Friday, May 29, 2009


Owen Wingrave


Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) is noted as a composer of operas. He was the first major composer to be born in England for three centuries who was first and foremost an opera composer.
The premiere of Peter Grimes at Sadler's Wells Theatre on June 7, 1945 is generally considered a watershed in the history of British music. He would go on to write fourteen more operas including Paul Bunyan which had preceded Peter Grimes by four years. A majority of these operas have continued in the regular repetoire of opera companies throughout the world. I have been fortunate to have been able to attend productions of several of his operas including Grimes and Billy Budd at the Lyric Opera of Chicago; and, The Rape of Lucretia, The Turn of the Screw, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Death in Venice and, this past week, Owen Wingrave, all in productions by Chicago Opera Theater.

The production of Owen Wingrave that recently ended at Chicago Opera Theater was beautiful with a dreamlike setting, wonderful voices, and with Steuart Bedford, who worked on the premiere with Benjamin Britten, as the conductor. The opera was originally produced in 1971 on BBC television and is based on a short story by Henry James. The plot is simple, portraying a young man who is born into a military family but who chooses to reject the military career because he is a pacifist. While the music is some of Britten's best in his inimitable late atonal style the drama leaves something to be desired as there is little development and the members of Owen's family come across as merely shrill caricatures of a military family. It made me wonder why Owen did not shuck it all and leave for the hills; his complex reasons for staying are not made clear and the ending, with Owen's sudden declaration of independence and a seemingly tacked-on family ghost story, does not satisfy. Fortunately I have fond memories of previous successful Chicago Opera Theater Britten productions, particularly Death in Venice and A Midsummer Night's Dream, on which to base hope of more great Britten opera in the future.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


A Still Moment



I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within. — Eudora Welty, One Writer’s Beginnings.



Eudora Alice Welty (April 13, 1909 – July 23, 2001) was an award-winning American author who wrote short stories and novels about the American South. Her book The Optimist's Daughter won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973 and she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, among numerous awards.

The short story A Still Moment is from her collection The Wide Net and tells a tale of three people who meet in the countryside. Lorenzo Dow, an itinerant minister, Morrell, a gunslinger and murderer, and Audubon. Their interaction raises questions about the interaction of man with nature and with his fellow man. Important to the story is the nature of sight and the difference between the three men of just what they do see. Most of all is the wonder at that still moment in their lives which they share and which changes each of them in unexpected ways. The beauty of Welty's prose, the taut way she uses words and the suspense and complexity of the narrative all contributed to my enjoyment of this fine story. I expect to be reading more of Welty's stories over the next month as they are included on the reading list for the Lincoln Park Library group to which I belong. I will add further comments about Welty's art and these stories as my reading continues.


Selected Stories of Eudora Welty. Modern Library, New York. 1971.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Only Education Worth Having


The History Boys, redux




Irwin: He was a good man but I do not think there is time for his kind of teaching any more.

Scripps: No. Love apart, it is the only education worth having.





I returned last night to see the current TimeLine Theatre Company production of The History Boys (I had originally seen it the opening weekend) and I came away more impressed than ever. The production is both maturing and evolving and the result is the cast members, the boys especially, are freer and more comfortable in their roles. They seem not even to be acting which is, I guess, the place they want to be. The evening flew by and though it was nearing midnight as the play ended I was ready for more theater. It was that good.


The battle between educational styles, the approaches to teaching of each of the teachers, stood out for me stronger than ever. The foundation is Mrs. Lintott's straightforward approach to teaching history which has produced "well taught" boys, but that is not enough. The headmaster, in his "wisdom" adds into the mix a young teacher just up from Oxford to give the students an "edge". It is his, Mr. Irwin's, method that is the one of paradox and turning the historical facts upside-down, with little regard for the "truth" of the situation that will go to battle with the methods of Hector, the "general studies" teacher who is enlisting the boys into a conspiracy against the world and the "education" they are supposedly receiving.

Mrs. Lintott: They're all clever. I saw to that.
Hector: You give them an education. I give them the wherewithal to resist it.

