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A Letter to Catana Tully, author of

Split At The Root – A Memoir of Love and Lost Identity

Dear Catana

I loved your book; so sad and yet uplifting to know the wonderful person you have become. I could relate to the essence of your story even though our stories are set in different parts of the world. It doesn’t matter what race or creed, life affects us in the same way, for better or for worse, for we are all too human and need love, just as much as nourishment, to thrive.

I find the hardest thing for me is that I cannot return to my childhood and change that which I yearn to do. Our identities were snatched from us and even after a lifetime, we still seem to be searching for something. Oh, we know our family history, I too researched mine for years before I wrote Whatever Happened To Ishtar?

I too was prevented from having any contact with my mother. The reasons are as varied as yours: her shame of unwed motherhood, and of course ethnocentric prejudice.  I know that your German parents loved you, but what right did they have to rob your mother of you, and you of your mother? Your poor mother was used as nothing more than a slave, and that is what my Lebanese father’s family surely wanted of me? You write about your mother Rosa, as being so tired from cooking and cleaning for your German family, that she must have lamented the time that she couldn’t spend with you. I wonder, did she believe that she wasn’t worthy enough to love and care for you, her baby,  as Mutti and Ruth did? My Lebanese extended family didn’t have a black slave, but they had me, a scapegoat child who would surely do the job!

Although your German family appeared to love you, and you had everything you could possibly have wanted, they stole your heritage, purely and simply. I too had a good, formal education, and I am grateful for that, but it could never make up for being separated from my mother as an infant, and never knowing her extended Italian family. A primal cut leaves a primal wound, which never stops bleeding. Our young mothers were vulnerable, both were naïve; more than likely coerced into an act they were not ready for,  by sexually experienced men. I find it interesting that your mother also became pregnant after one sexual encounter with your father. My mother was an innocent ex Catholic nun while the father of her firstborn son  was a soldier returning from the Second World War. He was already married with a young son, so she was left to fend for herself.  It is true that the relationship a mother has with her child is intimately affected by how that child was conceived.

Like your German family convinced you in subtle ways, your mother was to be shunned or even feared, my Lebanese family made sure that I knew my mother was a ‘fallen’ woman and that it was inevitable I would follow in her footsteps unless rigid controls were put in place. No man would want to marry me, so best that I become the family dogsbody who remains unmarried and cares for the household. I too was given another name, which I have now largely rejected.

Your German mother’s life goal was to make sure you married a man who, like her, could ‘frame’ you as being well educated, well brought up, in spite of your black skin. The nickname she gave you absolutely appals me. How could it not enter into your subconscious mind and influence your deep feelings of self-worth later in life?

Even though we had very different upbringings…yours infused with love and mine with hatred, the end result was the same; we lost our souls, our cultural and personal identity. I love that the Carib’s, your mother’s people, embraced you when you finally returned to her village, decades later. This I know takes enormous courage.

You write about dreaming of your mother Rosa being ‘at my bed’ and your Carib siblings talk of being aware of the scent of her favourite Jasmine flower whenever her spirit hovered in the vicinity. While writing Ishtar? my  mother’s nightly spiritual nagging urged me on whenever the book took too much of an emotional toll on my well-being and I just wanted to give the whole thing up. She wanted me to tell her heart-breaking story. I too believe, like your sister Adela does: ‘Back home we believe that there is no death, that when life in the body ends we return to our real essence; that of being spirits.’

All memories of the excluded mother who gave us birth  are erased from the surface of our minds only to be buried deeply within us. Our lives  were controlled, and as one of your reviewers has written: ‘Those who control the present control the past, and those who control the past, control the future.’

I am sure that our mothers’ spirits are now at peace. As I read your beautiful words within the pages of Split at the Root, they evoked vibrant images and enabled me to accompany you on your journey ‘home’. Thank you, Catana for sharing your life with us.

-Anne Frandi-Coory 7 March 2017

 

 

 

 

Dear Penny

I just had to put this down on paper, because I know you love Elena Ferrante’s books as much as I do.

