Friday, September 27, 2013

For Liberty and Glory: Washington, Lafayette, and Their Revolutions by James R. Gaines

For Liberty and Glory: Washington, Lafayette, and Their Revolutions by James R. Gaines is a parallel biography of both George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette with an emphasis on the relationship between the two men. The book also presents the author’s take on both the American and French Revolutions. At times, Gaines’s viewpoint is original and insightful. His writing is also very good. Where this work falls a bit short is in the relative scarcity of in-depth analysis on the relationship between both men as well as on both revolutions. While these connections are explored, I hungered for more. If the book had devoted fewer words to details that are generally known already and spent more words examining and discussing these facts, this would have been a stronger work.

For those unfamiliar with the details of Lafayette’s life, my summary is included along with my commentary on Lafayette by Harlow Giles Unger. For those unfamiliar with the details of Washington’s earlier life, before becoming the first President of the United States, he led the Continental Army for year after year in arduous battles against both the British and the natural elements. It was during the war years of the American Revolution that the teenage Marquis de Lafayette, having volunteered for service in the American Army, distinguished himself as one of America’s most capable generals as he engaged in vitally important diplomacy between the United States and France and established an extremely close, lifelong friendship with Washington.

On some of the incongruities of the relationship between the two men, Gaines writes,

“The friendship of Washington and Lafayette seems in some ways as implausible as the French-American one, almost like the setup to a joke: What does a Virginia frontiersman and grade-school dropout have in common with a moneyed French aristocrat who learned his horsemanship in the company of three future kings? Or what do you call a bumptious optimist whose best friend is a moody loner? Lafayette threw his arms around people and kissed them on both cheeks. Washington did not.

Later, Lafayette became a pivotal player in the French Revolution. Though he was an early leader, he was later forced to flee its excesses and was later imprisoned in Prussia and then Austria, having been accused of being a dangerous revolutionary, for a period of five years. During most of this time, he and Washington engaged in a steady stream of correspondence.

As for the connections between the revolutions, Gaines touches upon numerous points. The American Founders and French Revolutionaries drew upon similar intellectual roots. Debt, incurred by France in its support of the American cause, was likely the primary spark that ignited the French Revolution. The ideals of the American Revolution spread to France and encouraged revolution there. French officers who served in the American Revolution helped bring revolutionary ideology to France. As the French Revolution raged, the two primary American political factions each took sides. At least in the early years, Thomas Jefferson’s Republicans strongly supported the French Revolution and its ideals as Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists vehemently opposed it.

When Gaines does dig deep, his analysis is very well thought out and perceptive. One of just several really interesting tracks he takes is a look into the motivations that drove both men. The author concludes that the lifelong inspiration for both of these figures can be boiled down to regard for their own reputations.

Gaines argues that both men were obsessed with what the public and what history thought about them. Of particular importance was to act in away as to be remembered as honorable and virtuous.

In the 18th century—in America, France and Britain alike—the ultimate test of personal success was called "fame," "glory" or "character," words that signified neither celebrity nor moral courage but referred to a person's reputation, which was also called his "honor." This sort of acclaim was not a cheap popularity divorced from achievement, as it would be in an age when people could become famous for being well known. Fame and its synonyms meant an illustrious eminence, a stature accrued from having led a consequential life.”

Later Gains goes on,

Washington and Lafayette started out by striving to create for themselves the image of the people that they wished to be, a lifelong endeavor to act well. If their motives for doing so were mixed, their commitment for doing so were not, and somewhere along the way, in a kind of political and moral alchemy, their urgings for fame and glory were transmuted into finer stuff, their lives became enactments of high principle. They lived such a life, did such deeds, even remained friends, in part, to stake their claim on immortality, which meant to have their story told; and the audience they cared must to hear it was posterity….”

