Wednesday, April 07, 2021

The Divine Force in Painting



On Painting


 "Painting contains a divine force which not only makes absent men present, as friendship is said to do, but moreover makes the dead seem almost alive. Even after many centuries they are recognized with great pleasure and with great admiration for the painter. Plutarch says that Cassander, one of the captains of Alexander, trembled through all his body because he saw a portrait of his King.  Agesilaos, the Lacedaimonian, never permitted anyone to paint him or to represent him in sculpture; his own form so displeased him that he avoided being known by those who would come after him. Thus the face of a man who is already dead certainly lives a long life through painting. Some think that painting shaped the gods who were adored by the nations. It certainly was their greatest gift to mortals, for painting is most useful to that piety which joins us to the gods and keeps our souls full of religion. They say that Phidias made in Aulis a god Jove so beautiful that it considerably strengthened the religion then current."

On Painting by Leon Battista Alberti, trans. by John R. Spencer. Yale University Press, 1966 (1436). p. 63.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Notes from Hermann Hesse



Books on Trial

 Recently I had to sort out my books again, because circumstances forced me to give away part of my library. . . 

Days later, when I was finished with the job, I realized for the first time how much my relationship to books had altered during these years, along with other things. There are whole categories of literature that I now cheerfully give away. There are authors whom it is no longer possible to take seriously. But what a comfort the Knut Hamsun is still alive! How fortunate there is Jammes*! And how nice it is to have cleared all the thick biographies of poets, with their boredom and their meager psychology. The rooms look brighter. Treasures remain behind and now they gleam far more brightly. Goethe stands there, Holderlin stands there, all of Dostoevsky stands there, Morike smiles, Arnim flashes audaciously, the Icelandic sagas outlast all troubles. Marchen and folk tales remain indestructible. And the old books, the books in pigskin with a theological look, which for the most part are so much dearer than all the new books, they too are still there. They are something that for once one doesn't mind being outlived by."

My Belief: Essays on Life and Art by Hermann Hesse. Denver Lindley, trans. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. 1975, pp 93-95.

*Francis Jammes, French Poet (1868-1938)


Monday, March 29, 2021

Proust on Identity


 The Person We Know

"But even with respect to the most insignificant things in life, none of us constitutes a material whole, identical for everyone, which a person has only to go look up as though we were a book of specifications or a last testament; our social personality is a creation of the minds of others. Even the very simple act that we call "seeing a person we know" is in part an intellectual one. We fill the physical appearance of the individual we see with all the notions we have about him, and of the total picture that we form for ourselves, these notions certainly occupy the greater part. In the end they swell his cheeks so perfectly, follow the line of his nose in an adherence so exact, they do so well as nuancing the sonority of his voice as though the latter were only a  transparent envelope that each time we see this face and hear this voice, it is these notions that we encounter again, that we hear."

Swann's Way by Marcel Proust, trans. by Lydia Davis. Penguin Books, New York, 2003 (1913), p 19.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Write, write, write . . .


Write, write, write, out of your guts, out of the sweat on your forehead and the blood in your veins. Do not think about Mr. Potter’s guide to the salesmanship of short stories produced, apparently, on the lines of the Ford works. Do not bother your head about the length of the stuff you are writing . . . . Write a story (if you must write stories) about yourself searching for your soul amid the horrors of corruption and disease, about your passionate strivings after something you don’t know and can’t express. (This is one of the few ways [of] knowing it and expressing it.)

Dylan Thomas (letter to Trevor Hughes, 1932)


Thursday, March 25, 2021

Narrative Distortions of Memory

Trust Exercise
Trust Exercise 


“REMEMBER THE IMPOSSIBLE eventfulness of time, transformation and emotion packed like gunpowder into the barrel. Remember the dilation and diffusion, the years within days. Theirs were endless; lives flowered and died between waking and noon.”  ― Susan Choi, Trust Exercise



This was a confusing look at relationships in the twenty-first century. Centered around the titular activity the narration changes from section to section in a way that seems quite postmodern. I read the author's American Woman, based on real events, more than a year ago and found this, her latest novel, was more effective in spite of, or perhaps because of, being more unconventional. More loosely inspired by some actual places and events, it comes across as a deliberate demonstration of the possibilities in fiction, from shifting and unreliable narrator to viscerally real characters living lives that change in ways that are both weird and wonderful.

