Review: Frankenstein

Review: Frankenstein

Frankenstein, or The Modern PrometheusFrankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mary Shelley was just eighteen when she wrote this iconic novel, which you might think is extraordinary; but considering who she was, it would have been even more extraordinary, perhaps, had she not done so. The daughter of William Godwin, idealistic philosopher, and Mary Wollstonecraft, the feminist champion, she was wooed and conquered by Percy Bysshe Shelley, who then took her on a vacation with his good friend, Lord Byron, when a cold-snap caused by the ashes released into the atmosphere during the 1815 eruption of Mount Tamora forced them to stay inside for days on end, where they found entertainment by telling ghost stories. If she had not done something memorable in such circumstances, it would have been nearly obscene.

This book was the first “classic” I read on my own initiative. I was the same age as was Shelley herself when she wrote the book. I had just gotten to college, and the experience so impressed me that I thought I had better do something to cultivate my mind. My vocabulary was so feeble at the time that Shelley’s nineteenth century prose—quite overwritten—was like another language. Still, I pressed on to the end, and the experience was enjoyable enough that I immediately went on to read Dracula (which I preferred). Still, the impression lingered on afterwards that there was something not quite right with the book, like a dish that had been somehow botched. Now that I finally read it again I can say why.

What irks me the most is that I find Dr. Frankenstein absolute implausible as a character. If he earnestly thought that he was unlocking the secret of life—a noble goal—why would he keep his work such a secret? And how could such a cold scientific genius, who had just been sewing together corpse parts, be so overwhelmed by the ugliness of his creature’s face that he faints away? How could such a brilliant man not foresee that the monster’s threat about his wedding day was not directed at him? Time after time he makes decisions or has reactions that are, to me, inconsistent and unbelievable. Indeed, I recently read an adapted version for ESL learners which palpably improved the story, I think. Instead of Frankenstein fainting away and falling into a nervous fever for months at the mere sight of his monster, for example, the laboratory catches fire from the lightning and he falsely assumes the monster escapes.

I know, I know, I am supposed to suspend disbelief. But what jarred me was not the lack of scientific plausibility, but the lack of psychological plausibility of Frankenstein’s character. I could hardly believe that Frankenstein, who had unlocked the secret of life and death, did not even momentarily consider reviving his loved ones. I also had trouble believing that Frankenstein could complete 90% of the work on the monster’s bride, and only consider the dangers of doing so at the last possible moment. And a man who is supposedly in the depths of despair or thirsting with mad revenge, but who continually pauses to give loving descriptions of his alpine hikes and his travels through Europe, all the while professing not to have enjoyed them—it swerves into the absurd.

This psychological implausibility infected every other character. The monster’s long speech at the end about his tortured conscience rang more falsely than tin cans. And the bland goodness of Frankenstein’s friends and family made them impossible to mourn—pure white lambs prepared for the slaughter. The general impression is that the characters’ personalities are driven by the necessities of plot, not vice versa, which is never good. Frankenstein is a genius when the story need him to discover life, and an oaf when the story needs him to make a mistake; his monster is ruthless and demonic when tragedy is called for, eloquent and pitiable when things take a more plaintive turn.

But the book would not have become such an inescapable classic, and an integral part of pop culture, if it did not have compensating virtues. The most striking aspect of the book, for me, is its imagery. Many scenes are so vivid that they are always remembered. Shelley’s swollen prose is ill-suited to the quiet moments of the book, but flies free of excess in the novel’s many dramatic climaxes. And of course the novel’s premise was radically original and proved extremely influential. A ghost story without a ghost, a fantastic tale where technology provides the fantasy—it had not been done before. Its premise, too, has proven extremely rich and relevant, an allegory for humanity’s arrogance and the perils of creation. These virtues will ensure Frankenstein a place in English literature as permanent as Percy’s poems, which may indeed outlast Ozymandias’s statue and still be read when we are able to resuscitate corpses.

View all my reviews

Advertisements

Review: The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

Review: The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

The Letters of Vincent van GoghThe Letters of Vincent van Gogh by Vincent van Gogh

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For great things do not just happen by impulse but are a succession of small things linked together.

The main problem when encountering Van Gogh is that his life has become the quintessential artistic myth of our age. The obscure genius ahead of his time, toiling in solitude, tortured by personal demons, driven by a creativity that sometimes spilled over into madness—and so on. You’ve heard it all before. You have also seen it before. His paintings suffer from the same overexposure as does his life story. Starry Night hangs, in poster form, in dorm rooms and offices; it is used in commercials and as desktop backgrounds. The challenge, then, as with all iconic art, is to unsee it before it can be properly seen.

The best way to pop this swollen bubble of this myth is, I think, to read these letters. Here an entirely different Van Gogh is revealed. Instead of the mad genius we find the cultured gentleman. Van Gogh could read and write English, French, and German fluently, in addition to his native Dutch. He peppers his letters with references to Dickens, Elliot, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Balzac, Zola. His prose is fluent, cogent, and clear—sometimes even lyrical. His knowledge of art history is equally impressive, as he, for example, compares Shakespeare’s and Rembrandt’s understanding of human nature. Not only this, but he was far from insulated from the artistic currents of his day. To the contrary, he was friends with many of the major artists in Paris—Seurat, Signac, Gauguin—and aware of the work of other prominent painters, such as Monet and Cézanne.

But, of course, Van Gogh’s myth, like many, has some basis in truth. During his lifetime he did not receive even a fraction of the recognition his work deserved (though if he had lived a little longer it likely would have). He was often unhappy and he did suffer from a mental illness of some sort, which did indeed lead him to sever a portion of his own ear. What is less clear is the role that his unhappiness and his mental illness played in his work. In our modern world, still full of Romanticism, we are apt to see these factors as integral to his artistic vision, the source of his inspiration and style. Van Gogh himself had, however, quite a different opinion, seeing his suffering and illness as a distraction or an obstacle, something to be endured but not sought.

