Thursday, July 30, 2015

No Man is an Island

Notes on John Donne, IV
Donne and Death

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

Holy Sonnet 6

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

A Commonplace Entry


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

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

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Notes on John Donne, III

Three Holy Sonnets

Sonnet 13 (1)*

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

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

Sonnet 10 (14)*

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

Sonnet 1 (2)*

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Best of the Last Eight Years

My Top Ten Reads Since January 2007

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

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

Top Ten Reads 

The Roots of Heaven   by Romain Gary

In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust

The Coast of Utopia  by Tom Stoppard

The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

East of Eden  by John Steinbeck

Walden, or Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau

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

The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz

Joseph and His Brothers  by Thomas Mann

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

Friday, July 17, 2015

Culture and Scandal in Nineteenth-Century France

For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of DreyfusFor the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus 
by Frederick Brown

This is a history of ideas and of culture in France between the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 and the end of the nineteenth century. It encompasses events ranging from the influence of the Catholic church on politics to the building of the Eiffel Tower and the unsuccessful attempt of De Lesseps to build the Panama Canal. One theme is scandals and there is a Banking scandal that rivals any in history.

Starting with a chronology provided that lists the principal figures and events from the Paris revolts of 1848 until the death of Dreyfus in 1908 the book jumps into a morass of scandals. The Paris Commune in the Spring of 1871 is discussed, but there was also the longer-range political threat to the Republic came from the right leading to the tragicomic tale of the populist hero “on horse,” Gen. Georges Boulanger, whose monarchist supporters urged him to lead a coup d’état. Instead, he fled to Belgium and in 1891 committed suicide at the tomb of his mistress.

The events depicted also include the crash of the Union Generale, the disastrous Panama Canal adventure,  and a chapter on the famous tower and its engineer, Gustave Eiffel. (Eiffel’s mother, he tells us, had to get him his first job, “seeing in the person of her son an inert object that wouldn’t move unless pushed.”) Brown makes clear just how high the political and cultural stakes were in the construction of this “ogre of modernity”; its architectural (and ideological) rival was the wedding-cake basilica rising on the other side of the Seine, the Sacré-Coeur.  But the culmination of the book and the moment that defines France more than any other as it moves forward into the next century is the Dreyfus Affair.

With a chapter devoted to each of the events chronicled Frederick Brown's cultural history of France in the second half of the nineteenth century is an excellent introduction to the forces that shaped France in this period. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in French cultural history.

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The Affair: The Case of Alfred DreyfusThe Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus 
by Jean-Denis Bredin

I have but one passion, one for seeing the light, in the name of humanity which has so suffered and which is entitled to happiness. My fiery protest is but the cry of my soul.  - Emile Zola, "J'Accuse"

While reading Proust's classic novel, In Search of Lost Time, I was impressed with the importance and pervasive nature of the Dreyfus Affair. While Proust abstained from politics most of his life, he made an exception of the Dreyfus Affair, when he actively took up the defense of Captain Dreyfus. Traces of this appear throughout his masterpiece. In a letter to his friend Mme Geneviève Strauss (née Halévy), daughter of the composer Jacques Fromental Halévy, widow of Georges Bizet, model for the Duchesse de Guermantes in Proust’s roman fleuve, and whose salon was a center of Dreyfusard activity, Proust attempted to enlist her aid in the fight.  Ultimately most of the major characters were identified with one side or the other of the Dreyfus Affair.

It was the author Emile Zola, however, whose article, "J'Accuse", was the most memorable moment of the Dreyfus Affair and it sits at the center of Jean-Denis Bredin's detailed study entitled The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus. The article electrified France and reinvigorated the Dreyfusards, as the supporters of the innocence of Alfred Dreyfus were called. While both monumental and essential, coming as it did two days after the scandalous acquittal of Commandant Esterhazy, it was only a single moment among many important moments and details that are recounted in Bredin's comprehensive history. Even for readers living more than a century later who know the outcome of the Dreyfus Case, this book reads like a detective mystery with twist and turns, double-dealing, missing documents, forgeries and more. It contains the details from the earliest moments when Dreyfus is first identified as a suspected traitor due as much to his race as to anything else and certainly not because he ever had any dealings that were remotely traiterous since he was, ironically, a model soldier and a patriot.

