Saturday, 31 January 2015

The Princess by Anton Chekhov

Portrait of Anton Chekhov (1886)
Isaac Levitan
source Wikiart

This short story is my fourth read for my Deal Me In Challenge 2015.

What happened to Narcissus when he looked at his own reflection in the pool? This beautiful hunter from Boeotia fell in love with himself, and in fact was so deeply infatuated, in his self-obsession he fell into the pool and drowned.  Not a very fitting end for one with so much promise.

Narcissus (1594-96)
source Wikipedia

In Chekhov's story we meet the Princess, a lovely young woman who arrives at an isolated monastery for a night's stay.  She is so thrilled to be there, gushing effusively about the setting and the priests and brothers who have received her.  She wants to forget her life in the city and the monastery and its occupants give her the tools to do so.  But the reader soon realizes that her arrival, instead of being a moment of interest and delight, is instead looked upon with discomfort and even dread by the good brothers of the monastery, and one feels that the Princess, in spite of her outward joie-de-vivre and vivacious personality, is only noticing the benefits that she gets from her visit, without concern for anything or anyone around her.

Soon she meets Mikhail Ivanovitch there, a doctor whom she'd earlier employed in her service, but instead of a warm reception for her, the doctor's replies drip icicles.  Our poor, puzzled Princess cannot understand ..... why the reserve, especially when she condoles with him upon the death of his wife, an event that is certainly sad, but of course, life must go on.  When she mentions the mistakes she's made in life and the doctor agrees, she begs him to enlighten her.  Perhaps she should have been more careful in what she asked for.  Directly he begins to catalogue her offenses, taking her to task for her lack of sympathy, her greed, her complete disdain for the feelings of others .......... in fact, the whole system of life that she has built around her is false and cruel, breeding those traits, and choking out any love or caring.  She has replaced God with herself, and therefore is no longer able to understand the creation in which she lives.

Oh!  The Princess is hurt, she is distraught, she is devasted!  That cruel, uneducated, ill-bred man!  How could he speak so to her, to HER, a princess?!  She must use her only defence against these horrid accusations, and so she begins to cry.  The doctor is immediately contrite and leaves her.  When they meet the next day, the princess is once again herself, gay and blithe as she prepares to leave, expecting everyone to admire and entertain her even as she promises to come again soon.  The unpleasantness of the day before is blotted from memory as once more she strives to be the centre of the world.

The Unsmiling Tsarevna (1916-26)
Niktor Vasnetsov
source Wikiart

In spite of the inclination to laugh at the princess' stupidity and complete self-absorption, this story is quite a tragic one.  Her character is certainly one of a narcissist, and anything that exists around her, merely exists for her alone.  She is devoid of the character traits that make one truly human and, therefore, is not much better than a beast.

On November 15, 1888, Chekhov wrote to his publisher, stating that he was writing a story about a "vile woman".  Three days later Chekhov wrote, "I want to write protest stories this season ------  I must learn the knack, but it bores me because I'm not used to it," which makes one wonder if the doctor's social protest was supposed to be the hub of the story.  In any case, both character's roles offered a ripe opportunity for social and psychological examination.  This was an excellent story that certainly makes me want to read more of Chekhov's works.

Deal Me in Challenge (#4) - Six of Clubs

Monday, 26 January 2015

The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi

"There was, once upon a time ......."

The Adventures of Pinocchio was originally serialized in the two years prior to its publication in 1883, and was written by the Italian children's writer Carlo Collodi.  Initially Collodi had Pinocchio die a rather gruesome death at the end of chapter 15 (which is rather reminiscent of Hilaire Belloc's instructional children's poetry), but his editor urged another ending, so the reader was finally treated to an extra 21 chapters and a wise addition it was!  The book has been translated into 240 languages and remains an icon in children's literature.

Pinocchio begins as a talking block of wood that is given to a woodcarver named Gepetto, who carves him into a puppet and tries to teach him sense, responsibility and moderation.  Yet instead of being grateful to his creator, Pinocchio follows his own selfish inclinations and calamitous adventures are the result of his self-indulgent, thoughtless decisions.

From being defrauded of his money by a Cat and a Fox, nearly roasted in a fire, hung by his neck on a tree, arrested and thrown in jail, turned into a donkey, and eaten by a fish, one wonders why Pinocchio doesn't learn his lesson and become a good boy. But through these disastrous adventures, we see changes in Pinocchio that are like small flickering lights in the inky darkness of his character.  Initially his zest for fun is nearly uncontrollable but, while it can seem doubtful on the surface, he steadily learns from each adventure, and at each temptation, he is able to put up more resistance.  Pinocchio wants to be good, but his conscience is at continual war with his boyish enthusiasm and his childish lack of forethought and discipline.  The blue fairy, who is like a mother to him and attempts to aid in his moral development, is harsh in her instruction, but Pinocchio benefits from this treatment, knowing she is looking out for his best interests.  And in spite of her firmness, love is always in her actions:
"I saw from the sincerity of your grief that you had a good heart; and when boys have good hearts, even if they are scamps and have bad habits, there is always something to hope for: that is, there is always hope that they will turn to better ways ..."
Eventually Pinocchio learns how dangerous it can be to follow your impulses of the moment, and that responsibility and hard work bring a maturity that is rewarded in a way, that fun and pleasure can never match.


