Friday, April 13, 2018

Evelina by Francis Burney

Evelina by Francis Burney was first published in 1778. This novel tells the story of Miss Evelina Anville. The entire book is written in the form of letters. Most of the letters are written by Evelina herself. Some are written by her guardian, Reverend Arthur Villars, and Mrs. Mirvin, a family friend. A few are written by others. The bulk of the narrative involves Evelina’s visit to the Mirvins and a later trip to Bristol Springs. Though written as an epistolary novel, some of the letters are long, complex and end up being closer to first person narration. Among other things, they contain long stretches of dialogue. 

The narrative alternates between the Mirvins’ country home, London and Bristol Springs. Evelina encounters a whole host of colorful people, many of whom are of very questionable character. Mme. Duval, Evelina’s vulgar and nefarious grandmother, shows up during a visit to London, threatens to take custody of Evelina and steel her away to France. Captain Mirvan, who is Mrs. Mirvin’s husband, is a bully and a bit of a sadist. Many other characters are crass, obnoxious or just foolish. 

There are multiple men in this book who show romantic interest in Evelina. Many are obsessive, creepy and lecherous. This applies to both major characters and minor characters, as well as random men that Evelina encounters. At one point, Evelina finds herself separated from her party at an outdoor concert. Disreputable and seemingly dangerous men approach her from all sides, 

“my recollection was soon awakened by a stranger's addressing me with, "Come along with me, my dear, and I'll take care of you." …. I found myself in the midst of a crowd, yet without party, friend, or acquaintance. I walked in disordered haste from place to place, without knowing which way to turn, or whither I went. Every other moment I was spoken to by some bold and unfeeling man; to whom my distress, which I think must be very apparent, only furnished a pretense for impertinent witticisms, or free gallantry. At last a young officer, marching fiercely up to me, said, "You are a sweet pretty creature, and I enlist you in my service;" and then, with great violence, he seized my hand. I screamed aloud with fear; and forcibly snatching it away,” 

The above illustrates a world that Burney constructs, populated with pushy, immoral and sometimes dangerous people. Though these characters often do bad things, the tone is the book is fairly light. People rarely actually get seriously hurt. Though these characters display questionable ethics, they are often humorous. Often, characters act in over-the-top and cloddish ways that are funny. They often conflict and bump heads with one another to comic effect. This novel is at times hilarious. Character after character, in passage after passage, confronts Evelina with bad behavior. Sometimes these characters go at one another in that they verbally spar and even play mean and sadistic pranks upon one another. The obnoxious behavior of many of these characters seems realistic, but its frequency as it is presented in this book seems overly exaggerated. The plot is also full of implausible coincidences. All this gives the book a lighthearted and, at times, frivolous feel. However, as a whole, this novel works well as satire. 

Lord Orville is Evelina’s virtuous suitor. He is one of several people in the novel who shows integrity and decency. Throughout the story, the pair encounters various ups and downs in their budding relationship. There is also a major plot thread revolving around the fact that Evelina’s biological father abandoned her and her mother before Evelina was born. Some of the Evelina’s elders want her to assert her birthright. 

In terms of plot and some of the more ethical characters, this book is similar to Jane Austen’s novels. This novel was written years before Austen penned her works. It is kind of like one of Austen’s books filled with clownish and nefarious characters. With that, the characters are not as complex or nuanced as Austen’s brilliant creations. The humor is not as subtle or witty as Austen’s; it is instead overt, but very effective. 

I find it interesting that the obnoxious behavior and character flaws of many of these characters seem very contemporary. People in this book tend to behave badly in the same way as they do in the 21st century. Mme. Duval seems like a modern, crass and vulgar person. Sir Clement Willoughby, one several men pursing Evelina’s affections, seems like a clingy guy whose behavior borders on stalking. Captain Mirvan resembles the people of today who cynically mock and belittle everything and everybody. This book reminds me that some things never change. 

Despite some flaws, this is a fine book. The plot is interesting. It is very funny. Though the characters are not nuanced, they are entertaining and interesting to read about. I highly recommend this novel to fans of Jane Austen and similar writers who came after her. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker was first published this year. It is essentially Pinker’s assessment of the world we live in and how we got here. The book is a defense of enlightenment ideals and an argument that the world is getting better because of them. The author is known as an optimist. He describes the brand of optimism that he practices as “rational optimism.”

The gist of this book is that human civilization has been improving in numerous ways. This improvement has been accelerating. It is being driven by what Pinker describes as enlightenment ideals. The author covers a lot of ground in this work. He explores subjects as diverse as war, violent crime, poverty, famine, epidemics, literacy, human rights, the spread of democracy, access to knowledge, culture and the arts, as well as many other issues. He devotes many pages to both the already developed and the still developing worlds. Pinker uses a lot of statistics to back up his points. I have more to say about this below.

