Friday, May 30, 2014

Hawks Do Not Share

I just finished reading Ernest Hemingway’s blog.  Now that I think about it, that is an odd sentence.  How do you finish reading a blog?  The very idea implies that there will be no more entries; but how can one be sure?  In Hemingway’s case, it is obvious—he is dead and to the best of my knowledge, despite the fabulous technological innovations in human history, nobody has yet invented the ability to do posthumous blogging.  Then again, what if someone took up the Mantle of the Dead Person and continued the blog?  Is it then the same blog or a different blog?  Is Shoe (the comic strip) the same comic strip as the one I read when I was young (crafted by Jeff MacNelly) or its it now (MacNelly died 14 years ago (but you knew that)) a different comic strip with the same name and the same characters?  Curious.  Maybe blogs can’t really end. 

Nevertheless, I did just finish reading Hemingway’s blog, which I can say, despite the philosophical quandary above, because in the present case the blog in question is really just a blog in substance, not form.  A Moveable Feast is actually a book (note the clever plot twist in this here blog post!) in which Hemingway, in a series of short anecdotes relates his life (or more properly, what he is pretending to be his life (more about that anon)), in Paris in the early 20th century.  Having read this book, I am perfectly confident in saying that if blogs had existed in the 1920s, Hemingway would have been a blogger. 

This book has the same formula as a decent blog: one part tedium, one part narcissistic self-promotion, one part interesting aside.  (Yes, Dear Reader, I hear your complaint that the present blog has only the first two components and the accompanying plea that maybe Your Humble Narrator could occasionally add some element of the third.  Your faith, Dear Reader, in the abilities of your Humble Narrator are touching, to be sure.  I regret that you will once again be sadly disappointed.)  The tedium (of Hemingway’s book, not the present blog) arises from the fact that most of the 20 entries in this book are dull.  Yeah, Hemingway was poor and hobnobbed with lots of famous people and had mindless conversations with said famous people.  Yawn.  The narcissistic self-promotion comes from the fact that it is hard to believe this is even remotely an accurate portrayal of either Hemingway’s life at the time or the assorted conversations; it’s all too cute to be real.  Cf. Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris—if you think that is really what life in Paris must have been like at that time, then you’ll think this book might just be accurate.  (Don’t get me wrong.  I enjoyed the movie.  But it also was too cute to be real. (Yeah, OK, the time traveling bit was obviously not real, but even the life in Paris was all a bit too glamorous and cute.)  By the way, speaking of the movie, Owen Wilson did a marvelous job portraying Woody Allen in that movie—far and away the best of all the imitations in the movie.)

(Back to Hemingway’s book/blog): As for the interesting asides?  Hmmm.  Maybe I was being generous.  I can’t remember any right now.  Which makes me wonder—perhaps the interesting asides aren’t really there at all.  Hemingway writes well.  (I may have just won an award for understatement.)  I enjoy reading Hemingway, and so I enjoyed reading his prose in this book.  But, if I think back over all the Hemingway books and stories I have read, this is easily the worst.  Now that is saying quite a lot, actually—if something akin to A Moveable Feast was the worst thing ever published under your name, you would be doing very well indeed.  If this is right, then the sole virtue of this book, and the reason you might want to read it someday, is the joy in rolling along with Hemingway in a book akin to hearing someone telling tall tales round a campfire. 

I suppose there is another reason people read this book—fascination with celebrity.  The whole conceit of the book is that Hemingway is repeatedly saying (in effect): “Hey look!  I am having a perfectly meaningless conversation with another really famous person.  Don’t you wish you were me sitting around talking with famous people?  Don’t you wish that the famous people would invite you into their homes for a conversation?  Don’t you wish you were me?”  Alas, I have never been enamored with celebrity. When asked that parlor game question, “With which celebrity would you most want to have lunch?”  I always draw a blank.  I have no idea.  I can't think of any famous person with whom I would be excited to dine simply for the sake of saying I was able to dine with them.  (Is that odd?  I really don’t know.)

There was one part of the book which did leave me wondering.  Hemingway writes:
It was a very simple story called “Out of Season” and I had omitted the real end of it which was that the old man hanged himself.  This was omitted on my new theory that you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.
A curious theory.  Does it apply to blog posts too?  If I were to go back and delete some part of this blog post, would the resulting post be something stronger and better and leave the Reader thinking the post is actually better than it actually is?  Maybe I’ll do just that and see.  (Determining whether I did so, and if so what was deleted, is left as an exercise for the Reader.  (That is what you, Dear Reader, get for complaining about the lack of anything interesting in this blog. (I am ignoring your retort that this exercise also isn’t interesting, so your complaint was fully justified, indeed actually exemplified by this pathetically transparent attempt to create the illusion that there is any reason anyone should ever read this review (laughable, that—in what sense is this a review?) of Hemingway.)

