Moses and Monotheism by Sigmund Freud, Our Divided Political Heart by E.J. Dionne and The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

Sigmund Freud: Walk Like an Egyptian


Randall Mawer


Moses and Monotheism (trans. Katherine Jones) (1939)


“It’s still the same old story, a fight for love and glory, a case of do or die.” And we will keep telling it, however much time goes by.

Prophecy warns a king that his newborn son will grow up to kill and supplant him; the king orders pre-emptive murder, but the hit-men take mercy on the baby, who is adopted by neighboring rulers or peasants or wolves. Son grows up ignorant of his origins but driven by strange instincts toward heroic adventures, including (but not confined to) fulfillment of the patricidal prophecy and the salvation of his true tribe, nation, or race. Thus, with variations: Gilgamesh, Oedipus, Romulus, Cyrus … and Jesus.


And Moses? Well, yes and no, says the first and best of psychoanalysts in Moses and Monotheism, an eminently readable and provocative foray into religious history.


If the paradigmatic hero myth is the necessary subtext of Moses’ story, why, wonders Freud, was its hero born a commoner (indeed, a member of a despised minority) and reared as royalty in the Egyptian court? Well, the good doctor speculates, he wasn’t! Moses was not a Jew but an Egyptian, a well-born acolyte of Pharoah Amenhotep IV (later Ikhnaton), who established (quite briefly) the strictly monotheistic worship of an all-powerful, un-image-able creator-God, eliminated magical rituals (including idol worship and blood sacrifice), denied any and all lives-after-death, and declared “Maat”--truth, order, and justice—ie., ethics—the only virtue worthy the name.


The Egyptian mainstream (no, not the Nile) would have none of this. Death-worshiping, wildly polytheistic and materialistic, the old order quickly ousted Amenhotep, leaving young Moses adrift not in the bulrushes but in a slave ghetto--he may have been a sort of overseer--among impoverished aliens, a Jewish tribe in need of a liberator. Always quick to act, Moses seized the staff and declared this ragtag crowd his--and God’s--chosen people, and the rest is … well … if not history then certainly rousing epic. The hero’s erstwhile patron would not have approved of the supernatural plagues and snakes and frogs and parted waters, but a messiah has to go with what he’s got, and go (see Exodus) Moses did, meantime putting into practice Amenhotep’s various creeds.


What you won’t see in The Ten Commandments are the next two crucial episodes. First, the fleeing Jews, fed up with hardships and divine injunctions and, perhaps, their leader’s Egyptian airs and broken Hebrew, murdered Moses. Then, a few generations later, they merged—submerged more like—his memory in the identity of a second Moses, a Midianite priest who brought down from Sinai laws written by a local volcano deity interested more in blind obedience than in self-controlled Maat. (The locals roundabout were also Jews; their greater numbers handily absorbed the wanderers.)


But tradition, particularly oral tradition, dies hard. And here Freud’s specialized experience rises up to explain how repressed memories of the violence done to Moses and to his faith and practice spawned a gigantic group neurosis which could find relief only in remembering and acknowledging what they were trying to forget, beliefs and customs of entirely Egyptian origin, thus: one God and one only, source of all things, with mankind the crown of His creation; heaven and hell? childish delusions; circumcision? a useful public-health measure; magic? get real!


What was left? Only all that is best in Judaism (and, to a lesser degree, in subsequent Christianity and Islam): Maat, ethics, set at risk by fussy legalisms but always there, ready to be revived over and over by the great Hebrew kings and prophets yet unborn. Confirmed atheist but ever the proud Jew, Freud would here add his name to that honor roll.


The author of Moses and Monotheism was a true polymath. Still, lacking more documents, more archeology, (especially) more linguistics, the theories here presented will not wash as scientific “history.” No almost-unaided thesis could or can. As philosophy, though, as a glimpse into the best that has been known and thought, Freud’s words ring with a truth that may be higher than any merely historical “fact.”


So, there he sat, aging and ill, first in Vienna, then in London, hearing the thunder, not so distant in place or time, raised by another man-who-would-be-God. Against this storm and its rising tide, Freud offered truth, order, and justice--slim reeds to be sure, but still straight and strong after three and a third thousands of years. The fundamental things apply.



Heart Versus Mind


Casey Dorman


E.J. Dionne: Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (2012)


Jonathan Haidt: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012) 


Are conservative (Republican)  Americans hard-hearted, selfish, flag-wavers who have misread both history and the message of our country’s founding fathers?  Or are they morally balanced citizens who, in their valuing of sanctity, loyalty, and authority are more like the majority of the world’s population than the narrowly focused liberals who simply want to use the power of government to ensure that no one in society is deprived of their due?


E.J. Dionne, liberal columnist and author of Our Divided Political Heart agrees with the first characterization of conservatives while Jonathan Haidt, social/cognitive psychologist and author of The Righteous Mind, agrees with the second.


According to Dionne, the division that is splitting our country and paralyzing our government is one that is based upon alternative readings of American history and a disagreement between those who believe that the core of American values lies in individualism versus those who believe that it lies in what he calls communitarianism. He faults conservative Republicans and particularly the Tea Party for valuing only individualism and demonizing communitarianism. The left, he argues, has a more balanced viewpoint, recognizing the role of both traditions in the development of the character of our country.


Dionne makes an impassioned and well-reasoned argument, based upon his own analysis of the current political scene and his own reading of history. He buttresses his arguments with quotations and citations from the works of learned historians.


Dionne’s analysis is fascinating, particularly because he emphasizes that history, as written by historians, is not a set of static “facts” but a reflection of the cultural and personal biases of the historians who write it. One can find a history to fit almost any point of view, depending upon the era and the historian from which one decides to draw. As an example, Dionne cites the characterization, by early twentieth century historians, of the Radical Republicans of the post-civil war Reconstruction era as Carpetbaggers and Scalawags who bamboozled the former slaves into land ownership and voting privileges, as an example of biased and racist history. His analysis is eye-opening to someone of my age, who read such characterizations in his school history books as a child. Modern textbooks point out that such historical characterizations are now regarded as part of a then bigoted white effort to undermine the value of Negro suffrage and Black American accomplishments such as holding political office during Reconstruction.


Dionne argues that the conservatives, especially those of the Tea Party persuasion,  have offered a biased reading of American history, particularly the ideas attributed to the Founding Fathers in their writing of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. This false history, along with sanctification of the Founding Fathers so that what is deemed good for America in the present can only be what the Founders had in mind in the past, has distorted the debate about the direction our country should be taking.


The author of The Righteous Mind would say that both Dionne and the Tea Party have put together arguments to support positions that are based more on gut level attitudes than reasoned decisions. For Dionne, caring for the dispossessed and insuring that resources are distributed equally throughout society are intuitively moral positions. He sees government’s role as assisting as best it can in making sure that these things take place. For the Tea Party, making sure everyone contributes his or her fair share before reaping any of the rewards of our society, protecting individuals’ rights to be free of government interference, affirming loyalty to the nation and protecting the sanctity of life and marriage are all intuitively moral positions. Justification of such positions using historical precedents is an afterthought and a debating technique, no matter which side uses it.


Haidt  builds his assertions on research conducted by both himself and other psychologists, anthropologists and sociologists. He has two points: first, we make decisions largely on the basis of intuition, not logic and we use our reasoning skills to justify those decisions, not to arrive at them. Second, the moral framework from which most well-educated Western Europeans and  particularly educated upper middle class liberal Americans make their judgments is WEIRD, compared to that of the rest of the world. WEIRD is an acronym that stands for Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic.  


According to Haidt, People who are WEIRD, “see a world full of separate objects, rather than relationships.” Westerners see people as individuals, rather than as components of a context of relationships. Easterners (and perhaps poor and/or poorly educated Westerners) see the world holistically as an overall context with an emphasis upon the relationships among the parts.


Haidt has fastened upon what social anthropologists call an individualistic point of view versus a collectivistic point of view. The emphasis upon individualism is associated with moral principles that emphasize autonomy and the rights of individuals. The concentration on autonomy as the basis for morality in Western culture, according to Haidt, leads to a narrow focus on just three moral dimensions: liberty, harm and fairness. People should be free to do whatever they want so long long as it does not harm anyone else and if everyone has the same opportunity to do the same thing.


But Haidt says that the narrow focus on autonomy as the basis for morality among WEIRD people leaves out other major themes of morality. He proposes six moral dimensions, only the first three of  which are dominant among WEIRD cultures.


The first of these moral dimensions is Care/Harm: that which prompts us to provide assistance to others in need and to insist that our personal liberty stops at the point that it harms others. This is a prominent dimension in the minds of liberals. It encompasses what Dionne calls the “communitarian” side of our national traditions.


The Fairness/Cheating dimension is that dimension which prompts us to reciprocate when others cooperate with us and to become angry when others try to take advantage of us. An interesting finding is that liberals tend to see fairness in terms of each person getting as much as everyone else while conservatives see this dimension in terms of getting back in proportion to what you put in. Liberals are more sensitive to who gets “left out” of access to resources while conservatives are more sensitive to who is getting a “free ride” by taking out without putting in. As Dionne points out, these are the sentiments of the Occupy Wallstreet agitators and the Tea Party, respectively.


