Villette, Charlotte Bronte (1853)

I had nothing to lose. Unutterable loathing of a desolate existence past forbade return. If I failed in what I now designed to undertake, who, save myself, would suffer? If I died far away from—home, I was going to say, but I had no home—from England, then, who would weep?

 

villetteJane Eyre is one of my very favorite books. As such it has cast a spell over any desire to read Charlotte’s other novels. But I broke that spell with Villette and while it didn’t knock down my favorite it was a wonderful reading experience.

But it is an odd book. The narrative is filled with the supernatural, with sounds and ghosts real and imagined, madness, creepy streets and gardens, a heroine who not only talks to herself but answers back. And it abounds with coincidence, serendipity or the saving grace of Divine Providence, however one might want to call it.

Lucy Snowe is like Jane, an orphan cast off and adrift in the world, although Lucy is a young woman, not a child, when she is forced by circumstances out of her godmother’s care and left to her own devices to find her way. Through a series of the aforementioned coincidences she is saved by acquaintances, old school chums, being in the wrong place at the right time to finally finding love and security.

Snowe is often convinced she will die when yet another position as a companion or as a teacher goes awry. Through inner dialog she is ready to meet her fate with a philosophic resolve. Her many conversations with Reason are quite profound.

Often has Reason turned me out by night, in midwinter, on cold snow, flinging for sustenance the gnawed bone dogs had forsaken: sternly as she vowed her stores held nothing more for me–harshly denied my right to ask better things…Then, looking up, have I seen in the sky a head amidst circling stars, of which the midmost and the brightest lent a ray sympathetic and attent. A spirit, softer and better than Human Reason, has descended with quiet flight to the waste—bringing all round her a sphere of air borrowed of eternal summer, bringing perfume of flowers which cannot fade—fragrance of trees whose fruit is life, bringing breezes pure from a world whose day needs no sun to lighten it.

Lucy fights with Reason and Divine Providence often, each whispering opinions to her weary mind. She has been made mad by them, but they have also healed her.

A little reading about the reception of Villette in Bronte’s time is fascinating. As a reader of this book in the 21st century, I see it as an honest portrait of a woman who has no family—male relatives—to support or protect her, she is like many in Bronte’s time. Snowe’s life is in her own hands to be made of what she can and at times it isn’t pretty. Bronte’s contemporary, Matthew Arnold, had a decidedly bitter experience with the journey of Lucy Snowe, calling the novel, “hideous, undelightful, convulsed, constricted…one of the most utterly disagreeable I have ever read. Her mind contains nothing but hunger, rebellion, and rage. Which the only response can be, “Exactly!” He did not understand that he proved Bronte’s point about women in Lucy Snowe’s situation.

If the novel was only about the Ginevra Fanshawe and Polly Home type, the lovely young girls of status and wealth, that would have made a “pretty novel,” but not a very interesting one. Bronte chose honesty over superficiality giving Lucy Snowe strength, instead of helplessness modeling a heroine that speaks to and gives hope not only to women in Bronte’s time, but to the situation of many women today.

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My Edition
Title: Villette
Author: Charlotte Bronte
Publisher: Bantam Classics
Device: Paperback
Year: 1853
Pages: 474
Summary

Challenges: Back to the Classics, 2019 TBR Pile Challenge, Classics Club

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Blogging the Spirit: I don’t have a Name for God…Why I call myself a Pagan

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In Wildness is the preservation of the world. Thoreau

 

I say the word God. I thank God. I get mad at God. I question God.

But I don’t have an image of what or to whom I am talking. No image forms in my mind’s eye. I don’t see Jesus or an old bearded man. I don’t see a God or Goddess. God, for me, is an experience or a feeling of connection to the generative force in the Universe. It’s that present something that continually creates and moves forward all life.

Growing up in an interfaith secular home meant holidays were celebrated in their commercial forms: the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, Hanukkah gelt. God didn’t enter into it. As a young adult, I tried to understand or reconcile my multifaith background through rites and rituals, through behaviors so that I might “feel Him.” I was mystified by others in pews and classrooms who totally got this, felt this and for whom through all the tenets and dogma, God was real. I wanted that, too. I wanted that so much I lied to them and myself hoping that the saying, “fake it till you make it” might actually work.img_5320

But the moment I stepped on a trail or looked up into a blue cloudless sky at a hawk soaring elegantly on thermals or noticed the scent of pine—God made sense to me.

I fought this desire to find God in Nature for a long time. It seemed trite, “I find God in Nature!” I wasn’t a hippie or a mountain man. I was just a gal in the city who couldn’t seem to get God the way my peers did.

