L’Argent (Money) by Émile Zola

“The clock on the Bourse had just struck eleven when Saccard walked into Champeaux’s, into the white and gold dining-room, with its two tall windows looking out over the square.”

Aristide Saccard is on the move again. Brought low by ruinous business practices (see La Curée or The Kill), his wife dead, and his estate sold, Saccard winds calculatingly through Paris like a snake looking for an opportunity to strike. At first, he is certain that his brother, the government minister, Eugène Rougon, will come to his assistance, but when he hears that his sibling wishes to remove him from Paris for fear of embarrassment, Saccard makes a precipitative move, declaring he will open a bank that will be the financial success of Paris, a venture in which everyone will be clamouring to be involved.  His passion and sheer energy sweeps people along with him, including Lady Caroline and her brother, Hamelin, honest and respectable souls, who admire Saccard’s genius.  Yet in the world of big money and La Bourse (the French equivalent to Wall Street), allegiances can fluctuate, affiliations change, and behind every corner is the face of your own demise.

Celebration in the Streets of Paris (Montemarte) (1863)
Vasily Perov
source Wikiart

“The Bourse is a real forest, a forest on a dark night, in which people can only grope their way along.  In all that darkness, if you’re foolish enough to take heed of everything, however inept and contradictory, that you’re told, then you’re sure to break your neck.”

Zola paints an excellent representative portrait of Paris’ frantic and unscrupulous financial world of 1863-during the reign of Napoleon II of the Second Empire.  We see how alliances and loyalties are formed only on the basis of financial gain, yet human concern or family loyalties have little value.

“In these covert and cowardly financial battles, in which the weak are quietly disembowelled, there are no more bonds of any sort, no kinship, no friendship, only the atrocious law of the strong, those who eat so as not to be eaten.”

La Bourse (1900)
source Wikimedia Commons

Zola demonstrates through his narrative and his colourful characters, how the lust for money, greed and power are not merely promoted, but in fact, worshiped.

“His wife was never seen, being unwell, said the Marquis, and kept to her apartment by infirmity.  However, the house and furniture were hers, and he merely lodged there in a furnished apartment, owning only his personal effects, in a trunk he could have carried away in a cab; they had been legally separated ever since he started living on speculation.  There had been two catastrophes already, in which he had blankly refused to pay what he owed and the official receiver, having taken stock of the situation, had not even bothered to send him an official document.  The slate was simply wiped clean.  As long as he won, he pocketed the money.  Then, when he lost, he didn’t pay:  everyone knew it and everyone was resigned to it.  He had an illustrious name, he made an excellent ornament for boards of directors; so new companies, looking for golden mastheads, fought over him:  he was never unemployed.”

As Saccard cleverly constructs his colossal financial empire, he is captivated by money but he is captivated by power more.  The thrill of financial battle is as addicting as as drug, and he is high on the power and the ultimate campaigns fought to gain it.  It is a house of cards and each trade, each purchase, each decision, is perhaps the one that will cause its downfall.

“Wealth for him had always taken the form of that dazzle of new coins, raining down through the sunshine like a spring shower and falling like hail on the ground, covering it with heaps of gold that you stirred with a shovel just to see their brightness and hear their music ……… But he had always been a man of imagination, seeing things on too grand a scale, transforming his shady and risky deals into epic poems; and this time, with this really colossal and prosperous enterprise, he had moved into extravagant dreams of conquest, with an idea so mad, so huge, that he did not even formulate it clearly to himself.”

Panorama of Paris, 1865
Charles Soulier
source Wikimedia Commons

Also explored are the feelings on anti-Semitism prevalent during the time.  Jews were often seen as good for loans but with little else to their character or worth to recommend them.  In a world were humanity is held in so little regard, this racism is another head on the monster of greed, power and manipulation.

With his usual descriptive flair and creative technique, Zola allows the reader to skim along the surface of the narrative, to first get your bearings, before he draws you into the story and you are held captive by the machinations of the characters, the vivid depictions of Paris and the power of that elusive yet ever-coveted currency, money.

This book was not Zola’s favourite to write.  “It’s very difficult to write a novel about money.  It’s cold, icy, lacking in interest ……”  Zola said in an interview, but he declined to demonize it, instead choosing to show the effects of its worship in a work that would “praise and exalt it’s generous and fecund power, it’s expansive force.”  His technique certainly worked, as the reader becomes the observer of an inanimate object that effectively controls the lives of an empire.

Other Reviews of the Rougon-Macquart Series (Zola’s recommended order):

Further Reading:

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

“My father had a small Estate in Nottinghamshire; I was the Third of five Sons.”

As Samuel Johnson stated, Gulliver’s Travels is a work “so new and strange, that it filled the reader with a mingled emotion of merriment and amazement.”  One must remember that at the time of Gulliver’s Travels, readers had rarely encountered prose fiction in the form of stories, let along the fantastical stories and adventures of Gulliver.  They didn’t quite know how to respond.

