dachau door man's search for meaning
Book Review, Non-Fiction, Recently Posted

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E Frankl

That which does not kill me, makes me stronger – Nietzsche

 

We have come to know Man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord's Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips. – Viktor Frankl

 

Man's Search for Meaning Viktor Frankl

 

‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ is a book that, at first, may put off a lay buyer by the title itself. “Another self help book”! is probably the thought that would cross the mind, as it did mine. Cynicism of commercialization of the problems of modern living runs deep. Each book that purports to provide a solution to the problem in career, marriage, relationships and to the general feeling of emptiness ends up providing pop stories that makes for light entertaining reading doubling up as inspirational stories – of how other people solved their issues (or how monks sold their Ferraris!). Psychology tells us that herd mentality works for humans. If I know that some other guy cracked the secret of happiness, the brain releases enough happy hormones to make us feel that we can do the same. So the temporary happiness. And then we forget what it was all about!

And that is precisely the reason that you need to pick up this book. And you may never again may need to pick up another book to ‘help yourself’. ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ written by holocaust survivor Viktor E Frankl is a book that I can safely add to the small list of books that I can say has changed the course of my life perceptibly.

Viktor Frankl is perhaps the one of the best persons to have written a book on the topic. He was a Holocaust survivor. But that is only the part of the reason. There were thousands of survivors and not only of the Holocaust – of various Gulags and other extermination camps run by other regimes and countries. Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist who was in the process of developing his theory of logotherapy – study of how people find meaning in life, before he was seized by the Nazis. In the concentration camps, in a situation that was unique to modern human experience, Frankl was able to become a dispassionate observer of the people around him. And of himself. And he observed and kept developing his theory.

And he discovered some startling discoveries about human behaviour that otherwise would have been denied to him had he been just given an university environment.

And it is these discoveries and observations that he has put into this slim book. Slim yes but I don't recall the last book that I have highlighted and made notes of so much. Right from the first page, you start feeling the power of the book. Power that can only come from the words written by a man who has seen hell and has, for the benefit of those who come later, was able to record how man behaves in hell. And why some men can come out of hell unbowed while most are annihilated.

Man’s Search for Meaning is divided into two parts. In the first part Frankl takes us through his experience in the concentration camps. Through his eyes we see the world that he had to survive. He notes the behaviour of people around him – of prisoners and of guards. And he notes some things that can be observed only in extreme situations. Hope, he realized was a cause for life. And of death. Frankl narrates how he saw fellow prisoners literally turn from healthy people to being a corpse within a couple of days. Just because they lost hope and therefore the will to live.

In the second part he expands upon his theory of logotherapy. And in the process gives a primer on how to live.

 

“One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. The more one forgets himself-by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love-the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it.”

      is one of the first lines that I highlighted. Ah! good, no pop psychology, no mysticism, no universe is in you type of bullshit. And that's how ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ starts. Cutting through the bullshit. Viktor Frankl tells us the things as is. No sugar coating. An example. His wife, pregnant at the time the Nazis captured them, was kept separately in another camp. He was not to know till after the war that she was killed almost immediately after arrival at her camp. Yet he finds out one of the greatest revelations of logotherapy from this.

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth-that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire.

Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved

Viktor was able to pass some of his darkest moments by visualizing his wife and her smile and kept alive the love he felt for her. He drew strength from the hope that he would see her again. It is love, literally, that kept him alive

 

On finding out later that she had died, in the midst of his world crashing down a second time, Frankl did not sit down and die. For as he had learnt – even in the worst of time, life does not cease to have a meaning. As he was to tell his patients and students later on – the only thing that matters in the end is what response we choose to give.

Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms-to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.

So Viktor Frankl chose to choose life and find meaning in it.

He later posed a question to his students – to guess what his, Viktor Frankl’s meaning is life is.

One student got it right. Viktor Frankl’s meaning in life was to spread the message of his book

For as he wrote,

This uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the "why" for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any "how."

No one except Viktor Frankl himself could do what he himself could do. Therefore he had meaning in his life.

This above statement may be the single most important lines that I have read. What different people have poured tones of ink over, Frankl sums up in a paragraph. For what can be more powerful and more empowering than the realization of our uniqueness? That no one can replace us and what we feel. That our memories and experiences are our own and own alone. No matter what the conditions.

 

And Frankl is nothing if not practical to the point of dispassionate stoicism

If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.

Suffering will happen. Period. We need to know that it is as much a part of existence as happiness. What matters is our response to it

There are situations in which one is cut off from the opportunity to do one's work or to enjoy one's life; but what never can be ruled out is the unavoidability of suffering. In accepting this challenge to suffer bravely, life has a meaning up to the last moment, and it retains this meaning literally to the end. In other words, life's meaning is an unconditional one, for it even includes the potential meaning of unavoidable suffering

Suffering in and of itself is meaningless; we give our suffering meaning by the way in which we respond to it

 

 

Meaning of life is not to be found in a particular episode or in a particular form of feeling or in the way we meditate. It is to be found by living and finding meaning outside of us – in someone or some work. Fulfillment and meaning is to be found in our actions an in the way we feel for others.

By declaring that man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system.

