Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Book Notes: "The House of Ulloa" by Emilia Pardo Bazán

The House of UlloaThe House of Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Bazán

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was hard to put down. Unlike Charlotte Brontë and Mary Shelley (even though I admire their work); not to mention era, translation, and social-construction-of-gender issues, Bazán writes of a socially-constructed man better than any biologically-female woman from the nineteenth century I have read to date (to mention but a few qualifications, if indeed, I could possibly know what a socially-constructed man of the nineteenth century was like, but I doubt it could be anything like The Professor or the annoying, whingey, whiney Frankenstein). Given that George Eliot and Miles Franklin and many others had to pretend to be men to be published, even in the early 1900s, it makes me wonder if Spain was not considerably more advanced than Anglo countries in Bazán's time? Or maybe her feudal titles helped? I can only imagine what is lost in translation - and if the use of the good old "Mrs Grundy" was true to Bazán's words - but there is much to this novel that I lost due to my lack of historical knowledge of the Spain of these times. I would not have read this novel other than it was there to be read, so this was fortunate. What is unfortunate is that the book has given me a glimpse of Spanish literature that will probably remain beyond my reach for some time to come. But it is pleasing to discover classic works by female authors that is so very good, but at the same time, sad that such talent lies buried in the biases of history.

View all my reviews

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Book Notes: "An Awkward Truth: The Bombing of Darwin, February 1942" by Peter Grose

An Awkward Truth: The Bombing of Darwin, February 1942An Awkward Truth: The Bombing of Darwin, February 1942 by Peter Grose

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

When I went to Canberra recently, and knew I would have a few hours of waiting, I absent-mindedly left my current book sitting on the table at home. It was after 5pm in Canberra, so of course my options for purchasing a book were limited. I found that Target at Belconnen was still open, and I thought that, worse case, this book might provide me with some historical knowledge. It did. But I must say that as I was reading, I found Grose's tone to be rather grating (probably like mine when I get on my high-horse about Australia and Australians). Grose doesn't pretend that he likes Administrator Abbott (the Northern Territory's head-honcho in the '30s and '40s). Indeed, he states that he finds it hard to like him. Grose, too, makes an inadvertent claim that "Canberra" did this and that in the early 1900s when appointing a man to run the Territory. Of course, "Canberra" was not the centre of the federal government until 1927 - it was run from Melbourne. I am sure that Grose knows this, but the anachronism grated. And having previously lived in Canberra for near-on twenty years, the use of the city's name to represent all that is bad in our political system still annoys me no end. As the book develops, Grose indicates that he was writing as a counter to Paul Hasluck's history. Hasluck saw the reaction of the people of Darwin to be a case of national shame. Grose brought me back to the fold when he mentions the popular Australian dislike of "reffos" (refugees) and the way "these people" behave. Grose tells us that when Australians, following the bombing of Darwin by the Japanese in '42 became "reffos", they behaved like every other group of refugees. The book was not everything I expected, and upon completion, I was pleased that it was not a "white" armbanding of the omnipotence of ordinary Australians who, unlike the rest of the people of the world, are somehow superior because they just are, and Grose was at pains to make this clear that he was not of that brigade. For this I was truly grateful. There are numerous historical facts and corrections to the record, and I have a much better historical understanding of what happened in the first attack on Australian soil since 1788. But I didn't like Grose's tone, especially where he puts his personality into his work. This is remarkable in that I do the same thing, yet here I am reacting as others do to my own work. Surely there is a lesson for me in the reading of this book. It is unfair to lump all of this on Grose, and given my lack of knowledge on the historical subject, I am hardly one to judge. Yet the lesson I have learnt from this book is very powerful, even though I lament readers' aversion to any form of personality in one's writing that does not display enthusiasm for a cause one way or another. As La Rochefoucauld wrote in 1665: "Enthusiasm is the only convincing orator; it is like the infallible rule of some function of Nature. An enthusiastic simpleton is more convincing than a silver-tongued orator". I suppose had I liked this book more, I would have respected Grose less.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Book Notes: "A Garden of Peace: A Medley in Quietude" by Frank Frankfort Moore

A Garden of Peace: A Medley in QuietudeA Garden of Peace: A Medley in Quietude by Frank Frankfort Moore

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My favourite quote (p. 81), paraphrasing Genesis 2:8, and also used in Sid Meier's Civilization V for the Hanging Gardens wonder:
I think that if ever a mortal heard the voice of God, it would be in a garden at the cool of the day," said Mrs Friswell, gently.
I admit that I discovered this book because of the quote in Civilization V. It felt like I was reading one of Dirk Bogarde's novels, where numerous characters appear at his house, providing amusement, and often derision, by the author who attacks all and sundry in the first person narrative of a segment of his life. Moore's work is a must for all who are considering designing and creating a garden. Set against the background of the Great War (although this setting is only revealed by its publication date and the conclusion), Moore covers a good deal of literary, architectural, historical, theatrical, and cultural ground, and there is a rich tapestry of people, places, events, books, plays and so on to mine for more interesting discoveries. This particular book was printed from a scanned copy of the text only and does not include the original photographs, which can be found online at archive.org. It would appear that the garden actually existed, as described. This is a remarkable book and it is one of my favourites. Why such literary gems slip from our collective memory is a wonder, and it is nothing less than wonderful to rediscover these buried in the crevices of history.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

My Favourite Apps: TasteKid, Hemingway, and Vocabify

I would prefer this to an app any day, but I admit the apps reviewed here are good! (Flickr: Paul Townsend/CC BY-ND 2.0)
I don't normally like apps of any kind. I'd much rather use a browser and a website. But that is an attitude rather than a fact, and when it comes to apps that solve life's petty dramas, then I must change my tune. Here I give a quick review of TasteKid, Hemingway, and my latest app, Vocabify.

TasteKid (now TasteDive - WTF?)

By a random trial and error method, I have found various books, movies, and music by making connections between various media. For example, one of my pianola rolls is a foxtrot entitled The Flapper Wife, and this led me to the book, and then on to a series of movies and music of the period, by following the trail of authors, publishers, composers, and musicians. For several years now, I have been using TasteKid to do the same thing, but with considerably less effort. Is it just me or did TasteKid change its name to TasteDive while I was writing this? Now it makes me think of nasty tasting things from "down there". Oh, I am so annoyed! Semantics aside, the recommendation engine is good, and has helped me to discover lots of new music, books, and movies, based on the recommendations of others. For example, today I searched for a composer like Richard Wagner, and discovered the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin. Whether the similarities would pass scrutiny is not the point. The recommendations provide opportunities to look beyond our own bounded rationality, and for that, this is my favourite app. Oh, wait, it is a website. Oh well. But why oh why did they rename it TasteDive?


When writing for news media websites, there are a variety of text editors and readability measures that help authors to cut down superfluous, flowery, or woolly (I love that word) sentences to help focus on plain language. It is not my ideal way to write, but it does tend to force one into the journalistic style of writing, which is indeed a skill unto its own. My favourite author, Ernest Hemingway, was known for his iceberg principle, where he strips down his sentences to the bare minimum. This enables the reader to use their imagination to fill in the blanks. The app requires payment of a fee, but I do not mind paying for something that is useful. Think of it in terms of design (see Antoine de Saint-Exupery's Wind, Sand and Stars):
[P]erfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.


