Friday, October 11, 2019

The Force of Destiny



“The only hope I have left for you hangs on a great doubt - the doubt whether we are, or are not, the masters of our own destinies. It may be that mortal free-will can conquer mortal fate; and that going, as we all do, inevitably to death, we go inevitably to nothing that is before death.”  ― Wilkie Collins, Armadale

Armadale, Wilkie Collins’s longest novel and like another of his popular novels, The Moonstone, the narrative comprises a series of testimonies and accounts (such as from characters’ diaries and letters) which gradually shed light on the mystery. One interesting note: the heading of Chapter VII is "The Plot Thickens". I do not know if that was the first use of that phrase (I doubt it) but it is striking that Collins would use it for a chapter heading.

In 1832, Allan Armadale confesses on his deathbed to murder: his clerk, Fergus Ingleby, stole his name and married Jane Blanchard, the woman Allan loved. Pursuing the couple on board a ship, Allan locked Fergus in a cabin and left him to drown when the ship was wrecked. Allan later travelled to the West Indies where he married a creole woman and had a son.
After this opening the story moves to 1851, and the murderer’s son has adopted the name Ozias Midwinter, while the drowned Fergus Ingleby’s has been brought up under the name Allan Armadale – and with it, has inherited Fergus’ property, the estate of Thorpe Ambrose. Ozias learns the truth about his father’s crime – that he murdered his friend’s father – while on a sailing trip with Fergus and Jane’s son, Allan Armadale. He destroys the letter containing Allan Armadale Senior’s confession, and vows to keep the secret from his friend.

Lydia Gwilt, the former maid to Jane Blanchard (Allan’s father), sets her sights on marrying Allan for his money. Both Ozias Midwinter and Allan Armadale end up falling for Lydia, but her plan to marry Armadale is scuppered when her cynical motives are uncovered. However the resourceful Lydia, having learned the secret that Midwinter’s real name is also Allan Armadale, plans to marry him under his real name, get the other Allan Armadale out of the way, and then use the marriage certificate as legal proof of her entitlement to the Armadale estate. This complex plot continues as Lydia marries Midwinter, concealing her checkered past from him but the denouement will have to await your reading pleasure for this reader must vow not to spoil that delight.

Armadale is unusual among Wilkie Collins’s sensation novels because it demonstrates a detailed interest in human psychology, with dreams cropping up at numerous points in the novel, and Collins taking time to explore what John Sutherland, in The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction, calls ‘the psychology of crime’. Granted, the dreams are used as plot devices rather than as a sort of proto-stream-of-consciousness designed to shed light on Allan Armadale’s character; but Collins’s use of the dreams, and Midwinter’s analysis of their significance as premonitions, adds another psychological layer to this complex novel. The real triumph of Armadale is Collins’s portrayal of Lydia Gwilt, whose surname suggests ‘guilt’ (and ‘gilt’, evoking her gold-digging ambitions), but also, through a twist, ‘will’, foregrounding her own independent agency and, it must be said, her perseverance and cunning. This is a great read which I would recommend to lovers of Dickens or Thackeray.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Ripples of Memory

Absalom, Absalom! 

Absalom, Absalom!

“Maybe nothing ever happens once and is finished. Maybe happen is never once but like ripples maybe on water after the pebble sinks, the ripples moving on, spreading, the pool attached by a narrow umbilical water-cord to the next pool which the first pool feeds, has fed, did feed, let this second pool contain a different temperature of water, a different molecularity of having seen, felt, remembered, reflect in a different tone the infinite unchanging sky, it doesn’t matter: that pebble’s watery echo whose fall it did not even see moves across its surface too at the original ripple-space, to the old ineradicable rhythm”  ― William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!

Memory. That is remembering the past, your family, the culture of family and place. That is in and of the essence of this memorable novel. We find it in the wisteria:

"Do you mark how the wistaria, sun-impacted on this wall here, distills and penetrates this room as though (light-unimpeded) by secret and attritive progress from mote to mote of obscurity's myriad components? That is the substance of remembering---sense, sight, and smell" (p 115)

This is a story of a man, Thomas Sutpen, and other men and women whose lives formed the history of a place and a time--a sometimes dynasty, as told by several narrators including Miss Rosa Coldfield and Quentin Compson (whom you may remember from The Sound and the Fury).
The memory of the events surrounding the ferociousness of Thomas Sutpen is told through fabulous stories, conjecture, discussions, and arguments. It encompasses the history of generations, the strength of women to survive, and the impact of slavery on their way of being.

Told with the poetic beauty of Faulkner's magnificent prose this is a novel to be read and reread; savored as you meditate on the meaning of these people and events and how they resemble those you may remember from Greek or Shakespearean tragedy. Above all it is about Faulkner's idea of the South and that of his characters, especially Quentin, the young Harvard student who proclaims:

"'I don't hate it,' he said. I don't hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark: I don't. I don't! I don't hate it! I don't hate it!" (p 303)

Monday, September 30, 2019

Discovery of a Lost Poem

The Swerve: 
How the World Became Modern 

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

“What human beings can and should do, he wrote, is to conquer their fears, accept the fact that they themselves and all the things they encounter are transitory, and embrace the beauty and the pleasure of the world.”  ― Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

The fifteenth century was one of discovery and reinvigoration of culture. It is rightly known as the Renaissance. Stephen Greenblatt has written a book, The Swerve, about one of those discoverers who remade culture and gained fame in particular from one book, On The Nature of Things by Lucretius. This work by a Roman of the first century BC is an extended poem about philosophy and science. The extent to which Lucretius covers things and described them in a way that is very modern is breathtaking. Added to that is the beauty of his poetry. Yet, in spite of this, the book had been lost for more than a thousand years hidden away in a remote monastery.

