01 June, 2005

God's will vs. Entropy

I have finished Oriana Fallaci's novel Insciallah. In my first entry on the book, I wrote:

My previous foray into a book of Fallaci's ended rather depressingly, nihilistically, even, one might say. So, I'm prepared for the story to proceed ever downward.
I am here to inform you that I was, alas, correct.

I have also written on it here and here (briefly, at the end of the entry). We'll start with a short summary of predictions or remarks that have proven ever more accurate with time:

My previous remarks
  • The theme of the book is a question of Death being at war with Life.
    [True, but read on.]
  • [Fallaci] blames lots of people [for the Lebanese civil war], but reserves a special bile for the Palestinians.
    [Yup, that never diminishes.]
  • I don't know if all conscripted soldiers are as undisciplined as the young men Fallaci portrays, but it certainly makes for a worrisome future: the men smoke hashish, chase after local women (both Muslim and Christian), get chased by local women (both Muslim and Christian), etc.
    [Yep: the night before the Italians evacuate the city, the soldiers purchase enormous quantities of hashish, and smoke most of it.]
  • Fallaci, who actually experienced the 20th century, is having none of Hugo's [romantic] piety.
  • Fallaci's characters are all-too-real, complex characters possessing profound flaws. They are cynical and self-centered...
  • In Fallaci's novel, ...transcendence is not merely insurmountable, it is inconceivable: characters are bound by emotions that fate has set about them like chains.
    [True, although I should have written "inachievable" in place of "insurmountable". I don't know what I was thinking.]
  • I suppose that the biggest surprise is that I wanted to read this book to learn a little about Arabs, but I am learning a lot more about Europeans than I am about Arabs.
Some remarks, on the other hand, were definitely off the mark:
  • Freedom does not seem to exist in Fallaci's novel.
    [Free will, no; political freedom, yes, and she goes to great lengths to emphasize this difference between the West and the Middle East.]
  • In Fallaci's novel, self-discipline and self-sacrifice do not exist...
    [Not entirely accurate. Martino, the homosexual, demonstrates an enormous reserve of self-discipline, if only because he hides his homosexuality; Charlie, a scheming colonel working to save the lives of Italian soldiers, demonstrates great self-discipline and personal bravery in a number of situations. I have also mentioned Aquila Uno.]
  • [W]ith the end of the novel approaching, Fallaci does not consider [the Arabs to be] any worse than the Europeans.
    [A number of Arab characters she appears to respect, and at least one (Ninette) she loves dearly. Arab "civilization", on the other hand, she considers to be a mockery of true civilization.]

The author's outlook
I will repeat throughout this entry that Oriana Fallaci has a dim view of human nature, and I have previously characterized her as an antidote to Victor Hugo's extreme romanticism. You may wonder whether I exaggerate. The following quote should settle the matter:
Anyone familiar with man, who in consequence entertains no illusions about him whatsoever, has every right to doubt that a sentiment called "pity" exists in this world. [Chi conosce gli uomini, e di conseguenza non si fa alcuna illusione su loro, ha ogni diritto di dubitare che a questo mondo esista davvero un sentimento chiamato pietà. — pg. 721]
This statement is not made by a character, but by the narrator herself. I cannot imagine any statement that is further from Hugo's nearly mindless optimism on human nature.

Chaos characterizes the book, doubly
How does one summarize such a tale? All substantive novels are difficult to summarize. The problem is a little more difficult with this book, which in my opinion lacks focus. There is no real plot; rather, the author employs a sequence of episodes to carry the reader from the tragedy that opens the novel (the murderous bombing of the American and French barracks using two trucks laden with explosives) to the impending doom that closes the novel (with the clear implication that the third "truck" aimed at the withdrawing Italians is in clear view). In this sense, the novel is very clearly the work of a modern journalist.

The lack of focus is exacerbated by the large number of characters on whom the author dwells: Condor, Charlie, Crazy Horse, Eagle One, Pistoia, the Professor, Martino, Angelo, Pistoia, Sandokan, various soldiers in various states of drug use, love, and/or sex, and so forth. The characters are numerous and colorful, but most of them are not particularly interesting. (Not to me, anyway.)

The book's central theme, which somehow inspires Fallaci to fill nearly 800 pages of text, is a question in the mind of Angelo. A disaffected university student majoring in mathematics, Angelo decided to take a break from his studies in oder to fulfill his required draft service. He struggles with the seeming inevitability of entropy, a law of science that decrees increasing chaos in all things, hence the pointlessness of any effort to bring order to life and human affairs. The chaos of wartime Beirut magnifies this problem so that it consumes him.

Angelo's one hope at overcoming this fatalism is his mysterious Arab Christian lover, Ninette. She refuses to speak with him in French, and speaks only in English, usually (at the beginning) only the phrase, Let-us-make-love. (As God is my witness, I am not making this up.) For his part, he speaks with her in Italian, which she appears to understand due to its similarity to French. (As a fluent speaker of Italian, I find this implausible; I can read Spanish easily, but not French. Perhaps it isn't that hard after all, though.)

