“For it was the middle of June. The War was over, except for some one like Mrs. Foxcroft at the Embassy last night eating her heart out because that nice boy was killed and now the old Manor House must go to a cousin; or Lady Bexborough who opened a bazaar, they said, with the telegram in her hand, John, her favourite, killed; but it was over; thank Heaven — over. It was June.” – Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
I chose to feature the passage above because I happen to be writing this review in June and I love when it happens that what I am reading corresponds to the moment am living. It makes me feel connected with the invisible story of the human mind. Maybe there really is some collective mind or database that connects the thoughts of the entire human species, past and present, even the fictional past and the real present. If it happened in somebody’s mind and was vividly imagined enough to take form in art, it counts as an energy unit that can be preserved and passed down the line thought the generations. I will explore that bizarre thought in a future post.
By the time we get to this passage about it being June we already know what kind of person Clarissa Dalloway is. We know she is an upper class lady planning a party for that evening, is walking through her Westminster neighborhood to buy flowers, is thoughtful enough to consider the workload of her maids, loves the hubbub of life in London, has friends who are suffering due to losses of the late war, and constantly thinks of Peter Walsh, an old flame who she has not seen in 30 years. We also know she is over 50 and has had a bout with influenza that might have affected her heart and the narrative has already flitted briefly from her consciousness to that of her next-door neighbor Stoke Purvis, who she is not even aware is watching her. And we are only on page 2! If it is true that one of the pleasures of fiction is that you get to get inside other peoples’ heads, then Mrs. Dalloway is one big lavish pleasure.
I tried reading Mrs. Dalloway about a year ago and just couldn’t get into it. This time I loved it. I caught the wave immediately and was swept into the beautiful river of words so quickly and effortlessly that it is hard to believe I could ever have put the book down. As I walked about my daily life, I began feeling like a character in a Virginia Woolf novel, aware of my own internal dialogue in a new way. What amazes me most is how the story seamlessly flits from the consciousness of one character to another and yet you never have any trouble figuring out who is thinking. You know what is happening in the present and you know when the character is thinking “off topic” — remembering the past and fantasizing aobut what might have been, engaging in a mental argument with herself or someone else, justifying his actions or criticizing his own behavior, or some other thing entirely. Clarissa Dalloway is pf course the central character but we soon leave her consciousness and pass through the minds of a great number of characters: Peter Walsh (who is usually thinking about Clarissa), her husband Richard, their daughter Elizabeth, a shell-shocked war veteran named Septimus Warren Smith, Septimus’ Italian wife Lucrezia, Elizabeth’s poor dowdy friend Miss Kilman, the arrogant psychologist Sir William Bradshaw, and various servants, neighbors, merchants, and friends, some just for a line or two.
The day progresses from Clarissa’s morning walk to Peter Walsh’s surprise visit, to the difficult situation of Septimus and Lucrezia Smith. If you are going to pick one day to portray in the life of your characters, it’s good to choose one in which you are giving a party that will gather most of the characters into one room at the end of novel, a long lost love appears in the flesh, and one of your characters makes a deadly decision.The only connections between Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith are that they are geographically close in to each other in London and that Septimus’ doctor William Bradshaw and his wife are to be guests at the party. Septimus’ presence in the story is the physical embodiment of the an awareness of the war that hovers in the London air. Clarissa’s thoughts about the war are somewhat abstract and in the background while Septimus makes brings its lingering horror into solid relief.
Writing a stream of consciousness novel is not just a matter of recording thoughts randomly. The novel comes complete with a villain in the form of mean old Dr. Bradshaw, and a climax, having to do with the parallel story of Septimus Smith. The genius of Mrs. Dalloway is that it succeeds in telling a specific story with a beginning, a middle, and end. Woolf gives the illusion of letting the characters’ internal dialogue flow naturally, flitting from subject to subject at the speed of thought, while arousing the reader’s curiosity. You really want to know what comes next. How will the party go? Will Peter and Clarissa resolve the the loose ends of their 30-year old argument and abrupt separation? Will the novel resolve in equilibrium or indecision?
I especially liked getting to see the same scenes and and themes through the prism of multiple points of view. This is also a novel of many themes but for me the prominent theme was that the value of life itself is very much in question in the wake of the devastating war. Mrs. Dalloway seems to have found her footing on the solid ground of traditional society but even she questions whether that tradition is anything more than an illusion. Giving parties is her way reassuring herself and others that our lives exist as solid reality:
“But to go deeper, beneath what people said (and these judgments, how superficial, how fragmentary they are!) in her own mind now, what did it mean to her, this thing she called life? Oh, it was very queer. Here was So-and-so in South Kensington; some one up in Bayswater; and somebody else, say, in Mayfair. And she felt quiet continuously a sense of their existence and she felt what a waste; and she felt what a pity; and she felt if only they could be brought together; so she did it.”
You could take any passage from the book and analyze the heck out of it. I love how Woolf gives the reader the illusion that the character is thinking several thinking at once, as we all do. In the passage that follows Clarissa thinks one thing and then is annoyed with herself for the way she thinks, compares herself to other people such as her husband, and we never forget that she is walking on a London street. See how the policeman and the pavement are gracefully worked into the text.
“How much she wanted it — that people should look pleased as she came in, Clarissa thought and turned and walked back towards Bond Street, annoyed, because it was silly to have other reasons for doing things. Much rather would she have been one of those people like Richard who did things for themselves, whereas, she thought, waiting to cross, half the time she did things not simply, not for themselves; but to make people think this or that; perfect idiocy she knew (and now the policeman held up his hand) for no one was ever for a second taken in. Oh if she could have had her life over again! she thought, stepping on to the pavement, could have looked even differently!”
I just want to share hundreds of passages from the book just to appreciate the beauty of the language; but I will choose just one more:
“She would not say of any one in the world now that they were this or were that. She felt very young; at the same time unspeakably aged. She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was outside, looking on. She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day. Not that she thought herself clever, or much out of the ordinary. How she had got through life on the few twigs of knowledge Fräulein Daniels gave them she could not think. She knew nothing; no language, no history; she scarcely read a book now, except memoirs in bed; and yet to her it was absolutely absorbing; all this; the cabs passing; and she would not say of Peter, she would not say of herself, I am this, I am that.”
I love passage this because for the first half I felt like it could have been me speaking. I have just recently had a new epiphany about not judging and just accepting what is. Of course, I’ve had that same epiphany before but sometimes these epiphanies have to happen multiple times on increasingly intense levels to get the concept through your head and make it part of your character. Around the time Clarissa gets to Fräulein Daniels we part company. I do read a lot of books of all kinds. And yet, like Clarissa, I still feel like I know nothing.
Because Mrs. Dalloway considered a high point of modernist literature, there are reams of commentary written about it, so if you are interested in further analysis and background you will have no trouble finding it. Schmoop has an excellent if slightly snarky study guide. I listened to an audio version narrated with beautiful intelligence by Juliet Stevenson and also read a free e-book version which you can find here. I confess that until now I have sort of avoided Virginia Woolf, thinking I did not have the patience for the stream consciousness style. But I am now a newly converted fan and can’t wait to read To the Lighthouse and A Room of One’s Own. I have to say that Woolf’s 1941 suicide does cast a shadow on her brilliant writing: Clarissa’s primary love, she tells us, is life.
