Sunday, August 30, 2015

Writers on Reading

from Poetry of the Second World War

Reading in Wartime

by Edwin Muir

Boswell by my bed, 
Tolstoy on my table; 
Thought the world has bled 
For four and a half years, 
And wives' and mothers' tears 
Collected would be able 
To water a little field 
Untouched by anger and blood, 
A penitential yield 
Somewhere in the world; 
Though in each latitude 
Armies like forest fall, 
The iniquitous and the good 
Head over heels hurled, 
And confusion over all: 
Boswell's turbulent friend 
And his deafening verbal strife, 
Ivan Ilych's death 
Tell me more about life, 
The meaning and the end 
Of our familiar breath, 
Both being personal, 
Than all the carnage can, 
Retrieve the shape of man, 
Lost and anonymous, 
Tell me wherever I look 
That not one soul can die 
Of this or any clan 
Who is not one of us 
And has a personal tie 
Perhaps to someone now 
Searching an ancient book, 
Folk-tale or country song 
In many and many a tongue, 
To find the original face, 
The individual soul, 
The eye, the lip, the brow 
For ever gone from their place, 
And gather an image whole.

Edwin Muir (15 May 1887 – 3 January 1959) was an Orcadian poet, novelist and translator, born on a farm in Deerness, a parish and peninsula in Mainland, Orkney. He is remembered for his deeply felt and vivid poetry in plain language with few stylistic preoccupations.  He moved to Glasgow but was not satisfied as this extract from his diary suggests:
"I was born before the Industrial Revolution, and am now about two hundred years old. But I have skipped a hundred and fifty of them. I was really born in 1737, and till I was fourteen no time-accidents happened to me. Then in 1751 I set out from Orkney for Glasgow. When I arrived I found that it was not 1751, but 1901, and that a hundred and fifty years had been burned up in my two-days' journey. But I myself was still in 1751, and remained there for a long time. All my life since I have been trying to overhaul that invisible leeway. No wonder I am obsessed with Time." (Extract from Diary 1937–39.)

Poetry of the Second World War: An International Anthology, Desmond Graham, ed. Chatto & Windus, Lond, 1995.

Friday, August 28, 2015

American Dynasty

America's First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735-1918America's First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735-1918 
by Richard Brookhiser

“So Henry Adams, well aware that he could not succeed as a scholar, and finding his social position beyond improvement or need of effort, betook himself to the single ambition which otherwise would scarcely have seemed a true outcome of the college, though it was the last remnant of the old Unitarian supremacy. He took to the pen. He wrote.”   ― Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams

Richard Brookhiser has written biographies of Presidents Madison and Washington, revolutionary statesmen Hamilton and Gouvernor Morris, and most recently a book on Lincoln, but my favorite of his biographies that I have read is America's First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735-1918. The dates alone, spanning three centuries, suggest the significance of this family on the history of the United States.

The first two of the dynasty, John and his son John Quincy both became President. The father was one of the leaders of the American Revolution while the son was both President and, later, member of the House of Representatives from Massachusetts. John's grandson Charles Francis also had a brilliant political career that included a term as Minister to England in the Lincoln Administration. The fourth Adams of this dynasty, John's great grandson Henry Adams, found his greatness in literature both as an academic historian and with the publication of his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, a classic that is read to this day.

Their story begins with John Adams, a self-taught lawyer who rode horseback to meet clients, and ends with Henry Adams in France as World War I begins and he returns to Washington, D. C. This is a well told overview of a family dynasty that more than any other helped make the United States the great nation it is today.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Lighter Side of Death

Mort (Discworld, #4; Death, #1)Mort 
by Terry Pratchett

"WE'VE GOT A FEW MINUTES, said Death, taking a drink from a passing tray.  LET'S MINGLE.

'They can't see me either!' said Mort.  'But I'm real!'


'Mort,' said Mort automatically." (p 40)

From time to time my brother-in-law has recommended to me the work of Terry Pratchett. I believe he has read many if not all of the Discworld novels by fantasy author Terry Pratchett. I recently had the opportunity to read a Pratchett novel when our SF Reading Group chose Mort, the fourth in the Discworld series, as our monthly book. I was not disappointed by this choice.

Death is an unlikely object of humor, but Terry Pratchett's imagination is more than sufficient to provide a narrative with amusing (an understatement) situations that literally puts death in a whole new light. When Death came to Mort, he offered him a job. After being assured that being dead was not compulsory, Mort accepted. However, he soon found that romantic longings did not mix easily with the responsibilities of being Death's apprentice.

