Sunday, September 11, 2016

Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor by Willard Sterne Randall

Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor by Willard Sterne Randall is a comprehensive and rich biography. This is a book that goes beyond a simple life story and delves into multiple aspects of the time and place in which Arnold lived. It digs into the social, religious, philosophical, political and military issues that relate to the American Revolution. 

Born in 1741 Connecticut, Arnold was raised in a middle class family that began to run into financial difficulties as he moved through adolescence. As a young man, Arnold engaged in his own commercial endeavors and built a successful shipping business. He became active in the Patriot cause as the American Revolution loomed. At the outbreak of war, Arnold distinguished himself on the Northern Front. Rising to the rank of General, he proved himself in battles that raged from Quebec, Canada down through Northern New York State.  He gained a reputation for brilliant generalship as well as courage under fire. He was primarily responsible for the American victory at Saratoga, which is considered the turning point of the war. It was in this battle that he was seriously wounded for the second time. 

Throughout his career as a Patriot general, Arnold was hounded by political opponents. Like many American officers at the time, Arnold was involved in constant political strife. A streak of vanity and combativeness in his personality precipitated and inflamed these conflicts.  Stemming from these political machinations, Arnold’s enemies in the army and Congress initiated a never-ending series of investigations and prosecutions against him. These attacks were often, but not always, unfounded.   They generally centered around financial improprieties and often related to personal vendettas. Throughout this time, he was not paid his salary, which added to his financial difficulties.

In 1779, he married Peggy Shippen. His new wife came from a Loyalist family. During his courtship, Arnold was military governor of Philadelphia. Likely as a result of his relationship with Peggy, Arnold both socialized with and protected Loyalist families, which further antagonized his enemies. It also moved him closer to Loyalist circles and their cause.

As attacks on him intensified, through Peggy’s influence and connections, he eventually established contacts with the British and initiated negations to betray the American side. Plans were hatched in which Arnold was to surrender major American fortifications as well as betray Washington and allow the British to capture the American leader.  Had the plan worked, it might have cost the Americans the war. 

When Washington discovered the plot, Arnold managed to barley escape to the safety of British lines.  Made a General and given a command by the British, he successfully led British forces on several occasions. Arnold finished the war in their service. 

After the war Arnold and Peggy lived in both Canada and England. Arnold rebuilt his shipping Empire and continued to live an active life. He engaged in warfare as a private citizen in the Caribbean during the early Napoleonic Wars. He constantly battled those who sought to besmirch his reputation. He died in 1801.

As I alluded to above, this is a big biography that extends out in all sorts of directions. I should note that among the many other subjects covered, Randall devotes quite a few pages to military history. Battles that Arnold was involved in are described in detail, as is the inner working of the command structure that he was a part of.  Some readers might find this not to their tastes. I found it unusual that this was included in a book that also contains so much in the way of social and other types of history. Personally, I enjoyed it all. 

Randall does highlight Arnold’s flaws, including his early participation in the intimidation of loyalists, his committing of some corrupt acts, his vanity and his combativeness. With that, this work is generally sympathetic to its subject. The author paints a picture of a heroic but flawed man. It illustrates how Arnold, though combative, was wronged in many ways by his country and pernicious men who should never have been in power. 

As an individual who had done so much for the Revolution, shown physical heroism and given up much of his health and wealth for the cause, the attacks on his character were difficult for Arnold to take to. They were the main motivator for him switching sides. 

Arnold’s decision to go over to the British is an ethical question. It is true that he was unfairly hounded by his enemies. More than just annoyances, these attacks  threatened the financial well-being of his family, his reputation  and the future of his military career. Nevertheless, acting as he did from selfish motives seems unethical. However, what conclusions did Arnold draw about a Revolution that turned on one of its most competent and brave military leaders and elevated capricious people to power? Though we now have the hindsight to know that these attacks only occupy a small footnote in history, a logical conclusion could have been drawn by Arnold that the Revolution was heading into corrupt and chaotic ground. He ultimately thought it better to side with the British at that point.

With the above in mind, I still find it difficult to defend Arnold’s actions. His tendency to immerse himself in personal conflict with his peers, combined with the fact that he could have left military service instead of switching sides, adds to the case against him. In the end, he betrayed his country, his comrades and his friends. 

This is an excellent biography. I have only scratched the surface of its content above. Arnold is such an important figure in American history as well as in American mythology that his life is well worth exploring. Randall covers his subject in great detail, and he does so fairly. He expands the subject to cover many aspects of the times. I highly recommend this to anyone interested in American History or in just a great biography of this fascinating historical figure. 

