Wednesday, June 29, 2016

De Rerum Natura

On the Nature of Things: De rerum naturaOn the Nature of Things: 
De rerum natura 
by Titus Lucretius Carus

"Then withdraw from cares and apply your cunning mind
To hear the truth of reasoned theory,
That the verses I give you, arranged with diligent love,
You will not scorn before you understand.
I open for you by discussing the ultimate law
Of the gods and sky;  I reveal the atoms, whence
Nature creates and feeds and grows all things
And into which she resolves them when they are spent;"
- On the Nature of Things, Book I, lines 50-57)

The philosophy of Epicurus is not presented any better than in the classic poem,  On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura) by Titus Lucretius Carus. We know little about his life.  He was probably born in the early first century B.C.  This meant that he lived during the turbulent era of the end of the Roman Republic and beginning of the Empire that saw the rise of Sulla and Pompey and, ultimately, Julius Caesar. On the Nature of Things, posthumously edited by Cicerowas his poetic plea to the Roman elite that they change course. 

The poem by Lucretius has the goal of explaining Epicurean philosophy to a Roman audience. It was written in some 7,400 dactylic hexameters, divided into six untitled books, and explores Epicurean philosophy and physics through richly poetic language and metaphors. It is a rational and materialistic view of the world that presents the principles of atomism; the nature of the mind and soul; explanations of sensation and thought; the development of the world and its phenomena; and explains a variety of celestial and terrestrial phenomena. The universe described in the poem operates according to these physical principles, guided by fortuna, "chance", and not the divine intervention of the traditional Roman deities.  He extols the life of contemplation as seen in these lines from the opening of Book Two:
"But nothing is sweeter than to dwell in the calm
Temples of truth, the strongholds of the wise." (II, 7-8)

Thankfully we can still enjoy the vision of the good life as presented in this beautiful poem. The basics of Lucretius' philosophy include acknowledging pleasure (or the absence of pain) as the highest good, basing ethics on the evidence of the senses, and extolling plain living and high thinking. He also is a committed atheist, denouncing the gods in Book I of the poem, advocating free will in Book II, and reassuring his readers that they have nothing to fear from death in Book III. This lucid translation by Anthony M. Esolen reminds me why Lucretius is still worth reading.

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Friday, June 24, 2016

Destiny and Time

The Death of VirgilNotes on 
The Death of Virgil 
by Hermann Broch

“… for overstrong was the command to hold fast to each smallest particle of time, to the smallest particle of every circumstance, and to embody all of them in memory as if they could be preserved in memory through all deaths for all times.”   ― Hermann Broch, The Death of Virgil

Hermann Broch was fifty-one years old in 1937 when he began to write The Death of Virgil.  IN doing this he was adhering to certain principles that he had outlined in an essay, "Joyce and the Present Age", written in the previous year.  In this essay he argued that "the work of art, the "universal work of art" becomes the mirror of the Zeitgeist";  that being the totality of the historic reality of the present age.   This totality is reflected in great works of art like Faust and the late works of Beethoven.  Reaching his fiftieth year was significant for Broch as a time that would allow him to achieve this sort of significance in his own writing.  The work known as The Death of Virgil would be his "great work of art".  And great it is indeed.

Drawing on the past he looks to Homer, Virgil, and Dante as seen in the three epigrams for the novel.  These epigrams suggest themes that will be present in the story and, perhaps, dominate it at times.  Foremost is the idea of fate or destiny that is complemented by the impossibility of recapturing the past as demonstrated in the second epigram by Aeneas' journey to Hades in Book Six of the Aeneid ((VI, 697-702).  This visit which mirrors a similar visit by Odysseus in Homer's Odyssey is a downward passage to Hades of a son to see his father, Anchises.  It is contrasted with the climb upward of Dante as guided by Virgil out of the Inferno in the final epigram from the Divine Comedy (XXXIV, 133-139).

