Monday, October 26, 2020

A Tale of Miracles

Peace Like a River
Peace Like a River 


“Real miracles bother people, like strange sudden pains unknown in medical literature. It's true: They rebut every rule all we good citizens take comfort in. Lazarus obeying orders and climbing up out of the grave - now there's a miracle, and you can bet it upset a lot of folks who were standing around at the time. When a person dies, the earth is generally unwilling to cough him back up. A miracle contradicts the will of the earth.”  ― Leif Enger, Peace Like a River



Once upon a time
there was a young boy who was born with asthma. That is, he  almost died, as his birth was something like a miracle; maybe it was one. Thus the story of Reuben Land, as narrated by himself, begins. His story and that of his family is one filled with miracles and stories within the story. It is both the story of the rite of passage of the young boy and his journey from young life through adventures that are in many ways as magical as a fairy tale.

Peace Like a River is a strange but pleasing book, containing echoes of the picaresque novel and the archetypal quest, with passing references to Homer, the Bible, and historical figures of the American West. The author immediately establishes a winning voice for his eleven-year-old narrator, Reuben Land, which alternates with the adult Reuben’s omniscient but equally relaxed voice. He is a perceptive character, although admittedly self-critical, “beyond my depth and knowing it, yet unable to shut up.” He reminded me of one of my favorite literary narrators, David Copperfield.

To begin with, Reuben was born “a little clay boy” with ominously swampy lungs, unable to draw breath until his father, Jeremiah, rushed into the hospital room and commanded him to breathe. Even though the infant was without oxygen for twelve minutes, he miraculously suffered no brain damage; but his lungs remain weak into adolescence. Ironically, while Reuben has watched his father walk on air and heal a man’s raw face with a single touch, his own asthma remains uncured. Jeremiah can only steam him with salt and baking soda or thump his back to loosen the congestion. Reuben fully believes he has survived such an inauspicious beginning in order to bear witness to his father’s unexplainable miracles, since “no miracle happens without a witness.” He does not use the word “miracle” lightly, for real miracles bother people. He is never certain whether his father prays for miracles or whether they just happen. 

His father works as a school janitor in the small town of Roofing, Minnesota, and is plagued by frequent headaches. A mild man of conscience, he reads his Bible daily, silently, and without ostentation. A man of prayer and intense conversation with God, he at one point literally wrestles with the Almighty. Davy, Jeremiah’s older son, is in some respects already an adult at sixteen, but unfortunately he is hot-tempered and unlike his father, he prefers to act rather than wait. He is very protective of their little sister, known only as Swede, a precocious and endearing young girl. She is a widely read and literate child but blunt with the artlessness of childhood. A passionate fan of Western novels, Swede is in love with the legendary Old West. Her real-life hero is the young Teddy Roosevelt, who ranched in North Dakota before becoming president. Reuben, too, admires and envies Roosevelt for his triumph over asthma.

Two young thugs attack Swede and later provoke Davy, and when they break into his home with a baseball bat, Davy shoots them both. Although he is arrested and jailed for murder, he refuses to plead self-defense, insisting that he intended to shoot. Reacting to the scandal, the school superintendent decides to “scour that janitor’s teeth” by first humiliating Jeremiah and then publicly firing him in in front of a lunchroom full of children. At Davy’s trial, a reluctant Reuben testifies as an eyewitness to the shootings until, carried away by self-importance, he unintentionally strengthens the case against his brother. There is little hope that the jury will release Davy, who promptly breaks out of jail, escaping with a horse and a revolver. No one knows where he has gone.

On Christmas Eve they receive a mixed blessing—word that an acquaintance has died, bequeathing his brand new Airstream trailer to Jeremiah. After a friend in North Dakota reports that Davy has been seen, the Lands determine to find him. The rest of the story becomes a modern odyssey. They tow the shiny Airstream trailer with their old station wagon and the novel expands its mythic dimensions. A detective follows them across the Great Plains in bitter winter weather to a small city park, where a severe headache forces Jeremiah to camp overnight. . Well into the Badlands, a notorious area of bleak buttes and mesas in the western part of the state, they come to a farmhouse with two gasoline pumps in front and a propane tank. The self-reliant owner, Roxanna Cawley, greets them with a newborn goat in her arms. Earth mother and impressive cook, she soon offers them a place to stay the night. As it turns out Davy is holed up with another fugitive, Jape Waltzer, not too far away. The denouement of the story, however, yields some twists that were surprising for this reader.

Enger’s vivid imagery is an attractive feature of Peace Like a River. There are also Reuben's dreams and mythic legends. The book describes some of literature’ s most accurate and claustrophobic descriptions of severe asthma. As Reuben explains, “Sometimes when the breathing goes it goes like that—like smoke filling a closet. . . Your breaths are sips, couldn’t blow out the candle on a baby’s cake.” In lyrical passages, Enger evokes autumn and winter on the Great Plains (“skies so cold frost paisleyed the gunbarrels”). Here the land itself is always a presence, a sharp reminder of a power far beyond human limitations—immense sky, sweeping prairie, the cold, clean Dakota wind—even the boundless desolation of the fabled Badlands, where the ground is eternally on fire.

One might be tempted to allegorize this novel, for it could easily slide into abstraction: Jeremiah as the good Christian, a saint; Davy as the archetypal rebel, beloved even as he sins; the fugitive Jape Waltzer, who is always accompanied by the odor of sulfur, as the Devil. To limit the book in this way would be doing it a disservice, for its very human characters are beautifully drawn. While there are many motifs in Leif Enger's Peace like a River, three of them are consistent, unmistakable, and connected. The first motif is breathing, and the other two—miracles and dreams—At its center it revolves around the nature and power of love—divine, human, and brotherly love, perfect and imperfect—the love that binds this small family together.



Sunday, October 25, 2020

Enchanting Poetry

Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments
Stung with Love: 
Poems and Fragments 




“Some call ships, infantry or horsemen
The greatest beauty earth can offer;
I say it is whatever a person
Most lusts after."







