The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

“The Time Traveller (for so it will be convenient to speak of him) was expounding a recondite matter to us.”

I read this book for the Classics Club Spin #11.  Was it my spin book?  No, it was Mockingbirds, Looking Glasses, and Prejudices spin book but I decided to read along with her.  Why?  Well, her book was much shorter than my Spin book, and I couldn’t imagine getting through God in the Dock in the allotted time frame.  Yes, I’m breaking the rules, but it’s on my Classics Club list, AND at least I read something!

The unidentified Time Traveller has built a machine that he believes will transport him through time.  After he explains to his dinner guests the concept of his invention, he puts it into practice, returning the next week to regal them with the fantastic details of his adventure.

Having sent himself to 802,701 A.D., he encounters a race called the Eloi, a diminutive race that behaves in the manner of small, wide-eyed children, even though they are of adult growth.  They live an uncomplicated life of leisure, simply eating and resting, and having no initiative or curiosity to speak of. Expecting some sort of greatly evolved being living in the future, the Time Traveller experiences disappointment and puzzlement at their almost backward evolution, wondering how their lackadaisical way of life is supported. But the Traveller’s perplexity turns to dread as his machine mysteriously disappears.  Pursing the theft using reason and action, he eventually discovers another race, living in the depths of the earth; the Morlocks, hideous, pale, savage, troglodyte-like creatures who are in possession of his time machine. Unlike the Eloi land dwellers, these cavernous people exhibit an industry and an ability to reason, but in a primitive way that is only based on their survival. The Traveller discovers that they are providing the means for the Eloi’s rather vacuous paradisical existence using underground tools and machinery, yet they are also the predators of their parasitical neighbours, catching them for food during the night.  Eventually, he concocts a plan to retrieve his machine, his only link with human society, his only means of returning to a civilized world.

Source Wikipedia

Trained as a biologist, Wells developed an interest in Darwinism, and the significance of evolution is apparent in this work.  The Eloi and the Morlocks, descendents of the human race, are presented as two species that have evolved on completely different tracks, separated by social oppression and elitism.  The Traveller observes:

“Again, the exclusive tendency of richer people —- due, no doubt, to the increasing refinement of their education, and the widening gulf between them and the rude violence of the poor —- is already leading to the closing, in their interest, of considerable portions of the surface of the land ……..  And this same widening gulf — which is due to the length and expense of the higher educational process and the increased facilities for and temptations towards refined habits on the part of the rich —- will make that exchange between class and class, that promotion by intermarriage which at present retards the splitting of our species along line of social stratification, less and less frequent. So, in the end, above ground you must have the Haves, pursuing pleasure and comfort and beauty, and below ground the Have-nots, the Workers getting continually adapted to the conditions of their labour ….”

The Traveller had expected unprecedented progress, but instead found a degeneration on each side, of intelligence, empathy, mercy, discipline, respect, etc., in fact most qualities which make us human.

Wells, a commited socialist, was extrapolating some of the problems faced in his own time, such as the widening gulf between the rich and the poor, and hatred or disdain along the same class lines.  But instead of the poor simply being oppressed by the rich, Wells takes it a step further; the rich, in their mindless indulgence, become the prey.  Wells intended to communicate not only these innate problems in society but the lack of success of the solutions that communism and utopian socialism offered for the betterment of society. It’s a very bleak picture of the future.

C.S. Lewis loved Wells’ fiction as a boy, but as he matured and his tastes became more discerning, he began to see cracks in their veneer.  While he praised Wells for his original thought, and his desire to tackle the bigger questions, he found the works “thin” and “lacking the roughness and density of life.”  I’m by no means a Wells expert, but so far I’d agree with that assessment.  The book’s plot is entertaining but rather simple, lacking any subtleties or true character development.  His characters often work on an elementary level, to illustrate the questions, but without being imbued with a life of their own.  The questions themselves, while compelling, are treated quite swiftly, with the narrator often chronicling the issues instead of the reader becoming intimate with the characters and absorbing dilemma through their actions.  While the pace might be useful for a movie, it doesn’t really give the reader time to process, so the ideas thump around in our heads a little but there is no true contemplating of them that leads to a greater understanding, or development that leads to possible solutions.

Ruth from A Great Book Study was also reading The Time Machine at the same time as Cirtnecce and I, so I’m including both of their insightful reviews below.

Further Reading:

The Suppliant Maidens by Aeschylus

“Zeus Protector, protect us with care,
From the subtle sand of the Nile delta
Our ship set sail …….”

Originally thought to be the earliest extant Greek tragedy, having been produced in 490 B.C., more recent evidence places it with a trilogy produced in 470 B.C., making it one of Aeschylus’ later plays. More primitive in style than The Persians, and using the archaic practice of having the protagonist as the chorus, it’s possible that Aeschylus kept it unseen for 20 years, but his motivation for this concealment would certainly be inexplicable.

The play begins with the chorus of the fifty daughters of Danaus, having recently landed in Argos after fleeing Egypt, pleading with Zeus for his favour.   In Homer’s, The Odyssey (Book IX), Zeus is referred to as the protector of suppliants, and in the maidens’ case, their Egyptian cousins have proposed marriage and, rather than submit, they chose to escape to the land of their ancestors.

“I sing suffering, shrieking,
Shrill and sad am weeping,
My life is dirges
And rich in lamentations,
Mine honour weeping …..”

As the maidens hold white olive branches over an altar, their father, Danaus, gives them instructions as to which gods to invoke for help for their protection. He muses that unwilling wives could not possibly be considered pure, and instructs his daughters to allow their behaviour to be guided by modesty.

