Friday, August 31, 2012

Heroic Poet



The Russian poet and playwright Marina Tsvetaeva committed suicide on this day in 1941, perhaps forced to it by the secret police. Her work is considered among some of the greatest in twentieth century Russian literature. She lived through and wrote of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Moscow famine that followed it. In an attempt to save her daughter Irina from starvation, she placed her in a state orphanage in 1919, where she died of hunger. As an anti-Bolshevik supporter of Imperialism, Tsvetaeva was exiled in 1922, living with her family in increasing poverty in Paris, Berlin and Prague before returning to Moscow in 1939. Shunned and suspect, Tsvetaeva's isolation was compounded. Both her husband Sergei Efron and her daughter Ariadna Efron (Alya) were arrested for espionage in 1941; Alya served over eight years in prison and her husband was executed. 
The story of Tsvetaeva’s life is a tumultuous and tragic one of dislocation, starvation, denied love, espionage, persecution, execution, censorship and more. At the end, she was so branded and blacklisted by the Stalinists that when she applied to the Soviet LitFund for help she was denied work even as a dishwasher in their canteen.  Without means of support and in deep isolation during or just after a visit from agents of the NKVD, Tsvetaeva committed suicide.  As a lyrical poet, her passion and daring linguistic experimentation mark her as a striking chronicler of her times and the depths of the human condition.


Prayer

I need a miracle, Christ, My Lord! 
Here, now, before the sun can rise! 
O, let me pass on, while the world 
Is like a book before my eyes. 

No, You are fair and will not judge: 
“It’s not your time, and so live on.” 
For You have given me too much! 
I long to take all roads - in one! 

I crave it all: With a gypsy’s passion, 
To raid and loot, singing a song, 
And hearing organs, feel compassion, 
And rush to war, - an Amazon; 

Wish on the stars, up in the dungeon, 
Lead kids through shadows on the way, 
Turn yesterday into a legend, 
And suffer madness every day! 

I love this cross and this silk veil, 
My soul is but a moment’s gleam... 
You’ve made my youth a fairytale, - 
Now, let me die - at seventeen! 

September 26, 1909 


Thursday, August 30, 2012

Scottish and Italian Primes, Both Beautiful

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie 


“The word 'education' comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil's soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education, I call it intrusion, from the Latin root prefix in meaning in and the stem trudo, I thrust.”  ― Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

I first encountered The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in 1969 when I viewed the British drama film, based on the novel of the same name by Muriel Spark. Like many others I was mesmerized by Maggie Smith's Academy-Award winning performance as the imperious Miss Jean Brodie who lectured and directed her girls. The original novel by Muriel Spark had been turned into a play by Jay Presson Allen, which opened in London in 1966 with Vanessa Redgrave and on Broadway in 1968, with Zoe Caldwell in the title role, a performance for which she won a Tony Award. Allen adapted the play into the film, which was directed by Ronald Neame. In addition to Maggie Smith there was also a notable performance from Pamela Franklin as Sandy, for which she won the National Board of Review award for Best Supporting Actress. It is also remembered for the beautiful song by Rod McKuen, "Jean".
It was more than a decade before I actually got around to reading the original novel, and as is the case even with very good films the novel was considerably better. Muriel Spark explores the complex morally ambiguous lives of her characters through a medley of straight narrative and flash-forwards that propel the reader through the lives of Miss Brodie's girls. "Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she will be mine for life," says the elegant Miss Brodie, the 1930s Edinburgh schoolmistress who is devoting her "prime" to six hand-picked, 10-year-old students. She demonstrates an unorthodox devotion that values art above history and dwells upon her personal love life and travels. The author breaks into the novel to tell the reader, in brief paragraph-long omniscient interruptions just what will become of the girls in the future. Miss Brodie's attempt to inspire seems to lead to unintended consequences, but it is not clear exactly what her original intent was beyond, perhaps, merely dazzling these young girls. As a result a sort of melancholy emerges, but it is the vigor and beauty of Spark's prose make this a great novel. It not surprising that it was included on the best 100 lists of both Time Magazine and the Modern Library.


___________________________________________

The Solitude of Prime Numbers
The Solitude of Prime Numbers 


Prime numbers are divisible only by 1 and by themselves. They hold their place in the infinite series of natural numbers, squashed, like all numbers, between two others, but one step further than the rest. They are suspicious solitary numbers, which is why Mattia thought they were wonderful. (p 111)

While all fiction emanates from the imagination it is rare that a work successfully mimics the language of dreams. The Solitude of Prime Numbers comes as close to doing so as any novel I have read in recent memory. The incidents of the characters' lives are blended together by the young author, Paolo Giordano, in a way that suggests their lives exist, fictionally, on the edge of reality. The main characters, Alice and Mattia, are in a state of continual wonder both of the world that surrounds them and the nature of their own being. Their lives and their search is made tragic by their solitude. The wonder of the novel is in the beautiful, even loving way that this is demonstrated.
As I read I kept trying to think of the right word to describe the events of the story. Were they quirky or odd or just strange? None of these words seemed to capture the feeling created by the author's prose which seemed almost poetic in the ethereal way the quotidian accidents of life were presented. It was only when I remembered the irrationality of my own dreams that I found the appropriate description for the story. The characters' lives are lived on a road strewn with obstacles that seem to be fundamental to their inner being. The substance of their solitude forever separates them from the quality of life that they deserve and most of us enjoy. That a story of two such lives would be compelling is a tribute to the author and his novel.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. Harper Perennial, 1999 (1961)
The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano. Viking Penguin, New York. 2010 (2008)

