Archive for the ‘essays’ Category

h1

Two Cheers for Democracy by E.M. Forster

19 January 2010

I can’t entirely remember what prompted me to pick up this book. I actually haven’t read much of Forster’s fiction, and only vaguely recall reading some of his essays on art and culture during research for something else. But the title interested me, and though it took a little while to track down a copy it was worth the initial hunt.

Two Cheers for Democracy by E.M. Forster

To many readers, English writer E.M. Forster’s literary output might as well be synonymous with the Merchant-Ivory film studios. In a little less than a decade, Merchant-Ivory brought no fewer than three of Forster’s novels (Howards End, Room with a View, and Maurice) to the screen, and their Edwardian drawing-room settings and mostly upper-middle-class characters tend to reinforce the stereotype of Forster as a writer of quaint period pieces set in the early 20th century. Yet Forster’s writings also included a wide range of other works, including travel writing, biography, and literary criticism, and many of his essays and journalistic output have been collected into two volumes. The first, Abinger Harvest, consists of Forster’s shorter pieces from the turn of the century to the early 1930s. Two Cheers for Democracy — the subject of this Tuesday Book Review — picks up where the first left off and collects Forster’s writings from the mid-1930s through the end of the 1940s and the start of the 1950s.

Two Cheers for Democracy was published in 1951, and many of the pieces in this collection contain Forster’s reflections on the experiences of wartime and the profound psychological shock that two world wars in a generation had on people of his age and social class. Unsurprisingly, the opening section is titled ‘The Second Darkness’, and his writings are a strong reaction to pre-war anti-Semitism, wartime censorship, and the increasing brutality and mechanisation of warfare. Even his essay ‘What I Believe’, which contains the phrase that gives the volume its name, is ambivalent at best about current political thought: ‘So Two Cheers for Democracy: one because it admits variety and two because it permits criticism. Two cheers are quite enough: there is no occasion to give it three.‘ Forster dislikes democracy mainly because it tends to promote mediocrity, but because it is ‘less hateful’ than other contemporary forms of government, it deserves some amount of endorsement. Above all, the tone of the writings collected in Two Cheers for Democracy reflects Forster’s beliefs in humanism and the power of the individual spirit, best summarised by his statement that ‘…the greater the darkness, the brighter shine the little lights, reassuring one another, signalling: “Well, at all events, I’m still here. I don’t like it very much, but how are you?”

Although the first half of Two Cheers for Democracy reflects on current events and political musings, Forster’s literary and cultural criticism dominates the second half of the book. It includes a reprint of his 1941 Rede Lecture on Virginia Woolf; biographical sketches of individuals as diverse as fifteenth-century poet John Skelton, Indian poet and politician Sir Muhammad Iqbal, and social reformers Beatrice and Sidney Webb; and short notes on visits to the United States and other exotic locations. His melancholy lecture on English prose between the wars blends his political and literary thought as he attempts to assess the mindset of literature published between 1918 and 1939. Yet whether he is writing about the works of a once-popular but now mostly-forgotten author like French Nobel Prize laureate Romain Rolland, or musing on his experiences travelling in an India on the verge of independence from Britain, Forster’s light-hearted but thoughtful prose reveals more than it initially lets on. He had lived long enough to remember life before the Great War shattered aristocratic British complacency, and was a keen observer of the myriad ways in which two wars and an uncertain peace affected social, political, and literary culture. Two Cheers for Democracy records these observations, and gives contemporary readers a clear-eyed perspective on the changes wrought by the passing years both at home and abroad.

Advertisements
h1

The Invention of Tradition, edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger

23 June 2009

I seem to be on a roll with the Canto imprint reviews, though I think this is the last of the ones in my current queue.

