Sunday, July 10, 2016

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions

 I read the J. M. Cohen translation of this work. The below quote is taken from that translation. 

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions is an autobiographical account of the author’s life.  Published in 1782, this is one of the earliest autobiographies written, and some consider it the first modern version of the literary style. Rousseau paints a picture of life’s ups and downs in the various European locales where he lived in. The narrative of the author’s life is engaging. It also tells us a lot about the time period, human psychology and Rousseau himself. This is an easy work to digest, as the prose is very readable. 

The first part of the book is made up of accounts of Rousseau’s travels as an adolescent and as a young man. The author’s social, religious and intellectual development is detailed. During this time, Rousseau develops numerous relationships, including friendships as well as romantic and professional associations. He also converts back and forth between various Christian sects.

As the narrative moves into the middle age period of Rousseau’s life, a large percentage of pages are devoted to Rousseau’s seemingly unending personal disputes with associates and his unusual relationships with women. I have more to say about the author’s interactions with the opposite sex in a separate blog post. As for Rousseau’s innumerable conflicts with others, these involve people who seem to drift in a grey area between friends and enemies. At times, the author shows a lot of paranoia, believing in semi-organized conspiracies against him. With that, it seems that like most people, Rousseau encountered a fair number of nasty folks in his life. Interrelated with these disputes is the constant harassment and threats the author receives from both government authorities and from mobs, as his various writings offend one religious sect or another. 

One strongly suspects Rousseau to be an unreliable narrator. At times, he is harsh on himself. But bias seems to creep in as he describes numerous conflicts with others, most of which he blames on the imperfections of his antagonists. He also glosses over some acts on his own part, including the abandonment of his children. Though this is an autobiography, I find myself thinking of the character described in this book as fictional. My musings on this work may reflect this attitude.

Rousseau is a complex character who does some very problematic things and who is infused with flaws. Yet he also displays a likeable innocence. This innocence fades a little as he gets older, but never completely disappears. 

At one point he describes how he is completely incapable of any kind of long term planning. 

“The uncertainty of the future has always made me look on longdistance projects as lures for fools. I indulge in hopes like anyone else, so long as it costs me nothing to keep them alive. But if they involve time and trouble I am done with them. The smallest little pleasure that appears within my grasp tempts me more than the joys of paradise, except, however, such pleasures as are followed by pain, and they do not tempt me at all. For I only like unadulterated joys, and those one never has when one knows that one is laying up a store of repentance for oneself. “  

At least by today’s standards the above seems to extoll short - term gratification over responsibility. Yet Rousseau describes his behavior almost as if it is a virtue. The above quote is honest in that the author is not attempting to hide what many people would consider a flaw. At the same time Rousseau ignores the downsides to these tendencies, rejects the pleasures that might also bring “pain,” and instead focuses upon “unadulterated joys.” This made me think about modern humorous caricature of the happy go - lucky, irresponsible, slightly innocent, likable loser.

This is a big, complex work, and I have only scratched the surface in my short introduction. It is impossible to comprehensively cover this book in a single blog entry. Thus, I am going to publish several posts on this book in the coming weeks. There are many other aspects to this narrative that are well worth pondering. The themes of feeling over intellect, liberty, narcissism and human interaction are among the issues addressed within its pages. I highly recommend this classic to anyone interested in this period of Europe, psychology, philosophy, or just a fascinating character study. 

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Reading The American Revolution

I often say that the American Revolution is my number one bookish interest. This statement raises questions. What exactly does it mean? Is it accurate? How does this fit in with my reading patterns?

I have been interested in, and reading books on, the Revolutionary Era since I was an early teenager. Though there have been intermittent periods of several years when I did not do any reading on this subject, in the end, I always came back to it. 

A lifetime is a long time. Other interests come and go. Often these interests burn bright for a while. My interest in the Revolution burns lower at times. It has, however, burned longer and with greater consistency than anything else. 

