Monday, September 28, 2020

Quote for Today


“Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversation?”

― Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass

Sunday, September 27, 2020

A Parisian Woman

Cousin BetteCousin Bette 
by Honoré de Balzac

In Paris, when a woman has made up her mind to use her beauty as her livelihood and merchandise, it does not necessarily follow that she will make her fortune.
- Balzac, Cousin Bette, p 155

Cousin Bette
by French author Honoré de Balzac is set in mid-19th century Paris, telling the story of an unmarried middle-aged woman who plots the destruction of her extended family. Bette works with Valérie Marneffe, an unhappily married young lady, to seduce and torment a series of men. One of these is Baron Hector Hulot, husband to Bette's cousin Adeline. He sacrifices his family's fortune and good name to please Valérie, who leaves him for a tradesman named Crevel. Bette has harbored a resentment against her cousin Adeline Hulot since childhood. Bette's father and Adeline's father were two of the Fischer brothers. Their uncle, Johann Fischer, brought the girls up and still contributes to their financial well-being as adults. Adeline and her cousin Bette are exact opposites. Adeline is fair-haired and of light complexion while Bette is dark and rather ugly. Bette sees Adeline as the enemy because of her beauty and good fortune in life. Adeline is married to Baron Hulot, a successful government employee and one-time benefactor to the Fischer brothers. After Bette moves to Paris at Adeline's insistence, she hatches a plot to destroy the beautiful Adeline, her husband and their children.

Cousin Bette and many of the primary protagonists in the novel are afflicted with the vices of greed, envy, and lust. Bette's greed seeks to overthrow Adeline Hulot. Madame Marneffe's greed and lust are only satisfied by acquiring wealth and material possessions. Baron Hulot's lust carries him from one affair to the next and his greed deepens his financial trouble each time. Crevel's greed motivates him to "steal" a mistress from Hector Hulot only to have it cost him his life. The morals and standards of nineteenth century French society come under the author's scrutiny in Cousin Bette. The novel is also a critique of the concept of a French ruling class after the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte. Balzac's novel is also a morality play in that the characters are imaginative figures as well as character types. And while the story in and of itself is tidily resolved, the narrative nonetheless exposes an underside of human behavior that is puzzling at best and deadly at worst.

The book is part of the Scènes de la vie Parisienne section of Balzac's novel sequence La Comédie humaine ("The Human Comedy"). Writing quickly and with intense focus, Balzac produced La Cousine Bette, one of his longest novels, in two months. It was published at the end of 1846, then collected with a companion work, Le Cousin Pons, the following year. The novel's characters represent polarities of contrasting morality. The vengeful Bette and disingenuous Valérie stand on one side, with the merciful Adeline and her patient daughter Hortense on the other. The patriarch of the Hulot family, meanwhile, is consumed by his own sexual desire. Hortense's husband, the Polish exile Wenceslas Steinbock, represents artistic genius, though he succumbs to uncertainty and lack of motivation.

La Cousine Bette is considered Balzac's last great work. His trademark use of realist detail combines with a panorama of characters returning from earlier novels. While I do not admire it as much as some critics, it has been compared to works by Shakespeare and Tolstoy. It is considered both a turning point in the author's career and a prototypical naturalist text. The novel explores themes of vice and virtue, as well as the influence of money on French society. Bette's relationship with Valérie is also seen as an important exploration of homoerotic themes. I would compare it with Dickens although it lacks his humor and overall seems more bitter. The best of Dickens, by contrast, usually focuses more on a positive character.