While the title of this collection highlights the erotic attitude of the poems of Sappho, there is a wonderful fragment of a poem entitled "Troy" that presents a mythic narrative. In doing so she veers away from the emphasis of the Homeric epic and focuses on a conventionally 'feminine' theme, a wedding scene. She elevates the wedding to epic magnitude, all the while featuring excellence rather than the morality of good and evil.

Other poems and fragments present themes of goddesses, desire, girls and their family, and marriage. The result in an excellent translation is a delightful selection. Here is a typical quatrain:

Untainted Graces
With wrists like roses,
Please come close,
You daughters of Zeus.

Sappho lived in a time of transition for Greece, after the Homeric era but before the more famous Golden Age of Athens. I, like others, find her language enchanting, and the gathering of poems and fragments by subject lends an order to this collection. Her passion shines through both the millennia and the translation to charm the reader while leaving a bit of sadness that we do not have more of her oeuvre.

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

The Framework of Literature

The Educated ImaginationThe Educated Imagination 
by Northrop Frye


“I feel separated and cut off from the world around me, but occasionally I've felt that it was really a part of me, and I hope I'll have that feeling again, and that next time it won't go away. That's a dim, misty outline of the story that's told so often, of how man once lived in a golden age or a garden of Eden or the Hesperides ... how that world was lost, and how we some day may be able to get it back again. ... This story of the loss and regaining of identity is, I think, the framework of all literature.”   ― Northrop Frye, The Educated Imagination

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

A Philosophical Mystery

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the DeadDrive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead 
by Olga Tokarczuk


“You know what, sometimes it seems to me we're living in a world that we fabricate for ourselves. We decide what's good and what isn't, we draw maps of meanings for ourselves... And then we spend our whole lives struggling with what we have invented for ourselves. The problem is that each of us has our own version of it, so people find it hard to understand each other.”  ― Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead


The title comes from William Blake’s Proverb’s of Hell. It’s a philosophical novel masquerading as a kind of mystery – although it is much more than that.

Because there are so many ideas and themes in the novel, at least for those with a philosophical bent, it became endlessly readable. From the first page we are presented with an examination of the process of aging, astrology references and readings, the impact of drugs - natural and otherwise, and omens - both ill and good. The psychology of madness and losing one's consciousness is explored along with the poetry of William Blake (further shades of madness). But above all there is nature and a lonely cold climate filled with many animals and few humans. It is the isolation of the cold climate that comes to the fore as the story begins, and the wonderful narrative voice of Janina Dusejko, whose story is one of a nonconformist whose metaphors are a delight and whose imagination makes this story one that seems almost dream-like at times.

The story is portrayed as a mystery and there is a dead body almost before you are out of the starting gate, yet it is nothing like any mystery I have ever read. It appears to be a character study of its quite quirky narrator who valiantly tries to convince the police that all four deaths are the result of animals taking revenge against hunters. However I believe it is about the mystery of life.

"But why should we have to be useful and for what reason? Who divided the world into useless and useful . . . Does a thistle have no right to life, or a Mouse that eats the grain in a warehouse? Whose intellect can have the audacity to judge who is better, and who is worse?"(p 248)

The lack of detailed investigations and the absence of a plucky detective putting the pieces together is another of the book’s oddities. In doing this it redirects the focus from the typical concern for justice and human lives, and instead allows Janina to unfurl her life story—as an engineer of bridges turned schoolteacher turned caretaker of summer houses, vegetarian, astrologist, co-translator of Blake’s poetry, and devoted animal lover—and her dislike for hunters of all stripes, especially one particular group of poachers, whose connections to the local law enforcement and politicians takes on a conspiratorial air.

A great believer in the power of the planetary configurations on human life, Janina spends her free time with an Ephemeride drawing up cosmograms of people she knows and trying to lend credence to her theories about the influence of stars on human life. She believes order in events are determined by stars. “The stars and planets establish it, while the sky is the template that sets the pattern of our lives."

Janina is also a great lover of Blake’s poems and helps her former student Dizzy, who now works part time as an IT specialist for the police department, in the translation of Blake’s poems. An ardent believer in the rights of animals, she periodically writes letters of protest to all concerned departments to draw their attention to the illegal poaching and hunting of animals that take place in the region. She firmly believes that “Animals show the truth about a country. If people behave brutally towards Animals, no form of democracy is ever going help them, in fact nothing will at all.”  But unfortunately her letters go unanswered and her personal visits to the City Guard’s office turn out to be equally futile. After all, who would take the apparent ramblings of a quirky old lady seriously? But Janina believes that one day the animals will take revenge, because contra humans, animals have a keen sense of justice and an excellent sense of the world.

When there is a spate of mysterious deaths in the valley, all the dead people have a history of hunting or poaching animals and in all the deaths there are signs of animals present in the vicinity. Janina conjectures that the animals are taking their revenge from the humans who harmed them. The police department scorns at her theory but, undeterred,  she works on the cosmograms of the victims and concludes that for each death there is significant astrological proof that points to the involvement of animals. She calls it her “project without funding from the European Union. A kitchen-table project."

All her efforts to present her hypothesis to the police go in vain and she is slotted as just an old eccentric. The police chalk up the murders to internal conflicts between corrupt people. Dejected, Janina concludes that "people are only capable of understanding what they invent for themselves. The idea of a conspiracy among people from the provincial authorities, corrupt and demoralized, fitted the sort of story the television and the newspapers reveled in reporting." Neither of them are interested in animals, unless a Tiger escapes from the zoo. But after three more deaths when the president of the Mushroom pickers society is found dead under mysterious circumstances, his body covered with a unique species of flat bark beetle, the police finally start paying attention to Janina. 

