Saturday, October 31, 2015

Quote for Today

Maimonides' Guide for Readers 

In the prefatory remarks to the original edition of his Guide to the Perplexed, Maimonides points out that he “hesitated very much before writing on the subjects contained in this work, since they are profound mysteries,” and considers the three primary ways we see truth:

"Ignorant and superficial readers take them in a literal, not in a figurative sense. Even well informed persons are bewildered if they understand these passages in their literal signification, but they are entirely relieved of their perplexity when we explain the figure, or merely suggest that the terms are figurative. For this reason I have called this book Guide for [to] the Perplexed. I do not presume to think that this treatise settles every doubt in the minds of those who understand it, but I maintain that it settles the greater part of their difficulties."

One Omen Too Many

The AlchemistThe Alchemist 
by Paulo Coelho

"It's the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting, he thought." (p 13)

"Another Omen!" (p 166)

I began reading this book with some skepticism with regard to whether it would live up to its hype. While I found that my skepticism was rewarded by the author I may have been better served if I would have noticed an omen when the young sheepherder remembered the old woman "who interpreted dreams"(p 13).  Perhaps if I had "listened to my heart" I would not have read the book in the first place. 

While it started relatively simply, seeming to be a sort of allegory, the further I read the more convoluted the story became. Instead of holding my interest with great writing or suspense or deep thoughts the book encouraged me to read on to see how quickly I could finish it.  The narrative became an unsuccessful attempt to provide some meaning that I would compare to someone mixing their metaphors.

The main character, Santiago, goes on a journey of exploration ending in a sort of mystical experience that has taken him far away from the simple life that he had. In doing so it left him with a muddle of different methods for finding his dream like "speaking with the wind and the sun" and "being a shepherd" and getting over "personal hardship". Whether this amounted to a "higher plan" for his life is far from transparent to this reader.

Rather than attempt to make any further sense out of the story I would prefer to warn other readers that this is a book that pretends to be deep with references to alchemy and spiritualism and even an allusion to Plato's theory of ideas. However, the whole does not equal the sum of its parts primarily because it does not present a coherent message.  It does succeed in a way, but only by devolving into a combination of confusing claptrap; therefore I would not recommend reading it for omens good, bad, or otherwise.

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Thursday, October 29, 2015

Danish Saga

translated by Seamus Heaney

“Meanwhile, the sword
began to wilt into gory icicles, 
to slather and thaw. It was a wonderful thing, 
the way it all melted as ice melts 
when the Father eases the fetters off the frost
and unravels the water-ropes. He who wields power
over time and tide: He is the true Lord.” 

― Seamus Heaney, Beowulf

Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf is both modern and satisfying poetry.  It is a translation as if from another world. The poem has in Heaney’s words a ‘hand-built, rock sure feel’ and yet at the same time his lines are expansive with an elemental feeling emanating from within the verse. It’s what Heaney elsewhere calls ‘the ore of longing’. The world of Danish kings, gold hoards and minstrels keeps revealing regions remote from human influence, making exciting reading. It’s as though you almost had to conceive of two dimensions at once. And Heaney tends to set his words so starkly as to allow the direct opposing pull of those separate forces:
"His warrior band did what he bade them
when he laid down the law among the Danes:
they shouldered him out to the sea’s flood,
the chief they revered who had long ruled them."

The story begins as King Hrothgar, the ruler of the Danes, is troubled by the rampages of a demon named Grendel. Every night, Grendel attacks King Hrothgar's wealthy mead-hall, Heorot, killing Danish warriors and sometimes even eating them. Hrothgar was a great warrior in his time, but now he's an old king and can't seem to protect his people. Fortunately, a young Geat warrior named Beowulf travels to Heorot Hall from his own lands overseas to lend a helping hand – literally.   After explaining that he owes Hrothgar a favor because Hrothgar helped out his father, Beowulf offers to fight Grendel himself. King Hrothgar gratefully accepts his offer.  The rest awaits the reader in this wonderful translation.

For Heaney the whole poem is bordered by yet related to the beyond, by which he means both the immanent and the imminent, ‘unknowable but certain’. He stresses that the queer sounds of Beowulf to modern ears is not merely the result of our distance in time from that epic world (the dragons, barrows, and boar-shapes flashing over golden cheek-guards). Rather the poem’s difference (perhaps shared with similar sagas) lies in its ‘mythic potency’:
"Like Shield Sheafson… [the poem] arrives from somewhere beyond the
known bourne of our experience, and having fulfilled its purpose (again
like Shield) it passes once more into the beyond."

