Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Published in 1966, this novel appears on Modern Library’s and TIME magazine’s list of best books of the twentieth century. I had been attracted by the intriguing title of this novel for years—and being the book sleuth that I am, finally read the book to see if it merits placement on those lists.

Although Rhys had written earlier books, none received the claim this one did. This slim novel of less than 200 pages is packed with meaning. Everyone word counts; everyone line of dialogue is to be chewed over and digested. Rhys outdoes Hemingway both in style and thematic substance. She treats of cultural identity, the impact of environment on character, race relations, slavery, colonialism, gender inequality, and sexuality. In this sexually-charged tropical setting, practitioners of voodoo and black magic lurk in the lush foliage. Rhys creates a haunting, mysterious mood through compact, highly evocative prose in which understatement exerts incredible power.

The setting assumes the stature of a brooding character, first in Jamaica and Martinique then in the English mansion where Antoinette is trapped at the conclusion. The English environment is so dark and oppressive that it can drive someone mad—and it does. One of Rhys’s great accomplishments is to capture in small increments how someone descends into madness. The tropics have a deleterious effect on Rochester, but Antoinette revels in her element on the Caribbean Island, loving the flora and fauna of her birthplace. To Rochester, who comes to the island for a marriage of convenience with Antoinette, the island is alien and incomprehensible. He is sucked into its mystery and loses his bearings as if he were spinning in a gyre. From the start, the reader knows something bad is going to happen, and in the end, it does.

The Sargasso Sea of the title conjures up the gyre, just as ocean currents cause masses of seaweed to collect and swirl in this area of the Atlantic. Myth has it that ships are becalmed and trapped in this floating morass of seaweed, but in actuality no ships have perished in the Sargasso Sea. Rhys used it to suggest the characters spinning through their own gyre of misunderstandings, caught between truth and lies, and unable to relate to anything strange or different.

Rochester is a prisoner of his own time and culture. He lives the double sexual standard of early Victorian England, holding to the model of a subservient wife who is beautiful but without sexual appetites comparable to his libido. When Antoinette exhibits such an appetite, he is repulsed. Legally, he can dispossess her of her property and control all her money. As has been documented, cases exist of husbands in the nineteenth-century gas lighting their too curious wives, and actually having them committed to insane asylums, claiming they were uncontrollably hysterical. Rhys imagines that the Rochester, the lord of the manor in Jane Eyre was not the abused husband actually caused the madness of his wife Bertha, who he confined in the attic.

There are many spin-off books written based on prior novels. They testify to the power of their characters and plots of those earlier novels to capture the imagination of readers and inspire them to invent sequels and prequels. Wide Sargasso Sea is Jean Rhys’s brilliant prequel to Jane Eyre.More importantly, her purpose in writing it is to depict relations between the races, between the sexes, and between colonizer and the colonized. Implicit in the narrative is the indelible effect that climate and place have upon character. From birth to age sixteen, until she left for England, Rhys lived on the island and absorbed its flavor and culture. In England, she experienced a stark contrast in the temperament of the population, climate, and natural surroundings.

Wide Sargasso Sea deserves a place on a list of novels worth reading. Its themes can be extrapolated to contemporary life. The legacy of slavery and racism persists. The world still deals with the fallout from colonialism. Certain segments of the American population continue to treat people of other races or ethnic groups as not fully human and due equal rights and opportunity under the law.

Maybe many of these themes will escape the reader. Maybe the reader never read Jane Eyre and doesn’t see the genesis from Brontë’s novel. Maybe so, but what the reader will gain from reading this significant book is a masterful creation of mood, an element of fiction that does not always draw a lot of commentary in reviews. The reader’s senses are enveloped by a heady aroma of flowers, a sultry taste, and a pervasive aura of black magic working on the heart and soul.

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My Detoxification Program

A toxic environment can pollute the body and soul. In an effort to cleanse my mind and spirit of the American politics of division and deceit, I embarked on a program of spiritual reading at the beginning of this year. I was exhausted, depressed, and oppressed by the lack of humility, commitment to public service, truth, and intellectual honesty. I was appalled at the outright instances of evil that the media daily reported. I craved role models that contributed to the improvement of society and not to their self-aggrandizement.

