With the Aeneid, Virgil provides his home country with a nationalistic origin grounded squarely in Homeric myth. The poem follows Aeneas, one of the fWith the Aeneid, Virgil provides his home country with a nationalistic origin grounded squarely in Homeric myth. The poem follows Aeneas, one of the few survivors of Troy’s destruction, as he leads the last of his men through a series of trials on their way to Italian shores. Once they reach the sacred Latium, the Roman Goddess Juno incites a war between these incoming Trojans and the local chieftains led by the Achilles-esque Turnus. A fight for national destiny ensues, and Rome is given a birth that befits its self-endowed greatness.
This story outline gives you everything you need in an epic poem, especially if you are coming in with a background knowledge of Homer’s classics. For a protagonist, Virgil recasts the Iliad’s Hector in a new mold and as his stand-in, Aeneas ensures that the ill-fated Trojan hero didn't die in vain when Troy was erased from history. In fact, through Aeneas, Troy's bloodline bloodline will be permanently embedded in what was then the most powerful nation in history. Virgil’s efforts to tie Rome with Troy don’t end there: The Aeneid's plot swaps and smashes together the Odyssey and the Iliad into something more compact and consequently, a little more propulsive. Like Odysseus, Aeneas and his men are put through a sea of obstacles on their wayward journey home, and after a mid-point journey through the underworld, they are thrust into the kind of siege warfare that mimics the give and take plot dynamics that were a hallmark of the Iliad.
On the surface you might conclude the Virgil has simply taken Homer and rewritten him 800 odd years later for a contemporary Roman audience hungry to hear an illustrious origin story. In lesser hands, yes, this story shouldn’t hold a candle to the older work. On some level, I understand why contemporary readers slam the dreaded "fan-fic" tag on this material, but I don't think it holds up. To my taste, Virgil is every bit the poet Homer was, and the poem’s success lies chiefly in how he overlays a familiar story with constant innovations. In contrast to the glory-hound Achilles, or the crafty Odysseus, Aeneas stands as a more of a remote figurehead swept up in fate. Though he sometimes wavers, his overwhelming sense of duty (or more interestingly, a kind of survivor's guilt) will invariably pull him back to the Rome-focused task at hand. Equally interesting is the way his antagonist Turnus is portrayed, with a surface level villainy that is often undercut with moments of frustrated impotence over not being able to defend his honor.
So yes, the obstacles Aeneas must face are sometimes familiar (mostly they hearken back to the Odyssey, such as when Polyphemus the blinded Cyclops comes back to wreak havoc), but when Virgil tells of Troy’s apocalyptic final hours, or introduces us to Dido and her sad, bitter love, or guides us through a pagan draft of Dante’s Hell -- this is where we see how the Aeneid can stands with its predecessor as a work of sheer imaginative power.
With the case of Virgil, we see that even in antiquity, it was permissible for a writer to take cues from his literary hero in order to create a new narrative that spoke to the needs, fears and sensibilities of his audience. In this way, the Aeneid utilizes the cultural credibility of a previous story to help a new culture identify it’s own story, and it is precisely through the mechanism of storytelling that we still put the mirror up to ourselves today. Another supremely talented Italian would use elements of the Aeneid (and even include Virgil himself as a character) to create the Divine Comedy. And we see again in Dante’s case that history’s greatest stories can be taken up continually by new authors and re-contextualized to help us understand ourselves, our country and our era....more
Jane Eyre is one of those must-read classics that I never got exposed to early on, and so for years it's always fallen behind more "obvious" western cJane Eyre is one of those must-read classics that I never got exposed to early on, and so for years it's always fallen behind more "obvious" western canon bucket listers. I think the reason it took so long is because I thought of the Bronte sisters as more of an "advanced reading" thing you graduate to after you've tackled first wave 19th century titans like Dickens or Austen. Thankfully, my mom gave me the excuse to read it with her, and what a revelation.