The Invention of Tradition, edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger

Traditions, to coin a simile, are rather like onions: if you make a deliberate effort to keep peeling away their numerous layers, you will be left with very little by the time you finish. Fortunately, most people are not overly concerned with peeling away the layers of traditions as long as those traditions seem relatively plausible or promote a favourable history or worldview. As a result, one common means of rapidly strengthening a shaky claim to legitimacy or solidifying a sense of group identity is to actively promote ‘traditions’ that have been developed or invented in the quite recent past. On occasion, these traditions develop into something quite different than their original inventors expected. In The Invention of Tradition, Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm and postcolonial African historian Terence Ranger have brought together a collection of essays about how and why different traditions are invented, what purposes these traditions have and continue to serve, and what societies can gain by taking a closer look at the origins of the traditions they cherish so highly.

The contributions in this volume take different approaches to studying the invention of tradition. Some of the essays, like Hugh Trevor-Roper’s history of Scottish Highland traditions or Prys Morgan’s account of the nineteenth-century Welsh nationalist movement, explode the myths of the supposedly ancient origins of certain traditions such as tartan kilts and eisteddfods. Both authors link the Welsh and Scottish traditions with the Romantic movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, showing how groups of enthusiastic and enterprising individuals all but invented certain ceremonies and trappings out of whole cloth — quite literally, in the case of kilts. Other articles focus more on the process through which certain traditions were invented, describing how cross-cultural misunderstandings about existing traditions (such as the durbar gatherings held by India’s Mughal rulers) led to the creation of entirely new ceremonies designed to provide a sense of continuity between the old ruling classes and the new colonial ruling classes. The books also includes contributions on the effects of invented traditions, such as David Cannadine’s essay describing changing public attitudes towards the British monarchy in response to invented royal traditions like the formal Coronation ceremony and the sale of commemorative objects for royal weddings, births, and jubilees. There is quite a lot to ponder in these essays, and the authors provide plenty of sources for further exploration and follow-up.

The Invention of Tradition, for all its depth, is an undeniably Anglo-centric book. With the exception of Eric Hobsbawm’s contribution on the invention of national traditions in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Europe, all of the essays focus on either domestic (Scotland, Wales) or colonial (India, Africa) traditions of the United Kingdom. It is difficult to say whether the book would have been ‘improved’ with a little more variety in its subject matter, or whether the more narrow focus is preferable because it allows the different essays to overlap and reinforce each other. Regardless, the collected essays in The Invention of Tradition provide an informative and thought-provoking assessment of how traditions are made and perpetuated, and how they often take on lives of their own.

h1

On the Shortness of Life by Seneca

14 April 2009

Although this review was written after those of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and William Hazlitt’s On the Pleasure of Hating, this volume happens to be the first book (chronologically speaking) in Penguin’s Great Ideas series.

On the Shortness of Life by Seneca (Penguin Great Ideas Series)

The amount of solid historical information on the Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c. 5 BCE – 65 CE) is relatively thin, and most of what is known about him comes from his own writings and from scattered (and not always impartial) sources. What is certainly known is that he came from a distinguished family, and followed in his rhetorician father’s footsteps by getting involved in the turbulent political scene of the Roman Empire in the first century CE. Although his everyday life was caught up in the intrigue and violence that surrounded the affairs of emperors Caligula, Claudius, and Nero, Seneca’s thoughts and writings focused primarily on the contemplative life and bear out his devotion to the ideals of Stoic philosophy. Yet even after he had left public life, the continuing drama of the imperial family was never far away, and eventually Seneca fell victim to rumours that he had been part of a plot to assassinate Emperor Nero. He was ordered to commit suicide, which he did through the traditional method of opening veins to die of exsanguination. Although his personal reputation suffered somewhat from continuing rumours and criticism after his death, many of his writings have survived, including the three essays selected for On the Shortness of Life.

