Wednesday, June 28, 2017

"For Once, Then, Something" by Robert Frost

First there is this poem by Robert Frost, "For Once, Then, Something":

Others taunt me with having knelt at well-curbs
Always wrong to the light, so never seeing
Deeper down in the well than where the water
Gives me back in a shining surface picture
Me myself in the summer heaven godlike
Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs.
Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb,
I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,
Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,
Something more of the depths—and then I lost it.
Water came to rebuke the too clear water.
One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple
Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom,
Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness?
Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.

And there is this personal postscript:

   In terms of form, consider Frost's choice of eleven syllables per line (a pattern adopted from Catullus, according to what I recall reading someplace long ago). Then consider the theme: searching for Truth. Notice that the persona of the poem nearly manages to see something beyond himself in the reflection, but the fallen drop ripples the water's surface and the picture is blurred and blotted out. Truth, that obscured whiteness, is there but can be too easily obscured or confused. However, what was glimpsed might only be a pebble of quartz. Apparently, though, the search for Truth remains worthwhile. Of course, I might be wrong about my "explication."  So, good friends, I invite your comments and corrections.

   Well, friends, I too am searching for Truth within the waters and among the pebbles. I haven't always been concerned with such realities, especially as I have been distracted for much of my life by other less important matters, but present circumstances and my encroaching sunset have become catalysts for the search.

   The challenge then, as I think Frost suggests in the poem, is to see beyond the self because the Truth is elsewhere. So, I surmise, somewhere within all by which I am surrounded and confused, the Truth might be found. However, into which direction should I gaze? Upon what should I focus? And in the final analysis, does Truth exist?

   Perhaps Frost's poetry will help me. Well, not expecting too much -- certainly not ultimate Truth in the words of one poet -- but nevertheless somewhat hopeful, Frost just might help me see more clearly in my search. Stay tuned because I might be posting more about Frost in the future.

Rousseau has a birthday (and I complain about him)

First there is this from The Writer's Almanac:

     It's the birthday of the man who wrote, "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains": philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (books by this author), born in Geneva in 1712. He left home at 16 and wandered around Europe for the next 14 years. He moved to Paris when he was 30, and took up with a group of philosophers. He also took up with Thérèse Le Vasseur, a semi-literate laundry maid at his hostel; the two began a lifelong relationship that produced five children, according to Rousseau. He placed all of them into orphanages.
     Rousseau was well versed in music, and wrote ballets and operas; he could easily have been successful as a composer, but the stage made his Swiss Calvinist sensibilities uneasy. One day he was walking to visit his friend and fellow philosopher Denis Diderot, who was in jail, and he had an epiphany: modern progress had corrupted rather than improved mankind. He became famous overnight upon publication of his essay A Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts (1750). The essay informed nearly everything else he wrote, and eventually he would turn away completely from music and the theater to focus on literature.
     In Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1755) he continued to explore the theme that civilization had led to most of what was wrong with people: living in a society led to envy and covetousness; owning property led to social inequality; possessions led to poverty. Society exists to provide peace and protect those who owned property, and therefore government is unfairly weighted in favor of the rich. In it, he wrote: 

"The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this imposter; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody." 

     His next two books, a criticism of the educational system (Émile) and a treatise of political philosophy (The Social Contract), both published in 1762, caused such an uproar that he fled France altogether. His work would prove inspirational to the leaders of the French Revolution, and they adopted the slogan from The Social Contract: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.
     He grew increasingly paranoid in his later years, convinced that his friends were plotting against him. He spent some time in England with David Hume, but his persecution complex eventually alienated him from most of his associates, and he found comfort only with Thérèse, whom he finally married in 1768.

And there is this personal postscript:

I am not impressed by Rousseau, and I disagree with his notion about private property as the root of evils in the quoted excerpt (4th paragraph highlighted -- not so coincidentally -- in red). I offer this posting because Rousseau seems to me to have been such an obnoxious fellow, irresponsible father, and dangerous philosopher. Tell me if you think him otherwise.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Liquid Jade: a book review

Liquid Jade: The Story of Tea from East to West  
by Beatrice Hohenegger (St. Martin's, 2007)

Many years ago, when the late Johnny Carson was the reigning czar of late night television's The Tonight Show, the affable host and his longtime second-banana Ed McMahon performed an occasional routine with a simple premise: McMahon - if I recall correctly - would make reference to something and say that it contained 'Everything you could possibly want to know' about some subject; Carson would top him with some ostensibly humorous though insulting rejoinder, 'Wrong, you are buffalo breath!' And then Carson would proceed to entertain his audience by offering up a number of humorous tidbits based on whatever significant (or insignificant) premise McMahon had just introduced.

