Playing Favorites: Rediscovering A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

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Author: Madeleine L’Engle
First Published: 1963
Genre: Fiction, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Literature
Awards: Newberry Medal, Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, and the Sequoyah Book Award
**A Wrinkle in Time is the first book in Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet Series**

“There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we spent with a favorite book.” – Marcel Proust

For the bookish child, there is at least one book that will ignite his/her lifelong passion for literature. This favorite book will speak to the child at the most fundamental level. In moments of crisis, it will lend him/her the strength of its protagonists. Between its covers lies a safe space where the child will feel understood and less alone. In some cases, the book may even open up a world of possibilities beyond what the imagination readily offers. It will be a solace to the child, an escape from the rigors and prison-like confines of real life.

In my case, my favorite childhood book is A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. It was a book that served all the aforementioned purposes and more. Its protagonist, Meg Murry, with her social awkwardness, her struggles with conformity, and inability to fit in, reflected the same issues I had growing up. See, like Meg, I was a socially awkward kid. I was eager to please and painfully shy, which as I learned in adulthood is a terrible combo as far as developing your self-worth is concerned. Books, for me, provided the companionship I craved and a much-needed haven where I could be myself—oddities, queer habits, quirks, and all that.  Hey, I even liked Math and was pretty good at it, pre-algebra too, at least.

I remember the first time I read A Wrinkle in Time. I was about 9. It must have been a borrowed copy too, because I was extra-careful not to bend the spine. In lieu of dog ears, I’d slip scraps of paper between its leaves. Now, did I borrow it from the library? Did I borrow it from a friend? The memory is a tricky thing. Some details in life stand out starkly, but I suppose the details that do, do so because of how they made you feel—at least for me. I’ve always been pants at memorization.

Anyhow, in case you haven’t read Wrinkle, I’ve included a lengthy summary of its plot below. Summaries and synopsis are weak spots of mine, so I hope I can do Wrinkle some justice.

“It was a dark and stormy night…”

Thirteen-year-old Meg Murry’s adventure starts with that ominous, if overused, first line. At the start of the book, the reader is introduced to the Murrys via Meg’s viewpoint. We learn that Meg is the eldest of the Murry children. Her mother is a beautiful and brilliant scientist with doctorate degrees in Biology and Bacteriology, while her father is a top-level government physicist. Mr. Murry mysteriously disappeared over a year ago while he was working on a top-secret government assignment involving fifth-dimensional space travel (a.k.a tesseract).

On top of missing her father and worrying about her mother, Meg is also riddled with insecurities. She considers herself the oddball and the disappointment in the family. Despite her high IQ, she is struggling in school and is unable to make friends. She is shown to be a loving and loyal daughter, albeit prone to moments of violence and volatility particularly when it comes to protecting her loved ones. Her three younger brothers include the ‘perfectly normal’ twins, Sandy and Dennys (aged 10), and her baby brother, Charles Wallace (aged 5).

Like Meg, outside the family, Charles Wallace is also shown to be very misunderstood. He is often referred to as her ‘dumb baby brother,’ mainly because despite his large vocabulary, he refuses to speak when other people are around. The reader also learns early on that Charles Wallace has telepathic abilities, which he uses almost exclusively to read Meg’s and their mother’s minds.

The plot really starts moving a few pages in when the Murrys admit a late night visitor into their house. Meg somewhat correctly assumes that it is the tramp she’s been hearing about—the one that stole their neighbor’s sheets. But Charles recognizes the visitor and introduces her to his mother and sister as Mrs. Whatsit. He claims to have met Mrs. Whatsit, along with her two companions, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which, while he was out walking the family dog.

Now, Mrs. Whatsit may appear to be a tramp, but she’s actually a telepathic celestial being that knows far more about the universe than any of earth’s greatest minds. Testament to Mrs. Murry’s stellar character, she offers Mrs. Whatsit shelter from the raging storm, but Mrs. Whatsit insists on going her way.

“Wild nights are my glory,” Mrs. Whatsit said. “I just got caught in a down draft and blown off course.”

As she makes her way out of the Murry’s house, she tells Mrs. Murry that “there is such a thing as a tesseract.” Although the words initially mean nothing to both the children and the reader, they catch Mrs. Murry off-guard, leaving her upset and deep in thought. She later tells Meg that the tesseract is a concept that she and Meg’s father had been studying before his disappearance.

                “But you’re good at basketball and things,” Meg protested. “You’re good in school. Everybody likes you.”

“For all the most unimportant means,” Calvin said. “There hasn’t been anybody, anybody in the world I could talk to. Sure, I can function on the same level as everybody else, I can hold myself down, but it isn’t me.”

The next afternoon, Charles Wallace invites Meg for a walk and leads her to Mrs. Whatsit’s house. There, they meet Calvin O’Keefe—a kid two years above Meg’s grade. Calvin is a golden boy—a member of the basketball team and extraordinarily smart, to boot. But what really sets Calvin apart from his peers is his almost psychic intuitiveness about things. Throughout the book, he takes on the role of Meg’s protector and, spoiler alert, love interest. He accompanies Meg and Charles when they meet Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which—completing the book’s three Mrs. W’s.

The Mrs. W’s explain to the children that they know where Mr. Murry is and that the children are the only ones who can save him. They tell the children that Mr. Murry is being held captive by the Dark Thing, this malicious shadow that is the root of all evil in the universe. IT is a malevolent force that is threatening to engulf the entire universe in IT’s darkness. Despite the Dark Thing’s power, they assure the children that IT can be defeated—and is in fact being defeated time and again by good. On Earth, these heroes include the likes of Jesus, Einstein, and Da Vinci to name a few.

Using fifth-dimensional travel, or tesseract (illustrated in the diagram below), the Mrs. W’s whisk the children off into a grand adventure through space.

tesseract

(an illustration of how traveling through tesseract works.)

