Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Jose Saramago, Baltasar and Blimunda (1982)

While I was reading Jose Saramago's Baltasar and Blimunda, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks' commentary published in The New York Times titled The Moral Animal caused me to reflect on what I was just reading and connect with some thoughts of writers whom I have read in the past, including Christopher Boehm's Moral Origins (see November 21, 2012 post). The question provoked by the juxtaposition of Rabbi Sacks' commentary and the 1982 novel by Nobelist Saramago, a humanist-atheist, is whether we are a less violent (implication: more altruistic) species now than we were just a few centuries ago. In a book that I have not yet read, The Better Angels of Our Nature,  Steven Pinker answers this question affirmatively. I have read that Pinker's conclusion is well documented, but day-to-day news stories can still make one skeptical about Pinker's conclusion. The numbers may be trending in the right direction, according to Pinker's data, but atrocities still remain.  Some of these atrocities are inspired by religious beliefs, as this year's shooting of a young woman, Malala Yousufzai, by Taliban in Pakistan demonstrates.  And while not likely inspired by religious beliefs, sexual predation on the young by Christian clergy reveals that religious leaders can be just as corrupt, oppressive, and immoral as anyone else.

Sacks' commentary:  "At first glance, religion is in decline. In Britain, the results of the 2011 national census have just been published. They show that a quarter of the population claims to have no religion, almost double the figure 10 years ago. And though the United States remains the most religious country in the West, 20 percent declare themselves without religious affiliation — double the number a generation ago.
 
"Looked at another way, though, the figures tell a different story. Since the 18th century, many Western intellectuals have predicted religion’s imminent demise. Yet after a series of withering attacks, most recently by the new atheists, including Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, still in Britain three in four people, and in America four in five, declare allegiance to a religious faith. That, in an age of science, is what is truly surprising.
 
"The irony is that many of the new atheists are followers of Charles Darwin. We are what we are, they say, because it has allowed us to survive and pass on our genes to the next generation. Our biological and cultural makeup constitutes our “adaptive fitness.” Yet religion is the greatest survivor of them all. Superpowers tend to last a century; the great faiths last millenniums. The question is why.
 
"Darwin himself suggested what is almost certainly the correct answer. He was puzzled by a phenomenon that seemed to contradict his most basic thesis, that natural selection should favor the ruthless. Altruists, who risk their lives for others, should therefore usually die before passing on their genes to the next generation. Yet all societies value altruism, and something similar can be found among social animals, from chimpanzees to dolphins to leafcutter ants.
 
"Neuroscientists have shown how this works. We have mirror neurons that lead us to feel pain when we see others suffering. We are hard-wired for empathy. We are moral animals."
 
So far, Sacks has compiled a neat summary of views covered in previous posts in this blog.  (See September 12, 2012, September 17, 2012, November 21, 2012, December 5, 2012, November 9, 2010, October 13, 2010, June 17, 2010, May 12, 2010November 4, 2009,  September 18, 2009 posts).  His commentary continues:

"The precise implications of Darwin’s answer are still being debated by his disciples — Harvard’s E. O. Wilson in one corner, Oxford’s Richard Dawkins in the other. To put it at its simplest, we hand on our genes as individuals but we survive as members of groups, and groups can exist only when individuals act not solely for their own advantage but for the sake of the group as a whole. Our unique advantage is that we form larger and more complex groups than any other life-form.
 
"A result is that we have two patterns of reaction in the brain, one focusing on potential danger to us as individuals, the other, located in the prefrontal cortex, taking a more considered view of the consequences of our actions for us and others. The first is immediate, instinctive and emotive. The second is reflective and rational. We are caught, in the psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s phrase, between thinking fast and slow.
 
"The fast track helps us survive, but it can also lead us to acts that are impulsive and destructive. The slow track leads us to more considered behavior, but it is often overridden in the heat of the moment. We are sinners and saints, egotists and altruists, exactly as the prophets and philosophers have long maintained.
 
"If this is so, we are in a position to understand why religion helped us survive in the past — and why we will need it in the future. It strengthens and speeds up the slow track. It reconfigures our neural pathways, turning altruism into instinct, through the rituals we perform, the texts we read and the prayers we pray. It remains the most powerful community builder the world has known. Religion binds individuals into groups through habits of altruism, creating relationships of trust strong enough to defeat destructive emotions. Far from refuting religion, the Neo-Darwinists have helped us understand why it matters."
 
