Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Literary Machine

Galatea 2.2
Galatea 2.2 

“Speech baffled my machine. Helen made all well-formed sentences. But they were hollow and stuffed--linguistic training bras. She sorted nouns from verbs, but, disembodied, she did not know the difference between thing and process, except as they functioned in clauses. Her predications were all shotgun weddings. Her ideas were as decorative as half-timber beams that bore no building load. 

She balked at metaphor. I felt the annoyance of her weighted vectors as they readjusted themselves, trying to accommodate my latest caprice. You're hungry enough to eat a horse. A word from a friend ties your stomach in knots. Embarrassment shrinks you, amazement strikes you dead. Wasn't the miracle enough? Why do humans need to say everything in speech's stockhouse except what they mean?” 
― Richard Powers, Galatea 2.2

In this arresting novel Richard Powers uses language and literary references with a sharp pen, deftly weaving them into a moving and beautiful narrative. The novel describes the building of a literary thinking machine. It is a machine that gradually matures over the course of several iterations, but in the end it is a life of reading that fueled all of his loves.
The novel is pseudo-autobiographical: the narrator is named Richard Powers and there is discussion of the four novels he wrote before Galatea 2.2 along with other references to his real biography. Richard Powers creates a version of himself for the novel that is not always flattering. It is not completely clear which specific events are true, and which are not, but it is clearly based on Powers' life.
The result is a captivating and mesmerizing novel that kept me in a state of suspense and wonder.

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Musings on Literature


      “One cannot long remain so absorbed in contemplation of emptiness without being increasingly attracted to it. In vain one bestows on it the name of infinity; this does not change its nature. When one feels such pleasure in non-existence, one's inclination can be completely satisfied only by completely ceasing to exist.” - Emile Durkheim

Anomie is a term meaning "without Law" to describe a lack of social norms; normlessness". It describes a personal state of isolation and anxiety resulting from a lack of social control and regulation possibly resulting from the breakdown of social bonds between an individual and their community ties, with fragmentation of social identity and rejection of self-regulatory values. It was popularized by French sociologist Émile Durkheim in his influential book Suicide (1897). Durkheim borrowed the word from French philosopher Jean-Marie Guyau. It should be noted, however, that Durkheim never uses the term normlessness; rather, he describes anomie as "a rule that is a lack of rule," "derangement," and "an insatiable will." (Mestrovic, Stjepan. Emile Durkheim and The Reformation of Sociology) For Durkheim, anomie arises more generally from a mismatch between personal or group standards and wider social standards, or from the lack of a social ethic, which produces moral deregulation and an absence of legitimate aspirations. This is a nurtured condition: Anomie in common parlance is thought to mean something like "at loose ends". The Oxford English Dictionary lists a range of definitions, beginning with a disregard of divine law, through the 19th and 20th century sociological terms meaning an absence of accepted social standards or values. Most sociologists associate the term with Durkheim, who used the concept to speak of the ways in which the actions of an individual are matched, or integrated, with a system of social norms and practices ... Durkheim also formally posited anomie as a mismatch, not simply as the absence of norms. Thus, a society with too much rigidity and little individual discretion could also produce a kind of anomie, a mismatch between individual circumstances and larger social mores. Thus, fatalistic suicide arises when a person is too rule-governed, when there is ... no free horizon of expectation. 

 In Albert Camus's existentialist novel, The Stranger, the bored, alienated protagonist Meursault struggles to construct an individual system of values as he responds to the disappearance of the old. He exists partly in a state of anomie, as seen from the apathy evinced in the opening lines: "Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas" ("Today mother died. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know"). When Mersault is prosecuted for shooting an Arab man during a fight, the prosecuting attorneys seem more interested in the inability or unwillingness of Meursault to cry at his mother's funeral than the murder of the Arab, because they find his lack of remorse offensive. The novel ends with Meursault recognizing the universe's indifference toward humankind. In the first half of the novel Meursault is clearly an unreflected, unapologetic individual. Ultimately, Camus presents the world as essentially meaningless and therefore, the only way to arrive at any meaning or purpose is to make it oneself. 

