Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby is the story of the title character. This is a novel that in some ways is very much typical of Dickens but varies in other ways from many of his other works.  I found it to be a funny, entertaining and brilliant novel.

Nicholas is a young man of about twenty-one years old.  Early on, when his father dies, Nicholas, his sister Kate, and his mother are torn from their middle-class lifestyle and thrown to the mercies of Nicholas’s uncle, Ralph. This uncle is miserly, cold and vindictive. Disliking Nicholas, he sends him away from London to work as a teacher. Though Ralph finds nearby employment for Kate, he tries to set her up for romantic entanglements with his lecherous and immoral business associates. 

Throughout the book, Nicholas alternates his time between various employments that he finds both inside and outside of London.  Along the way, he works at a boarding school for boys that is horribly abusive and neglectful of its charges. There, he befriends Smike, a mentally handicapped and horribly abused boy who becomes Nicholas’s loyal ally throughout the story. Unfortunately, the pair are also pursued by the evil and cruel headmaster, Wackford Squeers, who is trying to regain custody of Smike.  Later, Nicholas and Smike join a company of stage performers and meet all sorts of colorful and amusing characters.  Later still, Nicholas settles in working for the kindly Cheeryble brothers. Throughout the narrative arc, Nicholas’s fortunes gradually rise. The protagonist eventually falls in love with a young woman named Madeline Bray. Madeline is ensnared in a moneymaking plot involving Ralph and the girl’s father, aimed at marrying her to the wretched and immoral Arthur Gride. Of course, Nicholas devotes his efforts to derail the scheme. Newman Noggs, a former gentleman with odd habits, who is now impoverished, attempts to aid Nicholas and his family throughout the book. 

I have read a lot of Dickens over the years. This book was the most Dickensian of them all. What I mean by that is that this novel had the common features that characterize the author’s work in the greatest abundance. The malicious characters were the most over the top. They represent high levels of both villainy and hilarity.  The good characters were almost ridiculously virtuous. The oversentimentality flowed in torrents. The implausible coincidences seemed more abundant than usual, even for Dickens. I do not consider these attributes to be flaws. Reading Dickens over the years, I have come to appreciate these apparent excesses as elements of a surrealistic and brilliant universe that Dickens paints in his novels. The author builds these strange worlds like no other writer has ever done. The book is also filled with Dickens’s marvelous, at times surrealistic descriptions. There are fabulous portraits of people, cityscapes, country scenes, etc. 

Nicholas, and to some extent his sister Kate, are a little different from many other Dickens protagonists. In modern language, they would be called “effective.” The siblings are very assertive. Nicholas in particular uses both physical force and the power of language without hesitation to counter the malevolent acts of others.  The physical force that he employs is often justified and is often used to stop violence that is directed at weaker people. It all starts when he saves Smike from a brutal beating being administered by Squeers. As he does this, he administers a thorough thrashing of Squeers himself. As a young man in his prime, he is able to effectively and decisively apply this force. Furthermore, Nicholas usually articulates his positions and his reasoning with great effectiveness.  The assertiveness is not surprising. His ability to apply force is not surprising. His tendency to act virtuously and stand up for those weaker then himself is not surprising. However, I found that sometimes Nicholas is too good of an orator for a young man of his age. For instance, in the below passage Nicholas is trying to convince Madeline not to enter into what will clearly be a disastrous marriage with Gride.

‘I speak of this marriage,’ returned Nicholas, ‘of this marriage, fixed for tomorrow, by one who never faltered in a bad purpose, or lent his aid to any good design; of this marriage, the history of which is known to me, better, far better, than it is to you. I know what web is wound about you. I know what men they are from whom these schemes have come. You are betrayed and sold for money; for gold, whose every coin is rusted with tears, if not red with the blood of ruined men, who have fallen desperately by their own mad hands.’

As noted above, I find this level of speechmaking a little implausible for someone of Nicholas’s age. On the other hand, the loquaciousness is entertaining and adds drama to the story. 

Despite Nicholas’s positive attributes, I think that Dickens was trying to show that Nicholas can be a bit too overbearing and aggressive at times. At one point in the book, he takes it upon himself to lecture his own mother on virtue. Later, he nearly provokes an unnecessary fight with a playwright whom he dislikes. 

At one stage of the story, Nicholas and Smike are journeying through the countryside. Here, Dickens’s picturesque descriptions and Nicholas’s strong character both come into play,

The ground seemed elastic under their feet; the sheep-bells were music to their ears; and exhilarated by exercise, and stimulated by hope, they pushed onward with the strength of lions.

Onward they kept, with steady purpose, and entered at length upon a wide and spacious tract of downs, with every variety of little hill and plain to change their verdant surface. Here, there shot up, almost perpendicularly, into the sky, a height so steep, as to be hardly accessible to any but the sheep and goats that fed upon its sides, and there, stood a mound of green, sloping and tapering off so delicately, and merging so gently into the level ground, that you could scarce define its limits. Hills swelling above each other; and undulations shapely and uncouth, smooth and rugged, graceful and grotesque, thrown negligently side by side, bounded the view in each direction; while frequently, with unexpected noise, there uprose from the ground a flight of crows, who, cawing and wheeling round the nearest hills, as if uncertain of their course, suddenly poised themselves upon the wing and skimmed down the long vista of some opening valley, with the speed of light itself.

