Admiral Naismith (admnaismith) wrote in bookish,
Admiral Naismith

Monthly Bookpost, June 2015

The Provincial Letters, by Blaise Pascal
I mean the doctrine of mental reservations. ‘A man may swear,’ as Sanchez says in the same place, ‘that he never did such a thing (though he actually did it), meaning within himself that he did not do so on a certain day, or before he was born, or understanding any other such circumstance, while the words which he employs have no such sense as would discover his meaning. And this is very convenient in many cases, and quite innocent, when necessary or conducive to one’s health, honour, or advantage.’”
“Indeed, father! is that not a lie, and perjury to boot?”
“No,” said the father; “Sanchez and Filiutius prove that it is not; for, says the latter, ‘it is the intention that determines the quality of the action.’ And he suggests a still surer method for avoiding falsehood, which is this: After saying aloud, ‘I swear that I have not done that,’ to add, in a low voice, ‘to-day’; or after saying aloud, ‘I swear,’ to interpose in a whisper, ‘that I say,’ and then continue aloud, ‘that I have done that.’ This, you perceive, is telling the truth.”
“I grant it,” said I; “it might possibly, however, be found to be telling the truth in a low key, and falsehood in a loud one; besides, I should be afraid that many people might not have sufficient presence of mind to avail themselves of these methods.”
“Our doctors,” replied the Jesuit, “have taught, in the same passage, for the benefit of such as might not be expert in the use of these reservations, that no more is required of them, to avoid lying, than simply to say that ‘they have not done’ what they have done, provided ‘they have, in general, the intention of giving to their language the sense which an able man would give to it.’ Be candid, now, and confess if you have not often felt yourself embarrassed, in consequence of not knowing this?”
“Sometimes,” said I.
“And will you not also acknowledge,” continued he, “that it would often prove very convenient to be absolved in conscience from keeping certain engagements one may have made?”
“The most convenient thing in the world!” I replied.
“Listen, then, to the general rule laid down by Escobar: ‘Promises are not binding, when the person in making them had no intention to bind himself. Now, it seldom happens that any have such an intention, unless when they confirm their promises by an oath or contract; so that when one simply says, “I will do it,” he means that he will do it if he does not change his mind; for he does not wish, by saying that, to deprive himself of his liberty.’ He gives other rules in the same strain, which you may consult for yourself, and tells us, in conclusion, ‘that all this is taken from Molina and our other authors, and is therefore settled beyond all doubt.’”
“My dear father,” I observed, “I had no idea that the direction of the intention possessed the power of rendering promises null and void.”

Of all the 17th Century reading I've done so far, The Provincial Letters is the most fun. Pascal was a mixed bag; this is his only fully whole book-length work (the Pensees were a set of individual notes that were collated and published postumously by others) and, to my mind, what he most deserves to be remembered for.

The "letters" purport to be by a country bumpkin who marvels at the utter, utter hypocrisy and corruption among the Jesuits, and who reveals himself by the final few letters as an actual intellectual who challenges them all along. It's the kind of "great book" that you larn more from each time you read it. The first time I read this, I had a good time just laughing at those foul hypocrites the Jesuits. This time around, I knew a little bit more about who the Jesuits were, and was not quite so uncritically accepting of Pascal's "clear" moral high ground.

The big conflict among religions over the years has largely been between (1) fat, indolent clergy who luxuriate off of the spoils taken from the pious, while lecturing the peasants on the virtue of poverty from their golden palaces, and (2) hyperjudgmental zealots who live miserably right alongside the peasants because they truly believe their own bullshit, and whose only pleasure in this earthly life is the craving to punish others. The striking part of pascal's satire is that the Jesuits were the second type, founded by the strict disciplinarian soldier Ignatius Loyola as part of the Counter-Reformation that challenged and replaced the Vatican of the Renaissance, which had been of the first type--and yet, Pascal, largely citing writings of some Jesuit scholars, paints a ridicule-inspiring picture of Jesuits as the first type, as a clergy with no principles whatsoever, who will seize upon the clumsiest sophistry as an excuse to indulge intemperate and cruel appetites without theological consequence. From what I know of Jesuits and Jansenists--which is not all there is to know about them--both factions were harsh, judgmental, punitive asserters of dominance, capable of mortifying their own flesh with zeal and torturing people they chose to call heretics with even more zeal.