Their fight against IT culminates on the planet of Camazotz—a place, much like earth, with inhabitants that are much like humans. The inhabitants of the entire planet have been brainwashed by IT, an oversized, disembodied brain that forces everyone into conformity through IT’s hypnotic and rhythmic pulsing. Like a puppet master, IT possesses anyone who succumbs to IT’s power, including Camazotz puppet leader, the Man With Red Eyes. Through The Man With Red Eyes, IT tells the children:

“For you, as well as for the rest of all the happy, useful people on this planet. I, in my own strength, am willing to assume all the pain, all the responsibility, all the burdens of thought and decision.”

To save Mr. Murry, the children must steel themselves against IT’s powers of mind control. During one of their standoffs, Meg utters my favorite lines from A Wrinkle in Time. She realizes that multiplication tables and nursery rhymes are too rote, so she launches into an impassioned narration of the Declaration of Independence.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident!” she shouted, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

“But that’s exactly what we have on Camazotz. Complete equality. Everybody exactly alike.”

“No!” she cried triumphantly. “Like and equal are not the same thing at all.”

-Meg deflecting IT’s attempts to slither into her mind

(Note: I’m sure you can guess how the novel ends, but I’ll leave some of the hows to your imagination.)

On Themes and the Value of Persistence

Now, before we proceed to the more personal part of my review, here are some interesting facts about this award-winning novel.

A Wrinkle in Time was rejected by at least 26 publishers before being snatched up by the American publishing company, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG).

Madeleine L’Engle may have finished writing Wrinkle at lightning speed in 1960, but finding a publisher for the novel turned out to be a slow and agonizing uphill battle that lasted three long years. According to L’Engle, she received no less than 26 rejection slips before the manuscript was picked up by John C. Farrar of FSG. L’Engle had submitted Wrinkle to Farrar at the insistence of one of her mother’s guests at a family tea party.

Wrinkle may actually be a political piece that mirrored America’s anti-Totalitarian sentiments.

In Anna Quindlen’s essay, “An Appreciation,” which appears as the introduction to the current issue of A Wrinkle in Time, the Pulitzer-winning journalist reflects on how the dark dictatorship of Camazotz echoed 1960s America’s fear of communism.

This sentiment is confirmed by what may be the ‘lost pages’ of A Wrinkle in Time. According to an article from Oregon Live, L’Engle’s granddaughter, Charlotte Jones Voiklis discovered three pages that were cut from the original manuscript. In one of the pages, Mr. Murry warns Meg about the dangers of totalitarianism, mentioning the names of Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, Castro, and Krushchev.

It is a book about the war between Good and Evil, the dangers of Conformity, and the importance of challenging the status quo for the good of all.

Throughout Wrinkle, we find countless allusions to God and his greatness. Whether it be from the heavenly songs of the celestial beings of Uriel or the quotes of the Mrs. Ws, the book is peppered with passages from the Bible. Now, I can’t comment about the rest of the time quintet—as I am actually yet to find and read them—but I can say that Wrinkle does show the depth of Madeleine L’Engle’s faith. The fact that the main theme of the book has to do with the good/light defeating evil/darkness can already be seen as a nod to her Christian background.

But the beauty of the book, particularly for the non-religious, is how it includes vastly universal themes that we all can identify with. Take, for example, the issue of conformity. In a world that is mistrustful of what is different or unknown, acceptance and security are hinged on a person’s ability to abide by the dictates of society.

You are allowed to be ‘different,’ so long as you’re not too ‘different.’ And this is a lesson that’s ingrained in us from childhood. I believe the phrase is “beaten into submission.” A strange child is seen as no better than a miscreant or a future hoodlum.

Naturally, what a lot of these conformity coaches don’t see is that a different viewpoint is necessary for change. And to better the status quo, citizens must have the capacity for critical and independent thinking. To thwart individuality is akin to thwarting progress. And sameness or blind acquiescence may offer the advantage of easy rule and surface-level order, but ultimately, these two ‘pros’ will only benefit the lucky few. And I’ve gone didactic on you. Apologies for that, dear reader.

On to the Rest of the Review

Reading A Wrinkle in Time at the cusp of prepubescence taught me countless life lessons. The book reaffirmed what I knew about the importance of family, love, and faith. But perhaps the best lesson of all was the importance of being yourself—regardless of who, what, or how you are. At 9 years of age, I learned that even socially awkward children (or adults) had the capacity to become the heroes of their own lives. Sure, we won’t all get the chance to save the world or experience interstellar travel, but we can make a difference in the lives of those around us by choosing to do what is good and brave instead of settling for what is easy and convenient.

Now, it’s been about two decades since I last revisited A Wrinkle in Time. I decided to reread this old favorite so I could give it a proper, and dare I say it, unbiased review. The way I saw it, twenty years was more than enough time to shake off sentimentality in favor of impartiality. I wanted to see if Wrinkle could still impart the same sense of magic it had offered me some 22 years ago—and obviously, I wasn’t disappointed.

Wrinkle is a book for people of all ages. It may be my favorite childhood book, but it also takes its place on my shelf of all-time literary greats.

 

Rating: 5/5

Book Review: An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison

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Title: An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness

Author: Kay Redfield Jamison

Genre: Non-Fiction, Autobiography, Psychology

First Published: 1995

 

Over the course of the last couple of decades, the medical world has made significant progress in finding effective diagnostic and treatment procedures for Bipolar Disorder, formerly known as Manic Depression. The onset of social media has also contributed greatly in disseminating information and dispelling biases against the disorder. And yet, while we are seeing change in the public’s attitude towards the illness, there are just a handful of autobiographical accounts that tackle both the personal and medical effects of the illness as brilliantly as Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness.

