“…it’s a good thing when you don’t dare do something if you don’t think it’s right. But it’s not good when you think something’s not right because you don’t dare do it.” – Sigrid Undset
Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wreath by Sigrid Undset (image courtesy Goodreads)
I first came across Sigrid Undset during my first year of teaching. The school where I taught had a set of world literature texts that they were discarding (the books were in great shape and to this day I puzzle over why books full of world literature classics were being discarded) and I snagged one of them and over the course of a few weeks of casual reading made my way through a variety of selections by writers I knew like Hugo and Goethe and de Maupassant and Cervantes – and writers I sort of knew like Strindberg (“Half a Sheet of Paper” shows how flash fiction should be done) and writers I didn’t know – like Sigrid Undset.
The world lit collection contained a selection from Kristin Lavransdatter I. (For those familiar with the work,it’s the chapter where Kristin and Ingeborg become lost in the forest and are rescued from the German boys by Erland.) I found it rich, engrossing writing, though the pace was not such that it appealed to me in my youth. Still, I remembered the careful accrual of detail and the power of the writing and made a mental note to read more Undset.
It’s taken me about 40 years to get back to her. Perhaps I needed those years to develop a palate able to appreciate what rich gift patient, thorough storytelling is. If so, I am grateful; Kristin Lavransdatter I: The Wreath is the embodiment of what we should mean when we talk about great storytelling. Continue reading →
“And men will not understand us…and the war will be forgotten – and the generation that has grown up after us will be strange to us and push us aside. We will be superfluous even to ourselves…the years will pass by and we shall fall into ruin.” – Erich Maria Remarque
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (image courtesy Goodreads)
It is often called the greatest war novel of all time.
Erich Maria Remarque’s depiction of the horror of an ordinary soldier’s life in World War I, All Quiet on the Western Front, is a work of great power that haunts one long after one has completed it. Like other great examiners of war from Grimmelshausen to Stephen Crane to Norman Mailer to Kevin Powers, Remarque has the skill to give us the psychological horror of being lost on the battlefield – and lost at home.
What sets Remarque’s novel apart, of course, is that it is told from the point of view of an “enemy” soldier, Paul Baumer, a private in the German Imperial Army. (Simplicius, the hero of Grimmelshausen’s novel, is German, too. But since the Thirty Years’ War is only vague European history to Americans, one can safely assume that his nationality is not a matter of controversy.) One of the revelations, in fact, of All Quiet on the Western Front is the discovery that the ordinary German soldier felt much the same as the ordinary British soldier, the ordinary French soldier, the ordinary Russian soldier, the ordinary American soldier: like a pawn being moved – and sacrificed – without regard for his humanity. Ordinary people’s lives don’t count to the rich and powerful who believe themselves masters of history.
• It’s okay to write 9,000 words and base the principal thrust of the story on only one source.
• It’s okay to take instructions from your one source to not speak to those who might undermine the source’s claims.
• It’s okay to shop for the best circumstances to write a story based on your own biased, preconceived narrative.
• It’s okay, because when the story blows up as dead wrong and leads to national and international condemnation, don’t worry: You won’t get fired, and your publication will feel no need to address the gaping holes in its “editorial apparatus.” Continue reading →
“I wanted only to try to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult?” Hermann Hesse
Demian by Hermann Hesse (image courtesy Goodreads)
We turn in this next essay from the subtle, Zen inflected musings of Kawabata to another Nobelist, this one a lifelong yearning seeker of self understanding. In the original 2015 reading list I had chosen Hesse’s novel describing an artist’s search for spiritual fulfillment, Rosshalde, as my selection from the novelist whose lasting reputation owes as much to his adoption as spokesperson by the Boomer generation (a mistaken adoption) as to his literary merit (which is real). Instead, when it came time to pull Rosshalde from the shelf, I took it down and thought about how many times I’ve read Siddhartha which is a better treatment of the same themes as the earlier novel. Instead, I pulled out the Hesse novel next to Rosshalde, the lesser known and equally fascinating bildungsroman, Demian.