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, whose work can be viewed as a philosophical precursor to existentialism, expressed a similar concern in his novels. In The Brothers Karamazov it is expressed by Ivan that in the absence of God and immortal life, everything would be lawful. That one can do as one likes, but this one cannot. The novel, in part, explores the existence of God, the nature of truth, and the importance of forgiveness through the actions of its characters. Raskolnikov, the anti-hero of Crime and Punishment, puts this philosophy into action when he kills an elderly pawnbroker and her sister, later rationalizing this act to himself with the words, " wasn’t a human being I killed, it was a principle!" Raskolnikov's inner conflict in the opening section of the novel results in a utilitarian-altruistic justification for the proposed crime: why not kill a wretched and "useless" old moneylender to alleviate the human misery? His nihilism can be seen as a variation on anomie.

Hermann Hesse's Der Steppenwolf can also be seen as a demonstration of anomie.The novel tells the story of a middle-aged man named Harry Haller who is beset with reflections on his being ill-suited for the world of "everybody", the regular people. In his aimless wanderings about the city he is given a book which describes the "Faustian duality" expressed by two natures of man: one "high", spiritual and "human"; while the other is "low" and animal-like. Thus, man is entangled in an irresolvable struggle, never content with either nature. While Haller longs to live free from social convention, he continually lives as a bourgeois bachelor. Haller argues that the men of the Dark Ages did not suffer more than those of Classical Antiquity.   It is rather those who live between two times, those who do not know what to follow, that suffer the most.

 The characters Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett's absurdist play Waiting For Godot also express a sense of anomie. The play follows two consecutive days in the lives of a pair of men who divert themselves while they wait expectantly and unsuccessfully for someone named Godot to arrive. Frustrated at the long wait, they think of what to do to pass the time. Estragon suggests that they hang themselves, but since they are concerned that they might not both die, they decide to do nothing: "It's safer", explains Estragon. Another character, Lucky, describes an impersonal and callous God. Lucky next asserts that man 'wastes and pines', mourns an inhospitable earth, and claims that he [man] diminishes in a world that does not nurture him". The play illustrates an attitude toward man's experience on earth: the poignancy, oppression, camaraderie, hope, corruption, and bewilderment of human experience that can only be reconciled in the mind and art of the absurdist. 

 Is anomie a symptom of the decline of man or merely a growing pain on the way to a new and better or different culture? My reading of literature raises the question but the search for an answer continues.

"Years have passed, I suppose.  I'm not really counting them anymore.  But I think of this thing often: Perhaps there is a Golden Age someplace, a Renaissance for me sometime, a special time somewhere, somewhere but a ticket, a visa, a diary-page away.  I don't know where or when.  Who does?  Where are all the rains of yesterday?"  
 - Roger Zelazny, "This Moment of the Storm"

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Burgess's Choice

99 Novels: The Best in English Since 1939
99 Novels: The Best in English Since 1939 

“The possession of a book becomes a substitute for reading it.” 
― Anthony Burgess

If you like the fiction of Anthony Burgess you will probably enjoy his opinions about other authors. This is his very personal selection of the best English fiction from 1939 through 1983. The authors range from modernists like Joyce, Henry Green and Flann O'Brian to more traditional stylists like Waugh, Graham Greene and Elizabeth Bowen. Some of my personal favorites include Rex Warner (The Aerodrome, 1941), Christopher Isherwood (A Single Man, 1964), and Robertson Davies (The Rebel Angels, 1982); but there are many others that I have enjoyed along with those unfamiliar titles that tempt me based on the trust I have in Burgess's opinions. I am impressed with his selection based on the novels that I have read, but the commentaries are worth reading whether you read the selected works or not. His list is referenced in The Literary Almanac and is worthy of a place among all literate readers' reference shelves.

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Two Books I Did Not Like

Snow Falling on Cedars
Snow Falling on Cedars 

“That the world was silent and cold and bare and that in this lay its terrible beauty”   David Guterson, Snow Falling on Cedars

This historical mystery novel covers the treatment of the Japanese in the Pacific Northwest during WW2 when out of prejudice they were interred in camps. The author, David Guterson, handles this disgraceful episode in American history within the format of an excellent murder mystery. The story is set in 1950s on Washington's remote San Piedro Island and begins with a mysterious death of a fisherman. Kabuo Miyamoto is accused of the fisherman's murder, suspicion aroused more out of the post-war distrust of Japanese-Americans than anything else. To complicate this, the town's newspaperman, Ishmael Chamber, must deal with his own feelings from childhood for his love of Kabuo's wife, Hatsue.  Unfortunately, I found this to be a mediocre read, somewhat tedious and predictable.  I was particularly not impressed with the attempt to create a historical setting.

