Friday, October 15, 2021

Strange Journeys

In a Free State
In a Free State 

All at once the lilies lost their brightness; it grew dark below the trees; the swamped garden was silent.  The stream raged on.  On the other bank tree trunks were black in the gloom; leaves and branches hung low.  The wood of a fairy tale, far from home: what was so recently man-made, after the forests had been cut down and the forest-dwellers flushed out and dismissed, what had perhaps been intended only as an effect of art in a landscape made secure, had become natural.  It spoke of the absence of men, danger." (p 128)

Nominally a novel, but actually more like a collection of short stories, In a Free State by V. S. Naipaul is in this way different than other works of Naipaul that I have read. But in other ways it is similar and even better than the others. This is primarily because all the five stories are linked thematically and they share Naipaul's beautiful prose style.

The novel includes stories that are all about people who find themselves in places where they feel, or are made to feel, that they don’t belong; the stories are about boundaries, purity, pollution, incommensurability and just plain strangeness. In the opening prologue, the presence of an English tramp on a Greek ferry causes uproar. The second story tells of an Indian servant who tries to adjust to a new life in Washington D.C. Next, in a story that demonstrated a striking voice with a melancholy that I found disturbing, a South Asian West Indian immigrant in London reflects on the ruins of his life. His relationship with boy he is helping deteriorates as he slowly realizes the failure of the boy to live up to his naive ideal.

The final story, “In a Free State,” is equally pessimistic. In it, Bobby and Linda share a car ride from the capital, in the northern part of the African country, to the so-called Southern Collectorate, where Bobby works and where Linda will rejoin her husband. Ethnic rivalries within the country make this journey perilous because the president, whose politically and militarily dominant people control the north, has set up roadblocks to apprehend the king, whose weaker people populate the south.

The basic conflict between the two characters concerns their attitude toward Africa: Bobby, a homosexual who suffered a nervous breakdown at Oxford, has emigrated to Africa and plans to make it his home. “My life is here,” he says. Linda has lived in the country for six years and considers it an exciting place for her and her husband to work, but she intends to go to South Africa, if it ever stops being “like a John Ford Western.” Her attitude suggests that Europeans can never be accepted in black African society. In the epilogue an Asian businessman travelling through Milan and Cairo reflects on cruelty and empire.

While I found interesting aspects to all the shorter stories, In a Free State clearly stands out among the lot. While neither of the two main characters are appealing, the contrast between the self-deluding Bobby, who claims to have some sort of authentic connection with “Africa,” and the cynical, weary Linda is very effective. They wear their prejudices on their sleeves, so to speak, and only differ in tone and personality. More effective for me was the setting and the use of description to maintain a tension that suggested (not unlike a Hitchcock thriller) the presence of horror just around the bend. Whether you agree with the view represented in these stories about the difficulty of adjusting your being to a new place and a different culture you can, through the graceful prose style of V. S. Naipaul, enjoy the book.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Sex Strike & The Thinkery

Lysistrata and Other Plays
Lysistrata and The Clouds 

“What doesn’t polite society, in all seriousness, want to discuss? Sex, money, political corruption, bodily functions, religion, loss and despair?

These have been the very subjects attracting writers of comedy since Aristophanes penned “Lysistrata” as a vehicle for the young Joan Rivers.”  ― Gina Barreca

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 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 during the Peloponnesian War 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 Clouds 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 pots 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.

While also a comedy critical of aspects of culture, in The Clouds Aristophanes takes as his theme the contrast between an older educational mode and the new interrogative style, associated with the name of Socrates. He begins with a prologue (lines 1-262), which introduces the two principal characters, Strepsiades (“Twister”), worried by the debts accumulating because of the propensity for chariot racing of his long-haired son, Pheidippides (“Sparer of Horses,” or “Horsey”). The idea occurs, with the assistance of “a student,” to have the son enter the school, the "Thinkery" next door, operated by Socrates, wherein by the logic of the sophists one should be able to learn how to talk so as to evade one’s debts. Not unlike sons in our culture, Pheidippides son refuses to attend, lest his suntan be ruined, and his father goes instead. He finds Socrates suspended in a basket from the roof, wherein rarefied thinking can be more appropriately done in the atmosphere of the clouds.

What follows is the entrance of the chorus of “clouds” singing and dancing (lines 263-509), following the incantations and chanted prayers of Socrates, to the alarm of Strepsiades. In brilliant repartee, the chorus is introduced as the goddesses, who, with wind, lightning, and thunder, patronize intellectual development. Yet the buffoonery that follows indicates that it is some weird intellect, for Socrates, in answer to questions about rain and thunder, assures Strepsiades that there is no Zeus but only clouds displaying analogies to the human bodily functions of passing water or gas. Strepsiades is convinced and agrees to become a student.  He proves to be incompetent as a student, for he cannot memorize what is required but only wants to learn how to outwit his creditors. Subsequent to his own dismissal, he forces Pheidippides to enroll under threat of expulsion from home. It here that he is exposed to the debate between “Right” (“Just Logic”) and “Wrong” (“Unjust Logic”), from which it is obvious that the argument of the latter will prevail.

Aristophanes is successful in parading buffooneries and a satiric presentation of his son's great success, he discovers that success means that his son now knows how to whip him. Along with a commentary on the ancient tragedians there are amusing anecdotes concerning child development in Strepsiades’ argument to Pheidippides, but Strepsiades has been defeated by his own intentions. 
I found Aristophanes somewhat more cerebral and obscure in this play when compared to Lysistrata, but the caricature of Socrates is enough to make the play worth while for anyone who is interested in the golden age of Athens.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Being Present for Your Life

The Second Coming
The Second Coming 

“How did it happen that now he could see everything so clearly. Something had given him leave to live in the present. Not once in his entire life had he come to rest in the quiet center of himself but had forever cast himself from some dark past he could not remember to a future that did not exist. Not once had he been present for his life. So his life had passed like a dream. Is it possible for people to miss their lives the way one can miss a plane?”   ― Walker Percy, The Second Coming

What is wrong with Will Barrett? He is depressed and his golf game is off kilter. He has a sort of falling down sickness and that theme pervades this tale of revelation and change in the life of this widower who has become a somewhat different person than the young seeker whose story was told in The Last Gentleman.