Ok, so that isn’t the most inspiring account of A Moveable Feast.  But, as Bogart (almost) said, ‘We’ll always have Taxi Girl.”

Thursday, May 29, 2014

For Madmen Only

Herman Hesse, Steppenwolf

I read this book a quarter of a century ago, soon after I began serious reading.  I think I picked it up at the used book store in Davis (Bogey’s Books!  I have no idea if it still exists), but it may have been at a library book sale.  The appeal was obvious: Great Book with the same name as a rock band.  So, it must be good, right?  I have a vivid memory of being terribly disappointed with the book.  There is this guy who is a werewolf, the Steppenwolf, see, and he knows he is a werewolf, and he starts meeting people, and there is this constant threat that the werewolf will take over and do some violence, but then the werewolf guy goes to some bizarre theater thing and some bizarre things happen there and then he talks to a strange guy named Pablo and Mozart shows up and the novel ends.  What kind of werewolf book is that?

By the way, that plot description above is not actually a plot description of the novel Hesse wrote.  It is the description of the novel my mid-20s self read. 

I just reread the book for the first time.  Wow.  My mid-20s self sure didn’t know anything.  It isn’t surprising that he read this book so poorly; his education—and let’s be clear, he had a bachelor’s degree by this point—had left him so woefully uneducated that there was no way he was ever going to make sense of Steppenwolf, the novel that Hesse actually wrote.  Even a love of the band of the same name left him woefully unprepared to have any hope of understanding anything at all in that novel that Hesse wrote.  (I have often told my bookish students who enjoy a long conversation about books that they would have had utter disdain for me if they had met me when I was in college—I knew nothing compared to what my bookish students know.)

So what about the novel Steppenwolf that Hesse wrote…you know the one that doesn’t have a werewolf or even a hint of a werewolf, the one in which the Magic Theater isn’t really all that strange?

It is actually a good book—maybe even a Great Book.  As an exploration of the human psyche, it is quite thought-provoking.  The book was littered with passages which made me wonder, “Is that true?”  The mind is a strange place, after all.  Our hero, Harry Haller, thinks of himself as being of two minds—the coldly rational human self and the wild wolfish self.  The human half must keep the wolfish half at bay. So far, so conventional.  Except Harry is living in a world (early 20th century) where the norms of Civilization which help keep man civilized, help keep the wolf at bay, are breaking down.  How does a man whose life is ordered to keep his beast under control manage in a world in which everything, from the dance halls to the music to the women, are conspiring to release man’s inner beast?  At this point, the novel was starting to intrigue me—after all the early 21st century is even farther down the path of civilizational decline than was the early 20th century.

Then, a funny thing happen on the way to the novel I was expecting.  The book begins a sustained argument that Harry is wrong to think of himself as being divided into two parts.  He isn’t two parts at all; his parts are legion.  And crafting this multiplicity of parts into a cohesive whole is the fundamental challenge of becoming human.  Take all the parts of you that make up who you are and combine them in this way and you are one person, but combine those same parts in a different way and you are someone else entirely.  So, how do you craft a self?  Can you craft a self?  And even more interestingly, can you craft a self different than the one you have already crafted?  Is there a way to take all the constituent parts which make up You and shuffle them up and come up with a different person?  The book is wildly optimistic on this.  I am much more skeptical.

I have a friend who is a psychologist and of late he has become enamored with the Myers-Briggs personality test.  I am beginning, rapidly beginning, to share his fascination.  It began when he stared sending me things about my type.  Now I have known my Myers-Briggs type for some time, but I had never read more than the quick paragraph description of it—the quick paragraph was accurate to be sure.  But, then he started sending me longer, more detailed discussions of it, including such things as “How others see people of this type” and “What causes stress for people of this type” and in thing after thing, I was stunned to discover how man of the things which I thought were just my annoying idiosyncrasies are actually standard in people with my Myers-Briggs classification.  Then he started ending along thing about Janet’s type and wow, do they describe my wife.  The clincher came this morning.  He sent along some things about Clara’s type—I have never understood my youngest daughter as well as I suddenly do.  It nails her external behavior; it was startling to realize what is beneath the external behavior.  The interesting part—all three of us have different Myers-Briggs types, but all three of them are rare types.  All three of us thought we were a bit odd.  All three of us now realize we share those oddities with a small part of the population.

So, back to Hesse, can I readjust my personality?  I don’t see how.  And more interestingly, I don’t see why I would want to do so.  After all, if I readjusted my personality, am I still me?  Is my immortal soul intricately bound up with my Myers-Briggs personality? 