The third dimension is  Liberty/Oppression, a moral value that was identified late in Haidt’s research program. Haidt found that both liberals and conservatives are highly sensitive to violations of their freedom and supposed oppression, although the two groups identify different sources of these violations. Liberals are more likely to identify anyone who takes advantage of the powerless as abusing liberty. They identify with victims of despotic governments, with the poor, with women and children and with ethnic and religious minorities everywhere and generally see those who hold power, either through government, the military or wealth, as the oppressors. Conservatives are more likely to be concerned with usurpation of power by a growing federal government, by an over-regulating bureaucracy and by supranational groups such as the U.N., which, in their minds, threatens the sovereignty of our country.


What is most interesting is the remaining dimensions that are not usually valued by the WIERD culture. One of these is the Loyalty/Betrayal dimension, which is particularly high in  American conservatives, who often parade their loyalty to the country in bumper stickers, flags and praise. Loyalty/Betrayal is a tribal mindset and may be attached to one’s nation, school, sports team, race, religion, community or even language group (note the recent victory of the French-speaking party in Quebec, for instance or the efforts to ban bilingual education in the U.S.).


The Authority/Subversion dimension is one that many Americans, especially liberal Americans, do not associate with morality but is an essential part of the moral fabric of many cultures. The Chinese culture in its adoption of Confucian tenets is one obvious example of this, but many cultures emphasize respect for authority, in the form of respect for older persons, officials, royalty, males, teachers, etc. Most of us have encountered at least one situation in  which, not knowing the traditions of another culture or subculture, we inadvertently failed to show respect for one of its members who occupied a position of authority (the oldest brother or grandparent of a friend, for instance) and were taken aback by the horror engendered by our “insult” to that person.


The Sanctity/Degradation dimension is the mindset that provokes disgust in people when they encounter objects that are soiled, either literally or figuratively. Its opposite is reverence for and cleanliness directed toward objects we value. When I was a child and a member of the Boy Scouts, I was taught that the American flag could never touch the ground and that if it did, it must be destroyed. Different cultures attach their feelings of sanctity and disgust to different things. Riots have occurred in countries as far away as Aghanistan when an American pastor recommended burning copies of the Koran. The arguments in this country over abortion and gay marriage are often phrased by conservatives in terms of the sanctity of life and the sanctity of marriage .


Haidt took five of these dimensions of morality (all but libery/oppression), which he called Moral Foundations Theory, and measured how relevant to their lives self-identified liberals versus conservatives found each dimension. In several replications, using over 130,000 participants, the findings were similar: liberals valued care and fairness far more than they cared about the other three dimensions; conservatives valued all five dimensions more or less equally. Yes, liberals were somewhat higher on both care and fairness than conservatives, but not much. Liberals, on the other hand, were well below conservatives on loyalty, authority and sanctity as values to which they subscribed.


Haidt argues that all six of the moral dimensions he has identified are built into human beings in the form of evolutionarily tuned ways to think about the world. Current cultures may bring out some of these dimensions more than others, but all of them are lurking inside each of us, waiting to be released. The original situations that provoked such ways of thinking have mostly faded with our emergence from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, but new situations now serve to bring out the same emotional reactions, which, in turn, form the basis for our decisions. Our rationales for these decisions of course don’t cite these built-in propensities as the reason we made them, but instead we manufacture reasons out of current events, even if we are only dimly aware of what it is about these events that actually provoked our decision.



Haidt is not political, although the last chapters of his book, which deal with religion and political programs are opinionated. His book is largely dispassionate, although no less readable than Dionne’s, but he is analyzing how people think, not their arguments. The revelations about how seldom humans make decisions based upon reason and how logic and reason are used much more in justifying  beliefs than in arriving at them reflect some of the major findings of modern cognitive psychology. His work on the foundations of morality, while speculative in terms of the evolutionary roots of moral thinking, represents the conclusions from years of empirical research. I found his findings eye-opening, particularly when I learned that people from cultures other than mine regarded their views on what is sacred or respectful as universal truths, rather than as the culturally determined mores that I saw them to be. I have to assume that, in a similar fashion, members of those cultures would view some of the moral values I assume to be universally true as simply representative of my unique cultural values.


Haidt’s idealistic analysis of conservative character in America fails to capture the Tea Party brand of conservatism, which, as Dionne has effectively argued, is narrowly focused upon liberty with a message of reducing government and taxes and allowing capitalism to have free rein. But Dionne is mistaken in identifying the lack of caring (or to use his word, communitarianism) with conservative ideology as a whole. He rightly tries to show that a careful analysis of historical conservative thinking in America reveals a strong communitarian strain. But what Dionne and other liberals fail to understand is that the liberal agenda often ignores moral dimensions that are important to those who are members of the population but don’t share the WEIRD mentality (i.e. are less educated, less wealthy and less liberal). These people are as eager to wave a flag, to believe in God and the sanctity of time-honored religious norms, to support our troops and to discourage society’s “free riders” as they are to care for the poor and powerless. Such people are not simply or even primarily selfish chauvinists who are motivated by self-interest and blind patriotism.


During convention month, it was possible to observe both political parties address their respective bases in an effort to drum up enthusiasm over the issues that are dear to the hearts of each. True to Haidt’s analysis, the Republicans focused upon sanctity (of life and marriage and with an emphasis upon religiosity), liberty (to succeed without being fettered by government regulations or taxes), fairness (to gain from the system what you put in), loyalty (in terms of a strong military defense and support for our allies) but they also focused upon caring and not leaving out the poor or minorities, at least in their rhetoric. The Democrats were more narrowly focused on caring (health care and a good education for everyone), fairness (equal pay for women, greater opportunities for the middle class and not just the wealthy), and liberty (freedom to marry whomever one wants). The Democrats accused the Republicans of being in the service of the rich at the expense of the rest of society (liberty/oppression and fairness/cheating dimensions) while the Republicans accused the Democrats of taking away freedom by putting more power and authority in the hands of the federal government (liberty/oppression) and failing to acknowledge the contributions of successful businessmen (fairness/cheating) and eroding the character of America by failing to make marriage and life sacred (sanctity/degradation).


Haidt’s analysis accurately captures the philosophical differences between mainstream liberals/Democrats and conservatives/ Republicans in America,  while Dionne’s analysis accurately captures the difference between progressive liberals  and Tea Party republicans, although from the perspective of Haidt’s research the basis of the latter two groups’ differences are founded upon moral intuitions, not the historical arguments that Dionne addresses.


We live in a multicultural world. If Haidt is correct, and his assertions in this regard are based upon research data, then the WEIRD moral framework, which characterizes most liberals, myself included, is not the dominant framework used by the majority of the world’s population nor even of a significant proportion of Americans. I recently read that the Muslim Brotherhood, whose candidate won the presidential election in Egypt, has begun holding cultural gatherings all across its country, during which it reinforces the role of women as subservient to their husbands, as not suited for public office, and as less emotionally stable than men. Such teachings are apparently accepted by many Egyptians, including women, who have grown up with such role descriptions as part of their culture and religion. Similar attitudes have been part of Western, Christian cultures in the past and continue to be an accepted belief among some American Christian sects. WEIRD people such as myself see the West as having “moved past” such “outmoded beliefs” about women and their roles in society. In fact, we are appalled when  we read about cultures that embrace such ideas. But similar attitudes toward women can be found in a number of societies in India, Africa, and Asia, whose religions may range from Hinduism to  Islam to Buddhism.


From the point of view of the moral dimensions of liberty, caring and fairness, the characterization of women’s roles by much of the rest of the world is an instance of oppression. From the point of view of other cultures, such attitudes are examples of respect for authority (of the Koran’s or Bible’s  or Confucious’  teachings, and of the traditional order within their societies), sanctity (of sexual differences and respect for marriage). How do we, as WEIRD moralists accept these other viewpoints?


From my point of view, any characterization of women in a subservient or second-class role leaves a society open to implicitly sanctioning the abuse of women and girls. While I regard such a point of view as based upon history and fact, what I learned from Haidt’s book is that I am probably looking at this issue through a narrow moral lens and I am collecting my history and facts, not in an unbiased search for truth, but as a way to buttress my own intuitive conclusions. That doesn’t mean that I am wrong, but it should raise my awareness of the vulnerability of my opinions to my own cultural biases.


Haidt’s book isn’t written to change anyone’s mind, but rather to raise an issue about which most of us are blind. Our own moral framework is limited and what others feel righteous about may be very different from what we feel righteous about. This is true whether we are liberals or conservatives (although Haidt presents evidence that conservatives understand liberals’ points of view better than the reverse). To me that presents a dilemma which pits my urge to respect the beliefs of other cultures against my overriding judgments about the value of cultural practices in terms of liberty, caring and fairness. If persons such as I can at least maintain the view that other moral dimensions such as authority, loyalty and sanctity can be valuable, not just oppressive to societies, then his book is useful and will generate productive and searching discussions among those who read it.


Dionne’s book, unlike Haidt’s, is filled with polemic rather than facts gleaned from research. Nevertheless, a reading of Dionne’s book gives one a better perspective on the relative nature of history as written by historians and, in fact, whetted my own appetite enough to prompt me to re-read not only the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, but also the Federalist Papers. But his arguments are blatantly partisan and are hardly likely to sway any conservatives, especially those who belong to the Tea Party. I suspect that his readers will be confined to those who already agree with him. At any rate, such readers will be both entertained and enlightened and probably thoroughly pleased by his analysis.