Starting with an early life section that feels sorta like what you might expect from the era (an orphaned smart-mouth urchin grows to become a chilly governess until Lord Byron shows up to melt her face with sex appeal), the story pivots into a vastly entertaining middle-section that tracks one woman's dogged battle to attain self-hood in a patriarchal world. By the time you get to the central crisis of the book (I went 30 odd years without knowing Jane Eyre's big time spoiler... how the hell?), all of it culminates as you might expect, yet... with Jane at the reins, you're never quite sure it'll work out! In other hands, this might have been a shallow romance where a woman finds her destiny thanks to an opportunity some GUY gives her. Instead, the book you get follows someone who is constantly fighting against these parameters in order to find a life she can accept. You DO get your sweeping love story here, but you also get a protagonist that's constantly arguing with each step as she progresses through it and is willing to SLEEP IN THE DIRT if she deems circumstances aren't up to snuff. Jane is an incredibly well-wrought character.
I'd say the one problem I really had was in the plotting, something that boils down to the author's Christian point of view, and I've come to accept it as a part of the book's general statement. Let's just say, I didn't like the coincidental way Jane came to realize her connection to St John and the two sisters. But even if you're to take issue with the totally out-of-nowhere random way she finds that house, you also have to backtrack and think about how Jane came to them after an agonizing decision to leave a man she loves deeply. So, in providentially finding a home she's always yearned for, she first had to commit an awesome act of self-denial. This deft interweaving of how free will can work within the scope of a divine plan is something I can accept as part of the universe Jane inhabits, and is maybe a pass I'm giving it.
And yet... I'm still wondering how Bronte might have defined the ideal Christian life. On the one hand, you see her grappling with the poisonous results of dogma in the form of Brocklehurst, and on the other you get this troubling grey area with St. John. In the latter case, Bronte definitely holds this young minister up as someone to be admired for the Pauline lengths he'll go to deny worldly desire, yet I can't help but think him despicable when he won't let Jane off the hook for deciding not to marry his ass. Here Bronte sanctions St John's behavior as a "way to live" that simply isn't Jane's path, yet I'm reading this and thinking "dick shouldn't be jabbing her as a hell-bound sinner for not doing what he arbitrarily demanded." This is a personal disconnect I might not be able to mend when it comes to Bronte's take on Christianity.
Finally, with Rochester, we get the romantic goods. Of course, it speaks to the book's complexity that we can take Rochester's love for Jane sincerely after all the shit he tries to pull on her. No, he needed to be taken down a peg before we could think of him as the equal to Jane effing Eyre. And here, in the end, we have find a pretty messy love story, right? Jane finds the life she truly wants, but there is a cost included that will make things a little difficult on an operational level (for the man of course, Bronte lets Jane stay pretty much unscathed), but provides Jane the satisfaction of knowing she didn't betray herself. Say what you will about how Jane gets to this final moment, I still think the main thing to take away for anyone is that she came to it with her eyes open and her integrity intact. Would that we all held ourselves up to such a standard....more
I first read Brave New World directly after my first, exhilarating rush through 1984. I was maybe 17, and the only scene I recalled before coming backI first read Brave New World directly after my first, exhilarating rush through 1984. I was maybe 17, and the only scene I recalled before coming back to it now in my 30's was the boardroom sex-ring ritual that culminates in a term that'll stick with any teenager: Orgy-Porgy. Yeah. So given the stories I’m writing lately, I earmarked Brave New World as one of the first books I'd actually re-read. I've never deliberately done this before, except maybe with comics where the commitment isn’t too involved, but in this instance it’s turned out to be a good thing, because other than a vague notion of what the book was about, I didn't remember ANYTHING.
The five stars I'm giving this book come with a caveat that needs to be unpacked a bit up front. Let's face it, at times, the characters in BNW read as personifications of the argument Huxley is trying to outline with the entire piece. At times, dialogue and scenes can be poked as being on the nose. Yet the author’s argument, despite having been written in an era where Henry Ford was still a celebrity, despite positing a future-history that features some kind of chemical apocalypse due to the fact that the Huxley had no notion of the coming atomic age - YES – despite even the lack of character depth and a certain anachronism that couches everything from the viewpoint of the industrial era - despite all those things, Brave New World still speaks to someone living in the 21st century.
