Urban Lucubration

Observations on misanthropy, anonymity, and the value of silence.

January 31, 2010

5 Books that Changed You

"This can be a quick one. Don't take too long to think about it. Five books you've read that will always stick with you. First five you can recall in no more than 15 minutes. Tag 5 friends, including me because I'm interested in seeing what books my friends choose."

I could have written here a list of books which are considered "profound" - merely Google them and there are hundreds upon thousands of lists out there sporting big authors and classics - some of which are so convoluted and lengthy and complex and utterly boring that the list maker probably hasn't read it (Ulysses, anyone?).

Some of my most beloved books are transparent in plot, simple in language, obscure in reception, and trivial in reputation. I selected these books not because they are profound, but because they made a profound impact on me. I go through a myriad of books a year, and while I certainly retain the information that I gather over the years, much of the original text is lost in my memory. There are however, a few that stay with me for reasons unknown.

1. Heart of Darkness (Conrad)

Comparatively speaking, compared to the rest of my list, I read this one rather late. I didn't read this until I was 15. I'm not going to say that it changed my life, because what changes lives is not books, but rather, the choices we make walking in the shoes of protagonists. I do not believe that all fiction is worthwhile. Fiction that teaches us nothing is a waste of time - life is too short, and our knowledge of the universe is too limited for us to waste time on trivialities.

Heart of Darkness remains the book most significant to me because it is one of those rare books in which darkness prevails from beginning to end, with no reprieve even beyond the epilogue. There is no hero saving the day, no fairy godmothers, no kindness, no grand revelations about human compassion and endurance. There is just suffocating wickedness and profound cruelty and depravity and horror - utterly ruthless from beginning to end.

The storyline follows Marlow, a colonial sailor headed to Africa looking for work in the ivory trade. As he is traveling toward his work post near the Congo River, he hears more and more praise the closer he gets in regards to a mysterious character by the name of Kurtz. Kurtz, he is told, is the finest specimen of humanity that the so-called "civilized" white West have to offer. The workers deify him - lift him upon a godly pedestal of human civilization, intellect, moral character, and goodness; an "emissary of progress", and a "beacon of light".

The further Marlow sails into the "Dark Continent" of colonial Africa, the brighter grows the praise about Kurtz. He is longer merely a man, but a ghost and a god. As Marlow journeys toward the heart of Africa the reader journeys with him towards what must surely be, finally, a standard of moral conduct that is both selfless and universal. That ideal - that perfect ideal, is the only thing that sustains both the reader and Marlow as he wades through trials and tribulations; arid domains infested with "barbarians" and darkness and evil. To Marlow it has become something greater than a single individual, greater than himself - the redemption of humanity, and it is with that thought in mind that he endures.

The climax of the story - Marlow's anticipated meeting with Kurtz - is ambiguous and unsettling. To this day numerous Conrad scholars debate its meaning. Some are of the opinion that their single conversation is a grand triumph; a victory that burns brightly in the holy dark. Others contend that it was not an immense victory, but an immense defeat - a defeat so grand that there exists no conceivable hope of ever emerging from a state of moral depravity.

To the few Conrad scholars that I have contacted, while most concur that Heart of Darkness is a dense, concise work of genius, few believe that the book's message was anything but celebratory. It was a triumph, that all say. It was "an affirmation, a moral victory paid for by innumerable defeats, by abominable terrors, by abominable satisfactions. But it was a victory!" (Conrad, Ch. 2)

And one may choose to interpret it as such. Victory is always kinder to the victor. I do not discredit anyone if they choose to glean from it a lesson rather than a tragedy, because it is kinder that way.

To me however, the confrontation between Marlow and Kurtz was not kind. Through an investigation of their dialogue, it becomes apparent that Kurtz is not speaking to Marlow, but rather, to Marlow as single specimen of the human race. It is this grander audience that he addresses.

Kurtz is an angry, broken man whose grief has turned inexorably to rage. He is wicked and vile and Conrad saturates his presence with demonic imagery and curt, punctuated sentences as if every word spoken is unnecessary - and it is, it really is. Marlow and the reader alike are in shock and denial - this denial of humanity's true nature continues on after the reader is finished, the story is read, and the day is done.

The title itself (Heart of Darkness) can be interpreted in one of two ways:
a) (The) heart of darkness
b) (A) heart (composed) of darkness.

Clearly, one is kinder than the other. The reader can either choose to identify darkness as an external entity independent of oneself, and therefore the story becomes a journey toward the heart of darkness on earth - a story of bravery and nobility and conquest.

Alternatively, the reader must reconcile himself with the notion that to discover the heart of darkness, one need only look within.

I greatly admire this book because it makes no judgment on the "rightness" or "wrongness" of our decisions, only the consequences - one cannot fault Kurtz, because to condemn him is hypocrisy. Conrad makes no effort to introduce the concept of moral-immoral duality. Typically, the message of such works of literature emphasize the dual existence of good and evil, and that the existence of one is the necessary and sufficient condition for the existence of the other. I do believe however, that Conrad posits this novel in the form of both a warning and a reminder.

Heart of Darkness is ultimately a work of profound tragedy. The tragedy does not exist in the darkness itself, but rather, in the absence of light. More hopeless than wading through the dark is the notion of darkness without reprieve; a profound cynicism and loss of hope that redemption will ever be possible.