Looking closely, it seems that Pascal has taken some bad writing to its reductio absurdum conclusions, by interpreting poorly explained causistry, on the face of it, to allow clergy, as God's chosen ones, to make promises and swear oaths that they have no intention of keeping, to commit "honor killings", to commit usury and simony, and to answer even well-taken criticism with mere force and denunciation of critics as heretics. Pascal does not claim that the Jesuits actually do any of this, only that their arguments would allow these things in the extreme. Seems to me, however, likely that at least some of the attacked doctrines were invented at a time when much injustice and torture were common, as a mercy intended to absolve, for example, an anti-Jesuit oath forced out of someone by torture, or the silencing of one who made a deadly blackmail threat.

None of this is to say that hypocritical shit didn't happen. It did, and it does wherever religion is found. I'm just skeptical as to whether it was openly spoken of as doctrine. All the same--well played, Pascal. People fucked with you at their peril.

Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes
Hereby it is manifest that, during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war, and such a war as is of every man against every man. For ‘war’ consisteth not in battle only or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known, and therefore the notion of ‘time’ is to be considered in the nature of war, as it is in the nature of weather. For as the nature of foul weather lieth not in a shower or two of rain but in an inclination thereto of many days together, so the nature of war consisteth not in actual fighting but in the known disposition thereto during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is ‘peace.’
Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time or war where every man is enemy to every man, the same is consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and, which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

(See Bookpost, February 2015 for more Hobbes). Leviathan is an example of those books that are considered "great" because you can come back to them again and again, and get something new out of them each time. I've read it three times. The first time was part of an introductory humanities course, where I dismissed it offhand as only a teenager who thinks he knows everything can do. Submit to kings? Fuck that, pig! The second time was a few years later, during my libertarian phase (don't panic--it was over a decade ago, and I got over it), when I approached it zealously as an Enemy Of Freedom to be conquered by thought and reason, and found the logic to be a formidable challenge, but still an evil idea that seekers of freedom should oppose.

This time around, I was jaded by the failure of America's divided government to function, and more aware of the background in which Hobbes wrote--publishing Leviathan as a warning before the English civil war and execution of Charles I, and afterwards fleeing the Commonwealth to Europe where he grouched and pointed at the walking train wreck of Oliver Cromwell and said "I told you so." So I looked at the most potent argument for centralized authoritarian rule as the best form of government with a more open mind.

The first book is moderately interesting, but mostly focused on psychology and how people think. The last two are religious, at a time when people were still being killed for failing to embrace the local orthodox version of Christianity, and so it reads like covering his ass. These aren't the part we remember. The part worth studying is Book 2, where Hobbes defends absolute monarchy, not by the usual "divine right of kings" or "because we're bigger than you", but by presuming absolute individual freedom and appealing to individual self-interest.

Anarchy is a savage war of everybody against everybody, where promises are worthless and there's always someone else big enough to kill you and/or take your stuff--and if you happen to be the biggest, you can still be victimized by treachery or superior numbers. And the ONLY way to avoid this is to have a strong (omnipotent) centralized authority to which all persons voluntarily give up ALL of their freedom in exchange for protection. Small, decentralized government? Not strong enough to protect. safeguards by which the people may remove a tyrant from power? No different from having no king at all, and we're back to war of all against all (a likely result if the legislature really did start impeaching Presidents of the other political party on pretexts, just because they could).
Be a sovereign citizen not bound by the King's authority? Then, you are outside the box, and in the world of anarchy, where you have no protection from civilization and anyone may kill you, if they can, and take your stuff, same as if there was no government anywhere.

The argument is challenging mostly because the potential negatives are just ignored. The king is assumed to act in the interest of the people who submit to him, because he derives his power from them. What if the King acts instead in the interests of the most influential and privileged One Percent of his supporters? Not asked or answered.

Since there exist many nations that have not agreed to be bound by a central authority, and might make war at any time, are we not in that dreaded state of anarchy anyhow? Not asked or answered.

