Monday, November 23, 2015

Journal of a Journey

Parable of the Sower (Earthseed, #1)Parable of the Sower 
by Octavia E. Butler

"Sometimes naming a thing--giving it a name or discovring its name--helps one to begin to understand it.  Knowing the name of a thing and knowing what that thing is for gives me even more of a handle on it." (p 77)

I have read many dystopic post-apocalyptic novels, some of which are classics. Some of those, written before Parable of the Sower, include I Am Legend, A Canticle for Liebowitz, The Stand, and The Postman. I did not find anything that made this book stand out from all the rest of those that I have read. The protagonist, Lauren Olamina, is appealing except for her need for religion. And not the religion of her parents (her father was a Baptist minister), but a new religion that is described this way by a character, Bankhole, who has become her closest friend:
"It sounds like some combination of Buddhism, existentialism, Sufism, and I don't know what else, he said." (p 261)

By this point in the story Lauren has escaped from her besieged home and, joining with a small like-minded group, been on a journey from southern California to some point north of Sacramento. Along the way, and even before, she has been developing a new religion called Earthseed that provides the belief system that she appears to require to support her quest for peace and freedom. She describes the religion this way:
"The essentials are to learn to shape God with forethought, care, and work; to educate and benefit their community, their families, and themselves; and to contribute to the fulfillment of the Destiny." (p 261)
She goes on to make the claim that Earthseed is what "kept her going." I will leave it to other readers to find out if that will be the case.

The bulk of the story is about avoiding the terrors of gangs of marauders that seem to have taken over most of California. It is told in the form of a journal, the journal of Lauren Olamina.  Civil society has reverted to relative anarchy due to resource scarcity and poverty. Notably there is no plague, no invasion, no war. Things get a little bit worse each day, people get a little more desperate, the first few breakdowns are fixed, and then it becomes harder and harder to fix everything.  Missing is an explanation why this is happening and how widespread it may be.  There is also an inexplicable lack of real change as the novel proceeds toward its end.  Lauren is her same empathetic self (she has a special gift for extreme empathy) and she is surrounded by a group of peaceful like-minded people. Her religion has not seemed to make a difference and wile the group is relatively safe for the moment, one is not sure how long that moment will last.

This is not a typical dystopia. It is the first-person journals of a teenager and then a woman who saw that things were getting worse, prepared herself as best she could, and went on a journey in order to survive. The book is successful, if it is that, in only a limited way for this one group of survivors. The rest of the world may or may not continue to implode.

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Sunday, November 22, 2015

They Carry the Fire Within

The RoadThe Road 
by Cormac McCarthy

"The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"

- from W. B. Yeats, "The Second Coming"

Seldom am I so moved by the writing and content of a book as I was in my recent rereading of The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I have previously read his Border Trilogy and particularly enjoyed the initial volume, All the Pretty Horses.  More recently I read Blood Meridian (I will comment about that novel at length in the near future). The Road, published in 2006, is a a post-apocalyptic tale of a journey taken by a father and his young son over a period of several months, across a landscape blasted by an unnamed cataclysmic event that destroyed all civilization and, apparently, almost all life on earth.

With a terse style the story has an immediacy that is apparent from the first page. 
"Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world." (p 3)
The reader soon finds that gray is the primary color of almost everything in this world while the dreams of the Father are filled with images that remind you of the beast in Yeats' famous poem quoted above. The father and his son are journeying together, some years after the cataclysm. The death of his wife is told in a flashback that narrates how, overwhelmed by the desperate and apparently hopeless situation, she commits suicide some time before the story begins; the rationality and calmness of her act being her last "great gift" to the man and the boy. Now, faced with the realization that they will not survive another winter in their current location, they are headed east and south, through a desolate American landscape along a vacant highway, towards the sea, sustained only by the vague hope of finding warmth and more "good people" like them, and carrying with them only what is on their backs and what will fit into a damaged supermarket cart. Their bare and difficult days are marked by meditations that underscore their plight.

"The frailty of everything is revealed at last. Old and troubling issues resolved into nothingness and night. The last instance of a thing takes the class with it. Turns out the light and is gone. Look around you. Ever is a long time. But the boy knew what he knew. That ever is no time at all." (p 24)

The details of their world, provided in small bits of narrative build to make a horrifying picture of desolation. Seldom have I read of a dystopia so bleak and foreboding. Nearly all of the few human survivors are cannibalistic tribalists or nomads, scavenging the detritus of city and country alike for human flesh, though that too is almost entirely depleted. It becomes clear that the father is dying, yet he struggles to protect his son from the constant threats of attack, exposure, and starvation, as well as from what he sees as the boy's innocently well-meaning, but dangerous desire to help wanderers they meet. Through much of the story, the pistol they carry, meant for protection or suicide if necessary, has only one round. The boy has been told to use it on himself if capture is imminent, to spare himself the horror of death at the hands of the cannibals.

In the face of these obstacles, the man and the boy have only each other (they are "each the other's world entire"). The man maintains the pretense, and the boy holds on to the real faith, that there is a core of ethics left somewhere in humanity. They repeatedly assure one another that they are "the good guys," who are "carrying the fire." One question that I had and which grew as I read more of the narrative was: what is the meaning of good in the world they inhabited? It was good when they found some meat or when they made it to another day - simple existence takes on new meaning in this context. The humanity of the son is kept in check by his father for fear of the danger that seems to exist everywhere. Yet there are moments when the boy keeps his father honest, as when the father tries to give the boy all of the cocoa they have to drink rather than splitting it between them.

"You promised not to do that, the boy said.
You know what, Papa.
He poured the hot water back in the pan and took the boy's cup and poured some of the cocoa into his own and then handed it back.
I have to watch you all the time, the boy said.
I know.
If you break the little promises you'll break the big ones. That's what you said.
I know. But I wont." (p 34)

The horror is both devastating and haunting. It arises from the discovery of death while they gradual decline in their ability to continue. The darkness of their journey is lightened somewhat by the ending and that, without discussing specifics, seems to me to be an important suggestion that there may be some hope for the next generation - the boy's future seems to hold some promise even in the face of the bleak territory that he traversed with his father.

