Thursday, September 29, 2016

Redemption in a Small Western Town

Eventide (Plainsong, #2)Eventide 
by Kent Haruf


"They came up from the horse barn in the slanted light of early morning.  The McPheron brothers, Harold and Raymond.  Old men approaching an old house at the end of summer.  They came on across the gravel drive past the pickup and the car parked at the hogwire fencing and came one after the other through the wire gate At the porch they scraped their boots on the saw blade sunken in the dirt, the ground packed and shiny around it from long use and mixed with barnlot manure, and walked up the plank steps onto the screened porch and entered the kitchen where the nineteen-year-old girl Victoria Robideaux sat at the pinewood table feeding oatmeal to he little daughter."




Earlier this year I read Kent Haruf's novel, Plainsong, about the people living in and near the small town of Holt, Colorado. This novel continues that story. Some of the characters from the previous novel are joined by others to form another heart-warming story about life in this small western town.

Two characters in particular, the McPheron brothers, are at the center of the story. In the previous novel they had befriended a young unmarried woman and her child who needed a home. As the story continues she is starting college and the brothers are once again alone with themselves. While they try to learn to live without Victoria their saga contains heartbreak and, for one of them, a chance to connect with a woman late, but not too late in a life that had come near to a new depth of loneliness. There is a young boy stoically caring for his grandfather while another couple try,but do not succeed to protect their children from a violent relative. The story with its many small town characters is not only about loneliness and distress, but also about people helping each other. There are moments when danger and evil touches some lives but it is depicted in a way that seems a natural part of the human condition.

Haruf writes about people who share a stoic vision of life--and of the community and landscape that brings them together. Through his spare prose on every page these lives emerge with a beauty and endurance that is impressive. The title of the novel is from a familiar church hymn; one that I remember singing in my youth. The short chapters might be compared to the stanzas of a hymn as the story unfolds with a a sort of musical rhythm. Ultimately, Eventide is a story of the abandonment, grief, and sorrow that bind these people together. It is also a story of the kindness, hope, and dignity that redeem their lives.



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Sunday, September 25, 2016

Satiric Essay

Selected Prose and Poetry 
by Jonathan Swift



"The army of the Ancients was much fewer in number;  Homer led the Horse, and Pindar the Light-Horse;  Euclid was chief Engineer: Plato and Aristotle commanded the Bowmen, Herodotus and Livy the Foot, Hippocrates the Dragoons."


Jonathan Swift was one of the greatest satirists of his age and we still read his prose with delight for its wit and humor. This collection includes several examples of his satire with the essay "A Modest Proposal" being perhaps the best known. Early in his career as a prose stylist he wrote an essay that was equally witty while blending satire with polemics. That essay was "The Battle of the Books".

Mirroring an earlier literary argument in France was one in England where Sir William Temple published an answer to the "Moderns" entitled Of Ancient and Modern Learning in 1690. His essay introduced two metaphors to the debate that would be reused by later authors. First, he proposed that modern man was just a dwarf standing upon the "shoulders of giants" (that modern man saw farther because he begins with the observations and learning of the ancients). They possessed a clear view of nature, and modern man only reflected or refined their vision. These metaphors, would be continued in Swift's satire and others. Temple's essay was answered by Richard Bentley, the classicist and William Wotton, the critic. Temple was supported by friends and clients, sometimes known as the "Christ Church Wits," referring to their association with Christ Church, Oxford and the guidance of Francis Atterbury, then attacked the "moderns" (and Wotton in particular). The debate in England lasted only for a few years.

Notably, Jonathan Swift was not among the participants, though he was working as Temple's secretary. Therefore, it is likely that the quarrel was more of a spur to Swift's imagination than a debate that he felt inclined to enter. He worked for William Temple during the time of the controversy, and Swift developed his short satire entitled "The Battle of the Books" in which, there is an epic battle fought in a library when various books come alive and attempt to settle the arguments between moderns and ancients. In Swift's satire, he skilfully manages to avoid saying which way victory fell. He portrays the manuscript as having been damaged in places, thus leaving the end of the battle up to the reader.

