The South Seas, Etc. – Review

Robert Louis Stevenson. The South Seas, Etc. New York: Books Inc., n.d. Print. The World’s Popular Classics.

This was an old edition we happened to pick up because we knew that Stevenson spent his last years in the South Pacific because of health problems.

This book consisted of The South Seas, Letters from Samoa, and “Father Damien,” all relatively short works. This told us a little of Stevenson’s life, but more of his impressions of the South Pacific. While he visited Hawaii, the Marshall Islands, and a few other places, The South Seas focuses on the Marquesas Islands where he lived for some time.

He makes some observations about the Polynesian languages, noting how from New Zealand to Hawaii and the Marshalls they are all related. He notes the consonant changes, that in Tahiti the word tabu (“taboo”) is tapu in the Marquesas and kepu in Hawaii. I recall being told that in the more remote areas of Hawaii (Niihau and maybe Lanai) they retained the t sound over the k sound so even today they speak of Tamehameha rather than Kamehameha. He says the differences are slight and they can all understand one another in spite of the great distances from island group to island group just as a Welshman can communicate clearly enough with a Breton.

Stevenson writes about the relations between the French rulers and native people. There are, of course, some misunderstandings but for the most part they accept each other’s laws and practices. This mutual tolerance and parallel cultures were reminiscent of the relations between the Indians and English settlers in New England prior to King Philip’s War. Some of the young men were eager to be schooled by the French but others merely tolerated it.

Stevenson, a Protestant, was impressed with the artwork that went into the construction of a couple of the Catholic church buildings on the islands. He also was fairly impressed with the dedication of the priests and nuns who ran the churches and schools. Some, he opined, were better teachers than others, but most seemed dedicated to their religion and their calling.

The South Seas
devotes quite a few pages to observations and discussions of cannibalism. Apparently it was still practiced in the Marquesas until the French outlawed it. Even then, Stevenson suspects some may have continued it. He notes that this was not practiced in some of the other Polynesian islands and suspects it was more common in places where the population density was greater.

He also notes the taboos and fears associated with death and ghosts among the people of the Marquesas. He also states that there were only two accurate Western recorders of life in the South Pacific, one being Herman Melville in Typée and Omoo. Stevenson’s experience in the Marquesas is very different from Melville’s, but he can observe some of the same things, though in the fifty year time span, the French had brought more of a Western and Catholic influence.

In comparing the cultures of the Marquesas with Hawaii, he notes that the Marquesas overall were more traditional and less Western. The reason he gives is that in Hawaii shortly before the first missionaries came, King Kamehameha had become skeptical of the Hawaiian gods and religious practices and had abolished most of the traditional practices. When the missionaries arrived a few years later, the Hawaiian were often ready to hear of the true God.

Letters from Samoa are about half a dozen letters describing some aspects of life on Samoa in 1892 and 1893. At the time Samoa was part of the German Empire—it became American Samoa after Germany’s defeat in World War I. What stood out to him was the treatment of workers from Melanesia.

It seems almost as if the German landowners there were imitating the American South before the Civil War. They would go to the Melanesian islands, especially New Caledonia, and hire black natives to work on their fruit plantations. While not enslaved, they were not treated especially well and many died from disease and, according to Stevenson, from homesickness. It was definitely feudal in nature.

The tract on Father Damien of Molokai was written as an open letter in response to a Presbyterian minister who was critical of Father Damien. It is worth reading because Stevenson visited Molokai and did get a chance to see the leprosarium there. (Father Damien himself had died a couple of years before Stevenson arrived.) At best, Stevenson notes that if Father Damien is ever elevated to sainthood (that happened in 2009), that letter written by the Honolulu minister would fit in well with the position of a devil’s advocate.

Stevenson is a good writer. None of these nonfiction pieces are really stories, but they are of some interest historically and linguistically as a discussion of the islands of Polynesia especially the Marquesas and Samoa. As they still do today, they sound like wonderful places to visit and maybe even to call home.

The Old Man and the Tea – Review

McMillan Moody. The Old Man and the Tea. OBT Bookz, 2013. E-book.

A few months ago we reviewed another book by Mr. Moody that featured a church intern named Elmo Jenkins. Elmo narrates The Old Man and the Tea as well. This novel takes place about five years later. Jenkins has been installed as an associate pastor of the First Church, a megachurch set in a state that resembles Georgia. Again, he has a number of funny stories and encounters to share.

This time Rev. Jorgenson, the magisterial senior pastor of the church, has planned a major building project. Much of the church structure is over a century old, and it looks like time to do some serious renovation. He has hired a consulting firm to help raise the big bucks needed for such a project.

Meanwhile, now-Rev. Jenkins has made friends with a wise and salty old Christian at a popular doughnut shop. Elijah Enoch always orders tea and reads his Bible there. Elmo finds Eli’s advice very helpful, but when Eli suggests that the church pray about the fundraising before starting the project, Elmo is not sure if anyone will pay attention to what he has to say.

There are a number of other things going on, as always. A respected deacon has started acting like a prophet, interrupting the services and especially speaking against the building program. Elmo is trying to wangle a trip in the sailboat owned by another staff member. (“For some odd reason, a sailboat is a ‘must-have’ for rich white people.” [649]) And a new secretary hired by the church seems to be disrupting most of the people who work there.

As was true with Ordained Irreverence, there is a lot of humor in The Old Man and the Tea. A flyer printed to promote prayer has a misprint because Elmo’s ones look like sevens, so instead of Acts 1:8, it says Acts 7:8. (If the verse flag here does not work, check it out yourself.) Oh, while Elmo gets a certain amount of teasing because of the Sesame Street figure of the same name, in this installment we meet a character whose name is Burton Earney. Also Fran Bruker’s name sounds a lot like Frau Blucher of Car Talk fame. And it is hard to talk about evangelical Christianity in the United States too long without mentioning Chick Tracts.

Elmo spends a little time in New York City because a publisher there is coming out with a book he wrote. What we remember about his trip there, though, is Sergio, his ex-con chauffeur. At one point Sergio relates how he was in an elevator alone with Frank Sinatra. He asks Sinatra, “Is there any truth to those mafia rumors I keep hearing ’bout you?” Sinatra’s responds the way he actually did respond when he met Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather.

Some readers might receive a little surprise at the end, though a careful reader would have picked up on a number of hints about who Mr. Enoch really is. Elmo, read your Bible.

This is the third of at least six Elmo Jenkins novels. While they are not for everyone, they have a tone similar to that of Garrison Keillor in many of his Lake Wobegon monologues. They do have fun at the expense of the church, but it is humor based on affection.

Say Goodbye to Regret – Review

Bob Santos. Say Goodbye to Regret. Indiana PA: SfMe Media, 2017. Print.

The title promises: Say Goodbye to Regret. Is that even possible?

The Great Gatsby tells us:

“Can’t repeat the past?” he [Gatsby] cried incredulously, “Why of course you can!”

Gatsby’s tragedy is that that is impossible. What is done is over, and we have only the present.

How do we handle our regrets? Bob Santos provides an answer, and, no, it does not involve mansions or stolen bonds. The key is wisdom. We need wisdom to be able to overcome our regrets. We need wisdom to make better decisions in the future.

Santos starts right at the beginning. You think you have regrets? What about Adam and Eve? They had it made! They were living a perfect life in a perfect environment and they gave it away for some fruit! They believed the devil’s lie, and they spent the rest of their long lives remembering how great it used to be.

Say Goodbye to Regret begins with a Gospel presentation. We cannot undo what we have done. We need someone to redeem us and our situation.

After we accept God’s Gospel, how do we live? The Bible tells us very simply “the righteous shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:17) Adam and Eve fell because they did not believe what God said about the tree. So we are to live by trusting in God and His Word.