About ten ago, I went through a period when I had not read this subject for a long time. At this time, I made a conscious decision to resume my readings in order to retain it as a major interest. I felt that it was important to have a subject in which I specialize. At that point, if my resumption in reading had led to boredom, this intentional renewed interest would have fizzled out. Instead, I quickly realized that I should never have slacked off, and I asked myself why I had stopped in the first place. For me, this reaffirms something deep inside of me that draws me to this topic. 

Over the past two years, I have been watching the television series Turn. This series centers on the Revolutionary Period and takes place on Long Island, which is my home. Watching this program has raised my interest in this subject of late, sometimes surpassing my interest in all other subjects. Similarly, museum visits, particularly good books on the subject, and other events elevate my interest from time to time.

The more detail and nuance I absorb, I become aware of the more that I want to know. One thing leads to another. Furthermore, I tend to relate other subjects to the Revolution. Here, I connected the philosophies of James Madison to what we now call identity politics. As someone interested in modern politics and social issues, it is inevitable that I would find and ponder such connections. This subject has all sorts of other implications that relate to many other topics.

The lifetime pattern of my reading is also worth noting. When I was very young I was interested in the military history of The Revolution. I read books that sometimes dug all the way down into the detailed strategy of armies. As I matured I became less and less interested in this aspect of the subject and I became more interested in political, philosophical, economic and social histories. I also became intrigued with biographies of the principle characters. Reading the philosophers, such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau that influenced the Revolutionary generation also appealed to me. 

What I define as “The Revolutionary Era” also expanded. I now consider the entire Revolutionary period to include the decades leading up to the war and only ending at the Constitutional convention of 1787. 

Though I have read many books on this era some of my favorites include Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution, Joseph J. Ellis His Excellency: George Washington, James Lincoln Collier’s and Christopher Collier’s Decision in Philadelphia: The Constitutional Convention of 1787, Ralph Ketcham’s James Madison: A Biography, to name just a few.

As I posted here, history in general has always been an interest of mine. About half of my history reading is dedicated to the Revolutionary Era. About twenty percent of my total reading is dedicated to it. One might argue that such a percentage disqualifies the subject from being labeled a primary interest. However, this percentage has more or less held steady throughout my life. This is roughly about the same for articles and other pieces that I now read on the Internet. Ultimately, this is lot more pages than I have devoted to any other subject. Thus, I think that it is fair to call this my number one concentration of interest.

In the end, I am fascinated by the Revolution. I will likely maintain interest in it for life. As I alluded to above, at times this interest will seem dimmer than other more transitory preoccupations, but occasionally, it will be brighter. The old adage does come to mind when I think about this subject. Slow and steady wins the race.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Never Give In (Unless You Decide To): Some Wisdom from Winston Churchill

admit that I have a thing for dramatic quotes. Thus I wanted to write a little about these words from Winston Churchill, 

"Never give in--never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy."

I think that these particular words are relevant to everyday life.  They are also relevant when we discuss and exchange ideas, debate issues, adapt viewpoints and embrace belief systems.

There seems to be a dual message contained here. The first message seems to usually garner the most attention. The basic and obvious idea is to never surrender one’s beliefs or stances in response to outside pressure. 

Folks make ethically questionable compromises for various reasons. One reason is social pressure. People often go along with ideas because they seek the approval of family, friends or coworkers.

Though such pressure can be enormous, it pales compared to what happens when more tangible consequences apply. It might not be a physical threat that one is challenged with. Often, a person’s job or financial security is threatened if one does not go along with questionable ideas or behavior. 

Of course, physical threat and coercion are the worst forms of ideological pressure. Though such things happen in democracies and in everyday interactions, this form of duress is more common under less democratic systems. 

In cases where ideological pressure is tangible, I think that we need to be careful not judge too harshly folks who do give in their convictions. Instead, the above words should help inspire us to oppose such duress and to support those who are exposed to it. The fact that Churchill came under enormous pressure to compromise with evil, and refused to do so, adds weight to these views. 

I believe there is an important secondary related message here. It is encapsulated in the words “except to convictions of honor and good sense.” Sometimes determined people seem to hang on to positions for reasons of pride or stubbornness. It is also important to be open to changing their positions based on logic or simply seeing things differently. There is no shame in changing one’s position if it is the right thing to do.

