Admiral Naismith (admnaismith) wrote in bookish,
Admiral Naismith

Monthly Bookpost, January 2015

And so a new year of reading begins. As I continue my decade-long foray into the great literature through history, I undertake the 17th Century, bookended a little, from the final years of Queen Elizabeth to the final years of Louis XIV. I plan to go to about 1715 and marvel at the halfway point, that I will have covered about 2000 years of civilization in half a decade, while the other half will cover just 300 years and be by far the greater challenge.

Major tomes to tackle will include Burton's Anatomy of a Melancholy The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Newton's Principia, Spinoza's brief but dense Ethics, and Bayle's Historical/Critical Dictionary. Since mysteries set in historical times add some fun to the enrichment, I'm continuing to look for those as well. I've found Edward Marston, Leonard Tourney, Susanna Gregory and Laura Joh Rowland, who explore the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage; the Restoration, and 17th Century Japan. If anyone knows of others set in the time, especially King Louis XIV's court or the Cromwell/Commonwealth period, please let me know. Otherwise, I hope we all enjoy the trip.

Discourse on Method, & Meditations, by Rene Descartes
Accordingly, seeing that our senses sometimes deceive us, I was willing to suppose that there existed nothing really such as they presented to us; and because some men err in reasoning, and fall into paralogisms, even on the simplest matters of Geometry, I, convinced that I was as open to error as any other, rejected as false all the reasonings I had hitherto taken for demonstrations; and finally, when I considered that the very same thoughts (presentations) which we experience when awake may also be experienced when we are asleep, while there is at that time not one of them true, I supposed that all the objects (presentations) that had ever entered into my mind when awake, had in them no more truth than the illusions of my dreams. But immediately upon this I observed that, whilst I thus wished to think that all was false, it was absolutely necessary that I, who thus thought, should be somewhat; and as I observed that this truth, I think, hence I am, was so certain and of such evidence, that no ground of doubt, however extravagant, could be alleged by the Sceptics capable of shaking it, I concluded that I might, without scruple, accept it as the first principle of the Philosophy of which I was in search.

Mortimer Adler claims tha the distinguishing mark of "great books" is that you can keep coming back to them and get something new to learn every time. I'll be doing a lot of Descartes this year, but for college humanities purposes, if you read the Discourse and Meditations, two short tracts that can be read together in a couple of hours, you'll have read Descartes.

I've read them twice before now. The first time, in college, I found it interesting and was grateful that it was so easy to read compared to, say, Liebniz and Kant. The second time, a decade later, I thought it was stupid and wondered what all the fuss was about. In fact, I approached it the third time expecting to make fun of it, but found it actually worthwhile.

Descartes is maybe the last of the philosophers who has been presented by many as "the first modern philosopher" (after Aquinas, William of Occam, Machiavelli, Bruno, Montaigne and Francis Bacon--see my bookposts from late 2013 through 2014 for my takes on them). Seems to me, Descartes really does go somewhere the others did not, that maybe opened the gates for the ones who came after him and who make him seem simple and self-evident today. It may be that I found him so refreshing because I'd just spent four years immersed in the ancients. Pretty much the first Epicureans and Stoics were the last philosophers before Descartes to leave behind any original ideas; just about everyone else in the intervening 1500 years "proving" various things by showing that Aristotle or Holy Scripture or some other allegedly infallible authority had said so.

The dime store summary of Descartes is: He set out to see what could be known by doubting absolutely everything, taking no sensory input or scholarship for granted; His first indisputable fact was the conclusion "I think, therefore I exist"; from there, he unconvincingly "proved" the existence of God by pure thought: imagine the most perfect possible being; anything that did not possess the quality of existence would be less perfect than one that does; therefore, God, by His very nature, must exist. (this is the part I was planning to make fun of. I call it the "clap hard enough and Tinkerbell lives" theory of theology); since goodness is also a more perfect quality than evil, we may also know for certain that God does not lie to us, and therefore we may accept as true anything of which we have a Clear And Distinct Idea.

It seems so silly, boiled down to that, but Descartes was apparently original in proving philosophy by pure thought, and by making the mind more important than the body or soul in mapping out the way things are. Most of what came after was rooted in these simple meditations. Everyone should read it at least once; fortunately, it's not hard.

