Admiral Naismith (admnaismith) wrote in bookish,
Admiral Naismith

Monthly Book Post, May 2016

"Restraint of Passion: An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, by David Hume
Had every man sufficient sagacity to perceive at all times the strong interest which binds him to the observations of justice and equity, and strength of mind sufficient to persevere in a steady adherence to a general and a distant interest, in opposition to the allurements of present pleasure and advantage; there had never, in that case, been any such thing as government or political society, but each man, following his natural liberty, had lived in entire peace and harmony with all others. What need of positive laws, where natural justice is of itself a sufficient restraint. Why create magistrates, where there never arises any disorder or inequity? Why abridge our native freedom, when in every instance, the utmost exertion of it is found innocent and beneficial? It is evident that, if government were totally useless, it could never have place, and the sole foundation of the duty of allegiance is the advantage which it procures to society, by preserving peace and order among mankind.

Hume thought this one was his greatest work, and I'm inclined to agree. Unlike metaphysics and epistemology, ethics is consistently interesting and less likely to get dated. If there's one thing the old books have taught me, it's that human behavior hasn't changed all that much over the millennia.

The Enquiry is a more easily readable rehash of the last part of the Treatise on human Nature(Bookpost, February 2016), just like the Enquiry Concerning human Understanding (April, 2016) was a distillation of the first part.

The principles are similar: Ethics means subduing one's passions and acting rationally (I'm with Hume there).

Virtue means behaving in a way that most people around you consider praiseworthy (I'm less comfortable with that part).

Self-Love is a dangerous basis for morals (There's a reason serious academics don't consider Ayn Rand an important philosopher. Her main ideas were asserted and refuted centuries ago).

The actual basis for morals is Utility (We do and don't do certain things because society would not work if people, say, broke their promises with impunity or hoarded all the wealth for themselves) and Sympathy (Imagining ourselves in another's position inspires us to do the right thing by them).

Hume finally learned to write with style and not stodginess in his old age. Too bad, by the time he got it right, he was out of ideas.

Voltaire Lite: The Diderot Reader
Suppose that these bees are so tiny that the thick blade of your scissors always missed their bodies, in fact you can cut some of them up as small as you like without ever killing one, and that the whole mass, composed of bees too small to be seen, will be a real polyp that can be destroyed only by crushing. The difference between the cluster of continuous bees and the cluster of contiguous ones is precisely the same as that between ordinary animals, such as ourselves or fish, and worms, serpents and polypous creatures.

As with Voltaire, I elected to finish my study of Diderot's writings early by just reading an anthology of what was supposed to be his best work (which turned out to include most or all of the short works I'd previously read). If the letters, Encyclopedia fragments, epigrams, essays and short stories found herein are his best, I'd hate to see the worst.

Diderot was a champion of science as a vehicle toward truth. for someone so obsessed with order, his works contained plenty of chaos. Stories like "D'alembert's Dream" and "This is not a Story" are right there with "Jacques the Fatalist" (Bookpost, March 2016) in non sequitur and existential nonsense, and the philosophical Pensees are whimsical flights of fancy, not an attempt to create a system of thought. I am done with him.

Pinning the Tail on Your Inner Donkey: The Places That Scare You (A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times), by Pema Chodron
The Buddha taught that flexibility and openness bring strength and that running from groundlessness weakens us and brings pain. But do we understand that becoming familiar with the running away is the key? Openness doesn't come from resisting our fears but from getting to know them well.
Rather than going after those walls and barriers with a sledge hammer, we pay attention to them.

This one was recommended to me by a friend of profound inner strength, who sensed a lot of stress in my life. I'm not normally one for religion or woo-woo books about "energy", but Buddhist teachings seem to me to be good advice for living well, and the book was short, and so i read it to the end.

