More Bad Books. . .
Zeromski, Stefan. The Faithful River. Northwestern University, 1999.
In his translator's introduction, Bill Johnston calls Stefan Zeromski "a major European writer", and this book "one of his greatest achievements". The editors of the European Classics series at Northwestern University seem to have held that it was at least historically significant, although their penchant for publishing obscure novels by obscure authors in Slavic languages might make one a little suspicious of their opinion.
In fact, The Faithful River is a collection of descriptions in themselves composed of every cliche ever written about female beauty or love between the sexes. It is much worse than that, though. It accepts as a given every cliche ever written about love of country and the necessary hatred of the outsider. Even the indeterminate ending, which perhaps could have come close to turning this work into an emotionally significant novel, is obviously mysterious only because of technical incompetence.
Although The Faithful River fails as an artwork, historians might profitably read it as an illustration of the attitudes which gave birth to the terrors of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries.
Mr. Johnston's remarks illustrate the dangers of blind love for a culture in which you are an expert, or would like to be one, and the publication list of the European Classics series might be a warning of what can happen when a political need to publish the obscure collides with a doctrinaire cultural democracy.
Cassirer, Ernst. Essay on Man: An Introduction to a Philosophy of Human Culture. Yale, 1992.
Most modern works of philosophy either drown you in a whirlpool of erudition without knowledge or dash you upon the jagged cliffs of poetry without content. Miraculously, considering the distance between these two shipwrecks, Ernst Cassirer manages to do both at once. He seems to be attempting to create a philosophy of man based on the concept of the symbol. His main tool for doing so is a vast catalog of five-word quotations from the most famous philosophers, usually completely irrelevant to the question at hand. When he gets bored with that, he invents Latin phrases to express what can be expressed at least as well in English. As to the poetry, he does apologize for not adducing any evidence for his statements (aside from references to his won books in the footnotes), but an apology is not always a justification, and does not always bring forgiveness. As someone long ago said, "It's long, but boring.".
Tucker, George Holbert. Jane Austen, The Woman: Some Biographical Insights. St. Martin's Press, 1995.
Jane Austen, The Woman purports to be an essay at debunking myths about Jane Austen as a person. The book is based mostly on research on circumstantial details of her life. Most of the myths Mr. Tucker wants to debunk once existed, but no longer do, since we have good editions of Jane Austen's surviving letters and the accepted style of literary criticism has changed to include more close reading and less wishful thinking.
After Mr. Tucker has researched a peripheral fact which was never researched before because it never interested anyone sufficiently, he proceeds to suggest a corollary fact which might have been true:
While the rectory party was away from Steventon, Thomas Twistleton, a second cousin of Jane's mother, committed suicide.... Whether the Austens learned about this widely publicized scandal from accounts in the London newspapers is not known. Even so, they could hardly have missed the lengthy report of the baron's self destruction that appeared in the Hampshire Chronicle on July 18, 1788, since that newspaper had a wide circulation throughout the Steventon area.
Such conjectures form the bulk of the book.
Mr. Tucker sometimes organizes some of the background information on Jane Austen conveniently, and therefore can help the reader understand the authoress' dislike of the Prince Regent, or the mystery of her attitude toward amateur theatricals, but constant rereading of Miss Austen's works and her surviving letters will help us understand Jane Austen the woman better than books like this one will. But does it make much sense to read Jane Austen's novels to try to understand the woman? After all, most of us want to understand the woman mainly to understand the novelist.
Malraux, Andre. Man's Fate (La Condition Humaine). Vintage, 1990.
This novel has the coldness and the hardness which we have come to expect from the French Marxists of the 1930s. Apparently, they were incapable of understanding the kinds of warmth and respect which other people sometimes find in human relationships.
It also seems to have some glaring faults in structure. We are given simple, historical causes for the characters' behavior, but we are not given the equipment either to see them as human beings with depth or to care what happens to them. And you remember what Aristotle said about the novel....
There is a causal connection among the events in a technical sense, but we are never told what significance these events are supposed to have. My famous someone-or-other said that 'teleology may be bad metaphysics, but it has produced a lot of good biology'. From the failure of this novel one gets the impression that that's even more true in literature. If one is only told what the cause is, but not what the end is, one has been told nothing. We are left with a blank stare. And depression.
And then there is the problem of the author's honesty, and the characters', and ours. Is it really that easy to justify Stalinism? Is there nothing which can't be justified by statistics?
