Thursday, October 23, 2008

Jane Eyre

by Charlotte Brontë
First published: 1847

I first encountered Jane Eyre when I was thirteen years old. The story fascinated me so much that I stayed up late into the night to finish it, despite the dense language. In the following years, it and Shirley became my companions, not only because they are so richly written that they bear repeated readings, but also because they provided sympathy and understanding in dreary times. To address the question whether books can help people — they do. They taught me that others have been in similar situations (which is hard to realize; the tendency of misery is solipsist) and vicariously analyzed my difficulties (i.e. being an ugly duckling and feeling powerless to determine my life) while diverting my mind from them. In Jane Eyre I also found the heroine's refusal to succumb to self-pity, her emphasis on independent-mindedness and self-reliance, and her common sense, bracing to the spirits.

At any rate, Jane Eyre is an impressively good yarn. The curtain rises on Gateshead Manor, the seat of the rich Mrs. Reed, a widow with three spoiled children and an unwanted outsider of an orphaned niece. The scenes of Jane's childhood of which we read there are equally authentic and vivid. After clashing with her aunt, she is sent to Lowood School, where she is subjected to a Dickensian experience of poverty and illness and cruelty disguised as charity. There is even an improbably saintly girl: not Agnes or Dorrit, but Helen. It is peculiar what an appeal tales of ragged orphanhood have. It may be that, due to a deep and pervasive fear of being bereft of our parents, we find it comforting to read stories of orphans who can and do find their way in the world alone; or it may be that we find it comforting to contrast our lot to theirs, as it can be enjoyable to read about the Arctic in the middle of summer. Sadly, the bad school experience is no melodramatic fiction, but an episode out of Charlotte Brontë's life. At any rate, the school is reformed after an outbreak of typhus, and Jane stays on as a pupil and, eventually, a teacher, under the benevolent aegis of the superintendent, Miss Temple.

At last, however, Miss Temple marries. After she leaves, Jane finds that it would be intolerable to live out her life at the school, so she advertises in the newspaper for a position as a governess. (If she had read the other books written by the Brontë sisters, she would probably have hesitated to do so, as Agnes Grey and Shirley are thoroughly and convincingly discouraging on that score. But she had not read them.) Her optimism is justified as she receives a response from a Mrs. Fairfax, Thornfield Manor, Yorkshire; Mrs. Fairfax and her pupil Adèle prove to be reasonably agreeable.

Jane describes them in an amusing but coolly matter-of-fact passage:
Mrs. Fairfax turned out to be what she appeared, a placid-tempered, kind-natured woman, of competent education and average intelligence. My pupil was a lively child, who had been spoilt and indulged, and therefore was sometimes wayward; but as she was committed entirely to my care, and no injudicious interference from any quarter ever thwarted my plans for her improvement, she soon forgot her little freaks, and became obedient and teachable.
Admittedly this sounds a trifle snobby and authoritarian, but it is doubtless a reflection of the times, when it was believed that human nature could and should be firmly shaped, like hair with curling-rags. But, in deed though not in word, she is really less inflexible. Still, she goes on to describe Adèle as being completely unremarkable, superficial but nice enough. Being French (Brontë has a very 19th-century weakness for assigning character on the basis of nationality), I suppose, Adèle "entertained for me a vivacious, though perhaps not very profound, affection; and by her simplicity, gay prattle, and efforts to please, inspired me, in return, with a degree of attachment sufficient to make us both content in each other's society." Then Jane offers this general comment (which would, I suspect, be highly enjoyable if I were a teacher):
This, par parenthèse, will be thought cool language by persons who entertain solemn doctrines about the angelic nature of children, and the duty of those charged with their education to conceive for them an idolatrous devotion: but I am not writing to flatter paternal egotism, to echo cant, or prop up humbug; I am merely telling the truth.
Altogether Jane is reasonably content, though at times she does wonder if there is not more to life than this. Here comes the long soliloquy that so greatly interested Virginia Woolf:
It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. [Vide Thoreau's "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.]
(What Brontë describes here and later has perfectly resonated with me since Grade 10; I've wanted to do things and experience things, and go out and have adventures, but it has often been thwarted.) Anyway, then she turns specifically and rather daringly to the lot of women (and this particularly interested Virginia Woolf):
Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a constraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags.
She then briefly defends bluestockings, and other women who do more than is commonly expected of their sex. Then comes the abrupt change of subject that unsettled Woolf so much; the following paragraph begins, "When thus alone, I not unfrequently heard Grace Poole's laugh [. . .]". I've never minded it, and I think it's perfectly normal to end a train of thought suddenly as reality intrudes. The point has been made, so why dilute it by protracting it?

Then comes an interlude: a walk to the village of Hay, on an afternoon in January, along a lane that was
noted for wild roses in summer, for nuts and blackberries in autumn, and even now possessing a few coral treasures in hips and haws, but whose best winter delight lay in its utter solitude and leafless repose. [Brontë's taste in nature appears to be a trifle funereal.] If a breath of air stirred, it made no sound here; for there was not a holly, not an evergreen to rustle, and the stripped hawthorn and hazel bushes were as still as the white, worn stones which causewayed the middle of the path. Far and wide, on each side, there were only fields, where no cattle now browsed; and the little brown birds, which stirred occasionally in the hedge, looked like single russet leaves that had forgotten to drop.
That, and the brief, picturesque time before sunset, is the calm before the storm. Then there appears on the small stage of Jane's world the chief actor, the stirringly dramatic character to outdo all the other stirringly dramatic characters in the cast.
A rude noise broke on these fine ripplings and whisperings, at once so far away and so clear [. . . .] as, in a picture, the solid mass of a crag, or the rough boles of a great oak, drawn in dark and strong on the foreground, efface the aërial distance of azure hill, sunny horizon, and blended clouds, where tint melts into tint.

The din was on the causeway: a horse was coming; the windings of the lane yet hid it, but it approached. I was just leaving the stile; yet, as the path was narrow, I sat still to let it go by. [. . .]

It was very near, but not yet in sight; when, in addition to the tramp, tramp, I heard a rush under the hedge, and close down by the hazel stems glided a great dog, whose black and white colour made him a distinct object against the trees. It was exactly one mask of Bessie's [Mrs. Reed's servant, who was fond of telling ghost stories] Gytrash,—a lion-like creature with long hair and a huge head: it passed me, however, quietly enough; not staying to look up, with strange pretercanine [a specimen of Brontë's broad vocabulary] eyes, in my face, as I half expected it would.
Then comes the horse, and its rider, who at once "broke the spell" as "nothing ever rode the Gytrash: it was always alone." This rider is Edward Fairfax Rochester, the lord of Thornfield Manor, and the hero of the story. What is refreshing about him, even if he is not precisely a realistic character, is that he is the antithesis of what I like to call the "palimpsest hero," the blank ideal who is mainly defined by the readers' projections of their own imperfectly matured conceptions. Even Jane Austen tends to present her heroes as slenderly articulated figures who possess a handful of fine traits that inspire respect and admiration, but whose personality is an unknown quantity beyond that. I don't know if there are any readers who are repelled by Mr. Rochester — certainly Jane Eyre faithfully points out his deficiencies, and at times it definitely seems he'd be difficult to live with — but he largely defies the appropriation of his self as the vague object of self-indulgent daydreams. He has an own life and aims and needs. Nor is he devoid of inwardly-directed sarcasm.