The Hours
The Hours 

“One always has a better book in one's mind than one can manage to get onto paper.”  ― Michael Cunningham, The Hours

I found this book derivative and uninteresting. Borrowing the names and key traits of the characters from Mrs. Dalloway, Michael Cunningham interweaves versions of the two plots of the Virginia Woolf novel with imagined scenes of Woolf herself at work on the book. The result, written in lyrical prose that evokes Woolf's and set variously in 1980s Greenwich Village, 1940s Los Angeles, and Woolf's London, did not succeed in its attempt. I was not impressed with the attempt to combine a contemporary story with Virginia Woolf's literary life - the details broke the stylistic mood that was almost successful in mimicking Woolf's classic prose.  There is a tension created by Cunningham's approach to Woolf that I could not overcome. If you want to experience Virginia Woolf read Mrs. Dalloway or To the Lighthouse.

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Friday, October 28, 2011

From Houynhnms to Blifil

Gulliver's Travels: An Authoritative Text, the Correspondence of Swift, Pope's Verses on Gulliver's Travels and Critical Essays (A Norton Critical)
Gulliver's Travels: 
An Authoritative Text

"Upon the whole, the behavior of these animals was so orderly and rational, so acute and judicious, that I at last concluded, they must needs be magicians, who thus had metamorphosed themselves upon some design, and seeing a stranger in the way, were resolved to divert themselves with him;  or perhaps were really amazed at the sight of a man . . . " 

The first volume of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels was published on October 28th in 1726. This was part of the onset of a literary tidal wave that included the novels of Daniel Defoe and would pick up speed by mid-century with the appearance of Fielding's masterpiece, Tom Jones.
Swift clearly relished the hoax aspect of his book, taking pains (under a pseudonym) to give his hero a genealogy and history, and a reputation for veracity so legendary “that it became a sort of proverb among his neighbours at Redriff, when any one affirmed a thing, to say, it was as true as if Mr. Gulliver had spoken it.” This kept up through the publication of subsequent volumes and editions, Gulliver himself now going on record to quibble over misprinted facts, or chortle over those “so bold as to think my book of travels a mere fiction out of mine own brain, and have gone so far as to drop hints, that the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos have no more existence than the inhabitants of Utopia.”  
This was just one of the literary milestones early in a century that would, by its midpoint, see the publishing of Fielding's Tom Jones which I am currently reading.  In that novel, young Blifill -- note the anagram for ill fib -- is more of a Yahoo than a Houynhnm, but Fielding's satire, populated with characters like Thwackum and Square, demonstrates the strength of Swift blended with a willingness to present humane characters from Town and Country that are presented for the reader's delight.

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Science Fiction Themes

The Science Fiction Hall of Fame:
Volume One, 1929-1964
Robert Silverberg, editor

"a roster of outstanding stories" - Robert Silverberg

Having just concluded my traversal of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume One, 1929-1964 I find myself reflecting on some of the themes.  I have previously commented on the intersection of the SF and Horror genres but there are other themes that we noted in our discussion of the stories.  These were all selected by the editor, Robert Silverberg, based on voting by the  Science Fiction Writers of America.  One theme is that of extreme situations exemplified in "The Cold Equations" by Tom Godwin where a shuttle space ship (Emergency Dispatch Ship) is unprepared for even and ounce of excess weight when a stowaway is found on board with disastrous consequences.  Not unexpectedly many of the stories emphasize the theme of the "other", whether aliens from outer space -- Mars is a popular choice from this era -- or aliens from the future, or aliens among us who, but for the vagaries of biology or psychology, would otherwise be human.
In the famous story by Daniel Keyes, "Flowers for Algernon", Charlie Gordon experiences the feeling of being the "other" both due to his low intelligence and subsequent extreme high intelligence level that he reaches before returning to his original mental state.  Through it all his emotional state develops so that there is some hope for whatever future he may have after the story ends.
The theme of monsters who are beyond human control is also prominent.  Both "It's a GOOD Life' by Jerome Bixby and "The Country of the Kind" by Damon Knight present monsters that are unsettling in their ability to change the world around them and the humans who survive are challenged beyond what one would expect they could manage.
I found paradoxical the hubris of the scientists in "The Nine Billion Names of God" by Arthur C. Clarke when they attempted to create a computing machine for Tibetan Monks that would catalog all of the names of god.  They did not believe they could succeed and the result when they did was astonishing.  I challenge the reader of this story to consider the possibility of an infinite number of universes in god's creation (if that is what this is).