Pelasgus, King of Argos, arrives with a contingent, and questions the strangers, remarking on their barbaric appearance.  Seeing the altar, his puzzlement is apparent as to their knowledge of Argive ways. The maidens reveal that they are of Argive ancestry, descendents of Io who had been seduced by Zeus, transformed into a cow to hide her from his wife Hera who sent a gadfly to torment her, and so she wandered into Egypt. (see Ovid’s Metamorphosis Book I)  In spite of the importance of kinship, Pelasgus hesitates, finally deciding to take this crucial question to the people (ah, a democracy!) in spite of the maidens’ pleas for his decision as king.

“You are not suppliants at my own hearth.
If the city stains the commonweal,
In common let the people work a cure.
But I would make no promises until
I share with all the citizens.”

Danaid
Auguste Rodin
source Wikiart

However, the question of the fate of these maidens is not so simple.  While they have no legal recourse to claim protection from the Argives, as suppliants they are invoking the protection of Zeus, and Pelasgus sympathizes with their plight.  But if he grants them shelter, Egypt is likely to declare war and can he justify the blood of his people shed for strangers?  His anxiety flows from his speeches.

“Alas! everywhere I’m gripped in strangle holds,
And like a swollen river evils flood;
Embarked on a sea of doom, uncrossed, abysmal,
Nowhere is anchorage.  If I leave
This debt unpaid, you’ve warned of pollution
That shall strike unerringly, but if
I stand before these walls, and bring the battle
To the very end against Egyptus’
Sons, wouldn’t that become a bitter waste —- “

Pelasgus returns to the city with Danaus to discover the people’s will, but soon Danaus returns with happy tidings:  the city has voted to protect the maidens with their lives, if necessary.  The suppliants offer prayers in favour of their honoured protectors until ships are spotted in the sea, and an herald of Egypt arrives on shore to bring them home.  If they resist, they risk their own blood and decapitation.  Thus begins an exchange between the herald and maidens that is a sparring of might and justice.  The maidens are not only struggling physically with their captors, but intellectually as well.

King Pelasgus finally arrives to offer support to the women in their resistance, accusing the stranger of insolence and irreverence, yet making it very clear that it is the maidens’ choice and if they don’t wish to go with their Egyptus cousins, he will protect them with all his resources.  The play ends with the exit of the Herald, and Pelasgus inviting the maidens into the city, but a threat of war still hangs like a shroud over the Argives.  However, the women are satisfied:

“Lord Zeus may he deprive us
Of an ill marriage
And a bad husband,
As Io was released from ill,
Protected by a healing hand,
Kind might did cure her. —

And strength may he assign us.
I am content if ill,
Is one-third my lot,
And justly, with my prayers,
Beside the saving arts of god,
To follow justice.”

To the maidens, prayers and justice are paramount when considering their freedom.

The Danaides (1903)
John William Waterhouse
source Wikipedia

While this play certainly appears more archaic than The Persians, on the other hand, it is more intricate due to the moral and political questions that are brought to the surface and wrestled with quite effectively by King Pelasgus.  It reminded me a little of Sophocles’ play, Antigone (which I haven’t reviewed yet, but will eventually) where there is a question of mortal or divine right over political or societal right.  Does Pelasgus risk war in his kingdom and possibly watch his own people die, all for fifty foreigners with a tenuous connection to the land?  Or is there a bigger question: is freedom and human dignity more important than life itself?  Are preserving the importance of these ideas something that go beyond our human existence?  It’s a powerful question and Aeschylus deals with it quite compellingly.

I quite like the presentation of King Pelagus, not as a powerful, dictatorial king, but as a leader who is truly concerned with what is best for his people.  His mental struggle is defined by his desire to make a just decision, not simply a lawful one.  Yet he doesn’t freely throw law out the window, and his impassioned agony of choice is very compelling as he resolves to defer to the will of the people.  Yet when the Egyptians land, he is strong in his stand for what has been legally decreed, and zealously defends the maidens’ personal decision.  His behaviour is parallel with King Theseus in Oedipus at Colonus where he is faced with a problem, struggles with it, yet despite possible negative ramifications, is determined to act in a just manner.

This play was somewhat difficult because of the translation, which in this case is not the translator’s fault, as it is simply in a form that does not translate well into English.  Whatever its perceived problems, this play held my rapt attention and has become one of my favourites in my growing list of Greek drama.

translated by S.G. Benardete

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

“I address these lines — written in India — to my relatives in England.”

The Moonstone …….. a yellow diamond, sacred to the Indian people, guarded over by an ancient curse and three Brahmins devoted to its preservation. Yet the revered diamond is stolen.  Time passes, and the Moonstone ends up in the hands of Colonel Hearncastle who returns to England with the ill-fated gem. Angry at the relatives who shun his advances, he leaves the Moonstone in his will to his niece, Rachel Verinder.  Did the Colonel leave the stone as a profitable legacy, or was it intended to wreak destruction on those who had earlier rejected his gruff overtures?