So the true story begins, with its conflict of sense and sensibility, religion and inclination, nurture and nature. I don't think, despite the aforementioned melodrama, that it is at all trashy, because there is so much truth to it, in feeling if not in the events. As far as the romance goes, of course I like that he and Jane are so much interested in and drawn to each other on the score of character and mind, not of appearances, and that they see each other for who they are pretty clearly. Their chemistry — the mingled attraction and friction between them — is also enjoyably changeful and diverse. Is that realistic? — I don't know.

As far as the social setting goes (to pick another aspect of the book quite at random), Brontë's highly coloured picture of the well-to-do circles is particularly unconvincing, which does not detract from its entertaining quality in the least. On the day when the ladies of the countryside society descend upon Thornfield, Jane writes that they emerge from their rooms, en route to dinner, "gaily and airily."
For a moment they stood grouped together at the other extremity of the gallery, conversing in a key of sweet subdued vivacity: they then descended the staircase almost as noiselessly as a bright mist rolls down a hill. Their collective appearance had left on my an impression of high-born elegance, such as I had never before received.
Blanche Ingram is a flamboyant specimen of the upper crust: superlatively lovely and accomplished and well-dressed, she speaks to her mother in French and generally puts on immense airs. A man-hunter, or rather title-hunter, she gives enthusiastic chase to Mr. Rochester; and, as he is not especially good-looking, but the possessor of a "taille d'athlète," she delivers herself of the following ode to male plainness:
Oh, I am so sick of the young men of the present day! [. . .] Poor, puny things not fit to stir a step beyond papa's park-gates: nor to go even so far without mama's permission and guardianship! [. . .] As if loveliness were not the special prerogative of woman—her legitimate appanage and heritage! I grant an ugly woman is a blot on the fair face of creation; but as to the gentlemen, let them be solicitous to possess only strength and valour: let their motto be:—Hunt, shoot, and fight: the rest is not worth a fillip. Such should be my device, were I a man.
(It reminds one of Lady Catherine de Bourgh's words to Lizzy in Pride and Prejudice: "Upon my word, you give your opinion very decidedly for so young a person.") It is also Blanche who addresses a servant in this magnificent apostrophe: "Cease that chatter, blockhead! and do my bidding."

In any case, to return to the novel's fine dramatic potential, there is a very good scene, which comes after that apostrophe, where a mysterious gypsy tells Jane Eyre her fortune in cryptic language that is simple to decipher once one has the key. In my favourite film adaptation*, which was released in 1983 and stars Zelah Clarke and Timothy Dalton (who is quite aware of the novel's histrionic scope and who happily avoids the tendency to take it too seriously), it is really pulled off beautifully. The cockney accent and the croak are hilarious. In the book I also enjoy the way in which the gypsy demands that the ladies of the house go to see her one by one in the library; as the servant reports, "She says it's not her mission to appear before the 'vulgar herd' (them's her words)."
[*Despite the middling acting in the beginning.]

Unfortunately, no film does justice to the figure of St. John Rivers, the Greek statue come alive who devotes himself to a stern God, mind, body, and soul, and expects Jane to do likewise, later on in the book. The films also tend to misunderstand or even completely misportray Jane's reluctance to let Mr. Rochester lavish fine clothing, jewellery, etc., on her. The principal reason is, I think, that these fine feathers are entirely out of keeping with her looks and her personality, which are not at all stunning or showy; so she is uncomfortable in them and fears that he sees in her a person whom she is not. Secondly, she is too proud to wish to be deluged with presents which she has not earned, or to appear rich when she is in herself penniless; thirdly, given her past poverty, any splurge is a bit obscene. Lastly, I think that she is steeped in the more ascetic Protestant tradition in which the enjoyment of material things is an execrable manifestation of the Seven Deadlies (greed, gluttony, and pride — sloth if you count the invariable(?) idleness of the wealthy). It is this tradition that also leads Brontë to implicitly depict society as a manifestation of not only those sins but also of lust, envy, and wrath. At least she does so with a greater moderation and nuance than many other Christian writers a century afterward — or even now.

So, in the end, though the mushy portions of the dialogue still make me squirm, I firmly believe that the book has so much to offer besides the ripping quality of its yarn and smashing quality of its romance, that it is indubitably worthwhile to read it early and often. But, as in all things, what one gets out of it principally depends on one's experience and, ultimately, on one's self. Jane Austen cannot be forced upon people; she must be appreciated voluntarily. It is the same with Charlotte Brontë.

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë
New York: Pocket Books, 1958

Jane Eyre (Links to full texts at Project Gutenberg)
Charlotte Brontë: An Overview (Jane Eyre in the context of the times)
A Room of One's Own: Chapter Four (Virginia Woolf discusses Brontë)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys and the Shrub

This blog is, evidently, verging on becoming a David Foster Wallace tribute site. But, though that is hardly the intention, there is one last article that is clamouring to be discussed, because it is so beautifully à propos to current events. Besides, I have looked down upon contemporary prose for much of my life, and DFW (as he is commonly abbreviated) is the only writer of it whose approach and mentality I enthusiastically like. Ergo, he is a prime topic for a day devoted to contemporary[/premodern] literature.
In 2000, Rolling Stone magazine dispatched this journalist-who-is-not-a-journalist to cover John McCain's campaign against George W. Bush for the Republican presidential nomination. (DFW had an often funny, self-deprecating fixation on his lack of credentials, which is extraneous because he fulfilled the role of a journalist as journalists rarely do.) His observations, published in an article entitled "The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys And The Shrub," are as relevant today as they were when they were written. [N.B.: I am summarizing it based on my memory and notes from Sept. 17th.]

Fittingly for Rolling Stone, the article is counter-culture. DFW rides along in the press bus that trails McCain's bus (nicknamed the Straight Talk Express), together with the Twelve Monkeys, fellow lesser journalists, and technical support. By "twelve monkeys" he means the humourless, impeccably dressed snobs who represent what has become known as the media élite. (In the case of this article, it is worthwhile to consult the footnotes during or before the article itself, because they gloss the jargon.) Even in those halcyon days, the Monkeys display the precise lack of critical thinking that characterizes their coverage of the Bush administration for the following four to seven years. It brings to mind Senator Joe Biden's pithy expression in the recent vice-presidential debate: "Past is prologue." The way of life on the press bus is not ideal either. The journalists are malnourished and grumpy and sleep-deprived, and going to the toilet is no pleasure if the door flies open whenever its occupant is knocked against the control button by the motion of the vehicle. Frankly, I read such elucidations on the trials of the itinerant hack with a commingled sense of eager curiosity and Schadenfreude.

In a very American touch of class rebellion, DFW often shoots the breeze with the tech support people, who plausibly possess a sharper insight into the political process. At one point their discussion fascinatingly turns to negative campaigning. The idea is that such campaigning is convenient for whichever candidate is chosen by the party establishment: an ugly tone in the election discourages voters from participating in the process, so that it is mostly only diehard party members who turn up at the ballot-boxes and accordingly vote for the party favourite. As for the candidate who is marginalized by the machinery at the outset, he is put in a difficult position, even though polls and anecdotal evidence prove that negative campaigning is greatly unpopular. If he does not respond decisively to negative ads, etc., he looks weak. (This, of course, is widely identified as a central reason why John Kerry lost the election in 2004. The "Swiftboat Veterans for 'Truth'" [extra set of quotation marks mine] campaign was low, but it apparently had to be dignified with an answer.) If he responds too aggressively, it is scored against him.