Well, with that having been said by way of circuitous introduction, we now have before us a book that would have been absolutely unusable in the well-received Carson-McMahon shtick: Liquid Jade. Its irrelevance for Carson and McMahon, and therefore its real strength and appeal, you see, lies in its exhaustive and entertaining thoroughness. Yes, 'Everything you could possibly want to know' about tea is, in fact, contained in this interesting book.

Frankly, I have to admit that I had no idea that there was so much to say about tea. In a book that the publisher calls 'the story of western greed and eastern bliss,' we can trace the entire history of one of the world's most ubiquitous beverages. Read Beatrice Hohenegger's anecdotal history of tea and learn - among many other things - about:

China's discovery of tea's invaluable health properties
The Taoist belief that tea was the elixir of immortality
The English introduction of opium to China in exchange for tea
The tea industry's connections in the 18th century with the practice of slavery
Buddhist Japan's spiritual connections to tea

Covering everything from the mythical birth of tea to the tea ceremony to the tea bag, and including everything in between by also focusing on tea's relationship to medicine, politics, culture, and religion, Liquid Jade is 'a lively exploration of the world's most consumed beverage - in all its historical and cultural aspects.' So, do yourself a favor and serve up a steaming cuppa for yourself, relax in a comfortable chair, and spend a few hours with this refreshing narrative history.

Monday, June 26, 2017

"Plenitude" and autobiographical criticism

First there is this from The Writer's Almanac:

Even near the very end
the frail cat of many years
came to sit with me
among the glitter of bulb and glow
tried to the very last to drink water
and love her small world
would not give up on her curious self.
And though she staggered — shriveled and weak
still she poked her nose through ribbon and wrap
and her peace and her sweetness were of such
that when I held my ear to her heart
I could hear the sea.

"Plentitude" by Ann Iverson from Mouth of Summer. © Kelsay Books, 2017.

* * * * *

But there is this personal postscript:

I have no objective critical reaction to or analysis of this poem -- i.e., I do not know (and I do not care) whether the poem is good, bad, or ugly -- but I do understand this poem in a singular, autobiographical way: I am the cat; however, being somewhat different, I hear (but perhaps not too much longer) all too loudly the sea inside my head. But I might be engaging in hyperbole here. Hmmm.

But this leads me to a question about reading poetry and other literature:

Isn't it true that we all read best when we read not objectively but subjectively and autobiographically? In other words, unless the literature contains mirrors -- both comfortable and uncomfortable reflections of ourselves and our own lives -- we cannot relate to what we read; becoming more responsive and reactive as subjective, autobiographical critics, we respond both emotionally and intellectually to the poems, the stories, and the novels as either relevant or irrelevant reflections of our own experiences and emotions. The more complete and accurate the reflections, the more complete and accurate are our engagements with the texts. 

Perhaps I have insufficiently explained what I mean by autobiographical criticism. Nevertheless, I hope I have opened the door through which you will enter and join the conversation. Tell me what you think of the concept.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

"I felt a Funeral, in my Brain"

First there is this from Emily Dickinson:

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading - treading - till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through -

And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum -
Kept beating - beating - till I thought
My mind was going numb -

And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space - began to toll,

As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here -

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down -
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing - then -

* * * * *

And there is this personal postscript:

   Have you ever had days or weeks when the clouds of depression will not go away? I'm now living in one of those seemingly endless moments. Coincidentally -- or perhaps not -- I stumbled today upon one of my favorite poems by Emily Dickinson.

   In the past, I understood the poem as an imagined death. After all, as most readers know, Dickinson seems to have been preoccupied with death.

   However, today I understand the poem as an extended metaphor for depression. But madness might be more accurate because that plank in reason has broken. And the final line, without an ending, convinces me that my current understanding is correct because my cloudy days seem to have no limit.

   So, for whatever it is worth, I share the poem and my understanding with you, and I ask you several questions:

(1) What is your understanding of the poem? (Perhaps you read it differently.)

