Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Tuesday: Books On My Winter TBR

Some Books on My Winter TBR

I'll be reading these in December and on through February over the river and through the woods with snow if we are lucky.  They include classics:old and new, literary fiction, non-fiction, and a bit of science fiction as well. 

CEO, CHINA by Kerry Brown

Destined for War: 
Can America and China Escape Thucydides'sTrap? 
by Graham Allison

The End of Eddy: A Novel by Edouard Louis

Dunbar by Edward St. Aubyn

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science 

by Werner Heisenberg

Faust in Copenhagen by Gino Segre

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions 
by Thomas S. Kuhn

Relativity: The Special and The General Theory 
by Albert Einstein

Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

A Trusting Nature

The Idiot 
by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Parts III & IV, "A Beautiful Man"

“What matters," said the prince at last, "is that you have a child's trusting nature and extraordinary truthfulness. Do you know that a great deal can be forgiven you for that alone?”   ― Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot

On January 12, 1868 Dostoevsky wrote in a letter to his good friend, the poet A. N. Maikov, that he was "inventing a new novel."  This novel would focus on an idea that excited Dostoevsky: "to portray a perfectly good man".(Selected Letters, p 262)  It would be a novel in four parts that was published later that year.  It is in the final two parts of the novel that the four "heroes" lives stand out and their interaction, along with a few key supporting characters, leads to the denouement of the story.  

I would like to focus briefly on these four heroes and, without giving away the exciting conclusion of the novel, discuss their relationships.  Of course Prince Myshkin, the young blue-eyed epileptic, remains at the center of the story.  His is the life of an outsider in both the obvious physical sense, but also in a spiritual sense.  He is friendly with both leading ladies;  the younger Aglaya and the older Nastasya Fillipovna.  His friendship is born of innocence and as such he is frequently, perhaps always, misunderstood by both the ladies and others.  Aglaya recognizes his "beautiful heart" but is conflicted by her feelings for Ganya and the presence of Nastasya.  It is Nastasya's presence that unnerves the sensitive Myshkin.  "For him there was something tormenting in the very face of this woman;" (p 349) 

Other characters intrude on the relations of the heroes bringing with them discussions of ideas that seem to be important to the narrator and thus to the story.  In particular, the consumptive Ippolit who is dying throughout the story presents a confessional pronouncement  titled "My Necessary Explanation: Apres moi le deluge" (p 387).  This is a blackly comic demonstration of nihilism of the sort that Dostoevsky had first introduced in his short novel, Notes from Underground.  Here it is presented as an adjunct to the activities of the fourth Hero, Rogozhin, whose actions mirror the thoughts of Ippolit in many respects.  

The result of both the fantastic characters and the plot, such as it is in its meandering ways, gives this novel an originality among Dostoevsky's final period of great novels.  The theme of nihilism will be central to his next novel, The Demons, and the exploration of the nature of spiritual goodness will reach its height in the character of Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov.  However it is The Idiot that bridges the gap between the Victorian novels of Balzac and Dickens and the uniquely Russian themes that emanate from the Slavophilic pen of Dostoevsky.  Thus this is a novel worthy of the Russian master who more than any of his peers looked forward toward the next century.

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky.  Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky, trans. Everymans Library, New York. 2002 (1868)

Selected Letters of Fyodor Dostoyevsky.  Joseph Frank & David I. Goldstein, eds. Andrew MacAndrew, trans. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick. 1987

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Alien Believers

Calculating God: A Novel 

Calculating God: A Novel

“There is no indisputable proof for the big bang," said Hollus. "And there is none for evolution. And yet you accept those. Why hold the question of whether there is a creator to a higher standard?”   ― Robert J. Sawyer, Calculating God

The science fiction literature includes an immense variety of styles and approaches for the presentation of ideas. Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer is a philosophical science fiction novel that considers the nature of belief in the existence of god.

The novel uses the trope of contact with aliens to explore cosmological ideas that intrigue thoughtful persons whether or not they are interested in science fiction. It takes a contemporary setting (in Canada) and describes the arrival on Earth of sentient aliens. The bulk of the novel covers the many discussions and arguments on the reasons for their presence, as well as about the nature of belief, religion, and science. Calculating God received nominations for both the Hugo and John W. Campbell Memorial Awards in 2001.

