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1  Community of Learners / Decade Project / [Not on the list] Pastures of Heaven--John Steinbeck on: August 07, 2016, 05:42:26 PM
What's a Little Curse Among Friends?

August 7, 2016

A while back I read a short work by Steinbeck from the Decade list, Of Mice and Men, and somehow got seduced by the idea of reading all of Steinbeck. This I did but not by speed-reading. I have a multi-volume collection of his works from the Library of America, and I set about reading everything in that collection in chronological order. Having completed that task about a year ago, and feeling the urge to reflect again on literature, I take up the task of speed-reading all these books and writing about them as a good way to slip back into the Project.

Pastures of Heaven was not the first book Steinbeck wrote, but it is the first in my collection. His first book was Cup of Gold (written at age 27), which I now have on order and plan to read soon. But Pastures is a great place to begin. For this work, Steinbeck wrote nine intriguing stories about the citizens of the small fictional California town, Las Pasturas del Cielo. (Secondary sources claim this town is a fictionalized version of the unincorporated township of Corral de Tierra, between Salinas and Monterey.) A short history of the town's origin, an introduction to the Munroe family, the nine stories, and an ironic epilogue make up the book's twelve chapters. Each story could well stand on its own, some sad, some funny, some grotesque, and often told in distinct styles and moods. In Steinbeck's later works he would experiment, too, but even at this early stage he was trying out different narrative approaches within the same work.

The stories each deal with a failure or a loss afflicting one of the townspeople. Commonly, what starts out as a good prospect or a hope-filled venture collapses into disappointment. Steinbeck cleverly introduces this theme in Chapter II, where we meet the Munroes. Bert Munroe came to Pastures of Heaven after having failed at so many businesses he felt he must be cursed. A small farm was his way of leaving that commercial world behind. However, as we learn, the farm he bought had its own curse. At the end of the second chapter, as Bert tells others about his decision to run away from his personal curse, Steinbeck concludes with this.

… Suddenly he laughed delightedly at the thought that had come to him. “And what do I do? First thing out of the box, I buy a place that's supposed to be under a curse. Well, I just happened to think, maybe my curse and the farm's curse got to fighting and killed each other off. I'm dead certain they've gone anyway.”
    The men laughed with him. T. B. Allen whacked his hand down on the counter. “That's a good one” he cried. “But here's a better one. Maybe your curse and the farm's curse has mated and gone into a gopher hole like a pair of rattlesnakes. Maybe there'll be a lot of baby curses crawling around the Pastures the first thing we know.”
    The gathered men roared with laughter at that, and T. B. Allen memorized the whole scene so he could repeat it. It was almost like the talk in a play, he thought.

And so the stories play themselves out. One man's reputation as a sharp investor evaporates; another's scheme to attract a lady by remodeling his house comes to naught; a poverty-stricken family who escape into literature and imagination become ashamed of their poverty; and so forth. Every townsperson who values something or thinks something good is either ruined or disillusioned. Never after the second chapter do we hear again about any curse, but the theme, once stated, nicely ties all the lives together. But, we soon realize, none of these stories amount to a true tragedy. As sometimes happens in Steinbeck's later works, a painful loss of one imagined good opens up the possibility of other goods. Illusions collapse as well as dreams. The phony investor could now turn his talents to shaping a real portfolio; the remodeler has a much nicer house; and the shamed lotus eaters have entered a social phase of their lives. Few of the stories end in pitch black.

In Steinbeck's later comic novels bad guys are noticeably missing, while in his serious or tragic works evil always has a face. In Pastures of Heaven, though, all the townsfolk mean well; there are no bad guys. No malevolent schemer destroys anyone's life. As in comic tales, vain ambitions collapse merely of their own instability. But the book is not comic—at least not like Steinbeck's more famous comic novels will be. We are left wondering whether each failure has been a good thing or a bad thing. Thus, while in some ways resembling his later comedies, Pastures of Heaven is more like a microscopic La Comédie Humaine, an indulgent stroll through human frailty with no belly laughs (excepting the fates of Rosa and Maria Lopez, as told in Chapter VII).

So already we find a theme that will permeate all of Steinbeck's writing: The instability of mortal enterprise. Plans, ambitions, noble or praiseworthy goals, at least in the hands of good or sympathetic people, must fall apart. Life is ever in flux, with its natural ups and downs, but when people we care about launch themselves on ambitious paths, they may rise for a while, just enough to fool them, but the wheel always turns.

Two other Steinbeckian characteristics appear in these stories: a tender sympathy for humanity and the ever-present awareness of nature. I've always loved Steinbeck's descriptive ability, as it appears both in his humanism and in his naturalism. He started out with this ability and it only matured with age. Here's a simple line that illustrates what I mean. “Katherine was not pretty, but she had the firm freshness of a new weed...” How can one not care what happens to such a person? And how can one ever look at weeds the same way again?

I enjoyed Pastures of Heaven the first time I read it and I enjoyed it even more the second time. Sly connections among the characters and themes only emerged upon rereading, and these were among the little gems that made the book such a delight. While no masterwork, it nonetheless boded well for the future author of Cannery Row and The Grapes of Wrath.

2  Community of Learners / Decade Project / [122] Alain-Fournier--Le Grand Meaulnes on: October 10, 2014, 10:15:32 PM
Blighted love and blurry haystacks

October 10, 2014

I found myself with a little bit of time on my hands this summer (actually, I didn't have time, I just lost track of my responsibilities) and no copy of Aeschylus, so I went to the alphabetically next author, Alain-Fournier. His only novel, Le Grand Meaulnes: The Wanderer, beautifully captures the nuanced flavor of youth. The author, a young man, already longs for the days of childhood while relishing the romanticism of hopeless love. His style beautifully reflected the mood: dreamlike, unaffectedly emotional, and charged with wonder.

The novel has three parts. In the first, we meet the “great” Meaulnes and learn of his life-changing adventure. In the second, we learn piecemeal how things developed for Meaulnes thereafter. In the third, we resolve all mysteries and conclude all dramas. The narrator plays a minor role in the action and offers us no side-adventures to distract us from Meaulnes's obsession, so the unified voice behind Le Grand Meaulnes resembles Nick Carraway's in The Great Gatsby. As with Gatsby, Meaulnes did things we may condemn, but the narrator refrains from judgment.

In a small village in France, a seventeen-year-old boarder named Augustin Meaulnes comes to stay at the home of our narrator, François Seurel, about fifteen ears old. Seurel looks up to the older boy, but the other kids in town don't accept him readily. One day, after hearing about some expected visitors, Meaulnes goes missing, along with a horse and cart, but the riderless horse turns up again a few days later, and after that, Meaulnes himself appears at school without explanation. We learn he had “borrowed” the horse and cart and headed out into the countryside to pick up the visitors. Not knowing the area, he got lost and found himself at an abandoned, dilapidated mansion with a strange party in progress, the guests mostly children. These guests had gathered from near and far to celebrate a wedding, but neither the groom nor the bride had yet appeared. While there, Meaulnes had met and fallen madly in love with a somewhat ethereal young woman his own, the groom's sister. When Meaulnes returns to the village, the village boys, who don’t know anything of what happened, see him as an adventurer, full of mystique. Subsequent phases of the story revolve around the mysterious mansion and the characters Meaulnes met there, especially the groom and his sister.

Alain-Fournier's narrative style creates suspense through a selective telling: by alternately concealing and revealing key bits of information, not always in chronological order, he creates a rhythm of development, much like a plot but not quite. While Alain-Fournier reveals nothing that Seurel the character did not eventually know, Seurel the narrator feigns ignorance of key points while also including details he only learns years later.

The novel resembles the paintings of the French Impressionists. It masterfully evoked a personal age, a historical period, and a geographic place. Such sharp observations! But his images sometimes blurred with naïveté. Nevertheless, it strikes just the right note for such a novel. Anything else would have meant distancing the reader through a cynical or ironic stance, and that approach would have missed the point: the evocation of a time, place, and frame of mind. So, while some might think it a flaw, the narrator's naïveté set well with me.

One first notices about Alain-Fournier's style an abundance of ellipses. Many paragraphs trail off, hinting that the memory involved much more. In the author's hands the technique seems honest, not contrived...

I can't say much about the later parts of the novel without spoiling some of the story. But then, the same remark holds true of the first part. The whole storyline, in fact, seems built out of well-timed surprises—not so much surprising developments, though, as surprising details. I didn't notice much character development. All in all, I would call this novel a well-crafted, impressionistic account of youthful romanticism that skirts sentimentality. I read it twice; it did not offend me; but I wish the author had lived long enough to give us more. He died (we can surmise) at the age of twenty-seven on a foray from the trenches in the second month of the first world war—his body never found.

