Monday, June 17, 2019

Surprised by Joy

Selected Poems 


Selected Poems




“Surprised by joy- impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport-- Oh! with whom
But thee, deep buried in the silent tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?"












“I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud"


I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay: 
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed--and gazed--but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood, 
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.” 

― William Wordsworth, "I Wander'd Lonely as a Cloud"

One can conjecture that the earthbound melancholy of the poet’s pensive mood (line 20) is transformed into its opposite, the sensual, cheerful sanguine humor which is associated with the element air. As fire and choler are the opposites of water and the phlegmatic humor, so air and the sanguine humor are the opposites of earth and melancholy. Since air (wind) and water (waves) are so prominent in the poem, one finds oneself with another Garden of Eden built of the same two elements that John Milton used to build his doomed Eden in Paradise Lost (1667, 1674). It is no accident that five lines near the start of the 1805 version of Wordsworth’s The Prelude (1850), written within a few months of “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” subtly echo the final five lines of Milton’s Paradise Lost. At the end of Paradise Lost, Adam and Eve leave the Garden of Eden with the world “all before them”; providence is their guide as they take their “solitary way.” In The Prelude, Wordsworth writes that the “earth is all before me”; even if his guide is only “a wandering cloud,” he says, “I cannot miss my way.”

Friday, June 14, 2019

Life, Art, and War

Life Class 


Life Class



“It’s strange, isn’t it? You go on and on, or I do rather, seeing God knows what horrors and learning not to care or anyway not to care more than you need to do the job, and then something happens that gets right under your skin.”   ― Pat Barker, Life Class




More than two decades ago I read the Regeneration Trilogy of novels by Pat Barker. They were all very good, in fact the final novel, The Ghost Road, won the Man-Booker Prize. They were set during the time of the Great War and most readers associate Barker with this war. She returns to it with Life Class, after more than a decade during which she published novels, including Another World, on more contemporary subjects.

Life Class is divided into two sections, the first of which opens with a scene in a life drawing class at the famous Slade School of Art in London. Readers are introduced to Paul Tarrant, a young student who apparently has some talent but is not progressing with his art at the rate that he or his teacher, the stern and overbearing Henry Tonks, would like. Paul has a friendship with, as well as some romantic interest in, his fellow student Elinor Brooke, who is also being wooed by recent Slade graduate and rising artistic star Kit Neville. The three, along with others from London’s art scene, frequent the Café Royal, where Paul meets and becomes involved with Teresa Halliday, an artists’ model whose physical charms and sexual frankness captivate him, despite his haunting sense that she is hiding something and despite the fact that her estranged husband stalks and threatens the lovers.

Near the end of the book’s first half, Paul, Kit, and Elinor are visiting her family’s country home when the news comes that war has finally broken out. Immediately discussions ensue as to how deeply and how soon England will become involved, who will enlist, and what all of this will mean to the future. The two parts of the novel, then, hinge neatly on the moment when World War I begins, the moment when Europe and the world are forever changed.

The second part is set primarily in Belgium where Paul has become a hospital orderly near the front. The story is told through letters between Elinor and Paul interspersed with sections of authorial narrative. The war is presented in quite revealing detail as Paul deals with the maimed and the dying in hospital. At the same time he rekindles his art by maintaining an atelier in a nearby village. This section is vivid and suspenseful with dramatic changes in Paul's life, his friendships with hospital comrades and the ultimate effects of the daily grind of the war.

Barker's fine writing style carries the first part while the dramatic developments in the second part take precedence. The combination makes this a worthwhile successor to her first trilogy and a great introduction to another one.


Thursday, June 13, 2019

Passionate Drama from Euripides

Euripides I: 
Alcestis, Medea, The Children of Heracles, Hippolytus 



Euripides I: Alcestis, Medea, The Children of Heracles, Hippolytus



“I understand too well the dreadful act
I'm going to commit, but my judgement
can't check my anger, and that incites
the greatest evils human beings do.”


― Euripides, Medea



This is great drama with passion, gods, plot complications, and difficult family relationships. But what else would you expect from Euripides, whose dramas have lasted for thousands of years and have inspired great dramatists well into our current times.

This classic volume of four plays, edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore, includes Medea, Hippolytus, Alcestis, and The Children of Heracles. There are few dramas that demonstrate passion in the way that Medea does. When her husband Jason leaves her for adventure and other women Medea plots to exact a revenge that raises the question whether she is exacting justice or merely mad.