In the last chapter of the this book, its purpose is laid out to the reader, that Swift’s “principal Design was to inform, and not amuse thee.”, a deviation in form, since most medieval writers sought to do both.  The Roman lyric poet, Horace, stated that, “The poet who pleases everyone is the one who blends the useful with the sweet, simultaneously amusing and informing the reader.”  Likewise, Thomas More in his Utopia states that his book is “A Truly Golden Handbook, No Less Beneficial than Entertaining”; Shakespeare seeks also to entertain and instruct, and The Cantebury Tales are described as “tales of best sentence and sola”, expressing the standard medieval definition of literature which both informs and gives pleasure.  So why does Swift no longer want to amuse readers?  Why does he choose to change the medieval model of how literature was represented?  If his readers have not noticed the festering undercurrents of judgement within the story, it’s as if Swift was determined emphasis the seriousness of the work.  As throughout his story, he gives the English people strengths that do not exist, so he also gives the reader amusement, where amusement does not exist.   No wonder people were puzzled by his unique representation.

Born in Dublin  in 1667, Swift spent the early years of his life moving between his hometown and London, attempting to gain a footing both in politics and the Church.  His first position was with Sir William Temple a retired English diplomat who was writing his memoirs.  Swift formed a close relationship with Temple and when he died, Swift hoped to gain a position at Canterbury or Westminister through King William, but the position never materialized.  Amid various other disappointments, Swift continued his travels between Ireland and England, and during these years, he produced A Tale in a Tub and The Battle of the Books, gaining a reputation as a writer.  Gulliver’s Travels was published later in his career, in 1726.

Mural depicting Gulliver surrounded by
the citizens of Lilliput
source Wikipedia

Episodic in nature, Gulliver’s Travels follows Lemuel Gulliver as he visits various unknown civilizations and learns their ways while gently comparing their societies with those of his own.  I say gently because Gulliver makes his musings appear as a gentle examination, but Swift has other ideas. One doesn’t have to look very hard to see that this work is a sweeping condemnation of the human race.

Gulliver first lands in Lilliput where the society is diminutive in stature compared to Gulliver’s enormity.  Initially accepted by the Lilliputians because of his good behaviour, he eventually upsets them by refusing to help them conquer another province and he is forced to escape.

Gulliver exhibited to the Brobdingnag
Farmer – Richard Redgrave
source Wikipedia

His second adventure is nearly an inversion of the first, in that this time Gulliver is small and, landing in Brobdingnag, soon realizes the gigantic features of its inhabitants.  While being poorly treated by his first family, Gulliver eventually comes to the Queen who treats him reasonably well and he is able to converse with the King.  The King, however, becomes unhappy with his description of the state of Europe, in particular their use of guns and cannons.

Gulliver discovers Laputa,
the flying island
J.J. Granville
source Wikipedia

The next adventure includes the flying island of Laputa, which is a rather bizarre place.  The inhabitants are devotees of the arts of mathematics and music only, but not only fail to employ them for any benefit to society, they also, through self-deception, are blindly unable to recognize their failures.

The land of the Houyhnhnms is Gulliver’s fourth and final stop, a land of wise and noble horses, but he also encounters a race called Yahoos, a race very much like himself yet more filthy, vulgar, bestial and stupid.  Although they at first recognize him as a Yahoo, the Houyhnhnms finally take to Gulliver, impressed with his cleanliness and ability to reason.  Yet in spite of the relational ties he makes in this land and his desire to remain among these highly civilized beasts, the horses foresee a danger in Gulliver’s presence and send him off in a boat.  When he arrive home, our protagonist is a changed man.  Disgusted with the “Yahoos” of his country, he is barely able to live in their company, finally choosing a rather secluded life.

Gulliver taking final leave of
the Houyhnhnms (1769)
Sawrey Gilpin
source Wikipedia

Through Gulliver’s interaction with the Liliputans and the Brobdingnagans, Swift satirizes British politics.  The Liliputans are only concerned with petty and trivial problems, and in their self-aggrandization can only see themselves as governors of the whole world.  Yet while Liliput represents a small view of man, Brobdingnag represents a large one.  As in Liliput, Swift explores the contrasts between liberty and law, but now the situation is reversed as Gulliver is in miniature in a land of giants.  The island of Laputa is built upon philosophy and it’s inhabitants are seen as Swift’s critque of scientism, or that the only way to true knowledge is through scientific disciplines.  Only what can be seen and measured is taken into account, but, of course, this leaves no room to examine the soul.  The land of the Houyhnhnms is perhaps the most fascinating part of the voyages.  In this land the beasts are the civilized society and the Yahoos, who are human, are savages.  The Houyhnhnms live by reason and that reason, working within nature, give rise to their idyllic existence.  Gulliver believes that if he lives long enough with his friends, this virtue will rub off on him, but in fact the horses see his reason as imperfect and therefore he is more dangerous than a Yahoo who has no reason at all.  In reality, Gulliver is half-way between both species, halfway between pure passion and pure reason.

