Archive for January, 2007


Halfway Between

January 31, 2007

Why not post one of my favorite passages ever?

All vistas close in the unseen–no one doubts it–but Helen closed them rather too quickly for her taste. At every turn of speech one was confronted with reality and the absolute. Perhaps Margaret grew too old for metaphysics, perhaps Henry was weaning her from them, but she felt that there was something a little unbalanced in the mind that so readily shreds the visible. The business man who assumes that this life is everything, and the mystic who asserts that it is nothing, fail, on this side and on that, to hit the truth. “Yes, I see, dear; it’s about halfway between,” Aunt Juley had hazarded in earlier years. No; truth, being alive, was not halfway between anything. It was only to be found by continuous excursions into either realm, and though proportion is the final secret, to espouse it at the outset is to insure sterility.

Howard’s End, Chapter 23


Booklog: Wimbledon Green

January 30, 2007

Wimbledon Green
Rating: Good

Last night I was very much in the mood for some cozy reading material, but my eyes were too tired for The Aenied. Fortunately, Seth’s Wimbledon Green was still on the “return to the library” shelf, and remembered this because I had just recently been lamenting the fact that I hadn’t been able to read it yet — despite the fact that the books are already accumulating fines (or, as I like to see it, increasing my donation to the Free Library).

Wimbledon Green
is a delightful short graphic novel that can be read in one sitting. The art is simple and well-executed with an engaging style. The story, which is basically a series of sketches, follows the life and exploits of its title character, “the greatest comic book collector in the world.” We learn about Mr. Green via flashbacks and interviews with other members (indeed, rivals) of the hardcore comic-collecting scene, who respect Wimbledon’s knowledge and passion for comics, but envy his ability to snatch up rarities.The book’s driving narrative is the tale of a hippieish “Don Green” who scores a large comic book collection by driving across the country searching through old bookstores and investigating the libraries of seniors. The central mystery is whether “Don Green” the hippie and “Wimbledon Green” the eccentric millionaire are the same man.

In his introduction, Seth explains that he drew inspiration from Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware, and his work does compare to theirs, except that it is considerably less impressive from a technical standpoint and much more upbeat. While there is an underlying layer of melancholy in Wimbledon Green, the major tone is one of light humor and gentle irony. It certainly doesn’t plumb the depths Ware reaches in Jimmy Corrigan, but that’s not a fair standard by which to judge a graphic artist. Wimbledon Green was exactly what I hoped it would be: a pleasant way to spend an hour or two.

(For more, check out this review).


Planting for Eternity

January 29, 2007

Carlyle’s Professor Teufelsdrock, after a long diatribe on the meaning of Symbols and their ability to point towards the Eternal, and the ability of true works of art to render the “Godlilke” visible:

Of this thing, however, be certain: wouldst thou plant for Eternity, then plant into the deep infinite faculties of man, his Fantasy and Heart; wouldst thou plant for Year and Day, then plant into his shallow superficial faculties, his Self-love and Arithmetical Understanding, what will grow there. A Hierarch, therefore, and Pontiff of the World will we call him, the Poet and inspired Maker; who, Prometheus-like, can shape new Symbols, and bring new Fire from Heaven to fix it there. Such too will not always be wanting; neither perhaps now are. Meanwhile, as the average of matters goes, we account him Legislator and wise who can so much as tell when a Symbol has grown old, and gently remove it.


The Varieties of Religious Experience II: “Circumscription of the Topic”

January 25, 2007

(This is the second of a planned twenty part journey through William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience lectures).

In his second lecture, “Circumscription of the Topic,” James aims to set down exactly what he means when he talks about “religion.” Like the first, this lecture is introductory in tone, as James outlines his general scheme and establishes a clear method of considering his subject. At the very end, James promises that in his next lecture he will “abandon the extreme generalities” and “begin our actual journey by addressing ourselves directly to the concrete facts.” If this means that the next lecture is going to be even better than this one, than you can color me excited.

