Except for the comically inadequate introduction by Harold Bloom, this book is a window to a whole new way of seeing the literary universe. In scope a Except for the comically inadequate introduction by Harold Bloom, this book is a window to a whole new way of seeing the literary universe. In scope and depth, it is an epic and no matter how cynically you approach it, Frye is going to awe you with sheer erudition and immaculate schematics. For anyone with a Platonic bent, Frye's work has the potential to become an immediate Bible.
It might take a while to get through and it might require you to convert a lot of Frye's work into shorter notes and diagrammatic notations, just to keep up with the density of the text, but at the end of it you will be exposed to an almost cosmic vision of Literature, comparable to that at the end of Paradiso.
It is worth the effort just for the sheer ambition of the work and for the bit of that ambition that will rub off on you, even if you reject everything else contained here.
Only Joyce might be able to teach you about the scope of literature in a more inspiring fashion than this poet-critic....more
Why does the Judge-penitent address you directly, as if he has found a kindred soul in you?
In this world responsibility is infinite and The Anti-Christ
Why does the Judge-penitent address you directly, as if he has found a kindred soul in you?
In this world responsibility is infinite and that is why The Fall is inevitable - even for a Christ. But back then Christ made a mistake — he saw (was) the nausea of the world, he saw (was) the complete guilt of each man (and his own) and he decided to redeem man (himself) by setting a supreme example. He sacrificed himself because he found himself guilty. It was only an example, a call to action -- to make men recognize and alter their way of life. He wanted man to see the depravity of his own existence by this one magnificent act. But his sacrifice was merely self-elevating, it could not elevate man. For man cannot be elevated before being shown the depths he roils in currently. And man cannot see faults where he looks to see heroes. He cannot see himself in Christ. Man cannot see man in the Ideal.
No, the faults had to be shown through an anti-hero. That is why the prophesy of an anti-christ was our true hope. That is why Christ had to return as the Anti-Christ. The Anti-Christ has to be closer to man, he has to be able to whisper to him as if he was just another man. He has to be able to make man see himself by looking at him. To make you see yourself as you really are by seeing in him yourself — yourself after The Fall.
That is why the Judge-penitent addresses you directly. He has found a kindred soul in you.
You are personally guilty for every fault that exists in the world. And The Fall is to not acknowledge your guilt — to withdraw from the world into aestheticism (recall Kierkegaard’s A in Either/Or) and make your life’s central concern one of making yourself feel good about yourself and thus about the world.
By the time Jean-Baptiste’s confession is over, you should realize that in fact the Judge-penitent is you. The story was yours. It is time to begin your own confession. It is time to stop being Kierkegaard’s A, and to be the B. To polarize yourself. Time to take responsibility and stare into the abyss.
Of course you might let someone else take The Fall for you, but from then on you would have to worship him. You would have to worship the guilty. You would have to worship the Judge-Penitent. But in this modern religion, to worship is to laugh at The Fallen.
That is the true role of the modern Christ. To take The Fall for you, so that he becomes the mirror in which you see the horror of your life.
This necessary and continuous fall is the theme of the novel. It is one unforgiving, vertiginous descent. It is not a story of gradual discovery and ascent as in Sartre’s Nausea. In Nausea you see the picture that you should be painting of yourself. In The Fall you see the anti-thesis that you should use as your anti-model, as the one point which gives meaning to your picture by not being painted.
Here you are made to continuously disagree with a person who goes more and more towards that abyss. You are made to define yourself in your disagreement, to define yourself as a negation. And by doing that you are the one who discovers the nausea of such an existence, even as the narrator finds ingenious and pathetic ways to avoid it. And you are the one who moves away from the abyss.
You are the hero of the story, or at least the would-be hero — the one who is going to have the transformation that will change your world. The polarization is external to the novel.
Jean-Baptiste is one of the most powerful anti-heroes of literature, but you never root for his redemption. Instead you root for him to fall and fall — to Fall as horribly and as deep into the abyss as possible. Because that is the only way to root for yourself. Because the more he falls, the more you can see of what consists the abyss, and the further away you get from it. His Fall will save you. Mon cher, he is your personal Christ....more
“The Classics, it is the Classics!” William Blake is said to have exclaimed, with pointed reference to Homer, “that TROY VI: THE INVENTION OF ACHILLES
“The Classics, it is the Classics!” William Blake is said to have exclaimed, with pointed reference to Homer, “that Desolate Europe with Wars!”
Blake's exclamation might not be as atrocious as it sounds at first. There might be some truth to this, a universal truth.
Significantly however, this is not how the ancients understood it. They understood war as the catastrophe that it is.
Strabo, the Roman geographer, talking about the Trojan wars, puts it thus: “For it came about that, on account of the length of the campaign, the Greeks of that time, and the barbarians as well, lost both what they had at home and what they had acquired by the campaign; and so, after the destruction of Troy, not only did the victors turn to piracy because of their poverty, the still more the vanquished who survived the war.”
It is in this spirit that I chose The Iliad as my first read for The World War I centenary read.
However, over the war-hungry centuries throughout the middle ages and right till the World Wars, this sense of the Epic was twisted by manipulating the images of Achilles & Hector - Hector became the great defender of his country and Achilles became the insubordinate soldier/officer - the worst ‘type’, more a cause for the war than even Helen herself. Of course, Achilles’ romance was never fully stripped but Hector gained in prominence throughout as the quintessential Patriot.
Precisely because of this the Blake exclamation might have been more valid than it had a right to be.
This is why there is a need to revisit the original tragic purpose of the Epic - most commentators would say that (as above) this original purpose was against ALL wars. But there is much significance to the fact that the epic celebrates the doomed fight of two extinct peoples.
The Iliad starts on the eve of war and ends on the eve of war. Of a ten year epic war, the poem focuses its attention only on a couple or so of crucial, and in the end inconclusive, weeks (for it does not end with any side victorious but with Hector’s death).
In fact, it opens with both both Hector & Achilles reluctant and extremely ambivalent towards war. And closes with both Hector & Achilles dead - by mutually assured destruction!
In that clash of the Titans, the epic defines itself and creates a lasting prophecy.
However, before we explore that we need to understand Hector & Achilles better and also the Iliad itself.
In Medias Res
The Iliad opens in medias res, as it were, as if the epic-recitation was already on its way and we, the audience, have just joined. It is part of Homer’s genius that he creates a world already in process. The art of Iliad is then the art of the entrance, the players enter from an ongoing world which is fully alive in the myths that surround the epic and the audience.
The poem describes neither the origins nor the end of the war. The epic cuts out only a small sliver of insignificant time of the great battle - and thus focuses the spotlight almost exclusively on Hector & Achilles, narrowing the scope of the poem from a larger conflict between warring peoples to a smaller one between these two individuals, and yet maintaining its cosmic aspirations. So the important question is who are Hector & Achilles and why do these two heroes demand nothing less than the greatest western epic to define and contrast them?
The Long Wait For Achilles
In Iliad, how single-mindedly we are made to focus on Hector, but all the while, the Epic bursts with an absence - that of Achilles!
After the initial skirmish with Agamemnon and the withdrawal that forms the curtain-raiser, Achilles plays no part in the events described in Books 2 through 8; he sits by his ships on the shore, playing his harp, having his fun, waiting for the promised end.
“The man,” says Aristotle in the Politics, “who is incapable of working in common, or who in his self-sufficiency has no need of others, is no part of the community, like a beast, or a god.”
Hector is the most human among the heroes of The Iliad, he is the one we can relate with the most east. The scene where Hector meets Andromache and his infant son is one of the most poignant scenes of the epic and heightened by Homer for maximum dramatic tension.
On the other hand, Achilles is almost non-human, close to a god. But still human, though only through an aspiration that the audience might feel - in identifying with the quest for kleos, translated broadly as “honor”.
‘Zeus-like Achilles’ is the usage sometimes employed by Homer - and this is apt in more ways than the straight-forward fact that he is indeed first among the mortals just as Zeus is first among the gods.
Zeus and the Gods know the future, they know how things are going to unfold.
Among the mortals fighting it out in the plains of Ilium, only Achilles shares this knowledge, and this fore-knowledge is what allows him (in the guise of rage) to stay away from battle, even at the cost of eternal honor. Fore-knowledge is what makes Achilles (who is the most impetuous man alive) wiser than everyone else.
Hector on the other hand takes heed of no omens, or signs, nor consults any astrologer. For him, famously, the only sign required is that his city needed saving - “and that is omen enough for me”, as he declares. He is the rational man. He is the ordinary man. Roused to defense.
But everything Hector believes is false just as everything Achilles knows is true - for all his prowess, Hector is as ordinary a soldier as anyone else (except Achilles), privy to no prophecies, blind to his own fate. Elated, drunk with triumph, Hector allows himself to entertain one impossible dream/notion after other, even to the extent that perhaps Achilles too will fall to him. That he can save Troy all by himself.
Hector & Achilles: The Metamorphosis
Like other ancient epic poems, the Iliad presents its subject clearly from the outset. Indeed, Homer names his focus in its opening word: menin, or “rage.” Specifically, the Iliad concerns itself with the rage of Achilles—how it begins, how it cripples the Achaean army, and how it finally becomes redirected toward the Trojans. But, it also charts the metamorphosis of Achilles from a man who abhors a war that holds no meaning for him to a man who fights for its own sake.
On the other side, it also charts how the civilized Hector, the loving family man and dutiful patriot Hector becomes a savage, driven by the madness of war.
Before that, an interlude.
The Other Life Of Achilles
One of the defining scenes of the Epic is the ‘Embassy Scene’ where a defeated Agamemnon sends Odysseus & co to entreat Achilles to return to the battle. That is when Achilles delivers his famous anti-war speech. This speech of Achilles can be seen as a repudiation of the heroic ideal itself, of kleos - a realization that the life and death dedicated to glory is a game not worth the candle.
The reply is a long, passionate outburst; he pours out all the resentment stored up so long in his heart. He rejects out of hand this embassy and any other that may be sent; he wants to hear no more speeches. Not for Agamemnon nor for the Achaeans either will he fight again. He is going home, with all his men and ships. As for Agamemnon's gifts, “I loathe his gifts!“
This is a crucial point in the epic. Achilles is a killer, the personification of martial violence, but he eulogizes not war but life - “If I voyage back to the fatherland I love, my pride, my glory dies . . . true, but the life that's left me will be long . . . “ (9.502-4)
Hector & Achilles: The Battle Royale
Notwithstanding Achilles’ reluctance and bold affirmations of life, slowly, inevitably, Homer builds the tension and guides us towards the epic clash everybody is waiting for. But though it might seem as preordained, it is useful to question it closely. The confrontation is crucial and deserves very close scrutiny. We must ask ourselves - What brings on this confrontation?
On first glance, it was fate, but if looked at again, we can see that Homer leaves plenty of room for free-will and human agency - Hector had a choice. But not Achilles - instead, Achilles' choice was exercised by Patroclus.
This calls for a significant re-look at the central conflict of the epic: it might not be Hector Vs Achilles!
Patroclus and Hector instead are the real centerpiece of the epic - Achilles being the irresistible force, that is once unleashed unstoppable. It is a no-contest. Hence, the real contest happens before.
This is because, that unleashing depended entirely on Hector and Patroclus - the two heroes who only went into battle when their side was in dire straits - to defend. Both then got caught up in the rage of battle, and despite the best of advice from their closest advisors, got swept up by it and tried to convert defense into annihilation of enemy - pursuing kleos!
It is worth noting the significant parallels between Hector and Patroclus, while between Hector and Achilles it is the contrasts that stand forth.
Hector, instead of just defending his city, surges forth and decides to burn the Achaean ships. Now, the Achaean ships symbolize the future of the Greek race. They constitute the army’s only means of conveying itself home, whether in triumph or defeat. Even if the Achaean army were to lose the war, the ships could bring back survivors; the ships’ destruction, however, would mean the annihilation—or automatic exile—of every last soldier. Homer implies that the mass death of these leaders and role models would have meant the decimation of a civilization.
