Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

This post contains major spoilers.

Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D'Urbervilles is the story of the book’s namesake. Tess is a young peasant girl who comes from a family that is intellectually and emotionally less advanced than her. As a result of their somewhat silly pretensions of nobility, Tess sets out in the world, at their encouragement, to seek out her fortune.

Early on, she is raped by the abusive and narcissistic Alec d’Urberville, and the rape results in a pregnancy. Hardy seems to have understood the psychology of sexual assault survivors very well. Tess’s subsequent reaction to the assault plays out very realistically. She does not reveal the nonconsensual nature of the incident to others. Though not entirely rejected by society, Tess is an object of shame due to the pregnancy.  When her young infant dies, she once again sets out into the world.

She meets and falls in love with the seemingly honorable Angel Clare. However, shortly after they marry, Angel discovers some of the details of Tess’s past. He subsequently shows himself to be priggish, hypocritical and cold. Despite the fact that he himself engaged in past indiscretions, he more or less abandons Tess.

Once again, Tess strikes out into the world to endure great hardships. Alec appears and, in stalker-like fashion, begins to infiltrate Tess’s life again. Things end badly when she eventually kills him. Though she briefly reunites with a repentant Angel, the book ends with Tess’s execution.

It bears noting that the behavior of the male characters in this book is extraordinarily bad. Tess’s father is an irresponsible drunk. Alec is an abuser and rapist. Angel, who seems to initially behave decently, is perhaps the most frustrating character of all. He leaves Tess in a spate of childish hypocrisy, despite the fact that his own past included a sexual indiscretion. Hardy clearly did not have a positive image of his male cotemporaries.

 In this work, Hardy seems to be attempting to describe his take on the state of human society. It is a complex view. The author appears to be depicting something of a duel level Universe.  He first illustrates the absolute failure of multiple bastions of society. The failures of manhood, Christianity and modernity, and the prevailing economic and moral systems, are among the factors that conspire to make life impossible for Tess and ultimately lead to her destruction.

Underneath this pernicious structure of society, something else seems to be going on. The book is full of hints about something older appearing out of society’s past. The narrative is full of references to a pagan past and to a spiritual connection to the natural world. Furthermore, there are numerous references to the fact that society’s disapproval of Tess is based on something unnatural and contrary to the old ways.

“Walking among the sleeping birds in the hedges, watching the skipping rabbits on a moonlit warren, or standing under a pheasant-laden bough, she looked upon herself as a figure of Guilt intruding into the haunts of Innocence. But all the while she was making a distinction where there was no difference. Feeling herself in antagonism, she was quite in accord. She had been made to break an accepted social law, but no law known to the to the environment in which she fancied herself such an anomaly."

There is so much to this primeval connection contained in this book. For instance, fertility is referenced over and over again, often in relation to Tess herself. Furthermore, Alec seems to represent the dark, satanic forces inherent in the Universe. The text contains a mixture of Christian and pagan symbolism when it comes to his character.  At one point, he appears near a bonfire,

 “The fire flared up, and she beheld the face of d'Urberville. “

 Later, he even compares himself to the devil as he is speaking to Tess,

"A jester might say this is just like Paradise.  You are Eve, and I am the old Other One come to tempt you in the disguise of an inferior animal. “

The work is filled with references to society’s failures, as well as to this dark, non-Christian foundation. The feminine underpinnings of this Universe seem to be one of the only positive and bright spots in an otherwise dark Cosmos.

These ancient, naturalistic connections seem to reach their height when, in one of the final passages in the book, Tess lays upon an altar at the legendary site of Stonehenge.

Many of these allusions to the pagan underpinnings of the world in this work remind me of similar connections made in Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre.” However, in Bronte’s work, these ancient and feminine roots seemed to be somewhat triumphant in the end. In the case of Hardy’s novel, however, they are utterly destroyed by a malicious society. This is indeed a pessimistic worldview presented in this novel.

 This novel is bleak. While it is not without hope, and at times portrays the best of humanity, it often illustrates the worst. Despite its pessimism, it is populated with brilliantly crafted characters, and the writing is top notch. I have only scratched the surface in regards to its philosophical musings. I highly recommend this one for readers who are not afraid to look at the darkness inherent in reality.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

I accessed  several translations of this work during my recent reading of it. I read the Gregory Hays Translation from cover to cover. The below quotes are from that translation.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius is a work that has been renowned for centuries. The book consists of the philosophical musings of the famous Roman emperor.

