Sunday, June 23, 2013

War and Peace

I just finished Tolstoy's War and Peace.  It was a lovely, albeit long experience.  I want to share my thoughts in the hopes that some of you might be willing to give it a shot.

What is War and Peace?  It is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed.
The primary characteristic that sets the work apart from all others is Tolstoy’s technique of interspersing novelistic narrative with nonfiction chapters.  In any other writer this would seem arrogant and pushy: “I’m reading a novel!  I don’t want a sermon!”  Tolstoy can pull it off, however, because he’s Tolstoy - he has the literary chops to back it up.  I don’t have the specific words from literary criticism to explain what I mean by this, but in my limited experience I’ve never seen a better writer.  Anyone who can explain things so vividly and develop his characters so precisely has the right to toy with us.  And he certainly does that. The narrative arc is so long (1,000+ pages) that the reader really needs to ‘count the cost’.  What I found is that I had to ignore where I was in the book (in terms of pages and inches) and focus on where I was in the story.  I had to slow down and enjoy his writing, enjoy the way he describes people, and even stop reading once in awhile and think about what just happened.  And if it’s okay to step up on my soapbox for a bit, I think our culture could stand to slow down once in awhile.  I get distracted as much as the next guy, but sometimes depth of knowledge is more needed than breadth. This story is a great way to practice that.

One thing that does get tedious is that Tolstoy has many conversations in French.  In the translation I used (more on that below) the French was maintained in the body of the text and the English translation was in a footnote at the bottom of the page.  It does get irritating to switch back and forth, especially when it involves dialogue.  But Tolstoy does have a method to his madness here (conveying the irony of upper-crust "Russian" people who don't even speak Russian fluently).

The fiction part of the book describes the lives of several families roughly during the time from 1805 to 1812 (the Napoleonic Wars).  It runs the gamut from romance novel to war story, but with none of the overly-simplistic characters common to those genres.  The characters you love do stupid and ugly things and the ones you hate can surprise you too. Kind of like real life (which is kind of the point).

Speaking of real life, the non-fiction parts are good too.  Any quick summary of Tolstoy’s historical argument is bound to have some oversimplifications.  But, keeping this in mind, I think that Tolstoy’s primary concern is to critique the “Great Man” theory of history.  In this vein he has a lot to say about freedom and what it consists of.  A man or woman who is alone is free - a group less-so.  As soon as we bind ourselves to a group we limit our freedom.  This is true for every level in the group.  It would be a misunderstanding to assume that the leader of the group is free.  The general of the army is less free than even the lowest private because the eyes of all are on him.  Thus it makes no sense to say ‘The French army invaded Russia because Napoleon...”  In reality, the one million men in the French Army made their decisions for their own reasons.  Likewise, war "X" was not won because General "Y" brilliantly commanded his troops.  The outcome was because of many different elements that were out of the General’s control (and even outside of his knowledge).

One effect of this idea on Tolstoy’s theory of history is that he’s more inclined to focus on the ordinary people in the story.  So the fiction sections of the book serve to reinforce the nonfiction parts (and vice versa).  At first glance there may seem to be a lot of dualism in the way I’m describing this: war vs. peace, fiction vs. nonfiction, French vs. Russian, etc.  In reality, the dualism melts away within the work itself. When Tolstoy breaks from narrative into a couple chapters of nonfiction it flows very naturally.  I found myself in tension about the plot throughout the nonfiction part, but once I got back into the narrative I detected some tension in how he’s going to resolve the nonfiction argument too.

One last note on the translation.  Getting the right translation can be important.  My go-to translators for anything in Russian are Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. (Paperback and Hardcover) My reason for this is that they don’t make simple comprehension of the words their focus.  They try to replicate the tone, rhythm, and character of the work, even when that could make it read slightly less smoothly.  I’ll share one example that they give in their introduction to the book.

