Thursday, November 16, 2017

Alien Believers

Calculating God: A Novel 

Calculating God: A Novel

“There is no indisputable proof for the big bang," said Hollus. "And there is none for evolution. And yet you accept those. Why hold the question of whether there is a creator to a higher standard?”   ― Robert J. Sawyer, Calculating God

The science fiction literature includes an immense variety of styles and approaches for the presentation of ideas. Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer is a philosophical science fiction novel that considers the nature of belief in the existence of god.

The novel uses the trope of contact with aliens to explore cosmological ideas that intrigue thoughtful persons whether or not they are interested in science fiction. It takes a contemporary setting (in Canada) and describes the arrival on Earth of sentient aliens. The bulk of the novel covers the many discussions and arguments on the reasons for their presence, as well as about the nature of belief, religion, and science. Calculating God received nominations for both the Hugo and John W. Campbell Memorial Awards in 2001.

The main plot is told from the point of view of Tom Jericho, a paleontologist at the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada. As it begins Forhilnor, a spider-like alien from the third planet of the Beta Hydri system arrives on Earth to investigate Earth's evolutionary history. The alien, Hollus, has come to Earth to gain access to the museum's large collection of fossils, and to study accumulated human knowledge in order to gather evidence of the existence of God. It seems that Earth and Hollus' home planet, and the home planet of another alien species traveling with Hollus, all experienced the same five cataclysmic events at roughly the same time.

Hollus believes that the universe was created by a god, to provide a place where life could develop and evolve. Thomas Jericho is an atheist who provides a balance to the philosophical discussion regarding the existence of gods. There is also a subplot dealing with the illness of Jericho and his imminent death due to lung cancer. The author neatly connects that with the visit of the aliens with surprising revelations as well.

I enjoyed the philosophical and scientific discussions primarily due to the inventive approaches to questions that arose from the unusual views of the aliens. On the issue of the existence of gods the book presents some strange conundrums that make it rise above the average Science Fiction novel. Sawyer succeeds in describing the meeting with aliens in a way that held my attention through both its believable detail and its novelty. I found myself wondering about the thoughtful calculation of alien scientists and if they really could include god in that calculation.

Poem for Today

The Retired Cat

A poet's cat, sedate and grave 
As poet well could wish to have,
Was much addicted to inquire
For nooks to which she might retire,
And where, secure as mouse in chink,
She might repose, or sit and think.
I know not where she caught the trick--
Nature perhaps herself had cast her
In such a mould philosophique,
Or else she learn'd it of her master.
Sometimes ascending, debonair,
An apple-tree or lofty pear,
Lodg'd with convenience in the fork,
She watch'd the gardener at his work;
Sometimes her ease and solace sought
In an old empty wat'ring-pot;
There, wanting nothing save a fan
To seem some nymph in her sedan,
Apparell'd in exactest sort,
And ready to be borne to court.

But love of change, it seems, has place
Not only in our wiser race;
Cats also feel, as well as we,
That passion's force, and so did she.
Her climbing, she began to find,
Expos'd her too much to the wind,
And the old utensil of tin
Was cold and comfortless within:
She therefore wish'd instead of those
Some place of more serene repose,
Where neither cold might come, nor air
Too rudely wanton with her hair,
And sought it in the likeliest mode
Within her master's snug abode.

A drawer, it chanc'd, at bottom lin'd
With linen of the softest kind,
With such as merchants introduce
From India, for the ladies' use--
A drawer impending o'er the rest,
Half-open in the topmost chest,
Of depth enough, and none to spare,
Invited her to slumber there;
Puss with delight beyond expression
Survey'd the scene, and took possession.
Recumbent at her ease ere long,
And lull'd by her own humdrum song,
She left the cares of life behind,
And slept as she would sleep her last,
When in came, housewifely inclin'd
The chambermaid, and shut it fast;
By no malignity impell'd,
But all unconscious whom it held.

Awaken'd by the shock, cried Puss,
"Was ever cat attended thus!
The open drawer was left, I see,
Merely to prove a nest for me.
For soon as I was well compos'd,
Then came the maid, and it was clos'd.
How smooth these kerchiefs, and how sweet!
Oh, what a delicate retreat!
I will resign myself to rest
Till Sol, declining in the west,
Shall call to supper, when, no doubt,
Susan will come and let me out."

The evening came, the sun descended,
And puss remain'd still unattended.
The night roll'd tardily away
(With her indeed 'twas never day),
The sprightly morn her course renew'd,
The evening gray again ensued,
And puss came into mind no more
Than if entomb'd the day before.
With hunger pinch'd, and pinch'd for room,
She now presag'd approaching doom,
Nor slept a single wink, or purr'd,
Conscious of jeopardy incurr'd.

That night, by chance, the poet watching
Heard an inexplicable scratching;
His noble heart went pit-a-pat
And to himself he said, "What's that?"
He drew the curtain at his side,
And forth he peep'd, but nothing spied;
Yet, by his ear directed, guess'd
Something imprison'd in the chest,
And, doubtful what, with prudent care
Resolv'd it should continue there.
At length a voice which well he knew,
A long and melancholy mew,
Saluting his poetic ears,
Consol'd him, and dispell'd his fears:
He left his bed, he trod the floor,
He 'gan in haste the drawers explore,
The lowest first, and without stop
The rest in order to the top;
For 'tis a truth well known to most,
That whatsoever thing is lost,
We seek it, ere it come to light,
In ev'ry cranny but the right.
Forth skipp'd the cat, not now replete
As erst with airy self-conceit,
Nor in her own fond apprehension
A theme for all the world's attention,
But modest, sober, cured of all
Her notions hyperbolical,
And wishing for a place of rest
Anything rather than a chest.
Then stepp'd the poet into bed,
With this reflection in his head:


Beware of too sublime a sense 
Of your own worth and consequence.
The man who dreams himself so great,
And his importance of such weight,
That all around in all that's done
Must move and act for him alone,
Will learn in school of tribulation
The folly of his expectation. 

