I’ve spent the whole morning thinking about the plight of the human race: why after enlightenment, after a couple of centuries of astounding scientific discoveries that have led to better standards of living, better sanitation, miraculous technology, incredible advances in medical care, and longer life spans,  is the world such a wretched mess? So I ended up writing sort of a poem, really just an attempt to get my tangled thoughts into the simplest, barest form. Last week I wrote a political poem and sent it in to Rattle Magazine’s “Poets Respond” program but this one is not really about a specific event.  It is, however, inspired by news stories about ISIS planning a bubonic plague weapon and about ISIS training young children to be terrorists. These things strike me as so evil that I get a choking sensation like black coal dust in my throat and I need to write something down just to clear my head.

So this thing I wrote is about why we might be stuck is a system that results in so much evil – but I couldn’t just leave it at that. I don’t like to complain unless I can at least suggest a possible remedy, so I end with best reason for hope I have been able to find. I know people who are thinking about “living off the grid” and prepping for some kind of massive collapse. But even if we were to build the second Garden of Eden, a self-sufficient paradise hidden on the remotest mountain, evil would seep in the first time one of us decided to cheat a little and steal from someone else’s share of the potatoes. Earthly Utopias have been tried many times.

The Younger Memnon. Statue resides in the British Museum

The Younger Memnon. Statue resides in the British Museum

The Human Machine

At the top of the pyramid they co-opt the cause
and feed on its energy to fuel the power they desire.
Some of these come to believe they are the cause itself, or gods.

On the rung just below that brilliance are those who seek
to  embody the reflected light: the cabinets, the lackies,
the spokesmen, the spouses, and quite often, members of the press.

Below this are those who know they have no chance at power
or feel the cost – their soul – is too high so they
embrace the cause itself: Democracy, Communism, Islam, or
institutional Christianity. They are the true believers.
Their reward is that they get to feel virtuous and self-sacrificing.
How they sacrifice themselves depends on the idea of the cause.
From this rung come some of the suicide bombers and many
heroes of the state, such as those who give their lives for freedom.

Below this we find the very populous layer of the survivors,
those who do not think far beyond the acquisition of
food and shelter. Some of these are quite clever and
very observant and interested in learning what techniques
and strategies will bring them wealth and other things they
desire such as sex. They also like power, but not overreaching
power over everybody and everything as with the top,
but only the power to get what they personally want.
Not all on the survivor rung are rich. There are successful survivors
and the barely surviving.

And then there are the trusters, the innocents, those who believe
the authorities. These are akin to the true believers but too humble
to think they can understand the complex philosophy of the cause.
They look to the leaders and the educated pundits of wisdom to tell
them right from wrong. Most children fall into this category
but also many adults and from here also are made some suicide bombers.

And is there no hope of escape from this machine?
All of the levels within the machine are states of mind
so before the body the mind must be rescued.
If there is escape it must be through embracing perfect truth,
uncontaminated by human desire,
and therefore must come from outside the human system.
I do believe that the name of perfect truth,
joined indivisible to perfect love,
scaled to human terms is Jesus Christ.
The rub of course is desire:
desire for truth that sets you free must
surpass even desire for life as you know it.

* * * * * * *

And that’s my simple working model of the body politic: the demigods, the parasites, the true believers, the survivors, and the innocents. I’m know these ideas are hardly new and I certainly owe something to Albert Jay Nock and something more to the New Testament Gospels. Without my feeble wisp of faith, I suppose I would either be a survivor who sometimes aspires to true believer or a true believer who often sinks to the survivor level. But with even a breath of faith, I can float outside the entire beehive and know that a better reality awaits, a reality in which our worth or survival does not depend on consuming the life energy on our fellow beings, one that runs on a currency of love rather than a currency of power. I cannot begin to know the details of that new model of reality, but just the faint aroma, the beckoning light in the distance, is enough to give me sweet hope.forestpath

Where do you fit in this model? Or do you not fit at all? Do you have your own model? Maybe somewhere in there is room for another layer. Perhaps artists could be their own layer or perhaps the artists are mixed into the bottom four layers. I don’t think you’d find an artist at the insatiable-for-power top; those guys are all consumed by their lust for power. Obviously there is plenty of room for adjustment the architecture of my political model!

juliet1This weekend was a typical one except that the weather was unusually beautiful for late August in southern Virginia. I cleaned house, visited the Suffolk Farmer’s Market with my son, caught up on my workouts, sleep, and laundry, did some writing, worked on a web graphic. One unusual thing did happen that ought to be at least a footnote in the history of my life: I got my first rejection letter! Actually a rejection email. Since I have just begun sending out some of my pieces I’m sure it won’t be my last.

It was for a single poem I had submitted only the previous day to the literary magazine Rattle. They have this new project called “Poets Respond” in which they choose one poem that responds to a news event that happened in the last week. I received my Rattle literary magazine in the mail last Thursday and when I saw the enclosed flyer for the “Poets Respond” project I thought it was the best idea I had seen in a long time. The news lately is overwhelmingly tragic and I often feel frustrated that these things are happening in the world and I can do nothing but watch and gasp in horror. I think that, perhaps other than prayer, there can be no healthier way to deal with the news than by responding to it through art or poetry.

