Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

This post contains spoilers. 

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot is the story of Maggie Tulliver. It is a brilliant character study. The tale starts during Maggie’s childhood. She is very close to her brother, Tom. The relationship between the two siblings plays a key role in this story.  At the book’s beginning, Maggie’s father, a fairly prosperous mill owner, is embroiled in a legal battle with a neighbor, Mr. Wakem, the result of which leaves him ruined. The balance of Tom and Maggie’s adolescence is spent in financial straits.

Maggie is sensitive. She is a free thinker who appreciates art and culture. She is different from those around her. Much of the tale illustrates how her gifts and virtues are underappreciated. This lack of appreciation stems from the unfair way that women and girls are viewed, as well as the fact that the people around her are unimaginative and lack understanding. 

Tom grows up to be dull, cold and unappreciative of culture. At times, his behavior is terrible. He takes advantage of Maggie’s great affection for him and uses these feelings to control her. For her part, Maggie has an almost unnatural connection and love for Tom.

Philip Wakem, a character who suffers from physical deformities, is a member of the rival Wakem clan. He is extremely intelligent and sensitive. He and Maggie develop a great affection for one another. Their relationship falls short of romantic love and can best be characterized as spiritual love. Their potential marriage is opposed by Tom, who forces them to separate.

Later in the story, Maggie and Phillip reestablish contact. But they continue their relationship in an unrequited manner. When wealthy Stephen Guest appears on the scene and establishes a romantic connection with Maggie, the situation becomes very complicated. Much of the balance of the book is devoted to the conflict between Maggie’s spiritual feelings for Philip and her romantic feelings for Steven. 

This novel is a great character study. Maggie is a wonderful literary creation. The book is also filled with wisdom that comes served on platter of delectable writing. In the below passage, the mundane character of everyday life is compared to the old days when things were supposedly grandeur,  

“Journeying down the Rhone on a summer's day, you have perhaps felt the sunshine made dreary by those ruined villages which stud the banks in certain parts of its course, telling how the swift river once rose, like an angry, destroying god, sweeping down the feeble generations whose breath is in their nostrils, and making their dwellings a desolation. Strange contrast, you may have thought, between the effect produced on us by these dismal remnants of commonplace houses, which in their best days were but the sign of a sordid life, belonging in all its details to our own vulgar era, and the effect produced by those ruins on the castled Rhine, which have crumbled and mellowed into such harmony with the green and rocky steeps that they seem to have a natural fitness, like the mountain-pine; nay, even in the day when they were built they  earth-born race, who had inherited from their mighty parent a sublime instinct of form. And that was a day of romance; If those robber-barons were somewhat grim and drunken ogres, they had a certain grandeur of the wild beast in them,– they were forest boars with tusks, tearing and rending, not the ordinary domestic grunter; they represented the demon forces forever in collision with beauty, virtue, and the gentle uses of life; they made a fine contrast in the picture with the wandering minstrel, the soft-lipped princess, the pious recluse, and the timid Israelite. That was a time of color, when the sunlight fell on glancing steel and floating banners; a time of adventure and fierce struggle,– nay, of living, religious art and religious enthusiasm; for were not cathedrals built in those days, and did not great emperors leave their Western palaces to die before the infidel strongholds in the sacred East? Therefore it is that these Rhine castles thrill me with a sense of poetry; they belong to the grand historic life of humanity, and raise up for me the vision of an echo. But these dead-tinted, hollow-eyed, angular skeletons of villages on the Rhone oppress me with the feeling that human life– very much of it– is a narrow, ugly, grovelling existence, which even calamity does not elevate, but rather tends to exhibit in all its bare vulgarity of conception; and I have a cruel conviction that the lives these ruins are the traces of were part of a gross sum of obscure vitality, that will be swept into the same oblivion with the generations of ants and beavers."

The writing is so good in the above passages. The imagery of the monumental things and people of the past is very impressive. It makes such an effective contrast with the more modern “dreary” and “ruined” villages. In the above quote, even the villains were magnificent, they were  “demon forces forever in collision with beauty” and “they were forest boars with tusks, tearing and rending.”  The prose also creates such an effective contrast between the mundane aspects of life and the awe-inspiring parts of human existence.

Eliot goes on to observe that the giants of the past also overshadow the story’s current characters. 

“Perhaps something akin to this oppressive feeling may have weighed upon you in watching this old-fashioned family life on the banks of the Floss, which even sorrow hardly suffices to lift above the level of the tragi-comic. It is a sordid life, you say, this of the Tullivers and Dodsons, irradiated by no sublime principles, no romantic visions, no active, self-renouncing faith; moved by none of those wild, uncontrollable passions which create the dark shadows of misery and crime; without that primitive, rough simplicity of wants, that hard, submissive, ill-paid toil, that childlike spelling-out of what nature has written, which gives its poetry to peasant life. Here one has conventional worldly notions and habits without instruction and without polish, surely the most prosaic form of human life; proud respectability in a gig of unfashionable build; worldliness without side-dishes.”

