Thursday, August 25, 2016

Plato's Republic as recreated by Athena

The Just City (Thessaly, #1)The Just City 
by Jo Walton

“Know Thyself. It’s good advice. Know yourself. You are worth knowing. Examine your life. The unexamined life is not worth living. Be aware that other people have equal significance. Give them the space to make their own choices, and let their choices count as you want them to let your choices count. Remember that excellence has no stopping point and keep on pursuing it. Make art that can last and that says something nobody else can say. Live the best life you can, and become the best self you can. You cannot know which of your actions is the lever that will move worlds. Not even Necessity knows all ends. Know yourself.”  ― Jo Walton, The Just City

This was the latest book discussed in our monthly SF reading group.  The author, Jo Walton, presents a Utopian world modeled on the Republic of Plato. In doing so she creates a story that is a blend of fantasy and science fiction with the emphasis on the former. This raised a perennial question for the group: is this book a science fiction novel or not? My response is to consider it an example of speculative fiction as discussed and defined by Margaret Atwood and others.

In this book we have a new city created on an island by the Greek goddess, Pallas Athene. While Apollo, her brother, is involved as well (he chooses to participate in the experiment in human form), the main characters are young children, teachers, Masters, and some robots, all of whom have been brought together to form the Just City as defined in the Republic of Plato. Among the major characters is a student, Simmea, from Egypt who demonstrates a thirst for knowledge that would make Socrates proud. There is also a teacher, Maia, formerly a Victorian lady who is brought to the city by Athene when she makes a prayer to her. Other primary characters include a boy named Kebes and Pytheas (Apollo). There are other famous figures that are brought together as masters for the students, but none more famous than Socrates.

The masters are generally happy to build and live in the Just City, but not all the children are, especially since it’s suggested that the masters encouraged the growth of slavery in various eras by purchasing so many children. No matter that the children are well-treated and educated, they're not allowed to leave and must follow strict rules whose provenance they can’t entirely understand, since they’re not even allowed to read The Republic. The justness of the City becomes even more questionable when evidence accumulates that the mechanical workers used in place of slaves may actually be sentient.

It is when Socrates joins the city and brings his traditional questioning method that the utopian project really begins to experience significant growing pains. It is when the restraints imposed by the city as defined by Plato become too difficult for those in the city to follow that the story becomes both more interesting and sometimes unappealing. It is when the rigidity of the ideal city as defined by Plato creates a world where freedom becomes "freedom to obey", not freedom to question and act based on the reasoning of your own mind. This dichotomy is exacerbated by Socrates' insistence on dialogues with the students. After all, Socrates did not create the City or its rules. Here is an example from a dialogue between Socrates and one of the students about the system of taking children away from their parents and raising them together:
"'But you will say, will you not, that the purpose of the system is not to maximize individual happiness but the justice of the whole city?'
'Yes,' she said.
'And how does this maximize justice?'
'People do not form individual attachments but are attached to all the others, and people do not care about their own children than all the children of the city.'
'But that's nonsense,' Socrates said gently. 'They do form individual attachments, they're just pursuing them in secret. And they do care more about their own children, they're just prevented from seeing them.'" (p 352)
Athene interjects that there are good reasons for this such as avoiding the development of family rivalries. That does not persuade either the children or Socrates.

There’s often more thought experiment than plot here. The fictional and mythological protagonists have a certain appeal, but it’s disappointing that Walton barely sketches most of the historical characters who play minor roles in the story—readers will have to do the research themselves in order to flesh them out. The best aspect of this novel is the way that the students develop, socialize, and learn about the world. While the prose sometimes reminded me of a "Young Adult" novel, despite that possible drawback the combination of philosophic discussion and ideas was both entertaining and thought-provoking. It helps if you have previously read Plato's Republic, but if you haven't and are interested in the ideas presented here you may be encouraged to pick it up and read the original for yourself.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Fragmentary Thoughts on Approaching Death

Living Up to DeathLiving Up to Death 
by Paul Ricœur

"Where to begin this late apprenticeship?  By what is essential, right away?  by the necessity and difficulty of mourning a wanting-to-exist after death?  by joy--no, instead, with cheerfulness joined to a hoped-for grace of existing until death?" (p 7)

Near the end of his life the philosopher Paul Ricoeur began to meditate on death with a focus on three questions: "1) "imagined figures" (what representation can I give myself?); 2) "mourning and cheerfulness" (what is their root?); and 3) "Am I still a Christian?" (along with In what way am I not a "Christian philosopher"?)." (p viii) The result of thinking about these questions is the slight book, Living Up to Death. The thoughts in this spare book that he left unfinished at the end of his life may be summed up by the phrase "Get on with life." That is we must address the choices in our life that one is mortal and that one cannot be loved by everyone. (p ix)

I read this book and discussed it in a course on the "Art and Practice of Dying". I will try to share some of the issues that I found both interesting and important in Ricoeur's book. One surely is his discussion of the "philosophies of finitude". That is our human mortality that we all share -- we all are obliged to die and having to die must consider our own mortality. But can we really do any more than look forward, unable to really see the end? Each day we look forward to the next day, week, month, perhaps year but the end is something that, at best, we can only hope to live up to. Then it happens. Ludwig Wittgenstein said it well in the Tractatus: "Death is not a lived experience,". Ricoeur observes that "so long as they remain lucid ill dying people do not see themselves as dying, as soon to be dead, but as still living," (pp 13-14) 
With the emphasis on still living he theorizes that this feeling is connected with something essential that everyone experiences - perhaps in a religious way - but perhaps only when actually facing death.

