Monday, September 27, 2010

The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

Let not the waves of the sea separate us now, and the years you have spent in our midst become a memory. You have walked among us a spirit and your shadow has been a light upon our faces. Much have we loved you. But speechless was our love, and with veils has it been veiled. Yet now it cries aloud unto you, and would stand revealed before you. And ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.

As Almustafa prepares to sail away on the ship that steadily calls him to his true home, the people of his city cry that they wish him to tarry a while longer and abide with them. They did not say it before, but they love him dearly, and won't he just wait?

The Prophet, so some reviewers would have me know, is one of Kahlil Gibran's greatest works. I had never heard of him or it until a classmate told me that it would be a beautiful challenge for me to read. Well, who am I to turn down a dare, especially one so short as this?

With the very first paragraph, Gibran had me. He captures that same mystic poetry of Rumi in the cage of prose with such lines as, "Then the gates of his heart were flung open, and his joy flew far over the sea. And he closed his eyes and prayed in the silences of his soul." Heartwrenching, almost, because something there is that understands that ecstasy in all its violence and glory.

A basic plot breakdown: a bunch of very brief essays on practically every topic you can think of that are bookended by the story of Almustafa's "journey" or, less poetically, his death. His thoughts are lofty and lovely, although I stand by what I said in returning the book to the aforementioned classmate: "It is at times beautiful because it is true, at other times dangerously so because it is not." It is very easy to follow the beauty of his words to an agreement with his conclusions, which are at times less than wholesome.

Nonetheless, I think I was up to the challenge and had a rather good time of it, no less. In other words, great book, but not the most amazing source of personal philosophy that I've ever read.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Way in the World by VS Naipaul

When I began to write of it, the Trinidad landscape that was present to me was the landscape I had known as a child and felt myself part of... Later, in London, when I was writing a book of history, I studied for many months the historical documents of the region. The documents (the early ones were copies of Spanish originals stored in Seville) took my back to the discovery. They gave me a sense of a crowded aboriginal Indian island, busy about its own affairs, and almost without relation to what I had known. A sense, rather than a vision: little was convincingly described in those early documents, and few concrete details were given. In my mind's eye I created an imaginary landscape for the aboriginal peoples living--on what was to become my own ground--with ideas I couldn't enter, ideas of time, distance, the past, the natural world, human existence. A different weather seemed to attach to this vanished landscape (like the unnatural weather in an illuminated painted panorama in a museum glasscase), a different sky.

Naipaul is the foremost postcolonialist we have still writing, not least because he himself is a thoroughly colonial product. British but born in Trinidad, an island which is perhaps not technically more diverse than the rest of the Western Hemisphere, but which has a diversity enlarged by its smallness: people of African and Indian descent have long shared tight quarters with Arawak natives, and the island itself has been ruled by the English, Spanish, French, and no joke, Latvia.

A Way in the World is Naipaul's attempt to sort through that heritage, to sift through the muddled sands of Caribbean history and discover himself. The narrator is a fictionalized Naipaul, who begins with his childhood and works strangely backward, telling stories of Columbus and Raleigh, and a failed South American revolutionary named Francisco Miranda, each of whom are in some sense, like Naipaul's narrator, frustrated and bewildered by the political and ethnic realities of the Caribbean. He tells us of an unfinished writing project about the three of them, here focusing on Raleigh's last excursion to the New World:

Perhaps a play or a screen play, or a mixture of both--that is how it came to me, an unrealizable impulse, a long time ago: the first set being a view in section of the upper decks of a Jacobean ship, the Destiny. The time, 1618. The setting, a South American river, grey when still, muddy when rippled. It is almost dawn. The sky is silver.

Naipaul wants to keep us at arm's length, to screen Raleigh's story through the false pretense of an unwritten play. Don't forget that I'm here, he tells us, this is not a story about Raleigh but a story about me. This choice causes Naipaul to descend into some truly horrific prose, as if pretending this were just a treatment would permit authorial laziness. Why does Raleigh's ship surgeon insist on recounting Raleigh's own story as if he didn't know it already?:

"When you showed the North African gold, people asked why you hadn't brought more back from this fabled land of El Dorado. Of course you didn't have the money to buy more. But you say in your Advertisement rather sharply that no one has the right to ask you for more. You go on to say that you didn't have the time or the tools or the men when you were on the river of El Dorado."

