Saturday, June 25, 2016

Never Give In (Unless You Decide To): Some Wisdom from Winston Churchill

admit that I have a thing for dramatic quotes. Thus I wanted to write a little about these words from Winston Churchill, 

"Never give in--never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy."

I think that these particular words are relevant to everyday life.  They are also relevant when we discuss and exchange ideas, debate issues, adapt viewpoints and embrace belief systems.

There seems to be a dual message contained here. The first message seems to usually garner the most attention. The basic and obvious idea is to never surrender one’s beliefs or stances in response to outside pressure. 

Folks make ethically questionable compromises for various reasons. One reason is social pressure. People often go along with ideas because they seek the approval of family, friends or coworkers.

Though such pressure can be enormous, it pales compared to what happens when more tangible consequences apply. It might not be a physical threat that one is challenged with. Often, a person’s job or financial security is threatened if one does not go along with questionable ideas or behavior. 

Of course, physical threat and coercion are the worst forms of ideological pressure. Though such things happen in democracies and in everyday interactions, this form of duress is more common under less democratic systems. 

In cases where ideological pressure is tangible, I think that we need to be careful not judge too harshly folks who do give in their convictions. Instead, the above words should help inspire us to oppose such duress and to support those who are exposed to it. The fact that Churchill came under enormous pressure to compromise with evil, and refused to do so, adds weight to these views. 

I believe there is an important secondary related message here. It is encapsulated in the words “except to convictions of honor and good sense.” Sometimes determined people seem to hang on to positions for reasons of pride or stubbornness. It is also important to be open to changing their positions based on logic or simply seeing things differently. There is no shame in changing one’s position if it is the right thing to do.

Similarly, the term “good sense” seems to be implying that sometimes we need to compromise for practical and social matters. Every discussion on what to have for dinner should not be the Battle of Britain, for instance. In my opinion, such everyday concessions are acceptable if they do not compromise ethics or basic sense. 

I believe that these words are simply great advice. They can help one navigate both intellectual and moral obstacles. They can be a source of strength in trying times. They can remind us not to stick to a position solely out of a sense a pride. This wisdom is worthy for great leaders like Churchill as well as more common folks such as myself. 

Monday, June 13, 2016

Tidbits of Wisdom in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility

My general commentary on Sense and Sensibility is here.

Jane Austen was not the kind of writer, such as Charlotte Bronte or Hermann Melville, who attempted within the pages of a novel to sketch out a universal worldview encompassing God, humanity and everything else. Instead, Austen examined human nature through the lens of everyday personal thoughts and interactions. Austen’s examination of humanity through common occurrences can be found in almost every page of her novels. There are literally thousands of illustrations and observations on human behavior in her books. These observations are often insightful, subtle, complex and accurate. She was able to dig deep into human behavior, emotions and relations. 

Take the below quote from Sense and Sensibility. Marianne Dashwood is describing how she plans to cope with the heartbreak of being jilted by John Willoughby, 
“As for Willoughby— to say that I shall soon or that I shall ever forget him, would be idle. His remembrance can be overcome by no change of circumstances or opinions. But it shall be regulated, it shall be checked by religion, by reason, by constant employment." 
The above quote is a prime example of Austen describing a common human reaction to a common situation. Here the often-cited dichotomy between emotion and reason is examined. Marianne is distraught that Willoughby has chosen to marry another woman. Like many rejected lovers, she is unable to shake her thoughts of her paramour and is experiencing emotional distress. In the moment, she is planning to counterbalance these strong emotional thoughts with the more cerebral aspects of her psyche. As she observes, she is trying to “regulate” the negative emotion, not eradicate it. 
Based on life’s experience, one would expect that, at least for the short term, “Religion, reason and constant employment” will not completely regulate or counterbalance Marianne’s pain. People often try to distract themselves from such depressed feelings to no avail. However, in the long run, one might expect the heartbreak to ease. Such relief can in part be attributed to such distractions. Thus, the situation described here is not a simple one. 
It seems to me that Austen has very successfully gotten into her character’s head. She is also accurately portraying human nature. The voice of Marianne in this passage seems to believably reflect a young woman attempting to self-analyze herself. Her statement sounds like something people, under similar circumstances, commonly say, even in our present time. 