In this, his fifth novel, Walker Percy once again surveys the themes of alienation, from self and from God, and dissatisfaction with the commercialism of modern American life. This book, while filled with realistic details about life in North Carolina in the 1980s, is able to speak to twenty-first century readers with its existential approach to life's problems. Many of the people Will encounters, and there are some memorable side characters like a chaplain whose belief is somewhat doubtful, remind me of the mediocre Christians who provided fodder for the commentaries of thinkers like Kierkegaard. We find Percy asking the important question whether people may be missing their own lives while going through the motions like shopping or wasting away on the local golf course.

At the center of the novel Will has an epiphany of sort that leads him to a fall that becomes a catalyst for a new life - a new relationship both for him and for a young woman named Allison who has her own psychological baggage. It was somewhat ironic, however, that Will's fall was due in part to his hubristic demand that 
he would commit suicide if God did not reveal himself. And even more ironic was that this demand led Will closer to being present for his own life than ever before.

Best of all is the way that Percy packages the story - in two parts that fit together so well that this may be his best novelistic effort. It certainly rivals the brilliance of his premiere effort of The Moviegoer. As a reader I was thankful that he returned to Will Barrett and found a way to tell a story of second chances and new love wrapped in an elegant package. The existence of god in the life of Will Barrett is brought home in a more thorough way here than in The Last Gentleman. I found it a transformation made possible by a reasonable belief.

Monday, September 13, 2021

The Chief Horror

The Forest

 “The whole forest was peopled with frightful sounds--the creaking of the trees, the howling of wild beasts, and the yell of Indians; while sometimes the wind tolled like a distant church bell, and sometimes gave a broad roar around the traveler, as if all Nature were laughing him to scorn. But he was himself the chief horror of the scene, and shrank not from its other horrors.”

― Nathaniel Hawthorne, Young Goodman Brown

Sunday, September 12, 2021

A "Different" Boy

Shuggie Bain
Shuggie Bain 

“He had long perfected the art of staring through people, leaving conversations to follow his daydreams through the back of their heads and out any open window.”   ― Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain

In a book whose story has moments of wry humor interspersed between many more moments of almost unrelenting sadness, Shuggie Bain, the titular character, is tossed back and forth between disappointments too numerous to count. We meet him as he is growing up in the projects in 1980s Glasgow with his mother and family. Both his mother, Agnes, and the environment of lower class Glasgow are characters that rival and sometimes surpass Shuggie in interest for the reader. The combination in this first novel from the pen of Douglas Stuart make for an engrossing read in spite of a heavy dose of heartbreak.

After a brief introductory section and two chapters where we meet Agnes, her girl friends, and her second husband, Shug, we finally meet a five-year-old Shuggie who is dancing while being cheered by his mother in her Glasgow tenement. Shuggie is the last born among Agnes’ children. The other two children were sired by a different father. Agnes abandoned her first husband for a taxi driver who is rarely at home. Shuggie’s father, Big Shug, is a womanizer and has pushed Agnes into a depression due to his philandering behavior. Agnes has turned to alcohol, thus, becoming a shadow of her former self. In spite of flaws, Shuggie loves his mother and sometimes misses school to look after her.

Agnes’ behavior forces her first two children to plot their escape. Therefore, Shuggie is left with his mother. Shuggie hides from the outside world for being mocked about his sexuality. This leaves him alone and he spends much time with his mother. To make his mother happy, Shuggie sings and dances for her. When Agnes’ conditions worsen, men take advantage and molest her sexually. Readers get insight into a bitter and humiliating woman, whose downfall is catalyzed by love and marriage. Simply, it is a case of a dysfunctional love affair.

Shuggie is displayed as a character who longs to make his mother happy no matter what happens. Although he has been failed by his parents, Shuggie is never judgmental. Gradually he begins to realize he is "different" than the other boys.
"He felt something was wrong. Something inside him felt put together incorrectly. It was like they could all see it, but he was the only one who could not say what it was. It was just different, and so it was just wrong."

In spite of this devastating realization, or perhaps because of it, Shuggie is a strong character dealing with rejection by friends and abandonment by his father, just as his mother is also dealing with rejection. The rejection experienced by a mother and her son leads to a huge love that binds them together. The decade of the eighties is not kind to either Shuggie or Agnes. While Shuggie gradually enters manhood in his teen years he begins both to accept his gay persona and to learn how to dance for himself.

Stuart's book won the 2020 Booker Prize whose judges praised this "amazingly intimate, compassionate, gripping portrait of addiction, courage and love."

Thursday, September 02, 2021

Confession of a Personal Catastrophe


“Can good come from evil? Have you ever considered the possibility that one might undertake a search not for God but for evil? You people may have been on the wrong track all these years with all that talk about God and signs of his existence, the order and beauty of the universe--that's all washed up and you know it. The more we know about the beauty and order of the universe, the less God has to do with it. I mean, who cares about such things as the Great Watchmaker? - Walker Percy

Following the example of Camus' novel, The Fall, Walker Percy styled his fourth novel as a confessional with Lancelot Andrewes Lamar, a disenchanted liberal lawyer, as the titular confessor. 
Lancelot is packed with philosophical and theological questions, questions debated in his essay collection Message in the Bottle (1975). Lancelot, like Percy's previous protagonists, has lost himself to everydayness, sex, consumerism, newspapers, and television. He is jolted out of his alienation only by catastrophe: his wife has been unfaithful—his daughter is not his. Percy, a Christian novelist, uses violence, shock, and the bizarre as a catalyst to promote a self-directed search. Lancelot, like the characters in Percy’s earlier novels, undertakes the search only after catastrophe occurs.

