Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Peloponnesian War by Donald Kagan

The Peloponnesian War by Donald Kagan is a comprehensive political, social, economic, and military account of the great war between Sparta and Athens. For those interested in these types of histories, as well as the history and culture of ancient Greece, this book will be an engrossing experience. Kagan a Sterling Professor of Classics and History at Yale University has also published a massive four - volume history of the conflict aimed at serious scholars. This is his one volume “condensed” version that is in itself extremely detailed.

The Peloponnesian War was actually a series of conflicts. Athens was a direct democracy; that is, all free males who were citizens voted on almost every public decision. Athens was the center of a powerful, wealthy, but often oppressive maritime empire.

While Sparta is often described as a military dictatorship, Kagan points out it was really a mixed system that was part monarchy, part aristocracy, and part democracy. Sparta was famous for its highly militaristic system that imposed harsh martial training on all male citizens.

For nearly thirty years the two states waged an on again and off again war upon each other and as well as on allied states. The struggle encompassed an area that stretched from the coast of modern day Turkey and the Black Sea in the east, to Sicily in the west. The wars involved dozens of city-states as well as the Persian Empire. It was characterized by both land and sea battles. The conflicts finally ended with the surrender of Athens in 404 BC.

The ancient Greeks played an integral part in the shaping of the modern world. This conflict played an immensely important part in shaping the world of Ancient Greece. I think that Kalgan gets it about right when he compares the impact of this clash on Ancient Greece to the impact that the First World War had upon twentieth century Western Civilization. Therefore, the Peloponnesian War is well worth studying for those who wish to obtain a clearer understanding of the world.

There is so much one can talk about here. I want to focus on only one of a multitude of facets to this conflict, what is known as the “Sicilian Expedition”. This campaign and its consequences can teach us some important lessons relevant to our modern world. In 422 BC Athens and Sparta had actually been at peace, but in a state of “cold war” for about seven years. In that year the Athenians decided to launch a major invasion of the island of Sicily. The expedition involved an enormous number of ships and soldiers and was exceedingly expensive. Athens expected an easy victory. After two years of fighting against various Sicilian city-states led by Syracuse, as well as a Spartan expeditionary force, the Athenian army was surrounded and annihilated. Her enormous fleet was bottled up in a harbor and sunk. Most of the Athenian military leadership was killed in the campaign and the democracy was nearly bankrupted.

The Sicilian calamity was the beginning of the end for Athens. Much of its empire subsequently rebelled, Sparta attacked on land and sea, and civil strife gripped the city resulting in the temporarily overthrow of the democracy. While the war continued for another ten years, Kalgan convincingly argues that had these losses in Sicily not occurred, the total defeat of Athens would likely never have happened. It seems to me that the war between the Sparta and Athens may never even have reignited, and if it had, it is likely that Athens would have defeated Sparta.

Why did Athens launch such as ill-conceived mission? First, the conquest of Sicily would have provided the Athenians with a strategic advantage over Sparta, cutting off much of the Sparta’s foreign trade. Second, the addition of Sicily to the Athenian empire would have bestowed increased power and wealth upon Athens. Finally, Kagan’s description of the Athenians’ deliberations leading up to the expedition indicates a certain level of arrogance and overconfidence as to the prospects for success. At the time Athens was brimming with wealth derived from its empire. The city-state was mistress of the seas, and in possession of an enormous navy that had previously won battle after battle against its enemies. To many Athenians, the easy conquest of Sicily was a given.

Before we draw parallels with other historical events it is important to point out that while comparative history can be useful and enlightening such judgments have their limits. Kagan compares the Athenian calamity in Sicily to the Franco – British Gallipoli Campaign as well as to America’s involvement in Vietnam. While I believe there are parallels with those actions, in terms of the scope of military defeat and the ensuing destruction of empire, the Sicilian Campaign was closer to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. Again, the similarities only go so far, as those cases did not involve democracies launching invasions over the maritime distances.

Most recently, America’s invasion of Iraq comes to mind. That poorly conceived venture was also planned with both strategic and economic advantage as goals. As an American I can personally attest to the overconfident and arrogant attitudes, as well as the uncritical beliefs in America’s power, expressed by many of my fellow citizens leading up to the war. Of course, like the Athenian experience in Sicily, the military campaign did not go nearly as successfully as planned, and ultimately weakened the United States both strategically and economically.

