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.

POEM: Know Your Strangeness

know your strangeness

otherwise, it’s like a tattoo on the back of your neck

the world can enjoy it, but you never will

sure, it means tearing down a house

one that you built brick by brick,

the house of you,

but

no structure outlasts the mortar that binds it

BOOK REVIEW: Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche

Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and for No OneThus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and for No One by Friedrich Nietzsche
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The gist of this philosophical novel’s story is that the Persian sage, Zarathustra, comes down from his cave to inform people of his breakthrough, only to find the townspeople are utterly uninterested. This leads Zarathustra to take his show on the road, where he does better in discovering individuals who rise above the common man, but still they miss the mark of Übermensch – the Superman.

This book somehow simultaneously manages to be abstruse and readable. It can be tough reading when it uses symbolism and leitmotifs that are tough to crack, and when the story arc consists of long sequences of Zarathustra talking at people one after another. [It’s worth noting that I read that this was a particularly challenging book to translate, and so some of the difficulty may result from the edition I read being too literal or not literal enough.] On the other hand, it’s packed with pithy, quotable lines. The most famous of these is, “God is dead.” Others include: “Die at the right time!” “Better know nothing than half-know many things!” and “Man is something that hath to be surpassed.” Also, as I stated the plot in a tiny paragraph, it should be clear that the general flow of events isn’t hard to keep up with.

The quotes I presented above offer substantial insight into the philosophy being presented. First, with “God is dead” Nietzsche is advancing the existentialist fundamental that one needs to look not at religion for life’s meaning or for the means of proper behavior, but one must create one’s own meaning and morality. While some believe that Nietzsche is arguing for amorality, it seems that he’s more arguing to move beyond accepting pre-labeled boxes of “good” and “bad” handed down from on high, and rather insisting that one must make one’s own decisions about such matters. It must be remembered that society’s dictates also include collective prejudices and other negative biases. Second, the whole of the book is dedicated to the recognition that mankind must move beyond its current state of being constrained by the shackles of church, state, and society, and rise to a super-state (i.e. “Man is something that hath to be surpassed.”)

For me, this book picked up in the fourth and final part. This section brings together the more intriguing people Zarathustra interacted with along the road. In general, the book started as a slow read, but became much clearer and more readable as I went. The arguments are not hard, nor is the chain of events, but the way things are stated can be a bit incomprehensible. This may be one of those books for which one would be served by opting for a more heavily annotated edition rather than just the raw text.

I’d recommend this book. Whether one accepts its arguments or not, they are worth understanding.

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BOOK REVIEW: Anxious Joseph E. LeDoux

Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and AnxietyAnxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety by Joseph E. LeDoux
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book examines the neuroscience of anxiety, though psychology also makes a prominent appearance in the discussion – particularly toward the end of the book. It’s written by one of the top researchers in the field emotional neuroscience, though LeDoux discusses the work of other labs, comparing and contrasting their work with that of his own, and thus giving an idea of the fault lines in the field. (By that I mean more the questions that remain in dispute, not who hates whom.)

The book addresses a number of key questions such as: How does brain activity result in the emotional experience? How do conscious emotional feelings relate to and interact with non-conscious responses to threatening stimuli? Is the human emotional experience a hand over from animal ancestors or a uniquely human condition? How effective are drug-based versus psycho-therapeutic approaches to anxiety disorders? What has been learned about extinguishing anxious responses to threatening stimuli? Needless to say, this book doesn’t answer all the questions, as many of the questions – particularly those regarding consciousness – remain to be definitively answered. It does offer a great overview of the state of understanding in the present day.

I won’t present a chapter by chapter outline, but rather a look at the book’s general flow. LeDoux starts by laying groundwork, and in this case that means clarifying the relationship between fear and anxiety. While the former often captures the imagination because of its dramatic and traumatic causes, the latter is more of a concern as its grinding long-term effects can cripple the immune system and have other adverse effects. The early chapters also discuss what has been learned about how emotions are formed in the brain and how views about this have changed over time.

Chapter five is where LeDoux explores the relationship between animal emotionality and human emotional life. This is an important subject as it relates to the question of whether research with animals can teach us anything relevant to the human experience. As it has become progressively more difficult to conduct any research that causes human subjects any emotional distress, this question may be instrumental to making progress in the field.

Chapters six through eight are interconnected by the question of consciousness. Chapter six discusses the nature of consciousness, which remains one of the most slippery and least understood concepts in the natural world. Chapter seven delves into memory and consciousness – an important topic as anxious responses can be viewed as learned responses and this begs the question of unlearning. Memory will later be revisited with respect to the question of whether it’s possible to erase painful or anxiety-inducing memories (ala, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) – based on work that came out of LeDoux’s lab – and, if so, whether it’s a good idea. The final consciousness chapter gets into consciousness of emotion, specifically (as opposed to all the other thoughts and feelings of which one can be consciously aware.)

The last three chapters are also interconnected by movement from the question of how is anxiety felt / experienced to the question of what one can do about it. The first of these chapters discusses an epidemic of anxiety (entitled “40 million anxious minds,” and that refers to the US alone) and what has been learned about drug-based treatments. As it happens, drug-based treatments haven’t proven reliably effective, leaving plenty of room for other approaches, e.g. psychotherapy. This fact is the basis for the last two chapters that discuss different approaches to extinguishing the connection between a stimulus and the anxious response. The first of theses chapters (ch.10) is more general and the last chapter dives deep into the research that has been done in recent years. Chapter 11 also offers a nice discussion of how breath exercises and meditation can be instrumental in reducing the adverse effects of anxiety.

