Monday 24 December 2012

"Atlas Shrugged" and the Pleasure of Sympathetic Reading (On Christmas Eve)

Honestly, I didn't know anything about this book when I started reading it, other than the fact that "Atlas Shrugged" is to middle-class liberals what "The Satanic Verses" is to Islamic Fundamentalists. I was actually pleasantly surprised when the story began, because I was pretty interested in the mystery that Rand wove around the disappearance of numerous captains of American industry. Unfortunately, Rand's heavy-handed polemicizing and torpid prose lost its energy after the first 50 pages. The length of the (in)famous John Galt speech is also unforgivable from a storytelling perspective, and could only appeal to readers who require constant reassurance of their rigid views (which is fairly common for egoists).

From an Objectivist standpoint, Rand's philosophical arguments would be much more convincing if she weren't so long-winded. Her repetitiveness reveals a fairly transparent anxiety about the close alliance between her brand of libertarianism and all-out anarchism. What's the primary difference? The fact that Rand believes that Government (with a capital "G") should intervene in private affairs to enforce property contracts. For me, that's a fairly arbitrary principle to tack onto the laissez-faire worldview, and it certainly doesn't emerge from any process of logical deduction. Also, I find it annoying that even though Rand suggests that the majority of humankind is made up of entitled leeches, I've never met a fan of "Atlas Shrugged" who thinks he/she is a leech. For the Objectivist in me, something doesn't add up there. This fact gives Rand's philosophy a distinct tone of self-pity, making every Randian sound as though he/she is constantly wailing, "Woe is me! I'm an exceptional person and the world of leeches won't stop oppressing me. Why can't people see how much better I am?"

With all that said, I actually have some deep sympathy for Rand. After the Bolsheviks confiscated her father's pharmacy and the building in which it was located, she moved to Petrograd (St. Petersburg) in 1921, where her family lived on the verge of starvation. It doesn't surprise me at all that Rand would want to articulate a philosophy that was the exact opposite of Communism. I'm also not surprised that she felt pretty good about moving from her desperate conditions in Russia to the pro-capitalist United States in 1926. This aspect of her experience came out most strongly for me in "Atlas Shrugged" when she claimed [sic] "Human beings will always need something to mediate their relationships, and historically speaking, whenever it hasn't been money, it's tended to be a gun." That part of her philosophy is something I totally understand and sympathize with (although it is still a historical irony that the Communist Revolution opened Russian universities to women and in fact allowed Rand to obtain her post-secondary education).

Rand's views only apply in a world where everything is completely black and white, and quite frankly, I think the world is more complicated than that. There is no objective argument I could make that would  compel a Randian to agree with me. I simply believe the world is a complicated place, that perspective matters, and that helping others is a fundamentally good thing. In the words of Christopher Hitchens, "People don't need to be told to be selfish." We can count on them to handle that on their own. Unfortunately, the conversation surrounding Rand is often so politically and ideologically polarizing that people forget that Ayn Rand was a human being whose views were heavily influenced by her personal experiences.

I understand that the first person to reject this reading would be Rand herself, who would want me to adjudicate her views based on objective, impersonal principles. But in that case,  I have to refuse her reasoning and shower her with compassion whether she wants it or not.

Merry Christmas, Ayn.

Friday 30 November 2012

Comic Strip: The Motes

Hi all,

About a year ago, a very talented artist friend of mine inspired me to try my hand at writing a web comic. So being the lover of modernist literature that I am, I thought it'd be funny to pair a crudely drawn, anthropomorphic puff named (yup) Puffy with an androgynous ghost-friend named Laura, and locate them on some sort of (also crudely drawn) purgatorial planet à la Le Petit Prince. The comic had a pretty short run, though I often thinking about going back to it. In any case, here are the comics I managed to complete.

Monday 26 November 2012

"The Big Lebowski" and Defining Death

Recently, I sat over a pint with one of my closest friends at one of my favorite pubs. The chilliness of the air outside and the warmth of the pub's fireplace more or less made for an ideal evening. As my friend and I chatted over this and that, our conversation eventually turned to the Cohen Brothers' cult classic film, The Big Lebowski. It was only because the evening was so serene that I was able to reveal to my friend that, contrary to what I'd been pretending for the past ten years, I truly did not like this movie (sadly, I was one of those men on the street who'd always agreed that the emperor's clothes looked truly beautiful).  My friend argued that the movie was a work of genius, filled with classic scene after classic scene. I, however, argued that a film needed to be more than the sum of its parts, and that classic Goodman/Bridges exchanges or slow-motion shots of John Turturro weren't enough to make a movie good.