It turned out to be an interesting choice. I had not read Demian for many years, at least since the mid-seventies. Like most of my generation, I’d read Steppenwolf and Siddhartha as an undergraduate, taken in by the mystique attached to both books: in the case of the former, the “magic theater” section that suggests psychedelia (though there is no proof anywhere that Hesse ever used drugs) and in the latter its fable like retelling of the life of the Buddha. Both were, of course, very groovy, read in those heady times. But by the time I came to Demian I was a young teacher and part-time graduate student and had learned a bit more about the author Hesse besides that he wrote groovy books. I approached this tale of a youth’s search for self understanding, self confidence, and self acceptance in a more critical fashion. My assessment from that reading was that the novel was simply a quest narrative wrapped up in a bildungsroman.
“It is better to be hated for what you are than to be loved for something you are not.” – André Gide
Corydon by Andre Gide (image courtesy Goodreads)
The complex and provocative André Gide is known for his unconventional examinations of morality in which he usually pits the conventions of accepted public morals against the individual moral (sometimes amoral) views of his characters. In novels such a The Immoralist, Strait is the Gate, and The Vatican Cellars Gide explores alternate lifestyles, failed relationships, and Nietzschean acts of ubermensch-iness for both tragic and comic effect. These works won Gide the Nobel Prize in 1947.
I’ve read all of the above mentioned works by Gide. My favorite is The Vatican Cellars (Les Caves du Vatican), a comic adventure that crosses elements of The DaVinci Code sort of conspiracy theory nonsense with Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. In the hands of an arch satirist like Gide, a plot about saving the Pope from the machinations of the Masons goes sideways because of the actions of a Raskolnikovean sort of ne’er-do-well named Lafcadio who decides that what he really needs to do with his life is kill someone at random so that there is no motive at all to connect him to the murder. Unfortunately, the man he decides to kill turns out to be a vital cog in the aforementioned Pope v. Masons business. Hilarity of the darkest shades ensues. Really. It’s a very funny book – in dark, dark ways.
Unfortunately, this sort of funny stuff was an anomaly in Gide’s oeuvre. He mainly focuses on the unhappy effects of rebelling against (L’immoraliste) or falling prey to (La porte étroite) accepted social and cultural institutions and behaviors. Corydon, his attempt to justify homosexuality as a natural human behavior, is firmly on the serious side of the Gide ledger. Continue reading →
Knowledge in our chosen fields of endeavor is important, certainly…knowledge of ourselves is essential….
The Burgundy Briefcase by Roberta Burton (image courtesy Goodreads)
Roberta Burton’s The Burgundy Briefcase is a difficult novel to discuss because it doesn’t seem quite sure what sort of novel it wants to be. It’s part star-crossed love story, part therapeutic confessional, part self-examination. Its settings shift from place to place as its main character, a doctoral student named Lee Lindsey, moves around Tallahassee, Florida where she is completing her doctorate in marriage and family counseling at Florida State University. It moves, sometimes rather blithely, through time from present to past and back again. It has a shifting cast of characters who appear, disappear, and reappear in those weird ways that people sometimes do in life.
Perhaps The Burgundy Briefcase is best described as a picaresque novel about education. The work is filled with various types of educations, and Lee Lindsey, willingly and unwillingly, gets educated in all all of these education types. Continue reading →
The Yellow Wallpaper is especially important to me because I struggled greatly with depression and mental illness during four years of physical confinement within a very patriarchal marriage. Read it in full here. Also, Jane Addams is especially a hero of mine. She had so many pots boiling at once – I don’t know how she did it. I hope you will follow the link below and read more about her. Continue reading →
It is Women’s History Month and my goal is to post about a different woman every day for the rest of March.