Through a series of fragmented flashbacks, Lancelot, failed lawyer, ex-grid star, Rhodes scholar, and madman, travels through his memory in an attempt to discover what went wrong. He relives the past, while rambling in a monologue to a silent priest who acts as a sounding board.

The search begins, as in Percy’s earlier novels, by confronting the haunted past, because only by understanding the past can Lance contemplate the future. In doing so he must, as Percy has suggested in his philosophical essays, “stand in front of the house of his childhood in order to recover himself.” Once there Lance discovers his father was a crook. He must then not only become aware of sin, of evil, but he must also see it and experience it. What he sees is his wife committing adultery, his daughter participating in an orgy, and his son admitting his homosexuality. The issue is twofold: first Lancelot must see his wife’s unfaithfulness; then in his quest for sin, he must experience evil—he must kill. While searching for evil, he discovers that “sexual sin was the unholy grail I sought.” Because his wife’s unfaithfulness jolts him out of his ordinary existence, he questions whether “good can come from evil,” and he undertakes a search “not for God but for evil.” “Dishonor,” Lancelot learns in this first-person narration, “is sweeter and more mysterious than honor. It holds a secret,” and he is determined to discover the secret.

So, the protagonist experiences evil and discovers despair. But for Percy, as with Kierkegaard, despair is a stage toward hope. Lancelot despairs of the modern world, “The great whoredom and fagdom of America.” But he visualizes a new life, a new order of things; “there will be a tight-lipped courtesy between men. And chivalry toward women. Women must be saved from the whoredom they have chosen.” His new life, as he visualizes it, involves a retreat to “a cabin and a barn and fifty acres in the Blue Ridge not far from Lexington, Virginia.” Joining him, he assumes, will be Anna, a victim of gang rape, who along with Lance is a patient in the institute. Lance links his future to Anna’s.

Percy, termed a stylist by many, has progressed in his style; the monologue device spans the novel. Yet he takes this novel one step further than Love in the Ruins, where the main character awaits the end of the world. Here Lancelot ends the modern world for himself and plans to start a new one. Again, as in his earlier novels, Percy reverses the traditional ways of making do in the modern world. Average happiness is conceived as despair, sin is better than indifference, forgetting better than remembering, wonder better than certainty, tragedy better than an ordinary day, and madness better than sanity.

The new novel, with Lancelot rambling to a priest in confessional fashion, breaks from Percy’s previous style. The monologue, which pretends to be a dialogue is broken at the novel’s conclusion when the priest answers “yes” to Lance’s newfound understanding and ability to change, to heal his broken self, as Percy has all his characters do at the conclusions of his novels. Percy, a Catholic, always incorporates religion into his novels, and Percival, the priest-psychiatrist, echoes Father Rinaldo Smith and Kev Kevin of Love in the Ruins.

The protagonists in Percy’s four novels all seek alternatives to their present alienated existence, alternatives which will enable them to function in a fragmented and empirically oriented society. Consequently, the fragmented self exemplified by Binx of The Moviegoer, Will of The Last Gentleman, Dr. More of Love in the Ruins, and Lance in this novel is reunified in varying degrees by the novels’ ends. Other similarities also exist between Lancelot and Percy’s previous novels. Binx is a moviegoer in that novel; Lancelot is a television watcher, while Margot is an actress with a company filming a movie in Belle Isle. Lancelot realizes, as Binx eventually did, “that the movie folk were trafficking in illusions in a real world, but the real world thought that its reality could only be found in illusions.” Percy also repeats his intrigue with catastrophe as a means of “rendering the broken self whole” in Lancelot. Binx in The Moviegoer, Sutter Vaught in The Last Gentleman, and Dr. More in Love in the Ruins realize that “only in times of illness or disaster or death are people real.”

Although Percy continues to pose philosophical questions in Lancelot—can good come out of evil, does tragedy heighten reality, how is one to live in the modern world—he has not progressed in developing new characters and ideas. They all echo and re-echo his last three novels as well as his philosophical essays. Lancelot continues a progression in Percy’s writing, for Lance, like the other protagonists, undertakes a search—in this case, a search for evil. He begins a new world for himself by personally and symbolically trying to destroy the modern world, by understanding evil through his participation in it.

The fragmented digressions of Lance’s mind are the vehicle Percy uses to convey his philosophy. I found myself getting bogged down in the author’s philosophical gymnastics over questions of the significance of the past, the question of good and evil, and the alienation and fragmentation of modern man. This made the novel seem a bit more tedious than its predecessors. This may be because he moved beyond his earlier approach to life as a journey and portrayed this narrative in confessional form. His use of this form seemed insufficient and led to a feeling that the protagonist, Lancelot Lamar was ranting at times.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

"a perfect novel"

by John Williams

"That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang."
William Shakespeare

Today marks the 99th anniversary of John Williams's birth. He worked as an editor and academic and wrote four novels during his lifetime, all of which are published in by New York Review Book Classics series: Nothing but the Night, Butcher's Crossing, Augustus (co-winner of the 1973 National Book Award), and Stoner, my favorite, which was called “a perfect novel” by The New York Times Book Review. In his memory I am reprinting my review from several years ago.

John Williams's Stoner is that rare novel which is almost perfect in every way, from its plain prose style to its subtle portrayal of themes and evocative descriptions of events that are common enough for all adults to have experienced them - in ways that make the narration a pleasure - and which makes you stop and reflect in wonder at the marvels around you, past and present. 

I found the story often took my breath away as I intently pondered the beautiful telling of a story of love and loss. The pain and pleasure were so pronounced that the reality of the images created by the author had an effect that few books ever do. I found the prose style reminiscent of Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road, but with more hope present even as Stoner deals unsuccessfully with the vicissitudes of life.