It emphasizes compassion practice and love for all beings, starting with yourself--for some, the hardest part of all--loved ones, friends, neutrals, and finally, "difficult people." When you have achieved the ability to cuddle a cactus, you have found enlightenment. An hour or two to learn; a lifetime to master.

She-lock: A Study in Charlotte, by Brittany Cavallaro
I dreamed about that diamond theft for months. How i could have been there by her side, her trusted companion. One night, i lowered her down into the Swiss bank from a skylight, my rope the only thing holding her above the booby-trapped floor. The next, we raced through the cars of a runaway train, chased by black-masked bandits shouting in Russian. when I saw a story about a stolen painting on the front page of the newspaper, I told my mother that Charlotte Holmes and I were going to solve the case. My mother cut me off, saying "Jamie, if you try to do anything like that before you turn eighteen, I will sell every last one of your books in the night, starting with your autographed Neil Gaiman."

I read this one on the recommendation of a friend, who had led me to expect a Holmes story set in the traditional 1890s, or at least a Steampunk version, in which Holmes is a woman.

In fact, it is a YA book set in a Connecticut prep school in the here and now. "Charlotte Holmes" a compelling combination of Hermione Granger and Wednesday Addams, while "Jamie Watson" is a himbo on a rugby scholarship, who spends much of the book with his jaw on the floor and hearts in his eyes. the plot and the writing style run the gamut from excellent to unfortunate.

You know those "meet-cute" scenes in abominations like 50 Shades and Twilight where they cap an already heavy power imbalance by having the girl fall down and embarrass herself while trying to impress the all-powerful, impossibly perfect male love interest? I found it a bit amusing when Cavallaro reversed the genders to have Watson fanboy-squee over Charlotte (they are supposedly great-great grandchildren of the original characters. There are also Moriartys and a brother "Milo" who is high up in some NSA-like agency). Cavallaro knows her original Sherlock and has several in-jokes in her story. The mystery, on the other hand, is ridiculous, with both the school and the police nonsensically eager to believe that Holmes and Watson are the guilty parties in a murder that has very feeble evidence against them, yet is so painstakingly and expensively planned that there is no possible motive other than to taunt the protagonists, and no possible ultimate culprit besides the obvious.

A fun read, but you don't want to think too hard about it.

Body Politics: Flesh in the Age of Reason, by Roy Porter
Aesthetic conventions routinely portrayed "lowlife" characters as low of stature and marked by grotesquely inferior bodies that displayed vulgar and disgusting features, such as the buttocks. By contrast, upper-class physiques were classically marked by loftiness, straight noses, high brows and a sense of self-contained, self-assured prepossession, utterly unlike the porous permeability of the bodies of the low with their gaping mouths and anuses, ever gobbling up too much food and drink, and letting off excessively--farting, shitting, pissing, vomiting, sweating and swearing. Everything picturable told its story in moral and artistic world views in which soul endlessly inscribed itself through the soma. If "high art" standardly affirmed such aesthetics of identity, all could of course be mined and subverted by caricaturists, who exploited the exaggerations of the grotesque for comic and satiric effect.

A moderately scholarly, easily readable book about the waning of church authority in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the way it affected people's perceptions and attitudes about body and soul, possibly exchanging one set of limitations for another.

I liked it, especially in that it referenced many of the period books I've been reading this year, from Swift to Voltaire and Rousseau to Gibbon and Samuel Johnson, with commentaries about the authors themselves.

