Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Legendary Dreamer

Hero: The Life and Legend of 
Lawrence of Arabia 

T. E. Lawrence was born on this day in 1888. In the fall of 1916 he was in Arabia on a mission for the British army. Here is how he is described by one biographer:

Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia"One of his companions on the trip behind Turkish lines described him as "an odd gnome, half cad---with a touch of genius," and a superior at headquarters in Cairo may have summed up the general opinion there of Lawrence when he asked, "Who is this extraordinary pip-squeak?"
To Those who judged him be his quirky manner and his ill-fitting wrinkled, off-the-rack uniform, the cuffs of his trousers always two or three inches above his boots, the badge sometimes missing from his peaked cap, Lawrence did not cut a soldierly figure, so most of them failed to notice the intense, ice-blue eyes and the unusually long, firm, determined jaw, a facial structure more Celtic than English. It was the face of a nonreligious ascetic, capable of enduring hardship ad pain beyond what most men would even want to contemplate, a true believer in other people's causes, a curious combination of scholar and man of action, and, most important of all, a dreamer."

(Michael Korda, Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia. Harper Collins, 2010. p. 6)

Writers and Money

Further Notes on Two Years Before the Mast

"When Richard Henry Dana completed his immortal Two Years Before the Mast (1840), he was only twenty five, he had no publishing experience, but he needed money urgently. He considered himself lucky to find a New York publisher willing to pay a lump sum of $250 for all the rights on the book for the next thirty years. Out of this deal, the publisher was to eventually earn $50,000---a colossal sum at the time---not a cent of which ever went to the hapless author. (When a British edition came out in London, the English publisher felt moved to give $500 to Dana, even though he was under no legal obligation to do so; in the entire history of publishing, this must be the only instance of a publisher paying an author money not owed to him). . . 

Returning to Dana's unfortunate experience, one may feel that his New York publisher took unfair advantage of his ignorance; actually, this businessman may have been ruthless, but he was not devious and, at the start, he took considerable risk in publishing the manuscript of an unknown young writer. The fact is that no one could ever have foreseen the huge and long-lasting success of such an unusual work." 

 - Simon Leys, The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays. New York Review Books, 2013. "Writers and Money", pp. 267-68.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

A Voice from the Forecastle

Two Years Before the Mast: 
A Sailor's Life at Sea 

Two Years Before the Mast: A Sailor's Life at Sea

"I determined to go before the mast, where I knew the constant occupation would make reading unnecessary and the hard work, plain diet and life in the open air, away from coal fires, dust and lamplight, would do much to give rest to the nerves of the eye, and would above all make a gradual change in my physical system."  - Richard Henry Dana, Jr., Autobiography

Richard Henry Dana tells the story of his trip, subtitled "A Sailor's Life at Sea", in the brig Pilgrim out of Boston in 1834. Only 19 years old, the Harvard student signed on as a deck hand. For the next two years he experienced a sailor's rugged life, traveling around Cape Horn, visiting Mexico's California territory a full 15 years before it became a U.S. state, and returning home in 1836. The Pilgrim was 'a swearing ship', in which the brutal and choleric Captain Thompson imposed his discipline by bad language, and the Sabbath, normally a kind of token rest day for the crew, was never observed, except by the black African cook reading his bible all day alone in his galley. Apparently Captain Thompson was from the same mold as Herman Wouk's Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny.

The everyday details of his journey are surprisingly vivid. On their first week at sea, they spot a pirate ship, and must outrun it on a moonless night. Dolphins follow the ship as it heads for Cape Horn. The Captain's patience is tried by a lazy first mate who refuses to watch for icebergs. And when a man falls overboard, the captain must assure the crew that a thorough search was conducted. The discipline was brutal and flogging was cruel. The author did not attempt to oppose the Captain, but he did devote much of his subsequent life towards improving the conditions of seamen's lives aboard ship.

What made his story unique was that Dana chose to go "before the mast" and live the life of a real sailor unlike those narratives told by passengers on board ship.  The edition I read included a glossary that was helpful since there were so many terms in the book unique to sailing. I found the book to be an exciting story made interesting by the well-educated young man who chose to go to sea as a shipmate 'before the mast' rather than a cabin passenger in the officers' quarters.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Love's Fine Wit

A Midsummer Night's Dream 

A Midsummer Night's Dream 

"O let my books be then the eloquence
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast,
Who plead for love and look for recompense
More than that tongue that more hath more express'd.
   O, learn to read what silent love hath writ:
   To hear with eyes belongs to love's fine wit. "

- Sonnet XXIII, William Shakespeare

Rereading this play for our local Great Books Foundation group was a delight. While this delight stems in great part from the comedy, the complexity of the play enhances that feeling as well. Consider the opening lines where Theseus announces the upcoming nuptials that he will share with his "fair Hippolyta". "Four happy days bring in Another moon." (I.1, 2-3) 
I will focus on the last word, moon, which will hover over many of the scenes of the play and heralds the importance of the titular Night for the play. This also suggests the importance of shadows and all that happens in the night, for there will be many strange occurrences that just would not happen in the bright sunlight of the day. It is in the night that we dream and in dreaming we lose touch with reality; thus here we find another theme of the juxtaposition of dream and reality. This is a theme that will be furthered by the actions of fairies and also the play that is produced by the "Mechanicals" among whom Ned Bottom stands out.

