sexta-feira, junho 28, 2002

The Eustace Diamonds: "The Palliser Novels" by Anthony Trollope





(Original Review, 2002-06-28)


I have some fairly handsome volumes on the shelves in my living room. I mentioned elsewhere that there are about 18 Brittanica "Great Books" mostly philosophy which I have read very little of but there is also some Ancient History which I have. They are quite nice looking (faux, I guess) leather bound, but the effect is rather spoiled by them having numbers on them - I guess so the buyers can tell how many of "the great books" they possess. This does mean that they sort of shout "philistine poser!" at visitors but fortunately, I don't get many.

I got them in a charity shop and I said above that they are handy for reference, but while I do consult them from time to time this is not really true anymore (though it was when I bought them) because they are pretty much all available online free now, often in more digestible translations and more readable format. They are far from useless, however, as I got a bad back recently and had to raise the level of my computer monitor. It is currently sitting on Aquinas vols I and II and Augustine. Most of the rest fall into the handsome but tatty category that I am sure is familiar to many here. Classics or favourites in decent hardback bindings from charity shops etc. I think this display only ever impressed one person. A young lad who was helping the guy who came to do the insulation. He said "you have a lot of books!"

There are about 100 on those shelves, most being upstairs, so this surprised me. But talking to him I found he had only really read one book, The Lord of the Rings which he liked so much he had started collecting different editions of it. I did offer to lend him some other fantasy books but he wouldn't take them. In a way it seemed a pity that he had got into books in such a strange, restricted way. But on the other hand he got his bibliophilic pleasure in his own way so... Anyway, the point is that my faux leather "great books" and tatty charity shop classics have only ever impressed a lad who had only read one book.

But it still counts, right?

Incidentally, there is a wonderful scene in Trollope's 'The Eustace Diamonds' where Lady Eustace is memorising a passage from Queen Mab, and the narrator comments that she hasn't yet learned to choose a passage from later on in a work because you don't get credit for a page further than the one you quote from. At one point, during the height of my passion for reading Anthony Trollope, I was in Paris for a few days and was quite happy to find a bookstore carrying books in English. We went in, but were unable to find any of his books. My wife asked a salesclerk if they had any Trollopes. The man replied, oh yes sir, the Trollopes are at the back. That sent me into fits of laughter, as it did seem appropriate the trollops would be kept at the back. My wife was not amused by it, and didn't see the humour until much later. And the bookstore? It was the Librairie Galignani, which was opened in Paris in 1801 as a bookstore and reading room specialising in works in English. 

It's definitely time to re-read The Complete Palliser Novels of Anthony Trollope, I think. Better yet, once you get addicted to Trollope the only cure is to read all 47 novels, which I did. Some of the best are the Macdermots of Ballycloran, Nina Balatka, Marion Fay, the Bertrams, the Vicar of Bullhampton, Dr. Thorne, and John Caldigate. However, my best advice is to just read through the whole Barset-Palliser series in order. Taken as a whole, the series is in my mind the greatest achievement in all Victorian literature.



terça-feira, junho 25, 2002

Meister Geschichtenerzähler: "The Secret Agent" by Joseph Conrad





(Original Review, 2002-06-25)


One of my oldest friends, both female and a graduate in English loathes Lessing, and I could just as easily wonder how Nabokov can offer anything superior to Under Western Eyes, The Secret Agent, Nostromo or Victory, which must have one of the most memorable lines in English literature when the sinister Mr. Jones tells Heyst: "I am the world itself, come to pay you a visit." Nabokov was famous for his dismissive remarks of other writers, from Gogol to Pasternak, and said of Conrad: "I cannot abide Conrad’s souvenir-shop style, bottled ships and shell necklaces of romanticist clichés. In neither of those two writers can I find anything that I would care to have written myself. In mentality and emotion, they are hopelessly juvenile", though he loved Conrad as a boy and seems not to appreciate any maturity in Nostromo or The Secret Agent, possibly because Conrad's Russians are often not very nice people. But then, Nabokov was not a nice person, murdering butterflies for a hobby and pinning their corpses to a board to be admired. Sad.

I agree on taste and opinion, the problem with Nabokov for me is that I don't find him 'sincere'. Personally I read Nabokov for his finery and off centre grip of language and that rarest of perception, but saw him as an at times intolerable sociopath, almost pathologically resentful of the quotidian and ordinary due to a lost White Russian heritage. He despised the left, the "common man or woman", or the average academic. Real recoil spasm stuff. Tragic. But what an artist.

