Sunday, September 30, 2012

Thoughts for Life

Examined Life

The Examined Life: Philosophical Meditations

 by Robert Nozick

"The activities of a life are infused by examination, not just affected by it, and their character is different when permeated by the results of concentrated reflection." - Robert Nozick, The Examined Life, p 14.

Of all of Robert Nozick's books that I have read this is the one to which I return most frequently. He displays a depth of thought, references to other thinkers, and a prose style which I find inviting. That is I am spurred to think about how and why I agree or disagree with the author, but more importantly find the process of reading him a catalyst for my own thinking. 
 Happiness is just one of the subjects essayed in this book but it is a good example as when you encounter Nozick saying:
"And although it might be best of all to be Socrates satisfied, having both happiness and depth, we would give up some happiness in order to gain the depth."(p 102) And I would add parenthetically, of an examined life. The breadth of the book is astounding, from death to love to meaning and value in life, and more. The discussion of "great spiritual teachers" in the essay "Giving Everything Its Due"(p 253-266) is a good example of thinking beyond the typical teacher as example by contrasting the value of leading a comparatively more "balanced life" as compared to the singularity of the great teachers. I continue to find further stimulus to thought, just as in other great books, when I return to this collection of imaginative and analytical essays that both explore and examine of what it means to aspire to live a humane life.  

He discusses the view of Socrates that the examined life is not worth living in the introduction and concludes:

"I do not say with Socrates that the unexamined life is not worth living--that is unnecessarily harsh.  However, when we guide our lives by our own pondered thoughts, it is then our life that we are living, not someone else's.  In this sense, the unexamined life is not lived as fully."(p 15)

The Examined Life by Robert Nozick.  Simon and Schuster, 1989.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Femme Fatale


Nana by Émile Zola

“If you ask me what I came to do in this world, I, an artist, will answer you: I am here to live out loud.”  ― Émile Zola

Emile Zola died on the night of September 28-29, 1902. His Nana gave literature a famous femme fatale (and gave Zola international censure). It tells the story of a music hall actress-prostitute who prospers by learning to be as rapacious as the rest of society. The men line up to throw their fortunes or their lives at her feet; she accepts all manner of payment, and gives little in return:
“Me marry you! Lovely! If such an idea had been tormenting me, I should have found a husband long ago! And he’d have been a man worth twenty of you my pippin! I’ve had heaps of proposals…. It’s a chorus they all sing. I can’t be nice but they forthwith begin yelling, ‘Will you marry me? Will you marry me?’… D’you think I’m built that way? Just look at me a bit! Why I shouldn’t be Nana any longer if I fastened a man on behind! And, besides, it’s too foul.”
In Nana we have a fictional character who was inspired by a real life, an operetta singer, who becomes the heroine of a steamy romance and along with other demimondaines as the Second Empire is about to expire. I enjoyed the realistic presentation of the light opera scenes with Zola's detail description of the performance of La blonde Vénus, a fictional operetta modeled after Offenbach's La belle Hélène, in which Nana is cast as the lead. Nana unfortunately leads a life not atypical for paramours (see La Traviata) and yet, the realistic portrayal of Parisian society raises this novel above the typical story. In this installment of the series known as "Les Rougon-Macquart" Zola again achieves artistic brilliance with his naturalistic portrayal of real life.  I read this book as part of a "Literary Cityscapes" class at the University of Chicago.  The focus of the class was on novels in which Paris was an important factor, becoming a character as in Nana.  

At the right,  Édouard Manet's 1882 well-known painting "A Bar at the 
Folies-Bergère" depicts a bar-girl, one of the demimondaines, standing before a mirror.

Nana by Emile Zola.  Penguin Classics, 1973 (1880)

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Commonplace Entry

from Repetition by Peter Handke

"That day I stayed on the plateau until the after-image of the sun left my retina.  An axle seemed to be turning inside me, more and more slowly, bringing the things behind me into my field of vision.  Beyond the northern mountains I saw a fiery cloud, which I situated exactly over the house of my parents.  Heart, diamond, pade, and club shapes had been cut out of the west wall of the barn to let air in, and my father's centuries-old desolation came blowing out of the black holes."

- "The Savanna of Freedom and the Ninth Country", p 165

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Two Russians

Shostakovich and Rothko

Today is notable, among other things, in that it is both the birthday of Dmitri Shostakovich who was born in St Petersburg in 1906, and the birthday of Mark Rothko who was born in Dvinsk, Russia three years earlier to Jacob and Anna Goldin Rothkowitz.  Dmitri would become one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century as he lived long enough to see the end of the Stalin era.  He suffered during that period and this shows in his music, especially the string quartets which rival Beethoven's in their personal intensity.   Mark Rothko's family emigrated to the United States before the great War, settling in Portland Oregon where Mark would begin a life in America that would lead him to a position as one of the leaders of the Abstract Expressionist movement in Art (although he rejected that label).

Shostakovich has always been one of my favorite composers, beginning with my discovery of his symphonies when I was in college, especially my favorites, the Fifth and the Ninth.  I still remember studying the score for the Fifth Symphony on Saturday mornings at the listening room of the local library in Madison, Wisconsin where I was a student at the University.  My love for his music has only expanded over the years with the most recent highlight being attendance at a performance of his comic opera, MOSCOW, CHERYOMUSHKI, at the Chicago Opera Theater earlier this year.

I also recently expanded my appreciation for the work of Mark Rothko when I saw a performance of John Logan's Tony Award-winning drama, Red, about artist Mark Rothko and an assistant at the Goodman Theater last year.  The image on the right is "Four Darks in Red" (1958).