In answer to the inevitable question: INTJ. 

And in answer to the other, less inevitable question (does that make it an evitable question?), I liked this song the best.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Should I trust you?

Trust is a strange thing. 
But, first, the book.

I started Melville’s The Confidence-Man expecting a novel.  I discovered something else.  What?  I am not sure what it was.  There is a story here, if you define story loosely, very loosely.  On a Mississippi riverboat, there are a lot of conversations.  The whole book is conversations.  There is presumably—it is never stated explicitly—one person—presumably the titular character—again, it is never stated—who is  a party in all the conversations in the book.  But, said person is constantly changing everything about himself from conversation to conversation.  In one conversation he is a wealthy seller of stock, in another he is a seller of patent medicine, in another he is dressed as a harlequin.  The parties with whom our titular character converses change too, but not always.  Sometimes the same person has conversations with multiple incarnations of The Confidence–Man.  Confused?  It gets better.  There is no narrative progression from conversation to conversation.  The book starts with a blind man (presumably the main character) walking through the crowd with a signboard.  It ends with a conversation in the dark with (presumably) our main character leading a blind man to his bunk.  In between?  Uh…never mind about it getting easier to describe.

So, this isn’t really a novel.  It isn’t really anything.  The closest thing would be a series of conversations all of which more or less, usually less, are about confidence.  At first, I thought the book was going to be a long build-up to finding out how The Confidence-Man was setting up some elaborate scam on board a ship.  But, the scam never materializes.  There are lots of scams—well, at least I assume they were scams, but since there never really is a story which goes anywhere, why do I mistrust the Confidence Man?  Maybe they weren’t scams at all.  Maybe the stock being sold was real.  Maybe the charity was real.  Maybe the crippled guy really was a crippled guy.

All of which leads to the question of trust.  I don’t trust the Confidence-Man in this book.  I think it was one guy who kept changing his appearance.  But why?  Why don’t I believe all these people were genuine and different people?  Why do I have no confidence that the characters in this book are actually who they say they are?

This is a whole book with conversations about the nature of confidence.  It is meandering and convoluted and odd.  (It is, indeed, a Plane Book.)

So, getting at the question another way:  Why does anyone ever trust you?  We often talk about when you should trust other people.  But, why should you, the Reader, be trusted?  What makes you, the Reader, worthy of trust?  And if you had to convince someone that you were worthy of trust, how would you do that?  Is the way you would convince someone you were worthy of trust the same as the way others could convince you that they are worthy of trust?

I think about trust a lot, actually.  Why do people trust me?  I am never quite sure.  It is not that I think I am unworthy of trust.  It is that I have no idea how anyone ever arrives at the conclusion that I am worthy of trust.  What is it that I do that signals to someone else that I can be trusted?  How do people know I am not running some elaborate scam?  How do people know I won’t instantly betray them?  Could I sell patent medicine to total strangers on a Mississippi riverboat?  I don't think so.  But, that is because I cannot imagine ever perpetrating such a scam and so I have an impossible time imagining I could be convincing.  When I think about that, I realize that a trustworthy person would have a difficult time gaining trust under false pretenses.  But, how is a trustworthy person able to convey that aspect of his nature?  If trustworthiness is by definition not amenable to experimentation, then how is it displayed?  This is not some hypothetical problem.  Every day, every person has to constantly face the question of whether someone who was just encountered is trustworthy.  We make the decision on trustworthiness instantly, all the time.  How do we know?

Which gets me back to the book.  Why do I mistrust the character in this book?  Why do I assume all these people are really one person?  Why do I assume that one person is not trying to demonstrate the importance of trust?  Why don’t I just think this is a book all about a virtuous person who got on a boat with the sole intention of improving the lives of everyone on the boat by enabling them to demonstrate trust in a complete stranger?

Trust is odd.  And, after reading a book about it, I have no more answers to the quandaries of trust than I had before I read it.  Indeed, I feel betrayed by this book.  I thought it was going to be a novel, and it wasn't.  I thought there would be a story, and there wasn't.  Melville has betrayed my trust.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Dusk--of a summer night

The Plane Book is, as I have mentioned before in this here space, a Genre Worthy of Note (though given the definition, soon to be provided (or more technically reprovided), it is not a Genre Publishers will rush to put on the covers of the books which merit that description).  The Plane Book is long, the longer the better, and something which simultaneously promises to be worth reading but not exhilarating enough to actually imagine picking up and reading hour after hour, day after day, when surrounded by other distractions (like other books).  Such books are perfect for long plane trips.  Ensconced in a chunk of metal hurling itself through the air, there is little to do other than keep turning the pages.  It is a perfect place to read many books.  As I have also mentioned before, sometimes, a book which seems like it might be a Plane Book isn’t (here’s looking at you Confederacy of Dunces).  But, I am happy to report that the book soon to be mentioned not only had the appearance of a Plane Book, but may very well be the Planiest Plane Book (or should that be Plane Bookiest Plane Book?  Sometimes, the vagaries of nonce words are hard to master) I have ever read.  And I did read it.  All of it.  Which, to be honest, I would have never done, had it not been for a plane trip, including a cancelled flight necessitating an extra 24 hours of travel.