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Frantumaglia…wow Penny, I don’t know if you have read this book, but Elena Ferrante’s words keep punching me in the stomach.
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As you know, Frantumaglia translates into English as ‘a jumble of fragments’ but this book is far from a jumble. I don’t read a lot of modern fiction because I find that non-fiction has more ‘punch’ ’emotion’ and less hollow creative writing. But much of Ferrante’s life is in her books of fiction; so much of the streets of Naples, and of course, so much about our mothers. I can identify with what she says, even though I spent my infancy and childhood only with nuns, while dolls were my security until my teens. I was close to no females until the birth of my daughter when I was 23 years old… and as Ferrante says: “Dolls are not merely a miniaturisation of the daughter. They can be stand-ins for women…” Perhaps real women was what I needed, women whose bodies I could see?  Ferrante talks at length of the ‘shapelessness’ of mothers’ bodies, and I know full well what she means, although in a completely different context. And of course, nuns were also subservient to their men; god in heaven, priests and bishops here on earth!
I had decided, after reading the Neapolitan Novel Quartet  and The Days Of Abandonment not to read Ferrante’s two other earlier books Troubling Love and The Lost Daughter. That is until I read Frantumaglia; then, how could I resist?
Ferrante says of mothers she knew in Naples, including her own: ‘They are cheerful and foul-mouthed women, silent victims, desperately in love with males and male children, ready to defend and serve them even though the men crush and torture them to become even more brutish. To be female children of these mothers wasn’t and isn’t easy. Their vital, obscene, suffering subjugation, full of plans for insurrection that end in nothing, makes both empathy and disaffected rejection difficult. We have to escape from Naples [Italy] to escape from them as well. Only later is it possible to see the torture of women, to feel the weight of the male city on their existence, feel remorse of having abandoned them, and learn to love them, to make them, as you say, a point of leverage in order to redeem their hidden sexuality, and start again from there.’ And in my case, to forgive them.
Frantumaglia – A Writer’s Journey, is a collection of correspondence between Ferrante and her Italian publishers,  interviews with film makers, and responses to readers’ questions, all conducted by email through her publishers to protect her anonymity. Every piece of writing in the form of correspondence between Ferrrante and her readers is full of passion, and I believe, she exposes her very soul to us. Here is an example in which Ferrante discusses with a reader, her insights into the fragmentation felt by mothers. Her own mother used the term ‘frantumaglia’ to explain her feelings of ‘disintegration’. The Days Of Abandonment is the story of Olga’s slow disintegration and fragmentation after her husband informs her that he is leaving her and their children for a much younger woman.
 …
Interviewer: Do you think that this emotional journey, this coming apart into a jumble of fragments and then putting oneself back together, is an inevitable passage in the lives of women, with or without analysis?
 …
Ferrante: In the women I feel close to it was. In some cases it seemed to me that feeling literally in pieces could be traced back to that sort of original fragmentation that is bringing into the world-coming into the world. I mean feeling oneself a mother at the price of getting rid of a living fragment of one’s own body; I mean feeling oneself a daughter as a fragment of a whole and incomparable body. 
Ferrante then goes on to say: What counts in the end is the collective flow of generations. Even when there is both merit and luck, the efforts of a single individual are unsatisfying.
 …
Ferrante could easily have been writing about my Italian mother, grandmother and great grand grandmothers. I researched and studied their lives from their childhoods, to try and understand why my own mother abandoned me in an orphanage, and why so many mothers in my family tree had such fragmented and brutal lives. Everything Ferrante writes deeply resonates within me. Thank you Penny, for introducing me to Elena Ferrante.
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-Anne Frandi-Coory 13 February 2017

 

Damascus Gate 

by Robert Stone

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What is it about authors who have been incarcerated in Catholic orphanages and other religious institutions during their formative years? This is another book I found at Clunes Book Festival in Victoria and I wonder, is it the title that attracted me or the intense stories about faith written within its pages? The author Robert Stone has himself a past bathed in religious upheaval and search for identity. He was raised by his schizophrenic mother until he was five, when she was committed to an asylum for the insane. Five year old Robert, whose father abandoned the family, was then taken in by a Catholic Orphanage, who Stone describes as having the ‘social dynamic of a coral reef’. The violence the boy experienced at the hands of men posing as carers, is a heart rending story retold many times over by children raised in religious institutions.  I think it must be the passion and fearlessness with which these authors take on ‘taboo’ subjects that attracts my undivided attention. Someone wrote that books, once written, have no need of their authors. That is true enough, but I must admit to seeking out most books by author, rather than title or genre. I like to know more about the background of the author, particularly if a book has had a deep effect on me, and Damascus Gate is just such a book.   You can never judge a book by its cover in my view, especially when it’s a good read you are looking for.

At the centre of the Damascus Gate story is struggling free-lance journalist, Chris Lucas (Catholic mother, Jewish father), who teams up with a psychiatrist in Jerusalem to write a book about religious zealots, some insane, of all persuasions who come to the Holy City to ‘find the truth’ a condition labelled the ‘Jerusalem Syndrome’. The two men enlist the help of an archaeologist, who himself seems to have caught the ‘combative spiritualism’ endemic in Jerusalem. Little does Lucas realise that he is being followed, photographed and controlled by various groups fulfilling their own agendas. The Jerusalem Syndrome is a label attached to a group of mental phenomena involving the presence of either religiously themed obsessive ideas, delusions or other psychosis-like experiences that are believed to be triggered by a visit to the city of Jerusalem. Followers of the three Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam can be equally affected by the syndrome. There is no doubt that with the Israeli army surrounding the city, and with its spies everywhere, the religion of Judaism appears to have the upper hand and control of the city and its environs with the help of its watch towers and road blocks at every twist and turn.  The best known manifestation of Jerusalem Syndrome is whereby a person who seems previously balanced and devoid of any signs of psychopathology becomes psychotic after arriving in Jerusalem. The psychosis is characterised by an intense religious mania and most often resolves to full recovery for the afflicted over time or immediately following their departure from the city.

Even those of little faith, or atheists, sense ‘there is something here in Jerusalem’, but what, they cannot say.