Written in the early 90s by Kay Redfield Jamison, a Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, An Unquiet Mind is an eye-opening memoir that effectively changes the way one views bipolar disorder. Now, one of the factors that make the book so compelling is how Jamison—one of the world’s foremost experts on the disorder—pulls from her own experiences as a manic depressive to provide a holistic view of the illness. Bear in mind that this was written during a period wherein an admission such as this could have major personal and professional repercussions for a medical practitioner. Despite the confession’s possible effects on her personal life and career, Jamison decided that to make a difference in the lives of other manic depressives, she needed to speak up. She was also tired of hiding and having to feel as if she had something to hide. In her words:

 

“One is what one is, and the dishonesty of hiding behind a degree, or a title, or any manner and collection of words is still exactly that, dishonest.”

It is with this fearless attitude that she lays bare her struggles against an illness that has brought some of the world’s brightest minds on or past the brink of suicide. In An Unquiet Mind, Jamison paints a vivid picture of a life shaped and distorted by moods and madness. As a child, she was optimistic, driven, but also plagued by a mercurial temperament. Her first manic depressive episode in her late teens meant weeks of flying high only to burn out so quickly that it left her incapable of finding pleasure in anything.

“I counted upon my mind’s acuity, interest, and loyalty as a matter of course. Now, all of a sudden, my mind turned on me; it mocked me for my vapid enthusiasms; it laughed at all of my foolish plans; it no longer found anything interesting or worthwhile.”

As Jamison grew older, her moods continued to worsen. Three months into her work as an assistant professor in the UCLA Department of Psychiatry, she had become a raving psychotic. Initially, her manic episodes conferred terrific advantages—the need for little sleep had coupled with amazing productivity. But at the tail end of those manic moments were long bouts of depression that had her frequently contemplating suicide. Eventually, the lines between the two states of mind became blurred. These episodes became even more pronounced during the time she was battling her way into the male-dominated world of clinical psychology.

After a terrible bout of depression, a colleague managed to convince her to see a psychiatrist. His diagnosis shook her to her very core.

“The endless questioning finally ended. My psychiatrist looked at me, there was no uncertainty in his voice. ‘Manic depressive illness.’ I admired his bluntness. I wished him locusts on his lands and a pox upon his house. Silent, unbelievable rage. I smiled pleasantly. He smiled back. The war had just begun.”

Indeed, the war wasn’t over for Jamison. She had been prescribed lithium—a life-saving drug that tempered her moods but also brought with it an unpleasant string of side effects. For a long time, she went on and off the drug intermittently. At one particularly bleak moment, she decided to kill herself. Her method of choice was overdosing on the drug that was meant to save her. She reveled in its irony. But help came on time, and over the years she realized that the pros of taking lithium greatly outweighed its admittedly many cons.

Ultimately, An Unquiet Mind is a lot more than just a ‘memoir of moods and madness.’ It is an illuminating piece that educates its readers about one of the most misunderstood mental disorders in the world. It’s also a success story, a light at the end of the tunnel for people struggling with bipolar disorder.

Written in incredibly magnetic and eloquent prose, this is a book that effectively pulls the reader in. At times, the emotions from the page became so palpable that it left me breathless. This is a book that has moved me to tears, the first, second, and third time I’ve read it. It has been an honor to have chanced upon this seminal work—and now it takes its place on my metaphorical shelf of literary greats.

Rating: A+++

Definitely a must-read and must-keep.

Book Review: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

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Full Title: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

Author: Marie Kondo

Genre: Non-Fiction, Self-Help, Organizing

Originally Published: 2011

**Translated from Japanese by Cathy Hirano

 

I’m a hoarder. I’m a hoarder of a very specific sort. More than clothes, makeup, or shoes, I like to hoard books, CDs, journals, and an assortment of office supplies. At my messiest, these items would take up so much floor space that walking from one end of the room to another was a very real ordeal. Books, magazines, and half-finished journals would occupy the expanse of my bed, and I’d take to sleeping partially on top of them.

Now, while dealing with clutter has always been a part of my everyday existence, it doesn’t mean that I enjoy being the messiest person in the household. For the last couple of decades, my mother and I have been butting heads over my ‘mess’ on a daily basis. So, when I got Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up as a Christmas present, I saw it as an opportunity to finally become more organized.

Besides, the book couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. The year 2015 had brought massive changes to my life. It was the year I got diagnosed with Graves’ disease and saw the end of a major relationship. After months of feeling lost and feeling at a loss, the book came as a sign that it was time to turn over a new leaf. Time to start over.

So, I started 2016 by cracking open my copy of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up—and boy, was I glad I did! True to its name, this book from Marie Kondo truly is life-changing.

To properly organize one’s household, Kondo advises the reader to follow these basic rules:

  • Organize the house completely and thoroughly in one go (ikki ni). This is a period that generally lasts six (6) months.
  • Start by discarding, keeping only items that “Spark Joy.” I must admit the ‘spark joy’ bit did sound a little gimmicky at first, but it’s a gimmick that actually works. What she basically asks from the reader is to only keep items that he/she needs and loves.
  • Sort by category and not by location. Kondo points out that people don’t usually keep the same types of items in one place. Sorting by category instead of by room/space allows the reader to cull his/her belongings properly.
  • When sorting by category, follow this order: Clothes à Books à Paperwork à Miscellaneous Items (Komono) à Sentimental Items. Kondo intentionally puts clothes first and sentimental items last to help bolster the reader’s confidence in his/her culling abilities. It is a lot easier to decide on which shirts to keep than it is to pick out which pictures deserve album space and which ones need to be discarded.

Now, more than just offering concrete and doable tips on how to eliminate mess in the household, Kondo also forces her readers to take a closer look at their chosen lifestyle. To try to figure out why we hold on to so many items that we no longer need—or even truly want.

