Sunday, September 10, 2017

Don Quixote and Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot

I read the Edith Grossman translation oDon Quixote.

Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote is full of brilliant passages. One example of marvelous and creative writing can be found when Don Quixote’s squire, Sancho, believes that he has been transported through the heavens on the back of a magical, wooden horse. At ths point in the narrative Sancho is anticipating a ridiculous and false promise that has been made to him that he will soon be appointed governor of a province.  He describes the experience below. 

“I looked down at the earth, and it seemed to me that it was no larger than a mustard seed, and the men walking on it not much bigger than hazel nuts, so you can see how high we must have been flying then.

After I came down from the sky, and after I looked at the earth from that great height and saw how small it was, the burning desire I had to be a governor cooled a little; where’s the greatness in ruling a mustard seed, or the dignity or pride in governing half a dozen men the size of hazel nuts? It seemed to me that this was all there was on the whole earth.”

The above is a very interesting passage for several reasons. Comparing Earth to a mustard seed seems to reference The Mustard Seed parable of the New Testament. In the gospels of both Luke and Mathew, a mustard seed is compared to the Kingdom of Heaven. However, this passage is reminding me of something else, something more contemporary. In a public speech, and in his book, Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan commented upon a picture of Earth taken by Voyager One,

“Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there--on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.”

Dark grey and black static with coloured vertical rays of sunlight over part of the image. A small pale blue point of light is barely visible.
The Voyager One Photograph refereed
to in  Carl Sagan's quotation. 

I find the sentiments in these two passages similar in several ways. These quotations written hundreds of years apart seem to have a lot in common. Both refer to the insignificance of Earth. What is remarkable about Cervantes’s writing is that it was written in the 17th century, before the age of technology. The 17th century writer did not have pictures of Earth from space to inspire him. Yet, based mostly upon intuition and reason, he was able to express, very eloquently, something of the smallness that is our planet.

Both quotations also try to grapple with the apparent insignificance of human endeavors. I find Sagan’s words so moving as well as eye opening. He encapsulates human thought and efforts from the beginning of time in just a few sentences.

Likewise, Sancho’s dream of being a governor is diminished when he sees how small all of Earth and its people are. He compares the planet to a plant seed and its inhabitants to hazelnuts. He realizes, to paraphrase Sagan, that he is trying to become a momentary master of a fraction of a dot. Once again, this is all the more striking when one realizes that Don Quixote was written many centuries ago.

Sagan often talked and wrote about how humans tend to overinflate Earth’s importance and place in the Universe. Within the pages of Cervantes’s work, we find similar ideas. In this way, Cervantes seemed very ahead of his time. The Spanish author also expressed these thoughts in an eloquent and aesthetically pleasing way. This passage is one of the many gems that can be found in the epic that is Don Quixote.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

I read the Edith Grossman translation of this work.

The Ingenious Nobleman Mister Quixote of La Mancha, better known as Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes was published in two parts between 1605 and 1615. This enormously famous work has been called the first modern novel. Many consider it one of the greatest works of literature. This is a big book, the edition that I read was 941 pages long.

This is a work of comedy and parody. It is also many other things. It tells the story of its namesake, Don Quixote. The protagonist is a Spanish nobleman. At 50 years of age, he decides to take to the road to live the life of a knight-errant. He sets out accompanied by his “squire,” a local farmer named Sancho Panza. Don Quixote’s mission is to fight injustice and right wrongs while following a strict code of chivalry. As the narrative proceeds, it becomes clear that he is living in a world of delusion (although some critics have suggested that the delusion is a put-on and that Don Quixote actually has a firm grasp on reality). Windmills become giants to be attacked, caravans of travelers become enemy armies to fight, dark and damp caves become entrances to mystical lands, inns become castles and peasant girls become princesses. The story is very episodic. Often, Don Quixote attacks random people that he perceives to be villainous warriors. The targets of his attacks typically fight back, and Don Quixote and Sancho sometimes take beatings.  The pair partakes in other amusing and interesting adventures. Other times, Don Quixote befriends various people whose own stories and adventures occupy multiple pages of narrative.

Throughout the book Don Quixote and Sancho bicker, and their exchanges range from hilarious to enlightening. However, it is apparent the two harbor great affection for one another.

So much has been written about this work. Some consider it a critique of the concepts of chivalry and honor. Others consider it a tribute to those ideas. Like some, I think that the theme of this work lies somewhere in between parody and respect for these ideas. At one point, Don Quixote describes his mission,

“a knight I am, and a knight I shall die, if it pleases the Almighty. Some men walk the broad fields of haughty ambition, or base and servile adulation, or deceptive hypocrisy, and some take the road of true religion; but I, influenced by my star, follow the narrow path of knight errantry, and because I profess it I despise wealth but not honor. I have redressed grievances, righted wrongs, punished insolence, vanquished giants, and trampled monsters; I am in love, simply because it is obligatory for knights errant to be so; and being so, I am not a dissolute lover, but one who is chaste and platonic. I always direct my intentions to virtuous ends, which are to do good to all and evil to none”

The above quotation seems to encapsulate the mix of mockery and esteem for such ideas as chivalry and honor. The above is amusing. It also espouses virtues that are commendable.

