Saturday, 27 May 2017

Book Notes: "The Good Soldier Švejk" by Jaroslav Hašek

The Good Soldier ŠvejkThe Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is quite a tome. It is really four books in one (view spoiler). This is my first reading of a Czech author. I understand that the Austro-Hungarian Empire was held back by the Russians and later the Italians, otherwise the Anglo-French and their allies may have been in some mighty trouble during the Great War. Švejk puts an interesting spin on the peoples and cultures of this part of the conflict and, as an ex-soldier, I couldn't help but chuckle at the timeless idiocies of the military life, and Švejk's nonchalant way of handling such banal annoyances as "greatcoats on, greatcoats off", making "lists of lists", and nonsensical statistics about serving soldiers. While the work is part comedy, it is also satirical. In my mind's eye the comical events were reinforced by the cartoon drawings of Švejk and his antics. These cartoon characters tended to dance in front of real war footage, so a Laurel and Hardy figure had me laughing with embarrassment while at the same time I felt like I shouldn't be laughing. The effect is brilliant. There are so many stories within stories, and Švejk reminds me of the many characters I crossed paths with during my time in the army. One constantly came to mind as I read The Good Soldier Švejk: a soldier who could recite word for word any Monty Python movie ever made. At times, you had to tell him to just shut up, but it was hard to dislike him. Švejk is this same person. Tragic comedy is how I would describe this work. Brilliant.

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Monday, 15 May 2017

Book Notes: "Eclogues" and "Georgics" by Virgil

Eclogues and GeorgicsEclogues and Georgics by Virgil

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book of pastoral poems is a classic, and therefore difficult to dismiss off-handedly. What I found interesting were other reviews on Goodreads. One stated: "I have hardly any clue what I actually read". Virgil reads like Shakespeare, although the work is translated from Latin, so I share the sentiments of the other reviewer! It took me some time to read the poems, as I had to research the various characters and Greek and Roman gods to make sense of it. Even then, the background story of the civil wars and political instability in Rome is difficult to discern simply from the poems' text. The imagery of the text is evident in Naomi Mitchison's book Cloud Cuckoo Land, but the difference between Roman and Greek ideals about pastoral life are significant. While Virgil applies Greek imagery to the Italian landscape, the images belie the true story. In Virgil's time, rich Roman families dominated the farms and used slave labour to operate them. According to David Quint, writing in The New Republic, it was the Roman equivalent of what has happened in agribusiness in the United States, where the virtues of the rural life on the family farm persist, yet 'big business' owns most of the farms. The Georgics are didactic in that they provide guidance for farming, interspersed with metaphors for the birth of Rome. I found Georgic IV, which concludes the book, to be inspiring. We are hoping to keep bees, and bee-keeping is the subject of the poem (if one puts aside the birth-of-Rome metaphor). So there is some joy to be found for the virgin reader, much like one might find in a Shakespearean sonnet. However, without the background information, one might read and not absorb a word of what one had read. This brings me to this particular Dover Thrift Edition. I enjoy the size and price of this series, but sometimes I wonder whether a more substantial text with notes would be useful. Of course, there is the tendency, like in the Penguin version of Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis, to have longer notes than the actual work, and this can be worse. Nevertheless, this reading was useful as I steel myself for tackling Homer, Milton, and Dante.