Ninette, of course, is brutally murdered: Oriana Fallaci is the author after all, thus hope is ruthlessly punished wherever it rears its naïve little head. Angelo is left disconsolate. Some hundred pages later (maybe more, maybe less), he comes across an old newspaper article discussing her husband's murder. The husband's uncanny physical resemblance to Angelo is supposed to explain Ninette's obsession with making love to a foreign soldier; I leave it to the reader to make sense of that as she or he will. The article includes an excerpt from an interview with Ninette; this interview reveals her conviction that "the formula of life" is the law of the universe. This formula can be summarized by one word: Insciallah, God's will. Coming from a Christian woman's mouth, one might be forgiven for imagining that Fallaci is experiencing something of a religious conversion here.

Heh, heh, heh.

An alleged epiphany
The very existence of the Christian God would, after all, offend Fallaci's notion of man's fundamental liberty. No: by following the chain of, ah, "logic", Angelo comes to combine Boltzmann's idea with Ninette's, so that in the final pages, he returns to a prior thought (see also the first post on Insciallah). Watching from the departing ships the dogs invading the city in broad daylight, he has an alleged insight:
And if, far from expressing hope and good omen and faith in divine mercy or submission and resignation and laziness and renunciation of self, the word Insciallah-destiny-Insciallah should signify the triumph of Life? And if Chaos should be Life, not Death, but Life? And if Life should be the inevitable and irreversible tendency of everything, from the atom to the molecule, from the planets to the galaxies, from the infinitely small to the infinitely large, if Life should be the destiny of all things? If it were Life that absorbs the energy of the one who battles it and takes sustenance from that energy, if it should be Life that devours Death and uses it to arrive more quickly towards that final goal, and if that final goal should be not the destruction — or the self-destruction of the Universe — but the construction — or the self-construction of the Universe? In this case, the equation furnished by Ludwig Boltzmann and the word offered by Natalia Narakat Al Sharif would have been the same thing: S=K ln W = Insciallah. Destiny, Insciallah. Death... the instrument of Life, the food of Life. To die, a mere beat that arrests the tune: a pause to rest, a brief sleep to prepare oneself to be born again, to live again, to die again yes but to be born again another time, to live again another time, to live to live to live towards infinity. In this case? No: it wasn't a hypothesis! It was a certainty. He couldn't prove it because it was a certainty. No one could prove it, no one would ever have proven it. But that's how it was. (Però era così.)
This is an epiphany? Ugh.

To be fair...
Of course, it's perfectly believable that Angelo should be enthralled with the notion. For thousands of years before Christ, numerous religions were predicated on this notion, and Origen tried to make Christianity "intellectually respectable" to the Hellenism of his time by attempting to insert the "infinity of lives" into his systematized Christian philosophy. For thousands of years after Christ, numerous religions (and numerous Christians, knowingly or unknowingly following Origen) have clung to the notion. The idea appears to have some appeal to a large number of people.

Count me out. The notion that I should be condemned to reliving my teenaged years over and over and over is a nightmare I never want to contemplate, and no amount of counsel that "you must relive them to learn" will assuage the terror. No, thank you: no "Groundhog Day" for me, brother! The orthodox Christian vision of one death, followed by an eternal afterlife where God's grace fills me to overflowing, so that I grow and grow to resemble Christ more and more, without losing my identity but rather having it perfected in Christ's embrace, strikes me as a much more appealing vision. This is a paradise to which I am willing to dedicate my one life. But I am not Oriana Fallaci, for which I am sure a number of people are very, very happy, doubtless the journalist herself among them.

So why read the book?
So, what compelled me to trudge through 800 pages of a novel, certain that I would arrive at a depressing conclusion? First, the previously-noted desire to learn something about Arabs from a journalist who spent significant time covering them. Second, Fallaci writes well, and writes from a point of view I don't exactly find palatable, and I knew this. Third, it was there, and I spent too much money having the book sent to me from Italy to give up.

So, my first goal is somewhat unfulfilled. My second goal: it was indeed an exercise, although not as strenuous as my march through Hugo's Les Misérables. Finally, now that I'm over that stupid hill, and can read something else without feeling guilty.

It was worth it. Fallaci writes well enough, and the book is populated with enough curiosities to keep the reader interested, or at least to keep me interested. Unfortunately, her love for her characters is mixed with a certain morbid sadism: they tend either to die off, or to witness and/or participate in events that cause them intense psychological anguish. In Fallaci's godless world, remember, psychological anguish is a fate worse than death.

This morbid sadism may be inevitable, considering that she witnessed the ravages of World War II in Italy as an adolescent, and reported on a number of brutal wars for the Italian press. This makes me think that the book's greatest contribution is as a witness to the madness that was the 20th century, and the despair it instilled especially in those who lives it spared.

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