Wednesday, September 23, 2020

The Puzzle of the Lakota Empire

Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power
Lakota America: 
A New History of Indigenous Power 

"The central challenge in writing about the Lakotas is to make them unfamiliar again. Their mythical place in popular consciousness as the vanquishers of Custer and as the masters of the western plains has made their rise seem pre-ordained."(p 4)

What is civilization?
According to Felipe Fernandez-Armesto in his book, Civilizations, it is "a relationship between man and nature". (p 14) In his estimation it is contingent upon the environment in which a people exist. Ludwig von Mises, in his book Theory and History, claims that "Civilization is like a biological being; it is born, grows, matures, decays, and dies." (p 223) Just one of the questions raised as one reads Lakota America is whether the Lakota nation was a civilization. The author claims in the introduction to his book that it is the "solution to a puzzle". (p 3) Whether he succeeds in finding that solution or not, he has produced a voluminous record of the Lakota and other indigenous Indian tribes in America from the 17th century to the end of the 19th.

The author presents the relations between the Lakota (a group of several tribes) and other groups, including other tribes of native Americans, the French, the British, and finally the Americans who, following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the War of 1812, were their primary source of commerce, their benefactor, and as time went on often their opponent.

As the Seventeenth century ended the natives appeared to be in a fairly constant war with each other, with some groups gaining in prominence from time to time. "A new technological frontier centered on the horse had been launched." (p 51) The Lakotas were notable in using this technology to enhance their mobility in this era, as they would continue to throughout the next two centuries gradually migrating from the area known as the Northwest Territory toward the Northern plains and the Black Hills.  The indigenous groups first contact with Europeans were the French traders in this era. The author highlights the advance of technology introduced by the Europeans. This became important to the Lakotas as they were viewed as "pragmatic" and "adaptable". Along with technology the Europeans also brought diseases such as Smallpox, spread by the increase in commerce and this took a severe toll on the native Americans.

Along with the narrative of the Lakota's migratory activities the author highlighted the continued encroachment of not only the French and then the British, but the Americans. This was escalated following the Louisiana Purchase with the expedition of Lewis and Clark up the Missouri River and through the northwest to the Pacific. All the while the Lakotas continued to migrate and adapt. "The U.S. empire was built on institutional prowess and visibility, whereas the Lakota empire was an action-based regime, which gave it a fickle on-and-off-again character." (p 241) The history also includes the complexities of native culture including polygamy and the training of young warriors. The only constant was the continued encroachment of the Americans accelerated by the discovery of gold in California and the building of the railroads through routes in the south, center, and ultimately the north.

The story concludes with the era of armed engagements following the Civil War in the 1870's culminating with the famous battle of Little Big Horn. While Sitting Bull came out of that as the victor over General George Armstrong Custer, the reprisals over the subsequent decade would result in the effective demise of Lakota power with the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890.

I found the book to be most effective and informative through the early history of the indigenous peoples; a history with which I had no familiarity. The century following the American Revolution was one in which technology and commerce overwhelmed the Lakotas and other tribes, who for the most part were unable to adapt to changes in their environment. The nature that the indigenous peoples knew as the environment that formed their culture changed so tremendously that their civilization gradually decayed and became a mere shadow of what it once was. The author notes that "The Indians remained a subordinate people, subject to the whims of a foreign empire." (p 382) The complexity of the new environment left them dependent on the government of the United States for support. This is a situation, with few exceptions, that continues to this day.


Thursday, September 17, 2020

No Longer Needed

Pigs in Heaven
Pigs in Heaven 

“But kids don't stay with you if you do it right. It's the one job where, the better you are, the more surely you won't be needed in the long run.” 
― Barbara Kingsolver, Pigs in Heaven

This novel continues the lives of Taylor and her adopted daughter Turtle Greer, protagonists of Barbara Kingsolver’s earlier novel The Bean Trees. Some of the themes include the meaning of family, community, motherhood, and belonging. On an Easter vacation trip with Taylor, her adoptive mother, six-year-old Turtle sees a young man, Lucky Buster, fall into a spillway at the Hoover Dam; her seeing him leads to his rescue and her own celebrity. Turtle and Taylor appear on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" with other children who have saved lives. Rescuing Lucky Buster, however, leads to discovery and change for Turtle and Taylor because a young Cherokee attorney, Annawake Fourkiller, sees Turtle and hears her adoption story on television.

