Saturday, May 31, 2014

Birth of Modern Surgery

The Knife Man: Blood, Body-Snatching and the Birth of Modern SurgeryThe Knife Man: 
Blood, Body-Snatching and 
the Birth of Modern Surgery 

by Wendy Moore

"The improvement of medical practice which will become more efficacious with the progress of reason and of the social order, will mean the end of infectious and hereditary diseases and illnesses brought on by climate, food. or working conditions. It is reasonable to hope that all other diseases may likewise disappear as their distant causes are discovered."   - Marquis de Condorcet

The Eighteenth Century ushered in what would become known as the "Enlightenment".   A new philosophy of progress was proclaimed by intellectuals throughout Europe. They proclaimed that Reason would create a better future; science and technology, as Francis Bacon had taught, would enhance man's control over nature, and cultural progress, prosperity and the conquest of disease would follow. While Condorcet's vision is still not complete, Wendy Moore's biography of Dr. John Hunter, The Knife Man, captures one man's contribution to it.

Moore depicts Hunter's life and arrests the reader's attention through the use of intriguing episodes in that life. Told in a chronological style, Hunter's life was filled with exciting episodes as he was what one might call a "larger than life" character. Always unafraid to upset friend and foe alike, he never rested in his search for the truth about human and other animals' physiology. He became a premiere surgeon despite his distaste for "book learning" through his own observations and what we call the scientific method of experimentation and verification. He impressed me as an enlightenment version of Aristotle in his method of theorizing based on observation of the real world. He was among the first to do autopsies on dead people, he developed methods for revival of life through electric shock (Benjamin Franklin was among his friends), and he used artificial insemination to help a woman conceive. He would work for free with poor people while buying their dead bodies from the graveyard later. He was obsessed with immortality and whether it was possible to obtain it.

A fellow Scot whose heritage I share, John Hunter created modern medicine and surgery as we know it, as well as being the inspiration for the next generation of artists (Joshua Reynolds), composers (Haydn), writers (Tobias Smollett, Samuel Johnson, Lord Byron among others) and of course doctors (Lister and Jenner in particular);  indeed Hunter would be credited with being the inspiration for Dr Doolittle and his house would inspire Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (another of those ubiquitous Scots). More importantly, from my perspective and interest in philosophy and economics, was his friendship with David Hume and Adam Smith, the latter for whom he provided medical attention in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to turn around his declining health in the 1780s. Hunter would later found the Royal College of Surgeons as well as the Royal Veterinary College. His museum of body parts and skeletons exists to this very day. He also was named Surgeon-Extraordinary to King George III and Surgeon-General of the British Army.

Just as in our day, in earlier times the independent-minded forward thinker was not rewarded for his views by the establishment.  And just as the men who discovered the earth was not the center of the universe were chastised by the church, so Hunter was criticized by the medical establishment of his day. With his colleagues still practising medicine and surgery from the Dark Ages, Hunter would be cutting up dead bodies and examining the anatomy of bodies to discover how they worked. He would do the same with animals from dogs to elephants to zebras. He would then give lectures to an army of adoring medical students while his scheming brother would steal the body parts for his own private collection. I was impressed with the large numbers of young physicians who attended Hunter's lectures and demonstrations, for they would create the medicine of the future.  Wendy Moore successfully relates the life of this giant of the enlightenment who changed the course of medicine for the better.

Update of a review from 2010

Friday, May 30, 2014

Book Burning

Letter from Kurt Vonnegut 
regarding the burning of Slaughterhouse-Five

"Since first being published in 1967— and despite being considered one of the great modern novels—Kurt Vonnegut’s time-hopping, semiauto-biographical, antiwar classic, Slaughterhouse-Five, has been and continues to be banned from classrooms and libraries the world over. This is due to what is often described by those who censor it as its “obscene” content. A different view was held by Bruce Severy, a twenty-six-year-old English teacher at Drake High School, North Dakota, in 1973, who decided to use the novel as a teaching aid in his classroom, much to the delight of his students. The head of the school board, Charles McCarthy, had other ideas, however: He demanded that all thirty-two copies be burned in the school’s furnace. Many of the students protested the decision; some even refused to hand their books back. Their admirable stance was ignored. On November 16, 1973, an angry and disappointed Vonnegut wrote to McCarthy to make his feelings known. His powerful letter failed to generate a reply.

Here’s the letter."* 

November 16, 1973

Dear Mr. McCarthy:

I am writing to you in your capacity as chairman of the Drake School Board. I am among those American writers whose books have been destroyed in the now famous furnace of your school.

Certain members of your community have suggested that my work is evil. This is extraordinarily insulting to me. The news from Drake indicates to me that books and writers are very unreal to you people. I am writing this letter to let you know how real I am.

I want you to know, too, that my publisher and I have done absolutely nothing to exploit the disgusting news from Drake. We are not clapping each other on the back, crowing about all the books we will sell because of the news. We have declined to go on television, have written no fiery letters to editorial pages, have granted no lengthy interviews. We are angered and sickened and saddened. And no copies of this letter have been sent to anybody else. You now hold the only copy in your hands. It is a strictly private letter from me to the people of Drake, who have done so much to damage my reputation in the eyes of their children and then in the eyes of the world. Do you have the courage and ordinary decency to show this letter to the people, or will it, too, be consigned to the fires of your furnace?

