Monday, March 27, 2017

Speculative Satire

It Can't Happen Here 
by Sinclair Lewis

It Can't Happen Here
“The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his "ideas" almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store.  Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. His political platforms were only wings of a windmill.”  ― Sinclair Lewis, It Can't Happen Here

Sinclair Lewis, the first American to receive the Nobel Prize For Literature, wrote a form of naturalistic satire that at its best (see Main Street, Babbit, or Arrowsmith) was worthy of the accolades that he received. This satirical political novel was written in 1935 after he had already published fifteen novels. It was a time when the United States and Western Europe had been in a depression for six years and Lewis asked the question – what if some ambitious politician would use the 1936 presidential election to make himself dictator by promising quick, gimmicky solutions to the depression.

The protagonist of the story is Doremus Jessup, a small-town newspaper editor in Vermont. Doremus struggles for a year with the new government’s attempts to censor his paper and ultimately ends up in a concentration camp. When he escapes from the concentration camp, he finds himself part of the resistance movement because that is all there is left for him to do. He blames himself for the failed revolution because he did not take Buzz Windrip more seriously when there was still a chance to stop him.

While Doremus Jessup is a generic character, the identity of Buzz Windrip, the power-hungry senator who makes himself dictator, would be obvious to any American in 1935. Parallels are made in his dictatorial control of his own unnamed state with someone who many critics consider to be a reference to Huey Long, who was preparing to run for president when the novel was being written.
The identity of the main ally of the fictional dictator would be equally obvious, Bishop Peter Paul Prang, the popular radio preacher who endorses Buzz Windrip’s campaign, is based on Father Charles Coughlin, the most popular radio speaker of the thirties who had a weekly program on which he denounced President Roosevelt and the Jews for causing and perpetuating the depression. (In his novel, Lewis foresees that TV would have even greater propaganda potential than the radio – this fictional dictator introduces mass coast-to-coast TV broadcasting in 1937 - something that did not happen in reality until 1948.) In the real world President Roosevelt used the radio in a similar way and exerted censorship via his political control over the FCC which held the major networks in thrall through licensing requirements.

Meanwhile Windrip defeats Roosevelt for the democratic party presidential nomination, and after winning the election, establishes a dictatorship with the help of a small group of cronies and a ruthless paramilitary force. Although the fictional dictator Windrip ran for President as a Democrat, any implied attack on Hitler’s Germany was seen as Democratic party propaganda in 1935, since Jews, Hitler’s enemies, mostly voted Democrat. Any discussion of the politics of It Can’t Happen Here should keep in mind that Sinclair Lewis, the author, was a political liberal who toyed with the left wing for a while in his youth. In his novel, Lewis's satire was a confused and over-the-top mixture buffooning small town conservatism with progressive politics. The populist Windrip was both anti-semitic and anti-Negro among other views that could best be described as an irrational hodge-podge with no apparent ideological foundation.

Doremus Jessup, is a moderate Republican newspaper editor whose motto is: "Blessed are those who don’t think they have to go out and Do Something About It!" But then Jessup, like his creator Sinclair Lewis is plunged into the chaos of the Depression, when American society seemed to be falling apart. When Americans looked for solutions to the Depression, the great majority went no further than the progressive platform of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. But for many, these changes were not effective and they looked for something more drastic. Lewis believed that most of those who wanted more radical solutions would not turn to the small American left wing, but elsewhere.

It Can’t Happen Here is not a revolutionary book. It is speculative fiction that posits the rise of fascism in the United States during the 1930s, an eventuality that many people felt couldn't happen here, and so were not on guard against. Lewis's prose is stuffed with florid description and turgid prose, dating the novel and making it hard to plod through. While some of the statements made by many characters seem prescient in that they could be spoken by any political hack today, many of the novel's assertions strain belief, so that I wasn't entirely convinced that it could "happen here". However, in spite of this I still consider It Can't Happen Here to be a noteworthy example of dystopic alternative history.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

An Artistic Revolutionary

Arnold Schoenberg's Journey 
by Allen Shawn

Arnold Schoenberg's Journey

"An artistic impression is substantially the resultant of two components. One what the work of art gives the onlooker - the other, what he is capable of giving to the work of art."  - Arnold Schoenberg

Rereading this book takes me back to the summer of 2007 when I first read it. As then I enjoyed every moment of its readable and even witty text. The author discusses Schoenberg's music and life together in a way that makes them both vivid and informative. He analyzes the music in detail, leaving the reader with an appreciation for the revolutionary impact of Schoenberg's passionate musical genius.

Along the way the cultural environment of the composer is explored and you learn about composers who influenced and helped Schoenberg. It was a revelation to this reader that Schoenberg was a painter as well. In this endeavor he benefited from his friendship with Gustav Klimt who also was interested in music. The book is organized into thirty essays in roughly chronological order. They cover major periods of development in the musical life of the composer, culminating with retrospective discussions of his impact on musical life and other composers. The discussion of Stravinsky was illuminating in its showing his development in comparison with Schoenberg. A bibliographic essay augments the value of this study for those who want to further explore Schoenberg's music and life.

With its focus on the listener's point of view it is one of the best books on music and artistic culture that I have encountered. The survey of both music composition and the life of musical genius is deep enough to inform without too much esoteric detail. I would recommend it to all who want to better understand both Schoenberg and the development of early twentieth century culture.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Seeking Understanding

Tallyho - The Hunt for Virtue: Beauty, Truth and Goodness: Nine Dialogues by Plato: Phaedrus, Lysis, Protagoras, Charmides, Parmenides, Gorgias, Theatetus, Meno, and Sophist 
by Phillip Lundberg

Tallyho - The Hunt for Virtue: Beauty, Truth and Goodness: Nine Dialogues by Plato: Phaedrus, Lysis, Protagoras, Charmides, Parmenides, Gorgias, Thea
"Bethink yourself, now, Theaetetus, that in a more prudent manner you won't beleive to know what you don't know.  For only to this extent is my art capable and of nothing more, no too do I understand anything like the others, thses great men of the present and of former times, those who are so worthy of marvel.  But this artistry of midwifery, this my profession was imparted both to me and to my mother from God"(210d, p458)

This is a refreshing new translation of nine of Plato's most important dialogues. The dialogues include Phaedrus, Protagoras, and Gorgias among others.

