Thursday, January 31, 2019

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy


Anna Karenina is known as story about infidelity. I found it to be about a whole lot more. The novel was first published in 1878. This is the first work that I have read by Leo Tolstoy. After a bit of research on the various translations available for this book, I chose the Louise and Aylmer Maude version. My copy of this novel ran 710 pages. Within these pages, Tolstoy has packed a lot in terms of drama, characterization, philosophy and more. I found that the result was brilliant but uneven.

This novel basically tells two parallel stories. First, there is the tale of Anna herself. The title character is a beautiful aristocratic woman. She is married to Count Karenin, a high government official. She meets and begins an affair with Count Vronsky, a young cavalry officer. Anna subsequently leaves her husband and son as she runs off with Vronsky. Much drama ensues as several issues continue to percolate, including the question of Karenin’s willingness or unwillingness to grant Anna a divorce, Anna’s distraught feelings over the estrangement from her son, Anna’s very mixed feelings towards Karenin, etc.

The other plot thread involves Konstantin Levin, a Russian landowner. Levin is an independent thinker. He courts and eventually marries Princess Katerina Shcherbatskaya, known as “Kitty.” Levin is focused upon the future of Russia, especially as it concerns the peasantry and agricultural policy. The ups and downs of Kitty and Levin’s relationship make up much of the narrative.

There is a third couple, Stepan Oblonsky and Darya Oblonskaya, known as “Dolly.” Stephan is Anna’s brother, and Dolly is Kitty’s sister. This pair is something of a link between the other two stories. Stepan is a serial philanderer, which is one of several reasons that the couple is unhappy. 

Almost every character in this book is marvelously fleshed out and complex. I could write pages and pages about almost every one of them. Both Anna and Levin are particularly complicated. Anna does many questionable things, including abandoning her son. She is unlikable, yet she is humanized and, at times, pitiable. Levin is likable and mostly virtuous but unusual. He is also a deep thinker who suffers from several inner crises. 

Much of the narrative involves high drama leading to tragedy in regards to Anna and her affair. Her interactions with her lover, her husband and her son reach a sublime level, and all four are shown to be complex and nuanced characters. 

Levin and Kitty’s story is also interesting, but the parts of the book about Levin also contain many pages of philosophizing between Levin and his friends as well as within Levin’s own mind. Levin’s musings include the nature of work, life’s meaning, death, relationships, the role of government, agriculture, war, religion and more.  Toward the end, he has an epiphany involving God that ties in thematically with the dark place that Anna finds herself in. Though I tend to like such musings, and I did enjoy some of this, other parts became a little dull, especially some long segments about labor and agriculture, even for me. These segments also seemed to not mix all that well with the drama in the book. All of this gives the novel a kind of irregular feel to it. 

The book is, in part, a study in relationships, as the famous opening lines indicate,

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Though a little online reading indicates there are varying interpretations on this subject, Levin and Kitty’s relationship, despite some ups and downs, ends up mostly happy. This is contrasted with every other romantic relationship in this book, which are unhappy and, in the case of Anna and Vronsky, lead to calamity. 

There is so much going on within these pages that it is impossible to examine even just the major points with a single post.  Instead, I am going to share a few thoughts about one particular aspect of Tolstoy’s writing style as it relates to characterization.  Much of the narrative is told in third -person. However, at many points, Tolstoy lapses into stream of consciousness for several of the characters. Unlike many other examples of this style that I have read, the stream of consciousness here is relatively straight-forward and follows a linear stream of thoughts. Thus, it is not all that different from conventional first-person narration. It seems that Tolstoy was one of the first authors to employ this technique, and his pioneering use of it may be the reason that it is fairly basic here. 

