Words of wisdom: Unpopular Essays, by Bertrand Russell
"The idea that falsehood is edifying is one of the besetting sins of those who draw up educational schemes. I should not myself consider that a man could be a good teacher unless he had made a firm resolve never in the course of his teaching to conceal truth because it is what is called ‘unedifying’. The kind of virtue that can be produced by guarded ignorance is frail and fails at the first touch of reality. There are, in this world, many men who deserve admiration, and it is good that the young should be taught to see the ways in which these men are admirable. But it is not good to teach them to admire rogues by concealing their roguery. It is thought that the knowledge of things as they are will lead to cynicism, and so it may do if the knowledge comes suddenly with a shock of surprise and horror. But if it comes gradually, duly intermixed with a knowledge of what is good, and in the course of a scientific study inspired by the wish to get at the truth, it will have no such effect. In any case, to tell lies to the young, who have no means of checking what they are told, is morally indefensible."
I frequently forgot I was reading "philosophy" here. Philosophy is supposed to be dense, difficult, and ultimately nonsense. I included most of the 'great" philosophical works of the ages, from Plato to Wittgenstein, in my decade of Western Canon reading, and very little of it struck me as entertaining or persuasive. Russell is very much both. In fact, he strikes me as personifying intelligent common sense, with a very pleasing wit reminiscent of GB Shaw.
I had a hard time choosing just one part to quote here, and so I settled on the part above, which is Russell's answer to the current nonsense about "American exceptionalism" and republicans who want to trust today's children with guns but not with books or accurate history. Russell, speaking not quite a century ago, argues that American students are taught a false picture about the ideal way in which politics is supposed to work, and then when they grow up and learn how it actually works, they become cynical and are turned off from the concept of government in general. Which is precisely what is happening now.
Lake Wobegon Without The Excitement: Main Street, by Sinclair lewis
"She had sought to be definite in analyzing the surface ugliness of the Gopher Prairies. She asserted that it is a matter of universal similarity; of flimsiness of construction, so that the towns resemble frontier camps; of neglect of natural advantages, so that the hills are covered with brush, the lakes shut off by railroads, and the creeks lined with dumping-grounds; of depressing sobriety of color; rectangularity of buildings; and excessive breadth and straightness of the gashed streets, so that there is no escape from gales and from sight of the grim sweep of land, nor any windings to coax the loiterer along, while the breadth which would be majestic in an avenue of palaces makes the low shabby shops creeping down the typical Main Street the more mean by comparison.
"The universal similarity—that is the physical expression of the philosophy of dull safety. Nine-tenths of the American towns are so alike that it is the completest boredom to wander from one to another. Always, west of Pittsburg, and often, east of it, there is the same lumber yard, the same railroad station, the same Ford garage, the same creamery, the same box-like houses and two-story shops. The new, more conscious houses are alike in their very attempts at diversity: the same bungalows, the same square houses of stucco or tapestry brick. The shops show the same standardized, nationally advertised wares; the newspapers of sections three thousand miles apart have the same “syndicated features”; the boy in Arkansas displays just such a flamboyant ready-made suit as is found on just such a boy in Delaware, both of them iterate the same slang phrases from the same sporting-pages, and if one of them is in college and the other is a barber, no one may surmise which is which."
For my money, this is Lewis's masterpiece. It wickedly satirizes American small towns, but not in a way that makes them seem entirely banal and vapid. There are good qualities and love shown here too.
The protagonist is Carol Milford, soon Carol Kennicott, an educated young woman who wants to go to the big city and make things happen, and who instead marries the town doctor in Gopher Prairie, a Midwestern town reminiscent of the one in "The Music Man". general stores, striped aprons, hate-based churches, and a general distrust of that Sodom and Gommorrah, the twin cities. You can pinpoint the time period, as the jingoism of WWI passes through long enough for the town to oppress German-Americans for a while before abruptly shifting back to normal; but for those chapters and the technological anachronisms, you might think you were looking at Pleasantville.
There is not so much plot as a series of vignettes showing Carol's slow transition to conformity and acceptance, as millions of promising young women of her era and prior and subsequent eras experienced. The attempts at improving the library and starting a drama club thwarted by the philistine tastes of most of the town. The vapid marriage and equally vapid something on the side. what passes for friendship and patriotism. The dingbat politics of local business and booster clubs. In my mind, Garrison Keillor narrated, with an air not so much of "Look at these stupid hicks" as "These are the foibles of humankind." And there is affection for the lifestyle, similar to the affection one might feel for one's fantasy of a fascinating historical era, even when looking at it in the unflattering light of what it was really like. Very high recommendations.
