Vales of Laughter? Not so much.

I picked up this 1953 comic novel of Peter DeVries after reading a writer whom I respect report that it is a work that literally makes him laugh out loud. This, to me, is an extremely high commendation, something I myself have only experienced with two works over 25 years of “seriouvaleoflaughters” reading: Nabokov’s Pale Fire and (the winner by a mile) John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces. No other work has had this effect. And sadly, The Vale of Laughter failed to add its name to this rarified club. While the book is occasionally amusing, much of the humor seems forced, and some of it positively groan-inducing. While DeVries seems to be aiming at a lighter, more absurdist version of Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), Roth’s work is significant more interesting—and funnier. I read through this book quickly, for fear of wasting too much of my valuable reading time on a novel that is not within the top 1000 ever written.

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The World of the PRB

I have been a fan of the art of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood for several decades, since first encountering their works while sojourning in the United Kingdom. In fact, even before seeing the paintings of Rossetti et al., in their magnificent Tate Gallery splendour, I had already been introduced to their ideas via my work on Ruskin and William Morris (see below post on The Stones of Venice). I distinctly recall being shown a chapel at Cambridge (the specific college escapes me now), and remarking, immediately upon entering, that the windows were surely the work of Edward Burne-Jones. My guide, an older “fellow” (I mean that literally) of the cloth, was astonished that I recognized the artist, noting that I was the first ever to do so—a comment that made me both proud and sad, considering that I felt, particularly at that time, that EBJ’s art was nonpareil.

Here it is, now, exactly 20 years The Pre-Raphaelites and their World by William Michael - Folio Societyhence, and I have just read The Pre-Raphaelities and their World, a fascinating account of the life, work, relationships (though, alas, less on the women than the men) of the major artists in the self-conscious “movement” known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood: Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), William Holman Hunt (1827–1910), John Everett Millais (1829–1896), Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898) and William Morris (1834–1896)—as well as the larger circle of like-minded artists, poets and acquaintances. This retrospective work, written by Dante Gabriel’s brother William Michael Rossetti, a founding member and unofficial scribe of the PRB, is rife with interesting biographical nuggets; to William Michael’s credit, he does not attempt to whitewash the flawed personalities of these idealistic, petit bourgeois artists, including that of their figurehead—his own brother Dante Gabriel (actually Gabriel Dante). While we get a strong sense of Dante’s love for his model/muse Lizzie Siddal, I would have liked to hear more detail of the illicit affair with Janey Morris, wife of William “Topsy” Morris, accomplished poet, designer, social critic, failed painter, and Dante’s friend and fellow traveler in PRB mentality. Other episodes involve the Brownings, Tennyson, Swinburne, Ford Madox Brown, Ruskin, Whistler, and just about any Brit with a claim to artistic or poetic fame during the late Victorian period. Although she remains a shadowy figure, largely confined to the backdrop of the tale, one also gets a glimpse of the strong personality of William Michael and Dante Gabriel’s younger sister, the poet Christina Rossetti.

The volume, produced by the Folio Society, also contains dozens of beautiful prints, including a variety of the PRB hits: Hunt’s Rienzi Swearing RevengeConverted British Family, Our English Coasts, The Light of the World, Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini, Beatrice at a Marriage Feast, Beata Beatrix, Venus Verticordia, Millais’s A HuigenotFerdinand Lured by ArielMariana, Ophelia, and so on. In addition, the book reproduces a few stunning works by less successful members and associates, including Morris, Lizzie Siddal, and Frederik George Stephens (whose Mother and Child is stunning).

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A Dream of Red Mansions

I have been absent from the blog for several months due to various reasons, not the least of which is that I have been immersed in reading an extraordinary long work, the Chinese Ming Dynasty classic A Dream of Red Mansions (紅樓夢 Hóng Lóu Mèng; aka Dream of the Red Chamber or The Story of the Stone). It has been my practice for several years now to embark upon a long novel over the Winter break, and I decided in 2008 to use this period biannually to peruse the four Chinese (literary) classics: Journey to the West (2008), Outlaws of the Marsh (2010), A Dream of Red Mansions (2012), and Romance of the Three Kingdoms (2014).