Was I imagining it, or were there a number of Biblical allusions in the story? When Pinocchio buried his money, it reminded me of the parable of the talents, where the servant chooses selfishly to bury his money instead of making good use of it.  With the large fish swallowing Gepetto, of course, this alluded to Jonah and the whale.  And finally, all Pinocchio's catastrophic adventures that come about by his poor life choices and his eventual change of heart, are on parallel with the story of the prodigal son, who finally returns home to the one who truly loves him and has his best interests at heart.

The Return of the Prodigal Son (1773)
Pompeo Batoni
source Wikipedia

In spite of some of the more bloodthirsty episodes, this was truly a heart-warming story.  That sentence sounds odd, I know, but I really appreciated the reality of Collodi's message.  The company we keep has an enormous influence on the character that we will develop, and each of our decisions in life carry an import, sometimes with consequences that are not easily realized. For me, the most shocking part of the story was the episode where the Cat and Fox hung Pinocchio in a tree expecting him to die, but honestly in some bad decisions the outcome could be death, and it's important to realize that.

Finally, I'll share a few pictures by illustrator Fritz Kredel from my 1946 edition that are rather fun:

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf

"He --- for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fasion of the time did something to disguise it --- was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters."

My experience with Woolf's writing is limited yet expanding.  I loved reading To The Lighthouse for its somewhat dream-like qualities and was rather pleasantly lulled by its stream-of-consciousness style.  Mrs. Dalloway I enjoyed, but I didn't connect with it as much as I'd hoped and was left in a somewhat puzzled frame of mind at the end.  After reading Orlando, I was left with this same feeling.  What exactly did I just read and who was this Orlando?

Orlando is a young man born in the reign of Elizabeth I, and the novel follows him through his youth, as he has an affair with a Russian princess, cares for his ancestral estate, travels on diplomatic missions, etc.  The theme of writing is also explored, in his rejection by a famous poet and various other allusions. Finally he falls into a trace and, lo, awakes a woman.  This transformation does not seem  to surprise him, and she carries on her life as if nothing remise has occurred, yet upon returning to England she finds her estate embroiled in financial turmoil.  While remaining a woman, she fashionably switches between genders, eventually marries a sea captain, wins the lawsuit with regard to her property and that's about it.  Woolf herself acts as an historical biographer and with her comic and satirical descriptions of certain people, I wasn't sure if she was parodying herself as narrator, or taking a poke at a particular figure of her time and society.

Honestly I don't have much to say about the book.  Twentieth century literature always does this to me.  I expect to be "informed and amused," as books attempted to do historically (see my Gulliver's Travels post for some extra information on writers' intent) and end up somewhat disappointed when I'm only amused.  While I enjoyed the book, it would probably get only 3.5 stars from me.  In spite of my resolution to love it, 20th century literature always falls short.  Certainly the stream of consciousness writing is an interesting experiment, the disjointed prose perhaps a comment on the human psyche and the other artistic experiments are worth examining, but I'm always left with an empty feeling at the end.  What was the author really trying to say?  What did I learn?  What could I take away from the book that would change me in some fundamental way?

Yet, it turns out Woolf herself perhaps was not as satisfied with Orlando as she'd hoped.  Woolf wrote in her diary:

"I have written this book quicker than any; and it is all a joke; and yet gay and quick reading, I think; a writer's holiday."

"......... begun ..... as a joke: and now rather too long for my liking.  It may fall between stools; being too long for a joke, and too frivolous for a serious book."

"Orlando taught me how to write a direct sentence; taught me continuity and narrative and how to keep the realities at bay.  But I purposely avoided, of course, any other difficulty.  I never got down to my depths and made shapes square up, as I did in the Lighthouse ...... I want fun.  I want fantasy."

And yes, Woolf wasn't meaning this book to be serious at all:

"My notion is that there are offices to be discharged by talent for the relief of genius: meaning that one has the play side; the gift when it is mere gift, unapplied gift; and the gift when it is serious, going to business.  And one relieves the other."

And so Orlando was a playful, frivolous fantasy that enraptures the reader, as Woolf captures your imagination with her wonderfully vibrant prose and light-hearted fanciful tone.  And I can enjoy it on that level.  Yet it is still only a wonderfully decorative cake, and I feel like I've missed the main meal.