As we proceed to the opening pages of the first chapter we immediately encounter the poet Virgil on a sickbed in a ship making its way into the port of Brundiisium.  As he lay there he wondered at his fate being brought to this point.  He asks himself, "why then had he yielded to the importunity of Augustus?"  For Virgil had been in Athens planning to seek wisdom in the study of philosophy, but now, instead of "a life free alike of art and poetry, a life dedicated to meditation and study in the city of Plato," he would be tethered to the Emperor.  Held there by "life forces, those irrefutable forces of fate which never vanished completely."
Virgil exhibits and even recognizes doubts about the direction of his life and the status of his lifework.  He yearned for a simplicity that might only be accomplished with the simplicity of death.  Even though as he thinks of his final work, The Aeneid, that "people would praise it because as yet everything he had written had been praised, because only the agreeable things would be abstracted from it," he sees the court surrounding Augustus as parasites who feed on the largess of the Emperor's majesty.

The author Broch presents this narrative in the third person but soon begins to present Virgil's  thoughts in a way that is a variant of the "stream-of-consciousness" style that modern authors like Woolf, Joyce, and Faulkner all used in a more direct way.  He combines this narrative approach with long sentences and paragraphs that mimic the flow of thought, time, and become his attempt to capture the totality of the world.  Time is twisted and bent as pages are devoted to brief moments of thought in a way that sometimes surprises the attentive reader.

These notes represent a beginning of my attempt to discuss some of the important themes, motifs, and ideas that I encounter as I read this challenging novel over the next several weeks.  Reading it will be a slow process, but it is already rewarding and even exciting in seeing the world of Virgil as he nears the end of his life.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Two Boys Discover Life

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the UniverseAristotle and Dante Discover 
the Secrets of the Universe 
by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

“i have this idea that the reason we have dreams is that we're thinking about things that we don't know we're thinking about-and those things,well,they sneak out of us in our dreams.Maybe we're like tires with too much air in them.The air has to leak out.That's what dreams are.”   ― Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

"Through all of youth I was looking for you 
without knowing what I was looking for."
-- W. S. Merwin

Friendship and family devotion are two of the themes of this wonderful book. But beyond those themes are the wonder and mystery of desire while developing an understanding about the relations between oneself and the object of desire.

Two boys, Ari and Dante, are as different as any two boys can be. Yet they become friends and their friendship becomes a bond that transcends their differences.  Ari narrates the story and tells how he and Dante learn and grow  as they share books and thoughts, feelings and dreams. The experience of growing and becoming is demonstrated by the life changes precipitated by the calendar:

"Summer was here again. Summer, Summer, Summer.  I loved and hated summers.  Summers had a logic all there own and they always brought something out in me.  Summer was supposed to be about freedom and youth and no school and possibilities and adventure and exploration.  Summer was a book of hope.  That's why I loved and hated summers.  Because they made me want to believe." (p 235)

Their shared lives and experiences help them grow and deal with the difficulties inherent in that process. The journey of Ari and Dante became one of discovery of what was hidden inside each of them from the beginning.  For this reader it was enjoyable and ultimately inspirational.  A reading adventure that I would recommend to all.

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Thursday, June 16, 2016

Man, Fate, and Eternity

The AssistantThe Assistant 
by Bernard Malamud

“Morris saw the blow descend and felt sick of himself, of soured expectations, endless frustration, the years gone up in smoke, he could not begin to count how many. He had hoped for much in America and got little. And because of him Helen and Ida had less. He had defrauded them, he and the bloodsucking store.

He fell without a cry. The end fitted the day. It was his luck, others had better.”  (Chapter one)

I first read this novel as part of a course on the novel and business more than two decades ago.  Rereading it today reminds me of Malamud's greatness both as storyteller and one who meditates meaningfully on the relation of man with eternity.  
While Malamud was a writer who always had one eye fixed on the eternal and one on the here and now, the here and now in this case was represented by a small business. The eternal was the realm of moral quandaries. It was his genius to show the two constantly intersecting. 

In this short novel, his masterpiece, Morris Bober is a neighborhood grocer whose modest store is failing and whose luck actually takes a turn for the worse when he is held up by masked hoodlums. Or is it worse? When a stranger (Frank Alpine) appears and offers to work without pay, "for the experience", it doesn't take long for the reader to realize that the stranger is one of the men who robbed Bober. But just what are his motives in returning? He seems to be seeking atonement, but he soon begins simultaneously robbing the till and also falling in love with Bober's daughter, theft of a different kind.
Certainly there is the question of suffering present when Morris and Frank engage in the following interchange:
""If you live, you suffer. Some people suffer more, but not because they want. But I think if a Jew don't suffer for the Law he will suffer for nothing."
"What do you suffer for, Morris?" Frank said.
"I suffer for you," Morris said calmly.
Frank laid his knife down on the table. His mouth ached. "What do you mean?"
"I mean you suffer for me."
The clerk let it go at that."

