Monday, July 25, 2016

Writer, Thinker, and Reader

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

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

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

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

And above all he was a reader:

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

Saturday, July 16, 2016

One Man's Mortality

When Breath Becomes AirWhen Breath Becomes Air 
by Paul Kalanithi

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

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

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

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

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

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A Discourse on some Platonic Dialogues

Discovering PlatoDiscovering Plato 
by Alexandre Koyré

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

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

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

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Friday, July 15, 2016

A Scholarly Battle

by Margaret Edson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, July 11, 2016

Practicing Freedom through Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Writing with Penguin at Side

Death And The PenguinDeath And The Penguin 
by Andrey Kurkov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

De Rerum Natura

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday, June 24, 2016

Classic Noir Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Destiny and Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Two Boys Discover Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, June 16, 2016

Man, Fate, and Eternity

The AssistantThe Assistant 
by Bernard Malamud

“Morris saw the blow descend and felt sick of himself, of soured expectations, endless frustration, the years gone up in smoke, he could not begin to count how many. He had hoped for much in America and got little. And because of him Helen and Ida had less. He had defrauded them, he and the bloodsucking store.

He fell without a cry. The end fitted the day. It was his luck, others had better.”  (Chapter one)

I first read this novel as part of a course on the novel and business more than two decades ago.  Rereading it today reminds me of Malamud's greatness both as storyteller and one who meditates meaningfully on the relation of man with eternity.  
While Malamud was a writer who always had one eye fixed on the eternal and one on the here and now, the here and now in this case was represented by a small business. The eternal was the realm of moral quandaries. It was his genius to show the two constantly intersecting. 

In this short novel, his masterpiece, Morris Bober is a neighborhood grocer whose modest store is failing and whose luck actually takes a turn for the worse when he is held up by masked hoodlums. Or is it worse? When a stranger (Frank Alpine) appears and offers to work without pay, "for the experience", it doesn't take long for the reader to realize that the stranger is one of the men who robbed Bober. But just what are his motives in returning? He seems to be seeking atonement, but he soon begins simultaneously robbing the till and also falling in love with Bober's daughter, theft of a different kind.
Certainly there is the question of suffering present when Morris and Frank engage in the following interchange:
""If you live, you suffer. Some people suffer more, but not because they want. But I think if a Jew don't suffer for the Law he will suffer for nothing."
"What do you suffer for, Morris?" Frank said.
"I suffer for you," Morris said calmly.
Frank laid his knife down on the table. His mouth ached. "What do you mean?"
"I mean you suffer for me."
The clerk let it go at that."

Morris's daughter, Helen, finds Frank interesting and tries to help him by sharing some books with him, but this leads to the following question from Frank to Helen in the last chapter:  “Those books you once gave me to read…did you understand them yourself?”

The books Helen gave Frank to read—Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment—are about people who sin and pay the consequences. Reading these great novels should have taught Helen both sympathy for those who make terrible mistakes and the possibility for redemption. However, it is evident from her treatment of Frank that Helen never understood the great literature she attempted to teach to Frank. It is not until the end of the chapter that she finally sees how he has changed and realizes the possibility for redemption is real.

In the end what are we to make of Morris? He is doomed by his poor choices, yet his life is not pre-ordained but dependent upon those choices. Malamud sees suffering as the fate of the whole of mankind, with responsibility taken for each other as the way to mitigate this. It is reminiscent of Dostoevsky's idea of universal brotherhood and mutual responsibility, but without Dimitri Karamazov's notion that we are all monsters. The cosmos is present throughout Malamud's story but its effect is continually changing.  