William Cowper

William Cowper ( 26 November 1731 – 25 April 1800) was an English poet and hymnodist. One of the most popular poets of his time, Cowper changed the direction of 18th century nature poetry by writing of everyday life and scenes of the English countryside. In many ways, he was one of the forerunners of Romantic poetry. Samuel Taylor Coleridge called him "the best modern poet".

Thursday, November 09, 2017

The Poor Knight

The Idiot 
by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Part II, "The Poor Knight"

"A month ago you were looking through Don Quixote and exclaimed those words, that there is nothing better than the 'poor knight.' I don't know who you were talking about then---Don Quixote, Evgeny Pavlych, or some other person---nut pm;u that you were speaking about someone, and the conversation went on for a long time . . ." (p 247)

Part II of The Idiot begins six months after the party at Nastasya Filippovna's home.  Prince Myshkin left St. Petersburg for Moscow a mere two days later and according to some rumors, he claimed his inheritance, which turned out to be smaller than initially expected. Furthermore, the inheritance shrank considerably because a large number of creditors suddenly appeared, and the prince satisfied all their claims.   Typical of the Prince was his lack of concern for the money and whether the creditors deserved to be paid, although "a few of them had indeed suffered".  

The style of the beginning of Part II contrasts sharply with the end of Part I. The tone is very nonchalant and removed from the events that take place in the lives of the characters. Whereas at the end of Part I it seemed that we were right in the middle of the dramatic intensity of the novel, in the beginning of Part II the plot seems very far away. The narrator himself is not sure of everything that has happened; he has to reconstruct the story by piecing together rumors and letters.

Among the people encountered by the Prince upon his return was one Lebedev, a rogue who was a member of Rogozhin's entourage.  Lebedev relates to the Prince his belief and interpretation of the Apocalypse quoting the passage "and there will follow a pale horse and him whose name is Death, and after him Hell . . ." (Revelation 6:5-8)  The theme of death is even stronger than in Part I.  Even more important is the Prince's meeting with Rogozhin who he first encountered on the train returning to Russia.  Myshkin is entertained at Rogozhin's house, a dark house that is described in as much detail as another character - one which mirrors its owner's characteristic personality.  Myshkin tells him that he does not intend to interfere with his relationship with Nastasya Filippovna. If she decides to run from Rogozhin herself—which is what happened in Moscow—Myshkin will take her in. The prince does not hide his opinion that a marriage between Rogozhin and Nastasya would result in mutual destruction. Myshkin loves her with pity and is also fond of Rogozhin himself.

Before Myshkin leaves, he notices a large garden knife hidden inside one of Rogozhin's books. As Rogozhin escorts the prince out, they pass by a painting by Holbein, of a Christ who has just been taken off the cross. Myshkin cannot help but stare at this painting for a long time; Rogozhin asks him if he believes in God. In response, the prince tells four stories, the fourth of which explains the essence of religion as he understands it. The story is of a young mother delighting in her newborn. The prince thinks that God feels joy in his creation much as the mother feels joy in her child. Myshkin and Rogozhin then exchange crosses, and Rogozhin takes the prince to his mother, who blesses the prince.

In a later scene Myshkin describes his illness for the first time and then suffers an actual fit. He says that an attack is characterized by a momentary feeling of complete clarity of mind and an almost sublime understanding of life and its purpose. This moment is quickly followed by utter darkness. Before his fit, Myshkin wanders about the city. Mirroring his physical wandering, his mind wanders from subject to subject. The narrative becomes a sort of stream of consciousness as we experience Myshkin's thought process and feelings just before and during the epileptic fit. Because the narrator merges with Myshkin's consciousness, we learn little about the reason for the fit. The prince cannot himself clearly explain it.

Prince Myshkin eventually settles himself in Lebedev's summer cottage in Pavlovsk. Though Lebedev makes sure the prince receives few visitors aside from himself, many of the other characters are also in Pavlovsk.  On the third day of Myshkin's stay in Pavlovsk, Madame Yepanchin—who is convinced that the Prince is on his deathbed—comes to call on him along with her three daughters and Prince S., who remembers that he is an old acquaintance of Myshkin. Coincidentally, at about that time, the Ptitsyns, Ganya, and General Ivolgin also come to visit Myshkin. The entire company establishes itself on the spacious veranda of Lebedev's cottage.  Suddenly everyone starts joking about the "poor knight." Madame Yepanchin is a bit irritated because there is a hint that they are talking about Myshkin. Kolya remarks that Aglaya, as she was leafing through Don Quixote, said that there was nothing better than a poor knight. General Yepanchin and Yevgeny Pavlovich Radomsky, Aglaya's suitor, join the company. Aglaya recites Pushkin's poem "The Poor Knight," which is about a knight who idealizes Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. Instead of the initials A.M.D., which stand for Ave, Mater Dei, ("Hail, mother of God"), Aglaya says N.F.B.—Nastassya Filippovna Barashkov—implying that Myshkin has chosen Nastassya Filippovna as his ideal. Aglaya begins in a rather mocking tone, but soon changes to speak more seriously and earnestly.  