This particular part above suddenly opened up a small fresh window for me as I read it. I felt the truth of the statement instinctively. I think our modern self help gurus may have got it dead wrong. Its not in ourselves that we can find meaning but in others and in our work that has some meaning to the outside world I think we were never wired to be isolated happy beings…

 

There is another beautiful thought that Frankl keeps coming back in the book. That of the fact that each moment we live is something that remains with us forever. Our past is the only tangible proof of our existence. All that we have felt, each moment that we have felt and lived and cried and laughed is something that is unique to us and is life’s greatest treasure to us

What you have experienced, no power on earth can take from you. Not only our experiences, but all we have done, whatever great thoughts we may have had, and all we have suffered, all this is not lost, though it is past; we have brought it into being. Having been is also a kind of being, and perhaps the surest kind.

 

 

For me, Frankl tackles beautifully one of the most difficult question that I had. And makes it look simple. I, like so many, have often wondered about the question of meaning in a general way – as if there is supposed to be a general theory of meaning. A one meaning to explain it all. Frankl gives the answer while demolishing the whole notion of a grand theory

What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person's life at a given moment. To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion: "Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?"

I am yet to see a more uplifting advice on how to live a life with meaning!

 

Viktor Frankl author Man's search for meaning In truth, Man’s Search for Meaning cannot be reviewed nor explained in detail. It has to be experienced. Reading it once is surely not enough. Its life changing enough to be read at various times in life. But reading it once is enough to change the way we think about ourselves and the way we live in the world. And I think that reading this book will be a different experience for every one. Just as we are unique individuals, just so we would take unique experiences from the book.

In sum Frankl saw three possible sources for meaning: in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person), and in courage during difficult times. Since all three are unique to everyone at all times, then it follows, I guess that we will find different meaning in different times, uniquely.

Frankl offers readers who are searching for answers to life's dilemmas a critical mandate: he does not tell people what to do, but why they must do it. This is a small but crucial difference in the way we expect self help books to help us

 

In the end, all I can say is that not reading this book would have been a great loss to me. Its quite an unique book that is probably even more relevant in our times than earlier. A couple of quotes from the book that Frankl could as well be writing about this time

People have enough to live by but nothing to live for

Our current mental-hygiene philosophy stresses the idea that people ought to be happy, that unhappiness is a symptom of maladjustment. Such a value system might be responsible for the fact that the burden of unavoidable unhappiness is increased by unhappiness about being unhappy

Some things never change! Ah wait, I know Frank would have said to that – “Our reaction to the things can!”

 

Closing the post with a summation in Frankl’s own words. Who else to close it better?

 

Now let us turn to the question of meaning itself. To begin with, I would like to clarify that, in the first place, the logotherapist is concerned with the potential meaning inherent and dormant in all the single situations one has to face throughout his or her life. Therefore, I will not be elaborating here on the meaning of one's life as a whole, although I do not deny that such a long-range meaning does exist. To invoke an analogy, consider a movie: it consists of thousands upon thousands of individual pictures, and each of them makes sense and carries a meaning, yet the meaning of the whole film cannot be seen before its last sequence is shown. However, we cannot understand the whole film without having first understood each of its components, each of the individual pictures. Isn't it the same with life? Doesn't the final meaning of life, too, reveal itself, if at all, only at its end, on the verge of death? And doesn't this final meaning, too, depend on whether or not the potential meaning of each single situation has been actualized to the best of the respective individual's knowledge and belief?

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31 by Upendra Namburi
Book Review, Recently Posted, Thriller

31 by Upendra Namburi

31 upendra Namburi Corporate thriller

 

Imagine a situation where a Chanakya or a Machivalli would have thrived in a modern corporate…

Now imagine any organization you may have worked in – increase its size to global. Now imagine a financial crisis, a barely hidden extra marital affair, a wife in a professional and personal crisis, a fraud allegation, a traitor in the most trusted circle,  a very real chance of unemployment and financial ruin, a pregnancy, job interviews which seem to lead nowhere

Now imagine all of this happening within just 31 days!

And now imagine that the guy facing all of this in 31 days is nowhere close to a Chanakya or a Machiavelli. He is about as plain as you and me – grappling with the day as it comes…

Upendra Namburi, in his debit novel, has written a cracker of a book! And its not an easy genre to crack – Corporate thriller. And that too in an Indian setting

A good corporate thriller not only has to read like a racy John Grisham but from an Indian prespective, the book also needs to hit some chords with an audience that has faced atleast some, if not all of the problems that Ravi Shastry faced (if only in a much more extended period than in a month). Not only this, the book cannot take itself too seriously. Much of corporate humour is like gallows humour. The trick is get this brand of humour in a book…

And very satisfyingly Upendra succeeds in all of this in 31.

I had picked this book with some trepidation, not really knowing whether Indian writing had turned the corner on this brand of thriller. A corporate thriller hits close to home and if any of it seems even remotely fake or worse, seems like a lift from some US office situation, the book is an instant practice shot for the nearest dustbin!

And guess what – 31 is something I finished in a few hours.

And I realized something else. Here is an Indian book that you can finish in a 3 hour flight and it does not have to be juvenile writing. In fact, Upendra pulls off a tight script with enough twists and turns to leave you breathless enough to turn the next page.

While reading this, I was trying to remember when I had felt this irrestible urge to keep looking for the next button. Two came to mind – Prison Break and 24, the book’s almost namesake! Both of these left enough tantalized at the end of one episode to make you go begging to see the next one.

31 does the same with each page!

And the way that Upendra has structured the narrative  is another reason why the book turns out to be a page turner. Like the series 24, he has put time as heading of  each paragraph.

So it feels like a constant countdown happening. And you know the time left for Ravi Shastry is only till 31st March, only a few days left now!

