Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Jose Saramago, The Notebook (2010)

A recurrent theme of this blog, and it begins with the very first posts in August 2009, is that units of information are the most fundamental units of life. This is implied from Edwin Schrodinger's slender volume titled What Is Life?, which presages the work of Crick and Watson on the structure of DNA, whose work, in my view, proves the theme. These units of information may be electrical --- electrons, or even smaller units such as mesons, bosons or quarks --- and chemical --- atoms or compounds. Life depends upon the ability of these units of information to communicate with another --- to be transmissable, and to combine with other units of information to make something more robust, more complex, and copiable for the sake of preserving that information. But equally central to life is the storage of information --- information storage devices --- described in terms of cells and collections of cells that we tend to think of as devices from which information can be retrieved, processed, computed. The human mind --- represented by the brain, but connected to other neural and sensory systems in the body --- is the most phenomenal biological information storage device. And the term memory refers to this set of capabilities that humans have for storing, retrieving, processing, and computing information. In the previous two posts I have taken two books about American baseball history --- biography and memoir --- and catalogued some examples of how humans have engineered additional forms of information storage devices outside of our biological devices.

Saramago's The Notebook evokes memory in yet another form --- the diary, or in this case a digital blog that stored his written memories in one electronic format, that have now been transferred to analogue format in a book. Saramago evokes memory many times over the course of his year-long effort, from September 2008 through the end of August 2009, writing a little bit almost every day on whatever topic came to mind. Sometimes these memories reflect on places he visited while young; other memories capture conversations he had with artists who are now deceased. In his very first entry, Saramago wrote this about memory:

"In physical terms we inhabit space, but in emotional terms we are inhabited by memory. A memory composed of a space and a time, a memory inside which we live, like an island between two oceans --- one the past, the other the future. We can navigate the ocian of the recent past thanks to personal memory, which retains the recollection of the routes it traveled, but to navigate the distant past we have to use memories that time has accumulated, memories of a space that is continually changing, as fleeting as time itself."

The dual character of memory: physically we live inside the memory that is time and space; emotionally memory lives inside us. The memory that is time and space is comprised of the units of information, aggregated, colliding, transmitting, and communicating with each other that I described above. The memory that inhabits us is comprised of the units of information passing through and along the neural pathways of brain and body, the vascular system, the endocrine system, the digestive system, the skeletal-muscular system that causes us to act instinctively, deliberately, passively, and actively. As Antonio Damassio described, most of our consciousness is derived from feelings generated by electro-chemical communications within the body.

Albert Camus kept notebooks, but these notebooks contained sketches and paragraphs intended to find their way into future novels and books. These were notes to himself. Saramago writes notes for the public --- whoever is willing and patient enough to read and listen, and he uses his "blogging" experience to comment on current events and vent his own political views. This one-year record includes the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, and Saramago shares his hope that Obama will break the mold and escape tradition to become a leader the world has never known. He has nothing good to say about other recent world leaders including George W. Bush, Berlusconi, and Sarkozy. The 1998 Nobel Prize Winner is unabashedly a leftist, and although despite his declaration that he is a "communist," it is not clear that he regards himself in the same lineage as Karl Marx, Herbert Marcuse, Lenin, or Stalin. Justice seems to be a more important theme for Saramago than political party and bureaucracy.

Saramago is also an unabashed atheist. The author of The Gospel According to Jesus Christ writes of religion:

"What we do know is that religions not only fail to bring people closer together, but actually exist --- these religions --- in a state of mutual enmity, despite all the pseudoecumenical speeches which the rank opportunism of one lot or another deems profitable for occasional and generally fleeting tactical and strategic reasons. Things have been this way ever since the world has been the world, and there is no clear prospect that it might change to any degree. Apart, that is, from the obvious notion that the planet would be a far more peaceful place if we were all atheists. Of course, human nature being the way it is, there is no lack of other motives for every kind of disagreement, but at least we would be free of the infantile and ridiculous notion of believing that our god is the best of any number of others on offer, and that Heaven awaits us in a five-star hotel/ More even than this, I believe we would start reinventing philosophy."

While Saramago could be faulted for saying absolutely that "religions fail to bring people closer together" --- they do, after all create bonds among neighbors, communities and even nations among common believers, as Robert Wright describes in The Evolution of God (see May 12, 2010 post) --- Saramago is right after all: religions (plural) divide us and the state of "mutual enmity" that has been created by religion and religious believers has been a net negative for humanity over the course of history.