Events at the CAPA(Citywide Academy for the Performing Arts) involve students in love with each other while at the same time being challenged by a overbearing teacher in trust exercises that border on harassment. I'm not sure I would have survived in that environment.

After the first section, which follows Sarah through her sophomore year, we shift into the perspective of Karen, one of Sarah’s classmates. “Karen” – whose name is not really Karen – informs us that for the first hundred or so pages, we’ve been reading a novel written by “Sarah” (whose name is not truly Sarah). Now an adult, not only is Karen utterly dissatisfied with her erasure from the story that plays out in Sarah’s semi-autobiographical novel, she’s also armed with her own version of the events of that year.

Through it all you learn more about the subsequent lives of some of the students which includes surprising twists. In spite of some realistic detail, the over-the-top nature of some of the students' activities is hard to accept. I'll give the author a high rating for imagination, but the structure and execution of the story at times left me wondering what the author intended.

Winner of the National Book Award for fiction in 2019, Trust Exercise is a stunning study of the increasingly muddied line between fact and fiction, the power of the stories we tell ourselves and the consequences of the inherent distortions of memory.





Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Notes on the Border Trilogy

All the Pretty Horses (The Border Trilogy, #1)
All the Pretty Horses 


“He lay on his back in his blankets and looked our where the quartermoon lay cocked over the heel of the mountains. In the false blue dawn the Pleiades seemed to be rising up into the darkness above the world and dragging all the stars away, the great diamond of Orion and Cepella and the signature of Cassiopeia all rising up through the phosphorous dark like a sea-net. He lay a long time listening to the others breathing in their sleep while he contemplated the wildness about him, the wildness within.”  ― Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses


The story begins in a room lit by candle light with John Grady Cole wearing a black suit and looking at his dead grandfather laying in an oak coffin. "It was dark outside and cold and no wind." This bleak opening belies the adventure that lay ahead for young John Grady Cole. The seventeen year-old boy at the center of this scene and the novel is suddenly, roughly jolted from the freedom of youth into another life - one of the open frontier, of adventure, of love and danger. Cormac McCarthy blends gritty realism with mystical dreams of horses and meditations on the meaning of fate and life and horses in this meaningful and mesmerizing novel of a young man's quest for love and life and, ultimately, redemption.


What makes this novel great? Is it the archetypical experiences of a young man's first love, of the pains of that and the initiation into the violence and reality of the west? Is it the beauty of words strung together in phrases that take your breath away? It is these and more as McCarthy succeeds in mixing the quotidian details of ranch life with just the right balance of mythic phantasmagorical imaginings. Just as his prose seems to be over-the-top he suddenly returns to the Beckett-like dialogue of two buddies alone on the prairie. One example of this occurs when he is out on the mesa with his buddy Lacey Rawlins--his Sancho to at least the extent that his adventures approached the Quixotic--when one evening a few nights later he is approached by Alejandra, the daughter of the Ranch owner. Two pages and many nights together riding their horses up and swimming in the lake until; "She was so pale in the lake she seemed to be burning. Like foxfire in darkened wood." (p 141) She beckons and he says yes and just as the scene reaches a mystic climax we return to the world of the two buddies. The dynamic tension is like the immediate break from fortissimo to piano in a Beethoven Symphony.


The story of John Grady Cole takes many turns and he looks back at regrets while going forward on his own personal quest. One constant question that is raised like a drumbeat accompanying his actions is what does fate have in store for him. Alejandra's grandaunt and godmother is the Duena Alfonsa who is the matriarch of the family. Like several of the characters she eventually relates her story to John Grady Cole. Not the least important aspect of this is her view of fate, "Yes. We'll see what fate has in store for us, won't we?" (p 241). McCarthy presents a complex world and John Grady Cole dives into it with the fervor of innocence. The excitement is watching him lose that innocence while maintaining a sort of fervor for life, at least for the life that he chooses for himself.