Tolstoy has a knack for getting into characters’ heads. He does this using this stream of conscious as well as more conventional third-person narration that heavily focuses on a particular character for multiple paragraphs.   At one point, Tolstoy even peeks into the mind of Levin’s dog, Laska.  When Levin and his brother interrupt their concentration during a hunting trip to talk about life matters, Laska becomes annoyed that they will miss the birds that they are hunting, 

Laska , with ears pricked up , was looking upwards at the sky , and reproachfully at them . “ They have chosen a time to talk , ” she was thinking . “ It’s on the wing . . . . Here it is , yes , it is. They’ll miss it”

A melding of the magnificent characterization found in this novel and this style occurs with Anna. At several points, Tolstoy uses this style to really get into her head and to convey emotion. For instance, after living with Vronsky for over a year, she finds herself unable to obtain a divorce from her husband. At the same time, her relationship with Vronsky is deteriorating due to her own instability and unfounded jealousy. She begins to suffer from wild mood swings and paranoia. Tolstoy gets into her head very effectively here, 

Some noisy men were quiet as she passed them on the platform , and one whispered something about her to another — something vile , no doubt . She stepped up on the high step , and sat down in a carriage by herself on a dirty seat that had been white . Her bag lay beside her , shaken up and down by the springiness of the seat ..an impudent conductor slammed the door and the latch . A grotesque - looking lady wearing a bustle ( Anna mentally undressed the woman , and was appalled at her hideousness ) , and a little girl laughing affectedly ran down the platform .

At this point, Anna is unreliable. The reader is not sure if the young men were whispering something vile or not. She is showing hostility toward not just them, but to the conductor and to the woman who is described as grotesque. Her thoughts about mentally undressing this woman seem particularly nasty. The laughing little girl seems to add to the funhouse-like scene that is running through Anna’s mind. 

At another slightly more lucid movement, Anna contemplates the deteriorating relationship between herself and Vronsky;

“My love keeps growing more passionate and egoistic , while his is waning and waning , and that’s why we’re drifting apart . ” She went on musing . “ And there’s no help for it . He is everything for me , and I want him more and more to give himself up to me entirely . And he wants more and more to get away from me . We walked to meet each other up to the time of our love , and then we have been irresistibly drifting in different directions . And there’s no altering that . He tells me I’m insanely jealous , and I have told myself that I am insanely jealous but  it’s not true . I’m not jealous , but I’m unsatisfied.

Anna is also not completely seeing reality above. Vronsky’s attempts to “get away” from Anna is him just straining against Anna’s stifling behavior. She seems to realize that her jealousy is a problem, but then pulls back from that revelation. I think that the above quotation illustrates how Tolstoy is able to craft such subtle and nuanced characters and plot. 

As noted above, I found this novel both  uneven and brilliant. The parts that involve emotional human interaction and extremely well thought out characters are interspaced with Levin’s ruminations about nearly everything under the sun.  Yet, much of the work was grandly written with sublime characters and a story that touched upon all sorts of important issues involving life and the universe. A reader should approach this work knowing that Tolstoy will be taking them in a lot of directions, some of them very unconventional. I highly recommend this to anyone prepared for such a ride. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling is the third book in the series. In this entry, Harry is back for his third year at the magical boarding school of Hogwarts. His friends Hermione and Ron are also back, along with many other students and professors from the previous two books. This time, the supposedly evil Sirius Black has escaped from the magical prison of Azkaban. Black is supposedly an ally of the malevolent Lord Voldemort and is believed to be trying to kill Harry. Thought the book both Sirius and other terrifying creatures creep around the edges of Hogwarts. Harry and his friends also discover multiple secret passages and underground tunnels to help keep them occupied. 

Like the previous two books, I enjoyed this novel a lot. However, Rowling breaks little new ground here. Once again, we have the Dursleys, who are Harry’s abusive but comical relatives; once again we have the train trip to Hogwarts; once again we have the Quidditch matches, a sport played on Broomsticks; once again we have the old characters, both good and evil, acting as they did in the previous books. I could go on with this. I do value originality, thus, I thought that the lack of it in this book did detract a bit. However, I liked this book a lot and I had fun reading it. I think that the fact that I did have a pleasant reading experience despite the lack of originality says something about the concept of familiar reads in general. 

Comfort and familiarity can be very appealing in a novel.  Books that feel comfortable and familiar tend to settle into routines. Rowling has created a universe full of fun and pleasant things to read about.  This book, like the previous two, also has an intriguing plot as well as characters that, though they tend to be simple, are interesting to read about.  This book is also very funny. Though the book follows a formula, within the bounds of the formula, Rowling employs all sorts of creative touches. This combination, that of familiarity, with a retention of strong qualities, is what makes Harry Potter, and many other series, popular. Reading such books is like visiting old friends. Such reading might not reach the same heights that more original books do; nevertheless, I think that these comfortable books do serve an important function. 

