Monday, December 23, 2019

Self-Portrait in Black and White by Thomas Chatterton Williams

Published this year, Self-Portrait in Black and White by Thomas Chatterton Williams is a book that is getting a lot of attention with people who are interested in race and the social issues that surround the topic. I recently read Williams’s first book, Losing My Cool. My commentary on that work is here. Like Losing My Cool, this book is a memoir. This one picks off where the earlier work ended. In addition to being a memoir, this work lays out Williams’s thoughts and philosophy on race and related social issues. I found this to be a rational and thoughtful book. I read a fair number of opinion pieces and have read a few books on related topics. I think that Williams goes in a direction here that is not typical of a lot of other thinkers. I also think that this very important book. 

Losing My Cool was published over nine years ago. Since then, Williams has earned his PHD, moved to France and has married a French woman. The couple has had two children. It is significant in relation to the ideas presented here that Williams emphasizes his exposure to people of mixed race, ethnicity and cultures. The author is mixed race himself, his father is African American and his mother is a white American. His wife is French and is white. As per Williams, his children appear to be white. Many of his current friends and associates, including some ex - girlfriends represent an international group of people whose identities tend to be mixed. Williams weaves his experiences with this racial and ethnic diversity into his philosophy. 

William contends that the entire concept of race was created by racists and is invalid. Furthermore, the idea of race has fueled both racism and questionable anti – racist philosophies. The author ultimately calls for the abolition of the entire concept of race. He writes,

I am not renouncing my blackness and going on about my day; I am rejecting the legitimacy of the entire racial construct in which blackness functions as one orienting pole. 

Along the way, Williams address racism in America and throughout the world. He delves into the issue both historically and currently. He is also critical of the wave of identity politics that has been dominating the discourse lately. He sees this school of thought as perpetuating the problem. The author is critical of both the right and the left here. William digs deeply into philosophy. He talks a lot about group identity and culture. Culture is obviously a very relevant issue to all this. The author is in no way calling for the abolition of culture. He writes,

The intellectual and cultural discoveries that sustained us are ours forever. But the “dreadful deceit” that would call these things racial is just that, a lie that can never be made noble.

Williams ultimately calls for individuals to renounce race like he has done. 

It is my hope that as many people as possible, of all skin tones and hair textures , will come to turn away from the racial delusion .

There is a lot more here. For instance, Williams talks about the need for people of different races to try to understand the perspectives of people who are from different backgrounds and points to how much of the current discourse coming from both sides on race is all part of the same problem. He writes,

Working toward opposing conclusions, racists and many anti-racists alike eagerly reduce people to abstract color categories, all the while feeding off of and legitimizing each other, while any of us searching for gray areas and common ground get devoured twice. Both sides mystify racial identity, interpreting it as something fixed and determinative, and almost supernatural in scope. This way of thinking about human difference is seductive for many reasons but it has failed us.

Due to the fact that Williams is exposed to so many mixed - race people, one can see how this helped him formulate the philosophy that race is an illusion. 

My take is that Williams is on the correct track. Both in America and elsewhere humanity must move beyond race. This is obviously the way to move beyond racism as well as the extreme identity politics comping out of the left However, I am not sure that this will be accomplished by the founding of a philosophical movement or by people actually renouncing their race. Instead, I think this moving beyond race is already happening and will continue to happen more naturally. 

I also agree with most of Williams's social criticism.  There is still racism and it must be condemned and opposed. There is also a school of thought, that labels itself as anti - racist, that is now engaging in all sorts of illiberal race essentialism and stereotyping of people. I have called this trend postmodernism in some of my previous posts. 

This is very important and thought-provoking book. All too many philosophies on race and racism these days fit too neatly in conservative, or far - left identity - based rhetoric. Williams illustrates a path here that rejects dogma coming from both directions. His arguments are rational and ethical. Williams goes into a lot of detail and down some interesting paths that I cannot cover in their entirety here. Though I do not agree with all of Williams points, I think that he is on to some very important truths here. Even if one does not agree with Williams, he is a bold a lively thinker who is worth reading.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

The Turn of the Screw is Henry James’s famous gothic tale. Though a well - known book this is the first time that I have read it.  I found this novella to be an odd but superbly crafted story. The only other book that I have read by James is The Portrait of a Lady. Though there were some similarities, especially with regards to James’s prose style, this book was very different in terms of plot and character development.  Though unusual in some ways, I found that this was a creative tale that was well worth the read. 

The story is framed as a manuscript. An unknown narrator is reading a first - person account of the experiences of a young governess who is now deceased.  The narrator’s friend had purported to know the governess. The governess is a young woman who is hired by a man who has become responsible for his young niece and nephew after the death of their parents. The man wants nothing to do with the children and sends the governess out to a country estate to take charge of them.

The girl is named Flora and the boy is named Miles.  Mrs. Grose is the housekeeper who befriends the governess. Shortly after her arrival the governess begins to see apparitions. With the help of Mrs. Grose, she surmises that the ghosts are Mr. Quint, the uncle’s former valet and Miss Jessel, the children’s former governess. Before their deaths, the pair were carrying on an affair. The children can see them too and the governess is convinced that the spirits are trying to draw the children into a web of evil. As the story goes on the pair of spirits continue to show themselves and it becomes apparent that they are indeed drawing the children into something. Both the governess and Mrs. Grose become more and more desperate to protect the siblings. 

Like The Portrait of a Lady, James’s prose is complex here. His sentences are intricately constructed and contain a lot of dashes.  As this is a first - person narrative the dashes are used to create the effect of a stream of consciousness. With that, James can write some very effective prose. In what I think is one of the best passages in the book, the governess describes an early encounter with the apparition Quint. 

There came to me thus a bewilderment of vision of which, after these years, there is no living view that I can hope to give. An unknown man in a lonely place is a permitted object of fear to a young woman privately bred; and the figure that faced me was— a few more seconds assured me— as little anyone else I knew as it was the image that had been in my mind. I had not seen it in Harley Street— I had not seen it anywhere. The place, moreover, in the strangest way in the world, had, on the instant, and by the very fact of its appearance, become a solitude. To me at least, making my statement here with a deliberation with which I have never made it, the whole feeling of the moment returns. It was as if, while I took in— what I did take in— all the rest of the scene had been stricken with death. I can hear again, as I write, the intense hush in which the sounds of evening dropped. The rooks stopped cawing in the golden sky, and the friendly hour lost, for the minute, all its voice

The above is characteristic of the style of the story. It is both intricate and atmospheric. 

