Category Archives: Books

Partying with Charlotte Bronté

We start off this brief story with a word about William Makepeace Thackeray, who was born in 1811.

In his early adulthood, Thackeray was a bit of a ne’er do well who squandered his family fortune. After he married (in 1836), he began to write satirical works for magazines (most famously Punch) because he needed the money to support his growing family. This lifestyle suited him. and he grew famous by satirizing society figures, especially in his serialized novel, Vanity Fair (begun in 1846).  A victorian Truman Capote? Well, not quite. But you get the idea. BTW; he coined the modern use of the word “snob”. and he loathed Irish Catholics. And BTW, Thackeray was tall for his day (standing around 6 foot 3 inches).

Enter Charlotte Bronté. Ms Bronté was an outlier. As a child, she did not thrive in the real world. Indeed, if she and her siblings thrived at all, it was through their sharing stories of fantasy worlds that they created. None of them would enjoy a long life.

As an adult, Charlotte Bronté did the unthinkable. She published poetry and novels (albeit under the curious pseudonym Currer Bell). Worse still, the novels revealed an amazing amount of female passion.  Women had passions?  Who knew? Jane Eyre, Bronté’s most famous work, was her second effort and was published in1847.  BTW, Charlotte Bronté was tiny (under five foot tall).

Both Thackeray and Bronté became well-known literary figures. And they were acquainted. But what an odd pair! Thackeray’s daughter, Anne Isabelle (who would later become a literary figure in her own right), describes a visit to Thackeray by Brontê this way.

… two gentlemen come in, leading a tiny, delicate, serious, little lady, with fair straight hair and steady eyes. She may be a little over thirty; she is dressed in a little barège dress with a pattern of faint green moss. She enters in mittens, in silence, in seriousness; our hearts are beating with wild excitement. This then is the authoress, the unknown power whose books have set all London talking, reading, speculating; some people even say our father wrote the books – the wonderful books. … The moment is so breathless that dinner comes as a relief to the solemnity of the occasion, and we all smile as my father stoops to offer his arm; for, genius though she may be, Miss Brontë can barely reach his elbow. My own personal impressions are that she is somewhat grave and stern, specially to forward little girls who wish to chatter. … Everyone waited for the brilliant conversation which never began at all. Miss Brontë retired to the sofa in the study, and murmured a low word now and then to our kind governess … the conversation grew dimmer and more dim, the ladies sat round still expectant, my father was too much perturbed by the gloom and the silence to be able to cope with it at all … after Miss Brontë had left, I was surprised to see my father opening the front door with his hat on. He put his fingers to his lips, walked out into the darkness, and shut the door quietly behind him … long afterwards … Mrs Procter asked me if I knew what had happened. … It was one of the dullest evenings [Mrs Procter] had ever spent in her life … the ladies who had all come expecting so much delightful conversation, and the gloom and the constraint, and how finally, overwhelmed by the situation, my father had quietly left the room, left the house, and gone off to his club

Which of the two was more eccentric? I would not hazard a guess. And yet, Bronté was the more controversial, especially (as you can see from the above) because of her lack of social graces.  In victorian times women were expected to please. Men were given more leeway.  Borish as men might be, they could return to their clubs to act out their inner silliness.

And here the story takes another turn. Another victorian lady, Elizabeth Gaskell also knew Charlotte Bronté. Like Bronté, Gaskell was a writer.  Gaskell, however, played the victorian game of being female like a pro. She knew how far she could go and she went just that far and no farther.  From the Guardian

Above all, Gaskell understood the value of domesticity, or at least the appearance of it, to the female writer: for all that it was suffocating and demeaning, it was also a shield.

In other words, unlike Bronté, Gaskell was full of “enjoyments”. Despite their differences, Gaskell was enamored of Bronté. Not in a sexual way, but in a conversational way. The two

… walked together for hours, and “like the moors”, Mrs Gaskell felt, “our talk might be extended in any direction without getting to the end of any subject”.

How different than Brontê’s ill-fated visit to Thackeray!