In its way the book is at first unsettling, but if you continue to meditate on the events and relationships therein it becomes challenging and thought-provoking. The story of survival becomes a parable about the meaning of life. There is hope as the relationship between Papa and his boy helps each retain the will to live from day to day.

"No list of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one's heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes. So, he whispered to the sleeping boy. I have you." (p 54)

There continues the innocence of the boy and you wonder: do we lose innocence or just grow out of it? The rhythm of the prose is often poetic, yet there is a balance between metaphysical thoughts and the practical details of finding food and keeping warm. The dreams (there are only a handful of them) of the father are endlessly fascinating. No more than when he comes down with a fever and dreams of a time past when he dreamt of a foreign country where he was studying among his books. This moment is quickly replaced by his current situation when he comes upon an abandoned library.

"Years later he'd stood in the charred ruins of a library where blackened books lay in pools of water. Shelves tipped over. Some rage at the lies arranged in their thousands row on row. He picked up one of the books and thumbed through the heavy bloated pages. He'd not have thought the value of the smallest thing predicated on a world to come. It surprised him. That the space which these things occupied was itself an expectation." (p 187)

The story carries with it resonance with tales of journeys from Don Quixote to Robinson Crusoe. The brief dialogues between father and son are Beckett-like in their terseness, as is the grayness of the world. Yet they may have a future and it will depend upon their imagination. This tale of grayness and desolation may succumb to the imagination of a Father's son and the future he may yet be able to make for himself.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Nourishment for Readers

Reading in BedReading in Bed 
by Steven Gilbar

"A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity, and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight.  We all read too much, too fast.  I am taking the summer off to work slowly through several books that are due for a second reading."  - Robertson Davies

What do Emerson, Proust, Nabokov, and Calvino all have in common beyond the fact they were all great authors? They all wrote fascinating essays on the art of reading books. Steven Gilbar, a lawyer who is foremost a reader, selected and edited a delightful compilation of essays on books and reading for this tantalizing book, Reading in Bed. The essays range from those by classic authors like Montaigne, Hazlitt and Ruskin to modern notables like Marcel Proust, Henry Miller, Italo Calvino and Graham Greene. The entries from notable essayists include a couple of my favorites: Joseph Epstein and Sven Birkerts. The essay by Robertson Davies whose final paragraph is quoted above reminds me of the pleasure I have gained from rereading books that I love, most of which would be considered great. Some of those readings have been spaced out over my life while others have been bunched together in the several decades of my maturity. They include disparate writers and genres but all are books that I look forward to reading again. I have enjoyed reading and rereading massive classics like War and Peace, Middlemarch, and The Brothers Karamazov, along with smaller classics like Cather's My Antonia, Maugham's The Razor's Edge, and Lagerkvist's The Dwarf.

The one thing all these essays share is a transcendence, but they also have the ability to trigger new insights into the text and its message for our lives. They amplify and magnify the experience of reading while acting as a catalyst for further reading. The inclusion of a bibliography provides suggestions for further reading in the essays of these authors on subjects that are likely to be just as stimulating as those on reading. The compilation maintains a high level of excellence throughout without losing its entertainment value, at least for passionate and serious readers. I keep it by my bedside.

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Monday, November 16, 2015

A High-spirited Girl

Fräulein ElseFräulein Else 
by Arthur Schnitzler

"Why is he looking at me that way, so--pityingly?  God in heaven, what could this be about?  I'll wait until I'm upstairs to open it, otherwise I might faint."   - Arthur Schnitzler, Fraulein Else

Arthur Schnitzler was born in Vienna, Austria, in May 1862. Coming from a prominent family of medical doctors he became a doctor himself and worked first at the Vienna General Hospital and at the General Policlinic where he focused on hypnosis and suggestions. Even while a medical student Schnitzler began his career as a writer and that later on became his main occupation. Starting in 1880 he published poems, prose sketches and aphorisms. In 1888 his play, The Adventure of His Life, appeared in print, three years before it was first performed on stage. His fame, however, is based on psychologically well founded plays like Anatol, Flirtation, and Reigen that shocked the audience of the time with a unique frankness about sexuality. The bourgeois conventions of society in the last decades of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy are a topic in all of Arthur Schnitzler’s work, also in his prose like the novellas None but the Brave, Dream Story, and Fräulein Else. As a writer Arthur Schnitzler was a renegade obsessed with love and death as he said himself. He was one of the great innovators of Austrian literature and during his life encountered much praise as well as open malice for it. Arthur Schnitzler died in Vienna in October 1931.

Fraulein Else is a story of illness told through the form of interior monologue. Written in the heights of the modernist movement, Arthur Schnitzler used a stream of consciousness style to provide an unmediated glimpse into the interior life of a young woman. In his sympathetic portrayal of a young woman's life he provides a portrait that rivals that of Molly in Ulysses or the titular Mrs. Dalloway in Virginia Woolf's famous novel. Through the audible thoughts of a nineteen-year-old girl Schnitzler reveals what she dares not speak aloud and what her bourgeois society does not want to hear.

In the novella Schnitzler portrays a vital, high-spirited, and sensual young woman named Else who spends her days playing tennis and exchanging idle conversation with her Cousin Paul (on whom she has a secret crush) and Cissy, a married socialite who is having an affair with Paul. Else's carefree and self-centered holiday takes an abrupt turn, however, when she receives an urgent letter from her mother with the news that Else's father is about to suffer financial embarrassment. He owes 30,000 guldens, an amount he must raise immediately. Else's mother has discovered that Herr Von Dorsday, an old family friend, is staying at the same hotel as Else. In her letter, Else's mother pleads with her daughter to approach Von Dorsday for a loan.
Humiliated by this turn of events, Else nonetheless flirtatiously broaches the subject of a loan with Von Dorsday, sensing his attraction to her. He agrees on the condition that Else allow him to see her nude. Else, torn between loyalty to her family and the repellent task before her, considers her situation from every angle, her hysteria rising - despite a dose or two of veronal taken as a sedative - as she nears the appointed hour. In her manic state, Else veers between comedy and melodrama, and her decision sets the stage for a final moment of self-awareness that is both inevitable and shocking.