I find the above passage particularly interesting. It seems to embody much that is typically Dickens, but also the uniqueness of Nicholas’s character.  It is bursting with Dickens’s usual powerful descriptions as the Hills swelling above each other; and undulations shapely and uncouth, smooth and rugged, graceful and grotesque, thrown negligently side by side. I find that prose here to be sublime. 

But Nicholas and Smike are also compared to lions with a steady purpose. One gets a sense of Nicholas’s young strength in this passage. As noted above, Nicholas does embody many aspects of a lion with a steady purpose in his character. This does not seem like typical Dickens to me. His protagonists usually do the right thing, but few, if any, embody the strength and decisiveness of the lion like Nicholas does. One can make an argument that Samuel Pickwick in the Pickwick Paperswas equally strong and assertive in his own way. However, Pickwick was a much older man who had previously lived a life filled with both financial and social successes. 

Like most Dickens books, this work was published in installments. This fact seemed more apparent here than in other Dickens novels that I have read. The work feels episodic. At several points, long before the end, it feels like the story has wrapped up and is heading for its conclusion. I think that a tighter structure would have made this a stronger novel. 

In the end, this is another brilliant portrait by Dickens. As I have written before, I do not read this author for a realistic portrait of the world. Instead, I look at his works as an exaggerated but brilliant reflection of reality. Along the way, there is much for a reader to absorb and to enjoy. Though perhaps not up to the level of Bleak Houseor David Copperfield, this book is very much worth the read for Dickens fans. 

Monday, June 10, 2019

Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity by Chandra Mohanty

Those who have followed my previous posts know that I have decided to read a series of books on the subject of colonialism. As part of that, I wanted to include some books that fall under the category of postcolonial theory. Chandra Mohanty’s Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity is on almost every postcolonial reading list and is often cited as an important source. I wanted to also read one take that was dedicated to the women within the belief system known as postcolonialism. This is the fourth nonfiction book that I have read that can be considered a postcolonial source. I am also interested in feminist thought and theory, so the book is of interest to me in several ways. It will probably be the last book that I read, at least for awhile, that centers on the belief system known as postcolonialism.  I will likely move on to more moderate and conservative writers who write about colonialism.  

 Mohanty is a Professor of women's and gender studies, sociology, and the cultural foundations of education and humanities at Syracuse University. She originally hails from Mumbai, India. In this book, she talks a lot about her background. She has written numerous essays and books on the subject of colonialism, feminism and the developing world. She is often cited as an important postcolonial thinker.

This book is actually a series of essays that Mohanty has written over the years. The essays were originally penned between 1986 and 2003. Her most famous piece, Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses, is included. The essays have been assembled here in an attempt to present a coherent picture of Mohanty’s philosophy as it pertains to colonialism and feminism. 

Several factors make writing about his book tricky. First, Mohanty delves into numerous issues that are in and of themselves enormous and are the subject of large scale and complex controversy and debate. The issues include Capitalism, Marxism, Postmodernism, identity politics, intersectionality, humanism and, of course, feminism and colonialism. I could devote numerous blog posts to any one of these issues.  In fact, I have already written a lot about colonialism and feminism several times.  With all these hot button and complex issues addressed in this book, I cannot “boil the ocean” in this post. Instead, I will try to really focus upon just what the author has written with a few references to these larger issues. 

Second, Mohanty can be maddingly unspecific. She tends to wade in halfway on an issue and does not provide specific examples, commentary or possible solutions. This makes it really difficult to discuss her arguments in depth. Complicating all of this further, some schools of thought, such as postmodernism and intersectionality, have been somewhat dominated or at least infused by extreme views in the past few years. Mohanty’s tendency to not dig too deeply makes it difficult to know if she advocates for these extreme views or not.  I will give an example of what I mean by this below. 

This book is essentially a philosophy book. The author lays out her view of the state of women in the developing world as well as women of color in the developed world. She labels all these women, even those who live in the United States and Europe, as Third World women. She goes on to state what she believes are the primary problems that women face worldwide and ways to raise them out of what she identifies as oppression. 
Mohanty describes herself as an anticolonial, antiracist, anti-capitalist feminist. She espouses several main points in her various essays. One of the main themes of this book is Mohanty’s criticism of what she calls western feminism or white feminism. She argues that such feminism is actually a manifestation of colonialism and that it is an attempt to impose harmful values, such as economic empowerment of women.  The  author labels the economic empowerment of women as Western value that does not apply in the developing world. Through this criticism, the author brings many concepts such as capitalism and universalism in dealing with human issues under scrutiny.  She further argues that western feminism, as well as the western world in general, has developed a false representation of women in the developing world that is inaccurately uniform and based upon stereotypes. This line of reasoning is similar to and partially derived from the writings of Edward Said. My commentary on his book Orientalismis here.

Another major theme is what the author calls anticapitalism. Mohanty contends that capitalism, as well as globalism, is harmful to women all over the world. She ties capitalism to racism and misogyny. Mohanty views Marxism as a preferential system. She calls capitalism and globalism the results of colonization and what she labels recolonization that occurred after the fall of the Soviet Union. Thus, she refers to the changes that she advocates as decolonization. 

She writes, 

The critique and resistance to global capitalism, and uncovering of the naturalization of its masculinist and racist values, begin to build a transnational feminist practice.

Here, Mohanty displays the frustrating vagueness that I refer to above. She gives a few seemingly obscure examples of why she believes that capitalism is harming third world women, but that is all. She also never really explains what she advocates as her version of Marxism. 