Mort is told in third-person narrative and contains both dry humor and witty social observations. Death plays the supporting role to Mort (short for Mortimer), a typical awkward, gangly male teenager. Ysabell and Albert complete Death’s “family”, and I would not mind reading a novel based on their lives together. However Mort is introduced thus:
"It was also acutely embarrassing to Mort’s family that the youngest son was not at all serious and had about the same talent for horticulture that you would find in a dead starfish. It wasn’t that he was unhelpful, but he had the kind of vague, cheerful helpfulness that serious men soon learn to dread. There was something infectious, possibly even fatal, about it. He was tall, red-haired and freckled, with the sort of body that seems to be only marginally under its owner’s control; it appeared to have been built out of knees."

The witty narrative flows effortlessly, with Death speaking in capital letters, a stroke of genius; you are able to hear the coffins creak and the bells toll in your mind every time he speaks. The irony, ambiguity and puns abound, especially the puns. None are overdone and I found myself often laughing out loud when I wasn't simply grinning. It is difficult to avoid developing some sympathy for Death as he succumbs to a mid-life crisis and attempts to seek alternative employment. One of the most hilarious scenes was when he sought out an employment agency and found that his skills, while honed over millennia, were not well-suited for any typical job. One of the reasons that Pratchett has managed to turn the reaper of souls into a sympathetic character is that he shows Death’s caring side. Early in the book Death exudes barely suppressed fury at the needless death of a bagful of kittens.

The novel is not only about the intersection of the life of young Mort and Death, but is also about the coming-of-age of young Mort.  It was encouraging when the narrator (who interjects his opinions from time to time) noted how Mort had changed:
"It might be worth taking another look at Mort, because he's changed a lot in the last few chapters.  For example, while he still has plenty of knees and elbows about his person, they seem to have migrated to their normal places and he no longer moves as though his joints were loosely fastened together with elastic bands.  He used to look as if he knew nothing at all;  now he looks as though he knew too much.  Something about his eyes suggests that he has seen things that ordinary people never see, or at least never see more than once." (p 122)

Discworld itself is unique and some of its characteristics are described, such as the elusive nature of time; enough background is shared to heighten your interest in reading further in the series. If the other Discworld novels are half as good as this one they are worth checking out. In the meantime Mort was a delightful dish of fantasy from the pen of Terry Pratchett. To take a theme such as death and turn it into a story that is this amusing and warm-hearted is a remarkable achievement.

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Friday, August 21, 2015

An Epic that Challenges Humanity

Notes on Paradise Lost, II

"The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.    
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than he
Whom thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; the Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:         
Here we may reign secure; and, in my choice,
To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven." 
(Paradise Lost, Book I, ll 254-263)

This week saw the anniversary of the day in 1667, when John Milton's Paradise Lost was entered in the Stationers' Register. The fifty-eight-year-old Milton was totally blind (probably from glaucoma) throughout the decade it took to write his epic; his habit was to compose at night and then present himself to a scribe each morning to be, as he put it, "milked." 

The epic was based on the earliest Hebrew creation myth, which opens the first book of the Torah.   That is the story of Adam and Eve as found in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, the King James version which had been published only fifty-five years earlier in 1612.   This story of creation and Adam and Eve does not mention the fall, nor does it explain where the serpent came from when, in chapter three, he suddenly appears and whispers in Eve's ear.  One wonders what moved John Milton,  in the middle of the seventeenth century, to take this story and with it create an epic poem that rivals those of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Reading the poem one senses an attempt to educate the reader, to provide an awareness of the distance that separates man from God and from the innocence that once, however briefly, was his.  It uses the grandest terms to account for the key events:  the original rebellion of Satan and his followers against God, the creation of the human race to replace the fallen angels, the temptation of Eve by Satan, the sin of Adam and Eve and their resulting expulsion from Paradise, and the promise of eventual redemption for the now fallen human race by means of the Incarnation and sacrifice of the Son of God.  This in outline form is the story that the epic poem tells. 

Milton's poetic telling has been controversial in its depiction of Satan as a compelling character.  He is intelligent, active and charming.  He is a true leader in the rebellion against God and when that fails he devises a brilliant plan to attack God's favorite's, Adam and Eve. And in this he succeeds; he shares his disobedience and deceit with man.   In all of this he is active with energy struggling to be free.  His opponent, the representative of goodness is passive.  Satan in his grandeur is sublime, yet we should not forget that he is also part of God's creation.  In a way this is a cosmic paradox, and that is another of the many themes that are found in Milton's epic poem.  Throughout the reader is presented with questions about the nature of God's creation and his knowledge, about the possibility of free will, about the nature of time and its relation to God and his creation.  In all of this paradoxes abound.   The Son was created by God, but he is present from the beginning.  Man is given a warning that he must not eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil but he does so anyway.  And it is only after doing so that he gains knowledge of the meaning of what he had done, even as he is driven from Paradise.  Must we trade innocence for knowledge?  Is our life determined and our free will a chimera?  