Apparently both Sir Walter Scott and William Thackeray were shocked and repulsed by Gulliver’s fourth voyage, yet there is still argument as to whether Swift’s work was a satire in the form of Horace, where he is only lightly satirizing Gulliver’s idealism, or the heavier satire of Juvenal, whereupon his writing is a vitriolic, sarcastic diatribe condemning the human race.  I’ll leave it to the reader to decide.  Yet perhaps Swift himself can shed light on his intentions:

“I have ever hated all Nations professions and Communityes and all my love is towards individualls for instance I hate the tribe of Lawyers, but I love Councellor such a one, and Judge such a one for so with Physicians (I will not speak of my own trade) Soldiers, English, Scotch, French; and the rest but principally I hate and detest that animal called man, although I hartily love John, Peter, Thomas and so forth.  This is the system upon which I have governed myself for many years (but do not tell) and so I shall go on until I have done with them I have got materials toward a treatise, proving the falsity of that definition animal rationale [rational animal], and to show it would be only rationis capax [capable of reason].  Upon this great foundation of Misanthropy (though not in Timon’s manner) The whole building of my Travells is erected.  And I will never have peace of mind until all honest men are of my Opinion.”

While I thought Swift’s satire brilliant, and his characterizations mostly just, I felt that he focused only on the negative aspects of human nature.  If Swift really saw the world only through a lense of disappointment, treachery, selfishness, and deceit, yet missed the integrity, loyalty, virtues and goodwill of the flip-side of human nature, that is truly a tragedy.

Read for my Classics Club Spin #8, Fariba from Exploring Classics joined me in reading this one.  Here is her most excellent review.  Thanks for the company, Fariba!

(And further reflections by Fariba on Gulliver’s Travels)

Montaigne’s Essays – Part Two

Oh, Montaigne!  The more of his essays that I read, the more I like him.  He’s inquisitive, does not let anything get in the way of giving his opinion on absolutely any subject, has a clever but disordered mind, and because of the last point, really makes you engage your brain as you read.  I would have loved to meet him in real life, but, I get the impression that we’d probably have occasionally annoyed each other.  

Some of the readings for this section were:

On The Vanity of Words:  After reading Montaigne’s essay On Education, I suppose this attack on rhetoricians can’t come as much of a surprise.  To be eloquent is to foster a type of deception, and Montaigne is scathing in his condemnation of it.

Cicero & the magistrates disovering the
tomb of Archimedes
Benjamin West
source Wikiart

On the Inconsistancy of Our Actions:  This one is very interesting. Montaigne laments the inconsistency of men, stating that instead of following a path to wisdom throughout their lives, they are ruled solely by their appetites, living for the here-and-now and are merely motivated by opportunity, very much like animals. They blow with the winds.  He gives various examples on inconstancy, leading us to believe that consistency as Montaigne defines it, is virtually impossible.  One must plan one’s life to the utmost and follow the course, not being swayed by emotions or outside forces to be consistent and, as Cicero says, “For nothing can be consistent that has not reason for its foundation.”  Therefore, in Montaigne’s eyes, everyone is lacking true reason.  This is one of the few essays that I’ve read so far where Montaigne actually managed to keep on track with his subject.  Bravo!  This is certainly one of my favourites.

On Conscience:  Even if one finds pleasure in their vices, their conscience will always convict them, says Montaigne.  With one of his usual unexpected leaps of thought, he discusses the futility of torture, labelling it a means of testing endurance rather than a means to ferret out truth.  He uses some fun examples in this one, my favourite being Scipio tearing up his account books before the court when accused of dishonesty with regard to the money entrusted to him.  According to Montaigne, his actions declared him an honest man because his big heart could not bear to be accused of such a vulgar crime. Perhaps one should be grateful that Montaigne did not choose to be a judge as his profession.

Portrait d’un homme portant un exemplaire des
Essais de Montaigne
Johann Anton de Peters
source Wikiart

On Rewards for Honour:  Basically I understood that Montaigne feels that rewards should not be given out too liberally or their value is decreased. He’d rather not give out rewards at all, than have too many people get them.  Not a very modern viewpoint, Montaigne, when we presently strive to give everyone a reward for anything.  I tend to side here with Montaigne.

On Books:  Montaigne employs a coyness in this essay, stating that he reads books for pleasure only and has little desire to truly exercise his brain.  His goals in reading are to learn to know himself, and to learn to live and die well. His self-deprecation is quite startling as he confesses to having little knowledge and once again admits to having a poor memory.  Elaborating on his poor memory, he ends by giving a number of examples of literary criticism (not his title for it) that he has written at the ends of books, so if he picks them up again, he is able to ascertain why he liked them or not, and if he would read them again.