Finally, he countered with the undeniable fact that Lebowski is, plain and simple, an incredibly funny comedy. This might be the case, but there is something about the Cohen Brothers' comedies that has never done it for me. Whether it's Fargo, Burn After Reading, or yes, the irreproachable Lebowski, I can't help but feel that the laughter of these movies is nothing more than a Nietzschean cackle sent off into a random and godless universe. The amorality of the laughter in these movies is too close to Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent for my liking, because in short, I believe that life is best spent trying to make the world mean something rather than embracing its supposed randomness.

The conversation carried on for some time after that, and eventually brought us to the subject of mortality. I asked, somewhat rhetorically, if my friend knew what death was. With a snort, he threw his hands up and said no one did. I had no real answer for this, but having had too many pints to stop talking, I pressed onward and asked him what year he'd been born. He answered 1984; so I told him that death - in his case - was 1983. Simply put, the world existed at that time and he didn't. The same goes for that moment in the future when he (or any of us) will die. The world will still be here, but we won't. It stands to reason that our attitude toward death should be the exact same as our attitude toward the year before we were born.

Death isn't anything we haven't experienced before. We get a very limited window of self-conscious existence between the bookends of non-existence, so I think our time is best spent following the credo of American poet Wallace Stevens, who once said that poetry (or art in general) was "a violence from within that protects us from a violence from without." The task of art is not to reveal the randomness and/or emptiness of the universe, but to wage an endless war against it - in short, to force it to be beautiful.

There is not a clear line of argument leading me from the Lebowski conversation to my meditation on death. But that's the great thing about blogs; you can just post anything that seems interesting to you, even if you don't really know what you're talking about.

Tuesday 13 November 2012

"Bavarian Gentians" by D.H. Lawrence

Lately, I've been having these weird visions while I'm falling asleep at night. In these visions, I imagine myself walking down a spiral staircase, being led by a floating blue flame, and coming to the threshold of the kingdom of the dead. For me, this vision is a metaphor for what really great literature accomplishes: it seduces you down its serpentine corridors, and brings you to the very edge of your own non-being, to the brink of that dark kingdom where all of the people you love will one day vanish. And, of course, where you too will vanish.

It turns out that I've been getting this image from a poem by D.H Lawrence that I read a long time ago. When I was young, I assumed the poem was just about flowers; but only recently have I begun to see it as a metaphor for literature and the reading process in general. In any case, that's as far as my fragmented thinking on the subject has taken me at this point. I really hope you enjoy this poem.

As an added note, you might notice that in this poem, Lawrence forms a very deep association between our approach to the limits of experience and the image of the god Pluto "ravishing" the young and beautiful Persephone. I would like to think that we can salvage the beautiful aspects of this poem while still recognizing the ethical dubiousness of Lawrence's gender politics, which are very heavily based on the insane male libido that he's so well known for writing about. If you want an incredible analysis of gender in Lawrence's writing, start with Simone de Beauvoir's "D.H. Lawrence and the Phallic Imagination," found in "The Second Sex." With her seamless logic and conversational tone, de Beauvoir breaks down Lawrence's views of men and women in a way that is both compelling and (because of de Beauvoir's impeccable style) very enjoyable to read. I was really hoping to provide a link to this piece here, but I'm having trouble finding it online.

"Bavarian Gentians"

By D.H. Lawrence

Not every man has gentians in his house
in Soft September, at slow, Sad Michaelmas.
Bavarian gentians, big and dark, only dark
darkening the daytime torchlike with the smoking blueness of Pluto's
ribbed and torchlike, with their blaze of darkness spread blue
down flattening into points, flattened under the sweep of white day
torch-flower of the blue-smoking darkness, Pluto's dark-blue daze,
black lamps from the halls of Dis, burning dark blue,
giving off darkness, blue darkness, as Demeter's pale lamps give off
lead me then, lead me the way.
Reach me a gentian, give me a torch!
Let me guide myself with the blue, forked torch of a flower
down the darker and darker stairs, where blue is darkened on blueness
down the way Persephone goes, just now, in first-frosted September
to the sightless realm where darkness is married to dark
and Persephone herself is but a voice, as a bride
a gloom invisible enfolded in the deeper dark
of the arms of Pluto as he ravishes her once again 
and pierces her once more with his passion of the utter dark among the splendour of black-blue torches, shedding fathomless darkness on the nuptials.

