Sunday, November 27, 2022

Poetry of Sappho

If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho

If Not, Winter: 
Fragments of Sappho 

"Eros, that slackener of limbs, twirls me again---
bittersweet, untamable, crawling thing.

but you, Atthis, hate the thought of me,
and go flying off to Andromeda"

The poetry of Sappho is incomparably erotic and undeniably beautiful even in small fragments.

Visitor Who Believes

Calculating God
Calculating God 
“There is no indisputable proof for the big bang," said Hollus. "And there is none for evolution. And yet you accept those. Why hold the question of whether there is a creator to a higher standard?”   ― Robert J. Sawyer, Calculating God

The science fiction literature includes an immense variety of styles and approaches for ideas. Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer is a science fiction novel that I would categorize as philosophical.

The novel uses the trope of contact with aliens to explore cosmological ideas that intrigue thoughtful persons whether or not they are interested in science fiction. But it goes beyond this in also taking on the claims for belief in God, the battle between evolutionary theory and intelligent design, and the personal issue of how one faces death. It takes a contemporary setting (in Canada) and describes the arrival on Earth of sentient aliens that are more intelligent than humans but whom also share some of the same issues and questions about the nature of the universe. The bulk of the novel covers the many discussions and arguments on the reasons for their presence, as well as about the nature of belief, religion, and science. Calculating God received nominations for both the Hugo and John W. Campbell Memorial Awards in 2001.

The main plot is told from the point of view of Tom Jericho, a paleontologist at the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada, and it begins with the appearance of a spider-like alien named Hollus who is interested in studying the Earth's history with Jericho. The discussions they have also explore questions about the nature of the universe, comparative planetary history, and the ultimate question of the existence of God. On that issue the book presents some difficult conundrums that make it rise above the average Science Fiction novel.
The issue of how a person faces death is presented in a subplot about with the illness of Jericho and his imminent death due to lung cancer. The author neatly connects this with the visit of the aliens with surprising revelations as well.

The friendship that develops between Tom and Hollus is developed particularly well and adds yet another level of meaning to the novel when the friends face difficult situations together. I enjoyed the philosophical and scientific discussions primarily due to the inventive approaches to questions that arose from the unusual views of the aliens. There were many discussions of a theoretical and philosophic nature that were presented clearly and did not detract from the action of the plot. Sawyer succeeds in describing the meeting with aliens in a way that held my attention through both its believable detail and its novelty. I found myself wondering about the thoughtful calculation of alien scientists and if they really could include god in that calculation.

Monday, November 14, 2022

Days of Memories

Our Fathers
Our Fathers 

“We couldn’t complete the world or ourselves. We could only live, and look for small graces, and learn to accept the munificence of change.”   ― Andrew O'Hagan, Our Fathers

This was Andrew O'Hagan's first novel and as such it was a successful beginning. I found it reminiscent of a memoir as it told the story of a son who returns home for the death of his grandfather and in doing so relates a tale of changes over time of both family and Glasgow.

Jamie recalls his torturous childhood and his enduring relationship with his mother Alice, who tortured her husband for years, while growing up under Robert Bawn, a nasty, raging alcoholic. Jamie eventually left home and lived in with his grandparents, Hugh and Margaret. Robert's father, Hugh, was a "visionary" urban planner who oversaw the development of public housing complexes in Glasgow in the 1970s, tall blocks of concrete and glass like those in the United States at the time. Hugh was an enthusiastic, ambitious father figure for young Jamie, and Margaret was a competent teacher. 

Years later, when Jamie learns that Hugh is ailing, he rushes from England to help Margaret and Hugh. Robert has since vanished, but Jamie is happy to see Alice newly married and independent. Hugh's passing, however, is not without concern: a probe is looking into the elderly man's alleged misuse of funds while serving as "Mr. Housing," and his cherished buildings are being demolished to make room for the new. Which, Jamie discovers, includes glimpses of Scotland from Trainspotting, a dirty, historically rich, and obviously worn-out country. But Robert shows up at Hugh's funeral and then leaves right away. When Jamie catches up with him, he has calmed down and is now a contented, modest taxi driver. The story ends with a kind of reconciliation and cautious hope.

I enjoyed the novel and was moved tremendously by the emotional moments recounted as both memories of his early life and his experiences upon his return home for the final days of his beloved Grandfather. Most of all the author's gorgeous, almost poetic, prose engaged me in a way that few novels can. I would recommend this to all as I look forward to reading more from the pen of Andrew O'Hagan.

Sunday, November 13, 2022

True Friends Who Search

The Chosen (Reuven Malther, #1)
The Chosen 

"'Reuven, listen to me. The Talmud says that a person should do two things for himself. One is to acquire a teacher. Do you remember the other?" Choose a friend,' I said. 'Yes you know what a friend is, Reuven? A Greek philosopher said that two people who are true friends are like two bodies with one soul.'" - Chaim Potok, The Chosen.