“Even if I knew for certain that I would never have anything published again, and would never make another cent from it, I would still keep on writing.” – Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write
* * * * * * * *
I have certain life goals that involve writing and art. It’s possible I may never reach some of these goals, or even any of them, but they are important enough to me that I won’t give up even if I die trying. However working toward these goals means I have to fight the powerful pull of other people’s expectations, the world’s obligations, and most daunting, the feeling I am being selfish whenever I work on my own goals rather than working on behalf of somebody else’s agenda. I know this is a common scenario for writers, artists, and people in general who want to do wonderful creative or intellectual things that the current market is not necessarily asking for. There are occupations that people want to do out of love – like acting or writing screen plays or doing historical research. The problem is more people want to do these occupations than the market wants to pay for. I know, for example, a guy with a graduate degree in history who has successfully managed a historical sites for 25 years, won an Emmy for directing a historical film, and published many articles in his field. He recently applied for a new job at a historical site and is happy to be one of 21 finalists for the job. Which pays about 40k.
I do not mean to imply that my immediate family is not supportive because they could hardly be more so. Most often the battle is with my own internal expectations. I am so happy my sons have now safely reached adulthood and I have been able to retrieve some of my mental real estate. But still it’s a constant battle. If I separated myself from the world and had the perfect writing studio isolated in the middle of the forest it would still be a battle. Lately I have felt the strain of swimming against the tide and started to feel like I am running out of time and strength, losing the battle. Every time I think I am making progress the surf comes in and washes me back to shore. The surf may be pleasant and the journey back to shore may be a lot of fun; but there I am, on the warm sand, no closer to that distant speck, the Isle of Publication.
So I’ve had to bring in reinforcements: a small army of books on personal inspiration and motivation. In the past few weeks I have reading or listening to these books so much, sometimes multiple times, that at times I fear I am using my motivational reading as another way to procrastinate. But on balance the time invested reading these books is already paying off on the side of productivity.
For instance, from Write. Publish. Repeat by Johnny B. Truant and David Wright I have taken the advice to start using Scrivener software for my writing projects. I am still using the 30-day trial period, but I think like it and will probably pay the $45.00 or whatever it is to keep it. I’ve used Microsoft Word for years but what sells me on the Scrivener is that it doesn’t insert a bunch of indecipherable code behind your writing and eventually, when I complete something I want to self publish, it will theoretically transfer into e-book format with fewer problems. I find technical problems are discouraging and a huge obstacle to getting things done so if $45.00 will prevent them from happening that is money well spent.
You could open a book store that sold only books on writing (if you wanted to compete with Amazon….). I found a list of 499 books on Goodreads called Best Books on Writing. I went through the list and took inventory: I have read 21, own three more that I plan to read, and am in the process of reading another. I also have a bunch of writing books on my shelf that are not on this particular list. The list, for some reason, includes several novels such as Lolita and Little Women as well as a collection of Wallace Stevens’ poems. There are also several reference books such as dictionaries and style guides. But the vast majority of the books are how-to guides: novels, screen plays, poetry, business writing, etc. Steven King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft appears three times, but I did not notice any other duplicates. On Writing is such a great book that maybe it deserves to be on the list three times.
It makes perfect sense that books on how to write should be so numerous. In order to write a book you have to be a writer, and what subject do writers know best? The books I list below are the ones I have read just in the past three weeks or so.
* * * * * * * *
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. I love Pressfield’s metaphor of the creative life as an internal war. Because it’s not only a metaphor – it’s true. The birth of anything new is always a struggle. There are forces that want to bring new creation into being and there are equally strong forces that want to maintain the status quo or tear it down. The book helps you realize what you’re up against when you blithely decide you’re going to sit down and create something, whether the something is a story, a work of art, a musical composition, or a small business.
Do the Work by Steven Pressfield. This book is basically a concentrated lecture based on Pressfield’s approach to art described in The War of Art. It is a nice short motivating lecture about getting to work and bypassing all the excuses. The audio version is only an hour and 25 minutes long, so you could listen to it every morning or every night before bed. For someone like me, whose best intentions need constant reinforcement, this wouldn’t be a bad idea.
“The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life by Thomas M. Sterner. Among these books this was my absolute favorite, and it’s not even about writing. Sterner is a musician and has a successful business restoring pianos. But the techniques he delivers have been a great help to me: how to focus on the present and if you can’t, how to train yourself into the habit of focusing on the present. It is the way to doing high quality work without stressing out and is exactly the medicine I need at this time in my life. I am on my second reading of this book and may print out parts of it to hang at my desk.
If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland. This is an oldie and a classic of writing inspiration that I first read it many years ago. Then last weekend I suddenly experienced a strong urge to read it again, one of those urges that makes you get up in the middle of the night and look for the book on your shelf where it has been sitting for years, between Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and Crafting the Personal Essay by Dinty W. Moore. Ms. Ueland is the wise old guru of writing, understanding, sympathetic, non-judgmental, and a fierce champion of the creative soul, giving no quarter to the naysayers and collaborators with the world of prudence. She invokes the spirits of William Blake, the eccentric writer and an artist who ignored the prudent voices of reason of his day, and Leo Tolstoy, one of my own pillars of inspiration. Recently at my company we had to do this survey about their potential new mentoring program. In the space where they asked you to name your ideal mentor I typed Leo Tolstoy.
The Portable MFA by Members of the New York Writers Workshop. While helping my son sign up for his first community college classes I started to consider going back to finish my Masters degree. For about five minutes. During those five minutes I discovered this book. It is full of great exercises for improving your writing and claims that if you do the work, you will have learned what you would learn if you enrolled in an MFA program for creative writing. I am still reading and doing the exercises, but so far I find it good stuff.
Accidental Genius: Using Writing to Generate Your Best Ideas, Insight, and Content by Mark Levy. Despite my hatred for the word “content” I have to say this book is pretty inspiring. It is not the usual book about writing marketable products but focuses on techniques for using free writing as an engine for problem solving. Whether your object is an advertising campaign or a novel, you can benefit from the techniques presented in this book.
Take Off Your Pants: Outline Your Books For Faster, Better, Writing by Libbie Hawker. I found this recently published e-book while browsing Kindle deals. Free-writing and writing from the heart is great, but when you’ve been doing that for the better part of a lifetime like I have, sometimes you need a definite approach to shaping all that brilliant free writing into something you might be able to publish. The title refers to the popular “pantsing” versus “plotting” debate among writers. Hawker maintains that if you want to actually make a living in writing in today’s market, you really need to embrace the need for efficient outlining. Her technique leaves plenty of room for creativity within a framework. I found the book well written, refreshing, and helpful.
Write Publish Repeat (The No-Luck-Required Guide to Self-Publishing Success) by Johnny b. Truant and David Wright. Still reading this. It is a treasure trove of practical information if what you want is an income-producing self publishing business. Not entirely sure that is what I want but I like thinking about the idea.
* * * * * * * *
Some of these are about being true to yourself and your art and ignoring outside voices. Others are about the realities of making an actual living at writing: what you really need to do if you want income. Yes, these are two opposing philosophies and I am torn between them. My heart is with being true to my art but my need for a food and shelter is with the practical school of thought. I am still idealistic enough to think I will find a way to combine the two. Ernest Hemingway did right? So there – it’s not impossible.
Well we are now post Memorial Day. The year is flying by fast. I spent all of Memorial Day weekend trying to catch my breath, and I suppose I finally caught it. It was a pleasant productive weekend. I didn’t do anything particularly patriotic but I did think about the sadness of it all, and I drew and painted several pictures involving poppies. I have never had any set routine or tradition for how to spend a Memorial day. No shopping, no stockings, not even cards. It was many years before I even became aware of what Memorial Day was all about. My parents or my teachers never explained it. At some point I began to notice people selling cheesy bouquets with tawdry ribbons on the side of the road and when I asked Mom about them she said they to put on graves but I don’t remember us having much further discussion on the matter. We were lucky enough not to have a dead soldier in the family.