Working for the family business—which means working at home in my jammies—did I really need dozens of stilettos, scarves, necklaces, and cocktail rings? I have how-to-books on style, building capsule wardrobes, and makeup application—all of which I’ve read, none of which I’ve followed. I still had all my college textbooks, handouts, and notes. I had palanca letters from grade school and high school classmates. And while these items provided hours of joy as I flipped through their pages, I realized they were all good for that one moment of reminiscing.

A few weeks into my organizing phase and I realized that beyond being a book hoarder, I also have a tendency to hold on to items for sentimental reasons. While I had no problems getting rid of five large bags of clothes, dozens of shoes, and a box of accessories, I still couldn’t bring myself to let go of pictures and letters from people who are no longer a part of my life. And yet, as Marie Kondo puts it, “Truly precious memories will never vanish even if you discard the objects associated with them.”

And that’s what I mean when I say that the book is life-changing. I was forced to ask myself why I was holding on to the past so much. I realized that a lot of it had to do with a fear of the future. See, most of the items I kept, which had lost their purpose long ago, came from a period of intense, carefree happiness. Band pictures and drafts of old songs, bodycon dresses that were two sizes too small, a chandelier earring that I wore during a night-out with old friends. These items predated my exit from the corporate world, a family member’s long-term illness, and the onset of my own physical limitations. I was holding on to these things because I was afraid I’d never feel those lighthearted moments again. And maybe I won’t.

But going through this organizing phase, this dogged application of the Konmari method, I came to the realization that things change. People change. I’ve changed. And maybe, just maybe that’s not such a bad thing. As we grow older, and hopefully wiser, our priorities shift—and consequently, the things that make us happy take on different forms. In my 20s, happiness meant getting gussied-up for booze-fueled all-nighters. These days, I get the same amount of satisfaction by going to a coffee shop and reading for hours, writing my novel, spending time with my family, having coffee-fueled talkathons with friends, and watching TV show reruns with my boyfriend. Some people may think my current life is boring, but the fact is, with my life now, I am never bored. And that’s all that matters.

Reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo has done more than just minimize my morning squabbles with my mother. It’s made me more appreciative of the things I own and the life I have now. And therein lies the magic of this book.

Rating: A+

Comments: It would have been an A++, except (SPOILER ALERT), Kondo has owned up to tearing pages out of her favorite books.

Sartre, Simplified: A Review of Existentialism is a Humanism

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Title: Existentialism is a Humanism

Author: Jean-Paul Sartre

Genre: Non-Fiction, Philosophy, Existentialism

First Published by: Éditions Nagel in 1946

Translated by: Carol Macomber

Introduction by: Annie Cohen-Solal

Notes and Preface by: Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre

Edited by: John Kulka

 

Legends:

Bold – important points in existentialism

“Italicized” – direct quotes from Sartre or another source

 

To fully grasp the magnitude of Existentialism is a Humanism (L’Existentialisme est un humanisme) by Jean-Paul Sartre, it is imperative that we understand its whys and why nots, the driving force behind this monumental piece. Existentialism is a Humanism didn’t start out as a philosophy book, rather it was originally a transcript of a lecture given by Sartre in Paris for Club Maintenant.

The club, which was founded by Marc Beigbeder and Jacques Calmy, was founded to help encourage “literary and intellectual discussion.” The lecture, which was held on October 29, 1945, was the perfect platform for Sartre to help clear the air of the rumors and unfounded criticisms that targeted his take on existentialism.

Earlier that year, Sartre had released the initial volumes of The Roads to Freedom. The novels The Age of Reason and The Reprieve were met with disdain by the era’s conformists. The characteristics of the unlikely protagonist did not kowtow to their idea of what a ‘hero’ should be like. Add to that the confusion and misguided notions regarding existentialism, and what he had was a crowd of detractors determined to go for his life work’s jugular.

In a bid to enlighten his critics, Sartre accepted the invitation for the lecture. He appeared in front of a packed crowd, sans notes, and proceeded to defend his philosophy. The strangeness of the situation was not lost on Sartre. Understanding that the discussion of existentialism had shifted from the purely academic platform of philosophers to the dinner table of the everyman, he said:

“In the past, philosophers were attacked only by other philosophers. The general public did not understand philosophy at all, nor did they care. These days, philosophy is shot down in the public square.”

 

The Public Trial: Charges against Existentialism

“My purpose here is to defend existentialism against some of the charges that has been brought against it…” And thus begins Sartre’s lengthy, didactic, and illuminating monologue explaining the tenets of existentialism. It was a simplified version of the philosophy addressed to existentialism’s main detractors—the Communists and the Christians.

Being an atheist, Sartre only aimed to correct the mistaken notions some Christians had about the philosophy. To his religious critics, existentialism focused too much on the basest parts of humanity—in the process, completely disregarding the better side of human nature. They also questioned the philosophy’s morality. To them, denying God’s existence and ignoring his teachings meant man could do exactly as he pleased.

As for the Communists, Sartre had hoped for some form of reconciliation with the movement. For while he was unbending on his views, he felt that by giving a thorough clarification of existentialism’s points, his Communist critics would find that their beliefs weren’t so different after all. But the Communists were under the impression that existentialism was a bourgeois philosophy, a contemplative doctrine that encouraged quietism, inaction, and despair.

Both sects also accused existentialism of focusing too much on subjectivity, thereby overlooking the possibility of and necessity for human solidarity. To this, Sartre answered with a definition of Existentialism. He asserts that existentialism is a “doctrine that makes human life possible and also affirms that every truth and every action imply an environment of human subjectivity.”

He claimed that the allegations made by Communists and Christians alike were furthered only by a terrible misunderstanding. Over the course of its existence, ‘existentialism’ had become a catchword, “applied so loosely that it has come to mean nothing at all.” Through the discourse, Sartre aimed to debunk these charges and to put forth the belief that existentialism is actually a form of humanism.

