Archive for the ‘Frog Roll of Writers & Books I Love’ Category

The Brothers Karamazov

My inclination of late has been to revisit the great novels I read in youth rather than to read noteworthy contemporary books. This is my third venture into The Brothers Karamazov. Because it is such a long and comprehensive exploration of both the depths of depravity and the heights of virtue, each reading brings new insights and appreciation of Dostoyevsky’s achievement.

To a certain degree I retreated to literature this time as a respite from my obsession with Trump-watching. Day after day, being upset and depressed by his absurdities, ignorance, and lies was so tiresome that I sought relief in the magnificent product of an extraordinary mind. Getting lost in a great book is the ultimate stress-reliever.

But that respite did not last long, for from the first pages Fyodor Karamazov reminded me of The Donald. Fyodor has three sons by two different mothers and a presumed illegitimate son Smerdyakov. In the neighborhood, Fyodor is known as a clown and a buffoon of crude tastes and lecherous propensities. He’s acquired his wealth by dubious land dealings. He is a disgrace and an embarrassment to his sons who after their mothers’ deaths are neglected in childhood while Fyodor pursues his business affairs and licentious lifestyle. Friends and relatives take over the care of the dirty and ill-clad little boys. Dmitri, the son by his first wife, follows a military career. Ivan, an intellectual and writer, and Alyosha, a seminarian, are his two sons by his second wife. At the beginning of the novel the father, the three sons, and various onlookers assemble in the monastery to receive the advice of the old priest Zossima, who counsels the reprobate Fyodor Karamazov in this passage:

Above all, don’t lie to yourself. A man who lies to himself and who listens to his own lies gets to a point where he can’t distinguish any truth in himself or in those around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. Having no respect for anyone, he ceases to love, and to occupy and distract himself without love he becomes a prey to his passions and gives himself up to coarse pleasures, and sinks to bestiality in his vices, and all this from continual lying to people and to himself. A man who lies to himself can be more easily offended that anyone else.

Luckily, as the novel progresses, my mind is diverted from the similarities between Karamazov and The Donald to philosophical and moral considerations beyond the current American political scene, for Dostoyevsky’s work encompasses both the Russian soul and the universal human condition.

The supremacy of love and of forgiveness in the regeneration of debased mankind is reinforced continually, personified in the character of Alyosha, the youngest son, who unconditionally accepts everyone as his brother. Karamazov is not the only one who has problems with honesty, but also Grushenka and Katerina, the two female characters contributing to the plot’s nexus of jealousy, revenge, and passion. To one degree or another all the characters are tortured souls. The novel is deeply religious and psychological, delving into the recesses of human nature to examine what would cause a man to commit vile acts and what motivates a person to murder. Why would a child hate his father so much as to kill him? Ivan comes to believe he is complicit in parricide, because he planted the seed in the mind of the actual murderer while his brother Dmitri stands accused of the crime and is unjustly convicted.

The theme of father-son relationships is expanded in the subplot of the boy Ilyusha and his father. In contrast to the Karamazovs, they have a loving relationship. Dostoyevsky takes this theme further in Alyosha’s friendship with the precocious thirteen-year old Kolya, who can overcome his worse instincts under Alyosha’s tutelage. In this dynamic, Alyosha replicates the loving relationship that he had with the Elder Zossima, his spiritual father, in the monastery. The opening of the novel juxtaposes the death of the beloved Zossima with the final scene in the novel in which Ilyusha dies, surrounded by the boys who once bullied him and who now love him. The anguished atheist Ivan also possesses a heightened sensitivity to the suffering of children in his repudiation of a God who permits innocent children to endure unspeakable brutality at the hands of adults.

Ivan is the nihilist, Dimitri is the sensualist, and Alyosha is the Christ-figure searching for verities in religious orthodoxy. During the murder trial, the prosecuting attorney compares the brothers to a troika, each one representing a facet of the Russian soul, pulling a runaway sleigh.  He engages in a lengthy psychological analysis–impressive in 1880 before the emergence of Freud and Jung. The defense attorney begins by stating psychology is a double-edged sword and uses the same set of facts to disprove the prosecution’s argument in psychological terms. The descriptions of the spectators’ morbid fascination and the courtroom drama are remarkably like the conduct of televised sensational court cases today. All the passions and motifs in the novel intensify once the accused murderer is brought to trial. If the reader has borne with Dostoyevsky’s long passages and meanderings until this point, he will be astounded with the relevancy of these last chapters to contemporary issues of crime and punishment.

In writing any book review, I strive to avoid giving away too much of the plot. In this case, it is pretty much an impossibility to scratch more than the surface of the plot and spiritual dimensions. The novel is far too vast, intricate, and philosophical. One reason the literary canon rates The Brothers Karamazov a classic is because it calls for multiple readings. Dostoyevsky died soon after its publication. Although it reads complete in itself with Alyosha comforting the grieving boys after Ilyusha’s burial in the final scene, Dostoyevsky purportedly considered extending the story to account for what becomes of Alyosha, the youngest of the three brothers. There are other characters not fully accounted for. What ultimately happens to Grushenka and Katerina? Does Ivan’s madness end in his commitment to a mental institution? How does the convicted murderer fare in a Siberian prison? Does the escape plan hinted at actually occur? Not all threads come together, yet the conclusion is not so open-ended either that I am left unsatisfied. Rather I find it delightful to speculate about the fate of the other characters.

So what did I gain from reading this book in the Age of Trump? Alyosha concludes after hearing Ivan’s poem about the Grand Inquisitor that anything is permitted if God does not exist. Ivan affirms that conclusion, saying “I shall never repudiate the formula of ‘everything is permitted,’ but you will repudiate me for it, won’t you?” Alyosha is silent and responds only by getting up and kissing his brother. Vileness, personal attacks, and repulsive behavior–as strange as they may seem–are cries to be loved and appreciated. Dostoyevsky’s answer like that of all great spiritual leaders is to forgive and to give your brother the love he seeks.