Pevear-Volokhonsky translation:
“The children were riding to Moscow on chairs and invited her to go with them”
And the others:
“The children were sitting on chairs playing at driving to Moscow”
“The children were playing at ‘going to Moscow’ in a carriage made of chairs”
“The children were perched on chairs playing at driving to Moscow.”
See what I mean?  Tolstoy wants us to get into the frame of mind of the children and therefore didn’t include anything about ‘playing’ or ‘pretending’.  If you include that language you make it clunky and less true to what Tolstoy was going for.  So that’s my recommendation on translation.  If you have the time to commit to it I think this will be a very rewarding book.  I’d love to hear from any of you who decide to pick it up.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Lord's Prayer

In an effort to better understand the Lord's Prayer I decided to re-write it in my own words.  Not because I could improve on the original, but in order to make the prayer more my own.  If you get a chance to read it I'd love to hear what you think.  I'd love it even more if you could make your own version and share it with me.

Dad (my better one) you are both different from us and better than us.  We ask that you continue to be different from us and better than us.  Bring to our world your way of doing things: your morality, your community, your politics, and your love.  Just as you live in loving, differentiated union (Father, Son, and Spirit) make all relationships on earth meet this standard.  Give us everything we really need, including the forgiveness that we often think we don't.  Give us this forgiveness after we have forgiven others.  Help us to keep from hurting ourselves and others. Keep us safe from what is harmful.  We ask this because we know you are the source of all that is just, powerful, and beautiful.  Amen.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

East or West?

“I have a riddle for you,” he said, as he was browsing the textbook aisles.

“What is brighter inner than it is outer?”

“The soul?” I responded. A little Platonic and not something I’d typically endorse, but he was first generation Asian and I thought it might be close to what he was looking for.

“Very close. Do you want me to tell you?”

“Let me think about it.” He was waiting for his girlfriend, so I knew he’d be around for a while.

After his 15 minutes of shopping I didn’t have any better answers. As I was ringing him up at the register he told me that the answer was “enlightenment”.

“So what makes you think enlightenment comes from within?”

“The world”, he said. “If you look around it’s always changing - never the same.  Like a river - you never step into the same one twice. Even my physical appearance might change - new hairstyle, new clothes - but the inner self stays the same. Enlightenment can’t come from change, otherwise you couldn’t keep it.”

Unfortunately there was another customer behind him, so I didn’t have a chance to say what I was thinking.

I didn’t mean enlightenment came from the world - I meant that it comes from God. Enlightenment (or whatever the Christian version of that is) comes from the God who exists apart from us. Our inner self isn’t static either. We have good and bad elements in us and if we let Him in God will change the inner self to be more like Him.

Genesis 1 says that all humans, male and female, were “Created in the Image of God.” The text specifically mentions male and female in this context and I think that’s an important thing to notice.  Men don’t bear the Image - neither do women. Both of us corporately bear the Image.

This may initially sound a little strange, but it is the best way to understand the passage. The passage is literally “‘Let us make humankind* in our image, according to our likeness...” (NRSV emphasis mine) God is referring to himself as plural - an interesting fact for the monotheistic Hebrew culture where this was recorded. I think it’s best understood as a literary device. God is described as plural to draw out the comparison to humanity’s plurality (male and female).This fits the author's intention to link humans and God as sharing the same image and likeness. (Sailhamer, Pentateuch as Narrative, Zondervan, pp. 95-96)

And in fact, the Christian understanding is that God himself exists in relationship. God is triune.  Three distinct persons who all exist as one God. It’s a confusing thing that I won’t get into here, other than to say that this ancient drawing does a pretty good job of conveying it.

                        (Image from Wikipedia)

The key point here is that Christians don’t follow a God who is an impersonal monad. His existence is a relational existence - just like ours is. Men and women wouldn't be complete without each other and the Father, Son, and Spirit likewise.

I wish I had been able to have a longer conversation about this. Even though I disagree with some central elements of the Buddhist approach there are still areas where this Westerner can learn from it. In many areas of our thinking the West hasn’t been entirely converted to Christ. For instance our tendency to try to fix the evil in others and ignore it in ourselves. This is where Buddhism (and Christ) has something to teach Westerners. They’re correct that it must happen from within. The consistent message of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount is to work on your own inner sin - don’t focus on the sins of others. The reason we are able to make progress in the inner life, however, is because of the (internal) Image of God planted in us, and the (external) work of Christ in the world.  Does change come from within or without? The answer is “yes”.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Liquor Privatization

Today is the first day of liquor privatization in Washington State. I decided to celebrate by purchasing a bottle of Jameson at Safeway.

One question people had about privatization was how it would effect prices.  It turns out that prices have gone down 20-30% (for now at least).