Such is the pure motion of nature, anterior to all manner of reflection; such is the force of natural pity, which the most dissolute manners have as yet found it so difficult to extinguish, since we every day see, in our theatrical representation, those men sympathize with the unfortunate and weep at their sufferings, who, if in the tyrant's place, would aggravate the torments of their enemies. Mandeville was very sensible that men, in spite of all their morality, would never have been better than monsters, if nature had not given them pity to assist reason: but he did not perceive that from this quality alone flow all the social virtues, which he would dispute mankind the possession of. In fact, what is generosity, what clemency, what humanity, but pity applied to the weak, to the guilty, or to the human species in general? Even benevolence and friendship, if we judge right, will appear the effects of a constant pity, fixed upon a particular object: for to wish that a person may not suffer, what is it but to wish that he may be happy? Though it were true that commiseration is no more than a sentiment, which puts us in the place of him who suffers, a sentiment obscure but active in the savage, developed but dormant in civilized man, how could this notion affect the truth of what I advance, but to make it more evident. In fact, commiseration must be so much the more energetic, the more intimately the animal, that beholds any kind of distress, identifies himself with the animal that labours under it. Now it is evident that this identification must have been infinitely more perfect in the state of nature than in the state of reason. It is reason that engenders self-love, and reflection that strengthens it; it is reason that makes man shrink into himself; it is reason that makes him keep aloof from everything that can trouble or afflict him: it is philosophy that destroys his connections with other men; it is in consequence of her dictates that he mutters to himself at the sight of another in distress, You may perish for aught I care, nothing can hurt me. Nothing less than those evils, which threaten the whole species, can disturb the calm sleep of the philosopher, and force him from his bed. One man may with impunity murder another under his windows; he has nothing to do but clap his hands to his ears, argue a little with himself to hinder nature, that startles within him, from identifying him with the unhappy sufferer. Savage man wants this admirable talent; and for want of wisdom and reason, is always ready foolishly to obey the first whispers of humanity. In riots and street-brawls the populace flock together, the prudent man sneaks off. They are the dregs of the people, the poor basket and barrow-women, that part the combatants, and hinder gentle folks from cutting one another's throats.

The first Discourse is an argument that the arts and sciences have made most or all people deeply unhappy, while the second Discourse similarly argues that all advances in civilization have imprisoned souls that in happier days gone by were not only bigger and more powerful than feminized civilized man gone soft, but blissfully pranced around like fauns in Arcadia.

The central thesis--that all people are born good and have their goodness sucked out of them by society, is the opposite of Hobbes's depiction of brutal savages who can only be tamed by an all-powerful government. Cynical, unhappy me--I vehemently disagree with Hobbes and argue for more freedom, but have never been able to satisfactorily refute him (See my July, 2015 Bookpost for my attempt to do so). Rousseau's opposite thesis i would love to believe, but it's utter nonsense.

Rousseau pretty much rejects reason as an artificial construct, and urges people to think with their hearts. His propositions are sounds-good wishful thinking supported by personal bias. His idea of "natural man" is taken directly from Tacitus's Germania (see my November 2012 Bookpost), and never mind that Tacitus was a curmudgeonly propagandist trying to shame the Romans into stoic virtue (Shorter Tacitus: “The barbarians are big and strong because they drink less, fuck less and keep their word more than you corrupt maggots! I wish I could be around in another 200 years when they come and beat the shit out of you and burn the city again and again, because you deserve it!”). Rousseau wants you to accept his argument because it's prettily written and romantic, not because it follows logically from anything he says.

The 18th Century Murders: The Devil in the Marshalsea, by Antonia Hodgson; Lord John and the Hand of Devils, by Diana Gabaldon

The killers had swept the floor, but they had missed one small thing. A coin had skittered across the room in the struggle, coming to rest in a dark corner beneath the captain's bed. And there it remained as the long months passed, hidden in the dust--a silver crown stained with blood. Waiting to tell its story...Waiting for me to find it.
--from The Devil in the Marshalsea

Her eyes were huge, gleaming in the candlelight, but so dark that they seemed void pools, her face without expression.
"You will never satisfy a woman," she said softly. "Any woman who shares your bed will leave after no more than a single night, cursing you."
Grey rubbed a knucke against his stubbled chin, and nodded.
"Very likey, madam," he said. "Good night."
--from Lord John and the Succubus