So I wrote a poem about one of the events in Ferguson Missouri and sent it in.

As rejections go the email from the Rattle editor was about as about nice as a rejection can be. He wrote that they had received over 100 submissions and although mine was perfect for the spirit of the project, he ended up choosing another poem. When I went to the website and read the selected poem  I thought the editor made the right choice. I would have chosen this poem too: it is about the death of James Foley and is beautiful. You can see it here. You’ll also find information about the project and how to send in your own news poem.

Well here’s the poem I submitted. I figure I might as well share it here while it is still topical…. I love responding to the news through poetry and plan to do more of this sort or writing.

* * * * * * * *

The Attorney General Comes to Town

He arrives with raucous fanfare in a giant jet
and alights in his suit of glory in a Missouri town
where a scared cop has killed a boy and
the angry mob is looting and breaking windows which
of course we all understand perfectly or at least we
would if only humans were chemicals that explode when lit
or cornered animals void of reason
because anger inflames us to hurt people we don’t know
who never harmed anyone.

The attorney general comes looking for a crime,
“possible violations of federal civil rights statutes.”
Who knows the cogitations of the mind
behind the hard face, the purposeful stride,
but publically he says this visit to town is deeply personal
and one suspects, though does not know, that he is angry,
feels wronged, because of the way he tells the people
how twice he was stopped on the New Jersey turnpike and they
searched his car and we all assume they violated
his fourth amendment rights because he is black
and probably he has a case

but the attorney general was not arrested
and now is free to search not a car but a town
and if he wants to find a crime perhaps he will
because unlike guns or drugs crimes can be conjured
out of the smoke of wrath especially if
you are an angry attorney general
fighting institutionalized racism
with state power, power against power,
crush it down under the heel of a designer shoe.

I had to seriously question myself as to why I even wanted to read this book. A couple of days ago I was sitting there innocently reading The Republic by Plato and Socrates was talking about how, in the ideal city, they shouldn’t teach young people that gods did bad things or fought among themselves because these mythological tales were lies. Yes – apparently even in Plato’s time (somewhere around 428/427 BC  to 348/347 BC) they called it Greek mythology – or at least Plato called it that. He said that beings who did evil or fought or deceived or played tricks on each other were either fiction or something other than gods (his Socrates character had already established philosophically that a real god had to be the perfect good).

And then I suddenly remembered I had this book The Rite (published in 2010) in my audio library because I had gotten some deal on it several months ago. I don’t regret reading listening to this strange book because it did bring up some fascinating issues and made me aware of things I did not know. As a former and possibly future Catholic I was curious. After all, Christians worship a person who cast out demons on several occasions and told his followers that they would also have the ability to do so. The usual position is that in the past people mistook mental illness for demon possession, but I would suppose that God incarnate, creator of heaven and earth, would know the difference between mental illness and demons. This book devotes a whole chapter to  a discussion of mental illness and how it is said to differ from genuine demon possession or demon oppression. If that isn’t enough to make you curious I don’t know what else to say — except a word of caution: when it comes to this subject, try not to be too curious.

Here is the review I wrote for Goodreads:

The Rite: The Making of a Modern ExorcistThe Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist by Matt Baglio

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Considering that the touchy subject of this book, subject as it is to lurid public fascination on one hand and disbelieving scorn on the other, I think Matt Baglio does an excellent job in presenting the new wave of exorcism fairly and clearly. I am not generally attracted to demonic literature or movies. I have read The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis but have never seen The Exorcist with Linda Blair or any other exorcism film. In fact, only after I finished the book did I discover there is a 2011 film called The Rite based on it starring Anthony Hopkins. So I have to ask myself why in the world I would have picked up this book to read. It was not on my reading list. I guess I was as curious as anyone about the modern Catholic stance toward demonic possession and once I picked it up I couldn’t stop reading it.

By the late 1990s he Catholic Church in the United States had become increasingly secular in its views and had pretty much turned its back on the whole idea of exorcism and even the existence of demons. Many priests seemed embarrassed about Catholic history with its archaic practices and belief in medieval devils with horns and pitchforks. Even though the official Church rules specified that each bishop must designate at least one priest as an exorcist, in 1998 there were only 14 official exorcists in the United States. However at that time the Church both in the United States and other countries began noticing an explosive increase in activity related to Satanic cults and also a higher demand for exorcism. This book follows the experience of reluctant exorcist-in-training Father Gary Thomas who travels to the Vatican to take a course and ends up doing an intense internment with a veteran exorcist, Father Giancarlo Gramolazzo.

The book alternates between Father Gary’s story and background information that gives the reader context and some history of the subject. I especially liked the chapter that discusses the relationship between mental illness and demonic possession and the confusion that results from the comparison. It is certainly true that in the past mental illness was often attributed to demonic possession, and it is also true that in the vast majority of cases mental illness is not demonic possession. But according to the Catholic Church, this does not rule out the existence of demonic possession. Modern exorcists work closely with mental health professionals and diagnose demonic possession only with the greatest caution.