The primary point of lecture two is to define the word “religion” in a way that will allow James to talk about the aspects of it he finds most interesting, namely, the intense religious experiences of those who think they are in touch with the divine. James explains that he is not interested in determining what the “essence” of religion is, since he does not think this to be a plausible goal; religion, of all things, is not easily reduced to a single trait, as “such different ways of conceiving it ought of themselves to arise doubt as to whether it possibly can be one specific thing.” To help in this regard, James again explains that he is going to ignore the institutional aspects of religion in their entirety, hoping instead to “confine myself as far as I can to personal religion pure and simple.” With this in mind, James sets down his working definition:

Religion, therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.

The slippery word here, as James immediately recognizes, is “divine” — what does this mean? He insists on holding to a broad definition of the divine, which will umbrella religions such as Buddism, which recognizes no personal deity, and Emersonian idealism, which focuses primarily on a law or force which inhabits the universe. In short, even if a religion has no gods, it still falls under James’s conception: “we must interpret the term ‘divine’ very broadly, as denoting any object that is godlike, whether it be a concrete deity or not.”

Coming at it from a different angle, James defends his choice of definition by claiming that “religion, whatever it is, is a man’s total reaction upon life.”

Total reactions are different from casual reactions, and total attitudes are different from usual or professional attitudes. To get at them you must go behind the foreground of existence and reach down to that curious sense of the whole residual cosmos as an everlasting presence, intimate or alien, terrible or amusing, lovable or odious, which in some degree every one possesses. This sense of the world’s presence, appealing as it does to our peculiar individual temperament, makes us either strenuous or careless, devout or blasphemous, gloomy or exultant, about life at large; and our reaction, involuntary and inarticulate and often half unconscious as it is, is the completest of all our answers to the question, “What is the character of this universe in which we dwell?”

The next part of the essay makes distinctions between different ways of reacting to the totality of existence, and whether or not different stances qualify as religious. Voltaire’s scoffing attitude, the “all is vanity” approach, is certainly not religion. An ironic stance towards the whole is not religion; religion nearly always indicates a serious frame of mind. Even tragedy has value from the religious point of view, for it it is considered a purging force that paves the way to deliverance. Coming back to the definition of the divine, James says: “The divine shall mean for us only such a primal reality as the individual feels impelled to respond to solemnly and gravely, and neither by a curse nor a jest.”

With this in mind, James returns to the point he made in his first lecture, that religion can best be understood by considering the most extreme examples of it. The common sense plea James makes resonates with truth:

Hesitation as to whether a state of mind is ‘religious,’ or ‘moral,’ or ‘philosophical,’ is only likely to arise when the state of mind is weakly characterized, but in that case it will be hardly worthy of our study at all. With states that can only by courtesy be called religious we need have nothing to do, our only profitable business being with what nobody can possibly feel tempted to call anything else.

At this point in his lecture, James turns to a subject that holds great weight, and proves to be deeply fascinating: distinguishing between a “moral” stance towards existence and a “religious” one. Recognizing that there could very easily be some blurring between the two, James attempts to determine the critical difference, and succeeds admirably. Explaining that “at bottom the whole concern of both morality and religion is with the manner of our acceptance of the universe,” James points out that morality is concerned with acquiescing to the universe, while religion is concerned with embracing it. It is a difference of mood: the moralist (represented here by Stoicism in general and Aurelius specifically) consents to his place in the universe, and even submits to it, whereas “the Christian God is there to be loved” — “the difference of emotional atmosphere is like that between an arctic climate and the tropics.”

James then moves deeper into this territory, hoping to identify what about religion makes it distinct from morality. Strangely, James shifts back and forth between Christianity and religion without explanation, using the two terms nearly interchangeably in the last portion of his lecture. This serves his purpose, and allows him to make the points he clearly wishes to make, but it is a weakness in his argument, and attention must be paid to it. What James says next about the sacrificial, self-abasing aspects of religion apply very well to Christianity, but not so well (to use James’s earlier example against him) to Emersonian idealism. Take this passage which describes the comfort religion gives to those who feel the shortcomings of their “decaying organism”