In Hippolytus it is the relationships among the characters that stood out for me amidst a complicated plot influenced by rivalry among the gods (Aphrodite and Artemis). The drama highlights the relationship between Hippolytus and his father Theseus, but also brings in to play the importance of the Nurse and her relationship with Phaedra. This is notable because Euripides, unlike his predecessor Aeschylus, included characters that were lower-class working people.

Throughout these plays the influence of the gods is important in determining the fate of the characters leading to questions about the nature of fate and destiny. Just as important are large questions about justice and honor as when Athens protects the children of Heracles when they seek asylum. This example also demonstrates how relevant these plays are to our life today and explains, in part, why they have been so influential over the centuries. We are indebted to Euripides for his examination of the nature of humanity with both its flaws and greatness. I would recommend these plays to all who want to understand what it means to be human.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Quote for Today




“There are few greater temptations
on earth than to stay permanently
at Oxford in meditation, and to read
all the books in the Bodleian.”
– Hilaire Belloc

Monday, June 03, 2019

Writing and Reading

The Art of Fiction: 
Notes on Craft for Young Writers 


The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers

“To write with taste, in the highest sense, is to write [...] so that no one commits suicide, no one despairs; to write [...] so that people understand, sympathize, see the universality of pain, and feel strengthened, if not directly encouraged to live on.

If there is good to be said, the writer should say it. If there is bad to be said, he should say it in a way that reflects the truth that, though we see the evil, we choose to continue among the living.

The true artist [...] gets his sense of worth and honor from his conviction that art is powerful--”   ― John Champlin Gardner Jr., The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers



This is a helpful, enlightening, and highly opinionated handbook on the craft of writing fiction. That being said, I suggest it is also useful for a reader who is interested in what good authors have to say about selected works of fiction. Fortunately, John Gardner provides many examples of texts that are worth reading and rereading.

The book is divided into two part: the first, "Notes on Literary-Aesthetic Theory"; and the second, "Notes on the Fictional Process". Gardner begins by stating "This is a book designed to teach the serious beginning writer the art of fiction", and I would suggest that you could insert the word reader for writer if you are viewing it from this reader's perspective. 
You may wonder about where he is going when he begins the first chapter of Part I with the injunction that there are no absolute aesthetic rules for writing fiction. This, however, does not stop Gardner from offering many opinions that sound a lot like absolutes. Whether you agree with him or not, his process is helpful and thought-provoking. I found myself questioning books I have previously read based on his commentaries. One example of this is his disdain for John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath which he criticizes as being one-sided in its portrayal of good versus evil. And I discovered books I have not read (for example, those by Calvino or Gaddis) that sound appealing based on his recommendations to potential writers through examples demonstrated by those books.

The second part of the book is more practical with regard to the craft of writing, but it still provides suggestions and thoughts for the reader to consider when choosing, reading, and (possibly) rereading fiction. Overall I would recommend this book based on the comments that throughout the book reveal the experience of one of our great modern writers.


Saturday, May 25, 2019

Journey into the Underworld

Melville's Moby Dick: An American Nekyia 


Melville's Moby Dick: An American Nekyia (Studies in Jungian Psychology by Jungian Analysts)




"I shall follow the endless, winding way---
the flowing river in the cave of man."
--Herman Melville, Pierre.






This is literary criticism from a Jungian perspective. Edinger, while a Jungian, does not limit his analysis merely to the Jungian outlook, but also includes classical, biblical, and other literary references.

The approach that he uses is through examining the book as a psychological document.  He considers it "as a record in symbolic imagery of an intense inner experience".  In doing so he tries to serve three ends: 
"first, to elucidate the pyschological significance of Moby-Dick; second, to demonstrate the methods of analytical psychoogy in dealing with wymbolic forms; and third, to present the fundamental orientation which underlies the therapeutic approch of analytical psychology."  

The subtitle of the book, "An American Nekyia", refers to the eleventh book of the Odyssey, called a Nekyia, which is used as a reference to a journey to the underworld.  This seems particularly apt when attempting to elucidate some of the deep meaning suggested by the text of Moby-Dick.  It also can be seen in biblical terms as demonstrated by the sermon based on the tale of Jonah and the Leviathan. Whether discussing Prometheus, Faust, the Sphinx or demonism, Edinger produces a fascinating commentary on the potential meaning of the ultimate story of the whale.

The breadth of his approach makes his book attractive and worthwhile. While I did not always agree with his conclusions, his arguments and analyses were always thought-provoking. I would recommend this as one of the best literary criticisms to include in any close reading of Moby-Dick.


Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Culture Clash in Space

Binti 


Binti (Binti, #1)


“Then there was Heru. I had never spoken to him, but we smiled across the table at each other during mealtimes. He was from one of those cities so far from mine that they seemed like a figment of my imagination, where there was snow and where men rode those enormous gray birds and the women could speak with those birds without moving their mouths.”   ― Nnedi Okorafor, Binti




This is the best science fiction novel (novella) I have read in quite a while. The author, Nnedi Okorafor is new to me, but has already won renown among science fiction fans as attested by the awards she has won.

The story could be called a futuristic coming of age story, as a young girl from the Himba ethnic group on Earth is the first from her group to be accepted into the prestigious intergalactic university, Oomza Uni. Her name is Binti and she leaves home boarding a transport ship to Oomza Uni. While in transit, the ship is hijacked by the Meduse, a jellyfish-like alien species that have previously been at war with the Khoush, another human ethnic group. The action rises as the Meduse murder all other inhabitants of the ship. Binti, however, is protected by a mysterious block of technology called an Edan and escapes destruction. The ensuing events on board involve her interactions with the Meduse as the ship continues toward Oomza Uni. The story becomes one both of Binti (and the reader) learning more about the Edan that protects her and of the developing friendship and understanding (of a sort) between Binti and the Meduse.

The author's style is superb and the story presents intriguing ideas as a familiar formula is played out in new and unconventional ways. The concise style was riveting as the story developed suspense along with surprising events that kept this reader interested. While this novella was short it succeeded in telling a compelling story while leaving the reader with a desire to find out "what happens next" both to Binti and the Meduse. I expect that I will pursue the two additional volumes of what has become a trilogy about the adventures of Binti.


Sunday, May 12, 2019

A Classical Romance

A Suitable Boy 


A Suitable Boy (A Suitable Boy, #1)



"But I too hate long books: the better, the worse. If they're bad they merely make me pant with the effort of holding them up for a few minutes. But if they're good, I turn into a social moron for days, refusing to go out of my room, scowling and growling at interruptions, ignoring weddings and funerals, and making enemies out of friends. I still bear the scars of Middlemarch."  — Vikram Seth





This is a novel of India set in the early 1950s just after the partition. In it, Vikram Seth provides a window into the culture and history of India at an early critical juncture in its history: the political and cultural climate five years after the country gained its independence from Great Britain in 1947. At the center of the novel is a romance about a young girl, Lata, whose mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra, is searching for a "suitable boy" for her to marry.

The novel's opening section succeeded in immediately arresting my attention. Some of the most notable aspects of the novel include the subtle ways that the author suggests the continuing cultural influence of England, from the impact of literary awards to the reading habits of several of the characters. Whether politics, religion, industry, university life, medicine, or law is the subject, each aspect is motivated by a character who is first and foremost a member of a family. The novel stresses loyalty to the extended family and considers this involvement as protection against a harsh world. The thirty or so family members along with an array of supporting characters emerge as memorable individuals. While Seth reveals their comic and absurd sides, he always treats them humanely. The novel is a tour de force that demonstrates his skill in writing, knowledge of India, and his ability to marry the charms of a classical romance novel within the broad reach of an historical family and national saga.

Without disclosing the plot details I can only assure the reader that it is worth all 1400+ pages. The thematic development of the clash between Hindu and Muslim cultures is particularly well portrayed with the impact of historical events on the national level mirrored by dramatic events among the main families whose lives fill the plot and subplots of the novel. It is rare that such a long book is both an entertaining read and an intellectually satisfying challenge. Vikram Seth has more than succeeded in both areas.


Friday, May 10, 2019

Gift of the god

Aeschylus I: Prometheus Bound 
translated by David Grene


Aeschylus I: The Persians, The Seven Against Thebes, The Suppliant Maidens, Prometheus Bound




“Prometheus: Yes, I stopped mortals from foreseeing their doom.
Chorus: What cure did you discover for that sickness?

Prometheus: I sowed in them blind hopes.”   ― David Grene, Greek Tragedies, Vol. 1: Aeschylus:  Prometheus Bound






Some have compared Prometheus to Jesus Christ. Certainly the opening scene of Aeschylus's play, with Prometheus splayed upon a rock as he is bound by Hephaestus, invites the comparison. I would not go so far and see the interplay between the Greek gods to be the relevant context for this scene. Played out at the "world's limit" in a bleak setting the drama portrays Prometheus suffering punishment for making humans "intelligent and masters of their minds". (line 444)

Prometheus' crime is not the only reason for his punishment for the chorus tells us that there is a war going on between the "Old" gods (Olympians) and the new generation of Gods. Zeus is seeking to maintain his primacy while Prometheus and his brothers are the dangerous new gods on the block. Atlas is suffering as well carrying the weight of the whole world on his back. The scales are not even - their is nothing like fairness or justice in this world. Prometheus is doomed even as he is visited by Io who is also suffering due to Hera's jealous rage over Zeus's attentions.