Pinker attempts to ascertain why humanity is improving.  He attributes these advances to reason, science and what he calls “humanism.” I put what he calls “humanism” in quotation marks because there are so many definitions of humanism around. Pinker defines humanism as,

“The goal of maximizing human flourishing—life, health, happiness, freedom, knowledge, love, richness of experience”

He attributes the advances in these areas to enlightenment philosophy. He does touch upon various enlightenment philosophers. However, this is a light touch. I would have preferred if the author had explored the various philosophers and their beliefs in greater depth.

Pinker talks a lot about pervasive pessimism that he argues is all over the place. The author writes,

“And here is a shocker: The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being. Here is a second shocker: Almost no one knows about it.”

As the above quotation illustrates, Pinker argues that due to the nature of the modern world, communication technology, the structure of the media, the fact that we care more about people who are different from us, etc., leads many to believe that things are getting worse at a time when they are getting better.
Pinker does address existentialist dangers like climate change and nuclear weapons. He recognizes the reality of these risks. Once again, his optimism prevails, while he acknowledges that although these perils could destroy human civilization, he believes that humanity can overcome them. When it comes to other threats that folks deem as risks to the survival of human civilization, such as the dangers of artificial intelligence, overpopulation, pandemics, etc., Pinker argues that they are not as serious as many are contending.

Pinker is highly critical of what he identifies as past and modern anti-enlightenment, anti-science and anti-humanist movements. His criticism extends to both the right and the left. He delves into Donald Trump as well as nationalistic trends in Europe. The philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand are tied to these movements.

The author is also critical of illiberalism emanating from the left, in particular, the latest rounds of censorship on college campuses, an intolerance of dissenting viewpoints, the attempts to destroy the careers of individuals who dissent from left wing orthodoxy, left wing anti-science and anti-reason trends, demonization of all things Western, etc. He is highly critical of post modernism. As he does on the right, he concludes that many issues on the left originate with anti-enlightenment philosophers. Here he identifies Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault as such. The ever optimistic Pinker, of course, believes that in the end, reason and moderation will win out over extremists on both sides.

Pinker is also generally critical of religion and particularly critical of conservative interpretations of religion. He talks a about  conservative interpretations of Christianity and Islam. However he acknowledges  that moderate versions of these and other religions are comparable and sometimes even champion enlightenment values. 

There is so much here that it is difficult to encompass in a single blog post, but just a few examples of ills in the world that have been on the downswing over time include poverty, famine, epidemics and violence.  Yet these facts are so rarely talked about. For a more specific example, violent crime in the developed world has been declining dramatically over the last 25 years or so. Yet, the majority of people believe that it is increasing. As another example, in 1984, there existed 54,000 nuclear weapons in the world, and now there are less than 11,000, and there are good prospects that in the coming decades, this number will be substantially reduced.

As mentioned above, Pinker uses a lot of statistics to back up his points. I have been careful to use examples of things that are not only backed up by statistics,  but that match my understanding of the world based upon sources that I have read as well as my basic understanding of the world and of history.

 Some of My Thoughts

A lot of commentary has already been written about this book. Reviews as well as opinion pieces abound all over the internet. Pinker is garnering both praise and criticism. In terms of criticism, it is coming from both the right and the left. Personally, I think that this book illustrates truths about the world that are rarely talked about. Thus, I am devoting a few paragraphs where I share some of my personal observations below.

I have strong opinions on Pinker’s ideas as well as on the issues that he addresses. I have read and thought a lot about these topics over the years.   In an effort to be balanced, I have listened to and read a fair number of these critics. My commentary has been partially influenced by some of Pinker’s detractors.

Pinker uses a lot of statistics. While statistics can be cherry picked and used to distort reality, in my opinion, the author uses them to support logical and common-sense arguments. The statistics presented in this book also match my understanding of history and current events. For instance, his statistics on war and violent crime fit what is happening in the world based upon many sources.  The fact that, as terrible as today’s wars are, they do not come close to matching the frequency and loss of life that conflicts in the past have. The same is true on the subject of crime. Pinker’s statistics generally just quantify what I know to be fairly clear historical trends.