The Great Ideas selection of Seneca’s works contains three essays: De Brevitate Vitae (On the Shortness of Life), Ad Helviam matrem, De consolatione (Consolation to Helvia), and De Tranquillitate Animi (On Tranquility of Mind). The first, an essay written to his friend Paulinus, dwells on the sad condition of those who have little or no idea of how to live their lives, and waste their days and hours in meaningless frivolities or in frenzied and often fruitless activity. Contrary to those who fret about the shortness of a man’s time on earth, Seneca declares that ‘life is long if you know how to use it’, and recommends that Paulinus use his time well by turning to the writers of philosophers to learn more about how to live and die without fears or regrets. Continuing in this vein, the second essay is in the form of a letter addressed to his mother Helvia, providing her with consolation at the news that he would be sent into exile (written when he was banished at the behest of Emperor Claudius in 42 CE). Seneca takes an unconventional approach to dealing with the expectation of his mother’s grief: he informs her, with extensive biographical detail, of all of the sorrows and losses of her life, from the loss of her mother in childbirth to the deaths of her grandchildren and her husband, and then urges her to conquer this new grief as she has conquered others in the past — with patience and reason, neither distracting herself with trivialities or spending her time moaning and weeping over something that cannot be changed. The final essay, in the form of a exchange between Seneca and his friend Serenus, presents the latter as a ‘patient’ seeking a remedy for the frequent distractions of life that trouble his thoughts. Seneca, in keeping with Stoic philosophy, prescribes moderation in all things as physic for an unquiet mind, and cautions his friend that he will have to actively choose that path of moderation, and not be dissuaded from it by the course of events, whether good or ill. In all three selections, Seneca displays the characteristics beliefs of his chosen philosophy: the embrace of reason and harmony with nature, an acceptance of suffering in life and an attempt to learn from those sufferings, and the importance of finding peace within oneself both in life and in death.

On the Shortness of Life is a fine introduction to Seneca’s writings, translated in a very readable style by classical scholar C.D.N. Costa. The only real flaw in this edition is that the texts presented, however straightforward and enjoyable to read in their own right, tend to lack context without even a brief introduction. A simple one- or two-page preface to introduce Seneca as a historical and literary figure and possibly even provide some background information on the three texts included in the book would have greatly improved the edition as a whole. Even so, this first volume is a decent start to the Great Ideas series, and may best be read in conjunction with the later Stoic Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

h1

Required Writing and Further Requirements by Philip Larkin

24 February 2009

Now that I’ve managed to get my hands on the first of these two connected books of pieces by British poet Philip Larkin, I can finally combine these two short reviews into a single post.

Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955–1982 by Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin begins Required Writing by freely admitting that ‘I rarely accepted a literary asssignment without a sinking of the heart, nor finished it without an inordinate sense of relief’. It may seem an odd opening to this collection of various pieces written over nearly three decades as a poet, author, and jazz aficionado, but it illustrates the sort of disarming (or deliberately blunt, depending on how you regard it) honesty that forms a common, consistent theme across this selection of his works.

Larkin was exempt from service in World War II because of his poor eyesight, so he was able to finish his degree at Oxford University at a time when many of his contemporaries were on active military service or working in war industries or the Civil Service. He all but stumbled into his first library job as the ‘single-handed and untrained’ librarian-caretaker at a small public library in Shropshire, and then moved on to become an assistant librarian at University College, Leicester. Required Writing opens with several autobiographical pieces in which Larkin ruminates on his experiences in these first library positions, along with short introductions to his novel Jill and his poetry collection The North Ship, which reflect on the circumstances surrounding the writing and publication of these early works. But Required Writing mostly consists of review pieces of specific books or jazz records, along with several general pieces written for occasions such as the announcement of the 1977 Booker Prize. One or two of his general pieces have particular relevance many years later, such as an opening lecture which criticises the British literary establishment’s seeming lack of interest in preserving the manuscripts or collected papers of its greatest living authors and writers. Yet the book is best read as its title suggests: these pieces were requested or required of their author at one point or another, and Larkin brought them together in a single volume in the hope that doing so would make it less likely that his words would be quoted out of context in the future.

On the whole, Larkin makes no secret of his particular tastes as a reviewer. In Required Writing, he often refers to the unholy trinity of ‘Parker, Pound, and Picasso’ as examples of what he most dislikes about ‘modern’ art, literature, and music — ‘it helps us neither to enjoy nor endure’. He rails against what he regards as the narrow-minded, snobbish idea that one cannot properly understand what is good or beautiful or skilfully done about modern music or modern art unless one is a ‘musician’ or an ‘artist’. Small wonder, then, that on several occasions he expresses his fondness for the poetry of John Betjeman precisely because Betjeman is ‘a poet for whom the modern poetic revolution simply has not taken place’. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Larkin’s preferences or prejudices is of little importance, on the whole — Required Writing simply presents his opinions as one reviewer amongst many, with his biases generally unconcealed, and leaves it open to the reader to decide how to regard them.