If Naipaul means to bring to mind the sort of illogical plot-recapping that takes place in bad movies, he succeeds. Elsewhere, this approach treats us to similarly banal sentences like, "We focus again on Don Jose: his confident face, his fine Jacobean tunic. He takes up his narrative again." Yes, I get it: We're all in this together.

A Way in the World reminds me of Joyce, in that the novel recounts the story of its own creation. But Naipaul is telling us obliquely that this book is explicitly not the product he desired, but some sort of meek compromise crafted in the face of failure. Portrait is the proof of its own labor; it insists on its own triumph. A Way in the World insists on its own failure, and necessarily compounds it. It is unflinchingly bland, reticent to tell us that Naipaul's search for identity as a Trinidadian has produce fruit of any kind. With fodder like Raleigh and Miranda, it should have been better, but Naipaul is not comfortable handing his book over to them, perhaps worried that they will consume him. But neither can he give us any convincing account of his own innermost self. He uses dead prose and cheap tricks to keep us strung between the two poles of then and now, not frustrated and bewildered as he seeks to make us, but merely bored.

This is only the second Naipaul book I have read; did he expend all of his creative power in the formation of Mr. Biswas, who outstrips nearly all of his latter-20th-century peers for pathos? The greatest impact of this book is the realization that it is wholly unlike that one, sharing only its setting. It makes me worry that Biswas, who is wonderfully and repeatedly ironic, may present his strangest irony in that he understands more of his origins and more deeply than the author who created him.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Everlasting Man by G.K. Chesterton

I didn't really know what I was getting into when I opened this book except that apparently it had a significant impact on C.S. Lewis and it is by Chesterton so it was guaranteed to contain multitudinous nuggets of truth.

That being said, I did not enjoy it as much as Orthodoxy, but I think that the demands of a more controlled focus meant that he didn't have quite the free rein to say so many ridiculously profound things. And as it stands alone, without comparison to his other works, it is a pretty solid book. Chesterton manages to roughly tell the story of man in a bigger picture perspective that challenges those who would tell us that cave men were violent brutes or that all myths were created equal or that philosophy can go anywhere besides back into itself.  It does still contain those pithy truths that only Chesterton can manage to pull out of life in quite the way that he does, and if you really get into the line of thought that he follows, even the less sharply pungent sentences have a depth of revelation that makes it worth the read.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges

The plot of this allegory... is curious: One of the splendid feathers of the distant King of the Birds, the Simurgh, falls into the center of China; other birds, weary with the present state of anarchy, resolve to find this king. They know the name of their king means "thirty birds"; they know that his palace is in the Mountains of Kaf, the mountains that encircle the earth. At the beginning, some of the birds reconsider their rashness, and grow cowardly: the nightingale excuses itself from the journey-quest because of its love for the rose; the parrot, because of its beauty, which is the reason it lives within a a cage; the partridge says it cannot live without the high mountains, while the heron pleads its need for marshes, the owl, for ruins. But at last the birds undertake the desperate quest. They cross seven wadis or seven seas. The penultimate of these is called Vertigo; the last, Annihilation. Many pilgrims abandon the quest; others perish on the journey. At the end, thirty birds, purified by their travails, come to the mountain on which the Simurgh lives, and they contemplate their king at last: they see that they are the Simurgh, and that the Simurgh is each of them, and all of them.


I am writing this review on July 6th, 2010. God knows when you'll read it, since I actually bought Borges' Book of Imaginary Beings as a late birthday present for Nathan. Since he lives in another state, who knows when I'll be able to give it to him (I don't trust the postal system), and since it's going to be in my possession for a while, well, I figured I'd just go ahead and read it.

Borges is perhaps the most notable Spanish-language author since Cervantes, and in a book I'm reading concurrently (sure to be reviewed before this one), How to Read and Why, Harold Bloom identifies him as the purest example of a line of short fiction writers preoccupied with phantasmogoria and the fantastic, including Kafka. A bestiary of imaginary creatures, then, seems as if it would appeal to Borges, both in the brevity of its format and the whimsicality of its subject. Some, like the dragon and the unicorn are common enough; others, like the Lamed Wufniks or A Bao A Qu, less recognizable. Some belong to ancient religion, others to modern authors like Lewis, Flaubert, and Kafka himself. Though no entry is more than a few pages, some are mystifyingly laconic:


Descartes tells us that monkeys could talk if they wanted to, but they have decided to keep silent so that humans will not force them to work. The Bushmen of South Africa believe that there was a time when all animals could talk. Hochigan hated animals; one day it disappeared, taking the gift of speech with it.

