Monday, July 30, 2012

Moby Dick or The Whale by Herman Melville (1851) Illu.

                Many people think they have read it and haven’t, some have read part of and couldn’t finish it, and others read it when they were too young and need to reread it.
Like so many of the classics, reading something that includes so many “aged”  topics like GwtW and Moby Dick when in high school one should consider this only a first reading; the classics must be revisited after one is over 45 years of age. It is only then that some of us begin to see life differently and can read these writings with the eyes that they were written in.
80% of the book has nothing to do with The Whale. Melville was simply having a ball writing this, showing off his skills and knowledge of men, sailing, whales, and the world. It is a tremendous read not to be passed up due to its size. Published in 1851, The Whale is often slow, sometimes fast, and sometimes funny. Yes it has allegoric elements but it’s not one big endless myth; it is a story of the changing times in America human nature, and whales. Remember too that Melville was for a time a close friend of Nathaniel Hawthorn… ah to have a circle of friends that one could really look up to and learn from.

My copy from a Grosse Pointe estate sale is one of those “printed for you” versions beautifully made binding with gold leaf embossments. A 1977 printing that heralds original artwork, these are however some of the worst  renderings I can conceive of; they do not in any way enhance the story. Obviously when a publishing company hires a butcher on the cheap the result is less than desired and not worth the trip. I thought I might get a collectors printing but ran into too many choices and found that they command huge prices the greatest of which was a first printing asking about $83,000. I am very happy with this version. Later I discovered an unassuming (from the cover) version printed in 1982 that has awesome graphics by Rockwell Kent. Dozens of rendering scattered throughout all in the block print black & white style, I want to reread it just to have the pleasure of the images along with the narrative.
I love submerging into a time before long distance communications where a boat went out for three years and maybe even returned… and then to go out again, and again; it’s hard to imagine. When this book was written whaling boats and seafaring was one of the highest technologies of the day. It’s interesting that since then we have nearly fished out the seas. It seems so strange to me that the dream of 1960’s America (the one I was sold) about how good we would have it in the future, you know, flying cars and working at home, these have indeed occurred but only for the few. However we still have indentured seafarers on fishing boats in conditions no better than what Ishmael encountered. 

As for the unassuming version here are some of the renderings.  I just noticed that the drawings are from the very Rockwell Kent that so intrigued me in Candide. 

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane (1895)

                A friend of mine who had read the Red Badge in high school or earlier said “oh the boy was just a coward” this is exactly what I find about great books having been read too early in life; it is so easy to miss the point without any of life behind you and carry that missed point with you. It is not a story about a coward; it is about young person's desire for greatness and the fear, shame, and redemption of one particular soldier. I am a sucker for redemption stories having gone thru my own decent and return.

I have not come by an estate sale hardcover but did find this 1960 soft cover that is still usable.

The young man is like most in that his mind flits back and forth between self aggrandizement and self loathing in the blink of an eye. He went off to war with out much of a thought quickly began ruminating about running from the fight. After bizarre encounters with the wounded and death Henry makes his way back to his troop to face the inevitable haranguing (in his own mind) of peers. Sometimes we just wish we could shut off the internal dialog; Henry clearly can't.
By the end Henry sees himself not as the center of the world but as a cogg in the machine. At the same he feels himself a man, becoming self relient.
One has to remind oneself that Crane was 24 years old when TRBoC was published in 1895, and that he died at age 29. Acclaimed in its day TRBoC spoke to readers around the world.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Essays by Sir Francis Bacon (1627)

                Bacon is forced I suppose by his position to write in this concise legal like fashion; he certainly wasn’t writing a novel. It becomes clear that the USA and western law in general is a British construction and Bacon is acknowledged as a one of the fathers. The Essays cover every topic one can imagine it is tedious and time consuming to get thru but very short chapters make it is easy to work thru. 
Most of the world does not live in the rarefied position he held and so not all of the advice applies to us however in our tiny circles of influence the rules remain unchanged. This is one of those reads that you have to sit back and grind out, try to figure out the cadence, and the language gulf. I decided that I was not going to pick and choose but simple go thru them in order.
Essay: Of Youth and Age
                Here’s a little snippet regarding age. “Young men are fitter to invent than to judge; fitter for execution than for council; and fitter for new projects than for settled business.” This should be written across the front of some companies’ headquarters that I’m familiar with.