20100108164625435Whereas the first two “novels”, Journey to the West and Outlaws of the Marsh, are rambling tales of adventure, travel, and battle (replete with interesting religious components), Mansions, attributed to Cao Xueqin in the 18th century, is a cat of quite a different color. In length it is similar to the earlier works; in fact, at roughly 1700 pages it is the second longest work of literature I have ever read (albeit far behind Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, clocking in at 4200 pages, and unlikely to be surpassed unless I choose some day to tackle the entire Indian epic Mahabharata). And yet, in style and tone Mansions could not be more different from these Journey or Marsh; in fact, it is much closer to Proust in this regard, as well as The Tale of Genji, which precedes Mansions chronologically by some 700 years but is also rooted in the confined and claustrophobic world of the courtly elite. Personally, I found Mansions a frustrating read, largely because the number of sympathetic characters is miniscule, but also because even the interesting characters do not develop very much, if at all, throughout the story. There is no “plot”–and while the same could be said of both Journey and Marshthe pace of Mansions is generally slow as death. And speaking of death, that is a major theme of the work; perhaps it can be best described as an extended meditation on the fleetingness of human life, even in the most prosperous of families.

Getting back to the characters of the story, while the central protagonist, Pao-yu, can hardly be described as anything other than a preposterously coddled boy-playboy (a Genji in the making, but with less sense), many of the female characters do show a spark that I appreciate. Pao-yu’s ill-fated love—his Albertine, as it were—Taiyu, is essentially his mirror image: vain, selfish, eretheic, though both less coddled and less kind. But other women that surround him, such as the indefatigable Pao-chin, who becomes his wife; outspoken His-jen, Pao-yu’s primary maid and sometime lover; Miao-yu, the aloof but sensual Buddhist nun; Hsi-feng, the comely ‘shrew’ who effectively runs the household; and ‘Granny,’ the matriarch who effectively controls the entire household, are far more intriguing, and more fully developed as characters. As in Genji (which was, of course, written by a woman, Muraskai Shikibu), this elite world is a world dominated by women, with men acting as largely irrelevant appendages that show up from time to time, almost inevitably bringing trouble to the household. The most interesting male figure is undoubtedly Pao-chin’s brother Hsueh-pan, the amorous bisexual rake and bully who is constantly bringing shame to the family (but also enlivining the frequently dull narrative!)

In short, while I am glad to have finally read this masterpiece of East Asian literary history, I am also happy that I will never have to read it again.

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Boccaccio in Love

QuestioniI love love, and I love (for the most part) teaching and reading about love, especially when such involves the work of a ‘master’ of love such as Sappho, Ovid, Hafiz, Stendhal, or Octavio Paz. Giovanni Boccaccio, the ‘third leg’ of the great Italian humanist triad after Dante and Petrarch, certainly belongs in such esteemed company. His Decameron, with its earthy tales of human passion and trickery, is a worthy heir of the great Roman poets of love. After the desultory and disappointing Dead Sea Scrolls, I turned to a slim volume of Boccaccio’s less-famous treatise, Questioni d’Amore, or Thirteen Most Pleasant and Delectable Questions of Love, penned in 1336, when the author was a mere 23 years old. In fact, Questoini is only a small chapter of a much larger youthful work entitled Filocolo, which might be considered the first novel of modern Europe.

The story in Questioni, as in other parts of the larger novel, is rooted in autobiography, specifically Boccaccio’s infatuation with a woman named Maria d’Aquino, whom the author first glimpsed on Holy Saturday, 1336, as he lounged with his pals on the steps on the church of San Lorenzo in Naples. She was, in a word, his Beatrice, his Laura (or his Yvonne, of Le Grand Mealnes fame; more on this later). And yet, as Harry Carter, illustrator of my edition of Questioni (a reprint of H.G.’s flawed 1566 translation), adds: “This was to be no spiritual union, such as satisfied Dante with his Beatrice, nor was it to be the idealized and romantic love of Petrarch for Laura. Boccaccio’s desires were of the flesh and he pursued them with the single intention of consummation.” Now, there is some truth in this – compared with his two towering forebears, GB’s prose tends, as noted, towards the Ovidian. And yet, the tone of disapprobrium is not only overly moralistic for my tastes, it also misses the possibility that one can be both ‘spiritual’ and fleshly’ at the same time.  In other words, it buys too-readily into the Platonic-Christian dualism that runs against, in my humble opinion, the way most folks actually feel when in love (and by ‘love’ here I mean ἔρως in the full, original, Greek sense).