The letters in this volume span from 1872 to 1890, the year of his death. Most of them are addressed to his brother, Theo, who worked as an art dealer in Paris and who supported Vincent financially. There are also a few letters to his sister, Wil, and to his artist friends. From the beginning we see Van Gogh as an enthusiastic and earnest man, very liable to be swept up into passions. His first passion was the church. Following in his father’s footsteps, Van Gogh went to England to work as a preacher. His letters from this period are full to bursting with pious sentiments; in one letter he even includes a sermon, which he composed in English. He quickly grew disenchanted with conventional religion, however, and soon he is pining after his cousin, Kee, who rejects him and refuses to see him. Not long after that he takes in a woman named Sien, a former prostitute, and his letters are filled with his dreams of family life.

But in all of these letters, even before he decided to take up art—which he did comparatively late, at the age of 27—Van Gogh show a keen visual awareness and appreciation. He includes long, detailed, and sometimes rapturous descriptions of towns and landscapes. He is also, from the start, independent to the point of stubbornness. He persists in trying too woe his cousin even in the face of his whole family (including Kee herself) discouraging him. He insists on taking in Sien despite the disapproval of nearly everybody, including his brother and his mentor, Mauve. When it came to art he was absolutely uncompromising, refusing to paint anything just for money, and getting into passionate disagreements with some of his artist friends (Gauguin, most notoriously).

Van Gogh’s intractability often landed him in trouble. He had a bad relationship with his parents and often quarrelled with his brother, Theo, who was his closest confidant. But it is also, I think, the quality that is ultimately most admirable in him. His personal standards drove him to work hard. He was no sauvant. His letters are filled with exercises and studies. He was tough on his own work and constantly strove to improve it. And though he sometimes got discouraged, there is never any hint of quitting or compromising. This is the classic story, often told. But it is easy to lose sight of how dreary and dispiriting this life could be, day to day. In films the struggling artist is enmeshed in a moving drama, and the audience always knows it will come right in the end. But for Van Gogh this was a plodding daily reality of struggle and failure, with no audience and no guarantee of ultimate success.

That we admire Van Gogh for persisting is, in large part, because his art was truly great. But what would we think if he was mediocre? This, you might say, is the paradox of persistence: We admire those who persist in the face of struggle when they have genuine talent; but when they do not, the spectacle becomes almost pathetic. What would we think of a man financially supported by his brother, constantly quarrelling with and alienating his parents, toiling away in isolation, who produced nothing beautiful? We might be inclined to call such a person naïve, foolish, or even selfish. Whether we admire or scorn stubbornness, in other words, depends on whether it eventually pays off. But in the meantime nobody can know if it will, least of all the stubbornly persistent person. It is, in short, a great risk.

Yet it cannot be said that Van Gogh wagered everything on his talent, since there is not even a hint of calculation or self-interest in his continuing persistence. He is so manifestly, uncompromisingly, absolutely obsessed and absorbed by art that there is no other option for him. Even when institutionalized and hospitalized he thinks of nothing but when, how, where, and what he can paint next. And though he at times expresses regret for the sacrifices this entails—he is especially vexed by the toll it takes on his love-life—he never discusses art with even a touch of bitterness. He is willing to live in a hovel and survive on crumbs if it means he can afford paint. To see such unqualified devotion, not in a novel or on a stage, but in the real, intimate context of his daily life is (to use a hackneyed word) inspiring.

Vincent’s story had a tragic ending. On a summer day in July he walked into a wheat field where he was painting and shot himself in the chest. He survived two more days, finally passing away in his brother’s arms on July 29. The circumstances surrounding this death are rather remarkable, and I don’t wonder that two biographers, Naifeh and Smith, have raised questions about it. The tone of his final letters, while troubled, are far from despairing. He even includes an order of paints in his final dispatch to Theo. And it is also extraordinary to think that a man who had shot himself in the chest could walk a mile back to the inn, or that a man locally known for his mental instability could get a gun. The recent film, Loving Vincent (which I haven’t seen), is focused on this question.

Theo did not long survive his brother: he succumbed to syphilis within just six months. Theo had married his wife, Jo, less than two years earlier, which proved an extremely fortunate circumstance—for art’s sake, at least—since it was Jo who championed Vincent’s legacy and who published his correspondence. Theo and Jo’s only son, named after his uncle Vincent, was responsible for founding the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which I recently visited. To any who get the chance, I highly recommend this paired experience, for the letters and the paintings are mutually enriching. Few people in history seemed to have lived so entirely for the sake of posterity: churning out paintings which few people saw, writing letter after letter few people read, creating a story and an oeuvre that now have the power to tear you in two.

View all my reviews

Review: Miró—Painter of the Stars

Review: Miró—Painter of the Stars

Miró: El pintor de las estrellasMiró: El pintor de las estrellas by Joan Miró

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although Joan Miró’s name is hardly less known than that of Dalí’s or even Picasso’s, his art seems strikingly less popular. I have been told by several people that they cannot appreciate it. And, indeed, I was often left cold by the works I had seen in the Reina Sofia—some of which seems to confirm every negative stereotype about modern art. But I wanted to give Miró another chance; so I visited the Fundació Miró in Barcelona, and read this book.

One of the most difficult tasks before any young artist is to develop her voice. By “voice” I mean many things: style, philosophy, identity, themes, and so on, which taken together make an artists work immediately recognizable as hers. In a word, this requires originality. One might be inclined to think that originality is the easiest thing to achieve—being the natural product of everyone’s differences. But to produce a deeply original work—one that could not have been produced by anybody else—is anything but easy. Artistic voice emerges in a dialectical process with one’s influences, as they are first mastered and then synthesized, until gradually something appears which cannot be traced to any influence.

