Archive for June, 2007

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Reading Scared

June 21, 2007

This remark from The Modern Word rather perfectly captures my feelings about reading The Recognitions — I am still reeling:

The Recognitions makes one so terrifyingly uncertain about the “unique” or “authentic” nature of experience and art that upon finishing it one cannot be sure one read a novel, as either term may be suspect.

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The Reason for the Peloponnesian War

June 21, 2007

I’ve never posted a video on this blog before, but there’s a first time for everything. Here is theorist/philosopher Slavoj Žižek talking about why loves theory:

Via the Continental Philosophy blog.

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Booklog: The Catcher in the Rye

June 20, 2007

The Catcher in the Rye
J.D. Salinger
Read: 6.17.07
Rating: Excellent

This is the fifth or sixth summer in a row that I’ve read The Catcher in the Rye, and that’s in addition to my canonical reading in high-school, so by now it feels a lot like meeting up with a friend I only see once a year: I notice how I’ve changed since the last encounter, and even how the text itself reads differently each time. Many of you likely read this book as a teenager or student, and found yourself identifying with Holden Caulfield in a way that was both exciting and a little frightening. As a result of so many people having this experience, the text has acquired a connotation that I really don’t think it deserves, that of being synonymous with “teenage angst” or some other such foolishness. Those who come to it with a more critical eye tend to realize that Holden, in addition to being a uncertain teenager, is mentally unstable and clearly suffering from heavy depression (don’t forget that he clearly mentions that he is writing from a sanatorium at both the very beginning and very end of the book — something that is easy to forget as he tells his actual story); this reading, The Catcher in the Rye as a chronicle of depression, is, I believe, equally dismissive and unhelpful.

A good exercise when reading The Catcher in the Rye is to distinguish between the things Holden says and does that display signs of depression and those where he is simply unable to cope with someone or something being phony and unbearable. In the latter case, Holden is deconstructing social norms and exposing them for the exercises in affectedness they really are. For example, having to say “Glad to have met you” to someone you’re not at all glad to have met. Most of us are able to do and say things that we know to be phony without any trouble: either because we’re not thinking about it, or because we know that “that’s just what you do.” Any of you who were even mildly rebellious teenagers know that once you start fully understanding why adults act the way they do, it’s hard not to get really upset about it and want to forge into a new way of being.

Further, it’s helpful to think of Holden’s struggles with “phonies” as an example of the trouble we all have — young people especially — of dealing with the problem of “other people.” How do we know what others are thinking? Are the really saying what they mean? Usually, it’s best not to overanalyze, but once you start thinking about motivations and the masquerades that hide them, it’s not hard to cast every action and word into a cynical light. Then there is the problem of trying not to do or say anything phony yourself — and the confusion that results when you do — as you learn how to see yourself in the eyes of another, combined with the rather low opinion of yourself that results, and you have a hell of muddle. No wonder Holden is depressed.

Many of things about himself and the world that Holden does not understand could be easily dismissed by a detached, analytic viewer (not that this would help him feel any better). To take a simple example: it’s not mystery why he necks with girls he considers “terrific phonies,” even after promising himself he won’t do it again — he’s a teenage boy. More meaningfully, his attachment to his sister Phoebe and his life-dream of being “the catcher in the rye” who saves kids from falling off a cliff, is clearly a psychological result of his younger brother Allie dying not too long ago (Holden himself almost seems to recognize this). It wouldn’t be hard to view the entire novel through this lens: Holden is overly attached to childhood and its innocence, and can’t get along in the adult world until he achieves some sort of “closure” about his brother’s death. Fair enough, but this reductionist view — and others similar to it — is not very edifying, and it certainly doesn’t begin to explain why the novel is so incredibly good.

For, as you read, you can’t help but agree with Holden and his observations: surely boys at pep schools are really mean, headmasters do favor rich parents over poor ones, and the way people act when going to see highly-regarded theater is completely absurd. You and I know this, but we don’t take it as hard as Holden, because he’s depressed. Holden’s unreliability and lovability as a narrator are inseparable. Sure, he’s deeply depressed, but he’s also deeply perceptive, and right about the world more often that not. The trouble, obviously, is his reaction to it.

At the end of the book, Holden receives a lecture from his old teacher, Mr. Antolini, in which he encourages Holden to go back to school and become a scholar:

Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused or frightened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, many of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them — if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry.

Indeed. Mr. Antolini’s words may seem a little trite, but they’re probably just the right thing for Holden’s teenage ears. Neither deep depression nor the certainty that everyone is a ruthless phony is a new idea; the truth, as Holden is right on the verge of knowing, is much more complicated, and irreducible. It’s a lesson we could stand to learn, too.