This is easier said than done. It takes a saint to treat a scoundrel in this way. But to return attack with attack, truly, does perpetuate the cycle of hate. However, I don’t believe it is virtuous to remain silent in the face of injustice. It is incumbent to speak up against the authoritarians who like the Grand Inquisitor offer us “miracles, mystery, and authority” in the belief that freedom is too much for the ordinary man to bear. I am no saint, so perhaps the next best course of action is to gently admonish, bless the scoundrel for he knows not what he does, and then fall silent.

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White Trash and Democracy in America

I set to reading White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg, a significant book of 2016, in light of the disastrous election of Donald Trump to the presidency. After finishing the book, I immediately began re-reading Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America. I wanted to revisit what de Toqueville had to say about American culture and society in the era of Andrew Jackson when the Frenchman wrote his observations. The first volume was published in 1835 and the second volume in 1840. I first read the book in the late 1960s.

Isenberg argues that there has been a permanent underclass in the United States from the colonial period through the present-day. The powerful echelons of society have manipulated the underclass to preserve the existing hierarchy. As she traces the history of the underclass, her purpose is to dispel the myth that the United States is a classless society and that the permanent underclass represents an Achilles’ heel that may cause democracy’s eventual downfall. As in Jackson’s time, the underclass rebelled and voted into office a clearly unfit man for the presidency, similar to what happened in the elevation of Trump. Andrew Jackson is responsible for genocide and deportation of Native-Americans from their homes to west of the Mississippi, a policy that appealed to both plantation owners and the poor whites without property, who quickly occupied tribal lands.

De Toqueville’s book concentrates on analysis of how equality operates in the new republic. He dissects the strengths and the weaknesses of a popular majority. An aristocrat, he admires much about the fledgling American democracy but also expresses reservations over democracy’s susceptibility to the rise of mediocrity both in government officials and in the arts. He is prescient in so many areas, predicting a conflict over slavery and the rise of the United States as a maritime and commercial giant. Early in our republic, he notes frequently the anti-intellectual bent in America with a populace suspicious of the elite and convinced that one’s man opinion is as good as another one’s, because every man is equal. He sees a leveling in society and extols a system of political checks and balances. Yet, he interlaces some warnings. He writes:

Thus democratic nations have neither time nor taste to go in search of novel opinions. Even when those they possess become doubtful, they will retain them because it would take too much time and inquiry to change them; they retain them, not as certain, but as established.

As for the durability of our democratic institutions, he ventures this prediction:

 When the American republics begin to degenerate, it will be easy to verify the truth of this observation by remarking whether the number of political impeachments is increased.

Aha! on the presidential level, we’ve had two impeachments, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, and one threatened, Richard Nixon.

In his pursuit of what he likes about the operation of equality in America, De Toqueville comments in passing that “the picture of American society has, if I may so speak, a surface covering of democracy beneath which the old aristocratic colors sometimes peep out.” He fails to elucidate on what he means, unlike Isenberg, who provides a great service by delving deeply into the existence of a permanent underclass in America. What we are seeing day by day, which supports Isenberg’s contention, is Donald Trump maintaining and enlarging the present power structure by including in his administration billionaires, vested interests, and people who have a record of opposition to the policies that would lift up the underclass.

In their everyday struggles to earn a living, the underclass only have time for sound bites and packaged opinions; so that I find de Toqueville’s analysis of public opinion accurate. He writes:

“The people have neither the time nor the means for an investigation of this kind. Their conclusions are hastily formed from a superficial inspection of the prominent features of a question. Hence it often happens that mountebanks of all sorts are able to please the people, while their truest friends frequently fail to gain their confidence.”

That’s why the common working man must have confidence in the credibility of the major reputable news outlets and steer clear of unreliable sources. The perpetual denigration of the White House press corps is the first tactic to undermine a democracy. Red lights should be flashing all over the country, from tiny rural community to urban metropolis.

Lastly, I offer this passage from Isenberg’s book, closer to our time in history. Lyndon Johnson’s quote has been cited before, but it deserves frequent repetition:

Poor whites are still taught to hate–but not to hate those who are keeping them in line. Lyndon Johnson knew this when he quipped, ‘If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.’
We are a country that imagines itself as democratic, and yet the majority has never cared much for equality. Because that’s not how breeding works. Heirs, pedigree, lineage: a pseudo-aristocracy of wealth still finds a way to assert its social power. We see how inherited wealth grants status without any guarantee of merit or talent. To wit: would we know of Donald Trump, George W. Bush, Jesse Jackson Jr., or such Hollywood names as Charlie Sheen and Paris Hilton, except for the fact that these, and many others like them, had powerful, influential parents? Even some men of recognized competence in national politics are products of nepotism: Albert Gore Jr., Rand Paul, Andrew Cuomo, and numerous Kennedys. We give children of the famous a big head start, deferring to them as rightful heirs, a modern-day version of the Puritans’ children of the Elect.

In 1964 Lyndon Baines knew that the permanent impoverishment of the bottom strata of our society had to be corrected.  Here it is 2017, and the underclass is still down and out–under-served, under-represented, and under-funded. The swamp is overflowing with oligarchs. The underclass has been used again; the hierarchy is strengthened and expanded.

Finally, answer this question: As used by de Toqueville, does Trump fit the following definition of a mountebank?  A hawker of quack medicines who attracts customers with stories, jokes or tricks; a flamboyant charlatan.

 

 

 

Notes on Ursula K. Le Guin

Several months ago I set myself the task of reading as many of Ursula K. Le Guin’s books that I could get my hands on. I’ve always wanted to delve into her writing, and her name frequently being dropped as a potential recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature gave me the impetus to launch my Le Guin reading blitz. Her imagination and interests are wide-ranging. She draws upon her vast background in language, anthropology, and science to tell her stories. She prefers to create new myths and new worlds to illustrate truths about human culture in general and the big issues of war, peace, love, and death. She is also a poet, which often goes unmentioned; yet her writing has the beauty, flow, and richness of great poetry. The philosophical underpinnings of her work and her elegant writing style mark Le Guin as an exceptional writer.

Where to begin in defining the nature of Le Guin’s books? After due consideration, I’ve decided I don’t want to mainly summarize plots or dissect her b00ks in any way. To introduce her to readers unfamiliar with her books, I present the notes I wrote while I pursued this literary odyssey. I read the books in no particular order, only as I could obtain them from the library. I offer my sampler of comments and quotations from her books that may spark interest in your reading Le Guin.