Another important theme here is the author’s argument for a change in the higher educational system in developed nations. Once again, her lack of specificity is an obstacle to understanding and analyzing her writings. She advocates for including more ethnic diversity in college staff and reading material. She is clear about that point. She also seems to be advocating something of a revaluation of the methods used to ascertain truth. Thus, she calls for the decolonization of the educational process.  

 Mohanty writes,

a public culture of dissent entails creating spaces for epistemological standpoints that are grounded in the interests of people and that recognize the materiality of conflict, of privilege, and of domination.

The above quotation may seem a little obscure, but I have run into similar language in postmodernist readings and have even run into it with people who advocate for postmodernist or postcolonial belief systems. If I am reading this correctly, spaces for epistemological standpoints seems to call for different ways of finding truths beyond what is often cited as reason, logic and science. Recognizing the materiality of conflict, of privilege, and of domination seems to be calling for the use of different methods based upon the background of the truth seeker. 

A further clue to what the author is talking about comes when she refers to 

The contrast between Western scientific systems and indigenous epistemologies and systems 

 This all seems to be indicative of the postmodern belief that absolute methods of finding the truth, such as logic and science, are not entirely valid or at least not the only ways to find the truth.   Thus, the call to decolonize education.  I should note that in one essay, the author does state that she does not consider herself a postmodernist but that she is sympathetic to many postmodernist ideas. 

The author also advocates intersectionality, that is, the belief that all oppressions, such as sexism, racism and other forms of bigotry, overlap and are related. When an individual is looked at, all the various oppressions must be examined. In addition, power structures that are responsible for oppression are also related. Some branches of intersectionality contend that almost every interaction and action can be viewed within the framework of power and oppression. 

I disagree with the anti-capitalism, anti-globalism and Marxism here. As I have written elsewhere, I agree with criticism of a lot of capitalistic practices. I agree with the author when she advocates for worker’s rights and the need to organize labor movements in the developing world. I am well aware that capitalism, especially in unregulated forms, has led to, and continues to lead to, misery. However, I think that capitalism, with sensible regulation accompanied with government support of economic and social fairness, is the best way to get to a more prosperous and just society. In the long run, it is in capitalist societies where women and minority groups have made the most gains. 

I also disagree with Mohanty’s call to decolonize education. The tenants of reason, logic and science are some of the things that have driven human progress and that have alleviated suffering and injustice. I also do not believe that these methods and values are exclusively Western. Once again, societies in all corners of the world that have embraced these values have seen the greatest gains for women and minority groups.

Though, as I wrote above, I cannot delve into every controversial issue that this book raised, I want to mention intersectionality. As noted above Mohanty advocates intersectionality. This belief system has somewhat evolved in recent years. It is a big topic, and I cannot really examine it thoroughly in this post other than to make one point about Mohanty’s views. Recently a branch of intersectionality has become extremely preoccupied with white men and the supposed oppression meted out by white men. This extreme branch has gone further and has been accused of, I believe rightly so, of minimizing, excusing and sometimes even justifying violence and oppression committed by non-whites. As mentioned above, this is too big of a topic to address comprehensively in this post. However, in regards to this book, I should note that Mohanty does not make excuses for oppression and violence committed by non-whites.  She is highly critical of oppression in the developing world (Mohanty explains how she prefers the term “Third World”). She rightly condemns both racist and violent Hindu Nationalism, of which she writes that some of her family members advocate, as well as the theocracies in Saudi Arabia and Iran. As I have observed in some advocates of intersectionality, she does not place blame on developed nations or upon white men for the ills perpetuated by these movements and governments. With all of that, it seems clear that Mohanty finds capitalism and globalism to be much bigger problems. 

The fact that this book is so esteemed within both the postcolonial thought system and some branches of feminist thought make it important. Many people that I discuss these issues with adhere to postcolonial and /or intersectional beliefs that seem to have originated or at least were developed by Mohanty. I disagree with many of the author’s conclusions, but I also think that it is vital to read writers who have diverse opinions, even if we disagree with them. Thus, I am glad that I have read this book. 

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Circe by Madeline Miller

This post contains spoilers. 

Circe by Madeline Miller was first published in 2018. This is an account of the Greek Goddess’s life from her own point of viewI found this book to be extraordinary. Though I have not read a lot of Twenty – First Century fiction, this was probably my favorite fictional work  that I have read that has been published this century. It is a book that works on many levels.

Though much of the story is drawn from Homer’s Odyssey, many other Greek and Roman mythological sources are drawn into the story including Ovid’s Metamorphosis as well as what is known about the lost Ancient Greek epic poem The Telegony. One of many strengths to this work  is the way that Miller has managed to weave these sources together seamlessly.

Circe’s story is told in the first person. The book picks up in her youngest days. She is the daughter of Helios the Sun God. The young Goddess is not very powerful and is surrounded by Gods and Goddesses who show little humanity or ethics and who often bully or take advantage of her.  Early on she encounters and aids Prometheus who is being persecuted and tortured by the other deities for aiding humanity.  Unlike most of the other gods, Prometheus possesses principles. His aid to humanity  seems to be symbolic of humanism which is a theme throughout the book.  This encounter has an impression upon her that resounds throughout her life. 

