Book Review: A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

Although this one wasn’t for my classics book club, I have wanted to read it for years. As a play, it’s a relatively quick read, so I was able to tuck it in among other readings.

Spoilers possible.

A Streetcar Named Desire may be a better, more entertaining play than The Glass Menagerie, but together they suggest a pattern of playwright fixation on the destruction of fragile, helpless women at the hands of hapless or hostile men. Yet, although critics claim that Stanley is the catalyst for Blanche’ s tragedy, I see undeniable, culpable shades in the sorrows of sister Stella and would-be husband Mitch. Besides these influences, a case can be made that Blanche needs little nudging by anyone to plunge her into her ultimate abyss, a place she seems headed for from the start. Either way, the question is posed clearly before the tragedy is complete: Who is to blame?

The tragic arc is a twisted tree root. Plunging through the rich soil of clever, careful staging, eerie overlays of music and echoed sounds, and crisp, character-making dialogue, the reader (not just the playgoer) falls irrevocably into the suffocating depths of a taut, primal, sensual plot. With his usually detailed stage directions, Williams also leaves nothing in the production plan to chance, while his storytelling strikes a delicate balance by revealing just enough both to engage and to mystify his audience.

The emotional effects of these elements for Blanche are a haunting by the past that cannot be shaken and a shackling by her imagination that stunts her growth. Her character is static in the course of the play as the distance between the danger and the fall proves all too short. Stanley, likewise, is static, and so they come together like immovable object and unstoppable force. The intriguing question for me is what change must occur in Stella beyond the play’s ending as a result of this close family tragedy, with one member the victim and the other, the perpetrator. Stella, at least, has dynamic potential as collateral damage.

cover_A-Streetcar-Named-Desire_images.duckduckgo.com

Penguin Modern Classics edition book cover

Still, none of the main characters reads as a monotone stereotype; they themselves get to play with those concepts as they size each other up. The tension permeating the play stems from perceptions of class differences, ethnic backgrounds, sexual attraction, and affectations brought into sharp relief by the visit of Blanche DuBois to her sister and brother-in-law’s small apartment during a typically oppressive New Orleans summer.

The result is a smoldering tragedy without a clear path as to how it might have been avoided. Remarkable paradox comes through Williams’ writing: Stella, Stanley, and Blanche all prove to be decent people even as their inflexible selfishness, by turns, renders them on many levels indecent–and ultimately inhumane–to one another.

Raw, obvious character flaws, especially Stanley’s, do contribute to the mess, however. His inherent roughness of manner, speech, action, and mere presence directly feed and elicit Blanche’s carefully constructed delicacies, charms, snobbery, and veneer of the victim. They could hardly be more different, and as foils, these opposites both attract and repulse.

Like the down-to-earth Stanley, the reader knows upon meeting her not to take Blanche at face value, but as we get to know her, we begin to empathize with, if not believe in, Blanche DuBois. When Stanley finally exposes her past sins, the whole truth of them is doubtful, they are inextricable from her suffering, and we see that both Stanley and Stella can be right about her sister in their opposing views.

Blanche is a menace being treated unfairly.

An emotional atmosphere of steamy New Orleans chaos reigns over the play. Ripples of racist overtones, sexism, raw sensuality, crime, vice, and class prejudice collide and reinforce one another to disrupt the characters’ moral compasses. Danger vibrates constantly just beneath the surface, and I kept expecting brawl, beating, or suicide around the next corner. Peripheral scenes foreshadow ultimate conflict as violence escalates, but it’s all very restrained, held in check for the bulk of the story, which makes each scene all the more intriguing.

The shock of the penultimate act of violence, committed between active scenes, can resolve into either the satisfaction of poetic justice or an indignation against grave injustice, a verdict that rings loudly through the end. The ensuing resolution is also unequivocally sad, and we even get a moral from the perfect, trembling lips of Blanche DuBois. Coming from her, the line “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers” is both ironic caution and sad testament to a frail psyche.

This is one of the few plays I’ve read besides Shakespeare that so strongly compels me to seek out a production to watch this very minute. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams exposes seedy corners of mid-twentieth-century American society and equally dark corners of its minds and hearts. First, he is the realistic, impartial painter of human coarseness, failure, beauty and love. Then, in affecting lyrical form, he hints at judgment of all these through their close, unflinching examination. In his complex process, Williams has crafted a true literary and theatrical treasure.