The battle is not just between Classical authors and modern authors, but also between authors and critics. The prose is a parody of heroic poetry and not any too easy a read for such a short essay. One section of the essay that helped this reader immensely was the interruption in the combat in the "Battle" with an interpolated allegory of the spider and the bee. A spider, "swollen up to the first Magnitude, by the Destruction of infinite Numbers of Flies" resides like a castle holder above a top shelf, and a bee, flying from the natural world and drawn by curiosity, wrecks the spider's web. The spider curses the bee for clumsiness and for wrecking the work of one who is his better. The spider says that his web is his home, a stately manor, while the bee is a vagrant who goes anywhere in nature without any concern for reputation. The bee answers that he is doing the bidding of nature, aiding in the fields, while the spider's castle is merely what was drawn from its own body, which has "a good plentiful Store of Dirt and Poison." 

This allegory was already somewhat old before Swift employed it, and it is a digression within the Battle proper. However, it also illustrates the theme of the whole work. The bee is like the ancients and like authors: it gathers its materials from nature and sings its drone song in the fields. The spider is like the moderns and like critics: it kills the weak and then spins its web (books of criticism) from the taint of its own body digesting the viscera. The moderns were depicted as narrow-minded, filled with poisonous prose, and in general intellectual upstarts. In spite of this depiction the ancients were not without faults and the essay does not conclude with either side winning.

As satire it is fascinating if not exactly fun, and it is especially interesting to see the early use of metaphors like that of modern thinkers "standing on the shoulders of giants". As a reader who values the ancient classics I appreciate this discussion recognizing that there is room for new ideas as long as we do not neglect the foundation provided by the giants of the past.


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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Speculative Fiction




Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish.

This week's Top Ten Tuesday is all about my  Ten ALL TIME Favorite Books Of Speculative Fiction.  Using the definition proposed by Margaret Atwood this includes Science Fiction and Fantasy.  They are listed in no particular order. I highly recommend all of the following:




The Voyage of the Space Beagle

by A.E. van Vogt



Among the many science fiction authors I discovered in my youth Van Vogt was my favorite, primarily for the super-human heroes of many of his novels.  This was based on several stories, the first third of  which appeared in the 7/39 ASTOUNDING as Van Vogt's first science fiction story, "Black Destroyer".    Van Vogt (1912-2000), named an SFFWA Grandmaster in 1995, was the most influential science fiction writer of his time.






The Martian Chronicles

by Ray Bradbury

I loved Ray Bradbury's stories but Bradbury's Mars mesmerized me with its stories of  hope, dreams and metaphor - of crystal pillars and fossil seas - where a fine dust settles on the great, empty cities of a silently destroyed civilization. It is here the invaders have come to despoil and commercialize, to grow and to learn - first a trickle, then a torrent, rushing from a world with no future toward a promise of tomorrow. The Earth man conquers Mars...and then is conquered by it, lulled by dangerous lies of comfort and familiarity, and enchanted by the lingering glamour of an ancient, mysterious native race.





Out of the Silent Planet 
by C.S. Lewis

In the first novel of C.S. Lewis's classic science fiction trilogy, Dr Ransom, a Cambridge academic, is abducted and taken on a spaceship to the red planet of Malacandra, which he knows as Mars. His captors are plotting to plunder the planet's treasures and plan to offer Ransom as a sacrifice to the creatures who live there. Ransom discovers he has come from the 'silent planet' – Earth – whose tragic story is known throughout the universe...









Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

by Jules Verne



I read several of Verne's adventure novels but this one where French naturalist Dr. Aronnax embarks on an expedition to hunt down a sea monster is my favorite.  He is surprised to discover instead the Nautilus, a remarkable submarine built by the enigmatic Captain Nemo. Together Nemo and Aronnax explore the underwater marvels, undergo a transcendent experience amongst the ruins of Atlantis, and plant a black flag at the South Pole. But Nemo's mission is one of revenge-and his methods coldly efficient.









Alice's Adventures in Wonderland 

by Lewis Carroll



This is one of the first novels I remember reading (I still have the original book in my library).  Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (commonly shortened to Alice in Wonderland) is an 1865 novel written by English mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. It tells of a girl named Alice falling through a rabbit hole into a fantasy world populated by peculiar, anthropomorphic creatures. The tale plays with logic, giving the story lasting popularity with adults as well as with children. It is considered to be one of the best examples of the literary nonsense genre. Its narrative course and structure, characters and imagery have been enormously influential in both popular culture and literature, especially in the fantasy genre.  I have reread it several times over my life and look forward to reading it again.