Ravi Shastry is the regular performing guy in a regular large MNC bank. He indulges in polite politics, is hoping for a promotion soon, has had an affair on the side which almost caused a rift with his wife, a wife who is starting to feel neglected. All par for the course and seemingly normal existence (the affair, even, yes!). And then one fine monday it all goes topsy turvy and Ravi is now forced to race against time to save his career, his solvency, his marriage and his sanity

Along the way Ravi faces everything that anybody who has ever worked in a corporate enviroment in India would have faced – a snarky and over-demanding boss, a smug HR guy, colleagues and subordinates jostling for few scraps of positions, a constant looking over the shoulder for backstabbers, a top management devoid of brains interested only in the next paycheck. Its a bewildering maze of relationships and power equations lubricated with blackberrys that we are very familiar with. From our comfort zones, the best thrillers have arisen. Upendra Namburi ensures that he follows this trend nicely…

You, the reader, keep rooting for Ravi, inspite of all his follies and missteps. Because I guess, somewhere you feel a part of him, or him of you…

And then the litmus test, at least for me – the ending. The ending for me is the distilled flavour of the book that I retain. And 31 has one of the best possible endings – not a fairy tale ending nor a distressing one – but one that is real enough, an open ended one. And a nice end to all the breathtaking days and minutes of  countdown

Pick this one up. Its one unassuming book that for a short time will completely occupy whatever you are doing.

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Book Review, Recently Posted, Science fiction

Old Man and the Wasteland written by Nick Cole

 

"Can you let go of what is gone? I think at first I felt that I could not go on. The things I lost were too painful and I could not imagine a life without them. I remember feeling awful. All the time. But I cannot remember when I changed. When I thought of salvage. When I thought of what was today, and not of what had been or what was lost "

 

Old Man and the wasteland by Nick cole

 

What happens when you take Hemingway's age old classic about an old man fighting alone against nature and adapt it to a dystopian future? You get "The Old Man and the Wasteland"

In the hands of Nick Cole, this is a story that you just cannot put down…

In an future only a generation away, an apocalyptic war, most probably nuclear, has laid waste to everything. Everything that man takes pride in – his creations of steel and brick, his civilization, the technologies, communication systems all have been destroyed and what is worse – has faded away to forgetfulness. People in the book actually marvel looking at freeways and flyovers – wondering whether its their own species who had built them.

All that is left now for scattered survivors to do is scavenge. Things that people a generation ago took for granted – steel, tinned food, worked metals, electronic parts, batteries have now become more precious than gold ever was. A man's worth is measured in how much scavenging he can do. A man's reputation is built on the value of the scavenge he can bring back. The hunter-gatherer turning full circle to scavenger..

Nick Cole brings alive this frightening world. The reader is never told directly what has happened and why things became the way they did. We are just put bang in the middle of the reality, the present. Everything is told from the perspective of the old man, who is trying to survive in the terrifying present reality while still holding on to vestiges of a very different past, fast fading. All we get are flashbacks from the memories of the old man, a common young man at the time of the apocalyptic disaster. The horrors and the helplessness of the time when everything familiar and comforting – society, government, geography, technology broke down, never to come back, is told to us in short flashes of memories. These are memories that still haunt the Old Man but he has learnt to live with them and even use them for scavenging. We are left to piece together what might have happened. And because he is one of the last people around who still remembers something of the life before, the reader is able to relate to him more.

Its a world that is beautifully created, if beautiful is a word we can use for a desolate dystopian world. Man has reverted back to his primitive ways, in the background of crumbling skyscrapers. This is a world that can lend itself to many clichés, but in the hands of Nick Cole, this is a breathing, living world with nameless horrors lurking at every corner.

The old man, like in the Hemingway classic, has a point to prove. To himself and to the world. That he still has it in him – to be useful. That he is not cursed to failure. The old man in "Old man and the sea" took to the sea. Here the Old man takes to the wasteland.

And the Old man takes with him his favourite book – a tattered much used "Old Man and the Sea", a story that is his most prized possession, a story that he hopes he would be able to fully narrate to his granddaughter one day.

Through the Old Man, we see the world as it has become. As he pushes further than anyone from his village has ever gone, he meets a world that has completely broken down in half a century. From the motel owner to the savage band of cannibals right down to the end where a soldier had made his last stand, the old man goes and sees and we see with him, a world that seems familiar as if in a slow nightmare. The reader, along with the old man, struggles to retain their senses. The powerful writing of Nick Cole ensure that we constantly stay on the precipice. The small parallel story of the wolves pack pursuing the Old Man and the last stand of the pack's leader is a nice touch – giving a sense of universal struggle for survival

A bit of an unusual ending does take away some of the perfection of the story but its a small blip. Overall, as the ending ends in a happy one (though I would have preferred a more open ended ending), you put down this book wanting more of the Old Man. Nick Cole has created a character that will stay with you a long time – a everyday man caught in an alien world trying to make the best of what he has. I think we would all relate to that at some level. And that is the triumph of the book – "The Old Man and the Wasteland" is a familiar book in an utterly unfamiliar world.

Highly recommended!

 

 

"I want to tell my granddaughter the lesson of the book. The lesson that they can beat you, but they cannot defeat you. I must tell her that. "

Btw, I have to thank Amazon and its Kindle for the book. This is not a book that you can get in a bookshop easily and certainly not at a price of $0.99! The low price enables experimentation with new authors and then you realize that there is huge choice of good stories out there, independent of what publishing houses promote.

