Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Contemplation: Death, Eternity, and the Human Soul

Today I had a very intriguing discussion with Kevin. Interestingly enough, the topics we talked about (and he blogged about) had been on my mind recently, but I hadn't gotten around to actually putting my thoughts into a somewhat-coherent written form. So, here's my attempt at doing that.

A few days ago, I visited my grandma for her 80th birthday. Such a visit, in itself, is enough to get my mind whirling. Eighty years. Such a huge expanse of time, yet so miniscule compared to the broad range of history.

I’m fascinated by the concept of “time.” I remember learning that God has no beginning and no end; he has always existed and always will. But how can that be?? Human minds need limits and boundaries, and to contemplate eternity is to undertake a task that’s as frustrating as it is impossible. That’s why, for all of recorded history, we have divided our lifetimes into measurable units that provide meaning, understanding, and a basis for comparison between humans of the past and present. Seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years… these are all comprehensible and accessible commodities. Civilization is structured around time, and without it, we would not be able to function as an organized society.

Eternity, on the other hand, is not comprehensible or accessible. What baffles my mind is this: how can finite beings become eternal? God is eternal because he has no beginning and no end. Humans, however, have a beginning; there is a very definite moment when we are biologically conceived. Some Christians believe that from the moment of conception, a soul exists. But where is the soul before that? How can a soul just suddenly spring into being? Have all human souls existed for eternity, with God, just waiting to be united with an embryo? If we are going to endure, spiritually, for all of eternity, then we must have endured before now, too, even though we were not consciously aware of it. Our souls must pre-date our physical bodies.

This leads me to wonder: are souls self-aware? By this I mean, after we die, will we still have a personal and exclusive identity? Or will the soul revert to its pre-physical state, without individual consciousness or awareness, without attachment to the physical embryo/baby/adult? Where does consciousness enter the picture anyway, and does it ever leave? Will we have any thoughts after we die, or will the light just go off permanently? The brain is physical, and thoughts are created by synapses, neuron connections, language knowledge, etc. Thinking is a physical act; is there a spiritual counterpart? After physical death, does the soul think? Can it communicate with other souls?

I’ve been thinking about all of this because while at my grandma’s, I felt the glaring absence of my grandfather. He died two summers ago, and his missing presence seemed especially overt this time. Perhaps it’s because I gave my grandma a copy of my book, which I dedicated in memory of my grandfathers, and I told her, “I wish Grandpa could see this.” My grandma, nearly in tears, reassured me, “He can see.”

Her faith was unflinching. I hated to acknowledge that perhaps for a moment, mine was not. If his physical body is no longer there, then can his soul still witness, observe, and contemplate? And can he actually see us, in the physical world, from wherever he is in the spiritual world?

It’s definitely comforting to think that he can. We want to know that our loved ones can see us; they still love us; they are watching over us. I’ve believed this all my life, and I never want to relinquish my faith in God. I would feel empty and without a purpose if I felt this was all an accident, a cosmic bump, an emotionless creation. But I keep grappling with the distinctions between the physical and the spiritual, and the finite and the infinite. And the most frustrating part is that in this life, we can NEVER, EVER KNOW. The only way to know is to die. And even then, it’s a 50/50 gamble. If the soul is self-aware, then we’ll think, “Oh, so this is what it’s like to be dead.” And we’ll think about our former physical life, and be able to construct a new sense of meaning in the eternal realm. But if the soul is not self-aware, then we will never have the chance to connect physical with spiritual. Our thoughts will end forever.

Notice, I didn’t even mention this option: we have no souls. Because I truly believe that we do. This existence of ours is not just physical. I can never prove it, but I will never deny it. I wish the “dead” really could come back to us and speak. Tell us some answers. Encourage us that physical death is only a gateway into another portion of existence. Turn our timorous faith into concrete truth. Tell us our hopeful beliefs are real. Maybe, just maybe, my grandfathers and everyone else I’ve lost can see me type this right now, and if only for that fantastic possibility, I’ll keep believing.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Persuasion, by Jane Austen

Anne Elliot is a twenty-seven year old daughter of an English baronet. In the summer of 1814, when the novel opens, Anne is rather unhappily situated as the second of three daughters in a family that seems to care very little about her. She's the ignored middle child and the failed seeker of her father's love and favor. She's also the lonely possessor of an unfulfilled heart. Eight years ago, she fell deeply in love with Frederick Wentworth, a man of little financial or familial standing but extensive intellectual and military promise.

Wentworth, who returned Anne's love, asked for her hand in marriage, but a family friend persuaded Anne that such an alliance would be unwise. As a result of this advice, Anne called off her very short engagement and left Wentworth devastated and resentful. For eight years, though, Anne never failed to remember Wentworth and the man who had so captured her heart; every other man paled in comparison, and at twenty-seven, she's still unmarried and seemingly without any new suitors.

