Saturday, March 25, 2017

An Artistic Revolutionary

Arnold Schoenberg's Journey 
by Allen Shawn


Arnold Schoenberg's Journey

"An artistic impression is substantially the resultant of two components. One what the work of art gives the onlooker - the other, what he is capable of giving to the work of art."  - Arnold Schoenberg



Rereading this book takes me back to the summer of 2007 when I first read it. As then I enjoyed every moment of its readable and eve witty text. The author discusses Schoenberg's music and life together in a way that makes them both vivid and informative. He analyzes the music in detail, leaving the reader with an appreciation for the revolutionary impact of Schoenberg's passionate musical genius.

Along the way the cultural environment of the composer is explored and you learn about composers who influenced and helped Schoenberg. It was a revelation to this reader that Schoenberg was a painter as well. In this endeavor he benefited from his friendship with Gustav Klimt who also was interested in music. The book is organized into thirty essays in roughly chronological order. They cover major periods of development in the musical life of the composer, culminating with retrospective discussions of his impact on musical life and other composers. The discussion of Stravinsky was illuminating in its showing his development in comparison with Schoenberg. A bibliographic essay augments the value of this study for those who want to further explore Schoenberg's music and life.

With its focus on the listener's point of view it is one of the best books on music and artistic culture that I have encountered. The survey of both music composition and the life of musical genius is deep enough to inform without too much esoteric detail. I would recommend it to all who want to better understand both Schoenberg and the development of early twentieth century culture.


Friday, March 24, 2017

Seeking Understanding

Tallyho - The Hunt for Virtue: Beauty, Truth and Goodness: Nine Dialogues by Plato: Phaedrus, Lysis, Protagoras, Charmides, Parmenides, Gorgias, Theatetus, Meno, and Sophist 
by Phillip Lundberg


Tallyho - The Hunt for Virtue: Beauty, Truth and Goodness: Nine Dialogues by Plato: Phaedrus, Lysis, Protagoras, Charmides, Parmenides, Gorgias, Thea
"Bethink yourself, now, Theaetetus, that in a more prudent manner you won't beleive to know what you don't know.  For only to this extent is my art capable and of nothing more, no too do I understand anything like the others, thses great men of the present and of former times, those who are so worthy of marvel.  But this artistry of midwifery, this my profession was imparted both to me and to my mother from God"(210d, p458)




This is a refreshing new translation of nine of Plato's most important dialogues. The dialogues include Phaedrus, Protagoras, and Gorgias among others.

An informative introduction provides both explanations and a defense for the selection and, most importantly, describes the unique nature of these translations. The dialogues are all translated from the classic German translation of Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768-1834) . According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy "Schleiermacher's translations appeared during the period 1804-28 (though not all of the dialogues were translated in the end), and are still widely used and admired today."
Not only does the translator use Schleiermacher's translations as his source, he recommends and defends Schleiermacher's unorthodox categorization of Plato's dialogues which places Phaedrus and Parmenides in the first of three groupings with The Republic relegated to the third.

The dialogues are engaging and readable in this modern translation that benefits from using the German as its source rather than the original ancient Greek. This reader found the sectional introductions to each dialogue helpful, while judicious use of footnotes provided connections between dialogues of key ideas. The translation was used by our literary study group profitably as a source for a lively discussion of Plato's philosophy, Socrates as presented by Plato, and the importance of philosophy for our lives. Overall I would recommend this selection of dialogues with its unique translation, to all readers interested in enhancing their understanding of Plato's thought.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Book of Opposites

The Dispossessed 
by Ursula K. Le Guin


The Dispossessed“You can’t crush ideas by suppressing them. You can only crush them by ignoring them. By refusing to think, refusing to change.”   ― Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed

The Dispossessed -- which has not been out of print since its original publication in 1974 -- is one of Le Guin's most famous works, and both entertaining and intellectually challenging.


It is a book of opposites: a Utopian novel that doesn't refuse to expose the flaws of its model society; a feminist-themed narrative with a male protagonist; a social commentary that presents communal cooperation as the truest human ideal, yet focuses on the inevitable separateness of the creative individual within such a structure. Through these dichotomies, Le Guin examines the tension between human aspiration and human nature, between what can be dreamed and what can be achieved.