Being a god does not seem to lead to a completely pleasant life - there is strife and anger at every turn even for the most powerful. The winners in this play seem to be humans who do not have to relinquish the gifts endowed them by Prometheus. However, even these can be seen as a two-edged sword for our ancestors who had to endure hardships of many kinds in the struggle of living in the world. Prometheus cries out "O sky that circling brings light to all, you see how unjustly I suffer!" (lines 1091-2) Could that be our own cry even today?

Thursday, May 09, 2019

Modern "Art"

The Painted Word 

The Painted Word




“All of them, artists and theorists, were talking as if their conscious aim was to create a totally immediate art, lucid, stripped of all the dreadful baggage of history, an art fully revealed, honest, as honest as the flat-out integral picture plane.”   ― Tom Wolfe, The Painted Word









If you abjure the chic and dream of a realist approach to art this may be your book. Written by novelist and essayist Tom Wolfe, this is an extended essay on the current state of art (circa 1975).  In it he extends his social critique into the world of art with not surprising results. Those results are both witty and amusing. More importantly they are thought-provoking while raising the skeptical bar for art criticism. 


Modern art has morphed into postmodernism and beyond since this book was written, but his commentary has not lost its bite.  Moreover, there may be good modern art, but there certainly is a lot of bad modern art to sort through before you find it. This short introduction is one good place to find out where and how to look for it.


Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Journey to the White House

by 


Becoming




“For me, becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn’t end.”     ― Michelle Obama, Becoming







Michelle Obama has led an interesting life which she reviews in this memoir covering that life up to the point where she and her husband left the White House in January, 2017. The memoir is divided into three parts describing respectively, her youth, her early life with Barack, and her time as the First Lady of the United States.

I could relate best to the first section for several reasons, in spite of the fact that she grew up in one of the largest cities in the United States. Her world was circumscribed by her family and her neighborhood until high school and even then her life continued to center on close friends and family. She studied playing the piano with her Aunt Robbie and spent free time with girl friends in her south side neighborhood. Even though I was raised in a small town in rural Wisconsin my experience was similar in many ways, studying the piano and spending time with friends and family. Her life changed dramatically when she graduated from high school and entered Princeton University.

Her brother Craig, two years her senior,  had preceded her to Princeton and led the way in a sense; much as he had in their earlier years. He was only two years older than Michelle and they had a close family relationship. Michelle was always very intelligent and excelled in academics, progressing to Harvard Law School upon graduation from Princeton. I found the first section of the memoir the most interesting and while her prose was excellent, reading  the subsequent sections I progressively loss interest in the story of her life.

Her career trajectory was intense as she joined a major law firm in Chicago upon completing her law degree. The memoir excels in providing some of the quotidian details of the life of an exceptional black woman in the last decades of the Twentieth Century. However, after she married Barack and they entered into the political arena the book seemed to become somewhat superficial in its discussion of the events of her life. For those interested in the life of a former First Lady this would be an good choice and a pleasant book to read. If you are interested in the history of the years of the woman who stood by Barack Obama's meteoric political career I would suggest you wait for the work of an objective historian.


Thursday, April 18, 2019

Quote for Today

Notre-Dame de Paris


Notre-Dame de Paris




"a vast symphony in stone, so to speak; the colossal work of a man and a people, at the same time one and complex, like its sisters the Iliads and the Romanceros; the prodigious result of contributions made from all the resources of an age, where every stone displays in hundreds of ways the workman's imagination disciplined by the artist's genius; a king f of human creation, in a word, as mighty and fruitful as the divine creation whose dual character it seems to have abstracted: variety, eternity."


(from the opening of Book Three: "Notre Dame")

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Philosophy as a Process

Philosophical Investigations 


Philosophical Investigations



“Our investigation is a grammatical one. Such an investigation sheds light on our problem by clearing misunderstandings away. Misunderstandings concerning the use of words, caused, among other things, by certain analogies between the forms of expression in different regions of language.”   ― Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations



Comments, I



Enter into a philosophy where outside of human thought and speech there are no independent, objective points of support. Meaning and necessity are preserved only by the linguistic practices which embody them. This then is a world that seems not unlike the skeptical realms of those from at least Descartes onward that allow for no objective reality independent of one's mind.
For Wittgenstein it is not quite so simple as that, as he continually asks questions and in doing so creates a philosophy of process much more akin to that of Socrates than Descartes, Kant or any other modern - particularly the camp of the logical positivists where he once dwelt.