This was my introduction to the world of Jewish culture. I remember sitting on my Grandmother's front porch swing during August, 1969, mesmerized by this tale of friendship in a culture very different than my own. This novel, the first from the pen of Chaim Potok, is set in the 1940s with the war going on in Europe and most of the rest of the world. It is ostensibly about the friendship between two boys, Reuven and Danny, from the time when they are fourteen on opposing yeshiva ball clubs. But it is also a coming of age story and most of all a novel of ideas.

At one point David Malter tells his son:
"Human beings do not live forever, Reuven. We live less than the time it takes to blink an eye, if we measure our lives against eternity. So it may be asked what value is there to a human life. There is so much pain in the world. What does it mean to have to suffer so much if our lives are nothing more than the blink of an eye?" He paused again, his eyes misty now, then went on. "I learned a long time ago, Reuven, that a blink of an eye in itself is nothing. But the eye that blinks, that is something. A span of life is nothing. But the man who lives that span, he is something.
He can fill that tiny span with meaning, so its quality is immeasurable though its quantity may be insignificant. Do you understand what I am saying? A man must fill his life with meaning, meaning is not automatically given to life. It is hard work to fill one's life with meaning. That I do not think you understand yet. A life filled with meaning is worthy of rest. I want to be worthy of rest when I am no longer here."

A search for this meaning animates the entire story. Danny's father, Reb Saunders, has found meaning in serving God and his followers, but others have sought meaning in reason rather than faith. Reuven's father, David Malter, has found meaning, and hopes to give the Holocaust itself some meaning, in his political work as a Zionist. Reuven, with the study of logic, and Danny, with the study of psychology, both think that they have found the things that will fill their lives with meaning. The story becomes a sort of gently didactic differentiation between two aspects of the Jewish faith, the Hasidic and the Orthodox. The Hasidic, the little known mystics with their beards, earlocks and stringently reclusive way of life are contrasted with the more mainstream Orthodox Jews. According to Reuven's father who is a Zionist and an activist, the Hasidic Jews are fanatics; according to Danny's father, other Jews are apostates and Zionists "goyim." The schisms here are reflected through discussions, between fathers and sons, and through the separation imposed on the two boys for two years which still does not affect their lasting friendship or enduring hopes: Danny goes on to become a psychiatrist refusing his inherited position of "tzaddik"; Reuven becomes a rabbi. 

For me the important aspect was their search for meaning in life, a search that I subsequently found in novels as disparate as The Moviegoer, The Plague, and The Razor's Edge. It is a search that continues for me and one that made this novel memorable; that and my memory of my Grandmother's front porch swing.

Sunday, November 06, 2022

Strange Boy

The Wasp Factory
The Wasp Factory 

“Sometimes the thoughts and feelings I had didn't really agree with each other, so I decided I must be lots of different people inside my brain.”
   ― Iain Banks, The Wasp Factory

The novel by Iain Banks, The Wasp Factory tells the story of 16-year-old Frank Cauldhame. He lives on an island (unnamed) off the cost of Scotland with his father, Angus. Frank has no official status. He has no birth certificate and no national insurance card. At the direction of his father, he must tell anyone who asks that he is the nephew of Angus—not the son.

Angus seems to be somewhat concerned and protective of Frank. He always insists on cooking and makes all of Frank's meals. Angus keeps some things from Frank. He has a study that he keeps locked and has cautioned Frank against entering—although Frank tries the door every time his father leaves. What is the secret behind that door? Angus was a scientist before his retirement so Frank assumes that his father is conducting some kind of chemical experiments. Frank has many secrets of his own. He routinely kills and mutilates small animals and uses them in his bizarre rituals.

This is a brilliantly written novel that is inexplicably irresistible. It is also noxious and one of the most horrifying and chilling books that I have ever read. If I had read all of Freud's work I am sure I would still not understand the deep meanings of the images in Iain Banks weird novel. It is the unconventional anti-hero at the center of the novel who narrates the story of obsession and macabre behavior. This is one delinquent whose creepy charm has very limited appeal. His imagination defies description and I can only recommend this book with a warning that it is not for the faint of heart.

Friday, October 28, 2022

Epic Voyage

Tau Zero
Tau Zero 

The epic voyage of the spacecraft Leonora Christine will take her and her fifty-strong crew to a planet some thirty light-years distant. But, because the ship will accelerate to close to the speed of light, for those on board subjective time will slow and the journey will be of only a few years' duration. Then a buffeting by an interstellar dustcloud changes everything. The ship's deceleration system is damaged irreparably and soon she is gaining velocity. When she attains light-speed, tau zero itself, the disparity between ship-time and external time becomes almost impossibly great. Eons and galaxies hurtle by, and the crew of the Leonora Christine speeds into the unknown. Classic sci-fi from this great author.