Importantly, Schnitzler was familiar with the theories of Sigmund Freud and used this knowledge to create a brilliant portrait of a classic adolescent female hysteric, likely modeled on those patients that made Freud famous. Even the title of the novel, Fraulein Else, hints at similar titles that one could find in Freud's case histories. Another stylistic technique that I particularly enjoyed was the inclusion of sections from Carnaval by Robert Schumann to intensify the emotions of Else in the climactic scene of the novella. Doing so suggests that Schnitzler had confidence that his readers would be familiar with Schumann's music as the cultural elite of Vienna undoubtedly were. This is a classic of modernism that retains its interest for contemporary readers. The many adaptations on stage and for the cinema are a testament to its continuing popularity.

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Quote for Today

Virginia Woolf on Shakespeare

I read Shakespeare directly I have finished writing.  When my mind is agape and red-hot. Then it is astonishing.  I never yet knew how amazing his stretch and speed and word coining power is, until I felt it utterly outpace and outrace my own, seeming to start equal and then I see him draw ahead and do things I could not in my wildest tumult and utmost press of mind imagine.  Even the less known plays are written at a speed that is quicker than anybody else’s quickest; and the words drop so fast one can’t pick them up.  Look at this. “Upon a gather’d lily almost wither’d.”  (That is a pure accident.  I happen to light on it.) Evidently the pliancy of his mind was so complete that he could furbish out any train of thought; and, relaxing, let fall a shower of such unregarded flowers.  Why then should anyone else attempt to write?  This is not “writing” at all.  Indeed, I could say that Shakespeare surpasses literature altogether, if I knew what I meant.

From the Diaries, April 13th, 1930

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Ideological Divisions

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and ReligionThe Righteous Mind: 
Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion 
by Jonathan Haidt

“Morality binds and blinds. It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.”   ― Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind

The title of this book suggests that it will contain information about the thoughts, and feelings that we have about what is morally right, and why there exist such a divergence of views about this subject. The author approaches the topic using psychological tools to determine the basis for this divergence. After a brief summary of the book I will discuss my misgivings about his project.

In the first section of the book the author discusses the idea that we use our intuition to first identify what is right and afterward apply strategic reasoning. The concept is summarized metaphorically by the image of an elephant and its rider with the elephant representing our intuition or "automatic" processes and the rider our rational deliberative mind. He goes on in the second section to identify five categories (later expanded to six) of moral issues using the metaphor of taste; based in part on the philosophical views of David Hume. In the final section he discusses why humans tend to form groups based around shared approaches toward moral categories. In this case the metaphor is the chimp and the bee, with the chimp representing the individual and the bee the group or "hive". The formation of groups is helpful in understanding the different viewpoints toward issues as each group emphasizes different categories of moral issues. All of this discussion is laced with observations of responses to hypothetical questions and situations by individuals and different groups.

I found Haidt's approach to be fundamentally flawed, yet I also found it fascinating and helpful both in enlarging and refining my thinking about the subjects he discussed. The fundamental flaw is the author's attempt to identify moral principles by using behavior and in the process of doing so eliminating the possibility that some moral principles may be foundational for any other activities. The result of his method is to conclude that good people can hold any combination of moral beliefs the difference between which can only be considered a difference in emphasis.  This may be useful for a relatively homogeneous culture but it does little to explain the fundamental differences between cultures for whom there are fundamental differences in moral principles. He also seriously underestimates the power of reason in our moral judgements.  While it is true that we sometimes make mistakes in moral judgement due to faulty reasoning;  our reasoning can be improved, resulting in better judgement.  In either case this is not sufficient ground to claim that there are no right or wrong answers to questions of morality.  The psychological approach used by Haidt leads him to these conclusions.

In spite of some specious eristics the book contains much useful information about the nature of the human mind, its development and actions such as decision-making. Reading it stimulated me to consider related works in philosophy, anthropology and evolutionary biology. This is one of the aspects that I value most in reading and The Righteous Mind was successful in this regard.

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Monday, November 09, 2015

Forgetting Buddha

The Buddha in the AtticThe Buddha in the Attic 
by Julie Otsuka

“We forgot about Buddha. We forgot about God. We developed a coldness inside us that still has not thawed. I fear my soul has died. We stopped writing home to our mothers. We lost weight and grew thin. We stopped bleeding. We stopped dreaming. We stopped wanting.” 

“And we knew it would only be a matter of time until all traces of us were gone.”… except… “Haruka left a tiny laughing brass Buddha up high, in a corner of the attic, where he is still laughing to this day.”   ― Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic

What an intense reading experience. Using simple prose and the first person plural the author creates a unique perspective on a very real historical episode. The story begins, "On the boat we were mostly virgins." That is they were innocents on a voyage to a strange new world; one that would not be what they expected. It would turn out to be a new life that they had dreamed about, but it would sometimes seem more like a nightmare. It is a story told from the point of view of many girls and women, none of whom is individualized as a continuing character, but all of whom are vividly described in a sentence or two.

The first chapter, "Come, Japanese!" describes a boatload of Japanese picture brides coming to California to marry men they have never met; men whom they have no true idea about, for they are entering the unknown. The next chapter, "First Night", tells of the consummation of their marriages with their new husbands, most of whom are nothing like the descriptions they had given. In the following chapter "Whites", the communities of the young women and their husbands are described: "We settled on the edges of their towns, when they would let us."(p 23) There was no assimilation as the women lived lives apart in this foreign country. Some of the women labor as migrant workers living in rural shacks, some become domestic workers living in the servants' quarters of suburban homes, and some set up businesses and living quarters in the "Japantown", or "J-Town", area of big cities. "Babies" tells about giving birth and "Children" about raising American-born children, who want to speak only English and are ashamed of their immigrant parents, but are discriminated against by most of their classmates, neighbors and merchants.