His questions center on words and language so we find ourselves asking: is language a real thing? Is there any knowledge of things as they are independent of our language? How can we look at knowing as understanding the nature of things? In this sense there are things (objects) in the world and we can develop an understanding of their nature. This will not necessarily be certain knowledge, but knowledge of a sort nonetheless. "For them after all it is not nonsense" to say that "there are physical objects." (37)

It would seem that statements are only meaningful if they ask questions - Wittgenstein would ask - but there are other points of view out there.


Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Notes on Homer

Homer's The Odyssey


"Recognition"


By Book 17 of The Odyssey, Odysseus has finally returned to Ithaca after ten years at war and ten more years in slow return due to Poseidon's wrath.  He has appeared in disguise as an aged beggar (through the aid of Athena) and has been welcomed by his loyal swinherd, Emaeus.  This aspect of the plot may seem strange as Odysseus appears somewhat cold and calculating. Why doesn't he embrace his son and wife, overcome by emotion, after not seeing them for so many years? Odysseus has been shown to be wily and crafty many times in the epic, and his indirect approach is in keeping with this aspect of his character. Also, the text makes reference several times to Agamemnon and his troubles. As Homer's audience would have known, Agamemnon comes home to a wife who has taken up a lover and stealthily kills him. Things change as time passes, and after 20 years, Odysseus can't be too careful. 
One morning as he is out walking with Emaeus the following touching scene occurs:


"Now, as they talked on, a dog that lay there
lifted up his muzzle, pricked his ears . . .
It was Argos, long-enduring Odysseus' dog, 
he trained as a puppy once, but little joy he got
since all too soon he shipped to sacred Troy.
In the old days young hunters loved to set him
coursing after the wild goats and deer and hares.
But now with his master gone he lay there, castaway,
on piles of dung from mules and cattle, heaps collecting
out before the gates till Odysseus' serving-men
could cart it off to manure th eking's estates.
Infested with ticks, half-dead from neglect, 
here lay the hound, old Argos.
But the moment he sensed Odysseus standing by
he thumped his tail, nuzzling low, and his ears dropped, 
though he had no strength to drag himself an inch
toward his master. Odysseus glanced to the side
and flicked away a tear. Hiding it from Eumaeus,
diverting his friend in a hasty, offhand way:
'Strange, Eumaeus, look, a dog like this,
lying here on a ding-hill . . .
what handsome lines!'" 

[as the conversation continues they leave]

"With that he entered the well-constructed palace,
strode through the halls and joined the proud suitors.
But the dark shadow of death closed down on Argos' eyes
the instant he saw Odysseus, twenty years away."

The Odyssey of Homer, trans. by Robert Fagles, Penguin Classics, 1996. pp 363-64, lines 317-360.




Thursday, March 14, 2019

An Autumnal Collage

Autumn 

Autumn

“The way we live, in time, is made to appear linear by the chronologies that get applied to our lives by ourselves and others, starting at birth, ending at death, with a middle where we’re meant to comply with some or other of life’s usual expectations, in other words the year to year day to day minute to minute moment to moment fact of time passing. But we’re time-­containers, we hold all our diachrony, our pasts and our futures (and also the pasts and futures of all the people who made us and who in turn we’ll help to make) in every one of our consecutive moments / minutes / days / years, and I wonder if our real energy, our real history, is cyclic in continuance and at core, rather than consecutive.”  -  Ali Smith


I enjoyed reading this novel about Autumn, a season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. In Ali Smith's novel two old friends—Daniel, a centenarian, and Elisabeth, born in 1984—look to both the future and the past as the United Kingdom stands divided by a historic, once-in-a-generation summer. Love is won, love is lost. Hope is hand-in-hand with hopelessness. The seasons continue to parade on their own way.

The novel proceeds with flashbacks interspersed with the present rather than in a consecutive, chronological narrative. Elisabeth ruminates on her youth and moments earlier in her life that formed her relationship with Daniel. Time becomes a central aspect of the story as highlighted by the following quote:
“Time travel is real. We do it all the time. Moment to moment, minute to minute.” (p. 175) Of course this is a metaphorical statement with the travel occurring in our mind's eye.

The novel's structure might be compared to a collage and thus similar to the art of Pauline Boty, a founder of the British Pop art movement who is a character in the book. This approach is highlighted by the vagaries of Elisabeth's memory; while there is also a frequent use of contrast as in the moment when immediately following a difficult situation for Elisabeth the narrative shifts to Daniel asleep in his room (p 111).