Similarly, the term “good sense” seems to be implying that sometimes we need to compromise for practical and social matters. Every discussion on what to have for dinner should not be the Battle of Britain, for instance. In my opinion, such everyday concessions are acceptable if they do not compromise ethics or basic sense. 

I believe that these words are simply great advice. They can help one navigate both intellectual and moral obstacles. They can be a source of strength in trying times. They can remind us not to stick to a position solely out of a sense a pride. This wisdom is worthy for great leaders like Churchill as well as more common folks such as myself. 

Monday, June 13, 2016

Tidbits of Wisdom in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility

My general commentary on Sense and Sensibility is here.

Jane Austen was not the kind of writer, such as Charlotte Bronte or Hermann Melville, who attempted within the pages of a novel to sketch out a universal worldview encompassing God, humanity and everything else. Instead, Austen examined human nature through the lens of everyday personal thoughts and interactions. Austen’s examination of humanity through common occurrences can be found in almost every page of her novels. There are literally thousands of illustrations and observations on human behavior in her books. These observations are often insightful, subtle, complex and accurate. She was able to dig deep into human behavior, emotions and relations. 

Take the below quote from Sense and Sensibility. Marianne Dashwood is describing how she plans to cope with the heartbreak of being jilted by John Willoughby, 
“As for Willoughby— to say that I shall soon or that I shall ever forget him, would be idle. His remembrance can be overcome by no change of circumstances or opinions. But it shall be regulated, it shall be checked by religion, by reason, by constant employment." 
The above quote is a prime example of Austen describing a common human reaction to a common situation. Here the often-cited dichotomy between emotion and reason is examined. Marianne is distraught that Willoughby has chosen to marry another woman. Like many rejected lovers, she is unable to shake her thoughts of her paramour and is experiencing emotional distress. In the moment, she is planning to counterbalance these strong emotional thoughts with the more cerebral aspects of her psyche. As she observes, she is trying to “regulate” the negative emotion, not eradicate it. 
Based on life’s experience, one would expect that, at least for the short term, “Religion, reason and constant employment” will not completely regulate or counterbalance Marianne’s pain. People often try to distract themselves from such depressed feelings to no avail. However, in the long run, one might expect the heartbreak to ease. Such relief can in part be attributed to such distractions. Thus, the situation described here is not a simple one. 
It seems to me that Austen has very successfully gotten into her character’s head. She is also accurately portraying human nature. The voice of Marianne in this passage seems to believably reflect a young woman attempting to self-analyze herself. Her statement sounds like something people, under similar circumstances, commonly say, even in our present time. 

Is this dichotomy real? Like many things said about human psychology, it is to some extent a generalization. Yet, there is a degree of reality behind this generalization. Neuroscience teaches us that the two halves of our brains represent opposite ends of thought and behavior.  One side is analytical, and the other side carries on the more abstract thinking. In a way, Marianne is describing the interaction between the two halves of her brain. I would argue that here and elsewhere Austen has proven that she was a decent psychologist. Here, unbeknownst to herself or her contemporaries, she was dabbling in a bit of early neuroscience!

Austen was neither the first, nor the last, thinker to examine this issue. However, like many things Austen, her take on it was distinctive and aesthetically pleasing. The above quotation only comprises of two sentences. It is one of thousands of these keen insights into humanity contained in Austen’s books. It is an illustration as to why this author can be classified as one of the great artists and thinkers of all time.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Sense and Sensibility was Jane Austen’s first published novel.  It is the story of the Dashwood family. Like other novels written by the famous author, the plot centers on the romantic entanglements and marriage prospects of the book’s characters. 

Elinor is the oldest Dashwood daughter and is the central character in the book. She is levelheaded and thoughtful. Her younger sister, Marianne, is more impulsive and more apt to show strong emotion. The girls’ mother, Mrs. Dashwood, can be described as an older but slightly more empathetic and wiser version of Marianne. 

Early on, Elinor and a young bachelor named Edward Ferrars seem to be drawn to one another. Likewise, Marianne and John Willoughby are apparently attracted to each other and close to engagement. 