O at Behold the Stars has an excellent review of Orlando, and with her comprehensive knowledge of Woolf, will be able to give you much more insight into the book than I have.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

The Plague Read-Along Update #3

I'm reading The Plague by Albert Camus as part of a read-along with Bookstooge.

Part III & Part IV

As the deaths from the plague mount, the town runs out of coffins and room in the cemetary.  Eventually the victims are disposed of in much the same way as the rats early in the story.  Yuck!  Reality appears to set in on the collective group and the citizens of Oran feel united in their plight.  Cottard continues to make money amid the suffering, Rambert decides to stay in Oran, in spite of being given a new plague serum M. Othon's young son dies in agony, Father Panaloux delivers a fiery sermon and then succumbs to a sickness which does not resemble the plague, Tarrou confesses his history and we find he is in rebellion against societal systems which are "plagues" themselves, and Grand is found wandering the streets ill and somewhat disoriented.  He is expected to die but he recovers and soon 4 other patients follow suit.  Has the plague finally run its course?

St. Charles cares for the
plague victims of Milan (1655)
Jacob Jordaens
source Wikiart

Thoughts:  In these two parts Camus deals in depth with the psychological effects of the plague, but not only this particular plague.  Tarrou recounts how horrified he was at his father's behaviour in his vocation as a lawyer; how he advocated for the death of defendents without any compassion or thought. Tarrou directly left this kind of life, joining societies that would fight against it, only to find that the very people who condemned these actions, would commit them themselves, if they thought the ends justified the means.  Disgusted by people in general and referring to their actions as a type of a "plague", Tarrou has placed himself in voluntary exile, removing himself and trying to live by "sympathy."

Alienation appears to be a central theme.  Rieux must alienate himself from his feelings to continue to work, Cottard feels more in tune with group suffering but in reality he is still alienated, of course as mentioned above, Tarrou is alienated, the citizens of Oran are alienated from the rest of the world as they are in quarantine, and each person, to an extent, is alienated from another in fear of catching the plague.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

The Forgotten Daughter

Author:  Caroline Dale Snedecker

Illustrator:  Dorothy P. Lathrop

Era:  2nd century B.C. (around 113 B.C.)

Published:  1933 (Doubleday)

Award:  Newberry Honor (1934)

Age Range:  8 - 14 years old

Review:  ★★★★

Twelve year old Chloé lives with her companion, Melissa, in a shack in mountains of Samnium outside of Rome.  The daughter of a Greek slave and a Roman centurion, at her mother's death she is abandoned by her father to her fate, which is that of a slave.  As Chloé grows to womanhood, she draws from the animals and nature around her as companions.  Her character is as lovely as the woods around her, yet still she nurses an abiding hatred for the man who should have loved, nurtured and raised her as his own.  When a young Roman nobleman arrives at a neighbouring villa and encounters the young girl, Chloé's circumstances appear destined to change for the better, yet her past finally catches up with her and Chloe must decide whether she will hold on to the ghosts of the past or reach forward into a new future.

Map of Ancient Samnium
from the Historical Atlas William R. Shepherd (1911)
source Wikipedia

Snedecker was known for her extensive research using only primary or secondary sources, and The Forgotten Daughter sings with a melody of the past.  Snedecker's writing brings Roman life to the reader in vibrant colours and poignant emotions.  The descriptions of the setting are beautiful and living, and as a reader you feel that you have stepped right into the story.

Chloé's life as a child slave was perhaps the most troubling and effective portrait that I've every read in a book.

"Forever besetting mankind is this temptation --- to make other men into machines.  Always in a new form it comes to every generation, and always as disastrous to master as to slave."

 Snedecker delves into the emotions of the characters in such a visceral way and with an uncanny perception.

"Despair in the old is a grievous thing, but not so bad as despair in the young.  The young have no weapons, no remembrances of evils overcome, nor of evils endured.  They have no muscle-hardness from old battles.  They see only what is present, and they believe it to be forever.  And they are very sure.  Besides, joy and up-springing are the right of youth, and without it youth falls to the ground."

The theme of slavery was obvious on the surface but also subtly explored through other occurences, weaving fine threads of insight through an already well-constructed story.  I absolutely loved this read and will be seeking out other books by Snedecker.

This book was read for Amanda at Simpler Pastimes Children's Literature Event.

A more extensive review can be found at my children's blog, Children's Classic Book Carousel.

Deal Me In Challenge #3 - Ace of Hearts

Monday, 19 January 2015

The Plague Read-Along Update #2

I'm reading The Plague by Albert Camus as part of a read-along with Bookstooge.

Part II

Camus examines the experiences of different people when faced with disease and death.  Some ignore the obvious, some, who are in the throes of love affairs are nearly oblivious to the plague's effects, some seek pleasures without limits, some profit from the disaster, and some attempt to escape the quarantine.