-
Scripps: But it's all true.
Irwin: What has that got to do with it? What has that got to do with anything?





With all of this battle of educational styles there is the undercurrent of eroticism, both due to the nature of education itself, as Hector points out, and due to the psychological tensions among Dakin and his two admirers, Posner and Irwin. This combination, which explodes at times to produce riveting moments of theater, is what makes this play great. That and the magnificent literary style of Bennett, the acting of the entire ensemble and the brilliant direction of Nick Bowling. Hats off to all the history boys and their teachers.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


Hotel de Dream



I remember reading The Red Badge of Courage when I was in high school. Stephen Crane did not impress me then; I was interested in the novels of Dreiser and others that seemed more exciting. Over time I came to a better appreciation of Crane's prose and value the quality of Red Badge today as much if not more than the quantity of Dreiser who seems too prolix in comparison. I mention this as introduction to some remarks on Edmund White's magnificent imagining of Crane's last days in his novel, Hotel de Dream.

The story of Hotel de Dream: A New York Novel is one of two pairs of lovers, Stephen Crane and his wife Cora and the young prostitute Elliott and his lover Theodore the Banker, who are products of Stephen Crane's literary imagination. In this novel Crane is writing a companion piece to his earlier novel, Maggie, Girl of the Streets, and it is this novel, The Painted Boy, that occupies Crane as he slowly succumbs to the ravages of TB. What is fascinating is the seamless way that White is able to meld the stories of Crane's life and Crane's writing. Sections of The Painted Boy are interspersed throughout the novel as Crane dictates it to his wife Cora. The description of the young boy of the streets, Elliott is both moving and heartbreaking as he loses his childhood in an attempt to simply survive. In an inter textual delight for the reader Crane becomes a character both in White's novel, as journalist studying the boy, and in the novel he is writing within Hotel de Dream. It reminds me of a favorite novel of mine, The Counterfeiters, by Andre Gide, wherein the protagonist Edouard is writing a novel titled The Counterfeiters, thus making Gide's tale a novel within a novel. White is using a modern approach to the novel to tell a very authentic fin de siecle tale.

He succeeds; and the reader is drawn along by the atmospheric seediness of turn-of-the century Manhattan as it is contrasted with the quiet countryside of England where Stephen and Cora are passing their days. There is also the realism of visits from Henry James and Joseph Conrad that add to the book's milieu. I found White's prose elegant and his realization of Crane's novel within the novel believable. The contrasting portraits of passion help make this novel a gem. It makes me want to explore more of both writers in the near future.

Hotel de Dream: A New York Novel by Edmund White. Ecco, New York. 2007.

Friday, May 22, 2009


Fifth Business


Can I really write of my boyhood? Or will that disgusting self-love which so often attaches itself to a man's idea of his youth creep in and falsify the story? I can but try. (p. 19)

One always learns one's mystery at the price of one's innocence. (p. 263)



I first read Robertson Davies more than twenty years ago and was impressed with the characters and action in his novel, What's Bred in the Bone. It was a story of an artist born to a patrician family whose life becomes entangled in mystery.
The prime thing I remember from that reading was my enjoyment of Davies story-telling ability. It has taken a couple of decades, but I finally read another of his novels, perhaps his best, and find that same story-telling ability still impresses me. Fifth Business is the first installment of the Deptford Trilogy by Davies and it is the story of the life of the narrator, Dunstan Ramsay. The entire story is told in the form of a letter written by Ramsay on his retirement from teaching at Colborne College, addressed to the school Headmaster. The book's title was explained by the author as a theatrical term, a character essential to the action but not a principal actor. This is made explicit in the focus of much the action on others, including Percy Boyd 'Boy' Staunton and his wife Leola, and Mrs. Dempster and her son Paul; all of whom influence and are influenced by the life of the narrator.