 

Christian Existentialism vs. Atheist Existentialism

Underneath the umbrella of existentialism resides two distinct philosophical movements—Christian Existentialism and Atheist Existentialism. While both movements believe that existence precedes essence and that subjectivity should be the philosopher’s main point of departure, there are fundamental differences between their treatments of these notions.

Now, before we delve into the disparities of these two movements, let’s take the time to understand what we mean by existence precedes essence. For Christian Existentialists, existence precedes essence because man is the product of God’s intelligence. But for Atheist Existentialists—the movement which Sartre belongs to—because God does not exist, the only being whose existence precedes essence is the one being that exists prior to developing its essence and morality. That being is man.

Another notion that separates Christian existentialism with its atheist cousin is its understanding of the human condition. While Christian existentialists believe in ‘human nature,’ which helps explain man’s actions, atheist existentialists only subscribe to the idea of a shared ‘human reality.’

Human reality is a term borrowed from Heidegger. It does not concern itself with dictating human nature, rather it talks about the shared limitations of man. To paraphrase Sartre, the human reality is this—man is born into the world, exists among others in the world, and will eventually perish in the world. There is no shared nature that predetermines man’s actions.

This brings us to the first principle of existentialism—that “Man is nothing other than what he makes of himself,” or in simpler terms—the world of human subjectivity.

 

What does Sartre mean by Subjectivity?

Merriam-Webster defines subjectivity in philosophy as “relating to the way a person experiences things in his or her own mind.” For existentialist philosophers, subjectivity refers to how “prior to man’s projection of the self, nothing exists.” Man only begins to exist after he begins to exercise his freedom of choosing his projects/morality. Because man is responsible for what he chooses, he is also responsible for who he becomes.

But beyond being responsible for himself, man is also responsible for the rest of mankind. This is because what man chooses for himself, he also chooses for all men. According to Sartre, “to make a choice is to affirm at the same time, the value of what we choose.” So if a person decides to live an honest life, he is, in fact, saying that all men must lead honest lives. Sartre also points out that man must “always choose the good and nothing can be good for any of us unless it is good for all.”

Once man comes to terms with these truths, he experiences the weight of anguish, abandonment, and despair. Existentialists redefine these words to illustrate the effects of their philosophy.

 

The Existentialist’s Anguish…

 Sartre defines anguish as man’s realization of his “full and profound responsibility.” It is an awareness of his inability to move past human subjectivity, an acknowledgment that his choice matters to the rest of mankind. As a guiding point, Sartre says, we must always ask ourselves, “What would happen if everyone did what I am doing?” To not ask this question or to ignore it completely is to lie to oneself. To create excuses for one’s behavior is to act in bad faith and to struggle with a bad conscience.

To illustrate this anguish, Sartre tackles Kierkegaard’s idea of the anguish of Abraham. In the Bible, God sent a messenger to Abraham asking him to sacrifice his beloved son. Abraham made the choice to believe that it was God’s will. While he was determined to follow God’s orders, the choice was not without pain or anguish. This is the same emotion felt by generals and commanders during the war. For the sake of the greater good, they may sacrifice the lives of their men in the process—it is a torment-filled decision, but one that does not stop them from acting.

In our daily lives, we too are sometimes faced with choices laced with anguish. It is an emotion anyone with responsibilities can attest to. It is a shared experience, but one that is rooted in subjectivity and resulting in action.

 

… Sense of Abandonment…

“Man is condemned to be free: Condemned because he did not create himself, yet nonetheless free because once cast in the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” – Sartre

Abandonment is what man experiences because God does not exist. Because there is no God, and consequently no code of conduct that must be followed, we bear the full responsibility for the values we choose to uphold. Dostoevsky once wrote, “If God does not exist, everything is permissible.” Indeed, that is accurate. It is one of the starting points of existentialism and is one of the accusations hurled by Christians against the philosophy.

But while everything may appear allowable, existentialists believe that there are no excuses for our actions. Because God does not exist, a person cannot explain his choices as being a result of ‘human nature.’ In Sartre’s words, “We are left alone and without an excuse.”

Man cannot hide behind passion or signs. Because feelings are built by the actions we take and choices we make, emotions can never be used as guidelines for our actions. As for signs, we are the ones who choose to interpret their meaning. In short, abandonment is the acknowledgment that we alone must decide who we must become—and that decision entails anguish.

 

…and Despair

Despair, on the other hand, is the idea that man must limit his decisions and actions to things that he can control. Choices are made based on the available probabilities that will allow action. As Descartes once said, “Conquer yourself rather than the world.” For existentialists, this means acting without hope or expectation.

 

A Response to All Allegations

That existentialism breeds quietism and inaction. As a response to the Communists’ allegation, Sartre replies that existentialism cannot breed quietism, because reality only exists in actions. Man is nothing other than his project…he is nothing more than the sum of his actions, nothing more than his life.”

That it is a pessimistic description of man. Outside of it being an atheist philosophy, according to Sartre, existentialism is actually rather optimistic because it’s one that furthers the belief that man’s destiny lies within himself. And that while man is nothing more than his project, it is a project that does not define him completely. For projects can be reevaluated, re-planned, and repeated.

That existentialism is a bourgeois and individualistic philosophy. Sartre acknowledges that the point of departure is the Cartesian cogito, “I think therefore I am.” But this is so, only because existentialists want a solid base to build their philosophy—one that is not based on “comforting theories full of hope but without foundation.” But contrary to the philosophies of both Kant and Descartes, the existentialist’s idea of “I think…” is to think within the presence of others, to see the other as a condition of one’s own existence. So rather than dwelling in the world of subjectivity, existentialism actually enters into the field of “intersubjectivity.”