Five out of five stars.


Learn about the 1951 film version at A Streetcar Named Desire.

Book Review: The Count of Monte Cristo

The Count of Monte Cristo

by Alexandre Dumas, père

Warning: This review and analysis include several spoilers. Read at your own risk.

Style and Substance

The writing in Alexandre Dumas’ historical French novel, relating a 19th-century tale of injustice and revenge, can be long winded. Readers might expect this when noting that an “unabridged” version ranges between 1100 and 1400 pages. With so much space consumed, we might suppose this writer who loved his craft was tempted into ostentation. Perhaps he was.

However, I wouldn’t call his style flowery; a tempted Dumas exhibits self-control. Understated and enticing, the author’s abundant wit, along with great storytelling and readable prose, justify the length of the text. Truly.

I finished this book club selection more than a month before our February meeting, quite the feat considering how often I don’t finish on time. Yes, I started before our last meeting about a single Agatha Christie short story, but never mind.

A suspenseful page-turner for most of its fecund pages, The Count of Monte Cristo kept me reading steadily to learn the fates of characters set aside for long, overlapping periods. My circumstances helped, but Dumas helped more.

Rooted in European history, the settings span a 25-year period of the early 1800s and explore diverse locations from sea and prison to Rome, Paris, and the French countryside. At the story’s fulcrum is the question of political loyalties and their implications. Early shifts in power between Royalists and Bonapartists animate the lever that decides the ground on which central characters begin their journeys.

The plot is intricate and well organized, and the story proves emotionally dynamic, replete with dramatic irony. Rhythmic flow springs from engaging dialogue, which, beside measured descriptive text, renders Monte Cristo a delightful, theatrical melodrama. Its film adaptations attest to this strength with their number.

count-monte-cristo-cast-into-the-sea

“Dantes Cast into the Sea” by French artist Dumont. George Routledge and Sons edition, 1888

Genre, or Who This Book Is For

My first, unspoiled reading never brought tears, drew audible gasps (maybe some silent ones), shocked me, or provoked any wild laughter. In that way, I see it as a steady, well-written, well-told yarn composed of entertaining threads. It is more dark, sweeping Romance in the Gothic tradition than affecting, relatable human drama. This fact tempered my enthusiasm somewhat, as I tend to prefer the latter.

Intrigue, mystery, crime, adventure–all in the particular context of early 1800s Continental politics and cultures–overshadow character complexity and intimacy despite dozens of highly emotional moments. Sadly, there are no kisses lip to lip, let alone sex scenes; sexual suggestiveness is rare and subtle.

Perhaps Victorian in those respects, the book offers some extreme violence, ample cold-blooded murder, and one instance where an unconscious maiden signifies rape. Several incidents are told as stories within the story, but such elements serve to emphasize the grisly tragedies and grotesque fascinations comprising the tale.

Specific Critiques and Praise

Among its flaws, The Count of Monte Cristo tends to telegraph plot points. Thus, prolonged suspense meets the anticlimax of predictable, but satisfying, outcomes. We could attribute this forecasting effect in part to the amount of space and time provided for the reader to guess results correctly, but it is noticeable.

[Second warning: If you’ve never read this book but think you might want to, leave this post now and go read it!]

Still, I felt great moral and literary satisfaction in anticipating the villains’ comeuppance. Then, the collateral damage is realistic and heart rending, dispelling any notion of a surgically precise wrath of God. Lingering questions about the fates of key characters also felt appropriate, particularly concerning Benedetto. As we leave him, we suspect he just might get away with his crimes.

The reader gains significant insight into more than half a dozen characters, sympathizing with their situations. By this method, Dumas succeeds in conveying the imperfect nature of vigilante justice (or any justice) as each major villain meets a punishment that may not match the severity or nature if his crime. The costs of vengeance are dear. Given the paths before these ends, the final choices and turns the antagonists make seem to befit their personalities, also well developed.

By contrast, I found the main character surprisingly underdeveloped for so long a work and despite, or perhaps because of, the different characters he embodies. Edmond Dantès’ journey is remarkable early on and leading into his manifold vengeance. The changes starting to take shape in the climax also work well, but the ending felt rushed. Dantès’ reflections seem insufficient, his remorse and renewed questing half hearted, and his love for his ward lukewarm and a bit convenient.

[Third and final warning: I really mean it this time – Turn back now or skip to the summary below, or suffer the consequences!]