For several years after discovering Wicca and other Pagan paths, I joined groups still trying hard to feel what other folks were feeling, this time about Gods, moon phases, the seasons and what was expressed in the holidays of the Wiccan year. I loved the ceremonies marking the equinoxes and solstices and the celebrations of the full moon. But finding a pantheon eluded me and the philosophies seemed complicated. Maybe I was just too lazy to commit to the beliefs of any religion if all I needed in order to find and experience God was to lie on a boulder in the sun with a lizard.

What do you call this?

But this idea that what I am experiencing is God, still doesn’t feel right. I don’t know what I am participating in if I don’t feel it’s the God of Judeo-Christianity or the Gods of the Witches. My experiences in Nature sunning myself on a boulder on a mountain in the San Gabriel’s with a lizard as a companion seem bigger than religion and God as I understand them. Turning my head, eye to eye with Lizzy basking together in the heat of the day is a connection that is so profound to me and greater than a similar experience with a human being. It is two very different species meeting and having the same experience with the life-giving rays of the sun. The word God feels too small here and religion doesn’t have room for this. Except, it should….

We are “starstuff”

cosmosI am old enough to remember Carl Sagan, the American astronomer, scientist, author and miniseries star. When “Cosmos” came out most people I knew were riveted. No one had ever explained the universe and the night sky to regular folks in lay terms before. Sagan was personable, easy to understand, not patronizing and above all made us feel closer to the sky, as if it was part of our neighborhood.

One of his most famous concepts had a big effect, “we are starstuff.” We are part of the beginning of the Universe when it exploded into bits, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” Further, he said, “if you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” And that means when we look up into the night sky we see our relatives.

The Genesis account of Creation is, to me, right there with it. God as the Big Bang calling all Creation into being, breathing life into the first human means we are all related as well. In both cases we were created/have a Creator who connects us past, present, future. Whether we look across the sky to the bounty of stars or across a room full of people we are looking at our cousins, because all life is the incarnation of our Creator. Therefore, it is not a stretch or a fantasy to feel connected to God in Nature any less than we do with blood relatives.

From starstuff we get mountains, the sea, trees and bugs and coyotes; we get the planet Jupiter, a kitten and Grandma Sadie. When we bask in the healing rays of the sun oimg_4741 - copyr watch the tides forming from the pull of the moon we feel our kin. Genesis gives us this same connection. We are not separate to do with the Earth as we please without repercussions. Modern Pagans get it. Indigenous peoples get it. This perspective is fundamental to the way we treat our non-human relatives, including this planet, so it is ironic that the Judeo-Christian establishment condemns this as Nature-worship, as if worshiping, loving, respecting, seeing Nature as holy and sacred should be considered blasphemy!

Being Pagan gives me a perspective of myself in the Universe that traditional religions are blind to. They have turned animals, plants and the land of the Garden into resources; they have turned them into something to USE, instead of seeing them existing for their OWN sakes. But….it IS in their holy books to see Nature as sacred. And when that happens it will heal the rupture that separates ‘man’ from Creation. Then the land, the animals, the very air will breathe, literally, a sigh of relief.

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This is a very personal post. I am sharing these thoughts, because if you follow me on my Instagram and other social media I often post poems and quotations with my photos that describe or evoke my relationship with the natural world. As a book blogger, obviously words move me. When reading the classics I am sometimes stuck on a beautiful phrase that stays with me. So too in the way poets and other writers capture a feeling that describes Nature and helps me to feel connected. These are meaningful moments for me and so I share….

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Blogging the Spirit on the First Sunday of the Month

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What inspires your connection to God/The Gods/Soul/The Universe/The Big Cheese?

On the first Sunday of the month a call for bloggers of any religious/spiritual tradition or none to share a poem, some thoughts, a piece of music, a photo, something in your liturgy that reflects this relationship. The information is here.
You can put the link to your post in the comments below. #BloggingtheSpirit in social media.

 

Beginning Again…Happy 2019!

The words of this poem move me. I want to start this year with them in my heart. Life is simple and uncomplicated when I know what is most important is right in my own backyard.

I look up, I look down, in front and around. I look inside. And that is all I need to begin…I am another year old today.

 

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Me as Cormorant, open to all good things!
Remember

Remember the sky that you were born under, know each of the star’s stories.

Remember the moon, know who she is.

Remember the sun’s birth at dawn, that is the strongest point of time. Remember sundown and the giving away to night.

