Category Archives: books

Man denies his own continuity.

I’m still in the middle of Jacque Ellul’s great work, The Technological Society, which is really helpful in understanding the way our modern world works. When Ellul talks about technique he does not mean merely the physical machinery or medicine or digital technology, but more importantly, the manner in which so much of our life is managed according to systems and measurements; our activities are prompted and organized according to the primary value of efficiency. Here he explains it himself: “Technique” 

Not bothered by the fact that I haven’t finished that book (or his Humiliation of the Word, which I also loved), I began to listen to another one by the author: Propaganda. Propaganda is just one facet of the technological society. Ellul’s books are so thought-provoking and full of insights, it’s hard for me to pick a few of the best paragraphs to share. But here is one, which I broke up into smaller parts for ease of reading:

“To the extent that propaganda is based on current news, it cannot permit time for thought or reflection. A man caught up in the news must remain on the surface of the event; he is carried along in the current, and can at no time take a respite to judge and appreciate; he can never stop to reflect. There is never any awareness — of himself, of his condition, of his society — for the man who lives by current events.

“Such a man never stops to investigate any one point, any more than he will tie together a series of news events. We already have mentioned man’s inability to consider several facts or events simultaneously and to make a synthesis of them in order to face or to oppose them. One thought drives away another; old facts are chased by new ones. Under these conditions there can be no thought. And, in fact, modern man does not think about current problems; he feels them. He reacts, but he does not understand them any more than he takes responsibility for them. He is even less capable of spotting any inconsistency between successive facts; man’s capacity to forget is unlimited. This is one of the most important and useful points for the propagandist, who can always be sure that a particular propaganda theme, statement, or event will be forgotten within a few weeks.

“Moreover, there is a spontaneous defensive reaction in the individual against an excess of information and — to the extent that he clings (unconsciously) to the unity of his own person — against inconsistencies. The best defense here is to forget the preceding event. In so doing, man denies his own continuity; to the same extent that he lives on the surface of events and makes today’s events his life by obliterating yesterday’s news, he refuses to see the contradictions in his own life and condemns himself to a life of successive moments, discontinuous and fragmented.”

-Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, 1965

Image is from the website of the International Jacques Ellul Society.

One balmy day was all I needed.

We came out of church last Friday evening and the wind was blowing warm. It was the softest… Blow and blow it did through the night, knocking down leaves and branches and clumps of mistletoe, banging my garden gate.

Saturday morning I walked on the bike path and it was the happiest, friendliest neighborhood walk I’ve experienced in two years. Many many people and no masks, so you could take in their smiles and their open faces turning this way and that to say “Good morning!” to everyone… Whole families on bicycles and dozens of dogs on leashes. I’m sure that in all my decades of walking that route people have never before been that happy in an outward direction.

mistletoe
oxalis
manzanita

When I got home from my walk, and was not driven indoors by any sort of chill, I wandered the back yard and saw that the manzanita buds are out. My row of Stir-Fry Mix greens needed thinning, and because of the sun shining and all, I did it then and there. I took the thinnings in and washed them immediately in the sink. Springtime energy in January!

Recently I had the only tree on my property trimmed to please the neighbors, over whose back yard most of the tree’s mass hangs threateningly. It is a tall Canary Island Pine and my late husband and I have resisted several times outside pressure to just cut it down. I tried to take a flattering picture but there is no way to do that, because it is a gangly thing.

Our book group chose Silas Marner to read over the next four weeks. I could not find my old paperback that I last read probably 15-20 years ago, but tucked behind the trim of the bookcase I found this smallish volume:

It was my grandmother’s school book! She was probably reading it in about 1910 in Winona Lake, Indiana where she grew up. I did not remember seeing it before, though I am sure I was the one who put it on the shelf, who knows when. There are quite a few pages with her notes like this:

I had been reluctant to commit to reading with the group this month, but now that I have found this copy of Silas I can’t resist reading along with my grandmother.