The plague becomes pneumonic and can now be transmitted by air.  Not good.  A sermon is given by Father Paneloux stating that the plague has been sent from God to punish the citizens for their sins and, oddly, Grand is writing a book and agonizing over the perfection of the first sentence.  Rambert, the journalist, is desperate to escape and enlists Cottard for help, as Cottard is now benefiting from the plague through smuggling.  We find that Cottard had committed a crime earlier in life and that is what lead to his suicide attempt. With his escape delayed, Rambert finally agrees to join the sanitation committee who keep the town clean, in perhaps a futile effort to stay the pestilence.

The Fifth Plague of Egypt (1800)
William Turner
source Wikiart

Thoughts:  I can see how Camus lets us examine the effects of the plague through an examination of certain characters of the town and their reactions to it.  Rieux is the calm in the storm of the disaster and is a sort of anchor for the story.  Cottard is rather fascinating.  He has at some past time committed a crime for which he, early in the novel, attempts to escape the ramifications of it through suicide.  He is on the outside of the community with this secret and his internal conflict pushes him to an extreme action.  Yet with the advent of the plague, it is as if the community has been brought to his level with their suffering and Cottard, I'm afraid to say, appears to almost feed off this suffering and carves a rather satisfying life for himself within the hurricane of despair around him.  And what's with Grand and his story?  His battle to write the perfect sentence is obviously going to be a failure.  What was Camus doing here?  Was he trying to show that perfection is never to be found, but we should struggle for it in any case?  Hmmm ......

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Persuasion Read-Along Update #1

Read-along hosted by Heidi from Literary Adventures Along the Brandywine who, I must say, is doing an amazing job with her chapter updates!

Book I - Chapters 1 - 6

Sir Walter Elliot, widower, and the father of three young ladies, Elizabeth, Anne and Mary Elliot, is the proud owner of Kellynch-Hall in Somersetshire.  Due to financial difficulties and, perhaps a too liberal economy, Sir Walter is forced to come to the realization that the family must tighten their purse strings in order to retain their respective position in society and avoid ruin.  Through a manipulative type of convincing by Lady Russell, an old family friend, and Mr. Shepherd, his lawyer, Sir Walter abandons his principles and agrees to let Kellynch to Mr. and Mrs. Cole, a mere admiral and his wife.  It just so happens that the brother of Mrs. Cole, Captain Wentworth, at one time had had an understanding with Anne and they were set to marry.  Yet when both Sir Walter and the respected Lady Russell rejected the match, Anne backed down and the engagement was broken.  As we reach chapter 6, Sir Walter and Elizabeth have removed to Bath to find a new lodging, Anne is visiting Mary who is ill (it seems perpetually ill), the Coles take possession of Kellynch Hall and there is the impending visit of Captain Wentworth to his sister.


I use the word "manipulative" in describing Lady Russell's and Mr. Shepherd's behaviour, but honestly, nothing less would work with Sir Walter.  His wife had been a model of tact, economy and amiability and her beneficial character traits had tempered Sir Walter's trying ones, but since her death his vanity and pretentiousness had not only re-emerged, but grown to gigantic proportions. His value is for outward appearances, and inner qualities are completely discounted in his arrogance.  He is not a pleasant person.

Anne is not yet well-sketched.  We sense she is quiet and moderate but she gives us little insight into her private thoughts or emotions.  In fact, I find that the other characters act as a foil to hers:  Sir Walter's selfishness and elitism, Elizabeth's snobbiness and sense of entitlement, Mary's ill health and complaining, Mr. Shepherd's manipulation, etc.  In comparison, Anne is set in a golden halo of goodness.  Sadly I have not quite bought into her character yet. And heavens, it doesn't help that I had watched the movie years ago, before I'd read the book, and was so disappointed with Amanda Root's portrayal of Anne.  I had hoped that Anne would have some unique qualities that set her apart but, aside from being an extremely good person, I'm still waiting to find that true and special flower among the weeds of her companions.

Lady William Henry Cavendish Bentinck
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres
source Wikiart

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis

"I never knew that grief felt so much like fear."

In A Grief Observed Lewis shares his thoughts and emotions with regard to the death of his wife, Joy Davidson, and it is perhaps one of the most powerful books on suffering that I've ever read.  As a reader, you are drawn into his grief and, contrary to what the title suggests, you can feel and experience Lewis' anguish right alongside him, at times almost against your will.  Lewis is pain personified, and it's raw and it's shocking.

In his book, The Problem of Pain, Lewis deals with suffering from an aspect of reason and pragmatism, but in A Grief Observed, he is a broken man, on one hand calling out for sense and understanding to apply to a situation that is beyond comprehension, and on the other, resisting examining his situation. Lewis' faith was shaken but not broken.  He does not deny God, yet he does ask what kind of God is He?  What type of God would allow something like this to happen?  He asks hard questions, makes brutally honest statements, and you wonder if this man is on his way to losing his faith.

