Admiral Naismith (admnaismith) wrote in bookish,
Admiral Naismith

Monthly Bookpost, February 2016

Wanton with Sex Noises: Moll Flanders, by Daniel Defoe
By this and some other of my talk, my old tutoress began to understand me about what I meant by being a gentlewoman, and that i understood by it no more than to be able to get my bread by my own work, and at last she asked me whether it was not so. i told her yes, and insisted on it, that to do so was to be a gentlewoman, for, says I, "there is such a one," naming a woman that mended lace and washed the ladies' lace-heads, "she", says I, "is a gentlewoman, and they call her madam."
"Poor child", says my good old nurse, "you may soon be such a gentlewoman as that, for she is a person of ill fame, and has had two or three bastards."

The character of Moll Flanders is generally thought to be some sort of notorious criminal and whore, without redeeming features until the final few pages, in which she repents of her wicked ways and resolves to live virtuously with a husband to take care of her. Defoe himself, in the standard "Please don't kill me, church, for writing this" preface of the day, justifies the book's existence as a portrait of the consequences of vice, and of repentance, the better to instruct the reader to live a moral life. More disturbingly, the modern scholarly introduction by John Mullan, written in a day when we're supposed to know better than that, echoes the same "portrait of a rogue" sentiment. I've no idea whether the modern word "moll' as a woman gangster or consort to a gangster boss is derived from Moll Flanders, but it wouldn't surprise me.

Seems to me, Ms. Flanders has been given a bum rap by the patriarchy. Seems to me, she's much less objectionable than Defoe's other major character Robinson Crusoe, who has come down through the ages as an everyman hero.

For the first 2/3 of the book, Moll Flanders is not a criminal, although the assholes of her society treat her as one for having been born in poverty to an imprisoned mother and made to feel guilty for burdening her foster parents with her upkeep. She attempts to develop a seamstress skillset to become self-sufficient, endures a series of bad romances and marriages with rakish, unfaithful men and incompetents who squander or lose her savings, and has the fruits of honest labor lost by bank failures. she is shamed and shunned by decent society for divorces, for having several dependent children without a father figure, for being in debt, and for unknowingly committing incest with a man she has no idea is her half-brother. None of these things are her fault. How lucky we are to live in more enlightened times, when no one would be so condescendingly judgmental to a victim of hard times, right? Right?

After 200 pages of this, it comes as no surprise that Flanders succumbs to temptation when an opportunity to steal arises, and that for about 50 pages she becomes a successful thief--not an underworld leader, but a low level filcher of goods that she sells to fences. Although she never commits a crime of violence and has much mitigation on her side, the one time she gets caught the judge casually sentences her to death. She escapes this fate, reunites with one of her former husbands, and ends up making a fortune in America as an honest (presumably slave-holding, though they don't say it explicitly) plantation owner. Such a wonderful life-lesson for the ladies! I liked her best when she was sticking it to the rich and giving no fucks.

Theology as reasonable ethics: Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel, by Joseph Butler
And with respect to restraint and confinement, whoever will consider the restraints from fear and shame the dissimulation, mean arts of concealment, servile compliances, one or other of which belong to almost every course of vice, will soon be convinced that the man of virtue is by no means upon a disadvantage in this respect. How many instances are there in which men feel and own and cry aloud under the chains of vice with which they are enthralled, and which yet they will not shake off? How many instances, in which persons go manifestly through more pains and self-denial to gratify a vicious passion, than would have been necessary to the conquest of it?

I was pleasantly surprised at a book of "sermons' that turned out to actually be decent exhortations for living the way it seems to me good people ought to live, and thinking about the things it seems to me we ought to think about.

The main thesis is that selfishness is not actual self-interest, because "enlightened" self-interest means being able to subdue one's passions. The fact that pleasure is often the consequence of getting what we want does not mean that pleasure is the object of desire.

Further, although it seems to be claiming victory by definition, it is nice to see that "enlightened self interest" coincides with being good to each other, because Golden Rule, and to have it pointed out ,by a preacher , that the whole idea of people doing good things only out of fear that they are being watched by some higher being with the power to torture people for all eternity is less than inspiring as a tribute to human goodness.

This is the religious book. Things are apparently quite different in the 18th century from the timid "please don't kill me, o priests, the church still trumps all human thought" attempts at philosophy from earlier centuries. I'm glad.