This process is most easily seen among painters. And it is wonderfully illustrated in Miró, whose work incorporated fauvism, surrealism, and cubism. But it wasn’t only artistic trends that shaped the young painter. He was deeply inspired by natural sights—particularly the countryside near Montroig (near the city of Tarragona, in his ancestral Catalonia). The voice that Miró developed through his formative experiences and influences is unmistakable—displaying a sensibility for forms and color that no other artist could replicate. And consequently one feels, upon entering the Fundació Miró, the same way one feels upon entering the Dalí Museum in Figueres—that one is entering a new visual universe that obeys different laws.

In short, I have come to enjoy Miró’s work far more than I had. I find in it a sense of playfulness, and sometimes a sense of peacefulness, that is deeply appealing; and I enjoy watching his manipulation of forms shift throughout his work, while remaining recognizably Miró, like a theme and variations. But I still must admit that it does not affect me very deeply. My appreciation, in other words, is more intellectual than emotional. And I think that would have suited Miró just fine.

This little book is full of glossy pictures and does an excellent job in covering the different phases of Miró’s career.

View all my reviews

Review: What’s Up with Catalonia?

Review: What’s Up with Catalonia?

What's Up with Catalonia?What’s Up with Catalonia? by Liz Castro

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Do not invite an American to speak about Europe; he will usually display great presumption and a rather ridiculous arrogance.

—Alexis de Toqueville

Perhaps the most politically controversial topic here in Madrid is the Catalonian independence movement. Almost everyone I speak to is vigorously against it, for one reason or another. I’ve heard people say that it is just a bluff for political negotiations; that it is based on calculated lies; that it is illegal and unconstitutional; that the Catalans are just crazy people; and so on. Indeed, it is my understanding that disagreement over the Catalonia Question is one of the major causes of the current political deadlock in Spain.

People talk about it a lot. But even after dozens of conversations, I still felt that I didn’t understand the situation; I was only hearing one side of the story. So for my first trip to Barcelona, I decided to open this book, a collection of essays by several pro-independence authors. It is a quick read: I read half of the book on the flight to Barcelona, and the other half on the flight back to Madrid. And now that I think of it, that is probably the best place to read this book, suspended in midair between the two cities.

It is this stance, an attempt at impartiality, that I am trying to maintain. But this is difficult for me. As one of the essays in this collection explains, many Americans are predisposed against independence movements because it reminds us of our Civil War. Of course, Catalonia is a completely different issue, so my association is illogical and unfair; and besides, my whole country originated in a war for independence. Yet I find it difficult to contemplate the option of secession without feeling queasy. That’s my bias.

This collections offers a variety of arguments for and perspectives on independence. The reasons offered for secession range from economic, to sentimental, to nationalistic, to linguistic, to historical, to political, often in combination. But, to quote Warwick, the result is less than the sum of its parts. The authors have different priorities and their arguments often contradict one another, which creates a sense of incoherence. One author argues that the Catalan language cannot be used as the primary marker of their identity, since a significant portion of the region’s inhabitants don’t speak it fluently; but another author comes out strongly for Catalan. Lots of authors talk about taxation and fiscal spending—all of them quoting the same statistics, which got rather tiresome by the end—but others said that they would want independence even if these financial troubles were cleared up. The tone of the essays ranged from dry analysis to impassioned pleas. It’s a hodgepodge.

One thing seriously lacking from the discussions of taxation and fiscal spending was how the Catalonia situation compared with that of other countries. In a nutshell, the complaint is that the Spanish government takes more money from Catalonia than they spend on it. But it is my understanding that this is a common occurrence when one region of a country is richer than another: money is diverted to where it is needed most. New York and California help to fund other states; and from what I’m told, Berlin is on the receiving end of a lot of financial support. If one of the authors had framed the fiscal situation in an international context, it would be easier to see whether it was fair.

These criticisms notwithstanding, I think this is an extremely valuable collection. Yes, there are much better overviews of the independence movement in Tremlett’s Ghosts of Spain and Hooper’s The New Spaniards; but those are two foreigners trying to summarize a complicated situation. This collection lets the Catalans speak for themselves, leading to a much more nuanced view of the independence movement. It shouldn’t be read in isolation; this is only one half of the debate. But it is an important half.

Personally I can’t decide how I feel about the whole thing. I am hostile to nationalism in general; and it strikes me that both the pro- and anti-independence positions are tinged with nationalism, for Catalonia or for Spain. I can certainly understand why, after Franco’s repressive policies, there is a considerable amount of bad blood built up in Catalonia; and I appreciate that it would make many Catalans very happy to have a country of their own. On the other hand, I think one mark of a country’s greatness is the amount of diversity it can incorporate, so I’d prefer it if the opposing sides could figure out how to live together without stepping on each other’s toes. Secession strikes my American mind as an overly drastic solution to the problem. But at this point I will take heed from Toqueville’s warning and say no more.

View all my reviews

Review: Why Buddhism is True

Review: Why Buddhism is True

Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and EnlightenmentWhy Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment by Robert Wright

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A far more accurate title for this book would be Why Mindfulness Meditation is Good. For as Wright—who does not consider himself a Buddhist—admits, he is not really here to talk about any form of traditional Buddhism. He does not even present a strictly “orthodox” view of any secular, Western variety of Buddhism. Instead, this is a rather selective interpretation of some Buddhist doctrines in the light of evolutionary psychology.

Wright’s essential message is that the evolutionary process that shaped the human brain did not adequately program us for life in the modern world; and that mindfulness meditation can help to correct this bad programming.

The first of these claims is fairly uncontroversial. To give an obvious example, our love of salt, beneficial when sodium was hard to come by in natural products, has become maladaptive in the modern world where salt is cheap and plentiful. Our emotions, too, can misfire nowadays. Caring deeply that people have a high opinion of you makes sense when you are, say, living in a small village full of people you know and interact with daily; but it makes little sense when you are surrounded by strangers on a bus.