"Hence, whether you like it or not, we have God as a problem," he writes. "God as a rock in the middle of the road, God as a pretext for hatred, God as an agent of disunity. But no one dares mention this most prima facie evidence in any of the many analyses of the question, be they political, economic, sociological, psychological, or strategically utilitarian in nature. It is as if a kind of reverential fear, or a resignation to what is established as politically correct, has prevented the analyst from seeing what is present in the threads of the net, the labyrinthine weave from which there has been no escape --- that is to say, God. If I were to tell a Christian or a Muslim that the universe is made up of more than four hundred thousand million galaxies, and that each one of them contains more than four hundred thousand million stars, and that God, whether Allah or some other, could not have made this, and even better would have had no reason to make this, they would reply indignantly that for God, whether Allah or some other, nothing is impossible. Except apparently --- I would argue --- making peace between Islam and Christianity, by way of reconciling the most wretched of the animal species said to have been born from his will, the one made in his image, that is the human species."

Some of Saramago's strongest views are directed at the moral bankruptcy of militant Islam. "The families of these youths had been prevailed upon to hand their children over to Islamic militants who practiced the most extreme version of their faith, the jihad or holy war. Perhaps this was in order to someday seem them converted into martyrs of the Islamic Revolution, in other words, to find them dressed in one last outfit, that of the explosed-packed jacket of the suicide bomber setting out to detonate himself in the marketplace, night club, or parking lot --- anywhere the number of deaths would be maximized. I don't know whether these mothers and fathers were awarded financial compensation, or if they did this on the facile promise of their children's immediate entry into paradise to meet Allah.... I don't know anything. And I am now going to end here. Not that words fail, but that the subject is repugnant to me." But there is no bias here. Several entries announce Saramago's view that Israel has lost its moral compass as reflected in its national hatred toward Palestinians, and pedophilia among Roman Catholic priests does not escape his commentary.

Perhaps the remedy is to reveal a Third God? "The desire for peace may well exist out there, but there is no means to forge it. Christianity and Islam continue to behave like irreconcilably estranged brothers incapable of reaching the long-hope-for nonaggression pact that could somehow bring a degree of peace to the world. Ever since we invented God and Allah, with all the disastrous consequences we know of, perhaps the solution lay in creating a third god with sufficient powers to oblige the importunately wayward to set down their arms and leave humanity in peace. And then this third god could do us the favor of withdrawing from the scene, where the old tragedy continually unfolds: an inventor, man, is enslaved by his own creation, god. It is most likely, however, that there is no remedy for any of the above and that civilizations will continue to collide, one against the other."

While most of The Notebook consists largely of this type of commentary --- whether on religion, literature, music, art, politics --- there is one literary treat dated July 24 (2009) titled "Chapter for the 'Gospel'." It is not clear whether Saramago planned a sequel to The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, but here he offers up the gospel according to Mary Magdalene --- who informs: "To me, Jesus was not the son of God, and I, to him, was not Mary of Magdala, we were just that man and this woman, both trembling with love, with the world circling us like a vulture dribbling blood." And this little gem from Saramago's imagination leads me to conclude with a final excerpt from The Notebook, a line about his craft: "literature . . . that seems to have detached itself from reality in order better to reveal its invisible mysteries." That phrase sums up, in my view, some of the great novels of the 20th century: All The Names, The Cave, Blindness, The Stone Raft, and The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, just to name a few.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Bobby Thomson et al, The Giants Win the Pennant, The Giants Win the Pennant (1991)

The term "memoir" applies to this personal story just as it applies to Eric Kandel's In Search of Memory. While the French term "memoire" describes a text akin to a thesis; the term "memoir" has a personal or autobiographical component to it. It is not a full-blown biography or autobiography. As Gore Vidal explained, "A memoir is how one remembers one's own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked." It is more about what can be gleaned from a section of one's life than about the outcome of the life as a whole. In this case, the memoir offers us a self-interpretation of an event in a man's life and his role in the life of others, not just those who immediately surround him, but those in the community where he resides as well.

Every San Francisco Giant baseball fan has heard a recording of Russ Hodges' broadcast of Bobby Thomson's game winning home run off of Ralph Branca of the Brooklyn Dodgers, in the bottom of the ninth inning during the final game of a 3-game playoff to win the 1951 National League pennant. It was the end of an improbable series of events over the course of one baseball season, as documented in Thomson's memoir. And as Thomson's line drive crossed over the left field fence at the New York Polo Grounds, Hodges screamed, "The Giants Win The Pennant, The Giants Win The Pennant!" As a child, I had an audio recording of famous sporting broadcasts on a long-playing vinyl record (another information storage device - see previous post), which included the Hodges broadcast.