This is yet another of those novels which make me wonder what I've missed.
Flaubert, Gustave, et al. Flaubert in Egypt: A Sensibility on Tour; A Narrative Drawn from Gustave Flaubert's Travel Notes & Letters. Penguin, 1996.
It's not easy to make sense out of Flaubert either as a person or a writer. We try to decipher the person through the novelist: as a novelist, he at first glance seems to be a moralist, as novelists tend to seem.
The schoolmarms have made our task much more difficult. They have distilled Flaubert into Madame Bovary, without bothering to tell us what Madame Bovary is supposed to be.
Making sense of Flaubert as a writer is even more difficult. And probably more important. Any one of his works is difficult. Some of his works are obviously novels, novels of the kind which make one ask what a novel is. Which is almost certainly more important than the question of what realism is, or romanticism.
But what are we to do with his works of historical fantasy? Maybe it would be more convenient just to pretend that he never wrote them.
Flaubert in Egypt may help us to understand Flaubert the man. Which is sad. Henry James said that Flaubert was corrupt. It may be that his corruption was one of the saddest kinds: the corruption of a high-ranking clerk who prefers the most sordid surroundings. I try to be generous and to think that the picture I get from Flaubert in Egypt is not that kind of corruption, but merely the silliness of youth. But I can't convince even myself.
But Flaubert in Egypt also helps us to understand Flaubert as a writer. Before describing The Bee, Flaubert shoots off to the seemingly irrelevant blindfolding of the two musicians. Before we read about the dance of La Triestina's friend, we read in seemingly irrelevant detail how she twisted the top of her skirt below her waist.
Read one of Flaubert's famous novels after those descriptions. The devil is in the details, the descriptions.
Flaubert does not seem to penetrate deeply into the souls of his protagonists, either real or imaginary. They are not complex people. He himself was probably too shallow to create a complex human being. But here also, the devil is in the description. His characters are not real people who existed. Even the ones who did. But they are vivid enough so that they could have existed.
Neither Flaubert nor the translator spare any effort to make this book as filthy as possible, both in content and language. Which also says quite a bit about Flaubert the man.
Empson, William. Seven Types of Ambiguity. Norton, 1966.
Mr. Empson spends much of this book apologizing. Most of his apologies are for expounding meanings in a way which the reader might think forced. Indeed, Mr. Empson has good reason to apologize. His interpretations are both forced and nitpicking. They rarely add anything to either one's pleasure from the poems or one's understanding of them.
Mr. Empson's objects are the classics of English poetry. He occasionally makes an astute remark himself, but most of his constructive contributions are from Dr. Johnson and the other classics of criticism.
Not all hyper-academic criticism of poetry is bad. The French have developed it into a skilled and useful craft, if not an art. It's therefore hard to pin down the reason that the Seven Types is as bad as it is. Partly because the language is rigid. Partly, perhaps, because structure responds to this type of treatment better than meaning does: the poet probably really intended the devices discovered by the explication de texte, especially since he came from the same background as the critic; as Mr. Empson himself frequently reminds us, it is often doubtful whether the poet thought of the pearls of meaning which the critic shows us here.
Very few successful critics have been academics by profession.
Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen: A Life.
I began reading in the hopes that it was either a biography or a literary biography of Jane Austen. It is neither. It is a feminist biography.
In her innocent work for The Cause, Ms. Tomalin finds it necessary to create a Jane Austen who was oppressed, and whose oppression resulted in a properly wholesome nastiness:
The most striking aspect of Jane's adult letters is their defensiveness.... [M]ostly you are faced with the hard shell, and sometimes a claw is put out, and a sharp nip is given to whatever offends.
"The most striking aspect"? - "defensiveness"? This may or may not be true, but it is not obvious to all of us who read Jane Austen for pleasure, not politics. Perhaps Ms. Tomalin could have persuaded us, had she made any attempt to do so. But like many politicians, she has trouble understanding that there could possibly be an opinion in the world different from her own. So there is noone to persuade.
The same can be said of Ms. Tomalin's endless repetition of the claim that the traditional marriage is prostitution, a crass exchange of sex for money. Maybe it is sad that she has never known anyone who entered a happy and conventional marriage with the non-commercial intentions, but I don't understand why I have to suffer for her ignorance.
Tomalin also adduces her memories of Psychology 1a as facts too obvious to need explanation, much less evidence. Her powers of medical diagnosis based on two-hundred-year-old silences are miraculous.