Thursday, October 27, 2022

Passions of Young Love

The Sorrows of Young Werther

The Sorrows of Young Werther 

“I have so much in me, and the feeling for her absorbs it all; I have so much, and without her it all comes to nothing.”   ― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote this epistolary novel in the space of a few weeks in 1774. His burst of creative energy imbued the whole work with a rare intensity. He drew upon his own experiences, and perhaps because of this, it captured a mood of the times and was greeted with enthusiasm by the public. It was the one work that can be said to have made Goethe’s reputation; to the end of his life, he was for many readers primarily “the author of Werther.” At the same time, it was a turning point in his career, for it marked the end of his “storm and stress” period. The outburst of all-consuming emotion was followed by a quieter period, which led to his classical style of the 1780’s. Goethe himself later regarded The Sorrows of Young Werther as a kind of therapeutic expression of a dangerous side of his own personality, one that he overcame and controlled. He was appalled to find that Werther became regarded as a model of behavior, influencing men’s fashion and inspiring a rash of suicides all over Europe.

The immediacy of the work is, in large part, the result of its epistolary form. After a brief foreword by the fictional editor, the reader plunges straight into the world of Werther’s mind, and the style of his letters, full of exclamations, broken sentences, and impassioned flights of imagination, expresses his personality better than could any description. The novel thus captures the peak of his emotion, and the letters pesent the high points of his life. When he finally becomes too incoherent to write, the editor enters, which creates a chilling effect. The editor observes events from a distance, and his observing Werther with a sympathetic but dispassionate eye retards the headlong rush of the story.

The novel possessed a further immediacy for its first readers in that it was set in their own contemporary world. The first letter is dated May 4, 1771, and from there Goethe leads the reader through that year’s summer, fall, and winter into the next year with its new hope in the spring and the final tragedy at the end of the year in midwinter. Werther both shares and demonstrates the interests of his generation: He reads Homer, loves nature and the simple folk in the fashion of Jean-Jacques Rousseau; and chafes against the conventions of aristocratic eighteenth century society.

The short novel is well-written with some beautiful passages of prose, but it is basically the story of one character, Werther, who writes letters to his friend William, but they seem to be aimed at the reader of the novel. His passion for Lotte is sometimes difficult to appreciate, however since he is overcome by his passion, he is doomed as she already has a lover and is married to him fairly soon into the story (it only covers about a year and a half of Werther's life). Goethe would go on to write some of the greatest poetry, drama (Faust), and travel literature ever written in German. His complete oeuvre is impressive. And for a twenty-four year old writer, this novel is impressive also.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

The Ultimate "One"

The Essential Plotinus
The Essential Plotinus 

“We must close our eyes and invoke a new manner of seeing, a wakefulness that is the birthright of us all, though few put it to use.”     ― Plotinus, The Essential Plotinus

Neoplatonism is credited with having its roots in the mystic philosopher Plotinus. He felt that throughout his life, he had repeatedly attained unity with the Supreme Principle, also known as the One. According to his idea, the Intellect, the Soul, and mankind were all manifestations of the One, as were all other material creatures and things. In his worldview, people should strive to achieve union (or reunion) with the One in order to escape the limitations of material reality. Plotinus was a well-known instructor who delivered lectures on this philosophy. One of his pupils, Porphyry of Tyre, eventually organized these lectures into six books with nine chapters each, which he termed Enneads. This book contains a selection from those lectures.

Plotinus’s interpretation of Platonic philosophy centers on his conception of the One, the creator-being. The One is that which makes all things possible; thus he claimed that the One is the penultimate element. It is made up of everything else, yet it remains in the purest form. Plotinus calls this state “the light before the light.” As this purest form, it cannot be described or discussed; living beings can only hope to realize that even with a sense of perfection in meditation, they must be aware that there is a greater perfection that exists.

The One is known only by what it is not; it is not comprehensible, but it is the source of both the intelligence and the soul. These three entities form a trinity that is hierarchical and to a great extent ineffable. The intelligence remind one of the forms of Plato's thought. In addition to clear connections to Platonic philosophy there are resonances with both the thought of Aristotle and the writings of Paul in the New Testament of the Christian Bible.

Plotinus' thought is paradoxical, yet through contemplation it appears to form a natural hierarchical structure that leads from the sentient world to the ultimate source of everything.