One can imagine Dantès’ moral education continuing beyond the fifth volume of the story, along with the revival of his will to live and start again. I don’t personally need a neatly wrapped ending. Yet, if that emphasis on waiting and hoping was the author’s intent for Dantès as much as for other characters, I would have preferred hints of a more precarious future happiness for our primary hero, more of a sense that the next climb may be just as long and steep as the last.

For Love of Money

Other trouble comes in the author’s apparent emphasis on needing a seemingly limitless fortune to possess true, full freedom and happiness. This notion meets no significant challenge anywhere in the story, which I found strange, if not quite disappointing. Reinforcing this sentiment is the unmitigated misery associated with every example of poverty or even humble means. Dumas might look upon the poor as inherently noble creatures, morally superior, a Romantic vision, but he leaves no doubt that everyone from prince to pauper prefers, and even needs, substantial wealth. Such assumptions irritate.

The exceptions are the slaves the Count owns; Dumas portrays the happiness of Ali and Haydée to be as incandescent as their devotion is supreme. They hardly count, for they are completely dependent, without their own money, and thus without authentic agency. The author seems to doubt that even a single, independent Frenchman could be happy in this time and place without one of the following conditions: possessing great fortune or knowing the security of directly and loyally serving (or being a beneficiary of) a person of great fortune and benevolence, such as the Count of Monte Cristo.

Evidence accrues of the author’s money love. The vast majority of focus characters are members of high society and the wealthy elite, many of superior education, notable beauty, close royal connections, or distinguishing experience. Yet nowhere do riches serve as an obvious corrupting force, except in the most obvious, a priori cases of the antagonists.

The young people cradled in luxury from birth–Albert, Eugénie–adapt swiftly to financial uncertainty, if not to real or projected financial loss. Each is strong of mind, and each charges ahead with definitive plans. Their apparent lack of greed seems plausible, but how long will they last? On the contrary, how will the two most worthy, noble, and innocent characters (hint: not Albert or Eugénie) avoid their lives’ ruination upon acquiring an incalculable fortune?

Currency for the Count

During the rising action, as he operates like some other-worldly creature, at least the Count’s near immunity to the ill effects of being filthy rich seems reasonable. The immensity of the treasure he acquires coupled with the depth of the misery he has suffered accounts for it. There is no room for covetousness, for there is no need. His vision is fixed not on indulging his chosen life of opulence–for his jaded soul can hardly enjoy it–but on using it for convoluted, comprehensive payback.

It is in the name of this sophisticated vengeance for genuine wrongs against him that the Count wields his fortune, education, disguises, and cunning like a four-flanged mace of justice. It is only after his perceived atonement for such absolute revenge that the Count is finally ready to relinquish his wealth and the power and esteem it awarded him. As a result, he believes he needed the money only for the scores he had to settle, but without money going forward, his status and influence will fade.

The question is, Can he indeed adjust to this new reality? For an author whose characters so unilaterally and fervently depend upon prolific capitalism for their happiness, it would seem doubtful. It makes me curious to learn about the life of Alexandre Dumas (of which I currently know nothing), to seek a reason for this.

Revenge? What’s That?

Since the reader never has the chance to observe the changes in either the man who gives away his “first-rate” fortune or those who receive it–changes either in those who lose all they had or in those who squirrel away a buffer against such loss–the consequences of these shifts remain open ended. Despite the age difference between the Count and the younger people, all seem to be of a more flexible generation than their parents are regarding money, status, and survival.

What may be most telling is that none of the villains (1 of the 3 perhaps) truly suffers for very long the consequences of their greed and evil. Each escapes a traditional punishment the reader might think they deserve, whether doing so by their own free will or decidedly not. We never get to see them struggle for any notable duration without money, without status, without family.

They suffer in other ways, many established without the Count’s interference long before he catches up with them; most of it they have done to themselves. The prospect of loss terrifies them and they sustain heavy blows. However, no one reaches, before story’s end, the degree or longevity of deprivation and sorrow that Edmond Dantès has known at their hands.

An epilogue assuring the reader that the evildoers will all receive and experience what they deserve–whether in life or in death–might have been soothing. Without it, we can only guess, “wait and hope” that at least one of them does.

