More Good Books. . .
Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey.
Let's ignore the most important facts about Jane Austen as a novelist, and talk about what might be called the 'subject' of this book.
This is a novel about novels. Miss Austen is constantly emphasizing how unsuccessful her heroine is as the heroine of a novel. Her main problem is that nothing very novelistic ever happens to her, though her lack of 'heroism' is also a fault. One of the more important almost-events of this book (like most good fiction, it has few events), Catherine's suspicions of General Tilney, is the direct result of the lady's living more in novels than reality.
Miss Austen refers explicitly to this novel itself several times, apostrophizing the reader most modernly, ironically, and unabashedly. The book includes both apostrophes and dialogs on the virtue of reading novels. (George Steiner also considers the reading of fiction an important part of a liberal education. Suppose we take their word for it: why should it be so?)
Some personage at Penguin Books wrote that, "Jane Austen (1775-1817) is often regarded as the greatest of English women novelists...". Almost as good as the nineteenth-century critic who called her a "husband-hunting butterfly". Where do they find these turkeys?
Kline, Morris. Mathematics in Western Culture. Oxford, 1965.
Kline's book doesn't have a very high idea density, but it's a lot better than the other sort-of histories-of-mathematics I've seen. Mathematics in Western Culture includes the same historical data as Hogben's book, with less mathematical detail.
Kline is at his best dealing with the influence of mathematics on society in general, which he saw as his main point, and with the philosophy of mathematics and of science. He not only manages to avoid the confusion between scientific law and laws of causality, common even (especially?) among scientists, but discusses the relationship between them several times at length. He is also good on the influence of mathematics on religion since the Enlightenment. His discussion of the relationship between mathematics and eighteenth-century poetry seems a little extreme; his earlier discussion of the influence of mathematics on Renaissance painting, for example, is much more well balanced.
Occasionally, even Kline gets caught up in the professional scientist's need to say that there are no big problems with the current theory. His presentation of the motion-and-rest problem is quite clear, but he attempts to solve it in a way which my three-year-old wouldn't swallow.
Despite the many dubious and poorly understood assumptions that lay at the foundation of late nineteenth-century physics, no group of scientists in any age was ever more cocksure that it had discovered the laws of the universe.
There were only two really big problems. The first was that the numbers almost fit, but not quite. This even the physicists could see. The second was that much of their physics was based on an occult force of which we know the how much, but not the how. That only fools could see.
Remind you of something?
Lafayette, Marie-Madeleine de (Madame de La Fayette). The Princess of Cleves. Norton, 1994.
It's surprising how little attention this book gets in the general histories of the novel and of Western literature. It's also surprising that it's not more popular as a real reading book, i. e., when one ignores the illusion of popularity created by the fact that it has been stuffed down the throats of French school-children for generations. In keeping with Eliot's comment on the function of poetry, The Princess of Cleves is a work of great beauty, but has enough other virtues as well to keep its beauty alive.
It has its technical faults, and these have indeed been discussed for the last three hundred years: The coincidence by which M. de Nemours overhears the confession in the pavilion, almost the only actual event in the book, is ridiculous, and M. de Cleves' instant assumption of his wife's betrayal is psychologically improbable.
But one can forgive a lot to a book which has everything: It's a great pleasure to read, it's 'the beginning of the modern psychological novel' (a French blurbiste), and it fits Shaw's definition of the most modern stage of drama, in which the only action is the discussion of ideas.
The many doubts surrounding the book's authorship should give both feminists and anti-feminists plenty of opportunities to distort the facts. But we'll just read it for fun.
Escher, Maurits Cornelis. The Graphic Work of M. C. Escher.
Although the reproductions here are numerous, large, and good, the importance of this book comes much from the text which Escher wrote for it. He describes in detail his artistic development, both from the aesthetic and technical points of view. He also analyzes the individual illustrations in detail.
Of course, Escher's own remarks help enormously in understanding his work. Some of his omissions are also interesting. He seems to attach relatively little importance to his early, non-mathematical works. Like many artists, he also seems occasionally to 'miss' aspects of his work which others see.