The older I get, the more the tapes of my mother’s truisms play in my head. Surround yourself with smarter, brighter, and better people than you are. You will be judged by the company you keep. Birds of a feather flock together. When you lie down with pigs, all you get is dirty. During the last six months, I have found good friends in books to help me rise from the mud.

A lot of dirt had seeped into my psyche through my diet of politics-watching. To replace the toxic material, I determined to cleanse my mind with spiritual reading. I began with Dorothy Day’s memoir The Long Loneliness, which tells how she found a better alternative to political activism through her work in feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless, moving from communism to Catholicism.

Next, I sought the biography of Thomas More. Enmeshed in the political machinations of the day, he strove to live a virtuous and contemplative life amidst the intrigues of King Henry VIII’s court. He formulated a vision of a better political milieu in his book Utopia, which I read along with Peter Ackroyd’s Life of Thomas More.

I looked for twentieth-century figures able to navigate the rise of Nazism and discovered Simone Weil. Her essays suggest no political solutions to the problems of social injustice, war, suffering, and oppression but afford a mystic’s vision that love is the only cure for affliction. She writes: But the only way into truth is through one’s own annihilation through dwelling a long time in a state of extreme and total humiliation, in other words, subjection of the ego. Further, she writes: Politics to me seem a sinister force. She saw the true madness of mankind as the push to power and contended that the emphasis on rights rather than obligations – man’s duty to respect and love his fellow man – was responsible for the crimes of humanity. She was a philosopher who left the halls of academia to work in a French auto factory.

From Weil, I went on to read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran minister who in 1933 spoke against Hitler in a radio broadcast, landed in prison, and was executed just as the war was ending in April 1945. He put into practice Christ’s message and paid for his discipleship with his life.

Mother Teresa is the contemporary exemplar of what it means to serve one’s fellow man no matter how unlovable or disease-infested. Her life’s work was to minister to the poorest of the poor, opening homes for the destitute and dying in India and around the world. Her book Come Be My Light collects extracts from her diary chronicling her own sufferings.

I wished to learn about other women mystics through history, so I read Julian Norwich’s Revelation of Divine Love. Carol L. Flinders’ book Enduring Grace gave portraits of seven women mystics, including St. Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila. From reading about these mystics, I delved into Thomas Merton’s poetry. I couldn’t ignore the great Catholic apologist G. K. Chesterton and read his Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man, amusing myself with a few of his Father Brown detective stories too.

Other books on spirituality await my rereading, such as Mere Christianity and A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis. But just picking up a biography that recounts the life of some man or woman who contributed to the improvement of society or the alleviation of the suffering and downtrodden would serve the purpose of healthy spiritual reading.

I’ll end with Simone Weil again because her ideas resonate today. In The Need for Roots, she writes:

A democracy where public life is made up of strife between political parties is incapable of preventing the formation of a party whose avowed aim is the overthrow of democracy.

She argued for the abolition of all political parties because they are essentially totalitarian. Parties replace critical thinking with groupthink; they exert collective passion on their members; and their goal is to increase their own growth and power to the exclusion of other parties.

As a result, I cannot put complete faith in politics as a force to save the world because politics is only as good as the men and women who serve as our nation’s leaders. Unfortunately, we have had a dearth of principled officials and a plethora of unscrupulous ones – and I dare say, evil men in positions of power. I still retain the faith, along with Václev Havel of the Czech Republic, that politics can be a noble profession. Meanwhile, I have accomplished a cleansing of my beleaguered brain through reading that uplifts, inspires, offers hope, and contributes to my psychic peace.

I’ve written a sonnet that voices my resolve to cease denunciation of those who are evil and begin to praise those who are good.

In Praise of Good Women and Men

Sing of those who deserve to be sung of.

For too long the venal have strode the stage,

The shrill spewers of hate, spurners of love.