Under the garb of a mystery novel, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a combination of philosophical and astrological commentary on the current state of human society. This commentary underlines the battle between free will and determinism as humans are caught in the nets of the great cosmic scheme. There is even a moment when a writer comes to visit and I could not help but speculate that the author had, anonymously, inserted herself into the story. Janina comments, "If I hadn't known her so well, I'm sure I would have read her books. But as I did know her, I was afraid to open them." (p 51)

Ultimately a unique and brilliant novel, one that questions the importance of man in nature and the nature of man. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk is a book I heartily recommend to all.







Sunday, October 04, 2020

Personal Notes


 Three Blocks from the Harbor


Today's post will be a little different. While I have sometimes posted comments on ancillary reading activities, this entry will be personal notes from my post as unofficial Bibliophile of the Belmont Harbor neighborhood in Chicago. The pandemic has taken a bit of a toll on my lifestyle, but fortunately I have not succumbed to the Covid virus (or any other virus or disease).  

Reading is certainly a comfort, more than ever, and while it may not be apparent from the quantity of entries on my blog I am reading more than ever. Zooming is another pastime that has become de rigueur for my schedule. Over the course of a month I average at least two zoom sessions per week between book discussions, the Great Connections discussions, my Online Great Books session and a monthly Henderson family get together among my first cousins. 

In the past two months, as the quarantine has eased a bit I have gone out to lunch (outdoors mostly) with friends about once per week. This is done behind the safety of a mask, which I wear everywhere. I have been going to the gym several times per week, again behind the mask and with suitable confirmation that I do not have a fever.

I have been able to get my annual medical checkups completed and received a flu vaccination two weeks ago. As part of the medical checkup I also obtained my first of a two-part shingles regimen. The previous year I had received a pneumonia vaccination. I have not received so many different vaccinations since I was in grade school sixty years ago. 

With the new month I have resumed classes in the Basic Program of Liberal Education at the University of Chicago. This term we are discussing the novel Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. Over the past two years I have done the same with Moby-Dick and The Brothers Karamazov. Currently the discussions are held via Zoom, thus adding to my zoomable activities. 

I guess zoom has become one of my most frequently used words in all of its many formats; the proper name Zoom, to zoom, zooming, zoomable, et. al. What a delight to always discover new words whether from the world of technology or from a welcome discovery in my daily reading.

Thursday, October 01, 2020

America's Favorite Humorist


Will Rogers: His Life And Times 


I grew up in Wisconsin, but my mother was originally from Oklahoma and we would go there most summers to visit my grandmother. One of the highlights of our trips was more than once visiting the Will Rogers memorial in Claremore, Oklahoma. He was one of my mother's favorite celebrities from when she was a young girl. We shared a bit of Cherokee blood through my mother's great grandmother; thus spurring my interest in Will and the heritage of the Cherokee Nation. So, in addition to Claremore we also visited Talequah, the home of the Cherokee Nation, more than once. 
This book has a wealth of photos from Will's life which was quite eventful, both as a humorist and a movie star in the early days of the "talkies". Unfortunately, his life was cut short when his plane crashed in Alaska. This is a great book for anyone interested in the sayings and events of one of America's greatest humorists. 

Will Rogers' quotes:  

"I never met a man I didn't like".
 
"My ancestors didn't come on the Mayflower but they met the boat"


Monday, September 28, 2020

Quote for Today

 


“Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversation?”


― Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass

Sunday, September 27, 2020

A Parisian Woman

Cousin BetteCousin Bette 
by Honoré de Balzac



In Paris, when a woman has made up her mind to use her beauty as her livelihood and merchandise, it does not necessarily follow that she will make her fortune.
- Balzac, Cousin Bette, p 155





Cousin Bette
by French author Honoré de Balzac is set in mid-19th century Paris, telling the story of an unmarried middle-aged woman who plots the destruction of her extended family. Bette works with Valérie Marneffe, an unhappily married young lady, to seduce and torment a series of men. One of these is Baron Hector Hulot, husband to Bette's cousin Adeline. He sacrifices his family's fortune and good name to please Valérie, who leaves him for a tradesman named Crevel. Bette has harbored a resentment against her cousin Adeline Hulot since childhood. Bette's father and Adeline's father were two of the Fischer brothers. Their uncle, Johann Fischer, brought the girls up and still contributes to their financial well-being as adults. Adeline and her cousin Bette are exact opposites. Adeline is fair-haired and of light complexion while Bette is dark and rather ugly. Bette sees Adeline as the enemy because of her beauty and good fortune in life. Adeline is married to Baron Hulot, a successful government employee and one-time benefactor to the Fischer brothers. After Bette moves to Paris at Adeline's insistence, she hatches a plot to destroy the beautiful Adeline, her husband and their children.

Cousin Bette and many of the primary protagonists in the novel are afflicted with the vices of greed, envy, and lust. Bette's greed seeks to overthrow Adeline Hulot. Madame Marneffe's greed and lust are only satisfied by acquiring wealth and material possessions. Baron Hulot's lust carries him from one affair to the next and his greed deepens his financial trouble each time. Crevel's greed motivates him to "steal" a mistress from Hector Hulot only to have it cost him his life. The morals and standards of nineteenth century French society come under the author's scrutiny in Cousin Bette. The novel is also a critique of the concept of a French ruling class after the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte. Balzac's novel is also a morality play in that the characters are imaginative figures as well as character types. And while the story in and of itself is tidily resolved, the narrative nonetheless exposes an underside of human behavior that is puzzling at best and deadly at worst.

The book is part of the Scènes de la vie Parisienne section of Balzac's novel sequence La Comédie humaine ("The Human Comedy"). Writing quickly and with intense focus, Balzac produced La Cousine Bette, one of his longest novels, in two months. It was published at the end of 1846, then collected with a companion work, Le Cousin Pons, the following year. The novel's characters represent polarities of contrasting morality. The vengeful Bette and disingenuous Valérie stand on one side, with the merciful Adeline and her patient daughter Hortense on the other. The patriarch of the Hulot family, meanwhile, is consumed by his own sexual desire. Hortense's husband, the Polish exile Wenceslas Steinbock, represents artistic genius, though he succumbs to uncertainty and lack of motivation.