I am no expert on ancient philosophy. However, several sources, including Gregory Hays’s introduction to his translation, indicate that Aurelius draw from the ideas of multiple schools of philosophy, but borrowed primarily from the Stoic school when creating this work.

The philosophy in this work is not complex. Most of the text is a straightforward and insightful exposition of Aurelius’s version of the Stoic thought system.

The author lays out certain basic precepts for a fulfilling life. First, he urges that one view and assess the world as rationally and unbiased as possible. Next, he consoles the reader not to allow painful events, life’s troubles or malicious people, to push one’s mind into the realm of negative emotions such as anger, resentment or sadness. He urges the reader to act and think rationally and ethically, no matter what external events bring. The reader is advised to control what he or she can control and not worry unduly about that which he or she cannot.  The author explains that a godlike force is guiding the Universe and all events are leading to a universal form of good. Thus, it makes no sense to lament or complain about so called “bad things.”

He writes,

“Joy for humans lies in human actions. Human actions: kindness to others, contempt for the senses, the interrogation of appearances, observation of nature and of events in nature. “

There is a sense of fatalism inherent this work. Aurelius repeatedly reminds us that everyone must die,

“Augustus’s court: his wife, his daughter, his grandsons, his stepsons, his sister, Agrippa, the relatives, servants, friends, Areius, Maecenas, the doctors, the sacrificial  priests … the whole court, dead. “

Since death is inevitable and a natural part of change, Aurelius argues that it only makes sense to peacefully accept the end of life.

One question that arises when reading this work for me: does it really rise to the level of greatness in line with the acclaim that it has received over the centuries?  As I alluded to above, my understanding is that the philosophical elements within this work are not original. In his introduction to the his translation, Gregory Hays writes

“it contains little or nothing that is original. It suggests not a mind recording new perceptions or experimenting with new arguments, but one obsessively repeating and reframing ideas long familiar but imperfectly absorbed. “

At times, the writing seems to be profound. At other times, it seems almost to be string of platitudes.

Can what is essentially a summary of a certain philosophic school be considered essential or a great work?

At the very least, due to its influence, this is an important historical and cultural book. Furthermore, the writing is always interesting. More so, it is often a joy to read.

There is something else that began to dawn upon me as I read this work. It seems extraordinarily modern. Marcus Aurelius’ advocacy of finding an inner calm, of keeping one’s mind, as well as one’s values, separate from the outside world, as well as many other insights at times sound like something out a modern self-help book, but perhaps the greatest self-help book ever written. At least in regards to how he presents his message, it seems that the ancient emperor still has something to say that is very relevant to our modern times.

 Yet, despite the above-mentioned virtues, the question still remains. Does this work stand up well to the works of philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, et al? Due to its lack of originality and lack of complexity, it would be a hard sell to contend that Aurelius reaches the level of history’s great thinkers. Yet, this is still a very valuable tome. Though perhaps not all that novel, it is an eloquent exposition of stoic and related beliefs. Furthermore, if one is inclined to accept any part of this belief system, this book serves as a great motivator and a guide to self-improvement. Though I reject most of the metaphysics contained here, particularly the part about every event in the Universe leading to good, I find value in this work as a blueprint in finding an inner and outer calm not affected by external events. Thus, while perhaps a bit overrated over time, this work is well worth the read.

Friday, December 4, 2015

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin : On Gender Issues

My general thoughts on this work are here.

Because of its thoughtful and detailed look at so many aspects of humanity, an enormous amount of commentary has been written about this book. In an attempt to say something different, I choose to write a few words about just one of several important themes. Furthermore, I am going to focus on a subtheme of this theme.

One very prominent area of exploration in this book is gender and the role of women in society. There is so much on this subject covered within this novel that it would be difficult to focus even on this one area in a single blog post. Thus, I will concentrate on one subtheme within the broader theme of gender. That is, the effects that women’s roles have upon men.

Le Guin depicts the society on Anarres as having achieved full gender equality. Furthermore, no one on Anarres is sexually objectified in any way. But it goes beyond that. Interests in beauty and fashion standards are nonexistent. Much of what we would describe as “feminine” in our modern society is eschewed. There is no debate or controversy about this among men or women. It is simply how Anarres is.

This is contrasted with the various societies on Urras, the other planet examined in this work, where women are extremely oppressed. Even in the more advanced nations that seem to be on the level of those of twentieth century Earth in terms of technology, women hold absolutely no economic or political power and very few rights. In addition, they are universally objectified.

Vea is an upper class woman that Shevek, the main character of this book, befriends during his stay on Urras.