Only in my adult years, between having military friends and neighbors and the old men passing out nylon poppies at the grocery store, did I become fully cognizant that Memorial Day was not just a day off from work and maybe a cookout on the deck. Only last year did I even look into the significance of the poppy. That’s when I found John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Field.” McCrae, a Canadian doctor, first served as Brigade Surgeon and Major and was wounded in 1915. He wrote the famous poem during his recovery.
Sad as it is, the poem was perceived as pro-war, glorifying the honor and valor of it all. The more I find out about the first world war the less I can get my head around it.The thing that is most stunning and most disturbing to me, it how, even after they saw the unthinkable carnage and waste of their fellows falling dead by the thousands, these young men continued to march to their own likely deaths. It is not rational behavior. It is like those herds of animals that jump off cliffs or moths that fly into the burning lights. McCrae himself died of pneumonia in 1918 while serving in a war hospital.
“In Flanders Field” is a potent poem that made the poppy the symbol of remembrance for war dead. McCrae was a true poet because he was able to pull the perfect symbol from the collective muse, one that is both simple and deep, easily called to mind. It is red, like blood. It is a wildflower that spreads and is able to cover whole meadows, like battles. Since it renews itself every year, it symbolizes hope. This particular flower is also associated with sleep. Think of Dorothy and her friends in The Wizard of Oz…. And although neither John McCrae or the grocery store veterans probably thought of it this way, the poppy is the source of a drug that takes over your mind and gives you beautiful hallucinations, like the fantasy that war is glorious.
I always marvel at the interplay between nature and symbolism, how the imaginative human can never look at a flower as just a flower or a bird as just a bird. We humans are incorrigible about attaching meaning to everything. That is why we do poems and art. Poetry and art are the nature of being human.
Over Memorial Day weekend I cleaned house. We are moving things around so everyone can use our little bit of real estate for what is really important to each of us. For me this means transforming the living room to a creative studio. It is the room with the most light. My oldest son is getting ready to move out on his own and one of our dogs has recently passed away, so the whole house has a feeling of transition. The living room has a long way to go before it qualifies as my dream studio, but I got out some of my art supplies and tested it out anyway.
I wanted to experiment some mental approaches to art that I read about it this great book called The Practicing Mind by Thomas M. Sterner. I am on my second reading of this wonderful book. It is about concentrating on the present and not the goal. I know. It’s an old concept – ancient. But Sterner actually offers some techniques for doing it that I find inspiring and useful. You don’t worry about how good it’s going to be. You just put all your thought onto what you are doing at the moment. And I read this other very short book recently called Do the Work by Steven Pressfield and also The War of Art by the same author. These books helped me see some of the pitfalls, like getting distracted by research. The most important thing is to work at your work. After you put in your time, then and only then, do you have permission to research, revise, and edit.
All of these books are equally relevant to my writing and doing art. I was becoming distracted and lost in my creative life, and I guess I needed some creative intervention. So I started reading these books and they seem to have given me the push and the lift I needed. At least I have started working on creative things again. In addition to the watercolor above, here are a couple more of this weekend’s poppy-themed efforts.
Just for scope and ambition The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James is an amazing book: One man takes on the vast oceans of the human spiritual experiences and attempts to describe and categorize them, analyzing written records for pattern and meaning, and finally coming to some very interesting if tentative theories about what is really going on in the hearts and minds of the human race. I decided I needed to read this book because in the course of my never-ending and ever receding search for truth I kept running across references to it. It is apparently a classic among theologians, philosophers, and truth seekers of all stripes.
Still I admit I prepared myself of a long dry read. But happily, I was pleasantly surprised by the beauty and readability of the text as well as the fascinating nature of the subject matter. The tone is surprisingly warm, friendly, and respectful. William James seems like a really kind man who is truly interested in our experiences and sincerely seeks to find their significance both for the individual and society. I only wish all discussions of religion could be this pleasant. Of course it does help that I listened to the audio version narrated in the pleasant voice of John Pruden. I also read a Kindle version that I downloaded from Project Gutenberg. So take note: you can read The Varieties free of charge! With complex books I process the information more quickly and easily when I engage a multimedia experience. Thanks to technology we have the means for varieties of mental processes that Mr. James never imagined.
The book is an edited series of lectures James delivered to an esteemed audience at the University of Edinburgh in 1901 and 1902 when the age of empiricism was in full swing and respectable men of science pooh-poohed anything that was mystical or emotionally based. Even in 2015, arguably the pinnacle of the post–modern era, I know many persons of scientific bent who are very rigid in their materialist philosophy. But James, a philosopher and psychologist, wanted to broaden the empirical method to include the whole of human experience. He provides substantial historical evidence that religious, or mystical, experience is part of being human and also has had a huge influence on the development of human civilizations and cultures. Therefore, he believes religious experience is a worthwhile topic or serious study.
Whatever the ultimate truth may or may not be, it is certainly true that humans frequently have experiences which they honestly perceive as something from outside the material world. Often the experience has profound effects on their perceptions on the world thereafter and often their lives are forever changed. The meaning people assign to their experiences differs according to belief, culture, and tradition, but the experiences seem to show certain consistent patterns over the span of human history. I was particularly fascinated by James’ concepts of the “once born” and the “twice born” types of people. Once born people accept the world as they find it and find adequate meaning therein to sustain them from birth to death. Twice born people are those whose original world has fallen, ripped open, or crashed. They have seen the wizard behind the curtain and must therefore look to a deeper or higher place for meaning.
James makes a sharp distinction between institutional religion with its codified doctrine and ceremonies and personal encounters with the divine. His emphasis is on religion of the personal type. Organized religion, in his view, is the result, the monument, and often the dying ember of the flame ignited by someone’s direct personal experience with God. Did the personal encounter really happen? Well, James says, no one can know the answer to that question in a strictly factual way, but if the person experienced it as real and if there are tangible results in the person’s life, that in itself makes it true enough. William James is considered a great thinker, possibly the greatest philosopher America has produced, and was a proponent of the philosophical school of thought called Pragmatism, which I understand to mean that a belief has truth value if its results are desirable.
This book is a treasure trove of discussion fodder. It might be a great book club choice except that it might to a long time before your club can move on to another book. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the spiritual/religious dimension of humanity. Personally I find that humanity minus this dimension is flat and limited. Imagination and art can stand in the place of religion but artistic imagination is better and richer when it serves as a bridge between the material and the higher realities.
Topics covered in The Varieties of Religious Experience include:
- Religion and Neurology: In which James discusses religious urges in terms of psychology. Some people, for example, are religious “geniuses” – the religious part of their minds are highly developed.
- Circumscription of the Topic: Instead of rigidly defining the topic James draws a wide circle around it to encompass the vast mental and spiritual territory he intends to discuss. He leaves outside the circle all aspects of institutional religion including theology (for the most part), ceremony, and traditions. Doctrine can enter the circle only insofar as it intersects with a particular personal experience. James does an entire lecture explaining this approach to the subject and not one sentence of it is boring.
- The Reality of the Unseen: What makes people insist on the reality of experiences and perceptions that are outside the scope of the five senses? James examines this questions from several angles. He also brings up Kant.
- The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness: Current and recent American movements that promoted positive thinking, mind healing, and ignoring anything negative. People who embrace healthy-minded philosophies tend to be once-born types.