(2) If you felt a funeral in your brain, as I do, what reading would you turn to in search of relief? 

George Orwell, deceit, truth, and political writing as art

First there is this from The Writer's Almanac:

     Today is the birthday of the man who wrote, "In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." That's George Orwell  (books by this author),  born Eric Blair in Motihari, India (1903). He wrote his first poem - which he dictated to his mother - at the age of four or five. He was 11 when he wrote a patriotic poem after World War I broke out. It was published in the newspaper. He wrote a short story that he described as "a ghastly failure," and a rhyming play, and helped edit the school's newspaper. He was also constantly narrating his own actions in a writerly way, in his head. "I had the lonely child's habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons," he later wrote, "and I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued." His father was a civil servant, and the family was, in Orwell's words, "lower-upper-middle class." Orwell received a scholarship to Eton, the prestigious boys' school, but he felt alienated from his wealthy classmates. He opted not to go on to Oxford or Cambridge, but served as a military policeman in Burma instead. His essay "A Hanging," which he published in 1931, is about his time there; it describes his role in the execution of a prisoner.
     He believed there were four great motives for writing prose: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. By "political," he meant in the widest sense of the word: "Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples' idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude." His writing was pushed even more toward the political after Hitler's rise to power, and the Spanish civil war. He said, "Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it." In the early 1940s, he began work on a novella about a group of farm animals that decide to stage an uprising against their tyrannical farmer. Orwell called it Animal Farm (1945), and often described it as a satirical tale against Stalin and the Soviet Union.
     "What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art," he wrote in his essay "Why I Write" (1946). "My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, 'I am going to produce a work of art.' I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. [.] Animal Farmwas the first book in which I tried, with full consciousness of what I was doing, to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole. I have not written a novel for seven years, but I hope to write another fairly soon. It is bound to be a failure, every book is a failure, but I do know with some clarity what kind of book I want to write." His next - and final - novel was Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), about a future in which England has become a totalitarian state run by an anonymous presence known only as Big Brother. Orwell died of tuberculosis just a few months after it was published. Far from being a failure, Nineteen Eighty-Four has been translated into 62 languages, has sold millions of copies, and just this past January it was No. 1 on's best-seller list.

And there is this personal postscript:

Consider carefully Orwell's statements regarding deceit, truth, and political writing as art. Off the top of my head, I cannot think of another writer whose "political writing" succeeds so well as art. Please tell me your thoughts about Orwell and others who engage in similar writing. By the way, much of Orwell's nonfiction should be read and studied by anyone who wants to become a better writer. 

Saturday, June 24, 2017

George Washington's Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution by Brian Kilmeade & Don Yaeger

Book Review:

Long ago, when I began my studies as a freshman at a northeastern university, not far from the site of George Washington's first military defeat at the outset of the French and Indian War  (Fort Necessity in southwestern Pennsylvania), I was so fascinated by the history of America's formative years - especially the years leading up to the American Revolution and all that followed in the final decades of the 18th century - that I immediately enrolled as a history major. Unfortunately, my undergraduate studies were interrupted (thanks to the draft lottery, the Vietnam conflict, and what turned out to be nearly three decades in the United States military service), but I later completed my education and - going in a different direction - became an adjunct instructor of English composition, literature, and drama. Even though I had not followed through on my earlier goal of becoming a professional historian, I have throughout my life remained an avid student of American history: dozens of books on my Kindle and on my library shelves at home testify to that passion.

So it is with great anticipation that I seized upon the opportunity to read and review what has turned out to be a great book about George Washington and his amazing network of spies. Before I comment more specifically about the highly recommended book by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yeager, I invite you to consider the next paragraph.

Most people in the United States, when they think about the American Revolution, tend to think only of the most famous places, such as Bunker Hill, Valley Forge, and Yorktown, and they also recall a few of the most prominent names, including perhaps only Washington and Cornwallis, but very few Americans know of many others. However, with that limited knowledge, people mistakenly overlook one of the most important places - New York City - and six of the most important people - Austin Roe, Caleb Brewster, Abraham Woodhull, James Rivington, Robert Townsend, and a woman known now (and largely then) only as Agent 355. These six, with Townsend in charge, made up the Culper Ring, a small band of fervent patriots whose contributions to the success of the American war effort cannot be overstated. The simple facts were these: If George Washington and the Continental Army could not seize and maintain control of Manhattan and the immediately adjacent boroughs, the tide of the American Revolution would almost certainly turn irreversibly in favor of the British; and if the Culper Ring had not defied all sorts of dangers in their wide-ranging efforts to spy upon the British forces and apprise Washington of the British plans, then New York would never be controlled by Washington's forces. Then, almost certainly, the American cause would be lost.