This is a Midwestern book, set on the plains, about a young man who is schooled in the hardships of farm life but who flowers in an academic setting - up to a point. His taciturn being and stoicism both help him survive and contribute to his downfall in love and learning. In each he fails, even though he does experience small moments of triumph; yet even in failure his determination shines through the pages of the novel and makes this drama somehow less tragic than it might have been otherwise. The difficulty which Stoner has in communicating his feelings is palpable throughout compounding the inevitability of defeat for our hero. 

This novel in all its detailing of the life of William Stoner captures some of the passion and loss that is suggested by Shakespeare's Sonnet 73 (quoted above) that plays a pivotal role in Stoner's education. This is a story of integrity and persistence in living through adversity and loss.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Ghosts in Massachusetts

Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tales
Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tales 

"Nathaniel in his turn would walk the ways of Salem, town and village, and ghosts would keep him company, never quite visible , lurking always just beyond the corner of his eye.  But he would pin them down on paper and when he had them there he would inspect them with a kind of literary credulity.  For it was with him somewhat as it was with Cotton Mather; useless to preach to the artist against the existence of witches; the very breath of the artist is witchery and magic."  (Marion Starkey, The Devil in Massachusetts, p 277)

The ghosts of Salem and Nathaniel Hawthorne's past are represented in many of the tales in this collection. None do it as well as in his magnificent short story, "Young Goodman Brown".

In this story Hawthorne describes the titular young man on a journey one evening that would change his life. As the story begins he comes "forth at sunset" after "crossing the threshold" of his house and his life, leaving his wife, Faith, who talks of "dreams" and is, he believes, "a blessed angel". His journey turns into one of his own dreams or visions where one after another of the people in his life are unmasked by the devil. He gradually discovers that his own corruptibility which he fears his embodied in his fellow townspeople, and ultimately in his own wife Faith. Young Goodman starts the evening journey with "excellent resolve", but he also has doubts which are fueled by comments from the stranger he meets. He grows more concerned and conceals himself even as his spectral visions (not unlike the evidence of witches in old Salem) show the deacon and elders of the town laid bare in their consorting with the devil. The evening has led to Young Goodman's loss of moral virginity. It is a loss that will haunt him the rest of his life.

This is the classic American short story of the guilty conscience. The question Brown confronts is whether his heritage of Original Sin incapacitates him for resisting personal sin. In this profoundly ambiguous story, Brown wavers between the desperate cynicism of the corrupt soul and the hopefulness of the believer. Hawthorne mirrors the communion of the church with that of Satan's altar. Contrasts abound with Faith, the angel of Young Goodman, joining the fallen angel in his mind. His tale is a blend of simplicity and seriousness. But more importantly he portrays experiences, fears, and feelings that, at least in part, his readers share in the sense they may experience similar doubts and wonder about the nature of their own morality and mortality. Melville would say of Hawthorne that his writing was "as deep as Dante".

At the beginning of the story, he has already made his bargain with the Devil—hardly a token that he is among God’s elect but not necessarily a sign of damnation, either, if he can reject the consummation in the form of the perverted communion service in the woods. Whether by act of will or by divine grace, Brown appears to have resisted the power of evil at the climactic moment and given evidence of at least the possibility of salvation for his wife and himself. There is abundant evidence in this and the best of his early stories that Hawthorne has much magic in his prose.

Friday, August 27, 2021

The Gallic Wars

The Landmark Julius Caesar: The Complete WorksThe Landmark Julius Caesar: 
The Complete Works 
by Gaius Julius Caesar

“In war, events of importance are the result of trivial causes.”   ― Julius Caesar

"All Gaul is divided into thee parts."
With these famous words Julius Caesar begins the first of his Commentaries on the Gallic War.*
In these Commentaries, he gives a chronological account of his activities in Gaul from the time of his succession to the governorship of Gallia Narbonensis in 59 b.c.e. to the end of the Gallic revolt led by Vercingetorix late in the same decade. During those years, Caesar and his Roman legions confronted first one group of tribes, then another. Only two sections, the first section of book 1 and the second section of book 6, are not about actual battle operations or preparations. The former is a description of Gaul and its inhabitants; the latter is an account of customs of the Gauls and Germans.

In his comments about the Gauls, Caesar stirs the imagination and stimulates curiosity by giving only enough information to make the reader wish more had been written. The account of the Gallic Wars is a reminder that war has been a continual factor in human affairs. As one example of the fury and effectiveness of war in ancient times, Caesar comments at the end of his account of the battle with the Nervii: This battle being ended, and the name and nation of the Nervii almost reduced to annihilation, their old men, together with the boys and women whom we have stated had been collected together in the inlets and the marshes, when this battle had been reported to them, convinced that nothing was an obstacle to the conquerors, and nothing safe to the conquered, sent ambassadors to Caesar with the consent of all who survived, and surrendered themselves to him; and in recounting the calamity of their state, they said that their senators were reduced from six hundred to three; that of sixty thousand men who could bear arms, scarcely five hundred remained.

Other examples of the character of these ancient wars included the massacre at Avaricum, at which, according to Caesar, scarcely eight hundred people of all ages and both genders escaped the city when it was taken, out of a population of forty thousand; the rest were killed; while indiscriminate killing was the norm at Sarsura and the Euberones, among others.

Caesar the Roman administrator is apparent throughout the Commentaries. He writes in an impersonal fashion, however, much as though he were preparing a favorable report to the Roman senate. Only rarely does an individual come through to the reader as a real personality. Even Caesar himself, whose name figures more largely than any other, remains an official and a general rather than emerging as a clearly visualized person. The Gallic and Germanic chieftains who oppose him are little more than names, and the same is true of the lieutenants who serve under him. The only outstanding exception to this general statement is the passage concerning Sextius Baculus, who, sick though he was, arose from his bed and saved the day for the Romans by rallying their forces when they were attacked in a camp at Aduatuca; he fought bravely until he was carried back to rest.