Monday, September 26, 2022

Mount Parnassus

ABC of Reading
ABC of Reading 

“Good writers are those who keep the language efficient. That is to say, keep it accurate, keep it clear. It doesn't matter whether the good writer wants to be useful, or whether the good writer wants to be harm.”    ― Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading

Mount Parnassus in Greek mythology is a mountain in central Greece where the Muses lived; it is known as the mythological home of music and poetry. The ABC of Reading is Ezra Pound's iconoclastic view of stages on the way to Parnassus -- to knowing the nature and meaning of literature. Pound was there at the beginning of the Modernist movement in literature. In fact one could argue that he invented it and he both discovered and encouraged fellow writers, T. S. Eliot is a prominent example, to persevere and "make it new". This spirit permeates this book and I believe it has not diminished over the decades. My beat up copy was obtained in Madison, Wisconsin at a used book store near the University. What an appropriate setting, for this book reads like an extension of the University expanding my education in time and through imagination. There are more ideas packed into just over two hundred pages in this little book than in many much larger tomes. The ideas are at one striking and sublime. Plus there are bon mots like this-- "Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree."(p 36) --in every chapter.

This classic retains "a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness" that makes it worth reading today; both for the challenge and for the insights into the nature of poetry and literature.

Monday, September 05, 2022

The Mystery of Oneself

“And men go abroad to admire the heights of mountains, the mighty waves of the sea, the broad tides of rivers, the compass of the ocean, and the circuits of the stars, yet pass over the mystery of themselves without a thought.”  ― St. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions

Rereading this book I am reminded once again how powerful it is and how modern it seems to be. Like all classics it bears rereading and yields new insights each time I read it. But it also is unchanging in ways that struck me when I first read it; for Augustine's Confessions is both an apologetic account of his intellectual search for understanding and wisdom, yet in pursuing that search finding a rootlessness due to an ultimate dissatisfaction with different philosophical positions that he explores. From the carnality of his youth to the moment in the Milanese Garden when his perspective changed forever you the story is an earnest and sincere exposition of his personal growth. You do not have to be a Catholic or even a believer to appreciate the impact of events in the life of the young Augustine. The certainty for which Augustine strives is not found in philosophy alone, but rather in faith, only Christian faith, is this certainty possible for him. Having recently read Cicero myself, I was impressed that Cicero's writing had an important impact on Augustine.

His relations with his mother, Monica, are among those that still have impact on the modern reader. The combination of his personal insights, relations with friends and teachers, and the unusual (for his time) psychological portrait make one realize that this is one of those "Great" books that remind you that true insight into the human condition transcends time and place.

I must add an additional recommendation of the book A Third Testament by Malcolm Muggeridge, the British journalist and author. Muggeridge provides brief chronicles of six great searchers for spiritual fulfillment. These include, in addition to St. Augustine, Blaise Pascal, William Blake, Soren Kierkegaard, Leo Tolstoy and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It is a short but elegant treatment of their personal searches for meaning.

Sunday, September 04, 2022

Toppling into the Abyss

English Passengers
English Passengers 

“All at once I felt myself haunted by a terrible vision, of a world without guidance: a land of emptiness, where all was ruled by the madness of chance. How could one endure such a place, where all significance was lost? I myself would mean nothing, but would merely be a kind of self-invention: a speck upon the wind, calling itself Wilson. I felt my spirit waver, as if it were toppling into the abyss before me.”   ― Matthew Kneale, English Passengers

This is an historical novel with multiple story lines beginning with the story of Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley, the leader of a crew of Manx smugglers. It is here that both the authenticity and complexity of the novel begins to display itself. Kewley is a lively character as are his fellow Manx shipmates. Apparently the Isle Of Man, according to historical sources, was home to Manx smugglers who wandered widely and that some were forcibly transported to the New World, where they endured the hospitality of Port Arthur prison in Tasmania. I enjoyed this part as it was very amusing when Kewley and crew try to offload their ill-gotten gains. But then their ship attracts the attention of Customs, and Kewley is forced to consider the indignity of taking on board paying passengers.

This is divine timing for the Reverend Geoffrey Wilson, who needs a ship to go to Tasmania to prove his theory of Divine Refrigeration. His discourse offers the rather surprising argument that the Garden of Eden is to be found within Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania). Wilson has been inspired by the writings of Darwinists, who believe that the Bible is not to be taken literally when it comes to the question of Genesis and the Origins of Species. Unfortunately, Wilson's sponsor is the infantile entrepreneur Jonah Childs whose notion of a good idea would be to use wallabies as pack animals. Childs further demonstrates his poor judgement when he chooses the odious Doctor Potter as botanist for the trip who also volunteers as ship's surgeon. It doesn't take long for Wilson and Potter to realise that they are natural enemies, and it seems that we could be in for a battle of the survival of the fittest, as each take turns to try to convert Kewley's crew. No matter how he tries, Kewley is unable to dump his passengers, so off into the New World they sail.

