More Good Books. . .
Schweitzer, Albert. On the Edge of the Primeval Forest.
Those who've read Albert Schweitzer's Out of My Life and Thought will probably admit that the strange Alsatian really was a great humanitarian and a great human being. This is what makes his attitudes toward the "natives" even more interesting and more enlightening as a reflection of his times and background. Dr. Schweitzer seems not only to have been incapable of understanding that the use of force to extract labor from the "natives" for the overt and admitted benefit of other people was bad, but he also seems to have been incapable of perceiving that there's at least a moral question here.
The positive side of the same coin is the simple directness with which he writes of the universal dishonesty of the locals. Today he could not have written such politically incorrect descriptions and analyses, however true they may have been.
Contact with the Europeans strained the subsistence culture of the Ogowe area beyond its limits. This strain caused the dislocation of much of the male population, which in turn strained social and family structures. Schweitzer wrote about these processes with an insight and honesty which have become rare now that the AIDS epidemic has made discussion of them both politically sensitive and critically important.
This little book is still important, but most readers will enjoy Out of My Life and Thought more.
Euripides (William Arrowsmith, tr.). The Bacchae. University of Chicago, 1969.
Paradoxically, The Bacchae is the easiest Greek tragedy for the modern reader to appreciate, and thus the most suited as an introduction.
At first glance, the other tragedies should be easier, since they deal more overtly with social questions and questions of interpersonal relations. However, their modernity is an illusion: Family loyalty and loyalty to state have much less significance for us than they did for the Greeks. We hardly think in terms of fate. And the moral themes are not the only problem; we find the comments by the chorus an unnecessary distraction.
A casual guess would also tell us that The Bacchae is even more irrelevant to most moderns. Religion is not that important to us, if at all, and ecstatic religion certainly not. But that is also an illusion. Many of us, aside from having our own religions, still feel surrounded by something big and mysterious, something which makes demands on us which conflict with our rationalism. And in that context neither the lyricism nor the didacticism of the chorus is superfluous. (The style of the translation may be important here: I was happy with Arrowsmith's.)
The proof of the pudding is in my seven-year-old, who after hearing most of The Bacchae, repeatedly demanded to be shown pictures of maenads, and later, when he overheard a description of a nymph, asked if they looked like maenads.
Gaskell, Elizabeth Cleghorn. Cranford. Oxford, 1998.
Mrs. Gaskell is yet another lady whose popularity, once great, has returned for political reasons.
I'll admit right now that I think that her books are worth reading as books, and not only as pamphlets. As to why they're worth reading, I'll get to that in a few lines. First I'd like to say what sort of book Cranford is.
As a novel in the almost-modern sense, a story centered on character, Cranford is at best borderline. It is barely possible to attribute some human characteristics to Mrs. Gaskell's figures by reading between the lines. As a comedy of manners, the book is even less successful. The irony is heavy-handed, and the remaining attempts at humor are even worse: "... she knew, and we knew, and she knew that we knew, and we knew that she knew that we knew...".
Cranford is successful as a morality. Mrs. Gaskell dares to prefer the good over the bad, even though the good is rarely available in absolutely pure form. She also knows how to find the dignity and importance in human life, even in that state which Early Modern Britain thought to be the most pitiful form of human life, the life of an old maid living in genteel poverty.
Would anybody read Cranford if it weren't included in the final? Maybe. Will those people who read it enjoy it? Some of it, when they're not too bored. Will they be better for having read it? If a single novel can improve a human being.
James, William. Pragmatism and Other Writings. Penguin, 2000.
There are many books which will point out the claimed superiority of science over religion is based largely on the cliche known as Ockham's Razor, which itself has little more to recommend it than the aesthetic tastes of a Fourteenth Century monk. Systems which stand on a smaller and more elegant base may indeed be prettier, but why should we assume that they are more accurate descriptions of the real world? There are also many books which will point out that the old Aristotelean goal of understanding the world in terms of commonsense ideas of truth and evidence has been abandoned as hopeless by modern science. What is special about William James' version of these claims is his willingness to emphasize and compare both these weaknesses of the underpinnings of science and the corresponding weaknesses, at least for most of the thinkers of our generations, of the underpinnings of religion. His rather accidental conclusion is to create a version of Truth which is no worse - and no different - than that admitted by serious scientists from his time to ours, and which yet leaves some place for religion in those fields where science is unlikely to provide emotional or intellectual satisfaction (except for people who like reading catalogs).