Damascus Gate is set in Jerusalem and surrounding areas, is fiction based on fact; we all know what a powder keg Jerusalem is with its struggle to contain the three religions within a relatively harmonious state. Making the situation even more volatile, are the various sects of Christianity, Islam and Judaism competing to have their ‘truth’ realised, even though archaeological proof is yet to be discovered for any of their respective claims. This book is a great read and highlights the sectarian differences between  Christians, Muslims and Jews whose followers all fight for supremacy over this small historically important city. Each sect has its own neighbourhood and if you’re not one of them, you are forewarned to avoid walking through its streets alone without an approved escort. It can be a very dangerous city and riots between Jews and Arabs can erupt at any time for the slightest of motives. Not only that, this fraught city attracts all manner of religious lunatics hell bent on ‘saving’ their respective Messiah’s or Holy Prophet’s relics from the infidel. Drugs, money and sexual favours add to the heady religious mix, and anything can happen at any time. Herman Melville’s quote sits revealingly on the front page of Damascus Gate: ‘Enigma and evasion grow; And shall we never find Thee out?’

A  Jewish extremist underground movement exists in Jerusalem and it aspires to rebuild the Temple. To achieve this, the mosques must be blown sky high. The Israeli Defence Force and Mossad know that if this happens Armageddon will erupt in Jerusalem which will surpass its many past destructions, the effects of which will be felt across the globe. There is not much going on in Jerusalem that these two forces don’t know about.  The tensions are deep and ancient, with their thousands of years of history fought over every day and at every religious festival. Serious political games are being played out at the very highest levels where murder, intrigue and ‘religious  authority’ are used to control and incite violence which is forever simmering at a very shallow depth beneath the surface of this ancient land.

Israelis and Palestinians both claim Jerusalem as their capital, and the state of Israel maintains its primary governmental institutions there. One of Israel’s Basic Laws, the 1980 Jerusalem Law refers to Jerusalem as the country’s undivided capital. All branches of the Israeli government are located in Jerusalem, including the Knesset (Israel’s parliament), the residences of the Prime Minister, President and the Supreme Court while the State of Palestine ultimately foresees the city as its seat of power. However, neither claim is widely recognized internationally. In latter years Muslim extremists have become more powerful and dangerous making Jerusalem even more volatile than ever. Staff of non-government organisations such as the UN and Save the Children, feature in this story and all play an integral part in the intrigue and hidden agendas.

One reviewer says of Damascus Gate: ‘Stone has a journalist’s eye for detail, but a novelist’s eye for irony’…and I believe that this is what makes the book such a great read. Stone manages to capture all the intrigue, all the religious fervour and menace in his words and all the while there is the ‘festering menace of Gaza’.

-Anne Frandi-Coory 23 January 2017

 

I’m Your Man; The Life Of Leonard Cohen

is an authorised biography by Sylvie Simmons published 2012, four years before Leonard Cohen’s death on 7 November 2016.

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I have just finished reading this wonderful book which I bought at the Clunes Book Fair earlier this year.

What a book, what a man Leonard Cohen was. Poet, philosopher, author, scholar of the Hebrew Bible and Jewish Kabbalah. Simmons, a renowned music journalist and award winning writer, has written the ultimate Leonard Cohen biography of  531 pages, incorporating his life, his music, poetry and prose, and his deep spirituality. She records word for word, many of the dialogues she had with him, which add to the intimacy of the book. He was a humble man who valued his solitude, a frugal way of life  hidden from the limelight, and of course, his love for women. A man with a magnetic personality, he had many lovers, most of whom he remained close friends with. He could not live too long in a relationship with a woman though, not even with Suzanne Elrod (not the Suzanne who inspired his most famous song), the mother of his two children. But she says that he was a devoted father, generous and loving, although there were recriminations, for a time, following the breakup of their relationship.

The leading rabbi of Montreal’s Jewish community who knew the Cohen family well, understood Cohen’s devotion to a Buddhist monk and to Buddhism, and believed that Cohen would’ve made a brilliant rabbi because of his poetical way with words and his authoritative knowledge of the Hebrew Bible. Cohen was a very disciplined man who also loved to fast. He enjoyed vegetarian food and was always very slim, of quite a slight build; ‘There’s no excess to him at all” observed Simmons.

This is a riveting read for Leonard Cohen fans and anyone who is interested in the music scene of the 1960s through to the 1990s. Such artists as Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Jeff Buckley and various music entrepreneurs; people like Phil Spector, John Lissauer, Nick Cave, and background singers such as Jennifer Warnes, Sharon Robinson, the Webb sisters,  and Anjani Thomas to name a few. Cohen preferred subtle musical instrumentation to accompany his works, and many of his songs feature him playing his beloved synthesiser, and his Spanish guitar. He had a ‘good ear’ for the sound he wanted; simple, so that his voice, poetry/lyrics were enhanced, not drowned out.

When Cohen began recording an album with Phil Spector, it developed into a worst nightmare for him.  Simmons recorded a dialogue she had with Cohen:

There were lots of guns in the studio [during the recording of the album ‘Death of a Ladies’ Man 1977] and lots of liquor [and drugs]. It was a somewhat dangerous atmosphere…he liked guns. I liked guns too, but I generally don’t carry one. There was no firing but it’s hard to ignore a .45 lying on the console. The more people in the room the more wilder Phil would get. I couldn’t help but admire the extravagance of his performance. But my personal life [before he entered the monastery] was chaotic, I wasn’t in good shape at the time mentally, and I couldn’t really hold my own in there [the recording studio].