On Presumption:  It is not good to think too highly of ourselves, nor is it beneficial to think of ourselves worse than we are.  Montaigne advocates for balance and a practical self-knowledge.  Yet Man has such a variety of differing opinions, there is a “maze of obscurity” which makes the school of Wisdom uncertain, and this gets on Montaigne’s nerves.  He then meanders through a lovely forest of subjects, from self-deprecating statements to mediocre poetry to appearances of famous men, etc., finally ending with his disdain for modern education, in that it teaches learning instead of wisdom and goodness.

” It seems to me that the nursing mother of the most erroneous ideas, both of men in general and of the individual, is the exaggerated opinion man has of himself.”


On Giving the Lie:  Montaigne indulges in more modesty (false-modesty?) and finally gets to the title of the essay, lamenting that lying has been turned into a virtue by modern society.  He strongly condemns it:

“Lying is an ugly vice, which is painted in its most shameful colours by an ancient writer (Lysander) when he says that ‘to lie is evidence that we despise God and at the same time fear men.'”

To be honest, I feel that Montaigne could have benefited highly from the type of education that he despised, however, then he wouldn’t have been Montaigne and only another highly intellectual rhetorician with the same habits as all other rhetoricians.  And our Montaigne is unique, that is certain!  Not always simple to follow, but unique!


Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow by Jerome K. Jerome

“It is a most remarkable thing.  I sat down with the full intention of writing something clever and original; but for the life of me I can’t think of anything clever and original — at least — not at this moment.”

Jerome K. Jerome is an author best known for his comic travelogue, Three Men in a Boat, which I highly recommend as it is totally hilarious. Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow is a collection of essays; written with Jerome’s signature witty reparteé and lively humour, the essays are titled:

  1. On Being Hard Up
  2. On Being in the Blue
  3. On Vanity and Vanities
  4. On Getting On in the World
  5. On Being Idle
  6. On Being In Love
  7. On the Weather
  8. On Cats and Dogs
  9. On Being Shy
  10. On Babies
  11. On Eating and Drinking
  12. On Furnished Apartments
  13. On Dress and Deportment
  14. On Memory

Yet while Jerome’s anecdotes are amusing and give the reader a good chuckle, he also imparts wisdom to his writing.  In On Vanity and Being Vain, he, at first, pokes fun at the vanity of all men, but concludes that we all must be vain in the right manner.

“Let us be vain, not of our trousers and hair, but of brave hearts and working hands, of truth , of purity, of nobility.  Let us be too vain to stoop to aught that is mean or base, too vain for petty selfishness and little-minded envy, too vain to say an unkind world or do an unkind act.  Let us be vain of being single-hearted, upright gentlemen in the midst of a world of knaves.  Let us pride ourselves upon thinking high thoughts, achieving great deeds, living good lives.”

First Edition, 1886

Jerome also uses wonderfully descriptive sentences, that weave a vibrant and idyllic world around the reader:

“And oh, how dainty is spring —- Nature at sweet eighteen!  When the little, hopeful leaves peep out so fresh and green, so pure and bright, like young lives pushing shyly out into the bustling world; when the fruittree blossoms, pink and white, like village maidens in the Sunday frocks, hide each whitewashed cottage in a cloud of fragile splendor; and the cuckoo’s note upon the breeze is wafted through the woods!  And summer, with its deep, dark green, and drowsy hum — when the rain-drops whisper solemn secrets to the listening leaves, and the twilight lingers in the lanes! ….”

And, of course, one can’t say enough of his humour:

“But that’s just the way.  I never do get particularly fond of anything in this world, but what something dreadful happens to it.  I had a tame rat when I was a boy, and I loved that animal as only a boy would love an old water rat; and, one day, it fell into a large dish of gooseberry-fool that was standing to cool in the kitchen, and nobody knew what become of the poor creature until the second helping.”

If you want a book to make you feel good, read a book by Jerome K. Jerome. His writing is refreshing, light, profound, humorous, beautiful, timeless and educational, all at the same time.  And you won’t stop laughing!

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

“Well, Piotr, not insight yet?” was the question asked on May the 20th, 1859, by a gentleman of a little over forty, in a dusty coat and checked trousers, who came out without his hat on to the low steps of the posting station at S—–.”

What sort of relationship do you have with your father?  Is it one of respect, deference, and honour, or do you think his ways too traditional, his thought process too archaic, and to keep a tentative understanding between you, do you have to employ a somewhat forced amiability, while underneath feeling an impatient scorn?

In Fathers and Sons, Turgenev examines the ideas of the new and old, progress and stagnation, and generational differences.  Yet while Turgenev portrays these conflicts within families and people, the themes echos the struggles that were occurring in Russia itself, between the common liberals and a nihilism movement that was growing and expanding at an alarming rate. Immediately the reader is tossed into the battle and while you expect to be buffeted to-and-fro between the two forces, one is surprised to find a more gently tossing, a disturbing reminder of how subtly, yet how pervasively this new philosophy could spread into the ideas and actions of the people.