Scattered throughout my travel and writing diaries are words that I am familiar with, but do not really know. I write these down, with definitions, but time and again I see the same words, and I ask myself, what is the definition of this word? Typically, I cannot answer, even though I might be able to use the word in a sentence. Then along comes Vocabify. There are a couple of words that it is unable to provide definitions for, and I provided feedback to the creator. I wanted to be able to add words. But this seems to defeat the purpose of the app, in that it attaches to databases with decent definitions, and one can only add words from these databases. Most of the words that I cannot find in Vocabify are technical jargon in either political science or philosophy. But the creator told me this in a quick response to my feedback, and it is only in beta form at present. The app operates via an add-in to my browser, and I can add words as I discover them (I have already combed my diaries for my lists of words and added these). The app then sends me an email each day with one of my words and its definition. The app works on the basis of rote learning, and frankly, for learning definitions or the spelling of words, much like tables of multiplication, there is no better way to learn.

So there you have it. Three "apps" that I use and enjoy on a regular basis.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Book Notes: "The Lost Estate" by Henri Alain-Fournier

The Lost EstateThe Lost Estate by Henri Alain-Fournier

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Three-quarters of the way through this book I thought it was more for children or at a pinch, YA fiction. But the last score pages had me racing to the finish in happy-joy-sad-nostalgia in that the novel captures the feeling of saudade, enveloping me as the third-party observer yet bringing me in close. I could not help several instances of déjà vu but I am not sure whether I have read parts of this before (as I had done with Steinbeck's Red Pony in an abridged version in primary school) or otherwise the imaginations of the older boys' recalls my own thoughts during those times when teenage boys are physically present but otherwise not there. I wonder, too, whether a feminist critique of the moral "rightness" of our hero's actions would not reveal a whole bunch of anti-morality should one shine a contemporary light on this, the third tale of the Belle Époque I have read in the last few weeks. I was fortunate enough to read most of this book while sitting on a cane chair on the grass in the warm autumn sunshine of the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales, creating a dreamy ambience that made the digesting of this novel all the more enchanting.

View all my reviews

Saturday, 15 April 2017

On Keeping Book Notes and a Professional Library

Benjamin Franklin Tracy, Secretary of the U.S. Navy, circa 1890. Not the Benjamin Franklin, but it certainly looks like this Benjamin is taking some decent Book Notes! (Frances Benjamin Johnston [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
Why do I keep book notes on my blog? And why am I cataloguing my books? Well, it just happened that way. First, because I like using Goodreads and my blog, and second, I want my books to remain in good, workable condition as part of an orderly professional library.

I began using Goodreads a few years ago to record the books I read. This was before it was purchased by Amazon in 2007. I had tried a few other platforms, but I found Goodreads to be best, and later, I found having the system run by a company like Amazon reassuring. It helped the system remain stable and be less likely to disappear than non-commercial applications.

In fact, I liked Goodreads so much that I became a Goodreads Librarian a little while ago. I think of it like a commercial Trove (although I am sure there are many who won't like the comparison. And I don't work for Goodreads except for free as a Goodreads Librarian!).

Nonetheless, I purchase most of my books from Book Depository because there is no freight charge and it tends to be easier to have books sent to Australia. I usually find Amazon's stock and freight terms to be severely limited for Australian consumers, although that may change soon

But when Goodreads introduced the Reading Challenge a few years back, I decided to set myself an annual goal for my reading for pleasure, in addition to the reading necessitated by my work. I didn't start properly until 2015, and after a good beginning, we decided to buy a house and move interstate, thus ending my 2015 challenge.

However, by 2016 I had developed the habit of not only reading deliberately, but writing a review on Goodreads for every book I read. I enjoy doing this but it isn't for everyone.

Apparently, there is a down-side to the Reading Challenge. If one races off to read shorter books to meet one's target, then oh the humanity! Quantity over quality! Really? I do it to keep track of where I am at, and to allow me to write notes. And it keeps me motivated to read as a priority.

There are sound reasons for keeping good notes on one's reading. Important, too, because it is difficult to remember every interesting part to follow up or that may prove useful in the future. Keeping notes and having catalogued books certainly helps in this regard. 

Benjamin Franklin suggested that readers should keep book notes. Notice that he wrote his notes in a separate book, taking care not damage the book he was reading:
I would advise you to read with a pen in hand, and enter in a little book short hints of what you find that is curious, or that may be useful; for this will be the best method of imprinting such particulars in your memory.
Ryan Holiday goes a step further, and keeps a detailed notecard system. But while I am all for keeping notes and reading hardcopy books, I am one of those book-lovers who cannot stand damage being done to books (I use the Book Depository bookmarks religiously). This guy just rips right into them!

But Holiday's full program of marking up and highlighting in his books, even rare books, is something I just can't bring myself to do.

My journal I write up with a pen in a leather-bound notebook, but I am happy to keep my book notes on Goodreads and catalogue the reviews via this blog's labels.

Indeed, I hate seeing my books damaged so much I went down to the Gunning Library and asked the librarian to show me how to cover my books using both contact (paperbacks) and plastic sheeting (hardcovers). I have a while to go, but in the meantime, I am trying to catalogue and cover each new book before reading it. 

I have gone on to learn how to catalogue my books using the Dewey Decimal Classification system. I chose this rather than the Library of Congress system because, well, I just did! But mostly, the Dewey Decimal System is the first system I learnt in school, and I have a fond sense of nostalgia whenever I think of the library at Parramatta State School in Cairns.

The School's Librarian, Mr E.C. "Ted" Celk, introduced me to the Dewey Decimal Classification System in 1980 (he could roll his Rs) and, importantly, politics. In 1982 (age 12), after scoring 100% on the politics test he put us through, I attended the inaugural sitting of the new Cairns City Council

The immaculate Mr Celk went on to become a champion for gay rights in Cairns after he retired, much to the consternation of the School's cleaning ladies at the time (how could he be gay, he was such a gentleman!). Regrettably, I can find no trace of him or his infamous letters to the editor of The Cairns Post on the net.

Keeping a library is now somewhat of a hobby. Having a well-ordered library is something I have always wished for, but could never begin until now. 

I use two main sources to help me catalogue the books: OCLC Classify and the Dewey Decimal Classification System table provided by Bob Peck. The former is great, and the latter helps me when I need to classify an obscure book (like Beatrice Burton's The Flapper Wife and Mrs Humphry Ward's Lady Rose's Daughter).

I also learnt from my local librarian that one can buy book covering material from Queensland Library Supplies. It is of high quality and much better than any retail contact one can buy. Their service is exceptional but you will need to call them to sort out the postage if ordering one roll like I do.

Before covering the books, I print my name, with the Dewey call number and the first three letters of the author's surname, on Austab's WP-21 labels using this template. These I place with the call number over the spine, and the name across the front.

So that is how I came to keep my book notes on my blog and to begin cataloguing my books. 

We happy few - the beginnings of my book nerd's paradise. They are not in order yet!