Another storyline retreats in time to the 1820s to detail the narration of Peevay, a Tasmanian Aborigine, who relates how the 'ghosts' take over the land of his people, and drive them to extinction. He is the product of a rape: his mother was snatched by a white sealer and imprisoned on his island. She escaped, but is forever haunted by the seething hatred she feels for the man who did that to her. When his mother rejects him due to his mixed blood, Peevay yearns for his father. One might think that a novel full of individual narrators would be difficult to navigate, but Kneale handles this well with vivid and vital characters who are engaging for the reader, even when they are as unlikeable as Potter is. I found Kneale's narrative always quite stimulating as did the rest of our Thursday evening book group. He artfully brings all of these narratives to life in a masterful display of black comedy.

Friday, September 02, 2022

An Unfortunate Affair

The Dog in the Chapel (The Dog in the Chapel, #1)
The Dog in the Chapel 

“Tom & Christopher and Their Kind.”
― Anthony McDonald, The Dog in the Chapel

A story of two young men, 21 and 18, who fell in love in the summer of 1962 but who had the unfortunate circumstance of being employed as instructors in a Catholic preparatory school at the time, is at the center of this tragic-comic tale. Tom and Christopher are their names. Father Louis, the senior headmaster, is standing in the corner opposite them. He believes that the 1960s will be remembered as the decade in which the Catholic Church achieved its heavenly victory. When Miss O'Deere, the art mistress, decides to paint Tom and Christopher as David and Jonathan and put the finished product in a public exhibition, Tom and Christopher's lives become more complicated. Not to mention the bothersome attentions that 13-year-old Angelo Dexter gave them.

The Heart of One Existence

Madame Bovary (Modern Library Classics)
Madame Bovary 

“Love, she thought, must come suddenly, with great outbursts and lightnings,--a hurricane of the skies, which falls upon life, revolutionises it, roots up the will like a leaf, and sweeps the whole heart into the abyss.”   ― Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

Gustave Flaubert famously declared "No lyricism, no digressions, personality of the author absent", when commenting to his friend and literary confidant Louis Bouilhet about his tone of writing Madame Bovary. That is the hallmark of Flaubert's style and the aim of his hard work writing slowly to make sure he had just the right words. He became his characters, entered into their lives and dreamt their dreams. This resulted in the masterpiece that has become a classic of French literature.

The story is a simple one of a doctor's wife, Emma Bovary, who has adulterous affairs and lives beyond her means in order to escape the banalities and emptiness of provincial life. Though the basic plot is rather simple, even archetypal, the novel's true art lies in the author's ability to present the narrative in a way that every detail is present in service to the experience of the characters. Emma's passion is at the center of a story that is in exists to portray the vicissitudes of her life. And in the details emphasized by the author, whether the moribund nature of her marriage and the small town in to which she is bound or the momentary escapes into the nature of the countryside or an evening at the opera, every moment is necessary to build to the shattering climax of this brilliant beautiful authentic tale of the consequences of one tragic existence.

Demonstrating the truth of Keat's dictum about truth and beauty, Flaubert achieves a mood of 'aesthetic mysticism' that has seldom been reached by others. The result is one that we as readers can enjoy and marvel at the power of his words.

Thursday, August 11, 2022

Deep Thinking

Essays in Understanding, 1930-1954: Uncollected and Unpublished Works
Essays in Understanding, 

“Words used for the purpose of fighting lose their quality of speech; they become clichés. The extent to which clichés have crept into our everyday language and discussions may well indicate the degree to which we not only have deprived ourselves of the faculty of speech, but are ready to use more effective means of violence than bad books (and only bad books can be good weapons) with which to settle our arguments.”   ― Hannah Arendt, Essays in Understanding, 1930-1954

This collection of essays addresses a broad range of subjects from Augustine to Kierkegaard and beyond, with examinations of existentialism which are enriched by her personal connections to both Jaspers and Heidegger. One of the most important group of essays addresses the titular subject of understanding itself. While addressing questions such as what is the proper basis for morality when faced with "the breakdown of its structure", she uses a thought process that I found not dissimilar to that of Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations.

She also considered the concept of "balance of power" both with regard to relations between nation states, but even more important she addresses the balance of power between branches of our constitutional government as based on the writings of Montesquieu among others. In addition she discusses the issue of fear in tyranny to which I would immediately draw comparisons with the thought of Machiavelli. This leads to raising questions like what is the nature of the "double standard "status of man as both citizen and individual".

One element that holds all of the essays together is the deep thinking of Arendt herself. This is evident in her method that continually goes back to the source of the issues and ideas under consideration referencing classical philosophy and religion where relevant. It is this deep thinking that makes this collection of essays essential for our consideration of how to understand the politics and ideological issues of the twenty-first century.