What if the sovereign is not strong enough to protect the people. Blink and you'll miss it, but that IS addressed. That is one of the few times where you are NOT obligated to stand with the Sovereign's will as your own. Hence, Hobbes absolves those in the Commonwealth who did not turn to Charles II until he was crowned. Hence the failure of the UN to be a sovereign over the modern world. Hence the implied answer to the unasked idea of the American ideal, where a written Constitution is the absolute authority to which we all submit, and the three branches of government derive authority to share power from it. If a splinter group strong enough to avoid being squashed for treason right away decides to wipe its ass with the Constitution (or to just assert that the Constitution means things other than what it does, such as granting the power of religious majorities to impose religious-based law on the general population), then Hobbes's state of natural anarchy comes into play, and this country is so, SO fucked.

Read it once. If you read it long ago, read it again. And think it over.

Queen's Bounty; Rescue for a Queen; Traitor's Tears, by Fiona Buckley; The Bartholomew Fair Murders; Old Saxon Blood, by Leonard Tourney; The Laughing Hangman, by Edward Marston; The Dragon King's Palace, by Laura Joh Rowland

"Damnable sodomite," Gabriel cried in disgust. He shoved the puppet master's hand away and seized the staff at his side. Before Fitzhugh could defend himself, his young passenger struck him with the blunt end of the staff just above the right eye. Fitzhugh groaned with pain, turned his head and put up his hands to ward off a second blow. But the boy was quick and full of loathing. He struck Fitzhugh again, this time with full strength of arm and will, on the side of the man's skull. There was a loud and sickening crack. Fitzhugh was knocked back in his seat, then slumped forward as limply as one of his puppets.
---from The Bartholomew Fair Murders

There are times when even the strongest minds lapse into credulity, a little. In the noon of the day, when the household is all round you and you are busy with mundane tasks, then it's easy enough to say I don't believe in witches. But at dead of night, when winds and raindrops and ivy leaves tap on windows, when houses creak and whisper to themselves, and even if you light a candle, it only makes a little pool of brightness, with formless shadows fleeing and flying beyond its edges: are any of us quite so certain then?
---from Queen's Bounty

Reiko spat and coughed, but the bitter ooze gurgled down her throat. Hands yanked a black hood over her head. blinded, Reiko struggled in darkness for moments that seemed eternal. The sounds of the other women faded; the pain from the cords biting into her skin dulled as a smothering cloud of sleep encroached. Terror receded; unconsciousness descended. Reiko ceased struggling, felt her body lifted by unseen hands and carried briskly away. Images of Sano and Masahiro briefly illuminated the black oblivion spreading in her mind. As she yearned for her family, one last thought occurred to Reiko.
If she lived, she would be more careful what she wished for next time.
---from The Dragon King's Palace

It was now plain that she had been stricken with a fever, ague, God knew what--aggravated to the quick by the ordeal of travel, the discovery of a dead woman in her wardrobe, and the commencement of the steady drizzle that seemed to permeate the stone walls of the castle and make all within damp, soggy and joyless. Joan burned and shivered by turns, like a lover in an old sonnet, while Matthew, concerned that no physician was available to bleed, purge, or pronounce upon his wife's urine, resorted to the few remedies he had learned at home--herbs, compresses, and earnest prayers for Joan's delivery from evil.
---from Old Saxon Blood

Watching, we saw relief replace the anxiety on Ridolfi's face, while at his side, Donna smile and looked shy. The Duke of Alva stepped past the butler and bowed to her and to Margaret. Because of the press of people, I couldn't see him clearly, and received an impression only of a tall man dressed in black. But I knew that he controlled the Netherlands on behalf of King Philip of Spain, wielding virtually royal power. I remembered suddenly that van Weede had said that the duke might call in at the reception and wondered why. After all, this wedding party was for a very ordinary couple. Probably, money lay at the bottom of it. Roberto Ridolfi was, after all, a banker and Spain was known to have financial problems....but in that case, why should Ridolfi look worried until Alva appeared?
---from A Rescue for a Queen