The final chapters depict the terrible impact of the Pearl Harbor attack and World War II on the families: the rumors and increasingly the reality of Japanese men being arrested without warning, the fear and eventually the reality of entire families being sent away to parts unknown. "Some of us left weeping. And some of us left singing. . . A few of us left drunk. Others of us left quietly, with our heads bowed, embarrassed and ashamed." (p 105) "Last Day" tells of the departure of the Japanese from their homes, jobs and schools. Finally, "A Disappearance," is told from the point of view of the white American families left behind, who at first miss their Japanese neighbors but gradually forget about them.

This is a heart-rending look at a culture that was held together by the hard work and discipline of a group of warm-hearted young women. And which was tossed asunder by the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The author raises her prose to the level of poetry with the simplicity and rhythm of her writing. Brilliantly she manages to leaven the hardship with humor while allowing the women share their personal stories. The result is a short novel that cuts deeper and closer to my heart than almost anything I have ever read. It is an emotional look at history that I will never forget.

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Tuesday, November 03, 2015

German Literature Month


Wilhelm Tell

by Friedrich Schiller

When on Alpine heights
The beacons all are kindled and shine forth
And tyrants' strongholds fall in smoking ruins,
Then shall the Switzers to your cottage come
And bear the joyous tidings to your ear:
So, bright in your dark night, shall freedom dawn.

- Wilhelm Tell, Schiller (lines 745-750)

Physical freedom and liberty of the soul are central ideas of Schiller’s literature. In his very first play The Robbers (1781), Schiller spoke of the ideas of liberty. His famous play Wilhelm Tell, on which Rossini’s famous opera is based, was also a tribute to freedom. The Romantic influence is apparent in Wilhelm Tell: “The mountain cannot frighten one who was born on it.” Indeed, this play was also a tribute to men living close to nature—the Romantic ideal of the harmony between nature and mankind. Don Carlos, another play by Schiller on the issue of liberty, inspired the famous Italian Romantic opera composer Giuseppe Verdi to write one of his greatest operas.

Seldom does a play include fewer scenes or lines for the title character, yet Wilhelm Tell is in few scenes and has relatively little to say in this great play, the last completed, by Friedrich Schiller. Nature looms as the play begins during a tempest on Lake Lucerne when Tell braves the angry waves to row to safety a peasant who is pursued by the Governor's horsemen. "The lake may take pity on him; but the Governor, never," says Tell. And yes, there is the famous scene where Tell refuses to bow to the "hat", the symbol of repressive Habsburg power, and is in turn forced to shoot the apple off his son's head. And there is the ultimate act which makes him a patriotic hero when he kills the Governor Gessler, the imperial representative hated by Tell's fellow countrymen and women. Beyond that the scenes in this play demonstrate the importance of those countrymen and their closeness to the land and traditions of their forefathers.

This is a powerful romantic drama about the desire for freedom, but it is also an Arcadian idyll that presents the best of nature. It seems almost Rousseauian in the opening scenes that are set in a seeming "state of nature". Eden like as the country may be it is also beset by tyranny from the dreaded imperial Hapsburg empire. We see the attraction this life has for Ulrich von Rudenz, the nephew of Baron von Attinghausen. While Attinghausen is a patriot his nephew is attracted to the other side and is brought back to support his countrymen only through the intervention of his love for young Berta. The importance of Berta and Lady Gertrud in their influence over the men closest to them is worth noting.

Schiller's play, the culmination of his dramatic art, is a joy to read. Over the years it, along with other plays by Schiller, has found its way to the operatic stage, in this case through the pen of Rossini, while Verdi was attracted to other of Schiller's works. While the large cast and number of different scenic locations make this a difficult work to stage I could not help thinking that we are overdue for a cinematic traversal of this tremendous literary resource.

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Sunday, November 01, 2015

The Original Essayist

The Complete Essays 
by Michel de Montaigne

“I speak the truth, not so much as I would, but as much as I dare; and I dare a little more as I grow older.” 

"When I am attacked by gloomy thoughts, nothing helps me so much as running to my books. They quickly absorb me and banish the clouds from my mind."
-   Michel de Montaigne 

This is a difficult book to review, not because it is difficult to read or comprehend but rather because it is so exceptionally comprehensive in its topics and thoughts and ideas. In one sense it began in 1571 when Michel de Montaigne, suffering increasingly from melancholy, retired to the library tower on his estate in the Périgord, and began to write what we know now as his Essays. At the age of thirty-eight he could look out his windows to see over his estates and check if his men were shirking their work. Inscribed on the walls and beams of his tower room were about 60 maxims in Greek and Latin taken from the philosophers. He replaced and augmented them as his moods and his reading led him.

In this room Montaigne produced three significantly different editions of his endlessly growing essays. By his death in 1592 he had scrawled in the margins of his copy of the most recent edition a significant set of further revisions, which were printed in a modified form in 1595. Montaigne wrote on a wide range of topics -- education, cannibals, drunkenness, war-horses, repentance, thumbs -- and he wrote in a highly readable, thoroughly skeptical way. The roof-beam carvings of his "solarium" convey his general frame of mind and include sayings like these: "The plague of man is the opinion of knowledge. I establish nothing. I do not understand. I halt. I examine. Breath fills a goatskin as opinion fills an hollow head. Not more this than that -- why this and not that? Have you seen a man that believes himself wise? Hope that he is a fool. Man, a vase of clay. I am Human, let nothing human be foreign to me."