- The Sick Soul: A study of the religious experiences of those who are too compassionate to ignore the reality of evil, are naturally melancholy or depressed, and/or have gone through some dark times. Sick souls who recognize and confront evil are always twice-born types.
- The Divided Self and the Process of its Unification: Lots of descriptions of both serious psychological issues and profound mystical experiences. I found this section particularly fascinating.
- Conversion: Dramatic life-changing experiences in which people suddenly see the light. More profound mystical experiences.
- Saintliness: James devotes three lectures to the this study of different types of saints and the sorts of things all saints tend to have in common. Includes some really bizarre stories and fascinating analysis.
- The Value of Saintliness: James spends two more lectures discussing whether any of this strange behavior has real value to the world at large or if it is only of value to the individual saint. He concludes that saints do contribute to the quality, standards, and general soundness of society.
- Mysticism: James presents his study of characteristic patterns and qualities of mystical experiences which include: ineffability (they are hard to put into words), transience (they do not typically last more than maybe 30 minutes), passivity (the person does not do anything to make them happen), and noetic quality (they impart some sort of deeper knowledge).
- Philosophy: Discusses the relationship between intellectual philosophy and religion.
- Other Characteristics: In this section James acknowledges that certain aspects of institutional religion do play a part in the individual experience. He discusses how this might be the case with poetic liturgy, magisterial architecture, pomp and ceremony, sacrifice, and confession. He also discusses his ideas about what might really be going on when people pray.
- Conclusion: James ties it all together and presents his concluding theories about the significance, reality, and uses of the many varieties of religious experience.
I love the idea of travelling but so far my life has provided little opportunity to do it much. There was a ten-day trip to England, a whirlwind trip to the Bahamas, and various road trips to parts of the United States. I would have liked to travel more but travelling is expensive and whenever I managed to save a little money there were always a pushy crowd of priorities lined up with their hands out. Travel always has such weak claims on the available funds – self-indulgent pleasure and life enrichment versus medical needs, housing, and education – so it always got shoved to the back of the line.
So for the most part I have relied on books to provide my virtual travelling experiences. One book that really pulls you into its time and place is this year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize in fiction: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Three cities play major roles in this World War II novel: Paris and Saint-Malo in France and the industrial city of Essen Germany. If I were to travel to Europe I can’t think of a more fun and interesting way to organize my trip than to let a great piece of literature be my guide. Recently I came across an excellent travel plan that is based on the places in All the Light We Cannot See. Even if you can’t do the actual tour, the article is full of fascinating information that sheds new light on this incredible novel. This splendid piece of literary travel writing is on the Auto Europe website and is written by Alison Busch.
I’ve always had the idea that one of these days I’d like to go to England and do a Jane Austen tour: visit Steventon, where she grew up, and the village of Chawton where she wrote three of her novels, and Bath and all the other places she frequented that influenced her novels about provincial life. The thing I’ve always found especially appealing about the world of Jane Austen is how the people would routinely walk five or ten miles from one town to the next. The characters in her novels are always walking to and fro from house to house and town to town. I think of the girls of Pride and Prejudice walking from Longbourne to Meryton or in Persuasion, Anne Elliot and her companions hiking around Bath.
In my world you can’t walk very far without running into an interstate or highway and there is always traffic noise. Even when walking within my suburban neighborhood I have to dodge cars and there is jarring scream of the power tools. It would be so nice to once visit a world where it was a natural as breathing to walk where you wanted to go and all you heard were human voices, breezes, bird song, and crunch of your own feet.
* * * * * * * *
Here are a dozen books, three memoirs and nine novels, that evoked a strong sense of place for me. Some are classics, some are future classics, and some are just good books. I’d love to visit some of these places; others I am content to leave between the pages.
A Very Private Gentleman by Martin Booth. A highly paid gunsmith for underworld assassins hides out somewhere in the mountains of Northern Italy. He has worked and hidden out all over the world for many years, but finds the Italian village and its surrounding so charming and peaceful he wants to stay there. The luscious descriptions of the beauty of this place struck a special chord for me because my recent ancestors came from a Northern Italian mountain village.
Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Say what you want about the author being self-indulgent and the book being over-hyped. It still made me want to go to Italy. And India and Indonesia too. Someday I’d like to be half as self-indulgent and publish a book that gets over-hyped.
* * * * * * * *
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway. This memoir of his life in Paris in the 1920s was Hemingway’s last book and the first of his books that I read. I loved his descriptions of the café and arts scene in Paris and his seemingly casual hobnobbing with the greatest writers of that time. A young writer who had not yet completed his first novel, Hemingway seems to have just happened to become close friends with Marcel Proust, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein. He seems to have been sincerely happy in his first marriage to Hadley, innocent that happiness could ever end, and looking forward to a future of boundless success. Paris played a big part in the whole scenario, and if I ever get to Paris, I will have this book in my bag and reading it along the way will make the visit all the more special.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo. This book presents a very different Paris from the Paris of A Moveable Feast. Instead of cafes we have cathedrals. Instead of happy and angst-ridden writers we have tormented souls caught in the superstitions and cruelties of the middle ages. But it’s still Paris and when I visit the Cathedral of Notre Dame the historical depth of the city will come to life because of having read this book.
Sacre Bleu: A Comedy d’Art by Christopher Moore. This colorful novel written in 2012 takes place in the time of the great impressionist painters. Renoir, Whistler, Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Seurat, and Gauguin all make appearances. A young painter named Lucien Lessard teams up with a flamboyant Henri Toulouse-Lautrec to solve the mystery surrounding the death of Vincent Van Gogh. The great value of this book to me was that I learned a lot about the Impressionists, essential knowledge for my trip to Paris.
* * * * * * * *
The United States of America
And here are a few others that will heighten my interest when I do some more travelling around the U.S.A.:
The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I can’t think of a better book to give you a firm grip on the historical roots of New England and send shivers up your spine. Years ago I actually went to the house the book was based on but it was a long time ago, before I read the novel. How much more I will get out of my next trip to Massachusetts now that I’ve read the book.
Walden by Henry David Thoreau. On that same trip 20-some years ago I walked around the pond too, but believe it or not, I had not read the book at that time. Now I have. Next time I will have the book in my pocket and read passages as I walk..
* * * * * * * *
Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh. This wonderful 2005 novel takes place in a Pennsylvania coal-mining town during the 1950s. The characters are the children of Polish and Italian immigrants. I loved this book because my parents lived in a Pennsylvania coal-mining town during the 1950s and were the grandchildren of Polish and Italian immigrants. I have been to anthracite coal country many times and always enjoy the unique atmosphere and sense of place in those Pennsylvania towns.
* * * * * * * *
New York City
The Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. This novel is about a clever young woman’s life in 1930s Manhattan as she attempts to raise her social and financial prospects in life through hard work and a little romance. Love New York City and love the 1930s. From boarding houses to jazz clubs to lawn parties this novel evokes an exciting tangible atmosphere of the city at that time.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, the Pulitzer Prize winner in fiction for 2014. After a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art kills his beloved mother, 13-year-old Theo struggles with grief and making a life as a motherless kid. In the panic of the rubble he picks up a small painting and throws it into his backpack. It is Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch. This event leads to young Theo coming into the contact with some unusual mentors, friends, and possible enemies and eventually draws him into the art underworld. The novel starts in New York but Theo ends up spending part of the novel in Las Vegas with his alcoholic abusive father and his ditzy girlfriend Xandra. I liked the New York part better.
