Sunday, January 27, 2013

The 5 Love Languages, by Dr. Gary D. Chapman

I edited this audio book for the Malaysian Association for the Blind and ended up listening to it in full. Self-help books are not my favourite genre.  Heaven knows I could bear improvement in many areas of my life, but given the choice between a marriage counselor and Edith Wharton, we know which book I'm going to choose.  Now and then I stumble across a self-help volume, however, that lives up to its promise.  I think The 5 Love Languages should be required reading for every couple, and I'm likely to wrap up a copy the next time I need to give a wedding gift.  As for me, it helped me reflect upon and diagnose why my own relationships did not survive.  The author recorded this audio version of the book, and I found his gentle North Carolina drawl very soothing, avuncular and matter-of-fact.

The title is a bit misleading:  This is not a Mars-Venus type book on how to communicate with a partner of opposite gender.  It's only peripherally about spoken communication at all.  This book is directed at every one who has ever said, "My partner doesn't love me.  Oh, he says this, or she does that, sure... but I just don't feel loved."

Dr. Chapman has identified what he terms the 5 love languages by which we communicate our feelings for our mates.  The problem? Our mate may not share the same primary means of showing love, so he or she is waiting for some other type of demonstration.  The languages are:

1. Quality time
2. Words of affirmation
3. Gift-giving
4. Gifts of service
5. Touch

Quality time:  She says, "Sure he is a good man and a good provider, but we never do anything together." He says, "I'm always busy working to provide and then doing chores around the home; how can she possibly say I don't love her?"  Answer:  He's showing his love in a way that doesn't meet her emotional needs. Prescription:  set aside time to do mutually enjoyable things with the focus on each other.  Watching TV does not count, nor does playing tennis when the focus is on the game itself. Setting aside 15 minutes a day for an attentive conversation may do the trick.

Words of affirmation:  He says, "I always tell her how wonderful she is, but she never says anything like that to me. She doesn't love me."  She says, "I kiss and hug him all the time, and we have a great sex life. How can he possibly feel unloved?"  Some of us need to hear the words out loud, and if the partner is not necessarily comfortable speaking of emotions and issuing compliments, says Dr. Chapman, get over it! Love is about giving, so if you know your mate needs to hear loving words, you make a habit of saying them.

Gift-giving:  She says, "When we were dating, he used to bring me flowers and chocolate, just little tokens to show affection. That dried up as soon as we were married, and now I don't think he cares anymore."  Gifts don't need to be extravagant -- people whose primary love language is gift-giving just need a token to demonstrate that their partners are thinking of them.  Again, for those who say they don't know how to pick gifts, get over it! Make a gesture. Give it a little thought and offer whatever you give with genuine love. For those who prefer to save and invest their money, Dr. Chapman asks, "Do you want to be wealthy and alone?   If not, make some small investments in your relationship."  (The cartoon above reminds me of an old Gary Larsen cartoon, picturing a wolf presenting a sheep with a bouquet.  The caption: "In the end, their relationship failed -- Irving worried excessively about what the rest of the pack would think, and Agnes just ate the flowers."  Clearly gift-giving was his primary language, but not hers.)

Gifts of service:  I struggled with this one, especially when the man said, "I work long hours at the mill. I come home and the house is a mess, the kids are a mess, there's no dinner anywhere in sight, the laundry is undone..."  I spat at the MP3 player, "For heaven's sake, do you want a wife or a maid?" Some people, though, do feel loved when their partners do things to help, and in fact, that's the primary means of demonstrating love for them.  A reverse case:  The husband complains that his wife spends hours in the kitchen preparing elaborate gourmet meals which he doesn't enjoy -- he'd rather they spent the time chatting with each other (i.e. spending quality time).  The prescription in these cases were, in the first case, the wife should view cooking dinner as a means of showing her love, rather than as an onerous chore, and in the second case, the wife should cook simpler meals and spend more time conversing with her husband. What if, however, the gourmet is cooking elaborate meals because she enjoys it?  I guess the answer is that she needs to find a way to give her spouse the quality time that he enjoys to keep him feeling loved.

