Friday, February 23, 2018

How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Life a Modern Life



Irvine’s been there, done that
Stoicism is an ancient school of philosophy that originated in Greece in the 3rd century BC. Its most famous spokesmen from ancient times—Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius—taught their followers the path to a life of tranquility and virtue through the mindful exercise of reason in mastering desires, emotions, and judgments. Stoicism has enjoyed a resurgence of sorts in recent years because its ancient tenets and techniques have proven to be a timelessly effective code of living. Stoicism is the basis for modern cognitive behavior therapy, and has also given rise to a number of self-help publications, the latest of which is Massimo Pigliucci’s 2017 book How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life. As the title suggests, Pigliucci makes the case for Stoicism as a way of life and offers practical suggestions to today’s readers on how to apply Stoic concepts to their daily lives. While this is a great idea, it has been done before, most notably by William B. Irvine in his 2009 book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. In my opinion, the more books about Stoicism the better, and Pigliucci’s entry is a welcome addition to the Stoic corpus, but it doesn’t really cover much new ground.

For those who have never read a philosophy book, Pigliucci’s How to Be a Stoic may be the easier entry point to the subject, but Irvine’s book is still remarkably accessible and more substantial in its content. The one unique twist to Pigliucci’s approach is that he carries on an imaginary conversation with the ancient teacher Epictetus, whose Discourses is arguably the most important fundamental text of Stoicism. To illustrate Stoic concepts, Pigliucci uses a brief saying or story from Epictetus as the basis for each chapter and elaborates upon it with examples from his own life. The drawback to this approach is that Epictetus’s contributions to the dialogue tend to be oversimplified and overshadowed by Pigliucci’s personal reflections. While I agree with many of Pigliucci’s views on politics and society, I don’t agree that he should have devoted so much ink to them in this book. While examples are important to connect the ancient philosophy to modern life, in this case it feels like examples make up the bulk of the book. Furthermore, while one of the advantages of Stoicism is its adaptability, Pigliucci seems too ready to depart from the ancient teachings in favor of his own personal interpretation or modern compromise. In contrast, Irvine also used helpful personal examples to support his text, but he places the philosophy at the forefront and does a better job of letting the Stoics speak for themselves.

The best part of Pigliucci’s How to Be a Stoic is its final chapter, entitled “Practical Spiritual Exercises,” which offers a dozen specific cognitive and behavioral practices that budding Stoics can utilize to hone their thoughts and actions in order to live, as the Stoics say, in accordance with nature. Recommendations such as “Examine your impressions,” “Remind yourself of the impermanence of things,” and “Speak little and well,” may seem like simple rules to follow, but in practice they require repetition, discipline, and fortitude to be effective. Again, many of these exercises have been previously suggested by Irvine and other writers of the new Stoic movement, but Pigliucci does an exceptionally fine job of laying them out in an organized and accessible manner that encourages the reader not only to try them but also to persist and succeed.

Though How to Be a Stoic feels a lot like an Irvine redux, there is still room for one more philosopher under the stoa. Irvine himself gave his blessing to Pigliucci’s book, and it will no doubt succeed in recruiting more than a few new students to this worthy school of thought.
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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Golden Horn by Poul Anderson



Byzantine “Immigrant Song”
Poul Anderson is best known as an author of science fiction and fantasy novels. In 1998 he was named a Grand Master of Science Fiction by the Science Fiction Writers of America, probably the most prestigious lifetime achievement award in that field. He also, however, wrote historical novels, and if his 1980 book The Golden Horn is any indication, darn good ones. (Wikipedia says he cowrote this novel with his wife Karen Anderson, but the recently published ebook edition from Open Road Media does not bear her name anywhere.) The Golden Horn is the first book in Anderson’s The Last Viking trilogy, a three-part fictionalized biography of Norwegian King Harald Sigurdharsson, also known as Harald Hadrada, who lived from around 1015 to 1066.

Harald is the nephew of King Olaf the Stout, who reigns over Norway during the novel’s opening scenes. When Olaf dies in battle, Harald is not first in the line of succession (Olaf had a son), but he nevertheless sees himself as a contender for the throne. Before he can make a play for the crown, however, he must first acquire wealth, soldiers, and military acumen. To accomplish this, he spends several years fighting as a mercenary, first for a Russian prince and then for the Eastern Roman Empire in Byzantium. The title of the book refers to the body of water in Constantinople known as the Golden Horn, which feeds into the Bosphorus. Harald fights nobly for the Empire, crushing infidels in the name of Christianity, and rises in rank until he reluctantly attains a place in the emperor and empress’s inner circle. While his military success brings him great wealth, it also proves to be a trap, as Byzantine court intrigue threatens to derail his plans to return to Norway and reclaim what he feels is his rightful place as king.