Which means that the Achaeans cant escape - in effect, Hector, by trying to burn the ships is in effect calling for a fight to the death!
This decision was taken in the face of very strong omens and very good advice:
In the battle at the trench and rampart in Book Twelve, The Trojans Storm the Rampart, Polydamas sees an eagle flying with a snake, which it drops because the snake keeps attacking it; Polydamas decides this is an omen that the Trojans will lose. He tells Hector they must stop, but Hector lashes out that Zeus told him to charge; he accuses Polydamas of being a coward and warns him against trying to convince others to turn back or holding back himself.
Hector is driven on by his success to overstep the bounds clearly marked out for him by Zeus. He hears Polydamas’ threefold warning (yes, there were two other instances too, not addressed here), yet plots the path to his own death and the ruin of those whom he loves.
Thus, sadly, Hector pays no heed and surges forth. Which is the cue for the other patriot to enter the fray - for Patroclus.
And thus Hector’s own madness (going beyond success in defense) in the face of sound advice brought on a crises for Achaeans to which their prime defender and patriot, Patroclus responded - and then paralleling Hector’s own folly, he too succeeded and then went beyond that to his own death. Thus Patroclus too shows that knows no restraint in victory; his friends too warned him in vain, and he paid for it with his life. By this time Hector had no choice, his fate was already sealed. Achilles was about to be unleashed.
The most important moment in Iliad to me was this ‘prior-moment’ - when Hector lost it - when he lost himself to war fury: Hector’s first act of true savagery - towards Patroclus and his dead-body. “lost in folly, Athena had swept away their senses, “ is how Homer describes Hector and his troops at this point of their triumph.
Yet, Homer gives Hector one more chance to spurn honor and save himself and diffuse/stall the mighty spirit of Achilles that had been unleashed on the battlegrounds. In his soliloquy before the Scacan gate, when he expects to die by Achilles' hand, he also has his first moment of insight: he sees that he has been wrong, and significantly enough Polydamas and his warnings come back to his mind. But he decides to hold his ground for fear of ridicule, of all things!
So even as all the other Trojans ran inside the impregnable city walls to shelter, Hector waited outside torn between life and honor (contrast this with Achilles who had chosen life over honor, the lyre over the spear, so effortlessly earlier). Hector instead waits until unnerved, until too late. And then the inevitable death comes.
Thus the Rage was unleashed by two men who tried to do more than defend themselves - they tried to win eternal honor or kleos - the result is the unleashing of the fire called Achilles (his rage) which burns itself and everything around it to the ground. What better invocation of what war means?
I ask again, what better book to read for the centenary year for The World War I?
The Last Book
The last words of The Iliad are : “And so the Trojans buried Hector, breaker of horses.”
Thus, fittingly, Homer starts with the Rage of Achilles and ends with the Death of Hector. This is very poetic and poignant, but it is time for more questions:
Again, why start and end on the eve of battle? Because that is the only space for reflection that war allows. Before the madness of the fury of war or of disaster descends like a miasmic cloud. To use Homer’s own phrase, “war gives little breathing-room”.
Thus, we end the Epic just as we began it - in stalemate, with one crucial difference - both sides’ best men are dead. The two men who could have effected a reconciliation , who had a vision beyond war, are dead.
It is made very clear in The Iliad that Achilles will die under Trojan roofs and that Hector will find his doom under the shadow of the Achaean ships - or, both are to die in enemy territory.
Though Iliad leaves us with full focus on Hector’s death and funeral, there is another death that was always presaged but left off from the story - That of Achilles’ own. Why?
Achilles' death is left to the audience to imagine, over and over again, in every context as required. The saga of Hector & Achilles, of the doomed-to-die heroes, leaves one death to the imagination and thus effects a very neat prophetic function.
Once Hector committed his folly, once Patroclus rushed to his death, and once Achilles is unleashed, the rest is fixed fate, there is no stopping it. So Homer begins and ends in truce, but with destruction round the corner - as if the cycle was meant to be repeated again and again, stretching backwards and forwards in time - Troy I, Troy II, … to Troy VI, Troy VII, … where does it end?
Homer knows that the threshold is crossed, the end is nigh - even Troy’s destruction is not required to be part of the epic - with Hector’s death, the death of Ilium is nigh too and so is Achilles’ own death and past the myths, the death of the Greek civilization, and maybe of all civilization?
The epic leaves us with the real doomsday just over the horizon, horribly presaged by it, in true prophetic fashion.
The Pity of War
The pity of war is The Iliad’s dominant theme, but it uses themes such as love, ego, honor, fear and friendship to illuminate the motive forces behind war. In another ancient epic, Gilgamesh, the death of a friend prompts a quest which ends in wisdom and an affirmation of life; in The Iliad, the death of the fabled friend leads to a renunciation of wisdom and a quest for death itself! In Gilgamesh, the hero learns the follies of life and rebuilds civilization; in The Iliad, Achilles comes into the epic already armed with this knowledge and moves towards seeking death, choosing to be the destroyer instead of the creator.
The Iliad is an epic of unlearning. It mocks optimistic pretensions. In The Iliad, the participants learn nothing from their ordeal, all the learning is left to the audience....more
“One had best state this matter very plainly: To recover the comic splendor of The Merchant of Venice now, you need to be either a scholar or an anti
“One had best state this matter very plainly: To recover the comic splendor of The Merchant of Venice now, you need to be either a scholar or an anti-Semite, or best of all an anti-Semitic scholar.” ~ Harold Bloom
See how yond justice rails upon yond simple thief. Hark in thine ear: change places, and handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief? ~ King Lear (IV.vi.151–4)
“Which is the merchant here? and which the Jew?” ~ The Merchant of Venice
The traditional interpretations are usually on the lines of ‘accept the play as what it is - a comedy that utilizes stereotypes’ or on ‘Shakespeare managed to use a stereotype and yet humanized him and created one of the great characters in theatre’. Truly, the scope and diversity of theatrical interpretations of the Merchant are extraordinary, and there have been many new and exciting attempts at understanding the play over the centuries. In addition, its racism has often been reversed in performance, converted into an eloquent plea for human equality. Indeed, in some ways the play has been instrumental in changing people’s perceptions of the Jewish community, and it therefore occupies a valuable place in world culture.
It is said that Merchant of Venice is one of the most performed plays of all time and has continuously been in production for over 300 years now. Is there a reason why it is so popular? It is partly due precisely to this breadth of interpretation that is possible, and partly due to the immense challenge thrown up by the character of Shylock.
Shylock can be interpreted in many ways on the stage. He can be seen as a simple comic villain who occasionally reveals sympathetic qualities. Or he can be a tragic hero, a spurned and battered victim of oppression, who tries unsuccessfully to challenge the society that oppresses him. Similarly, the Christians can be saintly personifications of charity and mercy, or hypocritical money-grubbers. It may seem strange that a play can produce such divergent readings, but they are, in fact, a result of the complexity of Shakespeare’s writing.
It is a play that is curiously capable of moulding itself to our present, we only have to project the current OTHER into the role of Shylock - as many directors over the centuries have done.
It allows reinterpretation as per this current Other - and can then be a vehicle for showcasing a sense of how a historic wrong is ripe for correction!
What this sort of interpretation of Merchant of Venice misses is that both Venice and Shylock were ‘The Other’ to each other. They were both incomprehensible to the other.
The Directorial Debut: A World Without Belmont
Keeping this in mind, now, if I were to direct the play today, I would focus on these things:
1. The risky speculative nature of Antonio's ventures.
2. The twisting of the laws by Portia to ‘bail out’ Antonio and to make Shylock bear the brunt of Antonio's speculations.
In a bit more detail, this would be my approach towards the production:
Shylock: Shakespeare uses ‘Jew’ and “Shylock’ in the play depending on whether he wants to humanize him or not. ‘Shylock’ is used where involvement in his feelings is indicated; and ‘Jew’ is used when Shakespeare sees him purely as a moneylender, as a stereotype. It is significant that at the very end, in the Trial Scene, ‘Shylock’ is used by Shakespeare and not ‘Jew’!
I would extend this to its extreme - humanize Shylock completely, strip him of his 'monstrosity' status and of his usurer brand and make him the common family man, downtrodden occasionally, trying to get by.
Antonio: is given no real reason for nobility in the play except his Christian credentials - I would strip him of those and make him just what he is, a speculator with many failings with no cushion of Christianity to fallback on. A quintessential Wall-Street figure.
I might or might not keep the personal enmity between Shylock and Antonio. That would add dramatic value, but serves no purpose as far as my core message is concerned.
Belmont: An outlandish element of this most realistic of Shakespeare’s plays is Belmont - the land of magic where casket-tests and ring-tests determine 'true love' and fidelity, where pure love always wins - a fairy tale land. It is a world where money has no role, where no class differences occur (or are not allowed since only the privileged enter!) because the oppressed don’t have a role (notice, no Jews in Belmont!), which might have been an impossible but still acceptable dream for much of human history (Voltaire-like), but which crumpled maybe around the middle of this century, with our disillusionment with European dreams of any poised land. We don't have a place for such a trope in our production.
The Merchant of Venice is a very serious play - Shakespeare made it a romantic comedy by nesting the parallel story of Belmont and its idealism, its fairy tale caskets, the Jason-like Quest etc.
But we don’t have to take it with the same levity. We can take it more seriously. We can consider a world without Belmont!
My play would then be set in this “World Without Belmont”.
Shylock, even back then, is a controversial figure for villain and has not been accepted as such for a long time now. Shall we have another villain for ourselves? - Let me present to you, Antonio!
Here, Antonio becomes a Speculator who uses borrowed money to finance risky expeditions on a false sense of self-assurance, in spite of being warned right at the beginning of the play by all his friends - ignorantly over-confident, and rather stupid because he is so lacking in common sense.
When they do choose,
They have the wisdom by their wit to lose.
Shylock becomes the common man who was assured that his money would never be risked (a ‘merry bond’ sold to him??) and Bassanio becomes the Aristocracy who meanwhile uses the public money for self-indulgence and exotic adventures.
If you sympathize with Shylock, then you must turn against Portia.
~ E. E. Stoll
Portia: Portia, in my production, becomes the conservative defender (who is also not above some blatant racism!) of these values who would try to get the state to sponsor these extravagances and is even wiling to twist the law - a complete Deux Ex Machina - are we really to think Shylock, and anybody else, did not know of these laws that Portia presents? To me Portia has used their assumption of her competence to full advantage. The only way to explain it would be ‘Poetic Justice’ or more crassly - Cheating!
Portia does this 'twisting' to try and make the poor Shylock shell out even more of his personal fortune, who is almost struck dumb when the State and Law that he had placed his belief on turn on him - “Is that the law?" is all he can ask. He was absolutely certain that his trust in the law was inviolate. The Law and the State that he believed to be so solid crumbles before him. He sees what power privilege has in this world.
And I beseech you,
Wrest once the law to your authority.
To do a great right, do a little wrong,
And curb this cruel devil of his will.
Thus making Shylock representative of the common man, who is a mirror to the society’s worst atrocities - by trying to take exacting revenge on the Wall-street speculator Antonio; and by trying to point out the many wrongs of his society, such as slavery back then or enforced poverty today. The common man, whose tax dollars and life-savings are used to finance the risky ventures of the Antonios and the Bassanios.
Of course, they don’t have to worry, the conservative state represented by the Duke (talk of an impartial judge - he starts the trial by calling Shylock names! And proceeds to threaten to annul the whole thing when Shylock seemed on the verge of winning) and by Portia, who will, with her ingenious manipulations of the law, ensure that Shylock not only loses but also accepts their value systems! “I am content” he says and disappears from the play, into the black-hole that is the State - an Orwellian vision.
