Tuesday, June 15, 2021

On Reading

In the Vineyard of the Text: A Commentary to Hugh's Didascalicon
In the Vineyard of the Text:
 A Commentary to Hugh's Didascalicon 
"Modern theories of how the universe came into being tell that an extremely delicate balance was involved. Had certain crucial temperatures and dimensions been even minutely different, the Big Bang . . . could not have occurred. The development of the modern book and of book-culture as we know it seems to have depended on a comparable fragility of crucial and interlocking factors." - George Steiner

"The duty to read -

There are many persons whose nature has left them so poor in ability that they can hardly grasp with their intellect even easy things and of these persons I believe there are two sorts. There are those who, while they are not unaware of their own dullness, nonetheless struggle after knowledge with all the effort they can put forth and who, by tirelessly keeping up their pursuit, deserve to obtain as a result of their will power what they by no means could possess as a result of their work. Others, however, because they know that they are in no way able to encompass the highest things neglect even the least and, as it were, carelessly at home in their sluggishness, they all the more lose the light of truth in the greatest matters by their refusal to learn those smallest of which they are capable."  
- Hugh of St. Victor, The Didascalicon, from the preface, p.43.

At once medieval in its sources and modern in its message, this commentary is both one of the text and of reading culture in the modern era. With Hugh as muse and guide, Illich documents the lessons books have taught us before the pages of history are transformed to computer disks. 

Monday, June 14, 2021

O the Mind

 'No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief.' 


   No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,

More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.

Comforter, where, where is your comforting?

Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?

My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief

Woe, wórld-sorrow; on an áge-old anvil wince and sing —

Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked 'No ling-

ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief."'

    O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall

Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap

May who ne'er hung there. Nor does long our small

Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,

Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all

Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Notes on the Philosophical Investigations


Selected Impressions of Wittgenstein

“Words, as is well known, are the great foe of reality. I have been for many years a teacher of languages. It is an occupation which at length becomes fatal to whatever share of imagination, observation, and insight an ordinary person may be heir to. To a teacher of languages there comes a time when the world is but a place of many words and man appears a mere talking animal not much more wonderful than a parrot.” - Joseph Conrad

language games 

With Wittgenstein there is a concern with the actual use of language – what is the problem and how we can illuminate/imagine a method for going forward. It is among other things a process.  Observation precedes explanation and may yield only a description of the reality of a particular situation. (109)  That means we should try to understand that Wittgenstein's own philosophical activity is like bringing words back to regular use (out/above/below the realm of “metaphysics”).

What is the process of trying to understand what it means to know something? Is there any conflict within a language game? There may be infinite variations in our everyday experiences; if so, how can we reach a resolution or should we seek that as a useful goal? 

We should consider the use of comparison and noticing similarities. Sometimes that may bring insight. However the text often provides an invitation to enter into a dialog about the meaning of life and how one might understand the proper end of one's life. (language and dialog)

observation and imagination

I am reminded of “the search” --- “What is the nature of the search . . . The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.” - Walker Percy

That is we are not looking for philosophical statements but the reality of what is here in everyday language. One wonders if this is a method for escaping the “everydayness” of life and the seeming incongruity of such a process? (117) One key for escaping the everydayness of life is recognizing the situation of a “fish out of water” and thinking in a way that you may become just that. 

Our imagination may be a tool that allows recognition of just such a situation. (129) I personally am intrigued by the effect on my imagination of listening to music – different effects result from different types of music (Liszt or Ligeti).

Whatever the means you may choose it is important to realize that language can do many things if we only look at the way we use words. We should aim to see clearly if possible. (Observation)

Joseph Conrad, Under Western Eyes, p. 1.

Walker Percy, The Moviegoer, p. 13.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (Revised Fourth Edition, 2009)

Thursday, June 10, 2021

A Mariner's Memoir

The Mirror Of the Sea (Folio Society)

The Mirror Of the Sea 

"The West Wind keeps faith with his brother, the King of the Easterly weather. "What we have divided we have divided," he seems to say in his gruff voice, this ruler without guile, who hurls as if in sport enormous masses of cloud across the sky, and flings the great waves of the Atlantic clear across from the shores of the New World upon the hoary headlands of Old Europe, which harbours more kings and rulers upon its seamed and furrowed body than all the oceans of the world together. "What we have divided we have divided; and if no rest and peace in this world have fallen to my share, leave me alone. Let me play at quoits with cyclonic gales, flinging the discs of spinning cloud and whirling air from one end of my dismal kingdom to the other: over the Great Banks or along the edges of pack-ice - this one with true aim right into the bight of the Bay of Biscay, that other upon the fiords of Norway, across the North Sea where the fishermen of many nations look watchfully into my angry eye. This is the time of kingly sport."