"The course of true love never did run smooth,” comments Lysander, articulating another one of the play's most important themes—that of the difficulty of love (I.i.134). Though most of the conflict in the play stems from the troubles of romance, and though the play involves a number of romantic elements, it is not truly a love story; it distances the audience from the emotions of the characters in order to poke fun at the torments and afflictions that those in love suffer. The fairies in the night heighten the complications of the lovers, yet not so much that the problems cannot be resolved. The resolution leaves Bottom commenting, "I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream."

The tone of the play is so lighthearted that the audience never doubts that things will end happily, and it is therefore free to enjoy the comedy without being caught up in the tension of an uncertain outcome. And if anyone is still unsure of what they thought just happened, Puck ends the play with a suggestion that it was all merely a dream.

This play has inspired many musicians, notably Felix Mendelssohn who wrote an overture and incidental music for the play (source for the famous "Wedding March"). It also inspired Benjamin Britten to write one of his best and most impressive operas. Britten used the text of the play, relying on Shakespeare's own words, for his libretto which is rarely done. A fantasy, this is among Shakespeare's best and among my favorites of all Shakespeare's plays.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Worthwhile Things

Meaning in Life 
and Why It Matters 

Meaning in Life and Why It Matters

“Meaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness…meaning arises when a subject discovers or develops an affinity for one or typically several of the more worthwhile things…”  -  Susan Wolf

This book presents an argument for the importance of meaning in our lives. That is meaning in the sense that we act out of love for objects that we value. In valuing these objects we identify them as worthy of our love and therefore our attention and concern. This is posed as an alternative to theories that advocate the primacy of egoism or altruism as the motivating force in such choices.  I encountered this book while reading Jonathan Haidt's discussion of the moral principles of different people in his interesting book The Righteous Mind.  Susan Wolf has succeeded in reflecting on the nature of meaning in life in a way that I found much more satisfying.

Susan Wolf discusses a variety of views about the source of meaning in life. One popular one is the argument that fulfillment from the pursuit of one's passion provides meaning for your life. The author comments that "the view is inadequate . . . If , as the Fulfillment View suggests, the only thing that matters is the subjective quality of one's life, then it shouldn't matter, in our assessments of possible lives, which activities give rise to that quality." (pp 15-16)
This view is rejected as too subjective in that it allows for a multiplicity of questionable paths through life and in doing so does not ensure that one's desires for his life are met in spite of the pursuit of a particular passion.

After discussing other views and returning to the argument for fulfillment through attention to that which one loves or values the author concludes with an extended defense of the need for meaningfulness. Most importantly this requires the identification of "objective values". The book concludes with four commentaries on Wolf's thesis and a response to these commentaries from the author. The result is a thought-provoking and engaging presentation of the nature of and importance for meaningfulness in one's life.

Friday, August 04, 2017

Poem for Today

O Daedalus, Fly Away Home

(For Maia and Julie) 

                       Drifting night in the Georgia pines, 
                       coonskin drum and jubilee banjo. 
                               Pretty Malinda, dance with me. 

                       Night is juba, night is congo. 
                               Pretty Malinda, dance with me. 

                       Night is an African juju man 
                       weaving a wish and a weariness together 
                               to make two wings. 

                       O fly away home fly away 

                       Do you remember Africa? 

                               O cleave the air fly away home 

                       My gran, he flew back to Africa, 
                       just spread his arms and 
                               flew away home. 

                       Drifting night in the windy pines; 
                       night is laughing, night is a longing. 
                               Pretty Malinda, come to me. 

                       Night is a mourning juju man 
                       weaving a wish and a weariness together 
                               to make two wings. 

                               O fly away home fly away

© by owner. provided at no charge for educational purposes.