La Cousine Bette is considered Balzac's last great work. His trademark use of realist detail combines with a panorama of characters returning from earlier novels. While I do not admire it as much as some critics, it has been compared to works by Shakespeare and Tolstoy. It is considered both a turning point in the author's career and a prototypical naturalist text. The novel explores themes of vice and virtue, as well as the influence of money on French society. Bette's relationship with Valérie is also seen as an important exploration of homoerotic themes. I would compare it with Dickens although it lacks his humor and overall seems more bitter. The best of Dickens, by contrast, usually focuses more on a positive character.


 

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

The Puzzle of the Lakota Empire

Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power
Lakota America: 
A New History of Indigenous Power 

"The central challenge in writing about the Lakotas is to make them unfamiliar again. Their mythical place in popular consciousness as the vanquishers of Custer and as the masters of the western plains has made their rise seem pre-ordained."(p 4)




What is civilization?
According to Felipe Fernandez-Armesto in his book, Civilizations, it is "a relationship between man and nature". (p 14) In his estimation it is contingent upon the environment in which a people exist. Ludwig von Mises, in his book Theory and History, claims that "Civilization is like a biological being; it is born, grows, matures, decays, and dies." (p 223) Just one of the questions raised as one reads Lakota America is whether the Lakota nation was a civilization. The author claims in the introduction to his book that it is the "solution to a puzzle". (p 3) Whether he succeeds in finding that solution or not, he has produced a voluminous record of the Lakota and other indigenous Indian tribes in America from the 17th century to the end of the 19th.

The author presents the relations between the Lakota (a group of several tribes) and other groups, including other tribes of native Americans, the French, the British, and finally the Americans who, following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the War of 1812, were their primary source of commerce, their benefactor, and as time went on often their opponent.

As the Seventeenth century ended the natives appeared to be in a fairly constant war with each other, with some groups gaining in prominence from time to time. "A new technological frontier centered on the horse had been launched." (p 51) The Lakotas were notable in using this technology to enhance their mobility in this era, as they would continue to throughout the next two centuries gradually migrating from the area known as the Northwest Territory toward the Northern plains and the Black Hills.  The indigenous groups first contact with Europeans were the French traders in this era. The author highlights the advance of technology introduced by the Europeans. This became important to the Lakotas as they were viewed as "pragmatic" and "adaptable". Along with technology the Europeans also brought diseases such as Smallpox, spread by the increase in commerce and this took a severe toll on the native Americans.

Along with the narrative of the Lakota's migratory activities the author highlighted the continued encroachment of not only the French and then the British, but the Americans. This was escalated following the Louisiana Purchase with the expedition of Lewis and Clark up the Missouri River and through the northwest to the Pacific. All the while the Lakotas continued to migrate and adapt. "The U.S. empire was built on institutional prowess and visibility, whereas the Lakota empire was an action-based regime, which gave it a fickle on-and-off-again character." (p 241) The history also includes the complexities of native culture including polygamy and the training of young warriors. The only constant was the continued encroachment of the Americans accelerated by the discovery of gold in California and the building of the railroads through routes in the south, center, and ultimately the north.

The story concludes with the era of armed engagements following the Civil War in the 1870's culminating with the famous battle of Little Big Horn. While Sitting Bull came out of that as the victor over General George Armstrong Custer, the reprisals over the subsequent decade would result in the effective demise of Lakota power with the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890.

I found the book to be most effective and informative through the early history of the indigenous peoples; a history with which I had no familiarity. The century following the American Revolution was one in which technology and commerce overwhelmed the Lakotas and other tribes, who for the most part were unable to adapt to changes in their environment. The nature that the indigenous peoples knew as the environment that formed their culture changed so tremendously that their civilization gradually decayed and became a mere shadow of what it once was. The author notes that "The Indians remained a subordinate people, subject to the whims of a foreign empire." (p 382) The complexity of the new environment left them dependent on the government of the United States for support. This is a situation, with few exceptions, that continues to this day.



 

Thursday, September 17, 2020

No Longer Needed

Pigs in Heaven
Pigs in Heaven 


“But kids don't stay with you if you do it right. It's the one job where, the better you are, the more surely you won't be needed in the long run.” 
― Barbara Kingsolver, Pigs in Heaven

This novel continues the lives of Taylor and her adopted daughter Turtle Greer, protagonists of Barbara Kingsolver’s earlier novel The Bean Trees. Some of the themes include the meaning of family, community, motherhood, and belonging. On an Easter vacation trip with Taylor, her adoptive mother, six-year-old Turtle sees a young man, Lucky Buster, fall into a spillway at the Hoover Dam; her seeing him leads to his rescue and her own celebrity. Turtle and Taylor appear on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" with other children who have saved lives. Rescuing Lucky Buster, however, leads to discovery and change for Turtle and Taylor because a young Cherokee attorney, Annawake Fourkiller, sees Turtle and hears her adoption story on television.

Annawake, in spite of being counseled by her superiors to not pursue this case, becomes obsessed with returning Turtle to her Cherokee grandfather. She does this in the belief that Turtle will have an unsatisfactory adult life if she is not brought up in her Cherokee family. I was not impressed with this argument as it basically assumed that the bond between Taylor and Turtle was unimportant in light of Turtle's heritage. Taylor responds by fleeing with her daughter. Taylor’s mother, Alice, leaves her husband, Harland, because she wants more than a dead marriage, and goes to Las Vegas to help Taylor and Turtle. After giving Taylor her savings, Alice travels to the town of Heaven on Cherokee Nation land to stay with her cousin and investigate her rights with the tribe of her grandmother. Her time on the Cherokee land does not lessen her commitment to her daughter and granddaughter, but does help her understand Annawake’s quest.

