Years ago, I had started Thomas de Quincey's magnificent book, but laid it aside for some inexplicable reason. Now I see that this volume -- Confessio...moreYears ago, I had started Thomas de Quincey's magnificent book, but laid it aside for some inexplicable reason. Now I see that this volume -- Confessions of an English Opium Eater -- is infinitely worth reading through to the end, and even returning to its glories at a later date.
De Quincey's opium habit led to his heterodox approach to life, which alternated between manic passages of glory to massive funereal threnodies, of which the following sentence from "The English Mail Coach" is but a sample: "I sate, and wept in secret the tears that men have ever given to the memory of those that died before the dawn, and by the treachery of earth, our mother."
Of the three essays in this volume, by far the best is the first, the eponymic Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. The second, Suspiria de Profundis, is also tinged by its author's drug habit, particularly in its most depressive phase. The shorter "The English Mail Coach," begins with youthful exultation and ends with a long meditation on an night collision with a gig when the one-eyed coachman drove while asleep. In that collision, De Quincey speculates that a young woman was killed, though we never know for sure.
There is a scholarly elegance to De Quincey's writing:
Oh, burthen of solitude, thou cleavest to man through every stage of his being -- in his birth, which has been -- in his life, which is -- in his death, which shall be -- mighty and essential solitude! that wast, and art, and art to be; -- thou broodest, like the spirit of God moving upon the surface of the deeps, over every heart that sleeps in the nurseries of Christendom.
De Quincey had an awesome background in the Greek and Latin classics, and his prose is mightily influenced by those two dead languages, but only in the best sense of the word.
Loren Eiseley represents a nexus, where the worlds of science and the imagination meet. His poems and essays are meditations about who we are, where w...moreLoren Eiseley represents a nexus, where the worlds of science and the imagination meet. His poems and essays are meditations about who we are, where we come from, and where we are going as a species, in conjunction with all the other species with whom we share this world. Star Thrower is his last book, a selection of essays on nature and science, joined with a handful of early poems that show him to be at ease in both worlds.
It is unfortunate for all of us that Eiseley is not around any more, because no one has, as yet, replaced him. No one asks those deep questions that resonate through our very being. In his essay "The Lethal Factor," he writes:
In one of those profound morality plays which C. S. Lewis is capable of tossing off lightly in the guise of science fiction,one of his characters remarks that in the modern era the good appears to be getting better and the evil more terrifying. It as as though two antipathetic elements in the universe were slowly widening the gap between them. Man, in some manner, stands at the heart of this growing rift. Perhaps he contains it within himself. Perhaps he feels the crack slowly widening in his mind and his institutions. He sees the finest intellects, which in the previous century concerned themselves with electric light and telephonic communication, devote themselves wholeheartedly to missiles and supersonic bombers.
Although he was a noted anthropologist and academic, Eiseley's sympathies were with the downtrodden forms of life. In answer to the Biblical injunction to love not the world neither the things that are in the world, Eiseley responds:
"But I do love the world.... I love its small ones, the things beaten in the strangling surf, the bird, singing, which flies and falls and is not seen again." I choked and said, with the torn eye still upon me, "I love the lost ones, the failures of the world." It was like the renunciation of my scientific heritage. The torn eye surveyed me sadly and was gone.
There is a gentility here in Eiseley's writing that seems to have gone out of the world.(less)
I started reading J. M. Coetzee's Stranger Shores: Essays 1986-1999 thinking, "Well, I'll just give it a try." I found myself being enthralled by the...moreI started reading J. M. Coetzee's Stranger Shores: Essays 1986-1999 thinking, "Well, I'll just give it a try." I found myself being enthralled by the author's South African perspective of both the West and his own native land. Then, too, most of the essays were about writers with whom I wasn't familiar, largely from the Netherlands, Germany, Israel and the Middle East, and finally South Africa.
Years ago, I had read two or three of Coetzee's novels and found them interesting, particularly Waiting for the Barbarians. I am delighted to find a contemporary essayist whose work I can use to send me off in some new directions. I have already purchased Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook and am looking for a good edition of Breyten Breytenbach's Dog Heart.
It is too easy for a reader such as myself to get into a rut: I think Coetzee's Stranger Shores may be an antidote.
As much as I love the works of G K Chesterton, I am forced to admit that A Short History Of England is not one of his best works. Chesterton just does...moreAs much as I love the works of G K Chesterton, I am forced to admit that A Short History Of England is not one of his best works. Chesterton just does not do well on more lengthy, sustained polemics. It is only when he can break his work down into individual essays, such as in Orthodoxy and Heretics that he shines.