At one point, he describes her,

"Shoes, clothes, cosmetics, jewels, gestures, everything about her asserted provocation. She was so elaborately and ostentatiously a female body that she seemed scarcely to be a human being. She incarnated all the sexuality…repressed into their dreams, their novels and poetry, their endless paintings of female nudes, their music, their architecture with its curves and domes, their candies, their baths, their mattresses.”

I think that that the comment “she seemed scarcely to be a human being” is significant as it illustrates what Le Guin’s views are pertaining on what she believes are the dehumanizing effects of the sexual objectification.

Yet this novel is not simplistic and does highlight other views. Vea’s comments about the society on egalitarian Anarres, as she is talking to Shevek, provides an interesting counterpoint,

"I’ll tell you something, though. If you took one of your ‘sisters’ up there…and gave her a chance to take off her boots, and have an oil bath and a depilation, and put on a pair of pretty sandals, and a belly jewel, and perfume, she’d love it. And you’d love it too! Oh, you would! But you won’t, you poor things with your theories. All brothers and sisters and no fun!”

Based in the text, it seems that Le Guin is depicting the Odonian (Odonians are what the inhabitants of Anarres call themselves. See my first post on this book. ) attitudes concerning gender to be superior to those of our modern Western society. With that, this novel is full of nuanced ideas, and it is illustrated that these are complex issues.

Things get interesting when the men of Anarres encounter the women of Urras. The males of Anarres are depicted as completely progressive when it comes to attitudes on gender. This view seems to be universal even with young men.

Yet when boys on Anarres view videos of slave women on Urras, they become very sexually stimulated. Furthermore, when Shevek, an otherwise sympathetic protagonist, begins to interact with Vea, he is intoxicated by her sensuality and losses control. He commits what can only be described as a sexual assault.

So what is Le Guin saying here? I think that it is safe to assume that the society on Anarres, where the vast majority women do not participate in activities to enhance their attractiveness, is meant to be viewed positively. In the world depicted in this book, both men and women seem to function in balanced and healthy ways when it comes to sexuality and gender relations. Yet, exposure to women who do place value and effort upon physical attractiveness leads to some awful behavior on the part of men who are not otherwise sexist or misogynist in any way.

Le Guin seems not to be condemning men here. However, I think that she is saying that there is an innate tendency for men to objectify women. She is tying to illustrate that this tendency is harmful to both men and women.

Le Guin seems to be saying that a society where people, particularly women, do not bother at all to be sexually attractive is a preferable society to our own. Or, perhaps the author is just throwing the idea out as food for thought.

My opinion is that the issue of some people wanting to be attractive to the opposite sex is an extremely complex one. Likewise, the issue of some people being attracted to certain traits in other people, and how this attraction affects them, is similarly complex. Some aspects of human society clearly objectify people, usually women. Where healthy sensuality ends and objectification begins is a major source of the complexity. I think that a society where women, and men for that matter, take virtually zero care in their physical appearance in regards to attracting others sexually runs counter to our biology and is not desirable. With that, there still is objectification of women in society that is demeaning and that is not conducive to a healthy society.

Thus, while I do not agree with Le Guin entirely here, these are really important concepts that delve deeply into the core of humanity. These concepts are examined in a thoughtful and enlightening way within the pages of this work.

I have only scratched the surface above. This book has a lot more going on in terms of gender. Furthermore, gender is only one of the many aspects of society examined in this work. As I mentioned in the first part of my commentary, this novel takes an intriguing look at economics, violence, war, poverty and a host of other things. It is a treasure trove of ruminations about so many aspects of the human condition.

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin is a highly acclaimed classic science fiction novel. The story alternates between the twin planets of Anarres and Urras. It is a detailed and thoughtful examination of culture, both of the alien cultures that the author has fashioned and, indirectly, of our own human cultures.

Anarres is an anarchistic society. Its inhabitants call themselves Odonians after the founder of their movement. The main character is Shevek, an Odonian physicist who is working on a type of Grand Unification Theory that seems to be symbolic of some of the book’s themes. The narrative concerns Shevek’s groundbreaking visit to Urras. Shevek is the first citizen of Anarres to visit Urras in centuries.

In comparing anarchist Anarres to traditional human societies, Le Guin has fashioned a complex and nuanced novel that digs deeply into human society, economics, poverty, violence, gender and more.