Touch:  Dr. Chapman is quick to point out that sex is a physically-driven necessity for men, and we should not confuse the need for sex with touch as the primary love language.  One man said he had two primary love languages:  touch and affirming words.  Ah, but suppose your wife never told you anything complimentary, or she criticised you in front of others, but you still had a fabulous sex life together, would that work?  No, the man replied:  If she castigated me publicly, our sexual intimacy would dry up.  Then, concluded Dr. Chapman, you've just established that words of affirmation are really your primary love language.  For someone who's primary language is touch, the partner can wax poetic with praise, but if there's no affectionate physical contact, the verbiage is wasted.  If one spouse says, "Oh, but I'm not a touchy-feely kind of person!", Dr. Chapman's blunt response:  Learn to be one.  Do you want your partner to feel that you love her? Then you must demonstrate it in the language that she understands -- bringing her gifts may be your preferred way of expressing love, but it's not hers.

In the final chapters, the author helps readers to determine both their own and their partners' primary love languages, and then gives tips on learning to "speak" them.  Love is a choice, he reminds us (once we've moved beyond the 'in love' infatuation phase). We need to make conscious choices about the most effective ways to show our love. This is a marvellously down-to-earth, practical guide for anyone who has ever asked, "I love my partner, so why doesn't he (or she) feel loved?"

Saturday, January 19, 2013

1984, by George Orwell

As I looked at the list of titles on my Kindle, I decided it was time to re-read this classic.  About 20 minutes into the book, I realised that I was reading it for the first time.  That is the extent to which Orwell's dystopian horrors have worked their way into the collective consciousness:  Big Brother, Double-Think, Newspeak, the thought police and the proles are so familiar to me that I was sure I had read the book before.  Surely it had been required reading for all of us in the Wellesley College class of 1984, which the administration had euphemistically dubbed 'the Utopian class'?  Evidently not, because I would have remembered such a ghastly story. I wish I had read it then, because I'd like to compare my reaction to the book in 1984 with that in 2013.

