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Now in Paperback

December 06, 1987|ALEX RAKSIN

The City Builder, George Konrad (Penguin: $6.95). The sleep from which our narrator, an East European architect, awakens in this book's first chapter is by no means gentle: "The shock troops of light invade the furrows of a ravaged face, and each passing second is tapped out on a brain teeming with the slogans of a paltry past." He has realized that as a planner, "a manipulator of life," in the view of Hungarian novelist George Konrad, he has waged a war against the "livers of life." This is not, however, a simple tract against totalitarianism. Konrad embraces Solidarity, though not the "Solidarnosc" that was celebrated fashionably in American streets for a year or two. Konrad's politics are deeply rooted in a distinctly Eastern European spirit. Like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, he doesn't long for the Great Frontier or Mother Lode; he wishes to return to Middle Europe as seen by Milan Kundera, "a kingdom of the spirit."

In this vision, the city is a human community, not a planner's dream: "Three hundred thousand people constitute one curriculum; we are tenants in a square furnished by the centuries . . . . If we were to link together our inhabitants' consciousness, the coal of the dead, the peat of the living would burn in the powerhouse of a single archetype." Practically, Konrad envisions a "post-capitalist, post-Communist" community where the economic distinctions of the West and the ideological oppression of the East can be "ignored." But, as Konrad sees it, change must first come from the individual--state oppression is only a by-product of self-deception. Our architect's awakening is no doubt disturbing. "I hear every snowflake fall," he reflects, "the clink of their tiny skeletons makes me shudder." But his courage attests to Konrad's faith that desire is stronger than fear. His Eastern Europeans will face their failings, he is convinced, and rebuild. "Our defeats are milestones on the road to Eastern European liberation . . . . A second culture is coming into being. Hungarian society is beginning to resemble us."

A Class Divided: Then and Now, William Peters (Yale: $8.95). Aptitude tests are supposed to be a hallmark of America's egalitarian society, offering everyone the chance to succeed and thus encouraging class mobility. In practice, however, this mobility has been sluggish, with some wealthy minority groups scoring lower on the Scholastic Admissions Test than poor whites. Test-makers have been reluctant to publicize the dramatic difference in scores; their exams, they insist, are "objective" and the other explanation--varying ability levels between ethnic groups--is no longer taken seriously by leading education experts. "A Class Divided" suggests that social expectations could be the culprit. The book chronicles a classroom experiment that Jane Elliott, a third-grade teacher in Iowa, began the day after Martin Luther King Jr.'s death. Students whose eyes were blue, Elliott declared, were superior to brown-eyed students, given special privileges and encouraged to discriminate against their suddenly inferior brown-eyed classmates.

On both days the children labeled inferior took on the look and behavior of genuinely inferior students, while the "superior" students excelled. This book is arguably more relevant today than when it first appeared in 1971 because prejudice has become more invisible, perpetuated by subtle psychological pressures rather than by signs on the restaurant door. And, while William Peters' writing is often pedestrian, "A Class Divided" is also topical because of new chapters describing how Elliott's experiment has been used effectively outside the classroom. "Blue-eyed people are very stubborn, very self centered, and wish to control as much of their surroundings as possible," one adult who attended a workshop quite earnestly concludes. "Very inconsiderate people."

Buddhism and Zen, Nyogen Senzaki, assembled in collaboration with Ruth Strout McCandless (North Point Press: $7.95). Critical of hierarchical, bureaucratic "Cathedral Zen," Nyogen Senzaki asked his Zen master, Soen Shaku, for permission to leave the Buddhist monastery before his formal training was completed. Shaku, who introduced Zen Buddhism to the United States in 1893 and served as D. T. Suzuki's teacher, granted that permission, and Senzaki wandered from Kamchatka, Siberia, to northern Japan, eventually becoming priest of a little temple and director of its kindergarten. Shaku's approval of solitary self-realization symbolizes the anti-authoritarian spirit that has enabled Buddhism to adapt to a myriad of times and places since the 6th Century, when it departed from its imaginative and speculative Indian origins to match China's earthy, practical spirit. Yet this same spirit, some say, has endangered Buddhism's philosophical integrity. Thus, in the United States, Buddhism's emphasis on spiritual realization has been confused with self-affirmation.

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