lovers die; long live love letters!

I’ve often read or heard other bloggers complain of not knowing what to post about: “What can I put in this week’s blog post?” Heck, I have said the same myself. But in reality I think my problem is the reverse: I have too much to say, and don’t know what to choose or where to begin.

But I have a blog and I do want to use it. I’d love to post every week and have many times “committed” to myself to do so. Ha. I’m afraid that my blog, like everything and everyone else in my life, will have to take what it can get. Know, dear reader, that I want to be doing more!

One thing I can always talk about is my reading. I read every day, and I think about what I read. There’s no need to wait till I write a book review to share some of that. And I review only a small minority of the books I read, in any case.

I generally have a novel or other poetic work on the go as part of my daily reading. Currently I’m reading Julie, or the New Heloise, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, first published in 1761. It’s an epistolary novel, taking the form of an exchange of letters between two young lovers in Switzerland, and careful study of references in the text has revealed that the fictional exchange takes place in 1734. Surprisingly, to me, considering its subject, the book is massive: the Dartmouth College edition that I’ve borrowed from the Vancouver Public Library runs to 728 long pages. A bunch of these are introduction and notes, to be sure, but still, how could Rousseau have written such a long work on such a seemingly slight topic? This novel alone constitutes volume 6 of the 7 volumes of the Collected Writings of Rousseau. I would have to dip in and read it to find out.

the cover of Julie by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Passion on the coffee table

I first heard of this novel while reading The Romantic Movement by Maurice Cranston, a book I got in 2004. (That book, in turn, I learned of while reading an astrological text, The Astrological Neptune and the Quest for Redemption by Liz Greene—a wonderful book by a noted astrologer.) I was intrigued to learn that Julie was a work that helped to launch the Romantic movement, and indeed that Cranston names Rousseau “the first of the Romantics.” Romanticism was, in part, a reaction against the 18th-century Age of Reason, and affirmed, against the classical celebration of reason, the importance of emotion, passion, and mystery in the human experience, especially as it is depicted in the arts. As a seminal work of this important movement, Julie was of interest to me. (Another key work, according to Cranston, was Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, another epistolary novel published in 1774—a much shorter work which I have also recently read.)

Reading about the Romantics in 2004 flagged the novel to my attention, but it did not make it high onto my reading list until recently, now that I am involved in editing the love-correspondence between my departed friends Harvey and Dorothy Burt, which my mother and I are shaping into a book, or a series of books, called The Hour of Separation. Part of the process of getting ready to propose this work to agents and publishers is to review other similar and related works, to see how ours will complement and compete with them in the literary marketplace. I decided that Julie, as the first “romance in letters,” needed to be on that list, even if it is not much read anymore (although the VPL has a copy, none of the other local libraries does). Thus did it make its way into my reading stack.

So now I’m reading it. I’m 98 pages in, and I have to report that what started as a mere duty has become a pleasure. This surprises me a lot, because, in the first place, I’m not keen on epistolary novels. Pages and pages of people talking about their thoughts and feelings is a poor substitute for the vivid depiction of action. And it seems to me that the intimate personal quality of letters, their reality in reporting a real person’s thoughts, feelings, and state of mind at a particular moment, can’t really be captured in fiction. We remain subtly aware that these characters are not real people, that all the correspondence is really coming from a single hand; the quality of authenticity can’t be faked.

Well, I’m finding that Rousseau is getting around this somehow. It turns out he’s a good enough writer to do it!  Rousseau, to be sure, is a great writer: he is one of the authors whose works were selected for inclusion in the Britannica Great Books of the Western World series published in 1952 (Rousseau’s titles in the series: On the Origin of Inequality, On Political Economy, and The Social Contract, in volume 38). He gets things moving quickly with a young scholar who takes up a post as tutor to an 18-year-old girl, Julie, in a well-to-do household in Vevey, Switzerland, on the south shore of Lake Geneva. Before long the 20-year-old scholar, who remains nameless all through the early part of the correspondence, is in love with his pupil, and, he is stunned and ecstatic to learn, she is in love with him too. Problem: the difference in class between them precludes the possibility of marriage, or anyway a marriage that her parents could consent to. And so they remain locked in a furnace of emotional passion, unable to do much about it except write to each other.

Which they do. While the lovers are different from each other, both are passionate, sensitive, and eloquent, and in the intoxication of love they explore the moral, spiritual, and aesthetic issues of their situation. But there is also a story: we look on as the lovers create schemes to get private time together, and then read about how things went awry along the way. Just as though these were real letters, we are not told exactly what happened, since the lovers were present at the events themselves, and we have to piece together the action by inferring things from what the lovers say. The author handles this skillfully, and apparently there are things that come clear only gradually over the course of the whole correspondence. I’ll admit it, I’m curious now about where it’s all going to go.

The novel’s full title is Julie, or the New Heloise: Letters of Two Lovers Who Live in a Small Town at the Foot of the Alps. “Heloise” is an allusion to the 12th-century woman who had a passionate affair with the French philosopher Peter Abelard. He became her tutor when she was 17, and when her guardian and uncle found out that the pair had become lovers, he was so furious that he arranged for Abelard to be surprised in his bed at night and castrated. Abelard and Heloise both wound up entering religious orders, and embarked on a famous correspondence of their own (which I am also reading now). Heloise, intelligent and educated, became an abbess, but she did so only because her lover commanded her to; she loved only him and felt nothing for God. Anyway, their story was a subject of much interest in France in the 18th century, and Rousseau must have seen in it a hook on which to hang his developing ideas about Romanticism. And apparently it also closely parallels a time in Rousseau’s own life when he was such a tutor—in Switzerland—and fell in love with his pupil. It will be interesting to see how strong the parallel is between the real-life medieval lovers and Rousseau’s fictional Swiss pair. I find myself hoping, at the very least, that the young man manages to keep all of his organs contiguous with his body. So far (now to page 112) the lovers have skillfully managed to avoid detection.