Philosophical Traveler

Traveler of the Century: A Novel
Traveler of the Century: A Novel 


"Silence radiates, like concentric rings, from the centre of the market square towards the yellowish gloomy alleyways, from the capacious tip of the Tower of the Wind to the sloping contours of St. Nicholas's Church, from the high doors to the railings round the graveyard, from the worn cobblestones to the dormant stench of the fields manured for spring, and beyond.
In Wandernberg a sandy moon turns full, a moon caught unawares, a moon with nowhere." (p 146)

This new novel by Andres Neuman, Traveler of the Century, is the type of book I enjoy -- a novel of ideas. But in this case it is also a love story of sorts, and the author comments on history and politics in addition to his decided interest in philosophy. In other words it is what any good novel of ideas should be, a long book that is both challenging and imaginative. While the American edition from Farrar, Straus and Giroux has a Picasso on the dust jacket, the story is set in the 19th century. The exact period is purposely left undefined - this is not an historical novel and the Picasso is one of his works inspired by Velasquez which does not help explain the choice.
The main character is an itinerant translator named Hans. Readers who are familiar with German literature will recognize him as an everyman and he almost immediately assumes a role that reminds one of the similar role taken by Hans Castorp in The Magic Mountain.
Hans arrives in Wandernburg, an unremarkable hamlet on the border of Prussia and Saxony. He intends only to pass through, but fortune detains him: First he befriends an old street musician, and then he falls in love with Sophie, an intellectually voracious young woman sadly affianced to the pampered scion of Wandernburg's wealthiest family. The story unfolds as a one whose themes embody both mind and flesh; Hans and Sophie love each other for their imperfect yet sensual flesh and for the liberty and equality of their fraternal thoughts. Reading texts in various languages as they plan an anthology of European poetry, lying together in bed, they practice translation as an erotic art and lovemaking as an intellectual pursuit. This is what intrigued me - the story of these passionate readers. I was transported into Neuman's imaginary world.
The meat of the story for those who are interested in ideas is demonstrated in scenes like the discussion between Hans and Professor Mietter (reminiscent of Mann's Settembrini in discussions with young Castorp) about the views of Kant and Fichte on Nationhood.
"A country ought not to ask what it is, but when and why." said Hans. "Professor Mietter responded by comparing Kant and Fichte's ideas of nationhood in order to show that, rather than betraying Kant, Fichte had taken his arguments a step further. Hans said that in contrast to his views on Fichte, he liked Kant better when he spoke of countries rather than individuals. Every society, said Hans, needs order, and Kant proposes a very intelligent one. Yet every citizen needs a measure of chaos, which Kant refuses." (p 95)
While Hans and the Professor's discussion of the ideas of Kant and Fichte continued I was reminded of my own recent reading of Kant's essay on Perpetual Peace in which he is considered to have foreshadowed many of the ideas that have come to form the democratic peace theory, one of the main controversies in political science. Episodes like this are grist for the mill of those who enjoy philosophical literature. But also interesting are the characters in Neuman's novel. In the scene from which I quoted Sophie is in the background, full of her own ideas, and feeling "the urge to behave in and unladylike way" by entering the fray herself at the risk of taking sides between her lover and the respected professor.
Traveller of the Century doesn't merely challenge the reader's intelligence; it rewards it with literary depth and beauty. I was not familiar with the author but in this novel he demonstrated the talent is required to create an accomplished vision that embodies interesting ideas and a great story.

Traveler of the Century by Andres Neuman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012 (2009)

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Deep is the Well of Time

Joseph and His Brothers
Joseph and His Brothers 

"It was beyond the hills north of Hebron, a little east of the Jerusalem road, in the month of Adah; a spring evening, so brightly moonlit that one could have seen to read, and the leaves of the single tree there standing, an ancient and mighty terebinth, short-trunked, with strong and spreading branches, stood out find and sharp against the light, beside their clusters of blossom--highly distinct, yet shimmering in a web of moonlight."  - Joseph and His Brothers (ch. 1)