Art and War: Rites of Spring, by Modris Eksteins
"And so it went. The moderns were as entranced as the ancients. Both adopted this Homeric individual from small-town, midwestern America as one of their own. In that enthusiasm, however, both sides talked past each other. Nor could anyone really explain with conviction why Lindbergh had excited imaginations and yearnings to such a degree."
This is a quirky history of WWI, followed by a briefer history of the start of WWII, with an emphasis on the role that culture played in the inevitability of the war, and how the war changed culture. The brief version is that zest for life in fin de siecle Europe, especially in Paris and Berlin, segued into zest for energy and vitality, which segued into romanticizing war, confidence in the perfection of one's own nation's culture, and finally that war would be a fun aerobic workout that would be over in a few weeks.
And then--the misery of trench warfare and poison gas, the spectacle of a large percentage of a population's youth cut down or shellshocked, and the descent of culture into twisted absurdism and nonsense. we see dance before and after, literature before and after, patriotic sentiment and philosophy before and after. Eksteins, who wrote in the 1980s, believes that WWI was a clear and distinct line separating earlier eras from "the modern era", and the distinction drawn here is vivid and thought-provoking. high recommendations.
That was Zen; This is Tao: Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse
"Out of this moment, when the world melted away all around him, when he stood alone like a star in the sky, out of this moment of a cold and despair, Siddhartha emerged, more a self than before, more firmly concentrated. He felt: This had been the last tremor of the awakening, the last struggle of this birth. And it was not long until he walked again in long strides, started to proceed swiftly and impatiently, heading no longer for home, no longer to his father, no longer back."
I first learned of this book in the Summer before AP English, when it was assigned to be read before the first day of class--and then never alluded to at all. I was told that the central character was The Buddha, which was incorrect--the incarnation of the Buddha is presented as a great teacher who appears peripherally in a couple of chapters, and who Siddhartha chooses not to follow, although his friend Govinda does.
It is hard to create a compelling story about a person's search for a comforting philosophical view of the universe. Most such stories involve gradual dissatisfaction with the quest for worldly wealth and pleasures, and a retreat into meditation and spiritualism. Siddhartha gets through this part in the first chapter, and goes on to experience and criticize asceticism, Buddhism, and human love before finding contentment in a simple existence. The Susan Bernofsky translation came with an introduction by Tom Robbins that put me in a suitable head-space for appreciating simple existence. It felt mature and deep for a while there, and in a day or two, it was all forgotten.
Disappointing Mysteries: The Documents in the Case & Busman's Honeymoon, by Dorothy Sayers. Max Carrados, by Ernest Bramah
The blurb on The Documents in the Case assures us that a clue to the mysterious murder lies hidden in the series of letters written by the characters. And yes, there IS exactly one "hidden" clue that gets pointed to at the end--but it's something so obvious that I took it for granted and didn't think it was hidden. Moreover, there are exactly five characters other than the corpse, only two of whom count as actual suspects. I read through the book three times, trying to find a hidden detail, preferably one that supported a clever theory that the killer was one of the people the main characters were writing to--but no, it was the obvious killer with the obvious motive, means and opportunity.
Busman's Honeymoon is a Peter Wimsey play with a fair plot and a crime one can solve if one pays attention to the descriptions of scenery and stage directions. Again, only three actual suspects, and I solved it at the end of act 2, but much better than The Documents in the Case.
Max Carrados is a collection of Holmes-like stories, the gimmick of which is that the detective is blind and solves crimes via the use of enhanced other senses. He can handle a rare coin and detect not only that it's a forgery by weight because he handled the real one years earlier and never forgets a thing, but also tell you the name of the counterfeiter and where and how he's likely to strike next. As with much of Holmes, there are some episodes where you can figure out the general plot from Max's actions, but the details are withheld from you until Max decises to tell you what he touched and you didn't.
Things that make you go "Meh": Night and Day, & Jacob's Room, by Virginia Woolf
Night and Day is a love-pentagram in which some couples change partners frequently, and Jacob's Room is a coming-of-age book in which two-dimensional Jacob grows up, as seen by the women in his life. I was unimpressed with any character in any book, but I soldiered on. I feel guilty about Virginia Woolf. I'm told that her writing is for women, about the things that men don't see, and--I guess I don't see them. I would have liked to see them, but apparently my maleness is obtuse that way.
I tried. I persisted through so many dull male Western Canon writers who promised wisdom and delivered platitudes, and now that I've reached the point in history where women were contributing to the Western Canon too, I will read their offerings, even if I'm too obtuse to see what makes them great.