Rereading the poem in this translation was a delight even though I would still recommend the fine translation by Burton Raffel that I read in the early nineties. I intend to return to this poem, but plan to seek out the new version by Neil Gaiman – that is sure to be yet a new way to experience this great medieval epic.

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A Modern Sir Gawain

American Gods (American Gods, #1) American Gods 
by Neil Gaiman

“People believe, thought Shadow. It's what people do. They believe, and then they do not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things, and do not trust the conjuration. People populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe; and it is that rock solid belief, that makes things happen.”   ― Neil Gaiman, American Gods

This book almost defies description among those that I have read. It certainly does not fit in any of the standard categories for novels. While it won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus Awards in 2002 for best novel, edging out more traditional science fiction contenders, it is not a traditional fantasy novel either. Having read Neil Gaiman's more recent fantasy novel, Neverwhere, recently I am beginning to realize that one of the prime characteristics of his novels is defiance of traditional categories and escape from easy descriptions.
With American Gods Neil Gaiman has raised the specter of the Norse gods (primarily) and imagined that they came to America along with the immigrants from the countries of Northern Europe. Add to this an ex-convict as a wandering knight-errant who traverses the wasteland of Middle America all the while assisting his boss, Mr. Wednesday, who is otherwise known by many names including Wotan or Odin (King of the Norse Gods, God of poetry, battle and death. Chief god of the Aesir. Also known as the “all-father”, the “terrible one”, “one-eyed” and “father of battle”). This aspect alone interested me as I enjoy the Norse mythology from my love of Wagner's operas.

The knight-errant, named Shadow, has been recently released from prison after serving a three-year term. He is immediately faced with the news that his beloved wife Laura has been killed in an automobile accident. While en route to Indiana for her funeral, Shadow meets an eccentric businessman who calls himself Mr. Wednesday (see the mythological reference above), and passively accepts the latter’s offer of an imprecisely defined job as his assistant. Gaiman skillfully interleaves brief vignettes of various ancient gods and their myths with action in what seems to be real places like Lakeside, Wisconsin and other sites. The novel is effective in describing episodes on and off the plane of reality, as a series of mysterious encounters suggest to Shadow that he may not be in Indiana or Wisconsin anymore—or indeed anywhere on Earth he recognizes. In dreams, he’s visited by a grotesque figure with the head of a buffalo and the voice of a prophet—as well as by Laura’s rather alarmingly corporeal ghost. Shadow undergoes a succession of tests that echo those of Arthurian hero Sir Gawain bound by honor to surrender his life to the malevolent Green Knight, Orpheus braving the terrors of Hades to find and rescue the woman he loves, and numerous other archetypal figures out of folklore and legend.  The plot of the novel, while becoming more intricate as it proceeds also becomes more enjoyable. This is the book that answers the question: When people emigrate to America, what happens to the gods they leave behind?

Gaiman succeeds through his ability to provide fantastic details that are visually exciting to the reader. The dream sequences, even though bizarre and irrational, are beautiful and sometimes horrific in their detail. His prose flows with an ease that belies the complexity of the story and the surprises, of which there are plenty, come with every turn of the chapter. One realizes well before the end of this novel why the voters and writers of fantasy fiction gave it their highest awards. This is a book that reminds you why you love bookstores, which leads me to one more quote from the book:

“What I say is, a town isn't a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it's got a bookstore it knows it's not fooling a soul.”

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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Poetry as Winter Approaches

Robert Frost, who lived from 1874-1963 published “October” in 1915.  It was among the poems that he included in “A Boy’s Will”.

Outside there is an autumn mist upon my windowpane. Inside where I am warm I turn to the poem “October” in which Frost wishes that time be slowed, "Begin the hours of this day slow",  before the approaching winter.  He urges the reader to cherish each moment with "Hearts not averse to being beguiled".  Winter becomes a metaphor for death and finality, as he seeks enchantment.  Like many of Frost’s poems, “October” references nature to draw out meaning. This is done similarly in “Nothing Gold Can Stay” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”.

Marcel Proust's narrator for In Search of Lost Time said, "A change in the weather is sufficient to recreate the world and ourselves anew." I hope you will find similar thoughts expressed by Robert Frost in his poem simply titled "October".