Like all great works of literature Paradise Lost raises these questions and many more.  But it does not provide answers.  The reader must provide them for himself, or rather must consider the these issues in light of his own life.  If he is willing it will be part of his search for wisdom, his own attempt to examine what it means to be human.  I believe this last thought, what it means to be human, is the most important idea that Paradise Lost brings forth in its own epic way.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

A Principled Life of Language

Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard RodriguezHunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez 
by Richard Rodriguez

“The boy who first entered a classroom barely able to speak English, twenty years later concluded his studies in the stately quiet of the reading room in the British Museum. Thus with one sentence I can summarize my academic career. It will be harder to summarize what sort of life connects the boy to the man.”  ― Richard Rodriguez, Hunger of Memory

Richard Rodriguez is a man whose education bifurcated his life into a private life and a public life. In the public sphere he was driven to obtain an education that has led him to become one of the most interesting essayists of our time. His description of his inner life, especially his reading life is one of many exceptional aspects of this book. His liberation from the private sphere into the public, where he has become a literary light for others, was made possible in part by this reading life; a life driven by a compulsion to become part of the "public sphere" that was centered in the culture apart from his family. This was a part of his life that I personally identified with and believe that many individuals who love the reading life will also.

In this memoir he explores his own coming-of-age in an America that challenged him to understand what it is to be a Mexican American and what it is to be a Catholic in America. At the heart of the memoir is Rodríguez’s recognition that his is a position of alienation, a position that he accepts with resignation and regret. As the title of this collection of autobiographical pieces suggests, he remembers his early childhood with nostalgia, while acknowledging that his coming-of-age has resulted in his displacement from that simple, secure life.

Another center for his autobiography is language and the importance of it in his life. He did not speak English until he started to go to school and even then it was difficult for him to learn the language for it was not spoken at home. One exciting moment in his education occurred when three nuns from his grade school visited his home and encouraged his parents to support their children's English language skills. Although they were indifferent speakers of English, his parents from that point forward asked their children, Richard and his brother and sisters, to speak English each evening. Richard, through this practice and his own diligence in reading and writing, would go on to major in English in college eventually doing postgraduate work in Renaissance Studies.

He shares the hard work that all this entailed and his critical reaction to the growth of bi-lingual education. His courage in developing and maintaining an independent voice for his beliefs in this regard also help to make his story unique. In his view bilingual education prevents children from learning the public language that will be their passport to success in the public world, and he uses his own experience—being a bilingual child who was educated without bilingual education as it was introduced into the American school system in the 1960’s—as an example.

Rodríguez offers himself as another example in criticizing affirmative action programs. Turning down offers to teach at various post secondary educational institutions that he believed wanted to hire him simply because he was Latino, Rodríguez began what has been his persistent criticism of affirmative action policies in America. His uncompromising position in this matter led him to leave academia and pursue his writing skills as a journalist and essayist.  His devotion to education in language and life helped him develop the voice that he shares in his journalistic and readable prose style.

I first encountered his voice while watching the News Hour on PBS where he was an essayist for many years. The style he demonstrated there is present on every page of his autobiography. I would highly recommend this for anyone interested in the development of a humane intellectual.

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Friday, August 14, 2015

Most Read Authors

Top Ten Authors I've Read the Most Of

This week the folks at The Broke and the Bookish are asking people who their most-read authors are.  The following list are the tops for me but with my wide-ranging and somewhat eclectic reading habits over the years these authors represent less than five percent of all the books that I have read (at least of those I have kept records of).

1.  William Shakespeare

Over the years, since my introduction to Shakespeare with Rome and Juliet in High School, I have read most of the plays and the sonnets.  Some of my favorites are As You Like It, The Tempest, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Coriolanus, Twelfth Night, and Hamlet.

2.  Plato

I began reading Plato in the early nineteen seventies in College, but my reading of his dialogues increased significantly in the nineteen nineties through my participation in The Basic Program of Liberal Education (see also Aristotle below).  My favorite dialogues include The Symposium, Phaedrus, Cratylus, and Gorgias.

3.  Leo Tolstoy

I have read and reread War and Peace several times, but also enjoyed his other novels, novellas, and short stories.  The Death of Ivan Ilych,  The Kreutzer Sonata, and The Cossacks are three of the more memorable of his shorter works.

