Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Mind of a Man

John Steinbeck answers this question and more about the nature of man in East of Eden.

"Sometimes a kind of glory lights up the mind of a man.

It happens to nearly everyone. You can feel it growing or preparing like a fuse burning toward dynamite. It is a feeling in the stomach, a delight of the nerves, of the forearms. The skin tastes the air, and every deep-drawn breath is sweet. Its beginning has the pleasure of a great stretching yawn; it flashes in the brain and the whole world glows outside your eyes. A man may have lived all of his life in the gray, and the land and trees of him dark and somber. The events, even the important ones, may have trooped by faceless and pale. And then -the glory- so that a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose, and dappling light under a tree blesses his eyes. Then a man pours outward, a torrent of him, and yet he is not diminished. And I guess a man's importance in the world can be measured by the quality and number of his glories. It is a lonely thing but it relates us to the world. It is the mother of all creativeness, and it sets each man separate from all other men.

I don't know how it will be in the years to come. There are monstrous changes taking place in the world, forces shaping a future whose face we do not know. Some of these forces seem evil to us, perhaps not in themselves but because their tendency is to eliminate other things we hold good. It is true that two men can lift a bigger stone than one man. A group can build automobiles quicker and better than one man, and bread from a huge factory is cheaper and more uniform. When our food and clothing and housing all are born in the complication of mass production, mass method is bound to get into our thinking and to eliminate all other thinking. In our time mass or collective production has entered our economics, our politics, and even our religion, so that some nations have substituted the idea collective for the idea God. This in my time is the danger. There is great tension in the world, tension toward a breaking point, and men are unhappy and confused.

At such a time it seems natural and good to me to ask myself these questions. What do I believe in? What must I fight for and what must I fight against?

Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of man. Nothing was ever created by two men. There are no good collaborations, whether in music, in art, in poetry, in mathematics, in philosophy. Once the miracle of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything. The preciousness lies in the lonely mind of a man.

And now the forces marshaled around the concept of the group have declared a war of extermination on that preciousness, the mind of man. By disparagement, by starvation, by repressions, forced direction, and the stunning hammerblows of conditioning, the free, roving mind is being pursued, roped, blunted, drugged. It is a sad suicidal course our species seems to have taken.

And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about. I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind, for this is one thing which can by inspection destroy such a system. Surely I can understand this, and I hate it and I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts. If the glory can be killed, we are lost."

East of Eden by John Steinbeck. Chapter 13, pp 130-1.  Viking Penguin, 2003 (1952).

Monday, April 29, 2013

Comedy for Spring

Pride and PrejudicePride and Prejudice
by Jane Austen

“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! -- When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.”  ― Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

This is among my favorite novels. After having stumbled through it as a teenager I have read it several times as an adult and find it a delightful and very humorous read. My most recent reading was with a group where we were able to explore our varied viewpoints on the travails of the life and love of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. D'Arcy.
I was impressed with the clarity and classical balance of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. From the balanced structure with three sections of almost equal length to the deliberate, yet pleasing, way that the story advances the novel seems designed to display both an intimate and timeless story with a reasonableness that does not deny the underlying emotions on display. Mr. Bennet's apparent sedate approach to life provides counterpoint to the dizzying distress displayed by Mrs. Bennet. She is concerned with life's little problems (yes they are little, in retrospect), while they seem large and insoluble at the time, and whether they will work themselves out. However her overriding and immediate concern is over whether and when her daughters will marry. Will the young Bennet women be able to demonstrate their marriageability, much less choose among the landowners, the clergyman, the overly-proud (?) and the gamester to find fitting matches? Interweaving the misunderstanding of misplaced perspective and the imprecision of unwarranted judgements Austen has created a classic comedy of manners and marriage with a sensible narrative. Within a limited time and space she illumines both the rational and irrational in the humanity on display in this seemingly sheltered world (the turmoil of the outside world is indirectly displayed in the presence of the militia). Austen would go on to more mature demonstrations in Emma and Persuasion, but this book continues to delight the discerning reader.