Backed up with exhaustive research (some of which has been previously unavailable to readers) and characterized by gripping, page-turning narrative prose - Kilmeade and Yaeger's book is a superb examination of the Culper Ring's contributions on behalf of the Americans' glorious cause. The names of Townsend (reserved), Roe (sacrificial), Brewster (impatient), Woodhull (nervous), Rivington (attentive), and Agent 355 (charming) deserve to be included among the names of the most famous founding fathers and military leaders. Why do the members of the Culper Ring deserve such elevation in the minds and hearts of 21st century Americans who value this nation's heritage of freedom and courage? The persuasive answers to that question can be found in the exciting, informative, and fascinating George Washington's Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution (Penguin, 2013). Finally, I would offer you this recommendation: If you have time to read only read a handful of books about American history, make sure Kilmeade and Yaeger's book is among them. Enjoy!

Ciardi, Dante, and Destinations

First there is this from The Writer's Almanac:

     It's the birthday of poet and essayist John Ciardi (books by this author), born in Boston, Massachusetts (1916). He's remembered today for his book How Does a Poem Mean? (1959), which has become a standard textbook in high school and college poetry classes. He also published several collections of his own poetry, and his Collected Poems came out in 1997.
     But he may be best known for his translation of Dante's Divine Comedypublished in 1954. More than 50 English translations of the Divine Comedy were published in the 20th century, but Ciardi's is considered one of the best. For years, it was the standard translation used in English classes in the U.S.
     Ciardi said, "The reader deserves an honest opinion. If he doesn't deserve it, give it to him anyhow."

And there is this personal postscript:

     I have fond memories of reading Ciardi's Dante in college. It was a mesmerizing encounter. Perhaps I should return to The Inferno soon. Actually, I might be going there sooner than I would like. Hmmm.


Friday, June 23, 2017

Shaara, birthday, and questions

First there is this from The Writer's Almanac:

     It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Michael Shaara(books by this author), born in Jersey City, New Jersey (1928). His first story was published in a magazine called Astounding Science Fiction in 1951. When he had shown it to a professor, the man said, "Please don't write this sort of thing. Write literature." For the next 30 years, Shaara kept writing what he pleased. He said: "I've never written for a buck. Never stayed in one field. I write for the fun of it, and I don't think of the reader."
     He idolized Ernest Hemingway and John O'Hara. He wanted to be a man of action. He was a sailor, a paratrooper, a police officer, and a professional boxer. His novel The Killer Angels (1974) is about the Battle of Gettysburg. To prepare for it, Shaara flew his own plane over the battlefield to study the terrain. The book won the Pulitzer Prize.
     His last novel, For Love of the Game (1991), was published posthumously. He finished it just before he died of a heart attack. It tells the story of an aging baseball player named Billy Chapel, as he pitches his last and greatest game.

And there is this personal postscript:

     Regarding The Killer Angels, why would you read a novel about the American civil war (or any historical event) when you could instead read nonfiction? In other words, is there any good reason to read historical fiction? What do you think? If you have good recommendations in support of historical fiction, please pass them on to me. 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Review: Jefferson and Hamilton

Book Review:
Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged a Nation 
by John Ferling
(Bloomsbury, 2013)

Here is a sad fact: Most Americans have only a superficial knowledge of Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and their pivotal and adversarial roles in American history.

For example, few Americans know very much at all about Alexander Hamilton. As the man who might be the more infamous of the two founders (at least to most people), especially given his fatal duel with Aaron Burr, Hamilton left his permanent imprint on American political science, particularly as it concerns debates about the roles of a central government, a financial system, and commercial enterprise.

At the same time, while most Americans can tell you a bit more about Thomas Jefferson (i.e., they will almost always cite his authorship of the Declaration of Independence and his relationship with the slave Sally Hemmings), few Americans are familiar with the complex depth of Jefferson's espousal of personal equality, which some would label as being a bit ironic, and his steadfast commitment to expansive national growth. Moreover, Americans would be hard-pressed to tell you how those issues and others led Jefferson to become Hamilton's fierce political opponent.