Annawake, in spite of being counseled by her superiors to not pursue this case, becomes obsessed with returning Turtle to her Cherokee grandfather. She does this in the belief that Turtle will have an unsatisfactory adult life if she is not brought up in her Cherokee family. I was not impressed with this argument as it basically assumed that the bond between Taylor and Turtle was unimportant in light of Turtle's heritage. Taylor responds by fleeing with her daughter. Taylor’s mother, Alice, leaves her husband, Harland, because she wants more than a dead marriage, and goes to Las Vegas to help Taylor and Turtle. After giving Taylor her savings, Alice travels to the town of Heaven on Cherokee Nation land to stay with her cousin and investigate her rights with the tribe of her grandmother. Her time on the Cherokee land does not lessen her commitment to her daughter and granddaughter, but does help her understand Annawake’s quest.

Taylor loses much of her self-confidence as she works to support herself and Turtle, never having enough money to pay all the bills or to eat very well. Taylor’s eventual decision to take Turtle to the Cherokee Nation to talk to Annawake reminds her of Dorothy’s being taken to the castle of the witch in Oz (I didn't make this up). The choice seems forced as does much of the action in the novel. For example, there is a side character named Barbie who is obsessed with Barbie dolls; apparently this is intended to provide comic relief, but I couldn't determine what she added to the story. Each scene is presented in the author’s folksy third-person voice, and the view of the action is usually limited to the perspective of one of the main characters; however, I did not appreciate the authorial voice and that made the book just that much more difficult.

Disappointing is an understatement. Much of the plot seemed contrived to me and the authorial voice was off-putting. While the central characters Taylor and her adopted daughter, Turtle were sympathetic, that was about the only thing that kept me reading the book.


Wednesday, September 09, 2020

The Possessed



“Life is now given to man at the cost of pain and fear. Here, they are blinded by this sometimes. Now man is not yet that man. There will be another, new person, happy and proud, and for him it wouldn’t matter the death-life. He who overcomes pain and fear will become God himself. There will not be that God any longer.”  ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Demons

What is a “true” Russian? Why is “the real truth” always implausible. Is belief only ironic or is it real or both? These are just a few of the questions dealt with by Dostoevsky in Demons, his great novel that is predecessor to The Brothers Karamazov.

He questions whether atheism is a reason or a result of rebellion, and the saying that “An atheist cannot be Russian”. The result is a novel that compares favorably and provides an eloquent introduction to themes that will be dealt with at the family level in The Brothers Karamazov.

Liberalism and Socialism are contrasted by representative characters from two different generations. One is that of Herzen and the liberals, represented by Stepan Verkhovensky and others. While Stepan's son, Pyotr, is the reputed leader of the new generation of nihilist anarchists who are the precursors and somewhat participants in the rise of the Russian intelligentsia.

Demons does not only look forward, but also backward as can be seen in comparison with The Idiot which ends with Prince Myshkin in a Swiss Asylum; the silence of madness. 
The Demons ends with the silence of suicide. (You have to read it to find out who, when, and why) The cabalists (the fivesome) are representatives of the central importance of ideology (nihilistic anarchism). The lives of the cabalists literally depend on the whims of their leader, Pyotr, and their own willingness to follow the ideology.

Through all of the novel there is in the background, Nikolai Stavrogin, son of Varvara Petrovna, spinning his web, better yet acting as a puppeteer while others speak and act for him and as his whim commands. Compared to The Underground Man, Stavrogin is relatively silent; he lets others speak for him: Pyotr, “you wrote the rules . . .); Shatov, “I was the pupil, you were the teacher”; Kirilov, “Go look at [Kirilov] now---he's your creation”.

The plot seems somewhat complex, but the organization can be seen more simply when one views the contrast between the two generations, Stepan and Varvara vs. Pyotr and Nikolai, and within that the detail maneuvering with the additional characters, especially the changing views within each generation and between the two.