These thoughts do not sound very cheerful, yet they are discussed in a chapter entitled "Mourning and Cheerfulness". What is cheerful about death? Ricoeur references narratives about death camp experiences ( Jorge Semprun and Primo Levi) observing that the connections between humans and the comfort that comes from the process of mourning. This he calls the "relation of our desire to live" in relation to all others. The discourse presents ideas that, while not necessarily convincing, are thought-provoking. They enable and encourage meditation on issues that might otherwise be hidden away in some corner where we do not go. This does not mean that it is comfortable to think about these ideas, but it can be comforting. I would compare it to what Ricoeur has to say about writing about these issues: "the work of memory is the work of mourning. And both are a word of hope, torn from what is unspoken." (p 39) 
It is important to note that, even here with these thoughts, the manuscript left by Ricoeur was not complete and included notes in the margin that the editors of the book refer to.

The book concludes with fragments for a final chapter (chapters?) that were left unformed. Here Ricoeur was attempting to distinguish between his role as philosopher and his life as a Christian. He also comments on his own physical deterioration. His wife had died in 1998 and in 2003 he suffered degeneration of his eyesight and his heart. Yet even during this time he noted "People see me as looking better than I feel". (p 95) 
He continued to think about these issues in his last days and while doing so he sent the following note to a younger colleague:

"Dear Marie,
At the hour of decline the word resurrection arises. Beyond every miraculous episode . From the depths of life, a power suddenly appears, which says that being is being against death.
Believe this with me.
your friend, Paul R."

This reminds me of a quote from Albert Camus, "In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer."  I have always found this uplifting and there are similar moments in Paul Ricoeur's book.   While it  is incomplete and only partially fragments of what would have been a larger work it is still a valuable contribution to the literature about the philosophy of death and dying.

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Saturday, August 20, 2016

Betrayed by His Passions

The Red and the BlackThe Red and the Black 
by Stendhal

“Ah, Sir, a novel is a mirror carried along a high road. At one moment it reflects to your vision the azure skies, at another the mire of the puddles at your feet. And the man who carries this mirror in his pack will be accused by you of being immoral! His mirror shews the mire, and you blame the mirror! Rather blame that high road upon which the puddle lies, still more the inspector of roads who allows the water to gather and the puddle to form.”   ― Stendhal, The Red and the Black

I have enjoyed rereading Le Rouge et le Noir (The Red and the Black) by Stendahl. It is a historical psychological novel in two volumes, published in 1830, that chronicles the attempts of a provincial young man to rise socially beyond his lowly upbringing through a combination of intelligence, talent, hard work, deception, and hypocrisy. He ultimately allows his passions to betray him. 

While the novel is usually classified as a bildungsroman or novel of education, in entitling it Le Rouge et le Noir: Chronique du XIXe siècle (The Red and the Black: A Chronicle of the 19th Century) Stendhal suggests a two-fold literary purpose as both a psychological portrait of the romantic protagonist, Julien Sorel, and an analytic, sociological satire of the French social order under the Bourbon Restoration. The title refers to the tension between the clerical (black) and secular (red) interests of the protagonist, which is a matter of some debate.

The story tells of a young man, Julien Sorel, whose provincial nature is inflamed with the passion of youth, a passion for the ideals of the Napoleonic age, but whose greatest passion is his ambition which, overwhelming any natural pudency, takes him to the heights and sets in motion his tragic fall. His passion is contrasted with his intellect which is strong enough to allow him to escape both his difficult home life and his lowly status. Stendhal is able to present his narrative with unmatched, for his time, psychological depth and realism. The love affairs of Julien and the political intrigues in which he participates are spellbinding for the reader even today. This novel truly presents a "mirror" of reality and provides an engaging challenge for the reader. The story presents a protagonist torn between his passion for the ideal of Napoleon represented by the red of the cavalry dragoons and the black of the bishops of the church. Ultimately he finds hypocrisy on all sides and turns upon one of his loves while rejecting his only true friend.

Stendhal repeatedly questions the possibility, and the desirability, of “sincerity”, because most of the characters, especially Julien Sorel, are acutely aware of having to play a role to gain social approval. In that 19th-century context, the word “hypocrisy” denoted the affectation of high religious sentiment; in The Red and the Black it connotes the contradiction between thinking and feeling. Le Rouge et le Noir is set in the latter years of the Bourbon Restoration (1814–30) and the days of the 1830 July Revolution that established the Kingdom of the French (1830–48). Stendhal was consciously writing a historical novel set in the present. The subtitle, "a chronicle of 1830," made his contemporary readers aware of not only the historical context of the novel but of their own lives as well. Julien's choice between the black of the Church and the red of the army was a decision that many of Stendhal's readers had to make themselves. His worldly ambitions are motivated by the emotional tensions, between his idealistic Republicanism (especially nostalgic allegiance to Napoleon), and the realistic politics of counter-revolutionary conspiracy, by Jesuit-supported legitimists, notably the Marquis de la Mole, whom Julien serves, for personal gain.  It is his first moments at the home of the Marquis de la Mole that I found most memorable (as a reader who loves books);  Julien rises with the help of Father Pirard to private secretary for Marquis de la Mole. His office is to be the library. ”A few minutes later, Julien found himself alone in a magnificent library; it was a delightful moment. So no one would come to him, excited as he was, he hid himself in a dark corner. From there, he looked out at the books’ glittering spines. ‘I could read every one of them,’ he told himself.”  

Even though Stendhal does not directly refer to the 1830 Revolution, he highlights the political tensions and corruption that had reached a recent boiling point. But this emphasis on history also serves as a warning to readers: Julien's failure to succeed in French society and his betrayal by M. Valenod present a foreboding distrust of the victorious liberal bourgeoisie. Would the death of the aristocracy mark the death of French society? Stendhal's comparison of the gamble of revolution to the red and black of a roulette wheel, presents a harrowing glimpse of the volatility of French politics--a vision that still fascinates readers today. 

