Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936)

I’ve been sitting on this Orwellian treasure for a few years. Every so often I get an urge to go to a used bookstore and buy up all I can find of a particular author…and then I proceed to not read any of the books for a very long time. What is wrong with me? I hear it’s a common problem, at least.

Well, sometimes it’s fate that causes this to happen.

As it turns out, Keep the Aspidistra Flying is about a young man, Gordon Comstock, who has some major issues with getting a “real job” because of his dire hatred of money and the capitalistic infrastructure that keeps society “going.”  This is an ironic book for me to read because of my own “real job” issues and so I thought the time to read this book is now, or never!

So I picked it up, hoping to gain some insight into my own situation. After all, Orwell is known for a little moralizing, and it’s always nice to find yourself nestled snugly inside his every-man/woman.  I got what I was looking for, and I also got a nice reminder of Orwell’s criticism of his own society.

Gordon Comstock, after suffering for about four years at poverty level, working as a bookstore associate (though he is an aspiring, published, small-time poet), gets himself into some trouble by getting his girlfriend pregnant. After four years of quite militantly defying all-things-bourgeois, he VERY SURPRISINGLY relents completely to the middle class life and even resorts to ordering the dreaded houseplant, aspidistra, the one thing he’s loathed more than money. This is disturbing but not altogether unexpected, given what the reader is left with at the end of 1984: Winston Smith is sitting drinking Victory Gin, after having suffered through Room 101, only to have ultimately relented to the Inner Party Ideals.  Both men in these cases have tried to push through the immense pressures that their respective societies/authorities have thrust onto them; both put up a good fight; and both ultimately relent and, perhaps worst of all, accept.

I think the most glaring aspect of this novel is how similar the two narratives are in terms of Gordon Comstock and Winston Smith. Clearly Gordon Comstock was a precursor to the sentiments and character traits that Orwell wanted to portray with Winston Smith.

Perhaps the saddest part of this novel is reading the publisher’s (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich) description of it on the back: “Despite its poignancy and merciless wit, hope does break through in this book’s happy ending, a tribute to the stubborn virtues of ordinary people, who keep the aspidistra flying.”

NO! You fools! There is NO HOPE!  There is NO HAPPY ENDING!  That’s the point!  There is only falling prey to capitalism and consumerism and the unhappy hum-drum existence of bourgeois homogeneity!   Are we then supposed to believe that Winston Smith is happy after having been tortured and re-brainwashed and sent to wait to be killed by the Inner Party at some undisclosed time? No! We have to look at Winston Smith and pity him his dilemma. Same with Gordon Comstock. We, as thoughtful readers, should pity him his newfound re-acceptance of consumption after all he’s been through.  The publisher should be ashamed for writing such unilluminated copy.

What I learned from this book is that giving in, after militantly standing by your ideals, is the easy, fool’s way out; is the Winston Smith way out. And who can look at Winston Smith and say “I wanna be that guy”?  No way. I’ll go with Braveheart.

Rendezvous with Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke (1973)

What I like about Arthur C. Clarke’s writing is that his narratives are so diverse.  By that, I mean that there will be periods of narrative description or dialogue without much action, then he will hit you with the good stuff:  the stuff that gets your heart pumping and makes YOU want to get the heck out of whatever predicament his characters are in.  Its those moments of heart palpitations that keep me reading his books.  And those are some of the greatest moments of this novel.

So after reading Clarke’s 4-book 2001 saga (see my Cinematophiliac blog posting on it, and other related posts), I couldn’t resist Rendezvous with Rama, if not for the cover’s flaunting of its Hugo and Nebula awards.  Okay, enough of the build up.

WARNING: SPOILER ALERT!!! (though you’ve had since 1973 to read this…. 😉

It’s ironic that Clarke ends this book mentioning the triple redundancy of the Ramans because of the quadruple-plus redundancy of his books I’ve read so far (2001, 2010, 2061, & 3001), and the other three left in the Rama series. Anyway, that’s an interesting side note.

