Saturday, May 25, 2019

Journey into the Underworld

Melville's Moby Dick: An American Nekyia 

Melville's Moby Dick: An American Nekyia (Studies in Jungian Psychology by Jungian Analysts)

"I shall follow the endless, winding way---
the flowing river in the cave of man."
--Herman Melville, Pierre.

This is literary criticism from a Jungian perspective. Edinger, while a Jungian, does not limit his analysis merely to the Jungian outlook, but also includes classical, biblical, and other literary references.

The approach that he uses is through examining the book as a psychological document.  He considers it "as a record in symbolic imagery of an intense inner experience".  In doing so he tries to serve three ends: 
"first, to elucidate the pyschological significance of Moby-Dick; second, to demonstrate the methods of analytical psychoogy in dealing with wymbolic forms; and third, to present the fundamental orientation which underlies the therapeutic approch of analytical psychology."  

The subtitle of the book, "An American Nekyia", refers to the eleventh book of the Odyssey, called a Nekyia, which is used as a reference to a journey to the underworld.  This seems particularly apt when attempting to elucidate some of the deep meaning suggested by the text of Moby-Dick.  It also can be seen in biblical terms as demonstrated by the sermon based on the tale of Jonah and the Leviathan. Whether discussing Prometheus, Faust, the Sphinx or demonism, Edinger produces a fascinating commentary on the potential meaning of the ultimate story of the whale.

The breadth of his approach makes his book attractive and worthwhile. While I did not always agree with his conclusions, his arguments and analyses were always thought-provoking. I would recommend this as one of the best literary criticisms to include in any close reading of Moby-Dick.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Culture Clash in Space


Binti (Binti, #1)

“Then there was Heru. I had never spoken to him, but we smiled across the table at each other during mealtimes. He was from one of those cities so far from mine that they seemed like a figment of my imagination, where there was snow and where men rode those enormous gray birds and the women could speak with those birds without moving their mouths.”   ― Nnedi Okorafor, Binti

This is the best science fiction novel (novella) I have read in quite a while. The author, Nnedi Okorafor is new to me, but has already won renown among science fiction fans as attested by the awards she has won.

The story could be called a futuristic coming of age story, as a young girl from the Himba ethnic group on Earth is the first from her group to be accepted into the prestigious intergalactic university, Oomza Uni. Her name is Binti and she leaves home boarding a transport ship to Oomza Uni. While in transit, the ship is hijacked by the Meduse, a jellyfish-like alien species that have previously been at war with the Khoush, another human ethnic group. The action rises as the Meduse murder all other inhabitants of the ship. Binti, however, is protected by a mysterious block of technology called an Edan and escapes destruction. The ensuing events on board involve her interactions with the Meduse as the ship continues toward Oomza Uni. The story becomes one both of Binti (and the reader) learning more about the Edan that protects her and of the developing friendship and understanding (of a sort) between Binti and the Meduse.

The author's style is superb and the story presents intriguing ideas as a familiar formula is played out in new and unconventional ways. The concise style was riveting as the story developed suspense along with surprising events that kept this reader interested. While this novella was short it succeeded in telling a compelling story while leaving the reader with a desire to find out "what happens next" both to Binti and the Meduse. I expect that I will pursue the two additional volumes of what has become a trilogy about the adventures of Binti.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

A Classical Romance

A Suitable Boy 

A Suitable Boy (A Suitable Boy, #1)

"But I too hate long books: the better, the worse. If they're bad they merely make me pant with the effort of holding them up for a few minutes. But if they're good, I turn into a social moron for days, refusing to go out of my room, scowling and growling at interruptions, ignoring weddings and funerals, and making enemies out of friends. I still bear the scars of Middlemarch."  — Vikram Seth

This is a novel of India set in the early 1950s just after the partition. In it, Vikram Seth provides a window into the culture and history of India at an early critical juncture in its history: the political and cultural climate five years after the country gained its independence from Great Britain in 1947. At the center of the novel is a romance about a young girl, Lata, whose mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra, is searching for a "suitable boy" for her to marry.