The essays that he wrote defined the form of his thought while providing a window into both his mind and his life. Through his essays he has influenced writers and thinkers in every place and century since. One of my favorite examples of those he influenced is the self-taught working-man's philosopher Eric Hoffer who commented on the influence of Montaigne in his life. When on a gold-digging trip to the Sierras he took along a copy of Montaigne's essays. "We were snowed in and I read it straight through three times. I quoted it all the time. I'll bet there are still a dozen hobos in the San Joaquin Valley who can quote Montaigne." Montaigne's collected essays are worth returning to again and again to spur one's own thoughts about living and dying. I have read and enjoyed these essays over most of my adult life.  With them I would also recommend those of Francis Bacon, Emerson, and Orwell, among others.

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Saturday, October 31, 2015

Quote for Today

Maimonides' Guide for Readers 

In the prefatory remarks to the original edition of his Guide to the Perplexed, Maimonides points out that he “hesitated very much before writing on the subjects contained in this work, since they are profound mysteries,” and considers the three primary ways we see truth:

"Ignorant and superficial readers take them in a literal, not in a figurative sense. Even well informed persons are bewildered if they understand these passages in their literal signification, but they are entirely relieved of their perplexity when we explain the figure, or merely suggest that the terms are figurative. For this reason I have called this book Guide for [to] the Perplexed. I do not presume to think that this treatise settles every doubt in the minds of those who understand it, but I maintain that it settles the greater part of their difficulties."

One Omen Too Many

The AlchemistThe Alchemist 
by Paulo Coelho

"It's the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting, he thought." (p 13)

"Another Omen!" (p 166)

I began reading this book with some skepticism with regard to whether it would live up to its hype. While I found that my skepticism was rewarded by the author I may have been better served if I would have noticed an omen when the young sheepherder remembered the old woman "who interpreted dreams"(p 13).  Perhaps if I had "listened to my heart" I would not have read the book in the first place. 

While it started relatively simply, seeming to be a sort of allegory, the further I read the more convoluted the story became. Instead of holding my interest with great writing or suspense or deep thoughts the book encouraged me to read on to see how quickly I could finish it.  The narrative became an unsuccessful attempt to provide some meaning that I would compare to someone mixing their metaphors.

The main character, Santiago, goes on a journey of exploration ending in a sort of mystical experience that has taken him far away from the simple life that he had. In doing so it left him with a muddle of different methods for finding his dream like "speaking with the wind and the sun" and "being a shepherd" and getting over "personal hardship". Whether this amounted to a "higher plan" for his life is far from transparent to this reader.

Rather than attempt to make any further sense out of the story I would prefer to warn other readers that this is a book that pretends to be deep with references to alchemy and spiritualism and even an allusion to Plato's theory of ideas. However, the whole does not equal the sum of its parts primarily because it does not present a coherent message.  It does succeed in a way, but only by devolving into a combination of confusing claptrap; therefore I would not recommend reading it for omens good, bad, or otherwise.

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Thursday, October 29, 2015

Danish Saga

translated by Seamus Heaney

“Meanwhile, the sword
began to wilt into gory icicles, 
to slather and thaw. It was a wonderful thing, 
the way it all melted as ice melts 
when the Father eases the fetters off the frost
and unravels the water-ropes. He who wields power
over time and tide: He is the true Lord.” 

― Seamus Heaney, Beowulf

Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf is both modern and satisfying poetry.  It is a translation as if from another world. The poem has in Heaney’s words a ‘hand-built, rock sure feel’ and yet at the same time his lines are expansive with an elemental feeling emanating from within the verse. It’s what Heaney elsewhere calls ‘the ore of longing’. The world of Danish kings, gold hoards and minstrels keeps revealing regions remote from human influence, making exciting reading. It’s as though you almost had to conceive of two dimensions at once. And Heaney tends to set his words so starkly as to allow the direct opposing pull of those separate forces:
"His warrior band did what he bade them
when he laid down the law among the Danes:
they shouldered him out to the sea’s flood,
the chief they revered who had long ruled them."

The story begins as King Hrothgar, the ruler of the Danes, is troubled by the rampages of a demon named Grendel. Every night, Grendel attacks King Hrothgar's wealthy mead-hall, Heorot, killing Danish warriors and sometimes even eating them. Hrothgar was a great warrior in his time, but now he's an old king and can't seem to protect his people. Fortunately, a young Geat warrior named Beowulf travels to Heorot Hall from his own lands overseas to lend a helping hand – literally.   After explaining that he owes Hrothgar a favor because Hrothgar helped out his father, Beowulf offers to fight Grendel himself. King Hrothgar gratefully accepts his offer.  The rest awaits the reader in this wonderful translation.

For Heaney the whole poem is bordered by yet related to the beyond, by which he means both the immanent and the imminent, ‘unknowable but certain’. He stresses that the queer sounds of Beowulf to modern ears is not merely the result of our distance in time from that epic world (the dragons, barrows, and boar-shapes flashing over golden cheek-guards). Rather the poem’s difference (perhaps shared with similar sagas) lies in its ‘mythic potency’:
"Like Shield Sheafson… [the poem] arrives from somewhere beyond the
known bourne of our experience, and having fulfilled its purpose (again
like Shield) it passes once more into the beyond."

Rereading the poem in this translation was a delight even though I would still recommend the fine translation by Burton Raffel that I read in the early nineties. I intend to return to this poem, but plan to seek out the new version by Neil Gaiman – that is sure to be yet a new way to experience this great medieval epic.

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A Modern Sir Gawain

American Gods (American Gods, #1) American Gods 
by Neil Gaiman

“People believe, thought Shadow. It's what people do. They believe, and then they do not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things, and do not trust the conjuration. People populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe; and it is that rock solid belief, that makes things happen.”   ― Neil Gaiman, American Gods

This book almost defies description among those that I have read. It certainly does not fit in any of the standard categories for novels. While it won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus Awards in 2002 for best novel, edging out more traditional science fiction contenders, it is not a traditional fantasy novel either. Having read Neil Gaiman's more recent fantasy novel, Neverwhere, recently I am beginning to realize that one of the prime characteristics of his novels is defiance of traditional categories and escape from easy descriptions.
With American Gods Neil Gaiman has raised the specter of the Norse gods (primarily) and imagined that they came to America along with the immigrants from the countries of Northern Europe. Add to this an ex-convict as a wandering knight-errant who traverses the wasteland of Middle America all the while assisting his boss, Mr. Wednesday, who is otherwise known by many names including Wotan or Odin (King of the Norse Gods, God of poetry, battle and death. Chief god of the Aesir. Also known as the “all-father”, the “terrible one”, “one-eyed” and “father of battle”). This aspect alone interested me as I enjoy the Norse mythology from my love of Wagner's operas.