But whereas the merely moralistic spurning takes an effort of volition, the Christian spurning is the result of the excitement of a higher kind of emotion, in the presence of which no exertion of volition is required. The moralist must hold his breath and keep his muscles tense; and so long as this athletic attitude is possible all goes well — morality suffices. But the athletic attitude tends ever to break down, and it inevitably does break down even in the most stalwart when the organism begins to decay, or when morbid fears invade the mind. To suggest personal will and effort to one all sicklied o’er with the sense of irremediable impotence is to suggest the most impossible of things. What he craves is to be consoled in his very powerlessness, to feel that the spirit of the universe recognizes and secures him, all decaying and failing as he is. Well, we are all such helpless failures in the last resort. The sanest and best of us are of one clay with lunatics and prison inmates, and death finally runs the robustest of us down. And whenever we feel this, such a sense of the vanity and provisionality of our voluntary career comes over us that all our morality appears but as a plaster hiding a sore it can never cure, and all our well-doing as the hollowest substitute for that well-being that our lives ought to be grounded in, but, alas! are not.

And here religion comes to our rescue and takes our fate into her hands. There is a state of mind, known to religious men, but to no others, in which the will to assert ourselves and hold our own has been displaced by a willingness to close our mouths and be as nothing in the floods and waterspouts of God.

This is a long quote, but essential to understanding what comes next. James claims that the crucial aspect of religion — and its chief value — is how it “comes to our rescue and takes our fate into her hands.” Religious feeling adds a whole new level of experience to a person’s life: “when the outward battle is lost, and the outer world disowns him, it redeems and vivifies an interior world which would otherwise be an empty waste.”

I want to stop the summary here and draw attention to the fact that James is here portraying a very pessimistic view of life and death. True, our lives are a struggle with death and decay, for which we often need solace and explanation. However, I think it’s worth it to advance another view: that life owes nothing to us, and that we should be happy to be here at all. This, bastardized, is the view taken by Carlyle’s professor Teufelsdrock in Sartor Resartus (see this post).

In the next to last paragraph, James writes:

For when all is said and done, we are in the end absolutely dependent on the universe; and into sacrifices and surrenders of some sort, deliberately looked at and accepted, we are drawn and pressed as into our only permanent positions of repose. Now in those states of mind which fall short of religion, the surrender is submitted to as an imposition of necessity, and the sacrifice is undergone at the very best without complaint. In the religious life, on the contrary, surrender and sacrifice are positively espoused: even unnecessary givings-up are added in order that the happiness may increase. Religion thus makes easy and felicitous what in any case is necessary; and if it be the only agency that can accomplish this result, its vital importance as a human faculty stands vindicated beyond dispute

To this I say: yes, we are all dependent on the universe, and religion does provide an answer to the seemingly brutality of this fact, in that it promises that there is another, greater, meaning, even — usually — promising eternal life beyond our short earthy voyages. In this view, renouncing the earthly has clear benefits. However, if there is no eternal life, nothing beyond what we see and experience on earth, then the comfort and “extra level” that religion offers is misleading, false, and detrimental to true happiness.

If you believe that there is another life, then renouncing the less pleasant elements of this one makes sense. If you don’t, and are convinced that this life is the only experience you will ever have, then renunciation holds no purpose, whatever its value for your happiness may be. My chief criticism of James’ point is that our being “dependent on the universe” is not a strong enough reason to renounce it. James thinks that “we shall have to confess to at least some amount of dependence on sheer mercy, and to practice some amount of renunciation, great or small, to save our souls alive.” I agree with the first half of this proposal, but denounce the second; I have no choice but to depend on the universe, but I can choose to affirm it, regardless of whether or not it has a total meaning, because I am convinced that there is nothing more to it that what it gives me and what I can take from it.