I also like the way the author throws the light switch on much of the sensational mythology around this subject. For example, the Church sees victims of possession as just that: victims. They are not blamed for the misfortune and are not considered evil or damned. Also I was surprised to learn that most often exorcism is not a one-time shot: often the victim will meet with his or her exorcist periodically for months or years. The job of an exorcist is akin to than to a healer. Exorcists are not paid for their services and are often scorned and persecuted. In addition they are vulnerable themselves to spiritual oppression. As Father Gary discovers, thorough training, observation, faith, and a discipline of prayer are essential to being able to perform the rite of exorcism with any success.

I ended the book with a better understanding of the Catholic rite of exorcism than I did when I began. The book includes many eyewitness accounts of the encounters with evil beings, and I believe the accounts well enough to hope that reading this book is as close as I will ever get to the subject.

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A few weeks ago my fellow blogger Gina Stoneheart honored me with a nomination for the Blogging From the Heart tour on her wonderful blog Dawning on a New Day. Gina is a writer for both children and adults who blogs about writing and real life as well as the places where writing and real life intersect. Her writing is the real thing: genuine, original, and excellent quality, and her a blog that is as honest and entertaining as a blog should be. I enthusiastically encourage you to check her out!

In this tour you answer a few questions about your writing process, a wonderful thing to share since there are probably as many writing processes as there are writers. Then you get to tag three of your favorite bloggers, who may then if they want, write a post to share their writing or blogging process and tag others. I want to thank Gina for nominating me for this tour, but even more I want to thank her for her wonderful posts and our many pleasant and deep online conversations. Making friends and connections like this is one of things I think blogging is all about.

Questions about process are always a difficult for me because organization is not my strong suite – like many creative people I find it difficult even to think me to think in a step-by-step sequence. I think that is one of the reasons I’ve been procrastinating about this post. I have a whole shelf laden with books on writing, all by successful or semi-successful writers who are happy to share their writing processes, techniques, and lessons learned. I have found these books inspirational and have picked up a tip or two, but I have never adopted wholesale any of their approaches. Not that I haven’t wanted to; I would love to find an approach to writing that supercharges both my creativity and productivity, but I can’t seem to stick to anyone’s approach except my own, as scattered, quirky, and inefficient as it is. So here are the “Blogging From the Heart” questions and my attempts to answer them.

What am I working on?

agile documentation cartoonI am working first of all on this blog post and a few more coming-soon posts. I have a few essays in the works that I am getting up the courage to submit to journals. I have a collection of poetry partially done and have sent some poems out into the journalsphere. Also I am working on some art and illustration projects – a line of cards, some products like mugs, some portraits. My art pursuits often conflict and fight for time with my writing pursuits, but I am working on ways to make them fit together. I’ve tried to give one up and then the other, because I know a creative art demands all of one’s attention and does not like to share creative energy with another art. But I have discovered that I am unable to give up either one. As soon as I give up writing all I want to do is write and as soon as I give up drawing all I want to do is draw. So in my case, I have to share my creative energy, even if it means I will never be fabulously successful in either one. Also I am working on purging and overhauling my house. And there’s my day job. But as of this moment I think the key to the rest of my life lies in the purging and overhauling project – I am feeling the urge to jettison everything unnecessary to make time and space for what I really want to get accomplish.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Well this question assumes I have a genre. About a year ago I made an effort to join a writing group and went to a group meeting at a local iHop. There were eight or ten other writers around the table who had been meeting there so long they had their own iHop waiter who “always” served the group. It seems like there was a core group and then others, like me, who would drift in and out of the group, so the first thing that happened is that everyone went around the table, introduced themselves and said what they were working on. One guy wrote historical mystery thrillers, one wrote paranormal gothic romances, another wrote paranormal eroticism, and still another wrote space fantasies. I had no idea there even were so many genres. I said I wrote essays inspired by classic literature and although I had a great time with these interesting people, I left feeling like maybe I didn’t quite belong in this particular writing group.

So I suppose if I have a genre it would fit loosely in the creative non-fiction category, a genre so that it would be difficult to figure out how any one writer is like another, let alone different. I also have dipped my big toe into the writing of poetry. In that genre I try to strike a balance between artistic integrity and clear connection with the potential reader. I will be posting something about my attempts at poetry in the near future.

nothing newAs for subject matter, my purpose is always to seek for some level of truth. I know fiction can be true, and maybe someday I will try that route, but right now I am exploring the history of human thought as expressed through its enduring literature for what the greatest of its minds has figured out so far. A friend and co-worker read my blog and recently commented that I was radical. I’ve been laughing about it ever since. Me a radical! I couldn’t be – unless it’s a case of being so non-radical that I’m radical, sort of like a creature “so ugly it’s cute.” I tend to stick religiously to the oldest most enduring of human ideas, and firmly believe Solomon’s statement in the Book of Ecclesiastes that “There is nothing new under the sun.”