William Faulkner

On September 25, 1897, William Cuthbert Faulkner was born in New Albany, Mississippi. His family had accumulated a great deal of wealth before the American Civil War. However, his family like many Southern families had lost all of its financial power during the conflict. His parents would move to Oxford, Mississippi. Faulkner would use Oxford as the basis for the fictional town of Jefferson in Yoknapatawpha County.
While he wrote both poetry and many stories Faulkner is best known for his novels.  His first novel, Mosquitoes, was published in 1927.  Here are three of my favorites of the many novels of William Faulkner I have read:

The Sound and the Fury

The Sound and the Fury

“...I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire...I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all of your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.”  ― William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury

The Sound and the Fury, which describes the bitter, incestuous dealings of a Mississippi family fallen on hard times, is one of William Faulkner's best novels. It is also one of his that is more difficult to read, at least for me.   I found it took several readings over many years to finally follow the different narrative voices.  However, though it is a stylistic tour de force, it was a profoundly rewarding read. The book, essentially the story of Caddy Compson, unfolds in four sections, centered in turn on each of the three Compson brothers — Benjy, a mentally disabled man; Quentin, a depressed, neurotic Harvard student; and Jason, an avaricious jerk — as well as on a black servant named Dilsey. All the brothers are obsessed with the dishonored Caddy, the slutty Compson sister, and with the family honor. The latter is a theme that recurs in Faulkner's work and seems part of the world that he created and placed in his fictional Yoknapatawpha County. Using a "stream-of-consciousness" style the story flows from these characters. 
The scope of the book is so broad that, like a Shakespearean play, it can sustain any number of specialized interpretations.  One may consider the idea of time:
 “Clocks slay time... time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.”(The Sound and the Fury
While I like the idea expressed by Sartre that it is a metaphysical novel concerned with time, there is a lot more to it than just that.  Most interpretations touch upon the notion that the novel dramatizes a deterioration from the past to the present.  The impact of the past on the present is another theme that is recurrent in the novels of Faulkner.  The complexity and multiplicity of themes and potential interpretations is part of what made this one of the novels I have read and reread over the years. It is a powerful and amazing novel--one that I will never forget.

As I Lay Dying

As I Lay Dying

"I know her. Wagon or no wagon, she wouldn't wait. Then she'd be upset, and I wouldn't upset her for the living world. With that family burying-ground in Jefferson and them of her blood waiting for her there, she'll be impatient. I promised my word me and the boys would get her there quick as mules could walk it, so she could rest quiet."  - William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying gives the account of one family's mission to bury their mother in a distant city.  Written shortly after the somber The Sound and the Fury, this short novel  presents human existence as an absurd joke.  Addie Bundren claims her final resting place should be near her relatives in Jefferson, Mississippi as opposed to at home. Told from the perspectives of 15 characters--including Bundren family members and local residents, the constant change in point of view can make for an uneasy read. Much of the action and relationships must be inferred from this "stream of consciousness". Faulkner uses this technique to his advantage; the reader gets inside the mind of each character. For instance, Vardaman (the youngest Bundren child), rambles near-nonsense after his mother dies; but we see a shift as he calms throughout the journey.  Thus this story present death as its subject with the central image of the human corpse.  The furious passions and furious activity that result contribute to the intensity of this novel.  Building on an accumulation of incongruities this becomes one of Faulkner's greatest works, a small novel that is very powerful.

The Snopes Trilogy

The Hamlet is the first of the "Snopes" trilogy, completed by Faulkner in 1940 and followed by The Town (1957), and The Mansion (1959).
The Hamlet follows the exploits of the Snopes family, beginning with Ab Snopes, who is introduced more fully in Faulkner's The Unvanquished. Most of the book centers around Frenchman's Bend, into which the heirs of Ab and his family have migrated from parts unknown. In the beginning of the book Ab, his wife, daughter, and son Flem settle down as tenant farmers beholden to the powerful Varner family.  These novels portray a saga that stands as perhaps the greatest feat of Faulkner's imagination. The Hamlet, the first book of the series chronicling the advent and rise of the grasping Snopes family in mythical Yoknapatawpha County, is a work that Cleanth Brooks called "one of the richest novels in the Faulkner canon." It recounts how the wily, cunning Flem Snopes dominates the rural community of Frenchman's Bend - and claims the voluptuous Eula Varner as his bride. The Town, the second novel, records Flem's ruthless struggle to take over the county seat of Jefferson, Mississippi. Finally, The Mansion tells of Mink Snopes, whose archaic sense of honor brings about the downfall of his cousin Flem. "For all his concerns with the South, Faulkner was actually seeking out the nature of man," noted Ralph Ellison. "Thus we must turn to him for that continuity of moral purpose which made for the greatness of our classics."

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Lincoln Park

Running and Reading

This Summer has been one of the dryest in my memory.  But running along the path in Lincoln Park early this morning once again I encountered puddles of water left standing; remains of the rain on Friday that belie the dryness of the path and park.  
The ground is apparently made of earth that is slow to absorb the rain water, for this is a common occurrence in the aftermath of even fairly light rain showers.  
Once again I had company during my run, as it starts as the sun is just below the horizon, for the morning star, Venus, was bright in the southeastern sky as it has been for several months.  Both Venus and Jupiter rise well before the sun in the morning sky all through September. People around the world have been watching these worlds and marveling at their brightness in the morning sky ever since late June and early July 2012.  Venus reached greatest brilliancy around mid-July 2012, but it is still very bright – always the brightest object in Earth’s sky besides the sun and moon. And Jupiter will be brightening – and rising earlier each night – throughout September. Before long, Jupiter will have shifted over into the evening sky.  By early December, when Earth will pass between Jupiter and the sun, this bold planet will shine in our sky all night long.  I will have to try some evening runs, but I may be able to see Mars and Saturn also, although it is difficult with the city lights. Earlier this summer Mars was visible in the morning--a real treat.
There are a few things I enjoy more than my time in the park on Sunday mornings, the best of which is reading.  So I will close with a quote from Proust, for whom reading was also one of his greatest pleasures.
"There are no days of my childhood which I lived so fully perhaps as those I thought I had left behind without living them, those I spent with a favorite book. . . so sweet is the memory it engraved in me (and so much more precious in my present estimation than what I then read so lovingly) that if still, today, I chance to leaf through these books from the past, it is simply as the only calendars I have preserved of those bygone days, and in the hope of finding reflected in their pages the houses and the ponds which no longer exist." (p 49, Days of Reading)