The Elizabethan Murders: The Queen's Head, The Merry Devils by Edward Marston; Shinju, Bundori by Laura Joh Rowland ; The Players' Boy is Dead, by Leonard Tourney
The miracle was that the boy had eluded the falling mast. If he had been hampered by his costume, he would never have got out of the way in time and the extravagant finery of the Queen of Albion would now be lying crushed beneath the heavy timber. As it was, Richard had leaped from the deck of the flagship for good. He would never be able to perform that day.
It was ironic. The other three boys had tried to disable him and failed. Chance contrived what design could not. A gust of wind had just recast the part of Gloriana.
--from The Queen's Head

Her innocent young face, covered with rice-flour makeup, glowed a translucent white. High on her forehead, the fine dark lines drawn above her shaved brows took wing over the long, lashed crescents of her closed eyes. Her lips had parted slightly to reveal two perfect teeth: darkened with ink according to the fashion for ladies of high birth, they gleamed like black pearls. Long black hair spilled neatly to her feet over a silk kimono that twisted around her slender body. Sighing, he reminded himself that her death was as necessary as the man's. But he could not look at her beauty without a spasm of grief--
--from Shinju

Gunpowder exploded, red smoke went up, trap doors opened and two merry devils leapt out. It all happened with such speed and precision that George Dart and Roper Blundell really did seem to have materialized out of thin air. Their trap doors closed soundlessly behind them and they executed a little dance to music. Justice Wildboare beamed and Doctor Castrato bowed obsequiously. When they finished their sprightly capering, the two devils came to kneel before their new master. Complete silence now fell on the makeshift playhouse.
It was broken with heart-rending suddenness. To the sound of another, much louder, explosion, and through a larger effusion of smoke, a third devil shot up onto the stage. There was a surface similarity to the others, but there were also marked differences. The third devil was smaller, quicker, more compact. He had longer horns, a shorter tail and a deeper, blood red hue. Slit-like eyes had a malevolence that glowed. The grotesque face was twisted into a sadistic grin.
Here was no assistant stage-keeper pressed into service. This merry devil looked like the real thing.
--From The Merry Devils

The men were beginning to stir, and she was about to turn when her eye caught something white and glistening in the last stall. As she approached it, she saw that it was the players' boy. He was sitting with his back to a bal of hay, his arms and chest bare, and as she drew closer still, she could see that his eyes were open, rolled upward, as though he were watching something in the beams of the ceiling or caught up in some ecstasy.
--from The Players' Boy Is Dead

The first set of historical mysteries I'm tackling this year begins in the Elizabethan theater. Edward Marston's "Lord Westerfield's Men" troupe is led by the roaring patriarch Lawrence Firethorn and the wretched pederast Barnaby Gill, but held together by the prompter/stage manager Nicholas Bracewell, who is the main detective. The Queen's Head, the first in a long series, largely serves to introduce the reader to the large company and to what promises to be a large cast of recurring rivals and townspeople outside the company. It starts with the execution of Mary Queen of Scots and segues into a local adventure which ultimately ties the prologue to the murder of one of the company. The second book, The Merry Devils, is a Scooby mystery in which part of the challenge to Bracewell is the need to demonstrate to what seems like an insanely superstitious London that the guy dressed up in a devil suit who is sabotaging the Westerfield men's performances is not a real devil conjured up due to the "sinfulness" of a play about merry devils. The farfetchedness is balanced by the wonderful atmosphere of an Elizabethan era theater and the characterization of the players, many of whom are already like old friends by book two. Even Gill, a little.

Leonard Tourney's first book, set in a rural part of England, comes across as weak tea compared to Marston, but then it's a different kind of thriller. The killer's identity is all but shouted out in the first chapter, revealed outright in the second chapter, and the rest is about the dim-witted but tenacious village constable, through a succession of lucky coincidences, manages to unmask the truth and bring the rich and powerful villain down.

If there is a flaw in my historical reading plan, it is that it is Eurocentric, and especially the mystery novels are overwhelmingly set in England. Laura Joh Rowland, at least, gives us a series set in 17th Century Japan. Shinju introduces us to Sano Ichiro, a brand new yoriki (police commander) given the job as a patronage post and disciplined and threatened by superiors for investigating to deeply into what they want to dismiss as a double suicide and which he believes is murder. It's one of the most suspenseful stories of its kind I've read in a long time. Attempted killings of sleuths are a dime a dozen; Sano is sequentially warned, threatened, demoted, fired and arrested, at a time when he is terrified of bringing such disgrace to the family honor and possibly hastening the death of his ailing father, whose hope to witness his son's success is maybe the only thing keeping him alive. Because this is a long series, we know there will be eventual success, but there are times when Sano appears more doomed than nearly any detective in fiction.