The term "memoir" is obviously related to "memory," both words having derived from the latin word "memoria." And given that memory was the subject of the previous post on the biography of Thomson's teammate, Willie Mays, it is worth noting that the perceptions that formed the memories of Bobby Thomson's memoir, are not always identical to the memory of the same events reported in the biography of Willie Mays. But that is at it should be. The books discussed at the very beginning of this blog attest to the problems of comparing information about the same event when one records that information in two different places. So it is not, and should not be surprising that Thomson and Mays and other observers may recall the same event differently. And the fans of the Giants remember Thompson's home run with a slightly different meaning than the fans of the Dodgers, whose team did not win the pennant.

The Giants Win the Pennant, The Giants Win the Pennant preserves the memories of the hero of this story. Bobby Thomson died a month ago, just before I started to read his book. He will not be sorting out his memories anymore. But because he deposited his memories of his life event to book form, and those memories are largely the same as or very similar to the memories deposited by others in book form, video, photographs, and other recorded means about the same event, one hundred years from now or even a thousand years from now (for anyone who wants to recall this event a thousand years from now) the story will be regarded as authentic in the minds of the listener. It is not a story that can be edited, redacted, or based solely on the spoken word transmitted over generations that is not supported by contemporaneous written documentation --- in which case it would be fiction.

James S. Hirsch, Willie Mays - The Life, The Legend (2010)

One of the most interesting attributes of the human mind is memory. We know that the brains of other animals have memory capabilities, but nothing of the magnitude of the human brain, and its capacity to store information. Eric Kandel's wonderful memoir, In Search of Memory, documents that we know much about the biological basis of human memory, and more to be learned. But there is an equally important story about the capability of humans to engineer memory outside of the mind --- information storage devices, if you will, that have extended the information storage capacity of the human mind. Language is certainly the critical enabling tool of this capability (see August 31, 2009 post), but whereas speech is a means of transmitting information, writing is the earliest means of storing the information, and tablets, paper, and books become functional information storage devices that extended human memory capacity beyond the capabilities of the human mind. And now electronic information storage devices such as the hard drive on the computer I am typing on, and a server connected to the Internet where this blog is stored somewhere in a "cloud," are extending our information storage capacity even more. One of the reasons I started writing this blog was because I could no longer recall precisely when I read a certain book, and I was reading so much on a diverse set of subjects I was not always able to recall satisfactorily much of what the book was about after a lengthy period of time had passed.

So what does memory and information storage devices have to do with this biography of a major league baseball player, who is probably the greatest all-around baseball player to this date? It is not the first biography written about Willie Mays, and it is not the first biography of Willie Mays that I have read. But, like any book, this book adds to our collective memory about a part of history --- certainly American athletic history, and American cultural history, but as is the case with many other baseball biographies --- such as Jane Leavy's biography of Sandy Koufax or David Maraniss' biography of Roberto Clemente or David Halberstam's October 1964 --- it adds to our collective memory about American racial history and identifies baseball as one of the cultural aspects of American life that clawed away at the racial divides in America. But, for me, this book was much more, because it also triggered memories in my mind --- of the times I attended many baseball games at Candlestick Park in San Francisco where Willie Mays played the game for the last 12 or so years of his career. I was at the 1961 All-Star game, which is memorialized in this book, when Stu Miller was blown off the pitcher's mound, and I was at Willie's final game (in a New York Mets uniform) at Candlestick Park when he grounded out in his final at bat, which is also memoralized in this book. I have a photograph, yet another information storage device, of that final at-bat. And I can recall where I was during the broadcast of the Giants-Dodgers game when Juan Marichal struck John Roseboro over the head --- memorialized in this book because Willie was credited with taking Roseboro, his opponent, to safety to protect from further injury. And I can recall listening to the radio and hearing the broadcast of Willie McCovey's line drive into the glove of Bobby Richardson to end the 7th game of the 1962 World Series, which is also memorialized in this biography, and much, much more.

As technology improves, our mechanical information storage devices have the capability of becoming more permanent, more durable. As the previous post about the Gospel of Judas demonstrates, ancient written texts that were not transcribed and retranscribed over centuries can easily be lost --- because the elements have destroyed them or they are hidden in places not easily found centuries later. Only through luck is this lost information retrieved. And through the act of retranscribing --- through the later acts of redactors and editors or through careless copying or mistranslation --- those texts that are "saved" still suffer from an information loss. In fact, when we read texts written long ago, the information on the page has likely lost some or all of its meaning, because we do not always appreciate the context in which a particular text was written or whether the author was trying to be literally accurate, facetious, fictitious, or ironic when he wrote the words on the page.