Taylor loses much of her self-confidence as she works to support herself and Turtle, never having enough money to pay all the bills or to eat very well. Taylor’s eventual decision to take Turtle to the Cherokee Nation to talk to Annawake reminds her of Dorothy’s being taken to the castle of the witch in Oz (I didn't make this up). The choice seems forced as does much of the action in the novel. For example, there is a side character named Barbie who is obsessed with Barbie dolls; apparently this is intended to provide comic relief, but I couldn't determine what she added to the story. Each scene is presented in the author’s folksy third-person voice, and the view of the action is usually limited to the perspective of one of the main characters; however, I did not appreciate the authorial voice and that made the book just that much more difficult.

Disappointing is an understatement. Much of the plot seemed contrived to me and the authorial voice was off-putting. While the central characters Taylor and her adopted daughter, Turtle were sympathetic, that was about the only thing that kept me reading the book.


 

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

The Possessed

Demons 

Demons

“Life is now given to man at the cost of pain and fear. Here, they are blinded by this sometimes. Now man is not yet that man. There will be another, new person, happy and proud, and for him it wouldn’t matter the death-life. He who overcomes pain and fear will become God himself. There will not be that God any longer.”  ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Demons


What is a “true” Russian? Why is “the real truth” always implausible. Is belief only ironic or is it real or both? These are just a few of the questions dealt with by Dostoevsky in Demons, his great novel that is predecessor to The Brothers Karamazov.

He questions whether atheism is a reason or a result of rebellion, and the saying that “An atheist cannot be Russian”. The result is a novel that compares favorably and provides an eloquent introduction to themes that will be dealt with at the family level in The Brothers Karamazov.

Liberalism and Socialism are contrasted by representative characters from two different generations. One is that of Herzen and the liberals, represented by Stepan Verkhovensky and others. While Stepan's son, Pyotr, is the reputed leader of the new generation of nihilist anarchists who are the precursors and somewhat participants in the rise of the Russian intelligentsia.

Demons does not only look forward, but also backward as can be seen in comparison with The Idiot which ends with Prince Myshkin in a Swiss Asylum; the silence of madness. 
The Demons ends with the silence of suicide. (You have to read it to find out who, when, and why) The cabalists (the fivesome) are representatives of the central importance of ideology (nihilistic anarchism). The lives of the cabalists literally depend on the whims of their leader, Pyotr, and their own willingness to follow the ideology.

Through all of the novel there is in the background, Nikolai Stavrogin, son of Varvara Petrovna, spinning his web, better yet acting as a puppeteer while others speak and act for him and as his whim commands. Compared to The Underground Man, Stavrogin is relatively silent; he lets others speak for him: Pyotr, “you wrote the rules . . .); Shatov, “I was the pupil, you were the teacher”; Kirilov, “Go look at [Kirilov] now---he's your creation”.

The plot seems somewhat complex, but the organization can be seen more simply when one views the contrast between the two generations, Stepan and Varvara vs. Pyotr and Nikolai, and within that the detail maneuvering with the additional characters, especially the changing views within each generation and between the two.

Ultimately there is a coming together of characters and the ideas they represent in a sort of maelstrom of events at the end of Part Three of the novel. It concludes with an explosion of activity that is only hinted at in the long introduction in Part One. That is just one of the aspect of this novel that raises it to one of the best from the pen of Dostoevsky.

Thursday, September 03, 2020

Notes from Thoreau's Journal

The Journal, 1837-1861 


The Journal, 1837-1861


"Decayed literature makes the richest of all soils." - Henry David Thoreau, March 16, 1852





From "The Short Days of Winter"

March 4, 1852. It is discouraging to talk with men who will recognize no principles. How little use is made of reason in this world! You argue with a man for an hour, he agrees with you step by step, you are approaching a triumphant conclusion, you think that you have converted him; but ah, no, he has a habit, he takes a pinch of snuff, he remembers that he entertained a different opinion at the commencement of the controversy, and his reverence for the past compels him to reiterate it now. You begin at the butt of the pole to curve it, you gradually bent it around according to rule, and planted the other end in the ground, and already in imagination saw the vine curling round this segment of an arbor, under which a new generation was to re-create itself; but when you had done, just when the twig was bent, it sprang back to its former stubborn and unhandsome position like a bit of whalebone.

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

Life of Pericles

Plutarch's Lives: Volume I

Plutarch's Lives: Volume I 

by Plutarch


“To be ignorant of the lives of the most celebrated men of antiquity is to continue in a state of childhood all our days”   ― Plutarch


Plutarch wrote his lives to educate the reader. In doing so he used a combination of history and myth while assessing the politics and religion of the "Noble" Greeks and Romans whose lives he included in his writings. What was originally a series of books have been compiled into two volumes that span the lives from ancient Greece through the centuries until the Roman Empire flourished. I found that in creating his histories Plutarch admitted time and again to uncertainty about some of the specific events that he portrayed. In addition, he would sometimes note that there were those who held differing opinions about some of his characterizations of events.

One theme of his lives is the identification of key characteristics of success of the particular life depicted; in fact, he points out that success does not depend on one particular style of leadership or rule. However, that did not stop Plutarch for identifying some lives that were better than others. One of the most successful lives depicted was that of Pericles. Near the beginning of his life of Pericles, Plutarch observes "that it becomes a man's duty to pursue and make after the best and choicest of everything, that he may not only employ his contemplation, but may also be improved by it." (p 201)

Not only does he highlight the importance of contemplation (an activity that Aristotle considered the highest virtue in which a man might engage himself [Nichomachean Ethics]) for improvement of one's life, but also the application of his intellect to objects such as acts of virtue. All of this is merely introductory to a life that includes just such actions and provides some of the reasons why Athens under the leadership of Pericles was so successful. All of this is done, in part, to educate the reader and encourage an "admiration of the things done and desire to imitate the doers of them."(p 202)

Pericles led a life that did not leave any writings, not unlike that of Socrates, although we have some of his orations thanks to Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. What he did leave were public and sacred buildings, and evidence of a policy that encouraged great public shows, banquets, and processions to further the pleasure of the people of Athens. At one point, Plutarch compares him to a skillful physician who balances the pleasures with "keen pains and drug" when necessary to cure what ailments might exist among the citizenry. He maintained his rule through attention to the soul of the people. Plutarch adds, "The source of this predominance was not barely the power of language, but, as Thucydides assures us, the reputation of his life, and the confidence of his character; his manifest freedom from every kind of corruption, and superiority to all considerations of money." Would that we had leaders like that in America today.