The beauty of the prose style of the writers was never more evident than in Roger Zelazny's award-winning story "A Rose for Ecclesiastes".  In it a scientist on Mars falls in love with a dying civilization and one representative of it whose response is not what he expects.  There is even a hint of Eve's Apple haunting this story.
The result of all the stories in this engaging medley is a reader's delight that does justice to the "Golden  Age" of Science Fiction.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Hemingway in Paris

A Moveable Feast
A Moveable Feast 

"All of the sadness of the city came suddenly with the first cold rains of winter, and there were no more tops to the high white houses as you walked but only the wet blackness of the street and the closed doors of the small shops, the herb sellers, the stationery and the newspaper shops, the midwife - second class - and the hotel where Verlaine and died where I had a room on the top floor where I worked." - Ernest Hemingway, "A Good Cafe on the Place St.-Michel," A Moveable Feast

I read this when I was in high school and in my youthful naivete I had a high opinion of Hemingway. Since then his standing among authors has ebbed for me and, apart from The Sun Also Rises and some of his stories, I would not recommend reading Hemingway. A Moveable Feast is more a series of anecdotes than any attempt at a coherent narrative, as it moves from subject to subject, creating miniature portraits and taking in the atmosphere of Paris at the time. As such I would make it an exception, for it introduces so many characters from that era in Paris, including Ford Maddox Ford, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. Stein, in particular, looms large in the book, as a grand dame of letters--a great mentor to Hemingway, a distinguished innovator in literature, and just a little bit batty. She enjoys the power she projected over people. Hemingway sees her as a self-serving, self-satisfied crone, but he still makes her seem somehow likable.
Because of this content I believe this memoir may be worth reconsidering, if only to compare it to other works I subsequently have read about the same era.

A classic read

Monday, October 24, 2011

Literary Feminism

A Room of One's Own
A Room of One's Own 

"Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others." - Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (1929)

I read this extended essay some years ago both for a class at the University of Chicago and for a weekend spent discussing some of the works of Virginia Woolf that also included To the Lighthouse and Three Guineas.
A Room of One's Own was written to be delivered as two talks delivered to female college students. This coincided with the trial of Radclyffe Hall's lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness, at which Woolf testified in the novel's defense. This context, the female college setting, and Woolf's personable style are captured in the famous passage of A Room of One's Own in which she imagines discovering a new kind of writing, by a future novelist named Mary Carmichael.
"And, determined to do my duty by her as reader if she would do her duty by me as writer, I turned the page and read…. I am sorry to break off so abruptly. Are there no men present? Do you promise me that behind that red curtain over there the figure of Sir Charles Biron [the hostile judge at the Well of Loneliness trial] is not concealed? We are all women you assure me? Then I may tell you that the very next words I read were these — “Chloe liked Olivia….” Do not start. Do not blush. Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women do like women." 
In the end, Woolf decides that if Mary Carmichael has "a room of her own and five hundred a year," she will eventually be a real writer. " Woolf's main argument is that there have been few great women in history because material circumstances limited women's lives and achievements. Because women were not educated and were not allowed to control wealth, they necessarily led lives that were less publicly significant than those of men. While the argument has gained more adherents since this book was written the book retains its popularity and has become a classic along with much of Woolf's oeuvre. It is a short work that raises interesting questions and is written with impeccable style. 