Days of Reading by Marcel Proust.  Penguin Books, 2008

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Strange Island

The Invention of Morel

The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares

"The island vegetation is abundant.  Spring, summer, autumn, and winter plants, grasses, and flowers overtake each other with urgency, with more urgency to be born than to die, each one invading the time and the place of the others in a tangled mass."(p 13) 

The Invention of Morel is a science fiction novel by Adolfo Bioy Casares. It was Bioy Casares' breakthrough effort, for which he won the 1941 First Municipal Prize for Literature of the City of Buenos Aires. It shares some elements with The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells. This is a tale of a man stranded on an island, one which appears to be inhabited by ghosts. Now I do not believe in ghosts, but when you are stranded on an island the spirits may be a bit closer than they are in the big city. And so it begins. "Today, on this island, a miracle happened: summer came ahead of time."(p 9) Now that may not sound like much of a miracle, but it is enough of one to give this short novel an aura of surprise and suspense. The fugitive who narrates the story is concerned with many things including the views of Thomas Malthus; a sort of population control is just one of the themes that inhabit this small book. Then there is Faustine and it is she who inspires a love that is more real than the island or the body of the tourists who disappear. It is these tourists who like to dance to "Tea for Two" from the Broadway musical "No, No, Nanette, foreshadowing this love that the fugitive bears for Faustine. Strangeness abounds throughout as suggested by the opening miracle, but this is fiction. It is here that dreams of immortality of the spirit inspire in ways that are not possible outside the world of fiction. The fugitive seeks control of his world, a way to deal with others including, possibly, Morel. It is Morel who reminds me of Well's Doctor Moreau.  
The impact of Casares concise and precise writing style is evident throughout the book.  Slowly you begin to realize that each sentence is important to the construction of the whole, references some theme and is essential to the understanding of the Island, the story, and the characters who inhabit this world.
Jorge Luis Borges wrote in the prologue, "To classify it [the novel] as perfect is neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole." Mexican Nobel Prize winner in Literature Octavio Paz echoed Borges when he said, "The Invention of Morel may be described, without exaggeration, as a perfect novel."

The Invention of Morel by Adolpho Bioy Casares. Trans. by Ruth L. C. Simms. NYRB Classics, 2003 (1964)

Literary Journal Extraordinaire

Paris Was Yesterday, 1925-1939Paris Was Yesterday, 1925-1939 

by Janet Flanner

Reading Janet Flanner's unique journal is addictive. The material in Paris Was Yesterday includes selections from Janet Flanner's fortnightly "Letter from Paris" in The New Yorker, which she started transmitting in 1925, signed . . . with her nom de correspondance, Genet. This is a book you must read if you have any interest in art, literature, music, French culture, European history of the late nineteen-twenties and thirties. Here is an excerpt from her notes on one of the greatest musicians of the century:
"With the death of Maurice Ravel, France has lost its greatest petit maitre of modern music. He was still a prodigy pupil at the Conservatoire when he composed two of the three works for which he was most famous--the "Pavane pour une Infante Defunte" and "Jeaux d'Euax," regarded as the most perfectly pianistic piece since Liszt. The hypnotic Iberian quality of "Bolero" is partially explained by his having been born at Ciboure, near the Spanish border."(p 181)

Reading the brief items I was continually impressed with the literary and philosophical references embedded in her prose.  For example her note on Jean Cocteau's Les Enfants Terribles:
"Cocteau has always been a writer in the tradition of the great medieval mountebanks who worked with the charlatans of the Pont Neuf: as tightrope  walker he gathers his crowd, and as soothsayer-dentist he pulls teeth and illusions, he dazzles and delights, and sells moon-powder guaranteed to cure any human ill--and truly cheap at the price."(p 60)

Paris Was Yesterday by Janet Flanner.  Irving Drutman, editor. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988 (1940)

Thursday, September 20, 2012

An American at Sea in Viet Nam

A Dangerous Friend

A Dangerous Friend by Ward Just

"I believe that history never repeats itself in any way that we can observe. Certainly the comparison between Vietnam and Kosovo seems to me nonsensical . . . There's not anything like the kind of commitment and dedication -- wrongheaded as it may have turned out to be, but it was real commitment and real dedication among the soldiers and civilians in Vietnam -- to defeat the Reds. . . . I don't see anything like that level of commitment here." -- Ward Just, in an interview, (April 27, 1999)

Though Ward Just has distinguished himself as a journalist, he has also produced an impressive body of fiction. As a novelist, he has been compared favorably with Ernest Hemingway. Much of his work centers around war—portrayed by the keen eye of a newsman—as is often true of Hemingway; however, his characters and their settings would be out of place in most Hemingway-like fiction due to their affluence and jaded sophistication. The primary criticism of Just's work is that his action is slow and plodding. Although his characters are articulate and witty, they often do just sit and talk, especially in his novel of Washington during Vietnam, In the City of Fear.
Just's unnamed narrator (a device reminiscent of Conrad) insists that in describing Sydney Parade's experiences he is not telling a war story, and indeed  A Dangerous Friend  contains little violence. Menace is conveyed through glimpses of Vietcong guerrillas moving at night on black bicycles, of an American officer alone in a Vietnamese village, of blood on the sleeve of a suit. Battle scenes are described obliquely through rumors and field reports discussed around conference tables, their effects hinted at on slips of paper passed anonymously in exclusive Saigon restaurants. Just has a veteran war reporter's eye for the telling detail -- light from phosphorus flares ''so fierce you could see it with closed eyelids'' -- and a reporter's skepticism about his Government's stated objectives. his central character retraces the route his Western predecessors took, stopping in Paris on the way to Saigon, Just begins to establish a convincing allegorical dimension to the novel. We learned from the French, he seems to suggest -- and, then again, we didn't. To young political scientists like Sydney, the success of the Vietcong defies military and political logic: ''We had so much and they had so little; our 19-year-olds were supported by an arsenal beyond the imagination of the guerrillas facing them.''

