Tag Archives: literature

‘The Open Boat,’ by Stephen Crane – review

The Open Boat and Other StoriesThe Open Boat by Stephen Crane

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Four men in a dinghy adrift on a sea for 30 hours. The tempest of waves and a great shark occasionally circling around the perimeter of the boat. And the men rowing endlessly as if it were their only tangible way of protesting against their fates. It all happened in reality because the author Stephen Crane himself experienced the ordeal as one of the four men from the sunk SS Commodore off the coast of Florida en route to Cuba, where Crane had been sent as a war correspondent. The short story of the Open Boat is as realistic as it can be based upon a factual event the author himself was fatefully partaken in.

The four survivors of the vessel were aggregates in a dinghy bound by a remote hope of finding a rescue crew in the middle of the ocean that moved them with terrible grace of waves. The men were a captain, a cook, an oiler, and a correspondent, who was the author himself. There was a subtle brotherhood of men built in the boat who took care of each other. Crane surmised that the captain’s heartfelt devotion to the safety of the motley crew resulted in comradeship, which the author himself had always regarded as a hypocritical concept of men until then.

There were indeed moments of despair as their drifting became protracted, and the author saw this as nature not regarding human as important. He would jeer at any signs of nature in any deity form because thinking of the captain and the two other seamen who had worked so hard on the sea in such distress was the abominable injustice.

Stephen Crane was a great American realist writer who later influenced Ernest Hemingway. Born in 1871 as a ninth child of Protestant Methodist parents in Newark, NJ, his literary talent began when he wrote his first poem at the age of eight. Although brilliant, Crane was not academically inclined, so he left University of Syracuse and became a kind of itinerant writer. It is said that Crane was a naturalist writer who emphasized observation in the portrayal of reality based on scientific principles of objectivity and detachment applied to the story of human characteristics. However, in my opinion, he was more of a realist writer who focused on objective, truthful presentations of details of the ordinary lives influenced by Gustave Flaubert and George Eliot. In this story, Crane’s use of vocabulary was pithy and straightforward with elegant expressions of emotions and feelings that so appropriately described the situations in which the characters were trapped.

After Crane’s untimely death at the age of twenty-eight in a Black Forest sanitorium in Germany, Crane’s works began to gain their long overdue acclaim, one of which was this story of the sunk vessel and his own experience thereof. Stephen Crane’s works should deserve wider readership because he’s the first and foremost American writer in Realism literary movement who paid attention to the lives of the ordinary by being the experience of living among the ordinary and writing the existential presentations of the ordinary lives.

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Ah, Bartleby! Ah, Humanity!

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It was more than 10 years ago when I first read Herman Melville’s Bartleby, a short story about an unwonted young man employed as a scrivener by a Wall Street lawyer. At that time, Bartleby stroke me as a very eccentric, imprudent worker who had the temerity to reject his boss’s orders. He was just a mentally deranged man with only a few words, other than “I would prefer not to do …”

But now I see him different. Since I re-read the story this afternoon, I have felt bottomless sympathy for Bartleby. Mixed with pathos and sprinkles of humor in the narrative of his benevolent former employer, the figure of Bartleby evokes springs of human compassion and humanity itself. And my feelings for this tragic scrivener amount to what the narrator felt about his former employee.

I am not intent on “analyzing” the psychological aspects of Bartleby and his former Wall Street lawyer boss. And I think not that even the writer Melville himself had such psychoanalytical views on these characters in mind when he wrote the story. To me the story itself shows what made a sensitive man like Bartleby to such demise in the eyes of a compassionate man – and a decent employer seldom found these days. Loneliness, Hopelessness, Sorrow, and Reality of Death all packaged in written forms burned in flames stagnated the humanness in the forlorn scrivener. The Death of Humanity, that is. Having worked in the Office of Dead Letters at Washington would suffice it. Surely, there is no doubt that Bartleby was mentally disturbed, but who would hate or even despise him for his malaise?…

Then readers might object to the premise that it’s only a fictional story in which no such characters will/would exist in reality. But I think not so. As a matter of fact, I have always believed that fictions are always built upon factual elements of human life to a certain degree. Dismissing stories as creations of imaginativeness seems to miss the fundamental truths laid under changes and choice of our human life with a bit of creative imaginations. Ditto Stephen King, who has once said that the stories are artifacts that are not really made up, but that are based upon preexisting objects we discover.