Bacon’s life story is possibly more interesting reading than his essays; he was an ambitious man with a rise and fall in career that rivals any intrigue.
I’m reading a simple copy printed in NYC in 1947 the 1st edition being 1597… a small 350 year offset.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemmingway (1940)

                A real page turner is the best description. Covering four days in such detail is incredible in that it often takes me weeks to get thru a book of this size. It’s an action packed thriller with everything required of a modern day movie; love, hate, violence, ideology and the details of each. The protagonist whose full name is used every time it’s mentioned is someone who is acting on his beliefs, but is constantly contemplating his life situation as well as the others around him. Its like so many great books putting the characters into situations of their own or others making that force them to act. As someone with some life experience I see a pattern in that the “cards you are dealt” may not come into focus until much later. In fact we are caught in the maelstrom of our era; it is best to see and acknowledge the winds of change for your generation ASAP.
The description by Pilar of the aftermath of Pablo’s triumphant capture of a small town haunts me often. The ominous and over bearing weight of having chosen to die is harsh and Pablo’s desire for the Robert Jordan (certain death) to go away is relatable only to one with age. Alternatively the love scenes between Robert Jordan and “little rabbit” are wonderful; stirring memories of young love that you too may have had. And too the descriptions of Pilar’s time of love in her younger days are warm and evocative.
I have a nice 1943 copy that I found at a local estate sale.

Compare For Whom the Bell Tolls & Gone with the Wind
Interesting that For Whom the Bell Tolls was published 4 years after Gone with the Wind. In one case it was the land itself and a very selfish personal preservation that motivates the protagonist while in the other the pro is purely ideological in his fight, only having an interested connection with the land and people he is willing to die for. Both stories are seen from the side of the repressed, however, the atrocities are perpetrated by both.
So Robert Jordan and Scarlet O’Hara are willing to do anything up to and including murder to achieve their goals. Yet Robert Jordan is an extreme sentimentalist and Scarlet is self absorbed to a frightening degree. We see how month by month Scarlet is turned from a self absorbed child into a self absorbed adult in roughly four years. Robert Jordan (in about four days) is transformed from an ideals driven bomb making machine into one who can finally see a long married life as a possibility. Robert Jordan becomes the reluctant leader of his band of misfits with all their baggage as does Scarlet. It is clear too that Scarlet is capable of the most basic deceits in any situation making her a true amoral survivor where as Robert Jordan maintains a fairly high moral code and is reaching for a higher social standard. Both have to constantly put things out of their minds in order to move on with whatever task is currently at hand. Interesting that in both it is the civil fight between two government ideals that that takes these stories aloft, and as usual the better funded side wins.

The Republic by Plato

                I read Book One (chapter one) over completely immediately after finishing it because of t he unusual nature of such a writing. Once you get past the non value added conversational retorts from the listeners (which to me were very distracting) it becomes easier to follow the logic of the argument. There is plenty of very relevant commentary regarding old age, young age and politics. This 1928 translation is a student hard copy, nothing spectacular but in good shape.

I had a difficult time with the use of the terms “just man and unjust man” I came to think of it as honest vs. corrupt and not as we use it in a more legal sounding way. The description of a “good politician” as having no friends seems as if it could have been written yesterday. “Observe what happens when they (the just man) takes office; he neglects his own affairs, his friends and family hate him because he won’t help them, and gets nothing from the public. Whereas the unjust man is loved by all his friends and family because he enriches them at every turn.” Being from Detroit and watching the Kilpatrick saga unfold it seems nothing has changed in the preceding 2300 years, except possibly cell phone records.

