About B Gourley

Bernie Gourley is a writer living in Bangalore, India. He is currently writing his first novel entitled CHASING DEMONS. He is a martial artist, yogi, and world traveler.

BOOK REVIEW: The Autobiography of a Flea by Anonymous (Stanislas de Rhodes)

The Autobiography of a FleaThe Autobiography of a Flea by Stanislas de Rhodes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“The Autobiography of a Flea” is a historical work of erotica first published in the late 19th century anonymously, and later was attributed to Stanislas de Rhodes. Like the works of the Marquis de Sade, the book is simultaneously a socio-political commentary and philosophical novel. While the erotic elements tend to not be as extreme and perverse as Sade’s work, it shares in common a philosophy of society and a disdain for the clergy and the aristocracy / upper class (Sade’s work was earlier and straddled the French Revolution, and so things had changed on this front.) But, for example, in this book, two lascivious and hypocritical clergymen play key roles in the story that would not be unfamiliar to Sade’s readers.

The story starts with discussions (and wagers) regarding a competition that is coming up between women who work for the village’s main employer, a vintner. Whichever woman tramples the most grapes, wins a substantial prize. Our narrator is a libidinous, little flea who follows the sexual antics taking place in this French village. From the flea, we learn about the competition through discussion before, during, and after amore by two village couples. Two women who are likely to be front-runners make a salacious wager that involves the other’s husband. Each woman confesses the wager to her respective husband, but the husbands each have confidence in his wife to win, and so neither is concerned about the competition. Little do any of them know, the vintner has stacked the deck in favor of the fairest maiden in the village, who he intends to marry – despite the fact that he is old, feeble, and disgusting.

This fair (re: young and gorgeous) maiden has a suitor, and she is about to be intimate with him for the first time, when the village priest interrupts them. The priest then uses his knowledge to manipulate the young woman to his benefit. (Ultimately, he is joined by an English priest on sabbatical who involves himself with a couple village widows as well as in the priest’s nefarious plot.) The village priest simultaneously seeks to please the vintner (because the old man is the church’s leading patron), and at the same time he pursues his own pleasure. So, the young woman is forced into marriage, and into allowing consummation of said marriage — though the old vintner repeatedly shows himself not up to the task and is usually comically premature.

The author echoes a theme from Sade’s philosophy, which a society that is anarchic under its feeble institutions, i.e. in which the strong do whatever they please to the weak. The lead character, the maiden, is constantly humiliated and run roughshod over whenever she tries to move against the flow of this anarchy. Counting on the strong to behave virtuously only gets her punished and humiliated. It’s only when she starts moving with the flow so as to game the system by acknowledging and heeding this power disparity that she starts to see success in getting her way.

As with the Marquis de Sade’s work, this book could correctly be claimed to be excessively pessimistic and Hobbsean (philosopher and author of “The Leviathan” who believed people were brutish and self-interested.) I found it to be cleverer and less gratuitous than the works by Sade that I’ve read. Both the use of the narrating flea to give the reader a well-established point of view and the story — which exists (in contrast to many works in this genre, including Sade’s work “120 Days of Sodom.”) I’d recommend this book for readers of historical fiction and erotica (particularly if one enjoys — or can tolerate — the sado-masochistic dynamic.)

[Note: there are a couple versions of this book, but – as near as I can tell – the story is consistent between them. It’s the character names that vary. The book is set in France, and features one English clergyman (kindred spirit to the village priest.) However, the more common version of the book features more English-sounding names, but there is a version with more typically French names. e.g. the lead, Bella, is Laurette in the latter edition. I read the version with the more French sounding names, but read a plot summary of the other edition, and the story was the same in broad brush strokes at least.]

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5 Haiku on Emptiness

white space,
where readers’ eyes go to
rewrite stories


when thoughts cease,
senseless pictures form;
minds abhor stillness


Plato’s pupil knew:
“nature abhors a vacuum,”
if not much else


the fog wall,
flush with the land’s end,
invites guesses


endless dunes,
stretching far as eyes can see
yet never the same

Nepal Haiku

birthing Buddha,
distant looming mountains
breed wisdom

 

glassy lake,
mirroring boat hulls,
a world below?