James, of course, would not have seen his lectures on Pragmatism in this light, and they can still be read as an introduction to a school of philosophy by people interested in the history of such things.
Most of the other lectures in this book are still of interest both for their philosophical content, and for the glimpses which they give into the history of ideas (as opposed to the history of philosophy). Many of them may also be useful for those poor benighted souls who still believe that one of the purposes of their studying philosophy is their own moral improvement.
Enthusiasts of Henry James will no doubt enjoy comparing his brother's violently ambivalent attitudes toward American culture.
Sand, George. La Mare au Diable.
George Sand is a political bombshell, and deciding what to say about her is a delicate business. She was certainly popular in her own time, and some Nineteenth-Century critics took her seriously. Until the 1960s, no Twentieth-Century critics did, and she was unread, as she is to this very day, if one ignores the politicians. Then, in the 1960s, the Feminist lecturers decided that she had been unfairly "marginalized" because she was a woman, and a rather problematic one at that.
Still, it might be worth braving the wrath of uncrazed anti-maenads and trying to decide honestly whether she was a great author, or a good one, or a nobody. The job is even harder because in La Mare au Diable she's a hard line Romantic, and though a few people may still read Romantic prose, nobody writes it, and we've gotten out of the Romantic habit.
My instinct was to compare her with Merimee. She can't survive the comparison, but then, how many writers of stories can? How about comparing her with Nerval? (Okay, so he wasn't really a Romantic, but I've seen people call him one, and the differences won't bother us here.) Again, she can't survive it. Merimee and Nerval are haunting. Between readings last time around, I remembered the Venus d'Ille and Sylvie, in general and in detail, for fifteen years or so. Do I care about Germain today?
George Sand is thoroughly forgettable, which means that she probably wasn't a great writer. Was she a competent one? If I run into another book of hers, will I read it for pleasure? Depends on what my choices are, I suppose.
Troyes, Chretien de. Perceval: The Story of the Grail.
There are many reasons to read Chretien de Troyes today. For better or worse, the Arthur stories and their accessories have echoes throughout Western culture, from Wagner to children's toys. In the last few decades, pseudo-Medievalism (like pseudo-Paganism) has become fashionable in certain sets. So one might as well try to learn what one is talking about by reading some of the genuine contemporary versions. 'Contemporary with what?' you ask. Contemporary with the society we imagine when we think about these subjects.
My first reaction to Perceval was one common among modern readers. It wasn't nearly as bad as I expected it to be.
I'm not sure that Perceval really has a plot, but the sequence of events produces a pleasant emotional noise like that of many romances and action movies. There are causal relationships among many of the many events, and in any case it's not completely fair to talk about the plot of a book which was never finished.
The characterizations are not deep, but the characters have some human emotions. The poetry is not great or memorable, but there are some passingly good descriptions.
The style is not only surprisingly readable, but also amazingly decent. Although sex is mentioned, it is mentioned rather obliquely, and I imagine that very few parents would prefer to have their children read the comic book versions of the knight errant stories. The pitiful and not very attractive damzels are probably closer to the reality than the deep-hearted beauties whom we have inherited from later and better poets.
Feminists who read Perceval will no doubt start whining about woman-as-object. In this case, I'm afraid that I'd be forced to agree with them.
Other Editions and Related Books
Mantel, Hilary. Fludd. Owl Books, 2000.
Fludd has almost everything which a novel should have. It has a real plot. (The plot is rather transparent, letting you see each development coming long before it's officially announced, but since when did that make a difference? It still doesn't seem quite proper to tell you too much in advance, though. The author does try to create some mystery.) There are real characters about whom the reader cares. The author seems to take positions on important moral questions. And like all of the best artworks, the novel is constructed with plenty of echoes and mirrors, both inside itself and to the rest of our culture; it hardly misses an opportunity.
So does it have no faults? None worth speaking about, really. The humor has been applied with a trowel, and the author asks some questions which she probably shouldn't have asked if she didn't know the answers.