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Poetics and Literary Theory

Language in LiteratureLanguage in Literature 
by Roman Jakobson

"In poetic language, in which the sign as such takes on an autonomous value, this sound symbolism becomes an actual factor and creates a sort of accompaniment to the signified."   -- Roman Jakobson

Roman Jakobson views poetics as a part of linguistics. The functions of language are several, including: referential in the sense of cognitive or denotative purpose; emotive as expressive of the speaker's attitude; conative in the imperative sense; phatic as dialogue is used to prolong communication; meta lingual as foundational for and outside discourse; and, poetic by focusing on the message for its own sake. In Jakobson's view one can say that the meaning collapses into the form. The mental image (or direction of your interest, mind-set) toward the message as such, focuses on the message for its own sake and this is the poetic function of language. Samuel R. Delany makes a similar argument in an essay in his collection, The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction.
“Roman Jakobson was one of the great minds of the modern world,” Edward J. Brown has written, “and the effects of his genius have been felt in many fields: linguistics, semiotics, art, structural anthropology, and, of course, literature.” This book is a comprehensive presentation in English of Jakobson’s major essays on the intertwining of language and literature.
Jakobson reveals himself as a critic who revealed the avant-garde thrust of even the most worked-over poets, such as Shakespeare and Pushkin, and enabled the reader to see them as the innovators they were. Jakobson takes the reader from literature to grammar and then back again, letting points of structural detail throw a sharp light on the underlying form and linking thereby the most disparate realms into a coherent whole. In his essays he also demonstrates a search for a fully systematic, nonmetaphysical understanding of the workings of literature: Jakobson made possible a deep structural analysis that did not exist before.
Among the essential items in this collection are such classics as “Linguistics and Poetics” and “On a Generation That Squandered Its Poets” and illuminations of Baudelaire, Yeats, Turgenev, Pasternak, and Blake, as well as pieces on Shakespeare and Pushkin. The essays include fundamental theoretical statements, structural analyses of individual poems, explorations of the connections between poetry and experience, and semiotic perspectives on the structure of verbal and nonverbal art. This is a basic book for contemplating the function of language in literature and it is an important contribution to poetics and literary theory.

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Saturday, April 27, 2013

Blood of the Fathers

“With the gun which was too big for him, the breech-loader which did not even belong to him but to Major de Spain and which he had fired only once, at a stump on the first day to learn the recoil and how to reload it with the paper shells, he stood against a big gum tree beside a little bayou whose black still water crept without motion out of a cane-brake, across a small clearing and into the cane again, where, invisible, a bird, the big woodpecker called Lord-to-God by negroes, clattered at a dead trunk. It was a stand like any other stand, dissimilar only in incidentals to the one where he had stood each morning for two weeks; a territory new to him yet no less familiar than that other one which after two weeks he had come to believe he knew a little--the same solitude, the same loneliness through which frail and timorous man had merely passed without altering it, leaving no mark nor scar, which looked exactly as it must have looked when the first ancestor of Sam fathers' Chickasaw predecessors crept into it and looked about him, club or stone axe or bone arrow drawn and ready, different only because, squatting at the edge of the kitchen, he had smelled the dogs huddled and cringing beneath it and saw the raked ear and side of the bitch that, as Sam had said, had to be brave once in order to keep on calling herself a dog, and saw yesterday in the earth beside the gutted log, the print of the living foot. He heard no dogs at all. He never did certainly hear them. He only heard the drumming of the woodpecker stop short off, and knew that the bear was looking at him. he did not move, holding the useless gun which he knew now he would never fire at it, now or ever, tasting in his saliva that taint of brass which he had smelled in the huddled dogs when he peered under the kitchen.”  ― William Faulkner, Go Down, Moses

Go Down, Moses

Go Down, Moses 

by William Faulkner

Go Down, Moses marks the end of William Faulkner's period of greatest creativity. In this novel built out of interconnected stories he addresses themes that connect with and overlap those in other of his works of this period, particularly The Hamlet. The idea of time - past, present and future - is connected throughout the novel by blood; the bloodlines of the family. Faulkner's book of stories is named for the last one in the book.  There are only seven of which one, "The Fire and the Heart", extends to novella length. Previously published in popular magazines, like Harper's and the Atlantic Monthly these stories are more accessible than some of Faulkner's more intense novels.

"to the boy those old times would cease to be old times and would become a part of the boy's present, not only as if they had happened yesterday but as if they were still happening," (p. 165)

The blood of the fathers, their 'curse', becomes one of the themes in the first three stories: "Was", "The Fire and the Hearth", and "Pantaloon in Black".