Why do I create/write what I do?

contemplation with dogThere have been periods in my life, sometimes periods of several years, in which I was not writing and there have been periods in which I was writing. I have found that I am happier when I am writing than when I am not. It’s similar to my feeling about having a dog: I find I am happier with a dog than without a dog. But my current period of writing has lasted about four years and I think will last the rest of my life. I started down this path to bring my writing to a more serious level in 2010 after a lifetime of writing off and on in journals. The journals were numerous and lined up three feet long on a shelf, but the most of the writing inside them never saw the light of day. I suppose the catalyst was the death of my mother, who thought I was a good writer and always encouraged me to do something with it.

When she died I was sorry she had never gotten to see me publish anything, or at least much of anything. My first poem was published a couple of months after she passed away, and then I began a blog. I think I blogged for nearly a year before I had a single visitor other than spammers. Of course I was so lacking in confidence that I never promoted it. It was enough to see my writing in a public form and to get used to the idea of it being in a public form.

Planting

Planting

Whenever someone tells me they want to start a blog I always encourage them, give them some tips, and advise them to stick with it and be patient. But most of them get very discouraged by the feeling of writing into a void and the lack of readers. I suppose I was well equipped for this initial period by my background of writing for like 20 years with zero feedback. Also I had learned by other experiences to do my work with without encouragement beginning with eight years in Catholic school where I was very bored and the hours were long and where I learned to both entertain my mind and do my writing for its own sake. Also in my career as a technical writer I can write and edit for months or years at a time without ever getting a word of feedback about what I write. So writing for a blog with no readers was natural to me. Just the idea that I could write what I really wanted to write, and that the possibility existed that someday somebody, even one person, might read it, was kind of thrilling to me.

So from this humble beginning I slowly began to find my voice as a public writer and only now am I venturing to seek further publication for some of my pieces.

How does my writing/creating process work?

Well first I get that swelling-up feeling that means it’s time to go write. This often happens while I am doing mind of the makersomething physical like walking or driving and usually it’s just the wisp of a connection between one thing and another, a flying seed that has found a perch in my mind and begun taking root. Although I am also an artist, this seed is rarely an image but is rather a feeling or urge perhaps combined with a few words. It is hard to explain, because the whole reason I need to go and write is because there is something abstract growing inside me pushing to get itself put into a comprehensible material form. It is the idea wanting to be born as the Word. Once born it continues its life in the editing and reading process. This is the trinity of creation that Dorothy Sayers talks about in her book The Mind of the Maker. I believe her philosophy of how creation works because it is exactly what I experience.

Now I will tag a few bloggers I love:

Deborah Brasket at Living on the Edge of the Wild. I love Deborah’s writing because it is elegant, beautiful, and searingly honest. She is truly in the spirit of “Blogging From the Heart” because she has the ability to capture in words the most subtle degrees and shades of emotion. He latest post, Dialogue with Annie Dillard on “The Writing Life” is one the best things I’ve read in a long time about how writing fits into our “other” life with all its roles and necessities.   Also she shares my interest in poetry and I have so enjoyed exchanging interpretations of Wallace Stevens and others with her.

Angel Chavis at The Natural Lifestyle Show. Angel blogs and also makes videos with her husband about natural health. She is only of the sincerest and also most helpful bloggers I know. I have learned so much from her blog about simple practical low-cost things we can do to naturally improve our health and lives. He voice is direct and gentle, never judgmental, but always true to her Christian beliefs and desire to help others through her writing and videos. Click over to Angel’s blog and enjoy her wisdom and wonderful tips!

Cleo at Classical Cleo. I have recently joined The Classics Club, an excellent fit or the kind of writing I like to do, and through this organization I have met several wonderful classics bloggers. I have especially enjoyed the writing and reviews of Cleo. She is enthusiastic, generous, and she takes reading seriously! She is opening new doors into the world of literature for me and is also making me think about new ways to share and write about books. It’s hard to imagine anyone entering her blog and not coming out without some intriguing treasure to enrich them mind and soul.

I have had the great fun of reading another novel by Anthony Trollope right on the heels of its predecessor Can You Forgive Her? I love submerging myself in the quirky world of upper class Victorian London, as much a fantasy to me as Middle Earth when reading The Lord of the Rings. But alas, as much as I’d like continue with The Palliser series right to sixth novel, I need to take a break from Trollope land because I have committed to reading The Republic by Plato for The Classics Club. But as soon as I get back from ancient Athens I will probably return to Trollope’s England, starting with The Eustace Diamonds.

Phineas Finn (Palliser, #2)Phineas Finn by Anthony Trollope

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What I love about all Trollope’s novels – at least the ones I’ve read so far – is his distinct satiric style – the voice is a sort of benevolent omniscient God looking down and shaking his head at the loftiest pursuits and highest society of us silly foolish humans. Phineas Finn, the second in his six-novel Palliser series, is one in which this voice comes through loud and clear, dealing as it does with Parliamentary politics and high London society in the mid-19th century.

