“Too much love will kill you” 

The title of this post is in quotation marks because it’s a reference to Queen’s song of the same title.  I was reminded of this song after I finished reading Balzac’s Father Goriot, which is such a tragic novel about a man who had spoiled his beautiful daughters, sacrificed himself for them but whom he didn’t get to even see before he died.

M. Goriot’s mistake was loving his daughters too much that he forgot to teach them what they needed to learn to be able to live independently. Perhaps his spoiling them was his way of making himself feel needed by his children for the rest of his life. And that he surely got from them — they needed and got his money until he was left with nothing except for the rags he was wearing.

One of his daughter’s, Anastasie, also made the same mistake in loving a man (not her husband) who made her happy but who was only using her to support his gambling. She gave up everything — husband, children, father, her reputation for this lover who only loved her for her money.

In a lecture by the neuroscientist, Vilayanur Ramachandran, he talks about a hypothetical situation where he, in his capacity as a neuroscientist, shows a woman the brain scan of a man who is supposed to be in love with her and which parts of the brain are activated. The woman says, “My God! Is that all? It’s all a bunch of chemicals?” Ramanchadran advises the young man to say, “My dear, this proves it’s all real. I really am in love with you. I’m not faking it….” 

Now that we know that “love” is all a bunch of chemicals, we ought to be more careful about how it controls us.

If we are aware of how our bodies are reacting to the presence of another person, and we think it is “love,” we ought to ask ourselves if this “love” is right or wrong for us and the person we “love.” If it’s only “good” for our bodies, I don’t think it’s wise to simply give in. (My friend would say, “Jeez, just don’t think!” But I say, YOU HAVE TO THINK!) 

Be it romantic love or fraternal love or paternal love, our actions should be guided by reason not just by what our bodies tell us. I know sometimes it’s easier said than done, but at least we can try.

Don’t let love kill you.😇
T. 💕

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Thoughts on Passions, Boredom, and Kindness from Gogol’s “Dead Souls” 


It took me a while to finish reading Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls. I have to be honest and say, I did not enjoy reading it as much as I did Dostoevsky’s novels. This is bias on my part, perhaps, because I am a Dostoevsky fan. It was an almost an effort reading this novel to the end.

Still I am glad I finished reading it even though the novel itself ends in mid-sentence.

Here I would like to share some of the lines that I highlighted and why they struck me.

“For human passions are as numberless as is the sand of the seashore, and go on to become his most insistent of masters. Happy, therefore, the man who may choose from among the gamut of human passions one which is noble!” 

The mistake of Paul Ivanovitch Chichikov, the main character, is choosing the ignoble passion of greed, of wanting much more than what he has, and doing everything he can, even if it is wrong, just to get ahead.

Yes, it is human nature to desire, but not everything we desire can be ours. This is the reason it is most often not a good idea to just  do “whatever makes you happy.” If every single one of us just does whatever makes us happy, will we all be happy? Someone is bound to cry.

This is not to say that one cannot be happy without consequently hurting other people. Rather, there are many things that can make one happy that won’t hurt others at all, but there are a few things that will surely hurt the others that one cares about if one selfishly follows the desires of one’s heart. I think every human being has been through this kind of dilemma.

“Weariness of everything is a modern invention. Once upon a time one never heard of it.”

Platon Mikhalitch is a young and rich landowner who is weary of life. He finds life and work boring. He visits his neighbor, Peter Petrovich Pietukh, whom he finds annoying because the latter is always cheerful thinking of what to eat next, while he, Platon, is always gloomy.

I can understand weariness of life, and if I have a choice between a long or short life, I’d choose the latter (just until my son can live on his own). However as I still have life and the ability to move, I can think of so many things to do. The problem is not having enough time to do all the things I want to do. So I do not understand boredom when I am doing something.

Maybe it’s because people are made to think that their work has to be fun or exciting or interesting that has caused them to get bored with their jobs. WORK is work. In the past, people worked the land to put food on the table. I don’t think they considered whether it was fun to do or not. They just did it.

Now people don’t have to work so hard to put food on the table, and they get bored. Easily.

So I agree with the author: Weariness of everything is a modern invention. 

“Therefore, if it really be that you have no genuine love for doing good, do good by FORCING yourself to do so. Thus you will benefit yourself even more than you will benefit him for whose sake the act is performed.” 

Murazov spoke these words to Chichikov after the latter confessed to his lack of real love for what is good and only wants acquisition of property.