Book Notes: "Maxims" by François de La Rochefoucauld

MaximsMaxims by François de La Rochefoucauld

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I will be adding this book of more than 500 maxims to my daily reflections, along with The Daily Stoic and James Allen's As A Man Thinketh. I had to read each maxim at least twice, as there is nothing in this book that should be overlooked. Unlike a novel, where the virtue or vice considered as part of an overarching theme builds over time, each maxim in this book is straight to the point, causing one to pause and reflect on each occasion. There are too many favourite maxims to list, but this one resonates deeply: "239. To whatever we may ascribe our misfortunes, they are generally the results of selfishness and of vanity". La Rochefoucauld uses wit and humour to address life lessons that mirror life itself. What I mean by this is that if one were to read this book sans humour, one would want to end it all - the reality would be too much. Likewise, sans seriousness, this would not be remotely funny. But by moving between old and young, male and female (inherently sexist in a seventeenth-century way), humorous and foreboding, witty and caustic, and so on, the maxims paint a picture of wisdom that can only come from one who has had the mask of self-deception torn from his face. If fools learn by their mistakes, then this is one book where the wise might learn from the mistakes of fools. But don't get too cocky: "214. A man (sic) who is never foolish is not as wise as he thinks".

View all my reviews

Book Notes: "A Parisian Affair" by Guy de Maupassant

A Parisian AffairA Parisian Affair by Guy de Maupassant

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The recent Penguin Pocket Classics series is good. This is the second of the French authors I have read in the series (there are six). I was struck by Maupassant's range of topics and how he waxes and wanes through tragedy and comedy but always with a clear picture of human imperfections and the challenges we, as humans, deal with on a daily basis. Because of the moral topics covered in these short-stories, I couldn't help but think of Hemingway and how he draws out a particular human condition and builds a tragic story around it. I wanted to find out more about the influence of Maupassant on Hemingway so I read the introduction to Stoltzfus' (2012) Hemingway and French Writers where he states that Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, in his foreword to a French translation of A Farewell to Arms, compares Hemingway to Maupassant. A little further reading led me to an article by Jean-Paul Sartre in the August 1946 edition of The Atlantic entitled "American Novelists in French Eyes". Although Sartre does not make the direct comparison à la Rochelle, it is clear that Hemingway was influenced by the French authors Maupassant and Zola (even if Sartre and Hemingway weren't quite the fans of fascism that Rochelle was to become). In the book, Maupassant's stories are supported by comprehensive notes that I will return to time and again, either for details of authors, artists and playwrights, or for the descriptions of places, architecture, variants of horse-drawn vehicles, and the workings of trains. It took me some time to get through the book, not because it was tedious, but because it deserves to be slow-read.

View all my reviews

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Book Notes: "The Best Within" by Émile Zola

The Beast WithinThe Beast Within by Émile Zola

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Zola's work is dark and the title is apt. Train enthusiasts might enjoy the historical aspects of the glory days of steam, and the notes provide useful information about the historical context of the politics and pending downfall of Napoleon III. While I have seen the movie version of Germinal, starring Gérard Depardieu, this is the only book of Zola's series I have read. While the series of twenty novels centres around the lines of the Rougon-Macquart families, providing a coherent framework for characters, this novel by itself seems to have many characters, where the protagonist passes the baton to other characters as "the beast within" transmigrates from one evil character to the next. One can only imagine how violent this novel appeared in its day - not in the graphic horror movie sense but in a dark (as opposed to Gothic) telling of human nature and the fine line between good and evil that presents itself as choices as we tread along our life trajectories. In Murder on the Orient Express, the reader experiences the twists and turns of an arguably justifiable sense of justice, whereas The Beast Within shows justice to be a human construct that frets against the bureaucracy. In many respects, the story provides an interesting counterfactual theme to Christie's masterpiece, but also Kafka's The Trial. The major differences are that Christie points to the failings of the bureaucracy to bring the guilty to justice, while Kafka points to the bureaucracy's ability to bring the innocent to non-justice. Zola, on the other hand, does the opposite of both. The evil are desiring a form of justice, but the bureaucracy won't let them, and the innocent are not condemned. Instead, the last years of France's Second Empire unfold in a tale of the worst of human nature, culminating in a runaway train that speeds to its inevitable demise amid a trail of banal evil where ultimately, everyone gets what they deserve.

View all my reviews

Monday, 3 April 2017

The Inner Civil War of Right and Wrong, Life and Death, and Being and Time, or: How I pine for the me who knew everything

Cypher in The Matrix: "Ignorance is bliss".
I am constantly annoyed by the pro-science Atheists who think that religion causes war. Since when was Dr J. Robert Oppenheimer, a priest? After much reading and reflection, I find myself unable to implement any philosophy of life without taking a leap of faith. Or, to use the analogy from The Matrix, now that I have taken the red pill (education) and I cannot go back, the way forward insists that I have faith in the victory of one side of my inner civil war. But which one?
An important place to begin in philosophy is this: a clear perception of one’s own ruling principle (Epictetus 1.26.15).
I have been reading in ever-decreasing circles lately that begin and end, like my days, with Stoicism. In Ryan Holiday's The Obstacle is the Way, drawing on Epictetus (Discourses 1.26.15), and later Marcus Aurelius (Meditations 12:22), how we perceive the world is the critical first step in practising philosophy.
It's all in how you perceive it. You're in control. You can disperse with misperception at will, like rounding a point (Marcus Aurelius 12:22).
In my reading, this is repeatedly referred to as "right perception". Some translations equate this with "right thinking", but thinking and perceiving are not the same. For example, I could conduct a thought experiment where I might deliberately think differently about something, whereas the only way I can "perceive" something differently is to either have a fundamental change of base character or otherwise to deceive myself in a stupid way. So "right perception" becomes key.

The trouble is that now I enter unfamiliar territory with the likes of, in reverse chronological order, Heidegger, Camus, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer. I could come forward (or go back) to Harold Bloom and Joseph Epstein, too, but I will leave that for another time. There are others but this is where I am at right now.

What I still find surprising is that the thoughts I have have been had by others, even two thousand years ago, and reading reveals this time and again. I think I read this from Epstein, but I cannot be sure until I find it again.

Which brings me to Camus. His first principle of philosophy was whether one should commit suicide or not. I see this mostly as a decision to live or not to live. The Stoics had a similar view of choosing to live or not. I recall when I was nineteen years old, when my repetitive job was so boring, and I thought to myself, "this cannot be all there is to life". I chose, metaphorically, to live.

Nietzsche took this further, expanding on Schopenhauer's ideas. But Nietzsche declared that God was dead, and we had killed Him. This left a great void. Where do our first principles come from if there is no God? I have grappled with this for decades, but settled my theological comprehensions deeper and deeper over time. If there is no God, then there is no point.

So, if we take our own beliefs as a starting point, then Heidegger presents a further clue: We are what we do. Not what we talk about doing. But there is more to Heidegger.

Yesterday, I read Simon Critchley's eight-part blog article on "Why Heidegger Matters". Of course, I have much reading to do to command the literature, or to master the philosophical lessons, but my thinking is leading to somewhere useful.

It struck me how much of what Heidegger wrote follows my own "perception" of the world. While the Stoics spoke of "right perception", Heidegger suggests we are "thrown" into the world. Again, the strange occurrences of things happening at the right time gives me a sense of "flow" rather than "throw". This particular topic miraculously appeared on ABC Radio National last night as soon as I had changed the radio station out of boredom with ABC Canberra. The topic was Epicurean versus Existentialist views on death.