Mercédès

As to patriarchal double standards, I found the Count, if not Dumas, to be harsh in accusing and punishing Mercédès, Edmond’s betrothed before his imprisonment. She is also harsh in judging herself. The woman who becomes Countess de Morcerf, though marrying Edmond’s rival and persecutor, was technically as innocent as Valentine and Maximilien. Disgraced and poor in the end, she is convent bound as her son leaves for military service. The weight of having lost and again losing Edmond is her greatest regret, and rightly so, but it is through no fault of her own in either instance.

Her ignorance and naive perspective of wrongdoing matches Edmond’s as he begins his time in jail, and Mercédès does what she can to atone in the end. Yet the reader is left with the sense that her punishment is deserved, she has not done enough, and she was even a sort of prostitute under the circumstances–all of which is hyperbole. First, how could she have known? Second, what should she have done differently while kept in ignorance?

Mercédès nursed Edmond’s ailing father to his dying day, continued to appeal to the government for news of Edmond, and then made the best of loss and a loveless marriage, sought continuously to better herself, raised a worthy child, and finally relinquished all her ill-gotten gains.

Among all central characters, as Countess de Morcerf, Mercédès alone never seeks to harm anyone, only to save them. More than Haydée, who avenges her father, if not more than Valentine, who avenges no one directly, Mercédès is in fact among the most saintly of the story’s women. Also, because she is so very far superior to both Baroness Danglars and Madame de Villefort, the Countess de Morcerf receives more than unjust treatment.

The unwarranted nature and degree of Mercédès’ eventual suffering approach those of Edmond’s initial suffering. What is that one saying about those we love most? With nothing but vengeful hatred in Edmond’s heart as he enacts his plans, he has doomed his first love, Mercédès, from the start. Perhaps instead of “Frailty, thy name is woman” (Hamlet), the Shakespeare quotation Edmond should have studied and remembered is “The quality of mercy is not strain’d” (Merchant of Venice).

Summary Review

The Count of Monte Cristo is a robust, culturally observant work that explores the mysteries and ironies of destiny. Absorbing characters take shape at a good pace for the story’s length. There is clear, abundant evidence of the skill, the care–in short, the investment–applied by author Alexandre Dumas, père (senior). Although I would have preferred a more detailed look into the title character’s mind and the lessons he learns, the novel, like the Count himself, has earned its place among the classics. I doubt I’ll ever re-read the book entirely, but I imagine returning on occasion to dip into its turbulent, colorful, and ambitious pages.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.


Translation and Abridgement (No Spoilers)

À propos of length and language, I found no fully reliable, consistently clear, and high-quality English translation among the five versions I sampled while first reading and listening to the story. The Robin Buss translation published by Penguin Classics, though widely preferred and lauded, may be more complete than other unabridged editions, but I found the diction too contemporary, the phrasing overwrought, and the writing generally less elegant than in other editions.

Furthermore, while at times wrinkling my forehead in puzzlement at the Buss translation, I found the text of the Oxford World’s Classics 2008 edition–and even more so of the David Clarke Librivox recording and very similar Gutenberg Project epub ebook–to be more accurate, more logical and appropriate to story context, and more understandable in several instances.

I doubt this divergent assessment has anything to do with my having studied French for 8 years. It probably has more to do with my preferences for archaic diction, unusual syntax, and general clarity. A treasured French study background increased my enjoyment in part due to my understanding of the untranslated French expressions, such as “Pardieu!” (literally “By God” but meaning “Of course!” or “Indeed!”), but any astute reader can gather meaning from context.

Incidentally, David Clarke does a fabulous job with theatricality, French and Italian accents, male and female registers of voice, distinguishing main character voices, clear and consistent projection, and excellent articulation. Aside from occasional mispronunciations, Clarke may have stumbled once or twice in 117 chapters in the Librivox recording. Highly recommended. My having blended listening to recordings with reading ebooks and print copies is largely what allowed me to keep my momentum and finish this massive book quickly.

The Gutenberg file uses the 1888 illustrated (and non-illustrated) George Routledge and Sons edition. I thoroughly enjoyed the illustrations by various French artists of the period provided in the .html version of that file. The claim of Robin Buss’s work in the Penguin Classics translation is the supposed recovery of and return to nuances of the original text that had been lost in earlier editions, and I can see some of that happening as well.

The comparable heft of the Modern Library Classics edition suggests little to no abridgement, but I found it makes noticeable, unnecessary cuts, at least to descriptive text in the few parts I bothered to read.