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Thursday, 11 May 2017

Book Notes: "Mrs Dalloway" by Virginia Woolf

Mrs DallowayMrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first Virginia Woolf novel I have read, but I have read her work before, specifically A Room of One's Own, where Ms Woolf writes about writing and feminism, and I found this interesting, even though Ernest Hemingway, my favourite author, didn't like Ms Woolf, and I wasn't sure whether this was because she was a rival or because she was a woman, and given her feminism and her love of women, more generally, I was not surprised that Hemingway, in his obvious then-contemporary male chauvinism, might not like Ms Woolf's views, but of course this was before I had read Mrs. Dalloway, which really is an interesting work, and rivals Hemingway's themes, at least in terms of the psychological impact of war, but Ms Woolf also covers the "war and society" aspects that Hemingway tends to ignore, outside of his protagonists' meanderings through society, so in this regard, at least, Ms Woolf's work differs, yet tends to be gender-focused in its own way, and that is not to say that it is bad, for it isn't, or that I found it difficult to read, for it wasn't, but there was something about it that made it difficult to read in bits and pieces, and it would be much better suited to a long sitting, if one could find the time, because it tends to read a little like James Joyce, even though Ms Woolf and her husband (notice I use Ms as I am sure 'Mrs' Woolf would have done, even though the New York Times referred to her as 'Mrs Woolf' in her obituary, which was, interestingly, only a 'believed dead' obituary because of a suicide note and her missing body, which is also interesting given that Hemingway, who really didn't like her so much, also took his own life), Leonard, were unable to print Ulysses because it was too big for their printing establishment, known as Hogarth Press, and all this from reading what is, comparatively, a rather short book, almost a novella, but if I were to record what I gleaned most importantly from this book is not so much that Woolf was a good or bad writer, for surely her work is very good, but that the reason Hemingway didn't like her had nothing to do with their polar opposites in terms of gender and so on, for surely even in death they were alike, but the thing that is most striking is the difference in their prose, and it is for this reason, I believe, that Hemingway didn't like Woolf, not for the aforementioned issues, but mostly because her writing leaves one feeling rather frantic and out of breath, which may well be a deliberate technique, and it surely works, as in leaving one breathless, but what I am not sure about is whether this has anything to do with the content or the simple fact that Ms Woolf's sentences are just so bloody long.

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Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Bank bashing popular, but taxpayers lose, too

Photo: Queensland Newspapers Pty Ltd [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I am imagining the populist sentiment: "About time those banks got some of their own back!" 

But this won't make much difference to the banks, that will simply pass on the costs to shareholders and consumers. This is effectively a tax increase on anybody who has a bank account and anybody who has a superannuation fund - in effect, almost everybody of working age. 

The Treasurer, Scott Morrison, saying "Cry me a river" sounds funny, but the populists should be crying in their soup, even though they won't because, despite paying more, they will do so without knowing. As a political scientist, this is the part that fascinates me.

Extracting more revenue from successful Australian industries is now de rigueur. Australia's penchant for tall poppy syndrome lends popular support for governments to go after any part of the economy that dares to do well. 

Sometimes there is good reason to rein in the cost of externalities like pollution, but doing so using a populist approach to attack the mining industry ended in disaster for everyone. Australians missed the opportunity to capture the benefits of the mining boom and then forgot to implement a proper emissions trading scheme.

If the targeting of industries for revenue extraction was based on the prevalence of high-wealth individuals in the Forbes list, then the packaging and media industries should get a guernsey, too. Note there are no bankers on the list!

It will be interesting to see how the banks react. The carbon tax potentially impacted mining industry profits (it is difficult to pass on costs to customers in commodity export industries). And the Association of Mining and Exploration Companies' advertisements worked.

The big question is whether the banks will do the same. They may simply pass on the costs to consumers and quietly simmer away. But I daresay the backlash has already started.

What I find interesting is the basis of the claims and counter-claims about industry profitability and the value of particular industries to the nation. Given that almost all Australian workers have super funds that invest in Australian shares, which more than likely include the big miners and the big banks, one might think that targeting successful industries was counter-productive.

By way of example, BHP's performance since the global financial crisis (GFC) of 2008 is shown below. Notice how, due to global market factors and the change in value of the Australian dollar, BHP shares have not recovered their pre-GFC value.
ASX: BHP via Google , 9 May 2017
The Commonwealth Bank, however, has been travelling quite well. What happens to the share value of the major banks remains to be seen, but it can't be good for investors.
ASX:CBA via Google, 9 May 2017
If the major banks choose to pass on the increased costs to shareholders and consumers, the impact upon households may be significant. If the Australian Bankers' Association launches a counter-offensive, then the budget will be ineffective as in past years.

How did this happen? I suspect that the lumbering, inefficient nature of liberal democracy is largely to blame. Citizens do not want to pay more tax, consumers do not want to pay higher prices, but somebody has to pay.

If only it could be as simple as saying this is what everything costs, and this is how much tax will be charged. But it is never so simple. The political process is inevitable. The only way to overcome politics is to allow tyranny. Most people don't want this, so the system evolves as it has.