Book Reviews

Don DeLillo:  Only Connect

Noel Mawer


Ratner’s Star (1976)

Underworld (1997)

The Angel Esmeralda and Other Stories (2011)


Does anything make sense?  Those who can fall back on religious explanations—“everything happens for a purpose”--are fortunate.  For more than forty years Don DeLillo has been trying in his fiction to puzzle this out.  Does each individual’s perception create her world, is the universe governed by consistent laws, is humanity evolving or devolving?  Those are really big questions, and DeLillo has written some really big novels addressing them.


DeLillo’s range is spectacular, from the small focus (The Body Artist, Cosmopolis) through the historical (Libra, Mao II) to the vast and troubling (Ratner’s Star, Underworld).  The last two, perhaps his most ambitious, address all of the big questions and manage to progress from the verbal excess and chaos of Ratner’s Star to the control and coherence of Underworld.  In the process DeLillo’s world view seems to become more accessible, perhaps suggesting that maybe there is some meaning, or at least some pattern, in our world.


DeLillo has always been a genre-buster, and his most recent publication,  The Angel Esmeralda and Other Stories, illustrates this tendency.  The stories are so various it’s hard to believe that one person wrote them all.  Except for the one thing they and all of DeLillo’s fiction possess:  that nagging, ominous, often oppressive sense that something is THERE--out there, hanging over us, just beyond our apprehension.  One is reminded of Pinter and Beckett, who leave only questions, but no answers.  From the vastness of space to the destructiveness of earthquakes to the incomprehensibility of our urban jungle, there seems about to be some malevolent force--the Nature of naturalist fiction, of Dreiser and Hardy--which holds our miserable fates over us until, in Hardy’s words, “Crass Causality” and “dicing Time” catch us, dragging us down into the bottomless pit that awaits all creation.


In the early Ratner’s Star, recognizable as science fiction, a massive, super-tech cycloid (dome)--one of DeLillo’s favorite themes is the grasp our technology exerts on us--apparently located in the Australian outback, houses an international brigade of scientists attempting to decode a signal which has reached earth from the newly discovered and eponymous star.  The third-person omniscient narrative is chiefly confined to the consciousness of one Billy Twillig, a fourteen-year-old who has just won the Nobel Prize for mathematics.


The funhouse/madhouse journey Billy, who’s supposed to be the last hope of decoding the “message,” embarks upon is occasionally punctuated by scenes from his actual life in a working-class family in the Bronx.  (N.B. DeLillo grew up in a similar environment and uses the same background for several characters in Underworld, twenty-six years later.)  Of note is the fact that Billy’s father spends his days underground, working in the subway, an environment which Billy experiences as almost homey--another recurrent element in later fiction.


DeLillo indulges himself in verbal highjinks for several hundred pages before significant events transpire.  Ratner’s Star, it seems, is not the center of a solar system but a double star, and, since there is no orbiting planet, it cannot be the source of any sort of “message,” or at least not the originator of such a message, but may be a phenomenon that reflects a message back to earth from earth.  Amidst an entertaining parade of eccentric types, some of DeLillo’s persistent themes emerge.

Always in search of pattern, DeLillo’s characters see or imagine structures in their universe.  The locus of action moves from the cycloid to its mirror image, an inverted underground dome where a small band of scientists descends deeper into earth as Billy produces an interpretation of the message.  This journey underground is complemented by a trip engaged in by an archaeologist who has discovered that below its most primitive level, that of cave art and stone tools, civilization begins again, revealing itself as  more complex as the excavation deepens.  Apparently human society has been engaged in a hitherto unsuspected  cycle of rise and fall and rise again.


In the meantime, the message’s code is broken:  an unanticipated total solar eclipse is at hand and with it the collapse of cities and nations.  The novel concludes with Billy and a colleague regressing to the most primitive level of humanity while digging ever deeper into the earth.


One critic puts DeLillo with such postmodernists as Barth and Pynchon and Gaddis, purveyors of the “systems” novel.  Systems Theory, like gestalt psychology, insists that nothing makes sense unless it is viewed in its larger context.  Here, with DeLillo, the context is the world, the underworld, and the heavens--as well as their interpretations by mathematicians and scientists, mad and otherwise.  This  makes sense to me, but only because DeLillo’s 1997 Underworld offers clarification.  The later novel develops the themes of Ratner’s Star but perceived in the context of a more recognizable world.  Finally, the connections emerge as a coherent pattern.


Underworld preserves the verbal and narrative pyrotechnology of Ratner’s Star, but no longer in the picaresque mode.  It is as complex as the earlier novel, but its many strands of plot and character are now woven into a web of causality and coherence that Ratner lacks.  The main character once again  is a man who grew up in a working-class family in the Bronx and is now a sort of scientist--a waste-management engineer whose company attempts to solve the increasing problem of human garbage (the levels of which will no doubt engage future archaeologists) as it grows in toxicity and radioactivity.


The pattern begins to emerge on page one of Underworld with the recounting of a historic (1950’s) baseball game in which a young boy retrieves the homerun ball which saves the game.  Several celebrities are in attendance, including J. Edgar Hoover, who will reappear in a much later scene in another strand of the plot.  Like Hoover, the baseball resurfaces as a narrative motif, connecting disparate characters (who are incidentally but compellingly portrayed speaking convincing ethnic and regional accents), including Lenny Bruce and Sergei Eisenstein, whose words (or, with the latter, “lost film“) are fabricated realistically.


The apparently imaginary characters, many from that same Bronx neighborhood of DeLillo’s youth, are mostly depicted in their relationship with garbage.  One woman is transforming a desert graveyard of WW II airplanes into a gigantic work of art, which DeLillo parallels with that monument of salvaged trash, Los Angeles’ Watts Towers.  The two brothers who come close to the role of protagonists are both involved in the creation or disposal of waste (one is a nuclear scientist).  Major events, real and imagined, of the second half of the Twentieth Century are woven into a massive spectacle, enacted mostly on an earthly stage resting on a honeycomb of garbage.  There is no celestial phenomenon or archaeological discovery.  DeLillo doesn’t aspire to the quixotic quest of our actual scientific community, who search for a “theory of everything,” be it particles, waves, or strings, a construct that will show us the meaning of all the connections and parallels and chains of cause and effect.


“Creator and Destroyer” Shelley calls the West Wind.  So DeLillo depicts our own species, whose creations are becoming the garbage that may well overwhelm our planet.  He  really can’t be labeled a determinist with Thomas Hardy, but rather, with Hardy’s Victorian predecessor, Matthew Arnold, as one who strove to “see life steadily and see it whole.”                                                         



Noel Mawer has a Ph.D. in English from Bryn Mawr College and is the author of A Critical Study of the Fiction of Patricia Highsmith: From the Psychological to the Political (Studies in American Literature V. 65 (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press). She has previously been a book reviewer for Utopian Studies and is the Book Review Editor for Lost Coast Review






Book Reviews

Two (or Three) Views of Time


By Noel Mawer


Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman

Pantheon, 1993


The Body Artist by Dom DeLillo

Scribner, 2001


I can no more think like a physicist that I can walk like an Egyptian. And I fear that many a physicist might have a problem seeing Shakespeare and Milton and Shelley the way an English professor (such as I) or, more to the point, a literary artist would. I have been testing this hypothesis by reading a novel by a physicist, Einstein’s Dreams, by Alan Lightman (1993) and a novel by a novelist, The Body Artist, by Dom DeLillo (2001).

The film critic Pauline Kael once asserted, speaking of Last Year at Marienbad, that “time” cannot be the subject of art. But I don’t recall if she also rejected the artistic rendering of the subjectivity of time that we all experience, for this is what DeLillo does in his novel, which is primarily about the effects of loss and isolation on a recently widowed woman: “There has to be an imaginary point, a nonplace where language intersects with our perceptions of time and space…. But what did she know? Nothing. That was the rule of time. It is the thing you know nothing about.” And, “How much myth do we build into our experience of time?”


Yet “[T]ime is the only narrative that matters. It stretches events and makes it possible for us to suffer and come out of it.” In other words, time is the element in which we live and move and have our being, and its evident expansions, contractions, aberrations of all sorts are simply the product of the relative significance of events in our lives. DeLillo, writing in the literary tradition, sees time as this element, this product of our lived lives.

Now this is different from physics. Physics gives us E=mc2--energy, mass, and the speed of light--which makes up the time-space continuum. (Don’t quote me on any of this scientific stuff--I’ll deny I even said it.) Religion, philosophy, poetry: all have their concepts of time and its meaning, and yet, in my many, many years of study in the humanities, and particularly literature, I don’t recall anything about time and space somehow being transmutable, one into the other, or maybe this isn’t the physical principle I think it is.


So I read Einstein’s Dreams, wherein a bona-fide physicist takes off from what purport to be Einstein’s thoughts to fashion dozens of dreams about time that Einstein might have had. These imaginings take the form of worlds where time goes slowly for some, faster for others. Or it goes backward. (I think I saw that movie. It had Brad Pitt being born old and getting younger.)