I have read somewhat extensively about Washington. At least in terms of America’s first President, Gaines is right on the money (as is Washington). His argument that Lafayette’s motives were similar is also very convincing. The argument that certain men of this era were obsessively preoccupied with reputation and virtue is very much in line with the thinking and writings of Gordon Wood, who has written extensively on the American Revolutionary generation’s belief system concerning self-image. My commentary on Wood’s Radicalism and the American Revolution is here and his Revolutionary Characters is here.

It is fascinating to examine how Lafayette took this belief system into his later years when he was immersed in the tumultuous and, at times, morally ambiguous setting of the French Revolution. Lafayette consistently took a moderate position and advocated for a constitutional monarchy in France. As Harlow Giles Unger does, Gains concludes that had Lafayette acted more decisively against radicals when he had the chance, his popularity and control of military forces would have been enough to prevent the French Revolution from descending into chaos and mass executions (I do not have a thorough enough grasp of the French Revolution to have a serious opinion on the validity of this theory). Gaines actually points out that Napoleon Bonaparte also reached the same conclusion when writing about the events of the French Revolution. The Marquis’ hesitance to do so resulted from his revulsion against the use of military force as a means to reach political ends. Such action would have destroyed his reputation as a lover of liberty and revolution in a moderate form.

There are other very astute and worthwhile points made in this book. It is also a very engaging read. However, there are more complete biographies of both Washington and Lafayette and more complete histories of both Revolutions. Thus, this book is recommended, but only for those who are already interested in the subjects covered and are just hungry for more. Readers who fit this bill will, however, find this book very engaging.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Thomas Ligotti - Sect of the Idiot

This post is part of the RIP or Readers Imbibing Peril seasonal reading event.

Having recently read Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror and finding his thinking to be interesting but flawed, I decided to delve into the author’s fiction. Ligotti is primarily a short story writer. Some of his stories can be classified as falling within the realm of horror, but some can be better described by what Ligotti himself terms to as “Weird Tales.” I have now read a fair sampling of his stories pulled from various collections found at my local library. I attempted to read the stories that his fans and critics have identified as his best works as well as those which have intriguing descriptions or titles.

Ligotti’s prose paints an extremely moody and menacing atmosphere. He is, as he admits, very influenced by the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft in tone, plot and themes.  I noticed that the tales written later in the author’s career deviate from the Lovecraft influence, at least in plot, as compared to the earlier works.  While some of the stories have a very cohesive and logical plot, others are dreamlike and involve events that do not really fit together.

The author’s view of the universe is grim indeed. Though not a proponent of his worldview, see my commentary here, this dark, pernicious outlook helps to generate terrific and dark yarns. While the endpoint of the author’s belief system is almost laughably pessimistic, he raises some thought provoking issues and themes in regard to the meaning of existence. Furthermore, if one does not take the over the top gloominess of the fiction too seriously, this gloominess can be ironically entertaining and even fun in a creepy sort of way. These tales, at times, can be disturbing.  Though Ligotti rarely describes actual terrible events, he often implies that terrible things have, or will, occur.

 Almost without exception, various facets of the author’s worldview as expressed in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror are conveyed in his fiction. This philosophy, either symbolically through the philosophical musings of various characters, or through downright descriptions of the universe, is constantly on display. Again and again we are reminded of humanity’s insignificance, that our perception of ourselves is completely wrong and that we are much less than we think we are. Ligotti has expressed in his essays a deterministic view of human behavior. He believes that free will and the concept of “self” are illusions.   He sees people as being “puppets” of nature. Thus puppets, dolls, mannequins, etc. often reoccur in his tales.  Most importantly, his stories take place in a universe that is itself malevolent. Dark forces are always lurking underneath the visible world. He writes few stories that can be described as “good versus evil.” Instead, he pits hapless and helpless people against a pernicious cosmos.

"The Sect of the Idiot" is a striking and imaginative tale that illustrates much of Ligotti’s thinking.  The unnamed narrator is the inhabitant of an unnamed phantasmagoric city. The protagonist initially dreams of a group of strange, hideously inhuman, robed figures who hold power in the city. Eventually, evidence is discovered, revealing that the group is real and that it exerts godlike powers over the fate of all humanity.