Though there’s a lot of Game of Thrones-style political maneuvering in this novel, despite Anderson’s fantasy background you won’t find any supernatural occurrences here, which is as it should be. Anderson sticks very close to the historical script and displays a hardcore devotion to the facts, perhaps too hardcore for some readers. While I admire the relentless authenticity with which Anderson tells this tale, at times it feels like a full-immersion session in Viking language day camp. The text is so loaded with Norse words and 11th-century proper nouns it is often more difficult to get through than science fiction and fantasy books that invent their own languages. Dune at least has a glossary; The Golden Horn could use one. Instead, the reader is expected to be familiar with words like jarl, carle, byrnie, wadmal, liefer, rede, or thing (in this case, an assembly or meeting). The genealogy of the royal Yngling family is confusing (though Anderson thankfully provides a chart), as is the revolving-door cast of Byzantine emperors. Anderson really makes the reader feel present in that time and place, but the disorienting level of detail does at times hinder one’s appreciation of the narrative. On the plus side, the battle scenes are exquisitely rendered, the characters are well-drawn, and Harald’s mission is compelling. On the other hand, the book does have its slow periods, and Harald’s impatience to return to Norway is contagious.

Sometimes a trilogy means three separate connected novels, and sometimes a trilogy means one epic work split into three sections. Given the biographical nature of this series, The Last Viking is obviously the latter. The Golden Horn reaches an adequate stopping point but doesn’t really feel like a complete novel in itself. Anyone with an avid interest in Viking lore will be happy to tackle all three books, but the casual history buff might find that too daunting a task.
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Monday, February 19, 2018

Colonel Chabert by Honoré de Balzac



An old war horse returns from the dead
Colonel Chabert, a novel by Honoré de Balzac, was first published in 1832 under the title La Transaction in the Parisian literary journal L’Artiste. In subsequent publications Balzac changed the title to the one it now bears. Balzac classified this work under the category of Scenes from Private Life in his grand multi-volume series of novels and stories, the Comédie Humaine.

The title character is a cavalry officer who fought for Napoleon at the Battle of Eylau in 1807. During the combat with the Russians he was struck on the head with a sabre blow, presumed dead, and tossed into a mass grave. Coming to his senses, he climbs out from under the dead bodies of his comrades and is taken in by a local family. For the better part of a decade after that, Chabert slowly makes his way towards Paris—sometimes ill, sometimes imprisoned, always penniless—trying to regain his former life. As the story opens, he seeks assistance at the office of a lawyer, Maitre Derville, who will be recognizable to Balzac regulars as the attorney from Père Goriot, Gobseck, and other novels of the Comédie Humaine. Chabert informs Derville that he has notified his wife of his existence, but she has refused to acknowledge him or grant him a penny of his former estate. Madame Chabert has since married a count to become the Comtesse Ferraud. She has two children by her new husband and enjoys the social status of being espoused to an upwardly mobile councillor of state under the new monarchy. Since Chabert has been declared dead, he has no legal right over her. The old colonel begs Derville to help him reclaim his wife and his identity, and the lawyer agrees to take his case.

Despite the heavy subject matter, Balzac keeps the proceedings relatively lighthearted for most of the story’s length. Humorous scenes of banter between legal clerks provide comic relief. (Balzac, himself once a clerk in a law office, no doubt wrote those passages from his own experience.) The predicament of Colonel Chabert makes for a very compelling narrative, but one can’t exactly call the resolution satisfying. Balzac wrote this novella as a commentary on the Bourbon Restoration of 1814 to 1830. Chabert embodies the principles of honor and glory that characterized the reign of Napoleon, while his wife represents the rampant greed and vapid social climbing of French society under the new regime of Louis XVIII. Balzac’s satirizing of the hypocrisy of the age brings forth humor, but it also brings frustration. In shaping the plot to prove his sociopolitical points, Balzac leaves the reader feeling a little robbed. The story ultimately becomes a conflict between what is honorable and what is right. While readers of the 21st century would likely put right before honor, that would not have been the case in France 200 years ago. The very definition of honor has also changed over the past two centuries. From today’s perspective, the personal code Chabert lives by comes across as an antiquated and foolish mode of chivalry.