Is this dichotomy real? Like many things said about human psychology, it is to some extent a generalization. Yet, there is a degree of reality behind this generalization. Neuroscience teaches us that the two halves of our brains represent opposite ends of thought and behavior.  One side is analytical, and the other side carries on the more abstract thinking. In a way, Marianne is describing the interaction between the two halves of her brain. I would argue that here and elsewhere Austen has proven that she was a decent psychologist. Here, unbeknownst to herself or her contemporaries, she was dabbling in a bit of early neuroscience!

Austen was neither the first, nor the last, thinker to examine this issue. However, like many things Austen, her take on it was distinctive and aesthetically pleasing. The above quotation only comprises of two sentences. It is one of thousands of these keen insights into humanity contained in Austen’s books. It is an illustration as to why this author can be classified as one of the great artists and thinkers of all time.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Sense and Sensibility was Jane Austen’s first published novel.  It is the story of the Dashwood family. Like other novels written by the famous author, the plot centers on the romantic entanglements and marriage prospects of the book’s characters. 

Elinor is the oldest Dashwood daughter and is the central character in the book. She is levelheaded and thoughtful. Her younger sister, Marianne, is more impulsive and more apt to show strong emotion. The girls’ mother, Mrs. Dashwood, can be described as an older but slightly more empathetic and wiser version of Marianne. 

Early on, Elinor and a young bachelor named Edward Ferrars seem to be drawn to one another. Likewise, Marianne and John Willoughby are apparently attracted to each other and close to engagement. 

The usual themes of faulty perception are strong in this work. Initially, Elinor believes that Edward is wooing her. She later learns that he is secretly engaged to another young woman, Lucy Steele. Likewise, Marianne believes that Willoughby is in love with her. However, the young man shocks her when he suddenly turns cold and it is announced that he is engaged to someone else. In the end, it is revealed that both of these situations played out very differently from what the sisters supposed them to be at various parts of the narrative. 

The balance of the plot is driven by these relationships and by misconceptions getting sorted out. The reality of the events and feelings, as opposed to the false perception of them, are revealed in detail. 

At one point Elinor observes,

"I have frequently detected myself in such kind of mistakes," said Elinor, "in a total misapprehension of character in some point or other: fancying people so much more gay or grave, or ingenious or stupid than they really are, and I can hardly tell why or in what the deception originated. Sometimes one is guided by what they say of themselves, and very frequently by what other people say of them, without giving oneself time to deliberate and judge."  

There are multiple characters that are shown to be of weak personality. In particular, the Dashwood sisters’ half brother, John, initially intends to act altruistically towards his family, who are in financial straits. However, he shows moral vacuity when he is easily persuaded not to assist his sisters by his malicious wife, Fanny.

As this was Austin’s earliest published novel, some of the characters seem to be a little less nuanced than in her later books. For instance, the money and status obsessed John and Fanny Dashwood have few redeeming characteristics and are a bit less complex than other Austen creations.

As I alluded to above, the themes of this novel will be familiar to folks who have read other Austen works. Obviously, the plot and characters, which center on young women and their romantic interactions, are common to other Austen books. 

Though this is the first published novel from the author, I have read several other Austen books before this one. The question arises, if the underlying meaning is not all that different for the other books and the plot and characters also seem to meet a template, is it worth reading an author like Austen over the course of more than two or so books?

My conclusion is that reading multiple Austen books is a very worthwhile thing to do.  I raised a similar question in regards to the novels of Philip Roth. In this post, I compared the tendency of Roth to use of similar motifs to a musical work that explored multiple variations on a musical theme. Likewise, though Austen’s messages may be similar between books, by illustrating them in different ways, she adds to the impact and nuance. A writer as skilled as Austen adds intellectual and aesthetic weight to subjects and themes by examining them from different angles. When combined, her brilliant writing as well as well crafted plots and characters, these novels reach the sublime despite the commonalities. 

This classic is a must read for Austen fans. As I am beginning to see the value of reading certain authors’ works in chronological order, this would be a great first read for an Austen neophyte. The benefit of seeing how Austen’s ideas and writing developed over time should be enlightening to a reader.  Like other works by Austen, this book manages to be entertaining as well as very meaningful. 

Saturday, May 21, 2016

My Love of Book Lists

I love book lists. I enjoy looking through them so much that I sometimes go looking for them online. I have also been known to spend several hours poring through entire books dedicated to such lists. When I see that a new major list is available, say from a source such as Amazon or The Guardian, I cannot but help getting excited at the prospect of digging through it.