This throws up two issues, assuming my idea of "perception" is how I perceive the world to be and derive my meaning from my life in that perceived world. First, there is "right" as in what does one mean by the "right" way to perceive something? Is there a general or universal idea of what is "right", or is this something an individual judges for themselves? I think that, should an individual make their own judgement, which is what Heidegger seems to mean by "freedom" (loosely - I think!), then "right" perception would be what I thought to be "right" for me.

If I were to encapsulate Stoicism, James Allen, Benjamin Franklin, and various religious works I can subscribe to, collectively, a sense of "right" - which I see as congruent - then my idea would be that my sense of what Heidegger was saying, in that life is finite and who I am is what I do, then I have the recipe for constructing "right" perception, with which to practise Stoicism properly, at least according to me.

But this leads me to my second problem: Can "right" change with "time", or with circumstances through "being"? What if one measured one's virtues against a preconceived notion of "right perception", only to get to one's deathbed (a Stoic measure) to find that their perception was wrong?

So, deciding upon one's idea of "right" and how to determine the idea, whether this means "right" according to a universal principle or "right" as in what is "right" for me, is a skill that ought to be a priority from a young age. This negates much of the Atheist scientists' view of the world. They annoy me with their "I know everything" pessimism and the assumption that humans, being inherently social animals who pretend to deny their instincts in the name of "science", have no answer for the two big questions (some of what follows is borrowed and paraphrased from The Daily Stoic):
What do I really want? What am I actually after here?
These are difficult questions, and mostly the answers are sought in the middle of an internal struggle. Martin Luther King Jr said:
There is something of a civil war going on within all of our lives.
So we have contradiction and inconsistent wishes that have us working against ourselves. The Stoics said this is the result of screwed up judgements or biased thoughts. The "civil war" King spoke of was a war, in each individual, between the good parts of their soul and the bad.

To quote somebody from my past who I cannot recall, but whose words have never left me, I find that the pursuit of knowledge, which is part of my day job, is admirable but incomplete. My past friend or colleague said it best:
Knowledge gets us part of the way but faith fills the gap.
And so, as I turn to James Allen as part of my daily reflection, there are echoes of two important religious teachings:
Whom Allah doth guide - he is on the right path (Qur'an 7:178) [and] The foolishness of a man twists his way while his heart frets against the Lord (Proverbs 19:3).
There is so much more for me to do. So much more to read and learn. And while it appears to be within grasping distance each day, I know that the only certain goal is death (hopefully not too soon!) and I can never know everything. Serendipitously, Allen brings it all together in a program for living:
To follow, under all circumstances, the highest promptings within you; to be always true to the divine self; to rely upon the inward Voice, the inward Light, and to pursue your purpose with a fearless and restful heart, believing that the future will yield unto you the need of every thought and effort; knowing that the laws of the universe can never fail, and that your own will come back to you with mathematical exactitude - this is faith and the living faith.
One cannot know what one doesn't know. But one can know how much one doesn't know. Regardless, the end is death. But once one has taken the red pill, there is little one can do. Sometimes I pine for the me who knew less. At least then I knew everything.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Book Notes: "The Cossacks" and "Hadji Murat" by Leo Tolstoy

The Cossacks and Hadji MuratThe Cossacks and Hadji Murat by Leo Tolstoy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One can only imagine how good Tolstoy is in the original Russian. In Cossacks I found a story that resonates with the short-lived camaraderie of living in close proximity that peters out and then vanishes with distance, and becomes a barely-recalled memory over time. Yet, at its zenith, the relationships are admirable and true. Hagan, in a journal article about the novel, suggests that Tolstoy is writing about ambivalence. While this may be true it is hard not to actually feel Tolstoy's work. This was nowhere more so than in Hadji Murat. The novella leaves one feeling the horror, the banality, the honour, the futility of war, but also its raw carnality. Not endlessly, but in a conclusion that takes one from the present to the past and back to the present again, leaving one "ambivalent" about the future. Tolstoy was so clever he seems to be far beyond my understanding, now or ever. That this is merely a translation boggles the mind.

View all my reviews


Hagan, J. (1969). Ambivalence in Tolstoy's "The Cossacks". NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Autumn, 1969), pp. 28-47.

Remnick, D. (2005). The Translation Wars: How the race to translate Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky continues to spark feuds, end friendships, and create small fortunes. The New Yorker, 7 November.

Monday, 27 March 2017

Conquering the Universe One Peace at a Time, or: Pursuing the Cultured, Prosperous, Stoic Life

Peace and Prosperity, 1896. Mural by Elihu Vedder at Library of Congress. Photo by Carol Highsmith.
In a recent post I grappled with the concept of parsimony in explaining complex problems. Critics will often suggest one is conflating issues when the complexity becomes too much for them to bear. But that doesn't mean there is no merit in pursuing answers to complex problems, or that a parsimonious solution is the best one. In this article, I grapple with the pursuit of peace and prosperity and the lofty ideals of high culture, as I journey with Epictetus, Tolstoy, James Allen, Harold Bloom, and Joseph Epstein.

This journey began with Joseph Epstein. Or was it Tolstoy. Or Harold Bloom. Definitely not Howard Bloom. I think I bumped into Howard Bloom on my journey with Dante. I am already conflating my ideas, it would seem, so let's start with Epstein. But how did I get there? Already, I must become a detective of my own thoughts. But the detective is Inspector Clouseau [goes off to look at bookmarks and various hardcopy printouts]...

I can't find the connection, but it came from reading about how many books one will read before one dies. It turns out that, assuming my life follows an average trajectory and I can continue to read 80 books per year until I die, that leaves me with 2,960 books I could potentially read until I cark it. I better write a list of "must-reads".

Going off on this tangent is a good thing, apparently, because it means I am deliberately self-regulating my knowledge processes, and therefore developing "expert knowledge". The process will become faster over time. However, my writing timeframes are blowing out. So, like Clouseau, I stumble off in the hope that this will be fruitful in the long run (see Glaser 1995, p. 265, point 5). But I digress.

I have been working through Ryan Holiday's The Daily Stoic, while completing Benjamin Franklin's personal improvement plan (I have just completed week 9 of 13), and also reading James Allen's "Morning and Evening Thoughts" from As a Man Thinketh. This is a daily process which includes writing a journal, ritualised each morning and evening, and accompanied by a good dose of daily reading. Which brings me to Epstein.

Given that the number of books I can read is restricted by the length of my life, Epstein provides some suggestions that may prove useful in making best use of this time. To use his words:
My media diet is the equivalent of vegan.
Epstein reads a few magazines, but avoids most of the hype about day to day politics. He has cancelled his subscriptions to The New York Times  and The New Yorker. So what does he do with the extra time he has freed up?
Well, I've made a little discovery of a marvelous invention called books, which I'm told are going out of style but which give a satisfaction that is deeper than any other means I know.
If you haven't read a book for a while, this won't make much sense. But if you have, you might wonder whether there is any truth to the claim that the novel is on its way out.

So I turned to the Times Literary Supplement, where Ben Jeffrey tells me all about The Oxford History of the Novel in English. Apparently the novel has been on its last legs in every decade since the 1940s. The novel has apparently been made obsolete by technology. Yet this has been accompanied "by a constant increase in the number of novels written, published, and read".