(He also loved to whip and needle the middle class, disdained the bourgeois. To torture middle of the road tabloid mores. To be it was disproportionate and excessive. But of course speaking of art and Pen and so on, you can't say that to Conrad. "Pale Fire" is an enjoyable read, but the work of an arrogant man convinced his own writing is superior to others, much as he was convinced his translation of Eugene Onegin was the most faithful to the original, though most readers prefers his extraordinary notes, where the notes to Pale Fire are playful. But then he will depart from the script to attack Marx and Freud and it becomes personal rather than artistic. I know people love his use of language but to me it is brittle, lacking in depth, and often -as with Despair- just not interesting.

Reading Mann is like climbing onto the most comfortable featherbed in the world. Relax, you are in the hands of a Meister Geschichtenerzähler, off we go now. Yes, they belonged to different schools, but comparing the abilities of the inchoate Nabokov with one of the giants of 20th c. literature, is a very odd thing indeed. I think Nabokov vastly overrated, mostly by Americans.

And I just wanted to write about “The Secret Agent” and Russian spies...Too bad Goodreads…

Turds and Flies: "Theaetetus" by Plato, Robin Waterfield (Trans.)




(Original Review, 2002-06-25)

I've always wondered whether a thesis can only be supported by reason. Is that self-evident or can we find a reason for it?

Plato actually faces and tries to answer similar challenge in “Theaetetus” when he is discussing the nature of knowledge with Protagoras who is a relativist. Plato offers an argument trying to show that Protagoras claim that knowledge is perception must be wrong and he achieves this by making an argument. So we might reply to your question along similar lines: the sceptic about reason is claiming to have knowledge when he says that people never act for reasons but only because they are moved by rhetoric but knowledge to be knowledge and not mere true belief must involve logos or justification and so the sceptic's view is incoherent. He is arguing that knowledge does and does not involve responding to reasons but that is an incoherent view.

This is roughly how Plato tries to deal with the epistemic relativist and his argument is useful in dealing with modern day relativists like Richard Rorty or the social constructivists like Bruno Latour.
Let’s look at it from Plato's point of view. He will say that knowledge is a normative notion in the sense that it involves justification; knowledge is characterized by Plato as justified, true belief. But that says that reason enters into knowledge via justification and is a necessary condition of knowledge in a sense that if you only possess belief that is true (take a guess and think that I’m are writing on a HP laptop and that happens to be the case; do I know that I’m writing this on a HP laptop ? No, you don’t, even though my belief is true) you don’t have knowledge.

So the claim is pretty strong: it is not just that reason can support knowledge on this Platonic view but rather that it logically has to; reason and knowledge are conceptually tied together Plato wants to argue. This is not just an empirical claim but a conceptual one.

What the sceptic and the post modernists like Rorty are challenging is what might be called the classical picture of knowledge which can be traced to Plato:

(i) The world which we seek to understand and know about is what it is largely independently of us and our beliefs about it;

(ii) Facts of the Form -- information E justifies belief B -- are society-independent facts ,and

(iii) Under the appropriate circumstances, our exposure to the evidence alone is capable of explaining why we believe what we believe.

This is Plato's view and is also embraced by Anglo American philosophy and science. The sophists like Protagoras (and in ethical sphere it's Callicles and Thrasymachus) and post modernists like Heidegger, Rorty, Foucault, Latour and so on and of course people in social sciences and humanities influenced by pomo reject this picture by rejecting either one or all components of the classical picture.

Forms are universals and not directly perceived when I see turds and flies although I can intuit these forms. They constitute metaphysical background of ordinary things and are ontologically necessary to explain first of all why ordinary things like turds are in fact turds and secondly how we can come to know ordinary things. So, forms for Plato are ontologically fundamental and prior to what is given in experience and so on this view it is not something we create. Forms are independent of our perceiving them and can be in intuited and so are turds and flies and so, Plato is a realist.

No , the cave works like this : just as in the cave when I look at the dog's shadow on the wall which is a reflection of the dog but dont actually see the real dog so in the waking experience of the world I see things that are contingent, impermanent and transient . When I see a dog I see the reflection of the dog but not the Form of the universal dog. Roughly, Plato wants to say this because he thinks that ordinary scientific and everyday knowledge is too insecure and too revisable to be certain and to the extent to which Plato wants. His model of knowledge is logic and maths and he has doubts about empirical knowledge ; we have two categories ar two classes of knowledge with maths being the better one . This is not that controversial because Plato is distinguishing analytic a priori knowledge from empirical knowledge , the distinction we continue to make . What is unusual is his denigration of the empirical.

domingo, junho 23, 2002

Daimonisation: "Conversations of Socrates" by Xenophon, Hugh Tredennick (trans.)