The plot seems to be lost in all the meetings and discussions -- it will take two more parts to sort out the tale of The Idiot, both a Prince and a Poor Knight.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Act of Resistance

The Lost Art of Reading: 
Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time 

The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time

“I go back to the reading room, where I sink down in the sofa and into the world of The Arabian Nights. Slowly, like a movie fadeout, the real world evaporates. I'm alone, inside the world of the story. My favourite feeling in the world.” ― Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

Several years ago I read a wonderful book, Distraction, by the philosopher and author Damon Young. His book describes the success of several great thinkers and writers in living a thoughtful life filled with freedom from distraction. One of the hallmarks of the lives he described was reading. It is this act, which David Ulin describes as "an act of resistance in a landscape of distraction, a matter of engagement in a society that seems to want nothing more than for us to disengage"(p 150).

This observation is near the end of Ulin's essay on why books matter, The Lost Art of Reading. Some of us have not lost the art, but may need a reminder of its importance. For reading is more than entertainment, although it often is entertaining; it may also be invigorating, meditative, or even a spiritual life enhancing experience. Above all, as Ulin argues, it is a way to get in touch with ourselves in this instant as we connect with the thoughts of authors that may have lived millenniums ago.  That connection is one that can be experienced reading authors as disparate as Dostoevsky, Milton, or Murakami.  It has often been referred to as "The Great Conversation".

The essay focuses on reading a through a variety of metaphors. Reading is "a journey of discovery"(p 13). The journey is different for each individual but one example highlighted by the author resonated with me. It was the immersion of Frank Conroy in books when he was a boy.His journey began with what seems a chaotic passage through book and authors both great and small, heavy and light, but it was a start and a wonderful way for Conroy to get the lay of the land. To enter into a world that would provide him with a place that was apart from the distraction of society became a foundation on which he could build his own life as a writer.

David Ulin remembers his own library of books as a " virtual city, a litropolis, in which the further you were from the axis, the less essential a story you had to tell.(p 17). It was this view of books as a city that he translated later into remembering cities by their books and populating his reading life with a vision of the world based on his own tastes and aspirations. This is something that each of us as readers may do in our own life. The essay takes you through encounters with readers like Ulin's own son, who has to read and reluctantly annotate Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby, with the encouragement of his father. But he also discusses writers like Anne Fadiman who is among the greatest connoisseurs of reading and writing that I have encountered. And we are regaled with a story about reading David Foster Wallace, a contemporary writer of revolutionary tomes. There is even a discussion about reading on a Kindle which is not necessarily a bad thing except there are a lot of worthwhile books that are not available on a Kindle, so the book is safe for the moment.

As a reader I found this essay encouraging and invigorating. It is a reminder of what I love about reading, what I would love to reread, and where I may go to continue my own journey. Just as I enjoy the freedom from distraction that reading can bring, I wonder at the infinite worlds that are opened when we take time to get in touch with ourselves in the pages of a book. I hope for a future that includes many things, but above all reading. Listen to the words of Walt Whitman:

"SHUT not your doors to me proud libraries,
For that which was lacking on all your well-fill'd shelves, yet
needed most, I bring,
Forth from the war emerging, a book I have made,
The words of my book nothing, the drift of it every thing,
A book separate, not link'd with the rest nor felt by the intellect,
But you ye untold latencies will thrill to every page."

Monday, October 30, 2017

Sartoris Family Stories

The Unvanquished 

The Unvanquished

“A dream is not a very safe thing to be near, Bayard. I know; I had one once. It’s like a loaded pistol with a hair trigger: if it stays alive long enough, somebody is going to be hurt. But if it’s a good dream, it’s worth it. There are not many dreams in the world, but there are a lot of human lives. And one human life or two dozen——” “Are not worth anything?” “No. Not anything.—Listen.”   ― William Faulkner, The Unvanquished

While The Unvanquished began as a collection of short stories that had been published elsewhere, there is enough continuity among the stories for the whole to stand reasonably as a novel, even though the vignettes can be read separately. Perhaps the best story was the final one, An Odor of Verbena, that Faulkner wrote specifically for this novel.

The Civil War is "present time" although the narrator, young Bayard Sartoris, is recalling events that happened many years earlier. His story begins as Colonel Sartoris comes home for a day to warn his family that Yankee soldiers are nearby and to help build a stock pen to hide his animals from the Yankees. A few days later, a Yankee soldier rides onto Sartoris land. The colonel’s twelve-year-old son Bayard and his companion Ringo, a slave on the plantation, shoot at the soldier. The boys hide under Granny’s skirts when more soldiers come to search the property for them. Granny denies that any children live on the property, and a colonel orders the rest of the men off the land while eyeing Granny’s skirts. The stories all feature the relationship of Bayard and Ringo, while Granny and Drusilla are also important characters.

Later, advised by Colonel Sartoris, Granny leaves for Memphis because of the dangers of the war. Joby, the Colonel’s servant, drives a wagon carrying Granny, Ringo, Bayard, and a trunk filled with silver that was buried in the yard for safekeeping. During the journey, Yankee soldiers steal their mules and Bayard and Ringo chase them unsuccessfully on a “borrowed” horse. Colonel Sartoris finds the boys and takes them home, capturing a Yankee camp on the way. Joby and Granny also make it back home with the help of “borrowed” horses, and the trunk containing the silver is again buried in the yard. Yankee soldiers come to capture Colonel Sartoris. Granny, Ringo, and Bayard drive six days to Hawkhurst, Alabama, to recover their trunk, their mules, and the runaway slaves. On the journey, they pass hundreds of former slaves who are following the Yankee troops to freedom. At Hawkhurst, Granny’s niece, Drusilla Hawk, joins the group, and the four of them travel to the river, where Yankee soldiers have built a bridge. After crossing, the soldiers hurry to destroy the bridge so the people who have followed them to freedom will be unable cross. The Sartoris wagon gets pushed into the river, and the four travelers make it to the other side, where the Yankee troops are now stationed.