4.  William Faulkner

William Faulkner entered my life in High School when I first attempted to read The Sound and the Fury.  Decades later after several more readings of this great novel I began to connect with the voices in it.  Over the last couple of decades I have gradually read almost all of his novels and some of his short stories.  Among my favorites, in addition to The Sound and the Fury, I count The Snopes Trilogy, The Reivers, and Go Down, Moses.

5.  Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens is the author who has the distinction of being the first that I read of those included in my top ten.  I still remember carrying my paperback copy of Oliver Twist with me when I attended Boy Scout Summer Camp in 1962.  My reading of Dickens (and about Dickens) has never stopped and I have read several of his novels more than once.  My favorite of all of them is David Copperfield;  while Great Expectations, Bleak House, and Nicholas Nickleby are also near the top of my list.  I believe The Mystery of Edwin Drood is the most underrated of his novels and it should be read by anyone who enjoys mysteries and good writing.

6.  Henry James

The writing of  Henry James is an acquired taste.  It is one to which I have gradually succumbed as my delight as grown with each novel and story that I have read.  Having read almost all of his fiction (and some non-fiction) I would include The Turn of the Screw, Washington Square, and Daisy Miller among my favorites.

7.  Iris Murdoch

I came to the novels of Iris Murdoch while I was in High School reading A Fairly Honourable Defeat when it was first published.  I have continued to traverse her novels and hope to read them all some day.  Some of my favorites include The Black Prince and A Word Child.

8.  Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand came into my reading life when I was in High School and I read The Fountainhead which became my favorite of her novels.  I have read them all including her masterpiece, Atlas Shrugged.  In addition to her novels I have read most of her non-fiction including The Romantic Manifesto, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, and Philosophy: Who Needs It.

9.  Aristotle

Aristotle, like Plato, was a discovery of my college years.  My reading of his works continued and grew into a major project when I began studying in The Basic Program of Liberal Education.  The power of his intellect is evident in all of his writings, but those that I found the most profound include The Metaphysics, The Nicomachean Ethics, On Rhetoric, Poetics, the Posterior Analytics, and De Anima.

10.  Thomas Mann

Thomas Mann is, perhaps, my favorite author, with the appeal of his writing spanning short stories, short novels, and massive novels like Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain.  My favorite novel is his last, unfinished work, Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man.  I also particularly enjoy reading and rereading Death in Venice, Tristan, and Tonio Kroger.

Other Significant Authors

Some of the authors who just missed my top ten but whom I have read extensively and enjoy reading include:  Fyodor Dostoevsky,  Joseph Conrad,  Philip K. Dick,  Marcel Proust,  Virginia Woolf, Theodore Sturgeon, Friedrich Nietzsche, and H. G. Wells.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Scottish Noir

Laidlaw (Jack Laidlaw, #1)Laidlaw 
by William McIlvanney

"In that careful balance between pessimism, the assumed defeat of contrived expectations, and hope, the discovery of unexpected possibilities, Harkness recognised Laidlaw."

Several years ago I read The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler and became an ardent fan of his writing.  Laidlaw by William McIlvanney was first published almost forty years ago, almost four decades after The Big Sleep. It deserves to be considered alongside Chandler's great work.  McIlvanney did for Glasgow what Chandler had done for Los Angeles, giving the city a fictional identity. Hemingway used to say that all American literature came out of Huckleberry Finn; it is similarly thought by some that modern Scottish crime writing — ‘tartan noir’ — comes out of Laidlaw.

In one sense Laidlaw is unconventional. There is a chase — the whole novel is a chase, or at least a search for an elusive, even in some sense a shadowy quarry — but there is no mystery. The theme of the chase is introduced in the prologue of the novel with these almost poetic words:

"Running was a strange thing.  The sound was your feet slapping the pavement.  The lights of passing cars battered your eyeballs.  Your arms came up unevenly in front of you, reaching from nowhere, separate from you and from each other.  It was like the hands of a lot of people drowning.  And it was useless to notice these things.  It was as if a car had crashed, the driver was dead, and this was the radio still playing to him."

We know who the killer is from the first chapter in which a frightened bloodstained boy is running in terror and guilt from his own act. He is a boy of uncertain sexuality, shattered by what he has done. The questions are: who can identify him, and will the police reach him before other vengeful pursuers?

Jack Laidlaw himself is a romanticized figure, like most of the best fictional policemen. He appeals to those with a philosophic turn of mind, for he keeps ‘Kierkegaard, Camus and Unamuno’ in a locked drawer of his desk, ‘like caches of alcohol’, and he believes in doubt. A murder to his mind is often the consequence of a series of unrelated acts and the uncertainties and tensions they provoke. His habit is to immerse himself, not unlike Simenon's famous detective Maigret, in the atmosphere of a case. He becomes what he calls ‘a traveler in the city’, moving out of his family home and into a hotel that has seen better days for the duration of the case. He can play the hard man, and even meet criminal godfathers on equal terms, but he despises the macho attitudes and narrow sympathies of fellow policemen who are rivals as much as colleagues.