Murazov is a wise man. He knows how habits are formed. Even doing good deeds can be made into a habit. In the same way, forcing ourselves to be kind to people we don’t particularly like will benefit us even more than it will benefit them. How?

Eventually we will forget why we didn’t like them in the first place. And if we do not dislike anyone, then our minds are more at peace. Nobody’s living rent-free in our heads. (The irony is the more we dislike someone, the more often we think about them. And nothing is more annoying!)

*****

Published in 1842, Dead Souls is supposedly “widely regarded as an exemplar of 19th-century Russian literature.” But for some reason, I do not find it as interesting, as thought-provoking or as moving as The Brothers Karamazov or The Idiot or Crime and Punishment. Dostoevsky’s novels, their characters and their stories are somehow more memorable. But as I’ve spent time on it, I made sure I learned something.

Have a peaceful week! 💕

 

T.

On Kafka’s The Trial

Franz Kafka became one of my favorite authors after I read The Metamorphosis. The two stories In the Penal Colony and The Hunger Artist” were just as interesting to me. More than a couple of times in the past years I tried to read The Trial, but I couldn’t finish reading it. Until two days ago, that is. 

After reading the last few sentences of this novel, (even though I hate to admit that this came out of my mouth,  but it really did) I went, “WTF?” And to me, that’s what I am supposed to take away from the novel — that it was simply absurd. That life is absurd. 

The only way I can explain what this novel seemed to me like is: Imagine you are dreaming, and in your dream you are the same YOU in your waking life; and even though everything and everyone else around you is acting strange, you react in the same way you would in your reality. 

The whole time I was reading, I kept asking the questions, “What was his crime? What did he do? Why weren’t they telling him? Why didn’t he insist on being clearly told what his crime was?” 

Reading this novel gave me the same kind of feeling (though not literally) that the main character, Josef K., had when he went to the court offices for the first time: “It was as if he was suffering sea-sickness.” The novel just kept getting stranger and stranger as I read. It was not like this with The Metamorphosis where I was prepared for the strangeness because right at the beginning, I knew it would be strange because — who wakes up and finds himself transformed into a giant insect? 

This novel might not have made me question and ponder on things like Dostoevsky’s novels have, but  it’s left me with a very strong feeling that life can truly seem absurd, surreal, that if we look closely into our day-to-day life, we would find a lot of absurdities. 

 ————- 

My weekend starts on a Thursday evening, so…I hope you have a not-so-absurd weekend. 🙂 

T. 

Self-made Prisons: Thoughts on Dostoevsky’s The House of the Dead

house-of-the-dead    I just finished reading Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead or Prison Life in Siberia, and as I was reading about the different people he met in prison — the ones he liked, disliked, tried to avoid — I couldn’t help feeling life itself is like a prison. This feeling was made stronger after a friend complained about the shamelessness of a former colleague who had lied about his condition to the employer. He said he couldn’t stand working at the same place as this unscrupulous person. So I said to my friend, “I told you this is like prison. You can’t choose your prison mates!” 🙂
The main character, Alexander Petrovich, a noble, observed the peasants in the same prison he was in and said, “…you’ll never know what is at the bottom of the man’s mind or heart. You may think you know something about him, but it is all optical illusion, nothing more.” Isn’t this true of people, in general? It is truly impossible to know one person fully. How many times have you been surprised or shocked by something done by a person you think you know inside out, something so out of character?
Petrovich also said this of Suchiloff, the man who volunteered himself to serve the former, “It is indeed difficult to know a man, even after having lived long years with him.”
In our lifetime we sometimes have to live, study or work with people we do not like. It is stressful to always try to be polite with them, which we still do because it is what we were taught to do since we were kids. Be nice. Be polite. Be courteous. Perhaps we can learn from the main character, Alexander Petrovich, how to deal with the oppressiveness of a “prison,” surrounded by people with whom we are not comfortable: “I soon understood that work alone could save me, by fortifying my health and my body, whereas incessant restlessness of mind, nervous irritation, and the close air of the barracks would ruin them completely. I should go out vigorous and full of elasticity. I did not deceive myself, work and movement were very useful to me.”

