On Reading Philosophy

French Existentialist Writer Albert Camus (1913-1960)

Generally speaking, I have the devil’s own time trying to understand what philosophers write. The absolute worst are the German philosophers like Hegel, Heidegger, and Kant. I have difficulty even reading excerpted quotations from these writers—let alone whole paragraphs or chapters!

I have come to the conclusion that to enjoy reading most philosophers one has to be a gamer where language is concerned.

Fortunately, there are exceptions, particularly among the so-called Existentialist philosophers such as Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Camus and (on occasion) Sartre. I am currently reading Camus’s Notebooks 1951-1959 where I find surprising, gemlike ideas expressed such as the following:

The history of mankind is the history of the myths with which it covers up reality. For two centuries, the disappearance of traditional myths has shook history as death has become without hope. And yet there is no human reality if in the end there is no acceptance of death without hope. It is the acceptance of this limit, without blind resignation, in the tension of all one’s being that coincides with balance.

I await with patience a catastrophe that is slow in coming.

According to Melville, the remora, a fish of the South Seas, swims poorly. That is why their only chance to move forward consists of attaching themselves to the back of a big fish. Then they plunge a kind of tube into the stomach of a shark, where they suck up their nourishment, and propagate without doing anything, living off the hunting and efforts of the beast. These are the Parisian mores.

Give money, or lose it. Never make it fructify, nor seek it, nor crave it.

In love, hold on to what is.

Lope de Vega, five or six times a widower. Today people die less often. The result is that we no longer need to preserve in ourselves a force of rejuvenating love, but, on the contrary, we need to extinguish it in order to elicit another force of infinite adaptation.

Criticism is to the creator what the merchant is to the producer. Thus, the commercial age sees an asphyxiating multiplication of commentators, intermediaries, between the producer and the public. Thus, it is not that we are backing creators today, it is that there are too many commentators who drown the exquisite and elusive fish in their muddy waters.

Ooh, that last one, I think, is aimed at me.

Shortly after great historical crises, one finds oneself as dissatisfied and sick as on the morning following a night of excess. But there is no aspirin for the historical hangover.

Do not curse the West. For me, I cursed it at the time of its splendor. But today, while it succumbs under the weight of its faults and its long past glory, I will not add to its weight…. Do not envy those of the East, the sacrifice of intelligence and of heart to the gods of history. History has no gods, and intelligence, enlightened b7y the heart, is the only god, under a thousand forms, who has ever been saluted in this world.

I think what makes Camus a philosopher for our time is twofold:

  • He was born and raised in Algeria.
  • His experience with the French Resistance during World War Two made him avoid the obscurantism of more supine intellectuals.

“A World Construed Out of Blood”

The Best American Novel I Have Read in Years

I have seldom been so impressed by an American novel—especially a recent one—as I was by Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing. The young hero, Billy Parham, crosses back and forth three times between New Mexico and Old Mexico. Finding his parents killed and robbed of their livestock, he is not at home either in the United States or the mountains of Mexico.

McCarthy writes with an Old Testament intensity of the kindness and evil that Billy finds across the Rio Grande. At one point, he writes:

When the flames came up her eyes burned out there like gatelamps to another world. A world burning on the shore of an unknowable void. A world construed out of blood and blood’s alcahest and blood in its core and in its integument because it was that nothing save blood had power to resonate against that void which threatened hourly to destroy it.

After finding his family slain and dispersed, Billy manages to locate his younger brother, Boyd, and returns with him to Mexico looking for the horses stolen from his father. Boyd manages to impress the campesinos they meet, wins the nickname El Guërito, and is described by the author:

He looked fourteen going on some age that never was. He looked as if he’d been sitting there and God made the trees and rocks around him. He looked like his own reincarnation and then his own again. Above all else he looked to be filled with a terrible sadness. As if he harbored news of some horrendous loss that no one else had heard of yet. Some vast tragedy of the way the world was.

Author Cormac McCarthy

I have been impressed by McCarthy’s work before, when I read Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West (1985) and All the Pretty Horses (1992). So far, I have read the first two novels of McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, which consists of All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing (1994), and Cities of the Plain (1998). After reading the next novel in the trilogy, I will backtrack and read his first four novels, which are set in the South. Then I will move on to No Country for Old Men (2005) and The Road (2006).

One little note: I would not recommend that you read The Crossing unless you know some Spanish. Much of the dialog set in Mexico is in untranslated Spanish. I was able to get by pretty well, though I had my Cassell’s Spanish Dictionary at my side. But if you can tolerate the language factor, I think you will be mightily impressed by McCarthy’s work.