This mismatch between our emotional setup and the newly complex social world is one reason for rampant stress and anxiety. Something like a job interview—trying to impress a perfect stranger to earn a livelihood—simply didn’t exist for our ancestors. This can also explain of tribalism, which Wright sees as the most pressing danger of the modern world. It makes evolutionary sense to care deeply for oneself and one’s kin, with some close friends thrown in; and those who fall outside of this circle should, following evolutionary logic, be treated with suspicion—which explains why humans are so prone to dividing themselves into mutually antagonistic groups.

But how can mindfulness meditation help? Most obviously, it is a practice designed to give us some distance from our emotions. This is done by separating the feeling from its narrative. In daily life, for example, anger is never experienced “purely”; we always get angry about something; and the thought of this event is a huge component of its experience. But the meditator does her best to focus on the feeling itself, to examine its manifestation in her body and brain, while letting go of the corresponding narrative. Stripped of the provoking incident, the feeling itself ceases to be provocative; and the anger may even disappear completely.

Explained in this way, mindfulness meditation is the mirror image of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). In CBT the anger is attacked from the opposite side: by focusing on the narrative and subjecting it to logical criticism. In my experience, at least, the things one tells oneself while angry rarely stand up to cool analysis. And when one ceases to believe in the thought, the feeling disappears. The efficacy of both mindfulness meditation and CBT, then, is based on the interdependence of feeling and thought. If separated—either by focusing on the feeling during meditation, or the thought through analysis—the emotion disappears.

This, in a nutshell, is how mindfulness meditation can be therapeutic. But Wright wants to make a far more grandiose claim: that mindfulness meditation can reveal truths about the nature of mind, the world, and morality.

One of the central ideas of Buddhism is that of “emptiness”: that the enlightened meditator sees the world as empty of essential form. The first time I encountered this idea in a Buddhist text it made no sense to me; but Wright gives it an intriguing interpretation. Our brain, designed to survive, naturally assigns value to things in our environment based on how useful or harmful they are to us. These evaluations are, according to Wright’s theory, experienced as emotional reactions. I have quite warm and fuzzy feelings about my laptop, for example; and even the communal computers where I work evoke in me a comforting sense of familiarity and utility.

These emotions, which are sometimes very tiny indeed, are what give experiential reality a sense of essence. The emotions, in other words, help us to quickly identify and use objects: I don’t have to think too much about the computers, for example, since the micro-emotion brings its instrumental qualities quickly to my attention. The advantages of this are obvious to anyone in a hurry. Likewise, this emotional registering is equally advantageous in avoiding danger, since taking time to ponder a rattlesnake isn’t advisable.

But the downside is that we can look at the world quite narrowly, ignoring the sensuous qualities of objects in favor of an instrumental view. Visual art actively works against this tendency, I think, by creating images that thwart our normal registering system, thus prompting us into a sensuous examination of the work. Good paintings make us into children again, exploring the world without worrying about making use of things. Mindfulness meditation is supposed to engender this same attitude, not just with regards to a painting, but to everything. Stripped of these identifying emotional reactions, the world might indeed seem “empty”—empty of distinctions, though full of rich sensation.

With objects, it is hard to see why this state of emptiness would be very desirable. (Also it should be said that this idea of micro-emotions serving as registers of essential distinctions is Wright’s interpretation of the psychological data, and is rather speculative.) But with regards to humans, this mindset might have its advantages. Instead of attributing essential qualities of good and bad to somebody we might see that their behavior can vary quite a bit depending on circumstances, and this can make us less judgmental and more forgiving.

Wright also has a go at the traditional Buddhist idea that the self is a delusion. According to what we know about the brain, he says, there is no executive seat of consciousness. He cites the famous split-brain experiments, and others like it, to argue that consciousness is not the powerful decision-maker we once assumed, but is more like a publicity agent: making our actions seem more cogent to others.

This is necessary because, underneath the apparent unity of conscious experience, there are several domain-specific “modules”—such as for sexual jealousy, romantic wooing, and so on—that fight amongst themselves in the brain for power and attention. Each module governs our behavior in different ways; and environmental stimuli determine which module is in control. Our consciousness gives a sense of continuity and coherence to this shifting control, which makes us look better in the eyes of our peers—or that’s how the theory goes, which Wright says is well-supported.

In any case, the upshot of this theory still would not be that the self doesn’t exist; only that the self is more fragmented and less executive than we once supposed. Unfortunately, the book steeply declines in quality in the last few chapters—where Wright tackles the most mystical propositions of Buddhism—when the final stage of the no-self argument is given. This leads him into the following speculations:

If our thoughts are generated by a variety of modules, which use emotion to get our attention; and if we can learn to dissociate ourselves from these emotions and see the world as “empty”; if, in short, we can reach a certain level of detachment from our thoughts and emotions: then, perhaps, we can see sensations arising in our body as equivalent to sensations arising from without. And maybe, too, this state of detachment will allow us to experience other people’s emotions as equivalent to our own, like how we feel pain from seeing a loved one in pain. In this case, can we not be said to have seen the true oneness of reality and the corresponding unreality of personal identity?

These lofty considerations aside, when I am struck by a car they better not take the driver to the emergency room; and when Robert Wright gets a book deal he would be upset if they gave me the money. My point is that this experience of oneness in no way undermines the reality of distinct personal identity, without which we could hardly go a day. And this state of perfect detachment is arguably, contra Wright, a far less realistic way of seeing things, since being genuinely unconcerned as to whom a pain belonged, for example, would make us unable to help. (Also in this way, contra Wight, it would make us obviously less moral.)

More generally, I think Wright is wrong in insisting that meditation can help us to experience reality more “truly.” Admittedly, I know from experience that meditation can be a great aid to introspection and can allow us to deal with our emotions more effectively. But the notion that a meditative experience can allow us to see a metaphysical truth—the unreality of self or the oneness of the cosmos—I reject completely. An essentially private experience cannot confirm or deny anything, as Wright himself says earlier on.