Almost without exception, people who came into contact with Cohen describe him as being very kind, a gentleman and very generous; a seductive man. His friends and family told his biographer that Cohen was constantly writing and sketching. Many of his books and album sleeves are enhanced with his sketches and paintings. Cohen was always beautifully dressed, and he loved wearing suits, with his shoes always highly polished. Cohen’s extended family were tailors and owned up-market clothing stores, and he worked in one or two stores for a short time, but he really hated being involved in the family business. He once said to his biographer, Simmons, “Darling, I was born in a suit”.  But Cohen was too trusting of others. He signed one his most famous songs, Suzanne  over to a record label, believing he was just signing a ‘normal’ recording contract and later in his career, his then manager stole all of his money (approx.7.5 million) while he was living in the Buddhist monastery after he had given her power of attorney over his affairs. He then had to go on tour, which he never enjoyed in the past, to earn money for his retirement years. He was at that stage, aged in his early seventies. The tour, with handpicked musicians and background singers he felt comfortable with, lasted over three years. He and his band played to packed global audiences and he made much more money than had been stolen from him. At that time he had a personal friend, Robert Kory, as his very competent tour manager, who understood Cohen’s shyness and his need for solitude. Only those who had to be backstage were allowed there, no interviews were arranged, and there were  plenty of breaks for Cohen to recharge his batteries somewhere in solitude.

A deeply spiritual man who was proud of his Jewish heritage, Cohen spent about five years  as a monk (he was ordained) in a Buddhist Monastery, and he felt that Buddhism and Judaism complimented each other. Cohen lost his lifelong depression after his sojourn in the  monastery, belatedly in his sixties. For years Cohen had used a variety of drugs like  maxiton/speed, LSD, Mandrax, acid, amphetamines to lift him out of his dark depression, and many of his poems/songs reflect his angst and those dark periods. Then there were his experiences in the famous Chelsea Hotel in New York City, his home away from home in the early years, and which could fill a book on their own. Simmons also explores this time with Cohen throughout the book.

Cohen’s father died when he was nine years old, and he didn’t believe that his father’s death had a profound effect on him, because he was often ill in hospital or away somewhere else. But after having read this book, I believe his father’s death did have a profound effect on his life, even though he had very strong male role models within his family and the Montreal Jewish community. He was very close to his mother, and was also surrounded by loving women, in his private life and later in his musical life.

Cohen liked to live in simple cottage-like homes, and he spent his last years living in Los Angeles in a small sparsely furnished duplex where he lived upstairs while his daughter, Lorca lived downstairs. He also owned a very small cottage on the Greek island, Hydra which he bought in his thirties with money left to him by a relative, and in which he wrote many of his works and spent many happy days with Marianne, his lifelong muse and one time lover.

Always nervous on stage, Cohen preferred to be supported by musicians he knew well and who understood his type of simple music; music that didn’t drown out the lyrical poetry of his songs. He won numerous global and Canadian awards during his lifetime, for literature, poetry and music albums. He didn’t always believe he deserved them. He has written 12 books of poetry and prose.

Something Leonard Cohen said stayed with me while I read his biography. He said he didn’t rebel when he was growing up because essentially he had a privileged life brought up as he was in a wealthy and close Jewish neighbourhood in Canada, and that he had nothing to rebel against. But maybe he was too much the dutiful son, and maybe if he had rebelled, he wouldn’t have spent most of his life taking all manner of drugs to get him through life, the desperate need to spend so much of his time alone, and his fearfulness of making any kind of commitment to another person.  He was too polite, too shy, too forgiving and far too hard on himself. But then we wouldn’t have his legacy of poetry and songs, would we?

-Anne Frandi-Coory 1 December 2016

 

THE VATICAN DIARIES  A Behind-The-Scenes Look At The Power, Personalities and Politics At The Heart Of The Catholic Church

A Book Review by Anne Frandi-Coory

Vatican Diaries

 

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It really is a joke that the Vatican considers itself a city state in its own right! More like a private boarding institution full of petulant school boys with eccentric masters in control of such departments as Congregation For Catholic EducationCongregation For The Causes of SaintsCongregation For The Clergy, Congregation For Institutes of Consecrated Life And Societies Of Apostolic Life etc. and where the competition for supremacy  over doctrinal matters is fierce.

What bothered me the most about the goings on in the Vatican as revealed in this book, was the total shutdown of any discussion about the thousands of cases of sexual abuse of children in USA, Australia and Ireland; the total lack of any consideration of the harm done to children by paedophile priests. The Vatican is a well-oiled machine that protects the Church at all costs, and I mean ‘all costs’!