Remember your birth, how your mother struggled to give you form and breath. You are evidence of her life, and her mother’s, and hers.

Remember your father. He is your life, also. Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth.

Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them, listen to them. They are alive poems.

Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the origin of this universe.

Remember you are all people and all people are you.

Remember you are this universe and this universe is you.

Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you.

Remember language comes from this.

Remember the dance language is, that life is.

Remember.

—Joy Harjo, 1951

Relevant Obscurity in 2019

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2018 was a veritable reading bust for me. Health and personal challenges left me lethargic in writing up books from the beginning of the year. Frankly, I almost gave up the ghost with Relevant Obscurity…

I am away for the holidays letting my mind ramble as I explore. I am seeing places in my personal  life where I feel a similar lethargy and places I feel somewhat constricted. My ramblings have shown me this same constriction has bled into my blogging life by what I post and what I leave out.

I started Relevant Obscurity 3 1/2 years ago to concentrate on the classics. But reading reviews of other bloggers has opened me up to wider reading interests and I want to go with that flow, instead of sticking with self-imposed limitations.

Here is my projected approach to reading and writing in 2019:

  • Biographies. Some writers have particularly interested me during these 3 1/2 years and I want to know more about them, including Edith Wharton, Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Madeleine L’Engle, LM Montgomery and CS Lewis
  • The 19th and early 20th centuries. My favorite time period, which seems to be a hot topic in monographs these days of people and events. Yes, more nonfiction
  • Series and major works. I want to complete the Chronicles of Narnia, write about LM Montgomery’s Emily series (why isn’t Emily as well-known as Anne?), finish Henry James’s major work and read as much of Madeleine L’Engle’s nonfiction as possible
  • Contemporary fiction. “Yes, Laurie, step into the world of 21st century contemporary fiction.” So far it hasn’t hurt
  • Plays and poetry. I am neglecting these by concentrating mostly on novels
  • South America. Last winter I posted about starting German with the Babbel app. It soon became apparent that I could actually learn a language with this program, so I switched to Spanish. There is logic in there somewhere, but it’s a long story! I have become obsessed with Spanish creating my own reading challenge of South American literature, history and culture. And I dream about an adventure to Chile…
  • Blogging the Spirit. I will continue this in 2019 as a personal quest in spirituality, this time on the first Sunday of the month.

Book challenges will be less in 2019, but I am happy to continue with Back to the Classics, the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, Roof Beam Reader’s TBR, the Classics Club and Library Love, because they are fun and helpful. One new challenge I am undertaking is The World at War Reading Challenge. I am also looking forward to the Wales Readathon in March and RIP in the Fall.

We’ll see what actually transpires this year, but I remain positive.

Wishing everyone a fulfilling 2019!

 

The Magician’s Nephew (The Chronicles of Narnia), C.S. Lewis (1955)

“Narnia, Narnia, Narnia, awake. Love. Think. Speak. Be walking trees. Be talking beasts. Be divine waters.” Aslan

And the longer and more beautiful the Lion sang, the harder Uncle Andrew tried to make himself believe that he could hear nothing but roaring….And when the Lion spoke and said, “Narnia awake,” he didn’t hear any words: he heard only a snarl. And when the Beasts spoke in answer, he heard only barkings, growlings, bayings, and howlings.

magiciansnephewI read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (LWW) a few years ago. I liked it and knew I would read the other books in the series. I didn’t know there is, what we would call a prequel, until I struck up a conversation with a woman in a bookstore who is an avid Narnia fan. Apparently, after Lewis published the LWW a friend asked him about the lamppost that appeared out of nowhere and in order to clear that up he wrote The Magician’s Nephew (MN). So does this mean the MN is really the first book? When I looked this up, I found Lewis scholars from the 1950s with various opinions that plague newer scholars and fans alike to this day. Chronological order (Lewis’s preference) puts the MN first. Published order puts it 6th or before the Last Battle the last released title. Being that the MN shows not only the origin of the lamppost, but the creation of Narnia by Aslan and how evil enters the Kingdom of Narnia, I believe chronological order is best. But I am only two books in; not the best authority.

I have to admit though, half way through I was very disappointed in the story. I found it dull, the magic not particularly, well, magical. Digory and Polly, neighbor children who are thrust into the void by the power of the magic rings invented by Digory’s Uncle Andrew land in a world made up of innumerable ponds and woods. Even the world that unleashes the Witch and the evil brought to Narnia did not hold my interest. Only the desire that I read all the titles forced me to continue. And then suddenly, Aslan appears and the book takes a most promising turn.