If any of my readers are not familiar with the phenomena that I am talking about, I am referring to the catalogues of books that are now all over the Internet. However, these lists are not new to our digital age; some of my favorites go back decades, and such lists have been produced for centuries. These catalogues of book titles sometimes purport to be lifetime reading suggestions, lists of the greatest novels ever written, lists of the greatest nonfiction books ever written, etc. There are also specialty lists, such as the best history books ever written, the best books on the American Revolution, the most influential philosophy books and the most essential New England Books, to name just a few.

These lists are not without controversy. Folks often criticize them. The compilers of these lists are often questioned for books that they include, as well as for those that they do not. Often, the creators of the lifetime reading lists are accused of constructing restrictive guides that dictate what people should be reading. Harold Bloom’s famous Western Cannon has come under particular scorn for this reason. His enormous compilation of suggested books has also been criticized for not being inclusive enough in terms of race and gender. It seems that some of Bloom’s critics may not have read his Cannon, as it is surprisingly inclusive and includes a surprising number of women and ethnically diverse authors such as Chinua Achebe, Zora Neale Hurston, Najib Mahfuz and Mario Vargas Llosa, Aimé Césaire, as well as many others.

My take on these lists is that if one does not take them too seriously, they can be great fun for the bookish person. If one is going to think about how we would have constructed them differently, it is best to ponder this issue good-naturedly. Such lighthearted critique can also be part of the fun. These compilations can also provide very useful information pertaining to what books are out there waiting to be read.

I love to peruse such lists and count how many of the tomes that I have read so far. Though such lists do give me ideas as to what I should read in the future, as someone whose TBR cannot be concluded in a lifetime, I am not sure if this last fact is a good thing. Lists like Bloom’s Western Cannon and Clifton Fadiman’s reading plan are treasure troves of interesting books that make my mouth water.

Ultimately, these catalogues of books are just the opinions of others. As a bookish person, however, reading these opinions and thinking about how my views are similar or different regarding these books is something that I very much like to do.

I will continue to peruse new and old booklists. In our digital age, they are not difficult to find. Neither is there any lack of new lists being produced. In the end, if one does not take such lists too seriously, they can provide many hours of stimulating and intellectual amusement.

Some of my favorite book lists are:

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels on Colonialism

My general commentary on Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is here.

In this post, I wanted to share a few of my thoughts on a particular passage that comes toward the end of the narrative. In the final chapter of this work, Gulliver is summing up his adventures and commenting upon European society through the lens of his experience. His commentary is scathing. Having visited all sorts of diverse lands and peoples, the narrator ponders what the effects of European invasion would be on these places. His general thoughts on are part of these musings,

“they go on shore to rob and plunder, they see a harmless people, are entertained with kindness; they give the country a new name; they take formal possession of it for their king; they set up a rotten plank, or a stone, for a memorial; they murder two or three dozen of the natives, bring away a couple more, by force, for a sample; return home, and get their pardon.   Here commences a new dominion acquired with a title by divine right.   Ships are sent with the first opportunity; the natives driven out or destroyed; their princes tortured to discover their gold; a free license given to all acts of inhumanity and lust, the earth reeking with the blood of its inhabitants: and this execrable crew of butchers, employed in so  pious an expedition, is a modern colony, sent to convert and civilize an idolatrous and barbarous people!” 

One thing that it is important to remember is that this was written in 1726.

These thoughts are remarkably ahead of their time. Two centuries of European domination and oppression of native peoples lay ahead. One of the aspects that is striking about this quote is the number of components that a modern critique of the colonial system it contains. One example is the reference to stealing what belongs to the indigenous people. European hypocrisy is so well illustrated with irony with the image of  a rotten plank, or a stone, for a memorial.” The destruction of native life and culture is mentioned. The condemnation of torture and murder for greed is also surprising in light of the time that this was written. The reference to “the earth reeking with the blood” sounds so ahead of its time as well.

The line “and this execrable crew of butchers, employed in so pious an expedition, is a modern colony, sent to convert and civilize an idolatrous and barbarous people!” is biting irony that has a very modern feel. Here, Swift anticipates centuries of lies and hypocrisy that the colonial system was built upon.  

