Saturday, April 19, 2014

Shakespeare's Sonnet 4

From time to time I will post a few lines of commentary on the Shakespearean sonnets. Though, of late, I have been proceeding in numerical order, I reserve the right to deviate from that pattern.

Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thyself thy beauty’s legacy?
Nature’s bequest gives nothing, but doth lend,
And, being frank, she lends to those are free.
Then, beauteous niggard, why dost thou abuse
The bounteous largess given thee to give?
Profitless usurer, why dost thou use
So great a sum of sums yet canst not live?
For having traffic with thyself alone,
Thou of thyself thy sweet self dost deceive.
Then how when nature calls thee to be gone,
What acceptable audit canst thou leave?
Thy unused beauty must be tombed with thee,
Which usèd lives th' executor to be.

With this sonnet, Shakespeare continues his somewhat unusual and roundabout praise of the Fair Youth. Here, the subject of the poem continues to be lectured, presumably for his reluctance to engage in a romantic partnership.

For me, one interesting point here, as is true of many of these Fair Youth sonnets, is just how odd this praise is. I cannot think of any other literary source that chastises an individual for failing to share his or her beauty with the world. Once again, the great poet almost seems to be taking on the role of an interfering relative. That is, of course, assuming that the voice of the poem is not extorting the subject of the poem to establish a relationship with the writer himself.

What really stands out in these lines is the financial metaphor. The unwillingness of the Fair Youth to form a romantic attachment is compared to a profligate spender and bad investor. Words like “Unthrifty,”  “legacy,” “executor,” etc. emphasize the point. This theme just adds to the quirkiness of it all. Once again, it is not often that romantic solitude is compared to such pecuniary matters.  With lines like “What acceptable audit canst thou leave?”  I get the impression that Shakespeare may be attempting to be playful with us.

On a side note, I also think that it is a bit extraordinary that Shakespeare’s references to the world of money should be so applicable and understandable some four hundred years later. The terminology and concepts used here have remained remarkably consistent over time. Some things have hardly changed!

I have used the word “sublime” to describe other Shakespeare sonnets. I do not feel that these lines reach that same level of aesthetic beauty. In fact, they likely were not meant to. The sonnets are diverse little works, and sometimes the poet was not reaching for such sweeping grandeur. Instead, I would use the words “very clever” to describe this verse.

My commentary on additional Sonnets:

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Tories: Fighting For the King in America's First Civil War by Thomas B. Allen

Thomas B. Allen’s Tories: Fighting for the King in America's First Civil War is an extensive examination of the portion of the American population who chose to remain loyal to Great Britain during the American Revolutionary period. Though flawed, this is an engaging and a uniquely important work.

The American Revolutionary War era is a subject on which I have done a fairly extensive amount of reading. In accounts of this period, there is, often in the background, the ubiquitous presence of those Americans who sided with Great Britain. These people were known as Tories or Loyalists. Existence and effects of these Loyalists often appear in various histories, biographies and analyses. Anyone one who has read or engaged in studies of the American Revolutionary period would have encountered information about this group. Their influence was pervasive in America during that time. However, this is one of the few works available that is solely dedicated to their impact and experiences.

As Allen and others have pointed out, it is difficult to ascertain just what percentage of the American population were Tories. First, there were many shades to political belief on both sides, ranging from the neutral to the generally sympathetic to those who were actually willing to take up arms. Second, there was no census or poll taken at that time. The best we have to go on are statistical estimates and educated guesses. The evidence does suggest that the percentage of Americans who opposed rebellion was both fluid and significant.

Allen examines the political, social and military experiences of individuals and families, as well as of geographical and ethnic groupings of Loyalists in great detail. Certain patterns emerged.

In the more populous areas, Loyalists, except in territory occupied by the British, were generally outnumbered and less organized than Rebel groups. Thus, they were persecuted, sometimes economically and socially, and often violently. In areas controlled by the British, the opposite occurred, with Tories being the persecutors and the Rebels becoming the persecuted. Loyalists inevitably fled their homes for British controlled areas or to locations outside of the American colonies altogether. Many males joined Loyalist military units that fought independently or alongside regular British forces. Tories also opposed the Rebel cause in ways as diverse as spying, supplying the British and even counterfeiting continental currency in an effort to damage the American economy.

In the backcountry, ranging from northern New York state down through the Western areas of all the colonies, as well as in “neutral territory” areas between the opposing armies, a nasty, brutal civil war raged between Rebels, Loyalists and Native Americans. These native people often, but not always, sided with the Loyalists.  This side of the conflict usually took the form of raiding small settlements and farms belonging to both colonists and Native Americans. Executions, torture, rape and pillaging were characteristic. All sides commonly committed atrocities. Numerous horrific incidents are chronicled in this book. This work will surprise anyone who believes that horrendous crimes against civilians in wartime only began in the twentieth century.

Allen writes,

Intestine warfare was more than battles. There was cruelty, there were murders in the night, and there were hangings without trial. 