"Then one day the old curse of his fathers, the old haughty ancestral pride based not on any value but on an accident of geography, stemmed not from courage and honor but from wrong and shame, descended to him." (p. 107)

The relations between the races and the nature of the family in these stories are also important for Faulkner. The hearth suggests connections with the Anglo-Irish culture from which the McCaslins originated. After all the McCaslin's heritage is one of tension and guilt bred into them like DNA in their genes. The initiation of the young into this culture is presented in "The Old People" when Ike becomes a man, and is repeated in "The Bear" (this last story has resonance all the way back to The Odyssey of Homer in which Odysseus undergoes a not dissimilar experience). There is also the theme of man versus nature through the contrast of the natural man with the social man of civilization. I also sensed a resonance with the Rousseau-like view of the world in the emphasis on getting away from civilization in The Bear. This can also be read in the tradition of Twain's Huckleberry Finn. Ultimately, we see in Go Down, Moses Faulkner's mythic world of Yoknapatawpha County that we first met in Sartoris as it once more presents its people, their land, and their ghosts. How they relate to our world today is up to the reader to decide.

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Friday, April 26, 2013

A Storyteller

Why do we tell stories and write them down?  I have just spent several months reading some of the best stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Edgar Allan Poe.  While the themes varied and they were stylistically distinct the stories of all three writers shared a precision in their prose, focused attention on  human psychology, and  most importantly they were distinctly American in their approach to telling stories.  Of course you say, these were three of the leading founders of a new tradition of American literature.  Their stories and, in the case of Hawthorne and Melville, novels have become touchstones for subsequent literary greats.

Bernard Malamud is a twentieth century member of the same club of American literary greatness.  Using his ability to conceive of literature as a mode of truth-telling, blending his "Jewishness" with an earnest approach to literature he shares tales that are universal in their message about humanity.  His characters, from Leo Finkle in the extraordinary story "The Magic Barrel"  to  Frank Alpine in The Assistant, demonstrate both what it means to suffer and what it means to be human.  His stories, like others, are touchstones for our humanity.  Bernard Malamud was born in Brooklyn on this day in 1914.

The AssistantThe Assistant 
by Bernard Malamud

“She had recently come to think that in such unhappy times-when the odds were so high against personal happiness-to find love was miraculous, and to fulfill it as best as two people could was what really mattered. Was it more important to insist a man's religious beliefs be exactly hers, or that the two of them have in common ideals, a desire to keep love in their lives, and to preserve in every possible way what was best in themselves? The less difference among people, the better; thus she settled it for herself yet was dissatisfied for those for whom she hadn't settled it,”  ―  Bernard Malamud, The Assistant

I first read this novel as part of a course on the novel and business more than a decade ago. 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 book, 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."
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.  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.

The Assistant by Bernard Malamud. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003 (1957).

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Campus Postmodern Fiction

by Vladimir Nabokov

“The accumulation of consecutive rooms in his memory now resembled those displays of grouped elbow chairs on show, and beds, and lamps, and inglebooks which, ignoring all space-time distinctions, commingle in the soft light of a furniture store beyond which it snows, and the dusk deepens, and nobody really loves anybody.”  ― Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin

A comic novel very much in the Russian style with an opening on a train (ala Dostoevsky's The Idiot), this is a delight to read. While it is a short novel (novella length in the Everyman's Library edition) it is certainly not a trifle. Rather it is a postmodern gem, a novel of character with Pnin the elusive and complex and oddly funny character at the center.
The book's eponymous protagonist, Timofey Pavlovich Pnin, is a Russian-born professor living in the United States. Pnin, a refugee from both Communist Russia and what he calls the "Hitler war", is an assistant professor of Russian at fictional Waindell College, possibly modeled on Wellesley College or Cornell University, at both of which Nabokov himself taught.  At Waindell, Pnin has settled down to an uncertain, nontenured, but semi-respectable academic life, full of various tragicomic mishaps, misfortunes, and difficulties adjusting to American life and language.
As a representative of the "campus" novel it compares favorably with those of Randall Jarrell, David Lodge or Malcolm Bradbury. Its pastoral campus setting is very much a "small world" (title for one of Lodge's novels)removed from the hustle and bustle of urban life. It is the perfect setting for the precise observations that Nabokov is so good at rendering. The postmodern characteristics add an intellectual sheen to this campus story and at close reading raise questions about the nature of the narrator, Professor Pnin, and the status of the fiction itself. Whether memoir or fiction, autobiographical or imaginary flight of academic fancy, this novel charms the reader with the Nabokovian magic that is unique in twentieth-century literature.

Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov, intro. by David Lodge.  Everyman's Library, 2004 (1957)

Monday, April 22, 2013

First View of Yoknapatawpha

by William Faulkner

“[…] the end of wisdom is to dream high enough not to lose the dream in the seeking of it.”  Faulkner, Sartoris, Part I, ch. 2

Sartoris is the first novel Faulkner located in Yoknapatawpha County where he would go on to set fourteen more novels. In it he introduces the Sartoris family but the Snopes are also present in this early novel. It seems that he began to find his own voice in this novel, improving over his two earlier offerings (Soldiers' Pay and Mosquitoes).

He tells the story of a Southern family of the 'romantic' type, exhibiting chivalry and courage in a haughty and sometimes vain style. Bayard the younger, his grandfather is also a Bayard, comes home after the Great War and succeeds in demonstrating a recklessness that is more in tune with the times than traditional Sartoris family life is comfortable with. Thus there is the tension between tradition and modernity that permeates the novel. Faulkner's inimitable prose style is beginning to emerge and there are paragraphs of pure poetry in prose. Though not so many as would appear in works following. The combination of story and soul, action and intimations of the future provides a satisfying introduction to the South as seen from a porch in Yoknapatawpha County.

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Sunday, April 21, 2013

Sunday Poem

Sunday Morning Sunrise

Slowly the sun chases away the moon.
It is a sliver on the horizon like a loon 
With its wings extended, floating
On the edge of the lake beneath its wings.

It's Sunday morning as I run past 
The harbor.  Ghosts of the last
Season of sailing are the only thing 
That I see as I scan the lake's placid covering.

As I continue my run up the hill
Away from the lake I know I will
Remember the scene, the ghosts of past
Seasons of sailing, as the Winter breathes its last.

From "The Kingdom of Music" James Henderson, 2013

Education in Culture

The Greater Journey: Americans in ParisThe Greater Journey: 
Americans in Paris 
by David McCullough

“Any nation that expects to be ignorant and free," Jefferson said, "expects what never was and never will be." And if the gap between the educated and the uneducated in America continues to grow as it is in our time, as fast as or faster than the gap between the rich and the poor, the gap between the educated and the uneducated is going to be of greater consequence and the more serious threat to our way of life. We must not, by any means, misunderstand that.”  ― David McCullough

The theme of this book as stated in the opening chapter states that of the first group of Americans to go overseas to Paris: “Great as their journey had been by sea, a greater journey had begun . . .and from it they were to learn more, and bring back more, of infinite value to themselves and to their country than they yet knew.”

McCullough focuses on the development of American culture, as artists and thinkers such as the painter Mary Cassatt, the future Senator and abolitionist Charles Sumner, who studied at the Sorbonne, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., then a young medical student, and so many others experienced Paris in the 19th century.
It was a time and pace of excitement apace in the world of ideas with the expansion of knowledge in medicine, the arts, philosophy, and Paris was a center of this activity. Americans were drawn to this center throughout the century from Samuel F. B. Morse and Nathaniel Willis, painters, to Augustus Saint Gaudens, the sculptor. Writers as diverse as James Fennimore Cooper and Henry James. In fact Henry and his brother William spent some of their youth in Paris while getting a European education. The breadth of those who participated in these journeys was incredible, especially given the dangers of ocean crossing which early in the century before the advent of steamship lines took about a month. "Paris was the medical capital of the world. Our medical training was woefully behind. And this was a chance to perfect their skills and their profession, but also to come back and teach what they had learned, which almost all of them did. And the others were pioneers in launching into careers for which there was no training available here. There were no schools of architecture. There were no schools of art. There were no museums where you could go and look at paintings. It's hard to believe that, but that's how it was. It was the cultural capital of the world." (from an interview with David McCullough on PBS)
Harriet Beecher Stowe wondered what was the mysterious allure of Paris. She thought it might be the river Seine, likening it to the Ohio which she knew well. She went beyond to compare art to literature, matching authors with painters. While she questioned the value of French art when she stated “French life has more pretty pictures and popular lithographs . . . but it produces very little of the deepest and highest style of art.”, the Americans who were beginning an new American tradition learned much from their experiences in Paris.
One Frenchman who inspired many of the Americans who journeyed to Paris was the inimitable Marquis de Lafayette. His efforts in the revolutionary war and his return visit to America in 1824 when he received tremendous acclaim led several of the travelers his way on their sojourns in Paris. Primarily this book is a history of lives and ideas. McCullough's book challenges the reader to expand his notion of what education meant and what Americans gained from the French beyond their diplomatic and financial support as the United States grew into a great nation in the nineteenth century.