I was going to observe that I do not read a lot of comfortable books. However, when I think about it, my reading of Anthony Trollope’s series, despite that author’s complexities, is in some ways comfort reading. 

An example of the effectively intriguing situations that Rowling builds in these books occurs when Harry and his friends first encounter “The Dementors.” These are ghoulish and threatening prison guards that have been sent to recapture Sirius Black, 

Standing in the doorway, illuminated by the shivering flames in Lupin’s hand, was a cloaked figure that towered to the ceiling. Its face was completely hidden beneath its hood. Harry’s eyes darted downward, and what he saw made his stomach contract. There was a hand protruding from the cloak and it was glistening, grayish, slimy-looking, and scabbed, like something dead that had decayed in water... 

But it was visible only for a split second. As though the creature beneath the cloak sensed Harry’s gaze, the hand was suddenly withdrawn into the folds of its black cloak. And then the thing beneath the hood, whatever it was, drew a long, slow, rattling breath, as though it were trying to suck something more than air from its surroundings.  An intense cold swept over them all. Harry felt his own breath catch in his chest. The cold went deeper than his skin. It was inside his chest, it was inside his very heart... 
Harry’s eyes rolled up into his head. He couldn’t see. He was drowning in cold. There was a rushing in his ears as though of water. He was being dragged downward, the roaring growing louder... 

And then, from far away, he heard screaming, terrible, terrified, pleading screams

I think that Rowling is very good in describing such scenes. 

My verdict here is that this is still a worthy book for fans. It is hard to fault anyone for liking it a lot. In fact, I liked it a lot.  The settling down into routine may not maintain itself, however.  Based on the films as well as what I have been told by others, I believe that some of the upcoming books take a turn into some new and creative directions. Even if I did not expect such a turn, I would continue on with this series. 


Friday, January 11, 2019

Colonialism/Postcolonialism by Ania Loomba

Colonialism/Postcolonialism is a comprehensive survey of postcolonial theory and thinking The author, , is a Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. She has written several books on colonialism, India and Shakespeare. The edition of the book that I read was updated in 2015. This book is used as a kind of a textbook in a lot of postcolonial classes. However, the book is very readable, contains the author’s opinions, and it is essentially a work of social and political philosophy. Thus, I would not call it a textbook. The issue of colonialism and postcolonial theory has come up on this blog as well as with other people that I know both in real life and on social media. In addition, people who I know both in real life and on social media profess to believe in at least some of the tenants of postcolonial theory. Thus, I wanted to read a basic introduction to the subject. 

Loomba does a good job of outlining the fundamentals of the postcolonial position. She explains what the various thinkers in the field have postulated. She also talks about the important books and other writings that have influenced the ideology. She covers the main points as well as the various controversies within the belief system. She also usually makes clear what her own positions on these issues are. While this is my first book whose subject is postcolonialism, based upon opinion pieces that I have read and based upon conversations both in real life as well as online, it seems that this book is a fairly accurate representation of the ideology.

As per Loomba, the philosophy starts with the idea that European colonialism had a profound effect on this world. Both colonized and colonizing nations were and still are affected. The effect is still profound. The effects of colonialism reach into the major building blocks of civilization. In fact, things like capitalism, science, certain value systems, the literary cannon, etc. are the products of colonialism.

Something that runs throughout this book is the point that capitalism is harmful to all humanity and it is based upon racism. While explaining the views of some theorists of postcolonialism, Loomba writes, 

“racism not just as an effect of capitalism but as complexly intertwined with it.”

As is true for many aspects of the modern world, capitalism in its current form is seen as being the result of the colonial system.

“we could say that colonialism was the midwife that assisted at the birth of European capitalism, or that without colonial expansion the transition to capitalism could not have taken place
  
Globalism is similarly criticized and its origins attributed to the colonial system.  