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Sunday, October 23, 2011

Classic Musical Theater

Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical
Everything Was Possible: 

The Birth of the Musical "Follies" 

"I dim the lights
And think about you
Spend sleepless nights
To think about you
You said you loved . . . . me
Or were you just being kind
Or am I losing my mind"

  Last week I saw a production of Follies at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. The direction and ensemble was excellent with a few standout numbers and only minor flaws (the sound system). The performance so excited and intrigued me that I picked up this book at the Chicago Public Library. If you love musical theater you will not be disappointed reading it for Ted Chapin provides unique insights into the creation of a what is now, forty years later, a classic musical.                   
  Stephen Sondheim (music & lyrics), Harold Prince (director & producer), and James Goldman (book) were all in or entering the prime of their careers and Michael Bennett who choreographed the show was soon to reach the peak of his too short career. All the elements of the creation are told with fascinating detail that could not be provided by any one else, for as a production assistant (gofer) Ted Chapin had access to all and a chance to participate and listen to many illuminating conversations. From the days preparing the scenes in the very location where the scenery was being built to the tryouts in Boston and back to Broadway for the opening the Chapin shares the odyssey in which he had a close if somewhat small hand. The results of the work of the creators and cast are the stuff of musical theater history, but seeing the musical performed forty years later here in Chicago confirmed for me that this is a classic of the American theater. Ted Chapin's book is a great way to share in the birth of that classic.  
  "Lord knows at least I was there," goes a Sondheim lyric from Follies.  In Everything was Possible, we all are there -- at the birth of a musical that shimmers to this day.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

History of a Foundling

Tom Jones (Oxford World's Classics)
Tom Jones 

"the excellence of the mental entertainment consists less in the subject than in the author's skill in well dressing it up." - Henry Fielding, Tom Jones, Book 1, Chapter 1

Having read Sterne's Tristram Shandy and Homer's Odyssey to name two thematically related however chronologically different literary creations I should have been ready for Fielding's foundling. However, it is taking a while to warm up to Fielding's style of storytelling. What we have is an omnipresent author/narrator whose story includes many fascinating characters, one of whom is that author/narrator himself. The reader is treated to a series of nineteen books each containing several chapters the first of which in each case is an essay by the author about the story itself or just about most anything the author feels is relevant or necessary for the reader's edification.
But I digress, under the influence of Fielding, from the story itself which is billed as a history of Tom Jones who, as the name suggests, is a sort of every-man, a more common version of Odysseus or Don Quixote for the eighteenth century. The history is a fiction and as such is populated by fictional characters. The characters surrounding him, from his teachers, Thwackum and Square, to the Squires, Allworthy and Western, are clearly drawn with wit and wisdom; lest I forget the women, for Tom has a strong and healthy interest in them whether they are low like Molly or high like Sophia Western -- women will undoubtedly continue to perplex Tom and enliven the plot. The result through the first half of the history is a delight -- more to follow.

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Friday, October 21, 2011

Eternal Return

The Unbearable Lightness of Being
The Unbearable Lightness of Being 

“Anyone whose goal is 'something higher' must expect someday to suffer vertigo. What is vertigo? Fear of falling? No, Vertigo is something other than fear of falling. It is the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves.”  ― Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

How often do you find a novel starting with a discussion of Nietzsche's idea of eternal return? This is how Milan Kundera's novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, begins, and it becomes more complex and interesting as the novel continues into a tale of loves and lovers set against the background of Communist Czechoslovakia in the days before the fall of the iron curtain. Particularly important is the contrast of lightness and heaviness of this life as we ponder the nature of fortuity and fate in the lives of the characters.
As always with Kundera there are many levels of meaning present on almost every page. As an example consider the idea of "eternal return" -- The notion that the universe has been repeating itself over and over, infinitely, and that time is cyclical. Since the universe (or the matter contained in it) is finite, but time is infinite, the number of permutations into which matter can be converted over time has to be finite and its forms will eventually repeat themselves. Eternal recurrence was discussed in ancient India and Egypt, and also by the Pythagorean and Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece. Nietzsche, who was a brilliant classical scholar, revived the theory as a method of affirming life in the wake of the “death of God.” Also as in other fiction and essays by Kundera music and literature play an important role in the development of the novel's themes including references to Beethoven's last quartets, the nature of fate as informed by Oedipus, and a pet dog named Karenin. It all comes together in the countryside as we see Tomas, the Doctor, give up his profession for love or for his principles, or for both. Challenging the reader, this author has created an enigmatic book that is a delight for the reader who cherishes the world of ideas and their meaning for man.