A psalmbook of praise opens in this age

For hewers of wood and shapers of clay,

The wordsmiths and dabblers in paint,

Thinkers who dared the beliefs of their day

And in thought and deed strove to be more saint

Than sinner ascending above the base,

The grosser instincts that govern the flesh,

At once the seekers and granters of grace.

In them purpose and will perfectly mesh.

Heroes and heroines I conjure near,

Command scoundrels and fools to disappear.

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The Fiction of Writer’s Block

The perennial question that successful authors receive at any session they conduct for aspiring writers is: “How do you deal with writer’s block?” The question assumes that they do occasionally experience the phenomenon.

I contend it does not exist. If it does, it is a figment of the imagination. If it does, there are multiple ways to make it not exist at all. There are means to make it ephemeral at best.

If I wake up and after my morning rituals proceed to my desk to begin my routine of writing (the first task on my daily agenda) to realize the well of ideas has run dry, I go for a walk. I carefully observe every item along the way, cracks in the pavement, birds in the sky, junk cars in the driveway, and the oak tree with the tire swing; up, down, and around I observe. I note the drift of the clouds, the jet overhead—bound for where? Who is aboard? The imagination takes flight as it surely should for the writer’s observant eye and mind. I smell the vegetation, the resin oozing from the pine. I touch the blade of grass and bite, tasting its white end. All senses are engaged, the mind intent on the why and wherefore behind the tennis shoe left on the shoulder of the road. The back story emerges.

Settled in my comfortable chair again, I write, describing everything I saw, heard, touched, smelled, and thought on my walk. The details pour out, because so much happened on that walk in the woods, around the neighborhood block, or down that country road. So much happened too that I didn’t see that happened before I arrived on the scene. The past and the future inhabit the shuttered clapboard house I passed.

Next I enter the haunted chamber of memory. I visit the house in which I grew up and search each room, gaze upon each shelf, and fondle my favorite stuffed animal for a moment. In my mother’s china cabinet is an heirloom teapot. I select that object to contemplate longer and then begin to write all that it evokes, everything it means to me, how it touched our family. Maybe I broke the cherished end table lamp and my father glued it together. You can choose anything from your childhood home and construct an elaborate story around it.

Or turn on the news. Write your reaction to the earthquake in Indonesia, famine in the Sudan, or the last school shooting. Write why you hate listening to the news or why you dislike television and why you prefer a good science fiction movie. Write what your life would have been like if you had married your high school sweetheart or the horror it really was because you married the man from Mars.

Responding to prompts is another way to flex your writing muscles. Many books and websites on the craft provide writing prompts. I developed this method in an adult education course I called “Writing Aerobics,” which I taught at a community college. I give the students a seed of an idea—the prompt—for a piece of writing. For instance, I tell them to think of their mother’s favorite bromide such as “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” and write a story or poem around it. I throw out an image such as “the hobbyhorse in the attic” or “the wedding cake on the sidewalk” to use as a jump-start for their imagination.  Playing a piece of instrumental music also provides a good writing exercise. I ask the students to write down everything that comes into their mind and every concrete image the music evokes. New Age, synthetic, or classical are the best kinds of music for this exercise.  I use selections from the Narada collection and David Arkenstone., and South American group Inti Illimani group. The strangeness of the music helps to release imagination.

If all else fails, just start writing anything and everything that pops into your mind—bad, inconsequential, absurd. I guarantee something will catch fire and you will run with your hair all aflame to carry that idea to its magnificent conclusion in an essay, story, or poem. But it doesn’t have to be the Great American Novel. Just keep dreaming; keep imagining.

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Do I Like Hemingway More Now Than When I Was Nineteen?

I decided to read a good sampling of Ernest Hemingway’s writing before watching “Hemingway,” the latest Ken Burns’ documentary. I had read several of his novels and short stories in young adulthood, and his writing then had impressed me as boring, monotonous, and uninspiring, leaving me with the thought, “What’s the point of all the gloom and banality about life and death and the merry-go-round of drinking in French and Spanish cafes? I recall not liking at all The Old Man and the Sea.