Orsinian Tales, 1976, is set in the mythical country of Orsinia (derived from Latin origin of bear evoking Ursula’s name). It is her imaginative country with the flavor of an Eastern European communist country. My favorite in the collection of eleven stories is “An die Musik” about Ladislas Gaye who works in a ball bearings factory and tries to compose music in the little spare time he has between his job and family responsibilities. He brings four lieders and his unfinished Mass to Otto Egorin, a music agent. Otto tells him to not waste time on the Mass, to write lieder songs and to leave his wife and children so he has more time to compose great music. Gaye will not abandon the Mass for popular music. This is the choice of the great artist–not to cave into popular pressure but to pursue the desire of his soul.

“What good is music? None, Gaye thought, and that is the point. To the world and its states and armies and factories and Leaders, music says, ‘you are irrelevant’; and, arrogant and gentle as a god, to the suffering man it says only ‘Listen.’ For being saved is not the point. Music saves nothing. Merciful, uncaring, it denies and breaks down all the shelters, the houses men build for themselves, that they may see the sky.”

Changing Planes, 2003, (irony in the title) is another wonderful collection of stories all premised on the notion that when one is confined in the sterile going-nowhere space of an airport waiting for your next flight, you can travel to imaginary countries–other planes. You have your ticket to anywhere from the Interplanary Agency. Each story represents a trip to a different plane in which Le Guin details the customs, language, habits, and physical features of the humanoid species that inhabit that place. It is clever and funny, an amusing commentary on the relativity of surface differences. We are all animals. She has a very anthropological approach to story-telling, as if the traveler is a field anthropologist taking notes on the cultures she visits. My favorite story is “Social Dreaming of the Frin” in which Le Guin imagines a people who share dreams and explores the consequences to the society of that phenomena. The Frin also share the dreams of animals. Because of that, they don’t eat meat. This is a very deep story, questioning Freud’s interpretation of dreams as a search for the buried self. The communal dream “puts the notion of self deeply into question. I can imagine only that for them to fall asleep is to abandon the self utterly, to enter or reenter the limitless community of being, almost as death is for us.” As one of Frin’s own philosophers explains: “The purpose of our dreams is to enlarge our souls by letting us imagine all that can be imagined: to release us from the tyranny and bigotry of the individual self by letting us feel the fears, desires, and delights of every mind in every living body near us.”

“The Royals of Hegn” is a clever story of class role reversal in a kingdom where almost everyone is a royal and the commoners are a minority that the royals love to gossip about and whose scandalous behavior the tabloids write about. When the commoner celebrity dies, the entire royal population cries, much like commoners did over Princess Diana’s funeral, which makes me think Le Guin had the British royal family in mind when she wrote this story.

Le Guin’s imagination always posits interesting alternative universes/planes; for instance, Wake Island where no one sleeps is an exploration of the consequences of such a supposition. Le Guin has a marvelously inventive mind, and the strange countries are designed to consider the human condition in all its manifestations. This is a really profound story, deeply philosophical. Of the country of the insomniacs, she writes: “But they can’t live in truth, because the way to truth, says the philosopher, is through lies and dreams. “The Flyers of Gyr” is about a race of feathered humanoids, some of whom grow wings. Some pick one flyer to sacrifice in flight, shooting him down with arrows, reminding me of the plumed serpent of Mexico. Flying is risky; the fliers are subject to fatal falls, so some choose not to exercise this ability: “I don’t understand the people who have wings and don’t use them,” Ardiadia conjectures. “I suppose they’re interested in having a career. Maybe they were already in love with somebody on the ground. But it seems . . . I don’t know. I can’t really understand it. Wanting to stay down. Choosing not to fly. Wingless people can’t help it, it’s not their fault they’re grounded. But if you have wings . . . Of course they may be afraid of wing failure. Wing failure doesn’t happen if you don’t fly. How can it? How can something fail that never worked? I suppose being safe is important to some people. They have a family or commitments or a job or something. I don’t know. You’d have to talk to one of them. I’m a flier.” A non-flier who doesn’t use his wings says, “Fliers are stupid, their brains go all to feathers.” The narrator asks him at the end of the story, “Do you ever dream of flying?”

In The Lathe of Heaven, 1971, Le Guin hypothesizes about the nature of dreams and of reality. If creatures can inhabit each other’s dreams, then why not the possibility of effective dreams, in which what we dream in dreams becomes reality. If we have good dreams, then could we create a peaceful world? Or is even this good intention subject to go astray as are all good intentions? There are many deep philosophical constructs in this short novel of less than 200 pages. It draws much from oriental philosophy, particularly Buddhism, I think, although many of the chapter inscriptions are from the Chuang Tse, 4th century Chinese philosopher.

The Telling, 2000
“One of the historians of Darranda said: To learn a belief without belief is to sing a song without the tune.” Teachers of the old ways and the old language were called maz. “The maz, however, were mostly middle-aged or old, again not because they were dying out as a group, but because, as they said, it took a lifetime to learn how to walk in the forest.”

“The subject matter of the tellings seemed to be endless, even now, when so much had been destroyed.” Sutty finally finds their sacred book The Arbor. “There was no correct text. There was no standard version. Of anything. There was not one Arbor but many, many arbors. The jungle was endless, and it was not one jungle but endless jungles, all burning with bright tigers of meaning, endless tigers . . .”

The central idea, Sutty thought, was Two that are One, because everyone was paired.

The Eye of the Heron, 1978
What is the symbolism of the heron? Why the title, particularly when Le Guin starts the story with Lev holding a wotsit, a small three-eyed bird that looks like a blue toad? The wotsit appears again when the band of colonists reaches the hidden valley at the end of the book and so does a heron. Force, represented by the city, is posed against Peace, represented by the town. Vera says at the beginning, “We don’t intend defiance, we shall simply hold fast to the truth. But if they begin with force, you know, Elia, even our attempt at reason becomes a resistance.” Elia argues, “Force will rule, as it did on Earth!” He argues that they must talk. The issue is moral force opposed to physical force. A single pair of herons lived near the town meeting house; they’re described toward the beginning of the book when Lev goes to the pool where they fish in order to contemplate. They are solitary, silent, watchful, elusive creatures that show no fear of men but never allow men to approach. These are the characteristics the band has to assume when they retreat to the wilderness to establish a colony free from the violence of the town. The focus on its eye would seem to suggest that the People of Peace must be ever watchful, careful, steadfast, and removed from physical force.

