Thursday, February 18, 2016

Twelve Years a Slave (book review)

You know when you read a book that's so good you actually can't put it down—I mean, literally, viscerally, simply can't put it down? You might have other things to do and need to get to them; there are emails you have to send; chores you have to do; perhaps you're hungry and have to get or prepare something to eat; you need to get to sleep to wake up early in the morning—but your mind demands you keep on reading, absorbing every last word, and therefore your hands must stay where they are along with the rest of you until your eyes are weary. Such was my experience in reading Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, written and published in 1853, the year he was set free from bondage and became a free man once again. I loved the movie so much, and was so impressed by it, that I had to get the book. And I'm so glad I did. I'm proud to have it in my library. The prose is superb, and I learned so much from this absolutely incredible, extremely well-documented, astoundingly vivid story. My favourite passage is this one for its imagery and the way it makes the reader feel like (s)he's actually there. Northup had escaped the clutches of a lunatic he was working for. The psychopath had tried to kill him for no good reason for the second time, and, unlike most of the slaves in the region, Northup could actually swim, and swim well. So he ran and ran, towards the river, through the godforsaken Louisiana swamp and backwoods, filled with alligators and moccasin snakes all around him, always worrying he'd accidentally step on something reptilian and deadly, and he got far away from the bloodhounds trailing after him, their barks fading and fading away into eventual nothingness, his scent being lost along the water, and then was able to give us a glimpse of something spectacular that must have shaken him to his very core:

After midnight, however, I came to a halt. Imagination cannot picture the dreariness of the scene. The swamp was resonant with the quacking of innumerable ducks! Since the foundation of the earth, in all probability, a human footstep had never before so far penetrated the recesses of the swamp. It was not silent now—silent to a degree that rendered it oppressive—as it was when the sun was shining in the heavens. My midnight intrusion had awakened the feathered tribes, which seemed to throng the morass in hundreds of thousands, and their garrulous throats poured forth such multitudinous sounds—there was such a fluttering of wings—such sullen plunges in the water all around me—that I was affrighted and appalled. All the fowls of the air, and all the creeping things of the earth appeared to have assembled together in that particular place, for the purpose of filling it with clamor and confusion. Not by human dwellings—not in crowded cities alone, are the sights and sounds of life. The wildest places of the earth are full of them. Even in the heart of that dismal swamp, God had provided a refuge and a dwelling place for millions of living things.—from Chapter 10

Incidentally, there's a story Northup relates of a young light-skinned slave woman who escapes and hides in the wilderness, and, for some reason, the hounds refuse to track her. Northup says that, for whatever reason he never could explain, there are people whose scent the dogs would not under any circumstance follow. I'd never heard of anything like that before, and I found it absolutely fascinating. Make no mistake about it, however: This book is a horror story. And what makes it so frightening is that it's actually true. Fiction never did scare me that easily, even as a child. I always found nonfiction to be infinitely more terrifying. What astounded me more than anything, even beyond the sheer brutality, callousness and perpetual torment of innocent, undeserving people within the story, was Northup's ability to rise above it all, with a clear and rational mind, with patience and self-discipline:

The existence of Slavery in its most cruel form among them, has a tendency to brutalize the humane and finer feelings of their nature. Daily witnesses of human suffering—listening to the agonizing screeches of the slave—beholding him writhing beneath the merciless lash—bitten and torn by dogs—dying without attention, and buried without shroud or coffin—it cannot otherwise be expected, than that they should become brutified and reckless of human life. It is true there are many kind-hearted and good men in the parish of Avoyelles—such men as William Ford—who can look with pity upon the sufferings of a slave, just as there are, over all the world, sensitive and sympathetic spirits, who cannot look with indifference upon the sufferings of any creature which the Almighty has endowed with life. It is not the fault of the slaveholder that he is cruel, so much as it is the fault of the system under which he lives. He cannot withstand the influence of habit and associations that surround him. Taught from earliest childhood, by all he sees and hears, that the rod is for the slave's back, he will not be apt to change his opinions in maturer years.—from Chapter 14

Now that right there is cold-as-ice objectivity. The way he sympathetically puts himself in the position and milieu-saturated mind of his oppressors is absolutely remarkable to me. It's an objectivity that I haven't yet come across in any other book of any genre, and I've read many. The reason I say so, is that this sentiment rises and ascends so high above the baser instinct of refusing to see the grey area, an instinct which commonly has a person prefer rather to comport themselves to the human-all-too-human sentiment of what Nietzsche called ressentiment. Northup never even expresses, at least not in the book, personal wishes that those slave-masters be thrown into eternal hellfire, even though he was a Christian and believed in such a place as hell and a final judgement for all. His resentment and hostility are so shockingly minimal after twelve years of the most horrific, torturous of hardships at their hands. He was a greater man than I; that's for goddamn sure. I'm not so naive, however, as to believe for one second that he didn't wish the fires of hell on a regular basis for his most heartless and tyrannical master of ten years, Edwin Epps, because, for the most part, as is to be expected:

They are deceived who flatter themselves that the ignorant and debased slave has no conception of the magnitude of his wrongs. They are deceived who imagine that he arises from his knees, with back lacerated and bleeding, cherishing only a spirit of meekness and forgiveness. A day may come—it will come, if his prayer is heard—a terrible day of vengeance when the master in his turn will cry in vain for mercy.—final words of Chapter 17

And, for the record, as amazing as Michael Fassbender was at playing Epps in the film version, the movie itself only scratches the surface of the man's ruthlessness, vindictiveness, madness and cruelty. You need to read the book to get the full picture. As for Northup, he always stuck out from the rest of the slaves with his many diverse abilities, his profound intelligence, and his skills. With his musical talent, he made extra money on the side and, from time to time, got out of the backbreaking work of the cotton fields and endless sugar-making industry, because people all around demanded he come play his fiddle for them on certain occasions. That instrument of his kept him much company through those gut-wrenchingly trying twelve years. In a way, it kept him alive. And, in the end, it could be known for all time that Solomon Northup was a man who used his stealth, wisdom and shrewd-mindedness to gain his beloved liberty, family and home once again.

It's funny: The last book I read before this, The Demon-Haunted World, by Carl Sagan, nearing the end of it, touches quite a bit on slavery (something I didn't realize before purchasing and reading it, yet was already planning on reading Twelve Years a Slave right after), so it was like it blended, as a precursor, right into it. To be sure, this autobiographical masterpiece of Northup's made me wonder what kind of slave I would have been myself, how long I could have possibly handled living in such inexorable, utterly despondent, wretched conditions of ceaseless torture, exhaustion, stress, fear and malnourishment day after day, and how long I would have even lasted—if I perhaps would have taken, or tried to take, my own life. But, more than that, it made me wonder what kind of master I would have been, if brought up that way in an upper-class southern family: the benevolent kind, like William Ford and others whom Northup spoke of with great reverence, or a monster like Edwin Epps. I'm glad I don't have to know the answer to either of those questions.

To me, Solomon Northup is the ascending type that Nietzsche wrote about extensively. He was a slave with the strength of will and profundity of a true Dionysian spirit—a 19th-century Spartacus, you might say (though without the revolt)—affirming his hellish twelve years with the writing of his prolific, profound and enlightening contribution to the world, Twelve Years a Slave, and by dedicating the remaining ten years of his life to using all he had experienced and learned to make all the difference he could within the realm of abolition. This man was a survivor, and he has allowed me to understand, better than I ever have or could on my own, how lucky I am to have freedom, and that no matter what life throws my way, I have no excuse to recoil in weakness and acquiescence, but rather to use all I have at my disposal along with the power of my inner strength to overcome and persevere. And for that, I'll always be thankful—to Solomon Northup.

My rating: five stars!  

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (book review)

"The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir." - Page 29

I love Carl Sagan. The way he brought science, astronomy, history, skepticism, etc. to the common man in his acclaimed 1970s show, Cosmos, was so admirable. The Demon-Haunted World has been on my "to read" list for a long time now. It was originally published 20 years ago, in 1996, and then he died later on that year from cancer, so he didn't get to enjoy its success. He wrote it over a ten-year period, and that patient, careful, finely tuned aspect of it comes out quite evidently in the book, which I'm going to call a marvelous one. In it, he covers numerous topics that overlap each other in regard to the intriguing historical nature of people having the same tendency throughout history of letting their minds get carried away with them, for example, repeatedly, tenaciously and mistakenly searching the sky or their dreams for signs and beings that simply aren't there, be they gods, devils, angels or aliens coming to take them away and/or use them. So, with all the scholasticism of a great skeptic, scientist and historian, he covers matters such as the crop-circle hysteria, the age-old problem of confusing dreams with reality; he covers hallucinations, demons, visions of the Virgin Mary (and how, for hundreds of years, it's always been about the Church trying to influence politics to its liking and been a huge cash grab each and every single time) and the sheer, grand-scale brutality of the witch hunts; he tackles UFO sightings and abductions, hypnotism and government propaganda, giving examples of modern-day "witch hunts." He has a very well thought-out baloney-detection criteria that he lays out for the reader point for point, and he applies it to all sketchy matters that cry out to be debunked.

All the chapters meld into each other so fluidly, the end of one usually being a kind of precursor to the next. He was so brilliant. And his passion for the sciences is so refreshing. I love how he explains the closely nit nature between democracy and science, and how both are at the root of the philosophies and outlooks of the Founding Fathers of the United States, who truly were ingenious men (scientific men) with almost superhuman foresight. And he often uses previous chapters to bolster arguments in a given one and show how a present chapter ties into what was discussed much earlier on in the book. As is to be expected, it's all very erudite, rational, logical, and fueled by a zeal and wonder for life and the truth.