The Left Hand of Darkness

by Ursula K. Le Guin


A groundbreaking work of science fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of a lone human emissary to Winter, an alien world whose inhabitants can choose -and change - their gender. His goal is to facilitate Winter's inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the completely dissimilar culture that he encounters.  In the process he becomes friend with one of the aliens and it is this friendship that is one of the outstanding aspects of  Le Guin's wonderful story.  Embracing the aspects of psychology, society, and human emotion on an alien world, The Left Hand of Darkness stands as a landmark achievement in the annals of intellectual science fiction.





The Road

by Cormac McCarthy


 A father and his son walk alone through burned America, heading through the ravaged landscape to the coast. This is the profoundly moving story of their journey. The Road boldly imagines a future in which no hope remains, but in which two people, 'each the other's world entire', are sustained by love. Awesome in the totality of its vision, it is an unflinching meditation on the worst and the best that we are capable of: ultimate destructiveness, desperate tenacity, and the tenderness that keeps two people alive in the face of total devastation.






The Man in the High Castle

by Philip K. Dick


 It's America in 1962. Slavery is legal once again. The few Jews who still survive hide under assumed names. In San Francisco the I Ching is as common as the Yellow Pages. All because some 20 years earlier the United States lost a war, and is now occupied jointly by Nazi Germany and Japan.  This harrowing, Hugo Award-winning novel is the work that established Philip K. Dick as an innovator in science fiction while breaking the barrier between science fiction and the serious novel of ideas. In it Dick offers a haunting vision of history as a nightmare from which it may just be possible to awake.







 Lord Foul's Bane (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever #1)
by Stephen R. Donaldson

He called himself Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever because he dared not believe in the strange alternate world in which he suddenly found himself.
Yet the Land tempted him. He had been sick; now he seemed better than ever before. Through no fault of his own, he had been outcast, unclean, a pariah. Now he was regarded as a reincarnation of the Land's greatest hero--Berek Halfhand--armed with the mystic power of White Gold. That power alone could protect the Lords of the Land from the ancient evil of Despiser, Lord Foul.  Only...Covenant had no idea of how the power could be used!
Thus begins one of the most remarkable epic fantasies ever written and one of my favorites.




Number Ten must be left to a list of some of the other books that could have been included.   I could not decide between these wonderful works of speculative fiction, all of which I have enjoyed immensely:  The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr., and Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke.  Thus there are fifteen in total for my top ten and many more that have brought me enjoyment over more than fifty years of reading.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Alone in the Castle

Tales of H.P. Lovecraft"The Outsider" from
Tales of H.P. Lovecraft 
by H.P. Lovecraft


"Unhappy is he to whom the memories of childhood bring only fear and sadness." 
 -  H. P. Lovecraft


In this volume Joyce Carol Oates has selected some of the best tales of the master of the macabre, H. P. Lovecraft. 
The introductory tale, "The Outsider", is written in a first-person narrative style, and details the miserable and apparently lonely life of an individual, who appears to have never contacted with another individual. The story begins, with the narrator explaining his origins. His memory of others is vague, and he cannot seem to recall any details of his personal history, including who he is or where he is originally from. The narrator tells of his environment: a dark, decaying castle amid an "endless forest" of high, unlit trees. He has never seen natural light, nor another human being, and he has never ventured from the prison-like home he now inhabits. The only knowledge the narrator has of the outside world, is from his reading of the "antique books" that line the walls of his castle.

The narrator tells of his eventual determination to free himself, from what he views as a prison-like existence. He eventually decides to climb the ruined staircase of the high castle tower which appears to be his only hope for an escape. At the place where the stairs diminish into crumbled ruins, the narrator begins a long, slow climb up the tower wall, until he comes upon a trapdoor in the ceiling, which he pushes up and climbs through. Amazingly, he finds himself not at the great height he anticipated, but at ground level in another world. With the sight of the full moon before him, he proclaims, "There came to me the purest ecstasy I have ever known."(p 3) Overcome with the emotion he feels in beholding what—until now—he had only read about, the narrator takes in his new surroundings. He realizes that he is in an old churchyard, and he wanders out into the countryside before eventually coming upon another castle.