Of particular interest to English-speaking readers are those portions of the Commentaries that deal with Britain and Caesar’s invasions of Britain. Caesar’s account of the early history of that part of the world is the earliest of the Roman documents. Caesar tells of his first expedition, an abortive one, made in 55 b.c.e., and his second and more successful attempt the following year, an invasion that paved the way for the Roman occupation that lasted until the fifth century c.e. For his second invasion, he ordered a fleet of more than eight hundred vessels built and assembled, a logistical success noteworthy in any era of history. This fleet carried two thousand cavalrymen with their mounts and five Roman legions, each consisting at that time of about five thousand men.

Caesar was a remarkable man, one of the greatest in human history, in the sense that greatness may be defined as leaving an indelible mark on the history of his time. Few such men have lived; fewer still have left written records for posterity; and none has left a document to compare with Caesar’s Commentaries. The book occupies a unique place in the written records of the Western world. In addition to its value as history, it deserves to be read as an example of a concise report presented with an idiosyncratic style and flavor. The military greatness of Julius Caesar is the most striking aspect of the eight books of his Commentaries on the Gallic Wars. Whether you believe all of what is reported or not, this was an achievement of massive proportions.

*The Landmark edition of his commentaries is magnificent providing a new translation complemented by extensive footnotes, helpful maps, drawings, and illustrations. There are also useful appendices and even links to a series of scholarly essays on the Landmark web site.

Friday, August 13, 2021

The Study & Library of Cervantes

The House of Miguel de Cervantes in Valladolid, Spain*

"In Valladolid, readers of Don Quixote can stroll through the house occupied by Miguel de Cervantes from 1602 to 1605, the year in which the first part of the novel was published, and experience a voyeuristic thrill . . . . The house, though carefully restored, has necessarily been furnished with bits and pieces that never were in Crevantes's possession. Only the study, on the second floor, contains a few objects that most certainly belonged to him: not the "ebony and ivory" desk described in the will of his daughter, Isabel de Cervantes, but another, also mentioned in the document, "made of walnut, the largest one I possess," two paintings, one of Saint John and the other of the Virgin, a copper brazier, a chest for keeping papers and a single bookshelf holding some of the titles mentioned in his work. In this room he wrote several stories for his Exemplary Novels, and here he must have discussed with his friends the conception of his singular Quixote."

Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night, pp. 182-3.

*By Lourdes Cardenal - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Misunderstood Young Man

Pudd'nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins
Pudd'nhead Wilson 
and Those Extraordinary Twins 

“Adam was but human—this explains it all. He did not want the apple for the apple's sake, he wanted it only because it was forbidden. The mistake was in not forbidding the serpent; then he would have eaten the serpent.”   ― Mark Twain, Pudd'nhead Wilson

This is an unusual novel with more than one story interpolated within the overall account of the fall and rise of David "Pudd'nhead" Wilson. His story is that of a would be lawyer who has a clever remark of his misunderstood, which causes locals to brand him a "pudd'nhead" (nitwit). His hobby of collecting fingerprints does not raise his standing in the eyes of the townsfolk, who consider him to be eccentric and do not frequent his law practice in Dawson's Landing. How he overcomes this distinction holds the novel together.

There are at least two other stories that are interposed with his. In the first, A slave named Roxy who is one-sixteenth black and majority white, while her son Valet de Chambre (referred to as Chambers) is 1/32 black. Roxy is principally charged with caring for her wealthy and inattentive master's infant son Tom Driscoll, who is the same age as her own son. After fellow slaves are caught stealing and are nearly sold "down the river" to a master in the Deep South, Roxy fears for her son and herself. She considers killing her boy and herself, but decides to switch Chambers and Tom in their cribs to give her son a life of freedom and privilege.

In the other thread, twin Italian noblemen visit Dawson's Landing. Tom quarrels with one. Tom robs and murders his wealthy uncle, and the blame falls wrongly on one of the Italians. From that point, the novel proceeds as a crime novel. 
In a courtroom scene, the whole mystery is solved when Wilson demonstrates, through fingerprints, both that Tom is the murderer and not the true Driscoll heir.

Character and perception are important themes in Pudd'nhead Wilson. This is emphasized as Twain's narrative builds on the importance of character. In the maxim from Pudd'nhead Wilson's calendar about character, Twain underscores how the good and sensible character of a person may be completely destroyed or misconstrued by ridicule or false assumptions. Twain also elaborates on this with the arrival of David Wilson in the town of Dawson's Landing. Because of Wilson's clever remark about owning half a dog, the simple townspeople completely misjudged him as being an idiot, or "pudd'nhead". Through his character of Pudd'nhead Wilson, Twain explores how people's motives, character, and personality can be misjudged and misunderstood.

While this is not the best of Twain's works, it has redeeming features and is notably one of the first novels to use the evidence of fingerprints in solving a judicial case.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Commonplace Entry: Words/Lists

 "Around 1660, a manuscript by Athanasius Kircher was produced (Novum Inventum) which explains how it is possible to reduce the various languages of the world to a single code which produced a dictionary of 1,620 "words," and in which the author attempted to establish a list of 54 fundamental categories that could be written down through iconograms. The 54 categories also constituted a remarkably heterogeneous list, including divine, angelic and celestial entities, elements, human beings, animals, vegetables, minerals, drinks, clothing, weights, numbers, hours, cities, foods, family, actions such as seeing or giving, adjectives, adverbs, and the months of the year."