But a cold, dispassionate view of the tax on the banks is that it is effectively a tax increase for everyone. That governments have to use smoke and mirrors to increase taxes is a consequence of the political process.

Harold Lasswell's famous definition holds true: "Politics is who gets what, when, how". The key to good politics today is to hide how the getting gets done, and I think populism helps this cause immensely.

PS: Ironically, the ABC's Budget Winners and Losers list shows taxpayers and banks side by side!

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

From Brad Baranowski, Aeon: How Robert Nozick put a purple prose bomb under analytical philosophy

Photo: Suzy Dubot CC0 (Public Domain)
Libertarians are a quarrelsome lot. Debates about who is the better von, Hayek or Mises, rivalries between the Austrian and the Chicago schools of economics, and fights among Ayn Rand’s objectivists and Murray Rothbard’s Circle Bastiat – schisms that would make a Leftist blush – have rent libertarianism. So heads turned when one of their fold decided to throw in the towel on arguing.

Robert Nozick (1938-2002) was not averse to controversy. Five years after arriving at Harvard, he published Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974). A response to John Rawls, who had just published the monumental A Theory of Justice (1971), Nozick outlined the libertarian case for limited government. While plenty found A Theory of Justice unconvincing, critics found Anarchy, State, and Utopia to be unsavoury. One reviewer equated Nozick to ‘the average owner of a filling station’ whose only joy in life comes from ‘grousing about paying taxes’.

Such criticisms stung. ‘Is not the minimal state,’ Nozik’s book had asked, ‘an inspiring vision?’ A state stripped down to providing protection and enforcing contracts was simple and elegant. It was an art form, enchanting and efficient. Why didn’t others see this beauty? A sickness, answered Nozick, had descended upon Anglo-American thought. This illness had transformed intellectual life into a fit of assertion and counter-assertion. Nowhere was this impulse more malignant than in his own discipline, philosophy.

Postwar American philosophy departments were not famous for providing insights about living the good life. Dominated by philosophical analysis – a movement preoccupied with logic – professional philosophers neglected or even condescended to issues of broader interest such as ethics. In The Rise of Scientific Philosophy (1951), Hans Reichenbach, a prominent defender of analysis, asserted: ‘Those philosophers who are willing to derive moral directives from their philosophies can only offer you a sham proof.’ Proof, in this rigorous, new philosophy, was everything.

Nozick had studied philosophy as a graduate student at Princeton University during the early 1960s, writing his dissertation about logical notation and decision theory. Few other topics were appropriate. Analytical philosophers made up the bulk of the faculty, and they sniffed at ethics and aesthetics. ‘There was a purity about the air,’ recalled one graduate student. Professors believed that there ‘were philosophical wars to be fought, with good guys and bad guys’. The latter, those who talked about the good and the bad, were easy targets. As W V O Quine, the philosopher whose work launched many dissertations, declared in 1953, ‘philosophy of science is philosophy enough’. All other approaches should be purged.

By the 1980s, Nozick had had enough of this mode of philosophical enquiry. ‘The language of analytic philosophy,’ he complained, ‘“forces” the reader to a conclusion through a knock-down argument.’ Discussion thus became a zero-sum game. If the loser of an argument did not accept his opponent’s conclusion ‘he dies’, a victim of his own mental weaknesses. Among the collateral damages of this aggression was an appreciation of intellectual diversity. Nozick aspired to pacify philosophy.

He was not alone. At nearly the same time, three highly regarded analytical philosophers began an intellectual guerrilla war within the discipline, breaking down the conceptual barricades against the value-talk that the previous generation had erected.

In 1979, Douglas Hofstadter battled the widely held perception that formal logic was impenetrable, showing in Gödel, Escher, Bach how cognition ran around a ‘strange loop’ of self-reference. The same year, Richard Rorty staged a coup against academic epistemology, calling it a ‘self-deceptive effort’ in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Following these engagements, Alasdair MacIntyre launched a frontal assault on contemporary meta-ethics in After Virtue (1981), decrying how the ahistorical assumptions of contemporary moral thought had created a new dark age.
‘I want to speak of the purity and dignity of an apple, the explosive joy and sexuality of a strawberry’
In Philosophical Explanations (1981), Nozick opened a new line of attack. Philosophers, he posited, would be better off if they stopped trying to prove things like scientists, an impulse he believed led thinkers to overlook how philosophy might stimulate the ‘mind’s excitement and sensuality’. Rather, they ought to limit themselves to explaining how a system of thought is possible. This would allow a ‘basketful’ of approaches to exist within philosophy, transforming it into an art form, one that sculpted ‘ideas, value, and meaning into new constellations, reverberative with mythic power’. Such an attitude would also recognise philosophers for what they were: ‘valuable and precious’, free to mould and express their lives as artists do theirs.