* * * * * * * *
Some Luck by Jane Smiley. While city folks have been working in offices and going to parties and eating in restaurants there have been people all over the Midwest throughout the centuries who have actually been growing the food and living the kind of lives that farming involves. This excellent book tells the story of the Langdon family from around 1920 until just after World War II. It is the first of a planned trilogy. I also liked another Jane Smiley novel called A Thousand Acres, which won the Pulitzer for fiction back in 1992 and was adapted as a film in 1997. In this one an Iowa farm is the setting for a modern version of King Lear.
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. This novel also takes place in Iowa, beginning in 1957 and looking backward. John Ames, an aging Congregationalist minister, is looking back at and reflecting upon his life as well as the lives of his father and grandfather, a fiery abolitionist. John Ames doesn’t have long to live and the book is a letter to his seven-year-old son. Gilead won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and also the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Honestly I do not seek out Pulitzer prize winners when I choose my reading. The fact that I have happened to read so many of them is either coincidental or fate. Usually I do not even realize they are nominees or winners until I am finished reading them. Books about mid-west farming life may be quieter and less glamorous than books about the big cities, but as is definitely the case with Gilead, can be very deep and real. They give you something to think about when driving by those long stretches of farmland. There is where the real lives that sustain us all are happening.
How about you? What books have you read that either make you feel like you are really there or make you want to pack your suitcase and go there?
Before I can move forward with my regularly scheduled backlog of book reviews, I have to write something in tribute to Pippin, who passed away May 4th. He was a good dog who deserves to be remembered, and besides, he taught me some things. Pippin was a “springador” – a springer spaniel/labrador retriever mix. He and his sister Cocoa came to live with us in April 2005 when they were eight weeks old. My sons were 12 and almost nine at the time and we had recently lost our 16-year-old dog Petra. We answered an ad from a puppy rescue organization and drove a couple hours down to North Carolina where we met a litter of eight irresistible puppies of various configurations of fur colors, ear shapes, and wagging tails. AJ picked a rich brown flop-eared charmer, and JT, my older son, immediately chose a sweet white one with black markings. JT, who was reading The Lord of the Rings books at the time, named his puppy after a hobbit and AJ loved chocolate….
I wish I could say I didn’t play favorites, but I admit Cocoa won all our hearts. She was always the sort who sucks all the air out of the room with her antics, charm, and cuteness. Pippin was a humble soul who was content to live outside the limelight, observing things steadily and protectively. He did bark loudly at strangers and occasionally showed signs of aggression when he imagined any threat to family. He accepted the slightest pat on the head with quiet gratitude. His special job was to chase the invading flocks of Canada geese that frequently descended on our front yard and drive them into the adjacent lake. He had a stocky build and was not a fast runner, so there was no danger he’d actually catch one. Each time he performed this duty he’d return to the house wagging his tail and holding his head high as he proudly accepted his reward of effusive praise, a rub-down, and a biscuit.
For ten years he was a low-key but integral presence in the house. He had a Christmas stocking with his name on it. He was one of us. Until the day we noticed he was sick there had never been a single day he had not gobbled his dinner with great enthusiasm. Persnickety Cocoa would test her food with the tip of her tongue, nibble to make sure it was acceptable to her delicate pallet, and finally, if all was deemed in order would deign to eat it, but Pippin would inhale his like it was his last chance at a meal. Then suddenly he didn’t want to eat. The veterinarian sadly delivered the diagnosis: lymphoma. We could try chemo at a cost of thousands, but it probably wouldn’t extend his life long. We chose the palliative care route, but he couldn’t even keep the pills down. We knew we’d have to have him put to sleep soon, but he passed away on his own, May 4th, two days after his diagnosis.
The day before he died I sat with him in the living room reading my current book, The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, a classic of psychology published in 1902. The book is a fascinating study of the many ways people experience God and other phenomena outside the normal material world. I was only about a third through the book but patterns were beginning to emerge that revealed tantalizing new clues about what it means to be a human being. One of these patterns is what we make of suffering. And there was Pippin, lying on his side and panting. We were still hoping the prednisone and pain pills would relieve him enough to let him eat and get comfortable, and he did seem to rally one more time – wagged his tail and ate a little soup. But I knew his time with us was coming to an end.
There is nothing more senseless than the suffering of an animal. It is different from human suffering. There is no blame or asking “Why me? Pippin kept trying – getting up on wobbly legs and walking around, moving closer to me for affectionate words and petting, weakly wagging his long fluffy tail. Because I was reading William James I was especially aware of how the situation had become, for me, a variety of religious experience. And it seemed like it might be so for him too: there was such a sense of knowledge about him, like he knew his life was coming to a close, like he was saying good-bye. I could sense profound acceptance and a sort of humble obedience to natural forces. When I urged him to eat a bite of something he turned his face away and I got the feeling he was gently and solemnly saying, “No that’s over now.” He did not take the transition lightly seemed to know exactly what’s going on.
But all these perceptions about what Pippin was feeling were surely my religious experience, not his. I could not know what his mind and spirit were really perceiving, only how it came across to me. Yet it was not really an imaginative projection and it certainly was not wishful thinking. It is what I felt in my heart was really going on, like I was perceiving a spiritual reality at a level compatible with my mind’s ability to understand. I know Pippin was in the process of crossing over and seemed at peace with it.
I have heard that dying animals will separate from the herd and go off by themselves. On their own level they are in touch with an awareness of life and death that humans, or at least this human, are not. I have still not finished The Varieties of Religious Experience so I do not know if James covers this variety – what you go through when you lose a beloved animal. Probably not. I try to find meaning in it, but of all things, animal suffering is the single thing most resistant to our attempts to attach meaning to experience. (A few years ago I wrote an article called C.S. Lewis on Animal Suffering: A Tough Question for Theology.) Unlike Pippin, my mind cannot seem to accept that suffering just “is”. I am determined it has to mean something or teach something and can’t stop trying to get to the bottom of it.
I know no one likes to read or think about the death of a pet, except those who have recently gone through the experience. Those who are experiencing this special grief do often want to read about others who have known the experience. There seems to be an entire genre of books devoted to helping people deal with the grief of losing a pet. Cold Noses at the Pearly Gates by Gary Kurz is one popular one. Literature provides plenty of stories about the loss animal friends, especially children’s books: Old Yeller by Fred Gipson, Sounder by William Armstrong, and Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls are three classics that come to mind.
I will end my tribute to Pippin with a poem by Rudyard Kipling.
The Power of the Dog
by Rudyard Kipling
There is sorrow enough in the natural way
From men and women to fill our day;
And when we are certain of sorrow in store,
Why do we always arrange for more?
Brothers and Sisters, I bid you beware
Of giving your heart to a dog to tear.
Buy a pup and your money will buy
Love unflinching that cannot lie—
Perfect passion and worship fed
By a kick in the ribs or a pat on the head.
Nevertheless it is hardly fair
To risk your heart for a dog to tear.
When the fourteen years which Nature permits
Are closing in asthma, or tumour, or fits,
And the vet’s unspoken prescription runs
To lethal chambers or loaded guns,
Then you will find—it’s your own affair—
But … you’ve given your heart to a dog to tear.
When the body that lived at your single will,
With its whimper of welcome, is stilled (how still!).
When the spirit that answered your every mood
Is gone—wherever it goes—for good,
You will discover how much you care,
And will give your heart to a dog to tear.
We’ve sorrow enough in the natural way,
When it comes to burying Christian clay.
Our loves are not given, but only lent,
At compound interest of cent per cent.
Though it is not always the case, I believe,
That the longer we’ve kept ’em, the more do we grieve:
For, when debts are payable, right or wrong,
A short-time loan is as bad as a long—
So why in—Heaven (before we are there)
Should we give our hearts to a dog to tear?
