30 April 2011

Atlas Shrugged Sunday: The only plebian in a world of patricians.

Spoiler Alert: If you haven't read the book, this may spoil the ending for you. But you're not missing much.

We are now entering the world of Ayn Rand, so hold onto your hats and send your children from the room. It's a crude and dark place, and not particularly well-made. Rand's world is very little like our own, because hers has the sole purpose of illustrating her bizarre ideas about life and morality.

First, some basic principles.

Ayn Rand wrote in 1957, and set the book in the near future. She was mostly spared the difficulty of conceiving new technology, because the Randverse is a world that's gone backwards, technologically speaking, as it succumbs to apathy and altruism. So it's not too foreign to us. But it does present the quaint vision of a country where railroads are the primary method of shipping. The only future-tech comes from the innovating supermen of selfishness, and not until much later.

One guiding rule is that appearances are everything. There are no ugly good guys, and there are no beautiful bad guys. From the very first description of anyone or anything, we will know their nature. There is no room for ambiguity or character development. If someone has strong cheekbones, then they are a moral paragon.

The aesthetic rules are Rand's own, which value thinness and sharp definition. If something or someone is good, they are strong and rigid and they have clean lines about them. You might ask about such things as the soft nurturing crook of a mother's arm, or the placid rotundity of a benevolent monk. But you won't find those things in the Randverse: softness and roundness are ugly and evil.

Additionally, everything is a metaphor. I am exaggerating slightly, because after several hundred pages there is a chair that is only a chair, and not a lazily slouching armchair of decadence or a rigid wooden bench of powerful oak. But everything else is a shallow and clumsy metaphor, crammed down our gullets with all the hyperbolic expressions of moral judgment that a frenzied chainsmoking Russian immigrant could manage.

So, with these cautions fore in your mind, let's embark on this journey together.

We start Atlas Shrugged with Eddie Willers. Now, most characters in the book are unrealistic - they're personifications of one ideal or another, and heavily symbolical of some principle or another of Ayn Rand's. In Eddie's case, he is the unfortunate Plebian.

Eddie is an average guy. He's the secretary to the Operating Executive of a national railroad in New York City, which is a demanding job but not a difficult one. He's not too stupid or too smart, he's pretty good at his job but not so great that he could run the company. He is thoroughly average-looking. Ordinarily, this wouldn't be too bad. But unfortunately for Eddie, he bears the terrible burden of being the only average good guy.

In Atlas Shrugged, your virtue is almost exclusively dependent on your skill. The good guys are terrific at their jobs: inventing new super-alloys, organizing national companies, writing music that can bring a tear to your eye. The good guys are all very pretty and awesome at everything and very virtuous in Randian terms.

Likewise, the bad guys are sneering, slovenly slobs who can't do anything right - except whine and beg. They're terrible at their chosen professions. The evil metallurgists can't turn out a decent batch of pig iron, the evil executives couldn't manage a Burger King, and the evil musicians write ugly derivative tunes. Their lack of virtue is directly proportionate to their lack of skill.

Not Eddie. Alone in this world, Eddie Willers is a good guy who's only average. He recognizes that virtue and skill are related, and that the brilliant people are better than him and should be in charge. He will be abandoned and confused and unhappy, and he will consider his position proper and just. He knows his place, and it's that of a feudal serf. Poor Eddie Willers.

Eddie starts off the book with a brief conversation with a bum, who asks him, "Who is John Galt?" after begging for a dime. This phrase is the central catchphrase of the book, answered in various ways throughout the text. When used in a commonplace manner like this, the question is one of weary resignation.  The bum is just being a jerk.

Eddie Willers doesn't know who John Galt is. Eddie is just headed in to work and he's all causelessly uneasy.

"Who is John Galt?"
The light was ebbing, and Eddie Willers could not distinguish the bum's face. The bum had said it simply, without expression. But from the sunset far at the end of the street, yellow glints caught his eyes, and the eyes looked straight at Eddie Willers, mocking and still-as if the question had been addressed to the causeless uneasiness within him.
"Why did you say that?" asked Eddie Willers, his voice tense.
The bum leaned against the side of the doorway; a wedge of broken glass behind him reflected the metal yellow of the sky.
"Why does it bother you?" he asked.
"It doesn't," snapped Eddie Willers.
He reached hastily into his pocket. The bum had stopped him and asked for a dime, then had gone on talking, as if to kill that moment and postpone the problem of the next. Pleas for dimes were so frequent in the streets these days that it was not necessary to listen to explanations, and he had no desire to hear the details of this bum's particular despair.
"Go get your cup of coffee," he said, handing the dime to the shadow that had no face.

Eddie has problems, you see. He's been desperately in love with his boss since he was a kid, he's working for a railroad that's losing money hand over fist, and he has a real problem with the whole idea of metaphors.

Actually, that last one might be his biggest problem. Eddie walks down the street on these first couple of pages, going to his office, and he is confronted time and time again with ponderous metaphors that could guide him. If he understood them, he could immediately generalize to what is wrong with the world around him, and figure out what to do. But Eddie can't ever quite grasp the metaphors that bludgeon down on him. And it is a serious bludgeoning.

The clouds and the shafts of skyscrapers against them were turning brown, like an old painting in oil, the color of a fading masterpiece. Long streaks of grime ran from under the pinnacles down the slender, soot-eaten walls. High on the side of a tower there was a crack in the shape of a motionless lightning, the length of ten stories. A jagged object cut the sky above the roofs; it was half a spire, still holding the glow of the sunset; the gold leaf had long since peeled off the other half. The glow was red and still, like the reflection of a fire: not an active fire, but a dying one which it is too late to stop.
No, thought Eddie Willers, there was nothing disturbing in the sight of the city. It looked as it had always looked.