All foreign military involvements cannot be considered as mistakes however. For instance, America’s intervention in World War II can be characterized as a foreign intervention (America had a foot as well as leg in the game well before Pearl Harbor). Yet, that historical intervention can be seen as moral, necessary and successful.

Nevertheless, modern states would do well to consider both the morality and unforeseen outcomes that result from these ventures. History abounds with other examples of democracies intervening militarily, over vast oceans, which were both justified and beneficial. The trick is to figure out which ones are worth the risk and the cost as well as meeting a moral litmus test. If careful and thoughtful deliberations with less arrogance had occurred prior to some of the events outlined above, many terrible and unfortunate events likely would not have occurred.

On a side note, I cannot neglect to mention that strangely enough, Kagan was one of the leaders Project for the New American Century. Project for the New American Century was the conservative think tank that provided the intellectual force and the theories behind the America’s invasion of Iraq and the Bush administrations aggressive military policies. Thus, I suspect that Kagan would cringe at parts of my commentary. His politics not withstanding, the author has written a fine work of history in The Peloponnesian War.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Human Extinction: Should We Care?

I recently wrote about some of my thoughts on David Benatar’s Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. While this book was not the beginning of my thinking about the big picture for mankind, I have been pondering this subject since childhood, reading Benatar did prompt me to organize some of my thoughts on the matter. The big question for me is should, or do I care, if the human race continues. Does it really matter whether or not people become extinct? To some this may seem like a ludicrous question, but to adventurous thinkers this inquiry is fair game.

At times I must admit, when I observe and think about all the mass and individual murders, the torture, rape, petty greed, oppression, narrow mindedness as well as a thousand other ills that mankind has heaped upon itself and other forms of life, both throughout history and into the present, I am tempted to say that the Universe would be better off without people. At the very least, perhaps I should be ambivalent about the future of our species.

It turns out that this train of reasoning is only a temptation for me. When I think about how I have pondered these concepts over the years, I do not believe that I ever really settled on such a view. Why have I not done so? Of course in the short run there are many people and animals that I love and care about. I want them to keep going for as long as possible. After eighty to a hundred years however, baring enormous strides in medical technology and our ability to access these advances, all of these creatures that I am attached to will be gone.

So why care about the long term? I see absolutely no evidence that there exists anything like a benevolent or caring Supreme Being. If such an entity does exist, it still does not logically follow that I should be concerned with future people. It would then the Deity’s concern! Of course, I do not want future people to suffer or die, as Benatar points out, one can be opposed to the potential suffering of future, unborn humans, while being indifferent or even against their coming into existence in the first place.

It turns out that I do care very much. First I need to point out that while my thoughts and opinions are my own, perhaps the biggest influencer in regards to the way that I think about the Universe and humanity’s place in it is the late great scientist-philosopher Carl Sagan. In his numerous books and television programs, Sagan paints a picture of the Cosmos that has influenced and often parallels my views.

 We know that the Universe, at least in local areas, has organized itself. Dust clouds formed planets and stars. Inside the nuclear interior of suns, complex elements formed. On at least one planet, these complex elements formed chemicals that have organized to become genes, then cells, then more complex organisms. One line of these evolutionary branches evolved into Homo sapiens, an animal with astounding brainpower. We humans proceeded to use these brains in ever more complex and interesting ways. We have developed language, culture and civilization. Eventually we began to understand science and develop technology. These advances have taken us into astounding territory. Such wondrous things are being discovered! Perhaps the most significant of which relates to understanding the fundamentals laws and facts that govern our Universe, biology, and even our own brains.

The fact is undeniable, the Universe is conscious! It has organized itself over the eons into these little bundles of extremely dense, intelligent and self-aware structures called people! As Sagan said on many occasions, “We are star stuff”. The elements produced inside of stars are what make up our bodies and hence our minds. We are conglomerations of energy and matter that has built up and formed itself over billions of years, first through stellar synthesis, planetary formation, chemistry, biochemistry, genetics, and finally human culture, reason and technology. We ARE the Universe, or at least part of it. We are groupings of matter and energy that are a part of a Universe that has become conscious. Though people, the Universe is beginning to know itself though reason and science.

To me this is a grand and awe-inspiring concept. I would even describe the feelings that it inspires as mystical. Religion and superstition have no monopoly upon such emotions. Those who have a basic understanding and appreciation of the natural world and science often experience them.