I read a little bit of the online commentary on this book. Throughout the years there has been a lot of debate about it. Some have argued that the governess is delusional and thus the supernatural aspects of the plot are in her head. I disagree with this assessment. Though Mrs. Grose does not see the ghosts, she confirms that too many things that the governess observes about them as being accurate. There is no way that the governess could have known these things. 

There are a lot of different theories floating around about this story. Regardless of the specific literary theories, this tale is obviously about repression. There is the sense that the relationship between the children and the ghosts is something that exists under the surface. When the governess and Mrs. Grose discuss it, they do so in whispers. There is something about all this that is unspeakable.

At one point Mrs. Grose describes Flora’s description of the ghosts

From that child— horrors! There!” she sighed with tragic relief. “On my honor, miss, she says things—!” But at this evocation she broke down; she dropped, with a sudden sob, upon my sofa and, as I had seen her do before, gave way to all the grief of it.

It seems that James talking about sexual repression here. The above quotation as well as other things in the story seem to support this strongly.  Several critics have gone further and suggested that the relationship between the ghosts and the children has all the earmarks of sexual abuse. This seems plausible but I am not one hundred percent certain that this is what James meant to portray.

This is not a cookie cutter type ghost story. James’s distinctive writing style, unusual plot twists and underlying themes make this unique.  This is an odd story, but in many ways a brilliant one.  Though I have read a limited number of books by this author, I think that this might make a good introduction to his work. This is the second James book that I have read and I will likely read more. 

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Losing My Cool by Thomas Chatterton Williams

This was a book that I read to prepare me for another book. Thomas Chatterton Williams’s recently published Self-Portrait in Black and White is being talked about a lot by folks who are interested in social issues centering upon race. I initially decided to read that book but I thought that his first book, Losing My Cool, first published in 2011, seemed like a prerequisite to reading the new work. Thus, I decided to read this book first. I thought this work was a fascinating account of the author’s early life that was also filled with insightful and important social commentary. 

This work is a memoir of the author’s life up until about the age of 23. It is also a scathing critique of what the author calls hip – hop culture. Williams paints a picture of this culture going far beyond rap music. He describes a world that is violent, anti – intellectual, anathema to normal and healthy relationships and incredibly harmful for those who participate in it.  Thus, the author argues that this culture has done great harm to both the American black community as a whole and to black individuals.

Williams’s father was black and his mother was white. He grew up in a middle class, mixed race, New Jersey community in the 1990s. He and his family viewed themselves as black.  During his teens and early twenties he was enmeshed in hip - hop culture.  Williams account of these years tells a story of a young man who excelled in school but who was pulled into a destructive and harmful youth culture.

The first part of the book describes what is was like for Williams when growing up. It was a moderately violent environment which the author found himself in. Crime was glorified. It was anti – intellectual world where the only acceptable culture was rap music and Black Entertainment Television. Young men and women entered into toxic and harmful relationships with one another that were characterized by each partner distrustful of the other and trying to assert a strange dominance over one another. Williams contends that this culture pushes young black people to embrace a terribly harmful but disingenuous persona that glorifies all of these self - destructive things. Counterbalancing this youth culture was Williams’s father, known as “Pappy”. The elder Williams was a fairly strict parent and highly principled man who is an intellectual and who revers books and learning.

Williams’s high grades got him into the highly prestigious Georgetown University. There he also found a hip - hop culture that he began to participate in. However, at this point he began to change. He started to appreciate culture beyond hip - hop, he began to embrace reading and started associating with people not immersed in self - destructive practices. He credits his father’s influence on his transformation. As this time some of his old friends began to be alienated from him due to these changes.  Williams eventually graduated Georgetown with a Bachelors in philosophy. He had changed a lot as he now embraced intellectualism and what I would call humanism. The book closes as Williams begins traveling to various places in France.

Toward the end of the book Williams writes a lot about society and philosophy. He brings thinkers such as Hegel to his observations. His criticism of hip - hop culture is withering. Williams goes on to talk about how too many young African Americans have embraced a group identity that is based this culture.  He argues that all this has lead to high levels of violence, incarceration and single parent families in the black community. He writes,

If you’re young and black today and lucky enough to get out and travel, see the world beyond your own little backyard, inevitably it is going to strike you that you have been lied to. You have been straight-up lied to, and not just in the most obvious way—not just by Robert L. Johnson and the propaganda organ of BET or by the spokesmen for stereotypes, the Busta Rhymeses and the Gucci Manes. It’s worse than that; the swindling has gone down far closer to home. You have been lied to by people you have known personally, people you have trusted, your friends and your neighbors, your older siblings and your classmates, your cousins and your lovers. Whether that lie is born of simple ignorance masquerading as arrogance—a seductive ignorance, yes, but still only ignorance—or, worse, actual malice, matters little at the moment of your realization. All that matters at that moment is the lie itself, this fiction that says that for you and your kind alone an authentic existence is a severely limited one. You have been lied to (and for how long?) and now you know that you have been lied to and you can’t deny it and you are naked.

One interesting argument that Williams makes that while white people listen to hip - hop and sometimes embrace some the trapping of the culture, they do so ironically. They ultimately do not take it seriously and thus do not fall into self - harmful patterns.  Williams says that African Americans generally take hip - hop culture seriously and actually modify their behavior based upon it. 

Williams does a lot more musing about group identity, how these group identities relate to our current times and how all this relates to his own life. Williams has a lot of opinions and this book is bursting with them. It is imposable to cover all the ideas that are presented here within one post. 

There are not a lot of harrowing passages in the book. While Williams describes an unhealthy cultural environment, he did not grow up in the worst areas. I should note that early in the book the author also tries to emulate the street language that he grew up with, the N- word is used throughout the text. This book is not for those who are easily offended.

I think as a cultural critic Williams is very often on target. The negative aspects of what Williams describes as hip – hop culture are convincingly laid out here. I think that this book illustrates a lot of truths but I have some additional thoughts on these issues. 