Slow and Ponderous: Treatise of Human Nature, by David Hume
A prisoner, who has neither money nor interest, discovers the impossibility of his escape as well from the obstinacy of the gaoler, as from the walls and bars with which he is surrounded; and in all attempts for his freedom chooses to work upon the stone and iron of the one than upon the inflexible nature of the other. The same prisoner, when conducted to the scaffold, froesees his death as certainly from the constancy and fidelity of the guards as from the operation of the ax or wheel. His mind runs along a certain train of ideas: The refusal of the soldiers to consent to his escape, the action of the executioner, the separation of the head and body; bleeding; convulsive motions, and death. Here is a connected chain of natural causes and voluntary actions, but the mind feels no difference betwixt them in passing from one link to another; nor is less certain of the future event than if it were connected with the present impressions of the memory and senses by a train of causes cemented together by what we are pleased to call a physical necessity. The same experienced union has the same effect on the mind, whether the united objects be motives, volitions and actions, or figure and motion. We may change the names of things; but their nature and their operation on the understanding never change.

David Hume's first major work is thick and hard to read, and depressed him with its lack of response from the critics of the day. the words "It fell stillborn from the presses" were said.

Fortunately, the edition I read included a thick introduction as well as a 15 page "abstract" (summary) by Hume, such that having it all said three times, the important stuff sank in, at least.

There are three parts to the work: the first is separate from the other two, and continues the epistemology of Locke and Berkley to the point of ridiculousness, asserting that (1) all we know, and all the beliefs we act on come from past perceptions, such as observing things drop to the ground when we let go, every time; and (2) it is possible to make mistakes in perception; further past performance is not 100% indicative of future results, as in letting go of something in zero-G, or the possibility that the world might end tonight and therefore the sun will not rise tomorrow; so therefore (3) we cannot be certain of, oh, anything at all, but (4) it is impossible to live a meaningful life or even function basically based on 100% skepticism of all things, and so (5) we live based on FAITH. This is the part of Hume usually taught in Freshman Humanities, and it adds nothing to one's enjoyment of or understanding of the universe.

For some reason, when I was back in Freshman Humanities, I got the impression that the British empiricists were sensible. That may have been because they were being compared with Descartes and the "rationalist' school, and it seems to me more true that we learn what we know from experience rather than the presence of innate ideas in our heads when we're born. It just seems to me that our experiences actually have validity, which is apparently not what Hume, et al, say.

Compare and contrast with Butler, above. It depresses me that a theologian manages to be more ground in practical reality than his contemporary leading philosopher.

The rest of the book consists of a discourse on passions and emotion, followed by a section on morals, which as per Spinoza is primarily concerned with the value of keeping rational control over said passions. This part IS very much useful, as it seems to me that keeping calm, with an eye on the big picture, during moments of decision, even when in the grip of powerful emotions, is maybe THE key to being an overall good person versus being a hot wrecked-train of a person who does all kinds of harm. Seems to me, those who succeed at becoming Jedi may have included Hume in their studies.

Noir x2: A Rage in Harlem, by Chester Himes
Grave Digger and Coffin ed weren't crooked detectives, but they were tough. They had to be tough to work in harlem. Colored folks didn't respect colored cops. But they respected big shiny pistols and sudden death. It was said in Harlem that Coffin ed's pistol would kill a rock and that Grave Digger's would bury it.
They took their tribute, like all real cops, from the established underworld catering to the essential needs of the people--gamekeepers, madams, streetwalkers, numbers writers, numbers bankers. But they were rough on purse snatchers, muggers, burglars, con men, and all strangers working any racket. And they didn't like rough stuff from anybody else but themselves. "Keep it cool," they warned. "Don't make graves."

I felt a little unenlightened choosing a pulpy mystery as a way to incorporate Black History Month into my reading plan. I needn't have. A Rage in Harlem is a vivid portrayal of the culture, high life and lowlife in 1950s era Harlem from the jazz clubs to the churches to the slums, with references to a great many landmark buildings of the era and character development that had my gut wrenching at every violent plot twist.

The story begins with a sad sack victimized out of everything he owns by con artists, continues with the sad sack's streetwise brother investigating like a POC Philip Marlowe to find the crooks and get payback, and climaxes with an extended round of savagery typical of noir thrillers. High recommendations.