I gather from what I read in the papers and hear on television that you imagine me, and some other writers, too, as being sort of ratlike people who enjoy making money from poisoning the minds of young people. I am in fact a large, strong person, fifty-one years old, who did a lot of farm work as a boy, who is good with tools. I have raised six children, three my own and three adopted. They have all turned out well. Two of them are farmers. I am a combat infantry veteran from World War II, and hold a Purple Heart. I have earned whatever I own by hard work. I have never been arrested or sued for anything. I am so much trusted with young people and by young people that I have served on the faculties of the University of Iowa, Harvard, and the City College of New York. Every year I receive at least a dozen invitations to be commencement speaker at colleges and high schools. My books are probably more widely used in schools than those of any other living American fiction writer.

If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hardworking men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered children know that. And we all know, too, that those words really don’t damage children much. They didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us.

After I have said all this, I am sure you are still ready to respond, in effect, “Yes, yes— but it still remains our right and our responsibility to decide what books our children are going to be made to read in our community.” This is surely so. But it is also true that if you exercise that right and fulfill that responsibility in an ignorant, harsh, un-American manner, then people are entitled to call you bad citizens and fools. Even your own children are entitled to call you that.

I read in the newspaper that your community is mystified by the outcry from all over the country about what you have done. Well, you have discovered that Drake is a part of American civilization, and your fellow Americans can’t stand it that you have behaved in such an uncivilized way. Perhaps you will learn from this that books are sacred to free men for very good reasons, and that wars have been fought against nations which hate books and burn them. If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.

If you and your board are now determined to show that you in fact have wisdom and maturity when you exercise your powers over the education of your young, then you should acknowledge that it was a rotten lesson you taught young people in a free society when you denounced and then burned books— books you hadn’t even read. You should also resolve to expose your children to all sorts of opinions and information, in order that they will be better equipped to make decisions and to survive.

Again: you have insulted me, and I am a good citizen, and I am very real.

Kurt Vonnegut

*from:  Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience  by Shaun Usher.  Canongate Unbound, 2013.

Here is a link to the Minot Daily News article about this incident:  "Books at Drake Burned by School Board"

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Henry at Agincourt

Henry V

Chicago Shakespeare Theatre 
directed by Christopher Luscombe

Yesterday I attended the Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of Henry V by William Shakespeare.  This is one of Shakespeare's more popular plays with brilliant and subtle moments although it falls short of the excellence of the drama in the two parts of Henry IV that preceded it.  
Shakespeare based his play upon current historical information about the man who was King of England and France almost two centuries earlier.  The play focuses on the events leading up to and including the battle of Agincourt in which the English under Henry decisively defeated the French under the Duke of Burgundy.  The result was the marriage of Henry to Katherine, the daughter of Charles VI, the King of France.
The play is notable for the inspiring speech of Henry before the final battle that concludes with the famous lines:

"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day." (Act IV, Scene iii)

The play notes the death of Falstaff and his absence leaves a hole that the comic relief of Bardolph, Pistol, and Nim cannot completely fill.  The production I saw portrayed the battle scenes with an over-the-top level of bombast that nearly blew us out of our seats (we held on dearly for from our vantage in the third level we would have had a long fall to the floor below).  The best parts of the play for me, and my friends, were the scenes in the second half of the play.  The scene where Henry borrows a cloak and goes among the common soldiers, disguised, the night before the Battle of Agincourt was especially effective. Though Henry, as played by Harry Judge, was impressive in Henry's speeches and as leader of the English nobles.  The combination of a good cast and production made this an excellent production to end the season at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Overcoming Censorship

The Captive MindThe Captive Mind 
by Czesław Miłosz

"During the thirty years I have spent abroad I have felt I was more privileged than my Western colleagues, whether writers or teachers of literature, for events both recent and long past took in my mind a sharply delineated, precise form. Western audiences confronted with poems or novels written in Poland, Czechoslovakia or Hungary, or with films produced there, possibly intuit a similarly sharpened consciousness, in a constant struggle against limitations imposed by censorship. Memory thus is our force, it protects us against a speech entwining upon itself like the ivy when it does not find a support on a tree or a wall."  -  Czeslaw  Milosz,  from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

Czesław Miłosz was born in 1911 in central Lithuania (then part of Russian empire). He wrote lovingly of his Lithuanian childhood in a novel, The Issa Valley, and also in his memoir Native Realm. In his twenties he traveled to Paris, where he was influenced by his distant cousin Oscar Milosz, a French poet of Lithuanian descent. The result, a volume of his own poetry, was published in 1934. After receiving his law degree that year, he again spent a year in Paris on a fellowship. Upon returning to Poland he worked as a commentator at Radio Wilno, but was dismissed for his leftist views.

Miłosz spent World War II in Warsaw, under Nazi Germany's "General Government," where, among other things, he attended underground lectures by Polish philosopher and historian of philosophy and aesthetics, Władysław Tatarkiewicz. He did not participate in the Warsaw Uprising due to his residence outside of Warsaw proper. After the war Miłosz served as cultural attaché of the communist People's Republic of Poland in Paris. However, in 1951 he defected and obtained political asylum in France. In 1953 he received the Prix Littéraire Européen (European Literary Prize).