Portia: Art thou contented, Jew? What dost thou say?
Shylock: I am content.
In this ‘World Without Belmont’, we have to notice that the upholding of Justice is done not for nobility or any love of justice for its own sake but to ensure that the ‘too big to fail’ establishments are not allowed to sink - just as “The trade and profit of the city” of Portia’s Venice depends on the confidence foreigners have in Venetian law. Thus it is not love of justice for her own sake, but mere self-interest, that keeps our play’s world within the law.
Thus, going from the ‘New Comedy’ aspect of Merchant of Venice to a full blown Tragedy, I would end my modern production with this Shylock slighted and stolen of his possessions, the Antonios and Bassanios happy in the thought that they can continue their indulgences at the expense of the public, while strictly following the letter of the law, no less… and a dark foreboding of when this whole structure will collapse, no matter how well hedged by class distinctions and 'just' laws.
Encore: “Which is the merchant here? and which the Jew?”
The hopes of all men and of Man, being reasonable, must get drunk;
The best of life is but intoxication:
Glory, the grape, love, gold, in these are sunk
The hopes of all men and of every nation;
Without their sap, how branchless were the trunk
Of life's strange tree, so fruitful on occasion:
But to return,—Get very drunk; and when
You wake with headache, you shall see what then.
~ Lord Byron, Don Juan, Canto II, Stanza 179.
If we offend, it is with our good will.
That you should think, we come not to offend,
But with good will. To show our simple skill,
That is the true beginning of our end.
Consider then we come but in despite.
We do not come, as minding to content you,
Our true intent is. All for your delight
We are not here. That you should here repent you,
The actors are on hand; and, by their show,
You shall know all, that you are like to know.
The Lightweight Satire
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is often viewed as a lightweight play, but it is much more than that. It is one of Shakespeare’s most polished achievements, a poetic drama of exquisite grace, wit, and humanity. It has perhaps become one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, with a special appeal for the young. But belying its great universal appeal it might be a stinging social satire too, glossed over by most in their dreamy enjoyment of the magnificent world Shakespeare presents and also by the deliberate gross-comedy in the end that hides the play from itself.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an Archetypal play where charm, innocence, violence and sexuality mix in giddy combinations. In this fantastic masterpiece, Shakespeare moves with wonderful dramatic dexterity through several realms, weaving together disparate storylines and styles of speech.
It offers a glorious celebration of the powers of the human imagination and poetry while also making comic capital out of its reason’s limitations and societies’ mores. It is also perhaps the play which affords maximum inventiveness on stage, both in terms of message and of atmosphere.
The Course of True Love
“The course of true love never did run smooth.”
1. In some ways Lysander’s well-known declaration becomes one of the central themes, as the comedy interlocks the misadventures of five pairs of lovers (six if one counts Pyramus and Thisby) - and uses their tribulations to explore its theme of love’s difficulties.
2. Also central to the play is the tension between desire and social mores. Characters are repeatedly required to quell their passion for the sake of law and propriety.
3. Another important conflict is between love and reason, with the heart almost always overruling the mind. The comedy of the play results from the powerful, and often blinding, effects that love has on the characters’ thoughts and actions.
4. Third antipathy is between love and social class divisions, with some combinations ruled out arbitrarily, with no appeal to reason except for birth. This when combined with upward aspirations and downward suppressed fantasies form a wonderful sub-plot to the whole drama. Represented best by Bottom’s famous dream.
Each of these themes have a character representing them that forms the supporting cast to the lovers’ misadventures, defining through their acts the relationship between desire, lust and love and social customs:
1. The unreasonable social mores is represented by Egeus, who is one character who never changes. (Also perhaps by Demetrius who appeals to the same customs to get what he wants)
2. Unloving desire by Theseus who too never changes, and also perhaps by the principal lovers (H&L) in their original state. (Helena could be said to represent ‘true’ love but Shakespeare offers us nothing to substantiate this comforting assumption. It is also important that the women's loves not altered by the potion, which is very significantly dropped into the eyes, affecting vision - i.e. it can affect only superficial love.)
3. Lack of reason, though embodied in all the lovers, are brought to life by Puck as the agent of madness and of confusion of sight, which is the entry-point for love in Shakespeare.
4. Finally, class aspirations and their asinine nature by Bottom himself
Out of all these, every character is given a positive light (or an extra-human light, in the case of the fairies) except Egeus, who is the reason for the night-time excursion and all the comedy. In fact, Shakespeare even seems deliberately to have kept the crusty and complaining Egeus out of the 'joy and mirth’ of the last celebrations - he disappears along with the over-restrictive society he is supposed to represent - of marriages, reasoned alliances and ‘bloodless’ cold courtships.
Hence, it is social mores that compel the wildness on love which is not allowed to express itself freely. When freed of this and allowed to resolve itself in a Bacchanalian night all was well again and order was restored to the world.
This reviewer has taken the liberty of assuming that this is the central theme of the play - which is also deliciously ironic since it is supposed to have been written for a wedding. What better time to mock the institution of marriage than at a wedding gala?
So in a way the four themes - difficulties of true love, restrictions by propriety and customs, and the comical unreason that beset lovers, and class differences that put some desires fully into the category of fantasies - are all products of social mores that impose artificial restrictions on love and bring on all the things mocked in this play by Shakespeare.
In fact this is one reason why Bottom could be the real hero of the play (as is the fashion among critical receptions of the play these days) - he was the only one comfortable in transcending all these barriers, at home everywhere and in the end also content with his dreams and in the realization that he would be an ass to try to comprehend what is wrong with the world.
The Subtle Satire
The lovers’ inversions of love could be taken to be a satire on the fickle nature of love but I prefer to see it as another joke at the expense of social mores - of the institution of marriage and courtship, in which each suitor professes undying love in such magnificent lines until he has to turn to the next and do the same. This is reinforced by allusion to how women are not free to ‘pursue’ their loves as men are since social mores allow only the man to pursue and the woman has to chose from among her suitors. It is quite telling that it wasBottom who accepted love and reason seldom go together and expresses the hope that love and reason should become friends. His speech echoes Lysander’s in the previous scene. Lysander, the aristocrat instead is just another attempting to find a way to understand the workings of love in a rational way, the failures emphasize the difficulty of this endeavor. Lysander thus ends his speech by believing/claiming his newfound love for Helena was based on reason, quite absurdly, but yet quite convinced - representing most of mankind.
By taking the lovers to the enchanted forest of dreams, far from the Athenian social customs and into land where shadows and dreams rule, and then resolving everything there, even allowing Bottom a glimpse of aristocratic love, Shakespeare seems to say that it is the society that restricts love and makes it artificial - all that is needed is bit of madness, a bit of stripping away of artificiality - throughout he cupid’s potion. Again the need for a bit of madness (lunacy, mark the repeated moon ref). It is almost an appeal to the Dionysian aspects of life - see alternate review on Nietzsche for detail. (Also see these two Plato-based reviews for important and balancing takes on 'rational' love - Phaedrus & The Symposium
Puck Vs Quince (or) Diana Vs Cupid (or) Art Vs Entertainment
Significantly the final words of the play belong to the master of misrule, the consummate actor and comedian, Puck. In some sense, Puck, with his ability to translate himself into any character, with his skill in creating performances that seem all too real to their human audiences, could be seen as a mascot of the theater. Therefore, his final words are an apology for the play itself. Also mark how Puck courteously addresses the audience as gentlefolk, paralleling Quince's address to his stage audience in his Prologue.
Thus, the final extrapolation on the theme could be that Shakespeare ultimately points out that though a bit of madness and wildness is needed to bring love back into the realms of the truth, it can also be achieved through great art, through sublime theater - not by bad theater though! This could be a statement that Art and thus Theatre is a substitute for the madness of love that is needed to escape the clutches of society (and live the fantasies away from the constricting artificial 'realities') and find yourself, to rediscover yourself away from ‘cold reason’.
When the actor playing Puck stands alone on the stage talking to the audience about dreams and illusions, he is necessarily reminding them that there is another kind of magic - the magic of the theatre. And the magic it conjures is the magic of self-discovery. Continuing the play’s discourse on poetry, Puck defines the poetry of theater as an illusion that transports spectators into the same enchanted region that dreams inhabit. Thus the spectators have not only watched the dream of others but have, by that focus of attention, entered the dream state themselves.
This ‘finding yourself’ seems to be the most essential part of love and as long as you are constrained by imposed restrictions, this is impossible. That is why Shakespeare has made it easy for us and created an art-form of a play that allows us to dream-in-unreason and wake up refreshed. But there is a caveat too, highlighted by the parallel prologues of Puck and Quince - A ‘Crude’ entertainment like ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ might only allow one to while away an evening happily. It might not give the transport and release and inward-looking that is necessary to achieve the madness that true art is supposed to confer. So Shakespeare uses the play to educate us on what is needed to find ourselves and then the play-within-the-play to also show us what to avoid.
Lord, What Fools Mortals Be
“Art, like love, is a limited and special vision; but like love it has by its very limits a transforming power, creating a small area of order in the vast chaos of the world . . . . At the moment when the play most clearly declares itself to be trivial, we have the strongest appeal to our sympathy for it. . . .” ~ Alexander Leggatt
“I will get Peter Quince to write a ballet of this dream. It shall be call’d “Bottom’s Dream,” because it hath no bottom.”
In one of the most philosophically transcendent moments in the play, Bottom wakes up from his grand aristocratic/magical dream and is disoriented. Bottom decides to title his piece “Bottom’s Dream” because it has no bottom - all literature and art are bottomless, in that their meaning cannot be quantified, cannot be understood solely through the mechanisms of reason or logic. Here it parallels life and love, both beyond reason, limited only by the imagination.
Of course, this is a very simplistic representation of a wonderfully complicated play. It can be read in many different ways based on the viewpoint you chose to adopt. I have tried out a few and felt the need to comment slightly at length on this viewpoint. This is not to diminish the play, which I fully concur with Shakespeare is indeed a ‘Bottom’s Dream’ since it has no bottom in the wealth of meaning to be mined from it.
Lord, what fools these mortals be, Puck philosophizes, mockingly. And perhaps we are indeed fools - for entering into the dangerous, unpredictable world of love or of literature; yet what fun would life be without it?
“Every heart sings a song, incomplete, until another heart whispers back. Those who wish to sing always find a song. At the touch of a lover, everyo
“Every heart sings a song, incomplete, until another heart whispers back. Those who wish to sing always find a song. At the touch of a lover, everyone becomes a poet.”
THE SCHOOL OF LOVE
Phaedrus is commonly paired on the one hand with Gorgias and on the other with Symposium - with all three combining and leading towards Republic. It is compared with Gorgias in sharing its principal theme, the nature and limitations of rhetoric, and with Symposium in being devoted to the nature and value of erotic love. The connection with Republic is more tenuous, though it contributes to the criticism of the arts of Rhetoric. Also, the psychology illustrated here by the image of the charioteer and the two horses is fully compatible with the tripartite psychology of Republic and even clarifies an important ambiguity in it.
Socrates and Phaedrus walks out from Athens along the river Ilisus. The conversation that takes place between Phaedrus and Socrates is both interrupted and motivated by three speeches - one by Lysias, and then two extemporized by Socrates himself in response, inspired to employ his knowledge of philosophy in crafting two speeches on the subject of erotic love, to show how paltry is the best effort on the same subject of the best orator in Athens, Lysias, who knows no philosophy.
The Three Speeches
The First Speech:
The first speech (purportedly by Lysias), is a shallow, badly constructed piece–a ‘clever’ piece of sophistry designed to establish the implausible thesis that the pursued (loved) should gratify someone who is not feeling love ("non-lover") rather than a true erastēs (lover).
The Second Speech:
Not surprisingly, since in this speech Socrates undertakes to improve on the form at least as much as the content of Lysias’ speech, there is considerable overlap of theme. Ethically, however, Socrates appears to have more genuine concern for the good of the ‘loved’ than Lysias did.