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Booklog: Blankets

June 18, 2007

Blankets
Craig Thompson
Read: 6.8.07
Rating: Very Good

It’s a rare thing, reading a book that aligns so closely with one’s own experience. It’s also deeply unsettling. As I turned the pages of Craig Thompson’s admirable Blankets, I couldn’t help but marvel at its resonance with my own teenage years. If I aligned the text with my own life, the point for point matches wouldn’t be all that many, but a heavy handful of the scenes and episodes depicted so perfectly in Blankets were eerie in their similarity; I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was reliving key events that are now distant memories.

Craig Thompson’s 582-page “illustrated novel” works back in forth in time between the childhood of the narrator (also named Craig Thompson, so this clearly borders on memoir) and his senior year of high-school, when he meets and falls in love with a girl named Raina. Thompson has said that his novel is primarily about the experience of sleeping with someone for the first time, and it is a love story first and foremost, but the teenage Craig’s emergence from a childhood full of fervent evangelical Christianity is what gives Blankets its emotional depth. Craig and Raina meet at a Christian winter camp: she is clearly, of the two, the less enraptured of the with the whole scene, and her free-loving attitude brings Craig out of his half-committed, half-doubtful shell. Sadly, the week too quickly comes to an end, and the new lovers — who are clearly infatuated with each other but not willing to assign the “girlfriend/boyfriend” label — must part: Craig lives in Wisconsin, Raina in Michigan. They commence a fruitful correspondence, sending sketches (Craig), poems (Raina), mix-tapes, and letters to one another, before Craig arranges a visit to Raina’s house over Christmas break. This one-week of pure bliss, as the two savor in each other’s company as only first-time lovers can, is the book’s centerpiece.

Raina’s parents are newly-separated, and planning to divorce: this unfortunate circumstance gives the young lovers a glorious stretch of unsupervised freedom. One the second day of the visit, Raina asks Craig to sleep in her bed, so that they do not have to say goodnight and part ways, and he hesitates but agrees after they decide to set the alarm for 5 am so Craig can slip back into the guest room undetected. This stretch of panels was my favorite part of the book, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tearing up as I read. As Raina is getting ready for bed, Craig changes into his pajamas and he recites appropriate Bible verses to himself: “Flee fornication. Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that commiteth fornication sinneth against his own body” (1 Corinthians 6:18); “Can a man take fire into his bosum and his clothes not be burned? — Can he go upon hot coals, and his feet not be burned?” (Proverbs 6:28). He begins to sweat as he considers his fears, but then Raina reenters, and on the next page she is drawn as an angel in white, and Song of Solomon comes to Craig’s mind: “All beautiful you are, my darling; there is no flaw in you. You have stolen my heart, my sister, my bride; you have stolen my heart with one glance of your eyes” (4:7,9). After a night of pure bliss (there is no fornication; they merely fall asleep in each other’s arms), Craig returns to the guest room, offering prayers of thankfulness to God. He stops to think, “Perhaps I should feel guilty” but realizes that this is false; he in fact feels “as clean and pure as the snow” which is falling outside.

Blankets beautifully tells the story of a young man who overcomes his upbringing, and the feelings of distrust towards the earthly and the body that dominated it. Through a tale of new love and self-discovery, Craig emerges victorious, triumphing over the limited, demeaning world-view that shaped his childhood. I could offer a few passing critiques about Thompson’s style and the few times his sweetness becomes saccharine, but instead I’ll say this: if you’re looking to break into the world of graphic novels, but don’t consider yourself a reader of comic books, Blankets would be a fantastic place to begin.

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Best of On the Web: Number 2

June 15, 2007

Here’s a selection of the latest and greatest items I’ve encountered while foraging about in the world wide web:

  • Sadly, the graveyard where Shelley and Keats rest is in disrepair and may have to close.
  • Litlove finished reading Philp Roth’s The Human Stain last week, and now I feel a strong desire to read it myself — what a review!
  • more thought-provoking reviews from the blogosphere: Bookstorm reconsiders his initial reaction to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.
  • Lionel Trilling on the little magazine: “They are snickered at and snubbed, sometimes deservedly, and no one would venture to say in a precise way just what effect they have . . . except that they keep a countercurrent moving which perhaps no one will be fully aware of until it ceases to move.” Here’s a list featuring ten of the best.
  • This June we celebrate the 40th anniversary of one of modernity’s greatest novels, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Ilan Stavans considers its influence and legacy in the Chronicle:

In my 40s, I’ve returned to García Márquez’s masterpiece. Now it seems to me that, like Cervantes’s Don Quixote, it decodes the DNA of Hispanic civilization. It’s a “total” novel, designed by a demiurge capable of creating a universe as comprehensive as ours. One Hundred Years of Solitude has done something astonishing: It has survived, accumulating disparate, at times conflicting, rereadings. Isn’t that what a classic is, a mirror in which readers see what they are looking for?