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Dazzling Collage

The Death of Picasso: New and Selected Writing
The Death of Picasso: New 
and Selected Writing 

"Parmenides is wrong: the nothing he will not allow to be is time itself.  Time is the empty house that being inhabits.  It may well be the ghost of something in the beginning, before light became matter.  But it went away, so that something could be." ("The Death of Picasso")

  Guy Davenport is a treasure for readers who are interested in words and ideas and combinations of thoughts that have never appeared before nor will again. His writing almost defies description as do most of his pieces in this collection whether they are essays or stories or aphorisms.
  The collection opens with "The Owl of Minerva" a playful set of variations on Hegel’s lament that the owl of Minerva-wisdom-flies only at dusk, when events have begun to fade. It can’t describe how the world ought to be. This story is followed by "The Playing Field" in which the same characters who appear in the first story, Magnus and Mikkel, figure as a variation on the theory about love that Plato puts into Aristophanes’s mouth in “The Symposium.” Set in bright, chilly Denmark, they move backward and forward in time around a central parable-like story about an orphan named Mikkel and the wise teacher who took him in, loved him, and gave him a last name.
  The brief essay titled “And” attempts to read a first-century papyrus bearing the words of Jesus as he stands by a river, only to give up. The paper is so faded that “It’s as if we are too far back to hear well.” Davenport comes to rest on the papyrus’s last image, Jesus throwing a handful of seeds into the river:
“Trees, first as sprouts, then as seedlings, then as trees fully grown, grew in the river as quickly as one heartbeat follows another. And as soon as they were there they began to move downstream with the current, and were suddenly hung with fruit, quinces, figs, apples, and pears.
That is all that’s on the fragment.
We follow awhile in our imagination: the people running to keep up with the trees, as in a dream. Did the trees sink into the river? Did they flow out of sight, around a bend?”
  Throughout the collection stories present connections of ideas that oh so subtly encourage me to reread the stories in search of new ones. For example, the second story has a reference to Leonardo da Vinci's bicycle.  Much later in the collection there is a long short story "The Bicycle Rider" which echoes this reference. The Greeks are seemingly omnipresent from Parmenides on, but perhaps that is part of the illusion created by this dazzling collage of writings.  The result of all the pieces included is a book that requires close reading, sometimes from an uncommon angle of perception, to experience the exceptional conceptions of Davenport's genius.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Pursuit of Human Excellence

Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950
Human Accomplishment: 
The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts 
and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950 

"To be in the presence of greatness is exciting, even when we are not capable of appreciating all the nuances of the achievement.  The best has a magic about it . . ."

Charles Murray surveys a very large topic and provides both direction and structure for it. The immensity of his work is difficult to appreciate for he ranks the leading 4,000 innovators in several fields of human accomplishment from 800 BC to 1950. The categories of human accomplishment where significant figures are ranked in the book are as follows: Astronomy, Biology, Chemistry, Earth Sciences, Physics, Mathematics, Medicine, Technology, Combined Sciences, Chinese Philosophy, Indian Philosophy, Western Philosophy, Western Music, Chinese Painting, Japanese Art, Western Art, Arabic Literature, Chinese Literature, Indian Literature, Japanese Literature, and Western Literature.
In reviewing the accomplishments in these categories he argued, based on Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics, that innovation is increased by beliefs that life has a purpose and that the function of life is to fulfill that purpose; by beliefs about transcendental goods and a sense of goodness, truth and beauty; and by beliefs that individuals can act efficaciously as individuals, and a culture that enables them to do so. I found that he answered my questions as they arose during my reading and he dealt effectively with issues like the prominence of the West, the predominance of men, and others. The most satisfying sections for me were his discussion of the importance of Aristotle and his summation. The result of Murray's efforts is a worthy assay of human excellence throughout history.