The usual themes of faulty perception are strong in this work. Initially, Elinor believes that Edward is wooing her. She later learns that he is secretly engaged to another young woman, Lucy Steele. Likewise, Marianne believes that Willoughby is in love with her. However, the young man shocks her when he suddenly turns cold and it is announced that he is engaged to someone else. In the end, it is revealed that both of these situations played out very differently from what the sisters supposed them to be at various parts of the narrative. 

The balance of the plot is driven by these relationships and by misconceptions getting sorted out. The reality of the events and feelings, as opposed to the false perception of them, are revealed in detail. 

At one point Elinor observes,

"I have frequently detected myself in such kind of mistakes," said Elinor, "in a total misapprehension of character in some point or other: fancying people so much more gay or grave, or ingenious or stupid than they really are, and I can hardly tell why or in what the deception originated. Sometimes one is guided by what they say of themselves, and very frequently by what other people say of them, without giving oneself time to deliberate and judge."  

There are multiple characters that are shown to be of weak personality. In particular, the Dashwood sisters’ half brother, John, initially intends to act altruistically towards his family, who are in financial straits. However, he shows moral vacuity when he is easily persuaded not to assist his sisters by his malicious wife, Fanny.

As this was Austin’s earliest published novel, some of the characters seem to be a little less nuanced than in her later books. For instance, the money and status obsessed John and Fanny Dashwood have few redeeming characteristics and are a bit less complex than other Austen creations.

As I alluded to above, the themes of this novel will be familiar to folks who have read other Austen works. Obviously, the plot and characters, which center on young women and their romantic interactions, are common to other Austen books. 

Though this is the first published novel from the author, I have read several other Austen books before this one. The question arises, if the underlying meaning is not all that different for the other books and the plot and characters also seem to meet a template, is it worth reading an author like Austen over the course of more than two or so books?

My conclusion is that reading multiple Austen books is a very worthwhile thing to do.  I raised a similar question in regards to the novels of Philip Roth. In this post, I compared the tendency of Roth to use of similar motifs to a musical work that explored multiple variations on a musical theme. Likewise, though Austen’s messages may be similar between books, by illustrating them in different ways, she adds to the impact and nuance. A writer as skilled as Austen adds intellectual and aesthetic weight to subjects and themes by examining them from different angles. When combined, her brilliant writing as well as well crafted plots and characters, these novels reach the sublime despite the commonalities. 

This classic is a must read for Austen fans. As I am beginning to see the value of reading certain authors’ works in chronological order, this would be a great first read for an Austen neophyte. The benefit of seeing how Austen’s ideas and writing developed over time should be enlightening to a reader.  Like other works by Austen, this book manages to be entertaining as well as very meaningful. 

Saturday, May 21, 2016

My Love of Book Lists

I love book lists. I enjoy looking through them so much that I sometimes go looking for them online. I have also been known to spend several hours poring through entire books dedicated to such lists. When I see that a new major list is available, say from a source such as Amazon or The Guardian, I cannot but help getting excited at the prospect of digging through it.

If any of my readers are not familiar with the phenomena that I am talking about, I am referring to the catalogues of books that are now all over the Internet. However, these lists are not new to our digital age; some of my favorites go back decades, and such lists have been produced for centuries. These catalogues of book titles sometimes purport to be lifetime reading suggestions, lists of the greatest novels ever written, lists of the greatest nonfiction books ever written, etc. There are also specialty lists, such as the best history books ever written, the best books on the American Revolution, the most influential philosophy books and the most essential New England Books, to name just a few.

These lists are not without controversy. Folks often criticize them. The compilers of these lists are often questioned for books that they include, as well as for those that they do not. Often, the creators of the lifetime reading lists are accused of constructing restrictive guides that dictate what people should be reading. Harold Bloom’s famous Western Cannon has come under particular scorn for this reason. His enormous compilation of suggested books has also been criticized for not being inclusive enough in terms of race and gender. It seems that some of Bloom’s critics may not have read his Cannon, as it is surprisingly inclusive and includes a surprising number of women and ethnically diverse authors such as Chinua Achebe, Zora Neale Hurston, Najib Mahfuz and Mario Vargas Llosa, Aimé Césaire, as well as many others.

