Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

just completed a reread of James Joyce’s  Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. This book is the epitome of a Bildungsroman. It is the story of the young Stephen Dedalus. This novel seems me to be a modernist archetype and, in my opinion, a great work.

We get a glimpse into Stephen’s mind from his earliest childhood. The novel follows him through his adolescence and on through his early adulthood. Stephen is a sensitive person, a thinker and something of a misfit. We see the protagonist’s mind develop from a very early age. As he moves through his teenage years, though surrounded by pious religious influences, Stephen begins to frequent prostitutes and is wracked with guilt and a fear of divine punishment. Though he eventually rediscovers his moral bearings, he later turns down an opportunity to join the priesthood and begins an intellectual estrangement from both religion and nationalism. We also see Stephan’s reaction to his early love as well as his contradictory and complex feelings for her.

Stephen is a budding intellectual and poet. Included in the narrative are pages and pages of philosophical ruminations on aesthetics that include numerous references to various artists, writers, and philosophers. I found these ponderings to be interesting and worthwhile; however, such eccentricities will likely bore some readers.

In my opinion, Joyce has successfully captured the inner and outer workings of a male adolescent’s mind here. I judge this success based partially upon experience and partially upon observation. The accolades that this work has earned are well deserved. There really is something special about Joyce’s portrayal of Stephen’s inner being. From the language used to portray the workings of his mind to the various stages of his youth to the way our protagonist reacts to the outside world, there is something very realistic as well as aesthetically pleasing here.

There are actually many writing styles contained in this work, but much of the novel is told in a stream of consciousness style. Other parts, perhaps reflecting the way in which Stephen thinks at various times, are presented in more or less straight prose but with no apostrophes to indicate dialogue.  The text ranges from the simple to the difficult and dense. This novel, from the writing to the plot structure, is very unconventional, and folks looking for a story told in the traditional style might find this disappointing.

Dream of the Goat - Fiends

One can write volumes about this book. Instead of looking at general themes, I want to mention one of several extraordinary passages. At one point in the narrative, Steven is wracked with guilt and fear. He has been visiting prostitutes, yet he is terrified of the description of hell and the punishment that he believes awaits him as a result of his transgressions. This leads him to have a strange, phantasmagoric dream described below.

"He saw.

A field of stiff weeds and thistles and tufted nettle-bunches. Thick among the tufts of rank stiff growth lay battered canisters and clots and coils of solid excrement. A faint marshlight struggling upwards from all the ordure through the bristling grey-green weeds. An evil smell, faint and foul as the light, curled upwards sluggishly out of the canisters and from the stale crusted dung. Creatures were in the field: one, three, six: creatures were moving in the field, hither and thither. Goatish creatures with human faces, hornybrowed, lightly bearded and grey as India-rubber. The malice of evil glittered in their hard eyes, as they moved hither and thither, trailing their long tails behind them. A rictus of cruel malignity lit up greyly their old bony faces. One was clasping about his ribs a torn flannel waistcoat, another complained monotonously as his beard stuck in the tufted weeds. Soft language issued from their spittleless lips as they swished in slow circles round and round the field, winding hither and thither through the weeds, dragging their long tails amid the rattling canisters. They moved in slow circles, circling closer and closer to enclose, to enclose, soft language issuing from their lips, their long swishing tails besmeared with stale shite, thrusting upwards their terrific faces... Help! He flung the blankets from him madly to free his face and neck. That was his hell. God had allowed him to see the hell reserved for his sins: stinking, bestial, malignant, a hell of lecherous goatish fiends. For him! For him! "

I love the imagery contained in this passage. The goat-fiends seem to represent satanic forces circling Stephen’s soul. Unsurprising, there are six of them, as six is a number often associated with Satan and evil. The other obvious symbolic aspect to the goat image is that of sexuality and lust, which is the deadly sin that is plaguing Stephen.  The weeds and sharp plants as well as the horrible odor all add to the menacing and pernicious atmosphere.   I think that the reference to “soft language” might be important. Perhaps this is an allusion to the tempting, pleasant and alluring nature of sin.