Perhaps this work is best titled Some Thoughts on British Social History and Religion. He skips from Richard II to the 18th century Whigs, then zig-zags back to the Middle Ages until one's head begins to spin. I would have enjoyed this book much more if it were presented as a book of loosely connected essays.(less)
I have not read such an eye-opening book by a scientist since I used to read Loren Eiseley's work years ago. This short book of essays by MIT scientis...moreI have not read such an eye-opening book by a scientist since I used to read Loren Eiseley's work years ago. This short book of essays by MIT scientist Alan Lightman looks at the universe from several points of view, first from the point of view of its origin, its evanescence, the spiritual dimension, symmetry, size, the laws of nature, and ending up with our strange disembodied universe in which we use electronic tools that somehow mirror the discombobulation associated with quantum mechanics. At one point, he writes:
Evidently, our impression that solid matter can be localized, that it occupies only one position at a time, is erroneous. The reason that we have not noticed the "wavy" behavior of matter is because such behavior is pronounced only at the small size of atoms. At the relatively large sizes of our bodies and other objects that we can see and touch, the wavy behavior of particles is only a tiny effect. But if we were subatomic in size, we would realize that we and all other objects do not exist at one place at a time but instead are spread out in a haze of simultanous existences at many places at once.
This reminds me of Einstein's own problems with quantum entanglement, which he called "spooky action at a distance."
The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew is full of insights like these. What is more, it puts them together is a neat package that does not require mathematical formulas and complicated graphs and charts. Lightman deals with his subject matter using easily understood concepts and plain, simple language.
There are some things that draw me to Chatwin, and others that repel me. On the one hand, he had this mania for travel that has been part of my life after since I broke free of my parents; and, as a former art auction expert for Sotheby's, he has a distrust for people who keep score in life by accumulating "things."
On the other hand, Chatwin's restlessness also pertained his relationships with people. He was bisexual and somewhat treacherous (in effect) with those people who were drawn to him. Even in his best books, The Songlines and In Patagonia, he partook of the same mythomania that he criticizes in others. The story took precedence over the data provided by informants. Many of those who acted in that capacity felt seduced and betrayed by him. Read Nicholas Shakespeare's Bruce Chatwin: A Biography for particular instances of his "treacherous" side.
And yet, the stories he tells are frequently -- but not always -- wonderful. I feel I have the same yearnings toward travel, the same horreur du domicile and distrust of "accumulators" of stuff. I wish I could write like the man, but I will just have to content myself by reading him. Particularly good are the opening essay, "I Always Wanted to Go to Patagonia" and the two closing essays, "Among the Ruins" and "The Morality o Things."
The only disappointing part of this collection is Chatwin's failed attempt to provide a philosophical basis for his rootlessness, his so called "Nomadic Alternative." It is always a danger to take one's own psychological traits and write them large as a theory of life.
Chatwin tried to live his "Nomadic Alternative," but sadly died all too young of AIDS in 1989.(less)
As the millennium approached, a number of creative writers were dragooned into predicting the next thousand years based on past trends. I remember rea...moreAs the millennium approached, a number of creative writers were dragooned into predicting the next thousand years based on past trends. I remember reading one such book by Italo Calvino. Now I have also read the Czech novelist Ivan Klíma's short book, Between Security and Insecurity.
I rather liked the idea that this set of essays was written by a Czech who had spent time in concentration camps under both the Nazis and the Communists. Most of the writers he quotes are likewise Czech. I have always thought that subjects like this are most interesting when dealt with by a writer having a different world view, and Klíma certainly qualifies.
When asked by the editor of the "Prospects for Tomorrow" series not to be too pessimistic, Klima quoted from his own novel entitled Love and Garbage:
I still believe that literature has something in common with hope, with a free life outside the fortress walls which, often unnoticed by us, surround us, with which moreover we surround ourselves. I am not greatly attracted to books whose authors merely portray the helplessness of our existence, despairing of man, of our conditions, despairing over poverty and riches, over the finiteness of life and the transience of feelings. A writer who doesn't know anything else had better keep silent.
Excellent words, these, and Klíma follows them.
The major enemies to human society, according to Klíma, are the mass media and their cult of entertainment; the odd combination of apathy and aggressiveness; the abdication of art, which has become divorced from all understanding; and the decline of the family. Where he sees hope are recent movements to enfranchise women, promote ecological good sense, and rein in the all-powerful effects of mass media on our culture.