The setting is on twin planets of Anarres and Urras, both of which see the other as a moon. This dichotomy is demonstrated with Anarres as an inhospitable planet that has been settled by revolutionaries from Urras who left behind the capitalist life on their home planet to found a new society on the moon. The resulting community is an extreme communal society where everything is shared and nothing is owned individually. Urras, on the other hand, is a world that somewhat resembles our own – a male dominated capitalist society where women have absolutely no official role in politics, science or education.

Urras and Anarres have very little contact between each other beyond the rocket ships that export minerals from Anarres. Visitors from Urras are forbidden from crossing beyond the walls of the rocket port. The hero of the novel is the physicist Shevek who visits Urras as a sort of unofficial ambassador with an agenda to bring about increased co-operation and communication between the two worlds. This theme of two drastically contrasting cultures intentionally isolated from each is reminiscent of Arthur C. Carke’s The City and the Stars where Alvin escapes from a immortal pleasure-filled life in the city of Diaspar.

Both of these novels involve a man returning back to his ‘home’ society in an attempt to reconcile the philosophies of ‘home’ and ‘colony’ to solve the problems of both. The teachings of these novels is clear – fleeing and isolating oneself from a corrupted society is not a solution. I wouldn’t pursue the comparison very far though; the novels are too different for that. The story is told from the point of view of Shevek and alternates between two timelines; one starting when he flees from Anarres under a cloud of disapproval from his fellow citizens who taunt him as a ‘profiteer’ and the other starting from his childhood and moving toward the point when he leaves Anarres.

The first narrative, based almost entirely on Urras, is driven forward by the reader's curiosity about when (and if) Shevek makes it back home and under what circumstances. The second storyline, which is based on Anarres is interesting because although we know that Shevek made it off Anarres we are not told how he managed it and what happened to his family.

Some of the conversations and speeches on the Anarresti brand of communalism are intense and provide food for thought. This larger theme, together with Le Guin's mature mastery of her craft, give The Dispossessed a universality that has prevented it from becoming dated, despite its roots in the political issues of its time (the communal counterculture of the late 60s and early 70s, the original women's movement). This novel achieves more than the typical genre work with serious ideas and literary merit, thus deserving the several awards with which it was rewarded.

Grave Condition, but not Hopeless

The Author: Alexander Solzhenitsyn

He  was born in December 1918;  known as a Russian novelist, historian, and short story writer. Solzhenitsyn fought in World War II as a commander in Russia’s Red Army and was decorated twice. He was arrested in 1945 for making derogatory comments about Stalin in a letter to a friend. He was subsequently sentenced to eight years imprisonment to be followed by permanent internal exile.

He was an outspoken critic of the Soviet Union and communism and helped to raise global awareness of its Gulag forced labor camp system. He was allowed to publish only one work in the Soviet Union, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), in the periodical Novy Mir. After this he had to publish in the West.   He is a stomach cancer survivor and his experiences serve as the basis for Cancer Ward (1968).  He also published The First Circle (1968), August 1914 (1971), and The Gulag Archipelago (1973). He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970 “for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature”. Solzhenitsyn was afraid to go to Stockholm to receive his award for fear that he would not be allowed to reenter. He was eventually expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974, but returned to Russia in 1994 after the state's dissolution.  He died in 2008. 



The Novel:   Cancer Ward 

“What is an optimist? The man who says, "It's worse everywhere else. We're better off than the rest of the world. We've been lucky." He is happy with things as they are and he doesn't torment himself.

What is a pessimist? The man who says, "Things are fine everywhere but here. Everyone else is better off than we are. We're the only ones who've had a bad break." He torments himself continually.”   ― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Cancer Ward


Cancer WardThe story takes place in the men's cancer ward of a hospital in a city in Soviet Central Asia. The patients in Ward 13 all suffer from cancer, but differ in age, personality, nationality, and social class (as if such a thing could be possible in the Soviet "classless" society!). We are first introduced to Pavel Rusanov, a Communist Party functionary, who enters the hospital because of a rapidly-growing neck tumor.
"The hard lump of his tumor--unexpected, meaningless and quite without use--had dragged him in like a fish on a hook and flung him onto this iron bed--a narrow, mean bed, with creaking springs and an apology for a mattress."(p 10)

Solzhenitzyn himself was released from a labor camp in early 1953, just before Stalin's death, and was exiled to a village in Kazakhstan. While incarcerated, he had been operated on for a tumor, but was not told the diagnosis. He subsequently developed a recurrence, received radiotherapy in Tashkent, and recovered.