I must admit to a strange attraction to such horror filled passages. I tend to like the description of grotesque scenes and creatures, especially when portrayed so artistically, meaningfully and symbolically. The mood created by the words here seems perfect. I also find the writing in this passage to be very imaginative. Joyce has painted a brilliant picture of Stephen’s view on sin that is drawing him into “stinking, bestial, malignant” hell.

Finally, I also find this passage particularly unusual in its unique depiction of hell.  It actually contrasts with the more conventional fire and suffering version presented by a priest earlier in the narrative.

This work is an all-time classic. I have not even scratched the surface above. The portrayal of Stephen’s mind and his young years is magnificent in so many ways. The dream described above is only a small sampling of that. By completing this book, I have finished all of the preparation that I had planned for my next project and I am now reading  Ulysses.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Reading Lulls are No More

As of late, I have been thinking about how my patterns of reading have changed, and not changed, over the years. Reading is my lifelong hobby. I have almost always been consistent reader. Yet there have been times where I must admit that I have gone into lulls. Despite what I label as “lulls,” there have never really been very long stretches of time when I did not read.

However, there were times that, like most readers, I would go into shorter slumps. These have been stretches of a few months, during which I did not read much. Of course, during periods when my education preoccupied my time, my reading would slow to a crawl and sometimes stop altogether. I will admit, however, that at other times I neglected my studies in lieu of doing some reading for pleasure.

There have been reasons other than education for these short reading slumps.  I recall that when I first discovered the Internet, I did not read books for a couple of months. It was during this time when I wondered if I would ever begin heavy reading again. Ultimately, the allure of the digital world was, in the end, no match for my persistent desire to delve into the intricate details and ideas contained in real books. After a few months, I returned to my lifetime hobby.

These days, with reading time as a premium, these non-reading lulls have entirely disappeared from my life. Due to this scarcity of reading time I have not gone into a slump for years. Instead, I hunger for more hours to read.

The other thing that I do now that I never did in previous years is read two books simultaneously. I recall that when I attempted this years ago, I would invariably neglect one book for the other. The more interesting tome would get the most attention, and the less interesting one would be so neglected. Thus, it became impossible to maintain a coherent train of thought on the neglected book’s contents. Once again, that problem has disappeared, and I find that I can easily apportion my time between almost any pair of books. If I am going a little slower on one, as opposed to the other, I will usually just speed up on the one, after I complete the more interesting work. Though my ongoing plan is to read one fiction and one non-fiction book simultaneously, it does not always work out that way. I often find myself reading two fiction or two non-fiction books together.

My reading patterns have changed quite a lot over the years. Obviously, external factors have played a good part in this. I wonder how they will be changed when I look back again in twenty to thirty years. I think however, that it is likely that I will still be reading as much as time permits, which will not be enough.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Shakespeare Sonnet Number 9

From time to time, I am posting my thoughts on particular Shakespeare Sonnets. For now, I am proceeding in order.

Is it for fear to wet a widow's eye
That thou consumest thyself in single life?

Ah! if thou issueless shalt hap to die,
The world will wail thee, like a makeless wife;

The world will be thy widow and still weep
That thou no form of thee hast left behind,
When every private widow well may keep
By children's eyes her husband's shape in mind.
Look what an unthrift in the world doth spend
Shifts but his place, for still the world enjoys it;

But beauty's waste hath in the world an end,
And kept unused, the user so destroys it.
No love toward others in that bosom sits
That on himself such murderous shame commits.

As in the previous Sonnets, the voice of the narrative is imploring the Fair Youth to marry and have children. The subject of all this attention is initially questioned. Does he fear that he will leave someone a widow if he marries and then dies? The Fair Youth is next lectured that he will be depriving the world of the continuation of his own beauty should he die without progeny. We have heard similar arguments before in this sequence of poems.

The last two lines of this Sonnet catch my attention.

No love toward others in that bosom sits
That on himself such murderous shame commits.

I like these lines from an aesthetic perspective, but they seem to be introducing something new into the Sonnets. The words seem a little angry, and perhaps they are even a little desperate. By this time in the sequence of Sonnets, the voice of the poem has used all sorts of arguments and devices to try to convince his subject to marry and have children. These lines may indicate a certain level of frustration.