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Sunday, October 16, 2011

A City in the Distant Future

The City and the Stars
The City and the Stars 

"Like a glowing jewel, the city lay upon the breast of the desert.  Once it had known change and alteration, but now Time passed it by.  Night and day fled across the desert's face, but in the streets of Diaspar it was always afternoon . . ."

This is a classic science fiction novel from one of the masters. Arthur C. Clarke has written more popular sf novels (see 2001: A Space Odyssey), but many including myself consider this novel from 1953 his best. There is a clarity of style and a sense of wonder about how and why the Earth has begun to decline in spite of the beauty and brilliance of the City where people live their lives.  Perhaps it is the simplicity and fairy-tale like setting that makes it one of my favorites, since I read fairy tales at an early age before I discovered science fiction. 
 The story tells of Diaspar, the last city on Earth and one which has endured for a thousand million years. The citizens, while earthlings, are in many ways alien when compared to contemporary humans. The culture is stultifying and the urge to explore and discover new worlds or even to leave Diaspar has disappeared long ago. The legends tell of terrible invaders from beyond who destroyed the galactic empire once ruled by Earth and banished humans to this city. However, into this world, where humans are made and not born, a new man, Alvin, is born. He is the hero of the story and with his "newness" comes an inner urge to leave the city and explore. How he deals with this urge, his journey and the results of his decisions make this sf story a bold, exciting and interesting read.  Like other sf novels that I have enjoyed the story ends on a hopeful note:
"Elsewhere the stars were still young and the light of morning lingered;  and along the path he once had followed, Man would one day go again." 

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Thursday, October 13, 2011

What If?

SF and Horror

"It did no good to wonder about it.  Nothing at all did any good --- except to live as they must live.  Must always, always live, if Anthony would let them."
- Jerome Bixby, "It's a Good Life"

I am three-quarters of the way through the anthology The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume One and I have been surprised that there are several stories which straddle the boundary of horror and science fiction.  The presence of one in particular, "It's a Good Life" by Jerome Bixby, is surprising because I have read the story before in an anthology of horror stories.  I also have viewed both the television version (adapted by Rod Serling for The Twilight Zone and included by Time Magazine in its top ten episodes of that show) and the film version (adapted by Richard Matheson and directed by Joe Dante for Twilight Zone: The Movie).  Now I find that it is among the best Science Fiction stories as selected by the Science Fiction Writers of America.  

This is just one example of the intersection between science fiction and horror as literary genres.  Peter Nicholls, writing in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, claims that:
"Much sf is anti-science, for reasons historic and perhaps partly intrinsic."
He continues on commenting that "when rationality is in abeyance, terrible things happen."  That is, there is an inborn link between science and monstrosities.  This can be found as early as the era of "Gothic" stories such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein Monster, E. T. A. Hoffmann's Dr. Coppelius, Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and others.  

In Silverberg's anthology, in addition to the Bixby story, there are stories by Richard Matheson ("Born of Man and Woman"), Fritz Lieber ("Coming Attraction"), and Judith Merril ("That Only a Mother").  Each of these is horrifying in it's own way.  I found the Matheson story the most horrific, in part because it is told from the point of view of the "monster".  Both the Merril and Lieber stories reference atomic radiation and the fears of that generation seem to permeate these and other stories of the era.  All of these stories are very good if not great short stories no matter what the genre, but they also demonstrate the breadth of imagination found in Science Fiction. 

Monday, October 10, 2011

Poem for Today

Sonnet 84


Who is it that says most? which can say more
Than this rich praise, that you alone are you?
In whose confine immured is the store
Which should example where your equal grew.
Lean penury within that pen doth dwell
That to his subject lends not some small glory;
But he that writes of you, if he can tell
That you are you, so dignifies his story,
Let him but copy what in you is writ,
Not making worse what nature made so clear,
And such a counterpart shall fame his wit,
Making his style admired every where.
You to your beauteous blessings add a curse,
Being fond on praise, which makes your praises worse.

-  William Shakespeare

Monday, October 03, 2011

Intellectually Intense Drama

by John Logan

"Silence is so accurate."

"These pictures deserve compassion."

Rothko:  "Now tell me, what do you see?  
Ken:  "Red."