In his famous book of literary criticism, Deceit, Desire and the Novel, philosopher and critic René Girard identifies in Le Rouge et le Noir the triangular structure he denominates as “mimetic desire”, which reveals how a person’s desire for another is always mediated by a third party, i.e. one desires a person only when he or she is desired by someone else. Girard’s proposition accounts for the perversity of Julien's relationship with Mathilde, the daughter of the Marquis de la Mole. This becomes clear when he begins courting the widow Mme de Fervaques to pique Mathilde’s jealousy, but also for Julien’s fascination with and membership of the high society he simultaneously desires and despises.

To help achieve a literary effect, Stendhal headed each chapter with epigraphs—literary, poetic, historic quotations—that he attributed to others. The first book of the novel is headed with the following epigraph, "Truth, bitter truth." - Danton. This quote, presumably from the works of the famous revolutionary leader who was sent to the guillotine in 1794 by Robespierre is prescient in hindsight as we read of the rise and ultimate fall of young Julien. With its psychological insight, social criticism, and political intrigue this is still an exciting, even exhilarating read and truly a great book for all time.

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Saturday, August 13, 2016

Notes on The Death of Virgil

The Death of Virgil
 Part I

The Arrival of Virgil in Brundisium

"STEEL-BLUE AND LIGHT, RUFFLED BY A SOFT, SCARCELY perceptible cross-wind. the waves of the Adriatic streamed against the imperial squadron as it steered toward the harbor of Brundisium, the flat hills of the Calabrian coast coming gradually nearer on the left." (p 11) 

Hermann Broch was fifty-one years old in 1937 when he began to write The Death of Virgil. In doing this he was adhering to certain principles that he had outlined in an essay, "Joyce and the Present Age", written in the previous year. In this essay he argued that "the work of art, the "universal work of art" becomes the mirror of the Zeitgeist"; that being the totality of the historic reality of the present age. This totality is reflected in great works of art like Faust and the late works of Beethoven. Reaching his fiftieth year was significant for Broch as a time that would allow him to achieve this sort of significance in his own writing. The work known as The Death of Virgil would be his "great work of art".

With the use of third person narrative that often seems like a "stream of consciousness" Hermann Broch is able to put the reader inside the head of Virgil for much of the book. From the opening pages we meet a poet/artist Virgil who is on the edge of life in several different respects. The edge between water and land is explored as Virgil's ship, one among the parade of ships escorting Augustus back to the port of Brundisium in Roman Italy, sails toward land on the first page of the novel.

"as the sunny yet deathly loneliness of the sea changed with the peaceful stir of friendly human activity where the channel, softly enhanced by the proximity of human life and human living, was populated by all sorts of craft". (p 11)

 The sunny sea is seen as also deathly in its loneliness. This signals another edge that will be important throughout the novel as Virgil in his illness hovers between life and death. Further there is the personal and historical background with the tension between Virgil and Augustus mirroring that of Athens and Rome. Even though Virgil dearly loved the life of study and thought in Athens he was torn by his memories of home as he arrived in Brundisium:

"lifted up in the breath of the immutable coolness, borne forward to seas so enigmatic and unknown that it was like a homecoming, for wave upon wave of the great planes through which his keel had already furrowed, wave-planes of memory, wave-planes of seas, they had not become transparent, nothing in them had divulged itself to him, only the enigma remained, and filled with the enigma of the past overflowed its shores and reached into the present, so that in the midst of the resinous torch-smoke, in the midst of the brooding city fumes, , , how they all lay behind him, about him, within him, how entirely they were his own," (p 31)

Throughout the beginning of the novel, a section titled "Water--The Arrival", Virgil is filled with doubts. He is nearing the end of his life with a feeling that "it was time itself that called down scorn upon him, the unalterable flood of time with its manifold voices," and he may not be able to escape his fate. But what was that fate and why was it important to him as creator? This is something that he is unsure of even to the point of asking himself why he was writing this book (The Aeneid which is always by his side). 

"Nothing availed the poet, he could right no wrongs; he is heeded only if he extols the world, never if he portrays it as it is. Only falsehood wins renown, not understanding! And could one assume that the Aeneid would be vouchsafed another or better influence?" (p 15)

His own Aeneid as quoted epigraphically by Broch suggests that Virgil is "exiled by fate" just as his creation, Aeneas, was. Is that the fate of all poets? Must they be exiled by their fate to become an artist of this world? Perhaps the final three sections of The Death of Virgil will suggest answers to these and other questions.

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Sunday, July 31, 2016

Thoughts on Death and Dying

Philosophy as the Art and Practice of Dying

"While I thought I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die."  (Leonardo Da Vinci, Notebooks, p. 65)

Are we all learning how to die as we learn how to live?  This is one of the questions discussed in a course I recently took on "Philosophy as the Art and Practice of Dying".  The view expressed by Leonardo is not too dissimilar from that of Plato as demonstrated in his dialogue, The Phaedo, about Socrates's death.  He argued that the best life is one where we practice the art of dying for we will be going to a better place.  This view was rejected by the poet Lucretius who expressed a more natural view in his poem On the Nature of Things.  He claimed that death was the end for both the body and the soul.
"you must concede, still, that the soul is mortal:  what matter whether it's lost, dispersed in air, or drawn in, crushed, contracted into nothing?  In the whole man, the senses more and more are failing, and less and less is left of life." (Lucretius, p 69)
Yes, for Lucretius, the world of nature and that of man were one and there was no soul that could depart upon the death of the body and continue on eternally.  But so what?  What difference does it make whether there is a soul that outlasts the body?  Apparently this means a lot to many thinkers, not to mention the religious whose faith in the afterlife is a dogma that is fundamental to their belief.