“Nobody had made this wilderness, and there was no evil in it and no good; it simply was.”

The tragedy of the story is that “They had died in the name of peace, but they had also killed in the name of peace. It had all fallen apart.”

The women’s names are very suggestive: Luz, meaning light, and Vera, suggesting veracity or truth. The female powers are positive. Light and truth are the principles that the people must “hold fast” to. The group discover the wotsits at the place where they settle. Andre says, “This is where we build the world out of mud.” They call their settlement Heron or Heron Pool, for the pair of gray creatures who live there across the stream, silent and untroubled by human presence. Watching them, Luz says they will dance tonight. “Elegant, long-legged, silent, the herons went about their own business of food gathering on the other side of the wide, dark pool; sometimes they paused in the shallows to gaze at the people with clear, quiet eyes. Sometimes, on still cold evenings, before snow, they danced.” I think the heron symbolizes peace–a peaceful existence in which no creature intrudes on another creature’s business, or exerts force whatsoever. They exist; they simply are. Is the heron also a code word for feminism formed as it is from her and on?

Rocannon’s World, 1966

Mindspeech is the fascinating concept elucidated in this short novel. Rocannon obtains the gift of mindspeech in the cave. “He had learned to listen to the minds of one race, one kind of creature, among all the voice of all the worlds one voice: that of his enemy . . . . Understanding must be mutual, when loyalty was, and love.”

The guardian of the well had that gift. . . . “of unsealing the telepathic sense.” Mindhearing was not hearing words, but intentions, desires, emotions.

Planet of Exile, 1966
This story seems to be about alien groups breaking down barriers and finding a common purpose. Building trust is a matter of listening to–in other words communicating both on a verbal and non-verbal level–with the other. Two peoples have to form an alliance to oppose the invasion of barbarians. “She shared nothing at all with him, but had met him and joined with him wholly and immediately across the gulf of their great difference: as it if were that difference, the alienness between them, that let them meet, and that in joining them together, freed them.”

“An untrained man, if you bespeak him, will shut his mind to it before he knows he’s heard anything. Especially if what he hears isn’t what he himself wants or believes. Non-Communicants have perfect defenses, usually. In fact to learn paraverbal communication is mainly to learn how to break down one’s own defenses.”

Cities of Illusion, 1967
When Remarren’s ship lands on Earth from the planet Werel and the expedition is destroyed, the Shing people raze his mind, that is, his memory is erased for six years. He comes out of his cave in the forest, blind, and without knowing where or who he is to meet the Forest People, who help him construct a life as Falk. Then he goes on a quest to recapture who he was originally. After many wanderings among different peoples, from whom he considers the meaning of trust and hope; lies and truth, he arrives at Shing. The Shing agree to restore his identity as Remarren if he will tell them the location of Werel, which they want to reach and conquer. He submits to the procedure only to realize he now has a double identity–Falk-Remarren, but he uses this dual consciousness to gain control of a Shing spaceship and return home to Werel. Le Guin poses important questions about the nature of humanity and of consciousness in this short novel. Sprinkled throughout are philosophical passages such as: “Hope is a lighter, tougher thing even than trust, he thought, pacing his room as the soundless, vague lightning flashed overhead. In a good season one trusts life; in a bad season one only hopes. But they are of the same essence: they are the mind’s indispensable relationship with other minds, with the world, and with time. Without trust, a man lives, but not a human life; without hope, he dies. When there is no relationship, where hands do not touch, emotion atrophies in void and intelligence goes sterile and obsessed. Between men the only link left is that of owner to slave, or murderer to victim.”

“Laws are made against the impulse a people most fears in itself. Do not kill was the Shing’s vaunted Law. All else was permitted: which meant, perhaps, there was little else they really wanted to do . . . Fearing their own profound attraction towards death, they preached Reverence for Life, fooling themselves at last with their own lie.”

“Against them he could never prevail except, perhaps, through the one quality no liar can cope with, integrity. Perhaps it would not occur to them that a man could so will to be himself, to live his life, that he might resist them even when helpless in their hands.”

“They were afraid to kill and afraid to die, and called this fear Reverence for Life. The Shing, the Enemy, the Liars. . . . Did they in truth lie? Perhaps that was not quite the way of it; perhaps the essence of their lying was profound, irremediable lack of understanding. They could not get in touch with men.”

The Beginning Place, 1980
This short novel is about the absence of time in a world that stands still and silent–an undeveloped, non-industrialized, non-commercial domain. Hugh, who has a mundane job as a checker in a supermarket, escapes through a hole in time.”Here there was no use asking, “What time is it?” because there was nothing to answer for you, no sun saying “Noon” and no clock saying “Seven-thirty-eight and forty-two seconds.” You had to answer the question yourself and the answer was “Now.”

“For the time beyond the clocks is always now and the way to forever is now.”

Hugh and Irene, another teenager who previously penetrated the hole in time,  lead parallel lives; both are visitors of the beginning place in the woods. Tembreabrezi is the mountain-top town to which they retreat from their troubled families. Both are caretakers of their mothers, dependable children. There is a lot of stark realism in this novel, of the tawdriness of contemporary life, of lower working class life, of broken families, of scraping out a living in a market-driven society increasingly devoid of spiritual values. Irene thinks, “Her mother had to have somebody around to depend on.” The retreat in the woods is termed the “ain country.” The writing is remarkably poetical in this book: “Sleep in the ain country was so deep it had no dreams. I am the dream, she thought drowsily, the dream am I. I am the mare but there’s no night.” Hugh explains to Irene how he got to the beginning place: “I was running away. From . . . I don’t know. See, I’m sort of stuck. Not doing what I want to do.” For Irene it was a place where love was possible, not like the marriage who mother Mary had with Victor. “. . . There was room for desire without terror, there was room and time for love without effect, without penalty or pain. The only price was silence.” She loved the master. But she always had to leave the town. “This was not her home; she had always called it home, but she had no home; she stayed at the inn, there was no room here or anywhere that was hers.”

