Friday, July 21, 2017

From the Journals of Henry David Thoreau

Aspiration


Jan. 24, 1856  A Journal is a record of experiences and growth, not a preserve of things well done or said. I am occasionally reminded of a statement which I have made in conversation and immediately forgotten, which would read much better than what I put in my journal. It is a ripe, dry fruit of long-past experience which falls from me easily, without giving pain or pleasure. The charm of the journal must consist in a certain greenness, though freshness, and not in maturity. Here I cannot afford to be remembering what I said or did, my scurf cast off, but what I am and aspire to become."


The Journal: 1837-1861, Henry David Thoreau. New York Review Books, 2009. p. 362

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Blind Date

Samuel Johnson Is Indignant 


Samuel Johnson Is Indignant

"Sometimes I did exactly what I wanted to do all day—I lay on the sofa and read a book, or I typed up an old diary—and then the most terrifying sort of despair would descend on me: the very freedom I was enjoying seemed to say that what I did in my day was arbitrary, and that therefore my whole life and how I spent it was arbitrary.”   ― Lydia Davis, Can't and Won't: Stories


Rather than comment on the stories in this collection I will let the author speak for herself.  Here are selected paragraphs from "Blind Date";

""There isn't really much to tell," she said, but she would tell it if I liked. We were sitting in a midtown luncheonette. "I've only had one blind date in my life. And I didn't really have it. I can think of more interesting situations that are like a blind date--say, when someone gives you a book as a present, when they fix you up with that book. I was once given a book of essays about reading, writing, book collecting. I felt it was a perfect match. I started reading it right away, in the backseat of the car. I stopped listening to the conversation in the front. I like to read about how other people read and collect books, even how they shelve their books. But by the time I was done with the book, I had taken a strong dislike to the author's personality. I won't have another date with her!" She laughed. Here we were interrupted by the waiter, and then a series of incidents followed that kept us from resuming our conversation that day."

...

"I was fifteen or sixteen, I guess," she said. "I was home from boarding school. Maybe it was summer. I don't know where my parents were. They were often away. They often left me alone there, sometimes for the evening, sometimes for weeks at a time. The phone rang. It was a boy I didn't know. He said he was a friend of a boy from school—I can't remember who. We talked a little and then he asked me if I wanted to have dinner with him. He sounded nice enough so I said I would, and we agreed on a day and a time and I told him where I lived."

...

"Well, when the day came, I didn't want to go out to dinner with this boy. I just didn't want the difficulty of this date. It scared me—not because there was anything scary about the boy but because he was a stranger, I didn't know him. I didn't want to sit there face-to-face in some restaurant and start from the very beginning, knowing nothing. It didn't feel right. And there was the burden of that recommendation—'Give her a try.'


"Then again, maybe there were other reasons. Maybe I had been alone in that apartment so much by then that I had retreated into some kind of inner, unsociable space that was hard to come out of. Maybe I felt I had disappeared and I was comfortable that way and did not want to be forced back into existence. I don't know.


Samuel Johnson Is Indignant by Lydia Davis. Picador, 2002 (2001)

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Tahiti and Literature

In the South Seas 


In the South Seas


“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilization, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints.”   ― Robert Louis Stevenson






Tahiti was the setting for Herman Melville’s Omoo, published in 1847. This was the second of Melville’s novels — a sequel to Typee and so a second “Peep at Polynesian Life.” While both of his books were popular, another of my favorite authors also wrote eloquently of his travels including Tahiti. While he had previously travelled with a donkey, Robert Louis Stevenson in 1888 travelled to Tahiti, and after two more voyages settled in the Samoan Islands for the remainder of his life. It was from his time in Tahiti that he was inspired to write some of his most evocative poetry including the following:

Let me fathom out with my arms the length of golden-bred Tahiti
And number one by one the lands of Tautira.
I am seized with fear at Tepari
I shall stop short at Vaita
Clouds are over the sun and it blows a bad wind,
And my home is beyond at Faaroa.
At Vaiumete is a ledge where a man must go with the arms spread.
I must measure with my arms the face of that weary cliff.

Stevenson loved Tahiti and developed a close friendship with a Tahitian named Ori, becoming a "brother" to the Tahitian sub chief (Bell, p 217). While he published three tales about Tahiti his collection of travel essays, In the South Seas, did not include essays on the time he spent in Tahiti. I have always marveled at the various, often famous, adventure novels by Stevenson. My fascination with this author is enhanced by his life story, for as a sickly child, would grow up to travel extensively, often because of his illness. Needless, his wanderlust led in part to the wonderful novels of adventure that we have today.