What do these differing views of death and dying suggest to us?  What follows are some of my disparate thoughts upon reading what several authors had to say about this.  While contemplating the death of Socrates I considered the importance of judging.  That is judging what kind of life one should live and whether it depended on your notions (or Socrates) of whether there is an afterlife.  Can we "free our minds" in any literal or physical sense?  It seems that metaphorically this would help us develop some objectivity towards ourselves and others.  Perhaps we could develop empathy for others.  This is certainly possible for thinkers like Adam Smith who argued for a natural sense of empathy in his Theory of Moral Sentiments.  In Socrates case he demonstrated his teaching by the conduct of his own life up to and including the final act of taking the hemlock.

Why should we live a life of reflection and examination?  Some later thinkers like Rilke and Heidegger argue for developing an authentic life through developing a life that is lived for oneself.  Here is what Rilke says:
"Who is there today who still cares about a well-finished death?  No one.  Even the rich, who could after all afford this luxury, are beginning to grow lazy and indifferent;  the desire to have a death of one's own is becoming more and more rare.  In a short time it will be as rare as a life of one's own." (Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, trans. Stephen Mitchell, pp. 8-9)
This suggests that an authentic death is connected with living an authentic life and one must care to live a life filled with desire for living to expect such an authentic life, much less a death of one's own.  Berthold Brecht put it more succinctly, "Do not fear death so much, but rather the inadequate life." (Brecht, The Mother, p 117)  And in his film The Seventh Seal Ingmar Bergman demonstrates through the actions of the Knight and his squire the importance of a meaningful act for one to have an authentic or adequate life.

Modern thinkers have managed to add to the complications surrounding these issues in their attempts to provide some answers or at least ways to frame the issues.  In literature Tolstoy seems to provide the most complete portrait of a death in The Death of Ivan Ilyich.  Yet Iris Murdoch takes another view of this: "It is not easy to portray death, real death, not fake prettified death.  Even Tolstoy did not really manage it in Ivan Ilyich, although he did elsewhere(Murdoch, Iris, "The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts", in Existentialists and Mystics, p. 385)  Perhaps she was referring to the death of Prince Andrei in War & Peace.  The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein suggested an altenative explanation when he said, "Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death." (Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Tractatus).

Some final thoughts on the art and practice of dying:
Paul Tillich had this to say about Socrates:  "The courage of Socrates (in Plato's picture) was based not on a doctrine of the immortality of the soul but on the affirmation of himself in his essential, indestructible being.  He knows that he belongs to two orders of reality and that the one order is transtemporal.  It was the courage of Socrates which more than any other philosophical reflection revealed to the ancient world that everyone belongs to two orders (The Courage to Be, p. 169)

Some of us are not convinced of these two orders and would turn to a view described by Paul Ricoeur in his criticism of Heidegger, "If it is true that the banalization of dying at the level of the "they" amounts to flight, does not the anguished obsession with death amount to closing off the reserves of openness characterizing the potentiality of being?  Must one not, then, listen to Spinoza: "Free man thinks of nothing less than of death and his wisdom is a meditation not on death but on life" (Ethics, part 4, prop. 67)?  Does not the jubilation produced buy the cow--which I take as my own--to remain alive until . . . and not for death, put into relief by contrast the existentiell, partial, and unavoidably one-sided aspect of Heideggerian resoluteness in the face of dying?"(Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting, p. 357)

While this view is complicated by the reference to Heideggerian concepts the central comment by Spinoza is one that resonates with this reader.  I think it is a point on which to end this brief discussion and a point on which to begin a continuation of thinking about these ideas.

Mysterious Body Parts

Sleeping Giants (Themis Files, #1)Sleeping Giants 
by Sylvain Neuvel

“Deadwood sure isn’t thriving, but it’s still standing. And the landscape is breathtaking. It’s sitting right on the edge of the Black Hills National Forest, with its eerie rock formations, beautiful pine forests, barren rock, canyons, and creeks. I can’t think of a more beautiful place on Earth. I can understand why someone would want to build something there.”   ― Sylvain Neuvel, Sleeping Giants

I read this book on my kindle app and it was one of my better experiences doing so. The story begins with a prologue that captures the reader's attention as it narrates the experience of 11-year-old Rose Franklin falling 50 feet through the ground and into a giant metal hand. Then the story jumps to 17 years later, when an adult Rose, now a physicist, is trying to find the rest of the body that belongs to the metal hand, as well as whoever, or whatever, put it there. Rose takes on the mystery with help from Kara, a pilot, Vincent, a linguist, and others.

The story benefits from multiple plot lines with the suspense of each complementing the other. There is the original mystery of the body parts that begins with the metal hand and proceeds to lead Rose and her associates throughout the world exploring for body parts. Rose is a physicist tasked with investigating exactly what the hand is made of. Its composition is nearly impossible, metallurgically speaking, and it weighs one-tenth of what it should. This seems to be beyond human comprehension. In addition the exploration is compounded by the speculation as to what the large body was for and who made it. Since it is thousands of years old this speculation excludes human origin.

The project to find the body parts leads to a further plot line that involves international politics, particularly when Kara Resnik, an Army helicopter pilot, crashes while running a covert operation over Syria. The cause of her crash soon reveals itself: another piece of the giant robot has appeared. Further complications are aroused when a French-Canadian linguist named Vincent Couture makes inroads toward decoding the symbols, he and the rest of Rose's investigating team unleash an international race to find the rest of the robot — a race that upends the geopolitical stage, even as it threatens Rose, Kara and Vincent, all of whom find themselves pawns in a game played by shadowy figures with less-than-noble plans for this new yet ancient technology.