This big change in conceptualising philosophy liberated Nozick. He now discussed topics ranging from explorations of modern poetry and Hindu theology, to considerations of parenthood, emotions, and personal enlightenment. Gone, too, were the formal equations of his dissertation, replaced with the considerably looser prose in his next book, The Examined Life (1989), a series of informal reflections on life, death, and fruit. ‘I want to speak of the purity and dignity of an apple,’ he waxed in a representative passage, ‘the explosive joy and sexuality of a strawberry.’ Remarking on the shift in style himself, he admitted that he would have found this second line ‘ridiculously overblown once’. Some of his readers still did. As the British philosopher Bernard Williams observed, reading Nozick’s later work was like watching ‘a commercial for breakfast food’.

Purple prose aside, Nozick largely won praise from his colleagues. He had appeared, as one reviewer wrote, like a ‘knight in shining armour’, rescuing his peers from doing obscurantist philosophy. Thanks to his willingness to quit arguing and start explaining, philosophy had rediscovered its obligation to provide the public with lessons about living the good life. The Canadian philosopher Ian Hacking thought it nothing less than the ‘rebirth of philosophy’. Lost in this ballyhoo was the irony that a man who, in the previous decade, had argued for the moral benefits of privatisation, now spearheaded philosophy’s concern with the intellectual commons.

Of course, it had become easy to overlook such political incongruities. Nozick certainly did. If his libertarianism had gained a joie de vivre, it had done so by diluting its original raison d’être. Students should read Max Weber or Karl Marx, he contended in Philosophical Explanations, not because these authors provided insights into how society functioned. On the contrary, these political theorists were notable because their books are part of the ‘long list of human accomplishment, striving, and excellence’. Capital (1867-94) was a model of what hard work could achieve, not a book about how hard work is.

The same standard applied to Nozick’s own work. ‘The libertarian position I once propounded now seems to me seriously inadequate,’ he announced in The Examined Life. From here on out, he would apply his libertarianism inwardly, focusing on the cultivation of his self rather than the destruction of the state. While this admission shocked admirers of Anarchy, State, and Utopia, it was a logical outgrowth of the author’s intellectual development. After all, this was the man who had declared that attempting to convince others of your views – the modus operandi of politics – was a ‘philosophically pointless task’. For Nozick, libertarianism had ceased to be an ideology. It had become a lifestyle, one that was not better or worse than any other – at least, not arguably so.Aeon counter – do not remove

Brad Baranowski

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons CC-BY-ND 4.0.

Monday, 8 May 2017

"Into the Wild" but not Out of the Misery, or: First World Problems are simply history repeating...

The old Fairbanks City bus on The Stampede Trail, Alaska, where Christopher McCandless starved to death in 1992.
A recent email from The Atlantic explains how, in 1857, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and James Russell Lowell sat down for dinner (Harriet Beecher Stowe wouldn't go because alcohol was being served), and the iconic magazine was born. The Atlantic "would make politics, literature, and the arts its chief concerns". 

For a long time I have been fascinated by these very things, but since the beginnings of the twenty-first century, I have become somewhat pessimistic about the prospects for humanity. 

Art and literature, fine; but politics? For a political scientist to be jaded at politics, things must be really bad. Oh woe is me. Turns out this is a First World Problem.

The first indicator came via Scott Pape, the Barefoot Investor. I like Pape's newsletters. He tells people straight: 
Old Lady: "Sir, we can't afford our McMansion, what can we do?"
Barefoot Investor: "Sell it and move into a smaller house you can afford, moron!"
This evening I watched Sean Penn's 2007 movie Into the Wild (based on the non-fiction book by Jon Krakaeur). This was no Hollywood sap story, and finding it on Netflix was a bonus (I had it sitting in my inbox as a "must watch" movie that Google had informed me about, no doubt because I recently read and blogged about Ralph Potts' book Vagabonding). 