Maybe physicists are more evolved than I. I find it only faintly amusing, as well as totally incredible, that one could go from the supposed physical observation that time passes more slowly as one gets farther from the earth to the envisioning of a society where people build their houses on stilts on mountaintops, the better to age more slowly.

Frankly, this book isn’t even very good science fiction. Maybe I don’t get the tone, or I’m missing the point, or even the genre. Swift did this sort of satire much better--if it is satire (of what?). Lightman constructs one scenario after another to ring the changes on the passage of time, none of which seem to me to capture the way people actually experience time, “the thing [which] no one understands” but which “makes and shapes you.” DeLillo I get. As for Lightman, I’ll shelve Einstein’s Dreams somewhere between Monopoly and Pictionary. He has reduced physics to a board game: how many ways can you imagine time passing or not passing?


But let me rather leave this with the words of a poet, W.H. Auden:


Time can say nothing but ’I told you so.’

Time only knows the price we have to pay.

If I could tell you, I would let you know.


Noel Mawer has a Ph.D. in English from Bryn Mawr College and is the author of A Critical Study of the Fiction of Patricia Highsmith: From the Psychological to the Political (Studies in American Literature V. 65 (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press). She has previously been a book reviewer for Utopian Studies and is the Book Review Editor for Lost Coast Review



The Only Game in Town


By Randall Mawer


The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By

By Georges Simenon

New York Review of Books Classic Books, 2005


            Some years ago, while passing an agreeable summer in southern California, I discovered, on a bookshelf in the bungalow we were subletting, a dozen or so Inspector Maigret novels by the prolific Georges Simenon.  Looking back, I remember--more clearly than the boat ride to Catalina, the Dodgers game at Chavez Ravine, the chock-a-block bookstores of Pasadena, or the pier at Santa Monica--the atmosphere of those wonderful books, set in Paris and the French countryside, where the imperturbable Maigret inhales beer, rich soups, and pipe smoke while methodically unriddling one interesting crime after another.


Not until lately did I hear of the “hard” fictions which Simenon regarded more highly than his ‘tecs.  (Like Graham Greene, he wanted his “novels” strictly segregated from his “entertainments.”)  One of the former is The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By (1938), the tale of a hyper-conventional Dutch businessman, Kees Popinga (!), who backs into a crime and, fleeing, discovers disreputable talents which enable him to hide out in the Paris underworld.


Having just read Noel Mawer’s take on Camus’ fiction (see the last Lost Coast), I was ready to regard Trains as an existentialist parable:  Popinga will face up to the absurdity of his expectations and pretensions, like a hero out of Hemingway, Sartre, or Hitchcock (see North By Northwest), meanwhile digging down to bedrock truths about life, especially the essential post-Kierkegaardian mandate that the only salvation lies in making your own rules, however arbitrary, and sticking to them.


It won’t do, though.  No Cary Grant or Richard Kimball, the fugitive Popinga is every bit as conformist as ever.  It’s only the particular conventions that have changed, not the man, now French demi-mondaine rather than Dutch puritan but nonetheless in thrall to a firm code not of his own devising.  In a crisis, he vents the most simplistic existentialist cri de coeur:  “He, at least, had played the game!”


            This from the same man who, having murdered without remorse an innocent woman, condemns the French for having too good a time on Christmas Eve.  (Doesn’t anyone here go to midnight mass?)


            Simenon’s satire diminishes not at all the delight which we, if not the narcissistic Kees, may take in the worlds he visits—the bars and night trains, the cheap hotels, the criminal hide-outs—or the people he meets—the prostitutes, the cabbies and waiters and flower girls, the thieves, the beat cops.  We are permitted to have it both ways, smiling at Popinga’s evasions and hypocrisies while appreciating what he does not:  the devotion of his wife and daughter, the courtesy of strangers, the zest of tabloid reporters, the sheer plod of police officers, men like Inspector Maigret if otherwise named, whom Popinga, and perhaps Simenon himself, undervalues. 


Randall R. Randall Mawer is Poetry Editor of Lost Coast Review.  His Sycamore and Other Poems was published in 2000 by Writer’s Club Press.








Book Review - The Fiction of Albert Camus

Those of us who consider ourselves existentialists have an exacting gauntlet to run:  reading the fiction written by existentialist philosophers.  This is the acid test:  can I bear to live through the fate of the existential protagonist, who is, of course, doomed?  Can I have any fun on the way, or is it all a slog-fest through god-awful tribulations under an indifferent sky?

            I recently watched William Hurt and Sandrine Bonnaire take such a journey in the film version of Camus’ The Plague and was disheartened not only to witness, but to experience, the Sisyphean journey myself.  As I couldn’t bear to read the book after living through the agonizing film version, I decided to try some of Camus’ other fictions.  And I’m here to report:  they’re as bleak and tedious as The Plague.

            Camus’ most famous work, The Stranger (that’s  ‘L’Etranger to you Francophones), begins with the immortal pronouncement, “Mother died today,” and goes downhill from there.  The protagonist, a humble French Algerian man with little to distinguish him from what I take to be the typical Frenchman growing up (humbly) in North Africa (if there is such a type), lives a life of manual labor, days at the beach, sex with his girlfriend, and hanging out with lowlifes.  That’s it.  Until his mother dies.

            The most memorable scenes were, to me, the visit to his mother’s nursing home and the excruciating funeral march under the Algerian sun.  The suit-clad son lets us share every exquisite rivulet of sweat, the itching of crawling bugs, and the halting staggers of mourners from the old-age home.  This seemed to me an admirable example of filial devotion, but I’m neither an Algerian nor a Catholic, so perhaps that’s why I was mildly shocked to find that our hero was considered unnatural and heartless for failing to weep at his mother’s funeral.  (Actually, I knew that already since the work is very famous and that detail is often cited by the people who read this sort of thing.)

            So, after accidentally killing someone, our man is condemned to death partly for his alleged lack of feeling toward his mother.  But, with his last view of the world before dying, he realizes he “was happy still,” as he lay his “heart open to the benign indifference of the universe.”


Still clinging to my Faith (that is, existentialism), I turned to a more agreeable clime, Western Europe.  Camus’ The Fall is the tale of a Frenchman living in Amsterdam.  This Frenchman avails himself of the (apparently) willing ear of a fellow patron in a seedy waterfront bar (I imagine all Amsterdam bars are waterfront bars; only some are seedy) called Mexico City.  He proceeds to describe his life, in impressively repetitious detail, as a lawyer, roué, and “judge penitent”—which may or may not be an official position. 

            Our judge’s narrative is damning.  “My emotional impulses  always turn toward me, my feelings of pity concern me.  It is not true, after all, that I never loved.  I conceived at least one great love in my life, of which I was always the object.”  How very French!

            Yet this committed narcissist, while maintaining that he enjoyed his life, still gradually reveals himself as guilt- and anxiety-ridden, living in a figurative “little ease,” the French version of the tiger cage of Vietnam.  This, we eventually learn, stems from an incident years earlier, when he saw a girl slip (apparently deliberately) into the Seine, then heard her cries for help.  And did nothing.  Merely kept walking away from her.  Finally, unable (after years) to bear this memory, he takes to his bed waiting for death, uttering the wish he has carried with him, “O young woman, throw yourself into the water again so that I may a second time have a chance of saving both of us.”  Yet, “The water is so cold!  But let’s not worry!  It’s too late now.  It will always be too late.  Fortunately!”

            Piecing together my experiences of  The Plague, where our protagonists, despite knowing the hopelessness of their task, continue to minister to the plague’s victims; The Stranger; and The Fall, I have reached some conclusions.  Faith is a matter of faith, not reason (sort of what William James [no relation to Jesse] was fond of saying) and, unreasonably, in spite of all the excruciating fictions I have endured, I can’t help but be seduced by that “benign indifference” and by the existentialists’ belief in the necessity of acting--regardless of any projected outcome--to escape imprisonment in the “little ease.”


            Now I can start reading Sartre.

Noel Mawer


Noel Mawer has a Ph.D. in English from Bryn Mawr College and is the author of A Critical Study of the Fiction of Patricia Highsmith: From the Psychological to the Political (Studies in American Literature V. 65 (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press). She has previously been a book reviewer for Utopian Studies and is the Book Review Editor for Lost Coast Review


Book Reviews: A Girl Grows Up in New York City by Joan Heron and books by E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf

A Girl Grows Up in New York City

By Joan Heron

Baltimore: Publish America, 2011


This is a book I can recommend to anyone, but particularly to those of you, who like me, grew up in another era, who have endured the ups and downs of family life, and who have dedicated yourselves to a career which is both academic and concerned with helping others.  Joan Heron has done all of these on a wider scope than most of us, and produced a lively, honest and captivating account of her experiences.

Beginning in New York City, the daughter of a German-American family who grew up during WWII when many of her neighbors were suspicious and hostile toward anyone with German ancestry, the tales of her childhood riding the subways, visiting the zoo, shoplifting from department stores and trying to hide her family’s poverty from her more affluent classmates provide all of the flavor of 1940’s big city America.

Joan provides anecdotes of those moments in her young life when she could have gone astray. Her father was harsh and sometimes cruel, she flirted with dishonesty and had to resist the sexual adventurousness of her girlfriends, and she was in constant danger of becoming the prey to men who tried to take advantage of her youth in a time when sexual abuse and women’s rights were concepts that were still on the distant horizon.