Granny asks to speak with Colonel Dick. She asks for the return of her mules, her trunk, and Loosh and Philadelphy. Colonel Dick gives Granny a written statement from the commanding general dated August 14, 1863, that validates the return of 10 chests, 110 mules, and 110 former slaves who are following the troops. The document allows them to pass safely through any Yankee troops they might encounter and also to petition them for food during the journey home.  The story continues with episodes featuring Granny and Drusilla. The differences between the traditions of the Sartorises and other established families and entrepreneurs like Ab Snopes (the Snopes family is explored in detail in the three novels known as The Snopes Trilogy) are highlighted. These and the previous stories also emphasize the tension between the cultures of the established Southerners and marauders, many of whom were Yankees.

About eight years later, Bayard is in his third year studying law in Oxford, Mississippi. Ringo comes to him to report that John Sartoris has been killed by his rival, Ben Redmond. On the forty-mile ride home, Bayard reflects on the last few years: his father’s marriage to Drusilla and the code of violence to which they adhere, his father’s railroad venture with Redmond, their run against each other for political office, his father’s humiliating taunting of Redmond, and his father’s recent decision to turn against killing and meet Redmond unarmed. Bayard knows Drusilla and the men in Jefferson will expect him to avenge his father’s death. Bayard  realizes that killing is not a satisfactory solution. Determined neither to kill again nor to be a coward, he goes to Jefferson the next day to meet Redmond unarmed. Redmond shoots twice, intentionally missing Bayard, and leaves town. Bayard returns home and finds that Drusilla has gone to live with her brother but has left behind a sprig of verbena for him.

The Unvanquished provides a view of the Civil War and some of its consequences from the perspective of young Bayard and his extended family. It is a serious assessment of the Southern legend, and a declaration of independence from the past. The characters are deftly portrayed and the stories well-told.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Journey into Virtual Reality

Ready Player One 

Ready Player One
“If I was feeling depressed or frustrated about my lot in life, all I had to do was tap the Player One button, and my worries would instantly slip away as my mind focused itself on the relentless pixelated onslaught on the screen in front of me. There, inside the game's two-dimensional universe, life was simple: It's just you against the machine. Move with your left hand, shoot with your right, and try to stay alive as long as possible.”   ― Ernest Cline, Ready Player One

Do you like contests? 
Do you like MMORPGs? 
Do you know what an MMORPG is? If you answered yes to the first two of those questions you probably know the answer to the third and you probably will like this book more than I did. Not that I really disliked Ernest Cline's dystopian fantasy, but I just got tired of the online game references and late twentieth century TV trivia.

This book starts out with a bang and the plot moves along at a rapid pace. However it did not move fast enough to overcome its predictability; thus I grew a bit weary after a hundred or so pages. In the year 2044, the world has been gripped by an energy crisis from the depletion of fossil fuels and the consequences of global warming, causing widespread social problems and economic stagnation. To escape the decline their world is facing, people turn to the OASIS,[a] a virtual reality simulator accessible by players using visors and haptic technology such as gloves. It functions both as an MMORPG and as a virtual society, with its currency being the most stable in the real world. It was created by James Halliday who, when he died, had announced in his will to the public that he had left an Easter egg inside OASIS, and the first person to find it would inherit his entire fortune and the corporation.

The story follows the adventures of Wade Watts, starting about five years after the announcement, when he discovers one of the three keys pointing to the treasure. The Huffington Post referred to it as "Delightful . . . the grown-ups Harry Potter". Well, yes it did remind me of Harry Potter a bit with the protagonist, Wade, whose avatar he named Parzival (yes, after the famed knight of the Grail legend), fleeing from a dysfunctional family to a hidden lair he created as a spot from which he could log-on to go to school; however more importantly to participate in the greatest and most popular video game ever created called OASIS.

The story becomes a postmodern version of the heroic journey with Parzival contending with untold thousands of other individuals for the ultimate prize established by the late creator of OASIS. Of course there is an evil corporation that is out to win the prize by devious and violent (if necessary) means. There are also players with whom Parzival becomes friends, of a sort, and assorted difficult moments, cliff-hangers if you will, as Parzival's journey through OASIS goes on. I have left out the details and will not even hint at the ending. I can only repeat that if you like the MMORPGs and would like to read about adventures in cyberspace this book is for you.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

A Commonplace Entry

What is Enlightenment?

Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one's own understanding without another's guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one's own mind without another's guidance. Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) "Have the courage to use your own understanding," is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.

Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why such a large part of mankind gladly remain minors all their lives, long after nature has freed them from external guidance. They are the reasons why it is so easy for others to set themselves up as guardians. It is so comfortable to be a minor. If I have a book that thinks for me, a pastor who acts as my conscience, a physician who prescribes my diet, and so on--then I have no need to exert myself. I have no need to think, if only I can pay; others will take care of that disagreeable business for me. Those guardians who have kindly taken supervision upon themselves see to it that the overwhelming majority of mankind--among them the entire fair sex--should consider the step to maturity, not only as hard, but as extremely dangerous. First, these guardians make their domestic cattle stupid and carefully prevent the docile creatures from taking a single step without the leading-strings to which they have fastened them. Then they show them the danger that would threaten them if they should try to walk by themselves. Now this danger is really not very great; after stumbling a few times they would, at last, learn to walk. However, examples of such failures intimidate and generally discourage all further attempts.