About the worst I can say about Fludd is that it's depressing, if you think about the what has really happened here, and how it must continue. But the author was aware of those two problems; she just seems to have come up with a different sum for the final calculation.
Sackville-West, Vita. Saint Joan of Arc. Grove Press, 2001.
I was a little worried when I started this one. Vita Sackville-West has by now turned into quite a political figure herself, and I was afraid of a harangue. It turns out, though, that her Saint Joan of Arc is a serious work about that fascinating young woman and her depressing story.
Mrs. Sackville-West discusses the both the innumerable small historical questions and the theological and clinical questions which her spiritual followers would probably be both ashamed and incapable of treating honestly. As far as the historical questions go, the author quotes extensively (but concisely) from the contemporary sources, giving both the original and translations for most of them. This is fortunate, because almost all of her conclusions, while conventional, are of the 'maybe' and 'let's then assume' variety.
Mrs. Sackville-West's modern enthusiasts will probably be shocked by her extreme prudery in writing, or as her fried Mrs. Woolf shamelessly calls it, "decency". Most of them could probably learn a lot from these two ladies about both decency and true open-mindedness, if they had any interest in doing so. The rest of us can certainly learn a lot from this book about Joan of Arc and about the historical conditions and emotional states which cause tragedies like hers. It's also exciting to read and well done in its style. But the latter was only to be expected.
Eliot, George. Middlemarch.
Real readers of novels read them because they like to. Let's just assume, for the sake of argument, that they like to because it makes them feel good. And let's assume that we feel good from them when we find support for our sense of order, or when we feel a release from things we have been forced to live through by living through them again harmlessly until we reach a satisfying conclusion.
Maybe we could say that a novelist would be then left with two options for writing a good novel. He could perfect the form, or he could work on the content, and use form only as a support.
We would then have to then say that George Eliot's greatness is the result of her content, whatever her lapses were in form. It's true that she pushes coincidence awfully far, and she does so in the crux of her plots, leaving them in a desperate state. And it's true that she can be heavy-handed with her sermons, though some modern critics' hatred for her moralizing results not from her style of doing so, but from their own hatred of the idea of morality. But George Eliot succeeds because she lets us feel ourselves and the world around us as we are, without either completely blaming us or completely releasing us from blame. We then relive our sorrows as our own fault in a way which gives us the emotional release of at least following them through until their ends. When George Eliot's characters at least partly recover from their mistakes, or their compounding of the world's mistakes, we feel that we can do the same with our own.
In that case, we enjoy George Eliot's novels by putting ourselves in the place of her characters. Nabokov said that that's bad. Nabokov's big mistake in saying so was not in thinking himself smarter than Aristotle. It was not in forgetting that there can be more than one way to write a novel, or that maybe the novelist himself sometimes forgets which kind he's writing. It was in doing these things arrogantly.
Montaigne, Michel de. Essays. Viking, 1993.
Solomon and Higgins complain that Montaigne is unduly neglected as a philosopher. Their claim seems to be unjustified, but it could be that they make it because they unabashedly hold by a wider definition of philosophy than most people do.
If philosophy has something to do with a reasoned attempt to approach the significance of life, or of something which may be very significant in life, Montaigne is not a philosopher at all. He chats about all kinds of subjects in they way one would expect of a garrulous but well bred old man. Some of his subjects - such as the education of children or freedom of thought in revealed religions may be important - but his treatment of them is not organized, and most people in the Twenty-First Century will find it banal.
So why should anyone today read Montaigne? Probably, the main reason is that one is going to hear Montaigne mentioned in every history of philosophy, and one ought to have some acquaintance with what he wrote just so as not to have to take somebody else's word for it. There are also historical justifications for reading him. From the secondary sources the student will get an exaggerated idea of the seriousness of the Renaissance; he will not realize that Castiglione is much more characteristic of the Renaissance than Descartes.
Montaigne himself tells us repeatedly that we should read his book in order to get to know him. Aside from the historical reasons for wanting to get to know how he thought, which didn't exist for the members of his own culture, it's not clear why we should want to know him. Perhaps for someone who valued civilized conversation as much as Montaigne did, a book of civilized discussions needed no other justification.
Montaigne is one of the few authors whose works can probably be best appreciated in an anthology.
more Good Books. . .
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