Earthsea, 1968

Earthsea is an mythical archipelago of islands of different cultures, one in particular inhabited by dragons, another the Island of Roke is the training ground for wizards and mages. What is the shadow following Ged the wizard? Is it the shadow of death? A creature of the underworld?

Central to Le Guin’s novel is the idea that power abides in the knowledge of a person’s or creature’s name. Knowing someone’s name in turn imbues the knower with power over him. “To change this rock into a jewel, you must change its true name. And to do that, my son, even to so small a scrap of the world, is to change the world,” Master Hand instructs Ged in the School for Wizards on the Island of Roke. A person’s name changes when his role or station in society changes. This idea is seen in other Le Guin novels.

The Master Namer Kurremkarmerruk further instructs, “For magic consists in this, the true naming of a thing . . . . Many a mage of great power has spent his whole life to find out the name of a single thing–one single lost or hidden name. And still the lists are not finished. Nor will they be, till world’s end.”

The Master Changer explains how “if a thing is really to be changed into another thing, it must be renamed for as long as the spell lasts, and he told how this affects the names and natures of things surrounding the transformed thing. He spoke of the perils of changing, above all when the wizard transforms his own shape and thus is liable to be caught in his own spell.”

The Archmage tells Ged, “And the truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, every the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do . . . ”

A wise man has a close connection with all nature and communion and affection for animals as Ged has with the creature Otak, his pet. “From that time forth he believed that the wise man is one who never sets himself apart from other living things, whether they have speech or not, and in later years he strove long to learn what can be learned, in silence, from the eyes of animals, the flight of birds, the great slow gestures of trees.”

Ged gains power over the dragon of Pendor by pronouncing his name Vedaur.

The Roke-wind rises against Ged who asks to be put ashore at Serd He felt the shadow upon him. “But if once the shadow caught up with Ged it could draw his power out of him, and take from him the very weight and warmth and life of his body and the will that moved him.”

Skiorh, the oarsmen on the ship to Osskil and his guide to the Court of the Terrenon, is a gebbeth. Ged runs away from the gebbeth.

“He had come to this towerkeep by chance, and yet the chance was all design; or he had come be design and yet all the design had merely chanced to come about.” He meets Serret and Benderesk in the tower.

“It is very hard for evil to take hold of the unconsenting soul.”

To free himself of the Shadow, Ged must learn its name. Ged meets the shadow when the sea turns to sand far to the east of Astowell, the Lastland: “Ged reached out his hands, dropping his staff, and took hold of the shadow, of the black self that reached out to him. Light and darkness met, and joined, and were one.” The story implies that we must face our inner demons and that man is composed of both lightness and darkness.

“And he [Vetch] began to see the truth, that Ged had neither lost nor won but, naming the shadow of his death with his own name, had made himself whole: a man: who, knowing his whole true self, cannot be used or possessed by any power other than himself, and whose life therefore is lived for life’s sake and never in the service of ruin, or pain, or hatred, or the dark.”

This is a quest story in the classical sense that eschews violence and warfare as the necessary component of becoming a man or a hero. After finishing the book, written in 1967, I wondered if LeGuin had anything to say about the Harry Potter books of such popularity that came later, certainly more popular than Le Guin’s book ever was, and I found this:

“This last is the situation, as I see it, between my A Wizard of Earthsea and J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter. I didn’t originate the idea of a school for wizards — if anybody did it was T.H.White, though he did it in single throwaway line and didn’t develop it. I was the first to do that. Years later, Rowling took the idea and developed it along other lines. She didn’t plagiarize. She didn’t copy anything. Her book, in fact, could hardly be more different from mine, in style, spirit, everything. The only thing that rankles me is her apparent reluctance to admit that she ever learned anything from other writers. When ignorant critics praised her wonderful originality in inventing the idea of a wizards’ school, and some of them even seemed to believe that she had invented fantasy, she let them do so. This, I think, was ungenerous, and in the long run unwise. I’m happier with writers who, perhaps suffering less from the famous “anxiety of influence,” have enough sense of their own worth to appreciate their predecessors and fellow-workers in the saltmines of literature. The whole history of a literature and of every genre within it is a chain of influences, inventions shared, discoveries made common, techniques adopted and adapted. Must I say again that this has absolutely nothing to do with copying texts, with stealing stuff?”  From http://www.ursulakleguin.com/Note-ArtInfoTheftConfusion-Part2.html

In another interview, LeGuin comments on J.K. Rowling:

Q: Nicholas Lezard has written ‘Rowling can type, but Le Guin can write.’ What do you make of this comment in the light of the phenomenal success of the Potter books? I’d like to hear your opinion of JK Rowling’s writing style.
UKL: I have no great opinion of it. When so many adult critics were carrying on about the “incredible originality” of the first Harry Potter book, I read it to find out what the fuss was about, and remained somewhat puzzled; it seemed a lively kid’s fantasy crossed with a “school novel”, good fare for its age group, but stylistically ordinary, imaginatively derivative, and ethically rather mean-spirited. (From https://www.theguardian.com/books/2004/feb/09/sciencefictionfantasyand horror.ursulakleguin)

Finding My Elegy: New and Selected Poems, 2012
All I can say is that her poetry is wonderful, as shining as her prose. It has a clarity and originality of language absent from contemporary poetry. She believes in rhyme, rhythm, and metrics. She creates her own forms. Her language is clever and playful. I’m with her in how I discovered and first loved poetry. In “Meters” she writes:

And in old age, as strength again grows faint,
That poetry of order, wit, restraint,
Braces my soul; I honor the clear art,
And let the heroic measure pace my heart.

The Tombs of Atuan, 1970
Naming is the key to being human; naming is the way to freedom. Arha, the priestess, has to learn her true name, and in learning it of the mage Ged, she is liberated from her servitude as priestess of the dead.