The tall, lean, pallid and lugubrious image of Bartleby the Scrivener still lingers in my mind… Having dealt with tons of letters from those who died in despair, those who died hopeless, and those who died suffocated by insurmountable sufferings, Bartleby had lost his own sense of existence, feeling utterly dispirited, pessimistic, and lethargic in performing demands of his duty. It was the loss of meaning of life that made him passively resistant to all the ordinary functions of daily life which all seemed insignificant to him. The life itself was nihilistic and hence non-existential to Bartleby. Humanity in the expressions of feelings and emotions meant nothing to him; it had ceased to exist in the form of dead letter attesting to existential horrors, which had led the authors to death, which had taken the poor Bartleby as the witness thereof.

Thus, the lamentable outcry of the narrator still deeply reverberates in my mind even after I closed the book: “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, Humanity!”

P.S. This is my bygone writing about Herman Melville’s classic short story of “Bartleby, the Scrivener” that I had written prior to the inception of my blog.

A League of Their Own

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Reading a section featuring a small, pleasant Q&A type of interview with a writer in The New York Times Book Review on restful weekends gives me a kind of voyeuristic fillip to be privy to the life of the writer; moreover, the usual question of whom to invite for dinner is the gist of such small pleasure. I’ve found it quite stimulating to think about my own list of people to have dinner with. Therefore, I have herein drawn up my own list of invitees to confabulate with, though not at dinnertime but at lunchtime, which I think more convenient and favorable to enjoy the Californian sun and the beautiful scenery in daylight. Here’s my list of guests:

  • Eleanor Roosevelt: The paragon of the First Lady of the United States with Intelligence that ministered to her moral character. She put her philosophy into action by actively participating in social services. Besides, Mrs. Roosevelt possessed a polished but common sense of humor and wits communicative to people of all social strata with her timeless adage: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
  • Joan of Arc: The Virgin of Lorraine, The Patron Saint of France… Such are the epithets of this patriotic French maiden who was burned alive on the counts of witchery and treason, which was of course conspiracy concocted by the French ecclesiastical dignitaries collaborating with the English against whom Joan of Arc fiercely and courageously fought to victory. She was neither a religious fanatic, nor a hallucinated mooncalf, nor a certifiable schizophrenic. She might be a simple peasant woman but a courageous, headstrong, and smart woman of faith who did not even protect her face during battles with the English amid the attacks of sharp arrows, axes, and lances. No wonder did Mark Twain praise the Virgin Knight forthwith: “Whatever thing men call great, look for it in Joan of Arc, an there you will find it.” Besides, her simplicity of faith excelled the pomposity of ecclesiastical knowledge by saying thus: “About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they are just one thing, and we should not complicate the matter.” I can learn many things from Joan as a True Model Woman who embodied Intelligence, Femininity, Courage, and Faith.
  • Marilyn Monroe: Born as Norma Jean Baker, she was not a blonde bimbo whose physical attractiveness belied her ceaseless pursuit of  knowledge concomitant with her pursuit of meaning of life she desperately wanted to ascertain. Monroe enrolled in evening college courses in the New York City when she had no schedules during the daytime. Behind her pretty persona of movie star, there was a profound shadow of existentialist. Also, Monroe’s down-to-earth personality and kind nature would make her a lovely company striking up a convivial conversation at the table full of strangers.
  • Jane Birkin: Her bohemian look – that effortlessly sensual but charmingly delightful facade with simple French Chic style is always timeless and boundless, appealing to Womankind imbuing with a sense of emulation of the style. In fact, such qualities of Birkin had one time convinced me that she was French. She seems to wear sexuality like she’s wearing her favorite set of perfumes, which is never vulgar nor degrading. Once a shy English girl is now a sensuous cosmopolitan woman demonstrating admixture of art and individuality in the most fashionable way. She will be a delightful addition to my lunchtime table.

