Tuesday, August 30, 2016

A Counterfeit Tale within a Tale

The CounterfeitersThe Counterfeiters 
by André Gide

The most decisive actions of our life... are most often unconsidered actions.
  ~André Gide, The Counterfeiters

The Counterfeiters is a book about writing a book, also called "The Counterfeiters". That is the primary theme of the novel which comes from the title of the book by the writer Edouard. Thus The Counterfeiters is a novel-within-a-novel, with Edouard (the alter ego of Gide) writing a book of the same title. Other stylistic devices are also used, such as an omniscient narrator that sometimes addresses the reader directly, weighs in on the characters' motivations or discusses alternate realities. However, there is also the story of a group of boys who are passing counterfeit coins throughout Paris. Thus we have entered a world where we cannot trust our senses -- what is counterfeit and what is real?

The story of Edouard writing his novel demonstrates his search for knowledge, yet as he associates with a group of his own adolescent relatives it appears as an artificial arrangement; one that displays the effects upon society of youth's corruption of traditional standards and values. The collapse of morality is illustrated with Eduoard's nephew Vincent, who deserts his lover Laura, a married woman, and runs away with Lillian, the mistress of Count Robert de Passavant. His life goes downhill as he murders her and goes insane.
There is also the coming of age story of Bernard and Olivier as they prepare to leave school -- but does this extend beyond their education and emanate from all who are learning about the world? This learning which is required by the changing nature of the everyday, the quotidian reality that is, perhaps, counterfeit.

I found the details of Edouard's struggles with his career, his family, his friendships and love provided images that enhanced the main themes, yet also energized the narrative drive. Another subplot of the novel is homosexuality. Some of the characters are overtly homosexual, like the adolescent Olivier, and the adult writers Count de Passavant and Eduoard. The Count seems to be an evil and corrupting force while the latter is benevolent. Even when the treatment is not overt, there is a homoerotic subtext that runs throughout, which encompasses Olivier's friend, Bernard, and their schoolfellows Gontran and Philippe. The main theme of The Counterfeiters encompasses the issue of sexuality, morality, and social order and lineage in a unique way for his era.

Gide's novel was not received well on its appearance, perhaps because of its homosexual themes and its unusual composition. It is this unusual composition that I thought made it an interesting read; along with which the way Gide demonstrates ideas through his characters and their actions much like Dostoevsky and Thomas Mann. The Counterfeiters has seen its reputation improve in the intervening years and is now generally counted among the great novels of the twentieth century.

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The Bird Girl

Green MansionsGreen Mansions 
by William Henry Hudson

"I began to hear . . . a low strain of exquisite bird-melody, wonderfully pure and expressive, unlike any musical sound I had ever heard before."
Green Mansions Chapter II, W. H. Hudson

Green Mansions: a Romance of the Tropical Forest (1904) is an exotic romance by W. H. Hudson (1841-1922) about a traveler to the Guyana jungle of southeastern Venezuela and his encounter with a forest dwelling girl named Rima. Hudson was born in Argentina, son of settlers of U.S. origin.
He spent his youth studying the local flora and fauna and observing both natural and human dramas on what was then a lawless frontier, publishing his ornithological work in Proceedings of the Royal Zoological Society, initially in an English mingled with Spanish idioms. He settled in England during 1869. He produced a series of ornithological studies which helped foster the back-to-nature movement of the 1920s and 1930s. He was a founding member of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Hudson wrote more than three dozen books during his life but by far his best known novel is Green Mansions, and his best known non-fiction is a memoir, Far Away and Long Ago (1918).

When I began to reread Green Mansions recently I instantly remembered why it impressed me so much. More than most other authors Hudson is able to instill the sense of wonder through his protagonist Abel who, while living by the Orinoco river in Venezuela, is drawn to the forest lands by strange bird-like singing. There he discovers a young girl named Rima and it is her story that takes up much of the remainder of the novel. She is unspoiled and wild like the animals among whom she lives. She knows neither the evil nor guile common to most civilized humans. This gives her supernatural stature in the eyes of the worldly Abel, who falls passionately in love with her.

