Friday, November 29, 2013

John Milton - Paradise Lost and Satan

John Milton’s Paradise Lost is a magnificent work. For those who are unfamiliar with this epic poem, first published in 1668, it details Satan’s fall from heaven into hell, the creation of the earth and humans, as well as humanity’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. In some ways wildly over the top, the poem covers epic and violent celestial battles between the forces of God and the forces of Satan, involving legions of angels, demons and satanic war machines, philosophical conversations between God and Jesus, as well as phantasmagoric descriptions of heaven, hell, the Garden of Eden, etc. It is full of interesting philosophical themes ranging from the nature of evil, reason and religion, the paradox of predestination and free will, etc. It builds a macro to micro picture of a cosmos that ranges from the actual physical locations and proximities of heaven, hell and Earth, down to the dietary habits of angels.

An issue that has occupied critics and legions of other readers over the centuries is the fabulous depiction of Satan in this poem. Milton’s Satan speaks in eloquent and soaring verse, is often brave and noble, at least within his nefarious circle, as well as intelligent and self-reflective. There are varying opinions on this very unconventional portrayal of the Devil. A few have gone as far as to accuse Milton of blasphemy and Satanism.

To be sure, this Satan is a fascinating and complex character. At one point, he even considers repenting and returning to God’s service, but realizes that he would eventually be unable to prevent himself from resuming his rebellion,

But say I could repent and could obtaine 
By Act of Grace my former state; how soon
Would highth recal high thoughts, how soon unsay
What feign’d submission swore: ease would recant
Vows made in pain, as violent and void.
For never can true reconcilement grow
Where wounds of deadly hate have peirc’d so deep:
Which would but lead me to a worse relapse
And heavier fall: so should I purchase deare
Short intermission bought with double smart. 

It seems to me that Milton was portraying Satan as a terribly tragic figure. He is an angel who possessed incredibly noble and appealing virtues but who could not resist the appeal to evil. Hence he fell a very long way. Furthermore he was one of God’s leading angels. Monumental virtue, though eventually lost, would have been a prerequisite of this position.  It would not be surprising that elements of this virtue would remain after his fall. Though a sympathetic character in many ways, there is no doubt that Satan has become a purveyor of evil. He constantly harps about revenge upon God, corrupts humankind and brings all sorts of chaos into the universe.

At one point, he even acknowledges that his rebellion is wrong, unprovoked and motivated by pride and ambition,

I fell, how glorious once above thy Spheare;
Till Pride and worse Ambition threw me down
Warring in Heav’n against Heav’ns matchless King:
Ah wherefore! he deservd no such return
From me, whom he created what I was 
In that bright eminence, and with his good 
Upbraided none; nor was his service hard.
What could be less then to afford him praise,
The easiest recompence, and pay him thanks,
How due! yet all his good prov’d ill in me,
And wrought but malice; lifted up so high 

Satan’s story is one of monumental tragedy; it is monumental precisely because of the virtues inherent in his character.

There are so many other themes and ideas explored in this work. I will be devoting another post or two in exploring some points that were of particular interest to me.  There are many reasons to read this poem, not the least of which is the amazing persona that Milton has created in Satan himself.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Tolstoy Therapy: A Fiction Prescription by Lucy Horner

Lucy Horner is a fellow Blogger. I have been known to comment at her site, Therapy Through Tolstoy and she has commented here. I purchased this book on Amazon. 

Those who are familiar with Lucy Horner’s Blog, Therapy Through Tolstoy know that the a major theme of her site is exploring ways in which reading fiction can enhance one’s well being. In Tolstoy Therapy: A Fiction Prescription she lays out her philosophy in detail. As the author points out, this approach at self - help, known as Bibliotherapy, goes back to the ancient Greeks.

Horner tells her own story and explains how reading has helped her deal with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Next she provides real life examples of folks who have dealt with life’s problems through reading. Later, she explains and recommends how numerous works might be helpful when dealing with various personal issues. A plethora of books are explored. Many of the titles are literary classics including works of poetry, but a fair amount of popular literature is also included. Titles range from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, to The Bible, to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series. The reasoning here is not just that “life affirming stories will make you feel good”.  Horner talks about how books can provide relatable characters that are also wrestling with common issues, how books can provide inspiration, how books can provide a moral compass, to name just a few benefits covered. There is even a nod to the fact that some works that are generally negative in their outlook, might, in some cases be of help to some. Finally tips on becoming a more dedicated reader are provided.  

Lest anyone is thinking that the author goes too far, Horner emphasizes over and over again that reading is no substitute for professional therapy and medication. It is instead a way for people to find solace and guidance in dealing with life’s problems, both big and small.