As "Alexander Supertramp" travels throughout North America as a rejection of modern materialism, it had me thinking about my tiff with politics. And I was thinking about how the more things change, the more things stay the same.

As I read historical literature, the same old patterns keep repeating. Willa Cather said it best in O Pioneers
...there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before...
Fairbanks Bus 142 (pictured above), where McCandless was found starved to death, has become a pilgrimage site since the book and the movie. This is creating its own problems, not to mention some rather tacky re-enactments.

But pilgrims do what pilgrims do, and nothing much has changed since Ibn Battutah's time. Even Virgil was bemoaning the loss of the pastoral life that didn't exist for most people way back when.

The reaction to McCandless' plight provides an apt metaphor for contemporary politics. In the words of the book's author, Jon Krakaeur:
I’ve received thousands of letters from people who admire McCandless for his rejection of conformity and materialism in order to discover what was authentic and what was not, to test himself, to experience the raw throb of life without a safety net. But I’ve also received plenty of mail from people who think he was an idiot who came to grief because he was arrogant, woefully unprepared, mentally unbalanced, and possibly suicidal.
What does it all mean? Different things to different people. Some sick of experts telling them how to be, others sick of populism undoing all that is good for others. 

None of this is new. It is the same old story. And being jaded is a First World Problem. Although it may still be end of empire, it probably won't happen before my time is up. 

So what is there to be jaded about? For this, I return to the ancient wisdom of the Stoics, and the words of Marcus Aurelius:
You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.
I suppose I won't need to go on the wallaby to grapple with contemporary politics, after all. And what I find repulsive today will be the fascinating beginnings of post-truth politics in years to come. I don't need to go on a pilgrimage or recreate McCandless's photograph, maybe just somewhere in between.

Amazing what can happen to one after watching a movie that is un-Disneyfied. Shakespeare-esque is much better!

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Book Notes: "How to be Idle" by Tom Hodgkinson

How to be IdleHow to be Idle by Tom Hodgkinson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was useful in that it points to historical authors and works and it is reasonably well-referenced and includes some historical texts in an appendix. I enjoyed reading the book and had a good laugh several times, but it was obvious that the author was young (at the time of writing) and tended to reify a young person's happy relationship with drugs and alcohol as something that could not only be perpetuated indefinitely, but that was a normal part of being an idler. That may be true if you want to die young or do yourself a Hemingway, but it seemed to be a little too keen on the idea of chemically-induced idling rather than an intellectually-focused "flâneurie". I suppose it is easy to be a critic, but the book is formulaic in the way Robert Greene, Ryan Holiday, or Mark Manson tend to write. This is a recent trend and while I have followed this trend and read the contents of these authors greedily, it just doesn't have the spark that sets apart great literature from great absorption of the work of others. That's it! These works are useful and good, but the works tend to be - what was it they recently suggested lecturers should be? - that's right, "curators" of content. That's it precisely. This book is an excellent example of curated content on idling that the reader will enjoy and no doubt learn from. But it lacks that creative spark of great literature, and it tends to be mono-cultural in its appeal. Just like a competent lecturer. You will learn, not burn.