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The Taj conspiracy
Book Review, Historical, Thriller

The Taj conspiracy by Manreet Sodhi Someshwar

The taj conspiracy The Taj conspiracy is a thriller from a genre in Indian writing that is just waking up to its potential – crime fiction. Also the fact that this is based on one of the perennial controversy surrounding the Taj Mahal – of its very authenticity, makes it a compelling pick

So far so good. The positioning is brilliant. The question then is – is the story and the writing to the mark? Read on…

As you start reading this, you get a sense of deja-vu. Which is confirmed as the first chapter goes by you and realize that "The Taj Conspiracy" is heavily inspired by "Da Vinci Code". The strong woman with a powerful sense of history, a murder victim who leaves clues with his own blood, a elderly intellectual who is steeped in the history of Taj Mahal, an investigator who starts believing as the story moves on…

The good thing about the inspiration is that it does not stretch too far. You see the obvious similarities but it is never a pale imitation. Instead the Indian context is brought out well. And after a few chapters, you forget about Da Vinci code and begin enjoying the book in its own right

And its time that we get a doughty and attractive women sleuth of our own!! Mehrunnisa Khosa, she of the exotic name and the exotic origin fits the bill.

The book opens with a murder right inside the Taj and unravels with a plot to destroy the Taj Mahal itself. And it only gets more exciting. Bringing in politicians and fringe fanatic groups, the story never loses steam through to its ending. There can be no joy in telling a story in a review, especially one like this. It just has to be picked up to be read!!

What the "Taj Conspiracy" does well is bringing to life the controversies surrounding Taj Mahal. And brings to life, how the conspiracies resonate to this day bringing in politicians and media and fringe groups of all hues. Its refreshing to see an Indian mystery/thriller based on historical intrigues. India's history is laden with riches just waiting to be mined by storytellers. Its a wonder why it has not happened on a large scale till now

This is where Manreet Sodhi Someshwar does well. The research is upto the mark and contributes a great deal to the readability. And Manreet succeeds where many authors falter – meshing the research with the storyline. Amidst all the running and shooting and killings and revelations, the wonder of the mystery is never far off.

In fact, this book will open up the Taj Mahal for the readers once again. I know that the next time I go there, I would beManreet sodhi seeing it with new eyes and not what the guide or the guide book tells me. And if a book can open up something new in something that seemed so familiar, I daresay that its worth reading…

I have a small gripe though. The character development could have been improved a little more. Manreet creates fascinating characters that could have been fleshed out a bit more. At the end of the book, the characters remained slightly one-dimensional.

But then, Manreet has planned a whole trilogy with Mehrunnisa Khosa. So lots of space to iron out the chinks…
Overall, a book worth picking up. And in the fledgling genre of Indian mystery, this quality book is a great step forward. Looking forward to see which mystery Manreet throws at us next…

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Isaac Asimov
Book Review, Non-Fiction, Recently Posted, Science fiction

I Asimov written by Isaac Asimov

Asimov-Cover2 To fans of classical science fiction, Isaac Asimov holds a position of one of a trinity – along with Robert Heinlein and Arthur C Clarke. Of course there have been many more talented writers in the golden age of science fiction who arguably should be a part of an extended trinity – Philip Dick, Harlan Elision, Fredrick Pohl come to mind immediately. But we like symbolism and simplicity, so three it remained.

But speak of science fiction today and Asimov rings the most bells than anybody else. Partly the reason is his prodigious output. He penned hundreds of books, articles, anthologies, science books for kids – his influence extended across all major science and science fiction during his time. As popular a science fiction writer as a contemporary science writer, he was and still is one of the most widely read author.

But his major appeal, according to me, is his engaging writing style. It is highly accessible and there is always a humour underlying his work. Asimov’s writing, according to his own admission, has been to bring science to a much wider audience. Conscious to steer away from typical science writing of his time, which usually assumed scientific literacy for the reader, Asimov adopted a highly readable form of science writing. And his science fiction also reads the same way. The concept of psychohistory and laws of robotics, in the hands of another, would have assumed a mystical aura. In Asimov’s style, the concepts became crystal clear and natural. In fact, the real world of robotics assumes the Asimov’s laws – another powerful indication of how science fiction actually creates reality!!

I became a fan of Asimov on reading his powerful short stories – “The Last Question” and “Nightfall” and it has been an insatiable passion ever since. So, I picked up “I, Asimov”, his autobiography, without hesitation.

And it is a rollicking ride. The first thing that strikes you as the first pages go by is the very different structure of the book. Usually autobiographies and biographies follow a linear chronological pattern.

“I, Asimov”, on the other hand is like a collection of short stories, each two to three pages long. Collected together, they are vignettes of Asimov’s thoughts and opinions on almost everything he had ever encountered – to his opinion of having kids, his contemporaries, his marriages, his work, his religious beliefs (or lack of it), his political beliefs and his own opinion of himself.

“I, Asimov” reads much like all his work – highly readable and accessible with sparkling wit. And for an autobiography, it is a surprising page-turner – the reader is never under pressure to remember dates or events but goes along with the story, the ‘story’ is Asimov’s life. It is only roughly chronological and by the end of the book, the reader easily forms a very fair idea of Asimov’s life.