Greenblatt provides the background of the discoverer, one Poggio Bracciolini, a classicist who for a time became secretary to the Pope. He scoured the Italian countryside for old books and with Lucretius found a book that would influence thinkers from Machiavelli to Montaigne and beyond into the twentieth century. The Swerve derives its name from one of the most important concepts in Lucretius' poem, that everything is made of small particles called atoms by the Greek philosopher Democritus, and that everything in the Universe is informed by the movement of these particles - the "swerve" - and not by the gods of the Romans or the god of the Catholic church.  Perhaps more importantly Lucretius was a follower of Epicurus whose philosophy taught that one should take no part in the struggle for wealth and power, one should attach the greatest importance to friendship, and thus achieve tranquility of mind. All of this to be achieved without a reliance on gods (although he did not deny the existence of gods, rather that they did not interact with humans).  Cicero, while disliking Epicureanism, read On the Nature of Things and thought well of Lucretius' poetry.

Greenblatt's prose is a delight to read and his history reads like a novel. Some critics think that he speculates too much and does not provide enough evidence for some of his claims, but that is part and parcel of writing about the world that is removed from our current age by more than a millennia.

After providing the story of Poggio's life and his discovery Greenblatt concludes the book with a discussion of the impact of Lucretius in the centuries after the discovery. The book was reprinted with copies spreading throughout Europe. Greenblatt writes: "Once Gutenberg's clever technology was commercially established, printed editions quickly followed. The editions were routinely prefaced with warnings and disavowals." (to placate the ecclesiastical authorities).

This is cultural history that proves both entertaining and enlightening. It may encourage some to read Lucretius' poem which this reader has enjoyed reading more than once. It is accessible and worth the effort to discover for yourself what an ancient Roman poet had to say about the way things are.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Hope Devolves

Man's Hope 

Man's Hope

“The great mystery is not that we should have been thrown down here at random between the profusion of matter and that of the stars; it is that from our very prison we should draw, from our own selves, images powerful enough to deny our own nothingness.”  ― Andre Malraux

Man’s Hope is an epic novel about the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. During this bloody conflict, the Fascist elements of the Spanish military and the Catholic church, under the leadership of the Falangist dictator Francisco Franco, were supported vigorously by Benito Mussolini’s Italy and Adolf Hitler’s Germany and overthrew the leftist Republican government of Spain which was supported by the Soviet Union and by individual citizens of the Western European nations.

André Malraux was among many anti-Fascist Europeans who volunteered to fight for the Republicans, and he played a significant role as an organizer of the International Squadron of aircraft for the Republic. Man’s Hope is based on Malraux's experiences which he chronicled during the battles on the Republican side and and published while the war was still raging; it depicts the events of 1936-1937 as an adventure of the human spirit within a framework of historical, political, and philosophical ideas.

The novel is divided into three parts of which the first, “Careless Rapture”, begins with the optimistic and carefree mood of the Republican militia and their international volunteer comrades during the first summer of the Civil War. The second section of part 1, entitled “Prelude to Apocalypse,” concerns the mismanagement of the emotions of the Republican movement. This is followed by “The Manzanares” (the second part), with sections are entitled “Action and Reaction” and “Comrades’ Blood.” “The Manzanares” begins with the rout of the Republicans from Toledo in September, continues with the siege and bombing of the Republicans in Madrid (now a city in flames), and ends in December with the Republican counterattack. The final part of the novel was originally entitled “The Peasants,” but Malraux changed the title to “Hope” in his definitive 1947 revision—probably to underscore its importance for the work as a whole.

A significant theme of the novel concerns the nature of a revolution or popular uprising. From Malraux's perspective, a revolution comes into being under the impetus of a lyric burst of feeling, the best of which is found in freedom and fraternity. At this stage, Anarchism seems to fit well with the revolution. For a revolution to be sustained, however, these feelings have to be disciplined and organized; hence the need for a political machinery such as that of the Communist Party (which will, ironically, destroy the lyric impulses of revolution).

On a political level, then, Man’s Hope dramatizes the self-defining process of a revolution. As it does so, Malraux also explores the meaning of being human. When humanist intellectuals such as Scali are confronted with the brutalities of war and carefree individuals such as Manuel evolve into effective military leaders, they have to come to terms with the meaning of humanity—their own as well as others’. By means of symbolic epiphanies Malraux provides an assurance of hope in the endurance of fundamental humanity. Overall this book is a great sort of mess mirroring the morass of war.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Aristophanes, Women, and Peace

Lysistrata and The Acharnians 

Lysistrata and Other Plays

“What matters that I was born a woman, if I can cure your misfortunes? I pay my share of tolls and taxes, by giving men to the State. But you, you miserable greybeards, you contribute nothing to the public charges; on the contrary, you have wasted the treasure of our forefathers, as it was called, the treasure amassed in the days of the Persian Wars. You pay nothing at all in return; and into the bargain you endanger our lives and liberties by your mistakes. Have you one word to say for yourselves?... Ah! don't irritate me, you there, or I'll lay my slipper across your jaws; and it's pretty heavy.”  ― Aristophanes, Lysistrata

Peace is a major theme of these plays. The Acharnians focuses on arguments against war among the men, while Lysistrata is a bawdy and demented fest of diatribes between women and men. When the women, led by the titular character, withhold their sex in their demand for peace the men seem to be at a significant disadvantage.