A helpful series of clarifications, aside from those on shady campaign financing practices, is presented at the beginning, after he poses the question, "Why should we vote?" It concerns John McCain's imprisonment during the Vietnam War. This tale has become so familiar, though more as a vague concept than as a detailed account, that it is easy to ignore or disparage. (It may be awful of me, but I don't believe the official version of events 100%, either.) But the story, as recounted sympathetically by Wallace, is horrifying. McCain is shot down and lands in a pond, severely injured. He is pulled out and beaten by an angry crowd and thrown into prison. There he is given the opportunity to be sent home immediately because his father is an important military figure, but he refuses the opportunity so that he doesn't jump ahead in the order of prisoners to be released. So he spends the next four or five years in a box under terrible conditions.

DFW employs this portion of biography as evidence that a handful of politicians do mean what they say, and when they speak of working on behalf of their country, they have actually done so. There are politicians, too, who are substance as well as style, or, as he might put it, not only "salesmen" but also statesmen. Unfortunately McCain, arguably, has stopped measuring up to either ideal. So it would have been particularly interesting to know how he would have reinterpreted his findings to fit the changed conditions eight years later.

Lastly, to return to the question, "Why vote?", the point of the article is that there is a point to exercising one's electoral rights, if only for this reason:
In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard's vote.
* * *

"The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys And The Shrub," Rolling Stone (April 13th, 2000)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Consider the Lobster

One of the articles by David Foster Wallace that I've read besides "Shipping Out" is "Consider the Lobster." It was published in August 2004 in Gourmet magazine, so naturally one would expect something in keeping with the golden realm of stylized food and glamorous photos and "aspirational" thinking, which an elite gastronomic periodical is expected to celebrate. Instead, it is an amusingly literal approach to the subject. Wallace does dutifully cover the Maine Lobster Festival, the intended topic, in his customary extensive detail, though hardly in the uncritically blissful way the editor must have had in mind. But he devotes much space and attention to working out, for his own edification and that of the reader, what the lobster is, in terms of its etymology, scientific classification, physical characteristics, history as human nourishment, lifestyle, culinary preparation, and neurology. The question to which he devotes the greatest enthusiasm is whether it is cruel and unjustifiable to cook the lobster as we do, boiling it alive.

After the self-mocking pedantry of his introduction to the lobster (where he drily remarks that "all of this is right there in the encyclopedia") he hits a note of discomfiting truth:
[. . .] they are—particularly in their natural brown-green state, brandishing their claws like weapons and with thick antennae awhip—not nice to look at. And it’s true that they are garbagemen of the sea, eaters of dead stuff, although they’ll also eat some live shellfish, certain kinds of injured fish, and sometimes each other.
Then there is a series of quirky facts that I, for one, did not know. For one thing, lobsters can live for a hundred years or more, and for another,
Even in the harsh penal environment of early America, some colonies had laws against feeding lobsters to inmates more than once a week because it was thought to be cruel and unusual, like making people eat rats.
Intermittently the Lobster Festival reappears, and Wallace's mammoth paragraphs, written in a breathless accumulation of clauses and observations, convey the busy and hectic atmosphere. He concludes that the festival shares the "core paradox of all teeming commercial demotic events: It’s not for everyone." As he informed us in the first paragraph, he was sent here in part because of the enthusiasm it inspired in the senior editor of another magazine; but, he remarks,
I’d be surprised if she’d spent much time here in Harbor Park, watching people slap canal-zone mosquitoes as they eat deep-fried Twinkies and watch Professor Paddywhack, on six-foot stilts in a raincoat with plastic lobsters protruding from all directions on springs, terrify their children.
After describing how the arthropods are cooked, he mentions how they are harvested and held. One sadder detail is that their claws are bound together so that they don't rip each other up in response to their crowded captivity. But right after that comes a macabre but funny observation, on buying lobsters in tanks, "from which you can pick out your supper while it watches you point."

On that note, more or less, he asks the central question of the essay:
Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?
The lobster-selling lobby theorizes that the nervous system of lobsters is too rudimentary to permit them to feel pain. Here the neurology is, as Wallace eventually concludes, ambiguous (or at least it was, four years ago). There is, for one thing, a difference between feeling pain and feeling suffering because of that pain. Given the lobsters' behaviour, however, it would appear that they do feel suffering. One compelling piece of evidence is that lobsters do sense changes in water temperature, and express a preference by moving from water of one temperature to another. Then there is the frantic behaviour of lobsters (before they die, which occurs in under a minute) in the pots of boiling water, which he describes in equally comic and unsettling passages.

There are alternatives to boiling lobsters alive, but none sound so great. Firstly, one can drive a knife into their heads, which apparently does not kill them wholly because they have more than one ganglion (a bundle of nerves that is a simple version of a brain). Secondly, one can microwave them after poking holes through the shell so that they don't explode, which is sadistic. Thirdly, one can put them in the water when it's still cold, and hope that the gradual heating will prevent pain. But . . .
Cooks who advocate this method are going mostly on the analogy to a frog, which can supposedly be kept from jumping out of a boiling pot by heating the water incrementally. In order to save a lot of research-summarizing, I’ll simply assure you that the analogy between frogs and lobsters turns out not to hold.
And the article concludes in a long parade of footnotes, which are, of course, David Foster Wallace's specialty. They are pleasantly self-sufficient, and can be left to the end entirely, with (in my view) equal profit and enjoyment.

One last thing that comes to mind here is that I very much like the earnest way in which Wallace considers not only his subject but also his readers; he tries to write not only as well but also as entertainingly as possible, and to take into account the reaction of the reader. This is risky, as the writing can become too self-conscious, but he toes the fine line quite proficiently. I also like his emotional investment in the topic, especially since the investment is something nobler than the selfish fear of being proven wrong (vs. the fear of being wrong), which is too often at the heart of essays and scholarly articles.

* * *
P.S.: There is an implied inaccuracy in the article (p. 7, online): when an earthworm is cut in half, only one half lives on, not both of them.

P.P.S.: Coincidentally, the one and (as far as I can remember) the only time that I ate lobster was in Maine, when my family drove across the US at the end of the summer holidays in 1998. We sat at wooden tables on a pier, so we were right at the water's edge and could see fresh lobster being hauled up in dripping cages as we devoured the lobster and corn-on-the-cob. I accidentally cracked mine open in the wrong place, so that the intriguing aquamarine slurry in the middle was revealed, but I quickly found where the real meat was and enjoyed it. Then I wandered into the building, where long bins held the lobsters, alive in cold water or steaming, and became aware for the first time that they are boiled alive. Since then I've decided not to eat lobster (or crabs) whenever it can be politely avoided.

P.P.S.: The illustrations are my amateur efforts. (c:
(In case the issue ever comes up, they may be copied if credit is given.)

* * *

"Consider the Lobster" (Article in full, not divided into pages)
"Lobster tale lands writer in hot water" (Boston Globe article on "Considering the Lobster")

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Crossing the Bar

Today I want to pay tribute to David Foster Wallace, an American writer and professor who died, only 46 years old, last Friday. Before his death, the only writing of his that I'd read is the address that he gave at the commencement ceremony of Kenyon College in 2005, but it immediately interested me in his work. The address very much impressed me, not so much even for its wittiness or the fluency of expression, as for the empathy and the thought that had gone into it, and his refusal to retread the platitudes, or to present any idea or statement that he had not questioned and weighed beforehand. This morning I also went to the website of Harper's Magazine, to which he had contributed eleven articles since 1989. As it has been highly recommended, I read his account of a cruise ship journey, "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" (originally published as "Shipping Out"), which is really brilliant in its conciseness and detail and sharp insight.