In A Dangerous Friend, Just pictured America on the brink of full commitment to the Vietnam War in 1965. Through the eyes of a misguided civil servant, the book superficially depicts with a bit of hindsight the nation's descent down the slippery slope to folly. The plot eventually turns on the fate of a captured American captain who is also the nephew of a Congressman. The captain was last seen in the Xuan Loc sector near Plantation Louvet, which is managed by a Frenchman named Claude Armand and his American-born wife, Dede. The Armands are living a premodern idyll in an ''ambiance reminiscent of Winnetka, if Winnetka were tropical.'' They have little sympathy for the Americans and want desperately to remain neutral, but the Llewellyn Group has other plans. The ultimate result of this episode does not reflect well on the Americans.
As in his previous novels (the National Book Award finalist ''Echo House'' foremost among them), Just uses a somewhat complex network of imagery that leads the reader to see the tragedy of Vietnam in ways that throw into high relief the conflicted array of Vietnamese, French and American interests. The most graphic metaphors include a torture victim and the stillborn Vietnamese children of French and American parents. More subtle is the Panama hat that comes to represent not only the country's climate but the customs and dreams of the Vietnamese, as filtered through the lives of a Vietnamese woman and her American husband, a member of the Llewellyn Group who, in the view of his colleagues, ''had lived in Vietnam for too long and had lost perspective.'' Though his prose occasionally betrays a reporter's fact-laden unwieldiness and a weakness for cliches, he succeeds in evoking the dense, tactile weave of life in country circa 1965. But the author, in spite of the complexity of the novel, is always clear where his sympathy lies. Not only the episode of the downed flyer, but the whole structure of the novel is set up to support a view that is dependent on retrospective knowledge that no one, least of all the Americans involved, could have had at the time. This left me with the feeling that this novel, while well written, had a facile plot that weakened the book's message.

A Dangerous Friend by Ward Just. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Science Fiction Masterpieces

 25 Science Fiction Books That Are Masterpieces

This is a list of 25 science fiction books that will go down or already are considered masterpieces.*

Last night our Science Fiction book group met for the seventh time this year.  Founded as a way of continuing reading and discussions that started in a class at the Basic Program of Liberal Education at the University of Chicago last fall, we began with Freedom by Daniel Suarez (a sequel to his earlier Daemon which was the last book we read in the class) and made our way to American Gods by Neil Gaiman last night. Along the way we have read a variety of different types of Science Fiction including cyberpunk, soft and hard SF, and SF fantasy.  Here is a list of masterpieces of Science Fiction as offered by a contributor to SFF World in 2009.

"Throughout Science Fiction’s history there have been hundreds perhaps thousands of great novels. Lots of these books were ground breaking in their approach and subject matter thereby adding to their appeal for readers. Although I could easily have considered 50 or 100 books to be on this list I have decided to just focus on twenty five books that are definitely masterpieces of science fiction. Now I know I will be excluding some books from this list that deserve to be on it but I am only putting on paper what I consider to be twenty five that deserve it. In any list ever created there will always be some books/authors that get left off no matter how big the list is so please consider this before posting any comments. I also limited each author to only one book each for this list. The list is no particular order so number one does not mean overall best. Here are my twenty five masterpieces of science fiction:"

1. War of the Worlds, H. G. Wells
2. Brave New World,  Aldous Huxley
3. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne
4. The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov
5. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke
6. Dune, Frank Herbert
7. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
8. Stranger in a Strange, Land, Robert Heinlein
9. Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick
10. World of Null-A, A. E. Van Vogt
11. The Forever War, Joe Haldeman
12. Flowers For Algernon, Daniel Keyes
13. Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut
14. 1984, George Orwell
15. A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
16. Ringworld, Larry Niven
17. Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs
18. Neuromancer, William Gibson
19. Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card
20. Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. LeGuin
21. Hyperion, Dan Simmons
22. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy & Mostly Harmless, Douglas Adams
23. The Andromeda Strain, Michael Chrichton
24. Gateway, Frederick Pohl
25. A Fire Upon the Deep, Vernor Vinge

Here are my personal favorite books not listed above but all are probably considered or will be masterpieces too:

1. The Voyage of the Space Beagle, A. E. VanVogt
2. Childhood's End, Arthur C. Clarke
3. The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham
4. Solaris, Stanislaw Lem
5. The Dispossessed, Ursula K. LeGuin
6. A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter Miller
7. When Worlds Collide, Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer
8. To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip Jose Farmer
9. Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman
10. Out of the Silent Planet, C. S. Lewis

*Source: SFF World
Image source: Science Daily

South Seas Entertainment

The Beach of Falesá
The Beach of Falesá 

The trilogy titled Island Nights' Entertainments is comprised of three stories set in the South Seas. The longest of these is The Beach of Falesá. In it the author, Robert Louis Stevenson, describes a setting that is “paradise-on-the-surface-only,” a fact that comes out right in the opening paragraph of the novella:
"I saw that island first when it was neither night nor morning. The moon was to the west, setting, but still broad and bright. To the east, and right amidships of the dawn, which was all pink, the daystar sparkled like a diamond. The land breeze blew in our faces, and smelt strong of wild lime and vanilla: other things besides, but these were the most plain; and the chill of it set me sneezing. I should say I had been for years on a low island near the line, living for the most part solitary among natives. Here was fresh experience; even the tongue would be quite strange to me; and the look of these woods and mountains, and the rare smell of them, renewed my blood."
Most of Stevenson's novels have no women or merely cardboard cutout caricatures of such, but this novella is different. There is a gal named Uma who, though she can neither read nor write, can still tell the birds from the bees. Her adventures with a white trader make this short novel an entertaining read. Also notable is the charming and intimate realism, based on Stevenson's frequent travels in the South Pacific that, over time, had grown into a love that permeates this novella.