    In 1913, Robert Hayden, poet, essayist, and educator who served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1976–78 (the first African-American writer to hold the title, which is today known as US Poet Laureate), was born.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Emigre Artists

Testaments Betrayed: 
An Essay in Nine Parts 

Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts
“an emigres artistic problem: the numerically equal blocks of a lifetime are unequal in weight, depending on whether they comprise young or adult years. The adult years may be richer and more important for life and for creative activity both, but the subconscious, memory, language, all the under structure of creativity, are formed very early; for a doctor, that won't make problems, but for a novelist or a composer, leaving the place to which his imagination, his obsessions, and thus his fundamental themes are bound could make for a kind of ripping apart. He must mobilize all his powers, all his artists wiles, to turn the disadvantages of that situation to benefits.   [...] Only returning to the native land after a long absence can reveal the substantial strangeness of the world and of existence.”   ― Milan Kundera, Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts

Kundera begins with a riff on Rabelais and leads us on a wild tour of European literature from Cervantes to Gombrowicz, with special attention to authors that I love including Musil and Broch. I found his continual focus on the ideas of literature attractive enough; but he assays music as well including a wonderful chapter on Janacek. 
In part 1, “The Day Panurge No Longer Makes People Laugh,” Kundera speaks of the importance of humor in the novel. He loves the fact that the early novelists, such as François Rabelais and Miguel Cervantes, reveled in humor and delighted in allowing their characters to make fools of themselves. He also writes that the history of humor is closely connected to the history of the novel.

Perhaps more interesting to this reader was his thought-provoking discussion of Stravinsky's place in European music, “Improvisation in Homage to Stravinsky,”. In this section, part 3 of nine-parts, Kundera writes about Igor Stravinsky’s émigré status: “having understood that no country could replace it [his homeland], he finds his only homeland in music; this is not just a nice lyrical conceit of mine, I think it in an absolutely concrete way.” Kundera’s situation is similar to that of Stravinsky and to those of Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov, about whom Kundera also writes. Kundera, the most famous Czech writer, left Czechoslovakia in 1975 to live in Paris. He has continued to write fiction in Czech, but The Art of the Novel (1986; English translation, 1988) and Testaments Betrayed were written in French. As Stravinsky inhabited the world of music and served as one of its most important citizens and statesmen, so does Kundera inhabit the world of the novel, communicate in its unique language, and serve as a spokesman for its worldview and its practitioners.

Kundera’s main area of interest is specifically the European novel, by which he means “not only novels created in Europe by Europeans but novels that belong to a history that began with the dawn of the Modern Era in Europe.” For Kundera the history of the European novel is transnational; he believes that it is a mistake to view the novel in terms of national literary traditions. At one point, Kundera mentions the reaction of the Austrian novelist Hermann Broch to his publisher’s suggestion that Broch be compared to the Central European writers Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Italo Svevo. Broch proposed that he be compared instead to James Joyce and André Gide. Broch, like Kundera, believed that his realm was the macrocosm of the European novel, not the microcosm of Austrian fiction.

For Kundera, the novel is far more than a literary genre. It is a way of viewing the world which, when it is practiced by a great novelist, leads readers to think in fresh ways, to question some of their assumptions, to put aside their prejudices. In one interesting passage, Kundera speaks of the ways in which lyricism has been used in the service of totalitarianism. He mentions as an example the great Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, a true artist who placed his verse at the service of the Russian Revolution. Kundera writes, “Lyricism, lyricization, lyrical talk, lyrical enthusiasm are an integrating part of what is called the totalitarian world; that world is not the gulag as such; it’s a gulag that has poems plastering its outside walls and people dancing before them.” In the world of the true novel, such lyricism is anathema, the enemy of clear thought. Repelled by the totalitarian lyricism he saw around him in the communist Czechoslovakia of his youth, Kundera turned to the novel.

Kundera wishes to be identified with no political position, no country, no rigid philosophical point of view; he wishes to view and to be viewed purely as a novelist. And with this in mind he includes embedded references to literature, great literature, and his own work, most of which I've yet to read. And did I mention his exceptional essay on Kafka. This is a relatively short book, but one of great depth and breadth. It is simultaneously brilliant music criticism, elegant literary criticism, commentary on the art of writing and translation, and a guide to the great literature of modern Europe. With this book, a loaf of bread and some wine (along with dozens of other texts) one could while away a year or two.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Transformation and Transmutation

The Metamorphoses
by Ovid

The Metamorphoses of Ovid
“When he, whoever of the gods it was, had thus arranged in order and resolved that chaotic mass, and reduced it, thus resolved, to cosmic parts, he first moulded the Earth into the form of a mighty ball so that it might be of like form on every side … And, that no region might be without its own forms of animate life, the stars and divine forms occupied the floor of heaven, the sea fell to the shining fishes for their home, Earth received the beasts, and the mobile air the birds … Then Man was born:… though all other animals are prone, and fix their gaze upon the earth, he gave to Man an uplifted face and bade him stand erect and turn his eyes to heaven.”   ― Ovid, Metamorphoses

The Metamorphoses is a poem in fifteen books by the Roman poet Ovid describing the history of the world from its creation to the deification of Julius Caesar within a loose myth-based historical framework. It is often called a mock-epic, as it is written in dactylic hexameter (the form of the great epic poems of the ancient tradition, such as “The Iliad”, “The Odyssey” and “The Aeneid”), unlike Ovid's other works. But, rather than following and extolling the deeds of a great hero like the traditional epics, Ovid’s work leaps from story to story, often with little or no connection other than that they all involve transformations of one sort or another. Sometimes, a character from one story is used as a (more or less tenuous) connection to the next story, and sometimes the mythical characters themselves are used as the story-tellers of “stories within stories”.