In the South Seas by Robert Louis Stevenson. Penguin Classics, New York. 1999 (1896)
Dreams of Exile, Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Ian Bell. Henry Holt, New York. 1992

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Reading for Life

Thoreau on Reading




"How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book. The book exists for us perchance which will explain our miracles and reveal new ones. The at present unutterable things we may find somewhere uttered."



About a third of the way into the text of Walden one encounters a chapter simply titled "Reading".  What does this have to do with Walden pond and Thoreau's small home beside it?  Well, he answers that his "residence was more favorable, not only to thought, but to serious reading, than a university".  That this was important to Thoreau is emphasized by the opening sentence of the chapter:  "With a little more deliberation in the choice of their pursuits, all men would perhaps become essentially students and observers, for certainly their nature and destiny are interesting to all alike."

All men, and women too, would be like Thoreau, deliberate students and observers of the world.  All this, and I count myself one with Thoreau, is for the purpose of improving oneself.  That reading can be an important source of one's personal improvement is clear from the next paragraph where Thoreau quotes the poet Mir Camar Uddin Mast, "Being seated to run through the region of the spiritual world; I have had this advantage in books." To this Thoreau immediately adds that he "kept Homer's Iliad on my table through the summer".  Now my choice would be The Odyssey, but Homer is certainly a great choice for a small library in a little hut by a pond surrounded by the fresh beauty of Nature.

Thoreau not only encourages one to read but makes a case for the classics.  Whether it is Homer or Aeschylus (and for Thoreau this meant the original Greek, but I'm sure the fine translations available to us today will suffice for us moderns).  He argues that the classics are "the noblest recorded thoughts of man . . . and there are such answers to the most modern inquiry in them as Delphi and Dodona never gave."
  
He continues with a paean to reading that is nothing if not inspirational:  "To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a novel exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. . . Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written."  Even Alexander, when carrying on his conquest of the Mediterranean world, carried the Iliad with him.  As Thoreau goes on to say, "A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself."

Heady stuff this is, but readers all, and I can only base this on my personal experience, have their own stories of reading from an early age.  Whether it was the stories of the Bible or Aesop, the adventures of Tom Sawyer or Jack Hawkins, or heavier tomes as one matures like those of Dickens or Dante; whatever path you choose in reading you learn and grow and eventually learn your letters as Thoreau would say.  He adds the following encouragement, saying "I think that having learned our letters we should read the best that is in literature, and not be forever repeating our a b abs, and words of one syllable, in the fourth or fifth classes, sitting on the lowest and foremost form all our lives."  

In other words, read widely and deeply and never be "satisfied".  Like Thoreau,"aspire to be acquainted with wiser men than this our Concord soil has produced, whose names are hardly known here. Or shall I hear the name of Plato and never read his book?"  Of course  Thoreau's best friends included the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Ellery Channing.  While we can only read these great writers along with Thoreau himself, we can follow his advice by reading other great books of every age from classic to modern.

Let us celebrate the birthday of Henry David Thoreau by following both his example and his advice in reading books that will make us better persons.  The result will bring us a greater appreciation of nature, move us closer to all persons in our lives, and open to us the miracles of the world around us.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Top Ten Tuesday


Best Books I have read so far in 2017.




Responsibility and Judgment  by Hannah Arendt

This collection gathers together unpublished writings from the last decade of Arendt’s life, where she addresses fundamental questions and concerns about the nature of evil and the making of moral choices. At the heart of the book is a profound ethical investigation, “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy,” in which Arendt confronts the inadequacy of traditional moral “truths” as standards to judge what we are capable of doing and examines anew our ability to distinguish good from evil and right from wrong. We also see how Arendt comes to understand that alongside the radical evil she had addressed in earlier analyses of totalitarianism, there exists a more pernicious evil, independent of political ideology, whose execution is limitless when the perpetrator feels no remorse and can forget his acts as soon as they are committed.



The Underground Railroad  by Colson Whitehead

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for all the slaves but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood - where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. 



Survival in Auschwitz  by Primo Levi

In 1943, Primo Levi, a twenty-five-year-old chemist and "Italian citizen of Jewish race," was arrested by Italian fascists and deported from his native Turin to Auschwitz. Survival in Auschwitz is Levi's classic account of his ten months in the German death camp, a harrowing story of systematic cruelty and miraculous endurance. Remarkable for its simplicity, restraint, compassion, and even wit, Survival in Auschwitz remains a lasting testament to the indestructibility of the human spirit. 



Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness  
by Peter Godfrey-Smith

A philosopher dons a wet suit and journeys into the depths of consciousness.  Peter Godfrey-Smith is a leading philosopher of science. He is also a scuba diver whose underwater videos of warring octopuses have attracted wide notice. In this book, he brings his parallel careers together to tell a bold new story of how nature became aware of itself.