The Beach of Falesa by Robert Louis Stevenson. Heritage Press, 1956 (1892)

Monday, September 17, 2012

Unique Memoir

Biographia Literaria: Biographical Sketches of my Literary Life & Opinions
Biographia Literaria: 
Biographical Sketches of my Literary Life

"I never object to a certain degree of disputatiousness in a young man from the age of seventeen to that of four or five and twenty, provided I find him always arguing on one side of the question." -- Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, Chapter 1

Samuel Taylor Coleridge completed his Biographia Literaria on September 15th in 1815. A sort of intellectual autobiography, the Biographia contains reflections on wide range of philosophical and literary issues. The work is long and seemingly loosely structured, and although there are autobiographical elements, it is not a straightforward or linear autobiography. Instead, it is meditative, with numerous essays on philosophy. In particular, it discusses and engages the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling. Being fluent in German, Coleridge was one of the first major English literary figures to translate and discuss Schelling, in particular.The concluding paragraph is a speculation on the connection between reason and religious faith, the two a continuum “even as the day softens away into the sweet twilight, and twilight, hushed and breathless, steals into the darkness.” The final sentence contains the sort of ringing (though often obscure or wandering) prose that can be found throughout:
"The upraised eye views only the starry heaven which manifests itself alone: and the outward beholding is fixed on the sparks twinkling in the awful depth, though suns of other worlds, only to preserve the soul steady and collected in its pure act of inward adoration to the great I AM, and to the filial WORD that re-affirmeth it from eternity to eternity, whose choral echo is the universe."
I was reminded of the similarity of the quote above to one of Kant's most frequently quoted passages.  Here is a brief excerpt selected by Paul Guyer:

"In what may be his single most famous passage, the first sentence of which was even inscribed on his tombstone, Immanuel Kant concluded his Critique of Practical Reason (1788) thus: "Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not seek or conjecture either of them as if they were veiled obscurities or extravagances beyond the horizon of my vision; I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence. The first starts at the place that I occupy in the external world of the senses, and extends the connection in which I stand into the limitless magnitude of worlds upon worlds, systems upon systems, as well as into the boundless times of their periodic motion, their beginning and continuation. The second begins with my invisible self, my personality, and displays to me a world that has true infinity, but which can only be detected through the understanding, and with which . . . I know myself to be in not, as in the first case, merely contingent, but universal and necessary connection. The first perspective of a countless multitude of worlds as it were annihilates my importance as an animal creature, which must give the matter out of which it has grown back to the planet (a mere speck in the cosmos) after it has been (one knows not how) furnished with life-force for a short time."*

Biographia Literaria by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Princeton University Press, 1985 (1817).

*Guyer, Paul. "Introduction: The starry heavens and the moral law." The Cambridge Companion to Kant and Modern Philosophy. Ed. Paul Guyer. Cambridge University Press, 2006. Cambridge Collections Online. Cambridge University Press. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Sunday Poem

Here is a favorite from the pen of  Mathew Arnold.  He was a British poet and cultural critic who was the son of Thomas Arnold, the famed headmaster of Rugby School, and brother to both Tom Arnold, literary professor, and William Delafield Arnold, novelist and colonial administrator. 
Matthew Arnold has been characterized as a sage writer, a type of writer who chastises and instructs the reader on contemporary social issues.

“To have the sense of creative activity is the great happiness and the great proof of being alive.”  

― Matthew Arnold

Dover Beach

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch'd land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the AEgean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

by Matthew Arnold

Selected Poems by Matthew Arnold.  Penguin Classics, 1995.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Verse for a September Sunday

   Two selections that may seem more different than they are, though I leave it to the reader to decide for him or herself.  While on the the seasonal road toward ice we may avoid the worst of Dante's hell.  The Stars of Housman are for all to see and some to tell.

“THE BANNERS of Hell’s Monarch do come forth
Toward us; therefore look,” so spake my guide,
“If thou discern him.” As, when breathes a cloud
Heavy and dense, or when the shades of night
Fall on our hemisphere, seems view’d from far         
A windmill, which the blast stirs briskly round;
Such was the fabric then methought I saw.

Dante, Inferno, from Canto XXXIV


Stars,I have seen them fall, 
But when they drop and die 
No star is lost at all 
From all the star-sown sky. 
The toil of all that be 
Helps not the primal fault; 
It rains into the sea, 
And still the sea is salt.