What I found striking about Cervantes’s book is how modern this 400 year old work seems. Though some of this impression might be attributable to Grossman’s translation, there are universal aspects to this book that are relevant the 21st century.

In particular, I found this story to be hilarious. Don Quixote is constantly interpreting the identity of common people and everyday events as being a part of his fantasy world. These interpretations are amusing, entertaining and creative. The predicaments that he gets Sancho and himself into elicit outright laughter. I find it to be striking that so much of the humor works so well after all of these centuries.

The chemistry between Don Quixote and Sancho is both amusing and endearing. Though there is an ever-present class distinction between the two, the relationship reminds me of a modern one between unequals that is outwardly antagonistic but inwardly warm. The dialogs between the two would fit well into a modern day comedy-drama.

The description of Don Quixote’s “madness” also seems very modern. Anyone who has ever encountered a delusional person would in time recognize a lot in this book’s hero. The people that Don Quixote encounters react in ways that also reminds me of the way modern people react to mental illness. Some respond with anger, others with amusement and more than a few with understanding.

All of this makes this book very accessible to the modern reader. It also makes this work a testament to the fact that many of the things that characterize people are universal.

The above is just a nibble of what this massive book has to offer. I can easily write a series of blogs on this tome. The work is full of philosophy and both overt and underlying themes. One could also write volumes about the characters and their relationships. Thus, I will likely post at least one more entry on this work.

This is a magnificent piece of fiction.  At least when it comes to Grossman’s translation, this is also very readable. Despite its status as a canonical classic, it is both entertaining and funny. Though I think that its length keeps people away from it, I would recommend this work to almost anyone who is not put off by its size. This is ultimately, a magnificent work of literature.

Monday, August 21, 2017

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s very famous novel. Written in 1850, this book has become a cornerstone of American literature. Many consider it to be the first great American novel.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it is set in 1640s Puritan Massachusetts. Hester Prynne is a resident of the colony. She is in a loveless marriage, and her husband may be lost at sea. She is shamed and vilified when she conceives a daughter, Pearl, through an extramarital affair. She is forced to ear a scarlet “A” on her clothing as a symbol of her sin.

Though Hester refuses to reveal the identity of Pearl’s father, the reader quickly learns that it is The Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, a respected member of the community. Though young, Dimmesdale is considered a learned theologian. When Roger Chillingworth, Hester’s much older husband, arrives in Massachusetts, very much alive, he keeps his identity secret to everyone except Hester and plots revenge. Suspecting that Dimmesdale is Pearl’s father, he befriends the minister in an elaborate attempt at retribution. As seven years pass, Pearl grows into an extraordinary child and Hester becomes more and more a free thinker.

There is so much going on in this book in terms of history, characters, plot, themes, etc. I could devote a series of blog posts to this work. As I often do, I am going to follow one particular path that I find to be interesting.

First, I want to write a few words about how I am approaching this novel in terms of history. Though Hawthorne was very interested in seventeenth century Puritan history, a Google search shows that there is still debate over the historical and ideological accuracy of the story. Though I think that this is a topic worthy topic of exploration, I will put that aside when talking about the novel in this post.  Generally, I would rather comment upon real Puritan society based upon history books anyway. Thus, I will consider the world that is talked depicted between these pages as fictional, regardless of how closely accurate it is or not.

Ironically, Hester is the most virtuous character in the book. However, her sin is not excused. She is remorseful for it. In fact, it is eventually revealed that she tries to show regret for it decades after the fact. Yet, she is surrounded by the hypocritical, the malicious and the cowardly whose flaws eclipse hers. The hypocrisy is illustrated by the fact that the text implies that all sorts of sexual and other indiscretions are going on in Massachusetts. Witches meet in the forest. Chillingworth is vengeful and malicious. Dimmesdale, though not without virtue, behaves with cowardice and allows Hester to suffer the scorn of society while he hides his indiscretion.

Though Hester is flawed, it seems that Hawthorne is illustrating what he believes is positive and good in the world when he points out the many admirable aspects to her nature. Hester takes responsibility for her actions, thinks for herself, is a good mother, etc. These virtues, as well as the wild naturalness that seems to be inherent in Pearl, seem to be related to the transcendental belief system, which was becoming popular in America at the time that this book was written. A discussion of Hester’s positive character traits, Pearl’s nature and how this all relates to the book’s philosophy can fill many pages.

The comparison between Hester and Dimmesdale is interesting. There is obvious irony when one compares the two. To the citizens of Massachusetts, there is a contrast. In their eyes, Hester is a sinful and guilty woman exposed to public shame. Dimmesdale is the upright and moral minister. He is respected and considered a great mind and a teacher. He is Hester’s minister and presumably provides her with spiritual guidance.