3  Community of Learners / Decade Project / [121] Agamemnon--Aeschylus on: March 09, 2014, 09:57:09 AM
Chinatown, Hellas

March 9, 2014

Did the Greeks invent family dysfunction, or did they just turn it into great art?  Whatever the case, one need only turn to them to find a suitable name for any relational aberration or social taboo whatsoever.  The tragedy, Agamemnon, by Aeschylus serves as a fine introduction to the world's best known cursed family, the house of Atreus.  This play forms the first part of a trilogy, the Oresteia.  Aeschylus also wrote a fourth part, a comic companion piece, that rounded out the work.  Unfortunately, the comedy did not survive the intervening millennia, and, even though this four-part structure was a standard form of the time, the Oresteia is the most complete set of connected Greek plays we have.  While I have trouble imagining Aeschylus writing a comedy, the inclusion of such a play as part of a tragic cycle makes a great deal of sense to me.  One might find a musical parallel in a symphony's scherzo movement: a musical joke that may either relieve or intensify the work's overall seriousness. 

The Trojan War has dragged on for ten years now when a night watchman at Agamemnon's palace sees a long-awaited signal from a distant outpost, announcing the Achaean victory.  Agamemnon's wife, Clytemnestra, who has been ruling in her husband's absence, tells the people to prepare for Agamemnon's return.  He arrives, with his Trojan concubine, Cassandra, and enters the palace.  Cassandra predicts a bad end, and resignedly follows him inside.  An offstage cry and Clytemnestra emerges, having killed the other two, then shoos the grumbling populace about their business.  In terms of plotted action, this play may take the record for ancient minimalism, yet I found it unnerving and eerie (as often happens with minimalist art when you look at it long enough). 

The multigenerational horror and tragedy unfolds as stories declaimed in exalted dialogue, punctuated by moments on stage, moments which we come to understand not as freely chosen by the characters but as dictated by a primitive Greek notion of justice qua vengeance.  Agamemnon's mother, Aerope, and his uncle, Thyestes, had committed adultery, so Agamemnon's father, Atreus, took vengeance on Thyestes, his own brother, by killing, cooking, and serving his sons to him at dinner.  Upon discovery of this monstrous treachery, Thyestes cursed Atreus and his house.  Years later, Helen, wife of Agamemnon's brother, Menelaus, had run off with Paris to Troy.  Agamemnon forthwith raised an army to besiege the Trojans and bring back Helen.  When they had attempted to set sail, however, the winds died and supposedly the only way Agamemnon could revive them was by sacrificing his own daughter, Iphigenia.  He did, the winds sprang up, and the ships sailed off to Troy for a bloody ten-year siege, but we'll look at that story another week.  Clytemnestra never forgave him for killing their daughter.  In his absence, she had taken up with his cousin, Aegisthus—not just any cousin, unfortunately, but the grandson (and also son, if you catch my drift—think “Chinatown”) of Thyestes. 

Clytemnestra kills Agamemnon.  On the one hand, her action represents one of the most contemptible forms of treachery.  But Clytemnestra's evil merely rises from the background of Helen and Aerope, like a harmonic overtone.  Aerope's adultery had started the cycle of familial murder and vengeance within the house of Atreus, while Helen's adultery had unleashed the ten-year cycle of war that divided the Olympians themselves.  These two women, whose passive disobedience to society's norms devastated generations and kingdoms, made possible Clytemnestra, a defiant and genuinely powerful woman who rebelled against her legal and cultural bondage by calling upon transcendent justice.  One could accuse her of petty motives like jealousy of Cassandra or preference for her present lover, but, in this play at least, she commands center stage, dignified, noble, righteous, furious, while, in her shadow, Agamemnon struts and Aegisthus minces.  In a world where women played almost no legal role whatsoever—served no political offices, had no standing in court, had not even control of their own dowries—Clytemnestra models a natural feminine authority that cuts through all convention and exposes the vain posturing of men for ridicule.  At least she comes across that way to me.  To the Greek audience, she probably brought nightmares.  Her method of killing, too, must have haunted the warriors: she cast his sumptuous robes around his feet as fishers cast a net, then stabbed him twice while he stood and once as he struggled on the ground. 

At the end of Agamemnon, we know that vengeance has not run its course.  We know this, not just because Cassandra has told us.  The gods demanded that Agamemnon sacrifice his child, but they failed to provide a substitute ram at the last minute.  The daughter's murder called for revenge.  But now, a husband's murder calls for revenge.  Since every murder calls for another, only the extinction of the entire line can bring justice to an end.  Like some immense grindstone once set in motion, the inertia of “sacred duty” seems destined to reduce the house of Atreus to a fine powder. 

4  Community of Learners / Decade Project / [120] The Education of Henry Adams--Henry Adams on: February 03, 2014, 09:45:07 PM
The Adams Family

February 3, 2014

When I first began reading The Education of Henry Adams, by Henry Adams, I expected to read an autobiography. Indeed, the first chapters resemble one, albeit one in which the author refers to himself in third person. But gradually I began to see that Adams offers little insight into his own thoughts or feelings at the time other than what a later biographer might have offered after reviewing the documentation. In fact, the sexagenarian Adams would only speculate on the inner life of callow young Adams with a biographer's somewhat distant sympathy. Yet the striking omission of his entire married life bespeaks perhaps a pain too deep to otherwise conceal. (His wife, suffered from depression and, committed suicide in 1885.) Adams breaks off the narrative of his life in 1871, the year before his marriage, and picks it up again only in 1891. He writes of himself so coyly and with such diffidence that I finally concluded the book deals not with Adams, but with his education, precisely as the title says.

Adams begins with his early memories of his grandfather, John Quincy Adams, 6th President of the United States and of his great grandfather, John Adams, the 2nd president, who is more a legend than a reality in Henry's life. Henry's father, Charles Adams, served under Lincoln as US ambassador to Great Britain. Henry's maternal grandmother also came from one of the richest families in America. So perhaps Henry did not think it odd to say, about returning to Washington, D.C., from his years abroad, “The first step of course, was the making of acquaintance, and the first acquaintance was naturally the President, to whom an aspirant to the press officially paid respect.” (p. 944) I can't see myself as a fledgling reporter fresh back in town from a few years in England thinking I should first arrange a chat with the President. But Henry's natural ease and comfort in the company of wealth and power struck me as necessarily inducing a certain blindness to the human condition.

Adams has very little to say about his formal schooling, and treats his college as a waste of time. He goes to study law in Germany, and ends up becoming a tourist instead, since he feels he has an insufficient grasp of the language to understand the lectures. The “education” he spends most of the book describing consists of learning how the world works. It starts with his volunteer service as his father's private secretary during the Civil War. There, in London, he learns affability without trust. Later, as an investigative journalist, he learns to sniff out the facts. As a man of independent wealth, he has the luxury of working only out of a desire for meaningful activity, so he studies, teaches, writes, explores to his heart's content in the blossoming world that science promises at the close of the Nineteenth Century. We find chapters on politics, economics, Darwinism, the Paris Exposition of 1900, and his pet topic, a dynamic theory of history.

Henry Adams, born in 1838, only fifty years after ratification of the Constitution, lived until March 1918, almost a year after the United States entered World War I. During his lifetime, he saw the American Civil War, the assassination of three US presidents, the rapid expansion west of the railroads, the emergence of evolutionary theory, the invention of the automobile, the widespread adoption of the electric light, the discovery of radium, and, in short, the transformation of the face of civilization. As a historian, trying to make sense of the chaos around him, he sought to model the discipline of history after the sciences that had changed and would certainly continue to change the world as he knew it. He felt he lived at a unique historical vantage point, and sought to envision from where he stood the trajectory from the past into the future. Some of his predictions struck me as amazingly prescient, even if his “theory” seems more like a metaphor than a formula. In speaking of the Battle of Peking, an important moment in the Boxer Rebellion, he comments that,

The drama acted at Peking, in the summer of 1900, was in the eyes of a student, the most serious that could be offered for his study, since it brought him suddenly to the inevitable struggle for the control of China, which, in his view, must decide the control of the world; yet, as a money value, the fall of China was chiefly studied in Paris and London as a calamity to Chinese porcelain. The value of a Ming vase was more serious than universal war. (p. 1077)

I have one major complaint: He wrote this book for friends only, not for the public, and it bears the marks of that genesis. Many obscure names and incidents he mentions with blithe familiarity, assuming all one hundred of his readers would understand. He also circulated the book, soliciting corrections from all persons he mentioned, which must surely have diluted his original impressions. Also, perhaps because of its private, inoffensive nature, it omits certain sensational elements that one must consult other sources to discover. I've already mentioned the suicide of his wife, but we might also wish he had elaborated on his long relationship with Elizabeth Cameron, or on the secret common law marriage of his dear friend, Clarence King and Ada Copeland, a former slave.