A.E. Houseman, 1936

Three by Murdoch

The Black Prince
The Black Prince 

"I shall in telling it adopt the modern technique of narration, allowing the narrating consciousness to pass like a light along its series of present moments, aware of the past, unaware of what is to come." - Iris Murdoch, The Black Prince

"The ambiguously romantic Black Prince of the title, Bradley Pearson, is an aged bachelor, whose range of somewhat histrionic emotions involves the serene Rachel Baffin, her confused daughter Julian, Rachel's novelist husband Arnold, Bradley's rival in so many ways, Bradley's dysfunctional sister Priscilla, and Bradley's prying ex-wife Christian..."
Bradley Pearson, British writer, is suffering from a writer's block. He has waited all his life to write his masterpiece. Finally, he feels, the time has come when he can leave his small time job as a revenue officer, and go away from the city din to write. However, his fellow writer friend, Arnold Baffin, Arnold's wife Rachel, daughter Julian, Pearson's ex-wife Christian, ex-brother-in-law Francis and sister Priscilla all tug at his attentions in various ways to make Pearson's escape impossible. Each character has his own version of the series of incidents in the novel. Murdoch ingeniously builds the complications of these incidents or accidents into a delightfully painful and humorous story of erotic abandon. The mind remarkably colors the incidents of the novel to project a story that fits each character best. Julian comfortably forgets the intricate details of an embarrassing romance, Rachel feels that Bradley is madly in love with her while Arnold believes that Bradley is jealous of his success.
This is one of her very best, about mad love, and it justly won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. 


A Word Child
A Word Child 

“Starting a novel is opening a door on a misty landscape; you can still see very little but you can smell the earth and feel the wind blowing.”  ― Iris Murdoch

My favorite by by Ms. Murdoch, a great place to start, very darkly funny, also about mad love. The ‘word child’ of the title is Hilary Burde, our narrator. The book has an interesting structure, with each chapter headed by a day of the week. This sounds so simple, but the commentary and wordplay by Hilary is beguiling and rapidly becomes addictive. He has tried to establish order and routine in his life by having certain things that he always does on certain days of the week and the novel follows him as this routine is gradually upended.
Even those novelists most commonly deemed “philosophical” have sometimes answered with an emphatic no. Iris Murdoch, the longtime Oxford philosopher and author of some two dozen novels treating highbrow themes like consciousness and morality, argued that philosophy and literature were contrary pursuits. Philosophy calls on the analytical mind to solve conceptual problems in an “austere, unselfish, candid” prose, she said in a BBC interview broadcast in 1978, while literature looks to the imagination to show us something “mysterious, ambiguous, particular” about the world. Any appearance of philosophical ideas in her own novels was an inconsequential reflection of what she happened to know. “If I knew about sailing ships I would put in sailing ships,” she said. “And in a way, as a novelist, I would rather know about sailing ships than about philosophy.” 


The Sea, the Sea
The Sea, the Sea 

“Then I felt too that I might take this opportunity to tie up a few loose ends, only of course loose ends can never be properly tied, one is always producing new ones. Time, like the sea, unties all knots. Judgements on people are never final, they emerge from summings up which at once suggest the need of a reconsideration. Human arrangements are nothing but loose ends and hazy reckoning, whatever art may otherwise pretend in order to console us.”  ― Iris Murdoch, The Sea, the Sea

"The novel concerns a retired theater director who moves to the seashore in order to contemplate his life. He recalls how an adolescent love which he greatly idealized prohibited him from committing himself completely to any of the important women in his life. Coincidentally, he meets the woman again and tries to resume his love affair but she won't have him..." Some evocative prose from Iris Murdoch. As she explores the potent mixture of power, illusion, and self-delusion in retired actor, playwright, and theater director Charles Arrowby (based in part on Elias Canetti) , Murdoch narrates a series of startling events. Old love affairs revive and die again, friendships sour into attempted murder, hallucinations (or are they?) portend ominous happenings, and the drowning embrace of the sea waits restlessly in the background. An intricate portrait is drawn of a man bewitched and bewildered by his own powers of self-promotion and manipulation. Intermixed are fascinating characters including Mary Hartley Smith Fitch , Lizzie Scherer , Rosina Vamburgh , and Gilbert Opian. Murdoch is at her best with these characters and the cottage by the sea.

The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch. Viking Press.
A Word Child by Iris Murdoch. Viking Press.
The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch. Penguin Books.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Arcadian Rome

The Georgics of Virgil: Bilingual EditionThe Georgics of Virgil
translated by David Ferry

"Next I’ll speak about the celestial gift of honey from the air.
Maecenas, give this section too your regard.
I’ll tell you in proper sequence about the greatest spectacle
of the slightest things, and of brave generals,
and a whole nation’s customs and efforts, tribes and battles.
Labour, over little: but no little glory, if favourable powers
allow, and Apollo listens to my prayer."
-  Virgil, Georgics, Book IV

The Works and Days by the ancient Greek poet Hesiod was written around 700 BC. At its center, the Works and Days is a farmer's almanac in which Hesiod instructs his brother Perses in the agricultural arts. It also contains an outline of the mythology of the gods of ancient Greece. In the poem Hesiod also offers his brother extensive moralizing advice on how he should live his life. I mention this because The Works and Days was the poet Virgil's model for composing his own didactic poem in hexameters known as The Georgics. Like many of the Roman writers and artists, Virgil looked to the Greeks for a model. Works and Days shares with the Georgics the themes of man's relationship to the land and the importance of hard work.
The Georgics itself is a poem in four books, published in 29 BC. It is the second major work by the Latin poet Virgil, following his Eclogues and preceding the Aeneid. As its name suggests (Georgica, from the Greek word γεωργεῖν, geōrgein, "to farm") the subject of the poem is agriculture; but far from being an example of peaceful rural poetry, it is a more complex work in both theme and purpose.
The work consists of 2,188 hexametric verses divided into four books. Each of the books covers different aspects of the agrarian culture. Book One begins with a summary of the whole poem and typical obeisance to the gods and Augustus himself. In addition to Virgil's intention to honor Caesar he also honors his patron Maecenas. In the middle books he shares his lofty poetic aspirations and the difficulty of the material to follow.
Mirroring Hesiod Virgil describes the succession of ages of man emphasizing the tension between the golden age of Jupiter and the age of man. The focus on the importance of Augustus is fascinating as it adds a political aspect to what is primarily an arcadian poem. Throughout the poem the theme of man versus nature is present as is the relation of man to animals. I found the discussion of Bees and the similarities with human society in the fourth Book one of the most fascinating sections of this marvelous poem.
Always of interest to me are philosophical influences, and there were two predominant philosophical schools in Rome during Virgil's lifetime: Stoicism and the Epicureanism. Of these two, the Epicurean strain is predominant not only in the Georgics but also in Virgil's social and intellectual milieu. Both his friend,the poet Horace, and his patron Maecenas were Epicureans. The Georgics was also influenced by Lucretius' Epicurean epic De Rerum Natura, one of my favorite Roman texts. The combination of philosophy, arcadian poetry, mythology, and politics makes this work a beautiful compendium of Roman culture.