I think that over the years, other youth cultures have been almost or as bad as hip – hop culture. For instance, I grew up with folks who embraced a kind of anti – social, fairly violent, heavy metal rock culture. People who engaged in it were just as anti – social and violent as the people that Williams describes. Decades after they first fell into it,  I know of several folks whose lives have been plagued by substance abuse and prison. I think that hip - hop culture is worse then some other youth cultures only because it is so much more prevalent. 

One  criticism I have here is that Williams seems to ignore the many people of color who partake in the trappings of hip - hop culture but do not internalize its negative aspects. Williams describes many white folks talking hip – hop culture ironically.  I think that many black folks do too.  I deal with a lot of people in their twenties. These folks are whites, African Americans and other non – whites. Hip - hop and the at least the superficial trappings of the culture is fairly popular with these many of these young people. Most of the younger folks who I know, be they white, black or members of other groups, like the music and play with a little bit of the culture but are not negatively impacted by it. This is the same as folks who listen to and sometimes play with the hedonistic and anti – social aspects of some rock music culture but who nevertheless lead ethical and responsible lives. Conversely, I know of one young white person, who unfortunately has been drawn into some of the negative aspects of hip - hop culture.  Though personal experiences are not proof, I think my experiences in this case reflect the reality of a large group of people who are not negatively impacted by this culture. I believe that as time goes by, more and more people will embrace this culture ironically much as folks have done so with the negative aspect of rock music culture.  I emphasize that I think that Williams does zero - in on serious and real cultural issues here, he just does not give enough credit to blacks and other people of color who have avoided the worst aspects of this culture. 

I also think that some of Williams criticisms apply to pop culture in general. For instance, he laments the fact that he and his friends knew so much about hip – hop music but knew nothing about other black dominated artforms such as jazz and knew nothing about black history. He later expands this to decry participants of hip – hop culture for their lack of knowledge about and history and culture in general. However, I think that this is an issue faced by many young people steeped in a lot of popular culture, not just those involved in this lifestyle. 

Williams is lively and bold thinker. This book has come under a lot of criticism.  He expresses a lot of opinions on controversial issues here. Thus, despite the fact that I agree with him on the majority of his points, I think that it would be impossible to agree with him on everything.  Either way, I think that anyone interested or invested in these issues would get a lot out of this book. In addition, this is such an interesting memoir filled with fascinating events and people. I have read both of Williams’s books now. Thus, I will post my thoughts on Self Portrait in Black and White soon. 

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Insurrecto by Gina Apostol

Insurrecto by Gina Apostol was first published last year and has won multiple awards. Despite a few flaws, I found this to be an excellent book that incorporated many innovations and at times approached brilliance. Apostol touches upon colonialism, different perceptions of reality, the ways in which our personalities are constructed and more. She infuses all this with interesting and complex characters and plot threads. Apostol was born in The Philippines but now lives in America. She infuses a lot of American and The Philippine history and culture into this novel.

The plot of this book is difficult to describe because of its many layers. The story takes place in multiple time frames. Some of the timeframes exist within the book’s reality, other timeframes exist as film scripts that exist as part of the primary plot. The scripts are, in part, based on historical events but are, in part, fictional. The movie scripts also contain doppelganger characters that are kind of like fraternal twins existing between the realities. This all sounds confusing, but reading the book was not as confusing as all of this sounds. However, the threads were sometimes a little difficult to follow and I am glad that I read this book on a Kindle so that I was able to search for character and place names and go back and refresh myself. On one hand, this intertwining of realities often was interesting and innovative and fit into the novel’s theme perfectly. On the other hand, I did think that all this muddled book a little and that it marred some good character and plot development. 

The main plotline takes place in 2018. Two women set out on a trip across the Philippines from Manilla to Samar, in order to conduct research for a film. Chiara Brasi is the filmmaker and Magsalin is a translator and writer. Chiara is the daughter of the deceased art film maker Ludo Brasi. Ludo and Chiara are kind of stand - ins for Francis Ford Coppola and his daughter Sophia Coppola. Years earlier, Ludo made a Vietnam War film in Samar, a large island in The Philippines, called The Unintended. This all parallels Coppola’s Apocalypse Now which was also made in The Philippines. In the world of this novel, Coppola and Apocalypse Now also exist, but Ludo’s The Unintended is known as another, less commercially successful Vietnam War film. 

Magsalin is a woman born in The Philippines but who is now living in America who travels and lives in intellectual and cosmopolitan circles. She is hired by Chiara to assist her in the filmmaking. 

There are two scripts for Chiara’s film, one written by Chiara and one written by Magsalin. One script, or at least part of it, as is told throughout the course of the book, takes place in the 1970s and is about Chiara’s father Ludo, her mother Virginie, and his father’s mistress, a Filipino schoolteacher named Caz. Ludo’s suicide is a major point of the film.

The other script, takes place in 1901. It concerns events that occurred during The Philippine–American War. This conflict occurred after America seized the Philippines from Spain. Philippine rebels, fought the American military for years in an attempt to gain independence. During the conflict, an incident known as the Balangiga massacre occurred. During that time a unit of 48 Americans soldiers were ambushed and killed by villagers in the town of Balangiga in Samar. In the ensuring months the Americans retaliated and burned Philippine villages and killed thousands of innocent Filipinos. There is not a lot of controversy about these events, the United States Army official account acknowledges that atrocities occurred and multiple American officers were and court martialed and found guilty of committing war crimes. The movie script centers on the American unit and the Filipino villagers involved in the initial attack. 

The book is in some ways written in a postmodernist style. That is, cultural references, both highbrow and lowbrow are constantly being thrown at the reader. References to great literature, art, the Bible, etc., abound. The story is also infused with popular culture and history. References and commentary on topics such as Elvis Presley, Mohamed Ali, the war in Afghanistan, etc. abound. All this ties into the book’s themes. The rapid fire throwing all of these elements into the mix reminds of the novels of Thomas Pynchon or Salmon Rushdie. I generally like this style when done well and I thought that it was well done here. 