Other intelligent life in the Universe is not only possible but many believe probable. However, unless and until we find it and prove that it does exist, there is a chance that intelligence only happened here. Even if sentience does exist elsewhere, it may be so different from our own version of consciousness that it may be barley recognizable. There is a real chance that thinking and awareness as we define it could be unique to Earth.

Viewed through the prism of these ideas, it seems imperative that humanity continue to exist and strive to understand and expand into the Cosmos. It is of the utmost importance that we do so. We, who are the conscious part of the Universe, are striving to understand our self!  Premature extinction of this sentience would therefore be catastrophic on a cosmological level and extremely undesirable. I would argue our quest to know more about the Infinitum adds nobility to the existence of the human race. We are not really people striving to understand creation, we ARE creation beginning to comprehend itself.

I grant that there may be other reasons for us to go on as a species and civilization. However, striving for the ultimate fulfillment of a self- aware Universe is the most compelling argument on my list. At times I think that a similar premise can be made relating to the human creation of art and philosophy. However I am not certain that I am on such sure-footed territory on this concept. Perhaps I will explore that idea further in coming blogs.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Radicalism and the American Revolution by Gordon Wood

I very much enjoyed Gordon Wood’s Radicalism and the American Revolution.  This book is not for every reader, however.  I would only recommend Wood’s work for those with a very serious interest in the topics covered.  These subjects include the American Revolution, the history of government, as well as the social changes that occurred in Western Civilization during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  If one does have an abiding interest in these areas, then Radicalism and the American Revolution is a must read.

Wood’s book does not present a straightforward narrative; instead it provides facts, statistics and a lot of quotations from the period of roughly 1750 to 1830.  This information is woven together to produce suppositions.  These hypotheses are often convincing and are always fascinating.  The entire basis of the work runs counter to the somewhat popular argument that the American Revolution was not a revolution at all, but only a war for independence.  Wood also refutes the contention that even if the American Revolution was a political revolution, it was not a social revolution.  The author presents his case that during this era, America experienced massive political, social, philosophical, demographic and economic changes that were comparable to other great upheavals.

Wood illustrates how this period in American history brought about enormous alteration in the social structure and hierarchy that was ingrained into American society.  Most relationships, starting with a the personal connections that many people perceived that they had to the king, to local government, as well as to their own families, were radically transformed.  Society changed from a structure of vertical, patriarchal connections to a system of horizontal relationships and coalitions.

Additionally, Wood points out how the American Revolutionary period brought about great changes in government, demographics, and economics.  Everything, from the way parents raised their children to the way commerce was conducted, from the way Americans received and evaluated information to even table manners, to name just a few points, metamorphosed during this period.

All of these changes that took place during the early 1800s produced an amazingly dynamic, individualistic and egalitarian society that bubbled with ideas and commerce.  This society was unique in the world and had a major impact on how the present day world came to be.

Wood does point out that this dynamism and the advantages that it bestowed was mostly restricted to white men.  He does address and explore the implications that these changes had on women, African–American slaves and Native Americans.  The author does not shy away from enormous contradictions between this flowering of liberty that benefitted some groups and the horrors of slavery and other evils that were present at this time.  He attempts to explain how these vast incongruities could exist.  He further explores what effect the revolution had on various movements such as abolition and women’s rights.

 Somewhat controversially, Wood contends that, like most revolutions, the changes in America ran well beyond what its original instigators ever intended.  I will further explore this point in more detail below.  Thus, Wood contends that while not as violent or mob driven as the French Revolution and other similar events, this American experience was just as radical.

 As with many good books, there are too many ideas in Radicalism and the American Revolution to comprehensively delve into within a single blog post.  As I am fond of doing, I will concentrate upon what was for me one of many fascinating points found in the book.  This topic revolves around the political theory and history of Classical Republicanism as interpreted by the revolutionary generation.  I need to mention that I believe the ideology ascribed by Wood as “Classical Republicanism” that was espoused by many of America’s founders is not entirely congruous with the other historical characterizations of this ideology that I have run into.  I am confining my discussion to Wood’s definition and interpretation here.

Classical Republicanism, at least during this era, was premised on the preposition that anyone who had strong “interest” in society, particularly economic interests, was unfit to govern and lead. The self-interested individual would only advocate for and support policies that were advantageous to that person and his peers.

Instead, government should be comprised of men who were “uninterested”.  Such men would impartially judge among the competing interests that existed in society.  This leadership class should also be composed of the best educated and the most virtuous citizens.  Who could possibly meet these requirements?  Many of the founders believed that such headship should be drawn from a special group of the wealthy and elite.