Portrait of Lenin

Lenin in Zurich
by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

 Alexander Solzhenitsyn introduces Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the key character of his planned multi-volume chronicle of Russian revolutionary history, in his novel, Lenin in Zurich. In this fascinating biographical novel Solzhenitsyn explores and illuminates the important years 1914-17, drawing a gripping psychological portrait of the man who was the architect of the Revolution, with unrivaled knowledge of the events and individuals. From his arrest in Cracow and subsequent flight to Zurich at the outbreak of World War I to his departure for Russia in 1917 in a sealed train protected by the German government. 

Lenin in Zurich chronicles Lenin's frustrating exile in Switzerland, years in which he stood alone, without support from the deeply divided European socialist movement and isolated from his fellow revolutionaries. Solzhenitsyn investigates the private individual as well as the public figure.

Tuesday, August 02, 2022

The Encounter of Existence

I and Thou
I and Thou 

This is the eternal origin of art that a human being confronts a form that wants to become a work through him. Not a figment of his soul but something that appears to the soul and demands the soul's creative power. What is required is a deed that a man does with his whole being..”  Martin Buber, I and Thou

I and Thou is a key text in ethical, religious, and intellectual philosophy from the 20th century. It exhibits elements of each of those even though it isn't strictly a work of philosophy, religion, poetry, or mysticism. Its introspective, aphoristic tone could even be described as "theopoetic." The book also covers a wide range of topics, even though it is only a little over 200 pages long, such as modernity, human psychology, perception and consciousness, evil, ethics, education, spirituality, religious tradition, the natural world, biblical hermeneutics, the relationship between personal and communal fulfillment, the relationship between the divine and the human, and so forth.

The book is not weighed down with obscure allusions and convoluted reasoning, but rather it is profoundly affected by and engages in an implicit dialogue with Kant, Hegel, Marx, Feuerbach, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, not to mention the mystic traditions of Hasidism. Buber's writings are still regarded as a turning point in existentialist philosophy.

I and Thou is a deceptively straightforward idea, which is that all existence is encounter, despite its weighty heritage. Additionally, it makes for a fascinating, stimulating, and enjoyable read.

Sunday, July 31, 2022

The Smell of Burning Books


An Insubstantial Pageant

The smell of burning books permeates the air.

It hovers about those engaged in daily activity,

Yielding a strange sense of bittersweet victory.

Forcing our selves, attempting to escape the smoke

We feel the result of harnessing nature -

The written word is our yoke to the world.

The word belongs in heaven with the angels.

What beauty lies below, corroded by our touch?

Yes, there are tarnished tomes that remain.

Just as we turn to the spiritual for relief

We plead for support from the muses -

In vain, we seek what has been lost.

Simple supplication summons our spirits

Forth to the battle. Will there be future moments -

Recording our efforts to mold minds?

Seeing the possibility of pyrrhic victories

As the vapors overwhelm our souls,

We struggle within on this earth -

Players in the insubstantial pageant.

From Preludes of the Mind, 1996 (rev), James Henderson

Saturday, July 30, 2022

A Pious Man


"One must write, even when one realises that the printed word can no longer improve anything. To the optimists, it might seem an easy thing to write. To the sceptics - not to say: the hopeless - it’s more difficult, and this is why their word weighs so much heavier. These are, so to speak, voices coming from the beyond, haloed by the radiance of futility." - Joseph Roth

Rereading the novel Job has led me to find it even more relevant as a retelling of the Job story from the perspective of the Jews from the netherland border between Poland and Russia at the end of the nineteenth century. It was published in 1930 and marks a turning point in Roth's career. With this novel, Roth takes a transformation of socio-politically motivated journalism to author as a poet of conservative myths. Roth takes for his presentation of Jewish existence within the elements of traditional storytelling. "Job" for Roth meant his breakthrough as a novelist.

Mendel Singer is a pious, God-fearing and ordinary Jew who lives in the idyllic Schtetl Zuchnow and performs there with his family a modest life as a village teacher. But the rest of his life will not be long because it through a chain of hard blows from the meaninglessness of his existence is torn by fate. Still he believed humbly that misfortune was just a test from God. The first blow hit him when his youngest son Menuchim is born with epilepsy. This was followed by the drafting of his oldest son Jonas into the military, with which his traditional Jewish faith did not agree. His second son Schemariah flees to America. Ultimately, Mendel Singer must discover that his daughter Miriam is with Cossacks, French, and what the strictly devout Jews considered the epitome of depravity. The Singers decide to emigrate to America. This trip can only be bought while leaving his youngest son Menuchim behind. In New York Mendel meets a new fate: He loses both sons in World War I, and his wife dies from grief over it. When his daughter becomes insane, he loses his strength, to tolerate and to believe, leading from humility and piety to rebellion and spite; Mendel loses his faith in God. From now on he no longer prays and lives quietly and inward. But now he learns the grace of the Lord; and the prophesy of a rabbi's wonder that his sick son Menuchim would become healthy is fulfilled. When the gifted composer and conductor Alexei Kossak (really Menuchim) comes to America he introduces himself to his father.
Joseph Roth tells the story of Mendel Singer in a language both allegorical and with biblical directness, whose theme is one of divine visitation and the wonder of God's grace. 