But most interestingly, Socrates takes the dichotomy of Lysias’ speech - of Non-Lover Vs Lover - and inverts the whole argument by subsuming both categories into Lust. It is left unsaid till the Third Speech, but Socrates has now effectively made the argument into Lust Vs Love (Non-Lover also included into Lust). Ever heard of the expression “Platonic Love”? It is far more interesting than its popular meaning!
“These are the points you should bear in mind, my boy. You should know that the friendship of a lover arises without any good will at all. No, like food, its purpose is to sate hunger. ‘Do wolves love lambs? That’s how lovers befriend the loved!’”
The Third Speech (The Palinode):
Lysias’ speech had argued that a lover is to be avoided in favor of a non-lover, and in Socrates’ first speech he seeks merely to improve upon this thesis of Lysias, but in the second he entirely repudiates the content of the first, and he calls this second speech a recantation, or palinode.
The straight-forward opposition of pleasure and the good in the Second Speech, though reminiscent of early dialogues such as Gorgias, is thus undermined in the palinode, where we see that the impulse towards pleasure is an essential part of a person’s motivation, and that if his/her rational part is in control, this impulse can be channelled towards the good.
The Palinode thus gives a less one-sided view of love - a view in which love and reason can go hand in hand, in which love is not entirely selfish but can be associated with educational and moral values, and in which, at the same time, passion and desire find their proper place. In order fully to praise love, Plato felt that he had to explain its place in the metaphysical life of a human being - through a myth, as usual.
The overall movement of the central part of the palinode is that it begins with a vision of the soul’s purpose and ends with an analysis of the human condition of love.
The suggestion is that we won’t understand human experience unless it is put into a much larger context, and that the experience of love is essential for a human being to fulfill his/her highest potential.
After these three speeches, the conversation turns to the value of rhetoric in general, and what could be done to make it a true branch of expertise or knowledge.
On Rhetoric: An Aside
A dialogue earlier than Phaedrus, Gorgias, is devoted to rhetoric and to the contrast between the rival ways of life philosophy and rhetoric promote. In Phaedrus, the question of the value of rhetoric is raised immediately after the palinode, and signals an abrupt change of direction for the dialogue: as to what constitutes good and bad rhetoric, and Socrates suggests that knowledge of truth is the criterion: persuasion without knowledge is denigrated: without a grasp of truth, rhetoric will remain ‘an unsystematic knack’.
Now, this too is a reference to Gorgias, where rhetoric was defined in just these terms. Plato does not really seem have changed his mind about it since Gorgias.
There are two main overt topics in the dialogue––rhetoric and love. Rhetoric is meant to persuade, and a lover will try to persuade his/her beloved to gratify their desires (the Greek word for ‘persuade’ also means ‘seduce’). The lover’s search for the right kind of beloved to persuade is a specific case of the general principle that the true rhetorician must choose a suitable kind of soul with the help of dialectical insight. The lovers are said to try to persuade their beloveds to follow a divine pattern - this is the highest educational aspect of love.
Thus the dialogue is about love and rhetoric, as it seems to be, but they are connected because both are forms of "soul-leading" - both are educational.
So for this reviewer, the question of which to focus on - of Rhetoric or Love - is redundant. A focus on either should serve the purpose, and the focus for the rest of this review will be on Love. Rhetoric got its space in the Gorgias review.
Love: The Guiding Light of Philosophers
The first two speeches raise the question whether or not love is a good thing, and the rest of the dialogue answers the question in the affirmative. Love is good because it enables one to draw near to another person whose soul is of the same type as one’s own, but is capable of becoming more perfectly so. This educational potential will be fulfilled provided the pair channel their energies into mutual education; this is the proper context of the praise lavished on the combination of philosophy and love.
Platonic Love: A Clarification
Before we go further, we need to address the standard criticism on “Platonic Love”: that it is about non-sexual love. More importantly, the even more educated criticism has to be addressed: that it is about Homoerotic love.
For this, we need to take a look at the Athenian society of the time:
First, the Athenians rarely married for love: a wife was for bearing children, while slave-girls were used for extra sex. Love, then, was more likely to be met outside marriage––and it might be a younger man who aroused it. And this goes not just for love, but even for the shared interests that underpin love: the educational potential of a love-affair, always one of the main things that interested Plato, was unlikely to be fulfilled in one’s marriage, since an Athenian male had few shared interests with his wife and would not expect her to be interested in education. Second, with women being seen more or less entirely as sex-objects, Plato clearly felt that it was all too easy to get caught by the physical side of a heterosexual relationship. However, since Athenian society did place a slight stigma on the sexual side of a homoerotic relationship, a lover might well hesitate before consummating the relationship in this way––and such hesitation, vividly portrayed in Phaedrus, meant that there was at least the opportunity for the sexual energy to be channelled towards higher, spiritual or educational purposes.
Moreover, the older man was expected to cultivate the boy’s mind – to be an intellectual companion. It was, in effect, a form of education. Greek education was pitiful: restricted to upper-class boys, and taught no more than the three Rs, sport, Homer and the lyric poets, and the ability to play a musical instrument. In a peculiar way, the Athenian institution of homoerotic affairs filled a gap by providing a boy with a more realistic grasp of local culture and worldly wisdom.
Thus, we can see why homoeroticism is the context - only because it was normal then and not because it was regarded as worthy of special attention against a standard of heterosexuality as ‘normal’.
Transposed on to present society, we can see that the whole enterprise should logically apply now to ‘normal’ or heterosexual relations as well - and is quite in character for the modern times - some would even say that it is the ideal!
Thus, glossing over homoeroticism as a relic of the Athenian society, we need to read instead from our own society’s standpoint. Hence, in this review you will find that the ‘love’ spoken of is directed not at a ‘boy’ as in the Platonic dialogue/society but at the ‘loved’ (as substituted by the reviewer), without discrimination. This is also the most useful (and logical) POV for this reviewer to adopt to understand the dialogue best. Also, please assume the he/she or his/her connotation if the reviewer has omitted it at places.
The Myth: Love as The Window to the Universe
It is often said that Symposium, Republic and Phaedrus should be read together. This is particularly true when it comes to the interconnected Myths that populate these three dialogues.
Poetic and inspiring myths portray the soul’s vision of reality and love in The Symposium as well as in Phaedrus:
In his myth in The Symposium, Plato has Aristophanes present the famous story about soul mates:
The myth in Phaedrus, altering this, is a description of the entire cycle of what can happen to a soul: we hear of the tripartite nature of souls and how it is essential to a winged soul to rise up attempt to see the plain of truth which lies beyond. In the Myth, we are incarnated as humans if the attempt was not fully successful, doomed for thousands of years.
A philosophically-inclined-lover, however, can use his/her memory of Forms, to regrow their wings and ascend again. This Memory is triggered by the glimpse of Beauty in his/her beloved - if his love of truth is enough to leave him with a lingering dissatisfaction with every day life. Beauty alone has this privilege, to be the most clearly visible and the most loved - and thus the trigger for the Quest for meaning.
Love & Memory: Mutual Assistants
Readers and admirers of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance would find this section particularly identifiable. Love as remembrance should also find ready acceptance among Proust readers. In fact, the image of the loved triggering a vision of beauty that unlocks the memory of life’s true purpose is just about as Proustian as it gets. ‘Loved’ then need not be a person at all - it just needs to be a store of memory, personally beautiful enough to trigger the vision of the ‘beyond’ of everyday life, but this is a digression.
In the palinode, love and memory are critically connected: love is our reaction to the half-remembered Form of Beauty (and of Truth). The starting-point is the perception of beauty on earth, and the consequent recollection of Beauty seen before. The beloved’s face acts, as it were, as a window on to the Form.
In short, love prompts recollection, recollection is the precondition for knowledge, and knowledge is the precondition for the right handling of words. In this way, all the major themes of the dialogue tie together.
The Chariot of Life: The Rider & The Horses
The Soul is divided in three at the beginning of the Myth - two parts in the form of horses and the third in that of a charioteer. One of the horses is good, the other not; one white, noble and the aide of Reason, the other unruly, Black and crazed with desire. The difference between the two is that the bad horse’s reasoning is limited to short-term goals (just as Lysias’ non-lover was too), whereas the charioteer aims for and considers the overall goodness of a person’s life as a whole.
This is, in fact, very reminiscent of The Bhagavad Gita with the Senses as the Horses and Reason as the Charioteer.
Philosophy, Love & Lust - An Inventory of Usefulness
Plato chose the term erōs from the range of possibilities because of its frankly passionate connotations. In Phaedrus he gives an astonishing analysis of what, in his view, is really happening beneath the surface of a love-affair, and focuses particularly on its ecstatic aspects - the ability of love to get us to transcend our normal bounds. Notice, then, how far removed this conception of love is from what we generally understand by the phrase ‘platonic love’, which is defined by my dictionary as ‘love between soul and soul, without sensual desire’. On the contrary, ‘sensual desire’ has to be present, because it is the energizing force.
The Two Horses symbolize Love and Lust, in a fashion:
The Black Horse/Lust/Sensual Desire is crucial to the process: It is the one that gets us close enough to the beloved/soulmate in the first place!
Thus, the non-intellectual elements of the soul were necessary sources of motivational energy and that the passions, and the actions inspired by them, are intrinsically valuable components of the best human life. The intensity of the experience of philosophical love, as Plato sees it, is precisely the intensity of the simultaneous presence in the lover of passion.
To return to the course of the myth, we are told in the second part about the development of a human love-affair. The nature of the love-affair depends entirely, we hear, on how removed the philosopher-partner is from the world (how ascetic he is, in a sense): if he is fully mired in his body, all he will want is sex with the beautiful beloved who arouses his love, but if he is a philosopher the vision of worldly beauty will remind him of heavenly Beauty, and his soul will grow wings and aspire to return to the region beyond heaven where he first caught sight of true Beauty. But Plato stresses that the philosophic lover will not want this just for himself: being attracted to someone like himself––that is, to a potential philosopher––he wants to bring out this potential in his partner. Thus, not only does the philosophical lover educate his partner, but he also educates himself: he ascends the ladder only by pulling someone else up on to the rung he has vacated. The educational aspect of philosophy is here properly fulfilled.
The implication is that the kind of lover you are on earth depends, to a large extent, on how philosophic you are, how receptive you are to the vision of Beauty. It depends entirely on you if Love opens the window to Philosophy.
The Academy of Life: Love
Erōs is the Greek word for ‘passionate love’, and in the context of relations between human beings it means primarily ‘sexual desire’, or even ‘lust’. Because erōs in this sense invariably has a sharply delineated object - it is not just a vacuous feeling of warmth or affection - it suits Plato’s purposes, since his major enquiry is to ask what the true object of love is.
Is it no more than it appears to be, or is it something deeper? In Symposium he answers that love is a universal force that energizes and motivates us in whatever we do, because its object is something we perceive as good for ourselves. Its object, self-evidently (at least, for Plato and his fellow Greeks), is beauty.
The ultimate, deepest aim of Love, Plato says, is immortality - self-procreation in a beautiful environment. The highest manifestation of this is not the physical procreation of offspring, but the perpetuation of ideas in an educational environment in which the lover takes on the education of the beloved. This is the position taken for granted in Phaedrus.
There is also a more prosaic and non-mythical way to approach the message in Phaedrus: As Plato makes plain elsewhere, when he says that someone desires something, he means that he lacks something. So when he says that love is lack, we also need to see what it is that a lover’s soul lacks, and it turns out to be the perfection of itself as a human soul - knowledge or self-knowledge. Someone in love has an inkling of his own imperfection, and is impelled to try to remedy the defect.
Though couched in terms of his own metaphysics and psychology, Plato’s description of passionate love will strike an immediate chord with any lover. Love can make philosophers of any of us. Love is important because beauty* is the most accessible Form here on earth and is the primary object of love.