“Talk to me about the truth of religion and I'll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I'll listen submissively. But don't come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don't understand.”

Yet why can't we ask hard questions of our Maker?  Why can't we storm and rage against the injustices of life?  Lewis kicked and stormed against the door of Heaven and instead he found an opening into his own soul.

“God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn't. In this trial He makes us occupy the dock, the witness box, and the bench all at once. He always knew that my temple was a house of cards. His only way of making me realize the fact was to knock it down.”

After long endeavouring to remember his wife's countenance, it is only when he stops struggling to see Joy, that her face suddenly returns to his mind. Lewis finally realizes that we need to seek God for Himself --- for who He is ---- and not for what we can get from Him.

“You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn't you then first discover how much you really trusted it?”

Madeleine L'Engle writes in her introduction to the book:  "I am grateful to Lewis for having the courage to yell, to doubt, to kick at God in angry violence. This is part of a healthy grief which is not often encouraged.  It is helpful indeed that C.S. Lewis, who has been such a successful apologist for Christianity, should have the courage to admit doubt about what he has so superbly proclaimed.  It gives us permission to admit our own doubts, our own anger and anguishes, and to know that they are part of the soul's growth."

courtesy of Dawn Huczek
source Flickr
Creative Commons


C.S. Lewis Project

Monday, 12 January 2015

The Cabin Faced West

Author:  Jean Fritz

Illustrator:  Feodor Rojankovsky

Era:  1784

Published:  1958 (G.P. Puntam's Sons)

Award:  none known 

Age Range:  3 - 12 years old

Review:  ★★★★★

Fritz relates the wonderfully poignant story of Ann Hamilton, a young girl who has moved west with her family, which include her parents, and two brothers. Her father, in his wisdom, emphasizes that the family must "look west" now, and that there should be no looking back.  Ann, however, finds this resolve difficult.  She misses her family, especially her cousin, Margaret, who was her best friend.  How will she be able to carve out a new identity for herself in this new unfamiliar land.  Who is this new Ann, who is now a pioneer girl?

Eventually, through various interactions with her family, other settlers, and George Washington himself, Ann learns the value of this new land and her place within it.

Set during the late 1700s, this story is based on a true one which happened to Fritz's great-great-grandmother, Ann Hamilton.  George Washington did indeed stop at the Hamilton's for dinner on September 18, 1784.  His diary reads:  "Set out with Doctr. Craik for my Land on Miller's Run.  Crossed the Monongahela at Devore's Ferry ---- bated at one Hamilton's about 4 miles from it, in Washington County, and lodged at Colo. Cannon's"  And so the story passed down through generations to finally be shared with us all.

For a more extensive review, please see my Classical Children's Carousel!

Oh yes, and the first book read for the January Classical Children's Literature Event!

Deal Me in Challenge (#2) - Eight of Hearts

Saturday, 10 January 2015

The Plague Read-Along Update #1

I'm reading The Plague by Albert Camus as part of a read-along with Bookstooge and so far am quite enjoying it!

Part I

Suddenly in the port town of Oran in Algeria, rats begin to die.  Dr. Rieux happens upon the first rat, and from there, their numbers grow.  As the population of dead rats increases from a trickle to a flood, people start to sicken with fevers and swollen glands in the neck, armpits and groin.  The narrator introduces us to a man called Jean Tarrou, who is vacationing in Oran and claims that his notebooks will give an unusual window into the burgeoning epidemic. With the corpses beginning to pile up, it becomes more difficult to pretend the disease is anything other than the plague or a type of plague.  Dr. Rieux suggests that the information be released to the public, but Dr. Richard still attempts to minimize the crisis, and only signs with sparse information appear in town.  More deaths and the state of emergency can no longer be ignored.  The town is put into quarantine.

Thoughts:  The narrator was so careful to set himself up as credible.  He's quick to declare that everything he relates will be able to be corroborated.   Tarrou is also described as a person who will give a unique perspective to the plague because he focuses on particulars instead of generalizations ...... he's a peculiar fellow and I wonder if his peculiarities will have some specific bearing on the story.  Cottard's attempted suicide and his change of personality from introverted liberal to a friendly conservative is also puzzling.  I quite like Dr. Rieux so far; sensible and intelligent, with little time to suffer fools, he is so far very clear-sighted.

The manner in which Camus links and compares the response to war and plague gives the reader a very believable portrait.

"...... There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always the plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.  In fact, like all our fellow-citizens, Rieux was caught off his guard, and we should understand his hesitations in the light of this fact; and similarly understand how he was torn between conflicting fears and confidence.  When a war breaks out people say, 'It's too stupid; it can't last long.'  But though a war may we be 'too stupid', that doesn't prevent its lasting.  Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves."

So not only do we have a tragedy brewing, we have a little mystery mixed in with a dollop of varying personalities.  An interesting recipe to be sure!

