Sunday, June 30, 2019

Contemplative Walking

Three Novellas 

Three Novellas

“What can you do. You get a name, you're called 'Thomas Bernhard', and it stays that way for the rest of your life. And if at some point you go for a walk in the woods, and someone takes a photo of you, then for the next eighty years you're always walking in the woods. There's nothing you can do about it.”
   ― Thomas Bernhard

Walking is an early novella by Bernhard translated into English by Kenneth J. Northcott. The story is a stunning read even as it is presented in unparagraphed totality. It fuses philosophy’s depth of thought with poetry’s contemplative spaciousness.

The following excerpt provides an idea of the author's approach:
"we may not ask ourselves how we walk, for then we walk differently from the way we really walk and our walking simply cannot be judged, just as we may not ask ourselves how we think, for then we cannot judge how we think because it is no longer our thinking. Whereas, of course, we can observe someone else without his knowledge (or his being aware of it) and observe how he walks or thinks, that is, his walking and his thinking, we can never observe ourselves without our knowledge (or our being aware of it)."

I was reminded, ever so slightly, of some of the reveries of Thoreau or Rousseau on walking although this text is more late twentieth century than either of those authors. The famous essayist Lewis Thomas also comes to mind as he assayed the nature of how a jellyfish and a sea slug illuminate the mystery of the self. You can imagine why I might consider myself both excited and exasperated with his prose. Nonetheless in this novella and the other two, Amras and Playing Watten, I found some of the very best writing this reader of Bernhard had ever encountered, even though they may have been composed a bit earlier than his other recognized masterpieces.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Your Many Unacknowledged Servants

By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, Link

“The Sun King had dinner each night alone. He chose from forty dishes, served on gold and silver plate. It took a staggering 498 people to prepare each meal. He was rich because he consumed the work of other people, mainly in the form of their services. He was rich because other people did things for him. At that time, the average French family would have prepared and consumed its own meals as well as paid tax to support his servants in the palace. So it is not hard to conclude that Louis XIV was rich because others were poor.

But what about today? Consider that you are an average person, say a woman of 35, living in, for the sake of argument, Paris and earning the median wage, with a working husband and two children. You are far from poor, but in relative terms, you are immeasurably poorer than Louis was. Where he was the richest of the rich in the world’s richest city, you have no servants, no palace, no carriage, no kingdom. As you toil home from work on the crowded Metro, stopping at the shop on the way to buy a ready meal for four, you might be thinking that Louis XIV’s dining arrangements were way beyond your reach. And yet consider this. The cornucopia that greets you as you enter the supermarket dwarfs anything that Louis XIV ever experienced (and it is probably less likely to contain salmonella). You can buy a fresh, frozen, tinned, smoked or pre-prepared meal made with beef, chicken, pork, lamb, fish, prawns, scallops, eggs, potatoes, beans, carrots, cabbage, aubergine, kumquats, celeriac, okra, seven kinds of lettuce, cooked in olive, walnut, sunflower or peanut oil and flavoured with cilantro, turmeric, basil or rosemary … You may have no chefs, but you can decide on a whim to choose between scores of nearby bistros, or Italian, Chinese, Japanese or Indian restaurants, in each of which a team of skilled chefs is waiting to serve your family at less than an hour’s notice. Think of this: never before this generation has the average person been able to afford to have somebody else prepare his meals.

You employ no tailor, but you can browse the internet and instantly order from an almost infinite range of excellent, affordable clothes of cotton, silk, linen, wool and nylon made up for you in factories all over Asia. You have no carriage, but you can buy a ticket which will summon the services of a skilled pilot of a budget airline to fly you to one of hundreds of destinations that Louis never dreamed of seeing. You have no woodcutters to bring you logs for the fire, but the operators of gas rigs in Russia are clamoring to bring you clean central heating. You have no wick-trimming footman, but your light switch gives you the instant and brilliant produce of hardworking people at a grid of distant nuclear power stations. You have no runner to send messages, but even now a repairman is climbing a mobile-phone mast somewhere in the world to make sure it is working properly just in case you need to call that cell. You have no private apothecary, but your local pharmacy supplies you with the handiwork of many thousands of chemists, engineers and logistics experts. You have no government ministers, but diligent reporters are even now standing ready to tell you about a film star’s divorce if you will only switch to their channel or log on to their blogs.