By a series of flukes, luck, and the ability to network with rich and powerful people, Phineas Finn, a young penniless Irishman and newly minted barrister, gets a seat in Parliament and is able to work his way up to an influential and profitable government position. A charming attractive young man, Phineas makes some attempt to maintain his honor and keep possession of his soul as he advances his career while romancing a series of three highly placed and wealthy ladies. For me the book was educational as I know very little about the workings of British politics. I was most interested in the effect of independent wealth on the characters’ decisions and behavior in both Parliament and in personal relationships.

One of Phineas Finn’s problems is that he is dependent first on an allowance from his father and then on his salary for serving the government. Once he takes a salary, he finds he must vote as the party dictates or is expected to resign his valuable office. So without independent wealth of his own, he is not free to act according to his conscience. I wonder how many paid politicians in the U.S. find this to be the case once they get into office? It seems that unlike the U.S. Congress, members of Parliament did not receive a paycheck for their work unless they were appointed to a highly coveted office with an attached annual salary.

This was a good story about human relations and public vs private life, and although I found it interesting and many of characters compelling, I didn’t warm up to it quite as much as I did Can You Forgive Her? or How We Live Now. I guess the parts about speeches in Parliament over this bill and that bill kind of bogged the story down. But these parts also served to show just how tedious and unglamorous life in government could be.

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The Classics Club Lucky Spin number has been announced and the number is….. 17. That means I have to read # 17 on my Spin list. Which turns out to be The Republic by Plato. I’ve had it on my shelf for years. I also have the audio book. But somehow I have never been able to commit myself to reading it and to tell the absolute truth I’m not feeling overly thrilled about reading it now. Nevertheless I will because that’s why I’m playing this game with all these other wonderful classics readers – to get that extra little push to read the things I need to read before the bell tolls. So in that way, with time a-wasting, I suppose it is fate that Plato’s number has come up before mine does.

plato-the-republic

A couple of years ago I read Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now and really liked it for its great writing, intricate plot, and realistic characters. Long ago I read a couple of his Barchester Towers novels but I can hardly remember those and will need to eventually re-read that whole series. I chose the first novel in Trollope’s Palliser series because I was in the mood for a nice dense Victorian novel. I was not disappointed. Here is my review for Goodreads:

Can You Forgive Her? (Palliser, #1)Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope is the story of a young woman trying to figure out what to do with her life while vacillating between two lovers who want to marry her. At the advanced age of 24 Alice is independent, self-possessed, and somewhat sadder-but-wiser, having already broken an engagement to her ne’er-do-well cousin George a few years earlier due his inappropriate behavior. The exact reason for the breakup is not specified but the novel hints that it had something to do with George’s bad temper and infidelity, and that his behavior was something of a pattern.

As the story begins we find that Alice is now betrothed to Mr. John Grey, well-known paragon of virtue and respectability, and that this engagement has met with universal approval among Alice’s relatives and society at large. However, despite the polite urgings of her fiancé, Alice simply cannot bring herself to agree to a date for the wedding. Mr. Grey’s love letters are full of details about the shrubbery and flowers at Nethercoats in Cambridgeshire, the small estate that is to be their idyllic country home, and she finds herself reluctant to leave her independent life in the city, hesitant to close the door to possibility and excitement.

Alice then embarks on a six-week vacation to Switzerland with her best friend and cousin Kate Vavasor and Kate’s brother George, her former lover, because now of course, George has reformed and besides, they are just friends. So far this sounds like the plot of any number of modern romantic comedies, except instead of sex or kissing the most physical contact you’ll find in this Victorian novel is a bit of pressure on the hand. That is until the fighting begins….

This novel was first published in serialized form between 1864 to 1865 and is the first book in Trollope’s six-novel Palliser series. Trollope’s portrayal of the subtleties of women’s minds and feelings is amazingly insightful for a guy writing in the mid 19th century. His female characters have often been compared to those of Dickens and I agree with the consensus that in the area of portraying female characters Trollope is better.

A few chapters into the novel we are introduced to Lady Glencora Palliser, another lively female character. The wealthy young Glencora had been in love and engaged to the stunningly handsome but penniless rogue Burgo Fitzgerald and had been badgered by her relatives into breaking the engagement and then pressured into marrying the dull but fabulously rich up-and-coming politician Plantagenet Palliser. Miserable, still in love with Burgo Fitzgerald, and in need of friendship, Glencora seeks out her distant cousin Alice for companionship and advice. At 21, Glencora is a giddy scheming drama queen who questions every convention. I can easily imagine her trading her corset for a pair of tattered designer jeans.

Alas, these characters are living in a time when options for women were so limited it is hard to imagine the constraints to which they had to adjust to in body, mind, and ambition. I find that when reading a Victorian novel I just have to accept the rules and social culture just as I accept the rules and culture of Middle Earth when reading Lord of the Rings. The rules provide the boundaries within which the characters must live and against which they must struggle. And in Victorian England, an upper class woman has plenty of boundaries to struggle against. In addition to Alice and Glencora, this novel gives us Kate Vavasor and Arabella Greenow, two more independent women with colorful subplots of their own.