At nineteen, I preferred more florid prose, rich with complex sentences and subordinate clauses, an interesting latticework of interconnected ideas, the type of composition the good Catholic nuns taught me. Hemingway’s simple declarative sentences mixed with his long stream of them compounded by “and,” sounded flat in my ear. I needed more imagination and age perhaps to fill in the gaps.

During the past few weeks, I read his first novels–The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Of the three, I liked For Whom the Bell Tolls best because it gives more of a back story on Robert Jordan and the characters such as Pilar, Maria, and Pedro are more fully drawn. He goes beyond the simple declarative “iceberg” style of the first two books. There’s more description of setting, another of my preferences. I acknowledge the poignant tragedies of the plots. I don’t find the romance between Maria and Robert ridiculous as does Mario Vargas Llosa in the Burns’ documentary. Maria is emotionally wounded and the tender sexual encounter with Robert is her path to healing after a brutal rape. When I first read Hemingway, I had never been in love, never married, had never been emotionally scarred–so of course I had difficulty responding to the unstated, the nuances, of his portrayal of male-female relationships.

I also read A Moveable Feast and twenty-six of his short stories. His style achieved greatness in the short story, but I find it ill-suited for the expansiveness of the classical form of the novel. When it comes to novels, there are many greater novelists in English and other languages, partly because he restricts himself to one main theme–the inevitability of death and the need to confront it as a man. Maybe as a woman, his manly pounding of the hairy chest, is what wearies me so about Hemingway. “Give me a break,” I want to cry.

In my late forties, I had the experience of hunting, of shooting a deer for food. I realized then that I am a carnivorous animal too–preying on other animals. Yet even so, I have a hard time relating to Hemingway’s glee in killing a beautiful lion or African buffalo. His list of animals killed on his safari was revolting. Like Hemingway, I have enjoyed fishing, the thrill of reeling in that big one, and dining on trout and tuna. His African stories are as much about killing animals as they are about hurting, in countless ways the woman or man in your life. His mastery of complexity in simplicity assures his stature in American literature. I agree with my many critics that “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” are probably his finest stories. In 1954, Hemingway received the Nobel Prize for Literature primarily for The Old Man and the Sea, an extended short story or novella, rather than for a novel. The critics bashed the later novels.

The biography of the man is more interesting to me than his writing, and the Ken Burns’ documentary makes this point also. Hemingway created an oversized image of himself, and eventually he could not separate myth from reality. In “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” the dying American hunter Harry thinks: “It was not so much that he lied as that there was no truth to tell. He had had his life and it was over and then he went on living it again with different people and more money, with the best of the same places, and some new ones.”

Hemingway said he always searched for one true sentence. In this passage he states the truth about himself. His life was always about seeking the next adventure.  The next adventure always kept him from killing himself and gave him something to write about. With alcoholism aggravating underlying manic depression, he had to kill himself in 1961 because he could not write anymore.

Is Hemingway’s writing the stuff of greatness, of genius? I don’t know. I think it is a tragic personal story. A final eulogy may be that Hemingway brought the reporter’s style guidelines of The Kansas City Star to full flowering in twentieth-century fiction.

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New Website Mountain of Dreams Books

Two writers living in the same house? Is that even possible? The answer is yes! Star Meadow, a place in the mountains of northwestern Montana where I and my husband Rod Rogers create our fictional worlds. Surrounded by the Flathead National Forest, I send these blog posts into the world. Please explore our enchanted forest of books to satisfy diverse reading tastes at www.mountainofdreamsbooks.com

Why I Write

I thought an artist’s statement was something graphic artists composed and posted at an exhibition of their work in a gallery, so when my sister-in-law, who is carrying my books in her gift shop, requested that I write such a statement, I was at first perplexed. I certainly could write a biographical note, but an author’s statement in the manner of a painter or sculptor, confounded me.