Perhaps it's unfair to expect a fictional character to recognize a narrative device being deployed around them in description. I mean, to us it reads like a gruesomely thick layer of symbolism, slapped down in thick shovelfulls on Eddie's head. But maybe it's not so obvious to him. He's just Rand's character, and maybe we can't expect him to pop his head up in sudden awareness and declare, "Wait a second! This is crap!"

Because it is crap. It's a pattern of crap that will reveal itself time and time again. Rand probably knew she was highlighting a central theme right from the start, with this litany of Terrible Things That Are Wrong, but she probably thought she was just listing some examples of a world that had begun to decay. Her intention was to start off from the beginning with a depiction of a New York and a world that was run-down.

But the theme that Rand is actually beginning - and to which she will adhere throughout the book - is one of repetition. It's not enough for Rand to have two or three examples. She has to have five or six, like the five in that first bludgeoning: the browning ruined masterpiece, long streaks of grime from the pinnacles, the motionless lightning, half a spire of gold leaf, and the dying fire of the remaining gold.

This is a pattern that begins now, and is actually representative of the whole book. Atlas Shrugged is mostly just an enormous set of identical examples of her central metaphor: that the capitalist producers of the world are virtuous, and everyone else is not. Over and over, she will give us lists and examples of this.  The plot is repetitive to the point of being silly.  Rand is getting the crap started immediately.

Why, Eddie? Why can't you see it!?  Run, Eddie Willers! Run!

Our tolerance for Eddie's refusal to recognize a metaphor (even when it's clubbing him across the face) has to come to an end soon. Because we next get this gem:

He did not know why he suddenly thought of the oak tree. Nothing had recalled it. But he thought of it and of his childhood summers on the Taggart estate. He had spent most of his childhood with the Taggart children, and now he worked for them, as his father and grandfather had worked for their father and grandfather.
The great oak tree had stood on a hill over the Hudson, in a lonely spot of the Taggart estate. Eddie Willers, aged seven, liked to come and look at that tree. It had stood there for hundreds of years, and he thought it would always stand there. Its roots clutched the hill like a fist with fingers sunk into the soil, and he thought that if a giant were to seize it by the top, he would not be able to uproot it, but would swing the hill and the whole of the earth with it, like a ball at the end of a string. He felt safe in the oak tree's presence; it was a thing that nothing could change or threaten; it was his greatest symbol of strength.
One night, lightning struck the oak tree. Eddie saw it the next morning. It lay broken in half, and he looked into its trunk as into the mouth of a black tunnel. The trunk was only an empty shell; its heart had rotted away long ago; there was nothing inside-just a thin gray dust that was being dispersed by the whim of the faintest wind. The living power had gone, and the shape it left had not been able to stand without it.
Years later, he heard it said that children should be protected from shock, from their first knowledge of death, pain or fear. But these had never scarred him; his shock came when he stood very quietly, looking into the black hole of the trunk. It was an immense betrayal-the more terrible because he could not grasp what it was that had been betrayed. It was not himself, he knew, nor his trust; it was something else. He stood there for a while, making no sound, then he walked back to the house. He never spoke about it to anyone, then or since.

Poor Eddie Willers. The Plebian has problems. Chief among them is that he can't understand the most obvious of metaphors, even when they're his own. This will be a great hindrance to him in a book as filled with loathsomely palpable metaphors as Atlas Shrugged.

27 April 2011

Weekly Book Review: "Speak, Memory", "This Present Darkness", "Bend Sinister", "The Wisdom Books", "Coonardoo", "A Field Guide to Edible Plants of New Zealand", "Valla-Ljots Saga", "A Princess of Mars", and "Eugene Onegin"

Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov

Most autobiographies are either reworkings of history or tedious lists of miscellanea. It is a sad fact.

Some autobiographers try to justify their misdeeds or improve their image, by explaining context or the "truth" behind events. Of this sort we can find President Bush's Decision Points, Sarah Palin's Going Rogue, or Donald Rumsfeld's Known and Unknown - all of which focus aggressively on justifying widely-maligned actions. Others are personal propaganda, giving a personal history to glorify the writer, like President Obama's Dreams from My Father or John McCain's Faith of My Fathers. The vast majority of those that remain are vanity projects. Bruce Campbell's If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-Movie Actor, Rue McClanahan's My First Five Husbands, The Autobiography of Mark Twain... the list goes on. They're poorly written, formulaic, and inevitably a lot less exciting than their authors would like.

Vladimir Nabokov, surprisingly, does not indulge in tedium. He never does.

As I have worked on my postgraduate dissertation, I have of course been reading an enormous amount about Nabokov and his work. Like most authors, his writing was essentially personal, and so his life and history can explain a lot of his themes and meanings. When a character of Nabokov's feels the grit of a particle of leaf, ground into scraps between finger and thumb, that leaf almost certainly came from someplace like Vyra, the wooded estate of Nabokov's Russian youth. Often, to know what Vyra meant to Nabokov is to know more about what that leaf means to his character.

Typically, an author's autobiography is not the most useful resource for this kind of research. Even worse, it's typically not even very interesting. It's unfortunate, but there is a human tendency to rewrite rather than recount when we speak of our lives. When Mark Twain wrote his autobiography, he rambled on with a tale that essentially cast himself as Tom Sawyer - meaningful from a psychological standpoint, but hardly the best story of Twain's life (that honor perhaps goes to Emerson's Mark Twain: a Literary Life).