I admit I chose this book mostly because I liked the title – at least the “Don’t Hurt People and Don’t Take Their Stuff” part. I do not feel quite as warm and fuzzy about the sub-title: A Libertarian Manifesto. I just don’t love the word “manifesto.” It seems vaguely threatening and yet pretentious, maybe because I associate it with the rants of crazy fanatics. But a manifesto is simply a clear statement of purpose and intent and my unreasonable distaste for the word did not in the least interfere with my enjoyment of Mr. Kibbe’s excellent book. I hereby add Don’t Hurt People and Don’t Take Their Stuff to my virtual library on the freedom shelf. Also on that shelf of honor are several of the authors Kibbe refers to in the book: Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Ayn Rand, Frederick Bastiat, and several other intellectual powerhouses of the philosophy of freedom.
There is always room for one more book on the subject. With the wind of collectivism and tyranny blowing with hurricane force against the fortress of freedom, we true believers who are holding down the fort can always use reinforcements. We are always on the defense because freedom does not use aggression or initial force to control others. Okay the American and French revolutions were violent and plenty forceful, but if those in power had not messed with people’s rights to life, liberty, and property, no one would have been hurt. Free people much prefer to mind their own business and limit their political action to persuasion by appeals to reason and if necessary, to self defense.
Matt Kibbe is a good writer and a fiery communicator, a regular Tom Paine for the 21st century. His contributions to the cause of individual freedom are twofold: he brings the case for freedom to where it belongs – smack dab in the middle of the messy chaotic present, and he gives us that manifesto, which I will get to in a moment. Kibbe shares a cute story about the origin of his Libertarian philosophy: it all began with the Rush album 2112, which he bought in 1977 when he was 13. I was a musical theater nerd in my younger years and never paid much attention to pop and rock music, but I figured hey, better late than never. I found 2112 on YouTube and listened to the whole thing. Yeah. I can see how a teenage boy could get swept up in the story of a creative kid getting tromped on and repressed by the high priests of the controlling collective. I can now appreciate the guitar music but still can’t get into the screaming vocals.
But even if you are a rebellious teenager or a rock group who wants to make music your record company doesn’t like, Kibbe points out that freedom does not mean anarchy. Even freedom has rules and there are more than the two in the book title:
1. Don’t hurt people.
2. Don’t take their stuff.
3. Take responsibility
4. Be willing to work for it.
5. Mind your own business. Live your own life and let others live theirs.
6. Fight the power. But not with violence. See rule #1.
Kibbe goes into the history of one freedom fighter who insisted on non-violence and how he was treated by the FBI: Martin Luther King. Jay Edgar Hoover and the gang targeted him, spied on him, and used the IRS to persecute him, all under the pretense that they thought he was associating with commies. When their bugs recorded him saying that he did not like Communism and wanted nothing to do with it, they suppressed that information and kept spying and persecuting. A decade or so later Nixon was driven out of office partly for trying to use the IRS to target his enemies. After that Kibbe fast forwards up to the present and goes into great detail about the IRS targeting of conservative and Libertarian groups. The big difference between the Nixon scandal and the current Lois Lerner Tea Party targeting IRS scandal is that the current one is much longer in duration, more malignant in intention, and more damaging to more ordinary people. Also it may have altered the results of the 2012 election. And yet is has inspired almost zero outrage from the left.
Kibbe also goes into detail about government spying on the American people and even more detail about the implications of Obamacare, especially for the millennial generation. He compares it to the draft, in the sense that young people are being conscripted into a program that is more expensive than they can afford and not in their best interests. It becomes apparent that there is a two-party system in the United States, but the two parties are not the Republicans and the Democrats. We seem to have the same two-party system that springs up everywhere that government takes root and grows: those who profit from big government control of individual freedom vs. the outsiders, those who are not part of the system but who pay for the system. Or if you like, Statists vs. Freedom lovers.
Albert Jay Nock describes how this works succinctly and bluntly in his classic Our Enemy the State, but now I see clearly the manifestation in my own country, a country that is supposed to be different: all about freedom and individual self determination. I have been puzzled by the vicious vitriolic reaction coming from our political leaders and the press to the mild mannered Tea Party activists, ordinary citizens who were only peacefully protesting for the same old principles of liberty that our Constitution is supposed to guarantee. Now I get it. Individual freedom is a really scary threat to those who depend on controlling the masses for the benefit of the political insider class. We are supposed to shut up and trust them.
Another thing that has puzzled me is why new representatives who go to Washington with such good intentions get corrupted so quickly. Kibbe explains. The system runs on a sticky web of money and slimy special interests and alliances. Money contributed in large sums by special interest groups equates to power so quickly, so directly, and with such immediate effects on the receiver’s standing among his peers, that it becomes addictive. When the money dries up, so does your power, and you are happy to get another hit. Until you are inside the web, it’s hard to know how hard the money will be to resist.
Kibbe supports and shares his conversations with about six Libertarian figures currently in Washington: Senators Rand Paul (R-KY), Mike Lee (R-UT), and Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Representatives David Schweikert (R-AZ), Justin Amash (R-MI), and Thomas Massey (R-KY). These guys have been sent to Washington by their constituents to fight the power in favor of the Constitution and individual liberty. They seem to be doing that with mixed results, but I wonder what it is that protects them from the fluid of corruption that has gotten into the veins of so many before them. They have to be true believers in freedom. From the conversations it sounds like they read a lot of the books on my virtual freedom shelf. I hope they hold out.
The manifesto part doesn’t come until the last chapter. Kibbe points out that we can’t just complain about what is wrong. We need to state our alternative vision in a positive way. He proposes a 12-step plan for our political reps:
1) Comply with the laws you pass. (No exemptions for government people or anyone else for laws like Obamacare.)
2) Stop spending money we don’t have.
3) Scrap the tax code.
4) Put patients in charge of their own healthcare.
5) Choice, not conscription. (No one size fits all entitlements, in healthcare or anything else.)
6) End insider bailouts.
7) Let parents decide how to educate their kids.
8) Respect my privacy.
9) End the Fed monopoly.
10) Avoid entangling alliances.
11) Don’t take people’s stuff.
12) Defend people’s right to know. (No government controls on the Internet.)
All of these points come with lots of examples and history.
I liked this book very much so I did a bit of research on the author. He is the CEO of Freedomworks.org, a huge well-funded organization that supports grass roots efforts and promotes the principles outlined above. It is sort of the Libertarians’ answer to the socialists’ Change.org. I guess even freedom-fighting Libertarians need a large well-funded organization but it a little disconcerting. Freedomworks has had its share of internal schisms and controversy. Sigh. But we free people are free to associate with organizations or not.
“Another strange notion pervading whole peoples is that the State has money of its own; and nowhere is this absurdity more firmly fixed than in America. The State has no money. It produces nothing. It existence is purely parasitic, maintained by taxation; that is to say, by forced levies on the production of others. “Government money,” of which one hears so much nowadays, does not exist; there is no such thing.” Albert Jay Nock, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man
Blood Feud: The Clintons Vs The Obamas by Edward Klein may seem an out of character book choice for me. But in a strange way, my usual reading is exactly what led me to this book. I have been reading Tolstoy’s religious writings for a few months now. In What I Believe and other works Tolstoy discusses the law of love, forgiveness, and humility taught as by Jesus: how it is the opposite of the world’s system, which is based on power, predatory behavior, and fear. Blood Feud provides a nice contrast to my Tolstoy reading: a vivid illustration of people who dedicate their entire lives to appropriating to themselves the highest rewards the worldly system has to offer: massive power and money, lots and lots of money.