* Note that it is always a very personal conception of ‘Beauty’ being referred to - which only the beloved can see - the whole ‘eye of the beholder thing’, if you please. Everyone chooses their love after their own fashion from among those who are beautiful to them, and then treats the loved like his/her very own god, building him/her up and adorning him/her as an image to honor and worship.
Hence, Love is the best school possible - a place of mutual, continuous, most interested, interesting and truly involved education that one can ever find. There is nowhere else that you can learn more about the human condition. Enroll in the school of love if you would be philosophers, if you would know the meaning of life. Know Thyself, through Love.
“You may believe this or not as you like. But, seriously, the cause of love is as I have said, and this is how lovers really feel.”
It often happens that I stay up with a book overnight because it is too good to be put down for something as mundane as sleep.
But it is a rare occurr It often happens that I stay up with a book overnight because it is too good to be put down for something as mundane as sleep.
But it is a rare occurrence when I finish a book, turn the last page and go straight back to the beginning again, without even pausing to consider, without even thinking of a re-read, without a thought for the warm inviting bed (and without a thought even for the absurd challenge that looms in front of all reading towards the end of a year).
But this shockingly, heart-wrenchingly, even exhilaratingly real and excruciatingly beautiful book is definitely one of them.
[ This is my 'book-of-the-year' - being the one book I am most grateful to have read in the year. ]
- Full review will be put up after the second reading......more
This book has a bit of a prosaic title, especially when coming from a historian (they usually come up with fantastically irresistible titles) - writing one too many academic papers must have gotten to the poor guy. I have suggested a few alternatives above in the guise of titles for my own summary-essay.
I cannot believe there is not a single review on Goodreads for this fantastic book (9 ratings and 0 reviews on Goodreads + 2 non-reviews on Amazon!). It would be a good wager that it is due to the strategically chosen title. But despite the seeming lack of interest in the book, it is a literal page turner. This is firmly among the top 3 environmental books that I have yet read.
What follows is more a summary than a review. I have taken a few liberties in the process. For example, fracking is not covered in the book so I have tried to bring it into the analysis - integrating it into the argumentative framework to forestall criticism on that front. Being the only review on Goodreads for such a good book, I am under a bit of pressure here. There is only so much a summary can do. I have to warn you that you might find that it is a very depressing book in many ways - the most essential sort.
Stein’s Law: “Trends that can’t continue, won’t.”
The Unexpected Oil Spill (Or Not)
It was 9:15 p.m. on April 20, 2010, The Deepwater Horizon oil spill (also referred to as the BP oil spill/Macondo blowout) began in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM).
In the next four months, the oil gushing from the Macondo well spread over several tens of thousands of square miles of Gulf water - An entire region was under environmental siege. Countless of birds, turtles, dolphins, and an unknown number of fish and shrimp died. Tens of thousands of people lost their livelihoods and incomes, and a whole way of life was demolished.
Tainter and Patzek uses the story of this Gulf oil spill as the background for a wide-ranging discussion of how we got here and where we are headed. They emphasize that such events point to a systemic problem, and suggest that the spill was in fact more than likely given sufficient opportunities and time. The disaster and GOM (Gulf Of Mexico) in general is taken as a microcosm to explore the inevitability of disaster in our society.
Nature: A Mean Fractal
Starting from the basics is the best way to understand the basics. As far as Oil is concerned, the first thing we need to know is how much recoverable oil is waiting for us down there (in GOM, in this case). How much risk is involved in obtaining it and what is the trade-off. In other words, do the benefits outweigh the risks, for whom, and for how long?
Finding new oil in the deep Gulf of Mexico has not been easy. Historically, “dry holes,” wells that never produced commercial hydrocarbons, have been numerous. To put the last number in perspective, 72% of all wells drilled in water depths greater than 5,000 feet were dry holes!
Why is this so?
The sizes of reservoirs are important - it turns out that over the entire range of reservoir sizes, hydrocarbon reservoirs follow a “parabolic-fractal” law that says there is an increasing proportion of the smaller reservoirs relative to the larger ones.
If this law of reservoir sizes holds true, most, if not all, of the largest oilfields have already been discovered, and the smaller ones will not add much new oil to the total regardless of how many new oilfields are discovered.
The Paradigm of The Low-Hanging PEAK
We employ the Principle of Least Effort or Low-Hanging Fruit when we look for the resources that we need. We would never have considered looking for oil in deep water before we had fully developed the easy oil available elsewhere. We follow the same principle in the development of human society and in other aspects of history.
This is a variant of plucking the lowest fruit. The second fruit to pluck is the next one up, and so forth. At some point, however, the costs start to accelerate and the benefits of complexity, the ability to solve problems, increase more slowly and the risks start to become more than acceptable. This is a normal economic event, and it is known as the point of diminishing returns.
That should be how we redefine the point of Peak Oil. There is a need to shift the definition.
2020: The Year of the Boiled Frog
‘Boiling a frog’ is a famous metaphor for the problem we all have perceiving changes that are gradual but cumulatively significant, that may creep up and have devastating consequences. Nothing changes very much and things seem normal. Then one day the accumulation of changes causes the appearance of normality to disappear. Suddenly things have changed a great deal, the catastrophe has arrived. The world is different.
We know how to boil a frog. Complexification is how to boil a society. Complexity grows by small steps, each seemingly reasonable, each a solution to a genuine problem. A few people always foresee the outcome, and always they are ignored.
We are often assured that innovation (in technology or production or processes) in the future will reduce our society’s dependence on energy and other resources while continuing to provide for a lifestyle equivalent or better than such as we now enjoy. Could innovation reduce the energy cost of complexity?
Institutionalized innovation as we know it today is a recent development. In every scientific and technical field, early research plucks the lowest fruit: the questions that are easiest to answer and most broadly useful. Research organization moves from isolated scientists who do all aspects of a project, to teams of scientists, technicians, and support staff who require specialized equipment, costly institutions, administrators, and accountants.
Looking at today’s unending stream of inventions and new products, most people assume that innovation is accelerating. Ever-shorter product cycles would lead one to believe so. In fact, relative to population, innovation is not accelerating. It is not even holding steady.
Huebner found that major innovations per billion people peaked in 1873 and have been declining ever since. Then, plotting U.S. patents granted per decade against population, he found that the peak of U.S. innovation came in 1915. It, too, has been declining since that date.
Jesus Fracking Christ - A Saviour?
Patzek’s (One of the authors) research has emphasized the use of unconventional natural gas as a fuel bridge to the possible new energy supply schemes for the U.S. Fracking is an important such new technology that is posing as a sort of savior. But we need to understand such improvements inside the framework of he technology-complexity spiral framework - that such improvements is ultimately an increase in complexity.
Does this mean that efficiency improvements and new technologies of extraction such as Fracking are not worthwhile? Of course not. Efficiency improvements are highly valuable, but their value has a limited lifespan. Technical improvements may merely establish the groundwork for greater resource consumption in the future. This in turn requires further technical innovation, but as we have just discussed, those technical improvements will become harder and harder to achieve. And as we do achieve them, they may serve us for shorter and shorter periods. We have a tendency to assume that technical innovations such as Fracking will solve our energy problems. This is unlikely.
It is the Thermodynamics, Stupid!
The Second Law of Thermodynamics defines what tends to or can happen in any energy system (the entropy of an isolated system never decreases). Considerable energy flows are required to maintain complex structures that are far from equilibrium, including living organisms and societies. We must breathe, drink, and eat for energy to flow continuously through our living bodies and maintain their highly complex, organized structures. Unfortunately, this tends to create a mess in the environment that surrounds us.
The same principle applies to the production of oil. The energy it would take to restore the environment damaged by the oil production processes such as Fracking (or inevitable disasters such as the BP spill) exceeds by several-fold the amount of combustion heat we get from burning the oil in our cars. In both examples, we cannot break even no matter how hard we try!
The Boiled Frogs: A Quick History of Civilizations
Although we like to think of ourselves as unique, in fact our societies today are subject to many of the same forces and problems that past societies experienced, including problems of complexity and energy. In some past societies, the growth of complexity ultimately proved disastrous, and all past societies found it a challenge. It might seem quaint to talk of ancient societies declining but it is infect quite easy to see the striking parallels. It takes being a Historian though.
(Much of the insight in this section draws upon the book ‘The Collapse of Complex Societies’ which the reviewer has not read. Hence, it is not covered in detail in this summary.)
The Roman Cauldron
There was not much ancient societies could do to store extra solar energy except to turn it into something durable. This they did by turning surplus solar energy into precious metals, works of art, and people and into monetary units. When the Romans conquered a new people, they would seize this stored solar energy by carrying off the same precious metals and works of art, as well as people who would be enslaved.
One of the problems of being an empire is that eventually you run out of profitable conquests. Expand far enough and you will encounter people who are too poor to be worth conquering (the germanic tribes), or who are powerful enough that they are too costly to conquer (The Persians). Diminishing returns set in.
ROME: Hit that Decline Button - Sloowwly
The strategy of the Roman Empire, in confronting a serious crisis, was largely predictable - They responded as people commonly do: they increased complexity to solve their problems, and subsequently went looking for the energy to pay for it.
This way of dealing with increasing complexity can be called The Roman Model. The society, in this model, increases in complexity to solve urgent problems, becoming at the same time increasingly costly. In time there are diminishing returns to problem solving, but the problems of course do not go away.
Byzantium - The Dark Age Solution
Third and fourth century Byzantine emperors had managed a similar crisis in a similar fashion by increasing the complexity of administration. This eventually led to a radical devolution of the civilization. The period is sometimes called the Byzantine Dark Age. This eventually led to a re-flowering of the empire.
This response is the Byzantine Model: recovery through simplification. It is a solution that is often recommended for modern society as a way to inflict less damage on the earth and the climate, and to live within a lower energy budget. In this sense, Byzantium may be a model or prototype for our own future, in broad parameters but not in specific details. There is both good news and bad news in this. The good news is that the Byzantines have shown us that a society can survive by simplifying. The bad news is that they accomplished it only when their backs were to the wall. They did not simplify voluntarily.
Europe: The Subsidized Continent
As discussed earlier, there is an overwhelming reason why today’s prosperous Europe emerged from so many centuries of misery - That they got lucky: they stumbled upon great, almost free subsidies.
Over the seas they found new lands that could be conquered, and their resources turned to European advantage. We are all familiar with the stories of untold riches that Europeans took from the New World.
This process is the European Model: of increasing complexity. Problem solving produces ever-increasing complexity and consumption of resources, regardless of the long-term cost. High complexity in a way of life can be sustained if one can find a subsidy to pay the costs.
This is what fossil fuels have done for us: they have provided a subsidy that allows us to support levels of complexity that otherwise we could not afford. In effect, we pay the cost of our lifestyle with an endowment from a wealthy ancestor.
This is fine, as long as the subsidy continues undiminished and as long as we do not mind damages such as the Gulf oil spill.
A Subsidized Planet: Living on Borrowed time - Literally
More recently, all societies of today, led by Europe, made the transition to financing themselves through fossil fuels, supplemented to varying degrees by nuclear power and a few other sources. This continues the European tradition of financing complexity through subsidies – energy coming from elsewhere. In this case, the “elsewhere” is the geological past.
The Deepwater Horizon is one of the latest manifestations of the evolutionary process of complexification. Problems such as the depletion of easy deposits and environmental concerns have been met by complexification: the development of technology that is increasingly capable, yet costly and risky (such as Parallel Drilling, Fracking, Arctic exploration etc). The cost comes not only in the money needed to design, purchase, and run such a rig, but also in the money to repair the environmental damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon spill. Yet despite these costs, we will continue to operate such rigs until they reach the point of economic infeasibility or, more important, the point where the energy returned on energy invested, and the resulting energy and financial balance sheets, make further exploration pointless.