Thus it is very difficult for the individual to work himself out of the nonage which has become almost second nature to him. He has even grown to like it, and is at first really incapable of using his own understanding because he has never been permitted to try it. Dogmas and formulas, these mechanical tools designed for reasonable use--or rather abuse--of his natural gifts, are the fetters of an everlasting nonage. The man who casts them off would make an uncertain leap over the narrowest ditch, because he is not used to such free movement. That is why there are only a few men who walk firmly, and who have emerged from nonage by cultivating their own minds.

It is more nearly possible, however, for the public to enlighten itself; indeed, if it is only given freedom, enlightenment is almost inevitable. There will always be a few independent thinkers, even among the self-appointed guardians of the multitude. Once such men have thrown off the yoke of nonage, they will spread about them the spirit of a reasonable appreciation of man's value and of his duty to think for himself. It is especially to be noted that the public which was earlier brought under the yoke by these men afterwards forces these very guardians to remain in submission, if it is so incited by some of its guardians who are themselves incapable of any enlightenment. That shows how pernicious it is to implant prejudices: they will eventually revenge themselves upon their authors or their authors' descendants. Therefore, a public can achieve enlightenment only slowly. A revolution may bring about the end of a personal despotism or of avaricious tyrannical oppression, but never a true reform of modes of thought. New prejudices will serve, in place of the old, as guide lines for the unthinking multitude.

This enlightenment requires nothing but freedom--and the most innocent of all that may be called "freedom": freedom to make public use of one's reason in all matters. Now I hear the cry from all sides: "Do not argue!" The officer says: "Do not argue--drill!" The tax collector: "Do not argue--pay!" The pastor: "Do not argue--believe!" Only one ruler in the world says: "Argue as much as you please, but obey!" We find restrictions on freedom everywhere. But which restriction is harmful to enlightenment? Which restriction is innocent, and which advances enlightenment? I reply: the public use of one's reason must be free at all times, and this alone can bring enlightenment to mankind. . .

"What is Enlightenment?" - Immanuel Kant

Saturday, October 14, 2017

A Good Man

The Idiot 

Part I, Prince Myshkin Returns

The Idiot

“One can't understand everything at once, we can't begin with perfection all at once! In order to reach perfection one must begin by being ignorant of a great deal. And if we understand things too quickly, perhaps we shan't understand them thoroughly.”  ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Idiot

The Idiot is one of Dostoevsky's great novels from the final decade of his life. Narrated in the third person it tells a tale of the fate of a truly good man, an apparently naive innocent. This character, Prince Lef Nicolaievitch Myshkin, is a noble man whose behavior at first is only strange and unconventional. Short, slight, with light hair and mustache, nearly white beard, and searching blue eyes, he arrests the attention of all who see him. His naive, unblemished goodness, in part the result of his life-long bout with epilepsy, causes men to doubt him and women to love him. He is considered by some to be in part a prototype for the character of Aloysha Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov.

After four years spent in Switzerland, where he was treated for his epilepsy at a sanatorium, Prince Myshkin returns to St. Petersburg. On the train, the threadbare shabbiness of his clothing attracts the attention of the other passengers. One of these, Parfen Rogozhin, begins to question him. By the time they reach Petersburg, the prince and Rogozhin are well informed about each other, and Rogozhin offers to take the prince to his home and to give him money.

Myshkin, however, first wants to introduce himself to General Epanchin, whose wife is distantly related to him. At the Epanchin home, he meets the general and his secretary, Ganya, who invites him to become one of his mother’s boarders. The prince interests the general, who gives him some money, and he fascinates the general’s wife and three daughters. His lack of sophistication, his naïveté, and his frankness, charm and amuse the family. Soon they begin to call him “the idiot,” half in jest, half in earnest, but he remains on good terms with them. At one point the narrator relates the Prince's thoughts about being called an idiot: "Everybody also considers me an idiot for some reason, and in fact I was once so ill that I was like an idiot; but what sort of idiot I am now, when I myself understand that I'm considered an idiot? I come in and think: 'They consider me an idiot, but I'm intelligent all the same, and they don't even suspect it . . .' I often have that thought."(p 75)

In this first of four parts of the novel we are introduced to themes of class distinction through the many characters we meet at the Epanchins and elsewhere; while a contrast is developed between Myshkin and those he meets primarily through his indifference to the trappings of society, including their money, dress, and self-serving behavior. Other themes arise such as death, which is emphasized through two stories related by the Prince, and sickness that is endemic to the Prince's physical character. One of the stories about death mirrors an actual experience of Dostoevsky when in his youth he had been imprisoned and taken out to be executed -- an execution that was abrogated at the last moment leaving a permanent scar on Dostoevsky's psyche.

The first part, covers only the first day of the Prince's return to Petersburg, and concludes with several chapters detailing a drinking party given by Nastasya Filippovna, a courtesan. Extremely emotional and neurotic, Nastasya is thought by many to be guilty of  sins of which she is really innocent. Myshkin realizes her helplessness and pities her; and he asks her to marry him, saying that he received an unexpected inheritance. She refuses, declaring that she has no desire to cause his ruin. Instead she goes with Rogozhin, who brings her a hundred thousand rubles.  Will the prince continue to pursue Nastasya?  Perhaps Part Two will tell us.

Friday, October 06, 2017

The Reformation Begins

On Christian Liberty 

On Christian Liberty

"So the Christian who is consecrated by his faith does good works, but the works do not make him holier or more Christian, for that is the work of faith alone."  - Martin Luther

In 1520, three years after posting his famous theses, Luther was still a monk in the Catholic Church. It was then that he wrote this short manifesto regarding the nature of the freedom of a Christian. In it he elucidates some of the principles that would become the foundation of the Protestant Reformation. He opens with a discussion of "man's twofold nature" of the inner spiritual nature or the soul and the outer bodily nature of the flesh. These two natures are in conflict for it is the inner nature or soul that is fed by the preaching of Christ that makes it righteous. He also discusses the seeming contradiction that the Christian is both free and subject to no one while at the same time in bondage and servant to all.