O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
The crows above the forest call;
Tomorrow they may form and go.
O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow.
Make the day seem to us less brief.
Hearts not averse to being beguiled,
Beguile us in the way you know.
Release one leaf at break of day;
At noon release another leaf;
One from our trees, one far away.
Retard the sun with gentle mist;
Enchant the land with amethyst.
Slow, slow!
For the grapes’ sake, if they were all,
Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,
Whose clustered fruit must else be lost—
For the grapes’ sake along the wall.

-  Robert Frost

A Boy's Will by Robert Frost.   1st World Library, 2006 (1915) 

Monday, October 26, 2015

A Dangerous Glory

Iphigenia in AulisIphigenia in Aulis 
by Euripides

"Agamemnon: I envy you old man.  I envy a man who lives a life without a name.  But those that have power--I envy them least of all.

Old Man: But such men have a life of glory.

Agamemnon:  A glory that is filled with danger.  Yes, power is sweet, but it stands on the brink of grief.  Sometimes it is the gods who destroy a man's life.  Sometimes it is the minds of men, vicious and beyond number, that bring ruin." (pp 11-12)

Near the end of Iphigenia at Aulis, Iphigenia has offered herself as a sacrificial victim: 
"I have decided that I must die. And I shall die gloriously."(p 58) At this point the Chorus echoes her praises, but one wonders at the events that have led to this point and the event that will come to follow this moment as the ending turns the drama on its head.

The story told in this drama by Euripides is one that Athenians knew well. It was told by Aeschylus in his drama Agamemnon, the first play in the trilogy known as The Oresteia. Thus it would have had a tremendous impact on this audience and that impact has continued to this day.  In Aeschylus's play the Chorus, made up of the old men of Argos, enters and tells the story of how the Trojan Prince Paris stole Helen, the wife of the Greek king Menelaus, leading to ten years of war between Greece and Troy. Then the Chorus recalls how Clytemnestra's husband Agamemnon (Menelaus' brother) sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia at Aulis to the god Artemis to obtain a favorable wind for the Greek fleet.   

Euripides' play raises serious questions about the value of an individual life, and under what circumstances that life can be taken. Is the play's central event, the sacrifice of Iphigenia, a pointless waste, or a tragic necessity?  Do the players, her father Agamemnon, Achilles, and Iphigenia herself,  have a choice or is their fate determined by the gods (Artemis in particular)?  Is the war that will be fought as a result of her sacrifice a just cause, or a petty quarrel over individuals and the fate of the beautiful Helen?  Is her decision to offer herself an act of heroic patriotism?  Acceptance of the inevitable or possibly a sign of madness?  These questions and more linger in one's mind during and after reading this powerful drama.  

In Euripides play Iphigenia invokes values important to the Greeks (p 58-9); including obedience to the gods, "Artemis has determined to take this my body--can I, a mere mortal, thwart a goddess's will?"; that the community is more important than the individual, the Greeks must prevail over the barbarians, that men are more valuable than women, and that death in defense of these values is glorious and brings everlasting fame, "Sacrifice me and destroy Troy. That will be my epitaph for eternity. That will be my glory,".  That the glory that she seeks is one determined by men is an open question.  The play also raises questions about the importance of the family as her mother, Clytemnestra and supposed suitor, Achilles, take on important roles.

The translation of this play by Nicholas Rudall is both lucid and poetic in an attempt to capture some of the music that Euripides was famous for. His tragic irony shines through the dialogue. The questions raised in this play are universal in the sense that we still are concerned over the nature of heroism and fidelity to one's community. Euripides won a prize for this drama even though he was no longer present in Athens and had died the previous year. I would recommend this to all who are interested in these questions and their presentation in one of the singular dramas of the Western tradition.

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Thursday, October 22, 2015

Two Waifs in a Wartime Setting

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See 
by Anthony Doerr

“When I lost my sight, Werner, people said I was brave. When my father left, people said I was brave. But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don't you do the same?”   ― Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See

This is a book that was selected for our Thursday night book group. I mention this because I probably would not have read this novel had it not been selected, as I seldom read novels that are current best-sellers (The Martian was a recent exception, also selected by a book club).  By the end of the novel I found that I enjoyed reading All the Light We Cannot See,  but I did not share the views of the Pulitzer selection committee and those readers that have claimed greatness for this novel. 