I suppose when readers first encountered Winston Smith in 1969, the Oceania (one of the world's three super-power nations) in which he exists seemed very futuristic, indeed, with two-way telescreens both spewing propaganda and doing constant surveillance. Technology is used to appalling ends, and normal human instincts and emotions are shunned.  This is how Orwell introduces Julia, the woman whose passionate involvement with Winston will lead to their mutual downfall.
Presumably -- since he had sometimes seen her with oily hands and carrying a spanner she had some mechanical job on one of the novel-writing machines. She was a bold-looking girl, of about twenty-seven, with thick hair, a freckled face, and swift, athletic movements. A narrow scarlet sash, emblem of the Junior Anti-Sex League, was wound several times round the waist of her overalls, just tightly enough to bring out the shapeliness of her hips. Winston had disliked her from the very first moment of seeing her.
Although novel-writing machines might have seemed outlandish to a reader in 1969, the totalitarian government and the oppressed society that Orwell presents show the timeless, ugly facets of human nature.  Tyrants in all phases of history have used the power of hatred and collective rage to manipulate their citizens.
The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but, on the contrary, that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretence was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge-hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one's will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.
Winston and Julia are low-level Party members, working in the Ministry of Truth (which, the reader quickly realises, is the Party's means of generating propaganda and re-writing history to suit its single-minded goal of retaining power).  The proletariat, or 'proles', make up the bulk of the population, kept docile and heedless by a steady stream of mind-numbing amusements. As ever, just give them bread and circuses to keep them complacent.
There was a whole chain of separate departments dealing with proletarian literature, music, drama, and entertainment generally. Here were produced rubbishy newspapers containing almost nothing except sport, crime and astrology, sensational five-cent novelettes, films oozing with sex, and sentimental songs which were composed entirely by mechanical means on a special kind of kaleidoscope known as a versificator...  no attempt was made to indoctrinate them with the ideology of the Party. It was not desirable that the proles should have strong political feelings. All that was required of them was a primitive patriotism which could be appealed to whenever it was necessary to make them accept longer working-hours or shorter rations.
As for the Party members, the concepts of privacy and individuality are anathema. Winston, who has an unfortunate tendency to think about things and yet cannot discuss these thoughts with anyone, naturally begins to question his own sanity. 
He wondered, as he had many times wondered before, whether he himself was a lunatic. Perhaps a lunatic was simply a minority of one... to do anything that suggested a taste for solitude, even to go for a walk by yourself, was always slightly dangerous. There was a word for it in Newspeak: ownlife, it was called, meaning individualism and eccentricity.
I reminded myself as I read that Orwell's nightmarish vision of social re-engineering preceded the reign of the Khmer Rouge, but it was no doubt informed by Stalin's and Mao's efforts.
There was a direct intimate connexion between chastity and political orthodoxy. For how could the fear, the hatred, and the lunatic credulity which the Party needed in its members be kept at the right pitch, except by bottling down some powerful instinct and using it as a driving force? The sex impulse was dangerous to the Party, and the Party had turned it to account. They had played a similar trick with the instinct of parenthood. The family could not actually be abolished, and, indeed, people were encouraged to be fond of their children, in almost the old-fashioned way. The children, on the other hand, were systematically turned against their parents and taught to spy on them and report their deviations. The family had become in effect an extension of the Thought Police. It was a device by means of which everyone could be surrounded night and day by informers who knew him intimately.
 Winston comes into possession of a subversive book, allegedly written by the Party's arch-enemy, Goldstein. In it, he reads a summary of how the Party came to power and has held and will likely continue to hold its absolute power. As I read this passage in 2013, I of course consider the "enlightened and progressive" governments who find reasons to justify and euphemisms to explain systemic cruelties.
...practices which had been long abandoned, in some cases for hundreds of years -- imprisonment without trial, the use of war prisoners as slaves, public executions, torture to extract confessions, the use of hostages, and the deportation of whole populations -- not only became common again, but were tolerated and even defended by people who considered themselves enlightened and progressive.
And the longer a tyrannical government stays in power, the more arrogant it becomes, having manipulated the people into a state of unawareness, ignorance and passivity. 
From the proletarians nothing is to be feared. Left to themselves, they will continue from generation to generation and from century to century, working, breeding, and dying, not only without any impulse to rebel, but without the power of grasping that the world could be other than it is. They could only become dangerous if the advance of industrial technique made it necessary to educate them more highly; but, since military and commercial rivalry are no longer important, the level of popular education is actually declining. What opinions the masses hold, or do not hold, is looked on as a matter of indifference. They can be granted intellectual liberty because they have no intellect.
From this subversive book, Winston learns how power works, but he is left to ponder why.  To no one's surprise, including his own, he is arrested and taken to the Ministry of Love for interrogation and most likely vaporization.  His interrogator turns out to be O'Brien, the Party official who had slipped him the book to begin with, posing as an underground conspirator.  While intrigued with Winston's mind, O'Brien does what he must to destroy it, to stomp it into blind submission.  Along the way, he agrees to answer some of Winston's questions, one of which is that lingering Why?  For once, the higher level Ministry of Truth official speaks the truth.  
"But always -- do not forget this, Winston-- always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face-- for ever."
While reading 1984,  I instinctively tried to put distance between the world of today and Big Brother's Oceania, consoling myself that we're not quite that bad. Not yet, anyway.  I stumbled across this article, which more precisely gives our current state in relation to Orwell's vision. The author's advice: "We should all be mindful of our technology and how it's used." I would add that we should question the source and the validity of everything that is fed to us on our various telescreens.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Victim, by Saul Bellow

A friend, a Chinese-Malaysian man in his early 50s, caught me off-guard recently when he mentioned that his favourite author is Saul Bellow.  I respect this fellow's artistic sensibilities, so I cautiously admitted that I had read only one of Bellow's novels, Herzog, and... and... hadn't precisely loved it.  The truth: I loathed it, character, plot, prose and all, and after finishing, I planted Saul Bellow on my personal blacklist.  Listening to my friend rattling off the list of Bellow's novels that he's read and cherished, though, I reconsidered.

After all, my faithful list-writer, Anthony Burgess, included two of Bellow's works -- The Victim and Humboldt's Gift -- on his list of the 99 best novels.  The committees for the Nobel Prize, U.S. Book Prize, PEN/Malamud Award and Prix International obviously ranked Bellow as a great author.  Surely I had missed something.  I would give him another go.

I approached The Victim with a doggedly open mind, even a predisposition to admit my earlier mistake in judgement. I finished with the grudging concession that I disliked it only a smidgeon less than Herzog. Overall, my reaction to both books was very similar:  I neither enjoyed them nor admired them, and I'm still completely in the dark as to why so many others just love this man's work.  In fact, the character on the cover of the Penguin paperback edition pretty well sums up my feelings -- head in hand, wondering where I missed the boat.

