Saturday, December 29, 2012

Nature - Ralph Waldo Emerson

I like it when thinkers try to devise a theory of everything. Never mind whether or not I find the belief system to be valid or not, I just love to explore these little models of the Universe that great minds attempt to create.

In his essay Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson sets out to create a new theology. He declares that it is time for modern man to break from the ideas of the past and formulate their own philosophies.

“The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry  and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? “

Emerson next sets out to paint a picture of the ALL. At times his view is cryptic and difficult to envision. However, he ultimately creates the outlines of a coherent thought system. As per this Wikipedia entry, Nature put the philosophy known as Transcendentalism on the map.

Though at times murky as to his exact meaning, Emerson describes a world where spirituality is of prime importance.  Spirit flowing through people actually creates the external world. The matter that we see around us is a creation of the human mind and soul. People were once greater, but have somewhat lost touch with spirituality and nature, and have thus been diminished in relation to the world around us.

'Man is the dwarf of himself. Once he was permeated and dissolved by spirit. He filled nature with his overflowing currents him sprang the sun and moon; from man, the sun; from woman, the moon. The laws of his mind, the periods of his actions externized themselves into day and night, into the year and the seasons. But, having made for himself this huge shell, his waters retired; he no longer fills the veins and veinlets; he is shrunk to a drop.” 

Reading this work, one is struck by how exuberant Emerson was about creation. The man absolutely loved existence. Virtue and good are woven into the fabric of reality.

The axioms of physics translate the laws of ethics. “

Emerson devotes pages upon pages to the redemptive and sublime connection between people and nature. He criticizes science as well as the old religions as unnaturally separating humankind from the spiritual and natural. There are implications that the worship of a patriarchal God as opposed to appreciating the wonders of the natural world has stifled our existence. He eventually concludes that once humans have freed their thoughts from such rigid beliefs, that people will achieve amazing influence over their environment and a paradise on Earth will be achieved.

All this philosophizing is accomplished with prose that is often soaring as well as poetic. The above passages are just a few examples.

This is the first work that I have read by Emerson; however, I have read Walt Whitman extensively. Any reader of both will clearly see just how much Emerson was an influence upon the great American Poet. I highly recommend Emerson for the Whitman fan and vice a versa.

I cannot say that I agree with much of Emerson’s nuts and bolts view of the world. However, his enthusiasm and optimism about life, as well as the world around us, is inspiring and contagious. For those readers who, like myself, love exploring the “big ideas”, this is a must read.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Humbook Christmas Gift Exchange

This holiday season Emma over at Book Around the Corner and Guy over at His Futile Preoccupations came up with a fantastic idea. Bloggers would participate in the  Humbook Christmas Gift Event. A participating blogger would choose a fellow blogger as their copinaute, or blogger friend. Each copinaute will choose two books for their friend who will in turn choose two books for their counterpart. Emma and Guy will also choose a book for each participant. Each participant will purchase their own books and read and post commentary on them sometime in 2013.

Himadri at the The Argumentative Old Git choose yours truly as his copinaute! Reading his outstanding blog one will quickly realize that Himadri is not as combative as the title of his site implies. However I did think to myself that Himadri might be tough person to choose books for. He seems to love the classics, Shakespeare, Russian and English literature, etc. However he seems to have also read everything! A perusal of his site will also lead a reader conclude that he has definite opinions about what he does and does not like. Some criteria behind my picks were to select books that I had read and liked and that of course, I believe Himadri will like.

After some thought I believe that I have come up with good choices. They are as follows.

I am going a little bit out on a limb with this one. It is after all a book of criticism. Not everyone enjoys this stuff. But I know that Himadri loves Shakespeare as does Bloom whose enthusiasm overflows in this work. This book covers every Shakespeare play in separate article. Bloom presents lots of opinions, some of them controversial. Though I do not believe that Himadri, or for that matter anyone would agree with Bloom on all points, the writing here is amazingly thought provoking for the serious Shakespeare fan. I do not necessarily think that this book will be read cover to cover, rather it works very well as a reference to be consulted as one rereads or attends a performance of a play. I would give Himadri a big pass on posting a single comprehensive review of this work. Maybe he will write some commentary on it in conjunction with a play or two as the year goes by and as he explores its intricacies. Of course based upon Himadri’s encyclopedic knowledge of the Bard and his works, maybe he will decide to read this from cover to cover!

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo 

I thought of this one early in my selection process. I know that Himadri is partial to big, classical, complex novels filled with well - crafted characters. Much great Russian literature fits this bill too, but Himadri seems to have already read most of the that! The question was, had he read this book already? A search of his blog turned up a comment indicating that he had not! 