Santos notes that today we people are faced with so many ideas from so many sources that we are constantly making decisions. This leads to what he calls decision fatigue. I have heard others describe this as burnout. Santos then presents God’s provision: “The wisdom from above.” (James 3:17)

Three different verses all say “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Psalm 111:10, Proverbs 1:7, 9:10) Santos devotes two chapters discussing the necessity of the fear of God. Yes, God loves us so much that He sent His Son, but we need to respect Him and hold Him in awe. Then we begin to see our actions have consequences and God can give us the power to have the wisdom to make the best decisions. “When reverence and respect begin to flavor all we do, we will be well on our way to pursuing heavenly wisdom and saying goodbye to earthly regret.” (200)

Besides presenting Bible teaching, Santos shares from his own personal experiences—growing up the son of immigrants in a broken home, becoming a Christian believer at the age of nineteen, and serving as a husband and father and pastor. Some of his most effective testimonies come from the fifteen years he was a college campus minister.

The subtitle of this book in some ways sums up his theme: Discovering the Secret to a Blessed Life. That is what God wants for all of us, and that is what Santos demonstrates. There is an anointing on this book, and those who take it to heart will have a greater blessing than they did before picking it up.

Disclosure of Material: We received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through the BookCrash.com book review program, which requires an honest, though not necessarily positive, review.

A Literary Look at the Bicameral Bible

A Literary Look at the Bicameral Bible

Julian Jaynes. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Boston: Houghton, 1976. Print.

Julian Jaynes might have called his book The Voices of the Gods or In Search of Ancient Schizophrenics. With his detailed research and academic credentials, however, he aimed for a different audience when he wrote The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. He has had an effect. Artists and other creative people occasionally speak of “going bicameral.” An essay in Audubon magazine spoke of his theory as though it described the most recent step in biological evolution.1 One of Princeton’s deans indicated that it was a commonly held belief among students on that campus.2 Let us examine his hypothesis and evidence to see how well they stand together.

Jaynes’ theory relies heavily on literary evidence. After briefly summarizing his “bicameral breakdown” theory, we will examine his use of literature and literary interpretation. Like Jaynes, we will concentrate on writings of the second millennium B.C., orally transmitted epics such as those of Homer, and the Bible. We will discover that The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind really has more to say about contemporary values than it does about cultural changes in ancient times.

To sum up his theory, Dr. Jaynes sees man’s awareness of himself as a discrete, willing individual— “consciousness”—as a development of human culture in the first millennium B.C. Prior to this, man was “bicameral.” That means that the left hemisphere of the brain which regulates speech and movement on the right side of the body was unconsciously subject to the right cerebral hemisphere. The right side of the body is dominant in most people. The right side of the brain regulates some creativity and external perception, but it is unable to communicate without the left side translating.

As people became more self-conscious this relationship between the two hemispheres “broke down.” Before, when people were not involved in common labor or survival, they simply followed impulses from the right hemisphere. In ancient literature this is depicted as the voice of a god. According to Jaynes, there was never any rebellion or questioning of authority. Since the breakdown, however, the cerebral hemispheres functioned more independently. People became more self-aware, more conscious, and they no longer functioned according to the will of ”personal gods.”

Although Dr. Jaynes does describe the physiological function of the cerebral hemispheres, he does not suggest that the historical breakdown of the bicameral mind is due to a biological change. He does not say that this was a mutation or genetic trait which accounted for a selectively superior synaptic change. He attributes the bicameral breakdown to social change. It is, in effect, a learned ability.

This breakdown is evident, Dr. Jaynes writes, in the lack of personality in the ancient cultures of Egypt, Babylon, and Mesoamerica. (The last remained bicameral, he claims, until the Europeans arrived in the sixteenth century.) The kings of these cultures were the embodiments of the most powerful gods. A ruling class or priesthood consulted idols or sarcophagi. These objects would visually stimulate the right hemisphere of the cerebrum. Near Eastern society was ruled this way until the mass migrations between 1500 and 900 B.C. put such a stress on the social fabric that the “bicameral” operation broke down.

To Jaynes, the bicameral function of the mind first came about in cultures where the tomb and the temple were one and the same. Ancient burial rites may indicate that the people (or a priest caste) used the tombs of leaders for necromancy. In a Hegelian manner, he sees idolatry and temple worship developing from these tomb-cults. While all of these things were part of some ancient cultures, it is worth asking which really came first—the tomb or the temple, the sarcophagus or the idol? What about Norsemen who sent their leaders out to sea when they died? What about ancient Egyptians who put curses on tombs lest anyone enter them? Surely these practices precluded the use of tombs or corpses for divination. Could it simply be that many burial rites, like those of today, were done out of respect for the departed—perhaps with some guilt and some fear of death thrown in?

This also raises questions for social scientists today. If the bicameral breakdown is a learned trait, what about primitive cultures today? Is consciousness in human children today only a learned trait? (Do parents teach their children to be a “terrible two”?)

During the social upheaval of the first part of the first millennium B.C., self-conscious rulers gained power by force of will. Gods became less prominent. The bicameral organization of society was destroyed. Vestiges of bicamerality remained in cultic activity and today can be found in such groups as schizophrenics and religious fundamentalists.

Cultic activity after the time of the breakdown was only partially bicameral. It took more ritual to stimulate the gods and only a select few could communicate with them. The oracle at Delphi would be an example of such a cult. The apparent difference from older priest-castes was the gods they consulted were reputed to have more power than the personal gods of the ordinary citizen. In many ways they appear no different at all.

Jaynes suggests that schizophrenics would be quite well-adjusted in ancient civilizations. Research may suggest that they still have the left-hemisphere-dominant bicameral mind. They are abnormal today because they are “waiting on gods in a godless world.”3

It appears scientifically valid to ask whether conclusions drawn from certain schizophrenics or a small majority of victims of a certain type of epilepsy can apply to the main course of human history. We may even ask how left-handed people fit into his scheme of right-handed dominance. The neurologists and psychologists can work on those details. A considerable bulk of Jaynes’ evidence is literary. Let us look at the literature and thematics.

For Dr. Jaynes, the Homeric epics and Hebrew Scriptures are primary sources demonstrating the breakdown of the bicameral mind. Prior to these writings, he maintains, people were always portrayed subject to their gods. They were never self-conscious, but writing, speaking, ruling, and dying according to the will of their personal gods.

Examples of this blind “bicamerality” are Hammurabi receiving his code from Marduk, the prophet speaking as the mouthpiece of Yahweh, or the constant incarnation of the gods Horus and Osiris in the pharaohs of Egypt. The gods in each case, Jaynes claims, are simply alter egos of the men. They are not worshipped or prayed to except by those with subservient deities. Pharaoh’s subjects prayed to Pharaoh’s gods because they were subject to Pharaoh the man.

There is a major thematic problem with these observations. Most the writings prior to the first millennium B.C. which are still extant are either commercial or religious. It either has to do with everyday life or it centers on God or gods. Most of what we have from ancient Egypt, for example, is from tombs or monuments. These writings are naturally preoccupied with death just epitaphs are. Insofar as the gods are seen as controlling the beginning and end of life, people will see themselves subject to them. This is simply because everyone dies. This is just a true today as it was four thousand years ago even if the cultures and the names of the gods have changed.

Jaynes asserts unequivocally that “there is no trace whatever”4 of self-conscious or self-willing concerns prior to the time of the Assyrian conquest of the Near East around 900 B.C. He admitted in an interview that the uncovering of any self-conscious artifact from earlier times would wreck his whole hypothesis.5

It could be argued that the Egyptian tombs and monuments were built because the Egyptian leaders were pre-eminently self-conscious. They wanted themselves and their dynasties to be remembered. They wanted to make sure their afterlife was comfortable. However, there is more specific literary evidence for “conscious” thought in the second and third millennia B.C.

Surely, the Ras Shamara tablet from the fifteenth century in Syria describe a self-conscious hero, Daniel.6 His personality is not subject to any god, though he worships the usual Canaanite pantheon. He has to practice a ritual for seven days to call up a god. These tablets describe other practices, especially libations and sacrifices used to get the attention of deities. This sounds more like Jaynes’ “godless world” of today than the trancelike obedience Jaynes would have us see. At the very least it is suggesting a much earlier “breakdown” like the only “partially bicameral” oracle at Delphi.

Egyptian writings also display a lack of “bicamerality” when discussing things other than death and royal decrees. The Story of Sinuhe (1800 B.C.) is a simple personal return narrative.7 It must have been popular since over twenty manuscripts of the tale have been found. Other than Pharaoh, who is depicted as a god, there are no references to gods in anything but place names. Sinuhe is an independent character—except, of course, when dutifully obeying an order of the king. He even slays a Goliath-like champion without so much as a prayer or hint of inspiration. Another ancient Egyptian tomb seems to disprove this theory as well. A work scene in it has a slave saying those words of laborers everywhere: “Look busy! Here comes the boss.” That sounds very self-conscious!