Beginning in August 1944, we meet Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany. She is there with her great-uncle Etienne as they have moved out of Paris hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany.

The story is told with parallel short chapters providing flashbacks where we learn that Werner had been a bit of a math prodigy who at a very early age developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancy's during this period. Werner is selected to attend a technical school and later is transferred by a mentor into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions.
Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

The story plays out in short chapters and the time shifts from the present to the past. All of this is presented in a lucid and uncomplicated style that I found easy to read. The author is best in his use of theme and metaphor with the motif of light and the use of Verne's novel as a way to demonstrate the importance of imagination and an inner life for Marie-Laure. There is also a related motif of the voyage both from the Verne novel and from her great-uncle's reading of Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle to her; "She loves especially to hear about the dark coasts of South America with their impenetrable walls of trees and offshore breezes full of the stink of rotting kelp and the cries of whelping seals.  She loves to imagine Darwin at night, leaning over the ship's rail to stare into bioluminescent waves, watching the tracks of penguins marked by fiery green wakes."(p 150-1)  Passages like this are all the more memorable and meaningful when you reflect that the little blind girl is imagining these views and smells in her mind with no visual referent.

The life of the mind is just as important for Werner as he solves mathematical problems related to the building and repair of radios. This skill undoubtedly helps him survive what becomes a more difficult existence as the war proceeds. He is also inspired by "the Frenchman's radio program" (not realizing the source) and books like "Heinrich Hertz's Principles of Mechanics". (p 220)  Likewise Marie-Laure's imagination helps her as she and her great-uncle struggle for survival. The two main characters also are buoyed by their love for family; Werner for his sister Jutta, and Marie-Laure for her father.

Unfortunately the story was somewhat predictable and the information about the war was not enlightening to anyone with even an average knowledge of the history of World War II. Moreover I found the secondary characters appeared as stereotypical types; for example, Werner's best friend at the technical school, Frederick, who was portrayed as wealthy but weak (you realize immediately that he is unlikely to survive the competitive atmosphere of the school). There is an episode (notable only for its violence) when Frederick is culled from the class through horrible physical tests. He suffers more through Werner's inability to show any courage to stand up for him. Perhaps Werner learns a lesson in this episode for he demonstrates much courage later in the story. Finally, the denouement of the the story of Marie and Werner lacks suspense and I found it tended toward the melodramatic.

However, these issues did not significantly diminish my enjoyment reading this novel;  thus I would recommend it to those who like entertaining historical novels. Just do not expect to be challenged by it.

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Friday, October 16, 2015

A Fearless Literary Life

Andre Gide: A Life in the PresentAndre Gide: A Life in the Present 
by Alan Sheridan

"Gide was, by general consent, one of the dozen most important writers of the 20th century. Moreover, no writer of such stature had led such an interesting life, a life accessibly interesting to us as readers of his autobiographical writings, his journal, his voluminous correspondence and the testimony of others. It was the life of a man engaging not only in the business of artistic creation, but reflecting on that process in his journal, reading that work to his friends and discussing it with them; a man who knew and corresponded with all the major literary figures of his own country and with many in Germany and England; who found daily nourishment in the Latin, French, English and German classics, and, for much of his life, in the Bible; [who enjoyed playing Chopin and other classic works on the piano;] and who engaged in commenting on the moral, political and sexual questions of the day."

André Paul Guillaume Gide lived from 1869 until 1951. He was a French author and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1947 "for his comprehensive and artistically significant writings, in which human problems and conditions have been presented with a fearless love of truth and keen psychological insight". Gide's career ranged from its beginnings in the symbolist movement, to the advent of anticolonialism between the two World Wars.

Known for his fiction as well as his autobiographical works, Gide exposed to public view the conflict and eventual reconciliation of the two sides of his personality, split apart by a straitlaced education and a narrow social moralism. Gide's work can be seen as an investigation of freedom and empowerment in the face of moralistic and puritanical constraints, and centers on his continuous effort to achieve intellectual honesty. His self-exploratory texts reflect his search of how to be fully oneself, even to the point of owning one's sexual nature, without at the same time betraying one's values. His political activity is informed by the same ethos, as indicated by his repudiation of communism after his 1936 voyage to the USSR.

