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.

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