Sun Tzu (Gagliardi, Gary, trans.). The Art of War (in Sun Tzu's Own Words). Clearbridge Publishing, 1999.
It has become a commonplace that every artwork - and by extension every work of human endeavor - has a context. Often this claim is an excuse for the moral relativism or sloppy work of the person making it. In the case of Sun Tzu's Art of War, however, the question of context is impossible to ignore.
The Art of War was written as a as a how-to book for generals in a society which treated generalship with contempt, but which valued books highly. It has recently become a darling of a generation which is addicted to how-to books, but likes them dressed up in exotic clothes. They often adapt it to the world of entrepreneurship.
Sun Tzu's book is certainly not fine literature, and will probably add little to one's understanding of Chinese culture. However, it may help one to understand the genre itself, and the new genre created by its adoption by the West.
This is an odd edition, admittedly designed by an advertising man, and translated by him with the help of machines. Whether because of its production history or in spite of it, the book is good-looking. On the left is a page of Chinese, with a word-for-word translation, and on the right is a translation to idiomatic English.
There are no obvious disasters in the idiomatic English, and I've always been a great fan of dual language editions. They are a good way of both understanding a book written in a language one knows moderately and of improving one's knowledge of that language.
Goodison, Lucy, and Morris, Christine, eds. Ancient Goddesses: The Myths and the Evidence. U. of Wisconsin Press, 1998.
This collection is about two systems of myth which revolve around an old archaeological shibboleth: the Great Mother and her friends. The first system of myth started in the depths of prehistory and has left traces to this very day. If it ever existed at all. That is the big question. The second system of myth got off to a slow start towards the end of the Nineteenth Century and had become a craze in some circles by about 1960. That craze is most definitely alive and well today.
I doubt that any of the articles here will excite anyone who has thought seriously about the first question. There is much listing and classification of material, but the conclusions are pretty obvious:
1. Strange (to us) images of naked women are not in themselves evidence of the cult of a mother goddess. The necessary supporting evidence is lacking, and probably always will be, though our chances of making a little sense of the story will improve if anyone ever deciphers Linear A.
2. Strange (to us) images of naked women are not necessarily fertility charms. The necessary supporting evidence....
3. While on the subject, the two editors, in their own article on the Minoan ladies, could have pointed out that expensively dressed women sitting in a row and chatting are not overpowering evidence of a matriarchal society.
Most of what's written here on these questions is competent, though all of the authors occasionally fall into the pits they are warning us about. They at least give will help beginners avoid some of the more obvious traps. It's worth noting that (once again) the editors seem to be among the few non-specialists who seem to have noticed that the interpretations of god-names in the Linear B documents are far from certain. I wish they would notice the related problems in the interpretation of Sumerian and even Akkadian texts.
Westenholz' throwaway about btlt might be of great help to translators of the Bible and other ancient Semitic texts in general. It's too bad that none of them will ever see it. I wonder what she has against "maiden", though.
Much of the discussion of the second myth-system consists of feminist cant, as does some of the first. Let's let the authors speak for themselves:
In much of the more popularized literature - which includes the uncritical inclusion of Venus figurine interpretations in introductory archaeology texts, twentieth-century sexist notions of gender and sexuality are all read into the cultural traces of 'our ancestors': the male-female sex and gender bipolarity, the primary association of the female with reproduction and fertility, the conflation of anatomical sex with gender, and the assumption that these images are unambiguously about female-ness of a limited nature.
Ancient Goddesses increases one's respect for Frazer, both as a cultural artifact and as literature.
Coomaraswamy, Ananda. The Dance of Shiva: Fourteen Indian Essays.
This is a collection of essays on Indian philosophy, on the history of Indian art and on Indian iconology, and on some Indian social problems.
Coomaraswamy is an apologist. He can find no fault either with the caste system, which he praises profusely, or with the traditional treatment of women in India. It is hardly surprising that the only Western entities which he praises are the Nietzschean concepts of the "superman" and the "will to power".
Coomaraswamy makes repeated haunted-house attacks on his own caricature of Western "Industrialism", without ever discussing his complaints.
Much of his praise for Indian - as opposed to Western - culture is based on just the sort of vague and sugary lip-service to "spirituality" which Naipaul warns us about.
The chapters on Hindu and Buddhist art are much better. His gives quick introductions to the evolution of Hindu and Buddhist attitudes to the visual arts. He also has two good introductory chapters on traditional Hindu aesthetics.
more bad books. . .
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