The other main character in the novel is Glasgow itself. McIlvanney demonstrates his love for the city with passages like this: "Sunday in the park--it was a nice day. A Glasgow sun was out, dully luminous, an eye with a cataract." He describes it as a place that is always talking to itself, one where even the derelicts and social failures realize, and reveal themselves, in conversation that is often a monologue. There are also bit players, characters who may have only walk-on parts that have little or nothing to do with the plot, but whose appearance, movement and talk contribute to the vitality of the novel. One of the supporting characters who is developed in somewhat more depth is a young detective named Harkness who is assigned to assist Detective Inspector Laidlaw. He gradually becomes more comfortable with Laidlaw over the course of the investigation and the author uses him to give the reader a more complete picture of Laidlaw himself, as he does in the quotation above and elsewhere: "Harkness felt the evening go off again. Gratified at having brought in Alan MacInnes, he was dismayed at Laidlaw's aloofness about it. Looking after him, he reflected that he was the kind of policeman his father might like."

The search is told in mosaic fashion with the pieces of the story and the characters involved slowly coming into better view as the pieces are laid. The emotions and motivations of characters are demonstrated through actions that build inexorably toward an inevitable denouement. In many ways it is a satisfying tale. Even though the novel was written almost four decades ago it retains the freshness of all good crime novels.

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Sunday, August 09, 2015

An American Classic

by Henry David Thoreau 

"being well as Nature"

"To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust.  It is to solve some of the problems of life, not theoretically, but practically." (pp 14-15)

On this day in 1854, Henry David Thoreau published Walden; or, Life in the Woods. His friend Ralph Waldo Emerson said he saw a "tremble of great expectation" in Thoreau just before publication day. Thoreau's previous book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), sold fewer than 300 copies. On the day he got his 706 unsold copies back from the publisher, he wrote in his diary: "I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself ..." Walden didn't do much better.  Yet, a century and a half after its publication, Walden has become such a totem of the back-to-nature, preservationist, anti-business, civil-disobedience mindset, and Thoreau so vivid a protester, so perfect a crank and hermit saint, that the book risks being as revered and unread as the Bible. Of the American classics densely arisen in the middle of the 19th century - Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter (1850), Melville's Moby-Dick (1851), Whitman's Leaves of Grass (1855), and Emerson's Essays as an indispensable preparation of the ground - Walden has contributed most to America's present sense of itself.*

Henry David Thoreau begins Walden with an explanation, this was a brief respite from his "civilized life" that had taken up two years at some time in the past.  Now he is once again a "sojourner in civilized life."  Using the word sojourner suggests the association of material things with civilization.  It also provides a contrast with the natural life that he had experienced at Walden Pond.  But the presence of nature does not prevent Thoreau from quickly turning his narrative to a discourse on his personal life and internal thoughts leading to the comment about philosophers quoted above.  His life at Walden Pond appeared to provide simplicity and independence, two of the criteria listed, but the emphasis in "Economy"--the first chapter of Walden--is on the practical aspects of the life of the philosopher.

These aspects are laid out in an orderly manner that begins with several pages about the "when", "what", and "how" of his life at Walden Pond.  His simple life was one that included only the "necessities", noting that , "the wisest have ever led a more simple and meager life that the poor.  The ancient philosophers, Chinese, Hindoo, Persian, and Greek, were a class than which none has been poorer in outward riches, none so rich in inward." (p 14)
While what he did, in addition to writing, included:  "To anticipate, not the sunrise and the dawn merely, but, if possible, Nature herself!" . . . "trying to hear what was in the wind, to hear and carry it express!"(p 17)

His paean to nature passes and he continues an orderly disquisition on building his house, its design, his income and outgo, and baking bread.  He describes making his furniture, once again with emphasis on simplicity:  "a bed, a table, a desk, three chairs".  Later, in the "Visitors" chapter, he will explain that his three chairs include "one for solitude, two for friendship, and three for society." (p 140)  Multiple visitors were invited to stand while they shared Thoreau's abode.

