Review: The Book of Calamities

Human suffering through the ages

Here we have a book that takes us into the depths of all that comprises human suffering. Five questions, each with its own painful and diligent explanation/answer, read almost like the various circles of Dante’s hell. Why me? How do I endure? What is just? What does my suffering say about me? About God? And finally, What do I owe those who suffer? The author cites several characters throughout history who we’ve come to associate with suffering: Boethius, Gilgamesh & Enkidu, Joan Didion, Victor Frankl, Simone Weil, Thich Nhat Han, and several others who declaim from their own perspective.

Trachtenberg circles around one particular cause of all human suffering, religiosity and its singular mission to, as the author says, ‘…raise human beings to heaven on a tower of corpses.’ He examines this further, concluding that our attraction to religion derives from the fact that humans are ‘order seeking animals’ and that religion is ‘man’s revolt against mortality.’

This book may be singular insofar as, for this reader at least, its author seems more interesting than his topic. Trachtenberg appears to have written this work largely from his own deep dive into the very depths of misery described here. His conclusion seems to be that, to answer any of the five questions, human beings must experience misery, perversion, violence, and depravity first hand. Those of us living modern, sanitized lives quite possibly cannot understand this most basic of human queries: As Gilgamesh asks, ‘Must I, too, lie down like him (Enkidu) and never rise again?’ Caution, readers, you may want a dictionary close by. Example: To scry = to foretell; Oubliette = a secret dungeon. There are others.

One thought on “Review: The Book of Calamities

  1. Tony Marconi

    Hey, By—
    Not to put too fine a point on it, but the questions being raised by Trachtenberg, as you’ve described them—Why me? How do I endure? What is just? What does my suffering say about me? About God? And finally, What do I owe those who suffer?—are universal (in my opinion), but only as secondary human responses to culture. From an existential starting point, pain and suffering are real, but, when understood in their larger contexts, not so surprising after all. Not always so easy to deal with, either, but I tried putting a larger footprint on these issues a while back:

    Life Writ Simple

    Recognizing that any explanation of how the cosmos operates is dependent on, and limited to, the parameters set by the culture I am part of, I offer the following interpretation of our human place in the Universe:

    The question of the meaning and purpose of life for our species can be easily understood by the simple observation that human beings are a mic-phenomenon event. The nature of that event is—and inevitably always will be—ultimately unknowable to us in its ro-phenomenon subset of a macro totality due to the limitations of sapiens intellect, which is dependent on brain function.

    Human beings comprehend much of the macrocosm using rational deductions based on scientific methodology, including the hypothesized origins of time-space. The paradigm in which homo sapiens exists is: Time = Space = Matter = Energy.

    Once the Great Expansion (Big Bang) was set in motion about 13.8 billion years ago, the Universe went from a state of near-perfect low entropy to a still-ongoing development of high-entropic conditions. The manifest shape and structure of those high-entropic conditions is the subject of that method of human understanding known as science.

    As all human knowledge is obtained through the sensory structures of a sapiens-evolving physiology, our place in the cosmos can only be understood through limited observation. So far, this has led us to an awareness that sapiens has a minuscule role in, and an equally minuscule effect on, the totality of the universe. Thus, by simple observation, we are statistically insignificant from a cosmic standpoint.

    As sentient beings whose evolved brain capacity has allowed our species to develop self-awareness and a capacity for reasoning (which is an ability to understand cause and effect), we have increasingly sought methods to enhance our biological odds for survival.

    The nature of primate instinct centers on group/tribal dynamics and is pyramidal in structure. These inherent traits, combined with an evolving comprehension of our overwhelming vulnerability against cosmic forces, leads us to invent culture.

    Culture is created at the tribal level and is structured according to Dunbar’s number which suggests that individuals can maintain stable social relationships only when all members of a group know each other and understand their relationships with each other. This occurs at an observable mean of approximately 150 persons. Beyond that mean, people are socially held together by common mythologies.

    Mythologies arise from homo sapiens’ ability to communicate ideas about things not found in the natural world. There are three major paradigms that organize culture, and the first of these is the concept of acquired individual ownership which leads from barter to currency to wealth. Wealth leads to the necessity of enforcement by legitimized power (authority). But the most powerful myth—the one that determines the rationale for enforcing the other two—is religion. Under the auspices of these mythologies—wealth, temporal power, and religion—the norms of any culture are elevated to something supra (or super) human and, therefore, are beyond logical argument, rendering them innately indisputable.

    While the tribe/state/nation/empire itself may become the object of quasi-religious fervor, in many cultures, homo sapiens anthropomorphizes the processes of the observed universe into ontological divinities. The persistence of the almost-universal institution of religion among cultures is suggestive of a desire by most human beings to understand time-space from a personalized viewpoint that defines the observer as more cosmically significant than they objectively are.

    Mythologies are at the core of all cultural constructs, and where there is compatibility among two or more cultures, and resources are plentiful so that enjoined entities are not threatened with want, there is peaceful interaction. Where control of limited resources is threatened, tribes will rally around their own people, and physical conflict occurs.

    And that’s it. All the rest, all the volumes of history, philosophy, and theology ever written, are mere footnotes on the human condition. And yet, we can’t help but keep asking ourselves, “What if …”


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