Alpine is able to engage in a symbolic death and rebirth in Malamud's devastating meditation upon suffering, penance and forgiveness. It is a story about the ways in which the weight of the world can be lifted, just a little, by determined acts of grace. And it is a story which makes you think about these important issues and that is always a good thing.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Illuminating and Inspirational Memoir: an introduction

The Periodic TableThe Periodic Table 
by Primo Levi

“Alongside the liberating relief of the veteran who tells us his story, I now felt in the writing a complex, intense, and new pleasure, similar to that I felt as a student when penetrating the solemn order of differentials calculus. It was exalting to search and find, or create, the right word, that is, commensurate, concise, and strong; to dredge up events from my memory and describe them with the greatest rigor and the least clutter.”   ― Primo Levi, The Periodic Table

Thomas Mann began his tetralogy, Joseph and His Brothers, with this sentence: "Very deep is the well of the past." Primo Levi's memoir, The Periodic Table, demonstrates this metaphor in a much smaller, compact space. The lives of Levi and his Piedmont ancestors are explored through stories that illuminate the nature of the past and the source of those people's and our own humanity. This is done through vignettes that demonstrate Levi's love of chemistry and literature, his relations and relationships, while exploring his own attitude and thoughts.

Some of his thoughts are about reading and its meaning for his life. This is a topic that I especially love to explore and learn about;  I will take it up in this introductory commentary on his memoir. His reading is based on his love for great literature particularly his appreciation for the writings of Thomas Mann, whom he holds in the highest esteem. 
Early in the narrative during his sojourn as a chemistry student he meets Rita, a fellow student, and is attracted to her although, due to his shyness, he does not know how to approach her. He reaches a point where "I thought myself condemned to a perpetual masculine solitude, denied a woman's smile forever". Yet one day he found beside her, peeking out of her bag, a book. It was The Magic Mountain. He relates, "it was my sustenance during those months, the timeless story of Hans Castorp in enchanted exile on the magic mountain. I asked Rita about it, on tenterhooks to hear her opinion, as if I had written the book: and soon enough I had to realize that she was reading the novel in an entirely different way. As a novel, in fact: she was very interested in finding out exactly how far Hans would go with Madame Chauchat, and mercilessly skipped the fascinating (for me) political, theological, and metaphysical discussions between the humanist Settembrini and the Jewish Jesuit Naphtha." (p 38)
We all may have had a similar experience more than once: finding someone (whether drawn to them by Eros or not) reading a book we love, but not reading the same book.

Levi's love for Mann's writing also provided him solace while working on a demanding project during the war. He was sequestered in a laboratory next to a nickel mine and forced to work long hours. He dared not venture far from the mine, so "Sometimes I stayed in the lab past quitting time or went back there after dinner to study, or to meditate on the problem of nickel. At other times I shut myself in to read Mann's Joseph stories in my monastic cell in the submarine. On nights when the moon was up I often took long solitary walks through the wild countryside around the mine". (p 79)
One can picture Levi pondering while walking by the light of the Tuscan moon finding comfort as did Jacob in Mann's novel when he walked in the moonlight. It is the moonlight with its "magically ambiguous precision" that mirrored for Jacob the way the traditions of the children and grandchildren of Abraham are "spun out over generations and solidified as a chronicle only much later--". ("The Tales of Jacob")

Throughout his memoir Primo Levi shares other literature and experiences as he narrates the lives of his friends, family, and ancestors. Just as he is inspired by reading Thomas Mann and the moonlight that inspired Jacob so many centuries ago he is imbued with the life of the people around him. Yes, The Periodic Table is deep, and one wonders at the lives narrated by this brilliant Jewish Italian chemist and humanist.  

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Sunday, June 12, 2016

Essays for Humanity

My Belief: Essays on Life and ArtMy Belief: Essays on Life and Art 
by Hermann Hesse

“Without words, without writing and without books there would be no history, there could be no concept of humanity.”   ― Hermann Hesse

There are those writers who spin tales and tell imaginary stories and there are those who document their lives. These essays fall into the latter category within the oeuvre of Hermann Hesse. Each is a delight whether of personal detail, literary criticism, philosophy, or meditation on the meaning of life. Hesse had to write and most often he had to write about himself. There is little that he wrote that is not confessional in aspect and therapeutic in function. These essays provide milestones and assessments of his life and reading. They are a joy to read and consider alongside his fiction and other writings.