So there you have it: the fictional portion of my current reading stack. I’ve got a few other books on the go; maybe I’ll talk about them next. I’ve only scratched the surface about this one. There’s too much to write about, and that, friends, is why I write so little.

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not only public libraries have stacks

Ever since late adolescence I have maintained a reading stack: a stack of books that are all more or less on the go at the same time. When I was in my early 20s, my two roommates, semifacetiously, made a rule that my stack could not exceed a certain size (I think it was 8 books), but the rule was a dead letter upon enactment, since by then this style of reading had become entrenched with me.

I like reading more than one book at a time. I have a number of different interest, and I like to support them through reading.  And my attention span is such that I can’t stick with any one text for too long; generally, an hour is all that I can stand reading anything, no matter how much I’m enjoying it or passionate I am about the topic at that moment. I become fatigued and need to change. With my stack, I just put down one book and pull out another one.

This the stack as it exists at this moment. The table stands on the left hand of my reading chair, a nice chair of soft brown leather. The books currently on active service are the top 4 in the stack.

The stack of books Paul is reading

Books do furnish a room

The one on top is Mindfulness with Breathing: A Manual for Serious Beginners by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, a Thai meditation master (now deceased: he died in 1993). As I recall, this was one of the books I was put on to in the bibliography of Daniel Goleman’s The Meditative Mind (although now, darn it, I can’t find it in there). Anyway, I like to start my reading period with a dharma book, as an expression of the idea that my spiritual development is my top priority in life. I wanted to learn more about the details of mindfulness meditation, and this book looked promising. It’s quite different from what I’m used to, since Buddhadasa was in the tradition of Southern Buddhism, which has its main stronghold in the Theravada schools of Sri Lanka, and my own tradition is within the Vajrayana world of Northern Buddhism, but for some reason I have an appetite to expand my horizon and learn more about the teachings as the Buddha first presented them. So: Mindfulness with Breathing.

Next each day I read fiction. Right now I’m making my way—with great enjoyment—through David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. It’s the thick paperback (982 pages) in 4th spot in the stack, and it’s a library book. I don’t usually buy fiction (I know—and me a writer of it): too many experiences of buyer’s remorse. Generally a novel has to prove itself to me before I’ll buy it. David Copperfield is good enough to buy. As I recall, it made it onto my reading list (a Notes document I keep on my iPhone) because it is mentioned early in The Catcher in the Rye as the kind of book that Holden Caulfield does not wish to write about himself. I’d already put The Catcher in the Rye on my list (although I’d read it before as a teenager), so I thought I should read Dickens’ work before trying Salinger’s again. Plus I have long wanted to remedy the lack of Dickens in my reading history. So David Copperfield it is, and wow, what a book. More on that anon, when I finish it.

The next slot in my daily reading period I devote to the Great Books, a used set of which I acquired in 2010. I’ve tried different approaches to reading the books, but have settled at last on a basically chronological approach. My plan is to read the whole set chronologically, starting with the Old Testament (although Encyclopedia Britannica did not actually include a version of the OT in their set, since the Bible is so universally available). But for variety I switch between works, and I’m doing this in an orderly way. Basically that means that right now I am switching between the Bible, Plato, and Aristotle. Book number 3 in the stack is volume 8 of the Britannica Great Books: Aristotle I. I’m currently reading his book entitled On Generation and Corruption, which discusses how things come to be, how they grow, change, and interact, and how they cease to be. While some of the ideas sound quaint, the underlying philosophical problems are still with us. It’s heavy going, and I can manage only 3 or 4 pages a day (this volume runs to 726 pages). When I’ve read 100 pages of it, I’ll cycle back to the Bible.

Next is research reading for the book project I’m working on with my mother, a collection of letters that we’re calling The Hour of Separation (taken from a line by Kahlil Gibran). These are love letters by our late friends Harvey and Dorothy Burt, and they form a passionate and fascinating collection. So I’m putting together a book proposal, and toward that end I’m reading other books that may possibly comparable in some way to the book we’re proposing. Right now I’m reading Nella Last’s War: The Second World War Diaries of Housewife, 49. This is the published journal of a housewife who lived in Barrow-in-Furness, England, and who participated in a project known as Mass-Observation, in which volunteers from around the country agreed to keep diaries of their daily life and to submit these to the project managers. Nella Last was one of the best and most devoted of these volunteers, and her journal provides a detailed view of everyday life during the war years in the U.K. The relationship to our project is that it’s an intimate slice of real life as told by the one living it. The Hour of Separation does something similar, but in the context of a love affair conducted in the mid-1950s. Nella Last is a good writer—but our correspondents, Harvey and Dorothy, are also very good writers, and writing not for posterity, but for each other. The result is something much more intimate and intense.