The Mirror of the Sea is based on a collection of autobiographical essays first published in various magazines 1904-6 .  Early in his life Joseph Conrad earned his keep as a Master Mariner in sailing ships. In his 'Author's Note' to this work, Conrad states,"Beyond the line of the sea horizon the world for me did n not exist .Within these pages I make a full confession not of my sins but of my emotions. It is the best tribute my piety can offer to the ultimate shapers of my character, convictions, and, in a sense, destiny---to the imperishable sea, to the ships that are no more, and to the simple men who have had their day. " 
Conrad's masterful prose reaches poetic heights in these essays.

Tuesday, June 08, 2021

Let Food be thy Medicine

On Ancient Medicine (also known as Tradition in Medicine), the Hippocratic Oath, and the Law (also known as the Canon)

On Ancient Medicine 

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”   ― Hippocrates

Hippocrates is best known
for his famous Oath for physicians, however he also wrote many books of which this is the first - a sort of introductory text. Rather than presenting theory or philosophy he provides practical advice about what medicine works and what doesn't work. It is primarily about knowledge, both of the body and the diseases of the body.

Hippocrates focuses on common diseases, their causes and origins, and specifically mentions the common people as those in whom he is interested. Surprisingly, he highlights the importance of diet, the need to cook meat, and, especially, the use of soups in the diet to moderate the extremes of certain foods.

He compares physicians to pilots who are trying to set a course for health. In doing this there is a discussion of changes in temperature, heat and cold, and the effects on the body of changes in temperature. He also  points out that heat is often a symptom of something else. Most importantly he emphasizes the connection between man and nature:
"Wherefore it appears to me necessary to every physician to skilled in nature, and strive to know, if he would wish to perform his duties, what man is in relation to the articles of food and drink, and to his other occupations, and what are the effects of each of them to every one."(sec. 20)

This relatively short book contains practical recommendations for those practicing medicine in Ancient Greece. In spite of the ancient setting of this text it sounds quite modern in its varied concerns regarding man, nature, diet, and the use of a holistic empirical method when dealing with the art of medicine.

Sunday, June 06, 2021

The Pride of the Fisherman

The Old Man and the Sea

The Old Man and the Sea 

“You did not kill the fish only to keep alive and to sell for food, he thought. You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman. You loved him when he was alive and you loved him after. If you love him, it is not a sin to kill him. Or is it more?”   ― Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

"I will show him what a man can do and what a man endures." Santiago is the old man of the title, a poor Cuban fisherman who has gone eighty-four days without catching a fish. The other fishermen now call him unlucky, and his great friend, the boy Manolin, has been forbidden from fishing with him any more. On the eighty-fifth day Santiago decides to go farther out than usual, farther than the other fishermen go, in an attempt to find a great fish. On that day he hooks a huge marlin, and the struggle for dominance and survival begins.

This is more than a story of the battle to catch a great fish. When you join the old man in his boat you begin to realize his immense love for the boy, for the sea, and for the fish. It is this and his vision of lions on a beach that gives him the courage to go on and with that persistence the cheerfulness that allows him to continue day after day.

This is the book that brought Hemingway the Pulitzer Prize and ultimately the Nobel. It presents man alone against Nature in the simple style that Hemingway perfected. I first read this long ago and have since experienced other of his novels, but this remains foremost in my memory.

Friday, June 04, 2021

On the Road to Harpers Ferry

The Good Lord Bird
The Good Lord Bird 

“He was like everybody in war. He believed God was on his side. Everybody got God on their side in a war. Problem is, God ain’t tellin’ nobody who He’s for.”   ― James McBride, The Good Lord Bird

With The Good Lord Bird James McBride has written an interesting and often humorous fictional account of John Brown's escapades from the days of "Burning Kansas" to his demise at Harpers Ferry.

The unlikely narrator of the events chronicled in this novel, those leading up to Brown’s quixotic raid at Harpers Ferry, is Henry Shackleford, aka Little Onion, whose father is killed while Brown is in the process of liberating some slaves. Brown takes the 12-year-old away thinking he’s a girl, and Onion keeps up the disguise for the next few years. Onion, while sounding like a typical 12-year-old often makes observations that belie his age, and his fluidity of gender identity allows him a certain leeway in his life. He comments: "I weren't for being a girl, mind you. But there was certain advantages, like not having to lift nothing heavy, and not having to carry a pistol or rifle, and fellers admiring you for being tough as a boy . . ."(p 78)

And in another episode he gets taken in by Pie, a beautiful prostitute, where he witnesses some activity almost more unseemly than a 12-year-old should have to stand. The interlude with Pie occurs during a two-year period where Brown disappears from Onion’s life, but they’re reunited a few months before the debacle at Harpers Ferry. In that time, Brown visits Frederick Douglass, and, in the most implausible scene in the novel, Douglass drinks a bit too much and chases after the nubile Onion.