Despite the hazards of her early life, Joan survived and became a nurse. She married an Italian man and began juggling work and family life. As her children grew, she returned to school and obtained a Ph.D. in nursing and then embarked upon a distinguished academic career putting all of the concepts she had learned into practice. Having worked in pediatrics and psychology during many of those same years, the story of her drive to introduce interdisciplinary practice and collaboration brings back many memories of similar battles in places where I worked.

Her two girls were rousing successes, but Victor, her son, was troubled and in difficulty with the law and finally overdosed. She also lost a precious grandson. Despite these setbacks and a divorce from her husband of 37 years, Joan persisted in pushing the barriers of both her profession and her personal life. She became a Vista and a Peace Corps volunteer, she volunteered at a mountain retreat as a cook and nurse, and she took her grandson to Ecuador.

The story is not just about a girl growing up in New York City, it is about a life lived to the fullest. The individual incidents and personalities she describes are presented in enough detail and with sufficient skill to make the reader forget that he or she is not reading a novel. It is a book that I found inspiring and a reminder that there are ordinary people who manage to do extraordinary things with their lives and who never seem to tire of seeking adventure and challenges.

Reviewed by Casey Dorman

A Girl Grows Up in New York City is available in paperback from the publisher at www.publishamerica.com and at Amazon at www.amazon.com


A Room with a View and A Room of One’s Own

A Room with a View

E.M. Forster

New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 1993 (Originally published by Edward Arnold, 1908)


A Room of One’s Own

Virginia Woolf

London: Harcourt, 1929


It might seem odd to some to simultaneously review two books, one fiction and one non-fiction, both published in the early years of the last century. The two books are not even on the same subject, one, the novel, by E.M. Forster, published in 1908, is the story of a sheltered, privileged English young lady, having her first taste of the world at large, during a chaperoned vacation to Italy. The other, an essay, originally written to be a lecture in 1928 by the renowned novelist Virginia Woolf, is about the struggle women have had to endure in order to be able to write. However, the portrait of Lucy Honeychurch, and indeed all of the females in A Room with a View (and to be truthful, many of the males, also) illustrates both the 19th and early  20th century society’s view of women as well the view of one of that society’s most important male authors and literary critics. These views are a large part of what Woolf is talking about in her essay.

Woolf’s message is straightforward, although written in such an elegant style as to make A Room of One’s Own as pleasurable to read as a novel. Up until the time at which she writes, and perhaps also including such time, she declares that it is almost miraculous that any woman would have been able to produce significant literature, either poetry or prose. Arrayed against such a possibility were the lack of education of young ladies, the failure to take their education or their opinions seriously, the many menial tasks that they were expected to accomplish and which left them no time, and their inability to sustain themselves economically so that they might free themselves from tending children, teaching classes, cleaning houses or whatever they were required to do in order to write.

Woolf cites Jane Austen having to hide her writing under a piece of blotting paper when she wrote in the common sitting room so that no one would suspect what she was doing. Still, Austen, according to Woolf, managed to write wholeheartedly from the point of view of a woman and did not, as did Charlotte Bronte, for instance, struggle with her characters to overcome the always present prejudices of men. Some women, George Eliot, George Sand, hid behind men’s names. Others hid their work or, as Aphra Behn did the playwright, novelist, and poet, who is credited as the first woman to earn her living by writing, became notorious. Woolf even imagines a sister of Shakespeare, equally talented, but frustrated from allowing her talents to flourish as her brother’s had and ultimately dying by her own hand.

Writing as the lecturer to a group of women in 1928, Woolf credits an inheritance of 500 pounds a year to freeing her to be able to write. Whether this is fictional or factual, I am not sure, but her point is clearly that without economic freedom, women have no resources to support their creativity.

In A Room with a View, Forster in Lucy Honeychurch, creates perhaps the woman whom Woolf was describing. But it is not Lucy’s economic straits that squelch her creativity, although she is not rich, so much as it is her own and everyone around her’s view of the character of a woman’s intellect. Lucy is young and her mind is considered frivolous. She comes from a genteel country life and is aware of a world of arts and letters and, because the story begins on a trip to Italy, of antiquities, but has no faith in her own judgment about any of these things. She quotes guidebooks and experts and seeks the opinions of her elders before making up her mind on nearly anything.

While Forster is sarcastic in his treatment of Lucy’s self-doubt, he is sympathetic to its source, which is the 19th century view of the value of women’s opinions. He illustrates such influences in the attitudes of some of the men in the novel, most notably her fiancé, Cecil Vyse, but also in that of her aunt Charlotte and her mother. It is only when Lucy falls in love with the lonely and depressed George Emerson, that she becomes aware of both the superficiality of those around her and the constraints their attitudes place upon her. She makes her bid for freedom by ending her engagement to Cecil, telling him that, “I won’t be protected. I will choose for myself what is ladylike and right. To shield me is an insult.”

 Lucy must voice her plea for freedom with everyone, even her mother. And here, we have a hint of Woolf’s point about financial independence. After telling her mother that she will, “…come into my money next year,” she goes on to try to explain herself.

Driven by nameless bewilderment, by what is in older people termed “eccentricity,” Lucy determined to make this point clear. “I’ve seen the world so little – I felt so out of things in Italy. I have seen so little of life; one ought to come up to London more – not a cheap ticket like today, but to stop. I might even share a flat for a little with some other girl.”

“And mess with typewriters and latch-keys,” exploded Mrs. Honeychurch. “And agitate and scream and be carried off kicking by the police. And call it a Mission – when no one wants you……”

“I want my independence,” said Lucy lamely; she knew that she wanted something, and independence is a useful cry; we can always say that we have not got it.

Lucy is not sure what she wants, but Forster makes it clear that it is to take herself and to be taken by others, seriously.  Like Virginia Woolf, she is aware that for such a thing to happen, she must first, “come into my own money…” Forster is a man, but he knows also that for Lucy to gain independence she must change her sense of herself. And like Woolf, he is quite explicit in revealing the forces in society that have prevented such self-consciousness from emerging.

Reviewed by Casey Dorman




The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins


The Woman in White

By Wilkie Collins

Oxford World Classics, 1996

What a treat! This 1860 novel, originally published in serial form over a period of a year by both Charles Dickens’  weekly London magazine, All the Year Round and simultaneously in the United States in Harper’s Weekly, has the reputation of being one of the first “whodunit” mysteries. It certainly fits the bill, although the villains are evident from the time they are introduced, though their motivations are not revealed until well into the novel. The story also has the unique characteristic of being told by a number of different voices, each character able to share only his or her perspective, which in many cases is quite limited.

The story is a much a romance as it is a mystery. Because of the changing perspective, it is somewhat difficult to identify the main character, but it probably is Walter Hartright, an artist and art teacher who tells more of the story than anyone else and whose love for Laura Fairlie, the young heir to a small fortune and the family estate of Limmeridge, occupies much of the novel and provides Walter’s motivation for uncovering the plot that has disinherited Laura.

The author’s style of writing is dramatic, in the style of a romance, and he deliberately leaves clues and hints for the reader to use in guessing what will happen next or who has evil intentions. The pace of the book is leisurely (it is over 600 pages!) and the vocabulary satisfyingly sophisticated. One has the feeling of reading a classic and, because of the date at which the novel was written, of re-entering the world of 19th century England.

The plot of the Woman in White was apparently taken from an actual event, of which the author learned by reading a book on famous legal cases. The young Laura Fairlie and Walter Hartright fall in love when he provides her watercolor lessons, but she is promised to be married to an older man, Sir Percival Glyde  and the two young people conceal, even from each other, their mutual feelings. Sir Percival, it turns out, is only after Laura’s money and after their marriage he is cruel and abusive toward her and her half-sister, Marian Halcombe who is Laura’s protectress. Sir Percival is convinced that Laura has learned, from the mysterious and disturbed Anne Catherick, the ‘woman in white’ the secret that he has stolen his title and estate rather than inherited it. Sir Percival, along with his friend, the powerful and sinister Count Fosco, an Italian who is married to Laura’s Aunt, plot to take Laura’s money and do so via a circuitous set of actions involving taking advantage of the death of Anne Catherick, who is a look alike and probable half-sister to Laura by claiming that it is Laura who died and shutting Laura up in a private lunatic asylum, claiming her to be Anne but with the delusion that she is Lady Laura Glyde, Sir Percival’s now deceased wife.

I’ve told enough of the plot to give away much of the novel, but also, I hope to whet the reader’s interest enough to read the book. Anyone who likes romances, mysteries, or just well-written classics will not be disappointed.

Casey Dorman


Lest Innocent Blood be Shed


Lest Innocent Blood be Shed: The story of the village of Le Chambon and how goodness happened there.

 By Philip P. Hallie

New York: Harper and Row, 1979


What causes people to do the right thing, even at immense cost and risk to their own lives? Philosopher Philip Hallie’s answer to this question is to explore, in depth, a striking case of an entire French village, which during World War II sheltered and escorted thousands of Jews to freedom, at the peril of its inhabitants' own lives. Hallie’s story could have been written more as a novel, heightening the tension and the suspense, but it is not. The story-telling is anecdotal, filled with quotations and material from interviews with the villagers, years after the war and after some of the main characters had died. It reads tediously at times, but the underlying message is so remarkable that, as a reader I was unable to put the book down.