Notes From Underground  by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

"I am a sick man . . . I am a spiteful man," the irascible voice of a nameless narrator cries out. And so, from underground, emerge the passionate confessions of a suffering man; the brutal self-examination of a tormented soul; the bristling scorn and iconoclasm of alienated individual who has become one of the greatest antiheroes in all literature. 



The Sympathizer  by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, as well as five other awards, this had the pace and suspense of a thriller and prose that has been compared to Graham Greene and Saul Bellow, The Sympathizer is a sweeping epic of love and betrayal. The narrator, a communist double agent, is a “man of two minds



Gulliver's Travels  by Jonathan Swift

The classic tale from Lilliput to the land of the Houyhnhms.


Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage  
by Alfred Lansing

In August 1914, explorer Ernest Shackleton and his crew set sail from England for Antarctica, where Shackleton hoped to be the first man to cross the uncharted continent on foot. Five months later, the Endurance - just a day's sail short of its destination - became locked in an island of ice, and its destiny and men became locked in history.

According to One's Own Nature

On Civil Disobedience 


Walden and Other Writings

"the State never intentionally confronts a man's sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength. I was not born to be forced.  I will breathe after my own fashion. . . . when an acorn and a chestnut fall side by side, the one does not remain inert to make way for the other, but both obey their own laws, and spring and grow and flourish as best they can, till one, perchance, overshadows and destroys the other.  If a plant cannot live according to its nature, it dies; and so a man."   - Henry David Thoreau



On or about July 23, 1846 Henry David Thoreau was detained in Concord for nonpayment of the poll tax, and he spent the night in the Concord Jail. He described his experience in jail thus:  "The rooms were whitewashed once a month; and this one, at least, was the whitest, most simply furnished, and probably the neatest apartment in the town." He described his fellow inmate ("room-mate") as someone accused of "burning a barn" who had been incarcerated for three months waiting for trial. He was "quite domesticated and contented, since he got his board for nothing, and thought that he was well treated." They each had a window of their own to look out and Thoreau noted that "It was like traveling to a far country, such as I had never expected to behold, to lie there for one night." The next day some anonymous person paid the tax and Thoreau was once again a free man.

The episode would be little noted but for the essay that Thoreau proceeded to write, an essay that would become one of the great Western statements on the importance of conscience. The essay is now known as "On Civil Disobedience" although its original title was "Resistance to Civil Government". It is short, less than twenty pages in the edition I read, but it lays out Thoreau's thoughts on the nature of Government: where it gets its authority, when it must be resisted, and more. 

He begins the essay with the motto, "That government is best which governs least;" and he immediately makes a case for a government that "governs not at all", at least when men are "prepared for it". He will go on to identify three objections that he, and others, have against the government: namely, maintaining a standing army, the mistreatment of native Americans, and the institution of slavery. He claims that the American government has lost some of its integrity and is not worthy of our respect. However he quickly notes that he is not a "no-government man", because "to speak practically and as a citizen" he does not want no-government but merely "better government". That is he wants a government he can respect.

How does he recommend that he and his friends should resist a government that has lost his respect? He does not speak of a "call to arms".  He is not a man like John Brown would become in less than a decade; rather he lays out a pacifist strategy of civil resistance to the government. He describes this resistance in several ways throughout the essay, including: refusing allegiance to the state of Massachusetts; receding from government (withdrawing his association with it); resigning your office (for those who have been appointed); refusing to pay taxes; and refusing to serve in an "unjust war" (the Mexican-American war had begun in April, 1846 and would continue until February, 1848).

To a great extent the essay is both anti-war and anti-slavery. Thoreau references sources as disparate as Confucius and the Bible to under gird his arguments. Although he makes an effort to sound practical at times his primary tendency is one of dissociation from the current American government. His rhetoric demonstrates a moral absolutism that is reminiscent of the speeches of William Lloyd Garrison. He is a genuine radical as he makes statements like: "If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself . . . The people must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people." He castigates as "the most serious obstacle to reform" those liberals who personally disapprove of slavery or the war yet still support the government. Moreover, he observes that "action from principle . . . is essentially revolutionary". His personal episode in jail is one small example of the consequences of his adherence to principle. "Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison."

These are strong words that suggest why the ideas presented in this essay have continued to have a profound effect until our own day. It is why the essay has influenced subsequent thinkers like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and others. It is why this essay is considered one of the "great essays" of Thoreau's era and our own.


