Posted in book review

Voltaire, the moral rebel – book review

Voltaire: A Life from Beginning to End by Hourly History

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


The role of intellectuals is to see the corrupt at the heart of society and stand furious with the mass and constantly monitor the conditions of ill-effects and actively work on the improvement of living conditions. For books can never teach the use of books. Otherwise, they are no more than armchair academics complacent with their impressive scholastic achievements and high social esteem as elites of society, proudly distanced themselves from the general. But Voltaire wasn’t, nor was he a demagogic writer grandstanding with the ire of the have-nots.

Born as Francois-Marie Arouet on November 21, 1694, when the discovery of the New World and religious turmoil swept Europe, Voltaire was destined to become a cavalier of new thoughts, the Enlightenment of Thoughts, which the Catholic Church regarded as a dangerous school of ideas to the mass. Yet, Voltaire wasn’t hell-bent on destroying the Catholic Church as a freemason but pilloried the corruption of the ecclesiastical members and the duplicities of their teachings and acts in practice. Religion is also a social institution made and governed by people and therefore subject to corruption and dysfunction. Before the French Revolution, the Catholic Church controlled people’s ways of thinking and exerted its authority over political and cultural spheres. That was why Voltaire’s lifelong resistance against the Catholic Church arose, not from blindly malicious intention to sabotage belief of the religion.

Voltaire was very human with his volatile temper but also with passionate munificence. He was fluent in English and his years of stay in England, the country he regarded as a model country of liberty of thoughts and religions. During his visit, he met John Locke, Jonathan Swift, and Alexander Pope, to whom Voltaire was said to be very rude for reasons clandestine. Methinks that for a person as at once passionate and sensitive as Voltaire, the anecdotal vignette sounds true, but who can blame him for his temper and let it eclipse his wholesale brilliance as an unbridled thinker and writer unafraid of speaking against the social injustice against the unprivileged? Rousseau, a fellow freethinker, abandoned his child at an orphanage and berated the illiterate. Isaac Newton, whom Voltaire respected for his scientific findings and logical mind, mistreated his servants with whacks and beatings. But, on the contrary, Voltaire paid off all the tax debts of his tenants on his properties. Also, he published ‘Candide,’ which is an allegorical book about the absurdities of the teachings of the Church and a man’s search for a God in this world, in 1759 at a meager price accessible to poor readers yearning for a taste of Enlightenment.

The absence of God’s presence in the deeds of the clergy and religious people and the presence of injustice in the name of elusive God were the questions Voltaire had in mind, and yet he wasn’t blasphemous about the God they believed. On the contrary, Voltaire’s belief was ecumenical in the principle of syncretism founded on a universal belief system according to Natural Law, a conscience. He was liberal in ideas but responsible in acts by accommodating his knowledge to practice for ordinary life. Samuel Johnson’s definition of an imperiously sullen scholar who loses his days in unsocial silence and lives in the crowd of life without a companion was the opposite of Voltaire. Indeed, Voltaire had no morals, yet he was a very moral person for sure.



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Posted in book review, Miscellany

the world’s oldest musical instrument

A team of scholars has recently reexamined a conch horn discovered around the Marsoulas Cave in southern France, the famous cave art site, and concluded that the conch was more than just an ornamental artifact used for a drinking vessel or any other trivial purpose in Upper Paleolithic Age, aka Old Stone Age, dating from around 17,000 to 12,000 years ago. It was an age when Cro-Magnons, a Homo Sapiens nomadic tribe in western Europe, emerged as formidable hunter-gatherers of reindeers and horses from a new cold and gray prehistoric horizon in the dawn of the ages of man. They were Magdalenian, named after a rock shelter located in the French Pyrenees where the artifacts and human remains were discovered. They left the prehistoric legacy in the form of the Magdalenian conch.

By using a carbon dating system and other state-of-art scientific apparatuses, the scholars posited that the conch horn was a musical instrument to enjoy the prehistoric Magdalenian symphony in the cave. The cause of reason for the hypothesis is a purposefully cut-off apex of the conch horn as if to adjust for blowing and making sounds. In fact, a modern music player tried playing it at its initial discovery and found out that the tunes were ranged close to the notes of C, C Sharp, and D, making it the oldest wind instrument of its kind to this date. Moreover, the conch patterns were similar to those appearing in the pictures of cave walls, which scholars deduced that they were significant in denoting cultural functions in the communes.