It is not a huge surprise that upon her untimely death at the age of  38, Bronté would be slighted in the press. Gaskell would have none of it and immediately wrote a highly flattering biography. Unfortunately, there were a few problems. From the above Guardian article

Here are some reasons to hate Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë: it is moralistic and stultifying; it flattens Brontë’s brilliantly transgressive nature and confines her to a saccharine version of Victorian female victimhood. It is inaccurate, overemotional and, at times, libellous towards those she accused of attacking her good friend. You might also criticise Gaskell’s motivations: driven by opportunistic ambition to feed, vulture-like, on the carcass of Brontë’s reputation, rather than a true desire to investigate or memorialise.

Strong words! In this light, it is easy to dismiss Gaskell as lightweight. Not to be taken seriously. And yet, thee is something to praise here. Gaskell and Bronté dared to live as themselves – women writers – at a time when women were expected to assume and play out a  much more restricted and highly artificial role. .One can understand why Gaskell would use all of her wiles, even if she would distort the facts, to defend her dear friend, with whom she shared such deep affections.  Even in our more enlightened times, women sticking up for one another against a male dominated society remains controversial in some circles. The courage to speak out deserves at least some respect.

And if you think about it, of course, Bronté would have been leery of Thackeray.  He was interested in society more than the individual. Perhaps that is why we think him as being hopelessly old-fashioned.

How Robert Pirsig found Zen on his Motorcycle

Things went bananas back in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Counter-culture had gone from fringe to mainstream. Everyone was rebelling against something and everyone was trying to find themselves in the process. It was kooky.

For some, me included, this significantly raised the level of angst. How could you feel otherwise when things were not “ok”, and you didn’t know if they would get any better?  I became a big fan of Kafka and thought that the novel “One Flew Over the Cukoo’s News” (written back in 1962 by Ken Kesey) was prophetic. The folks in power seemed like nurse Ratched and we all wanted to be the MacMurphys of our lives. Of course, we were not, in fact, all that heroic, and so Woody Allen’s comedy (about hilariously failing to live up to standards) hit the mark.

In that environment, a book like Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” (published in 1974) was a tonic for the soul.  Pirsig actually was a bit nuts – diagnosed as schizophrenic – which was a good starting point when being a bit nuts was cool. Not completely bonkers, but just a bit wild-eyed. And Pirsig needed to find peace.  To get there. he fused two cool symbols: zen and motorcycles and pitched a tale of healing — as well as closing the generation gap with his son. Naturally, it became a best seller.

The Guardian writes

Pirsig said its protagonist “set out to resolve the conflict between classic values that create machinery, such as a motorcycle, and romantic values, such as experiencing the beauty of a country road”.

People talked like that a lot back then and it was serious stuff. Pirsig was trying to tell us something about being overly committed to “romantic” storylines at the expense of rationality. It was an idea that Nietzsche had talked about as well. One could get pleasure out of riding motorcycles AND fixing them.   Balance dude!

Of course, few got into the serious side of Pirsig’s thought. Zen and transcendental meditation became pop culture artifacts. So everyone got the joke in the film Annie Hall, when at a Hollywood party Jeff Goldblum complains to his therapist (?) over the phone that “I forgot my mantra.” Here is that classic scene.


..After the great success of his first book, Pirsig then spent 17 years writing a sequel to Zen. It was called Lila: An Inquiry into Morals, and it came out in 1991.  It traces a sailing journey along the east coast of the US. Sadly, the word “morals” did not resonate in the 1990’s the way the words “zen” and “motorcycles” did in the 1970’s   Self-improvement –  as in Jane Fonda workouts – yes, but morals, not really. Lila went unread and even unnoticed by most.

That does not diminish what Pirsig gave to us back in 1974 with Zenn. The thing I remember most about reading it was that it was ok to calm down a bit. Not that I actually did calm down just then. But it was an option to keep in mind. One might at least try to figure out what was going on around oneself rather than just rebel. Later on, I bought into that point of view.

Robert Pirsig just passed on at the age of 88. Thanks man!

The Carefree Days of Somerville and Ross

Somerville and Ross were a pair of Anglo-Irish ladies. Edith Somerville was born in 1858 on the island of Corfu.  She then grew up in County Cork. In 1886, she met her cousin Violet Martin.  For reasons that are not altogether clear. the two decided that they were a superb collaborating team of writers and inseparable companions. They began to write together, assuming the nom de plume, Somerville and Ross. By the time of Violet’s death in 1916, they had written 14 books together.

