Saturday, June 4, 2016

When It's "Better Never to Have Been": A Reading List

Few books can be deemed invariably explosive in their impact. South African philosopher David Benatar's Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence is one such book. It argues for a voluntary and global policy of antinatalism, contending that existence itself is a serious harm and that therefore the continued reproduction of humans is a moral wrong (as well as an environmental one). The book thus cuts right to the core of any human being's life precisely because life is, without question, truly universal - if you are, then you live or have lived. Reading Better Never to Have Been is thus a major challenge, and embracing its conclusions an even greater one, but one that human beings may be forced to embrace if we do not soon alter the behavior that is fast destroying the only home that we have. The following selections are books that might further illuminate, complicate, confront, or mitigate Benatar's concept of benevolent antinatalism and I recommend them as companions to a demanding, unsparing book.

The Sense of an Ending - Julian Barnes
Probably the most hopeful book on this list, Barnes's Man Booker Prize-winning novel is a meditation on memory, time, and the ways that we alter our understandings of our pasts and ourselves. Tony, now middle-aged, tries to make sense of his friendship with the enigmatic and brilliant Adrian, who died a suicide, ostensibly to make a philosophical point. Julian Barnes excels at writing exquisite prose that, despite its lofty subject matter, somehow never comes off as pretentious or dense, though it is quite lyrical, its tonal quality unostentatious and rich, something like the work of the great English composer Benjamin Britten. If I have a quibble with the book, it is its length; I would have preferred a meatier, and longer-lasting, volume.

Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy 
Hardy's Jude the Obscure is an absolute masterpiece and one of the greatest novels I've ever read, but it's also one of the most deeply upsetting books of all time. Set in the fictional county of Wessex, the novel follows Jude Fawley, a stonemason who desires above all else to study at university and become a respected scholar. A vortex of dark social forces conspire against him: a rigid class system, poverty, a misguided shotgun marriage, a painful and desperate love for a virginal cousin, and a tragedy of such overwhelming significance that one would be hard-pressed to think of something worse. The novel posits that Jude's reality, the reality of England in the 1890s when the book was written, doesn't allow the poor, the disenfranchised, the foolish, the repentant, the orphaned, the bereaved, any hope at all. Though it could be argued that Hardy makes a case for a number of necessary reforms, such as divorce, universal education, meritocratic admissions to university, and abortion, in the end it is difficult to believe that Jude, living today, could any more easily overcome the brutal forces of an overpowering society.

Nothing That Meets the Eye - Patricia Highsmith
This collection of twenty eight stories, most of them previously unpublished, span decades of Highsmith's career and range quite widely in subject and tone, including the thrilling suspense tales one would expect, such as "In the Plaza" and "Things Had Gone Badly," as well as a number of stories centered around animals, my favorite being "Man's Best Friend," and a few surprisingly hopeful fable-like tales. Generally however, the author of The Talented Mr. Ripley displays a bravura sense of the humor one can glean from even the very darkest and most disturbing facets of human nature and these stories are generally focused on the violent, cruel, uncanny, shocking facts of being alive, whether they explicitly deal with the criminal or not.

Lust - Elfriede Jelinek
This controversial and militantly feminist novel by the Austrian Nobel Prize-winning authoress leaves no scope whatsoever for a charitable view of the human condition. Jelinek claimed that initially she had wanted to write a work of erotica that privileged women's sexual desires and drives, but that she found she could not because the available pornographic language is too deeply tainted with misogyny. Instead, the result is a brief, searing, menacingly steely novel about a woman, Gerti, trapped in a marriage in which she is used to sate the sexual and alimentary demands of her husband and son. Gerti's longing for sexual fulfillment and escape from the miseries of her home drive her to enact in real life scenarios that could be deemed erotic only in the twisted perversion of the patriarchal sexual imaginarium. Jelinek's novels coolly demand that we feast on the vile, repulsive banquet of life that we ourselves have prepared.

Obasan - Joy Kogawa 
Japanese-Canadian author Kogawa is primarily a poet and the exquisite prose in this autobiographical novel often belies the bleakness of its subject matter. As a young girl, Naomi's family is torn apart by the deportation, internment, and forced separation of Japanese-Canadians during World War II (the same policy was pursued with Italian-Canadians, as in the United States). The book confronts trauma obliquely, as Naomi resists examining the painful reality of her past and of what happened to her parents, exhausted at the prospect of having to understand what cannot be understood. Though the victors of World War II usually liken the war to a conflict between the forces of good and evil, such a simplistic, comfortable version of history has no place in this book, reminding us that winning cannot erase wrongs committed, whether wrongful imprisonment, outright stealing of citizens' property and the stripping of their rights, including the vote, or - at the most extreme - the dropping of the atomic bomb.