"Shipping Out" is specifically the tale of a cruise in the Caribbean, which is intended to be a luxurious, stress-free zone but is in a way very stressful, especially if one's skepticism creates a friction with the micromanaging hierarchy and the "philosophy" that pervades the whole. Roald Dahl's stories, like his book The Witches and the tale "The Boys Who Talked with Animals" come to mind, as they similarly depict the unhealthy bubble of the wealthy lifestyle, and the truly obnoxious and solipsist behaviour which they encourage. In any case, the minutiae of the voyage, and Mr. Wallace's reactions to them, are so vividly rendered that it is hard not to feel in the end as if one had undergone the cruise one's self. And it is often extremely funny.

The Kenyon commencement address concerns itself, firstly, with the question of what the real value of a liberal education is intended to be. Mr. Wallace relates this problem to that of the reality that will meet the students after they go out into the world. Here he is conspicuously free of idealism. He speaks of the future largely as a grinding routine, in which one can choose to remain lazily absorbed in one's own self-centered perspective, interpreting and classifying the world as being either convenient or inconvenient to one's self, without any thought or perception beyond that. If there is any value in a liberal education, it is in instilling the ability to rise above this indolent "default setting" and to choose to explore and understand the reality beyond it, without being intellectually and emotionally fettered by egotism. Here are long excerpts (I am posting them on the assumption that the speech is not copyrighted; if it is, I'll take them down again):
[L]et's say it's an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you're tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there's no food at home. You haven't had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It's the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it's the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it's pretty much the last place you want to be but you can't just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store's confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren't enough check-out lanes open even though it's the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can't take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.

But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line's front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to "Have a nice day" in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.

Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn't yet been part of you graduates' actual life routine, day after week after month after year.

But it will be. And many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides. But that is not the point. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it's going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.

[. . .]
It is my natural default setting. It's the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I'm operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world's priorities.

The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it's not impossible that some of these people in SUV's have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he's trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he's in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.

Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket's checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.

[. . .]
The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

[. . ]

[A] real education [. . .] has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time [. . .]

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.

* * *

What is peculiar is that, in both of these works, suicide is mentioned. On one of the previous voyages of the cruise ship, a young man had committed suicide by jumping overboard. And, in the commencement address, Mr. Wallace said,
Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

The reason why this is peculiar is that Mr. Wallace himself died by suicide, but in another way it is not peculiar, as it seems that he had already been contending against depression for some two decades. What puzzles me is why someone who did find so much in his surroundings to interest him, and who did have so much sympathy for others, did not find something in those feelings to keep him in the world for a longer time. But given how draining it is to overcome suicidal feelings, and how they do return over and over when one is at one's weakest, it is, I think, no small achievement that he stayed with us as long as he did.

2005 Kenyon College Commencement Address
Harper's Magazine (Links to David Foster Wallace's articles)
An interview with David Foster Wallace (Charlie Rose, 1997; the video, which is 56 minutes long, does take a while to upload, and be careful that it doesn't crash your browser.)
"Foster Wallace is a huge loss," Guardian
Obituary, New York Times

Sunday, September 14, 2008

First Nations and an Imperfect World

Growing up in Victoria, I was exposed a lot to Native American culture and history, in school and elsewhere. Never mind that the art often came in the form of tourist souvenirs; at least my family twice had the privilege of watching bona fide totem poles being carved, and, once, of sitting and listening to a drumming circle at the shore of Elk Lake

It is customary in leftist events (especially demonstrations) – which tend to celebrate e.g. saving the rainforest through decriminalizing marijuana and joining the European Union and stopping discrimination against women to pacifism – to mention that said event is taking place on Coast Salish territory. Certainly not all encounters are prejudicial. There is undoubtedly, however, a widespread stereotype that natives are lazy, alcoholic, and petty criminals, which a handful of classmates repeated without being challenged.

At any rate, as for the natural history of First Nations and their interactions with the temperate rainforest in British Columbia down all the way to Oregon, though it is rather a botanical than anthropological work — a helpful text is Plants of Coastal British Columbia (Lone Pine, 1994), by Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon. It is principally intended as a field guide, to help the botany enthusiast identify the plants he encounters on his rambles. There is a fair range of diverse detail, though, and I am quite satisfied with its plentiful images of the plants to help identify them in the wild, as well as with the paragraphs that verbally list the manifold uses of plants like the cedar tree or tule (a type of rush that grows in watery ground, for instance).

Anyway, what principally interested me here, given the context of Sunday and religion, are the native creation myths. There is not one overarching myth. Around Victoria, the major groups are the Coast Salish, the Nootka (a.k.a. Nuu-chah-nulth) and, to the north, the Kwakiutl (a.k.a. Kwakwaka'wakw), though the Haida (a.k.a. xaa.aadaa 7laaisiss, but "Haida" is fine for most mortals) from the Queen Charlotte Islands are also prominent. Not only are the myths and legends of these tribes diverse; there are, of course, still greater differences between their beliefs and those of the Native Americans in the prairies and the East. What I like about the Pacific Northwest Coast myths is that they are not humourless, and that they, far from painting the world in black and white, recognize psychological complexities. The spirit-figures in them (e.g. the Raven) have the moral ambiguity, and the capriciousness, which also characterize the gods of ancient Greece.

The tome of native legends, which I thought we had in our apartment, we either don't have, or it is temporarily hidden among the thousands of other books. Fortunately, my grandfather mentions Tlingit tales (the Tlingit being a people which inhabits the general vicinity of the Alaskan panhandle) in his unpublished memoirs,* as these tales were recounted in Raven, by Dale Burlison De Armond (Anchorage: Alaska Northwest, 1975).
In the first story, it is told how Raven created the world from earth and stones. The world that he created did not please the Raven; it was not the way he had envisioned it. So he destroyed it and formed another world, which he didn't like either. After further efforts, he gave up trying to create a perfect world. He said, "To hell with it!" and left the world imperfect – and so it has remained. [ . . . ]

In further stories, the Raven brings light, water and fire to the earth, and sets the sun in the firmament. This was after a flood, which he had caused himself, out of curiosity; for though he may be an intelligent, clever and wise bird with an enchanting voice, whose sounds are characteristic in southwestern Alaska, he is also a rogue, who likes to do mischief.

As all the people had died in the flood, or he had turned them into stone, he created new people out of leaves. That is why many people die in autumn, when the leaves fall from the trees.
* Erinnerungen: "Ein Traum ist das Leben" (German-English translation by me)

Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest (Introduction to excellently detailed series of essays)
Flickr Photos (Kwakiutl, Coast Salish, Haida)

Plants of Coastal British Columbia (Publisher's information on book)

Tlingit Myths and Texts (Myths as stiltedly recorded in 1904 by John R. Swanton)
Seeking Native American Spirituality (Amusingly but justly irate warning against quack spirituality)
Society-Tlingit (Short essay on the Tlingit)

[N.B. Edited November 2, 2014.]

Friday, September 12, 2008


In honour of Andrew Motion's decision to withdraw from his lifelong appointment as Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, as it was sucking the writerly inspiration out of him and the Queen would not give an opinion on his work, I have written the following verse:

Andrew Motion succeeded Ted Hughes
In the tenured pursuit of the Muse.
(Don't know why) he expected
To be read and redacted
By the Queen, who has much else to do.

So the Laureate would churn out his verse
For anniversaries, birthdays, and worse,
While the Queen petted corgis
And held hat-shopping orgies
And did what all monarchs should do.

Inspiration gave way to despair
And the Poet, deplucking his hair,
Said, "Enough! I won't take it
I'll no longer fake it
There are way better things I'll go do."