My point is that you have far, far more than 498 servants at your immediate beck and call. Of course, unlike the Sun King’s servants, these people work for many other people too, but from your perspective what is the difference? That is the magic that exchange and specialisation have wrought for the human species.”  
― Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Falling Blossoms

The Makioka Sisters 

The Makioka Sisters

“The ancients waited for cherry blossoms, grieved when they were gone, and lamented their passing in countless poems. How very ordinary the poems had seemed to Sachiko when she read them as a girl, but now she knew, as well as one could know, that grieving over fallen cherry blossoms was more than a fad or convention.”  
Junichiro Tanizaki, The Makioka Sisters

The Makioka Sisters is the story of a proud, refined Japanese family that declines in fortune. The novel re-creates the sumptuous and pleasure-filled upper-class life of Osaka—the commercial center of Japan—just before and during World War II. Jun’ichiro Tanizaki carefully creates a detailed portrait of four once-rich and haughty sisters, whose lives encompass a wide area of joys and sorrows, and he also provides a satirically accurate description of the whims and fancies of a vanished era.

The novel is divided into three parts. In the first, there is little dramatic incident beyond marriage proposals and negotiations, Sachiko’s attack of jaundice, the nervous prostration of Etsuko, a cherry blossom viewing, and Yukiko’s return to Tsuruko’s control in Tokyo. The second part opens a year later, and the action increases, particularly with the harrowing experience of a terrible flood, from which Etsuko and Taeko are miraculously saved. The third section begins with yet another marriage proposal for Yukiko who, at thirty-three, is still a cause of anxiety for her two eldest sisters. The Makiokas no longer enter a marriage negotiation with the former feeling of social superiority, and, indeed, for the first time in their history fail to satisfy the prospective groom’s family with their credentials. Although old rituals continue—a firefly hunt, visits in spring to Nara, commemorative services for their dead parents—family honor slides. Tsuruko threatens to expel Taeko from the family unless she returns to the senior house in Tokyo. Taeko, however, earns sympathy rather than reproof when she falls gravely ill and loses her youthful appearance. She looks like a fallen woman—the very thing her detractors always considered her to be—and she suffers from nightmares about deceased Itakura. Through it all there is a sequence of passions that fuse nostalgia and bitterness, tragedy and comedy. The Makioka sisters, although still proud and refined, have lost status in their society, for the luxury of their father’s last years and the dignity of ancestral reputation have been long reduced by extravagance and bad management of the family business

Human destiny, the Makiokas learn, is unpredictable—the very lesson that world events repeat. The Stolzes, former neighbors, have returned to Nazi Germany, where they cultivate an unrealistic optimism for the future. Taeko recovers from her illness to inherit more trouble. Yukiko, even in her wedding preparations, shows signs of having a nervous disorder. Nothing can be entirely harmonious or beautiful for the once-enviable Makioka sisters. The story is a melancholy one, but the detail about ritual and customs and the subtle portrayal of the world-historical setting make this an engaging novel.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Flawed Ambition

Bad Blood: 
Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup 

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup
“A sociopath is often described as someone with little or no conscience. I’ll leave it to the psychologists to decide whether Holmes fits the clinical profile, but there’s no question that her moral compass was badly askew. I’m fairly certain she didn’t initially set out to defraud investors and put patients in harm’s way when she dropped out of Stanford fifteen years ago. By all accounts, she had a vision that she genuinely believed in and threw herself into realizing. But in her all-consuming quest to be the second coming of Steve Jobs amid the gold rush of the “unicorn” boom, there came a point when she stopped listening to sound advice and began to cut corners. Her ambition was voracious and it brooked no interference. If there was collateral damage on her way to riches and fame, so be it.”   ― John Carreyrou, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup

"I want to be a billionaire . . . the President will marry me because I have a billion dollars" (p. 9) These words were reportedly spoken with utter seriousness by the young Elizabeth Holmes before she reached her teen years. By the time she was nineteen she had a patent and had founded a start up with the aim to revolutionize the blood testing industry. By 2004 she had begun to raise funding in the millions of dollars for her enterprise which she christened Theranos. Within less than a decade the company was worth Billions in valuation and by 2017 it no longer existed.

John Carreyrou's book is the story of how the spectacular rise and rapid fall of Holmes' company occurred. The fundamental problem was they never made a product that worked the way it was described and sold to investors. In the process Holmes misled investors and retail partners such as Safeway and Walgreens, hiding the fact that her technology was flawed and had serious limitations that were masked by company representations.