However, Will Self suggests that the novel will be a specialist form of reading. Using my bounded experiences to guide me, I can readily agree with Self. I rarely meet people I can talk to about the books I read. That is no boast; I find it rather sad. Will Self says what I think:
Nor do I mean to suggest that in our culture perennial John Bull-headed philistinism wasn't alive and snorting: "I don't know much about art but I know what I like". However, what didn't obtain is the current dispensation, wherein those who reject the high arts feel not merely entitled to their opinion, but wholly justified in it. It goes further: the hallmark of our contemporary culture is an active resistance to difficulty in all its aesthetic manifestations, accompanied by a sense of grievance that conflates it with political elitism... The current resistance of a lot of the literate public to difficulty in the [novel] is only a subconscious response to having a moribund message [that reading novels is good for you] pushed at them.
And on and on it goes. Anti-Stoically (with a deliberate capital S), Sandy Grant recommends we don't try to control our emotions in order to resist Trump. Then, Stoically, Ryan Holiday suggests that focusing on the things we can control and avoid, echoing Epstein, the media trap. Conveniently, this brings my meandering back to Epstein.

On 30 June 1999, in an interview in The Atlantic, Epstein spoke about death and its influence on how he thinks about his life and work:
I don't mope and think about death all the time -- not quite -- but the idea that life is going to be over conditions almost everything I do. I'm always thinking about this -- when I work, when I read. I just don't want to waste myself on too much trivia.
Given that Epstein had undergone open heart surgery only a few months before, such a view is not surprising. And in speaking about his surgery in The New Yorker on 12 April 1999, Epstein hints at a Stoic reality:
I still feel an abiding vulnerability I hadn't felt before. The surgery has left me with what I can only call heart-consciousness. I turn over in bed at night and hear my heart, and feel less in control of my destiny. Rationality, of which I have always considered myself a devotee, has its distinct limits, and one of them is over the fate of my body: it will check out when it is ready, not, as I should prefer, when I am. All this was true, of course, before my bypass surgery, but now it seems more than merely true - I know it to be ineluctably true.
Then just last week, Epstein, writing in The Weekly Standard, addresses the issue of high culture. He writes of Matthew Arnold (I am reading Culture and Anarchy right now), and how reading the classics and discovering that someone 2,000 years ago dealt with the same issues and had the same thoughts as you do is a fascinating form of connection. The introduction to Culture and Anarchy mentions Mrs Humphrey Ward, who happened to be Matthew Arnold's niece. I read Ward's book because of another connection as I journeyed through literature.

Epstein then mentions Tolstoy. I have just finished The Cossacks (I will review this as soon as I have finished Hadji Murad, which happens to be about love and death), which is part of the same book.

This sent me off on the tangent of "ambivalence" in The Cossacks and how nobody else really cares about what someone does, and again the final scene in La Vie En Rose "we die alone", and don't get me started on the actress who also happened to be in Midnight in Paris and then Hemingway and Fitzgerald... [take a breath]... so what does it all mean to be peaceful and prosperous?

According to Marcus Aurelius, and as echoed by Epstein:
You have power over your mind -- not outside events [including your body]. Realize this, and you will find strength.
I do not control my body, but I can control my mind. So what do I need to be at peace? Epstein suggests that it is much easier to be happy if you avoid high culture:
The pursuit of high culture came with a price. Once hooked on it, one was no longer entirely at ease with popular culture—the culture, that is to say, most of us grew up with and that remains the mainstream culture. Once one is devoted to the pursuit of high culture, the bestseller, the Oscar-winning movie, the highest-rated television shows—all uncomplicatedly enjoyed by one's contemporaries—are, if not of no interest, then thought somewhat out of bounds, with the enjoyment of them tending to fall under the category of guilty pleasures.
This echoes what I tell my first-year students:
You need to know these things so you don't look like a goose at a dinner party. Nevertheless, once you know these things, there is no turning back: Ignorance truly is bliss.
And then I find solace in Epstein's words to his:
But if as writers you intend to present yourself to the world as cultured persons, you have to know these names and events and scores of others, and what is important about them. This is not something that one gets up as if for an exam, or Googles and promptly forgets, but that must be understood in historical context—at least it must for those who seek to live a cultured life.
And so Inspector Clouseau solves the case. Or rather, Epstein does:
A cultured person has a standard, a recollection, through literature and history and philosophy—if not necessarily through personal experience—of greatness. Without such a recollection, rising above mediocrity is difficult, if not impossible.
And Oakeshott (cited in Epstein), rounds out the whole death and reading business:
To be educated is to know how much one wishes to know and to have the courage not to be tempted beyond this limit.
Surely, pursuing high culture will help me to find peace. But what of prosperity? In A Brief Economic History of Time, Derek Thompson suggests that those who are happiest value time over money. I know this is true for me, to paraphrase Rousseau, bought through experience that was barely worth the cost. So being cash rich but time poor is not prosperity.

It makes me wonder what academic colleagues mean when they say "I don't have time to read". I really hope they are stinking rich. But give me time any day.

Then what would I do with my time? Well, read, of course, and write. But I need to know what I need to know and not be tempted beyond this limit. Given there is only a certain amount of time for this pursuit, I need to make it worthwhile.

My next steps are to read, in this order, are to read:
  1. Martin Heidegger - Being and Time
  2. Jean Paul Sartre - Existentialism is a Humanism
  3. Soren Kierkegaard - a few things!
  4. Simone de Beauvoir -  The Ethics of Ambiguity
According to Sartre, "You are your life, and nothing else". And we are what we do - not what we might do or wish we did. Add to this the time pressure, and you can probably connect the dots to see why these readings are important. But why do all this? I will give James Allen (1921:48) the last word:
He (sic) who has conquered self has conquered the universe.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

New music livens up Old Courthouse

The String Contingent, Old Courthouse at Gunning, 19 March 2017. Photo by Gunning Focus Group

The String Contingent, Old Courthouse at Gunning, 19th March 2017.

The String Contingent, presented by the Gunning Focus Group, arrived at our village on Sunday 19th March 2017. The trio performed to a packed crowd of more than 60 people in the Old Courthouse at Gunning. According to Mike Coley, this was a record crowd for the Gunning Focus Group, which has been bringing fine artists to Gunning since 1998.

Consisting of a double-bassist and a violin player (both graduates of the ANU School of Music) and a guitarist (from Scotland), the group have recently completed a residency where they composed a whole suite of new music. Many of the new pieces were on the ticket and the composer of each piece explained the concept and the importance of the composition before its performance. This was far from a dry affair, with bassist Holly sending the audience into fits of laughter with her antics towards her colleagues, Chris and Graham.

The String Contingent is an award-winning trio focused on original music in the developing genre of acoustic chamber/folk. One should never underestimate the aural power of a trio, and these three young musicians did not disappoint. If you are tired of the same old music, and don’t know where to look for something different, then you can check out The String Contingent at their website at http://www.thestringcontingent.com/.

The fact that you can discover new music in the village of Gunning is an added bonus. If you’d like to support ongoing musical performances in our village, you can join the Gunning Focus Group by visiting http://gunningfocusgroup.com/contact-us.

The next performance will be by Adhoc Baroque, performing at St Edmund’s Anglican Church, Biala Street, Gunning, on 23 April 2017 at 2pm.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Or, If I put these here, will I watch them later?

I am fascinated by literature. When I am procrastinating, I turn to history and literature and wish I had studied something else. And then I realise I didn't study something else, and that romanticising one thing over another is a sub-optimal strategy. Especially when one's time is limited. Of course, everyone's time is limited but we don't know about the end when it happens, so it is not so obvious. But when one's limited time appears so obvious, then one's reflection turns to such matters as priorities. But the truth is I am just finding excuses to procrastinate.

