Friday, November 15, 2019

The Peripatetic Reader

Books on the Bus
an update 

I always have a book with me including when I ride the bus. When I am out and about I prefer to leave the heavyweight tomes at home so my current reading that includes: The Symposium, a dialogue by Plato;  The Brothers Karamazov;  and the Essais of Montaigne, all of which are left on a table next to my comfortable reading chair.

On a recent morning I was reading the short novel The Country of Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett as I rode the bus headed downtown.  Similarly, some years ago,  when I rode downtown and back to meet some former coworkers for lunch I took along Gene Smith's slight but fascinating biography of Woodrow Wilson's last years, When The Cheering Stopped: The Last Years of Woodrow Wilson.  Now what do these two disparate books have in common? They are both lightweight and easy to carry and it also takes a little less concentration to read them than that required for Dostoevsky or Plato.

While I enjoy reading as I travel I equally enjoy noticing what my fellow bus riders are reading. There are always a few readers on board any bus with more than a handful of passengers. Call me a biblio-voyeur if you will, but I cannot deny my interest. Usually the books are not worth the glance, for the buses are filled with people reading Twilight or its clones, the latest romance novel or some Ludlumesque thriller-chiller (all of which I personally find unreadable - but that's just one reader's perspective).

Not to long ago just after I had finished reading the novel Less by Andrew Sean Greer I was riding the bus headed downtown and the fellow who sat down next to me pulled out the same book - needless to say a brief genial conversation ensued.  This reminded me of previous occasions when I encountered people with various reading material including  Knowles' A Separate Peace, and Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande. Now those are both books worthy of consideration, in fact I've read A Separate Peace more than once. They provide evidence that there is a bit of gold among the dross of the many books being read on the bus. 

It reminds me of yet another time several years ago that I struck up a conversation with someone who was reading No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I had recently read it myself and could not help sharing the joy of the experience by discussing the book with a fellow reader - no stranger, for we were connected by our shared reading. While that does not happen often since I usually have my nose buried in a book, there is nothing like taking books with you and reading them on buses -  enjoying them while traveling to and fro.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

A Journey of Beauty and Love

The Bridge of Little Jeremy 

"In the epoch of Lutetia, there used to be a wooden bridge there, the only bridge that connected the Roman quarters on the Left Bank to their administrative offices on the Ile de la Cite. That bridge has been replaced several times since, but, among the dozen bridges that ornate the two isles today, the Petit Pont has always been my favorite, and I've never attempted to paint it yet." (p 52)

This is the story of a boy and his dog. But it is much more than a simple tale like that, for as the narrative grows the reader finds himself on a journey of discovery with Little Jeremy. It turns out to be a variation on the mythical journey of a hero and as it develops the sometimes dreamlike quality of the story draws the reader forward with the intensity of a mystery, the bounteous beauty of Paris, the suspense of unexpected events, and a joyousness that can only be found in the love of a boy for his mother.

The setting is Paris which underlies the beauty of the story - a beauty that is enhanced by young Jeremy, who even at his age has the budding eye of an artist:
"I see the sinuous streets and the steep staircases of Montmartre that I haven't seen for a long while, and then I see how the works of Nature and Man have come together to sculpt the beauty of our city."(p 136)

Not only is the beauty of the setting framed by the eyes of young Jeremy but the narrator limns the setting with descriptions like that of the "Jardin-des-Plantes" where Leon, Jeremy's trusted and loving dog, is seen chasing butterflies. As the story develops the intricacies of the city and its spaces add to the mysteriousness of Jeremy's journey.

Little Jeremy narrates the story, and we learn he has a  medical condition - a weakness of his heart due to a faulty valve. As a result he does not attend school and often spends his days scouring the city with Leon. His encounters with the city and the world beyond his small apartment during the arc of the story are both interesting and exciting - he becomes a hero for a time. His mother, unfortunately faces a serious financial debt due to taxes. Ultimately, Little Jeremy's desire to help his mother leads him to a discovery that with the application of his artistic skills and help from some friends may provide the funds that are essential for their survival as a family.

It is the innocence and loving nature of Little Jeremy contrasted with the realities and difficulties of living that makes this a mesmerizing story. There is great suspense leading to a denouement that demonstrates the magic of the search for an ideal. That combined with the importance of love for those that are close to you and a need to nurture the genius within you makes this a wonderful novel.