In the technology arena software companies often market "buggy" products that do not work perfectly, yet these are often improved through use and further testing leading to successful results. With medical technology this approach does not work because people's health and lives are at stake. At Theranos false test results seriously jeopardized the health of patients in many cases.

The book reads like a detective story as the author seeks out whistle-blowers and patients who experienced the nightmare of false test results. One of the key informants was Kyle Shultz, the grandson of George Shultz, former Secretary of State, who was on the board of Theranos. Kyle joined Theranos right out of college, but soon found himself questioning the practices within the company. When he raised his concerns with Elizabeth Holmes her response was merely to tell him he was ignorant. After a discussion with his grandfather, who refused to believe him, he decided to resign from the company. This led to further difficulties with the lawyers for Theranos that included partners of the law firm of David Boies whose tactics were aggressive in an unseemly manner to put it politely. There were other people who gradually came forward through Carreyrou's determined investigation. All the while  Holmes was gracing the cover of Fortune Magazine and wowing interviewers with her sales pitch. Her charisma held sway even as the product she was selling continued to fall short of the image she was creating.

I found the book an electrifying read, although it did not explore the life of Elizabeth Holmes in enough depth for her to become anything more than a cipher. At best she had noble dreams of helping people with her blood testing device. But noble ideals do not warrant the lies and deception that endangered people who used the flawed equipment. The why behind her actions is not apparent from the story told by Carreyrou. That story, however, is fascinating and is well worth your time to read and think about what you might have done if you were part of the startup that was created out of Elizabeth Holmes noble lies.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Surprised by Joy

Selected Poems 

Selected Poems

“Surprised by joy- impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport-- Oh! with whom
But thee, deep buried in the silent tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?"

“I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud"

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay: 
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed--and gazed--but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood, 
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.” 

― William Wordsworth, "I Wander'd Lonely as a Cloud"

One can conjecture that the earthbound melancholy of the poet’s pensive mood (line 20) is transformed into its opposite, the sensual, cheerful sanguine humor which is associated with the element air. As fire and choler are the opposites of water and the phlegmatic humor, so air and the sanguine humor are the opposites of earth and melancholy. Since air (wind) and water (waves) are so prominent in the poem, one finds oneself with another Garden of Eden built of the same two elements that John Milton used to build his doomed Eden in Paradise Lost (1667, 1674). It is no accident that five lines near the start of the 1805 version of Wordsworth’s The Prelude (1850), written within a few months of “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” subtly echo the final five lines of Milton’s Paradise Lost. At the end of Paradise Lost, Adam and Eve leave the Garden of Eden with the world “all before them”; providence is their guide as they take their “solitary way.” In The Prelude, Wordsworth writes that the “earth is all before me”; even if his guide is only “a wandering cloud,” he says, “I cannot miss my way.”

Friday, June 14, 2019

Life, Art, and War

Life Class 

Life Class

“It’s strange, isn’t it? You go on and on, or I do rather, seeing God knows what horrors and learning not to care or anyway not to care more than you need to do the job, and then something happens that gets right under your skin.”   ― Pat Barker, Life Class

More than two decades ago I read the Regeneration Trilogy of novels by Pat Barker. They were all very good, in fact the final novel, The Ghost Road, won the Man-Booker Prize. They were set during the time of the Great War and most readers associate Barker with this war. She returns to it with Life Class, after more than a decade during which she published novels, including Another World, on more contemporary subjects.

Life Class is divided into two sections, the first of which opens with a scene in a life drawing class at the famous Slade School of Art in London. Readers are introduced to Paul Tarrant, a young student who apparently has some talent but is not progressing with his art at the rate that he or his teacher, the stern and overbearing Henry Tonks, would like. Paul has a friendship with, as well as some romantic interest in, his fellow student Elinor Brooke, who is also being wooed by recent Slade graduate and rising artistic star Kit Neville. The three, along with others from London’s art scene, frequent the Café Royal, where Paul meets and becomes involved with Teresa Halliday, an artists’ model whose physical charms and sexual frankness captivate him, despite his haunting sense that she is hiding something and despite the fact that her estranged husband stalks and threatens the lovers.

Near the end of the book’s first half, Paul, Kit, and Elinor are visiting her family’s country home when the news comes that war has finally broken out. Immediately discussions ensue as to how deeply and how soon England will become involved, who will enlist, and what all of this will mean to the future. The two parts of the novel, then, hinge neatly on the moment when World War I begins, the moment when Europe and the world are forever changed.