(Original Review, 2002-06-23)



Socrates was also interesting because of his physicality....His routine was to spend the morning exercising then the afternoon in the market place on his mission. He was extremely fit and brave, fighting in three campaigns, the last aged 50, and honoured for his bravery in battle. He was terrifying apparently. Also he had a kind of walk that was unusual, a kind of gait that would strike fear into potential enemies. This is not your usual philosopher as we have come to know them (bookish, lovers not fighters - think Bertrand Russell). It is strange to me that so little is written about Socrates and exercises - what kind of exercises did he do? Surely like many highly spiritual people today, the body was an important aspect of spiritual practise (yoga, etc.)

One place that we do hear stuff like this in the Timeaus - in the third section - there is talk that is much like the Chakra system or Chi Kung. As someone who has developed practise over the years in these directions I can recognise it immediately...For example, there is talk of two invisible channels either side of the spine - like water courses. Connected to this is his daimon.....what was it? Well it was a sign (not a voice in the head telling him things - this is not a case of schizophrenia), a sign that he followed in matters big or small. It would stop him mid sentence, and it did not stop him from going to his death...i.e., IT LED HIM TO HIS DEATH.

It was his inner moral guide that he always obeyed. This in itself was not a dangerous thing to Athenian society, what was dangerous was if he also taught others that they too have a daimon, and that all the daimons work together for the good of the whole, and they should ALWAYS be obeyed when they call.

Did he teach this? - Well, Plato doesn't say so but given that this (by hypothesis) was the reason for his execution, then of course Plato wouldn't have been allowed to transmit this teaching in writing. 

Anyway there you go! Enough conversation of Socrates.

quinta-feira, junho 20, 2002

Socratean Thinkery: "Clouds" by Aristophanes





(Original Review, 2002-06-20)


In Taoism the idea of the relativity of judgement is important. So to describe something as heavy is neither true nor false since in different contexts any particular object could be usefully described as both heavy and light.

Language uses binary oppositions like heavy/light whereas in the real world there is a continuum of weight and so heavy and light are relative terms. But ordinary people make these kind of judgments all the time and often believe they are right. Hence in this context it is an important step towards wisdom to give up making these judgments as if they expressed anything solid.

In the field of science, Kant showed that this system does not hook onto the world-in-itself only the world as present to our senses. So the world-in-itself could be very different in reality to the system that we have developed to model it. It could be that the universe is infinitely complex so that quarks break down into smaller pieces and those break down further and this goes on ad infinitum. There is no way to tell! Science is a useful tool but not a system of knowledge about reality - it can't get at the reality behind appearances.

Consider also the way science branches out into finer and finer specialisations, so that as time goes on the number of unanswered questions actually increases rather than decreases. The more we 'know' the more we realise we don't know. Look at the current state of fundamental physics, what a mess philosophically, it's a time of great confusion and uncertainty (string theory, etc.).

In maths of course we know about Godel's uncertainty theorem. Also consider model theory; 'Model Theory is the part of mathematics which shows how to apply logic to the study of structures in pure mathematics. On the one hand it is the ultimate abstraction; on the other, it has immediate applications to every-day mathematics. The fundamental tenet of Model Theory is that mathematical truth, like all truth, is relative. A statement may be true or false, depending on how and where it is interpreted. This isn't necessarily due to mathematics itself, but is a consequence of the language that we use to express mathematical ideas. ' (source here.)

So I think that when Socrates says that I know nothing except that I know nothing, I am sure there is something to this.

Just to leave you with a question. If a picture is worth a thousand words, wouldn't it be amazing if there was a consciousness that could think in pictures in the way we think in binary symbols?. Would this consciousness be a thousand times more intelligent? Aristophanes, in his play "Clouds", which is blamed by Plato in the Apology for the public's low opinion of Socrates, makes the idea that Socrates is teaching a new religion to young citizens a central plank of his satire. The character Socrates in the play says there are no goddesses except the Clouds, who are spun around by Flux (Dinos), and that even Zeus doesn't exist. His "Thinkery" is a school for learning about these new gods and rejecting the traditional ones. When Strespiades has been "initiated" into Socrates' alternative mystery cult, he swears by the new gods of Chaos, Clouds, and Chatter.