Pericles may sound like the proverbial person that is too good to be true, however in his conclusion Plutarch reinforces his judgement with these words, "He was indeed a character deserving our high admiration not only for his equitable and mild temper . . .", but that he had not "gratified his envy or his passion". (p 234) It is such a character that made Pericles one of Plutarch's favorites among the many noble lives that he chronicled. Each of the lives in this volume receives what appears to be an objective study of the details of their character, actions, and relations with others. The result is a compendium that provides the reader with instruction in how to live as well as a magnificent narrative of how many of the noblest of Greeks and Romans actually lived their lives.



Monday, August 24, 2020

Authors and Their Words

Authorisms: Words Wrought by Writers 

Authorisms: Words Wrought by Writers


PLENTIETH. Franklin P. Adams’s adjective of indefinite older age, as in: “He is about to celebrate his plentieth birthday.” ― Paul Dickson, Authorisms: Words Wrought by Writers


  There are dictionaries and books of quotations, but this is a collection of a slightly different sort. Paul Dickson has done the research to uncover the authorial source of words and short phrases that have become part of the English language over the past few centuries. The result is a fascinating tour through an alphabetical array of terms that have surprising sources. You will find familiar words alongside some not so familiar, but for all of those collected he provides miniature stories that explain the provenance of the words in question. 
This compendium is a delight for anyone who loves the English language.


Thursday, August 13, 2020

Commonplace Entry

 

"Art for All"


Whatever is sacred, whatever is to remain sacred must be clothed in mystery. All religions take shelter behind arcana which they unveil only to the predestined. Art has it own mysteries.

We can find an example of this in music. If we open any work of Mozart, Beethoven, or Wagner and glance quickly at the first page, we will be overcome with religious astonishment at the sight of those macabre processions of rigid, chaste, and undeciphered signs. Then we will shut the missal, and it will still remain untouched by any profane thought.


Mallarme: Selected Prose Poems, Essays, & Letters. Translated by Bradford Cook. The Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore. 1956. "Art for All" p 9.

Friday, August 07, 2020

The Denial



Wise Blood
"The black sky was underpinned with long silver streaks that looked like scaffolding and depth on depth behind it were thousands of stars that all seemed to be moving very slowly as if they were about some vast construction work that involved the whole order of the universe and would take time to complete."(p 33)


 
The title that I would suggest for this book is "The Denial". Not that Wise Blood is not appropriate, as it refers to the "wise blood" of Enoch Emery, one of the group of prominent characters in the book. It is rather because I believe that "The Denial" better represents the character of Hazel Motes who is the protagonist of the novel. The moment that Enoch Emery is overcome by his "wise blood" is surely powerful: "He had come to the city and--with a knowing in his blood--he had established himself at the heart of it."(p 76) On the other hand Hazel, by the end of the novel, is engulfed by his denial of his own body in his attempt to achieve a spiritual epiphany.

To reach that point of denial you have to go back to the beginning of the story where we meet Hazel Motes:
"Hazel Motes sat at a forward angle on the green plush train seat, looking one minute at the window as if he might want to jump out of it, and the next down the aisle at the other end of the car."(p 3)
Thus we meet a young man on the beginning of a journey. It is a journey fleeing from his past as much as it is one going forward toward a future filled with new people and changes in his own character.
Hazel, it turns out, is a man on a mission to preach of new and perverse sort of gospel to anyone who will listen whether they respond or not. This hearkens back to his grandfather who was a preacher "with Jesus hidden in his head like a stinger."(p 14) Hazel had lost his brothers and father to death, and had seen more death and indifference toward life while in the Army, but he was determined to follow in his grandfather's footsteps.

The story is a picaresque tale filled with unusual characters including a whore; a blind preacher named Asa with his daughter, Sabbath Lily; and Enoch Emery, a slow boy who is also on a mission moved by his inner blood that is wiser than any one else's as he proclaims to Hazel:
"'You act like you got wiser blood than anybody else,' he said, 'but you ain't! I'm the one has it. Not you, Me!'"(p 55) What they both share is a mission although they are on different paths with different missions and seemingly do not even speak the same language, or at least cannot understand each other.

As with all of Flannery O'Connor's fiction, there is an underlying message of the importance of faith and belief. The need for redemption from the sin of this world is demonstrated with a prose style that is fixated on the realities of life. However, in demonstrating this reality the author distorts it with the result often being grotesque characters and situations. She does not shy away from portraying the violence that people do to each other both physical and psychological. Ultimately, it is up to the reader to decide what the outcome of the story is -- whether any particular character is doomed to hell or redeemed by grace. All told, she presents a riveting story with unpredictable events and decisions that retain an aura of the believable while engendering puzzlement and a sort of quandary as to the meaning of it all. This reader found it both engaging and challenging in a good way, that is the questions that remain are valuable because they pertain to the most fundamental aspects of your life.

Wise Blood: A Novel by Flannery O'Connor. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007 (1952) 

 

Monday, July 20, 2020

Essays and Archetypes

Two Essays on Analytical Psychology 


Two Essays on Analytical Psychology (Collected Works 7)


“To find out what is truly individual in ourselves, profound reflection is needed; and suddenly we realize how uncommonly difficult the discovery of individuality is.”   ― C.G. Jung




I was surprised to find much of the first part of this book, "On the Psychology of the Unconscious", to be a critique of Freud as much as an outline of Jung's position on the topic. Written and revised during World War I and subsequently revised, it is somewhat fragmented, yet still a good introduction to the topic. Part two is a further discussion of the relation of the ego to the unconscious including an introduction to individuation. The wealth of concepts is such that it is easy to lose track of the overall subject matter. My appreciation for the text was primarily concerned with the literary allusions and references to thinkers from Heraclitus to Nietzsche and beyond.