Here is an especially moving excerpt from his essay "The Magic of the Book":

For every thinking person each verse of each poet will show a new and different face to the reader every few years, will awaken a different resonance in him.  When as a youth I read for the first time, only partially understanding it, Goethe's Elective Affinities, that was a completely different book from the Elective Affinities that I have now read perhaps for the fifth time!  The great and mysterious thing about this reading experience is this:  the more discriminatingly, the more sensitively, and the more associatively we learn to read, the more clearly we see every thought and every poem in its uniqueness, its individuality, in its precise limitations and see that all beauty, all charm depend on this individuality and uniqueness--at the same time we come to realize ever more clearly how all these hundred thousand voices of nations strive toward the same goals, call upon the same gods by different names, dream the same wishes, suffer the same sorrows.  Out of the thousandfold fabric of countless languages and books of several thousand years, in ecstatic instants there stares at the reader a marvelously noble and transcendent chimera:  the countenance of humanity, charmed into unity from a thousand contradictory features." (pp 161-62)

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Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Conversations about Life

by Rachel Cusk

“As it happened, I was no longer interested in literature as a form of snobbery or even self-definition. I had no desire to prove that one book was better than another; in fact, if I read something I admired, I found myself increasingly disinclined to mention it at all. What I knew personally to be true had come to seem unrelated to the process of persuading others. I did not, any longer, want to persuade anyone of anything.”   ― Rachel Cusk, Outline

This unusual novel by Rachel Cusk raised several questions as I read it. What does it mean to be a writer? Why and how do you listen to your surroundings? Does that listening mean participation in the lives of those around you? There are undoubtedly more questions to pursue, but these are certainly central to the story told about a writer who, unnamed until the penultimate chapter  and on her way to teach a writing seminar in Greece, meets several people with whom she has conversations.  The conversations gradually tell us more about her as they do about the people whom she meets. We are able to consider the unawareness that our seeming ignorance leads us into.  The narrator comments:
“Sometimes it has seemed to me that life is a series of punishments for such moments of unawareness, that one forges one's own destiny by what one doesn't notice or feel compassion for; that what you don't know and don't make the effort to understand will become the very thing you are forced into knowledge of.” 
Consideration of the questions that this book raised for me suggested a way to "make the effort to understand" the world within and without the story. 

We learn about many things including her dreams and her epiphanies or realizations about herself. One conversation with a Greek man, Paniotis, yields the following:
"I realised that my little dream of a publishing house was destined to remain just that, a fantasy, and in fact what that realisation caused me to feel was not so much disappointment at the situation as astonishment at the fantasy itself." (p 95)
Learning about herself she is able to teach other writers at the seminar and we are able to learn something about ourselves--perhaps. 

This is not a novel driven by plot.  Nonetheless the simple elegance of the writing and the fascinating conversations--sometimes seeming like short stories embedded within the larger novel--make this a rewarding book to read and reread. I found it a different but welcome addition to my reading life.

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A Novel of Business & Morality

The Rise of Silas LaphamThe Rise of Silas Lapham 
by William Dean Howells

“If he was not commonplace, it was through nothing remarkable in his mind, which was simply clear and practical, but through some combination of qualities of the heart that made men trust him, and women call him sweet--a word of theirs which conveys otherwise indefinable excellences.”   ― William Dean Howells, The Rise of Silas Lapham

The realism of Howell's novel centers on a "self-made man" who confronts the old-guard aristocratic society of Boston in the nineteenth century. The author uses a balanced structure in the classical manner, with a lucid prose and fine attention to detail that almost caress the reader. The deftly woven plot and sub-plots highlight the "rise" of Lapham in a moral sense even while his material fortunes deteriorate. Silas earns a fortune in the paint business, but he lacks traditional social standards, which he tries to attain through his daughter's marriage into the aristocratic Corey family.

Silas's morality does not fail him. He loses his money but makes the right moral decision when his partner proposes the unethical selling of the mills to English settlers. He is a sympathetic character even as he unwisely engages in an endeavor that is doomed by a society that would never accept him. The female characters, especially Lapham's daughter Penelope, are well written and rival portrayals of women by such novelists as Eliot and Wharton. Howells is known to be the father of American realism, and a denouncer of the sentimental novel. The love triangle of Irene Lapham, Tom Corey, and Penelope Lapham highlights Howells' views of sentimental novels as unrealistic and deceitful.