Another thing that hasn't been paid much attention so far in these threads is the political aspect. His most serious problem as an Athenian is surely that some of his most celebrated and successful supporters and pupils are traitors and tyrants, anti-democracy, pro-Sparta. In 411 his associate Alcibiades attempts to mount an oligarchic coup with Persian support, after being exiled. In 404 his former pupil Kritias is one of the bloodiest leaders of the "thirty tyrants" who are installed by Sparta's generals after Athens loses the war. The Apology addresses these issues by trying to disassociate Socrates from these excesses and show that he refused to participate in at least one treason trial. But people were adding up: Socrates + New Thinking = Kritias and Tyranny.

Presenting Socrates as a universal guru ignores the deeply ambiguous political position he and his followers held at the time. Mark can present him to us as if he were an inspiring Oxford don, a bit unworldly, dedicated to academic inquiry: yes, perhaps, but among his favourite pupils were the Bullingdon Club of the day, and what they seem to have taken from his teachings was a corrosive contempt for democracy.

Keep On Trying: "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman" by Laurence Sterne




(Original Review, 2002-06-20)



Many very good books are not difficult to read--at least for the people who read them and have read them. But books can become difficult when difference of culture, or viewpoint, or language, or elapsed time intervene. Dickens is more difficult now than 150 years ago, and part of the reward of reading Dickens is the learning of how British society has changed. The difficulty of reading Virgil might include learning some Latin; the difficulty of reading Dante might involve at least a parallel text edition.

The novel arguably presents a different formal challenge. Its name tells us it is new, and over the three centuries (or more, depending on what you think the first novel was) that it has been in existence. Novels have evolved formally. First person narratives, epistolary assemblages, impersonal authors then all the other novel forms of the novel that a literary historian might tell us about. A telling point about some of these historical accounts is that the writer often announces, in conclusion, that the novel is dead. Well, formalist literary historians can't be expected to write the next novel that defeats critical expectations, can they? That's the job of the novelist.

There is a great deal of pleasure in reading a particular novelist one enjoys: that might either be in following a course of lifetime development, or in reading pretty much the same thing over and over again. Nothing wrong either way. But every time you pick up a book with expectations that it might be like the last book of that sort you read, and then you find it isn't, then there is a difficulty. Do you throw it away, or persevere?

Obviously you don't want the same book again, but in many ways when you read a series of books by the same author you are getting pretty much the same book again. The difficult challenge comes when you step outside your own comfort zone. You might regret your waste of time and money more than once, but that will be balanced by your pleasure when you enjoy finding something new at least to you. If your bag is formal development of the novel, then discovering a writer who has moved the fictional goalposts a few meters will be even more rewarding.

The biggest difficulty about reading is that there is far too much to read, and none of us have very much time, and we are most of us lazy creatures who resist change. If we want difficult books that are worth the time then there is plenty of advice: Dante for example. If we want to pick writers out of the current crop then we should be prepared to kiss plenty of frogs, and if we are really keen to learn another language or two.

There are many ways for books to be good and some of those involve being 'difficult'. Ulysses or Tristram Shandy could not be the same if they were written in a more straightforward style. Their difficulty isn't some unfortunate characteristic offsetting their good points; it is intrinsic to their quality. The question you should be asking isn't 'If this book can be great and readable, why aren't all books as easy to read?'. Instead it should be 'are there difficult books that reward the effort?' As the answer is unequivocally yes, some books do need to be difficult.

Good books "draw you in", and sometimes that drawing in is through complexity or through a breaking of expectations. Good books make you engage with them and with yourself. An encounter with a good book is similar to an encounter with another person: sometimes it just doesn't work, even though you want it to work. I never made it beyond chapter 2 of Tristram Shandy, despite many efforts ... but not because the book is difficult, but because the encounter just did not play out. Other complex books for me turned out to be true "page turners": Mann's Doctor Faustus and the Magic Mountain, all and any of Henry James, those many volumes of Proust. Few supposedly "readable" novels have the same effect on me, I guess because they do not make me experience a true encounter with something that matters. As to Lawrence Sterne, I had to make do with his "Sentimental Journey", I took it on my work commute for a while, one chapter a day on the train, I still remember those weeks. "Tristram Shandy" I will keep trying, but perhaps it is not meant to be.

terça-feira, junho 18, 2002

Biological Constructs: "Orlando" by Virginia Woolf




(Original Review, 2002-06-18)