Completed in AD 8, it is recognized as a masterpiece of Golden Age Latin literature. The recurring theme, as with nearly all of Ovid's work, is that of love (and especially the trans-formative power of love), whether it be personal love or love personified in the figure of Cupid, an otherwise relatively minor god of the pantheon who is the closest thing this mock-epic has to a hero. Unlike the predominantly romantic notions of love that were "invented" in the Middle Ages, however, Ovid viewed love more as a dangerous, destabilizing force than a positive one, and demonstrates how love has power over everyone, mortals and gods alike.

It is notable that the other Roman gods are repeatedly perplexed, humiliated and made to appear ridiculous by fate and by Cupid in the stories. This is particularly true of Apollo, the god of pure reason, who is often confounded by irrational love. The poem inverts the accepted order to a large extent, elevating humans and human passions while making the gods (and their own somewhat petty desires and conquests) the objects of low humor, often portraying the gods as self-absorbed and vengeful. Perhaps because of the continuing power of Greek culture there remains the shadow of the power of the gods as a distinct recurrent theme throughout the poem.

Revenge is another common theme, and it is often the motivation for whatever transformation the stories are explaining, as the gods avenge themselves and change mortals into birds or beasts to prove their own superiority. Violence, and often rape, occurs in almost every story in the collection, and women are generally portrayed negatively, either as virginal girls running from the gods who want to rape them, or alternatively as malicious and vengeful.

As do all the major Greek and Roman epics, “Metamorphoses” emphasizes that hubris (overly prideful behavior) is a fatal flaw which inevitably leads to a character's downfall. Hubris always attracts the notice and punishment of the gods, who disdain all human beings who attempt to compare themselves to divinity. Some, especially women like Arachne and Niobe, actively challenge the gods and goddesses to defend their prowess, while others display hubris in ignoring their own mortality. Like love, hubris is seen by Ovid as a universal equalizer.

Ovid's “Metamorphoses” was an immediate success in its day, its popularity threatening even that of Virgil's “Aeneid”. One can even imagine it being used as a teaching tool for Roman children, from which they could learn important stories that explain their world, as well as learn about their glorious emperor and his ancestors. Particularly towards the end, the poem can be seen to deliberately emphasize the greatness of Rome and its rulers. 
I read this both with our Sunday Morning Study Group and also as the text for a University of Chicago weekend retreat. Not unlike many works of classical literature this poem has been a rich cultural resource ever since its inception, influencing authors from Chaucer and Shakespeare to, more recently Ted Hughes, and composers from Gluck and Offenbach to Britten.

By the Side of Darwin

Mr. Darwin's Shooter 

Mr. Darwin's Shooter

"The great trust that Covington had in the world's advancement of his fate, that he was born to and found only rarely shaken, he brought with him from Bedfordshire to the sea." (p 71)

Roger McDonald is a noted Australian novelist however this is the first of his books that I have had the pleasure of reading. Like The Moor's Account by Laila Lalami that I read earlier this year, this is a book based on the life of a real person. Syms Covington, the titular protagonist of this story was a person like most people who have lived and were forgotten. Now his life has been impressively reclaimed from history's notorious dustbin in this novel by Roger McDonald.

Syms Covington was 15 years old when he joined the crew of H.M. S. Beagle for a journey that would change forever both his own life and humanity's view of our place in the world. As collector and shooter and all-around assistant, young Covington accompanied Darwin throughout the five-year voyage and for two years of wrap-up work after the return to England. The Darwin biographer Janet Browne describes Covington as the unacknowledged shadow behind Darwin's every triumph. McDonald's fictionalized account of Covington's life is a well-researched book, rich in the complicated issues that surround Darwin and his work, especially its shock to Victorian religious sensibilities. But this novel is genuinely about Syms Covington, not about Darwin. It is about his adventurous life, which happens to accompany for a time that of a man destined to become the most influential scientist of his era.

McDonald imbues his story with the textures and assumptions of 19th-century life including religion, work, clothes, food, even shipboard floggings. The result is a well wrought tale of a man who embodies the milieu of his generation. It is the story of a daring, courageous, passionate man who is troubled by his own small role in the shocking changes going on about him. When we first meet Syms he is 12 years old, the religion-drenched son of a butcher. We accompany him as he and Charles Darwin and the natural sciences grow up. As readers we follow him into a contentious, disappointed middle age.