We have means of addressing these problems today. For example, we label information as "fiction" or "non-fiction;" we label information as "biographical" or "historical fiction;" and we label information as "science" or "science fiction." In works of non-fiction, there are standards in the publishing industry for documenting the facts as reported and even the basis of opinions stated. And in most parts of the world there is less political control over information today than ever before: there is a culture of literary criticism and scientific criticism and historical criticism that marginalizes factual and historical misinformation that fails to stand the test of time if it has no support. This is less true of works like The Bible, which is both fiction and non-fiction, and even the non-fiction portion we cannot be sure of because it was edited and redacted by people who, at the time, enjoyed political power and used and edited the text to further a particular political aim, and they exercised political power to suppress those who did not agree with the information in the official text. James Hirsch's biography of Willie Mays documents its sources and occasionally passes judgment on competing memories of this era in American baseball found in diverse sources, and he informs us when that judgment of competing facts is rendered. It will not require "faith" or "belief" to support its authenticity and refresh our memory.

Still, we must be wary of disinformation and the control of information by political powers. We are not yet at a stage in human history where every piece of newly stored information is authentic or certifiable.

Rodolphe Kasser et al eds., The Gospel of Judas (2006)

An English translation of and commentary on The Gospel of Judas, a second century gnostic narrative of that fateful week in Jerusalem around 30 C.E., when the Romans nailed Joshua of Nazareth (nee Yeshua, latinized Jesus) to a cross, which turns Christianity on its head. Although retrieved from the Egyptian desert in the 1970s, this gospel was only "discovered" in 2003.

The significance of this document is not whether it is historically true or not --- like the four gospels of the New Testament, it is not; the significance of this document confirms what we know from other sources that early Christianity was not monolithic and was fractured in its understanding of what to make of Joshua of Nazareth, a man who was not personally known to those who later made him out to be deity. The fractured nature of early Christianity is documented in Richard Rubenstein's excellent book, When Jesus Became God, which describes the theological battle between two priests of Alexandria, Egypt and their respective followers about the actual nature of this man. The special twist here, in the gnostic tradition, is that Joshua really was divine --- a divine offspring of a first tier deity among many dieties, and Judas conspired with him to release him from his human encasement by arranging his death at the hands of the Romans.

It is easy to understand why the 3rd century Catholic powers-that-be never seriously considered this gospel for inclusion in the New Testament: resurrection theology is ruled out in this gospel, and it smacks of polytheism in the finest Greek tradition.

I have never seriously believed that Judas was a traitor to his friend Joshua. That part of the New Testament gospels' story makes no sense, and is easily explained as the creative effort of the early Catholic Church to distinguish itself from Judaism by demonizing Jews and laying the foundation for centuries of anti-semitism. If the early Church had not distinguished itself from Judaism, its efforts at proselytizing and seeking new members among the gentiles might have failed. Judas the traitor was nothing more than a public relations and marketing program. There are even passages in the New Testament that support the view that Judas and Joshua were collaborators in Joshua's grand plan to end his life. The Gospel of Judas makes Judas out to be more of a Dr. Kevorkian, faithfully aiding and abetting Joshua in an assisted suicide, with the only difference being that Joshua does not "die" like an ordinary human.

The Gospel of Judas and the other Christian gospels --- in and out of the New Testament --- share a neo-Platonist/dualist view of the world. There are non-corporeal forms and souls and spirits that comprise one reality, and there are physical manifestations of those forms that make up a separate reality. They coexist. I have commented on other problems with dualism in prior posts (see September 27, 2009 and August 17, 2009 posts). Theology and religion are anchored in a dualist world, and when dualism is rejected, theology and religion must logically be abandoned. Descartes and Leibniz could not abandon a dualist view of the world, because it meant severing ties with church-dominated theistic world of 17th century and sacrificing their material if not pecuniary self-interests. Only Spinoza was bold enough and independent enough to firmly reject dualism, and this led him to espouse a type of panetheism, which to the theist, is nothing more than atheism.

Dualism is a problem of the human mind. When we understand better how the mind works to create imaginary stories about spirits that become part of a collective memory and the evolutionary imperative for doing so, we will finally come to understand what theology and religion really is --- and it will not be the theology and religion that theists have experienced for centuries and claim to understand. And it may well be that there is or will be great resistance to even wanting to know more about how the human mind works in order to avoid confronting a new paradigm of religion.