The Sentence by Louise Erdrich is about the power of words, spoken or written, awakening the spirits of the author, storyteller, characters, and readers, all adrift and luminous as the boundary between the real and the ideal collapses. It’s a polyphonic work of trauma narrative, cultural studies, social commentary, and philosophical memoir interwoven in multiple strands of a joint account.
The story evolves around Tookie, a doubting bibliophile who thinks books have everything you should know except what actually matters. Books are no more than a portal to mental escapade, a world of make-believe in the likeness of truth or reflected in the highest ether of reason and sentiment, which makes no defining impact on her checkered life as if it were her sentence from the judges of this world and the beyond. So much so that when Tookie finds that the newly deceased soul of a regular customer haunts the bookstore, she works at, she laments her fate of chaos that seems ever to stalk her small wish to live a quiet everyday life. Is it her sentence to live In perceptual existential malaise? And yet, Tookie ends up living daily life with a loving husband and daughter in a house of their own with a steady job as a bookstore attendant. Isn’t it what is considered an everyday life? So why can’t Tookie let the ghost alone when ghosts refuse to depart for the other until they finish their businesses in the world as part of their spiritual sentence?
I decided to read this book after reading a review from the NYT Book Review a couple of months ago because of Tookie for being exceptional wanting to be ordinary. I felt for her, which was valid until the middle of the book. But as Tookie became settled with her husband in their own house burgeoning as a knowledgeable employee at a local bookstore, she began to lose her fabulous, unique luster. Indeed, I was all high fives for her happiness that I felt deserving, but the further I progressed to pages, the more my heart parted with Tookie’s existential frustration, except the touching moments of love between her and her husband. Also, unlike the book’s general introduction as a ghost story, It is not a supernatural book that will fulfill your cravings for an intelligent horror story. Instead, it is an extended short story featuring a ghost as a fire-starter of narratives connected by bibliophilia. The author believes bibliotherapy is a recipe for the existential malady to quiet the anxious mind. There is no more enchanting than a book, electronic or bound. The lifeless words become alive as the reader awakens the book’s spirit by entering the world of make-believe through the labyrinth of stories leading to the secret garden of truths that the author has fruited.
Like Hecate, the goddess of underdogs, I have a soft spot for writers and thinkers who arose above personal hardships and triumphed in the will. If they have not experienced human highs and lows, how could they write and explain the meaning of life? Take the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky whose near-death experience on the gallows and subsequent travails shaped how he viewed humanity, the purpose of God, and the dichotomy of good and evil. I compared the life of Dostoevsky with that of Victor E. Frankl, the father of Logotherapy, who survived five death camps during World War 2 because both men’s intellectual fervor saved them from self-destruction in the darkest hours of their lives.
Dostoevsky (hereinafter “D”) was a political prisoner sentenced to death for reading banned books. But the most incredible feat of luck pulled him out of the gallows, and he was sent to a Siberian work camp. He forced himself to channel a danger of hopelessness and resignation in such a squalid environment into the world of imagination. His characters were his alter egos trapped in a cycle of solipsistic containment of morality, religiosity, and social justice. In these attitudinal and creative values as a way of relieving himself from the slough of despond, D finds a kindred spirit in Frankl (hereinafter “F”), whose spirit never succumb to the hopeless situations in death camps where life seemed to be a curse. Instead, f kept himself busy by constantly devising his school of thought, analyzing it, and structuralizing the concepts in his head and on any writable medium he could find discreetly. The result is Logotherapy, the third Viennese school of psychotherapy that encompasses philosophy, religion, neurology, and psychoanalysis, whose nature and method are common to all humans and applicable to all regardless of age, gender, race, and culture.
So much so for the reading of the brief article, but the effect is magnanimous and resonant with a pellucid tenor of a victorious high human spirit with humor as a handmaid to intellect (wit), which would otherwise be grim and dreary subject to temperamental bouts of depression and pessimism. Both men in their prime of youth had their sovereign rights of individualities in tatters and shackles, but their willingness to live and achieve their goals exceeded the compass of the malicious fortune and triumphed in perennial glory. They are, as Ben Jonson in his humor might have concurred, men not of an age but for all time.
It always amazes me that some people can get away with their character flaws and faults under the aegis of social status and wealth, such as modern-day celebrities. The celebrities of the bygone days were kings and queens whose God-given authorities indemnified them from punishment. Their entitled strangeness swiveled my head in wonderment at the stupendousness of freakiness. Ironically, this anecdotal recounting of the cruel-to-be kind potentates reminds me of a tenet of Logotherapy, which explains that a healthy dose of suspense in life helps us escape boredom, resulting in excessive indulgence in perverted pleasure-seeking.