Arkady Nikolaitch returns home from university with his good friend, Bazarov, a self-confessed nihilist, who issues a dripping contempt for most people around him.  Arkady maintains a good relationship with his father Nikolai Petrovitch and his uncle Pavel Petrovitch, yet through Bazarov’s influence he begins to question what he values about their antiquated thought and primitive ways.

With Bazarov’s nihilistic charm and new trendy ideas, his challenging of the status quo makes him a hero of the younger generation, while the older regard him either as dangerous, or rather like an unusual specimen that they can’t quite figure out.  Yet, in spite of renouncing life and its perceived useless order, we find that Bazarov is unable to escape it.  While visiting the house of a widowed woman, Anna Sergyevna Odintsov, he becomes enamoured of her, his emotion overriding his philosophy and eroding some of its immutable strength.

Ivan Turgenev hunting (1879)
Nikolai Dmitriev-Orenburgsky
source Wikipedia

Turgenev does a masterful job of having nature interplay with the characters, their ideas and emotional struggles.  For example, Bazarov is blind to the beauty around him  He merely uses nature, as he engages in his hobby of dissecting frogs,  pulling Nature itself apart to examine its inner workings.  He can only appreciate the slaughtered bits, but is unable to interact with the whole, Nature as life and beauty.

I don’t believe that Bazarov’s nihilism was a true nihilism.  He obviously wanted to reject the status quo and, in fact, had a quarrel with it, which is apparent in his simmering anger when he speaks about it.  He doesn’t just want to contradict it, he longs to disparage it.  His philosophy is a quasi-nihilism that supports his self-importance and that he uses more as a crutch. He is passionate about it but appears to use it merely as a play for power.  He has developed a philosophy, which is truly an anti-philosophy that prevents him from interacting with life itself.

While with Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky you often feel buffeted by the high emotion or deep philosophy, Turgenev’s approach is more gentle, lulling his ideas into the reader’s head with his pastoral description, and lyric pace.  Yet for being gentle, it is no less powerful.  Turgenev has conducted a true masterpiece!

Translated by Constance Garnett


“In these days the most useful thing we can do is to repudiate – and so we repudiate …”

(Note:  Nikolai Chernyshevsky wrote a response to Fathers and Sons with his What is To Be Done? and Dostoyevsky wrote a response to What Is To Be Done?in his Notes From the Underground.  Further explanation of this triple conversation is contained in the reviews below.)



Trilogy:

Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis

“The last drops of the thundershower had hardly ceased falling when the Pedestrian stuffed his map into his pocket, settled his pack more comfortably on his tired shoulders, and stepped out from the shelter of a large chestnut tree into the middle of the road.”

During a hike in the English hills, Elwin Ransom stumbles across a boyhood acquaintance, Devine, and his friend Weston, a scientist.  Secretly these two men drug Ransom and take him in a spaceship to the planet, Malacandra, known in earth language as Mars.  When he revives, Ransom overhears that he is to be offered as a human sacrifice for an alien race called the Sorns, and he plans his escape.  Finding himself alone on this strange planet, he eventually encounters creatures called the Hrossa.  Initially very simple and traditional in their ways, Ransom begins to realize that they have an intelligence that may surpass earthly intelligence.  Quickly he learns their language and begins to value their ways, yet all too soon he is sent on a mission to the Oyarsa, the ruling being of Malacandra.  His adventures not only throw him once again into conflict with Devine and Weston, where blind scientific ardour and unconscionable greed clash with humanity’s better nature, but Ransom is finally able to discover why Earth is considered the “silent planet”.

Malacandra is presented as a rather simple society, with the Hross being like shepherds and poets, and the Sorns the intellectuals, imparting wisdom to the community.  Yet, in spite of the obvious higher intellect of the inhabitants, Devine and Weston perceive them as being primitive and unintelligent because they do not have the scientific advances of Earth.  Weston, in particular, grasps onto his pre-conceptions like a drowning man, refusing to believe that such primitive appearance could ever understand or grapple with his vision of a new type of man.  His ingrained perceptions, that have been formed by science, make him blind to the beauty and intricacies of Malacandrian culture, and even worse, his grandiose plans for the needs of man, allows him to view the Malacandrians as sub-human and therefore, expendable.

source Wikipedia

Lewis wrote Out of the Silent Planet as a deliberate critique of Evolutionism, in particular in response to two written works, one by Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men, and an essay by J.B. Haldane, published in a volume titled Possible Worlds.  Both saw men evolving into a divinity that could jump from planet to planet, a being stripped down to pure intelligence.  Lewis felt that each, while on one hand portrayed man as a fascinating and beautiful creature, nevertheless showed man’s littleness.  To him these views held a potential danger, opening the door to options of experiments on humans and animals. (Interestingly, Lewis was a firm anti-vivisectionist and he would never set traps for the mice who inhabited his rooms at Oxford.)  He stated that the trilogy was less a tribute to earlier science fiction than a kind of exorcism of some of its ideas.  At its heart, the trilogy is anti-Wellsian and to its conception, Lewis credited a one-of-a-kind novel, David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus.  To his friend, Ruth Pitter, he wrote:  “From Lindsay I learned what other planets in fiction are really good for: for spiritual adventures.  Only they can satisfy the craving which sends our imaginations off the earth.  Or putting it in another way, in him I first saw the terrific results produced by the union of two kinds of fiction hitherto kept apart: the Novalis, G. MacDonald, James Stephens sort and the H.G. Wells, Jules Verne sort.  My debt to him is very great.”  Lewis was trying something new!