Shakespeare’s motivation for writing these Sonnets has puzzled people for generations. I myself have ruminated upon these motivations in my previous posts. Regardless of the question of whether Shakespeare was trying to speak for himself here or not, this turn into what appears to be slightly exasperated language seems to further illustrate that the poet has created a multifaceted character in the voice of the poem. There are indeed many sides to this speaker.

As I have explored in previous posts, this unseen narrator is capable of sublime language, humor and allegories that range from the common to the clever to the soaring. Now, if I am reading this accurately, a little bit of vexation has been infused.

My commentary on additional Sonnets:

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Homer‘s The Odyssey: Polyphémus - More Then Meets the Eye

A recent reread of Homer‘s The Odyssey has me pondering the Cyclops Polyphémus. I believe that this is my fourth reading of this epic poem. This time around, I seem to have developed a mini-fascination with the one-eyed giant.

After Odysseus and members of his crew enter Polyphémus’s cave hoping for a warm welcome, the Cyclops imprisons the crew and begins to brutally murder and devour them one by one. Obviously, this monster is not a very sympathetic character. He embodies maliciousness. However, on closer examination, the depiction of his behavior raises some interesting questions. When we examine Polyphémus’s murderous actions, as opposed to the actions of the work’s hero, Odysseus, I think that some surprises are in store.

We are often told not to attempt to apply modern morality to these ancient works. Many of the tenets of our present day belief systems did not apply when they were written. This is fair enough, but I think that it will be helpful if we do a quick examination of the work based upon our modern values in order to determine what is not meant to be pernicious in terms of the Cyclops’s action.

Odysseus and his crew are the sackers of cities. When they overran Troy, as well as other places mentioned in the poem, they murdered defenseless citizens, raped and kidnapped the women, who along with the children were subjected to a life of slavery. Odysseus, based upon modern standards, is guilty of crimes against humanity and perhaps genocide.

When the crew encounters Polyphémus, he begins to bash them against the walls of the cave, and then he proceeds to gruesomely eat their lifeless, raw flesh. This is really ugly behavior, to say the least. However, in comparison to what the protagonists of the poem have done, it seems no worse, and perhaps not even as bad. In fact, again based our twenty-first century concepts of justice, one might say that Odysseus and his men received their just desserts.

So can we say that Polyphémus has done anything wrong based on the moral framework of the epic? The Cyclops is clearly meant to be a malevolent character, but perhaps not for the reasons that we think. Our first clue that there is something very wrong with the Cyclopes in general is presented at following juncture, when the society of the one eyed giants is described as,

"a violent race without any laws, who neither plant crops nor plow but leave their whole livelihood to the care of the gods. These creatures don’t come together in public assemblies and aren’t governed by statutes, but they all live in caves high up near the mountaintops, and each one is a law to himself and rules his children and wives and doesn’t care about any neighbor or kinsman."

I know only a moderate amount about Greek culture and ethics, but it seems that the Cyclopes are being criticized here for not living as a civilized community. Public assemblies and statutes were a big part of life in the Greek City states. The Cyclopes have none, and they do not care about each other or their community.

Before Odysseus encounters the giant, he wonders what the entire race might be like,

"are they savage  and violent, or are they good law-abiding people who fear the gods and show proper kindness to strangers?"

The kindness to strangers seems key to me. I think that within the morality of the play, hospitality to visitors and strangers is an essential part of moral behavior. Hospitality is a trait that the law abiding and the reverent exhibit. Odysseus and his men enter Polyphémus’s cave, begin to eat his food and wait around for him as if they expect to be welcomed as guests. When the Cyclops arrives, he shows his true colors by brutally murdering and eating them.

Throughout other parts of the work, virtuous people show kindness and generosity to strangers. In one of many examples, when Eumaeus the swineherd believes that Odysseus is just a forlorn and destitute traveler, he explains why he took the disguised hero in and exhibited kindness, he states,

“It wouldn’t be right for me to treat any stranger, even one worse-off than you are, with disrespect, since strangers and beggars come under Zeus’s protection”

So, in the odd and ancient moral framework, it is acceptable to sack a city and to murder and rape its inhabitants. However, it is essential that one treats visitors with respect and kindness. Only the lawless who live without strong community do not provide such hospitality. This, of course, seems bizarre to me. It illustrates how the concept of morality has changed so much down the millennia.