One example, not atypical, involving Native Americans is described,

“in March 1782, Pennsylvania militiamen swooped down on the missionary village of Gnadenhutten. The Delaware Indians there, converted to Christianity, were suspected of being Loyalists. The militiamen rounded up the unarmed Indians and killed sixty-two adults and thirty-four children by smashing their skulls with mallets. Two boys escaped and spread word of the massacre. In an act of vengeance three months later, Delaware braves tortured a captive militia officer who had nothing to do with the raid and then burned him at the stake.”

Geographically, ethnic experiences varied.  The British occupied New York City for most of the war. Thus, it became a Loyalist haven. The British promised African American slaves freedom if they defected to the Loyalist side. Many did so and served in African American Loyalist military units.

As the title of the book indicates, one of Allen’s main points was that the conflict between these different groups of Americans was a civil war. He writes,

Our histories prefer to call the conflict the Revolutionary War, but many people who lived through it called it civil war. Americans who called themselves Patriots taunted, then tarred and feathered, and, finally, when war came, killed American Tories.

Allen not only makes a convincing case for his contention, but it is consistent with my knowledge of the era. Tories and Rebels fought each other throughout the colonies. Communities and families were divided. Allen details the nearly constant and numerous battles and skirmishes, some large, some small, some famous and some not so famous, where the two sides violently clashed.

One somewhat glaring omission in this work is the puzzling lack of information regarding the motivations as to why some choose the Tory side over the Rebel side. While the motivations of certain specific groups, such as the African American slaves, are examined, few words are spent on the reasons why many of the wealthier families, whose experiences are otherwise covered in detail, chose the Loyalist side. In addition, I find that while Allen’s writing style is occasionally eloquent, it is sometimes sloppy and workman like. These are unfortunate shortcomings in an otherwise recommended work.

I must add that this book is really for folks with a basic to moderate understanding of the history, society and major issues surrounding the American Revolutionary War era. It is a vital piece of the puzzle that comprises the history of that time. As just one part of the story, however, readers who have little knowledge of the event will likely be somewhat of a loss to follow the intricacies involved.

Despite its flaws this is a must read for those interested in the American Revolutionary Era. It covers what is an essential, but under-appreciated, aspect of this historical event. It is comprehensive and enlightening. History buffs will find it engaging and entertaining, but also disturbing in parts. This is a worthy tome that tells a very important story.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Albert Camus’s The Plague and Charles Dickens

The title of this post may have my readers scratching their heads. After all, what on Earth can Albert Camus’s The Plague have in common with the works of Charles Dickens? Usually Camus is compared with such existentialist thinkers such as Søren Kierkegaard and Jean-Paul Charles Sartre. Stepping outside what is usually considered existentialist theory will, I think, yield some surprises. In my opinion, there are important and significant similarities and, of course, differences between the ideas expressed in The Plague and the worldview of Dickens.

One of the primary themes of Albert Camus’s The Plague is the fight against human suffering and the sacrifices that individuals and groups must make in order to engage in this struggle. In my commentary here, I explored how Camus took a very unconventional approach to the very old subject of sacrifice for the good of others, altruism, compassion, etc. I could simply contrast this approach to traditional thinking. However, when I think about a novelist whose work has come to embody the championing of these better aspects of human nature, if only in a different way, I think of none other then Charles Dickens.

As I ruminated in my previous post on the work, Camus’s novel vigorously advocates human exertion in the name of helping to ameliorate suffering and pain. In fact, I think that The Plague can be viewed as an argument that this form of altruism is the key to finding meaning in life. Acting in such a way may be the only thing that makes any sense in a malign universe.

Dickens’s stories also commonly exemplify sacrifice, charity and compassion for others. Again and again, aid to the sick, the poor and the distressed is extolled as extremely virtuous and noble. Dickens’s look at this form of righteousness is more or less the traditional view and is similar to the thinking that runs throughout many of the world’s religions, philosophies and cultures. 

Instances in Dickens’s writing are so numerous and well known that it is almost unnecessary to provide examples. For instance, the plot of A Tale of Two Cities hinges in Sydney Carton’s sacrifice of his own life to save Charles Darnay. In doing so, he finds the ultimate meaning to his existence. Ebenezer Scrooge is, of course, our society’s poster boy for the degenerating effects of selfishness and the redemptive powers of bestowing charity. Almost any Dickens work will provide additional examples. 

When it comes to finding purpose in life through alleviating human misery, both authors have reached the very same endpoint. However, both have arrived at this destination by following very different routes.

Camus approaches the problem from a view of a universe where there is either no God or, if there is a God, he is one who plays no part in day-to-day human affairs and who has created a reality where justice does not exist. Though I believe Dickens sees the world through a Christian belief system, oddly enough, his realities behave in ways very similar to that of the reality seen in The Plague. Although justice is often served and there are happy endings, at other times very bad things happen to innocent and good people. Often, chaos runs free in the world unchecked with no end in site. When good does triumph, it usually does so through the good actions of people.