Marxism is portrayed as a superior and beneficial system. In addition to Marxism, postmodernist philosophy is also extolled. Political and social postmodernism, at least here, is the questioning of basic social systems, basic value systems and the origin of what people consider truth.  Since science, art, modern value systems, etc. is seen as all subjective and to a great degree the products of colonialism and the West, the basic tenants of these systems are questioned and ultimately rejected as being the results of colonialism.  I want to emphasize that it is clear that all of this goes beyond just rooting out possible bias and flaws in these systems. Instead, the entire systems are put into question and “decolonization” is advocated (Loomba herself seems to go easy on literature and just advocates that people add more diverse authors to their book selections).   

A good example of this critique is the postcolonial approach to science. Loomba explains how postcolonial thinkers point to the fact that in the past, supposed scientific thinking was used to justify racist and imperialist beliefs. Therefore, science is believed to be changeable and based on ideology. The scientific method is viewed as malleable and is not really the path to solid truths. I am somewhat oversimplifying here, there are pages and pages within this book that delve into this and go into a lot more detail and nuance than I am going into. 

The ultimate postmodernist argument manifests itself when the entire concept of anti – colonial struggle and nationalism is seen as a creature of western colonial thinking by some theorists!  The author writes, 

“Nationalism also engages in a complex process of contesting as well as appropriating colonialist versions of the past. Anthony Appiah has accused nationalists in Africa of making ‘real the imaginary identities to which Europe has subjected us.  Nativists, he says, are of the West’s party without knowing it, and in fact ‘few things … are less native than nativism in its current forms’

For some of its theorists, postcolonialism is used to examine all belief systems, cultural trends, etc.  If the belief system is deemed as colonial in origin, it is rejected as being harmful to humanity. I like to call theories and belief systems that try to tie everything together as universal. 


There is a lot more to postcolonial theory presented here. There is important concept known as “hybridity,” which exams the mixing of native culture and ideas with colonist concepts. Also, the role of women and feminism is examined. Non - Marxist and non - postmodernist forms of feminism are criticized and Marxist and postmodernist forms are championed by the advocates of this philosophy. 
  
I would like to step back for a moment and share a few observations on the current state of discussion and ideology that is out there. Having read some opinion pieces on this issue as well as observing and participating in a few discussions on this set of issues on social media, I think that it is fair to say that there are roughly three major positions relating to colonialism out there. First, there is the postcolonial position as outlined above. Then there is what I will call the conservative position, which is that at least some aspects of colonialism were beneficial to the colonizers and the colonized.  Then, there is what I will call the traditional liberal position, which is that colonialism was wrong for all sorts of reasons. However, the fact that it was wrong is no reason to throw out such positive things about civilization as science, regulated capitalism, our worldwide consensus on values, etc. I take this position. This is all part of a larger rift that has developed in the left between postmodernists and traditional liberals (my terminology is imperfect here. Some of the  terms that I have used do not have generally accepted meanings. Liberalism, conservatism, postmodernism and “the left” all have different meanings in different parts of the world and in different contexts. I am trying to describe certain beliefs and trends that do not yet have agreed upon names). In this the book Loomba expresses her personal criticism of both the traditional left and the conservative views. 

I disagree with a lot of postcolonial theory as outlined in this book. However, Loomba has convinced me that because of its scope, colonialism did have a bigger effect on history and the world than it is usually ascribed to. Furthermore, Loomba makes a strong case that colonialism is still influencing the modern world. There is also a lot here about colonialism and imperialism as these things relate to racism that also ring true.

I strongly disagree with Marxist thought and economics. Though this one post is insufficient to delve completely into the issues of capitalism, free markets. Marxism, etc., it seems clear, based on history, that Marxist systems have led to human misery in all sorts of ways. It also seems clear that capitalist systems, when properly regulated and supplemented with government programs, have improved the human condition immeasurably. Furthermore, regulated capitalist systems have led to free societies that are far from perfect, but they help nations move towards societies that  protect the rights and help empower minorities, women and non – conformists of all sorts.  I am very aware that all capitalistic modern societies have a long way to go. I also believe that when capitalism is unregulated as well when it is abused in certain ways, it can lead to terrible exploitation and suffering. On the other hand, Marxism inevitably leads to such suffering. 