Sometimes we create our own prisons. If we are aware that we put ourselves there, then we can get ourselves out of that prison. Unless we are too afraid of freedom, just like some convicts in Dostoevsky’s time “…poor devils who commit crimes in order to be sent to hard labour, and thus to escape the liberty which is much more painful than confinement….”
Why do some people stay in an unhealthy relationship for decades, for example? Could it be being in “prison” where their role is set is less painful? Or the person they are with, no matter how vile, is predictable and therefore not as petrifying as the uncertainty that freedom brings?
I think each of us has his own “prison.” Some have luxurious “prisons” — they have a materially rich and luxurious environment, but inwardly they are tortured by their own demons. Others probably have even worse than the barracks in Siberia in the 19th century — economically poor, uneducated, unemployed living in squalor among those who want to be forgotten by society. And there are those who have just enough — neither too much nor too little — but they get bored easily, so they create their own “prisons” and for some time their minds are “occupied” as to how to get out of it, and they may or may not admit to being responsible for creating it.
The House of the Dead, like all the other novels by Dostoevsky that I have read, leads the reader to think and re-think ideas or previously held ideas about humanity — individually and as a group. One critic of Dostoevsky berated his endless psychologizing and philosophizing, but to me, these are exactly what made his novels achieve greatness. His characters are people that readers get to know deeply, and with whom we can relate because underneath all the masks worn and personality and experience of each one, is a real human being, and no matter how vile a character may be, because we get to know him, then we understand and have compassion.
I know I’ve said this before in this blog: the more Dostoevsky works I read, the more I admire the man, the more grateful I am for his words.

(The House of the Dead by Fedor Dostoieffsky with an Introduction by Julius Bramont)

Game of Life: Excitement, Fear, Exhilaration, and then Reality Bites 

Li Tian Yuan, Tongan, Xiamen, China

Li Tian Yuan, Tongan, Xiamen, China

 I’ve never been an adventurous person. When I was younger, I only dared to do crazy things out of love for or silly attraction to some guy, like going up alone to a military camp located on a remote hill in a city where a bomb exploded just the day before, just to get the signature of a colonel on my then-boyfriend’s clearance, or going to a city that was in the middle of a war just because an attractive journalist-friend had asked me if I could go with him, and I couldn’t say no. Sigh. So 15-17 years ago.

I’ve only been in a pendulum ride once, and I am very, very sure I will die if I try it again. The only thing I ever felt the whole time I was in that monstrous thing was FEAR. And after a minute or two of that fear, I mustered the energy to just meditate. So I did, and my two guy friends who were with me and having so much fun, were yelling, “Therese, are you OK?” They thought I had died. Ha!

But a couple of weeks ago, when I saw the zip line at the amusement park my former students had invited me to, I just wanted to give it a try. It didn’t look scary because it wasn’t too high nor too long, and below was a calm river with people on pedal boats. It looked non-threatening enough that I excitedly volunteered we go. So we did. I was the first to get up on the platform, but then insisted that a colleague go first. I was having second thoughts.

And then it was my turn. I wanted to back out, but there was a line of young people behind me, the same ones I had rallied to join me. How could I ever back out? I made the sign of the cross at least five times! Then I said to myself in the same way I did as I was being wheeled to the delivery room to have my first (and only) child, “OK, Therese. You’re doing this. You can never back out on this one!”

So I jumped.

And I screamed in fear. Waaaahhhh.

Then I yelled in exhilaration. Wooo-hoo!

I know it was probably less than a minute, but it was a moment I will never forget. I waved at the people on the river, threw my head back and consequently, spun and saw everything around me. After all that fear, I felt the most beautiful, exhilarating feeling. Andthen it was over. My knees were shaking, but I couldn’t shake off that excitement right away.

Even weeks after that experience, the feeling is still quite vivid for me — those few seconds of joy. And one day, as I thought about that moment I remembered a few lines from three of Dostoevsky’s works.

In The Idiot, Prince Myshkin talks about what actually goes on in his head while he’s having a seizure. He sees beauty and feels immense joy that he’s never felt in his waking life that sometimes he actually wishes he can have a seizure again just so he can experience that happiness, that joy.

In White Nights, the sentimental hero of the story after witnessing the happiness of Nastenka, who asks him not to be unhappy because of her happiness, says he will never do anything to ruin her joy, because he knows how precious that moment is. “My God, a moment of bliss. Why, isn’t that enough for a whole lifetime?”

In A Faint Heart, Vasya is overwhelmed with gratitude and happiness that he goes insane. His friend, Arkady, on his way home pauses by the Neva and, ” A strange thought came to poor Vasya’s forlorn friend. He started, and his heart seemed at that instant flooded with a hot rush of blood kindled by a powerful, overwhelming sensation he had never known before. He seemed only now to understand all the trouble, and to know why his poor Vasya had gone out of his mind, unable to bear his happiness.”

Perhaps Arkady himself experienced this few seconds of happiness or he wouldn’t have understood the cause of Vasya’s insanity.