As time passes Circe and her siblings discover a new power that has been previously unavailable to the Gods. This is the power of witchcraft and involves the use of herbs and the casting of spells as a way to exert power. Circe is a mostly sympathetic character but she shows serious imperfections. At her worst moment she uses her newfound power to turn her romantic rival Scylla into a monster. Most of her fellow deities have no conscious, but Circe does. Thus, this act haunts her for the remainder of her life.  Though her immoral fellow gods are not much bothered by Scylla’s fate, the discovery of witchcraft causes a rift in the balance of power between the gods. When Helios and Zeus strike a deal to keep the peace, Circe is sent into exile to the island of Aiaia. 

Over the years Circe encounters many famous Gods, mythological creatures and mortals including Hermes, Athena, Medea, Daedalus, Jason, the Minotaur and others. Her infamous habit of turning ship’s crews into pigs is shown to be a defensive strategy to protect herself against gang rape. Eventually Odysseus shows up. He appears to be sensitive and thoughtful person who is also very imperfect and has also committed many wrongs. He and Circe begin an affair. After a year he departs. A pregnant Circe eventually gives birth to Telegonus. The book covers Telegonus’s youth and adolescence. Circe struggles to use her powers to protect him against a murderous Athena. Eventually he sets off for Ithaca to find his father Odysseus. 

At Ithaca Telegonus finds an Odysseus who is cruel and is growing paranoid. Odysseus is killed when he attacks Telegonus. Odysseus’s wife Paleopole and his son Telemachus are more or less relived by the hero’s death and flee with Telegonus back to Circe on Aiaia. There, the four grow close as they encounter further challenges. 

There is so much going on in this book. First, it is a great character study. The portrait of Circe is so well drawn. She begins the story as an unassertive and vulnerable person. Her parents, siblings and early romantic interests often belittle and take advantage of her. She slowly learns to assert herself. The entire book, from the first pages to the last is a kind of an arc where Circe develops her self - worth in the face of narcissists who seek to diminish her. The story has a lot of feminist themes as it presents a girl and later a woman who slowly finds liberation as she faces people and society who try to disregard and exploit her. I found this aspect of the book realistic and I thought that Circe’s experience and personality evolution applicable to both  women and men of a certain personality type.  As noted above, along the way Circe does not always behave with perfect morality. Despite this, she does develop something of her own ethical code as the story goes on and mostly behaves sympathetically. Miller pits a lot of nuance into her. There are other great characters including Telegonus. 

The story is also filled with keen observations about life and the human condition. Like all deities, Circe is immortal. The narrative frequently contrasts this with the mortality of humans.

At one point Circe is thinking about her mortal son,

Even if Telegonus survived Athena, even if he made it all the way to Ithaca and back, still I would lose him. To shipwreck or to sickness, to raids or wars. The best that I could hope for would be to watch his body fail, limb by limb. To see his shoulders droop, his legs tremble, his belly sink into itself. And at the last, I would have to stand over his white-haired corpse and watch it fed to the flames. The hills and trees before me, the worms and lions, stones and tender buds, Daedalus’ loom, all wavered as if they were a fraying dream. Beneath them was the place I truly dwelt, a cold eternity of endless grief.

At another stage she observes, 

It was their fate… the story that they all shared . No matter how vivid they were in life, no matter how brilliant , no matter the wonders they made , they came to dust and smoke . Meanwhile every petty and useless god would go on sucking down the bright air until the stars went dark.

In the above quotations death is portrayed as  dark event and a tragedy. This theme is developed throughout the book. It is ultimately worked out as it becomes apparent that it is death that gives people humanity and that ironically, mortality is a strength. Death is interwoven with the humanistic themes very elegantly.  

Like an epic poem, there are also observations upon parents and children, love of various kinds, courage and more.

The book is written in prose full of metaphors in the style of epic poetry. In this way and in others Miller’s writing is poetic. The words also flow very well. This all adds up to writing that is artistic and excellent.

I would throw one yellow flag out to readers. Though I think this book can work on some levels as a standalone story, I would recommend that one be familiar with the Odyssey and maybe a little bit of mythology surrounding Circe from other sources before reading this. This is less of a retelling of these stories as  it is more like Miller has filled in a lot of blanks from other stories. The author has combined ancient themes with modern ones. The effect is very impressive. 

I loved this book. It contains outstanding story, characters, themes and prose. It weaves together timeless elements with Miller’s interpretation. It is a marvelous edition to established mythology. I highly recommend this book. 

Friday, May 17, 2019

The Harry Potter Series - A Wrap-up

 This post contains spoilers. 

Those who have been reading this blog over the past several months know that I have been reading through the Harry Potter series. I have finally finished. I do not often join in on what is popular, and the Harry Potter series is nothing if not popular, but this time I am glad that I did. I enjoyed the books and I got a lot out of them. 

I thought that all of the books were good. My favorite was the first, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. That book created the wizarding world that was the basis of the entire series. For this reason and others, it was unsurpassed in originality. I also thought that this first entry held a certain level of charm that was not achieved in the later books.  I felt that subsequent books fell into a pattern that, at times, became a little wearisome. With that, this repetitiveness did not prevent me from enjoying these books. Starting with book five, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, all-out war breaks out between the established wizarding world and the evil Lord Voldemort and his followers. I found that this conflict helped to break the uniformity that was settling into the series. Thus, after the first book, I thought that the last three books were stronger than the earlier ones. 