The rest of the books in the stack, with one exception, are a combination of new books that I have not yet started and books that I have left off reading but have not yet admitted that I’m done with for now and should be reshelved. The exception is a book called Cosmos, Chaos, and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith by Norman Cohn. I was put onto this book by looking back through Omens of Millennnium by Harold Bloom, where Bloom refers to it as one of his major authorities on the subject of angels. Angels are of great interest to me, so I determined that I should get Cohn’s book. I was ready to buy a copy, but some vague suspicion caused me to scan my own bookshelves first: sure enough, I already had a copy! I’d got it in February 2007 and had not yet read it (I had started it—the first chapter was heavily highlighted.) So I pulled it down and started reading. A bit dry and dense, but rich with things that interest me. But in my current situation, I don’t usually manage to get to it on any given day. The other 4 books have me tired out by that stage.

So there you have it. You’ll also note the handy Webster’s dictionary (10th edition; the 11th edition is here at my desk, for work) and, behind that, a copy of Philosophy Now magazine. It’s issue #124, February/March 2018. You might want to get yourself a copy, for they have published a letter from me. They’ve given it the title “The Buddhist Boomerang,” and it’s quite good if I say so myself. But maybe more on that later. They didn’t alert me that they were going to publish it; I just opened the magazine and there it was. Fun!

You’re acquainted now with the current incarnation of my beloved stack. Perhaps I will keep you posted as it evolves and changes. Can you handle that much excitement?

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reviewing the reviewers

I don’t like reading reviews of my work—not even positive ones. And I can recall reading about other artists, even prominent and great ones, who feel the same way, and who never read reviews of their own work. I can well understand it.

But reviews are important in order to become known and accepted by an audience, and writers who are seeking to establish a beachhead with the reading public are advised that even bad reviews are preferable to none, to mere oblivion. With the torrent of books, especially e-books, being published, reviews of any kind help to make a work “real,” to make it visible in the sandstorm.

Toward this end, the securing of reviews, I’ve tried a couple of review services for the 2 short stories I published in 2017: A Tourist Visa and The Thought Dial. These are fee services, but the reviewers themselves do not receive any fee; they are volunteers who agree to write a review in exchange for a free copy of the book. Since providing free copies to reviewers is a time-honored practice in publishing, I did not and do not see anything unethical in it. On the contrary, I’m grateful to these good-hearted people who are willing to take a chance on my work. My thanks to you all.

So far, I have to admit that my stories are faring less well than I’d hoped. On Goodreads, A Tourist Visa has garnered an average rating of 3.67 stars out of a possible 5, based on 6 ratings; The Thought Dial has clocked 3.17 stars, also based on 6 ratings. Not terrible, but not setting the world on fire. The reviews themselves are pretty thoughtful, I have to admit, and often positive. These people have completely fulfilled their part of the bargain.

One thought I have is that maybe I have review karma coming my way. With fiction I tend to be a hard marker, and have handed out my share of 3-star ratings, sometimes flying in the face of well-established critical opinion, as in the case of, say, The Brothers Karamazov. As a reader I am fussy and critical, and therefore have no right to expect to be exempted from comparable scrutiny.

But my very fussiness and criticalness should benefit my own writing; I should be holding my own work to at least the standard that I apply to others’. And this I do to the best of my ability. I read my own stories with the same critical eye that I apply to the work of other writers. I have to enjoy reading my own work, and I keep working on a piece of writing until I do enjoy it. I let each work rest between drafts, and then read it with fresh eyes. When I enjoy reading it all the way through, I know it’s ready to go: it’s as good as I can make it.

We come to the matter of taste: one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. If 2 readers don’t enjoy the same things, their reviews are going to be quite different from each other. The Harry Potter books are one of the biggest phenomena in literary history, but I never could climb on the Potter bandwagon. I never finished the first book of the series; it just wasn’t speaking to me. I thought it was a brilliant idea, but it seemed that the narrator was just too into kicking the crap out of the Dursleys—something like that. So I let that phenomenon pass me by.

I do believe that there is such a thing as objective standards of literary quality, and I do believe that, ideally, a book reviewer should try to be aware of these and apply them. But at the same time, we all take enjoyment in different things due to our different natures and circumstances, and there is literature out there to appeal to every taste. When we read something, we know whether we’re enjoying it or not, and how much, and it’s only natural for our review of that work to reflect our experience.

Bottom line: yes, I need to bring up my game and write as well as I can. I continue to study and learn my craft, and I work to apply its principles to the best of my ability. I will read my reviews and try to learn from them. There’s not much I can do with a note like, “I don’t really like short stories,” but if there are specific notes or comments that I can use to try to strengthen my technique, then I will do my best to incorporate them. However, I also need to find my audience. These are the people who get what I’m trying to do. They enjoy spending time with my mind, who appreciate my way of looking at the world. They may only ever be a small minority of the reading world, but small minorities have their place, and indeed it can be a wonderful place. And, possibly, by means of this blog and other avenues, I can persuade others to see positive features in what I do; I can educate a wider readership to enjoy my particular blend of outlook, creativity, and precision.

If you’d like to join in the reviewing fun, my favorite service so far is BookTasters. If you’ve got a Twitter account, follow @BookTasters and jump up for any of the books they tweet about. You can read as many free e-books as you want, and also have some personal interaction with their authors. If you’re thoughtful and honest with your reviews, you’ve done all that anyone could ask.

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researching virtue and vice

If I have a sudden desire to investigate or study something, I try to act on it. I trust that the desire is coming from a good place, even if I don’t know exactly where that is or why it is drawing me.