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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Two by Henry James

The AmericanThe American 
by Henry James

This was my introduction to the novels of Henry James.   I first read this book in my American Literature course in college and remember the experience to this day.  Starting with his second novel, Roderick Hudson, Henry James featured mostly American characters in a European setting. James made the Europe–America contrast even more explicit in his next novel. In fact, the contrast could be considered the leading theme of The American. This book is a combination of social comedy and melodrama concerning the adventures and misadventures of Christopher Newman, an essentially good-hearted but rather gauche American businessman on his first tour of Europe. Newman is looking for a world different from the simple, harsh realities of 19th century American business. He encounters both the beauty and the ugliness of Europe, and learns not to take either for granted.  Coming as it did as my first taste of reading Henry James it laid the groundwork for my enjoyment of many of his more mature novels.


Washington SquareWashington Square

Washington Square was my true introduction to the art of Henry James.  I say this because I first encountered James in dramatic form by attending a production of "The Heiress" by Ruth and Augustus Goetz.  They had adapted James's short novel in 1947.  By the late 1960s the play had become a popular vehicle for High School students and that is where I encountered it, and indirectly Henry James.  James originally published his novel in 1880 as a serial in Cornhill Magazine and Harper's New Monthly Magazine.  It is a structurally simple tragicomedy that recounts the conflict between a dull but sweet daughter and her brilliant, domineering father. The plot of the novel is based upon a true story told to James by his close friend, British actress Fanny Kemble.
The book is sometimes compared to Jane Austen's work for the clarity and grace of its prose and its intense focus on family relationships. James was hardly a great admirer of Jane Austen, so he might not have regarded the comparison as flattering. In fact, James was not a great fan of Washington Square itself. He tried to read it over for inclusion in the New York Edition of his fiction (1907–1909) but found that he could not, and the novel was not included. Other readers, though, have sufficiently enjoyed the book to make it one of the more popular works of the Jamesian canon. It's popularity may have been enhanced by the stage adaptation "The Heiress" by Ruth and Augustus Goetz.

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Saturday, April 13, 2013

Impressionist Geniuses

Impressionist Quartet: The Intimate Genius of Manet and Morisot, Degas and CassattImpressionist Quartet: 
The Intimate Genius of Manet and Morisot, 
Degas and Cassatt 
by Jeffrey Meyers

"The leader, the hero of Realism, is now Manet. His partisans are frenzied and his detractors timid. It would seem that, if one refuses to accept Manet, one must fear being taken for a philistine, a bourgeois , a Joseph Prudhomme [JP, created by caricaturist Henri Monnier, was a personification of the vulgar self satisfied bourgeois who grew up under the July Monarchy], an idiot who cares for nothing but miniatures and painted porcelain . . ."  -  Théophile Gautier, writing in Le Moniteur universel.

Meyers is an accomplished scholar, biographer and editor, with highly regarded studies of Katherine Mansfield, Somerset Maugham, D.H. Lawrence and other literary lions to his credit. Writing about the impressionists is a perfect match for his talents because of the intimate relationship of art and letters in the late 19th century.
In his four-subject biography Meyers illuminates the intimacies of Edouard Manet, Berthe Morisot, Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt. Their private ordeals and inner demons are used to accentuate the brilliance of their paintings and the revolutionary implications of their artistic vision. Many have speculated that the two male artists enjoyed sexual as well as artistic relationships with their female disciples. Meyers examines contemporary and modern secondary sources (the two couples’ letters were all burned), recording every connection. While he is not completely successful in this endeavor his journey is fascinating nonetheless.
An important aspect of nineteenth century art was the impact of Baudelaire. His concept of the modern painter was a charge of dynamite that Manet detonated in 1863 when he exhibited "Luncheon on the Grass." The enigmatic depiction of a nude woman lounging with fully dressed men in a forest glade was a frank admission of sexuality. It created a furor, as did his "Olympia," the even more arresting view of an unclothed (and visibly bored) prostitute viewing her next client. Both women look directly at the viewer, underscoring the complicity to be found in the eye of the beholder. Despite efforts to secure popular acclaim, Manet was never to rid himself of the notoriety provoked by "Luncheon" and "Olympia." Moreover, his inner torment affected his relationship with Berthe Morisot and found a counterpoint in the private lives of his friends Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt.
There is much more in this educating and entertaining look at the lives of four Impressionist masters.