In part of The Republic Plato goes about explaining a “perfect” little society… it seems to be a “what if ““wouldn’t it be great” sort late night drunken rambling that goes astray. He throws out acceptance of variation among other things to achieve his idea of perfection. The final outcome is a class driven society that has some socialist, some fascist, and some democratic elements bundled together. His overall theme sounds like the model in which Sparta ruled under and is clearly flawed to our standards. I do not think that The Republic should be judged or dismissed based on the overall theme; the lessons are in the much smaller tangential or illustrative statements and insights into human nature, law, and society, not an exaggerated conversation inventing a societal model that appears to have spun out of control.
Some of the snippets that I really enjoy:
  • “for there is many a one who can ask, but cannot answer” p17
  • A man that commits minor injustice’s is brought up on charges and punished, but on a large enough scale is hailed as a great leader! paraphrased p28
  • “A man being his own master.” “I believe that in the human soul there is a better and also a worse principle: and when the better has the worse under control, a man is said to be master of himself; and this is a term of praise: but when, owing to evil education or association, the better principle, which is also the smaller, is overwhelmed by the greater mass of the worse… in this case he is blamed and called the slave of self, and unprincipled.” p156
  • The accumulation of gold by private individuals is the ruin of timocracy; they with wealth invent illegal modes of expenditure; for what do they care about the law? And then one, seeing the other grow rich seeks to rival him, and thus the great mass of the citizens become lovers of money. And so they grow richer and the more they think of money the less they think of virtue; for when riches and virtue are placed together in the scales of balance the one always raises as the other falls. And in proportion as riches and rich men are honored by the state virtue and the virtuous are dishonored. They next proceed to make a law that fixes a sum of money as the qualification for citizenship. p324
Plato discusses five types of regimes. They are Aristocracy, Timocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy and Tyranny. These five regimes progressively degenerate starting with Aristocracy at the top and Tyranny at the bottom.
  • Aristocracy
Aristocracy is the form of government advocated in Plato's Republic. This regime is ruled by a philosopher king, and thus is grounded on wisdom and reason.
The aristocratic state that Plato idealizes is composed of three caste-like parts: the ruling class, made up of philosophers-kings; the auxiliaries of the ruling caste, made up of soldiers, and the majority of the people, who in contrast to the two first classes are allowed to own property and produce goods for themselves. In contrast to historical aristocracies, Plato's resembles a meritocracy. In it, a big government state keeps tracks of the innate character and natural skills of the citizens' children, and then directs them to the education that best suits those traits.
  • Timocracy
Aristocracy degenerates into timocracy when, due to miscalculation on the part of its governing class, the next generation of guardians and auxiliaries includes persons of an inferior nature. In timocracy the ruling class is made up primarily of those with a warrior-like character. The governants of timocracy value power, but they seek to attain to it primarily by means of military conquest and the acquisition of honors, instead of intellectual means.
In contrast to platonic aristocrats, timocrats are allowed by their constitution to own property and thus to both accumulate and waste money. Because of the pleasures derived from it, money is valued over virtue, and the leaders of the state seek to alter the law to give away and accommodate to the materialistic lust of its citizens. As a result of this new found appreciation for money, the governors work the constitution to restrict political power to the rich only. That is how a timocracy becomes an oligarchy.
  • Oligarchy
Plato defines oligarchy as a system of government which distinguishes between the rich and the poor, making of the former its administrators.
An oligarchy is invariably divided, in the one hand, between very rich men, its governors; and, on the other hand, very poor men. Those latter become poor due to bad policy on the part of the state, that doesn't prevent its members from enriching through exploitive contracts, or from becoming poor by wasting their money and goods. Thus the poor ones become either beggars or thugs imbued with anger at their condition and a revolutionary spirit which threatens the internal stability of the state;
An oligarchy will usually perform poorly in military campaigns because the rich men, who are few, will make a small army, and they are afraid to give weapons to the majority, to the poor, due to fears of a revolution. If a revolution does ensue, and the poor ones become victorious over the rich, the former expel the latter from the city, or kill them, and then they divide their properties and political power between one another. That is how a democracy is established.
  • Democracy
Oligarchy then degenerates into democracy where freedom is the supreme good but freedom is also slavery. In democracy, the lower class grows bigger and bigger. The poor become the winners. Diversity is supreme. People are free to do what they want and live how they want. People can even break the law if they so chose.
Plato uses the "democratic man" to represent democracy. The democratic man is the son of the oligarchic man. Unlike his father, the democratic man is consumed with unnecessary desires. Plato describes necessary desires as desires that we have out of instinct or desires that we have in order to survive. Unnecessary desires are desires we can teach ourselves to resist such as the desire for riches. The democratic man takes great interest in all the things he can buy with his money. He does whatever he wants whenever he wants to do it. His life has no order or priority.
  • Tyranny
Democracy then degenerates into tyranny where no one has discipline and society exists in chaos. Democracy is taken over by the longing for freedom. Power must be seized to maintain order. A champion will come along and experience power, which will cause him to become a tyrant. The people will start to hate him and eventually try to remove him but will realize they are not able.
The tyrannical man is the son of the democratic man. He is the worst form of man. He is consumed by lawless desires which cause him to do many terrible things such as sleeping with his own mother or murdering someone unjustly. He comes closest to complete lawlessness. The idea of moderation does not exist to him. He is consumed by the pleasures in life. He spends all of his money and becomes poor and leads a miserable life.
When Plato says the tyrant is a prisoner to the lawless master he means that if the tyrant should lose his power for any reason his life and the life of his family would be in great danger. The tyrant always runs the risk of being killed in revenge for all the unjust things he has done. He becomes afraid to leave his own home and becomes trapped inside. Therefore his lawless behavior leads to his own self-imprisonment.
As edited from July 2012 Wikipedia
Amazing; Plato predicts the Hitlers and Kaddafis of the world flawlessly from 2200 years ago! But from this description it also seems that the USA goes thru endless cycles of Timocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy and back again doesn’t it?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (1936)

I suppose that I have to start somewhere? Margaret is one amazing writer; the book is so much more than the movie. Initially I had a hard time getting the movie out of my head but combining the two is comfortable as long as the book leads the way.

