Friday, December 19, 2014

Something I Read #9 — Jean Seznec

Something apropos to the time of the year appearing by happenstance in a book that has been long on my shelves and finally decided to read through: Jean Seznec's The Survival of the Pagan Gods: The Mythological Tradition and Its Place in Renaissance Humanism and Art (trans. Barbara F. Sessions, Princeton UP 1953, 1981; published under Bollingen Series XXXVIII). I'm not terribly far into the book, but I'm confident that if the title at all catches you you will enjoy the read.

It's a long excerpt; to keep it from being even longer I'm starting just a touch in the midst of things.

Such was the situation with which Christianity found itself confronted. In its intolerance of all the pagan cults, it is only natural that special hostility should have been shown to their most recent and lively embodiment – belief in powerful stellar divinities, with Helios as their king.

This hostility is in fact apparent from the very beginnings of Christianity: St. Paul reproaches the Galatians for continuing to observe "days and months and times and years" in the name of the "weak and beggarly elements" to which they desire again to be in bondage. Later, the apologists (here, incidentally, echoing the views of Philo of Alexandria) explain that it is a crime to deify the physical world – to worship the thing created instead of the creator. What seems to them particularly impious in the worship of the heavenly bodies, as well as a danger to morals, is that such worship implies a denial of all human liberty and can end only in a discouraging fatalism. At first sight, it would therefore seem that Christianity had nothing but cause to abhor pagan astrology and to oppose it.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird

Posting something newly added to the Cabinet, here.


As is often the case, happenstance led me to read Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird: the timing of seeing it on some "top-50" variety lists followed by watching over an FB discussion on the book. I have to say I very much enjoyed it, plowing through it in but four days (which is quick for me, considering my fiction reading usually gathers the least attention). It is a literary work, one that works not in the mechanical ticking of standard narrative but within the symbolic realm of myth. I would not raise it to the highest level of literature, but I would solidly put it on the second tier. That probably means nothing to anyone but me, so let me say instead that I would love to teach the book, and I am very discriminatory about the books that I might bring into a classroom. I do not care about a work's popularity or social importance: I care only for its merits as a work of literature, as an attempt at art.

The syntax is mostly direct, generally avoiding complexity in semantic style. Where the work rises above the norm is in how it drifts from narrative to exposition without ever losing the framework of being within the mind of the child; in how the book sets itself within a mythic world and sustains it through the whole of the book, if the reader at all participates; it how in its depictions of violence and sex it never falls into monotony or banality; and in its philosophical aspects it never devolves into ideology. Plus, its primary theme – that of the individual – is one inevitably attractive to me. The book is unified, envisioned, and well executed. On the slip cover of my edition (the second) there's quips by Arthur Miller, Luis Buñuel, and Anaïs Nin. Let me offer the third:

. . . by the great beauty of its style it lifts the entire experience to the philosophic, mythological realms of knowledge.

I stand with that description.

What I want to do below is simply talk about the book, primarily as responses the primary themes you see as regards the book: the violence, the sex, its relationship to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust and such. I've spent a bit of time just floating about the web, looking at reviews and commentaries, old and new. If there is one dominating theme it is how much I have found that seems to entirely misread the book; indeed, how often you see comments on the book that seem far more grounded in the history of the book rather than the book itself: that is, a history centered on its being declared a Holocaust text by the likes of Elie Wiesel.

That reading I wholly reject.