An informative introduction provides both explanations and a defense for the selection and, most importantly, describes the unique nature of these translations. The dialogues are all translated from the classic German translation of Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768-1834) . According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy "Schleiermacher's translations appeared during the period 1804-28 (though not all of the dialogues were translated in the end), and are still widely used and admired today."
Not only does the translator use Schleiermacher's translations as his source, he recommends and defends Schleiermacher's unorthodox categorization of Plato's dialogues which places Phaedrus and Parmenides in the first of three groupings with The Republic relegated to the third.

The dialogues are engaging and readable in this modern translation that benefits from using the German as its source rather than the original ancient Greek. This reader found the sectional introductions to each dialogue helpful, while judicious use of footnotes provided connections between dialogues of key ideas. The translation was used by our literary study group profitably as a source for a lively discussion of Plato's philosophy, Socrates as presented by Plato, and the importance of philosophy for our lives. Overall I would recommend this selection of dialogues with its unique translation, to all readers interested in enhancing their understanding of Plato's thought.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Book of Opposites

The Dispossessed 
by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Dispossessed“You can’t crush ideas by suppressing them. You can only crush them by ignoring them. By refusing to think, refusing to change.”   ― Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed

The Dispossessed -- which has not been out of print since its original publication in 1974 -- is one of Le Guin's most famous works, and both entertaining and intellectually challenging.

It is a book of opposites: a Utopian novel that doesn't refuse to expose the flaws of its model society; a feminist-themed narrative with a male protagonist; a social commentary that presents communal cooperation as the truest human ideal, yet focuses on the inevitable separateness of the creative individual within such a structure. Through these dichotomies, Le Guin examines the tension between human aspiration and human nature, between what can be dreamed and what can be achieved.

The setting is on twin planets of Anarres and Urras, both of which see the other as a moon. This dichotomy is demonstrated with Anarres as an inhospitable planet that has been settled by revolutionaries from Urras who left behind the capitalist life on their home planet to found a new society on the moon. The resulting community is an extreme communal society where everything is shared and nothing is owned individually. Urras, on the other hand, is a world that somewhat resembles our own – a male dominated capitalist society where women have absolutely no official role in politics, science or education.

Urras and Anarres have very little contact between each other beyond the rocket ships that export minerals from Anarres. Visitors from Urras are forbidden from crossing beyond the walls of the rocket port. The hero of the novel is the physicist Shevek who visits Urras as a sort of unofficial ambassador with an agenda to bring about increased co-operation and communication between the two worlds. This theme of two drastically contrasting cultures intentionally isolated from each is reminiscent of Arthur C. Carke’s The City and the Stars where Alvin escapes from a immortal pleasure-filled life in the city of Diaspar.

Both of these novels involve a man returning back to his ‘home’ society in an attempt to reconcile the philosophies of ‘home’ and ‘colony’ to solve the problems of both. The teachings of these novels is clear – fleeing and isolating oneself from a corrupted society is not a solution. I wouldn’t pursue the comparison very far though; the novels are too different for that. The story is told from the point of view of Shevek and alternates between two timelines; one starting when he flees from Anarres under a cloud of disapproval from his fellow citizens who taunt him as a ‘profiteer’ and the other starting from his childhood and moving toward the point when he leaves Anarres.

The first narrative, based almost entirely on Urras, is driven forward by the reader's curiosity about when (and if) Shevek makes it back home and under what circumstances. The second storyline, which is based on Anarres is interesting because although we know that Shevek made it off Anarres we are not told how he managed it and what happened to his family.

Some of the conversations and speeches on the Anarresti brand of communalism are intense and provide food for thought. This larger theme, together with Le Guin's mature mastery of her craft, give The Dispossessed a universality that has prevented it from becoming dated, despite its roots in the political issues of its time (the communal counterculture of the late 60s and early 70s, the original women's movement). This novel achieves more than the typical genre work with serious ideas and literary merit, thus deserving the several awards with which it was rewarded.

Grave Condition, but not Hopeless

The Author: Alexander Solzhenitsyn

He  was born in December 1918;  known as a Russian novelist, historian, and short story writer. Solzhenitsyn fought in World War II as a commander in Russia’s Red Army and was decorated twice. He was arrested in 1945 for making derogatory comments about Stalin in a letter to a friend. He was subsequently sentenced to eight years imprisonment to be followed by permanent internal exile.

He was an outspoken critic of the Soviet Union and communism and helped to raise global awareness of its Gulag forced labor camp system. He was allowed to publish only one work in the Soviet Union, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), in the periodical Novy Mir. After this he had to publish in the West.   He is a stomach cancer survivor and his experiences serve as the basis for Cancer Ward (1968).  He also published The First Circle (1968), August 1914 (1971), and The Gulag Archipelago (1973). He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970 “for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature”. Solzhenitsyn was afraid to go to Stockholm to receive his award for fear that he would not be allowed to reenter. He was eventually expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974, but returned to Russia in 1994 after the state's dissolution.  He died in 2008. 

The Novel:   Cancer Ward 

“What is an optimist? The man who says, "It's worse everywhere else. We're better off than the rest of the world. We've been lucky." He is happy with things as they are and he doesn't torment himself.