Such empathy for non-Europeans is surprising for the time. It does, however, fit in with the earlier narrative of this work. Throughout this book, Gulliver encounters strange people after strange people. Though the societies that he visits are filled with flaws, the narrator comes to see that they all contain certain aspects of European civilization. Many of the individuals that he encounters turn out to be honorable or decent. Furthermore, Gulliver is often judged unfairly by others for his differences.

Often, eighteenth century writers, such as Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness, are credited with being the first real critics of colonialism. The above quote shows that Swift was doing so much earlier.

Some attribute Shakespeare’s Tempest as a critique of Colonialism. Others disagree with this assessment. Even if this is the case, it is a far cry from this direct attack launched by Swift.

Such overtly anticolonial sentiment was unexpected in a book of this era. It shows what a perceptive and innovative thinker Swift was. He was aware of the world around him in a way that we usually only attribute to much later intellects.  Such innovation and creativity is but one reason that Gulliver’s Travels deserves its reputation as an essential work of literature.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift

Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift is a very famous book that I recently read for the first time. This work was completed in its final form in 1735. This story is a satire and a social commentary on the state of humanity. It examines various human foibles such as war, prejudice, religious conflicts and politics, to name just a few. Surprisingly, I found much of this commentary to be very relevant to our current times.

Over the course of various sea voyages, Gulliver travels to many strange lands. These include his famous visit to Lilliput, a land whose citizens are tiny. Conversely, Brobdingnag is a land of giants. Laputa is a floating island. Balnibarbi is a horribly dystopian society being wrecked by ideologues. Glubbdubdrib is a magical place where the dead are resurrected. Luggnagg is a land where a few folks are immortal but in a terrible condition. The Country of the Houyhnhnms is a place of sentient horses and with characteristics of a utopia.

 This work goes in so many directions in terms of social satire that it is difficult to write a comprehensive summary. In general, Swift takes aim at hypocrisy as well as absurdities that are ingrained in the society of his time. Many of the issues that the author tackles are still with us in the Twenty First Century.

At times, the criticism of humanity is lighthearted, at other times searing. Though the entire work is not negative, the narrative reaches an extremely cynical point during the visit to Glubbdubdrib. At one point, Gulliver convinces the island’s governor to summon various historical personages back from the dead. At the protagonist’s request, mostly leaders from the past are resurrected. After encounters with these ghouls, Gulliver draws some dark conclusions about government,

“Here I discovered the true causes of many great events that have surprised the world; how a whore can govern the back-stairs, the back-stairs a council, and the council a senate.   A general confessed, in my presence, “that he got a victory purely by the force of cowardice and ill conduct;” and an admiral, “that, for want of proper intelligence, he beat the enemy, to whom he intended to betray the fleet.”   Three kings protested to me, “that in their whole reigns they never did once prefer any person of merit, unless by mistake, or treachery of some minister in whom they confided; neither would they do it if they were to live again:” and they showed, with great strength of reason, “that the royal throne could not be supported without corruption, because that positive, confident, restiff temper, which virtue infused into a man, was a perpetual clog to public business.” 

This is a grim depiction of human governance indeed! Here and elsewhere narrative, it is apparent that Swift is not enamored with many human institutions. Government is but one of these institutions that bear the brunt of his ire.

This work was surprisingly ahead of its time. This is exemplified by an underlying theme throughout the work. That is, people need to be viewed as equals. Throughout the story, people of all shapes and sizes engage in the same foibles and exhibit the same virtues. Swift also points out that folks have a tendency to unfairly discriminate and look down upon people who are different. The giants of Brobdingnag disparage smaller races, and the Houyhnhnms think less of Gulliver because of his human appearance. This type of narrow thinking goes on wherever Gulliver ends up.

Another striking aspect of this book is Swift’s attention to detail. It is very impressive and ranges from the effects of the giant Brobdingnags’s booming voices on Gulliver’s eardrums to the menacing effect of giant flies to the clever way that the Houyhnhnms manipulate small objects with their hooves.

There are so many reasons to recommend this book besides the above. It is a very rich work and works on several levels. I will be sharing my thoughts of Swift’s take on colonialism in a future post. Furthermore, this is book is effective satire. Much of the humor here still works, as when Gulliver puts out a fire in the tiny Lilliputian castle by urinating upon it. It is also an engaging adventure story and travelogue.

I highly recommend this work to those who are familiar with the basic storyline as well as those who are not. This is an engaging book in many ways and on many levels. The classic is also still very relevant today.