The Devil in the Marshalsea is a fine enrichment entertainment to a study of 18th Century England.The narrator, a gentleman named Tom Hawkins has been robbed of the money with which he would have paid his debts, and is shut in a debtor prison many times worse than the one immortalized by Dickens in the following century. There has been a murder for him to solve, committed there a couple of weeks before his arrival, but the main point of the book is the vivid description of horrible prison conditions--people gouged out of their money by greedy turnkeys, and then thrown into the "common side" to be packed like sardines and die of plague or starvation when they had no more valuables to fork over; people chained to rotting corpses; other people beaten to death by profiteering wardens; corruption overlooked by wealthy patrons unless there is danger of it being found out, in which case they casually murder any inconvenient mouths. Republicans will masturbate over these scenes; anyone else will be shocked and indignant, and hopefully motivated to investigate the parallels in modern privatized "jail-for-profit" and "jail-for-debt" schemes presently being pushed and established in our state legislatures.

Having once again run afoul of my library's backlog of people wanting to read the Outlander novels, I turned this month to another one from her inferior but more mysteryish "Lord John" series featuring an English character from the Outlander universe. Lord John kinda grows on you--maybe you can guess without reading it why the above quoted variant on the offensive "gypsy curse" trope is actually screamingly funny because of something the "all-powerful" Rom witch doesn't know, but I won't spoil it here. Hand of Devils is a collection of three tales of different lengths, involving Lord John solving one or more murders. They're good on character and atmosphere, but not much on challenging mystery. Gabaldon gives no clues; she just has the criminal come out from behind a corner or whatever at the end to try to kill Lord John, stopping to explain the crime long enough for John to get the drop on them. Also, they're the kind of Scooby Doo adventures that play up supernatural forces as possible suspects while the reader knows damn well that the explanation is someone using spookiness as a cover for mundane crime, and who would get away with it if it wasn't for that meddling Lord John.

Redshirts Around the Perimeter: A Dance with Dragons, by George R. R. Martin
One of the Freys stepped forward, a knight long and lean of limb, clean shaved but for a grey mustache as thin as a Myrish stiletto. "The Red Wedding was the Young Wolf's work. He changed into a beast before our eyes and tore out the throat of my cousin Jinglebell, a harmless simpleton. He would have slain my lord father too, if Ser Wendel had not put himself in the way.
Lord Wyman blinked back tears. "Wendel was always a brave boy. I am not surprised he died a hero."
The enormity of the lie made Davos gasp. "Is it your claim that ROBB STARK killed Wendel Manderly?", he asked the Frey.
"And many more. Mine own son Tytos was amongst them, and my daughter's husband. When Stark changed into a wolf, his northmen did the same. The mark of the beast was on them all. Wargs birth other wargs with a bite, it is well known. It was all my brothers and I could do to put them down before they slew us all."
The man was smirking as he told the tale.

Just last month I opined that the Game of Thrones TV franchise would be milking the last two of the five presently published books in the series for another two or three seasons. I was wrong. the show has already gone beyond it. Please do not put spoilers from the world beyond the books in the comments. I don't have HBO and must wait for discs to see the series.

I had underestimated how very little plot there would be in Dance With Dragons. There are only three or four major events in the whole book; everything else is moving the pieces around to build up to them. Brann and Arya's chapters are pretty much training montages; Davos gets four chapters, only the last two of which are significant to the action; Jon Snow's scenes are like the part in "The A-Team" where they jerry-rig some apparatus to beat the villains against the odds, with the distinction that he's making alliances instead of machinery, and the outcome (for now) is quite different. Poor Tyrion is reduced to a lot of reaction shots and banter as he keeps being taken from one place to another, drinking and knowing things with all his might. And Daenerys agonizes while being a badass until what happens happens.

But, hey. Daenerys, Jon and Tyrion are in the book, which is concentrated in the Northlands beyond and below the wall, and outside of Westeros, with only a few scenes in the heart of the seven kingdoms. There is ever more death and ever more new characters to take the place of those who die. And there is justice lying in wait for the Freys and Boltons...maybe.