Who is Hochigan? What is Hochigan? Does it belong to the tradition of the Bushmen, or does it appear in the works of Descartes?

Typified in this very short entry is Borges' synthetic power, which is his most significant contribution to his source material. By bringing Descartes and the Bushmen together, he is suggesting the existence of a larger human tradition of cryptozoology; these traditions, likely not mentioned simultaneously until their inclusion here, speak to a common need to create new life and augment the natural world.

We expect much of Borges, but he is strangely reticent to show his face; often, he provides no comment on his sources at all, including wholesale selections from other works as complete entries. Elsewhere, Andrew Hurley tells us in his translator's note, Borges hews almost exactly to unattributed sources. But Borges' genius is not absent: there is near-heresy in placing "An Animal Dreamed by Kafka" in the same volume as the great dragons of Chinese tradition. I do not think that Borges is suggesting that religion is a fiction, but quite the opposite: these creatures have a considerable impact on human existence. To have seen the great unicorn tapestries of the Metropolitan Museum's collection is to understand that the unicorn, through its powerful symbolism and command over the human imagination, has a certain kind of realness of its own. In his preface, Borges explains:

We do not know that the dragon means, just as we do not know the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the image of the dragon that is congenial to man's imagination, and thus the dragon arises in many latitudes and ages. It is, one might say, a necessary monster, not some ephemeral and casual creature like the chimaera or the catoblepas.

Yet Borges seeks to categorize both the necessary monsters and the casual, because they all speak to the human in ways that a bestiary of tangible beasts would certainly not. In this way it is a very anti-academic exercise masquerading as an academic one, as if to classify and collect these animals were to bring them a little bit closer to being flesh-and-blood. In the end, it is an exploration of ourselves, who, as the birds in the story of the Simurgh above, seek endlessly to understand the Other but are faced with only our own image.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

Stephen, following his own thought, was silent for an instant.

-The soul is born, he said vaguely, first in those moments I told you of. It has a slow and dark birth, more mysterious than the birth of the body. When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.

Brent once called me the only student of Modernism to have never read Portrait or Ulysses. I thought of not ever reading them just to stick it to that smarmy jerk, but I think instead I'll just refuse to link to his review.

I will be honest and say that at times it was tough going. The length of Portrait--as opposed to the stories of Dubliners, my only previous experience with Joyce--gives the author ample space to show his versatility, but while the very first chapters recount Stephen Dedalus' childhood in the breezy, chopped style that seems germane to the very young, the adult chapters are written in an elongated prose that forces the reader to slow down and follow the snaky paths of Joyce's language. To appreciate it you must get up close, like tracing subtle patterns in design of great size, when trying to behold its entirety your eyes glaze over.

Despite that, the story is simple: Dedalus, Joyce's stand-in, is born into a family of Catholic Irish Nationalists. He briefly flirts with a religious career before deciding that to follow his impulse toward being an artist he must shed the burden of his family, country, and religion. Randy and Brent have both observed that this process is very difficult to appreciate, and I'll concur. I think the problem with Dedalus is that he is so clearly Joyce that there is no larger claim; it is impossible to imagine oneself as Dedalus because the author and character form a closed loop we cannot enter: Dedalus is Joyce is Dedalus and so on.

There is a self-referentiality in this that proves why Joyce is considered the cornerstone of Modernism. Joyce has nothing to say that is not about himself, and Portrait is about Portrait. Dedalus admits as much during a long conversation about the nature of art with a friend:

Is a chair finely made tragic or comic? Is the portrait of Mona Lisa good if I desire to see it? Is the bust of Sir Philip Crampton lyrical, epical or dramatic? Can excrement or a child or a louse be a work of art? If not, why not?

I marked this passage before returning to Randy's review and realizing that he also had chosen it, not because I think that he is fond of it. I'd like to unpack it a little, in response to some of Randy's criticisms.

There is a sublime humor to that first question. Comedy and tragedy were, for Aristotle, the two principle modes of literature and here Dedalus presumes that a chair is, if not literary, then artistic. A chair, like a novel or a play, is something that man creates and so is creative; Dedalus carries this thought to absurdity by wondering if you can say the same thing about poop, children, and lice, all of which are also man's creations. (Supposing, along medieval lines, that lice are products of spontaneous generation.) The unpopular bust of Crampton gets sandwiched between them to suggest bad art veers much closer to the excrement side of things than it does to classic works.