That's a Mood: The Garden Party, and other stories, by Katherine Mansfield
"On her way home she usually bought a slice of honey cake at the baker's. It was her Sunday treat. Sometimes there was an almond in her slice, sometimes not. It made a great difference. If there was an almond it was like carrying home a tiny present–a surprise–something that might very well not have been there. She hurried on the almond Sundays and struck the match for the kettle in quite a dashing way. But to-day she passed the baker's by, climbed the stairs, went into the little dark room–her room like a cupboard–and sat down on the red eiderdown. She sat there for a long time. The box that the fur came out of was on the bed. She unclasped the necklet quickly; quickly, without looking, laid it inside. But when she put the lid on she thought she heard something crying".
Unlike Virginia Woolf, Mansfield is a writer who can really move me with a textured image and a mood that captures the importance and universality behind some everyday events, especially when an event changes the entire mood. A young woman in a well-to-do family prepares for the garden party, and is shaken when she learns that someone in the slum near the end of their driveway has just died. A recently deceased domestic tyrant's daughters come to the realization that they need no longer walk on eggshells around him. A teacher gives music lessons, first under the impression that her fiance has broken the engagement off, and then under the understanding that he is not. A not-young woman's outing in the sun is spoiled by the rude comments of a young couple in a way that made me cry right along with her fur. Very high recommendations.
Feckless Old World: Antic Hay, by Aldous Huxley
Zoe ended the discussion by driving half an inch of pen-knife into Coleman’s left arm and running out of the flat, slamming the door behind her. Coleman was used to this sort of thing; this sort of thing, indeed, was what he was there for. Carefully he pulled out the pen-knife which had remained sticking in his arm. He looked at the blade and was relieved to see that it wasn’t so dirty as might have been expected. He found some cotton-wool, mopped up the blood as it oozed out, and dabbed the wound with iodine. Then he set himself to bandage it up. But to tie a bandage round one’s own left arm is not easy. Coleman found it impossible to keep the lint in place, impossible to get the bandage tight enough. At the end of a quarter of an hour he had only succeeded in smearing himself very copiously with blood, and the wound was still unbound. He gave up the attempt and contented himself with swabbing up the blood as it came out.
“And forthwith came there out blood and water,” he said aloud, and looked at the red stain on the cotton wool. He repeated the words again and again, and at the fiftieth repetition burst out laughing.
Huxley has written a novel of ideas...bad ones, and so many of them that they’re overwhelming. The overall impression is that of an explanation of how the British Empire came to die as its best and brightest were overcome with navel-gazing, aimlessness, indolence and paralyzing self-contradiction.
There are many characters, none of which are particularly likable, which is always strike one in a story. They argue and sulk and have extramarital affairs out of boredom and neglect their children and fritter away their lives on useless things and occasionally commit murder without really knowing why. Their problems range from mere foibles to serious character flaws. Huxley tries to do too much with them, making every character a symbol of a different kind of decay of the soul, and apparently basing them on real-life celebrities of the day, several of whom I’ve never heard of and none of whom I really care about. There may have been a scandal about it when it was first published, as none of the portraits are flattering; if so, the scandal has long since faded away.
People Suck: The Devil in the flesh, by Raymond Radiguet
Now that I had nothing left to desire, I felt myself becoming unfair. I affected myself that Marthe could lie to her mother without scruples, and my bad faith reproached her for being able to lie. Yet love, which is selfishness for two, sacrifices everything to itself, and lives on lies. Driven by the same demon, I reproached her again for having concealed the arrival of her husband from me. Until then, I had subdued my despotism, not feeling I had the right to reign over Marthe. My hardness had lulls. I moaned: "Soon you will hate me." I'm like your husband, also brutal. ”“ He's not brutal, ”she said. I resumed all the more: "So you are cheating on us both, tell me that you love him, be happy: in a week you can cheat on me with him."
The blurb on the back calls this "one of the finest, most delicate love stories ever written". Whoever said that probably thinks the same of Romeo and Juliet.
This is a tragedy set in WWI, narrated by a teenager in France, too young to fight in the war, who refrains from declaring his love for an older woman until after she marries someone else, who DOES go off to the front, at which point they commence their affair, hope that the husband gets killed in the war, and feel guilty about hoping so. He loses interest in her and mistreats her, and then has regrets and loves her again, because of course he does. He impregnates her, fortunately not long after the husband was home on leave and intimate with her. she names the baby after the narrator, and in the final pages of the book, she abruptly dies of post partum complications, calling the narrator's name, and the husband thinks she's calling the baby's name and raises the child lovingly because it was his wife's last request. And the narrator has a philosophical about it and, presumably moves on. How festive.
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