"Let me write another play for you," I suggested. "It is called THE PLAGUE OF BLACKFRIARS and tells of a verminous swarm of locusts who devour the bread that belongs to their elders and betters. A wily beekeeper tricks them and every last parasite is drowned in the river Thames." When he realized that I was talking about his young charges, Cyril Fulbeck walked off in disgust and Raphael Parsons used language that would have turned the black friars blue and set their cowls alight. In the whole history of Christianity, there cannot have been such irreligious cursing on consecrated ground. It was wondrous sport! I have not been so joyously abused by a vile tongue since my wedding night!"
---from The Laughing Hangman

I glanced toward Wyse, wondering how he had reacted and saw, to my astonishment, that Roland Wyse, of the pugnacious jaw and the chilly eyes, was in tears, and the friend at his side was anxiously patting his back, trying to give comfort. As I watched, Wyse turned his face into his companion's doublet and, judging from the heaving of his shoulders, had abandoned himself to the most desolate weeping.
--from Traitor's Tears

Here's where I part company with Fiona Buckley; Traitor's Tears is the last so far in the series. The adventures have been good and getting better, but I've moved on in time from Elizabeth and this is the chronologically earliest of the sets I've been going through. On to the Restoration. Queen's Bounty finds still more plots by Mary Stuart's supporters, and a fairly ridiculous accusation of witchcraft against Ursula herself, so far-fetched that it's hard to see how it could ever have succeeded against anyone with the Queen's favor, and the suspense is only kept alive by having chapters in real time, with most of the "how will she get out of THIS jam?" suspense taking place during a preliminary investigation right there in the enemy's lair, and even then easily brought down like a house of feathers. Shame on the officer who lets it get that far. Rescue for a Queen is an opportunity for Buckley to write about continental Europe instead of England, using flimsy plot devices to bring Ursula to Spanish-occupied Holland, to Rome, and to Spain, to observe Catholic atrocities up to and including auto-da-fe, as a vehicle to deplore what might have happened had Mary Stuart supplanted Elizabeth on the throne. The final book in the series so far, Traitor's Tears, begins with and hinges on the death of the Duke of Norfolk, and segues into another ridiculous plot against Ursula's servant, so far-fetched that it takes the same willfully stupid sheriff from Queen's Bounty, who imprisons first and forgets to ask questions afterwards, to make it suspenseful.

Also getting past its use-by date is Leonard Tourney's set involving Matthew Stock, set next in time, but still probably pre-17th century. The Bartholomew Fair Murders, as is usual with Tourney, identifies the main baddie in chapter one. There are a couple of Castle-esque plot twists, but you don't get enough info to see them coming until just a few pages before the reveal. Old Saxon Blood, on the other hand, marks a great step up in character, plot and especially atmosphere, with a crime scene set in a spooky, crumbling castle to the north, inhabited almost entirely by creepy servants. as with The Bartholomew Fair Murders, however, he takes a reasonably good ending and then tangles it up by throwing in one last detail at the end that is supposed to make it a double whammy but instead makes it a mess.

The Dragon King's Palace is one of the weaker of the Sano Ichiro novels, shown as more of a police procedural than anything with a surprise killer or plot twist. Four recurring female characters, including Reiko, are kidnapped, with a deadline for the male characters to rescue them before it's too late. The main kidnapper is so illogically crazy and his guards so bumbling that I couldn't stop rolling my eyes as I waited for the men to probably solve it and come riding in just as the women were finishing up overwhelming the baddies themselves. The other books so far have been better.

Edward Marston and Lord Westfield's Men continues to be a whole different kind of snack food, with light murder interweaving with comic mayhem on and off the stage and arc development among the recurring characters. If this was brought to television with a good ensemble cast, I could see it succeeding as well as Castle. The merry adventures in The Laughing Hangman involve an irascible Falstaffian playwright who unfortunately writes masterpieces too good to ignore, at least two ill-fated romances, so many quirky suspects that the real hope of solving the crime is figuring out what each one is really up to, leaving one odd one out by process of elimination, and yes, some hangings perpetrated by someone who laughs. high recommendations.

Not sure if I've mentioned it yet, but all the titles in the Lord Westfield's Men series are taken from the names of actual English pubs.

Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie
When i had been a single ancillary, one human body among thousands, part of the ship Justice of Toren, I had never been alone. I had always been surrounded by myself, and the rest of myself had always known if any particular body needed something--rest, food, touch, reassurance. An ancillary body might feel momentarily overwhelmed, or irritable, or any emotion one might think of--it was only natural, bodies felt things. But it was so very small, when it was just one segment among the others, when, even in the grip of strong emotion or physical discomfort, that segment knew it was only one of many, knew the rest of itself was there to help.

See Bookpost, June 2014 for Leckie's Hugo/Nebula winning Ancillary Justice. This is the sequel, and the fourth 2015 Hugo-nominated book I've read so far. It's set in the same world, with the same protagonist, building on spoilery events that happened in the first book that limit my ability to talk about the plot.

I found it a little slow going at first, but eventually well worth the wait. The use of female pronouns is not as new as before, although I found it a little jarring when used in the context of one character who exhibits stereotypically male domestic abuse patterns. That reflects on my need to adjust, not the book's.

Breq is on a mission to a distant planet with odd alien beings and alien traditions and space warships and the usual Sci fi stuff. there are strange technologies and beings with different personalities and multiple bodies, and then just when I'm maybe thinking that this is too far gone from earthly civilization for me to understand or relate to, Leckie brings up conditions of servitude and inequality with both barrels, and we get passages like this:

"These people are citizens...When they behave properly, you will say there is no problem. When they complain loudly, you will say they cause their own problems with their impropriety. And when they are driven to extremes, you say you will not reward such actions. What will it take for you to listen?"

Baltimore much?

Very high recommendations.

Brown Girl in the Ring, by Nalo Hopkinson

When Toronto's economic base collapsed, investors, commerce and government withdrew into the suburb cities, leaving the rotten core to decay. Those who stayed were the ones who couldn't or wouldn't leave. The street people. The poor people. The ones who didn't see the writing on the wall, or who were too stubborn to give up their homes. Or who saw the decline of authority as an opportunity. As the police force left, it sparked large-scale chaos in the city core: the Riots. The satellite cities quickly raised roadblocks at their borders to keep Toronto out. The only unguarded exit from the city core was now over water, by boat or prop plane from the Toronto Island mini airport to the American side of Niagra Falls. In the twelve years since the Riots, repeated efforts to reclaim and rebuild the core were failing: fear of vandalism and violencce was keeping 'burb people out. Rudy ruled with his posse now, and he couldn't have cared less about Premier Uttley's re-election platform.

Hopkinson was apparently discovered as the result of a talent search Brown Girl in the Ring is the result. It concerns yet another dystopian future, with the distinction that this story is told from the perspective of those who are disenfranchised in the here and now.

First, there is the realistic ghettoization of Toronto, and the making of a world where rich old people in the suburbs take the organs of young people in the inner city--a technology exists to save lives by transplanting the organs of pigs instead, but the One Percent is too good for pig organs and even lobbies to outlaw the pig-transplants as "unnatural", preferring to make "voluntary human donations" ("voluntary", meaning gangs volunteer to kill unwilling victims for their organs and pretend that the organ donations were willingly made) the only procedure available--and available only to those who can afford it.

Second, there is the use of Afro-Caribbean voudoun-like magic involving communion with the spirits of the dead, who may be summoned to temporarily inhabit the body of one with the talent, and to intervene in the world of the living.

Ti-Jeanne, the young heroine of the novel, has the talent. Her boyfriend is ordered by the local gang leader to harvest a healthy heart for the aging Premier of Canada, or get killed for his own organs. And then---stuff gets real. Or unreal, if you will.

Very high recommendations.

The Radetzky March, by Joseph Roth
"The monarchy is bound to end. The minute the emperor is dead, we shall splinter into a hundred fragments. The Balkans will be more powerful than we are. Each nation will set up its own dirty little government, even the Jews will proclaim a king in Palestine. Vienna's begun to stink of the sweat of democrats--I can't stand the Ringstrasse any more. The workers all wave red flags and don't want to work any more. the mayor of Vienna is a pious shopkeeper. Even the parsons are going red, they've started preaching in Czech in the churches. At the Burgtheater all the performances are filthy Jewish plays. And every week another Hungarian water-closet manufacturer is made a baron. I tell you, gentlemen, if we don't start shooting pretty soon, it'll be the end. You just wait and see what's coming to us."