I also believe that the postcolonial and postmodernist reasoning in regards to truth, science, value systems, etc. is flawed. The postmodernist take on science is a good example. If the goal of postmodernism was to eliminate bias in the way that the scientific method is employed, or to decrease discrimination aimed at women and minorities in the field of science, then I would be more receptive. However, these belief systems challenge the basic tenets of science. The scientific method, when employed correctly, is the only road to the truth about how the universe works.  The fact that biased people have misused science is no reason to reject the scientific method. Instead, it is reason to identify and root out bias. 

I also do not agree that science and other institutions scrutinized by these theories are the products of colonialism. Such reasoning seems very simplistic. In addition, a lot of what the postcolonialists attribute to the West, such as science, modern ethics, etc. have roots in cultures from every corner of the earth.  

If a nation, be it American, European, African, Asian, etc., “decolonized” like some theorists espoused, it would rip apart civilization. It would result in death and suffering. Science and certain institutions are key drivers of freedom, equality and eliminating oppression. The postcolonial theorists would have us dismantle these systems. Radical social engendering experiments have a long history of leading to calamity. One needs to look no further than the disastrous revolutions that have occurred in Russia, China and Cambodia, to name a few. 

Loomba mentions climate change and its relationship to capitalism. Once again, I think that a society that rejects scientific thinking and acts as inefficiently and wasteful as previous Marxist societies have done would be in no position to combat climate change. I believe that a reevaluation of certain aspects of how we do capitalism may be necessary to counter climate change. However, eliminating it is not the answer. 

I have to note the fact that postcolonial studies is considered an accepted academic pursuit. Many universities offer degrees in the subject.  I have perused multiple reading lists for graduate students and I have chatted with several students on social media. Unfortunately, the field seems to be an echo chamber. There are few mainstream liberal views, and much fewer conservative views, entertained. There are books that approach colonialism from such viewpoints, yet I could find none on any of the academic reading lists. In this book, Loompa portrays such views as adversarial to postcolonial studies. Even more concerning; In 2017 a conservative article on colonialism was withdrawn after the author faced death threats and harassment. Details of that incident can be found here.

My position here has little to do with agreement or disagreement with this set of ideas. If postcolonialism is to be considered a field of study, it should at least include exposure to different viewpoints. I would like to think that I would feel the same way had I agreed with most of the tenants of this ideology. Because of the one-sidedness of this, I would not call postcolonialism, as presented in this book, as a field of study, instead it is a set of beliefs or ideology. There is nothing wrong with being an ideology. There are sets of ideas that I mostly agree with. However, I think that it is disingenuous to call this a field of study and it should not be taught as such. For postcolonial studies to be considered its own field, it needs to entertain more diverse viewpoints. 

Ultimately, based on the views outlined in this book, I disagree with the basics of this thought system. However, Loomba cannot be faulted for outlining the basics of these beliefs. In fact, she does an excellent job of explaining the complexities of all this. With that, I disagree with many, but not all, of her own opinions. They say in for a penny, in for a pound. I think that I may read one or two of the “classic” postcolonial texts out there. Some of these books appear to be more personal than this book and I may find more common ground in them. I also plan to read at least one or more conservative takes on colonialism. I actually recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand the basics of postcolonialism. It is an excellent introduction. 

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

7 Years Old

Babbling Books is seven years old today!  As always, I want to thank the Blogging Community and all the folks who read and comment on my blog. You all are the reason that posting about books is worth it. 

Seven years has gone fast. What I originally envisioned for my blog I have realized. I wanted to talk about books. Books are about ideas and are sometimes about opinions and controversial issues. Thus, I wanted to express opinions. I did not want to shy around controversial issues. I had hoped that people would come to my comments section and not be afraid to express their opinions, even if they disagreed with me.  All these things have come to pass. 

Of course, not everything is perfect. I do not post as often as I would like to. Early on, I participated in a lot more group reads and events. As of late I have refrained from posting as often as I would like and from participating in group events. This is because my life outside of the blogging world has been very busy. Nevertheless, my blogging continues and I hope for less hectic future days when I can blog more and participate in the blogging community more. Some bloggers have expressed the feeling that they have gotten burned out or tired of blogging. I feel no such thing thus far. Perhaps the fact that I do not post nearly as much as I would like to has helped me to avoid burnout. Either way, I hope to be around for a while longer.

I hope that 2019 is a great year for everyone’s reading and blogging life. So once again, happy reading everyone!