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Archive for February, 2013

Russell Redux

I’ve been planning to read Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy left to me by my Father (philosophy being one of the interests we shared) and recommended by my nephew, the Philosophy major. On Brain Pickings today, I watched a fascinating video of a BBC interview with Russell which has me even more motivated to tackle this tome. I had some sense of Russell as a great thinker and philosopher, but was not clear about how radical he was for his time. I also got the impression of a great humanist and overall charming fellow. The interview is delightful and his message to all of us is profound and stirring.

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Weird John Brown

Tony Horvitz mentions a poem by Melville as one of the reactions to Harper’s Ferry; I never realized that Herman Melville wrote poetry, but it seems that he wrote quite a lot of it! His poem about John Brown is so fitting, so chilling:

The Portent

Hanging from the beam
Slowly swaying (such the law)
Gaunt the shadow on your green,
Shenandoah!
The cut is on the crown
(Lo, John Brown),
And the stabs shall heal no more.

Hidden in the cap
Is the anguish none can draw;
So your future veils its face,
Shenandoah!
But the streaming beard is shown
(Weird John Brown),
The meteor of the war.

I feel I should have linked to the Langston Hughes poem I referenced in my previous post which I found here: Rhapsody in Books – John Brown

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The fanatical John Brown was a complex mixture, and Horwitz creates a nuanced portrait of a driven man who failed at everything except martyrdom. While waiting a month to be executed, he seemed finally content, the path of righteousness clear before him, and his message finally being heard and disseminated. Horwitz contends, and it seems to be true, that Brown’s failed raid was the flint that sparked the Civil War 18 months later. Horwitz describes a belated but powerful groundswell of support for Brown across the North which hardened the South’s sense of injustice and brought the idea of secession from the fringes to the mainstream. I have to say that Brown’s sacrifice of himself, most of his sons and followers, and his cold-blooded execution of farmers in Kansas was shocking, but not more shocking than the atrocities of slavery. It does make you think about terrorism in a slightly different way, and his willingness to die for the cause brought even theoretical and passivist Northern abolitionists out of the closet, so to speak.

Brown said himself that “the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood,” and it is hard to see how slavery would have ended without the dreadful conflagration of the Civil War, which his actions may have hastened. This book was not as entertaining as “Confederates in the Attic,” but it added to my knowledge of the intellectual climate and political power-structure in the country before the Civil War. In fact, I think I might have liked it better if it was about all of the pre Civil War factors leading up to the shots fired at Fort Sumter, a kind of “Proud Tower,” for that event. Horwitz added a fascinating literary footnote: Lewis Leary, one of Brown’s doomed followers, left behind a wife, Mary, who remarried and became Mary Langston. She raised her grandson, Langston Hughes, on stories of the raid. His poem, “October 16, 1859” begins: “Perhaps you will remember John Brown…”

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I read The Art of Fielding, which all the book groups seem to be reading these days. I nearly gave up in the initial chapters where Henry, by a series of fortuitous, and not entirely believable, events and circumstances is brought to Westish College to invigorate their baseball team with his skill as a shortstop. I was about to give up until the statue of Melville was mentioned, and the reason why the baseball team is named “The Harpooners” was revealed. Apparently, Melville visited the Great Lakes at one point in his post-writerly life (after the failure of Moby Dick, he spent some 30 years as a Customs inspector). I found myself invigorated by this literary link and gradually got interested in the characters.

The Melville connection was tenuous and not fully explored, which was too bad. I had expected more, but in the end I got interested in Henry, the syndrome that undermined him as a player, and his gradual healing and emergence from despair. A lot of the other plotlines felt contrived, especially the one between Pella and her father, and the decision to dig up his body: weird, tacked on and unearned sensationalism! It was news to this reader that Affenlight loved the sea that much. And there was really no parallel to Emerson digging up his wife’s body. It just didn’t fit. That said, the writing was good, and on the whole the book was enjoyable. I did like it more than I thought I would.

Given that “The Lee Shore” was mentioned as Affenlight’s favorite chapter of MD, I wanted to follow up on that reference, and in doing so, found The Big Read – Moby Dick read aloud in its entirety by 130 plus different narrators. I went straight to Chapter 23 and had a listen. It’s another of those extended metaphors, this “six-inch chapter is the stoneless grave of Bulkington.” If we had had some earlier premonition of Guert’s love of the sea, this would have worked, ie, “the land seems scorching to his feet,” or was it there and I missed it? In any case, the chapter was a good choice. I liked the analogy between the efforts of a boat to ride out a gale at sea, rather than be driven onto the rocks and that of the mind to maintain its freedom:

all deep earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore!

I also liked that Affenlight’s last meal was Chowder – that being one of the great chapters of MD!

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