Svetlana: Circles of Hell

A Great Writer Who Manages to Look Like an Average Person

I have now reach three books by Svetlana Alexievich and regarded all of them as superb:

  • Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets (2014), about the lives of average Russians after the fall of Communism
  • Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (1997)
  • Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War (1991)

Reading each of those books was a profound experience. Very rarely do I ever re-read works of nonfiction, but I can conceive of myself re-reading all three of these books. Why? Because all of them struck me as being definitive, while all three of them represented multiple points of view. In her own words:

I’ve been searching for a literary method that would allow the closest possible approximation to real life. Reality has always attracted me like a magnet, it tortured and hypnotized me, I wanted to capture it on paper. So I immediately appropriated this genre of actual human voices and confessions, witness evidences and documents. This is how I hear and see the world – as a chorus of individual voices and a collage of everyday details. This is how my eye and ear function. In this way all my mental and emotional potential is realized to the full. In this way I can be simultaneously a writer, reporter, sociologist, psychologist and preacher.

There is something about Russian history that elicits both admiration and dismay:

If you look back at the whole of our history, both Soviet and post-Soviet, it is a huge common grave and a blood bath – an eternal dialogue of the executioners and the victims. The accursed Russian questions: what is to be done and who is to blame. The revolution, the gulags, the Second World War, the Soviet-Afghan war hidden from the people, the downfall of the great empire, the downfall of the giant socialist land, the land-utopia, and now a challenge of cosmic dimensions – Chernobyl. This is a challenge for all the living things on earth. Such is our history. And this is the theme of my books, this is my path, my circles of hell, from man to man.

I look forward to visiting more of these circles of hell in Svetlana Alexievich’s company. There are two more of her books available in English that I have not read: one about the role of women in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945, and another on the role of children in the same conflict.

Her work has been translated into 45 languages and published in 47 countries.

Literature from the Hutongs of Beijing

A Colorful Hutong in the City of Beijing

In Northern Chinese cities, such as Beijing, hutongs are usually narrow alleys formed by adjoining sineyuan, or traditional courtyard residences, squeezed together. Over the last few years, I have enjoyed reading contemporary Chinese literature, which gives me an altogether different view of the Chinese people than I get from contemplating the actions of the Xi Jinping government.

I thought I would list here a few of the best Chinese novels of the latter half of the 20th Century:

  • Geo Xingjian’s Soul Mountain, probably the best Chinese novel I have read, winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize
  • Mo Yan’s Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh, a collection of novellas
  • Ma Jian’s Red Dust, a novel that is also a fascinating travel guide as the hero escapes Beijing to discover his country
  • Ge Fei’s The Invisibility Cloak, a delightful comic novella
  • Su Tong’s Rice, the most serious book of the bunch with its villainous main character

After reading these books, I have a strong feeling for the essential humanity of the Chinese people. I would have no trouble interacting with them—except for the simple matter of the language barrier.

A Day in Quarantine

How to Maintain One’s Sanity During Hard Times

To begin with, I have no problem about getting from 9 to 9½ hours of sleep. In fact, during the last year I have slept better than at any other time in my life. I wake at 9 or 9:30 am, stumble out into the living room to say good morning to Martine, who always wakes up before me, and take my pills, give myself a shot of insulin, and perform a finger-prick test for my sugar level. Only then am I ready for breakfast.

Almost all mornings, I make a pot of hot tea, the current choice being Ahmad of London’s Darjeeling. It is usually accompanied by scrambled eggs with chiles, oatmeal, toast, a fried egg sandwich on a muffin, or grits and sausage. While I breakfast, I always read the Los Angeles Times, devoting particular attention to the KenKen and Sudoku puzzles and the comics page.

By the time I am finished, it is close to noon; so I futz around on the computer for a while, either playing chess with the computer at Chess.Com or one of the free games on Arkadium.Com.

Lunch is not usually a big meal for me, so I delay it into the early afternoon, after which I either see a movie on TCM’s website or Amazon Prime Videos, or I read a book. My current read is Paul Theroux’s Sir Vidia’s Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents, which is about the author’s long friendship with V. S. Naipaul (1932-2018). Both are among my favorite authors.

At supper, we usually have a hot home-cooked meal. Today, it was turkey burgers with steamed carrots. Tomorrow, I’ll have to shop for and prepare another meal, about which I must first consult with Martine. She’s the one with the trick digestive system. Last week, we have baked ziti with Italian sausage—one of my better efforts.

After we’ve eaten, Martine washes the dishes while I repair to my library with my current book, where I both read and talk to friends on the phone until about 9 pm. That’s the hour when I write my book reviews for Goodreads.Com and my blogs for WordPress.Com.

By the time I am done, I watch TV until shortly before midnight, concentrating on such shows as Carol Burnett (MeTV), Bill Maher and John Oliver (HBO), Trevor Noah’s “The Daily Social Distancing Show” on Comedy Central, and the opening monologue on Steven Colbert (CBS).

