Monday, October 30, 2017

Sartoris Family Stories

The Unvanquished 

The Unvanquished

“A dream is not a very safe thing to be near, Bayard. I know; I had one once. It’s like a loaded pistol with a hair trigger: if it stays alive long enough, somebody is going to be hurt. But if it’s a good dream, it’s worth it. There are not many dreams in the world, but there are a lot of human lives. And one human life or two dozen——” “Are not worth anything?” “No. Not anything.—Listen.”   ― William Faulkner, The Unvanquished

While The Unvanquished began as a collection of short stories that had been published elsewhere, there is enough continuity among the stories for the whole to stand reasonably as a novel, even though the vignettes can be read separately. Perhaps the best story was the final one, An Odor of Verbena, that Faulkner wrote specifically for this novel.

The Civil War is "present time" although the narrator, young Bayard Sartoris, is recalling events that happened many years earlier. His story begins as Colonel Sartoris comes home for a day to warn his family that Yankee soldiers are nearby and to help build a stock pen to hide his animals from the Yankees. A few days later, a Yankee soldier rides onto Sartoris land. The colonel’s twelve-year-old son Bayard and his companion Ringo, a slave on the plantation, shoot at the soldier. The boys hide under Granny’s skirts when more soldiers come to search the property for them. Granny denies that any children live on the property, and a colonel orders the rest of the men off the land while eyeing Granny’s skirts. The stories all feature the relationship of Bayard and Ringo, while Granny and Drusilla are also important characters.

Later, advised by Colonel Sartoris, Granny leaves for Memphis because of the dangers of the war. Joby, the Colonel’s servant, drives a wagon carrying Granny, Ringo, Bayard, and a trunk filled with silver that was buried in the yard for safekeeping. During the journey, Yankee soldiers steal their mules and Bayard and Ringo chase them unsuccessfully on a “borrowed” horse. Colonel Sartoris finds the boys and takes them home, capturing a Yankee camp on the way. Joby and Granny also make it back home with the help of “borrowed” horses, and the trunk containing the silver is again buried in the yard. Yankee soldiers come to capture Colonel Sartoris. Granny, Ringo, and Bayard drive six days to Hawkhurst, Alabama, to recover their trunk, their mules, and the runaway slaves. On the journey, they pass hundreds of former slaves who are following the Yankee troops to freedom. At Hawkhurst, Granny’s niece, Drusilla Hawk, joins the group, and the four of them travel to the river, where Yankee soldiers have built a bridge. After crossing, the soldiers hurry to destroy the bridge so the people who have followed them to freedom will be unable cross. The Sartoris wagon gets pushed into the river, and the four travelers make it to the other side, where the Yankee troops are now stationed.

Granny asks to speak with Colonel Dick. She asks for the return of her mules, her trunk, and Loosh and Philadelphy. Colonel Dick gives Granny a written statement from the commanding general dated August 14, 1863, that validates the return of 10 chests, 110 mules, and 110 former slaves who are following the troops. The document allows them to pass safely through any Yankee troops they might encounter and also to petition them for food during the journey home.  The story continues with episodes featuring Granny and Drusilla. The differences between the traditions of the Sartorises and other established families and entrepreneurs like Ab Snopes (the Snopes family is explored in detail in the three novels known as The Snopes Trilogy) are highlighted. These and the previous stories also emphasize the tension between the cultures of the established Southerners and marauders, many of whom were Yankees.

About eight years later, Bayard is in his third year studying law in Oxford, Mississippi. Ringo comes to him to report that John Sartoris has been killed by his rival, Ben Redmond. On the forty-mile ride home, Bayard reflects on the last few years: his father’s marriage to Drusilla and the code of violence to which they adhere, his father’s railroad venture with Redmond, their run against each other for political office, his father’s humiliating taunting of Redmond, and his father’s recent decision to turn against killing and meet Redmond unarmed. Bayard knows Drusilla and the men in Jefferson will expect him to avenge his father’s death. Bayard  realizes that killing is not a satisfactory solution. Determined neither to kill again nor to be a coward, he goes to Jefferson the next day to meet Redmond unarmed. Redmond shoots twice, intentionally missing Bayard, and leaves town. Bayard returns home and finds that Drusilla has gone to live with her brother but has left behind a sprig of verbena for him.

The Unvanquished provides a view of the Civil War and some of its consequences from the perspective of young Bayard and his extended family. It is a serious assessment of the Southern legend, and a declaration of independence from the past. The characters are deftly portrayed and the stories well-told.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Journey into Virtual Reality

Ready Player One 

Ready Player One
“If I was feeling depressed or frustrated about my lot in life, all I had to do was tap the Player One button, and my worries would instantly slip away as my mind focused itself on the relentless pixelated onslaught on the screen in front of me. There, inside the game's two-dimensional universe, life was simple: It's just you against the machine. Move with your left hand, shoot with your right, and try to stay alive as long as possible.”   ― Ernest Cline, Ready Player One

Do you like contests? 
Do you like MMORPGs? 
Do you know what an MMORPG is? If you answered yes to the first two of those questions you probably know the answer to the third and you probably will like this book more than I did. Not that I really disliked Ernest Cline's dystopian fantasy, but I just got tired of the online game references and late twentieth century TV trivia.

