The fall of gods

When a child first catches adults out – when it first walks into his grave little head that adults do not have divine intelligence, that their judgements are not always wise, their thinking true, their sentences just – his world falls into panic desolation. The gods are fallen and all safety gone. And there is one sure thing about the fall of gods: they do not fall a little; they crash and shatter or sink deeply into green muck.

East of Eden, John Steinbeck

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All Quiet on the Western Front

This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will simply try to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.

All Quiet on the Western Front presents an engaging account of life under seige in trenches. Next year marks the 100 year anniversary of the outbreak of World War One, and All Quiet‘s exploration of the dehumanising impact of war remains powerfully pertinent and affecting. What’s particularly striking is the youth of the soldiers. Paul Baumer and his classmates are all only 19 or 20 when they enter the battlefield for the first time. They represent the sacrifice made by a generation of young men and the devastation this sacrifice entailed; even those who survived the struggle would not leave the trenches unscarred. Erich Maria Remarque’s portrayal voices a growing distrust for the older generation, Paul’s teachers and leaders, who have encouraged and effectively condemned the young to fight and die in their steed. This critique can be extended to all politicians: those who make a country’s decisions are not typically made to directly face the consequences of those decisions. Young, fit men were sent to their deaths in their millions in order to defend an order imposed on them from above. The war casts a long shadow over the lives of its survivors: reclaiming normality after witnessing the horrors of war seems an impossibility.

allquietWar is also depicted as having a corrosive effect on those very things which make us human. The soldiers’ experience of life has been narrowed to base bodily functions and the persistent fear of death. They bear witness to the frequent destruction and disintegration of the human body; the elevated, spiritual aspects of man are rendered obsolete by this new, purely physical understanding of humanity. No human sympathy is afforded to enemy soldiers or prisoners, because such human feeling would render warfare impossible. Ultimately, All Quiet presents a meditation on the loss of humanity incurred through war, and a pertinent warning about the futility of such conflict.

Into the Wild

Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild attempts to solve the riddle of Chris McCandleless’ life and untimely death: why did this privileged, academically talented young man feel such a fatal draw towards the Alaskan wilderness? To answer this question, Krakauer retraces Chris’ steps across his cross-country odyssey, Chris, who shed his birth name along with his savings account and rechristened himself Alexander Supertramp, endeared himself to everyone he encountered on his travels. These friends shared their fond recollections with Krakauer, but along with their memories emerges Chris’ desire to evade prolonged human intimacy and the baggage this intimacy entails. Chris appears a sensitive, intelligent, bright young man. Although his trip was to have tragic consequences, his desire for adventure is a timeless one. Few twenty-year-olds can honestly claim they’ve never experienced a longing to be footloose and shrug off their material trappings to explore a new world. Chris’ desire to travel was also engendered by difficulties in his relationship with his parents; after fulfilling their wishes and graduating, he wanted to take time to discover himself. Krakauer certainly understands this pull to the wild. He made a similar journey in his own youth, only to nearly meet his death and face the uneasy discovery that a mountain could not solve his problems. Had Krakauer died, he would likely have been dismissed, as many have dismissed Chris, as a foolish, romantically inclined youth, but it’s difficult to dismiss as intelligent and enigmatic a figure as Chris so easily.

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Chris was fascinated by the novels of Jack London. He shared many passions with the author, such as his anti-capitalist sentiment, and his glorification of the natural world. Chris failed, however, to separate fact from fiction, a surprising oversight from such an otherwise astute youth. The representation of the wilderness in London’s novel was based on a romanticised perception, rather than first-hand experience, and London’s own life deviated strongly from the ideals celebrated in his writing. When the story of Chris’ untimely death went public, he faced criticism from many on the charge of being a romantic, an ignorant idealist who fatally underestimated the country. While it’s not true that Chris was ignorant, he was perhaps unprepared, and reading Into the Wild it’s difficult not to feel frustrated with this wayward wanderer. While he had good grounds for his anger towards his father, it’s tough to reconcile his disaffection for his privileged upbringing with the maturity he demonstrates elsewhere. Krakauer states that on meeting Chris’ mother and witnessing her grief first hand, ‘even the most eloquent apologia for high risk activities ring fatuous and hollow’. There’s a hint that Chris was prepared to initiate a reconciliation with his family; he was certainly ready to end his odyssey and walk out of the wilderness. But due to a series of unfortunate incidents, Chris was never able to walk out (and recent findings suggest that his death was definitely not the result of ignorance). The riddle of Chris McCandless’ life is destined, however, to remain unsolved.

The Wild

A vast silence reigned over the land. The land itself was a desolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spirit was not even that of sadness. There was a hint in it of laughter, but of a laughter more terrible than any sadness – a laughter that was as mirthless as the smile of a Sphinx.  It was the masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of life. It was the Wild, the savage, frozen-hearted North-land Wild.

White Fang, Jack London

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Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress explores the power of books to transform the lives of their readers. In 1970s China, two young men are sent to the countryside for re-education and stumble across a suitcase of forbidden novels. The youths are deemed ‘intellectuals’ by the Cultural Revolution simply because they both graduated high school; this title is particularly barbed for the boys, since by the time they were able to attend school both maths and science had been wiped from the curriculum, so they were denied the chance to even aspire to become an intellectual. No books (except those either authored or favoured by Mao) are permitted, a ban which applies to Chinese classics and Western literature alike. As a result, other civilisations and China’s own rich past are shrouded in mystery.

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Discovering the suitcase of forbidden Western novels (Flaubert, Hugo, Dickens, Dumas) has a profound impact on the lives of the boys:

Brushing them with the tips of my fingers made me feel as if my pale hands were in touch with human lives.

They share the stories with a young girl in the next village, who is so entranced by Balzac’s story-telling that she listens literally open-mouthed. The books they uncover allow not only an insight into the lives of other people, but also allow the boys to understand their own world with greater clarity. They are able to fully appreciate what it means to live in a totalitarian society, where they are forbidden to enjoy the experiences detailed in the novels. In oppressive societies the transformative power of books is perceived as a dangerous force: it opens up the minds of its inhabitants to possibilities and opportunities they would never have considered before. Dai Sijie presents a celebration of the power of books: through reading, we can change the way we see the world.

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries for them from prayers or bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

Anthem for Doomed Youth, Wilfred Owen

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Illustration by Clifford Harper