The stakes are raised as Brown approaches October 1859, for even Onion recognizes the futility of the raid, where Brown expects hundreds of slaves to rise in revolt and gets only a handful. Onion notes that Brown’s fanaticism increasingly approaches “lunacy” as the time for the raid gets closer, and Brown never loses that obsessive glint in his eye that tells him he’s doing the Lord’s work. At the end, Onion reasserts his identity as a male and escapes just before Brown’s execution.

The book works as an exercise in point of view and has some memorable vignettes of Brown's escapades while continually emphasizing an obsession that almost borders on lunacy. John Brown was definitely not a nice man and it was not surprising that in spite of, or perhaps because of his reputation, he was not joined by the masses of black supporters that he expected when he attempted his epic raid.

Thursday, June 03, 2021

Voices of the Past

Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader's Guide to a More Tranquil Mind
Breaking Bread with the Dead: 
A Reader's Guide to a More Tranquil Mind 

“We wanted tranquil minds. We wanted to escape our addiction to the adrenaline rush of connectivity. When Horace advises Lollius Maximus he also advises himself—indeed, the poem may do the latter more than the former. “Interrogate the writings of the wise,” he counsels.   - Alan Jacobs

Having read Alan Jacobs previous book on this subject, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, I found this to be a welcome continuation. Jacobs considers how “information overload and social acceleration work together to create a paralyzing feedback loop….There’s no time to think about anything else than the Now.” As an antidote to this situation he recommends the enriching wisdom that can be discovered through voices from the past, referencing an eclectic assortment of writers and philosophers, including Homer, Horace, Virgil, Simone Weil, Edith Wharton, Italo Calvino, and others. Jacobs considers how to confront and appreciate what these writers have to offer us within the context of their times rather than through the lens of our present-day circumstances, when “the not-Now increasingly takes on the character of an unwelcome and, in its otherness, even befouling imposition.”

As someone who has read and enjoyed classic texts for decades, I thought his case for needing to expand one’s “personal density,” a term he derived from Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow made sense. “We lack the density to stay put even in the mildest breeze from our news feeds,” writes Jacobs. “Temporal bandwidth helps give us the requisite density: it addresses our condition of ‘frenetic standstill’ by simultaneously slowing us down and giving us more freedom of movement.” He advocates seeking out authors who express personally held convictions while also appreciating the ideas of past writers. I would recommend this book along with Jacobs' previous book on "The Pleasures of Reading" to all who believe in the importance of reading the "voices of the past"

Wednesday, June 02, 2021

An Uncommon Western


"Dark and cold and no wind and a thin gray reef beginning along the eastern rim of the world. He walked out on the prairie and stood holding his hat like some supplicant to the darkness over them all and he stood there for a long time.” (p. 3)

As we read these lines we begin to think we are in a “Western” novel when John Grady Cole (we aren't told his name until four pages later) walks “out on the prairie”. But is this really a Western novel or some other kind that is merely located in the darkness of the southwest of the United States at the end of the 1940s?

The western as a genre accentuates the American spirit and often includes, in addition to the prairie, a more sinister landscape with its Indian foes, gunfights, rough crossings, along with the darkness of the night in spite of the light of the starry sky. The sinister landscape and more is provided in McCarthy's novel and in a way that makes the western question less important than the relationship of John Grady to the world and his place in it.

D.H. Lawrence, no stranger to the American southwest, noted regarding the myth of the west: “But you have there the myth of the essential white American. All the other stuff, the love, the democracy, the floundering into lust are a sort of by play. The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.”

John Grady may be some of these things, a killer only reluctantly, but in my reading of All the Pretty Horses I recognized some of the symbols of the western as it has been mythologized in prose and on film. However underlying the veneer of a familiar genre there is an unfamiliar foundation – that is something that transcends mere sinister landscapes.

Hints of this foundation can be found on the first page; in “the image of the candleflame” and the “dark and cold” that permeates the opening of the novel. We are reminded of this foundation repeatedly as we travel with John Grady on his odyssey into the world of wild horses waiting to be tamed and Mexican culture that tries and fails to tame John Grady.