The knight-errant, named Shadow, has been recently released from prison after serving a three-year term. He is immediately faced with the news that his beloved wife Laura has been killed in an automobile accident. While en route to Indiana for her funeral, Shadow meets an eccentric businessman who calls himself Mr. Wednesday (see the mythological reference above), and passively accepts the latter’s offer of an imprecisely defined job as his assistant. Gaiman skillfully interleaves brief vignettes of various ancient gods and their myths with action in what seems to be real places like Lakeside, Wisconsin and other sites. The novel is effective in describing episodes on and off the plane of reality, as a series of mysterious encounters suggest to Shadow that he may not be in Indiana or Wisconsin anymore—or indeed anywhere on Earth he recognizes. In dreams, he’s visited by a grotesque figure with the head of a buffalo and the voice of a prophet—as well as by Laura’s rather alarmingly corporeal ghost. Shadow undergoes a succession of tests that echo those of Arthurian hero Sir Gawain bound by honor to surrender his life to the malevolent Green Knight, Orpheus braving the terrors of Hades to find and rescue the woman he loves, and numerous other archetypal figures out of folklore and legend.  The plot of the novel, while becoming more intricate as it proceeds also becomes more enjoyable. This is the book that answers the question: When people emigrate to America, what happens to the gods they leave behind?

Gaiman succeeds through his ability to provide fantastic details that are visually exciting to the reader. The dream sequences, even though bizarre and irrational, are beautiful and sometimes horrific in their detail. His prose flows with an ease that belies the complexity of the story and the surprises, of which there are plenty, come with every turn of the chapter. One realizes well before the end of this novel why the voters and writers of fantasy fiction gave it their highest awards. This is a book that reminds you why you love bookstores, which leads me to one more quote from the book:

“What I say is, a town isn't a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it's got a bookstore it knows it's not fooling a soul.”

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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Poetry as Winter Approaches

Robert Frost, who lived from 1874-1963 published “October” in 1915.  It was among the poems that he included in “A Boy’s Will”.

Outside there is an autumn mist upon my windowpane. Inside where I am warm I turn to the poem “October” in which Frost wishes that time be slowed, "Begin the hours of this day slow",  before the approaching winter.  He urges the reader to cherish each moment with "Hearts not averse to being beguiled".  Winter becomes a metaphor for death and finality, as he seeks enchantment.  Like many of Frost’s poems, “October” references nature to draw out meaning. This is done similarly in “Nothing Gold Can Stay” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”.

Marcel Proust's narrator for In Search of Lost Time said, "A change in the weather is sufficient to recreate the world and ourselves anew." I hope you will find similar thoughts expressed by Robert Frost in his poem simply titled "October".


O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
The crows above the forest call;
Tomorrow they may form and go.
O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow.
Make the day seem to us less brief.
Hearts not averse to being beguiled,
Beguile us in the way you know.
Release one leaf at break of day;
At noon release another leaf;
One from our trees, one far away.
Retard the sun with gentle mist;
Enchant the land with amethyst.
Slow, slow!
For the grapes’ sake, if they were all,
Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,
Whose clustered fruit must else be lost—
For the grapes’ sake along the wall.

-  Robert Frost

A Boy's Will by Robert Frost.   1st World Library, 2006 (1915) 

Monday, October 26, 2015

A Dangerous Glory

Iphigenia in AulisIphigenia in Aulis 
by Euripides

"Agamemnon: I envy you old man.  I envy a man who lives a life without a name.  But those that have power--I envy them least of all.

Old Man: But such men have a life of glory.

Agamemnon:  A glory that is filled with danger.  Yes, power is sweet, but it stands on the brink of grief.  Sometimes it is the gods who destroy a man's life.  Sometimes it is the minds of men, vicious and beyond number, that bring ruin." (pp 11-12)

Near the end of Iphigenia at Aulis, Iphigenia has offered herself as a sacrificial victim: 
"I have decided that I must die. And I shall die gloriously."(p 58) At this point the Chorus echoes her praises, but one wonders at the events that have led to this point and the event that will come to follow this moment as the ending turns the drama on its head.

The story told in this drama by Euripides is one that Athenians knew well. It was told by Aeschylus in his drama Agamemnon, the first play in the trilogy known as The Oresteia. Thus it would have had a tremendous impact on this audience and that impact has continued to this day.  In Aeschylus's play the Chorus, made up of the old men of Argos, enters and tells the story of how the Trojan Prince Paris stole Helen, the wife of the Greek king Menelaus, leading to ten years of war between Greece and Troy. Then the Chorus recalls how Clytemnestra's husband Agamemnon (Menelaus' brother) sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia at Aulis to the god Artemis to obtain a favorable wind for the Greek fleet.   

Euripides' play raises serious questions about the value of an individual life, and under what circumstances that life can be taken. Is the play's central event, the sacrifice of Iphigenia, a pointless waste, or a tragic necessity?  Do the players, her father Agamemnon, Achilles, and Iphigenia herself,  have a choice or is their fate determined by the gods (Artemis in particular)?  Is the war that will be fought as a result of her sacrifice a just cause, or a petty quarrel over individuals and the fate of the beautiful Helen?  Is her decision to offer herself an act of heroic patriotism?  Acceptance of the inevitable or possibly a sign of madness?  These questions and more linger in one's mind during and after reading this powerful drama.  