This group was comprised of men of propriety wealth.  In theory, these rich landowners controlled vast estates that provided a steady source of wealth and income that required little management.  These property owners, numerous in Virginia but present in various forms in all of the states, were considered to be independent of mercantile, speculative and other capitalistic pursuits.  Such economic disinterest would put this class of men above any personal ambitions for profit and allow them to be fair arbiters of society.  Instead of representing particular groups, these leaders would represent everyone.  These men were also usually well educated and considered by some to be the most honorable members of society.  This new elite would replace the old aristocracy and monarchy that was swept aside by the revolution.

Lest one err in concluding that this dream of Classical Republicanism came to be in an America that for much of its history has been dominated by moneyed interests, the Classical Republicans did not believe that capitalists or businessmen should ever be allowed to govern society. Contrary to the wealthy estate holders who, it was supposed, did not need to do anything to assure their income, citizens who were involved in mercantilism or speculation were some of the most interested people around and were thus not trustworthy enough for government service.

Many of the Classical Republicans held an enormous distrust for the lower classes and the dangers of mob rule, and were particularly opposed to universal male suffrage.  However, a social and political structure led by uninterested men whose actions were exemplary and beyond reproof would help to encourage virtue in all layers of society, and thus help to pacify members of the lower classes.  The behavior of the elite would be the model for all classes.  Hard work, frugality, education and civility would be highly valued by everyone in such a nation.

To some extent, Classical Republicanism government may have operated more or less as intended during the administration of George Washington.  Washington was in many ways the epitome of the disinterested elite and virtuous republican.  He was not only a wealthy land owner, but on many occasions he honestly strived to rise above the fray and act the disinterested leader who looked beyond parochial interests for what he believed to be the good of all society.

Wood argues that the formulation of the United States Constitution in 1787 was in part an attempt by the Federalists, who championed the idea of Classical Republicanism to defend and solidify their chosen system.  The Constitution included such bastions of Classical Republicanism as a Senate elected by state legislatures, a powerful executive chosen not by the people but by electors, as well as Supreme Court Justices who served for life. Wood points out that the Constitution failed to enshrine this system as intended. Many history and government scholars and buffs, including at times myself, have extoled the genius that the founders showed in crafting this document.  If we accept Wood’s contention, at least in this respect, the Constitution was a failure in the eyes of its creators!

Of course, this version of Classical Republicanism was an interesting theory of government that was based upon false premises.  For one thing the American landed elite never were so secure as to be able to disregard all capitalistic and speculative pursuits.  To the contrary, after the war, these wealthy patricians found that they were falling deeper and deeper in debt, and thus began to engage in financial speculation in order to supplement income.

Another major impediment to the success of this system was the fact that other powerful groups, such as the mercantile interests and tradesmen, soon demanded their own representation in the republic.  This was coupled by the tendency of lower economic classes to develop a desire for material goods and luxuries.  This acquisitiveness in the population ran counter to the idea of the frugal, hard working and virtuous citizen championed by the supporters of Classical Republicanism

Like most and perhaps all revolutions, the American Revolution far outdistanced and eventually buried the intentions and goals of the original revolutionaries.  Though not a point made by Wood, I find it ironic that when describing discredited political or economic systems, such as communism, modern day commentators and historians use terms like ‘the dustbin of history” and often express bemusement that anyone ever espoused such ideologies.  It turns out that many of America’s founding icons, including George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, believed in and attempted to establish just as unworkable a system.

To the dismay of many of the cherished founders, the idea of Classical Republicanism gave way to what we call Liberal Democracy.  This new, much more radical system, championed by the anti–Federalists, acknowledged that society was full of competing interests and there really was no group that was truly disinterested. Therefore the best form of government contained legislatures composed of representatives of various groups.  Partisans would coalesce around parties.  The legislators would be engaged in constant push and pull as well as compromise.  The end result of this competitive process would yield balanced governance.  This is the system what the modern democracies more or less still adhere to today.