I’m probably in a minority, but I find Woolf hugely overrated. A snob in the way that Wilde was a snob before her, sucking up to the wealthy and titled and, like Wilde, happy to be unfaithful if it ingratiated her with the gentry. People go on about ‘a room of one’s own’ but have they read the whole piece? She thought only a few superior personages should be allowed to write, and then only for a select audience. Her constant name dropping in Orlando is embarrassing. She sneered at Joyce. Her real problem was that she had nothing to write about except who was going to buy the flowers or what dress to wear to a party. She had no experience of the real world, yet looked down her nose at DH L, Joyce, and the rest who did, and could write about it superbly well. For a definitive put down of her Bloomsbury set, read Mansfield’s short story Marriage a la Mode. It nails them superbly. I've always found her deeply unconvincing as a novelist (I really like some of her essays), too. Mrs. Dalloway is the best of the lot, but that's not saying much is it? I mean, it may be her masterpiece...

I doubt we can retain the same personhood if we change sex completely, although full memory of our last guise would be retained and we would still be far from becoming a thinking-female within a male body changed into a corporal woman. The success of the gender transformation would indeed be measured in terms of how much the person 'grows' a feminine mind - too late for the brain perhaps to 're-transform' and live through a girlhood (if one were born a man), but the biochemical determination of the mind still remains very much in play regarding the possibility of dual gender ontologies.

What, indeed, then is a biologically female mind in contrast to a male one? Is the existence of a fully feminine mind determined by biology then a challenge to those who stage a significant ontological difference/distance between gender and biological sex?

If one is a feminist seeking absolute equality is one also seeking to prove no essential difference between the biological construction of the male and female brain, or 'mind' to take the notion of the body-thinking machine as a wholly immanent system?

Woolf's book appears to be about genderless love - the Platonic Idea of 'Love' - and the fluidity of sexual difference. All such projects are legitimate but the most honest claim of a transgender subject is that they are not at all interested in discussing sexual desire, even to the point that they are not at all interesting in group with LGB (this is one group of TG subjects with a strong political position). Woolf is very last generation then - the transgender subject no wishes to be recognised for the simultaneity of feminine biology and female subjecthood alongside the male organic system. Dual mind/body immanence creating a split thinking system? We could understand this as absolute chemico-biological fluidity of the sophisticated human machine in enabling all the feedback systems to produce a feminine mind simultaneous to a male thinking organ (and vice-versa).

But what do I know…? And as always the right to free beer for everyone must be a must.

sábado, junho 15, 2002

Hessian Fable: "The Glass Bead Game" by Hermann Hesse





I read this in German a long time ago (2002-06-15).



I suppose it depends on whether working through the difficulty brings you genuine insights into the human condition. I'm ashamed to say I've only read one book on this list - Ulysses - and enjoyed it. I like modernism, and Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is one of my favourites. Woolf is a bit daunting, but Mrs. Dalloway is superb.

I heard a radio adaptation of Tristram Shandy - I'm a big fan of digression and unreliable narrators - which inspired me to a hitherto unfulfilled wish to read the book. Doctor Faustus is another of those unfulfilled wishes. The rest of the list (apart from a couple I hadn't heard of) I have avoided not quite like the plague.

Sometimes it's just because the book is cool for its time. I waded through Hermann Hesse's The Glass Bead Game as a teenager and was none the wiser at the end. But at least I had the bragging rights. Later I re-read it. And I loved the Glass Bead Game but I'm never sure why. I'd describe it as boring, but it's one book I've actually re-bought when I lost a copy. I'm never quite sure if it's sending up or celebrating intense academic specialisation and culture for cultures sake, but the most sympathetic character is the main character's friend, who leaves to be something important in the 'real world'. You admire Joseph Knecht for his dedication to somewhat esoteric knowledge and understanding of the game but are also left thinking that outside of that particular environment, it has very little use or meaning.

It is a familiar theme of Hesse's work - the contrast of worldly life with academia or religious training. I suspect he found himself drawn to the latter but with the fear of losing touch with normality in a religious or academic cocoon. I do love the sense of things happening just outside, threatening the enclosed world of the universities. And hence outside pupils who go through the schools but are expected to return to the world. And there are hints of a complicated history, and how the universities came to be what they are, and we're, frustratingly almost, made to focus on the interior of this world. Knecht does leave though, and suffers one of the weirdest deaths in literature.

I did read all the Hermann Hesse novels at the time because he was the man with the Truth, but they've mostly all blurred together into a generic Hessian fable. Apart from Steppenwolf, with whom I desperately identified, and Siddartha.



quarta-feira, junho 12, 2002

VoxGirl: "Middlemarch" by George Eliot





(Original Review, 2002-06-12)


A drop of water on your head is easy to ignore; a constant drop in the same spot becomes a form of torture.