In 1960 Miłosz emigrated to the United States, and in 1970 he became a U.S. citizen, and in 1980 receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature for a writer "who with uncompromising clear-sightedness voices man's exposed condition in a world of severe conflicts". Since his works had been banned in Poland by the communist government, this was the first time that many Poles became aware of him. When the Iron Curtain fell, Miłosz was able to return to Poland, at first to visit and later to live part-time in Kraków, while continuing to spend time each year in America. In 1989 Miłosz received the U.S. National Medal of Arts and an honorary doctorate from Harvard University. Through the Cold War, his name was often invoked in the United States, particularly by conservative commentators such as William F. Buckley, Jr., usually in the context of Miłosz's 1953 book The Captive Mind. During the same time, his name was largely ignored by the government-censored media and publications in Poland.

The Captive Mind has been described as one of the finest studies of the behavior of intellectuals under a repressive regime. In the preface Miłosz observed that "I lived through five years of Nazi occupation . . . I do not regret those years in Warsaw". But it is his analysis of Poland and her intellectuals under the heel of Soviet Communism that is the primary content of this book. Through the examples of four intellectuals Milosz is able to capture the psychological impact on the lives of his countrymen. The criticism is devastating and it has not lost its impact more than fifty years later. He even was prescient enough to speculate the the Soviet Dictatorship might fall at some future date, little did he know in 1953 that it would come to pass less than thirty years later. This reader found that Milosz' prose is as beautifully written as his poetry and he is an author to whom I will continue to return for inspiration.

View all my reviews

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Victorian Novels

The Way We Live NowThe Way We Live Now 
by Anthony Trollope

“Nevertheless a certain class of dishonesty, dishonesty magnificent in its proportions, and climbing into high places, has become at the same time so rampant and so splendid that there seems to be reason for fearing that men and women will be taught to feel that dishonesty, if it can become splendid, will cease to be abominable. If dishonesty can live in a gorgeous palace with pictures on all its walls, and gems in all its cupboards, with marble and ivory in all its corners, and can give Apician dinners, and get into Parliament, and deal in millions, then dishonesty is not disgraceful, and the man dishonest after such a fashion is not a low scoundrel. Instigated, I say, by some such reflections as these, I sat down in my new house to write The Way We Live Now. And as I had ventured to take the whip of the satirist into my hand, I went beyond the iniquities of the great speculator who robs everybody, and made an onslaught also on other vices;--on the intrigues of girls who want to get married, on the luxury of young men who prefer to remain single, and on the puffing propensities of authors who desire to cheat the public into buying their volumes.”   ― Anthony Trollope, Autobiography of Anthony Trollope

I have been interested in Victorian novels for most of my reading life. Early in that life, before I knew what a Victorian novel was, I fell in love with Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. The other early love of my reading life was for the novels of Charles Dickens that began with a reading of Oliver Twist that so enveloped my imagination that I brought it along in my backpack to Boy Scout Camp in the north woods of Wisconsin. Never mind that there were no merit badges to be had for reading Dickens, or any other nineteenth century author. My life-long infatuation with Bronte and Dickens and my interest in Victorian literature was continued in my teens with the discovery of the novels of Thomas Hardy, especially The Return of the Native. I fell in love with the intelligent Clym Yeobright and his difficult relations with the alluring Eustacia Vye (a love I more recently found that I shared with the fictional Holden Caulfield, perhaps the only thing I shared with him). The sensationalism of Hardy in his novel, Tess of the D'Urbervilles,  the education of Pip in Dickens' Great Expectations, and others satisfied my teenage reading desires and furthered me on the road of Victorian literature. It was not until my post-college years that I would come to appreciate the intelligent novels of George Eliot and the later Dickens along with those of Anthony Trollope. It has been during more recent decades that I have included reading and rereading Middlemarch, Bleak House, and the Barsetshire novels in my traversal of Victorian literature.

Most recently I have been reading Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now,  a novel  written late in his career. Unlike his early novels, this was a critique of the England of his age, including a broad-based attack on Victorian class, finance, politics and culture. Set in the 1870s it tells a story of two families struggling to adapt to the changing times. The Carburys are one family with Roger Carbury, the squire of Carbury Manor, leading them both morally and financially. The other family is represented by a young Paul Montague who becomes entwined in the shady financial dealings of a confidence man named Augustus Melmotte. Financial collapse entraps all of the families in some way and provides a sense of realism as the story is based on real-life events. In some ways reminiscent of the later Dickens' social novels, Trollope's novel is presented as a more realistic slice of life, foreshadowing the turn toward naturalism near the end of the century. Most of the characters are quite unlikable and there is little incentive to sympathize with them when they are taken in by the vulgar predator Melmotte. While there is humor in The Way We Live Now, it is a sharper and darker humor than that which made Trollope's early novels such a delight to read. However, the novel retains a relevance for our own day when financial scandals are still in the headlines.