Morris's daughter, Helen, finds Frank interesting and tries to help him by sharing some books with him, but this leads to the following question from Frank to Helen in the last chapter:  “Those books you once gave me to read…did you understand them yourself?”

The books Helen gave Frank to read—Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment—are about people who sin and pay the consequences. Reading these great novels should have taught Helen both sympathy for those who make terrible mistakes and the possibility for redemption. However, it is evident from her treatment of Frank that Helen never understood the great literature she attempted to teach to Frank. It is not until the end of the chapter that she finally sees how he has changed and realizes the possibility for redemption is real.

In the end what are we to make of Morris? He is doomed by his poor choices, yet his life is not pre-ordained but dependent upon those choices. Malamud sees suffering as the fate of the whole of mankind, with responsibility taken for each other as the way to mitigate this. It is reminiscent of Dostoevsky's idea of universal brotherhood and mutual responsibility, but without Dimitri Karamazov's notion that we are all monsters. The cosmos is present throughout Malamud's story but its effect is continually changing.  

Alpine is able to engage in a symbolic death and rebirth in Malamud's devastating meditation upon suffering, penance and forgiveness. It is a story about the ways in which the weight of the world can be lifted, just a little, by determined acts of grace. And it is a story which makes you think about these important issues and that is always a good thing.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Illuminating and Inspirational Memoir: an introduction

The Periodic TableThe Periodic Table 
by Primo Levi

“Alongside the liberating relief of the veteran who tells us his story, I now felt in the writing a complex, intense, and new pleasure, similar to that I felt as a student when penetrating the solemn order of differentials calculus. It was exalting to search and find, or create, the right word, that is, commensurate, concise, and strong; to dredge up events from my memory and describe them with the greatest rigor and the least clutter.”   ― Primo Levi, The Periodic Table

Thomas Mann began his tetralogy, Joseph and His Brothers, with this sentence: "Very deep is the well of the past." Primo Levi's memoir, The Periodic Table, demonstrates this metaphor in a much smaller, compact space. The lives of Levi and his Piedmont ancestors are explored through stories that illuminate the nature of the past and the source of those people's and our own humanity. This is done through vignettes that demonstrate Levi's love of chemistry and literature, his relations and relationships, while exploring his own attitude and thoughts.

Some of his thoughts are about reading and its meaning for his life. This is a topic that I especially love to explore and learn about;  I will take it up in this introductory commentary on his memoir. His reading is based on his love for great literature particularly his appreciation for the writings of Thomas Mann, whom he holds in the highest esteem. 
Early in the narrative during his sojourn as a chemistry student he meets Rita, a fellow student, and is attracted to her although, due to his shyness, he does not know how to approach her. He reaches a point where "I thought myself condemned to a perpetual masculine solitude, denied a woman's smile forever". Yet one day he found beside her, peeking out of her bag, a book. It was The Magic Mountain. He relates, "it was my sustenance during those months, the timeless story of Hans Castorp in enchanted exile on the magic mountain. I asked Rita about it, on tenterhooks to hear her opinion, as if I had written the book: and soon enough I had to realize that she was reading the novel in an entirely different way. As a novel, in fact: she was very interested in finding out exactly how far Hans would go with Madame Chauchat, and mercilessly skipped the fascinating (for me) political, theological, and metaphysical discussions between the humanist Settembrini and the Jewish Jesuit Naphtha." (p 38)
We all may have had a similar experience more than once: finding someone (whether drawn to them by Eros or not) reading a book we love, but not reading the same book.

Levi's love for Mann's writing also provided him solace while working on a demanding project during the war. He was sequestered in a laboratory next to a nickel mine and forced to work long hours. He dared not venture far from the mine, so "Sometimes I stayed in the lab past quitting time or went back there after dinner to study, or to meditate on the problem of nickel. At other times I shut myself in to read Mann's Joseph stories in my monastic cell in the submarine. On nights when the moon was up I often took long solitary walks through the wild countryside around the mine". (p 79)
One can picture Levi pondering while walking by the light of the Tuscan moon finding comfort as did Jacob in Mann's novel when he walked in the moonlight. It is the moonlight with its "magically ambiguous precision" that mirrored for Jacob the way the traditions of the children and grandchildren of Abraham are "spun out over generations and solidified as a chronicle only much later--". ("The Tales of Jacob")

Throughout his memoir Primo Levi shares other literature and experiences as he narrates the lives of his friends, family, and ancestors. Just as he is inspired by reading Thomas Mann and the moonlight that inspired Jacob so many centuries ago he is imbued with the life of the people around him. Yes, The Periodic Table is deep, and one wonders at the lives narrated by this brilliant Jewish Italian chemist and humanist.  