Can anything be done about the energy–complexity spiral without diminishing our material quality of life? Two potential solutions commonly suggested are: Conservation and Innovation. But does either conservation or innovation provide a way out of the energy–complexity spiral? In this discussion, we have found that there might not be much hope.
It is fashionable to think that we will be able to produce renewable energy with gentler technologies, with simpler machines that produce less damage to the earth, the atmosphere, and people. We all hope so, but we must approach such technologies with a dose of realism and a long-term perspective.
To the contrary, as problems great and small inevitably arise, addressing these problems requires complexity and resource consumption to increase. The usual approach to solving problems goes in the opposite direction. The Energy consumption of societies can only be on an upward trajectory - indefinitely (till supply chokes and dies).
To believe that we can voluntarily survive over the long term on less energy per capita is to assume that the future will present no problems (or fewer!). This would clearly be a foolish assumption, and this reality places one of the favorite concepts of modern economists and technologists, sustainable development, in grave doubt.
So, it is not clear whether renewable energy can produce even a fraction of the power per person that we enjoy now, let alone more energy to solve the problems that we will inevitably confront. Renewable energy will go through the same evolutionary course as fossil fuels. The marginal return to energy production will decline, just as it has with fossil fuels.
Cheap abundant energy, chiefly from oil, has come to be regarded as a birthright, and we all expect someone to drill and deliver that oil to support our energy-exuberant lifestyles. The tragedy aboard the Deepwater Horizon may be a rare event, like a Black Swan, but it does force us to reconsider the potential price for the complex and risky technological solutions that will continue to be required to bring the remaining oil to market.
The processes building up to an energy crisis have been growing in the background for decades, out of sight of most consumers. Then a tipping point is reached - a catastrophe, and suddenly the world has changed. Similarly, the complexity and riskiness of drilling in open water have been growing for decades, but growing in the background, away from most peoples’ sights.
So the Gulf spill appeared as a Black Swan when in fact it was a frog finally boiled to death.
All Excess Baggage Aboard: How to Jettison the Energy Dilemma
So, what now? We seem to have run out of options. At least, the easy ones.
We are not the first people to face an energy dilemma. We saw three examples of societies that faced problems of energy and complexity. Each found different solutions (?) to their problems, and from this experiment we can foresee possible options for ourselves.
To be sure, we will try to continue the European model of energy subsidies for as long as we can. Humanity will not forgo such rich, steep gradients. Even the threat of climate change will not deflect humanity from searching for oil in ever-more-inaccessible places, nor from burning through our mountains of sulfurous coal. Too many people find the short-term wealth and well-being irresistible.
For how long, though, can we follow the European model? Declining EROEI and the Laws of Physics suggests that the answer is: Not forever.
We cannot cannot continue on false optimism and expect to preserve our lifestyle. Do we then need to identify things we want to preserve of our culture and channel energy to those items? Should we jettison as much as possible and try to stay afloat? Is that the only way to avoid a devolution into another in the sequence of Dark-ages that civilizations have made a habit of falling into?
These are tough questions.
Wake Up and Smell the Boiling Oil
Our societies cannot postpone this public discussion about future of energy and the tough questions. The era of plentiful petroleum will someday end. We don’t know when this will happen, nor does anyone else. Surely it will happen sooner than we want.
We cant fool ourselves any more - we are running on fumes and dooming our grandchildren (or even ourselves - who can truly say?) to a pre-technological society. As the Red Queen said to Alice in Through the Looking Glass, “Here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” Paying more and more to maintain the status quo is the very essence of diminishing returns to problem solving.
But it is, however, the direction in which we are headed. Someday, the physics of net energy will curtail our use of petroleum. A trend that cannot continue, won’t.
You start your reading of Calvino’s explorations. You do this mainly to get to know a wonderful list of classics to tackle, of the thoughts of a loved You start your reading of Calvino’s explorations. You do this mainly to get to know a wonderful list of classics to tackle, of the thoughts of a loved author, and to know of how to approach these sometimes daunting works. After the masterful first essay which defines ‘classics’, you realize that Calvino is up to something here. You look at the long list of books and realize that too many of them fall in the invented category of ‘personal classics’ (‘his own classics’ in other words), the choice of which are artfully explained away by his irrefutable first essay. You are now sure that the book would be an interesting window to Calvino’s literary world and his evolution but not to the vast classical education you were hoping for from the book. You put off the book many times over the year but eventually get back to it.
But as you finally read through the rest of the essays, you realize that it is more fun than anticipated to hear Calvino talk of the books you have already read and enjoyed and just infuriating to read of ones that you haven’t. So you quickly buy the books as Calvino talks of them. Then you vow to read again his short essays on Anabasis or Pliny before you delve into these books, which might have been postponed indefinitely if not for Calvino’s gentle (but at the same time caustic) coaxing. Of course, you know that you would have to read the essays before you read your new acquisitions and then again a month after the reading is past just to compare experiences with Calvino, which as you already know is great fun.
You also begin to discern a few jarring notes… but they do not put you off - a reading life is not complete without an explanation of the spirit that animates the reading quest. Calvino’s obsession with how history and its enactment is to be viewed begins to shine through. And, sometimes to your disappointment, he examines many of the authors primarily from the lens of how they tried to invent history and their own conceptions of it - slightly distorting his analysis in the process but with a distinct purpose. To you, some of these extrapolations seem like inventions but, it becomes difficult to draw the line between serious experiment and play. You console yourself with the fact that, luckily, Calvino’s obsession is a favorite pastime of your own as well.
In the end, you scribble a quick one line review before moving eagerly to the heady pile of books that Calvino has collected for you on your desk: This book is a treasure.
A Goodreads Corollary:
Classics are those books which when you rate them, you only rate yourselves....more
Here is the review I had planned in my earlier rambling. I had half-hoped that I would brood over it, and in due time, some blazingly originQualifier:
Here is the review I had planned in my earlier rambling. I had half-hoped that I would brood over it, and in due time, some blazingly original understanding of the book would shine through in a review (as it usually does!). Now enough time has passed and I have even given the book a second go-over. I am still lost. So here, for your reading pleasure, is the second-hand review, the old mish-mash of familiar thoughts, the dusty talk about beauty and about confused morality and vague hints at some hidden depth. It is just table-talk as far as Lolita is concerned. Do you really want to read it? Why don't you read a more intelligent counter-analysis here? I warned you --
Lolita should probably be read with a french dictionary in one hand and a glass of wine on the table side and even that doesn't guarantee that you will understand the full beauty of the prose.
Only the beauty of the language distracts one enough to get through the head-over-heals atrocities that litter the pages. At times I felt strongly that it is more of a study in beauty and aesthetics than is it about morality or on examining the pathos of society - as we want every literary book to be.
The fact that it doubles as a weird post-apocalyptic parent-daughter road-trip, where they cruise on against the dark landscape of a morally devastated world was for me only a backdrop to the exquisite ode to beauty that the book was. But, the road-trip nevertheless occupies a central position in the narrative. The Appalachian roads are the witness to the worst of the perversions - the dark moral descent. And then the tide reverses and the same roads are traversed again in a mad descent of the intellect into madness. But somehow, in that second journey Humbert gains a surer knowledge of what the relationship between beauty and innocence is and about what appreciation should be tolerated and what terminated.
The most disturbing factor about the whole reading experience was the dawning sense that the poor Lolita whom you are to pity is not so innocent after all.
She represents the modern youth - who knows all the worst secrets of earth and indulges them without any sense of the absurd or evil. The innocence lost is regained due to a lack of angst at what an earlier generation considered morally base. What is not acceptable in this post-apocalyptic moral world? Apparently nothing, the worst transgressions are treated as matter of fact and the two interlopers are never discovered and even murder is committed in the midst of mad jocularity. It’s a comedy roiling in depravity, masquerading as a confession. It is as darkly-funny as ‘darkly-funny’ can get. Post-modernism marries Absurdist literature in Nabokov's Lolita.
The fabricated foreword too gives tantalizing clues on how to decipher the novel and the protagonist - but as you finish the novel you realize that the foreword was an example of how someone who just doesn't “get it” would view the novel. It is a negative signpost to guide you on where not to go. The afterword is very factual and gives a better understanding of the book.
As the B&N site says, Nabokov writes prose the only way it should be written... that is, ecstatically. The novel is indeed too perfectly crafted, you want to scream at it in disgust and you want to coo at it in adoration. It is like one of those abhorrent but so-perfect marble statues - it is beautiful enough to be feared but your eyes can never look away once fixed on its perfect form. As a fellow goodreader has said, you may not enjoy reading this book but you might enjoy having read it. Reading it is worth the time, just to marvel at what our mundane, every-day language can become in the hands of a true artist.
Forget what it describes, go with the music, dance a little....more
The review I really have in mind will be attempted for this book only after I finish reading Claudius the God (to quench the burning curios Yo, Claudio
The review I really have in mind will be attempted for this book only after I finish reading Claudius the God (to quench the burning curiosity of how this ‘Clau-Clau-Claudius’, a man, who in the first shock of being made emperor had this outrageous thought come rushing to his mind - "So, I'm Emperor, am I? What nonsense! But at least I'll be able to make people read my books now.”, will conduct himself as a God-Emperor), The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic, so that I can apply the same criteria for reviewing any work of history, as suggested by Claudius (original source for much of Pliny's work) himself, through Livius and Pollio (all works unfortunately lost).
Meanwhile, have a short and enjoyable snapshot sampling of the book by going through the-easy-to-follow family tree given below. Ah, the tales that can be told while tracing those lines…
Wow, It took me 13 months to read this book. I knew very little about the book's context and about the ideas explored when I started reading the book Wow, It took me 13 months to read this book. I knew very little about the book's context and about the ideas explored when I started reading the book (partly because of the allure of the title and partly because It was among the 25 Popular Penguins). During the first 12 months I read the first half of the book, plodding slowly, 2-3 pages once in a while, with a deliberate exercise of will-power, littering the book with marginalia and exclamation marks - amazed at the language and the torrent of ideas and information.
Then, unintentionally, the book was gradually put aside and lost among a growing tide of must-read books. Meanwhile, I read many other books dealing with the same subject matter and discussing many of the same questions, familiarizing myself to some extent with the numerous arguments. Today I picked up Khilnani again to read a few more pages to get a move on (I hate half-completed books on my shelf) and to my surprise, all the plodding was gone and I breezed through the rest of the book.
No more was it an incomprehensible lecture which I should try and capture as much of as I can, it was now a pleasant conversation with enough interesting back-and-forths from both sides that notes and such became unnecessary. The book became more memorable and the reading experience actually improved with this loss of awe.
This is the first mid-book transition for me in which the tone and texture of the book, along with my entire attitude towards it shifts so rapidly. Makes me wonder how much is missed by reading a well written and popular book first without taking the trouble to study the subject first - most of the richness that informed the author in his writing is lost on the reader by the author’s attempt to make the book more readable. It is a necessary tragedy. (Unless the reader takes it on himself to alleviate the collateral damage). Is it?
P.S. About the book itself, it is a very poetic and well written exploration of the question of Indian Identity. While Khilnani doesn't offer much in the form of new theories on what this definition should be, he very evocatively sets forth the many identities that have and continue to define the vast nation. The discussion on Nehru and Gandhi is exceptional in their clarity and the unreserved take on Hindutva deserves to be read with great attention. The last chapter rises to a poetic crescendo with Khilnani offering his own conceptions on how these various identities should be interpreted and accepted. The stunning bibliographic essay which lists close to 200 odd books is a treasure trove and has given me an enormous and intimidating list of books that should be explored. ...more
Hark, A Fairy Tale I Give Thee, Fit for Today’s Times!
I have in my time, written many plays - tragedies, comedies, all - but reader beware: this might be my darkest vision yet.
I will exalt you; and in death’s throngs.
Have you heard of Cinderella, of King Leir, of Arcadia’s Kings, and all such happy and sad tales of old? Have you laughed with relief at their ends?
