In my spare time I read fiction, mostly historical fiction. Some of the books I have really enjoyed recently include
Doc, by Mary Doria Russell (Ballantine, 2012);
Year of Wonders, A Novel of the Plague, by Geraldine Brooks (Penguin, 2001);
The Messenger, by Mayra Montero (Perennial, 2000);
Inferno, by Dan Brown (Doubleday, 2013);
O, Juliet, by Robin Maxwell (New American Library, 2010); and,
Aleph, by Paulo Coelho (Vintage International, 2012) [re-read and re-reviewed.]
Some of these books are much more in touch with authentic history than others, but they all shed some light on the human condition and human behavior during trying times, often very unpleasant times. A story being imagined does not make it invalid as a source of insight.
Doc, Years of Wonder, and The Messenger all told stories about humans in extremely trying times, either on a large scale (Year of Wonders) or on an individual scale (The Messenger and Doc). I have yet to meet a book by Mary Doria Russell that was not both thoughtful and thought-provoking.
Inferno, O Juliet, and Aleph attracted me for a variety of reasons including the names of the authors, and especially, once I read the book covers, for their promise to have something to say about one of my favorite mystical subjects: the Religion of Love and its courtly love practice, either explicitly addressed or implicitly folded into the story.
I will say something more about each of the last three books on the above list.
Inferno attracted me in a big way because it had Dante Alighieri's portrait on the cover, and I am somewhat of a fan of Alighieri's works as the ultimate examples of the “courtly love” literary genre. Ultimate because in the end the love affair between Beatrice and Dante propels Dante into the holiest place existing in the human imagination: the Presence of God..
This love affair took -place in his in his own mind since she gave him almost zero attention during her short life, and the spiritually intimate and in my view quite romantic relationship in which Dante is engaged with Beatrice occurs after her death. It is her love that cleanses Dante and allows him to finally be brought into the Presence where the world's most famous poet is left speechless by what he hears and learns.
Beatrice is his mediatrix preparing him for the Presence, in full accord with the heretical Religion of Love of Southern France, but not so much in accord with the Catholicism that ended up embracing Dante as if he were a genuine prophet.
Did Brown's book get into this really juicy spiritual-romantic stuff? Yes, to a limited extent. For one example, on his page 320, he has this speech from a protagonist who is leaving a recorded message just before leaving this life:
“My love,” he whispered, “my precious love. You are my beatitude, my destroyer of all vices, my endorser of all virtue, my salvation. You are the one who lay naked at my side and unwittingly helped me across the abyss, giving me the strength to do what I have now done.”
. . .
“My love,” [he] continued . . . . “you are my inspiration and my guide, my Virgil and my Beatrice all in one, and this masterpiece is as much yours as it is mine. If you and I, as star-crossed lovers, never touch again, I shall find peace in knowing I have left the future in your gentle hands. My work below is done. And now the hour has come for me to climb again to the world above” ….
But O, Juliet is the book that really blew me away because of the use it made of courtly love and the romantic aspects of Dante's poetry. Maxwell understands the (imagined, by Dante) love-relationship between Dante and Beatrice as the pinnacle of the courtly love genre of literature. Maxwell makes direct use of Dante quotes and discusses the courtly love mode of a man and woman relating to each other with love and intimacy but without going beyond a boundary that would make them lovers in the delightful/vulgar sense (depending on your point of view, of course). In other words, intimacy was to be allowed, it was required in order for there to be a genuine courtly love relationship, but it was to be controlled so as to not lead to adultery. That was the ideal, but given human nature, the ideal was often not lived up to with various results, some rather unpleasant.
Witness this exchange between Romeo, who is in love with Juliet, and with whom Juliet is in love, and her husband-to-be whom she despises (pages 92-93):
. . . “I propose that after a respectable period I will allow you to pay court to her. You may see her in private, share your . . . poetry” . . . . “You may lay your lovesick head upon her knee,” . . . . “Publicly adore her. Meanwhile she will live in my mother's house, subservient and grovelling. She will obey me and stay cloistered there except to go to confession. She will bear my children, as many as I can get on her. I will, of course, have my mistresses.”