Bredin's artistry lies in his ability to weave the many sometimes disparate details together in a narrative that maintains the reader's interest. This he does ably with a lucid style that betrays the underlying complexity of the actual events. Other commentators have noted the suspense and drama that the author is able to portray with this lucid style. I agree with them but also admire his choice to go beyond the details to share the meaning of the affair for the family, the participants, their nation and the world. The era he covered was the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the next. It was one that saw much turmoil in both national and international cultural history. The Dreyfus Case was an important part of that history as this book makes eminently clear.

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Thursday, July 16, 2015

Notes on John Donne, II

The Ecstasy


Where, like a pillow on a bed
         A pregnant bank swell'd up to rest
The violet's reclining head,
         Sat we two, one another's best.
Our hands were firmly cemented
         With a fast balm, which thence did spring;
Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread
         Our eyes upon one double string;
So to'intergraft our hands, as yet
         Was all the means to make us one,
And pictures in our eyes to get
         Was all our propagation.
As 'twixt two equal armies fate
         Suspends uncertain victory,
Our souls (which to advance their state
         Were gone out) hung 'twixt her and me.
And whilst our souls negotiate there,
         We like sepulchral statues lay;
All day, the same our postures were,
         And we said nothing, all the day.
If any, so by love refin'd
         That he soul's language understood,
And by good love were grown all mind,
         Within convenient distance stood,
He (though he knew not which soul spake,
         Because both meant, both spake the same)
Might thence a new concoction take
         And part far purer than he came.
This ecstasy doth unperplex,
         We said, and tell us what we love;
We see by this it was not sex,
         We see we saw not what did move;
But as all several souls contain
         Mixture of things, they know not what,
Love these mix'd souls doth mix again
         And makes both one, each this and that.
A single violet transplant,
         The strength, the colour, and the size,
(All which before was poor and scant)
         Redoubles still, and multiplies.
When love with one another so
         Interinanimates two souls,
That abler soul, which thence doth flow,
         Defects of loneliness controls.
We then, who are this new soul, know
         Of what we are compos'd and made,
For th' atomies of which we grow
         Are souls, whom no change can invade.
But oh alas, so long, so far,
         Our bodies why do we forbear?
They'are ours, though they'are not we; we are
         The intelligences, they the spheres.
We owe them thanks, because they thus
         Did us, to us, at first convey,
Yielded their senses' force to us,
         Nor are dross to us, but allay.
On man heaven's influence works not so,
         But that it first imprints the air;
So soul into the soul may flow,
            Though it to body first repair.
As our blood labors to beget
         Spirits, as like souls as it can,
Because such fingers need to knit
         That subtle knot which makes us man,
So must pure lovers' souls descend
         T' affections, and to faculties,
Which sense may reach and apprehend,
         Else a great prince in prison lies.
To'our bodies turn we then, that so
         Weak men on love reveal'd may look;
Love's mysteries in souls do grow,
         But yet the body is his book.
And if some lover, such as we,
         Have heard this dialogue of one,
Let him still mark us, he shall see
         Small change, when we'are to bodies gone.

There is often sufficient paradox and complexity in the poems of John Donne that he leaves his readers perplexed.  That is no more true in his lyrics than of "The Ecstasy".  One of his best known verses, this can be read as a representation of an artful young seducer; but my background and our class discussion suggests a more serious interpretation.  My view is based in the classical philosophy of Plato and his poetic and philosophic, many-faceted, stories of the nature of love in "The Symposium";  that narrated by Aristophanes in particular.  This can be seen in the depiction of the joining of the bodies of the lovers in the following passage (lines 1-12): 

Where, like a pillow on a bed
         A pregnant bank swell'd up to rest
The violet's reclining head,
         Sat we two, one another's best.
Our hands were firmly cemented
         With a fast balm, which thence did spring;
Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread
         Our eyes upon one double string;
So to'intergraft our hands, as yet
         Was all the means to make us one,
And pictures in our eyes to get
         Was all our propagation.

With "hands cemented", "Our eyes upon one double string" the lovers close in a natural union of love.  I say natural for this is the setting, familiar yet traditional, somehow moderating the heightened emotion of ecstasy.  This ecstasy (in Donne's time a technical term for the condition of the soul during the mystical experience) suggests a communion of souls that is purified by love.  This is a language that may only be understood by someone similarly afflicted.  The oneness of bodies leads to a "dialogue of one" in the following lines (28-36):

This ecstasy doth unperplex,
         We said, and tell us what we love;
We see by this it was not sex,
         We see we saw not what did move;
But as all several souls contain
         Mixture of things, they know not what,
Love these mix'd souls doth mix again
         And makes both one, each this and that. 