All in all, I did not enjoy Education as much as I did Mont Saint-Michel and Chartres, as it seems more evasive than open. In Chartres, Adams found a symbol of ideal unity about which he could unreservedly effuse. But in Education, because he drew his material from personal memories and friendships, he could not take the same literary license as one might expect. Admittedly, one could find little gems scattered throughout, as for instance, this thought on teachers: “A parent gives life, but as parent gives no more. A murderer takes life, but his deed stops there. A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” (p. 994) The passage, however, takes an interesting twist, as he points out that the teacher cannot know whether that influence will be from the student's acceptance or rejection of the teacher's ideas. Comments like the following could have come directly from my own experience: “The College expected him (i.e., Henry) to pass at least half his time in teaching the boys a few elementary dates and relations, that they might not be a disgrace to the University....The only privilege [the student] had that was worth his claiming was that of talking to the professor, and the professor was bound to encourage it. His only difficulty on that side was to get them to talk at all. He had to devise schemes to find what they were thinking about, and induce them to risk criticism from their fellows. Any large body of students stifles the student. No man can instruct more than half a dozen students at once. The whole problem with education is one of its cost in money.” (p. 995)

The Education of Henry Adams, published a year after Adams's death, won the Pulitzer Prize for 1919.

5  Community of Learners / Decade Project / [119] Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres--Henry Adams on: January 09, 2014, 08:43:38 AM
Bungee Jumping from the Summa

After a long hiatus, I resolved, as of New Year's Eve, 2013, to make a year's worth of progress on the Decade Project: another 52 works.  We'll see.  I've recently read a lot about education and its plight, and that reading led me to Henry Adams's The Education of Henry Adams, a Decade book.  But, about eight chapters in, I realized that Adams wrote that book as a follow-up to his Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, also a Decade book.  So, the latter became the starting point for this renewed effort.  Chartres this week, Education next.

Throughout, I kept asking myself, “What is this book about?”  It starts off with Adams addressing the reader as he would a niece whom he accompanies on a walking tour from the Mont Saint-Michel cathedral, on the coast of France, to the Chartres cathedral, about 180 miles away.  We have our kodaks, and Henry plays the cicerone, though he himself claims also no more than tourist status.  This tour, however, takes on many facets as it progresses, for Mont Saint-Michel and Chartres represent two poles of several continua, and the passage from one to the other is not so much a geographic or an architectural trek as it is a cultural trajectory, culminating in the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas.  In fact, only the first half of Chartres deals explicitly with the two cathedrals, while the second half explores the thirteenth century, ever harkening back to the cathedrals' architectural details through analogies.
In the section on Mont Saint-Michel, Uncle Henry may seem only to take us on a walking tour of the cathedral, but he gives at least equal time to the Chanson de Roland.  The two seem equated in Adams's mind: the Romanesque cathedral and the thoroughly masculine, military, and secular epic poem.  But Adams then leads us through the early gothic Chartres, presenting it as a century-long project, micromanaged by the will of the Virgin Mary herself, whose feminine, emotional, and frankly anarchistic sensibilities controlled the will of every architect or abbot who became involved.  While inside Chartres, he expounds on the older and newer towers, the rose windows, the stained glass, the arches, the buttresses, the floor-plan of the apse, and a myriad of details, all of which he presents as mimetic of the larger culture.  One enjoys in these passages a delightful romp through architectural and aesthetic details, worthy of long study.
Once we leave Chartres, the quintessential shrine to the Virgin, we find ourselves wandering through a labyrinth of medieval attitudes toward femininity.  The historical personages of Mary of Champagne, Eleanor of Guienne, and Blanche of Castille define the period for Adams, while the fictional personages of Nicolette (from a thirteenth-century poem, the chantefable, Aucassins and Nicolette) and Marion (from Li Gieus de Robin et de Marion, by Adam de la Halle) lead us into the concept of courtly love, a defining moment in the pre-Enlightenment world.  From courtly love, we return to the Virgin, and her many miracles, and then a third cathedral, erected within the human soul out of centuries of faith.  This temple of faith appears in the concluding three chapters: one about Peter Abelard, for once discussed apart from Heloise; St. Francis of Assisi, rebellion personified; and St. Thomas Aquinas, the paragon of thirteenth-century unity.  Here, in these concluding chapters, I think, Adams comes forward and directly states for us the tight cluster of ideas he has obliquely explored from the beginning.

As a working subtitle for Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, Henry Adams had chosen, “A Study in Thirteenth Century Unity.”  Secondary sources seem to agree that these reflections contain more fancy than fact, although the commentators I've looked at don't bother with specifics.  I'm in no position to judge, but that assessment makes a lot of sense.  Adams paints the thirteenth century as the historical moment when the entirety of Western Europe achieved a fleeting harmonic unity that we modern tourist can only recognize dimly in the architecture, poetry, philosophy, and culture of the period—recognize, but never fully appreciate or even adequately understand.  This harmony he attributed to the fiction of Christianity, its dissolution to the emergence of science, and its only access for us through our feelings.  He presented the period as a turning point of history, wherein certain assumptions, carried over from the previous millennium, reached a peak of development due to the pairing of an unshakeable faith with the human urge to pursue, build, explore, learn from mistakes, and harmonize all with all.  However, the very same human nature that drove the miraculous aesthetic achievement of Chartres, never, he thought, to be surpassed, has also driven us to reject that meaningful fiction of religion in favor of a cold, soulless, scientific world, devoid of pity, imagination, or deep feeling.  In other words, he saw the tragedy of modern Europe as the working out of heartless, adamantine laws of history.  In fact, toward the end of his life, Adams proposed a theory of history based on an analogy with the second law of thermodynamics, in A Letter to American Teachers of History (1910).  So, despite his avuncular tone, Adams despairs that the last seven centuries have witnessed no progress at all, but merely the tragic play of irresistible forces driving civilization toward entropy.

Adams, though a historian by trade, has a magisterial literary style.  I thoroughly enjoyed the tone, the humor, the occasional bursts of rhapsody, and the erudition in this work.  Wikipedia and Webster's accompanied me throughout, as I tried to make some sense of his paradoxes and allusions.  Some quoted passages he refused to translate, insisting that no English rendering could do justice to the original.  (True as that may be, I confess to an occasional resentful thought that some sop thrown to us poor monoglots couldn't have harmed us.)  The chapter on Peter Abelard, moved me unexpectedly, dealing as it did, not with the celebrated love affair, but with his philosophical life.  Adams presents Abelard as a medieval Spinozist, a crypto-pantheist, within whom the inhuman force of logic laid waste to any hoped-for unity of faith, leaving him no recourse but to publicly evade the inevitable conclusions he must have clearly seen.  Logic within Abelard's soul led to dissolution, just as the logic of history led America into a civil war and Europe into a World War, both during Adams's lifetime.  No easy reading, this, but thoroughly educational and rewarding.

6  Community of Learners / Decade Project / [118] Fahrenheit 451--Ray Bradbury on: August 08, 2012, 08:18:56 AM
Book People
August 8, 2012

The temperature stays at about ninety on our porch these days.  Just another 361 degrees and my books will burst into flames.  Following my colleague's lead again, I read Fahrenheit 451 by the late Ray Bradbury last week—in an air conditioned house. 

As with most science fiction writers, Bradbury reveals the peculiarities of future society gradually: (1) Firemen set things on fire, they don't quench fires. (2) Particularly, firemen burn books. (3) History—oral history, not written, of course—has firemen always burning books (at least from the 18th century in America). (4) Televisions occupy entire walls, and fill the house with mindless, inescapable chatter.  (5) Everyone has a lot of anti-depression drugs on hand.  (6) No one cares about others, so the death of another person, even a violent death, provokes nothing more than a shrug.  As the story unfolds, we see how all these peculiarities relate. 

Guy Montag, a fireman, enjoys his work until, on his way home one night, he meets a young woman, Clarisse McLellan, who makes strange conversation.  She notices and remarks on things he has always overlooked; she wonders about things he always took for granted; she invents striking similes; she asks odd, abrupt, and often uncomfortable questions.  One of those questions especially gets under his skin: “Are you happy?”  He laughs it off, but before long it starts to rankle until he finally admits to himself that he can't honestly call himself happy. 

But the questioning doesn't stop there.  Once he has let in a trickle of new thoughts, the floodgates open wide.  At one burning, the homeowner, a middle-age woman, deliberately sets herself on fire and burns herself along with her books.  Montag would normally have dismissed the woman as some suicidal crackpot, but the habit of questioning has taken hold of; he can't stop thinking about her and wondering why?  How could she care so much about books that she would prefer death to life without them?  Books after all, contain mostly lies and contradictions—or so he has always heard.  How could a little bound stack of paper command such fanaticism? 