Cultivating Our Garden: Candide, by Voltaire
The whole little society entered into this laudable design, according to their different abilities. Their little plot of land produced plentiful crops. Cunegonde was, indeed, very ugly, but she became an excellent pastry cook; Paquette worked at embroidery; the old woman looked after the[Pg 168] linen. They were all, not excepting Friar Giroflée, of some service or other; for he made a good joiner, and became a very honest man.
Pangloss sometimes said to Candide: "There is a concatenation of events in this best of all possible worlds: for if you had not been kicked out of a magnificent castle for love of Miss Cunegonde: if you had not been put into the Inquisition: if you had not walked over America: if you had not stabbed the Baron: if you had not lost all your sheep from the fine country of El Dorado: you would not be here eating preserved citrons and pistachio-nuts."
"All that is very well," answered Candide, "but let us cultivate our garden."
Voltaire's best known work is a novelette, readable in an hour or less, written mainly to poke fun at Liebniz's philosophy that this is "the best of all possible worlds". The hero endures poverty, military conscription, torture, jail, auto da fe, natural disasters, savages, attaining marvelous wealth only to be swindled out of it, and--trigger warnings are needed--being helpless as his true love is taken by one powerful bad man after another. This is all portrayed in a witty, satirical style intended to make the characters cartoon characters so that we don't empathize too much with their plights, and accompanied by the constant cheerful excuses of Candide's companion Pangloss (not constant, actually, as Pangloss is out of the picture and thought to be dead for more than half of the book) that all is for the best.

If you've been reading my bookposts at all, you know that I normally love a good satire. It may be that my readings lately have been colored by depression, but as with Jonathan Swift last month, Voltaire made me feel bitter and miserable. Pangloss's "all for the best" comments did not strike me as comic; instead they reminded me of the old Twilight Zone episode where people have to say, "It's GOOD that that happened" every time the omnipotent mean child does something horrible.

The 18th Century Murders: Lord John and the Private Matter, by Diana Gabaldon; The Dutchman, by Maan Meyers

He withdrew the miniature of Joseph Trevelyan, which he had abstracted from his cousin's bedroom, and laid it on the bed before her. "I want to know if this man has the pox. Not clap--syphilis."
Nessie's eyes, hitherto narrowed, went round with surprise. She glanced at the picture, then at Grey.
"Ye think I can tell from lookin' at his FACE?" she inquired incredulously.
--from Lord John and the Private Matter

The sergeant scowled. "Let's see how humorous you are with the enemy crawling up your arse. remember, matchlocks, on aim you blow on your match so that it's hot enough to ignite the powder in your pan, then you clip your match to the serpentine. All of you, now: ready? Aim. fire. And reload. Now let's do it in veritas."
To Tonneman's surprise, many got it right, even one or two armed with matchlocks. The explosive sound and puffs of smoke coming from the locks of the weapons were comforting. Not so comforting were the targets hanging from the trees, unscathed.
--from The Dutchman

The second Outlander novel is Dragonfly in Amber; unfortunately, that one had three holds on it at my library, and so I turned to Gabaldon's other series, which stars an Outlander character I haven't encountered yet in the main series, and which is more of an actual "mystery" series. Lord John is an English officer in George II's London, where the environment looks not too different from the Charles II London in the Chaloner books from last year. The same stiffly polite ladies and gentlemen who have people stabbed in the back as soon as they turn away, and the same thugs who try to club people in back alleys. Lord John simultaneously discovers through an inadvertent glance in the privy that a gentleman engaged to his ward is infected with the pox, and for reasons best explained by people familiar with high society, must handle the matter delicately. He also investigates the death by street brawl of an Irish officer who might have been a traitor. And of course the two problems intertwine. Not the best whodunnit, but very good on character and atmosphere.

Maan Meyers, the pseudonym of a husband and wife collaboration, writes mysteries set when old New York was once New Amsterdam. The hero Tonneman is the Schout (sheriff) under Pieter Stuyvesaant, scumbucket, on a Manhattan paved with oyster shells and populated by Dutch settlers, English antagonists, expatriated Jews, not-slave African laborers, and natives, all of whom are despised by Stuyvesaant. During The Dutchman, the English are about to invade, someone is treasonously assisting them, and murders are being committed over a document in English that the Dutch Tonneman is unable to read. Arson and intrigue ensue.

The New Science, by Giovanni Battista Vico

In that dark night which shrouds from our eyes the most remote antiquity, a light appears which cannot lead us astray. I speak of this incontestable truth: the social world is certainly the world of man.

The "new science" is the use of reasoning and investigation to study history. Vico demonstrates how very scientific this is by asserting the truth of Noah's flood, followed by a period in which the earth was populated by savage giants who were cured of their savagery by discovering religion, becoming thereby ashamed of themselves, and inventing morality as a result. I was unimpressed. Even the scripture he cites as fact gets it in the opposite order: first self-shaming, then giants in the earth, then the flood.