Alan Sheridan's biography of Gide narrates his life year-by-year with beautiful style. He distills the significant biographical writings of Gide (Journals, autobiography, etc.) along with his literary work and very event-filled life. The book, at more than seven hundred pages, is nothing if not comprehensive; providing more detail on his subject’s life than you might want to know, unless you love his writing as I do. It is a scholarly work, with all the apparatus that one has come to expect of contemporary biographies – a forest of footnotes, an extensive bibliography and index.

From a relatively early date, Gide discussed his homosexuality in his books and elsewhere with commendable courage. His earlier autobiographical work, If it Die (Si le Grain ne Meurt), describes his African encounters, and in 1925 he published Corydon, an essay on homosexuality and its place in society, written in the form of a Socratic dialogue. Some of his arguments now seem, inevitably, dated, but to have published such a book at all at that time, even in the relatively more civilised culture of France, was brave. I especially appreciated Sheridan's commentaries on Gide's fiction, most of which I have read and love.  Like all but the most famous European writers he is not well-enough known or appreciated in the United States.

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Thursday, October 08, 2015

Active vs Reactive Man

As one advances in life, one realizes more and more that the majority of men - and of women - are incapable of any other effort than that strictly imposed on them as a reaction to external compulsion. And for that reason, the few individuals we have come across who are capable of a spontaneous and joyous effort stand out isolated, monumentalized, so to speak, in our experience. These are the select men, the nobles, the only ones who are active and not merely reactive, for whom life is a perpetual striving, an incessant course of training.
- Jose Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses (pp. 65-66)

The drama Faust by Goethe is a work that I have read and returned to over the years.  In addition to the enjoyment of the drama I have found it a font of ideas containing connections with other works.  Reading Ortega y Gasset's seminal The Revolt of the Masses raised one of those ideas, reminding me of the importance of Goethe's drama for modern thinkers like Ortega y Gasset.  For it is the realization man gains through the experience of life that extends only to those who choose to think and act. Men and women of principle who have identified their goals, and who act upon them with a "spontaneous and joyous effort", are those who strive with a purpose. It is in opposition to this that we consider the directionless striving of Goethe's Faust. His action is that which leads not to nobility, but rather to the ultimate dissolution of his life and ideals.

Faust Part I, embodies a search for the essence of human spiritual growth and understanding. Early in the play we find Faust concluding, "and see there is nothing we can know!" (I, 364). He says this following a life whose purpose was the pursuit of wisdom and understanding.  It was a pursuit that appeared to be fruitless yet, in spite of his apparent conclusion, moments later he is seeking and finding, "enchantment at the sight of this" (sign of the Macrocosm) (I, 430). The enchantment he seeks is that which comes with the union of human spirit with the spirit of nature, or the universe, for which all noble humans strive. Yet this is not possible for Faust, for he is torn apart by a duality of spirit, as shown by the famous lines:

Two souls , alas, are dwelling in my breast,
And either would be severed from its brother;
The one holds fast with joyous earthly lust
Onto the world of man with organs clinging;
The other soars impassioned from the dust,
To realms of lofty forebears winging. (I, 1112-17)

This duality is the manifestation of Faust's ultimate inability to focus on a purpose for his life and his striving. He wagers with Mephistopheles (I, 1692-8), but by that point he has succumbed completely to a permanent separation from the Macrocosm, and thus from the reality of himself. It is Mephistopheles who identifies this separation (I, 1346-54), which seems not unlike the separation of man and god presented by Augustine in his Confessions (Book I, 1).

What do we make of this separation or duality? When combined with Faust's striving - or perhaps avoiding - it becomes the path to Faust's ultimate dissolution. For it is this separation that prevents Faust from focusing on a purpose for his life, without which he he cannot gain the understanding he is seeking. And what do we see as the role of knowledge? It seems that knowledge is not enough to save Faust, not just because he views the attempt to gain knowledge as futile, but because he lacks a purpose or goal for that knowledge beyond the striving itself. Faust becomes like the man described by Ortega y Gasset, "incapable of any other effort than that strictly imposed . . . as a reaction to external compulsion."

But , you may say, is he not inwardly driven toward the striving or action for some purpose? An answer to this question may be found in Mephistopheles request to, "explore what life can be." (I, 1543), and in Faust's reply in which he concludes, "Existence seems a burden to detest. Death to be wished for, life a hateful jest." (I, 1570-1) Faust's inward compulsion is seen to be directed toward death, and only Mephistopheles is able to compel him toward action in this world. Thus striving in this world cannot be maintained by Faust alone, without purpose, and we ultimately see him as an empty creature waiting to be fulfilled by death and, he hopes, union with god.

