Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Reading Gordon Wood

I have a persistent fear that someday I may encounter a pack of smug and conceited history graduate students in a bar and find myself unprepared. Since I need to be ready for this contingency I am reading Gordon Wood’s Radicalism and the American Revolution. Commentary will follow in a few weeks.

Monday, April 16, 2012

A Passage to India - E.M. Forster

I did not expect E. M. Forster's A Passage to India to be heavy with metaphysics and musings on the meaning of life. To my delight, this classic contains copious amounts of both. This is a brilliant novel that works on many levels. In addition to its deep philosophical streak, it has an interesting story, incredibly deep and complex characters, as well as important and intricate social, political and historical commentary. Judging by reviews and online comments, many read this work primarily as a criticism and commentary on British colonialism and British interactions with the nation of India. While these elements represent major aspects of Forster’s work, these components are just the tip of a very large iceberg.

The novel opens as Adela Quested and Mrs. Moore arrive in India to assess the feasibility of Adela becoming engaged to Mrs. Moore’s son, Ronny Heaslop. Ronny is a British official stationed on the sub continent. Mrs. Moore initially shows a strong inclination to understand the people of India. Adela eventually does become engaged to Ronny. Meanwhile, the women meet an affable and ingratiating Indian Doctor named Aziz. Soon these characters embark on a visit to an enormous geographical formation known as the Marabar Caves. Separated from the rest of the group, Adela, while in some kind of incoherent trance that is prompted by the strange and mystical caves, falsely imagines that Aziz has attempted to attack her. The accusation brings the weight of the British Colonial community down upon Aziz. The doctor is supported by the local Indian community and one British ally, Cyril Fielding, who is the headmaster of the local Indian School and a progressive thinker. In a dramatic and politically charged trial, Aziz is only acquitted when Adela comes to her senses and announces that he likely did not commit the crime.

Though the remainder of the plot feels a little less focused and difficult to summarize, it is thematically and philosophically coherent and interesting. Adela is subsequently vilified as having betrayed the British community who still believe that Aziz is guilty. Mrs. Moore dies. The engagement between Adela and Ronny is broken off due to Adela’s estrangement from British society. However, Fielding and Adela develop a strong friendship and intellectual connection.

Due to his unwarranted persecution, Aziz becomes alienated and exhibits paranoia towards everything British. This hostility results in a falling out with Fielding. Several years after the trial, during the Hindu Festival of Lord Krishna, Fielding and Aziz reconcile, and it is presumed that Aziz will release some, but not all, of his bitterness.

The philosophy, both openly discussed and underlying this work, is so extremely multifaceted, complex, and varied that it would take several pages just to provide an accurate summery. Instead of attempting such a synopsis or analysis, I will focus on just one important point; the geographic object that is such an integral part of Forster’s book known as the Marabar Caves.

Marabar is one of the most striking non – human creations that I have encountered in literature. It has strong shades of Moby Dick. Like the great white behemoth, it is a huge and monstrous force of nature. It is symbolically and perhaps actually, a terrible malevolence. Though representing only a segment of the worldview presented in A Passage to India, it is integral to plot, characters and theme. Artistically, its presentation is marvelous.

Articulating exactly what Marabar represents is a little bit of a challenge. The geological miscreation exemplifies a complex set of ideas.  These concepts revolve around the realization that meaningless lies behind all existence. Upon encountering Marabar, several of the book’s characters become fixated upon the enormity of the universe as well as the inevitability of death, and come to see that human concepts such as honor, love, religion, profound experiences, etc. really mean nothing when viewed in the context of the totality all of creation.

A strange echo is heard in the caves, a constant monotonous sound describes as "Bourn".  This echo stays in the mind of several characters. The sound seems to represent a level of sameness and uniformity in the cosmos that ultimately obliterates all meaning to human life.

 Mrs. Moore, a person who up until she enters the caverns, believes in love as well as recognizing the value of understanding people who are different from her, and is generally optimistic, has a soul wrenching experience at Marabar.

“What had spoken to her in that scoured-out cavity of the granite?  What dwelt in the first of the caves? Something very old and very small. Before time, it was before space also. Something snub-nosed, incapable of generosity—the undying worm itself”

This encounter seems to illustrate the emptiness of eventual non-existence that is prevalent in the universe. Mrs. Moore subsequently no longer believes in love, honor, human achievement, religion, etc. She further ponders the effects that the revelations have had upon her. 