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Reading is a Link to the Past

Passages from the Iliad quoted below are from the Alexander Pope translation. 

There are many reasons to read. One very good reason is that books allow us to deeply connect with other minds and explore various viewpoints in detail. Furthermore, these connections and explorations can be made with authors who are very different from us. Reading can bridge gaps between politics, culture, gender, philosophes, etc. I want to write a few words about how books can bridge the gap of time.

The Old Testament, The Ramayana, Plato, Homer and the Greek playwrights, to name a few of the ancient works, at times exhibit uncanny similarity to our modern thinking and views. At other times they exhibit thoughts that seem very alien.

A modern reader exploring these ancient texts may notice a dichotomy in his or her thoughts.  First, it is striking as to what has not changed over time and across cultures. For instance, certain human emotions and traits, such as anger, jealousy, ambition, honor, a sense of fairness, friendship, etc., seem to have not changed all that much over time. Likewise, the pattern of certain human actions, particularly violence, seems very similar across the centuries. 

There is no better example of how friendship and grief have remained constant than that which is illustrated in the Iliad when the warrior Achilles grieves and becomes hysterical when he is informed that his friend Patroclus has just fallen in battle, 

“A sudden horror shot thro’ all the Chief,        
And wrapt his senses in the cloud of grief;
Cast on the ground, with furious hand he spread
The scorching ashes o’er his graceful head;
His purple garments, and his golden hairs,
Those he deforms with dust, and these he tears:        
On the hard soil his groaning breast he threw,
And roll’d and grovell’d, as to earth he grew.”

Though the language is ancient, the above sentiment and reaction seem very familiar. It is not unlike the reaction many people living in the twenty-first century have toward death.

Yet, other ideas, ideals and mores seem so different when viewed over the expanse of time. In these ancient works, there seem to be no value in certain things that we so much esteem. The concepts of equality, self-determination and the appreciation of diversity are mostly missing from the early texts. These values are the cornerstone of much that is good in our modern society. 

Love, though present in all eras, also seems to have changed. Once again, the sense of equality and communication, and mutual respect give and take between partners seems to be absent in the ancient books. 

In the very same Iliad, love and marriage between men and women is portrayed as something very close to slavery. For instance, Briseis, captured by the Greeks during the course of the war, seems to show real love for Achilles, who also shows affection for her. Yet, throughout the narrative, Achilles and the other Greeks treat her like a spoil of war and a slave.  These are just a few examples. Delving into classic works leads to many similar observations. 

It is not just the works of antiquity that seem different. Every time period, even that of a few decades past, show variation in ideas and values. The culture that surrounded a particular writer reached through time and touches us when we read particular works today.  For instance, books written in the 1960s, such as Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow or Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, exude cynicism and distrust of institutions and authority that seem unique to their time. Nineteenth century writers, such as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, valued certain virtues such as chastity and reputation in ways that authors in different eras did not. 

Thus, a careful reading of older works can tell us a lot about the times that they were written in. It is enlightening to examine what is different, as well as what is the same, in comparison to our own time and culture. In addition, as one reads more and more, it illuminates how certain values and ideas have developed and changed over time. 

Our traditions and folklore are obvious connections to the past. Archeologists examine the physical manifestations that our ancestors left behind. Historians also often look into writing, but the writing of record keeping, diaries and everyday interactions. It is in literature and philosophy that people of the past speak to us most directly. 

Exploring ideas and values of the past is one of many benefits to reading. One can learn so much about history, culture, psychology, etc. by examining how ideas and beliefs changed, or did not change, over time.  How humans developed and maintained ideas is one of the reasons that reading the great works can help us to better understand the world. This helps us to illuminate not just the past, but our own times as well.  

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions On Individuality

I read the J. M. Cohen translation of this work. The below quotes are taken from that version.

My General commentary on this book is here.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions opens with the following, 

“I have resolved on an enterprise which has no precedent, and which, once complete, will have no imitator. My purpose is to display to my kind a portrait in every way true to nature, and the man I shall portray will be myself.   

Simply myself. I know my own heart and understand my fellow man. But I am made unlike any one I have ever met; I will even venture to say that I am like no one in the whole world. I may be no better, but at least I am different. Whether Nature did well or ill in breaking the mould in which she formed me, is a question which can only  be resolved after the reading of my book.”  