At any rate, we must allow that some flaws resulting from translation could be due to the original author’s style and diction in French as well. I recommend reading an unabridged edition if you read the book at all. Furthermore, if you are fluent, I feel confident, without having read it myself, in advising you to read the original French instead of a translation into English or other languages. Bien sur! (Pardieu!)

This Hunted Story

Am I late, am I late, for a very important date?

If not, as long as I tell myself I run that risk, motivation survives, at least for something I already feel compelled in a deeper way to do—writing. So before it IS too late, it’s time to journal about my Jabberwock novel, a story of Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There from the Jabberwock perspective. Time to muse upon the fickle nature of the Muse. Time to log, on the Web, my thoughts about this story-making process, the state of this art. Time to blog about novel writing.

My hope in doing so is that it will help me get a handle, by November 1st at midnight, on my story outline so I can hit the ground running as NaNoWriMo 2016 kicks off. The goal of National Novel Writing Month is to “write with reckless abandon,” and as a planner (as opposed to a pantser), I’ll feel readier to do that if I have a sound story structure to populate with all that compelling characterization, magical description, and sparkling dialogue. * sigh *

Prompted by S of JS Mawdsley to write fanfic “so [S] wouldn’t be the only one” doing that for Camp NaNoWriMo this past July, I showed up at a write-in early in the month and started listing the fiction I’m a fan of. Not long into the exercise, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass popped up and led to my premise.

In a reversal, or extension (depending on your viewpoint), of the situation in Looking-Glass Land, I set up the Jabberwock as the story’s hero and the Red and White Nobles as the antagonists in their world of giant chessboard squares. Alice retains a position resembling her protagonist role in the original stories, entering the grand game of chess in book two in order to become queen by reaching the Eighth Square.

Simple, right?

So . . . I’ve been working on this intermittently since July and figured there’s plenty to write in November, too. Although I don’t exhibit the discipline JS Mawdsley do/es, which leads to such awe-inspiring story-writing productivity, it’s been a victory for me to remain interested in my story even after each, sometimes long, hiatus.

I’m intrigued enough by the concept, along with the outlining, mind mapping and analyzing I’ve done of it so far, and the handful of scenes I’ve written in full, that I feel confident I won’t lose interest any time soon, let alone halfway through NaNoWriMo.

The magic has come from seeing themes, symbols, and character relationships periodically connect in unexpected ways, from discovering that the ideas that bubble up work with the overall concept instead of against it. It gives me hope that the unity of the story can be preserved, assuming I can build it into a cohesive whole in the first place. This is the year, baby!

Still, it is by no means simple. The plot has been quite the code to crack. For me, that’s typical, but this one poses the extra challenges to work within the original story structure, use pre-existing characters, and figure out how the heck to weave in the new story.

If I have bitten off more than I can chew, by gum, at least I’m still chewing on it and my jaw hasn’t yet broken or frozen.

I confess to adding the pressure of creating something brilliant and eminently publishable out of a timeless classic that’s been thoroughly studied, adapted, spoofed, and spun off in every direction for over a hundred years. Otherwise, why spend all this time on it? But I’m fighting that tendency, too. I’m making a point of not reading the spin-off books and of not watching any more versions of the movie than I have already seen. I’m trying to let love lead. Love of Lewis Carroll’s work.

In addition, S made the point that because Looking-Glass is the less well-known of the pair of Alice stories, it will be wise to borrow characters from Adventures for this re-telling, to add reader interest. I’ll try not to make that issue a major priority; it, too, presumes publication.

The saving grace may be that, if a tangible end result ever does come, and whether or not it’s any good, at least it will have been one hell of a writing experiment that prepared me for success on simpler projects. Oh, if only I knew how to go simple. To do the work, day after day, without imploding under the weight of expectation.

Although I may not blog liberally about the intricacies of the Jabberwock story puzzle, I’ll try to use both blogging and private journaling to keep up my momentum through the exciting upcoming month of story stress, construction, and socializing.

A couple of days ago, I chose a title that took entirely too much time to think of: Hunted Song of Looking-Glass Land. Song is my main character, the teenage Jabberwock heroine who, in partnership with the younger human Alice, fights the good fight against the establishment. This much I know.