So what of the tales themselves? A few are of interest, though they lack the sophistication or the tales of the Decameron, perhaps betraying the author’s youth. I do appreciate, however, that GB lets women tell half the tales, and generally avoids making their stories  ‘gendered’. And while I personally disagree with most of the advice given by ‘Queen’ Fiammetta (who stands in for Maria d’Aquino), her logic is generally sound. Certainly, the most interesting chapter is in the very middle, where Galeone asks Fiammetta whether love is “a good or evil thing.” Galeone asks this while gazing, enraptured, at his interlocutor, which clearly colors her reply. In the end, she concludes: “Truly, if it were lawful we would willingly live without Love. But of such a harm we are too late aware. And since we are caught in his nets, therefore until the light that guided Aeneas out of the dark ways as he fled the perilous fires may appear to us, it is better for us to follow him and be guided submissively to his pleasures.”

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Dead Sea Scrolls

DSSI wish I could get excited about the Dead Sea Scrolls, but frankly, I’m having great trouble doing so. And this is from a guy who generally loves sacred texts, for all their weirdness and ‘human, all-too-human’ aspects. Just the other day I was raving to a friend about the Vedas with their longing for the ‘lost’ hallucinogen, soma, and how, even if I opt to raise my kids as Buddhists (whatever that means), I will insist that they read the Bible, carefully, from a youngish age (and yes, Nietzsche, both the Hebrew Bible and its lesser “Greek appendix”). But alas, for all their promise of intrigue and messed-up apocalyptical mysticism, the DSS proved to be little more than a repetition of the worst aspects of the Hebrew and New Testament scriptures; i.e., all the sado-masochistic rants about God’s heavenly wrath without the astonishingly beautiful poetry of Genesis (including the fascinating characterization of the man-child-god YHWH), the powerful females and deeply-flawed male leads of Genesis, Exodus, Kings and Chronicles, the overt eroticism of the Song of Songs, or the penetrating psychological insights or Ecclesiastes or Paul’s letters (at their best). Even the apocalyptic flights are boring in comparison with the horrid and seemingly drug-induced nastiness of Revelations. And much of it reads like Psalms; a biblical book that, with apologies, is a repetitive snore-fest.

After all, the Essenes, who wrote this text in their cave-retreat of Qumran while the harsh Roman occupation was ushering in a greater messianic sensibility among many Jews, played an important role in setting the stage for the asceticism and apocalyptic sensibility that characterize the Ebionim (or early Christian) movement. And indeed, the texts incorporated into this volume do strike tones that seem remarkably “Christian”—which proves the point that the followers of Jesus and Paul , while certainly stretching the meaning of orthodox Judaism, were not by any means unique in their ideas and practices. In fact, I tend to think of the early Christian movement as an interesting amalgam of the main currents present in Judaism of the period leading up to the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE: 1) a ritual/sacrifice component that could be a legacy of the priestly Sadducees; 2) a strong ethical component that hearkens to the Pharisees and just emerging rabbinic movement; and 3) a messianic/apocalyptic complex that can be traced to the Essenes and like movements. Just about the only thing the early Christians do not seem to have adopted is the political aspect of the Zealots/Sicarii (though Judas’s presence among the disciples, however bad things turned out in the end, might suggest a connection here; after all, he is called ‘Iscariot’).

Still, I was expecting more from the Dead Sea Scrolls. The most interesting parts were the cryptic remarks about their past hero/founder, known as the Teacher of Righteousness, his foe, the Wicked Priest (probably Jonathan Maccabaeus), and the two Messiahs or the future. Some of the language is also quite rich, including the trope of God circumcising the hearts of the true believers. Ouch!


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The Evil that is Plastic, Part I

Prior to the recent US presidential election I participated in one of those on-line polls (something I usually avoid as being silly and time-consuming). After asking a series of questions regarding values/policies on a wide range of issues, this poll matches you to the political party (and leader) with which you have the most in common. Here are my results. I was/am firmly “Green.” Though at one level this was unsurprising, it disturbed me to realize that: a) I was not even sure that there was a national Green Party running in this election; b) I had never heard of the party leader, Jill Stein, whose policies and values were virtually identical to my own.

Though I am not sure if tTerry bookhis belated recognition of my clandestine green identity prompted this, but in the Fall of 2012 I decided to put my greenness to work, by adopting a more eco-friendly lifestyle. This can, of course, include a lot of things, but I decided to focus on ridding my everyday life of plastic — at least to the extent that such is possible. I was inspired in this regard by Beth Terry’s blog My Plastic-Free Life (and recent book, Plastic Free), which gives very useful tips on how to purge your life of the “evil” that is plastic.

Now, before I get into the problems with plastic, let me say that ridding your life of all plastic in 21st century America is a daunting task indeed, a new asceticism that, given the way that this pernicious substance has filtered into almost every thing we do, is at least as difficult as that of traditional cenobites, whether Buddhist or Christian. In order to tackle this problem, I decided to begin with the following two strategies, one immediate — eliminate plastic connected to food preparation and storage; and one gradual — replace or eliminate plastic items used in chronological order throughout the day.