However, although the connections between the cave art and the conch horn are intelligent hypotheses, the idea of the conch as a musical instrument doesn’t quite hold water to me. First of all, the image of a conch horn always conjures up the dystopian vision of the boys in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. In the story, boys blow the conch whenever they convoke meetings, which usually spring from sinister motives resulting in gloomy consequences. Also, the god of sea Poseidon blows a conch when he heralds his formidable divine presence, shaking the waves of the oceans. The use of the conch was to be more of notification of alarm for political or social events, not of a musical instrument for cultural appreciation. Besides, as aforesaid, a conch is often associated with the sea, unfittingly matched with hunter-gatherers in the mountain or sea-locked regions. Although scholars pointed out that the Magdalenian could travel to the shore and brought a conch as a souvenir, using it as a pastime wind instrument is a bit of stretch, a romantic imagination about the cave people differentiated from ruthless, animalistic, highly advanced kinds of ape.

If the scholars’ educated guess becomes a theory, then the Magdalenian conch horn will be entitled to the first place in the history of musical instruments. But considering the geographical reason and natural tendency related to a conch shell drawn upon historical and literary contexts, the Magdalenian conch shell must have been either a curiously collected souvenir from a trip to the shore or a valuable instrument to call upon meetings in the communes. Also, it could have been a convenient alarm to indicate a sight of animals for a hunt or protection. For melodious variations pleasing even to uncultured ears, the sounds of strings made from the leftovers of hunted animals hung on pieces of wood would be perfect for their hunter-gatherer entertainment.

Posted in book review

It’s a Strange Place, England by Jack Strange

It's A Strange Place, EnglandIt’s A Strange Place, England by Jack Strange

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jack Strange’s England is never a bore; it is a mystifying country with its tempestuous history and colorful characters populated by the ever undead of the bygone eras still roaming their past abodes or workplaces among the quick. It is a quaint country where history meets myth and legend. This book will guide the reader to Strange England where fanciful folklores and historical facts are anchored in the traditions and customs.

The author admits that England is perhaps arguably one of the most haunted countries in the world, thanks to its religiously and politically tempestuous pasts spanning the wheel of time from the Roman colonial period to the present. To illustrate, in Derbyshire a spectral Roman sentinel is often seen leading a parade of a circus comprising gladiators, chariots, and slaves, then all of them disappear into the mist. Another lovelorn Roman soldier is witnessed alongside Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland, wandering in despair of his betrayed love for a fair English maiden. The phantom English residents also encompass the Benedictine monks led by St, Cuthbert in Lindisfarne, which was a target for frequent raiding by Norsemen who also threatened the cradle of English Christianity. It is said that the best time to see the saint or the monks is when the tides are high and a full moon lights the shore as a natural lantern.

England is also a home of many interesting sports that are historically – and sometimes by happenstance – originated. The World Gurning Championship in Egremont in Cumbria was originated in 1267 when the Lord of the manor gave out crabapples to the locals. One can imagine without difficulty the consequence of tasting the apple, and thus can master the art of making as ugly face as possible. Hence this hilarious tournament comes to exist to this day. It’s open to everyone – yes, even to the fairest of all – , and it’s all about fun and participation. Also, there is Black Pudding Throwing Championship in Ridge, Lancashire. Originated in 1455, this tournament shows English humor mixed with historical irony, which makes it all the more convincing. It was during the period of “War of the Roses” elegantly referred by Sir Walter Scott (who was a Scot) to the feud between the House of York whose symbol was a white rose and the House of Lancashire a red rose. At the Battle of Stubbins in Lancashire in 1455, both forces decided to throw puddings at one another instead of lances. Believe it or not, the descendents still commemorate the incident by holding a championship every year with mirthful popularity.

Subsequent to Strange Tales of the Sea, the author Jack Strange has done a marvelous job gleaning the extensive historical documents and cultural artifacts from his tireless research to provide his reader with interesting facts about his England. Strange is a gifted artificer who digs artifacts buried in the depths of forgotten times and lost folklores. Strange is also a mysteriously reclusive figure himself because there’s no personal information about him. Maybe that’s why his writings are so hauntingly attractive and oddly addictive. Strange is an excellent storyteller who weaves a tapestry  of legends and folklores imbued with his impressive knowledge of the history of England and his English humor permeated in his writings. This book is Strange’s winking invitation to his beloved England that spins a general image of the country with enchanting oddity and wide-eyed wonder that the readers will not tire of.

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