The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious 

The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (Collected Works 9i)


“there is good reason for supposing that the archetypes are the unconscious images of the instincts themselves, in other words, that they are patterns of instinctual behaviour.”   ― C.G. Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious



What kind of a book is this? I considered several categories from spiritual to supernatural, but decided that it was a sort of mythology of human archetypes and the psyche. My difficulties with the text came close to my experience reading the Tao of Lao-tse, while in its categorical nature it resembled The Varieties of Religious Experience. My own approach to reading it centered on the literary connections with which I found resonance in the text. These ranged widely from Shakespeare to Stevenson and Hesse with a special emphasis on the importance of Jung for Moby-Dick.

In this work Jung propounds many of his theories regarding the nature of human consciousness, both personal and collective. While portrayed as scientific they seemed to lack the evidence normally associated with the scientific method. Jung was great at making his assumptions sound like settled truth, when outside of his coterie there was little that was settled. For example, he compares his discoveries to the discovery of the atom, commenting that "we speak of "atoms" today because we have heard, directly or indirectly, of the atomic theory of Democritus. But where did Democritus, or whoever first spoke of minimal constitutive elements, hear of atoms? This notion had its origin in archetypal ideas, that is , in primordial images which were never reflections of physical events but are spontaneous products of the psychic factor." (p 57)  This gives you a flavor of the sort of arguments presented. There are also examples of many of the concepts based on observation of patients. For me, it was these stories that hearkened back to the approach of William James. 

The book is poetic at times and has a wealth of interpretations of psychic events. His examinations of the personal or collective unconscious is fascinating and provides a great introduction to the psychological world of Carl Jung.


Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday

The Top Ten Authors I’ve Read Most





This week’s Top Ten Tuesday, bloggers are sharing the top ten authors they’ve read the most books by.  My list includes authors I have read over most of my many decades of reading with some on the list due to my youthful reading preferences while others are there because my interests have changed with age. All of these authors I would heartily recommend to anyone who enjoys reading. The reading numbers are from GoodReads.


1. William Shakespeare, 28 readings :  I have read and reread most of Shakespeare's plays over the more than five decades. His works are essential for understanding humanity and provide a reference point for understanding many more contemporary authors. 


2.  Plato, 26 readings:  Plato's Dialogues have provided me with intellectual stimulation for almost as long as Shakespeare. I read my first dialogue as a Freshman in college and have continued to read a reread Plato ever since.


3.  Leo Tolstoy, 18 readings:  While I did not read War and Peace until I was almost forty years old, I have managed to reread it several times while reading almost all of Tolstoy's other novels, novellas, and short stories. 


4.  William Faulkner, 16 readings:  I struggled with The Sound and the Fury in high school as part of my outside reading, but persevered over several readings and in the meantime found Faulkner's prose style in all of his novels and short stories to be most felicitous.


5 . Iris Murdoch, 16 readings:  I encountered Iris Murdoch while I was in college and over the years have read most of her novels and also her philosophical writings. The way she weaves philosophy and psychology into her novels appeals to me.


6. Charles Dickens, 15 readings:  My first Dickens novel was Oliver Twist which I read while at Summer Camp when I was twelve years old. Since then I have read  and reread all of his novels with delight, counting David Copperfield as my favorite.


7.  Henry James, 15 readings:  While I have not read all of his novels, I've read and sometimes reread most of the more important ones.


8.  Aristotle, 14 readings:  Again starting in college and continuing to this day I have read many of Aristotle's philosophic works. My favorite is the Nicomachean Ethics.


9.  A. E. Van Vogt, 14 readings:  This is evidence of my fascination with Science Fiction which peaked in my teen years, but has continued, albeit at a slower pace, till today. Van Vogt's superheroes were some of my favorite SF characters.


10. Thomas Mann, 12 readings: I planned to read all the novels of Thomas Mann when I retired, having enjoyed those I had read before then. I reached my goal a couple of years ago when I finally read Doktor Faustus, while Death in Venice remains my favorite.


Special Mentions (Authors who came close to making this list): Joseph Conrad, Robert Heinlein, Ayn Rand, H. G. Wells, and Virginia Woolf.

God in the Clouds

Son of the Morning Star: 
General Custer and the 
Battle of the Little Bighorn 


Son of the Morning Star: General Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn




“Lo, the poor Indian! whose untutor’d mind Sees God in clouds … Custer,”   


Evan S. Connell, Son of the Morning Star: Custer and The Little Bighorn







Once in a while you find a book that is so well written that beyond the days of reading, long after you have finished it, the book continues to haunt you. Son of the Morning Star is one of those books. The beauty of Evan S. Connell's prose and the excellence of his history make this book a minor masterpiece. Perhaps the larger-than-life presence of the central character, who the Indians named "son of the morning star", General George Armstrong Custer, is partly the reason for the magnificence of the book.

“Even now,” Evan Connell writes in his book, “after a hundred years, his name alone will start an argument. More significant men of his time can be discussed without passion because they are inextricably woven into a tapestry of the past, but this hotspur refuses to die. He stands forever on that dusty Montana slope.”

His vigor and gallantry were never denied, even by his detractors, and during the Civil War he advanced rapidly; perhaps due to fortuitous notice, but nonetheless he was a brigadier at twenty-three, the youngest American ever to win a star. All of this was not due to merit, all though he did have that, but in spite of his mediocrity evidenced earlier by his poor record at West Point, having graduated last in his class. Overall, as Custer made his career in the Indian territories, it always seemed that he was overrated by others and, most of all, by himself.

Who knows the mind of Custer and the reasons that led to his demise at Little Big Horn. Maybe Evan S. Connell hits on the right one by thinking the most simply: Custer had never known defeat, perhaps couldn’t see it even when it was only one hilltop away. Few non-academic histories have been so well-written as this and have such compelling central themes that you can't put them down. Near-masterpiece is the best thing I can say when recommending this to anyone who enjoys reading a great book. It was simply a delight to read.