"That night he dreamt of horses in a field on a high plain where the spring rains had brought up the grass and the wildflowers out of the ground and the flowers ran all blue and yellow as far as the eye could see . . . and the horses out along the high mesas where the ground resounded under their running hooves and they flowed and changed and ran and their manes and tails blew off of them like spume and there was nothing else at all in that high world and they moved all of them in a resonance that was like a music among them . . . " (p 163)



Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Rereading Notes

Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader
Unfinished Business: 
Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader

“Responsible for every successful connection ever made between a book and a reader--no less than between people--is that deepest of all human mysteries, emotional readiness: upon which the shape of every life is vitally dependent. How morbidly circumstantial life can seem when we think of the apparent randomness with which we welcome or repel what will turn out to be--or what might have turned out to be--some of the most important relationships of our lives. How often have lifelong friends or lovers shuddered to think, 'If I had met you at any other time...' It's the same between a reader and a book that becomes an intimate you very nearly did not encounter with an open mind or a welcoming heart because you were not in the right mood; that is, in a state of readiness.”  ― Vivian Gornick



A lovely read for those of us who reread books with a passion. I have books that I have read and reread for my whole reading life - one that spans more than six decades. Then there are other books that I have encountered in the early years of this century and I have already reread them; for example Call Me By Your Name is one of those. Others from the whole span of my life from the pen of authors like Lewis Carroll, Somerset Maugham, Willa Cather, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Dreiser, Gide, Mann, Proust, and more are among those whose books I have reread. 

The author shares her personal experiences with books, but even though they may be personal I believe most readers will find a universality in them as well. The title of her short book belies the joy that I believe all re-readers gain from their literary habit. It may be a "chronic" passion, but is one worth pursuing and, I believe, it does not deter the continued exploration of new reading, but rather spurs you onward to more reading in a search for your next favorite great read; one that you can add to your rereading list.


"I sometimes think I was born reading. I can't remember the time when I didn't have a book in my hands, my head lost to the world around me." - Vivian Gornick


Monday, March 15, 2021

Alaskan Beauty and Mystery

The Snow Child
The Snow Child 



“We never know what is going to happen, do we? Life is always throwing us this way and that. That’s where the adventure is. Not knowing where you’ll end up or how you’ll fare. It’s all a mystery, and when we say any different, we’re just lying to ourselves. Tell me, when have you felt most alive?”   ― Eowyn Ivey, The Snow Child




This is a simple story inspired by a famous Russian fairy tale. In its narrative complications abound and the the story grow more and more complex as it encompasses multiple story lines. Changes abound in this novel, as one might expect in a story inspired by an older long lasting piece of imaginative literature; one that has inspired operas, ballets, films, and other similar tales.*

At the opening we meet Mabel and Jack, a childless couple who have moved to the wilds of Alaska to start farming. The work and the weather is brutal, but they are committed not just to surviving, but to succeeding. Early on we are told by the narrator:

“All her life she had believed in something more, in the mystery that shape-shifted at the edge of her senses. It was the flutter of moth wings on glass and the promise of river nymphs in the dappled creek beds. It was the smell of oak trees on the summer evening she fell in love, and the way dawn threw itself across the cow pond and turned the water to light.”(p 5)


Mabel's dreams seem to come true when a young girl appears the day after they had built a child out of snow. The young girl is elusive with a feral, yet magical appearance. They barely survive the first winter and, as they prepare to plant a crop of potatoes for the following year, Jack is injured by his horse when it is startled by a bear. Fortunately, their neighbors Esther, George, with their youngest son Garrett help them to get their crop planted. The story continues to follow the intrigue between the snow girl and the travails of Mabel and Jack along with young Garrett who continues to work with them on their farm.

The broad outlines of the story do not begin to capture the beautiful magic of the growing relationship between the snow girl, whose name is Faina, and Mabel and Jack. Each is transformed over the course of the narrative, while at the same time the neighbor's young son is growing into manhood. These stories blend together in a way that is unpredictable (at least for this reader) while the families grow together growing to understand and love the nature that surrounds them. The harshness, especially the cold winters, is made palpable by the precise and simple prose of the author.

