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.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

The Virtues of a Good Life

Nicomachean Ethics 

Nicomachean Ethics

“These virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions ... The good of man is a working of the soul in the way of excellence in a complete life.”   
― Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics

This is Aristotle's classic guide to ethics including the golden mean, the nature of friendship and other topics. While it is more a set of lecture notes than a polished philosophical treatise it still demonstrates the power of the mind of the man behind it.

In the first part he focuses on defining the nature of the highest good for human beings. That is the good at which all things aim (1094a3). This highest good is "happiness" by which is meant both "living well" and "doing well" (1095a18); that, more specifically, happiness is "an activity of the soul [which] consists in action performed in conjunction with the rational element" (1098a13), "in conformity with excellence or virtue" (1098a15), "in a complete life" 91098a16).

As he does for other subjects Aristotle approaches ethics in an organized and scientific manner with an initial emphasis on definitions such as: what is the good, virtue, justice and moral excellence? He does this with an expectation of only that level of precision that is appropriate for the subject at hand. Over the course of the middle section of the treatise the reader is introduced to the concept of the 'golden mean' by which virtues are discussed with regard to extremes (eg. courage vs. rashness) which allow for a middle ground or mean between the extremes. In book seven he discusses moral strength and weakness, and he follows this in book eight with an analysis of the nature and importance of friendship and the need for it. He makes the case that:
"The perfect form of friendship is that between good men who are alike in excellence or virtue. For these friends wish alike for one an other's good because they are good men, and the are good per se, (that is, their goodness is something intrinsic, not incidental). Those who wish for their friends' good for their friends' sake are friends in the truest sense since their attitude is determined by what their friends are and not by incidental considerations."(1156b, 6-12)

The ethics culminates in a argument for the supreme importance of contemplation. He says,
"But a wise man is able to study even by himself, and the wiser he is the more is he able to do it. . . study (contemplation) seems to be the only activity which is loved for its own sake."(1177a, 33- 1177b, 1)
The ethical principles, the method of demonstration and the sheer power of the ideas presented here make this a valuable guide even as we approach the twenty-first century.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Contemplative Walking

Three Novellas 

Three Novellas

“What can you do. You get a name, you're called 'Thomas Bernhard', and it stays that way for the rest of your life. And if at some point you go for a walk in the woods, and someone takes a photo of you, then for the next eighty years you're always walking in the woods. There's nothing you can do about it.”
   ― Thomas Bernhard

Walking is an early novella by Bernhard translated into English by Kenneth J. Northcott. The story is a stunning read even as it is presented in unparagraphed totality. It fuses philosophy’s depth of thought with poetry’s contemplative spaciousness.

The following excerpt provides an idea of the author's approach:
"we may not ask ourselves how we walk, for then we walk differently from the way we really walk and our walking simply cannot be judged, just as we may not ask ourselves how we think, for then we cannot judge how we think because it is no longer our thinking. Whereas, of course, we can observe someone else without his knowledge (or his being aware of it) and observe how he walks or thinks, that is, his walking and his thinking, we can never observe ourselves without our knowledge (or our being aware of it)."

I was reminded, ever so slightly, of some of the reveries of Thoreau or Rousseau on walking although this text is more late twentieth century than either of those authors. The famous essayist Lewis Thomas also comes to mind as he assayed the nature of how a jellyfish and a sea slug illuminate the mystery of the self. You can imagine why I might consider myself both excited and exasperated with his prose. Nonetheless in this novella and the other two, Amras and Playing Watten, I found some of the very best writing this reader of Bernhard had ever encountered, even though they may have been composed a bit earlier than his other recognized masterpieces.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Your Many Unacknowledged Servants

By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, Link

“The Sun King had dinner each night alone. He chose from forty dishes, served on gold and silver plate. It took a staggering 498 people to prepare each meal. He was rich because he consumed the work of other people, mainly in the form of their services. He was rich because other people did things for him. At that time, the average French family would have prepared and consumed its own meals as well as paid tax to support his servants in the palace. So it is not hard to conclude that Louis XIV was rich because others were poor.