Martine has a much more difficult time of it than I do. She either takes long walks or sleeps while playing an AM talk radio station. She goes to bed for the night much later than I do and wakes up earlier, as she is bedevilled by a bad case of nerves. As I always tell her, nerves are a bad business; so I don’t have any.

The Month of Reading Dangerously

Author Marilynne Robinson (Born 1943)

I dedicated last month to reading books only written by women. On March 5, I posted a TBR (To Be Read) list from which I would choose the titles I would undertake to read and review. As was typical, I wound up reading about half the books on the list, adding to them some last-minute choices. Here is the list of what I read:

  • Celeste Ng (United States), Little Fires Everywhere **** †
  • Joyce Carol Oates (United States), The Man Without a Shadow ****
  • Virginia Woolf (Britain), The Waves *****
  • Marilynne Robinson (United States), Gilead ***** †
  • Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (Russia), The Time: Night ****
  • Patricia Highsmith (United States), The Black House (Short Stories) *****
  • Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Mexico), Gods of Jade and Shadow ***** †
  • Colette (France), The Pure and the Impure ****
  • Eve Babitz (United States), L.A. Woman ****
  • Sofi Oksanen (Finland/Estonia), The Purge **** †
  • Rosario Santos—Editor (Bolivia), The Fat Man from La Paz (Short Stories) **** †
  • Clarice Lispector (Brazil), The Hour of the Star *****

There wasn’t a stinker in the bunch, and four of the choices were superb (Woolf, Moreno-Garcia, Highsmith, and Lispector). Five of the books marked with a dagger [†] were by authors I had never read before (Ng, Robinson, Moreno-Garcia, and Santos). On my original TBR list, I thought I had never read any Ludmilla Petrushevskaya before, but I was mistaken.

I will continue to read more books by women authors than I have in the past, though I may not repeat the intensity of March’s reading project. It was an interesting experiment, as all the choices were pretty high quality.

The Vast Armies of the Benighted

A Scene from the Merchant Ivory Production of A Room with a View (1986)

I have never ceased to marvel how some homosexual authors as Marcel Proust were so brilliant at translating their knowledge of relationships into a more “acceptable” heterosexual context. This is also true of E. M. Forster, whose A Room with a View I have recently read. The following is taken from Chapter Seventeen of that novel:

It did not do to think, nor, for the matter of that, to feel. She gave up trying to understand herself, and joined the vast armies of the benighted, who follow neither the heart nor the brain, and march to their destiny by catch-words. The armies are full of pleasant and pious folk. But they have yielded to the only enemy that matters—the enemy within. They have sinned against passion and truth, and vain will be their strife after virtue. As the years pass, they are censured. Their pleasantry and their piety show cracks, their wit becomes cynicism, their unselfishness hypocrisy; they feel and produce discomfort wherever they go. They have sinned against Eros and against Pallas Athene, and not by any heavenly intervention, but by the ordinary course of nature, those allied deities will be avenged.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Kate Harris and Melissa Yule Atop India’s Nun-Kun Massif

I was a good boy during the month of January: I read all of the books I had planned to read during this year’s Januarius Project and then some. Here is the final list, in the order I read them with a short evaluation for each:

  • George Washington Cable, The Grandissimes. A pleasant surprise. ****
  • Ivy Compton-Burnett, Bullivant and the Lambs. Abandoned. Couldn’t abide it. *
  • Fredrik Backman, A Man Called Öve. Delightful Swedish novel. ****
  • Georges Lefebvre, The Coming of the French Revolution. Scholarly and interesting. ****
  • Trygve Gulbranssen, Beyond Sing the Woods. Interesting Norwegian tale. ****
  • Robert Goolrick, A Reliable Wife. Married life in Wisconsin in the 1800s. ****
  • Anne Brontë, Agnes Grey. Children are not always nice. ****
  • Kate Harris, Lands of Lost Borders: A Silk Road Journey. Great travel book. ****
  • Ragnar Jónasson, Nightblind. Icelandic police procedural. ***
  • Su Tong, Rice. A nasty character in 1930s China. ****
  • E R Eddison, The Worm Ourobouros. A fantasy novel that I abandoned, too wormy. *
  • Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse, What Makes You NOT a Buddhist. A great intro. ****
  • Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers. The 1970s in New York and Italy. *****
  • Olga Grushin, The Dream Life of Sukhanov. Life is tough as the USSR comes unglued. *****
  • Ma Jian, Red Dust. A dissident travels around China in the 1980s. Great. *****

Chinese Dissident Ma Jian

That’s 15 books in all, not including F E Sillanpää’s Meek Heritage, which I finished on the last day of December 2020 ****.