Rachel’s cousin, Franklin Blake, arrives with the diamond, which is to be bestowed on her during her eighteenth birthday party at her mother’s Yorkshire estate. However, there are already disturbing echoes of disruption within the family home.  A housemaid, Rosanna Spearman, a reformed thief, appears both agitated and love-stricken, exhibiting suspicious behaviour, and three Indian jugglers are spotted in town.  The culmination of these oddities result in the diamond disappearing the night it is given to Rachel.  Who perpetrated the theft?  Why is Rachel behaving with a reckless and stubborn agitation? Rosanna’s death further complicates the situation and finally Sergeant Cuff, a respected policemen from London is called in to solve the mystery.

source Wikipedia

Considered one of the first detective novels, The Moonstone was bathed in a shower of critical acclaim.  T.S. Eliot claimed that it was “the first, the longest and the best of modern English detective novels in a genre invented by Wilkie Collins and not by Poe.”  Dorothy Sayers, writer of the Peter Wimsey mysteries, hailed it as “probably the very finest detective novel ever written,” and G.K. Chesterton, creator of the detective Father Brown, declared it “the best detective tale in the world.”  Collins himself was attempting an inversion of his earlier novel of suspense, The Woman In White, where he designed the circumstances to affect the characters of the novel.  With The Moonstone, Collins chose to turn that premise on its head and investigate how different characters influence their circumstances.  The characters are sometimes wrong and at other times right in their perceptions, but nevertheless each works to shape the outcome of a situation.  This psychological experiment was a brilliant invention of Collins, adding more mystery and suspense to a story already ripe with uncertainty.

Luckily, I chose to read this one on vacation over the Christmas holidays and was able to fly through it in 2 days with it glued to my hands.  I could hardly put it down, a tribute to Collins’ powerful and cryptic narrative.  The story is a wee bit sensational but being a detective novel, I don’t think it affected the story in a negative way.  The characters are all well delineated (except one is rather overdone; I’ll leave you to guess which one) and the method of presenting the novel in an epistolary style is again, an unusual but effective technique. Collins’ The Moonstone was a great way to start off a year of reading!

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein

“I was born in San Francisco, California.”

Gertrude Stein was a Jewish-American writer who lived in France for over 40 years, becoming an intrinsic part of the Parisian art world in the early 1900s. Part of an avant garde artistic movement that thumbed its nose at past artistic structure, she was intimate with artists, both painters and writers, such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Juan Gris, George Braque, Guillaume Appolonaire, Henri Rousseau, Ernest Hemingway, Mildred Aldrich  and many others, who were frequent visitors to her 27 rue de Fleurus location.  She attempted her own literary movement, writing many works that were deemed “incomprehensible”, but received a small following.  Her autobiography is perhaps a more gentle exposure to her “art”.

Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1906)
Pablo Picasso
source Wikiart

Although Stein presents this biography as being about her longtime companion, Alice B. Toklas, in fact it is Stein, speaking with the voice of Toklas about her own life and experiences.  She briefly chronicles her early life, then moves directly to France, going into great detail about her life there, yet revealing little about herself.  Her style is mostly observation and there is little depth to her words.  It is a matter of, “this happened, and that happened, and this happened,” without there being much of an internal interaction with occurrences, or an outward reaction to them.  The book was all about Stein, but on the other hand it wasn’t, and I never felt that I came to know much about the woman at all.  Of course, I now know about all the important people she knew and all about her writings, but it’s more like skating on top of a lake instead of diving right into it; you see a reflection that has echoes of reality, but somehow reality itself escapes you.

Nevertheless the book had some interesting information on the artists living in Paris during Stein’s residence there:

“The Matisses had had a hard time.  Matisse had come to Paris as a young man to study pharmacy.  His people were small grain merchants in the north of France.  He had become interested in painting, had begun copying the Poussins at the Louvre and become a painter fairly without the consent of his people who however continued to allow him the very small monthly sum he had had as a student …..”

And interesting things to say about different nationalities:

Americans and Spaniards

“Americans, so Gertrude Stein says, are like spaniards, they are abstract and cruel.  They are not brutal, they are cruel.  They have no close contact with the earth such as most europeans have.  Their materialism is not the materialism of existence, of possession, it is the materialism of action and abstraction. And so cubism is spanish …..”

Germans

“Gertrude Stein used to get furious when the english all talked about german organization.  She used to insist that the germans had no organisation, they had method but no organisation.  Don’t you understand the difference, she used to say angrily, any two americans, any twenty americans, any millions of americans can organise themselves to do something but germans cannot organise themselves to do anything, they can formulate a method and this method can be put upon them but that isn’t organisation.  The germans, she used to insist, are not modern, they are a backward people who have had a method of what we conceive as organisation, can’t you see.  They cannot therefore possibly win this war because they are not modern.”

French

“The french are so accustomed to revolutions, they have had so many, that when anything happens they immediately think and say, revolution.  Indeed Gertrude Stein once said rather impatiently to some french soldiers when they said something about a revolution, you are silly, you have had one perfectly good revolution and several not quite so good ones; for an intelligent people it seem to me foolish to be always thinking of repeating yourselves.  They looked very sheepish and said, bien sur mademoiselle, in other words, sure you’re right….”

There is always an underlying humour touched with a seriousness in her narrative; although life is somber business, one must not take it too seriously.

Stein with Ernest Hemingway’s son, Jack (1924)
source Wikipedia

Stein definitely has both fans and critics.  One enthusiast, Mabel Dodge, an American art patron, wrote, “In Gertrude Stein’s writing every word lives, apart from concept, it is so rhythmical and cadenced that if we read it aloud and receive it as pure sound, it is like a kind of sensuous music.”

However, Stein’s brother, who apparently had the eye of an art connoisseur and amassed an impressive collection of paintings, called the biography “a farrago of lies,” Hemingway declared it, “a damned pitiful book,” and critic F.W. Dupree denounced “Steinese” as being “gnomic, repetitive, illogical, sparsely punctuated …… a scandal and a delight, lending itself equally to derisory parody and fierce denunciation.”  

Perhaps the truth lies in the battlefield between the two factions, and American writer Sherwood Anderson, found the median between the two, saying, “As for Stein, I do not think her too important.  I do think she had an important thing to do, not for the public, but for the artist who happens to work with words for his material.”