Hudson based Rima and her lost tribe on persistent rumors about a tribe of white people who lived in the mountains. Temple paintings often showed light-skinned people, and Spanish Conquistadors were at first thought to be gods. I first read this novel when I was in high school and the memory of its' evocative and lyrical prose has lingered over the intervening decades. With qualities of a striking and original sort it has an enchantment; its pages are haunted by an unearthly perception of beauty and a wonderment that stirs the imagination. The story is one of people who are almost in an original state of nature, a romantic, if flawed, view (perhaps inspired by Rousseau) that suggests their world may be better than civilization.

Green Mansions is one of the few novels ever to become an undisputed classic during the author's lifetime. It inspired a statue of Rima that you can find in Kensington Garden, London. It is a book I found to be truly enthralling and full of romantic magic making it a great read.

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Thursday, August 25, 2016

Plato's Republic as recreated by Athena

The Just City (Thessaly, #1)The Just City 
by Jo Walton

“Know Thyself. It’s good advice. Know yourself. You are worth knowing. Examine your life. The unexamined life is not worth living. Be aware that other people have equal significance. Give them the space to make their own choices, and let their choices count as you want them to let your choices count. Remember that excellence has no stopping point and keep on pursuing it. Make art that can last and that says something nobody else can say. Live the best life you can, and become the best self you can. You cannot know which of your actions is the lever that will move worlds. Not even Necessity knows all ends. Know yourself.”  ― Jo Walton, The Just City

This was the latest book discussed in our monthly SF reading group.  The author, Jo Walton, presents a Utopian world modeled on the Republic of Plato. In doing so she creates a story that is a blend of fantasy and science fiction with the emphasis on the former. This raised a perennial question for the group: is this book a science fiction novel or not? My response is to consider it an example of speculative fiction as discussed and defined by Margaret Atwood and others.

In this book we have a new city created on an island by the Greek goddess, Pallas Athene. While Apollo, her brother, is involved as well (he chooses to participate in the experiment in human form), the main characters are young children, teachers, Masters, and some robots, all of whom have been brought together to form the Just City as defined in the Republic of Plato. Among the major characters is a student, Simmea, from Egypt who demonstrates a thirst for knowledge that would make Socrates proud. There is also a teacher, Maia, formerly a Victorian lady who is brought to the city by Athene when she makes a prayer to her. Other primary characters include a boy named Kebes and Pytheas (Apollo). There are other famous figures that are brought together as masters for the students, but none more famous than Socrates.

The masters are generally happy to build and live in the Just City, but not all the children are, especially since it’s suggested that the masters encouraged the growth of slavery in various eras by purchasing so many children. No matter that the children are well-treated and educated, they're not allowed to leave and must follow strict rules whose provenance they can’t entirely understand, since they’re not even allowed to read The Republic. The justness of the City becomes even more questionable when evidence accumulates that the mechanical workers used in place of slaves may actually be sentient.

It is when Socrates joins the city and brings his traditional questioning method that the utopian project really begins to experience significant growing pains. It is when the restraints imposed by the city as defined by Plato become too difficult for those in the city to follow that the story becomes both more interesting and sometimes unappealing. It is when the rigidity of the ideal city as defined by Plato creates a world where freedom becomes "freedom to obey", not freedom to question and act based on the reasoning of your own mind. This dichotomy is exacerbated by Socrates' insistence on dialogues with the students. After all, Socrates did not create the City or its rules. Here is an example from a dialogue between Socrates and one of the students about the system of taking children away from their parents and raising them together:
"'But you will say, will you not, that the purpose of the system is not to maximize individual happiness but the justice of the whole city?'
'Yes,' she said.
'And how does this maximize justice?'
'People do not form individual attachments but are attached to all the others, and people do not care about their own children than all the children of the city.'
'But that's nonsense,' Socrates said gently. 'They do form individual attachments, they're just pursuing them in secret. And they do care more about their own children, they're just prevented from seeing them.'" (p 352)
Athene interjects that there are good reasons for this such as avoiding the development of family rivalries. That does not persuade either the children or Socrates.