Asimov weaves his life story beautifully within these short pieces. And what comes across in the pages is a man who is witty, loyal to his ideas, full of life and passion for his work. He also comes across as stubborn and cocksure and supremely self-confident. But he admits to these freely. Usually owning up to non-flattering parts of your own character leads to explanations or self-pity. Asimov does not fall in either pits. That is one of the most endearing part of the book.

He is also one who can be truly generous. He rates many writers, including Heinlein, to be much better writers than himself. He is surprised that many times he was awarded Hugos or Nebulas while much better writers were overlooked. This quality of generosity or self-critique is rare in anybody, more so in writers…

It is as if, in the last autobiography he wrote (he wrote two before), Asimov wants the reader and the world to know exactly who and how he was. He does not dress up his prejudices and does not hesitate to call a spade a spade. He comes across as forthright and frank without ever resorting to taking himself seriously. Even when he talks about death, there is no morbid philosophy. Even though he had only a few years to live (in fact he did not live to see this book’s publication), the inevitability of his death is told in a faintly ironic and humorous tone – “I expected to die at sixty and then at sixty five and then to my surprise, I reached seventy – more than anyone ever reached in my family”

The taste that you take away from this book is of a man who is sparkling, witty and entirely sure of himself. It shows also a man who can be full of warmth towards some people and cold towards some other. Someone who did not care too much of societal niceties. A man who stuck to his ideals and his philosophy, inspite of everything he faced.

Pick up this book. This is an autobiography unlike any you may have read. If you haven't read Asimov yet, this book may actually be a good place to start – you will want to read him. If you have already read Asimov, you might realize why you enjoyed his work so much

 

Some quotes –

“Once, when a religionist denounced me in unmeasured terms, I sent him a card saying, "I am sure you believe that I will go to hell when I die, and that once there I will suffer all the pains and tortures the sadistic ingenuity of your deity can devise and that this torture will continue forever. Isn't that enough for you? Do you have to call me bad names in addition?”

“I received the fundamentals of my education in school, but that was not enough. My real education, the superstructure, the details, the true architecture, I got out of the public library. For an impoverished child whose family could not afford to buy books, the library was the open door to wonder and achievement, and I can never be sufficiently grateful that I had the wit to charge through that door and make the most of it. Now, when I read constantly about the way in which library funds are being cut and cut, I can only think that the door is closing and that American society has found one more way to destroy itself.”

“I am not a Zionist, then, because I don't believe in nations, and because Zionism merely sets up one more nation to trouble the world. It sets up one more nation to have "rights" and "demands" and "national security" and to feel it must guard itself against its neighbors. There are no nations! There is only humanity. And if we don't come to understand that right soon, there will be no nations, because there will be no humanity. ”

“I have never, in all my life, not for one moment, been tempted toward religion of any kind. The fact is that I feel no spiritual void. I have my philosophy of life, which does not include any aspect of the supernatural and which I find totally satisfying. I am, in short, a rationalist and believe only that which reason tells me is so.”

“The age of the pulp magazine was the last in which youngsters, to get their primitive material, were forced to be literate.”

“Having reached 451 books as of now doesn't help the situation. If I were to be dying now, I would be murmuring, "Too bad! Only four hundred fifty-one." (Those would be my next-to-last words. The last ones will be: "I love you, Janet.") [They were. -Janet.]”

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Gladiators Arthur Koestler
Book Review, Historical, Recently Posted

Gladiators written by Arthur Koestler

gladiators

‘It is written: the wind comes and the wind goes, and does not leave a trace. Man comes, and man is gone, and knows nothing of the fate of his fathers and has no knowledge of the future of his seed. The rain falls into the river, and the river drowns in the sea, but the sea becomes no greater. All is vanity.’

 

Gladiators by Arthur Koestler is a retelling of the Spartacus story that will leave cringing those who lapped up Kirk Douglas in the role of the slave revolutionary and those who have read Howard Fast's "Spartacus".

This is a story not particularly of Spartacus as it is about his revolution. And the fate of any revolution as envisioned by Arthur Koestler

Spartacus is a completely historical figure who is shrouded in a mythical aura.

One of the most well known rebel in history, the word Spartacus has come to define defiance in the face of oppression and freedom in the face of tyranny. Little is known about him factually since his history was written by the ones who vanquished him, the Roman republic.

The legend of Spartacus has lived down to the present day and has continued to inspire revolutionaries. Any slave rebellion, before slavery went out of fashion, was compared to the Spartacus revolution. Toussaint L Overture, who found a slave republic in Haiti, was known as the "Black Spartacus". The long shadow of the insurrection by the gladiators 2000 years ago…

It is easy to romanticize Spartacus and the slave rebellion. It has all the ingredients of a modern day Hollywood hit – complete with a square jawed hero standing upto the might of the Roman empire. A slave, a gladiator, a trained killer who kills for the crowds pleasure turning on his master and attempts to change the course of history single-handedly.

A Spartacus that gives stirring speech – of the equality of man and right to freedom and then inspires his fellow slaves to start a rebellion that shook the Roman Empire to its core. The tragic end, the underdog going down fighting, crushed by treachery and bad luck but preserving his honour till the end.

The "I am Spartacus" at the end of the Kirk Douglas movie was stirring but probably untrue.

Almost seems formulaic and scripted.

Except that it really happened…

Not the melodrama.

But the rebellion was a unique aberration in the long history of empire building of the Romans. It did shake the empire and Spartacus did inspire awe and fear among his enemies. Hannibal and Spartacus were the favourite bogeymen of Roman mothers – Hannibal a decorated enemy prince and Spartacus a mere arena gladiator.