As expected, Escher can be humorous, with a happy humor. On Belvedere:
The lad sitting on the bench... gazes thoughtfully at this incomprehensible object and seems oblivious to the fact that the belvedere behind him has been built in the same impossible style.... is it any wonder that noone in this company can be bothered about the fate of the prisoner in the dungeon...?
John E. Brigham's translation is very readable, though it occasionally seems wrong and occasionally leaves one wondering.
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James, Marquis. Andrew Jackson: Portrait of a President.
Unlike Schlesinger, Marquis has no broad vision and does not create deep characters. What he does manage to do is to adduce a great deal of detail from the primary sources on the day-to-day political goings-on of the time. Sometimes, as in the case of Jackson himself, he manages to produce a good impression of character in that way. Marquis also interpolates some observations which we wouldn't have noticed from Schlesinger's book, such as the traditions until the run-up to Jackson's first, unsuccessful, election campaign that the candidate did not actively and openly seek office, and that noone formed political alliances with personal enemies. The degree to which duels were used to settle political disputes was also news to me.
One also finds here details of the innuendos about Mrs. Jackson, and of what is apparently the truth about Peggy Eaton, of a kind that Schlesinger was too delicate to discuss. In both morality and literature, Schlesinger was probably right. As a historian, he may have a problem.
The blow-by-blow detail of the war between Jackson and Biddle is important, though Schlesinger's version is easier to understand and makes better reading.
Some books about Andrew Jackson at amazon.com
Muller, Herbert J. The Uses of the Past: Profiles of Former Societies.
This is yet another ethical approach to history. While some parts of it form merely a humanist manifesto, and some consist of dated post-war warnings against a mindless revival of religion in the West, Muller still has some things to say. He makes the obvious but elusive claim that we are not forced into either pure moral and logical relativism or pure scientific dogmatism: there is no reason that one can't claim that some unproven opinions are better than others.
He includes a lot of good history. Although he often presents claims and opinions as facts, he usually does so on minor points. He repeats, for example, Procopius famous comment about Theodora as a fact, and without the implication which Procopius himself supplies that he wasn't too sure about the details, and how bad they really were. On the other hand, his descriptions of the bases and the history of the Jewish religion are accurate, for better and worse. They will probably antagonize most readers.
Muller doesn't avoid tension and contradiction in trying to get at the truth. He is willing to juxtapose the liveliness and engagement of the modern city dweller with his shallowness. He points out that the most honest intellectuals of the Enlightenment were the reactionary religious, who were willing to face up to the problems of society without blind optimism. He discusses in detail the stylistic differences between Western and Communist corruption.
A lot of good points, even if his special pleading for liberalism sometimes annoys.
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Goldstein, David, ed. The Jewish Poets of Spain, 900-1250.
These are translations of Medieval Hebrew poetry from Spain. Mr. Goldstein has chosen only the best. Most of the them are both excellent poetry and competent translations.
One egregious exception I found, on a casual check, was in a poem by Ibn Gabirol. The translation, referring to a piece of fruit, reads:
On both sides it blushes like a young girl
At the first touch of my hand on her breast.
The problems are with the words translated as "young girl" and "breast". I have never seen "kalah" as "young girl". In the context it clearly means 'bride', its normal meaning. (The other one is irrelevant.) Replace the "young girl" of the translation by "my bride", and you get a completely different poem. Almost the one Rabbi Solomon Ibn Gabirol wrote. I see what drove the translator to do what he did, with honest intentions, but he is wrong, and this is the way hairbrained religious propaganda starts. "Breast" makes things worse. In modern English, it is almost always the singular of 'breasts', and has powerful sexual connotations. The Hebrew heiq is certainly a difficult word to translate, but its most common connotation is some part of the trunk of the body when serving as a receptacle, often vaguely paralleling English "lap". The meaning here may be 'breast', and I couldn't have solved the problem any better, but it makes the previous mistake worse.
Similarly, his translation of Ibn Gabirol's "I am the man...", on some unspecified obstacle in the way of Wisdom, is so disjointed as to be incomprehensible, although Goldstein's footnotes show that he understood the poem: the problem is in the translation. Similarly, his translation of "time" as "Fate" in Moses Ibn Ezra's "The Coming of Spring" makes the whole incomprehensible.