Friday, October 25, 2019

An Attitude of Humility

The Road to Serfdom 

The Road to Serfdom

“The argument for liberty is not an argument against organization, which is one of the most powerful tools human reason can employ, but an argument against all exclusive, privileged, monopolistic organization, against the use of coercion to prevent others from doing better.” ― Friedrich August von Hayek

This is one of the foundation books for my personal philosophy. Along with his other works, the thought of Friedrich von Hayek is basic to my own individualist world view. In this book Hayek contends that liberty is fragile, easily harmed but seldom extinguished in one fell swoop. Instead, over the years “the unforeseen but inevitable consequences of socialist planning create a state of affairs in which, if the policy is to be pursued, totalitarian forces will get the upper hand.” He asserts that liberty has developed from an a posteriori recognition of humans’ inherent limitations – particularly the restrictions of their knowledge and reasoning. Most importantly, no planner or group of planners, however intelligent and well resourced, can possibly obtain and process the countless bits of localized and tacit information required such that a government plan meets its objectives. Only price signals emitted in an unhampered market enable harmony and efficiency to arise spontaneously from many millions of individuals’ plans. Hence government intervention in the plans of individuals, even if undertaken by men of good will, inevitably leads to loss of liberty, economic stagnation (at best) and war and impoverishment (at worst).

While much of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom focused on correcting erroneous ideas and sloppy thinking that misled (and still mislead) many to support socialistic expansions of government power, that is not all it did. It also reiterated the case for individualism and its economic manifestation—free markets. Since convincing careful thinkers requires such an affirmative case as well as defensive debunking, the book’s diamond 75th anniversary is a propitious time to remember what only individualism provides, so that we will not continue to follow a path of “replacing what works with what sounds good,” as Thomas Sowell described it.

The essential features of…individualism…are the respect for the individual man qua man…the recognition of his own views and tastes as supreme in his own sphere…and the belief that it is desirable that men should develop their own individual gifts and bents.
The attitude of the liberal toward society is like that of the gardener who tends a plant and, in order to create the conditions most favorable to its growth, must know as much as possible about its structure and the way it functions.

The holder of coercive power should confine himself in general to creating conditions under which the knowledge and initiative of individuals are given the best scope so that they can plan most successfully. The successful use of competition as the principle of social organization precludes certain types of coercive interference with economic  life.  Planning and competition can be combined only by planning for competition but not…planning which is to be substituted for competition.
It is the very complexity of the division of labor under modern conditions which makes competition the only method by which such coordination can be adequately brought about.

Nobody can consciously balance all the considerations bearing on the decisions of so many individuals…coordination can clearly be effective only by… arrangements which convey to each agent the information he must possess in order effectively to adjust his decisions to those of others…This is precisely what the price system does under competition and what no other system even promises to accomplish. The economist's plea is for a method which effects such co-ordination without the need for an omniscient dictator. Recognition of the individual as the ultimate judge of his ends…that as far as possible his own views ought to govern his actions…forms the essence of the individualist position.

What are called “social ends” are…merely identical ends of many individuals…to the achievement of which individuals are willing to contribute…Common action is thus limited to the fields where people agree on common ends. The clash between planning and democracy arises simply from the fact that the latter is an obstacle to the suppression of freedom which the direction of economic activity requires. The more the state “plans,” the more difficult planning becomes for the individual.

Economic control is not merely control of a sector of human life…it is the control of the means for all our ends. To believe that the power which is thus conferred on the state is merely transferred to it from others is erroneous. It is a power which is newly created and which in a competitive society nobody possesses. So long as property is divided among many owners, none of them acting independently has exclusive power to determine the income and position of particular people.

Contrast…two types of security: the limited one, which can be achieved for all, and which is therefore no privilege but a legitimate object of desire; and absolute security, which…if it is provided for some, it becomes a privilege at the expense of others. Individualism is thus an attitude of humility…the exact opposite of that intellectual hubris which is at the root of the demand for comprehensive direction of the social process.

Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom defended the individual—the only ultimate locus of choice, responsibility and morality—as the appropriate focus of efforts toward human improvement, at a time when failing to keep that focus threatened the entire world. That is a lesson we need to remember now as well, when many do not remember the horrors that can lead to, and so support constantly expanding government powers over its citizens.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Drifting Across America

American Woman 

American Woman

"And always the radio on, somehow underscoring her loneliness more than relieving it. She had plenty of distance from Dolly but still, late at night, she would turn down the radio low. In the vast nighttime hush she could play it quite softly and hear. The contrast of her life with the world outside sometimes felt too great on these nights. The radio was like a tiny porthole in her drifting balloon."(p 89) - American Woman, Susan Choi.

Susan Choi's novel is based on the real events surrounding the kidnapping of Patty Hearst in the 1970's.  She imbues her narrative with psychological depth and texture, while cleaving close to the true course of events. Instead of focusing on Patty (here named Pauline, the daughter of a wealthy newspaper publisher), Choi turns her attention on Jenny Shimada, a young Japanese-American woman, who, fleeing the Feds after she and her boyfriend orchestrate the bombing of draft offices to protest the Vietnam War, agrees to help Pauline and her kidnappers. This protagonist is based on a real-life person, Wendy Yoshimura, who spent what's now called "the lost year" (1974, when Patty and her captors disappeared) with Patty and two of her kidnappers. In Choi's book, the four spend the time in a rented farmhouse in New York State, with Jenny running errands while Pauline and her "comrades" undergo physical training for their fight against "the pigs" and halfheartedly write a book (purportedly to eventually raise money to pay for their lifestyle).