And honestly, with this much amazing character, atmosphere and dialogue, you don't really need all that much plot.

Slumming in the City: Last exit to Brooklyn, by Hubert Selby, Jr.
The line of police had been extended and was pushing as hard as it could against the mob, but the men became more incensed as more cops fought them and the voice threatened them and they felt the power of their numbers and frustration and lost hope of fruitless months on the picket and food lines finally found the release it had been looking for. Now there was something tangible to strike at. And the police who had been standing, bored, for months as the men walked up and down, telling them to keep moving, envying them because they could at least do something tangible to get more money while all they could do was to put in a request to the mayor and be turned down by the rotten politicians, finally found the outlet they too had been waiting for and soon the line became absorbed by the mass and two and three went down to their knees and then others too, strikers and cops, and a sign swooped through the air and thudded against a head and a white gloved hand went up and then a club thudded and hands, clubs, signs, rocks, bottles were lifted and thrown as if governed by a runaway eccentric rod and the mass spread out, some falling over others and heads popped out of windows and doorways and peered and the mass continued to wallow along and across 2nd Avenue as a galaxy through the heavens with the swooshing of comets and meteors and...

There are smug city people who like to think that country people resemble the supporting cast of Deliverance in body, mind and soul. Last Exit to Brooklyn is for smug country people who would like to think of city people in an equal and opposite state of decay. The people in this majority Greek-American neighborhood of South Brooklyn make Ralph Kramden look like an educated man of culture and Archie Bunker like a rich man who welcomes diversity.

No one is likeable, and there is violence everywhere. Gang-bangers beat up a soldier from the nearby military base. A prostitute violently robs several men, and is then herself gang-raped in a scene so nasty that I know most of my friends will not want to read it. Homosexuality and transvestitism are described as if the reader should be shocked at its existence, as if they are the moral equivalent of pedophilia, which is also in this book. There is a filthy housing project and a violent labor strike and people cussing and doing drugs and wallowing in physical and moral dirt. It is hard to identify with anyone unless you are familiar with these neighborhoods, except that you can sense their overwhelming pain and rage. Readers from outside these neighborhoods are meant to feel like voyeurs, and to pity and despise them. This was written in 1957. Modern similar tales are set in barrios and ghettos where everyone is either using or selling drugs and will beat one another senseless because "that's what those people do." Because of course they do.

Recommended only for people who look for the words "raw", "gritty realism" and "surging with anger" in their book reviews.

Cultivating the Great Garden: The Age of Voltaire, by Will and Ariel Durant
We have tried to reflect reality by combining history and biography. The experiment will legitimately invite criticism, but it carries out the aim of "integral history." Events and personalities go hand in hand through time, regardless of which were the causes and which were effects; history speaks in events, but through individuals. This volume is not a biography of Voltaire; it uses his wandering and agitated life as connective tissue between nations and generations, and it accepts him as the most significant and illustrative figure between the death of Louis XIV and the fall of the Bastille. Which, of all the men and women of that turbulent era, is more vividly remembered, more often read, more alive in influence today, than Voltaire?

Volume IX of the Durants' thick history of Europe through Napoleon pretty much spans the reign of Louis XV, with considerable overlap as it discusses many notable people whose lifespans did not fit comfortably in that time period. As with previous volumes, there's a whole lot of material (800 pages), but what there is is light reading, serving as an introduction to the more weighty histories, and to many of the books the Durants discuss in a few pages while I read them in their entirety. I included Lord Chesterfield's letters (see this March's Bookpost) because the Durants devoted considerable space to him.