This entertaining read also benefited from the use of an interrogatory approach to narration as the characters told the story to an anonymous questioner.  There was, however, a bit of suspension of belief required (more than normal for science fiction). The author is not a physicist nor an anthropologist (in fact he has a Ph.D. in Linguistics from the University of Chicago). Thus the science behind the story has a few holes, but that does not diminish the suspense of the mystery, the chase, or the international intrigue. The result is a first time science fiction novel I can recommend to most readers.

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Monday, July 25, 2016

Writer, Thinker, and Reader

"Almost Kien was tempted to believe in happiness, that contemptible life-goal of illiterates. If it came of itself, without being hunted for, if you did not hold it fast by force and treated it with a certain condescension, it was permissible to endure its presence for a few days・"― Elias Canetti, Auto-da-Fe

The above lines are from Auto da Fe, Elias Canetti's only novel.   Winner of the 1981 Nobel Prize for Literature, he was born on this day in 1905. Canetti's reputation as a polyglot and polymath can be traced to his cultured upbringing and cosmopolitan travels.  He was born in Bulgaria, raised in Vienna, Zurich and Frankfurt, and spent most of his working life in London. The hero of his most famous novel, Auto-da-Fé, is a reclusive, book-loving scholar, a man easily entrapped and destroyed by his small-minded and self-centered antagonists. Published as Europe slid into WWII, the book is often read as a voice of warning, as is the later Crowds and Power, perhaps Canetti's most famous book.  It is an anthropological-philosophical study which finds a herd-animal pathology behind many cultural events and social groups.

Canetti was one of those writers who use literature to explore the nature and source of knowledge: 

“What a man touched upon, he should take with him. If he forgot it, he should be reminded. What gives a man worth is that he incorporates everything he has experienced. This includes the countries where he has lived, the people whose voices he has heard. It also takes in his origins, if he can find out something about them... not only one’s private experience but everything concerning the time and place of one’s beginnings. The words of a language one may have spoken and heard only as a child imply the literature in which it flowered. The story of a banishment must include everything that happened before it as well as the rights subsequently claimed by the victims. Others had fallen before and in different ways; they too are part of the story. It is hard to evaluate the justice of such a claim to history... We should know not only what happened to our fellow men in the past but also what they were capable of. We should know what we ourselves are capable of. For that, much knowledge is needed; from whatever direction, at whatever distance knowledge offers itself, one should reach out for it, keep it fresh, water it and fertilize it with new knowledge.”   ― Elias Canetti, The Memoirs of Elias Canetti: The Tongue Set Free/The Torch in My Ear/The Play of the Eyes

And above all he was a reader:

“There are books, that one has for twenty years without reading them, that one always keeps at hand, that one takes along from city to city, from country to country, carefully packed, even when there is very little room, and perhaps one leafs through them while removing them from a trunk; yet one carefully refrains from reading even a complete sentence. Then after twenty years, there comes a moment when suddenly, as though under a high compulsion, one cannot help taking in such a book from beginning to end, at one sitting: it is like a revelation. Now one knows why one made such a fuss about it. It had to be with one for a long time; it had to travel; it had to occupy space; it had to be a burden; and now it has reached the goal of its voyage, now it reveals itself, now it illuminates the twenty bygone years it mutely lived with one. It could not say so much if it had not been there mutely the whole time, and what idiot would dare to assert that the same things had always been in it.”   ― Elias Canetti, The Human Province

Saturday, July 16, 2016

One Man's Mortality

When Breath Becomes AirWhen Breath Becomes Air 
by Paul Kalanithi

"Our patients' lives and identities may be in our hands, yet death always wins.  Even if you are perfect, the world isn't.  The secret is to know that the deck is stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgment will slip, and yet struggle to win for your patients.  You can't ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving." (p 115)

I cannot remember reading a more courageous book. The author, a neurosurgeon who was both a reader and a writer, was able to face being diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer and write about his experience of being treated. More than that he writes about a demonstration of transformation through his own example; first from a young student of literature into a Neurosurgeon/ Neuroscientist; and second, from an intelligent thriving man into a seriously ill man facing the imminent nature of his own mortality. How he was able to face both that battle and his own limitations that resulted from the battle comprise this inspirational story.

The demands placed upon a medical student are tremendous.  They are described in detail with a beautiful prose style that blends reality with metaphor in a seamless way. These demands are nothing compared to the demands that Paul placed on himself as he traversed the difficult course toward his twin goals of neurosurgeon and neuroscientist. His residency is described as a breathless experience, yet one that allowed him eventually to breathe a little as he observes, "By this point in my residency, I was more experienced. I could finally breathe a little, no longer trying to hold on for my own dear life." (p 88)
He describes the tension when operating on the brain or near the spinal cord; where minuscule movements can make the difference between life and death or, even worse, life without some necessary brain function. The suspense of these moments is palpable for the reader.

After being diagnosed with lung cancer and beginning to undergo treatment that, perhaps, might extend his life enough to provide at least the possibility or part of the life he had originally planned, he underwent periods of pain that made his life incredibly difficult. One thing from his earlier life became a life-saver, however temporary, for him. It is a moment when he shares, "Lost in a featureless wasteland of my own mortality, and finding no traction in the reams of scientific studies, intracellular molecular pathways, and endless curves of survival statistics, I began reading literature again: Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward, B. S. Johnson's The Unfortunates, Tolstoy's Ivan Ilyich, Nagel's Mind and Cosmos, Woolf, Kafka, Montaigne, Frost, Greville, memoirs of cancer patients--anything by anyone who had ever written about mortality." (p 148) He was trying to make sense of death and find a way to begin to define himself with a vocabulary that was meaningful and helpful. It was a vocabulary that would help him understand his own experiences. It was a process that worked as he concluded, "And so it was literature that brought me back to life during this time. . . I got out of bed and took a step forward, repeating the phrase over and over: 'I can't go on. I'll go on.' [Beckett]" (p 149)

He was able to return to work for a period of time. Not at the level he had been at when first diagnosed, but at a level that allowed him to contribute and attempt to be the surgeon he once was. But the joy was gone, and eventually the cancer returned. Paul writes eloquently of the final days with his wife and new-born baby. Yet his life did not have the longevity that his words would. His life, his breath, allowed him to share a story of fortitude and courage, becoming an inspiration for his family, friends, and all who have the honor to read his memorable memoir.