"Very deep is the well of the past. Should we not call it bottomless?"  With this beginning Thomas Mann creates a monumental novel based on the story of Joseph in Genesis. By the time you have read more than two hundred pages and Joseph is yet to be born you begin to realize just how monumental this novel will be. The good news is that it is worth the time and effort.
Mann sets the story in the 14th century BC and makes Akhenaten the pharaoh who makes Joseph his vice-regent. A dominant topic of the novel is Mann's exploration of the status of mythology and his presentation of mythical truths and the emergence of monotheism. Events of the story of Genesis are frequently associated and identified with other mythic topics.
From the opening page of the novel the notion of underworld and the mythical descent to the underworld is a central theme. Jacob's sojourn in Mesopotamia (hiding from the wrath of Esau) is paralleled with Joseph's life in Egypt (exiled by the jealousy of his brothers), and on a smaller scale his captivity in the well. Abraham is repeatedly presented as the man who "discovered God". Jacob as Abraham's heir is charged with further elaborating this discovery. Joseph is surprised to find Akhenaten on the same path (although Akhenaten is not the "right person" for the path), and Joseph's success with the pharaoh is largely due to the latter's sympathy for "Abrahamic" theology. Mann's approach reminds one of Sigmund Freud's Moses and Monotheism, which had appeared in 1939, just before Mann began work on the tetralogy's fourth part. As Joseph is saved from the well and sold to Egypt, he adopts a new name, Osarseph, replacing the Yo- element with a reference to Osiris to indicate that he is now in the underworld. This change of name to account for changing circumstances encourages Amenhotep to change his own name to Akhenaten.
The breadth of the story can be seen in a survey of the four major sections of the novel. The first, The Tales of Jacob, recounts the story of the birthright struggle with Esau and Dinah's trials. When it finally introduces us to the relationship between Jacob and his favored son, Joseph, first-born of his favored wife Rachel, you see one whose flaws of over-confidence and presumption are obvious from the beginning. The familiar stories here include how Jacob’s mother, Rebeccca, managed to obtain Isaac’s blessing for Jacob rather than first-born Esau (the “clod”) and the parallel deception by Jacob’s host Laban in which Jacob was given Leah’s hand in marriage rather than Rachel’s. The second part, Young Joseph, tells the familiar story of Joseph’s catastrophic descent in which his brothers, utterly fed up with his arrogance, throw him into the pit from which he is rescued three days later by an itinerant group of merchants. Having sold him to the merchants, his brothers then deceive their father by showing him the many-colored coat, stained with the blood of a lamb and leaving it to him to draw the conclusion that his son was killed by a lion.
The two remaining sections take Joseph to Egypt and the court of the Pharaoh through to his reunion with his father and brothers. Mann's recounting of the story of Potiphar and his wife is exceptional among the many stories that are related about Joseph's life in Egypt. You also see Joseph growing in wisdom although he is not always aware of his own abilities. "Toward him alone and urgently went Joseph's thoughts and the speech of his tongue, unaware that it was guided not by chance or choice but by inheritance and tradition."(p 459)
Mann is a fascinating, extraordinarily well-read writer with a powerful understanding of the human condition. His character studies (and Joseph is nothing if not a very extended character study) are deep and multi-faceted. He does a remarkable job of bring to life a pre-montheistic way of thinking. His thoughtfulness and imagination combine to create an immense classic that wins you over time and again. The depth of this remarkable classic knows no bounds.

Friday, August 24, 2012

A Poem of Life

The Tree Of Man
The Tree Of Man

“She had begun to read in the beginning as a protection from the frightening and unpleasant things. She continued because, apart from the story, literature brought with it a kind of gentility for which she craved.”  ― Patrick White, The Tree Of Man

A poetic tribute to man and nature. The Tree of Man succeeds in capturing the opening of the frontier in Australia. It is reminiscent of O. E. Rolvaag or Conrad Richter who did the same for the American frontier. The story is a universal one, even so White succeeds in creating individual characters, particularly Stan Parker, for whom you develop feeling. He succeeds in demonstrating basic human values and the inherent drama of life in the raw. That combined with the poetic descriptions of nature gave the characters life. In the case of Stan Parker, who throughout his life span was inarticulate, awkward, and sensitive, his stoicism was impressive. Amy, the orphan girl he took as his wife, was a frustrated lusty woman he has made her, yet I found something appealing in her despite her yearnings and ultimate fall; the neighbors, except for the dissolute Irish O'Dowds, and the Quigleys,- Bub who was a child all his life, and his protective sister Doll, who killed him to save him the danger of being left, alone,- provide a convincing background -- a sort of Greek chorus.
The events move slowly across the stage, against flood and fire and drought, against poverty, relative security and disintegration. The outside world intrudes with war, but the center of the community is underscored by the strength of nature. Here is an example of the author's poetic limning of nature's rainstorm:
"The lightning, which could have struck open basalt, had, it seemed, the power to open souls. . . As the rain sluiced his lands, and the fork of the lightning entered the crests of his trees. The darkness was full of wonder. . . Soon a new gentleness had crept into the rain, because the storm was passing. Sound become indistinguishable from sound. The drops were separate on the iron roof, the last cold gusts rubbed leaf on leaf." (p 151)
With the next generation growing up, the focus is on the Parker children who emerge as individuals:- Thelma, who marries above her station, and returns at intervals, to hover over her parents, but never really to share; Ray, whose story is not one of success. It is a beautiful saga of man and nature. A man, redeemed by compassion, living in the stark simplicity of the world around him, the only world that he knows. But, in the end the book returns again to nature, to the trees.
"In the end there are the trees. They still stand in the gully behind the house, on a piece of poor land that nobody wants to use. . . On still mornings after frost these stand streaming with light and moisture, the white and the ashen, and some the colour of flesh." (p 479)
It is a poem of life and people and their lives that remains in your memory after you close the last page.

The Tree of Man by Patrick White. Vintage Classics, 1994 (1955)

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Top Ten Reads Since 2007




Top Ten Tuesday: 

My Top Ten Reads Since January 2007

Today the awesome folks at Broke and Bookish invite us to list our

Top Ten Favorite Books You’ve Read During The Lifespan Of Your Blog

Sometimes books rank higher one day, and lower the next. These are my favorites today. They may vary slightly from my book rankings, but they are all included in the best of my reading from each of the years I have been blogging.  Three are non-fiction and the rest are novels, usually large ones, including two trilogies - each counted as one extra-large novel.

I started my blog in earnest January 2007. So these are my Top Ten Reads for the last five and a half years.