Wood’s argument that Classical Republicanism was a goal of many of America’s founders that ultimately unraveled and gave way to more radical ideas is a convincing one.  I do however find a flaw in Wood’s presentation.  Often, Radicalism and the American Revolution presents the conflict between the Federalists who supported Classical Republicanism and the Anti–Federalists who opposed it as too monolithic.  The book casts supporters and opponents as being without much nuance.  My own understanding of the views and policies of America’s founders includes all sorts of variations and contradictions on this matter.  For instance, Jefferson epitomized and led the anti–Federalists, yet he championed the agrarian, landed estate holders who were supposed to lead the Classical Republican society.  Hamilton expressed enormous distrust of the masses and mob rule, yet he advocated for the emerging mercantile class that Classical Republicans would exclude from governance.  Washington, the embodiment of a patrician republican, was extremely pragmatic and never really believed that any group was above partisanship and thus truly disinterested.

Though in my opinion he pushes his point and portrays it a little too simplistically, Wood is on to something when he describes this antiquated political theory and how it quickly gave way to more revolutionary ideas.  He presents a thoroughly researched, smart and thought provoking study and analysis of this issue.

Wood’s book is full of interesting ideas for those who are inclined to delve deeply into these subjects.  The examination of the idea and history of Classical Republicanism in American is only one of many avenues that he strides here.  As someone very interested in the history and ideology of this era, I enjoyed this book immensely. This work is however, in the language of modern slang, wonky.  I would only recommend Radicalism and the American Revolution to those who are indeed very interested.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Human Stain - Philip Roth

**** Minor Spoilers contained here.  I give away the fate of the main characters.  I say that this is minor because it is revealed a little more than halfway through this book anyway. ***

The Human Stain is another Philip Roth book that I loved.  Once again, this is a story that is part of the Zuckerman series and, like the previous two entries, Zuckerman mostly narrates and interprets the tale. He is only a character of moderate importance in this book.

Roth and Zuckerman tell the story of Coleman Silk.  Silk is an African-American who grows up in New Jersey during the 1930’s and 1940’s.  Silk is a strong willed, brilliant student as well a talented boxer.  Encountering only occasional racism in his very early years, he is shocked by the hardcore ethnic bigotry that he confronts when he first attends college in Washington D.C. Intending to live life his way, Coleman, who is very light skinned and possesses many Caucasian features, simply decides to pass himself off as a white man.  After serving in World War II, Silk returns to civilian life and meets Steena Paulsson, who seems destined to become his wife. Coleman hides, or at least does not reveal, his ethnicity to Steena for several years.  When he finally surprises her with a visit to his family, providing her with no foreknowledge that they are African-American, Steena flees from Silk.  After this incident our protagonist cruelly severs ties with his family and completely takes on the identity of a Jewish-American.

Silk later marries another white woman and has children, but never reveals to his family his true past or ethnic background.  Professionally he becomes a Professor of Classic Literature and rises to the position of Dean of the fictional Athena College. As a dynamic reformer, he puts Athena on the academic map.  Along the way he makes numerous enemies as he eliminates the dead wood and non-working members of the faculty of the college.

In his seventies and upon retirement from the position of Dean, Silk decides to stay around and continue to teach a few undergraduate courses.  In an ironic twist of fate, one day while taking attendance in class he casually refers to a couple of students, who have never shown up to class and are just names on the attendance list, as “Spooks”.  It turns out that the students in question are African-Americans.  A firestorm erupts as Silk is accused of making a racist statement.  His friends abandon him as his enemies descend upon him and he later resigns in fury.  Afterward, he blames the ensuing death of his wife on the scandal.

The heart of the book concerns itself with events that occur several years after the above events.  Silk meets Nathan Zuckerman, whom he implores to write the story of his persecution. He also begins an affair with Faunia Farley, a woman less than half his age who has been abused throughout her life and who is apparently illiterate.  Members of the local community as well as Silk’s children condemn the relationship as inappropriate.  The lovers are hounded by Lester Farley, who is Fauna’s abusive and psychotic ex-husband, as well as by Professor Delphine Roux, a self-righteous professor at Athena College.  Lester Farley eventually murders both Coleman and Fauna. I am not really giving anything away, as the events of Coleman’s death are mentioned relatively early the novel, whose timeline is only partially linear.  Next, Zuckerman proceeds to piece together the story of Coleman’s life and demise.  The last months of Coleman’s life take place concurrently over the backdrop of the Bill Clinton–Monica Lewinsky scandal, which is referenced again and again.

The Human Stain is a work of great thematic and philosophic complexity.  Multiple strains of ideas run concurrently and are intertwined.  As is true of every other Roth novel that I have read, the issue of identity and its shifting permutations dominate the narrative.  The idea of an African-American taking on the ethnicity of a Jewish-American, and eventually being persecuted for being a racist, is prime material for these explorations.  Since I explored this multi–novel train of thinking in my commentary on Roth’s “I Married a Communist”, I will instead focus here on another related aspect of this novel, what Roth calls the “Ecstasy of Sanctimony”.