Davies discusses several themes in the novel, including the difference between materialism and spirituality. He has also created a sort of bildungsroman in the narrative of Dunstable 'Dunstan' Ramsay, who lives a life dedicated to teaching (history in a boys' school) and studying the lives of saints, becoming a hagiographer of some note. Significantly, Davies, then being an avid student of Carl Jung's ideas, deploys them in Fifth Business. Characters are clear examples of Jungian archetypes and events demonstrate Jung's idea of synchronicity. The stone thrown at Ramsay when he was a child reappears decades later in a scandalous suicide or murder. This along with the impetus in Ramsay's life of three "miracles" become the mainstays of the plot line. Finally, it is all held together by Davies attention to detail, his characterization and above all his ability to tell a good story. I expect to return to finish the Deptford Trilogy sooner rather than later.


Fifth Business in The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies. Penguin Books. 1977 (1970)
What's Bred in the Bone by Robertson Davies. Viking Press, New York. 1985.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


She walks in Beauty


I.

She walks in beauty--like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies,
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to the tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
She walks in beauty--like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies,

II.

One ray the more, one shade the less
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress
Or softly lightens o'er her face--
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling place.
She walks in beauty--like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies,

III.

And on that cheek and o'er that brow
So soft, so calm yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow
But tell of days in goodness spent
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent.
She walks in beauty--like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies,



“She walks in Beauty” is a poem by George Gordon, Lord Byron, written in 1814 and published in 1815 in “Hebrew Melodies”. It is said that the poem was written upon Mrs. Wilmot, Byron’s cousin. Several months before the author met and married his first wife, Anna Milbanke, Lord Byron attended a party at Lady Sitwell’s, and Byron met his cousin, the beautiful Mrs. Wilmot, and her beauty inspired the author. The author was inspired by the sight of his cousin and she became the essence of his poem about her. In that sense, the topic of the poem is beauty. It is a simple, yet powerful poem that thematically links the idea of dark and light with that of beauty. We see this, for example in the line "all that's best of dark and bright meet in her aspect and her eyes;". The beauty is also linked to nature and the supernatural. The presence of beauty in "goodness" and "innocence" suggests a paradisaical nature and can be seen as central to the overall vision of Romanticism.


The Essential Byron selected by Paul Muldoon. The Ecco Press. 1989.

Saturday, May 16, 2009



The Sea-Wolf



Many consider The Sea-Wolf by Jack London to be among the best sea stories ever written. I found it a moving and epic tale. Not only did it achieve great popular and literary success, but it also was effectively realized in several cinematic versions (most recently as a TV mini-series). The story ranks in the great tradition of one of London's literary influences, Herman Melville, while I saw similarities to another story of a life changed by sea voyage, captured by Rudyard Kipling in Captains Courageous.

Drawing upon his experiences seal hunting in the North Pacific, London created a story with a lot of realism. He put himself and his contradictory nature into the two opposing characters, the captain Wolf Larsen, a ruthless and rugged individualist, the superman, and Humphrey van Weyden, a weak, but highly cultivated and virtuous gentleman. It is in the clash of these two forces that London gives vent to his innermost struggles: idealism versus materialism, conscience versus instinct, desire versus soul. Humphrey joins Larsen's crew when a ferry he is on sinks. Later in the story he and the captain are joined by a young woman, Maude Brewster who, like Humphrey, is well-educated and literate. During one of their discussions Brewster and Larsen take opposite positions on the importance of desire versus soul. The argument is concluded when Humphrey says:

The man's soul is his desires. . . There lies the temptation. It is the wind that fans the desire until it leaps up to mastery. That's temptation. It may not fan sufficiently to make the desire overmastering , but in so far as fans at all, that far is it temptation. And, as you say, it may tempt for good as well as for evil. (pp. 674-75)


But the main philosophy demonstrated in the novel is a form of Social Darwinism. It is this that is the philosophy espoused by Wolf Larsen as justification for his tyrannical domination of others. Larsen's library is noted to contain works by Darwin, Malthus and Spencer - all seminal theorists of the concept. Darwin himself rejected the concepts of Social Darwinism even though his biological theories were generally used to support and inform the sociological concept that social inequality is the inexorable result of meritocratic division of available resources. Larsen summarizes the concepts of Social Darwinism in his extended analogy of a yeasty ferment of existence.