Despite Polyphémus’s actions, another question arises; is the Cyclops a complete monster with no redeeming qualities? He may indeed be a monster, but I suspect that there may be a little humanity in him.

At one point Odysseus and his remaining men escape the cave by tying themselves to the Cyclops’s sheep who are leaving the cave for their morning grazing. Odysseus is tied to the last ram in the line. The blinded Polyphemus is surprised that his strongest ram, unbeknownst to him, weighed down by Odysseus clinging to him, is lagging behind the pack. He remarks

"‘Dear ram, why is it that you are the last to go out of the cave? Never before today have I seen you lagging behind the others, but always you are the first one to stride out and graze on the lush grass of the meadows, the first one to reach the stream,
and the first one who wants to return to the fold at evening. But now you are last of all. You must be grieving for your master’s eye, which a coward attacked and blinded… If only you were endowed with reason as I am and were able to speak, you could tell me where he is hiding."

Is Polyphemus showing affection to this ram? I think so. He expresses his belief that the ram is feeling empathy towards him. This seems to be an indication of reciprocated feelings. The balance of the words, where something of an admiration for the ram’s usual boldness as well as the Cyclops’s wish that the creature were endowed with reason, seems to support this conclusion.

As I hoped to illustrate above, Polyphemus and his society are a little more complicated and little more meaningful than meets the eye. The Cyclops seems to be a key that unlocks a door into some of the ethics and morality contained in this epic.

A note on the Stephen Mitchell Translation that I read. I had previously read the Richard Laittimore and Robert Fagles translations. My first reading was in high school and I do not remember who the translator was. I found Mitchell’s translation to be excellent. It was accessible and lacked what seemed awkwardness that seemed to characterize other translations. This translation also flowed very well. While easier to comprehend it still retains the grandness inherent in the work.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape by Susan Brownmiller Part II - Theories on Society

From time to time I will be blogging about books relating to feminist themes. Some of my general thoughts on feminism and the issue of violence directed at women are here.

I wrote about some of the basic points made by Susan Brownmiller in Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape here. In that post, I only alluded to some of the author’s social and philosophical theories. To this day, these concepts are controversial and have even angered some.

The most famous controversial sentences of the book are as follows,

"From prehistoric times to the present, I believe, rape has played a critical function. It is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear."

Brownmiller spends many words elaborating and clarifying this statement.

Her first assertion is that the act of rape, and its ensuring fear, have been used intentionally by some men to oppress and control women. Up until this point, this theory of dominance and oppression is very convincing to me. I wrote about it in more detail in my previous post.

First, some clarification is in order. The author is not saying that all men intentionally rape; she is just saying that all men benefit from rape.  Brownmiller contends that throughout human history, the threat and fear of rape is the primary mechanism used to oppress women. Thus, based upon her reasoning, all men benefit.

The author goes on to say,

"A world without rapists would be a world in which women moved freely without fear of men. That some men rape provides a sufficient threat to keep all women in a constant state of intimidation, forever conscious of the knowledge that the biological tool must be held in awe for it may turn to weapon with sudden swiftness borne of harmful intent."

Though I think that there is an important underlying point in the above, in my opinion, Brownmiller goes too far. Gender roles, including those that have oppressed women, are rooted in multiple and complex factors. Such factors include actual reproductive differences, intimidation through the use of physical strength in ways other than rape, etc. The author does make a convincing argument that the threat and fear of rape has been one of these factors, perhaps a very important one. I am not so sure that I agree that rape is the primary factor in the historic oppression of women.

Brownmiller goes further. If I understand her reasoning, and there is the possibility that I may not be, she contends that rape and fear of rape have played so great a part in gender related social structures that they are the causes of people’s tendency to form monogamous relationships. She writes of our ancestors, who were women,

"among those creatures who were her predators, some might serve as her chosen protectors. Perhaps it was thus that the risky bargain was struck. Female fear of an open season of rape, and not a natural inclination toward monogamy, motherhood or love, was probably the single causative factor in the original subjugation of woman by man, the most important key to her historic dependence, her domestication by protective mating."