There is a lot going on in this book. There is a moderate amount of political and historical undertone. Events about the Philippine – American War and the Balangiga massacre are tied throughout the narrative to other American actions especially during the Vietnam War. The underlying message is that the United States has acted like an imperial power throughout history to the detriment of much of the world. This brings up a few issues. First, I think that if a literary work, and I think this book can claim literarily status, becomes too in -your - face political, it detracts from the work. On the other hand, I think that a moderate amount of political and social commentary do not mar a novel. In fact, some great fiction, dating back centuries, has incorporated this kind of underlying theme. I find that while this novel may skirt the line a little bit, Apostol keeps it subtle enough not to distract from her art.

The second issue is the politics themselves, I cannot tackle the entire broad subject of American foreign policy over the past one hundred and twenty years within this post. However, I will mention that I think that American actions on the world stage need to be examined and at times criticized. There have clearly been times, such as during the Philippine - American War, that American actions have been unconscionable and atrocities were committed. Likewise motives for American intervention throughout the world have not always been entirely pure. However, the United States and other democracies have also had an enormously positive impact upon the world. I believe that the positive effects have far outweighed the bad stuff. It is hard to pigeonhole the precise political beliefs that Apostol espouses as this is fiction, but I sense that Apostol’s message is a little too simplistic in reference to these issues. With all that, one gets the sense from this book that Apostol loves and is fascinated by American culture. It brims over in almost every page. In addition, Apostol does not demonize individual Americans, for instance American soldiers at Balangiga are flawed but generally humanized. 

I would describe the primary theme of the book as postmodernist. I should note that I have criticized postmodernism when it is applied to politics, ethics and social issues. The postmodernism here is more about commentary on the human experience. I actually like books that play with these concepts in this way. What I mean by postmodernism is that the novel is full of different and malleable points of view as symbolized by the two film scripts. Also the tendency for Apostol to throw out a plethora of cultural and historical references at every turn supports the postmodern themes. We are reminded on multiple occasions that there are conflicting historical claims about the Balangiga Massacre. Different characters living in different times seem to have doubles.

Chiara’s film is described as,

It will be set in 1901, or maybe 1972, or maybe 2018, in any case not quite her father’s ’ 68 — no one will be the wiser . There will be unapologetic uses of generic types, actors with duplicating roles. Anachronisms, false starts, scarlet clues , a noirish insistence on the pathetic pursuit of human truths will pervade its miserable ( quite thin ) plot , and while the mystery will seem unsolved , to some it will provide the satisfaction of unrelieved despair.

I think that the above quotation encapsulates very well the picture of life that this novel tries to build and is key to understanding the book’s themes. There may be as reality out there, but everyone perceives it differently. The reality is also often bewildering as it consists of so many different things. 

Apostol also seems to be suggesting that people are constructions of the kaleidoscope culture and experiences that they live through,

It is not an uncommon condition, this feeling of being constructed out of some ambient, floating parts of a worldwide emporium

This is a thought - provoking and enjoyable novel. I found almost every page to be interesting. I thought that it was a bit flawed as the characters and plot were often developing and headed toward interesting places but seemed to get sidetracked by the disjointed nature of the story. Nevertheless, I found this to be a satisfying read. It was also fun despite some of its tragic plot points, I would recommend book to anyone who likes modern literature.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Women of the Republic by Linda Kerber

Women of the Republic by Linda Kerber is an examination of the legal and social changes that a certain group of women experienced in The American Revolutionary era. I read this book because I had heard that, along with Revolutionary Mothers by Carol Berkin, this was the best source on women’s roles during The American Revolution. My commentary on Berkin’s book is here. Folks who are familiar with my blog know that The American Revolutionary era is a lifelong interest of mine. This work was first published in 1980. I found that this book was very different from Berkin’s work. I thought that it was less engaging but well researched and informative. 

I noted above that this book only covered a certain group of women because, unlike Revolutionary Mothers, Kerber only covers white women living in Continental, and later independent America. There is nothing here about black, or Native American women.

Kerber first covers the role that these women played in colonial and early American society as well as during the Revolution. Women, before the Revolution, were considered apolitical and were expected to follow their husbands’ lead but stay out of all public debates and discussions. Starting in the years before the Revolution, this began to change. Women began to participate in anti - British boycotts and took part on campaigns to produce goods in America instead of importing them from England. Once the war started some women began to be more  involved in politics. Women also took over the management of property, farms and businesses when their husbands went off to war. 

According to Kerber, before the Revolution, if women engaged in political conversation it was frowned upon. The author details how even political themed letters between Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren were derided and caused a bit of a scandal.

Kerber spends some pages exploring Coverture Laws. These laws viewed married couples as one person. Though interpreted differently in different colonies and states, these laws basically had the effect taking any property that a woman brought into marriage and, with some limitations, gave control of it to the husband. If the wife outlived the husband, control of the property was supposed to revert back to her. Other laws only allowed a wife to inherit about one third of a husband’s property, or what today would be considered joint property, after his death.

Kerber goes into great detail explaining these laws and exploring multiple legal cases that led to their evolution during The Revolutionary Era. She concludes that the situation become less advantageous for women during this period. Though I usually find interest in most things I read, I must admit to finding this part of the book a bit tedious. 

Kerber also explores divorce during this era. As local governments were mostly in the hands of the rebels, local politicians wanted to encourage women who sympathized with the rebellion to divorce their loyalist husbands.  This helped to loosen up divorce laws and customs in some places. 

An important concept that is explored is the idea of The Republican Mother. During the years of the Revolution and afterwards, the idea developed that women can have political opinions and that they should be educated. This was so that they could raise good sons and keep their husbands’ worst impulses in check. Though this represented some progress for women, this idea also perpetuated the concept that men’s and women’s spheres were different and that women’s roles was still restricted to the home. Kerber makes honest arguments, while she points out this lack of progress she also speculates that deeper social change might have actually opened the door to the negative outcomes that occurred during the French Revolution. She writes,

Women could be encouraged to contain their judgements as republicans within their homes and families rather than to bridge the world outside and the world within. In this sense, restricting women’s politicization was one of a series of conservative choices that Americans made in the postwar years as they avoided the full implications of their own revolutionary radicalism. In America, responsibility for maintaining public virtue was channeled into domestic life. By these decisions Americans may well have been spared the agony of the French cycle of more blood and produced a political system more retrogressive than had the American war. Nevertheless, the impact of many of these choices was to inhibit the resolution of matters of particular concern for women. 