The Acharnians is set during the Peloponnesian War during the sixth year of conflict between Athens and Sparta. In Aristophanes play the protagonist is a farmer named Dikaiopolis who has suffered as the war has progressed. The Athenian military faces pressure to escalate the conflict for revenge against Sparta, while Dikaiopolis wishes to negotiate peace for his family alone. Throughout the play, Dikaipolis must use his wit to thwart his militaristic opponents. Democracy is presented as a vehicle for militarism and it allows many of the Athenian politicians to rally supporters under the guise of cooperation. A buffoonish and arrogant general, Lamachus, is held up as an example of the militaristic attitude that Greek democracy often produced.

The play is filled with outrageous puns and wonderful wit that skewers the military and the Athenian aristocracy as peace is sought. There is even a brief section that pokes fun at the then successful tragic dramatist Euripides. However, this play is definitely one about the men who are in charge whether in Athens or Sparta; thus it is easy to contrast it with the approach taken in Lysistrata.

The name Lysistrata can be loosely translated as "she who disbands armies". That is behind both her mission and her leadership of the women of Athens who she encourages to withhold their sex from the men until peace can be brokered with Sparta. The play was produced more than a decade after The Acharnians and Athens had suffered a major blow when defeated in Syracuse with the loss of her navy. While they were recovering from that disaster the war continued with no end in sight (did I mention that these plays address very contemporary issues for those of us living in twenty-first century America?).

The play is famous for the roles given to women, particularly noteworthy since there is no evidence for women attending Athenian theater, and since it entailed the somewhat comic difficulty of having men, already in their phallic-oriented costumes, play the roles of the women. It is much more bawdy and extreme in its humor than The Archanians with the focus on the "battle of the sexes" centered at the Acropolis as a means used by the women, led by Lysistrata, to bring the men to their senses. The humor is magnified in the opening sections as the men who oppose them are old and perhaps a bit senile since the young men are all at war.
The pride of the old men is deeply wounded when Lysistrata declares that the women have assumed all civil authority and will henceforth provide for the safety and welfare of Athens. The magistrate cannot believe his ears when he hears Lysistrata say that the women have grown impatient with the incompetence of their husbands in matters that concern the commonweal. For rebuking the women, the magistrate receives potfuls of water poured on his head. When the ineffectual old men declare that they will never submit, the women answer that the old men are worthless and that all they have been able to do is legislate the city into trouble.

The women do have difficulties maintaining order within their ranks, but that just adds to the comedy. The result of this and further comic moments, including a riot surrounding the birth of a baby to one of the women, is a delight that transcends the centuries and overcomes many of the difficulties of translation. This has become my favorite play by Aristophanes.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Becoming an Adult


“When you are sixteen you do not know what your parents know, or much of what they understand, and less of what's in their hearts. This can save you from becoming an adult too early, save your life from becoming only theirs lived over again--which is a loss. But to shield yourself--as I didn't do--seems to be an even greater error, since what's lost is the truth of your parents' life and what you should think about it, and beyond that, how you should estimate the world you are about to live in.”  ― Richard Ford, Wildlife

Richard Ford is best known for his short stories and his three Frank Bascombe novels (The Sportswriter, Independence Day, and The Lay of the Land). While I have not read those books, I may consider them because I found Wildlife (1990) to be an intense and interesting character study. It is set during the 1960 summer of rampant Montana forest fires which provide both background and metaphor for the flame-out of the narrator's home life.

The narrator is sixteen-year-old Joe Brinson whose family has recently moved to Great Falls, Montana. While Joe is trying to adapt to a new school and neighborhood his parent's marriage is slowly disintegrating. The decay of the marriage is exacerbated by Joe's father Jerry's loss of his job, after being falsely accused of theft, and his choice to become a firefighter; a decision that takes him away from his wife and son. Joe's mother is attracted to another man and this leads to situations that make Joe wonder about the meaning of his life and his relationship with his mother and father.

Joe is a thoughtful young man, but is confused by the changes he has been experiencing. They've left him a troubled and puzzling teenager on the border of maturity. With a spare, carefully shaped prose style that reflects the setting of the action and the quality of the problems and choices Joe faces, Ford creates a character and situations with which many young people can, no doubt, identify---Joe thinks to himself:

"I wondered if there was some pattern or an order to things in your life---not one you knew but that worked on you and made events when they happened seem correct, or made you confident about them or willing to accept them even if they seemed like wrong things. Or was everything just happening all the time, in a whirl without anything to stop it or cause it---the way we think of ants, or molecules under the microscope, or the way others would think of us, not knowing our difficulties, watching us from another planet?"(p 96)

While Wildlife is a coming of age story Ford uses the family relationships to provide it with a unique approach to a familiar form. Adding to the situation of the family is a growing intensity of thoughts and questions percolating in young Joe's head. The events slowly create a level of dramatic intensity that lead to a thought-provoking ending to the story of Joe and his family.  This reader found the novel a sad but riveting tale  reminiscent of Raymond Carver and Walker Percy in my experience.