Some happiness-es just happen. Others can be had by choice. If by choice, we then have to be ready for the consequences which can be either harmless, productive or disastrous.

So many people will tell you to “follow your heart, pursue whatever makes you happy, don’t think, just do it.” If everything turns out fine from an uninformed decision, perhaps it’s only due to luck or coincidence. One cannot predict the future but one can try to make an intelligent guess or infer from the current situation as to the consequences of a particular decision.

When something or someone new comes to our lives, they may bring us so much excitement, and we may feel fear as we think of the changes they will bring to our lives. Some have experienced just abandoning everything for the sake of “love,” throwing caution to the wind, and they make it sound so romantic. And it sounds like it is all good, but life is not a fairy tale that ends with “they live happily ever after.” After that brief moment of bliss, comes reality and more often than not, it is ugly.

If I have the certainty that the consequences of my action would be harmless, not seriously hurt anybody whether I care about them or not, I wouldn’t mind experiencing that few seconds of bliss. Like Camus’ Sisyphus, I wouldn’t mind rolling that huge boulder on top of a hill just to be happy.

But how often are our pursuits of happiness, of excitement and exhilaration harmless? Or, how harmless are our pursuits of happiness, of excitement and exhilaration?

I really enjoyed my first time on a zip line, but even though I know it’s safe and exciting, I think once is good enough for me. (Not adventurous!)

On Searching for Love, Finding it and Starting a New Life (three books, one review)

Most people I know who love reading novels read at least two books a month. I could not, cannot do that. Excuses: (1) I prefer reading philosophical novels, which require more time (at least for my slow brain) to process, and (2) I have a job, a 4-year old son, and a husband and I do 95% of the housework.

This summer I took a break from reading the Russians (or just Russian, Dostoevsky) and read three “contemporary” (meaning the authors are still very much alive) books – a memoir and two novels. It is quite interesting to me how I chose to read the two novels after the memoir, and only later realized that there seemed to be a link in the order in which I read them.

The first book I read was “Three Brightnessess: The Quintessential Story of Learning Chinese And Falling in Love in China – Over and Over Again” by William Shoemaker. I read it because I know the author, had invited him to my class a couple of times to talk with my students about his short stories which I had let my students read, and promised him I would read his first book.

Three Brightnesses by William Shoemaker

I enjoyed reading Will’s memoir because, having lived in China a long time, I can relate to the things he wrote about – the place, the people, the culture, what one can like or dislike about them. Several times while reading this book I laughed so hard, and I think that’s a good way to judge whether a writer is good or not – if he/she can make you cry or laugh.

Will speaks fluent Mandarin, dated Chinese women, has Chinese friends with whom he can speak Mandarin. And yet, I don’t think he has ever felt at home or that he belongs.

One of the things he said that resonated with me is this: “In China, no one waits. Nothing stays the same for long. You can try to understand the place, but anything you learn, the moment you learn it, becomes an artifact of the past. The thing that doesn’t change is the memory – the version of the place that you knew.”

If you’re thinking of moving to China or are interested in China or the Chinese culture especially as it is now, read Three Brightnesses.

The second book is called Lost in Translation by Nicole Mones. What attracted me to this book is the quotation from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s book The Phenomenon of Man, right at the beginning of the book, which goes,

“Since the inner face of the world is manifest deep within our human  consciousness, and there reflects upon itself, it would seem that we have only got to look at ourselves in order to understand the dynamic relationships existing between the within and without of things at a given point in the universe. In fact so to do is one of the most difficult of things.”

The novel is about a thirty-something American woman who is running away from her troubled past (being the beloved daughter of a racist politician), and wanting to start a new life and to find love (in the form of a Chinese man, had to be Chinese), in China. (Why is it so easy for Asian women like me to accept a relationship between a western man and an Asian woman, but we tend to be surprised or even shocked, incredulous when we hear of relationships between western women and Asian men? Well, I know my answer to that one, but I would really like to know how other Asian women think!)

The main character, Alice, being fluent in Chinese, works as translator in Beijing. She translates for an American archaeologist who is doing a research on the Peking Man. Being in China, the American archaeologist has no choice but to work with Chinese archaeologists, one of whom is Lin Shiyang whose main reason for joining the team is to be able to track his wife who was put in a labor camp in the northwest of China during the Cultural Revolution. Shiyang and Alice fall in love, but right after he finds out for sure that his wife died years ago in the camp, he also finds out about Alice’s promiscuities. But that’s not the ending. You will have to read it to find out how it all ends.