Further Requirements: Interviews, Broadcasts, Statements and Book Reviews, 1952–1985 by Philip Larkin (edited by Anthony Thwaite)

Further Requirements is the second collection of Larkin’s prose writings, a posthumous compilation put together by Larkin editor and biography Anthony Thwaite from Larkin left death. As Larkin himself wrote, ‘The journalism of a major writer can be revealing. It shows his talent encountering the world outside his own imagination; we learn what he is prepared to write about, and what other people hope he will write about.’ Appropriately, much of the material in Further Requirements is drawn from Larkin’s written and broadcast journalism, beginning with a collection of transcripts from Larkin’s interviews and broadcasts, mostly from the BBC’s Third Programme (now Radio 3) or from Radio 4. Featured broadcasts include Larkin’s appearance on ‘Desert Island Discs’ in 1976, a response to a birthday tribute in which he chooses ‘The Explosion’ as a personal favourite among the poems he wrote, and more short pieces about his love of jazz music.

The rest of the compilation, about 60 percent all told, consists of reviews that Larkin wrote for the Guardian, the Times Literary Supplement, and other literary periodicals. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the reviews are of books of poetry, many of which were written by poets who have since faded into semi-obscurity. More than one review again shows Larkin’s fondness for Betjeman’s poetry and its general rejection of the modernist style of arts and literature that Larkin particularly disliked. The general impression one gets from the selections included in Further Requirements is that of Larkin’s sheer determination to write about ordinary things and ordinary people — and there are times when this sentiment becomes a little repetitive to read about, if only because the book brings together in one closely-packed volume a number of pieces that were otherwise spread out over many years. All the same, Further Requirements is a fine counterpoint to Larkin’s own selection of poetry and prose writings. (Readers who are interested in more Larkin-alia would do well to look for the edited collection of his letters, also compiled by Anthony Thwaite.)

h1

On the Pleasure of Hating by William Hazlitt

22 July 2008

I was very pleased with the edition of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations that was published in Penguin’s Great Ideas Series, and when I came across another display a little while ago I thought that I would pick up another volume — this time, by an author I had never read before.

On the Pleasure of Hating by William Hazlitt (Penguin Great Ideas Series)

Radical English essayist William Hazlitt penned the bulk of his work in the late Georgian and early Regency periods, and though he began as a dabbling painter and occasional writer he turned his hand to journalism and literary criticism, writing for publications such as the Times and the Edinburgh Review. As an essayist, he was greatly influenced by the philosophers and writers of the Enlightenment as well as Edmund Burke, though his admiration for the latter waned somewhat as a result of some of Burke’s more conservative writings. But he wrote on a number of different subjects, and the essays in this little edition touch on such diverse topics as the joys of going to a boxing match in the country, the parasitical nature of the English moneyed classes, the fallacy of the divine right of kings…and, naturally, the title essay, which challenges the reader to regard hatred as one of the few real constants (and indeed, pleasures) in human life.

Hazlitt’s essays are written in a style that has long been out of fashion — and not, I think, entirely without reason. They seem as if they were meant to be read aloud, to a group, in a particularly bombastic tone of voice. His tone is definitely combative, almost arrogantly defensive, and he seems to aim at (and enjoy) working his readers into a frenzy of either vehemently agreeing or soundly disagreeing with him. If Hazlitt was paid by the word for what he wrote, he would likely have made a fair amount of money even for his less enthusiastic essays. Yet even though his writings likely will not hold everyone’s attention, as an essayist who is representative of a particular writing style and a specific period of literary history, his works have a definite place in the Penguin Great Ideas series.

h1

The Portable Edmund Burke, edited by Isaac Kramnick

8 July 2008

Finally had a chance to finish this review, which was sitting in my files for longer than I’d liked. Finishing my review of Simon Jenkins’ Thatcher and Sons is next on my list, though I may have an older review available to slip in for Sunday.