Bavarian gentians, tall and dark, but dark
darkening the daytime torch-like with the smoking blueness of Pluto's gloom,
ribbed hellish flowers erect, with their blaze of darkness spread blue,
blown flat into points, by the heavy white draught of the day.

Monday 12 November 2012

"Boss and Worker"

Boss: The great destroyer of sympathy is the rage at feeling ungratefully relied upon.

Worker: The great destroyer of sympathy is the rage at feeling unfairly exploited.

George Orwell on the Religious Emphasis of Eliot's "Four Quartets"

I've just been doing a little bit of work on T.S. Eliot's "Four Quartets" for an online learning module, and have realized that this long sequence of poems fills me with a certain ambivalence about its poetic "quality." On the one hand, I think it's the most beautiful thing Eliot ever wrote; on the other, I think that the thing is really prosaic and (as Eliot himself feared) hastily written compared to his earlier stuff. Maybe the whole thing wants the intervention of Ezra Pound's red pen...

In any case, I came across the following review that George Orwell wrote about the first three poems in "Four Quartets," and can honestly say that this guy is a genius when it comes to articulating some of the things I feel about Eliot's work. I think this is a piece of great criticism, and just wanted to share it:

Friday 2 November 2012

My Generation

Members of my generation are not incentivized by money, status, or power to the degree that others have been in the past. We’re incentivized by our insatiable need to have the whole world care deeply about what we’re doing with our lives. To satisfy this need, we would forego almost any creature comfort. Historically speaking, this need for acknowledgement has made us one of the worst groups of material bargainers ever, and considering that we are going to become the employees of people who matured during the decade of Reagan and Mulroney, this obsession with acknowledgment (and distaste for scrappy negotiating) is going to put us in a very difficult position. In this situation, advanced skills and/or education don't inspire us to demand more from a job, but coerce us into accepting less.

Friday 26 October 2012

Congratulations to My Favourite Living Author, Hilary Mantel!

I’d like to extend my ecstatic (though belated) congratulations to Hilary Mantel for winning her second Man Booker Prize for her novel, Bring Up The Bodies. It’s wonderful that Mantel has become the first woman to win this extremely prestigious prize twice; but what I find really amazing is the fact that she managed to win her second Booker for a sequel to Wolf Hall, which (wait for it…) also won the Booker Prize. Just so we’re clear here, the Booker is a really freaking difficult thing to win. That said, I haven't encountered any author who deserves this kind of distinction more than Mantel (at least not any living author). Simply put, she’s my fave, and I can’t name anyone who even approaches the effect of awe and appreciation that her craftsmanship consistently inspires in me. And here’s the funny thing: my favourite book by her is not Wolf Hall or Bring Up The Bodies, but her French Revolution-inspired A Place of Greater Safety. But I’ll save that discussion for another post. Let’s stick to Bring Up The Bodies.

After hearing the great news about her second Booker, Mantel told an interviewer, “I knew from the first paragraph that this was going to be the best thing I’d ever done.” Now in most cases you could read this as an innocuous statement coming from an author who simply wants to promote her most recent work. Or you could read it as the sort of thing that can only be said in hindsight – that is, after Mantel has already won her second Booker. But here’s the thing: it’s extremely difficult to read the opening of Bring Up The Bodies and not feel the same elated anticipation that Mantel felt when she began writing the thing. I, for one, can safely say that I instantly recognized that Mantel was setting a new benchmark for cadence, tone, and imagery in the opening lines of Bodies, not only for the historical fiction genre, but for literature as a whole. I think that it’s worth quoting this opening at length just to do it justice:



Wiltshire, September 1535
His children are falling from the sky. He watches from horseback, acres of England stretching behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze. Grace Cromwell hovers in thin air. She is silent when she takes her prey, silent as she glides to his fist. But the sounds she makes then, the rustle of feathers and the creak, the sigh and riffle of pinion, the small cluck-cluck from her throat, these are sounds of recognition, intimate, daughterly, almost disapproving. Her breast is gore-streaked and flesh clings to her claws.
Later, Henry will say, ‘Your girls flew well today.’ The hawk Anne Cromwell bounces on the glove of Rafe Sadler, who rides by the king in easy conversation. They are tired; the sun is declining, and they ride back to Wolf Hall with the reins slack on the necks of their mounts. Tomorrow his wife and two sisters will go out. These dead women, their bones long sunk in London clay, are now transmigrated. Weightless, they glide on the upper currents of the air. They pity no one. They answer to no one. Their lives are simple. When they look down they see nothing but their prey, and the borrowed plumes of the hunters: they see a flittering, flinching universe, a universe filled with their dinner.