It is interesting to note, by way of digression, that both of these late 18th century politicians have been significant influences upon late 20th century presidential thinking: Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush frequently aligned themselves to Hamiltonian approaches; John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton were particularly clear about their embrace of Jeffersonian principles.

But, finally, to state the matter more succinctly, anyone's hope of understanding America in the 21st century requires knowledge of the ways in which Jefferson and Hamilton were so significant to the shaping of American government, society, and economics in the 18th and 19th centuries. As an aid to that understanding, here is a highly recommended new book that will be invaluable to all readers.

Written in clear, crisp expository prose by John Ferling, author of numerous books focusing on the American Revolution, and professor emeritus of history at the University of West Georgia, this exhaustively detailed study of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton is a valuable look at a unique era - and two singular personalities. Moreover, although this book is a scholarly presentation that may seem to be aimed at a specific, academic audience, everything presented by Professor Ferling should be accessible and interesting to general readers.


Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Hamlet: a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours

First there is this from William Shakespeare's Hamlet (Act II, Scene 2):

I have of late, (but wherefore I know not) lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition; that this goodly frame the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o'er hanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire: why, it appeareth no other thing to me, than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.

And now there is this personal postscript:

When I stumbled upon the foregoing quote earlier today, I realized how much I feel like Hamlet. Yes, it has been a lot like that for me lately. But let me not make this posting about me but about William Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Consider carefully the life and death of the melancholy Prince of Denmark, a young man overwhelmed by the foul and pestilent vapors overwhelming Elsinore's sterile promontory. Very early in Hamlet, we learn that the prince's father, King Hamlet, has recently died; the prince's mother, Gertrude, in short order has married the dead king's brother; and the prince's uncle and step-father, Claudius, according to spectral but uncorroborated evidence, seems to be guilty of murdering King Hamlet. Then in quick order we learn that Prince Hamlet, believing Claudius to be guilty of regicide and more, but needing both confidence and proof, will pretend to be insane while he goes about trying to prove Claudius' guilt. As the play moves along in brilliant fashion, with never a dull moment for readers or audiences, Hamlet obtains the necessary evidence against Claudius and must finally act upon the unequivocal instructions from his father's ghost: He must avenge the dead king's murder.

e all know what ought to happen next: Hamlet, of course, should fulfill his promise to his dead father, so -- without further delay -- he should kill Claudius. However, young Hamlet will not take the ordered action, but instead he makes a big mistake, one that will lead to quite a few deaths and will make his own tragic death inevitable.

Well, by the time we finish with Shakespeare's masterpiece, four bodies clutter the stage; a foreigner, someone not of the royal family in Denmark, young Fortinbras, becomes monarch at Elsinore; and we are left trying to answer an important question, one that will help us understand both the structure of the tragedy and the reasons for all the happens at the end: What was Hamlet's fatal mistake?

Well, now it is time for you to consider that question. What do you think?

Snowden's birthday is not worth celebrating

First there is this from The Writer's Almanac:

It's the birthday of Edward Snowden, born in Elizabeth City, North Carolina (1983). His family moved to Maryland when he was a boy, and his mother went to work for the federal court in Baltimore. Snowden dropped out of high school, but later earned his GED, and studied computers at a community college. He never earned his college degree, but he seemed to have a natural aptitude for technology. He also enlisted in the Army Reserves but left after four months; depending on whom you ask, he either broke both his legs in a training accident or washed out of the program when he developed shin splints.
He got a job with the Center for Advanced Study of Language at the University of Maryland. The center had ties to the National Security Agency. From there, Snowden went to work for the CIA in 2006; he quit when people began to suspect him of breaking into classified files. He took a series of jobs with NSA subcontractors, and while he was working for consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, he began secretly copying classified documents. He believed that the NSA was gathering too much information on American citizens, and he intended to blow the whistle. In May 2013, he told his supervisor that he needed a medical leave, and then took off for Hong Kong. Soon after, theGuardian and the Washington Post released some of his secret documents.
Snowden has lived overseas ever since and is currently living in Russia on a three-year residence permit that expires this August; his request for clemency from the U.S. government was denied, and despite a plea from various human rights groups, President Obama declined to pardon him before he left office. The House Intelligence Committee called Snowden a "disgruntled employee" and a "serial exaggerator," and said he "caused tremendous damage to national security." For his part, Snowden said: "I love my country. I love my family. I don't know where we're going from here. I don't know what tomorrow looks like. But I'm glad for the decisions I've made."