This book starts out with a bang and the plot moves along at a rapid pace. However it did not move fast enough to overcome its predictability; thus I grew a bit weary after a hundred or so pages. In the year 2044, the world has been gripped by an energy crisis from the depletion of fossil fuels and the consequences of global warming, causing widespread social problems and economic stagnation. To escape the decline their world is facing, people turn to the OASIS,[a] a virtual reality simulator accessible by players using visors and haptic technology such as gloves. It functions both as an MMORPG and as a virtual society, with its currency being the most stable in the real world. It was created by James Halliday who, when he died, had announced in his will to the public that he had left an Easter egg inside OASIS, and the first person to find it would inherit his entire fortune and the corporation.

The story follows the adventures of Wade Watts, starting about five years after the announcement, when he discovers one of the three keys pointing to the treasure. The Huffington Post referred to it as "Delightful . . . the grown-ups Harry Potter". Well, yes it did remind me of Harry Potter a bit with the protagonist, Wade, whose avatar he named Parzival (yes, after the famed knight of the Grail legend), fleeing from a dysfunctional family to a hidden lair he created as a spot from which he could log-on to go to school; however more importantly to participate in the greatest and most popular video game ever created called OASIS.

The story becomes a postmodern version of the heroic journey with Parzival contending with untold thousands of other individuals for the ultimate prize established by the late creator of OASIS. Of course there is an evil corporation that is out to win the prize by devious and violent (if necessary) means. There are also players with whom Parzival becomes friends, of a sort, and assorted difficult moments, cliff-hangers if you will, as Parzival's journey through OASIS goes on. I have left out the details and will not even hint at the ending. I can only repeat that if you like the MMORPGs and would like to read about adventures in cyberspace this book is for you.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

A Commonplace Entry

What is Enlightenment?

Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one's own understanding without another's guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one's own mind without another's guidance. Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) "Have the courage to use your own understanding," is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.

Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why such a large part of mankind gladly remain minors all their lives, long after nature has freed them from external guidance. They are the reasons why it is so easy for others to set themselves up as guardians. It is so comfortable to be a minor. If I have a book that thinks for me, a pastor who acts as my conscience, a physician who prescribes my diet, and so on--then I have no need to exert myself. I have no need to think, if only I can pay; others will take care of that disagreeable business for me. Those guardians who have kindly taken supervision upon themselves see to it that the overwhelming majority of mankind--among them the entire fair sex--should consider the step to maturity, not only as hard, but as extremely dangerous. First, these guardians make their domestic cattle stupid and carefully prevent the docile creatures from taking a single step without the leading-strings to which they have fastened them. Then they show them the danger that would threaten them if they should try to walk by themselves. Now this danger is really not very great; after stumbling a few times they would, at last, learn to walk. However, examples of such failures intimidate and generally discourage all further attempts.

Thus it is very difficult for the individual to work himself out of the nonage which has become almost second nature to him. He has even grown to like it, and is at first really incapable of using his own understanding because he has never been permitted to try it. Dogmas and formulas, these mechanical tools designed for reasonable use--or rather abuse--of his natural gifts, are the fetters of an everlasting nonage. The man who casts them off would make an uncertain leap over the narrowest ditch, because he is not used to such free movement. That is why there are only a few men who walk firmly, and who have emerged from nonage by cultivating their own minds.

It is more nearly possible, however, for the public to enlighten itself; indeed, if it is only given freedom, enlightenment is almost inevitable. There will always be a few independent thinkers, even among the self-appointed guardians of the multitude. Once such men have thrown off the yoke of nonage, they will spread about them the spirit of a reasonable appreciation of man's value and of his duty to think for himself. It is especially to be noted that the public which was earlier brought under the yoke by these men afterwards forces these very guardians to remain in submission, if it is so incited by some of its guardians who are themselves incapable of any enlightenment. That shows how pernicious it is to implant prejudices: they will eventually revenge themselves upon their authors or their authors' descendants. Therefore, a public can achieve enlightenment only slowly. A revolution may bring about the end of a personal despotism or of avaricious tyrannical oppression, but never a true reform of modes of thought. New prejudices will serve, in place of the old, as guide lines for the unthinking multitude.

This enlightenment requires nothing but freedom--and the most innocent of all that may be called "freedom": freedom to make public use of one's reason in all matters. Now I hear the cry from all sides: "Do not argue!" The officer says: "Do not argue--drill!" The tax collector: "Do not argue--pay!" The pastor: "Do not argue--believe!" Only one ruler in the world says: "Argue as much as you please, but obey!" We find restrictions on freedom everywhere. But which restriction is harmful to enlightenment? Which restriction is innocent, and which advances enlightenment? I reply: the public use of one's reason must be free at all times, and this alone can bring enlightenment to mankind. . .