This very popular book series had certain trends and themes that ran throughout. In this wrap up post, I would like to write a few words about some of these trends that I found interesting. I wrapped up several reoccurring themes in my various posts on individual books. For instance, I talked about the entire character arc of Severus Snape in my post on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows. Here, I will try to touch upon some other themes. 

There is something ironic about how the magic was portrayed in this series. The universe that Rowling created is based upon magic. It is populated by witches, wizards and all sorts of magical creatures. Yet, for all this magic, there is almost something scientific and rational about the world that the author has fashioned. Magic is studied and broken down into sub-subjects at Hogwarts. It is sometimes experimented with.  It is applied systematically. Precise instructions are laid out for particular spells. Magic is not random or chaotic in Rowling’s universe.  Instead, magic is portrayed within these pages based upon physical laws that, while imaginary, seem to be very ordered. It seems that if one applied the scientific method to them, these laws could be discovered and shown to be just another part of the way in which the world works. In fact, that is exactly what some of the characters and institutions in the series do.

These books also highlight intelligence. Harry and his friends are smart. Though Hermione is the most intelligent, the boys are also intuitive and clever. Readers of this series might be surprised that I include Ron. Harry’s closest male friend is often portrayed in a comical and dopey way. However, there is still an inner intelligence that shines through with Ron.  Unlike some bright young people in popular culture, these characters are not portrayed as snarky or smart alecks. They are sometimes smarter than the adults around them, but they do not act like they are aware of it. 

Another reoccurring theme that I have already written about in my individual posts on the books is that Rowling’s wizarding world seems to be a microcosm and commentary on the real world. The magical government, known as the Ministry of Magic, is often portrayed as corrupt, unjust and inefficient. Sometimes, good people are persecuted and bad people are rewarded. At times, draconian and unfair laws are passed and enforced. Yet, the wizarding world is at its root a free society that acts like a democracy. The wizarding world, just like the real world, has its share of immoral and abusive people. Yet despite these flaws, the established wizarding world is worth fighting for. The forces that seek to destroy it are barbarous. I covered all this in my post on Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire.  An interesting post script to all this occurs in the epilogue of Harry Potter and The Deathly Hollows. It is nineteen years after the major events of the book. Hermione is now Minister of Magic and Harry is running the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. Presumably, they are doing a better job than some of their predecessors. Like the real world, the system is not perfect and could stand reform, but the enemies of civilization are worse. Destroying everything is not the answer. Ethical and competent people will not eliminate problems all together, but that might improve things. 

As I have written in my various posts, the plight of the lonely young person trying understand themselves, the idea of “specialness” and bullying are all intertwined and are major themes of the books. Bullying and specialness act as a kind of counterpoint to each other throughout the series.  Now that I am finished, revisiting these trends is in order. In my post on Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I wrote about the fact that Harry had been exposed to bullying, and abuse by the Dursleys played into the plot. He later found out that he was special in that he had magical abilities, and that he held a somewhat legendary status in the magical world.   I speculated that this was a sentiment that was relatable to many and that a lot of people share a feeling that they are special and unique but are surrounded by those who cannot understand their distinctiveness. It turned out that throughout the series, specialness and bullying kept popping up. Every summer, Harry returned to the Dursleys, who continued to try to bully him.  As he got older and became more confident, he slowly began to fight back more and more.  Malicious teachers and students continued to try to bully and attack Harry and his friends. Tom Riddle, later to become the evil Lord Voldemort, was in many ways the ultimate bully. In an ironic twist, while he was exposed to all this, Harry’s special status was simultaneously emphasized. When Harry was an infant he had survived a murderous attack by Voldemort that backfired, and that actually left the evil lord in a near death condition. This endowed Harry with a fabled place in the wizarding world. Throughout the books, Harry never lets this fame go to his head. I can imagine a commenter being critical of Rowling, as her young protagonist never abused or even used to his advantage his fame and accolades. Some might say that this is unrealistic and that Harry was portrayed as too good. However, I think that Harry’s humility is realistic. Some people are naturally humble even when young.  Harry is this kind of person. He is believably portrayed as such. 

Rowling explores Harry’s specialness in other permutations. Some of his peers and teachers react with a combination of jealousy and scorn to Harry’s reputation. Professor Snape as well as the malicious Draco Malfoy act as if Harry is showing arrogance, despite the fact that he shows no such thing. They try to use Harry’s special reputation against him and leverage it in their attempts to bully him. Once again, I think that many readers relate to being bullied, or at least misunderstood, for possessing distinctive traits. 

Ron Weasley’s reaction to Harry’s fame is the most interesting of all to me. Ron is Harry’s great friend. There are times, however, that he feels that he is living in the shadow of Harry’s popularity. Ron’s own mother lavishes praise on Harry, perhaps leading to some tension.  Toward the end of the series, a relationship develops between Ron and Hermione and there is the barest hint that there might be some stress between Ron and Harry here. Supposedly, there was much more to this potential love triangle in early drafts of the novels, but Rowling chose to remove much of it from her final drafts. In the versions of the books that we have, Ron keeps any resentment that he has in abeyance most of the time, but it occasionally comes out, leading to minor conflicts between himself and Harry.  It all comes to a climax in the last book as Voldemort attempts to take advantage of these underlying feelings to turn Ron against Harry. At this point in the story, Harry and Hermione had been traveling together and Ron has just rejoined them. Through a magical object, a piece of Voldemort’s spirit attempts to turn Ron, 

‘I have seen your dreams, Ronald Weasley, and I have seen your fears. All you desire is possible, but all that you dread is also possible ...’ 