For some women, their big problem is they can't kick out a cheating boyfriend. For others, their problem is they can't say no to a bridezilla best friend. Others are hung up on their bosses, or confused about their careers, or having issues with overbearing mothers, or with parents getting divorced, etc. In fact, the full range of human experience that a young single woman in her twenties might encounter. How about going for a long walk instead of watching TV, putting down your (collective you, not you, VoxGirl) fork, and drinking water, unsweetened tea and black coffee instead of sodas and lattes? High self-esteem out the ying-yang will naturally result, and as a bonus, no more need for chick-lit.

As for the 'it's the women's fault for having low self-esteem' argument, well, if you want to be in a loving relationship or married someday, and your looks have been made fun of for most of your life, and then almost every form of media available to you during the course of your entire life, from books to movies to TV shows to advertisements show beautiful women - and almost exclusively beautiful women - finding love, it just may affect you, no matter how strong you are and how confident you may be in other aspects of your life.

Quite a lot of TV shows, movies, etc. show average-looking men (even without power or status) who win the hearts of (or are married to) stunningly beautiful women; how many TV shows or movies have average-looking women (without power or status) winning the hearts of (or being married to) stunningly handsome men?

It's not just chick-lit; even literature and literary novels about love and marriage, whether George Eliot's “Middlemarch” to Jeffrey Eugenides's “The Marriage Plot”, tend to feature very beautiful women as the romantic leads. If I want to read about a pleasant-looking-but-not-beautiful romantic heroine in “literature,” I can safely turn to Austen or the Brontës, but I'm having trouble thinking of more examples.

segunda-feira, junho 10, 2002

Clausewitzing: "A History of Warfare" by John Keegan




(Original Review, 2002-06-10)




There is easy rubbish and difficult trash.  Of course, a lot of books with high literary merit will be more demanding for/ of the reader than, say, neckbiters, which are all fashioned by formula.  But equalling the ease of a read with literary worthlessness would fail to acknowledge e.g., all those wonderful, amazing children's classics, which are as loved by readers as they are praised by critics. I feel there are two separate sets of judgements (and sometimes the twain will meet, and other times not): The objective-subjective critical judgement of literary merit by a learned and experienced critic, and the subjective judgement of any reader....

The perceived difficulty of a book has much to do with the abilities of the reader as a reader, and with their attitude to difficulty. Nobody likes to be told that he might be an inadequate, impatient or lazy reader, but 'difficult' books tend to flush out these types. The Booker in particular will always have problems with this issue, because it aims at a large readership. Many of those potential readers will expect to be entertained or distracted in an uncomplicated way by a 'good' book, and may feel when confronted by unexpected difficulty that some implied bargain between author and reader has been broken.

I am reading the book (being hugely fascinated by military history and military ethics) 'A History of Warfare; by John Keegan, (Cambridge, Sandhurst Proff) and it falls into the article's scope. The beginning wearing as he Clausewitzes his way along, crediting Claus wile also explaining his fallacy in using 'True War, and Real War' wile not understanding war outside of the European scope..... and it all gets fuzzy, dropping in a quick Kant theory and many examples of Zulus and Cossacks till a couple hours reading I get some vague feeling of where he is going, but it was a lot of work - and I know a couple paragraphs written in pub-talk level explanation would have made it all clear in a quarter of the words....

But the guy is a scholar, and every word has to mean neither more or less than it must, so on and on it goes when brevity and homily would work so much better for us hobbiest readers.

Now we need a parallel essay on the dangers of understanding too easily. Reader overconfidence is unexplored terrain.

sábado, junho 08, 2002

Working-Class Fiction: "The Rainbow" by D. H. Lawrence





(Original Review, 2002-06-08)


Lawrence is "uneven," but of the four novels I've read by him, "The Rainbow" is the best. I read "Sons and Lovers" at the British Council. I loved it at 15, but loved it far less 2 years later. I liked "Lady Chatterley's Lover" more than I thought I would, but that maybe because of all the scorn I'd heard poured on it before I read the book. I read "The Rainbow" before I read "Women in Love", and found the first of the diptych far superior to the second. "Women in Love" often seemed to me to read like Lawrence at his overblown, blood flowing, loin thrusting worst. It disappointed me, in large part, because I thought it would be more like "The Rainbow", which seems a far more measured book to me. I agree with what a number of people have already said about Lawrence's depiction of nature in "The Rainbow", but it also seems to me a novel that could only have been written by an author from a working-class background. I can't think of another novel from that period that captures so well the complexities of working-class life, the alliances, and differences, between working-class people, and the difficulties and tensions experienced by those who make it out of the working-class into a middle-class life. It's those moments in the novel that stood out for me, and they are the reasons I see it as the best of Lawrence's novels.