Montag soon can't or rather won't shut off his mind any more.  After rescuing his wife from suicide by an overdose of tranquilizers (the main emergency call those days) he tries to pull her toward awareness along with him, but she will have none of it.  As Montag slips down the seemingly solitary path of enlightenment, he runs into a resistance movement—never a dystopia without underground resistance, right?  But Montag, a mere fledgling in the flight from authority, soon draws the police down on him.  A chase ensues in which a robotic hound tracks him through the deserted streets, while cameras broadcast the whole thing live to the whole city.  The announcers assure the television audiences repeatedly that the hound has never failed, in its entire existence.  Sure enough, when the allotted time for the breaking news story nears its end, the hound finds some poor schmuck wandering around on the street and attacks, killing him—another criminal brought to justice. 

Montag escapes the city and finds a thriving community of book loving people outside, and discovers how they propose to carry on the literary legacy that books had previously borne: People.  People become the books.  Everyone takes a chapter and commits it to memory.  Ironically, they then burn the books, leaving no evidence.  (I can't resist, this: If people committed old sci-fi movies to memory, someone could say, “Soylent Green (that is, the movie) is people!”)

At more than one point a character reminds us that the real value lies not in the books themselves but in what they contain.  I haven't decided what I think about that.  Do Shakespeare's scripts have no significant value apart from any competent performance of them?  Does the arrangement of a poem on the page have no value apart from the words it contains?  Does the written word (as Plato suggests) “merely” imitate the spoken word and thus have less reality?  Similarly, a musical score contains, not music, but more or less detailed instructions for producing music.  Do those instructions have any real value beyond the music that an orchestra produces by following them?  Has a recipe for bread more value than bread?  You can't, after all, eat a recipe, listen to a score, or watch a text. 

When people talk about Fahrenheit 451, they often take it as a protest against censorship.  But I don't see that.  I'll concede that censors do seem to favor the flame as their method of choice.  But Fahrenheit 451 can hardly be making a mostly political statement, since the government remains abstract throughout.  It never takes on a face, not even that of a petty bureaucrat.  Dystopian fiction almost always presumes some guiding intelligence—be it a tyrant or a council—that pulls all the strings.  And to fully appreciate it, we must meet it face to face.  But this book breaks from that pattern.   

No, I see it more as a warning against life on the surface.  The danger of books consists not in the subversive political ideas some of them contain, but in their power to make us reflect and feel deeply and to experience the world around us as a nearly incomprehensible place infused with mystery and elusive meaning.  The short passages that grab Montag come not from On Liberty or “Civil Disobedience,” but from the Holy Bible and “Dover Beach.”  When he joins the other living books in the walking library at the end, he chooses to become Ecclesiastes.  He doesn't join an armed militia to fight for freedom and human rights.  But he does finally recall where he and his wife first met. 

My students will testify that I often rant against the evils of television, and I doubt I feel more deeply about any other topic.  As long as advertising pays for television, all programming—and I mean absolutely all programming, cultured, trashy, educational, you name it—serves merely as sugar coating for the ads.  Free television makes you into, not the customer, but the product sold to the real customers: corporate sponsors.  Naturally, for programming to serve its purpose it must prep the audience.  A hypnotized, uncritical, misinformed, and desensitized market will receive a sales pitch much better than a critical, aware, knowledgeable, and socially responsible audience.  So, that terrifying chase, culminating in a spectacular execution of an innocent man, all arranged to fit the television time slot, seemed uncannily prescient.  After all, Bradbury did write this book in 1953, not in 2003.  Regular television broadcasting did not begin in the US until 1948.  Had five years already been enough to expose the beast?  Maybe the first book of Marshall McLuhan's, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1951), had something to do with it?  Understanding Media wouldn't come out until 1964. 

I'll leave you with this passage wherein Montag tries to recall, on a commuter train, what he has just read: 

   He clenched the book in his fists.
   Trumpets blared.
   “Denham's Dentifrice.”
   Shut up thought Montag.  Consider the lilies of the field.
   “Denham's Dentifrice.”
   They toil not—
   Consider the lilies of the filed, shut up, shut up.
   He tore the book open and flicked the pages and felt of them as if he were blind, he picked at the shape of the individual letters, not blinking. 
   “Denham's.  Spelled: D-E-N—”
   They toil not, neither do they . . .
   A fierce whisper of hot sand through empty sieve.
   “Denham's does it!
   Consider the lilies, the lilies, the lilies. . .
   “Denham's dental detergent.” 
   “Shut up, shut up, shut up!” [this last, he spoke aloud.  The others on the train backed away from him] The people who had been sitting a moment before, tapping their feet to the rhythm of Denham's Dentifrice, Denham's Dandy Dental Detergent, Denham's Dentifrice Dentifrice Dentifrice, one two, one two three, one two, one two three.  The people whose mouths had been faintly twitching the words Dentifrice Dentifrice Dentifrice.  The train radio vomited on Montag, in retaliation, a great tonload of music made of tin, copper, silver, chromium, and brass.  The people were pounded into submission; they did not run, there was no place to run; the great air train fell down its shaft in the earth. (pp. 106-7)

Ever had days like that?


7  Community of Learners / Decade Project / [117] Animal Farm--George Orwell on: August 06, 2012, 07:22:46 AM
Everywhere an oink oink
August 6, 2012

A colleague's reflections on Animal Farm and others' replies inspired me to revisit this little masterpiece of disillusionment.  

Old Major, a grand old boar, tells the other animals on Mr. Jones's farm of a dream he had, in which all animals lived together in peace and harmony.  The dream inspires the others, and when farmer Jones forgets to feed them one day, they rebel.  They oust all the humans, change the farm's name from Manor Farm to Animal Farm, and set up a commune run by the animals themselves.  The pigs quickly take over leadership roles: Napoleon and Snowball rule, while Squealer becomes the propagandist and historian.  The subsequent development of the farm follows that of early Soviet Russia, with the deeds of Napoleon, Snowball, and Squealer reflecting those of Stalin, Trotsky, and Pravda newspaper, respectively.  For instance, Napoleon and Snowball have a falling out, and Napoleon sics some attack dogs on him, driving him out.  Thereafter, whenever anything goes wrong, the other pigs blame it on a conspiracy masterminded by Snowball.  

Readers often quote the absurdity, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”  It comes from the Seven Commandments, a litany of idealistic principles and rules that the animals adopt shortly after the revolution and paint on the side of the barn.  They call these commandments “Animalism.”  Along with “All animals are equal,” the commandments include: “No animal shall drink alcohol,” “No animal shall sleep in a bed,” and “No animal shall kill any other animal.”  These prove too hard for most to remember, so the pigs condense it into the slogan: “Four legs good, two legs bad.”  As things spiral toward despotism, the pigs discover human pleasures and develop a taste for them.  One by one the written statement of each ideal changes mysteriously at night: No animal shall drink alcohol in excess; No animal shall sleep in a bed with sheets; and No animal shall kill another animal without cause.  Even the simplistic slogan changes to “Four legs good, two legs better.”  At least all these previous changes make sense, but the final change casts aside any pretense of reason and enshrines inequity among equals.  

The novel ends pessimistically with the pigs changing the name of the farm back to Manor Farm and reestablishing friendly relations with the human farmers in the neighborhood.  In the last paragraph, the other animals look into the farmhouse and see the pigs arguing with humans over a card game.  “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

“Some animals are more equal than others” resembles those great slogans from Orwell's other dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four: “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.”  If you lie often enough, people will believe it.  If you repeat a contradiction often enough, contradictions start to look normal.  Spout absurdities as profound truths and people let any absurdity pass unchallenged.  We see this process in Orwell's fairy tale where the animals cannot read well, and thus stay inside an ignorance maintained by strict control of the news.  As the captive audience for Squealer's propaganda, they had no basis for challenging the party line.  But not even Orwell had the cynicism to foresee how future propagandists could achieve the same effect by too much exposure.  If every crackpot has a media outlet, to which every person can subscribe, the very cacophony of false information breeds hopelessness at the prospect of sorting it all out.  At that point, the propagandist wins by simply wrapping his lies in a more entertaining package.

Animal Farm, Orwell's last book, almost never saw print, mostly because at the time of its writing England needed to stay on good terms with Stalin.  Poking merciless fun at a touchy and volatile—not to mention genocidal—ally might lack a certain diplomatic tact.  T.S. Elliot, then editor of Faber and Faber, declined to publish it, dismissing it as “Trotskyite.” A senior official in the British Ministry of Information (later exposed as an agent of the Soviet secret intelligence) warned other publishers away from it. 

While disturbing events unfolding in Russia at the time may have prompted Orwell to write Animal Farm, the book speaks of the growth of the basest despotism from noble origins.  For centuries, great thinkers have analyzed methods of consolidating undeserved power.  Plato rehearses in his Republic how the tyrant systematically purges all potential threats to his control.  Aristotle details in his Politics how tyrannical rulers solidify their regime by distracting people from political matters, setting them against each other, and employing violence and deception effectively.  These and other writers observed the tyrannies of their times and drew lessons from them.  (See Theories of Tyranny from Plato to Arendt, by Robert Boesche, 1995.)  Likewise, by distilling a current event to its essence, Animal Farm offers us an archetypal pattern, a universal theme, a trajectory of greed and power as certain as that of a mortar shell and just as ruinous. 