Merry Christmas, happy Hanukah, and happy holidays to Himadri, Emma, Guy as well as to all of my fellow bloggers and readers. I hope that Himadri enjoys these books and I would love to know what he thinks when he reads them.

 I cannot wait to see what tomes were chosen for me!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence

Women in Love
is D. H. Lawrence’s sequel to The Rainbow. My commentary on The Rainbow is here. Set in the early years of the twentieth century, this novel begins a few years after the events of The Rainbow. The plot primarily concerns Ursula Brangwen’s affair and eventual marriage to Rupert Birkin, as well as her sister Gudrun’s affair with wealthy industrialist Gerald Crich. Like its predecessor, this work is packed with philosophical meanderings on the meaning of life, the Universe and human relationships. Once again there is so much to this book in terms of philosophies, characterizations and writing style of which I could easily devote scores and scores of pages to discussion.

Basically, the novel analyzes the relationships between all four main characters. In doing so it expands upon Lawrence’s grand theory of humanity. Ursula, having undergone a major epiphany in the previous book, and Birkin, who seems to be philosophizing many of Lawrence’s own ideas, have, in the author’s eyes, reached an ideal. They are mostly unaffected by the opinions of other social conventions, etc. They are very much in touch with nature, their true selves, and their own inner beings. Gudrun is an artist who is self confident and very much associated with what, at the time, was chic modernity. Though not portrayed as a monster, Gerold is the driven and willful owner of a mining empire.

Birkin sums up what seems to be Lawrence’s worldview around the middle of the book. Humanity’s history as well as its future seems to have been, and be headed down three potential paths. First there is the cold and mechanistic will of the European man. This tendency is bringing the world into destructive industrialism and modernity. Gerald is the representation of this aspect,

“Birkin thought of Gerald. He was one of these strange white wonderful demons from the north, fulfilled in the destructive frost mystery. And was he fated to pass away in this knowledge, this one process of frost-knowledge, death by perfect cold? Was he a messenger, an omen of the universal dissolution into whiteness and snow?”

Lawrence contrasts this with the drive towards the sensual and artistic. The text connects this tendency with dark and primal urges and with feminine sexuality. This is also a path of discovery and Lawrence references it in connection with Eve’s discovery of knowledge when she ate the apple.  Lawrence shows a tendency towards stereotypical, but not hateful, thought by tying these drives with the people of Africa. The author does show a degree of respect for those who take this road however. Birken again ponders,

“He realised that there were great mysteries to be unsealed, sensual, mindless, dreadful mysteries, far beyond the phallic cult. How far, in their inverted culture, had these West Africans gone beyond phallic knowledge? Very, very far. Birkin recalled again the female figure: the elongated, long, long body, the curious unexpected heavy buttocks, the long, imprisoned neck, the face with tiny features like a beetle's. This was far beyond any phallic knowledge, sensual subtle realities far beyond the scope of phallic investigation.” 

Gudrun, as well as a Loerke, a German sculptor that she befriends and flirts with, seem to embody the above tendencies.

Birkin eventually concludes that there is a better alternative to both of the above paths. 

There was the other way, the remaining way.” 

There are multiple references in the text to the fact that this third path is so revolutionary and beyond what mankind has realized in the past that it is not expressible in words. Lawrence spends much of the book attempting to paint a picture of this alternative. It is a seemingly contradictory combination of never surrendering one’s individuality to another person or to society. At the same time, the individual finds a way to completely touch one’s core self with the core self of another person or persons without actually surrendering any bit of the self. Of course, the individual very much remains attached to the natural world.

All relations, with one exception, depicted in both books seem to involve a struggle for dominance between couples and other pairs of people. One or both members of the relationships eventually cede part or all of their identity to the other member. The one couple that avoids this struggle is Ursula and Birkin. These two idealized people seem to reach a state beyond that of traditional love where their inner beings touch. In another way, their relationship is less than a traditional marriage as they avoid the power struggle and thus do not surrender any of themselves to each other.

This is work of extreme philosophical complexity. In an attempt at getting at some of the basic meanings here, the above is a somewhat of an oversimplification as to what goes on in this book.

Of course in its totality Lawrence’s worldview is too contrived and farfetched for me to accept. However his ruminations are fascinating and he reveals a lot of useful and important insights. At one point, Gudrun and Loerke even predict how industrialism and militarism would one day become a threat to the existence of the human race.

The characters are also intricately and realistically drawn. They are extremely complex. There are no cartoon- like villains here. Even Gerald, who represents society’s headlong dangerous and poisonous rush into industrialism and modernity, is portrayed with sympathy and nuance.

I loved both of these books. Perhaps The Rainbow was a little more compelling as the portrait and transformation of Ursula in that work was magnificent. Nothing in Women in Love really compares to aesthetic beatify of that depiction. One should really read these two novels in order as they are, both in story and theme, sequential. 