The Snow Child blends this rough reality with the magic of the fairy tale presence of the snow girl to produce an unusual and wonderful book. The reader experiences something like the following:
"It was as if Mabel had fallen through a hole into another world . . . This was an untidy place, but welcoming and full of laughter."(p 31) 
There is also sadness and ultimately the satisfaction of lives that incorporate some of the magic of believing as they deal with the reality of a harsh but beautiful world.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Isolated from the World

Snow
Snow 




“How much can we ever know about the love and pain in another heart? How much can we hope to understand those who have suffered deeper anguish, greater deprivation, and more crushing disappointments than we ourselves have known?”  ― Orhan Pamuk, Snow




Orhan Pamuk' s novel is set in the small Turkish town of Kars, isolated from the rest of the world for three days by a snowstorm. The plot of the novel is as intricate and symmetrical as the pattern of a snowflake. As narrated by Pamuk himself, he tells of the poet journalist Kerim Alakusoglu, known as Ka is a poet, who returns to Turkey after 12 years of political exile in Germany. He has several motives, first, as a journalist, to investigate the events surrounding a group of young women who are committing suicide rather than give up their headscarves, but also seeking Ýpek, a woman on whom he had a crush many years before. Heavy snow cuts off the town for about three days during which time Ka is in conversation with a former communist, a secularist, a fascist nationalist, a possible Islamic extremist, Islamic moderates, young Kurds, the military, the Secret Service, the police and in particular, an actor-revolutionary. In the midst of this, love and passion are to be found.

This is a very contemporary story of the clash between devout Islamists and the secular state that controls Turkey. Isolating the action in the snowbound town of Kars we learn of the tensions through Ka's interviews with various citizens. Pamuk's narrative style presents a pastiche of events that blend together to form the story with both love and politics coming to the fore.

Though slow reading at times, Snow has considerable appeal as a satire of a paralyzed society in which political and social groups are either too weak or too fanatical. Locked in perpetual conflict, none of them can establish a nuanced stance or interact, except violently. Consequently, over the course of the novel, the dilemma of each character becomes bleaker, each caught between the violence of Islamic radicalism and government crackdowns. Some Western readers, often seeing themselves as the victims, may gain a more nuanced grasp of the conflict and the almost impossible situation in which the people of the Middle East find themselves. The many surprises and shocks of the story kept me interested and I found new fascination for the contemporary history of Turkey. The translation by Maureen Freely, who has translated several of Pamuk's novels, is excellent.


Monday, March 08, 2021

Schubert on Mozart

 


On June 13, 1816 the 19-year-old Franz Schubert wrote in his diary,

    This day will haunt me for the rest of my life as a bright, clear, and lovely one. Gently, and as from a distance, the magic tones of Mozart’s music sound in my ears. With what alternate force and tenderness, with what masterly power did Schlesinger’s playing of that music impress it deep, deep in my heart! Thus do these sweet impressions, passing into our souls, work beneficently on our inmost being, and no time, do change of circumstances, can obliterate them. In the darkness of this life, they show a light, a clear, beautiful distance, from which we gather confidence and hope. Mozart! immortal Mozart! how many and what countless images of a brighter, better world hast thou stamped on our souls!

Monday, March 01, 2021

Drawn Apart by Desire and Reason

Metamorphoses
Metamorphoses 
by Ovid
Translated and edited by Charles Martin



“I am dragged along by a strange new force. Desire and reason are pulling in different directions. I see the right way and approve it, but follow the wrong.”  ― Ovid, Metamorphoses




Metamorphoses is a poem in fifteen books by the Augustan Roman poet Ovid describing the history of the world from its creation to the deification of Julius Caesar within a loose myth-based historical framework. It is often called a mock-epic, as it is written in dactylic hexameter (the form of the great epic poems of the ancient tradition, such as “The Iliad”, “The Odyssey” and “The Aeneid”), unlike Ovid's other works. But, rather than following and extolling the deeds of a great hero like the traditional epics, Ovid’s work leaps from story to story, often with little or no connection other than that they all involve transformations of one sort or another. Sometimes, a character from one story is used as a (more or less tenuous) connection to the next story, and sometimes the mythical characters themselves are used as the story-tellers of “stories within stories”.