Orwell said (as have many others) “History is written by the winners.”  In a short essay of that same title he laments, “The really frightening thing about totalitarianism is not that it commits ‘atrocities’ but that it attacks the concept of objective truth; it claims to control the past as well as the future” (in the column, “As I Please,” Tribune, February 4, 1944).  But it sometimes works the other way: the rewriting of history comes first, followed by a quiet and bloodless revolution.  If one determined group can change the past, they can achieve a victory where physical violence could not have succeeded, especially if they can control the media, suppress critical reading ability, ridicule complex ideas, prevent thoughtful deliberation and civil debate, polarize society into entrenched factions, privatize or erode any institution aimed at the greater good, in fact, if they achieve our present conditions.  Consider, for instance, the 2003 Florida Court of Appeals case in which the court effectively absolved news agencies of any legal duty to tell the truth. New World Communication of Tampa, Inc. v. Jane Akre, 866 So. 2D 1231, (2003).  That decision left us, like Orwell's creatures outside the farmhouse, looking from Pravda to Fox, and from Fox to Pravda again, finding it impossible to say which is which.  Had Orwell lived to see New World v. Akre, the Seven Commandments might well have contained an eighth: No animal shall lie, without good reason.

Every young person should read and discuss Animal Farm, not as an allegory of the madness of their grandparents' generation, but as an indictment of their own complacency.  They should ask themselves whose dream do they think they live by?  What principles guide their lives and how have those principles adjusted to accommodate the rich and powerful?  Can slogans or (Facebook memes) really express profound and complex truths?  Are some people more equal than others?  It doesn't take a Stalin or a Franco to drive a people into virtual slavery.  Whoever controls thought controls freedom. 
8  Community of Learners / Decade Project / [116] All Quiet on the Western Front--Erich Maria Remarque on: June 28, 2012, 12:34:20 PM
A Remarque-able Story
June 28, 2012

It's been a long time—too long.  Having taken an unpardonably lengthy break from the Decade Project, I now find it very hard to put my thoughts and feelings down in writing.  So, I'll be brief this time and try to do better next.  I made a rare visit to the San Marcos public library last week.  There I found an easy read to get me back into the swing of things: All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque—not the most cheerful story in the world, but short, famous, and in big print.  Coincidentally, the third movie version of this book should come out later this year.  Remarque wrote it in German and published it in 1928, and within a year, Little, Brown had put out an English translation.  The first movie followed in 1930, starring Lew Ayres, and the second, a made-for-TV movie, appeared in 1979. 

People often compare All Quiet, with Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, since both novels aim to disillusion the reader about war by portraying it in an unglamorous, realistic light, baring the ghastly face of combat.  It seems to me, however, that Remarque takes a much firmer stand against war than Crane.  In Badge, the war changed Henry Fleming for the better, forced him to look honestly at himself, and taught him the true meaning of courage.  In All Quiet, the war destroyed Paul, forced him to hide from himself, and taught him that romantic notions like “courage” have no place in the trenches.  In Badge, the war turns Henry into a man; in All Quiet, the war strips Paul of his humanity. 

In All Quiet on the Western Front we follow Paul Bäumer, a German soldier, through three years of trench warfare during the first World War, from 1915 to October, 1918.  We pick up the story as he and his squad recover from their first taste of the front lines.  In a few months, he has had all the idealism knocked out of him, and at the age of seventeen he has become as cynical as an old man.  Thus, before the story even begins, he has already done all the growing up he will ever do.  The whole book details, not his coming of age, but his lingering psychological and spiritual death.  By the end, he has only reached the age of twenty. 

To describe this novel, I feel I can hardly do better than shake my head back and forth and mutter, “the horror, the horror,” but I'll try to say something more informative.  The story alternates between Paul's trying to stay both alive and sane on the front lines and trying to pull himself together in relative safety.  Sprinkled throughout for quasi-comic relief we find the sorts of anecdotes typical of war stories: pranks, squabbles, minor thefts, run-ins with pompous superior officers, and so forth.  One by one, all his comrades die off until only he survives, physically.  But even Paul doesn't make it to the armistice. 

Paul narrates his story in first person, present tense.  The past tense only appears on the last page, in the voice of an unnamed other.  While Paul often lapses into near poetry, he reserves such language for nature, for his inner torment, for his memories.  While he may use occasional metaphors for death and mayhem, he sees no beauty in it.  To describe horror, in its myriad guises, he deploys blunt prose. 
Our trench is almost gone.  At many places it is only eighteen inches high, it is broken by holes, and craters, and mountains of earth.  A shell lands square in front of our post.  At once it is dark.  We are buried and must dig ourselves out.  After an hour the entrance is clear again, and we are calmer because we have had something to do.  (p. 94)

Later in the same scene,

… The recruit starts to rave again and two others follow suit.  One jumps up and rushes out, we have trouble with the other two.  I start after the one who escapes and wonder whether to shoot him in the leg—then [a mortar shell] shrieks again, I fling myself down and when I stand up the wall of the trench is plastered with smoking splinters, lumps of flesh, and bits of uniform.  I scramble back.   (p. 98)

The chapters alternate between times at the front and times recovering.  Oddly, throughout the entire conflict, he only has one face-to-face encounter.  A French soldier stumbles into Paul's shell hole and Paul stabs him three times.  But the man doesn't die.  Paul could see that he would soon die, but not right away.  Paul can't bring himself to finish him off.  Instead, he does his best to bandage the wounded man and let him rest.  When the end finally comes, Paul looks through the soldier's wallet and gets a sense of the fellow human he has just murdered: his name, his occupation, photos of his wife and children. 

Despite much discussion about how to use bayonets (in the stomach, since the blade would sometimes get stuck in the ribs), almost all the killing takes place from afar, thanks to rifles, machine guns, mortars, grenades, and gas.  This depersonalized warfare, this anonymous killing at a distance, makes it easier for the soldiers to repress their perceptual awareness of the enemy's humanity.  But even if Paul can't see the people he kills, he knows that he kills other men or boys just like himself.  So he can do only one thing to stay sane and keep killing: bury his thoughts and feelings so deep he can never recover them again. 

After 9/11, many Americans began to resurrect nineteenth-century romantic notions about the glory of war.  A new militarism emerged, untempered by the lessons of recent history.  Everyone eligible to vote should read this book, and I'll give you the best recommendation I can think of: The Nazi's condemned it in 1933 as unpatriotic, and held a public burning of it and its sequel, The Road Back, along with works by Bertolt Brecht, Albert Einstein, Maxim Gorki, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, and Thomas Mann. 
9  General / Skipper's Philosophical Blog / Envy, Greed, and Waste on: June 04, 2012, 07:08:18 PM
June 4, 2012

Our whole economy seems to be based on envy, greed, and waste.  The economy has not always been this way, but it has long tolerated those vices.  Since the 'seventies, however, the economy has become more and more reliant on a certain type of thoughtless, irresponsible consumer to keep it going.  If all of America were suddenly to revert back to the virtues that defined society one hundred years ago, the economy would probably collapse overnight. 

Let me take waste, for example.  Even if you buy very little, everything you buy has waste built into it in a number of ways.  First, almost everything is packaged in fixed sizes, so you generally have to buy either more or less than you need.  Rather than buy less than we need, most of us will buy too much, and end up throwing away the excess.  A good example is the mismatch between packages of hot dogs and hot dog buns.  Hot dogs are sold in packages of ten, and buns are sold in packages of eight.  Whichever one you get in the right amount, you must buy too much of the other.  I'm not charging conspiracy, here.  I'm just saying that packaging inevitably creates waste by forcing at least some of us to buy in quantities that do not suit our needs.  This particular case forces waste on anyone who serves hot dogs. 

Second, all packaging is trash.  Whether it is plastic, Styrofoam, aluminum cans, glass, or cardboard, it is no longer created with an eye toward reuse.  Some packaging must be destroyed in the very act of opening it, like the hanging thick plastic display packages that take tin snips to cut open.  Some are like a puzzle box, made of multiple layers, each of which must be thrown away.  This observation may sound odd--after all, how could it be any other way?  But those of us who grew up before plastic packaging remember decorative cans, glass canisters, crates, stiff cardboard containers, and even hinged wooden boxes.  When we ate all the Ritz crackers, we could use the tin to store Lincoln logs or toy soldiers.  Cigar boxes made great drawer organizers.  Milk crates stacked to make storage shelves in the garage.  I still use an old snuff jar as a pencil holder.  I buy purified water, but I buy it from a dispenser and I reuse my own plastic gallon jugs until they wear out.  What I wouldn't give now for one of those gallon jars the milkman used to bring to our house every week and then take away to be sterilized and reused. 