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A Discourse on some Platonic Dialogues

Discovering PlatoDiscovering Plato 
by Alexandre Koyré

"The reader would like nothing better than to learn the answers to the problems placed before him by Socrates.  But those answers are just what Socrates most often denies him.  The dialogues, at least the so-called Socratic dialogues, the only ones which will concern us here, leave us up in the air.  The discussion ends upon a note of impotence with an avowal of ignorance." ( p 1)

This short book includes much more "food for thought" than many tomes more than twice its' size. Alexandre Koyre demonstrates an incisive erudition in his commentary on four of Plato's greatest dialogues; these include the Meno, the Theatetus, the Protagoras, and the Republic. The Republic takes up about half of the short book presenting a focus on politics and on the just city.

Beginning with the lesson from the Meno that virtue is not taught, but it can be taught. The same subject is discussed in the Protagoras, yet in a different and, according to Koyre, more amusing way. The further discussions of Theatetus and Republic are equally inviting and challenging as far as they go.  They suggest ways we may conceive of knowledge and elucidate how theory and action may work in combination in both philosophy and politics.  Is there such a thing as a just city?  This book provides direction toward how to think about this and other topics.  Ultimately it is a good introduction to both the philosophy of Plato and the acute analytical thought of Alexandre Koyre. The result is both invigorating and engaging for the reader.

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Friday, July 15, 2016

A Scholarly Battle

by Margaret Edson

"Now is not the time for verbal swordplay, for unlikely flights of imagination and wildly shifting perspectives, for metaphysical conceit, for wit."
And nothing would be worse than a detailed scholarly analysis.  Erudition.  Interpretation.  Complication.
Now is a time for simplicity.  Now is a time for, dare I say it, kindness." (Wit, p. 69)

"Nothing but a breath--a comma--separates life from life everlasting." This remark about the last line of Donne's most famous Holy Sonnet is made by E. M. Ashford, D. Phil. to her student, a young Vivian Bearing, and is an early indication in this remarkable play that the story of Vivian's battle with cancer is going to be more than just one of doctors, medicine, sickness, and emotion. It will be a battle of wits and wit, mind and matter, the body and soul of Vivian against the destiny that nature has given her. Like all great plays, the reader is presented with questions, conundrums, and perhaps paradoxes if you will; presented in this case as they involve life and, ultimately, death. But does not all living, whether displayed on stage or lived as one's own life, ultimately involve the question of death?

This play is almost a one woman show as Vivian Bearing, Ph. D., professor of literature specializing in the Holy Sonnets of John Donne, is on stage for the whole play. She is surrounded (I hesitate to say supported) by her oncologist and his chief clinician; but she is supported by the primary nurse who develops a bond with her that is unique in the play, for Vivian is alone in this world and must depend on her mind as she experiences "aggressive" cancer treatment. She eventually receives support from her nurse and a touching visit from her former professor and mentor.

Among the questions raised by the play is one that contrasts the medical doctors with Vivian herself as they treat the cancer in a way that mirrors the methods used by Vivian to analyze and dissect the poetry of John Donne. Is it appropriate to treat the patient as a science project, a body that will provide evidence for some future paper? Is she no different than a work of literature? "What a piece of work is a man!" as Hamlet says, but in Wit we see the wonder, but not the humanity. The clinician, who has a vast knowledge of medicine, must refer to his notes to remind himself that his patient is a human being who deserves at least a minimal amount of polite concern. Vivian bears his lack of feeling with her own brittle stoicism.  She consoles herself with the thought that "they always . . . want to know more things."  But at the same time she buries her true emotions until she is too ill to respond in a way that is able to demonstrate any strength or depth.   

She has an epiphany when, upon completion of chemotherapy, she reflects: "I have broken the record. I have become something of a celebrity. Kelekian and Jason are simply delighted. I think they foresee celebrity status for themselves upon the appearance of the journal article they will no doubt write about me." But she immediately realizes that, "The article will not be about me, it will be about my ovaries." She goes on to relish the relief that returning to her hospital room will be, even as the play proceeds and her room slowly begins to resemble the inside of a coffin.

This is a play filled with literary wit. It plays on the difference and the similarity of words and life. At one point Vivian thinks, "my only defense is the acquisition of vocabulary". She is learning and reflecting even as she is slowly losing the battle with cancer. Should we live our lives like Vivian, continually learning and thinking and growing, even as humans we all move closer to our own personal appointments with mortality? This reader says yes! Even so, this play reminds us that the road will be difficult, but that there are ways to face one's destiny that may not be known today. It is the ability to deal with this unknown and the possibilities of tomorrow that make the battle worth engaging and our lives worth living.

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Monday, July 11, 2016

Practicing Freedom through Death

The Essays: A SelectionThe Essays: 
A Selection 
by Michel de Montaigne

“To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us, let us adopt a way clean contrary to that common one; let us deprive death of its strangeness, let us frequent it, let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death... We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere."

"To practice death is to practice freedom. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.”   ― Michel de Montaigne

In this collection of essays, Montaigne established the essay form in the modern way that we still recognize today.  From this collection I would like to focus on one of the most famous essays; namely, "To philosophize is to learn how to die".  Montaigne begins by referencing Cicero (who himself was paraphrasing Socrates as he was presented by Plato in his dialogue, Phaedo). He quickly concludes that the purpose of philosophy "is to teach not to be afraid of dying." (p 17) This, however, he immediately modifies this to say that "the labor of reason must be to make us live well, and at our ease," with a target of happiness (quoting scripture rather than Aristotle).