Yet there is much to learn from literature, as there is from politics. In my Daily Stoic reflection today, the focus is on "Who watches the watchmen?", or, in Juvenal's Latin:
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
I am finding so many good things to read and watch that I am feeling the weight of the goodness. It is becoming a problem: What do I want to know? Can I know what I want to know, and worse, can I want to know what I want to know? What is clear is that if I do not make a choice, then I will not be able to focus. A lack of focus leads to the passing of time as a surprise. If this is what I want, then that is fine, but if I wake up some time in the future and think, "Where am I?", then I have missed the point.

So what rules my ruling reason?

This would seem to be a lifelong quest. But, as the adage goes, "He who fails to plan, plans to fail".

Can one ever work out what rules one's ruling reason? I suppose it is too late to turn back now.

I haven't looked at the first video, and I have only watched part of the Harold Bloom video. Bloom makes me laugh. What strikes me is how he says: "We should not be afraid of saying 'elites', we need elites". This echoes Sir Bernard Crick when I listened to him in Sydney years ago.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Book Notes: "The First Three Circles of Hell" by Dante Alighieri

The First Three Circles of HellThe First Three Circles of Hell by Dante Alighieri

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have a slew of these abridged Penguin 60s Classics and decided to get over my aversion to abridged books and read them whenever I wanted a quick read. Dante's "Inferno", the first part of the Divine Comedy, is one of those poems one has read excerpts from, knows the key historical and philosophical (and controversial) issues concerned, but never reads the epic in its entirety. So reading the first three circles means I must go on and finish the whole thing. Despite its brevity, I must admit to learning much about philosophy and religion. I was unaware of The Apocalypse of Paul, or that there was also a Coptic Apocalypse of Paul. Dante seems to have plagiarised the ideas from 1,000 years beforehand. Nevertheless, and what I find interesting, is that Dante was a layman, and more or less an autodidact. He was well-versed in the Roman classics (he uses Virgil for his guide), but, surprisingly, also Aristotle. Why was this a surprise? Well, I wasn't sure that, at the time, the works of Aristotle were available in Latin (Plato was not translated until a couple of centuries later). Known as the "Recovery of Aristotle", Islamic scholars had kept the classics alive by translating the Ancient Greek into Arabic, which was subsequently translated into Latin, which meant that Dante had read Aristotle. My historical chronological sense was tripped up. I have spent years trying to memorise key historical events to put various elements of time (history) and space (geography) in context. After a little investigation, it turns out that Dante completed the work in 1320, and Aristotle's work was available in Florence from at least the early thirteenth century, and Thomas Aquinas had enabled Aristotle to be read without necessarily requiring the reader to be burned at the stake (that would come later as humanity supposedly advanced - a bit like what is happening now). Dante was well-read. To top it off, Dante wrote in the Italian vernacular (with the Tuscan dialect), rather than Latin. This created Italian as the dominant literary language in Western Europe for centuries (I wonder if this added to the prevalence of Italian in opera, too?). And all this without even mentioning the plot! I was a little surprised by the rationale for placing certain historical figures in the first three circles. But such an elaborate scheme to eternally torment people for misbehaving wouldn't stand a chance with neoliberalism, so it probably isn't too much to worry about these days. At least in the after-life. Hell on earth is another matter entirely.

View all my reviews

Monday, 20 March 2017

Book Notes: "The Big Sleep" by Raymond Chandler

The Big Sleep (Philip Marlowe, #1)The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's difficult not to like Raymond Chandler's work. This is only the second of his novels I have read, but this time, because I doubted Hollywood would replicate the pornography ring in detail, and it was a wet and windy Saturday night, I watched the 1946 film version of The Big Sleep starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. It was sufficiently different to the book not to affect my enjoyment of the story, and, I must say, it was good to watch a crisp black and white movie on my television. I watched it on Youtube, but the rented, rather than the pirated, version of the film. I am now off in search of African Queen and other Bogart classics and will follow these up with the novels, too. But The Big Sleep was an excellent read. I am struck by the complexity of Philip Marlowe's character that eludes the Bogart version. Because there is no real love story, as in the Hollywood version, there is much more to explore, and no need to find excuses for Lauren Bacall to appear so frequently. Marlowe reminds me of the Protestant ethic. It is OK to be a booze-hound and to smoke yourself to death, as long as you don't do reefers and you are admirable in your smuttiness towards the upper classes. Chandler's prose is brilliant, and it would appear, for now at least, that this novel is considered his best because it is his best. Not so many wise-cracks and heavy similes as Farewell, My Lovely, but, all the same, a cracker of a story, a likeable character, and a paddock full of fertilizer for the imagination in a mere 250 pages, and a one-page conclusion that brings multiple stories to a neat and satisfying finish.

View all my reviews

Friday, 17 March 2017

Book Notes: "Murder on the Orient Express" by Agatha Christie

Murder on the Orient Express (A Hercule Poirot Mystery)Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is my first Agatha Christie novel. Strange, I know, but as a teenager, I really didn't care whodunit. However, I have been a fan of David Suchet in Agatha Christie's Poirot in recent years, and I have seen the movie Murder on the Orient Express several times. So as I was reading the original novel, I noted the absence of the film's dark, religious undertones, and Poirot's struggle with the ideas of justice and the rule of law, and all that distinguishes humans from animals and how this was all exuded by Poirot's noble character. The novel, of course, exhibits none of these themes, and ends abruptly with Poirot more like Philip Marlowe in his pragmatic application of the finer elements of his vocation, albeit in a dandified manner rather than Bogart-esque grungy suaveness. How I would react to the novel had I not seen the film, one can never know, but I cannot help feel a little disappointed, while at the same time pleased with the obvious improvements introduced by the film. Christie is clearly an excellent story-teller, and I will now have to read one of her stories that is not familiar to know for sure. But there is something about the prose that captures and holds the reader. I call this being a "storyteller", and I immediately think of Somerset Maugham in the same vein. Nevertheless, the comparison ends there, as Christie is not in the same class as Maugham, and had it not been for the film, I would find it hard to think of this novel as little more than a story well told; a Commando comic type of novel, a short, quick spot of entertainment while taking a train (well, maybe not a train!) or a bus to work, but one that cannot be taken seriously. It does, however, raise for me the issue of how a good screenwriter can do wonders with a story. I immediately think of James Clavell, who was also an excellent storyteller, but who had the ability to write for the screen (such as The Great Escape and 633 Squadron. By the way, Clavell's main character was Peter Marlowe, echoing Raymond Chandler, and Clavell was Australian born). This little exploration led me to look at the works of the screenwriter for Orient Express, Stewart Harcourt. I could not find a novel written by him. This also led me to look at that other brilliant screenwriter, Woody Allen. I did not know but Allen has written many books and I must read some! So, what have I learnt from Agatha Christie? Well, and without being so conceited as to put down her work, I feel I didn't miss much by seeing the screen versions rather than reading her stories. Still, it is strange that it has taken me nearly half a century to get to her novels. To put the story in the context of her times, one must acknowledge Christie's talent. One must acknowledge, too, that, apparently, Christie now leads William Shakespeare on the best selling author's of all time list, and, I understand, second only to God and His Holy Bible. That's not a bad innings as an author.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Book Notes: "Theatre" by W. Somerset Maugham