It’s a story within a story, as the writer leads us to the story between Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Lucile Swan in the early 20th century, and the love story between Alice and Shiyang in the 21st century.

After reading this novel, I promised myself I would read The Phenomenon of Man.

 But I ended up reading Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak, which, just like Lost in Translation is a story within a story. The main character in the 21st century is a 40-year old Jewish-American woman, Ella, married to a successful Jewish man and together they have three children, the eldest being in college and the youngest in elementary school. For twenty years she lived what seemed the peaceful and content life of the perfect wife and mother. But one day, she reads a book called Sweet Blasphemy written by a man called A.Z. Zahara, and this book changes her and her life forever. While we are reading about Ella and her life and her consequent meeting and falling in love with Aziz, we also get to read Sweet Blasphemy which is about the spiritual friendship between two Sufi mystics, Rumi and Shams of Tabrizi.

Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak

This novel contains so many quotable quotes all from Shams’s Forty Rules of Love. One of my favorites is

“There is only one way to be born into a new life: to die before death.”

Shamse Tabrizi.jpg

Shams of Tabrizi

In the novel, Ella’s new life entails leaving her husband (he was cheating on her anyway), and her three children, to be with a man she just met and whom she “loves”. I put love in quotation marks, because even after reading the novel and Sham’s Forty Rules of Love, I do not consider passion as love. How can you truly love somebody you just exchanged emails or text messages with? To finally meet that person and find he is even more interesting than the one you have been texting with may be very exciting indeed, but excitement does not equal love. And finally I cannot see any justification for leaving one’s children to pursue one’s happiness. Perhaps if the children are old enough to live without both parents. But for little children, I can only imagine the difficulty of growing up without both parents to guide you and make you feel secure in this world. But I have to say this, leaving a philandering husband is perfectly fine, (also the husband who forgets his wife’s birthday and their wedding anniversary, yeah!) I salute women who do so.

That said, I am grateful for this novel for introducing me to Sufism. I promised myself I would read more about Sufism, after reading about Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and the Phenomenon of Man, that is.

But Dostoevsky’s White Nights is calling….:)

What book are you reading?

When Love Goes Wrong

Life goes on

             Life goes on

“There is always something ridiculous about the emotions of people whom we ceased to love.”                                                   (Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

The words above quoted from Wilde’s novel were spoken by my favorite character in that novel, Lord Henry Wotton

At my age, I find it nothing but mere melodramatics when people say they cannot live without a particular person in their lives.

Of course I have been in that situation myself when I thought my world had ended because a particular person who I had made responsible for my happiness (and consequently, unhappiness) left me.

There is something inherently wrong in the belief that one cannot live without a particular person in their lives. First is that another person can be responsible for one’s happiness. Second, that one’s world would end when that person is gone.

No one else is responsible for our happiness except ourselves, and the world can and will really continue to exist with our without a particular person in our lives. If you tell a jerk (because even a jerk can fool somebody into loving him) that he is your life, your world and that both would come to an end if he leaves you, then you are giving him enormous amount of control over your life. Not smart. And if you tell an honest and responsible man the same, then you are giving him undue pressure and undeserved feelings of guilt whenever you are unhappy (which may be your aim, and that makes you the jerk.)

When you are truly, madly, deeply in love you seldom think clearly, logically. But when that period comes to an end, then it is like you have just recovered from a psychological cataract, and you see, if you’re lucky, the purity and selflessness of your love, or if you’re unfortunate, the silliness of your thoughts and actions.

When you fall out of love, you become this person that is able to distance yourself from the relationship and see yourself and the former object of your affection and the dynamics between the two of you, like the two of you are characters in a movie or in novel whose plot not only you can relate to, but also you can analyze and comment on objectively.

At first you may feel pity for the spurned person, especially if you have “lost that lovin’ feeling,'” but they haven’t. You may feel dislike or disgust for them, especially if they had betrayed you. Or you just may find them irritating when they cannot let go and keep trying to win back your love.

I think most people have experienced breaking up with someone or being let go by someone. If you broke up with someone that you ceased to love, then whatever they say becomes mere hollow sounds to you. If you’re polite, you will pretend to listen and do a mental eye-rolling when they tell you those saccharine words that you used to love to hear them say to you:

You are my world.
I can’t live without you.
You complete me.

Duh.
Or …
D’oh.

For those who cling to a lost love:

The pain of unrequited love is real. But you have to move on because:
1. It’s not the end of the world. Really.
2. You are responsible for your own happiness. No need to pass that responsibility on to somebody else
3. You CAN move on.
4. You WILL move on.

Let go but don’t let yourself go.