The Instruction of the Vizier Ptah-Hotep (2450 B.C.) is the oldest of a number of ancient Egyptian proverbial writings. Similar Akkadian writings date from 1800 B.C.8 These works are thematically and stylistically closer to the Biblical books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes than anything else. Except for the occasional names of gods, they are so similar to the Hebrew, that nearly everyone who reads them considers them the same genre. Yet Jaynes assigns a late date to the two Hebrew books because they are too self-conscious to come from an earlier bicameral era.

A trained Egyptian scribe named Khakheperesneb wrote the following around the year 2000 B.C.:

Would I had phrases that are not known, utterances that are strange, in a new language that has not been used, free from repetition, not an utterance which has grown stale, which men of old have spoken.9

This scribe, who even names himself, must have surely been forsaken by his bicameral gods. Walter Jackson Bate used this quotation in the opening of his book The Burden of the Past and the English Poet to demonstrate that self-conscious writers’ block is nothing new.

By Jaynes’ own criterion we could stop here. The evidence does not support his case. Some of history’s earliest writings are quite self-conscious.

Dr. Jaynes also sees the bicameral mind at work in the Iliad of Homer. The people here , he says, are totally subject to the gods. They obey them, follow them, and are deceived by them uncomprehendingly. The bards who transmitted oral epics did so while in an unconscious “bicameral trance.” The portions of the Iliad where the characters become introspective were added later, according to Jaynes.

In a crucial paragraph in The Origin of Consciousness, a scene from the sixth book of the Iliad is outlined. Hector is carrying an ancient leather shield such as would have been used at the time of the historical Trojan War. In the next line the shield is described like one from the ninth century B.C., closer to the time the poem was transcribed. Rather than simply accepting this slight discrepancy as poetic license, Jaynes writes that “the second line was added by a later poet who in his auditory trance was not even visualizing what he was saying.”10

As a matter of fact, a good bard was highly skilled. It took years of practice. As his skill increased he had literally thousands of poetic formulae at his disposal. He would have picked up poetic lines and descriptions from many sources. He was not much different from the American blues singers at the turn of the last century who could sing two hundred verses of “Frankie and Johnnie.” There may be a few technical contradictions as these dramas were performed, but the bard was a singer of tales, an entertainer, as much as he was a historian.

I recall a television drama whose setting was a Navy vessel. A technician was able to hear sounds on air radar! That was a technical discrepancy as the scriptwriter confused sonar and radar. It had nothing to do with anyone being in a trance. Nor did it detract from the entertainment value (such as it was) of the television show.

The discrepancy which Jaynes pointed out is typical of orally transmitted epics. In epics armor gets fabulous treatment.11 The arming of Agamemnon in the Iliad is well-known. Some medieval epics—and some by twentieth-century bards in illiterate cultures—will go on for many lines describing the armor of a hero or his horse. The armor may start with Samson’s jawbone and touch on every major war the singer has ever heard of. Realistically, it may be impossible to accumulate or bear all the paraphernalia, and there may be some contradictions as the singer uses the stock formulae which fit his rhythm pattern, but the story would not be the same without them.

Although Jaynes cites Milman Perry in a footnote, he does not make use of Perry’s major contribution to the study of oral literature. The shields in the Iliad, the “swift-footed” Achilles resting in his tent, and other such “contradictions” make sense in a very uncomplicated way according to Perry’s observations of contemporary bards. The Homeric audience would understand this strictly in terms of art and entertainment. Instead of seeing oral epics as coming from acquired skills and rhythmic formulae such as Perry did, Jaynes opts for a more psychological approach which was popular at the turn of the last century.

The gods are also an important part of the epic form. Whether or not the Homeric audience believed in the gods, they were essential to the story. The Roman Vergil may have been an atheist. Nevertheless, he would never have considered penning the Aeneid without due participation of the gods. Even Milton chose the story of the Fall over the Arthurian cycle for his own epic poem Paradise Lost because of the divine involvement.

Jaynes concludes that the characters in the Iliad were unconscious automata subject totally to the gods. He contrasts this with the character of Odysseus in the Odyssey who is more self-willing. That is because, according to Jaynes, the Odyssey was transcribed later, after the bicameral mind had begun to break down.

To the critic, however, one of the greatest features of the Iliad is the personalities of its main characters. They are unique individuals and not necessarily anything like the gods they subject themselves to. Their loyalty is often far more constant than that of the gods. Achilles’ choice of fame over long life is one of the most interesting personal choices in all of literature.

The characters may appear more two-dimensional at times such as in battle. People tend to act more instinctively in such a situation. A person does not have the luxury of contemplation then. Life and death are at stake.

The gods also figure prominently in Homeric battles. This is because the gods figure in the mysteries of life and death. Even today a nonreligious person will often be buried with a religious ceremony. The gods also figure in the battle scenes because they are viewed as the forces behind history, and the outcome of the battle is set by history. The poet is bound by history and tradition. Homer was bound to have Hector die, just as Margaret Mitchell was bound to have Sherman destroy Atlanta.

The gods may decide history, but the characters in the Iliad still have a lot to decide. The brooding Achilles has a distinct and very self-conscious personality which is quite different from his tutelary spirits, his fussy mother Thetis or the sober Athene. Richmond Lattimore, whose translation of the Iliad is a college standard, declares that the gods “manipulate Achilleus, Aineias, Paris, but they not make them what they are. The choices are human; and in the end, despite all the divine interferences, the Iliad is a story of people.”12

If there is any difference in the manner which the Odyssey unfolds, it is simply because it is a very different kind of tale from the Iliad. There is really only one “historical” event—Odysseus’ defeat of the usurping suitors. This alone could account for a different role of the gods. It is mostly about the life of a single person and his family. He is on his own most of the time. Even so, many of the circumstances are a result of divine interference or intervention. Like the ancient Story of Sinuhe, it is a return story, not a war story. Simple thematics explain the differences well.

Jaynes even suggests that the Puritan Milton invoked the Muses in some of his classical-style poems because he heard bicameral voices. Let us recognize allusions and literary forms for what they are. In his Christian poems he prays to the Holy Spirit, in contrast to the classical pagan gods he alludes to in his neoclassical writings.

The description of the Iliad shields is critical in The Origin of Consciousness. It is at this point that the author begins to assume the bicameral hypothesis has been proven. To him, ancient necromancy, idolatry, consulting oracles, and epics were all the result of a schizophrenic hallucinating. To demonstrate that kind of hallucinating, he refers to an experiment done on victims of a certain type of epilepsy.

In this experiment, the subjects had received a minor brain operation which separated the cerebral hemispheres—making them physically more “bicameral.” When given a mild electric shock on the right hemisphere, a small majority of them did claim to see things others could not see. Generally, they had a hard time describing the stimuli received by the right hemisphere’s perceptions.

These experiments do tell us that the halves of the brain differ in certain ways and that people under stress sometimes see things that no one else sees. Neither conclusion is especially surprising. But do these shocks compare to sarcophagi, wide-eyed idols, or war stories? Do they really have an application to cultural history as well as neuropathology?

How many of the changes in the Near East which occurred from 1500 to 900 B.C. were caused by something else? How much of the social change is due simply to the growth and influx of new cultures such as the Hebrews in Canaan or the Dorians in Greece? How much of this is due to the discovery of iron tools and weapons? How much of it is caused by increased commerce due to wider-ranging merchants? What about the wider use of papyrus, simpler alphabets, and (relatively) increased literacy? If ancient gods were heard and not seen, what about the sun gods which dominated most cultures? How did the establishment of the Greek city-states influence the composition of the Homeric epics? (To start on this question, see Lattimore’s introduction to his Iliad translation.) How do cultures in China, Africa, or Northern Europe fit in?