Up until this last quoted paragraph, Sacks appears to have got it right.  Then he stumbles.  According to Sacks, "[Religion] reconfigures our neural pathways, turning altruism into instinct . . ."  I will concur with Rabbi Sacks that religion is a "powerful community builder" (see May 12, 2010 post)," but as the post discussing Christopher Boehm's Moral Origins documents (see November 21, 2012 post), the evolutionary and cultural pressures that favored altruism and community building among humans preceded religion by tens of thousands and perhaps a hundred thousand years.  Religion, by the time it became a human cultural institution, merely co-opted this pre-existing "instinct."  Sacks claims too much for religion: religion has not configured our neural pathways; the need to survive as a member of a cooperative group favored the development of the social instincts long before religion evolved.  Nor can religion claim that religion necessarily binds individuals into groups through habits of altruism.  Religion binds individuals together in other ways have nothing to do with altruism.  His commentary received a fair amount of constructive criticism, much of which is sincere in my view, as well as praise.  Religion has succeeded because cultural institutions promoting religion, religious institutions, religious rituals, and religious stories are generally successful at capturing the curious imagination of the child before the child has had an opportunity to think critically for itself.  Studies of early-childhood establish that humans seek explanations about the world around them from the very beginning, and religiously "locked-in" parents are significant influencers in guiding their children to the same religious institutions and their stories and values.

So what does any of this have to do with  Baltasar and Blimunda?  Sacks' commentary does not address human violence and does not assign a role to religion in reducing human violence, and my opening paragraph suggests that maybe it did.  But paeans to the virtues of religion and religious institutions and religious leaders in human life, such as Sacks' commentary, often overlook the dark side of religion, of which I cited only two examples above.  And while the early history of the Catholic Church was absorbed in a curious debate about whether a man could be both corporeal and incorporeal,  once the Church was joined at the hip with the State in Rome, religion became a partner in state-sponsored terrorism. It is difficult to describe the history of Judaism (just read the portions of the Bible following the Torah) and Islam much differently. 

In Baltasar and Blimunda, Saramago introduces the reader to the auto da fe  (in Portuguese, "act of faith").  This was the Inquisition's punishment of heretics and non-believers of the Catholic faith.  The most severe form of punishment was execution, including a public burning, some form of torture, or a banishment to an area outside the community after a public shaming.  If the recent story of young Malala Yousufzai's punishment at the hands of Taliban is not enough to convince us that religion is capable of motivating non-altruistic behavior, Saramago's detailing of an auto da fe reminds us, "Oh yes, we used to burn people to death because their religious beliefs differed from ours."  (Today, some merely stone people to death, a practice part of a long religious tradition).  But wait, you may say, did not Christopher Boehm suggests that the development of the Golden Rule and egalitarian sharing in hunter-gatherer societies during the Late Pleistocene, evolve because of just those same kinds of punishment (capital or otherwise) involving shaming?  True, but forcing religious beliefs on others is not (and cannot logically be) contemplated by the Golden Rule.  Correlatively, shaming other humans because they don't agree with your religious beliefs is just as divisive, capable of promoting violence and instability, as it is promoting social cohesion.  Here is Saramago's description of an auto da fe, including sarcastic observations of the rituals, both individual and public:

"Today, however, there is an air of general rejoicing, although that might not be the right expression, because the happiness stems from a much deeper source, perhaps from the soul itself, as the inhabitants of Lisbon emerge from their homes and pour into the city's streets and squares, crowds descend from the upper quarters of the city and gather in the Rossio to watch Jews and lapsed converts, heretics, and sorcerers being tortured, along with criminals who are less easily classified, such as those found guilty of sodomy, blasphemy, rape and prostitution, and various other misdeeds that warrant exile or the stake.  One hundred and four condemned men and women are to be put to death today, most of them from Brazil, a land rich in diamonds and vices, fifty-one men and fifty-three women in all.  Two of the women will be handed over naked to the civil authorities by the Inquisition after being found guilty of obdurate heresy, of having steadfastly refused to comply with the law, and of persistently upholding errors they accept as truths, although denounced in this time and place.  And since almost two years have passed since anyone was burned at the stake in Lisbon, the Rossio is crowded with spectators, a double celebration, for today is Sunday and there is to be an auto da fe, and we shall never know what the inhabitants of Lisbon enjoyed more, autos-da-fe or bullfighting, even though only bullfights have survived [in the 20th century].  Women cram the windows looking on the square, dressed in their Sunday best, their hair groomed int he German fashion as a compliment to the Queen, their faces and neck are rouged, and they pout their lips to make their mouths look dainty, so many different faces and expressions trained on the square below as each lady wonders if her make-up is all right, that beauty spot at the corner of her mouth, the powder concealing that pimple, while her eye observes the infatuated admirer below, while her confirmed or aspiring suitor paces up and down clutching a handkerchief and swirling his cape.  The heat is unbearable and the spectators refresh themselves with the customary glass of lemonade, cup of water, or slice of water-melon, for there is no reason why they should suffer from exhaustion just because the condemned are about to die.  And should they feel in need of something more substantial, there is a wide choice of nuts and seeds, cheeses and dates.  The King, with his inseparable Infantes and Infantas, will dine at the Inquisitor's Palace as soon as the auto da fe has ended, and once free of the wretched business, he will join the Chief Inquisitor for a sumptuous feast at tables laden with bowls of chicken broth, partridges, breasts of veal, pates and meat savouries flavoured with cinnamon and sugar, a stew in the Castilian manner, with all appropriate ingredients and saffron rice.  But the King is so abstinent that he refuses to drink any wine, and since the best lesson of all is a good example, everyone accepts it, the example that is, not the abstinence.