Upon visiting the castle, which he finds "maddeningly familiar," the narrator sees a gathering of people at a party within. Longing for some type of human contact, he climbs through a window into the room. Upon his entering, the people inside become terrified. They scream and collectively flee from the room, many stumbling blindly with their hands held over their eyes toward the walls in search of an exit. The narrator attempts to discover the source of their terror and in doing so the short story culminates with a shocking revelation.
This short beginning to the collection of works by Lovecraft is reminiscent of Poe at his best with its atmosphere of death and decrepitude; the feeling of isolation and desire for discovery; and the not-unexpected yet still horrifying revelation that ends the tale.


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Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Life in the Hive

The Bees: A NovelThe Bees: A Novel 
by Laline Paull



"Flora did not hear the rest.  With the slightest press of intention the air rushed beneath her wings and the apple trees fell away below.  She took a strong, high course, and as her antennae automatically adjusted to flight position, she felt a channel open deep within them through which streamed Lily's knowledge and aerial skills." (p 111)



From the first page of chapter one I found this novel thoroughly riveting. The protagonist, a bee like all the other characters in this fantasy, is Flora 717 who is born into a caste of the humblest of workers in a honeybee hive: the Sanitation workers. All other workers are associated with specific flowers: where the Teasels work the Nurseries, the Thistles guard the hive, and Sage priestesses govern in the Queen's name, Floras are dismissed as unworthy of differentiation and forbidden to speak. But from her emergence in the opening chapter, 717 is marked by a Sage priestess as unusual: much larger and uglier than her kind, she speaks and also has the capacity to produce royal jelly, called Flow, at a time when the Hive is in dire need of more nurses. This first distinction leads to more, and Flora 717 gradually becomes involved in complicated and dangerous activities. She is reminiscent of a Cinderella who appears to belong to the scullery but instead finds herself more and more at home in the highest reaches of the Hive Hierarchy.

The author, Laline Paull, demonstrates all this with a lovely prose style that sounds a bit like that of an ancient royal clan, but without detracting from the suspense and action of the plot. Furthermore, the way Paull portrays the bees' world through scent, heat, and movement is effective. There were moments of an all too noticeable tendency to anthropomorphize — a bee prodding another bee with a stick, for instance — but none of the stylistic choices seemed to intrude; rather they fade into the background as the bees story, that is Flora 717's story, takes the forefront. 
The bees develop a relationship with flowers by seducing them through pollination; they name all the Hive's enemies The Myriad; the first encounter experienced by Flora 717 of a battle with Wasps is tremendously exciting; and they have scent-painted histories of the Hive in a sort of library. The result of all of this is both evocative and beautiful.

I enjoyed the novel tremendously, much as I have previously enjoyed animal fables like Narayan's A Tiger for Malgudi, London's Call of the Wild, and Adams's Watership Down. Paull's belongs in this territory as she focuses on the rhythms and mores of animals even though she eschews using metaphor for political or social allegory. This novel begins and ends with the Hive, effectively dramatizing its life cycle. This is underlined by book-ending the story with reference to the human owners of the property, including the Hive and, in doing so, underlining the indifference of the bees to the humans. This is a tantalizing and tremendous fantasy that takes the reader on a wonderful journey into the world of Bees.


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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

A Counterfeit Tale within a Tale

The CounterfeitersThe Counterfeiters 
by André Gide



The most decisive actions of our life... are most often unconsidered actions.
  ~André Gide, The Counterfeiters




The Counterfeiters is a book about writing a book, also called "The Counterfeiters". That is the primary theme of the novel which comes from the title of the book by the writer Edouard. Thus The Counterfeiters is a novel-within-a-novel, with Edouard (the alter ego of Gide) writing a book of the same title. Other stylistic devices are also used, such as an omniscient narrator that sometimes addresses the reader directly, weighs in on the characters' motivations or discusses alternate realities. However, there is also the story of a group of boys who are passing counterfeit coins throughout Paris. Thus we have entered a world where we cannot trust our senses -- what is counterfeit and what is real?

The story of Edouard writing his novel demonstrates his search for knowledge, yet as he associates with a group of his own adolescent relatives it appears as an artificial arrangement; one that displays the effects upon society of youth's corruption of traditional standards and values. The collapse of morality is illustrated with Eduoard's nephew Vincent, who deserts his lover Laura, a married woman, and runs away with Lillian, the mistress of Count Robert de Passavant. His life goes downhill as he murders her and goes insane.
There is also the coming of age story of Bernard and Olivier as they prepare to leave school -- but does this extend beyond their education and emanate from all who are learning about the world? This learning which is required by the changing nature of the everyday, the quotidian reality that is, perhaps, counterfeit.