The story opens with a reference to Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, and then there’s a longer reference to a divided country filled with polarities: “All across the country, people felt legitimized. All across the country, people felt bereaved and shocked”? (p. 60) This is a reference to the impact of the Brexit vote and provides a contemporary context for the novel. The novel suggests a certain view of this event when Daniel tells Elisabeth, “So, always try to welcome people into the home of your story.” (p. 119). Perhaps our stories don’t belong to us alone? This can be seen as a call by the author for inclusion and diversity rather than building fences and keeping people out.

Smith alludes to and mentions many other authors and literary works, including William Shakespeare, John Keats, James Joyce, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell. Overall this was a meditation on the meaning of richness and harvest and worth. Autumn is the first installment of Ali Smith’s Seasonal quartet, and shines a light over our own time: Who are we? What are we made of? Shakespearean jeu d’esprit, Keatsian melancholy, the sheer bright energy of 1960s pop art. Wide-ranging in time-scale and light-footed through histories, Autumn is an beautiful story about aging and time and love—and stories themselves.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Savage Satire

The Sellout 


The Sellout

“The wretched of the Earth, he calls us. People too poor to afford cable and too stupid to know that they aren’t missing anything.”   ― Paul Beatty, The Sellout




The Sellout, by Paul Beatty, is an African-American novel of satire on race relations in the United States. The story is told by an unnamed, black narrator who is coming before the Supreme Court on charges of slave holding and re-instituting segregation. The narrator recounts to the Supreme Court the events that brought him to the present time.

Born in the "agrarian ghetto" of Dickens - on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles - the narrator resigns himself to the fate of lower-middle-class Californians: "I'd die in the same bedroom I'd grown up in, looking up at the cracks in the stucco ceiling that have been there since '68 quake." Raised by a single father, a controversial sociologist, he spent his childhood as the subject in racially charged psychological studies. He is led to believe that his father's pioneering work will result in a memoir that will solve his family's financial woes. But when his father is killed in a police shoot-out, he realizes there never was a memoir. All that's left is the bill for a drive-thru funeral.

Fueled by this deceit and the general disrepair of his hometown, the narrator sets out to right another wrong: Dickens has literally been removed from the map to save California from further embarrassment. Enlisting the help of the town's most famous resident - the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins - he initiates the most outrageous action conceivable: reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school, which lands him in the Supreme Court.

After a while the novel began, for this reader, to become extremely tiresome to the point of utter splenetic prose. What plot there was lacked sufficient direction and a sense of purpose. This resulted from repetition of a few basic themes established very early on. At times it even felt like it had degenerated into a series of loosely connected rants and personal grievances in the form of chapters. It became a very trying read.

The writing began with a certain authority; it was compelling and convincing, however as the narrative progressed it did not pick up any momentum but lingered on similar ideas and stayed very stationary. Some of the comic moments seemed forced as the narrator repeated themes over and again. The Sellout won The Man Booker Prize in 2016 and despite my acherontic experience reading the book I can see why. It is a very timely piece, addressing many of the problems blacks face in a country that has supposedly moved on from its original sin of slavery. Segregation has ended, racism is officially at an all-time low, but the issues remain. 

That’s more-or-less the story, but for this reader the best aspect of The Sellout is Beatty’s language, sentence-by-sentence, even word-by-word, instead of the plot. There are literally hundreds of puns, non-sequiturs, and squeaky analogies, sometimes literally piled up on top of one another: “These are the times that fry one’s souls.” “Forty acres and a fool.”  In spite of that, the satirical style in which it was told offset much of what the book attempted to do. The satire in this novel is savage and the black idiom is difficult to follow for someone unfamiliar with it. I can only recommend this novel to those readers who are ready for a difficult reading experience that may or may not be worth the trip. It was not for me.


Friday, February 08, 2019

Poetic Telos and Cartharsis

Poetics 


Poetics






"The most important element is the construction of the plot. Tragedy is a representation not of persons but of action and life, and happiness and unhappiness consist in action."  (1450a, 15ff) 





"What is poetry, how many kinds of it are there, and what are their specific effects?" These are questions that Aristotle’s Poetics, one of his most influential books, attempts to answer. While it has been an important aspect outside philosophical circles it is doubtful that it can be fully appreciated outside Aristotle’s philosophical system as a whole.