And the Queen in her secret retreat
At the rum little pub down the street
Wrote a victory sonnet;
The host, stumbling on it,
Cried, "So the next Laureate is — you!"

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

In Propria Persona

Upon revisiting my sister's Flickr account, I find that she has photographed and uploaded a portrait of Moses Mendelssohn — who, as previously mentioned, was an inspiration for Nathan der Weise — that hangs in our living room. I like this portrait because it is more open and human than others, and in it the philosopher also bears a great resemblance to my grandfather (and, to a lesser degree, his descendant Felix). It is hard to read facial expressions in pictures, as they do seem to subtly change depending on one's frame of mind. At present I find that his gaze is quite direct and engaging, if reserved, and that he has a genial quirk about the mouth. The ascetic lines of his cheek and temple are in abeyance, and yet his sternness remains. So . . . who knows whether this helps bring to life the character in the play, but as my treatment of that work is so unwontedly expansive in any case, this portrait will hopefully round it out.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Sunday: The Parable of the Rings

The central message of Lessing's Nathan der Weise is embodied by the famous Parable, which Nathan recounts to Saladin, who has asked him which is the true religion. In summary:
A man of the east possesses an opal ring whose quality it is to make the bearer agreeable to God and to man. This ring is passed down to his most dearly beloved son, independent of order of birth, etc., and so on down the generations. Eventually there is a father who loves all three of his sons equally, and has promised his ring to all three of them. So he asks an artist to make two identical rings. Then, when he is on his deathbed, he gives each of them a ring and a blessing, and then dies. Afterward his sons squabble over who received the true ring, but it is never discovered.
But this tale is not without holes in its logic. In some indignation, Saladin asks Nathan whether this is the answer to his question, and Nathan humbly replies, "Shall I ask forgiveness if I do not trust myself to choose among the rings, which our Father made in the intention that they bear no difference?" Saladin counters that the religions are different, so much so that even the food and drink diverge. But, says Nathan, the origins of these religions are the same, and these religions are histories that all describe the same thing. He then explains why he chooses to be Jewish if other religions are equally valid. The traditions of Judaism have been transmitted to him by his parents, and is it not natural that we would prefer, and trust in, a history that has been recounted to us by persons who have proven over and over again that they love us, and that they would not lie to us?

Another flaw is that all three of the sons are behaving quite disagreeably, which should not be the case if one of them had the ring. And this apparent plot-hole is addressed in the second part of the parable:
The brothers take their complaints to a judge. He asks if two of the brothers love the third more. They evidently do not, and the judge, waxing wroth, says that they only love themselves, and that none of the rings is the right one. This one ring has presumably been lost, and three replacements made. Even if the ring hadn't been lost, the father would not have wanted one of the sons to be favoured at the expense of the other two, or to endure the tyranny of the one ring any longer. So the judge, in a fine oration, exhorts the sons to find the true ring by practicing its virtues:

Es strebe von euch jeder um die Wette,
Die Kraft des Steins in seinem Ring' an Tag
Zu legen! komme dieser Kraft mit Sanftmut,
Mit herzlicher Verträglichkeit, mit Wohltun,
Mit innigster Ergebenheit in Gott
Zu Hilf'! Und wenn sich dann der Steine Kräfte
Bei euern Kindes-Kindern äussern:
So lad ich über tausend Jahre
Sie wiederum vor diesen Stuhl. Da wird
Ein weisrer Mann auf diesem Stuhle sitzen
Als ich; und sprechen.
In other words, "Let each of you contend to show the power of the stone in his ring! Come to the aid of this power with a mild spirit, with hearty concord, with beneficence, with the most profound submission to God. And if, then, the powers of the stones should become apparent in your children's children, I invite you again before this chair in a thousand years' time. Then a wiser man than I shall sit in this chair, and speak."

So, I suppose I should be commenting on this, but I prefer to leave the parable as is, and let the reader make up his own mind about it. I will only say that religious strife, in my view, has much more to do with the pursuit of power than with the pursuit of truth.

* * *

Tale in the Decameron (First Day, Novel III):
English, Italian

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Nathan der Weise

by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing
First Published: 1779

On the train, as I was travelling around southern Germany this past week, I read Nathan der Weise (Nathan the Wise), a play that Gotthold Ephraim Lessing wrote in 1778. From what I've heard, it's famous here, whereas it has never crossed my path in English books or articles. It is a true Enlightenment work, as a strong spirit of tolerance animates the whole, and a true 18th-century work, as the dramatist attempts to depict the most refined and exalted sentiments. To the extent that these sentiments are pure, unmixed, and histrionic, they are not true to life nor have ever been, and what has borne the vicissitudes of time and taste much better is the tolerance, as the question of peaceful coexistence among religions is as perplexing today as ever.

The hero of the story is Nathan, a wealthy Jewish merchant who lives in Jerusalem in the time of Saladin. He returns from a long journey to find that his home was on fire, but a Knight Templar had rescued his daughter. So he endeavours to make the acquaintance of the knight, and wants to present him with any assistance in his power. At first the knight is scornful, but then he is conquered by the magnanimity of Nathan, and agrees to become friends. Curd von Stauffen, for that is the rescuer's name, is then strangely attracted by the daughter whom he saved, and wants to marry her. One obstacle is that the daughter, with her finer instincts, is aware that she is not in love with the Templar. Another is that the two are brother and sister; Nathan suspects this and therefore holds back the parties who are eager to see them married, among them his daughter's maid, who believes that her mistress has no hope of heaven if she does not become a Christian. This plot element is disturbing, as (evidently) who knows what might have happened, but I think that Lessing weaves it in as part of the theme of a universal brotherhood and sisterhood.

There are many lesser threads to the narrative, for instance Saladin's debts as well as the friendship of Nathan and a dervish turned Saladin's treasurer, but the warp and woof of the plot are the way that prejudices are formed and disproven once the characters communicate and interact with one another. Representatives of each religion, Christianity and Judaism and Islam, evince generosity and forgiveness and loyalty, and the sole villain of the tale is the Patriarch, who is a hidebound hypocrite. Also, I am not sure why – though one explanation is that people at that time, socially as well as singly, took a very conscious aesthetic pleasure in fine morality, as they might in a fine painting or an exquisite dessert – but the characters in 18th-century moral tales (e.g. Samuel Richardson's Pamela) indulge in a great deal of public and mutual praise, and Nathan der Weise is no exception.

In my view, the play is weakened by central contradictions. For instance, Nathan is intended to be quiet, modest, and simple, but Lessing wants to display his character; so in a sense Nathan is the opposite of quiet, modest, and simple, as he must bare his every thought and feeling in the overstrained idiom of the stage. Also, he is intended to be a real character, founded on Moses Mendelssohn, and still the world of characters in which he is placed is composed of the artificial (and irritating) stock characters of 18th-century fiction and drama. The plot itself is not so original or restrained, either, given, for instance, the long-lost family device. But this device fits, again, into the theme of brotherhood; also, I surmise that mysterious parentage busied the minds of Lessing's contemporaries for a good reason, as people slept around secretly a great deal in those days, so myriad illegitimate children lived without knowing their parents or siblings.