This book tells of the infamous kings and queens and some aristocrats. They are famous and lesser-known, mainly from Russia and Eastern Europe, which gives a somber ambiance to the tales of weirds born with silver spoons in their mouths. The most memorably horrible and ignoble characters that left indelible marks on my consciousness are as follows:
1. Elizabeth Bethany: This diabolically perverted Hungarian countess whose uncle was a king of Poland had a fixation on blood and pain in devotion to youth and beauty. Some say she was trained to be cruel, but I think it has to do with her connatural inclination for cruelty passed down in her lineage. Her aunt was a Satan-worshipping noblewoman who sought erotic pleasure in young girls, which Elizabeth also learned and practiced in her castle. She had her trusty three maids lured beautiful young girls, usually from poor families, under the pretext of training them for top-rated maids-in-waiting with generous munificence to the families. What happened next was all over but the shouting. Bethany tortured the girls in unthinkably cruel ways and bathed in their blood because she believed doing it would restore youth and beauty. She deserves no revisionist or appeals on the crime against the girls under her care. Nevertheless, modern-day feminists and the radical leftists are moved to portray her as a wrongfully accused Calvinist woman in a time when sectarian religious rivalry and antipathy were rampant. Her being charged by a Lutheran minister in the town does not ipso facto constitute Lutheran machination of destroying the Calvinist influence in the region. If the minister conspired to concoct any such plot, he would have targeted a man, not a woman whose social status was not entirely regarded as equally significant as a man even in high birth.
2. Vlad the Lad, aka the Impaler, aka Dracula: The proverbial bloodsucker ruler had a penchant for impaling men, women, and children for leisure and punishment. The point was to give them slow deaths to heighten the apex of pain till the last breath. The legend of Count Dracula is loosely based on this Romanian ruler who might have inspired an idea of shashlik, kebab. Or any skewed food. Thanks to the detailed accounts of how Vlad artistically mastered impaling, I swore off any such skewered food lest it should conjure up the vista of the impaled helpless.
3. Frederick I of Prussia: A stout and short, the king’s obsession with men in great height was his actualization of ideation. He had the tallest men in all the regions of Europe, especially from the North, to establish the royal military version of a freak company called “The Potsdam Giants.” The recruits, or in many cases, abductees, were consisted of a former woodsman, laborers, and farmers, allured by abundant compensations promising dazzling delights of secured lives. Yet it was an empty promise, beguiling the simple-minded low-class foreigners, who were subjected to mistreatments and even punishments should they attempt to escape. The king’s pastime was to call upon the guards at any time anywhere, including in his chamber at night, and watch them in full uniform, admiring their impossibly imposing physique that he coveted but could never have. Thank God that his son Frederick the Great disbanded the freakish guards no sooner than had he succeeded his father upon his death.
I wonder if these royal characters were due to in-breeding abnormalities, which were usually customary in European dynasties to preserve their noble royal lineage. It also testifies that keeping means in one’s life is a blessing because extreme wealth and poverty lead a soul astray due to listlessness and exasperation, resulting in amoral walking dead subsisting on the pain of the others. Robinson Crusoe’s sagacious father was right in saying that the best is the upper station of low life. Mel Brooks once uttered, “It’s good to be a king.” Unfortunately, it only applies to these afore-described weird and evil characters. A good king or queen doesn’t.
Great writers are great because they know how to tell entertaining and enduring stories without religious and didactic overtones. Moreover, they are unafraid of speaking their minds without a qualm of conventional belief or sectarian principles. Yesterday, I read an essay called “The Republic of Heaven” from Demon Voices by Philip Pullman, a renowned British best-selling writer whose intelligently tongue in cheek styled narrative raises the dander of the Catholic Church for his acerbic view of the orthodox teaching. With my reading of Candide by Voltaire still fresh in mind, I find Pullman and his philosophy of free thought familiar with that of Voltaire and realize that true intellectuals think among people and live in social companions of public spirits for the good of humanity. Thus, here is my discursive impression of Pullman’s “The Republic of Heaven.”