 Completed in AD 8, it is recognized as a masterpiece of Golden Age Latin literature. The recurring theme, as with nearly all of Ovid's work, is that of love (and especially the trans-formative power of love), whether it be personal love or love personified in the figure of Cupid, an otherwise relatively minor god of the pantheon who is the closest thing this mock-epic has to a hero. Unlike the predominantly romantic notions of love that were "invented" in the Middle Ages, however, Ovid viewed love more as a dangerous, destabilizing force than a positive one, and demonstrates how love has power over everyone, mortals and gods alike.

 It is notable that the other Roman gods are repeatedly perplexed, humiliated and made to appear ridiculous by fate and by Cupid in the stories. This is particularly true of Apollo, the god of pure reason, who is often confounded by irrational love. The poem inverts the accepted order to a large extent, elevating humans and human passions while making the gods (and their own somewhat petty desires and conquests) the objects of low humor, often portraying the gods as self-absorbed and vengeful. Perhaps because of the continuing power of Greek culture there remains the shadow of the power of the gods as a distinct recurrent theme throughout the poem.

 Revenge is another common theme, and it is often the motivation for whatever transformation the stories are explaining, as the gods avenge themselves and change mortals into birds or beasts to prove their own superiority. Violence, and often rape, occurs in almost every story in the collection, and women are generally portrayed negatively, either as virginal girls running from the gods who want to rape them, or alternatively as malicious and vengeful.

 As do all the major Greek and Roman epics, “Metamorphoses” emphasizes that hubris (overly prideful behavior) is a fatal flaw which inevitably leads to a character's downfall. Hubris always attracts the notice and punishment of the gods, who disdain all human beings who attempt to compare themselves to divinity. Some, especially women like Arachne and Niobe, actively challenge the gods and goddesses to defend their prowess, while others display hubris in ignoring their own mortality. Like love, hubris is seen by Ovid as a universal equalizer.

 Ovid's “Metamorphoses” was an immediate success in its day, its popularity threatening even that of Virgil's “Aeneid”. One can even imagine it being used as a teaching tool for Roman children, from which they could learn important stories that explain their world, as well as learn about their glorious emperor and his ancestors. Particularly towards the end, the poem can be seen to deliberately emphasize the greatness of Rome and its rulers.

 Not unlike many works of classical literature this poem has been a rich cultural resource ever since its inception, influencing authors from Chaucer and Shakespeare to, more recently, Ted Hughes, and composers from Gluck and Offenbach to Britten.



Sunday, February 21, 2021

A Literary Journey

I Meant to Kill Ye: Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian (...Afterwords)
I Meant to Kill Ye: 
Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian 


"If only I could discover some crucial piece of information about the kid, my thinking went, then maybe I could finally figure out Blood Meridian and its disturbing grip on me." - Stephanie Reents




This little book of only 159 pages is literally small, measuring only four by six inches. Within this small container is a work of literary criticism that is different from any other that I have ever studied. The author, a college English teacher, decided to delve into Cormac McCarthy's most heralded work, Blood Meridian, by journeying into the sources of the novel.

When I say journeying, again literally, she went to the archives of McCarthy's papers at Texas State University-San Marcos, where in her pursuit of information about the background of "the Kid", one of the main characters in the novel, she perused the papers for some of the drafts of the novel that McCarthy rejected or heavily edited. She continued on her journey to follow the trail of the Glanton Gang from the novel through the southwest. In addition to this tour of some of the actual sources for the novel she also commented on the narrative voice with particular reference to the ideas of James Wood in his book, How Fiction Works.

With a journey bracketed by questions about who "the Kid" from the novel may have really been, this work of criticism works on two primary levels: that of traditional literary criticism and that of the critic as literary detective on a road trip. Sometimes personal reminiscences interrupted the criticism, but on the whole the journey of reading the book was one that provided both some interesting ideas about McCarthy's literary style and a bit of enjoyment from the journey to the archives and beyond.


Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Lectures on Proust

The Essential Proustian: The Collected Lectures of Joel Rich
The Essential Proustian: 
The Collected Lectures of Joel Rich 




“Every reader, as he reads, is actually the reader of himself. The writer's work is only a kind of optical instrument he provides the reader so he can discern what he might never have seen in himself without this book. The reader's recognition in himself of what the book says is the proof of the book's truth.”  ― Marcel Proust, Time Regained



These are the thoughts of a Proust enthusiast presented in a series of lectures. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust encompasses the world and this set of lectures presents reasons why. The lectures comprise topics including women, time, sleep, and reading; also ranging into weather, war, animals, and death. I was fortunate to have been present at most of these lectures when the were presented as "First Friday Lectures" presented by the Basic Program of Liberal Education at The University of Chicago

A good example of the content of these lectures as well as a demonstration of the effect reading Proust's work may have on the reader is found in the following quote from Swann's Way, the first book of In Search of Lost Time:

"When I had found , one day, in a book by Bergotte, some joke about an old family servant . . . which was in principle what I had often said to my grandmother about Francoise . . . then it was suddenly revealed to me that my own humble existence and the Realms of Truth were less widely separated than I had supposed, that at certain points they were actually in contact; and in my new-found confidence and joy I wept upon his printed page, as in the arms of a long-lost father."

Joel Rich had a long association with this program leading Basic Program Alumni seminars on Proust as well as presenting these lectures. They provide a great introduction to anyone new to Proust's writing; but they can be enjoyed by those who already have experienced the world of Proust.


Friday, February 05, 2021

The Classics and Black Folk

Martin Luther King and W. E. B. DuBois


We know of Martin Luther King’s indebtedness to the thought of Mahatma Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau, and of his theological education. He was also steeped in the political philosophy of the West, from Plato to John Stuart Mill. In his graduate work at Boston University and Harvard in the 50s, he read and wrote on Hegel, Kant, Marx, and other philosophers. And as a visiting professor at Morehouse College—one year before his arrest in Birmingham and the composition of his letter—King taught a seminar in “Social Philosophy,” examining the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Bentham, and Mill.




Here are the thoughts of W. E. B. DuBois:

"I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?"

the last paragraph from The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. DuBois, "Chapter VII".  



Tuesday, February 02, 2021

Tribute to Melville

White Buildings: Poems
White Buildings: Poems 




Take this Sea, whose diapason knells
On scrolls of silver snowy sentences,
The sceptred terror of whose sessions rends
As her demeanors motion well or ill,
All but the pieties of lovers’ hands.  -  from "Voyages", Hart Crane







Hart Crane loved Melville and read Moby-Dick several times along with his other tales of the sea. This was in the early decades of the twentieth century before Melville was renowned as one of America's greatest authors. Crane had a difficult time getting his trbute, "At Melville's Tomb", published. Harriet Monroe rejected it when he submitted it to her Poetry Magazine and Marianne Moore wanted to change it before publication in the Dial, which she edited. Crane withdrew it, but it was included in White Buildings, his first collection of poetry to be published. When Eugene O'Neill agreed to write a foreward to the collection Boni & Liveright chose to publish it. Ultimately O'Neill backed out, but Allen Tate provided a foreward and Crane's first collection of poetry was printed in book form.

At Melville’s Tomb
BY HART CRANE

Often beneath the wave, wide from this ledge
The dice of drowned men’s bones he saw bequeath
An embassy. Their numbers as he watched,
Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured.

And wrecks passed without sound of bells,
The calyx of death’s bounty giving back
A scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph,
The portent wound in corridors of shells.

Then in the circuit calm of one vast coil,
Its lashings charmed and malice reconciled,
Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars;
And silent answers crept across the stars.

Compass, quadrant and sextant contrive
No farther tides ... High in the azure steeps
Monody shall not wake the mariner.
This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.