This seems the perfect introduction to Rousseau’s self-portrait. This work was one of the first autobiographies written and may have been the first in modern form. Thus, Rousseau calling it an “an enterprise which has no precedent” is accurate. The portrait of himself that he paints is also nontraditional. 

The following lines are interesting for several reasons. In particular they may be open to several interpretations,

“But I am made unlike any one I have ever met; I will even venture to say that I am like no one in the whole world. I may be no better, but at least I am different.”

Rousseau is declaring his uniqueness here. The question arises, however; is he saying that his own individuality is but just one example of selfhood in a world where everyone is unique? Or is he declaring that he is a special case in a world populated, at least in part, by individuals who are not so unique as he is? I think that the answer is not entirely clear from the text. The narrative paints a picture of the author as a very different person from the average. However, it also describes a world where there are a lot of odd and dissimilar individuals. 

Rousseau is not a character commonly described in literature. For instance, he is not the heroic type. Though he describes many hardships and injustices meted out to him, these ordeals characterize the author as something of a victim. Though at times he is seriously persecuted for his opinions, many other slights that he complains about are petty enough to remove any sense of a noble struggle and at times give the impression of whining. Furthermore, as I discussed in greater detail in my original post, the narrative is full unconventional relationships with women, further deviating from traditional literature. Thus, we have a picture of a very unusual personality and life. 

We live in a period of time where autobiographies are being produced in droves. Both mainstream and social media are brimming with people extolling and championing their individuality. Often this falls into the territory of self-absorption and narcissism. On the other hand, a look at history shows that suppression of the individual leads to human catastrophes, such as communism and other forms of totalitarianism as well as lesser forms of conformity.  Individual achievement and its celebration have driven great social, scientific and technical progress. Like many things in our world, a moderate amount of assertion of one’s self and personality yields positive results on the personal and societal levels. When it comes to our modern sense of self, a balance between individuality and community seems to be the optimal course.  Thus, if moderate doses of individuality are a good thing, Rousseau’s work can be viewed as a vital stepping-stone in how we humans express and think about these things. 

To the casual reader this autobiography might not seem so special. However, when one remembers that this work was written in 1769 and may have been the first of its kind, one begins to appreciate how groundbreaking it was.  Personally, I got the impression while reading it that I was reading a much more modern book. This is a further indication of how this book influenced thinking for centuries. 

This is a unique book, and Rousseau is a unique character. The opening lines of this work set the stage for pages and pages of distinctness. This distinctiveness helped to shape our concept of individual personality and self. This is but one reason why folks yearn to understand our culture, people in general, and the world at large.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Confessions - Rousseau’s Relationships with Women

 I read the J. M. Cohen translation of this work. The below quotes are taken from that version.

My General commentary on this book is  here

I am going to devote a few words to the role that women play in this Jean - Jacques Rousseau’s life and the way that they are depicted in Confessions. It is important to note that I have not read any of the author's more philosophical works. I understand that within those texts he expresses beliefs to the effect that he considered women inferior to men  in some ways. That attitude seems not to be reflected int his book. 

Rousseau’s interactions and feelings about women are fascinating, enigmatic and play a major part of this autobiography.  He is enraptured by a series of women throughout life. His views on them are unconventional. Early on, he shows masochistic tendencies. He describes being punished by Mlle. Lambercier, a woman who is acting like a guardian to him,

"But when in the end I was beaten I found the experience less dreadful in fact than in anticipation; and the very strange thing was that this punishment increased my affection for the inflicter. It required all the strength of my devotion and all my natural gentleness to prevent my deliberately earning another beating; I had discovered in the shame and pain of the punishment an admixture of sensuality which had left me rather eager than otherwise for a repetition by the same hand. No doubt, there being some degree of precocious sexuality in all this, the same punishment at the hands of her brother would not have seemed pleasant at all."

When he gets older, the author forms emotional attachments to one woman after another. He describes these women with praise and adoration. His often sees the opposite sex in a maternal way.  Thus, he often he prefers to keep these relationships platonic.

For instance, He develops a strong bond with Mme de Warens, or as he calls her, “Mama.” When he eventually sleeps with her, he is regretful.

"The day, more dreaded than hoped for, at length arrived. I have before observed, that I promised everything that was required of me, and I kept my word: my heart confirmed my engagements without desiring the fruits, though at length I obtained them. For the first time I found myself in the arms of a woman, and a woman whom I adored. Was I happy? No: I felt I know not what invincible sadness which empoisoned my happiness: it seemed that I had committed an incest, and two or three times, pressing her eagerly in my arms, I deluged her bosom with my tears."