The only noteworthy global/political stance the Vatican has taken in recent times, in my view,  was when Pope John Paul ll warned the USA of the terrible consequences if it invaded Iraq: ‘Four years earlier [George W ] Bush had dismissed Pope John Paul’s cautionary warnings about war during the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, leaving deep resentment at the Vatican. In the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s demise, as terrorism, factional fighting and anti-Christian attacks increased, the Vatican said, essentially, “We told you so.”‘

It is truly incredulous how petty and ridiculous are the secrecy, the bitchiness, and to think this is the headquarters that directs the Catholic Faith for followers around the world! What a waste of time and money!! All the money the Catholic Church rakes in globally would surely feed the world’s poor? Instead it allows the clergy and the pope, to live in palaces, eat like kings, and be waited on day and night!

Just like Mother Teresa was a ‘cash cow’ for the Catholic Church, so too was the Legion of Christ whose Mexican founder, Marcial Maciel Degollado,  fathered several children to several different women but who the Vatican sponsored and feted because of the huge numbers of new priests flocking to his seminaries and the vast amounts of money his order collected in donations. He also embezzled millions for his own private use, and was accused of sexual abuse, but the Vatican protected him until he died.

And heresy isn’t a problem for the Catholic Church either these days, not if it brings in billions of dollars worldwide like the Lefebvrists do. This schism within the Holy Church, for which several bishops and priests were excommunicated, strongly advocates for the pre-Vatican Council ll Tridentine Rites, including the use of Latin for Mass. For this faction of Catholicism, strict Tradition is everything. It does show how little the sexual abuse of children by paedophile priests concerns the Vatican hierarchy when compared to apostasy.

The chapter in the book titled SEX   lays open the arguments within the Church about the problem of homosexuality of priests and it’s  very interesting indeed. There is little doubt that homosexual relationships between priests are condoned within the Vatican, and within parishes. In one case, a priest was caught on a hidden camera, attempting to seduce a young man on a white couch in his office!  It was a set up, and the whole affair was broadcast on Italian TV.  A few years ago, an investigation carried out by the Church,  employing expert psychiatrists, confirmed what the Church has always denied; that the Catholic priesthood is a haven for homosexuals and that teenage seminarians are the attraction. Also, research has revealed that by far the largest numbers of child abuse victims are pre-pubescent boys. One particular psychiatrist believes that celibacy is the prime cause of the fact that so many paedophiles join the priesthood. Many followers are dismayed that the Church will not soften its stance on celibacy, even though it allows its Eastern Orthodox priests to marry. One psychiatrist went so far as to advise the Vatican that allowing priests to marry would encourage more ‘socially mature’ men to become priests. The following is a significant expert opinion quoted by the author: ‘Dr Martin P Kafka, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School, said he thought homosexuality, while not a cause of sexual abuse, was a “likely risk factor” that deserved further study. He stated that in comparison with the general population, abuse cases in the Church disproportionately involved homosexual male adults who’d molested adolescent males. The no-gay-priests faction did its best to ignore the fact that Dr Kafka had also wondered whether celibacy could also be a ‘risk factor’ in sexual abuse.  [My emphasis]

Is there a secret document emanating from the Congregation for Catholic Education, which oversees seminaries around the world, stating the Vatican’s new position on admitting homosexuals into the priesthood? Nothing has been confirmed, but… “The document’s position is negative based in part on what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says in its revised edition, that the homosexual orientation is ‘objectively disordered.’ Therefore independently of  any judgment on the homosexual person, a person of this orientation should not be admitted to the seminary and, if it is discovered later, should not be ordained.” One can’t help wondering whether the Catholic Church is no longer attracting enough priests into its fold because of the dwindling faith of its congregations or perhaps because of its restriction on the ordination of homosexuals?

This chapter also reveals the Vatican’s rules on the use of condoms and other forms of contraception, and once again I am amazed at the ridiculous pettiness of the detail of what is and isn’t allowed! For instance: “condoms are acceptable for prostitutes, because the sex they engage in is already sinful”…but some in the Vatican are concerned because that “would lead the Church to support the use of condoms for all ‘fornicators’ including sexually active teenagers.” I won’t go into the detail of the Vatican’s rules about the use of condoms for the prevention of the spread of HIV/AIDS, but they border on the utterly ludicrous!

The Vatican Diaries is a must read, especially for the faithful, because you really should know the truth of what is happening within your own Church!  It is not just a salacious exposé…John Thavis has written an engaging and at times, very funny book. He obviously has friends within the Vatican whom he trusts and admires, and he has been working as a journalist in this field for over thirty years. I did enjoy the chapters about the Vatican Museum, and the character of an irreverent priest who translated documents into Latin, and who constantly embarrassed tourists and the Vatican hierarchy who  would have dearly loved to have fired him, if he hadn’t been such a brilliant Latinist!

The comings and goings, the antiquated white and black smoke  used to inform an anxiously waiting public about progress in the election of a new pope, are enlightening, humourous, and left me wondering why an extremely wealthy city state still used smoke signals, emitted from a belching, cough inducing stove. Oh that’s right, Tradition.

 

-Anne Frandi-Coory 31 August 2016

 

 

The Atheist Manifesto

by Michel Onfray

Born to a family of Norman farmers, Michel Onfray was abandoned by his parents to a Catholic institution from age 10 to 14. Overcoming these early hardships, Onfray graduated with a PhD in philosophy. He has written over 80 books and teaches philosophy at a French university.