The second part is set primarily in Belgium where Paul has become a hospital orderly near the front. The story is told through letters between Elinor and Paul interspersed with sections of authorial narrative. The war is presented in quite revealing detail as Paul deals with the maimed and the dying in hospital. At the same time he rekindles his art by maintaining an atelier in a nearby village. This section is vivid and suspenseful with dramatic changes in Paul's life, his friendships with hospital comrades and the ultimate effects of the daily grind of the war.

Barker's fine writing style carries the first part while the dramatic developments in the second part take precedence. The combination makes this a worthwhile successor to her first trilogy and a great introduction to another one.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Passionate Drama from Euripides

Euripides I: 
Alcestis, Medea, The Children of Heracles, Hippolytus 

Euripides I: Alcestis, Medea, The Children of Heracles, Hippolytus

“I understand too well the dreadful act
I'm going to commit, but my judgement
can't check my anger, and that incites
the greatest evils human beings do.”

― Euripides, Medea

This is great drama with passion, gods, plot complications, and difficult family relationships. But what else would you expect from Euripides, whose dramas have lasted for thousands of years and have inspired great dramatists well into our current times.

This classic volume of four plays, edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore, includes Medea, Hippolytus, Alcestis, and The Children of Heracles. There are few dramas that demonstrate passion in the way that Medea does. When her husband Jason leaves her for adventure and other women Medea plots to exact a revenge that raises the question whether she is exacting justice or merely mad.

In Hippolytus it is the relationships among the characters that stood out for me amidst a complicated plot influenced by rivalry among the gods (Aphrodite and Artemis). The drama highlights the relationship between Hippolytus and his father Theseus, but also brings in to play the importance of the Nurse and her relationship with Phaedra. This is notable because Euripides, unlike his predecessor Aeschylus, included characters that were lower-class working people.

Throughout these plays the influence of the gods is important in determining the fate of the characters leading to questions about the nature of fate and destiny. Just as important are large questions about justice and honor as when Athens protects the children of Heracles when they seek asylum. This example also demonstrates how relevant these plays are to our life today and explains, in part, why they have been so influential over the centuries. We are indebted to Euripides for his examination of the nature of humanity with both its flaws and greatness. I would recommend these plays to all who want to understand what it means to be human.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Quote for Today

“There are few greater temptations
on earth than to stay permanently
at Oxford in meditation, and to read
all the books in the Bodleian.”
– Hilaire Belloc

Monday, June 03, 2019

Writing and Reading

The Art of Fiction: 
Notes on Craft for Young Writers 

The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers

“To write with taste, in the highest sense, is to write [...] so that no one commits suicide, no one despairs; to write [...] so that people understand, sympathize, see the universality of pain, and feel strengthened, if not directly encouraged to live on.

If there is good to be said, the writer should say it. If there is bad to be said, he should say it in a way that reflects the truth that, though we see the evil, we choose to continue among the living.

The true artist [...] gets his sense of worth and honor from his conviction that art is powerful--”   ― John Champlin Gardner Jr., The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers

This is a helpful, enlightening, and highly opinionated handbook on the craft of writing fiction. That being said, I suggest it is also useful for a reader who is interested in what good authors have to say about selected works of fiction. Fortunately, John Gardner provides many examples of texts that are worth reading and rereading.

The book is divided into two part: the first, "Notes on Literary-Aesthetic Theory"; and the second, "Notes on the Fictional Process". Gardner begins by stating "This is a book designed to teach the serious beginning writer the art of fiction", and I would suggest that you could insert the word reader for writer if you are viewing it from this reader's perspective. 
You may wonder about where he is going when he begins the first chapter of Part I with the injunction that there are no absolute aesthetic rules for writing fiction. This, however, does not stop Gardner from offering many opinions that sound a lot like absolutes. Whether you agree with him or not, his process is helpful and thought-provoking. I found myself questioning books I have previously read based on his commentaries. One example of this is his disdain for John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath which he criticizes as being one-sided in its portrayal of good versus evil. And I discovered books I have not read (for example, those by Calvino or Gaddis) that sound appealing based on his recommendations to potential writers through examples demonstrated by those books.

The second part of the book is more practical with regard to the craft of writing, but it still provides suggestions and thoughts for the reader to consider when choosing, reading, and (possibly) rereading fiction. Overall I would recommend this book based on the comments that throughout the book reveal the experience of one of our great modern writers.