Just a few of the moments that provide material for the foundation include the following: his Grandfather's tales (p 11); his contemplation of the Pleiades and “the wildness about him, the wildness within” (p 60); “the iron dark of the world” (p 67); “that condition of separate and helpless paralysis which seemed to be among them like a creeping plague” (p 105); and, “He imagined the pain of the world to be like some formless parasitic being seeking out the warmth of human souls wherein to incubate and he thought he knew what made one liable to its visitations. What he had not known was that it was mindless and so had no way to know the limits of those souls and what he feared was that there might be no limits.” (pp 256-7)

John Grady has one defense against this mindlessness and all of the difficulties and hardships of the world around him, the world with its foundation in a mystical darkness. That defense is his almost preternatural connection with horses. This is made clear again and again, but perhaps best in his dream:

“That night he dreamt of horses in a field on a high plain . . . and in the dream he was among the horses running . . . and they ran in that resonance which is the world itself and which cannot be spoken but only praised.” (pp 161-2)

It is this defense that allows John Grady to become the “horse and rider and horse passed on and their long shadows passed in tandem like the shadow of a single being. Passed and paled into the darkening land, the world to come.” (p 302)

One may wonder what the world to come will be like with its “darkening land” but John Grady will be there. Will it be a new west, home to new western tales? Perhaps, but if the tales are told by Cormac McCarthy they will have a portentous patina that palpitates with a sinister darkness, danger and, perhaps even blood.

Monday, May 31, 2021

Selections from Valery

An Anthology
An Anthology 
“Books have the same enemies as people: fire, humidity, animals, weather, and their own content.”   ― Paul Valéry

This anthology, in addition to a selection of poems, includes essays, two dialogues, and two selections from Monsieur Teste. The essays are perhaps the most accessible of all the selections. But all of Valery's prose and poetry is stunning and warrants rereading to approach a basic level of understanding.

I was most fascinated with his essay on "The Method of Leonardo". As he put it, he attempted to "go beyond indiscriminate admiration", but it would seem at least in part a form of hubris to be too critical in the case of Leonardo. He struggles to encompass the mind of Leonardo and determine the balance between art and science. 

In "The Crisis of the Mind", written in 1919 in response to the Great War we find Valery saying, "And we now see that the abyss of history is deep enough to hold us all. We are aware that a civilization has the same fragility as a life." (p 94) With observations of equal profundity and sufficient poetry to tantalize the reader, this is a volume to be recommended.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Neither a King nor a God

The Man Who Would Be King

The Man Who Would Be King 

“I have been fellow to a beggar again and again under circumstances which prevented either of us finding out whether the other was worthy.”  ― Rudyard Kipling, The Man Who Would Be King

This fantastic short tale
is narrated by an Indian journalist in 19th century India who meets two British adventurers, Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan. Intrigued by their stories, he agrees to help them in a minor errand, but later he regrets this and informs the authorities about them—preventing them from blackmailing a minor rajah. A few months later they reappear at his newspaper office in Lahore, telling him of a plan they have hatched. After years of trying their hands at all manner of things, they have decided that "India is not big enough for them". They plan to go to Kafiristan and set themselves up as kings. Dravot will pass as a native and, armed with twenty rifles, they plan to find a king or chief to help him defeat enemies. Once that is done, they will take over for themselves. They ask the narrator for the use of reference books and maps of the area—as a favor, because they are fellow Freemasons, and because he spoiled their blackmail scheme. They also show him a contract they have made between themselves which swears loyalty between the pair and total abstinence from women and alcohol (that last part is hardly believable).

Two years later, on a scorching hot summer night, Carnehan returns to the narrator's office, a broken man, a crippled beggar clad in rags, but he tells an amazing story. He and Dravot had succeeded in becoming kings: traversing treacherous mountains, finding the Kafirs, mustering an army, taking over villages, and dreaming of building a unified nation and even an empire. The Kafirs (pagans, not Muslims) were impressed by the rifles and Dravot's lack of fear of their idols, and acclaimed him as a god, the reincarnation of Alexander the Great. They show a whiter complexion than others of the area ("so hairy and white and fair it was just shaking hands with old friends") implying their ancient lineage to Alexander himself. The Kafirs practiced a form of Masonic ritual, and Dravot's reputation was further enhanced when he showed knowledge of Masonic secrets that only the oldest priest remembered.

Their schemes were foiled, however, when Dravot (against the advice of Carnehan) decided to marry a Kafir girl. Kingship going to his head, he decided he needed a Queen and then royal children. Terrified at marrying a god, the girl bit Dravot when he tried to kiss her during the wedding ceremony. Seeing him bleed, the priests cried you're "Neither God nor Devil but a man!" Most of the Kafirs turned against Dravot and Carnehan. A few of his men remained loyal, but the army defected and the two kings were captured.