"Another example, which no doubt will be of greater profit to the soul since the body is so grossly over-fed, is to be given here today.  The procession has commenced, the Dominicans in the vanguard carrying the banner of St. Dominic, followed by the Inquisitors walking in a long file until the condemned appear, one hundred and four of them, as we have already stated, all carrying candles and with attendants at their sides, their prayers and mutterings rending the air, by the different hoods and sanbenitos you can tell who is to die and who will be sent into exile, although there is another sign, which never lies, namely that crucifix held on high with its back turned on the women who are to be burned at the stake and the gentle, suffering face of Christ turned toward those who will be spared, symbolic means of revealing to the condemned the fate that awaits them, should they have failed to understand the significance of the robes they are wearing, for these, too, are an unmistakable sign, the yellow sanbenito with the red cross of St. Andrew is worn by those whose crimes do not warrant death, the one with the flames pointing downward, known as the upturned fire, is worn by those who have confessed their sins and may therefore be spared, while the dismal grey cassock bearing the image of a sinner encircled by demons and flames has become synonymous with damnation, and is worn by the two women who are to be burned at the stake."

There is much more to Saramago's description of this public spectacle in paragraphs that follow.  Among the condemned is Sebastiana Maria de Jesus, "one quarter Jewess," a converso who has "visions and revelations that the Tribunal has dismissed as fraudulent."  She "hears heavenly voices, but the judges insist that they are the devil's work."  She has been accused of "intolerable presumption, of monstrous pride, and of offending God," and she has been found guilty of blasphemy, heresy, and evil pride.  She is to be punished by a public flogging and exiled to Angola for eight years. As she is paraded through the streets of Lisbon, she wonders, "Where is my daughter Blimunda?"  Then she briefly catches sight of Blimunda, and at her side is Padre Bartolomeu Lourenco.  Standing behind Blimunda is a stranger she does not know, a man with a missing left hand lost in a recent war that was replaced with a hook, who later introduces himself as Baltasar Mateus.  The sentences and punishments are announced.  "Sebastiana Maria de Jesus had already passed, along with all the others who were sentenced and the procession came full circle, they whipped those who had been sentenced to a public flogging, and burn the two women, one having been garroted first, after she declared that she wanted to die in the Catholic faith, while the other was roasted alive for refusing to recant even at the hour of death, in front of the bonfires men and women began to dance, the King withdrew, he saw, ate, and left, accompanied by the Infantes, and returned to the Palace in his coach drawn by six horses and escorted by the royal guard . . ."  On seeing her mother disappear, Blimunda cries, "Where are we, Who are we, and Padre Bartolomeu Lourenco replies, We are as nothing when compared with the designs of the Lord, if He knows who we are, then resign yourself, Blimunda, let us leave the terrain of God to God, let us not trespass his frontiers, and let us adore Him from this side of eternity, and let us make our terrain, the terrain of men, for once it has been made, God will surely want to visit us, and only then will be world be created."

The fictional story that emerges from this religious atrocity is the meeting of Baltasar and Blimunda and Lourenco:  for Baltasar and Blimunda, a story of love and devotion that is filled with humanity but virtually devoid of religious piety; for Lourenco, a story of scientific exploration that challenges religious belief and superstition.  It is the second decade of the 18th century.  Spinoza has been in the grave for nearly forty years, and Galileo has been dead for almost 80 years. (See December 17, 2012 post).  Bernard Mandeville is writing The Fable of the Bees (see January 30, 2010 post), and stock trading is emerging as a financial force for commerce (see November 16, 2011 post).  As he did in The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reiss (see June 28, 2011 post), Saramago weaves his imaginary characters Baltasar and Blimunda against the background of history and historical lives.  Padre Bartolomeu Lourenco is a historical person, and so is the King, Joao V of Portugal, and so is the construction of the Convent at Mafra, which consumes much of Saramago's tale.  The combined power of the clergy and the State committing substantial national economic resources for their own purposes is the background for this love story.  Padre Bartolomeu Lourenco also has his moment of doubt, as he cannot bring himself to substantiate the trinity and he is haunted by the auto da fe.  Lourenco's grand pursuit is the creation of a flying machine.  Toward the end of his life, he is pursued by the Inquisition.  And years later at the end of his life, Baltasar disappears and the book closes with Blimunda, back in Lisbon during an auto da fe, searching for Baltasar when she sees the body of a man burned at the stake whose left hand is missing.

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