More Good Books. . .
Baudelaire, Charles (Wallace Fowlie, tr.). Flowers of Evil and Other Works / Les Fleurs du Mal Et Oeuvres Choisies: A Dual-Language Book. Dover, 1992.
Mr. Rendall said that the twentieth century began in 1857. Let's try to guess what he meant, since he's not here to defend himself anyway. There's a self-consciousness to twentieth-century literature which was not here before: at what length and with how much emphasis do Shakespeare or Donne write explicitly about themselves? Even Whitman is not as explicit about his own feelings as Baudelaire is.
But many will say that an author's importance is determined not by his relationship to the general mood of the age, but by his influence on his successors. One is tempted to say that Baudelaire had an enormous influence on the symbolists, the surrealists, and all of the other ists not only in his unabashed self-consciousness, but in the relationships among the poet, his inner world, and the outer world. This is just a feeling, though; I have no idea how to demonstrate it.
The advertising people and the know-nothings are at their worst with Baudelaire. Somebody at Dover wrote: "Influential poems notorious for eroticism, themes of lesbianism, morbidity and rebellion". For some reason I remember Les Fleurs du Mal better than any other poems, yet I can think of only one or two, and vaguely, which even hint at lesbianism. Apparently the esteemed author of the blurb considers any dissatisfaction with the routines of industrial life signs of morbidity and rebellion. (As did the police-court judge of Napoleon III. But then I don't understand that either.) As to eroticism, the only poor taste I can find in the whole story is that of the gentleman at Dover, who uses a word whose emotional connotations are inappropriate, and just plain wrong. Perhaps the poet's own remark on the subject of one of the poems would be in order:
The judges though that they discovered a meaning both violent and obscene in the last two stanzas. The gravity of this collection excludes such frivolities. But "venom", signifying spleen and melancholy, was too simple a concept for criminologists.
May their... interpretation rest on their conscience!
The gentleman from Dover, though, seems to have much deeper understanding of poetry than a certain (miserable) translator of Baudelaire into Modern Hebrew, who states that the poet "had a low IQ"! Considering Baudelaire's vocabulary, his knowledge of the arts in general, his control over language, and his common sense (Yes, that's what I said!), I wish I could persuade myself that the gentleman was just joking about the concept of IQ.
Enough bile, though. The point is indeed Baudelaire's use of language and form, and his ability to recreate a in the reader a world at once emotionally overwhelming and pleasant, like the subjects of which he writes.
Adams, Henry. The Education of Henry Adams.
I'm not sure what Adams really intended in this book. His preface makes it sound as if the book were a guide to higher self-education. If so, I can't understand its conclusions.
Much of the book reads like a memoir, the memoir of a man personally involved in many of the revolutionary events of his age. Among the more stimulating parts are the extensive section on British monoeuvering during the American Civil War, Adams' discussion of the corruption of the Grant administration, and the theses on the logical basis of science.
"This is a mysterious book." Perhaps it is best understood as one of the author's notebooks.
Johnson, Paul. A History of the Jews. HarperCollins, 1988.
This is the best general history of the Jews which I have read. It tends to emphasize the relationships between the Jews and the non-Jewish cultures, in both directions. It especially emphasizes the natures of the different anti-Semitisms, without being either whiney or trying to prettify the facts.
Johnson holds several positions which he doesn't support by facts, and which seem to result from his prejudices: his opposition to the "rigorists" of the premodern periods, and to anyone whose view of religion is not outwardly rationalistic are good examples. These prejudices seem to result from a lack of understanding which in turn results from his standing completely outside the culture being discussed.
He also presents some theses and makes some remarks which are unusual in their objectivity, such as those on the relationship between the religious and anti-religious in the State of Israel, and the relationships among the various political groups, both 'Jewish' and Arab, under the British Mandate in Palestine. This lack of prejudice seems to result from his standing completely outside the culture being discussed.
McCormick, Joseph, et al. Level 4: Virus Hunters of the CDC. Turner Publishing, 1996.
This is a sort of Hot Zone written largely by the professionals themselves. It mostly deals with the authors' adventures doing field research on viral hemorrhagic fevers.
The authors have called this a "dual narrative". It is interesting to compare the parts by the two authors, to the extent that their contributions can be identified. Fisher-Hoch's world seems to be divided into saints who can do no wrong and evil-doers who can do no right. She tends to carp at her associates and at circumstances, and her attitude toward her readers tends to the 'If you don't agree with me you know nothing' variety: 'Don't argue with me, I'm a doctor!'
McCormick seems somewhat more openminded and more human. His humanity sometimes even extends to his patients.
Usually, clinical trials required a "control group" - patients who would be given a placebo.... The trouble is that half the patients go untreated in a controlled trial. With Lassa fever, we knew that many untreated patients would die. Because the laboratory data looked promising, our committee had determined that we should not use an untreated group in our study.
Compare this, from Science, referring to similar research in developing countries:
Bloom, however, implies that placebo trials and trials that do not treat HIV-positive volunteers are ethical in developing, but not developed, countries. ...it may sometimes be ethical to refer HIV-positive volunteers to their local health service, even when available treatment is "substandard."
I guess that in those days, the scientific establishment did not yet understand that poor people from the Southern Hemisphere are expendable.
The proofreading seems a little odd. Many typos, and somebody here seems to think that "watershed" means something like 'turning point' and that "serendipity" means something like 'luck'.