My Top Ten Reads Since January 2007:

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust

Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum

The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Stoner by John Edward Williams

Walden, or Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence

The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz

The Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy

Cold War Politics

Advise and Consent
Advise and Consent 


"Like a city in dreams, the great white capital stretches along the placid river from Georgetown to the west to Anacostia on the east. It is a city of temporaries, a city of just-arriveds and only-visitings, built on the shifting sands of politics, filled with people passing through."  -    Allen Drury - Advise and Consent 

Re-reading Advise and Consent (and watching the 1962 Otto Preminger movie by the same name), after a span of several years, I am reminded of my original reading and seeing the film version in the late 1960s. Drury followed up this first novel with a handful of sequels and over a dozen other books, but none of them came close to the popularity of the 1959 hit — ninety-three weeks on the best-seller list, a play, a movie and a Pulitzer (the Pulitzer Board overriding their committee’s recommendation of Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King). In many ways, Advise and Consent would be a fine reading in Cold War history courses or in courses that seek to explain the nature of Cold War politics. As an insight, though, into the nature of the appointments process as currently practiced, it remains locked in its time.
The novel tells the story of the nomination of peace-loving diplomat Robert A. Leffingwell to be Secretary of State. Unfolding in “books” from four senators, the story proceeds quickly and in rich, complex detail, aided no doubt by Drury’s intimate knowledge of how the Senate worked based on his experiences as a Washington political reporter. The first edition of Advise and Consent numbered 616 pages and the level of exegesis and dialogue is deep and broad. All layers of the advice and consent process are covered—from gripping hearing testimony to vitriolic floor debates, from the machinations of the White House to the cloakroom deals in the Senate.
Not only does Advise and Consent access the political dynamics of the Senate’s advice and consent to presidential nominations, the novel also delves deeply into the personal stories of the characters who must manage and judge this process. One widowed senator, the majority leader, is intimately involved with a Washington socialite and there is the past of the nominee, who flirted with communism while teaching in Chicago and is forced to confront this aspect of his personal history to secure confirmation. Another senator, a married Mormon from Utah, is blackmailed by a colleague who has discovered the senator’s intimate, sexual relationship with another man while in the army during World War II.

The narrative depth and the richness of the story’s details make it a fascinating read. It provides a panoramic view of Cold War Washington. It is a story that brings together strands of different actual events and real characters to create a composite vision of the U.S. Senate and its workings in the area of advice and consent. The novel was followed by Drury's A Shade of Difference in 1962 and four additional sequels. While Drury's Advise and Consent is arguably the best of its kind (and may have defined the genre) I have enjoyed others like O'Connor's The Last Hurrah and, more recently, Primary Colors.

Advise and Consent by Allen Drury. Avon Books, 1981 (1959)

Monday, August 20, 2012

Buying and Selling Planets

The Planet Buyer
The Planet Buyer 


"The story is simple. There was a boy who bought the planet earth. We know that, to our cost. It only happened once, and we have taken pains that it will never happen again. He came to Earth, got what he wanted, in a series of very remarkable adventures. That's the story." - Cordwainer Smith, The Planet Buyer, "Theme and Prologue", p 7.

This opening is one of the greatest understatements that I have encountered in a science fiction novel, or any novel for that matter. This book, the original novel that would later be combined with further material in the now classic Norstrilia, is one of the most unusual examples of speculative fiction that I have encountered. The ideas that drive this story include mutated sheep that are the source of immortality, mental telepathy among the inhabitants of Norstrilia, gigantic attack birds, computers capable of outwitting traders throughout the universe, and more. The story hangs together, just barely, as the weight of various flights of imagination risk overwhelming it. The main thing that I can say for certain is that this book is exciting and once read requires the reader to return to the works of Cordwainer Smith for more.

___________________________________________



The Man who Sold the Moon

"The whole principle [of censorship] is wrong. It's like demanding that grown men live on skim milk because the baby can't have steak."  - Robert Heinlein, The Man Who Sold the Moon

 Heinlein's monumental "Future History" series continues. Two scientists develop cheap solar power-and threaten the industrial status quo. The nation's cities are linked by a system of moving roads-and a strike can bring the entire country to a halt. Workers in an experimental atomic plant crack under the mental strain. And the space frontier is opened by an unlikely hero-D. D. Harriman, a billionaire with a dream: the dream of Space for All Mankind. The method? Anything that works. Maybe, in fact, Harriman goes too far. But he will give us the stars. . .
This compilation of short stories includes the classic "The Roads Must Roll" (Included in the SFWA Hall of Fame collection).  It also includes "The Man Who Sold the Moon".  This is part of  Heinlein's Future History and prequel to "Requiem".  It covers events around a fictional first Moon landing, in 1978, and the schemes of Delos D. Harriman, a businessman who is determined to personally reach and control the Moon.
The story provides interesting contrast in content and style to the work of Smith.  Both of these great SF authors keep me coming back to this genre of literature.