While the author deftly handles Pauline's transformation, the bank robbery, Pauline and Jenny's cross-country trip, this was only part of the story.  More important for this reader was the more successful aspect of the novel -- the author's ability to create the atmosphere of suspense for the radicals who have segregated themselves from everyday life as most of us know it. This helps one understand the boredom and slowness of the action as the group is "lying low" out of reluctance to risk being recognized. The slowness ends in dramatic fashion in the final section of the novel with the denouement of the story. Even though you may know the basic history of the underlying events the author is able to maintain your interest.

Another important aspect is Choi's skill at getting inside the heads of her protagonists adding to the particular, unsettling appeal of the novel. What makes Jenny a radical? And what then leads her to wonder whether "perhaps they had been wrong to fight Power on its terms, instead of rejecting its terms utterly"? She presents protagonists that are often conflicted and, in doing so, Choi takes an uncompromising look at issues of race, class, war and peace. That having been said, I found the style of the author limited the effectiveness of her storytelling. This novel reminded me of Lionel Trilling's The Middle of the Journey , a novel that succeeded both in creating an unsettling narrative (loosely based on real-life communist sympathizers in the 1940's) and demonstrating a felicitous prose style. The comparison may seem unfair but having experienced Trilling's prose I could only be disappointed by that of Susan Choi. Nevertheless this novel was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

American Woman by Susan Choi. Harper Perennial, 2004 (2003).

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Lessons of History

Destined for War: 
Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? 

Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?

“Like other practicing historians, I am often asked what the “lessons of history” are. I answer that the only lesson I have learnt from studying the past is that there are no permanent winners and losers. —Ramachandra Guha” ― Graham Allison, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?

Graham Allison’s book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides Trap?, discusses China's rise into the US political mainstream. After explaining the Thucydides Trap – the friction created when a rising power challenges an established power, the author presents twelve historical examples that resulted in war, and four in which war was avoided. Allison proceeds to focus on the examples he considers to be the most instructive, namely the Peloponnesian War, World War I, and the Cold War.

Allison also relays insights from the late Lee Kuan Yew in making his case that Beijing's goal is the restoration of China as a regional hegemon. He argues against the idea that China will become a 'responsible stakeholder' in the international system in which the US remains the arbiter. China seeks the expulsion of the US from Asia, and is rapidly accumulating capabilities to achieve this goal.

He translates an unfiltered Chinese view for his local audience, analogizing it to America's expansion in the Western Hemisphere under President Teddy Roosevelt. Going by Allison's ledger, the factors favouring war between the US and China are ominous: two powers with narratives of their own 'exceptionalism', China's sense of past humiliation and present restoration, incompatible cultures and political systems, and a series of entangling flash-points and alliances. On the positive side, Allison argues, is an interdependent trade relationship and stable nuclear deterrence. Allison also labels North Korea as a 'Cuban missile crisis in slow motion'.

Ironically, the weakness of Allison's book is not his warning that the US and China are at risk of falling into the Thucydides Trap – a case he makes conclusively – but rather his explanations for why war remains avoidable. First, Allison makes the common error that nuclear dynamics between the US and China work the same way as it did with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Nuclear deterrence rests not just on capability (ensuring a retaliatory strike), but also credibility. During the Cold War, the fall of Western Europe to the Soviet Union posed such an existential threat to the US that a nuclear war could credibly be initiated to prevent it. In Asia, however, the US will not commence a full nuclear exchange with China and there is no way to convince Beijing otherwise. As such, current nuclear dynamics in Asia makes major war more likely, as mapped out in my review of the RAND study of a US-China war, a study also cited by Allison.

Finally, while carefully articulating China’s perception of the rivalry, it is surprising just how US-centric Allison’s ideas are for how conflict might be avoided. Allison suggests curtailing America’s commitment to Taiwan in exchange for concessions in the South and East China seas, or abandoning Prompt Global Strike in exchange for Beijing limiting its conventional expansion. However it seems unlikely China will agree to any of this. Why should it? Time is on Beijing's side. These kinds of deals only worked during the Cold War because each side recognized the other’s core interests while the balance of power between the US and the Soviet Union remained relatively stable. In the case of China and the US, the power shift is rapid and profound, and while Allison clearly understands this he fails to see the implications of his own conclusions. Rather than horse-trading over Taiwan and the South China Sea, Beijing might suggest the US leave Asia entirely in exchange for permanent recognition of Washington’s annexation of Hawaii!

Despite these shortcomings, this reader found Allison’s book good reading for the overview that it provides. In Destined for War, Allison calls Obama’s Asia pivot 'using an extra strength aspirin to treat cancer'. This author suggests stronger methods.