Finally, for convenience, single-serving packages have become popular.  You still have to buy packages of multiple servings, but a twenty-four-pack of single servings means packaging for the packaging.  Sometimes as much plastic goes into a single-serving as would normally be used for all twelve servings if they were combined.  For example, Keurig coffee pods involve individual plastic and metal foil packages that cannot be recycled and must be used up and thrown away with every cup of coffee.  Why?  So we don't have to measure out the exact amount of coffee we want.  When I get a cup of coffee at Starbucks I notice the Styrofoam or cardboard cup, the plastic lid, the plastic-packaged individual creamers, the individual packets of sugar, the wooden or plastic stirrers, the napkin, and the disposable tray, if I have an order for more than one person.  That whole pile of trash is for just one shot of espresso.  When I can't finish my meal at a restaurant, I get Styrofoam takeout packaging in a plastic bag, with plastic forks, and plastic packages of condiments. 

All of this must be thrown away, and very little of it can be recycled.  But packaging is so omnipresent that we don't notice it any more.  We have become a culture of waste.  Does this help the economy?  Clearly it helps that relatively new part of the economy that has emerged in symbiosis with our wastefulness.  It takes money, people, and resources to make packaging that gets a single use before being discarded.  At first someone had an idea of how to package something and pushed that idea, then it caught on, then the demand grew, then supply followed the demand, which accelerated the demand.  Because we are willing to waste so much, falling demand is no longer a sensitive natural brake for production.  Now many people's lives and well being is dependent on you and me throwing away almost as much material as we consume.  But the down side is there is an island in the Pacific Ocean, twice the size of Texas, of floating nonbiodegradable garbage.  That island cannot shrink; it cannot be assimilated into the environment; it must grow as long as our addiction to waste accelerates. 
10  Community of Learners / Decade Project / [No on the list] Titus Andronicus--William Shakespeare on: January 05, 2012, 07:11:23 AM
Unhand that wench!
January 5, 2012

The third Shakespearean tragedy not on the list, Titus Andronicus, reminded me of a Monty Python skit, called “Sam Peckinpah's 'Salad Days.'”  In the skit, an innocent suggestion among the members of a lawn party to play tennis meets with agreement.  One of the fellows tosses a tennis ball at another, saying, “catch,” but the ball strikes him in the eye, blinding him.  He involuntarily throws away his tennis racquet, which impales one of the others, who falls on the lid of a piano, cutting off the hands of the piano player.  The scene goes on in a similar “vein” until everyone is dead or seriously wounded. 

I can hardly believe that Shakespeare wrote this play—or that he meant it as tragedy.  The use of graphic violence, implausible motivation, and ludicrous dialogue left me wondering if some cleaning lady working late in Shakespeare's office one night hadn't accidentally moved the script from the comedy folder to the tragedy folder.  I'll give a partial inventory of the gore: One man hacked to pieces, one woman raped, her tongue and hands cut off, two men decapitated, their heads delivered to their father, two other heads served up in a pie to their owner's mother.  In fact, by the end of the play, about fourteen people have died.  Such over-the-top gore, with one horror following on the heels of another, seems more like a parody of a revenge play than the real thing. 

Titus, a returning war hero and son of a tribune turns down the title of emperor and supports Saturninus for the position.  Titus has brought with him as captives Tamora, queen of the Goths, her three sons, and Aaron, her black attendant and (as we later find out) secret lover.  Titus kills one of Tamora's sons as punishment for all the Roman deaths the Goths had caused, and Tamora, together with her two remaining sons vow vengeance on the Andronicus family. 

The plot gets very convoluted, as Aaron and Tamora eliminate one person after another, either directly or through unwitting agents.  Even if one finds the bloodshed plausible, the motivations defy imagination.  At one point, toward the end, Lucius, a son of Titus, has gathered a Gothic army and plans to attack Rome.  Hoping to convince Titus to stop Lucius, Tamora promises him the chance to get vengeance on all his enemies.  But she knows that he knows that she and Aaron have caused all his misery.  So she takes her sons to visit Titus in person and tells him that she has only taken on the earthly appearance of Tamora.  Her real name?  Revenge.  Her two companions?  Rape and Murder.  She has diagnosed Titus as mad and thus believes she can fool him into thinking her a goddess.  But of course, Titus has all his marbles, so as soon as she leaves her sons with Titus, he has them butchered.  I don't know about you, but I would have thought a little longer before tacking the impersonation of a deity onto an already convoluted scheme.  I could easily see something like that happening in one of Chaucer's bawdy tales of cuckoldry, but not in, say Julius Caesar, or Romeo and Juliet

For another instance of comic horror, consider the scene where Lavinia, after her rape, emerges from the forest tongueless, handless, ravished, and covered in blood.  This horrific vision stands before her unvcle, Marcus, and he says, “Cousin, a word: where is your husband?”  But since Lavinia can't say much, he delivers a 47-line poetic monologue, in which he says such things as,

Speak, gentle niece.  What stern ungentle hands
Hath lopp'd, and hew'd, and made thy body bare
Of her two branches—those sweet ornaments
Whose circling shadows kings have sought to sleep in,
And might not gain so great a happiness
As half thy love? Why dost not speak to me?
Alas, a crimson river of warm blood,
Like to a bubbling fountain stirr'd with wind,
Doth rise and fall between thy rosed lips,
Coming and going with thy honey breath....

It's sometimes hard for me to judge, trapped within my 20th Century sensibilities, whether to take a Shakespearean monologue as high drama or parody.  But surely, not even an Elizabethan audience could sit still through such a lofty speech to someone waving spurting bloody stumps in the air without laughing at the ghastly absurdity of it all.  I wouldn't trust anyone but Mel Brooks to stage that scene properly. 

Consider, as further evidence, this gem of dialogue that ensues upon Marcus killing a fly at the dinner table (“the Empress' Moor” refers to Aaron):

TITUS: What dost thou strike at, Marcus, with thy knife?

MARCUS: At that that I have kill'd, my lord—a fly.

TITUS: Out on thee, murderer, thou kill'st my heart!
Mine eyes are cloy'd with view of tyranny;
A deed of death done on the innocent
Becomes not Titus' brother.  Get thee gone;
I see thou art not for my company.

MARCUS: Alas, my Lord, I have but kill'd a fly.

TITUS: 'But!' How if that fly had a father and mother?
How would he hang his slender gilded wings
And buzz lamenting doings in the air!
Poor harmless fly,
That with his pretty buzzing melody
Came here to make us merry! And thou hast kill'd him.

MARCUS: Pardon me, sir; it was a black ill-favour'd fly,
Like to the Empress' Moor; therefore I kill'd him.

Then pardon me for reprehending thee,
For thou hast done a charitable deed.
Give me thy knife, I will insult on him,
Flattering myself as if it were the Moor
Come hither possibly to poison me.
There's for thyself, and that's for Tamora.
Ah, sirrah! (Act III, Scene 2)

Not surprisingly, Titus has not had a big following through most of its life.  Apparently, though, audiences loved it during Shakespeare's time, and it has provoked some interest in the 20th Century (possibly because its seemed less implausible to an audience living during the bloodiest century in human history).  But few people in the Victorian era had the stomach for it. 

I have to admit I liked it a lot, but only after I had picked up my jaw from the floor and let myself not take it seriously. 

11  Community of Learners / Decade Project / [Not on the list] Coriolanus--William Shakespeare on: January 04, 2012, 06:28:17 AM
Pride goeth before destruction...
January 4, 2012

"Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall."  Proverbs 16:18

The Bible takes a dim view of pride, as the above quote indicates.  But Aristotle described it as “the crown of the virtues.”  Authors who condemn pride, almost always present it as an excess of self love, an inflated regard for one's person, one's accomplishments, or one's possessions.  But what if one truly deserves the praise?  What if one estimates one's worth with a cold and objective eye, only to discovers in oneself a simply marvelous fellow after all?  Shakespeare's tragedy, Coriolanus, deals with a truly noble hero who got into trouble because he couldn't step down from that pedestal he truly deserved. 