The Syntagma Philosophicum, by Pierre Gassendi
Descartes proposes as follows: "Everything that I perceive clearly and distinctly is true." In fact, he proves this laboriously on the grounds that God exists and that he is not a deceiver, that he has imprinted the idea of himself in us, that since he is the cause of all things, he is also the cause of a clear and distinct idea, etc. And it would perhaps be satisfactory if it were proposed in this manner: a wise man must accept nothing as true and unshakable, except on the basis that he perceives it clearly and distinctly. But it is well known that experience teaches us, as he himself confesses in his own case, that it happens from time to time that we learn subsequently something is false which it seemed to us we perceived clearly and distinctly.

One thing I immediately noticed about 17th Century writing is that, with the decline of the church's temporal power to burn people for thoughtcrime, the great minds, even those like Descartes and Pascal who continue to aggressively promote theological explanations for things, are looking to science for answers. Gassendi was considered one of the great minds of his day and, unlike Descartes and Pascal, his commitment to religion was dubious and not much of a basis for his thought. Also, unlike Descartes and Pascal, he is not widely read these days. Looking at the Syntagma, it's not hard to see why not.

The good part is that it goes back to logic and physics, which I haven't seen much of in philosophy since the Greeks and Lucretius. The bad part is that, in the course of supporting Lucretius (and Epicurus) in the theory of atoms, and in finding a middle ground between the dogmatists who claim to know everything and the skeptics who claim to know nothing, he combines the worst traits of both Montaigne and Bacon. He cites every thinker, ancient and modern, who came before him, not just to support his own conclusions, but to provide a summary of "thought until now" on physics or logic, whether he thinks the opinion wrong or right. It may be in the translation from Latin, but the prose reads as heavy and hard to understand, especially when compared to Descartes and Pascal.

Ultimately, Gassendi acts as a bridge to Locke and the other Empiricists. His central point is that we learn by cautious evaluation of sense experience, reaching conclusions that can be tested by future experience. Ideas are not innate, but come from sensory experience and thinking. Getting there, however, is extremely tedious.

The Gormenghast Trilogy, by Mervyn Peake
And the days move on and the names of the months change and the four seasons bury one another and the field-mice draw upon their granaries. The air is murky and the sun is like a raw wound in the grimy flesh of a beggar, and the rags of the clouds are clotted. The sky has been stabbed and has been left to die above the world, filthy, vast and bloody. And then the great winds come and the sky is blown naked, and a wild bird screams across the glittering land. And the Countess stands at the window of her room with the white cats at her feet and stares at the frozen landscape spread below her, and a year later she is standing there again but the cats are abroad in the valleys and a raven sits upon her heavy shoulder. And every day the myriad happenings. A loosened stone falls from a high tower. A fly drops lifeless from a broken pane. A sparrow twitters in a cave of ivy. The days wear out the months and the months wear out the years, and a flux of moments, like an unquiet tide, eats at the black coast of futurity.
And Titus Groan is wading through his boyhood.

Wow...just wow.

Someone suggested Gormenghast to me. (mumble) years old, and I'd never heard of it. When I started talking about it, it turned out many of my friends had heard of it, or at least seen the BBC series featuring my old hero Ian Richardson as the family patriarch; they just hadn't mentioned it.

It's not quite a true Gothic novel, and it isn't a darkly funny parody of one either; it's somewhere in between, simultaneously glorifying the tropes of Castle Sinister and going tongue-in-cheek at them for a thousand pages of gloom and darkness and macabre, broken minds that somehow warmed my heart.

The first book of the trilogy, Titus Groan, is the greatest still-moving feast of the three. Almost the first half of the book is devoted to the day in which the title character, son and heir to acres and acres of towers, widow's walks, attics, libraries, vast hallways, secret passages, ruins, cellars and crypts, is born. Family and servants spend pages and pages meandering, skulking, peering balefully, looming, creeping, shambling, lurching lurking, mincing and climbing desperately for their lives through a vast landscape of lugubrious, oppressive architecture, every nook and rotted board of which is described with the portentious detail of a Victor Hugo novel. Some people can't stand that much slow, ponderous exposition. Heck, I often can't stand it myself. In the case of Gormenghast, I couldn't put it down.