Sunday, July 05, 2020

Battling the Devil

The Devil All the Time 


The Devil All the Time


“Unless he had whiskey running through his veins, Willard came to the clearing every morning and evening to talk to God. Arvin didn't know which was worse, the drinking or the praying. As far back as he could remember, it seemed that his father had fought the Devil all the time.”   ― Donald Ray Pollock, The Devil All the Time





This is not a novel that I would recommend to everyone. That is not because this is a bad novel, for it is indeed a very good one; rather I hesitate in my recommendation because there are no truly good characters in this book, in fact the are several very bad ones. The best you can say about the central protagonist, Arvin Russell, is that his violent tendencies are reserved for some of the worst of the lot.

So what is there to recommend about this novel? The author has captured realistically a slice of America's underside and portrayed it very well with strong characterizations and a believable, if not somewhat improbable and very violent, plot.

Set in Ohio and West Virginia in the years following World War II, it tells the stories of various desperate characters, including a veteran suffering from PTSD, a pair of husband-and-wife serial killers, and both a preacher and sheriff who are corrupt.

The protagonist, Arvin, is presented in a prologue as a young boy. He sits in a clearing with his father, Willard, on an oak log, joining him in his evening prayer routine. Willard is borderline obsessive when it comes to prayer and expects the same from his son. While Arvin prays, however, his mind wanders and feelings of isolation bubble to the surface. He feels like an outsider at school, he is the victim of relentless bullying. Arvin recalls his father telling him to stand up for himself, but this is easier said than done.

Willard recalls the horrifying things he saw and did during the war. One memory haunts him in particular: that of a soldier he comes across who has been skinned and crucified. Willard shoots the man as an act of mercy, putting an end to his suffering. Upon his return home he had married a young woman named Charlotte Willoughby and together they have a son whom they name Arvin. As the years pass, Willard becomes obsessed with prayer. The obsession only deepens when Charlotte contracts cancer. Willard’s rituals become progressively more bizarre and upsetting, culminating in animal and even human sacrifice. Willard believes these acts of devotion are necessary to save his wife. Nevertheless, in the end, Charlotte still dies, prompting Willard to commit suicide. Traumatized by his parents’ deaths and his father’s behavior, Arvin moves in with his grandmother, Emma. There, he meets Lenora, an orphan girl whom Emma takes in after her mother, Helen, is killed, most likely by a traveling preacher named Roy who is also Lenora’s father.

The narrator moves on to tell of Carl and Sandy Henderson, a pair of murderous lowlifes who entertain themselves by picking up male hitchhikers and killing them. Their reign of terror is allowed to persist in part because Sandy’s brother, Sheriff Bodecker, is corrupt and incompetent. An unemployed photographer, Carl takes pictures of his victims, calling them models.
In the meantime Arvin and Lenora grow up and become very close. When Lenora is bullied at school, Arvin comes to her defense, fighting the bullies, but also demonstrating a violent side that will follow him throughout his life. In addition to further exploits of Carl and Sandy's we are told more about Roy, the traveling preacher who killed Lenora’s mother. Roy lives with his physically disabled cousin, Theodore. After moving on from the Coal Creek Church of the Holy Ghost Sanctified, Roy is replaced by a new preacher, Pastor Teagardin, who lives with his much younger wife, Cynthia. Lenora believes Teagardin to be an exceptionally holy man, but Arvin has his doubts. These suspicions are validated when the reader learns of Teagardin’s seduction and sexual corruption of Cynthia. Teagardin then successfully seduces Lenora, getting the young girl pregnant. Furious, Arvin shoots Teagardin dead and flees Coal Creek.

These dreary yet interesting plot lines come together in the last part of the book. While there is no hero magically appearing on a white horse each of the characters reach an end that is fitting, considering the lives they have lived. Throughout the novel the author builds the suspense so that you are propelled forward in spite of the violence. That aspect, the realism of the story, and the insight into the demented psychology of each of the characters made this a very good novel which I would recommend, especially to fans of Cormac McCarthy or Flannery O'Connor.


Monday, June 29, 2020

A Violin and Murder

The Rainaldi Quartet 

The Rainaldi Quartet (Castiglione and Guastafeste, #1)



You expect the momentous events in life to provide some kind of warning. You expect to have some presage of what's about to happen, to be prepared for it when it hits you. But I wasn't prepared. None of us was.  - Paul Adam, The Rainaldi Quartet




This mystery involves a valuable violin and multiple murders in contemporary Italy.

Shortly after playing a short composition by Beethoven with his friends Tomaso Rainaldi, a retired professional musician and sometime violin teacher, and Antonio Guastafeste, a local detective; Gianni Castiglione, an elderly luthier (that is, a craftsman of stringed instruments), receives a suspicious call at his Lombardy countryside home from Rainaldi’s wife Clara. His friend hasn’t come home and he is soon found stabbed near his abandoned car. Guastafeste, a generation younger than narrator Castiglione or Rainaldi, returns when he’s assigned to the case. Because Castiglione’s technical knowledge makes him useful as a valuable resource, he accompanies Guastafeste on his investigation, which begins with Venetian violin collector Dottor Forlani. The curious collector lives in squalor but spends a small fortune on instruments. They learn that Rainaldi had contacted Forlani about acquiring a valuable violin known as the “Messiah’s Sister.” Not long after their visit, Forlani is also murdered by a nefarious and mysterious persona as ruthless as he is determined. The mystery’s trail, which includes old letters and older tombs, leads Gianni through a network of auction houses and black-market dealings across Italy and western Europe, reaching its denouement at Casale Monferrato, the cement capital of Italy.

Well-paced storytelling perfectly suits the subtle pleasures of this tale. The author offers plenty of European history and an immersion in a subculture of the classical music world as well as a pleasant mystery.