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Friday, April 12, 2013

Loss of Innocence

The ScapegoatThe Scapegoat 
by Jocelyn Brooke

"For Duncan, Jim Tylor became a personification of romance and adventure.  The secret "island" of his phantasies seemed nowadays almost to have lost its identity: the saga had become discredited by the impact of reality, had merged itself into the exciting quality of the poaching-expeditions in the soldier's company." (p 136)

This is very much a story of two lost persons, a boy and a man. We meet parent less young Duncan Cameron on a train heading toward his Uncle Gerald's farm called "Priorsholt". It soon becomes apparent that Gerald March is just as isolated as his nephew and as such has some interest in having a companion in spite of his reluctance and disinterest in taking on the responsibilities that he inherited with his Sister's estate.
Having just lost his mother, Duncan feels both excitement and fear as the narrative begins. He encounters a young soldier on the train whose presence tends to reinforce these feelings as Duncan meditates on his new life. "Glancing once again at the figure in the corner seat, it seemed to him that the soldier was a living symbol of that new existence, so exciting yet so frightening, towards which, every moment, the train was bringing him closer." (pp 7-8)
The actions of both Duncan and his Uncle raise more questions as the narrative evolves and the suspense slowly builds to a tragic denouement. Certainly both Uncle and nephew are sublimating emotions that they would prefer not to face openly much less share with each other. Duncan, as an adolescent on the cusp of manhood, is understandably confused about the changes he is feeling; changes that are both magnified by his seeming innocence and compounded by the strangeness of his new home. His uncle Gerald has practiced the sublimation of his feelings for the better part of a lifetime with the result that his actions take on a more sinister edge. Adding to the suspense is the return of the soldier, who he had met on the train, into Duncan's life in the second part of the novel.The effect of the actions and internal feelings of  Duncan and his Uncle heightens the interest of the reader making this fascinating story a thoughtful and enjoyable read.   Jocelyn Brooke, in this his first novel originally published in 1948, successfully creates a psychological suspense story.

The Scapegoat by Jocelyn Brooke. Turtle Point Press, 1998 (1948).

Wednesday, April 10, 2013


Xenophon and Sterne

Last weekend serendipity (the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for; also : an instance of this.) struck with the correspondence between a First Friday lecture "On the Socratic Xenophon" and a reading discussion Sunday morning of Tristram Shandy (Volume 2, Chapter XLVIII).  What you may ask do these two events share in common?  Well first I will briefly discuss the First Friday lecture and then conclude with an answer based on our reading of Sterne' Tristram.

The Lecture:

On Friday last George Anastaplo, Instructor in the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults at the University of Chicago, lectured "On the Socratic Xenophon".  He opened with a comparison of Xenophon's portrait of Socrates in his "The Apology of Socrates" and "The Memorabilia" with Plato's portrayal of Socrates in his own "Apology of Socrates".  Mr. Anastaplo conjectured that Xenophon, had he been present, could have persuaded the jury to not convict Socrates.  Xenophon's portrait of Socrates appears less offensive to the cultural norms of the jurors with a practical concern for everyday activities that does not appear in the Platonic portrayal.  Most importantly this reflected Xenophon's own reverence for the gods of Athens.  There are similarities between the two portraits including the presence of Socrates's "daimon".  Notable also is the importance for practical education in Xenophon's portrait of Socrates.  Again there appears a distinction between the Platonic Socrates who questioned to the point of disturbing many, Athenians about their possession of wisdom and the Socrates of Xenophon's writing who did not appear nearly as radical in his activities.  The distinction makes one wonder if the Socrates of Xenophon would reasonably be condemned to death.  On the other hand, as noted in Mr. Anastaplo's introductory remarks for the lecture, it was a wonder that the Socrates of Plato's Apology survived "into his seventieth year" with his critical questioning of Athenians as he was spurred on by the pronouncement of the Oracle at Delphi.
The lecture raised questions and successfully, for this listener, suggested further reading an thought is warranted on these and other aspects of Socrates' life and thought.

Tristram Shandy

To my surprise on Sunday morning as we discussed our continuing reading of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne we encountered the following statement:
"The first thing which entered my father’s head […] was to sit down coolly, after the example of Xenophon, and write a TRISTRA-poedia, or system of education for me…" (Vol 2, p 144).
Yes. Tristram was describing his father's attempt to collect "his own scattered thoughts, counsels, and notions", to provide an "Institute" for his education through childhood and adolescence.  This activity demonstrated some of that sort of practical advice that represents the Xenophon who was described so eloquently in the lecture I had attended only two days earlier.  Just as Walter Shandy had studied Xenophon and chose to pass on some of his wisdom to his son Tristram we too may continue to benefit from the lessons of this Greek author and thinker.  It is for me an example of serendipitous listening and reading and, hopefully, learning from the great writers of Western culture.

Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne. Everyman's Library, 1991 (1768)

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Bach, Beethoven, and the Spirit of Music

"To Plato and Nietzsche, the history of music is a series of attempts to give form and beauty to the dark, chaotic, premonitory forces in the soul--to make them serve a higher purpose, an ideal, to give man's duties a fullness.  Bach's religious intentions and Beethoven's revolutionary and humane ones are clear enough examples.  Such cultivation of the soul uses the passions and satiisfies them while sublimating them and giving them an artistic unity.
A man whose noblest activities are accompanied by a music that expresses them while providing a pleasure extending from the lowest bodily to the highest spiritual, is whole, and there is no tension in him between the pleasant and the good.  By contrast a man whose business life is prosaic and unmusical and whose leisure is his existence is undermined by the other."
- Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, p 72.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Struggle to Love Big Brother

by George Orwell

This is another of the great novels that I first tasted as a teenager in high school. It was then, almost two decades before the title year of this novel, that I first realized part of what made it great -- the ability of Orwell to create a nightmarish world that literally brought the pages of the book to life was evident to me even in my first youthful read. The closest experience that I can recall from about the same time in my life was my first viewing of Orson Welles' film "Citizen Kane" which had the same effect on me, even though I saw it on television. This is the classic text for the will of the individual to maintain his privacy and free will, and how easy it is at the end of it all to just try to blend in and go with the flow to avoid making things even worse by speaking out.
“Thought police, Big Brother, Disinformation, Orwellian” are all words which have entered our vocabulary from the publication of 1984. One purpose of this novel was to warn against a future where the government spies on the people, where independent thought is forbidden and where people are forbidden to love. While Orwell initially was writing about the Communist and Socialist regimes that have since fallen, the novel’s issues and ideas are pertinent today throughout the world.
Orwell has a brilliant imaginative mind and the result is a book written in 1949 that maintains its ability to scare you with the terror of Big Brother. Winston is everyman and his fears mirror those of millions who have suffered under the tyranny of absolute despotism. But if that all there was it would be merely a good book. Only in later readings have I found this to be more of an allegory than a tale of the future, especially as I have now lived more than two decades past 1984. A novel for anyone concerned about his world today.
“But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”

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Thursday, April 04, 2013

Passionate History of Ideas

Russian Thinkers 
by Isaiah Berlin

"Every Russian writer was made conscious that he was on a public stage, testifying;  so that the smallest lapse on his part, a lie, a deception, an act of self-indulgence, lack of zeal for the truth, was a heinous crime. . . If this was your calling then you were bound by a Hippocratic oath to tell the truth and never to betray it, and to dedicate yourself selflessly to your goal." ("Birth of the Russian Intelligentsia", p 129)

Russian Thinkers is a classic work on Russian literature and ideas. Included in this excellent collection of essays Isaiah Berlin has a fascinating essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox. In this essay Berlin uses the distinction found in a fragment of the poet Archilocus that argues that there are two types of thinkers: Hedgehogs, who know one big thing and foxes, who know many things. Berlin goes on to categorize the great thinkers of the ages into groups based on this distinction. Hedgehogs like Dante, Plato, Lucretius, Pascal and Dostoevsky versus foxes like Shakespeare, Herodotus, Aristotle, Goethe and Balzac. He goes on to attempt to classify Tolstoy and analyze his view of history. It is a worthy task and I will recommend to all that they read the essay and decide for themselves what Berlin succeeds in accomplishing with all his analysis. It is essays like this one that document the seriousness of the thought of Isaiah Berlin.
This collection of essays also include discussion of other Russian luminaries, including Alexander Herzen, Belinsky, Tolstoy, Bakunin, and the populists (including Chernyshevsky). Four essays in particular document the birth and development of the Russian Intelligentsia in the Nineteenth Century. These provide a valuable introduction to ideas that eventually, after much more development, led to the ultimate demise of Czarist Russia and the Bolshevik Revolution. Combined with Berlin's insight into literary writers like Turgenev the result is a magnificent tome--both a rewarding and delightful collection of essays.