The above reference to incest, “her bosom” as well as her nickname, all, reinforce the author’s view of Mme. de Warens as mother figure. This is a pattern that repeats itself throughout the book with various women.

Later in life, he claims to fall in love with another woman, Sophie d'Houdetot, who is committed to another lover. He observes,

"But I am wrong to speak of an unrequited love, for mine was in a sense returned. There was equal love on both sides, though it was never mutual. We were both intoxicated with love – hers for her lover, and mine for her; our sighs and our delicious tears mingled together. We confided tenderly in one another, and our feelings were so closely in tune that it was impossible for them not to have united in something. Yet even when our intoxication was at its most dangerous height she never forgot herself for a moment. As for myself, I protest, I swear, that if ever I was betrayed by my senses and tried to make her unfaithful, I never truly desired it. The vehemence of my passion of itself kept, it within bounds. The duty of self-denial had exalted my soul."

Once again, the author seems much more comfortable in a platonic relationship, even a platonic relationship where another man occupies the role of the woman’s lover.

Rousseau’s mother died when he was an infant and is described in idealistic terms in the narrative. One must naturally conclude that the author generally sees many of the women in his life as a substitute for his mother. He seems to easily fit into the role of the loving and slightly submissive son. He does, at times, quarrel with women and break relations with them. However, such strife is almost portrayed from the view of a disobedient child.

There seems to be a strong connection between the early masochistic tendencies and Rousseau’s later relationships. All of this gives Rousseau’s character a sense of childishness and innocent immaturity, even in the segments when he is in his forties.

Even for skeptics of Freudian analysis, there seems to be inescapable parallels to Freudianism. Furthermore, Rousseau’s acceptance of other men in the lives of the objects of his affection seems to indicate that he sees himself in a childish position in relation to these women and their lovers. Once again, the Freudian implications are obvious.

I should note another aspect to this narrative that illustrates what a complex character Rousseau was. Thérèse Le Vasseur, his common law wife, occupies a different position in this autobiography. Though she shows a lot of independence, at times even scheming against her husband, Rousseau seems to be the stronger personality in their relationship. Though he shows great love and affection towards her, he does not idolize her in the way he idolizes other women. This relationship just adds nuance to the fascinating character explored in this book. 

This work paints a fascinating picture of Rousseau the man. His attitudes and interactions with women are just one of the aspects that make the writer and this autobiography unique. This piece of the author’s personality is but one of many pieces of the puzzle that make him such a fascinating person.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions

 I read the J. M. Cohen translation of this work. The below quote is taken from that translation. 

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions is an autobiographical account of the author’s life.  Published in 1782, this is one of the earliest autobiographies written, and some consider it the first modern version of the literary style. Rousseau paints a picture of life’s ups and downs in the various European locales where he lived in. The narrative of the author’s life is engaging. It also tells us a lot about the time period, human psychology and Rousseau himself. This is an easy work to digest, as the prose is very readable. 

The first part of the book is made up of accounts of Rousseau’s travels as an adolescent and as a young man. The author’s social, religious and intellectual development is detailed. During this time, Rousseau develops numerous relationships, including friendships as well as romantic and professional associations. He also converts back and forth between various Christian sects.

As the narrative moves into the middle age period of Rousseau’s life, a large percentage of pages are devoted to Rousseau’s seemingly unending personal disputes with associates and his unusual relationships with women. I have more to say about the author’s interactions with the opposite sex in a separate blog post. As for Rousseau’s innumerable conflicts with others, these involve people who seem to drift in a grey area between friends and enemies. At times, the author shows a lot of paranoia, believing in semi-organized conspiracies against him. With that, it seems that like most people, Rousseau encountered a fair number of nasty folks in his life. Interrelated with these disputes is the constant harassment and threats the author receives from both government authorities and from mobs, as his various writings offend one religious sect or another. 

One strongly suspects Rousseau to be an unreliable narrator. At times, he is harsh on himself. But bias seems to creep in as he describes numerous conflicts with others, most of which he blames on the imperfections of his antagonists. He also glosses over some acts on his own part, including the abandonment of his children. Though this is an autobiography, I find myself thinking of the character described in this book as fictional. My musings on this work may reflect this attitude.

Rousseau is a complex character who does some very problematic things and who is infused with flaws. Yet he also displays a likeable innocence. This innocence fades a little as he gets older, but never completely disappears. 

At one point he describes how he is completely incapable of any kind of long term planning. 