This is an excellent piece of literature, but let's be honest here - it's awesome because it's misanthropic and angry and cynical in such an enormously epic way.

Heart of Darkness = Win.

2. The Bible (by "god", apparently)

I just threw this one in there because it was an interesting read, and it took me 12 years to truly finish. Judeo-Christianity has been such a significant presence in human history, that I felt it deserved my attention by merit of that alone.

Writing style is great, syntax was superb in some areas - particularly the lyrical Psalms. Some of the fairy tales however, lacked character development.

The author should seriously work on that.

3. Catcher in the Rye (Salinger)

Alas, JD Salinger, may your angry, angry, hermit soul rest in peace.

I will be honest in saying that the moral of the novel did not strike me as groundbreaking in some profound philosophical way - there were no Joycean epiphanies or grand revelations about humanity. I do believe that the moral of the story was that life does not have a moral, and we should not live it expecting one to appear.

Ultimately, it made this list because I read it during a pivotal period in my life when I began to eschew conventional morality for my own brand of (admittedly dubious) moral relativism. I met Holden Caulfield during a period of my childhood when I realized that things failed to move me as it did for my peers; there is comfort in solidarity - you cannot be an immoral person if your eyes are blind to the judgments of others. Life is a journey we begin and end alone, so really, who gives a flying fuck what conventional morality has to teach you about being human. Just live life until it's done, then, you're done.

Holden desired to preserve the innocence of children - their sincerity, naivete, and blindness. I am, in many ways, far less noble than him. I'm not sure what to make of that.

I disagree with the notion that "there is a sucker born every minute". First of all, suckers are clearly made by a intellectually-wilted society that demands obedience, not born. Secondly, there are a hell of a lot more suckers created every minute than the statement would suggest.

There are certain individuals who choose to take the moral high ground - whom declare for themselves a responsibility to protect the morally blind. I lack their nobility. I have no issue with stealing from the blind.

4. Without Conscience (Hare, PhD)

I picked this book off the library shelf when I was 11. It was newly published just a few weeks prior. This book spurred my lifelong interest in personality psychology, and I followed Dr. Hare's work all through junior high, highschool, and now into university.

I'll be honest, the book wasn't particularly enthralling. It was far too sensationalized for my taste - a tad too much dramatization and shock value phrasing. That being said, I do understand that often times this is necessary to make learning accessible - accuracy and complexity is often sacrificed when catering to more generalized audiences. Nevertheless, it made this list because it was such a significant moment that shaped the course of my academic and intellectual career.

I have always lacked interest in positive psychology, that is, the psychology of functional, chronically happy people. It is not that I think positive psychology is not a worthwhile pursuit, because it is. It really is. Simply the amount of funding that goes into gifted child psychology, for example, make it worth it, notwithstanding the almost infinite reservoir of research avenues.

The simple fact is that such people bore me. I have no interest in studying sheep.

It is clear that psychopathy fascinates the public. The motivations behind such a fascination are often rooted in fear - fear of victimization, but more critically, fear that their neighbor could be harboring such terrifying people - fear that they are sleeping with the enemy.

Ironically, and curiously, few are interested because they fear becoming one, or of discovering that they are already beyond the point of no return. Such a motivation reeks of judgment, and efforts to distance the self from the abominable at the cost of ignorance.

5. Rule of St. Benedict

I am not a theist. I do not structure my life around a divine entity. I do not pray. That being said, the Rule of St. Benedict is most aptly described as a guide for monastic life.

This piece of writing did not change my life, but it did change my lifestyle. As a secular humanist, to read the Rule of St. Benedict with specifics in mind is foolish and futile. However, there are a great many elements that I do find attractive in monastic living. They have nothing to do with god or living a conventionally "godly" life.

There are 4 things that I structure my life around: silence, gravitas, solitude, and simplicity.

These are elements which are highly congruent with the monastic lifestyle, regardless of divine origins or purpose. Such values are not to be taken literally nor lightly. I have no desire to join the ranks of monasticism, considering that the goal of monasticism is too seek god. Rather, it is the monastic mindset that appeals to me, which I had already adopted long before reading the book.

For instance, silence does not refer to audible silence. To be silent is difficult but not straining - something which can be accomplished by any individual. To my understanding of silence, silence is less about noise and more about the need to create noise. Observing silence is to realize the value of a quiet mind.

Similarly, gravitas affords a certain level of solemnity and poise. It is not to say that life may not be enjoyed, but rather, that life should be taken with some degree of seriousness.

The notion of solitude naturally lends itself to a high regard for simplicity. My bedroom is spartan, my belongings few, and my dresser sparse. To refrain from excessive materialism is not, contrary to popular belief, merely about ridding oneself of things - it is the ridding of the desires which led us to a drive for possession.

There do exist a few minor technicalities which I have adopted or abridged from the Rule of St. Benedict. For instance, while the cornerstone of monasticism is prayer and faith, I have neither, and so see no benefit from the integration of these habits. I do however, adopt the periods of extended silence - hours or days during which I refrain from speaking and am silent.

Moreover, monasticism concerns itself greatly with the notion of detachment - material relations, interpersonal relations, and familial reasons alike. This philosophy I have abided by for years. The Rule of St. Benedict is a religious text from which I gleaned a holistic mindset, rather than specific monastic rules. To this day, secular monasticism remains my life philosophy of choice.