But I began to ponder why I write. After mulling over the question for the next several weeks, I formulated my answers and writing philosophy. It was not difficult to do when I considered where my impulse to write began and what I hoped to achieve by pursuit of the art. Here are my reasons for the urge and why I can’t purge it from my soul:

I write to reflect upon my life, events, and the cultural climate around me. It is an effort at making sense out of human experience in all of its manifestations either in history, in contemporary society, in other people’s lives, or in my own experience. What I write must have spiritual value. I want it to broaden the reader’s perspective and uplift in some meaningful fashion. I do not write to entertain. If my writing entertains, it is a side benefit. I write to gain knowledge. Through research and probing into my subjects, I work to know intimately my characters and to express that each human life has meaning.

Art is a way of giving form to emotions and thoughts in a pleasing form. In that, the art object has intrinsic value. In the creative act, the artist imitates the divine act of creation of the universe, because the artist pours all her love into making something beautiful and pleasing to herself. The urge to create manifests the divine in human nature. As such, art assumes a religious aspect.What form, then, does my creative impulse take? The two currents that run strongly through my writings are an interest in history and in human motivation. How are we inheritors of what has come before us? How do we transcend our origins? How does what happened before influence who we are today? Psychological exploration plays an integral part in my writing process.

Beyond these concerns, I enjoy shaping language and playing with the multiple meanings a single word may carry. I am interested in metaphor and symbol. The human brain searches for signs and symbol in the environment. Language, the peculiar ability of the human animal, is symbolic and the ultimate tool for expression. I strive to embody ideas and emotions in the most pleasing linguistic shape. This propensity leads me to prefer poetry. Of the various genres or forms of literary expression, poetry strikes me as the highest, the most quintessential realization of language because of its compactness, concision, and sound effects. These elements combine to create the purest and most beautiful verbal art form.

I started as a teenager with writing poetry—a typical progression of many prose writers. I derive more personal satisfaction from crafting a well-wrought line of poetry than composing a prose paragraph. Little becomes more in poetry. I see the best prose carrying poetical traits such as parallel structure, alliterative passages, symmetry, cadence, and grace. After writing twelve novels, I don’t care if I ever write another one, but I do care to write some good poems before I die. I may be done writing novels, but I will never be done writing poetry.

Poetry of Louise Glück

Each year when the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature is announced, I like to read the recipient’s work and decide if I concur with the committee’s choice. The year 2020 was no different, so I tackled the 627-page collection Louise Glück: Poems 1962-2012.

I started at the beginning, reading them in the order of composition. In this way, I could see her development as a poet over five decades. I was immediately struck by the obscurity and highly personal references that make some of the poems difficult to entirely understand and concluded she most probably belonged to the confessional school of poetry. The titles did not serve to enlighten, although the images and turns of phrase are often striking and unusual. I want to understand how they connect, what it all means. Should I work longer at it to unravel her inner angst? Or am I just too lazy and read on to the next poem, hoping that the pieces of the mosaic will all be illuminated as one brilliant stained-glass window at the end?

As I read, I marked the poems that I thought were outstanding, intending to re-read them to determine if I still felt the same on a second reading. Some passed the test and others did not. More of the later poems passed the test, because they are not as highly personalized as the early ones. Here are some that passed the test: “Widows,” “A Novel,” and “Retreating Light.” The images are concrete and translatable to any reader’s experience. “Parable of Light” is poignant in its explicit comparison of the flight and disappearance of birds to the flight and disappearance of passionate love. Particularly good were her voice poems giving new looks at Odyssey, Penelope, and Telemachus. I feel her writing gains in comprehensibility and expands beyond the pity pot personal school of poetry.

In addition to the personal nature of her subjects, she addresses in many of her poems an unidentified “you” who may be her own psyche, one of her relatives, or lovers. Another characteristic is the posing of questions. In this regard, the poems are a search for answers–answers that may or not be implied, making the poems open-ended enough for the reader to supply his own answer. Her poems, then, are a continual dialogue with self.

She writes prosaic poetry, arranging prose–admittedly beautiful prose–in poetic lines. Not my cup of tea, yet some of the ideas are cogent and startling. For example, “Birthday” is a pretty good description of the teenage years although not poetical. It could have been delivered in one text paragraph. Two pages later, a poem appears that rises above the prosaic–“Ancient Text”–a successful extended metaphor in balanced two-line stanzas.