View all my reviews

Friday, May 23, 2014

Passion for Freedom and Dignity

The Roots of HeavenThe Roots of Heaven 
by Romain Gary

"Morel is afflicted with too noble a conception of a man.  He demands too much of human beings, and he refuses to compromise." (p 354)

"Ever since dawn the track had followed the hillside across a tangle of bamboos and elephant grass in which the horse and rides sometimes disappeared entirely; then the Jesuit's head would reappear above the yellow sea, with his big bony nose set above virile and smiling lips, and with those piercing eyes that carried in them far more suggestion of limitless horizons than of the pages of a breviary."
Thus opens Romain Gary's brilliant novel of passion and freedom; the passion of a man, Morel, for the freedom of elephants in equatorial Africa, and the passion for freedom of the natives led by a charismatic leader, Waitari, but above all the land where their passions and dreams exist, a place of limitless horizons and a beauty that is captured in the supremely engaging prose of Romain Gary.

At the heart of the story we find Morel and his passion for saving the elephants who are being killed by ivory hunters and tourists and the natives. The demonstration of his value of life lies at the heart of Gary’s novel. Its major expression can be found in the shape of African elephants as “life’s most beautiful and noble manifestations". The apparent theme of The Roots of Heaven is the protection of the African elephants; "Men are dying to preserve a certain splendor of life. Call it freedom, or dignity . . . They are dying to preserve a certain natural splendor." (p 60)

Throughout the whole novel, the motive of the African elephant symbolizing freedom is perpetually instilled in the reader. For instance, Morel claims in his petition against elephant hunting, that it's "time to show that we are capable of preserving this gigantic, clumsy, natural splendour which still lives in our midst . . . that there is still room among us for such a freedom”. The idea is repeated in many variations. And it is supported by the wisdom of the old pathfinder Idriss who explains that “when elephants exist, there is freedom”. But it is also a kind of metaphor for the memory of the holocaust that less than a decade earlier had affected so many including Morel himself who had been interned in a Concentration Camp. He first dreams of an idea that has its roots in the utmost individual oppression while in solitary confinement: “Three and a half feet by five, so not a hope of lying down — there were moments when I felt like banging my head against the wall to try and get out into fresh air”  This is central to Morel's being, yet the absolute materialism of the concrete cell disappears behind the image of elephants.

With enemies on every side the elephants have no one to fight for them, that is until Morel takes up their cause and makes it his own. Midway through the novel Morel comments that "it was essential to attack the root of the problem, the protection of nature." Peer Qvist, one of several supporting characters that add depth to the story, responds, "Islam calls that 'the roots of heaven' and to the Mexican Indians it is the 'tree of life'--the thing that makes both of them fall on their knees and raise their eyes and beat their tormented breasts. . . Our needs--for justice, for freedom and dignity--are roots of heaven that are deeply embedded in our hearts, but of heaven itself men know nothing but the gripping roots . . ." (p 176)

Morel was not alone, he attracted other outlaws like Korotoro, a famous robber, but he most impressed the leader of the Oules, called Waitari. At the same time Waitari was impressed he would disparage Morel calling him "a pathetic idealist". Waitari, like Kenyatta and other tribal leaders across Africa, was well-educated and full of passion to lead his people. He said, "I want our voice to be heard in Asia, in Soviet Russia, in America, even in France . . . I am not speaking to the Oules." (p 107)

There is also the theme of political manipulation and the impact of public opinion. An American journalist and opinion maker, Ornando, represents all that is worst in that regard and, for better or worse, is of concern to the French colonial authority because he may sway American public opinion in favor of Morel. The novel teems with life and there are others throughout the novel like Abe Fields, the American photographer, Peer Qvist the naturalist, and Johnny Forsythe--characters and events which add layers to the story like a catalog of human nature. An undertone of nihilism surrounds the African nationalist movement while others try to hide the struggles for decolonization. Morel seems to exist beyond the petty bickering, in a sense his idealism and charisma makes him a larger than life character.

Perhaps Morel's struggle and much of the meaning of the novel is summed up in this passage:
"The fight to the death between men frustrated by a more and more enslaved or acquiescent existence, and the last and greatest live in image of liberty that still existed on earth, was being played our continuously day by day in the African forest.
But whatever the difficulties he was facing, he refused to compromise: it was essential that man should shoulder on his difficult road a supplementary burden, encumber himself with the ancient giants."

The Roots of Heaven demonstrates both the passion of one man and the passion of humanity for freedom in life and beyond. Accomplishing this requires concern for self, family, culture, and nature --encompassing the world around us.

Les Racines du ciel
I read this novel by Romain Gary as part of the Romain Gary Literature Month sponsored by Emma at Book Around the Corner.  I encourage you to visit her site to find out more about Romain Gary and other fine authors.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

More Fuzzies

Fuzzy NationFuzzy Nation 
by John Scalzi

“You're an interesting person, Jack." Sullivan said. "I wish I could figure out what you were thinking when you punched Stern and turned on Isabel."
"Well, I think that's the thing." Holloway said. "I think it's clear that sometimes I just don't think."
"I think you do." Sullivan said. "It's just you think about you first. The not thinking part comes right after that.”   ― John Scalzi, Fuzzy Nation

In 2011 the acclaimed modern Sci-Fi writer John Scalzi (The Android's Dream) rebooted the original Fuzzy novel written in 1962 by H. Beam Piper. Piper wrote two sequels to Little Fuzzy; Fuzzy Sapiens (originally published as The Other Human Race), and Fuzzies and Other People, which was published after Piper's suicide in 1964.
Since Piper's death, others have written novels in the Fuzzy series. These novels include Fuzzy Bones, by William Tuning, and Golden Dreams: A Fuzzy Odyssey, by Ardath Mayhar.  There were also two further installments in the series, Fuzzy Ergo Sum and Caveat Fuzzy, by Wolfgang Diehr.