McDonald constantly surprises. His prose is ebullient, at times boisterous, holding the interest of the reader with language so vivid and original, alternately comic and tragic, that it reminded me of the novels of Dickens. McDonald makes his history come alive by refusing to stray from the sweaty, angry, sad, and sometimes violence of reality. This is one of the better historical novels I have read.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Empathy for Aliens

Speaker for the Dead 

Speaker for the Dead (Ender's Saga, #2)
"The tribe is whatever we believe it is. If we say the tribe is all the Little Ones in the forest, and all the trees, then that is what the tribe is. Even though some of the oldest trees here came from warriors of two different tribes, fallen in battle. We become one tribe because we say we're one tribe."Ender marveled at his mind, this small raman [member of another sentient species]. How few humans were able to grasp this idea, or let it extend beyond the narrow confines of their tribe, their family, their nation.”   ― Orson Scott Card, Speaker for the Dead

I have read many science fiction books whose narrative includes aliens as major characters. Often the plot hinges on differences between humans and aliens -- for those who enjoy science fiction this is one of the reasons. The aliens may be good or evil, but often they are misunderstood and this leads to plot complications and results in an interesting story. With Speaker for the Dead the reader is presented with humans studying "pequeninos", strange aliens known as "piggies". In this case these aren't evil aliens who want to eat you or enslave you so you have to shoot them with large guns like in Ender's Game (the novel for which this is a sequel), nor are these friendly helpful aliens who work with humans to fight the bad guys like some in Star Trek or Star Wars. Instead, these aliens are just different, very different in a way that appears to be similar to the difference between human cultures.

This is presented in a realistic way in that there is fear and even hatred among the humans that is attributable to the unknown nature of the aliens. Through their study they slowly begin to realize "you can't really know them until you stop hating them." The drama in the narrative arises from the humans' attempts to figure out how to live with aliens who aren't like you. With the buggers in Ender's Game alien contact resulted in xenocide. In this story there is an artificial intelligence element, "Jane", a spontaneously generated artificial intelligence that results in alien contact with Ender becoming something that approximates love. Thus in this narrative contact ends up becoming a wary exchange and negotiation which begins with a scientific anthropological cataloging and ends with a treaty. As Ender says of the piggies, "We didn't come here to attack them at the root of their lives… We came here to find a way to share a world with them." The journey to reach that understanding is strewn with difficulties and tragedy that provides for suspense as the reader begins to learn the reasons for certain events.

The title of the book is the name for what Ender has become, for after having wiped out the "buggers" in Ender's Game he has traveled the universe for thousands of years participating when requested in memorials for the dead. A Speaker for the Dead's job is to professionally care. They tell the story of a person's life, and in order to tell that story, the Speaker has to understand a person completely, even more fully than the person might understand oneself. Speakers are geniuses of empathy, and Ender—as the first speaker—is the king genius. "Will [Ender] always come between us?" Novinha asks her daughter, and Ela responds, "Yes… like a bridge he'll come between us, not a wall" (16.129-130). Ender is a living embodiment of empathy.

This novel embodies aliens that are stranger than most I've ever read about, it has suspense resulting from human contact with these aliens, and it explores the nature of death and the way two exceedingly different cultures deal with the experience of death. The novel also explores Ender's relations with other humans and the difficulty he has in maintaining long term relationships due to the itinerant nature of his vocation.  It is the focus on the nature of death and Ender's role as Speaker for the Dead that makes this novel exceptional among the many works of science fiction I have read.

View all my reviews

Friday, July 21, 2017

From the Journals of Henry David Thoreau


Jan. 24, 1856  A Journal is a record of experiences and growth, not a preserve of things well done or said. I am occasionally reminded of a statement which I have made in conversation and immediately forgotten, which would read much better than what I put in my journal. It is a ripe, dry fruit of long-past experience which falls from me easily, without giving pain or pleasure. The charm of the journal must consist in a certain greenness, though freshness, and not in maturity. Here I cannot afford to be remembering what I said or did, my scurf cast off, but what I am and aspire to become."

The Journal: 1837-1861, Henry David Thoreau. New York Review Books, 2009. p. 362

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Blind Date

Samuel Johnson Is Indignant 

Samuel Johnson Is Indignant

"Sometimes I did exactly what I wanted to do all day—I lay on the sofa and read a book, or I typed up an old diary—and then the most terrifying sort of despair would descend on me: the very freedom I was enjoying seemed to say that what I did in my day was arbitrary, and that therefore my whole life and how I spent it was arbitrary.”   ― Lydia Davis, Can't and Won't: Stories

Rather than comment on the stories in this collection I will let the author speak for herself.  Here are selected paragraphs from "Blind Date";

""There isn't really much to tell," she said, but she would tell it if I liked. We were sitting in a midtown luncheonette. "I've only had one blind date in my life. And I didn't really have it. I can think of more interesting situations that are like a blind date--say, when someone gives you a book as a present, when they fix you up with that book. I was once given a book of essays about reading, writing, book collecting. I felt it was a perfect match. I started reading it right away, in the backseat of the car. I stopped listening to the conversation in the front. I like to read about how other people read and collect books, even how they shelve their books. But by the time I was done with the book, I had taken a strong dislike to the author's personality. I won't have another date with her!" She laughed. Here we were interrupted by the waiter, and then a series of incidents followed that kept us from resuming our conversation that day."