But the two authors’ views on these matters are also very different, even diametrically opposed, in many ways. Dickens can be described as a super sentimentalist. He throws gallons of emotion both at his depictions of human suffering as well as at corresponding altruistic action and sacrifice. His works are full of famous, powerful and affecting death scenes. 

In contrast, Camus rejects all sentimentality. As I pointed out in my first post, he sees altruism as a rational response to an irrational world. He views good works as simply a sensible reaction to an insensible universe.

There is indeed a terrible death scene in The Plague, during which a young boy who is stricken with the plague dies an excruciating death. Although the passage is extremely disturbing, it is grim, clinical and unsentimental.

The narrator of the story describes how the boy dies,

In the small face, rigid as a mask of grayish clay, slowly the lips parted and from them rose a long, incessant scream, hardly varying with his respiration, and filling the ward with a fierce, indignant protest, so little childish that it seemed like a collective voice issuing from all the sufferers there.   

Compare this to Dickens’s description of the death of the orphan Johnny in Our Mutual Friend. As Johnny dies, he thinks of Bella, “the boffor lady” who has been kind to him.

With a weary and yet a pleased smile, and with an action as if he stretched his little figure out to rest, the child heaved his body on the sustaining arm, and seeking Rokesmith's face with his lips, said: 'A kiss for the boofer lady.’

I must admit that in contrast to Camus’s passage of horror, Dickens seems laughably melodramatic here.

Dickens also throws copious accolades upon those who perpetuate good acts. After Sydney Carton’s sacrifice, Darnay, Darnay’s wife and Darnay’s descendants all remember him with gratitude and tributes for generations. 

Camus sees these altruistic deeds very differently, 

The essential thing was to save the greatest possible number of persons from dying and being doomed to unending separation. And to do this there was only one resource: to fight the plague. There was nothing admirable about this attitude; it was merely logical.   

Later, Camus’s narrator goes on to some interesting observations about individuals who have joined the “Sanitary Squads.” These units are designed to combat the plague, but they put their members in extreme peril,

However, it is not the narrator’s intention to ascribe to these sanitary groups more importance than their due. Doubtless today many of our fellow citizens are apt to yield to the temptation of exaggerating the services they rendered. But the narrator is inclined to think that by attributing overimportance to praiseworthy actions one may, by implication, be paying indirect but potent homage to the worse side of human nature. For this attitude implies that such actions shine out as rare exceptions, while callousness and apathy are the general rule. The narrator does not share that view

Thus, good works are not just rational, but they are already more common than we tend to think.

Dickens also extolled individual action. His heroes and heroines more usually act alone in their attempts at making the world better. Once again Sydney Carton is a good example of this, as he acts on his own and even in secret when he sacrifices his life to save Darnay. Of course Scrooge also acts almost entirely as an individual after his redemption. 

In contrast, Camus strongly exhorts people to band together in groups in order to alleviate human pain. He seems to reject extreme government forms of societal organization such as communism. Instead, he seems to contend that people are most effective when they voluntarily join together. 

When organizing the Sanitary Groups, Jean Tarrou strategizes,

Officialdom can never cope with something really catastrophic. And the remedial measures they think up are hardly adequate for a common cold. If we let them carry on like this they’ll soon be dead, and so shall we…I’ve drawn up a plan for voluntary groups of helpers. Get me empowered to try out my plan, and then let’s sidetrack officialdom.

Without a doubt, Dickens’s views on these matters are more popular. Though he is over-the-top in his use of sentiment at times, I am more partial to his approach. I do think that I understand what Camus was saying, and I believe that it follows a logical process; however, it seems that it does not reflect the reality of human nature. 

Dickens extolled warm and strong emotions as the primary driver of altruism. I would argue that Dickens understands human behavior better. People need sentimentality, enthusiasm and energy in order to fight against the misery and injustice inherent in the Universe. While I find Camus’s view a fascinating intellectual exercise, ironically, Dickens’s approach seems much more practical. Hand in hand with this idea is the fact that strong positive emotions surrounding self-sacrifice make the pain of such sacrifice a bit less painful, thus alleviating suffering in and of itself.

At the end of my little intellectual foray, I humorously thought about what The Plague would have been like if Dickens had written it. I can imagine the book retaining the same basic plot. The theme of self-sacrifice in order to assuage the suffering and loss to others could likewise remain intact. Putting aside the different way in which he would portray characters, I think that Dickens’s version of the book would include one or more tearful and extremely overemotional death scenes that would almost descend into parody.  Dr. Rieux and the volunteers who assisted others during the crisis would be memorialized with homages consisting of a generous heaping of laudatory prose from both the other characters as well as the author.

It may seem a bit odd to compare these two writers. I set out to show that are major similarities, at least in the way both look at issues relating to life’s meaning and purpose. For me, the fact that these commonalities exist makes the differences all the more interesting.