I'm reasonably free-thinking when it comes to books. I may or may not agree with critics, literary prize committees, or fellow readers. I often admire books that I fail to enjoy. (Cormac McCarthy's novels come to mind here.) I ignore best-seller lists. So why am I tormenting myself for my failure to appreciate Saul Bellow's work?  Is it because I sense that to reject him amounts to anti-Semitism?  That is of course nonsense on one level -- the fact that I don't care for Paulo Coelho doesn't belie any antipathy towards Brazilians. On the other hand, in both of these novels Bellow presents me with protagonists, Moses A. Herzog and Asa Leventhal, who dare me not to roll my eyes and mutter, "Sheesh, what a putz."  They are not entertainingly bumbling, nor are they quite pathetic. If they progress from one state at the beginning of the novel to another at the end, it's small progress. Bluntly, I just find them both supremely annoying.

Equally vexing and unenlightening is Leventhal's nemesis in The Victim, Kirby Allbee.  Allbee is down on his luck -- widowed, drunk, unemployed -- and he appears to hold Leventhal responsible for his misfortune, or at least for his lack of employment, thanks to an incident in which Leventhal engaged in a raging argument with Allbee's former boss.  He now stalks Leventhal wanting... what? Compensation? Apology? Commiseration? Revenge?  Leventhal initially denies any responsibility for Allbee's circumstances, then comes to admit a bit of culpability.  Ultimately Leventhal allows his stalker into his home, having capitulated utterly to his demands, though he deeply resents every gesture he makes.  Each man feels himself equally victimised by the other. Allbee rails at Leventhal that "you people" are different and fail to understand the suffering of others.
"Because you've got to blame me, that's why," said Allbee. "You won't assume that it isn't entirely my fault. It's necessary for you to believe that I deserve what I get. It doesn't enter your mind, does it--that a man might not be able to help being hammered down? What do you say? Maybe he can't help himself? No, if a man is down, a man like me, it's his fault. If he suffers, he's being punished. There's no evil in life itself. And do you know what? It's a Jewish point of view. You'll find it all over the Bible. God doesn't make mistakes. He's the department of weights and measures. If you're okay, he's okay, too. That's what Job's friends come and say to him. But I'll tell you something. We do get it in the neck for nothing and suffer for nothing, and there's no denying that evil is as real as sunshine. Take it from me, I know what I'm talking about. To you the whole thing is that I must deserve what I get. That leaves your hands clean and it's unnecessary for you to bother yourself. Not that I'm asking you to feel sorry for me, but you sure can't understand what makes a man drink."
Leventhal does rather hold Allbee responsible for his own downfall. At least Allbee doesn't have to face a deluge of anti-Semitism every day.
You couldn't say you were master of yourself when there were so many people by whom you could be humiliated.
The two men wallow in their own private senses of humiliation until they part company after a sordid argument.  They meet again years later, and I sense that, although Allbee's material fortunes have shifted, neither man has changed; separation has simply allowed them to stop feeding each other's demons. 

To give credit where it's due, Bellow does write some gorgeous passages of description, immersing the reader in the sights, sounds and smells of 1960s New York.
He went down in the elevator amid a crowd of girls from the commercial school upstairs, largely unconscious of the pleasure that he took in their smooth arms and smooth faces. The elevator sank slowly in the musty shaft with a buzz of signals and a sparking of tiny arrowheads. On the street Leventhal bought a paper and glanced through it in the cafeteria. After lunch, he walked toward the river, passing through the sidewalk markets, between the sacks of coffee beans. The roasting odor was mixed with the smell of gas. The occasional piping of a tug or the low blurt of a steamer came through the trample and jamming of trucks, and booms bristled like the spikes of a maguey, dividing the white of the sky as the piers did that of the water.
Leventhal believes that the Gentiles who run New York's publishing interests maintain and circulate between themselves a blacklist of Jews who are bound to be trouble in the workplace, and none of his friends, also Jewish, can disabuse him of this notion.  As a reader, I have my own blacklist, but the late Mr. Bellow can rest assured that it's not racially driven. He's in very mixed company on my list. Still, I would welcome feedback from any and all readers who love this man's work and who would like to share with me what they see in it.