"I was fifteen or sixteen, I guess," she said. "I was home from boarding school. Maybe it was summer. I don't know where my parents were. They were often away. They often left me alone there, sometimes for the evening, sometimes for weeks at a time. The phone rang. It was a boy I didn't know. He said he was a friend of a boy from school—I can't remember who. We talked a little and then he asked me if I wanted to have dinner with him. He sounded nice enough so I said I would, and we agreed on a day and a time and I told him where I lived."


"Well, when the day came, I didn't want to go out to dinner with this boy. I just didn't want the difficulty of this date. It scared me—not because there was anything scary about the boy but because he was a stranger, I didn't know him. I didn't want to sit there face-to-face in some restaurant and start from the very beginning, knowing nothing. It didn't feel right. And there was the burden of that recommendation—'Give her a try.'

"Then again, maybe there were other reasons. Maybe I had been alone in that apartment so much by then that I had retreated into some kind of inner, unsociable space that was hard to come out of. Maybe I felt I had disappeared and I was comfortable that way and did not want to be forced back into existence. I don't know.

Samuel Johnson Is Indignant by Lydia Davis. Picador, 2002 (2001)

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Tahiti and Literature

In the South Seas 

In the South Seas

“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilization, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints.”   ― Robert Louis Stevenson

Tahiti was the setting for Herman Melville’s Omoo, published in 1847. This was the second of Melville’s novels — a sequel to Typee and so a second “Peep at Polynesian Life.” While both of his books were popular, another of my favorite authors also wrote eloquently of his travels including Tahiti. While he had previously travelled with a donkey, Robert Louis Stevenson in 1888 travelled to Tahiti, and after two more voyages settled in the Samoan Islands for the remainder of his life. It was from his time in Tahiti that he was inspired to write some of his most evocative poetry including the following:

Let me fathom out with my arms the length of golden-bred Tahiti
And number one by one the lands of Tautira.
I am seized with fear at Tepari
I shall stop short at Vaita
Clouds are over the sun and it blows a bad wind,
And my home is beyond at Faaroa.
At Vaiumete is a ledge where a man must go with the arms spread.
I must measure with my arms the face of that weary cliff.

Stevenson loved Tahiti and developed a close friendship with a Tahitian named Ori, becoming a "brother" to the Tahitian sub chief (Bell, p 217). While he published three tales about Tahiti his collection of travel essays, In the South Seas, did not include essays on the time he spent in Tahiti. I have always marveled at the various, often famous, adventure novels by Stevenson. My fascination with this author is enhanced by his life story, for as a sickly child, would grow up to travel extensively, often because of his illness. Needless, his wanderlust led in part to the wonderful novels of adventure that we have today.

In the South Seas by Robert Louis Stevenson. Penguin Classics, New York. 1999 (1896)
Dreams of Exile, Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Ian Bell. Henry Holt, New York. 1992

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Reading for Life

Thoreau on Reading

"How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book. The book exists for us perchance which will explain our miracles and reveal new ones. The at present unutterable things we may find somewhere uttered."

About a third of the way into the text of Walden one encounters a chapter simply titled "Reading".  What does this have to do with Walden pond and Thoreau's small home beside it?  Well, he answers that his "residence was more favorable, not only to thought, but to serious reading, than a university".  That this was important to Thoreau is emphasized by the opening sentence of the chapter:  "With a little more deliberation in the choice of their pursuits, all men would perhaps become essentially students and observers, for certainly their nature and destiny are interesting to all alike."

All men, and women too, would be like Thoreau, deliberate students and observers of the world.  All this, and I count myself one with Thoreau, is for the purpose of improving oneself.  That reading can be an important source of one's personal improvement is clear from the next paragraph where Thoreau quotes the poet Mir Camar Uddin Mast, "Being seated to run through the region of the spiritual world; I have had this advantage in books." To this Thoreau immediately adds that he "kept Homer's Iliad on my table through the summer".  Now my choice would be The Odyssey, but Homer is certainly a great choice for a small library in a little hut by a pond surrounded by the fresh beauty of Nature.

Thoreau not only encourages one to read but makes a case for the classics.  Whether it is Homer or Aeschylus (and for Thoreau this meant the original Greek, but I'm sure the fine translations available to us today will suffice for us moderns).  He argues that the classics are "the noblest recorded thoughts of man . . . and there are such answers to the most modern inquiry in them as Delphi and Dodona never gave."
He continues with a paean to reading that is nothing if not inspirational:  "To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a novel exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. . . Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written."  Even Alexander, when carrying on his conquest of the Mediterranean world, carried the Iliad with him.  As Thoreau goes on to say, "A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself."