Friday, October 11, 2019

The Force of Destiny



“The only hope I have left for you hangs on a great doubt - the doubt whether we are, or are not, the masters of our own destinies. It may be that mortal free-will can conquer mortal fate; and that going, as we all do, inevitably to death, we go inevitably to nothing that is before death.”  ― Wilkie Collins, Armadale

Armadale, Wilkie Collins’s longest novel and like another of his popular novels, The Moonstone, the narrative comprises a series of testimonies and accounts (such as from characters’ diaries and letters) which gradually shed light on the mystery. One interesting note: the heading of Chapter VII is "The Plot Thickens". I do not know if that was the first use of that phrase (I doubt it) but it is striking that Collins would use it for a chapter heading.

In 1832, Allan Armadale confesses on his deathbed to murder: his clerk, Fergus Ingleby, stole his name and married Jane Blanchard, the woman Allan loved. Pursuing the couple on board a ship, Allan locked Fergus in a cabin and left him to drown when the ship was wrecked. Allan later travelled to the West Indies where he married a creole woman and had a son.
After this opening the story moves to 1851, and the murderer’s son has adopted the name Ozias Midwinter, while the drowned Fergus Ingleby’s has been brought up under the name Allan Armadale – and with it, has inherited Fergus’ property, the estate of Thorpe Ambrose. Ozias learns the truth about his father’s crime – that he murdered his friend’s father – while on a sailing trip with Fergus and Jane’s son, Allan Armadale. He destroys the letter containing Allan Armadale Senior’s confession, and vows to keep the secret from his friend.

Lydia Gwilt, the former maid to Jane Blanchard (Allan’s father), sets her sights on marrying Allan for his money. Both Ozias Midwinter and Allan Armadale end up falling for Lydia, but her plan to marry Armadale is scuppered when her cynical motives are uncovered. However the resourceful Lydia, having learned the secret that Midwinter’s real name is also Allan Armadale, plans to marry him under his real name, get the other Allan Armadale out of the way, and then use the marriage certificate as legal proof of her entitlement to the Armadale estate. This complex plot continues as Lydia marries Midwinter, concealing her checkered past from him but the denouement will have to await your reading pleasure for this reader must vow not to spoil that delight.

Armadale is unusual among Wilkie Collins’s sensation novels because it demonstrates a detailed interest in human psychology, with dreams cropping up at numerous points in the novel, and Collins taking time to explore what John Sutherland, in The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction, calls ‘the psychology of crime’. Granted, the dreams are used as plot devices rather than as a sort of proto-stream-of-consciousness designed to shed light on Allan Armadale’s character; but Collins’s use of the dreams, and Midwinter’s analysis of their significance as premonitions, adds another psychological layer to this complex novel. The real triumph of Armadale is Collins’s portrayal of Lydia Gwilt, whose surname suggests ‘guilt’ (and ‘gilt’, evoking her gold-digging ambitions), but also, through a twist, ‘will’, foregrounding her own independent agency and, it must be said, her perseverance and cunning. This is a great read which I would recommend to lovers of Dickens or Thackeray.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Ripples of Memory

Absalom, Absalom! 

Absalom, Absalom!

“Maybe nothing ever happens once and is finished. Maybe happen is never once but like ripples maybe on water after the pebble sinks, the ripples moving on, spreading, the pool attached by a narrow umbilical water-cord to the next pool which the first pool feeds, has fed, did feed, let this second pool contain a different temperature of water, a different molecularity of having seen, felt, remembered, reflect in a different tone the infinite unchanging sky, it doesn’t matter: that pebble’s watery echo whose fall it did not even see moves across its surface too at the original ripple-space, to the old ineradicable rhythm”  ― William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!

Memory. That is remembering the past, your family, the culture of family and place. That is in and of the essence of this memorable novel. We find it in the wisteria:

"Do you mark how the wistaria, sun-impacted on this wall here, distills and penetrates this room as though (light-unimpeded) by secret and attritive progress from mote to mote of obscurity's myriad components? That is the substance of remembering---sense, sight, and smell" (p 115)

This is a story of a man, Thomas Sutpen, and other men and women whose lives formed the history of a place and a time--a sometimes dynasty, as told by several narrators including Miss Rosa Coldfield and Quentin Compson (whom you may remember from The Sound and the Fury).
The memory of the events surrounding the ferociousness of Thomas Sutpen is told through fabulous stories, conjecture, discussions, and arguments. It encompasses the history of generations, the strength of women to survive, and the impact of slavery on their way of being.

Told with the poetic beauty of Faulkner's magnificent prose this is a novel to be read and reread; savored as you meditate on the meaning of these people and events and how they resemble those you may remember from Greek or Shakespearean tragedy. Above all it is about Faulkner's idea of the South and that of his characters, especially Quentin, the young Harvard student who proclaims:

"'I don't hate it,' he said. I don't hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark: I don't. I don't! I don't hate it! I don't hate it!" (p 303)

Monday, September 30, 2019

Discovery of a Lost Poem

The Swerve: 
How the World Became Modern 

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

“What human beings can and should do, he wrote, is to conquer their fears, accept the fact that they themselves and all the things they encounter are transitory, and embrace the beauty and the pleasure of the world.”  ― Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

The fifteenth century was one of discovery and reinvigoration of culture. It is rightly known as the Renaissance. Stephen Greenblatt has written a book, The Swerve, about one of those discoverers who remade culture and gained fame in particular from one book, On The Nature of Things by Lucretius. This work by a Roman of the first century BC is an extended poem about philosophy and science. The extent to which Lucretius covers things and described them in a way that is very modern is breathtaking. Added to that is the beauty of his poetry. Yet, in spite of this, the book had been lost for more than a thousand years hidden away in a remote monastery.