This is an engaging, short book. Horner coherently takes us touring through various works and explains how they might be of help in life. She evens sites scientific studies that support her position. Her writing style is warm and personal but also precise and easy to understand. There is much food for thought here as well as more then a few surprises. If anything I hungered for more detail and thought that some of these concepts can be further developed. Perhaps there will be future books!

In a passage that helps to sum up the author’s train of thought, Horner writes,

I currently make time for reading every day, and choose books that positively affect my mental health. Because of literature, I’ve come to understand not only myself better, but also my past experiences. Reading is one of the best ways to find reassurance or to relate to another, particularly when a book is well chosen.

Personally I read for many reasons. A kind of self - improvement is but one of them. Previously, I never thought of reading as a way to directly deal with life’s problems. Nor had I ever heard of Bibliotherapy. However this work, as well as some of the posts over at Therapy Through Tolstoy , does lead me think. Without a doubt reading has at times helped me deal with life including my own shortcomings.  I certainly have derived strength in difficult times as a result of fiction that I have read. My take is that reading in order to deal with life’s struggles is one dimension of many that makes reading worthwhile. Thus, this short book is an intriguing exploration of that dimension. In the future I will be surely more cognizant of reading’s potential in these respects. Of course, I cannot fail to mention that this work is also a very entertaining and fun read for bookish folks such as myself!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Henry David Thoreau – Walden – Lilacs and Abandoned Wells

Walden by Henry David Thoreau contains many extraordinary passages. I want to focus upon a particular set of images that the great essayist creates regarding the mutability of everyday human lives and endeavors and the way in which they relate to nature.

When observing some lone abandoned homes and farms in a rural setting Thoreau observes,

Still grows the vivacious lilac a generation after the door and lintel and the sill are gone, unfolding its sweet-scented flowers each spring, to be plucked by the musing traveller; planted and tended once by children's hands, in front-yard plots—now standing by wallsides in retired pastures, and giving place to new-rising forests;—the last of that stirp, sole survivor of that family. Little did the dusky children think that the puny slip with its two eyes only, which they stuck in the ground in the shadow of the house and daily watered, would root itself so, and outlive them, and house itself in the rear that shaded it, and grown man's garden and orchard, and tell their story faintly to the lone wanderer a half-century after they had grown up and died—blossoming as fair, and smelling as sweet, as in that first spring. I mark its still tender, civil, cheerful  lilac colors. “

I find this passage both moving and thought provoking. I also sometimes look at an old place, be it an office building, factory (Thoreau might cringe at my commercial and industrial connection to his ideas), home, or even a park that has been around for a very long time, and I think about all who have come and gone before. Did these people, who lived, loved, laughed, fought and suffered, ever think how the places that they occupied would change and decay over time? Did they ever imagine that some of these places might be abandoned?  I think about people occupying buildings, homes and other places now. Is anyone else thinking about what these locations will become fifty or a hundred years hence?

Of course Thoreau is talking about the mortality and the finite nature of human life and endeavors. The limited duration of people’s existence and actions in the face of change and in time, is starkly contrasted with nature which at least in a relative sense, seems to exhibit a permanency.

The image of children planting lilacs, which remain long after a home is abandoned and in ruins, and after the children have grown old and died, is particularly powerful for me. This section of the work, titled “Former Inhabitants and Winter Visitors” goes on with these melancholy musings as Thoreau contemplates abandoned wells,

Sometimes the well dent is visible, where once a spring oozed; now dry and tearless grass; or it was covered deep—not to be discovered till some late day—with a flat stone under the sod, when the last of the race departed. What a sorrowful act must that  be—the covering up of wells! coincident with the opening of wells of tears. These cellar dents, like deserted fox burrows, old holes, are all that is left where once were the stir and bustle of human life, and "fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute," in some form and dialect or other were by turns discussed.

It seems to me that throughout Walden Thoreau shows great regard for human reflections and philosophical thoughts of all types, including those concerning “fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute”.  Here however, he seems to be turning a reflective and critical gaze upon even his own views and priorities. Of all the important philosophical topics that people ponder and that Thoreau expresses great interesting in elswhere, I think it may be important that Thoreau chooses “fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute” as an examples of important human thinking and discourse. Perhaps he is reflecting upon the reality, that in the end, whether we are guided by free will or by fate, what we say and do, will pass away. All that will remain will be nature.