Another interesting concept was the debate as to what women should actually learn. There was a particular concern that reading fiction was bad for both sexes but particularly bad for women. Some beloved that fiction, even when it had a moral behind it, led to sloth and debauchery. Many advocated that women should instead read history. Kerber explored various angles to this debate. 

This book is somewhat scholarly and is detailed and theory driven. I would say that those who are very interested in the evolution of women’s rights in both social and legal spheres during this era would be interested in this. The book is nothing like Berkin’s work, which explored very diverse groups of women as well as individual women. 

This book has a fairly narrow range. It digs into a lot of detail within that range. At times, even for a reader who is interested in these subjects, it might get a little dull. Thus, Revolutionary Mothers will be better choice for many readers. With that, this book is educational and sheds a lot of light on the subjects that it covers. It also seems to be well researched. I recommend this to this who are very interested and who wish to go deep into to these subjects. 

Saturday, October 19, 2019

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

North and South is the first Elizabeth Gaskell book that I have read. I found this to be wonderful story that contained interesting characters and explored both personal relationships as well as larger social issues. In a way, Gaskell’s books are like a combination of Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens with a little bit of Leo Tolstoy thrown in. 

This is the story of Margaret Hale. The book opens as the nineteen - year old Margaret is preparing to attend her cousin’s Edith’s wedding. Margaret has spent much of her adolescence living with her cousin’s rich and somewhat frivolous family. We are also introduced to Henry Lennox, who tries to unsuccessfully to woo Margaret throughout the book. At the point that Edith is married, Margaret returns to live in the country community of Helstone where her father, Mr. Hale, a is pastor. Initially, Margaret enjoys the bucolic and country life during which time she assists her father as he brings charity and succor to the local inhabitants. However, due to Mr. Hale’s schismatic views, he decides to step down as pastor. The family is forced to move to the industrial city of Darkshire, where Mr. Hale will earn a living as a tutor. There, the family interacts both with the mill owners and the poorer mill workers. John Thornton is a strong willed but principled mill owner that Margaret’s father is tutoring. Much of the book concerns itself with the romantic attraction between Margaret and Thornton. At first, Margaret spurns the businessman, but as the story progresses, her attraction for him increases. Nicholas Higgins is a mill worker and union leader. Labor tension bring Thornton and Higgins into conflict. This strife also opens the door to lots of philosophizing and debate  between the major characters about economics, capitalism, personal freedom, and more.

Later, Margaret’s brother Frederick comes into the picture. Several years earlier, Fredrick was an officer in the Royal Navy. While standing up to his abusive captain he becomes involved in mutiny and was forced to flee England under penalty of death. At one point in the plot he sneaks back into the country to see his dying mother. During the remainder of the story Margaret engages in efforts to clear Fredrick’s name. 

A lot of words in this book are devoted to debates and discussions between Margaret and John Thornton. Margaret’s views can best be described as a Christian based liberal, social reformist with a tinge of aristocratic paternalism thrown in. Thornton is a laisse fare capitalist with a strong sense of personal ethics. Though it seems that Gaskill favors Margaret’s positions, she puts strong arguments into Thornton’s mouth and shows that his point of view is not completely invalid. This all intertwines with Nicholas Higgins’s pro - union and pro - labor views. It is also clear that Gaskell is somewhat well versed in these theories as well as economics in general.

What I found distinctive about this book is that it combined an interesting story and well - crafted characters with philosophical and social discussions and debates about social issues, economics and religion. Here, I am reminded of the Russian novelists such as Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy. Anthony Trollope also played on this ground a little with political issues but not to the extent that Gaskell does here. 

In addition to the philosophizing the work is filled with interesting characters. I found Thornton’s portrayal to be intriguing. He is originally shown to be a tough businessman who was raised by a tough but still loving mother. He displays a strong ethical code based on personal responsibility. However, early on he reaches out to Mr. Hale in order to advance is education and immerse himself in culture. In what I think is a wonderful passage, he talks about the industrial machine known as a steam hammer and its inventor using colorful language and literary analogy,

so thoroughly was he occupied in explaining to Mr. Hale the magnificent power, yet delicate adjustment of the might of the steam-hammer, which was recalling to Mr. Hale some of the wonderful stories of subservient genii in the Arabian Nights— one moment stretching from earth to sky and filling all the width of the horizon, at the next obediently compressed into a vase small enough to be borne in the hand of a child. 'And this imagination of power, this practical realisation of a gigantic thought, came out of one man's brain in our good town. That very man has it within him to mount, step by step, on each wonder he achieves to higher marvels still

Later Thornton grows. He genuinely falls in love with Margarite. While he does not become pro – labor he takes innovative steps to reach out to his employees, tries to make their lives better and eventually earns their respect.

Mr. Hale is also interesting. He is very principled and ethical. However, he shows a lot of weakness. When he makes his decision, based upon religious convictions, he places his family in a position where they will endure hardship. Yet when it comes time for them to relocate, he is paralyzed with inaction and leaves the emotional and logistical work to Margaret who is only a teenager.  Later, when it comes time to tell a woman that her husband is deceased, he once again is unable to act and leaves the task to his daughter.  This combination of principles and weakness seems a fairly unusual thing in literature. 

Margaret is obviously the center of the book. She is charismatic young woman. She earns great esteem from both lower and upper - class men and women that she encounters. She is calm and at times stoic. She is intelligent, she is a reader, and is easily able to hold her own ion all kinds of discussions that delve into philosophical and social issues. 