Hallie focuses most upon the story of one man – Andre Trocme  - the pastor of the small protestant church in Le Chambon. It was Trocme – and his wife’s – strong leadership and iron will that led the villagers to do what they did. Andre Trocme was a complicated man. A tempestuous man, he was non-violent by force of will and by faith. He was “a violent man conquered by God,” in the words of people who knew him. Perhaps because he witnessed his mother’s death following a car crash that was due to his own father’s impulsiveness and angry temper or perhaps because of a chance encounter with a German soldier who had become a conscientious objector and refused to carry arms, Trocme dedicated his life to non-violence. When he arrived in Le Chambon he began a school to teach non-violence. His own and his wife’s generosity to everyone in the village won him converts and sympathizers. When the war came, he extended that generosity to escaping Jews and the villagers followed.

Hallie’s book gives us glimpses of some of the other leaders of the Le Chambon resistance: Andre Trocme’s wife, Magda, who was basically non-religious but with an overwhelmingly generous heart and boundless energy, Pastor Edouard Theis, Trocme’s partner and leader of his school, Roger Darcissac, the headmaster of the town’s other school, which took in Jewish children and hid them, Daniel Trocme, Andre’s cousin who came to Le Chambon to help refugees and lost his life after being arrested and sent, along with the children he was helping, to a German death camp, and many more. The number of families who hid refugees was countless. Thousands of Jewish men, women and children were saved. Trocme himself formed a union with the Quakers who were ministering to Jews in the French deportation camps and took the children from the camps and into Le Chambon for safety.

The people of Le Chambon were doing something dangerous. Several of them, including Trocme himself at one point, as well as Theis and Darcissac, were arrested. Some Le Chambonnais lost their lives. Trocme refused to lie, because of his religious beliefs, so he admitted that the village took in Jews, but he refused to disclose where they were hiding, even when he was sent to jail because of his refusal. He regarded dying and even his family dying as an acceptable sacrifice for doing the right thing. So did many of the other villagers of Le Chambon. When Hallie interviewed them, to a person they did not regard themselves as heroic, but only  as people who had done what was necessary. When a person in need presented him or herself to them, they felt they had no choice but to offer help. The risk to themselves was inconsequential.

Hallie tries to examine what made the difference in Le Chambon. Certainly it was related to the leadership of a small group of people such as Trocme, his wife and Edouard Theis who believed in pacifism and self-sacrifice for one’s ideals and who resided in and were leaders in the town. Nearby villages did not emulate Le Chambon. The pacifists within Le Chambon were assailed by not just the occupying Germans, but by the soldiers of the Vichy French (it was illegal to be a pacifist in France at that time), and even by the local Free French Army fighters and the Maquis,  the guerillas, many of whom came from the same area and despised those who would not fight against the Germans and the Vichy. The townspeople risked their lives courageously and were threatened because of their actions by the participants on both sides of the violence that was going on around them.

One cannot read Lest Innocent Blood be Shed without wondering whether one would have the courage to do what the people of Le Chambon did. They were protestant, but they regarded all human beings, regardless of religion, as brothers and sisters. Some were deeply religious, some were barely religious at all. Hallie himself is a Jew. He raises the issue of what it takes to do what Trocme and the others did at the end of the book. He points out that if the Nazis had won the war, Trocme would be regarded as a villain not a hero and that the Nazi argument, which excluded Jews from consideration as fellow human beings, would never have been overcome by Trocme’s religious or philosophical arguments. In the end it came down to  a stance by the Le Chambonnais that affirmed the brotherhood of all people and categorically refused to use violence as a means for anything.

The Nazis lost the war and Andre Trocme was a hero, celebrated in France, in America and in Israel. What happened in his village was a testament to what good humans are capable of doing and is an argument against the cynicism that says a stance such as their's is impractical and doomed to failure. This is a book that should be read by everyone.

                                                                                                            Casey Dorman




Stanley and the Women


Stanley and the Women

Kingsley Amis

New York: Summit Books



How does one enjoy a book when you disagree with one of its main premises? In the case of Stanley and the Women, Kingsley Amis’ 1984 novel, which is dripping with misogyny, the answer is that the cleverness of the book as well as the tongue in cheek quality of the anti-female tirades, which are, admittedly, a major part of the book, outweigh the crassness of the point of view. In fact, according to interviews with Amis, the conclusion that Stanley’s (and virtually every male character in the book as well) hatred of women is small-minded and despicable is something for which the author was aiming. Belying that comment, however is the fact that each woman in the book is portrayed as selfish, lying and manipulative, providing credibility for Stanley’s views of them. Even more so, Amis’ women, in his other novels are often portrayed similarly, if not worse.

Stanley, the narrator of the novel is, almost first of all, an alcoholic. This is another familiar characteristic of Amis’ characters, although only occasionally, as in The Old Devils, does the character recognize his addiction as a problem and Stanley recognizes only his need for drink, not the difficulty with it. As is often the case with Amis characters, Stanley is passive to a fault, swallowing his anger and his assertiveness along with his alcohol at every opportunity. He is married to Susan, a second marriage of only a few years and generally succumbs to her running of the household show, although she, who comes from an upper class background and, in marrying Stanley has married beneath herself, which her mother never lets either of them forget, seems content to allow Stanley to follow his own interests and do his own thing, which involve working as a newspaper advertising manager, visiting numerous restaurants and pubs with colleagues and raising his son from his first marriage.

Stanley’s first wife, Nowell (the phonetic rendering of the Christmas appellation being based upon parental ignorance not design) is a fading television actress, whose main personality characteristics appear to be self-absorption, disregard of the truth, and lack of interest or involvement with Stanley’s  and her young adult son, Steve.

Steve and the family’s reaction to and struggles with his severe mental illness is the central theme of the story. I have previously reviewed Steve  Lopez ‘s The Soloist, the true story of a newspaper columnist’s experiences with a musically gifted street person suffering from schizophrenia. Amis’ characterization of Steve’s schizophrenic illness is as realistic as is Lopez ‘s description of his friend, the real-life person, Nathaniel Ayers. Moreover, the response of Stanley, Nowell, Susan and Susan’s relatives to Steve’s illness, a response characterized by irritation, suspicion of deception, blaming, and mostly resentment at the intrusion of his symptoms into the routine and protected life each of them live, is true enough to life to serve as a textbook for professionals interested in how family dynamics play out in the face of the cataclysmic experience of a having a family member with mental illness.

Of course I have left out what makes Stanley and the Women worth reading. It is not, to be sure,  the misogyny, which no doubt has provoked countless readers, mostly women, to throw the book aside in disgust, nor is it the absorbingly authentic portrayal of a mental disorder,  nor even the astute pronouncements of Stanley’s psychiatric consultant, Dr. Nash, regarding schizophrenia, which are telling enough to be quoted in their most trenchant parts.

All schizophrenia patients are mad, and none are sane. Their behavior is incomprehensible. It tells us nothing about what they do in the rest of their lives, gives no insight into the human condition and has no lesson for sane people except how sane they are. There is nothing profound about it. Schizophrenics aren’t clever or wise or witty – they may make some very odd remarks but that’s because they’re mad, and there’s nothing to be got out of what they say.



Despite Dr. Nash’s admonitions, his colleague, Dr. Collings, who is treating Steve in the hospital, approaches all of her patient’s behavior as if it was carrying a message, mostly one of blame for the poor parenting he received from Stanley while  growing up, and everyone else around Steve has one sort of interpretation or another concerning why he behaves as he does, including plenty of blame to be thrown in Stanley’s direction by nearly everyone.


But the joy of reading Stanley and the Women comes from Amis’ humor. Stanley has sort of one eye open to what is actually happening around him and  so sees the truth in a number of situations and about a number of people, while at the same time denying it or running away from it, usually toward another drink. But the thoughts scamper across his mind before he shies away from them, and invariably in hilarious fashion. It is impossible not to sympathize with Stanley (it may be easier for a male to say this than a female) at the same time that one regards him as a coward, a bigot and hopelessly inept and ineffectual.


Stanley and the Women presents, in Stanley, a character, not quite so ineffectual and certainly not as self-destructive as Lucky Jim, the most famous and funniest of Amis’ characters, but the writing is considerably better and the setting one that more people would find familiar than the academic atmosphere of Lucky Jim. Stanley and the Women was made into a four-part BBC production, which is available on DVD, but probably only by purchase rather than rental.

Reviewed by Casey Dorman


The Diary as a Form for the Novel

This issue we focus upon two novels, both of which use the format of diary entries as the structure in which to construct a novel. Both are outstanding novels in their own right.


The Lacuna

Barbara Kingsolver


Harper Collins

Barbara Kingsolver is much celebrated as a writer of causes. She is the founder and financial backer of the Bellwether Prize for new novels that are socially conscious. Her own previous novels, most notably,  the Poisonwood Bible,  and to a lesser extent, the Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven, as well as her others, have dealt with, among other issues, women’s rights, the plight of the Native American and African Independence. In The Lacuna she addresses other themes, this time anti-communism , blacklisting and homophobia within an international and historical context. Being a committed admirer of Frida Kahlo, both in terms of her life story and her art, I was delighted to find that her life with Diego Rivera and that period when they both were involved with Leon Trotsky was the backdrop for a good part of The Lacuna.