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Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Funny Unhappiness

Endgame & Act Without WordsEndgame
by Samuel Beckett

“Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that… Yes, yes, it's the most comical thing in the world. And we laugh, we laugh, with a will, in the beginning. But it's always the same thing. Yes, it's like the funny story we have heard too often, we still find it funny, but we don't laugh any more.”  ― Samuel Beckett, Endgame

I remember reading this in anticipation of a lecture at the University of Chicago "First Friday' series. The lecturer certainly saw more references in the play to Dante, Descartes and others than I did. I have seen and read the play again since then and I am still trying to decipher a lot of what happens during the action. That is part of what makes Beckett interesting as a playwright for me. It is a play in one act with four characters, written in a style associated with the Theatre of the Absurd. It was originally written in French (entitled Fin de partie); as was his custom, Beckett himself translated it into English. The English title is taken from the last part of a chess game, when there are very few pieces left (the French title applies to games besides chess and Beckett lamented the fact that there was no precise English equivalent); Beckett himself was an avid chess player.
In the case of Endgame "Comedy" may be too cheerful a word to use for some of the lighter moments like the episodes in the ashcans. They are part of Mr. Beckett's grim joke on the futility of life. On the whole what Beckett has to say is contrary and nihilistic. But as a writer he can create a mood by using words as incantations. In the Paris Review article "Exorcising Beckett", Lawrence Shainberg claims that according to Beckett the characters' names signify the following: Hamm for Hammer, Clov for clou (the French for nail), Nagg for nagel (the German for nail), and Nell because of its resemblance to the English word nail.  Although the dialogue is often baffling, there is no doubt about the total impression.

Ruby Cohn, in her book Back to Beckett, writes that "Beckett's favorite line in the play is Hamm's deduction from Clov's observation that Nagg is crying: Then he's living." But in Berlin he felt that the most important sentence is Nell's: "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness." and he directed his play to show the fun of unhappiness. This is a thinking persons drama and in spite of its bleakness we are still here in the twenty-first century reading and puzzling over this brilliant work.

“Finished, it's finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished. Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there's a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap. I can't be punished any more. I'll go now to my kitchen, ten feet by ten feet by ten feet, and wait for him to whistle me. Nice dimensions, nice proportions, I'll lean on the table, and look at the wall, and wait for him to whistle me.” 

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Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Irrational World

by Yevgeny Zamyatin

"And here in this cleanest sharp air, I see my rationale about my "rights" burst with a slight pop, like a pneumatic tire.  And I can see clearly that theses ideas about "rights" were merely a throwback from a ridiculous superstition of the Ancients." (p 102)

D-503 lives in a perfect world, the One State, where everyone lives for the whole collective and there is no individual freedom. We by Yevgeny Zamyatin is a record of the diary of D-503, a mathematician who is living and working in this apparent Utopia. However the cracks appear and it becomes clear that this is really a Dystopia. Dystopia is utopia's polarized mirror image. While using many of the same concepts as utopia—for example, social stability created by authoritarian regimentation—dystopia presents these ideas pessimistically. Dystopia angrily challenges Utopia's fundamental assumption of human perfectibility, arguing that humanity's inherent flaws negate the possibility of constructing perfect societies, except for those that are perfectly hellish. Fictional Dystopias like the one in We present grim, oppressive societies.
Zamyatin skillfully has his protagonist slowly discover the true nature of his world and his own being. The changes begin with discoveries like that of irrational numbers: "This irrational root had sunk into me, like something foreign, alien, frightening, it devoured me--it couldn't be comprehended or defused because it was beyond ratios." (p 36)  The world of D-503 is two centuries in the future and much of the thinking of the "Ancients" has been lost but all is not forgotten, unfortunately what is remembered is treated mainly with disdain as superstitious nonsense.  It does not belong in the perfect world of the One State.
D-503 realizes he is more than a mathematician, he is a poet, and "Every genuine poet is necessarily a Columbus. America existed for centuries before Columbus, but it was only Columbus who was able to track it down. " (p 59). But he has his doubts. He meets I-330, a temptress who defies the rules, and he finds her appealing. Their relationship reminded me of the myth of Adam and Eve in the Garden. The story told by D-503 in his diary is a tragedy for him, but not necessarily for the state in which he exists. This reader found the logic of his journey appealing even while the symbols and references of the author were often mysterious and elusive. The novel was most effective in its portrayal of the atmosphere, the feeling of what it was like to live in the collective world of the One State. In this Zamyatin showed the way for Huxley , Orwell, Bradbury and others who followed him in establishing the twentieth-century Dystopian literary tradition.

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