The memory of Spartacus in Roman society, completely dependent on submissive slave force, was immense and deep…

Although what he spoke and thought or even what he looked like has not been recorded. If he ever wrote a memoir, it has been lost to posterity. So Spartacus is an open field for interpretation. And since everyone likes a dashing hero, people have forged him in their own imagination

Gladiators Arthur Koestler Where Koestler's book "Gladiators" differs from tellings is that it looks at the Spartacus revolution as a whole and does not dwell on the man himself. Koestler's Spartacus is not a superman but an extraordinary man thrust into greatness in an environment not of his choosing. Koestler's Spartacus is not a man who has a great vision of history or of his rebellion but is willing to learn along the way. He is an able leader, a brilliant tactician and a man who is willing to lead his people. He is not without his doubts but is willing to find answers and experiment

"Gladiators" is more about is the rebellion itself with Spartacus just a character. Koestler's telling of the story is about how the rebellion, and by extension all the rebellions before and after, exists outside of the characters.

Spartacus is not above the rebellion. In fact it is the rebellion which controls him. Inexorably, history pulls Spartacus and Crixus and the other slaves into an iconic rebellion they themselves had not planned. It does not start with any stirring speech but with an act of defiance.

The nature of man takes care of the next part and history at its time completes the story. The yearning for freedom is the most innate feeling of man. Spartacus just follows it and then acts according to what is thrown at him.

“Gladiators” is about the inevitable failure of a mass revolutionary movement that is based on ideals alone. The utopia that exists in the dreams of man is doomed to failure, 2000 years ago or a century ago. One man’s search for utopia is different from other’s search for utopia. Inevitably, good actions for the greater good ends up doing the same damage that the revolution originally intended to abolish. Spartacus had to crucify his own men to uphold his dream, the same way that the Cheka (the early secret police of the Soviets) imprisoned their own people to uphold the common man’s utopia.

"Gladiators" is also about two men of the revolution – Spartacus and Crixus, two faces of the same rebellion. Spartacus is the idealized hero, looking to find cosmic answers to his endeavors. Crixus only knows one dictum – "Eat or be eaten". Spartacus realizes the truth of Crixus at the end and Crixus,in the end appreciates what Spartacus represented about the revolution.

Koestler throws open the question to the reader – who was the real hero? Spartacus who toiled for the ideal "Sun State" only to demolish it himself or dour faced Crixus, who knew that nothing is worth the effort and one should just live for themselves.

And that is the real thrust of the book – Can a revolution actually succeed without compromising on its lofty ideals? Can a revolution against oppression survive without oppressing its own children? Can a revolution exist outside of human nature? Can valour and sacrifice justify the dictum of – for the greater good? Can a revolution succeed when promising a paradise tomorrow and giving hell today?

This being the first of Koestler's trilogy, next being "Darkness at Noon" and ………, you can see Koestler developing hisArthur koestler- theory of revolutions which he sharpens with his "Darkness at Noon", the most famous of his work. But even if "Darkness at Noon" was about the Russian Revolution and "Gladiators" is set in ancient Rome, the same theme recurs.

Koestler is saying that nothing changes, even after 2000 years.

It is not a book that would be easily recommended to someone who is about to start Koestler, but I would suggest reading this before reading his other work. Not only can you see the progression of Koestler's ideas but Gladiators is a brilliant book in its own right.

It is surprising that it is not more widely known. Maybe"Darkness at Noon" overshadows this or probably people are happy with the fairy tale telling of the other Spartacus…

End point – this thin book will probably change more than a few beliefs – about history, about idealism, about myths and about rebellions….A must have…

 

Some quotes Gladiators by Arthur Koestler –

 

‘Anyone can live—but dying is an art and takes some learning,’ he kept on admonishing his gladiators

 

‘Truly,’ he said to the slaves, ‘your chains must be dear to your hearts and of great bliss to your bodies. I for one cannot see anything else on this estate that you can call your own and could wish to defend with your lives. Or did they tell me lies, or do those fowls lay eggs for your breakfast, do those cows yearn for the bull to increase your herds,

 

the relatives of Death, such as Honour, Shame and Duty, exist for him only who has no ken of reality. For reality, mucous, unspeakably delicate, with its mesh of thin veins, is not made to be torn to bits by some pointed object. And now Praetor Clodius Glaber knows that dying is unutterably stupid—more stupid still than life itself

 

So there it was again, the Sign on which the gladiator’s fate depended. There was no escape from it. Jewelled, loosely wrinkled, that thumb pointed down, dishonoured life and degraded death to a spectacle, pierced even one’s dreams.