Well, let me show the real end of tales.
Have you hated the Villains and prayed for the Heroes? Let me show you how, each to himself and to the other, they only plough despair on themselves! Let me show you of good and evil and the intermingled confusion of their origins. Let me show you the face of the Gods, mocking and crying, the mad Gods that rule us.
Note now my words well, and note the tales I tell. You have heard them before, so note most where I differ!
Note how it is Leir and his daughters, who are mixed with the Paphlagonian King of Sidney’s Arcadia. Pay your most special heed to those special introductions of mine: to the Storm and to the Madness; to the Fool and to poor Tom; to the faithful and noble servant and to the slimy one; and most of all to the Protean one.
See all this in me, be not blind!
See also what I leave out, see the plot tightened and stripped off base plottings and machinations, and the happy endings! See my sources condensed and expanded and kneaded into a potent brew for your vision’s improvement.
But most important of all, see the mixing of the tales: all themes from all stories pour into my cup, I raise them from mere tales to be an epic, to cosmic proportions. Watch on, as Leir’s small world becomes my Lear’s world - and then becomes the world entire. Is it clear to you that my Lear’s fate may indeed be the fate of any man, of Yours? Never mind, it is a mystery you can fathom not!
[Aside] Alack, the future shall find this impossible to bear, and just as I mutilate the happy myths, my sad tragedy too shall be undone so, by Nates and nit-wits! Actors and audiences will then prefer this mutant version of my play. Oh, how then its happy ending will comfort them, for a century and a half! Not for much longer - You will be back to me. Comforting endings, all fictions, are only there to mock, as ever.
Finally see the ending I have stored specially for you, see how I have left no consolations for you. See how I raise your hopes at every turn and shatter them like boys playing with insects. See through these windows I make for you, before you erect your mirrors all over again.
You must see that beyond the apparent ‘worst’ that I let you imagine, there is a worse suffering, and when it comes in with a rush, it will be a mere image of that horror, not the thing itself. Ha! and yet, it will be more appalling than anything you could expect, than the very worst nightmares this stage can conjure!
See! See if for a moment, before you leave me and slip back into cozy habits again, into your own blindness of self-absorption.
Alack, it is for me to shatter your expectations, for only in the cracking of the mirror can you see through that window-that-was and into the truth beyond. Let me be your guest and enter your very homes and crack all the mirrors fixed where windows ought be, and let in the world, full wild and gorgeous!
A difficult play to stage my hands said to me! Indeed, I meant it to be thus and naught else - ‘only the imagination can encompass it’ (which might serve quite well in a day when reading supplants all staging in reach) but stage it I shall, watch it you shall, break the mirrors I shall, and rush in the World shall.
The Road to Wigan Pier & 1984: A Parallel Analysis
Commissioned fortuitously in the period when Socialism was on the retreat and Fascism on the ris The Road to Wigan Pier & 1984: A Parallel Analysis
Commissioned fortuitously in the period when Socialism was on the retreat and Fascism on the rise, Orwell must already have begun to glimpse the world which he was to envision with vigorous clarity in ‘1984’. This review is a dual review then, of ‘1984’ and of ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’.
Written ostensibly as a documentary-report on the life of the working classes in the industrial towns of england, Orwell uses his reportage to investigate two crucial questions:
1. Why class differences persist even when the means exist to destroy them 2. Why socialism is failing practically and intellectually even as the moral facet (of its rectitude) is irrefutable (to his mind, at least)
The reader has to be warned that The Road to Wigan Pier can seem a bit rambling (or circuitous!) at times but is in fact a tight composition and has been echoed by many writers since Orwell.
The structure of the piece is quite elegant:
In the first section, Orwell provides a direct detailing of the life in the ‘industrial towns’, of the proletariat, of the toiling classes. It is evocative and reminded me strongly of Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity in depth of detail and emotional involvement. It is a quick tour but captures the essential cruelties and degradation of life - rotten housing, lack of toilets, unemployment - and the complete hopelessness of it all. But just as Boo does later, Orwell also manages to convey that it is not due to the people, it is purely due to the conditions imposed on them. Orwell is very careful to drill this point home. It is the situations that make the classes.
This is exactly what I expected from the title of the book though I had also been resigned to some amount of political commentary, Orwell being Orwell. But soon the real purpose of the book starts to take shape and for a while I felt disappointed. But Orwell soon reveals the purpose behind his autobiographical excursions in the second part of the book and now I have come to regard this second section as the most vital. It is a narrative technique which I am now starting to notice in a number of other authors trying to grapple with class differences, including Suketu Mehta in Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, trying to come to terms with a riven Bombay.
So, in this second, and to me most important, section, Orwell exposes his own biases and prejudices through a frank autobiographical study. He opens up his own upbringing to show how prejudices creep in and establish themselves in our psyche and never let go no matter how hard we hammer at them. Situating himself as a symbol of the middle class, Orwell uses this sketch to convey how we are all prey to such class prejudices and that we need to work within our own limitations and especially of the one’s we are trying to convert to the specialist cause (by we, I mean the Left Book Club - the intended audience of the book). He uses the pungent example of ‘lower classes smell’ as an irrevocable class barrier. This has come under much criticism but it is important to keep in mind that it is only an example, he could have gone with the ‘non-pronouncement of the ‘H’s’ or any other minor but hard to avoid detail. To criticize the choice of detail is besides the point.
Then comes the last section: the fulmination and the grand rhetoric. This section is the hardest to agree with and feels the most dated to the modern reader. Orwell tries to examine his second major point - Why is Socialism Declining? His answer is that it is because it is associated with mindless mechanized progress - due to the wrong instruments of propaganda which are turning away all the right sort of people and bringing only the ‘quacks’ into the socialist circles. Instead, to win the all-out and most important war against Fascism (which is, Orwell asserts, at the Gates), the Socialists need to forget class propaganda, accept that class prejudices will take longer to disappear (as elucidated in the previous section) and focus on the principles of ‘liberty’ and ‘justice’, which Orwell is sure will bring all the moral and intelligent people into Socialism. Only by asserting this moral core of Socialism, stripped of class propaganda, can the scales be tipped in favor of Socialism and away from Fascism. Now the humanistic picture of the depravations of the first section are resurrected in another light and Orwell presents both the class-proletariats as well as the ‘economic-proletariats’ (i.e, people like himself, born to a higher class but earning only the equal of an industrial worker), as more likely to tend towards fascism, if for no other reason but self-preservation. Socialism needs to bring these classes into its fold. That is the crying need of the day.
"And then perhaps this misery of class-prejudice will fade away, and we of the sinking middle class … may sink without further struggles into the working class where we belong, and probably when we get there it will not be so dreadful as we feared, for, after all, we have nothing to lose but our aitches ('H's)."
The Literary Lens / The 1984 Reappraisal
The conclusions advocated by Orwell must seem too simplistic to modern ex-post readers, but there is another angle to be explored here that is not political in nature. This arises from the fact that this exposition was published before either 1984 or Animal Farm and after Brave New World. Orwell is quite clear that the Utopia (or Dystopia, or better, Utopia Caricatured) envisioned as the end goal of socialist progress in Brave New World is the very core of intelligent man’s revulsion towards Socialism - arising organically due to associations with ‘softness’ and degradation. Orwell needed to show the other extreme to turn this revulsion on its head.
We often compare Brave New World and 1984 as if they were alternate predictions and give marks to Huxley for having predicted better. But this misses Orwell’s point.
Orwell wanted to show the other extreme - the purely Fascist Dystopia - to bring around the people who were revolted by Brave New World and similar Utopian visions that were doing the rounds then (such as The Dream and Men Like Gods). Orwell calls these visions of the future that is based on mechanical progress as “the paradise of little fat men” which he admits was “aptly caricatured by Huxley in Brave New World”.
You can also think of the caricature in the Wall-E movie for a better visualized reference. Orwell gives a grand argument, based on how the purpose of machines is to make human life easier and thus softer, to show how the Wall-E future is pretty much inevitable according to this conception of progress. He needed to present the antithesis to this vision - 1984. No matter how bad the caricature of the socialist progress, the Fascist one is surely the one to avoid. 1984 was the rubbing in of this idea, already set forth in 1937 with The Road to Wigan Pier, more than a decade before the fictional attack became unavoidable for Orwell.
Thesis. Antithesis. Synthesis. 'Boom', said the Three Sisters.
And, if we can claim that Orwell’s prophesy is today less imminent than Huxley’s, then Orwell wins The Battle of ‘Who Can Scare Them Most’.
Well done, Orwell, you turned the course. Huxley, you needed to scare us more - we are headed there fast, still....more
Nietzsche never struck me as a real philosopher. He was too much the story-teller.
This is probably his most a-phi Apollo Vs Dionysus: A Darwinian Drama
Nietzsche never struck me as a real philosopher. He was too much the story-teller.
This is probably his most a-philosophical (?) work. But it is my favorite. It was the most accessible to me and it was the most relevant of his works. It helped me form my own convictions. It was universal and yet not choke full of platitudes. It was forceful but not descending into loud (almost incomprehensible) invectives. (you know which works I subtly allude to)
'Birth of Tragedy' was his first major work and to me (in contradiction of the previous paragraph) his most philosophical. It seems to me to be the very soul of his philosophy - that was then refined and reformed in the fire of his (self-imposed?) suffering. The later philosophy is the ‘Nietzschian’ one - grand and too powerful to ignore. But, this earlier core is, to me, the real beauty that livens all the later fury.
Nietzsche, already in this, his first work (ostensibly on the source of Greek tragedy), set Dionysus (the god of vitality, ecstasy, thriving life, and of wine) against Apollo (the god of tranquillity, logic, and of contemplation).
According to Nietzsche, in Greek tragedy as in life, it is the unruly chorus who represented Dionysus and was a crying-out of humanity (the species) itself. Apollo, on the other hand, was represented by the human actors and expressed himself through the orderly dialogue. Apollo was designed to be noticed - the conscious story. Dionysus was designed to be evoked - the collective unconscious?
In this early core of Nietzschian philosophy, a philosophy of species vs individuals, of species evolution pitted against human vanity, Dionysus is the strength of the human race, of life itself (vide Darwin) but manifests only as mere background to any given human drama (but still the source of all drama and is THE actual Drama).
Apollo, in contrast, is expressed in any given human drama (composed or lived) - important and represented and thought about. But, always about mere individuals, weak and mortal.
With this early work Nietzsche leapt into the depths and all the later developments was a climb back and proclamations of the reality of the Deep. Or even attempts to reconcile with it. It is tragic that it evolved into a darker, crueler negation clothed as an affirmation. At least in this work, he adored and embraced the tragic sensibility which is the condition for man - of adoration of life and of its cruel laws, despite all the weakness of the individual - the real genesis of the Superman.
Disclaimer #1: Written more than a year after the original reading and after only a cursory re-reading/re-glancing. Please trust the reviewer when he asserts that the work is powerful enough to stay fresh-to-review even after a year has passed.
Disclaimer #2: Required Expansion of Essay: 'The Superman as The Buddha: The Inevitable Evolution of Tragic Consciousness'...more
In 1978, when Susan Sontag wrote Illness as Metaphor, a classic work, she wasa cancer patient herself. Butin spiteof that,it is not a book about beinIn 1978, when Susan Sontag wrote Illness as Metaphor, a classic work, she was a cancer patient herself. But in spite of that, it is not a book about being ill or about the travesties of being a cancer patient. In Sontag's words, it is 'not what it is really like to emigrate to the kingdom of the ill and live there, but the punitive or sentimental fantasies concocted about that situation'.
Her subject is not physical illness itself but the uses of the various diseases as a figure or metaphor for completely unrelated instances. Sontag is very emphatic that 'My point is that illness is not a metaphor, and that the most truthful way of regarding illness-and the healthiest way of being ill - is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking.' Yet, Sontag admits, it is hardly possible. But, her work still attempts to do just that - 'It is toward an elucidation of those metaphors, and a liberation from them, that I dedicate this inquiry.'