These lines also reinforce the unity of the two bodies as one, a reinforcing that begins in the fourth line of the poem and continues throughout until the end;  that reinforcement comes with the repetition of the word we as if the speaker in the poem is the two as one.  And the oneness is in the mixture of their souls not in the activity of sex.  The union is echoed one final time in the final stanza of the poem (lines 73-76).

And if some lover, such as we,
         Have heard this dialogue of one,
Let him still mark us, he shall see
         Small change, when we'are to bodies gone.

"The Ecstasy" in John Donne's Poetry, edited by Donald R. Dickson.  Norton Critical Editions, 2007. 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Sonnets by Michelangelo


SI come nella penna. 

As pen and ink alike serve him who sings 
In high or low or intermediate style ; 
As the same stone hath shapes both rich and vile 
To match the fancies that each master brings ; 
So, my loved lord, within thy bosom springs 

Pride mixed with meekness and kind thoughts that 
smile : 
Whence I draw nought, my sad self to beguile, 
But what my face shows dark imaginings. 
He who for seed sows sorrow, tears, and sighs, 

(The dews that fall from heaven, though pure and 
From different germs take divers qualities) 
Must needs reap grief and garner weeping eyes ; 
And he who looks on beauty with sad cheer, 
Gains doubtful hope and certain miseries. 

Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo is a song cycle composed by Benjamin Britten (1913–76) for tenor voice and piano in 1940, and published as his Op. 22.   It was written for himself and his life-partner, the tenor Peter Pears (1910–86). The manuscripts of the songs are dated between April and October 1940; but there is some evidence that the cycle had been contemplated, and even begun, as early as 1937.    It consists of settings of seven sonnets, all love songs, by the Italian painter and poet Michelangelo (1475–1564), in the original language:
XVI: "Si come nella penna e nell'inchiostro" ("Just as in pen and ink")
XXI: "A che più debb'io mai l'intensa voglia" ("To what purpose do I express my intense desire")
XXX: "Veggio co' bei vostri occhi un dolce lume" ("I see through your lovely eyes a sweet light")
LV: "Tu sa, ch'io so, signor mie, che tu sai" ("You know that I know, my lord, that you know")
XXXVIII: "Rendete agli occhi miei, o fonte o fiume" ("Give back to my eyes, o fountains and rivers")
XXXII: "S'un casto amor, s'una pietà superna" ("If there is a chaste love, a heavenly pity")
XXIV: "Spirto ben nato, in cui si specchia e vede" ("Noble spirit, in whom is reflected")

Spirto ben nato. 

Choice soul, in whom, as in a glass, we see, 
Mirrored in thy pure form and delicate, 
What beauties heaven and nature can create, 
The paragon of all their works to be ! 

Fair soul, in whom love, pity, piety, 

Have found a home, as from thy outward state 
We clearly read, and are so rare and great 
That they adorn none other like to thee ! 

Love takes me captive ; beauty binds my soul ; 
Pity and mercy with their gentle eyes 
Wake in my heart a hope that cannot cheat. 

What law, what destiny, what fell control, 
What cruelty, or late or soon, denies 
That death should spare perfection so complete ? 

Sonnets 16 and 24 as translated by John Addington Symonds.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Going for the Gold

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin OlympicsThe Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics 
by Daniel James Brown

“Harmony, balance, and rhythm. They’re the three things that stay with you your whole life. Without them civilization is out of whack. And that’s why an oarsman, when he goes out in life, he can fight it, he can handle life. That’s what he gets from rowing.”   ― Daniel James Brown