There’s often more thought experiment than plot here. The fictional and mythological protagonists have a certain appeal, but it’s disappointing that Walton barely sketches most of the historical characters who play minor roles in the story—readers will have to do the research themselves in order to flesh them out. The best aspect of this novel is the way that the students develop, socialize, and learn about the world. While the prose sometimes reminded me of a "Young Adult" novel, despite that possible drawback the combination of philosophic discussion and ideas was both entertaining and thought-provoking. It helps if you have previously read Plato's Republic, but if you haven't and are interested in the ideas presented here you may be encouraged to pick it up and read the original for yourself.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Fragmentary Thoughts on Approaching Death

Living Up to DeathLiving Up to Death 
by Paul Ricœur

"Where to begin this late apprenticeship?  By what is essential, right away?  by the necessity and difficulty of mourning a wanting-to-exist after death?  by joy--no, instead, with cheerfulness joined to a hoped-for grace of existing until death?" (p 7)

Near the end of his life the philosopher Paul Ricoeur began to meditate on death with a focus on three questions: "1) "imagined figures" (what representation can I give myself?); 2) "mourning and cheerfulness" (what is their root?); and 3) "Am I still a Christian?" (along with In what way am I not a "Christian philosopher"?)." (p viii) The result of thinking about these questions is the slight book, Living Up to Death. The thoughts in this spare book that he left unfinished at the end of his life may be summed up by the phrase "Get on with life." That is we must address the choices in our life that one is mortal and that one cannot be loved by everyone. (p ix)

I read this book and discussed it in a course on the "Art and Practice of Dying". I will try to share some of the issues that I found both interesting and important in Ricoeur's book. One surely is his discussion of the "philosophies of finitude". That is our human mortality that we all share -- we all are obliged to die and having to die must consider our own mortality. But can we really do any more than look forward, unable to really see the end? Each day we look forward to the next day, week, month, perhaps year but the end is something that, at best, we can only hope to live up to. Then it happens. Ludwig Wittgenstein said it well in the Tractatus: "Death is not a lived experience,". Ricoeur observes that "so long as they remain lucid ill dying people do not see themselves as dying, as soon to be dead, but as still living," (pp 13-14) 
With the emphasis on still living he theorizes that this feeling is connected with something essential that everyone experiences - perhaps in a religious way - but perhaps only when actually facing death.

These thoughts do not sound very cheerful, yet they are discussed in a chapter entitled "Mourning and Cheerfulness". What is cheerful about death? Ricoeur references narratives about death camp experiences ( Jorge Semprun and Primo Levi) observing that the connections between humans and the comfort that comes from the process of mourning. This he calls the "relation of our desire to live" in relation to all others. The discourse presents ideas that, while not necessarily convincing, are thought-provoking. They enable and encourage meditation on issues that might otherwise be hidden away in some corner where we do not go. This does not mean that it is comfortable to think about these ideas, but it can be comforting. I would compare it to what Ricoeur has to say about writing about these issues: "the work of memory is the work of mourning. And both are a word of hope, torn from what is unspoken." (p 39) 
It is important to note that, even here with these thoughts, the manuscript left by Ricoeur was not complete and included notes in the margin that the editors of the book refer to.

The book concludes with fragments for a final chapter (chapters?) that were left unformed. Here Ricoeur was attempting to distinguish between his role as philosopher and his life as a Christian. He also comments on his own physical deterioration. His wife had died in 1998 and in 2003 he suffered degeneration of his eyesight and his heart. Yet even during this time he noted "People see me as looking better than I feel". (p 95) 
He continued to think about these issues in his last days and while doing so he sent the following note to a younger colleague:

"Dear Marie,
At the hour of decline the word resurrection arises. Beyond every miraculous episode . From the depths of life, a power suddenly appears, which says that being is being against death.
Believe this with me.
your friend, Paul R."

This reminds me of a quote from Albert Camus, "In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer."  I have always found this uplifting and there are similar moments in Paul Ricoeur's book.   While it  is incomplete and only partially fragments of what would have been a larger work it is still a valuable contribution to the literature about the philosophy of death and dying.