The Tragedy of Coriolanus didn't make it onto the Decade List, but I read it anyway.  A few years ago, I had my freshmen students read some works not normally assigned in philosophy classes, including a long essay by Montaigne and a few short selections from Francis Bacon.  That same semester, I had them read the lives of Coriolanus and Alcibiades by Plutarch.  So, Shakespeare's play gave me an excuse to review the Plutarch as well.  Clearly, the Bard borrowed most of his material from Plutarch.  But a “life” differs from a play, and Shakespeare's way of compressing numerous scattered anecdotes into a coherent plot spanning only a few weeks impressed me greatly.  I must confess, though, the play lacked any surprises.  One pretty much knew from the first scene that the fast-changing Roman political structure had already left Coriolanus behind as it lumbered toward a more inclusive rule while he clung to his dying patrician (and timocratic) ideals.  And, after all, surely no good can come to someone who greets the general populace initially thus:

   CORIOLANUS: What's the matter, you dissentious rogues
    That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion,
    Make yourself scabs?” (Act I, Scene 1)

Coriolanus built his entire self on the ground of military honor.  He held nothing in greater regard than heroism, and he let that concept define him and rule his life.  He cared neither for money nor power.  He would rather live in a bivouac than a palace.  And everyone, political enemies included, had to acknowledge the superhuman sacrifices he made on their behalf; however, Coriolanus simply had no control over the contempt he felt for those who couldn't claim a noble lineage or a distinguished military service. 

The action takes place in ancient Rome, circa 500 B.C.E., at the beginning of the Republic, when Rome had no greater status than one city among others.  The tragic hero of the play, Caius Marcius, received his third name, Coriolanus, for an incident in which he and a small group of soldiers had routed their enemy, the Volscians, into hiding within the walls of their town, Corioli.  The rest of the Roman soldiers thought the battle over, and let the Volscians flee, but Marcius rushed in after them alone and found himself trapped inside the city as the gates closed.  His comrades gave him up for dead, but he soon emerged with many captives.  Upon returning to Rome, he refused the money and honors that others tried to give him, but he couldn't stop them from calling him by a new name. 

The main conflict develops when the patricians unanimously urge him to accept the political role of consul.  Unfortunately, the new constitution required popular approval for such an appointment.  So Coriolanus had to go out among the hoi-polloi and canvas for votes.  To him, this amounted to abasing himself to those unworthy to kiss his feet.  The prospect turned his stomach, but he tried anyway.  And in fact, he succeeded at first.  But after he left the scene, those citizens to whom he had spoken began to talk themselves into resentment at his obvious haughtiness.  They tried to retract their support, and the ensuing arguments ended with Coriolanus speaking treason against the constitutional provisions that gave the general citizenry any say at all in government.  Much as the people wanted to kill him then and there, they settled for his banishment.

But they soon discovered that a banished Coriolanus had even more teeth than a cantankerous domestic one.  He presented himself to his old enemy and leader of the Volscians, Tullius Aufidius, offering either to let Aufidius kill him or to join together and attack Rome.  Aufidius figured he stood a much better chance of defeating Rome with someone on his side who knew all their secrets, so he agreed to accept Corioanus as a fellow general. 

The final act takes place outside the walls of Rome, when it looks like Rome will soon fall into the hands of the Coriolanus and the Volscians.  Coriolanus's mother, wife, and child plead with him to make a peace that benefits everyone, rather than to carry out a revenge that only diminishes both states.  Coriolanus, who has refused to listen to anyone else until now, becomes putty in his mommy's hands.  When he returns to the Volscians, having achieved everything except the defeat of Rome, he finds himself in a tense situation, needing great diplomacy and tact.  When Aufidius refers to him as a “boy of tears” and demands he defend himself against the charge of treason, he loses his temper and reminds all the gathered Volscians how he got his name,

    CORIOLANUS: Cut me to pieces, Volsces; men and lads,
    Stain all your edges on me.  'Boy'!  False hound!
    If you have writ your annals true, 'tis there
    That, like an eagle in a dove-cote, I
    Flutter'd your Volscians in Corioli.
    Alone I did it. 'Boy'!


The assembled crowd replied, not surprisingly,

    ALL THE PEOPLE:  Tear him to pieces.  Do it presently.  He kill'd my son.  My daughter.  He kill'd my cousin Marcus.  He kill'd my father.  (Act V, Scene 6)

But you saw that one coming from miles away, I'll bet.  In fact, throughout the play, Coriolanus's knee-jerk, fiery blasts directed at anyone who hinted he might have a weakness made for some comic moments.  His political enemies quickly figured out that all they had to do was bait him at the right moment and he would self destruct on cue. 

I enjoyed this play for its carefully controlled plotting, and for its stately, unfolding of a doom we could all foresee; and it also explores some interesting psychological issues, such as whether one bears any responsibility for the resentment of others?  But, overall, I can't say I loved it, as it never surprised or moved me.  I found little to sympathize with in Coriolanus, since he brought all his troubles on himself through his failure to reflect on his values or control his anger.  Impatient brute strength and daring may have served him well in battle, but did little to help him take his place within a civil society.  For him not to see that makes him a fool, not a tragic hero.
12  Community of Learners / Decade Project / [Not on the list] Troilus and Cressida--William Shakespeare on: December 28, 2011, 02:07:12 PM
She loves me, she loves me not
December 28, 2011

I've come to feel a bit constrained by The List—What, only 620 works?—and I know I shouldn't take it as sacred.  So I thought, “Why not take in a few more Shakespearean plays than those included?  I can't really go wrong by reading too much Shakespeare, can I?”  So I picked up The Tragedies, thinking I would read them all but only write about the ones on the list.  After reading Troilus and Cressida, however, I suspect they will prove too good to keep to myself.

Shakespeare set this, one of the three so-called problem plays, during the Trojan war.  (Critics call it a "problem play" because it defies easy classification.)  The story of the two Trojan lovers borrows from Homer, of course, but also from Chaucer's story, Troilus and Criseyde, a popular medieval romance.  For those who may not have heard of the play, it seldom gets produced, probably because audiences don't seem to know how to relate to the characters.  I would also imagine it hard for actors to interpret, for similar reasons, and harder still for distributors to market it.  I find listed on IMDB, for example, only two attempts to produce it in English for television, one for Russian television, and two more for German TV, but never for the big screen.  (William Walton based his opera on Chaucer's version, not Shakespeare's)  This lack of popularity doesn't mean it lacks merit.  If anything, I would say its cynicism and bitter view of humanity, together with its upending of all heroic conventions, make it even more suited for modern audiences than for Elizabethan.  It wouldn't surprise me to see an upsurge of interest in it, thanks to the growing viability of independent cinema.

In the seventh year of the Trojan War, Greeks and Trojans alike have come to seriously question the whole point of killing off so many valiant warriors for the “rescue” of Helen.  As Diomedes puts it bluntly to Paris,

    She's bitter to her country: hear me, Paris:
    For every false drop in her bawdy veins
    A Grecian's life hath sunk; for every scruple
    Of her contaminated carrion weight,
    A Trojan hath been slain: since she could speak,
    She hath not given so many good words breath
    As for her Greeks and Trojans suffer'd death. (Act IV, Scene 1)

At another point, one character styles the war as, essentially, a squabble between a fool and a cuckold over a whore.  Most of the action revolves around the events of the war, events which show up all the “heroes” in their worst light.  Ajax comes across as an ignoramus, Ulysses as a blackmailing spy, and Achilles as even more of a petulant brat than Homer would have him.  I suppose the Elizabethan audience's familiarity with Homer must have constrained Shakespeare's poetic license, dictating that certain events simply had to take place.  Even so, it struck me as odd that the two eponymous lovers spent so little time on center stage.

Cressida's uncle and father make everything happen.  The uncle, Pandarus, brings the two oversexed kids briefly together, just long enough for them to declare their eternal devotion, before sending them off to the bedroom to satisfy their lust.  The father, Calchas, who had defected to the Greek side, now arranges the exchange of one captured Trojan leader for Cressida.  The ensuing separation of the lovers provides an opportunity for a grand tragedy, but Cressida blows her chance by flirting with all her Greek captors and especially with Diomedes, the prince charged with guarding her.  Unfortunately, Greek and Trojan armies declare a short ceasefire so they can party together the night before a big fight, and when things quiet down Ulysses leads Troilus to Calchas's tent, where they witness Cressida's faithlessness.  Again, Troilus misses a golden opportunity for grand tragedy by not slaying his false lover in a fit of rage.  He returns to Troy and the larger events of the Iliad take their course.

Throughout this play, one finds no one worthy of respect, (with the possible exception of Thersites, an ugly, cowardly, deformed character, whose foul-mouthed but honest appraisals throughout seem to reflect the unwelcome voice of conscience).  Shakespeare builds up our expectations for certain climactic scenes, only to let them down as one character or another fails to deliver.  What Homer offers as noble, Shakespeare exposes as sordid.  If I didn't know better (even though in the First Folio edition it bears the title, The Tragedie of Troylus and Cressida), I would call this a darkly comic, revisionist history, rather than a tragedy.