This short but rich text also brings out the importance of each individual being his own priest; thus laying the foundation for the doctrine of the "priesthood of all believers". I was impressed with Luther's style of argument, for he argued from the text of the Bible rather than from his unsupported views. In doing so he was able to rationally support statements that seemed contradictory on the surface. Admittedly the arguments depended on your acceptance of the divinity of the Bible as God's word. However, for Luther and his audience this was not an issue.

Luther had been concerned with edicts by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church that had no biblical support. It is likely that with this in mind on September 6, 1520 he sent this manifesto with a letter to Pope Leo X. However the Catholic hierarchy was not be responsive to Luther's arguments. In the following year he was called to appear before the Diet of Worms and was declared a heretic.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Calm of Mind, All Passion Spent

All Passion Spent 

All Passion Spent

“She found herself suddenly surrounded by a host of assumptions. It was assumed that she trembled for joy in his presence, languished in his absence, existed solely (but humbly) for the furtherance of his ambitions, and thought him the most remarkable man alive, as she herself was the most favoured of women, a belief in which everybody was fondly prepared to indulge her. Such was the unanimity of these assumptions that she was almost persuaded into believing them true.”   ― Vita Sackville-West, All Passion Spent

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West is an inspiring novel of the life of a woman who chooses to create herself anew. Both character and values are important to Lady Slane, the heroine of this thoughtful and uplifting book.

The novel is written in three parts, primarily from the view of an intimate observer. The first part introduces Lady Slane at the time of her husband’s death. Recently widowed, she, as a wife to a great statesman and mother of six, had always put everyone else’s needs before her own. Her children plan to share her care between them much as they divide up the family property but, completely unexpectedly, Lady Slane makes her own choice, proposing to leave fashionable Kensington for a cottage in suburban Hampstead that caught her eye decades earlier, where she will live alone except for her maidservant and please herself — for example allowing her descendants to visit only by appointment. Part 1 concludes with Lady Slane’s developing friendships with her aged landlord Mr Bucktrout and his equally aged handyman Mr Gosheron.

As a young woman she harbored a secret desire to become a painter, but gave up her own personal desires in favor of duty and tradition. In Part 2 we are entertained by Lady Slane’s thoughts as she muses in the summer sun. She relives youthful events, reviews her life, and considers life’s influences and controls, happiness and relationships.

Summer is over. Part 3 takes place after Lady Slane has settled into her cottage, her contemplative life, and approaching end. To her initial annoyance, her past life still connects her to people and events. In particular Mr FitzGeorge, a forgotten acquaintance from India who has ever since been in love with her, introduces himself and they form a quiet but playful and understanding friendship. Mr FitzGeorge bequeaths his fortune and outstanding art collection to Lady Slane, causing great consternation amongst her children. Lady Slane, avoiding the responsibility of vast wealth, gives FitzGeorge’s collection and fortune to the state, much to her children’s disgust and her maid’s amusement. Lady Slane discovers that relinquishing the fortune has permitted Deborah, her great-granddaughter, to break-off her engagement and pursue music, Deborah taking the path that Lady Slane herself could not.

Her defiance of her family's expectations, the depth of her memories, and the richness of her independent life make this a fascinating book. In her seeking fulfillment in a different if not better way than she had heretofore in her life she provides a model for all individuals who wish to follow their own creative souls.

I first read this book a decade ago. I found the author's prose and style of presentation are dazzling. And the story remains both compelling and inspiring. This is a unique novel in my reading experience and one I will likely return to again.

Every Moment Contains a Choice

Dark Matter 

Dark Matter

“He says, “Every moment, every breath, contains a choice. But life is imperfect. We make the wrong choices. So we end up living in a state of perpetual regret, and is there anything worse? I built something that could actually eradicate regret. Let you find worlds where you made the right choice.” Daniela says, “Life doesn’t work that way. You live with your choices and learn. You don’t cheat the system.”   ― Blake Crouch, Dark Matter

Jason Dessen is a happily married former research scientist. His wife, Daniela, was once an artist, but she put her dreams on the shelf to start a family with Jason. One night, after attending a celebration for his former colleague Ryan Holder, Jason is kidnapped by a masked bandit and dragged to an abandoned power facility on the South Side of Chicago. The kidnapper injects our hero with a strange substance, and Jason passes out. When he wakes up, Jason is in an advanced scientific facility. Even weirder is the fact that everyone there seems to know him. He gets freaked out and sneaks away through a window.

Since this is a plot-driven thriller I am not going to discuss any of the details. Suffice it to say that Jason's life from that point entails a journey in which he attempts to get back to where he was at the opening of the story; a journey that involves travel between parallel universes. This is accomplished with a device based on the theory that every choice we make in our lives, big or small, leads to the creation of a parallel version of ourselves—and a whole new parallel universe. His journey includes an exploration of many of these universes, but it is only when he appears to be near the end of his journey that the suspense really starts to build.

