Book Nook: Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut

I had to laugh like hell.
—Kurt Vonnegut

HOCUS POCUS is a grim, depressing, yet terribly funny, fictional autobiography of General Eugene Debs Hartke, a person who never masturbated and uttered neither blasphemy nor profanity in his life. His parents died in a freak accident in Niagra Falls without ever knowing what hit them. His wife and mother-in-law, carrying a powerful strain of insanity, turned into lunatics. His son and daughter, upon knowing that they too could end up in an insane asylum, couldn’t forgive them for reproducing. Gene also has a son out of wedlock, who was named after a cocktail.

Gene dreamed of being a jazz pianist or a journalist, but “life being what it was” placed him in West Point and made him lieutenant colonel during the Vietnam War, an accomplishment which made his frustrated father real proud.

That path to West Point was all thanks to the “helmsman of his destiny,” Sam Wakefield, a lieutenant colonel he met during the high school science fair, who would commit suicide years later and leave a very ambiguous and absolutely unoriginal note: “My work is done.”

As a professional soldier, Gene would have welcomed a returning Christ  with a napalm air strike, if ordered to do so by his superiors. At the end of the book, he would reveal the number of people he had killed in the war and how many women he had slept with.

When the Vietnam War was over—which was “nothing but the ammunitions business”—Gene met Sam again, who then hired him as a professor in Tarkington College, which was a correctional insititute, to teach physics and music appreciation to affluent learning-disabled students, or “seemingly hopeless cases of plutocratic juvenile incapacities,” whom no conventional universities would dare accept.

The college did rather well and proved that they could teach what the other universities thought to be unteachable: some of their graduates were successful in life and even became among the nation’s great men.

Spent in this institution were Gene’s happiest days—not as a teacher, but as a carillon player at the beginning and end of classes. He was a good teacher and was a students’ favorite, but he would soon be fired because of “life being what it was.”

Gene landed another job on a maximum-security prison as a teacher to the illiterate and dangerous convicts who were never allowed set foot with society again, and there he contracted tuberculosis. Then one night, a prison break was successful—the largest in American history—with the Tarkington College just across the frozen lake that separated them.

He was inside a prison library when he wrote his scrap autobiography. And so it goes.

Hocus-Pocus

The novel’s format is unparalleled in its unique brilliance: “The narrator wrote this book in pencil on everything from brown wrapping paper to the backs of business cards, from scrap to scrap, as though each were a bottle to fill,” hence the nonlinearity of the story line, a signature Vonnegutian device, which makes this work entropic, digressive, challenging, and anticlimactic.

The story can be summed up as an old war veteran’s retrospection of his life, like taking into account the number of the people he killed in the war and the women he slept with. This method allowed Vonnegut to go on a “freewheeling commentary,” and not without the raging moral outrage and ridicule, on war, fate, society, racism, and politics, business, and education.

The rhythm of Kurt Vonnegut’s “sharp-toothed” and stoical witticisms remains irreproachable and inimitable, and none of his literary inheritors come close to his satirical and philosophical bents.

Definitely among the 20th century’s greatest novels, Hocus Pocus stands as a depressing vision of humanity. Vonnegut states, “I am not writing this book for people below the age of 18, but I see no harm in telling young people to prepare for failure rather than success, since failure is the main thing that is going to happen to them.”

(Published on Sun.Star Weekend Cebu: June 19, 2016)

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In and Out the Labyrinth of the Mind (A Personal Note on Gestalt Therapy’s Impact)

The most tremendous voyages
are sometimes taken
without moving from the spot.
—Henry Miller, The World of Sex

THE GESTALT MARATHON is an indoor, static marathon. All its participants are sitting on the floor most of the time inside a large, conducive room, weary and confounded from the in-depth processes, emotional exercises, experimentations, and self-encounters and discoveries. Yet they are equipped with an awareness so sharp it cuts deep through the surface of their perceived experience and evokes rich and different perspectives from within—perspectives which are at least insightful, liberating, and integrative, if not directly curative.

“Awareness per se, by and in itself, can be curative. (Perls)”

In August 2009, after two days of intensive self-awareness activities, I have stepped upon this new ground where I have made contact with myself and understood “awareness” not just in its psychical nature but also in its biological, instinctive sense (as an élan vital that encompasses not just humans but all of life). “Our awareness is all that is alive and maybe sacred in us. Everything else about us is dead machinery” (Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions).

Though abstract—and sometimes abstruse, elusive, and ineffable—awareness also seemed like a state of matter, at least to me, perhaps even of a solid form. I feel my hands on it, as if I was holding a heart, consciously feeling its pulse throb from inside my head as I become aware of awareness itself.

Franz Kafka spoke of literature “as an axe with which we chop at the frozen seas inside us.” The same thing can be said of the Gestalt marathon. With all the compression and pressure already inside its participants—their lifelong suppressed issues and traumas remaining incessantly percussive through neuroses—the release is akin to an eruption of a dormant volcano that has long forgotten about its own existence but suddenly awakens from this amnesia of living.