Friday, September 06, 2019

Rain in the Foothills

The Big Sleep 

The Big Sleep (Philip Marlowe, #1)

“You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that, oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan was.”  ― Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

Born in Chicago, raised in a suburb of London, and schooled in a private British preparatory school, Raymond Chandler remarked: "I had to learn American just like a foreign language." He was successful in that endeavor, although it took him quite a while to gain success as a professional writer.

It was Chandler's first novel, The Big Sleep, that brought him his first major success in 1939. It is a narrative that is nothing if not what one would consider cinematic in its beautiful prose. Yet, it is the dialogue that seems to me to be the best part. This is the oomph that gave his novel a kick that I seldom have experienced in my reading. Chandler was both a master of prose and the detective story and, despite rough edges, never seemed to lose his authorial grip over the plot while dazzling the reader with beautiful women and sleazy characters (sometimes one in the same).

Chandler does not rely on dialogue alone. There are serious themes that permeate the narrative. The Big Sleep takes place in a big city in America during the 1930s—the period of the Great Depression when America was, as a whole, disillusioned and cynical about its prospects for the future. Chandler mentions money throughout the novel as an ideal, a goal for the seedy crime ring that lives within the novel. Many of the characters kill and bribe for money. The opening page of the novel claims that Chandler's detective, Philip Marlowe, is "dressed up" because he is about to enter a house that is worth millions. He also chooses to portray this world as dark and corrupt. No one, not even the law, is exempt from corruption in this novel: newspapers lie and cops can be bought (not unlike our world today). Corruption is reflected in various ways throughout the novel. First, The Big Sleep is dark in that it is a novel in which rain pervades. It is also a novel in which richness is juxtaposed against the grime of deserted oilfields. The oilfields themselves—including the deserted one with empty pumps and rusted remains in which Carmen Sternwood, daughter of his client, attempts to kill Marlowe and in which Rusty Regan is lying dead—are symbolic.

His private eye, Philip Marlowe, is smooth and suave and always seems to be on top of the situation, even when he appears to be on the bottom. I was impressed with the way Chandler's prose made you feel that you were living in a specific time and place, Los Angeles in the 30s. Following the twists and turns as he handily dealt with one surprise after another made for great fiction. It was a joy to read this author and experience one of the supreme experts on crime and the criminal in American fiction.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Saturday Poem

per il Mulatto Brischdauer
gran pazzo e compositore mulattico
………. ––Ludwig van Beethoven, 1803

The Bridgetower

If was at the Beginning. If
he had been older, if he hadn’t been
dark, brown eyes ablaze
in that remarkable face;
if he had not been so gifted, so young
a genius with no time to grow up;
if he hadn’t grown up, undistinguished,
to an obscure old age.
If the piece had actually been,
as Kreutzer exclaimed, unplayable––even after
our man had played it, and for years,
no one else was able to follow––
so that the composer’s fury would have raged
for naught, and wagging tongues
could keep alive the original dedication
from the title page he shredded.
Oh, if only Ludwig had been better-looking,
or cleaner, or a real aristocrat,
von instead of the unexceptional van
from some Dutch farmer; if his ears
had not already begun to squeal and whistle;
if he hadn’t drunk his wine from lead cups,
if he could have found True Love. Then
the story would have held: In 1803
George Polgreen Bridgetower,
son of Friedrich Augustus the African Prince
and Maria Anna Sovinki of Biala in Poland,
traveled from London to Vienna,
where he met the Great Master
who would stop work on his Third Symphony
to write a sonata for his new friend
to premiere triumphantly on May 24th,
whereupon the composer himself
leapt up from the piano to embrace
his “lunatic mulatto.”
Who knows what would have followed?
They might have palled around some,
just a couple of wild and crazy guys
strutting the town like rock stars,
hitting the bars for a few beers, a few laughs . . .
instead of falling out over a girl
nobody remembers, nobody knows.
Then this bright-skinned papa’s boy
could have sailed his fifteen-minute fame
straight into the record books––where,
instead of a Regina Carter or Aaron Dworkin or Boyd Tinsley
sprinkled here and there, we would find
rafts of black kids scratching out scales
on their matchbox violins so that some day
they might play the impossible:
Beethoven’s Sonata No. 9 in A Major, Op. 47,
also known as The Bridgetower.
by Rita Dove
from Sonata Mulattica,  W.W. Norton, 2009

Monday, August 26, 2019

Historian and Novelist

The Historian and the Story

In his narrative of the Mann Gulch fire, Young Men and Fire, Norman Maclean meditates on the meaning of history and storytelling. In the paragraphs just following the moments when he has presented the heart of the disaster he comments:

"The historian, for a variety of reasons, can limit his account
to firsthand witnesses, although the shortage of firsthand 
witnesses probably does not explain completely why 
contemporary accounts of the Mann Gulch fire avert their eyes 
from the tragedy. If  a storyteller thinks enough of storytelling 
to regard it as a calling, unlike a historian he cannot turn from 
the sufferings of his characters. A storyteller, unlike a historian, 
must follow compassion wherever it leads him. He must be 
able to accompany his characters even into smoke and fire, 
and bear witness to what they thought and felt even when 
they themselves no longer knew. This story of the Mann Gulch 
fire will not end until it feels able to walk the final distance to 
the crosses with those who for the time being are blotted out 
by smoke. They were young and did not leave much behind 
them and need someone to remember them." (Young Men and
Fire, pp 101-102)

