Friday, April 29, 2016

A Commonplace Entry

This month's entry comes from On Thinking for Oneself
an essay by Arthur Schopenhauer in The Art of Literature

"A library may be very large; but if it is in disorder, it is not so useful as one that is small but well arranged.  In the same way a man may have a great mass of knowledge, but if he has not worked it up by thinking it over for himself, it has much less value than a far smaller amount which he has thoroughly pondered.  For it is only when a man looks at his knowledge from all sides, and combines the things he knows by comparing truth with truth, that he obtains a complete hold over it and gets it into his power.  A man cannot turn over anything in his mind unless he knows it; he should, therefore, learn something; but it is only when he has turned it over that he can be said to know it."

Poem for the End of April

Collected Poems

Collected Poems 

by Ernest Dowson

April Love

We have walked in Love's land a little way,
We have learnt his lesson a little while,
And shall we not part at the end of day,
With a sigh, a smile?
A little while in the shine of the sun,
We were twined together, joined lips, forgot
How the shadows fall when the day is done,
And when Love is not.
We have made no vows--there will none be broke,
Our love was free as the wind on the hill,
There was no word said we need wish unspoke,
We have wrought no ill.
So shall we not part at the end of day,
Who have loved and lingered a little while,
Join lips for the last time, go our way,
With a sigh, a smile?

Ernest Dowson lived in London, worked at his parents’ dry-docking business, and was a member of the Rhymers’ Club with W.B. Yeats and Arthur Symons. Dowson’s poems trace the sorrow of unrequited love and are the source of the phrases “gone with the wind” and “days of wine and roses.” He also supplied the earliest written mention in English of soccer. Both of Dowson’s parents committed suicide, and Dowson, who rarely had a fixed home, died at the age of 32.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Thoreau and Emerson

I plan to spend the coming weekend discussing aspects of Walden by Henry David Thoreau with friends and fellow students at the Spring Weekend sponsored by the Basic Program of Liberal Education of The University of Chicago.  Here is a brief note about a moment between Emerson and Thoreau that demonstrates a bit of Thoreau's interests and character.

Twenty-three-year-old Henry David Thoreau moved into Ralph Waldo Emerson's home in Concord, Massachusetts on this day in 1841. During his two-year stay, Thoreau was gardener, general handyman and companion-protogé for Emerson, this last a role that he had taken up some years earlier. The following is from a journal entry Emerson made on this day in 1838:
"Yesterday afternoon I went to the Cliff with Henry Thoreau. Warm, pleasant, misty weather, which the great mountain amphitheatre seemed to drink in with gladness. A crow's voice filled all the miles of air with sound. A bird's voice, even a piping frog, enlivens a solitude and makes world enough for us. At night I went out into the dark and saw a glimmering star and heard a frog, and Nature seemed to say, Well do not these suffice? Here is a new scene, a new experience. Ponder it, Emerson, and not like the foolish world, hanker after thunders and multitudes and vast landscapes, the sea or Nigra [Niagara]."

By all accounts, Emerson had an easier time learning about the woods from Thoreau than Thoreau had learning about society from Emerson. In his eulogy for Thoreau twenty years later, Emerson recalled how "it was a pleasure and privilege to walk with him," though he would "as soon think of taking the arm of an elm-tree." But Thoreau may not have seen any criticism in the comparison to an elm; when Emerson described Harvard as a place where one could enjoy all the branches of learning, Thoreau responded, "Yes, indeed, all the branches and none of the roots."

Source:  "Today in Literature"

Matters of Culture and Identity

Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch, #1)Ancillary Justice 
by Ann Leckie

“The problem is knowing when what you are about to do will make a difference. I’m not only speaking of the small actions that, cumulatively, over time, or in great numbers, alter the course of events in ways too chaotic or subtle to trace ... if everyone were to consider all the possible consequences of all one’s possible choices, no one would move a millimetre, or even dare to breathe for fear of the ultimate results.”   ― Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice

The protagonist of Ann Leckie's novel, Ancillary Justice, is unique in my experience. Honored Breq, or One Esk, or Justice of Torren, has a human body, but artificial intelligence. The story presented in Ancillary Justice is a space opera set thousands of years in the future, where the primary galactic power of human-occupied planets is the expansionist Radch empire. The empire uses AIs to control human bodies ("ancillaries") that are used as soldiers, though regular humans also are soldiers. The Radchaai do not distinguish people by gender, and Leckie conveys this by using female personal pronouns for everybody, and by having the Radchaai main character guess wrongly when she has to use languages with gender-specific pronouns. This usage was somewhat confusing at first because some of the other characters would refer to a person with a male pronoun while Breq had been and continued using a female pronoun. It becomes clear that the Radch culture did not care about gender.