Nevertheless, the characters are indelible, the storytelling is top-notch, and one can’t help but be moved by Chabert’s plight. Balzac writes the kind of stories that stick in your mind for years afterward. You may not recall the names of the players from among the bountiful ensemble cast of the Comédie Humaine, but the moral lessons remain entrenched in your psyche. I wouldn’t count Colonel Chabert as one of Balzac’s absolute best works, but even his lesser efforts usually qualify as exceptional literature, and this is certainly no lesser effort.
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Friday, February 16, 2018

The Philosophy of Bertrand Russell by George Santayana



More about Santayana’s thought than Russell’s
Having previously read a couple works by George Santayana and Bertrand Russell, I was interested in learning more about these two philosophers, so when I discovered that the former had written a book about the latter my interest was piqued. The content of The Philosophy of Bertrand Russell was first published as part of a 1913 book by Santayana entitled Winds of Doctrine: Studies in Contemporary Opinion. At some later date another publisher extracted these essays on Russell and published them as a separate book. This book should not be confused with a 1944 book of the same title edited by Paul Arthur Schlipp with contributions from various authors.

Santayana’s The Philosophy of Bertrand Russell is comprised of four chapters. The first of these chapters, “A New Scholasticism,” is little more than a brief introduction. Santayana writes from the perspective of a senior scholar commenting on an up-and-comer, even though Russell had published close to ten books by this time. Santayana encouragingly intimates that he admires what Russell has accomplished so far but disagrees with him on a number of matters. The overall tone of Santayana’s writing is one of a mentor offering his mentee a mixture of faint praise and mildly reproachful but constructive criticism.

In the second chapter, “The Study of Essence,” Santayana begins by explaining how philosophers since Plato have made a distinction between the ideal world and the world that man is capable of perceiving with his senses. Santayana describes Russell’s contribution to this continuum as a sort of oxymoronic logical idealism in which mathematics is seen as the underlying truth of the universe. The elder scholar then goes on to critique what he sees as the fallacies in this line of reasoning.

At some point prior to the writing of this book, Russell must have published some essay criticizing the philosophy of pragmatism, because chapter 3, “The Critique of Pragmatism,” reads like a response to such a statement. Santayana, who studied under William James, is closer to a pragmatist than Russell, but that doesn’t stop him from finding fault in pragmatic doctrine. In fact, this chapter is really about Santayana’s views on pragmatism and yields little insight into the philosophy of Russell, who’s name is only mentioned a few times in the entire chapter.

The final chapter, “Hypostatic Ethics,” is a more pointed critique of Russell, focusing on his conception of ethics. Santayana chides the absolutism of Russell’s ethical philosophy, seeing it as prescribing right and wrong in terms as rigid as mathematical equations. Santayana advocates a more relativistic ethics, not as relativist as the pragmatists, perhaps, but at least a happy middle ground.

If you are looking for an introductory or blanket overview of Russell’s philosophy, this is not that book. Despite what its title indicates, this book really reveals more about Santayana’s thought than Russell’s. A very brief book as far as philosophy texts go, it won’t take up too much of your time, and Santayana’s prose is more accessible and less cryptic here than in The Life of Reason, though he still has a tendency to say with a hundred words what he could have said in ten. Those interested in Russell will likely be disappointed by this book. Those interested in Santayana, however, might find it a satisfying read.
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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

International Short Stories: French, edited by Francis J. Reynolds



Evidence of France’s literary superiority
Guy de Maupassant
International Short Stories: French, compiled by Francis J. Reynolds and published in 1910 by P. F. Collier & Sons, is the third in a trilogy of International Short Stories anthologies, following volumes on American and English stories. This French collection includes 23 stories and novellas by French authors both classic and contemporary (for 1910). Though the American and English volumes were fine, it is remarkable how superior this French volume is to both of those preceding books. While each volume has its household-name superstars, the difference in quality is most notable in the obscure, run-of-the-mill writers long since forgotten. While the minor authors of England and America served primarily as disappointing distractions from the better works in their respective volumes, here the French team proves to have a deep bench of players capable of consistently high performance. This volume captures a moment in time when, whether in the case of romanticism or naturalism, French literature really led the world in narrative innovation and literary merit, until arguably the Americans took the lead with early 20th-century realism.

In terms of big Panthéon-worthy names, the starting five, if you will, includes exceptional selections by Honoré de Balzac (“The Elixir of Life”), Emile Zola (“Jean Gourdon’s Four Days”), and Alexandre Dumas (“Solange”). Victor Hugo’s “A Fight with a Cannon” is actually an excerpt from his novel Ninety-Three, but the lifted scene stands alone as compelling short story. Voltaire’s novella Zadig is also reproduced in its entirety. Though a worthy work, having been published in 1747 it does suffer a bit from its extreme antiquity.