Many folks who criticize Pinker, and people who I have discussed these issues with, bring up many of today’s horrors. One example is the war in Syria. There has been terrible suffering and death as result of this conflict. Upper estimates put the death toll as approaching 500,000. There are several other conflicts going on in the world that are also causing mass losses of life and suffering. However, as Pinker points out, in almost every time in the past, there were many more conflicts going on. Many of these conflicts were much worse in terms of deaths than what is occurring in Syria. Pinker writes of this kind of critique,

“they forget the many civil wars that ended without fanfare after 2009 (in Angola, Chad, India, Iran, Peru, and Sri Lanka) and also forget earlier ones with massive death tolls, such as the wars in Indochina (1946–54, 500,000 deaths), India (1946–48, a million deaths), China (1946–50, a million deaths), Sudan (1956–72, 500,000 deaths, and 1983–2002, a million deaths), Uganda (1971–78, 500,000 deaths), Ethiopia (1974–91, 750,000 deaths), Angola (1975–2002, a million deaths), and Mozambique (1981–92, 500,000 deaths)”

Pinker goes on and uses charts and graphs, among other things, to show that deaths from war have been progressively coming down. As I mentioned above, these statistics match my understanding of history. This is just one example. Pinker makes dozens of rational, historical and statistical arguments as per above on many topics, such as poverty, literacy, epidemics, famine, etc.

There is another point that bears some discussion. Some critics have implied that being optimistic about these issues shows a callousness to present day human suffering and death. Often, individual or group examples of suffering, violence or oppression are brought up as counterarguments when discussing improvements in the world.

Granted, for the relatives of a murdered person, a rape survivor, or a child dying of hunger, a person living in a war zone, etc. the fact that these things are becoming less common is no solace. We should never forget about, and more importantly, we should never stop trying to reduce and ameliorate these ills. However, if these evils have been progressively becoming less common and less severe, it is vital that we understand to what extent this is happening and why this is happening. This understanding is important if we want to sustain and perhaps accelerate the improvement. Recognizing and trying to understand what is going on does not diminish the suffering of those who are still exposed to these terrible things.  On the contrary, understanding what is going on help us to reduce suffering in the future. In addition, the pursuit of truth is in itself important.

Pinker writes,

“The point of calling attention to progress is not self-congratulation but identifying the causes so we can do more of what works.”
Pinker does talk about the terrible things in the world, including the situation with refugees, declining incomes and declining life expectancies in some segments of the population in developed countries, climate change as well as many more issues that are addressed in the book. He makes a strong case that, based on historical trends, we will see improvements in these areas over time.

While he does acknowledge that climate change might destroy human civilization, he makes a case that human civilization can survive it and eventually ameliorate it. He seems more optimistic than pessimistic here.  I am not as optimistic as Pinker seems to be on this front, though I do think that it can go either way.  Pinker makes the case that there is a good chance that humanity will find ways to cope with this challenge. I acknowledge that we might overcome this threat, but I think that that it is so pressing and potentially destructive to human civilization that Pinker would have done better to integrate its negative affects upon his future prognostications.

I generally like Pinker’s politics and views on social issues. He clearly recognizes the benefits that moderate liberalism has brought to the world while recognizing a growing illiberalism growing out of the left. He is also not hesitant to take conservative positions when reason leads him to them.  In some ways, this entire book is a call to moderation, with a slight tilt to the left. It seems that Pinker and I are mostly on the same the same page here.  

I agree with the message of this book: that the plight of humanity is improving in multiple ways and, for the most part, modernity is enormously beneficial.  The ideas of the enlightenment, science and reason are driving this progress. I believe that there are downsides to modernity, and Pinker does mention them, but I would have preferred that he written about them more. However, I agree with him that the constant drumbeat that modernity is detrimental to humanity and things were better in the past, is erroneous. Thus, when all is said and done, I find myself mostly in agreement with Pinker on a whole host of issues.

I think that this book, along with the author’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, are two of the most important works written in recent years. Even if one disagrees with many of Pinker’s points, he is an intriguing thinker who raises all kinds of compelling issues. I personally believe that Pinker is one of the most important thinkers of our time. I highly recommend this book.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Villette by Charlotte Brontë

The below contains minor spoilers.

Villette by Charlotte Brontë was first published in 1853. It is the story of Lucy Snow. We first meet the book’s protagonist at age 14 when she is staying with her godmother, Mrs. Bretton, Mrs. Bretton’s son, John Bretton, and Polly Home, who is a child temporarily staying with the Brettons. The narrative eventually jumps ten years into the future when Lucy, who has lost her family and is penniless, sets out for France on a quest to secure work. She eventually obtains employment at a girls’ school run by Madame Beck. After a few months, Lucy is reunited with Mrs. Bretton and John, who is now a doctor, as the mother and son have emigrated to France. Polly also returns to the circle. For a time, Lucy is romantically interested John, but he eventually falls in love with Polly. Later, Lucy and Paul Emanuel, a professor at Madam Beck’s school, become attracted to one another. Several characters conspire to keep the two apart, however. There are numerous twists and turns in the story, including the appearance of what seems to be the ghost of a dead nun who haunts the school.