And there is this personal postscript:

I have no idea why Snowden is featured in The Writer's Almanac. I know why he is featured here: I believe Snowden is a despicable criminal who should be prosecuted and punished, and I will take every opportunity to remind people of that important fact. Why do I say he is a criminal? Because I have an important perspective on the subject of classified material control: I once was entrusted with some of the nation's most sensitive classified information, I understand the need to protect U.S. secrets, and if I had ever revealed even the smallest bits of classified information to people not authorized to receive them, I soon would have been court martialled and punished. Snowden, my friends, has earned my everlasting enmity because he engaged in serious criminal behavior that endangers the security and stability of the nation. He most certainly is not a hero, and he must be captured, returned to U.S. jurisdiction, prosecuted, and severely punished: 20 to 30 years in prison sounds just about right to me. 

Here is the bottom line: Criminals like Snowden must not be celebrated. They must be punished. 

(Note: I am reevaluating my interest in The Writer's Almanac because of their  strangely inappropriate celebration of Snowden. The site has an editorial bias that bothers me. I guess I should not be surprised given its founder and background.)


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Lillian Hellman's birthday celebration

First there is this from The Writer's Almanac:

It's the birthday of American playwright and memoirist Lillian Hellman (books by this author), born in New Orleans (1905). She spent her childhood bouncing between Upper West End Avenue in New York City and a series of genteel boarding houses run by relatives in New Orleans. She was a smart loner who took refuge in books. She once ran away at 14 and pawned a birthday ring her uncle gave her to buy books. After she was found out, instead of scolding her, he told her, "So, you've got spirit, after all. Most of the rest of them are made of sugar water." Hellman later used that line in one her most famous plays, The Little Foxes (1939). Her friend Dorothy Parker came up with the title for that play, which comes from Chapter 2, Verse 15 of The Song of Solomon.

Hellman was opinionated, brash, funny, and sometimes rash, as when she got into a very public spat with novelist Mary McCarthy, who went on the Dick Cavett show in 1979 and said every word Hellman ever wrote, "including 'and' and 'the,' was a 'lie.'" Hellman sued McCarthy, the Educational Television Corporation, and Dick Cavett, for damages of $1.75 million for "mental pain and anguish." It wasn't the first time Hellman, who wrote four memoirs, had been challenged about her writing. She once said: "What I have written is the truth as I saw it, but the truth as I saw it, of course, doesn't have much to do with the truth. It's as if I have fitted parts of a picture puzzle and then a child overturned it and threw out some pieces."

Hellman got her start in the theater working as a play reader for a producer. She was in a romantic relationship with novelist and screenwriter Dashiell Hammett, a relationship they'd cultivate for 30 tempestuous years, and he told her to try her hand at playwriting. She did, thinking what she was working on was just a lark, but when the producer read the first act, he said, "Swell." After reading the second act he said, "I hope it keeps up." After reading the third act he said, "I'll produce it," and he did. That play was called The Children's Hour, and took on the taboo subject of rumors and lesbianism in a girls' boarding school. It was a hit and ran for 691 performances, making Lillian Hellman a famous writer.

                                                           * * * * *

And there is this personal postscript:

The Writer's Almanac article omits important details. Read more here. 

I am now searching for a biographies of Hellman and Hammett. I also hope to read some things by Hellman and Hammett. 

Do you have any reading recommendations?

Monday, June 19, 2017

Julius Caesar -- past, present, and future

In NYC, there has been a production of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar -- read one writer's perspective on it here -- and because of (or in spite of) the notoriety attached to the production, which I will avoid critiquing because I did not see it, I am reminded of when I first encountered Shakespeare's version of Roman history. It was during my junior high school years, but I cannot remember which year, and everyone in my English class struggled (well, I certainly struggled) through in-class readings and discussions of the play; I went away from the experience more impressed with Roman history than with William Shakespeare. The Bard would have to wait a while for me to become another of his fans.