Greenblatt provides the background of the discoverer, one Poggio Bracciolini, a classicist who for a time became secretary to the Pope. He scoured the Italian countryside for old books and with Lucretius found a book that would influence thinkers from Machiavelli to Montaigne and beyond into the twentieth century. The Swerve derives its name from one of the most important concepts in Lucretius' poem, that everything is made of small particles called atoms by the Greek philosopher Democritus, and that everything in the Universe is informed by the movement of these particles - the "swerve" - and not by the gods of the Romans or the god of the Catholic church.  Perhaps more importantly Lucretius was a follower of Epicurus whose philosophy taught that one should take no part in the struggle for wealth and power, one should attach the greatest importance to friendship, and thus achieve tranquility of mind. All of this to be achieved without a reliance on gods (although he did not deny the existence of gods, rather that they did not interact with humans).  Cicero, while disliking Epicureanism, read On the Nature of Things and thought well of Lucretius' poetry.

Greenblatt's prose is a delight to read and his history reads like a novel. Some critics think that he speculates too much and does not provide enough evidence for some of his claims, but that is part and parcel of writing about the world that is removed from our current age by more than a millennia.

After providing the story of Poggio's life and his discovery Greenblatt concludes the book with a discussion of the impact of Lucretius in the centuries after the discovery. The book was reprinted with copies spreading throughout Europe. Greenblatt writes: "Once Gutenberg's clever technology was commercially established, printed editions quickly followed. The editions were routinely prefaced with warnings and disavowals." (to placate the ecclesiastical authorities).

This is cultural history that proves both entertaining and enlightening. It may encourage some to read Lucretius' poem which this reader has enjoyed reading more than once. It is accessible and worth the effort to discover for yourself what an ancient Roman poet had to say about the way things are.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Hope Devolves

Man's Hope 

Man's Hope

“The great mystery is not that we should have been thrown down here at random between the profusion of matter and that of the stars; it is that from our very prison we should draw, from our own selves, images powerful enough to deny our own nothingness.”  ― Andre Malraux

Man’s Hope is an epic novel about the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. During this bloody conflict, the Fascist elements of the Spanish military and the Catholic church, under the leadership of the Falangist dictator Francisco Franco, were supported vigorously by Benito Mussolini’s Italy and Adolf Hitler’s Germany and overthrew the leftist Republican government of Spain which was supported by the Soviet Union and by individual citizens of the Western European nations.

André Malraux was among many anti-Fascist Europeans who volunteered to fight for the Republicans, and he played a significant role as an organizer of the International Squadron of aircraft for the Republic. Man’s Hope is based on Malraux's experiences which he chronicled during the battles on the Republican side and and published while the war was still raging; it depicts the events of 1936-1937 as an adventure of the human spirit within a framework of historical, political, and philosophical ideas.

The novel is divided into three parts of which the first, “Careless Rapture”, begins with the optimistic and carefree mood of the Republican militia and their international volunteer comrades during the first summer of the Civil War. The second section of part 1, entitled “Prelude to Apocalypse,” concerns the mismanagement of the emotions of the Republican movement. This is followed by “The Manzanares” (the second part), with sections are entitled “Action and Reaction” and “Comrades’ Blood.” “The Manzanares” begins with the rout of the Republicans from Toledo in September, continues with the siege and bombing of the Republicans in Madrid (now a city in flames), and ends in December with the Republican counterattack. The final part of the novel was originally entitled “The Peasants,” but Malraux changed the title to “Hope” in his definitive 1947 revision—probably to underscore its importance for the work as a whole.

A significant theme of the novel concerns the nature of a revolution or popular uprising. From Malraux's perspective, a revolution comes into being under the impetus of a lyric burst of feeling, the best of which is found in freedom and fraternity. At this stage, Anarchism seems to fit well with the revolution. For a revolution to be sustained, however, these feelings have to be disciplined and organized; hence the need for a political machinery such as that of the Communist Party (which will, ironically, destroy the lyric impulses of revolution).