There is indeed hope, but there are also the inevitable slippages when segments of our society have no compunctions about poisoning the ground we walk on, the water we drink, and the air we breathe. (less)
It is difficult for a practicing Christian to write a book about losing a beloved wife without sounding a bit too pat to someone whose beliefs are dif...moreIt is difficult for a practicing Christian to write a book about losing a beloved wife without sounding a bit too pat to someone whose beliefs are different. And yet, I do think Lewis was honest with himself: When his wife Joy died of cancer, his recovery involved a kind of hide and seek with God.
Throughout this short book, Lewis maintains his high standards of writing and comes up with such painfully honest observations as the following:
Tonight all the hells of young grief have opened again; the mad words, the bitter resentment, the fluttering in the stomach, the nightmare unreality, the wallowed-in tears. For in grief nothing "stays put." One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral?
It is fortunate that I have never lost the woman I love. My losses are my forebears: My father, mother, and great-grandmother. To cope with their loss, which was most harsh for me, I wound up internalizing them, seeing them as part of the person I have become, and turning inside toward myself to ask for their advice.
Back in January, I printed a quote from Sir Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia, Urne-Buriall, or. A Discourse of the Sepulchrall Urnes Lately Found in Norfo...moreBack in January, I printed a quote from Sir Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia, Urne-Buriall, or. A Discourse of the Sepulchrall Urnes Lately Found in Norfolk (1658). A reader named Kevin Faulkner took me to task for essentially taking the easy way out and not quite coming to terms with the work of the 17th century scientist, divine, and mystic. He recommended that I read the companion piece Browne published in the same year, entitled The Garden of Cyrus, or, the Quincunciall, Lozenge, or Net-work Plantations of the Ancients, Artificially, Naturally, Mystically Considered with Sundry Observations.
This week, I finally got around to reading The Garden of Cyrus. When confronting such a powerful mind as Browne’s, with his phenomenal erudition, recall, and powers of observation, I must confess to feeling unworthy. Never before has prose risen to such poetic heights, with a level of difficulty that approaches Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. The following comes early in the first chapter:
Wherein the decussis is made within a longilaterall square, with opposite angles, acute and obtuse at the intersection; and so upon progression making a Rhombus or lozenge configuration, which seemeth very agreeable unto the originall figure; Answerable whereunto we observe the decussated characters in many consulary Coynes, even even those of Constantine and his Sons, which pretend their character in the Sky; the crucigerous Ensigne carried this figure, not transversely or rectangularly intersected, but in a decussation, after the form of an Andrean or Burgundian cross, which answereth this description.
Now this is in no wise to be considered as light reading. Yet there is a Greco-Roman sense of majesty in which Browne takes the simple shape illustrated above, inspired by the tree planting pattern of Cyrus in ancient Persia, as one of the basic patterns in nature and art. And ultimately in the mind of God.
Browne goes far beyond the lattice-work in nature and botany to a mystical consideration of the shape and of the number five, which it suggests in the Quincunx pattern, with a tree in the center and one at each of the four points in a lozenge-shape surrounding the central tree. As Browne says in his conclusion in Chapter Five (the last chapter, appropriately): “All things began in order, so shall they end, and so shall they begin again; according to the ordainer of order and mystical Mathematicks of the City of Heaven.”
Sir Thomas Browne is not a writer one can read once over lightly. Each of his powerful essays, including his Religio Medici, begs to be accepted as a vade mecum to which the reader will return again and again.
And what does the reader gain? Actually, the erudition and complex latinate vocabulary by itself is not the reason for a further acquaintance: Rather, it is the way in which the towering speculations of the author are in the humble service of his God. For Browne, there is no conflict between science and Christianity. They complement each other at every turn.
Somehow, I feel as if my dreams tonight will be of rhombuses and quincunxes extending into the heavens, from the smallest parts of creation even unto the stars.
If you are even moderately interested in a difficult and rewarding author, I suggest you read his essays, and also look of Kevin Faulkner’s excellent website entitled The Aquarium of Vulcan, which deals rather more substantially with Browne than I am able to at this time.(less)
Not all books of random observations by great writers are profound. Charles Baudelaire was more than a little misogynistic, and his Intimate Journals...moreNot all books of random observations by great writers are profound. Charles Baudelaire was more than a little misogynistic, and his Intimate Journals can be maddeningly cryptic, especially this edition of a translation by Christopher Isherwood that lacks identifying footnotes of the hundreds of references and Latin and Greek quotes that the author makes without explanatory comment.
Every once in a while, a coherent thought comes to the fore, but more often there are sequences like this:
Music. Of slavery. Of Society women. Of prostitutes. Of magistrates. Of the sacraments. The man of letters is the enemy of the world. Of bureaucrats.