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, by Daniel James Brown, is a chronicle of the University of Washington's nine-man crew-with-coxswain's enormous success during the Great Depression. It is this portrait of the Depression era, with its economic and climatic horrors that the author sets against youthful dreams, focusing on the improbable and riveting life of Joe Rantz, and the many hardships he faced. When he entered the University of Washington as a freshman, he had already overcome enormous odds, among them extreme poverty, a dysvunctional family, the early death of his mother, and being virtually abandoned by his father, Harry, when he was a young teenager. His journey to adulthood by itself is a truly amazing story and it makes him an ideal hero. Brown learned the details of Rantz's brilliant rowing career from the athlete himself. But this story was not just about him; it was always about the boat: nine rangy boys – sons of farmers, fishermen, and loggers – who managed to coalesce into a rowing team that would march confidently into the 1936 Olympics under the hawkish eyes of Hitler, emerging victorious over rival crews from Germany and Italy.
The story includes the lore of rowing, which has a rich history in America, reaching back to the mid-19th century, when elite universities began to assemble teams. The Harvard-Yale race in 1852 was, Brown informs us, "the first American intercollegiate athletic event of any kind". He also provides vivid portraits of the coaches, such as Tom Bolles, who assisted his former teammate, Al Ulbrickson, at Washington. (In the background of this narrative lurks Ky Ebright, a former Washingtonian who took over the University of California at Berkeley team – Washington's major rival on the west coast.)

Standing behind the coaches is George Pocock, an English boat-builder who learned the art of building wooden shells for racing from his father. He is the "quiet master" throughout, on the sidelines, ever inventive, full of wise words. His comments, in fact, serve as epigraphs to each chapter. Pocock says, for instance: "Good thoughts have much to do with good rowing. It isn't enough for the muscles of a crew to work in unison; their hearts and minds must also work as one." "One of the fundamental challenges in rowing," he writes, "is that when any one member of a crew goes into a slump the entire crew goes with him." Such slumps occur, and Brown dramatizes them well, arranging the facts in ways that create a narrative suspense that never eases till the end. As the Washington crew races in Seattle and Poughkeepsie, New York for the American title or, finally, in Nazi Germany for the Gold Medal, one roots for the good guys.

At the penultimate point in the story the suspense is enhanced by further setbacks when two of the American rowers fell desperately ill before the race, though they persevered at the insistence of their coach. Also, as if to increase the tension, the American team was given the worst lane, putting them in the path of severe crosswinds. Throughout the race, the crowd cheered wildly for Germany, as they would. All omens seemed to be against the boys in the boat, but they prevailed, coming from behind, beating Italy by eight feet, leaving the German crew in third place.

I was impressed with Brown's research, what must have been countless interviews, the exhumation of journals and logs, and the patient review of long-defunct newspaper articles and photographs that was required. The Boys in the Boat is, then, a thrilling read, filled with suspense that brings you close to the events on that day in 1936 when those nine boys from Washington state reached their improbable victory. I believe this book would be of interest to anyone interested in the history of sports, collegiate competition, Seattle and the Northwest, America during the 1930s, and the rise of Fascism in Germany.

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Sunday, July 05, 2015

The Sea and the Stars

The Starboard SeaThe Starboard Sea 
by Amber Dermont

The high tide rushed in  and washed over the break.  That far from shore, only the sharp rips of the rocks were visible, and a strange figure stood a hundred yards out, surrounded by waves, with no discernible path behind itself.  For a brief moment I thought it was a cormorant.  The tall black birds have no oil on their feathers, so they stand with wings unfolded, waiting for the sun to dry their plumage.  But as I walked closer I saw it was a person. (p 9)

Several years ago I read Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum. I was impressed by his windswept tale of a trip of more than 46,000 miles over three years at the age of fifty, a solo circumnavigation.  I mention this because that book is one of several that plays a supporting role in a first novel by Amber Dermont, a coming of age tale The Starboard Sea. Perhaps the teenager in this story will develop some of the maturity and courage that Joshua Slocum demonstrated. This is only the start for him, a jumping-off point for what is yet to be. 

The story begins in 1987, when 18-year-old Jason Prosper begins a final year at Bellingham, a third-rate private school for well-off delinquents. Confused about his sexuality, he's alternately self-absorbed and self-aware. He does not seem to fit in with most of his peers during his periods of introspection which are some of the best parts of the novel. The author is successful in slowly developing Jason's background through these moments and the flashbacks to his life at his previous school with his best friend Cal. Dermont is a confident stylist, musical and alliterative. Jason has an older brother, a forerunner for avaricious bankers who discusses "turning their Renoir into an ATM", which is disconcerting because it sounds like something a wealthy philistine might conceivably say. Though Jason is not without faults he appears favorable in comparison. In addition to the coming of age theme there is an overlay of criticism of the privileged life of the boys and girls at the school. because the starboard sea of the title is "the right sea, the true sea … the best path in life". Dermont's strongest writing describes sailing but when Prosper competes in a championship, she sensibly resists a dramatic sporting climax. Instead, the skewed sense of loyalty that his unhappy parents instill in him suggests that, although Prosper is committed to breaking the cycle of inherited misery, he will never entirely escape the small world of the entitled.  The economic news of the late eighties is ever present in the background.