But what about today? Consider that you are an average person, say a woman of 35, living in, for the sake of argument, Paris and earning the median wage, with a working husband and two children. You are far from poor, but in relative terms, you are immeasurably poorer than Louis was. Where he was the richest of the rich in the world’s richest city, you have no servants, no palace, no carriage, no kingdom. As you toil home from work on the crowded Metro, stopping at the shop on the way to buy a ready meal for four, you might be thinking that Louis XIV’s dining arrangements were way beyond your reach. And yet consider this. The cornucopia that greets you as you enter the supermarket dwarfs anything that Louis XIV ever experienced (and it is probably less likely to contain salmonella). You can buy a fresh, frozen, tinned, smoked or pre-prepared meal made with beef, chicken, pork, lamb, fish, prawns, scallops, eggs, potatoes, beans, carrots, cabbage, aubergine, kumquats, celeriac, okra, seven kinds of lettuce, cooked in olive, walnut, sunflower or peanut oil and flavoured with cilantro, turmeric, basil or rosemary … You may have no chefs, but you can decide on a whim to choose between scores of nearby bistros, or Italian, Chinese, Japanese or Indian restaurants, in each of which a team of skilled chefs is waiting to serve your family at less than an hour’s notice. Think of this: never before this generation has the average person been able to afford to have somebody else prepare his meals.

You employ no tailor, but you can browse the internet and instantly order from an almost infinite range of excellent, affordable clothes of cotton, silk, linen, wool and nylon made up for you in factories all over Asia. You have no carriage, but you can buy a ticket which will summon the services of a skilled pilot of a budget airline to fly you to one of hundreds of destinations that Louis never dreamed of seeing. You have no woodcutters to bring you logs for the fire, but the operators of gas rigs in Russia are clamoring to bring you clean central heating. You have no wick-trimming footman, but your light switch gives you the instant and brilliant produce of hardworking people at a grid of distant nuclear power stations. You have no runner to send messages, but even now a repairman is climbing a mobile-phone mast somewhere in the world to make sure it is working properly just in case you need to call that cell. You have no private apothecary, but your local pharmacy supplies you with the handiwork of many thousands of chemists, engineers and logistics experts. You have no government ministers, but diligent reporters are even now standing ready to tell you about a film star’s divorce if you will only switch to their channel or log on to their blogs.

My point is that you have far, far more than 498 servants at your immediate beck and call. Of course, unlike the Sun King’s servants, these people work for many other people too, but from your perspective what is the difference? That is the magic that exchange and specialisation have wrought for the human species.”  
― Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Falling Blossoms

The Makioka Sisters 

The Makioka Sisters

“The ancients waited for cherry blossoms, grieved when they were gone, and lamented their passing in countless poems. How very ordinary the poems had seemed to Sachiko when she read them as a girl, but now she knew, as well as one could know, that grieving over fallen cherry blossoms was more than a fad or convention.”  
Junichiro Tanizaki, The Makioka Sisters

The Makioka Sisters is the story of a proud, refined Japanese family that declines in fortune. The novel re-creates the sumptuous and pleasure-filled upper-class life of Osaka—the commercial center of Japan—just before and during World War II. Jun’ichiro Tanizaki carefully creates a detailed portrait of four once-rich and haughty sisters, whose lives encompass a wide area of joys and sorrows, and he also provides a satirically accurate description of the whims and fancies of a vanished era.

The novel is divided into three parts. In the first, there is little dramatic incident beyond marriage proposals and negotiations, Sachiko’s attack of jaundice, the nervous prostration of Etsuko, a cherry blossom viewing, and Yukiko’s return to Tsuruko’s control in Tokyo. The second part opens a year later, and the action increases, particularly with the harrowing experience of a terrible flood, from which Etsuko and Taeko are miraculously saved. The third section begins with yet another marriage proposal for Yukiko who, at thirty-three, is still a cause of anxiety for her two eldest sisters. The Makiokas no longer enter a marriage negotiation with the former feeling of social superiority, and, indeed, for the first time in their history fail to satisfy the prospective groom’s family with their credentials. Although old rituals continue—a firefly hunt, visits in spring to Nara, commemorative services for their dead parents—family honor slides. Tsuruko threatens to expel Taeko from the family unless she returns to the senior house in Tokyo. Taeko, however, earns sympathy rather than reproof when she falls gravely ill and loses her youthful appearance. She looks like a fallen woman—the very thing her detractors always considered her to be—and she suffers from nightmares about deceased Itakura. Through it all there is a sequence of passions that fuse nostalgia and bitterness, tragedy and comedy. The Makioka sisters, although still proud and refined, have lost status in their society, for the luxury of their father’s last years and the dignity of ancestral reputation have been long reduced by extravagance and bad management of the family business