Pullman urges us to step aside from habit, a banal molded frame of life, to see the world outside the box, which will lead to an immense world of delight, the Republic of Heaven, for we are worthier than we think we know because we are such stuff made of wonder. Pullman’s heroine is Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, who has resisted against the magistrate of grim and gray puritanical ethos that decries an expression of feelings and emotions under religious disciplines. She remonstrates against the cold-hearted Mrs. Reed thus: “You think I have no feelings and that I can do without one bit of love or kindness, but I cannot live so.” Her demand for love stems from her need for it, which is an essential food for the soul that serves a purpose and pique for life. This sense of love so wanting in Jane cannot be quelled by false optimism that such distress is the best for the best of all possible world. On the contrary, it is an outcry of the soul desirous of warm and soft human touch that thrills the heart and invigorates the mind. Human beings cannot live by Reason alone, forced to utilize when the right of five senses is forfeited and bound by misconceived religious concepts and false moral measures.
The founder of Logotherapy, the third Viennese school of psychotherapy, Viktor E. Frankl, witnessed a learned Jewish woman in his concentration camp killing herself despite daily recitation of wise sayings of the Torah supposedly being a consolation. Frankl affirms that we humans cannot live without the joy of life, that is, an appreciation of pleasure to the senses because otherwise, we will degenerate to a provisional being living day to day like prisoners of dreary dungeons in the darkness of hopelessness. Pullman agrees with Franklin the creative and experiential values of pleasure that keep a journey to live a purposeful and meaningful life.
The creation and experience of art spark the joy of moments that can be synonymous with a meaning of happiness in life. Some find consolation in religion, but it does not give them whys to live for, nor kindness to show hows. Pullman’s concept of the Republic of Heaven comes to a head prominently when we are stranded in the chaos of existential vacuum, the kind of which the loyal and conscientious butler Stevens felt when he lost his faith in his idealized employer in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. However, if Stevens pursued his love for Miss Kenton and appreciated the pleasure of love he consciously denied, he would not have felt the sudden void in his life. The sense of delight in the physical world is the essence of the Republic of Heaven that he and we are conditioned to ignore. The point of Pullman’s philosophy is that we are too serious about the pleasure our physical world provides. And it’s not a chemical-induced euphoria for escape from the world but a new attitude toward our perspectives of it. Elenore Roosevelt also knew how to become a citizen of the Republic, thus: “Do one thing every day that scares you.” I should try that.
To tell a story within you is an expression of yourself, an affirmation of your identity, in an expanse of will wielded by the spirit of freedom. Storytelling is, in fact, a way of logotherapy that helps you find meaning in life from your daily tasks to your traumatic experiences by sublimating the pains of the heart to the blessings of the spirit, in the realization of Amore Feti. In this book, Anita Sethi shoehorns her experience of racism in England into a rivetingly ingenious travel memoir in the spectacle of a beautiful natural landscape where she belongs.
Her narrative has a lyrical quality with a poet’s rhythm that reminds me of a Portuguese Fado song. Her words sing her story of an uneasy love relationship with her own country into a continuous fugue of love, betrayal, loneliness, and friendship vested with her experiences with people and nature. It is at once dolorous and enchanting as if to listen to a mysteriously elusive melody hummed by a ghost of a sad maiden who died in brokenheartedness. Yet, this doesn’t mean Sethi is a ghost damsel in distress bemoaning her betrayed love. She is a warrior who chose the pen to vindicate her attacker and other minor offenders of her South Asian ethnicity as a way to overcome her fear and anxiousness, arising from her ashes like Nietzsche’s noble phoenix.
Sethi’s narrative then becomes a eulogy to the natural landscape of Great Britain; she finds an elbow room, a niche, her library of wonder. As Shakespeare pointed out, nature is exempt from public haunt, finds good in everything. It is a grand luxurious spa free of charge to all, although that is not always tainted by the malice of incivility on the part of humans. However, Sethi, in her story, asserts that no one can take away her right to belong in the beauty of nature and the country she regards as a home and proclaims her self-identity by telling her personal story incorporating the words into the images of British mountains and forests, exempting her from a malady of social ills and elevating her to the citizens of the Universe.
The book is an excellent bedtime fellow when you want something thoughtful but not burdened with elements associated with scholarly apparatuses. The narrative is flowing melodiously, and the author’s spirit is within the texts, full of emotions but nuanced in her infatuation with the beauty of British landscapes that provide her with holistic healing power. They say you don’t protect what you don’t care about, and you don’t care what you have not experienced. To appreciate the value of this book doesn’t mean you have to be of a particular ethnicity, gender, or race. As long as you have taste and judgment universal in all humans, especially with a strong sense of empathy and a lover of nature, you will find her story alluringly gripping and feel her pains and loves as if they were your own.