I do not say that either the Clintons or the Obamas have sold their souls. I don’t know that to be true. But if even a fraction of the information in Blood Feud is true, these four would be happy to sell any number of souls to increase their own power. The book begins around the time of the 2008 presidential primaries when both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton desired the Democratic nomination to run for President of the United States. That’s when things got ugly between the two families. When we talk about Hillary we are also talking about Bill. According to this book, the Clinton marriage has not been “real” for many years: at least in the sense that two people share a home and have an intimate personal relationship, possibly since the incident with poor hapless Monica. Their partnership has become purely political, but as such it is rock solid. They consult on just about every public decision. As for Obama marriage, it is apparently plenty real but also has a strain of political showmanship. There has been talk of Michelle running for the U.S. Senate.
Besides the 2008 presidential campaign, the book covers Hillary’s tenure as secretary of state including the Benghazi terrorist attack and the political debacle that followed it, Obama’s foreign policy fumbling, the Obamacare rollout debacle, Obama’s relationship with other government officials including his close advisers, his cabinet, and Congress, and other serial scandals. I had no idea how influential Obama’s adviser Valerie Jarrett is behind the scenes. Hillary craves the distinction of being the first female president, but I’m not sure Valerie hasn’t already beaten her to the punch, at least as a shadow president.
I won’t go into a lot of detail about every scheme, lie, secret deal, betrayal, and retribution. It’s all documented in this well-written and easy-to-read book. The book is hard to put down and as good as any political novel or mini-series. Unfortunately, though the similarities are striking, this story is not House of Cards. The characters are the people running our country and their outrageously expensive shenanigans are paid for by our tax money. I am not interested in reading about the disgusting reprehensible behavior of private citizens, entertainment celebrities, or sports figures. But I am interested in the behavior of our elected officials.
It’s true that most of Klein’s sources speak on condition of anonymity, a perfect excuse to disregard the whole book if you don’t want to believe what it says. But I think Klein doing exactly what a self-respecting investigative journalist should do: providing us political outsiders with the truth and transparency we are always promised and always denied unless someone does the hard work to get us the information. Much of this information is very recent or ongoing, and the sources are probably risking their access, their job, or possibly even their personal safety. In any case, I’m sure they all have good reasons for choosing to remain anonymous. Personally I’d rather know these things than rely on the usual dark rumors gleaned from talk shows and reading between the lines of the official news. Ed Klein has his credibility on the line and if I ever find out he fabricated any of the incidents reported in this book I will feel angry and betrayed.
The incident I find most interesting is the account of what really went down during and after the Benghazi attack. What was Ambassador Stevens doing in Libya anyway, in an increasingly heated and dangerous environment, with a very small embassy staff? Promoting peace and good will through diplomacy? Not exactly. Was the whole embassy setup a front for a wacko CIA program involving weapons transfer? Apparently. Whose idea was it to blame the attack on an anti-Islamic YouTube video? Hint: Not Hillary’s, although, she did eventually agree, for some interesting reasons, to go along with the false narrative.
Of the four main characters, I found Bill Clinton to most likeable. His behavior is probably the most immoral of the lot of them, but he so sincerely loves the whole game of politics that his unapologetic joy and energy is contagious. It is surely the key to his success. The book goes into some detail about the state of his and Hillary’s health issues. Bill has serious heart problems. Most normal people, when diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, will reflect on the meaning of it all, their beliefs, and perhaps how they can get right with God and others. Not Bill, at least that we know of. Instead he reflects in great detail on ways that Hillary could use his death, should it occur, to her political advantage.
I finally finished this book. For a while I was going through chapter by chapter and writing my summaries and reactions. See my Tolstoy Series if you want to see some of these more detailed posts. I intend to finish this process and possibly create a study guide. This book is definitely worth studying. The next Tolstoy book on my list is The Kingdom of God is Within You. I can’t wait!
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
What I Believe is Leo Tolstoy’s follow-up to A Confession in which he describes his profound existential crisis: at age 50 and at the height of his worldly success, Tolstoy became so depressed that he wished to commit suicide. In desperation he turned to the Church of his childhood and discovered the saving power of a true belief in God. Reading A Confession led me to read his final novel Resurrection, which in which an aristocrat has a spiritual awakening of his own and discovers the far-reaching dysfunctions of the Russian justice system and the evils of bureaucracy. I had read his two great classics, War and Peace and Anna Karenina in the past, but Tolstoy’s post spiritual crisis phase produced writings much different in content, tone, and purpose. What I Believe turned my world upside down and I can’t wait to read his The Kingdom of God is Within You, a book considered so radical it was banned in Russia for many years.
Tolstoy begins What I Believe by explaining how he began to feel uncomfortable with the doctrine of the Russian Orthodox Church. He was attracted to Christ’s teachings about love, forgiveness, and the brotherhood of man, but he found the Church, while never denying Christ’s doctrine of love, put a tremendously disproportionate emphasis on ritual and ceremony and gave scant attention to how Christians should behave toward other people in their daily lives. Also he was disturbed that the Church supported such things as persecution of certain populations, serfdom, capital punishment, and war. Tolstoy read the gospels over and over, with special attention to the Sermon on the Mount – Matthew 5 through 7. Then, reading through all the church’s commentaries on the gospels, he found that the church seemed to ignore or distort the clear teachings of Jesus whenever they conflicted with the established systems of civilization. It was as if the world’s system were the default, and the teachings of Jesus, who they claimed to believe is God, had to be made to fit into that mold.
By the end of the book Tolstoy comes reluctantly to the conclusion that for centuries the Church has been teaching a form of Christianity far different from what Jesus intended. Jesus was teaching the eternal law that leads to life: real life on earth and life that continues after death. He also teaches how this law, based on love, is incompatible with the world’s law, which is based on fear and competition and is really just a sophisticated version the predatory law of the beasts. Tolstoy saw that Jesus’ primary message was that to be truly human, to rise to a level higher than a talking animal, or in other words, to be born into the new life of the spirit, you must stop living according to the law of the world and embrace the law of love. This is the only way to break the cycle of violence. Sure the world will probably not like you and may even crucify you, but you will be truly alive, and actually happier, both before and after your physical death.
The part of the book I found most fascinating is Tolstoy’s interpretation of the five commandments of Christ, all of which are clearly taught in the Sermon on the Mount. For each one he explains the research he did into the original texts and how he reached each conclusion. The key commandment for Tolstoy, the one that really opened the floodgates of light, is that followers of Christ are not to return evil for evil. That’s means no violence to anyone, including enemies, and not just personal enemies, but also those populations that your government calls enemies. When he realized that Christ did not mean this statement as an unreachable ideal but a practical lifestyle, all the pieces of the puzzle began falling into place. Here are the five commandments of Christ as interpreted by Tolstoy:
1. “Be at peace with all men, and never consider your anger as just. Never look upon any man as worthless or a fool, neither call him such. Not only shall you never think yourself justified in your anger, but also you shall never consider your brother’s anger as causeless; and therefore, if there is one who is angry with you, even if it is without cause, go and be reconciled to him before praying. Endeavor to destroy all enmity between yourself and others, that their enmity may not grow and destroy you.” Matthew 5:21-26
2. “Take no pleasure in concupiscence; let each man, if he is not a eunuch, have a wife and each woman a husband; let a man have but one wife, and woman one husband, and let them never under any pretext whatever dissolve their union.” Matthew 5:32
3. “Never take an oath under any circumstances. Every oath is extorted from men for evil.” Matthew 5: 33-37
4. “Never resist evil by violence; never return violence for violence. If anyone strikes your, bear it; it anyone takes away what is yours, let him have it; if anyone makes you labor, do so; if anyone wants to have what you consider to be your own, give it up to him.” Matthew 5: 38-42
5. “Never consider men of another nation as your enemies; look upon all men as you do toward your fellow-country men; therefore you shall not kill those whom you call your enemies; love all and do good to all.” Matthew 5:43-48
Tolstoy believes that these commandments are not intended to be impossible ideals but are in fact Christ’s instructions on how his followers ought to live. If we would only try them, we’d find they actually result in a happier life. In Chapter 10 he identifies the ingredients of a truly happy life: being in touch with the natural world, family, peaceful and unrestricted fellowship with all classes of people, and surprisingly, labor: working to supply our own needs and enjoying the fruits of our labor. A life lived according to Jesus’ commandments would produce to all of these ingredients.