This world has a hopefulness the other worlds did not. It is a new world without flora or fauna, but that changes as a magnificent and glorious sound pierces the air and the children realize Creation is being sung into being before their very eyes!

There were no words. There was hardly even a tune….It was so beautiful he [Digory] could hardly bear it…Then two wonders happened at the same moment. One was that the voice was suddenly joined by other voices; more voices than you could possibly count….The second wonder was that the blackness overhead all at once, was blazing with stars….a thousand points of light leaped out—single stars, constellations, and planets, brighter and bigger than any in our world….If you had seen and heard it, you would have felt quite certain that it was the stars themselves which were singing, and that it was the First Voice, the deep one, which had made them appear and made them sing….The Voice rose and rose till all the air was shaking with it; the sun rose. You could imagine that it laughed for joy as it came up….the earth was of many colors; they were fresh, hot and vivid. They made you feel excited until you saw the Singer himself, and then you forgot everything else. It was a Lion and stood facing the risen sun. Its mouth was wide open in song….

These passages and the ones that speak about the creation of the animals and other two-legged beings, are the kinds of magic that moves me. Creation being formed out of Song and love and beauty by a Lion who is at once Creator and Sacrifice (LWW). Because, yes, one cannot but help to see that connection. Aslan is birthing the world through the sound of his Voice, bringing forth the first plants, the new starry heavens, the sun and wind and all the animals, birds and beings that will populate this new world.

Out of the trees wild people stepped forth, gods and goddesses of the wood; with them came Fauns and Satyrs and Dwarfs. Out of the river rose the river god with his Naiad daughters. And all these and all the beasts and birds in their different voices, low or high or thick or clear, replied. “Hail, Aslan. We hear and obey. We are awake. We love. We think. We speak. We know.

Aslan tells the animals and other sacred beings to guard and protect the land because evil has been let loose. The Witch followed Digory and Polly into Narnia, but for now she is headed for lands far away and won’t trouble Narnia for hundreds of years. In the meantime Narnia must be made strong. Aslan sends the children on a journey to find the fruit of a special apple tree that once planted in Narnia will reign over it against all evil. When they return Aslan tells Digory to throw the apple a certain distance and it settles into the soft mud. In the morning the tree is big and filled with fruit. Digory is certain an apple from this tree will help his mother’s cancer and Aslan gives him one to take home.

When Digory and Polly return to London, Digory’s mother eats the apple and is cured. Digory plants the core and a tree grows again overnight. As the years pass and the children grow up so does the tree which has a symbiotic relationship with the one of its origin: it wiggles a bit on days when it is windy in Narnia, even when there is no wind in London. But its shaking has weakened its roots, and one wind-filled day in London the tree topples over. Now middle aged and with unfaded memories of Aslan and Narnia and all he saw there, Digory cannot just chop up the tree for fire wood. So he takes part of the tree and builds a wardrobe which he puts in his house in the country….

The passages of Narnia’s creation, vocalizing it into Being, the animals talking to one another and back and forth with the children tick many of my fantasy-girl and spirituality boxes. I am so glad I stuck with this book. And I further learned I wasn’t so far off the mark when I wanted to set the book aside, because the arguments of Lewis scholars who say the books should be read as released, instead of chronologically with MN to be read first, stems partly from the fact that this IS a dull book up until Aslan’s entrance and children (and adults?) might be turned off by the dull first half and not want to read any further.

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My Edition
Title: The Magician’s Nephew
Author: C.S. Lewis
Publisher: Harper Trophy
Device: Paperback
Year: 1955
Pages: 221
Summary

A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens (1843)

“If I could work my will,” said Scrooge indignantly, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.”

 

xmascarolI have seen multiple film versions of A Christmas Carol, but have never read the book. I now see how easily I got caught up in the visual drama of the spectacle with little understanding of the morality in the story. How easily I have been misled by costumes, sets and the bleak feeling of black and white film that the true message of this book never completely sunk in.

The basics of the story concern Ebenezer Scrooge a cold miserly man, who is hated and feared by all who know him. One of the richest men in town, he doesn’t want to pay for anything more than he has to and keeps the wages of his assistant Bob Cratchit as low as possible forcing him to sit in an office that Scrooge will not heat regardless of the biting chill. Scrooge rebuffs solicitations that would help the poor, no matter that it’s Christmas Eve. He ‘bah humbugs’ his nephew who visits and asks him to Christmas dinner. At this point Dickens shows us nothing that could possibly redeem this spiritless old man. On his way home, no one greets him to inquire after his health or to wish him a Merry Christmas; they are put off by his perennial cold stare, loathsome words and air of negativity. Averted in the streets, he is talked about behind his back.