As would be expected of a scholarly work, the book is heavily annotated, has an extensive bibliography, and uses a great number of graphics in an attempt to lend clarity.

I would put this work in the same category as the works of Robert Sapolsky. That is to say, it resides in a space between the level of detail usually seen in works of popular science and that which is seen in textbooks for specialists. That is to say, LeDoux does get into some detail and this isn’t a light read for anyone without a heavy-duty background in biological sciences. That said, if you have a basic scientific literacy (and / or don’t care too much about the fine detail), it’s by no means impossibly dense. When it’s not diving into the various brain regions and neuronal pathways, it’s quite readable.

I’d recommend this book for anyone who is interested in a detailed look at how anxiety arises and how it can be quelled.

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BOOK REVIEW: Blue ed. by Ameena Hussein

Blue: The Tranquebar book of Erotic Fiction for Sri LankaBlue: The Tranquebar book of Erotic Fiction for Sri Lanka by Ameena Hussein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is an anthology or erotically-themed short fiction and poetry of Sri Lanka.

Readers who are interested in cultural idiosyncrasies, particularly related to sexuality, will find the works included offer fascinating insights. That said, readers whose primary experience with erotic fiction is, for example, French erotica will probably find the stories tentative and occasionally creepy in a desperation-derived way (e.g. the hotel employee who sneaks into an admired guest’s room and – among other things — sniffs clothing.) For readers outside South Asia, one must read these works with a recognition that it is a culture that is less open about sexuality, in which the sexes don’t co-mingle as freely in youth, and where people have to take love when and where they can get it to a greater extent than readers from elsewhere may be used to. That said, the characters in these stories tend to be from a more open and progressive segment of society, but they are still operating within the constraints of the society. Some readers will find the tentativeness endearing and nostalgic, others may find it slow or tame.

Before describing each work in brief, the reader may wish to be made aware that – unlike many works of erotica – this book does not target a particular sex or sexual orientation. By that I mean, it bounces around between straight, lesbian, and gay male relationships in its stories.

– The Proposal: The first-person narrator has a friend who is on the outs with his girlfriend, and said narrator has an opportunity to bed said girlfriend. There isn’t much deliberation about whether a “bro” should be put first here

– Sex in the Hood: A poem about art and life in challenging environs.

– Undercover: A middle-aged woman whose marriage has gone lukewarm, gets groped at a movie theater, and returns the next day.

– Me and Ms. J: An ex-pat in Brussels looks back on a youthful lesbian dalliance with an older woman.

– The Lava Lamp: When girlfriends end up staying together overnight, the lava lamp becomes a representation of the couple’s flow with each other. A short piece.

– Bus Stop: A young man works up the courage to advance a relationship with a pretty girl he’s been seeing (wordlessly) at the bus stop for months. This is one of the longer and more developed pieces.

– A Courtyard: An imagery-intensive poem not only about a courtyard, but what is glimpsed across it. Probably my favorite of the poetry.

– Veysee: If you thought my mention of a hotel employee who sneaks into a guest’s room and sniffs her clothes was creepy, this story about a porn-addicted thirty-something carrying out a covert relationship with an under-aged girl takes creepiness to a new level. (Though there are hints of recognition on the part of the character of the error of his ways.)

– No: This is less erotic than a commentary on things that go unsaid in sexual relationships because the individuals involved don’t know how to broach the subject, or because they are operating on fundamentally different wave-lengths. I should say that it’s not that it lacks the sensuality of erotica, but it deals heavily with consent being mowed down.

– I’d Like to Hold Your Hand: A poem describing how the author would like to proceed from holding hands to ecstasy.

– Bi-Cycle: This is a very brief dreamy piece about the author’s personal dilemma.

– Bookworm: A bookish young man gets ushered into sexuality by the shopkeeper of his favorite bookstore.

– What Reminds Me of You: A sensual poem of nostalgia for a past love.

– Room 1716: A lobby manager at a hotel in Colombo develops a secret crush on Alicia, a tourist from an undesignated Western country. When Alicia makes a short overnight trip, the manager arranges for her to keep her room without charge. Said manager then sneaks into the room to investigate clues about her girl-crush.

– 76, Park Avenue: A Russian (or other undesignated Slavic) man has a relationship with a Sri Lankan woman.

– Flower Offering: A sensual poem about flowers – literal and symbolic.

– Hot Date: A guy ends up in drama through pursuit of the most sexually willing girl.

I found this book to be interesting. As I said, to relate to many of its characters and their motivations one has to be aware of setting and cultural norms. It has a mix of more and less developed stories and characters. (Though there are no isolated sex scenes, as sometimes occur in erotic works.) There’s a lot of power-dynamics playing out, but not at all in the explicitly sadomasochistic dominant / submissive way. There are many characters and actions that a reader might find unsavory (e.g. the grown man who acts like he’s fresh out of puberty and has no self control is a recurring theme) but loathsome characters can be as readable as likable ones. (Only indifferent characters are unreadable.)

I’d recommend this book for those who are interested in taking a world tour of erotica.

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