TheatreTheatre by W. Somerset Maugham

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Maugham's work is easy to read, not because it is simple, but that he is a story teller. Many subtle nuances permeate the prose, and topics including art, poetry, politics, and sexuality, amid class consciousness, are as near or far as the reader wishes them to be. A few themes that resonate with me recently include the notion of solitude. I often think of the 2007 film La Vie en Rose and how Édith Piaf's character at the end says words to the effect of "we all die alone". When I tried to find the precise quote, I stumbled upon a review of the movie in The Guardian from 2007 that indicates the movie was "empty". Yet for me, I had shuddered at the prospect of dying alone until some time after I "unDisneyfied" myself in my forties. In the review, a quote from Olivier Dahan reads that the movie provides "the perfect example of someone who places no barrier between her life and her art". Julia Lambert, Maugham's protagonist, occupies exactly this same space. Although this book can be considered either a tragedy or a comedy, depending on how you look at it (is this even possible?), there is a strong theme of solitude, as in being alone with one's thoughts while being part of society but remaining autonomous from family and friends - as if there is no bond beyond mere convention (Marxist maybe?). Out of the entire cast, Julia Lambert's son emerges as the one intelligent being among a crowd of self-seeking and emotionally greedy individualists who by the end are all likeable but rather annoying (think of Agatha Christie's Poirot and how even she tired of his conceited dandyism - he was a bore). In some ways, an alternative title might even be How to be or not be a Bore. Not that the book is boring, but the characters and their mutual disregard for each other certainly make one think about one's own level of boringness as highlighted by these characters. I think that while audience sympathy for Piaf makes all the difference in the movie, Lambert's rich life of high culture doesn't allow the same leniency. But what is clear is that we live and die alone, whether we think so or not. Theatre leaves me wondering to what extent I bore those around me, live selfishly without noticing, and think I am better than everyone else. To err is human, and Maugham points out that our propensity for being boring, selfish, and judgemental mean that we can only ever err in this regard. Lambert shows us how far we can push it in the guise of blurring life and art. There are a couple of quotes that I find brilliant. First, on acting and poetry: "You had to have had the emotions, but you could only play them when you had got over them. She remembered that Charles had once said to her that the origin of poetry was emotion recollected in tranquility. She did't know anything about poetry, but it was certainly true about acting" (p. 290). Second, when Lambert's son is telling her how he perceives her: "When I've seen you go into an empty room I've sometimes wanted to open the door suddenly, but I've been afraid to in case I found nobody there" (p. 261). The former is true in my experience, but I have never said it so elegantly. The latter is what concerns me more now than dying alone. I can accept that as a future fact, but if I were to be, as Lambert's son does to his mother, peeled back like an onion, would there be anything of substance? In Poetics, Aristotle makes clear distinctions between tragedy and comedy. It seems an absurdity that a story could be both. But I think that is what Maugham achieves. That he does this in a book called Theatre in a story that focuses on actors makes it possible, and, like I said, you could read this story as a comedy and think "those crazy artist types", or, you could read this as a tragedy and think "do I do that with my life?" In either mode, Maugham displays his genius.

View all my reviews

Monday, 13 March 2017

My comments on the latest Akamai report on Australia's broadband

Anchorites versus Thoreauvian Solitude: Or, Could I please unlearn this historical fact?

© Depositphotos.com/@olly18
On reading parts of Thoreau and Emerson, and to some extent Walt Whitman, I have learnt to have moments of deliberate solitude and find the practice quite soothing. Aside from a handful of ecstatic moments experienced in solitude in the scrub at night or in thunderstorms, especially on the Cape York Peninsula, this is a recent development in my personality. But there are limits, and Dr Green just slammed these in my face.

Until I was in my late thirties, I found it rather difficult to be alone. Now, I wait patiently for those periods where I can do my own thing for as long as I choose. But after reading the essay "Solitary Refinement" by Dr Matthew Green in The Idler magazine (Issue 50, Autumn 2016, pp. 57-63), it is clear that balance is crucial.

It turns out that some Middle Age celebrities were known as "Anchorites". Think of them as extreme hermits, or even caged oracles. Now, I read Cave in the Snow not long after it was first published, and I remember shuddering at the thought of so lonely an existence and for so long. But more recently, watching Bill Murray in the 1984 film adaptation of Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge reminded me of Vicki Mackenzie, and I thought that maybe it wouldn't be so bad. Then along came anchorites.

So an anchorite gave up their freedom to be walled in to a prison cell. Forever. They were not prisoners, but more or less volunteers who were built into a closed cell with a barred opening covered with a dark cloth. The opening served as a portal for the passing back and forth of food and waste, while the anchorite gave their life to be "close to God".

Green says there were actually long waiting lists for "anchorholds" in London. Being an anchorite (or indeed, anchoress) "was a way of being someone". In the 13th century, there were even handbooks for anchoresses. Many were driven by fame.

I recently wrote about the uncanny valley, and how the mannequins in the Old Melbourne Gaol introduced me to the uncanny valley. I wonder if the uncanny valley was amplified by the prison cell. The idea of being locked in forever is enough to make me physically ill, and I am certain I would die within days.

But many anchorites lived in a room, some even had a garden area, like a gilded forever-prison. But what about this from Green?
An anchorhold survives in London today, at the Church of St Mary Magdalene in East Ham, measuring just three feet by two feet, and six feet high.
I cannot stop shuddering.

Here I was thinking Green's essay would be about monks and how the scholarly life was a solitary process yet it was fulfilling and so on. But this "extreme hermit" gig makes me want to go for a long walk and talk to and embrace everybody I meet.

Once again, it would seem that balance is key. Thank you, Dr Green, but the anchorite level of idleness is not for me!

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Putting the "Goulburn" back into Miles Franklin

Jennifer Lamb at the Goulburn Mulwaree Library, 12 March 2017
I travelled to Goulburn today to hear Jennifer Lamb, resident Miles Franklin researcher, give an illustrated talk on the author and the city of her day. Franklin is regarded as one of Australia's literary greats for her novel, My Brilliant Career, published at the time of Federation in 1901.

Ms Lamb became an avid Franklin researcher after "rediscovering" the author many years ago. At the time, there was little awareness of the important link between Goulburn and Franklin's novel, but there are many interesting back stories to the novel's protagonist, Sybylla Melvyn, that mirror events in Franklin's own early life and society. 

Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin (1879–1954) lived at Stillwater, a property near Goulburn, from 1891 to 1903. Franklin wrote her most famous novel at age 18 while residing there. Her novel caused a bit of a stir at the time because of the many parallels between fiction and real life.

Ms Lamb's presentation included many interesting photographs and links to Goulburn. For example, in the novel, Sybylla tells how she loved the organ music in either of the two cathedrals, and would often attend church just to hear the music. 

These same cathedrals still stand in Goulburn today, as does the store where the novel was first sold, and the house where Franklin was mentored by Thomas Hebblewhite, editor of the Goulburn Evening Penny Post, a newspaper that is still in circulation. Franklin's teacher, Mary Gillespie, provided early encouragement for the young writer, who was described by Ms Lamb as "a strident firebrand".

