Monday, September 30, 2019

Discovery of a Lost Poem

The Swerve: 
How the World Became Modern 

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

“What human beings can and should do, he wrote, is to conquer their fears, accept the fact that they themselves and all the things they encounter are transitory, and embrace the beauty and the pleasure of the world.”  ― Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

The fifteenth century was one of discovery and reinvigoration of culture. It is rightly known as the Renaissance. Stephen Greenblatt has written a book, The Swerve, about one of those discoverers who remade culture and gained fame in particular from one book, On The Nature of Things by Lucretius. This work by a Roman of the first century BC is an extended poem about philosophy and science. The extent to which Lucretius covers things and described them in a way that is very modern is breathtaking. Added to that is the beauty of his poetry. Yet, in spite of this, the book had been lost for more than a thousand years hidden away in a remote monastery.

Greenblatt provides the background of the discoverer, one Poggio Bracciolini, a classicist who for a time became secretary to the Pope. He scoured the Italian countryside for old books and with Lucretius found a book that would influence thinkers from Machiavelli to Montaigne and beyond into the twentieth century. The Swerve derives its name from one of the most important concepts in Lucretius' poem, that everything is made of small particles called atoms by the Greek philosopher Democritus, and that everything in the Universe is informed by the movement of these particles - the "swerve" - and not by the gods of the Romans or the god of the Catholic church.  Perhaps more importantly Lucretius was a follower of Epicurus whose philosophy taught that one should take no part in the struggle for wealth and power, one should attach the greatest importance to friendship, and thus achieve tranquility of mind. All of this to be achieved without a reliance on gods (although he did not deny the existence of gods, rather that they did not interact with humans).  Cicero, while disliking Epicureanism, read On the Nature of Things and thought well of Lucretius' poetry.

Greenblatt's prose is a delight to read and his history reads like a novel. Some critics think that he speculates too much and does not provide enough evidence for some of his claims, but that is part and parcel of writing about the world that is removed from our current age by more than a millennia.

After providing the story of Poggio's life and his discovery Greenblatt concludes the book with a discussion of the impact of Lucretius in the centuries after the discovery. The book was reprinted with copies spreading throughout Europe. Greenblatt writes: "Once Gutenberg's clever technology was commercially established, printed editions quickly followed. The editions were routinely prefaced with warnings and disavowals." (to placate the ecclesiastical authorities).

This is cultural history that proves both entertaining and enlightening. It may encourage some to read Lucretius' poem which this reader has enjoyed reading more than once. It is accessible and worth the effort to discover for yourself what an ancient Roman poet had to say about the way things are.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Hope Devolves

Man's Hope 

Man's Hope

“The great mystery is not that we should have been thrown down here at random between the profusion of matter and that of the stars; it is that from our very prison we should draw, from our own selves, images powerful enough to deny our own nothingness.”  ― Andre Malraux

Man’s Hope is an epic novel about the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. During this bloody conflict, the Fascist elements of the Spanish military and the Catholic church, under the leadership of the Falangist dictator Francisco Franco, were supported vigorously by Benito Mussolini’s Italy and Adolf Hitler’s Germany and overthrew the leftist Republican government of Spain which was supported by the Soviet Union and by individual citizens of the Western European nations.

André Malraux was among many anti-Fascist Europeans who volunteered to fight for the Republicans, and he played a significant role as an organizer of the International Squadron of aircraft for the Republic. Man’s Hope is based on Malraux's experiences which he chronicled during the battles on the Republican side and and published while the war was still raging; it depicts the events of 1936-1937 as an adventure of the human spirit within a framework of historical, political, and philosophical ideas.

The novel is divided into three parts of which the first, “Careless Rapture”, begins with the optimistic and carefree mood of the Republican militia and their international volunteer comrades during the first summer of the Civil War. The second section of part 1, entitled “Prelude to Apocalypse,” concerns the mismanagement of the emotions of the Republican movement. This is followed by “The Manzanares” (the second part), with sections are entitled “Action and Reaction” and “Comrades’ Blood.” “The Manzanares” begins with the rout of the Republicans from Toledo in September, continues with the siege and bombing of the Republicans in Madrid (now a city in flames), and ends in December with the Republican counterattack. The final part of the novel was originally entitled “The Peasants,” but Malraux changed the title to “Hope” in his definitive 1947 revision—probably to underscore its importance for the work as a whole.