The novel's drama proceeds to a resolution of this elemental conflict through van Weyden's struggle toward fulfillment and mastery of life's forces and Larsen's ultimate deterioration. Ironically, the majority of the critics and the public misunderstood the work, thinking it a glorification of the superhuman and individualism, and London later wrote, ". . . I attacked Nietzsche and his super-man idea ... no one discovered that it was an attack upon the super-man philosophy. " In the death of Wolf Larsen and the survival of Van Weyden and Maude Brewster we see the confirmation of London's claim.


The Sea-Wolf by Jack London. Library of America. 1982 (1904).

Thursday, May 14, 2009


The Time Traveler's Wife



This evening our Lincoln Park Book Group will be discussing The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. While I had expectations that the book would be a good read based on its popularity my expectations were not met. There are several reasons for this. Foremost, I really felt that the writing and the characters were flat. There was minimal character development,
no depth of feeling (except briefly in very few spots), and the time travel 'gimmick' was not well developed (at least not for someone who spent many years of his youth reading 'real' science fiction). I was never able to believe Henry and Clare were ever "in love" (in lust, perhaps), but I found that no tenderness or maturity of feeling ever emerged. I often had to check back to the beginning of the narrative to see who was talking. To me that is very poor character development, something that is intrinsic to a good book.

Furthermore, a main point that bothered me was the fact that when the characters are young in the book, 20-30, they seemed like they were much too old and serious for people that age. Looking back at the glowing reviews I wondered with over 500 pages of repetitive vignettes, how can people claim they "didn't want it to end"? Consider me one reader who wished it had ended much, much sooner. I would not even have bothered to finish it if I was not reading it for a book group. Overall, this book has a basic idea that has the potential to be interesting, but is not due to very poor execution.

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. Mariner Books. 2004.

Monday, May 11, 2009


Little Ashes






Little Ashes chronicles the relationship between Frederico Garcia Lorca, Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel. Lorca and Dali eventually become intimate and that intimacy is at the core of this film. It is an impressionistic view of their lives with scenes from various locations and brief moments of the lives punctuated by newsreel-style interludes that provide a broader background.

Madrid in 1922 was a city wavering on the edge of change as traditional values were challenged by the dangerous new influences of jazz, Freud and the avant-garde.
Salvador Dalí arrived at university at the age of 18 years old, determined to become a great artist. His bizarre blend of shyness and rampant exhibitionism attracted the attention of two of the university’s social elite — Federico García Lorca and Luis Buñuel. For a while they are an active, decadent and formidable trio, the most ultra-modern group in Madrid. However, as time passes, Salvador feels an increasingly strong pull toward the charismatic Federico — who is oblivious to the attention he is getting from his beautiful writer friend, Magdalena. But it is Frederico who seems to be the one who, once prompted, leads the way in their dalliance. Finally, in the face of his friends’ preoccupations — and Federico’s growing renown as a poet — Luis sets off for Paris in search of his own artistic success. The film has gorgeous settings and evocative Spanish guitar music. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Sunday, May 10, 2009





at Remy Bumppo think theatre

The importance of words and the triumph of acting is what impressed me the most when I saw Harold Pinter's play, Old Times, performed last night at Remy Bumppo Theatre. The feeling I had was simply electric from the first moments of the play when Deeley (Nick Sandys) and Anna (Linda Gillum) are conversing, waiting for the arrival of Anna's old friend from twenty years ago to arrive.
When she does appear, Kate (Jenny McKnight) seems to almost be the alter ego, or perhaps the flip side, of Anna in temperament and character. Character matters and these actors made every moment interesting as they brought these characters alive for this short, electric evening of theater. Words matter too, for this play had words tossed about, questioned, and used in a contest of wills between all three characters.