Another theme here is the contrast between people who hold different philosophies, religious beliefs and partake in different lifestyles. This is inherent in the title of the book, the North of England representing industrial, capitalistic bustle and the South representing a more laid back, rural agricultural and aristocratic lifestyle. As Margarete and her family are displaced from this southern world, they are made keenly aware of these contrasts. At first Margaret faces the industrial Milton and its factories with dread. As the book progresses however, both she and the reader begin to see that both the North and South ways of life have their merits and drawbacks. Margaret connects with all kinds of people in the industrialized town. Towards the end of the story, when it comes time for Margaret to leave Milton she is struck with melancholy as she has to leave people and a place that she one looked upon with dismay. All this is intertwined with the growing attraction between Margaret and Thornton. Alongside this attraction, both Margaret and Thornton begin to moderate their philosophical ideas and move towards each other. Throughout the story various characters’ differences on religious issues also come to light. The story flows in a direction that indicates that social interactions work best when people tolerate one another and look to bridge gaps. All this reminds me of the novels of E.M. Forster. In many of Forster’s books, the theme of connections between different social groups, philosophies and cultures is explored. This is the first Gaskell novel that I have read so I do not know if these are reoccurring themes in her work. But as far as this book goes, it seems to have influenced Forster’s ideas. 

This is an excellent book. Gaskell has managed to combine the strengths of Victorian novel with some very interesting philosophical musings. The novel is full of compelling of characters and relationships. In this way I thought that this combination was fairly unique for British literature of the time. I recommend this work to fans of Victorian literature. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

A Thousand Small Sanities by Adam Gopnik

A Thousand Small Sanities by Adam Gopnik has been an examination of the belief system known as liberalism.  The book, first published this year, has gotten a fair amount of attention among those interested in political and social issues. Gopnik is a staff writer for the New Yorker since 1986. Despite a few quibbles that I have with the author’s presentation of definitions, I found this work to be well thought out and coherent analysis of its subject.  Regardless of one’s views on liberalism, it is a set of ideas that has an enormous impact on humanity.  Thus, I think that this is an important book.

Before saying anything about this book, it is necessary to define a few terms both in regards to general meanings and in regards to how the author uses them. The term “liberalism” has several meanings. For the most part Gopnik is using the universal definition. That is, liberalism is really neither right or left on the political spectrum.  It is the belief in tenants such as democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, secular government, science, racial and gender equality, capitalism, globalism and more. It is the rejection of both right and left extremism.  However, this definition gets muddled as in some countries and places liberalism refers to something else. In the United States and elsewhere, liberalism often refers to a belief in all the previous mentioned values plus a moderately activist government that provides social programs and that implements at least a moderate level of regulation. Gopnik calls this left – liberalism. Making things even more confusing is that fact that in some countries the term liberal is actually tied to a more right - wing belief system and in still other places it is tied to libertarianism. Gopnik lays this out early in the book. The definitions that the author uses are more or less in sync with my understanding of these terms as well as the technical definitions of these terms.  I find his labels to be accurate and useful and will use them for this balance of this post. This work is primarily concerned with the universal definition. However, a curious quirk creeps into Gopnik’s reasoning relating to all this.

The first chapters of the book present a history of liberalism. Though not a comprehensive account, Gopnik covers the lives and beliefs of many scientists, philosophers, artists and writers who have advanced liberal ideas. A large group of individuals is touched upon including Michel de Montaigne, George Henry Lewes, John Stuart Mill, George Eliot and more. Of particular interest to me, the author talks a fair amount about Anthony Trollope’s Pallister novels. Those who are regular readers of this blog know that I am a big fan of Trollope’s books including the Pallister series.  He sees these novels, I believe correctly, as an examination of liberal change and the government of Britain during the Nineteenth - Century.

Most of the balance of the book consists of Gopnik’s philosophical ponderings on the virtues of liberalism. He argues that liberalism is a key driver of progress. He contends  that liberalism has been instrumental in the reduction of poverty, increased life expectancy, the reduction of violence, the expansion of freedom and equality and more. The author paints a picture of liberalism taking the middle ground between the extremes of both the right and the left. He identifies right wing populism, right wing authoritarianism, Marxism and an extreme form of leftist identity politics (what I have been calling postmodernism in previous posts) as being diametrically opposed to liberalism. 

Throughout the book Gopnik tries to provide genuine arguments that come from both the right and left against liberalism.  He does a very good job here and tries to present some anti – liberal arguments fairly. Furthermore, he even grants that sometimes there is a point to these arguments. 

One of Gopnik’s points is that liberals often talk about concepts like reason, individual freedoms, pragmatism, democracy etc. While these are key tenants of liberalism, compassion and empathy also to play a vital part in liberalism. 

Another important theme is that liberalism rejects both utopian and radical ideas. Liberalism recognizes that the world is messy. It tries to use a combination of reason and compassion to make the world better. However, liberal philosophy acknowledges that there are no perfect solutions, that gradual change is better than revolution and that persuading people through democratic means is always better then compelling people. Gopnik writes,

Liberalism accepts imperfection as a fact of existence. Liberalism’s task is not to imagine the perfect society and drive us toward it but to point out what’s cruel in the society we have now and fix it if we possibly can . An acceptance of fallibility and , with it , an openly avowed skepticism of authority — these are core liberal emotions even more than concerns about checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches

The author compares other ideologies as idealized and unrealistic visions of the future in contrast to liberalism which is not about idealization, does not look for magical solutions and is unromantic. He uses a rhinoceros metaphor below because Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill were two key liberal thinkers who were also involved romantically and who used to meet at the rhinoceros cage at the London Zoo. Gopnik writes, 

Most political visions are unicorns, perfect imaginary creatures we chase and will never find. Liberalism is a rhinoceros. It’s hard to love. It’s funny to look at. It isn’t pretty but it’s a completely successful animal. A rhino can overturn an SUV and—go to YouTube!—run it right over, horn out.

The author digs deeply into religion’s role in all this. Like me, he sees religion as a mixed bag, sometimes people have used religious beliefs to effectively advocate for liberal values but at other times these beliefs have been used to oppose liberalism. He delves into this issue in some detail in the ways that religion and liberalism interact.

Gopnik also brings up other important issues. He believes that in the long run capitalism and globalism, a key part of liberalism, benefit humanity as a whole. However, sometimes on the local level, for limited periods of time, these systems have contributed to human misery.  Gopnik ponders some liberal responses to this dilemma. Once again, I agree with the author’s reasoning here.