For the denouement of this fantastic tale you must read the story yourself, just don't expect a happy ending.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Renaissance Man

Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci 

“Above all, Leonardo’s relentless curiosity and experimentation should remind us of the importance of instilling, in both ourselves and our children, not just received knowledge but a willingness to question it—to be imaginative and, like talented misfits and rebels in any era, to think different.”  ― Walter Isaacson, Leonardo da Vinci

The thought and curiosity of Leonardo da Vinci is on display on every page in Walter Isaacson's masterful biography. Leading the reader like a tour guide through the many places and phases of Leonardo's life, Isaacson provides both details of the art but also context through capturing the background of the history, persons, and achievements that were experienced and made by Leonardo throughout his lengthy career.

I was impressed with Leonardo's constant creativity noted as much, if not more, in his notebooks and in his completed works; which included drawings, sculpture, paintings, and more. Present are the differences that made Leonardo unique -- his  left-handedness, his holistic views, his curiosity, and a relentless desire to know that made possible his improbable life as an artist, scientist, thinker, dreamer, and mathematician. The list of his interests is almost endless just as his curiosity was boundless. In the tradition of thinkers going back to Aristotle he revered man's desire for knowledge as seen in his statement:  
"The desire to know is natural to good men."

Born out of wedlock in 1452 in the town of Vinci, he spent most of his life in Florence, Milan, and Rome, ending his days in France as a guest of the King. It was a peripatetic life premised on the primacy of sight and mind applied to the world around him in ways that seem phenomenal in retrospect and which, in spite of his successes and honors, were mitigated by his inability to finish projects. This too, impressed me as the wonders of his sketches and notes match and in some ways exceed the art he produced; art that includes "The Last Supper", the "Mona Lisa", and much more. 

Isaacson captures much of the wonder, but leaves the reader perplexed at times by his inability to truly penetrate the mind of Leonardo. The length of the text suggests a completeness that is not quite enough; perhaps no biographer could capture the totality of the magnificence of Leonardo. If ever there was an exemplar of the Renaissance Man it would be this polymath personnage from the small Italian village of Vinci.

Friday, May 14, 2021

A Faustian Bargain

The Picture of Dorian Gray"
The Picture of Dorian Gray 

"Was it really true that one could never change? He felt a wild longing for the unstained purity of his boyhood-- his rose-white boyhood, as Lord Henry had once called it. He knew that he had tarnished himself, filled his mind with corruption and given horror to his fancy; that he had been an evil influence to others, and had experienced a terrible joy in being so; and that of the lives that had crossed his own, it had been the fairest and the most full of promise that he had brought to shame. But was it all irretrievable? Was there no hope for him?
Ah! in what a monstrous moment of pride and passion he had prayed that the portrait should bear the burden of his days, and he keep the unsullied splendor of eternal youth! All his failure had been due to that."
- Oscar Wilde (p. 164, The Picture of Dorian Gray)

The Picture of Dorian Gray,  written by Oscar Wilde, was published in April 1891. The titular Dorian Gray is a decadent dandy of the Victorian era. Concerned with little but appearances, he lives a reckless, nonproductive existence. A crucial event in his life occurs when Dorian meets Lord Henry Wotton in the studio of Basil Hallward, an artist, who has painted a portrait of the breathtakingly beautiful Dorian, now in his early twenties. Lord Wotton intrigues Dorian with his talk of the New Hedonism, which is reflected in the novel by Lord Henry’s giving Dorian a copy of Joris-Karl Huysmans’s À rebours (1884; Against the Grain, 1922), a novel that articulates this philosophy, the basis of which is the achievement of a complete realization of one’s nature.

Espousing this new kind of hedonism, Lord Henry suggests that the only things worth pursuing in life are beauty and the fulfilment of the senses. And so Gray, it appears, becomes a sort of Faust, and that evening he goes to the opera with his Mephistopheles, Lord Henry. In the following days, Wotton indeed proves a “bad influence,” for Dorian begins following him in the pursuit of pleasure for the sake of pleasure. 

He is busy courting Sybil Vane, a talented young actress, who falls in love with him. Ironically, Sybil’s being in love with Dorian robs her of her ability to act. In time, the very ability that first drew Dorian to Sybil has disappeared, and he rejects her unfeelingly. Having lost Dorian and her acting ability almost simultaneously, Sybil kills herself. Lord Henry, Dorian’s Mephistopheles, convinces Dorian that, in line with the New Hedonism, Sybil’s suicide is an experience that will help him to feel life more intensely and that it can be viewed as nothing but a source of personal growth.