I'm among those cited in this article who devoured DHL in adolescence and found, on returning to his novels decades later, that they seemed almost unreadable in their fevered emotional immaturity. On second reading, the most interesting thing to me about “The Rainbow” and “Women in Love” was DHL's unique dialogue. I finally decided that his dialogue is written as if the internal thoughts of the characters were literally printed on the paper, as opposed to the more realistic way in which we translate those thoughts into everyday speech. Clearly, it’s a matter of taste but if nothing else.

quarta-feira, junho 05, 2002

Extraordinary Coincidences: "The World of Yesterday" by Stefan Zweig





(Original Review from the German and English editions, 2002-06-05)



"The World of Yesterday" has its flaws - some of the scenes that Zweig claims to have witnessed, particularly around the outbreak and conclusion of the Great War seem such extraordinary coincidences as to be barely credible. And on the subject of style, it's hard for a non-native German speaker to judge, so the opinion of Michael Hofmann - who's such a magnificent and sympathetic translator of Zweig's far greater contemporary Joseph Roth - has to carry some weight.

But I can't help suspecting that Zweig's paying the price for his popularity here: the fact that his novellas were made into "women's pictures", that he was so fascinated with the past, and with the nuances of social hierarchy; that he dared suggest that the pre-1918 European order might, on reflection, have been a rather better world than what succeeded it. (It's not just Zweig; Roth's modern champions, including Hofmann, invariably play down, or appear properly embarrassed by his passionate late-flowering monarchism). Absolute anathema to "progressive" intellectuals then and now (though you can see why an Austrian Jew might have preferred the world of 1913 to that of 1938. And why an eloquent, readable advocate of those values could have had a massive inter-war following).

Which is not to deny a certain "pulp" quality in some of his writing. But still, while he may not have been a great stylist, he does have an ear for the telling phrase, and - in "Beware of Pity", for example - he evokes the values, social structures, tastes and feelings of an entire vanished civilisation to wonderfully vivid effect. In my view, it's second only to "The Radetzky March" as an evocation of the moment of the Austro-Hungarian apocalypse; and as a history teacher, I recommended it to students for evoking a "feel" of the period in a way that I simply couldn't with the less readable, but more intellectually respectable, Broch or Musil.

And let's face it, Zweig is hardly outselling Dan Brown in the English-speaking world. Better, surely, that he's read than not - and it'd be a shame if this academic spat deterred a single genuinely curious reader.


segunda-feira, junho 03, 2002

Unforced Intimacy: "Buchmendel" by Stefan Zweig





(Original Review from the German and English editions, 2002-06-03)



Someone might say that there is a danger of a kind of blinkered euphoria surrounding a writer like Zweig, the mobilising of an army of too easily won over devotees, Sunday supplement blurb believers who can recognise a compelling novel or novella, but misjudge the modernist credentials of writing which an experienced critic is seeking, so that someone can line that writer up alongside the true innovators of twentieth century literature, in German terms Musil, Mann, Kafka et al. But then what really matters in the end, whether a few axe grinding critics are convinced or whether a won over reader is inwardly rewarded?