Ultimately there is a coming together of characters and the ideas they represent in a sort of maelstrom of events at the end of Part Three of the novel. It concludes with an explosion of activity that is only hinted at in the long introduction in Part One. That is just one of the aspect of this novel that raises it to one of the best from the pen of Dostoevsky.

Thursday, September 03, 2020

Notes from Thoreau's Journal

The Journal, 1837-1861 

The Journal, 1837-1861

"Decayed literature makes the richest of all soils." - Henry David Thoreau, March 16, 1852

From "The Short Days of Winter"

March 4, 1852. It is discouraging to talk with men who will recognize no principles. How little use is made of reason in this world! You argue with a man for an hour, he agrees with you step by step, you are approaching a triumphant conclusion, you think that you have converted him; but ah, no, he has a habit, he takes a pinch of snuff, he remembers that he entertained a different opinion at the commencement of the controversy, and his reverence for the past compels him to reiterate it now. You begin at the butt of the pole to curve it, you gradually bent it around according to rule, and planted the other end in the ground, and already in imagination saw the vine curling round this segment of an arbor, under which a new generation was to re-create itself; but when you had done, just when the twig was bent, it sprang back to its former stubborn and unhandsome position like a bit of whalebone.

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

Life of Pericles

Plutarch's Lives: Volume I

Plutarch's Lives: Volume I 

by Plutarch

“To be ignorant of the lives of the most celebrated men of antiquity is to continue in a state of childhood all our days”   ― Plutarch

Plutarch wrote his lives to educate the reader. In doing so he used a combination of history and myth while assessing the politics and religion of the "Noble" Greeks and Romans whose lives he included in his writings. What was originally a series of books have been compiled into two volumes that span the lives from ancient Greece through the centuries until the Roman Empire flourished. I found that in creating his histories Plutarch admitted time and again to uncertainty about some of the specific events that he portrayed. In addition, he would sometimes note that there were those who held differing opinions about some of his characterizations of events.

One theme of his lives is the identification of key characteristics of success of the particular life depicted; in fact, he points out that success does not depend on one particular style of leadership or rule. However, that did not stop Plutarch for identifying some lives that were better than others. One of the most successful lives depicted was that of Pericles. Near the beginning of his life of Pericles, Plutarch observes "that it becomes a man's duty to pursue and make after the best and choicest of everything, that he may not only employ his contemplation, but may also be improved by it." (p 201)

Not only does he highlight the importance of contemplation (an activity that Aristotle considered the highest virtue in which a man might engage himself [Nichomachean Ethics]) for improvement of one's life, but also the application of his intellect to objects such as acts of virtue. All of this is merely introductory to a life that includes just such actions and provides some of the reasons why Athens under the leadership of Pericles was so successful. All of this is done, in part, to educate the reader and encourage an "admiration of the things done and desire to imitate the doers of them."(p 202)

Pericles led a life that did not leave any writings, not unlike that of Socrates, although we have some of his orations thanks to Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. What he did leave were public and sacred buildings, and evidence of a policy that encouraged great public shows, banquets, and processions to further the pleasure of the people of Athens. At one point, Plutarch compares him to a skillful physician who balances the pleasures with "keen pains and drug" when necessary to cure what ailments might exist among the citizenry. He maintained his rule through attention to the soul of the people. Plutarch adds, "The source of this predominance was not barely the power of language, but, as Thucydides assures us, the reputation of his life, and the confidence of his character; his manifest freedom from every kind of corruption, and superiority to all considerations of money." Would that we had leaders like that in America today.

Pericles may sound like the proverbial person that is too good to be true, however in his conclusion Plutarch reinforces his judgement with these words, "He was indeed a character deserving our high admiration not only for his equitable and mild temper . . .", but that he had not "gratified his envy or his passion". (p 234) It is such a character that made Pericles one of Plutarch's favorites among the many noble lives that he chronicled. Each of the lives in this volume receives what appears to be an objective study of the details of their character, actions, and relations with others. The result is a compendium that provides the reader with instruction in how to live as well as a magnificent narrative of how many of the noblest of Greeks and Romans actually lived their lives.