The over-the-top morbid writing style is incredible. Someone can't even look over a snack cake without noting the recipient's initial "S" embossed upon the surface like a little green worm of cream. An entire paragraph is given to describing the wine stain on a cook's white coat, and not a word is wasted on it. The characters are straight out of Evil Dickens--Doctor Prunesquallor; Headmaster Deadyawn; Rottcodd, Sepulchrave, Barquentine; Scraggs--all presented with deadpan seriousness. The servants are the bastard children of Mrs. Danvers and Lurch, and the work is badly in need of illustrations by Edward Gorey.

At the center of it is young Titus Groan, who doesn't want to be there. He's not yet two by yhe end of the first volume, but is already being put through endless ancient rituals expected of the Lord of the Manor, the purpose of which nobody remembers any more. Various plot devices happen. Book two, Gormenghast, continues the growth of Titus and the decay of everyone and everything around him, while book three, Titus Alone goes in a completely different turn and is by far the weakest part of the trilogy. Peake evidently intended to write more, but he went mad--MAD, I TELL YOU! HA-HA-HA! UTTERLY MAD!!!---or maybe he just got ill or died happily of aneurisms before finishing any more than we've got.

It won't be for everybody, I know. But it was definitely just the right thing to get me through a cold and gloomy January. Very highest recommendations from me, but not from The Redhead, who is annoyed that Gormenghast inspired me to start calling our bedroom a "chamber".

The Sceptical Chymist, by Robert Boyle
I often find he knew, methinks the chymists, in their searches after truth, are not unlike the navigators of Solomon's Tarshish fleet, who brought home from their long and tedious voyages, not only gold and silver and ivory, but apes and peacocks too; for so the writings of several (for I say not, all) of your hermetick philosophers present us, together with divers substantial and noble experiments, theories which, either like peacocks' feathers make a great shew but are neither solid nor useful, or else like apes, if they have some appearance of being rational, are blemished with some absurdity or another, that when they are attentively considered, make them appear ridiculous.

Those sets of "great books" that include science have an affinity for old books about things that schoolchildren take for granted today, disproving what we consider idiotic superstitions today--though I find myself depressingly mindful these days of the decline in science and how some of these idiotic superstitions we once thought firmly laughed out of existence are now making a comeback, thanks to conservative backlash against the "elitist liberal tyranny" of actually knowing what one is talking about. Hence the liberal education includes Copernicus (bookpost, September 2013) refuting Ptolemy (February 2013); William Harvey (September 2014) refuting Galen (December 2012), and Boyle refuting Aristotle and other ancient Greeks on the theory that all substances are composed of some combination of earth, air, fire and water. No one in the west outside the Tea Party still thinks they are, but seeing Boyle is a good way to parse how we got from Aristotle to Lavoisier and Faraday, and ultimately to the periodic table.

Boyle is most famous for his law that the pressure of a gas in a closed environment is inversely proportional to its volume. That appears nowhere in the Sceptical Chymist. Instead, we have experiments concerning the composition of matter, with an emphasis on proof that fire, in particular, does not divide all things into their component elements. At 200 pages, it ends just at the point where it was about to get overly repetitive and dull. Boyle mercifully made the treatise a bit more readable by pretending to write it as a dialogue (meaning, a slightly more dramatic essay allegedly delivered as a monologue interspersed with other characters who interject "Sounds good to me" from time to time.

Paradise Lost, by John Milton
"O miserable of happy! Is this the end
Of this new glorious World, and me so late
The glory of that glory? who now, become
Accursed of blessed, hide me from the face
Of God, whom to behold was then my highth
Of happiness! Yet well, if here would end
The misery! I deserved it, and would bear
My own deservings. But this will not serve:
All that I eat or drink, or shall beget,
Is propagated curse. O voice, once heard
Delightfully, 'Increase and multiply,'
Now death to hear! for what can I increase
Or multiply but curses on my head?