Is this the nobility of the sort desired by men and women of principle? Those who are "active and not reactive" reject the lure of Mephistopheles and the irrational; focusing on their purpose in life with a joyous rationality. They are driven by an inward striving toward knowledge and understanding as suggested by the famous statement of Aristotle at the beginning of his Metaphysics, "All men by nature desire to know" (980a). These are the men and women described by Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics:

Now those activities are desirable in themselves from which nothing is sought beyond the activity. And of this nature virtuous actions are thought to be, for to do noble and good deeds is a thing desirable for its own sake. (1176a 33)

That the doing of noble and good deeds requires a purpose distinguishes the active man from the merely reactive. It is this that leads to the nobility of spirit and it is this that Faust rejects as he says, "Thus I reel from desire to fulfillment, and in fulfillment languish for desire." (I, 3249-50) Later in the same scene Faust again admits the purposelessness of his striving (I, 3348-9). We thus see in Faust the rejection of the virtuous activity that leads to nobility in man, a rejection that leads Faust to death and dissolution.

Faust Part I by Johann Goethe, trans. by Walter Arndt. Norton Classics, New York. 1976 (1808)
Confessions by St. Augustine, trans Rex Warner. Penguin, New York. 1963 (401)
Metaphysics and Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle, trans. David Ross. Random House, New York. 1941.
The Revolt of the Masses by Jose Ortega y Gasset. W. W. Norton, New York. 1957 (1930)

Monday, October 05, 2015

Magical Realism and Satire

The Master and MargaritaThe Master and Margarita 

by Mikhail Bulgakov

“Follow me, reader! Who told you that there is no true, faithful, eternal love in this world! May the liar's vile tongue be cut out! Follow me, my reader, and me alone, and I will show you such a love!”  ― Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita

I have read this novel several times, most recently with our Thursday evening book group. With its complex construction including three major story lines and fantastic elements including the presence of Satan and a large black cat as two major characters it certainly warrants rereading. And it rewards that rereading with a wonderful depth of meaning. The story is set in Moscow in the nineteen thirties when literature is controlled by the state. The reality of Soviet state suppression is one of the primary story lines and this is displayed with a flair for satire. The major state literary association is chaired by a bureaucrat named Berlioz. One of the main reasons I liked the book was its fundamental literary foundation with strong influence of the Faust story and the work of Russians, particularly Gogol and Pushkin.

The style seems dreamlike one moment and yet suddenly becomes very realistic. For example at one point Ivan Ponyrev, the "homeless" poet, is involved in a fantastic chase with the large black cat by his side as they jump from street to street until, with the beginning of a new paragraph, he is in a very dingy apartment building that is described in realistic detail. There is also the whimsy of naming several of the characters after famous composers, Berlioz and Rimsky [Korsakoff] for two examples. This appealed to my musical interests while the literary references abound as seen by this excerpt:
“You're not Dostoevsky,' said the citizeness, who was getting muddled by Koroviev. Well, who knows, who knows,' he replied.
'Dostoevsky's dead,' said the citizeness, but somehow not very confidently.
'I protest!' Behemoth exclaimed hotly. 'Dostoevsky is immortal!”

Satan, referred to as Woland and appearing as an old professor, with his familiar, a cat called Behemoth, prepares a fantastic ball (compare to Walpurgisnacht).  At the ball the cat with the help of demons creates a scene of mayhem and ferocious comedy. I came to appreciate the humor even more after seeing a dramatic adaptation of it performed by a small theater company some time ago. The imagination displayed by the adaptation expanded my own horizons upon a subsequent rereading.

The satire becomes more apparent after rereading the novel while other humor includes slapstick episodes and the sheer insanity of the story. Another primary story line is religious as it is depicted through an inserted tale of Pontius Pilate and Christ as written by the poet known as the Master. With his mistress, Margarita, the Master leads the novel into a final phase that continues the fantastic elements of the story. I found the new translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky excellent as all their Russian translations have been. For those readers interested in magic and supernaturalism, Satan and Pontius Pilate with a beauty and a poet, this is the novel for you. This is certainly a twentieth century masterpiece.

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