The "Economy" section is by far the longest in the book and, while Thoreau discusses many more details of his life at the pond, he concludes with a meditation on philanthropy which he decides "that it does not agree with my constitution."  The dismissal of philanthropy, at least for himself, seems curious for one who portrays himself as a philosopher.  Philanthropy originates from the Latin "philanthropia", and originally from the Greek word "philanthropia", meaning "humanity, benevolence," from philanthropos (adj.) "loving mankind, useful to man," from phil- "loving" + anthropos "mankind".  But perhaps Thoreau did not perceive the practice of philanthropy in Concord to coincide with this derivation.  As he says "There is no odor so bad as that which arises from goodness tainted." (p 74)  He goes on to discuss the issue at length with a concluding and consistent (with his thought) riposte that seems apropos for someone who worships Nature.

"If, then, we would indeed restore mankind by truly Indian, botanic, magnetic, or natural means, let us first be as simple and well as nature ourselves, dispel the clouds which hang over our brows, and take up a little life into our pores.  Do not stay to be an overseer of the poor, but endeavor to become one of the worthies of the world."( pp 78-79)

This then seems to bring together the simplicity and practice of the philosopher to be "well as nature ourselves."

*"A Sage for all Seasons",  John Updike,  Guardian, June, 25, 2004.
Walden, by Henry David Thoreau. Princeton University Press 2004 (1854).  

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Notes on Paradise Lost, I

Paradise Lost: Authoritative Text, Sources and Backgrounds, CriticismParadise Lost 
by John Milton

"Farewell happy fields
Where joy for ever dwells:  hail horrors, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest hell 
Receive thy new possessor:  one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heav'n of hell, a hell of heav'n."
-  Satan ( I, 249-255)

The Epic Begins

John Milton was more than fifty years old when he began to concentrate on creating the epic poem Paradise Lost.  He had survived the momentous period when Cromwell led the country and with the death of his second wife and the onset of blindness he was facing what many would consider a bleak future.  Yet he produced a brilliant new version of the story of Adam and Eve, but even beyond that created a poem that would "justify the ways of God to men".  His method would encompass the whole of man's existence from the creation of the Son of God to the eventual expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise.

Interestingly, the order of the story focuses first on the rebellion of Satan and his rebel angels.  It is not until the fifth of the twelve books of the Epic that God himself relates the creation of his Son:
"Hear all ye angels, progeny of Light,
Thrones, Dominations, Princedoms, Virtues, Powers,
Hearmy decree, which unrevoked shall stand,
This day I have begot whom I declare
My only Son, and on this holy hill
Him have anointed," (V, 600-605)
This act provokes Satan's rage and his revolt where from he was banished to hell.  It is at this point where the epic had begun.  After some introductory verses wherein Milton calls upon God to aid him as he intones  "Sing Heav'nly Muse" and goes on to:
"Invoke thy aid to my advent'rous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar 
Above th' Aonian mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or in rhyme." (I, 13-16)

Books I and II tell of Satan and his minions on the burning lake and their arrival at Pandemonium where they have council with Satan anointing himself to destroy Man.  It is exciting stuff and Milton's Satan is an impressive character.  The events of the first two books mirror the world-shaking events that Milton had so recently experienced himself.  Satan plots a revenge on the new world created by the Lord elsewhere in the universe.  He journeys forth and encounters Sin, a sorceress sprung fully formed out of Satan's head at the instant he first conceived envy for the Son of God;  and he encounters Death, the odious offspring of Satan's incest with Sin.  With her "fatal key, / Sad instrument of all our woe," Sin unlocks the Gates of Hell and liberates Satan to pursue his mission (Book II).  Book III narrates how God chose his Son to redeem Man as he communes with his Son about Man's free will.  Satan, in the meantime, is wending his way toward Earth to discover for himself what Man, this creation of God, is all about.
I will stop for now, with the epic underway, and separately comment further about Adam and Eve in the Garden and some of the important themes of Milton's audacious poem.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Commonplace Entry

The Ultimate Map

 In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

—Suarez Miranda, Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV, Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658

- "Of Exactitude in Science"  from Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges.  Penguin Books, 1998.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Knights and Aliens

The High CrusadeThe High Crusade 
by Poul Anderson

"They can be slain!" bawled Sir Roger. "Haro! St. George for merry England!" And he spurred his horse straight up the gangway."

The year is 1345, and Sir Roger Baron de Tourneville has gathered his troops ready to join King Edward III in his battle against France. The knight's day is interrupted by a two-thousand foot long flying machine, containing an advance force of Wersgorix. These are aliens from a distant world who are on a voyage of conquest; their view of Earth is as a backward and primitive place. Unfortunately for them, Sir Roger and company are combat hardened, and not only do not like being shot at but they return fire with longbows, putting arrows through the invaders and bashing those who survive into kingdom come. When the battle is over, Sir Roger finds himself in command of a star ship, with just one Wersgorix, somewhat worse for wear, left to pilot the vessel. His first reaction is to take the flying ship to France in support of his King, then on to the Holy Land to deal with the infidels. But his plan is foiled by the remaining alien, who flies the ship straight back to the nearest Wersgorix planet, believing that once there the primitives will simply surrender. It is at this point that the Wersgorix learn a fatal lesson about the indomitable spirit, cleverness and sheer bloody determination of medieval Englishmen.