The Durants are gentle and dreamy, and have a tendency to look at both the very good and the very bad with the same air of detached affection and bemusement. This can be awkward, as for example, when they shake their heads and smile over silly naive Bonnie Prince Charlie and Culloden at the same time as I'm reading a quite different account by Diana Gabaldon, with all the blood and scorched earth and massacre. Considerable emphasis is given to the rise of the French philosophes whom I've read separately ver these months--Voltaire, Diderot, La Mettrie, Helvetius, Dhollenbach--who increasingly challenged the power of the church to censor, jail, and even kill people for "heretical writings". This is the era when the church's stranglehold on progress was finally, finally broken, and this is a good thing--and yet the Durants seem to take the view that it was a shame to remove all the sweet consolations that religion supposedly brings to the soul, and that but for the philosophes, all of that nasty revolutionary business later on might have been avoided (and what? the clergy and nobles would continue to live lavishly at the expense of the 97% for all time?). They even end the book with a very unfortunate imaginary dialogue between Voltaire and a Christian leader in which Voltaire acts like a pompous snoot against the dire warnings of eternity, and his opponent, without a hint of irony, closes with the eternal Tartuffian insult, "I'll pray for you."

After that, the book closes with the Durants' inspirational line: "Courage, Reader. We near the end." Two thick volumes to go.

The Original Delightful Romp: Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding

Jones went up to Blifil's room, whom he found in a situation which moved his pity, though it would have raised a less amiable passion in many beholders. He cast himself on his bed, where he lay abandoning himself to despair, and drowned in tears; not in such tears as flow from contrition, and wash away guilt from minds which have been seduced or surprised into it unawares, against the bent of their natural dispositions, as will sometimes happen from human frailty, even to the good; no, these tears were such as the frightened thief sheds in his cart, and are indeed the effects of that concern which the most savage natures are seldom deficient in feeling for themselves.

This is my fourth time reading Fielding's classic. It is one of my favorite books of all time, and one that I credit with helping to change me over the course of decades from a dorky kid who knew less than Jon Snow into a person with a conscience and empathy as well as a zest for life. The characters, from the venerable Squire Allworthy to the violent teacher Thwackum, easily walk the tightrope between caricature and believability. There are numerous literary and ethical observations by the author, who manages to jump in and write in the first person from time to time without distracting from the plot, and the life lessons range from after-school special triteness to the most profound truths about the human condition.

I read it once a decade. Each time it tells me something new about human nature and about myself, ranging from reassurance that the world is bigger and funnier than I'd imagined to a warning that I was straying off-path badly. This time around, in a year that has been marked by more bitterness and depression than I can recall having since the years started beginning with a 2, I was constantly drawn to scenes of gossip and backbiting, and found myself raging at the injustice of casual slander. Tom Jones spends his youth being presented in a bad light to his adoptive father by everyone in his household. Later on, there are several scenes in which, for example, he goes to an inn, makes an immediate favorable first impression on the people there, who assume he must be a fine gentleman--and then someone informs them all that he is a base-born scoundrel, and they all instantly revise their opinions, the landlord wants his reckoning up front and feels entitled to cheat him, etc. This has been done to me, recently. It has been done to some of my friends and my clients and to Bernie Sanders, and it has made me so infuriated as to affect my health. I was also struck by the whole "base-born" prejudice, and how people in Fielding's day were kicked around or allowed to get away with anything, simply based on who their parents were. How fortunate that we in modern America have given up such snobbery and instead fawn over and hate on people for sensible reasons like their race, religion or how much money they have.

Fun to read, and very, very wise. Very highest recommendations.

Find all of my previous Bookposts here:

  • Question

    I'm not sure if this is the right place to post this. Sorry if it isn't. I've been waiting for a book to come out for EVER. Some of you may…

  • (no subject)

    Has anyone read Cousin Bette by Honoré de Balzac? I'm currently reading it, and loving it. I saw it in the library, and after reading the synopsis…

  • Holmesian shorts

    A recent review of The Hound of the Baskervilles got me thinking about the short stories. I think they may have been amongst my earliest forays into…

  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.