A wonderful start to The Space Trilogy.  When I first read the trilogy, this book was my favourite, probably because it was the least complex.  Even so, Lewis weaves in views of how medievals saw the universe and angels, as well as sprinkling elements of classicism throughout.  The next book is Perelandra. Hang on to your seats because “you ain’t seen nothing yet”!

“The weakest of my people does not fear death.  It is the Bent One, the lord of your world, who wastes your lives and befouls them with flying from what you know will overtake you in the end.  If you were subjects of Maledil you would have peace”

Montaigne’s Essays – Part One

Oh, Montaigne!  What a character!  I’m reading a series of recommended essays, and my plan is to split them into three posts.  So far my introduction to Montaigne has been pleasurable, but taxing to the brain.  His language and progression of ideas, examples and testimonies are not for the faint of heart.  In hindsight, it was wise to take him in measured doses.


On Sadness:  I felt that Montaigne was saying that the deepest sorrows often could not be expressed with outward emotions.  But then he ended by saying that he is little bothered by such violent passions;  I then wonder what gives him the authority to speak on sorrow if he knows nothing of it.  Hmmmm ……..

Our Fortune Must Not Be Judged Until After Death:  Well, this was not an uplifting little essay.  Montaigne believes, drawing from the tale of Croseus and Solon in the stories of Herodotus, that a man cannot be judged as fortunate until his death, because various calamities and suffering can plague him until the end.  Your final day tells all.  Nice.  Fortunately he appears to have amended his views on this subject later in life.

The Death of Socrates
Jacques-Louis David
source Wikipedia

To Think As A Philosopher Is To Learn To Die: Yikes!  Another death essay.  Montaigne emphasizes the need to learn to lose the fear of death.  Death is inescapable and it is a piteous error to try to avoid it by any means, as the hour is determined for everyone.  He tosses in Socrates rather wise and pithy remark:  to the man who said “The thirty tyrants have sentence you to death,” Socrates replied, “And Nature to them.”

Of The Powers of Imagination:  I’m somewhat perplexed as to where to begin with this one.  This essay is supposed to (I believe) explore the relationship of imagination to the mind and body, but Montaigne rather vividly gets into a discussion of the “male member” and “passing wind”.  I was laughing so hard I was crying at the end of the “passing wind” section.  I don’t think hilarity was intended by the author.  😉  Apparently though, people in Montaigne’s time wouldn’t have blinked an eye at these references, showing that they were much more mature and less sensitive than modern people. And since I was very surprised by his frankness given the era, it also demonstrates that our preconceived ideas can be less than accurate.

On Educating Children:  I have an interest in education, so this essay was perhaps the most interesting for me, if not the most amusing (see above).  Montaigne felt that an instructor of good moral character and sound understanding was much more valuable than one with founts of knowledge.  He emphasized the value of knowledge for its own sake, and was repelled by the thought that learning should be used to earn profit. The ancient Greeks would understand his dismay; only slaves were schooled to work, not free men.  Montaigne proceeds to say that he does not wish for an educational system that makes children parrot back what they have learned but rather that they are taught to make ideas their own.  He then expands his argument to suggest tossing out the classical education model in place of simply teaching children to philosophize.  He seems to forget that the classical model contains the building blocks that give the student the tools to be able to discuss topics philosophically, not to mention that young minds have to mature to be able to understand the abstract concepts which are required in philosophy.  He supports, as well, exercise and entertainment, but suggests training peculiarities and eccentricities out of people, as they are “a foe to intercourse and companionship of others”. Well, okay …….  I do understand Montaigne’s main point though.  He is advocating for the teaching of a virtuous character over that of intellectual learning.  In fact, this should be the goal of every teacher, however I believe that there should be a balance between the two, whereas Montaigne seems to want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The Return of the Prodigal Son
Bartolome Esteban Murillo
source Wikiart

On the Affection of Fathers for Their Children:  In this case, Montaigne means male children but he does share some good advice. A man should not marry too early and responsible thought should be given to the purpose of having children, realizing that they will owe you much more than they can ever pay back.  Instead of forcing the son to be dependent on him when he comes of age, the father should share his wealth and guide him in the use of it, teaching the son to run the estate.  Now Montaigne claims if this is not done, the sons have no other recourse than to become thieves, a habit that will be nearly impossible to break.  I’m not sure I follow his rationale in this case, and cannot agree with it as an excuse, but hey, it’s Montaigne, right?  It just doesn’t feel normal if he doesn’t hit you with some sort of idiosyncratic reasoning.