Honestly, I don’t believe in the universal validity of aesthetic judgments, but if someone tried to tell me that this wasn’t good writing, I’d almost feel compelled to tell that person that she/he was objectively wrong. The music of Mantel’s words! My God!: “the sigh and riffle of pinion […]” “These dead women, their bones long sunk in London clay […]” Mantel has an almost inexplicable balance of tone and rhythm, always pushing the limits of diction and imagery without ever, ever making that microscopic extra step into the excessiveness that betrays the amateur or hack.

In A Place of Greater Safety, Mantel showed us that she’s almost peerless when it comes to fleshing out full, compelling characters who are rich and warm-blooded even when (and perhaps mostly when) they’re austere and cold. In Wolf Hall, she took this gift for characterization and added to it an unmistakable sense of tone and atmosphere, with all of the poetic brilliance of an Ondaatje combined with an economy of expression similar to Faulkner. So what does Bring Up The Bodies add to Mantel’s artistic achievements? Well, in short, the book could’ve added nothing and still been Booker-worthy. Nonetheless, Bodies shows us a new plateau of excellence in Mantel’s writing, and this comes in the area of focalization.

In short, focalization refers to the way that a book’s narration selects or restricts the information it presents to the reader, even when the narrator is omniscient. The concept is similar to “perspective,” but implies a much greater level of fluidity and flexibility. For example, the very first line of Bring Up The Bodies reads, “His children drop from the sky.” From the subtitle “Falcons,” you might already be able to assume that “children” here refers to birds. But Mantel’s vagueness sets a dreamlike tone for the entire passage. The focalization of this passage, moreover, comes to us through the protagonist Thomas Cromwell, who is staring up at the falcons. In the second sentence, we learn that Cromwell (or the unnamed watcher) is sitting on horseback. But then boom, the second half of line two reads, “acres of England stretching out behind him.” Now this clause could imply that Cromwell is so aware of his surroundings that he knows what’s directly behind him. But it also introduces a fluidity between Cromwell’s perspective and a sort of “camera eye” that Mantel uses throughout the book. This “camera eye” shouldn’t be confused with omniscient narration, because unlike omniscient narration, the camera eye always takes into account the physical angle from which an image or scene in the book is being looked at. 

For me, Mantel’s focalization is the key ingredient to how she makes Bring Up The Bodies so ridiculously engrossing. In the world of this novel, people’s lives are decided by a silent exchange of glances at the dinner table, a handshake not offered, and you cannot convey the tension and significance of moments like these without an unbelievable level of control over focalization. Focalization is actually one of the most difficult literary techniques to master, to such an extent that creative writing instructors often tell their students to avoid third-person narration altogether until these students have a few publications under their belts. This is because focalization is a very, very easy thing to screw up. The writer forgets about the book's camera eye for one sentence, for one word, and the entire structure of a scene can collapse. Writing in first-person narration, on the other hand, is generally the safer bet for aspiring writers, since it pins you to one person’s perspective and allows you (for the most part) to avoid the harrowing demands of focalization that have only been truly mastered by writers like George Eliot, Joseph Conrad, and now, Hilary Mantel.

Mantel has already announced her intent to write a third book in the Wolf Hall (Thomas Cromwell) trilogy, and I can’t wait to see what new area of writing she masters for that one. If you find yourself sitting around and waiting for this third book to come out, though, please treat yourself and read A Place of Greater Safety. And for further reading, please be sure to check out this fantastic piece on Mantel by Larissa MacFarquhar in The New Yorker.

Congratulations again, Hilary!

Wednesday 19 September 2012

Herman Wouk: Forgotten Craftsman

So why “Forgotten Craftsman”? Well, Herman Wouk might not be overlooked by book lovers in general, but I’ve certainly never heard anyone under fifty talk about enjoying (or even reading) his work. To be fair, the only reason I know Wouk’s name is because his 1962 novel, Youngblood Hawke, has been my father’s favorite for as long as I can remember. During my undergraduate years, I decided to have a look at this book, and could barely put it down after reading the first few pages. Rereading Hawke now, I can safely say that its appeal comes largely from the fact that there is almost no aspect of fiction (i.e. Setting, Characters, Tone, Plot, etc.) that Wouk doesn’t nail in a compelling way.