When I got my set of the Britannica Great Books of the Western World in 2010, and saw the list of 102 Great Ideas, I was intrigued to note that one of them was Virtue & Vice, and that 6 others were specific virtues and vices:

  • Courage
  • Justice
  • Knowledge (or Science—both are Great Ideas)
  • Prudence
  • Temperance
  • Wisdom

Out of 102 Great Ideas, at least 7 are in some way concerned with the issue of virtue and vice—almost 7%! I found this curious, since virtue and vice seemed to me to be old-fashioned terms, echoes of a bygone age of prudish piety. When I read the essays associated with these ideas, I came to think differently. We’re every bit as concerned today with good and bad, and how our own and others’ behavior rates when considered in the light of these basic categories.

Then along came some writing texts by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, specifically The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws and The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes, both published in 2013. The authors use the terms character flaws and character attributes, but I think these are essentially the same as vices and virtues, for my Webster’s gives these definitions:

  • vice: a moral fault or failing
  • virtue: a particular moral excellence

The Great Books discuss only a limited list of the major virtues (and their corresponding vices), but Ackerman and Puglisi’s books, seeking to provide aid to storytellers, contain much longer, more detailed lists. For example, The Negative Trait Thesaurus list begins with these entries:

  • Abrasive
  • Addictive
  • Antisocial
  • Apathetic
  • Callous
  • Catty
  • Childish

The total list comes to 106 entries. The Positive Trait Thesaurus begins with these:

  • Adaptable
  • Adventurous
  • Affectionate
  • Alert
  • Ambitious
  • Analytical
  • Appreciative

And the total list here comes to 99 entries. Both thesauri have further lists of synonyms in the back, which direct the reader to the main entries. These books are a great resource, and I recommend them to any storyteller. They will get you thinking about character in fruitful, productive ways.

The authors note that they did not actually comb the dictionary to find and list every character flaw and attribute; they were looking to get the most important ones. The implication was that it is too tedious or not sufficiently rewarding to go all the way through the dictionary looking for these traits. And this got me wondering: how many of these traits are actually in the dictionary, actually in our language?

List of virtues and vices against the background of a dictionary page

The things you find in the dictionary

I decided to find out. A few weeks ago, I amended my afternoon reading period to include a segment with my Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, in which I pore over it page by page, looking for positive and negative trait words. I do about 20 pages a night, which takes me around 20 minutes. I’ve been at for about a month, and am about halfway through—in the Ms. It is a bit tedious, but also interesting. It’s not a rigorous comb-through, it’s even a bit arbitrary. But doing it is getting me thinking about virtue and vice in a different way.

For one thing, I find that a pragmatic definition of virtue is arising—something like:

a trait or habit that leads toward a good, and that is capable of being deliberately strengthened or suppressed

By the same token, a vice would be:

a trait or habit that leads away from a good, and that is capable of being deliberately strengthened or suppressed

And for the sake of comparison, here are the first entries on my own list, which consolidates virtues and vices, so I will give the first 14 instead of the first 7:

  • able
  • abrasive
  • abrupt
  • absentminded
  • abstemious
  • abstinent
  • abusive
  • accepting
  • accommodating
  • acerbic
  • acquisitive
  • active
  • acute
  • adamant

I’ve made many quick judgment calls. Is adamant really a trait, or is it more of a behavior with respect to a particular situation? When I waver, my policy is to include the word; I can always throw it out later.

What will I do with this list, once I’ve got it? I’m not sure. I was curious enough to create it, so I will just see where that leads. I suspect that I may start developing my own theory of virtue and vice, and possibly looking for ways to apply that theory to storytelling. It’s already fun to imagine characters that embody these traits. What if you had to build a character based on 3 consecutive traits from the list? What would a character be like who was active, acute, and adamant, for instance? Unusual things spring to mind.

So there is a glimpse of one thing going on in this writer’s mind and world. Where will it lead?

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of Grinches and artists

I just watched How the Grinch Stole Christmas last night for the umpteenth time. Was I tired of it? No! I found it funnier and more delightful than ever, still a serious contender for “best half-hour of TV ever produced.” Only one thing disturbs me a bit: the Grinch’s remark, early on, that he has been looking down on the Whos’ Christmas celebrations for 53 years. I could never imagine anyone being old enough to make a statement like that; now the Grinch has become one of my peeps. He’s solidly middle aged.

Well, it happens to the best of us–if we live long enough. And I wish you a long life, and a happy one.

Sharp-eyed followers of this blog will have noted the new Patreon badge in the left sidebar. Christmas seems as good a time as any to bring to mind those less fortunate than yourself, such as those who, due to oxygen privation at birth or repeated blows to the head, have elected to pursue a life in the fine arts. Everyone knows that this is not a good idea; nonetheless, some of us find ourselves in the position of persevering in the arts long past the point when more sensible people have given up. Now is the season to let your heart be touched by our predicament.

Patreon is a site that connects artists (“creators”) with patrons: those willing to help an artist by making a one-time or an ongoing financial contribution to his continuing effort. One good thing is that those contributions can be as low as US$1.

If you click on the badge, it does not commit you to pledging anything. Rather, you will be taken to my home page on Patreon, where you can read the short spiel I’ve written there, and also watch the short (2-minute) video I’ve recorded. That prospect alone should be enough to lure you. Then you can abandon the page and get on with your life, or, possibly, you could opt to click one of my pledge buttons and become a patron. (You can “unbecome” one at any time.) US$1 a month will do it.

I’m about to publish my short story The Thought Dial, about some of the agonies associated with teen dating, and soon after will come Lost Kings, a story about a young man’s quest for spiritual meaning while drifting through Europe in the late 1970s. I’m going to keep writing and publishing, come what may, and I warmly invite you to become a partner in that undertaking. I’m offering rewards for pledges, so please click the badge, and come and check them out.