There is a lot going on in this novel. At the center of it is the remarkable character of Lucy Snow. Lucy is very complex, and this complexity is difficult to summarize. On one hand, she is unassuming and unpretentious. She does not try to inflate herself or put on airs in any way. When she occasionally begins to fall into self-pity, she rouses and steels herself as she becomes more determined to push on in life. On the other hand, she is extremely spirited and articulate. When others try to lecture her, criticize her, demean women in general, etc. she responds with vigor and defends herself. Paul Emanuel is a very virtuous man who is also very flawed. Initially, he tries to browbeat Lucy for what he perceives as her immodesty and strong personality. Lucy gives it back to him and then some. Eventually, she begins to enjoy her verbal sparring and him and even goads him at times. As time passes, the verbal sparring between the two turns to something that they both seem to enjoy, and the pair fall in love. Paul Emanuel is a fascinating character is his own right. I could devote a separate post to him.

Lucy tends to see through people and pretention. She has a biting wit that she directs at bad behavior and shallowness. At one point, she turns her attention to art criticism. She is unimpressed by a picture called Cleopatra that she encounters in an art museum,

“It represented a woman, considerably larger, I thought, than the life. I calculated that this lady, put into a scale of magnitude, suitable for the reception of a commodity of bulk, would infallibly turn from fourteen to sixteen stone. She was, indeed, extremely well fed: very much butcher's meat— to say nothing of bread, vegetables, and liquids— must she have consumed to attain that breadth and height, that wealth of muscle, that affluence of flesh. She lay half-reclined on a couch: why, it would be difficult to say; broad daylight blazed round her; she appeared in hearty health, strong enough to do the work of two plain cooks; she could not plead a weak spine; she ought to have been standing, or at least sitting bolt upright. She, had no business to lounge away the noon on a sofa. She ought likewise to have worn decent garments; a gown covering her properly, which was not the case: out of abundance of material— seven-and-twenty yards, I should say, of drapery— she managed to make inefficient raiment. Then, for the wretched untidiness surrounding her, there could be no excuse. Pots and pans— perhaps I ought to say vases and goblets— were rolled here and there on the foreground; a perfect rubbish of flowers was mixed amongst them, and an absurd and disorderly mass of curtain upholstery smothered the couch and cumbered the floor.”

I find the above passage very amusing. It illustrates much in Lucy’s personality. Her keen intellect, her strong opinions and her tendency to be critical of excess and silliness are all on display here.

Lucy is also a realist who does not believe in sugarcoating the truth. Later, she contemplates the benefits of facing up to what can be harsh reality,

“I always, through my whole life, liked to penetrate to the  real truth; I like seeking the goddess in her temple, and handling the veil, and daring the dread glance. O Titaness among deities! the covered outline of thine aspect sickens often through its uncertainty, but define to us one trait, show us one lineament, clear in awful sincerity; we may gasp in untold terror, but with that gasp we drink in a breath of thy divinity; our heart shakes, and its currents sway like rivers lifted by earthquake, but we have swallowed strength. To see and know the worst is to take from Fear her main advantage. “

The above passage says a lot about Lucy and the way that she thinks. I also find it to be illustrative of Brontë’s wonderful writing. I think that the imagery is sublime.

There is a theological conflict going on here between Catholicism and Protestantism. Lucy is Protestant. Paul Emanuel is a Catholic who is influenced by theologian friends and acquaintances that try to convert Lucy to Catholicism. The strong-willed Lucy will have none of it. There are some interesting descriptive passages that delve into the differences between Protestantism and Catholicism.  Here, it becomes evident that Lucy is capable of thinking for herself as she rejects the arguments made to her. She also recognizes that some of what she is being presented is highly biased and sometimes downright silly. It becomes obvious that Brontë herself is critical of Catholic ideology and the actions of the Catholic Church.

Lucy is not simple, however. There are other times in the book when she shies away from confrontations with others. Like a real person, she reacts differently in different situations. Brontë manages to convey this in a very believable way.

These assertive personality traits embodied in a female character seem to be far ahead of their time in the 1850s.  Plenty of strong female characters were portrayed in literature before Lucy, but the verbal assertiveness and reason embodied in Lucy seem unique, at least for a romantic heroine.

This book is not perfect. The plot moves slowly and seems to go off in various directions that I did not always find interesting. While the character development is excellent, that also seems to develop slowly at times.