Hunted Song is my first fantasy story, first fan fiction (sort of, if we don’t count the one about Shakespeare’s mistress), and possibly first happy ending compared to my two most recent stories, which I actually finished drafting. There’s so much to look forward to, and the fact that I started this story well before November reassures me of my stamina to see it through to whatever moment declares itself the end.

Perhaps it’s fitting that this is my topic in the year of the 150th anniversary of the first book’s publication. These splashes of newness and flashes of specialness are keeping my eye on the prize, to follow through to create a good story that I can call mine.

What’s your story?

Join me and half a million other people worldwide this year in the storytelling adventure called NaNoWriMo. No experience necessary. No Plot? No Problem. No judgment. Just start writing. Ready. Set. Novel!. Also, check out the NaNoWriMo Blog.


For more about how my current story’s journey started, check out this summer’s post Packing for Camp.

jabberwocky

Featured image: Illustration of the Jabberwocky by John Tenniel, original artist for both Alice books.

 

Five-Phrase Friday (24): Book Menu 2016

Books I most want to read for the first time this year:

  1. Out of Africa by Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) – the memoir of a Danish coffee-plantation owner, and sole manager after separation from her husband, in Kenya from 1914-1931; I’ve seen the film starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford many times and loved it.
  2. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys – “a work of strange, scary loveliness,” it is the prequel to Jane Eyre, with spoilers if you haven’t read Charlotte Bronte’s book first, which I have.
  3. Poems New and Collected by Wislawa Szymborska, Clare Cavanagh (translator) – a hypnotic poet. I still have to get my hands on this one, so I’ll use my birthday money.
  4. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte – This is a need perhaps as much as a desire.
  5. Let Me Off at the Top!: My Classy Life and Other Musings by Ron Burgundy / Will Ferrell. Hopefully a sufficient counterpoise to all this seriousness. I started the Author’s Note to this one last week, after getting the book from my brother for my birthday. I only got through half a page before I started laughing out loud. People’s names alone are hilarious. Read the summary penned by Ron himself at the above link.

I’d also like to finish all of the books I’ve been reading since last year–Middlemarch by George Eliot, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth; and all of the books I started last year but never returned to–Don Quixote by Cervantes, Catching Fire (The Hunger Games #2) by Suzanne Collins, Emma by Jane Austen, and, yet again, Diana Gabaldon’s novel Outlander. I’m more than half way through the first three, so, like, . . . any day now. We’ll see.

One reason I read so slowly is that I tend to read the classics with pen in hand, especially if it’s a copy I own that I can mark up. I like to communicate literally with books, writing marginalia on them and occasionally responding aloud. Literature lives, and breathes, and speaks. So I talk back.

As a student and teacher of literature, writing, and ideas, I also take notes. That means often re-reading large swaths of text in order to capture key insights, delightful writing, story element details, and other treasures.

I’m not much for pop fiction, so this is the reading life I have. If that means I may not get through much of my Goodreads to-read list, then so be it. I’d rather read thoughtfully, learn things, and savor ideas, images, and language than simply devour millions of words, only to pass them unabsorbed.

But I’ve always been a ruminant scholar; I chew my literary food. Some may find this process (or this metaphor) tedious, if not disgusting. Being partial to reading and writing poetry makes the approach work pretty well for me.

Along with typical time management challenges, I suppose dealing with intermittent brain fog and blurry vision may slow the pace a bit, too.

What kind of reader are you?

 

Five-Phrase Friday (20): Eliot’s Ironies

Happy New Year! Welcome to another round of posts celebrating that peculiar space in the English language between word and sentence–the phrase.

In this edition, I’ve sampled full clauses from sentences in a book I’m currently reading. These sometimes facetious truisms (per the narrator’s point of view) in George Eliot’s classic novel Middlemarch arrive in a variety of contexts: ironic description, suspect character mindsets and motivations, and subtly clever admonitions that also seem to treat characters with the utmost generosity of spirit.

I’ve affectionately marked the following excerpts with my pen while reading the book, which I bought after reading just a few pages of my library copy.

  1. “the most glutinously indefinite minds enclose some hard grains of habit” – narrator, Book I, Chapter I.
  2. “wrong reasoning sometimes lands poor mortals in right conclusions” – narrator, Book I, Chapter III.
  3. “when a woman is not contradicted, she has no motive for obstinacy in her absurdities” – Mrs. Cadwallader about Dorothea’s refusal to marry Mrs. C’s match for her, Sir James Chettam, Book I, Chapter VI.
  4. “the world is full of hopeful analogies and handsome dubious eggs called possibilities” – narrator, Book I, Chapter X.
  5. “correct English is the slang of prigs who write history and essays. And the strongest slang of all is the slang of poets.” – Fred, Book I, Chapter XI.