. . .
“But if, while you are her courtly lover, you lay your lips or hand on other than Juliet's hand, then” . . . . “I will kill you or, better, perhaps, castrate you and let you live on as a woman.”
Juliet did not want to be in a courtly love relationship with Romeo, she wanted to be his wife. She hungered for a marriage based on mutual love. What was facing her instead was to be the sacrifice offered to cement a business arrangement, creating a family alliance that promised to be advantageous for her father's business. But she wants to have children with Romeo, not her intended.
And so the conflict is set. Unless the reader is just as dead in his or her heart as Juliet's unwanted intended, he or she will have begun cheering for Romeo and booing his and her adversary everytime they come back on the page/stage.
I was surprised by the book's ending but should not have been. I read the Readers Guide before reading the book, and so read the author telling of her reaction to the “Romeo and Juliet” movie by Franco Zeffereli.(1968) [see a trailer here]. She says she admired its ending for making the tragedy less heart-breaking by basically following the lovers into the next life. This is a 'happifying' device I used myself once when I would otherwise have been totally 'bummed out' by my own story. However much she admired its ending, though, Maxwell says she “sobbed for half an hour after leaving the movie theater.”
I was very pleasantly surprised to see lines from Dante, written about his Beatrice, cited in the conversations between these two lovers, both were poets and both were absolutely in love with the romantic portions of Dante's works. Others in the story also cited Dante. Just for the fun of it I will give two examples.
On page 26 Romeo waxes eloquent and audaciously says this to Juliet after they first met, citing Dante::
“'I found her so full of natural dignity and admirable bearing she did not seem the daughter of an ordinary man, but rather a god.'”
Then on page 27 Juliet pushed Romeo back a bit, and says he should have added in Dante's caution to be moderated by reason in one's love. Romeo in response challenges her to cite the verse:
“'And though her image . . . which remained constantly with me, was Love's assurance of holding me, it was of such pure quality that never did it permit to be ruled by Love without the trusted counsel of reason.'”
Maxwell cited these two verses to illustrate their familiarity with Dante's Vita Nuova, or 'New Life,' his first and more explicitly romantic celebration of his Beatrice, from his first seeing her to her death. On page 39 Maxwell has Juliet think this after Romeo arranges to see her for a second time:
And then I knew. I sighed happily. Romeo. My poet. My friend. Vita Nuova.
A New Life!
You really need to read this story for yourself. It is a gripping tale the way Maxwell tells it with credibly enriched characters and contexts, even when you already know the end from your previous readings or from watching the plays or movies.
[This is the very first time I have re-purchased, re-read and re-reviewed a book, but I wanted to re-assess its content more closely from the courtly love perspective].
In his latest novel, Paulo Coelho returns to the semi-autobiographical style that made his first few books such a pleasure for me to read. The book is Aleph, which Coelho explains is a word for the mystical junction point where one may experience a timeless state of being and experience all past and future lives simultaneously. To make sense out of such an experience and learn from it requires training, of course. To enter it without preparation can be dangerously upsetting and destabilizing.
In this particular instance the aleph is sought by Coelho to gain clarity about some past-life occurrence that has scarred him from birth into this life. Apparently a current skin condition reflects past-life injuries from the days of the Inquisition when, as a young Dominican priest, Coelho in a previous incarnation was instrumental in sending 8 beautiful women to a very cruel death, including a girl who loved him and whom he loved prior to his turning to the priesthood for his life's work. He could have intervened and saved them, they were innocent, yet he was the one who found the "Devil's mark" in the pubic area of his former girlfriend and confirmed her need to be brought to the point of confessing via torture. He participates in this torture, wields the instruments fervently hoping she will confess before he destroys her body. She appeals to him as one she loves and who once loved her, implicating him in her heresy, and then confesses, stopping the torture. But she is not repentant and thus saves neither her soul nor her body.