Jesus said “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” and “Ye shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.” The law of love that Jesus taught, according to Tolstoy, is more in accord with our real nature than the world’s law which tells us we are obligated to kill total strangers if the State tells us to take up arms and go to war. I am not so sure about it being more in accord with human nature. The law of love appeals to me but I am a peaceful person who does not find the least pleasure in killing living things. However I know plenty of people who say they sincerely enjoy killing animals, watching ultra-violent films, and even claim to relish the thought of killing certain people. And some of these people are Christians.
I understand none of us made this world and most of us feel stuck in its tangled web of systems. We are born into a world where we don’t have access to enough earth to grow our own food and are dependent from birth on government and complicated economic systems to obtain food and water. So I don’t know that God would hold us accountable for the situation we find ourselves in, and I am glad that one of the rules is that no one gets to judge anyone else. Maybe we could just not assume that the way the world is necessarily the way it has to be. Human systems are not set in stone. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to ask ourselves why we do the things we do every day: are we acting out of fear or out of love? Or have we somehow mixed the two concepts in our minds – as in I go to a job I hate because I love my children and am afraid I won’t be able to feed them. It’s more complicated than you think, Mr. Tolstoy, when you are not a world-renowned Russian nobleman. Also I am puzzled about how this doctrine of non-violence relates to crazed terrorists and keeping child predators and psychopaths off the streets. However, that said, I think Tolstoy is onto something here, namely the truth. It changed his life and it may yet change mine.
In honor of the season I have read a book I have heard much of over the years, one I have wanted to read for a long time: The Torrents of Spring by Ivan Turgenev, published in 1872 when Turgenev was 53 or 54. His age is important because this novelette is largely autobiographical and the hero, when we first meet him, is 52. Although the subject is first love, this is an especially rewarding book for those who are middle-aged, especially those living with regrets and perhaps feeling discouraged and burnt out. It is the story of a memory of lost youth and first love but it is also about redemption, coming to terms with the past, and finding peace, or at least, finding a way to keep fighting another day for your life’s meaning.
As the novel begins we meet our protagonist, Dimitri Pavlovich Sanin, a Russian landowner, who is suffering a case of insomnia after attending some fancy upper-crust social event. We get the impression there is nothing outwardly wrong with his life: he is not ill, is financially secure, has a social life, and lives in a nice home. But his spirit is in ashes: he is empty, embittered by the nonsense of humanity, and haunted by the fear of impending old age and the lurking abyss of death. In this tortured state of mind, Dimitri imagines an allegory for the state of his existence:
“He himself sets in a little tottering boat, and down below in those dark oozy depths, like prodigious fishes, he can just make out the shapes of hideous monsters; all the ills of life, diseases, sorrows, madness, poverty, blindness…. He gazes, and behold, one of these monsters separates itself off from the darkness, rises higher and higher, stands out more and more distinct, more and more loathsomely distinct…. An instant yet, and the boat that bears him will be overturned! But behold, it grows dim again, it withdraws, it sinks down to the bottom, and there it lies, faintly stirring in the slime…. But the fated day will come, and it will overturn the boat.”
Such are the thoughts passing through this man’s mind at 2:00 am. We see that he is going to need some serious psychological intervention to get to a better place. In this depressed state he rummages listlessly through drawers full of papers and discovers an small old-fashioned box. Opening it, he finds a cross set with garnets and the object transports him to a time in life 30 years in the past, when he was 22….
Of course as always when I read Russian literature I so wish I could read Russian. The original title of this novelette is Veshnie Vody – or Вешние воды. However my 1897 translation by Constance Garnett is lovely: simple, direct, and lyrical. The main characters: Dimitri and all the members of the Roselli family are so genuine, warm, and sincere, that I not only feel I know them intimately, but I want to hang around their kitchen table drinking chocolaté and playing board games. In Dimitri’s memory it is 1840 and he has just arrived in Frankfort from Italy, ending a European tour. He has a few hours to kill before his coach leaves for Petersburg where he plans to begin his working life in some government post.
But his plans are suddenly altered when he wanders into a random confectioner’s shop and meets Gemma, a beautiful 19-year-old girl who, at the moment, is in a panic. Running into to the shop from a back room, she begs the young stranger to come save her brother. Emil Roselli, age 14,has fainted and no one can get him to wake up. Dimitri has no medical experience but he quickly loosens the boy’s clothing, calls for some hair brushes, and begins brushing his body. I take it that brushing was a technique used at that time in such cases. Anyway, miraculously enough, it worked. The boy opens his eyes and wakes up. Gemma, her mother, and their loyal family friend, Pantaleone, a retired opera singer, are so grateful they insist that Dimitri stay for dinner. He becomes so absorbed in the stories, the games, and the discussion, that he misses his ride back to Peterburg and decides to hang out in Frankfort a few more days. Although he does yet fully realize it, he has already fallen in love with Gemma and she with him.
There are complications of course. Gemma is already betrothed to a stiff arrogant bore of a merchant named Karl Klüber. Once Dimitri recognizes the magical feeling he is experiencing for what it is and he and Gemma acknowledge their love, Gemma’s mother becomes an obstacle because, as a widow, she sees Herr Klüber as the family’s financial salvation. But as the kinks are worked out, Dimitri becomes the betrothed and is accepted by all. It seems like this sweet love story is going to work out happily for everyone…except we know it isn’t. The suspense is in finding out what could have gone wrong to mess up something so good and so beautiful?
What does happen is so senseless, so ridiculous, so stupid, so typically human. But I don’t want to spoil the story so let’s just say Dimitri gets swept up into some torrents of spring. Does this trip down memory lane help the middle-aged Dimitri emerge from his funk? Sort of. No one can change the past, but you can make an effort to make peace with it, and there are sometimes things you can do to actually transform it.
The Torrents of Spring is deliriously happy, heartbreaking, and ultimately hopeful: a genuine life story to which many of us can relate. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets old….but you’ll have to read the book to find out what else.
- by Steve Webertagged: currently-readingtagged: currently-reading
- Classics review: Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf June 11, 2015
- Reading for creative motivation: Eight books to kick-start the writing process June 3, 2015
- Post Memorial Day musings: Poppies, symbolism, & art May 26, 2015
- Classics Review: The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James May 22, 2015
- Literary Travel: All the Light We Cannot See and 12 more that evoke a sense of place May 15, 2015
- Art and Illustration (27)
- Current events (21)
- History (24)
- Homeschooling (5)
- Philosophy (102)
- Poetry (59)
- Reading (179)
- This and That (110)
- Vegetarian Eating (4)
- Work (14)
- Writing (46)