For those who are interested in fictional works that center on relationships, deep characters and philosophic meditations on the meaning of it all, these two novels are must reads!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

****My commentary contains major spoilers. I found it impossible to convey the thoughts that I wanted to commutate here without giving a lot away.*****

Thanks to Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Delia at Postcards from Asia for hosting Dickens in December.

Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities seems to engender very divergent reactions from commentators, some of whom laud this novel as the best of books while others excoriate it as the worst of books.  My take is that while this is not, as some contend, one of history’s all time greatest novels, it is a very enjoyable read that contains a fair share if interesting and meaningful characters and ideas.

As Dickens often does, major plot details are often revealed out of order as characters tell stories of events that occurred long ago, old letters are read, and surprising revelations abound.

In 1775, after years of imprisonment, Dr. Alexandre Manette is released from the Bastille a psychological wreck. Brought to England and nursed back to mental health by his daughter Lucie Manette and his banker Jarvis Lorry, Manette eventually regains his sanity. Subsequently Manette and Lucie establish a happy and comfortable life in London. Enter Charles Darnay, who when we meet him is on trial, falsely accused of being a spy. Darnay is acquitted with the help of Lucie and attorney Sydney Carton, an otherwise drunken and depressed self – professed failure who physically resembles Darnay.

Carton falls in love with Lucie. When he professes his feelings in a moment of sobriety, strength and dignity he is gently rejected, at which time he acknowledges that his life will continue down the road of ruin.

Instead Lucie and Darney fall in love, marry and have a daughter. Unbeknownst to Lucie, her husband is really Charles St. Evrémonde, a French aristocrat who has renounced his nobility due to his revulsion towards the monstrous injustice and oppression meted out upon the French lower classes by his family and his class. Furthermore, it turns out that Darnay’s family was responsible for Manette’s imprisonment.

When the French revolution breaks out Darnay returns to France to help rescue his business agent from the guillotine. The former nobleman and is quickly arrested himself and faces execution as he is a member of hated aristocracy. Lucie, Manette, Lorry, Darnay and several others arrive in Paris to help extricate Darnay. Manette, a survivor of a long hard ordeal in the Bastille, has enormous credibility and influence within the revolution, but still struggles over a fifteen - month period to get have his son in law released.

Our protagonists are opposed by Madame Thérèse Defarge, who is a bloodthirsty French peasant woman bent upon seeing Darney executed. It turns out that Madame Defarge’s family members were tortured, raped and murdered by Darnay’s father and uncle. Madame Defarge eventually threatens to send all of the principle protagonists to their deaths. On the eve of Darnay’s slated execution Manette succumbs to the pressure and reverts back into a state of mental incoherence.

When all seems lost, in a supreme act of self – sacrifice, Carton switches places with an unconscious Darnay, engineers the escape of all the principle characters, and goes to his death on the guillotine in place of Darnay.

Dickens devotes much effort on first showing the terrible brutality of the pre -revolution French power structure and then in turn the equally terrible brutality of the revolution itself. Tales of physical and sexual abuse, starvation, mass murder, etc. abound throughout the narrative. His analysis of the revolution is relatively simple and he reiterates it several times. He portrays the French monarchy, aristocracy and church as horrendously oppressive and unjust. This viciousness and corruption created a reservoir of hatred and thirst for vengeance among the French peasantry. The hatred exploded into a chaotic bloodbath of executions, vengeance and sadism by the peasantry once it arose.

Dickens Writes,

Along the Paris streets, the death-carts rumble, hollow and harsh. Six tumbrils carry the day's wine to La Guillotine. All the devouring and insatiate Monsters imagined since imagination could record itself, are fused in the one realisation, Guillotine. And yet there is not in France, with its rich variety of soil and climate, a blade, a leaf, a root, a sprig, a peppercorn, which will grow to maturity under conditions more certain than those that have produced this horror. Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind. “

There is a lot more going on in this book in terms of characters, themes and philosophy then I can possibly get my arms around in a single post. As I like to do I will instead focus of one interesting aspect of this work; that is the character of Carton. Tales of burned - out failures rising to the occasion in a crises seem to be somewhat common in books and movies these days, but Carton may be the archetype of all this.

Dickens explains that Carton did not always have such bleak prospects,

he had been famous among his earliest competitors as a youth of great promise”

But the author paints a picture of a man that low self - esteem and alcohol have nearly ruined.

At one point Carton declares,

 “I am like one who died young. All my life might have been."

When he reveals his feelings for Lucie this usually pitiable character shows an unusual composure and there is a hint that he might be saved. Upon his rejection he slides back into drink and despair however.