If gods were simply depicted as humanoid or angelic alter egos, as Jaynes theorizes, how did the multitudinous animal forms develop so early? From all accounts, the humanoid Greek pantheon came some time after the more animistic Egyptian forms. We know that in India the gods were usually portrayed as animals until the Hellenistic influence of Alexander’s legions in the fourth century B.C.

Jaynes tells us that the gods of the second millenium B.C. and the angels are both tutelary spirits. He then says that they do not stand for the same thing since the gods were more bicameral, internal rather than external. People in the ancient Near East did not perceive it that way. In Hebrew, for example, the “elohim” when not applied to Yahweh can be translated either “gods” or “angels.” To the Hebrews the word meant the same thing—the difference was whether it was referring to Yahweh’s angels or the fallen angels which were the gentile gods.

Since the Bible covers the history of the time and place of the bicameral breakdown, Jaynes discusses it at some length. He adopts the interpretation that dates the Hebrew Scriptures from 700 B.C. (Amos) to 200 B.C. (Ecclesiastes). He dates the Gospel of John as late as A.D. 320. Especially with his New Testament dating, he seems to use the theory to prove his dating rather than the other way around.

The question of Bible dating is not something that has been solved to everyone’s satisfaction, and this is not the place to continue the controversies. However, the earliest proven fragment of the New Testament known today is from the Gospel of John and is dated at A.D. 120.13 Similarly, Ecclesiastes is found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, and studies of those manuscripts push that book’s origin at least another century or two before Jaynes’ date.14

Jaynes sees the prophets, particularly the earlier ones like Amos (whom he considers the oldest), as speaking from an “unconscious” bicameral perspective. The wisdom literature, on the other hand, is very self-conscious and hardly mentions God at all. Therefore, this literature, especially Ecclesiastes, is from a much later time when the bicameral perception had deteriorated.

To a literary critic these observations on the Biblical genres tell us nothing. It is like saying Thomas Hardy the poet was different from Thomas Hardy the novelist; therefore, he must have been a schizophrenic or used a ghost writer. We are comparing different literary styles and forms used for different purposes. They are bound to be different.

The prophets are hortatory, preaching to motivate. Amos is an excellent example of this style. The book is a warning to the Northern Kingdom of Israel about becoming too comfortable and forgetting God. The purpose of the prophet’s work was not to be self-conscious, but to make others see themselves. As it is, the seventh chapter of the book of Amos tells something of his background and his conflict with the government. It also shows that he did serve his prophetic purpose, for the King of Israel did respond. Amos nonetheless has self-conscious moments. He confesses that he was not trained in the prophetic ministry as the “sons of the prophets” commonly were in Israel.

The thematic purpose of Ecclesiastes is quite different. It is an examination of the world. It is contemplative and introspective, not hortatory. The purpose is also to turn the reader to God, but it is done in a different manner. The writer states that he wants to “search out by wisdom,” not motivate prophetically. Here the writer encourages his reader to make an individual response. It is not for the nation. Regardless of when we believe the various Scriptures were written and by whom, let us at least examine the author’s purpose for passing them on.

One chapter which may appeal to modern pop academia is devoted entirely to a modern, rather than ancient, phenomenon—Pentecostalism. To Jaynes the glossolalia (“speaking with tongues”) of some Christian fundamentalists is a vestige of bicamerality. He rightly attributes most of the New Testament’s discussion of the subject to St. Paul. Granted, the apostle was writing some seven to nine centuries after the bicameral breakdown, but The Origins of Consciousness speaks of remnants of bicamerality, too. The book also cites a single study which states that people enter into a trance when the first receive this charisma (“spiritual gift”) of tongues. If this is so, then it contradicts the teaching of St. Paul who calls the Spirit of God a spirit of “power, love, and self-control” (II Timothy 1:7) . In his instructions on how to speak with tongues, Paul wrote, “The spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets” (I Corinthians 14:32). St. Paul emphasized self-consciousness both as a prerequisite for charismata and a result of receiving them.

To Jaynes, this is another form of hallucinating. He refers to tape recordings mentioned by his source. Since there are other recording of glosslalia in known languages, there is clearly more to this phenomenon that Jaynes would have us believe.15 He also states that “Glossolalia first happens always [his italics] in groups and always in the context of religious services.”16 That is simply not accurate reporting. Many Pentecostals and neo-Pentecostals testify to having first experienced this when alone. Some even confess that having others around them made them nervous. Some Christians without access to any teaching on the subject have sometimes done it for years privately before being shown what the Bible says on the subject. There are many other studies and testimonies available which add much to the study of the Pentecostal movement. Anyone discussing the subject would do well to look at numerous sources instead of relying on one source which studied a decidedly limited group.17

Dr. Jaynes goes on. He states that the poetry of many languages and glossolalia reflect the same or similar rhythmic patterns. Those who know the rules of poetry in various languages know that this is impossible. To a twentieth-century, English-speaking American, a singer of tales from the Asian steppes would sound neither poetic nor musical. The Iliad’s stress of vowel length could be duplicated in English but would have little significance. To the French, the poetic form is simply a uniform number of syllables per line, usually with a rhyme scheme that alternates masculine and feminine rhyme. (A good Francophile will tell you that French is such a beautiful language, no additional construction is needed.) Even the Old English of Beowulf which was based on alliteration would sound strained to the modern English ear used to metrics based on syllabic stress and feet per line. The patterns of glossolalia often very greatly in the speech of an individual. When singing in tongues is also considered, Jaynes’s conclusions about poetry and glossolalia have little support.

The author himself criticizes theories of human nature which are based on a few isolated facts. He says, for example, that Marx took observations of class struggle in nineteenth century France and applied them to all of history. Freud likewise took childhood memories of a handful of psychological patients and applied what he saw to religion and civilization in general. In the same way he points out that Skinner took observations of animals obtaining food in controlled conditions and hypothesized an ideal society.

In effect, The Origin of Consciousness has done the same thing. Taking a few isolated facts about the human brain, some observations on schizophrenics and epileptics, and a unique critical position on ancient literature, the book develops a theory of history and human behavior. In this case we are left with a disturbingly amoral view of mankind.

That is probably the most striking thematic aspect of the work. There is no sense of good and evil or right and wrong in any of the bicameral voices as Jaynes presents them. The schizophrenic voice which tells a person he is worthless is attributed to the same cause as the Levitical injunction to love your neighbor as yourself.

There is no difference between the merciful and victorious God of David and the witch of Endor’s apparition which drives Saul to suicide. The Aztec voices which encouraged human sacrifice are not any different from those on Ararat or Sinai which condemned murder.

In his failure to look at ancient writings generically or thematically, he says that the Yahweh of the Bible behaved “for no reason at all.”18 Yet the context of the Bible stories he uses to illustrate this clearly indicates some moral or prophetic purpose. To him the voice which instructs Abraham to sacrifice Isaac is totally arbitrary, although the point of the story is precisely that Abraham did not have to go through with the sacrifice. A modern Jewish critic writes:

Some effete intellectuals and hysterical whining milksops may say from the standpoint of morality it makes no difference whether Abraham slew his son or merely raised his sword with this purpose in view and then was restrained by somebody at the last moment. We, the real men, along with Abraham are of the opposite opinion. We consider the result and know that it matters not whether he wanted to kill or not. The point is that he did not kill.

Pagan and prophet, human sacrifice and the laws of Moses, schizophrenia and blessings—Jaynes sees them all as manifestations of the same cause. In the contest between the prophets Jeremiah and Hannaniah, Jaynes says simply that if Jeremiah had died instead, we would be reading the “Book of Hannaniah” now. For some reason he is unimpressed with the accuracy of Jeremiah’s prediction in the conflict with Hannaniah or the opposing moral positions the two men took. Indeed, we are left with the impression that there is no real difference between Francis of Assisi and “Son of Sam.”

A person acquainted with literature will see The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind only as a curiosity. Terms like “bicameral” will go the way of “phlogiston” and “epicycle.” A hundred years from now people will look at it not to point out the breakdown of bicameral perception at the beginning of the first millennium B.C. in the Near East, but the breakdown of moral perception near the end of the twentieth century A.D. in the West.

Notes

1. Peter Steinhart, “Other Voices,” Audubon, Nov 1980, 5,6.

2. Ernest Gordon, Me, Myself, and Who? (Plainfield NJ: Logos International, 1980) 159,160.

3. Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976) 432.