The Infinity of Lists by Umberto Eco. Rizzoli, New York 2009, p 237

Monday, July 26, 2021

Of Mere Being

The Palm at the End of the Mind: Selected Poems and a PlayThe Palm at the End of the Mind: 
Selected Poems and a Play 
by Wallace Stevens

“Out of this same light, out of the central mind,
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.”
― Wallace Stevens

This collection, while not as definitive as The Collected Poetry, includes all the major longer poems and many important shorter poems of critical value. Arranged in chronological order by probable date of composition this text provides the reader the possibility of considering the overall arc of Stevens' career. I find myself dipping into the poems included here time and again and it is difficult to pull myself away. The thoughtful consideration of art and meaning in life is seldom conveyed any better than in the poetry of Wallace Stevens.

"Of Mere Being"

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor,

A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird's fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Sovereign Wanderer

Love in the Ruins
Love in the Ruins 
“For the world is broken, sundered, busted down the middle, self ripped from self and man pasted back together as mythical monster, half angel, half beast, but no man...Some day a man will walk into my office as a ghost or beast or ghost-beast and walk out as a man, which is to say sovereign wanderer, lordly exile, worker and waiter and watcher.”   ― Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins

With an opening paragraph that explodes on the page with references to Christendom, Western civilization, and Dante, I immediately knew that this book was going to be good if not great. However I was thrown off a bit by the structure in which the first part was set on July Fourth and then went back to July 1st in the second part, but I got my bearings and began to enjoy the satire and the chaos of the world of the mid-80s in the United States where everything was falling apart around Paradise Estates, "an oasis of concord in a troubled land."

The protagonist is Dr. Thomas More (yes, namesake of the famous St. Thomas More) a heavy-drinking psychiatrist who has had his share of personal tragedy. He comments, "It is my misfortune---and blessing---that I suffer from both liberal and conservative complaints, e.g., both morning terror and large-bowel disorders, excessive abstraction and unseasonable rages, alternating impotence and satyriasis. So that at one and the same time I have great sympathy for my patients and lead a fairly miserable life."(p 20)

Tom hopes to turn his fortunes around with his invention, the lapsometer, with which he "can measure the index of life, life in death and death in life" --- This being a very scientific way to measure a sort of relative spirituality. The plot centers around his attempts to make progress with his invention while maintaining a semblance of normality, a vigorous love life, and interactions with a variety of interesting characters that include a Jewish atheist and a mephistopheles-like character who manages to persuade Tom to sign away his invention (i.e. his soul).

Through it all he maintains his own Catholic faith, while at the same time claiming, somewhat reasonably, to be a "bad" Catholic. At the same time he serves his fellow man in his role as a doctor while dealing with attacks from "Bantu" warriors and the impending collapse of society. The delight of the book comes from the savage satire and the potential for change in the life of Dr. Tom. 

Seldom have I read a book that brings to mind my personal history; Love in the Ruins is one of those books. Written in the early 1970s, but set in a not too distant future of the mid 80s it is filled with references that in lesser books would merely seem out of date and discourage the reader. Yet Percy has captured the time and place with specific cultural entities like Howard Johnson's and others. I found this intriguing and fitting in a way that made the deterioration of society in the story more believable. He succeeds (certainly not intentionally) in mirroring the ongoing chaos in our own contemporary world. Ultimately, this is a novel, as the title suggests, about ruin, but also love, and perhaps therein a glimmer of hope---read it and find out.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

The Clash of Civilizations

The History
The History 

"poverty has always been native in Greece, but the courage they have comes imported, and it is achieved by a compound of wisdom and the strength of their laws. By virtue of this, Greece fights off poverty and despotism."  -  Herodotus

During the fifth century B.C. Herodotus of Halicarnassus traveled the known world making inquiries and doing research on the origins and events of the wars between the Persians and the Greeks. This sizable text was the result and it includes what he referred to as enquiries but what encompasses much of what we would call history, sociology, anthropology, mythology and more. It is a wonderful narrative providing the essential background and events, including famous battles like Thermopylae and profiles of great leaders on both sides including Themistocles, Darius and Xerxes. Perhaps the best way to convey the import of this book is to let Herodotus speak for himself. He opens the book thus:

"Here are presented the results of the enquiry carried out by Herodotus of Halicarnassus. The purpose is to prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time, and to preserve the fame of the important and remarkable achievements produced by both Greeks and non-Greeks; among the matters covered is, in particular, the cause of the hostilities between Greeks and non-Greeks."
Herodotus does not shy away from opinions about the events that he narrates; one of these opinions is related early in Book One:
"I know that human happiness never remains long in the same place."

He also relates the opinions of others, notably Solon who counsels the magnificently wealthy King Croesus:
"Of course, it is impossible for one who is human to have all the good things together, just as there is no one country that is sufficient of itself to provide all good things for itself; but it has one thing and not another, and the country that has the most is best. So no single person is self-sufficient; he has one thing and lacks another. But whoso possesses most of them, continuously, and then ends his life gracefully, he, my lord, may justly win this name you seek---at least in my judgment. But one must look always at the end of everything---how it will come out finally. For to many the god has shown a glimpse of blessedness only to extirpate then in the end."

This value of this, the first historian's judgment and investigation becomes more and more evident as one reads on through his narrative. It demonstrates its excellence through episode after episode with the excitement of a great novel. It is not surprising that it has survived as the first history of  the clash of civilizations.  Reading it was an adventure into the known world in that time.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Inspired by Cervantes


         BOOKS:  A  DREAM

While he was sitting in a rocky cave

By the sea-side, perusing, as it chanced,

The famous History of the Errant Knight

Recorded by Cervantes, these same thoughts

Came to him; and to height unusual rose

While listlessly  he sate, and having closed

The Book, had turned his eyes toward the Sea.

On Poetry and geometric Truth,

The knowledge that endures, upon these two,

And their high privilege of lasting life,

Exempt form all internal injury,

He mused; upon these chiefly: and at length,

His senses yielding to the sultry air,

Sleep seiz'd him, and he passed into a dream.

from "The Prelude" by William Wordsworth

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday


This week’s topic hosted by The Artsy Reader Girl features book titles that ask questions or have question marks in them. I chose to review my reading over the years to find the top ten books that I have read that meet the requirements. I found more than ten but picked my favorites from the group. The resulting list includes a nice blend of fiction and nonfiction.