Monday, July 10, 2017

Recreating the Past

The History of the Siege of Lisbon 



The History of the Siege of Lisbon


“Every novel is like this, desperation, a frustrated attempt to save something of the past. Except that it still has not been established whether it is the novel that prevents man from forgetting himself or the impossibility of forgetfulness that makes him write novels.”   ― José Saramago, The History of the Siege of Lisbon



With this engaging postmodern narrative Jose Saramago has created a complex tale that encompasses many themes including language, history and historiography, and war in the medieval world. At the same time the story dwells on the power of Eros over the mind and imagination and what results therefrom.

At the heart of this novel is Raimundo Silva, a middle-aged bachelor and proofreader in a contemporary Portuguese publishing house. However the focal point for Raimundo and the reader is the siege of the Moorish city of Lissibona (Lisbon) in 1147 by Portuguese forces under Christian King Alfonso I, its conquest and the expulsion of the Moors-a battle in which as many as 150,000 perished. Under the sway of his own fertile imagination, a dangerous thing for a proofreader, on one day Raimundo writes his own alternative history of the siege by changing a single word in a manuscript, thereby implying, contrary to the historical record, that the Crusaders refused to help the Portuguese besiege and capture the city.

Why does he do this? It seems that he is in love with the city of Lisbon as seen when the narrator says, "for it might well be that Lisbon, contrary to all appearances, was not a city but a woman, and the perdition simply amorous". But he is also enamored of his younger, iconoclastic boss, Maria Sara, with whom he falls in love. He is inexplicably encouraged by her to rewrite the entire history of the siege. He does so by continuing to weave a web of chivalrous deeds, love and intrigue around the bare historical record. The romantic affair with Maria blossoms, the apparent present and the imagined past meld into one another in a complicated narrative that shifts constantly between past and present tenses. In doing so it develops into a complex meditation on the meaning of both history and words as well as a romance and parable of life under authoritarian rule. Another major theme is Saramago's appreciation of the Reconquista, a central element in the history of Portugal as well as Spain, of which the conquest or re-conquest of Lisbon by Christians and its transformation into the capital of Portugal is a key event.

On one level, Saramago is exploring the thirst for power, religious and political fanaticism, intolerance, hypocrisy and jingoism, as well as the human need for love, companionship, sex. On another level, of more import for this reader, he is developing his abiding theme that history is a form of fiction, a selective reordering of facts. This reminds me of Tolstoy's philosophic musings near the end of War and Peace. Saramago's prose style does take some extra effort to adjust to with a stream-of-consciousness technique, long paragraphs, and serpentine sentences; but it is worth the effort and, like Faulkner and others with difficult prose styles, repays the reader who perseveres. This is nevertheless a mesmerizing tale that engages the reader's mind and emotions.


Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Viewers of Nature

Watchers at the Pond 


Watchers at the Pond (Nonpareil books)


“The hawk turned slowly and flexed his great wings to maintain his height. In this cold wind, he flew merely to see and to travel. Gone was the exhilaration of fast-rising summer air carrying him so high into the sky's blue vacuum that the pond became a silver speck and the great southern lake dazzled him with a glaring slash of reflected sun.”  ― Franklin Russell, Watchers at the Pond




The poetic style of this book reminded me of Loren Eiseley's marvelous science writing. Franklin Russell watches along with other animals and narrates what he sees over the course of the seasons. The other watchers include hawks and hares and muskrats, but the observations of the narrator bring the pond alive merging science with poetry.

He begins his story in the winter with some ladybirds encased in ice while chipmunks and others would hibernate nearby. Some of the birds have flown south for the winter only to return in the spring. Nature explodes in the fury of a blizzard that wrenches limbs from trees and exposes sleeping carpenter ants to the frigid cold.

The pond of the title was actually based on many ponds from a park in Hamilton, Ontario to many other ponds that he would explore in the Canadian countryside. What he finds he relates in beautiful prose that does not ignore the science on display. He can visualize single-celled organisms "by the billions in the pond . . . infinitely more varied than visible creatures . . . their soft unicellular bodies pulsing with slow and stately dignity." He does not let the scientist get in the way of the watcher or the writer. The ducks flying over the pond pass "very low and fast" and are "gone in the sound of a quack." Spring and summer come with more variety from mosquitoes to more waterfowl. He does not ignore the flora with descriptions of flowers and fruits like wild strawberries. Some of this reminded me of my own Wisconsin upbringing and time spent near similar ponds.

Thoreau wrote, near the end of Walden: "We can never have enough of Nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor . . . We are cheered when we observe the vulture feeding on the carrion . . . and deriving health and strength from the repast . . . I love to see that Nature is so rife with life that myriads can be afforded to be sacrificed and suffered to prey on one another . . . The impression made on a wise man is that of universal innocence."

The year at Russell's pond ends in a kind of innocence as well. The beauty of his prose mirrors the beauty of nature yielding a classic small book about the science and poetry that one can find at the edge of ponds. I would recommend this book as a great read for any season.