Rendezvous with Rama ended before I thought it would, but clearly it ended primed for a sequel.  That’s good and I wasn’t disappointed.  I read books much like I watch films:  with little to no understanding of their backgrounds.  I never read film reviews, and I’d certainly never be caught reading a book review.  It’s just not my style.  And, that way I am surprised by what unfolds, like not realizing there were sequels to this book.  It sounds naive, but really it’s much more pleasurable that way.  And, if I knew there were 4 books, I might not have read the first one!  Large volumes intimidate me.  For instance, I took almost an entire summer to read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible.  It was like 500 pages!  Great book though.

Sometimes the beginning of Clarke’s story is a bit tedious (i.e. my mention above of the diversity of his narratives), with a lot of background information before you get into the meat of the action.  I realize, after reading his books, that I really like narrative action.  I like feeling connected with the situations the characters are in:  the danger, the clock ticking away.  It’s exhilerating.  I think of the books on narratology I read in grad school. Mainly Mieke Bal’s On Narratology.  I learned a lot from that book.

One of the things that stood out for me in this novel was the insistence by Captain Norton to do the right and ethical thing at ever moment possible.  In fact, there weren’t any situations in which he acted out of fear or impulse.  He always took into consideration the way their actions would affect the Ramans and he went to extremes to make sure that they did not adversely affect the temporary world they were exploring.  I think that’s great.  He was even open minded to one of his crewmen’s (Rodrigo) “religious” explanations and thoughts on Rama, and eventually let him disable the bomb sent by the Hermians on Mercury.

(I just now get why they called them Hermians…obviously Hermes, the Greek god of the forge!  Ahh…Thank God for The Iliad and The Odyssey!!!  They’re the gifts that keep on giving! I love it!  And this is what’s so wonderful about writing on this blog:  it helps so much with comprehension and retention of what I’ve read.  Mission Accomplished!).

Captain Norton reminds me of Captain Jonathan Archer from the Star Trek: Enterprise TV series (2001-2005) because Captain Archer ALWAYS took the most ethical route possible.  That was a great TV series, by the way, and I can’t believe it went off the air. 

At a time when a lot of uncertainty was barreling through the solar system, and a lot of people were afraid of the unknown, Captain Norton kept his head on straight and didn’t react out of fear.  This says a lot about the type of character that Clarke was developing:  someone level-headed who could take in all of the data from a lot of different directions, and make the right decision.  His compassion for the reasonableness of his “religious” crewman (Rodrigo) showed perhaps the most about Norton’s character: that he didn’t jump to conclusions and assume the guy was a whack-job. 

I think we all need to learn some lessons from this:  we might be surrounded by people we think are whack-jobs, but aren’t we being just as fanatic by not being open to their ideas? 

I’m wondering what Rama II has in store for Captain Norton, or future generations’ captains.  I assume it’ll pick up with the NEXT Rama ship (because there will be 3 if we read the triple redundancy correctly) and will help prove why it’s best to NOT bomb things we don’t understand, but rather observe, relate, and let them go on their merry way.  And, who knows how many years it will take for ship #2 to get there….

I finish with this:  In our day and age, can “we” refrain from bombing things and people “we” don’t understand?  Or is there a Captain Norton or a Rodrigo out there brave enough to stand up to the “Hermians,” and their political influence, savagery, and xenophobia, for the good of not only us, but for the good of those we don’t know, can’t see, and certainly don’t understand? 

That’d be nice.

When Things Fall Apart, by Pema Chodron, Ch. 1-8

A very good friend of mine, JD, recommended and gave me this book because it’s always reassuring to read things like this when you’re at a liminal moment in your life.  It’s written by a Canadian Buddhist “nun” and contains many insightful thoughts on dealing with fear, uncertainty, suffering, and compassion, among other things.    It’s interesting reading this at the same time as Hawking’s book because of some overlap.

Here is the bibliographic reference for the book: 

Chodron, Pema.  When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times.  Boston: Shambhala, 2005.