Poul Anderson is one of the science fiction authors I first encountered in my youth as he began writing novels in the fifties and sixties of the previous century. He became an award-winning author and demonstrated an imagination that produced both great science fiction and fantasy. With The High Crusade we have a vision of an alternative past where the medieval knights are faced with aliens and their success leads to further adventures in space. It sounds like a precursor to a recent film, "Cowboys & Aliens", set in the American west circa 1873. The High Crusade, while written somewhat tongue-in-cheek is nonetheless entertaining with reasonably developed themes. It shows what a well-disciplined and determined inferior group can achieve against a technologically superior foe. The characters are believable and maintain the reader's interest throughout.

The High Crusade is overall an entertaining story that can be enjoyed by both young and old. It reminded me of my enjoyment of tales like Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's  Court and another classic SF novel, L. Sprague de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall. Poul Anderson is always worth reading and this minor classic is one reason.

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Thursday, July 30, 2015

No Man is an Island

Notes on John Donne, IV
Donne and Death

"Death is finished.  It is no more"  -  Last words of Ivan Ilych*

Holy Sonnet 6

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

What is death?  In Donne's sonnet it is a person to whom the poet speaks directly, "Death, be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so."   Note the comma which segregates death from the characteristics which the poet attributes to death.   He follows these words in lines 9-10 with a seemingly audacious claim about death, "Thou'rt slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell."  So be it, yes Donne was obsessed with death.  However this was limited to certain types of death.  His view minimizing the power of death went against the more popular view of death as espoused by Sir Walter Raliegh and others of the just and might of death.   Donne's arguments in this famous sonnet are not very strong, however, and seem to lack a recognizable logical order.   He is even confused as to whether sleep is better than death or the reverse.  The apparent self-assurance of the poem collapses with the final two lines:
"One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more;  Death, thou shalt die."

Elsewhere (in "A Hymn to God the Father") he has shared his anxiety regarding death more directly,
"I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore."
We also see in the Holy Sonnet an attempt to minimize death through a reassurance that sleep achieved through drugs or magic is better than the "stroke" of death.
My own fascination with the poet and his poem reminds me of the attempts by others to reassure their friends and family.  Socrates did so in the Phaedo by describing his life as one long attempt to prepare for death.  His view was echoed and enhanced by Montaigne who, In his essay titled “That to Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die,”  turns to mortality and points to the understanding of death as a prerequisite for the understanding of life, for the very art of living. 
"[L]et us learn bravely to stand our ground, and fight him. And to begin to deprive him of the greatest advantage he has over us, let us take a way quite contrary to the common course. Let us disarm him of his novelty and strangeness, let us converse and be familiar with him, and have nothing so frequent in our thoughts as death. "(Montaigne, Essays)
This is different than the words of Ivan Ilych quoted above that instead seem to echo Donne.  
But one more example from my reading can be found in Rainier Maria Rilke's beautiful novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.  Through Rilke's fascination with faces and appearances the importance of constructing an authentic life is emphasized. This becomes a prerequisite for the prospect of a unique personal death. Death itself is a character in the novel, a "terrible rival", which may seem stronger than the living in its tolling.

The tolling of the bell in Rilke's novel signalling death brings us back to Donne who penned these famous lines:

"No man is an island, entire of itself;  every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.  If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were:  any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;  it tolls for thee." (Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, 17)

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

A Commonplace Entry


The bookcase of early childhood is a man's companion for life.  The arrangement of its shelves, the choice of books, the colors of spines are for him the color, height, and arrangement of world literature itself.  As for books which were not included in that first bookcase--they were never to force their way into the universe of world literature.  Every book in the first bookcase is, willy-nilly, a classic, and not one of them can ever be expelled.

from "The Bookcase" in The Noise of Time: Selected Prose by Osip Mandelstam, translated by Clarence Brown.  Northwestern University Press.  2002 (1986)

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Notes on John Donne, III

Three Holy Sonnets

Sonnet 13 (1)*

THOU hast made me, and shall Thy work decay?
Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste;
I run to death, and Death meets me as fast,
And all my pleasures are like yesterday.
I dare not move my dim eyes any way;        5
Despair behind, and Death before doth cast
Such terror, and my feeble flesh doth waste
By sin in it, which it towards hell doth weigh.
Only Thou art above, and when towards Thee
By Thy leave I can look, I rise again;        10
But our old subtle foe so tempteth me,
That not one hour myself I can sustain.
Thy grace may wing me to prevent his art
And thou like adamant draw mine iron heart.