What is a pessimist? The man who says, "Things are fine everywhere but here. Everyone else is better off than we are. We're the only ones who've had a bad break." He torments himself continually.”   ― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Cancer Ward

Cancer WardThe story takes place in the men's cancer ward of a hospital in a city in Soviet Central Asia. The patients in Ward 13 all suffer from cancer, but differ in age, personality, nationality, and social class (as if such a thing could be possible in the Soviet "classless" society!). We are first introduced to Pavel Rusanov, a Communist Party functionary, who enters the hospital because of a rapidly-growing neck tumor.
"The hard lump of his tumor--unexpected, meaningless and quite without use--had dragged him in like a fish on a hook and flung him onto this iron bed--a narrow, mean bed, with creaking springs and an apology for a mattress."(p 10)

Solzhenitzyn himself was released from a labor camp in early 1953, just before Stalin's death, and was exiled to a village in Kazakhstan. While incarcerated, he had been operated on for a tumor, but was not told the diagnosis. He subsequently developed a recurrence, received radiotherapy in Tashkent, and recovered.

The narrative places its focus on the central character of Oleg Kostoglotov, a young man who has recently been discharged from a penal camp and is now "eternally" exiled to this particular province. Only two weeks earlier, he was admitted to the ward in grave condition from an unspecified tumor, but he has responded rapidly to radiation therapy. Among the doctors are Zoya, a medical student; Vera Gangart, a young radiologist; and Lyudmila Dontsova, the chief of radiation therapy.

Rusanov and Kostoglotov respond to therapy and are eventually discharged; other patients remain in the ward, get worse, or are sent home to die. In the end Kostoglotov boards a train to the site of his "eternal" exile: "The long awaited happy life had come, it had come! But Oleg somehow did not recognize it."

In The Cancer Ward Solzhenitzyn transforms his own experiences into a multifaceted tale about Soviet society during the period of hope and liberalization after Stalin's death. While Cancer, of course, is an obvious metaphor for the totalitarian state there is also a penetrating look at mid-century Soviet medicine and medical ethics. 
“But substantial X-ray treatment is impossible without transfusion!” “Then don’t give it! Why do you assume you have the right to decide for someone else? Don’t you agree it’s a terrifying right, one that rarely leads to good? You should be careful. No one’s entitled to it, not even doctors.” “But doctors are entitled to that right—doctors above all,” exclaimed Dontsova with deep conviction. By now she was really angry. “Without that right there’d be no such thing as medicine!” 
Of course, the paternalism evident here (e.g. lack of truth-telling and informed consent) was also characteristic of medicine in other countries in the 1950's and remains an important concern in professional ethics.

The novel also explores the personal qualities and motivation of physicians, and the issue of intimate relationships between doctors and patients. The most incisive aspects of the book are its insight into human nature and the realism of its characters.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Steinbeck and Emerson

The Grapes of Wrath

by John Steinbeck

“the sense of being which in calm hours arises, we know not how, in the soul, is not diverse from things, from space, from light, from time, from man, but one with them and proceeds obviously from the same source.... Here is the fountain of action and of thought.... We lie in the lap of immense intelligence.”   ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Lookie , Ma. I been all day an' all night hidin' alone.  Guess who I been thinkin' about? Casy! He talked a lot. Used ta bother me. But now I been thinkin' what he said, an' I can remember---all of it.  Says one time he went out in the wilderness to find his own soul, an' he foun' he didn' have no soul that was his'n.  Says he foun' he jus' got a little piece of a great big soul.  Says a wilderness ain't no good, 'cause his little piece of a great big soul wasn't no good 'less it was with the rest, an' was whole.  Funny how I remember.  Didn' think I was even listenin'.  But I know now a fella ain't no good alone." (p 418)

The Transcendental concept of the Oversoul is expressed in the earthy folk language of Tom Joad and Jim Casy as the belief that all human's souls are really just part of one big soul. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the most well known proponent of transcendentalism, defined the Oversoul as the universal mind or spirit that animates, motivates, and is the unifying principle of all living things. In The Grapes of Wrath Casy makes numerous references to this one large soul that connects all in holiness, and they dovetail nicely with the basic idea of strength in group unity. 
Somewhat conversely, American transcendentalism also recognized individualism, a faith in common people and their self-reliance. This concept of the survival of the human life force is symbolized by the survival of the land turtle and Ma's comment, "We're the people — we go on." This combination of rugged individualism and an embracing of all men as part of the same Great Being is physically expressed in the education and re-birth of Tom Joad: His strongly individual nature gives him the strength to fight for the social welfare of all humanity.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Penguin Books, 1967 (1939).
Essays: First and Second Series by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Vintage, 1990 (1876)

Monday, March 13, 2017

Exploring the New World

The Moor's AccountThe Moor's Account 
by Laila Lalami

“Telling a story is like sowing a seed—you always hope to see it become a beautiful tree, with firm roots and branches that soar up in the sky. But it is a peculiar sowing, for you will never know whether your seed sprouts or dies.”   ― Laila Lalami, The Moor's Account

We tell stories both to others and to ourselves. They are seldom written down but once in a great while a writer with imagination may create a story about a real event. That is what the Moroccan-born author Laila Lalami has done with The Moor’s Account. Her novel is a fictional memoir written by Mustafa ibn Muhammad, a Moroccan slave who participated with a Castilian exploration group exploring La Florida. The story tells how Mustafa, who is owned by Señor Dorantes, a captain assigned to the expedition, becomes part of this exploration of the land. They change direction when they discover trace amounts of gold in one of the Indian villages. The leader of the expedition, governor Narváez, captures a group of Indians and he forcibly obtains information from them about a fabled capital city known as Apalache, which is supposed to be filled with even more gold.

The expedition splits up and Mustafa and his master travel with one group over the land and discovers the city of Apalache, but there is no gold. To make matters worse, they are running low on supplies and have become lost in the unknown land. They try to find a Spanish port where they can get help, but there’s nothing to be find. Narváez refuses to give up the idea that there might be gold nearby. He keeps interrogating the Indians for information. He pushes onward, but the expedition is plagued with sickness, a lack of supplies, and constant attack from the natives.

Throughout the journey, Mustafa reminisces on his past. His family wanted him to become a notary when he was younger, but he defied their wishes and became a merchant. He was fascinated with being a merchant because of how much money they made. His desire for money continued to grow and he soon found himself trading slaves. When the town came under siege, he lost his job and struggled to make any money. With no other way to take care of his family, he sold himself into slavery.