That the philosophy leaves man free to do as he pleases. While on the one hand, this is true, Sartre asserts that “Man finds himself in a complex social situation in which he himself is committed, and by his choices commits all mankind.” And since man is responsible for all his choices, he must always choose what is good, not only for himself but for the rest of mankind.

That the philosophy makes it impossible to judge other people for their wrongdoings. Again, this is both true and untrue. For when man commits to his project in a lucid and genuine manner, in the pursuit of what is good for all, then he cannot choose anything else. However, if the choices are made in bad faith—then these choices can be judged for having been made in error.

To which, Sartre says, “Those who conceal from themselves this total freedom under the guise of solemnity, or by making determinist excuses, I will call cowards. Others, who try to prove their existence is necessary when man’s appearance on earth is merely contingent, I will call bastards.”

That existentialism makes it impossible to build a human community. While the philosophy teaches its pupil to focus on the areas of life one can control, it doesn’t mean that one cannot belong to an organization or party. Sartre advises the existentialist philosopher to act, create, to invent, but without illusions or unfounded hope.

 

Existentialist Humanism

Ultimately, Sartre proves that existentialism is a humanism because it is a philosophy that reminds man that (a) in his abandoned state, man must make his own choices, (b) that man’s choices must be good for all (not just himself), and that (c) man will only realize himself as truly human when he commits himself to a project or special achievement that betters the state of all.

 

A Reader’s Reaction to Existentialism is a Humanism

As a reader, the question here is whether or not Sartre was successful in defending existentialism against its critics. In this humble reader’s opinion, Sartre did well in addressing all their concerns and in establishing the foundations of his young philosophy. Admittedly, some of the points were rigid and lacking in refinement. But it is important to remember that this was an attempt from Sartre to simplify his philosophy and make it more palatable to the masses.  He was also at the point in his life wherein he was yet to fully fine-tune his philosophical and literary work.

Now, despite being an incomplete picture of existentialism, I highly recommend this work to anyone in crisis over the purpose of life. For a book on philosophy, this slim volume is an easy read and one that comes with a lot of chewable and digestible truths.

Rating: A++ (because one + is not enough)

Book Review: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns), by Mindy Kaling

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me

Title: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns)

Author: Mindy Kaling

Genre: Fiction, Biography, Non-Fiction, Comedy

First Published: 2011

Pages: 219

“Mindy Kaling is my spirit animal.” These are words I’ve heard all too often when around good friends. While I wouldn’t go so far as to put Mindy at the top of my totem pole of spirituality—that spot’s currently occupied by Max Black (2 Broke Girls), though I’m also desperate to find a touch of Diane Lockhart (The Good Wife) in me somewhere—I will bow to the awesomeness of Ms. Kaling. Known for her roles as the quirky and ditzy Kelly Kapoor (The Office-US), and the equally fabulous Mindy Lahiri (The Mindy Project), it’s easy to see why there’s so much buzz surrounding the talented Emmy-nominated writer and actress.

Like any other Mindy fan, I jumped at the opportunity to read her book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns). And boy, was I glad I did. The book is every bit as witty and funny as Mindy is in every role she plays, including her cameo in the hilarious This is the End. I chuckled my way through the book, from her Introduction to her Goodbyes.

At the start of the book, Mindy Kaling answered a bunch of questions she felt readers may have regarding Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns)—FAQ style. One of her proposed questions was why the book wasn’t as funny as Tina Fey’s book. Now, I won’t pretend to have read Bossypants, though I would love to. So I can’t really verify if this book really isn’t as good as Tina Fey’s offering—but then again, let’s face it… It’s Tina Fey!  But I will reassure the reader that this book is every bit as good as Chelsea Handler’s Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang—albeit definitely PG compared to Handler’s R-rated work. Now, I’m one of those people who thoroughly enjoy a heavy dose of raunchiness, but what this book lacks in raunch, it makes up for in en-pointe humor designed for the every girl.

In Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns), Mindy candidly discusses her difficulties in losing weight and how she was bullied as a kid for it. The chapter Chubby for Life describes how she was made fun of for being on the heavy side, and how she fought hard to lose weight, only to be made fun of for having been fat before. In a bout of righteous indignation, Mindy declared: “The laws of bullying allow you to be cruel even when the victim had made strides for improvement? This is when I realized that bullies have no code of conduct.”

Another chapter in the book talks about a recent photoshoot Mindy had with close buddy and co-star Ellie Kemper. In this chapter, the comedian talks about the difficulties stylists seemed to have with her fuller figure. During the photoshoot, the stylist thought to bring dozens of gorgeous samples, all of which were a size zero, except for a shapeless navy shift. Feeling sorry for herself, she ducked into a bathroom, only to find words of wisdom offered by some angry student under a bit of poo smeared on the walls. Armed with a newfound take on her situation, Mindy marched up to the stylist and had one of the size zero gowns “fixed” so she could wear it for the shoot. I’ve seen the photos, and Mindy and Ellie look amazing!

Other chapters I loved in Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns) include I Love Irish Exits—where she has convinced me that an Irish Exit is, at least, more considerate than its French counterpart, Why Do Men Put On Their Shoes So Slowly—truth! Why do they take forever with their shoes?, Types of Women in Romantic Comedies Who are Not Real, and Roasts are Terrible.

While I share most of Mindy Kaling’s views, the last one in particular, was very compelling.  I love watching stand-up comedians. But I never really understood roasts, particularly the ones we have now. As Mindy puts it, “The self-proclaimed no-holds-barred atmosphere reminds me of signs for strip clubs on Hollywood Boulevard: ‘We have Crazy Girls. They Do Anything!’ We don’t have to do anything. Let’s bar some holds.”