4. Jaynes, 227.

5. Sam Keen, “Julian Jaynes: Portrait of the Psychologist as a Maverick Theorist,” Psychology Today, Nov 1977, 66.

6. “The Tale of Aqhat,” Ancient Near Eastern Texts, ed. James B. Pritchard (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1950) 149-155. (Text abbreviated ANET in subsequent citations.)

7. “The Tale of Sinuhe,” ANET, 18-22.

8. “The Instruction of the Vizier Ptah-hotep,” ANET, 412-414. Subsequent pages list other Egyptian Proverbs and Counsels followed by similar Akkadian writings dating from 1800-1600 B.C.

9. Walter Jackson Bate, The Burden of the Past and the English Poet (Cambridge MA: Belknap Press, 1970) 3,4.

10. Jaynes, 81.

11. Albert B. Lord, The Singer of Tales (New York: Atheneum, 1970) 86-92.

12. The Iliad of Homer, trans. and ed. Richmond Lattimore, second ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961) 54.

13. The Rylands Fragment, first publicized in 1935, is well known and discussed in many places. Note Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament (New York: Oxford, 1964) 38,39 and notes. The Egerton Papyrus, dating from before A.D. 135, contains Johanine allusions which also point to a much earlier date than what Jaynes proposes. Merrill C. Tenney, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 9, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan, 1981) 9.

14. Edmund Wilson, The Dead Sea Scrolls, Rev. ed. (New York: Oxford, 1969) 84.

15. One recording was presented during an anti-Pentecostal lecture at a Lutheran seminary in January 1976 to demonstrate the lack of structure in glossolalia. A professor of Medieval Hebrew recognized it as a hymn sung in Medieval Hebrew. David Dorpat, “It is Lutheran to be Charismatic: Part 5,” Bread of Life, July-Aug 1979, 12. Another instance which can be documented is from a recording entitled Worship by John Bertolucci at the 1976 Catholic Charismatic Conference, Providence RI. The language spoken in this instance is also Hebrew. John Bertolucci, Worship (Ann Arbor MI: Word of Life Tapes, 1976).

16. Jaynes, 358.

17. An excellent book, though not available in English when Jaynes was writing, is Rene Laurentin, Catholic Pentecostalism, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell (Garden City NY: Doubleday, 1977). Dennis Bennett, Nine O’Clock in the Morning (Plainfield NJ: Logos International, 1970) and John Sherrill, They Speak with Other Tongues (Old Tappan NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1965) are written in a more popular style, but both are well-researched and should be considered by anyone researching this subject. All three include accounts of privately-received glossolalia. The Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship International, a non-denominational evangelical men’s organization headquartered in Costa Mesa CA, has collected a mass of personal testimonies of the Pentecostal experience since the late 1950s. While decidedly pro-Pentecostal, their material should be consulted for information on people’s responses.

18. Jaynes, 304.

19. Lezek Kolakowski, Untitled Sidebar, The Second Jewish Catalog, ed. Michael and Sharon Strassfeld (Phliadlphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1976) 252.

N.B. This was originally written in the early eighties. It uses MLA formatting from that time.

Alex and Me – Review

Irene M. Pepperberg. Alex and Me. New York: Harper, 2008. E-book.

Alex and Me is a remarkable story about a scientist and the African Grey Parrot she owned and studied. From her observations we learn a lot about animal behavior and, yes, animal intelligence. In some ways Alex and Me is Dr. Pepperberg’s autobiography because Alex’s story becomes hers. Its subtitle sums up her purpose: How a Scientist and Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence—and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process.

Eight years ago I reviewed Wesley the Owl, another book about a bird and its caretaker scientist. There might be some parallels, but Alex and Me differs because the author consciously trained her bird. Now the author of Wesley the Owl contributed a lot to our knowledge of Barn Owls and birds of prey generally through her observations, but there was little she could do to train it.

Pepperberg shows that the main difference between a bird like the owl and the creatures that appear most intelligent to humans—crows, apes, porpoises, dogs—is that in nature the “smart” animals are the social ones. They learn things from others. “[They] live a long time and their social groups are complex.” (683)

The author tells us that Alex actually stood for Avian Learning Experiment. In scientific literature and presentations, she is careful to avoid the word word but use terms like label and vocalization. She provides plenty of instances to show that Alex would communicate to her and many others with, uh, human vocalizations. A few conclusions she draws:

[A]nimals are far more than the mindless automatons that mainstream science held them to be for so long. (2154)

Clearly, animals know more than we think, and think a great deal more than we know. (2200)

Alex taught me that we live in a world populated by thinking, conscious creatures. Not human thinking. Not human consciousness. But not mindless automatons sleepwalking through their lives, either. (2220)

“What I learned from him,” [said a fellow researcher], “also supported what I always have known to be true: that there is just one Creation, one Nature, one good, full, complete Idea, made up of individuals of all shapes and designs, all expressing their oneness with one God. We are not different because we look different, but we all reflect the eternal beauty and intelligence of one Creation in our own peculiar way.” (2243-2245)

As C. S. Lewis’s Narnian professor would say, “It’s all in Plato.” Alex and Me is biological, but it becomes metaphysical.

Alex and Me contains a relevant autobiography as well. Dr. Pepperberg tells how she had always had a pet parakeet (“budgerigar”) from the time she was four. She notes that when she got into the doctoral program in chemistry at Harvard, she was fortunate because in 1969 the United States stopped offering draft deferments for graduate students, so there were not as many men applying.

The Vietnam war had initially boosted enrollments; now the draft suppressed them. The department was forced to take in many more women than its usual token one because it needed teaching assistants. (485)

She has a few stories of navigating through the male-dominated STEM departments in several universities back then. She had difficulty throughout her career getting a tenured position, probably because even though she was published and often presented at conventions, her study of African Grey Parrot intelligence was outside the mainstream.

Alex and Me also takes a hint from the complaint in No More Dead Dogs. It is not a spoiler to say that Pepperberg tells us of Alex’s death in the first chapter. I believe she partly does that just to get it out of the way. She does not want Alex and Me to become another Old Yeller. She wants to share her observations and experiments in a way that a layman can understand. Getting his death out of the way helps both the reader and narrator detach themselves a bit to see her point about animal intelligence.

That first chapter also notes Alex’s reputation, something that people often talk about when someone dies. Indeed, The Economist, the British newsmagazine, publishes just one obituary per issue. The week Alex died he was featured in its obituary. He had an international reputation by the time he passed on.

While Alex was trained to do and say many things, we learn that some things are still instinctive. Alex would get restless and scared when a tornado was approaching; he always sensed one before people did. (Birds would be aware of differences in air pressure in ways that walking creatures like people are not.)

Alex enjoyed looking out of windows on days she brought him home from the University of Arizona laboratory where she worked, but one day he kept saying, “Wanna go back.”

I looked out the window and quickly realized what alarmed him. A pair of western screech owls were building a nest in the roof over the patio. They apparently struck terror into poor Alex even though he had never seen an owl in his entire life…I pulled the drapes so he could no longer see them. Still no use.

“Wanna go back…Wanna go back!”

It was a great demonstration of object permanence [something even humans have to learn]. Even though Alex could no longer see the owls, he knew they were still there. And even though they were outside the house and he was safely inside, he was still terrified. (1584-1587)

Alex knew numbers one through six and actually had a handle on zero. He understood colors and some textures. He was tested by many people to insure that he was not just picking up visual clues from his handler.

One smart bird. One smart scientist. One smart book.

Tom Clancy: Point of Contact – Review

Mike Maden. Tom Clancy: Point of Contact. New York: Putnam, 2017. Print.

Tom Clancy has been gone for nearly four years, but his characters and President Ryan’s America live on. This Jack Ryan, Jr., novel adds a new but experienced writer to the list of Clancy ghostwriters. How do Mike Maden and Point of Contact compare to the actual Tom Clancy and other writers for the Clancy estate?

Point of Contact, unlike some of the recent pieces, is a true techno-thriller. It hearkens back to Clancy’s more technical novels like Hunt for Red October, The Bear and the Dragon, or even The Cardinal of the Kremlin. The novel is suspenseful and carries the reader along, but there is less physical action and reaction than in some of the other Clancy novels, especially those authorized by the Clancy estate and authored by others. That makes the novel cleaner and more direct in exploring technical possibilities.