He has a strange encounter with his door knocker as he slips his key in the door: it turns into the face of his long dead business partner, Jacob Marley. Disturbed, once inside he checks all the rooms before locking himself in his bedroom. But the door knocker was a portent of things to come and by night’s end he will be forced to confront every injustice he ever thought or committed. Jacob Marley’s ghost has come to give him one last chance to mend his ways or he will end up like Marley, roaming the afterlife weighed down in the chains that weighed him down in his mortal life. Scrooge is in for the ride of his life as three ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come barge into his room in order to show him the error of his ways and the damage he has done not only to the people in his life and to himself, but essentially to the purpose to which he was created. He will see how he has hurt employees, family members, people on the street and lost his only chance of romantic love by withholding his material wealth and by the meanness of his words and actions.

With each ghostly experience he watches as scenes from his life appear before him and force him to bear witness of his cruelty to others. Surprisingly, some of the coldness in his heart melts and he has moments of conscience about various acts he wishes he could change like giving a caroler at his door “something” or that he should have had a kinder word for Bob Cratchit; being shown his death bed he is appalled to see how people are treating both his wealth and memory. He is finally able to understand life’s joys and the importance of compassion, kindness and generosity of purse and spirit.

I was surprised by my reaction to this story and how personal it felt and how it alerted me to look at my own life. I never had this awareness in the films or that this felt like my journey, too and was left with an uncomfortable feeling that a little self-reflection might be a good idea! Many were the scenes of material poverty of families with little food or sailors away from their loved ones who nonetheless celebrated the joy of the season and the shared love of one another, no matter their circumstance. There is a lesson for me here.

In the end old Scrooge is redeemed by the three spirits who did their job in showing him how his despicable earthly ways would only lead to a terrifying afterlife. As the night ends he feels a different, more lightheartedness in himself. With a chance to change the meanness with which he has treated those around him, he joyously gives Bob Cratchit a raise with a promise to help his family, including his young disabled son, Tiny Tim and allows him all the coal he needs to warm the office. He heals the relationship with his nephew and becomes a generous kindly man at last.

“He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total-Abstinence Principle ever afterwards; and it was always said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”

Oh good, there is hope for me, yet!

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My Edition
Title: A Christmas Carol
Author: Charles Dickens
Publisher: J. B.  Lippincott Company
Device: Kindle
Year: 1915 (1843)
Pages: 147
Summary

The Ethics of Diet: A Catena of Authorities Deprecatory of the Practice of Flesh-Eating, Howard Williams (1883)

“Do vegetarians eat meat by night?”

“What on earth do you live on?”

“The animals were ‘sent’ to humans for food.”

“What would otherwise become of the animals?”

 

ethicsofdietEvery modern-day vegan or vegetarian has been asked these questions by meat-eating friends or family members incredulous that it is even possible “to survive without meat and so we must be cheating somewhere, at some time.” And then we, in whatever way that is comfortable to us, defend ourselves. But what makes these questions particularly remarkable is that they are the questions swirling around 1877 London challenging those vegetarians to come up with a defense against their choice not to consume animal flesh.

Howard Williams, a five-year vegetarian, professor of history and the well-known biographer of Pope and Swift railed against the ignorance and mockery of these flesh-eating tormentors and decided to remedy the absence of knowledge about the long tradition of flesh abstention. He would write the history of vegetarianism from the point of view of well-known nonflesh-eaters of the past.

The Ethics of Diet: A Catena of Authorities Deprecatory of the Practice of Flesh-Eating was published in 1883. Arranged in a historical timeline beginning with Hesiod and ending with Schopenhaur, Williams provides 50 sources made up of well-known philosophers, scientists, religious and literary figures who provide the reader with a historical record of their treatises, poems, discourses, biographies and literary works that speak of animal rights, human health, the morality against eating animals, the economics of taking up land for animals and not people and the meat-centered diet of the rich. Before each entry Williams gives a brief biographical sketch and summation of their thoughts. For many of these famous individuals their beliefs came from considering the perfect society or advanced civilizations where flesh eating made no sense. Some had personal experiences that triggered thoughtful examination of what their culture termed the normal treatment of animals for food that led them to see things differently.