The expedition soon falls apart and the survivors are scattered throughout the region. Mustafa and his master along with some of his other companions manage to find a friendly Indian tribe. Mustafa learns their language and customs and gets help for the expedition. Disease forces them to move once again, their numbers much smaller. Madness begins to set in for some of the survivors, who desert the group and end up resorting to cannibalism. A few members give up on returning home and try to find home among the Indians.

Through all of this Mustafa feels terrified, but also free on his journey. The survivors continue to dwindle in number until there are only four left. Together, they become legends among the different tribes thanks to their medical knowledge. Soon, they are all wed by the tribe. They spend years traveling together, treating different tribes and gathering a large group of followers. Eventually, they run into fellow Castilians, who bring them to New Spain. While welcomed by there own Mustafa finds he is a slave once again. To make matters worse, his wife is enslaved alongside him. The final sections of the story are suspenseful as the reader wonders if Mustafa will ever gain his freedom and with it a return home or some other outcome that will allow his wife to live with him on their own.

Lalami creates a believable account of the expedition from the Moor's viewpoint. This is provides a much different perspective than that of the Conquistadors. Thus the reader has a different view of the Native Americans and their surroundings that they met along the way. This is historical fiction at its best that I would recommend to all who have an interest in the history of the exploration of the Americas.

Monday, March 06, 2017

Into the Void

Notes From UndergroundNotes From Underground 
by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

“Oh, gentlemen, perhaps I really regard myself as an intelligent man only because throughout my entire life I've never been able to start or finish anything. Granted, granted I'm a babbler, a harmless, irksome babbler, as we all are. But what's to be done if the sole and express purpose of every intelligent man is babble--that is, a deliberate pouring from empty into void.”  ― Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground

A forty year old man introduces himself: "I AM A SICK MAN . . . I am a wicked (nasty) man." This comes from a man who immediately demonstrates his unsureness and his unreliability, as he touts his superstitiousness and refusal to be treated for his (imagined?) sickness. With a few lines of prose Dostoevsky has introduced the reader to a new type of man, one that we will see traces of in characters like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment and others in subsequent novels. What do we make of this narrator and his story?

It is a story that is bifurcated into two parts that are very different from each other but intimately connected. The narrator is talking to someone. Perhaps it is the reader or perhaps it is himself, but he is passionate as he speaks out from his "corner" bemoaning the fact that he is not even able to become an insect, much as he would like to. The narration, upon first reading, is strange, but it changes when he draws in the reader by observing that he is not the only one who takes pride in his "sickness". Everyone takes pride in their own sickness. Suddenly we have come upon, become part of, the modern condition. This is the world that Nietzsche and others would later describe and that we live in.

The first part is entitled "Underground" and it is a world where the certainties of "2+2=4" and the philosophies of rationalism and utilitarianism are not welcome. The narrator, in his hole, cannot act and is overcome with inertia -- being constantly offended by "the laws of nature". What is a man without wants or desires who is living a life that is determined? Reason is not the answer, so he speculates that "two times two is five is sometimes also a most charming little thing". (p 34) He is bored and so he begins to write as the falling snow reminds him of an anecdote that occurred when he was twenty-four years old.

Thus the narration changes as the second part, "Apropos of the Wet Snow" begins. The nature of his pathology and his paranoia becomes clear as he reacts with coworkers and meets a young girl. The bifurcation of the story begins to appear in the narrator who, shortly after meeting the girl, starts to have doubts, thoughts like this:
"A sullen thought was born in my brain and passed through my whole body like some vile sensation, similar to what one feels on entering an underground cellar, damp and musty. It was somehow unnatural . . . " (p 88)
He begins to doubt himself (maybe he always has). The girl tries to reach out to him but he cannot reciprocate. Ultimately he concludes that life lived in books is better than his real life. He does little, is disappointed, and begins to write.

This novel is a tragicomedy of ideas, powerful in the sense that it identifies the direction that much of modern thought will pursue. The dramatic expressiveness of the prose betrays a narrator who is bereft of the will to engage in life. It is a form of nihilism that eats away at the narrator. Dostoevsky's answer, not given in this short novel but found in The Brothers Karamazov and elsewhere, is a faith that is absent here. That does not mean that this is not a rich text, filled with ideas and deep with meaning. It is a book that challenges the reader in ways that resonate forward more than a century later.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Happy and Unhappy People

Short Stories
Short Stories 

by Anton Chekhov

“As a rule, however fine and deep a phrase may be, it only affects the indifferent, and cannot fully satisfy those who are happy or unhappy; that is why dumbness is most often the highest expression of happiness or unhappiness; lovers understand each other better when they are silent, and a fervent, passionate speech delivered by the grave only touches outsiders, while to the widow and children of the dead man it seems cold and trivial.”   ― Anton Chekhov

This collection contains only thirteen of the hundreds of stories written by Chekhov. It does not contain the longer stories like The Steppe of Ward No. 6, but it does include a judicious selection by the translator Elisaveta Fen.

Chekhov's stories portray individuals and their relations with each other in specific situations. These often demonstrate the results of difficult choices with sometimes devastating results. I particularly enjoyed stories like "Enemies", "Teacher of Literature", and "The Cross of Anna". Each of these were a little further developed than some of the briefer sketches. 

"The Cross of Anna" tells of the loss of innocence of a young girl when she marries a pompous and boring middle-aged man, with the idea of helping her young motherless brothers and a weak father who is a drunkard. At first she is dominated by her older husband, but when noticed by the governor of the province at a charity ball she is launched into provincial society. Her enjoyment of the new pleasures this brings turns her head away from her family and leads her to despise and defy her husband. In response to her success with the governor he awards her husband the cross of Anna, which he wears on a ribbon around his neck. This is the source of the Russian idiom, 'Anna around his neck' describing an unwanted burden. 
"Teacher of Literature" portrays a favorite Chekhovian theme -- the emptiness of material prosperity and the tedium of provincial life with the gradual erosion of the 'happiness' of a young man.  
While "Enemies" is the story of a clash between classes with a relatively poor doctor juxtaposed with a wealthy landowner.  Surprisingly Chekhov explicitly states the moral of the necessity for greater tolerance and understanding between different types of people at the end of the story.