On a political level, then, Man’s Hope dramatizes the self-defining process of a revolution. As it does so, Malraux also explores the meaning of being human. When humanist intellectuals such as Scali are confronted with the brutalities of war and carefree individuals such as Manuel evolve into effective military leaders, they have to come to terms with the meaning of humanity—their own as well as others’. By means of symbolic epiphanies Malraux provides an assurance of hope in the endurance of fundamental humanity. Overall this book is a great sort of mess mirroring the morass of war.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Aristophanes, Women, and Peace

Lysistrata and The Acharnians 

Lysistrata and Other Plays

“What matters that I was born a woman, if I can cure your misfortunes? I pay my share of tolls and taxes, by giving men to the State. But you, you miserable greybeards, you contribute nothing to the public charges; on the contrary, you have wasted the treasure of our forefathers, as it was called, the treasure amassed in the days of the Persian Wars. You pay nothing at all in return; and into the bargain you endanger our lives and liberties by your mistakes. Have you one word to say for yourselves?... Ah! don't irritate me, you there, or I'll lay my slipper across your jaws; and it's pretty heavy.”  ― Aristophanes, Lysistrata

Peace is a major theme of these plays. The Acharnians focuses on arguments against war among the men, while Lysistrata is a bawdy and demented fest of diatribes between women and men. When the women, led by the titular character, withhold their sex in their demand for peace the men seem to be at a significant disadvantage.

The Acharnians is set during the Peloponnesian War during the sixth year of conflict between Athens and Sparta. In Aristophanes play the protagonist is a farmer named Dikaiopolis who has suffered as the war has progressed. The Athenian military faces pressure to escalate the conflict for revenge against Sparta, while Dikaiopolis wishes to negotiate peace for his family alone. Throughout the play, Dikaipolis must use his wit to thwart his militaristic opponents. Democracy is presented as a vehicle for militarism and it allows many of the Athenian politicians to rally supporters under the guise of cooperation. A buffoonish and arrogant general, Lamachus, is held up as an example of the militaristic attitude that Greek democracy often produced.

The play is filled with outrageous puns and wonderful wit that skewers the military and the Athenian aristocracy as peace is sought. There is even a brief section that pokes fun at the then successful tragic dramatist Euripides. However, this play is definitely one about the men who are in charge whether in Athens or Sparta; thus it is easy to contrast it with the approach taken in Lysistrata.

The name Lysistrata can be loosely translated as "she who disbands armies". That is behind both her mission and her leadership of the women of Athens who she encourages to withhold their sex from the men until peace can be brokered with Sparta. The play was produced more than a decade after The Acharnians and Athens had suffered a major blow when defeated in Syracuse with the loss of her navy. While they were recovering from that disaster the war continued with no end in sight (did I mention that these plays address very contemporary issues for those of us living in twenty-first century America?).

The play is famous for the roles given to women, particularly noteworthy since there is no evidence for women attending Athenian theater, and since it entailed the somewhat comic difficulty of having men, already in their phallic-oriented costumes, play the roles of the women. It is much more bawdy and extreme in its humor than The Archanians with the focus on the "battle of the sexes" centered at the Acropolis as a means used by the women, led by Lysistrata, to bring the men to their senses. The humor is magnified in the opening sections as the men who oppose them are old and perhaps a bit senile since the young men are all at war.
The pride of the old men is deeply wounded when Lysistrata declares that the women have assumed all civil authority and will henceforth provide for the safety and welfare of Athens. The magistrate cannot believe his ears when he hears Lysistrata say that the women have grown impatient with the incompetence of their husbands in matters that concern the commonweal. For rebuking the women, the magistrate receives potfuls of water poured on his head. When the ineffectual old men declare that they will never submit, the women answer that the old men are worthless and that all they have been able to do is legislate the city into trouble.

The women do have difficulties maintaining order within their ranks, but that just adds to the comedy. The result of this and further comic moments, including a riot surrounding the birth of a baby to one of the women, is a delight that transcends the centuries and overcomes many of the difficulties of translation. This has become my favorite play by Aristophanes.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Becoming an Adult


“When you are sixteen you do not know what your parents know, or much of what they understand, and less of what's in their hearts. This can save you from becoming an adult too early, save your life from becoming only theirs lived over again--which is a loss. But to shield yourself--as I didn't do--seems to be an even greater error, since what's lost is the truth of your parents' life and what you should think about it, and beyond that, how you should estimate the world you are about to live in.”  ― Richard Ford, Wildlife

Richard Ford is best known for his short stories and his three Frank Bascombe novels (The Sportswriter, Independence Day, and The Lay of the Land). While I have not read those books, I may consider them because I found Wildlife (1990) to be an intense and interesting character study. It is set during the 1960 summer of rampant Montana forest fires which provide both background and metaphor for the flame-out of the narrator's home life.

The narrator is sixteen-year-old Joe Brinson whose family has recently moved to Great Falls, Montana. While Joe is trying to adapt to a new school and neighborhood his parent's marriage is slowly disintegrating. The decay of the marriage is exacerbated by Joe's father Jerry's loss of his job, after being falsely accused of theft, and his choice to become a firefighter; a decision that takes him away from his wife and son. Joe's mother is attracted to another man and this leads to situations that make Joe wonder about the meaning of his life and his relationship with his mother and father.