She and other moderns are writing in a new form–a crossbreed called prose poetry. It is a style out of the mainstream of traditional prosody. I don’t contest its validity and appeal to a wide audience, but my preference remains with formal traditional versification.

Because of her limited range of subjects, the poems grew tiresome to read as I progressed through the collection. I hastened to finish. On page 565, “Noon” is a curious piece, more of a vignette or cameo, not really even a prose poem. On the next page, “Before the Storm” ends with pedestrian lines I’d be embarrassed to have written: The night is an open book/But the world beyond remains a mystery.

So it is that not every poem that a poet writes is a memorable poem. Evaluated as a whole, do I think her work will be read one hundred years from now? Most likely, she will be read as much as John Greenleaf Whittier is today. We know from the record the Nobel Prize committee has not always been accurate in its predictions. I suspect mine will not be either. But for what it’s worth, I found Louise Glück’s collected poems a mixed bag. Some I liked and some left me cold. Nothing unusual about that.

Reflections on Year’s End

An older person, I’d rather see time stand still for a while rather than wave a year good-bye. Time always seems to speed faster the older one grows. Seeing that this year has been a tragic one with mourning and weeping around the world, most people are happy to bid it good riddance and eager to welcome in a healthy and prosperous 2021. My habit in the waning days of one year is to reflect on how I have lived my life during that dying year and to consider how I may best live the dawning year if I should be granted more time.

Here in my posts and in my daily activities I’ve striven to speak out against the erosion of democracy and mean-spirited, mendacious politics. I am proud that I have not remained silent in the face of evil. I have meditated on what evil is. I still do not have a good definition and cannot offer one here. The best I can do is to describe it as a failure to see that humanity is one and to acknowledge that truth in word and deed. Lies, insults, selfishness, greed, arrogance, viciousness, and cruelty are manifestations of that failure.  Talk of politics should not be avoided. Everything is politics, because it determines how we live, if our children are well-educated, if our families thrive, and what public services are available to make our communities safer and improve our overall well-being.

If anything, bad politics has served to make the body politic less apathetic and more aware of the importance of civic involvement and voting, which absolutely does make a difference. Bad examples can serve a good purpose. I have been active in the political process. In 2021 I cede the driver’s seat to the younger generation. The Baby Boomers had their chance to make a difference. While continuing to stay informed and to comment as I see fit, I am happy to take a backseat.

In 2020 I completed two books: Grant Me a Cloud, my collected poems 2017-2020 and Stranger in My Own Land, a verse-novel based on the life of Margaret Fuller, nineteenth-century American writer and intellectual. I begin the new year without a writing project in mind. The likelihood that I will not write another book does not bother me. I may have emptied the writing well. Nonetheless, I have a body of work that represents what I have thought and felt, what I have imagined and invented over four decades. The results satisfy me. Unless the irresistible force overtakes me to write a book that must be written, I plan to empty my mind by writing posts for How Public Like a Frog.

At year’s end, many minds turn to thoughts of New Year’s resolutions. Numerous articles appear to argue for or against making resolutions. Ambitious lists of resolutions are published both humorous and edifying.  Many are made and soon broken. Others are kept through sheer persistence. I myself believe in resolutions. To resolve is to make a firm decision, to decide to amend your life in some way. What could be wrong about that? We try and we fail; then we pick ourselves up and try again. We need a plan, a road map for the future, and resolutions give us a direction to follow.

So what are my resolutions for 2021? I resolve not to accomplish anything. I will not lose weight. I will not write the Great American Novel. I will not redecorate the house. I will not increase my bank account. I will not bake ten cheesecakes. I will not be jaded, cynical, and pessimistic.

What about positives? I will welcome each morning as a gift from heaven. I will walk gentle on this earth. I will treat each day as my last. I will try, and often fail, to love my neighbor as myself.