In view of the above, my guests of honors are an eclectic company of women, past or present, surprisingly and strictly non-professional authors who make a living by writing only, although I did not intend it to be that way. Or maybe my preconception of professional authors – especially women – as highly volatile artists with inflated egos, dazzling intelligence, divine beauty, and impressive achievements might have played a vital role in excluding unconsciously any of them from my circle of companions. But so did Michelangelo; he was never befriended with his contemporary Leonardo Da Vinci, who in fact lambasted his untidiness as a sculptor in comparison with a baker. Nor did Michelangelo make friends with other famous artists. Instead,  he was a friend of some obscure artisan who helped around various artists by doing sorts of drudgery. It all boils down to the fact that having a good company of kindred spirits can do a favorable service to your soul, making you feel charitable and magnanimous, so much so that you can- to quote the swashbuckling Oscar Wilde- “forgive anybody, even one’s own relatives.”

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‘The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders’, by Stuart Kells – review

The Library: A Catalogue of WondersThe Library: A Catalogue of Wonders by Stuart Kells

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Libraries are more than boring stockpiles of books gathered, nondescript depositories of books collected frequented by socially gawky individuals we love to call “nerds” or “misfits.” They are symbolic fortresses of our human cultural progresses as collective enterprises. In fact, libraries are precious repositories of our cultural wealth and knowledge inherited from the forerunners of the Humanities with prescient intentions to preserve the intellectual and spiritual prerogatives of the mankind for the posterity. Any book lover sees this magnificence of libraries, and that is the motif of Stuart Kells’s The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders, a vivacious, jocund presentation of histories and development of libraries and an uplifting rhapsody of bibliophile – love of books. What’s more, this book is not a product of armchair thesis of a library as an anthropological institution, but of an empirically telltale account of cultural, aesthetic, literary, and social phenomena dedicated to preserving the writings of Mankind based on Kells’s actual visitations to the libraries he presents to us.

To begin with, Stuart Kells wears many hats in this book: a teacher, a guide, a book-collector, a historian, and a confirmed book-lover. But most of all, the image of him as I follow his narrative is that of a cross between a teacher and a tour guide with erudition and bonhomie. Like peripatetic Aristotle communicating to the minds of his students in the ancient Greek Lyseum, Kells invites the reader to saunter with him in his own mental library of snippets from a variety of literature and history that merit their substratum of textual human cultural artifacts bestriding the shelves of the Humanities ranging from the classical to the contemporary, all in the loving and caring custodianship of the author whose love of books is so deep and passionate that it’s almost physical. It’s personal, historical, academical, and magical in a way that imparts a sense of flitting in the phantasmal reverie of the world of libraries, now and then, existing and extinct, and  real and imaginary, to the reader.

We travel along with Kells playing the role of a likable and knowledgeable cicerone from the Library of Alexandria to the Italian monastery of Bobbio in the Middle Ages that was said to house 666 manuscripts, Germany’s Wuttemberg State Library possessing a 17th century portrait of Vlad Dracul, aka Dracular, and the Abbey Library of Saint Gall, aka St. Gall’s Library, in Switzerland, which is now a UNESCO world cultural heritage site holding more than 400 manuscript volumes produced before the year 1000. And before we know it, Kells also brings us to the fantastic libraries of the famous Hobbits, also known as a race of bibliophile with personal libraries at home, however small the size might be, and the medieval monastery library in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, where lightheartedness of the atmosphere contributes to the joy of knowledge and the elevation of the mind and soul. Although Kells’s Australian identity tells of the superiority of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Mathom House, a wondrous library of literary paraphernalia, over the Italian Eco’s monastery library, it’s altogether a magical sightseeing of the mystical libraries conjured up before our eyes by the imaginativeness of Kells, and we can decide which of these fantastic libraries appeal to us.

To conclude, the book is an axiomatic compendium of world’s famous libraries throughout the western civilizations, smartly studded with tidbit information on eccentric librarians, book-collectors/booksellers, and historical figures in between the chapters serving as a kind of delightful intermissions introducing a subject of each new chapter with provocative anecdotes and vignettes, which are pleasingly digressive rests from the tour of the libraries. It’s really a bright book, not a heavy-duty one with lots of footnotes and scholastic priggishness that the reader may expect a book of this subject matter to be. Notably, Kells’s interpretations drew on his impressively eclectic knowledge of these extensive sources as a respectful book-trade historian, but he wears his learning lightly and writes with a general reader in mind. And I believe that just as the famous English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge often kissed the books of the Dutch philosopher Desiderius Spinoza, out of Kells’s passions for books and possession of the knowledge of multidisciplinary studies comes his love child in the form of this jolly, easy-to-read book.  In the end, the reader will come to love this book for simple, pure pleasure of reading and may kiss the book.