In a cultural moment where many of us willingly give up just about every element of our private lives without questioning where this information goes and how it’s repurposed, Brave New World still stands as a warning. The over-organized civilization, where the cogs of progress are managed down to the genetic level, where free will is broken down at an early age via subterranean messages that reinforce the system's norms, where citizens needs and wants are codified to the point where they don’t even question it… Servitude rendered acceptable to the enslaved via creature comforts. A culture where anxiety, depression and the possible self-examination that may result is drowned out in a wash of meaningless amusement, rampant sexualization and medicated release…
Despite my earlier knock, I do think there’s something to chew on when we follow how these characters navigate their situation. Lenina is basically the showroom model of her culture, yet she's innately attracted to the weirdos. Bernard, the lonely nerd that rejects his plight internally like an angsty bitch, yet betrays himself and others when given an inch of acceptance. Helmholtz, the writer with a rare self-command that comes from full access to the world's pleasures, and comes to realize (with an intriguing impotence) that there's more to be known. Mond, the master of this fake-ass universe, the one who truly knows the horrible breadth/width of this joke yet accepts his role in the farce, because well, he’s in power. Savage, the true counterpoint to this hellscape – neither accepted by his adopted culture nor willing to dive into a city that’s entirely ready to screw his exotic bird brains out.
As Savage returns with Bernard to the New World after growing up in a fenced-off human zoo where the people have been left to contrive an alternate culture that mixes primitivism with what I guess is a form of Christian cosmology (It seems to me Huxley isn't necessarily saying this hodgepodge religion is a fitting replacement for what we already have going. It’s just… the best they could do), he falls back on a Puritanism that’s like Greek to these genetically specialized dipshits. I like how John's only bedrock for navigating the world are Shakespeare and Jesus. This terminally adolescent dude is put through QUITE a test when it comes to Lenina, and I guess we have to understand his extreme resistance to this promiscuous culture as something that was ironically ingrained in him early on when he saw so many use his mother like the town whore. As a side note, I find Linda's story to be kind of funny. This hapless pink creature from sex-world breaks her ankle during some safari and ends up getting stuck for 20 years in tribal South America (Michael York's version of her BTW, is hilarious).
So Savage ends up meeting with Mustapha Mond (shades of O’Brien), and the two cultures have their final conversation… and what should seem like a stiff illustration of Huxley's themes, literally the moment where our characters spout the very thesis of the book, is actually working for me. It's just so damn harmonious with the way power seems to work at its most reptilian level. Mond says it best when Savage tries to argue for the value of Othello (or any art that helps us understand the human condition): You can't expose this Brave New World to tragedies kid, because the very existence of tragedy means there's social instability. No, no! This civilization is based on unending HAPPINESS, and while Mond admits he's found happiness to be overrated, he's in agreement with his overlords that it's still a supreme means of CONTROL. When Savage claims his right to be unhappy, it’s an inherently human response to the man-made void that Huxley's thrown his protagonist up against.
Yet, how many people will read that, agree with it on paper and yet forget it when life throws them a curveball? We do seek happiness as some sustainable thing that can be had as an object, and our civilization feeds on this desire. How many “Savages” out there have the presence of mind to accept sadness as a pre-condition that helps us fully understand happiness when it finally arrives? Freedom in other words, comes from our unrestricted, personal access to the entire spectrum of human experience and to utilize that empowerment as a means of self-realization. Individuality is what Huxley holds dearest here. Unfortunately for Savage, self-knowledge proves to be of no solace in the end. Even when he manages to find momentary solitude in that world, the public soon corners him like an exotic animal, and a poignant cultural misunderstanding leads to a fate I don't really want to give away. The shiftless image of the future described in the last paragraph is basically perfect.
Finally, as an early indication of how science fiction would go on to mature as a genre in the mid-20th century, Brave New World is also pretty notable. At it’s best, SF can trace out the heinous trajectory of societal trends, can unearth the toxic waste that underlies cultural signposts we may be taking at face value, and thereby work to push us out of harm's way before we hit a dead end as a species. ...more