Earlier in the discussion Dedalus says that a thing of beauty has the quality that makes it "that thing which it is and no other thing." He calls it its quidditas, or whatness, but perhaps not intentionally I think this is the wrong word. Quidditas is the quality of a thing that makes it of a type, what you might say to the question "what is it?" The quidditas of a book is something that it shares with other books, by virtue of being books. What he should say, I think, is haecceitas, or thisness, that quality that makes it only itself. Haecceitas is a godly word, and suggests the way that each thing functions according to the design of God. The haecceitas of the finely made chair is that it, as its craftsman intended, it provides the perfect seat. But there is no perfect chair, because the craftsman is not God, and there is no perfect novel because the novelist isn't either. For that matter, what is the haecceitas of a novel?

So the question isn't about the chair, but about the book itself. One reason Dedalus may seem trite to Randy is that for someone who claims to possess inspiration he produces no art besides one thoroughly mediocre poem. This is frustrating, but we're meant to understand that Portrait is in some way the story of its own creation, the product of that inspiration that Joyce calls "pure as the purest water, sweet as dew, moving as music." To buy into Dedalus' sense of inspiration you must buy into the novel, and to do that you must return to Dedalus' sense of inspiration. No wonder then, that for Randy the whole enterprise falls flat--Portrait's greatness is predicated on an assumption of its greatness!

This is essentially what we have been doing in literature for the past century. You might uncharitably call it navel-gazing. The term Dedalus prefers is "lyrical"--"the form wherein the artist presents his image in immediate relation to himself." Randy says that Dedalus' discourse on art offers no new insight and he's right, but what it offers is the peculiarity of a novel talking about itself.

Dedalus must be selfish, because this is literary selfishness. He yearns to express his innermost self, his haecceitas, but he must abandon the quidditas of nationality and religion. I have always found religious comfort in novels, and Portrait makes me uneasy because Dedalus expresses a near encyclopedic knowledge of Catholic history and theology but rejects it anyway. I question how fully he is able to do this, because Portrait, with its long middle section recalling Dedalus' religious frenzy, stands as a testament to how much of his Catholic upbringing he has absorbed.

In my mind one of Modernism's abiding principles is the embrace of traditional forms as a defense against the crippling emptiness of the modern world, expressed perfectly in the novel's last lines:

Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.

The "old artificer" is his namesake, Daedalus, the mythical craftsman who fashioned both the wings of Icarus and the labyrinth of the Minotaur. (And how did both of those stories end?) The line between ancient myth and Catholicism is not straight, but I choose to think of this ending as an affirmation that the old forms are difficult to kill. I know that this line is also a particular favorite of Nathan's, and I'd like to hear his perspective on it.

I am saddened by our collective distaste for this book--not just Randy's virulent kind, but the milder version shared by Brent and myself. It seems that it is the kind of book you could live in, and consider at serious length, but I do not know that it is inviting enough for that.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Five Children and It by Edith Nesbit

It is wonderful how quickly you get used to things, even the most astonishing. Five minutes before, the children had had no more idea than you that there was such a thing as a sand-fairy in the world, and now they were talking to it as though they had known it all their lives.

I had never heard of this book before finding it for free on Barnes and Noble’s weekly “Free Classics” series. I downloaded it because it sounded like it would be short, and then, upon finishing it, I realized that Chris actually read and reviewed this way back in 2008. So, there’s the story.

Anyway, Five Children and It is a children's novel written in 1901. Apparently it’s fairly popular in Europe, even getting a recent film adaptation in 2004 with Freddie Highmore. The plot follows five children who find a sammyadd, or sand fairy, who is compelled to grant them one wish a day, whether he wants to or not. Of course, the wishes all go awry, as wishes in these sorts of stories are prone to do.

It’s a comic novel, thematically boiling down to “be careful what you wish for” and, in the end, “do unto others as you would have them to do unto you”. It’s a nice sentiment for a nice little story. I liked how the narrator threw in little asides to explain various things, and how it acted as sort of a moral compass for the reader. And, that’s about all I have to say.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; The Laramie Project

Jim's review can be found here.

Since a co-worker asked me three times if I'd read this series, I was expecting to be floored by how amazing it was. Having read Jim's review, I'm inclined to agree more with his assessment than my co-worker's. It's a solid book with enough twists and turns to keep itself interesting and just the right balance of detective work and gruesome violence so that you are kept alert AND entertained. If you can pardon the sarcasm (more directed to the connection of violence and entertainment), I understand that in fiction, brutality can be used to make a point, but I'm still a little put out with myself and my culture for reveling in grotesquerie. It's why I've been avoiding a lot of fiction for most of this summer.