All in all, I found Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns) an amusing and somewhat eye-opening read. Mindy Kaling has a knack for philosophizing the everyday and finding something witty to share with her readers/audience. While it isn’t exactly laugh-out-loud funny, at least not for this particular reader, it does elicit its fair share of chortles and snickers. And most of all, it’s very well-written.

The Verdict: A 

Now, as stated earlier, I’m a Mindy fan—and proud of it—and this book just solidified that fact.

Book Review: Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf

Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf
My tattered copy of Virginia Woolf’s essays

Title: Three Guineas

Author: Virginia Woolf

Genre:  Essay

First Published:  1938

“Three years is a long time to leave a letter unanswered…” And thus begins Three Guineas–Virginia Woolf’s powerful essay on how the practices of the Victorian patriarchal system could be likened to the unarguable evils of tyranny and fascism. The essay is drafted as a response to the letter of an educated gentleman seeking Woolf’s opinions on how war could be prevented. Though many answers have suggested themselves to Woolf, the gentleman’s letter went unanswered for over three years.

Woolf clarifies that this is because none of these answers could be left without ample explanation. The differences in the psyche of the educated man and his sister had created a seemingly unbridgeable chasm that made immediate understanding of the reasonings of each sex near impossible. So, to answer the gentleman’s question, Woolf had to delve into the root of this ‘misunderstanding’ and find what unique and effective solutions could arise from it.

To illustrate the differences between the ways of thinking of the educated man and his sister, Woolf offers the reader the AEF or Arthur’s Education Fund. The AEF, as seen in the Pendennis, figures into household ledgers as the educational funds set aside for the sons in the family. This fund is designed to pay for more than man’s schooling, it also pays for all the other ‘essential parts’ of his education–including travel, leisure, lodging, and society. According to Woolf, the account has been in existence since the 13th century, and the educated man’s sister has paid her dues to the AEF for just as long. Though monetary contribution was out of the question–for the daughter of an educated man had no money of her own to contribute–she paid her dues through the sacrifices she was forced to make for her brother. For centuries, women were barred, not just from the professions but also the universities.

For a long time, Psychology became the only unpaid-for education available to women. This is, of course, going with the assumption that choosing a husband and making a marriage work are forms of practical Psychology within themselves. For a long time too, up until 1919 in fact, marriage was the only ‘profession’ open to women.  So you can understand how the social, physical, and educational limitations imposed on women during this period could affect her understanding of the necessity of war and violence. While a great majority of men saw war as either the ultimate manifestation of machismo or the natural expression of patriotism, out of their own shared experience under patriarchal rule, women were more inclined to question the need for war. Having been brought up to submit to fathers, brothers, and husbands, these women found no glory in violence. Faced with the possibility of war, they were more inclined to ask, “Why fight?”

Even the need for patriotism was questioned; for how has patriotism directly benefited the educated man’s daughter? During Woolf’s period, when a woman married a foreigner, she was asked to relinquish her citizenship and take on her husband’s. How then was she to form loyalties with a country that was not her own once she married outside of it? What did she owe a society that had caged her for as long as she could remember? But the possibility of war must be fought–as is made evident by the abundance of pictures laid out before Woolf. Images of homes torn asunder by bombs, the countless and faceless dead… But how to effectively prevent it?

While answering the gentleman’s letter, Woolf turns to two other documents that lie open on her desk. One is a request for funds to rebuild a women’s college, the other asks for financial support to help women gain a more secure footing within the professions. Woolf then uses these letters to illustrate how supporting these causes can, in fact, also be considered support for the anti-war movement. She addresses the gentleman:

“…But we have sworn that we will do all we can to help you to prevent war by using our influence–our earned money influence. And education is the obvious way. Since she is poor, since she is asking for money, and since the giver of money is entitled to dictate terms, let us risk it and draft a letter to her, laying down the terms upon which she shall have our money to help rebuild her college.”  – excerpt from Vintage Classic’s A Room of One’s Own & Three Guineas. p.129

And that is exactly what Virginia Woolf does. She imagines this experimental college founded on youth and poverty. This cheap college that focuses not on segregating and specializing, but a college that offers freedom from ‘the miserable distinctions of rich and poor, of clever and stupid…’ (p.133) It was, by all means, a college that did not breed vanity, competition, jealousy, and unreal loyalties. Instead, it was there to educate women, to help them earn their livings, and more importantly, to give them the freedom to have an opinion that is other than what is taught in the household, in church, or in whatever institution demands their blind loyalty…To the treasurer of the women’s college, Woolf relinquished her first guinea.

Then, it was time to look at the other letter. This one was from the honorary treasurer of a society designed to help women find employment in the professions. Here is where Woolf discusses the politics of economy as seen in the household. As Woolf puts it, ‘It seems that the person to whom the salary is actually paid is the person who has the actual right to decide how that salary should be spent…’ (p. 155) Marriage, by all descriptions, is just as noble as any other profession–but it is one that is unpaid. Woolf posits that without power over her own finances, a woman is robbed of the right to participate in such noble causes as that of the gentleman writer’s, if her husband disagrees with it. And so goes Woolf’s second guinea. As she puts it:

“…It was necessary to answer her letter and the letter from the honorary treasurer of the college rebuilding fund, and to send them both guineas before answering you letter, because unless they are helped, first to educate the daughters of educated men, and then to earn their living in the professions, those daughters cannot possess an independent and disinterested influence with which to help you to prevent war…” (p.182)

Finally, after much meandering–though it was justified meandering–Woolf addresses the gentleman fully. To his cause, she offers her third and last guinea. She explains that while she supports his anti-war effort, she cannot become a member of his society. For the fundamental differences between the male and female perspectives must remain for continued (mental, political, societal, cultural, et al.) progress to be attained.

The Verdict: A+.