For the most part the second-string players, those who deserve more fame than they presently enjoy, are also represented by admirable offerings. Guy de Maupassant, a true master of the short story, delivers likely the book’s best selection, “Abandoned,” in which a married woman and her former lover visit the love child they spawned 40 years before. “A Piece of Bread” by François Coppée, another greatly underrated storyteller, is a touching tale of a friendship between two soldiers in the Franco-Prussian War. Alphonse Daudet’s excellent entry, “The Last Lesson,” is a moving tale of the last French-language class taught at an Alsatian school before the Prussian takeover. Alfred de Musset’s “Croisilles” is an enjoyable lighthearted romance written in a style reminiscent of Balzac. Another reasonably well-known storyteller, Prosper Mérimée, is less successful with “Mateo Falcone,” perhaps his best-known story but certainly not his best.

The remaining baker’s dozen of authors bear names unlikely to ring a bell with most 21st-century readers. With the exception of one or two disappointments, however, such as A. Chenevière’s African colonial tale “Tonton” and Clémence Robert’s pulpy military adventure “Baron de Trenck,” the quality of these lesser-knowns’ selections is quite good and in some cases truly pleasant surprises. Henry Murger’s “The Passage of the Red Sea,” a delightfully wry satire of the art establishment, is right up there among the volume’s best selections. Offerings by Paul de Kock, Erckmann-Chatrian, René Bazin, Marcel Prevost, and Alain René Le Sage are also impressive works.

For lovers of classic literature, the International Short Stories series is pretty good overall, but the French volume is clearly the one book of the three that definitely deserves a download. Not every story included is a masterpiece, but the goods far outweigh the bads.

Stories in this collection

A Piece of Bread by François Coppée
The Elixir of Life by Honoré de Balzac 
The Age for Love by Paul Bourget 
Mateo Falcone by Prosper Mérimée 
The Mirror by Catulle Mendes 
My Nephew Joseph by Ludovic Halevy 
A Forest Betrothal by Erckmann-Chatrian 
Zadig the Babylonian by François Marie Arouet de Voltaire 
Abandoned by Guy de Maupassant 
The Guilty Secret by Paul de Kock 
Jean Monette by Eugene François Vidocq

Solange by Alexandre Dumas 

The Birds in the Letter-Box by René Bazin 

Jean Gourdon’s Four Days by Émile Zola 

Baron de Trenck by Clémence Robert 

The Passage of the Red Sea by Henry Murger 

The Woman and the Cat by Marcel Prevost 

Gil Blas and Dr. Sangrado by Alain René Le Sage 

A Fight with a Cannon by Victor Hugo 

Tonton by A. Chenevière 

The Last Lesson by Alphonse Daudet

Croisilles by Alfred de Musset
The Vase of Clay by Jean Aicard


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Monday, February 12, 2018

Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews, edited by Jonathan Cott



With age comes wisdom
Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews was originally published in 2006 by Wenner Books, a division of Rolling Stone magazine. Though published by Rolling Stone and edited by Rolling Stone writer Jonathan Cott, the 31 collected interviews are not limited to Rolling Stone articles but also include selections from Playboy, the New York Times, the L.A. Times and several other publications. In 2017, Simon & Schuster published an updated edition with three additional interviews, all of them from Rolling Stone, the most recent being from 2009.

At first, even for a huge Dylan fan like myself, this book is a difficult slog to get through. Dylan made some great music back in the ‘60s, but he was a terrible interview subject. This is the same smart-aleck Dylan you see in the movie Don’t Look Back, who answers questions with questions or responds with surrealistic wordplay that’s often just nonsense masked as profundity. He aims for an image of irreverence but usually achieves deliberate disrespect, and very little of worth is revealed in the process. The most frustrating thing about reading these early interviews is that the journalists never call him on it. They either let his half-baked answers slide or eat them up wholeheartedly. The best interview from the ‘60s is by Jay Cocks, then an undergraduate at Kenyon College when Dylan gave a concert there. That piece really gives you an idea of what Dylan and his crazy life were like back then. Other interviewers, like A.J. Weberman of the East Village Other, just love to hear themselves talk and discuss themselves more than they do the man in question. Editor Cott himself is not the greatest of interviewers. He seems to want to impress Dylan with his knowledge of Bartlett’s Quotations, and he raves about Dylan’s film Renaldo and Clara as if it were a Fellini masterpiece, an assessment with which few movie critics are likely to agree.