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Solitary Renegade

The Stars My Destination
The Stars My Destination 


Tiger! Tiger! burning bright
In the forests of the night.
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
- William Blake, Songs of Innocence and Experience

I was spurred to reread this book through participation in a Science Fiction reading group that started as an offshoot of a class I took last year. This book is one of the best that the group has read yet and it remains one of my favorites for a varity of reasons. The first of these reasons is the source material for the plot, since Bester adapted Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo. This is also one of my favorite novels from my early years of reading and the revenge aspect of the Bester's novel rivals that of Dumas' romance. However, it is his imagination that soars and surprises the reader at every turn of the The Stars My Destination.
The opening section depicting the discovery of "jaunting", a form of teleportation, is brilliant both in imagination and execution of the idea. It is followed by the elements of what would become, more than a decade later, known as "cyberpunk", along with mythic references, sensational satire, and a touch of synesthesia for extra effect. The hero Gully Foyle, at the beginning ("Education: None. Skills: None. Merits: None. Recommendations: None." on his Merchant Marine Card) is unremarkable in almost every aspect. His growth, however, is made interesting and more than exciting by both his exploits and his interplanetary travels. The characters he meets from "The Scientific People" to the exotic Jisbella McQueen, "hot-tempered, independent, intelligent" and someone who liked to "smash all the rules"(p 74), are further demonstration of the imaginative heft of the story.
Reading this book reminded me why I enjoy science fiction. Whether it is "the greatest single SF novel", as Samuel Delaney claimed (he modestly excluded his own Dahlgren which could be considered a contender for the title), it is certainly a magnificent representative of the genre.  I will end with the motto of Gully Foyle, or is it his epitaph?


Gully Foyle is my name
And Terra is my nation.
Deep space is my dwelling place,
The stars my destination.

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester. Vintage Books, 1996 (1956)

Monday, August 13, 2012

Classics Considered

Great Books
Great Books

“Whether white, black, Asian, or Latino, American students rarely arrive at college as habitual readers, which means that few of them have more than a nominal connection to the past. It is absurd to speak, as does the academic left, of classic Western texts dominating and silencing everyone but a ruling elite or white males. The vast majority of white students do not know the intellectual tradition that is allegedly theirs any better than black or brown ones do. They have not read its books, and when they do read them, they may respond well, but they will not respond in the way that the academic left supposes. For there is only one ‘hegemonic discourse’ in the lives of American undergraduates, and that is the mass media. Most high schools can't begin to compete against a torrent of imagery and sound that makes every moment but the present seem quaint, bloodless, or dead.”  ― David Denby, Great Books

David Denby, a prominent film critic returns to the Ivy League classroom as a front-line correspondent on the culture wars. For this book, he spent an academic year attending Columbia University's famous ``core curriculum'' classes in the great books, Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization. Denby recreates how he read, pondered, and discussed classic texts from the ancient Greeks (Homer, Aeschylus, Thucydides, Euripides, and Sappho) to Nietzsche, Freud, and Conrad, all the time maintaining and meditating on his intensely cosmopolitan yet family-centered life. When Denby reads Plato and Aristotle, or for that matter Austen, he contemplates how the ``media fog'' to which he contributes as a film critic envelops his fellow students; when he reads Woolf, or for that matter Virgil, he considers the transformations wrought in his own lifetime by feminism. He makes a sensible, if gloomy, argument that the great books are too hard for today's underprepared undergraduates. But I reject his epiphanies over a feminist critique of Aristotle's Politics. By recording his own intellectual experiences and glossing over his own cultural blindness he does a disservice to the texts he critiques. Rather than distilling some of the significant ideas of the great thinkers that he read he merely tosses off a rejection of "ideologues" in general with lines like this:
"By the end of my year in school, I knew that the culture-ideologues, both left and right, are largely talking nonsense."(p 459)  This conclusion may have a grain of truth, but I would rather hear what he learned about knowing and thinking, and what truths he discovered that our culture does adhere to with justification.
While he does put himself on the line as a student and as a person by actually reading the classics, his humility should be taken with the proverbial grain of salt. At the risk of being too skeptical, based on my own reading of these texts, I found this an unconvincing look at the classics. I would recommend you read the original classics with an open mind and then, if you choose to, consider Denby's book.

Great Books by David Denby. Simon and Schuster, 1996.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Allegory of Isolation


Concrete Island
Concrete Island 

"He realized, above all, that the assumption he had made repeatedly since his arrival on the island – that sooner or later his crashed car would be noticed by a passing driver or policeman, and that rescue would come as inevitably as if he had crashed into the central reservation of a suburban dual carriageway – was completely false, part of that whole system of comfortable expectation he had carried with him. Given the peculiar topography of the island, its mantle of deep grass and coarse shrubbery, and the collection of ruined vehicles, there was no certainty that he would ever be noticed at all." (p 43)

I was aroused and taken in by this short novel -- a nightmare fantasy of contemporary society from the versatile pen of J. G. Ballard.  The story opens with a crash that results in hero Robert Maitland marooned on a seemingly deserted traffic island just outside London watching the unconcerned motorists stream by. He gradually comes to the realization that his world of normal expectations had disappeared in this island that seemed almost in an alternate universe in spite of his sensations that reminded him of the world he had left behind.
This modern-day Crusoe encounters two inhabitants in his explorations -- a Sadie Thompson-ish neurotic runaway and a mentally defective ex-circus acrobat with the "natural dignity of a large, simple animal" -- whom he manipulates brutally in order to survive. He tells himself, "I am the island" and in case you missed that, the little tart reminds him later, "You were on an island long before you crashed here." Escape, then, becomes problematical: from where? to what? and on what terms? The "conspiracy of the grotesque" that traps him is more than Maitland's trial -- it's his only destiny, and perhaps no more than technological man deserves. Ballard handles this kind of reductive moral fable with incomparable finesse, investing the narrative with savage horror that eats away at banal appearance and reveals the skeleton beneath the skin.  It is an allegory of horror in the sublime substance of isolation in a world gone awry.