Stein’s signature

The Brubury Tales by Frank Mundo

“When in April, and it hasn’t yet rained,
And the drought of March has again sustained
Another year of our eternal spring;
Then old Santa Ana begins to sing
That fiery yet most familiar tune
How Los Angeles always feels like June ….”

No, The Brubury Tales are not my usual classics bent, but since it is based on a classic, The Canterbury Tales, I decided to make them, not only a pairing, but a 2015 challenge.

In this poem, we are not confronted with pilgrims, but seven security guards who work at the Holiday Inn in L.A.  Six men and one woman make up their team, as they perform their duties during the unsettled times of the Los Angeles race riots.  The prologue introduces each of them:  Leo Kapitanski, Alex Loma, John Shamburger, Joseph Dator, J.T. (the narrator), Rolla Amin, and Darrin Arita or “The Feet”.

As Christmas is approaching, each guard is lobbying for vacation time during the holidays, but Leo Kapitanski, their security chief, comes up with a unique idea. Each one of the guards must tell a tale, and the guard who crafts the best tale, will be awarded with the time off.

Leo is the first to tell his tale and exhibits some fine alliterative verse, reminiscent of the style of the Pearl poet (Sir Gawain & the Green Knight):

“Those were tumultuous times in Olde Yellowfield:
When widespread war had wracked the west;
As Pestilence and plague plundered through the east;
And silky southern skies, soot-saddened into shade
As burnt and billowing breaths of northern brush
Did daily darken the heavens in dismal doom!
And for years was Olde Yellowfield yanked to black
By those soot-stacks that steadily stole the sun.
Olde Yellowfield was new Blackfield, banned from light …”

The Brubury Tales illustration
by Keith Draws
source

Yet not everyone appreciates such poetical talents, and The Feet protests over this “literary crap”.  So Leo agrees to tell another tale full of vice, since no one can appreciate a story well-told, because:

“‘In today’s world where television rules,
Personally, I blame the public schools.’
But Leo disagreed a little bit,
‘Takes a village to raise an idiot.'”

Leo’s tale weeps full of sorrow and distress, ringing with shades of lost chances and bitter regret, as a man tries to navigate the paths of life and love and fails miserably, a red stain left on his attempt, an unendurable burden on his heart.

There are seven tales in all, in a variety of settings and time periods, covering a number of different issues with respect to love, marriage, betrayal, regret, and death, yet hope resonates in these explorations of life’s struggles and victories.  Humour is also woven into the fabric of the narrative, delivered with an adeptness that gives a sublime harmonization with the other serious themes. Though each tale has a modern twist, they bear resemblance to stories of Dostoyevsky, Boccaccio, Saki, Poe, O’Henry, Dickens, Twain, the Bible, Dante, Gilman, Crane, Anderson and Bierce, and it’s a veritable treasure hunt, to sift through the narrative to see if one can spot these recognizable classics.  There even is a remake of Omar Kayyam’s The Rubaiyat, which is very cleverly done.  In another twist to the story, the author himself makes an appearance as the supervisor.  There is an abundance of literary wealth within this book, and one can imagine the work as a tapestry; each thread you pull leads to a new idea, or allusion, or theme, working singly and yet together to form a unique and complex whole.

With regard to the poetic structure, it’s mostly comprised of couplets in iambic pentameter, echoing very much of Chaucer’s style and tone.  Yet there are variations in poetic style at certain points during the tales which helps to give a different flavour to the stories.  The author is also is very adept at changing the voice of the characters, each one sounding like an individual and making it very easy for the reader to step into their world.

This read completes my The Canterbury Tales/The Brubury Tales Project for 2015, and I think I can say that it was my favourite project of the year.  Not only was I pleasantly surprised at the enjoyment that I received from Chaucer’s merry and sometimes, raunchy tale, I was blown away by The Brubury Tales and the talent and aptitude of its author.  A great project, all around!

 

 

 

The Story of My Experiments With Truth by Mohandas K. Gandhi

“The Gandhis belong to the Bania caste and seem to have been originally grocers.”

Encouraged by friends and colleagues to share the history of his movement, Gandhi began his autobiography as weekly installments which were published in his journal, Navjivan, and also, Young India.  Writing in jail, Gandhi wanted to communicate spiritual and moral truth that he has discovered through personal experiments and he shares the impetus for his search:

“But one thing took deep root in me — the conviction that morality is the basis of things, and that truth is the substance of all morality.  Truth became my sole objective.  It began to grow in magnitude every day, and my definition of it also has been ever widening.”

As many other biographers have done, Gandhi begins his narrative with his childhood, sharing his many childish misdemeanors such as smoking, drinking, stealing, etc.  Married at the age of thirteen, Gandhi condemns this practice, characterizing his desire for his wife as lust, feeling in bondage to his passions, which he laters frees himself from:

” …… (I) realized that the wife is not the husband’s bondslave, but his companion and helpmate, and an equal partner in all his joys and sorrows —- as free as the husband to choose her own path ….”

Gandhi in South Africa
source Wikipedia

As a young man, Gandhi travelled to England to study to become a lawyer.  Upon returning to India, and being bored with his opportunities, he accepted the position of legal advisor on a large law suit in South Africa. With regard to his vocation, Gandhi had sharp insights, and with a moral bent, turned a perhaps mistrusted profession into a respected appointment:

“I realized that the true function of a lawyer was to unite parties riven asunder.  The lesson was so indelibly burnt into me that a large part of my time during the twenty years of my practice as a lawyer was occupied in bringing about private compromises of hundreds of cases.  I lost nothing thereby — not even money, certainly not my soul.”