Heady stuff this is, but readers all, and I can only base this on my personal experience, have their own stories of reading from an early age.  Whether it was the stories of the Bible or Aesop, the adventures of Tom Sawyer or Jack Hawkins, or heavier tomes as one matures like those of Dickens or Dante; whatever path you choose in reading you learn and grow and eventually learn your letters as Thoreau would say.  He adds the following encouragement, saying "I think that having learned our letters we should read the best that is in literature, and not be forever repeating our a b abs, and words of one syllable, in the fourth or fifth classes, sitting on the lowest and foremost form all our lives."  

In other words, read widely and deeply and never be "satisfied".  Like Thoreau,"aspire to be acquainted with wiser men than this our Concord soil has produced, whose names are hardly known here. Or shall I hear the name of Plato and never read his book?"  Of course  Thoreau's best friends included the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Ellery Channing.  While we can only read these great writers along with Thoreau himself, we can follow his advice by reading other great books of every age from classic to modern.

Let us celebrate the birthday of Henry David Thoreau by following both his example and his advice in reading books that will make us better persons.  The result will bring us a greater appreciation of nature, move us closer to all persons in our lives, and open to us the miracles of the world around us.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Top Ten Tuesday

Best Books I have read so far in 2017.

Responsibility and Judgment  by Hannah Arendt

This collection gathers together unpublished writings from the last decade of Arendt’s life, where she addresses fundamental questions and concerns about the nature of evil and the making of moral choices. At the heart of the book is a profound ethical investigation, “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy,” in which Arendt confronts the inadequacy of traditional moral “truths” as standards to judge what we are capable of doing and examines anew our ability to distinguish good from evil and right from wrong. We also see how Arendt comes to understand that alongside the radical evil she had addressed in earlier analyses of totalitarianism, there exists a more pernicious evil, independent of political ideology, whose execution is limitless when the perpetrator feels no remorse and can forget his acts as soon as they are committed.

The Underground Railroad  by Colson Whitehead

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for all the slaves but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood - where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. 

Survival in Auschwitz  by Primo Levi

In 1943, Primo Levi, a twenty-five-year-old chemist and "Italian citizen of Jewish race," was arrested by Italian fascists and deported from his native Turin to Auschwitz. Survival in Auschwitz is Levi's classic account of his ten months in the German death camp, a harrowing story of systematic cruelty and miraculous endurance. Remarkable for its simplicity, restraint, compassion, and even wit, Survival in Auschwitz remains a lasting testament to the indestructibility of the human spirit. 

Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness  
by Peter Godfrey-Smith

A philosopher dons a wet suit and journeys into the depths of consciousness.  Peter Godfrey-Smith is a leading philosopher of science. He is also a scuba diver whose underwater videos of warring octopuses have attracted wide notice. In this book, he brings his parallel careers together to tell a bold new story of how nature became aware of itself.

Notes From Underground  by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

"I am a sick man . . . I am a spiteful man," the irascible voice of a nameless narrator cries out. And so, from underground, emerge the passionate confessions of a suffering man; the brutal self-examination of a tormented soul; the bristling scorn and iconoclasm of alienated individual who has become one of the greatest antiheroes in all literature. 

The Sympathizer  by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, as well as five other awards, this had the pace and suspense of a thriller and prose that has been compared to Graham Greene and Saul Bellow, The Sympathizer is a sweeping epic of love and betrayal. The narrator, a communist double agent, is a “man of two minds

Gulliver's Travels  by Jonathan Swift

The classic tale from Lilliput to the land of the Houyhnhms.

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage  
by Alfred Lansing

In August 1914, explorer Ernest Shackleton and his crew set sail from England for Antarctica, where Shackleton hoped to be the first man to cross the uncharted continent on foot. Five months later, the Endurance - just a day's sail short of its destination - became locked in an island of ice, and its destiny and men became locked in history.

According to One's Own Nature

On Civil Disobedience 

Walden and Other Writings

"the State never intentionally confronts a man's sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength. I was not born to be forced.  I will breathe after my own fashion. . . . when an acorn and a chestnut fall side by side, the one does not remain inert to make way for the other, but both obey their own laws, and spring and grow and flourish as best they can, till one, perchance, overshadows and destroys the other.  If a plant cannot live according to its nature, it dies; and so a man."   - Henry David Thoreau

On or about July 23, 1846 Henry David Thoreau was detained in Concord for nonpayment of the poll tax, and he spent the night in the Concord Jail. He described his experience in jail thus:  "The rooms were whitewashed once a month; and this one, at least, was the whitest, most simply furnished, and probably the neatest apartment in the town." He described his fellow inmate ("room-mate") as someone accused of "burning a barn" who had been incarcerated for three months waiting for trial. He was "quite domesticated and contented, since he got his board for nothing, and thought that he was well treated." They each had a window of their own to look out and Thoreau noted that "It was like traveling to a far country, such as I had never expected to behold, to lie there for one night." The next day some anonymous person paid the tax and Thoreau was once again a free man.