This novel is a march across three generations of Austrians, from pride in Empire to decadence. It begins with the grandfather saving the life of the Emperor Franz Joseph, being promoted to the Nobility from the bourgeoisie class, and being offended at the inaccurate pedestal of heroism the history books construct for him. He succeeds in keeping the father (his son) out of the army entirely, encouraging him to become a civil servant instead, but then the father steers the son into the military, where he eventually dies in WWI, the original Emperor outliving them all but not Austria.

It's full of political generational conflict, with old men marching around in shiny uniforms preaching honor and racism and revering the grandfather-hero, while younger people slide into libertinism and rebellion. The translation stultifies the action, and none of the characters are particularly likable.

Optics, by Sir Isaac Newton
I have some so laid one object-glass upon the other that, to the naked eye, they have all over seemed uniformly white, without the least appearance of any of the coloured rings; and yet, by viewing them through a prism, great multitudes of those rings have discovered themselves. And in like manner plates of Muscovy glass, and bubbles of glass blown at a lamp-furnace, which were not so thin as to exhibit any colours to the naked eye, have through the prism exhibited a great variety of them ranged irregularly up and down in the form of waves. And so bubbles of water, before they began to exhibit their colours to the naked eye of a bystander, have appeared through a prism, girded about with many parallel and horizontal rings; to produce which effect it was necessary to hold the prism parallel, or very nearly parallel, to the horizon and to dispose it so that the rays might be refracted upwards.

The year of reading 17th Century books has to include Sir Isaac Newton, and the Principia frankly scares me, so I decided to warm up a little with Optics, which is a bit shorter and easier.

Of all the books I read, old science is the hardest to review. Most people don't read this for pleasure; they don't read it to learn because it's dated as all hell, I read it for completeness as part of a set, because I have OCD that way, and I understand maybe half of it if I'm lucky. Adler and Hutchins insist that average people can read it, and that it's good for you, and so they put it in the Great Books set. It is interesting primarily as an example of how one learns by experimenting, and as a presentation of the imperfect theory of light as a particle (as opposed to the other imperfect theory of light as a wave, set forth in the much shorter and easier Treatise on Light by Huygens, to be discussed probably in August's Bookpost). Many experiments in dark rooms with small holes to let the light come through prisms and spectrums of colored light measured and observed. Several queries in the form of leading questions as to what it all means. Much in the form of dense equations, tables and jargon.

Walden, by Henry David Thoreau
However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man's abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace. The town's poor seem to me often to live the most independent lives of any. Maybe they are simply great enough to receive without misgiving. Most think that they are above being supported by the town; but it oftener happens that they are not above supporting themselves by dishonest means, which should be more disreputable. Cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like sage. Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends. Turn the old; return to them. Things do not change; we change. Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts. God will see that you do not want society. If I were confined to a corner of a garret all my days, like a spider, the world would be just as large to me while I had my thoughts about me. The philosopher said: "From an army of three divisions one can take away its general, and put it in disorder; from the man the most abject and vulgar one cannot take away his thought." Do not seek so anxiously to be developed, to subject yourself to many influences to be played on; it is all dissipation. Humility like darkness reveals the heavenly lights. The shadows of poverty and meanness gather around us, "and lo! creation widens to our view." We are often reminded that if there were bestowed on us the wealth of Croesus, our aims must still be the same, and our means essentially the same. Moreover, if you are restricted in your range by poverty, if you cannot buy books and newspapers, for instance, you are but confined to the most significant and vital experiences; you are compelled to deal with the material which yields the most sugar and the most starch. It is life near the bone where it is sweetest. You are defended from being a trifler. No man loses ever on a lower level by magnanimity on a higher. Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.

Walden is one of the first American classics, and maybe the first that can fairly be called "uniquely American", right up there with Twain and Whitman and Robert Penn Warren. It is brief but dense, requiring concentration, and has something to offer socialists and libertarians alike. Thoreau is large. He contains multitudes. And so do we all.