Roth's answer to the question of the meaning of suffering in the spirit of the Bible is the answer of a skeptic, whose life was visitation, the redeeming grace one fervently longs for, but does not to believe they could find or receive. The resulting novel stands in good stead beside his magnificent historical novel, The Radetzky March.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Notes on Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina
Anna Karenina 

"She said she was sorry for Pilate. In Christ's expression there should be pity because there was love in it, a peace not of this world, a readiness for death, and a knowledge of the vanity of words." - Anna Karenina, p 558.

As I reread this amazing novel I was reminded of Kant's famous comment, “Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind of thought is drawn to them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”* I found the novel demonstrated this thought in ways that contributed to its meaning and import upon my current reading. 

One important theme was the nature of happiness. In Part 4, chapter 22, Oblonsky visits Karenin to discuss his situation, and he says: "Should you now be convinced that you cannot make each other mutually happy . . ." and Karenin responds: "Happiness can be defined so differently!"(p 508) Each of the major characters had differing views of happiness; for example, when Levin decides that "he would no longer hope for the exceptional happiness which marriage was to have given him," (Part 1, chapter 26, p 109). Is it even the appropriate goal or are there more important moral imperatives? While I'm trying to analyze the novel in a literary way I find philosophical thoughts intruding, thus how does the novel's depiction of happiness relate to that of Aristotle or Plato or Seneca?

Another important theme is the omnipresence of death in the novel which is shown in many scenes although the most moving of those for me were: first, the death of Levin's brother Nicholas: "Death, the inevitable end of everything, confronted him for the first time with irresistible force . . . a new insoluble problem presented itself ---Death." (Part 3, chapter 31, p 413-14) Nicholas' illness would last a while longer but his death in Part 5 is almost an afterthought, albeit one with power; second, Anna's son, young Serezha's thoughts about death, after a fretful meeting with his Father: "He did not in the least believe in death, which was so often mentioned to hiim. He did not believe that people he loved could die, nor above all that he himself would die." (Part 5, chapter 27, p 620) (Ironically, when he fails his lesson his father's punishment ends up being a fun evening with Vasily Lukich) ; and third, the nearness of death at the beginning of a new life when Kitty experiences childbirth (Part 7, chapter 15). Do these and other moments contribute to the power of the inevitable demise of Anna?

I was also impressed with the epilogue (Part 8) and found that Tolstoy, in his own amazing way, was able to bring Levin's life and spirituality together in a way befitting his character and role in the novel, specifically I was moved by the concluding paragraph of chapter 14 (p 947) that begins "Just as the bees, now circling round him, threatening him and distracting his attention," . . . and concluding "And as, in spite of the bees, his physical powers remained intact, so his newly-realized spiritual powers were intact also." It seems that his realization of his "spiritual powers" relate to his life lived (as noted in the quote from p 930) and his immersion in nature and the countryside (brought to the fore throughout the novel, but particularly, for me at least, in his immersion in the fields with the peasants mowing hay (part 3, chapter 5, pp 297ff). There were other moments in his development worthy of discussion as well.

Tolstoy encompasses the whole world within his novels. This novel exemplifies his approach that at once brings into focus the humanity of his characters, the details of the world in which they live, and the philosophies by which they guide their lives. Spinning his tale of Anna and her passions out from a small moment in the life of one unhappy family Tolstoy shows again and again how our lives are intertwined with each other. His uncanny ability to demonstrate psychological insight into the characters is amazing from the moment they are introduced through the denouement and epilogue of this massive tale.

*Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Practical Reason

Monday, June 27, 2022

Most Memorable War

The History of Rome, Books 21-30: The War with Hannibal
The History of Rome: 
The War with Hannibal 
by Livy

“Indeed, that is the nature of crowds: the mob is either a humble slave or a cruel master. As for the middle way of liberty, the mob can neither take it nor keep it with any respect for moderation or law.”   ― Livy, The History of Rome: The War with Hannibal

Livy begins
his history of the Roman War with Carthage with the following passage: "I am now about to tell the story of the most memorable war in history: that, namely, which was fought by Carthage under the leadership of Hannibal against Rome." Thus asserts Livy at the start of the decade beginning in 222bc, books 21–30. He was certainly correct regarding ancient history. The Indo-Germanic and Semitic races were at war with one another over world dominance. The historian notes that the two had a hatred for one another that was as great as their armies, and that they were not only evenly matched but also knowledgeable of the enemy's battle strategies and potential might.