“The uncertainty of the future has always made me look on longdistance projects as lures for fools. I indulge in hopes like anyone else, so long as it costs me nothing to keep them alive. But if they involve time and trouble I am done with them. The smallest little pleasure that appears within my grasp tempts me more than the joys of paradise, except, however, such pleasures as are followed by pain, and they do not tempt me at all. For I only like unadulterated joys, and those one never has when one knows that one is laying up a store of repentance for oneself. “  

At least by today’s standards the above seems to extoll short - term gratification over responsibility. Yet Rousseau describes his behavior almost as if it is a virtue. The above quote is honest in that the author is not attempting to hide what many people would consider a flaw. At the same time Rousseau ignores the downsides to these tendencies, rejects the pleasures that might also bring “pain,” and instead focuses upon “unadulterated joys.” This made me think about modern humorous caricature of the happy go - lucky, irresponsible, slightly innocent, likable loser.

This is a big, complex work, and I have only scratched the surface in my short introduction. It is impossible to comprehensively cover this book in a single blog entry. Thus, I am going to publish several posts on this book in the coming weeks. There are many other aspects to this narrative that are well worth pondering. The themes of feeling over intellect, liberty, narcissism and human interaction are among the issues addressed within its pages. I highly recommend this classic to anyone interested in this period of Europe, psychology, philosophy, or just a fascinating character study. 

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Reading The American Revolution

I often say that the American Revolution is my number one bookish interest. This statement raises questions. What exactly does it mean? Is it accurate? How does this fit in with my reading patterns?

I have been interested in, and reading books on, the Revolutionary Era since I was an early teenager. Though there have been intermittent periods of several years when I did not do any reading on this subject, in the end, I always came back to it. 

A lifetime is a long time. Other interests come and go. Often these interests burn bright for a while. My interest in the Revolution burns lower at times. It has, however, burned longer and with greater consistency than anything else. 

About ten ago, I went through a period when I had not read this subject for a long time. At this time, I made a conscious decision to resume my readings in order to retain it as a major interest. I felt that it was important to have a subject in which I specialize. At that point, if my resumption in reading had led to boredom, this intentional renewed interest would have fizzled out. Instead, I quickly realized that I should never have slacked off, and I asked myself why I had stopped in the first place. For me, this reaffirms something deep inside of me that draws me to this topic. 

Over the past two years, I have been watching the television series Turn. This series centers on the Revolutionary Period and takes place on Long Island, which is my home. Watching this program has raised my interest in this subject of late, sometimes surpassing my interest in all other subjects. Similarly, museum visits, particularly good books on the subject, and other events elevate my interest from time to time.

The more detail and nuance I absorb, I become aware of the more that I want to know. One thing leads to another. Furthermore, I tend to relate other subjects to the Revolution. Here, I connected the philosophies of James Madison to what we now call identity politics. As someone interested in modern politics and social issues, it is inevitable that I would find and ponder such connections. This subject has all sorts of other implications that relate to many other topics.

The lifetime pattern of my reading is also worth noting. When I was very young I was interested in the military history of The Revolution. I read books that sometimes dug all the way down into the detailed strategy of armies. As I matured I became less and less interested in this aspect of the subject and I became more interested in political, philosophical, economic and social histories. I also became intrigued with biographies of the principle characters. Reading the philosophers, such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau that influenced the Revolutionary generation also appealed to me. 

What I define as “The Revolutionary Era” also expanded. I now consider the entire Revolutionary period to include the decades leading up to the war and only ending at the Constitutional convention of 1787. 

Though I have read many books on this era some of my favorites include Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution, Joseph J. Ellis His Excellency: George Washington, James Lincoln Collier’s and Christopher Collier’s Decision in Philadelphia: The Constitutional Convention of 1787, Ralph Ketcham’s James Madison: A Biography, to name just a few.

As I posted here, history in general has always been an interest of mine. About half of my history reading is dedicated to the Revolutionary Era. About twenty percent of my total reading is dedicated to it. One might argue that such a percentage disqualifies the subject from being labeled a primary interest. However, this percentage has more or less held steady throughout my life. This is roughly about the same for articles and other pieces that I now read on the Internet. Ultimately, this is lot more pages than I have devoted to any other subject. Thus, I think that it is fair to call this my number one concentration of interest.

In the end, I am fascinated by the Revolution. I will likely maintain interest in it for life. As I alluded to above, at times this interest will seem dimmer than other more transitory preoccupations, but occasionally, it will be brighter. The old adage does come to mind when I think about this subject. Slow and steady wins the race.