I found the play suspenseful, not due to an action-filled plot but, due to the subtle character changes and reactions between each of the players as they jousted with words and remembered 'old times'. I still remember wondering at the interval if Anna would completely fall apart, or some new moment or word or perceived slight would turn the play in another direction. I also enjoyed the bantering with snippets of song and the recalled cinematic reference to Carol Reed's Odd Man Out, both of which play important parts in the dramatic events of the evening.

Most of all there are the lingering questions about the reality of it all, the contradictions among the stories told and the memories related. In the end the power of these actors to make this play work, with its meaning-laden words and silences, was what made this evening of theater one of the best that I have experienced. It made me realize the importance of the actor in the playwright, and the genius of Harold Pinter.

Saturday, May 09, 2009


The Club Dumas


"Have you ever seen anything more beautiful?" said Borgia, watching Corso closely. "There's nothing like that sheen, the gold on leather, behind glass. . . Not to mention the treasures these books contain. . . "I know people who would kill for a collection like this."
- Perez-Reverte, The Club Dumas (p.54)



If you enjoyed reading The Three Musketeers or The Count of Monte Cristo, and if you enjoy mysteries, this book may be right for you. I admit to being one of those people, in fact I remember my first traversal through the adventures of Edmond Dantes, and I could not put the book down until I finished it.
Arturo Perez-Reverte is an intelligent Spanish writer who includes details in his mysteries that make them seem authentic to the topic, in this case bibliophilia of an antique sort. The story he tells in The Club Dumas involves a detective, Lucas Corso, and two bibliophile mysteries intertwined, one of which involves a Dumas manuscript. The other mystery is a bit more sinister and the denouement seems a bit contrived. However, the mystery is a cut above the average procedural and Perez-Reverte has written several more for those inclined to spend their mysterious hours wrapped in the labyrinths of his fictional detectives.

The Club Dumas by Aturo Perez-Reverte. Harvest Books, New York. 2006 (1995).

Friday, May 08, 2009


Goethe


I am rereading Faust and found the following poem which captures some of the same themes that are on display in Goethe's great drama:



ONE AND ALL

Into the limitless to sink,
No one. I trow, will ever blink,
For there all sorrow we dismiss.
Instead of cravings, wants untold,
Fatiguing demands and duties cold.
Surrender of one's self is bliss.

O. World-soul, come to fill our lives,
For he who with thy spirit strives
Attains the height of his vocation.
Then, sympathetic spirits, speed us;
Great masters, gently higher lead us
To the Creator of creation.

In re-creating the created,
Lest fossilize the animated,
Aye, active power, is manifest;
The non-existing actualizing.

In younger worlds and suns is rising,
But never, nowhere, can be rest.
In active deeds life proves unfolding;
It must be moulded and keep moulding;

Sometimes but seeming rest 'twill gain.
The eternal stirreth in us all;
And into naught we all must fall,
If e'er in life we shall remain.
- Goethe, 1821

Wednesday, May 06, 2009



Dickens and Death


It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.
- Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities


After he became established as a novelist Charles Dickens would regularly give readings from his works for audiences throughout Great Britain. These were very popular and lucrative for the author. While the readings from A Tale of Two Cities and A Christmas Carol were popular, according to the discussion in our Newberry Library class, reading Dickens" Oliver Twist, that just ended, the most popular reading from Dickens' works was the scene describing the death of Nancy in Oliver Twist. This suggested to me the idea of noting some of the more interesting deaths portrayed by Dickens over the course of his fourteen novels and commenting upon some of them.
While he started as a comic novelist with Pickwick Papers, Dickens soon began to portray darker themes in his subsequent works beginning with Oliver Twist. In the third and final section of the novel, after Nancy meets with Rose Maylie and is overheard by Noah Claypole, who reports to Fagin, she is set upon by an enraged Bill Sikes who has been incited by Fagin to act. The scene is short and drawn with uncharacteristic brevity of words by the author. After Sikes hits her twice with the butt-end of his pistol the scene ends thus:

She staggered and fell, nearly blinded with the blood that rained down from a deep gash in her forehead, but raising herself with difficulty on her knees, drew from her bosom a white handkerchief - Rose Maylie's own - and holding it up in her folded hands as high towards heaven as her feeble strength would let her, breathed one prayer for mercy to her Maker.
It was a ghastly figure to look upon. The murderer staggering backward to the wall, and shutting out the sight with his hand, seized a heavy club and struck her down.(pp. 396-7)

It is the rage of Sikes that strikes the reader while the abbreviated scene emphasizes the power that this rage. Dickens describes the scene as draped in dark just before dawn, and contrasts the dark with the light of the sun as the next chapter begins (p. 397). There would be other deaths before the end of the book, with both the incarceration and hanging of Fagin and the flight of Sikes, which has his end on the rooftops of a particularly unsavory section of London hanging by his own rope as he falls from the rooftop in a dramatic ending to his brutal career.

One other death, however, had occurred at the very beginning of the novel. Dickens starts his story with the scene in which Oliver becomes an orphan, for he is born to an unwed mother who rather suddenly and unexpectedly dies following giving birth to Oliver. Just after the birth the doctor says to her, "Oh, you must not talk about dying, yet."(p. 4); but just three paragraphs later the young mother kisses the baby and, "gazed wildly around, shuddered, fell back - and died."(p. 5) Perhaps this seems too sudden, but it introduces the mystery of Oliver's parentage (who was the father?) and makes for an engaging opening to the story of the young boy's life.

So what can we make of these deaths, and those to come in later novels? Are they merely part of the realism that Dickens was trying to chronicle in his story-telling, or are there deeper meanings to be found? In the story of Oliver Twist one might intuit a bit of retribution in the deaths of Fagin and Sikes; but, why did Nancy, basically a good person, have to die? I will have to think about these questions as I compare these deaths to some of the others in a future post. In the meantime I'm looking forward to rereading Nicholas Nickleby and The Old Curiosity Shop next month, and hoping that they will be less dark than the story told in Oliver Twist.


Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. Penguin Classics, New York. 2002 (1837)

Monday, May 04, 2009


Notes on a Darwin Weekend

Further Exploration

There can be no doubt that the difference between the mind of the lowest man and that of the highest animal is immense. . . Nevertheless the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.
- Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man

The weekend study retreat on Charles Darwin that I just attended included two additional lectures; one on Saturday afternoon by Michaelangelo Allocca, Basic Program Instructor, with the tongue-in-cheek- title, "More Fun than a Barrel of Monkey Trials: Darwin's Complex Relationship with Religion", and one on Sunday morning by George Anastaplo, Basic Program Instructor, "On the Suggestive Origins of Darwin and Lincoln". Professor Anastaplo opened with an epigraph from the movie, King Kong, "It was beauty that killed the beast," and went on to once again demonstrate the fecundity of his ideas, centering his comments mainly on the similarities between the thought of Lincoln and Darwin who share more than simply the same birth date. These similarities included both their approaches to anti-slavery and their relationship with technology. In spite of similarities they were not successful in assessing each other's work.
Michael's presentation was informative in highlighting the complexity of Darwin's relationship with religion from the his early training as a vicar to his specific references to it in his works and letters. Perhaps most interesting, Michael noted the Catholic Church's muted criticism of Darwin in contrast with that of the Anglican church in his day. Continuing to the present the strongest critics of Darwinian evolution have generally been more fundamental Protestants. In addition Michael contrasted Darwin's views on religion with those of Alfred Russell Wallace who, while almost simultaneously developing a similar theory of evolution, held much more eccentric views of religion and the supernatural.

The highlight of the weekend was a multi-media presentation with song on Saturday Evening by Richard Milner, Anthropologist and Historian of Science Extraordinaire. His musical presentation of the life and thought of Darwin was spectacular. A taste of it can be found at his own web site, Darwin Live.