* * *

Apart from the Parable of the Ring (which I wish to write about on Sunday), two passages struck me pleasantly in the play:

Templar: "Let time in its course, / And not curiosity, make our acquaintance."*
"Laßt die Zeit allmählich, / Und nicht die Neugier, unsre Kundschaft machen." (Act II, Sc. vii)

Sittah: "Every detail, too much / Despised, avenges herself, Brother."
"Jede Kleinigkeit, zu sehr / Verschmäht, die rächt sich, Bruder." (Act III, Sc. iv)

Nathan der Weise, by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing
Stuttgart: Reclam, 1970

Nathan the Wise (Text in middling English translation)
Nathan der Weise (Text in original German)
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (Brief biography, overview of works, links)

*Approximate translations mine.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Old Rose and Silver

When I was in my second year at university, I wanted to look up books that had been referenced in the forewords and footnotes and text of Jane Austen's novels, for example Fanny Burney's Cecilia and Ann Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho, and in Louisa May Alcott's novels, for example The Heir of Redclyffe by Charlotte Yonge and The Wide, Wide World by Susan Warner. Not all of these books were to my taste, but the quest for them introduced me to the books at Project Gutenberg. For two years, then, I whiled away the leisure hours after my courses or at home by exploring the lists. Now (though to a lesser degree than two years ago) I peregrinate through the alphabet, largely reading romances from the 19th and early 20th centuries, but plunging into non-fiction and criticism whenever a dutiful mood strikes.

My most recent reading was Old Rose and Silver, a novel published in 1909 by Myrtle Reed. It is a satisfactory specimen of romance as friendly and sincere kitsch. (Of the author's other books, Lavender and Old Lace* is nice, more restrained, but less interesting.) Like all good romances, it is equally pleasant as serious sentiment and as unintentional satire. The characters around whom the tale revolves are Aunt Francesca, an idealized little old lady of refinement and wit and fine calibre; her niece Rose, a forty-year-old woman who is a warm and vibrant personality; Isabel, a twenty-year-old girl who has a gaping deficiency where her understanding (in the 18th-century sense of a good intellectual grasp) and sympathy should be; Colonel Kent, a friend of Aunt Francesca's deceased husband; and Colonel Kent's son, Allison, a thirty-year-old violinist. Then there are their neighbours, the Crosby twins, who are good-hearted and full of childish adventurousness and impracticality, and who are evidently intended to furnish comic relief.

Rose lives with Aunt Francesca, as her parents have died, and Isabel joins them because her mother (in an unsubtle authorial dig against suffragism) has renounced the joys and sacred duties of womanliness and instead passes a loveless and useless existence lecturing on women's rights and neglecting her daughter. Then Colonel Kent and his son return from Europe. Rose and Allison bond in soul as they play the violin and piano together, and the authoress indulges in picturesque passages on the emotional transcendence of the musical art, but Allison is oblivious and is infatuated with Isabel (who is cold as a fish) instead. Allison and Isabel are engaged, but then a car accident occurs and Allison's hand is crushed. As he may no longer be able to use the hand, and therefore have no violinist's career, and therefore have no money, Isabel drops him. And then the plot curve descends in a leisurely manner from this climax to the happy dénouement.

The novelesqueness is truly funny. The tale, in a chapter pensively entitled "A Falling Star," begins with these purple paragraphs:
The last hushed chord died into silence, but the woman lingered, dreaming over the keys. Firelight from the end of the room brought red-gold gleams into the dusky softness of her hair and shadowed her profile upon the opposite wall. No answering flash of jewels met the questioning light--there was only a mellow glow from the necklace of tourmalines, quaintly set, that lay upon the white lace of her gown.

She turned her face toward the fire as a flower seeks the sun, but her deep eyes looked beyond it, into the fires of Life itself. A haunting sense of unfulfilment stirred her to vague resentment, and she sighed as she rose and moved restlessly about the room. She lighted the tall candles that stood upon the mantel-shelf, straightened a rug, moved a chair, and gathered up a handful of fallen rose-petals on her way to the window. She was about to draw down the shade, but, instead, her hand dropped slowly to her side, her fingers unclasped, and the crushed crimson petals fluttered to the floor.
The authoress employs this leitmotif of roses with a Wagnerian dedication, and it is cloying. But the descriptions of her female characters' habiliments do remind me of the pretend-games my sister and I played when we were smaller, inventing maidens with long chestnut or golden hair on whom we duly bestowed gowns and flowers and gems in well-chosen palettes (green dresses with gold borders, emerald jewellery, gold slippers, and lilies of the valley, etc.). Miss Reed writes "her sole ornaments were," and then she launches into a flood of amethysts, heliotrope, golden roses, etc.

One less innocent novelesque convention that she employs is blackening the character of another woman to make the heroine (Rose) look better in comparison. This practice is despicable, I think. In this case poor Isabel is the victim. Also, I doubt, cinematic and literary romances to the contrary, that men often are presented with a choice of two women who so precisely illustrate the opposite moral poles. As for Allison Kent, he is nice, generous, and unobserving — not entirely a blank screen on which the author lets the reader project her own fantasies — and I suppose there are people like him in real life, but it is pathetic how everyone around him controls the action while he is naïf and passive.

Lastly, I enjoy the profound remarks that the authoress has carefully attributed to her characters, which invariably bear an implicit label: Deep Thought Here. She also philosophizes in her capacity as narrator. In a temple-and-shrine analogy, she theorizes that women can only truly love one person, and that if their love is unrequited or destroyed, there is no renewal; whereas men can truly love many persons, and rebound quickly if one of their loves doesn't work out. Though I can't speak from personal experience, I'm sure this is wrong. There is a discussion on the subject at the end of Jane Austen's Persuasion. I agree with her assessment that the forcibly homebound lives of women in the 18th and 19th centuries meant that they did not have as many distractions (or opportunities to develop their characters further) as men did, to save them from useless brooding and to help them move on with their lives. Nor do I think that men hop from one relationship to another quite so briskly.

* * *
His first notes came with a clearness and authority for which she was wholly unprepared. She followed the accompaniment almost perfectly, but mechanically, lost as she was in the wonder and delight of his playing. The exquisite harmony seemed to be the inmost soul of the violin, speaking at last, through forgotten ages, of things made with the world--Love and Death and Parting. Above it and through it hovered a spirit of longing, infinite and untranslatable, yet clear as some high call.

Subtly, Rose answered to it. In some mysterious way, she seemed set free from bondage. Unsuspected fetters loosened; she had a sense of largeness, of freedom which she had never known before. She was quivering in an ecstasy of emotion when the last chord came.

For an instant there was silence, then Isabel spoke. "How well you play!" she said politely.
P.S.: According to a recent article at, the black-and-white film Arsenic and Old Lace, starring Cary Grant, Raymond Massey, and Peter Lorre, was named in parody of Lavender and Old Lace.

Myrtle Reed - Biography and Works

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Sunday: The Spider

After finding the Catholic Bible readings for today, and not finding them any good in my evidently not-so-humble opinion, I have stepped over temporarily to the Other Side. So I will discourse of one and a half verses in our Koran (Oxford University Press, 1983), which was nicely translated by Arthur J. Arberry (1905-69). The verses in question form the beginning of the chapter, or sura, known as "The Spider."
Do the people reckon that they will be left to say
'We believe,' and will not be tried?
We certainly tried those that were before them,
and assuredly God knows those who speak truly,
and assuredly He knows the liars.
Or do they reckon, those who do evil deeds, that
they will outstrip Us? Ill they judge!
Whoso looks to encounter God, God's term is coming;
He is the All-hearing, the All-knowing.

Whosoever struggles, struggles only to his
own gain; surely God is All-sufficient
nor needs any being.
And those who believe, and do righteous deeds,
We shall surely acquit them of their evil
deeds, and shall recompense them the best of
what they were doing.
What struck me first is how very like the New Testament, or other Christian texts, these verses are. Lines 10-12 are echoes of Milton's in "On His Blindness" — "God doth not need / Either man's work or his own gifts." — or, as the Koran is the older text, rather vice versa. What also struck me was that the verses are agreeably mild, as religious texts generally have no shortage of blood-and-thunder passages.