By contrast with the work of the historian, the storyteller James Fenimore Cooper, in his historical novel The Prairie, can hold the reader in suspense with the approach of a great prairie fire while the old trapper devises a method of using fire to fight fire and, in doing so, save the party of settlers. Here is the conclusion of the episode in Cooper's words:

"The experience of the trapper was in the right. As the fire gained
strength and heat, it began to spread on three sides, dying of itself
on the fourth, for want of aliment. As it increased, and the sullen
roaring announced its power, it cleared every thing before it, leaving
the black and smoking soil far more naked than if the scythe had swept
the place. The situation of the fugitives would have still been
hazardous had not the area enlarged as the flame encircled them. But
by advancing to the spot where the trapper had kindled the grass, they
avoided the heat, and in a very few moments the flames began to recede
in every quarter, leaving them enveloped in a cloud of smoke, but
perfectly safe from the torrent of fire that was still furiously
rolling onward.

"The spectators regarded the simple expedient of the trapper with that
species of wonder, with which the courtiers of Ferdinand are said to
have viewed the manner in which Columbus made his egg stand on its
end, though with feelings that were filled with gratitude instead of
envy."  (The Prairie, Chapter 23)

James Fenimore Cooper, The Prairie. The Heritage Press, 1960 (1827).
Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire. The University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Too Young to Count the Odds

Young Men and Fire: 
 A True Story of the Mann Gulch Fire 

Young Men and Fire:  A True Story of the Mann Gulch Fire

“They were still so young they hadn't learned to count the odds and to sense they might owe the universe a tragedy.” 

― Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire

Catastrophes are only a part of the story of the crew of fifteen smoke jumpers who, in August 1949, stepped into the sky above the mountains of western Montana. Their story is the focal point of this fine narrative, but there is so much more that I have stopped in my read to share a brief quotation that both tells a tiny part of the story, but also provides a peek into the context that is as vast as the mountains themselves. The beauty of this book is not only in the story of those young men and the fire they leapt into, but also the way it is told by Norman Maclean.

"Yet we should also go on wondering if there is not some shape, form, design as of artistry in this universe we are entering that is composed of catastrophes and missing parts. Whether we are coming up or down the Gates of the Mountains, catastrophes everywhere enfold us as they do the river, and catastrophes may seem to be only the visible remains of defunct happenings of millions of years ago and the Rocky Mountains only the disintegrated explosions that darkened skies also millions of years ago and left behind the world dusted with gritty silicone. At least I should recognize this as much the same stuff as the little pieces of glass which in 1980 Mount St. Helens in Washington sprinkled over my cabin in Montana six hundred miles away, and anyone coming down the Gates of the Mountains can see that the laminations of ocean beds compressed in the cliffs on one side of the river match the laminations on the opposite cliffs, and, looking up, can see that an arch, now disappeared into sky, originally join both cliffs. There are also missing parts to the story of the lonely crosses ahead of us, almost invisible in deep grass near the top of a mountain. What if, by searching the earth and even the sky for these missing parts, we should find enough of them to see catastrophe change into the shape of remembered tragedy? Unless we are willing to escape into sentimentality or fantasy, often the best we can do with catastrophes, even our own, is to find out exactly what happened and restore some of the missing parts---hopefully, even the arch to the sky." (pp 46-47)

Monday, August 19, 2019

What is a Book?

Sesame and Lilies 

Sesame and Lilies

“All books are divisible into two classes: the books of the hours, and the books of all Time.” 

― John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies


What is a book?

"A book is essentially not a talking thing, but a written thing; and written, not with a view of mere communication, but of permanence. The book of talk is printed only because its author cannot speak to thousands o people at once; if he could, he would---the volume is mere multiplication of his voice. You cannot talk to your friend in India; if you could, you would; you write instead: that is mere conveyance of voice. But a book is written, not to multiply the voice merely, not to carry it merely, but to perpetuate it. The author has something to say which he perceives to be true and useful, or helpfully beautiful. So far as he knows, no one has yet said it; so far as he knows, no one else can say it. He is bound to say it, clearly and melodiously if he may; clearly at all events. In the sum of his life he finds this to be the thing, or group of things, manifest to him; ---this, the piece of true knowledge, or sight, which his share of sunshine and earth has permitted him to seize. He would fain set it down for ever; engrave it on rock, if he could; saying, "This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved, and hated, like another; my life was as the vapour, and is not; but this I saw and knew: this, if anything is worth your memory." That is his "writing"; it is, in his small human way, and with whatever degree of true inspiration is in him, his inscription, or scripture. That is a "Book."" (pp 32-33)

Sesame and Lilies by John Ruskin, Deborah Epstein Nord, ed., Yale University Press, 2002 (1864).

Saturday, August 17, 2019

In Modern Berlin

Berlin Alexanderplatz 

Berlin Alexanderplatz

“He swore to all the world and to himself that he would remain decent. And as long as he had money, he remained decent. But then he ran out of money, which was a moment he had been waiting for, to show them all what he was made of.”   

― Alfred Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz

This novel was first published in October, 1929, two weeks before Black Friday and the Wall Street Crash. It put modern Berlin on the literary map and it remains a modernist classic favorably compared with the not too dissimilar novels like Dos Passos' USA Trilogy and Joyce's Ulysses. It tells the story of man who is as untied from any moorings as the world around him seemed to be. In fact, you might consider him the perfect anti-hero for the age.