A significant theme of the novel concerns the nature of a revolution or popular uprising. From Malraux's perspective, a revolution comes into being under the impetus of a lyric burst of feeling, the best of which is found in freedom and fraternity. At this stage, Anarchism seems to fit well with the revolution. For a revolution to be sustained, however, these feelings have to be disciplined and organized; hence the need for a political machinery such as that of the Communist Party (which will, ironically, destroy the lyric impulses of revolution).

On a political level, then, Man’s Hope dramatizes the self-defining process of a revolution. As it does so, Malraux also explores the meaning of being human. When humanist intellectuals such as Scali are confronted with the brutalities of war and carefree individuals such as Manuel evolve into effective military leaders, they have to come to terms with the meaning of humanity—their own as well as others’. By means of symbolic epiphanies Malraux provides an assurance of hope in the endurance of fundamental humanity. Overall this book is a great sort of mess mirroring the morass of war.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Aristophanes, Women, and Peace

Lysistrata and The Acharnians 

Lysistrata and Other Plays

“What matters that I was born a woman, if I can cure your misfortunes? I pay my share of tolls and taxes, by giving men to the State. But you, you miserable greybeards, you contribute nothing to the public charges; on the contrary, you have wasted the treasure of our forefathers, as it was called, the treasure amassed in the days of the Persian Wars. You pay nothing at all in return; and into the bargain you endanger our lives and liberties by your mistakes. Have you one word to say for yourselves?... Ah! don't irritate me, you there, or I'll lay my slipper across your jaws; and it's pretty heavy.”  ― Aristophanes, Lysistrata

Peace is a major theme of these plays. The Acharnians focuses on arguments against war among the men, while Lysistrata is a bawdy and demented fest of diatribes between women and men. When the women, led by the titular character, withhold their sex in their demand for peace the men seem to be at a significant disadvantage.

The Acharnians is set during the Peloponnesian War during the sixth year of conflict between Athens and Sparta. In Aristophanes play the protagonist is a farmer named Dikaiopolis who has suffered as the war has progressed. The Athenian military faces pressure to escalate the conflict for revenge against Sparta, while Dikaiopolis wishes to negotiate peace for his family alone. Throughout the play, Dikaipolis must use his wit to thwart his militaristic opponents. Democracy is presented as a vehicle for militarism and it allows many of the Athenian politicians to rally supporters under the guise of cooperation. A buffoonish and arrogant general, Lamachus, is held up as an example of the militaristic attitude that Greek democracy often produced.

The play is filled with outrageous puns and wonderful wit that skewers the military and the Athenian aristocracy as peace is sought. There is even a brief section that pokes fun at the then successful tragic dramatist Euripides. However, this play is definitely one about the men who are in charge whether in Athens or Sparta; thus it is easy to contrast it with the approach taken in Lysistrata.

The name Lysistrata can be loosely translated as "she who disbands armies". That is behind both her mission and her leadership of the women of Athens who she encourages to withhold their sex from the men until peace can be brokered with Sparta. The play was produced more than a decade after The Acharnians and Athens had suffered a major blow when defeated in Syracuse with the loss of her navy. While they were recovering from that disaster the war continued with no end in sight (did I mention that these plays address very contemporary issues for those of us living in twenty-first century America?).

The play is famous for the roles given to women, particularly noteworthy since there is no evidence for women attending Athenian theater, and since it entailed the somewhat comic difficulty of having men, already in their phallic-oriented costumes, play the roles of the women. It is much more bawdy and extreme in its humor than The Archanians with the focus on the "battle of the sexes" centered at the Acropolis as a means used by the women, led by Lysistrata, to bring the men to their senses. The humor is magnified in the opening sections as the men who oppose them are old and perhaps a bit senile since the young men are all at war.
The pride of the old men is deeply wounded when Lysistrata declares that the women have assumed all civil authority and will henceforth provide for the safety and welfare of Athens. The magistrate cannot believe his ears when he hears Lysistrata say that the women have grown impatient with the incompetence of their husbands in matters that concern the commonweal. For rebuking the women, the magistrate receives potfuls of water poured on his head. When the ineffectual old men declare that they will never submit, the women answer that the old men are worthless and that all they have been able to do is legislate the city into trouble.