It was surprising, then, to read Speak, Memory and find an autobiographical account that is almost as useful as it is wonderfully interesting. In this story of an opulent boyhood and the people of his early years, Nabokov is both fascinating and introspective. He grew up trilingual and pampered, the favored son of a central figure of the Russian Revolution: his father Vladimir Dmitrivich Nabokov was a leading Constitutional Democrat and helped govern Russia during the brief period of freedom between the ousting of the tsar and the bloodbaths of the Bolsheviks. But despite this romantic setting, most of Nabokov's tale is about smaller and more detailed studies. He writes about his passionate love for lepidoptery, his fledgling love affairs, and the curious lives of his intimates. And the detail!

Nabokov is a sensual writer. In all of his books, you can find descriptions of people and places and events that are vivid and splendid with detail. He paid attention in his life, and struggled ardently to find just the mot juste to express the sensations he had felt. In Speak, Memory he mentions the bittersweetness of writing this experiences into literary reality. They faded from him, he says, as he laments the paleness of his memory of his Berlin apartment (which he has given to a character, to sit in and light a candle) or a stolen kiss from sweetheart Lyussya (transformed into an embrace of ink on a page).

It is very seldom that you can find an autobiography that is worthy of being read for itself, not just for information or derision. This is one such worthy volume, and I recommend it for anyone.


This Present Darkness, Frank Peretti

I have a weakness for bad writing, as anyone who has been reading my blog well knows. Bad writers have something in common with the best writers: they reveal things that are deep in themselves and in us.

The best writers do this through skill and cleverness, teasing out the threads of shame or joy that are snarled in the folds behind our thoughts. When Hemingway wrote of a clean old man who drank without spilling in "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place", he was writing about the true assumption of dignity that is possible for a man. Like all of the best writers, he was telling you something that was true at its core, and that rang in harmony with your heart.

But a very bad writer reveals so much, too. They do it by being unable to hide what they really mean and what they're really thinking. Their story is transparent like the lie of a small child, and it makes a window into their mind that you don't find with other writers.

Frank Peretti is a very bad writer, and his book This Present Darkness is a very bad book. And as such, it is delightful.

A mediocre writer is schooled in the finer points of how to craft a plot, develop a character, and create dramatic tension. He might work out the motives of characters and how they will interact, pausing along the way to consider whether or not it makes any sense. Peretti lacks this encumbrance of competence.

This Present Darkness is about a small town, Ashton, that hosts an unseen battle between angels and demons. Two Christians, a journalist and a pastor, try to wipe out the rampant corruption in the town's institutions. Their efforts mirror the unseen supernatural world, as a small group of angels try to fight the overwhelming force of demons that infest the people.

Now, Christian writers inevitably face the Problem of Evil: how can evil exist if an omnipotent God is a good one? In Christian fiction without explicit intervention by the deity, they usually solve this problem by having a happy ending: i.e., if someone is in an accident and loses their vision, it eventually happens that they are only able to live a fulfilling life because of this disability. Through fiction, the writer justifies the divine plan.

But in books like This Present Darkness, angels and demons are explicitly at work disabling car engines and shoving trucks off the road (seriously), so the problem gets stickier. Evil exists, in the form of demons. The good guys have to fight them. And obviously, the forces of good can never lose.

In regular fiction, the forces of good can lose. In some books, the good guys lose and it's tragic and that's that. But this can't happen in Christian fiction, because God and his angels have to win. But how can you make it interesting in the meantime? If the angels are fated to win, then how do you create drama - isn't the reader just going to be frustrated and waiting for them to arrive, wondering why they're permitting all this suffering?

In Peretti's work, it's implied that angels are sometimes scared of demons, and they don't help us sometimes because they're afraid. Also, he's a deist.

This isn't what Peretti meant to say, of course, and no doubt he would be horrified at such an interpretation. Nonetheless, that's the setting.

In the book, Marshall Hogan goes about trying to expose the demonic corruption of his daughter's college professor and the police force, while Pastor Hank Busche tries to reform the people of his small church and lead them away from liberal Christianity and back to the true faith. Simultaneously, the angel Tal and his comrades are working to protect them from the demons of the town, who infest the people and make them think and do bad things. When Marshall Hogan's daughter accuses her father of molesting her, and is tormented by false memories, that's the work of the demons that are possessing her. Similarly, when a junkie attacks Hank Busche's wife and tries to rape her, it's the demons that make him do it. And these are powerful demons, it seems. The ones inhabiting the junkie, for example, have been there for many years and it takes a prolonged and arduous exorcism by Pastor Busche before they can be cast out. Tal and the angels help with the exorcism.

But this last part raises the question: why didn't Tal just kill the demons long ago, and free the boy? Why permit years of horror and a near-rape?

Well, it turns out that the angels need "prayer cover." They're powered by the prayers of the faithful (the true faithful, not the liberal Christians), and without that power, the demons might destroy them. So throughout most of the novel, Tal and the angels concentrate on a ludicrous and circuitous plot that leads to Marshall Hogan and Hank Busche both being arrested and finally meeting each other, and then working together to free the town from demons. They can't just drive out the demons, because the demons might win. Aha! Drama! Suspense! Fun!

Alas, Peretti doesn't seem to realize that he has unwittingly revealed that human beings suffer and God is absent in the meantime. His deistic God has some sort of plan, but even the angels only look upwards with vague hope, and then return to their terrestrial best efforts. If the angels make a mistake, we are left to conclude that innocent humans would suffer (suffer even more, that is) and die and Satan would own Ashton. This is a question, accidentally promoted by Peretti, that he does not and cannot answer. Likewise, we must question culpability and free will. When Marshall Hogan's daughter bears false witness against her father and puts him in prison, is it her fault? Can she be said to have sinned when it was a demon controlling her? Peretti shies away from this question, too.