Joe is a thoughtful young man, but is confused by the changes he has been experiencing. They've left him a troubled and puzzling teenager on the border of maturity. With a spare, carefully shaped prose style that reflects the setting of the action and the quality of the problems and choices Joe faces, Ford creates a character and situations with which many young people can, no doubt, identify---Joe thinks to himself:

"I wondered if there was some pattern or an order to things in your life---not one you knew but that worked on you and made events when they happened seem correct, or made you confident about them or willing to accept them even if they seemed like wrong things. Or was everything just happening all the time, in a whirl without anything to stop it or cause it---the way we think of ants, or molecules under the microscope, or the way others would think of us, not knowing our difficulties, watching us from another planet?"(p 96)

While Wildlife is a coming of age story Ford uses the family relationships to provide it with a unique approach to a familiar form. Adding to the situation of the family is a growing intensity of thoughts and questions percolating in young Joe's head. The events slowly create a level of dramatic intensity that lead to a thought-provoking ending to the story of Joe and his family.  This reader found the novel a sad but riveting tale  reminiscent of Raymond Carver and Walker Percy in my experience.

Friday, September 06, 2019

Rain in the Foothills

The Big Sleep 

The Big Sleep (Philip Marlowe, #1)

“You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that, oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan was.”  ― Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

Born in Chicago, raised in a suburb of London, and schooled in a private British preparatory school, Raymond Chandler remarked: "I had to learn American just like a foreign language." He was successful in that endeavor, although it took him quite a while to gain success as a professional writer.

It was Chandler's first novel, The Big Sleep, that brought him his first major success in 1939. It is a narrative that is nothing if not what one would consider cinematic in its beautiful prose. Yet, it is the dialogue that seems to me to be the best part. This is the oomph that gave his novel a kick that I seldom have experienced in my reading. Chandler was both a master of prose and the detective story and, despite rough edges, never seemed to lose his authorial grip over the plot while dazzling the reader with beautiful women and sleazy characters (sometimes one in the same).

Chandler does not rely on dialogue alone. There are serious themes that permeate the narrative. The Big Sleep takes place in a big city in America during the 1930s—the period of the Great Depression when America was, as a whole, disillusioned and cynical about its prospects for the future. Chandler mentions money throughout the novel as an ideal, a goal for the seedy crime ring that lives within the novel. Many of the characters kill and bribe for money. The opening page of the novel claims that Chandler's detective, Philip Marlowe, is "dressed up" because he is about to enter a house that is worth millions. He also chooses to portray this world as dark and corrupt. No one, not even the law, is exempt from corruption in this novel: newspapers lie and cops can be bought (not unlike our world today). Corruption is reflected in various ways throughout the novel. First, The Big Sleep is dark in that it is a novel in which rain pervades. It is also a novel in which richness is juxtaposed against the grime of deserted oilfields. The oilfields themselves—including the deserted one with empty pumps and rusted remains in which Carmen Sternwood, daughter of his client, attempts to kill Marlowe and in which Rusty Regan is lying dead—are symbolic.

His private eye, Philip Marlowe, is smooth and suave and always seems to be on top of the situation, even when he appears to be on the bottom. I was impressed with the way Chandler's prose made you feel that you were living in a specific time and place, Los Angeles in the 30s. Following the twists and turns as he handily dealt with one surprise after another made for great fiction. It was a joy to read this author and experience one of the supreme experts on crime and the criminal in American fiction.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Saturday Poem

per il Mulatto Brischdauer
gran pazzo e compositore mulattico
………. ––Ludwig van Beethoven, 1803

The Bridgetower

If was at the Beginning. If
he had been older, if he hadn’t been
dark, brown eyes ablaze
in that remarkable face;
if he had not been so gifted, so young
a genius with no time to grow up;
if he hadn’t grown up, undistinguished,
to an obscure old age.
If the piece had actually been,
as Kreutzer exclaimed, unplayable––even after
our man had played it, and for years,
no one else was able to follow––
so that the composer’s fury would have raged
for naught, and wagging tongues
could keep alive the original dedication
from the title page he shredded.
Oh, if only Ludwig had been better-looking,
or cleaner, or a real aristocrat,
von instead of the unexceptional van
from some Dutch farmer; if his ears
had not already begun to squeal and whistle;
if he hadn’t drunk his wine from lead cups,
if he could have found True Love. Then
the story would have held: In 1803
George Polgreen Bridgetower,
son of Friedrich Augustus the African Prince
and Maria Anna Sovinki of Biala in Poland,
traveled from London to Vienna,
where he met the Great Master
who would stop work on his Third Symphony
to write a sonata for his new friend
to premiere triumphantly on May 24th,
whereupon the composer himself
leapt up from the piano to embrace
his “lunatic mulatto.”
Who knows what would have followed?
They might have palled around some,
just a couple of wild and crazy guys
strutting the town like rock stars,
hitting the bars for a few beers, a few laughs . . .
instead of falling out over a girl
nobody remembers, nobody knows.
Then this bright-skinned papa’s boy
could have sailed his fifteen-minute fame
straight into the record books––where,
instead of a Regina Carter or Aaron Dworkin or Boyd Tinsley
sprinkled here and there, we would find
rafts of black kids scratching out scales
on their matchbox violins so that some day
they might play the impossible:
Beethoven’s Sonata No. 9 in A Major, Op. 47,
also known as The Bridgetower.
by Rita Dove
from Sonata Mulattica,  W.W. Norton, 2009