Of course there are also the male characters, the most dynamic of which is George Vavasor, with his temper, disappointments, desperation, and his descent into darkness. The other male characters—Plantagenet Palliser, John Grey, Alice’s father John Vavasor, and her grandfather Squire Vavasor of Vavasor Hall—although interesting enough, are less vivid than the women. Mr. Cheesacre and Captain Bellfield, Mrs. Greenow’s rival lovers, seem to be in the novel mainly for comic relief.

This novel has gotten a lot of flak for its title and also the maddening indecision of its heroine. The periodical Punch called it Can You Stand Her? And a later critic commented that it should be called Can You Possibly Finish It? Nevertheless I liked it and I sympathized with Alice, even though in the contest between unconventional life choices and the status quo, the unconventional choices are clearly vanquished and status quo is victorious. Oh well. At least this novel gives us a few women who get chance to experiment with daring options, thinking their own thoughts, and making their own choices. I should mention I used Amazon’s “Whisper Sync” technology to read the book on Kindle and also listen to the audio. Timothy West’s interpretive narration adds a delightful tongue-in-cheek flavor to Trollope’s omniscient satire.

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reader2I’ve recently joined a fun online community of classics readers called The Classics Club because even I need a little social life around my personal interests. The Classics Club hosts fun classics-related activities that encourage you in your quest to read even the daunting books on your list. So I will be participating in what they call a “spin.” You take 20 books from your list that you have yet to read and put them in a numbered list. The suggested mix of books is five that you dread, five you are excited and eager to read, five about which you feel neutral, and then five in a wildcard category of your choice. For my wildcard category I chose the ancients.

So in this list the first five are ones I sort of dread, the second five are books I can’t wait to read, the third five are fairly neutral choices (although none on my list is really a neutral choice), and the fourth five are ancients. On Monday August 11th, the people at The Classics Club will announce a number and I have to read that book by October 6th. Sounds reasonable.

  1. The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross
  2. Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant
  3. Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard
  4. Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas
  5. Political Theology by Carl Schmitt
  6. Rob Roy by Walter Scott
  7. No Name by Wilkie Collins
  8. The Virginians by William Makepeace Thackeray
  9. My Life by Anton Chekhov
  10. Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino
  11. The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt
  12. Christianity and Culture: The Idea of a Christian Society and Notes Towards the Definition of Culture by T.S. Eliot
  13. Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
  14. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
  15. The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov
  16. The Aeneid by Virgil
  17. The Republic by Plato
  18. Poetics by Aristotle
  19. Ethics by Aristotle
  20. Metaphysics by Aristotle

If you like reading classics and would like to do it with a fun community I encourage you to check out The Classics Club. You need a blog to participate, but if you don’t have one, it’s easy to set one up. There are several websites where you can set one up for free in about 30 minutes: WordPress.com, Blogger, and Tumblr are three of the major ones.

*****

Monday August 11: The Lucky Spin number is in and it is….17. Gasp. The Republic by Plato is my book.

My last post was a review of Leo Tolstoy’s astounding final novel Resurrection, but I find I am not quite finished writing about this book. There is a passage in the the final quarter of the novel that I have gotten stuck on and I keep going back to it because it absolutely nails something important, something that has always bothered me, although usually in a nebulous unconscious way. The something sometimes takes the form of a frustrated feeling that comes to the surface when I encounter a person who says they know the process is stupid but they are just doing their job, or they know they are inconveniencing or even harming someone but they have to follow the policy, or their system doesn’t allow them to do it differently.

Once I went to the doctor during walk-in hours with two small health issues. The nurse practitioner said, in a voice dripping with sympathetic regret, that though they used to able to treat two problems in one visit, now they had a new computer system that only let them treat one issue per visit. So I had to choose which health problem to complain about. I realize of course that this is sort of thing is universally accepted as “just the way things work” – but every now and then I ask myself why it works like this and whether we couldn’t have arranged our systems for dealing with each other differently. I have heard people say “That’s the law!” as if that were the final word on an ethical issue, the real clincher in a moral argument. As if the laws of man have never been wrong, twisted, misused, or resulted in unintended consequences.

Illustration by Leonid Pasternak from a Pre-1910 English edition of Resurrection

Illustration by Leonid Pasternak from a Pre-1910 English edition of Resurrection

In this passage from Resurrection, the protagonist, Nekhludoff, is following the brutal march of  787 prisoners from Moscow to Siberia in order to keep his pledge to Katerina Maslova to help her and possibly marry her if she will accept him. Maslova is the girl he wronged in his youth who has now been falsely convicted on murder. It is an intensely hot August day and hundreds of prisoners are chained and forced to walk in a thick crowd without adequate water after spending many months confined in a dark cell without exercise. Some men collapse and some die of heat stroke. Nekhludoff looks at the body of a man who has just dropped dead, the second he personally witnessed that day, and observes that the dead man had been young, handsome, and had a nice sound body.