1.  Quo Vadis  by Henryk Sienkiewicz

  2.  What Am I Doing Here?  by Bruce Chatwin

  3.  How Many Miles to Babylon?  by Jennifer Johnston

4.  Must You Go? My Life With Harold Pinter  by Antonia Fraser

    5.  Can You Forgive Her?  by Anthony Trollope

      6.  What is Art?  by Leo Tolstoy

7. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  by Philip K. Dick

    8.  Why Read?  by Mark Edmundson

9.  Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  by Edward Albee

    10.  Why read the Classics?  by Italo Calvino

If you check out these great reads you may be able to answer the questions their titles pose. Happy reading!

Friday, July 09, 2021

From the Kingdom of Music


The World and the Why

Am I a freak?

Or perhaps a geek?

For I absolutely must admit,

That I like school.  I really love it!

The idea of learning the answer to why

The brook runs dry or there's blue in the sky,

Delights me no end, and is likely to send

Me to a place that I wish would not end.

When I'm in a class I feel comfortable

For this is where I am most capable,

Exploring the issues of now and then.

Yes, that's history with its where and when.

And what about math and studying space?

There seems no more appropriate place

Than school for learning that vast expanse

Of knowledge that will my mind entrance.

You may ask what it is that makes me this way,

When so many feel that school spoils their day.

I guess that I would quickly retort and reply,

That for me the world's a school.  That's why.

James Henderson, The Kingdom of Music, March, 2014

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday:

 A Reader’s Manifesto

Today’s top ten Tuesday is more of an invitation to reflect —  Jana asks us why we like to read. 

My answer to this question starts at home. Before my parents had children (myself and my younger sister) they had books (and a dog). I was born into a house of readers and the rest is history. While I'm sure I was encouraged my memory goes back to the first books that I enjoyed - they became the core of my own library.

My earliest reading memories included the fairy tales of Andersen, the Grimm brothers, and others. But central to my reading life was the duo of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-glass. Encouraged by a father who enjoyed science fiction I soon began to devour that genre while my mother preferred mysteries which I would not immediately enjoy, but have done so more recently.

The home environment was encouraging and my own desire for reading seemed to have no bounds for it included books ranging from history to science to biography in addition to fiction. While amassing my own personal library, my sister and I were regular patrons of the local town library. We enjoyed the walk to and from the library in our home town and would visit the library in our Grandmother's home town each summer when our family visited her.

So once started I can only recall that my love of reading was engendered by the wonder of what the world outside of a small town in rural Wisconsin was like. The histories of Kings and Queens, whether from the Old Testament of the Bible (as in the above scene from the story of Joseph and Potiphar's wife) or those of England gave me endless delight. While the stories of heroes and heroines both young and old like Jane Eyre, Robinson Crusoe, Jim Hawkins, Tom Sawyer, and Mowgli, just to name a few, kept me reading into the night. 

An author and reader I discovered more recently, Anna Quindlen, describes my feelings better than I can:

"We read in bed because reading is halfway between life and dreaming, our own consciousness in someone else’s mind." 

Notes on Don Quixote

The Ingenious
Hidalgo Don Quixote
De La Mancha 

“As soon as we live, we have already felt the confines of our prison. Thirty years when we take the longest to recognize the limits within which our possibilities will move. We take possession of the real, which is like having measured the meters of a chain attached to our feet. So we say, 'Is this life? Nothing more than this? A completed cycle that repeats itself, always the same? " Here is a dangerous hour for every man. "  - José Ortega y Gasset, Meditations on Quixote

The idea of the novel starts here - this is the source of the modern novel for many. While it remains the epitome of story-telling its fame has also led to the coinage of such terms as "quixotic" and others. Influential beyond almost any other single work of fiction, the characters, led by the incomparable knight-errant extraordinaire 
Don Quixote, through their charm and uniqueness remain indelible in the memory of readers.

Don Quixote is one of those books whose influence is so far-reaching as to be almost ubiquitous, like The Odyssey, or the Bible. And like the Bible or Homer’s epics, it is more often talked about than read. But my conclusion upon reading it is to recommend to all: read it and enjoy the stories.

As Don Quixote says . . . "the life of knights-errant is subject to a thousand perils and reverses, and it's just as likely for knights-errant to become kings and emperors, as has been shown by experience through many diverse knights whose histories I know thoroughly. And I could tell you now, if this pain would abate, about some who, all alone, through the strength of their arm, have risen to the high positions that I've told you about. . . I can well suffer among such good company, for they have undergone greater affronts than we've just now undergone." (p 119)

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

The Serenity of a Cheerful Mind

The Meditations
The Meditations 
We, however must escape to freedom. But this is only possible if we are indifferent to Fortune. Then we shall attain that one overriding blessing -- the serenity and exaltation of a firmly anchored mind. For when error is banished, we shall have the great and satisfying joy that comes from the discovery of truth, plus a kind disposition and cheerfulness of mind.
- Seneca, On the Happy Life, IV.

Marcus Aurelius
was steeped in the thoughts of the Greek and Roman stoics who, starting with Zeno, focused on the search for a firm support for the moral life. "How should I live?" was the great and overriding question for them. Following on from Zeno, Epictetus, and Seneca, Marcus Aurelius portrayed in his Meditations the idea that the importance of philosophical inquiry lay in its significance for the moral life. He said, “Always think of the universe as one living organism with a single substance and a single soul.” This leads to the basic Stoic perception that “there is a law which governs the course of nature and should govern human actions.”(Meditations, p 73)

Marcus Aurelius emphasizes several other themes in his notes on life known as the Meditations. Among them are the tenets that underlie the stoic philosophy that he learned from his teachers including a discussion of the importance of your duty both to your own nature and that of the whole universe. It is with these tenets in mind that we see him telling us to accept what is beyond our control (5.8) in his expression of the notion that freedom for man is possible only when he is indifferent to the his fate as decreed by nature. This is consistent with the view of Epictetus in his Enchiridion. Both emphasize that this in the sense that the we are all a part of the whole of nature and recognition of that is necessary to achieve the good. The good which is always the moral good.