The society of Anarres is anarchist, but unlike the libertarian visions so popular these days, it is extremely community orientated. Social pressure keeps most people from harming others and prompts them to contribute to society in the form of work, creativity, etc. As envisioned by its founder,

“There was to be no controlling center, no capital, no establishment for the self-perpetuating machinery of bureaucracy and the dominance drive of individuals seeking to become captains, bosses, chiefs of state”

Anarres is very flawed. Nevertheless, based on both the novel’s narrative and on the commentary by Le Guin herself, it is clearly meant to represent a culture superior to traditional human ones.

Urras is composed of multiple nations, and it is roughly parallel to the situation that prevailed on Earth in the 1970s, with two power blocs, a capitalist and a communist, in opposition. There are also third-world nations, rich nations, revolutions, etc.
Le Guin effectively uses the nations of Urras as a counterpoint to the anarchist society of Anarres.

The chapters of the book alternate between a narrative of Shevek’s life on Anarres and his historic stay on Urras. Over the course of the story, we are given a close look at the inner workings of the societies on both planets.

Based upon history and economics, I do not believe the Odonian society would actually work. Le Guin does convincingly portray how social pressure to work and to not harm others can be at times very influential. However, I think that in a society without an effective government or monetary rewards for work, more and more people will act in anti-social ways, or at least choose not to contribute to society through work. Eventually, things would fall apart.  With that, Le Guin portrays a nuanced, well thought out system that is, at the very least, plausible.

Shevek’s characterization is also fairly strong. He is somewhat of a loner and an outsider in a society that values community above all else. At times, he rebels against his culture’s rules; at other times, it is illustrated that these rules are a part of who he is. He is shown to be a multifaceted person. He is thus described,

“The social conscience, the opinion of others, was the most powerful moral force motivating the behavior of most Anarresti, but it was a little less powerful in him than in most of them. “

This book is really suburb. Those interested in the examination of society will likely get a lot out of it. One does not have to agree with the principles of the anarchist society that Le Guin has fashioned in order to appreciate this insightful critique of humanity.

In one or more future posts, I will be delving a little deeper into the ideas and social criticism contained in this novel.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

My Science Fiction Heritage

I grew up reading science fiction. Though I read various styles within the genre and within related genres, I prided myself on reading what I snobbishly called “the serious stuff.” I preferred stories that were not about space battles. I generally gravitated toward authors that dispensed with action and instead concentrated more upon ideas and character. Some of my favorite writers were Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Arthur C. Clarke, Phillip K. Dick and ‪Ursula K. Le Guin, to name a few.

I recently ran into an old friend whom I have known since childhood. We both started reading science fiction in our teens. He still mostly reads it. I can envision a slightly different life reading path where I mostly did the same.

Up until my early twenties I read mostly science fiction and history. The science fiction had a great impact upon me (As did the history, but that is a different blog post). These works opened up my mind to big ideas, and whetted my interest in dynamic plots and compelling characters.

These books presented many diverse viewpoints. With that, I was most influenced by authors like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clark, who seemed to espouse a secular, rationalistic, anti-militaristic, pro-science and pro-space exploration message. These authors, as well as those with differing viewpoints, have influenced my thinking to this day.

During my college years, I began to yearn for books of other types. However, it was the themes of life and death, questioning humanity’s place in the universe, critique of society, etc., that I first encountered in science fiction books that whetted my appetite for other types of works.

I think that one can read solely science fiction and still read mostly meaningful and worthwhile books that are full of ideas. Some of the great works of literature even fall within my definition of science fiction. These books, written by authors such as Ursula K. Le Guin, George Orwell, H.G. Wells and Yevgeny Zamyatin, among others, can easily fit within the great literary cannon. There are also a lot of really good science fiction that may not reach the level of great literature, but that are full of compelling ideas and that are more than worthy reads.

However, as I discovered, despite the value of science fiction, there is so much more out there. In order to fully appreciate the richness of human literary art and thought, it began to dawn upon me that I needed to expand my horizons. Thus, I chose to explore both classic and contemporary literature of other sorts.

My life decision to expand my reading interests years ago leaves me scant time for reading science fiction now. In recent years, I have occasionally reread some noteworthy science fiction books from my youth, and I have read a few classics that I missed earlier in life.

As I have been thinking about the genre lately, I will likely devote some additional reading time to science fiction, including, perhaps, some contemporary authors. I have not read anything by these newer writers. There are a lot of worthwhile science fiction books out there and ignoring the genre makes no sense to me.

Yet, reading time will continue to be scarce and my reading of these books will, in the long run, be less frequent than I like. With that, I am determined to devote a little more time going forward to the genre. Science Fiction played an important role in my intellectual and emotional development, and it will always be a genre very close to my heart.