The narrator expresses the trivial nature of himself, and by implication of humanity, in comparison to these beings,

“I was no more than an irrelevant parcel of living tissue caught in a place I should not be, threatened with being snared in some great dredging net of doom, an incidental shred of flesh pulled out of its element of light and into an icy blackness. In the dream nothing supported my existence, which I felt at any moment might be horribly altered or simply. . .ended. In the profoundest meaning of the expression, my life was of no matter.”

Later, our narrator comes to realize that there is a higher force than these grotesque beings.  It turns out that, just like humanity, these creatures are in denial as to the truth behind creation. The truth is that there is chaos and meaningless underlying it all, chaos and meaningless that Ligotti equates with idiocy,

“these hooded freaks who were themselves among the hypnotized. For there was a power superseding theirs, a power which they served and from which they merely emanated, something which was beyond the universal hypothesis by virtue of its very mindlessness, its awesome idiocy.”

Ultimately, the Universe is a dark and pointless place that is very bad for people. Personal insanity is almost a logical endpoint to it all. The narrator eventually concludes,

“Life is the nightmare that leaves its mark upon you in order to prove that it is, in fact, real. And to suffer a solitary madness seems the joy of paradise when compared to the extraordinary condition in which one’s own madness mealy echoes that of the world outside. I have been lured away by dreams, all is nonsense now.”

Gnostic influence can be found all over Ligotti’s works. He makes several direct mentions to Gnosticism in both his fiction and his non–fiction essays. The Gnostic belief that the creator of our Universe was some kind of imposter who did something very wrong is reflected here. These beings are cold and maleficent deities.  They exhibit the attributes of an imposter God, as portrayed by their subordinate position to the greater force.  Most Gnostic thought systems, however, acknowledge a positive spiritual power that takes precedence over reality. Here, the spiritual force is mindless and vile. This story takes place in a creation that is very, very wrong.

A perusal of online opinions indicates that many folks find Ligotti to be depressing. As I alluded to earlier, I do not concur. Paradoxically, the imaginary nasty universe that the author creates, for me, is at times an amusing and intellectually stimulating counterpoint to reality. In addition, even if one does not buy completely into the negativity, these tales are thought provoking.   I find if one likes dark and odd stories, set in dark and odd universe, these stories are highly recommended.

Just a note about one story, “The Frolic,” where Ligotti goes way beyond his usual level of “bad stuff going on.”  This one is in no way fun and it is very disturbing. As it is the first story in some collections, I warn the faint at heart to consider staying away and others from judging the author on this tale alone. Though it still implies rather then describes what actually happens, in terms in intensity and ugliness, it is really not like most of the author’s other works.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth

Portnoy's Complaint by was written in 1969 and was the book that put Philip Roth on the map. The tale is told from the point of view of Alexander Portnoy in a stream of consciousness style of monologue directed at an unheard psychoanalyst. Portnoy is intelligent, self aware and highly literate. He is also neurotic, insecure, a narcissist, a sex-crazed womanizer and is very vulgar, especially in regards to bodily functions and masturbation. The novel alternates in time between the Portnoy’s childhood and adult adventures.

This is a brilliant character study. It hilariously plumbs the psychology and social interactions of Portnoy, who is alternately likable and unlikeable to the point of being reprehensible. The constant commentary is very often extremely crude and unfiltered. Portnoy views and describes sexuality as well as other biological functions in extremely uncouth terms.  In my opinion the sexuality is ribald and usually not erotic. Many readers will be offended while others may be simply disgusted.  Though I loved this book and found it often hilarious, and consider myself relatively thick skinned, the over the top diatribe was even a bit much for me at times. In addition, Portnoy can be a very unpleasant character. In real life, his self-absorption would be tediously annoying, and he treats women as sex objects, to name just a couple of his character flaws. On the other hand, I find his portrayal to be realistic. I have known people who speak and seem to think a lot like Portnoy.