Prosper confronts prejudice and corruption, befriending Bellingham's lone black student and investigating the fate of an enigmatic girl, Aidan, who was on the verge of becoming the friend that might replace his best friend Cal from his previous school. There is a certain amount of tragedy in Jason's life that must also be experienced before he can come to terms with his personal destiny. The idea that "sailing is the art of asking questions" reflects the novel's unresolved conundrums: fathers, present and absent, are a source of angst, so are we better off with or without them? And do Dermont's upper-class grotesques live with too little or too much shame? Along with the image of the ocean, the night sky becomes an indicator with stars as symbolic guides for life. The ocean is also the potential source for answers because the starboard sea of the title is "the right sea, the true sea … the best path in life". Dermont's best writing describes sailing but when Prosper competes in a championship, she sensibly resists a dramatic sporting climax. It is this writing that elevates the novel to the class with those like John Knowles' A Separate Peace that capture both the magic and the angst of developing the foundation for a life that is yet to be.

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Saturday, July 04, 2015

A Classical Tragedy

Coup de GraceCoup de Grace 
by Marguerite Yourcenar

“Nothing moves me more than courage: so total a sacrifice deserved complete trust from me. But she never believed that I trusted her, since she did not suspect how much I distrusted others. In spite of appearances to the contrary, I do not regret having yielded to Sophie as much as it lay in my nature to do; at the first glance I had caught sight of something in her incorruptible, with which one could make a compact as sure, and as dangerous, as with an element itself. Fire may be trusted, provided one knows that its law is to burn, or die.”   ― Marguerite Yourcenar, Coup de Grace

This short novel by Marguerite Yourcenar is a first-person narrative constructed like a classical tragedy; thus it is severely limited in time, place, and action. Erick von Lhomond, an elegant soldier of fortune approaching forty as the story begins, recalls an episode connected with his youth. Though the story begins in Italy as Erick is waiting to return to Germany after having been wounded at Zaragoza (presumably in the Spanish Civil War), the entire focus of his story remains on his experience in the Baltic regions of Livonia and Kurland as the Bolshevik army approaches Kratovitsy, the estate of his cousin and boyhood friend, Conrad de Reval. Erick briefly recounts his first visit to Kratovitsy. He is an innocent, little more than a boy, and the place seems almost Eden-like while he and Conrad become close friends. Sophie, on the other hand, is nothing more than a distraction.

In the wake of the Russian Revolution, Erick returns to Kratovitsy as a Prussian-trained officer fighting in the White Russian army and determined to stop the advance of Bolshevik forces in the Baltic states. He serves with his boyhood friend Conrad and eventually arranges to be billeted at Kratovitsy. Unfortunately war has brought a general neglect to the once excellently managed estate. He notices changes in his feelings for Sophie; her kiss makes him determined to view her as the sister he never had.
Erick does not love Sophie; rather, he views her as he sees himself, as a creature degraded by their circumstances. Sophie does not understand the complex workings of Erick’s ambivalent mind, and he never is willing, perhaps is not even able, to describe his feelings for her. She is puzzled and embarrassed when Erick does not respond to her advances; even so, she realizes that he never rejects her, merely that he does not respond. She cannot understand why Erick misses no opportunity to belittle her and is puzzled by the oblique ways he chooses to do this, registering his disgust when she wears clothing he does not think appropriate, when she dances with officers stationed at Kratovitsy.

Their fates nevertheless remain hopelessly entwined, and Yourcenar mercilessly leads Erick to the story's inevitable, horrible conclusion. Each has, in a sense, the upper hand; each does what is necessary -- but the result is, of course, the complete destruction of both these human beings. There's little grace to the final, shattering coup de grâce.
This is very much an anti-romantic tale and with the war setting and has a determinedly dark atmosphere. However, Yourcenar's writing and the tight structure of the short novel combine to make this another great read from her pen.  

