Book Review: The Seven Deadly Sins

seven deadly sins

“humans cannot understand a full life without fun and pleasure; as such, we cannot possibly comprehend a truly human life without some aspect of lust, gluttony, wrath and sloth. Yet the sagest Christians demurred from going into details about what was attractive about the life to come: they weren’t sure. And humanists have done the same thing. When they tried to imagine a perfectly ordered human life it was far from appealing.”

The Seven Deadly Sins is a collection of essays written by seven Catalan authors who each explore the history and development of one of Christianity’s seven deadly sins. They discuss when the sin was selected and how it is defined. They ponder why a natural human emotion would be regarded as bad.

As these sins are a Christian concept, the tenets of that religion are focused on. There are also many reference to ancient beliefs and the more modern development of humanism. Key episodes in history are alluded to as markers in how what was considered sinful changed and developed. Philosophical thinking through the ages is analysed. A feature of the essays is the many digressions taken.

“nothing is excessive, disordered, or immoderate except in relation to a gradation that marks the point where excess begins.”

The first essay, by Oriol Qintana, covers sloth. It looks at changes to social and work culture in various societies and the pressure to perform productively and efficiently – to amass wealth for self or others. It is suggested that obligations are imposed to encourage aspiration for an idealised vision of ourselves.

“We don’t have the obligation to be the best people possible, but to be decent people, good enough people, each in our own way.

As in many of the essays, there are references to well known works of literature as the author introduces threads of personal opinion, each backed by argument but at times linking tenuously to the sin under discussion.

“We live among naysayers and enthusiasts, and the chaos is considerable. We certainly have a lot of opinions about good and evil.”

The second essay, by Adrià Pujol, looks at gluttony. The author suggests this is more of a man’s sin than a woman’s, a premise I disagreed with. He also offered gyms as an antidote – a way of offsetting overeating and its obvious manifestation, fat accrual – despite it now being known that, while exercise is vital for good health, weight loss still requires, first and foremost, a calorie deficit. Perhaps there is some cultural difference that made me struggle to engage with the arguments presented.

Lust is covered by Anna Punsoda. Once again I disagreed with the framework around which she built her reasoning. She seemed to be suggesting that all thought like her – I do not.

“It is not the most frowned-upon sin, because secretly we can all understand and forgive it.”

Desire may be a compulsion but the author appeared to devalue love, suggesting the value of maintaining monogamous relationships could not outweigh the pleasure to be found in moments of passion, paying little heed to the hurt and damage wrought when sexual excitement is valued over devotion.

“Their passion places them beyond good and evil and, more than loving each other, they love the very act of loving.”

Having struggled to engage once again, I was relieved to find more to consider in Raül Garrigasait’s thoughts on wrath. In this essay, the author expands on his thoughts with many references to the ancients – their wars and philosophy.

“Their ideal sage possessed an unflappable cold intelligence that never grew irritated, fell in love, or got depressed. They saw the passions as impurities that sullied the individual.”

As with other arguments propounded in the collection, there are suggestions that each sin may also offer positives. The key is to remain in control, to avoid excess. Being constantly angry can lead to embittered obstinacy, but wrath can also offer strength to say no to degrading commitments or evil collaborations.

Marina Porras writes of the sin of envy, pointing out it is harder to recognise as it comes from profound feelings difficult to articulate. Much of this essay references a work of literature I am not familiar with (A Broken Mirror by Mercè Rodoreda). While I could follow the opinions being shared I did not find them compelling.

Oriol Ponsatí-Murlà then looks at greed, referencing both modern and ancient texts to argue his case. He suggests that the concept of greed cannot be analysed objectively, that it and other sins are relative contextually.

“Raising awareness of our basic fallibility at comprehending our cultural past and present is absolutely indispensable so as to avoid making dogmatic fools of ourselves”

The author writes of a golden mean, one that can be a challenge to evaluate and determine.

The final essay, by Jordi Graupera, looks at pride. The golden mean is once again referenced along with texts that illustrate the basis of the author’s thinking. There are a smattering of personal anecdotes that added interest. I admit though, that by this stage in the book, my attention had waned.

The writing throughout verges on the academic in elucidation and clarification. There is much on the historical perspective along with the function of ethical thinking – sins as instruments of social control. The many digressions, although considered and explained, too often veered off topic. Essays are, of course, an author’s opinion. That I disagreed with many of these won’t have added to my enjoyment while reading.