Livy never downplays the exploits of Hannibal, a 26-year-old who emerged as the protagonist of his tale. Ninety thousand soldiers, twelve thousand cavalry, and thirty-seven elephants crossed the Alps, and he made up any facts he could not find in existing records. After failing to stop the Carthaginians in Gaul, Scipio the father attempted again in the Italian plains, but each setback terrorized the imperial city. After Trebia and Lake Trasimene, Fabius Maximus's delay strategies were successful in keeping the invaders at bay for a while, but another consul, Varro, was impatient, which led to the ultimate Roman loss at Cannae (216 b.c.e.). Hannibal could have easily reached Rome if he had capitalized on his victory.

Book 25 covers a different stage of the conflict. A seventy-four-year-old mathematician named Archimedes' inventions of the catapult and grappling hooks, which lifted the prows of Roman ships attempting to attack the breakwater and sank them, kept Marcellus, who was besieging Syracuse, at bay for three years. Ultimately, though, the Romans discovered the gap in the defenses and took control of the island. This war is not over, but will continue until Scipio pursues Hannibal all the way to Zamma outside of Carthage where he will lead Rome to their ultimate victory.

I was impressed that Livy opened his narrative mentioning Hannibal by name. That is undoubtedly because he is the most engaging character in the story and likely the best General in spite of ultimately being defeated by Scipio Africanus. It is a narrative is full of great commanders, brutal and bloody warfare, shifting loyalties, superstitions and omens, and enough thrills to keep the reader both informed and entertained.

Monday, June 20, 2022

Hilarity from Page One

The Crying of Lot 49
The Crying of Lot 49 

“I came," she said, "hoping you could talk me out of a fantasy." Cherish it!" cried Hilarious, fiercely. "What else do any of you have? Hold it tightly by it's little tentacle, don't let the Freudians coax it away or the pharmacists poison it out of you. Whatever it is, hold it dear, for when you lose it you go over by that much to the others. You begin to cease to be.”   ― Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

This is one of the funniest books I have ever read. From the opening page the names, the events, the plot, all serve to provide humor in many ways. The story is disjointed by an abundance of ideas that only loosely hang together.
What impressed me the most, the moments that had me laughing out loud instead of just smiling (which I did on almost every page), were some of the most outrageous names like that of the protagonist Oedipa Maas and her husband Mucho Mass (!); but also Dr. Hilarious, Mike Fallopian, Arnold Snarb, Genghis Cohen, and many others on almost every page - there were no John Smiths in this book.

There were also the connections, at least those that I noted, that seemed to occur without warning. One connection that I found most exciting was when I remembered a passing reference to Cornell University on the opening page of the novel when I noted, on the first page of the final chapter, a song written by one of the characters Oedipa had only recently met which included the name "Humbert Humbert" in the lyrics. (I hope the connection requires no explanation.)

But that leads to the best aspect of the narrative, for it is surreal, having an absurd quality like it was a perpetual dream sequence. The events do not seem to follow any pattern, although there is the arc of the story based on Oedipa's nomination to be executor of the will of one Pierce Inverarity, which event did not seem to be explained by anything she could think of -- a letter from his law firm "said Pierce had died back in the spring, and they'd only just now found the will. . . She tried to think back to whether anything unusual had happened around then" (when she had been designated in a codicil the previous year). That is the event that sets her on her wild journey. It's one that involves unexpected events that tumble after each other culminating in a denouement that connects with the opening in an unexpected, perhaps bizarre, way. I will not attempt to explain the plot which involves bone charcoal, an Elizabethan drama, named "The Courier's Tragedy" which at least seems appropriate given other aspects of the plot, a modern megacorporation (wonderfully named Yoyodyne), and a mystery about an ancient symbol that is somehow connected to a valuable postage stamp. That list should be enough to whet any reader's appetite while suggesting how outrageously surreal the narrative becomes.

Needless to say I could not put the book down, for it was an exciting read in addition to being hilarious on almost every page. I would highly recommend this to readers who enjoy the works of authors like Sterne, Joyce or, in a more contemporary vein, Haruki Murikami.

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Socratic Wisdom

Philosophy and the Return to Self-Knowledge
Philosophy and the Return to 

"Socrates was the first to call philosophy down from the heavens."
--- Cicero

This is a book dedicated to the importance of and need to return philosophy to an approach found in the origins of philosophy found in Socratic humanism. This means reviving the ideal espoused in the slogan "know thyself". The examined life and the wisdom derived from the search and process of achieving such a life is one that the author believes is necessary to reform philosophy. He is careful to comment on process and in the concluding sections of the book provide a discussion of virtues. As a student of the classics and someone who admires the Socratic process of seeking knowledge through dialogic means I found this book encouraging and thought-provoking.