Merry Christmas.

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coming attractions

I find it difficult getting my work published—even when I do the publishing myself!

It takes time to get all the elements to come together (and for me, it takes time to do anything at all). I can work fast if necessary, as it was while The Odyssey was in production, but in the main I find it’s not worth the stress. When all is said, I’d rather enjoy myself than highball to get a thing out the door sooner. The product will be more “me” this way.

Also, rush jobs are usually not quite satisfactory. There will be errors or other signs of shortcuts having been taken. That’s not to say that my work is without errors (and feel free to report any to me if you spot them), but I think you can tell by the look and feel of a thing what quality of love and attention has been lavished on it. The very finest things are totally uneconomical in this way: they manifest excellence and loved in a way that goes beyond their sticker price. They show that the creator could not possibly have been compensated adequately for his time and effort. He was serving the goddesses Love and Beauty, and very likely felt privileged to do so. This is the labor of art.

It’s what I seek to do with my own creations. The work that I am in the process of bringing to publication is another short story, this one called The Thought Dial. Like A Tourist Visa, it’s a story I drafted long ago, in 1992, and it got pushed aside by other, more pressing projects. With the power of publication in my own hands, I don’t want to let any of my potentially publishable work to go to waste, so out the door it goes—soon. One thing that has taken time to get right is the cover art. I came up with the concept and design, and engaged two separate artists to help me bring it to fruition. The design is simple, but it takes time to get the details right.

At last, though, I feel that the cover looks the way it should, and I can publish at last. Now there is a new glitch: the planet Mercury has turned retrograde in the sky, which is a negative indicator for starting any new undertaking (I have heard that Stephen Spielberg will not allow any film of his to be released while Mercury is retrograde). The retrograde will last until December 23. I will publish The Thought Dial, a story about a teenage boy anxiously preparing to ask a girl for a date, as soon as I can after that.

Meanwhile, I would like to offer you a glimpse of the cover for the e-book. This is what all my fussing was about. You can contemplate as you await the arrival of that new story. Enjoy.

Coming attractions

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celebrate International Hermit Day

As far as I know, I have invented International Hermit Day: it is November 9, the date on which my short story, The Hermit, is set. It’s a date I’ll always remember, for I chose it with great care; it has symbolic significance in that youthful story, written back in 1979–80, before my 21st birthday. The story still serves as a kind of artistic manifesto.

I invite you to give it a read. Get a free copy by signing up for my mailing list in the sidebar to the left. (By all means, check out the story’s description first.) Then curl up somewhere (alone), maybe with some herbal tea or plain water, and mark International Hermit Day in the most appropriate way possible.

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Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, volume 1: making the perfect human

Paideia 1: The Ideals of Greek Culture: Archaic Greece: The Mind of AthensPaideia 1: The Ideals of Greek Culture: Archaic Greece: The Mind of Athens by Werner Wilhelm Jaeger
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An impassioned, authoritative, and in-depth account of how the character-shaping ideas of education and culture developed in ancient Greece, and how the civilization’s first educators were its poets.

I forget how I first got to hear about this book. Probably it was offered by the recommendation engine on Goodreads or on Amazon. I was already acquainted with the Greek word paideia from reading the works of Mortimer J. Adler, the driving force behind the Britannica Great Books of the Western World. Adler himself had written a book with that word in the title: The Paideia Proposal: An Educational ManifestoThe Paideia Proposal: An Educational Manifesto. Published in 1982, when Adler was 80, it is a call for sweeping change to the American educational system, from elementary school to postsecondary learning. The vision of Adler and his colleagues is to wrench public education away from vocational training, which it had largely become even in 1982, and toward the ideals of liberal education. He and the other members of the Paideia Group believe that this is the only way to save American democracy. As he puts it in chapter 1:

Suffrage without schooling produces mobocracy, not democracy—not rule of law, not constitutional government by the people as well as for them.

Here in British Columbia, where I live, the issue of education is often in the news, usually in the form of conflicts between the provincial government and the B.C. Teachers Federation—the teachers’ union. They have fought over things like who is to determine class sizes. What’s never in the debate, at least not that I’ve seen, is the question of what education is for. What is the aim of our education system? Usually it’s assumed to be employment: putting our kids in position to get “good jobs.” Our universities are now almost entirely vocational schools: law, medicine, accounting, engineering, forestry, and so on. Adler was strongly critical of this approach. Vocational training does not teach us how to be citizens of a free democratic society—the society that we live in, or like to think that we live in.

Werner Jaeger, in this extraordinary volume, shows us how the ancient Greeks coped with this question. There was no such thing as public education, but, as he says at the very beginning of his introduction:

Every nation which has reached a certain stage of development is instinctively impelled to practise education. Education is the process by which a community preserves and transmits its physical and intellectual character. For the individual passes away, but the type remains. . . . [M]en can transmit their social and intellectual nature only by exercising the qualities through which they created it—reason and conscious will. Through the exercise of these qualities man commands a freedom of development which is impossible to other living creatures. . . .

This short extract gives a fair sense, I think, of the caliber of observation and thought that the author maintains throughout the 510 pages of this volume (which comprises the first 2 books of his series: Archaic Greece and The Mind of Athens).