Michel Onfray portrait

Michel Onfray

A friend gave me The Atheist Manifesto not long after he had finished reading Whatever Happened To  Ishtar? which I had written in 2010, a book spawned of seventeen years of an indoctrinated childhood spent in various Catholic institutions.  ‘I know you will enjoy this book’, he told me, ‘but it’s a little too intellectual for me.’  He was right; I have since read it twice.

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Michel Onfray

Was Monotheism born of the sand? Two paragraphs in  Manifesto’s  preface attempt to partly answer this question:

Desert Memory: After a few hours on the trail in the Mauritanian desert, I saw an old herdsman traveling with his family. His young wife and his mother-in-law rode camels; his sons and daughters were on donkeys. The group carried with them everything essential to survival-and therefore to life. The sight of them gave me the impression that I had encountered a contemporary of Muhammad. Burning white sky, scattered, scorched trees, uprooted thorn bushes blown by the desert wind across unending vistas of orange sand…the spectacle evoked the geographical and psychological background of the Koran, in the turbulent period of camel caravans, nomad encampments, and clashing desert tribes.

I thought of the lands of Israel, Judaea, and Samaria, of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, of Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee. Places where the sun bakes men’s heads, desiccates their bodies, afflicts their souls with thirst. Places that generate a yearning for oases where water flows cool, clear and free, where the air is balmy and fragrant, where the food and drink are abundant. The afterlife suddenly struck me as a counter world invented by men exhausted and parched by their ceaseless wanderings across the dunes or up and down rocky trails baked to white heat. Monotheism was born of the sand.

Michel Onfray analyses the fanatical belief in the afterlife by followers of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The lives of these early followers of one God  were, every single day, a struggle for survival in a harsh and unforgiving climate, where death inflicted different kinds of terror in the living. Was the promise of an afterlife meant to alleviate that terror? For instance the Koran’s fantastic description of paradise: rivers of milk and wine, beautiful virgins, beds of luxurious cloth, celestial music and magnificent gardens? Why wouldn’t a man want to die and leave this endless struggle?

What better way to avoid looking at reality and inevitable death in the face, than to construct fantastical tales that the three religions are built on. And I love this from Onfray, so relevant to our 21st Century concerns over human-made Climate Change: The invention of an afterlife would not matter so much were it not purchased at so high a price: disregard of the real, hence wilful neglect of the only world there is. While religion is often at variance with immanence, with man’s inherent nature, atheism is in harmony with the earth – life’s other name.  For those of us who have given up on believing in the existence of God, saving planet earth is our passion, science our saviour.

The author tells us about the first tentative atheists, who weren’t really fully fledged atheists for one reason or another, which he outlines with some humour and sarcasm. And then along came Nietzsche! Onfray uses the sub-heading Philosophical Earthquake to describe this period  which is a perfect description of the upheaval this one man caused. But so much made sense to intelligent, thinking people!

Onfray goes on to ‘teach’ the case for atheism. He writes: Talmud and Torah, Bible and New Testament, Koran and the Hadith offer insufficient grounds for the philosopher to choose between Jewish, Christian or Muslim misogyny. Or to opt against pork and alcohol but in favour of the veil or the burka, to attend the synagogue, the temple, the church, or the mosque, all places where intelligence is ailing and where, for centuries, the faithful have practiced obedience to dogma and submission to the Law-and therefore obedience and submission to those who claim to be the elect, the envoys and the word of God. He suggests that instead of teaching monotheistic religions in schools we should be teaching atheism. He prefers the teachings of The Genealogy of Morals (1887) rather than the epistles to the Corinthians.  I happen to agree with him. Along with world conservation, less exploitation of this wonderful planet we live on!

In the chapter Towards an Atheology: Thirty centuries from the earliest texts of the Old Testament to the present day, teach us that the assertion of one God, violent , jealous, quarrelsome, intolerant and bellicose, has generated more hate, bloodshed, deaths, and brutality than it has peace…[for example] There is the Jewish fantasy of a chosen people, which vindicates colonialism, expropriation, hatred, animosity between peoples, and finally an authoritarian and armed theocracy.

The author pleads for the world to have an end to the linkage of the world’s woes to atheism:  God’s existence it seems to me, has historically generated in his name more battles, massacres, conflicts and wars than peace, serenity, brotherly love, forgiveness of sins, and tolerance. To my knowledge, no popes, princes, kings, caliphs, or emirs have excelled in the practice of virtue, so outstandingly did Moses, Paul, and Muhammad excel in murder, torture, and orgies of plunder-I call the biographies to witness. So many variations on the theme of loving one’s neighbour.

Onfray suggests that the times we live in are no longer atheist. We instead are in the midst of the era of  nihilism, which stems from the ‘turbulence of the transit zone between still very present Judeo-Christianity and timidly blooming post-Christianity…Jews, Christians and Muslims, construct for themselves, a made-to-measure morality. This implies selective borrowings (tailored to fit their needs) from their holy books in order to establish rules of play and participation by the community.’

