Sunday, November 29, 2009

Elie Wiesel: Night

Elie Wiesel (1928-) is a Jewish holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate who was born and raised in Romania. During WW2 his family was deported to several different concentration camps, with Wiesel spending time at both Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

After the war, Wiesel wrote about his experiences as a young boy in the concentration camps and his coping with "survivor guilt"after the war. His most famous book was Night, which is a fictional account of a young Jewish boy who survives the holocaust. Part of a trilogy, the other two books being Dawn and Day, Night is considered one of the most significant pieces of holocaust literature (the other two being The Diary of Anne Frank and If This Is a Man).
In Night, Wiesel writes a roman a clef (new word for me!) about a boy named "Elie" which is similar to his own experiences in the Nazi death camps. He is a devout young Jew who cries when he thinks about the destruction of the "Temple" in Jerusalem (think 68 AD - 2000 years ago). His mother and sisters are sent to different concentration camps, but Elie remains with his father. Elie sees horrific things, such as babies being thrown into fiery ditches, prisoners killing each other over scraps of bread, and watching people murdered daily. It is not only the butchery of the Nazi's that disturbs him, but also the savagery and cruelty of his fellow prisoners.
Elie declares that "God is dead" if he allows such barbaric and inhumane acts to occur. It is unfathomable that God could allow such things to happen if he knew of them. It reminds me of reading The Book of Job, where Job tries to comprehend how God could let such horrible things happen to him. This Old Testament story would have been very familiar to a devote Jew.
In the end Elie survives, but his father does not.
Dawn and Day continue Elie's story, but they feel very distinct from Night. However, Weisel continues with Elie's survivor guilt which over-shadows all his character's thoughts and actions. To a reader, it feels like too much reading about Elie thinking-about-death all of the time.
In Dawn, Elie has moved to Palestine and is part of the Resistance against the British (circa 1947). The Resistance hopes to establish a free, Jewish state (Israel) and have resorted to terrorist tactics to achieve this. They ambush British convoys, kidnap and kill British soldiers and engage in other terrorist activity. Elie must kill a British officer and this causes him great consternation, since his knows what death is like. The most memorable line is when Elie is thinking about the concentration camps and his new role as executioner and he says, "Don't judge me, judge God".
Day is another reflection on the holocaust, this time Elie has been hit by a car in New York City. The doctor and nurses struggle to keep him alive but are puzzled by Elie's acceptance of death. In particular, the doctor who fights hard to save lives cannot understand why a young man would be so unafraid of death.
I enjoyed reading "Night" which I considered insightful, personal and a well-written narrative. I found "Dawn" and "Day" interesting, but they are a very different experience. I also found the dialogue in Dawn and Day to be really bad - real people would never talk like that!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Reading Plan: GBWW in the next nine years

For the most part, the books I write about are from the "Great Books of the Western World" (GBWW) collection, following their 10 year reading plan. If I read other books that I consider "classics" I also write about them, since GBWW does not cover all the great works of literature available. This is also considering that the collection was released 50 years ago.

I decided to map out my reading schedule for the next 10 years. It is a bit strange to be thinking I will still be reading these books ten years from now (when I am 45). More realistically I wonder if I will still be picking up these books in 6 months. In any case, it was good to map out my future reading since I think I have been reading too deeply.

The GBWW provides complete, unabridged versions of all their readings. However, they only ask the reader to read a small part (say 20 to 60 pages at a time). Since I don't want to miss anything, I have been reading the entire volumes, afraid that I won't be returning to these works. Looking ahead, I now see that in some cases this is true, while in others it is not.

For example, I read all of Aristotle's "Nicomachean Ethics", but I now see that I will get to read most of it, bit by bit, over the next 10 years. I am not sure if I like this fragmented reading schedule provided by GBWW; surely reading it all at one time would be easier. However, returning to a particular piece may help strengthen my comprehension and improve familiarity.

In future readings I will try to only read the assignments so that I follow the plan and increase my speed. If I know I will not be returning to a particular work, I will then finish the remainder.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

St. Augustine: The Confessions

Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) was one of the most important church fathers in the development of Christianity. He grew up in Algeria, near Carthage which was then part of the Roman Empire. At this point in history, the Roman Empire was in steady decline and Rome was sacked in 410 by the Visigoths. While Rome fell, Christianity was ascending and Augustine's writings, teachings and rhetoric provided a foundation for its development.

His two well-known books are the "The Confessions" and "The City of God". The former is an autobiography describing Augustine's sins before the Lord saved him, and the latter depicts Augustine's vision of a heavenly "New Jerusalem" which he contrasts with the base needs of earthly pleasures and politics.

Reading the "Confessions" is unique in that we have Augustine basically listing all his sins, transgressions, and lack of faith. Augustine was a follower of Manichaeism, a pagan religion which promulgated the idea of a cosmic struggle between equally powerful good (light) and evil (darkness). Augustine was also a follower of Plato, which led him to consider an ideal good, one without evil (which led Augustine to consider Christianity).

Augustine details his inability to control his passions, his many affairs, children out of wedlock, theft, drinking parties and his love of plays. He watches his friends turn toward Christianity, and Augustine's mother, Monica, desperately wants Augustine to find salvation through this new religion. Augustine travels from Carthage to Rome, then to Milan to meet the bishop Ambrose who will later be recognized as one of the four doctors of the church (which includes Augustine)

Augustine keeps slipping deeper into debauchery and iniquity even as he moves closer to God. He finds himself wanting to accept Jesus but he cannot divorce himself from his earthly pleasures. At one point he cries out to God (quite wryly) , "Give me chastity and continence, only not yet!" Who hasn't wanted to make this bargain?

Finally Augustine collapses in a sobbing heap at the age of 32 and accepts Jesus as his savior.

It seems that Augustine's confessions were probably designed as a selective autobiography to be a tool and a guide. Augustine does quote from the bible very frequently, especially from Psalms. However, it is intriguing to think that this is a man sharing his private conversation with God. Also of interest is Augustine's idea that everything is good, since it is made by God. There is no "evil", only degrees of goodness. Plays, drinking and sex are good, but not as good as obeying God, showing temperance and being faithful. Augustine's concept of degrees of goodness is interesting and provocative.