Up until this point I agree with almost all the prepositions that I have mentioned.  However, at some points the author seems to get a little fuzzy with the meaning of liberalism. Despite clearly differentiating between universal liberalism and left – liberalism early on, Gopnik starts to mix the concepts later in the book and seems to place some clearly left – liberal ideas into the liberal basket. He seems to insert government social spending and regulation policies into his conception of universal liberalism. This might be attributable to the fact that these are not set definitions and everyone has a slightly different interpretation of all this.  I should mention that I am a left - liberal myself. I believe in universal liberal concepts but I also believe in a mixed system economic system that includes a fairly robust mix of government social programs and regulations. In fact, on the vast majority of political and social issues I am in agreement with the author. However, I think that this kind of government activism is not a part of universal liberalism. Liberals, in the universal sense, include people with moderate - right views and libertarian views that are opposed to left - liberalism. I may be nitpicking here, and perhaps I am getting a little bit into an arcane argument, but I think that universal liberalism is a vitally important set of ideas that needs to fit in people that I disagree with on some of these left/right issues.

One other quibble that I have about this book is that I think that it ignores non - Western sources of liberal ideas. Gopnik focuses heavily upon enlightenment figures. He also mentions Christianity. The Enlightenment was of course vital. It was the greatest explosion of liberalism is history, at least up until that point. However, the more I delve into these issues I realize that some liberal ideas did come from elsewhere in the world, the Islamic Golden Age, Chinese Civilization, some Native American Groups, particularly when it comes to gender, are just a few examples of what I am referring to. I wish that Gopnik talked about these influences just a little. This is a bit of a controversial issues and I realize that not everyone agrees with me on this. 

Despite a few qualms I have on principle with Gopnik’s drift on the definition of liberalism, I agree with most of what is presented here. I concur that liberalism has been the great force in human history that has made things better for people in almost every corner of the Earth. As they have been in the past, liberal systems and values are under pressure from both the far right and the far left. I am very much on board with concepts such as slow and careful change, democracy, basic freedoms, the value of reason matched with compassion, the rejection of both far right and far left radicalism, and more that is here. 

I liked this book and I thought that it is valuable. This is an important piece of political and social philosophy that is very much relevant to the world today. Even if one disagrees with Gopnik’s premises, he is a fair writer who brings both knowledge and understanding to this topic. If one does not agree with all the precepts of liberalism, as a system and a belief system it has had a profound influence upon the world. This book is an excellent source for anyone who wants to understand that system. I highly recommend this book to those interested in these topics. 

Saturday, September 28, 2019

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

This post contains spoilers.

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad is a dark tale of spying, radicalism and family strife. Like other Conrad books that I have read, the prose and characters are masterly crafted. First published in 1907, the story seems to take place in the 1880s. This is the fourth Conrad book that I have read. I had previously completed Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim and Nostromo. Though I found this novel to be nearly great, I thought that the ideas and some characters could have been developed more. This also seemed like darkest Conrad novel that I have read so far. 

This is the story of Adolph Verloc. The protagonist is currently living in London and is covertly employed by a foreign embassy, possibly Russian. Verloc has spent his life infiltrating anarchist and other radical circles with the intent of monitoring and disrupting these organizations on the behest of various governments. Mr. Vladimir is Verloc’s new supervisor who hatches a plot that involves the incitement of violence. The theory is that if the anarchists set off a bomb, it will rouse the British government and public to take more vigorous action against radicalism. Thus, Verloc is set into motion to set off a bomb at the Greenwich Observatory.

In the non - covert world Verloc runs a shop that sells all kinds of shady wares including pornography. He lives with his wife Winnie, his mother - in - law and his brother - in - law Stevie. Verloc’s young brother – in – law is someone who in our present times would likely be diagnosed with autism. Over the course of the book it is revealed that Winnie and Stevie’s father had been abusive. Even after he died, Winnie’s family faced a world of abusive men and a future that would probably see Stevie institutionalized. Winnie married Mr. Verloc because he showed himself to be a financially stable, outwardly good natured, non - abusive man who would tolerate Stevie. Her actions are almost entirely motivated by her desire to take care of and protect her brother. For his part, though easy going, Mr. Verloc is emotionally detached and exhibits almost no ethics. Though the characters that he surrounds himself are disreputable, it is not to Verloc’s credit that he spies upon and betrays them. 

Verloc’s radical friends are portrayed as a combination of immoral and ridiculous people who advocate terrible theories. A few, like the bomb  -   making “Professor” are willing to commit or at least assist in the perpetuating violence and are horrifying people.

In an effort to carry out the bombing of the observatory Verloc enlists Stevie to assist him. After procuring a bomb from The Professor, Verloc sends the trustful and naive Stevie to plant the explosive at the observatory. Unfortunately, in route to place the device, Stevie trips on a tree root and blows himself up. The book ends on a bleak note as both Verloc and Winnie fall into personnel catastrophe. 

I think Stevie’s character is key here. Though he has difficulties with the world, Stevie spends a lot of time thinking about topics such as morality and suffering. He shows a great deal of empathy for others. At one point he becomes aware of the difficult and painful lives of both a carriage driver and his horse, 

“Poor brute, poor people!” was all he could repeat. It did not seem forcible enough, and he came to a stop with an angry splutter: “Shame!” Stevie was no master of phrases, and perhaps for that very reason his thoughts lacked clearness and precision. But he felt with greater completeness and some profundity. That little word contained all his sense of indignation and horror at one sort of wretchedness having to feed upon the anguish of the other— at the poor cabman beating the poor horse in the name, as it were, of his poor kids at home. And Stevie knew what it was to be beaten. He knew it from experience. It was a bad world. Bad! Bad!

The above is just one example in the text where Stevie’s character manifests itself. He also creates artwork through which one gets the sense that he is trying to makes sense of a very chaotic universe,

innocent Stevie, seated very good and quiet at a deal table, drawing circles, circles, circles; innumerable circles, concentric, eccentric; a coruscating whirl of circles that by their tangled multitude of repeated curves, uniformity of form, and confusion of intersecting lines suggested a rendering of cosmic chaos, the symbolism of a mad art attempting the inconceivable.

Stevie’s views are contrasted with the motley crew of anarchists who operate on all kinds of social theories that purport to make the world better. These men are nihilistic, egotistical, callous to suffering and are willing to hurt people. Like Fyodor Dostoevsky did with his portrayals of radicals, Conrad seems to anticipate the mass murders and genocides of the twentieth century as The Professor talks about plans for mass extermination of people. One of these anarchists label Stevie as “degenerate”; the irony being that it is actually the accuser who shows degeneracy. The radical world eventually kills Stevie, further heightening the contrast. 