The Greeks came to see that this process of education was a matter of shaping the soul, of giving it a desirable form in a manner analogous to the way that a sculptor shapes marble or bronze. This desirable form of the soul came to take the name of arete or “excellence.” The best men had arete in the highest degree, exemplified by mythical heroes such as Odysseus or Achilles. But how was this education effected? How were ordinary boys shaped into excellent men? In Jaeger’s words, the Greeks

considered that the only genuine forces which could form the soul were words and sounds, and—so far as they work through words and sounds or both—rhythm and harmony. . . .

Words, sounds, rhythm, harmony: we’re talking about poetry. The educators of ancient Greece were its poets.

Jaeger notes how every society attends to the training of its young: teaching children the practical and moral rules by which the society lives, and adding technical training to that, so that the children may have the skills needed to make their way in life. This process must be distinguished from what he calls cultural education, “which aims at fulfilling an ideal of man as he ought to be.” For this latter task, what counts is not utility but the society’s idea of the Beautiful. He thinks that the contrast between these two views of education can be seen throughout history, and proposes to refer to the former as education and the latter as culture. Jaeger goes on to say:

Culture is shown in the whole man—both in his external appearance and conduct, and in his inner nature. Both the outer and the inner man are deliberately produced, by a conscious process of selection and discipline which Plato compares to the breeding of good dogs. At first this process is confined to one small class within the state—the nobility. . . . But as the two types were taken over by the bourgeoisie in its rise to power, the ideals inspiring them became universal and at last affected the whole nation.

But this about the nobility is an important point, for Jaeger then says that

all higher civilization springs from the differentiation of social classes—a differentiation which is created by natural variations in physical and mental capacity between man and man. . . . The nobility is the prime mover in forming a nation’s culture. The history of Greek culture . . . begins in the aristocratic world of early Greece, with the creation of a definite ideal of human perfection, an ideal toward which the elite . . . was constantly trained. . . . All later culture . . . bears the imprint of its aristocratic origin. Culture is simply the aristocratic ideal of a nation, increasingly intellectualized.

That’s all taken from one paragraph on page 4. I find this to be a tremendously provocative set of ideas. When we remember that the original meaning of the word aristocracy is “rule by the best,” we can see the power of this notion of culture. The purpose of culture is to shape people into being the best that they can be.

Jaeger shows how this ideal of human excellence evolved in ancient Greece, and how the ideal was given given form and voice by poets, starting with Homer, whose works had enormous authority throughout the ancient world for centuries. Homer was universally studied not just for the quality of his verse, but because of the educative power of his poems. The Iliad and the Odyssey taught men—and women—how to be. The characters in these epics were the benchmark against which living men and women were measured.

As time went on, Greece changed, and its cultural ideals changed with it. The word paideia itself, which originally meant simply “child-rearing,” eventually morphed into the concept that we would call “culture.” Jaeger shows how these changes are reflected in the work of the poets after Homer: Hesiod, Tyrtaeus, Theognis, Pindar, and others. It’s not all about poets; other great minds also contribute, notably the lawgiver Solon. The birth of the city-state, the ideal of justice, the birth of scientific speculation, the rise of individualism—all these are reflected in the work of the poets, who express the ideas in potent, pithy form for their society. The ideas strive and clash with each other, poetry and society mutually shaping each other.

That’s all in Book 1, Archaic Greece. The volume also contains Book 2, The Mind of Athens, which focuses on the great dramatists of Athens, the sophists, and a final chapter on Thucydides, whom Jaeger terms a “political philosopher” and the first political historian.

Again and again I was amazed at the depth and reach of Jaeger’s thought. His understanding of ancient Greece must be virtually unrivaled. It’s not just that he knows that world and its art so well; it’s that he has reflected deeply on the significance of both, and their interconnection. And although the book is about ancient Greece, it reads like a discussion of the issues of today, for ideas do not die; they throb beneath our own body politic. It is tremendously relevant.

There is no actual poetry in the book. Familiarity with the poets and their work is assumed. I had read some of the works—Homer, Hesiod, the dramatists, and Thucydides—but I was still fascinated to read about the others I had not read. I could still experience the reflected glow of their work in Jaeger’s appreciative analysis. But of course, the more of it you have read, the more you can gain from his discussion.

There are 2 more volumes in this series on The Ideals of Greek Culture. I don’t know what’s in them, but I’m dying to find out. I’ve read thousands of books in my life, but only a handful compare with this one for depth and quality. I’m amazed at how much he achieved, and I’m really surprised that I had never heard of him before.

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gearing down for Homer

I’ve changed my approach to reading. I read from several books each day, in an informally structured way. I start my afternoon reading session (usually around 4:00 p.m.) with a “dharma” book—that is, a book on the Buddhist teachings or something closely related. I start with this in order to make real the idea that my life should be centered on spiritual things; my spiritual life and welfare should be my first priority. I may not act that way much of the time, but in my reading period I can bring that intention to life by putting my spiritual reading first. My current selection here is The Tantric Distinction: An Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism by Jeffrey Hopkins, a book that I first bought and read in February 1987, shortly after I had started the practice of meditation. My gosh, 30 years. Life passes very fast.

The next slot in my reading period is taken by fiction, or I suppose I could say imaginative literature, because sometimes I read poetry or drama here.  For a long time this was what I started my reading period with; it was only when I resumed my meditation practice about 3 years ago that I made a change.