“And what seemed terrible was that he had been murdered, and no one knew who had murdered him. Yet he had been murdered. He was led out with all the rest of the prisoners by Mallennikoff’s orders. Mallennikoff had probably given the order in the usual manner, had signed with his stupid flourish the paper with the printed heading, and most certainly would not consider himself guilty. Still less would the careful doctor who examined the convicts consider himself guilty. He had performed his duty accurately, and had separated the weak. How could he have foreseen this terrible heat, or the fact that they would start so late in the day and in such crowds? The prison inspector? But the inspector had only carried into execution the order tha on a given day a certain number of exiles and convicts–men and women–had to be sent off. The convoy officer could not be guilty either, for his business was to receive a certain number of persons in a certain place, and to deliver up the same number. He conducted them in the usual manner, and could not foresee that two such strong men as these would not be able to stand it and would die. No one is guilty, and yet the men have been murdered by these people who are not guilty of their murder.

All of this comes, Nekhludoff thought, from the fact that all these people, governors, inspectors, police officers, and men, consider that there are circumstances in which human relations are not necessary between human beings. All these men, Maslennikoff, and the inspector, and the convoy officer, if they were not governor, inspector, officer, would have considered twenty times before sending people in such heat in such mass–would have stopped twenty times on the way, and, seeing that a man was growing weak, gasping for breath, would have led him into the shade, would have given him water and let him rest, and if an accident had still occurred they would have expressed pity. But they not only did not do it, but hindered others from doing it, because they considered not men and their duty towards them but only the office they themselves filled, and held what that office demanded of them be above human relations. That’s what it is, Nekludoff went on in his thoughts. If one acknowledges but for single hour that anything can be more important than love for one’s fellowmen, even in some one exceptional case, any crime can be committed without a feeling of guilt.

Yes the passage is describing a scenario in the distant past, the deportation of several hundred prisoners to prison camps in Siberia, and we in the modern civilized world do not treat people like that anymore – at least if you don’t count death marches in 20th century wars, or mass migrations to refuge camps that are happening now, or various  ethnic and religious cleansing efforts that have taken place in recent decades. But persecutions like these are only the most dramatic manifestations of what Tolstoy is talking about. The final sentence in this passage is the key.

I think it is pretty undeniable, and even proved by scientific studies, that people in groups are more likely to commit acts of cruelty without feeling guilt than people acting on their own. This is inescapable human nature, so it seems to me the best thing to do would be to use extreme caution before becoming part of any group and also to set up our society so as to discourage large groups, especially large groups organized into official bureaucratic offices with both the power of law and the tendency to dehumanize the people. I think this passage in Resurrection expresses the reasons we do not follow the law of love better than passage I have ever read. Except perhaps this one:

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.’” Matthew 22:36-40

What Tolstoy helps me to see is that this well-known scripture is not merely a sweet idea or comforting platitude. It is in fact the foundational law of humanity, the only law that cannot corrupt, without which everything goes awry. Deviate from it by an inch and the result is misery and the greater the deviation, the greater the misery. To be honest I find this commandment to be a tall order; following it does not come naturally. Loving God – okay sure – but people! With their rude behavior, ignorant comments, herd mentality, tasteless clothing choices, and body odor! There are of course a group of people I have no trouble loving, but for the most part I find loving people to be hard work and nearly always inconvenient.

How often do any of us actually consider love for others above anything else? I know that even within my family I often respond first to the demands of the moment: schedules, time, money, social expectations, and even convenience, forgetting all about love. When interacting with strangers such as the other drivers on the highway or people who are obstacles to getting where I want to go and doing what I want to do,  I confess my thoughts are not consistently loving. But I am working on it because I have come believe that nothing is more important than developing the ability to love others before oneself – even if figuring out what this means, how it happens, and what I am supposed to do about it is a lifetime project. Very slowly, inch by painful inch, I am learning that every tiny attempt to love another person, or at least put someone else’s interests ahead of my own, opens up something in my heart, something that feels like a trickle of living water. Despite the globalness of our technologically interconnected world, I suspect this commandment still applies first to people with whom you actually come into personal contact. It does not seem consistent with the spirit of the law of love to donate to charities to help the poor on other continents and then behave callously toward the working poor on your own block.

A lot of people did not like Resurrection because it was impolite, disrespectful to the Orthodox church, and gave no quarter to the powers of society. A lot of people did not like Jesus either. It is not pleasant to be told that the entire infrastructure on which we depend for our livelihood is corrupt because it operates on principles other than love for our fellow humans. I get that. I believe that even for people who get the message, the tendency is say yes, that’s true and it’s too bad, and then go on living exactly as we always have. We are only human and we need to eat, buy houses, and send our kids to college, and what can we do about it anyway? In a future post I will try to make a modest proposal in answer to that question.