However, I simply do not recognise Zweig should be dismissed as “second rate”. Second-eate-Zweig is not the Stefan Zweig I know, nor is it the Stefan Zweig whose travel essays I have tried rendering into the Portuguese language. Zweig really has his origins as writer in the late Nineteenth century. It has been said more than once he is an heir to Maupassant for example, though he was also an heir spiritually to Verhaeren, the great Belgian poet, who in a literary travesty of titanic proportions, is entirely unknown in Portugal. Zweig's writing is of a different kind altogether to those some critics assemble as his firing squad, and I would argue that at its best has a delicacy, sparseness and understated poignancy, a penetrative psychology (recognised by Freud and others) which has for a long time been applauded in France and other European countries, whilst Portugal has squatted like some bloated complacent toad on the sidelines, engorged on its own entrails, only to wake now and start a monotonous croaking over Zweig's merits. Yes there are some clichés and hackneyed effects in certain of Zweig's writings, I don't object to that accusation. He can also be repetitive and over-egg the adulatory mixture on occasion (e.g., “The World of Yesterday”). But if we have insight we can see that he often achieves something miraculous by engaging the reader, in a satisfying or disturbing psychological 'self-recognition' through his characters. Zweig's biographical essay archive is vast and amongst the more popular portraits is studded with undeniable quality, such as the monograph on Erasmus from 1935, or the fascinating essay on Nietzsche, not to mention the final incomplete essay on Montaigne, which offers clues to his, again not properly understood, suicidal propensity. To accuse Zweig of being a “second-rate writer” or “coat tailing on the genius of others” is tempting once one sees him as easy prey, but in fact another predictable mistake. What Zweig was doing was trying to articulate the psychology of those people he admired, to make a deeper reading of their lives if you will, in the same way that a translator does when they treat a text of an author they passionately admire. What makes the most accomplished of these portraits so effective is Zweig's unforced intimacy, his instinctive personal fusing with his subject. Yes, it is about 'him,' but only in so far as to enable the flowering of his subject. But people are entirely ignorant in this country of such a legacy, whilst in France all these books are in print, published by major presses in paperback editions and displayed to the fore in every literary bookshop, here the Portuguese Literati merely fumble about doing the odd reissue of Chess and Granta, one time bastion of European lit' in translation, dumbs down to do only translations of English fiction, we are left with small presses to take on the Zweig back catalogue. I presume the debate on Zweig's qualities will persist and the see-saw will find its own momentum. For those who are still confused, I would say go out and buy the short story “Buchmendel,” I would say to those who recognize in Zweig a first-rate writer, read that incomparably moving story and then tell me that Zweig is only “a second-rate writer.”

sábado, junho 01, 2002

Me vs. Karjakin: "Schachnovelle" by Stefan Zweig





(Original Review from the German and English editions, 2002-06-01)



My lichens rating has gone down the proverbial toilet. I went from 1800 to 1600. Been losing simple games. I hate it when I get ahead and then lose. The other day I even managed to fuck up w text book draw with opposite bishops. I think of myself as a club level Karjakin but Sergey appears in my dreams and asks me to stop sullying his good name.

All players go thru the game yips from time to time, they suck while they're happening but just go with the current flow, don't get irritated and down on yourself; they will pass. I'd avoid playing rated hustlers too; I lost near 300 FIDE points back in '10, it was my first experience of the yips, know better now for sure. I seriously feel for the top dudes and dudettes, their yips are so public.

I’m sure Sergey would be proud of me; he's a real player who loves chess. He ain't one of the players I think have reached undeserved heights; defense is a great offence in the right hands; he has real game.

'Why not just play tic-tac-toe against Karjakin,' says I? (Karjakin anwers: 'Because you know I'd kick your arse. Why don’t you play against me??')

'Karjakin, my middle game in noughts and crosses ('tic tac toe??' please!) is unbeatable! You’ll never see my moves coming...' (Karjakin: 'Because it lacks the required intellectual challenge or permutations of chess. However I can see why you consider it to be so difficult and a real intellectual challenge.')

'Yes, but have you played against the computer Deep Noughts and Crosses? Until then you will remain the uncrowned King...') (Karjakin: I beat WOPR, obvs, and continued to beat its successors right through the 90s; but yeah, I confess, I've not beaten any of the "deep" series...')

'I’ll give you a hint Karjakin. Whoever goes first wins if they select the corners. Surely most kids learn this while they're still in "elementary school" '. (Karjakin: 'Not true. But if you start from the corner there is only one move for your opponent to avoid a forced loss: unfortunately it is the obvious one. Whereas if you start from the middle there are four forced wins and four probable draws depending on your opponent’s response, so I prefer to start from the corner because it increases my odds.'

'At this stage tic-tac-toe is more likely to produce a winner than chess,' I keep on fighting. (Karjakin: 'and there lies the reason for the death of chess. FIDE should be sued for not changing things (i.e. the rules in some format) many years back. Even football which is prehistoric in terms of changing rules has done it a few times for the betterment of the game.'

'Sue FIDE for what? Millions of people have tried tweaking the rules of chess. None of them have gained popularity because they are inferior to the current version. Typically because they introduce an element of luck. If you want randomness watch the Risk World Championship.' (Karjakin: 'I like to intimidate my opponents during midgame by throwing in a "B". Their resolve crumbles when they see the word "BOO" in front of them. We should play sometime. I won’t play tic-tac-toe because it's a solved game with a tiny state space. Its real name isn't Tic-Tac-Toe, btw. It's Zero-X.)'