); and the unorthodox thinking of Schopenhauer in Consolations for a Broken Heart as he tries to justify why human beings fall in love and seek partners--and why there is no need to be ashamed of how irrational we often act when faced with romantic entanglements.

Here are some of the memorable passages from the book:

"If we cannot match such composure, if we are prone to burst into tears after only a few harsh words about our character or achievements, it may be because the approval of others forms an essential part of our capacity to believe that we are right. It may be frightening to hear that a high proportion of community holds us to be wrong, but we should consider the method by which their conclusions have been reached." ~on Consolations for Unpopularity

"What is declared obvious and 'natural' rarely is so. Recognition of this should teach us to think that the world is more flexible than it seems, for the established views have frequently emerged not through a process of faultless reasoning, but through centuries of intellectual muddle. There may be no good reason for things to be the way they are"~on Consolations for Unpopularity

We don't exist unless there is someone who can see us existing, what we say has no meaning until someone can understand, while to be surrounded by friends is constantly to have our identity confirmed; their knowledge and care for us have the power to pull us from numbness" ~on Consolations for Not Having Enough Money

"We aren't overwhelmed by anger whenever we are denied an object we desire, only when we believe ourselves entitled to obtain it." ~on Consolations for Frustration

"Fortune gives us nothing we can really own. We live in the middle of things which have all been destined to die." ~on Consolations for Frustration

"It is no less unreasonable to accept something as necessary when it isn't as to rebel against something when it is. We can easily go astray by accepting the unnecessary and denying the possible, as by denying the necessary and wishing for the impossible. It is for reason to make the distinction" ~on Consolations for Frustration

We have been allotted inconstancy, hesitation, doubt, pain, superstition, worries about what will happen (even after we are dead), ambition, greed, jealousy, envy, unruly, insane and untameable appetites, war, lies, disloyalty, backbiting and curiosity. We take pride in our fair, discursive reason and our capacity to judge and to know, but we have bought them at a price which is strangely excessive." ~on Consolations for Inadequacy

"By conceiving of love as biologically inevitable, key to the continuation of the species, Schopenhauer's theory of the will invites us to adopt a more forgiving stance towards the eccentric behavior to which love so often makes us subject." ~on Consolations for a Broken Heart

"We must, between periods of digging in the dark, endeavor always to transform our tears into knowledge"> ~on Consolations for Difficulties

"We all become Christians when we profess indifference to what we secretly long for but do not have; when we blithely say that we do not need love or position in the world, money or success, creativity or health--while the corners of our mouths twitch in bitterness; and we wage silent wars against what we have publicly renounced, firing shots over parapet, sniping from the trees." ~on Consolations for Difficulties

"The worst sickness of men tends to originate in the sentimental way they try to combat their sicknesses. What seems like an easy cure, in the long run produces something worse than what it's supposed to overcome. Fake consolations always have to be paid for with a general and profound worsening of the original complaint.” ~on Consolations for Difficulties

* de Botton transformed philosophical writings into intimate portraits of our own daily struggles and how we can overcome and rise above them. He provided us tools on the best ways to combat our lesser inclinations through the comforting words of some of history's profound thinkers.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

"From Ender to Mender of worlds"

I never expected Ender's Game to be so damn engrossing when I finally got around it last January. I certainly wasn't expecting I would even read anything written by Orson Scott Card ever, considering his homophobic stance which had personally offended me. However, I wasn't quick to dismiss his literary contributions to the science fiction genre, so I put aside my negative bias and bought the Ender Quartet series.

And I'm glad I gave myself the chance to do that because I can honestly say that two books later into the series, what Card accomplished in both Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead has made me into a massive fan.

Unlike its predecessor, Speaker for the Dead is more humane in scope, focusing on the empowering choice of peace and tolerance whilst Ender's Game dealt with war and annihilation of a species that threatened our own.

Andrew "Ender" Wiggin is no longer the sole and primary focus of the story though his importance is still pronounced; but in a different sense from his destroyer days. Set three thousand years later after the bugger wars, Ender is no longer that prodigy child who won the war for humanity's survival; he's a man in his thirties who traveled the stars for so long that he never had a chance to feel at home. Together with his sister Valentine, Ender had seen humanity spread across the galaxies, and he had moved with them but as a Speaker; one who tells the truth about a person's life upon death. He is in fact the very first Speaker since space travel has slowed down his ageing process, and he wanted to once and for all discard Ender by speaking on behalf of the dead to impact their histories on the living. This is the perfect form of penance for Ender, and the only people aware of his identity are his sister and the sentient artificial intelligence Jane who sought him out herself and hoped one day that he could help human beings accept her kind.

Though Ender still plays a huge role in Speaker for the Dead, the story is focused on a human settlement called Lusitania which is a largely Catholic community that lives alongside a newly discovered species called "piggies". Ender was called to speak for someone's death in that place, a summoning by a suffering young girl named Novinha. But before Ender ever gets there, Novinha (who was now an adult) cancels the summoning, especially after she figures out a significant revelation about the piggies, and wants desperately to protect it to avoid bloodshed among the people she loves the most. Puzzlingly enough, Novinha's other two children have also called for a speaker, and this is when Ender knew that something troubling is brewing in the stifling confines of Novinha's family; that there is a corrosive wound that has made it essentially hard for both her and her children to move forward with their lives.

The book's plot goes twofold. On one hand, the anthropological examination of the piggies' culture and practices is zoomed in, enabling readers to understand this species in the human context but even that is already limited. With Ender's arrival, he served as an ambassador between humans and piggies, offering agreeable alternatives for co-existence between these two species. On the other hand, Ender's presence was also a powerful instrument that shattered the shackles that surrounded Novinha and her children. By speaking on behalf of their dead father, Ender exposed the painful truth and the healing process thus began. He had also unwittingly woven himself into the family's fabric, and perhaps in doing so he finally had a home to belong to after being a vagabond for so long.

Speaker for the Dead is an astounding follow-up that is drastically different from Ender's Game in tone, setting and execution, and yet in most ways it was also able to surpass its predecessor. It's a daring commentary on science and religion, challenging the limitations of both fields. It also served as a heartfelt testament about the freeing capacity of truth and compassion. It's a searing examination of what makes families grow together and communities prosper as one. The characters are memorable and sympathetic even when they do and say things that are more harmful that they thought (I'm of course referring to Novinha and her insistence to conceal the truth which cost her the love and trust of her own children).

And as much as I enjoyed Ender as a child in the first book, I was pleased to see him in this new role as Speaker, and that he is making amends from his past transgressions and in my eyes he has truly become a mender of worlds.

* A well-developed and earnest parable about forgiveness and acceptance set in a futuristic backdrop of moral ambiguities and social discord.