I have just scratched the surface above. I chose to concentrate upon Lucy’s personality, but many other aspects of this novel would support separate posts. Though I did not think that this work is the monumental metaphysical masterpiece that I found Jane Eyre to be, there are times when Brontë reaches out in a few passages and delves into some of the big universal stuff. The prose in this book is also superb. Many of the characters are interesting and enjoyable to read about. The ending is poignant and crafted in a creative and unique way.

A Google search indicates that several critics have observed that they find this to be a better book then Jane Eyre. I would argue that is not the case. However, I found this to be a superb character study that was well ahead of its time. The book is full of other things to recommend it. Ultimately, this is a very worthy read for those who want to go beyond Jane Eyre.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Crucible of War by Fred Anderson

Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 is Fred Anderson’s comprehensive study of the French and Indian War and its aftermath. For those unfamiliar with the conflict, the French and Indian War refers to the war in North America that was part of the larger world conflict known as The Seven Years War.

The conflict pitted Great Britain and her Native American allies against France and her Native American allies. It mostly occurred in lands west of the original thirteen English Colonies as well as in Canada.

Though I found this book interesting and worthwhile for many reasons, my initial reason for reading it was that the French and Indian War had a great influence upon the American Revolution, which broke out about twenty years later. I wanted to read a book on this earlier conflict. I did a little research to decide which book to read on the subject.  There are several respected histories out there. This one had a reputation of being the most comprehensive. Some reviews described it as being too academic. I did not find that to be true. Instead, I thought that this work was very accessible and understandable. With that, this is a long book. My edition was more than 700 pages in length, not including endnotes.  

This book is mostly a political and military history. Those not looking to read a lot of military history might want to avoid this one. Personally, I found this work engrossing. The structure of the book is little unusual. The first two thirds or so is an account of the war itself, with a heavy emphasis on military history. The policies and politics of Great Britain’s government are also covered in some detail.

The final third of the book covers history after the war. It is fairly heavy on analysis and makes a strong point that the French and Indian War led to the American Revolution. I found the combination of these two parts to be a little odd. The mix of a detailed political and military chronicle, with a targeted history attempting to prove a point, seems unconventional. With that, I loved reading about both the history of the war itself and the tie-in to the American Revolution.

The nature of the major fighting that occurred during this conflict is explored in some detail. Most military activity centered around British and French forts located in wilderness areas. Each side assembled small armies that traversed the wilderness in an attempt to reach, besiege and capture the other side’s forts. Native American support was key to each side. The British better managed to cultivate Native American allies, which gave them a major advantage. In the end, however, it was control of the sea that gave Great Britain her final victory as French troops and resupply to North America were eventually cut off.

As mentioned above, Anderson explores many connections between the Seven Years War and the American Revolution. Great Britain ran up an enormous national debt during the Seven Years War. She was still expending large sums on protecting Canada and the other territorial acquisitions that were taken during the war. As a result, Parliament levied taxes on the thirteen colonies to help pay these expenses. These taxes were a major cause of the revolution.

New territories were also taken from France to the west of the thirteen colonies. The colonists were eager to move out and settle those lands. Great Britain, wanting to avoid conflict between the colonists and Native American tribes, attempted to close off these western territories to the colonists. These restrictions caused enormous friction. Anderson’s analysis of this issue contains his take on the philosophy that related to British ideas of Empire and colonialism. I found this line of inquiry intriguing.

 Tensions between British troops and the colonists actually began during the French and Indian War, when British generals demanded that the colonists provide quarters to British troops. Also, British troops and Provincial forces served together. Instead of harmoniously working together, this only added to the friction.

The colonists, having fielded large military forces and expended great resources during the conflict, came out of the war feeling that they had sacrificed and done their part. They felt that they had contributed to the world victory that Great Britain achieved. The British on the other hand, generally had the impression that the colonists were unreliable and hesitant to fight.

For these reasons and others, Great Britain and the American colonists were set on a collision course. Anderson writes,

The Seven Years’ War had reshaped the world in more ways than anyone knew. But the lessons both Britons and Americans derived from the conflict would prove inadequate guides when men on opposite sides of the Atlantic tried to comprehend what those changes meant, and dangerous ones when each tried to understand the actions of the other.”

This book may not be for everyone. As mentioned above, it is heavy with military history. There is an incongruity to its two parts. With that, I loved this work. Both segments were of great interest to me. I found it to be a comprehensive chronicle of the conflict. In addition, Anderson digs deeply into the reasons for the American Revolution. This is a subject that fascinates me. The book’s length provided me with a level of detail that I often look for. Ultimately, for those interested in these subjects, this is an extremely informative and fascinating book.