Scalzi's story is set in a distant future when corporations strip-mine entire planets if the Colonial Authority doesn’t stop them first,  Jack Holloway discovers an unbelievably rich seam of sunstones on Zara XXIII, exquisite jewels found only on that planet.  Holloway has a past as a disbarred lawyer and in his new career the claim he makes on the seam puts serious stress on his relationship with ZaraCorp, the company that runs Zara XXIII. And that’s before he discovers a race of native creatures whose potential sapience could nullify ZaraCorp’s mining rights on the planet. In his original novel, Piper presented issues including the meaning of sentience and the ethics of the mining companies who took advantage of the resources on vulnerable alien planets. Scalzi updates Piper's story and more importantly provides richer characters (both alien and human) who are believably real. Piper’s Jack Holloway is a crotchety prospector with the proverbial heart of gold; Scalzi’s Holloway is brilliant, but sometimes he makes the unwise moral choice as a way of railing against the universe. Scalzi also updates and expands upon the cynicism of the original to be more familiar to a contemporary audience: Piper’s corporation attempts to hide its frequent environmental depredations from notice (and also plans to wipe out the Fuzzies), while Scalzi’s has the corporation develop a public “eco-friendly” campaign. Scalzi ends up improving on Piper's novel with a richer and deeper story that still pays homage to the classic SF style of the fifties and sixties. Piper's novel seems somewhat juvenile in comparison. Scalzi's Fuzzy Nation is compact and readable with some great courtroom scenes. 
His update is a worthy successor to the classic novel from the sixties that began our (especially those of us who were teens back then) fascination with the lovable aliens known as Fuzzies.

View all my reviews

Monday, May 19, 2014

The First Essayist

Why Montaigne Still Matters

“When I dance, I dance; when I sleep, I sleep; yes, and when I walk alone in a beautiful orchard, if my thoughts drift to far-off matters for some part of the time for some other part I lead them back again to the walk, the orchard, to the sweetness of this solitude, to myself.”  ― Michel de Montaigne

Does Montaigne, who died more than four centuries ago, deserve our attention?  In fact, he is more popular than ever and a lecture I attended yesterday by Philipe Desan, Professor in the Dept. of Romance Languages & Literature at the University of Chicago, provided reasons "Why Montaigne Still Matters".

Professor Desan, whose lively and witty lecture style brought the ideas of Montaigne to life, began with a description of the "essai" which Montaigne invented.  The art of the essay as developed and practiced by Montaigne is a piece of writing that provides the combination of both the view of authority (in Montaigne's age this was the "Ancients") and a personal view upon a subject.  This was new at a time near the end of the Renaissance when most writers focused on the opinions of ancient authorities and kept their personal thoughts to themselves.  Montaigne's invention of the essay provided a way to challenge accepted notions and create a new space for the exploration of ideas.  It is a commonplace collection of topics that are neither exhaustive nor definitive.

The invention of the essay was perhaps in part due to what Professor Desan called the "discovery of the individual".  This was the greatest discovery of the Renaissance, surpassing those of Galileo, Gutenberg, and others.  Montaigne leveraged this discovery by his insertion of his individual thoughts with those of the ancient classics producing a leveling effect.  Suddenly the common people could use the essay as an attempt to share their thoughts.  This heralded the beginning of Modernity and was a precursor to what Sartre, among others in our time, would call the intellectual.

Montaigne, in his essays, was radical in many ways.  One of these was the challenge to the idea that Truth was a permanent concept based on the authority of God.  For Montaigne Nature was the source of meaning and we experience impressions of reality.  There is no permanent truth, but constant change.  Each day we awake and face a new and different day according to Montaigne and he would often change his own views, adding what appear as contradictory thoughts even within the same essay.  Again, this is an approach to reality that is very modern and while common in our era, radically uncommon at the end of the sixteenth century.  

Montaigne advocated the freedom of thought that may be seen as a sort of freedom of conscience or autonomy of the individual.   He looked to the future in his thinking and in doing so foreshadowed the development of what we know as the social sciences.  This future-oriented outlook expanded the notion of man's free will and accordingly further reduced the control of God's authority.

In his essays he continually shared his own ideas with the reader while not knowing who that reader would be.  This too contributed to the development of Modernity.  For the first time there were readers who were interested in the thoughts of contemporary writers like Montaigne who used natural language.  In his essays he would also include digressions and appear disorganized while, as mentioned earlier, even contradicting himself.  This was not wisdom in the classical sense, it was the evolution of thought.