Reading Thoreau's account of two years in a cabin in the woods by Walden pond, it is easy to feel a yearning to drop everything and run off to live like that, simple and self reliant and far from the madding crowd--along with an equal and opposite revulsion at the very thought of doing without modern conveniences for any serious length of time. Thoreau mentions a few young idiots who approach him wanting to be like him. I sympathize with the young idiots, even as Thoreau and I roll our eyes at them.

It's also easy to find the book pedantic and dull, envisioning Thoreau as a 19th century crackpot with an enormous Walt Whitman beard, isolated from society. I found it easier to digest simply by picturing him as one of the many screwballs I know in the Eugene, Oregon area--earthy hippies with a lot of education, inclined to talk just a little more than you want them to, mostly friendly, sure of themselves and proudly marching to the beat of their own different kazoo. There's a place by the river in a forest that I go to at least once a year to reflect and self-renew. It is absolutely indispensable to me, but a half day at a time there is sufficient for my needs. A month there would be more challenge than pleasure, and a lifetime would be torture. But two years was apparently just right for Thoreau, who was the only one who got to decide for him.

One thing that struck me was a part in the introduction, describing the reaction to him--people for whom life in the woods was Not For them were not content to roll their eyes and just do what was For Them, but went about denouncing Thoreau as a fraud, claiming that he went over to dine with the Emersons while he was pretending to eat in solitude beans grown in his field. And THAT tendency, it seems to me, can be added to the spectrum of "uniquely American." We are a nation of Ids and Superegos, alternately indulging appetites and claiming joy in condemning others. Graze on the Internet about any cultural trend that has popped up in recent years---hipster culture, Crossfit, tiny houses, Paleo diets, slow cooking, "leaning in", any new or old notions about parenting children---and for every blog post you find by someone for whom that thing has made a positive difference in their lives, you will find an equal and opposite post not only ridiculing it but asserting that everyone who does that thing is ruining life for everyone else. In a world where everyone's business is public, everyone feels entitled to make everyone else's business their business. It's enough to make you want to throw up your hands and retreat from it all to Walden pond.

And that is the sort of philosophizing a reading of Walden evokes. We are different, you and I. We can take part of our trips together, or we can take different trips entirely. We can admire one another's achievements without trying to imitate them, or we can try to do something similar, or we can turn away, deciding that some of those achievements aren't worthy of our attention. But you might appreciate it if we didn't explain why not.

The Nun, by Denis Diderot
Perhaps by taking our life we try to reduce others to despair, and cling on to it as if we think our departure will give pleasure, though naturally such states of mind are very complicated. To tell the truth, as far as I can recall my mentality beside the well, I think I cried out internally at the wretches who were making off so as to help me in my crime: "Come one step towards me, show the slightest wish to save me, come and try to stop me, and you may be sure you will arrive too late." I certainly lived only because they wanted me to die. The passion for doing harm and tormenting other people wears itself out in the world, but not in the cloister.

A short enlightenment-era novel with the theme, "Convents are to the present age what lunatic asylums and women's prisons will be in future centuries: convenient hell-holes in which to throw unwanted daughters and willful females to be tortured by judgmental sadists whose sole delight in life is doling out punishment."

There's an innocent young woman, Susan, whose psycho of a mother goes to ridiculous lengths to irrevocably bestow all the family wealth on her sisters, alienate her from decent society, and have her locked away in a church full of evil nuns, with naturally everyone patiently explaining to the "stubborn, disobedient" young woman that of course it is all her fault for being such a sinner, and why won't she just see reason and agree to let the nuns victimize her some more. It's not quite as repetitively horrific as De Sade's Justine nor as long and overly dramatic as Richardson's Clarissa (see Bookpost, June 2008, in which that was almost the only book I had time to read all month, it was so long), but elements of both are there, including the need for trigger warnings for gaslighting and other psychological abuse. Considered a "great book" and notable for being one of the first to stand up to the all-powerful religious institutions that claim authority over souls as an excuse to torture people, and for being an impetus towards reform, but too ghastly to really like as a book. Fortunately, unlike Clarissa, it is short.

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