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Saturday, August 20, 2016

Betrayed by His Passions

The Red and the BlackThe Red and the Black 
by Stendhal

“Ah, Sir, a novel is a mirror carried along a high road. At one moment it reflects to your vision the azure skies, at another the mire of the puddles at your feet. And the man who carries this mirror in his pack will be accused by you of being immoral! His mirror shews the mire, and you blame the mirror! Rather blame that high road upon which the puddle lies, still more the inspector of roads who allows the water to gather and the puddle to form.”   ― Stendhal, The Red and the Black

I have enjoyed rereading Le Rouge et le Noir (The Red and the Black) by Stendahl. It is a historical psychological novel in two volumes, published in 1830, that chronicles the attempts of a provincial young man to rise socially beyond his lowly upbringing through a combination of intelligence, talent, hard work, deception, and hypocrisy. He ultimately allows his passions to betray him. 

While the novel is usually classified as a bildungsroman or novel of education, in entitling it Le Rouge et le Noir: Chronique du XIXe siècle (The Red and the Black: A Chronicle of the 19th Century) Stendhal suggests a two-fold literary purpose as both a psychological portrait of the romantic protagonist, Julien Sorel, and an analytic, sociological satire of the French social order under the Bourbon Restoration. The title refers to the tension between the clerical (black) and secular (red) interests of the protagonist, which is a matter of some debate.

The story tells of a young man, Julien Sorel, whose provincial nature is inflamed with the passion of youth, a passion for the ideals of the Napoleonic age, but whose greatest passion is his ambition which, overwhelming any natural pudency, takes him to the heights and sets in motion his tragic fall. His passion is contrasted with his intellect which is strong enough to allow him to escape both his difficult home life and his lowly status. Stendhal is able to present his narrative with unmatched, for his time, psychological depth and realism. The love affairs of Julien and the political intrigues in which he participates are spellbinding for the reader even today. This novel truly presents a "mirror" of reality and provides an engaging challenge for the reader. The story presents a protagonist torn between his passion for the ideal of Napoleon represented by the red of the cavalry dragoons and the black of the bishops of the church. Ultimately he finds hypocrisy on all sides and turns upon one of his loves while rejecting his only true friend.

Stendhal repeatedly questions the possibility, and the desirability, of “sincerity”, because most of the characters, especially Julien Sorel, are acutely aware of having to play a role to gain social approval. In that 19th-century context, the word “hypocrisy” denoted the affectation of high religious sentiment; in The Red and the Black it connotes the contradiction between thinking and feeling. Le Rouge et le Noir is set in the latter years of the Bourbon Restoration (1814–30) and the days of the 1830 July Revolution that established the Kingdom of the French (1830–48). Stendhal was consciously writing a historical novel set in the present. The subtitle, "a chronicle of 1830," made his contemporary readers aware of not only the historical context of the novel but of their own lives as well. Julien's choice between the black of the Church and the red of the army was a decision that many of Stendhal's readers had to make themselves. His worldly ambitions are motivated by the emotional tensions, between his idealistic Republicanism (especially nostalgic allegiance to Napoleon), and the realistic politics of counter-revolutionary conspiracy, by Jesuit-supported legitimists, notably the Marquis de la Mole, whom Julien serves, for personal gain.  It is his first moments at the home of the Marquis de la Mole that I found most memorable (as a reader who loves books);  Julien rises with the help of Father Pirard to private secretary for Marquis de la Mole. His office is to be the library. ”A few minutes later, Julien found himself alone in a magnificent library; it was a delightful moment. So no one would come to him, excited as he was, he hid himself in a dark corner. From there, he looked out at the books’ glittering spines. ‘I could read every one of them,’ he told himself.”  

Even though Stendhal does not directly refer to the 1830 Revolution, he highlights the political tensions and corruption that had reached a recent boiling point. But this emphasis on history also serves as a warning to readers: Julien's failure to succeed in French society and his betrayal by M. Valenod present a foreboding distrust of the victorious liberal bourgeoisie. Would the death of the aristocracy mark the death of French society? Stendhal's comparison of the gamble of revolution to the red and black of a roulette wheel, presents a harrowing glimpse of the volatility of French politics--a vision that still fascinates readers today. 