The Tullivers and Dodsons mentioned above are Maggie’s maternal and paternal families. Her aunts and uncles are often jealous, vindictive, braggadocios and constantly bickering. While her father is not without his virtues, he becomes obsessed with vengeance upon the Wakems. Tom can be cold and controlling. He becomes work obsessed. He holds no romantic thoughts at all. 

I think that the above quotes are a key to this novel. Maggie’s life can be viewed as the exact opposite of the “sordid life” lived by her relatives. Her relations often live a “a “narrow, ugly, groveling existence.” These passaes come early in the book. In retrospect, Maggie’s story seems to reach the level of magnificence embodied in the past as described here. Her relatives are often vulgar, but she is not. She strives for sublime principles and experiences romantic visions. She has a strong faith and tries to do what is right. Almost everything mentioned in the above paragraph characterizes positive things about Maggie and negative things about her relatives. One cannot help but to think that Maggie would be better suited had she lived in the times of romance, robber barons and drunken ogres. It is a testament to just how much her character shines and that one could picture her among such heroes and villains. 

The angry, destroying god” that made  “their dwellings a desolation” also foreshadows a terrible flood that eventually sweeps away much of the world depicted in this story. 

This book is also filled with ideas, philosophy and observations on human nature. These ruminations are often tied to the story’s themes. Like Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” this work brims full of references to various art forms. 

The plot develops very slowly. Eliot is more interested in developing characters and ideas than in moving things along. Those looking for a plot driven narrative might be bored with sections of this novel. However, the thoughtful and patient reader will be rewarded. 

There is so much to this book. At its heart, it is a great character study told in magnificent prose. In addition to Maggie, it is also filled with complex and well wrought out characters. It is full of philosophy, wisdom and culture. It is an interesting story. Ultimately it is a brilliantly written exploration of characters and ideas. 

Saturday, February 11, 2017

My Comments Section

I want to share a few thoughts about my blog. In particular, I want to talk about my comments section and what it has grown into. On multiple occasions in the past, I have written about how wonderful the book blogging community is and how grateful I am for all the folks who come here and comment on this site. What my comments section has grown into is something truly special.

People come to this blog and leave many comments. Many if these comments are detailed. Many folks clearly think about my posts and put thought into their responses to them. Many introduce a diversity of ideas that surprise me at times. Sometimes folks will come back and continue conversations. 

There are several regular commenters who visit and will challenge my ideas. They will occasionally disagree with me, or they will present ideas counter to mine. As I alluded to above, some come back multiple times and continue to discuss these issues. I not only am fine with this, I am delighted that this goes on. Echo chambers are bad. They foster a form of closed mindedness and are often an impediment to truth and wisdom. I always wanted my blog to be about the exchange of ideas. Any productive exchange must include the questioning and examination of ideas. I will at times delve into controversial subjects.  I am not afraid to express my opinions. I welcome comments that also delve into controversial areas and that express divergent opinions. 

That civility and politeness are keys to good discussion goes without saying.  You all have been extremely civil and polite. This is true even when there is disagreement. This is true even when we have delved into controversial or sensitive subjects. I do not think that there has been a single instance of a regular commenter here issuing an uncivil comment or impolite remark. 

So one again, I want to thank everyone who has ever commented on this blog. I appreciate and value each and everyone who has done so. As I spelled out above, the level of comments and discussion here has been intelligent, reasoned and thought provoking. I look forward to great discussions in the future. 

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Triton by Samuel R. Delany

This post contains major spoilers. 

Triton, sometimes titled Trouble on Triton,  by Samuel R. Delany  is an odd book by any measure. First published in 1976, this is reread for me. A Google search finds that this book is still talked about a lot. Some consider this a science-fiction classic. Others find it enigmatic and frustrating.  After this reading, I understand both reactions. 

The novel’s main character is Bron Helstrom. Bron is a recent immigrant to the human settlement on Triton. Neptune’s moon is one of many moons within the solar system that has been colonized. The protagonist becomes enamored with a brilliant street theater producer known as the Spike. Much of the book concerns itself with Bron’s interactions with the Spike, friends and work associates. Toward the end of the book, an interstellar war between the solar system’s moons on one side, and Earth and Mars on the other, heats up. The results are destructive, bloody and tragic. At the same time, Bron’s relationship with the Spike disintegrates, leading Bron to take some radical actions. 

Delany’s writing style is unusual. The book falls firmly within the definition of postmodernist literature. The descriptions of objects and people are dense, colorful and, at times, bizarre. 