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Sunday, June 12, 2016

Essays for Humanity

My Belief: Essays on Life and ArtMy Belief: Essays on Life and Art 
by Hermann Hesse

“Without words, without writing and without books there would be no history, there could be no concept of humanity.”   ― Hermann Hesse

There are those writers who spin tales and tell imaginary stories and there are those who document their lives. These essays fall into the latter category within the oeuvre of Hermann Hesse. Each is a delight whether of personal detail, literary criticism, philosophy, or meditation on the meaning of life. Hesse had to write and most often he had to write about himself. There is little that he wrote that is not confessional in aspect and therapeutic in function. These essays provide milestones and assessments of his life and reading. They are a joy to read and consider alongside his fiction and other writings.

Here is an especially moving excerpt from his essay "The Magic of the Book":

For every thinking person each verse of each poet will show a new and different face to the reader every few years, will awaken a different resonance in him.  When as a youth I read for the first time, only partially understanding it, Goethe's Elective Affinities, that was a completely different book from the Elective Affinities that I have now read perhaps for the fifth time!  The great and mysterious thing about this reading experience is this:  the more discriminatingly, the more sensitively, and the more associatively we learn to read, the more clearly we see every thought and every poem in its uniqueness, its individuality, in its precise limitations and see that all beauty, all charm depend on this individuality and uniqueness--at the same time we come to realize ever more clearly how all these hundred thousand voices of nations strive toward the same goals, call upon the same gods by different names, dream the same wishes, suffer the same sorrows.  Out of the thousandfold fabric of countless languages and books of several thousand years, in ecstatic instants there stares at the reader a marvelously noble and transcendent chimera:  the countenance of humanity, charmed into unity from a thousand contradictory features." (pp 161-62)

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Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Conversations about Life

by Rachel Cusk

“As it happened, I was no longer interested in literature as a form of snobbery or even self-definition. I had no desire to prove that one book was better than another; in fact, if I read something I admired, I found myself increasingly disinclined to mention it at all. What I knew personally to be true had come to seem unrelated to the process of persuading others. I did not, any longer, want to persuade anyone of anything.”   ― Rachel Cusk, Outline

This unusual novel by Rachel Cusk raised several questions as I read it. What does it mean to be a writer? Why and how do you listen to your surroundings? Does that listening mean participation in the lives of those around you? There are undoubtedly more questions to pursue, but these are certainly central to the story told about a writer who, unnamed until the penultimate chapter  and on her way to teach a writing seminar in Greece, meets several people with whom she has conversations.  The conversations gradually tell us more about her as they do about the people whom she meets. We are able to consider the unawareness that our seeming ignorance leads us into.  The narrator comments:
“Sometimes it has seemed to me that life is a series of punishments for such moments of unawareness, that one forges one's own destiny by what one doesn't notice or feel compassion for; that what you don't know and don't make the effort to understand will become the very thing you are forced into knowledge of.” 
Consideration of the questions that this book raised for me suggested a way to "make the effort to understand" the world within and without the story. 

We learn about many things including her dreams and her epiphanies or realizations about herself. One conversation with a Greek man, Paniotis, yields the following:
"I realised that my little dream of a publishing house was destined to remain just that, a fantasy, and in fact what that realisation caused me to feel was not so much disappointment at the situation as astonishment at the fantasy itself." (p 95)
Learning about herself she is able to teach other writers at the seminar and we are able to learn something about ourselves--perhaps. 

This is not a novel driven by plot.  Nonetheless the simple elegance of the writing and the fascinating conversations--sometimes seeming like short stories embedded within the larger novel--make this a rewarding book to read and reread. I found it a different but welcome addition to my reading life.