Concrete Island: A Novel by J. G. Ballard. Picador, 2001 (1973)

Friday, August 10, 2012

Three by Hardy



The Novels of 
Thomas Hardy

I have enjoyed reading and rereading Thomas Hardy's novels since I was in my teens. In thinking about them I can only suggest that from the first reading I was impressed with Hardy's ability to create a complete believable setting where the characters interacted not just with one another but with the world in which they lived. That world was a rural Victorian one, but it resonated with my own somewhat rural experience even though it occurred more than one hundred years earlier.



The Mayor of Casterbridge (Penguin Classics)The Mayor of Casterbridge 


“…happiness [is] but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain.”  ― Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy is a classic tragedy. Subtitled "The Life and Death of a Man of Character", it is set in the fictional town of Casterbridge (based on the town of Dorchester in Dorset). The book is one of Hardy's Wessex novels, all set in a fictional rustic England. In this Victorian precursor to the modern novel Hardy creates a character, Michael Henchard, who dominates the story just as his tragic flaw dominates and defines his own character, dooming him to a difficult, even tragic, life. Hardy is able to delineate a searing psychological portrayal of Henchard as Mayor, father, and friend; who fails in each of these roles due to his inability both to control his emotions and to communicate with those he (sometimes) loves. As always with Hardy, the novel beautifully portrays the Wessex society; particularly the architecture and surroundings of the town of Casterbridge. In this novel Hardy reaches the beginnings of his maturity as a novelist.


The Return of the Native   The Return of the Native 

“Human beings, in their generous endeavour to construct a hypothesis that shall not degrade a First Cause, have always hesitated to conceive a dominant power of lower moral quality than their own; and, even while they sit down and weep by the waters of Babylon, invent excuses for the oppression which prompts their tears.”  ― Thomas Hardy, Return of the Native

I have enjoyed reading and rereading this novel since I was in my teens.  Thomas Hardy created in The Return of the Native a tale of passion and tragedy on Egdon Heath located in his fictional Wessex. Egdon Heath itself is the first "character" introduced into the book. The heath proves physically and psychologically important throughout the novel: characters are defined by their relation to the heath. Among them is Eustacia Vye whose desire to lead a life elsewhere is dashed when she marries Clym Yeobright (the Native) upon his return from Paris. The pair represents the archetype of two people caught up in their passion for each other and conflicting ambitions. For Clym, the heath is beautiful; for Eustacia, it is hateful. The plot of the novel emphasizes just this kind of difference in perception. What impresses me upon rereading this is the intricate plotting of Eustacia who throughout the novel is weaving a web of deceit with the aim of enhancing her own life. Her hubris knows few bounds and is exacerbated by her lack of understanding of those in whose lives she has intervened. She raves, "How have I tried and tried to be a splendid woman, and how destiny has been against me! I do not deserve my lot! O, the cruelty of putting me into this ill-conceived world! I was capable of much; but I have been injured and blighted and crushed by things beyond my control! O, how hard it is of Heaven to devise such tortures for me, who have done no harm to Heaven at all!"(Book 5, Chapter 7) This lack of understanding is an example of the importance of misconception in the novel which is not limited to the character of Eustacia. Ambiguity builds as the novel progresses and the main characters remain obscure for the reader. When The Return of the Native was first published, contemporary critics criticized the novel for its lack of sympathetic characters. All of the novel's characters prove themselves deeply flawed, or--at the very least--of ambiguous motivation. What I found redeeming about the novel was the way Hardy brings the lives of this couple and their friends and families alive through detail that reinforces his penetrating portrayal of the community on the heath.

The final section provides some hope for the future, tempering the otherwise bleak landscape of the novel. This was Thomas Hardy's first great novel and he would follow it with bleaker tales this is the one that I return to when reminiscing of the joy of reading Thomas Hardy's novels.

 Tess of the D'Urbervilles
Tess of the D'Urbervilles 



“A strong woman who recklessly throws away her strength, she is worse than a weak woman who has never had any strength to throw away.”  ― Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D'Urbervilles

Tess starts out as an emblem of innocence, a pretty country girl who delights in dancing on the village green. Yet the world conspires against her. Her travails begin when her family is in need and decides to seek help from relatives by the name of d’Urberville. They send Tess to ask them for help. Seduced by a duplicitous older man, her virtue is destroyed when she bears his child and her future life is shaped by a continual suffering for crimes that are not her own.
Cast out by a morally hypocritical society, Tess identifies most strongly with the natural world and it is here that Hardy's textual lyricism comes into its own. His heroine's physical attributes are described with organic metaphors - her arm, covered in curds from the milking, is 'as cold and damp ... as a new-gathered mushroom'. At the height of Tess's love affair with the parson's son, Angel Clare, Hardy describes a summer of 'oozing fatness and warm ferments'. When she is separated from him, Tess is depicted digging out swedes in a rain-drenched, colourless field, working until 'the leaden light diminishes'. Tess’ baby symbolizes Tess’ bad circumstances and innocence in the sense since this baby was innocent having done nothing wrong, but it was punished by society for coming from such an evil act. Having been raped, Tess was also innocent of the crime, but she was still punished and pushed aside by society.
This book deals with the oppression of an innocent girl. Most of the consequences she faced were not consequences of her own actions which makes this story somewhat of a tragedy in that sense giving the book a mood that you can try to make for yourself a good life, but you do not determine your own outcome.
Hardy uses a lot of imagery and describes the scenery in great detail. While each individual sentence may not be difficult to understand, it is the way the various sentences fit together to form a whole picture which separates him from other authors. His evocative descriptions are underpinned by a gripping story of love, loss and tragedy. According to Hardy's biographer, Claire Tomalin, the book 'glows with the intensity of his imagination'. It is this that remains the key to its lasting power.