In Euripides play Iphigenia invokes values important to the Greeks (p 58-9); including obedience to the gods, "Artemis has determined to take this my body--can I, a mere mortal, thwart a goddess's will?"; that the community is more important than the individual, the Greeks must prevail over the barbarians, that men are more valuable than women, and that death in defense of these values is glorious and brings everlasting fame, "Sacrifice me and destroy Troy. That will be my epitaph for eternity. That will be my glory,".  That the glory that she seeks is one determined by men is an open question.  The play also raises questions about the importance of the family as her mother, Clytemnestra and supposed suitor, Achilles, take on important roles.

The translation of this play by Nicholas Rudall is both lucid and poetic in an attempt to capture some of the music that Euripides was famous for. His tragic irony shines through the dialogue. The questions raised in this play are universal in the sense that we still are concerned over the nature of heroism and fidelity to one's community. Euripides won a prize for this drama even though he was no longer present in Athens and had died the previous year. I would recommend this to all who are interested in these questions and their presentation in one of the singular dramas of the Western tradition.

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Thursday, October 22, 2015

Two Waifs in a Wartime Setting

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See 
by Anthony Doerr

“When I lost my sight, Werner, people said I was brave. When my father left, people said I was brave. But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don't you do the same?”   ― Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See

This is a book that was selected for our Thursday night book group. I mention this because I probably would not have read this novel had it not been selected, as I seldom read novels that are current best-sellers (The Martian was a recent exception, also selected by a book club).  By the end of the novel I found that I enjoyed reading All the Light We Cannot See,  but I did not share the views of the Pulitzer selection committee and those readers that have claimed greatness for this novel. 

Beginning in August 1944, we meet Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany. She is there with her great-uncle Etienne as they have moved out of Paris hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany.

The story is told with parallel short chapters providing flashbacks where we learn that Werner had been a bit of a math prodigy who at a very early age developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancy's during this period. Werner is selected to attend a technical school and later is transferred by a mentor into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions.
Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

The story plays out in short chapters and the time shifts from the present to the past. All of this is presented in a lucid and uncomplicated style that I found easy to read. The author is best in his use of theme and metaphor with the motif of light and the use of Verne's novel as a way to demonstrate the importance of imagination and an inner life for Marie-Laure. There is also a related motif of the voyage both from the Verne novel and from her great-uncle's reading of Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle to her; "She loves especially to hear about the dark coasts of South America with their impenetrable walls of trees and offshore breezes full of the stink of rotting kelp and the cries of whelping seals.  She loves to imagine Darwin at night, leaning over the ship's rail to stare into bioluminescent waves, watching the tracks of penguins marked by fiery green wakes."(p 150-1)  Passages like this are all the more memorable and meaningful when you reflect that the little blind girl is imagining these views and smells in her mind with no visual referent.

The life of the mind is just as important for Werner as he solves mathematical problems related to the building and repair of radios. This skill undoubtedly helps him survive what becomes a more difficult existence as the war proceeds. He is also inspired by "the Frenchman's radio program" (not realizing the source) and books like "Heinrich Hertz's Principles of Mechanics". (p 220)  Likewise Marie-Laure's imagination helps her as she and her great-uncle struggle for survival. The two main characters also are buoyed by their love for family; Werner for his sister Jutta, and Marie-Laure for her father.

Unfortunately the story was somewhat predictable and the information about the war was not enlightening to anyone with even an average knowledge of the history of World War II. Moreover I found the secondary characters appeared as stereotypical types; for example, Werner's best friend at the technical school, Frederick, who was portrayed as wealthy but weak (you realize immediately that he is unlikely to survive the competitive atmosphere of the school). There is an episode (notable only for its violence) when Frederick is culled from the class through horrible physical tests. He suffers more through Werner's inability to show any courage to stand up for him. Perhaps Werner learns a lesson in this episode for he demonstrates much courage later in the story. Finally, the denouement of the the story of Marie and Werner lacks suspense and I found it tended toward the melodramatic.

However, these issues did not significantly diminish my enjoyment reading this novel;  thus I would recommend it to those who like entertaining historical novels. Just do not expect to be challenged by it.

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Friday, October 16, 2015

A Fearless Literary Life

Andre Gide: A Life in the PresentAndre Gide: A Life in the Present 
by Alan Sheridan

"Gide was, by general consent, one of the dozen most important writers of the 20th century. Moreover, no writer of such stature had led such an interesting life, a life accessibly interesting to us as readers of his autobiographical writings, his journal, his voluminous correspondence and the testimony of others. It was the life of a man engaging not only in the business of artistic creation, but reflecting on that process in his journal, reading that work to his friends and discussing it with them; a man who knew and corresponded with all the major literary figures of his own country and with many in Germany and England; who found daily nourishment in the Latin, French, English and German classics, and, for much of his life, in the Bible; [who enjoyed playing Chopin and other classic works on the piano;] and who engaged in commenting on the moral, political and sexual questions of the day."

André Paul Guillaume Gide lived from 1869 until 1951. He was a French author and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1947 "for his comprehensive and artistically significant writings, in which human problems and conditions have been presented with a fearless love of truth and keen psychological insight". Gide's career ranged from its beginnings in the symbolist movement, to the advent of anticolonialism between the two World Wars.

Known for his fiction as well as his autobiographical works, Gide exposed to public view the conflict and eventual reconciliation of the two sides of his personality, split apart by a straitlaced education and a narrow social moralism. Gide's work can be seen as an investigation of freedom and empowerment in the face of moralistic and puritanical constraints, and centers on his continuous effort to achieve intellectual honesty. His self-exploratory texts reflect his search of how to be fully oneself, even to the point of owning one's sexual nature, without at the same time betraying one's values. His political activity is informed by the same ethos, as indicated by his repudiation of communism after his 1936 voyage to the USSR.