The most notable aspect in my reading was the modern feeling that I encountered in reading Chekhov. These stories, while set in a very different place and time are still relevant in the twenty-first century. The irony and sometimes melancholy nature of the stories shapes the realism that is found throughout Chekhov..

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Quotation of the Day

"Nature attains perfection, but man never does.  There is a perfect ant, a perfect bee, but man is perpetually unfinished.  He is both an unfinished animal and an unfinished man.  It is this incurable unfinishedness which sets man apart from other living things.  For, in the attempt to finish himself, man becomes a creator.   Moreover, the incurable unfinishedness keeps man perpetually immature, perpetually capable of learning and growing."

-- Eric Hoffer, Reflections on the Human Condition

It was a Pleasure to Burn

Fahrenheit 451Fahrenheit 451 
by Ray Bradbury

“A book is a loaded gun in the house next door...Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?”   ― Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

This is one of the great dystopian novels of all time, especially for bibliophiles. In this age of Kindles and Nooks and Ipads this story seems almost nostalgic, a fifties rendition of the future that reminded me of an Orwellian world ruled by a Huxleyan culture.

A totalitarian regime has ordered all books to be destroyed. In an ironic reversal of sorts Firemen no longer save buildings from fire (since all buildings are completely fire-proof) but, instead, they burn books. Books have long been abandoned since the multitudes live in a society where literature has deteriorated into tiny bites of data as life has speeded up (sounds like twitter). Everyone communicates orally and the home is dominated by large television wall screens that broadcast interactive reality programs. One of the book burners, Guy Montag, slowly rediscovers the importance of books and becomes one of very few humans struggling for some meaning and truth in his life. Montag is a fireman. It is his job is to set fire to books so that no one will read and consequently understand the hopelessness of reality. One day he has to burn an old woman who will not leave her books and this effects him deeply. Later that day his says to his wife, "You weren't there, You didn't see. There must be something in books, things we can't imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don't stay for nothing."(p 48)

He meets a young woman named Clarisse who intrigues him and spurs further thoughts about his life and its meaning. Of course the story of Adam and Eve immediately comes to mind. But this allegory has deeper meanings. What is the role of the book and what are the limits of language? What would you do if you realized your life is devoted to the destruction of that which you love? Are you willing to engage in the search for Truth? For Montag, who has suffered from an unidentified malaise for some time, these thoughts have a momentous impact, leading him to question his job and the direction of his life.

The novel is written in an allegorical style with a fantastic background that mixes futuristic ideas within a rule-bound society where the masses are ruled by videos and drugs. Bradbury is effective in creating an evocative nightmare tale, for he is a brilliant storyteller. This, like most of his stories, has a fantastic edge. The denouement is brilliant and the result is a book that you will never forget. Once you have seen the amazing cinematic recreation by Francois Truffaut you will have additional images to put along side those of this book, emblazoned on your mind forever. This along with The Martian Chronicles is among my favorite Bradbury works and some of the best fantastic fiction I have read.

View all my reviews

Friday, February 24, 2017

A Commonplace Entry

If it were true that eternal laws existed, ruling everything, human in an absolute way and which only required of each human being complete obedience, the freedom would only be a farce. One man’s wisdom would be enough. Human contacts would no longer have any importance, preserved perfect activity alone would matter, operating within the context set up by this wisdom which recognizes the Law. This is not the content of ideologies, but the same logic which totalitarian leaders use which produces this familiar ground and the certainty of the Law without exception.

Logic, that’s to say pure reason without regard for facts and experience, is the real vice of solitude. But the vices of solitude are caused uniquely by the despair associated with isolation. And the isolation which exists in our world, where human contacts have been broken by the collapse of our common home, again following the disastrous consequences of revolutions, themselves a result of previous collapse.

This isolation has stopped being a psychological question to which we can do justice with the help of nice expressions devoid of meaning, like ‘introverted’ and ‘extraverted’. Isolation as a result of absence of friends and of alienation is, from the point of view of man, the sickness which our world is suffering from, even if it is true, we can notice fewer and fewer people than before who cling on to each other without the slightest support. Those people do not benefit from communication methods offered by a world with common interests. These help us escape together, from the curse of inhumanity, in a society where everyone seems superfluous and considered as such by others.

Isolation is not solitude. In solitude, we are never alone with ourselves. In solitude we are always two in one, and we become one, a complete individual with richness and the limits of its exact features, only in relation to the others and in their company. The big metaphysical questions, the search for God, liberty and immortality, relations between man and the world, being and nothingness or again between life and death, are always posed in solitude, when man is alone with himself, therefore, in the virtual company of all. The fact of being, even for a moment, diverted from one’s own individuality allows it to formulate mankind’s eternal questions, which go beyond the questions posed in different ways by each individual.

The risk in solitude is always of losing oneself. It could be said that this is a professional risk for the philosopher. Since he seeks out truth and preoccupies himself with questions, which we describe as metaphysical but which are indeed the only questions to preoccupy everyone. The philosopher’s solution has been to notice that there is apparently in the human mind itself one element capable of compelling the other and thus creating power. Usually we call this faculty Logic, and it intervenes each time that we declare that a principle or an utterance possesses in itself a convincing force, that is to say a quality which really compels the person to subscribe to it.