 

It is the same with prophecies as with clothes. There they hang in the tailor’s shop, many men pass them, many a man they would fit. One comes and takes the robe. And so it is made for him—for he has taken it unto him…. What really matters is, that it suits fashion and period. It must fit in with the taste of the time—the wishes of many—the need and longing desire of many…

 

He who aims to plant a garden must start out by weeding

 

He himself had once seen better days: and despite his earnest endeavours to do so he had never been able to imagine the mental make-up of a man who had never seen better days

 

Many a man has strutted the road of tyranny, at the outset solely with the purpose of serving his lofty ideals, and in the end the road alone made him carry on

 

It is the same as with war: everybody discusses it, some are for it, some against, but no one honestly believes that it will eventually materialise; and when it is really upon them, they are astounded that they were right. There is no surprise greater than that of the prophet whose prophecies come true. For there is a great laziness of habit in the thoughts of man, and a smiling voice deeply buried inside him, which whispers that Tomorrow will be just like Today and Yesterday. And, against his better judgment, he believes it. And that is really a mercy, for otherwise he could not live with the knowledge of his certain death

 

and also crosses grew in a corner by the North Gate, on which died those whose lives were forfeited in the interests of common welfare, those who had not been able to submit to the stern laws of freedom

 

In the evenings people told each other stories about the wicked time of slavery, it lay far behind them, and now only half of it was true

 

He means well, you say? Of course he means well, that’s the worst of it

 

For the damage done by the congenitally wicked tyrant is confined to the field of his personal interests and his personal cruelty; but the well-meaning tyrant who has a lofty reason for everything, can do unlimited damage

 

And I tell you, it is dangerous to combine so much power in the fist, and so many lofty reasons in the head, of one single person. In the beginning the head will always order the fist to strike from lofty reasons; later on the fist strikes of its own accord and the head supplies the lofty reasons afterwards

 

But past experience evaporates quickly from the memory of man, and the more tormenting the experience, the quicker it devours every trace of itself

 

But man is not allowed to shape his existence independently of the system, conditions and laws of his time

 

Who cast the die, decided a man’s life before he was born? He gave noses unto all of them, stuck eyeballs into them, guts and sex, without much difference. But he set them apart in their mothers’ wombs already, some were never to smile, nor be smiled at, the others were dragged into the light of day, and for them shone the sun

 

‘Can you hear them, brethren, do you hear them?’ shrieked Zozimos and waved his sleeves like banners. ‘Do you hang well, brethren? Does freedom cut nicely into your limbs? Do its splinters tear your flesh? It’s the Sun State, that stuff which flows red from your mouths. They’ve skewered you like worms, so that every one may see the time of Justice and Goodwill is come

 

As for your returning, I can see quite well why you did it,’ said Hegio. ‘I too have within me those two opposed energies: the desire to depart and the desire to remain. You might also call them the desire to destroy and the desire to preserve. There are only those two whether you search without or within you; and their strife is eternal. For each victory gained by one over the other is but a sham-conquest which cannot last; just as the change from life into death has its vicious circle and is only seemingly final. He who departs remains chained to his memories, and he who stays abandons himself to painful longings. And throughout the ages men and women have crouched on ruins, lamenting they said: the time is not ripe, it is either too young or too old

 

THIS IS THE LAST RESTING PLACE OF HERMIOS, A LUCANIAN SHEPHERD; HE LONGED TO EAT FIELDFARE WITH BACON JUST ONCE BUT WAS PREVENTED. YOU WHO PASS HERE, REMEMBER THAT NO ONE SHOULD EAT FIELDFARE WITH BACON AS LONG AS ONE MAN LIVES ON THIS EARTH WHO MAY NOT TASTE OF THEM

 

‘It is written: the wind comes and the wind goes, and does not leave a trace. Man comes, and man is gone, and knows nothing of the fate of his fathers and has no knowledge of the future of his seed. The rain falls into the river, and the river drowns in the sea, but the sea becomes no greater. All is vanity.’

 

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Book Review, Classics, Non-Fiction

Age of Reason – Thomas Paine

 
 
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Just finished reading Thomas Paine's "Age of Reason"

 
What can I say?
 
That a book written more than 200 years ago could find so much resonance today is something that is needs to be read to be believed
 
Thomas Paine was a man who was so far ahead of his time that he would be called far ahead of his time today!!
 
Thomas_Paine_(cropped) (1) The moral courage and the personal integrity that exemplified his entire life marks his written work. Age of Reason was a book that caused such an explosion in its time that it did two things – immortalized him for posterity and condemned him during his lifetime.
 
Yet at the end of his life, when he was dying a painful death, deserted by friends and shunned by people who had hailed him a hero once, he stuck to what he had believed in and displayed the same sense of sarcastic humour that he showed in his work. A life lived as written
 
Age of Reason is an all out attack on the system of organized religion – more specifically Christianity, this being the religion that Paine encountered in England, France and America, the places where he lived and fought all his life. Paine was a brilliant pamphleteer and so was used to laying out his ideas concisely and clearly without using any dense logic or arguments. He uses the same technique in his writings.
 
Reading this, even 200 years later, feels like a stirring call to arms. And the fact that a large part of this book was written and completed at a time when Thomas Paine was under the belief that he could be executed anytime makes you appreciate the book more…
 
There are two important aspects of the book that stands out – the material of the book and the way it is written
 
The material of the book is based on a simple premise – Organized religion is a sham at best and dangerous at worst. This is because the purpose of organized religion is to make us act contrary to our innermost feelings, filling our head with impossible and fantastic things that has no basis in reality. The only true religion is that of Deism and the true bible is Nature.
 
Because, as Paine explains so beautifully, God has anyway given us an abundance of miracles in everything around us, in existence itself. Why do we need foolish miracles or religion? This was the first time that material like this was published in a direct and plainly written attack, even though the thoughts on which Paine based his work had been around for some time – in the work of David Hume and Spinoza for example.
 