“The symbol of a Court of justice is a pair of scales held evenly by an impartial and blind but sagacious woman.  Fate has purposely made her blind, in order that she may not judge a person from his exterior but from his intrinsic worth.”

In spite of being an unimposing figure, Gandhi’s greatness came not only from his desire for unity among people and serving the poor, but also his unique ability to see situations from a different perspective.  What the world would see as a weakness, Gandhi often saw as a strength:

“I must say that, beyond occasionally exposing me to laughter, my constitutional shyness has been no disadvantage whatever. In fact, I can see that, on the contrary, it has been all to my advantage.  My hesitancy in speech, which was once an annoyance, is now a pleasure.  Its greatest truth has been that it has taught me the economy of words.  I have naturally formed the habit of restraining my thoughts ……. Experience has taught me that silence is part of the spiritual discipline of a votary of truth ……..  My shyness has been in reality my shield and buckler.  It has allowed me to grow.  It has helped me in my discernment of truth.”


With his Christian and Muslim friends, he noted the differences, but instead of attempting to erase those differences, he chose to celebrate them, focusing on the positive aspects that those differences brought to light:

“Yet even differences prove helpful, where there is tolerance, charity and truth.”

His work in South Africa spanned decades, as he fought for the rights of the Indians there, after encountering race prejudice himself.  Many of his political views became entrenched with his South African experiences, and his religious views grew as well.  He became known for the employment of satyagraha, or non-violent protest and elucidates how it played out in his life.  The reader follows Gandhi through the Boer War and into World War I and his return to life in India.  He began to see the detriment of British colonial rule and worked hard to make his country ready for the independence that he foresaw.

His humility and his concern for his fellow-man resonate from the pages, his wisdom bringing unique insight.

“Man and his deed are two distinct things.  Whereas a good deed should call forth approbation and a wicked deed disapprobation, the doer of the deed, whether good or wicked always deserves respect or pity as the case may be.  ‘Hate the sin and not the sinner’ is a precept which, though easy enough to understand, is rarely practised, and that is why the poison of hatred spreads in the world …………. It is quite proper to resist and attack a system, but to resist and attack its author is tantamount to resisting and attacking oneself.  For we are all tarred with the same brush, and are children of one and the same Creator, and as such the divine powers within us are infinite.  To slight a single human being is to slight those divine powers, and thus to harm not only that being but with him the whole world.”

His desire for truth through the restoration of broken relationships and systems resonated throughout his work and his life.

What really spoke to me in this biography is that Gandhi, in spite of claiming a natural affinity with all races, also worked hard to develop traits within himself that would foster unity, empathy, patience and love towards others.  While it was a conviction within himself to cultivate positive behaviour, it was done with great effort and sometimes at a cost.  It is a tragic irony that Gandhi’s life came to and end with an act of violence, but perhaps the man himself would turn that perception on its head and simply say that it was further evidence of our need of the very thing which, at times, seems out of reach.  Yet as long as we are striving for peace, it is perhaps the striving that truly matters.

“I have found by experience that man makes his plans to be often upset by God, but, at the same time where the ultimate goal is the search of truth, no matter how a man’s plans are frustrated, the issue is never injurious and often better than anticipated.”

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare

“To be or not to be, that is the question …….”

First publish around 1602 (although a working copy is thought to have been in use in 1601), Hamlet has come down to us in two forms. Issued in 1603, a corrupt or crude and probably pirated copy called the “First Quarto” (Q1) was produced, then in 1604 a more complete and artistically styled “Second Quarto” (Q2) followed.  It is supposed that the errors in Q1, complete with pretentious and often meaningless rhetoric, spurred Shakespeare and his company to press for a more complete and credible version.  Surprisingly, Hamlet was never performed or printed in its entirety during Shakespeare’s lifetime and the copies we read today are a compilation of Q2 and the 1623 Folio edition.  In spite of the errors and incompleteness of the play, there is little doubt that it is Shakespeare’s as it was performed by his own acting company. The evidence of the dating of the play is quite fascinating, as it not only uses clues from registries, but clues imbedded within the play to events that happened in 1601 and 1600. Shakespeare actuates very detailed detective work.

Portrait of Hamlet (c.1864)
William Morris Hunt
source Wikimedia Commons

The legend of Hamlet goes back centuries, dating to around the Scandinavian sagas.  It was familiar to the people of Iceland in the 10th century, although Shakespeare possibly drew from Histories Tragiques (1559-70) by Francis de Belleforest, relating tragic stories of great kings and queens whose lives had been ravaged by love or ambition.  A second hypothesis is that Shakespeare revived an extant version of a play by Thomas Kyd, revising this earlier piece to become the Second Quarto (Q2), and then afterward rewriting the complete acting text and play, which then became the basis for the Folio of 1623.  With regard to the first hypothesis, the similarity of the stories are too apparent to be coincidental, but there are differences in names and some differences in narrative that indicate Shakespeare was intent on making the play his own.