If I were to draw an analogy to illustrate Wouk’s appeal, I’d compare him to tennis star Andy Murray (mostly because I love tennis). Just as Andy Murray has had the misfortune of playing professional tennis in the era of Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic, Herman Wouk spent much of his career being overshadowed by heavyweights like Norman Mailer, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulker. On the tennis side of things, Murray just doesn’t have the swanlike grace of Federer or the brutish wallop of Nadal, so he can only succeed by being as good as he possibly can in every aspect of his game. The case is similar for Wouk, who might not have Faulkner’s exquisite cadence or Hemingway’s lean, athletic prose, but what he does have is a strong sense of balance and remarkable attentiveness to his reader.

Wouk’s better-known achievements include The Caine Mutiny, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1952. The book was largely immortalized, though, because of Humphrey Bogart’s later portrayal of Captain Philip Franics Queeg in the movie version. Perhaps Wouk’s most monumental feats, however, were his novels The Winds of War (1971) and War and Remembrance (1978), the researching and writing of which took him thirteen years to complete. I would suggest any of these books to someone interested in exploring Wouk’s oeuvre, but as a starting point, I recommend the aforementioned Youngblood Hawke.

Youngblood Hawke is the story of a young man from Kentucky named (yup) Arthur Youngblood Hawke, who has an amazing talent for writing and has moved to New York City after signing a publishing contract for his first book, the histrionically titled Alms for Oblivion. Hawke is incredibly prolific, living a normal life by day and writing feverishly by night . Being from a very modest rural background, he is driven by dreams of literary fame and literary fortune. Hawke’s desire for quick money leads him to invest much of his wealth in shifty deals with friends from his past. Yet as much as he produces and as much as he makes in advances, he still sinks himself into debt. The scenes that show him pulling all-nighters to keep up with his exorbitant spending could easily have inspired the manic nocturnal labours of Mozart in Miloš Forman’s 1984 film, Amadeus.

Along with Youngblood, the book includes a cast of memorable characters, some hilarious and some heartbreaking. Youngblood’s mother, for example, is a steaming teapot of a woman who only seems happy when she’s suing someone. Hawke’s older love interest, Frieda Winter, is a twiggy time capsule of 1950s' New York elitism. 

Overall, the most enchanting thing about this book is the way its setting and characters transport you back to the lavish parties hosted by publishers in New York City during a time when novels were still a culturally dominant medium and fresh authors could set the entertainment world abuzz. The narrative effect is similar to what The Great Gatsby achieves in plopping you right in the middle of the Roaring Twenties. It is by hitting all the right cues that Wouk is able to make his writing so enjoyably immersive. With all that said, I heartily encourage you to give this book a try.

Once a contemporary of Hemingway, Faulker, and even Steinbeck, Mr. Wouk is still alive today. He is 97 years old and resides in Palm Springs, California. I can only imagine the stories that guy could still tell. 

Wednesday 5 September 2012

Status Update; Opening Passage to Novel

My apologies for not being more diligent in my reviewing of books lately. I've been working my way through Beauvoir's The Second Sex for some time now, and am almost through it. It's an extremely good book, filled with Beauvoir's incredible prose style and her envy-inspiring ability to break an issue down to its most basic components.

In other news, one of my favorite things to do in my free time is write the opening paragraphs of novels. I recently wrote this one for a book set in Saint John, New Brunswick, which I've tentatively titled, "The Mourner." It opens something like this:

Some days, you’d gaze into the purgatorial fog enshrouding the crumbled mortar of uptown Saint John, and mumble to yourself, “I’m done.” You’d even fantasize about writing this phrase on a cardboard sign and plopping yourself down like a bum on the curb of King Street, just to see what sorts of reactions you’d get. You figured that a bunch of people would call you a quitter and yell for you to stop polluting the world with your lazy-ass bullshit. Others might take your message as a suicide note and tell you not to do it, whipping out every moral, intellectual, and theological argument they could to convince you that life was truly worth living. Some stoic dads would even raise their eyebrows and form a pursed-lip smile, then usher their kids along the sidewalk while muttering, “Alright then, Bud. Do what you gotta do.” All of these reactions you could expect with some level of certainty, but it was the outliers that really interested you. The responses you couldn’t anticipate. For example, some people might have thought you were some sort of genius performance artist. Or better yet, some eccentric billionaire might wander by, glance at your sign, and throw his hands into the air, exclaiming that he’d been waiting for decades to see someone express your brand of honesty. “Here,” he’d ejaculate. “Have a million dollars!” You, of course, always promised yourself that you wouldn’t say anything back, even if just such a man reached down and started shaking a fan of cash in your face. Not a chance. It would’ve ruined the whole thing.