The story opens as Franz Biberkopf is released from Tegel prison, where he served four years for killing his girlfriend in a drunken rage. Returning to Berlin, he decides to go straight. He begins to peddle bow ties on a street corner and drifts into selling other merchandise. At the same time, he starts an affair with Polish Lina and gets involved fleetingly with a bewildering series of political movements, ranging from homosexual rights to the Nazi Party. His wearing of the Nazi armband angers his worker friends, who expel him from his favorite pub. However, his real troubles begin after he enters into a partnership with Otto Lüders. After Lüders robs and assaults one of his customers, to whose apartment he gained access by using Franz’s name, Biberkopf is forced to flee to an obscure part of the city to avoid complications.

Much like a musical theme with variations, a few weeks later, Franz returns to his usual haunts taking a job as a newspaper vendor. He also begins to consort with a flashy miscreant named Reinhold who is adept at attracting women but cannot hold on to them. Each time Reinhold tires of a girlfriend, Franz throws off his current mistress and takes Reinhold’s latest castoff. When Franz becomes sincerely attached to Cissy, one of Reinhold’s rejects, he refuses to comply further. Indeed, he tells Reinhold’s girlfriend how things stand. This infuriates Reinhold, though he pretends to acquiesce in Franz’s attempt to reform him.

Yet another misadventure has Franz recruited by Fatty Pums, head of a criminal gang, which includes Reinhold. The gang is closely pursued as they drive away from a robbery, and Reinhold, given to psychotic rages and remembering Franz’s interference with his social life, pushes him from the speeding automobile. Franz is run over by the chasing car.

He awakens in a hospital, missing one arm. Bedridden, he is taken in by friends from his criminal days. Once Franz feels better further adventures ensue involving prostitutes and the usual suspect criminal element (you get the idea). At one point Franz ends up abetting his old friend Reinhold in a murder. Franz manages to continue his criminal enterprise alone, but is caught by the police. All of these events are told in a realistic and sometimes comic style.

Franz learns of Meize’s death and the hunt for him through the newspapers. Disguised with a false arm, he sets off to track down Reinhold. Eventually, tired and confused, Franz wanders into a nightclub that is in the process of being raided by the police. He is arrested. Reinhold, who got himself jailed under an assumed name, thinking prison is an ideal hiding place, is betrayed by a young man he befriended. 

Above all else, the work’s narrative evokes the crowded and chaotic nature of Berlin in the Jazz age. Something of the rhythm and melodies of jazz music is conveyed through the frequent interspersing of the narrative with newspaper clippings, weather reports and political slogans, not to mention through its various diversions on topics as varied as astronomy, theology, and cooking. Döblin’s inclusion of the work’s principle setting as part of its title necessitates that the setting adopt a central role. There are a few fantastic episodes, meetings with angels and ultimately, after Frans has been confined in a mental asylum, a confrontation with Death, who recalls to Franz his misdeeds and charges him to start a new life. When he comes out of his stupor, he is changed. After he is released, he quietly becomes a gatekeeper, refuses to incriminate Reinhold at the killer’s trial, and avoids any bad associations. From then on, he is known by the new name Franz Karl Biberkopf, for he is a remade man.

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Humane Literature

The Periodic Table 

The Periodic Table

“If it is true that there is no greater sorrow than to remember a happy time in a state of misery, it is just as true that calling up a moment of anguish in a tranquil mood, seated quietly at one's desk, is a source of profound satisfaction.”   ― Primo Levi, The Periodic Table

The following is a review of a rereading of The Periodic Table:

Thomas Mann began his tetralogy, Joseph and His Brothers, with this sentence: "Very deep is the well of the past." Primo Levi's memoir demonstrates this metaphor in a much smaller, compact space. The lives of Levi and his Piedmont ancestors are explored through stories that illuminate the nature of the past and the source of those people's and our own humanity. This is done through vignettes that demonstrate Levi's love of chemistry and literature, his relations and relationships, while exploring his own attitude and thoughts.

Some of his thoughts are about reading and its meaning for his life. This is a topic that I especially love to explore and learn about; I will take it up in this introductory commentary on his memoir. His reading is based on his love for great literature particularly his appreciation for the writings of Thomas Mann, whom he holds in the highest esteem.
Early in the narrative during his sojourn as a chemistry student he meets Rita, a fellow student, and is attracted to her although, due to his shyness, he does not know how to approach her. He reaches a point where "I thought myself condemned to a perpetual masculine solitude, denied a woman's smile forever". Yet one day he found beside her, peeking out of her bag, a book. It was The Magic Mountain. He relates, "it was my sustenance during those months, the timeless story of Hans Castorp in enchanted exile on the magic mountain. I asked Rita about it, on tenterhooks to hear her opinion, as if I had written the book: and soon enough I had to realize that she was reading the novel in an entirely different way. As a novel, in fact: she was very interested in finding out exactly how far Hans would go with Madame Chauchat, and mercilessly skipped the fascinating (for me) political, theological, and metaphysical discussions between the humanist Settembrini and the Jewish Jesuit Naphtha." (p 38)
We all may have had a similar experience more than once: finding someone (whether drawn to them by Eros or not) reading a book we love, but not reading the same book.