Some of the technology described in this novel is probably already available and being used but not yet on a wide scale. As far back as Patriot Games, Clancy had government operatives using satellites in some areas—for example, uninhabited parts of the Libyan desert. Now with drones, fine cameras, and cloud storage, it is possible to have surveillance 24/7 and to be able to rewind stored images to trace the movements of people, vessels, and vehicles. (As an aside, this could be useful for tracing the movements of birds.)

Quantum computing is brand new. Point of Contact notes that it has the potential of making the Internet and communications virtually instantaneous, even at interplanetary distances. Maden—who has written several books on drones—introduces these technologies and explains them in a way that most readers can understand them.

Like other Clancy tales, Point of Contact tells stories of a few events that seem almost prophetic. Guess which country in this book is rattling its sabers and openly threatening the United States? In this week’s news and in Point of Contact, it is none other than North Korea. Only in the novel, the submarine-launched missile which threatens Guam is a feint for the real DPRK plan: a massive cyberattack that will send the world’s powers into an economic meltdown.

As we saw North Korean agents kill a member of the Korean royal family in Malaysia, so most of Point of Contact takes place in nearby Singapore. In this case, an American conglomerate is thinking of purchasing the Dalfan Corporation, a Singaporean high tech company whose president Gordon Fairchild could be a character in Crazy Rich Asians. A former U. S. Senator who had worked for the CIA and is currently a board member of the American firm has hired Hendley Associates to do an analysis of Dalfan’s finances and practices.

I was reminded of a conversation I once had with a friend who worked for a well-known consulting firm. He was telling me about some of his assignments which prompted someone to ask in so many words, “What is the difference between consulting and industrial espionage?” He just smiled and raised his eyebrows.

So Clancy readers know that Hendley Associates has a public side and a clandestine side (“The Campus”). This time Mr. Hendley himself assigns Paul Brown, an older but physically out of shape top auditor, as the public side accountant. Jack Ryan, Jr., who is an experienced financial researcher, is also sent to Singapore to give him a break from his usual cloak and dagger work. Except, of course, we can be sure that it is not going to end up to be much of a break.

Jack discovers a couple of Dalfan warehouses that are off the grid. Even the Fairchilds (Gordon, his son Yong, and his daughter Lian) deny any knowledge of these places. Meanwhile the ex-Senator has asked Brown to plant a Trojan Horse program in the Dalfan mainframe to insure that they are not hiding anything. Before he manages to do that, Brown discovers a lot of QC (quantum computing) sales to China—something that would be against the law if Dalfan were purchased by an American company and even questionable in Singapore, which is decidedly pro-Western.

From time to time different bad guys show up to cause trouble. Though Dalfan is told he is a financial analyst, Ryan is able to hold his own with most of these thugs. This makes Lian Fairchild suspect that Ryan is hiding something and makes Yong Fairchild think he is up to no good and should be sent home immediately or killed.

In typical Clancy style, the bad guys are from a variety of nations, in this case Australia, North Korea, China, Bulgaria, and Germany. The apartment where Ryan and Brown are staying is broken into more than once. The Singapore police also break into their apartment looking for drugs. Oh, and a rare typhoon is bearing down on Singapore as well.

This is a lot of fun. It is escapist but based on realistic technological advances at the same time. The plot could have come from Clancy himself. From what I have seen of the posthumous works from the Clancy estate, matching Mark Greaney’s style with Mike Maden’s plotting might make a novel that would be indistinguishable from the work Clancy himself.

The Winthrop Woman – Review

Anya Seton. The Winthrop Woman. 1958; Chicago: Chicago Review P, 2006. Print.

A recent review mentioned I had received some of my knowledge of English history from Philippa Gregory. Well, this edition of The Winthrop Woman by Anya Seton has an introduction by Ms. Gregory. My parents owned a book or two by Seton, but I never read them. For one thing, as a kid they looked like horror stories featuring women. Yes, they are historical romances, but The Winthrop Woman is not exactly gothic.

Having said that, as a youth I did read things by Anya Seton’s father, Ernest Thompson Seton. Mr. Seton was a nature writer and early supporter of the Boy Scouts. Some Scout books had illustrations by him, and I can still picture his distinctive signature.

We do get a sense of her father’s influence from Anya Seton’s descriptions of North American plants and animal and the herbal remedies our protagonist learned as a girl in her father’s apothecary shop. Seton also presents a sympathetic understanding of the way of life of the Native Americans—a theme in some of her father’s work as well as other things written for Scouts.

Humorist singer-songwriter Tom Lehrer wrote a song about Alma Werfel, a woman who married three famous men in the course of her lifetime: Gustav Mahler, Walter Gropius, and Franz Werfel. The Winthrop Woman tells a similar story of a woman who took part in the early settlement of North America. Her husbands were perhaps not as distinguished as Alma’s, but for someone who left a comfortable life in England to come to the wilds of North America, she was pretty well connected.

Elizabeth “Bess” Fones’ mother was the sister of John Winthrop, the first governor and founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. She marries her first cousin, John’s son Henry. For the rest of her life, her connection to the Winthrop family is both a help and a hindrance. The Winthrops are gentry and entitled to a coat of arms, but not everyone like the Puritans, including the king. King Charles I has a cameo appearance based on an encounter Bess had while a teen.

Bess is from London, but she does spend time at her grandfather and uncle’s estate in Groton. She joins her family members in Massachusetts. Her first husband Henry has worked in Barbados and is looking forward to going to New England, but he dies on the voyage over. Her second husband, a Mr. Feake, is fairly well off but has terrible dreams about something that happened in his past and eventually goes mad. Seton suggests that Feake is never punished for his crime not only because of his insanity but because of his connection to the Winthrops. Bess moves from Boston to Watertown, Massachusetts, and then to Greenwich, Connecticut.

The way Seton tells the story, the English settlers of Greenwich (which borders New York today) wanted to avoid the strictness of the Puritans in Massachusetts and Connecticut, so they successfully petitioned to be included in the colony of New Amsterdam. Bess is able to obtain a divorce in New Amsterdam because of her husband’s insanity and abandonment of her (even from the Dutch it was not easy) and marry Will Hallet, an enterprising farmer and builder. For the purposes of the romance, Hallet was the manliest of the three husbands.

When Greenwich reverts to England by treaty, the Hallets decide to move to Long Island. With stops in Plymouth and New London and stories about New Hampshire, we get a sense of the scope of the early settlements in New England and New York.

Besides John Winthrop and his niece, we meet a number of other historical figures including Anne Hutchinson, Roger Williams, Anne Bradstreet, Peter Stuyvesant, John Winthrop the Younger, and King Charles. In the novel, Bess has interactions with all of them.

Anne Hutchinson in particular makes an impression. The Winthrop Woman presents her as a woman who is led by the Holy Spirit but whom envious colony elders persecute. It is safe to assume that some of the more romantic elements of the story are made out of whole cloth—did Bess really like Henry’s brother John, Jr., better? Did Will Hallet carry the torch for Bess for fourteen years? Nevertheless, Seton seems pretty accurate in her portrayal of Mrs. Hutchinson. At one point when doing background research for The Scarlet Letter as I was teaching it, I read the official account of Hutchinson’s trial. To me it was really hairsplitting, but I have seen Christian groups divide rancorously over other seemingly minor points, so it was not a shock. Though Seton’s portrayal of Bess’s own beliefs sound a lot more like liberal twentieth-century Christian theology than anything even Roger Williams would subscribe to, she does illustrate well the issue that was the controversy over Hutchinson: Are believers in a Covenant of Works or a Covenant of Grace?

Both Bess and Anne Hutchinson come across as “strong” women, sympathetic and independent. Seton, though, seems to dismiss poet Anne Bradstreet as a kind of Puritan cipher. I admit being a little surprised at that considering the romantic love poems she wrote about her husband.