Sunday, May 03, 2009


Notes on a Darwin Weekend
An Exploration of Evolutionary Ideas



There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers,, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this plane has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.
- Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species



I just returned from a weekend immersed in the works and ideas of Charles Darwin who was born two hundred years ago, on February 12, 1809 (the same day as Abraham Lincoln). A group sponsored by the University of Chicago Basic Program of Liberal Education held a weekend study retreat, Charles Darwin: A Continuing Challenge.

On Friday night the weekend commenced with a lecture, "Does Darwin Support or Subvert Morality?", by Larry Arnhart, Professor of Political Science at Northern Illinois University. The lecture and subsequent discussion considered the historical science in Darwin's writings and the difficulties he anticipated. It moved quickly into the consideration of morality where it was noted that Darwin was not neutral; for example, he advocated the abolition of slavery, even criticizing Lincoln who he felt went neither far enough nor fast enough. Darwin's critics claim that his view that people are just "animals" subverts morality; encourages atheism, advocates a materialism that leads to denial of free will, and ultimately leads to the sort of Social Darwinism that results in eugenics and racism. In defending Darwin Prof. Arnhart pointed out that in The Descent of Man Darwin claimed that man has a "natural moral sense" that develops from four stages of his evolutionary development: social instinct, intellectual faculties, language and habit. This "moral sense" is seen as a "highly complex sentiment" that leads to kindness, reciprocity, and mutuality. In conclusion Prof. Arnhart pointed out that sympathy for other humans is the "noblest part of our nature" (The Descent of Man).

Our Friday evening concluded with further discussion about these ideas and others over wine and conviviality. Darwin looked to be a topic that could support an invigorating exploration of ideas.

On Saturday morning, John (Jack) Melsheimer, Instructor in the Basic Program, presented "What Does 'Species' Mean in the Origin of Species?". Darwin said, "No one definition (of species) has satisfied all naturalists; yet every naturalist knows vaguely what he means when he speaks of a species."(p. 65). Generally Darwin uses species as a heuristic recognizing that species is "arbitrarily-given" and used for "convenience sake." Jack presented this and Darwin's discussion of morphology, taxonomy, descent with modification and other issues present in the Origin. It is here that Darwin summarizes his evidence, gathered over many years, for evolution of species such as the existence of rudimentary organs. Darwin uses his final chapter to recapitulate both the objections to his theory (he anticipates all the significant objections even though he does not have the evidence to rebut all of them) and the "general and special circumstances" in its favor. While presenting a picture of Darwin as a naturalist, and enthusiast for Aristotle and a genius capable of identifying and presenting fundamental scientific principles. We left the morning talk discussing the nature of species and pondering: are they real or theoretical constructs?



The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. Modern Library, New York. 1993 (1859)

The Descent of Man by Charles Darwin. Prometheus Books, New York. 1998 (1874)

Friday, May 01, 2009


Robert Louis Stevenson


I will begin the story of my adventures with a certain morning early in the month of June, the year of grace 1751, when I took the key for the last timeout of the door of my father's house.

- Robert Louis Stevenson, Kidnapped



On this day in 1886, Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped began serialization in Young Folks magazine. It was this book, along with the earlier Treasure Island (1883) and A Child's Garden of Verses (1885) where I first enjoyed reading Stevenson more than fifty years ago. Along with a handful of other authors these books became the foundation of my early reading and love of books. I still have that feeling for Stevenson as I have gradually explored some of his other novels and essays. While he is considered one of England's most popular writers of "Children's Literature", these novels and his others, especially The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, are worth exploring and enjoying as an adult. Jekyll and Hyde in particular, provoked by a dream and written in a ten-week burst during the writing of Kidnapped, is one of the outstanding examples of the use of the theme of 'the double' in literature, and a classic late Victorian text. Though Stevenson wrote prolifically and in almost every genre, these four books from the mid-1880s are all he would need to be remembered more than a century later. This reader continues to look back a the beginning of his reading as a boy and remember when he first encountered the adventures depicted in Kidnapped and Treasure Island.


Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson. Random House, New York. 1949 (1886)
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. Random House, New York. 1949 (1883)
Portrait above by John Singer Sargent, 1887.