Recently we realized that the tyranny, not of reason but argumentation, like an immense compulsive force exercised on the mind of men can serve specifically political tyranny. But this truth also remains that every end in history necessarily contains a new beginning. This beginning is the only promise, the only message which the end can ever give. St Augustine said that man was created so that there could be a beginning. This beginning is guaranteed by each new birth, it is, in truth, each man.

from The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt.

a reading of this entry by Jean Luc Godard may be found @ OPEN CULTURE

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

If This is a Man

Survival in AuschwitzSurvival in Auschwitz 
by Primo Levi

"Imagine now a man who is deprived of everyone he loves, and at the same time of his house, his habits, his clothes, in short, of everything he possesses:  he will be a hollow man, reduced to suffering and needs, forgetful of dignity and restraint, for he who loses all often easily loses himself.  He will be a man whose life or death can be lightly decided with no sense of human affinity, in the most fortunate of cases, on the basis of a pure judgement of utility.  It is in this way that one can understand the double sense of the term 'extermination camp', and it is now clear what we seek to express with the phrase: 'to lie on the bottom'." (p 27)

Captured in December of 1943 by the Fascist Militia, a young twenty-five year old Primo Levi was drawn out of his life as an "Italian citizen of the Jewish race" into a nightmare that could only compare to the depths of Dante's Inferno. This book is his story of the capture, journey to, and life in the Buna section of Auschwitz. This was a "work" camp that provided slave labor for a rubber factory built for the I. G. Farben company.

Levi describes his experiences with vignettes from his period of internment. These vignettes are interspersed with his commentary on his own feelings, relations with other "haftlings" (prisoners), all of whom have become identified with a number tattooed on their arm. Primo Levi was number 174517.

One of the themes of Levi's memoir is language; its meaning and importance for life in the camp. Early on he becomes "aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man." The difficulty of being understood when you do not speak the language of your captors heightens the misery of daily activities making life more tortuous than it already was. At the end of the eighth chapter Levi observes that theft among the prisoners (a daily reality) " is generally punished , but the punishment strikes the thief and the victim with equal gravity." Further, he comments directly to the reader:
"We now invite the reader to contemplate the possible meaning in the Lager of the words 'good' and 'evil', 'just' and 'unjust'; let everybody judge, on the basis of the picture we have outlined and of the examples given above, how much of our ordinary moral world could survive on this side of the barbed wire." (p 86)

Each chapter is named and these names signal the emphasis and direction of the book, if at times only metaphorically. Thus the descent of Levi includes a discussion of "The Drowned and the Saved" and encompasses "The Work" and "A Good Day". Of course a good day for Levi is one in which he can merely revel in the smile of one other person -- never matter the hunger!

In these moments he considers the meaning of his experiences and asks "if it is necessary or good to retain any memory of this exceptional human state." He replies affirmatively, saying:
"We are in fact convinced that no human experience is without meaning or unworthy of analysis, and that fundamental values, even if they are not positive, can be deduced from this particular world which we are describing." (p 87)

In the chapter "The Canto of Ulysses" (a reference to Dante's Inferno) he quotes part of the Canto from memory, sharing with his fellow workers in the Chemical hut where he had fortunately been transferred. It is during this episode that "For a moment I forget who I am and where I am." He repeats a few lines for his friend Pikolo, but later bemoans the fact that he cannot remember the whole Canto, claiming he would give up his daily soup to remember the missing lines. His action can be seen as an attempt to maintain his humanity in the face of tremendous difficulties, thinking that:
"I must explain to him about the Middle Ages, about the so human and so necessary and yet unexpected anachronism, but still more, something gigantic that I myself have only just seen, in a flash of intuition, perhaps the reason for our fate, for our being here today . . ." (p 115)

Levi eventually survives the camp and lives to share his story and write even more after returning to his native home. However, it is not until after he has experienced a multitude of tortures and indignities. Not the least of which was the hanging of one inmate who made an unsuccessful attempt to escape. Of this episode Levi writes:
"To destroy a man is difficult, almost as difficult as to create one: it has not been easy, nor quick, but you Germans have succeeded. Here we are, docile under your gaze; from our side you have nothing more to fear; no acts of violence, no words of defiance, not even a look of judgement.: (p 150) 
In January, 1945, the Russians arrived and Primo Levi began his journey home.

Quotation of the Day

Modern American Usage: A Guide

"[F]atalism about language cannot be the philosophy of those who care about language; it is the illogical philosophy of their opponents. Surely the notion that, because usage is ultimately what everybody does to words, nobody can or should do anything about them is self-contradictory. Somebody, by definition, does something; and this something is best done by those with convictions and a stake in the outcome, whether the stake of private pleasure or of professional duty does not matter. Resistance always begins with individuals.”

—Wilson Follett,  Modern American Usage: A Guide (1966).

Source:  Garner's Usage Tip of the Day

A Commonplace Entry


“Only a philosopher's mind grows wings, since its memory always keeps it as close as possible to those realities by being close to which the gods are divine.”  ― Plato, Phaedrus

"Phaedrus: . . . But let’s be going, since now even the stifling heat is more gentle.

Socrates: Shouldn’t we pray to the gods here before going?

Phaedrus: Yes, surely.

Socrates: Dear Pan and ye other gods who dwell here, grant that I may become beautiful within and that my worldly belongings be in accord with my inner self. May I consider the wise man rich and have only as much gold as a moderate man can carry and use.

Is there anything else we need, Phaedrus? For me, our prayer was said with due measure.

Phaedrus: Make it a prayer for me, too. Friends have things in common.

Socrates: Let’s be going."

That is ending of the Phaedrus.   Here we find the beauty of a friendship portrayed eloquently. Plato assures us that they have indeed, not just in story, shared “with due measure” an outpouring of divinity together; Socrates offers this noble prayer that the beauty of soul they have turned round and round in their talking may be theirs, but Phaedrus completes, perfects the prayer making it also his own, showing in this small but decisive way that he has accepted Socrates’ offer of love, and will share the poverty and riches of his rhetoric, to guide and stir each other on the way to truth. “ἴωμεν” — “Let’s be going.” They have this way reached an agreement with each other and with themselves; they have arrived where now their conversation something holds in common, something divine. And more talk is no longer needful. “Is there anything else we need Phaedrus?” Nothing else, but to take the double riches of sharing the best things with one you love.