Hamlette at The Edge of the Precipice hosted a Hamlet Read-Along beginning in October and set a very leisurely pace, which was wonderful as it allowed me to dig very deeply into the play.  My scene-by-scene postings were as follows:

Act I :   Scene I,  Scene II,  Scene III,  Scene IV,  Scene V
Act II:   Scene I,  Scene II
Act III:  Scene I,  Scene II,  Scene III,  Scene IV
Act IV:  Scene I,  Scene II,  Scene III,  Scene IVScene V,  Scene VI,  Scene VII
Act V:   Scene I,  Scene II

 

The Young Lord Hamlet (1867)
Philip Hermogenes Calderon
source Wikimedia Commons

The play itself begins in Denmark at Elsinore castle where two soldiers see a ghost on the ramparts.  It is the ghost of the newly dead King Hamlet and immediately they inform his son, Hamlet, of the apparition.  Horatio, his friend, keeps watch with him the following night, whereupon the ghost claims to his son that he has been murdered by his own brother, the new king, Claudius.  To add insult to injury, Claudius has married Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, an outrage that can hardly be borne by Hamlet.  Yet questions pile upon Hamlet, enough to smother.  Was the ghost truly there, and if so, was it really his father?  Revenge was called for but how could the deed be done, and was he justified in taking a life?  His father’s life was cut short “in the blossoms of his sin”, but if he dispatched Claudius in his guilty state, would not their deaths become parallel?

Hamlet encountering the Ghost (1768-69)
Benjamin Wilson
source Wikimedia Commons

The contrary questions paralyze Hamlet into a mire of inaction.  He then works out a contrary persona, playing at an odd type of insanity, yet often dispensing insightful, sharp and clear rhetoric to torment Claudius into confusion.  Is Hamlet as dangerous as Claudius believes or is he merely an innocent victim of the circumstances, grief-stricken over the death of his father?  After Hamlet unwittingly commits the murder of Polonius, the advisor of Claudius, he forces the hand of the new king who sends him to England, with the intent of extinguishing any threat to his kingdom.  Yet Hamlet has also injured the mind of one once dearest to him, Ophelia, the daughter of Polonius, and her decent into madness colours the kingdom with further calamity. Upon Hamlet’s return, the culmination of this revenge tragedy is set into motion. Will Claudius’ plotting bring him success?  Can Laertes avenge his father, Polonius’, murder, and will Hamlet’s revenge bring him the peace he seems to seek?

You can see throughout the play the emphasis on action vs. inaction, words vs. action, thoughts vs. action, etc.  While Hamlet bemoans his inability to act to avenge his father’s death, on the surface seeming cowardly and ineffective, the actuality is quite the opposite.  All throughout the play, Hamlet uses thoughts and words to manipulate his enemy.  His thoughts, though he bemoans them, actually have more of an effect than he imagines, controlling certain small acts in a very effective manner.  His act of insanity twists Claudius into a Gordian knot of uncertainty, his letters announcing his return to Denmark pushing Claudius to drastic action. Thoughts and words appear to be more important and certainly more effective than action, torturing his enemy to the very limits of his endurance.  While it’s demonstrated in the play that revenge only brings suffering, is there a underlying theme that words can be more effective than action?

Ophelia (1863)
Arthur Hughes
source Wikiart

While the cultural precepts of the Danish society in Hamlet seem to support the desire for revenge, Shakespeare’s Elizabethan audience would have viewed the thirst for vengeance as primitive, and perhaps rather shocking. There is evidence throughout the play that revenge brings only suffering and death to those involved.  Fortinbras, the heir of the Danish kingdom at the end of the play, calls for all the noblemen to hear the story of Hamlet:

”                                    Let us haste to hear it,
And call the noblest to the audience ……”

He wants the nobles of the kingdom to attend to this tragedy and learn from it. Horatio responds:

“But let this same be presently performed,
Even while men’s minds are wild, lest more mischance
On plots and errors happen.”

Hamlet does get a hero’s remembrance, but the deaths, suffering and pain caused by his vengeful actions, and those of others, are strongly emphasized.

There is a question throughout the play of Hamlet’s sanity.  Is he truly mad, or is it simply an act produced to set a trap for the murderer of his father?  I tend to think the latter, but Shakespeare appears to quite closely link insanity with revenge, perhaps alluding to the fact that vengeance has a detrimental effect on our minds, distorting perceptions to bring about a type of madness.  Hamlet is playing at being mad, but madness also plays with him, his malevolent sentiments poisoning his very psyche, and modifying his entire moral perspective.  The whole character of Hamlet is played out in the agonizing conflict within his mind.  Mad he is, and mad he is not, perhaps making him at once to be and not to be.

 

 

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The Rule of Saint Benedict

“Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart.”

Benedict of Nursia lived in Italy during the collapse of the Roman Empire and during his life, the empire was in constant battle with barbarian tribes.  Leaving his home in Nursia, in the region of Umbria during the reign of the barbarian king, Theodoric, Benedict arrived in Rome to attend school but, disgusted with the paganism and dissolution that he witnessed, he eschewed worldly cares, taking residence in a cave at Subiaco, thirty miles east of Rome.

Saint Benedict (circa 1437-1446)
Fra Angelico
source Wikipedia

During three years in his cave, Benedict became admired for his spiritual devotion, and when an abbot in a nearby monastery passed away, Benedict was convinced, against his inclination, to take his place.  But twice, monks envious of Benedict attempted to poison him, from which he was saved by miracles.  He eventually took some disciples and founded a monastery on the mountain above Cassino, located eighty miles south of Rome.  As his fame spread, even the great king of the Goths, Totila, sought out an audience with him.

Benedict called his Rule, “a little book for beginners,” and he covers such disciplines as obedience, humility, contemplation and living in community.  Yet he first introduces us to four types of monks, the cenobites (belonging to a monastery and serving under an abbot), the anchorites or hermits (having lived in a monastery for a long time and their zeal for the monastic life has cooled), the sarabites (detestable monks who have “a character as soft as lead”, and are captured by worldly delights, a law unto themselves), and gyrovagues (drifters who are captives to their own selfish desires).  His rule is to assist the first class of monks.