Professor Desan described Montaigne as a surveyor of thought, not an architect.  Contrasting him with Descartes, who developed a consistent philosophy as his own contribution to modern thought,  Montaigne was a thinker with no system, only variety of thought.  His was a flurry of differences and it was these which would define him.  He asked: What do I know?  And he saw the development of knowledge as a process that was endless.  He thought of man as a "self-fashioning" animal with no essence in the sense of a definite being. 

Montaigne emphasized form over content, with form defining the content.  It reminded me of the twentieth-century view of Marshall McLuhan for whom "the medium was the message".  In the twenty-first century Montaigne could be considered the first "blogger".  In his own time he was both a public and a private man, but it was the private man when he retired to his library and began to write who would realize the beginning of the modern world in his collections of thoughts called "Essais".

Saturday, May 17, 2014

About Sapient Beings

Little Fuzzy (Fuzzy Sapiens, #1)Little Fuzzy 
by H. Beam Piper

"Well, the sapient mind can generalize.  To the nonsapient animal, every experience is either totally novel or identical with some remembered experience.  . . The sapient being will say, 'These red objects are apples:  as a class, they are edible and flavorsome.'  He sets up a class under the general label of apples.  This, in turn, leads to the formation of abstract ideas . . ."  

What is sapience? The word comes from the Latin sapientia, meaning "wisdom". It is related to the Latin verb sapere, meaning "to taste, to be wise, to know"; the present participle of sapere forms part of Homo sapiens, the Latin binomial nomenclature created by Carolus Linnaeus to describe the human species. Linnaeus had originally given humans the species name of diurnus, meaning man of the day. But he later decided that the dominating feature of humans was wisdom, hence application of the name sapiens. His chosen biological name was intended to emphasize man's uniqueness and separation from the rest of the animal kingdom.

In fantasy fiction and science fiction, sapience often describes an essential human property that bestows "personhood" onto a non-human. It indicates that a computer, alien, mythical creature or other object will be treated as a completely human character, with similar rights, capabilities and desires as any human character. The words "sentience", "self-awareness" and "consciousness" are used in similar ways in science fiction.

Little Fuzzy is the name of a 1962 science fiction novel by H. Beam Piper that addresses this issue. The story revolves around the determination whether a small furry species discovered on the planet Zarathustra is sapient. The planet was recently settled and is run by the Chartered Zarathustra Company as a Class III planet, one without native intelligent life. Jack Holloway, an independent sunstone prospector, discovers what he at first takes to be an animal and calls it a “Little Fuzzy,” and then realizes it is a member of an intelligent species—or is it? The very interesting question of the sapience of the Fuzzies, who don’t qualify under the “talk and build a fire” rule of thumb, takes up the rest of the book. The talk rule requires verbalization which the Fuzzies do not have, but they do use symbols and with them communicate pretty effectively. By the second part of the novel questions such as is it possible "to be sapient and not know it" and other issues are considered including a sort of philosophical issue: Is sapience an either/or issue, thus once it achieved the only question is how intelligent is the sapient being? The conflict inherent in the novel's plot is between the management of the Zarathustra Company, who realize the company will lose its investment if the Fuzzies are sapient creatures, and Jack, the local prospector, who is convinced that they are definitely sapient. The problem for the Fuzzies is that even if they are not sapient, they are close enough to that state, which means that the company management decides to eradicate them to protect their interests.

The suspense is a bit thin, but the novelist creates a thought experiment that is interesting because it doesn’t have simple answers. It was nominated for the 1963 Hugo Award for Best Novel. I found that it presented in an entertaining way the recognition of sapience in an alien species and the efforts of the two species to learn how to live together.

View all my reviews

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Games of Love

A Game of Hide and SeekA Game of Hide and Seek 
by Elizabeth Taylor

“The whole point is that writing has a pattern and life hasn't. Life is so untidy. Art is so short and life so long. It is not possible to have perfection in life but it is possible to have perfection in a novel.”   ― Elizabeth Taylor

Hide and Seek is a novel of passion and star-crossed love. It begins with two teenagers, Harriet and Vesey. Harriet is a timid girl and Vesey, while also shy, is prone to outbursts of malice that may be found in episodes like his excessive teasing of the housekeeper. Vesey dreams of writing great literature and has the mind to make that possible while Harriet's dreams are somewhat less. She is unambitious and both her desire and her mind fail her when necessary to pass the exams for entrance to university. Vesey is dramatic and manipulative, an overcompensation for the haphazard affections of his self-centered mother. In their teens, playing complicated games with the younger cousins Harriet is meant to be babysitting, the two fall in love; on Harriet’s end, swooningly and awkwardly. The first part of Hide and Seek is all about the games they play. Harriet's developing passion for Vesey and her own sexual awakening elicit a response from Vesey, but his mood swings and a penchant for the dramatic combined with a manipulative manner that seems like indifference is painful for Harriet. The two are splintered both by their own flaws—Vesey’s insensitivity, Harriet’s inability to openly stake a claim—and by the ungenerous interventions of their elders. Vesey is packed off to university, while Harriet starts a new job in a gown shop and falls into a relationship with Charles Jephcott, “an elderly man of about thirty-five,” out of passivity and loneliness. After Vesey stands her up at a dance—and after her mother dies, and Charles tends her through her grief—Harriet submits to marrying Charles.