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Brooke, Christopher N. L. From Alfred to Henry III, 871-1272. Norton, 1966.
'Narrative histories' are called "narrative histories". I'm not sure what this kind is called. It's the plain old-fashioned type, spanning a few hundred years, and consisting mostly of chapters on the succession and innovations of various kings. Interspersed among them are chapters on social and cultural history.
The period that Brooke writes about is certainly an important one for anyone who belongs to an English-speaking culture. Some of the main characters are also interesting people, though it's not easy to get to know them in a short book of such wide range.
The Middle Ages seem to have a particular fascination for the people of the end of the Twentieth Century. Perhaps their world really does remind us of ours, though finding the similarity takes more concentration than it did when Barbara Tuchman wrote about it.
Brooke writes well.
Wilson, Edmund. The Bit Between My Teeth: A Literary Chronicle of 1950-1965.
More of the articles in The Bit Between My Teeth are concerned with language than are those of Classics and Commercials. "My Fifty Years with Dictionaries and Grammars" is full of both interesting information and hilarious quotations. Several of the articles, however, are English-teacher querulous. Wilson does not always seem to understand that the rules of a language are determined by the 'educated speakers' of that language, not by his third-grade teacher. (Many even argue with the "educated", but we'll settle for Sapir's formulation for the moment.) Sometimes Wilson seems not to even have seen some of the standard works on English.
Many of the other articles are good. I found the article on Holmes and Laski particularly entertaining, and was happy to see Justice Holmes predate me in my opinion of Walden.
It's somehow depressing that this learned gentleman used to beat at least one of his wives, and in other works saw some need to write about his sexual exploits in clinical detail.
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Cole, Toby, ed. Playwrights on Playwriting: The Meaning and Making of Modern Drama from Ibsen to Ionesco . Hill and Wang, 1961.
This is an anthology of works by modern playwrights on modern playwriting. In fact, much of it is concerned with the polemics between "realism" and anti-realism. Despite the subtitle, it starts well before Ibsen, at least stylistically well before Ibsen.
Some of the contributions are important, some are both important and surprising. Ibsen gives the clearest explanation I have seen of what Ibsen is trying to do since Shaw. It is even more surprising that Ibsen's is the simpler of the two. Brecht has many good technical comments (not very surprising), and some important things to say about character. He also has a long section on entertainment as the primary purpose of theater. His article also includes the expected Bourse-Marxist jabberings and sub-Freudian twitterings.
The second part of this book consists of articles by the playwrights on specific works of their own. Ionesco's work looks better after seeing why he wrote it than when looking at it as part of a school.
Barrow, John D., and Silk, Joseph. The Left Hand of Creation: The Origin and Evolution of the Expanding Universe.
Ever since I saw what George Steiner says about the impossibility of someone like me understanding anything about modern cosmology, I feel guilty about reading books like this. Especially when I see in what gross contempt the authors of many of them hold me for even trying.
This book covers much of the same ground as The First Three Minutes, whose style I prefer. Barrow's and Silk's book is also readable, but their attempts to make things simple merely by using short words and short sentences don't work as well as Weinberg's explanations. Barrow and Silk often left me up in the air.
Barrow and Silk are not nearly as extreme in their prejudices as Hawking, and therefore make fewer mistakes in metaphysics, but they still have the prejudices of their profession, including that which holds that in their profession they have no prejudices.
"Unlike philosophers and writers, scientists have no reason for political or emotional attachment to their theories."
How about the fact that nobody likes to be proven wrong in an idea to which he has devoted much of his life? Even if we ignore the "emotional", and pay attention only to the "political", why are the authors so sure that scientist are more selflessly dedicated to the truth than philosophers, or poets?
Austen, Jane (Le Faye, Deirdre, ed.). Jane Austen's Letters.
Both editors of this edition feel a powerful need to apologize, and they are both right.
The twenty-one year-old Jane Austen who begins this book thinks of nothing but her dancing-partners and the color of her dresses. The forty-two year-old who closes the book thinks often about the price of cloth and the price of tea.
The most interesting parts of the book are Miss Austen's references to her own and others' novels:
What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited Sketches, full of Variety and Glow? - How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces so little effect after much labour?
Also her few letters giving love-advice to her Austenesque young relatives. The letters are also useful for forming a picture of the world in which the author lived, the world of which she wrote in her novels. They will also be useful to people with an interest in the language of that world.
Whitman, Walt. (Van Doren, Mark, and Cowley, Malcolm, eds.). The Portable Walt Whitman. Viking, 1977.
The Portable Walt Whitman is a large collection of Whitman's poetry and prose.
Part of Whitman's importance is historical. Baudelaire also turned romanticism into something new, but Baudelaire, in the hands of his followers, degenerates into symbolism and then plain pointlessness. Whitman went off in a completely different direction. He wrote not about the invasion of the individual by the swirling world, but about a more symmetric union between the self and the world. Perhaps the real blossoms of evil were here, not in Baudelaire, but it was a line which was to be very fruitful in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Whitman tends to divide the human race completely and absolutely into male and female:
Souls of men and women, it is not you I call unseen,
Master of all or mistress of all, aplomb in the midst of irrational things,
The expression of the body of man or woman balks account,
The male is perfect and that of the female is perfect.
I hear somebody ask: Isn't it obvious that the human race is normally divided completely and absolutely into male and female? Is it, indeed?
more Good Books. . .
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