“Knowing names is my job. My art. To weave the magic of a thing, you see, one must find its true name out. In my lands we keep our true names hidden all our lives long, from all but those whom we trust utterly; for there is great power, and great peril, in a name. . . . But what a wizard spends his life at is finding out the names of things, and finding out how to find out the names of things.”

Ged tells Arha his name in a gesture of trust to seal their joining as symbolized by the two halves of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe. He says, “Alone, no one wins freedom.”

“. . . When you eat illusions you end up hungrier than before. It’s about as nourishing as eating your own words.”

“What she [Tenar/Arha] had begun to learn was the weight of liberty. Freedom is a heavy load, a great and strange burden for the spirit to undertake. It is not east. It is not a gift given, but a choice made, and the choice may be a hard one.”

“In the darkness I found light.” Ged argues that any of Tenar’s sins have been expiated. He will take her to Gont and to Ogion.
“Gravely [she walked into Havnor] she walked beside him up the white streets of Havnor, holding his hand, like a child coming home.”

The Farthest Shore, 1972

“But when we crave power over life–endless wealth, unassailable safety, immortality–then desire becomes greed. And if knowledge allies itself to that greed, then comes evil.”

Here is an example of Le Guin being very philosophical: “We must learn to keep the balance. Having intelligence, we must not act in ignorance. Having choice, we must not act without responsibility. What am I–though I have the power to do it–to punish and reward, playing with men’s destinies?”

Everything’s grey in Lorbanery. They lack joy in life.

The Left Hand on Darkness, 1969
The only known thing is that we shall die. Faxe tells Genry: “The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.” And not knowing is what keeps us reading stories. Genry Ai is an envoy from the Ekumen on Earth sent to the planet Winter to forge a peace alliance. In the process he studies their Gethenian culture and learns of their concept of shifgrethor  Here is the definition from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Left_Hand_of_Darkness.

“Shifgrethor is a fictional concept in the Hainish universe, first introduced in The Left Hand of Darkness. It is first mentioned by Genly Ai, when he thinks to himself “shifgrethor—prestige, face, place, the pride-relationship, the untranslatable and all-important principle of social authority in Karhide and all civilizations of Gethen”.[26] It derives from an old Gethenian word for shadow. George Slusser describes shifgrethor as “not rank, but its opposite, the ability to maintain equality in any relationship, and to do so by respecting the person of the other”.[54] According to University of West Georgia Professor Carrie B. McWhorter, shifgrethor can be defined simply as “a sense of honor and respect that provides the Gethenians with a way to save face in a time of crisis.” 

Shifgrethor is a way to manage differences without conflict. It is the management of dualities, sexual dualities too, light and dark, etc. Ai attempts to define it as “prestige, face, place, the pride-relationship, the untanslatable and all-important principle of social authority in Karhide and all civilizations of Gethen.” Ai notes that Tibe in his rants does not speak of shifgrethor. He was advocating for war in his avoiding shifgrethor.

Obsle says, “The unexpected is what makes possible.”

The idea of the shadow is important in the book. Ai describes the leaders of Mishnory as somehow not casting shadows.

“To oppose something is to maintain it . . . To oppose vulgarity is inevitably to be vulgar. You must go somewhere else; you must have another goal; then you walk a different road.” [Is this why opposition to the vulgarian Trump went nowhere?]

The prisoners were administered a drug to prevent–kemmer–their sexual active cycle. “They were without shame and without desire, like the angels. But it is not human to be without shame and without desire.” The suppression of sexual desire produced passivity.

In their struggles, hardships, and isolation on the ice; Ai and Estraven come to love each other. “There is no world full of other Gethenians here to explain and support my existence,” Estraven writes in his journal. “We are equals at last, equal, alien, alone. He did not laugh, of course. Rather he spoke with a gentleness that I did not know was in him. After a while he too came to speak of isolation, of loneliness.”

Estraven recites Tormer’s Lay:

Light is the left hand of darkness
And darkness the right hand of light.
Two are one, life and death, lying
Together like lovers in kemmer,
Like hands joined together,
Like the end and the way.

Ai says to him “Perhaps you are as obsessed with wholeness as we are with dualism.” Estraven asks him about the differentiation of the sexes in his race. Ai speculates upon them, but really can’t say which traits are inherent and which are learned.

Lavinia, 2008

“It’s not death that allows us to understand one another, but poetry.” I couldn’t agree more with the words Ursula Le Guin puts in Lavinia’s mouth. Time is a motif in this novel well that re-visualizes the Aeneid, showing that Le Guin is as interested in re-imagining the past as well as envisioning futuristic worlds. She plays with a past-future time warp here and examines humanity wrestling with death, time, and immortality and their interconnections.

It seems a feminist book, recognizing women’s stories are often lost to history, but it is also a disquisition on the effects of war on the conscience and the personality of the warrior–the inconsistencies and contradictions he must practice to pursue the fight and consider war to be glorious. Aeneas lives to rue some of the killing he has done. Ironically when he tries to expiate a prior angry murder, he is killed because he spared another man’s life. The ironies of war are legion.

Aeneas ruminates: “I think I could have beaten Menelaus. And what if I had? Would I be a better man for it? Would my virtue be greater than it is? Am I who I am because I killed men? Am I Aeneas because I killed Turnus?” To his son Ascanius he says, “If you are to rule Latium after me, and pass it to your brother Silvius, I want to know that you’ll learn how to govern, not merely make war, that you’ll learn to ask the powers of the earth and sky for guidance for yourself and your people, that you’ll learn to seek your manhood on a greater field than the battlefield. Tell me that you will learn those things, Ascanius.”
Lavinia communes with the poet Virgil of Mantua in the sacred grove in a time warp with the poet’s ghost, for when Lavinia lived, Virgil had not been born yet. He prophesies she will marry the foreigner Aeneas who will shortly land on Italy’s shore. At the end of book she compares herself to Creusa of Troy and Dido of Carthage, the other women Virgil gave life to and that Aeneas loved. “But I will not die. I cannot. I will never go down among the shadows under Albunea to see Aeneas tall among the warriors, gleaming in bronze. I will not speak to Creusa of Troy, as I once thought I might, or Dido of Carthage, proud and silent, still bearing the great sword wound in her breast. They lived and died as women do and as the poet sang them. But he did not sing me enough life to die. He only gave me immortality.”