 

standing aside
as beam-totting porters
pass us on the trail

 

tea-house quarters
cozy and quaint lodging,
’til snoring starts

 

cool air in face,
trudging up — oblivious
to cloud-freed snowcap

 

glacier gone,
scoured trench, gouged in earth —
maybe next year

 

monkey overlook,
from sacred stupa to
the human warren

 

BOOK REVIEW: The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

The Tattooist of AuschwitzThe Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

At its core, this is a love story set in the most unlikely of places, the Auschwitz Concentration Camp – which was in reality an extermination camp where Jews and others were executed as part of the Nazi Final Solution. Lale, the lead character, owing to his skill with languages and his survival instincts, was a prisoner chosen to be the assistant tattooist and in short order the tattooist’s replacement. As tattooist, Lale was responsible for writing numbers indelibly on the arms of the adult prisoners coming to the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps. This position offered him an unusual freedom of movement that allowed him to carry on a secretive relationship with one of the young women that he’d tattoo’d and become instantly smitten with. It also allowed him to carry out a small-scale relief mission in which he purchased food and medicine from a couple of sympathetic Poles. Still, this covert charitable work didn’t erase his guilt of believing he was participating in the atrocity by way of the tattoo-branding of his fellow prisoners. In a place where everyday was a test of survival, it goes without saying that both his love affair and his covert purchases created a heightened risk of being killed. The tension is perpetually high as one never knows whether Lale or those dear to him will survive from one scene to the next.

It’s testament to how tight and engaging the narrative arc is that I was under the impression that it was completely fictitious until I got to the back matter – which included an epilogue, an afterword, and a photo section that clarified that the book was based on interviews with the real-life tattooist, Lale Sokolov. The book is presented as a novel, and that’s how it reads throughout, but it’s in some measure a memoir. It’s hard to know how much is fictitious, but it seems reasonable to suspect that the author took some liberties – otherwise it would presumably have been presented as a history / biography.

I found this to be one of the most intense and gripping books I’ve read this year, and I’d highly recommend it for all readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan

How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of PsychedelicsHow to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics by Michael Pollan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

Psychedelics have been coming back into mainstream interest of late. Until recently, this renewed interest mostly occurred quietly through a continuation of scientific study, a promising line of inquiry that was aborted in the late 1960’s. There is growing evidence that these substances may be useful for combating depression, anxiety, and addiction – as well as their other, long-known benefits. (It should be noted that while it seems the writing is on the wall for these substances to become medically legitimate, it remains controversial whether they will be legalized for use by well individuals – though some were legalized in the US for a small religious group that takes them as a sacrament of their faith.) This book by the immensely popular immersion journalist, Michael Pollan, has brought the topic front and center into mass awareness, and may help turn the tide of a sullied public image.

Because these substances remain widely unknown or misunderstood, allow me to present some background — much of which Pollan discusses in varying degrees. Unfortunately, the term “psychedelic” has become so loaded with layers of meaning that it’s not optimal for discussing the topic at hand. Literally, psychedelic means “mind manifesting,” but its common meaning is tied up in notions of 1960’s counter-culture and even with styles of art and music. However, alternative terms are also troublesome. “Psychoactive substances” (i.e. chemicals that change mind states) encompasses a much broader selection of molecules and medicines – though it’s probably the most neutral term used popularly today. “Hallucinogens” is also problematic because a large portion of consumers of these substances don’t have hallucinations – at least not of the full-blown variety people normally associate with that term (i.e. seeing sights that one genuinely believes exist, but don’t.) Pollan opts to largely stick with the loaded term of psychedelic, and thus will I throughout this review.

Psychedelics are chemical substances that change one’s mindset, typically creating euphoria, shutting down “I”- centric parts of the brain such that one feels a “oneness” commonly described in the mystical traditions from around the world, and which, yes, often generate sensory experiences that aren’t reflective of the actual environment (hallucinations.) The downside is found in the fact that the substances produce constructive experiences, which means they amplify what’s in the subject’s mind, and, therefore, can result in “bad trips” in which people hallucinate terrifying products of their own subconscious mind. Pollan focuses heavily on three of the most popular psychedelics: psilocybin (naturally produced in a common species of mushroom), LSD (a chemical synthesized from ergot fungus that grow on rye), and DMT (which is most famously an active ingredient in Ayahuasca, a concoction long brewed by Peruvian Shamans.) Mescaline, which is well known from the writings of Aldous Huxley, is another popular psychedelic, but one which Pollan only mentions in passing.