Next is usually a research text for my brontosauruslike work in progress, The Age of Pisces. These might be works of history that tell me about the world I’m writing about (the Hellenistic world of the 1st century BC), or they might be thematic works—books relating to the ideas that are present in my epic. Or they might even be craft books, for in the past couple of years I have been making a belated effort to learn how to write properly! A breech birth, I’ve done everything bass ackwards in life. I’m trusting that there’s some cosmic purpose behind all that, for sometimes it feels like I’ve wasted a lot of time.

After the research text comes some other nonfiction book on a subject of current interest to me.

So what was the change? I made the change when I finished reading the Iliad a couple of months ago. I had enjoyed reading it (it was my second time, the first being in 2008), and had a strong sense that there was a lot in it to think about. And, beyond the fact that Homer’s Iliad is one of the Great Books of the Western World and therefore forms part of the intellectual foundation of our Western civilization, it is one of the great epics in Western literature, and I myself am engaged in writing an epic. I see myself as being part of the literary tradition of which Homer was arguably the originator. So I want to learn about the epic form from him.

I’ve often wanted to analyze stories after reading or viewing them, and many times have done short written analyses. But I’ve always had to squeeze these in among my other activities, and they have tended to be rushed and incomplete. More things keep coming; I keep reading and viewing. I never give myself much chance to reflect on what I’ve read or viewed. If I wanted to do a more proper job of it, I was going to have to make time for it. And the most logical time for that is to use the reading slot itself: instead of reflecting on a work while already reading the next one, I would hold off starting another fictional work until I had finished processing the last one. Now, at “fiction reading” time, I come down to my office and open up my analysis document for the Iliad, and resume my musings there.

As of now, it runs to 104 pages. The first 28 pages are a scene-by-scene summary of the poem which I made while I was reading it. As I read each scene, I would write down a summary of it and then type those summaries into my analysis document the following morning. The next 36 pages consists of extracts from other books that I’ve pasted in as information or commentaries on ideas that I’m working with in the analysis. These are arranged alphabetically by book. The first one, for example, is from the book Anger by Carol Tavris, and it consists of a single line: “Anger is the human hiss.” I think that’s a beautiful and provocative line. But there are many other works represented in this section, including extracts from a few Wikipedia articles.

Finally, at page 64, my own notes begin. They have wandered far and wide as I have sought for handholds and toeholds to climb to my own understanding of this work. The Iliad is one of the most analyzed books ever written; a large section of the ancient Library of Alexandria was devoted to the works of Homer and commentaries on them. Before the Bible became the foundational text of Western culture, Homer’s works were it; people resorted to them in just the way people over the centuries have resorted to the Bible, for knowledge, wisdom, and answers to their life problems. But I don’t want to read other people’s thoughts on the Iliad until I have formed some of my own. This reader wants to respond to the writer without intermediaries.

And my agenda is bigger than just the Iliad. I’m interested in all the great epics of Western literature. I refer to the ones included in the Great Books set:

  • the Iliad by Homer
  • the Odyssey by Homer
  • the Aeneid by Virgil
  • the Divine Comedy by Dante
  • Paradise Lost by John Milton

Are these books somehow telling the story of Western civilization and its transformations? Are there themes in common? Is there one deep underlying story? These are questions I want to answer for myself. I have some preliminary ideas that I find exciting.

Meanwhile, I still grapple with the Iliad. Puzzling over it for the last 3 months has taken me to places I would never have gone had I simply put the book down and picked up another. It has had me reading up on Greek mythology, the history of warfare, and the psychology of anger. For it, I have changed my reading schedule, the granite bedrock of my daily life.

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The Road to Serfdom by F. A. Hayek: liberals of the world, unite!

The Road To SerfdomThe Road To Serfdom by Friedrich A. Hayek
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A passionately felt and forcefully argued—and prescient—defence of liberalism, the doctrine of individual freedom that is opposed by all collectivists, whether of the left or right.

Lacking a liberal education, I was slow to come to an appreciation of political science and economics. To me, “political science” seemed like a contradiction in terms, like “military intelligence”; and economics seemed like a field that used jargon and equations to study the least interesting aspects of life: employment and finance. I never dreamed that economics could be exciting until I read Cities and the Wealth of Nations by Jane Jacobs in 1986, when I was 27, on the recommendation of a coworker. And I didn’t really come to be excited by political theory until I got myself a set of the Britannica Great Books of the Western World in 2010, and discovered that a number of the Great Ideas that the editors had identified were political ideas: Aristocracy, Citizen, Constitution, Democracy, Government, Law, Monarchy, Oligarchy, Revolution, State, Tyranny, and, possibly, War & Peace. Now in my 50s, I started digging in.

Friedrich Hayek, born in Austria-Hungary in 1899, was awarded a Nobel Prize in economics in 1974, but his two doctoral degrees were in law and political science, and he states in his preface to The Road to Serfdom that his book is a work of politics. It was written and published in Britain, where he was now a subject, while World War II raged. Hayek had witnessed the rise of Nazism first hand, and so was in a stronger position than most of his fellow Britons, even apart from his educational background, to perceive the parallels in thought between the UK and other Allied countries of that time and in Germany in the years leading up to and following World War I.

For, strange and shocking though it may sound, Hayek saw strong and troubling similarities between the most popular currents of political and economic thought in wartime Britain and in the Germany of 25 years earlier. Starting in the late 19th century, Germany was the first country to fall under the spell of socialism. And by socialism Hayek means the application of large-scale planning to economic life. In the 19th century, the tremendous success of the factory system of production led people to consider the idea of applying factory methods to larger segments of the economy: whole sectors, or even the entire economy itself. Why not? Why not make the economy as a whole as productive as a factory? There would be huge gains in efficiency and wealth. There would be maximum production, full employment, and the end of poverty. What’s not to like?