The main plot is told from the point of view of Tom Jericho, a paleontologist at the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada. As it begins Forhilnor, a spider-like alien from the third planet of the Beta Hydri system arrives on Earth to investigate Earth's evolutionary history. The alien, Hollus, has come to Earth to gain access to the museum's large collection of fossils, and to study accumulated human knowledge in order to gather evidence of the existence of God. It seems that Earth and Hollus' home planet, and the home planet of another alien species traveling with Hollus, all experienced the same five cataclysmic events at roughly the same time.

Hollus believes that the universe was created by a god, to provide a place where life could develop and evolve. Thomas Jericho is an atheist who provides a balance to the philosophical discussion regarding the existence of gods. There is also a subplot dealing with the illness of Jericho and his imminent death due to lung cancer. The author neatly connects that with the visit of the aliens with surprising revelations as well.

I enjoyed the philosophical and scientific discussions primarily due to the inventive approaches to questions that arose from the unusual views of the aliens. On the issue of the existence of gods the book presents some strange conundrums that make it rise above the average Science Fiction novel. Sawyer succeeds in describing the meeting with aliens in a way that held my attention through both its believable detail and its novelty. I found myself wondering about the thoughtful calculation of alien scientists and if they really could include god in that calculation.

Poem for Today

The Retired Cat

A poet's cat, sedate and grave 
As poet well could wish to have,
Was much addicted to inquire
For nooks to which she might retire,
And where, secure as mouse in chink,
She might repose, or sit and think.
I know not where she caught the trick--
Nature perhaps herself had cast her
In such a mould philosophique,
Or else she learn'd it of her master.
Sometimes ascending, debonair,
An apple-tree or lofty pear,
Lodg'd with convenience in the fork,
She watch'd the gardener at his work;
Sometimes her ease and solace sought
In an old empty wat'ring-pot;
There, wanting nothing save a fan
To seem some nymph in her sedan,
Apparell'd in exactest sort,
And ready to be borne to court.

But love of change, it seems, has place
Not only in our wiser race;
Cats also feel, as well as we,
That passion's force, and so did she.
Her climbing, she began to find,
Expos'd her too much to the wind,
And the old utensil of tin
Was cold and comfortless within:
She therefore wish'd instead of those
Some place of more serene repose,
Where neither cold might come, nor air
Too rudely wanton with her hair,
And sought it in the likeliest mode
Within her master's snug abode.

A drawer, it chanc'd, at bottom lin'd
With linen of the softest kind,
With such as merchants introduce
From India, for the ladies' use--
A drawer impending o'er the rest,
Half-open in the topmost chest,
Of depth enough, and none to spare,
Invited her to slumber there;
Puss with delight beyond expression
Survey'd the scene, and took possession.
Recumbent at her ease ere long,
And lull'd by her own humdrum song,
She left the cares of life behind,
And slept as she would sleep her last,
When in came, housewifely inclin'd
The chambermaid, and shut it fast;
By no malignity impell'd,
But all unconscious whom it held.

Awaken'd by the shock, cried Puss,
"Was ever cat attended thus!
The open drawer was left, I see,
Merely to prove a nest for me.
For soon as I was well compos'd,
Then came the maid, and it was clos'd.
How smooth these kerchiefs, and how sweet!
Oh, what a delicate retreat!
I will resign myself to rest
Till Sol, declining in the west,
Shall call to supper, when, no doubt,
Susan will come and let me out."

The evening came, the sun descended,
And puss remain'd still unattended.
The night roll'd tardily away
(With her indeed 'twas never day),
The sprightly morn her course renew'd,
The evening gray again ensued,
And puss came into mind no more
Than if entomb'd the day before.
With hunger pinch'd, and pinch'd for room,
She now presag'd approaching doom,
Nor slept a single wink, or purr'd,
Conscious of jeopardy incurr'd.

That night, by chance, the poet watching
Heard an inexplicable scratching;
His noble heart went pit-a-pat
And to himself he said, "What's that?"
He drew the curtain at his side,
And forth he peep'd, but nothing spied;
Yet, by his ear directed, guess'd
Something imprison'd in the chest,
And, doubtful what, with prudent care
Resolv'd it should continue there.
At length a voice which well he knew,
A long and melancholy mew,
Saluting his poetic ears,
Consol'd him, and dispell'd his fears:
He left his bed, he trod the floor,
He 'gan in haste the drawers explore,
The lowest first, and without stop
The rest in order to the top;
For 'tis a truth well known to most,
That whatsoever thing is lost,
We seek it, ere it come to light,
In ev'ry cranny but the right.
Forth skipp'd the cat, not now replete
As erst with airy self-conceit,
Nor in her own fond apprehension
A theme for all the world's attention,
But modest, sober, cured of all
Her notions hyperbolical,
And wishing for a place of rest
Anything rather than a chest.
Then stepp'd the poet into bed,
With this reflection in his head:


Beware of too sublime a sense 
Of your own worth and consequence.
The man who dreams himself so great,
And his importance of such weight,
That all around in all that's done
Must move and act for him alone,
Will learn in school of tribulation
The folly of his expectation. 