The book is divided into two parts – the first is a general discussion on religion and on Paine's personal beliefs. This is where he puts forward his most compelling and beautiful arguments for the religion of the mind and the heart. He explains what he feels and why he feels so. The second part deals directly with Christianity. Deals is a wrong word actually. Rips apart is perhaps more appropriate. Paine takes some of the implied and maybe even cherished beliefs of Christians and literally rips them to shred…
 
Which brings me to the fascinating way the book is written. He is attacking organized religion in open field, which at that time was immensely powerful and controlled almost every aspect of life. Yet, he never uses any circular arguments, does not hide behind any one else and or any other theory. His attacks are straight to the point and argued so logically and beautifully that the modern reader will still find the reasoning fascinating, no matter how many Richard Dawkins he may have read.
 
When he is attacking Christianity, he maintains his good quality acerbic humour to mock the beliefs and at the same time gives irrefutable proof of why he considers the beliefs to be wrong. He picks up different aspects of Christianity – the bible and its different books, the299283333_7316acf53f characters of Moses, Joshua, Jesus and the significant events on which Christianity is based – most importantly the resurrection of Jesus. This was written to make perfect sense to a complete layman on the street. And this it does brilliantly!!!
 
The style has a wonderful sense of a person who is simply trying to wake up the reader to things which seem painfully apparent once explained…
 
This is a book that I hope I will be revisiting many a times. The book that has inspired people from Mark Twain to Christopher Hitchens is not something that can be digested in one reading…
 
This a book that cannot be reviewed enough, Instead I will leave the reader of this post with some of the sentences in the book that are so powerful and beautiful that they need to be read again and again…
 
Quotes from “Age of Reason”…Read below…
 
 

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“You will do me the justice to remember, that I have always strenuously supported the Right of every Man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it.”

 

“I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life. I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy”

 

“My own mind is my own church.”

 

“But it is necessary to the happiness of man, that he be mentally faithful to himself”

 

“Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.”

 

“It is a contradiction in terms and ideas, to call anything a revelation that comes to us at second-hand, either verbally or in writing. Revelation is necessarily limited to the first communication—after this, it is only an account of something which that person says was a revelation made to him; and though he may find himself obliged to believe it, it cannot be incumbent on me to believe it in the same manner; for it was not a revelation made to me, and I have only his word for it that it was made to him”

 

“The more unnatural anything is, the more it is capable of becoming the object of dismal admiration.”

 

“THE WORD OF GOD IS THE CREATION WE BEHOLD and it is in this word, which no human invention can counterfeit or alter, that God speaketh universally to man”

 

“and, therefore, the only idea we can have of serving God, is that of contributing to the happiness of the living creation that God has made. This cannot be done by retiring ourselves from the society of the world and spending a recluse life in selfish devotion.”

 

“As mystery answered all general purposes, miracle followed as an occasional auxiliary. The former served to bewilder the mind, the latter to puzzle the senses. The one was the lingo, the other the legerdemain. And, in the second place, it is degrading the Almighty into the character of a showman, playing tricks to amuse and make the people stare and wonder.”

 

“Upon the whole, mystery, miracle, and prophecy are appendages that belong to fabulous and not to true religion. They are the means by which so many Lo, heres! and Lo, theres! have been spread about the world, and religion been made into a trade”

 

“It is certain that, in one point, all the nations of the earth and all religions agree—all believe in a God; the things in which they disagree, are the redundancies annexed to that belief; and, therefore, if ever a universal religion should prevail, it will not be by believing anything new, but in getting rid of redundancies”

 

“Speaking for myself, if I had no other evidence that the Bible is fabulous than the sacrifice I must make to believe it to be true, that alone would be sufficient to determine my choice”

 

“Divided love is never happy.for it is impossible to derive happiness from the company of those whom we deprive of happiness.”

 

“To be happy in old age, it is necessary that we accustom ourselves to objects that can accompany the mind all the way through life, and that we take the rest as good in their day. The mere man of pleasure is miserable in old age, and the mere drudge in business is but little better; whereas, natural philosophy, mathematical and mechanical science, are a continual source of tranquil pleasure, and in spite of the gloomy dogmas of priests and of superstition, the study of these things is the true theology; it teaches man to know and to admire the Creator, for the principles of science are in the creation, and are unchangeable and of divine origin”

 

“for when we cease to have an object, we become like an invalid in a hospital waiting for death”

“Can we suppose it is consistent with the wisdom of the Almighty, to commit himself and his will to man upon such precarious means as these, or that it is consistent we should pin our faith upon such uncertainties? We cannot make, nor alter, nor even imitate so much as one blade of grass that he has made, and yet we can make or alter words of God as easily as words of man

 

“But all other arguments apart, the consciousness of existence is the only conceivable idea we can have of another life, and the continuance of that consciousness is immortality. The consciousness of existence, or the knowing that we exist, is not necessarily confined to the same form, nor to the same matter, even in this life”

 

“credulity, however, is not a crime, but it becomes criminal by resisting conviction.”

 

“but when it is said, as in the Testament, “If a man smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also;” it is assassinating the dignity of forbearance, and sinking man into a spaniel.Those who preach this doctrine of loving their enemies are in general the greatest persecutors, and they act consistently by so doing”

“And is not the evidence that this creation holds out to our senses infinitely stronger than anything we can read in a book that any impostor might make and call the word of God? As for morality, the knowledge of it exists in every man’s conscience”

 

“Religion, by such means, becomes a thing of form, instead of fact—of notion, instead of principles; morality is banished to make room for an imaginary thing called faith”

 

“certain as I am, that when opinions are free, either in matters of government or religion, truth will finally and powerfully prevail.”

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