Milton comes a little late in the 17th Century to begin the year; nonetheless, I wanted to get Paradise Lost out of the way quickly. As with Descartes, this is my third time with him. As distinguished from Descartes, I've hated his major work all three times. This probably makes me a contemptible philistine, but I call them like I see them. You read eight years of my book posts, you know what I like and don't, and why.

In opposition to my view, we have both the Great Books and Harvard Classics collections, each of which devotes an entire volume just to Milton. We also have John Dryden, who wrote the following about Milton:

THREE poets, in three distant ages born,
Greece, Italy and England did adorn
The first in loftiness of thought surpassed;
The next in majesty; in both the last.
The force of nature could no further go;
To make a third, she joined the former two.

See my bookposts of June and August 2011 and July 2012 for my thoughts on Homer and Virgil, but I disagree. Nothing in Milton compares with either Odysseus's journey or the exploits of the Amazon Camilla. Milton's 300 pages of blank verse combining the sins of Adam and Eve with the fall of Lucifer and signs and portents of the Gospel and Revelations is stuffy beyond my ability to tolerate sawdust without butter. Compare and contrast with Gormenghast, above, where several pages describing a butler tromping down a gloomy corridor held my rapt attention. What is considered innovative is the depiction of Earth's first couple as having any personality at all, and Satan being portrayed as a mixed character, to the extent that scholars have debated whether Milton intended Him as a sympathetic character (answer: nice try, but nope).

Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov
John Shade's wife, nee Irondell (which comes not from a little valley yielding iron ore but from the French for "swallow"). she was a few months his senior. i understand she came of Canadian stock, as did Shade's maternal grandmother (a first cousin of Sybil's grandfather, if I am not greatly mistaken).
From the very first, I tried to behave with the utmost courtesy toward my friend's wife, and from the very first, she disliked and distrusted me. I was to learn later that when alluding to me in public she used to call me 'an elephantine tick; a king-sized botfly; a macaco worm; the monstrous parasite of a genius.' I pardon her--her and everybody.

Nabakov's second most famous book also features a creepy, unreliable narrator who fools a lot of people into thinking he's someone he isn't. It's also a large literary joke that only hardcore bibliophiles and James Joyce fans will enjoy.

The novel is disguised as a poem with copious scholarly commentary. John Francis Shade, who ostensibly wrote the four-canto poem that takes up the book's first 40 pages, is apparently a fairly normal American poet. Charles Kinbote, who ostensibly presents the poem in published form with an introduction, 180 pages of notes and commentary, and an index, is some kind of nut. He insists that the poem is a veiled illusion to the deposed King Charles of Zembla, whose tragic overthrow and exile, hunted by assassins, is mentioned nowhere in the text of the poem but makes up the majority of the commentary. Eventually, Kinbote's claims about the meaning of "Pale Fire" the poem ring as hollowly as his claims to have been Shade's best friend and a great influence on him. Kinbote borders on stalker behavior, with the distinction that Shade (maybe) doesn't mind the attention. Much of the poem as presented deals with the suicide of Shade's daughter and Shade's struggle to cope with it, and I wondered, but did not see evidence, whether Kinbote had had something to do with the death, that we were supposed to discover through oblique references. I also wondered for a while if the joke was a commentary on The Wasteland, and then decided that, no, it had nothing to do with TS Elliot at all. It's that kind of book.

The big challenge stems from the fact that the "notes and commentary" are extensively cross-referenced, so that you have to keep flipping back and forth between them and the poem and the index in order to get the full impact of the book and discover, for example, what part of Kinbote's narrative is delusional and why the part I quoted above about Shade's wife's nickname for Kinbote is actually pivotal to the circumstances of the book.

This was my first reading of Pale Fire. I can envision myself coming back to it another day and discovering a lot of "easter eggs" that I missed this time around. Recommended for puzzle fans.

Find all of my previous Bookposts here:

  • The Jane Austen Project, by Kathleen Flynn

    Time Travelers go back in time to meet Jane Austen. Harper Perennial, 2017, 384 pages Perfect for fans of Jane Austen, this engrossing…

  • Mistress of the Waves

    Mistress of the Waves by George Phillies On another world, the narrator is fishing from her boat when an off-worlder is swept from his. She has to…

  • The Oracle Stone by Talli Morgan

    The Oracle Stone by Talli Morgan was awesome. Three mages are looking for a magical artefact, but things aren't as simple as they look. The author…

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