In one sense, Hunter S. Thompson was a poseur. In another, he was a canny participant over a period of a half century that saw Viet Nam, the Kennedy A...moreIn one sense, Hunter S. Thompson was a poseur. In another, he was a canny participant over a period of a half century that saw Viet Nam, the Kennedy Assassination, Rock and Roll, Nixon and Reagan, the Hell's Angels, Ed Muskie, the Mariel Boat Lift, and a failed attempt to convict him on trumped-up charges.
It's rather odd to be at the same time a participant in all this madness, and also a critical intelligence seeing all the craziness for what it was. There is a certain exhilaration to reading these letters and occasional papers:
You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.... And that, I think, was the handle -- that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting -- on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave....
Never have I seen such a succinct description of what the Sixties were all about.
Even though many of the pieces in Songs of the Doomed: More Notes on the Death of the American Dream appear to have been cobbled together, it is fascinating to follow the development of Thompson's style of gonzo journalism, with its subtext of fear and loathing. About our times, he says, "The stomping of the rich is not a noise to be ignored in troubled times. It usually means they are feeling anxious or confused about something, and when the rich feel anxious or confused, they act like wild animals."
It's a pity that Thompson committed suicide when he did at the age of 67. I think he still had some piss and vinegar in him. (less)
What we have here is a triptych: three linked works of art, one based on the other. First there was Boris and Arkady Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic (197...moreWhat we have here is a triptych: three linked works of art, one based on the other. First there was Boris and Arkady Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic (1972), perhaps the most memorable of their science fiction novels. Then came Andrei Tarkovsky's film Stalker (1979), ostensibly based on it and, in fact, employing the Strugatsky brothers as screenwriters. Now there is Geoff Dyer's long essay entitled Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room. This last is in a genre by itself, an extended commentary retelling the story of the film with lengthy footnoted riffs about how the film has impacted Dyer's life and imagination.
All three works are masterpieces in their own right. I have now read both books as well as seen the film, and I yearn to reacquaint myself with all three of them.
Is there something perhaps a little perverse about writing a ruminative essay about something that comes from something else. Have we somehow put ourselves too many removes from the original work by the Strugatsky brothers? Or does it matter, inasmuch as both Stalker and Zona are totally absorbing, as was Roadside Picnic.
Perhaps I should draw back a little and give you some idea of the world of the composite work of art I think of as “The Roadside Stalker Zone.” We are some time in the future, in a grimy post-industrial wasteland in a small country near an area once visited by extraterrestrials who just happened, for whatever reason, to leave strange inexplicable things behind -- including a room which, if you enter it, grants all your innermost desires. (Never mind that the only known person to have visited it, named Porcupine, hanged himself shortly thereafter.)
These zones formerly visited by the extraterrestrials (who have all moved on without getting their visas stamped) have been sealed off by the authorities. But there is an active "black market" of individuals called stalkers who take people to visit the zones and perhaps bring some things back -- things which are inexplicable. The children of these stalkers are themselves strange, like Monkey, the film's Stalker's daughter, who has the power of telekinesis, which we do not learn until the very end of the film.
Stalker takes two individuals, referred to only as the professor and the Writer, into the zone. Their journey is a journey of self-discovery. Do they enter the room? I do not wish to spoil the story for you, so I urge you to consume the entire triptych, in order of publication or release, to come to the same realization that I have arrived at: That Geoff Dyer is a phenomenal writer whose work I am going to enjoy reading in the months and years to come.
I am still stunned after having read this magnificent essay. It begins slowly as a scholarly discussion of funeral customs of the ancients and, in its...moreI am still stunned after having read this magnificent essay. It begins slowly as a scholarly discussion of funeral customs of the ancients and, in its culminating chapter, is as profound as Ecclesiastes in denouncing the vanity of wanting to leave behind towering monuments to our former selves. Never in all my days of reading have I seen such deep scholarship wedded to such humility and an overwhelming sense of goodness:
Pious spirits who passed their days in raptures of futurity, made little more of this world, than the world that was before it, while they lay obscure in the chaos of pre-ordination, and night of their fore-beings. And if any have been so happy as truly to understand Christian annihilation, ecstasies, exolution, liquefaction, transformation, the kiss of the spouse, gustation of God, and ingression into the divine shadow, they have already had an handsome anticipation of heaven; the glory of the world is surely over, and the earth in ashes unto them.
I cannot help but think that I will return to this work again, perhaps several times. It is as profound a devotional book as any written by the saints and acknowledged holy men of previous times: "Happy are they whom privacy makes innocent, who deal so with men in this world, that they are not afraid to meet them in the next; who, when they die, make no commotion among the dead, and are not touched with that poetical taunt of Isaiah."