They continue to engage in scandalous activities which erode Dorian’s innocence. Realizing that one day his beauty will fade, Dorian cries out, expressing his desire to sell his soul to ensure that the portrait Basil has painted of him would age rather than himself. Dorian's wish is fulfilled, subsequently plunging him into a series of debauched acts. The portrait serves as a reminder of the effect each act has upon his soul, with each sin being displayed as a disfigurement of his form, or through a sign of aging.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is a classic example of the Victorian novel and one of those books that can effect the reader in a powerful and unique way. The idea of selling your soul to the devil, like the Faust story as related by Marlowe, Goethe and others, is an intriguing image.  But there is in Wilde's version a focus on the purity of innocence (as seen in the passage quoted above) that is lost as one lives a life, whether filled with licentiousness or mere everyday experience. Wilde’s novel provoked considerable outrage when it was published. The tenets of the New Hedonism expressed in the book flew in the face of conventional morality to the point that readers were profoundly shocked. Despite these objections, the novel succeeded artistically and attracted many readers. 
Wilde gave the story his own imprimatur with the artistic twist and thus added to the evidence of his genius that includes the drama, stories, poetry and criticism that he created.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

An Altered Place

Station Eleven
Station Eleven 

“She was thinking about the way she’d always taken for granted that the world had certain people in it, either central to her days or unseen and infrequently thought of. How without any one of these people the world is a subtly but unmistakably altered place, the dial turned just one or two degrees.”  ― Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

This is a book that best fits into the genre of "speculative fiction" as defined by Margaret Atwood in her book on that subject; however while within that genre it is a complex blend of dystopian science fiction and fantasy. 

The narrative describes a society almost eradicated by a deadly flu virus while it is focused on a group of actors and musicians who form a troupe called the "Traveling Symphony". Geographically centered on Canada and the Great Lakes area of the Midwestern United States this intricately plotted, post-apocalyptic nightmare ranges back and forth across the 60 years straddling "Year Zero," its five protagonists linked first by chance and ultimately by love: The actor, Arthur Leander, who gathers and discards friends and lovers with a casual cruelty he often mistakes for good intentions; Clark Thompson, Arthur's best friend; Miranda Carroll, his second wife; Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo, turned entertainment journalist, turned EMT; and Kirsten Raymonde (my favorite and the most fully realized character), a child actress at the start of the novel and its conscience by the end.

Although some chapters take place in Manhattan, Toronto, or British Columbia, the bulk of the action unfolds as Kirsten and the Traveling Symphony make a circuit between Traverse City, Michigan and the Ohio border, playing classical music, staging Shakespeare, scrounging for food and shelter (although the scrounging varied in intensity and sometimes contributed to the disjunct I refer to below), and, in the novel's final third, confronting  horrors I don't presume to divulge because I want you to experience this fantasy of life after death novel yourself.

This reader's experience was uneven because it was conflicted by the author's excellent prose style - offset by gaping holes in the narrative that weakened the plot while some of the primary characters were weakly portrayed. The overall way to describe the difficulty I encountered is that the core story could have been set anywhere and anytime, that what I found was a disjunct that diminished the connection between the overarching setting of the flu pandemic (the pandemic itself being one of the weak aspects of the story) and the devastation facing the main characters centered on the travails of the the Traveling Symphony. The result was a book that I wanted to like but did not enjoy reading as much as I believe I would have absent the inherent weaknesses.

Friday, May 07, 2021

Manners, Readers, and Honest Books

Books and Readers


Readers' bad manners. --- A reader is doubly guilty of bad manners against the author when he praises the second book at the expense of the first ( or vice versa ) and then asks the author to be grateful for that.


The worst readers. --- The worst readers are those who proceed like plundering soldiers: they pick up a few things they can use, soil and confuse the rest, and blaspheme the whole.


Value of honest books. --- Honest books make the reader honest, at least by luring into the open his hatred and aversion which his sly prudence otherwise knows how to conceal best. But against a book one lets oneself go, even if one is very reserved toward people.

On the Genealogy of Morals by Friedrich Nietzsche, Walter Kaufmann & R. J. Hollingdale, trans. Vintage, 1989 (1887). p 175

Friday, April 30, 2021

The Sublimity of Humanity


Man the Creator

Nature attains perfection, but man never does. There is a perfect ant, a perfect bee, but man is perpetually unfinished. He is both an unfinished animal and an unfinished man. It is this incurable unfinishedness which sets man apart from other living things. For, in the attempt to finish himself, man becomes a creator. Moreover, the incurable unfinishedness keeps man perpetually immature, perpetually capable of learning and growing.