At one point, a street performance directed by the Spike  is described, 

“Windy, on a large contraption like a rodent’s exercise wheel, bells fixed on his wrists and ankles, rotated head down, head up, head down: A target was painted around his belly button, rings of red, blue, and yellow extending far as circling nipples and knees. The guitar started. As though it were a signal, two men began unrolling an immense carpet across the ground— another mural: This one of some ancient fair with archaic costumes, barkers, and revelers. Verbal disorientation, he thought, listening to the surreal catalogue of the lyrics: The melody was minor, this time rhythmic, more chant than song. “

As the subject of this story is a society that exists more than a hundred years into the future, the weird nature of his imagery makes sense to me. 

There are also numerous references to art, literature, music and philosophy. These references are sometimes obvious, but at other times obscure. There is a heavy bias toward postmodern philosophy and art.  They often tie into the book’s themes. At one point, a calculus formula is included in the text. There are also many references to science, particularly to physics and biology. At times, this becomes extremely technical.  The book includes several appendages that further elaborate on the philosophy and technical aspects of the story.  There is a lot of humor in the book. The absurdity of Bron’s character flaws as well as humanity is poked at. However, there are no stream of consciousness passages that are typical of the Post Modernist style.

The prose also includes a striking number of parentheses. In fact, the author uses more parentheses than any other author that I have ever read.

The early chapters are fairly light on plot. They include a lot of character development, philosophy and prose filled with symbolism and thematic elements.

The later chapters include a horrible escalation of the interplanetary war. They also include Bron making the absurd decision to become a woman and having his sexual preference reoriented from a heterosexual man to that of a heterosexual woman. This decision has nothing to do with the often-cited, twenty-first century motivation of being a woman stuck in a male’s body. His reasoning is irrational and ludicrous. 

There are many things going on in this book. First, Delany is trying to portray what he believes is a better society than our own. He and others have described it as a utopia. In fact, the author has stated that after reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, he revised his draft of this book to present an alternate version of a utopia. I should note that neither this work nor Le Guin’s portrays a utopia as I understand the term. Instead, these works propose societies that their respective author’s believe to be an improvement upon our own.

The world of Triton is strongly libertarian leaning. This is manifested in many ways. People get to choose different options in life. Some enter associations where they pay high taxes and receive a lot of public services. Others pay little taxes and receive little government services. There is an enormous array of family structures and sexual preferences. There are communes of heterosexuals, gays, bisexuals and asexual individuals as well as mixed groups. Monogamous relationships exist, but they are the exception. People are able to change gender, sexual preference and physical characteristics almost at will. Many take advantage of this ability to metamorphose, but many do not. Delany foresaw medical advances that have brought about the current day ability for people to undergo gender reassignment surgery relatively routinely. In this area, he seems prescient. 

Likewise, religion and spiritualty are characterized by profusion of beliefs in this hypothetical society. Sects based on spirituality are everywhere on the colonized moons. These groups range from the benign to the destructive. Diverse belief systems and philosophy abound. 

Much of the philosophy related in the book seems to champion a level of thinking that transcends standardized logic. This is a complex work, and this set of ideas is both advocated and criticized. Bron’s profession is a metalogician, which, as per the story, is the study of ways of deducing truth that goes beyond formalized logic. 

There is a strong feminist theme in this book. At one point, Bron decides that he is the kind of man who is a protector of society. In his own mind, he links this tendency to being insensitive and uncaring to others, particularly women. Furthermore, he expresses his frustration that most women are unable to appreciate this virtue in men. At one point he ponders,

“real men (because there’s no other way to have it; that’s part of what I know), really deserve more than second-class membership in the species . . .” Bron sighed. “And the species is dying out.” “I also know that that kind of man can’t be happy with an ordinary woman, the kind that’s around today..”

The ridiculousness of these views is highlighted when Bron’s friend Lawrence reminds him of the outrageousness of his claims and that the kind of brave men that Bron is championing just killed billions of people in an interplanetary war. 

These ideas are further developed when Bron decides to transform into a woman. He does so because he believes that there needs to be more of the kind of woman described above. The results of his transformation are, predictably, not good. 

There are many other philosophical and thematic threads to this story. There is also a lot more going on with the characters. I have only scratched the surface above. 

This is a challenging book. The writing style makes it a little difficult. Though full of ideas, they are presented in enigmatic ways. Some of the philosophy, science and other aspects of the story are impossible to decipher. In interviews, Delany has said that some of it is indeed intentionally baffling nonsense. Bron is an unlikable character who does all sorts of bad things. Sometimes, he causes harm to others. He is amazingly self-centered and self-deceptive. He is an unreliable narrator. 

There is so much going on in this book. Its style is strange but creative. It is an effective and unique character study of a narcissistic personality. With that, this novel is not for everyone. It is difficult, and many of Delany’s ideas about society and people are debatable. However, this novel of ideas is not afraid to present and examine all kinds of beliefs. Reading it is like taking a trip through an intellectual fun house. I recommend this book to adventurous readers.