I have eaten half of the greens, chopped into a pot of tomato soup this afternoon. The balmy weather lasted one day, and now we are back to January. But that blessed day snapped me out of the endurance mode into expectation.  I have a nice fire going in the stove and wonderful books to read as I sit by it.

I haven’t been accomplishing very much this month if one looks at my to-do lists. But maybe the important things are not listed there. I’ve been trying not to get caught up in things that I don’t really care about… so here is a good quote, to help me end my post:

“Doing nothing is better than being busy doing nothing.”

– Lao Tzu

Returning to non-existence.

“Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion. For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again. The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good.”

-St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation

St. Athanasius of Alexandria, d. 373.

Read the whole book online.

They fight to stay together.

Ten years later I am re-posting this review, about a book that I put off reading for a year after I bought it, mostly because of its cover design and notes. It’s a novel about Poland that won several minor awards, including the Hemingway Foundation/PEN prize in 2010. Our church women’s book group read it at my recommendation a few years ago, when I was too busy to join in. So it may be time for my own reaquaintance.

A Long, Long Time Ago & Essentially True exceeded my expectations; I don’t remember what I read on someone’s blog that got me interested, but when the book arrived and I saw the fanciful flowery cover with notes using the words “whimsical” and “romance” on the same page, I’m afraid I unconsciously relegated it to a genre of Light Reading.

A cover truer to the story.

But a story of Poland from the 1930’s to about 1990 is sure to be full of war, tyrants, secret police, lies and alcoholism. Wives and mothers can’t even mention their men who went missing years ago; their grandchildren grapple with the generational ripples of all the wounds and deaths and separations both social and physical. I had to look up the word whimsical just now to make sure of my understanding, and no, the author Brigid Pasulka never gave the impression that she was trying to be “playful, erratic or fantastical” with her subject.

The opening chapter that tells about an upright young man named Pigeon might make you think it’s all light and charming, and perhaps to some reviewers the idea of such a hero with old-fashioned morals seems like a fairy tale. He is a shining example of the classic Pole who has Golden Hands that can make or fix anything. And he loves Anielica, a sweet girl who will soon suffer much with and for him, including the long postponement of their wedding — but that turns out to be the least of their sorrows.

The novel alternates chapters about teenagers growing up during the war years with those about their granddaughter in the late 20th century. Her life, also, is nearly wrecked by many of the same old misfortunes as well as some newer ones, like drug-dealing boyfriends. Funny moments and comic aspects pepper her story, as they did her grandparents’. Being able to appreciate the comedy is one way to deal with the heartache; that doesn’t make the story a piece of humor.

Brigid Pasulka

The book was just serious enough and just long enough for my current reading “mood,” and I did not predict the ending that lifted me out of the general bleakness that was trying to smother the characters all the way through. The Polish people had several years of trying to survive and even fight against the Nazis, and then could barely catch their breath before the Soviets took over and they had to quickly shift gears and learn how to cope with a slightly different oppression, the effects of which stretched long into the future.

Through it all the protagonists in this story, the grandparents and the parents and grandchildren, fight to stay together and to protect one another. Bribes and lies and dreadful compromises at times appear to be daily necessities, but the characters’ love and perseverance keep them from the despair that lurks around the corners of their houses like a traitorous neighbor. The moral quandaries that they experience are neither explored in depth nor treated flippantly.

The author, I read on the cover, spent a year in Poland learning the language and the culture of her ancestors. She uses often untranslated Polish words lavishly throughout the story, and they aren’t always easily deciphered versions of English words, so I was frequently left wondering what I was missing, not having a Polish dictionary handy. Nor did I want to look up the many references to obscure events in Polish history which the characters mentioned. But those are my only complaints.

In the middle of meditating on the history and people of Poland I read this poem by a Pole who would have grown up during the Soviet era. The images the writer conjures up, of a field mouse, a tree, “A grass blade trampled by a stampede of incomprehensible events,” lined up very well with the impression I got from this debut novel, of a brave people surviving by means of the virtues of their humanity, which is the grace of God.

By Zofia Stryjeńsk, artist of the interwar period.