I find this collection to be terribly important as a foundation against the so-called mockery and disdain of my own times. Vegetarianism has a long history practiced by the great and the humble for all kinds of economic, moral, philosophical and religious reasons. There is also a sense of camaraderie in knowing that famous vegetarians have been asked the same questions I have! Their arguments, thoughts and pleadings in defense of animals from so long ago is hopeful. Defending animals against the belief they are commodities or inferior life forms to be treated without regard has always had their champions and with this book there is the weight of Pythagoras and Voltaire, Seneca and Shelley.

No matter our diet, the question—must we eat meat or not—is as old as the hills with both sides bearing a long tradition of discourse.

Excerpts

Ovid (43 BC-18 AD), quoting Pythagoras (c570BC-c470BC)

Pythagoras was the first to forbid animals to be served up at the table and he was first to open his lips to say….”Forbear O mortals! to pollute your bodies with such abominable food…there are the fruits which bear down the branches with their weight, and there are the grapes swelling on the vines; the lavish earth heaps up her riches and her gentle foods, and offers you dainties without blood and without slaughter…It is not enough that such wickedness is committed by men. They have involved the gods themselves in this abomination, that they believe this deity in the heavens can rejoice in the slaughter of the laborious and useful ox. The spotless victim, excelling in the beauty of its form, decked out with garlands with gold is placed before their altars, and the fruits which it cultivated placed on its head between its horns and struck down, with its life-blood it dyes the sacrificial knife…”

Clement of Alexandria (c150BC-c215BC) Essay on Man

“Pythagoras seems to me to have derived his mildness towards irrational animals from the Law [Jewish Law]. For instance, he interdicted the employment of the young of sheep and goats and cows for some time after their birth; not even on the pretext of sacrifice allowing it, on account both of the young ones and of the mother; training men to gentleness by their conduct toward those beneath them. ‘Resign,’ he says, ‘the young one to the mother for the proper time’. For if nothing takes place without a cause, and milk is produced in large quantity in parturition for the sustenance of the progeny, he who tears way the young one from the supply of the milk and the breast of the mother, dishonors Nature.”

“The Law, too, expressly prohibits the slaying of such animals as are pregnant till they have brought forth, remotely restraining the proneness of men to do wrong to men; and thus also it has extended its clemency to the irrational animals, that by the exercise of humanity to beings of different races we may practise amongst those of the same species a larger abundance of it.

Rousseau (1712-1778)

“One of the proofs that the taste of flesh is not natural to man is the indifference which children exhibit for that sort of meat, and the preference they all give to vegetable foods, such as milk-porridge, pastry, fruits, etc. It is of the last importance not to denaturalize them of this primitive taste and not to render them carnivorous, if not for health reasons, at least for the sake of their character. For, however the experience may be explained, it is certain that great eaters of flesh are, in general, more cruel and ferocious than other men.

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My Edition
Title: The Ethics of Diet: A Catena of Authorities Deprecatory of the Practice of Flesh-Eating
Author: Howard Williams
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 2003 (1883)
Pages: 394

The Razor’s Edge, W. Somerset Maugham (1944)

“I’ve been reading a good deal. Eight or ten hours a day. I’ve attended lectures at the Sorbonne. I think I’ve read everything that’s important in French literature and I can read Latin, at least Latin prose, almost as fluently as I can read French. Of course Greek’s more difficult. But I have a very good teacher. Until you came here I used to go to him three evenings a week.”

“And what is that going to lead to?”

“The acquisition of knowledge.”

“That doesn’t sound very practical.”

 

 

razorThis is my first book by W. Somerset Maugham and I found it to be a compelling narrative with a theme that is close to me. It is a book with a large cast of characters, but by weaving them in and out of each other’s lives Maugham keeps them familiar to us. We watch as their individual fortunes rise and fall affecting all around.

The story begins just after WWI and centers on Larry Darrell and his childhood friends. He is the only one of his group who fought, joining the Air Force to train as a fighter pilot. Traumatized by seeing his best friend killed, when he returns home he is unable to resume his carefree life as a member of the upper class. Set to marry his long-time love, Isabel, and live the conventional life of his class, his experiences during the war have changed him in ways that make that life impossible. He is full of questions about the meaning of life and no longer feels comfortable in the Chicago of his childhood. With inner demons demanding attention he embarks on a life of study and manual labor in France and Germany and to India where at the feet of gurus and into ashrams he spends several years. Confounding his friends with his voluntary poverty and perpetual study, he refuses to reign in his voracious quest for answers.

As the years pass and Isabel loses her ability to wait for him; as the offers of employment dry up and the words of wisdom from well-meaning friends fall on deaf ears, Larry remains undaunted. At its heart this is the story of one man’s spiritual journey, but it is also that for all the characters who experience existential crises in the life choices they make and in the way their lives unfold.

