Friday, January 27, 2012

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Ancient musings, timeless wisdom
Marcus Aurelius, emperor of Rome, may be the closest mankind has ever come to producing the philosopher king that Plato envisioned in The Republic. A reluctant ruler and a reluctant warrior, much of his reign was spent in battle, defending the frontiers of the empire from the “barbarian” hordes. Fortunately for us, he carried a notebook along on his military campaigns, and thus we have the Meditations. Marcus’s writings reveal him to be the last and greatest of the classical Stoics. Stoicism is a school of thought that asserts we have no control over our lives, only control over our perceptions. It advocates that the best life is the life that is lived in accordance with nature (not “nature” as in grass and trees, but “nature” as in the order of the universe). By concentrating one’s thoughts and choices on what is good and virtuous, and disregarding the unimportant distractions of everyday life (even life and death are said to be neither good nor bad, but “indifferent”), we can avoid negative emotions like fear, anger, grief, and frustration, and live a life of happiness and tranquility. That’s an oversimplification, of course. If you really want to know what Stoicism is and how it works read Epictetus or Seneca. What Marcus provides us with are the reflections of a man who studied and lived the Stoic life, and was its ultimate exemplar. Even if you don’t buy into Stoicism, or have no interest in Philosophy with a capital P, you can still find inspiration and solace in the Meditations, as Marcus instructs us in dealing justly with others, overcoming emotional hardship, living life to the fullest by overcoming the fear of death, and resigning oneself to the insignificance of man in the universe.

The Meditations are divided into twelve books. Each book contains anywhere from 16 to 75 numbered paragraphs, ranging in length from a sentence to a page. The paragraphs are arranged without regard to sequence or subject matter. This haphazard method of compilation is really the book’s only flaw. What the Meditations has always needed is a good index, but I’ve never found a volume that has one.

The Kindle edition that’s offered for free on Amazon, which is the same as the one downloadable from Project Gutenberg, contains one major flaw. There is an interactive table of contents which allows you to click on the twelve books; that’s fine. Following that, however, there is another clickable table of contents that lists the first line of every paragraph in the Meditations. That’s a wonderful idea, in theory, but in practice it’s a major pain. This extended table of contents is written as one long page of links, so it takes forever to load. You spend minutes staring at a blank screen waiting for the type to show up, then minutes more until you can actually move your cursor. Sometimes the screen saver kicks in before you even get to that point. I wish someone would go into the file and break that table up into twelve separate pages so it might actually be useful. In this edition there are no notes to the text, other than a few translator’s notes. Unless you know a heck of a lot about ancient Rome and Stoicism, notes are pretty necessary for a book like this. There’s a small glossary of proper names, and an appendix of correspondence between Marcus and his teacher Fronto. I like having a portable copy of the Meditations on my Kindle, but this is one case where the e-book is no substitute for a paper edition.

The Wordsworth Classics series is an excellent collection of inexpensive paperbacks. They are beautifully typeset for easy reading, and usually well-edited. Their edition of the Meditations contains extensive endnotes, plus a valuable introduction by Christopher Gill, an afterword by Matthew Arnold, and an essay on “Marcus Aurelius and Stoicism” featuring excerpts from Epictetus and contemporary scholars of Stoicism.
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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac

Balzac’s Masterpiece
Père Goriot (a.k.a. Father Goriot or Old Goriot) is widely considered to be Balzac’s greatest work, an assessment which is difficult to refute. Though this incredibly prolific author habitually churned out novels and stories of four-star quality or better, with this masterpiece he truly hit one out of the park.

The novel opens with a detailed description of the Maison Vauquer, a squalid boarding house in a shabby neighborhood, populated by poor students on their way up and poor retirees on their way down. Here dwells Joachim Goriot, a retired pasta manufacturer, whom his housemates refer to, more derisively than affectionately, as “Father Goriot”. Once incredibly wealthy, Goriot is slowly reducing himself to a state of destitution by gratifying the expensive whims of his two daughters, who court his adoration for their financial gain while simultaneously shunning him out of shame for the very poverty which they have caused. Goriot strikes up a friendship with fellow boarder Eugène de Rastignac, a law student from the provinces who sets himself upon the arduous task of landing a rich and influential mistress to aid him in climbing the ladder of Parisian society. As he fumbles his way through the labyrinthine conventions of the higher class, Eugène soon discovers that an increase in social status is not necessarily accompanied by an increase in wealth, and he struggles for a means of supporting his new lifestyle. Another inhabitant of the Maison Vauquer, Monsieur Vautrin, a shady character of unknown origin, tempts Eugène with a quick, expeditious means of attaining great wealth, causing the young man to question his deepest held values and reassess his personal ethics.

Père Goriot is the keystone of the Comédie Humaine, a series of at least 90 interconnected works, linked by recurring characters, in which Balzac encapsulates the multiple facets of French society in the early 19th century. Nevertheless, the novel can be thoroughly enjoyed as a stand-alone piece, and it is not necessary to have read any of Balzac’s other work. Nor is much prior historical knowledge required. Although it provides insightful commentary on the society of its time, the themes it presents are universal. Goriot’s selfless love for his daughters, Eugène’s blind ambition, and Vautrin’s Machiavellian philosophy of life are just as relevant to today’s audience as they were to the readers of almost two centuries ago.