The narrative places its focus on the central character of Oleg Kostoglotov, a young man who has recently been discharged from a penal camp and is now "eternally" exiled to this particular province. Only two weeks earlier, he was admitted to the ward in grave condition from an unspecified tumor, but he has responded rapidly to radiation therapy. Among the doctors are Zoya, a medical student; Vera Gangart, a young radiologist; and Lyudmila Dontsova, the chief of radiation therapy.

Rusanov and Kostoglotov respond to therapy and are eventually discharged; other patients remain in the ward, get worse, or are sent home to die. In the end Kostoglotov boards a train to the site of his "eternal" exile: "The long awaited happy life had come, it had come! But Oleg somehow did not recognize it."

In The Cancer Ward Solzhenitzyn transforms his own experiences into a multifaceted tale about Soviet society during the period of hope and liberalization after Stalin's death. While Cancer, of course, is an obvious metaphor for the totalitarian state there is also a penetrating look at mid-century Soviet medicine and medical ethics. 
“But substantial X-ray treatment is impossible without transfusion!” “Then don’t give it! Why do you assume you have the right to decide for someone else? Don’t you agree it’s a terrifying right, one that rarely leads to good? You should be careful. No one’s entitled to it, not even doctors.” “But doctors are entitled to that right—doctors above all,” exclaimed Dontsova with deep conviction. By now she was really angry. “Without that right there’d be no such thing as medicine!” 
Of course, the paternalism evident here (e.g. lack of truth-telling and informed consent) was also characteristic of medicine in other countries in the 1950's and remains an important concern in professional ethics.

The novel also explores the personal qualities and motivation of physicians, and the issue of intimate relationships between doctors and patients. The most incisive aspects of the book are its insight into human nature and the realism of its characters.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Steinbeck and Emerson

The Grapes of Wrath

by John Steinbeck


“the sense of being which in calm hours arises, we know not how, in the soul, is not diverse from things, from space, from light, from time, from man, but one with them and proceeds obviously from the same source.... Here is the fountain of action and of thought.... We lie in the lap of immense intelligence.”   ― Ralph Waldo Emerson




"Lookie , Ma. I been all day an' all night hidin' alone.  Guess who I been thinkin' about? Casy! He talked a lot. Used ta bother me. But now I been thinkin' what he said, an' I can remember---all of it.  Says one time he went out in the wilderness to find his own soul, an' he foun' he didn' have no soul that was his'n.  Says he foun' he jus' got a little piece of a great big soul.  Says a wilderness ain't no good, 'cause his little piece of a great big soul wasn't no good 'less it was with the rest, an' was whole.  Funny how I remember.  Didn' think I was even listenin'.  But I know now a fella ain't no good alone." (p 418)


The Transcendental concept of the Oversoul is expressed in the earthy folk language of Tom Joad and Jim Casy as the belief that all human's souls are really just part of one big soul. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the most well known proponent of transcendentalism, defined the Oversoul as the universal mind or spirit that animates, motivates, and is the unifying principle of all living things. In The Grapes of Wrath Casy makes numerous references to this one large soul that connects all in holiness, and they dovetail nicely with the basic idea of strength in group unity. 
Somewhat conversely, American transcendentalism also recognized individualism, a faith in common people and their self-reliance. This concept of the survival of the human life force is symbolized by the survival of the land turtle and Ma's comment, "We're the people — we go on." This combination of rugged individualism and an embracing of all men as part of the same Great Being is physically expressed in the education and re-birth of Tom Joad: His strongly individual nature gives him the strength to fight for the social welfare of all humanity.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Penguin Books, 1967 (1939).
Essays: First and Second Series by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Vintage, 1990 (1876)