Anyway, I don't feel a need to do a plot overview or anything. The two things I enjoyed most about reading the book were Salander's character and the ethical dilemmas and philosophical natures of the various people. Especially with the conclusion of the Vanger case, Larsson very baldly states the conflict of ethics and humanitarian impulses that Blomkvist wrestles with. His gray areas are highlighted well against the boldness of Salander's black and white pragmatism, a contrast which I did think Larsson pulled off exceptionally well.

Otherwise, again, the author has a kind of cool backstory with how he dropped off the manuscripts and died under mysterious circumstances bare months later, but it's definitely not an instant classic. Worth a read, but not much more.

The Laramie Project was written and performed in 2000 by a theatrical group who wished to give a microphone to the gallimaufry of unheard voices from the Matthew Shepard murder in Laramie, Wyoming. It's an interesting concept, and I think that the way they approached it worked well, at least in text. It does seem like it would be difficult to follow from an audience perspective, but this isn't a performance critique blog, so that's a story for another day.

Over the course of two years, ten members of the Tectonic Theater Group travelled to Laramie six times and had 200 interviews with people from all different flavors of society. I don't know if any names have been changed, but all of the dialogue is from those interviews. It's purely narrative, beginning with the story of the kidnapping and torture of the twenty-one year old Matthew Shepard in one of the more shocking hate crimes of our time. He left a bar with two other young men under false pretenses, and was beaten, robbed, and tied to a fence out in the country where he was left to die. A cyclist found him eighteen hours later in critical condition and immediately went for help. The rest of the play deals with the aftermath, from arrests to arraignments to the funeral and Reverend Phelps to the faint but steady beacons of hope that arose in response to Shepard's death.

The details of the story can be told in very little time, so I think that is not so much the value of this play. Rather, it is worth reading because the entire community of Laramie and to a certain extent, the rest of the nation, were rocked by the horror of the crime, and Kaufman&c. do an excellent job of laying bare all of the patchwork of perceptions, musings, and pain that was experienced by so many different people. It's the story of one man, but also of many. There is no action, there are no fancy gimmicks, but it arrives at the heart in a far more intimate and unsettling way.

I admit that I do not support gay rights. I have friends who are questioning, bi, or homosexual, and I don't hate them, I simply disagree with them. However, I think that this form of hatred specifically and all violence generally are ugly and difficult things that we should not bury but should use as a springboard for growth and a better future. The Black-Eyed Peas might tell me to catch amnesia and be happy, but I prefer the Biblical perspective that it is better to live in a house of mourning and take pain to heart for the sake of wisdom. For that reason and because the play does a stellar job of unveiling all of the facets of the event, I would absolutely recommend it to anyone who has a few hours and a willingness to be humbled.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

St. Thomas Aquinas by G.K. Chesterton

I enjoy the occasional well-written biography and I am devoted to Chesterton, so when my roommate's father handed me this book, I was pretty excited to read it. Perhaps the biography of Paul Revere that I read earlier this year is not fairly to be compared because Revere was a different sort of man than Thomas Aquinas, but I still found the latter to be a far more interesting character.

Chesterton admits in the beginning that there is not much known about the life of one of the greatest Christian philosophers (I draw no distinction between Catholic or Protestant here), so there alone is my complaint with the book. He mentions at one point that Aquinas was a man who "strangely" reserved his poetry for poems and at all other points strove for clarity and the laboriously exacting presentation of his philosophy, avoiding the sacrifice of accuracy for the sake of art. However, there were times when Chesterton himself waxed poetic in the description of events in Aquinas's life which did not deserve the additional and unknown information. In Chesterton's defense, they were significant events, and if his intention was only to highlight that significance, well, I suppose that's acceptable. It was more of an impression anyway (I have apparently bought into the late Augustinian and Lutheran emphasis on suggestion over Aquinian reason).

As for the rest, because so little was or is known about Aquinas's life, Chesterton elaborates on his philosophy, both the origins and the lowest levels of his assault on what Chesterton calls the "House of Man." However, his intention was to write a short book that gave little more than a foretaste of all that is St. Thomas, perhaps so that we may know the man and so better comprehend his philosophy. As such, the nuances of the lower echelons and the great majority of the higher of both St. Thomas's philosophy and his theology are not even hinted at in Chesterton's brief biography.