There are two points, to diverge from literary criticism to theological criticism (if one can dignify my musings with that name), with which I take issue. The first is the concept of God testing his believers. If one argues that He is omniscient, it must follow that He already knows how people would respond to the trial. As for the trial of Job, it is hard to believe much in a God who would kill off a family and use the paterfamilias as a guinea pig in order to settle an argument with Old Nick. So, in my view, there are far more convincing ways to account for the presence of trouble in the world. But, oddly, even Voltaire accepts the concept, as he writes in Zadig, "il n'y a point de hasard: tout est épreuve ou punition, ou récompense ou prévoyance."*

The second point is that I don't believe that good deeds should be an alibi for bad deeds, though perhaps the underlying statement is that people who do bad deeds should not have to fear eternal damnation if they strive to do well.

Altogether there are no passages in these verses that will linger happily in my memory, like "Blessed are the meek," and yet the assurance that good will prevail is, I guess, heartening.

*"There is no such thing as chance; everything is a test or punishment, or reward or admonition."

"The Persian or the Scholar?" (Time article on Arthur J. Arberry, 1950)
The Koran (Index of links to Koran chapters)
"The Koran" (Encyclopaedia entry on the Koran)

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Friday Miscellany: The Dis-Consolations of Philosophy

Books currently lying at the head of my bed, from easiest to hardest to finish for me.

Towers in the Mist, Elizabeth Goudge
First Published: 1938

A historical novel set in the time of Elizabeth I. If it's at all like the author's other books, it will delve into religion and superstition, the hidden depths of the human character, and the beauties and past of the English landscape. I think that "mysticism" is a fitting term for her worldview. What is fascinating in her modern novels, for instance the children's book Linnets and Valerians, is that they depict the twilight of the old British rural microcosm before the onset of American-style modernity. Her great flaws are that she is prone to kitsch and unremitting in her endeavour to "[find] tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in every thing." Aside from that, she is an astoundingly good writer. I've reached Chapter 2. (Biography, list of works)
"Poetry, childhood, memory" (Blog entry on Elizabeth Goudge's writing)


Micromégas, Voltaire
First Published: 1752

[The following is written in French because I want to use the language more often; hopefully this will not bother anyone. Apologies in advance for grammatical and other errors.]
Une courte histoire philosophique qui raconte, j'imagine, la vie d'un géant qui habite une planète de l'étoile Sirius. Le serviable Voltaire, dans une succession de paragraphes qui fourmille de chiffres et de précisions autant que cet oeuvre de Jules Verne qui s'appelle De la terre à la lune (un livre que j'ai lu fidèlement jusqu'à la fin — malgré le fait que ni les obus, ni les clubs scientifiques qui ne sont que de pompeux assemblés d'hommes qui n'ont rien de mieux à faire, m'intéressent beaucoup — mais qui m'a trahi en me laissant confuse et énervée par cette fin qui n'est pas une fin du tout), nous dit qu'il a huit lieues de longueur. Je souhaite passer plein d'heures heureuses en restant assidûment ignorante des implications philosophiques, et en me réjouissant au lieu de cela de l'imagination fort vive de Voltaire, au niveau le moins intellectuel que possible. À ce moment, je suis à la deuxième page (formidable, n'est-ce pas?).

Micromégas (Liens aux textes électroniques du livre)
Voltaire (Biography and list of works)
Voltaire's Page (Link to biographies, works, etc.)


Haydn, Rosemary Hughes
First Published: 1950

A biography of the composer, which begins at the beginning — in the true "I was born of poor but honest parents . . ." vein — and properly trots through, as far as I can tell, to the end. It is accessibly written, well researched, and academic; and, as in duty bound for the sake of the reader, the author gently attempts to put herself in the shoes of Haydn, infuse humour and sympathy, and depict the ambient time and place. My quibble with this approach is that it is fairly unoriginal and too careful. What I particularly like about our copy, a nice beige clothbound edition, is the very brief notes and underlinings that my great-aunt pencilled in. I'm on the third chapter.

JSTOR: Haydn (First page of a review in the journal Music & Letters, 1950)


Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, Dava Sobel
First Published: 1995

A pleasantly written and detailed account of the search for a trustworthy way of determining one's location at sea, which consumed the attention of the eighteenth-century scientific establishment and the monarchs who patronized it, until the clockmaker John Harrison finally achieved it by inventing a reliable chronometer. (The required mathematical feats much resemble the ones that Cyrus Harding performs to find the latitude and longitude of Verne's Mysterious Island.) It's also a commentary on the intriguing and fanciful dead ends that scientific research pursues before a lone and embattled figure discovers a way out of the labyrinth. Among the anecdotes, the tale of Sir Clowdisley (I'd always seen it as Cloudsley) Shovell, the admiral whose fleet was wrecked and whose men were worse than decimated on the Scilly Islands in 1707, is in my view scarcely inferior to that of Coriolanus or any other Shakespearean tragic hero. Lastly and incidentally, Dava Sobel's style, and my quibbles regarding it, resembles that of Rosemary Hughes.

Dava Sobel
(Website of the author)
"The Longitude Problem" (Author's article on same subject)
NYT Books: Longitude (Review, viz. synopsis)


Philosophie der Geschichte, G.W.F. Hegel
First Published: 1837

Hegel is, I've found, a forgiving philosopher. He has been my bedtime reading for a while, not because he is easier to read than other authors, but because in a drowsy state I am often more focused and less likely to (metaphorically speaking) chuck away a book in exasperation and do something fun instead. By this means I read all of Shakespeare's plays, except for King John, by the age of eighteen (but I still have no idea what Henry IV is about).

So the first six pages of Hegel's introduction to Philosophie der Geschichte went swimmingly, but then I recognized that it was gibberish to me after all. Now I'm on the eighth page. It's true that the structure of the introduction is clear enough; he classifies the ways one can write a historical work — reporting events, philosophizing about the events, presenting the events in the context of a country or a theme, etc. But this classification is not very helpful, except in making one think (about the purpose of historiography, I suppose), because it is imposed on reality, not integral to it; other people find other categories far more useful, and I don't know if Hegel's are authoritative.

In his History of Western Philosophy, it is evident that Bertrand Russell doesn't have much use for Hegel. (One problem is, I think, that Russell succumbs to the fallacy of blaming everyone from Plato to — well, Hegel, for the 20th-century rise of fascism. Not blaming, exactly, but interpreting their ideas as proto-fascism.) As far as the Philosophie der Geschichte is concerned, he begins by explaining that Hegel divides German history as falling into three periods, where Charlemagne and the Reformation are the watershed events. Then Hegel names these periods the Kingdoms of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Russell's comment, admittedly with reason, is this:
It seems a little odd that the Kingdom of the Holy Ghost should have begun with the bloody and utterly abominable atrocities committed in suppressing the Peasants' War, but Hegel, naturally, does not mention so trivial an accident. Instead, he goes off, as might be expected, into praises of Machiavelli.
Quotation from History of Western Philosophy, by Bertrand Russell (London: Unwin, 1984), p.708

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Tristram Shandy

by Laurence Sterne
First Published: 1759-67

With some trepidation I took up our inglorious paperback copy of Tristram Shandy last night, as the prospect of reading it by this evening was daunting given its girth. (As a matter of fact, I have only reached the 95th page.) Besides, I find 18th-century literature strenuous in its long-windedness and relentless artillery of mirth and pathos, and Sterne's writing is no exception. But after a while, the pleasure of his eponymous hero's ramblings (for me, he hits his stride in Vol. II, Ch. 3) eclipses the urge to reach through space and time, and gently but convincingly throttle the author until he agrees to cease his rambling and get to the point.