Before Privatization:     $29.95
Now:                                 $23.99

That's a 20% decrease.  I also checked some of the other brands.  The very low-end brands (like 80 proof Monarch vodka) had a 30% decrease.

So where did all that extra money go?  It actually didn't go to the State of Washington.  This initiative was written specifically to keep the State's revenue higher (revenue will probably go up, because of an increase in sales).

So where did the money go?  It could be that Safeway is using this as a loss-leader.  Losing money on these items because it brings people into their store.  More likely, however, is that Safeway is more efficient than the State of Washington.

There are many things that governments are good at, but running a retail store isn't one of them.  I'm glad we've found a more effective way to raise revenue for the state.  Now our state bureaucracy can stick to collecting taxes and enforcing the law instead of stocking shelves.

(edited to correct my data entry on the prices).

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

How Beer Saved the World

I came across the above documentary. I know this should be right up my alley, but I'm actually not very impressed. I guess I'd say it's fun, just not factual. Among the many ludicrous claims:
(1) Beer brought about the agricultural revolution
(2) Beer kept people healthy from bad drinking water in the Middle Ages

Regarding (1) the evidence given is that analysis of clay pots from the agricultural revolution shows that the contained beer. This is before they have such evidence of bread. According to them, this means that beer pre-dates bread. But why would you put bread in a clay pot? If you put bread anywhere other than the table you'd store it in a bag of some kind. Bags like that would rot and archaeologists therefore couldn't test them. Clay pots are for storing liquids. So of course they find beer in it. Bread could have been around a lot longer (and probably was). All you need to make bread is a flat rock near a fire. Beer requires quite a few more steps.

It's also important to note that hunter-gatherers normally wouldn't use pottery. They're almost exclusively nomadic and pottery is too heavy. So they could have had (and probably did) many different kinds of fermented beverages before the advent of the agricultural revolution. They just would have stored it in a bag made of animal skin or somesuch. And therefore we have no evidence of it in the archaeological record. But does anyone really think that hunter-gatherers never accidentally let their fruit rot? We were drinking alcohol long before we were living in cities.

Regarding (2) they say that Europeans in the Middle Ages drank beer instead of the filthy water from ponds and streams, and that this kept them alive. Because beer is boiled as part of the process it will naturally be free of bacteria. But here's one statistic they give as evidence: "by the 16th century people got through 15 liters of beer per year". 15 liters is 80 gallons. They try to make this sound like a lot, but if you do the math that's only 2 bottles of beer per day. Bottom line - they were still drinking that nasty pond water. Or they were getting their liquids from soup, which would have also been safe. But no one wants to watch a documentary on how "soup saved the world."

And isn't it obvious that many people did die from bad water in the Middle Ages? Real anthropologists, (Jared Diamond for instance) say that Europeans did drink the dirty water. And that's why they were more resistant to the diseases that killed off many of the inhabitants of the new world.

There were a few things that struck me as possibly true. It makes sense that the research funding that brought us air-conditioning and refrigeration came from the beer industry. This is because you need cold temperatures to brew a lager. They also said that Louis Pasteur was researching beer when he developed pasteurization and the germ theory of disease. This could also be true.

On a side note, the documentary was obviously funded by Miller-Coors. Their products are almost exclusively shown throughout - to the exclusion of nearly every other brand. It was created for purposes of advertising. It shouldn't be surprising that it's all fluff and no substance. This would be okay if they were honest about it - but they pass it off as real information and I'm not sure it qualifies.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Just bought a macbook

My laptop went tits-up (thanks Dad for teaching me that apropos phrase). I've decided that I need to switch to mac. Yes, I'm one of those people. Or at least I will be. So, is there a secret handshake or something? Joel, Justin, anyone?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Cure for Hiccups

I was reading Plato's "Symposium" and came across a cure for Hiccups. In the dialogue it comes from the mouth of Eryximachus, a physician. This is from the 1993 Dover Thrift edition translation.
...let me recommend you to hold your breath, and if this fails, then to gargle with a little water; and if the hiccough still continues, tickle your nose with something and sneeze; and if you sneeze once or twice, even the most violent hiccough is sure to go.
I think I'll give it a shot next time I have hiccups. If you have a chance to try it, let me know how it works for you.