Edith was stunned by the loss of Violet. She refused to accept that Violet was gone, connected with her regularly via seances and continued to write as if Violet were co-.authoring.  Hmmm … perhaps in a sense, she was.

They were birds of a feather. Though they had political differences (Edith was an Irish nationalist and Violet a unionist) they saw the world through the same filter. That filter was the nurturing and pleasurable country life, especially that of the upper middle class of the Anglo-Irish, to which they both belonged. And that enjoyment spills into their story telling. It is not serious and it is not meant to be serious. I would compare it to Jerome K. Jerome, who was writing around the same time. Though Jerome was more flippant.

Back in the 1980’s snippets of their stories were cobbled together into a TV series called “The Irish RM”. It is brilliant, due in large part to the acting of Peter Bowles (who played the English major with the job of RM — resident magistrate — trying to figure out obscure and clever Irish ways).  I highly recommend watching the whole series. Here is one episode.

But this does not give you a glimpse of the writing style of Somerville and Ross. To get that, check out how they open this story entitled “When I first Met Dr Hickey”

There was a wonderful chandelier in the hotel dining room. Fine bronze it was made of, with mermaids, and tritons, and dolphins flourishing their tails up towards the dingy ceiling-paper, and peaked galleys, on whose prows sat six small lamps, with white china receptacles for paraffin and smokey brown chimneys. Gone were the brave days when each prow had borne a galaxy of tall wax candles; the chandelier might consider itself lucky in that it had even the paraffin lamps to justify its existence, and that it still hung from a ceiling, instead of sharing the last resting place of its twin brother, in the bed of the tidal river under the hotel windows.

Wow! What a whopper! Overdone? Of course, but in a way that still draws you in, as it reveals that attitudes of the authors and the context in which they observe the world. And I love this story from The Irish RM.

In one scene, the (RM)’s English wife, Philippa (Doran Godwin) is dancing with Flurry’s groom, Slipper (Niall Toibin), at a servants’ ball. Slipper ventures to say that ‘The English and the Irish understand each other like the fox and the hound,’ to which the lady replies in good humour, ‘But which is which?’ The answer is, ‘Ah well, if we knew that, we’d know everything!’

Yes, this is comedy. Something we desperately need nowdays!

Lessons from Eudora Welty … and More!

Eudora Welty fits snugly into the great tradition of southern writing. There are several aspects of her style that brand it this way, First is the preoccupation with place. Southern stories happen in a particular setting. You might call that a community of shared values. And of course, if such a thing exists, it is bound to collide with individuals who feel constrained by those shared values.  There is a sense of being trapped, in context as the norm.

BTW, Kafka took this to an extreme degree, which is why I find his stories so compelling. Poe and Borges offers ways to escape, but into a strange emptiness.

This quote from Eudora Welty’s book “One Writer’s Beginnings” gives the flavor of this tension

As you have seen, I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring comes from within.

The shelter is the community. The daring? Well,  that emerges from individual choices that we make.

BTW, this tension between the sheltered and the daring comes out very well in the 1996 film “The Whole Wide World”. here is the trailer. Enjoy!

The Solitary Philosopher

Pierre Hadot’s “What is Ancient Philosophy?” came out in 2002. I bought it because  I was fascinated by ancient Greek culture and wanted to learn more about how their philosophies interacted with their politics. I saw the philosophies as a shining example and their politics as less inspiring.  Why didn’t politics learn from philosophy?

I got something different than I bargained for. I did not get a much better sense of ancient Greek politics. I did, however, get amazing insights into the ways in which ancient philosophy adds value to life, and how we — as moderns can learn from that tradition.

The key point — ancient philosophy served a different purpose than its modern counterpart. Ancient philosophy was obsessed with teaching and learning about how to live. It was essentially ethical rather than scientific. The goal was not to explain how we think about reality in a vacuum but to offer thinking about what to do and how to understand what we do in real life,  in a given context..

Here is a snippet from Hadot’s book, which occurs towards the end. He quotes Géorges Friedman on the need for spiritual exercise.

The effort upon yourself is necessary; this ambition is just. Many are those who become completely absorbed in militant politics and the preparation of the social revolution. Few, very few, are those who, to prepare for the revolution, are willing to make themselves worthy of it.

Amen. And here comes Hadot with a practical question.