Sontag directs her sharp scrutiny on the two diseases have been spectacularly, and similarly, encumbered by the trappings of metaphor: tuberculosis and cancer and to other diseases such as cholera, plague, syphilis and leprosy that are used to a lesser extent.
The book's main contention is that our fantasies are responses to diseases that are mysterious in origin and terminal and capricious in nature. TB in the last century and cancer now fits that bill and hence becomes targets of our collective imagination.
The Metaphors of TB
TB used to be the disease of choice for all sorts of metaphors throughout the last century. Many myths surrounded it.
One of the most potent myths was that it takes a sensitive person to feel melancholy; or, by implication, to contract tuberculosis. The myth of TB constitutes the last step in the long career of the ancient idea of melancholy. The melancholy character - now of the tubercular - was a superior one: sensitive, creative, a being apart. It was so well established that TB and creativity was linked in mysterious ways that it was even suggested at times that it was the progressive disappearance of TB which accounted for the current decline of literature and the arts.
The tuberculic is characterized as a dropout, a wanderer in endless search of the healthy place. Starting in the early nineteenth century, TB became a new reason for exile, for a life that was mainly traveling, as shown in many great travel novels of the era. It was a way of retiring from the world without having to take responsibility for the decision or consequences as in the story of The Magic Mountain.
In contrast to the great epidemic diseases of the past (bubonic plague, typhus, cholera), which strike each person as a member of an afflicted community, TB was understood as a disease that isolates one from the community. However steep its incidence in a population, TB - like cancer today - always seemed to be a mysterious disease of individuals, a deadly arrow that could strike anyone, that singled out its victims one by one. The disease that individualizes, that sets a person in relief against the environment, was tuberculosis and today is cancer.
Transformation of the TB Metaphors
The TB myth has been transformed in the modern age but the object of all the transference is not, of course, cancer - a disease which nobody has managed to glamorize. In the twentieth century, the romantic aspects of the TB myth has been transferred to a similarly harrowing and mysterious disease that is made the index of a superior sensitivity - Insanity.
Sontag points out that with both TB and with mental illness, there is confinement. Sufferers are sent to a "sanatorium" (the common word for a clinic for tuberculars and the most common euphemism for an insane asylum). Once put away, the patient enters a duplicate world with special rules. Like TB, insanity is a kind of exile. The metaphor of the psychic voyage is an extension of the romantic idea of travel that was associated with tuberculosis. To be cured, the patient has to be taken out of his or her daily routine. It is not an accident that the most common metaphor for an extreme psychological experience viewed positively-whether produced by drugs or by becoming psychotic-is a trip.
With the coming of the twentieth century the myth and the metaphors and attitudes formerly attached to TB has now been apportioned among two diseases:
Some features of TB go to insanity: the notion of the sufferer as a hectic, reckless creature of passionate extremes, someone too sensitive to bear the horrors of the vulgar, everyday world. Other features of TB go to cancer - the agonies that can't be romanticized. Not TB but insanity is the current vehicle of our secular myth of self-transcendence.
Comparisons between TB and Cancer Motifs
The metaphors attached to TB and to cancer are contrasted in great detail by Sontag:
Etymology - 'Cancer' is imagined as malevolent growth, crawling or creeping like a crab and its etymology comes from this image. Tuberculosis was also once considered a type of abnormal extrusion: the word tuberculosis comes from the Latin tuberculum, the diminutive of tuber, bump, swelling - means a morbid swelling, protuberance, projection, or growth.
Symptoms - transparency vs opaqueness - While TB is understood to be, from early on, rich in visible symptoms (progressive emaciation, coughing, languidness, fever), and can be suddenly and dramatically revealed (the blood on the handkerchief), in cancer the main symptoms are thought to be, characteristically, invisible - until the last stage, when it is too late.
Speed and Time - TB is a disease of time; it speeds up life, highlights it, spiritualizes it. Cancer has stages rather than a "gallop". Cancer works slowly, insidiously. Every characterization of cancer describes it as slow, growing menacingly and out-of-control, though this metaphor has speeded up since Sontag's days.
Economics - TB is often imagined as a disease of poverty and deprivation-of thin garments, thin bodies, unheated rooms, poor hygiene, inadequate food. In contrast, cancer is a disease of middle-class life, a disease associated with excess. Rich countries have the highest cancer rates, the toxic effluvia of the industrial economy that creates affluence
Pain - TB is thought to be relatively painless. Cancer is thought to be, invariably, excruciatingly painful. TB is thought to provide an easy death, while cancer is the spectacularly wretched one. The dying tubercular is pictured as made more beautiful and more soulful; the person dying of cancer is portrayed as robbed of all capacities of self-transcendence, humiliated by fear and agony.
Parts of the Body - While TB takes on qualities assigned to the lungs, which are part of the upper, spiritualized body, cancer is notorious for attacking parts of the body (colon, bladder, rectum, breast, cervix, prostate, testicles) that are embarrassing to acknowledge. TB is, metaphorically, a disease of the soul. Cancer, as a disease that can strike anywhere, is a disease of the body. Far from revealing anything spiritual, it reveals that the body is, all too woefully, just the body.
But leukemia seems to approach TB in being romantic and deserving of a more spiritualized metaphor as in the case of the heroine of Erich Segal's Love Story.
After providing these comparisons and contrasts, Sontag is also quick to admit that these are only metaphors and not accurate reflections of reality - "These are contrasts drawn from the popular mythology of both diseases. Of course, many tuberculars died in terrible pain, and some people die of cancer feeling little or no pain to the end; the poor and the rich both get TB and cancer; and not everyone who has TB coughs. But the mythology persists."
Metaphors of Cancer
Cancer has never been viewed as anything other than a scourge; it had no romantic metaphors and it was always, metaphorically, the barbarian within.
The language used to describe cancer evokes an economic catastrophe - one of unregulated, abnormal, incoherent growth. It is out of control.
Sontag gives elaborates on this economic metaphor thus:
Early capitalism assumes the necessity of regulated spending, saving, accounting, discipline-an economy that depends on the rational limitation of desire. TB is described in images that sum up the negative behavior of nineteenth-century homo economicus: consumption; wasting; squandering of vitality.
Advanced capitalism requires expansion, speculation, the creation of new needs (the problem of satisfaction and dissatisfaction); buying on credit; mobility-an economy that depends on the irrational indulgence of desire. Cancer is described in images that sum up the negative behavior of twentieth-century homo economicus: abnormal growth; repression of energy, that is, refusal to consume or spend.
When we pause to ponder here, we can see that in the contemporary scenario, the metaphors of cancer applied to the economic scenario has gone back to the earlier ones associated with TB. This shows how easily we adapt our metaphors to equate our worst fears with our worst illnesses.
Sontag goes on to explain that, the controlling metaphors in descriptions of cancer are, in fact, drawn not from economics but from the language of warfare: with words like "bombarding" and "invasion" and 'radical' populating the scientific journals.
The melodramatics of the disease metaphor in modern political discourse assume a punitive notion: to liken a political event or situation to an illness is to impute guilt, to prescribe punishment. This is particularly true of the use of cancer as a metaphor. It amounts to saying, first of all, that the event or situation is unqualifiedly and irredeemably wicked.
This metaphor is not entirely new either: The Nazis had used the cancer metaphor to modernized their rhetoric about "the Jewish problem" throughout the 1930s: to treat a cancer, they said, one must cut out much of the healthy tissue around it to kill the tumor of the Jewish power that "effortlessly and interminably multiplies."
Sontag says that to describe a phenomenon as a cancer is an incitement to violence. And this is clearly ominous as shown in the example above. But, she also goes on to say that "It is, of course, likely that the language about cancer will evolve in the coming years. It must change, decisively, when the disease is finally understood and the rate of cure becomes much higher. It is already changing, with the development of new forms of treatment."
Lasting Influences of the TB Metaphor
Gradually, the tubercular look, which symbolized an appealing vulnerability, a superior sensitivity, became more and more the ideal look for women-while great men of the mid- and late nineteenth century grew fat, founded industrial empires, wrote hundreds of novels, made wars, and plundered continents.
Sontag draws our attention to the fact that the myth of the spiritually beautiful TB patient has now found in the twentieth-century women's fashions (with their cult of thinness) the last stronghold for the metaphors associated with the romanticizing of TB in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Movies like Twilight project this metaphor of the wan, hollow-chested young men and pallid, rachitic young women.
The Death of the TB Metaphor and Hope for Cancer
Sontag says that by validating so many possibly subversive longings and turning them into cultural pieties, the TB myth survived irrefutable human experience and accumulating medical knowledge for nearly two hundred years. The power of the myth was dispelled only when proper treatment was finally developed, with the discovery of streptomycin in 1944 and the introduction of isoniazid in 1952.
For as long as its cause was not understood and the ministrations of doctors remained so ineffective, TB was thought to be an insidious, implacable theft of a life. Now it is cancer's turn to be the disease that doesn't knock before it enters, cancer that fills the role of an illness experienced as a ruthless, secret invasion - a role it will keep until, one day, its etiology becomes as clear and its treatment as effective as those of TB have become. Then the negative metaphors associated with cancer too might die out, or so Sontag hopes.
But inevitably, we will find a new illness to replace it with, after all, the most powerful metaphors are the ones that scare us most. The ideal candidate would be AIDS - which forms the subject of the next Sontag book that I intend to read soon - Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors....more
Another review has been put up here. That one is equally bad and confused, you might as well just skim this:
Still dazed by the stupor of melancholy anAnother review has been put up here. That one is equally bad and confused, you might as well just skim this:
Still dazed by the stupor of melancholy and perversion that Humbert Humbert has exposed my poor brain to. Still trying to make sense of the monster/poet/victim and of Lolita, the symbol of our age. Who exploited whom, who were the villains and who were to be punished, these thoughts are still swirling in my head; desperately trying to ascribe meaning beyond the mere acts of the novel, to read into the disparities between nature and actions. A see-saw of poetry and debauchery. I also wonder how much I missed out on due to my handicap of not knowing french.
The primary effect of this beauty and poetry is that we keep geting charmed by this old-world, aristocratic protagonist who can talk in such a poetic way and then he gently turns around and reminds us of what he is contemplating doing to that young girl and we draw back in revulsion again, only to be ensnared in his honeyed prose a few lines later. And so it goes, tiring you out and enchanting you.
So, a review will come as soon as I can reconcile the beauty of the novel with its deep, dark underbelly and some meaning that is not merely moral emerges.
That might take many readings and I am not sure that is something I am willing to put myself through. But a review, however small, helps clarify the book in my head and, for that I will try.
Another thing I want to make sense of is this - Nabokov’s account of the old newspaper story that inspired him to start a work such as Lolita presented in the novel’s afterword "On a Book Entitled Lolita" - The story was about “an ape in the Jardin des Plantes, who after months of coaxing by the scientists, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: the sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage." - Isn't that just surreal? The connection with Humbert is right there at the edge of my imagination, in his own prison maybe and maybe in the prison that was his life's lust. I don't now, but what pleasure to ponder.
One thing I can confidently say even with my shock at the rest of the novel is that the opening paragraph is perhaps the most beautiful and alluring one I have ever read - It draws you into this perverse universe where every dark secret thought is open to scrutiny like some succubi, a beautiful mermaid or Lamia who lures you only to crucify you. The mind thrills and the eyes laze over the paragraph and you are aglow in the ecstasy the rest of the book seems to promise, thinking of the beauty that is waiting for you in those pages, the plays of language, the thrill of appreciating such wonder and you are happy that this book, Lolita, that you have heard so much about is going to be a delight. But of course, the book is just like a nymph as described in it, it tantalizes with ethereal beauty only to expose our world to the harsh reality of man's nature - at least I think so. The book is the real Lolita not any character in it....more