Wednesday, August 08, 2012

The Work of Individuals

The Renaissance: A Short History (Chronicles)
The Renaissance:
 A Short History 

"It must be grasped that the Renaissance was primarily a human event, propelled forward by a number of individuals of outstanding talent, which in some cases amounted to genius. ...The Renaissance was about the work of individuals, and in a sense it was about individualism." - Paul Johnson, The Renaissance: A Short History

Paul Johnson has a reputation as an historian of high quality and breadth of subject. Whether his focus is traditional historical overview (Modern Times, America, or England), biography (Churchill, Napoleon, or Creators), religion (Christianity or The Jews), or specialized areas like Art history, he is always worth reading.
The story of the Renaissance is filled with great names: Gutenberg, Dante, Erasmus, Leonardo, Donatello, Brunelleschi, Michelangelo, Raphael, the Medici family, Machiavelli, not to mention a plethora of popes. Many of these geniuses were Italian, but not all, as the Renaissance spread across Europe in the late fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In fact, Paul Johnson, in The Renaissance: A Short History, credits the invention of the printing press in Mainz, Germany by Johann Gutenberg as the single most important event of the era, as the printing of books allowed for the explosion of learning to spread past the church leaders, princely classes, and academics to the growing merchant class.

My favorite part was the section on Renaissance literature, as Johnson described the most important authors and their works. Even with works I had already read or studied, like the Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, I learned much from the many stories about the people and the period.
I also enjoyed reading about the painters and the development of oil painting on canvas in the Netherlands; Johnson explains how oil and canvas allowed artists to broaden their markets and paint non-church subjects; the modern tradition of portrait painting began with this innovation.  The overview of Architecture by comparison is somewhat weaker, but I would attribute this to the limitations of a "short history" of this size.  This may also explain the lack of illustrations; however, these are readily available both on the Internet or in books referenced in the bibliography.
The many ideas and topics in this short history inspire further study of the Renaissance. Fortunately a Chronology and Bibliography included in the book provide guides for beginning your own study of this pivotal and important era in the development of Mankind. Reading The Renaissance by Paul Johnson provides a superb starting point.

Johnson, Paul. The Renaissance: A Short History. New York: Modern Library, 2000.

Ancient Greek Festival


The Panathenaea

The Panathenaea was the most important of all the festivals at Athens: it was in honour of Athena herself. Tradition had it that the festival had been inaugurated by the mythical king Erichthonius. When the agricultural communities of Attica were 'synoecized' with Athens, the festival was reorganized; was given the name Panathenaea; and was kept on the twenty-eighth of Hekatombaion (July).

Starting in 566/5 B.C. (the archonship of Hippoclides), the Great Panathenaea was instituted: this was celebrated every four years, with conspicuous brilliance, it lasted twelve days, and there were many rites and sacrifices. The most prominent of these was the so-called hecatomb. There were also competitions, open to all Hellenes, in music and athletics. The sacrificed meat was distributed to the citizens in the Agora area. Another competition included in the Great Panathenaea was for the pyrrich dance: armed men, from every age group, took part in this.

The night before the Great Panathenaea, there was a vigil, with dancing by young men and girls. At sunrise on the twenty-eighth of Hekatombaion - Athena's birth day - the torch-race started. The object was to bring the new fire from the grove of Academus, beyond the city walls, to the altar of Athena on the Acropolis. There followed a grand procession, in which the whole citizen population took part. Its starting-point was the Kerameikos; its finishing-point was the Acropolis; and its purpose was to transfer offerings to Athena, principally the sacred peplos destined to clothe the wooden image of Athena Polias.



The peplos was a huge rectangular textile showing the Gigantomachy ('Battle of Gods and Giants'). It was woven every year by women of Athens - the so-called ergastinai under the supervision of the woman priest of the god. This was the same subject that appeared on the pediment of the temple of Athena on the Acropolis in Pisistratus' time. It was linked with the myth of the distinguished part played by Athena in the Battle of the Gods and the Giants. The textile was unfurled like a sail on a ship-on-wheels. The ship made its way through the Agora. When it reached the Areopagus hill, the peplos was taken down and carried onward by hand, to be entrusted to the male priests who had the task of wrapping it round the god's likeness. Those who took part in the procession were women (kanephoroi) with baskets of offerings for the god; elderly men (thallophoroi) holding branches of olive; young male riders and other males (skaphephoroi) with vessels called skaphai; and women or young girls (hydriaphoroi) carrying a water-jug on the shoulder. The donation and transport of these vessels was a metic privilege. In the procession there were also Athena's sacrificial animals - she-goats, rams, bulls, cows, and sheep. It is the procession of the Great Panathenaea which has been seen by most scholars as the scene portrayed on the Parthenon frieze.

Many competitions were laid on for the festival, with athletes from other city-states taking part. The winner received as prize a Panathenaic amphora filled with olive oil, and was crowned with a branch of olive. Moreover, starting in 425 B.C., cities that were in some sense dependencies of Athens - Athenian colonies, for instance, or allied towns - sent their representatives to Athens with sacrificial animals and votive offerings.