It is interesting to note The Scarlet Letter‘s treatment of some of the same historical figures. Hawthorne calls Hutchinson a prophetess and sounds at least as sympathetic to her as Seton. Hawthorne does have a more positive view of Governor Winthrop. In The Scarlet Letter he is honorable, respected, and does not characterize what Hawthorne calls the “sable” aspect of the later Puritans. To Seton he is a stereotyped bigot.

To Seton another bigoted Puritan is the Boston minister John Wilson. The Scarlet Letter describes him as loving, tender, and gracious in contrast to some of the stricter Calvinists in town. Whether reading The Winthrop Woman or The Scarlet Letter, we have to remind ourselves that these works are fiction and the characters fulfill the author’s purposes, not necessarily the historical record.

As mentioned above, Seton presents the Native Americans fairly sympathetically. However, the story tells us things about them noted in other works. Yes, the Europeans often fought one another, but they tended to unite against the Indians. On the other hand, Indians often fought one another, and the Europeans would take advantage of their disunity. The Frontiersmen told of the rise of Tecumseh, the one person who came closest to uniting many of the North American tribes, but he was too little and too late. He tried to exploit the division between the British and Americans after the Revolution, but the British were not the greatest allies. Interestingly, just as that book shared Indian oral history that made it sound like North America was settled by tribal people from Asia relatively recently, so Seton’s Indians say that they have inhabited their part of North America for only about 400 years.

Regardless of the historical quibbles, Seton tells a good tale. Its scope of both people and places impresses the reader of the many challenges the early settlers of North America had to face and overcome. God bless America. Amen.

Rich People Problems – Review

Kevin Kwan. Rich People Problems. New York: Doubleday, 2017. Print.

I had a friend who was on a full-ride scholarship for his MBA at a business school that had a reputation of catering to wealthy heirs who would spend their lives cutting coupons from inherited wealth. He was taking a course on business law, but much of the class was actually about inheritance law. The professor would be explaining some arcane case about a family set to inherit millions but there was some problem with the will. My friend said that more than one student in that class remarked that his family had had a similar problem when a grandmother or uncle had died. My friend just said, “I wish had those kinds of problems.”

Welcome to installment number three in the tales of the rich Singaporeans and the wealth and royalty in their circle. Rich People Problems includes most of the characters we have already met in Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend. And they are having the kind of problems my friend envied in his business school classmates.

My friend would say with obvious irony, “I feel so sorry for you. What terrible problems.” Frankly, that would be a typical reader response to Rich People Problems, except that the story is mostly quite funny.

The main problem indeed is that Mrs. Young Sun Yi, the matriarch of Tyersall Park, who in volume #1 was described by the daughter of a millionaire as “richer than God,” is on her deathbed. She has led a much less sheltered life than most people think and is worth billions. The vultures are circling. Everyone is hoping to get a significant piece of the pie.

Her only son, and, hence, traditional heir is Philip Young. He does keep in touch with his mother, but really does not care for Singapore. He moved years ago to Sydney where he lives a relatively simple and happy life. His son Nick has been one of the main characters in the first two novels, and as the only son of the only son, he also has a chance.

Nick’s problem is that his grandmother expressed her disapproval when he married Chinese-American Rachel rather than the girl his parents wanted him to marry. However, he grew up in Tyersall Park and has to confess he is sentimentally attached to it.

Nick’s first cousin Edison “Eddie” Cheng has become a notorious brown-nose to impress his grandmother. Unlike some of his other relatives, he is very style-conscious and does not mind being photographed by the press as long he and his family are wearing couture clothing. He will get a funny come-uppance because of his own fashion sense.

Philip’s four sisters—Felicity, Eddie’s mother Alix, Victoria, and wife of a Thai prince Catherine—are also naturally interested and involved. Let us just say many funny and obnoxious things happen. Because these people are super-rich, newspapers and gossip magazines are all interested when something even faintly scandalous happens, or for some, even when they are observed in public.

The adventures of Astrid Teo (Felicity’s daughter) and her boyfriend Charlie Wu continue. Both of their divorces appear to be going smooth until Charlie’s ex-wife tries to kidnap their daughters and releases an incriminating video tape.

And we see the continuing adventures of Kitty Pong, former Hong Kong porn star now married to Chinese billionaire Jack Bing. Kitty still refuses to be upstaged. This becomes even more difficult for her because Colette, Jack’s daughter from his first marriage, has married an actual Scottish Lord. Not only is he a Lord, but he is truly wealthy, not having to marry a rich foreigner to keep the line going.

The one rich person who probably does have true financial problems is distant cousin Oliver T’sien. He is an interior decorator who has hired himself out as a social guide to Kitty to help get established among the Asian elite. Much of China Rich Girlfriend concerned mishaps and misunderstandings in her attempts to gain acceptance. It turns out that Oliver’s parents are in debt millions, and even though they associate with the same elite, they probably are on their way out simply because they cannot afford to play in their league any more. (See The Magnificent Ambersons.) Oliver knows he is out of the picture in terms of Sun Yi’s will, but perhaps if he plays his cards right with the Bings, things may work out.

One chuckle for this writer which perhaps illustrates Kitty and Jack’s pretensions is that they name their son Harvard. In Crazy Rich Asians Nick’s mother is unsure about Rachel because she went to Stanford, a school “where students who don’t get into Harvard” go. From my own experience in teaching in China, Harvard seems to be the only American school Chinese really have heard about. When I was teaching in China on an exchange program, the teachers were asking me what my high school was doing to get students into good schools like Harvard. I explained a few things and also noted that my school was in Connecticut only about twenty miles from Yale, so Yale was the prestige school for many people where I lived. The name Yale drew a blank. It was Harvard or nothing. It was one of the few times in my life I had a boost because I was a Harvard grad. Illegitimi non carborundum.

Many of these super-rich people come across as being at least as shallow as Kitty Pong. Even Rachel, who is portrayed sympathetically by Kwan, tries to console her husband at one point by quoting—not the Bible, not Confucius, not even Chairman Mao—but radio personality Delilah.

The coolest part of the story, though, is what we learn about the Young family during Japanese occupation. The British were no more prepared for the Japanese in 1941 than the Americans were. The Japanese took over Singapore in a few days, with some of their troops on bicycles. The occupation was just a brutal there as in other places. How the people of Tyersall Park managed to survive and to help fellow Singaporeans and the British in many ways makes for a great story. Like so many people who survived the Pacific War, the Youngs never talked about it, but we begin to see that some of those crazy rich Asians are not as shallow as perhaps we thought. (We should note that the rich Asians are not crazy—at least not most of them—they are Asians who are crazy rich.)

Rich People Problems has an epilogue which seems to wrap everything up. Most of the people we are interested in have had their problems resolved one way or another. Is Kwan saying that he is finished writing about these people? From the popularity of his books, I suspect his publisher and agent would like him to continue. Time will tell.

Treasure Island – Review

Robert Louis Stevenson. Treasure Island. 1883; New York: Sterling, 2004. Print. Sterling Unabridged Classics.

Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!

I think I read Treasure Island when I was a child, some time between fifth and seventh grade. To be honest, I am not sure if I finished the book, but it was a long time ago. Whether I did or not, reading or re-reading this classic made me realize that a few things have simply become a part of our culture thanks to this book: pirates and parrots, buried treasure, Long John Silver, the Black Spot, Ben Gunn, pieces of eight. Even if this was the first time I had read the book, I knew something of these things.

Treasure Island moves quickly. Our protagonist and usual narrator Jim Hawkins is a boy of about twelve who befriends an old sailor named Billy Bones at his mother’s inn. (His sick father dies early in the book.) Hawkins shares the treasure map from this sea captain with the doctor who attended Bones as he lay dying. With the financial assistance of Squire Trelawney, soon they have a ship and crew to go to the lawless Caribbean to find Skull Island, a.k.a. Treasure Island. (Our narrator drops enough clues that we understand the story is set in the 1750s.)

Other people looking for Billy Bones and his map include the menacing Blind Pew and other sailors of questionable intentions. When the ship Hispaniola is ready to sail, the captain understands his orders are secret and no one knows the contents of the map except for him, Jim Hawkins, the doctor, and the squire. Still, it seems most of the crew know more about the destination than the captain does. It turns out that nearly the entire crew are former pirates who want a share of the treasure and will stop at nothing to get it.