The established reality of the supernatural leads to some strange events, moreover. Imagine if a preacher laid hands on a young rapist and drug addict, and then commanded demons to leave. The man shakes around, shouts about demons leaving, and then suddenly slackens and seems all changed into a nice guy. If you heard about this preacher then welcoming this guy - who recently tried to rape his wife! - into their home and working with him, you would strongly suspect the man's intelligence. But here, it's perfectly normal and sensible, because with the demons gone, he's okay again. The reality of the demons is established, and so it makes sense. But at times like this the novels "real world" setting seems bizarre: we might know people of very strong faith, but I think we'd rightly question their sanity and love of their wife if they undertook these actions.

This sort of book will appeal to only two kinds of people: the devoted Christian and the snickering atheist. If you are one of the two, you might enjoy it. Otherwise, back away and seek saner fare.


Bend Sinister, Vladimir Nabokov

Dystopian books are the next hot thing in Young Adult Literature, as noted by Laura Miller in The New Yorker:

Collins’s [Hunger Games] trilogy is only the most visible example of a recent boom in dystopian fiction for young people. Many of these books come in series, spinning out extended narratives in intricately imagined worlds. ...
Publishers have signed up dozens of similar titles in the past year or two, and, as with any thriving genre, themes and motifs get swapped around from other genres and forms. There are, or will soon be, books about teen-agers slotted into governmentally arranged professions and marriages or harvested for spare parts or genetically engineered for particular skills or brainwashed by subliminal messages embedded in music or outfitted with Internet connections in their brains. Then, there are the post-apocalyptic scenarios in which humanity is reduced to subsistence farming or neo-feudalism, stuck in villages ruled by religious fanatics or surrounded by toxic wastelands, predatory warlords, or flesh-eating zombie hordes.

But of course dystopias have always been popular, even before this boom in adolescent interest. George Orwell's 1984, Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World are perennial bestsellers, and deservedly so. The reasons for their popularity are the same, for both young and old: they are literary hyperbole, able to create scenarios of oppression and heroism on scales impossible in other genres. It's the contrast, you see... and nowhere can you find sharper contrast than when an entire world is explicitly wrong.

Nabokov disdained hyperbole. He thought it was crude, and hated Orwell for what he deemed clumsy clichés. So his dystopian novel Bend Sinister is a subtler species.

The book takes place in the aftermath of a revolution in a tiny Eastern European country. A philosophy devoted to sameness has led to an absurd authoritarian state helmed by a thoroughly mediocre tyrant. In the tumult, a famous philosopher - the only international celebrity in the country - named Adam Krug tries to make his way with his young son.

Part of what makes the book interesting is that Krug is uninterested in the oppressive dictatorship and all of its nonsense. He scarcely pauses to register his contempt for authorities, for the recent unrelated death of his wife wholly consumes him. The spectacle of a society in the grip of madness is meaningless to him next to the madness of a world without his spouse. This leads to the reader being gifted with only scraps of information about the dystopic world at large, and the whole story of the philosophy of mediocrity ("Ekwilism") is revealed only near the end of the book.

The writing is masterful, as usual with Nabokov. With graceful understatement he writes of the grief of a loving husband. He was absolutely devoted from first to last to his own wife, Vera, and the power of that passion and a vision of its possible loss is writ into the shaking of Krug's shoulders as he weeps. And the only glancing hints at the dystopic world also help ensure its realness to us; for all the excellence of Orwell and Huxley, their work is very much fantastic in nature, while Nabokov's book feels much closer to possible.

It is an excellent book, and I recommend it.


The Wisdom Books, Robert Alter

Wisdom literature is a genre of writing that uses traditional storytelling methods to offer wisdom about life and God, often taking the form of collections of proverbs. In the modern era, they've taken the form of commonplace books or things like Poor Richard's Almanack. But they were also a distinct form of writing in ancient times, and feature most prominently in some of the most beautiful books of the Bible. Robert Alter, a scholar who has been steadily retranslating and annotating the Old Testament, has in this book offered up his version of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes.

I have always loved Job and Ecclesiastes the most, and reading this deeply erudite, careful, and poetic translation has been extraordinary. Each book is prefaced with a foreword regarding general themes, the construction of the book, and some of Alter's analysis. The analysis reveals some aspects of each work I had never contemplated. As an example, Alter writes about Proverbs:

Very often in biblical poetry, the second verset does not simply echo the first verset, as it does in the three lines quoted above, but instead introduces some sort of heightening or focusing development of it, which in Proverbs frequently is a small surprise or discovery. “A door turns on its hinge / and a sluggard on his bed” (26:14). Here, as in many other proverbs, the relation between the first verset and the second is that of a riddle to its solution. That is, the assertion in the first half of the line is either so obvious (of course, a door turns on its hinge) that one wonders why it needs to be said at all, or it is perplexing, which makes one wonder for a different reason. The second half of the line then provides a sharply focused (and sometimes satirical) explanation. In this instance, the sluggard is revealed turning back and forth on his bed and getting nowhere, like the door, while the comparison also invites us to think of the contrast between people going in and out of the doorway as the door opens and closes and the sluggard unwilling to move from his bed. Here is a different riddle-proverb about the lazy man, in which the riddling first verset is enigmatic, to be explained in the second verset: “Like vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes, / thus the sluggard to those who send him” (10:26). In formulations of this sort, the riddle form of the line is especially prominent: what is as noxious or irritating as vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes?—a lazy man whom you have the misfortune to use on an errand. A third proverb on the sluggard illustrates the lively variety of the riddle form. The line begins, “The sluggard hides his hand in the dish.” This action sounds bizarre, and one wonders why anyone would want to do such a thing. Then the second half of the line explains, “he won’t even bring it up to his mouth” (19:24). This is, of course, an extravagant and amusing satiric hyperbole: the man is so lazy that, having plunged his hand into the dish, he is incapable of exerting the effort required to bring the food to his mouth. Thus, the fantastically exaggerated image becomes a representation of how laziness leads to a failure to provide for one’s own basic needs, a notion couched in more realistic terms, such as having nothing to harvest when crops are not planted, in other proverbs. The satiric perspective, to round out this sampling of proverbs on the sluggard, is not limited to riddling but can be brought to bear through a technique of miniaturist caricature: “The sluggard said, ‘A lion’s outside / in the square. I shall be murdered!’” (22:13). These words, of course, are a trumped-up excuse for his not leaving his house (or, perhaps, his bed): in the wonderful extravagance of the dialogue that the poet puts in the mouth of the sluggard, he fears that the fictitious lion prowling in the streets threatens not to devour but to murder him, as though it were a malevolent assassin and not merely a beast of prey.