‘Least loved, always, by the mother who craved a daughter ... least loved, now, by the girl who prefers your friend ... second best, always, eternally overshadowed ...’ 

Why return? We were better without you, happier without you, glad of your absence ... we laughed at your stupidity, your cowardice, your presumption –’ 
Who could look at you, who would ever look at you, beside Harry Potter? What have you ever done, compared with the Chosen One? What are you, compared with the Boy Who Lived?’ 

Your mother confessed,’ sneered Riddle-Harry, while Riddle- Hermione jeered, ‘that she would have preferred me as a son, would be glad to exchange ...’ 
‘Who wouldn’t prefer him, what woman would take you? You are nothing, nothing, nothing to him, 

After all this, Ron overcomes his jealousy and insecurity and strikes out at Voldemort. However, in the above examples, Rowling successfully explores how specialness can lead to jealousy and resentment.  I find that these points and counterpoint about specialness and bullying work very well together throughout the series.

My reading of the Harry Potter Series is complete. I found the series to be well worth it. As noted above, I had a good time reading these books. I have read a fair amount of fantasy over the years and I feel that these books stand up well to even the great books of the past. Though late to the party, I am glad that I eventually attended.  

My post on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stoneis here

My post on Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secretsis here

My post on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkabanis here

My post on Harry Potter and The Gobletof Fire is here

My post on Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix is here

My post on Harry Potter and the Half – Blood Princeis here

My post on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollowsis here

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows by J.K. Rowling is the seventh and final book in the series.  I found it to be a fitting end to the Harry Potter saga. This entry is an exciting climax to the story. Rowling continues to weave a strong and exciting plot and entertaining characters into some interesting themes. It all wraps up very nicely. 

This book breaks the plot pattern that was established in previous entries. In the earlier books we had the inevitable summer adventures of Harry and his friends, followed by a trip to Hogwarts followed by the day to day occurrences at the magical school. Instead, in the early pages of this book, the evil Lord Voldemort has taken over the Ministry of Magic and most of the power in the wizarding world. Harry and his friends, Hermione and Ron, do not go to back school. Instead, they set off on a quest-like mission to destroy Voldemort’s power by finding and destroying dark magical objects know as Horcruxes. The trio travel the forests and towns of England, encountering friends and enemies along the way, as they fight evil wizards and creatures.

The last fifth of the book involves both Harry and his allies fighting Voldemort and his Death Eaters at Hogwarts itself in a final, spectacular and violent magical battle. The author puts all sorts of interesting elements into the finale. Rowling also shows that she is indeed an author who is a cut above the average fantasy writer.

 A tendency that has been building up throughout the series is that the magical violence and combat is very real and that it involves death, maiming and real brutality.  As mentioned above, Rowling’s attention to detail is impressive.  For instance, even brave characters often experience realistic fear before battle. They are often depicted as trembling. They are often traumatized after magical combat. 

Well established characters die or are physically scarred for life. Ron Weasley’s large family has been close to Harry throughout the books. They all are devastated as one son, Fred, a popular character, is killed in the midst of the Battle of Hogwarts. Other allies, including the married couple Tonks and Lupin, are also killed in the battle. 

At one point, Harry, Hermione and Ron survey the physical and emotional devastation and casualties,

Ron led the way to the Great Hall. Harry stopped in the doorway. The house tables were gone and the room was crowded. The survivors stood in groups, their arms around each other’s necks. The injured were being treated up on the raised platform by Madam Pomfrey and a group of helpers. Firenze was amongst the injured; his flank poured blood and he shook where he lay, unable to stand. 

The dead lay in a row in the middle of the hall. Harry could not see Fred’s body, because his family surrounded him. George was kneeling at his head; Mrs Weasley was lying across Fred’s chest, her body shaking, Mr Weasley stroking her hair while tears cascaded down his cheeks…. 

Harry had a clear view of the bodies lying next to Fred: Remus and Tonks, pale and still and peaceful-looking, apparently asleep beneath the dark, enchanted ceiling. 
The Great Hall seemed to fly away, become smaller, shrink, as Harry reeled backwards from the doorway. He could not draw breath. He could not bear to look at any of the other bodies, to see who else had died for him. He could not bear to join the Weasleys, could not look into their eyes…

He turned away and ran up the marble staircase. Lupin, Tonks ... he yearned not to feel ... he wished he could rip out his heart, his innards, everything that was screaming inside him. 

Rowling has managed to weave together exciting magical battle passages with effective descriptions of the aftermath of violence. Other fantasy writers, such as J.R.R.  Tolkien, have done this before, but Rowling’s technique seems different. I find it effective and believable. 

The character of Severus Snape is also brought to an interesting conclusion here. Throughout the series, the Hogwarts teacher has bullied and even verbally abused Harry. He was known to be a former servant of Voldemort who had switched sides and was allied to Dumbledore in the fight against Voldemort. In the previous book, Harry Potter and The Half Blood Prince, Snape seemed to switch sides again and join Voldemort. In this book it is revealed that he has stayed loyal to the anti-Voldemort cause. His entire story is also revealed to Harry. He had grown up with Harry’s mother Lilly. Years ago, the two attended Hogwarts together. As Snape was drawn to the side of the growing power of Voldemort, Lilly and he became estranged despite the fact that Snape was in love with her. Lilly eventually marries Harry’s father James, who Snape hated. Though Snape tried to prevent it, Voldemort murdered Lilly along with James. At that point, Snape began working with Dumbledore against Voldemort to honor Lilly’s memory. He also pledged to protect Harry as he grew up. Despite the fact that he never waivered in his fight against Dumbledore and that he showed great bravery, Snape stayed an angry bitter bully who still did not like Harry. He still harbored a rancorous resentment aimed at Harry’s deceased father James. All of this adds up to him being a complex character. He was on the side of virtue while being a thoroughly dislikeable person.  His motivation for opposing Voldemort was almost entirely motivated for his love of the deceased Lilly and not inspired by other altruistic reasons. 