The Leopard - Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa 
Lampedusa's masterwork depicts the decaying fortunes of the Prince di Salina, a Sicilian nobleman fatalistically watching the youthful zeal and enthusiasm for the fomenting Garibaldian revolution, knowing that power is not to be so easily wrested away from those who cling to it. No other book written about Italian history has dramatized to such devastating effect the phenomenon of trasformismo - meaning that sociopolitical revolution, rather than transferring power to new holders and upending the class systems already in place, fails, so that power remains squarely in the hands of those who had it prior to the upheaval. Such was Antonio Gramsci's view of the unification of Italy (1860-70); the radical changes had terrible consequences for individual people, while Garibaldi's populist fervor and Giuseppe Mazzini's glorious idealism were shunted aside, having played their role, in favor of Cavour's foxy diplomacy. 

The Fifth Child - Doris Lessing
This novella could be read as a work of horror, though to label it so diminishes the actual impact of its central ambiguity. Harriet and David Lovatt find their perfect match in each other, both yearning for a large, loving family. They get married, buy their dream home, a rambling old Victorian, and have four children whom they adore. And then Harriet gets pregnant with their fifth child, Ben, and his sinister influence tears their lives apart. What makes Ben such a disturbing presence is undefinable; he is both all too human and somehow not human enough, a demanding, insatiable presence that renders their idyllic family life a travesty of the traditional values to which Harriet and David had hitherto clung. Lessing's novel will give pause to those who wish to become parents and deeply unsettle those who have already had children, for she reminds us that the children we have are not necessarily going to be people who we love or tolerate, let alone the children we idealistically imagine.

The Problem of Pain - C. S. Lewis
Christian apologist C. S. Lewis squarely addresses the punishingly difficult question of why we suffer if God truly loves us in this, one of his best works of theology. One need not subscribe to Christian beliefs in order to appreciate the razor-sharp, deeply compassionate reasoning that allows Lewis to insist that God does love us, God does allow us to suffer, and still we do not merit this suffering, even as we will, irrevocably, undergo it. Though Benatar's philosophy is strictly secular, explicitly rejecting religious support for natalist policy, Lewis offers a number of counterpoints that may not meet the rigorous bar set outside of religious context but that do, at least for all but the most rabid atheists, complicate antinatalist conclusions. 

Higglety Pigglety Pop!: Or There Must Be More to Life - Maurice Sendak
This illustrated children's book is a weirdly uplifting story about the hopelessness of being alive. The story is about Jennie, a dog who wishes to become a star actress with The World Mother Goose Theater, but whose dream somehow constantly eludes her. The story, told in a gentle, ironic tone that belies the occasional violence of the narrative (for example, a child is swallowed by a lion), critiques materialism, ambition, and the inability to philosophically cope with the often sad or frustrating exigencies of being alive. I've been surprised by how many people have read the book as an affirmation of there actual being "more to life," as I interpret it rather more pessimistically, the "more" not necessarily having a positive connotation. That being said, the darkness of the book's themes make it sound like a slog and yet it's a whimsical delight to read, especially for those who may subscribe to less optimistic philosophies of life.

Mrs. Dalloway - Virginia Woolf
This masterpiece of modernist writing bursts apart the narrative seams of the nineteenth century novel, shattering chronology and a psychology rooted in explicable cause and effect. The ensuing novel fits together a kaleidoscope of jagged shards of perception, leaping from one mind to another, moving through London with the sinuous grace of George MacDonald's North Wind and little of its whimsy. Set in the immediate aftermath of World War I, Mrs. Dalloway is at the most superficial level the story of a wealthy middle-aged woman planning a party at which she will meet a beloved friend for the first time in many years. The narrative, however, is irresistibly drawn into the mind of Septimus, a shell-shocked veteran who constantly relives the death of a fellow soldier and believes that he can no longer feel any emotion. It is this character that pries open the narrative to let in the traumatic aftershocks of World War I, aftershocks of such power that they unsettle the lives even of such contentedly situated upper-class ladies as Clarissa Dalloway.

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