"Phaedrus" from the Dialogues of Plato.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

An Absurd Life

Closely Watched TrainsClosely Watched Trains 
by Bohumil Hrabal

"The dive-bombers were disrupting communications to such an extent that the morning trains ran at noon, the noon trains in the evening, and the evening trains during the night, so that now and then it might happen that an afternoon train came in punctul to the minute, according to the time-table, but only because it was the morning passenger train running four hours late." (p 1)

This dramatic and moving tale from the pen of Bohumil Hrabal is almost poetic in its sparse intensity. His story tells the fate of Milos Hrma, an apprentice signalman, who must deal with his own shortcomings even as he faces the onset of the German army. The novel’s young protagonist, Miloš, has just gotten out of an asylum after slashing his wrists and returns to work at the local train station, where that night he ends up taking part in the sabotage of a trainload of Nazi munitions. Through a dazzling array of flashbacks and varying narrative techniques, the reader learns that Miloš tried to kill himself after a sexual tryst that failed because of premature ejaculation, and as Miloš’ first-person thoughts meander through the current day and through his and his family’s and his town’s past, the novel paints a kaleidoscopic picture of a world that’s at turns (and often at once) disgustingly ugly and almost unbearably beautiful.

Much of the impact of Hrabal's writing derives from his juxtaposition of the beauty and cruelty found in everyday life. Vivid depictions of pain human beings casually inflict on animals symbolize the pervasiveness of cruelty among human beings. The adult human world is revealed as terrifying, and, in the end, perhaps the only sane philosophy is a line delivered in Closely Watched Trains: "You should have stayed home on your arse".

One of the great achievements of this novel is that its pathos is balanced with wonderful humor and vitality, its cast of characters revolving around each other with romance, longing, absurdity, vanity, hilarious deviance, and a healthy (and/or perhaps unhealthy) dose of sexuality. Perhaps meant to be comic, the novel’s correlation between virility and political action can be somewhat troubling, though, both to male and female readers—to the former because the idea that men must rise to action is confining and to the latter because serving as ciphers for male ability is insulting. Even though it is compact the narrative displays the fragile nature of the community during wartime. Hrabal conveys the fate of his native Czechoslovakia as represented by the heroism of the protagonist of this beautiful novella.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

An Unconventional Childhood

The Spirit of Prague: And Other EssaysThe Spirit of Prague: And Other Essays 
by Ivan Klíma

"A city is like a person:  if we don't establish a genuine realationship with it, it remains a name, an external form that soon fades from our minds.  To create this relationship, we must be able to observe the city and understand its peculiar personality, its'I', its spirit, its identity, the circumstances of its life as they evolved through space and time." (p 39, "The Spirit of Prague")

I read Ivan Klíma’s wonderful collection of essays The Spirit of Prague, in connection for a Basic Program class on the literature of Prague. Klima has a simple style of writing, with a wonderful clarity and quiet authority. 

The book is divided into five sections of essays.  The first section includes the titular essay but the longest one opens the book.  In this essay, entitled with characteristic understated irony "A Rather Unconventional Childhood", Klima writes of his childhood which coincided, in Eastern Europe, with the triumph of Nazism and his confinement (as a Jew) in the transit camp of Terezin. From an early age he was a reader:

"I read. Of all the books I owned, I was most excited by a prose retelling of Homer's two epics. I read them over and over again, until I knew whole pages by heart."(p. 15)

Later, when he has been transported to the camp he uses a wry, observational tone to devastating effect:

‘I also experienced my first real friendships at this time which , as I later came to understand, were really only prefigurations of the adolescent infatuations that transform every encounter, every casual conversation into an experience of singular importance. All those friendships ended tragically; my friends, boys and girls, went to the gas chamber, all except one, the one I truly loved, Arieh, a son of the chairman of the camp prisoners’ self-management committee, who was shot at the age of twelve.’(p. 20)

His experiences in the camp, and later under the communist regimes of the post-war years, lead him to the conclusion that "if we don't learn from catastrophes and if we don't accept these simple principles, the moment when we might have done something to decide the fate of mankind will pass us by."(p. 27)

Klima's observations in this essay are telling and are reminiscent of other books, including: Man's Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl; Night by Elie Weisel; Fatelessness by  Imre Kertész; Speak You Also by Paul Steinberg; The Long Voyage by Jorge Semprun;  and Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi.

The remainder of the collection includes further excursions into reading and literature, a commentary on Kafka as a source of inspiration, and a discussion of totalitarianism as seen from the perspective of Czech culture.  The erudition and intensity of these essays along with Klima's lucid style made this collection a joy to read.  I would recommend it to fans of Joseph Roth and other astute observers of mitteleuropean culture.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Taking Charge of Her Life

Miss MackenzieMiss Mackenzie 
by Anthony Trollope

“The habit of reading is the only enjoyment in which there is no alloy; it lasts when all other pleasures fade.”   ― Anthony Trollope

A single woman of a certain age entertains suitors and encounters financial and other interesting issues in this engaging novel by Anthony Trollope. I recently discovered this when our book group selected  Miss Mackenzie as our first novel of the new year.

Margaret Mackenzie has spent her life until the age of 35 nursing her father and brother, both of whom have lived restricted and selfish lives as minor civil servants. The death of her brother leaves her with a comfortable fortune and she decides to use it to live more enjoyably and, if possible, get married. She takes charge of one of her nieces and, leaving London, moves to the spa of Littlebath, thus setting up the one satisfying and useful relationship in the book and escaping her terrible sister-in-law. Littlebath is a typical small community with single ladies with adequate incomes, many of whom she meets at the social events arranged by the evangelical clergyman Mr Stumfold and his domineering wife. Two of the ladies – the genteel and timid Stumfoldian Miss Baker, and the raffish and amusing anti-Stumfoldian Miss Todd – present positive models of single life which nonetheless do not attract Miss Mackenzie.

Three suitors emerge for Margaret and her money, none particularly attractive: her cousin John Ball, an undeniable gentleman but older, dreary, materialistic and attached to a disastrously dire mother (old Lady Ball);  Tom’s partner, Samuel Rubb, who is amusing, good-looking and intelligent, but lower-middle-class and not very scrupulous;  and a Stumfoldian curate, Mr Maguire.  Maguire is one of Trollope’s stereotyped evangelicals -- hypocritical, slimy and physically very off-putting.  In the course of time all three make offers of marriage and Margaret indecisively rejects all three.