The novel is written as a an autobiography, or more accurately, the publication of the diaries of a man named Harrison Shepherd, the son of a Washington, DC bureaucrat and a flamboyant   Mexican mother, who divorce when their son is young and she then moves back to Mexico to pursue marriage to someone with money and power. The diaries begin in the boy’s early adolescence when he is alone, most of the time, in the island hacienda of a rich Mexican man who is having an affair with his mother. The boy’s life moves from one of privilege, to one of near poverty in which he finds work mixing plaster for the muralist Diego Rivera and meets Rivera’s wife, the exotic artist Frida Kahlo. He works as a plaster mixer and cook and when the exiled Leon Trotsky is taken in by Rivera in Mexico City, he becomes Trotsky’s stenographer.

The novel, to me, was as interesting for its portrayals of Kahlo, Rivera and Trotsky and life among the intelligentsia in Mexico City in the nineteen thirties. The intricacy of the relationships between the three, as well as Trotsky’s wife, is a wonderful example of truth being stranger than fiction and of the life of major historical figures on a genuine world stage resembling the plot of a soap opera. It was a history with which I was not unacquainted and one which Kingsolver manages to capture without sacrificing the dignity of the characters.

Through much of the parts of the book devoted to Rivera, Kahlo and Trotsky, the diarist is a sort of background narrator and we only glimpse edges of his personality, less so than when he was a teenager , exploring the ocean off the coast of his island or running the streets of Mexico City. In the last third of the book, however, he moves to Asheville, North Carolina, where he achieves his lifelong ambition of becoming a novelist and, in fact, publishes a best seller. It is during this time that we become more acquainted with his personality, his desire for isolation – to the point of him becoming agoraphobic – and his homosexuality. He also develops a strong relationship, although a formal one, with his secretary, Violet Brown, who adores him and who becomes one of the few people he can  both admire and trust.

Unfortunately, Shepherd’s earlier association with the, now dead from assassination, Trotsky, results in his being investigated by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee and harassment by the FBI as well as ruination of his career as a writer. In what at first appears to be a report of his suicide, we later learn that he has simply disappeared from view, presumably to return to Mexico.

Shepherd himself is one of the most ego-less, gentle heroes to become the central focus of a major novel, and, as such, he has a nobility that I found inspiring. His positives are his caring nature and his love of writing and his ability to suspend judgment toward those people in his life, such as his mother, Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky, whom he loves. The descriptions of everyone in the book are carefully constructed, historically accurate when the characters are real, and represent a brilliant achievement in terms of weaving fiction and historical fact together in a seamless drama that is intensely interesting from beginning to end.





Any Human Heart

 Willliam Boyd


 Vintage Books


                Logan Mountstuart begins his life story, told in diary form, when he is 17 and about to finish Abbeyhurst College, the private boarding school he has attended from age 13, and be off to Oxford, although the diary itself is preceded by a preamble in which we learn that the writer, while English, was born of the marriage of a English manager and his Uraguyan secretary, in Montevideo, where he lived until age 8 when his father was transferred to Birmingham. The hero is a very clever boy, with equally clever friends, and with a vocabulary, which even for someone such as myself who is well educated, might require the reader to have one hand holding a dictionary while the other holding the novel. I found this an entertaining and engaging situation. Throughout the novel one has the feeling of reading  a story written at an elevated level – like reading Henry James.

                The hero attends Oxford, writes the commentary on French writers that will satisfy himself, intellectually, and does his best to find a lasting relationship, while engaging in temporary, ill-conceived engagements based upon lust , until he finds the woman he wants to be with the rest of his life. World War II intrudes at this moment in the story and the hero, for  reasons that seem obscure, decides to become a spy for the OSS in Switzerland and, imprisoned because they believe he is a Nazi spy, resides in custody for the duration of the war and when he is released, finds that his wife has not only remarried, but, along with his child, been killed in a V-2 attack in London.

                Logan Mountsuart’s life, from the time he finds out that his wife and child have been killed, is a mildly productive, but basically at loose ends existence, which continues through a period of operating an art gallery in New York, having an affair with an underage ex-girlfriend of his  deceased son, who committed suicide, enjoying an affair with the ex-wife of his best friend,  living in Africa and essentially  just passing time.  Despite this interlude of ennui, his diaries remain intelligent, witty, sophisticated and, increasingly, human. We watch as the hero matures and examines a life that has steadily lost its point.

                Finally, Mountstuart retires in France. He has enjoyed limited success in his chosen profession of being a writer and his engagement with people has  been limited even more by his own lack of focus and by the intrusion of tragedy. But the hero has survived intact. One wonders to what extent  he allowed himself to experience his passions as opposed to observing and recording them, but his life no doubt adds up to little more nor less than most others’ .

Any Human Heart is an exhilarating book from the point of view of enjoying the language and use of words the author is able to produce in an almost effortless manner while telling a poignant story of one man’s life, both lived and wasted and finally balanced. It is one of those books one reads and then re-reads to remind oneself that beautiful writing can take an ordinary story and elevate it to something special.



Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick


Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick

496 pages

Pantheon, 2002


For both Philip K. Dick aficionados and those newly attracted to his work through the medium of film and the multiple Dick stories that have become movies in the last several years, this is a wonderful collection of his stories. It contains such stories as Paycheck, and The Minority Report, both of which were made into films of the same names, as well as We Can Remember it for You, Wholesale, which became the Arnold Schwartzenegger movie, Total Recall.  But also there are a number of gems that never became films, such as The Electric Ant and The Days of Perky Pat. The Dickean themes of manipulation by an authoritarian regime, whether government or private enterprise, are present in many of the stories, as well as the familiar question of whether a character is a robot or a human, whether the questioner is the protagonist, as in The Electric Ant  or a puzzled antagonist as in  Second Variety, another Dick short story that was turned into the film, Screamers by Dan O’Bannon of Aliens, Total Recall, and Dark Star fame.


What is remarkable, when one moves from story to story in this collection, is the depth of imagination Dick was able to access and  use effectively. Although the themes are familiar, the settings and the characters rarely are. As I examined these stories for hints as to what Dick was able to do that many of his emulators, such as myself in some of my works, are not, I realized that one quality is the attitude of his characters. Anxiety and panic are sometimes present in their reaction to, most often, bizarre circumstances confronting them, but more typically the protagonists react with a jaded acceptance, portrayed most effectively by Harrison Ford in Blade Runner, the screen adaptation of Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  This is an attitude that permeates Dick’s writings, although a study of his life suggests it was one he achieved in his writing more than in his real life.


Philip K. Dick has become a cult hero, a respected literary figure writing in a disrespected genre, and a tragic figure. Had he not died at age 53 after living a life riddled with addictions, paranoia and perhaps real mental illness, he would have become immensely rich and famous within his own lifetime. Like most cult heroes, he is a screen for his followers’ fantasies and tortured identities, so that he is regarded as a prophet, as someone who had discovered secrets revealed only through the study of esoteric sources, as a guru of the drug generation, etc. As a writer and psychologist, as well as a fringe cognitive neuroscientist, I too, see Dick as profound. Humans are machines made of living tissue. As technology progresses, the ability to mimic human machinery using non-human materials will continue to develop until one day humans and non-humans are indistinguishable. At that point, we won’t just have living beings asking themselves if they are really machines, as neuroscientists do now, we will have machines asking themselves if they are living beings.


I look forward to the day that this dilemma is upon us and I don’t know what answers will emerge. I do know that Philip K. Dick anticipated the questions and his anticipation of so many questions which we are now asking or are about to ask, is part of what makes reading his Selected Stories so entertaining.


Casey Dorman


The Soloist by Steve Lopez


The Soloist

Steve Lopez

New York: Berkley Books


The paperback edition of The Soloist, which I read, has pictures of Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr. on the cover and proclaims, “Now a major motion picture.” Although I live just South of Los Angeles, I don’t read the LA Times and had only heard of Steve Lopez’ famous column and never read it, much less read the columns devoted to Nathaniel Ayers, the musician with schizophrenia. I expected a made-for-Hollywood story, perhaps like Shine, the story of David Helfgott, the pianist with schizophrenia who now tours the world giving concerts, married to his benefactor.

The Soloist is not a feel-good story –or at least that’s not the point of the story. It is a story of recovery, as many of us in the mental health field now define it. Nathaniel Ayers is no less afflicted with schizophrenia at the conclusion of the book than he was at the beginning. And, so far as I know, he remains the same today. He never accepted psychiatric treatment or medication and has not given up his shopping cart, or his street life. However, Nathaniel lives, at least some of the time, in a safer apartment instead of sleeping on the street and he has a studio in which to play his music, instruments on which to play, and is not only welcome at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, but has met many of the LA Philharmonic musicians, taken cello lessons from one of them, and met one of his idols, Yo-Yo Ma. He may reach his goals of playing in a community orchestra and giving music lessons. He has also re-connected with his sister. Central to his recovery, and that is what this list of accomplishments represents, is his friendship with the LA Times columnist, Steve Lopez. The Soloist is about that friendship.