William Cowper

William Cowper ( 26 November 1731 – 25 April 1800) was an English poet and hymnodist. One of the most popular poets of his time, Cowper changed the direction of 18th century nature poetry by writing of everyday life and scenes of the English countryside. In many ways, he was one of the forerunners of Romantic poetry. Samuel Taylor Coleridge called him "the best modern poet".

Thursday, November 09, 2017

The Poor Knight

The Idiot 
by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Part II, "The Poor Knight"

"A month ago you were looking through Don Quixote and exclaimed those words, that there is nothing better than the 'poor knight.' I don't know who you were talking about then---Don Quixote, Evgeny Pavlych, or some other person---nut pm;u that you were speaking about someone, and the conversation went on for a long time . . ." (p 247)

Part II of The Idiot begins six months after the party at Nastasya Filippovna's home.  Prince Myshkin left St. Petersburg for Moscow a mere two days later and according to some rumors, he claimed his inheritance, which turned out to be smaller than initially expected. Furthermore, the inheritance shrank considerably because a large number of creditors suddenly appeared, and the prince satisfied all their claims.   Typical of the Prince was his lack of concern for the money and whether the creditors deserved to be paid, although "a few of them had indeed suffered".  

The style of the beginning of Part II contrasts sharply with the end of Part I. The tone is very nonchalant and removed from the events that take place in the lives of the characters. Whereas at the end of Part I it seemed that we were right in the middle of the dramatic intensity of the novel, in the beginning of Part II the plot seems very far away. The narrator himself is not sure of everything that has happened; he has to reconstruct the story by piecing together rumors and letters.

Among the people encountered by the Prince upon his return was one Lebedev, a rogue who was a member of Rogozhin's entourage.  Lebedev relates to the Prince his belief and interpretation of the Apocalypse quoting the passage "and there will follow a pale horse and him whose name is Death, and after him Hell . . ." (Revelation 6:5-8)  The theme of death is even stronger than in Part I.  Even more important is the Prince's meeting with Rogozhin who he first encountered on the train returning to Russia.  Myshkin is entertained at Rogozhin's house, a dark house that is described in as much detail as another character - one which mirrors its owner's characteristic personality.  Myshkin tells him that he does not intend to interfere with his relationship with Nastasya Filippovna. If she decides to run from Rogozhin herself—which is what happened in Moscow—Myshkin will take her in. The prince does not hide his opinion that a marriage between Rogozhin and Nastasya would result in mutual destruction. Myshkin loves her with pity and is also fond of Rogozhin himself.

Before Myshkin leaves, he notices a large garden knife hidden inside one of Rogozhin's books. As Rogozhin escorts the prince out, they pass by a painting by Holbein, of a Christ who has just been taken off the cross. Myshkin cannot help but stare at this painting for a long time; Rogozhin asks him if he believes in God. In response, the prince tells four stories, the fourth of which explains the essence of religion as he understands it. The story is of a young mother delighting in her newborn. The prince thinks that God feels joy in his creation much as the mother feels joy in her child. Myshkin and Rogozhin then exchange crosses, and Rogozhin takes the prince to his mother, who blesses the prince.

In a later scene Myshkin describes his illness for the first time and then suffers an actual fit. He says that an attack is characterized by a momentary feeling of complete clarity of mind and an almost sublime understanding of life and its purpose. This moment is quickly followed by utter darkness. Before his fit, Myshkin wanders about the city. Mirroring his physical wandering, his mind wanders from subject to subject. The narrative becomes a sort of stream of consciousness as we experience Myshkin's thought process and feelings just before and during the epileptic fit. Because the narrator merges with Myshkin's consciousness, we learn little about the reason for the fit. The prince cannot himself clearly explain it.