Christians, particularly Catholics, know all too well, religious concepts of ‘purity’, and how it relates to sex, and we can mostly thank Paul of Tarsus/St Paul for that! The dichotomy of the female, whore/virgin, is still constantly preached as Canon Law by an ancient and all-male Vatican. The author delves into this topic with relish, and coming from a background of a childhood in Catholic institutions, I could relate to these chapters intimately.

Onfray explains that  Muslims share many of their fixations on purity with Jews; all food must be ritually prepared. Why the absolute prohibition of the consumption of pork, but not camel meat? Even on that matter, there is much disagreement. Some suggest the pig was emblematic of certain unpleasant memories of Roman legions, others believe it was the pig’s omnivorous diet, its consummation of public refuse. I have also read of another theory: the squeals of the pig as it was led to slaughter, was too reminiscent of the darkest days of sacrificial slaughtering of children in attempts to appease more ancient gods. The rituals connected to the cleansing of the body are rational, especially for life in the desert. The author explains in detail the similar ritualistic rules for respect of one’s body and bodily hygiene.

I found the chapter entitled Bonfires of the Intelligence; producing the holy books, particularly interesting. Onfray: The three monotheisms are seen as the religions of the book-but their three books are far from mutually supportive… Naturally they all preach brotherly love. Thus from the very start it seems to appear beyond reproach to our brethren of the Abrahamic religions. None of these books is a work of revelation. Who would have done the revealing? Their pages no more descend from heaven than those of Persian fables or Icelandic sagas.

The Torah is not as old as tradition claims; Moses is improbable. Yahweh dictated nothing-and in any case, Moses could not have written what Yahweh said unless he wrote in hieroglyphics, since the Hebrew script did not exist in the time of Moses. None of the evangelists personally knew Jesus. The testamental canon arose from later political decisions, particularly those reached when Eusebius of Caesarea, mandated by the emperor Constantine, assembled a corpus stitched together from twenty-seven versions of the New Testament in the first half of the fourth century. The apocryphal writings are more numerous than those that constitute the New Testament proper.

Muhammad did not write the Koran. Indeed, that book did not exist until twenty-five years after his death. The second source for Muslim authority, the Hadith, saw the light of day in the ninth century, two centuries after the Prophet’s death. Hence we must infer the very active presence of men in the shadows of these three Gods.

Science does not sit well within the three monotheistic religions, and the author discusses this at length and in detail. If they do embrace science, it is usually to enhance their dogma and this instrumentalisation of science  ‘subjects reason to domestic and theocratic uses’. For example, one Hadith indeed celebrates the quest for scientific knowledge as far afield as China, but always in the logic of its instrumentalisation via religion, never for the human ideal of social progress. The Catholic religion impeded the forward march of Western civilisation, inflicting on it, incalculable damage.

Then there is the female problem that the religions of the book have in common. Only mothers and wives are venerated. Judeo-Christianity promotes the idea that Eve was an afterthought, made from Adam’s rib; ‘an inferior cut off the prime beef, a humble spare rib‘.  She appears in the Koran as Adam’s wife but the fact that she is never named is revealing, because, as Onfray says, ‘the unnamed is unnameable.’

The ridiculous tenets of these three religions engender the worst kind of hypocrisy because we are all too human. The possibility of sex divorced from conception, and thus of sex alone, of pure sexuality-that is absolute evil. For the monotheist there can be no more hideous oxymoron than a barren, sterile woman! In the name of this same principle the three monotheisms condemn homosexuals to death…For his part, Paul of Tarsus saw in the solitary male the perils of lust, adultery and free sexuality. Hence given the impossibility of chastity, his endorsement of marriage –the least objectionable justification for the libido.

Onfray discusses at length the barbaric mutilation of female and male genitalia, practiced by monotheistic religions and their literature abounds in references to the extinction of libido and the destruction of desire. Onfray refers to them as ‘variations on the theme of castration’. From what I’ve read and seen on world news every day, none of these religions is achieving the total sexual control over their adherents that they initially set out to achieve. Catholic paedophile priests, Muslim child marriages, polygamy, Jewish paedophilia, to name a few.

All three religions have burnt books, whole libraries, whole towns, citizens, mosques, temples, churches, synagogues, slaughtered millions, and all for what or who? What God? There is no archaeological proof Jesus existed. The author covers this period in Christianity’s history in depth, with all of its subterfuges.

In the chapter headed Selective Exploitation of the Texts, Onfray writes:

Everyone knows of monotheism’s three books, but very few know their dates of origin, their authors, or the ups and downs attendant on establishing the three texts-the absolutely final, immutable texts. For the Torah, Old Testament, New Testament, and Koran took an unthinkably long time to emerge from history and claim that their texts issued from God alone, that they had no need to explain themselves to those who entered their prayer temples armed only with faith, unburdened of reason and intelligence. Considering Muhammad was illiterate it is ridiculous to believe that he wrote the Koran as God dictated it. And let’s be clear, there were several Korans from different periods which were merged into one, hundreds of years after Muhammad’s death!

We do not possess an official date of birth for the worship of one God…Jean Soler insists on the neighbourhood of the fourth and third century BCE-in other words very late…but the family line is very clear: the Jews invented it to ensure the coherence, cohesion and existence of their small, threatened people. The mythology they fashioned engendered belief in a warrior God, a fighter, blood thirsty, aggressive, a war leader highly effective at mobilising a people without a land. The myth of a chosen people thereafter blessed with a destiny.

