More So-So Books. . .


Theroux, Paul. Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Capetown.

I suppose that I could have forgiven the bitterness in this book. The tone of Mr. Theroux' books has been getting more bitter, less human, and less humanistic for a while, so it didn't surprise me, and in the light of the subject of the book the bitterness may be justified here.

Having V. S. Naipaul's opinions on African society dismissed as the result of Naipaul's having grown up as a member of a (perceived) persecuted minority in a black society didn't bother me that much either: From Naipaul's books I never had the impression that he felt that he grew up as part of a persecuted minority; I would have said that he felt that he grew up in a pluralistic society, if one with many faults, but I don't know Naipaul personally, and Theroux does. Maybe I'm just mistaken.

However, Theroux proudly describes an incident of his own Christian-baiting in which he unintentionally quotes Bible verses which just don't exist. It looks like he has invented his new Biblical archaeology not only by quoting from some unidentified single translation without considering that it was a translation, but also by quoting it from memory, and quoting it wrong.

"Leviticus says.... Chapter fifteen is all about a woman being an unclean abomination when she's menstruating and how she has to sleep alone then."
"All"? Counting in the King James Version, I found seven verses which even indirectly hint at a menstruating woman, out of thirty-three in the chapter. Mr. Theroux apparently uses the word "all" in some very private sense. And none of the verses refer to her as an "unclean abomination"; neither does any other Jewish or ancient source which I know, and I somehow have the feeling that I know this subject much better than Mr. Theroux does. The King James version which Mr. Theroux is either misinterpreting according to a private interpretation or misremembering actually says: "And if a woman have an issue, and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be put apart seven days: and whosoever toucheth her shall be unclean until the even.". All of the newer translations I've seen come much closer to the Hebrew original. For example, The New American Standard Bible says: "she shall continue in her menstrual impurity for seven days". Not even a hint about sleeping arrangements, much less about abominations, unless the abomination is Mr. Theroux' attitude to the truth.

"Leviticus eleven says that rabbits are cud chewers, and that's why you can't eat them". No, Leviticus eleven says that in spite of their being cud chewers, you can't eat them, just the opposite of what Mr. Theroux says. While it's true that rabbits don't chew their cud, I have been told that they make frequent movements of their mouths which look like cud-chewing, which may be what the verse is referring to. It's been a while since I've seen a rabbit, though.

"Later on, Leviticus says that a man can't marry a non-virgin or a divorced woman...." Yet another of Mr. Theroux' improvements on the truth: What Leviticus says is that the high priest can't marry a non-virgin, and a priest can't marry a divorced woman; it is quite clear that neither of these laws applies to anyone else.

The young missionary whom he took such pleasure in attacking may in fact have been stupid, ignorant, and bigoted, but Theroux comes across as being much more so, and as a bully who's proud of his bullying, as well. And why does he remind me of the lines from The Mikado which condemn

The idiot who praises with enthusiastic tone
All centuries but this and every country but his own?

However, one can learn a lot from Mr. Theroux' book about the socio-politics of humanitarian aid, and about the attitudes which cause people to casually contract AIDS when they know the dangers.

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Yourcenar, Marguerite. The Abyss.

Running true to the form of the traditional French novel, The Abyss has little plot - unless the course of each of our lives, from beginning to end, can be called a plot - and not even a deep character with whom we can form an emotional bond. It is a long prose poem, as French novels tend to be. The difference between this poem and most similar ones is that its elements are not phrases and descriptions, but events and images: Hilzonde's fiery and irrational passivity, Simon's philosophical sadness at his own dissolution and that of his world, Zeno the hero's fear of torture, the prior's gradual destruction by his being a little too good. The "fiery coldness" of early French Protestantism is a two-word masterpiece of psychology.

In the course of trying to make sense of The Abyss, I read an article on Yourcenar. It said that Memoirs of Hadrian, which I haven't read, is a study in the consciousness of time. They say the same about Remembrance of Things Past. Thinking and writing about one's experience of time reminds me of the way some people are careful to speak only in a very pure Yiddish. (I imagine that the same phenomenon exists among speakers of Romany, and some other languages in a similar historical position.) When people are truly speaking a truly living language, they never think primarily about its purity, or its importance. They think about hylomorphism, or marshmallows, or whatever it is they are talking about at that moment. Language has a real and natural existence only when its main function is as part of the background of being human, an important part, not as a subject for itself. As do acts of emotion. Or religion. Or the experience of time. Concentrating on one's language is the end of that language, and concentrating on one's perception of time is the end of living time.

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