Maugham, who plays himself in the story, met Larry just after he returned from the war at a party given by Isabel’s uncle Elliott. As a writer, he comes to Paris often. His meetings with Larry make him the perfect go-between keeping all at home informed of Larry’s whereabouts and progress on a quest they cannot understand.

Maugham structures the narrative so that he runs into the characters accidentally on streets, in restaurants, at events as a device for “catching up.” He is the older, trustworthy, non-gossipy family friend. They pour out their trials and tribulations to him, their decisions, their changes of heart or circumstances, whether their hopes are attained or dreams dashed.

That Maugham plays himself in this story had me confused. Is this a fictional account of a true story? If so, does his presence make it nonfiction? Or are the characters fictional in order for Maugham to expand on the real point of the book—the quest for the meaning of life vs. living a conventional material life, and as a vehicle that showcases the new Eastern spirituality that had become so popular in the West?

My confusion forced me to learn more about Maugham to see if that might shed some light.

Maugham was involved with some of the major players and organizations that brought Indian religion and philosophy to the States in the late 19th to mid 20th centuries. Swami Vivekananda and the Vedanta Society, Paramahansa Yogananda and The Self-Realization Fellowship were well-known messengers of this new spirituality. They lectured throughout the United States and Europe to packed houses making positive impressions everywhere. Maugham uses himself in the book as a sort of messenger not only between Larry and his friends, but as Larry’s sounding board, foil, and inquisitor to his spiritual journey. By forcing Larry to explain himself through their conversations he becomes the transmitter of this spirituality to the reader.

As a new reader of W. Somerset Maugham I thoroughly enjoyed his style of writing and telling of this story. He is asking us to think about what makes a meaningful life and the struggle between material desire and spirituality. Is Larry the better person for his choices and Isabel, who refuses Larry’s life of poverty, the villain? Is a life of inner exploration superior to that of outer conformity to convention? Or does there have to be a choice between the two? A universal conundrum for sure.

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My Edition
Title: The Razor’s Edge
Author: W. Somerset Maugham
Publisher: Doubleday, Doran & Co., Inc.
Device: Hardcover
Year: 1944
Pages: 258
Full plot summary

Mistress of the Art of Death (2007), Ariana Franklin (Diana Norman)

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Quickly she knelt and asked the dead beyond the door to forgive her for handling their remains. She asked to be reminded not to forget the respect she owed them. “Permit your flesh and bone to tell me what your voices cannot.”

 

It is the year 1170. The city of Cambridge is tense. Four young children have been tortured to death. The people of the town have accused the Jewish community of blood libel and the perpetrators of the murders, causing them to flee their homes for protection in the castle. Henry II is angry and concerned. Imprisoned, the Jews are unable to pay the heavy taxes by which the king finances his realm. Henry does not believe the murders are the work of the Jews and must find a way to exonerate them. Henry writes to his cousin, the King of Sicily, who presides over the world renowned medical school in Salerno asking him to send his best “investigator of death.”

Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar is the Mistress of the Art of Death, a combination modern day coroner and police detective. When she arrives with her Arab assistant Mansur and fellow investigator Simon of Naples, a Jew she must hide her true vocation. Though the cultural, religious and gender diversity of Salerno allows women in the medical college, Adelia’s specialty conflicts with the Church’s teachings on both women and dissection, so she is used to passing off her findings to her foster father. While in England Mansur becomes the doctor and she his assistant. At least at the beginning. From enlightened city to crude backwater, the trio of friends reluctantly make the journey. The moment they arrive in Cambridge, however, they are besieged with a multitude of illnesses and accidents untreatable before now. But the bodies of the children need to be examined and with some restrictions on her gender, the investigation begins.

The stabbing around the pelvis had left distinctive marks; she had seen knife wounds before, but none like these. The blade of the instrument that had caused them appeared to be much faceted. She would have liked to remove the pelvis for leisurely examination in better light, but she had promised Prior Geoffrey to do no dissection.

It is fascinating to watch how Adelia studies the bodies of the children and how she deduces their killers. It is like watching a Medieval version of a CSI episode. Body by body and clue by clue culminating in a frightful incident where Adelia almost meets her own end. But she succeeds in discovering the culprits responsible.