The women do have difficulties maintaining order within their ranks, but that just adds to the comedy. The result of this and further comic moments, including a riot surrounding the birth of a baby to one of the women, is a delight that transcends the centuries and overcomes many of the difficulties of translation. This has become my favorite play by Aristophanes.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Becoming an Adult


“When you are sixteen you do not know what your parents know, or much of what they understand, and less of what's in their hearts. This can save you from becoming an adult too early, save your life from becoming only theirs lived over again--which is a loss. But to shield yourself--as I didn't do--seems to be an even greater error, since what's lost is the truth of your parents' life and what you should think about it, and beyond that, how you should estimate the world you are about to live in.”  ― Richard Ford, Wildlife

Richard Ford is best known for his short stories and his three Frank Bascombe novels (The Sportswriter, Independence Day, and The Lay of the Land). While I have not read those books, I may consider them because I found Wildlife (1990) to be an intense and interesting character study. It is set during the 1960 summer of rampant Montana forest fires which provide both background and metaphor for the flame-out of the narrator's home life.

The narrator is sixteen-year-old Joe Brinson whose family has recently moved to Great Falls, Montana. While Joe is trying to adapt to a new school and neighborhood his parent's marriage is slowly disintegrating. The decay of the marriage is exacerbated by Joe's father Jerry's loss of his job, after being falsely accused of theft, and his choice to become a firefighter; a decision that takes him away from his wife and son. Joe's mother is attracted to another man and this leads to situations that make Joe wonder about the meaning of his life and his relationship with his mother and father.

Joe is a thoughtful young man, but is confused by the changes he has been experiencing. They've left him a troubled and puzzling teenager on the border of maturity. With a spare, carefully shaped prose style that reflects the setting of the action and the quality of the problems and choices Joe faces, Ford creates a character and situations with which many young people can, no doubt, identify---Joe thinks to himself:

"I wondered if there was some pattern or an order to things in your life---not one you knew but that worked on you and made events when they happened seem correct, or made you confident about them or willing to accept them even if they seemed like wrong things. Or was everything just happening all the time, in a whirl without anything to stop it or cause it---the way we think of ants, or molecules under the microscope, or the way others would think of us, not knowing our difficulties, watching us from another planet?"(p 96)

While Wildlife is a coming of age story Ford uses the family relationships to provide it with a unique approach to a familiar form. Adding to the situation of the family is a growing intensity of thoughts and questions percolating in young Joe's head. The events slowly create a level of dramatic intensity that lead to a thought-provoking ending to the story of Joe and his family.  This reader found the novel a sad but riveting tale  reminiscent of Raymond Carver and Walker Percy in my experience.

Friday, September 06, 2019

Rain in the Foothills

The Big Sleep 

The Big Sleep (Philip Marlowe, #1)

“You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that, oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan was.”  ― Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

Born in Chicago, raised in a suburb of London, and schooled in a private British preparatory school, Raymond Chandler remarked: "I had to learn American just like a foreign language." He was successful in that endeavor, although it took him quite a while to gain success as a professional writer.

It was Chandler's first novel, The Big Sleep, that brought him his first major success in 1939. It is a narrative that is nothing if not what one would consider cinematic in its beautiful prose. Yet, it is the dialogue that seems to me to be the best part. This is the oomph that gave his novel a kick that I seldom have experienced in my reading. Chandler was both a master of prose and the detective story and, despite rough edges, never seemed to lose his authorial grip over the plot while dazzling the reader with beautiful women and sleazy characters (sometimes one in the same).

Chandler does not rely on dialogue alone. There are serious themes that permeate the narrative. The Big Sleep takes place in a big city in America during the 1930s—the period of the Great Depression when America was, as a whole, disillusioned and cynical about its prospects for the future. Chandler mentions money throughout the novel as an ideal, a goal for the seedy crime ring that lives within the novel. Many of the characters kill and bribe for money. The opening page of the novel claims that Chandler's detective, Philip Marlowe, is "dressed up" because he is about to enter a house that is worth millions. He also chooses to portray this world as dark and corrupt. No one, not even the law, is exempt from corruption in this novel: newspapers lie and cops can be bought (not unlike our world today). Corruption is reflected in various ways throughout the novel. First, The Big Sleep is dark in that it is a novel in which rain pervades. It is also a novel in which richness is juxtaposed against the grime of deserted oilfields. The oilfields themselves—including the deserted one with empty pumps and rusted remains in which Carmen Sternwood, daughter of his client, attempts to kill Marlowe and in which Rusty Regan is lying dead—are symbolic.

His private eye, Philip Marlowe, is smooth and suave and always seems to be on top of the situation, even when he appears to be on the bottom. I was impressed with the way Chandler's prose made you feel that you were living in a specific time and place, Los Angeles in the 30s. Following the twists and turns as he handily dealt with one surprise after another made for great fiction. It was a joy to read this author and experience one of the supreme experts on crime and the criminal in American fiction.