Some specific areas Benedict covers are church songs and readings, excommunication and re-entry, working hours and manual labour, personal gifts, community rank, etc.  The importance of humility was highly emphasized:

The Rules of Humility

  1. Keep the fear of God always before your eyes
  2. Love not your own will but the Lord’s
  3. Submit to your superior in obedience
  4. In obedience, submit to unjustice and difficulties with endurance
  5. Do not conceal (from the abbott) any sinful thought or wrongdoing
  6. Be content with low or menial treatment
  7. Admit with not only your tongue, but with your heart, of your inferiority
  8. Do only what is endorsed by common rule in the monatery
  9. Control your tongue and be silent unless asked a question
  10. Be not given to ready laughter
  11. Speak gently, seriously and with modesty
  12. Manifest humility in bearing, as well as in heart

There were a number of interesting revelations in the rule, which I found rather interesting.  Benedict states that the Lord usually reveals what is best to the younger monks, yet still the abbot has the final decision.  This is a fascinating merging of both older and younger wisdom in a hierarchical framework which is designed to work best for all parties.

Totila and St. Benedict (1400-10)
Spinello Aretino
source Wikipedia

While Benedict’s rule is, in many ways, strict, I was actually surprised at the flexibility within it.  There is grace for those who stumble and understanding of human weaknesses, as is evidenced by the description of abbots and their moral duties:

“……. He must hate faults but love the brothers.  When he must punish them, he should use prudence and avoid extremes; otherwise, by rubbing too hard to remove the rust, he may break the vessel.  He is to distrust his own frailty and remember not to crush the bruised reed.  By this we do not mean that he should allow faults to flourish, but rather, as we have already said, he should prune them away with prudence and love as he sees best for each individual. Let him strive to be loved rather than feared.”

Apparently prior to Benedict’s rule, the theological view was that each person was struggling towards God, and spiritual direction had a very personal aspect to it.  Benedict’s rule signified a turning point in perception, eventually making the process more regimented than personal.  The Rule has further reaching implications as well, being the forerunner to the rule of law and written constitutions, assisting in the shaping of medieval ideas.

Benedict’s abbey at Monte Cassino was severely damaged by Allied bombing during World War II, having to be rebuilt afterwards.  A bit of trivia:  author Walter J. Miller was part of the bombing raids on Monte Cassino and was severely affected by them.  His dystopian book A Canticle for Leibowitz has echoes of both the monastery and his struggles to come to terms with his part in its destruction.  It’s a great book, if anyone is looking for a recommendation.

Rebuilt abbey of Monte Cassino
source Wikimedia Commons

The Christmas Child by Hesba Stretton

“Along some parts of the coast in South Wales the mountains rise abruptly from the shore, with only a narrow shingle between them and the sea.”

Miss Priscilla Parry is a farm leaseholder, the last of three generations before the farm will revert to its landlord.  She ekes out a living on the craggy, unfertile land, selling butter, cheese and mutton to manage a poor living.  Her life’s work is epitomized in her determination to make her teenage ward and niece, Rhoda, independent, so she will never be forced to marry, the biggest misfortune, in Priscilla’s eyes, that a woman could face.

When another niece dies and leaves a child, Joan, an orphan, Priscilla grudging agrees to take her in, yet in her concern that the plans for Rhoda not be compromised, she gives the child rather a lukewarm welcome and questionable care.  Little does she need another girl to worry and fret about her future.  Rhoda, however, adores young Joan, and they quickly become fast friends.  When Christmas arrives, they play a game of looking for the Christ child in their manager, but on the second Christmas Rhoda disappears and the household is thrown into mourning.  Old Nathan, the servant, is the only one to comfort Joan, as Priscilla withdraws into a cold demeanour of disappointed hopes.

However, the next Christmas, a child is discovered sleeping in the manager, a child that will bring hope, restoration and joy back into the lives of Priscilla, Joan and old Nathan, echoing the mission of that first manger child long, long ago.

This is a wonderful story of love, mistakes, forgiveness and reconciliation. Coincidentially, I found this article when searching for pictures for my blog post.  Hopefully the life of this little one will bring joy into this world as well.

View north into Cwm Llwch from Corn Du
source Wikipedia

Mein Kampf by Adolf Hilter

“Today I consider it my good fortune that Fate designated Braunau on the Inn as the place of my birth.”

Written in 1925, Hitler crafted his biography while serving time in a German prison for his political crimes during his Putsch, or coup attempt of the Nazi party, in November 1923. Apparently he wanted to title his work Viereinhalb Jahre (des Kampes) gegen Lüge, Dummheit und Feigheit, or Four and a Half Years (of Struggle) Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice.  His publisher wisely got him to shorten the title to Mein Kampf (My Struggle).

Hitler first covers the period of his childhood, and then moves to his years in Vienna, where he initially aspired to be an artist, but after a number of discouragements, began to focus more on the political sphere of the city.  As early as chapter 3, we see that certain aspects of his ideology are already strongly rooted:

Chapter 3

  • No man should take an active part in politics before 30
  • Leaders who change their mind or admit their previously held views to be wrong, give up their leadership qualities and become political “bedbugs” who hang onto their positions only for personal gain, seeing every new movement or every man greater than themselves as a threat.
  • The German-Austrian is the only person who has benefited Austria in various social and political settings — he also disparages Negros in this diatribe
  • Social Democracy contributed to the de-Germanization of the State of Austria
  • the Austrian parliament is undignified because all the political members do not speak German, “a gesticulating mass, speaking in all keys.”
  • Democracy of the West forsters Marxism and is a universal plague
  • Regrets that with the parliamentary system, that no one is held responsible for any decisions

The Alter Hof in Munich (1914)
Adolf Hitler
source Wikipedia

After Chapter 3, I gave up my note taking.  Hitler is, if nothing else, repetitive, and his increasing virulent hatred towards anyone or anything Jewish, was hard to stomach.  It was educational to learn that his anti-Semitism was shared by others at the time, and he was influenced by anti-Semitic organizations.  Much of his book is a thesis against them, with Hitler providing supporting evidence for the Jews being dirty, liars, sneaky, dishonest, culturally bankrupt, dangerous, avaricious, etc.  They were, in effect, social parasites and, in Hitler’s eyes, entirely expendable.  In fact, he felt the superior races duty-bound to rid the world of their inferior presence.