I also reject Wright’s claim that meditation can help us to see moral reality more clearly. By this he means that the detachment engendered by meditation can allow us to see every person as equally valuable rather than selfishly considering one’s own desires more important.

Now, I do not doubt that meditation can make people calmer and even nicer. But detachment does not lead logically to any moral clarity. Detachment is just that—detachment, which means unconcern; and morality is impossible without concern. Indeed, it seems to me that an enlightened person would be even less likely to improve the world, since they can accept any situation with perfect equanimity. Granted, if everyone were perfectly enlightened there would be no reason to improve anything—but I believe the expression about hell freezing over applies here.

Aside from the intellectual weakness of these later chapters, full as they are of vague hand-waving, the book has other flaws. I often got the sense that Wright was presenting the psychological evidence very selectively, emphasizing the studies and theories that accorded with his interpretations of Buddhism, without taking nearly enough time to give the contrasting views. On the other hand, he interprets the Buddhist doctrines quite freely—so in the end, when he says that modern science is confirming Buddhism, I wonder what is confirming what, exactly. The writing, while quite clear, was too hokey and jokey for me.

Last, I found his framing of meditation as a way to save humanity from destructive tribalism as both naïve and misguided. In brief, I think that we ought to try to create a society in which the selfish interests of the greatest number of people are aligned. Selfish attachment, while potentially narrow, need not be if these selves are in enmeshed in mutually beneficial relationships; and some amount of attachment, with its concomitant dissatisfactions, seems necessary for people to exert great effort in improving their station and thus changing our world.

Encouraging people to become selflessly detached, on the other hand, besides being unrealistic, also strikes me as generally undesirable. For all the suffering caused by attachment—of which I am well aware—I am not convinced that life is better without it. As Orwell said: “Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings.”

View all my reviews

Review: The Dehumanization of Art

Review: The Dehumanization of Art

La deshumanización del arte y otros ensayos de estéticaLa deshumanización del arte y otros ensayos de estética by José Ortega y Gasset

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In my judgment, the characteristic feature of new art “from the sociological point of view” is that it divides the public into two categories: those that understand it, and those that don’t.

The more I read of José Ortega y Gasset, the more I discover that he was one of the most complete intellectuals of the previous century. During his prolific career he made contributions to political theory, to philosophy, to literary criticism, and now I see to art criticism.

In the title essay of this collection, Ortega sets out to explain and defend the “new art.” He was writing at the high point of modernism, when the artists of the Generation of ’27 in Spain—a cadre that included Dalí, Buñuel, and Lorca—were embarking on new stylistic experiments. Somewhat older and rather conservative by temper, Ortega shows a surprising (to me) affinity for the new art. He sees cubism and surrealism as inevitable products of art history, and thinks it imperative to attempt to understand the young artists.

One reason why Ortega is attracted to this art is precisely because of its inaccessibility. An elitist to the bone, he firmly believed that humankind could be neatly divided into two sorts, the masses and the innovatives, and had nothing but scorn for the former. Thus new art’s intentional difficulty is, for Ortega, a way of pushing back against the artistic tyranny of the vulgar crowd. This shift was made, says Ortega, as a reaction against the trend of the preceding century, when art became more and more accessible.

The titular “dehumanization” consists of the new art’s content becoming increasingly remote from human life. The art of the nineteenth century was, on the whole, confessional and sympathetic, relying on its audience’s ability to identify with characters or the artist himself. But the new art is not based on fellow-feeling. It is an art for artists, and appeals only to our pure aesthetic sense.

As usual, Ortega is bursting with intriguing ideas that are not fully developed. He notes the new art’s use of irony, oneiric symbolism, its rejection of transcendence, its insistence on artistic purity, and its heavy use of metaphor. But he does not delve deeply into any of these topics, and he does not carefully investigate any particular work or movement. Ortega’s mind is like a simmering ember that sheds sparks but never properly ignites. He has a seemingly limitless store of pithy observations and intriguing theories, but never builds these into a complete system. He is like a child on a beach, picking up rocks, examining them, and then moving on. He wasn’t one for sand castles.

One reason for this is that he normally wrote in a short format—essays, articles, and speeches—and only later wove these into books. It is a journalistic philosophy, assembled on the fly. Personally I find this manner of philosophizing intriguing and valuable. His books are short, punchy, and rich; and even if I am seldom convinced by his views, I also never put down one of his books without a store of ideas to ponder. He is even worth reading just for his style; like Bertrand Russell in English, Ortega manages to combine clarity, sophistication, and personality. I look forward to the next book.

View all my reviews

Review: Ghosts of Spain

Review: Ghosts of Spain

Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and Its Silent PastGhosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and Its Silent Past by Giles Tremlett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is still a mystery to me how so many Spaniards can function on so little sleep.

Late one night in Madrid, as my friend and I finished eating our dinner on Spanish time—which means we get home around midnight—we were walking back to our apartment when it suddenly began to rain. First, it sprinkled; then, it drizzled; and soon it was pouring. Without an umbrella (here amusingly named paraguas, “for water”) we were forced to take cover in a bar.

As we stood there, looking out at the rain washing down the tiled streets, I heard somebody behind me say, in accented English, “It’s finally raining in Madrid.” I turned around and saw that it was the Spanish waitress, looking pensively out at the rain. Beside her was a bald patron, with the same thoughtful look on his face. “Oh, Madri’,” he said, in a thick Scottish accent. “It’s a beau’i’ful ci’y. Jus’ beau’i’ful.”

To me, this moment summarized my reaction to this city so far. It’s lovely here in Madrid. I had never planned on moving to Spain; I wasn’t even particularly interested in visiting Spain on vacation. It was a mixture of chance and opportunity that prompted me to pick up and fly over here; and consequently, I had no idea what to expect. The most pleasant surprise, for me, is how easy it has been for a New Yorker to feel at home here. Madrid has many of the positive qualities one finds in New York City: bustle, inclusiveness, diversity, variety, nightlife. Added to this, Madrid is safer, cleaner, cheaper, and, most conspicuously, much more relaxed.