Reflections on the Human Condition by Eric Hoffer. Harper & Row, New York, 1973. p 3

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Stoic Advice from Seneca

Selected Dialogues and Consolations (De Constantia Sapientis, Ad Marciam De consolatione, De Vita Beata, De Otio, De Tranquillitate Animi, De Brevitate Vitæ, Ad Helviam matrem De consolatione, De Consolatione ad Polybium)
Selected Dialogues and Consolations 

This discussion of mine is aimed at incomplete, ordinary, unhealthy people, not the wise man. He must not walk fearfully or cautiously. You see, the wise man is so confident of himself that he doesn't hestitate to stand in Fortune's path and will never yield his place to her." (p 124)

The Roman thinker, Seneca, as one of the members of our Online Great Books discussion group noted, provides advice for living your life rather than the more academic discussions of many of the Greek and Roman philosophers. It is this advice and his positive tone that impressed me the most while reading this collection of some of his essays that present the essentials of the Roman view of stoicism.

Some of the key ideas that I took away from this reading included commentary that leading a happy life means conforming to your nature as a human being. In the essay "On the Happy Life" he states that a healthy mind, one that is courageous, forceful, and filled with endurance, will be necessary for a happy life. Being true to your nature includes being true to Nature itself and one with it. 

Seneca also stresses the importance of virtue for leading a happy life, and in this respect reminded me of Cicero whose writings embodied, at least in part, a stoical view of the world. His idea of virtue including valuing the truth above all which for him included "correct and precise judgement". 

In addition to the views on the happy life Seneca wrote about the need for and ways to attain a life of serenity. One key point about the serene life, that along with other of his comments seems very modern, was that your problems are not solved by moving about, leaving where you have been living; rather your problems are within you and if you do not deal with them directly they will follow you wherever you go.

Included in this collection are three essays called "Consolations". These emphasized the notion that death is not a bad thing, that it is within the nature of the mortal soul to die, that grief, while natural, has appropriate limits, and that if grief is excessive it can inhibit one's natural relationships and duties to the living. One of the consolations was written to his mother, Helvetia, while Seneca was in exile and in it he compared death to a sort of exile.

Most importantly for the average reader, both then and now, Seneca claims that his advice is intended for the "ordinary man". And it is not only about abstaining or working hard spending time improving yourself, although that is important; but, equally if not more important is having fun in your life. Seneca would definitely advise going outside, taking your mask off, and enjoying nature and the fresh air.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Proust on Reading


Reading States of Mind

"And wasn't my mind also like another crib in the depths of which I remained ensconced, even in order to watch what was happening outside? When I saw an external object, my awareness that I was seeing it would remain between me and it, lining it with a thin spiritual border that prevented me from ever directly touching its substance; it would volatize in some way before I could make contact with it, just as an incandescent body brought near a wet object never touches its moisture because it is always preceded by a zone of evaporation. In the sort of screen dappled with different states of mind which my consciousness would simultaneously unfold while I read, and which ranged from the aspirations hidden deepest within me to the completely exterior vision of the horizon which I had, at the bottom of the garden, before my eyes, what was first in me, innermost, the constantly moving handle that controlled the rest, was my belief in the philosophical richness and the beauty of the book I was reading, and my desire to appropriate them for myself, whatever that book might be."

Swann's Way by Marcel Proust, trans. by Lydia Davis. Penguin Books, New York, 2003 (1913), pp 85-6.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Emancipation as Termination

The Night Watchman

The Night Watchman 

“Lastly, if you should ever doubt that a series of dry words in a government document can shatter spirits and demolish lives, let this book erase that doubt. Conversely, if you should be of the conviction that we are powerless to change those dry words, let this book give you heart.”   ― Louise Erdrich, The Night Watchman

Five years ago I was introduced to the writing of Louise Erdrich by reading The Master Butchers Singing Club. This historical novel of Germans in America won me over and while it has been too long since, I now have returned to Louise Erdrich with her historical novel about the battle of her indigenous people for their rights.

In this story we find Thomas Wazhashk, the the night watchman of the title, working at the jewel bearing plant, the first factory located near the Turtle Mountain Reservation in rural North Dakota. Thomas is also a Chippewa Council member who is trying to understand the consequences of a new "emancipation" bill on its way to the floor of the United States Congress. It is 1953 and he and the other council members know the bill isn't about freedom; Congress is fed up with Indians. The bill is a "termination" that threatens the rights of Native Americans to their land and their very identity. He wonders, how can the government abandon treaties made in good faith with Native Americans "for as long as the grasses shall grow, and the rivers run"? While anyone who has read about the history of the relations between the indigenous tribes and the steady encroachment of American settlers will not be surprised by these events, it is disturbing that they are happening in post WWII America.