Levi's love for Mann's writing also provided him solace while working on a demanding project during the war. He was sequestered in a laboratory next to a nickel mine and forced to work long hours. He dared not venture far from the mine, so "Sometimes I stayed in the lab past quitting time or went back there after dinner to study, or to meditate on the problem of nickel. At other times I shut myself in to read Mann's Joseph stories in my monastic cell in the submarine. On nights when the moon was up I often took long solitary walks through the wild countryside around the mine". (p 79)
One can picture Levi pondering while walking by the light of the Tuscan moon finding comfort as did Jacob in Mann's novel when he walked in the moonlight. It is the moonlight with its "magically ambiguous precision" that mirrored for Jacob the way the traditions of the children and grandchildren of Abraham are "spun out over generations and solidified as a chronicle only much later--". ("The Tales of Jacob")

Each chapter of the memoir is named for a chemical element, explores Levi’s work in the laboratory, and relates that work to his personal, social, and political experience. It is a cliché to speak of human chemistry when discussing human nature. The virtue of Levi’s book is that he refreshes the cliché and shows the profound connections between chemical elements and the elements of human behavior. The chapters can be read as a discrete piece of work, concentrating on some episode or period in Levi’s life. Nevertheless, the chapters are also unified by the author’s growth in perception. As he learns more about specific chemical elements and about the procedures required to study those elements, so he also discovers life in more depth, encountering unusual characters who teach him about the meaning of their lives and about existence as a whole. The form of The Periodic Table can be roughly characterized as a chronology; however there are chapters which are difficult to date and some that are fictions in part or in whole. While his experience in Auschwitz is almost entirely avoided (he had written a separate book about this, If This is a Man), he does include a brief episode in the chapter "Cerium" that highlights his friendship with a young man named Alberto who buoyed his spirits.

By titling his memoir The Periodic Table, Levi suggests that there is a structure to his writing about experience that is analogous to the way elements are analyzed in chemistry. Like the various substances the chemist tests in his laboratory, the author’s experiences have different degrees of purity, different weights, and different reactions, depending on what he uses to stimulate them. Human character in the memoir, in other words, has certain properties from the beginning, but it can be transformed in a number of ways given the changing nature of environments.

Throughout his memoir Primo Levi shares other literature and experiences as he narrates the lives of his friends, family, and ancestors. Just as he is inspired by reading Thomas Mann and the moonlight that inspired Jacob so many centuries ago he is imbued with the life of the people around him. Yes, The Periodic Table is deep, and one wonders at the lives narrated by this brilliant Jewish Italian chemist and humanist.

There are lessons to be learned in the humanity of people, but also in their frailties and foibles. Ultimately this is one of the most humane works of literature that this reader has encountered. With a unique style and appreciation for the importance of both science and literature for humanity The Periodic Table stands as a twentieth-century classic that I would recommend to all readers.

Saturday, August 03, 2019

Notes on Kant

Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals

Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals/On a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns

“....Happiness is not an ideal of reason but of imagination, resting solely on empirical grounds, and it is vain to expect that these should define an action by which one could attain the totality of a series of consequences which is really endless.”   
― Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals

To determine(develop) a foundation for a Metaphysics of Morals. Kant proposes that the proper foundation for a metaphysics of morals must be a critical examination of pure practical reason. This is because Moral Laws and their principles are different from practical cognition based on the difference between analytical and empirical thought. Moral philosophy rests on a priori (pure) laws.
Such laws require a power of judgment based on experience.

A metaphysics of such morals is necessary to avoid corruption: i.e. the moral good must not only conform to the moral law but it must also be done for the sake of that law. The metaphysics of morals must investigate the idea and principles of a possible “pure will” - not the actions of human volition.

The method of the work should be an analytical approach that progresses from ordinary knowledge to a supreme principle followed by an analysis and examination of this principle.

In spite of the logic of Kant's argument is it capable of being put into actual practice?
Or, in other words, can there be adherence to a moral law that is done solely for the sake of that law.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Last Paragraphs

"My walk home was lengthened by a diversion in the direction of the kirk. When beneath its walls, I perceived decay had made progress, even in seven months: many a window showed black gaps deprived of glass; and slates jutted off, here and there, beyond the right line of the roof, to be gradually worked off in coming autumn storms.
   I sought , and soon discovered, the three headstones on the slope next the moor: the middle one grey, and half buried in heath; Edgar Linton's only harmonized by the turf, and moss creeping up its foot; Heathcliff's still bare. 
   I lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth."

E. Bronte, 1847

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Poem on Reading and Books

Collected Poems

A Study Of Reading Habits

When getting my nose in a book
Cured most things short of school,
It was worth ruining my eyes
To know I could still keep cool,
And deal out the old right hook
To dirty dogs twice my size.

Later, with inch-thick specs,
Evil was just my lark:
Me and my cloak and fangs
Had ripping times in the dark.
The women I clubbed with sex!
I broke them up like meringues.

Don't read much now: the dude
Who lets the girl down before
The hero arrives, the chap
Who's yellow and keeps the store
Seem far too familiar. Get stewed:
Books are a load of crap.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

A Terrible Wisdom

Oedipus the King 

Sophocles I: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus

“Alas, how terrible is wisdom
when it brings no profit to the man that's wise!
This I knew well, but had forgotten it,
else I would not have come here.” 
― Sophocles, Oedipus the King

The oral traditions of Greece included the mythos of the life of Oedipus long before the first performance of this play, and the audience knew exactly what would happen before the gears of the plot begin turning. But the relentless, clockwork motion of the play kept theatergoers rapt then, as it does now, because watching fate unfold when it is known to you but not to the people who are its prisoners is a privilege borrowed from the gods.