With the exception of the two turkeys I abandoned (by Eddison and Compton-Burnett), I would have to say that this year’s Januarius Project was a smashing success. So successful, in fact, that I am planning a similar project for March, namely: reading only women authors. More about this as the month progresses.

Women Writers

Vermeer’s Portrait of a Lady Writing

With a title like “Women Writers,” one might expect some heavy duty mansplaining about how women don’t really understand what life is about. Well, you won’t find it here. Even though, in the past, I have complained about fiction written by women being too “relationshippy,” I am beginning to appreciate the vision of the better women writers. Oh, there are plenty of distaff hacks, but I’m not talking about them here.

I have over the last few months read several novels written by women that managed to rock my world. They include:

  • Olga Grushin, The Dream Life of Sukhanov
  • Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers
  • Anne Bronte, Agnes Grey
  • Virginia Woolf, Orlando
  • Marie NDiaye, La Cheffe and My Heart Hemmed In
  • Tara Westover, Educated

Consequently, what I have decided to do is devote the entire month of March to reading about a dozen books by women authors, half by authors I have never read before, the other half by old favorites such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Joyce Carol Oates, Charlotte Bronte, and Patricia Highsmith. I haven’t decided which books yet, but there’s time to put the list together and let you know.

Currently, I am working my way through Olga Grushin’s The Dream Life of Sukhanov, a novel written in English by a Russian writer about a Soviet art magazine editor in the mid-1980s whose life comes unglued because of all the changes that are taking place just before the collapse of the Communist Party. At one point, the main character, Anatoly Pavlovich Sukhanov, muses to himself: “No, never again would he dare to accept any certainty with that bovine sense of simply receiving his due….”

Similarly, I plan to reject that similar “bovine sense” of underestimating women writers as a matter of course.

Knocking the Knobel

Brazilian Novelist Jorge Amado (1912-2001)

The following is a repeat of a post I wrote five years ago, in January 2016. I have since read Meek Heritage by Finnish writer Frans Eemil Sillanpää and consider that he deserved his prize.

I don’t have too much good to say about the Swedish Academy, which decides who will receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. If you look at the list of its recipients, it would not take too much effort to produce a list of as great as or even greater literary figures who have not received the laureate. Let me take a stab at it:

  • Kobo Abe (Japan), Woman in the Dunes
  • Chinua Achebe (Nigeria), Things Fall Apart
  • Ryunosuke Akutagawa (Japan), Rashomon
  • Jorge Amado (Brazil), Gabriela: Clove and Cinnamon
  • W. H. Auden (UK), Poetry
  • Georges Bernanos (France), Mouchette
  • Jorge Luis Borges (Argentina), Ficciones
  • Joseph Conrad (UK/Poland), Nostromo
  • Richard Flanagan (Australia), The Narrow Road to the Deep North
  • Graham Greene (UK), The Heart of the Matter
  • Vassili Grossman (Russia), Life and Fate
  • Henry James (US/UK), The Ambassadors
  • James Joyce (Ireland), Ulysses
  • Yashar Kemal (Turkey), Memed, My Hawk
  • Gyula Krúdy (Hungary), The Red Post Coach
  • Stanislaw Lem (Poland), Solaris
  • Osip Mandelstam (Russia), Poetry
  • Vladimir Nabokov (US/Russia), Lolita
  • Fernando Pessoa (Portugal), The Book of Disquiet
  • Marcel Proust (France), In Search of Lost Time
  • Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (Russia), Roadside Picnic
  • Italo Svevo (Slovenia), Confessions of Zeno
  • Leo Tolstoy (Russia), Novels and Stories
  • Mark Twain (US), Novels and Stories
  • Evelyn Waugh (UK), Brideshead Revisited
  • Virginia Woolf (UK), Mrs Dalloway

As you can see, I have not overloaded the list with the names of American authors, in the interests of being fair. If I wanted to, I can add names like Philip Roth, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joyce Carol Oates, Philip K. Dick, Cormac McCarthy, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and a few others.

These can replace such figures as the following, whose reputations have not kept up with the times: Bjornsterne Bjornson, José Echegaray, Giosue Carducci, Rudolf Christoph Eucken, Paul von Heyse, Verner von Heidenstam, Karl Adolph Gjellerup, Henrik Pontopiddan, Carl Spitteler, Jacinto Benavente, Grazia Deledda, Erik Axel Karlfeldt, Pearl S. Buck, Frans Eemil Sillanpaa [SIC], Johannes Vilhelm Jensen, Earl Russell, and a few dozen others—mostly Scandinavian nonentities which at one time were highly thought of by a couple dozen mouldy Swedish academics. (Please forgive me for being lax about the diacritical marks in the above names.)