The Plague by Albert Camus

What does reading this novel that imagined an epidemic ravaging the Algerian city of Oran in 1947 have to tell us about the Covid-19 epidemic of 2020? In Camus’s story the plague lasts from June to February of the next year, dying out on its own. The current plague is nowhere fading away after nine months; rather it is accelerating. In other ways the course of the plague in Oran is similar to how it is playing out in the United States.

Oran’s citizens react at first like many Americans did, denying its reality. The authorities are reluctant to impose strict measures to control its spread. Not until the death toll reaches alarming proportions do they close the city gates and begin to quarantine people exposed to victims. In this regard the United States is unlike Oran because many governors refused to close their borders to visitors and to prohibit residents from leaving. Oran is similar in that some people thought the onset of cold weather would end the plague. Dr. Rieux’s description of the hasty funerals, the deaths in isolation without the comfort of family and friends, accurately prefigures the situation today.

Dr. Bernard Rieux, who is not identified as the narrator until the end of the novel, could be any one of the doctors who are selflessly tending the critically ill day and night in the overwhelmed hospitals across the country. This passage explains the reason for the narrator’s method:

Whenever tempted to add his personal note to the myriad voices of the plague-stricken, he was deterred by the thought that not one of his sufferings but was common to all the other and that in a world where sorrow is so often lonely, this was an advantage. Thus, decidedly, it was up to him to speak for all.

His purpose in writing his chronicle is: “to state quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”

That is a hopeful message in our own depressing time. Dr. Rieux cannot tell Father Peneloux that he believes in God, but he can say unequivocally that he believes in relieving human suffering. In the face of inexplicable suffering, the death of a child, Father Paneloux chooses not to lose his faith. It is all or nothing for him. He delivers a sermon in which he enjoins the all-male congregation: “We must convince ourselves that there is no island of escape in the plague.” Reacting to the sermon, the narrator comments: “No, there was no middle course. We must accept the dilemma and choose either to hate God or to love God.” To surrender to the will of God without understanding it is the course Father Peneloux takes. He ends his sermon with this clarion call: “My brothers, each one of us must be the one who stays!”

Rambert, the journalist exiled in the quarantined city, unable to return to the woman he loves in Paris, eventually resigns himself to stay and help in the fight against the plague. The other characters each in his own way realizes their communality in the struggle. The aspiring writer Grand constantly editing one sentence volunteers to tend the victims. Tarrou, another of Dr. Rieux’s friends, succumbs to the disease but dies bravely. Rieux reflects that if his friend had lost his match with death, “all a man could win in the conflict between plague and life was knowledge and memories. But Tarrou, perhaps, would have called that winning the match.” He muses further upon the meaning of plague, and concludes it is “Just life, no more than that.” Sounding again a hopeful note in a dolorous time, the narrator states this at the end: “What we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”

Plague changes the plague-stricken for good or ill. The one character who mentally disintegrates is Cottard who lives in fear of arrest for some crime in his past. Throughout the epidemic Cottard has taken comfort in the fact that everybody is now “in the same boat,” and the closed off city protects him from detection. When the plague dissipates and he no longer has that anonymity in the crowd of the quarantined population, he descends into madness and is going to shoot up the population in the streets from his window.

Dr. Rieux writes that it is fitting that he end his chronicle with Cottard, “the man, who had an ignorant, that is to say lonely heart.” Earlier in the novel, the narrator remarks:

The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clearsightedness.

In other words, Cottard has not learned anything from the plague. His ignorance propels him to commit an insane act.

Dr. Rieux has learned that the plague can rise up again at any time and imperil our joy. He will remember his friends who died and will know that the plague never really dies or completely disappears. It is the human condition, the ignorance at the root of all evil.

I love this book, and strangely, did not find it depressing, but rather uplifting. Our very real plague of 2020 will eventually end, probably with the highly touted vaccine, an immunization that Oran never hoped for. The metaphorical plague will remain–vice, evil, man’s inhumanity to man, whatever you wish to name it. The question is what will Americans have learned about compassion and brotherly love as a result. Will they follow the path of sympathy as Tarrou, Rambert, Grand, Father Peneloux, and Dr. Rieux do in this novel? Will they stay and fight the plague together?