The Great Panathenaea has justly been described as Athens' most important festival. It was not simply a display of the Athenian hegemony's strength and superiority, it was a symbol of the city's unity by virtue of the participation in it of the whole Athenian population.

Source: Culture Athens

Sunday, August 05, 2012

First Friday Lecture


Mythology in the Cradle 
of Civilization


"Many of us recognize the classical mythology of Greek and Roman civilizations, but the battling gods of Mesopotamia are less known. One reason for this “ignorance” of Mesopotamian myth is the traditional view of the Bible in Western civilization, which holds that monotheism superseded the mythology of the Ancient Near East. This lecture questions this traditional view by looking at select texts from Mesopotamia and the Bible, to see how some Biblical passages depend on the mythological worldview of Mesopotamia. In particular, this lecture will focus on the mythic battle among the gods in Mesopotamian texts and in the Bible."  -  from the Introduction to the Lecture


"'It is Gilgamesh who will venture into the Forest.'
The old men said: 'Though you are strongest of all,
do not put all your trust in your own strength.
Let Enkidu, who knows the way to the Forest,
who knows the wilderness, let him go first.
Enkidu the companion who will not forsake you."
Epic of Gilgamesh*

The Epic of Gilgamesh has long been a favorite of mine but my horizons, with regard to the myths of ancient Mesopotamia, were expanded considerably by the infectious passion of Stephen Hall in his lecture on "Mythology in the Cradle of Civilization".  The first Friday of each month the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults at the University of Chicago presents a lecture.  This past Friday Stephen Hall, Instructor in the Basic Program, was the presenter.
He began by defining the "Cradle of Civilization" as that area from the Persian Gulf surrounding the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and arcing to the west ending up in what is today Syria, Lebanon, and Israel.  Also known as "the fertile crescent", this area has been the cradle of civilization as defined by urban societies since before 3000 B.C.  It is only in the twentieth century that a renaissance in Middle Eastern studies has led to an expansion and deepening of our knowledge of the art, architecture, and above all, the texts that delineate the myths of the cultures of this region.  Even our understanding of two of the most famous texts, the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Bible, has been enhanced over the last century.
Most of us are familiar with the Bible and its presentation of a monotheistic world view.  But according to Stephen Hall this represents a synthesis of earlier myths from earlier civilizations.  These Mesopotamian civilizations were multi-ethnic and polytheistic.  The Sumerian, Assyrian, and Babylonian pantheon of gods were not unlike those in the more familiar pantheon of gods of Greece and Rome that are part of the heritage of Western Civilization.  However, they preceded the Greek gods by millenniums.  Stephen Hall continued to discuss the nature of mythology.  What are myths -- are they just stories of gods?  He presented the classical view that there was a distinction between mythos and logos:  Mythos is best represented by the "wonders" in the Histories of Herodotus who weaves tales that seem more miraculous than historical to our modern ears;  while Logos is best represented by the History of the Peloponnesian Wars of Thucydides who claimed to adhere to real events in the presentation of history.
There is also the example of the Epic of Gilgamesh that presents mythos in its earliest form.  Here we have the story of Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu whose relationship seems to mirror the clash between urban civilization and Nature with the wild side of Enkidu tamed much as the urban societies tamed Nature and ruled over the surrounding agricultural groups.  All of this background in myth was shown to be incorporated in the Bible through the examples of the beginning of Genesis, and selected other passages (notably Psalms, 74, 77, and 89).  It was in these passages, when read closely (and enhanced by Stephen Hall's knowledge of the original Hebrew text), that you could begin to see how aspects of the earlier Mesopotamian myths were incorporated and subsumed into the Bible.  Among these was a battle among the gods with Yahweh of the Bible a decisive victor.  The result of this exegesis was revelatory for me regarding the meaning and importance of myths that can be identified with the "Cradle of Civilization"

* Gilgamesh : A New Rendering in English Verse by David Ferry. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1992

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Paean to London

Mrs. Dalloway
Mrs. Dalloway 


"She felt very young; at the same time unspeakably aged. She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was outside, looking on... far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day." - Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway


One of my favorite novels  because, like others that share this sobriquet, it is a book that gets better every time I read it. I think that is partly due to my ability to follow the streams of consciousness more carefully and closely as I became more familiar with the plot (I had a similar experience with Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury). But this novel also has many layers of meaning and connections to be made by the reader that I'm sure Virginia gave us as part of her marvelous creation. For example, the evocation of the Great War through Mrs. Dalloway's interaction with Septimus Smith. Shell-shocked after his experiences in the war, he is a so-called madman, who hears voices. He was once in love with a fellow soldier named Evans--a ghost who haunts him throughout the novel.

As your read it and immerse yourself in a day in the life of the eponymous Mrs. Dalloway you share in the quotidian details of her life, but you also experience the emotional moments that are more immediate as you are there in her consciousness of the moment. The everyday is seen in a new light: internal processes are opened up in her prose, memories compete for attention, thoughts arise unprompted, and the deeply significant and the utterly trivial are treated with equal importance. It is a wonderful paean to London and, in spite of the presence of death, to life.

"Lolloping on the waves and braiding her tresses she seemed, having that gift still; to be; to exist; to sum it all up in the moment as she passed... But age had brushed her; even as a mermaid might behold in her glass the setting sun on some very clear evening over the waves." - Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Harcourt: Harvest Book, 1999 (1925)