After being quite taken with Leo Tolstoy’s A Confession, his memoir of spiritual crisis and awakening, I was eager to read Resurrection, Tolstoy’s final novel, published with great fanfare in 1899. Yet to say I was “eager to read” seems somehow inaccurate – a sort of a trivialization of what I felt – and yet “I desired to read” or “longed to read” do not really work either. Maybe French has a better way to describe the deep feeling that you need to read something as a result of reading something else, but I have been unable to find the right words for it in English. For now I will just say I felt strongly I needed to read Resurrection and looked forward to the experience with something like a joyful anticipation. Here is the review I wrote for Goodreads….

ResurrectionResurrection by Leo Tolstoy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Resurrection fits into the literary category of “the philosophical novel” along with the novels of George Orwell, Ayn Rand, Albert Camus, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and C.S. Lewis. Some would categorize Tolstoy’s own War and Peace as a philosophical novel as well. A philosophical novel is one in which the author’s philosophy is the dominant element of the book as opposed to a novel in which character or the plot are the focus. Its purpose is to elucidate and illustrate a philosophic vision rather than to entertain, enchant, or edify the mind with its artistic genius or innovation. It is my personal favorite kind of novel, even when I don’t necessarily agree with the philosophy it puts forth. I like philosophy because it helps me make sense of this confusing world, so I will, on occasion, make the effort to read a philosophy book; however to be honest I usually find straight philosophy books about as exciting as dryer lint, so if I can read a novel that makes a philosophy come alive within the context of a story and achieve a better grasp of the philosopher’s thinking in a pleasurable way, why in the world not do so?

Although Resurrection is philosophical to the bone, it is also strong in plot and peopled with characters that are emotionally complex and beautifully portrayed. The story centers on the dramatic spiritual awakening of Prince Dmitri Ivanovitch Nekhludoff, a rich young nobleman and member of the landed gentry. Although it is true that Nekhludoff slowly comes to the same conclusions about society and truth that Tolstoy came to believe, the character is not the author. Tolstoy was nearing 50 when he came to the realizations and beliefs that changed the course of his life while Nekhludoff is perhaps 30 when a freakish coincidence triggers his spiritual awakening: he shows up to serve on a jury and finds that the defendant is Katerina Maslova , the girl he impregnated and abandoned ten years ago when she was a maid in the home of his two aunts.

When he sees his former lover, now a prostitute, on trial for poisoning a client, Nekhludoff is driven to re-examine his past and come to terms with the fact that his actions toward this girl set her on the path that led her to her current state of affairs. Although most of the jury members as well as the judge believe that Maslova has been framed for the crime and is in fact innocent, she is convicted due to a technicality in the wording of the verdict and sentenced to four years hard labor in Siberia.

Nekhludoff, who is considering marriage to the daughter of a wealthy family, knows he could walk away and not look back, but he finds he is compelled to seek to meet with Maslova and resolves to do whatever is in his power to help her. After fighting through a maze of bureaucracy and bureaucrats he is able to arrange a face-to-face meeting with the prisoner, but the reunion does play out quite as he imagined. Maslova’s hard life has made her hard and cynical and she does not wish to be reminded by his presence of either the innocent girl she once was or the intense pain she experienced when Nekhludoff left her. However, she does ask him to see if he can help some of her fellow prisoners.

This sets Nekhludoff on a journey of discovery about the Russian prison system, with its corruption, injustices, maddening inconsistencies, miserable victims and callous beneficiaries – the government officials and lawyers who profit from its legal churnings. These discoveries, mixed with an examination of his own life, extend to a horrifying vision of the world of humans in general, with its favored few living in luxury on the suffering backs of millions.

Resurrection, with it cast of hundreds of thousands is sweeping in scope and yet as intimate as one man’s breaking heart and troubled mind. Although the novel is about the evils of a predatory system and the victims of that system, it avoids the simplistic dichotomy of evil villains versus innocent victims. To be sure, there are evil villains here as well as innocent victims, but these are only the two ends of fully realized spectrum of morality. Nearly all the characters are presented with some sympathy as real human beings doing what they must do to live and feed their families within the world as they find it. Most people, rich, poor, or in between, do whatever is easiest, least risky, and most beneficial for themselves. So we meet sympathetic prison wardens, bureaucrats willing to bend the rules for money, favors, or out of sheer good will, brutal prison guards who later regret their actions, and men with lofty morals slowly corrupted by the demands of their profession. Among the prisoners there are the purest of saints and the vilest of sinners and every type of in between.

Tolstoy was famous all over the world when this book was published. It was eagerly anticipated, quickly translated into several languages, and was an instant international bestseller. However, it seems that enthusiasm soon waned and Resurrection is now the least known of his three long novels. It is not hard to see why. The novel is great but the philosophy is challenging – about as challenging as that presented in Matthew 5, the sermon on the mount. If you are in a state of mind that can be receptive to that philosophy you will love this book. I get the idea though, that some people are a bit put off by it. In any case, this is challenging book and the challenge is not in how it is written – it is written with clarity, beauty, and depth – but in what is says about our world.

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