It is that suspense, and the startling opening scenes that made this a good read for me. If you like your science fiction laced with thrills and adventure (or if you like your thrillers spiced up with some science fiction) this is a good book for you. If you ever wondered what your life would be like if you made slightly different choices along the way, this book may cure you of that sort of curiosity --- or, it may engender hope within you that the multiple universes may soon be made available for your own pleasure.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Alien Reaches: The City and the River



"A rat crept softly through the vegetation
Dragging his slimy belly on the bank
While I was fishing in the dull canal
On a winter evening round behind the gashouse."
- T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

The city is Knoxville, the river is the Tennessee, and the story is about Cornelius Suttree. Suttree is a fisherman who lives on and off the river. We meet him as he lays prone "With his jaw cradled in the crook of his arm" as he "watched idly surface phenomena, gouts of sewage faintly working, gray clots of nameless waste and yellow condoms roiling slowly out of the murk like some giant form of fluke or tapeworm."(p 7) This is the milieu of Suttree and he does not stray from it very far throughout his picaresque journey chronicled in Cormac McCarthy's fine novel. His city is made of a "Curious marble architecture, stele and obelisk and cross and little rainworn stones where names grow dim with years."(p 3) His world is "a world within the world . In these alien reaches these maugre sinks and interstitial wastes that the righteous see from carriage and car another life dreams."(p 4)

As the novel opens Suttree, who comes from a prominent family, has abandoned his wife and infant son and has chosen to live on a houseboat near McAnally Flats, among the drifters and derelicts of the town. He keeps himself alive by fishing in the filth of the Tennessee River, but his existence is apparently meaningless, given over to destructive drinking, fighting, and carousing. As the narrator explains in the introduction to the story,
“We are come to a world within the world. In these alien reaches, these maugre sinks and interstitial wastes that the righteous see from carriage and car another life dreams. Ill-shapen or black or deranged, fugitive of all order, strangers in everyland.”(p 4)
Suttree has been accepted as part of this other world. He shares bottles, stories, and jail cells with the “ruder forms” that inhabit the region. They recognize that Suttree is different, has had opportunities denied them, but they never question his decision to live among them. To them, he is simply “old Sut.”

The reader follows him through apparently random experiences. The book is thus constructed in episodic fashion and depends on the cumulative effect of these episodes to develop its structure and identify its theme. Some characters come and go, touching Suttree only for the moment. Others, however, form a constant in his life, forcing him to come out of his self-imposed isolation and renew, in however meager a fashion, his connections with humanity. The themes hold the book together as they recur from time to time.  Most prominent among these is McCarthy's ability to use his Faulknerian prose to capture the essence of death. The book opens with a horrifying realistic scene of a suicide in the river - "as Suttree passed he noticed with a feeling he could not name that the dead man's watch was still running."(p 10) This reminder that 'life goes on' will be brought home again as Suttree passes through the "alien reaches" that he inhabits. In a later scene as he visits a cemetery he sees an old vault that nature as begun to dismantle. "Inside there is nothing. No bones, no dust. How surely are the dead beyond death. Death is what the living carry with them. A state of dread, like some uncanny foretaste of a bitter memory. But the dead do not remember and nothingness is not a curse. Far from it."(p 153)

Although the book is large and its contents rich and varied, several episodes do stand out as significant events in the sweep of Suttree’s life. While in prison for having taken part, unintentionally, in a robbery, Suttree meets Gene Harrogate, a foolish country boy who later follows Suttree back to Knoxville to become part of the marginal world of the outcasts. Although Suttree tries to avoid being involved with Harrogate, he often finds himself drawn into the boy’s irrational schemes, and on occasion has to rescue the boy. A couple of these scenes provide a broad sort of humor that I have not encountered in McCarthy's other novels. Other characters also place demands on Suttree’s humanity despite his best attempts to deny them, and he forms special relationships with a number of the doomed inhabitants of the region. Among them are Ab Jones, a giant black man who fights constantly with the police; an old ragpicker, whose wisdom and stoicism Suttree admires; the Indian named Michael, who offers Suttree a quiet and dignified friendship; and the pathetic catamite Leonard, who involves Suttree in a grotesque scheme to dispose of the decaying body of Leonard’s long-dead father. The longest episode in the book tells the story of a man named Reese and his bizarre family of shellfishermen who entice Suttree, despite his better judgment, away from Knoxville to the French Broad River with the promise of pearls and adventure. 

Although Suttree’s experiences are often horrible and degrading, the book ends with at least the possibility of hope. Nearly dying of typhoid fever, Suttree faces in his lengthy delirium the waste and cowardice of his life. When he recovers his strength and returns to McAnally Flats, he finds most of his companions either dead or absent. In his own houseboat, he discovers the rotting corpse of some unknown figure who has usurped his very home and identity. In death, however, there is new life, and Suttree leaves Knoxville, breaking with his past. His destination is unspecified. As he stands by the side of the road, a mysterious boy offers him a drink of water and smiles. Then a car stops for him without his making the effort to flag it. Both acts are, in one sense, minor, but they are also acts of grace.

This is a mighty epic in a modern sense and I recommend it to all readers who want to challenge their perspective through a visit to the "alien reaches" seldom seen from the comfort of their reading rooms.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Creature and his Creator

Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus: 
The 1818 Text 

Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus: The 1818 TextA Fantastic Story.

Fantastic, filled with both vivid emotions and exciting action, Mary Shelley's story of the haunted Victor Frankenstein, and his creation who does the haunting, still stirs the soul. Just as Goethe's Faust sought the secrets of arcane knowledge, Victor Frankenstein engages in the secrets of both licit and illicit science to bring a being to life. Once this is accomplished he immediately rues his action and spends the rest of the novel trying through a variety of means to atone for his mistake.