Of the eight associated women burned on that day, he has now met five in their current incarnations. This story is essentially about meeting the fifth one, Hilal, and his using her -quite literally- as a mediatrix to help him reach the aleph. It is in the aleph state he can seek to finally relive that day and begin to understand his role in this hideous historical mass murder event. His understanding is not complete yet, he is still not completely aware of his role. He intuitively knows this Hilal person is one of the eight women, and reaching back to this past life, using her as his mediatrix, may give him access to the information that will make his understanding complete.
As he and Hilal relate and become sufficiently intimate to give him several aleph moments and insights into that day long ago, he begs her forgiveness without telling her what she is forgiving him for. He receives unconditional forgiveness from her. He realizes that he does not need to know more of the final detail at this point, he now knows enough to have found peace and relief from this haunting past life. But does he stop trying to relive that awful day? No, he presses on. Of course. So would you if the medium was there.
So this is the basic story behind his interactions with this young woman. The story has the requisite sexual tension, mystery, and even violence that makes a story enticing and repulsive at the same time. It climaxes in what for me was an unexpected manner right at the very end of the story.
. . .
This is a story I read for a number of reasons. 1) It is a new Coelho book. 2) it is set in Russia, where I just visited this Summer (2013). 3) I had the opportunity to read the book while on travel in Europe, my favorite way to read a Coelho book. 4) But most importantly for me, it had all the elements of a courtly love story. A story of a man or woman in love with someone out of reach and yet the love hey share is real, it is intimate, and their controlled and limited physical contact allows the opening of doors into mystical worlds. In this story the aleph is reached repeatedly by Coelho and always while the two are in physical contact that is intimate to some degree.
For me this brings to mind the courtly love tradition, making this the third story I have read this Summer with a definite courtly love twist, the first two described courtly love-like situations through citing Dante Aleghiery's works. One implicitly described a courtly love tale, the other explicitly. And Coelho? Implicitly only.
So what can I say that does not give the story away? I can tell you that on the Coelho website there are photos and a description of the Trans-Siberian Railroad trip that is the platform for this story. A moving city is what he calls this train, with justification. The whole story takes place either on or near this train.
So did Coelho go on a long train ride and meet his readers at every stop and write this story, plucking it out of his imagination, during the boring stretches between stops? Or was he actually stalked by a woman named Hilal (the name is important to the story) and after some attempts to lose her he finally accepts her as a companion as it begins to dawn on him they have a past-life connection. Hilal came to him driven by a need to receive something from him to make her whole. She felt a mystical connection with him and turns out to be his key to the aleph that takes him back to that fateful day when he was a murderer in the service of his religion.
So is this all make believe or did this train ride with Hilal as companion really happen? It is no fun to NOT believe this story, therefore, as in past Coelho book readings, I choose to believe that the accounts are factual, just to assure that this will be a fun and intriguing read for me. Otherwise how do you identify with the characters and live their story with them?
Choosing to suspend disbelief is the right way to really enjoy most Coelho books. His worldwide following is amazing, and it is also amazing that the magical world view he writes about and represents is so credible among his readers.
Speaking of strange, in this book Coelho lets us know that even though he describes downright Devilish work done by its officials, including himself in a previous life, he is today actually a believing Catholic.
A magical world view chooses to see, and to believe, that one can influence the unseen forces that seem to direct our lives. A magical world view is the essence of almost every religion in the world, perhaps suggesting its roots in more primitive times when the control of the seemingly uncontrollable was turned into rituals to influence gods, angels, demons, saints and ancestors to intervene on our behalves.
Over time, appearing to be able to exercise this control became a calling based on talent, mostly practiced by women, then a profession based on training and maybe talent mostly by men. It became a prestigious profession at that, and then it became a management role in an empire that was also in many ways an international corporation.