Oedipus is portrayed bold, mighty, and just, as the Priest claims him "greatest in all men's eyes".(l 40)  Yet he also has human foibles and it is soon clear he has a destiny that, in spite of his actions, cannot be avoided. One theme of Oedipus the King is based on his hubris, but there is also the importance of his search for knowledge, the truth of his own being. Before the action of this play begins, Oedipus has already attempted to outrun fate, marking himself early for destruction. By attempting to escape a prophecy that he would kill his father, and leaving the palace at Corinth where he was raised, he sets the machinery of doom in motion.

Traveling along the highways, he soon enough meets and murders a man he thinks is merely an overly aggressive stranger. Years later, he discovers that the dead man is his natural father, Laius, and that he has unwittingly performed the act he was trying to avoid. The play begins with Oedipus again attempting to reshape the arc of his life that was described by prophecy. The hints of his coming failure are numerous.

In the Priest’s first long speech, when he begs Oedipus to save the city, he appeals to the king’s long experience—as a statesman, as a wanderer, as a ruler and as a vagrant. Unknown to the Priest and to Oedipus—but known to the audience—is that this king’s experience also includes killing his father and marrying his mother. The very experience to which the Priest appeals is moving Oedipus step by step to destruction. This exchange between the Priest and Oedipus is an example of how Sophocles builds dramatic tension into his play by including multiple levels of meaning in a single statement.

The technique will be repeated throughout the play. It reappears just a few lines later, when Oedipus tells the Priest that he has asked for help from the Oracle at Delphi and will follow its advice or consider himself a traitor. With the borrowed omniscience of the gods, the audience knows that Oedipus is already a traitor for having killed Laius, and that he will be faced with pronouncing the judgment he has pronounced upon himself. It remains only to witness what happens.

In another exchange weighted with similarly complex levels of meaning, Creon tells Oedipus what he has learned from the Oracle. Creon begins with the murder of Laius as background, and Oedipus says that he knows of the previous king, but has never seen him. Creon continues, delivering the Oracle’s instructions, and Oedipus vows to find and punish the murderer of Laius.

While the Oracle’s wishes are being delivered by Creon and while Oedipus reacts to them, the audience knows, as before, what Oedipus does not—that he murdered Laius, that he is the dead king’s son and that the widowed queen Oedipus married is his mother. Once again, there is something transfixing, tragic and doomed about watching Oedipus, in his ignorance, attempting to follow the Oracle’s orders but all the time preparing for the revelation of his crime and his subsequent doom.

The first hint of the truth is revealed to Oedipus by the blind prophet, Tiresias, and the king answers the seemingly unbelievable charge with rage, insults and threats. Raised in Corinth by the royal house as if he were the natural son of his adoptive parents, Oedipus rejects what Tiresias says as errant nonsense, saying "Had you eyes I would have said alone you murdered him [Laius]."(ls. 348-9) The blind prophet, who taunts Oedipus as being the one who is unable to see the truth, claiming "you are the land's pollution."(l 353) He challenges the king to reconsider everything about himself and the challenge is met with rage - Oedipus is unable to see the truth or to hear well-intentioned advice.

Pride and faith in his own abilities moves Oedipus ever onward toward doom, failure to honor the gods results in the very destruction they foretell, and humanity is unable to escape what is predicted for it. His wife, Jocasta, is a flawed individual. Her arrogant dismissal of the gods and her proclamations of victory over fate foretell her undoing. As much as Oedipus, she is unable to see until it is too late that her life fulfilled the very prophecy she sought vainly and pridefully to undo. Oedipus begins to see, in brief glimpses, how blind he has been to the central facts of his own life.

Thinking that he is doing a good deed, a Messenger tells Oedipus that it’s fine for Oedipus to come back to Corinth any time—he’s in no danger of fulfilling the prophecy there, the Messenger says. By telling Oedipus that the queen who raised him is not his natural mother, the Messenger has unknowingly revealed enough of the truth to make Oedipus tragically curious and to push Jocasta toward despair. Motivated by a simple desire to ease worry, the Messenger has released the machinations of fate that will produce the full revelation of the truth and all its awful effects. When the Messenger speaks, he is as blindly ignorant of his fatal role in serving destiny as Oedipus and Jocasta are of theirs. He speaks, but he does not see.

In this section, the theme is hammered home time and again that people go through their lives thinking they are fulfilling one purpose when they are actually lurching toward the completion of several others. The gods know this and watch events unfold from above. The first audiences of this play knew the histories of its characters before the first lines were spoken, and the drama unfolded for viewers who watched with the borrowed omniscience of the gods. Modern readers are left to decide for themselves what they think about fate, prophecy and human attempts to outrun destiny.

The climax of the play is both pitiful and tragic. Yet, it also yields knowledge for Oedipus of who he really is, even as he goes forth as a blind man. The chorus intones the message that "Time who sees all has found you out / against your will;" (ls. 1213-14). As Aristotle put it in his Poetics, Sophocles has organized his story so as to emphasize the elements of ignorance, irony, and the unexpected recognition of the truth. The magnificence of this drama has allowed it to endure and challenge readers ever since.