I quibble that the book is a little too long. The middle part seems to meander. I think that Rowling could have used a more effective editor.

I would not read this book without reading what has happened before. It does not work as a standalone. This series works best as a whole. 

This book is an excellent conclusion to the series. It ties the plot, character and themes that Rowling had previously developed to great effect. This is a satisfying wrap up of the series. My favorite book of the bunch was the first, this one being my second or third.  In the end, I am glad that I finally gave this series a go. 

Thursday, April 25, 2019

The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism by Russell Blackford

The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism by Russell Blackford is an examination and critical assessment of what many are labeling as call-out culture and public shaming that has been prevalent over recent years. Though Blackford covers a lot of ground here, the main point of the book is how non - government pressure has led to censorship and damaging personal attacks on individuals relating to all manner of speech, expression and art. I found the book to be both engrossing and important. I very much agree with most of the author’s assessments.

Blackford is an Australian philosopher, legal scholar and literary critic. He has written numerous books and articles on such topics as religion, atheism, ethics and morality, science fiction and more. I am a fan of his Twitter activity, which tends to reflect a lot of what this book is about. 

I think that it is important to understand where the author starts from in regards to political and social issues. Blackford holds ideas that are mostly characteristic of the political and social left. He has previously written articles and books where he has vigorously criticized the right and, in particular, right-wing extremism. Nevertheless, most, but not all, of what Blackford is talking about here is coming from the left. 

On the issue of challenging behavior in the current atmosphere that is mostly coming from his own side, Blackford writes, 

I’m afraid. Like many people, I’m afraid to speak up and say exactly what I think. I’m afraid to contribute to public debate with total frankness. I’m more afraid of allies than I am of opponents, since the latter can do me less harm (though if they’re so minded they can probably do enough!). I’m not afraid of my closest friends, the people who love me, who have my back and will keep my secrets, but it gets more frightening as soon as I step out into wider circles of colleagues and acquaintances.

He goes on to say,

I’m afraid, as a matter of fact, that this very book will lose me friends (no, not my closest friends; but still … ) and get me ostracized in some circles, but I’ve taken a deep breath and started writing.
In the first half of the book, Blackford covers a lot of philosophy as well as social science relating to freedom of speech, conformity, the definition of liberalism, etc. He relies heavily of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. He also refers to many other philosophers and social scientists who were active in the past as well as in our current times. He covers areas such as the difference between government versus non-government censorship. He examines the concept that some speech may indeed be harmful and rightly banned. He talks about the difference between traditional liberalism and what he calls revisionist liberalism or identity liberalism. What Blackford refers to as identity liberalism is roughly analogous to what I have called the postmodern left in some of my previous writings.  The two terms are not entirely congruous, but more less overlap on many issues. I should mention, however, that when I have discussed this issue previously on this blog, I was referring to people who engaged in civil disagreements and differences of opinions.   Much of the behavior that is referenced in this book is unethical and has been harmful to individuals and to the general concept of free expression. Blackford describes identity liberalism as valuing the fight against oppression over values such as freedom of speech, due process, democracy, etc. 

Throughout this first part of the work the author sprinkles in his own opinions. He is more or less a moderate on these issues and, in a few cases, even goes further than I do in terms of being receptive to the government and other platforms banning some forms of hate speech. Blackford also lays out a strong case that censorship by non-government actors, such as employers, academic institutions, social media mobs, etc., is harmful to individuals and to society. 

Later in the book Blackford describes many individual cases that illustrate the problem that he is talking about. He cites multiple examples where scientists who have shown results that run counter to identity liberal ideology have been exposed to personal attack and slander. Unfair charges of racism and bigotry abound.  These scientist sometimes come under fire for theorizing that negative aspects of human behavior, such as rape and other forms of violence,f have an evolutionary biological origin. Next, he looks at several college campuses where students have harassed and threatened professors to the point of resignation. The case of Erica Christakis is a perfect example. Christakis was professor at Yale. She wrote an email directed at students relating to the issue of Halloween customs that might be offensive. The text of the email can be found  here. It clearly was a moderate and reasoned couple of paragraphs that was an attempt to find common ground. It sparked a firestorm. In ensuing weeks both Erika Erica Christakis and her husband Nicolas Christakis, who was also a Yale professor, were subject to a torrent of outrage, misrepresentation of their positions, physical intimidation and harassment. They both ended up resigning from their positions, citing a hostile work environment. This is just one example of many. Once again, ludicrous accusations of racism sparked the fury. 

The book turns its attention to the Young Adult book industry and online community where several authors have been harassed, slandered and exposed to actual and attempted censorship prior to or following the publication of books. The authors, who are themselves usually very liberal, are often attacked because they do not share the same nationality, race or sexual preference as the characters that they have created. Some now consider this an act of bigotry in and of itself. Other times the authors draw the ire of the social media mob because they do not portray the issues in line with certain identity left dogma. Social media mobbing relates to many of the cases that Blackford discusses. This is especially true when authors have been attacked as  writers tend to have a large social media presence.