The second part of the novel begins sixteen years later. Harriet has a teenage-daughter, Betsy, and is in a pleasant if somewhat passionless marriage when Vesey returns. She has spent the time attempting to make up for not loving her husband through feverish housekeeping: “When she married Charles, she had seemed to wed also a social order. A convert to it, and to provincial life, and keeping house, she had pursued it fanatically and as if she feared censure.” Vesey, meanwhile, is a failing actor, playing Laertes in gaudy productions of Hamlet. When they reconnect, his old cruel arrogance has been dissolved by time and misfortune, and Harriet begins risking her hard-won, if deadening, stability to meet him in sordid railway cafes and on park benches. They both feel, as Vesey puts it to himself, the “desire to unpack his life in her presence, to lay before her treasure after treasure (or, rather, loss, laughter, disappointment).”  On the home front Charles finds that, "As his relations with other people improved, his life with Harriet deteriorated." Unfortunately Betsy discovers hints of the affair and her life, which was much more promising than her mother's at the same age, begins to unravel.  Any imagined possibilities for Harriet and Vesey as a reunited couple also begin to come apart. The ending is ambiguous but did not disappoint in being so.

What impressed me was the characterization which brought the main players alive but made the supporting roles, like Harriet's mother, Vesey's Uncle Hugo, and Betsy's greek teacher, interesting as well. Taylor's prose reminded me of Anita Brookner or Barbara Pym in its lucid smoothness. The combination of psychological insight and great prose makes this a memorable novel from a British author who should be better known.

View all my reviews

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Friends unto Death

Last OrdersLast Orders 
by Graham Swift

“Literature, after all, from Homer onwards, is littered with the recounting of deaths and with the fascination for death, and in this it only expresses what we all repeatedly dwell on but do not necessarily or readily voice. So far as death goes, I don't claim any oddity. There is only one sea: I'm in the same boat as everyone else. And that seems, more generally, to be the position that every novelist, unless they are possessed of a peculiar arrogance, should take: I am mortal too, I am human too. I too, like you, share life's joys, pains, confusions. We're all in the same boat.”   ― Graham Swift

Today is the birth anniversary of Graham Swift who was born in 1949.  This is his Booker Prize-winning novel from 1996.  Some have noted similarities between it and  Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, but that does not detract from its quality which has been evident in Swift's writing since his earlier success with Waterland (a novel that was short-listed for the Booker).  While I found it a bit slow at first, it eventually evolved into a captivating tale of English working-class families in the four decades following WW II. When Jack Dodds dies suddenly of cancer after years of running a butcher shop in London, he leaves a strange request--namely, that his ashes be scattered off Margate pier into the sea. None could be better be suited to fulfill this wish than his three oldest drinking buddies--insurance man Ray, vegetable seller Lenny, and undertaker Vic, all of whom, like Jack himself, fought also as soldiers or sailors in the long-ago world war.

The narrative start is developed with an economy that presents (through the characters' own voices, one after another) the story's humanity and depth with a minimum of melodrama. The group is uncomfortable at first as evidenced by weak and self- conscious jocular remarks when they meet at their local pub in the company of the urn holding Jack's ashes; but once the group gets on the road, in an expensive car driven by Jack's adoptive son, Vince, the story starts gradually to move forward, cohere, and deepen. The reader gradually learns why it is that no wife comes along, why three marriages out of three broke apart, and why Vince always hated his stepfather Jack and still does--or so he thinks. As you might expect there are stories shared with topics like tales of innocent youth, suffering wives, early loves, lost daughters, secret affairs, and old antagonisms. There is even a fistfight over the dead on an English hilltop, and a strewing of Jack's ashes into roiling sea waves that will draw up feelings perhaps unexpectedly strong. Graham Swift is able to avoid artificiality by listening closely to these lives and presenting realistic voices that share stories of humanity with the proverbial ring of truth.

View all my reviews

Saturday, May 03, 2014


First Friday Lecture

ON Friday afternoon last, May 2, I attended a lecture in the First Friday Lecture Series of The Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults.  The lecture was titled: 
"Two Transformations:  Isak Dinesen's / Gabriel Axel's Babettes's Feast and Willam Butler Yeats's "Among School Children""

That title is a mouthful and as the speaker, Claudia Traudt, admitted during a lecture on Robert Frost's poetry the previous weekend, she is wont to recommend longish titles for her talks that sometimes must be edited down to presentable form.  
This title alone spans a double discussion of a significant concept as presented in three separate works of art, a short story, a foreign film, and a famous poem by one of the greatest poets of the twentieth, or any, century.  In the printed introduction to the her talk she states:  "I will be speaking about stirrings, and about change, exploring two great works of art [three if you count, as I do, the film adaptation of the story as a separate work of art]: "  Among the aspects to be considered are transformations "in full spate;  transformation continuing -- consciously , and beyond cognition . . . some modes of transformation or change as the subject matter of the works," and more.