This is, indeed, a very controversial opinion about society. If I comprehend this correctly, Brownmiller seems to be contending that monogamous relationships, and thus marriage, came about in human history primarily due to women’s need to be protected from rape. Furthermore, such monogamous relationships led to the subjugation of women. This also supports her conclusion that all men benefit from rape.

Once again, I believe that Brownmiller is turning insight into dogma here. It seems to me that human social structures, culture and values are likely the result of a combination of biology (Brownmiller rejects most evolutionary causes of human behavior) and the evolution of society over time. These structures, culture and values, particularly those revolving around monogamous relationships and marriage, did indeed partially arise out of the need for mutual protection, including, but not exclusive to, protection from rape. Monogamous relationships also arose as a result of other reasons; there are all sorts of survival benefits to them. For instance: it is a helpful for one person to go out and hunt, while another stays close to home to process food, care for children, etc.

I must be clear about my beliefs in this case. I am not contending that love, the desire for companionship, the genuine desire to form monogamous relationships, etc. do not drive us. Instead, I am saying that such positive (I am labeling the theme as positive) human emotions and drives are the result of biological and cultural evolution because they benefit human survival for a host of complicated reasons. I think that Brownmiller is contending that these desires and structures evolved primarily because men wish to subjugate women and that women sought protection from rape.

Once again Brownmiller makes a convincing case that rape and the threat of rape played a part in the formation of these social structures and values. However, it seems to me that attributing so much to rape is oversimplifying something that is obviously much more complicated. Thus, I do not believe that all men benefit from women’s fear of rape, no more than all people who benefit from marriage are benefiting from the violence that may have prompted humans and nature to develop the concept of marriage.

I have quoted only a few sentences here. Brownmiller goes on for many pages elaborating, refining and attempting to support her contentions.  I devoted an entire blog to these hypotheses for two reasons. First, though I disagree with Brownmiller’s ultimate conclusions, I do think that she is on to something very important. That is, rape has played a big part in the formation of human social structures as well as in the oppression of women down through the millennia. I believe she errs in contending that it has played the primary part.

Second, I find Brownmiller’s chain of reasoning to be fascinating. She is a bold thinker who challenges our perceptions by looking at human history, culture and society in different ways. Though I do not think that she arrives at exactly the correct destination, she has discovered some valuable roads as a result of the trip.

This book is bursting with opinions, theory, analyses and philosophy about rape and gender issues that I have not even touched upon. I agree with many, but by no means all, of the author’s contentions.

I must note that Brownmiller makes several unsupported, generalized statements about men’s beliefs and perceptions. This is an unfortunate flaw in what is otherwise a work of intellectual and historical distinction.

The author’s beliefs as laid out in this work still cause a lot of controversy. She has been accused of misandry. This is unfounded. Her theories are intellectually based and rarely disparage men’s actions as an entire group. In terms of her generalizations about men that sometimes seem a little unfair, while they detract a little from her arguments, I will personally reserve any negative emotional response for those who have perpetuated the horror that is rape throughout the centuries and who still do so today.

Brownmiller is also very moderate in her views on most of her other subjects, at least from the perspective of someone looking back 40 years. Though I did not look into every one of her statistics regarding rape, most rang true or fit into what I know about the world. She has avoided some seemingly exaggerated statistics that I have seen on the subject. Many of her suggestions involving legal reform have already come about in much of the Western world. Her suggestions on sentencing for people convicted of rape are actually less severe then I would like to see. Finally, I cannot help mention that, like other feminists, she helped bring to light the issue of, and advocated for justice and protections for men who are rape survivors.

Regardless of what one thinks of Brownmiller’s arguments, for reasons that I outlined in my two posts, this is a brilliant and valuable work. I cannot recommend it to everyone, as it is full of descriptions of monstrous sexual brutality. However, if one can get through that horror, this book is highly recommended for all men and women.