The first tactic required a thorough overhaul of one whole section of our kitchen cabinets. My first task was to replace all the plastic containers used for refrigerator food storage. To this end, I paid a visit to a Canada-based website that is indispensable for anyone who has taken on the bodhisattva vow to rid the world of plastic: Life Without Plastic. I promptly ordered a satroundsm_LRGmall (4.5″ diameter) square glass container with an airtight stainless steel lid rimmed with silicone. While not inexpensive ($19), this proved to be exactly what I was looking for (and LWP’s shipping is not only prompt but largely plastic-free). I soon ordered an entire set of such containers, of various shapes and sizes.    

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Post-feminist Neo-gothic Fairy Tales

After finishing Ruskin’s Stones of Venice, I turned my ‘leisure reading’ eyes to something completelyBloody Chamber different — albeit a text and author equally indebted to “Gothic” sensibilities of another sort — Angela Carter’s Bloody Chamber & Other Stories (1979). This collection is a ‘post-feminist’ reconfiguring of classic fairy tales, as bloody and lubricious as the originals, but without the problematic gender divisions. I love the fact that Carter, who published her classic and controversial essay The Sadeian Woman in the same year as The Bloody Chamber, ‘updates’ these fantastical stories, adding a dark mirth without sanitizing — indeed, rather reveling in — their chthonic violence.

My favorite of the nine tales is The Bloody Chamber, a revisioned (and better-written) Dracula in which the heroine’s mother — who in her youth had “outfaced a junkful of Chinese pirates, nursed a village through a visitation of the plague, [and] shot a man-eating tiger with her own hand” — comes riding wildly to the rescue of her daughter (and her daughter’s kind but impotent male ‘protector’), felling her astonished husband — the beast — with one well-aimed rifle shot.  The Company of Wolves, which plays on/with the overt sexual innuendo of Little Red Riding Hood, also ends with a dramatic twist to the classic tale: “All the better to eat you with. The girl burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat. She laughed at him full in the face, she ripped off his shirt for him and flung it in the fire, in the fiery wake of her own discarded clothing. The flames danced like dead souls on Walpurgisnacht and the old bones under the bed set up a terrible clattering but she did not pay them any heed.”

Carter’s prose is perfectly suited to this genre; tight and clean, without Stoker’s indulgence, thereby doing justice not only to the classic fairy tales as retold by the brothers Grimm, but evincing a ‘primitive’ directness that reminds one of Emily Dickinson and the “J” author of Genesis (who, if Harold Bloom is correct, was also a woman). Here is one examples: “The telephone shrilled; for her. Her father. Such news!” Compare J’s beautifully pithy account of the Fall, in Rosenberg’s translation: “To its fruit she reached; ate, gave to her man, there with her, and he ate.”

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The Nature of Gothic

I plan to use these posts to unload random thoughts on any and all topics, especially  those connected to the six interlocking spheres most important to me: philosophy, religion, ethics, politics, literature, and the environment. I have no idea if anyone besides myself will ever read them, but that is of little concern to me.

Let me begin with a few thoughts on a book I am currently reading, John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice (1851–53; Folio Society edition, 2001). My appreciation for Ruskin goes back to the very beginnings of my academic career. In my senior year as an undergraduate at McGill, I wrote an  joint honor’s thesis on Ruskin and his influence in 19th and 20th century politics and social theory: ‘No Wealth But Life’: Art & Nature in Left Cultural Politics from Kant to the Frankfurt School (see excerpt below). Besides being a decidedly eccentric personality, Ruskin was a fascinating hybrid of cultural currents: a Romantic who disdained the heavy-handed forms of the Renaissance in favor of the spirit of “Gothic”; an unabashed aesthete who was also an quasi-Christian moralist; a cultural conservative who developed one of the earliest (and non-Marxist) analyses of labor and alienation; and a writer whose frequent flights of over-the-top prose belie a steady commitment to the virtues of temperance and restraint. I see the trace of Ruskin in many of my favorited 19th century figures and movements: the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, William Morris, the Arts & Crafts Movement, Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde.

The Stones of Venice is generally regarded as Ruskin’s magnum opus, and the chapter “The Nature of Gothic” provides a succinct distillation of his central moral/aesthetic concerns. Here Rusking outlines the “moral elements of Gothic”, as follows: 1. Savageness or Rudeness; 2. Love of Change; 3. Love of Nature; 4. Disturbed Imagination; 5. Obstinacy; 6. Generosity. Without going into the details that Ruskin goes on to provide, let me say that these are six values that I, too, hold as ideals – which perhaps explains my love for his work.