Since graduating high school, Pixie Paranteau has insisted that everyone call her Patrice. Unlike most of the girls on the reservation, Patrice, the class valedictorian, has no desire to wear herself down with a husband and kids. She makes jewel bearings at the plant, a job that barely pays her enough to support her mother and brother. Patrice's shameful alcoholic father returns home sporadically to terrorize his wife and children and bully her for money. But Patrice needs every penny to follow her beloved older sister, Vera, who moved to the big city of Minneapolis. Vera may have disappeared; she hasn't been in touch in months, and is rumored to have had a baby. Determined to find Vera and her child, Patrice makes a fateful trip to Minnesota that introduces her to unexpected forms of exploitation and violence, and endangers her life.

Thomas and Patrice live in this impoverished reservation community along with young Chippewa boxer Wood Mountain and his mother Juggie Blue, her niece and Patrice's best friend Valentine, and Stack Barnes, the white high school math teacher and boxing coach who is hopelessly in love with Patrice.

In The Night Watchman, Louise Erdrich creates a fictional world populated with memorable characters who are forced to grapple with the worst and best impulses of human nature. Her very real characters speak simple, but truthful words, all the while fighting a Federal Government whose words are duplicitous. 

Illuminating the loves and lives, the desires and ambitions of these characters with compassion, wit, and intelligence, The Night Watchman is a moving work of both personal and historical fiction whose story has both sadness and a positive spirit that finds its source in family and community.

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

The Divine Force in Painting

On Painting

 "Painting contains a divine force which not only makes absent men present, as friendship is said to do, but moreover makes the dead seem almost alive. Even after many centuries they are recognized with great pleasure and with great admiration for the painter. Plutarch says that Cassander, one of the captains of Alexander, trembled through all his body because he saw a portrait of his King.  Agesilaos, the Lacedaimonian, never permitted anyone to paint him or to represent him in sculpture; his own form so displeased him that he avoided being known by those who would come after him. Thus the face of a man who is already dead certainly lives a long life through painting. Some think that painting shaped the gods who were adored by the nations. It certainly was their greatest gift to mortals, for painting is most useful to that piety which joins us to the gods and keeps our souls full of religion. They say that Phidias made in Aulis a god Jove so beautiful that it considerably strengthened the religion then current."

On Painting by Leon Battista Alberti, trans. by John R. Spencer. Yale University Press, 1966 (1436). p. 63.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Notes from Hermann Hesse

Books on Trial

 Recently I had to sort out my books again, because circumstances forced me to give away part of my library. . . 

Days later, when I was finished with the job, I realized for the first time how much my relationship to books had altered during these years, along with other things. There are whole categories of literature that I now cheerfully give away. There are authors whom it is no longer possible to take seriously. But what a comfort the Knut Hamsun is still alive! How fortunate there is Jammes*! And how nice it is to have cleared all the thick biographies of poets, with their boredom and their meager psychology. The rooms look brighter. Treasures remain behind and now they gleam far more brightly. Goethe stands there, Holderlin stands there, all of Dostoevsky stands there, Morike smiles, Arnim flashes audaciously, the Icelandic sagas outlast all troubles. Marchen and folk tales remain indestructible. And the old books, the books in pigskin with a theological look, which for the most part are so much dearer than all the new books, they too are still there. They are something that for once one doesn't mind being outlived by."

My Belief: Essays on Life and Art by Hermann Hesse. Denver Lindley, trans. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. 1975, pp 93-95.

*Francis Jammes, French Poet (1868-1938)

Monday, March 29, 2021

Proust on Identity

 The Person We Know

"But even with respect to the most insignificant things in life, none of us constitutes a material whole, identical for everyone, which a person has only to go look up as though we were a book of specifications or a last testament; our social personality is a creation of the minds of others. Even the very simple act that we call "seeing a person we know" is in part an intellectual one. We fill the physical appearance of the individual we see with all the notions we have about him, and of the total picture that we form for ourselves, these notions certainly occupy the greater part. In the end they swell his cheeks so perfectly, follow the line of his nose in an adherence so exact, they do so well as nuancing the sonority of his voice as though the latter were only a  transparent envelope that each time we see this face and hear this voice, it is these notions that we encounter again, that we hear."

Swann's Way by Marcel Proust, trans. by Lydia Davis. Penguin Books, New York, 2003 (1913), p 19.