Sunday, January 31, 2021

Cicero's Republic

The Republic and The Laws
The Republic and 
The Laws 





". . . law in the proper sense is right reason in harmony with nature. It is spread through the whole human community, unchanging and eternal, calling people to their duty by its commands and deterring tham from wrong-doing by its prohibitions." (p 68)






Cicero wrote his dialogue, The Republic, just before the civil war that ended the Roman Republic. In it he discusses the history of Rome and its constitution. The Republic of Cicero is in one sense modeled after Plato's Republic, but it is different as well. Cicero presents a more realistic view of the state based on the Roman Republic that was in its last stages during Cicero's lifetime. He assimilates the philosophy of Plato, but also Aristotle's Politics and others.

In it he discusses the nature of different political organizations including Monarchy, Aristocracy, and Democracy, among others. His discussion of the best states and his comparison of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy is thoughtful --- highlighting the differences and weighing the advantages and disadvantages of each; he concludes that the best regime may be one that is a blend of all three. 

In the sequel essay entitled The Laws he promulgates a doctrine of Natural Law, which he then applies to all mankind. His code of law is developed for a reformed Roman Republic that, unfortunately, he never lived to see -- and after his death was preempted by the imposition of the Empire under the leadership of Augustus Caesar.

The following remarks give some indication of the best of his thinking: "The aim of a ship's captain is a successful voyage; a doctor's, health; a general's, victory. So the aim of our ideal statesman is the citizen's happy life---that is, a life secure in wealth, rich in resources, abundant in renown, and honorable in its moral character. That is the task which I wish him to accomplish---the greatest and best that any man can have."


The Virtue of Friendship

How to Be a Friend: An Ancient Guide to True Friendship
How to Be a Friend: 
An Ancient Guide to 
True Friendship 
"It seems to me that friendship arises from nature itself rather than from any need, along with an inclination of the soul joined with a sense of love rather than a calculation of how useful the relationship might be." (p 55)






Cicero's dialogue on friendship demonstrates his approach to philosophy, drawing on the work of the Greeks that preceded him, especially Plato and Aristotle. While set in the Rome of his day, he harkens back to those thinkers who defined such concepts as virtue and the Good. A notable example being Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.

Cicero states that "the very essence of friendship" is "a common set of beliefs, aspirations, and opinions." (p 31). He further states that friendship is only possible between those who "act and live so that their lives give proof of faithfulness, integrity, fairness, and generosity; and who are free from any low passion, greed, or violence; and are of great strength of character," (p 37). Most important for true friendship, however, is virtue and "virtue, too, loves itself," (p 165); in conclusion he states, "I say it is virtue that creates and preserves friendships. Virtue is the source of compatibility, stability, and permanence." (p 169)

Cicero's stance would seem to be one that in most respects is consistent with some modern views as it prominently does not depend on "service above self", but is consistent with integrity and treating others with respect while acting virtuously. This translation by Philip Freeman is felicitous in making Cicero's beautiful Latin prose read as fluently in contemporary English. The result is a demonstration that we can still learn from the classical thinkers of Rome and Greece.


Thursday, January 28, 2021

Dangerous Journey

The River
The River 




“There was something satisfying in a cessation of paddling on smooth water. It was like watching a flock of ducks all stop beating at once and sail over a bank of trees on extended wings.”  ― Peter Heller, The River





My introduction
to Peter Heller was a dystopian thriller called The Dog Stars. That was reason enough for me to turn to his recent (2019) adventure novel, The River. In it he introduces two young men, Jack and Wynn are best friends taking some time off from there terms at Dartmouth, sharing a love of books and the outdoors. Jack is compact and pragmatic. Wynn is a big guy with a big heart, always eager to see the good in everyone. They’ve taken countless canoeing and outdoor trips together, so a canoe journey down the Maskwa River in northern Canada seems just like heaven.

Despite their strong wilderness skills, their adventure is put to the test when they discover a massive wildfire threatens to overtake them. Even worse, while paddling through the fog, they overhear a heated argument between a husband and wife camped on the riverside, only to find a man paddling alone the next day. What starts off as a fun-filled retreat into nature becomes a race against time that pits them against the very river they meant to savor.