She had come to that state where the horror of the universe and its smallness are both visible at the same time—the twilight of the double vision in which so many elderly people are involved. If this world is not to our taste, well, at all events there is Heaven, Hell, Annihilation-one or other of those large things, that huge scenic background of stars, fires, blue or black air. All heroic endeavour, and all that is known as art, assumes that there is such a background, just as all practical endeavour, when the world is to our taste, assumes that the world is all. But in the twilight of the double vision, a spiritual muddledom is set up for which no high-sounding words can be found; we can neither act nor refrain from action, we can neither ignore nor respect Infinity.”

Forster includes additional passages describing the awe inspiring spiritual emptiness that Marabar embodies. The writing in these passages, as well as in other sections of this book, is often sublime as well as a little horrifying. Marabar is a wondrous but disturbing aesthetic creation!

Forster’s worldview also includes what I would call a counterforce to the nihilism. This is the human tendency to strive to establish connections with one another. The theme of connection, common in Forster’s writings, is in itself explored with layers upon layers of complexity.

Which force is stronger? A Passage to India provides no easy answers. Aziz, who early in the novel is enthusiastic and eager to make connections with various English personages, has this zeal ripped away from him due to the false accusations, which are the direct result of Adela’s strange experience with the force of the cave. Similarly Mrs. Moore’s yearning to make connections with Indians is destroyed in Marabar.

In a passage that symbolically sets up the ability of this void to thwart human connections, Forster describes what happens when a person enters the cave and strikes a match,

the visitor arrives for his five minutes, and strikes a match. Immediately another flame rises in the depths of the rock and moves towards the surface like an imprisoned spirit: the walls of the circular chamber have been most marvelously polished. The two flames approach and strive to unite, but cannot, because one of them breathes air, the other stone. “

Lest one conclude that worthlessness and emptiness always win out, hope for connectedness overcoming meaningless is at least suggested at the novel’s conclusion. During the Hindu Festival of Lord Krishna, several characters seem to experience some reinvigoration stemming from the Hindu concept that everything in the universe is connected and the festival’s mystical underpinnings. The triumph of the ability to connect is tempered however. Though Aziz and Fielding reconcile and temporarily reestablish their bond and friendship, both men realize that they will not associate with one in the future, as they have each moved into irreconcilable circles. The last lines of the novel illustrate that the natural forces in the world are constantly pushing against the human urge to connect.

I really appreciate the imagery and meaning that Forster has endowed upon Marabar. Humanity as a whole, as well as individual people and our concerns, exist in very big and seemingly uncaring universe. This cosmos will go on long after we, as well as all our creations and institutions, are dust. It is very easy for a perceptive person to become overwhelmed by this abyss. I also agree that the idea of connectedness between people, while possibly diminished by these realities, can serve as a source of value in contrast to this nihilism. My only qualm with Forster is that the author seems to be saying that human connectedness is the only counterweight in the grand scheme. While our associations with others are vital, I believe that there are other factors that one may look to as to ameliorate the void. Humanity’s noble quest to understand and comprehend existence is but one example.

I have only made the barest scratch at the content, meaning and ideas found in this work.  I went into A Passage to India expecting a great novel with a strong plot containing intriguing characters and important insights into people. I did find those elements in this book. I also found things that were much deeper and meaningful. These elements, so artistically and intensely expressed here, are only found in the most profound works of literature. Forster proves here that he was one of civilization’s all time great thinkers.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Liebster Recognition

Many thanks to Angie at Angels are Kids and Furkids for awarding me the Liebstar Blog Award! I am so flattered that she chose to recognize my Blog!

The award is given to bloggers with under 200 followers. These blogs are "the best kept secrets" out there. As some of the Blogs that I love do not seem to keep track of followers, I will interpret the rule to mean under appreciated and newer Blogs in general.

Winners, here are the rules to if you would like to pass this on:

1 - Thank the person who nominated you in a blog post.
2 - Nominate up to five other blogs.
3 - Let them know via comment on their blog.
4 - Post the award on your blog.

Here are my five picks!

At Home in the Kitchen   - A Great Food Blog with scrumptious pictures.

History by Suzy     - A Blog with a fascinating take on History.

Nobodyaknowitall  - A Blog about Classical literature and topical issues.

St. Oberose A Blog about great literature.

Vanilla and Saffron Another Great Food Blog that will make you hungry.

Please check these as well as Angie's Blog out. I enjoy them all and they are all worth the read.