Fun with Lists: To Acquire

January 24, 2007

Where my Moleskine and my Amazon wish list meet:

Books to Acquire with the Hope of Reading Shortly Thereafter
(ranked according to preference)

  1. Pnin, Nabokov
  2. 300, Frank Miller
  3. What is the What, Dave Eggers
  4. Blood Meridan, Cormac McCarthy
  5. The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene
  6. On Beauty, Zadie Smith
  7. Jimbo in Purgatory, Gary Panter
  8. The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen
  9. On the Nature of Things, Lucretius
  10. The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, Norman Cohn
  11. Armies of the Night, Norman Mailer
  12. Money, Martin Amis
  13. Possession, A.S. Byatt
  14. The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian, Robin Lane Fox
  15. Attonement, Ian McEwan

And that will do for now. Generally, I use lists like this while browsing the used bookstore, avoiding that moment when I step in and forget what I want — blinded by the glow of beauty. The list doesn’t include my search for a last few Saul Bellow books, or deciding what Henry James novel I’m going to read next, but it’s helpful just the same.

Any suggestions or comments are most welcome.


Either-Or Meme

January 24, 2007

A meme? Why not!

(Thanks to Classical Bookworm, who picked it up from A Work in Progress)

Hardback or trade paperback or mass market paperback?
I love a trade paperback, especially the blue-green Penguin paperbacks (which, sadly, are on the way out — a relic of times past). If it’s used and in good condition, I love a good hardback.

Amazon or brick and mortar?
Both/and. Used bookstores for browsing, Amazon if it’s a matter of urgency.

Barnes & Noble or Borders?

Bookmark or dogear?
Horrors, indeed. Please don’t dogear.

Alphabetize by author or alphabetize by title or random?
By author, within genres

Keep, throw away, or sell?
Keep keep keep

Keep dustjacket or toss it?
Keep for storage (unless it’s ugly)

Read with dustjacket or remove it?

Always remove. I don’t see how people can read with those things on

Short story or novel?
Novel, emphatically

Collection (short stories by same author) or anthology (short stories by different authors)?

Collection, if it has to be something other than a novel

Harry Potter or Lemony Snicket?
Harry Potter (preferably in the wee hours after having bought the new book at midnight). Haven’t read the Snicket, but I’m sure they’re lovely.

Stop reading when tired or at chapter breaks?
I’d rather stop reading at chapter breaks, and I do my utmost to get there. Making it a point not to read in bed helps tremendously

“It was a dark and stormy night” or “Once upon a time”?
The former. Heaths preferable.

Buy or Borrow?
Buy. I can’t borrow books — it never feels right.

New or used?

I like used better.

Buying choice: book reviews, recommendation or browse?
A mix, with reviews being the most influential.

Tidy ending or cliffhanger?
Tidy, please. Especially if a deeply tense compromise has been achieved.

Morning reading, afternoon reading or nighttime reading?
I like reading in the morning best, especially if it’s a difficult text. The afternoon is great for light novels.

Standalone or series?

Standalone. Unless it’s fantasy, which it almost never is.

Favorite series?
The Contract with God Trilogy, Will Eisner

Favorite book of which nobody else has heard?
Saving the hard ones for last, eh? How about The Book of Leviathan by Peter Blegvad.

Favorite books read last year?
Life & Times of Michael K, The Contract with God Trilogy, Pale Fire, Christopher Marlowe: Five Plays, Fun Home, The Odyssey

Favorite books of all time?
Middlemarch, To the Lighthouse, Ulysses

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Death without Hope

January 22, 2007

From the September 16, 1944 edition of Combat, Albert Camus reprimand of the Catholic’s Church’s impotence during the Nazi occupation of France:

We ask consistency of politicians who traditionally showed none. So how can we remain silent about the inconsistency of men who cloak themselves in one of the purest messages humanity has ever known? How can we no remind them that for a Christian, to be afraid is to betray one’s faith?

The eternal vocation of these men was in fact to affirm that force is of no avail against spirit that refuses to recognize it. Their vocation was not to concede and temporize, it was to refuse and, if need be, to die. They betrayed their vocation.

It was more difficult for the Resistance to have martyrs than for the church. Many of our comrades who are no longer with us went to their death without hope or consolation. Their conviction was that they were dying, utterly, and that their sacrifice would end everything. They were nevertheless willing to make that sacrifice. How, then, can we not feel bitterness in judging the tepidness of men for whom death is but a way station and martyrdom a superior liberation?