The Georgics of Virgil trans. by David Ferry. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Top Ten Books for Fall Reading

Yesterday (please pardon my lateness) the bloggers at The Broke and the Bookish invited us to list  our

Top Ten Books On Your Fall TBR List 

I figured a late post today would be better than none, so I hurriedly (but not without due consideration) made a list that should be accurate for a week or two.  Preparing the list, if not providing sufficient motivation, at least provides a fall back position if I cannot decide among the other books on my TBR pile.  Without further ado, the following are the ten top books I am hoping to read this fall:

Continuing my reading of certain Classic works I will be reading The Enneads by Plotinus:  This is for a discussion course ot the University of Chicago so I will have encouragement in my traversal of this neoplatonic masterpiece.

Dark Star by Alan Furst:  I have begun to read the novels of Alan Furst.  His intelligent historical thrillers are fiction that I can savor and still obtain some historical and intellectual enjoyment.

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris:  The first volume of Morris's magisterial biography of the man who was President during the first decade of the twentieth century.  His policies and character resonate to this day in our political culture. *

The Creator's Map by Emilio Calderon:  I read Traveler of the Century by Andres Neumann last month and will continue exploring Spanish authors with this historical thriller.  The presence of a rare text in a forgotten library and a beautiful bibliophile as one of the primary characters should add to my reading pleasure. 

The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal.  A family memoir that evokes Proust, Rilke, Japanese art, the rue de Monceau, and Vienna during the Second World War should be an interesting read.  I started this one last spring and now that it is on the fall list for our Lincoln Park book group I will return to it!*

A Dangerous Friend by Ward Just:  A novel set in Saigon of 1965 that some have compared to  Greene's Quiet American.  If it is even partly as good as that masterpiece I'll be satisfied with this historical tale.*

The Ambassadors by Henry James:  This classic late period novel from the master of the pre-Proustian psychological novel is on my list for the fall.  I will be a reread of a book of which I remember little from my college days.

Towing Jehovah by William Morrow:  This fantastic tale is part of my continuing journey in literature of Science Fiction.  In this case god has died, and a defrocked sea captain is called back to the helm of an oil supertanker to tow his body to its resting place.  William Morrow's prose has been compared to that of Kurt Vonnegut. 

The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor:  This short novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2002.  Trevor is one of my favorite authors as I enjoy both his short stories and his novels.  This is the choice of our Lincoln Park book group.* 

When Nietzsche Wept: A Novel of Obsession by Irvin D. Yalom: This is another book group read by an author with whom I am familiar.  An intriguing tale that is both a discussion of philosophy and emerging psychotherapy.  It evokes two fascinating characters in Nietzsche and Breuer.*

Other books may intrude on this list as the fall progresses.  I participate in Science Fiction groups both on and off-line so they will add to the list.  Then there are those books by Alan Hollinghurst, Paul Strathern, and Patrick White that are beckoning me from my TBR pile.

What are you planning on reading this fall? 

*These are books I am reading as a participant in a book discussion group.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

A "Consummate Puritan"

Mr Bridge
Mr Bridge 

"He himself did not care what happened at the house during the day.  There was no more reason for her to be curious about his work than for him to be concerned with the groceries, laundry, getting the children to school, and whatever else she did.  Yet it would seem rude, almost brutal, to drop the pretense and admit that neither particularly cared what the other was doing.  A display of interest, however shallow, made life easier." (p 9)

Mr. Bridge is the converse to the earlier novel, Mrs. Bridge, written ten years earlier by Evan Connell. The story chronicles the life of Walter Bridge and his family, wife India, daughters Carolyn and Ruth, and son Douglas. Just as Mr. Bridge did not play a large role in the earlier novel Mrs. Bridge recedes into the background in this story. The difference is in part one of perspective, as you see the world from the view of Mrs. Bridge in the earlier book. In this one you begin to get some understanding of the reason why, in spite of being set during the depression, the family seems well-to-do which, as we find in the story of Mr. Bridge, is due in large part to the conservative investment habits of Walter Bridge. These are demonstrated again and again and his fixation on preserving a financial legacy for his family would seem a good thing if it was not one more brick in the wall that he has built around himself and his ordered life.  
Walter Bridge's conservatism is not his primary defining characteristic. In a certain sense he  appears to be a stoic.  But he is neither a seriously thoughtful nor a happy stoic in the mold of men like Marcus Aurelius and Henry David Thoreau.  They exemplify the thoughtful and contemplative life of the stoic who accepts this world but yearns to understand it.  Sadly, Walter Bridge's thoughtfulness falls short of understanding just as he falls short of any true sort of stoicism.  His true character, rather, can be defined in two words:   He is a "consummate Puritan". (p 249) That outlook determines Walter's world both for better and for worse.  
Much of the story takes place during the depression years leading up to World War II and while everything's not so up-to-date in Kansas City, there are symptomatic signs of transition--the encroachment of Jews in the neighborhood; or the possibility that their colored servant's nephew will attempt to enter Harvard; or that their own children will be doing unlikely things with unsuitable people. None of these are more unsuitable than his daughter Ruth's intellectual friends in New York whose magazine, "Houyhnhnm", he hides on a upper shelf in his library. Afraid to throw it out in case his daughter should look for it, he is unable to stand the sight of it and what it represents. Swiftian satire was seldom any sharper than this.
Mr Bridge can also be seen as living his life of the edge of feeling. He is out of touch with his wife and children in part because of his taciturn personality, but also because of his inability to communicate. One aspect of this is demonstrated in the scene where he attempts to play ball with his son Douglas and some of his fellow schoolmates. Walter feels that he should do this against his own preference not to and the resulting failure is painful and made only moreso by Walter's attempt to rationalize away that failure. It is emblematic of much of his family life.
Mr. Bridge is also out of touch with the world around him. He is fascinated with the bright yellow socks worn by Dr. Sauer. He thinks: What is it about those yellow socks? Likewise why am I uncomfortable with the young male ballet dancers? His inability to successfully  answer these and other questions about the changes in his world leaves him once again on the edge of feeling. The effect of this, and the events that are chosen by the author and portrayed in the short vignettes that comprise the novel make this a darker work than its predecessor.  At the end, Mr. Bridge is seen as the bewildered, beleaguered midcult man unable to cross the chasm of the generations and changing times.