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Booklog: Where Angels Fear to Tread

June 13, 2007

Where Angels Fear to Tread
E. M. Forster
Read: 6.4.07
Rating: Very Good

E. M. Forster’s first novel was published in 1905; he was twenty-six years old. The mystery of how a man my age could write such a mature, worldly, and wise novel is one that remained at the forefront of my mind as I read Where Angels Fear to Tread. (Also, Keats wrote “Ode to a Grecian Urn” when he was 24 — think upon that, ye mighty, and weep.)

At the start, Where Angels Fear to Tread is a criticism of proper Edwardian English society and morals (represented by the matriarch Mrs. Herriton), and the thin, constrained life it offers, especially as compared to the ancient nobility and beauty of Italy, where most of the book’s action takes place. Caught in between the two worlds are Lilia Herriton (who has married into the family, and is now a widow) and Philip Herriton, the family’s youngest, a “champion of beauty.” As the novel begins, Lilia embarks on a tour of Italy, accompanied by a friend of the family, Miss Caroline Abbott. Lilia’s trip was suggested by Philip, who has spent quite a bit of time in Italy, and has returned from his travels with a mild rebellious streak. He has great hopes for Lilia, trusting that she will return from her visit to Italy changed by its beauty, just as he was.

Lilia does fall in love with Italy. Indeed, she falls in love with an Italian, Gino, the son of a back-country dentist, and secretly marries him. When this news reaches the Herriton’s in England, Philip is dispatched by his mother, who hopes to protect the family name by bribing Gino and forcing an end to the romance — but when Philip arrives, he is helpless: Lilia and Gino have already wed. The marriage is a most unfortunate one from the perspective of all parties; Lilia is soon miserable, and dies giving birth to a son. When this news reaches Mrs. Herriton, she attempts to intervene and “save” the child, again sending Philip to Italy, this time accompanied by his sister, the stubborn-beyond-proper Harriett, and Miss Caroline Abbott, who, having failed to prevent the first disaster of Lilia’s marriage, hopes to atone in some way by helping with the mission to obtain the baby.

The novel’s plot is small, well-executed, and fully engaging, but the heart of Where Angels Fear to Tread beats in its main character, Philip Herriton. Philip is opposed to what he considers the limiting, old-fashioned customs of “proper” English morality and society — preferring to think of himself as possessing a level of detachment and lofty ideals unknown to his mother and sister. He loves beauty, and life’s beautiful things, but he appreciates from a distance. His composure is deeply rattled by his third trip to Italy, as he finds himself taking sides with his mother and sister, in opposition to the charm and beauty of Italy. Also troubling are his conversations with Caroline Abbott, who is more impulsive, and less proper, than Philip had expected, both in that Miss Abbott challenges his detached, humorous stance towards life, and because he begins to find an intoxicating hint of romance in the relationship. As Miss Abbott criticizes his idle speculating, asking him to actually make a firm choice — “to settle what’s right and follow it” — he is forced to face the shortcomings of his detachment.

Far more than mere social criticism, Where Angels Fear to Tread is ultimately a novel concerned with two opposing attitudes towards beauty. Philip appreciates beauty from a distance, but is never able to love actively: Miss Abbott tells him “you look on life as a spectacle; you don’t enter it; you only find it funny or beautiful.” Lilia, on the opposite side, also loves the beauty of Italy — and her method of entry is very active. Neither method is championed by Forster: Philip’s detachment is rightly mocked, although the particular joys afforded by this stance are honestly portrayed (Philip is praised by Miss Abbott as having a “view of the muddle” unavailable to her). Lilia’s rashness results in a miserable marriage and a premature death, but we feel a particular sense of joy when reading of her lack of concern for what her in-laws may think (“thank goodness, I can stand up against the world for now, for I’ve found Gino, and this time I marry for love”).

Here we find the see that blossomed into the Forster’s great novels, particularly Howard’s End. In Where Angels Fear to Tread, we learn that it is not enough to merely appreciate beauty from a distance, but at the same time it is unwise to fly into it without forethought. The answer, as always, lies on neither side. But also, as we know from Howard’s End, it is not “halfway between” either: “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.”

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Boy, Don’t You

June 11, 2007

Holden Caulfield, after saying goodbye a phony-looking Navy guy, the date of a friend of his older brother’s:

I’m always saying “Glad to have met you” to somebody I’m not at all glad I met. If you want to stay alive, you have to say that stuff, though.