Fairy summoning in the Florentine Renaissance period

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A supernaturally pretty fairy deludes men’s hearts.

There are magical elements in religion, and there are religious facets to the practice of magic, as succinctly summed up by Sir Walter Raleigh: “The art of magic is the art of worshiping God.” That’s how I feel and what I see during my Dutiful Sunday Morning Masses, the ancient rite of the Church, a perennial panoply of syncretism with its splendid paraphernalia of prayers and the liturgical ceremony of rites and mechanical recitation of prayers; it is the melding of religions or beliefs of the similar elements but of different origins. Hence, to come upon an article in the recent issue of BBC History Magazine about an academic study by a certain British scholar of the existence of fairies in the context of regarding the validity of cultural and historical artifacts gave me an uncanny pleasure.

Dr-Faustus

The famous Dr. Faust, summoning Mephistopheles for his service

In fact, Religion (that is, Christianity) and Magic (in the forms of divination and sorcery) are not to be seen as polar opposites and antithetical systems of belief because they are interdisciplinary agencies of attempting to seeking and offering panacea to our dilemmas – physical, metaphysical – competing for a supremacy in propitiation. Such mysteriously syncretic elements of the two different agencies of beliefs became the academic subjects of intellectuals, such as Francis Bacon and John Aubrey who accepted the potentialities of physiognomy as an infallible guide to predict one’s character and argued for the validity of non-Christian practice based on certain intellectual bases therein. With this in mind, you would not be surprised to learn that fairy summoning rituals were all the rage in the Renaissance period (15th~17th centuries), indiscriminately practiced by all strata of society, learned or ignorant, rich or poor, Christian or pagan. The author of the article informed the reader that the early Renaissance idea of fairies was pretty nebulous and varied with a wide arc of wonder and trepidation, and that the dainty image of ever famous “Tinker-bell” was a Victorian construction of the whole fairy race.

Then, how did the “real” fairies look? Although there is no magisterial, definitive version of the physiognomy of a fairy, a collective description gleaned from various records boil down to it as a supernaturally attractive man/woman imperiling the souls of whomever it was summoned to, which is reminded of incubus/succubus, consecutively. Notwithstanding the dubious nature of fairies, the invocation of a fairies half way between angels and devils was widely used in hope to (1) acquire medical knowledge, such as whereabouts of herbs and their properties; (2) delight in the highest degree of sensual ecstasy; and (3) reveal the future and prevent from misfortune in advance. Be it as it may seem wholly pagan, the summon ritual was surprisingly required for God’s intervention because it included periods of purification through abstinence, fasting and prayer in preparation, all of which would testify to the sanctity of the performer ministering to the moral and ethical character. God willing, a fairy at request manifested to the summoner, but he should not come out of the circle he had drawn because it protected from sudden maleficence of the ambiguous fairy.

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Delphic Sibyl from the Sistine Chapel fresco by Michelangelo

In sum, the article was an elegant primer for a further interdisciplinary study of literature, religion, and folklore from the medieval times to the Reformation period and possible stretching to this date. The exemplary texts that spring to my mind are Religion and The Decline of Magic by Keith Thomas and Christopher Malowe’s version of the legend of Dr. Faust, both of which are excellent testaments to the contextualization of the esoteric knowledge on the grounds of intellectual bases into academic studies of social, cultural, and historical facets of different zeitgeists, which also serve as invaluable literary artifacts to epochal changes. But for all what is worth, this relation between religion and magic is commensal, exhibiting a mesmerizing consilience of gods and God, profane and holy, pagan and ecclesiastical, forbidden and disciplined, as superbly unfolded in the Sistine Chapel fresco, prodigiously expressed by Michelangelo.

 

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