Dominique Christina is a poet, artist, activist, educator, author and self-described “colored girl with stars for eyes.” She is also the only person to hold two national titles for slam poetry at one time and is the only poet in history to win the Women of the World Poetry Championship twice. A former 1996 Olympic Volleyball player, Dominique has over 10 years of experience as a licensed teacher, holding double Masters degrees in Education and English Literature. She conducts performances/workshops all over the country for colleges, universities, nonprofit organizations, and conferences like the LOHAS forum in Boulder, Colorado. She does branding and marketing language for companies like Lotus Wei and Gaia. She is the niece of one of the Little Rock Nine. She sometimes performs with Denice Frohman as Sister Outsider, the duo representing two of the top three female slam poets in the world. Continue reading →
For art and artists, these are interesting times…as Adam Marsland reminds us, that’s a Chinese curse…
I’m currently working my way through a re-read of Honoré de Balzac’s marvelous Pere Goriot as part of my 2015 reading list. While the opportunity to savor Balzac’s loquacious piece of realism that examines parental love and Parisian society is certainly pleasant for a dyed-in-the-wool proponent of realism in its various literary expressions, both foreign and domestic, I have found myself with nothing to write about unless, as Mr. Micawber optimistically, invariably expected, something turns itself up.
One of the representations of the always inimitable, sometimes unfathomable Bjork at MoMA (image courtesy Vulture via Getty Images/Timothy A. Clary)
Since you are reading this, you know that my own Micawberean expectations have not been disappointed. A piece by art critic Jerry Saltz at the Vulture blog of New York Magazine caught my attention because it addresses one of the unresolved cultural questions left to us by the 20th century: to wit, how do we reconcile the merging of popular and what was once termed “high” culture and make intelligent determinations about what is culturally worthwhile for us to explore, discuss, even preserve in this merged culture?
S’s mother and my mother were very close friends going back to their high school days, so S. and I grew up together, ultimately losing touch as adults. When her father died of a heart attack, she made a nearly successful effort to commit suicide. What came out of the suicide attempt was that S. had, in fact, been molested by her father from a very early age.
So my mother told me about what had happened, about the molestation and the suicide attempt. And then she added, “I never liked her. She was always such an overtly sexual child.” Continue reading →
The J. H. Sears edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales (image courtesy Etsy)
The next book from the 2015 reading list is another of those “rescued” books of mine. Lea and I were wandering around a local antique/junk shop when we came across a “children’s edition” (or what passed for a children’s edition early in the 20th century). The book I have was published by J.H. Sears and Company of New York, although the edition I have was “set up, printed, and bound” by the Kingsport Press of Kingsport Tennessee. There is no publication date, but the book is inscribed, “Nancy Ivey/Grade 1/1929-30″ so this book is at least 85 years old, perhaps older. Continue reading →
Diderot’s most well known piece, the dialogue Rameau’s Nephew, is a discourse on what good behavior is – delivered with droll irony by one who has found being good beyond his capabilities….
Denis Diderot by Louis Michel van Loo (image courtesy Wikimedia)
Part of the pleasure of reading is finding those odd connections between works that at first seem unlikely to be related in any way. Such is my experience with this re-reading of Denis Diderot’s masterful dialogue concerning good behavior and bad, Rameau’s Nephew. As I made my way again through this witty, ironic masterpiece of argument about morals and ethics, for some reason I was reminded of another work whose thematic focus was on that elusive goal of being good: Nan, the late Victorian children’s book by Lucy C. Lillie that I read (and wrote about) a year and a half ago. The object lessons of Nan are simple and straightforward, of course: tell the truth, don’t steal, mind your manners, obey your elders. One of Nan’s most ingratiating traits is her desire to help the less fortunate – a trait that the book clearly describes as more than compensating for her lack of intellectual and artistic talent. She may not be the brightest bulb in the lamp, but she’s a good, kind-hearted bulb and that, Ms. Lillie tells us, is what matters. Continue reading →
Call it Simplicius Simplicissimus or The Adventures of a Simpleton – H.J.C. von Grimmelshausen’s picaresque novel of the Thirty Years War is the godfather of all great anti-war literature whether solemn indictment like The Red Badge of Courage or All Quiet on the Western Front or absurdist comedy like Catch-22 or Slaughterhouse-Five.