I was incredibly drawn to this story as it ticked many of the boxes I enjoyed studying in college. As the ‘king’s persons” Jews were England’s bank account being taxed to unbelievable degrees financing everything from the building of castles and cathedrals, the bankrolling of crusades to the general running of the realm. Thus, the king’s castle was their safety zone when attacked. They were an easy target when anything abnormal occurred. Leaving their homes and fleeing to the castle for the protection of the king was often a precarious situation. As illustrated in this story, anti-Jewish sentiment is so high with the townspeople, even when it is pointed out the Jews have been in the castle for a year and children have been killed during this time. The townspeople cook up an elaborate fantasy that the Jews leave by night and return to the castle early in the morning to commit the crimes. Never mind there are townspeople stationed at every entrance day and night which would make escape impossible.

Franklin also describes the diversity of students and teachers that peopled the medical school of Salerno, which included Arabs, Jews, Africans and others from across Europe, as well as women. The medical training here surpassed the other schools on the continent. Adelia, who was orphaned and fostered by a couple from the medical school, acknowledged her intellect from a young age and encouraged her studies. Adelia’s skills come from her training and investigative experience, which included time spent at the pig farm, a medieval version of the modern-day body farm.

Adelia was forcing herself to see a pig [not a child]. Pigs were what she’d learned on. Pigs—the nearest approximation in the animal world to human flesh and bone. Up in the hills behind a high wall, Gordinus had kept dead pigs for his students, some buried, some exposed to the air, some in a wooden hut, others in a stone byre…Most of the students introduced to the his death farm had been revolted by the flies and stench and had fallen away; only Adelia saw the wonder of the process that reduced a cadaver to nothing.

One of the strengths of this historically dense novel is constructing a story with a protagonist who is foreign and unfamiliar with the culture in which she is thrust. The reader learns along with Adelia, Mansur and Simon, so prior knowledge of the period is unnecessary and Franklin’s narrative makes it easy to follow the story. And to further this point, Franklin uses the British to further our knowledge. Though most of the townspeople are portrayed as suspicious and ignorant of foreigners, the novel opens with a band of pilgrims and crusaders having just returned from the Holy Land. Several of the knights are familiar with the customs and culture of both the Arab and Jewish worlds and of Europeans in general. Franklin uses their knowledge in usually positive, but sometimes humorous ways to make points about the cultural and dietary habits of Mansur, Simon and Adelia.

A Personal Observation

I have missed out on many richly drawn historical novels. Early in Medieval studies it was drummed into our heads that we couldn’t take fictionalized accounts of historical events seriously and were discouraged from books and other historical “reconstructions.” “This could never have happened.” “That is just historically inaccurate.” I can remember classmates mocked for their interest in the King Arthur mythos or those students who participated in the activities of the Society for Creative Anachronism. The only contemporary Medieval fiction we were encouraged to read was Josephine Tey’s, The Daughter of Time, because it was about research. It has taken me a long time to reject those voices critical of historical fiction. And that’s too bad. I have a lot of catching up to do.

In this regard, if those professors of mine were still alive I would make them read this book! While obviously some license has to be taken in the way a story like this is told in order for a modern person to understand it, historical accuracy does not have to suffer.

The novel is a page turner, a fascinating mystery and manages to dispel ignorance about the Middle Ages many people may have.

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Challenges: RIPXIII, RBRTBR

 

R.I.P.XIII-Lucky Thirteen for this Scary October

RIPXIII

 

Readers Imbibing Peril or R.I.P. is a gathering of readers taking advantage of the encroaching darkness* of autumn to read books of mystery, horror, Gothic, suspense, the dark fantasies, thrillers and so on. It starts in September, though I usually join in October. Any reading format is game as are films, tv, web series. Don’t think of this as a challenge, but as a community of appreciators of the Dark…cue scary music. For more details you can go here. It’s not too late to join.

I made my list, read my first book and will start posting next week.

 

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The Historical Fiction
Mistress of the Art of Death, Ariana Franklin

The Classic
The Turn of the Screw, Henry James

The Short Stories
Poe, HP Lovecraft

The Films
The Turn of the Screw, Fall of the House of Usher

I never used to read these kinds of books….just too scary. And I certainly never thought I would read an HP Lovecraft, the master of “Oh. My. God!” But after getting “horror baptized” with The Case of Charles Dexter Ward for a reading challenge a couple of years ago, I was stunned by how drawn I was to the story and realized good story telling is good story telling….as long as I am in a room with lots of lights….And now I am back for more!

In choosing the right reading challenges for me I have grown as a reader through the books I have chosen as well as discovering new ones from reading the posts of others.

Happy Scary October!

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*I just realized this is a northern hemisphere concept. What must it be like to celebrate Halloween in the Spring with the light getting longer?!