Human destiny, the Makiokas learn, is unpredictable—the very lesson that world events repeat. The Stolzes, former neighbors, have returned to Nazi Germany, where they cultivate an unrealistic optimism for the future. Taeko recovers from her illness to inherit more trouble. Yukiko, even in her wedding preparations, shows signs of having a nervous disorder. Nothing can be entirely harmonious or beautiful for the once-enviable Makioka sisters. The story is a melancholy one, but the detail about ritual and customs and the subtle portrayal of the world-historical setting make this an engaging novel.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Flawed Ambition

Bad Blood: 
Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup 

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup
“A sociopath is often described as someone with little or no conscience. I’ll leave it to the psychologists to decide whether Holmes fits the clinical profile, but there’s no question that her moral compass was badly askew. I’m fairly certain she didn’t initially set out to defraud investors and put patients in harm’s way when she dropped out of Stanford fifteen years ago. By all accounts, she had a vision that she genuinely believed in and threw herself into realizing. But in her all-consuming quest to be the second coming of Steve Jobs amid the gold rush of the “unicorn” boom, there came a point when she stopped listening to sound advice and began to cut corners. Her ambition was voracious and it brooked no interference. If there was collateral damage on her way to riches and fame, so be it.”   ― John Carreyrou, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup

"I want to be a billionaire . . . the President will marry me because I have a billion dollars" (p. 9) These words were reportedly spoken with utter seriousness by the young Elizabeth Holmes before she reached her teen years. By the time she was nineteen she had a patent and had founded a start up with the aim to revolutionize the blood testing industry. By 2004 she had begun to raise funding in the millions of dollars for her enterprise which she christened Theranos. Within less than a decade the company was worth Billions in valuation and by 2017 it no longer existed.

John Carreyrou's book is the story of how the spectacular rise and rapid fall of Holmes' company occurred. The fundamental problem was they never made a product that worked the way it was described and sold to investors. In the process Holmes misled investors and retail partners such as Safeway and Walgreens, hiding the fact that her technology was flawed and had serious limitations that were masked by company representations.

In the technology arena software companies often market "buggy" products that do not work perfectly, yet these are often improved through use and further testing leading to successful results. With medical technology this approach does not work because people's health and lives are at stake. At Theranos false test results seriously jeopardized the health of patients in many cases.

The book reads like a detective story as the author seeks out whistle-blowers and patients who experienced the nightmare of false test results. One of the key informants was Kyle Shultz, the grandson of George Shultz, former Secretary of State, who was on the board of Theranos. Kyle joined Theranos right out of college, but soon found himself questioning the practices within the company. When he raised his concerns with Elizabeth Holmes her response was merely to tell him he was ignorant. After a discussion with his grandfather, who refused to believe him, he decided to resign from the company. This led to further difficulties with the lawyers for Theranos that included partners of the law firm of David Boies whose tactics were aggressive in an unseemly manner to put it politely. There were other people who gradually came forward through Carreyrou's determined investigation. All the while  Holmes was gracing the cover of Fortune Magazine and wowing interviewers with her sales pitch. Her charisma held sway even as the product she was selling continued to fall short of the image she was creating.

I found the book an electrifying read, although it did not explore the life of Elizabeth Holmes in enough depth for her to become anything more than a cipher. At best she had noble dreams of helping people with her blood testing device. But noble ideals do not warrant the lies and deception that endangered people who used the flawed equipment. The why behind her actions is not apparent from the story told by Carreyrou. That story, however, is fascinating and is well worth your time to read and think about what you might have done if you were part of the startup that was created out of Elizabeth Holmes noble lies.

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.