But even better is his new translation. While there will always be a tremendous majesty in the King James Version, which reverberates through the western canon, Alter's new version is clever and sparkling, and it's accompanied by fascinating notes that discuss his choice of translation and the background behind the different verses.

Here's a sample of his new translation; Proverbs 16:17-26 :

The upright’s highway is to swerve from evil, who guards his life will watch his way.
Pride before a breakdown, and before stumbling, haughtiness.
Better abjectness with the humble than sharing spoils with the proud.
Who looks into a matter will come out well, and who trusts in the LORD is fortunate.
The wise of heart will be called discerning, and sweet speech will increase instruction. Insight is a wellspring of life to its possessors, but the reproof of the foolish is folly.
A wise man’s heart will make his mouth clever, and lips’ sweetness increases instruction.
Pleasant sayings are honeycomb, sweet to the palate, and healing to the bones.
There may be a straight way before a man, but its end is the ways of death.’
The toiler’s self toils away because his own mouth has compelled him.

One thing I didn't like was that the notes became too comprehensive in places for anyone's interest but the most ardent scholar of Hebrew grammar, but the layout of the book makes this only the most minor of problems; in a pinch, the reader can simply skip past the explanatory footnotes and read the verses by themselves. In fact, one would be well-advised to do it this way first, and only on a second reading interrupt oneself to turn at intervals to the notes. This better allows an appreciation for the true poetry of these marvelous books.

There are many ways in which this can appeal: to the poetry lover, the Biblical scholar, or the literary historian. But even if you're none of these, you will still enjoy the simple beauty of Alter's work.


Coonardoo, Katharine Prichard

Like Katharine Prichard, I am fairly liberal for my time - most of America lies to my right, politically speaking. I am concerned with things like gender sensitivity and racial awareness that would be considered overblown by most - I do things like worry about preferred pronoun use for a sometime-transvestite. But I wonder how I would be perceived by future generations. I suspect I would seem varying degrees of naive, hypocritical, or patronizing, no matter how hard I try. It's simply very difficult to think outside of one's society with any thoroughness or genuineness - human beings are surprisingly not that good at empathy, no matter how we flatter ourselves.

This isn't to say it's not good to try, of course. But when I read something like Coonardoo, I see the results of self-satisfied liberalism and chuckle.

Coonardoo is an Australian novel about a ranch in Northwest Australia, where a gruff widow, her clever son, and an aboriginal girl all grow together over the course of some years. The son and the aboriginal girl grow to love each other, a plot development that was considered shocking at the time of publication (1929). Much of the book's treatment of aboriginals seems to be an intended sort of swan song by Prichard for these First People, since she alludes to her certainty that they will soon all be gone. She was mistaken, although not by much (aboriginals constitute 1 or 2 percent of Australians).

Some aspects deserve praise, of course. The avant-garde and forbidden relationship between the races was ahead of its time, as was Prichard's sentiments about aboriginal personhood. But too often a reader will cringe at the good-natured racism that slips past Prichard's progressivism. Critic Anne Brewster has written how she "struggled against being implicated in Prichard's racialised 'compassion', which I found profoundly offensive and patronising, but I simultaneously recognised my own inscription in the historicity of the novel's race politics and Prichard's left-wing inflected concern with social justice." It's hard not to feel the same way and let it turn you off of the book completely, especially when combined with the tepid writing.

Ultimately forgettable and deservedly so, you can safely skip Coonardoo without guilt.


Mushrooms and Toadstools in New Zealand, Marie Taylor, and A Field Guide to the Edible Plants of New Zealand, Andrew Crowe

"I want to forage," I declared. But I haven't. It is damn hard.

Part of the problem is one of scope. "New Zealand" is a big place, and the dozens of listed plants are almost all completely foreign to me. I've never had much of an eye for plants, having ignored flowers for the most part and only noted some of the edible species in Florida (a land not known for biodiversity in its suburbs), and so I begin with almost a blank slate and little idea of the general identifiers for plants. Because like so many things, it's a serious skill.

How do you identify the quality of a bound book? You check the binding method, acid content of the paper and its discoloration, prevalence of foxing, wear on corners and edges, printing method and regularity, and so on. How do you pick out a certain cigar from others? You note size and shape, the origin of the wrapper, origin of the tobacco seed and place of growth, age, maker, and other characteristics. But when it comes to plants, I find myself often flummoxed.