Margaret encounters financial setbacks, but her mercenary suitors do not disappear. Rubb has deceived her financially but likes her personally and would stand by her. Maguire is convinced that John Ball has cheated Margaret, and thus destroyed his own chances of wealth, and starts a gutter-press campaign against him. John realizes that he is actually fond of Margaret, and gradually finds the will to resist his mother’s hostility to her. Despite her initial rejection of all three Margaret appears to consider each of them until the denouement when she makes a momentous decision.

She is helped by a rather glamorous upper-class cousin who appears from Scotland and this allows Trollope to introduce a truly appalling bazaar attended by a group of ladies from the Palliser and Barsetshire novels, perhaps to provide an upper-class counterpart to a pretentious middle-class dinner at Tom’s earlier.

While many of the characters are unpleasant and petty-minded Miss Mackenzie has sufficient good humor and common sense to buoy the reader. While she started her new life eager for social contacts and simple pleasures, these modest ambitions are largely disappointed. The novel, thankfully, is not merely a study of the oppressiveness of the conditions of life of women in the eighteen-sixties, and of the restrictiveness of class thinking. Rather it is what for this reader was a typical Trollope novel; filled with interesting characters and delightful prose. It had been too long since I had read a novel by Anthony Trollope and the enjoyment reminded me why I am always glad when I return to his work.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Maugham's Bondage

Of Human BondageOf Human Bondage 
by W. Somerset Maugham

“Insensibly he formed the most delightful habit in the world, the habit of reading: he did not know that thus he was providing himself with a refuge from all the distress of life; he did not know either that he was creating for himself an unreal world which would make the real world of every day a source of bitter disappointment.”   ― W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage

W. Somerset Maugham was born on January 25, 1874. While I've enjoyed reading many of his novels and stories, Of Human Bondage stands alone among them as one of my favorite novels. Yet, strangely, I have difficulty understanding the mind and actions of Philip Carey, the hero (anti-hero?) of this novel.  If for nothing else, his habit of reading, referred to in the above quote, endeared him to this reader early in his story.

 Philip, like the author himself, is orphaned and brought up by his uncle. Harshly treated, he is burdened with liabilities, both physical, a clubfoot, and intellectual, a habit of making the least of his opportunities through bad choices and/or lack of talent.  The first half of the novel begins with the death of Philip's mother and his harsh treatment by his selfish and hypocritical uncle while undergoing the tortures of his classmates and masters at King's School in Tercanbury.  This early part of the novel is in a Victorian style somewhat reminiscent of Dickens's Great Expectations.

The novel is written as a sort of bildungsroman and, as it continues, it traces the protagonist's education and travels to Germany, Paris, and London, while exploring both his intellectual and emotional growth. In this it somewhat reminds me of Flaubert's novel, A Sentimental Education , which possibly influenced Maugham. As Philip matures he settles into a sort of life in London, but continues to make the wrong choices. In so doing he enters a destructive relationship with a self-centered, crude Cockney waitress named Mildred. In spite of all the bad choices and ensuing difficulties Philip eventually finds a woman who is right for him.  While Maugham exhibits a Schopenhaurian philosophic view of man in bondage to his will, the novel, with it's pleasant conclusion and lucid prose style, succeeds - just as Philip overcomes his passions.  Maugham's story is beautifully told and as a result I have been drawn back to it again and again over the years.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A Man of Two Faces

The SympathizerThe Sympathizer 
by Viet Thanh Nguyen

"I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.  Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds.  I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such.  I am simply able to see any issue from both sides." (p 1)

I do not always enjoy reading prize-winning books but this is one that is not only enjoyable but also suspenseful and historical. It is a unique mix of realistic action and superb emotional detail. The author also filled it with literary references beginning with the opening lines -- a clever allusion to the great novel, Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison.

The novel has an anonymous narrator who lives a complicated and fascinating life as a double agent, publicly serving as an aide to a South Viet Namese general while secretly being a spy for North Viet Nam. He is conflicted about where he stands within his political beliefs and in the world itself. His efforts to survive in two worlds at once lead him into complicated and exciting situations as the novel progresses.

When the story begins, the narrator, who remains unnamed throughout the novel, is being held captive and forced to write his confession for the commandant. He begins his confession at a point in time when he is still in Vietnam and Saigon is about to fall. This leads to one of the most suspenseful sections of the story as he and the General's entourage attempt to escape from Saigon during the last days before the city succumbs to the North Viet Namese troops. They succeed and he returns to Los Angeles where he had previously attended school.

The theme of Betrayal pervades the novel. From the beginning the narrator is a man whose life is filled with moments of betrayal. His first betrayal is in that he keeps his identity as a communist a secret from one of his best friends, Bon. He and Man lie to Bon about their political views and even lie to him by saying that Man will be following them to America as they leave Vietnam because they know Bon will not go otherwise. The narrator really lives a life in which he must betray someone on a daily basis while he is a spy.

There is also a theme of doubling as the narrator is a double agent. But the narrator is “double” in another significant sense that frames this work: He’s biracial, with a Vietnamese mother and a French father, a mixed-race “bastard” who is bullied and ostracized his whole life.

As the story unfolds, the narrator is increasingly hard to figure. He has a few friends in L.A. and an American girlfriend, but he seems perpetually unmoored. Even though he is writing a confession, he often straddles the two opposing sides, sympathizing with “the enemy,” so that he operates from a murky morality. He is a communist but not a particularly ideological or zealous one.

The novel contains comic moments to offset the suspense of the action and the emotional tension of maintaining a double life. While it turns darker in the final section when the narrator returns to Viet Nam with the General to assist the resistance, the fine writing carries you through to the end. The totality of the story provides a new and interesting perspective on a moment in American history that many like myself lived through. This inventive tale is above all a great read that I would recommend to anyone interested in the history of our not too distant past.

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