The besuited man (or woman) walking quickly down the street holding a disposable cup of coffee is an omnipresent figure on the streets of NYC. Meals are quick there; people swallow their food and keep moving, often simply eating on the go. The $1 pizza, which you can get by throwing a dollar at the cashier, who then throws you the slice in return so you can eat it without breaking your stride, is perhaps the quintessential New York meal. You can do anything in NYC—anything except slow down.

In this respect, Madrid is quite the opposite. Rarely do you see people running for the trains, for the busses, elbowing their way through crowds. Virtually nobody eats while walking; and disposable coffee cups are a rarity, as coffee is normally drunk sitting down. When Madrileños eat, they like to take their time. They sit and chat, for perhaps hours, sipping their drinks and occasionally snacking on tapas and raciones. Here, the waiters don’t bother you; they serve you your food and disappear. Often, I have to chase them inside in order to get the check; but this is probably because I am an impatient American.

As a consequence of this generally relaxed attitude, I’ve found adapting to life here to be extremely pleasant (despite my ignorance of the language, which is a constant impediment). And I’m glad that, to help me through my own transición, I have Giles Tremlett as a guide, a British journalist who has been living in Madrid for decades.

This book is about the historical imagination in modern Spain. Through thirteen chapters, Tremlett examines some of the political fault-lines that run through the country. He begins with an examination of Franco’s regime and its aftermath. There is, apparently, no safe way to talk about the past in Spain—not even something which, to me, should be as uncontroversial as Franco’s fascism. But different political parties propose competing interpretations of the past, which of course reflect their different interpretations of the present. Hard as it is to believe, but the horrible bombings of commuter trains on March 11, 2004, were also the occasion of political squabbling, as the right-wingers insisted that ETA (the Basque terrorist group) had something to do with it.

To tell the story of modern Spain, Tremlett takes the reader across the country: from Madrid, to Bilbao, to Barcelona, to Galicia, and even to Spanish jails and slums. He examines flamenco, Basque and Catalan separatism, Spanish art and cinema, political corruption, gender relations, prostitution, tourism, and much more, as he attempts to pin down the quickly changing country. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his background, his method is journalistic. He focuses on the sorts of things that would make the news; and his writing-style bears the hallmarks of his profession—impersonal rather than personal, intended to convey information rather than emotion or analysis.

Like every book, this one isn’t perfect. Although Tremlett packs an impressive amount of information into the book, his analyses are often superficial, or just nonexistent. He has the journalistic habit of letting others do his thinking for him, merely reporting their opinions. Thus, while informative, I didn’t find Tremlett to be a penetrating guide. What’s more, though I generally found his writing quite strong, I sometimes felt that his style, which he obviously honed while writing shorter pieces for newspapers and magazines, did not have enough forward impetus to carry me through a whole chapter. In a longer format such as a book, more organization, more interconnection, more integration is needed than Tremlett is accustomed to; and thus his chapters sometimes seem scatterbrained, disconnected—too much like a list of facts and quotes.

(I’d also like to note, in passing, that Tremlett’s comma-use is the exact opposite of mine, which I found continually irksome. He typically omits commas where I would include them, and includes commas where I would omit them. For example, he writes “He or, normally, she is joined…” whereas I would write “He, or normally she, is joined…” Admittedly, this is surpassingly trivial.)

These are fairly minor complaints, however. Really, all things considered, it is hard for this anglosajón to imagine a better book to read as an introduction to this fantastic country. I still have a great deal to learn—not least Castellano—but at least now I have had a grand tour of the place. And perhaps one of these days, as I wander back from another late dinner, I’ll bump into Tremlett himself, and gratefully shake his hand.

View all my reviews

Review: The Ornament of the World

Review: The Ornament of the World

The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval SpainThe Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain by María Rosa Menocal

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Idealism—what we call quixotic idealism, so vividly is it depicted by Cervantes—is an act of the imagination, and perhaps a doomed one, and the question on the table becomes whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.

This is a book about nostalgia, and nostalgia is a dangerous thing. It’s one of the tricks of our memory to filter the past through a sentimental lens, forgetting all the bad and magnifying the good. And when thinking about a time before we lived, we run the risk not only of twisting the truth but of inventing it.

Ostensibly the book is about Al-Andalus, Muslim Spain—from 711 to 1492—and specifically about the culture of tolerance that flourished during this period. Menocal takes her title from a remark of Hroswitha, the German canoness, who called Córdoba the “Ornament of the World” after meeting with an ambassador. Menocal does not, however, write a conventional, chronological history, but instead a series of vignettes from the time-period. Indeed, her approach is much closer to that of a journalist than a historian, picking out the most captivating personalities and focusing exclusively on them. And even though these vignettes often contain lots of interesting information, their primary aim is not to inform, but to evoke.

Menocal writes in a dreamy, wistful tone, a style that is often seductive enough to deactivate the reader’s critical facility. The land and the people she describes sound so fantastic that you want to believe her. And this, as well as the lack of almost any scholarly apparatus, makes me very suspicious.

It is hard to believe the book was written by a professor at Yale, for it is quite explicitly propagandistic, trying to counter the conventional view of the Middle Ages as backward and intolerant with a vivid portrait of an advanced, integrated civilization. Personally, I agree with both her ideals of tolerance and her desire to acknowledge the accomplishments of Muslim Spain; but this does not excuse a professor from the commitment to scholarship. All the repression and barbarism that existed during the time period is waved away by Menocal’s insistence that it was the work of foreigners, either Berbers from the south or Christians from the north; and everything positive is credited to Andalusian culture. It would be hard to be more partisan.

In short, I have many reservations about recommending this book, because I believe it wasn’t written in good faith, with scrupulous attention to facts, but rather in the effort to influence the public’s perception of Al-Andalus through storytelling. True, all scholarship is somewhat biased; but to paraphrase Stephen Jay Gould, using this fact to excuse extreme bias is like saying that, since a perfectly antiseptic operating room is impossible, we should just perform surgeries in the sewer.