Winners please do not feel like you have to participate. I know that not everyone follows other Blogs and even if one does not, sometimes it is difficult to choose!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Frogs - Aristophanes

Aristophanes’s Frogs is one of the earliest examples of comedy known to Western Civilization. First presented in 405 BC, this ancient Athenian play lampoons many people and concepts.  Among Aristophanes’s targets was literature in the form of the Ancient Greek Theatre, along with the concept of literary criticism itself. The play is both hilarious and thought provoking.

Aristophanes presents the story of the God Dionysus’s, and his slave Xanthus’s, trip to Hades in order to bring back a great tragic playwright. This quest is motivated by the opinion that the quality of serious drama has declined in Athens. Arriving in Hades, a contest between the prodigious, now deceased dramatists Aeschylus and Euripides is exacerbated as the two great authors vie to be Dionysus’s choice to return to the land of the living. In the process, each proceeds to make a mockery and ridicule one another’s work. In the end Dionysus chooses Aeschylus to return with him.

I first read Frogs about ten years ago. Having been much less intellectually prepared at the time, I would estimate that I comprehended about fifty percent of the references made concerning subjects such as Greek theatre, mythology, politics, contemporary events, Athenian government, etc. The fact that I am more knowledgeable about these topics now, allowed me to grasp a great deal more during this go around. However, I found that using an online set of notes, plus a very accessible translation by Ian Johnston, really opened up the play for me.

Frogs, with its myriad and ancient allusions can be tough to appreciate. Before tackling this work I recommend first reading both Aeschylus and Euripides. In addition, a basic knowledge of ancient Geek mythology is indispensible. An understanding of the outlines of Ancient Greek history, with emphasis on Athenian Democracy as well as the Peloponnesian War, during which time Frogs was written, would be very helpful. Finally, for all but those who are experts in the subject matter, a set of notes on the work is extremely advantageous.

Frogs both illustrates as well as sets the standard for how great comedy fits into our world. The plays of Aristophanes are some of, and perhaps the, oldest known examples of the form. Thus, in a way, Aristophanes has been the teacher of comedy for all who have delved into the medium since.

In Frogs Aristophanes satirizes not just the God Dionysus and various Athenian politicians, generals, etc., but he mercilessly ridicules both Aeschylus and Euripides themselves. I emphasize the mockery of these two figures because these playwrights were not only revered in Aristophanes’s time, but today, over twenty five hundred years later, they are still looked upon as some of the greatest artists who ever lived. Their subjects and themes encompass many of the most important and serious issues that we humans face. Their presentations and styles are considered to be some of the finest manifestations of high art created in all of human history.

Yet, a short time after the death of these literary titans, Aristophanes creates fictional and clownish representations of the pair, who proceed to engage in a zany, petty, vicious, and hilarious debate. Each tragedian spends line after line mercilessly skewing their counterparts’ poetic style, use of language, plots, themes, etc. They even resort to parodying each other’s work. As if this is not enough, the literary antagonists take opportunities to take gibes at one another’s personal lives and hurl cheap insults. Imagine if a modern day comedy were to portray recently deceased celebrities in the afterlife acting this. The public outcry and indignation would be intense and swift!

To me, this is the point of sophisticated and thoughtful comedy and farce. Great humor exists to show, through hyperbole, exaggeration, and at times a little meanness, the short - comings and foibles in both ourselves, as well as the world at large. One gets the sense that Aristophanes had immense respect and admiration for these men and the gravitas underlying their works.  Yet despite, and perhaps because something is immensely serious, sometimes it pays to step back and see that there is a little bit of silliness in it. In the attempt to draw attention to this affectation, Aristophanes created fictional and ridiculous representations of these men.

It seems very unlikely that in reality Aeschylus and Euripides were in any way like the immature buffoons portrayed here. Aristophanes was likely counting on the fact that his audience knew that these were not really accurate representations. Instead, these caricatures allowed the great comic playwright to look at and to analyze their works from a wholly unique and different point of view. Having read both Aeschylus and Euripides, and standing with the consensus that both were masterful geniuses, I also recognize that the parody here strips their admittedly magnificent plays of some of their pretentions. This sounds contradictory, but it is just another way of seeing the world from various points of view. At least for a short time, divesting some of the seriousness from these great tragedies is stimulating and enlightening. This is what real comedy should be about.

One final thought,

Brekekekex koax koax
Brekekekex koax koax !