The episode would be little noted but for the essay that Thoreau proceeded to write, an essay that would become one of the great Western statements on the importance of conscience. The essay is now known as "On Civil Disobedience" although its original title was "Resistance to Civil Government". It is short, less than twenty pages in the edition I read, but it lays out Thoreau's thoughts on the nature of Government: where it gets its authority, when it must be resisted, and more. 

He begins the essay with the motto, "That government is best which governs least;" and he immediately makes a case for a government that "governs not at all", at least when men are "prepared for it". He will go on to identify three objections that he, and others, have against the government: namely, maintaining a standing army, the mistreatment of native Americans, and the institution of slavery. He claims that the American government has lost some of its integrity and is not worthy of our respect. However he quickly notes that he is not a "no-government man", because "to speak practically and as a citizen" he does not want no-government but merely "better government". That is he wants a government he can respect.

How does he recommend that he and his friends should resist a government that has lost his respect? He does not speak of a "call to arms".  He is not a man like John Brown would become in less than a decade; rather he lays out a pacifist strategy of civil resistance to the government. He describes this resistance in several ways throughout the essay, including: refusing allegiance to the state of Massachusetts; receding from government (withdrawing his association with it); resigning your office (for those who have been appointed); refusing to pay taxes; and refusing to serve in an "unjust war" (the Mexican-American war had begun in April, 1846 and would continue until February, 1848).

To a great extent the essay is both anti-war and anti-slavery. Thoreau references sources as disparate as Confucius and the Bible to under gird his arguments. Although he makes an effort to sound practical at times his primary tendency is one of dissociation from the current American government. His rhetoric demonstrates a moral absolutism that is reminiscent of the speeches of William Lloyd Garrison. He is a genuine radical as he makes statements like: "If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself . . . The people must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people." He castigates as "the most serious obstacle to reform" those liberals who personally disapprove of slavery or the war yet still support the government. Moreover, he observes that "action from principle . . . is essentially revolutionary". His personal episode in jail is one small example of the consequences of his adherence to principle. "Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison."

These are strong words that suggest why the ideas presented in this essay have continued to have a profound effect until our own day. It is why the essay has influenced subsequent thinkers like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and others. It is why this essay is considered one of the "great essays" of Thoreau's era and our own.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Recreating the Past

The History of the Siege of Lisbon 

The History of the Siege of Lisbon

“Every novel is like this, desperation, a frustrated attempt to save something of the past. Except that it still has not been established whether it is the novel that prevents man from forgetting himself or the impossibility of forgetfulness that makes him write novels.”   ― José Saramago, The History of the Siege of Lisbon

With this engaging postmodern narrative Jose Saramago has created a complex tale that encompasses many themes including language, history and historiography, and war in the medieval world. At the same time the story dwells on the power of Eros over the mind and imagination and what results therefrom.

At the heart of this novel is Raimundo Silva, a middle-aged bachelor and proofreader in a contemporary Portuguese publishing house. However the focal point for Raimundo and the reader is the siege of the Moorish city of Lissibona (Lisbon) in 1147 by Portuguese forces under Christian King Alfonso I, its conquest and the expulsion of the Moors-a battle in which as many as 150,000 perished. Under the sway of his own fertile imagination, a dangerous thing for a proofreader, on one day Raimundo writes his own alternative history of the siege by changing a single word in a manuscript, thereby implying, contrary to the historical record, that the Crusaders refused to help the Portuguese besiege and capture the city.

Why does he do this? It seems that he is in love with the city of Lisbon as seen when the narrator says, "for it might well be that Lisbon, contrary to all appearances, was not a city but a woman, and the perdition simply amorous". But he is also enamored of his younger, iconoclastic boss, Maria Sara, with whom he falls in love. He is inexplicably encouraged by her to rewrite the entire history of the siege. He does so by continuing to weave a web of chivalrous deeds, love and intrigue around the bare historical record. The romantic affair with Maria blossoms, the apparent present and the imagined past meld into one another in a complicated narrative that shifts constantly between past and present tenses. In doing so it develops into a complex meditation on the meaning of both history and words as well as a romance and parable of life under authoritarian rule. Another major theme is Saramago's appreciation of the Reconquista, a central element in the history of Portugal as well as Spain, of which the conquest or re-conquest of Lisbon by Christians and its transformation into the capital of Portugal is a key event.

On one level, Saramago is exploring the thirst for power, religious and political fanaticism, intolerance, hypocrisy and jingoism, as well as the human need for love, companionship, sex. On another level, of more import for this reader, he is developing his abiding theme that history is a form of fiction, a selective reordering of facts. This reminds me of Tolstoy's philosophic musings near the end of War and Peace. Saramago's prose style does take some extra effort to adjust to with a stream-of-consciousness technique, long paragraphs, and serpentine sentences; but it is worth the effort and, like Faulkner and others with difficult prose styles, repays the reader who perseveres. This is nevertheless a mesmerizing tale that engages the reader's mind and emotions.