About fifty people attended the talk, followed by a pleasant afternoon tea. There were many questions from the audience and a keen interest in the obstacles Franklin faced trying to publish as a young woman and the circumstances around the support offered by Henry Lawson. 

The talk highlighted the past avoidance of Australian literature in our education system. Indeed, one audience member had read Australian literature at his school in England decades ago while many Australians are only now discovering what should otherwise be a strong local literary tradition.

Ms Lamb's talk also introduced the work of Brent of Bin Bin, especially the book Cockatoos, which encompasses my home town of Gunning, just west of Goulburn. It turns out that Brent of Bin Bin was Miles Franklin's pseudonym, allowing her to write stories inspired by the people and places of her youth while shielded by anonymity.

Ms Lamb continues to educate audiences about Miles Franklin, which over the years includes involvement in a play in 2013 and an art exhibition showcasing the life of Miles Franklin in Goulburn in 2001. The talk was a wonderful way to spend a Sunday afternoon and to learn more about this fascinating part of Australia.

Today's even was hosted by the Goulburn Mulwaree Library as part of Goulburn's "Our Living History" program.

Defending the Enlightenment with the Knowledge Illusion: Or, Why our desire for parsimony ensures we know diddly

What do we know? Photo by Linda Tanner CC BY 2.0
There are many statements about new knowledge and how, if you cannot explain something in so many words or less, then you do not understand the thing at hand. Or when senior executives want complex issues reduced to dot points to reduce their reading time.  Here I begin a critical examination of the opinion essay entitled "The Enlightenment's legacy is under siege. Defend it." by Damon Linker from The Week.

It would appear that our understanding of things, based on the academic desire for parsimony in developing new knowledge, has created an extreme that is ripe for the plucking by those who only think they know. If you are asking "Please explain?", then allow me to do so. But if you want my answer in so many words or less, then just go off and live your life as you please. It won't bother me.

What I want to do here is to not only critically examine Linker's essay, but to cross-examine the piece by superimposing a review, appearing in the April 2017 edition of Psychology Today, of the book The Knowledge Illusion, which is due for release soon. Obviously I cannot have read the book, but I will draw on the information provided in the review which touches on some key issues I wish to explore in the near future.

But first, let us begin with "Occams' Razor". Occam's Razor refers to the principle of parsimony in scientific research. In effect, if you are looking at two competing hypotheses, then the simplest is deemed the most likely. But we might also consider the hypotheses on a spectrum, with Occam's Razor on one extreme, and a Sherlock Holmes-style balance of probabilities on the other. Tania Lombrozo explains this far better than me. But apparently, Occam's Razor + Sherlock Holmes = Clever Kid.

Eyeball razor blade scene from Luis Buñuel's 1929 film Un Chien Andalou
When I read Linker's essay, I see Occam's Razor in action (a term which, incidentally, gives me the image of Luis Buñuel's eyeball razor blade in Un Chien Andalou). As I have not read Linker's other work, I can only examine the evidence presented, but, if I am to believe what is written about one of his major works, The Religious Test: Why We Must Question the Beliefs of Our Leaders, then he is not simply all for science and against everything else.

Nevertheless, Linker divides society into those for the Enlightenment, in a liberal arts or liberal democratic sense, and those who rejected Enlightenment thinking and have now come back to instigate Brexit, Trump, and here in Australia we rolled over the dead horse and flogged the other side of that other red-headed clown

No middle ground and a belief that "you're either with us or against us". Parsimonious, easy to put into dot point format, but oversimplified and wrong.

It may well be a case of heuristics, where the rule of thumb in Australia remains Labor = unionist, Liberal = silver-tail, and Greens = professional protestor who looks forward to state-led socialism. Of course, this is sometimes true but too simplistic to be useful in developing policy.

It is the same with Enlightenment versus counter-Enlightenment thinking. In The Knowledge Illusion, Sloman and Fernbach argue that the Dunning-Kruger effect is running rife in politics. Put simply, the effect explains "how difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments".

And so it is with Linker's essay. Not Linker, but the people "out there" he is writing about. If we look at the issues of globalisation, free trade, immigration, and so on, it is not the theory that has been disproven, but the way it has been done. Here are two of my favourite anti-globalisation cartoons:

The cartoon on the left shows the worst kind of tourist. People who go to other cultures like they would to a zoo. And on the right shows the worst kind of trade, where multinationals drive out choice by driving efficiencies.

None of this is new. The Greek and Roman Empires did the same, be it democracy or administration, as did the Mongols, the Ottomans, the British and so on. But in the grand scheme of things, it is a misnomer to equate globalisation with Americanisation, or to think that the American Empire will somehow outlive history. 
Time crumbles things; everything grows old under the power of Time and is forgotten through the lapse of Time (Aristotle's Physics, 221a).
I doubt the momentum of globalisation will be easily reversed. Nationalism cannot be the solution to all future problems. Brexit will not create jobs for underemployed Britons, Trump will not help the US economy by removing the ten or so million illegal workers who do all the dirty work without ever claiming social security benefits or receiving a tax refund.

Yet Linker draws on Heidegger and Nazis and tries to put Rousseau back in his illiberal box. I notice too that Linker has written a book entitled Theocons, so I suspect he is clinging to a New Right view of the world. Dare I say Orientalist.

So what is my point? The division of people into Enlightenment and counter-Enlightenment camps is problematic because it relies on a two-dimensional divide. It also hides behind a thick veil of the Dunning-Kruger effect based on cultural competence. 

Which is why I say that you cannot just review one article and forget about bringing other things in for the sake of parsimony. The world is far more complex, and complexity is best fought with complexity. The graph below indicates that the less you know, the more competent you think you are, and the more likely that you have an opinion on climate change based on the principle of parsimony but you had to look up the meaning of parsimony.
Indeed, Gary Drevitch's review (Psychology Today, April 2017: 44-5) of The Knowledge Illusion uses climate change as one of the major examples of confident incompetence presently in vogue. So is it possible that Linker's view is not that of an "indifferent spectator"?

Adam Smith, the Father of Capitalism, used the concept of the "indifferent spectator" in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) to arrive at the conclusion that our "social psychology is a better guide to moral action than is reason". I suspect that Linker is not indifferent at all but also doesn't know that is the case.

And surely Adam Smith, one of the leading lights of the Scottish Enlightenment, is using counter-Enlightenment thinking by arguing for a social psychology over reason in matters of morality? Linker has no answer to this problem.

I see this same hardheadedness in the I Fucking Love Science crew I regularly see on Facebook. Sure, science is great, but please don't pretend that science has all the answers or that, if you looked hard enough, you couldn't find a photograph of a relative who received blood-letting as a medical treatment. You may fucking love science but the knowledge illusion is still very real.

How do we overcome this? I think we need to revisit the principle of parsimony. I don't think it helps with complex problems. And, like reviewing one thing at a time for an orderly review, it does not illuminate biases or enable a triangulation or cross-examination of the issues at hand.

This has been an interesting activity. Linker points to many areas I am under-read in, and Psychology Today is proving to be, pardon the pun, an enlightening magazine. But complexity needs complexity, and binary solutions to systemic problems are not the answer, either in practice, or in our thinking.

Creative Commons License Except where indicated otherwise, Le Flâneur Politique by Michael de Percy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Australia License. Based on a work at politicalscience.com.au. Background image ©Depositphotos.com/ @redshinestudio