Monday, August 26, 2019

Historian and Novelist

The Historian and the Story

In his narrative of the Mann Gulch fire, Young Men and Fire, Norman Maclean meditates on the meaning of history and storytelling. In the paragraphs just following the moments when he has presented the heart of the disaster he comments:

"The historian, for a variety of reasons, can limit his account
to firsthand witnesses, although the shortage of firsthand 
witnesses probably does not explain completely why 
contemporary accounts of the Mann Gulch fire avert their eyes 
from the tragedy. If  a storyteller thinks enough of storytelling 
to regard it as a calling, unlike a historian he cannot turn from 
the sufferings of his characters. A storyteller, unlike a historian, 
must follow compassion wherever it leads him. He must be 
able to accompany his characters even into smoke and fire, 
and bear witness to what they thought and felt even when 
they themselves no longer knew. This story of the Mann Gulch 
fire will not end until it feels able to walk the final distance to 
the crosses with those who for the time being are blotted out 
by smoke. They were young and did not leave much behind 
them and need someone to remember them." (Young Men and
Fire, pp 101-102)

By contrast with the work of the historian, the storyteller James Fenimore Cooper, in his historical novel The Prairie, can hold the reader in suspense with the approach of a great prairie fire while the old trapper devises a method of using fire to fight fire and, in doing so, save the party of settlers. Here is the conclusion of the episode in Cooper's words:

"The experience of the trapper was in the right. As the fire gained
strength and heat, it began to spread on three sides, dying of itself
on the fourth, for want of aliment. As it increased, and the sullen
roaring announced its power, it cleared every thing before it, leaving
the black and smoking soil far more naked than if the scythe had swept
the place. The situation of the fugitives would have still been
hazardous had not the area enlarged as the flame encircled them. But
by advancing to the spot where the trapper had kindled the grass, they
avoided the heat, and in a very few moments the flames began to recede
in every quarter, leaving them enveloped in a cloud of smoke, but
perfectly safe from the torrent of fire that was still furiously
rolling onward.

"The spectators regarded the simple expedient of the trapper with that
species of wonder, with which the courtiers of Ferdinand are said to
have viewed the manner in which Columbus made his egg stand on its
end, though with feelings that were filled with gratitude instead of
envy."  (The Prairie, Chapter 23)

James Fenimore Cooper, The Prairie. The Heritage Press, 1960 (1827).
Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire. The University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Too Young to Count the Odds

Young Men and Fire: 
 A True Story of the Mann Gulch Fire 

Young Men and Fire:  A True Story of the Mann Gulch Fire

“They were still so young they hadn't learned to count the odds and to sense they might owe the universe a tragedy.” 

― Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire

Catastrophes are only a part of the story of the crew of fifteen smoke jumpers who, in August 1949, stepped into the sky above the mountains of western Montana. Their story is the focal point of this fine narrative, but there is so much more that I have stopped in my read to share a brief quotation that both tells a tiny part of the story, but also provides a peek into the context that is as vast as the mountains themselves. The beauty of this book is not only in the story of those young men and the fire they leapt into, but also the way it is told by Norman Maclean.

"Yet we should also go on wondering if there is not some shape, form, design as of artistry in this universe we are entering that is composed of catastrophes and missing parts. Whether we are coming up or down the Gates of the Mountains, catastrophes everywhere enfold us as they do the river, and catastrophes may seem to be only the visible remains of defunct happenings of millions of years ago and the Rocky Mountains only the disintegrated explosions that darkened skies also millions of years ago and left behind the world dusted with gritty silicone. At least I should recognize this as much the same stuff as the little pieces of glass which in 1980 Mount St. Helens in Washington sprinkled over my cabin in Montana six hundred miles away, and anyone coming down the Gates of the Mountains can see that the laminations of ocean beds compressed in the cliffs on one side of the river match the laminations on the opposite cliffs, and, looking up, can see that an arch, now disappeared into sky, originally join both cliffs. There are also missing parts to the story of the lonely crosses ahead of us, almost invisible in deep grass near the top of a mountain. What if, by searching the earth and even the sky for these missing parts, we should find enough of them to see catastrophe change into the shape of remembered tragedy? Unless we are willing to escape into sentimentality or fantasy, often the best we can do with catastrophes, even our own, is to find out exactly what happened and restore some of the missing parts---hopefully, even the arch to the sky." (pp 46-47)