Though obviously not covered in this book, over the past two weeks or so, two writers, Zoe Marriott and John Boyne, had social media mobs come after them. Marriott's fault has been to depict an Asian character in her new book, The Hand, The Eye and the Heart. The fact that Marriott is not Asian in generating the fury at her.  Boyne's upcoming book, My Brother’s Name is Jessica was intended to be a sympathetic portrait of a transgender person. However, several readers of advanced copies as well as many people who have admitted to not read the book, have taken exception to parts of the novel. Boyne has pulled all his social media accounts due to threats originating from this controversy. 

One common thread to most of these cases is that the targets were usually liberals who were expressing traditional liberal views. These views are described by Blackford as enlightenment values but that conflicted with identity liberalism. Usually, charges of racism are made. The charges spiral into a whirlpool of outrage. Blackford writes, 

In its current form, what passes as the political Left eats its own, or if not exactly its own…at least people who could be helpful in the Left’s contemporary social struggles.

The author also talks about a right-wing outrage machine that has also mobbed people on social media and engaged in campaigns of slander and attempts to get their targets fired from their jobs.  As mentioned above, Blackford has been very critical of bad behavior on the right in other writings. He does take certain elements of the right to task here. However, the particular problem that the author highlights in this book seems, at least at the moment, more pronounced and growing on the left. He also tends to mostly focus on cases where liberals have been targeted by the identify left. I think that it is important that we not ignore cases where conservatives, and even some folks on ideological fringes, have been the subject of censorship, slander and harassment. I wish that Blackford had devoted more pages to discussing these cases. However, illustrating how so many folks on the left have been attacked highlights how the problem has become so extreme. Also, and this is based on personal observation, when one is attacked by one’s own “side,” it is often worse. Support from like-minded people is less likely to come. Targets are often bewildered and are at a loss as to how to respond. 

What harm has all of this done? Blackford details people who have lost jobs, reputations and more.  Justine Sacco is just one egregious example.  She was a non-public figure who had less than 200 Twitter followers. She Tweeted a joke that was slightly controversial, Blackford describes the incident and result,

The tweet that she sent…said, ‘Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!’ She was then subjected to a viral Twitter attack. It evidently began when Gawker journalist Sam Biddle retweeted the Sacco tweet to his 15,000 followers at the time, after it was sent to him by one person among Sacco’s much smaller group of followers. From there it spiraled out of control into an orgy of spite and glee. Justine Sacco’s name was googled 1,220,000 times from that day until the end of December. She lost her job and became an international laughing stock.

The book details so many other examples. 

Books, particularly in the young adult genre, have been pulled before publication. There has been a stifling of speech and thought. The fear that the author talks about is pervasive. I have heard many people, particularly in academia, who have expressed a hesitancy to express opinions or write articles and books for fear of a backlash.  This is a known and growing issue that is affecting people and free discourse on a large scale. Throughout social media, people are also fearful to express opinions. 

Since I have been interested in this subject for awhile, I was familiar with many of the cases cited. I have read articles and opinion pieces in reference to these issues.  I have witnessed the Twitter mobbing that is described here and even had online debates and discussions with people in the midst of the some of these attacks. I have had online discussions with some of the targets.  I have been putting together a post focusing on the topic of the social media backlash aimed at young adult writer Laura Moriarty and her novel American Heart.

As readers of this blog probably know, like Blackford I identify as a liberal. Also like Blackford, I have observed what he describes as call out culture and I am appalled by it. I see it as part of a something bigger  that has been growing on the left. I, along with some others, have been calling it this trend postmodernist leftism. It relates to a rejection of ideals such as a belief in freedom of speech, defense of science and reason, treating people of all ethnicities equally, opposition to oppression even when the oppressors are not white men, etc. As I continue to read books on related subjects, I will have more to say about all this. 

Blackford is extremely balanced and tries to at least understand all sides. He presents the arguments of many people and groups that he criticizes and is often at least partially sympathetic to them. Many other critics of the phenomena described here have become fierce opponents of social justice movements and the left in general. That is not the direction that Blackford takes. In fact, in many ways he is more liberal and sympathetic to social justice causes than I am. 

Blackford offers possible solutions. He makes some suggestion as to what social media platforms and even government can do. More importantly, he calls for people of all political and social beliefs to stand together to resist this nastiness and suppression of speech. He provides a list and commentary on other books that discuss this topic as well as a list of worthy books that have been the subject of these suppression campaigns.

I tend to shy away from books such as this that are very tied to very current events. As I have written in other posts, I usually read books that I consider to have universal appeal and that will be relevant far into the future. I made an exception here for various reasons.  It is a topic that I am very interested in. It relates in all sorts of ways to other issues that I delve into in this blog. In terms of the book, I found that the first half was a universal examination of various issues, such as free speech, conformity, liberalism, etc. The second part did focus upon current events however. 

It seems to me that this is an important book. I think that anyone interested in the general discourse on politics, social issues, art, etc. will find a lot of value here. No matter where one falls on these issues, the future of discussion communication affects us all. Even those who might disagree with Blackford will likely find him a nuanced thinker who makes a real effort to at least understand those who he disagrees with. I highly recommend this work to anyone interested in these topics.