Some have taken Roth to task about this work, as the characters often express sexist, racist and otherwise anti–social views. I find this angle of criticism unfounded. It seems relatively obvious that this work is not advocating these views. Though Portnoy has his virtues and at times is extremely insightful, when he behaves badly, the reader clearly does not laugh with him, but rather laughs at him.

There is a lot here. This novel is a fantastic and complex character study. There are so many avenues one can ponder. One of many things that this novel succeeds in being is an exploration, and perhaps a parody, of Freudianism. Roth often approaches this from a humorous angle.

The ideas of Sigmund Freud are brimming all over the narrative. Portnoy’s actions and thoughts are a torrent of Freudian concepts relating to guilt, the Id, ego and super-ego, castration anxiety, neurotic guilt, infantile sexual abuse, symbolism in dreams, etc. At certain points in the narrative, the protagonist even reads and obsesses over Freud. On one level, this work can be viewed as the fictional representation of how these influences play out in the real life of a person. 

For instance, Portnoy recalls a strong erotic attraction to his mother that is pure Freud.

“While I crayon a picture for her, she showers— and now in the sunshine of her bedroom, she is dressing to take me downtown. She sits on the edge of the bed in her padded bra and her girdle, rolling on her stockings and chattering away. Who is Mommy’s good little boy? Who is the best little boy a mommy ever had? Who does Mommy love more than anything in the whole wide world? I am absolutely punchy with delight, and meanwhile follow in their tight, slow, agonizingly delicious journey up her legs the transparent stockings that give her flesh a hue of stirring dimensions. I sidle close enough to smell the bath powder on her throat— also to appreciate better the elastic intricacies of the dangling straps to which the stockings will presently be hooked.”

In similar Freudian fashion, he describes his murderous rage at his father. 

“I would have only to leap across the dinner dishes, my fingers aimed at his windpipe, for him instantaneously to sink  down beneath the table with his tongue hanging out.”

Lest we be too quick to label this novel as the uncritical acceptance of these ideas, there seems to be something else going on here. The references to the theories of Freud can be found on almost every page. They involve all kinds of over the top and ludicrous thoughts and situations. Less of a serious depiction of these concepts, at times this book is closer to parody.

At one point, the protagonist himself wonders if all these connections, explanations and childhood associations are worth so much time and angst and even if they are real or not,

“Whew! Have I got grievances! Do I harbor hatreds I didn’t even know were there! Is it the process, Doctor, or is it what we call “the material”? All I do is complain, the repugnance seems bottomless, and I’m beginning to wonder if maybe enough isn’t enough. I hear myself indulging in the kind of ritualized bellyaching that is just what gives psychoanalytic patients such a bad name with the general public. Could I really have detested this childhood and resented these poor parents of mine to the same degree then as I seem to now, looking backward upon what I was from the vantage point of what I am— and am not? Is this truth I’m delivering up…..”

So is this story a satiric exploration of Freudian ideology from the point of view of a neurotic character? Or, instead, is it a savage critique of the theories and the impact that these ideas have had upon society? I think that it may be a little bit of both. The ideas of Freud have had an enormous impact upon our culture and are important to understand. When applied to a character as Roth does here, they create a fascinating case study.  At the same time they have been employed in all kinds of, what seems to me, ridiculous interpretations of human behavior. Thus, I believe one can analyze these ideas while, in some ways, also mock them. It seems that this is exactly what Roth is doing in this work.

This is a very funny and lively character study. There is a lot more here then the musings about the Freudian thought system. Many of Roth’s favorite themes appear here including his ubiquitous examinations of human identity. As usual, I have only scratched the surface. This book is not, however, for the faint of heart. As mentioned above, it is exceedingly raunchy. In addition, those looking for a completely likeable main character will not be happy with the narcissistic, womanizing Alexander Portnoy. However, those who can deal with these raw elements may find this is a thoughtful, engaging and hilarious novel.

For those with further interest in Roth:

My commentary on I Married a Communist is here.

My Commentary on The Human Stain is here.

My Commentary on Exit Ghost is here.