This is the first of major American novels of business, to be followed by those of Norris (The Octopus), Dreiser (The Financier) and Lewis (Babbit) among others. Howells sets his novel apart with his positive view of New England ideals and business itself. It is no wonder that this book has continuously been in print and is considered one the great works of American literature. Reading William Dean Howells' fine novel, The Rise of Silas Lapham, is an enjoyable experience.

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Poem for June

From “The Vision of Sir Launfal”

And what is so rare as a day in June?
     Then, if ever, come perfect days;
Then Heaven tries the earth if it be in tune,
     And over it softly her warm ear lays:
Whether we look, or whether we listen,
We hear life murmur, or see it glisten;
Every clod feels a stir of might,
     An instinct within it that reaches and towers,
And, grasping blindly above it for light,
     Climbs to a soul in grass and flowers;
The flush of life may well be seen
     Thrilling back over hills and valleys;
The cowslip startles in meadows green,
     The buttercup catches the sun in its chalice,
And there 's never a leaf or a blade too mean
     To be some happy creature's palace;
The little bird sits at his door in the sun,
     Atilt like a blossom among the leaves,
And lets his illumined being o'errun
     With the deluge of summer it receives;
His mate feels the eggs beneath her wings,
And the heart in her dumb breast flutters and sings;
He sings to the wide world, and she to her nest, –
In the nice ear of Nature which song is the best?

Even people who don’t know poetry—and who probably don’t know much about James Russell Lowell—may have heard the June line from “The Vision of Sir Launfal.” This is probably a bit of oral tradition at work; pick up a school primer from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century and you’re likely to find an excerpt from the poem. Generations of American schoolchildren probably recited it and, in the way of recitations, remembered it instead of much more important things all their lives.

James Russell Lowell was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on February 22, 1819, the son of the Reverend Charles Lowell and Harriet Spence.  He graduated from Harvard in 1841 with a Law degree, but Lowell had no interest in pursuing a career in that field. Shortly after graduating  he published his first collection of poems, A Year’s Life (C. C. Little and J. Brown), inspired by the poet Maria White, whom he would marry three years later.

The most versatile of the New Englanders during the middle of the nineteenth century, James Russell Lowell was a vital force in the history of American literature and thought during his lifetime. His range and perspicacity in literary criticism are unequaled in nineteenth-century America. He did more than anyone before Mark Twain in elevating the vernacular to a medium of serious artistic expression, and The Biglow Papers (1848) ranks among the finest political satires in American literature. His public odes expressed a mind and an outlook that drew the praise of Henry Brooks Adams, William James, and William Dean Howells. His personal charm made him both an effective diplomat during the period of the emergence of the United States as a world power and one of its finest letter writers.

Lowell authored multiple poetry books, including The Vision of Sir Launfal (George Nichols, 1848) from which the above excerpt was taken. Along with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier, Lowell belongs to the group of writers called the Fireside Poets, or “schoolroom” poets, known for their conservative, traditional forms; strict attention to rhyme and meter; and moral, religious, and political themes.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Radiance, Heights

Selected Poems: 1931-2004Selected Poems: 1931-2004 
by Czesław Miłosz

"Human reason is beautiful and invincible.
No bars, no barbed wire, no pulping of books,
No sentence of banishment can prevail against it.
It establishes universal ideas in language,
And guides our hand so we write Truth and Justice
With capital letters, lie and oppression with small.
It puts what should be above things as they are,
Is an enemy of despair and a friend of hope."
- from "Incantation", 1968 (p 87)

His poetry runs the gamut of feeling and thought, of nature and man, of beauty and the truth of poetry. The author of The Captive Mind, a great statement about the effects of totalitarianism, Czeslaw Milosz is even better when his daimon inspires him to write poetry. This selection covers his work over more than seven decades beginning with his early days in Poland, underground during the War, and beyond into his time in America. His survival, overcoming the ordeal of war and suppression gives his poetry a nobility that seems palpable on every page. 