The Adventures of a Simpleton also known as Simplicius Simplicissimus (image courtesy Goodreads)
The Adventures of a Simpleton, also know as Simplicius Simplicissimus (and by other titles) is a book that I have long loved, though this re-read is only my third of this classic satire of the lethal nonsense we call war. The edition I used this time was one I picked up in my favorite used bookstore, my original copy from undergraduate school having disappeared on its own picaresque adventures at some unknown moment in the last 40 years. This entry on the 2015 reading list moves us forward in time several hundred years from the folk literature (with some Horace thrown in) of the last few weeks. As a result we get a known author (although we don’t know a lot about him) and we get our first prose work since those outliers about World War I and John Winthrop I wrote about at the beginning of the year.
More interestingly, from a literary standpoint anyway, we get what will come to be called variously a novel, a mock-heroic romance, a picaresque novel, or a picaresque. The adventures of the hero, initially called Simplicius because of his naivete (and because discovering his real name, indeed his true identity, becomes an important subplot of the work) are episodic, disjointed, and certainly varied. Continue reading →
Horace, like any admirable figure, seeks both to model – and teach – what excellence is in his field….
Horace as whimsically portrayed by painter Giacomo Di Chirico (image courtesy Wikimedia)
We end our review of The Works of Horace as translated into English prose by the redoubtable Christopher Smart with a look at the work that has been the anchor for his reputation over at least the last 200 years or so. “Ars Poetica,” or “The Art of Poetry,” is, as I mentioned last time, considered one of the classic works in the history of literary criticism. Like all of Horace’s work, “Ars Poetica” is personal and idiosyncratic. Like all of Horace’s work, it is filled with moments of pathos, bathos, and brilliance.
Some critics have found cause to dispute with Horace, noting that he focuses his critique on epic and dramatic poetry – neither of which he wrote – and that, unlike, say, Aristotle, he is not orderly and systematic in his discussion, wandering from topic to topic, often abruptly. There are a couple of ways of responding to that. Continue reading →
In his Epistles, Horace discusses, in a series of verse letters addressed to friends, philosophy, virtuous and independent living, social behavior, and being a poet.
Quintus Horatius Flaccus – the artist otherwise known as Horace (image courtesy wisdomportal.com)
This third in a series of essays on Roman poet Horace looks at his verse epistles. Most readers are probably at least slightly familiar with the form in either verse or prose: Martin Luther King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” is a famous prose example; Alexander Pope’s “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot” is usually considered the finest example in verse written in English. In both cases the aim is identical – the writer seeks to offer explanation, defense, justification for him (or her)self and for his/her beliefs, practices, or, as in the cases of both Horace and Pope, poetry style choices.
Horace’s Epistles have some of the gentle sting of his Satires, but there is an ease in these works that one doesn’t find in those previously discussed poems. This is Horace writing to friends for one reasoin earlier essaysn or another on one occasion or another, opening up about his work, his health, his pleasures, his annoyances, his hopes, his fears. There’s a freedom to the poet’s writing here that both intrigues and enlightens the thoughtful reader and gives us insight into Horace the man that neither the Satires, aimed as they are at allowing the poet to show off his mastery of analysis and commentary, nor the Odes, meant as they are to be “public” works demonstrating poetic skill and mastery of craft, allow. These works, while equally as skilled as those mentioned above, are the poetic equivalent of good conversation over drinks between friends. Continue reading →
patriarchal principle: Men are entitled to take up space
“Manspreading” refers to men sitting in public spaces with their legs spread wide apart. Anyone – and especially a woman – who has sat in a movie theater, airplane, or any sort of public transportation is all too familiar with the phenomenon. All too many men seem willing to rudely spread out beyond their little designated spaces in places like those I’ve mentioned. I’d really like to have a dollar for every time I’ve been squeezed out of my space in a movie theater by a man manspreading next to me – I could buy most of the books on my wish list at Amazon. Some speculate that this behavior is an act of dominance or is about male privilege. Personally, I have always thought the message is, “Hey,everybody look at me – my balls are so big that I can not even close my legs!” The problem is widespread – if you will – enough that now, the New York City subway authority is mounting a campaign against the practice, using the slogan “Dude, stop the spread please. It’s a space issue.” Continue reading →
Horace uses satire in a gently amused (and bemused) way to point out the foibles of human nature. He’s not so much wanting to tear people a new one for being the way they are as he is interested in a thoughtful, even academic way in why we do the foolish things we do to ourselves.