Though its frank and often ugly depictions of people and places may qualify this book as a precursor to naturalism, the characters and events take on the larger-than-life dimensions of a grand opera or a Shakespearean tragedy. Père Goriot exemplifies the way in which Balzac combined the best elements of Romanticism and Realism to form his own unique literary style. If you’ve never read Balzac before, this is the best place to start. If you’re already familiar with this great author but you haven’t yet experienced this masterwork, buy it, borrow it, or download it now.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Call of the Wild by Jack London

Heed the Call!
This is the novel that made Jack London famous, and rightfully so. The Call of the Wild is a masterpiece that belongs on any top ten list of American literature. Its excellence is made even more remarkable by the fact that its protagonist is a dog. Due to this singular characteristic, or maybe because of the various sanitized versions in print and film aimed at young audiences, many who haven't read the novel erroneously presume it’s a children's book. Though it’s true one could categorize this work in the genre of adventure fiction, any designation as children’s literature could not be further from the truth. It is a brutal and at times frightening story, constructed upon a foundation of deep scientific and philosophical thought.

The dog in question is Buck, a giant Saint Bernard/shepherd mix who leads a comfortable existence on the California ranch of one Judge Miller. The Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s erupts, creating a demand for quality dogs needed for the difficult work of pulling sleds. Buck, suddenly a very valuable commodity, is stolen from his idyllic home and whisked away to the harsh wilderness of the North, essentially becoming a canine slave. Buck at first resists his captors, but after frequent beatings he realizes his survival depends upon prudent obedience and opportunistic cunning. Once thrust into this world of violence and toil, Buck not only adapts to his harsh new life but learns to thrive on it.

The Call of the Wild is truly a beautiful piece of writing that outshines anything else London produced in the early Klondike period of his career. Each sentence is poetically crafted, and imbued with an almost Emersonian insistence of the dignity and majesty of nature. A love of dogs is not a prerequisite for enjoying this book, but a love of nature may very well be. Buck and the other dogs in this novel are symbols for the myriad ways in which different specimens of mankind react to the conflict between the harsh reality of nature and the comfortable illusion of civilization. Though in some respects the dogs act as surrogates for human behaviors and attitudes, London does not anthropomorphize these animals. The subhuman psychology he relates is based on the sound empiricism of natural observation. With the exception of some brief speculations into Buck’s experiences with ancestral memories, the canine behavior described here does not overstep the boundaries of science.

In The Call of the Wild, London has created the ultimate literary manifestation of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Buck’s world is governed by “the law of club and fang”, a paraphrasing of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest”. There is no good or evil in London’s depiction of nature. The only morality present in this primordial world is Pantheistic and Stoic: Nature is always right. When Buck is removed from civilization, his prehistoric instincts take over, and while the life he lives may be harsh and brutal, the freedom gained is more than reward enough to offset the hardship. Buck is allowed to choose between savage and civilized. Though today that’s a choice few are able to make, London’s masterpiece hearkens back to a more primitive time in humanity’s past, striking a chord with the animal nature buried deep within us that longs to be unleashed.
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Friday, January 6, 2012

Thérèse Raquin by Emile Zola

Zola’s Turning Point
Thérèse Raquin was the novel that made Emile Zola famous, and is generally considered to be his first work of estimable quality. With this book he transformed himself from a writer of hacky melodramas into a serious man of letters. Thérèse Raquin is Zola’s manifesto of Naturalism, as it is the first of his books that is truly characteristic of his mature writing style. Naturalism is a form of literary realism in which the author creates a vividly described, credible reality, based on detailed observation of everyday life, in an attempt to illuminate the scientific forces underlying human behavior. Zola saw his novels as laboratories, the characters his subjects, “human animals, nothing more,” whose actions were strictly dictated by the laws of psychology, sociology, physiology, and heredity. Thérèse Raquin is the first novel in which Zola put these scientific ideas into practice. Soon after he would go on to write his 20-novel series the Rougon-Macquart cycle, which stands as the apex of Naturalist literature. 

Thérèse Raquin, the book’s title character, has lived a sheltered life, raised by her well intentioned but overbearing aunt, Madame Raquin. Upon reaching 21, Thérèse, in accordance with her aunt’s wishes, marries her cousin Camille, a weak and sickly young man who is more of a sibling to her than a husband. Together the three family members eke out a dull existence in a miserable hole of a haberdashery shop in one of the drabbest corners of Paris. Enter Laurent, a childhood friend of Camille’s, who becomes a frequent visitor to the family’s home. Laurent decides to make Thérèse his mistress, and she consents. Soon their affair turns into a full-fledged passion, and the two lovers decide that their happiness depends on killing Camille. 

That’s only the beginning. I haven’t given away anything that’s not printed on the back cover. The main subject of the book is not the murder, but its after-effects. It may seem strange to a 21st century audience, having developed such an acquired immunity to crime stories, that an entire novel could be written on the psychology of guilt, but that's what Zola gives us here. It is somewhat reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” but Zola’s book is much deeper and more nuanced than Poe’s short story. Zola’s insight into the criminal mind is brilliant, and his ability to create vivid scenes and describe complex emotions is masterful. At times, however, he goes a little too far and gets bogged down in the details. So much of the action in this book is internal; we are privy to every thought, and every emotional impulse is examined from multiple facets. It’s almost as if Zola is so interested in psychology that he has written a book only a psychologist could love. The second half of the book gets a little repetitive, with the same visions and nightmares appearing over and over again. In the last two chapters when actual physical events take place, rather than just internal conflict, it feels uncharacteristic of the rest of the novel, like Zola is rushing to wrap things up. 

In my opinion Zola is the greatest novelist that ever lived, so I approach his books with high expectations. Thérèse Raquin is only moderately successful in satisfying those expectations. On the Zola scale this novel is slightly above middle-of-the-road. Eventually he went on to cover the topic of murder again in a much better novel, La Bête Humaine (The Human Beast). Thérèse Raquin is definitely worlds better than Zola’s earlier work, and even better than some of the lesser works in the Rougon-Macquart cycle, but it’s not in the same league with masterpieces like Germinal, La Terre, L’Assomoir, Nana, or La Débâcle.
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