A key point here is that under normal circumstances Carton is unable to pull himself together and live a life if dignity. Only when the world around him turns into the hellish chaos of the height of the French Revolution, when he faced by barbarity and madness triumphant, does this man find himself and begin to behave in a super - virtuous manor.  At this point he is motivated by his love for Lucie and the positive attributes that she brings out in him, as well as Christian virtues instilled in his youth. He sees his sacrifice as a tradeoff between his own unworthy existence and the very worthy existence and happiness of others. One gets the sense that if the world had not turned into a nightmare of death and despair, that Carton could not have risen to the spiritual heights that he attains. Strangely, in a way, abominable evil has does Carton a favor, as it provides him with an epiphany that allows him to save his soul.

A resurrection motif pops up all over this novel (a special note here. I usually attempt to keep my commentary all - original. I try not to read criticism about a work until after I write about it. In this case I was tipped off to the resurrection theme from several sources included the Wikipedia article on the book.) Clearly the concept of virtuous good “returning from the dead” in response to evil is reflected in Carton’s transformation.

Earlier in the novel Dickens ruminates at several points, that to some degree all people are unknowable and isolated from each other. One example,

“A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!”

As he goes to die, Carton makes a connection with a young woman who also is condemned to be executed. At this moment it seems that Carton and the girl, due to his spiritual elevation, is able to transcend the human estrangement,

The two stand in the fast-thinning throng of victims, but they speak as if they were alone. Eye to eye, voice to voice, hand to hand, heart to heart, these two children of the Universal Mother, else so wide apart and differing, have come together on the dark highway, to repair home together, and to rest in her bosom.”

Carton is a very, very interesting man! In him Dickens has crafted such a dynamic and thought proving persona.

This novel is at times flawed, some scenes lack credibility, sometimes the characters are portrayed too simplistically, Dickens’s take on politics and sociology is also without a lot of nuance. On the other hand there is a lot more really good stuff here then I touched upon above.

Dickens fans as well as those who enjoy the classics should give this read. While I do not esteem this novel as highly as some others do, it is an entertaining read and certainly worthwhile. Though it has its weaknesses, this classic has a lot to recommend it. 

Friday, November 30, 2012

The Uninnocent by Bradford Morrow

Special thanks to Guy of His Futile Preoccupations for hosting the giveaway from which I won this book.

The Uninnocent by Bradford Morrow is a collection of short stories that share many common threads. The tales are generally first person accounts of quirky outsider types, some of whom commit questionable and sometimes reprehensible acts including murder.

To a remarkable degree, Morrow has gotten really deep into his characters’ heads. The majority of these fictional people have suffered loss or displacement in their early years that sends them a little off kilter. Though far from perfect, these characters are often complex and sympathetic.

In “The Hoarder” the main character hides in a small building that is part of a miniature golf course as he covertly observes couples playing the game.

“The physical urgency I felt, spying on these lovers,  I sated freely behind the thin walls of my  hiding place. Meanwhile, I learned how lovers speak, what kind of extravagant lies they tell each other, the promises they make, and all I could feel was gratitude that my brand of intimacy didn’t involve saying anything to anybody. “

False perception of reality is key theme of most of the stories. Many of the characters are unreliable narrators. Some of these storytellers lead the reader to believe that they are acting in good faith or self – defense; before the tale’s end, however, holes pop up in their narratives.

In “The Enigma of Grover’s Mill,” the adolescent narrator comes to believe that his mother’s live in boyfriend is a three-legged Martian. Of course, this casts doubt upon the other aspects of reality that have been reported.

In “Amazing Grace,” our main character is blinded in an accident. After a period of depression, he picks himself up and, by using his misfortune as an example, he becomes an enormously successful spiritual and motivational speaker. After ten years, he spontaneously regains his sight. Keeping his newly regained vision a secret from his family and associates, he is shocked when he realizes what is really going on around him.

Some of the stories end in an imperfect redemption, usually with the flawed character finding a fellow outsider as a soul mate. All is never completely right and balanced because the serious defect is shown to still be lurking in the background. In “The Road to Nadeja,” the main character exhibits a lifelong habit of stealing things from friends and family. He uses the thefts in a bizarre way to gain further intimacy with these people. Later in life, isolated and alone, he makes a symbolic break from his habit and seems ready to begin over again. He meets a woman, but it is implied that he will steal something from her in order to cement their relationship.

Though often dark, this is a terrific collection of stories. Morrow’s writing is aesthetically pleasing, meaningful but very accessible. The character development is rich. Not always a journey into the blackest depths of the human heart, this is more a voyage into the murky grey. I highly recommend this for anyone who likes slightly off - beat stories with odd - ball characters.