The novel's opening section succeeded in immediately arresting my attention. Some of the most notable aspects of the novel include the subtle ways that the author suggests the continuing cultural influence of England, from the impact of literary awards to the reading habits of several of the characters. Whether politics, religion, industry, university life, medicine, or law is the subject, each aspect is motivated by a character who is first and foremost a member of a family. The novel stresses loyalty to the extended family and considers this involvement as protection against a harsh world. The thirty or so family members along with an array of supporting characters emerge as memorable individuals. While Seth reveals their comic and absurd sides, he always treats them humanely. The novel is a tour de force that demonstrates his skill in writing, knowledge of India, and his ability to marry the charms of a classical romance novel within the broad reach of an historical family and national saga.

Without disclosing the plot details I can only assure the reader that it is worth all 1400+ pages. The thematic development of the clash between Hindu and Muslim cultures is particularly well portrayed with the impact of historical events on the national level mirrored by dramatic events among the main families whose lives fill the plot and subplots of the novel. It is rare that such a long book is both an entertaining read and an intellectually satisfying challenge. Vikram Seth has more than succeeded in both areas.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Gift of the god

Aeschylus I: Prometheus Bound 
translated by David Grene

Aeschylus I: The Persians, The Seven Against Thebes, The Suppliant Maidens, Prometheus Bound

“Prometheus: Yes, I stopped mortals from foreseeing their doom.
Chorus: What cure did you discover for that sickness?

Prometheus: I sowed in them blind hopes.”   ― David Grene, Greek Tragedies, Vol. 1: Aeschylus:  Prometheus Bound

Some have compared Prometheus to Jesus Christ. Certainly the opening scene of Aeschylus's play, with Prometheus splayed upon a rock as he is bound by Hephaestus, invites the comparison. I would not go so far and see the interplay between the Greek gods to be the relevant context for this scene. Played out at the "world's limit" in a bleak setting the drama portrays Prometheus suffering punishment for making humans "intelligent and masters of their minds". (line 444)

Prometheus' crime is not the only reason for his punishment for the chorus tells us that there is a war going on between the "Old" gods (Olympians) and the new generation of Gods. Zeus is seeking to maintain his primacy while Prometheus and his brothers are the dangerous new gods on the block. Atlas is suffering as well carrying the weight of the whole world on his back. The scales are not even - their is nothing like fairness or justice in this world. Prometheus is doomed even as he is visited by Io who is also suffering due to Hera's jealous rage over Zeus's attentions.

Being a god does not seem to lead to a completely pleasant life - there is strife and anger at every turn even for the most powerful. The winners in this play seem to be humans who do not have to relinquish the gifts endowed them by Prometheus. However, even these can be seen as a two-edged sword for our ancestors who had to endure hardships of many kinds in the struggle of living in the world. Prometheus cries out "O sky that circling brings light to all, you see how unjustly I suffer!" (lines 1091-2) Could that be our own cry even today?

Thursday, May 09, 2019

Modern "Art"

The Painted Word 

The Painted Word

“All of them, artists and theorists, were talking as if their conscious aim was to create a totally immediate art, lucid, stripped of all the dreadful baggage of history, an art fully revealed, honest, as honest as the flat-out integral picture plane.”   ― Tom Wolfe, The Painted Word

If you abjure the chic and dream of a realist approach to art this may be your book. Written by novelist and essayist Tom Wolfe, this is an extended essay on the current state of art (circa 1975).  In it he extends his social critique into the world of art with not surprising results. Those results are both witty and amusing. More importantly they are thought-provoking while raising the skeptical bar for art criticism. 

Modern art has morphed into postmodernism and beyond since this book was written, but his commentary has not lost its bite.  Moreover, there may be good modern art, but there certainly is a lot of bad modern art to sort through before you find it. This short introduction is one good place to find out where and how to look for it.