In spite of some peculiarities, Montaigne has a charm that cannot be denied.  Perhaps Madame de Sévigné characterizes best what his readers experience:  “I have found entertainment in a volume of Montaigne that I did not think I had brought with me.  Ah, the charming man!  What good company he is!  He is an old friend of mine, but by dint of being old, he is new to me. …….. Mon Dieu!  how full this book is of good sense!”

Mount TBR Checkpoint # 3

Well, by gum, what happened to checkpoint #1?  I have no idea!  This is perhaps a clue that I have too many challenges to keep track of ….. ????

My original goal was Mount Blanc at 24 books, but I have already passed by that peak, and at 42 books it’s good-bye Mount Vancouver, I’m on my way to Mount Ararat (48 books)! I will definitely be able to make it but Mt. Kilamanjaro after that (60 books), is unlikely.  This will be my best TBR challenge to-date.

Bev @ My Reader’s Block would like us to answer some questions, so here goes:

1.  Who has been your favourite character so far?  And tell us why?

Ah, the impossible question!  Or at least impossible to pin-point just one character.  I was intrigued by Eugène Rougon in Son Excellence, Eugène Rougon, for his patience and subtle machinations during France’s Second Empire; I marvelled at Cicero’s lively rhetoric; Oedipus’ mastery of situations, even as a blind man, was stunning, and the loyalty and good sense of Antigone, his daughter,  elicited admiration.   Who could not join Odysseus in his ten-year struggle to reach his son and wife on Ithaka, and be impressed by Margery Kempe who had the courage (or the blind stubborness) to be different in a world that would often ostracize her for it?  While Satan was not a character I would say I enjoyed, per se, his characterization by Milton was one of the best I’ve ever experienced in prose or verse.  But if I would have to pick a favourite, I would choose the Reverend Septimus Harding for his solid, respectable, responsible character, a man who would not compromise his principles for any money or any influence, be it by his collegues or family.  A truly admirable man.

2.  Which book (read so far) has been on your TBR mountain the longest? Was it worth the wait? Or is it possible you should have tackled it back when you first put it on the pile? Or tossed it off the edge without reading it all?

Ah, definitely War and Peace and it was definitely worth the wait.  Now was the perfect time to read it, as I’ve finally been conditioned to view chunksters as simply another book and not as an unscalable mountain.  More importantly, I’d read a couple of other works by Tolstoy and had become used to his style of writing.  This book will definitely be a re-read.

The second book sitting the longest was Paradise Lost.  After I’d finished it my first thought was, “why did I wait so long to read this?!”

3.  Choose 1-4 titles from your stacks and using a word from the title, do an image search. 

 

FATHERS AND SONS

courtesy of Nokes
Creative Commons

THE SILVER CHAIR

courtesy of Seth Anderson
Creative Commons

THE ODYSSEY

It’s encouraging to have to post updates on challenges that are going well. Now I’m off to read Le Morte d’Arthur for my Arthurian Challenge that is not going well.  Wish me luck!


The Epic of Gilgamesh

“The one who saw the abyss I will make the land know;
of him who knew all, let me tell the whole story
 ………… in the same way …….
[as] the lord of wisdom, he who knew everything, Gilgamesh,
who saw things secret, opened the place hidden,
and carried back word of the time before the Flood —
he travelled the road, exhausted, in pain,
and cut his works into a stone tablet.”

Gilgamesh, king of Uruk.  Two-thirds god and one-third man, he built the walls of Uruk, the palace Eanna, and is powerful and commanding.  There is no king like him anywhere.  Yet in spite of having many of the qualities that could make him an honoured king, Gilgamesh oppresses his people and they cry out for relief.  The gods create a wild man, Enkidu is his name. They fight and become fast friends, relieving the people of Gilgamesh’s despotism. Many adventures they have together, and many discoveries they make. Together they behead Humbaba who lives in the cedar forest and they also manage to kill The Bull of Heaven.  Yet one of them must pay for this transgression and Enkidu falls ill, dying even as he laments.  A heart-torn Gilgamesh, determined to find Utnapishtim and find the secret of everlasting life, travels through a number of trials to his journey’s end.  “Surely, Gilgamesh,” Utnapishtim tells him, “you can stay awake for just a week, if you are expecting to have eternal life.”  But Gilgamesh fails the test.  In spite of his near godly status, our hero cannot escape the mortality common to all men.

“My friend Enkidu, whom I loved so dear, who with me went through every danger, the goom of mortals overtook him. 

Six days I wept for him and seven nights: I did not surrender his body for burial until a maggot dropped from his nostril.  Then I was afraid that I, too, would die.  I grew fearful of death, so I wandered the wild. 