Prince Myshkin eventually settles himself in Lebedev's summer cottage in Pavlovsk. Though Lebedev makes sure the prince receives few visitors aside from himself, many of the other characters are also in Pavlovsk.  On the third day of Myshkin's stay in Pavlovsk, Madame Yepanchin—who is convinced that the Prince is on his deathbed—comes to call on him along with her three daughters and Prince S., who remembers that he is an old acquaintance of Myshkin. Coincidentally, at about that time, the Ptitsyns, Ganya, and General Ivolgin also come to visit Myshkin. The entire company establishes itself on the spacious veranda of Lebedev's cottage.  Suddenly everyone starts joking about the "poor knight." Madame Yepanchin is a bit irritated because there is a hint that they are talking about Myshkin. Kolya remarks that Aglaya, as she was leafing through Don Quixote, said that there was nothing better than a poor knight. General Yepanchin and Yevgeny Pavlovich Radomsky, Aglaya's suitor, join the company. Aglaya recites Pushkin's poem "The Poor Knight," which is about a knight who idealizes Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. Instead of the initials A.M.D., which stand for Ave, Mater Dei, ("Hail, mother of God"), Aglaya says N.F.B.—Nastassya Filippovna Barashkov—implying that Myshkin has chosen Nastassya Filippovna as his ideal. Aglaya begins in a rather mocking tone, but soon changes to speak more seriously and earnestly.  

The plot seems to be lost in all the meetings and discussions -- it will take two more parts to sort out the tale of The Idiot, both a Prince and a Poor Knight.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Act of Resistance

The Lost Art of Reading: 
Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time 

The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time

“I go back to the reading room, where I sink down in the sofa and into the world of The Arabian Nights. Slowly, like a movie fadeout, the real world evaporates. I'm alone, inside the world of the story. My favourite feeling in the world.” ― Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

Several years ago I read a wonderful book, Distraction, by the philosopher and author Damon Young. His book describes the success of several great thinkers and writers in living a thoughtful life filled with freedom from distraction. One of the hallmarks of the lives he described was reading. It is this act, which David Ulin describes as "an act of resistance in a landscape of distraction, a matter of engagement in a society that seems to want nothing more than for us to disengage"(p 150).

This observation is near the end of Ulin's essay on why books matter, The Lost Art of Reading. Some of us have not lost the art, but may need a reminder of its importance. For reading is more than entertainment, although it often is entertaining; it may also be invigorating, meditative, or even a spiritual life enhancing experience. Above all, as Ulin argues, it is a way to get in touch with ourselves in this instant as we connect with the thoughts of authors that may have lived millenniums ago.  That connection is one that can be experienced reading authors as disparate as Dostoevsky, Milton, or Murakami.  It has often been referred to as "The Great Conversation".

The essay focuses on reading a through a variety of metaphors. Reading is "a journey of discovery"(p 13). The journey is different for each individual but one example highlighted by the author resonated with me. It was the immersion of Frank Conroy in books when he was a boy.His journey began with what seems a chaotic passage through book and authors both great and small, heavy and light, but it was a start and a wonderful way for Conroy to get the lay of the land. To enter into a world that would provide him with a place that was apart from the distraction of society became a foundation on which he could build his own life as a writer.

David Ulin remembers his own library of books as a " virtual city, a litropolis, in which the further you were from the axis, the less essential a story you had to tell.(p 17). It was this view of books as a city that he translated later into remembering cities by their books and populating his reading life with a vision of the world based on his own tastes and aspirations. This is something that each of us as readers may do in our own life. The essay takes you through encounters with readers like Ulin's own son, who has to read and reluctantly annotate Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby, with the encouragement of his father. But he also discusses writers like Anne Fadiman who is among the greatest connoisseurs of reading and writing that I have encountered. And we are regaled with a story about reading David Foster Wallace, a contemporary writer of revolutionary tomes. There is even a discussion about reading on a Kindle which is not necessarily a bad thing except there are a lot of worthwhile books that are not available on a Kindle, so the book is safe for the moment.

As a reader I found this essay encouraging and invigorating. It is a reminder of what I love about reading, what I would love to reread, and where I may go to continue my own journey. Just as I enjoy the freedom from distraction that reading can bring, I wonder at the infinite worlds that are opened when we take time to get in touch with ourselves in the pages of a book. I hope for a future that includes many things, but above all reading. Listen to the words of Walt Whitman:

"SHUT not your doors to me proud libraries,
For that which was lacking on all your well-fill'd shelves, yet
needed most, I bring,
Forth from the war emerging, a book I have made,
The words of my book nothing, the drift of it every thing,
A book separate, not link'd with the rest nor felt by the intellect,
But you ye untold latencies will thrill to every page."