The narrative begins several years after the disappearance of a Radch starship, the Justice of Toren, when the sole surviving ancillary (and fragment of the Justice of Toren's consciousness), Breq, encounters an officer, Seivarden, whom she had known 1,000 years earlier. The two are on an ice planet, and Seivarden is in precarious condition. The plot unfolds between two strands: Breq's "present day" quest for justice for the Justice of Torren's destruction, and flashbacks from 19 years earlier when the Justice of Torren was in orbit around the planet of Shis'urna, which was being formally brought into the Radchaai empire. Each of these is told in alternating chapters. We eventually find out that the Justice of Torren's destruction was the result of a covert war between two opposed strands of consciousness of the Lord of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai, who uses multiple synchronized bodies to rule her far-flung empire. At the end of the novel, Breq associates herself with the more pacific aspect of Anaander Mianaai while waiting for an opportunity to exact her revenge.

Details of the Radch culture gradually unfold as the story progresses. This aspect is impressive as it becomes clear that there is a vast culture that exists beyond the aspects depicted in the story. I particularly enjoyed the personality of the main character, Breq, including her delight in singing. She displays an encyclopedic knowledge of songs of the Radch culture through her interactions with others while on her quest. But Breq often seems torn between her identities as the ship, Justice of Torren and Breq.  We also find out, interestingly, that “Ships have feelings.” 

In fact it is not clear that the Breq we meet at the beginning of the novel is the same person as Justice of Torren of nineteen years earlier in spite of the connections between the two that are established through Breq's existence as an ancillary. We read “is anyone’s identity a matter of fragments held together by convenient or useful narrative, that in ordinary circumstances never reveals itself as a fiction? Or is it really a fiction?”  It is questions like this that make this an exceptional science fiction novel. The author develops relationships like that between Breq and Seivarden, while demonstrating significant ideas through situations that are unusual even for speculative fiction.  Not surprisingly, this book won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Science Fiction novel.

View all my reviews

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Freedom of Becoming a Witch

Lolly WillowesLolly Willowes 
by Sylvia Townsend Warner

“That’s why we become witches: to show our scorn of pretending life’s a safe business, to satisfy our passion for adventure. It’s not malice, or wickedness - well, perhaps it is wickedness, for most women love that - but certainly not malice, not wanting to plague cattle and make horrid children spout up pins and - what is it? - “blight the genial bed.”   ― Sylvia Townsend Warner, Lolly Willowes

Sylvia Townsend Warner was a feminist author in England who began publishing with her first novel at about the time that Virginia Woolf published her seminal essay, "A Room of One's Own"*.  Warner ran in different circles and was friendly with a number of the "Bright young things" of the 1920s that were famously satirized by Evelyn Waugh in his short novel Vile Bodies. Warner's first major success was this novel, Lolly Willowes, published in 1926.

Lolly Willowes is the story of a middle-aged spinster who moves to a country village to escape her controlling relatives and takes up the practice of witchcraft. The novel opens at the turn of the twentieth century, with Laura (Lolly) Willowes moving from Somerset to London to live with her brother, Henry, and his family. Her move comes in the wake of the death of Laura's father, Everard, with whom she lived with at the family home, Lady Place. Laura's other brother, James, moves into Lady Place with his wife and his young son, Titus, with the intention to continue the family's brewing business. However, James dies suddenly of a heart attack and Lady Place is rented out, with the view that Titus, once grown up, will return to the home and run the business.

Laura finds herself feeling increasingly stifled both by the obligations of being a live-in aunt and living in London. When shopping for flowers on the Moscow Road, Laura has an epiphany and realizes she must move to the country. Buying a guide book and map to the area, she decides upon the (fictional) village of Great Mop as her new home. Against the wishes of her extended family, Laura moves to Great Mop and finds herself entranced and overwhelmed by the chalk hills and beech woods. When out walking, she makes a pact with a supernatural force that she takes to be Satan, allowing her to remain in the Chilterns rather than return to her duties as an aunt.

In the meantime, Titus, having visited Laura, has decided he wants to move from his lodgings in Bloomsbury to Great Mop and be a writer, rather than inheriting the family business. Laura is frustrated by this but is able to call upon black magic to discourage Titus to the extent that he decides to get married and retreat to London. The denouement of the story leaves Laura acknowledging that the new freedom she has achieved comes at the expense of knowing that she belongs to the 'satisfied but profound indifferent ownership' of Satan.