My take on these lists is that if one does not take them too seriously, they can be great fun for the bookish person. If one is going to think about how we would have constructed them differently, it is best to ponder this issue good-naturedly. Such lighthearted critique can also be part of the fun. These compilations can also provide very useful information pertaining to what books are out there waiting to be read.

I love to peruse such lists and count how many of the tomes that I have read so far. Though such lists do give me ideas as to what I should read in the future, as someone whose TBR cannot be concluded in a lifetime, I am not sure if this last fact is a good thing. Lists like Bloom’s Western Cannon and Clifton Fadiman’s reading plan are treasure troves of interesting books that make my mouth water.

Ultimately, these catalogues of books are just the opinions of others. As a bookish person, however, reading these opinions and thinking about how my views are similar or different regarding these books is something that I very much like to do.

I will continue to peruse new and old booklists. In our digital age, they are not difficult to find. Neither is there any lack of new lists being produced. In the end, if one does not take such lists too seriously, they can provide many hours of stimulating and intellectual amusement.

Some of my favorite book lists are:

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels on Colonialism

My general commentary on Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is here.

In this post, I wanted to share a few of my thoughts on a particular passage that comes toward the end of the narrative. In the final chapter of this work, Gulliver is summing up his adventures and commenting upon European society through the lens of his experience. His commentary is scathing. Having visited all sorts of diverse lands and peoples, the narrator ponders what the effects of European invasion would be on these places. His general thoughts on are part of these musings,

“they go on shore to rob and plunder, they see a harmless people, are entertained with kindness; they give the country a new name; they take formal possession of it for their king; they set up a rotten plank, or a stone, for a memorial; they murder two or three dozen of the natives, bring away a couple more, by force, for a sample; return home, and get their pardon.   Here commences a new dominion acquired with a title by divine right.   Ships are sent with the first opportunity; the natives driven out or destroyed; their princes tortured to discover their gold; a free license given to all acts of inhumanity and lust, the earth reeking with the blood of its inhabitants: and this execrable crew of butchers, employed in so  pious an expedition, is a modern colony, sent to convert and civilize an idolatrous and barbarous people!” 

One thing that it is important to remember is that this was written in 1726.

These thoughts are remarkably ahead of their time. Two centuries of European domination and oppression of native peoples lay ahead. One of the aspects that is striking about this quote is the number of components that a modern critique of the colonial system it contains. One example is the reference to stealing what belongs to the indigenous people. European hypocrisy is so well illustrated with irony with the image of  a rotten plank, or a stone, for a memorial.” The destruction of native life and culture is mentioned. The condemnation of torture and murder for greed is also surprising in light of the time that this was written. The reference to “the earth reeking with the blood” sounds so ahead of its time as well.

The line “and this execrable crew of butchers, employed in so pious an expedition, is a modern colony, sent to convert and civilize an idolatrous and barbarous people!” is biting irony that has a very modern feel. Here, Swift anticipates centuries of lies and hypocrisy that the colonial system was built upon.  

Such empathy for non-Europeans is surprising for the time. It does, however, fit in with the earlier narrative of this work. Throughout this book, Gulliver encounters strange people after strange people. Though the societies that he visits are filled with flaws, the narrator comes to see that they all contain certain aspects of European civilization. Many of the individuals that he encounters turn out to be honorable or decent. Furthermore, Gulliver is often judged unfairly by others for his differences.

Often, eighteenth century writers, such as Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness, are credited with being the first real critics of colonialism. The above quote shows that Swift was doing so much earlier.

Some attribute Shakespeare’s Tempest as a critique of Colonialism. Others disagree with this assessment. Even if this is the case, it is a far cry from this direct attack launched by Swift.

Such overtly anticolonial sentiment was unexpected in a book of this era. It shows what a perceptive and innovative thinker Swift was. He was aware of the world around him in a way that we usually only attribute to much later intellects.  Such innovation and creativity is but one reason that Gulliver’s Travels deserves its reputation as an essential work of literature.