Mr. Bridge by Evan S. Connell. North Point Press, 1969.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Last, Ryder, and Evelyn Waugh

A Handful of Dust
A Handful of Dust 

“It would be a dull world if we all thought alike.”
 ― Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust

Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, on several end-of-century Top 100 lists,was published on September 3, 1934. Waugh took the title for his novel from a line in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land — “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” In Brideshead Revisited, Waugh returned to the same poem, sending Anthony Blanche out on an Oxford balcony to stutter a few lines from it. Waugh’s biographers have noted a particular connection to Eliot. Early in life, Waugh liked to associate himself with Eliot’s avant-garde style; in his late twenties, Waugh became a Catholic, as Eliot in his late twenties became Anglican; and later in life, both authors grew more conservative and wrote in support of preserving and improving the crumbling class system in Great Britain.
Waugh's protagonist, Tony Last, is an ossified country squire. One of that system’s most doomed representatives. When we first meet him, Last is living in blinkered bliss at Hetton Abbey, a rambling Victorian mansion renovated in tasteless neo-Gothic style. He is blithely unaware of his wife's peccadilloes. Overall, it is a quirky tale that finds Tony in Africa under the spell of a madman named Todd. Mr. Todd has a beloved set of Dickens novels; it is his passion to hear them read aloud, and his decree that Last will do so until he is told to stop.
This is Waugh at his satirical best and I can forgive his use of Dickens as torture (which reading him may be to some people anyway) for I so enjoy his brilliant satire and witty prose.


Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead
Mad World: Evelyn Waugh
and the Secrets of Brideshead 

"'I am not I': yet Charles Ryder manifestly is Evelyn Waugh.  Brideshead Revisited contains as large a dose of autobiography as Charles Dicken's David Copperfield or Marcel Proust's A la recherch du temps perdue.  So who, then, was the 'thou' who was and was not 'he or she'?  The 'they' who were and were not 'they'?  What was the 'household of the faith' that was not Brideshead?  What were the events that inspired the novel?" (p 3)

I love the early novels of Evelyn Waugh simply because they are so funny, filled with epigrammatic sentences and a humor that verges on the fantastic and surreal. "Decline and Fall" is as sparkling as Voltaire's "Candide," and in some ways funnier for the twentieth-century reader, while "Vile Bodies" is a masterly period piece, the definitive satirical portrait of the 1920s "bright young things." Waugh can shock, too: Near the climax of "Black Mischief" (1932), the hero actually finds himself at a cannibal feast where he ends up eating his girlfriend.
In Mad World, Paula Byrne spends much of the book showing just how deeply the novelist drew on real people, places and events to produce his best known and most controversial novel, "Brideshead Revisited". Despite being exceptionally funny in places, "Brideshead Revisited" focuses, slowly but inexorably, on a religious theme: the working out of God's grace in human lives. In its pages Charles Ryder gradually progresses up a kind of ladder of love. Byrne pursues the autobiographical connections between Waugh, Tony Last of A Handful of Dust and Brideshead Revisited’s Charles Ryder. One link, says Byrne, is Madresfield Court, much of its architecture used as model for both Hetton Abbey and Brideshead Castle, many of its inhabitants used as model for his characters — notably, the gay Lord Beauchamp, squire of Madresfield, inspired Tony Last, and Beauchamp’s gay son Hugh Lygon, one of those with whom Waugh had an affair while at Oxford, inspired Brideshead’s Sebastian Flyte. Byrne’s title plays off Madresfield’s informal name of Mad Court or “Madders”; her title is also inspired by the nervous breakdown of Waugh’s later years:
He went mad, began hearing voices in his head. One of them kept telling him that he was homosexual. He wasn’t — he loved women too much for that — but there is no question that the creator of Sebastian Flyte and admirer of Lord Beauchamp had one of the great bisexual imaginations of the English literary tradition.
Byrne's biography is somewhat narrow in focus, concentrating on just the first 40 years of the writer's life, and with this focus she is able to maintain a fast pace and mirror the fun of his novels. Only in her last section does the story slow, becoming somewhat academic in needlessly highlighting all the correspondences between the world of Madresfield and the world of Brideshead. But she makes her case.
As she says in her prologue, "Mad World" illuminates the obsessions that shaped Waugh's life: "the search for an ideal family and the quest for a secure faith." Her book also reminds us just how much our lives are enriched and sustained by friendships.

Mad World by Paula Byrne. HarperCollins, 2010 (2009)
A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh. Back Bay Books, 1977 (1934)