Alan Sheridan's biography of Gide narrates his life year-by-year with beautiful style. He distills the significant biographical writings of Gide (Journals, autobiography, etc.) along with his literary work and very event-filled life. The book, at more than seven hundred pages, is nothing if not comprehensive; providing more detail on his subject’s life than you might want to know, unless you love his writing as I do. It is a scholarly work, with all the apparatus that one has come to expect of contemporary biographies – a forest of footnotes, an extensive bibliography and index.

From a relatively early date, Gide discussed his homosexuality in his books and elsewhere with commendable courage. His earlier autobiographical work, If it Die (Si le Grain ne Meurt), describes his African encounters, and in 1925 he published Corydon, an essay on homosexuality and its place in society, written in the form of a Socratic dialogue. Some of his arguments now seem, inevitably, dated, but to have published such a book at all at that time, even in the relatively more civilised culture of France, was brave. I especially appreciated Sheridan's commentaries on Gide's fiction, most of which I have read and love.  Like all but the most famous European writers he is not well-enough known or appreciated in the United States.

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Thursday, October 08, 2015

Active vs Reactive Man

As one advances in life, one realizes more and more that the majority of men - and of women - are incapable of any other effort than that strictly imposed on them as a reaction to external compulsion. And for that reason, the few individuals we have come across who are capable of a spontaneous and joyous effort stand out isolated, monumentalized, so to speak, in our experience. These are the select men, the nobles, the only ones who are active and not merely reactive, for whom life is a perpetual striving, an incessant course of training.
- Jose Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses (pp. 65-66)

The drama Faust by Goethe is a work that I have read and returned to over the years.  In addition to the enjoyment of the drama I have found it a font of ideas containing connections with other works.  Reading Ortega y Gasset's seminal The Revolt of the Masses raised one of those ideas, reminding me of the importance of Goethe's drama for modern thinkers like Ortega y Gasset.  For it is the realization man gains through the experience of life that extends only to those who choose to think and act. Men and women of principle who have identified their goals, and who act upon them with a "spontaneous and joyous effort", are those who strive with a purpose. It is in opposition to this that we consider the directionless striving of Goethe's Faust. His action is that which leads not to nobility, but rather to the ultimate dissolution of his life and ideals.

Faust Part I, embodies a search for the essence of human spiritual growth and understanding. Early in the play we find Faust concluding, "and see there is nothing we can know!" (I, 364). He says this following a life whose purpose was the pursuit of wisdom and understanding.  It was a pursuit that appeared to be fruitless yet, in spite of his apparent conclusion, moments later he is seeking and finding, "enchantment at the sight of this" (sign of the Macrocosm) (I, 430). The enchantment he seeks is that which comes with the union of human spirit with the spirit of nature, or the universe, for which all noble humans strive. Yet this is not possible for Faust, for he is torn apart by a duality of spirit, as shown by the famous lines:

Two souls , alas, are dwelling in my breast,
And either would be severed from its brother;
The one holds fast with joyous earthly lust
Onto the world of man with organs clinging;
The other soars impassioned from the dust,
To realms of lofty forebears winging. (I, 1112-17)

This duality is the manifestation of Faust's ultimate inability to focus on a purpose for his life and his striving. He wagers with Mephistopheles (I, 1692-8), but by that point he has succumbed completely to a permanent separation from the Macrocosm, and thus from the reality of himself. It is Mephistopheles who identifies this separation (I, 1346-54), which seems not unlike the separation of man and god presented by Augustine in his Confessions (Book I, 1).

What do we make of this separation or duality? When combined with Faust's striving - or perhaps avoiding - it becomes the path to Faust's ultimate dissolution. For it is this separation that prevents Faust from focusing on a purpose for his life, without which he he cannot gain the understanding he is seeking. And what do we see as the role of knowledge? It seems that knowledge is not enough to save Faust, not just because he views the attempt to gain knowledge as futile, but because he lacks a purpose or goal for that knowledge beyond the striving itself. Faust becomes like the man described by Ortega y Gasset, "incapable of any other effort than that strictly imposed . . . as a reaction to external compulsion."

But , you may say, is he not inwardly driven toward the striving or action for some purpose? An answer to this question may be found in Mephistopheles request to, "explore what life can be." (I, 1543), and in Faust's reply in which he concludes, "Existence seems a burden to detest. Death to be wished for, life a hateful jest." (I, 1570-1) Faust's inward compulsion is seen to be directed toward death, and only Mephistopheles is able to compel him toward action in this world. Thus striving in this world cannot be maintained by Faust alone, without purpose, and we ultimately see him as an empty creature waiting to be fulfilled by death and, he hopes, union with god.

Is this the nobility of the sort desired by men and women of principle? Those who are "active and not reactive" reject the lure of Mephistopheles and the irrational; focusing on their purpose in life with a joyous rationality. They are driven by an inward striving toward knowledge and understanding as suggested by the famous statement of Aristotle at the beginning of his Metaphysics, "All men by nature desire to know" (980a). These are the men and women described by Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics:

Now those activities are desirable in themselves from which nothing is sought beyond the activity. And of this nature virtuous actions are thought to be, for to do noble and good deeds is a thing desirable for its own sake. (1176a 33)

That the doing of noble and good deeds requires a purpose distinguishes the active man from the merely reactive. It is this that leads to the nobility of spirit and it is this that Faust rejects as he says, "Thus I reel from desire to fulfillment, and in fulfillment languish for desire." (I, 3249-50) Later in the same scene Faust again admits the purposelessness of his striving (I, 3348-9). We thus see in Faust the rejection of the virtuous activity that leads to nobility in man, a rejection that leads Faust to death and dissolution.

Faust Part I by Johann Goethe, trans. by Walter Arndt. Norton Classics, New York. 1976 (1808)
Confessions by St. Augustine, trans Rex Warner. Penguin, New York. 1963 (401)
Metaphysics and Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle, trans. David Ross. Random House, New York. 1941.
The Revolt of the Masses by Jose Ortega y Gasset. W. W. Norton, New York. 1957 (1930)