The following poem resonates with me along with others of his best from the Selected Poems.  Just as he fought the battle of ideas, the books are durable soldiers going into battle with a simple "We are,";  confident in the knowledge that they are "more durable than we are".  The reference to the dismal twentieth century with its fires and flame is tempered by the optimism of the closing:  "Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights."

And Yet the Books 

And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate beings,
That appeared once, still wet
As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn,
And, touched, coddled, began to live
In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,
Tribes on the march, planets in motion.
“We are,” they said, even as their pages
Were being torn out, or a buzzing flame
Licked away their letters. So much more durable
Than we are, whose frail warmth
Cools down with memory, disperses, perishes.
I imagine the earth when I am no more:
Nothing happens, no loss, it's still a strange pageant,
Women's dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.
Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,
Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.

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Sunday, May 22, 2016

A Commonplace Entry

This entry is from "Two or Three Ideas" an essay by Wallace Stevens

"To see the gods dispelled in mid-air and dissolve like clouds is one of the great human experiences.  It is not as if they had gone over the horizon to disappear for a time;  nor as if they had been overcome by other gods of greater power and profounder knowledge.  It is simply that they came to nothing.  Since we have always shared all things with them and have always had a part of their strength and, certainly, all of their knowledge, we shared likewise this experience of annihilation.  It was their annihilation , not ours, and yet it left us feeling that in a measure we, too, had been annihilated.  It left us felling dispossessed and alone in a solitude, like children without parents, in a home that seemed deserted, in which the amicable rooms and halls had taken on a look of hardness and emptiness."  

"Two or Three Ideas" in Collected Prose and Poetry by Wallace Stevens.  The Library of America, 1997, p 842.

Modern Reality

The Poetry of Wallace Stevens

“Reality is a cliché from which we escape by metaphor.”
― Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination

The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter 
To regard the frost and the boughs 
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow; 

And have been cold a long time 
To behold the junipers shagged with ice, 
The spruces rough in the distant glitter 

Of the January sun; and not to think 
Of any misery in the sound of the wind, 
In the sound of a few leaves, 

Which is the sound of the land 
Full of the same wind 
That is blowing in the same bare place 

For the listener, who listens in the snow, 
And, nothing himself, beholds 
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

What sort of mind is a "mind of winter"?  This is just one of many questions raised upon reading this short poem, one that is nothing if not very deep and opaque, at least upon first reading.  For someone from the northern part of the Midwest the idea of winter and snow is a familiar one, so this poem seems like it should be more simple than it appears. Perhaps that is because the poet, Wallace Stevens, whose image of  the poet he describes thus: 
"He must be able to abstract himself and also to abstract reality, which he does be placing it in his imagination. . . The poet has his own meaning for reality,"  and he says this about poetry:
"It is an interdependence of imagination and reality as equals." (pp 25-27, The Necessary Angel)
Stevens's poem is modern in the sense that it is imbued with ambiguity.  The reality of winter or snow or "the listener" of the final stanza is masqued by the metaphors and placement in the poem.  In the short space of fifteen lines the poet takes the reader on a journey from (in) the mind that is seeing the trees and sun to a listener who is hearing "the sound of the wind", yet is reduced to, or left with, nothing by the final stanza.
"Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is."

One possibility is to look to Stevens the poet for some help in understanding what is happening.  In his poem, "On the Way to the Bus", he describes a journalist confronting a snow scene  as a "Transparent man in a translated world," and finding there "An understanding beyond journalism.  A way of pronouncing the world inside of one's tongue".  (pp 394-5, The Palm at the End of the Mind)  This understanding beyond journalism can be read as imagination; an imagination that is able to behold nothing yet see something.

The ambiguity of "The Snow Man" is something that we can ponder with our own minds and imagine the many senses in which the world of winter, its sounds and sights, might merge with our own understanding of the world.  What we may gain is a bit of poetic knowledge while sharing in the transcendence of the poetic experience.

The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination by Wallace Stevens. Vintage Books, 1951.
The Palm at the End of the Mind: Selected Poems and a Play by Wallace Stevens. Vintage Books, 1972 (1971).