Yet, beneath the surface, the roles are reversed. Hester bears her guilt and the responsibility for her actions openly. She is psychologically distressed but not hysterical. In contrast, Dimmesdale hides his guilt. Inwardly he has become a wreck. His inner turmoil manifests itself in physical illness. At one point, he experiences what in modern times would be described as a panic attack,

"Mr. Dimmesdale was overcome with a great horror of mind, as if the universe were gazing at a scarlet token on his naked breast, right over his heart. On that spot, in very truth, there was, and there had long been, the gnawing and poisonous tooth of bodily pain. Without any effort of his will, or power to restrain himself, he shrieked aloud: an outcry that went pealing through the night, and was beaten back from one house to another, and reverberated from the hills in the background; as if a company of devils, detecting so much misery and terror in it, had made a plaything of the sound, and were bandying it to and fro."

Over the course of the seven years that the novel covers, Hester develops a coherent worldview. Faced with mindless and unrelenting shaming, she rejects the restraints of Puritan society and many of the institutions inherent in the world around her,

“Her intellect and heart had their home, as it were, in desert places, where she roamed as freely as the wild Indian in his woods. For years past she had looked from this estranged point of view at human institutions, and whatever priests or legislators had established; criticising all with hardly more reverence than the Indian would feel for the clerical band, the judicial robe, the pillory, the gallows, the fireside, or the church.  been to set her free. The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers— stern and wild ones— and they had made her strong”

Dimmesdale, on the other hand, has wallowed, untethered in an intellectual and moral abyss. His actions are cowardly. When Hester finally suggests that he give up his life and run away to Europe with her, he meekly agrees. Hester has become his teacher.

There is so much more to this book. It is deeply philosophical and digs into the issues of religion, theocracy, transcendentalism, guilt-free thinking, gender, etc.  Chillingworth and Dimmesdale are complex and interesting characters in their own right. I barely touched upon Pearl, who is an extraordinary child who seems to represent nature, honesty and a wildness inherent in the world. The prose and dialogue are rich. The story is interesting.

As mentioned above, this is a reread for me. I picked up so much more this time around. I think that folks who only read this book when young may get a lot more out of it when reading it later. This is a reminder to me of just how important rereading is. Thus, I recommend this as both a reread and a first time read for anyone interested in American literature.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

This post contains spoilers.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is Oscar Wilde's fantastical tale of a man who stops aging. This famous novel is a philosophical and character-driven narrative.

Dorian is a young man who is described over and over again as beautiful and youthful looking.  He is also charismatic.   Basil Hallward is his artist friend who becomes obsessed with him. The artist creates a magnificent portrait of Dorian. Over the course of the book, as Dorian descends into immorality and malevolence, the portrait begins to slowly change as it manifests ugliness in Dorian’s image. Likewise, Dorian stops aging as the portrait takes on the toll of his passing years.

Lord Henry Wotton, another friend of Dorian and Basil, is a key to this story. Much of the book is filled with Henry’s observations on life and his philosophizing. Henry is a cynic. He rejects conventional morality. He values experience for experience’s sake and advocates for the seeking of sensation and pleasure, regardless of ethics or any consideration of others.

Early in the story, Dorian is portrayed as innocent and na├»ve. As the narrative proceeds, Henry begins to corrupt him. When the two first meet, they are in an idyllic garden. I do not think that I am stretching it to suggest that there may be an analogy a between this meeting and the Serpent’s encounter with Eve in The Garden of Eden.

At one point, Henry muses,

“The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful. It has been said that the great events of the world take place in the brain. It is in the brain, and the brain only, that the great sins of the world take place also.”

Henry’s belief system is a key component to this story. His philosophy seems to be a sort of twisted form of Romanticism. He believes that one can only live through experience and feeling. He rejects the intellect at several points. He champions the seeking of experiences without regard to morals, however. At times he revels in experiences that involve great cruelty to others. When Sibyl Vane, a young woman engaged to Dorian, commits suicide as a result of Dorian’s cruelties, Henry only sees the great drama in her death.

He observes,

“There is something to me quite beautiful about her death. I am glad I am living in a century when such wonders happen. They make one believe in the reality of the things we all play with, such as romance, passion, and love." 

Henry’s musings, ghastly as they are, take all sorts of turns as he relates them to art, literature, philosophy, etc. Both his pontificating and the words and actions of other characters allow Wilde to explore many facets of art, aesthetics and morality, as well as other topics. In contrast, Basil, who becomes highly critical of Dorian’s descent into wickedness, provides a morally based counterpoint to all this.

Wilde was accused of a lack of morals upon the publication of this book. In his preface that was included in later editions of the book, Wilde even famously wrote

"there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book"

However, it seems clear that this book is a scathing indictment of the moral vacuity that Henry preaches and that Dorian practices. In the above quotation, I think that Wilde was defending the need for an author to portray pernicious behavior and to ask questions about the nature of morality. This fits in with the revolting way that Henry and Dorian are portrayed. Dorian’s depravity, violence, drug use, corruption of others, etc. is described in a series of ugly passages. Furthermore, Dorian is punished in the end.

There are a lot of aspects to this book that I have not touched on above. There are all sorts of themes at play. The character of Dorian is fascinating, and I could write a lot about him. The story is interesting. The writing and descriptions are often dark but brilliant.

Thus, this book is a philosophical feast for readers so inclined. It also has much else to recommend it. I highly recommend it for those who like philosophical tales, fantastic tales and nineteenth century English literature.