The essay could have ended here, but Montaigne goes on at length about the nature of virtue and how it abhors death. He also references common opinions about death but comes around to his own recommendations that death is part of the human condition. The answer, it seems, is to always have our death in mind so that we become used to it, and as such prepared for it. He provides quotes from his predecessors including the following, from Plutarch, that sounds just a bit fatalistic:
"Believe that each day is the last to shine on you. If it comes, time not hoped for will be welcome indeed."(p 24)
He even invokes religion and its contempt for life: "why should we fear to lose something which, once lost, cannot be regretted? Death is inevitable, does it matter when it comes?" (p 30) This would seem to be an end to the discussion.

However, he turns to the works of Lucretius in the closing pages of the essay and lets Nature speak about how one should view death: "Leave this world,' she says, 'just as you entered it. The same journey from death to life, which you once mad without suffering or fear, make it again from life to death. Your death is a part of the order of the universe; it is a part of the life of the world'"(p 31)
Thus he suggests living is like a project and one should not regret the unfinished project in anticipation of death. This view is not dissimilar from that later thinker and essayist, David Hume, that puts forth a sense of benevolence for life and death as a natural part of human existence.

Montaigne concludes his essay with an exhortation to seek happiness in the most natural way possible. This will dispel any interest in immortality; even as Nature claims that a life that lasted forever would be unbearable. We should be aware rather of the advantages of death and recognize that what bits of anguish this life may contain only serve to make death more palatable and our acceptance of it more reasonable. Lucretius painted a poetic vision of how natural death is for humans in his great poem, On the Nature of Things. In this essay Montaigne reasons with himself and with us as fellow humans toward that same end in his own philosophical way as an essayist.

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Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Writing with Penguin at Side

Death And The PenguinDeath And The Penguin 
by Andrey Kurkov

"'This is highly confidential.' he said.  'What we're after is a gifted obituarist, master of the succinct.  Snappy, pithy, way-out stuff's the idea.. . . What you'd have to do is create, from scratch, an index of obelisk jobs -- as we call obituaries -- to include deputies and gangsters, down to the cultural scene -- that sort of person -- while they're still alive.  But what I want is the dead written about as they've never been written about before.  And your story tells me you're the man.'" (p 5)

It is always interesting to read a story about a writer. This writer is even more interesting both for what he writes - obituaries - and his penguin. When his girl friend abandoned him he adopted a King penguin who was likewise abandoned by the local zoo. Together they share an apartment and one another's unique sort of loneliness. This is the tempting, for some, beginning of what is a melancholy and comic thriller of a novel.

Writing obituaries turns out to be more interesting than one might suspect. His passion for writing and the assistance of a Mafia operative combine to lead him into a mysterious situation from which he may not be able to escape.
"The more he worked, the more his suspicions grew, until they became the absolute certainty that this whole obelisk business was part of a patently criminal operation.  The realization of this in no way influenced his daily life and work.  And although he could not help thinking about it, he found it easier to do so every day, having recognized the complete impossibility of ever changing his life." (p 156)

The penguin is an updated version of a Bulgakov-style social satire, where the improbable comes to look more and more sensible against the depiction of what is real.   While pathos and humor shine through, this is at its core as  black of a black comedy that I have read in some time.  It has that rare distinction among my reading of being an evocative look at friendship with a penguin and an invention of genius.

It is energized by comic twists and turns that make Kurkov's writing unique in my experience.  Subtly humorous and exciting, it contains unexpected moments galore.    A vigorous bizarreness makes it a successfully brooding novel, which creates an enduring sense of dismay and strangeness.

The author is a Russian living in Kiev who has written, in addition to novels, screenplays and books for children.

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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

De Rerum Natura

On the Nature of Things: De rerum naturaOn the Nature of Things: 
De rerum natura 
by Titus Lucretius Carus

"Then withdraw from cares and apply your cunning mind
To hear the truth of reasoned theory,
That the verses I give you, arranged with diligent love,
You will not scorn before you understand.
I open for you by discussing the ultimate law
Of the gods and sky;  I reveal the atoms, whence
Nature creates and feeds and grows all things
And into which she resolves them when they are spent;"
- On the Nature of Things, Book I, lines 50-57)

The philosophy of Epicurus is not presented any better than in the classic poem,  On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura) by Titus Lucretius Carus. We know little about his life.  He was probably born in the early first century B.C.  This meant that he lived during the turbulent era of the end of the Roman Republic and beginning of the Empire that saw the rise of Sulla and Pompey and, ultimately, Julius Caesar. On the Nature of Things, posthumously edited by Cicerowas his poetic plea to the Roman elite that they change course. 

The poem by Lucretius has the goal of explaining Epicurean philosophy to a Roman audience. It was written in some 7,400 dactylic hexameters, divided into six untitled books, and explores Epicurean philosophy and physics through richly poetic language and metaphors. It is a rational and materialistic view of the world that presents the principles of atomism; the nature of the mind and soul; explanations of sensation and thought; the development of the world and its phenomena; and explains a variety of celestial and terrestrial phenomena. The universe described in the poem operates according to these physical principles, guided by fortuna, "chance", and not the divine intervention of the traditional Roman deities.  He extols the life of contemplation as seen in these lines from the opening of Book Two:
"But nothing is sweeter than to dwell in the calm
Temples of truth, the strongholds of the wise." (II, 7-8)

Thankfully we can still enjoy the vision of the good life as presented in this beautiful poem. The basics of Lucretius' philosophy include acknowledging pleasure (or the absence of pain) as the highest good, basing ethics on the evidence of the senses, and extolling plain living and high thinking. He also is a committed atheist, denouncing the gods in Book I of the poem, advocating free will in Book II, and reassuring his readers that they have nothing to fear from death in Book III. This lucid translation by Anthony M. Esolen reminds me why Lucretius is still worth reading.