The experience of war and the wartime economy seemed to give a taste of what is possible. Under the pressure of World War I, a vast and highly mechanized conflict, the state took on ever more powers of directing economic activity in order to win. It set quotas and prices, rationed goods, and deployed capital where it was needed. The result was a great sense of common purpose and tremendous productivity. Germany went on to lose that war, but for many the takeaway was that victory could perhaps have been gained if they had had more unity, more fixity of purpose, and more central control. Such thinking was already well along the way to forming the seedbed of Nazism.

Hayek is at pains to show that the issue is not one of the politics of left and right. Nazis and fascists are on the right, and socialists and communists are on the left, but what they all share is the ideology of collectivism: the idea that the “common good” trumps the preferences or rights of the individual. So, while Nazis, fascists, socialists, and communists might all hate each other, in fact they draw upon the same pool of potential members, who not infrequently switch from one of these parties to another. And they all share a common enemy: liberals. For the belief in individual liberty cannot be reconciled with collectivism. Liberalism had come to be perceived by most intellectuals as an obsolete, bourgeois, elitist leftover of the 19th century, something that any right-thinking person must strenuously oppose, a monster that was not quite dead yet but whose death was long overdue.

Hayek observes how it is no accident that the states in which central planning had taken the greatest hold—Germany, the USSR—were the most monstrous tramplers of individual rights. He shows how a consistent pursuit of collectivist aims necessarily leads to nationalism, the destruction of truth, and the rise of thugs to the most powerful positions in the state. It was not the innate barbarity of Germans or their special proneness to hero worship that propelled Hitler to power; it was the inescapable internal logic of collectivism itself, which necessarily destroys individual morality as it seeks to utilize the human resources that are now directed at the will of the state.

I think of these words by Loren Eiseley:

The group ethic is whatever its leaders choose it to mean; it destroys the innocent and justifies the act in terms of the future.

Hayek treasures freedom, but he does not glorify liberalism; he acknowledges that there were many abuses and injustices perpetrated in the name of 19th-century laissez-faire liberalism. He puts this down to the fact that the idea of radical freedom, both political and economic, for every individual is something new in history, and that the difficulties with it have still to be worked out. There are aspects of liberalism that many people find hard to accept, such as the great inequalities of wealth that occur under a capitalist economic system. Apart from the fact that rulers of collectivist societies simply seize large fortunes for themselves, creating large inequalities of their own, Hayek does not believe that an economic or political system should be built around envy. In a liberal economic system, rewards—sometimes very large ones—can be gained by those who take risks; more often, they take losses. There is nothing fundamentally unfair about this. Those who wish relative predictability and safety have the option of working for wages. Those who wish to stake their fortune on a chance of big success are free to do so.

Wealth is a measurable good, but how do you put a price tag on personal freedom? It’s a priceless thing that we tend to take for granted until it is gone. The poorest citizen of a liberal society might look with bitter envy at his rich neighbors, but Hayek notes that he lives in a society that places no political obstacles to his advancement. His position in society is not decreed by the state, as it is under a collectivist regime. The American Dream consists exactly of the idea that a man can improve his material circumstances through his own efforts, that there is nothing fundamentally to stop him except the limits of his own initiative, creativity, talent, and industry.

But does that mean we should just watch our fellow citizens starve if they fall on, or have been born into, hard times? Hayek sees no need for this. The great abundance produced by a liberal economy should be well able to look after the basic needs of the poorest people. There are difficult questions about how to do that, but there is no fundamental obstacle. It’s a practical matter to be worked out. It’s no reason to ditch freedom in favor of slavery.

Collectivism, whether of the right or left, seduces us with a siren song of justice, equality, and plenty. But the implementation of central planning necessarily means the concentration of power at the center, and that power must decide what the priorities will be—what the “social good” is. The central power will decided how many teachers there shall be, and whether they shall be paid more or less than doctors or plumbers or field hands. This need for total control in order to execute a comprehensive plan means that a collectivist society must necessarily move toward totalitarianism. Anything less will frustrate its efforts at some point. And as for plenty, well, Cuba, North Korea, and now Venezuela are countries whose citizens are starving.

One of the most chilling sentences in the book concludes that

the one decisive factor in the rise of totalitarianism on the Continent, which is yet absent in this country, is the existence of a large recently dispossessed middle class.

I think about the observation that there is growing inequality in our Western countries, that the middle class is shrinking or imploding. This would appear to be a serious danger sign. It brings to mind another forceful book, this one about mass movements, written by the American thinker Eric Hoffer and published in 1951: The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. Hoffer shows how mass movements gain an unstoppable momentum of their own, how large sections of society can revert to what amounts to mob psychology in their zeal to overthrow the existing order. I think Hoffer’s book would make an excellent, if chilling, companion volume to The Road to Serfdom.

Hayek is no firebrand. Although he writes with strong conviction, he comes across as reasonable, respectful, and mature. Liberalism, the greatest form of social organization yet discovered by man, deserves advocates, and Hayek has stood up to be one. He is an excellent champion of it. Now it’s down to us: what kind of a society do we want to live in? If you are a socialist or a fascist, or are tempted to become one, I urge you to read this book, and honestly answer for yourself the points that Hayek raises. Can you rebut him? To me, there’s no choice to be made. I’m sad to think that it may be made for me by people who do not realize what they’re getting us all into.

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