Horace, by an unknown Roman sculptor (image courtesy crystallinks.com)
This second essay on the Works of Horacein the Christopher Smart prose translation looks at the great poet’s satires. Horace wrote two books of satires, a total of 18 poems. These satires were his first great successes as a poet and signaled that Horace was one of the great poets of the Augustan Age. on His influence on this genre of literature was so great that his style of handling the genre is known in literary/scholarly circles as Horatian satire.
Before we dig into the works themselves, however, it might be good to make clear what’s meant by “Horatian.” Horace’s greatest rival as a satirist is a Roman poet named Juvenal who lived roughly 100 years after Horace. Where Horace is gentle and good natured in his criticisms of the foibles of his fellow Romans, Juvenal is biting, even bitter in his attacks on human frailties. Where Horace hopes to see better from people, Juvenal demands that people should behave more acceptably. Continue reading →
Sometimes one reads to see what one is thinking – sometimes to see what others are thinking – and sometimes one should read to find out where one is….
As you may have already guessed, cats read when we aren’t looking in order to understand and control our species better… (image courtesy stockfreeimages.com)
For 2015 I’ve decided to change the pattern of my reading list adventures and split the list into two segments. The first of these will be a tour of what used to be called “world literature”: great works by authors writing in a language other than one’s own – in my case, English. The second half of the list will focus on authors from North Carolina primarily, the American South generally. My slogan for the year will be “Read globally, then locally,” I suppose.
For the first half of the list I will be in the hands of translators for the bulk of my reading (I read, speak and write French, and I plan also to learn Spanish – at least conversational level – this year, but most of my reading choices are in languages other than those). So as part of my series of essays on these works I will make observations – informed or not – about the quality of the translations I encounter.
In a culture whose value system is thoroughly infused with the spirit of capitalist-democratic-republicanism of one permutation or another, art, tech – let’s face it – every form of human endeavor – is measured only by its ability to generate revenue…
(For earlier essays in this series look here, here and here.)
And so we come to the last in this series of essays examining how the evolution of technology (and remember, I refer to technology in a broad sense) has affected art and artists. This last piece will examine two pieces of technology – one is an economic system (capitalism) and the other is really a myriad of technologies coming together to produce – an effect? a composite technology? (the world wide web) and their effects on art and artists over the last 20 or so years.
Adam Smith, philosopher of political economy (image courtesy Wikimedia)
The history of the uneasy relationship between the political system most commonly referred to as democracy (rarely practiced in a pure form, as, let’s assume, we all understand) and the economic system known as capitalism (also rarely practiced in a pure form, same understanding as above) has been played out nowhere perhaps as openly – and at the same time subtly – as in our America – the good old USA. Our country is one who has tried, with often wildly varying results, to reconcile the basic premises of these two important systems of thought.
The guy who catches the most heat in critiques of capitalism is the one pictured at right whose most important work, The Wealth of Nations, seems to argue for self-interest as a public good even as it warns against the human tendency to collude and engage in ugly practices such as price fixing which he sees as self-interest used against the public good. The most important – and misunderstood by the limited understanding of the average American – idea in Smith’s treatise, however, is his assertion (not that people are naturally unequal, though that certainly is very important because it conflicts with our notions of democracy) that wealth matters more than people. Continue reading →