Friday, 9 January 2015

Meditations by René Descartes

"My reason  for offering you this book is very persuasive, and I am confident that you will have an equally strong reason for defending it once you understand why I wrote it; thus the best way of commending it to you is to say a few words about my objective in writing it"

Descartes set out to examine how "everything that can be known about God can be shown by reasons that derive from no other source but our own mind, .... and how God can be known more easily and more certainly than worldly things."  However even as he claims his investigations as "certain and evident," he is concerned that not everyone has the ability to grasp them.  Right then, I knew I was in for a philosophically dense read.  Yet while I trembled, I soon began to realize that Descartes splits his meditations into manageable chunks and, if you employ your brain for short periods, his explanations and arguments can penetrate.  I also realized that the title of the book could be of assistance.  These thoughts of Descartes were ideas that were probably products of hours and days and years of pondering and questioning and seeking.  If it took him that long to produce the ideas, I'd have to be willing to meditate on them if I wanted to develop a basic understanding.  And so I went on ....

First Meditation:  Things which can be called into Doubt

Descartes explores false knowledge, which he distinguishes from the unknowable: "there is nothing among my former beliefs that cannot be doubted and that this is so not as a result of levity or lack of reflection but for sound and considered reasons."  It is necessary to discard all beliefs that aren't absolute to determine what is known for certain.  There are many comparisons to thought while asleep and thought while dreaming.  He concludes with:
"I am like a prisoner who happens to enjoy an imaginary freedom in his dreams and who subsequently begins to suspect that he is asleep and, afraid of being awakened, conspires silently with his agreeable illusions.  Likewise, I spontaneously lapse into my earlier beliefs and am afraid of being awakened from them, in case my peaceful sleep is followed by a laborious awakening and I live in future, not in the light, but amid the inextricable darkness of the problems just discussed."

Second Meditation:  The Nature of the Human Mind, and that it is better known than the Body

Descartes thoughts continue from his supposition from his first meditation and he decides that everything is false.  Yet if all he believes is false, he does conclude that one thing is true:  he exists.  His reasoning is something like this:
  1. He exists if he is not being deceived.
  2. He exists if he is being deceived.
  3. Therefore, if he is being deceived or not being deceived, he exists
  4. He is either being deceived or not being deceived.
Interestingly, St. Augustine also argued "fallor ergo sum", or "I am being deceived, therefore I exist".

I think here Descartes arguments are of a personal and not necessarily a general nature:  his mind exists because his thoughts exist.  However, he still hasn't proven that he exists.

Rene Descartes with Queen
Christina of Sweden
source Wikipedia

Third Meditation:  The Existence of God

Descartes starts to lose me here.  He examines the dream state and questions how we can know it from reality and then he discusses the all-powerful God which we know and how we could be deceived in our perception of him (I think).  Very logically he states that if he is being deceived, that very fact proves his existence.  He comes to the conclusion that God is not a deceiver but leaves the door open to accept that there is something that is.

I was fascinated by Descartes exploration into ideas.  There are ideas which come to us that do not originate with us and, in fact, sometimes impose themselves on us.  If they are not products of our will, does that not point to there being something other than us?
"But if I derived my existence from myself, there would be nothing that I would either doubt or wish for, nor would I lack absolutely anything.  For I would have given myself every perfection of which I have some idea and thus I would be God himself."
Whew, that's certainly something to think about!

Fourth Meditation:  Truth and Falsehood

Yikes, and even deeper we go ........  Descartes concludes that God exists and his existence depends on Him.  God cannot deceive because deception involves some sort of imperfection and God is perfect.  When Descartes focuses on God he finds no error in himself, but when he focuses on himself, he is full of errors.  He calls himself an intermediate being between God and nothingness.

With regard to errors, he proposes that two faculties come into play:  the faculty of knowledge and the faculty of choosing from his own free will, in other word, intellect and will.  Through his intellect he perceived ideas but through his will he can make judgements.  There is a problem though:  his intellect is limited ---- it cannot perceive all ideas and it does not always perceive clearly and distinctly ----- whereas his will is unlimited ---- it can make, deny or suspend judgements on anything.  Yet as long as he does not make wrong judgements in his will, he is safe ...... if he simply suspends judgement on ideas he's not certain of, he cannot be wrong.

Descartes at Work
source Wikipedia

Fifth Meditation:  The Essence of Material Things, Another Discussion of God's Existence

Descartes provides a new argument for the existence of God, in that if he thinks that he exists, existence in inseparable from God and therefore He exists ...... or at least, I think that's what he's saying.  Such as:

1.  God is a being that has all perfections
2.  Existence is a perfection
------>   God exists

There are three famous arguments about Descartes' position (one of them being Kant's argument that existence isn't a perfection) but none hold up to logical examination, so I guess Descartes is still the winner.