How the seven deadly sins were selected was of interest. Although not new to me, the adaptation of ancient beliefs to make religious dogma more palatable was well expressed.

“The vast operation of translating – from Greek to Latin – and of conceptual transposing – adapting ancient philosophical notions to the Christian spiritual paradigm – that was entailed in moving Greek pagan wisdom to a religious imagery (along, largely, the footbridge of neo-Platonism) still constitutes one of the most monumental and successful intellectual efforts ever carried out in the Western World. Without it, it is impossible to understand the course of the last two millenia of our civilisation.”

I found aspects of these essays worth my time and consideration. On the whole, however, the collection was rather too dry to appeal to my reading tastes.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fum d’Estampa.

Book Review: When I Sing, Mountains Dance

when i sing

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“I used to tell them they should come swim in the river, and there’s no war in the mountains, that wars end but the mountains never do, that the mountains are older than war, and wiser than war, and once you’re dead they can’t kill you again”

When I Sing, Mountains Dance tells the story of a mountain in the Pyrenees close to the border with France. It is told from a variety of points of view, many of these unexpected. The people who inhabit the area have mostly done so for generations. They will one day die, as do all living entities. Life cycles may end naturally or be abruptly curtailed, but death is, at some point, inevitable. This is not portrayed as tragic, although individuals may be grieved for a time by those who cared for them. The mountain, with its forests, rivers and multiple life forms, has seen many come and go throughout its existence.

“Most men are liars. The men who invent stories and those who tell them. The ones who cut us out, who collect us and force us inside words, so we are the story they want to tell, with the moral they want to explain. Cut out and shrunk down to fit into their tiny heads. Tiny and dumb, but not any less evil.”

The opening chapter is narrated by a storm that blows in one evening. It finds a young man, Domènec, outside picking mushrooms. A lightning bolt strikes and kills him, an event witnessed by four dead women who stayed on in the region after they were murdered – their story is told next. Domènec leaves behind a wife, an elderly father, and two young children. These siblings, Mia and Hilari, are central to the tale.

“Some men’s tongues get stuck and just shrivel in their mouths, and they don’t know how to open up and say nice things to their children, or nice things to their grandchildren, and that’s how family stories get lost”

Their mother grew up in the city and found mountain life more challenging than she expected. She takes out the resentment she feels, particularly after her husband’s death, on her children. Nevertheless, they are able to run free, seeking out water sprites and other creatures from stories they are familiar with. They befriend a giant’s son, who brings a burgeoning happiness and then personal tragedy.

Key events are narrated through the eyes of witnesses, not just people. This adds power and depth. It is hard to feel sympathy when a man dies while trying to kill an innocent roe deer. The deer’s descriptions of men and their habits provide revealing perspectives – known but perhaps not often enough considered.

There are stories within stories, including local legends and myths. Men tell of the mountains being formed over the bodies of lovers. Of course, the mountain knows it was pushed up due to plate tectonics. People will believe what suits them; dismissing children’s words while holding close what has been inculcated.

Much of the writing is elemental but also playful. Sexual activity between a couple, narrated by a pet dog, was amusingly clever. A hiker from the city, enthusing about the bucolic beauty of the region, grows annoyed when he cannot purchase sustenance due to businesses closing for a funeral. He believes it is he who has been badly treated.

The ghosts in the forest appear happier than the living, content to exist among the creatures that surround them and enjoy all the mountain offers. Those still alive remain blinkered by their everyday concerns.

“The movement will have begun again. The disaster. The next beginning. The nth end. And you will all die. Because nothing lasts long. And no one remembers the names of your children.”

Within these tales are reminders that not everyone sees or senses the same things. Some know when snow is coming. Some know when the dead are near. It is posited that the dead no longer care for the living. They are now beyond their petty worries.

Although centring on a small, rural community across half a century – those whose lives are subtly changed by Mia and Hilari – this is a story of a place and all that exists there, coloured by history. The sweeping narrative makes clear how fleeting any life is. Death is the shedding of another leaf, a season turning.

Despite death being a recurring theme – a fact of life, and man no more important than any other creature – this is a story that proves remarkably uplifting. The writing is both lyrical and pithy with many amusing observations. It is evocative and skilfully rendered, lightly told but offering rare insight.

Any Cop?: An exceptional story that is impressively atmospheric but never heavy. Beautifully put together, it will affect and linger.

Jackie Law