Above all, I love this novel for the brevity and compactness of its expression of eternal truths.

Language and Thought

The connection between language and thought has long fascinated me. It may seem a chicken and egg question of which came first, but clearly they have a reciprocal relationship; they work in tandem. The clarity and coherence of one’s language, thus, reflects the clarity and coherence of one’s thought. One’s speech patterns and prose style are only as good as the organization and logical stream of one’s thinking.

Good writing is impossible without a foundation of careful and critical thinking before the first word is ever written. How I hated those outlines that my teachers had me write as the first step in composition. Now I appreciate the crucial necessity of doing so. Similarly, wise men constantly caution to think before speaking. A suitable inscription for the fool’s memorial plaque is: “He/she opened mouth and inserted foot.”

Words are dangerous; words are weapons. Debate requires definition of terms; otherwise differences in what words mean prevent any mutual understanding and fruitful discussion. Tact and diplomacy at the highest level of government go hand and hand with superior language proficiency. The last four years testify to the damage a blathering, sputtering head of state does to international relations.

In the United States the corruption and abuse of language signal a rise in authoritarianism. Disturbed by this trend, I turned to George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.” He incorporates and dramatizes many of the ideas in this essay in his novel 1984, which I also revisited. Orwell contends that slovenliness of language facilitates foolishness of thought, and of course, the reverse is true. “To think clearly,” he writes, “is a necessary first step towards political regeneration.”

Orwell identifies several characteristics that typify the decline of language: staleness of imagery, vagueness, empty verbiage, and use of meaningless words. He states that political language “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” This has always been present in political discourse but not to the proportions seen in Donald Trump’s speech patterns marked by fragments, disjointed sentences, and repetitions. Half-truths and evasions have reached a gargantuan level. As of July 12, 2010, the Washington Post recorded 20,000 of Trump’s false or misleading statements. Both his thought and language exhibit a lack of clarity and coherence.

In the novel 1984, an authoritarian regime thoroughly controls the media and rewrites history to suit its agenda. By repeatedly lying and drumming the same slogans into their ears, the populace comes to accept the government’s lies as the truth. Today the FOX cable network has emerged as the state-sponsored purveyor of misinformation and the megaphone for what the “dear leader” wants the public to believe. Furthermore, The Donald and his minions wage a campaign to discredit any other news outlets, accusing them of “fake news.” These trends are alarming. If Orwell arose from the dead, he would be shaking his head and telling us “I told you so.”

Many news anchors on whatever the network frequently exhibit the same lack of precision and clarity of language. They grab the cliché, engage in empty verbiage, use shop-worn phrases, and pose long-winded questions to their guests. How often have I heard “that’s amazing,” “at the end of the day” or “boots on the ground.” They are not thinking; they are filling in the blanks with stale, meaningless expressions.

Vocabulary development was a part of my primary school education. Every morning the teacher would write on the board a new word to be included in writing a complex sentence. Simple noun, verb, object constructions were not allowed. Subordinate conjunctions to elucidate the relationship of ideas were required—constructions that showed cause-effect, time, place, comparison, and contrast relationships. When I came of age in the 1960s, building a sophisticated vocabulary was an important barometer of intellectual achievement. Recognition of antonyms and synonyms was an important element of building vocabulary as well as skill using the thesaurus and dictionary.

To express the nuances of any topic, comparison through metaphor and analogy are essential tools to clarify meanings. Without imagery ideas fall flat and meaningless. Complex thoughts require a precise, extended range of advanced vocabulary; simple, general thoughts can make do with a fifth-grade vocabulary.

Language and thought are inextricably connected. Just try to think a thought without words. Pictures can be painted with words too, and the master painters are the cogent, eloquent communicators and thinkers so many of whom are absent from political office today. The sentences that clear thinkers design are musical too, lending a cadence and rhythm that falls beautifully upon the ear.

That’s why when I hear some politicians speak on television, I mute the discordant and ignorant sounds.