The general principles are easy, of course. Blossoms, leaves, stalk, and so on are all distinguished between families and species in a patterned and learnable way. In Linnaean fashion, you can break things down to ferns and shrubs and herbs and trees and fungi, and then further. The problem is that I lack a significant portion of background information to build on. When I walk with my wife and listen to her identify a flower, she leaps to match it with the closest thing she can identify based on characteristics that to her seem the most obviously important. Without smelling, she can identify lavender and rosemary and thistles and clover, and all their near relatives. But I laboriously watch and try to remember, and so while she's already chattering about how the hollyhock looks different than the hollyhock at home, I am still working my way from "things with purple flowers."

While I don't think there's anything I can't learn and I have high hopes, I won't be making a salad from my woodland finds any time soon.


The Valla-Ljots Saga, Anonymous

The book's title is actually Law and Literature in Medieval Iceland, but it is the only place I have been able to find a translation of one of my favorite medieval sagas, the Valla-Ljots saga. You can see the original Icelandic here.

Valla-Ljots continues the Svarfdæla saga, and constitutes one of a set of dozens of Icelandic texts relating the family histories of prominent groups in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Valla-Ljots is a fascinating examination of a way of life and system of morals that are a wholesale departure from our own. Only very recently had Christianity been introduced to the area and made law, and so as in Beowulf it is seen as only a new set of rules added on to the ancient traditions of kinship and blood. It is wrong to divide inherited land on the new holiday of Michaelmas, for example, but rather than it being a sin to be forgiven by God, it is instead just another cause of complaint at the traditional þing, the regional meetings where laws and courts were made. And when men have complaint with each other, one meets the other with an axe, lying in wait in the woods, and it is a fair matter. Restitution for a murdered life is made with a pig, and the conflict between clans is ended.

For all its intriguing cultural indicators and curious phrasing, however, Valla-Ljots is pretty poor poetry. It is not recommended except for the bizarrely curious or bizarrely masochistic.


A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs

This book and most of its successors can be summed up in the fantastic line that served as frontispiece on my boyhood edition:

With my back against a golden throne, I fought once again for Dejah Thoris.

John Carter of Mars was Burroughs' first great hero, coming before Tarzan - and indeed, in many ways surpassing Tarzan and the other swashbucklers of Burroughs countless books. He is noble, brave, and humble - and he sets aside everything in an instant for the love of his lifetimes, Dejah Thoris, in her fantastic world.

It's often not a good idea to return to the books of your youth. You can revisit the Redwall series and still find it charming, but you're just as likely to come back to The Chronicles of Narnia and wonder why you ever had such terrible taste for propagandizing schlock. But the Burroughs books just make me feel the same way they always have: thrilled.

My father had a big box set of the Tarzan books and the Mars books when I was growing up, and I devoured them over the course of a week after I found them crammed into a closet. When my father was clearing out some things during one of his moves (he changed apartments almost every year) he donated them, and I kept only one as a memento. I wanted to remember how they made me feel.

Burroughs took the popular idea of Mars of his time - a planet once similar to Earth, now dry and dying - and turned it into a sweeping vision of a land rich with varied peoples and cultures, where the scions of an ancient race struggle to sustain the last dregs of resources as their planet dies. Barsoom, as the inhabitants call it, is peopled by many races: red-skinned men who huddle in their walled cities and voyage out only in their fantastic airships; green monsters with four arms who ride brutish beasts and wage constant war; and pale manipulative remnants who engender false religion and sustain their own twisted vision of superiority. John Carter, a Virginian veteran of the Civil War, is flung onto this alien world. He finds adventure of the highest kind.

All the stakes are raised. Thanks to Barsoom's lower gravity, John Carter is stronger and faster than anyone else, and his skill with weapons and fearlessness make him a god of war, able to outfight three of the best swordsman on the planet at once or kill a monster with a single righteous uppercut. But his new powers are matched by a world of unparalleled danger, where violence is everywhere and all men are enemies. Martians are all immortal, and the only reason the planet isn't swarmed is that continual war and planned suicide keep numbers in check - those few Martians who live to a thousand go "down the dark river Iss" - a euphemism for death.

The writing is frequently hammy or downright silly - Burroughs is given to pompousness and bombastic language. The plots are uniform and predicable. The Barsoom books have been lampooned by many, ranging from the erudite mockery of Tad Williams' Otherland series to the tongue-in-cheek imitation by Marvel Comics' Planet Hulk. But I will probably spend the rest of my life striving to imitate John Carter of Mars, and it was a pleasure to revisit that. It's an adventure for anyone of any age.


Eugene Onegin, Alexander Pushkin

Eugene Onegin is considered one of the greatest masterpieces of Russian literature, and many think it the apex of Russian poetry to this day. It tells the story of the eponymous Eugene, his friend, and a woman. It contains love, a duel, and rejection. It is extremely good.

The version I have read is the translation by Vladimir Nabokov, as part of my studies. Since Nabokov's translation is his scholarly commentary on another's poem, it is closely related to the book he wrote at the same time and the topic of my studies, Pale Fire, a book that takes the form of a commentary on a poem. But even aside from its value to my work, the poem is worthwhile of itself.

I am given to understand that while there have been many translations of Pushkin's poem since its publication in 1833, and the standard is Walter Arndt's of 1963, which was faithful to the unusual rhyme scheme - a scheme which is so important that it founded its own genre of "Pushkin meter," analogous to the Shakespearean sonnet of British literature. But Nabokov explains in his foreword that he thinks no English reader really needs the meter preserved - of what use is a leaden translation even if it is in perfect meter? Rather, Nabokov published a year later his own ten-year epic effort, that translated instead his best rendering of the meaning of Pushkin's words, and abandoning entirely the rhyme scheme.