So because no one else had done it for me I created a little companion sheet to keep track of the characters. I made it to fold in half and keep in your book.

My 60th anniversary copy with box cover had probably never been opened; I’m sure that I am the 1st reader. 

The movie covers way too much ground too quickly to give the characters justice. Because the book offends all with great fairness it is easy to like and pull from it any story YOU like and disregard what is offending. But for a movie it had to be mostly un-offending and as such was redesigned to win hearts.  All of us see things, many of us understand things but, Margaret could write them down. I was so hoping to meet Will in the movie; I suppose he was the solder that took care of Mel’s baby in a one minute scene but never seen again.
Will is an important “teacher” to Scarlet and his speech at Gerald’s burying is a masterpiece; if your mainspring is broken you’d be better off dead, it’s what’s inside of you that defeats you. The “mainspring” that’s inside of us all!!!
Scarlet is a psychopath. Margret has created her (and Rhett) to allow conversations about delicate subjects with complete immunity. She is brilliant. Margaret is lecturing us on all sorts of topics I have yet to categorize them all but the obvious ones include the Southern view point on Slavery, southern bells, southern reconstruction, Yankees, and a host of others. Many of these are sliced amazingly thin and are argued with such persuasiveness that only being raised in it could one come up with and / or understand some of them. I now see that these characters are are just vehicles for her to express differing points of view. As with most “simple” issues the shades of grey between them are there only if you are open to and fair to the DISCUSSION. I know almost no one that can discuss topics without entering into the realm of talking head exaggeration as soon as they feel you’re not on their side.
The bitterness of what came about during the reconstruction is palpable; the war went on too long, caused too much pain and so brought about the standard human over reaction to “teach them a lesson” and “not let them rebuild the old system.” From the sound of it reconstruction was applied in a ham-fisted manner resulting in ridiculous overreactions by people who were making it up as they went. Margret gives me the impression that it was the handling of the reconstruction more so than the war itself that is the root of the bitterness that the South developed and maintains toward the North.
Ole Miss gives us an insight into the mind of (what I call) the ‘brutal rich’ in chapter 40 when she describes in great detail the virtues that make her family (and Scarlet) survivors. Ole Miss defines the survivor as being flexible; “When trouble comes we bow to the inevitable without any mouthing, and we work, and we smile, and we bide our time. And we play along with lesser folks and we take what we can get from them. And when we’re strong enough, we kick the folks whose necks we’ve climbed over. That my child is the secret of the survival.” And after a pause she added: “I pass it on to you.” Then Ole Miss goes right on to “bookend” the brutal rich with this regarding what I’ll call the ‘soft or lucky rich:’ “there never was anything to those folks but money and darkies, and now that the money and darkies are gone, those folks will be Cracker in another generation.” I know many different types of rich people of and its true; many 2nd and 3rd generation rich (considered high born) would be incapable of remaking what their (low born) antecedents did.
And since we are on the subject of class, I have to say that the Indian’s have it right; there are classes of people and it’s OK to say it. Remember, there can’t be an “us” unless there is a “them,” (we are only human after all.) So if we admit that there are classes then what to do about it? We cannot MAKE the low born high born (they can however start a new line) and as we have seen over and over the high born are often just Crackers with money. The only thing we can do is PROTECT the low born from the high born, thus allowing for social mobility up and down without retribution; and we do that with what’s called “the rule of law.”Equality exists only on the day we are born (if we are lucky) and diminishes day by day until the day we die. Each decision we make informs the next and before you know it… you’re in a class of your own!
I had tears in my eyes for the entire "Melly dies"chapter, none of us wanted to see her go. I won't speak about Mellie, you need to see her for yourself. It was gratifying in the end to see Scarlet hammered by the revaluations regarding her foolish and insensitive approach to her past life and friends.
Gone with the Wind has changed my life, I only wish I would have read it sooner.