Through A Glass, Darkly – Jostein Gaarder
Dolphin Paperback, reissued 2004
Translated from the original “I et speil, I en gåte” (1993) by Elizabeth Rokkan
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Best known for Sophie’s World, in which he sets out the history of philosophy for children or teenagers, Jostein Gaarder tackles some of the same subjects in Through A Glass, Darkly, albeit through a different and much shorter story.
On Christmas Eve, Cecilia lies in bed while her family celebrates below. Cecilia has cancer and while she fervently hopes to go skiing in a few weeks time, the reader soon learns that she is very ill. That night, an angel steps through her window and keeps her company. Over the following weeks, the angel and Cecilia share conversations about what it is like to be human, to live, to feel, and any other number of subjects.
What makes this story work is that Cecilia has the characteristics you imagine a child to have when you are no longer one yourself: she is naively curious, unafraid to ask questions or voice her opinions. The fact that the entity she talks to claims to be an angel does not scare her, but invites her to question beyond what she knows. And when she thinks that what the angel is saying cannot possibly be true, she says so. In many ways, the angel is like Cecilia, he asks questions about human life, just like Cecilia asks what it is like to be an angel. In the book they share a conversation and it is not the one teaching the other, but the shared exploration that is central. Even though the angel knows more about the sphere of God, so to say, he knows far less about the human condition, which establishes that more equal ground between the two characters. The only thing you could say is that the angel is impatient, and this annoyed me a little at times, impatient to know more about being human, impatient when Cecilia does not understand how different humans and angels are from each other.
Sometimes it is hard to gauge how your younger self would have reacted to a book, but in this case there is no doubt in my mind that my thirteen-year-old self would have loved this book. It does exactly what I always enjoyed so much about my religious studies classes in high school: it is not a book on religion trying to indoctrinate, instead it approaches questions of life (and death, but life more specifically) in an open-minded fashion, from the viewpoint of philosophy with a relation to religion. Although as a twenty-something I signal some inconsistencies and some parts where Gaarder seems to make small leaps that do not directly seem to follow from his previous line of reasoning, I know this would have bothered me less when I was younger.
When you read between the lines you can find Gaarder’s own opinions on religion in here, but I don’t think it is meant to be the kind of book to propagate one way of looking at the world. Instead, by looking at these questions through the prism of a girl who has a possibly fatal disease, it explores the ways of meaning-making about life and death and underlines the unknowable of that “other world”, thus: through a glass, darkly.
“We see everything in a glass, darkly. Sometimes we can peer through the glass and catch a glimpse of what is on the other side. If we were to polish the glass clean, we’d see much more. But then we would no longer see ourselves.”
Here comes the difficult part of writing this post: I can see why this book may sound (and be) problematic for strict atheist or religious people.* I can imagine atheist readers skipping this review after reading the first paragraph, thinking “an angel, I see, this books may be a bit too religious for me”. I would understand that reaction. However, what I loved about this book is that it can be read on different levels. Yes, it explores questions of a religious and philosophical nature, but it is also the story of the heartbreak and acceptance of love, illness, and loss. And most of all it explores humanity, what it means to live, to feel, and to care. As for the opposite side of the equation, those who keep to religious dogmas in a strict fashion, I would like to give warning. I have seen a few reactions on GoodReads that say that this book tries to incorporate evolution with the existence of God, and this goes to show that there is no logic to this book. It is true, Gaarder obviously does not believe that the one rules out the other, he also incorporates Scandinavian myths along the way, and this was something I personally enjoyed in his book, but I can see how this may not fit some worldviews, and if you feel strongly about such matters, than perhaps this book is best ignored.
If you do plan to read this, reading it around Christmas time is very fitting: the setting of snowy Norway, the Christmas celebrations of the family, and the contemplative mood of the book are my idea of a fitting read for the holiday season. Of course, the cover helps as well.
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* I in no way mean to claim that all religious or atheist people have no interest in exploring different world views, or philosophy and religion in general. I’d like to think most people are open to those kind of things, but I wanted to warn those who may find themselves reading the wrong kind of book based on my use of the word “angel” and “religion” so often in this post.
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