"What is Enlightenment?" - Immanuel Kant

Saturday, October 14, 2017

A Good Man

The Idiot 

Part I, Prince Myshkin Returns

The Idiot

“One can't understand everything at once, we can't begin with perfection all at once! In order to reach perfection one must begin by being ignorant of a great deal. And if we understand things too quickly, perhaps we shan't understand them thoroughly.”  ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Idiot

The Idiot is one of Dostoevsky's great novels from the final decade of his life. Narrated in the third person it tells a tale of the fate of a truly good man, an apparently naive innocent. This character, Prince Lef Nicolaievitch Myshkin, is a noble man whose behavior at first is only strange and unconventional. Short, slight, with light hair and mustache, nearly white beard, and searching blue eyes, he arrests the attention of all who see him. His naive, unblemished goodness, in part the result of his life-long bout with epilepsy, causes men to doubt him and women to love him. He is considered by some to be in part a prototype for the character of Aloysha Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov.

After four years spent in Switzerland, where he was treated for his epilepsy at a sanatorium, Prince Myshkin returns to St. Petersburg. On the train, the threadbare shabbiness of his clothing attracts the attention of the other passengers. One of these, Parfen Rogozhin, begins to question him. By the time they reach Petersburg, the prince and Rogozhin are well informed about each other, and Rogozhin offers to take the prince to his home and to give him money.

Myshkin, however, first wants to introduce himself to General Epanchin, whose wife is distantly related to him. At the Epanchin home, he meets the general and his secretary, Ganya, who invites him to become one of his mother’s boarders. The prince interests the general, who gives him some money, and he fascinates the general’s wife and three daughters. His lack of sophistication, his naïveté, and his frankness, charm and amuse the family. Soon they begin to call him “the idiot,” half in jest, half in earnest, but he remains on good terms with them. At one point the narrator relates the Prince's thoughts about being called an idiot: "Everybody also considers me an idiot for some reason, and in fact I was once so ill that I was like an idiot; but what sort of idiot I am now, when I myself understand that I'm considered an idiot? I come in and think: 'They consider me an idiot, but I'm intelligent all the same, and they don't even suspect it . . .' I often have that thought."(p 75)

In this first of four parts of the novel we are introduced to themes of class distinction through the many characters we meet at the Epanchins and elsewhere; while a contrast is developed between Myshkin and those he meets primarily through his indifference to the trappings of society, including their money, dress, and self-serving behavior. Other themes arise such as death, which is emphasized through two stories related by the Prince, and sickness that is endemic to the Prince's physical character. One of the stories about death mirrors an actual experience of Dostoevsky when in his youth he had been imprisoned and taken out to be executed -- an execution that was abrogated at the last moment leaving a permanent scar on Dostoevsky's psyche.

The first part, covers only the first day of the Prince's return to Petersburg, and concludes with several chapters detailing a drinking party given by Nastasya Filippovna, a courtesan. Extremely emotional and neurotic, Nastasya is thought by many to be guilty of  sins of which she is really innocent. Myshkin realizes her helplessness and pities her; and he asks her to marry him, saying that he received an unexpected inheritance. She refuses, declaring that she has no desire to cause his ruin. Instead she goes with Rogozhin, who brings her a hundred thousand rubles.  Will the prince continue to pursue Nastasya?  Perhaps Part Two will tell us.

Friday, October 06, 2017

The Reformation Begins

On Christian Liberty 

On Christian Liberty

"So the Christian who is consecrated by his faith does good works, but the works do not make him holier or more Christian, for that is the work of faith alone."  - Martin Luther

In 1520, three years after posting his famous theses, Luther was still a monk in the Catholic Church. It was then that he wrote this short manifesto regarding the nature of the freedom of a Christian. In it he elucidates some of the principles that would become the foundation of the Protestant Reformation. He opens with a discussion of "man's twofold nature" of the inner spiritual nature or the soul and the outer bodily nature of the flesh. These two natures are in conflict for it is the inner nature or soul that is fed by the preaching of Christ that makes it righteous. He also discusses the seeming contradiction that the Christian is both free and subject to no one while at the same time in bondage and servant to all.

This short but rich text also brings out the importance of each individual being his own priest; thus laying the foundation for the doctrine of the "priesthood of all believers". I was impressed with Luther's style of argument, for he argued from the text of the Bible rather than from his unsupported views. In doing so he was able to rationally support statements that seemed contradictory on the surface. Admittedly the arguments depended on your acceptance of the divinity of the Bible as God's word. However, for Luther and his audience this was not an issue.

Luther had been concerned with edicts by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church that had no biblical support. It is likely that with this in mind on September 6, 1520 he sent this manifesto with a letter to Pope Leo X. However the Catholic hierarchy was not be responsive to Luther's arguments. In the following year he was called to appear before the Diet of Worms and was declared a heretic.