His result is a dancing and delightful poem. One of the best features of Pushkin is his skill at allusion: he had just the right strength of hand in it, being neither so heavy as to make us roll our eyes nor so light as to be missed. His references are amusing and cutting, as in this allusion to the Iliad:

But here we shall congratulate
my dear Tatiana on a conquest
and turn our course aside,
lest I forget of whom I sing...
And by the way, here are two words about it:
"I sing a youthful pal
and many eccentricities of his.
Bless my long labor,
O you, Muse of the Epic!
And having handed me a trusty staff,
let me not wander aslant and askew."
Enough! The load comes off my shoulders!
To classicism I have paid my respects:
though late, but there's an introduction.

Pushkin's story is philosophical without being tiresome, as well, which is a difficult thing for any poet to achieve. When he spends time on examining the nature of friendship, he is sharp-witted and fun as he paints a picture of bloodthirsty Zaretsky, a false friend easily recognized in our own lives whose eagerness to witness tragedy induces him to skate along just within the borders of gentlemanly behavior, pretending to virtue while practically panting for his friends to duel and die.

Nabokov's translation is in four volumes, but the latter three are notes: you should pick up the first volume and enjoy the short poem, and you will find yourself richly rewarded for having read what is probably your first Russian piece of poetry ever - if you're anything like me, that is!

16 April 2011

Atlas Shrugged Sundays

I have been slacking off a bit in my blogging. It's been pretty hectic lately in school and I've been slow to sit down and write. To combat this, I thought I'd start another mockery-project. The regularity will keep me prompt and steady.  The last time, I did a succession of posts on the Left Behind series of Christian apocalyptic fiction, and I enjoyed it enormously.

So in honor of the new Atlas Shrugged movie, I am going to inaugurate Atlas Shrugged Sundays, a regular feature where I break down Rand's magnum opus piece-by-piece.

I am very well-acquainted with the material: Atlas Shrugged was* my mother's favorite book ("It changed my life!") and I was in love with it most of my teenage years and well into college. It's melodramatic and simplistic in form, and it was written mostly to illustrate Rand's philosophy of Objectivism. Longtime readers of my blog, by the way, may remember when I went through Terry Goodkind's own paean to Objectivism, his Sword of Truth series.  The ur-Objectivist text is a thousand times worse, as I will show.

The first installment will go up next week.

*My mother has informed me that it is no longer her favorite book.

09 April 2011

"Novel-Reading: A Cause of Women's Depravity", by Anonymous, from La Belle Assembleé, May 1817

But woman no redemption knows
The wounds of honour never close
Pity may mourn but not restore
And woman falls to rise no more

THOSE who first made novel-reading an indispensable branch in the minds of young women have a deal to answer for. Without this instilled, as it were, into the blood, females in ordinary life would have been so much the slaves of vice. The plain food, wholesome air, and exercise they enjoy, would have exempted them from the tyranny of lawless passion; and, like their virtuous grandmothers, they would have pointed the finger of shame at the impure and licentious. But those generous sentiments, those liberal opinions, those tender tale abounding with fine feeling, soft ideas, gentleness, and warm descriptions, have been the ruin of them. A girl with intellectual powers enervated by such course of reading, falls an easy prey the first boy who assumes the languishing lover. He has only to stuff a of dirty paper into the crevice of her window, full of thous, thees, and thys, and mellifluous compounds, hieroglyphically spelled, perhaps, and Miss is long in finding out that "many cannot quench love neither, can the floods drown it:" so as Master is yet in apprenticeship, and friends would disapprove of an early marriage, they agree to dispense with the ceremony. Nay, even when brooding over a helpless base-born infant, and surrounded by a once respectable and happy family, now dejected and dishonoured, too often the infatuated fair one take pleasure in the misery she has created, and fancy floods of sorrow sweetly graceful, because, forsooth, she is in the same point of view as the hapless, the distressed, the love-lorn Sappho of some novel or other.
And yet this, bad as it is, is not worst result of such pernicious reading. It is no uncommon thing for a lady, who has attended her dearest friend to the altar, a few months after a marriage, which, perhaps but for her, had been happy one, to fix her affections on her friend's husband, and by artful blandishments allure him to herself! Be not staggered, moral reader, at the recital; such serpents are really in existence; such daemons in the form of women are now too often to be found! Three instances, in as many years, have occurred in the little circle I move in. I have seen two disconsolate parents drop into premature graves, miserable victims to their daughters' dishonour; and the peace of several relative families wounded, never to be healed again.
"And was novel reading the cause of this?" inquires some gentle fair one, who, deprived of such an amusement, could hardly exist; "was novel reading the foundation of such frail conduct?" I answer, yes! It is in that school the poor deluded female imbibes erroneous principles, and from thence pursues a flagrantly vicious line of conduct; it is there she is told that love is involuntary, and that attachments of the heart are decreed by fate! Impious reasoning! base infatuation! As if a Power infinitely wise and beneficent would ordain atrocity! The first idle prepossession, therefore, such a person feels, if it happen to be for the husband of her most intimate friend, instead of calling herself to a severe account for the illegal preference, she sets to work to reconcile it to nature. - "There is a fatality in it," argues she; "it is the will of Heaven our souls should be united in the silken bonds of reciprocal love, and there is no striving against it." - This once settled, criminality soon follows; the gentle, the sympathizing, the faithful friend undauntedly plants a dagger in the bosom of the mother and ruthlessly tears from the innocent children the parent stem on which their support and comfort depend. And yet this very female has cried, oh, how she has cried! over relations of fictitious distress.
If good spirits in the other world are sensible of what is done in this, how will the Spartan and Roman dames of antiquity bless themselves that they were not doomed to breathe on earth in the nineteenth century! how will the cheeks of many a British matron be suffused with shame for her polluted descendants!