In his famous book of literary criticism, Deceit, Desire and the Novel, philosopher and critic René Girard identifies in Le Rouge et le Noir the triangular structure he denominates as “mimetic desire”, which reveals how a person’s desire for another is always mediated by a third party, i.e. one desires a person only when he or she is desired by someone else. Girard’s proposition accounts for the perversity of Julien's relationship with Mathilde, the daughter of the Marquis de la Mole. This becomes clear when he begins courting the widow Mme de Fervaques to pique Mathilde’s jealousy, but also for Julien’s fascination with and membership of the high society he simultaneously desires and despises.

To help achieve a literary effect, Stendhal headed each chapter with epigraphs—literary, poetic, historic quotations—that he attributed to others. The first book of the novel is headed with the following epigraph, "Truth, bitter truth." - Danton. This quote, presumably from the works of the famous revolutionary leader who was sent to the guillotine in 1794 by Robespierre is prescient in hindsight as we read of the rise and ultimate fall of young Julien. With its psychological insight, social criticism, and political intrigue this is still an exciting, even exhilarating read and truly a great book for all time.

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Saturday, August 13, 2016

Notes on The Death of Virgil

The Death of Virgil
 Part I

The Arrival of Virgil in Brundisium

"STEEL-BLUE AND LIGHT, RUFFLED BY A SOFT, SCARCELY perceptible cross-wind. the waves of the Adriatic streamed against the imperial squadron as it steered toward the harbor of Brundisium, the flat hills of the Calabrian coast coming gradually nearer on the left." (p 11) 

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

With the use of third person narrative that often seems like a "stream of consciousness" Hermann Broch is able to put the reader inside the head of Virgil for much of the book. From the opening pages we meet a poet/artist Virgil who is on the edge of life in several different respects. The edge between water and land is explored as Virgil's ship, one among the parade of ships escorting Augustus back to the port of Brundisium in Roman Italy, sails toward land on the first page of the novel.

"as the sunny yet deathly loneliness of the sea changed with the peaceful stir of friendly human activity where the channel, softly enhanced by the proximity of human life and human living, was populated by all sorts of craft". (p 11)

 The sunny sea is seen as also deathly in its loneliness. This signals another edge that will be important throughout the novel as Virgil in his illness hovers between life and death. Further there is the personal and historical background with the tension between Virgil and Augustus mirroring that of Athens and Rome. Even though Virgil dearly loved the life of study and thought in Athens he was torn by his memories of home as he arrived in Brundisium:

"lifted up in the breath of the immutable coolness, borne forward to seas so enigmatic and unknown that it was like a homecoming, for wave upon wave of the great planes through which his keel had already furrowed, wave-planes of memory, wave-planes of seas, they had not become transparent, nothing in them had divulged itself to him, only the enigma remained, and filled with the enigma of the past overflowed its shores and reached into the present, so that in the midst of the resinous torch-smoke, in the midst of the brooding city fumes, , , how they all lay behind him, about him, within him, how entirely they were his own," (p 31)

Throughout the beginning of the novel, a section titled "Water--The Arrival", Virgil is filled with doubts. He is nearing the end of his life with a feeling that "it was time itself that called down scorn upon him, the unalterable flood of time with its manifold voices," and he may not be able to escape his fate. But what was that fate and why was it important to him as creator? This is something that he is unsure of even to the point of asking himself why he was writing this book (The Aeneid which is always by his side). 

"Nothing availed the poet, he could right no wrongs; he is heeded only if he extols the world, never if he portrays it as it is. Only falsehood wins renown, not understanding! And could one assume that the Aeneid would be vouchsafed another or better influence?" (p 15)

His own Aeneid as quoted epigraphically by Broch suggests that Virgil is "exiled by fate" just as his creation, Aeneas, was. Is that the fate of all poets? Must they be exiled by their fate to become an artist of this world? Perhaps the final three sections of The Death of Virgil will suggest answers to these and other questions.

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