Yesterday I attended a production of John Logan's Tony Award-winning play Red at the Goodman Theatre.  Directed by Robert Falls and starring Edward Gero as Mark Rothko and Patrick Andrews as Ken, his apprentice/assistant.  This was a brilliant and scintillating intellectual tour de force for the actors as Logan drew upon a famous moment in the life of  Mark Rothko to explore the nature of the artist and creativity.  Alongside this exploration was the juxtaposition of the relationship between Rothko as mentor and Ken as apprentice.  Their relationship metamorphosized over the scenes representing the passage of two years in their lives.  From a nervous somewhat intimidated young man in the first scene Ken reaches a point when he demonstrates that he has learned from the master in the climactic scenes.  The sorcery demonstrated by Rothko consisted of a foundation of intellect with a patina of bravura bullying whose shell is finally pierced by both his apprentice and his own penchant for meditating upon the meaning of art and his life in art.  The dialog was intense with moments of relief when Rothko meditated on his art, but even in these moments the intensity built as the  short (100 minute) play built inexorably to its climax.  The climax was all the more powerful because it combined the impact of several levels of the story -- the artist and his art - his life in art, the artist and his patrons, and the artist and his apprentice.  Brilliantly acted, with engaging music -- staging that highlighted the art and culminated with a breathtaking use of lighting to end the play.  I cannot remember the last time I was moved both intellectually and emotionally by a drama as much as I was by Goodman's production of RED.

Quote of the Day

"Americans, whose language when talking business is clear and dry, without the slightest ornament, and of such extreme simplicity as often to be vulgar, easily turn bombastic when they attempt a poetic style." - Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America 488 [1840] (J.P. Mayer ed. & George Lawrence trans., 1966)

Sunday, October 02, 2011

La Comédie humaine

Père Goriot
Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac

“A letter is a soul, so faithful an echo of the speaking voice that to the sensitive it is among the richest treasures of love.” ― Honoré de Balzac, Père Goriot

Another wonderful translation by Burton Raffel, this is a faithful and readable edition of one of Balzac's most popular novels. It is one of the finest and most characteristic examples of Balzac's longer fictions. It was in the course of writing this novel that he hit upon the idea of reuse of characters invented in earlier stories; he is said to have rushed round to his sister, Laure Surville, to tell her that he was ‘in the process of becoming a genius’.
Eugène de Rastignac, the young man whose adventures and feelings are at the centre of Le Père Goriot, is an episodic character of La Peau de chagrin (1830), and most of the society figures whom he meets in this novel had appeared in earlier stories of Parisian life. After Le Père Goriot, Balzac systematically reused its characters in dozens of other stories and novels, notably in Illusions perdues, where the arch-criminal Vautrin crops up under another disguise. Although history is not central to Le Père Goriot, the post-Napoleonic era serves as an important setting, as is Balzac's use of meticulous detail while he presents a balanced view of human nature. Although the novel is sometimes referred to as "a mystery it is not an example of whodunit or detective fiction. Instead, the central puzzles feature the origins of suffering and the motivations of unusual behavior. Characters appear in fragments, with brief scenes providing small clues about their identity. Vautrin, for example, slips in and out of the story – offering advice to Rastignac, ridiculing Goriot, bribing the housekeeper Christophe to let him in after hours – before he is revealed as a master criminal. Le Père Goriot can also be seen as a bildungsroman, wherein a naive young person matures while learning the ways of the world. Rastignac is tutored by Vautrin, Madame de Beauséant, Goriot, and others about the truth of Parisian society and the coldly dispassionate and brutally realistic strategies required for social success. As an everyman, he is initially repulsed by the gruesome realities beneath society's gilded surfaces; eventually, however, he embraces them. Setting aside his original goal of mastering the law, he pursues money and women as instruments for social climbing. In some ways this mirrors Balzac's own social education, reflecting the distaste he acquired for the law after studying it for three years.
While it is a relatively short novel it seems longer, perhaps due to the fragmentary style. It has been translated many times and I found the translation by Burton Raffel (who also translated Rabelais and others) a beautiful one to read. This is a good novel in which to enter the world of Balzac's "Human Comedy".

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