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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Search

Man's Search for MeaningMan's Search for Meaning 
by Viktor E. Frankl

“The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose ones attitude in any given circumstance.” - Victor Frankl

I first encountered Frankl's book as a reading assignment for a seminar led by Stephen Covey. I will never forget the first time I read it. It was exciting for its lessons and its inspiration. It was and continues to be one of the most inspirational books that I have ever read. That first reading led to subsequent readings which cemented its place in my own personal reading pantheon. Along with the works of Aristotle, Plato, Thoreau and others I have drawn support for my personal philosophy for living. It is an unlikely combination of one part personal memoir and one part psychology. But the two parts complement each other, producing an impressive argument for living your life with freedom through strength of mind and character.

I was impressed with the ability of Frankl to describe his experience in the concentration camps as one in which he was free. That is his mind was free because the guards could not control his thoughts and in that sense he saw himself with more freedom than they had. He concluded from these experiences “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” He goes on to say:
"We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life--daily and hourly. Our talk must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual." (p 85)
This is a deeply important paragraph with many lessons for Victor and his fellow prisoners as well as his readers. One aspect reminded me of the lessons I learned studying Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics where he also emphasized the importance of right action, right conduct, and taking individual responsibility. In Book Two he discusses the nature of virtue as it is concerned with feelings and actions. For Aristotle it is necessary to have the right feelings at the right times for the right things and for the right purposes. He goes on to discuss the actions of individuals and the nature of virtue but through all of this there is an aim towards the good and as Frankl says "the responsibility to find the right answer to life's problems.

Victor Frankl's personal experience through all the difficulties of immurement and physical deprivation make his story all the more powerful. He subsequently developed logotherapy (considered the "Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy" after Freud's psychoanalysis and Adler's individual psychology) which suggests an approach to life that is both positive and life-enhancing. I would recommend this book to all who are looking for guidance in finding direction in life.

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Monday, June 29, 2015

Poem for Today

The Caged Skylark

As a dare-gale skylark scanted in a dull cage,
    Man's mounting spirit in his bone-house, mean house, dwells —
    That bird beyond the remembering his free fells;
This in drudgery, day-labouring-out life's age.
Though aloft on turf or perch or poor low stage
    Both sing sometímes the sweetest, sweetest spells,
    Yet both droop deadly sómetimes in their cells
Or wring their barriers in bursts of fear or rage.

Not that the sweet-fowl, song-fowl, needs no rest —
Why, hear him, hear him babble & drop down to his nest,
    But his own nest, wild nest, no prison.

Man's spirit will be flesh-bound, when found at best,
But uncumberèd: meadow-down is not distressed
    For a rainbow footing it nor he for his bónes rísen.

GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS, from Poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Folio Society, 1974.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Notes on John Donne, I

 John Donne's Poetry 

Song: Go and catch a falling star

Go and catch a falling star,
    Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
    Or who cleft the devil's foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy's stinging,
            And find
            What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind.

If thou be'st born to strange sights,
    Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights,
    Till age snow white hairs on thee,
Thou, when thou return'st, wilt tell me,
All strange wonders that befell thee,
            And swear,
            No where
Lives a woman true, and fair.

If thou find'st one, let me know,
    Such a pilgrimage were sweet;
Yet do not, I would not go,
    Though at next door we might meet;
Though she were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
            Yet she
            Will be
False, ere I come, to two, or three.

John Donne, born in 1572,  is probably generally familiar for quotations from his writings. Perhaps his best-known line, from Meditation 17 in Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, a prose work, is often quoted as poetic: "No man is an island."
Donne is often considered a difficult poet. Other metaphysical poets, such as Andrew Marvell, have enjoyed a steadier, if less glamorous, regard, since much of their poetry is more accessible. Donne, who almost never seems completely accessible even at his most seemingly transparent, requires great dedication on the part of the reader--and, perhaps, gives more lasting rewards.
A division in Donne's poetry can be drawn between his early, sensual love poetry (often full of Christian imagery but carnal in tone) and his later, largely sacred poetry.   Many of his love poems, however , are considered from early in his career.  While publication dates may be available for some poems during Donne's lifetime, many of his poems were often circulated for many years in manuscript before publication was sought. Therefore, the dates of printing are meaningless as origination dates except as the latest possible date for any particular poem.  His hardships as an adult would eventually change him from the young spendthrift and sometime soldier who wrote "The Sun Rising" to the somber, almost death-obsessed writer of the Holy Sonnets and the Meditations of Devotions upon Emergent Occasions.  In 1615, he became an Anglican priest, although he did not want to take Anglican orders. He did so because King James I persistently ordered it. In 1621 at the age of forty-nine, he was appointed the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral in London.  The importance of religion in his later writing does not mean that there were not religious references in his early love poetry.  For example in the song above, "Go and catch a falling star",  where he rejects the possibility of a "true and fair" woman.  The poem begins with rather brilliant lines declaiming the ephemeral and nigh impossibility of finding such a woman, but later  he suggests there may be hope:
"If thou find'st one, let me know,
    Such a pilgrimage were sweet;"
While not necessarily a Catholic reference one does not have to dwell to long on the line to think of holy pilgrimages, even poetic ones like that made famous by Chaucer.  The insertion of this does not lead the poet to believe that a true woman could be found for him as the poem ends:

"Yet do not, I would not go,
    Though at next door we might meet;
Though she were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
            Yet she
            Will be
False, ere I come, to two, or three."

Another love poem has the poet battling with nature, the Sun in particular:

The Sun Rising

 Busy old fool, unruly sun,
               Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers' seasons run?
               Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
               Late school boys and sour prentices,
         Go tell court huntsmen that the king will ride,
         Call country ants to harvest offices,
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

               Thy beams, so reverend and strong
               Why shouldst thou think?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long;
               If her eyes have not blinded thine,
               Look, and tomorrow late, tell me,
         Whether both th' Indias of spice and mine
         Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those kings whom thou saw'st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear, All here in one bed lay.

               She's all states, and all princes, I,
               Nothing else is.
Princes do but play us; compared to this,
All honor's mimic, all wealth alchemy.
               Thou, sun, art half as happy as we,
               In that the world's contracted thus.
         Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
         To warm the world, that's done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.

The poem begins with a bit of rant against the intrusion of the sun into the lover's bedroom lives.  It goes on to suggest their love is like an Arcadian ideal with lines like:  
"Go tell court huntsmen that the king will ride,
         Call country ants to harvest offices,"
And it continues with the suggestion that love is not bound by the artificiality of the linearity of time as measured by more civilized selves.  
The lover's have banished those bounds, and consider wealth mere alchemy, but cannot ignore the sun.  So instead the poet chides the sun with the news that the center of the world that the sun warms is that bed of the lovers whose happiness is indeed more than that of nature.

In these poems and others including "The Bait" and "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning" Donne demonstrates unique metaphors and a wit that is intellectually pleasing with its contrariness.  For example his arguments against the Romantic idealism of Christopher Marlowe's lyrical "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love"  prove as delicious as the fishes swimming after the bait proffered by the poet's beloved:
"When thou wilt swim in that live bath,
Each fish, which every channel hath,
Will amorously to thee swim,
Gladder to catch thee, than thou him. "
The poem ends with an ironic line suggesting the fishes that do not succumb to the bait are wiser than the poet.  It is complexity like this that might leave the reader with the feelings of a twentieth century man who is "bewitched, bothered, and bewildered".   This is a far cry from the Romantic ideal of love.  The poem follows:

The Bait

Come live with me, and be my love,
And we will some new pleasures prove
Of golden sands, and crystal brooks,
With silken lines, and silver hooks.

There will the river whispering run
Warm'd by thy eyes, more than the sun;
And there the 'enamour'd fish will stay,
Begging themselves they may betray.

When thou wilt swim in that live bath,
Each fish, which every channel hath,
Will amorously to thee swim,
Gladder to catch thee, than thou him.

If thou, to be so seen, be'st loth,
By sun or moon, thou dark'nest both,
And if myself have leave to see,
I need not their light having thee.

Let others freeze with angling reeds,
And cut their legs with shells and weeds,
Or treacherously poor fish beset,
With strangling snare, or windowy net.

Let coarse bold hands from slimy nest
The bedded fish in banks out-wrest;
Or curious traitors, sleeve-silk flies,
Bewitch poor fishes' wand'ring eyes.

For thee, thou need'st no such deceit,
For thou thyself art thine own bait:
That fish, that is not catch'd thereby,
Alas, is wiser far than I.

Useful generalizations about so large and varied a body of work as Donne's are not easy. He was a profoundly religious poet, with a peculiarly strong hold on and interest in the physical things of life. He used a unique lens to view his world, creating spectacularly unlikely comparisons that enlightened the reader on the nature of both of the things compared, sometimes in surprising ways. He continues to be read and discussed today, four hundred years after he lived.  I will continue my comments on his poetry and prose in the coming weeks.