I found the details of Edouard's struggles with his career, his family, his friendships and love provided images that enhanced the main themes, yet also energized the narrative drive. Another subplot of the novel is homosexuality. Some of the characters are overtly homosexual, like the adolescent Olivier, and the adult writers Count de Passavant and Eduoard. The Count seems to be an evil and corrupting force while the latter is benevolent. Even when the treatment is not overt, there is a homoerotic subtext that runs throughout, which encompasses Olivier's friend, Bernard, and their schoolfellows Gontran and Philippe. The main theme of The Counterfeiters encompasses the issue of sexuality, morality, and social order and lineage in a unique way for his era.

Gide's novel was not received well on its appearance, perhaps because of its homosexual themes and its unusual composition. It is this unusual composition that I thought made it an interesting read; along with which the way Gide demonstrates ideas through his characters and their actions much like Dostoevsky and Thomas Mann. The Counterfeiters has seen its reputation improve in the intervening years and is now generally counted among the great novels of the twentieth century.



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The Bird Girl

Green MansionsGreen Mansions 
by William Henry Hudson



"I began to hear . . . a low strain of exquisite bird-melody, wonderfully pure and expressive, unlike any musical sound I had ever heard before."
Green Mansions Chapter II, W. H. Hudson




Green Mansions: a Romance of the Tropical Forest (1904) is an exotic romance by W. H. Hudson (1841-1922) about a traveler to the Guyana jungle of southeastern Venezuela and his encounter with a forest dwelling girl named Rima. Hudson was born in Argentina, son of settlers of U.S. origin.
He spent his youth studying the local flora and fauna and observing both natural and human dramas on what was then a lawless frontier, publishing his ornithological work in Proceedings of the Royal Zoological Society, initially in an English mingled with Spanish idioms. He settled in England during 1869. He produced a series of ornithological studies which helped foster the back-to-nature movement of the 1920s and 1930s. He was a founding member of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Hudson wrote more than three dozen books during his life but by far his best known novel is Green Mansions, and his best known non-fiction is a memoir, Far Away and Long Ago (1918).



When I began to reread Green Mansions recently I instantly remembered why it impressed me so much. More than most other authors Hudson is able to instill the sense of wonder through his protagonist Abel who, while living by the Orinoco river in Venezuela, is drawn to the forest lands by strange bird-like singing. There he discovers a young girl named Rima and it is her story that takes up much of the remainder of the novel. She is unspoiled and wild like the animals among whom she lives. She knows neither the evil nor guile common to most civilized humans. This gives her supernatural stature in the eyes of the worldly Abel, who falls passionately in love with her.


Hudson based Rima and her lost tribe on persistent rumors about a tribe of white people who lived in the mountains. Temple paintings often showed light-skinned people, and Spanish Conquistadors were at first thought to be gods. I first read this novel when I was in high school and the memory of its' evocative and lyrical prose has lingered over the intervening decades. With qualities of a striking and original sort it has an enchantment; its pages are haunted by an unearthly perception of beauty and a wonderment that stirs the imagination. The story is one of people who are almost in an original state of nature, a romantic, if flawed, view (perhaps inspired by Rousseau) that suggests their world may be better than civilization.

Green Mansions is one of the few novels ever to become an undisputed classic during the author's lifetime. It inspired a statue of Rima that you can find in Kensington Garden, London. It is a book I found to be truly enthralling and full of romantic magic making it a great read.


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Thursday, August 25, 2016

Plato's Republic as recreated by Athena

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


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


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

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

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

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

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



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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Fragmentary Thoughts on Approaching Death

Living Up to DeathLiving Up to Death 
by Paul Ricœur



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



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

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

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

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

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

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



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Saturday, August 20, 2016

Betrayed by His Passions

The Red and the BlackThe Red and the Black 
by Stendhal


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Saturday, August 13, 2016

Notes on The Death of Virgil

The Death of Virgil
 Part I


The Arrival of Virgil in Brundisium


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Sunday, July 31, 2016

Thoughts on Death and Dying

Philosophy as the Art and Practice of Dying



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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Mysterious Body Parts

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



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




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

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

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

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


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