To wrap up the background portion of the review, a little history. Psychedelics have been used by shamanic traditions around the world since time immemorial. In 1938, Albert Hofmann, a chemist for Sandoz Laboratories, accidentally synthesized LSD. That marked the (re-) introduction of psychedelics to the modern Western world (the ancient Greeks were believed to have mixed something with their wine that sounded like it had psychedelic properties.) Unbeknownst to most, between Hofmann’s invention and the late 1960’s, there was a promising line of research on the use of psychedelics for various conditions as well as in non-medical domains – e.g. relating the psychedelic experience to religious / mystical experience.

Unfortunately, there was a two-pronged turn of events that would end in these substances being made illegal and categorized “Schedule I” (which deems them not only risky / requiring care of use, but also denies they have any legitimate medical use – the latter seems to be proven demonstrably incorrect.) The well-known prong in the death of psychedelics resulted from the substances becoming tied into the 1960’s counter-culture, at first through shoddy scholarship by academics – most famously Timothy Leary – and then through recreational use that typically stripped away the rituals and “protocols” that had allowed shamans and mystics to safely use these substances for millennia. The second prong was government-sanctioned shenanigans in which LSD was used and misused in an attempt to create everything from truth serums to mind-control agents – most famously the MK-Ultra Program, and its sub-projects such as Operation Midnight Climax during which the CIA illegally used prostitutes to “roofie” their customer’s drinks with LSD so that a spy could covertly watch to determine whether the johns got loose-lipped or not. (Note: Pollan writes at length about the former aspect [i.e. Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, et. al.] though not as much as books like Lattin’s The Harvard Psychedelic Club or Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. However, Pollan only gives passing mention to MK-Ultra.) Psychedelics might have remained out of the popular consciousness and only of interest to the fringe of society that was involved with “hard drugs” had it not been (in addition to renewed scientific interest) for a blooming interest by Silicon Valley engineers and executives who took to “micro-dosing” psychedelics to obtain creativity gains.

Now, I’ll get to the review, proper: As I mentioned, Pollan refers to himself as an “immersion journalist,” which means that he provides a two-in-one book. The first element is what one would expect in a popular science book on psychedelics, i.e. he reports on the scientific findings, the key history and background information, and delivers quotes from people he interviewed. The second element, however, is description of his own psychonautic journey. Pollan consumed psilocybin mushrooms, LSD, ayahuasca (DMT), and also a substance excreted by a toad that lives in Mexico and the Southwestern US. The reader gets both Huxlian “trip reports” (though Pollan remains much more scientific-minded and less mystical than Aldous Huxley) as well as the objective overview of the topic.

The book consists of six chapters as well as front and back matter. The first chapter discusses the psychedelic “renaissance,” i.e. how it came to be that these substances brought back from the dead – i.e. being purely of interest to “druggies” and far-flung shamanic traditions. Chapter 2 deals largely with mushrooms, and specifically psilocybe mushrooms that are the most popular and common type of psychedelic mushroom. Pollan spent time with Paul Stamets, a world-renowned expert on all-things fungi and the man who – literally – wrote the book on psilocybe mushrooms. Chapter 3 focuses heavily on LSD, including its development and rocky history. The fourth chapter is a “travelogue” in which Pollan discusses his own experiences in taking these substances. The penultimate chapter is about the neuroscientific findings. There is much that remains to be known, but yet somethings are well-known. These substances generally mimic the neurotransmitter serotonin (though mescaline, for example, mimics dopamine.) There is also a fascinating discussion of how these substances may temporarily reduce activity in the default mode network, which is prominent in generating one’s sense of self. The final chapter examines the findings of research into the use of psychedelics as a treatment for medical conditions – particularly depression, anxiety (especially death anxiety of terminal patients), and addiction (contrary to a widespread notion, resulting from these substances being lumped in with “hard drugs,” psychedelics not only aren’t addictive, but – in many patients – they counter addictions to more dangerous drugs, such as alcohol – yeah, you read that right.)

The book contains the usual ancillary matter, including: a glossary, bibliography, and notations. As the approach is narrative, graphics are minimal.

I found this book to be highly informative and extremely readable. The use of stories to convey information makes it engaging while it educates. I would highly recommend this book for any readers who are interested in psychedelics as medicine or a mystical experience.

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