He's a little more convincing later on when he develops a different theory of the origin of religion stemming from people first burying the dead for sanitary reasons and segueing from that into the concept of immortality of the soul. Sid Meyer may have been influenced by Vico in mapping the development of civilizations.

Where Vico most fails, it is in a one-size-fits-all theory of how "a civilization" develops. It's all very well to assert that cultures go through an Age of Gods, and Age of Heroes, and an Age of Men--and to point out the similarities in Greek, ancient Roman, and Northern Europe's similarities in this regard as shown in their literature--but not all civilizations fit this mold, especially the ones being meddled with by Europeans at the time Vico wrote. The united States, too, arguably did it in a different order, starting with the "heroes" in tales of the founding fathers and the tall tales of Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill and even John Henry--then focusing on "men" (people) in the ideals of populism and democracy, and only recently falling into a superstitious, science-hating concentration on myth and the supernatural.

Tacky Tourists and Culture Shock: the Persian Letters, by Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu

Where 18th Century wit, especially French "wit", fails today, it is due to a constant appeal to then-contemporary gossip. Swift, Voltaire, and especially Montesquieu, are filled with cutting remarks at the expense of minor celebrities who have long since fade into obscurity. Somewhere right now, maybe someone is writing a novel with a reference to Kim Davis or that dentist who shot Cecil the lion, and two hundred years from now, it will have to be published with footnotes explaining the joke, and readers will say to themselves, "Ah, that must have been funny and controversial back then."

Montesquieu stays a lot closer to home than Gulliver. His "witty" epistolary novel consists of the correspondence of a couple of Persians who make a reverse-Hajj to Europe and are pointedly Unclear On the Concept of the funny white people with their funny wigs and their funny law courts and their funny manners and courtships and how very droll it is that they worship a God who orders them to feed the poor but then they don't feed the poor, etc.

The descriptions of culture shock at"funny Europe" were lost on me, as I was jarred by my own culture shock at the not-at-all funny conditions of the harem/seraglio that most of the chief Persian's mail goes to, with their degraded eunuchs and the even more degraded multiple wives, all of whom understandably hate one another.

Oops: The Story of a New Name, by Elena Ferrante
I hadn't really succeeded in fitting in. I was one of those who labored day and night, got excellent results, were even treated with congeniality and respect, but would never carry off with the proper manner the high level of those studies. I would always be afraid: afraid of saying the wrong thing, of using an exaggerated tone, of dressing unsuitably, of revealing petty feelings, of not having interesting thoughts.

I chose this on the recommendation of a friend who neglected to tell me that it was in the middle of a series. It's about two Italian women who apparently have been BFFs from a childhood described in an earlier book. By The Story of a New Name, they've separated so that one of them, Elena, can go to school and regale the reader about the existential dreariness of Studying While Female. The "new name" of the title, is her new last name when she marries a man less intelligent than she is and resentful of it, and wraps up her identity with his. I'm not the target market for Ferrante, and I feel like I missed a lot of it by jumping in in the middle, but it's well written.

A Heartwarming Story About Children: Sophie's Choice, by William Styron
She could not believe any of this. She could not believe that she was now kneeling on the hurtful, abrading concrete, drawing her children toward her so smotheringly tight that she felt their flesh might be engrafted to hers even through layers of clothes. Her disbelief was total, deranged. It was disbelief reflected in the eyes of the gaunt, waxy-skinned young Rottenfuhrer, the doctor's aide to whom she inexplicably found herself looking upward in supplication. He appeared stunned, and he returned her gaze with a wide-eyed baffled expression, as if to say: I can't understand this either.
"Don't make me choose," she heard herself plead in a whisper. "I can't choose."

The big reveal comes toward the end of the novel. Even though it's pretty famous, I won't spoil it here. Also, the "heartwarming" part of the caption here is bitter snark; Sophie's Choice is a huge downer, as is usually the case with holocaust literature.

The book is told first person by a character who is a professional writer reminiscing about early days right after being fired from his first publishing job. It makes it hard to tell how much of the book is autobiographical. Most of the story concerns the narrator's adventures in and around 1947 Brooklyn with the asshole Nathan and the tragic Sophie, and Sophie's memories in and around Auschwitz during the war. Where she has to choose.

The narrator is an emigrant from the American South, the descendant of slaveholders, and skeletons from his ancestry, including an inheritance that directly resulted from human trafficking, highlight parallels between the Nazi holocaust and Southern atrocities against people of color. I found the comparison unsatisfying in that we hear about Auschwitz from the perspective of a victim of the camps, while American slavery is described only by the white descendant having a sad about his blood money and feeling insulted when Nathan calls him a cracker.

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