As for political ideologies, Hitler eschewed both Marxism, which he saw as a tool of the Jews, and Socialism.  For him, the democracy of the West was actually the forerunner of Marxism.  Yet Hitler invented his own style of Democracy.  The “true German democracy” consists of one leader who “take(s) over fully all responsibility for what he does or does not do.  There will be no voting by a majority on single questions, but only the decision of the individual who backs it with his life and all he has.”  Rather scary, don’t you think?  One perfect individual, perhaps? Who would judge this individual?  Who would hold him accountable?  A recipe for disaster, I’d say.

Learning from other statesmen, whom he admired, Hitler strove to give Germany an ideology that the common people would ascribe to and be willing to defend to the death.  Hitler himself said, Every attempt at fighting a view of life by means of force will finally fail, unless the fight against it represents the form of an attack for the sake of a new spiritual direction.  Only in the struggle of two views of life with each other can the weapon of brute force, used continuously and ruthlessly, bring about the decision in favor of the side it supports.”

Hitler as a soldier during WWI
source Wikipedia

Of Hitler’s participation in World War I, my book’s notes have the following to say:  “Concerning his military record, the following facts are known; that he served as a messenger between regimental headquarters and the the front; that he was a good soldier who refused to the very end to join in criticism of the way things were being run; that his temperament made his commanding officer doubt the wisdom of promoting him to any sort of non-commissioned rank above that of corporal; and that he occupies a modest but honorable place in the history of the Regiment List, to which he belonged.  The particular exploit for which he received the Iron Cross is shrouded in secrecy, but most biogrpahers agree that there was no reason why it should have been awarded.”

There is a interesting chapter on war propaganda ….. how it has been used effectively and ineffectively and Hitler’s proposed fine-tuning of it.  He felt that during WWI, the German methods were simply too sophisticated and failed to concentrate on appealing to popular emotion.  Hitler believed that the most important tactic was to ascertain what would invoke the support of the masses.

On Nation and Race, Hitler observed that no other animal in nature cross mates; finches mate with finches, foxes with foxes, etc. so therefore why should humans?  Cross mating simply weakens the race.  Once he sorted out the races, he turned to Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” ideology, in that the stronger weed out the weaker (ie. kill them), until the strongest is on top.  It’s quite bizarre logic, because Germany lost WWI and therefore should have been considered the weaker race, but Hitler has a myriad of excuses for their loss.

Munich Marienplatz during the Beer Hall Putsch
source Wikipedia

The book also gives a chilling account of how ordinary people can get caught up in evil.  Of Hitler’s putsch of 1923 (his attempt to seize power in Munich), my book’s notes say, “The Hitler putsch of 1923 made the (Nazi) Party more popular in the city than it had been before.  When the Nazis drove dissenters — or imaginary dissenters —- from their meetings with cudgels, their audiences grew larger.  Few people in Germany were at the bottom anti-Semitic, but the joy large number felt in promises of blood curdling treatment to be meted out to the helpless minority made them responsive to the suggestion.  Smashing windows and street fighting were relied upon to win the crowd.  The propagandists encouraged them all.  ‘We shall reach our goal,’ declared Goebbels, ‘when we have the courage to laugh as we destroy, as we smash, whatever was sacred to us as tradition, as education, as friendship and as human affection.’  In the Vienna of March, 1938, ordinary citizens who had hitherto gone about peacefully, confessed to a strange delight in the sufferings visited upon the Jewish group.”  This description was one of the most chilling parts of the book for me.  I cannot imagine human beings, not only wanting to enact such suffering on others, but enjoying it as well.

I started this read this biography, with great anticipation, hoping to gain some insight into the mind of one of the most villainous characters in modern history. Yet, as I read, I soon realized that it was going to be difficult to understand someone who was mad, if you are not mad yourself.  The narrative became a strange compilation of rather astute and insightful commentary, often hidden and mixed in amongst his mad ravings and bizarre ideas.  Hitler makes mostly nonsense, but with a sprinkling of rather astute sense, the combination making some of his accounts strangely compelling.  It’s rather alarming.  Yet his rambling diatribes and racist invective soon began to become wearing and while I didn’t fall asleep like Ruth, I quickly developed a distaste for much of what he had to say.  As an historical document, it was moderately interesting, but as for my attempt for a personal connection with Hitler, that was a complete fail.  And I must say, that it was a very pleasant fail.  Personally, I was very glad to say goodbye to Adolf Hitler.

With regard to the translation of my edition, it is an annotated and unexpurgated edition sponsored by a number of people including Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Published in 1939, after the First World War, yet just at the beginning of the second one, the perspective it offers with regard to the annotations is indeed a unique one, and very valuable to understanding the mindset of the times.  I cannot see an official translator noted, but it is published by Houghton Mifflin, in case anyone wants to search it out.