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Friday, June 24, 2016

Classic Noir Fiction

The Big Sleep (Philip Marlowe #1)The Big Sleep 
by Raymond Chandler

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

In his book on the history of the detective story, Mortal Consequences, author Julian Symons has this to say about Raymond Chandler:
"Chandler had a fine feeling for the sound and value of words, and he added to it a very sharp eye for places, things, people, and the wisecracks (this out-of-date word still seems the right one) that in their tone and timing are almost always perfect."

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

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

His private eye, Philip Marlowe, is smooth and suave and always seems to be on top of the situation, even when he appears to be on the bottom. Following the twists and turns as he handily dealt with one surprise after another made for great fiction. It was a joy to  read this author and experience one of the supreme experts on crime and the criminal in American fiction.

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Destiny and Time

The Death of VirgilNotes on 
The Death of Virgil 
by Hermann Broch

“… for overstrong was the command to hold fast to each smallest particle of time, to the smallest particle of every circumstance, and to embody all of them in memory as if they could be preserved in memory through all deaths for all times.”   ― Hermann Broch, The Death of Virgil

Hermann Broch was fifty-one years old in 1937 when he began to write The Death of Virgil.  IN doing this he was adhering to certain principles that he had outlined in an essay, "Joyce and the Present Age", written in the previous year.  In this essay he argued that "the work of art, the "universal work of art" becomes the mirror of the Zeitgeist";  that being the totality of the historic reality of the present age.   This totality is reflected in great works of art like Faust and the late works of Beethoven.  Reaching his fiftieth year was significant for Broch as a time that would allow him to achieve this sort of significance in his own writing.  The work known as The Death of Virgil would be his "great work of art".  And great it is indeed.

Drawing on the past he looks to Homer, Virgil, and Dante as seen in the three epigrams for the novel.  These epigrams suggest themes that will be present in the story and, perhaps, dominate it at times.  Foremost is the idea of fate or destiny that is complemented by the impossibility of recapturing the past as demonstrated in the second epigram by Aeneas' journey to Hades in Book Six of the Aeneid ((VI, 697-702).  This visit which mirrors a similar visit by Odysseus in Homer's Odyssey is a downward passage to Hades of a son to see his father, Anchises.  It is contrasted with the climb upward of Dante as guided by Virgil out of the Inferno in the final epigram from the Divine Comedy (XXXIV, 133-139).

As we proceed to the opening pages of the first chapter we immediately encounter the poet Virgil on a sickbed in a ship making its way into the port of Brundiisium.  As he lay there he wondered at his fate being brought to this point.  He asks himself, "why then had he yielded to the importunity of Augustus?"  For Virgil had been in Athens planning to seek wisdom in the study of philosophy, but now, instead of "a life free alike of art and poetry, a life dedicated to meditation and study in the city of Plato," he would be tethered to the Emperor.  Held there by "life forces, those irrefutable forces of fate which never vanished completely."
Virgil exhibits and even recognizes doubts about the direction of his life and the status of his lifework.  He yearned for a simplicity that might only be accomplished with the simplicity of death.  Even though as he thinks of his final work, The Aeneid, that "people would praise it because as yet everything he had written had been praised, because only the agreeable things would be abstracted from it," he sees the court surrounding Augustus as parasites who feed on the largess of the Emperor's majesty.

The author Broch presents this narrative in the third person but soon begins to present Virgil's  thoughts in a way that is a variant of the "stream-of-consciousness" style that modern authors like Woolf, Joyce, and Faulkner all used in a more direct way.  He combines this narrative approach with long sentences and paragraphs that mimic the flow of thought, time, and become his attempt to capture the totality of the world.  Time is twisted and bent as pages are devoted to brief moments of thought in a way that sometimes surprises the attentive reader.

These notes represent a beginning of my attempt to discuss some of the important themes, motifs, and ideas that I encounter as I read this challenging novel over the next several weeks.  Reading it will be a slow process, but it is already rewarding and even exciting in seeing the world of Virgil as he nears the end of his life.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Two Boys Discover Life

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the UniverseAristotle and Dante Discover 
the Secrets of the Universe 
by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

“i have this idea that the reason we have dreams is that we're thinking about things that we don't know we're thinking about-and those things,well,they sneak out of us in our dreams.Maybe we're like tires with too much air in them.The air has to leak out.That's what dreams are.”   ― Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

"Through all of youth I was looking for you 
without knowing what I was looking for."
-- W. S. Merwin

Friendship and family devotion are two of the themes of this wonderful book. But beyond those themes are the wonder and mystery of desire while developing an understanding about the relations between oneself and the object of desire.

Two boys, Ari and Dante, are as different as any two boys can be. Yet they become friends and their friendship becomes a bond that transcends their differences.  Ari narrates the story and tells how he and Dante learn and grow  as they share books and thoughts, feelings and dreams. The experience of growing and becoming is demonstrated by the life changes precipitated by the calendar:

"Summer was here again. Summer, Summer, Summer.  I loved and hated summers.  Summers had a logic all there own and they always brought something out in me.  Summer was supposed to be about freedom and youth and no school and possibilities and adventure and exploration.  Summer was a book of hope.  That's why I loved and hated summers.  Because they made me want to believe." (p 235)

Their shared lives and experiences help them grow and deal with the difficulties inherent in that process. The journey of Ari and Dante became one of discovery of what was hidden inside each of them from the beginning.  For this reader it was enjoyable and ultimately inspirational.  A reading adventure that I would recommend to all.

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