04 April 2011

New GOP plan

The GOP has released a 2012 budget proposal, conceived and shepherded by Rep. Paul Ryan. It's interesting.

First, Derek Thompson at the Atlantic sums up the current budget problem and the proposed solutions, in a nutshell:


Take a long look: This graph is the beating heart of Washington's budget debate. It shows the hydra health care monster opening its mouth in mid-century and gobbling up all government revenue within a generation or two.

This picture is a partisan Rorschach test. Washington promised to pay for every senior's health care. We can't. Paul Ryan's sees the graph and says, "Let's change our promise." The White House's sees the graph and says, "Let's change health care."

The White House tried to provide care for everyone with the Affordable Care Act. The ACA used a large number of tricks and techniques to try to bring everyone into the system and keep it affordable; this means creating interstate exchanges, mandating coverage to bulk up enrolled numbers, and creating agencies to regulate out some waste. It's huge and ugly and scary, so it's being instituted in stages (and won't really kick in until 2014). It's not the ideal solution for anyone, either - so it's hard to find ardent defenders. But it will help.

I'll let the WSJ sum up the new GOP plan:
The plan would essentially end Medicare, which now pays most of the health-care bills for 48 million elderly and disabled Americans, as a program that directly pays those bills. ... Mr. Ryan's proposal would apply to those currently under the age of 55, and for those Americans would convert Medicare into a "premium support" system. Participants from that group would choose from an array of private insurance plans when they reach 65 and become eligible, and the government would pay about the first $15,000 in premiums. Those who are poorer or less healthy would receive bigger payments than others.
...
The proposal would also convert Medicaid, the health program for the poor, into a series of block grants to give states more flexibility. And it is expected to suggest significant cuts in Social Security, while proposing fewer details on how to achieve them.

The numbers of everything else are still in flux, but that's the broad outlines of one of the essential parts of the plan. But some commentators are asking why the GOP would do this, because it's going to be really hard to spin reducing spending on Medicare as anything other than "cutting Medicare", something they have been fighting with fiery rhetoric for years now. I can understand shifting to block grants for Medicaid, which will cut funding dramatically - the poor have no lobby, so it makes sense to screw them.  But it seems like they're shooting themselves in the foot with the elderly, one of their key demographics. What's the deal?

Matt Yglesias has a theory:
Naturally, part of the plan here is that Ryan is going to promise currently elderly people that they’ll get all their currently promised benefits plus that he’ll undue the Medicare cuts that were part of the Affordable Care Act. The idea here is that today’s old people—a very white group that’s also hostile to gay rights, and thus sort of predisposed to like conservative politicians—will also get to benefit from an extremely generous single-payer health care system. But younger people—a less white group that’s friendly to gay rights and thus predisposed to skepticism about conservative politicians—will get to pay the high taxes to finance old people’s generous single-payer health care system, but then we won’t get to benefit from it. This is in part in order to clear headroom in the budget so as to make gigantic tax cuts for rich people affordable.

Ah, a bribe to the elderly so they'll keep quiet about clearing room for tax cuts for the rich. That actually explains it all pretty elegantly. I'll be looking for the Republican story, but right now this is enormously persuasive.

Food Revolution

I have always known that Lizzie is a wonderful cook. Even from when we first started going out in Yeosu, she would whip up amazing meals, sliding big veggie-filled omelettes onto the plate and concocting curious juice blends to make even Korean soju into a palatable drink. She would roll out tortillas from scratch and fill them with homemade salsa and roasted vegetables, to make delicious burritos, or mince kimchi and throw it with rice and chopped vegetables to make fried rice. I suppose it's not just the end results that are so amazing. Don't get me wrong - her food is healthy and delicious, beyond compare! But it's also her natural ease in the kitchen that amazes me, and probably was learnt at her mother's knee. Lizzie has that inherent sense of timing and economy that is invaluable in a cook, so that everything comes together at the right time and in the right proportions.

When we moved to Jeju, she has continued to experiment with new things. Even though she was limited by the tiny nook of a kitchen we had, with no oven and literally no counter space, she would still surprise me by baking bread with a special no-oven recipe, or working out an amazingly delicious batch of homemade paneer in curry. I might be gushing here, but it's a delight to watch anyone be so good at something, and Lizzie has a natural knack for getting even new recipes right. There are instincts for cooking - knowing what flavors will work together, how a finished dish should look, and so on. She has that.

But here in our flat in Dunedin, she's really coming into her own. We have counter space, a bigger fridge, an oven, a stick-blender, and access to all the varied foodstuffs of the modern Western world.

Suddenly, Lizzie is baking fresh scones, light and flaky. She's turning out spanakopita that's vigorous and delicious. She's making pizzas and rich patties of falafel - crispy and hot in sandwiches. She bakes big calzones, stuffed with cheese and spinach and onions and garlic. And all of these things from scratch, and turned out perfectly on the first try!

I just don't know - wouldn't you expect that the first time someone rolled out some pizza dough, that it would be tough or burnt or soggy or something like that? You'd smile and choke it down, murmuring platitudes around your mouthful of wadded dough, because who could expect perfection on the first try?

Instead it's crispy and delicious, spread with sauce and topped with roasted olives and cheese. Rather than displaying a fixed smile, I find myself wondering how I can get her to make it again soon - and whether she'll notice if I hide some to take for lunch tomorrow. The first time she made it!

It's astonishing, and extremely impressive. It makes me appreciate how truly lucky I was to find Lizzie and marry her.