An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser, is a Gilded Age Novel, which like all Gilded Age novels, is a long rambling story about how miserable life is in a nation of growing prosperity.  Before getting to An American Tragedy itself, a digression on Henry James.  I have long noted that since everyone is entitled to hate one Great Books author, I hate Henry James.  A Tedious Bore, beloved, by English Professors who like perfectly crafted and thoroughly bloodless sentences and perfectly predictable and thoroughly bloodless plots full of perfectly bloodless symbolism and thoroughly bloodless metaphors.  Given the lack of blood, one could say that there is no life in a Henry James novel.  They bore me.  After finishing An American Tragedy, I am now convinced I should go back and read Henry James again.  After all, he can’t be as bad as Dreiser.  Maybe my problem is that I read James when I was too young to appreciate him.  (I think I last read him three or four years ago.)  Maybe now that I am older, I will realize that a lifeless novel is not as bad as I thought it was.  Sometime in the not too distant future, the Library of America is going to sell one of the many Henry James books to me.  I will read him again.  Maybe I will stop hating him.  Maybe.

And speaking of the Gilded Age, why is everyone so down on it, anyway?  Does anyone really want to live in the world before the Gilded Age?  Does anyone really want to live in a pre-industrial society?  Sure, there is some fascination there, but I daresay there are very few people living in the 21st century who would actually prefer life, on the whole, in the 19th century.  But to get from the 19th to the 21st century, the 20th century is rather essential, isn’t it?  So, yes there was a great deal of disruption and some of that disruption was unpleasant, but all in all, why would anyone think that the transformation of America in the early 20th century is a tragedy?

And speaking of Different Ages, one thing that doesn’t seem to have changed is the sensational courtroom trial.  Sure we have Court TV now, but Guy drowns Pregnant Girlfriend in Remote Lake was every bit as sensational in the early 20th century as it would be today.  Prurience has existed long before OJ met Nicole and Ronald that night in Brentwood

And…alright, enough with the asides...the book.  Did I mention that An American Tragedy is long, not terribly exhilarating, and seems like a book a literate person should have read?  Well, the first two are accurate.  You, Dear Reader, can safely skip this book and still be well-read.  Yes, you should read at least one Dreiser novel in your life—pick Sister Carrie—it’s better, shorter, and more depressing.  An American Tragedy is not well named.  At half its length, maybe it would be well named.  But, at its current length (934 pages in the Library of America volume), the title is a bit of a misnomer.  The book drags far too much; by the end, my overwhelming feeling was relief that the thing was over.  Not only is the book long in page length, it is long in tedium.  Dreiser is a very tedious (a very, very tedious) writer.  I opened the book at random (truly, I just opened it at random right now) and this is the first sentence I saw (truly, first sentence):
“For there was that in Clyde’s manner the instant he learned that it was due to a mistake that he had been recognized which caused even her to understand that he was hurt, abashed and disappointed.” 
Nine hundred and thirty four pages of prose like that.

But, it’s not all bad; indeed on balance, it’s not actually a bad book.  Dreiser is attentive to details—you actually can feel the locales of this novel.  He also sketches his characters swiftly and deftly; one feels like one knows the people in this book, even the relatively minor characters have definition and three dimensions.  The fall of Clyde is interesting; he was never at a great height, so the tragedy is the death of potential, not the Fall of a King to the gutter.  Clyde could have made a happy life out of nothing.  Instead, he made a miserable life out of nothing.  At place after place, he turns away from the happy, settled life into a life of aspirations which will never, indeed could never, be fulfilled.  For Dreiser, that is the story of America, right there.  A grasping, greedy nation which will ultimately find itself mired in depression and woe. 

It is worth nothing that there were lots of Clyde’s in the early 20th century.  Far more Clydes than Andrew Carnegies.  But, to return to the point made above, is the existence of individual tragedy enough to wish away the aspiration for something better?  If given the choice between a) the tragedy of Clyde and the promise of the 20th century America or b) both Clyde and all of us living today leading lives on a 19th century farm with no hopes of a fabulously wealthy life, which would you pick?  It is immoral to pick the sacrifice of Clyde’s happiness for the hope for something better for millions?

Another way of saying the same thing: This is far more tragic than anything in Dreier.