Keeping the bias in mind, however, this book can be profitably read. There is a lot of fascinating information in these pages. Indeed, I recently revisited Toledo to see some of the things Menocal mentioned, such as Santa Maria la Blanca, a beautiful synagogue built in a Moorish style. And I do think that the story of syncretism, tolerance, and collaboration in Muslim Spain should be told, especially during this era of Islamophobia. It is too easy to forget how crucial the history of Islam is to the history of the “West,” if the two histories can indeed be separated at all. Menocal’s emphasis on the architecture, the poetry, and especially the translations of the Greek philosophers by Muslim and Jewish scholars, counters the common stereotypes of the Muslims as intolerant destroyers. What’s more, I fully understand how Menocal could be swept away in nostalgic awe after seeing the Mezquita in Córdoba or the Alhambra in Granada; that the people who made those amazing structures could disappear is hard to fathom.

Still, even though I agree with Menocal’s goals, I don’t agree with her means. The bright, rosy structure is built on too flimsy a foundation. Propaganda is a bad long-term strategy, because when people realize they are being manipulated they grow resentful. Much better would have been a balanced, sourced, and footnoted book, acknowledging both the good and the bad. The society Menocal so effusively praised was undeniably great; the best way to praise is simply to describe it. The worst aspect of Menocal’s approach is that it didn’t allow her to say anything insightful about how tolerance arose. And this is important to know, since creating a tolerant society is one of the omnipresent challenges of the modern world.

View all my reviews

Review: The Life of Reason

Review: The Life of Reason

The Life of ReasonThe Life of Reason by George Santayana

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

George Santayana, in both his life and mind, was the embodiment of several contradictions. He was a European raised in America; a Spaniard who wrote in English; a philosopher who despised professional philosophy. He was an atheist who loved religion, a materialist who loved ideals. His writings seem somehow both strangely ancient and strikingly modern; he cannot be comfortably assimilated into either the analytic or continental traditions, nor dismissed as irrelevant. He stands alone, an intellectual hermit—like an embarrassing orphaned child that history can’t decide what to do with.

What is, at first, most conspicuous about Santayana is his writing style. His prose is elegance and balance itself. His style is, in fact, so supremely balanced that it seems to stand stock-still; the reader, instead of being drawn from sentence to sentence by the usual push and pull of connectives, must guide her own eye down the page, just as one might guide one’s eye across a painting. Will Durant summed this up quite nicely when he called Santayana’s writing “statuesque”; I can think of no better word it. Yet if his prose be a statue, it is a beautiful one; like a Greek nude, Santayana’s writing seems to both represent something real, as well as to capture the ideal essence hidden within—and this, you will see, is a feature of his mind as well as pen.

A dream is always simmering beneath the conventional surface of speech and reflection. Even in the highest reaches and serenest meditations of science it sometimes breaks through. Even there we are seldom constant enough to conceive a truly natural world; somewhere passionate, fanciful, or magic elements will slip into the scheme and baffle rational ambition.

This book, his most influential, is about the Life of Reason. It is a simple idea. We all know from experience that every desire we possess cannot and will not be satisfied. Even the richest and most powerful are saddled with unrealizable dreams. And these dreams and desires, Santayana notes, are not in themselves rational; in fact, there is no such thing as a rational or irrational desire. All desires, taken on their own terms, are simply givens.

Rationality comes in when we must decide what to do with our various wishes and wants. The Life of Reason consists in selecting a subset of our desires, and pruning off all the rest; more specifically, it consists in selecting the subset of our desires that consists in the greatest number that do not thwart one another. No single desire is itself rational, but a combination of desires may be:

In itself, a desire to see a child grow and prosper is just as irrational as any other absolute desire; but since the child also desires his own happiness, the child’s will sanctions and supports the father’s. Thus two irrationalities, when they conspire, make one rational life.

This is what we all already do—at least, to a certain extent. The key is to think of everything we desire, and to select those desires which go harmoniously together, neglecting all discordant impulses; and this harmony is our ideal towards which we strive. There is, indeed, a certain tragedy in this, for the Life of Reason requires that we choke off all incompatible desires, and thus eliminate a part of ourselves; yet this tragedy is unavoidable. All life, even exceedingly happy life, has some tragedy; our lives are too short and the universe too indifferent to satisfy our every whim:

Injustice in this world is not something comparative; the wrong is deep, clear, and absolute in each private fate.

All this seems very commonsensical, and it is. But note that this commits you to a certain type of moral relativism: relativism of the individual. Santayana is in agreement with Aristotle in thinking that happiness is the aim of life: “Happiness is the only sanction of life; where happiness fails, existence remains a mad and lamentable experiment.”

And since happiness is achieved by satisfying certain desires—somatic, sensual, or spiritual—and since desires spring from irrational impulses that we cannot control, every person’s happiness will, or at least might, be different. What would be the ideal Life of Reason for one man is a living nightmare for another. We can only prune and harmonize the desires we are given; we cannot manufacture desires and change our natures. We are given a set of propensities and potentialities, and it is the task of a reasonable life to realize them as best we can.

This, I think, is the core of this book; yet it is far from being the only attraction. Santayana’s mind is curious and roving, and in this volume he covers a huge territory. Just as Santayana’s style transforms imperfect bodies into perfect statues, so his mind is concerned with finding the ideal form in all things human. He commences a survey of governments, and concludes that a timocracy (or meritocracy) is the best form. Santayana would have total equality of opportunity, not in order to establish a perfect communism, but to select those whose natures are the best fitted to advance. Thus, he advocates a kind of natural aristocracy. (Not being a very practical man by nature, Santayana doesn’t speculate how such a perfect state could be realized.)