Yet philosophers in antiquity, in order to practice philosophy, lived in more or less close proximity to a community of other philosophers, or at least they received their rules of life from a philosophical tradition. Their task was thereby made easier, even if actually living by such rules of life demanded extreme effort. Today there are no more schools, and the philosopher is alone. How shall he find his way?

We may be alone, but we do have models that we can use to guide our way. These guided many a great person in the modern age. They are not “truths” in themselves. They are tools that fit various purposes. So stoicism, epicureanism, and the rest are all there for you … if you choose the philosophical way of life.

You are Not Who You Think You Are. A Primer on Dostoevsky

Blame it all on Rene Descartes. Descartes wanted to find a way to describe human perception without needing divine connection. He settled on “I think, therefore I am”. In other words, I am not defined by any substantive thought (which might be wrong), but by the process of thinking.

Hmmm … this is dubious. But it is also the framework for our understanding of human identity. Consider the practice of putting people in solitary confinement as a form of criminal punishment. The original thinking was that doing this would offer the individual a chance to reflect more deeply on who they are and what they have done. After this reflection, they might be better prepared to re-join the community. That is not what happens. Put a person in solitary confinement long enough and you will destroy that person.

Interesting. This suggests that thinking alone is not enough to generate identity. Abega Birhane takes that idea a step further  He notes

The 20th-century Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin believed that the answer lay in dialogue. We need others in order to evaluate our own existence and construct a coherent self-image.

Interesting. And this leads to a conclusion

So reality is not simply out there, waiting to be uncovered. ‘Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction,’

In other words, you are not who you think you are. You are who you become through interactions with others.  Bakhtin used this idea to take a closer look at the works of Dostoevsky.

According to Bakhtin, “[a] plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses, a genuine polyphony of fully valid voices is in fact the chief characteristic of Dostoevsky’s novels. What unfolds in his works is not a multitude of characters and fates in a single objective world, illuminated by a single authorial consciousness; rather a plurality of consciousnesses, with equal rights and each with its own world, combine but are not merged in the unity of the event.” (p.6) The result, with the exception of the tacked on ending to “Crime and Punishment,” is an open ended novel, that is a novel with no clearly fixed ending as in the novels of Turgenev and Tolstoy. Bakhtin uses them as foils to Dostoevsky.

Hmmm … I admit to a less than perfect understanding of this.

George Kennan: Sketches From a Life

George F. Kennan lived from 1904 to 2005. A long time. For a critical part of that time, he was a US diplomat. During that time, he authored an article that became the guiding principle of US foreign policy in the immediate post-war era. He proposed the idea of containing rather than directly confronting the Soviet Union. Truman based his decisions on this idea. Kennan later changed his views and argued that dialogue with the Soviets was in US interest. That advice was largely ignored and Kennan embraced the role of foreign policy analyst and critic.  He kept at this for over fifty years.

His book “Sketches from a Life”, came out in 1989, just before the fall of the Soviet Union. It is a selection of his diary entries and contains many interesting passages. This  one appears in the last entry

I view the United States of these last years of the twentieth century as essentially a tragic country., endowed with magnificent natural resources, which it is rapidly wasting and exhausting, and with an intellectual and artistic intelligentsia of great talent and originality. For this intelligentsia, the dominant political forces of this country have little understanding or regard.  Its voice is normally silenced or outshouted by the commercial media. It is probably condemned to remain indefinitely, like the Russian intelligentsia in the nineteenth century, the helpless spectator of the disturbing course of a nation’s life. If love of country includes this sort of concern for its future, then, I too, love this particular country and am a part of it.

This was written well before 9/11, and I am confident that even as far seeing as Kennan was, he could not have foreseen that particular tragedy. And yet, Kennan might have foreseen the foolish reactions that US presidents have had to terrorist threats including but not limited to 9/11. For many of those reactions were not made for strategic reasons. Instead, presidents responded, by and large, to domestic political concerns, using foreign policy when it suited them to enhance their popularity.

In this sense, Donald Trump, as outrageous as he may be, is not so different than those predecessors who did the same sort of saber rattling, chest pounding, etc. that he is doing now. Of course, one does believe that unlike Trump, even the dullest of his predecessors knew where their aircraft carrier strike forces were headed at critical moments, or if they did not know, they had the sense to ask before expounding on that topic. Ooops!