…. How can I keep silent?  How can I stay quiet?  My friend, whom I loved, has turned to clay.  My friend Enkidu, whom I loved, has turned to clay.  Shall I not be like him and also lie down, never to rise again, through all eternity?”

Gilgamesh
from the Chaldean
account of Genesis
source Wikipedia

I found many paradoxes in this poem: Gilgamesh is a strong leader, yet he also abuses his power; Gilgamesh is two-thirds god, yet he is also doomed to die; Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight in order to bring peace to Uruk; women are portrayed as vehicles for pleasure, yet are also shown as being wise and having foresight; Enkidu is initially a wild-man, yet he is the one who “tames” Gilgamesh; and in spite of often not sleeping throughout most of the poem, Gilgamesh sleeps at the end, which prevents him from attaining immortality.

Yet in spite of the contradictions, the poet is clear that strength over reason is valueless. Gilgamesh learns that it is trust and integrity in the end that bring acclaim: valuing a friend’s life over his own, discovering the wisdom of accepting death as a part of life, and that being a true leader is about good character and responsibility to his subjects, rather than exercising tyranny, oppression and conquest over them.

And in spite of its ancient roots, the poem still resonates with us today.  Here is a video of Captain Picard from Star Trek the Next Generation giving a short summary of Gilgamesh, in the episode “Darmok” (my favourite episode, BTW!) 🙂

About the translation:  The Sîn-Leqi Unninni Gilgamesh story, found in the library of Ashurbanipal, is the most recent Akkadian version (circa 1200 BC), and is considered the “standard” version.  The editors used it as their fragment of choice and because it contained a number of books that had only a few recoverable words, they had to resort to notes and the Old Babylonian version, in order for the reader to get the gist of the story.  For my first read, in hindsight, I may have chosen a more fluid version, but this version was certainly adequate and scholarly enough that you got the full context of the poem.

Translated from the Sîn-Leqi Unninni version by John Gardiner and John Maier

Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis

“I was born in the winter of 1898 at Belfast, the son of a solicitor and of a clergyman’s daughter.”

And so begins the autobiography of one of the most prolific writer’s of his time, C.S. Lewis.  While Lewis gives an engaging description of his life as a boy, first in Ireland, and then later in England, his main goal is to give the reader little windows into the experience that he called “Joy”, which one can equate with the German word, “Sehensucht” translated into English as an “intense longing”.  During his childhood, Lewis experienced brief yet keen feelings of this profound yearning.  If one tried to manufacture this emotion or hold onto it, it would simply remain illusive or slip away; it came of its own volition, which indicated to Lewis that this desire pointed to something beyond himself.

In the Garden (1885)
William Merritt Chase
source Wikiart

Lewis’ first glimpse of “Joy” was when his brother Warnie showed him a garden that he had built of moss and twigs on top of a biscuit tin. Lewis said, “As long as I live my imagination of Paradise will retain something of my brother’s toy garden.” Other experiences of joy appeared as he grew and Lewis felt that because our own natural world could not supply what our souls longed for, there must be something supernatural that could fulfill this Sehensucht.  Eventually Joy brought him face-to-face with God.

Magdalen College Oxford
source Wikipedia

What was especially refreshing about this biography was that Lewis didn’t treat his conversion as coming out of the darkness into the light, so much as presenting it as a recovery of the delights of childhood that he felt were pointing him in the direction of Christ.  In many ways, this is an Augustinian-type experience, yet while Augustine was definitely searching for a meaning to life, the “meaning” seemed to be pursuing Lewis, and he describes his conversion in startling terms, “You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet.  That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me.  In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”  But he then goes on to say, “I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing: the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms …….  The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.”

Before I wrap up this review and somewhat off topic, Lewis made a curious reference to automobiles in this biography, which I found very insightful and profound.

“I number it among my blessings that my father had no car, while yet most of my friends had, and sometimes took me for a drive. This meant that all these distant objects could be visited just enough to clothe them with memories and not impossible desires, while yet they remained ordinarily as inaccessible as the Moon.  The deadly power of rushing about wherever I pleased had not been given me.  I measured distances by the standard of man, man walking on his two feet, not by the standard of the internal combustion engine.  I had not been allowed to deflower the very idea of distance; in return I possessed ‘infinite riches’ in what would have been to motorists ‘a little room’.  The truest and most horrible claim made for modern transport is that it ‘annihilates space.’  It does.  It annihilates one of the most glorious gifts we have been given.  It is a vile inflation which lowers the value of distance, so that a modern boy travels a hundred miles with less sense of liberation and pilgrimage and adventure than his grandfather got from traveling ten.  Of course if a man hates space and wants it to be annihilated, that is another matter.  Why not creep into his coffin at once?  There is little enough space there.”

A very biting commentary but for me it rang with truth and made me wonder how much “Joy” has been robbed by modern conveniences.  Hmmm …….

In any case, this was a wonderful, uplifting biography that I fortunately get to read again for my WEM Project at some point in the future!