Sterne piles one clause on top of another into a great heap of a sentence whose structure is hard to follow. If Emily Dickinson — as someone said — "stitches" together her phrases with em-dashes, Sterne bastes them, in a sloppy but endearing way. I imagine that he would be immensely entertaining to hear in an inn, after a tankard or two of beer, at which point it seems as if not much would be required to loosen his tongue. In print, he does have the virtue of keeping his chapters mercifully short, and his dedication is likely the most readable I've ever encountered.
To the Right Honourable



Never poor Wight of a Dedicator had less hopes from his Dedication than I have from this of mine; for it is written in a bye corner of the kingdom, and in a retired thatched house, where I live in a constant endeavour to fence against the infirmities of ill health, and other evils of life, by mirth; being firmly persuaded that every time a man smiles, — but much more so, when he laughs, that it adds something to this Fragment of Life. [. . .]
Tristram Shandy tells anecdotes of his parents, his uncle, a parson, a midwife, and many others; muses about living on another planet; and reprints the amusing findings of a French inquiry into the baptism of unborn children (by injecting holy water into the birth canal). Then he philosophizes on everything, from the significance of names, to the bad habit of reading a book solely for the "juicy bits" instead of absorbing and pondering the wisdom of the author at leisure. My amusement at this point was feeble, as authors may often be at fault for self-indulgently writing "loose, baggy monsters." Besides, I prefer authorial didactism that is gently woven into the tale, not forced into my face.

But the first volume of Tristram Shandy greatly irritated me. A chatty superego prods and prods the reader, like a truly infuriating comic figure who keeps on popping up in the course of a play, screaming "I am funny!" with every word and gesture, and commenting on the action until the only civilized and human response is to pelt him with tomatoes. That this self-consciousness is self-consciously and satirically done doesn't make the matter better. I want to become absorbed in the story, and when an author tosses me from one narrative stratum to another, and moreover intrudes upon my mental privacy by presuming to tell me how I (should) think and react, he renders me indignant and grumbly. Nevertheless, de gustibus . . .

In the end, the charm and richness of the tale have conquered my annoyance. Not the least of this charm is the fact that Sterne's humour is often broad, but so politely broad that even I, who internally growled at the innuendo in Voltaire's Ingénu when I started it this morning, haven't taken offense.

* * *
De gustibus non est disputandum; — that is, there is no disputing against HOBBY-HORSES; and, for my part, I seldom do; nor could I with any sort of grace, had I been an enemy to them at the bottom; for happening, at certain intervals and changes of the Moon, to be both fiddler and painter, according as the fly stings: — Be it known to you that I keep a couple of pads myself, upon which, in their turns (nor do I care who knows it), I frequently ride out and take the air; — though sometimes, to my shame be it spoken, I take somewhat longer journeys than what a wise man would think altogether right.
Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne
New York: Airmont, 1967 (p. 22)

* * *

An Experimental Novel: Sterne's Tristram Shandy (Concise treatments of influences, characters, plot, etc.)
Laurence Sterne: Tristram Shandy (Concise treatments of plot, critical reception, author's biography, etc.)
Project Gutenberg: Tristram Shandy (Links to full e-texts of book)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Murder Must Advertise

by Dorothy L. Sayers
First Published: 1933

In Murder Must Advertise, the reader is promptly plunged into the milieu of a London publicity firm in the 1930s. Slangy and hypereducated, the employees talk at a rapid pace that brings to mind the clacking of a typewriter, and drop in literary quotations as they go. Dorothy Sayers sets up a work environment that is in a constant state of flux as the copy-writers, editors, artists, owners, and clients visit each other in their offices, chat, and argue. Death Bredon, a new employee who is replacing Victor Dean, is plunged into this milieu, too, and soon feels at home. He is quickly absorbed in the absurdities of his work, and in navigating the niceties of phrasing that must be attuned to the odd sensitivities of the clients.

But there are grim realities underlying the bustle. Victor Dean, who was not overly beloved, had died by falling down an iron staircase. There were three witnesses, and yet Bredon is not convinced that it was an accident. The victim had ties to the Dian de Momerie circle, where drugs, drink, and debauchery are the order of the day, and it is soon clear that he was murdered.

Altogether the book moves swiftly, though the dialogue is at times mystifying (what does "ack emma" mean?), and gives glimpses not only of the office, but also of the quiet family circle of the Chief Inspector of Scotland Yard and of the nocturnal excursions of Dian de Momerie. It is intellectually rigorous, too, for a book in a genre whose purported end is entertainment. What is disturbing is, I find, an underlying coldness, which is hard to pinpoint. For instance, Death Bredon is (for whatever reason) attractive to women, and he exploits this for his investigations. It's not that he doesn't have sympathetic moods, but sympathy is certainly not the determining trait in his behaviour. He is often coolly callous, and he does leave destruction in his wake. There is not much justice in making people suffer as collateral damage in pursuit of the Truth.

* * *

"The very work that engaged him [. . .] wafted him into a sphere of dim platonic archetypes, bearing a scarcely recognisable relationship to anything in the living world. Here those strange entities, the Thrifty Housewife, the Man of Discrimination, the Keen Buyer and the Good Judge, for ever young, for ever handsome, for ever virtuous, economical and inquisitive, moved to and fro upon their complicated orbits, comparing prices and values, making tests of purity, asking indiscreet questions about each others' ailments, household expenses, bedsprings, shaving cream, diet, laundry work and boots, perpetually spending to save and saving to spend, cutting out coupons and collecting cartons, surprising husbands with margarine and wives with patent washers and vacuum cleaners, occupied from morning to night in washing, cooking, dusting, filing, saving their children from germs, their complexions from wind and weather, their teeth from decay and their stomachs from indigestion [. . .]"

Murder Must Advertise, by Dorothy L. Sayers
London: New English Library, 1984, pp. 152-53

* * *

Dorothy L. Sayers (Commentary on her works)
Dorothy L. Sayers (Biography)
Dorothy L. Sayers Archive (Annotated bibliography)

Lighting of the Beacon

When I was little, one of the historical institutions that fascinated me was the Library at Alexandria. It was built by one of the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt, in the 3rd century BC, and came to hold the greatest collection of scrolls in the world at that time, until its destruction by fire during Caesar's campaign against Ptolemy XIII. I thought of it as an emblem of every book and artwork that is lost in the course of time, to become a scholarly Holy Grail or a lost opportunity altogether.

The Lighthouse of Alexandria, famous as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, was built in the same generation and the same city, and suffered a parallel fate. In a hopefully un-shaky piece of association, I'm using it as the title of my blog to symbolize the illumining powers of the written word. Whether one always obtains deep wisdoms or insights out of the books one reads is questionable, but at least the ideal is there.

But, to turn from generalities to specifics, I intend this blog to be a book review website. I've thought out the following schedule:

Monday: Children's literature, or romance
Tuesday: Contemporary literature, or premodern literature
Wednesday: Crime novel, or thriller
Thursday: Literary canon
Friday: Books in progress (i.e. books I've started but probably won't finish)
Saturday: Week's newspaper and magazine articles in review
Sunday: Chapters of theological works

It will require me to steadily keep my nose in a book and to the grindstone, but hopefully I can reconcile the metaphors.