Monday, March 13, 2017

Exploring the New World

The Moor's AccountThe Moor's Account 
by Laila Lalami


“Telling a story is like sowing a seed—you always hope to see it become a beautiful tree, with firm roots and branches that soar up in the sky. But it is a peculiar sowing, for you will never know whether your seed sprouts or dies.”   ― Laila Lalami, The Moor's Account


We tell stories both to others and to ourselves. They are seldom written down but once in a great while a writer with imagination may create a story about a real event. That is what the Moroccan-born author Laila Lalami has done with The Moor’s Account. Her novel is a fictional memoir written by Mustafa ibn Muhammad, a Moroccan slave who participated with a Castilian exploration group exploring La Florida. The story tells how Mustafa, who is owned by Señor Dorantes, a captain assigned to the expedition, becomes part of this exploration of the land. They change direction when they discover trace amounts of gold in one of the Indian villages. The leader of the expedition, governor Narváez, captures a group of Indians and he forcibly obtains information from them about a fabled capital city known as Apalache, which is supposed to be filled with even more gold.

The expedition splits up and Mustafa and his master travel with one group over the land and discovers the city of Apalache, but there is no gold. To make matters worse, they are running low on supplies and have become lost in the unknown land. They try to find a Spanish port where they can get help, but there’s nothing to be find. Narváez refuses to give up the idea that there might be gold nearby. He keeps interrogating the Indians for information. He pushes onward, but the expedition is plagued with sickness, a lack of supplies, and constant attack from the natives.

Throughout the journey, Mustafa reminisces on his past. His family wanted him to become a notary when he was younger, but he defied their wishes and became a merchant. He was fascinated with being a merchant because of how much money they made. His desire for money continued to grow and he soon found himself trading slaves. When the town came under siege, he lost his job and struggled to make any money. With no other way to take care of his family, he sold himself into slavery.

The expedition soon falls apart and the survivors are scattered throughout the region. Mustafa and his master along with some of his other companions manage to find a friendly Indian tribe. Mustafa learns their language and customs and gets help for the expedition. Disease forces them to move once again, their numbers much smaller. Madness begins to set in for some of the survivors, who desert the group and end up resorting to cannibalism. A few members give up on returning home and try to find home among the Indians.

Through all of this Mustafa feels terrified, but also free on his journey. The survivors continue to dwindle in number until there are only four left. Together, they become legends among the different tribes thanks to their medical knowledge. Soon, they are all wed by the tribe. They spend years traveling together, treating different tribes and gathering a large group of followers. Eventually, they run into fellow Castilians, who bring them to New Spain. While welcomed by there own Mustafa finds he is a slave once again. To make matters worse, his wife is enslaved alongside him. The final sections of the story are suspenseful as the reader wonders if Mustafa will ever gain his freedom and with it a return home or some other outcome that will allow his wife to live with him on their own.

Lalami creates a believable account of the expedition from the Moor's viewpoint. This is provides a much different perspective than that of the Conquistadors. Thus the reader has a different view of the Native Americans and their surroundings that they met along the way. This is historical fiction at its best that I would recommend to all who have an interest in the history of the exploration of the Americas.

Monday, March 06, 2017

Into the Void

Notes From UndergroundNotes From Underground 
by Fyodor Dostoyevsky



“Oh, gentlemen, perhaps I really regard myself as an intelligent man only because throughout my entire life I've never been able to start or finish anything. Granted, granted I'm a babbler, a harmless, irksome babbler, as we all are. But what's to be done if the sole and express purpose of every intelligent man is babble--that is, a deliberate pouring from empty into void.”  ― Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground


A forty year old man introduces himself: "I AM A SICK MAN . . . I am a wicked (nasty) man." This comes from a man who immediately demonstrates his unsureness and his unreliability, as he touts his superstitiousness and refusal to be treated for his (imagined?) sickness. With a few lines of prose Dostoevsky has introduced the reader to a new type of man, one that we will see traces of in characters like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment and others in subsequent novels. What do we make of this narrator and his story?