 

My grocery list of quotations gives a taste of the aphorisms sprinkled throughout Le Guin’s writing and illustrates how deeply philosophical, imaginative, and poetical that her mix of fantasy and science fiction is.

 

The Devils of Cardona by Matthew Carr

I was very interested in Matthew Carr’s first novel published this year, because I relied heavily on his non-fiction book Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain,  in the research for my 2015 book of narrative poetry Al-AndalusWith the wealth of material and personalities in the period of time from 1492 to the final expulsion of the Moors from Spain in 1611, I wondered what Carr would choose as the focus of his fictional rendering. When I delved into study of this period, the rich potential for a historical novel staggered my imagination. Initially, I contemplated a novel and was particularly drawn to Granada for the setting and the War of the Alpujarras as the chief event for my story. I wanted to blend a mix of fictional and historical characters to portray how Christians and Muslims interacted in sixteenth century Spain. The more I researched, the more the task of focusing on one region, one event, or restricted time frame overwhelmed me. The purging of Muslim Spain spanned over a century after the conquest of Granada, presenting a mind-boggling mine of material. Finally, I decided that I was best able to execute a series of dramatic monologues in a thematic poetry book.

Matthew Carr selected Aragon, one of the last regions to be purged of its Morisco population and set his suspense tale in 1584. He executes well what is a detective story in which a judge is sent to Cardona to investigate the murder of a priest against the backdrop of the complex relations among the landed aristocracy, the Inquisition officials, the old Christians, and the Moriscos or new Christians, who may or may not be secretly practicing Muslims. Judge Mendoza discovers more than one devil in the region that straddles the Pyrenees border with France. Murder and intrigue abound; the writing is crisp and vivid; the characters historically credible. Matthew Carr has done an excellent job with the raw materials. There is still much more grist for a historical novelist’s mill in this time period. The prospect of fictionalizing this material continues to daunt me. I doubt I will ever take up the challenge, as I think my particular talent was used in Al-Andalus. I recommend the book to historical fiction aficionados.

One Book Wonders

384px-Olivia_de_Havilland_Publicity_Photo_for_Gone_with_the_Wind_1939

Melanie in Gone With the Wind

Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind is one of those wonderful one book wonders. I first read it as a teenager after extracting it from a box of my mother’s books stored in a closet. My mother was not a reader of books after her marriage in January of 1943; all she had time for after that was reading the Sunday newspaper.  I suspect that the last novel she may have read was another one I found in that same box and also read–A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith published in 1943.  Mitchell’s book came out in 1936 to instant acclaim; hot on the heels of that success, the film adaptation of her 1037-page wonder was released in December 1939. I am sure that my mother joined the hordes of other movie-goers who watched David Selznick’s film for the first time, because she claimed that I was named for one of her favorite actresses–Olivia de Havilland who played Melanie Hamilton. By the way, the actress endures too; she will celebrate her hundredth birthday on July 1st of this year.

I have just finished reading Gone with the Wind for the second time. What made me tackle this jumbo novel again in my sixties? In researching the popular culture of the 1930’s in America for a novel I am in the process of writing now, I wanted to learn what books, film, songs, and events had a major impact on American society during that decade. Could it be that Scarlet’s travails to save Tara and to never be hungry or poor again paralleled the sufferings that so many Americans experienced during the Depression years? I think so, but that is only one factor that accounts for the enormous popularity of this book for which Mitchell received the Pulitzer Prize. It is unique in the field of one book wonders, because its size could very well encompass at least three individual novels: one centered on the antebellum period, one centered on the Civil War years, and one centered on the Reconstruction years.  All facets of the novel–character, dialogue, description, plot–are developed skillfully and in-depth.  Mitchell’s vivid description of the siege of Atlanta may not have impressed me as a teenager, but this time around, I marveled at how she made the devastation and destruction real. I felt the horror, chaos, and the panic the South experienced during General Sherman’s March to the Sea.

In the realm of novels, there have been other one book wonders: Wuthering Heights, The Bell Jar, A Confederacy of Dunces, Invisible Man, Dr.Zhivago. Until recently, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was considered such a wonder, and many critics after publication of Go Set a Watchman, believe it should have remained so. The untimely deaths of some of these authors, including Mitchell’s after being struck by car while crossing an Atlanta street, account for many one book wonders. Such is the case also with Emily Brontë, Sylvia Plath and John Kennedy Toole.  It may also be the case that some of these authors with only one distinguished published novel to their credit have wisely consigned inferior works to the closet. Interestingly, Ralph Ellison’s second novel Juneteenth was published posthumously in 1999. A Confederacy of Dunces was published posthumously in 1980 only through the persistent efforts of Toole’s mother, who found a carbon copy of the manuscript after his suicide in 1969. After the death of  a one-book-wonder author, there is always the possibility that a literary sleuth will uncover another novel hidden in a trunk. As for Plath and Boris Pasternak, they did continue to write non-fiction and poetry books.

I wonder if  an author exists who wrote one great book and then went on to live a long life, vowing that one book contained all that he ever wanted to say, in contrast to the author whose production was cut short because he died too soon. That hypothetical situation seems paradoxical, for it would be rare for a person with a penchant for writing not to find more to write about in the course of a long life. After the success of The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger retreated from public life, publishing occasional short stories. His literary executors have promised more short stories and a novel to be published posthumously between 2015 and 2020, but the second novel has not appeared yet. Marcel Proust died before he completed revision of the proofs of the last three volumes of his magnum opus In Search of Time Past (a novel in 7 volumes, written over the course of the years 1909 to 1922). But is Proust’s work really one wonder or seven wonders?

My readers, can you think of any other one book wonders and comment upon them?

Looking Back at the Past Year’s Reading

Of the books I read in 2015, Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin stands out above the rest. After I finished my first reading, I immediately had to read it again. I am sure I will read it several times more before I loosen this mortal coil.