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Friday, 28 April 2017

Book Notes: "Symposium/Phaedrus" by Plato

Symposium/PhaedrusSymposium/Phaedrus by Plato

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reading ancient classics in their entirety is an interesting exercise. Not reading them from start to finish, and instead gaining one's classical education purely from secondary sources, is a sure way to reinforce modern prejudices. The standard "folk-style" (re)interpretations render one's thoughts on the classics, the Renaissance, ethics, and sexuality recast in modern fashions of morality. This is no laughing matter, and as recent as 2005, pointing out the obvious was less an exercise in self-flagellation (pardon the pun), and more an exercise in publicly shooting oneself in the foot. For example, the book Same-Sex Desire and Love in Greco-Roman Antiquity and in the Classical Tradition of the West was not going to be published (according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, 12 October 2005) following objections by "conservative activists". This is what leaves me shaking my head - if being a conservative is all about respect for the traditions of the past, where "Western" thought and the Hellenic tradition are one and the same (especially in opposition to "others"), then the veritable chink in the conservative armour is undoubtedly amour homosexuel. That is not to say that one shouldn't take the best bits of the past and reject those practices that were not simply actions between consenting adults (specifically pederasty, but bestiality and cannibalism probably count, for that matter), but to whitewash history so thoroughly dishonours George Santayana's legacy no end. In Symposium, it was a real treat to hear from Alcibiades (even if he did mention how he tried to seduce Socrates). Undoubtedly, Steven Pressfield's depiction of Alcibiades' character in Tides of War was magnificently rendered. It is a challenge to deliberately reconfigure my "knowledge", which was invariably based on abridged and whitewashed versions of history, and taught by well-meaning but oppressive moral crusaders. As I write this I am experiencing waves of liberal education that are making me feel truly free. I will have to find all of the sources that have stated time and again that if you do not read, you are not free. This is true. I am fortunate to have read History of the Peloponnesian War and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values (Vale Robert Pirsig) beforehand, but whether a proper reading of Homer is better before or after I shall not know until I get through that tome. While Baz Luhrmann innocuously advises one to wear sunscreen, I would advise one to read. But don't blame me if taking the red pill destroys the prefabricated foundations to your intellectual existence.

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Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Book Notes: "O Pioneers!" by Willa Cather

O Pioneers! (Great Plains Trilogy, #1)O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So far, every one of the Penguin Pocket Classics is worthy of five stars. These are, after all, classics, and as such, one would expect their rating to be nothing less than the best. But what makes a classic? Sometimes, there are certain quotes that stick. For example (p. 73):
Isn't it queer: there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years.
I wonder if Annie Proulx's work, The Shipping News, will be regarded as a classic in 80 years' time? I cannot recall a single quote from that book, and, although I enjoyed reading it immensely, I don't recall much of the story. Willa Cather's work, however, will haunt me for some time, just as John Steinbeck's book The Red Pony did from the 1970s to the present, just as anything by Alexander Dumas does, and so on. I suppose I should now read the rest of Cather's trilogy. The idea of bringing one's family to the end of the earth for a better life, then finding only misery and death so that one's children might prosper, reminds me of tree planting. At a recent visit to Retford Park, I wondered at the forethought of Samuel Hordern and later James Fairfax in creating such a wonderful garden. Two days ago we planted some trees, and we have no idea whether we will enjoy the fruits of our labours in the distant future, or move away or even die imminently. One can only hope for the first outcome, but without ever really knowing. It would seem, then, that being a pioneer, whether it be carving a new life out of new land (which has its own inherent assumptions that usually involve displacing the traditional owners), is neither selfless nor selfish. The two would seem to balance each other out. Selfish, in that carving a life for one's own offspring at the expense of the "other"; and selfless, in that one may well die and not enjoy what cost one so much, but leave a legacy (which one won't know about if one is dead) for others to enjoy. I am talking about the earlier pioneers, and our protagonist, Alexandra, picks up her dead father's dream, amid many of her Swedish colleagues who decide to leave during the hard times and return to the cities, while those who remain keep doing the same old thing. I recall in the 1980s on the Atherton Tablelands, young farmers would obtain grants or subsidies and all plant onions. At harvest time, with onions everywhere and the market price dropping like houseflies facing-off Mortein, it was cheaper to plough the onions back into the ground rather than harvest them. And then the cycle would repeat with the next grant or subsidy. Any sane person would wonder at the strangely conservative nature of farmers, supported by an insanely conservative and stupid grant and subsidy system (which is now rather different since deregulation). But our protagonist, Alexandra, shows initiative that earns her the label "pioneer" in various ways, including carving a life out of the land, experimenting with new agricultural ideas, and doing all of this as an unmarried woman. There is much more to the story, and while I do not wish to give too much away, the reader will experience the "two or three human stories [lived] fiercely" and marvel at the inter-generational viewpoint that will no doubt haunt the mature reader. One might also learn a thing or two about peer pressure and jealousy and how stupid these things can be. And all from a measly 189 pages!

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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.

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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.

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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 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.

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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.

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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".

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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 Background image © @redshinestudio