It is a story that is bifurcated into two parts that are very different from each other but intimately connected. The narrator is talking to someone. Perhaps it is the reader or perhaps it is himself, but he is passionate as he speaks out from his "corner" bemoaning the fact that he is not even able to become an insect, much as he would like to. The narration, upon first reading, is strange, but it changes when he draws in the reader by observing that he is not the only one who takes pride in his "sickness". Everyone takes pride in their own sickness. Suddenly we have come upon, become part of, the modern condition. This is the world that Nietzsche and others would later describe and that we live in.

The first part is entitled "Underground" and it is a world where the certainties of "2+2=4" and the philosophies of rationalism and utilitarianism are not welcome. The narrator, in his hole, cannot act and is overcome with inertia -- being constantly offended by "the laws of nature". What is a man without wants or desires who is living a life that is determined? Reason is not the answer, so he speculates that "two times two is five is sometimes also a most charming little thing". (p 34) He is bored and so he begins to write as the falling snow reminds him of an anecdote that occurred when he was twenty-four years old.

Thus the narration changes as the second part, "Apropos of the Wet Snow" begins. The nature of his pathology and his paranoia becomes clear as he reacts with coworkers and meets a young girl. The bifurcation of the story begins to appear in the narrator who, shortly after meeting the girl, starts to have doubts, thoughts like this:
"A sullen thought was born in my brain and passed through my whole body like some vile sensation, similar to what one feels on entering an underground cellar, damp and musty. It was somehow unnatural . . . " (p 88)
He begins to doubt himself (maybe he always has). The girl tries to reach out to him but he cannot reciprocate. Ultimately he concludes that life lived in books is better than his real life. He does little, is disappointed, and begins to write.

This novel is a tragicomedy of ideas, powerful in the sense that it identifies the direction that much of modern thought will pursue. The dramatic expressiveness of the prose betrays a narrator who is bereft of the will to engage in life. It is a form of nihilism that eats away at the narrator. Dostoevsky's answer, not given in this short novel but found in The Brothers Karamazov and elsewhere, is a faith that is absent here. That does not mean that this is not a rich text, filled with ideas and deep with meaning. It is a book that challenges the reader in ways that resonate forward more than a century later.



Sunday, March 05, 2017

Happy and Unhappy People

Short Stories
Short Stories 

by Anton Chekhov

“As a rule, however fine and deep a phrase may be, it only affects the indifferent, and cannot fully satisfy those who are happy or unhappy; that is why dumbness is most often the highest expression of happiness or unhappiness; lovers understand each other better when they are silent, and a fervent, passionate speech delivered by the grave only touches outsiders, while to the widow and children of the dead man it seems cold and trivial.”   ― Anton Chekhov


This collection contains only thirteen of the hundreds of stories written by Chekhov. It does not contain the longer stories like The Steppe of Ward No. 6, but it does include a judicious selection by the translator Elisaveta Fen.

Chekhov's stories portray individuals and their relations with each other in specific situations. These often demonstrate the results of difficult choices with sometimes devastating results. I particularly enjoyed stories like "Enemies", "Teacher of Literature", and "The Cross of Anna". Each of these were a little further developed than some of the briefer sketches. 

"The Cross of Anna" tells of the loss of innocence of a young girl when she marries a pompous and boring middle-aged man, with the idea of helping her young motherless brothers and a weak father who is a drunkard. At first she is dominated by her older husband, but when noticed by the governor of the province at a charity ball she is launched into provincial society. Her enjoyment of the new pleasures this brings turns her head away from her family and leads her to despise and defy her husband. In response to her success with the governor he awards her husband the cross of Anna, which he wears on a ribbon around his neck. This is the source of the Russian idiom, 'Anna around his neck' describing an unwanted burden. 
"Teacher of Literature" portrays a favorite Chekhovian theme -- the emptiness of material prosperity and the tedium of provincial life with the gradual erosion of the 'happiness' of a young man.  
While "Enemies" is the story of a clash between classes with a relatively poor doctor juxtaposed with a wealthy landowner.  Surprisingly Chekhov explicitly states the moral of the necessity for greater tolerance and understanding between different types of people at the end of the story.

The most notable aspect in my reading was the modern feeling that I encountered in reading Chekhov. These stories, while set in a very different place and time are still relevant in the twenty-first century. The irony and sometimes melancholy nature of the stories shapes the realism that is found throughout Chekhov..