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A Novel of Business & Morality

The Rise of Silas LaphamThe Rise of Silas Lapham 
by William Dean Howells

“If he was not commonplace, it was through nothing remarkable in his mind, which was simply clear and practical, but through some combination of qualities of the heart that made men trust him, and women call him sweet--a word of theirs which conveys otherwise indefinable excellences.”   ― William Dean Howells, The Rise of Silas Lapham

The realism of Howell's novel centers on a "self-made man" who confronts the old-guard aristocratic society of Boston in the nineteenth century. The author uses a balanced structure in the classical manner, with a lucid prose and fine attention to detail that almost caress the reader. The deftly woven plot and sub-plots highlight the "rise" of Lapham in a moral sense even while his material fortunes deteriorate. Silas earns a fortune in the paint business, but he lacks traditional social standards, which he tries to attain through his daughter's marriage into the aristocratic Corey family.

Silas's morality does not fail him. He loses his money but makes the right moral decision when his partner proposes the unethical selling of the mills to English settlers. He is a sympathetic character even as he unwisely engages in an endeavor that is doomed by a society that would never accept him. The female characters, especially Lapham's daughter Penelope, are well written and rival portrayals of women by such novelists as Eliot and Wharton. Howells is known to be the father of American realism, and a denouncer of the sentimental novel. The love triangle of Irene Lapham, Tom Corey, and Penelope Lapham highlights Howells' views of sentimental novels as unrealistic and deceitful.

This is the first of major American novels of business, to be followed by those of Norris (The Octopus), Dreiser (The Financier) and Lewis (Babbit) among others. Howells sets his novel apart with his positive view of New England ideals and business itself. It is no wonder that this book has continuously been in print and is considered one the great works of American literature. Reading William Dean Howells' fine novel, The Rise of Silas Lapham, is an enjoyable experience.

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Poem for June

From “The Vision of Sir Launfal”

And what is so rare as a day in June?
     Then, if ever, come perfect days;
Then Heaven tries the earth if it be in tune,
     And over it softly her warm ear lays:
Whether we look, or whether we listen,
We hear life murmur, or see it glisten;
Every clod feels a stir of might,
     An instinct within it that reaches and towers,
And, grasping blindly above it for light,
     Climbs to a soul in grass and flowers;
The flush of life may well be seen
     Thrilling back over hills and valleys;
The cowslip startles in meadows green,
     The buttercup catches the sun in its chalice,
And there 's never a leaf or a blade too mean
     To be some happy creature's palace;
The little bird sits at his door in the sun,
     Atilt like a blossom among the leaves,
And lets his illumined being o'errun
     With the deluge of summer it receives;
His mate feels the eggs beneath her wings,
And the heart in her dumb breast flutters and sings;
He sings to the wide world, and she to her nest, –
In the nice ear of Nature which song is the best?

Even people who don’t know poetry—and who probably don’t know much about James Russell Lowell—may have heard the June line from “The Vision of Sir Launfal.” This is probably a bit of oral tradition at work; pick up a school primer from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century and you’re likely to find an excerpt from the poem. Generations of American schoolchildren probably recited it and, in the way of recitations, remembered it instead of much more important things all their lives.

James Russell Lowell was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on February 22, 1819, the son of the Reverend Charles Lowell and Harriet Spence.  He graduated from Harvard in 1841 with a Law degree, but Lowell had no interest in pursuing a career in that field. Shortly after graduating  he published his first collection of poems, A Year’s Life (C. C. Little and J. Brown), inspired by the poet Maria White, whom he would marry three years later.

The most versatile of the New Englanders during the middle of the nineteenth century, James Russell Lowell was a vital force in the history of American literature and thought during his lifetime. His range and perspicacity in literary criticism are unequaled in nineteenth-century America. He did more than anyone before Mark Twain in elevating the vernacular to a medium of serious artistic expression, and The Biglow Papers (1848) ranks among the finest political satires in American literature. His public odes expressed a mind and an outlook that drew the praise of Henry Brooks Adams, William James, and William Dean Howells. His personal charm made him both an effective diplomat during the period of the emergence of the United States as a world power and one of its finest letter writers.

Lowell authored multiple poetry books, including The Vision of Sir Launfal (George Nichols, 1848) from which the above excerpt was taken. Along with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier, Lowell belongs to the group of writers called the Fireside Poets, or “schoolroom” poets, known for their conservative, traditional forms; strict attention to rhyme and meter; and moral, religious, and political themes.