So why choose these examples? It took a little thought, but these are my best justifications.

(1) I was amused by the synchronicity in the way the first one’s metaphor indirectly speaks to the gluten-free craze of late. Gluten certainly has not come up as a subject in any other classic novel I’ve read so far.BookCover_Middlemarch_Norton

(2) The dilemma presented by the truth of the second example is intriguing–is it more important to strive to think right or end up right? “Road to hell” and so forth.

(3) Given its source and her motivations, the sexism and staunch beliefs of number three’s character made me grin.

(4) I admire the elegance in the thinly veiled cynicism of the fourth one.

(5) The frankness of number five and the irony of sharing it as part of celebrating the English language feel like the perfect way to start the year. Plus, it’s good to eat a little humble pie every once in a while (barring any gluten allergy or sensitivity, of course).

The rhythm, word choice, flow, sophisticated ideas, and spirit in Eliot’s writing overall have been a pleasure to experience. I hope to find the story just as enjoyable as I make my way through it. This is my first time reading the book, or any Eliot, and I have more than half of it still to read before the book club meeting in February.

Wish me luck–and stay tuned!

A Soul Assumed: Reading Socrates’ “Phaedo”

My classic literature book club is reading Plato’s Apology, Crito, and Phaedo of Socrates this month. Our focus has been on classic novels written in English by deceased authors of works published prior to the mid-twentieth century. Last year, the only similar work to Plato’s was the classical drama of Oedipus Rex.

While this month’s work is also a story, Plato tells it in the form of what has become known as the Socratic dialogue (just “dialogue” in his time), a debate between Socrates and others. This form pervades “Crito” and “Phaedo,” whereas “Apology” is more of an extended trial testimony by Socrates in his own defense.

With a BA in philosophy, I find amusement in the reading as well as in the fact that, until this month, I was under the impression Plato was Socrates’ master, but it was the other way around. My schooling was less in the history of philosophy than in the ideas themselves, if that’s any excuse.

I did select the Socratic dialogue approach for my senior-year paper on conformity, using Henry David Thoreau’s Walden as my source text. It’s interesting to return and read a philosophical work that’s new to me, though the ideas within are less so.

A large part of philosophy is about challenging assumptions. Perhaps ironically, my senior college paper challenged the conventional wisdom, or assumption, that a college education is something everyone should pursue. Since college, I have discovered various better reasons than I used in the paper to support the negative response to that basic question, but I digress.

Philosophy is also about developing the skill of rhetoric to argue a position you do not necessarily agree with. Considering the counterarguments to your philosophical thesis on a topic, and coming up with responses to those counters, is key to a strong, persuasive presentation of that thesis.

If I were to worship a god of philosophy, it would be Socrates, his greatest lesson in my view being, simply put, “I know that I do not know.” I discovered the quote outside the context of its origin in this rendering of Socrates’ story by Plato. Far too few people heed the call to humility embodied by that statement. The results are, for instance, little things called wars, sometimes religious in nature. Most people are just so frightened by uncertainty and mystery that they cannot cope without religion.

Periodically in touch with my own degree of conformity, I consider myself to be agnostic on the questions of a supreme being, the soul, and the afterlife. This means I do not know whether there is one of any of these things or not. Maybe there is. Maybe there isn’t.

You could say there is a sort of arrogance, if not cowardice, in this position that adds to “I don’t know” the assertion “and neither do you.” I profess ignorance about those things for which there is no scientific proof, and I claim your ignorance, too. I dare to put myself on equal human footing with everyone from the Pope to the plumber. We share mortality, capacity for reason, and the rest of the human condition–challenging self-concepts, emotions, relationships, moral dilemmas, imperfections, and so on. If such a claim is arrogant or cowardly, so be it. I make no apology.

I have no traditional religious faith, though my childhood Catholic priest might disagree on the technical grounds of my baptism as an infant. My consciously chosen faith is in reason, philosophy, humanism, and the complexities of this life. I value these. I love these. The word “philosophy” itself means “love of wisdom.”