I will comment on my impressions from this wide-ranging presentation that, unfortunately, was somewhat truncated due to time considerations.  That this occurred is not surprising as the concept of transformations alone, as suggested by the length of the entry in the OED which Ms. Traudt referenced to commence her talk.  My own first thought turned to the transformative modes explored by Ovid in his great poem Metamorphoses.  But of the various types of transformation discussed in the entry I would point to the example drawn from Hamlet, (II,ii,5ff), where we find, "Something you have heard / Of Hamlet's transformation;"  In the lecture she referenced Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan where, in chapter six, he discusses the passions including imagination and the possibilities for transformation.  This reference led her to the epigraphs for the lecture which appear in the last lines of the Dinesen and Yeats works.

"Ah! How you will enchant the angels!"
"How can we know the dancer from the dance?"

The first quotation, from Babette's Feast, refers to the expectation of Phillipa, for whom Babette had been cook for many years, that Babette would truly be among the angels due to her transformative impact on Phillipa and her sister and the others from the small village of Berlevaag who attended the feast she had prepared.  But to understand these transformations one must return to the beginning of Dinesen's story where the first paragraph introduces this town that in its fairy-tale like existence resembles nothing more than "a child's toy-town of little wooden pieces".  With the introduction of two elderly sisters, Martine and Phillipa, and the presentation of their stories as background to the advent of Babette, an escapee from the violence of the Paris Commune of 1871, we have the makings of a story of love gained and lost, memories, and a gradual realization that the passions of the inhabitants of this small town would be permanently changed by the presence of Babette.  In section V. titled "Still Life" Babette arrives and,
"Her mistresses at first had trembled a little . . . They silently agreed that the example of a good Lutheran life would be the best means of converting their servant.  In this way Babette's presence in the house became, so to say, a moral spur to its inhabitants."(pp 31-32)

A dozen years transpire and due in part to a fortuitous joining of Babette's good luck at winning a French lottery and the plans of the sisters to celebrate the birthday of their father, Babette is allowed to prepare a feast for them and their guests.  It is a feast that is transcendent in many ways and proves to be the culmination of the transformation of many lives.  This is the most beautiful section of the short story but by no means the only one in a story that demonstrates the ability of the process of art to reach an apotheosis for which we reserve words like enchantment and angelic. 

The depths of beauty in Dinesen's short story are matched and exceeded by those in Yeats's famous poem.  The remarks of Ms. Traudt on the poem were brief but suggested the momentous power that emanated from Yeats's ability to structure words in a way that blended public spectacle with private memories and led to an apotheosis in its final two stanzas.   Perhaps it would be best to end with some of these lines and suggest that, based both on my own experience reading these works and on the brilliant presentation on Friday last, that readers everywhere would benefit from their own exploration of these transformative works.   

"O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer, 
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?"

-  W. B. Yeats, Among School Children

Thursday, May 01, 2014

A Titanic Triumph

Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph 

Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph

"All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible."  -  T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom

The source of the title of T. E. Lawrence's masterpiece is the book of Proverbs:
"Wisdom hath builded a house: she hath hewn out her seven pillars." (Proverbs, 9:1)

This quotation is used as an evocative phrase for the title of a book that Lawrence compared to Moby Dick and The Brothers Karamazov, and Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra. He considered these "titanic books" that were distinguished by "greatness of spirit". I would agree that his literary achievement at least approaches those levels and also demonstrates the bravado demonstrated by his comparison to them. His book was published in 1926 even though he wrote most of it about 1919 following his return from the desert.

Reading this classic account of Lawrence's exploits is both exhilarating and informative. I was impressed by his depiction of Arab culture of the time and its seeming connection with past and present. The importance of tales told around the hearth as the heart of Arab culture seems to be similar to the culture encountered by Muhammad as he was growing up centuries earlier. Under the most arduous conditions, Lawrence found time for keen analysis: he applied that analysis to the differing forces that were interdependent within the Arab culture and did so with out betraying his loyalty to all or surrendering his loyalty to any.

Further, Lawrence's keen ability to describe his surroundings and bring the events, of which he was often the center, alive is shown in almost every chapter. He is able, through the extensiveness of his narrative, to share both bristling detail and a sense of the intricacy of the events he portrays. He often takes time to share descriptions of the terrain and the weather which provide background for his continuing struggle. At the same time this detail provides as sense of both a documentary approach and also the drama of his escapades. The portraits of the Arab leaders from Abdulla and Auda to Feisel are fascinating in their detail and psychological insight. Lawrence, it seems, was born for this journey and fated to share it with us. T. E. Lawrence acted upon his dream 'with open eyes' and made it happen. In a book filled with deception he gives us a view into the world before the end of World War I changed everything. We see the various Arab factions and the deals made with the British. More importantly we are given insight into the men through Lawrence's eyes, his acute judgement, and his poetic narrative. He notes the keys to the Arab Revolt in the common language they shared and their heritage of the greatness that existed under the Caliphs going back to the six centuries following the death of Muhammad. We share in his pangs of conscience and his judgements of others and his own life and actions.

He notes that "feeling and illusion were at war within me" and it reminded me of the birth of modernity with Faustian man. Also important are his comments on the British in the Middle East and the nature of the soldier in war. Reading this treatise was a moving experience as I gradually found support for my own subjunctive mood in this inspirational book.