The Portable Edmund Burke, edited by Isaac Kramnick

In the late 1700s, the British House of Commons contained a number of notable politicians whose friendships, rivalries, and ongoing intrigues might not seem out of place in today’s newspaper columns and political talk shows. The modern forms of today’s political party systems were still in their infancy, but their origins can be seen in the accounts of arch-rivals Charles James Fox and William Pitt the Younger facing each other across the floor of the Commons, as their respective groups of followers mobilised into constantly shifting tendencies and factions. One of the great ‘political personalities’ of the era was an Anglo-Irish MP named Edmund Burke, who had begun his political career as a private secretary of the second Marquess of Rockingham (one of several men who served very brief terms as Prime Minister in the 1760s and 1780s) but who soon developed a name for himself in the Commons for his oratorical style and his strong stances on several controversial issues of the day. The historian Edward Gibbon once described Burke as ‘the most eloquent and rational madman that I ever knew’, and Gibbon was certainly not alone in admiring Burke’s eloquence while simultaneously regarding many of the man’s opinions as rather beyond the pale.

In his time as an MP and a statesman, Burke was a defender of the rights of the Catholic minority in the United Kingdom, a critic of the harsh practices of slavery in Britain’s West Indian colonies, and a supporter of the grievances of the American colonists against the British crown. He also denounced the conduct of the British East India Company and its corrupt administration of the terrorities it had conquered on the Indian subcontinent. In the mid-1750s, he even wrote the essay A Vindication of Natural Society, a rationalist critique of Britain’s traditional social order that he would later claim was a piece of political satire, not meant to be taken as an indication of his personal beliefs. (This claim has since been disputed, though it works well enough as satire.) Yet in modern times, Burke is perhaps best known for his Reflections on the Revolution in France, a polemical letter-essay written in November 1790 which condemned the events and philosophical underpinning of the French Revolution in no uncertain terms. His fierce opposition to the French Revolution made him highly unpopular with many of his friends and political allies, most of whom found it surprising that he would support the tenets of American Revolution but denounce the revolution that followed in France. Later commentators, however, would identify Burke’s Reflections as one of the fundamental documents that laid out the philosophical basis of modern conservative thought — its emphasis on the guidance of tradition and the existing social order as opposed to outright revolutionary change provided a basic underpinning of the various schools of conservatism that would develop in the years to come.

Isaac Kramnick, editor of The Portable Enlightenment Reader, has developed this volume of the Viking Portable Library to include a representative selection of Burke’s writings, illustrating Burke’s thoughts on social and political topics ranging from the abuses of British colonial power in India and the Americas to the radical philosophies of writers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau to the proper conduct expected of members of Parliament and the aristocratic leaders of Great Britain. Kramnick’s introductory essay to this volume is an exceedingly good addition to Burke’s writings, primarily because it looks at how different historical schools of thought have regarded Burke and his philosophies in the centuries that have passed since his death. (In essence, American historians are more likely that their English counterparts to look favourably on Burke’s philosophical contributions, in large part because of the influence of Sir Lewis Namier’s re-evaluation of the history of Parliament in George III’s era.) For those who only know of Edmund Burke through his Reflections, or through the reactions of writers like Mary Wollstonecraft or Thomas Paine who regarded Burke as worse than reactionary, The Portable Edmund Burke is a fine, compact means of looking at the expanse of the man’s writings and evaluating them on their own terms.

h1

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft

6 July 2008

As I was putting the finishing touches on my review of The Portable Edmund Burke, I realised that I’d neglected to post this review, which I’d written several months ago. All the more reason to slip this review in first.