Finally, around page 200, Dylan matures and so do his interviewers. By this time he has a wife and kids, and he seems to have realized that journalists are just people doing their jobs, not evil antagonists. Most importantly, he finally starts to answer questions with real answers, even though they are still often rendered in his own unique cryptic syntax. He comes to terms with his role as a rock star, respects his fans and the people he’s speaking to, and seems genuinely concerned about imparting the legacy of his musical knowledge to future generations. At this point the book really gets interesting as it delves deeply into the writing, playing, and recording of music. The interviews included here provide some truly fascinating insight into Dylan’s born-again Christian period, his lackluster ‘90s, and his Time Out of Mind renaissance. One really learns a lot about the man and his career, his artistic motivations, his approach to songwriting, and his philosophy towards life.

Because all the interviews are reprinted in their entirety (as they should be), it can be quite a repetitive read. Even in the 21st century, each journalist feels the need to provide a nutshell retrospective biography—born and raised in Hibbing, MN; idolized Woody Guthrie; etc.—so you get to read that 34 times. Still, for such a book it is better to err on the side of thoroughness, and the result is an invaluable reference for Dylanologists. One hindrance for researchers, however, is the lack of an index. Maybe that doesn’t matter in the age of ebooks, but if you’ve got the print edition, good luck finding that pertinent passage about a particular song or album. Ultimately, however, the opportunity to get Dylan’s story straight from the horse’s mouth outweighs the book’s faults and makes this volume a must-read for Dylan fans.
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Friday, February 9, 2018

A Slave is a Slave by H. Beam Piper



A great sci-fi author’s worst story
A Slave is a Slave, a novella by science fiction author H. Beam Piper, was originally published in the April 1962 issue of Analog Science Fact – Science Fiction magazine. This work is part of Piper’s Terro-Human Future History series of loosely related stories and novellas that chronicle mankind’s extraterrestrial future. In Piper’s fictional timeline, A Slave is a Slave takes place around the year 4093 of our calendar. By this time, the Terran Federation that features so prominently throughout the series has evolved into the Galactic Empire. A Slave is a Slave follows a recurring template in Piper’s fiction of interplanetary colonization: an expeditionary force from the interstellar government, made up of distant descendants of Earth’s humans, arrive at an outlying planet with the intention of annexing it into the Empire. In order to complete their mission, they must overcome the unusual political, economic, and religious customs of the planet’s inhabitants, also members of the human diaspora who settled this new world centuries before.

In this case, the planet in question is Aditya, which is visited by the Empress Eulalie, an Empire ship complete with an imperial prince, government bureaucrats, military commanders, and a noble viceroy ready to be installed into office. The single unique characteristic of Aditya is its system of universal slavery. The planet is currently ruled by a small oligarchy of masters who own the rest of the population outright. Since chattel slavery is illegal in the Galactic Empire, the new conquerors inform the Adityans that this system of slavery must be abolished. The transition proves to be more difficult than expected, however, not only because of resistance on the part of the Adityans but also because of the difficulty of finding what to do with all these emancipated slaves.

I’m a fan of Piper’s fiction and only a few novellas shy of having read his complete published works. Though I typically find much to enjoy in his work, I have to say that A Slave is a Slave may be the worst Piper story I’ve ever read. That’s not to say it is poorly written. He still manages to skillfully structure and craft the narrative with his usual complexity of detail, but there is little to like or enjoy here, and it all feels rather pointless. Worse, it barely qualifies as science fiction. Unlike other worlds of Piper’s creation, Aditya has no interesting environmental conditions, no unique natural resources or industrial exports, no fascinating native life forms. The only aspect of Aditya that’s even discussed is its system of slavery. The story is merely thinly veiled political commentary dressed up with a few space ships. It could just have easily been told in a third world nation on Earth.

That said, it is difficult to tell what comment Piper is actually trying to make. Early on, he briefly touches on the idea that capitalist wage slavery is just a modified form of chattel slavery. Eventually, he seems to be using the story to justify American imperialism, a stance common to Piper’s fiction. He certainly sympathizes more with the colonizers putting down the rabble than with the rabble itself. Finally, Piper, ever the libertarian, pejoratively compares the slaves to proletariats, which allows him to take a few digs at socialism. Coincidentally, the issue of Analog in which this story debuted also featured the novella Mercenary by Mack Reynolds, another case where sci-fi speculation takes a back seat to boring political and military theorizing. It’s hard to understand why sci-fi magazines would publish such mundane stories of military and political bureaucracy, or why sci-fi fans would want to read them. Just about anything Piper wrote is more exciting and imaginative than A Slave is a Slave.
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