Here are some of Chodron’s insights, which I feel are most applicable:

  • SUFFERING is an inevitable part of life if we keep on believing that life is everlasting; therefore, if we give up the idea that things don’t eventually “disintegrate” or die-for-good, then we reduce or eliminate our suffering (11).  In other words, we suffer because we assume things can and should be better (tomorrow, in the afterlife, etc.). She later discusses our fear of death and I will get to that a little later.
  • She advises us to relax in the midst of chaos and UNCERTAINTY(13).  This is ironic because of the other book I’m reading (Hawking) and its discussion of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.  What I take from this connection is that uncertainty is in everything and we must embrace it and be satisfied with it.
  • We should seek to lose our “EGO” by seeking neither to INDULGE or REPRESS; therefore, if we remove that “ego-balance” from between the Id and the Superego, neither will exist and all will be in balance naturally (18).
  • By seeking a state of ego-lessness, we allow all of our thoughts to arise and simply go away without indulging or repressing them (19).  This is a common theme in the book:  to embrace your thoughts (and fears) and meet them head-on, then let them melt away and not bother you.  But the main thing is to face your fears, your obsessions, your addictions, etc.
  • She talks about MEDITATION and how difficult it can be to truly clear your mind.  A way to face this dilemma is to literally  label your mid-meditation thoughts as “thinking” when they come into your mind, and then once you’ve acknowledged those thoughts, let them go and return to an empty mind (27).  In other words, acknowledge the thoughts, let them go, and relax.
  • COMPASSION is the root of Buddhist philosophy.  Chodron writes a lot about praticing GENTLENESS & LETTING GO (32).
  • ENLIGHTENMENT is attaining a wakeful state of no more DELUSION(35).
  • Chodron advises to PAY ATTENTION to life more (37).
  • MINDFULNESS is “a sense of clear seeing with respect and compassion for what it is we see” (39).
  • REFRAINING is an important concept that she reviews.  She says: “Mindfulness is the ground; refraining is the path” (39). 
  • We avoid things out of fear.  We tend to want to “[fill] up space just because there’s a gap” (40).  In other words, we can’t sit alone with ourselves because perhaps we’re afraid of what thoughts will pop into our minds so we try to fill the spaces of our lives in order to avoid GROUNDLESSNESS.
  • Chodron says we FEAR GROUNDLESSNESS (41).   But we have to face that fear head-on and be okay with the groundlessness.  The method to do this is to REFRAIN from reacting to the fear and restlessness (41).
  • Pausing helps us connect with fundamental RESTLESSNESS and SPACIOUSNESS (42).  I think this is especially important in regard to our desire to seek an answer to our questions about the universe (c.f. Hawking).
  • Chodron wants us to respect the jitters, and learn to pause and not be impulsive or react negatively; therefore move toward less compulsiveness (42-43). In other words, face things head-on without fear of being groundless. 
  • This reminds me of another book (recommended by JD), Ethics for the New Millennium, in which one of the major points the Dalai Lama focuses on is the importance of PRACTICING to be more compassionate.  It’s not about reacting perfectly every time, but rather practicing reacting more compassionately, and eventually you won’t have to “fake it til you  make it.” 
  • Ultimately Chodron wants us to refrain from reacting (emotional chain reactions or anxiety) and therefore become more clear (44-45).
  • HOPELESSNESS is a necessity.  We must give up HOPE in order to relax about where and who we are (46).  We must give up HOPE that the world is to blame for our own situation and that thinking that way brings us satisfaction (47).
  • SUFFERING dissolves when there’s nowhere left to hide; therefore, when there’s no more HOPE (47).  Ultimately, attaining lasting security in our lives is impossible (47).
  • In other words, if we sit around being HOPEFUL that our situation will eventually get better, we DENY reacting in the PRESENT to those emotions and dealing with them properly.  If we allow the idea of HOPELESSNESS into our lives, we will eliminate our SUFFERING.   