The Gestalt marathon offered me a chance to let my deep-seated feelings burst and tear down my prison and chains, albeit not permanently. Soon I found out, through theory and experience, that there’s a rhythmic relationship (contact and withdrawal) even to things such as freedom and captivity,

Not long, I started building another prison, this time, of my own choosing: an inner world where I can give my thoughts free rein without extrinsic influences as much as possible and only led by pure and spontaneous impulses bubbling from the well that is my “soul” (perhaps soul is nothing but the fancy word for “awareness”). I believe that opposites complement one another, as in the principles of Taoism: “light and darkness.” Truth is that nature is cyclic, always inevitable and necessary. I believe that some walls are just built in order to be broken altogether soon. They are also there to make one realize that he had outgrown the walls of his being.

*******

This voyage of the mind, a plunge deep into my skull-sized ocean, lets me arrive at a fecundity of potentials that is seeking to be brought into life. It’s like slipping into a dream and waking up with a flower in my hand.

What if you slept
And what if
In your sleep
You dreamed
And what if
In your dream
You went to heaven
And there plucked a strange and beautiful flower
And what if
When you awoke
You had that flower in your hand
Ah, what then? (Coleridge)

Conversely (this time, the flower is from the outside), at moments of selfless subjectivity, which I soon learn from Gestalt therapy, I take note of how an external stimulus passes “through my senses and into my mind.” I observe the whole course of this awareness continuum bifurcating through the labyrinth of my mind, along with its curious loops and random turns and associations. This is why time passes inside the mind differently (in our heads lies a battleground of invisible forces).

I am aware of the age-old adage of the “mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.” The mind is the center where I process what our senses gathered. The Gestalt marathon freed my mind—and thus freed me from it—and attuned me well with my senses. I experienced an awareness that is not only run by the mind but also by the pleading of my guts and senses. (The finish line of the marathon is integration, the mind-and-body split made whole.)

The “frozen seas” are chopped down; the seas become an ocean. My awareness circles above like a bird. But all of life follows the rhythm of life. Parts of my ocean will, in its own time, freeze. However, that’s not a bad thing; it has to happen so I can rest on top the labyrinths.

Koryu, look. The birds are going back north.
I wonder who said that birds are free?
Though they fly in the sky freely,
If they had no place to arrive or branches to rest on,
They might even regret having wings.
What is true freedom?
It is, perhaps, having a place to go back to. (Koumyou Sanzo)

Book Nook: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: On “Burning” Books

2c8fbe5e4422715ae29c6caef51be045“There must be something in books, something we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.”

“It was a pleasure to burn.”

FAHRENHEIT 451 (1952) opens with this frightening line. Ray Bradbury writes of a dystopian future where books are burned along with the homes where they are hidden. Here, the firemen’s job is to start fires instead of putting them out. The masses are addicted to watching and discussing TV shows flashing from their “four-walled televisors” and are oblivious or indifferent regarding the imminent genesis of a nuclear war—about their world being “swept with confused alarms and struggle and flight / where ignorant armies clash by night” (Arnold, Dover Beach).

Hitherto, Bradbury’s prophetic legacy remains resonant—even almost solid and identical—in its unnerving resemblances and implications to this modern era of rapid technological progress but with the most of humanity still mindless of its repercussions. Take for example the irony of their ignorance: with tons of information bombarded and crammed into people’s heads, only a little time is now left for quiet introspection and skepticism. People are “[rushed] quickly to conclusions [their] minds [haven’t] time to protest” and thus learning only a little, which is “a dangerous thing” (Pope, An Essay on Criticism).

Due to the ubiquity of the Internet, the endless blabber flooding the social media, and the online articles abominably compressed for quick, shallow reading, elements essential to critical thinking—such as “the quality of information,” the patience and “the leisure to digest it,” and “the [carrying] out [of] actions based on the interaction of the previous two”—are inanely abandoned.

History does not lack but rather possess an almost plethoric memory that bears the perversities of obliterating books, libraries, and whole nations. During the Nazi regime, a bonfire for thousands of books was set in the streets of Berlin, Germany. “Where one burns books, one will soon burn people” (Heine). The first Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang also commanded the rigorous abolition of the all chronicles written before his reign and the burying of their scholars because he wanted history to begin with him. The ancient library of Alexandria, a house of incalculable scrolls, suffered from fires throughout the centuries.

Destroying books is the prime symbol of censorship and oppression of thought. But “you don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture,” says Bradbury. “Just get people to stop reading them.” In Fahrenheit 451, we must note that before the government decreed the burning of books, it was the public who first turned away from reading.

(Published on Sunstar Cebu ’ZUP Page Book Nook: January 18, 2016)