Sixth Meditation:  The Essence of Material Things, and the Real Distinction Between Mind and Body

Wow, this is getting challenging!  To argue for a material world, Descartes examines what is contained in his own soul.   There is a delineation between imagining and pure understanding.  He concludes he could exist without imagining, therefore imagining must be outside his mind and connected to the body.  Next he examines the senses, which he feels come involuntarily and therefore connect ideas to the mind.  The next puzzle is why the mind is connected to the body .........  With all these quite impressive logical acrobatics, he begins to believe material objects exist but perhaps not in the way he has always believed.  There are a number of other investigations into our senses and their role, why we make unwise decisions, and that the body is divisible, yet the mind is not.  He ends by stating:
" For from the fact that God is not a deceiver it follows that, in such cases, I am completely free from error.  But the urgency of things to be done does not always allow us time for such a careful examination; it must be granted, therefore, that human life is often subject to mistakes about particular things, and the weakness of our nature must be acknowledged."

As much as it completely strained my brain, the Sixth Mediation really resonated with me.  I remember as a small child wondering why I was me. How was it that I felt contained in this particular body and not another?  Why was I chosen to be me?  How?  Why was I a soul living in Canada and not somewhere else?  I think this was the start of realizing that I had a soul and was something more than just a mechanical shell or a biological entity.  And if that was true, then where did I come from and who made me?  Perhaps not original questions, but ones that I think we should think about more in life.  Yes, we should all be philosophers!

Philosopher in Meditation
Rembrandt (1631)
source Wikipedia

Getting back to the book, it continues with "objections" or responses from Johan de Kater, a Catholic theologian from Holland; Fr. Marin Mersenne; Antoine Arnauld, a Jansenism theologian; Thomas Hobbes; and Pierre Gassendi, a priest, scientist, astronomer and mathematician.  I really had to laugh reading some of these objections.  In fact, the Catholics were the ones who questioned the logic Descartes used to prove the existence of God.  So curious from a modern prospective but it appears that the church was willing to ask tough questions during these times and wasn't afraid of searching for the truth.  So interesting!

Descartes' Replies to the Objections are also very enlightening but so very deep.  A course in logic would have been very useful before reading this book, however, I think I've covered enough for now.  Descartes obviously liked to think and had alot of time to do it.  It was mental gymnastics to try to follow him but good for the brain.  To really understand it though, you need to have read Aristotlean philosophy along with a number of other more recent philosophies, as Descartes thoughts sprung from that already anchored base.  At least my understanding, while minuscule, is more than when I started.  Thanks, Descartes!

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift

"My father had a small Estate in Nottinghamshire; I was the Third of five Sons."

As Samuel Johnson stated, Gulliver's Travels is a work "so new and strange, that it filled the reader with a mingled emotion of merriment and amazement."  One must remember that at the time of Gulliver's Travels, readers had rarely encountered prose fiction in the form of stories, let along the fantastical stories and adventures of Gulliver.  They didn't quite know how to respond.

In the last chapter of the this book, its purpose is laid out to the reader, that Swift's "principal Design was to inform, and not amuse thee.", a deviation in form, since most medieval writers sought to do both.  The Roman lyric poet, Horace, stated that, "The poet who pleases everyone is the one who blends the useful with the sweet, simultaneously amusing and informing the reader."  Likewise, Thomas More in his Utopia states that his book is "A Truly Golden Handbook, No Less Beneficial than Entertaining"; Shakespeare seeks also to entertain and instruct, and The Cantebury Tales are described as "tales of best sentence and sola", expressing the standard medieval definition of literature which both informs and gives pleasure.  So why does Swift no longer want to amuse readers?  Why does he choose to change the medieval model of how literature was represented?  If his readers have not noticed the festering undercurrents of judgement within the story, it's as if Swift was determined emphasis the seriousness of the work.  As throughout his story, he gives the English people strengths that do not exist, so he also gives the reader amusement, where amusement does not exist.   No wonder people were puzzled by his unique representation.

Born in Dublin  in 1667, Swift spent the early years of his life moving between his hometown and London, attempting to gain a footing both in politics and the Church.  His first position was with Sir William Temple a retired English diplomat who was writing his memoirs.  Swift formed a close relationship with Temple and when he died, Swift hoped to gain a position at Canterbury or Westminister through King William, but the position never materialized.  Amid various other disappointments, Swift continued his travels between Ireland and England, and during these years, he produced A Tale in a Tub and The Battle of the Books, gaining a reputation as a writer.  Gulliver's Travels was published later in his career, in 1726.

Mural depicting Gulliver surrounded by
the citizens of Lilliput
source Wikipedia
Episodic in nature, Gulliver's Travels follows Lemuel Gulliver as he visits various unknown civilizations and learns their ways while gently comparing their societies with those of his own.  I say gently because Gulliver makes his musings appear as a gentle examination, but Swift has other ideas. One doesn't have to look very hard to see that this work is a sweeping condemnation of the human race.