Of that labour of invention, several thousand pages of canonical text survive-very few considering their worldwide influence over the course of more than twenty centuries. The Old Testament boasts a total of 3,500 pages, the New Testament 900 pages, the Koran 750, that is, little more than 5000 pages in which everything and its opposite is said once and for all. In each of these three founding texts, contradictions abound and Onfray gives us many examples of these.

Love of one’s neighbour as espoused by all three religions, was non-existent, and still does not exist in the 21st century! The Pauline texts, so useful in justifying submission to de facto authority, triggered results that went far beyond the legitimisation of wars and persecution. In the field of slavery, for example, which Christianity did no more than the other two monotheisms to deter. Indeed, in later centuries the small-scale slavery resulting from tribal raids evolved into the slave trade pure and simple, the sale and deportation of whole populations for use as chattels and beasts of burden.’

More than twenty centuries later has anything changed? Onfray:  ‘The commandments do not advocate any particular respect for one’s neighbour if he looks different, if he is not branded in the flesh by the rabbi’s knife. The non-Jew did not enjoy the same rights as members of the covenant. So that outside the confines of the book, the Other may be called on to account for himself, to be treated like an object, a thing: the goy by the Jew, the polytheist or animist by the Christian, the Christian by the Muslim, and the atheist, needless to say, by everyone.’ [My emphasis]

Onfray likens the three monotheisms to death cults. He asks ‘How can we escape the domination of [the death instinct] after so effectively killing off the life urge both within and outside of ourselves?’ Are we so terrified by the horror and void of death, that we believe in the ‘consoling fables and fictions that incite us to deny the use of our full powers?’ He posits that this ‘false world’ forces us to live in the here and now ‘buttressed by the hopes of a tinsel afterlife.’ Finally, he suggests that we are in the flux of a ‘post-Christian’ era, but that we must beware ‘religious secularism’ in which ‘the essential remains Judeo-Christian.’  He believes that the 21st Century has opened on a merciless war. On one side is a Judeo-Christian West, on the other side, a Muslim world. Monotheist religions are waging this war, and Onfray asks: Must we choose a side? There is much more to read in these chapters, but I will leave you to buy the book.

In the final chapter of MANIFESTO Onfray sums up where we are at in the fight for a genuine post-Christian secularism:

At this hour when the final battle –already lost-looms for the defence of the Enlightenment’s values against magical propositions, we must fight for a post-Christian secularism, that is to say, atheistic, militant and radically opposed to choosing between Western Judeo-Christianity and its Islamic adversary-neither Bible nor Koran. I persist in preferring philosophers to priests, imams, ayatollahs and mullahs. Rather than trust their theological hocus-pocus, I prefer to draw on alternatives to the dominant philosophical historiography: the laughers, materialists, radicals, cynics, hedonists, atheists, sensualists, voluptuaries. They know that there is only one world, and that promotion of an afterlife deprives us of the enjoyment and benefit of the only one there is. A genuinely mortal sin.

 

-Anne Frandi-Coory  18 August 2016

 

 

 

 

 

The NEAPOLITAN NOVEL quartet

by Elena Ferrante

 

Elena Ferrante

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I have recently been introduced to Elena Ferrante novels, beginning with the Neapolitan Novel quartet: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child There is such an unsettling and brutal honesty in Ferrante’s writing, firstly about growing up poor and female in Naples, and subsequently trying to escape that seemingly inevitable life. The novels’ narrator, Elena Greco, recalls her childhood and her brilliant friend Lila, whom she at once loves and hates, first sexual experiences, the brutal men in their lives, their dreams of escaping the ‘neighbourhood’ and the fervent hopes that they will never become their mothers. Ferrante’s exquisite writing thoroughly engages the reader through girlhood fears, first boyfriends, harsh family lives, the deep seated religious division of whore and virgin, constant threats from local bullies, men and boys, and tensions of repressed sexual desires.

The mysterious author [Ferrante’s true identity is unknown] lays bare the psychological trauma of growing up female in the south; the culture of being owned by your father and then your husband. The expectation that a girl must get married, and bear children, the resultant crushing of her intellect and her creativity. There are only two ways to escape the hardships: excel at school, and gain access to universities and a better life in Pisa, Milan or Florence, even though every move to escape the inevitable life of poverty and domestic grind is greeted with age old suspicions and hatreds by family and friends. Elena Greco is one of the lucky ones. She excels at school, goes to university in the north, eventually marries into a well known northern Italian family, but is her life really any better than that of her brilliant friend Lila, who refuses to leave Naples? Lila chose instead to marry a local boy from a powerful, wealthy family, and even though she has sold her soul for a beautiful new house and everything that money can buy, her life becomes unbearable and the inherent dangers seem to multiply.

These novels contain the story of modern Italy…about those who left and those who stayed.

I have never read four books so quickly! I read all of the books with a total enthrall…impatiently wanting to do nothing else but be involved in the lives of Elena and Lila,  right to the very end.

-Anne Frandi-Coory 1 August 2016

 

 

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