All of these circumstances are revealed in order to begin the story's present-day action, which covers the autumn of 1814 and the spring of 1815. (Interestingly, Austen wrote the novel in 1815, just two years before her death).

The story begins when Anne hears word of Wentworth returning to town after years of adventures and heroics in the Navy. He's come a long way since his courtship days with Anne; he's acquired a considerable fortune and much fame, and when he arrives he captures the attention of several young ladies. At first, Anne is determined not to be among his admirers. She's sure that Wentworth no longer has feelings for her, and she hopes that she and he can at least be indifferent friends. However, these hopes are dashed when Wentworth seems to hold a bitter grudge, avoiding Anne as much as possible and instead revelling in the flirtations of other girls.

As time passes, Anne and Wentworth cross paths more often and gradually communicate on a level beyond cool politeness, and both begin to realize that maybe the past isn't gone forever; maybe the future could be beautifully altered by a rediscovery and renewal of former love. On the other hand, perhaps all chances of rekindling that romance are gone forever, as Mr. Elliot, Anne's cousin, pursues Anne with passionate determination.

Meanwhile, Austen introduces a large number of friends and family members, each with their own quirks, motives, and problems. Indeed, there are so many characters, that I decided to draw a character map, listing everyone's names complete with arrows to connect family members. This little map proved immensely helpful as I navigated my way across the Elliots' social landscape.

My initial reaction, upon completing this book, was to compare it with my favorite Austen novel, Pride and Prejudice. Specifically, I've been comparing Anne with the hero of P&P, Elizabeth Bennet, and I've concluded that the two bear little resemblance to one another. To me, Elizabeth is a heroine because of the changes she undergoes during the course of the novel; her realization of her own prejudice leaves her a transformed woman, and her romance with Mr. Darcy is made possible because of her admittance to past error. She is changed by her acquaintance, friendship, and romance with Darcy; she becomes stronger, wiser, and more maturely resolute.

On the other hand, Anne does not undergo any change. By the conclusion of the novel, she does not admit past error but rather blames her prior heartache on the actions and advice of others. Without giving away too much of the story, suffice it to say that Anne appears stubbornly self-righteous and hardly as humane as Elizabeth, whose cold-heartedness to Darcy eventually melts away into tender intimacy. Anne loves Wentworth all along, but her heart seems untouched by the circumstances which bring them back together. In short, I have trouble identifying Anne as a heroine. These may be bold claims (I have not yet read any critical material on this novel), but there they are.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspects of this novel, for me, are the discussions of character merits and defects; what qualities make a person appear strong or weak, attractive or distasteful, sincere or disingenuous? How is hypocrisy identified, and what effects can hypocritical men or women have on others' lives? How powerful are marriage and kinship ties? Who has the power to persuade us to behave in a certain way, and what are the consequences?

Finally, Austen hints at the challenges faced by a female author in the long eighteenth-century in a discussion between Anne and her friend, Captain Harville. In this conversation, Anne notes, "Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands" (page 220). Such language surely references Austen's and other women's struggles in a male-dominated profession.

Yet through her creation of determined, independent-minded heroines, Austen creates power for women within the socially acceptable realm of marriage and domestic life; she is not a radical, but her endorsement of women's independence in matters of love is surely a step in the right direction. For this reason, however, I feel that Anne, who fails to be transformed and whose actions seem delimited by those of others, falls short of the feminine ideal established in Austen's other works.

Recommendation to potential readers: This book is relatively short and also enjoyable for its comments on early nineteenth century society; it's worth the read.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett

I'm at a loss for words. This is one of the most disappointing books I've read in a long time.

I've been sitting here for quite some time, writing and editing a detailed review. Only a few moments ago, I deleted everything I'd written and substituted it with these current sentences.

I'm frustrated because I can't seem to be productive with my writing tonight. I'm even more frustrated that I spent so much time reading this book only to be met with an atrocious final chapter and epilogue.

This novel contained some positive elements: some romantic scenes, an optimistic view of human nature, and some engaging characterizations. But it was also fantastical to the point of absurd, agonizingly boring for the first 100 or so pages, and filled with an overload of characters who are never sketched beyond surface features. I had a hard time envisioning the scenes, despite Patchett's abundant use of adjectives. I'm not sure why. I guess the story just never came to life for me.

I should briefly explain the plot. A group of terrorists takes a houseful of party-goers hostage. The party is held in an unnamed South American country, at the home of the nation's vice president. An internationally acclaimed opera singer is present to entertain the guests, and both the hostages and terrorists find themselves entranced by her voice and personage. The hostage situation, which is unlikely in many respects, carries on for over four months. During this time, relationships are formed and romances develop among a household of diverse people from across the globe. This unusual scenario, engaging at times, ultimately fell flat. And, as mentioned before, the novel's conclusion is horrific both for its content and its literary merit. Yet the book cover is branded with critical acclaim and awards. Hm.

Time for a new book.