  • You really have to think about that one:  Chodron says that lasting security is an hopeless endeavor  (48).  One can never be ultimately secure because nothing in the world is permanent or doesn’t change.  Even Hawking says this about the universe because it is ever-expanding, ever-reproducing.  Therefore, if you give up HOPE that your SUFFERING will end (i.e. from ever suffering again), you will be living in a state of HOPELESSNESS, which is a good place to be because you won’t be sitting around expecting your life to never encounter any more suffering.
  • Chodron says that NONTHEISM (versus THEISM) allows for the individual to relax with the idea that life is ambiguous and uncertain and that we cannot protect ourselves from SUFFERING (48).  This is true. We cannot protect ourselves from SUFFERING, so why not just resign ourselves to the fact that it will happen and when it does happen, take it in and then let it go.
  • DHARMA is a total appreciation of IMPERMANENCE and CHANGE (48).  Life is a constant coming-and-going.
  • Chodron says that SUFFERING is not inherently bad or wrong, but our ADDICTION to HOPE leads us to the idea that SUFFERING is BAD (49).  This leads to the HOPE/FEAR dichotomy.
  • Chodron writes: “In an nontheistic state of mind, ABANDONING HOPE is an affirmation, the beginning of the beginning.  You could even put “Abandon Hope” on your refrigerator door instead of more conventional aspirations like “Every day in every way I’m getting better and better”” (50). 
  • This is an especially profound statement and it reminds me of another text in which “Abandon Hope” is used:  Dante’s Inferno!  Inscribed on the wall of the entrance to Hell is a phrase: “Abandon hope, ye who enter here.”  Now, this is used in a different way than Chodron intends it but they do overlap.  Chodron advises us to ABANDON HOPE in order to END our SUFFERING.  Dante tells those who journey into Hell to ABANDON HOPE because they will SUFFER greatly with NO END.  But, in both instances, HOPE is unnecessary and should be abandoned.  Very interesting!
  • According to Chodron, HOPE leads to a sense of lacking and when we CONFRONT and EMBRACE our own SUFFERING, we don’t resort to HOPE (50).  Even in Dante’s Hell, this rings true because the souls in Hell, in fact, EMBRACE SUFFERING and want it badly because they do not want God’s love, they want the exact opposite!
  • Chodron writes that because INSECURITY and PAIN cannot be exterminated, we must embrace HOPELESSNESS and GROUNDLESSNESS in order to resolve ourselves to the fact that when INSECURITY and PAIN occur in our lives, we meet them head-on and then move on (51).
  • FEAR OF DEATH is a profound state of being.  Death occurs whether we like it or not.  We are all aware that we will die and we fear it. We DENY that TIME is passing. Reminders of DEATH cause us to PANIC.  If we RELAX with the PRESENT MOMENT and see that everything CHANGES over TIME, that HOPELESSNESS is the preferred state of being, that DEATH is inevitable and not to be feared, then we will END our own SUFFERING (52-55).
  • We must become HOPELESS in terms of the PRESENT MOMENT and not expect it to be better, to suffer less, etc.  Becoming HOPELESS helps rectify our FEAR OF DEATH because the PRESENT MOMENT is what matters and dealing with things in the PRESENT helps END our SUFFERING in the PRESENT.  The PRESENT MOMENT is what matters.
  • The EIGHT WORLDLY DHARMAS that cause PAIN and SUFFERING are actually four dichotomies:  PLEASURE/PAIN, PRAISE/CRITICISM(BLAME), FAME/DISGRACE, GAINING/LOSING (56).
  • If we practice our REACTIONS to our preconceived notions about these things, we will SUFFER less. If we pay attention to how we REACT when moments of PRAISE occur, we will better understand how to deal with moments when CRITICISM occur. Chodron says to be CURIOUS about your reactions to the EIGHT WORLDLY DHARMAS, and not HABITUAL (61).
  • Chodron advises us to ENJOY in the PRESENT without clinging to our preconceived/prepared REACTIONS to things, then let those MOMENTS dissolve: this is the ultimate NONATTACHMENT.

So far, Chodron’s book has given me a lot of interesting things to ponder.  Much of it I’ve read before in works by the Dalai Lama, but I think lessons like these need to be reinforced a lot because our minds can sometimes forget the obvious lessons of life.