The importance of this is seldom clearer than when Aurelius notes the importance of focusing on the present, the "task at hand" if you will by exercising dispassionate justice in the following way:

"Vacating your mind from all its other thoughts. And you will achieve this vacation if you perform each action as if it were the last of your life: freed, that is, from all lack of aim, from all passion-led deviation from the ordinance of reason, from pretense, from love of self, from dissatisfaction with what fate has dealt you." (2.5)

It is acting like this, not in any morbid sense, but with a cheerfulness of mind, as described in the quote from Seneca above, that you will achieve the tranquility of being that is the ultimate form of happiness. But there is more than happiness in Stoicism and honestly that is not the primary goal of the stoic life.

Friday, June 25, 2021

The Good Life

 You know from experience that in all your wanderings you have nowhere found the good life --- not in logic, not in wealth, not in glory, not in indulgence: nowhere. Where then is it to be found? 

In doing what man's nature requires. And how is he to do this? By having principles to govern his impulses and actions. What are these principles? Those of good and evil --- the belief that nothing is good for a human being which does not make him just, self-controlled, brave, and free: and nothing evil which does not make him the opposite of these. (Book 8, Sec 1)

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, Martin Hammond (Translator) Published 2006 by Penguin Classics (first published 180)

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Preserver of Continuity

The Last Gentleman

The Last Gentleman 

“But if there's nothing wrong with me, he thought, then there is something wrong with the world. And if there is nothing wrong with the world, then I have wasted my life and that is the worst mistake of all.”   ― Walker Percy, The Last Gentleman

Having recently reread Walker Percy's first novel, The Moviegoer, I was looking forward to his second foray into the world of the novel. In many ways I was not disappointed. We meet on the first page, an immature Will Barrett, who has spent five years in psychoanalysis; he is a native southerner serving as a “humidification engineer” at Macy’s department store in New York City. An introspective educated man, vaguely aware of his own despair, Barrett is “dislocated in the universe.” Percy’s opening description of Barrett introduces his character: “He had to know everything before he could do anything. . . For until this moment he had lived in a state of pure possibility, not knowing what sort of a man he was or what he must do,".

His paralysis toward commitment to abstract knowledge before making decisions leads Barrett to world pervaded by ordinariness. He despairs of clear answers to his nagging questions about the purpose of life—both for himself and others—but he has some dim hopes that his quest will eventually bear fruit.

One day, as he contemplates his station in life while at Central Park, he opts to become, as Binx Bolling had in The Moviegoer, an observer and not merely the observed. He spots a beautiful young woman, Kitty Vaught, through his newly purchased telescope and sets out to meet her. Smitten, Barrett traces her to a New York hospital, where he discovers that she and the Vaught family are comforting her younger brother, Jamie, who is dying. In a somewhat improbable sequence of events, Will Barrett’s southern charm and gentlemanly pose win over each of the Vaught family members, and he is invited to accompany them back home to Atlanta, mostly as companion and confidant to Jamie as he lives out his remaining days. Barrett agrees, interested as he is in staying as close to Kitty Vaught as possible.

During his stay, Kitty’s sister, Valentine, who has joined a Catholic order of nuns that takes care of indigent children, enters Barrett’s life and coerces him to seek Jamie’s conversion, believing that he alone can ensure that Jamie enters eternity as a “saved” person. Soon thereafter, Sutter Vaught, Jamie’s brother, arrives on the scene. Barrett finds in him a curious but appealing sense of daring and courage. He seems to be someone who has lived life and not merely hypothesized about it.

Sutter and Jamie disappear, and it becomes Barrett’s duty to track them down and return Jamie home—a task made all the more alarming and tenuous when Barrett discovers in Sutter’s New Mexico apartment, along with some helpful maps, a stenographic notebook recording Sutter’s jaded outlook on life and community. Barrett familiarizes himself with the notebook during his subsequent trek, as Percy interweaves excerpts from Sutter’s painful explorations with Barrett’s unfolding search for the two brothers. Percy pushes the reader to diagnose the debilitating malady from which both Sutter and Barrett suffer: an utter sense of homelessness in the world that seems to make errant materialism or suicide the only options for the thoughtful individual. 

Sutter’s notebook contains some key observations. If man is a wayfarer, he never stops anywhere long enough to hear that there is hope that conquers despair, salvation that conquers death. Will’s amnesia is not a symptom but the human condition: Man struggles to make the world anew at every moment; because he is ill-fitted for this Godlike task, it is not ennobling but pitiable. Sutter’s solution involves extremes of emotion and choice, as if they could somehow exalt a man to the stature necessary to reconstruct the world.  Will, however, becomes a preserver of continuity growing from telescopic observer and wayfarer in a Trav-L-Aire named Ulysses, to comforter of a dying friend and agent of salvation for a living one.

Walker Percy takes ample opportunity to observe the passing scene. He wryly comments that though the North has never lost a war, Northerners have become solitary and withdrawn, as if ravaged by war. In sharp contrast, the South is invincibly happy. Will feels most homeless when he is among those who appear to be completely at home: “The happiness of the South drove him wild with despair.” Percy presents no simple solution to the plague of homelessness. If Will is to reenter the South and marry Kitty, he wants Sutter with him. Perhaps Will is still a wayfarer, yet in The Last Gentleman he has stayed around just long enough to hear something of the honest truth.