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft

When Mary Wollstonecraft was born in 1759, to a fairly prosperous family in what is now Spitalfields in London, she seemed to have a life of comfort and good fortune awaiting her. Yet her father’s tendency towards speculation and wasteful spending soon destroyed the greater part of the family income, and by the time Wollstonecraft reached adulthood she was faced with the plight of untold other young women of her age and social standing: she had too little money to marry well but few useful skills to support herself financially. She worked as a governess and tried to run a school for girls, then finally took a very great risk in attempting to earn a living through her writing alone. Having travelled to France to see the changes being wrought by the Revolution, she channeled much of her frustration at the conditions she saw in England into her writings. Hard on the heels of her A Vindication of the Rights of Men (written as a scathing response to Edmund Burke’s conservative Reflections on the Revolution in France) came her best-known work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in which Wollstonecraft addresses many of the concerns she had with the treatment of women and their education — or more specifically, the lack thereof.

Wollstonecraft makes several basic points in the book, most of which centre on the nature of women’s intelligence and a girl’s ability to be educated in the same manner as a boy would be. She roundly condemns writers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau who insisted that boys and girls could not and should not be educated on equal terms. It is this attitude, she claims, that is responsible for so much of the vice, ignorance, and lascivious behaviour she dislikes in both men and women. As long as women are taught that their only use in life is to be sweet, charming, and pleasing to men, they will of course go to any lengths to keep a man’s affections and attentions…even to the detriment of their children’s welfare, their family’s good name, and their own moral standards. Uneducated women teach their daughters to be flirts and courtesans, not good and rational mothers and wives. The sons of uneducated women learn that a woman is only worth something when she is young and pretty, tacitly condoning extra-marital affairs. An educated woman, on the other hand, will be more capable of caring for her children — she will be less involved in constantly trying to keep her husband’s affections, for one thing — and will likely provide her sons and daughters with the proper example to follow as they grow up to become moral citizens and rational human beings:

Would men but generously snap our chains, and be content with rational fellowship instead of slavish obedience, they would find us more observant daughters, more affectionate sisters, more faithful wives, more reasonable mothers — in a word, better citizens.

Education as the backbone of moral fibre is a point she stresses over and over again, and insists that any of the arguments about women being created mentally inferior to men cannot be true. No good and gentle Creator, she claims, would be cruel enough to create a being who was allowed neither the brute instinct given to animals nor the free will and reason given to men. Even if the writing of the Vindication feels more than a little repetitive at times, Wollstonecraft’s message comes across plainly and passionately, as much a part of the works of the revolutionary Enlightenment writers as anything written by…well, a man.

The second work included in the book are the sections of Wollstonecraft’s unfinished novel Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman. The ‘wrongs’ mentioned in the title include both the wrongs done to women and the wrongs done by women — the central point of the plot involves the grim fate of a woman named Maria, who has been declared insane and locked up a private asylum at the whim of her debauched, spendthrift husband. While in the asylum, Maria befriends one of the female ‘nurses’, a girl named Jemima, who has likewise suffered greatly in the course of her married life. Wollstonecraft draws parallels across class boundaries in a manner that was quite radical for her day, pointing out the unsatisfactory condition shared by poor and well-to-do women alike. While the fragments of the novel are clearly sketchy and unpolished, there is enough available to give the reader an idea of what the story might have been like — though it is difficult to tell whether Wollstonecraft intended the tale to have a tragic ending (like that of her first novel, Mary) or a more romantic ending where the heroine manages to overcome her condition.

The edition that I have (the Longman Cultural Edition) contains a selection of articles and other writings related to Wollstonecraft’s work, ranging from contemporary reviews of the Vindication to longer sections from works that Wollstonecraft cited or referred to in the text itself. The articles and snippets help to place the writings within their era, complete with annotations and explanations designed to clarify quotations or references that contemporary readers might not immediately know. If I had the opportunity to select from a few different editions of Wollstonecraft’s work, I think I would have preferred an edition which included only the Vindication and its related articles — the unfinished novel seemed (to me) overly melodramatic and maudlin when compared to the firey feel of the polemic. Even so, the Vindication is required reading for anyone interested in early feminist writings and the work of Enlightenment authors, no matter what edition it happens to be in.