The following is a short excerpt from my essay, “No Wealth But Life.” Though I wrote this two decades ago, I stand by my argument with regard to Ruskin’s applicability today:

Ruskin was heir to a particular brand of British Romanticism (via Thomas Carlyle), and he was also very much a Victorian in his reflection upon the ills of his society. With his aesthetic grasp of the human condition, however, Ruskin was far from common, and it is this aspect of his work that has most relevance, and which is often cited when Ruskin is hailed as a prophetic figure. Like Marx, Ruskin witnessed first hand the wrath of capitalist industrialism, and turning from his artistic background felt compelled to speak out on social issues, without ever losing his background in aesthetics or his love of beauty and human creativity. Speaking with unabashed contempt of all the so-called ‘higher practical achievements’ of his century, Ruskin viewed Victorian cities as “so many working models of hell.” He launched a full-scale assault upon orthodox political economy, which in his view was entrenched in capitalist, utilitarian-technological principles of calculation and exchange-value. Ruskin, then, follows Carlyle in the denunciation of the Machine Age, but his critique extends further to a more general attack on post-Enlightenment scientific and rationalist thought. At once an outcry against social injustice and inhumanity, Ruskin’s work is also a direct assault upon the “bastard science” of political economy, which mechanizes, isolates, and fragments human beings and society, producing in its wake a vast impersonal machine of separate, self-interested atoms.

Industrial machinery, says Ruskin, is only the most concrete manifestation of a way of thought that renders life impure. Human beings and society must only be understood as complex and multi-faceted organisms, rather than as Ricardo’s homo oeconomicus, which for Ruskin is an insult upon human dignity. Mechanical development in the Machine Age subdued humankind to a state of spiritual slavery, whereby development gains priority over human happiness and quality of life. Ruskinian critical theory has its base in one central tenet immortalized in his essay “Unto This Last:” There is no Wealth But Life. For Ruskin: “Intrinsic value is the absolute power of anything to support life. Exchange value is merely the price the possessor will take for it, and they are not identical. The exchange value of a cannon ball and a pudding may be the same but their intrinsic value is not. To exclude intrinsic value from economic calculations is unscientific.”

Life, says Ruskin, in its totality, must be the end and aim of consumption, as well as the focus of any true political economy. Here Ruskin borrows from Edmund Burke, adding social affections and moral factors into political and economic calculations, not as sentimental whim but on the basis of scientific procedure and common sense. The questions of art, economy, and politics cannot be separated from each other—or from the questions of morality and ethics.

Essentially, Ruskin sees, at the roots of the central problems of his day (the dehumanization of humanity in poverty, ugliness and squalor), not a certain class of people, but, first, a philosophy based on a mechanistic account of human nature, and second, a belief in liberty when the reality of depravity made such a concept hollow and useless. As well, Ruskin mentions a third problem: the (Mandevillean) conviction that communal prosperity can only be achieved by the pursuit of individual self-interest. Fro Adam Smith to Malthus to Mill, Ruskin combated the liberal democratic vision of humanity as the sum of his own interests, detached from a social context. “Unto This Last” was written with the dual purpose of giving a logical definition of wealth and to show that the acquisition of wealth is possible only under certain moral conditions of society. In particular, Ruskin voraciously attacks so-called progress that, based on an incorrect notion of wealth and prosperity, cannot help but be disastrous to humanity in the long run. A true definition of value, he suggests, would be one based upon the original Latin root (valorem)—a word that means to be strong or valuable for someone or something. Value, like wealth, must be concerned with, or avail towards, life.

Ruskin’s aesthetic background is fundamental to his life philosophy. A society so dedicated to squalor and heartless brutality, he says, cannot help but be indifferent to all praised of beauty. Drawing a link between morality and the realm of beauty, Ruskin sees in art (especially Gothic, i.e., pre-industrial, art and architecture in particular) the achievement of an equable relationship between human creativity and the given world. As a mediaevalist in both aesthetics and social theory, he sees in the idealized picture of the mediaeval European craftsman and his village a prototype for all human artistic and social fulfilment. Yet art must have a purpose, which is ultimately to “get the country clean and the people beautiful.” An aesthetic principle for life not only benefits humanity directly, but also indirectly, by enjoining the beautification and sustenance of nature. Ruskin broadens the concept of art by enlarging the formal emphasis on beauty to cover a whole range of human (and non-human) experience.

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