Socrates apparently experienced no uncertainty as to the existence of the soul, which is a major source of my amusement in reading the third dialogue of this text: “Phaedo.” At this point in history, with as high of esteem as we hold Socrates in, his assumption seems like a rookie mistake, something rather quaint.Platos_ApologyCritoPhaedo_of_Socrates_cover

He argues for the immortality of the soul, which is the puzzle to be solved in “Phaedo,” and his foundational assumption is the soul’s existence. That is the common ground from which the discussion grows, a ground based on cultural context as much as, if not more than, on reason.

Accused of corrupting Athenian youths with teachings in conflict with the Greek gods’ wisdom, Socrates’ self-defense in “Apology” consists partially of proving his loyalty and consistency with those gods. Fundamentally, then, no part of the subsequent dialogues could do anything but take gods’, the soul’s, and the afterlife’s existence for granted. Otherwise, there would have been no point in attempting to defend himself at all.

However, on the face of it, it seems as though Socrates genuinely believed in these things.

You may be asking, “Why wouldn’t he?” Well, philosophers are a type who do not tend to take the existence of the soul, or anything else, for granted. Some historical minds thought there was a soul; others did not. Still others focused on different questions, not addressing this particular one at all.

The purpose of the discipline of philosophy is to use reason and critical thinking to examine the existence and nature of all sorts of things, in order to come to some degree of new insight or to establish or confirm a truth. Over the centuries of human thought, as of various sciences and other intellectual disciplines, thinkers have chipped away at the outer layers toward the core of wisdom.

Being an early philosopher, Socrates worked under the disadvantage of having few precedents to draw from. Now, we can examine Socrates in light of the Rationalists, the Empiricists, ontologists, epistemologists, ethicists, political philosophers, analytic philosophers, and many more theorists. Our hindsight, so to speak, is much richer and sharper, though most of us will never approach Socrates’ sheer genius of mind.

I may not assume the existence of a soul and, therefore, I may find the question of its immortality less relevant than Socrates did as he considered his moral obligation as a citizen condemned to death. But every argument is based on some kind of assumption. We have to start somewhere. And Socrates certainly proved his skill at argumentation within the realm of his own assumptions.

He says the body is an impediment to wisdom, establishing the superiority of the soul over the body. He says the true philosopher shuns material things and “ornaments” of the body. He says the philosopher’s aim and advantage over other men is to transcend the body. By contrast, the soul, which for Socrates is synonymous with the mind, uses reason rather than the physical senses to gain knowledge.

Therefore, death is the philosopher’s greatest wish, for it is in death alone that the soul may find absolute supremacy over the body, and only in death may true, unadulterated wisdom be attained.

He explains that, granting this premise as true, one of two things follows: Either wisdom is attainable only in death, or it is not at all attainable.

Separately, seeming to choose faith in wisdom’s attainability, Socrates takes the bulk of the dialogue to argue for the immortal nature of the soul, a portion I admit I have yet to read.

One might call “Phaedo” simply Socrates’ elaborate peace making with his imminent death, but the questions are no less worthy of exploration, whether one faces death by poisoning or the presumption of plenty of life ahead. Besides, the sentimental would-be Socrates worshippers among us feel some solace in the notion that Socrates, not just his teachings, lives on.

Perhaps the completion of my reading will convince me of his viewpoint. We’ll see. . . .

Banned books? People Still Read?

As we reflect and look ahead, 2014 goes on record as a year that, despite Internet and social networking milestones and information proliferation, has continued the world’s sad legacy of suppression and censorship. “A report by the Committee to Protect Journalists recorded at least 220 journalists were in prison around the world for reporting the news.” – Source: “The Year 2014 on Al Jazeera,” subhead “Press freedoms”

Here’s to global free speech and press.

A Matter of Scale

banned

The Written Word

The most powerful invention created by humanity right after fire, agriculture and the thrown rock (though not necessarily in that order).

The written word allows us to share information across time and space. To store ideas frozen for generations for new thinkers to review, revise, and even renew. Writing connects us with our past and with the future. From the Rosetta Stone to the Gutenberg Bible, writing consistently proved its value to Humanity again and again, allowing ideas, even forbidden ones, social and cultural taboos, their chance at immortality.

If they can get by the censors. For as long as we’ve been writing, there has been someone to say: Oh my god! You can’t write that! What if <insert sheltered group here> were to see this?

Censoring knowledge, hiding the written word is not new. Books can go from being literature to being banned in less than a…

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