Nathaniel Ayers is a Black man in his mid-fifties who, as a lower-middle class youth, discovered his love of music and his talent and obtained a scholarship to Julliard. After a few years at the prestigious music academy, he developed a severe psychosis and was hospitalized and dropped out of the school. Years later, he was “discovered” by Steve Lopez, playing a violin with missing strings at the entrance to one of the tunnels in L.A., still wrestling with his psychosis and living out of his shopping cart. Lopez traced Nathaniel’s history and made a personal connection with the musician as well as writing about him in his LA Times column. The response to the column was to shower Lopez, with offers of musical instruments, help from the mental health community and an outstretched hand from the LA Philharmonic.

Nathaniel welcomed the free musical instruments and the offers to attend concerts of the Philharmonic, but was suspicious of any other offers of help, particularly those that included him accepting psychiatric treatment of any sort or giving up his street life. Nathaniel was, in addition to being psychotic, or perhaps as part of it, bigoted against white people, smokers, drug users and was often angry and belligerent. Lopez stuck with him and it is their personal relationship, told from Lopez’ point of view, which appears to be the external influence that was instrumental in promoting Nathaniel’s recovery.

Recovery is an odd word, as it is currently used within the mental health community. It probably has as many meanings as it has users of the word. For most of us recovery probably connotes getting over something bad (recovering from the flu, recovering from the recession, etc.), although the Webster dictionary uses a more dynamic definition as “the process of combating a disorder or real or perceived problem.” From a client-centered point of view, recovery, within the mental health field, means something like gaining or regaining those elements of a quality life that are missing because of the direct or indirect influence of a mental disease. The indirect influences can include stigma, a coercive or repressive public mental health system and living in dangerous circumstances because of poverty.

For Nathaniel Ayers, recovery appears to have revolved around regaining access to a world of music and musicians, which meant more to him than anything else and which he was trying to reach both when he was not ill and when he was sick with mental illness. His story exemplifies how the likelihood of his achieving what was important to him was tied to his experience with mental health treatment, to other people’s reaction to his illness, to his poverty, to his skin color, as well as to those parts of himself that were most affected by his illness, such as his suspiciousness, his ability to follow a coherent train of thought, and his relationships with others.

What The Soloist demonstrates, more than most lectures on mental illness I have attended, or books that I have read, is that an individual’s recovery is intimately tied to his or her own aspirations and dreams, just as much as to his or her illness, and to the human relationships that the person is able to maintain, just as much, if not more, than to the specific psychiatric treatment that he or she receives. Nathaniel Ayers is not an easy man to get along with, at least as he is portrayed in Lopez’ book. But having someone stick with him and help him realize what was important to him, made a major positive change in his life. Steve Lopez is not a mental health professional, but he reached out to a fellow human being and it made a difference. That’s something nearly anyone can do.

Casey Dorman


Cosmopolitanism by Kwame Anthony Appiah




 Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers


by Kwame Anthony Appiah

       256 pages

       W. W. Norton: 2006


Kwame Anthony Appiah is Laurence S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy and the University Center for Human Values at Princeton. He is Ghanaian-raised and the son of a Ghanaian father and an English mother. He is the author of numerous books covering philosophy and African heritage as well as several mystery novels. He is also the winner of numerous awards for his writing and lectures.


Cosmopolitanism won the 2007 Arthur Ross Award of the Council on Foreign Relations and its title represents both an idea and the germ of a movement.


A precise definition of cosmopolitanism is difficult to derive from Appiah’s book, which is presumably why it took an entire book to define it. He probably best captures what he means by the word in the following passage from the introduction:


So there are two strands that intertwine in the notion of cosmopolitanism. One is the idea that we have obligations to others, obligations that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by the ties of kith and kind, or even the more formal ties of a shared citizenship. The other is that we take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance.


The challenge of cosmopolitanism is to be global while valuing both diversity and its local, intimate expressions, to which each of us is tied and which give particular meaning to our experiences.


Appiah comes at the concept from many angles. While affirming that it is difficult to value what we do not know, except on an abstract level, he challenges the assumption that daily commerce and understanding of those who are different from us automatically leads to allocation of value. He provides the example of Sir Richard Francis Burton, 19th century English world traveler, linguist and poet, who spent time within many of the world’s cultures, sometimes disguised as one of their members as when he visited Mecca posing as an Indian pilgrim or Somalia in the guise of an Arab merchant. Despite his intimate familiarity with other races and ethnicities, Sir Richard’s own racism appeared to have remained intact.


Appiah makes the point that humans often agree on general principles of behavior, even when the underlying reasons for behaving similarly are not present. Avoidance of incest is an example, in which various societies may all agree on the behavior, while giving different reasons (genetic, biblical, etc.) for the prohibition. The point is that it is not necessary to agree on underlying values in order to have agreement to get along. The author makes this same point in a number of ways, not the least of which are myriad examples of how difficult it is to determine what it means to say that two societies actually do agree on a value when the meanings of the concepts involved are so different from one culture to another.


Taking modest, imprecise agreement as a starting point, cosmopolitanism asks for a conversation to occur. Conversations involve sharing, tolerance, an attempt toward understanding and a willingness to accept values of others that may not be our own. Cosmopolitanism does not mean the imposition of a uniform, global set of values, at least not at any meaningful level of detail across all societies. Appiah makes the point, over and over, that what are seen by one culture as abominable practices (e.g. female circumcision, homosexuality, eating one’s dead or burning one’s dead) are seen as desirable practices by another culture, often as expressions of similar broad, underlying values (e.g. cleanliness, beauty, privacy, love, reverence for the deceased).


Strident nationalism and ethnocentrism are antithetical to cosmopolitanism and Appiah partly attacks these positions by challenging the concept of culture and nations on the basis of their temporary nature. Cultures and nations do not remain static, nor do they even remain over the lifespan of human civilization. The world is marching toward increasing globalization of some sort and his book is an effort to shape both the march and our response to it.


Perhaps the most intriguing section of the book is the final one where Appiah challenges the notion that to care about the world in a way that is truly moral, one must be prepared to give up everything one possesses and share it with those who have less. As I read his argument against this position, the modern versions of which he attributes to the philosophers, Peter Singer and Peter Unger, I had a momentary fear that, in accepting Appiah’s argument thus far, I had been taken in by a clever apologist for self-interest, perhaps of the Ayn Rand persuasion. After all, he takes Peter Unger’s statement, “To behave in a way that’s not seriously wrong, a well-off person, like you and me, must contribute to vitally effective groups like OXFAM and UNICEF, most of the money and property she now has, and most of what comes her way for the foreseeable future,” and he disagrees with it. Now as a typical bleeding-heart liberal, I immediately agreed with Unger, despite having no intention to follow his advice except in terms of generating a moderate amount of guilt on my part that I was not of sufficient character to follow the philosophy to which I subscribed (not for the first time, either).


A lengthy discussion of both the meaning and practicality of Unger’s admonition broadened my thinking enough that I realized that, if I seriously wanted to help those less well-off than me, while I could take to heart Unger’s message that acquisitiveness, greed, and self-interest were not the way to do it, giving up everything comfortable in my own life was not necessarily the best way either. In fact, the solution of eradicating the world of poverty is one that can be reached, but only through well-thought out methods, most of which do not require extraordinary sacrifice on my or anyone else’s part. The answer lies in a concerted effort of people throughout the world who see themselves having at least the common interest of not having significant portions of humanity miserable for reasons that small sacrifices and lots of mutual effort could overcome. That common interest and the movement toward it through conversations between people from all different societies and cultures is what cosmopolitanism is about.


Casey Dorman







Who Killed Andrei Warhol by Alexander J. Motyl


A novel by Alexander J. Motyl

Publisher: Seven Locks Press (August 15, 2007)





A tongue-in-cheek account of East meets West during the tumultuous 1960’s, this delightful and sometimes hilarious story pits the absurdity of doctrinaire Soviet Communism against the vacuousness of the avante garde social-artistic movement epitomized by Andy Warhol and his New York Factory. The hero, Oleksandr “Sasha” Ivanov, a Soviet journalist, visiting America to obtain a first-hand look at the impending socialist revolution, meets Warhol and proceeds to interpret the artist’s depiction of the icons of American commercialism as a deep philosophical critique of the capitalist way of life. Each of the artist’s half-formed mumblings is imbued by the admiring Ukranian as a profound commentary on the futility of the American way of life. Meanwhile Sasha’s own existence is being threatened by the slavishly brutal machinery of the Soviet state apparatus of which he is a part. The reader watches Warhol move toward an increasingly disastrous outcome, which is the product of his nearly complete self-absorption, at the same time that Sasha begins to question his belief in the Communist teachings that had, for him taken precedence over personal loyalty, marriage, truth, and even logic.


Filled with such characters as Gus Hall, head of the American Communist party, Andy Warhol’s artistic partner, Gerard Malanga,and the artist’s “superstars” Viva and Valerie Solanas, plus student protesters and Black Panthers, Who Killed Andrei Warhol will delight readers with its humor, its ability to capture the zeitgeist of America in the late 1960’s, and its highly entertaining examination of the contradictions and absurdities of Eastern and Western outlooks on the world.


Reviewed by Casey Dorman





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