There is a sense of despair and terror that is aroused by the thought of death and sin that is then repelled in the final sestet as he turns toward God.  While the devil is "our subtle foe" it is Donne that is tempted.  He cannot sustain the grace of God but must rely on God to draw in forth.  This is a theme that we see again and again in the Holy Sonnets, for example:  

Sonnet 10 (14)*

BATTER my heart, three-person’d God; for you
As yet but knock; breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town, to another due,        5
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should 1 defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;        10
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Sonnet 1 (2)*

As due by many titles I resign
Myself to thee, O God. First I was made
By Thee; and for Thee, and when I was decay’d
Thy blood bought that, the which before was Thine.
I am Thy son, made with Thyself to shine,        5
Thy servant, whose pains Thou hast still repaid,
Thy sheep, Thine image, and—till I betray’d
Myself—a temple of Thy Spirit divine.
Why doth the devil then usurp on me?
Why doth he steal, nay ravish, that’s Thy right?        10
Except Thou rise and for Thine own work fight,
O! I shall soon despair, when I shall see 1
That Thou lovest mankind well, yet wilt not choose me,
And Satan hates me, yet is loth to lose me.

Of these three my favorite is Sonnet 10 with its stentorian phrases like "Batter my heart" and "break, blow, burn".  In Sonnet 13 Donne declares himself unable to combat, by his own efforts the temptation to despair.  By the end of the poem, in spite of his sureness in the power of the grace of god he will surmount the devil, but his heart is solid iron, unmoved by him but, perhaps, drawn close by god.  And, in Sonnet 10 there is a similar recognition that he is "betroth’d unto your enemy", but can be saved if god will "imprison me".  The last lines of this sonnet exemplify the sort of paradox that recurs throughout Donne's poetry.  Only if he is imprisoned by god and in his thrall can he be "free". 

We see the use of paradox in Sonnet 1 as well when Donne claims that god has made him, and bought him with the blood but having been ravished and stolen by the devil he ends the sonnet with the lines:  "That Thou lovest mankind well, yet wilt not choose me, And Satan hates me, yet is loth to lose me."   The legality of all god's actions (note the first few lines of the poem) is upset by the devil's illegality which seemingly trumps that of god.  The question becomes one about the nature of the grace of God, whether it is freely given or must be earned.  Or, is once given may be stolen by the power of Satan.  Note that in the first sonnet above there was a recognition by Donne that he could not maintain this grace.  The power of the devil in these sonnets seems to mirror the power of Satan of Milton's Paradise Lost which would appear less than half a century following Donne's death.

Returning to the issue of death, it seems that is the only escape from the battle with the devil and that the only hope of the believer is that God's grace will be there after death.  The meditative nature of the sonnets and the solitariness implied  in many of them makes one wonder who was the audience for these works.  I can only speculate that they were intended for use by Donne himself who would turn to sermonizing for the public in his role as the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral in London.

* The numbers are from the Norton Critical Edition and those in parentheses are from the Oxford University Press edition,

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Best of the Last Eight Years

My Top Ten Reads Since January 2007

Back in August of 2012 I listed the top ten books I had read since the inception of my blog in 2007.  This is my first attempt to update that list, I expect to update it again by the tenth anniversary of my blog if not sooner.  Sometimes books rank higher one day, and lower the next. These are my favorites today in no particular order. They may vary slightly from my annual book rankings, but they are all included in the best of my reading from each of the years I have been blogging.  

I started my blog in earnest January 2007. So these are my Top Ten Reads for the last eight and a half years.  The mix has swung toward fiction with only two works of non-fiction on the list.  One work is a trilogy of plays, The Coast of Utopia, by Tom Stoppard, and the rest are novels of varying lengths.  I could have easily included more works by Thomas Mann, but limited the list to only one by this author.  I also regret that I had to leave authors that I have rated highly, including Samuel Beckett, Charlotte Bronte, Robert Frost, John Williams, Joshua Slocum, Tim Winton, and others, on the cutting room floor. 

Top Ten Reads 

The Roots of Heaven   by Romain Gary

In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust

The Coast of Utopia  by Tom Stoppard

The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

East of Eden  by John Steinbeck

Walden, or Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph by T. E. Lawrence

The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz

Joseph and His Brothers  by Thomas Mann

If you'd like the view of a professional writer and reader consider this essay by Joe Queenan from the Wall Street Journal:  My 6,128 Favorite Books