Although Three Guineas was written almost 80 years ago, this supercharged polemic from Virginia Woolf is just as moving as it was back in the day. It certainly isn’t what you’d call a ‘quick read.’ In fact, if it took Woolf three years to draft this letter, it took me three months (and several shots of tequila) to write this review. Well, technically, I wrote this in one go, but the ideas have been simmering in the back burner for months.  So while it isn’t an easy read, it is one that is ‘necessary.’ There is much to glean from Woolf’s writings. That is why I’m putting this up as a ‘must-read’ for everyone. Believe me, it will do you a world of good.

Read my review of Virginia Woolf‘s “A Room of One’s Own.”

Book Review: The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

Sirens of Titan and Bob Dylan2

Title: The Sirens of Titan

Author: Kurt Vonnegut

Genre: Science Fiction

First Published: 1959

Grade: A++++++

 

The Sirens of Titan may be Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, but it’s also one of his most sure-footed and successful works. In this book, Vonnegut attempts to answer the ultimate question–”What is the purpose of man?” And this he does with copious amounts of dark humor and much aplomb. In true Vonnegut fashion, he introduces a wholly human character caught in the maelstrom of chance. Malachi Constant, our unfortunate protagonist, is both likable and unlikable. At the very least, he is strangely relatable. Despite being a billionaire, (the richest man in America), there is an emptiness that gnaws at Malachi, an existential dilemma he can’t shake. He waits to be given purpose by God or the Cosmos, or whoever it is at the end of that endless phone line that stretches through Space.

Purpose comes in the dubious form of Winston Niles Rumfoord, the only human being to have ever been chronosynclastically infundibulated. Rumfoord had ridden out to space with his faithful dog, Kazak, when his ship ran straight into a chronosynclastic infundibulum. This space phenomenon enables Rumfoord to see all things in the past and in the future. It offers Rumfoord a type of omniscience that would be god-like, had it meant that Rumfoord was exempt of whatever it was Fate had in store for him. The trade-off to gaining almighty knowledge is that Rumfoord and Kazak were spread thinly throughout time and space. They began to exist in a wave phenomena that enabled them to materialize on Earth, Mars, and Mercury in predictable intervals while staying properly stuck in Titan.

Rumfoord and Malachi’s paths cross when Rumfoord asks his wife, Beatrice, to invite the latter to one of his materializations. There, Rumfoord reveals Malachi’s fate to him. Malachi and Beatrice were set to be sent to Mars where they would fall in love, have a child, and grow old in the beautiful Saturn moon, Titan. Rebelling against this idyllic albeit forced setup, Malachi does what he can to make Beatrice hate him–and he succeeds for a time. It almost seems as if Beatrice and Malachi would never cross paths again,  but as is one of the greatest themes in The Sirens of Titan, there is no escaping fate. And true to Vonnegut’s style, Malachi and Beatrice both suffer tremendously before something too distorted, something too similar to resignation to actually be called a ‘happy ending,’ takes place.

The next time we see Malachi, we see him as Unk. A low-ranking infantry officer in Mars who has just had his memories erased for the nth time. This is an unusual case in Mars. Usually, you get your memories wiped clean once, get your antenna installed, and you’re obedient and thoughtless as sheep soon after. But in Unk’s case, he always manages to regain thoughts of Earth and past memories, sometimes with the help of his best friend, Stony Stevenson. He always seeks out his mate, Beatrice, and child, Chronos. He always imagines Earth to be a better place where he can be with his family at last. In Unk, Malachi has become the opposite of who he always thought he was. As Unk, Malachi could live without a penny to his name but with the dream of family and friendship to get him through whatever fix he was in.

Now, with such noble dreams, one would expect Unk/Malachi to get the happy ending he’s after. Maybe Malachi could escape to Earth with Bea and Chronos, grow some potatoes. Be a self-sustaining family with little contact with the outside world. But to end the book this way would equate to pussy-footing around life. Like most talented and sadistic writers, Kurt Vonnegut knows the value of a relatable hero. He knows the appeal of the long-suffering protagonist. He doesn’t waste the chance to play up the dark comedy called human existence.

At the start of the story, Malachi’s name is explained to the reader. Malachi means faithful messenger. This is the root of Malachi’s early existential drama. He awaits the message he’s meant to deliver, he waits for a higher purpose. Turns out, his purpose was to create Chronos with Bea. Chronos becomes the faithful messenger in the story. He delivers a piece of metal to Salo, a Tralfamadorian traveler marooned in Titan. Salo, himself, is a messenger–a machine designed by human-like creatures from the planet of Tralfamadore. Salo was sent into Space to travel billions of years in search of a specific alien civilization. The piece of metal (Chronos’ good luck piece) is the replacement part Salo needs to fix his ship. In the end, Malachi did find purpose, he did find his place in the great scheme of things. But did he really find purpose or was he only ‘a victim of a series of accidents.’ From the all-knowing and all-seeing perspective of God and any other chronosynclastically infundibulated being, is human life merely a straight line, or even a tiny, fixed point set against the vastness of the Cosmos? Is there no higher purpose? Or if there is, is it a purpose worth living for?

Like a seasoned pro, Vonnegut has his main character (and the reader) jumping through hoops, suffering burn after burn. And yet, on Unk goes. Against all odds, Unk goes–that you almost wish for a deus ex machina, for a red herring of sorts. You think ill of Rumfoord and shake your fist at his cruelty, only to realize that his life was the biggest joke in the book. There are a lot of emotions to be gone through in The Sirens of Titan. There are a lot of surprises too. And while the bleak nature of the book’s humor may make you want to let go of the book and seek some sunshine, you always go back to it, because quite frankly, it’s that good. It’s more than just a page-turner, it’s a thinking piece. It’s a fecking good piece of literature that thankfully sticks.

The Sirens of Titan is definitely one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years. Worth recommending to anyone interested in Science Fiction, Philosophy, and great literature, in general. If you loved Slaughterhouse Five, this would be right up your alley.