A theme common to all Aristotle’s philosophy is the claim that nothing can be understood apart from its end or purpose (telos). This is certainly true for the Poetics which seeks to discover the end or purpose of all the poetic arts, and especially of tragic drama. Aristotle argues that generally, the goal of poetry is to provide pleasure of a particular kind. For comparison the Metaphysics begins, “All men desire to know by nature,” and the Nicomachean Ethics repeatedly says that the satisfaction of natural desires is the greatest source of lasting pleasure. The Poetics combines these two approaches with the idea of imitation. All people by nature enjoy a good imitation (that is, a picture or drama) because they enjoy learning, and imitations help them to learn.

Of particular interest to Aristotle is the pleasure derived from tragic drama, namely, the kind of pleasure that comes from the purging or cleansing (catharsis) of the emotions of fear and pity. Though the emotions of fear and pity are not to be completely eliminated, excessive amounts of these emotions are not characteristic of a flourishing individual. Vicariously experiencing fear and pity in a good tragedy cleanses the soul of ill humors.

Though there are many elements of a good tragedy, the most important, according to Aristotle, is the plot. The centrality of plot once again follows from central doctrines of the Metaphysics and the Nichomachean Ethics. In the former, Aristotle argues that all knowledge is knowledge of universals; in the latter, he states that it is through their own proper activity that humans discover fulfillment.

For a plot to work, it must be both complete and coherent. That means that it must constitute a whole with a beginning, middle, and end, and that the sequence of events must exhibit some sort of necessity. A good dramatic plot is unlike history. History has no beginning, middle, and end, and thus it lacks completeness. Furthermore, it lacks coherence because many events in history happen by accident. In a good dramatic plot, however, everything happens for a reason. This difference makes tragedy philosophically more interesting than history. Tragedy focuses on universal causes and effects and thus provides a kind of knowledge that history, which largely comprises accidental happenings, cannot.

While literary styles have changed over the centuries, the observations of Aristotle still contain value both for writers and readers today.


Wednesday, January 30, 2019

A Trip to Escape Love

Less 


Less





“Where is the real Less? Less the young man terrified of love? The dead-serious Less of twenty-five years ago? Well, he has not packed him at all. After all these years, Less doesn’t even know where he’s stored.”   ― Andrew Sean Greer, Less






Less, by Andrew Sean Greer, is a funny and engaging picaresque novel. Told by an omniscient narrator and portrayed through a well-structured plot, the humor is sometimes over-the-top, at least for this reader, and the story fascinates with the world of a not quite mainstream writer.

The novel opens when Arthur Less finds Freddy, his much younger, part-time lover of the past nine years—the one Less keeps warning not to become too attached to him—telling Less he’s met somebody else. When the wedding invitation arrives Less, a mediocre but earnest author, opens his desk drawer and fishes his hand through a sea of likewise mediocre professional invitations. If he accepts them all he would have the ingredients for a trip around the world and be out of town for the wedding and his dreaded fiftieth birthday, too. Less thinks, “What could possibly go wrong?”

So begins Greer’s sometimes hilarious ode to travel. From Less’s “Thumbelina bottle of red wine” to the “prison blanket, prison pillow” to which he clings, to his years-long battle to be refunded his VAT, Less is every person who wants to see the world but not deal with the struggle to get there. He’s also every person who’s armored himself against heartache by avoiding serious commitments.

Arthur Less has, for the past decade and a half, remained a bachelor. This came after a long period of living with an older poet, Robert Brownburn, that consumed his life till he suddenly found himself approaching middle age. Now he faced a second stage of life and  swore he would not give it to anyone; he would enjoy it. He would enjoy it alone. But: how to live alone and yet not be alone? His strategy was to “renounce love completely.” He had lovers but did not grow close. Hence his treatment of Freddy. And his impulse to flee.

Following this wonderfully funny-sad introduction, the picaresque stage takes over and we visit several countries with Arthur. The structure of the novel mirrors his round-the-world trip. Each chapter reveals a new country, new obstacles, and a new cast of characters. Less drags along his emotional baggage from place to place, and any random event can trigger a memory from his past with Robert or Freddy or from his childhood; he is never alone. In theory, all this backstory could slow down the plot, but he continually enters new situations. Each of them are fraught with worries and humorous moments like his stop in Germany where he teaches a course he delightfully calls "Read Like a Vampire, Write Like Frankenstein". This is based on "his own notion that writers read other works in order to take their best parts." With this as his set-up the humor is upped by his own less-than-expert knowledge of German which leads his students (behind his back) to label him "Peter Pan" due to his puerile exposition of the language. In this episode as all others, while he may sometimes be uncomfortable, he always survives to continue to another country.