The novel is a classic tale of the uncanny which, according to the novelist and critic David Lodge, invariably use "I" narrators, imitating documentary forms of discourse like confessions, letters and depositions to make events more credible. Beginning with letters from Robert Walton, whose own search for the source of the magnetic north pole mirrors Victor Frankenstein's quest, the first book of the novel relates Victor Frankenstein's narrative of his youth and education. It surely was more than coincidental that Victor attended University at Ingolstad which was heralded as the original site of the Faust legends that Goethe adapted for his immensely influential drama.

'Monster' or 'Creature'?

The center of the novel continues Victor's story and that of his creation, the monster. At least that is what he calls his creation. While it is monstrous in the sense that it is larger than normal human size it is a creature made of human parts and, we find after some intervening events in Victor's life that the creature has some very human traits like the need for companionship -- one that is not met by his creator. Victor's emotions seem to swing from the the heights of elation to the depths of despair coloring his actions and clouding his reason. I found the monster's narration to be the most persuasive of the two. He pleads with Victor, " Remember, that I am thy creature: I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed."(p 66) Victor is unable to satisfy him and the monster who searches for acceptance throughout attempts to exert power over his creator as he tells him, "You are my creator, but I am your master; -obey!"(p 116) His words and actions only serve to speed the descent of Victor.

I saw the monster as a classic example of "the other", a precursor to modern images much as those found in Kafka. The action builds effectively through the third book of the novel building suspense and leading to an ending that involves a triangle of relationships between Victor, the creature, and Robert Walton whose narrative in letters bookends the tale. The power of the book, however, remains in the questions it raises; questions that we are dealing with to this day.

The Narrative:

A man is found while near death by Robert Walton.  Walton, an explorer, was on a trip to the Arctic where  his ship is stuck and surrounded by ice.  As they looked out on the enormous ice field, Walton and his crew saw a gigantic man being pulled by a dogsled. The following day they discovered another, smaller man, desperately ill, adrift on a sheet of ice. Walton writes that he brought the man onto his ship, allowed him to rest, and attempted to nurse him back to health.  That man was Victor Frankenstein who goes on to relate the story of how he came to be in this place.  

While at university, Victor became obsessed with the idea of bringing the dead back to life. He built the Creature out of body parts scavenged from charnel houses and graves. Victor succeeded in bringing the Creature to life, but upon seeing the hideous Creature Victor ran from the lab, abandoning his creation.  Alone and abandoned, the Creature spent two years hiding in the forest, aware of his ugliness. He learned to read in this time, and eventually he came to understand that Victor was the cause of his misery.  The narrative thus continues with the struggle of the Creature to find his creator and to end his misery.  The catalyst for the denouement of the story is Victor's realization of the mistake he made with his original creation.  Is this realization enough to save him and others?  I will leave it to other readers to answer that question for themselves.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Daunted Beginnings

Sons and Lovers 

Sons and Lovers

“Night, in which everything was lost, went reaching out, beyond stars and sun. Stars and sun, a few bright grains, went spiraling round for terror, and holding each other in embrace, there in a darkness that outpassed them all, and left them tiny and daunted. So much, and himself, infinitesimal, at the core of nothingness, and yet not nothing.”  ― D.H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers

On this day in 1885 D. H. Lawrence was born in Eastwood, outside Nottingham, the fourth of five children. Lawrence's autobiographical novel, Sons and Lovers, made famous the tortured conditions of his upbringing: his uneducated father's pit-and-pub life, his mother's contempt for this and her self-sacrifice to escape it, Lawrence's own conflicted feelings about both of them. It initially incited a lukewarm critical reception, along with allegations of obscenity, it is today regarded as a masterpiece of modernism. It certainly established some of the themes that Lawrence would explore in his subsequent novels.

Lawrence began working on the novel in the period of his mother's illness, and the autobiographical aspects of the novel can be found in his letters written around the time of its development. Torn between his passion for two women and his abiding attachment to his mother, young Paul Morel struggles with his desire to please everyone--particularly himself. The story develops against the backdrop of the author's native Nottinghamshire coal fields. The sensitivity of Paul is highlighted by the rough edges of the town and the other men in the family. When economic forces go against the family and their mining community his mother experiences even greater need to see young Paul break free. Lawrence's own personal family conflict provided him with the impetus for the first half of his novel — in which both William, the older brother, and Paul Morel become increasingly contemptuous of their father — and the subsequent exploration of Paul Morel's antagonizing relationships with both his lovers, which are both incessantly affected by his allegiance to his mother. Other women intrude on his life and in Lawrentian fashion the passions rise. This is his first successful novel and key in the development of modern fiction.

The issue of free will is important for Lawrence. He asks to what extent his characters’ environment influences their characters’ choices. We can see this made explicit in his descriptions. For example, when Paul begins to look in the newspapers for work, the narrator writes, “Already he was a prisoner of industrialism . . . He was being taken into bondage. His freedom in the beloved home valley was going now.” The modern industrial world, specifically as it manifests itself in the effect mining culture has on the Morel family, shapes the characters’ desires. This theme and his approach to it reminded me of the naturalism of Zola and Dreiser.

Even in this early novel Lawrence was explicitly depicting human sexuality. He flouted the moral conventions of the genre and of society, and his notoriety grew. At least one publisher refused Sons and Lovers because of its sexual content. Lawrence’s theories about human behavior revolved around what he called “blood consciousness,” which he opposed to “mental and nerve consciousness.” Lawrence also explores the class conflicts as they pertain to life in the coal community. Morel's mother, a school teacher, is sensitive to this and tries to protect her sons from becoming bound to the coal fields.

This is one of the best early modernist novels. The growth of young Paul Morel, both mentally and emotionally, combined with the depiction of the mining community and his family relationships makes this an enjoyable and entertaining read.