Elswhere In Walden, Thoreau rarely dwells upon such sentimental fatalism as he does here. Indeed, this work is filled with the images and musings about change; seasons change, landscapes change, humans change the environment, etc.  However, the author usually celebrates change as a wellspring of new life, new experiences and beauty. Here Thoreau chooses to devote a few pages to the sadder side of existence. In doing so he is exposing what can be viewed as the triviality of certain things that we value very highly. I am glad that he does so. I find these descriptions of the loss inherent in the inevitability of change to be aesthetically masterful.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Henry David Thoreau's Walden and Reading

A recent reading of Walden by Henry David Thoreau has given me much to ponder. I will not attempt to encapsulate the entire work in a single blog entry. Instead, I may post several pieces on particular points that interested me.

Contained within Walden is the subpart titled “Reading”. I think that this segment is often overlooked, as it does not focus upon humanity’s relation to nature, a favorite point among those who enjoy discussing Thoreau.

In this section, Thoreau engages in a relatively strong, I would even describe it as scathing, attack upon folks for their reading habits. If the great American essayist were alive today, he would surely be labeled as the dreaded ”book snob”.

Thoreau decries spending ones life reading what he describes as “Little Things”.

He writes,

“I think that having learned our letters we should read the best that is in literature, and not be forever repeating our a-b-abs, and words of one syllable, in the fourth or fifth classes, sitting on the lowest and foremost form all our lives. Most men are satisfied if they read or hear read, and perchance have been convicted by the wisdom of one good book, the Bible, and for the rest of their lives vegetate and dissipate their faculties in what is called easy reading. 

From a personal point of view, but without engaging in the judgment of others, I am with Thoreau so far. I mostly try to avoid so-called easy reading. I do so mostly because I find such “light reading” to be boring.

Later, such easy reading, along with those who engage in it, are judged in harsher terms,

"We are underbred and low-lived and illiterate; and in this respect I confess I do not make any very broad distinction between the illiterateness of my townsman who cannot read at all and the illiterateness of him who has learned to read only what is for children and feeble intellects.”

Personally, I feel that labeling folks who engage in an activity less seriously than I do as “feeble intellects” is not the best path to a comprehensive and balanced view of the world. Everyone finds substance in life in different places. If I am quick to judge an individual who engages in such reading, I may also be quick to overlook the fact that the person has developed artistic abilities that I have disused, or has developed other skills or virtues that I have neglected. For instance, a person who spends several hours a day listening to and studying classical music might be inclined to look down upon me as someone who is wasting time that could be spent exploring that particular art form. One needs to be very careful before being too critical concerning the intellectual and artistic pursuits of others. Everyone is different and exhibits varying strengths and weaknesses.

On the other hand, I find the above advice personally agreeable. As reading goes, it has been my lifelong, number one hobby. Thus, I look to books to challenge me. I want to mainly stick with “the best of literature,” and I wish to become acquainted with varying and diverse points of view as well as come to know both the wisdom and, I will add, folly contained in great books.

Thoreau spends several pages extolling the wisdom of the ages that can be discovered in books. He concludes that words can be life changing. They can open new vistas to us and make us better people. He believes that certain forms of wisdom are universal and, of course, can be accessed by reading great books.

The essayist goes on,

“It is not all books that are as dull as their readers. There are probably words addressed to our condition exactly, which, if we could really hear and understand, would be more salutary than the morning or the spring to our lives, and possibly put a new aspect on the face of things for us. How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book! The book exists for us, perchance, which will explain our miracles and reveal new ones. The at present unutterable things we may find somewhere uttered. These same questions that disturb and puzzle and confound us have in their turn occurred to all the wise men; not one has been omitted; and each has answered them, according to his ability, by his words and his life. Moreover, with wisdom we shall learn liberality. “

There is a widely discussed intellectual kinship between Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thoreau. Emerson heavily influenced Thoreau and both shared many common views. On the subject of books and great authors, however, I find that, at least in this essay, Thoreau is less suspicious and cautious about assimilating the thoughts and opinions of great authors. My commentary on Emerson’s view of books in the American Scholar is here. In that work Emerson seems to be making the case that one should be very wary of the “life changing” aspects of books. He is highly critical of accepting the ideas of even great intellects.

In contrast, Thoreau gives a lot of credit here to history’s esteemed writers and thinkers. Thoreau is right on the money in his assessment that issues such as life, death, the origins of ourselves and the universe, etc. have been tackled by many who have gone before us. Even if one reads very skeptically, there is a treasure trove of insightful, useful and just plain fascinating observations to discover. For those who have only dipped a toe into the water of such deep reading, I join Thoreau in encouraging a very deep plunge.

Thoreau devotes many more words and pages to both the issue of “easy reading” as well as to extolling the virtues of great and enlightening books. This segment is but one scrumptious, albeit slightly bitter, dish included in the feast that is Walden. Those very curious about this segment can easily find it in the work’s table of contents and read it in isolation. However, it very nicely fits into and complements the remainder of this great work.