While he doesn't intend as much the journey becomes an inadvertent quest for the meaning of love in his life. At a party in Paris, Less feels like the only single fifty-year-old with no prospects in sight. While sitting at a bar in Morocco on the eve of his birthday, Less’s female friend, also recently dumped, ponders whether love is “walking the fucking dog so the other one can sleep in” or if “it’s this earth-shattering thing. . . . Something I’ve never felt. Have you?” Less can’t answer. Much later while talking to Robert on the phone, he remembers his former partner’s deep longing for him and wonders if he’ll ever be loved that way again. Less finally asks the question he’s been trying to evade: “Am I too old to meet someone?” It is in moments like this, surprising moments of tenderness, when Less’s armor crumbles that he’s forced to face his ache inside.

Greer satirizes much of the writing life, from the agent who tells Less his novel is “too wistful. Too poignant,” to a ceremony for an obscure award, to a writing conference, to discuss not Less’s own books but the work of his long-ago lover, the genius poet Robert Brownburn. Greer reaches beyond satire to give glimpses into the character’s writing process -- moments where he describes the interior act of writing and the working of a creative mind. The humor in the novel's picaresque sections seems subdued compared to the opening sections, and sometimes seems to be merely tired farcical episodes, but the novel as a whole is more than entertaining, With Arthur's meditations on love and its loss it raises serious issues for the reader. The result justifies, in my opinion, the prize-winning status of this contemporary novel.



Monday, January 14, 2019

Novel as a Journal

Any Human Heart 


Any Human Heart




“Those were the years when I was truly happy. Knowing that is both a blessing and a curse. It's good to acknowledge that you found true happiness in your life - in that sense your life has not been wasted. But to admit that you will never be happy like that again is hard.”   ― William Boyd, Any Human Heart






William Boyd' s novel is presented in the form of journal entries; thus the subtitle, "The Intimate Journals of Logan Mountstuart". The "journals" which the author has created, complete with footnotes and an index of all the people whom Logan meets (including Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Picasso, and countless others), brilliantly evoke a past era - or rather eras; for the journals span Logan Mountstuart's life from 1923, when he was a precocious schoolboy, through his early success as a biographer and novelist, his marriages, a war spent in Military Intelligence under Ian Fleming, life as an art dealer in New York, and poverty in London in his old age, until his death in France on October 5, 1991. The breadth of the story reminded me of Boyd's earlier novel, The New Confessions, which took the form of the autobiography of John James Todd, chronicling his uncanny and exhilarating life as one of the most unappreciated geniuses of the twentieth century

Much of the technical brilliance of this book results from the shifts in Logan's style as he, and the times through which he lives, ever so subtly evolve. Because of this it is sometimes difficult to appreciate Boyd's art as one ought, for one finds oneself almost reading the journals as genuine. The most dazzling vignettes, perhaps, are those of the self-regarding diaries of the young writers and aesthetes of the Twenties and Thirties, where Cyril Connolly (who appears as a character) is a likely influence. But if the early sections are the closest to parody, they are never mere caricature.

Boyd manages a rather touching, as well as extremely funny, portrait of a pretentious, arrogant, clever 17-year-old ("wrote a Spenserian ode on loss of faith"), who writes with flourishes of self-conscious pomposity ("we regained the purlieus of school without further incident"), is striving for superiority ("the Xmas tree is surely the saddest and most vulgar object invented by mankind"), yet does not know how to go about kissing his cousin Lucy, or deal with the discovery that his father does not have long to live.

Almost every section of the journals is nearly as good: Logan's moment with his baby son: "Lionel has croup. He seems a sickly baby. I sat him on my knee the other day and he stared at me with a baleful, sullen, and unknowing eye." is reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh. But the novel is not a simple criticism of many diarists of the period. Logan is capable of real and generous feeling, as well as of self-regarding depression; though to reveal the circumstances in which he finds (and loses) his truest love, as he moves from early critical acclaim to poverty and obscurity, would spoil an immensely readable story.

One remembers that this is a novel, indeed, by the way it holds your interest - which is quite a feat, because Boyd has also skillfully mimicked the "artless" and random qualities of the typical diary. As Logan remarks in his opening preamble, one should not expect coherence from journals: they merely "entrap that collection of selves that forms us"; unshaped by retrospection, their reality is "riotous and disorganized." Boyd's novel deliberately appears sprawling and inclusive; but it reads like a distillation of a real journal. He displays an unobtrusive artistry that transforms the potentially confusing "disorganized" diary-form into a novel which demonstrates the confusions and randomness of human life.