But belief in a religion is as efficacious as belief in a Coelho book, choosing to believe makes it work for you, gives you satisfaction, pleasure, and reward. Those effects in us are real, whether there is reality behind the claims of the religion or book or not. Temporarily immersing yourself in Coelho's worldview is pleasurable, and the pleasure is real.
So am I saying that after the reading of a Coelho book I come to my senses and nothing of the pleasure is left but a fleeting memory? A memory of true pleasure is a real thing, it remains a pleasure, its memory when recalled is a trigger allowing the reliving of some of that original pleasure. Whether pleasure is imagined while reading another's story or experienced personally makes little difference to the reality of the emotion.
What do I think of the aleph as a reality? In a very unorganized way and not knowing what Coelho knows, I described a similar but cruder experience when trying to convey what a true and intimate courtly love encounter produces in its participants: a portal into another dimension, into the world of Love ruled by the God of Love, the world of true courtly love.
Where my version differs from Coelho's is in the nature of the intimate relationship. Coelho adds in the physical, touching, skin to skin dimension. I did not. Is it necessary? If you read Coelho carefully you will see that the aleph can be reached without that physical contact as long as two persons are in an intimate state and a mutually loving relationship. Intimacy is a state of relating not always requiring physical touching.
So in order to attain this aleph state one must be in a loving relationship with a person through whom, or with whom, this altered state mediated by Love is attained. It is a revelatory state that alters the perception of time for me, and in Coelho's case gives him access to previous lives involving a type of time-travel on his part. In this book, when Coelho and Hilal exist in that state of Love, it makes it possible, if one knows how, to escape time and relive moments from a past life shared with the person with whom one is currently in intimate contact. That is the basic idea at work here.
There are some passages in this book that are simply beautifully written, I will cite just one, a poem from page 157:
"I will be capable of loving, regardless of whether I am loved
Of giving, even if I have nothing,
Of working happily, even in the midst of difficulties,
Of holding out my hand, even when utterly alone and
Of drying my Tears, even while I weep,
Of believing, even when no one believes in me."
Part of the story describes the necessary conflict between Coelho and Hilal. She wants a relationship he cannot or will not give her. Witness this from page 204:
. . . . . "Be a little more attentive. Say to me now, in front of everyone, the three-word sentence I long to hear."
I know that she wants me to say "I love you."
"I will say three three-word sentences," I say. "One, you are protected. Two, do not worry. Three, I adore you."
Her reply is biting and right on the mark, but its context is in the story and makes little sense out of that context.
She finally gets her three words on page 214, but qualifiedly so, and just part of that qualification sounds like this:
"I receive your love, and I give you mine. Not the love of a man for a woman, not the love of a father for a child, not the love of God for his creatures, but a love with no name and no explanation, like a river that cannot explain why it follows a particular course but simply flows onward. A love that asks for nothing and gives nothing in return; it is simply there. I will never be yours, and you will never be mine; nevertheless I can honestly say: I love you" . . . .
Without giving anything away --you need to read this book if the story I am describing interests you-- I will just hint that their contact becomes intimate, in terms of skin to skin contact, but the climax reached is spiritual and emotional.
But even after such intimate contact with her, as already mentioned, and with several aleph state time-trips using her, Coelho is still not satisfied with his past life revelations and wants to know more and considers taking her further into the Aleph with him rather that just using her intimate proximity to launch only himself into that state beyond consciousness, where all time past and future are one. His quandary was interestingly stated (page 250):
I consider taking Hilal where the Aleph is, so close by, but is that what this journey is all about? Using someone who loves me just to get an answer to a tormenting question? . . . .
Several things occur that let him know that Hilal really does feel used, including this speech by her (page 256):
"You have absolutely no idea what I am feeling. You're just an egotist who thinks the world owes you something. I gave myself to you entirely, and yet here I am again, being left high and dry."
Coelho sees that she is right, since he is married and 38 years her senior. But he then realizes that if he shares his revelatory experience with her she will understand why he felt compelled to use her and will understand and forgive. Does he do so? If he did, did it work as he expected and hoped? You will need to read the book to find out.
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