Warner's writing style is sublime. She demonstrates a subtle humor leavened with unexpected turns of phrase that delighted this reader. Her take on this satirical comedy of manners incorporates elements of fantasy that represent, metaphorically, the plight of women in the era before they "have a room" of their own.  Having enjoyed this short novel I will definitely consider her other work including The Corner that Held Them, Mr Fortune’s Maggot and Summer will Show.

A Room of One's Own is an extended essay by Virginia Woolf. First published on 24 October 1929,  the essay was based on a series of lectures she delivered at Newnham College and Girton College, two women's colleges at Cambridge University in October 1928.  While the  essay in fact employs a fictional narrator and narrative to explore women both as writers of and characters in fiction, the manuscript for the delivery of the series of lectures, titled "Women and Fiction",  which was published in Forum March 1929, and hence the essay, are considered non-fiction.  The essay has become a seminal feminist text, and is noted in its argument for both a literal and figurative space for women writers within a literary tradition dominated by men.

View all my reviews

Monday, April 04, 2016

The Challenge of Love

The Mill on the Floss: A Norton Critical EditionThe Mill on the Floss 
by George Eliot

“In books there were people who were always agreeable or tender, and delighted to do things that made one happy, and who did not show their kindness by finding fault. The world outside the books was not a happy one, Maggie felt: it seemed to be a world where people behaved the best to those they did not pretend to love and that did not belong to them. And if life had no love in it, what else was there for Maggie? Nothing but poverty and the companionship of her mother’s narrow griefs—perhaps of her father’s heart-cutting childish dependence. There is no hopelessness so sad as that of early youth, when the soul is made up of wants, and has no long memories, no super-added life in the life of others; though we who look on think lightly of such premature despair, as if our vision of the future lightened the blind sufferer’s present.” ― George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss

George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss was published on this day in 1860. What a pleasure it is to read the novels of George Eliot. The sheer intelligence of the author shines on every page. 

In this, her second novel following closely after Adam Bede, she draws on her own experience to create a world of characters surrounding her hero & heroine, Tom and Maggie Tulliver.  The story develops at a leisurely pace with the first two books devoted to the childhood of Maggie and Tom.  Early in Book I, after having argued bitterly over the death of some pet rabbits, Tom and Maggie make up by going fishing on the Floss. They feel that the morning, the river and their childhood will last forever, the Eagle swooping in the sky and the Great Ash anchoring the bank. Yes and no, says Eliot's narrator as she relates here:

"Life did change for Tom and Maggie; and yet they were not wrong in believing that the thoughts and loves of these first years would always make part of their lives. We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it,—if it were not the earth where the same flowers come up again every spring that we used to gather with our tiny fingers as we sat lisping to ourselves on the grass; the same hips and haws on the autumn's hedgerows; the same redbreasts that we used to call “God's birds,” because they did no harm to the precious crops. What novelty is worth that sweet monotony where everything is known, and loved because it is known?"

Tom goes off to be tutored and Maggie must stay at home, so their lives slowly diverge until in subsequent books, as their father's world disintegrates in debt, they are found on opposite sides with both their filial love and love of "the earth" tested again and again. One of the most impressive aspects of the novel is the complexity of these characters as created by Eliot. Tom distinguishes himself at the trading firm of his Uncle Deane and matures into a confident and courageous young man, repaying the debts of his father. Yet, his character is flawed in both his inflexibility and his inability to appreciate the needs of his sister Maggie. Maggie, who is significantly more intelligent than Tom, and self-taught, has developed from a somewhat over-emotional young girl into a sort of Christian ascetic based on her reading of Thomas a Kempis. She is forbidden friendship with Philip Waken, the son of the lawyer who bought her father's mill, and is prevented from developing the potential that is central to her character. The choices she makes define who she is, how she will live, how her community will see her, and in some cases, how those around her will live. The tension between progress and tradition is central in The Mill on the Floss. In many ways, it is embodied in Maggie. The pull she feels between her individual desires and her communal duties is very much a pull between progress and tradition, as those communal duties are highly traditional, and her individual desires are far more suited to a more progressive world.

Though Maggie is deeply intelligent and passionate and has clearly defined desires, she finds fulfilling these desires nearly impossible. The denouement of the novel leads it down the path of the tragic side of life if not true tragedy, but the complexity of the characters and realism of the world in which they live continues to impress.

View all my reviews