"They had paddled many rivers together in the two years they’d known each other and climbed a lot of peaks. Sometimes one had more appetite for danger, sometimes the other. There was a delicate but strong balance of risk versus caution in their team thinking, with the roles often fluid, and it’s what made them such good partners." (p 15)

One is provided with the appearance of a wildfire that seems unstoppable. Add a damsel in distress and her dangerous husband and you have the right mix for excitement. But that would be of little interest if there was nothing else to sustain your interest. Fortunately, Heller intersperses the adventure with flashbacks that provide context to the friendship of Jack and Wynn. Heller's narration shifts in intensity, one moment supremely focused on his characters, the next at a distance from them. Initially, the third person point-of-view focuses on Jack and Wynn's surroundings, the vast Canadian wilderness; pages of description occur before either character is named. Jack's interior life given the most space. The novel mirrors the river; just as it widens and narrows, languidly drifts or rushes through rapids, perspective and tone shift to further the story.

They're both supremely well-read college students, and they (Wynn especially) have a love for philosophy. The conflicts in the novel are ultimately human-driven, despite the wilderness survival backdrop, and the clashes that Jack and Wynn have about human nature are in direct conversation with the plot points. From the outset, Wynn wants to see the best in the lone man they find canoeing, but Jack is certain the man is a killer. Heller also uses religious language, suggesting that Jack and Wynn are on a pilgrimage of sorts—reinforcing the idea that this is a morality play about the concepts of good and evil.

While the opening section of the novel acts as a prelude, the story moves along more and more quickly as does both the river and the fire. Ultimately, The River offers both a literal and figurative journey; it is a thrilling and contemplative page-turner with sharp insight into the human condition.


Sunday, January 17, 2021

Playing With Mystery

The School of Night

The School of Night 

“What is a holy mass, Tom, if not a play? A wedding? A coronation? do you wish to know why I am a playmaker? Because I know that, at every moment, we are in the midst of some play. Only in an arena that calls itself theater may we stand outside the real theater - our lives - and we see them in all their truth, Tom. By which, if course, I mean their tragedy.”  ― Louis Bayard, The School of Night



I enjoy historical novels especially when they involve mystery and intrigue. An Instance of the Fingerpost by Ian Pears comes to mind as a particular favorite. Bayard's novel is similar while adding a contemporary mystery with its counterpart set at the end of the Elizabethan era.

Henry Cavendish is a disgraced Elizabethan scholar, fooled by a forgery of a poem supposedly written by Walter Raleigh. As a result, Henry has chosen to turn to tutoring and odd jobs in Washington, D.C. As the story begins he has reconnected with Alonzo Wax, a college friend and a book collector. The eccentric Wax, perhaps the most interesting character in the novel, has purloined part of a letter that sheds light on the fabled "School of Night", a secret congregation of illustrious Elizabethan-era intellects like Raleigh, Christopher Marlowe and a brilliant but little-known scientist named Thomas Harriot. The school delved into theology, philosophy and science perhaps bordering on alchemy, in a manner thought traitorous and blasphemous. Wax apparently commits suicide, but he also reveals his discovery to Cavendish, and to Clarissa Dale, a woman Wax met at a lecture who claims psychic visions of Harriot, and to another antique book collector.

At Wax's memorial service, Henry is approached by the supposed owner of the letter, an English antiquities collector named Bernard Styles, and offered a handsome sum to find and return the letter. No sooner than he starts to inquire about this Wax's devoted assistant is murdered and Wax's collection is stolen. Henry and Clarissa uncover clues that lead them to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, near where Harriot studied Native Americans during the failed attempt to establish an English colony. There they find Wax in hiding, claiming the letter points to a treasure. Clues then lead the trio to Syon House in England, the ancestral seat of the Earl of Northumberland, where Harriot once lived.

Through all of the contemporary adventures there are flashbacks provided in interpolated chapters set in the historical Elizabethan era featuring Thomas Harriot and his love, Margaret Crookshanks. The combination of the ancient mystery, lost treasure, and suspenseful intrigue, make this an historical novel that I can recommend to all.