This is an astounding mystical, magical, metaphorical, and historical journey into the American ethos. Helprin liberally draws from the world’s mythologies–Greek, Celtic, Native-American, Biblical, Arthurian–and invents his own. He creates a marvelously centered world of fantastical and historical New York City–the hub, drawing like a magnet pairs of characters from upper New York State, the Jersey coast, Ireland, and San Francisco. The mythical white horse conveys Peter Lake to eternity. There is such a constellation of motifs and interconnections in this voluminous novel of 800-pages that it encompasses not only New York City but the universe. A flying horse and time travel exist alongside tuberculosis and street gangs of the early twentieth century. I predict that this novel will endure well beyond the twenty-second century and stand as the monumental work of American magical realism.

Ultimately, what is the book about? Everything. If I have to identify one over-riding theme, it would be justice and the search for justice. The characters are moving toward a vision of justice, at least Hardesty Maratta’s pilgrimage represents such a quest. The perception of justice requires that the mind move out of time, in fact, reach a timeless realm in which past, present, and future coalesce. Judgments are shaped by past experiences and limited perceptions. In order to perceive correctly, one must be able to perceive all times and all places. Indeed, Helprin strives to create a timeless realm in Winter’s Tale.

Many literary echoes occur in this novel. Dante’s journey comes to mind. Walt Whitman and Hart Crane reverberate, particularly in Helprin’s development of the bridge motif. Hardesty Maratta searches for the designer of the Golden Gate Bridge.  Jackson Mead is obsessed with constructing an equally majestic bridge in New York. There are four gates to New York. “The east gate was that of acceptance of responsibility, the south gate that of the desire to explore, the west gate that devotion of beauty, and the north gate that of selfless love.” Virginia Gamely journeys toward the city from the north, Hardesty from the west; Peter Lake from the south, and Asbury Gunwillow from the east. The characters converge and form pairs in the city. Present, past, and future merge. Hardesty reenacts Peter Lake’s life, and the ascendant Peter Lake re-discovers who he was a hundred years ago. Abby is a reincarnation of the poor, dying child Peter Lake saw in the tenement hallway when he first came to New York in about 1913. Peter finds his “celestial home” again in the room above Grand Central Station that he occupied in the past. The actual astronomical, zodiacal painting on the ceiling of the large concourse attempts to replicate a medieval drawing of the constellations from God’s viewpoint above the stars. Grand Central Station was built from 1903-1913, so it would have been newly completed in the pre-World War I era when Peter Lake arrives in Manhattan. Justice, then, resides in the timeless, all-seeing realm of eternity, and finally, is beyond the ken of time and space-bound humanity.

The pattern of falling and arising in the characters’ lives parallel each other. Cold–the winter–creates the ambience in which everything congeals, in which the whiteness creates a clarity and lightness not otherwise available.  Eventually, the city freezes over; the population skate across the river. Time freezes also. All eras become one.  Everything congeals in winter as everything converges in the city where both the poor and the wealthy exist in a balance, for each is necessary to the other. Crime exists side by side with altruism. Both angels and saints populate the city. Winter furnishes the backdrop for the theme, implying after the deep freeze, the city will be reborn and renewed. Helprin writes: “Winter, it was said, was the season in which time was superconductive–the season when a brittle world might shatter in the face of astonishing events, later to reform in a new body as solid and smooth as transparent ice.”

The plot and subplots are many-layered and it is not my purpose here to summarize even the main plot line. What I wish to do is to praise the richness of imagination embedded in the book. Obviously, Helprin is widely-read in world literature and dips into that heritage as well as into American history. This book is not for the faint-hearted. As with all challenges, it will reward the reader beyond his wildest dreams. This is a philosophical fantasy like no other.

Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

This summer I read twice this giant of a novel first published in 1983. One reading cannot release a fraction of its rich meanings. I come away and hold this novel at arm’s length and gasp that this is one of the most significant works of American literature of the latter twentieth century. Furthermore, it represents American magical realism at its finest.  Helprin encompasses Greek, European, Native-American and Biblical mythology in his story of pilgrim characters who converge upon New York City in four directions: “The east gate was that of acceptance of responsibility, the south gate that of the desire to explore, the west gate that of devotion to beauty, and the north gate that of selfless love.”  The city assumes symbolical and mythic proportions exuding in its industrial power, the national ethos. Peter Lake, arrives like Moses in his reed boat on the New Jersey shore, and his coming of age emerges as a journey across the bay into New York’s underbelly.

Helprin accomplishes so much in Winter’s Tale, blending history mainly in the first decades of the twentieth century, fantasy, and meditation on time and space. His description of bridges and bridge-building are evocative of Walt Whitman and Hart Crane, for clearly he draws extensively upon a great fund of both American and world literature. The role of winter cannot be ignored. The motif of snow, ice, and cold suffuses the story. Helprin writes: “Winter, it was said, was the season in which time was superconductive–the season when a brittle world might shatter in the face of astonishing events, later to reform in a new body as solid and smooth as young transparent ice.”

Another motif that cannot be neglected is the quest for the perfect city of justice. Hardesty Marratta sets out from San Francisco to find such a city. The list is long of the symbols that Helprin borrows from mythology to advance his American motif. The white horse Athansor evocative of Pegasus, the island in the Lake of the Coheeries like something from the Arthurian legend, Beverley as the beautiful lady of the lake, and Marratta’s choice of the mystical salver are only a few.

Helprin is suggesting that interconnectedness permeates the universe. In the grand scope of events, nothing is random. Not even random evil. Crime and violence have a place in the cycle of nature. In fact, even New York City composed of concrete and steel, the great industrial giant it is with its Penn Station, seemingly the hub of transportation and commerce, is part of the natural world and built from the minerals of the earth. Upon the roof of New York’s Grand Central Station is a painting of the constellations, the constellations that Beverley probes upon her roof-top bed and the interstellar space into which Athansor disappears.  Study the pairs of lovers, too, in this novel.

The gold in this book is too much to mine in a short peek at what it offers. Awestruck, I feel inadequate to the task and must return to a third reading. I predict this novel will endure in the pantheon of great American fiction. I invite you to read this book and add your comments. A rich discussion could follow.