"Despite usage to the contrary, there is no necessary implication in the word 'spiritual' that we are talking of anything other than matter (including the matter of which the brain is made), or anything outside the realm of science. On occasion, I will feel free to use the word. Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or of acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both." - Pages 29-30

I learned so much from reading it about science, history and the things which have shaped our civilization and species. I love the section in Chapter 18 where he refutes the claim that the roots of science are in fact the religious (in particularly monotheistic) demand for the truth. Nonsense! It came from our ancestors' need to survive (namely by hunting) by analyzing and understanding the natural world around them:

"They scrutinized the shape of the depressions. The footprints of a fast-moving animal display a more elongated symmetry. A slightly lame animal favors the afflicted foot, puts less weight on it, and leaves a fainter imprint. A heavier animal leaves a deeper and broader hollow. The correlation functions are in the heads of the hunters.

In the course of the day, the footprints erode a little. The walls of the depressions tend to crumble. Windblown sand accumulates on the floor of the hollow. Perhaps bits of leaf, twigs, or grass are blown into it. The longer you wait, the more erosion there is.

The method is essentially identical to what planetary astronomers use in analyzing craters left by impacting worldlets: other things being equal, the shallower the crater, the older it is." - Page 313

Really fascinating stuff, in my opinion.

It's not only people who have a passion for truth and knowledge and people whose minds are darkened by their credulity for pseudoscience, propaganda and sensationalism who need to read this book, however. It's also a large number of people out there, many of whom actually dwell and thrive in academia, who think that science is just more faith-based religion, who need to read it as well. The relentlessly rigorous scrutiny for facts by experimentation and peer review that goes into scientific research simply does not exist in monotheism, polytheism, the New Age, etc., and it's in fact anathema to them. And non-scientists can know certain scientific discoveries to be factual if those discoveries have spawned actual innovation. For example, I may not understand the mathematical calculations of Thomas Edison, but I know they must be correct - because now we have the light bulb. And if his findings, in their raw form, were incorrect, we'd still have to be lighting candles in order to see. I may not understand the physics expressed in the equations of Sir Isaac Newton, but I know he must have been right, or planes, rockets, probes that have flown across our solar system and landed on meteors and comets, etc., wouldn't get off the ground - hell, wouldn't even exist. I don't know how Albert Einstein discovered E=MC2, but I know he must have been right, since now we have atomic power, and the latter could not exist without the former. I can't for the life of me understand quantum mechanics, but I know it's real and absurdly precise, given it can calculate the distance from New York City to Los Angeles within a hair's width!! Therefore, no faith is required to know any of those things to be accurate. In Chapter 23, entitled, Maxwell and The Nerds, Sagan discusses the immense, world-shaping discoveries and scientific contributions of James Clerk Maxwell. A lot of it is way over my head, but "[t]he now conventional understanding of the electromagnetic spectrum - running in wavelength from gamma rays to X rays to ultraviolet light to visible light to infrared light to radio waves - is due to Maxwell. So is radio, television, and radar" (386).

"The linking-up of the modern world economically, culturally, and politically by broadcast towers, microwave relays, and communication satellites traces directly back to Maxwell's judgement to include the displacement current in his vacuum equations. So does television, which imperfectly instructs and entertains us; radar, which may have been the decisive element in the Battle of Britain and in the Nazi defeat in World War II (which I like to think of as "Dafty," the boy who didn't fit in, reaching into the future and saving the descendants of his tormentors); the control and navigation of airplanes, ships and spacecraft; radio astronomy and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence; and significant aspects of the electrical power and microelectronics industries." - Pages 392-393

Arguably, the most important aspects of what Sagan has to say in this last and mighty tome of his, because he really did care about the world a lot, is his emphasis on the importance and intrinsically emancipatory nature of literacy and that the skepticism and scrutiny involved in science must be thoroughly taught (all over the world) within educational systems, so that people have a full grasp of it by the time they leave high school, and, more importantly, that they direct that rigorous, intellectual ability towards their politicians and justice system. That way, the people keep their governments from running amok by creating arbitrary laws that only serve themselves and subject the people, bringing them closer and closer to an Orwellian world with Big Brother in absolute power and control, and a history that is rewritten time and time again to suit him.

"Science is a way to call the bluff of those who only pretend to knowledge. It is a bulwark against mysticism, against superstition, against religion misapplied to where it has no business being. If we're true to its values, it can tell us when we're being lied to." - Page 38

Anyway, I could go on and on talking about all the fascinating, eye-opening and extremely important things Sagan has to say, as I've only just scratched the surface here, but I'll do you a favour, and leave you with the joy of reading the rest all on your own.

My rating: five stars!