And what is that poetical taunt? "They that seek thee shall narrowly look upon thee, and consider thee, saying, Is this the man that made the earth to tremble, that did shake kingdoms; That made the world as a wilderness, and destroyed the cities thereof; that opened not the house of his prisoners?"(less)
I just had the nasty experience of writing a review of this book which Goodreads lost somewhere between the moons of Uranus and the neighborhood of Al...moreI just had the nasty experience of writing a review of this book which Goodreads lost somewhere between the moons of Uranus and the neighborhood of Alpha Centauri. Phoooey!
To summarize briefly, Italo Calvino chooses six (actually five) traits he would like to see carried forward into a millennium which, alas, he did not live to see.It almost doesn't matter what these traits are: It only matters that Calvino took all of literature and examined it through his jeweler's loupe, showing us new relations, new pathways, that were wrapped in a skein in his prodigious gray matter.
Having just finished this book, I want to go through it slowly, looking for new authors, new works to read. Like his hero Borges (who is also my hero), Calvino functions as a magnificent signpost. I plan on bringing a knapsack, a canteen filled with water, a hiking staff, and a library to follow the many trails marked out by him.(less)
This is the second volume of a series of weekly essays that George Mackay Brown wrote for The Orcadian. They are suffused with the austere light and s...moreThis is the second volume of a series of weekly essays that George Mackay Brown wrote for The Orcadian. They are suffused with the austere light and stormy weather of the Orkney Archipelago, most particularly that little corner of it called Stromness. His essays have so influenced me that they are my model for a blog a write at Tarnmoor.Com.
But Brown is far more than a journalist. He is one of Scotland's greatest poets and writers of the twentieth century. Many of his poems furnished lyrics for the music of Peter Maxwell Davies. Although he is not well known in the Americas, I think he should be. Particularly memorable are the short stories in Hawkfall and his novels Magnus, Greenvoe, and Vinland -- all on local themes.
Or you can read these short essays, which leave one with a strong sense of that austere and virtually treeless landscape surrounded by the stormy waters of Pentland Firth.
I have just finished reading David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster and Other Essays. Actually, I finished it several days ago, but it has taken...moreI have just finished reading David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster and Other Essays. Actually, I finished it several days ago, but it has taken some time to sink in. Wallace was a brilliant writer who had a problem with depression, which caused him to end his life at age forty-six.
Knowing something of his life, I read his essays with a certain hindsight. I was particularly taken aback by the title essay, where he talks about the cruelty involved in boiling lobsters. He starts slowly by describing a visit to the Maine Lobster Festival, then begins to talk about how the crustaceans are prepared:
So then here is a question that’s all but unavoidable at the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker, and may arise in kitchens across the US: Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure? A related set of concerns: Is the previous question irksomely PC or sentimental? What does “all right” even mean in this context? Is the whole thing just a matter of personal choice?
The basic scenario is that we come in from the store and make our little preparations like getting the kettle filled and boiling, and then we lift the lobsters out of the bag or whatever retail container they came home in ... whereupon some uncomfortable things start to happen. However stuporous a lobster is from the trip home, for instance, it tends to come alarmingly to life when placed in boiling water. If you’re tilting it from a container into the steaming kettle, the lobster will sometimes try to cling to the container’s sides or even to hook its claws over the kettle’s rim like a person trying to keep from going over the edge of a roof. And worse is when the lobster’s fully immersed. Even if you cover the kettle and and turn away, you can usually hear the cover rattling and clanking as the lobster tries to push it off. Or the creature’s claws scraping the sides of the kettle as it thrashes around.
That sounds pretty ghastly to me, along with some other details that Wallace provides in his revulsion of man’s inhumanity toward the lobster.
Lest you think that Consider the Lobster is merely a PETA tract, the other essays cover a broad spectrum, ranging from a porno film producer convention in Las Vegas to the works of Kafka and Dostoyevsky to American English to traveling with Senator John McCain on the “Straight Talk Express” bus during the U.S. Presidential Election of 2000.
In every case, Wallace is brilliantly penetrating in his colloquial, acronym-larded English. While discussing the career of John Updike, he refers to the horrors of the Me Generation: “anomie and solipsism and a peculiar American loneliness: the prospect of dying without even once having loved something more than yourself.”
With Wallace, one is never far from a sort of emotional nakedness that verges on the uncomfortable if it were not for the fact that it is sincere to the nth degree. Perhaps that’s why he’s not with us any more.(less)