Nov 30, 2009

The Cult of the Virgin Mary, by Michael Carroll

This is a very readable work of non-fiction that seeks to explain the delayed beginnings and strength of the Mary cult in certain geographical areas. Written by a socialogist, it presents a completely different perspective on a religious phenomenon. It is, however, extremely dated. Published in the mid-1980s, Carroll chooses to use Freudian psychoanalysis to explain the Mary cult, and in this day and age, that just doesn't fly.

Carroll takes the Oedipus complex for granted, and easily concludes that the Mary cult is particularly strong in geographical areas (Spain, Italy) where the father ineffective family is the predominant proletarian family structure, therefore leading to an especially strong sexual attachment to the mother, which leads to an even stronger repression of that feeling. If one takes such Freudian analysis at face value, yes, Carroll's argument is a strong one. But Freud's ideas have been viewed with increasing skepticism over the years, and is now nearly completely discounted. Without the Oedipus complex, Carroll's argument fails utterly.

Luckily for him, this does not affect much his argument about the beginnings of the Mary cult. He takes an in-depth look at various pagan goddesses and their devotional cults in order to suss out any one that might have been Mary's precursor. Much research lead him to just such a goddess: Cybele. She represents the same unique dichotomy that Mary does: Motherhood, and a complete disassociation from sexuality. Carroll points out that the Mary cult has always been associated with some form of masochistic behavior that is clearly meant to minimize sexual feelings (this part of Carroll's "sex" argument I can agree with), and in Cybele's cult, the male priests ritually castrated themselves.

All in all, Carroll makes a few good points, and his book is very readable, but one just can't look past all the Freudian analysis.

Nov 19, 2009

Blade of Fire, by Stuart Hill

This is the second book in a series of which the first is one of my absolute favorite young adult fantasy books. While I enjoyed this book, I did not do so nearly as much as the first. Perhaps this is the danger with series: you fall in love with the totally new world presented to you in the initial book, and it is this newness that partially attracts you. You can read that book over and over and still love it, but somehow the magic is lost once a second, then a third, and sometimes a fourth or more is written.

The first book was about a 14-year old girl, Thirren Strong in the Arm Lindenshield, a princess of the Icemark and heir to a throne held always by warriors. She must make new alliances with peoples her countrymen had only heard legends of in order to fight off the Polypontus Empire (Rome, obviously) and save her homeland. The war is not just between two peoples, but between the cold, scientific minds of the Polypontus and the residents of the Icemark and beyond, who know magic and huge talking animals and the like. It is the struggle between believing in only what you can see, and believing in something a little more fantastical than that. While I personally do not subscribe to the Icemark's philosophical position, as such, it is always good to imbue young adult fiction with some sort of overarching message. It's not just about the killing and the vampires and all that; it's about forcing yourself to confront what you really believe.

Anyways, the second book follows Sharley (short for Charlemagne), Thirrin's youngest child, as he struggles to save the Icemark yet again from the Polypontus despite his physical handicaps. His villain is Medea, his sister, who alone inherited their father's magical powers, and is evil to the core. She would see her family and the country they love destroyed, but goes about this business with the shortsightedness of any vindictive 15-year old girl. Throughout the book, we meet various peoples who are thinly veiled versions of real nationalities: Venezzia, the Desert People, the Lusu. One begins to grow somewhat weary of Hill's lack of imagination when it came to populating his world. A message is all well and good, but give the reader a little credit and make it harder to navigate! All in all, I enjoyed reading the book, and it was easy to get through in a matter of days, but it wasn't quite as enjoyable as the first. Needless to say, I will still pick up the third, and last, installment of the series.

Utopia, by Sir Thomas More, ed. by Robert M. Adams

I really enjoyed reading this edition of More's Utopia. This particular edition consists of two parts: the text of Utopia itself, and a series of essays and excerpts which provide a background to the text and to More himself and a look at the future of utopias and anti-utopias in the literature since More wrote his version.

First, Utopia itself. What a delightful read! It is easy to see how More got a reputation for such an intellect in his day. The work is astoundingly intelligent; he seems to have thought of everything (though Adams, in some funny little notes to the text, notes where More clearly did not), and what is presented is a surprisingly coherent and complete view of a society in around fifty pages. It is obvious that More thought such a place and such a society to be impossible, but what is more difficult to ascertain is whether he wished that were not the case. Utopia is rather...unfriendly towards individuality, whereas More must have been aware that he was allowed to express a great deal of his own individuality, and one cannot help but wonder how happy he actually would have been had he been forced into the strictures he devised for his Utopia. He spent a huge amount of time in his own life engaging in politics, and politics, in those days as well as in our own, take place nearly always away from the center stage. And yet in Utopia, any discussion of politics at all is punishable by death. In this we see an example of the ridiculous side of More's invention. It is difficult, though to only laugh at this "backwards" society, where gold is devalued tremendously and used only for the fetters of slaves. One must also admire their selflessness, their intelligence, their sophistication and organization. But are these admirable traits enough to sacrifice simple liberties over? This is, obviously, a question that has yet to be answered even today.

The essays and excerpts that Adams included in this edition are incredibly helpful. None is more than ten or twelve pages long so it is impossible to get sick of their arguments, if one is less inclined to academia. They each present important questions about More and his Utopia, some of which I've touched upon in the above paragraph. Equally interesting are the excerpts from various Utopias and anti-Utopias that have been written since More's time: Brave New World, Walden Two, and so on. They show that the idea of utopia has only grown since More's foray into the subject, and that the same questions that were presented by More's work are relevant now.

Overall, I was very happy with this particular edition of Utopia, and would definitely recommend it to anyone wishing to become acquainted with the subject.

The Confusion and The System of the World, by Neal Stephenson

These are, respectively, the second and third books in Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, and they completely lived up to the hype I gave the first book. Brilliant, hilarious, touching, inventive, ingenious - Stephenson is a literary god in my view. How he managed to get all that research done, make it into a comprehensible narrative, and then describe complex mathematical and scientific theories lucidly, is completely beyond me.

The scientific parts of the story are well-balanced by the romantic plot, and neither overshadows the other. I often find that when reading a book that has two or more storylines, I look forward to one more than the other. Not so with this series. Each story is so well told, well thought out, and perfectly executed that I enjoyed each part as much as the previous bits. The fact that the entire series is nearly 3,000 pages long should deter no one from reading it; you hardly notice the length at all, and when it is over, you'll wish he'd written yet more.