Of course, Stevie’s morality is also at odds with Mr. Verloc’s narcissism and the embassy official’s callous disregard for ethics and human life. At the end however, Stevie’s conceptions of justice have their day to some extent.

There is a lot more going on in this book. There are multiple characters, including police officials and criminals that Conrad digs into. One flaw in the narrative manifests itself as some of these characters seem only partially formed. The author spends a fair number of pages developing some of the police officials and their stories but seems to leave them hanging in the end. 

Winnie is also explored in great depth. She shows great selflessness in her devotion to Stevie. By the story’s end, her understandable decisions lead to disastrous consequences for herself. I could devote an entire post to her. 

Like the other Conrad books that I have, the prose here is very dense. The description of places and people are filled with words. I found myself rereading passages often. Others have observed that Conrad tends to construct long sentences that go in circles. I tend to agree with this. I do not consider these things drawbacks however, in fact, I love Conrad’s style. It is unique, interesting to read, and bursting with meaning.

Despite a few flaws and despite the fact that it is very dark, this is a suburb novel. It is filled with interesting and complex characters. The plot and themes are fascinating. It is also filled with Conrad’s unique but wonderfully crafted prose. With that, I thought that the ideas here might not have been as complex as Lord Jim or Nostromo. Still, this novel deserves its reputation of being a classic.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Song of the Lark by Willa Cather

Song of the Lark by Willa Cather is considered the second of the author’s Great Plains Trilogy. However, though it takes place in the American Midwest as did O Pioneers!, the two stories are unconnected. I found this to be great character study. Along the way, Cather adds in a lot of ponderings on the things that make a person an artist. In addition, the novel is filled with musical references ranging from American and Mexican folk music to the operas of Richard Wagner. These references greatly enhanced my reading experience.

This is the story of Thea Kronborg. Thea is born into a Swedish - American family that resides in the fictional town of Moonstone, Colorado. She grows up in the early years of the Twentieth Century. Thea is special. The is smarter than most of her peers. She loves books. She has enormous musical talent. She seems to exude a charisma, even as an adolescent, that draws men to her. These men invest time and effort info promoting Theas’s future, as she slowly emerges as a successful and gifted opera singer. 

Perhaps the most important male supporter of Thea is Dr. Howard Archie. His interest in her strikes one as a little odd. Though never overtly romantic, one gets the sense that there is a subtext of attraction as Thea gets older. Late in the book, Dr. Archie himself thinks back on the relationship, 

He realized now that she had counted for a great deal more to him than he knew at the time. It was a continuous sort of relationship. He was always on the lookout for her as he went about the town, always vaguely expecting her as he sat in his office at night. He had never asked himself then if it was strange that he should find a child of twelve the most interesting and companionable person in Moonstone. It had seemed a pleasant, natural kind of solicitude. He explained it then by the fact that he had no children of his own. But now, as he looked back at those years, the other interests were faded and inanimate. The thought of them was heavy.

Dr. Archie supports Thea in her early years, helps her get set up in Chicago where she goes to study music and eventually finances her journey to Germany to properly hone her skills as an opera singer. There are many others in Thea’s hometown who are drawn to her including Ray Kennedy, an intelligent railroad brakeman who intends to marry Thea when she gets older but who is killed in a train accident. Her charisma and her musical interests lead her to the form bonds with several other adults including members of the Mexican – American community.

While studying music in Chicago Thea meets Fred Ottenberg. Fred is the son of a wealthy parents. Thea and Fred begin to fall in love until Fred is forced to tell Thea that he is actually married to woman that he has come to hate. 

Later Thea travels to Germany to study opera. The narrative then jumps forward ten years when Thea returns to America to be greeted by both Dr. Archie and Fred. Thea is becoming something of a diva and the two men are entranced by her. 

I thought that the prose here, while very good, did not reach the nearly sublime level that they reached in O Pioneers! There may have been a few passages that came close to the earlier work, but only a few. Instead, the strength of this book lies in the fact that it is a superb character study. This book is a classic and successful example of a bildungsroman. 

Thea is complex and nuanced. In some ways her development is a study in talent and the formation of an artist. As mentioned above, she exhibits enormous talent and intelligence when growing up. She is tomboyish as she is not afraid of the outdoor elements or the rougher nature of life. This roughish part of her nature reasserts itself at various points on the plot throughout Thea’s life. 

When she goes to Chicago to study music she exudes confidence, self – reliance as well as enormous drive. To Cather’s credit she has endowed her literary creation with flaws. Thea goes through a period where her detachment, calmness and confidence begins to trend into coldness and arrogance. As it sometimes happens in real life, this period seems to pass naturally. Later when she learns that Fred is married Thea is hurt but not devastated, indicating just how self - reliant that she is.

There is a duality to Theas's character. There is a contrast between the fairly tough girl who grew up on the plains and cosmopolitan woman who is honing her considerable musical talent. At one point, Thea is present at a concert where Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 "From the New World” is played and it reminds her of her youth. Later some of Wagner’s operatic works are performed presaging the life that she in entering. 

Toward the book’s conclusion Thea comments on how her ties to Moonstone has buoyed her as an artist. She tells Dr. Archie, 

Nearly all my dreams, except those about breaking down on the stage or missing trains, are about Moonstone. You tell me the old house has been pulled down, but it stands in my mind, every stick and timber. In my sleep I go all about it, and look in the right drawers and cupboards for everything. I often dream that I'm hunting for my rubbers in that pile of overshoes that was always under the hatrack in the hall. I pick up every overshoe and know whose it is, but I can't find my own. Then the school bell begins to ring and I begin to cry. That's the house I rest in when I'm tired. All the old furniture and the worn spots in the carpet— it rests my mind to go over them.”

I found this to be an excellent book. Thera’s character and her development is at the heart of it all. She is not just complex and interesting but she is unusual. Though I did not find the prose to be as soaring as Cather’s effort in O Pioneers!, the character development makes up for it. Cather’s exploration of artistry and music is also fascinating. This novel is a fine example of American literature.