As usual with great literature, this one took me by surprise.  I had to rethink everything I had previously believed about Shakespeare based on my experiences with some of his more popular plays.  And I can't resist sharing my favorite line, one of the less cryptic insults delivered by Ajax to Thersites: “I will beat thee into handsomeness.” (Act II, Scene 1)

In sum, I understand why this play gets classified as a problem play.  I think of it as radically iconoclastic, almost an anti-play, in which antiheroes stumble foolishly toward anticlimaxes.  I've never enjoyed movies that took that approach, such as Goodfellas (Scorese, 1990) or The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (Cassavetes, 1976), but I did enjoy this play a lot.  I suppose I can now better appreciate the deliberate shattering of my expectations, seeing it as a joke played on me by a master playwright, rather than as a dramatic failing.


13  Community of Learners / Decade Project / [115] The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter--Carson McCullers on: September 19, 2011, 08:05:11 PM
Southern discomfort
September 19, 2011

Because I need to move forward and let the writing catch up with the reading, I will try to condense my reflections on the handful of books I have read since last November.  After catching up with myself, I'll probably return to more expansive ruminations.  Next after Zeno's Conscience, came a wonderful first novel by the twenty-three-year-old Carson McCullers: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.

The novel starts off with a touching story of two mute friends, Mr. Singer and Mr. Antonapoulos, who had roomed together for about ten years.  Mr. Antonapoulos always had trouble controlling his impulses and would slyly pocket things that caught his fancy in stores.  This bad habit got much worse after an illness.  In fact, he seemed to lose any sense of social norms.  He would urinate in public, for instance, when the urge struck.  I got the sense that, even before his illness, he really didn't grasp the concepts of property or propriety.  He played along grudgingly, under the guidance of his friend who looked after him and kept him out of trouble.  One day, Mr. Antonapoulos's own cousin (and employer) had him committed to an insane asylum two hundred miles away over Mr. Singer's protests, and the rest of the novel takes place in the vacuum caused by this separation.

The novel deals with several characters, and we are privy to several minds.  Nevertheless, it seems to me that McCullers builds the whole novel around the emerging consciousness of a young girl, Mick Kelly, who comes of age in a small, impoverished town somewhere in the Deep South.  Another famous Bildungsroman about a girl in the Deep South made its appearance on the Decade Project back in April, 2008: Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.  In that book, Scout never leaves center stage, but in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Mick often disappears into the crowd.  Her life intersects with those of all the others, and McCullers presents these characters in such loving and observant detail that Mick often plays descant to some other character's melody.  One could argue, though, that the novel belongs to Mr. Singer, since all the characters, Mick included, gravitate to him. 

Mick's father has been injured and cannot return to work, as it turns out, ever.  The entire family, never well off before, must now forgo all but the barest necessities.  Mick must sacrifice her dreams to the god of survival: she must withdraw from school and get a job; she must quit her piano lessons; and she must move out of her room so they can take in a boarder, Mr. Singer.

The book explores, through the lives of its several characters, a single unifying theme: The overarching need for, and the impossibility of, any meaningful human exchange.  Each character just wants an audience.  They wish that someone else, somewhere, would hear and understand them.  Ironically, the deaf Mr. Singer seems to fill that very need for everyone.  He sits with them and watches their lips as they talk, and, even though he never says anything, they all think him wise.  Perhaps he does have a certain amount of wisdom.  He clearly has genuine feelings for Mr. Antonapoulos.  But the quiet devotion of his followers speaks more of their neediness than of his depth or insight.  Everyone wants an audience, but no one stops to listen to anyone else--no one except the deaf mute, that is.  But MucCullers, I suspect, must want us to see that communication must work both ways.

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter impressed me from the first pages with its sensitive observation of humanity.  It also explored the racial situation of the South during the run-up to World War II together with the working classes' resentment and distrust of capitalism in the wake of the Great Depression.  Best of all, unlike To Kill a Mockingbird, this novel never becomes didactic.  It covers a wide range of human concerns, and it does so with a level of confidence befitting a much older writer.  I enjoyed it immensely, despite its ultimately downbeat prognosis for the human condition.

14  Community of Learners / Decade Project / [114] Heart of Darkness--Joseph Conrad on: September 02, 2011, 09:27:03 AM
The Horror!  The Horror!
September 2, 2011

I rate Apocalypse Now! as one of the greatest movies ever made.  I knew Coppola had based his masterpiece on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, but, with the settings so different, I didn't think they could have resembled each other very much.  As I read it, though, I saw that Coppola had taken several scenes and much of the dialogue straight from Conrad.  Most importantly, though, he imbued the movie with the properly cynical spirit of the novella.

I didn't remember much about Conrad's book from having read it in high school.  Mostly I recall the mood of traveling up the mysterious Congo into uncharted territory.  But, clearly, as a high school student, I had missed important matters, like the absurd and cruel methods of oppression used by the Europeans in their efforts to “settle” Africa.  I had missed the madness at the center of the story, a madness that engulfed Kurtz and made inroads into Marlow's psyche.  I had missed the very heart of the darkness within each of us that Conrad had exposed.  I must have kept waiting for a plot to emerge and drummed my fingers at what I took to be a long and confusing setup.  When I finished, I remember thinking, “What happened?  Did I miss the story?”

This time, though, I saw that everything matters.  The opening incidents do much more than get Marlow into a boat.  They establish some characteristics of “civilization” that, when he comes to know Kurtz better, will increasingly repel him: bureaucracy, hypocrisy, and manipulation.  They also establish the role of women in Marlow's world: powerful, behind-the-scenes players, guided by unrealistic fantasies that men must not shatter.  Men, too, can dream, he seems to say, but reality soon sets them straight.

As a young man, Marlow became fascinated by the “blank spots” on the map of Africa, and managed to become skipper of a Belgian steam ship in the Congo.  One of the inland traders had come into question, suspected of “unsound methods,” and Marlow journeyed upstream to investigate and bring this person, a Mr. Kurtz, back to civilization.  On his journey, Marlow witnessed the madness and senseless brutality of colonialism.  But I thought it odd that the hypocrisy of colonialism bothered him more than its inhumanity.  At one point, he declared that he hated lying above all other things: “You know I hate, detest, and can't bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me.  There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies—which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world—what I want to forget.  It makes me miserable and sick, like biting something rotten would do.” (p. 77)

Thus, when Marlow met Mr. Kurtz, who had dropped all pretense of being on a trading and civilizing mission, he found Kurtz's naked brutality almost admirable.  Kurtz had stopped trading for ivory, and simply raided villages to take it by force (“unsound methods”).  By the time Marlow arrived, Kurtz had decorated his residence with the severed heads of those who had opposed him.  He participated in horrific rituals that encourage the worship of himself as a deity.  In the midst of all this (about which Marlow learned from a garrulous Russian trader) he arrived to find Kurtz very ill, so he attempted to take him back to civilization.  Kurtz died along the way, and Marlow nearly died of illness himself.  On his deathbed, Kurtz left Marlow with the burden of carrying out his testamentary wishes, and Marlow ultimately sided with Kurtz against the pressures brought by the disappointed heirs.

By the end of the story, Marlow has noted cynically all the distorted versions of Kurtz he has heard from the many people he had to deal with.  But, when faced with the delusions of Kurtz's bereaved fiancee, instead of blurting out the truth, he confirmed her romantic fantasy of Kurtz as a moral, noble, and humanitarian martyr to the cause of civilization.  Thus, in the end, Marlow has become exactly that which he most hated: a liar and hypocrite.

Despite the fact that the beginning makes more sense, I still find it somewhat odd.  The tale opens as the unnamed narrator sails up the Thames with a small handful of other passengers.  One of them, Marlow, comments that this river, too, once flowed into the heart of darkness for Roman explorers and conquerors.  After a long pause, Marlow then told the story of his own youthful journey.  Conrad creates a nondescript person apart from himself to narrate a mature Marlow's narration of his first voyage.  Why does Conrad distance himself from the youthful Marlow of the story?  Perhaps what he has to reveal horrifies him too much for him to face it directly.  He must look at it obliquely, like the face of the Medusa, only tolerable as a reflection.

  Marlow discovers that he admires Kurtz because the supposedly “mad” killer has merely seen through what all the Europeans had concealed from themselves.  Europe's presence in the Congo had little to do with bringing the light of civilization into the savage darkness.  Europe wanted plunder and nothing else.  Kurtz saw through to the one central value: ivory at whatever cost in human life.

Heart of Darkness contains much to mull over, and forces us to look with a suspicious eye to our own national motives in interfering with other countries “for their own good.”  The Vietnam War illustrates one such moment in recent American history.  Apocalypse Now! as a story of hypocritical imperialism, could not have had a better model than Conrad's tale.  Even though I still have many unanswered questions about Heart of Darkness, I certainly enjoyed reading it this time much more than I had in high school, and I suspect that modern high-school students who attempt it without some historical background (or without at least having seen Coppola's movie) will find it just as puzzling as I did at their age.

15  Community of Learners / Chess / Goldhamer v. Fischer (1956) on: August 26, 2011, 03:02:16 PM
Ok.  Here is a game worth studying.  A seemingly effortless win by a very young Fischer.

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