Later in my schoolboy days -- first in high school and then in college (when I turned my back on history studies and became a theatre major who read more of Shakespeare's plays, but see the confession that follows in a later paragraph) -- while sitting and studying as a student, I began to appreciate much more the poet-playwright's creations in some profound, life-changing ways. This appreciation was especially enhanced when I saw Richard Burton as Hamlet in John Gielgud's production. And my several opportunities to perform in and design productions of Shakespeare's plays were icing on the cake. I had become both a Shakespearean actor and a worshipful reader of the Bard of Avon.

Much later in life, when I retired from the Navy, went to graduate school, and became an adjunct instructor of English composition and literature, I stood at a different place in classrooms, and my syllabus staples were Hamlet, Othello, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, Othello, Macbeth, and even Percicles. Students may have suffered through the close readings, animated "lectures," and challenging discussions, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Ah, I was on stage again, but this time without greasepaint and footlights, and I was performing one of my favorite roles! 

Now, however, here is the promised confession: Even though I have had some good experiences with Shakespeare in my lifetime, I have never gotten around to reading and studying all of his plays. Some conspicuous gaps and oversights embarrass me. So, motivated by the recent kerfuffle over Julius Caesar in NYC -- much ado about nothing (in my opinion) -- and anxious to do penance for those gaps and oversights, and eager to add some structure and purpose to my final scenes, I am going to try (again) to read every one of Shakespeare's plays before the final curtain comes down. 

But, as you know, I can hardly ever close a posting without asking you at least one bothersome question, so I will now ask you several:

What was your first and/or most memorable Shakespeare experience?
Have you read all of his plays? (Which one(s) do you most regret not reading?)
Do you have any opinions about the controversial Julius Caesar production in NYC?

Skepticism and eternal life: Pascal's famous wager

First there is this from The Writer's Almanac:

It's the birthday of mathematician and mystic Blaise Pascal (books by this author), born in Clermont, France (1623). He was homeschooled by his father, a mathematician who believed that children should absorb knowledge naturally rather than by studying. So he didn't go to school in his youth, but he worked on geometric problems in the yard, while playing with sticks. When he was 12, he showed his father that the sum of the angles of a triangle is equal to two right angles. His father was shocked that he had figured this out on his own, and invited him to join in scientific discussions with other mathematicians. At 16, he published an article on the geometric properties of cones, and a few years later, he invented the first mechanical calculator.

Pascal's family was not religious, but in 1646, he met two Christian mystics who cared for his father during an illness. They converted Pascal, and he converted his family, but he continued working on scientific experiments, showing that a vacuum could exist in nature, and invented the mathematics of probability.

Then, one night in November of 1654, he experienced a divine vision, which he called a "night of fire." He wrote an account of the experience and sewed it into his coat lining to carry until his death. After that night, he decided to forget the world and everything except for God. He left Paris in 1655 and went to live in a convent. While living there, his niece was miraculously cured of an eye disease by touching a thorn from the crown of Jesus. He decided to write a book to convert skeptics to Christianity.

Pascal wrote a series of notes and fragments about his thoughts on religion, but he never completed the book. The notes were found after his death and published as Pensées (Thoughts, 1669). In that book, he describes his famous wager, arguing that if God does not exist, the skeptic loses nothing by believing in him; but if God does exist, the skeptic gains eternal life by believing in him. He also argued that it is the heart that experiences God, and not reason.

He wrote: "Man. What a novelty! What a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy. Judge of all things, imbecile worm of the earth; depositary of truth, a sink of uncertainty and error: the pride and refuse of the universe."

Pascal also said, "Man is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he emerges and the infinity in which he is engulfed."

* * * * *

And there is this personal postscript: 

I repeat a portion of one of the foregoing paragraphs:

"[Pascal argued] that if God does not exist, the skeptic loses nothing by believing in him; but if God does exist, the skeptic gains eternal life by believing in him. He also argued that it is the heart that experiences God, and not reason."

And I say this: I agree with Pascal, and my agreement is (nearly) 100 percent; however, I wonder what Pascal really means when he says "it is the heart that experiences God, and not reason," especially as (1) I think it somewhat contradicts his skeptic-as-believer thesis, (2) I remain confused about the "eternal life" concept; and (3) I doubt that a "heart" experiences anything that "reason" cannot explain and understand (but I could be quite wrong).

Well, I now leave you with three questions:

(1) What do you think Pascal means in his heart v. reason statement?
(2) What do you think "eternal life" means?
(3) What do you think of Pascal's wager? (i.e., are you a skeptic, believer, or both?)