Goldstein's introduction to Medieval Spanish-Jewish poetry is the worst I have ever seen. The main thing, though, is the poetry.
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Vollard, Ambroise. Renoir: An Intimate Record. Dover, 1990.
This is a short collection of conversations on art between Vollard and Renoir, as Vollard recollects them. There are some interesting and important points here:
Renoir on Les Fleurs du mal: "I detest that book above all others! I have no idea who brought that here...."
Renoir quoting Delacroix:
"'Give me some mud, and I will paint you a woman's flesh'[.]
V.: By that he meant it to be understood that the complementaries should be added, did he not? At least so the critics say.
R.: Please don't ascribe things to Delacroix that he never even thought of!... [W]hy, when he was painting the ceiling of the Chamber of Deputies, an employé of the library tried to compliment him by saying:
'Master, you are the Victor Hugo of painting.'
And Delacroix returned dryly:
'You don't know what you're talking about, my dear friend! I'm a classicist, pure and simple.'"
Even though I have no interest in what Simonetta Vespucci looked like without her clothes on, Renoir, the painter of "pretty girls" in a special pattern, is a special case. It would be nice to know something about the models' personalities and Renoir's relationship with them. On that point, the book is a little disappointing and the models very much so, although Renoir is not.
Much of this book is on technique, both the technique of painting and the technique of learning painting. Artists may also find it useful.
Whatever that means.
Huxley, Aldous. Texts and Pretexts: An Anthology of Poetry with Commentaries. Flamingo, 1994.
As the book's titles suggest, this seems to be mostly an anthology of Huxley's favorite poems, with a few of his un-favorite poems. As an anthology it is mostly very good; he had good taste.
Many of the comments seem to be more incidental remarks on life than comments on the poetry. Some of them are on poetry. Most of them left me cold. A few, however, are good, like the distinction between Baudelaire's importation of his dream-world into his life and the construction of a dream-world outside of life, or the division of all love-poetry into the descriptive and the symbolic.
Huxley also discusses a few strangely recurring minor themes in poetry, such as polygamy and anti-clericalism, and the reasons for them, and some easily overlooked major ones, such as distraction and the will-less world.
Warnke, Frank J., ed. John Donne: Poetry and Prose. Modern Library, 1967.
One could find a lot of bones to pick with John Donne, even after the eighteenth-century anti-metaphysicals were finished with him. His comparisons, even when not metaphysical, are both far-fetched and abstruse. He always finds a way to divide lines at the point in the sentence which will most unnerve: between simple predicate and direct object will do; between subject and simple predicate is even better. Best of all, between a preposition and its argument.
But he is the best. It's not easy to say why, but we might as well try. His wild figures include synaesthesias and unifications of thought which are so natural as to seem necessary in the post-Baudelairean world. They are or have become our real perceptions.
Donne's comparisons of his love, for example, with medieval property laws arouse an increasing curiosity which arouse us even from the literary coma which we have been in since we were wheeled out of ninth-grade English.
Warnke's edition has an excellent and rare selection of both the poetry and prose. His introduction gives a lot of historical detail, but mostly misses the point. T. S. Eliot gets it in three or four pages. Of course. His notes are sometimes helpful, sometimes a little one-sided (and maybe wrong).
Wolfram, Eddie, and Larkin, David, eds. Magritte. Ballantine, 1972.
Somebody once wrote:
SURREALISM: A superstylistic movement in the representational arts characterized by sharp delineation and precise depiction of detail, and by distortions of context (Magritte, Escher, Borges) and of basic natural features (Dali, Marquez). Most artists belong to both groups. The intention seems to be to produce a heightened perceptual awareness of reality as a whole, and thus a heightened emotional awareness, by the juxtaposition of the superreal and the impossible. The practitioners tend to deep but sometimes subtle social criticism.
Maybe yes, maybe no.
In the introduction to this book, Eddie Wolfram points out that Magritte never felt himself bound by Surrealist dogma, and never enslaved himself totally to Freud in his explorations of human drives. Maybe those are two of the reasons that Magritte's work is more beautiful, and sometimes more cutting, than that of most of the surrealists.
Other books about Magritte.
more Good Books. . .
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