Jim Hawkins, as cabin boy, often assists Long John Silver, a one-legged old salt who is hired as a cook. We soon learn that Silver is the leader of the pirates who plan on taking over the ship after the treasure is taken aboard, if not sooner. It is not a coincidence that Silver’s pet parrot is named Captain Flint, after a notorious pirate, now dead. The squire, a former sailor himself, tells us:

Blackbeard was a child to Flint. The Spaniards were so prodigiously afraid of him that, I tell you, sir, I was sometimes proud he was an Englishman. I’ve seen his topsails with these eyes, off Trinidad, and the cowardly son of a rum-puncheon that I sailed with put back—put back, sir, into Port of Spain. (35)

That is about all I am willing to tell of the story in case there are readers who have not read it. Enjoy it yourselves!

Just as Treasure Island would influence people’s perceptions of pirates since (especially Hollywood’s) so some things in the novel were influenced by Robinson Crusoe. Ben Gunn has been marooned on Skull Island for over three years and has survived by catching wild goats. This was how Crusoe survived on his island, and before him the historical Alexander Selkirk chased wild goats to survive his ordeal. How Hawkins and a small band overcame a larger band of mutineers reminds us of how Crusoe and his small band quelled a mutiny near the end of his story.

Treasure Island has a lot more action than Robinson Crusoe. The appeal of books like the Hardy Boys, the Chronicles of Narnia, or most of Gordon Korman’s books is that not only are the main character or characters young, but these characters get directly involved in the main conflict and help solve the mystery or the problem. So it is with Jim Hawkins. He becomes one of the heroes of the book because of the actions he takes. He may not have been consciously thinking of solving the problem and thwarting the pirates’ plans: He just wants to have an adventure! Boy, does he get one!

After nearly a century and a half, Treasure Island still grabs our attention and keeps us going. It has become an icon hearkening back to the Golden Age of Piracy.

Yo ho ho!

P.S. It is strictly coincidental that we read two books by guys with the same last name (spelling differences being negligible) at around the same time.

P.P.S. Treasure Island is available in a number of abridged versions, but I would say that most people in grades five or higher should be able to read the complete version. It is not that long of a book. Since it is set in the 1700s and at sea there are some older expressions and nautical terms that may be unfamiliar to some readers. As much as part of me does not want to admit it, Cliff’s Notes has a great page on the book’s vocabulary for any landlubbers (people who never go to sea): https://www.cliffsnotes.com/literature/t/treasure-island/study-help/full-glossary-for-treasure-island.

The Big U – Review

Neal Stephenson. The Big U. 1984; New York: Harper, 2007. E-book.

We have usually enjoyed Neal Stephenson’s writing. He is known for his clever scenarios, generally set with available technology but with an extreme twist. The Big U is his first novel, and it does give a hint of what his work would be like, especially his breakout novel Snow Crash.

The Big U satirizes American university life. That is something that is easily satirized, but seldom done because university people tend to take themselves very seriously. While much of The Big U is humorous, some of the satire is too serious to be funny.

We meet a smorgasbord of characters. The English major student government leader who is trying to make American Megaversity a little more habitable. The president who is credited with turning things around. Members of the SUB, Stalinist Underground Battalion, Stephenson’s version of the SDS who are trying to overthrow the American government and getting practice by trying to overthrow the power structure of the university. And, as with all Stephenson novels, a few science and computer nerds including a group who is trying to do a live action Dungeons and Dragons in the catacombs of the university and another who is making a mass driver accelerator out of spare parts in the lab.

While there are apparently no sororities or fraternities on the campus, there is a group of male students who call themselves Terrorists and treat female students like sex objects ripe for the picking and a corresponding group of status-conscious girls. Because this is an eighties campus, there is the token lesbian.

The sense of oppression, such as it is for our proto-snowflakes, is the megaversity setup. The entire school consists of four twenty-five story high rises, so dorm life and student life are restricted to this tight urban space. On one side of the campus (I use the term loosely) is a major highway. Also bordering it are some office buildings, one topped by a huge, colorful neon sign known as the Big Wheel, that some students pretend worship both as a joke and a hazing ritual.

And one conflict, perhaps exaggerated but typical of dorm life everywhere, pops up between roommates who both have powerful stereo systems that try to drown each other out.

Even from this brief introduction to the tale illustrates Stephenson’s strength as a writer: He puts together wild but believable scenarios. The Big U is no different. At the same time it satirizes the university scene.

But her petition was rejected because of a computer error which made it appear that she had gotten a 260 instead of a 660 on her SATs. (792)

Tokenism. They have to have tokens. Lucy is their token black, I’m their token individual. They love having a loudmouth around to disagree with them—makes them feel diverse. [And this was written in 1984 before the term politically correct had been coined!] (600)

Above their heads they [the SUB] carried their big black-on-red posters of S. S. Krupp [the Megaversity president] with a target drawn over his face. (1508)

Even speech today has become a form of violence…(661)

Before the gaming group takes to the underground tunnels, they play a World War II simulation game using a large room with players themselves acting as playing pieces. This prefigures Infinite Jest’s game of Eschaton. (Since Stephenson and Wallace were acquainted, I suspect that the debt may have been acknowledged.)

In his introduction, Stephenson acknowledges an indebtedness to Julian Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. This was a theory published in the 1970s and which had some currency back then. Jaynes was a lecturer at Princeton. I once read a book in the early eighties that alluded to this, but then the book was written by a dean at Princeton. I had written a critique of Jaynes’ book, but no one was interested in publishing because his ideas never caught on. Of course there is a Catch-22: If it did catch on, who would dare publish a critique?

Though the introduction makes it sound like the bicameral mind theory will be important in the book, the mageversity president dismisses it in a single sentence in a manner very similar to Jason Lisle, whose book I reviewed here.

You’re a Jaynesian and a materialistic monist. In which case you’ve got no reason to believe anything you think, because anything you think is just a predetermined neural event which can’t be considered true or logical. Self-refuting, son. Think about it. (1507)

Indeed, ultimately it appears that the whole American Megaversity is self-refuting. Still one person in the novel notes bicamerally:

You know about the Central Bifurcations that separates magic and technology. Some of you have probably noted that lately Leakage has been very bad. (3333)

Briefly, Jaynes’ theory is that the two cerebral hemispheres of ancient man were completely separated. When attempts were made for one hemisphere to connect with the other, ancient man perceived this as some kind of inspiration or god. Some time around the turn of the first millennium B.C., this “bicameral mind” broke down and modern man evolved, using reason instead of depending on gods, which was really just a form of schizophrenia.

Perhaps Stephenson is symbolizing this theory, or, I suspect, satirizing it. We have the two roommates with overly loud stereo systems competing and resulting in conflict. Similarly, we have the Terrorists and some of their friends speaking of the Big Wheel, which is just outside the “Plex” (i.e., the campus), as if it were some kind of divine voice. Awareness of Jaynes’ theory could add a layer of interpretation.

I do not want to give more of it away, but besides the characters and scenarios mentioned above, the tale also includes giant mutant rats, a women’s center, and spies from Crotobaltislavonia, as one can guess from its name, a land somewhere in Eastern Europe, which back in 1984 would have been either part of the Soviet Union or the Warsaw Pact and whose name echoes Al Capp’s country of Lower Slobbovia.

Written in the early eighties, Stephenson may have been looking back at campus riots in the sixties:

How many other universities do you know where a civil war closes off the academic year?

Alas, it happened at Harvard in 1969 and Kent State in 1970. The cycle seems to be swinging in that direction again. At least back then there was a controversial war. Nobody was protesting Halloween costumes.

So The Big U prefigures many of the current excesses and injustices at today’s American institutions of higher learning. It also raises questions about the integrity of journalists. Reading it now is perhaps not as funny as reading it when it first came out because some of Stephenson’s jokes would be taken too seriously by snowflakes and professors nowadays, but it is still a wild ride.

Grammar is like the walls and bumpers of a pinball machine. Rhetoric is like the flippers of a pinball machine. You control the flippers. The rest of the machine—grammar—controls everything else. If you use the flippers well, you make points. If you fail to image your concepts visibly, your ball drops into the black hole of nothingness. (763-765)

Stephenson makes his points, all right.

Questions, Comments, and Observations on the English Language