Gulliver first lands in Lilliput where the society is diminutive in stature compared to Gulliver's enormity.  Initially accepted by the Lilliputians because of his good behaviour, he eventually upsets them by refusing to help them conquer another province and he is forced to escape.

Gulliver exhibited to the Brobdingnag
Farmer - Richard Redgrave
source Wikipedia
His second adventure is nearly an inversion of the first, in that this time Gulliver is small and, landing in Brobdingnag, soon realizes the gigantic features of its inhabitants.  While being poorly treated by his first family, Gulliver eventually comes to the Queen who treats him reasonably well and he is able to converse with the King.  The King, however, becomes unhappy with his description of the state of Europe, in particular their use of guns and cannons.

Gulliver discovers Laputa,
the flying island
J.J. Granville
source Wikipedia
The next adventure includes the flying island of Laputa, which is a rather bizarre place.  The inhabitants are devotees of the arts of mathematics and music only, but not only fail to employ them for any benefit to society, they also, through self-deception, are blindly unable to recognize their failures.

The land of the Houyhnhnms is Gulliver's fourth and final stop, a land of wise and noble horses, but he also encounters a race called Yahoos, a race very much like himself yet more filthy, vulgar, bestial and stupid.  Although they at first recognize him as a Yahoo, the Houyhnhnms finally take to Gulliver, impressed with his cleanliness and ability to reason.  Yet in spite of the relational ties he makes in this land and his desire to remain among these highly civilized beasts, the horses foresee a danger in Gulliver's presence and send him off in a boat.  When he arrive home, our protagonist is a changed man.  Disgusted with the "Yahoos" of his country, he is barely able to live in their company, finally choosing a rather secluded life.

Gulliver taking final leave of
the Houyhnhnms (1769)
Sawrey Gilpin
source Wikipedia
Through Gulliver's interaction with the Liliputans and the Brobdingnagans, Swift satirizes British politics.  The Liliputans are only concerned with petty and trivial problems, and in their self-aggrandization can only see themselves as governors of the whole world.  Yet while Liliput represents a small view of man, Brobdingnag represents a large one.  As in Liliput, Swift explores the contrasts between liberty and law, but now the situation is reversed as Gulliver is in miniature in a land of giants.  The island of Laputa is built upon philosophy and it's inhabitants are seen as Swift's critque of scientism, or that the only way to true knowledge is through scientific disciplines.  Only what can be seen and measured is taken into account, but, of course, this leaves no room to examine the soul.  The land of the Houyhnhnms is perhaps the most fascinating part of the voyages.  In this land the beasts are the civilized society and the Yahoos, who are human, are savages.  The Houyhnhnms live by reason and that reason, working within nature, give rise to their idyllic existence.  Gulliver believes that if he lives long enough with his friends, this virtue will rub off on him, but in fact the horses see his reason as imperfect and therefore he is more dangerous than a Yahoo who has no reason at all.  In reality, Gulliver is half-way between both species, halfway between pure passion and pure reason.

Apparently both Sir Walter Scott and William Thackeray were shocked and repulsed by Gulliver's fourth voyage, yet there is still argument as to whether Swift's work was a satire in the form of Horace, where he is only lightly satirizing Gulliver's idealism, or the heavier satire of Juvenal, whereupon his writing is a vitriolic, sarcastic diatribe condemning the human race.  I'll leave it to the reader to decide.  Yet perhaps Swift himself can shed light on his intentions:
"I have ever hated all Nations professions and Communityes and all my love is towards individualls for instance I hate the tribe of Lawyers, but I love Councellor such a one, and Judge such a one for so with Physicians (I will not speak of my own trade) Soldiers, English, Scotch, French; and the rest but principally I hate and detest that animal called man, although I hartily love John, Peter, Thomas and so forth.  This is the system upon which I have governed myself for many years (but do not tell) and so I shall go on until I have done with them I have got materials toward a treatise, proving the falsity of that definition animal rationale [rational animal], and to show it would be only rationis capax [capable of reason].  Upon this great foundation of Misanthropy (though not in Timon's manner) The whole building of my Travells is erected.  And I will never have peace of mind until all honest men are of my Opinion."
While I thought Swift's satire brilliant, and his characterizations mostly just, I felt that he focused only on the negative aspects of human nature.  If Swift really saw the world only through a lense of disappointment, treachery, selfishness, and deceit, yet missed the integrity, loyalty, virtues and goodwill of the flip-side of human nature, that is truly a tragedy.

Read for my Classics Club Spin #8, Fariba from Exploring Classics joined me in reading this one.  Here is her most excellent review.  Thanks for the company, Fariba!

(And further reflections by Fariba on Gulliver's Travels)