Santayana explores the history of morals and the morals of history; he discusses science and its purported rivals. He is an ardent naturalist, and espouses a rather pragmatic view of truth: “Science is a bridge touching experience at both ends, over which practical thought may travel from act to act, from perception to perception.” Yet I think Santayana is most refreshing when he discusses religion.

When Santayana wrote this book, he was living in a time that was, in one respect at least, very similar to our own: there was a bitter clash between science and religion. Like now, there were several thorny atheists ridiculing and dismissing religion as nonsense; and, like now, there were dogmatists who took their myths literally. Santayana is at home in neither camp; he thinks both views miss the point entirely.

Religious rituals and myths should be treated like poetry; they do not represent literal truths, but moral ones. To mistake the story in the Book of Genesis for a scientific hypothesis would be as egregious as mistaking Paradise Lost for a phonebook. The myths and stories of religions are products of culture, which express, in symbolic guise, deep truths about one’s history, society, and self. Thus, both the bilious atheists and the doctrinaire devotees were overlooking what was beautiful in religion:

Mythical thinking has its roots in reality, but, like a plant, touches the ground only at one end. It stands unmoved and flowers wantonly into the air, transmuting into unexpected and richer forms the substances it sucks from the soil.

This brings me to my original point: that Santayana was the embodiment of several contradictions. He holds no supernatural beliefs, yet admires religions for their deep artistic power. He is a materialist, yet thinks that life must be organized around an ideal. He is a naturalist in thinking that science is the key to truth; but he holds that science is a mere efficacious representation of reality, not reality itself. He seems antiquated in his love of aristocracy, yet modern in his relativism. He seems, from a modern point of view, analytic in his pragmatic attitude to truth and his emphasis on reason; yet he is, unlike analytic philosophers, greatly preoccupied with aesthetics, ethics, and history.

Certainly, Santayana is not without his shortcomings. Although his prose is beautiful, his concern for beauty often leads him to select a phrase for being tuneful rather than clear; the reader often expresses the half-wish that Santayana would write with less prettiness and more directness. His concern for beauty affects the content as well; he very seldom puts forward careful arguments for his positions, but more often resorts to putting them forth as attractively as possible. But I cannot help forgiving him for his faults.

For me, reading this book was a sort of thoughtful meditation; one must read it slowly and with great attention, carefully unwrapping the germinal thoughts from the flower petals in which Santayana enfolds them, so that they may bloom in your mind’s soil. Santayana may indeed be a hermit of history; yet because of his solitude, reading him is an escape from the bustle and noise of the world, a reprieve from the normal tired controversies and paradoxes, a diversion as refreshing and revitalizing as cool water.

View all my reviews

Review: Persuasion

Review: Persuasion

PersuasionPersuasion by Jane Austen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

When any two young people take it into their heads to marry, they are pretty sure by perseverance to carry their point, be they ever so poor, or ever so imprudent, or ever so little likely to be necessary to each other’s ultimate comfort.

While reading Jane Austen my first and final impression, and the most constant sensation throughout, is of a keen intelligence. Her mind is like a rapier, sharp and graceful; and with this implement she needles and probes our mortal frame.

Austen’s concise novels explode with meaning; they can be read on so many levels. We see Austen the anthropologist, explaining and mocking the customs of her English countryside; Austen the moral philosopher, searching for the keys to human conduct; Austen the formal innovator, pioneering new techniques in fiction; and Austen the humorist, the Romantic poet, the psychologist, and so on.

In many ways Persuasion is the mirror image of Emma. Whereas Emma Woodhouse is young, beautiful, and immature, Anne Elliot makes her appearance as a poised woman past her prime. Emma is vain and silly, while Anne is the maturest and wisest character in the book. Thematically, too, the two novels are opposite. Emma, as Gilbert Ryle observed, is primarily concerned with influencing other people. When is is beneficent, when is it egotistic, and when is it mere meddling to involve oneself in another’s affairs? Persuasion, as its name implies, tackles the opposite problem: Under what circumstances should we yield to advice, and allow ourselves to be persuaded?

As usual with Austen, the social world her characters inhabit is the pinched life of the country gentry. Modern readers cannot help finding the dictates of manners and the demands of politeness to be harsh and constraining. If it were only more socially acceptable to speak one’s mind—or, God forbid, to engage in some form of romance without marriage—then the plots of the books would fall apart, as with so many other classic novels.

What makes it tolerable is Austen’s often wry lampooning of the social order. This is especially sharp in Persuasion. Anne’s father, Sir Walter Elliot, is a contemptible baronet who prides himself in his looks and cannot manage his estate. Anne’s relation, Lady Dalrymple, is a viscountess with no charms, mental or physical, whom Anne’s father and sister nevertheless slavishly follow for her rank. The Royal Navy serves as the foil to these exalted oafs, a true meritocracy that allows young men with talent, but no birth, to make their way in the world.

On a formal level I found the novel interesting for its dearth of dialogue. Instead, Austen employs her technique of “free indirect discourse,” a kind of mixture of dialogue and reported speech. The result is that we see the world filtered through the narrator’s understanding—and in this book, this understanding is almost identical with Anne Elliot’s, Austen’s only character who is almost as intelligent as herself. This creates some interest effects.

Normally, characters in novels know somewhat less than the audience. We can, for example, immediately see that Emma Woodhouse’s schemes are ill-conceived, while she remains ignorant. But in Persuasion, Anne figures things out just as fast as we do; and her actions are consistently well-considered. What is more, while in most novels the character must undergo some change before the end—Emma must swear off her meddling ways—Anne Elliot’s challenge is to stay absolutely constant to the same good impulse that guided her eight years earlier. She begins the book wise, and remains so throughout.

The final result of these elements—indirect discourse, the stability of Anne’s character, as well as some clumsiness in pacing and plot—makes Persuasion a somewhat less exciting read than other Austen novels. But this lack of excitement is more than compensated by the wealth of interesting questions posed by the text. Jane Austen was an artist of the highest order, with a mind that would put many philosophers to shame.

View all my reviews