Roth takes humanity to task for our tendency to judge and attack individuals for personal behavior that is not really the business of the public, is ultimately trivial and sometimes accompanied by gross mistruths.

As mentioned earlier, the Clinton sex scandal and subsequent impeachment plays prominently in the words and thoughts of the book’s characters.  Pondering the events, Zuckerman points to the incongruity of the fanatical piety that many people were projecting over both Clinton’s and Silk’s liaisons, while paying minimal attention to a twentieth century world full of suffering, war, genocide and insane ideologies.  Zuckerman deplores this unsophisticated and small-minded tendency of certain Americans to obsess over such trivialities and ignore what is truly momentous in the world.  He compares such reactions to the Muslim extremists who supported the Fatwa by calling for the murder of Salmon Rushdie.  Roth ties such thinking to a strong anti – intellectualism and racism prevalent in America.  Many of the characters who express disgust with both Clinton’s and Silk’s sexual activities accompany the comments with anti–education, racist and anti–Semitic comments.

This is a train of reasoning that I must admit appeals to me.  I am often appalled by what seems to me the simplistic phony righteousness expressed by some of my fellow Americans.  I remember distinctly the discussions that I engaged in with self-described pious persons during the self same scandal.  One needs only to listen to the ridiculous and hateful rhetoric engaged by many of our current politicians and commentators speaking against access to birth control to understand what I mean.

Just when you think, however, that Roth is going to confine his point to the puritanical anti- intellectual thinking that a segment of America engages in, he throws us a curveball. He proceeds to aim his sights on the over intellectualized and often politically correct thinking left wing.

Professor Delphine Roux is the diametric opposite of the American anti-intellectual.  She is a young, attractive, stylish and sophisticated French woman descended from aristocracy who can be described as a super intellectual.  Educated in the finest French schools and possessing a brilliant mind, Roux has mastered the intricacies of complex literary theories that few of her colleagues even understand.  She has awed her peers and students with her cerebral prowess and engaging charisma.  She describes herself as living for books and for art.  At twenty- nine years of age she rises to become chairperson of the language and literature department at Athena College.
Roux is, however, emotionally immature and unstable.  She leads a hysterical sanctimonious attack against Silk, first for the innocent “Spooks” comment and later for what she incorrectly imagines to be an abusive and misogynic affair.  Even after Silk’s death she continues to pile on the slander.  Here, Roth presents us with self-righteous attacks from a different source altogether.  Like the assault on Clinton, real truth concerning private human weakness, is combined with outrageous lies that further smear the victim.
Though Roth clearly despises the excesses epitomized by Roux, from what I know of him, he is intellectually, socially and politely much closer to the intellectualized international literary left that is occupied by Roux.  To Roth’s credit, he has turned his literary glare close to home.
Faunia Farley is the true opposite of the reprehensible people who engage in the vicious moralizing.  She condemns no one.  In one passage, she seems to see that human imperfection, or “the Human Stain,” as all pervasive and simply accepts it as part of the world.  Later Zuckerman, writing in Silk’s voice (yes, perception and point of view get really complicated with Roth!) describes her,
 “She's not religious, she's not sanctimonious, she is not deformed by the fairy tale of purity, whatever other perversions may have disfigured her. She's not interested in judging—she's seen too much for all that shit.  “
Raped and abused all of her life, and in the end murdered, for me Faunia Farley is the noblest and most admirable person in this story.
This tale made me think about a book that I read a few months ago, Nancy Issenberg’s Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr . This work details the life of America’s third vice president, who Issenberg contends was the victim of outrageous lies and character distortions that continue to be perpetuated to this day.  My commentary on that book is here.
My thoughts here only represent a small fraction of what a reader will get out of this book. There is so much that I have not even mentioned.  Aside from a great story and characters, Roth weaves a tale that is a thinking person’s delight.  Since once again Zuckerman is only interpreting a story, a reader unfamiliar with the other works in the series can jump right in. This is a great work, though not quite as great as the incomparable American Pastoral.
I have one last Zuckerman book to go.  That is Exit Ghost.  I believe that the main narrative returns to Zuckerman’s life and, I fear sadly, his death.  I will get to that one soon and share my thoughts with everyone.