Reading, watching, and writing updates

Reading
Something not immediately evident from this blog is that I’m a recent “fan” (for lack of a more precise word) of Soren Kierkegaard‘s writings.  His book Works of Love changed my life in 2016, but being so profound in topic, it was not a book I felt comfortable writing a review on.  I did review Fear and Trembling, though once again, not delving too deeply as I felt myself inadequate of completely analyzing it. 

I approach philosophy as outsider, not from the “ground up,” so many cross-references are a bit lost on me.  However, there’s something addictive about Kierkegaard in particular that makes the struggle worthwhile.  It’s like listening to the ramblings of a friend who would be incredibly obnoxious if he weren’t so incredibly brilliant, even obviously to outsiders like me.   


The Concept of Anxiety has sat on my bookshelf for a while.  Right now I’m going through a great deal of anxiety (though not the worst I’ve ever experienced, by any means), and it just seemed like the time to read it. 

I can tell you right now I will not be reviewing this book, because once again, it is a bit over my head.  Actually, this is the toughest book of his I’ve read.  I don’t know if it’s the translator or the material itself, but it makes Works of Love and Fear and Trembling seem simplistic by comparison. 

Anyways, as far as I can discern, Kierkegaard’s theme here is multi-layered, but one motif that stands out to me is the idea that anxiety preceded original sin. Maybe “uncertainty” would be a better word for this context.  Really what he’s suggesting is that Adam experienced “the anxious possibility of being able [to sin]” (p. 54) before he ever actually committed sin.  This is equated to freedom or free will.

And that is the simplest takeaway I can offer from this book, thus far.  (I’m over halfway.)

Watching
The other day, I rewatched Horatio Hornblower: Duty (2003), finishing out my campaign to introduce the series to my brother. 

I’d remembered this as my least favorite episode of the eight-episode series, which follows the early career of a Royal Navy officer in the Napoleonic Wars.  Rewatching it much later, I realized it’s not a weak film per se, simply misplaced as the final episode in the series (its being the final episode is clearly unplanned, if the screenplay is any indication). 

The trouble with Duty is that it shows all the faults of a protagonist we’ve come to admire, with minimal distraction to offset the painful human interactions.  Hornblower has never been particularly deft at “soft skills,” but here he’s rather abysmal for nearly the whole ninety minutes, whether he’s (mis)communicating with Maria, his loyal wife, or managing his unwanted political passengers.

On the other hand, if this had merely been the middle episode of a longer series, I think its focus on Hornblower’s faults would be seen as the middle of a character arc, as opposed to somewhat of a letdown.  In fact, trying to forget it was the ending to the series, I could actually appreciate the human drama. 

In other news – I’ll be picking up the extended editions of The Hobbit from the library today.  Haven’t seen them yet, so looking forward to binge-watching them over the weekend (or maybe next weekend).

Writing
By NaNoWriMo standards, I’m quite a bit behind, but my goal is not to reach 50k this year, just to finish my novel.

The trouble I’m having now is that I just finished a major scene but had forgotten I had an outline for it (sigh).  So I either need to rewrite/extend the scene or try to move on without those additional plot twists.

My gut feeling is to move on because I’m starting to get novel fatigue – I have been working on this for three years, so at this point it might be wise to get right to the ending and fill in details later.

"Poor Pym!" – Verne Meets Poe in Antarctica

Vincennes (color)

My current interest in Antarctica led me to finally read The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, by Edgar Allan Poe, and its sequel An Antarctic Mystery, by Jules Verne.  (I am the biggest Vernian fangirl ever, so this duology sounded written for me.)  While in fairness I can only give Pym 3 stars and its sequel 3.5 stars, together they were definitely worth the read, if you’re into polar fiction, Poe, and/or Verne.
Pym is probably the least – or most? – Poe-like writing of his I’ve read.  Think “Treasure Island ends badly”…  Indeed, the plot starts out as a traditional sea story: boy runs away to sea, boy happened to pick a ship that was bound for adventure (or, in Poe fashion, terror).  The plot has a spontaneous quality to it, and when Arthur Pym eventually makes it to Antarctica, it seems rather like an accident or an aside.  You’ll find several classic Poe moments – aka spooky stuff – throughout the book, but not as many as fans might hope for.

I was a bit awed by Poe’s version of a sea story.  He seemed comfortable with the terminology; this may also be the first, pre-modern sea story I’ve read in which the author tries to educate the audience, or at least doesn’t assume they understand everything.  I really liked that aspect; it made me wish he had written more of this kind of thing.
Verne-Sphinx
On the other hand, I struggled with the characters, who seemed to be fluid in their roles – sometimes heroes, sometimes villains, yet without enough deliberation to make them true anti-heroes.  It seemed unrealistic. 

Jules Verne tried to remedy – well, everything!  I’m ever wary of translations, so I’m not sure how much one can safely say is Verne in An Antarctic Mystery.  I found a fascinating article which talks about this translation by Sarah Frances Hoey (warning: article contains major spoilers of Jules Verne novels)…it sounds like it’s not purist.  Taken as a whole, though, Verne’s book reads like a hearty fanfiction; he rose to the challenge of trying to mend the cliffhanger ending, while exploring the characters and their actions.  I can definitely read his style in it, so the translation can’t be that bad.  There is some racist language, which surprised me.  I don’t remember ever reading it in Verne before, which could be the translation or censorship by other translators.  I’d have to see the French, I guess, to know.

Plotwise and character-wise, I liked this sequel a bit more.  The sphinx part reminded me of that Ancient Aliens show, haha…  With the right screenwriter, these two books would make a great miniseries.

Melville’s "Mosses" – from an Old Mast

Aivazovsky - Strong Wind

The actual title of the book is Billy Budd and Other Stories, published by Penguin Classics.  However, there is such a similarity in the writing, I was reminded of the title of a Hawthorne collection, Mosses from an Old Manse.  Since Hawthorne was the dedicatee of Moby-Dick and also referenced by name in one of these stories, I’m sure Herman Melville would take the comparison as a compliment!

Overall, I give the book 4 stars, but it’s a mixed bag, so I’ll review each story on its own:

Bartleby, the Scrivener

I really loved this story.  It’s probably the closest thing to Kafkaesque, pre-Kafka, that I’ve read.  Bartleby is an enigmatic scrivener (copier – think Nemo from Bleak House), and it’s hard to say if he’s the hero or the antagonist, but he is certainly the mystery.  I’m still not sure what to make of it, but it’s one of those stories that is very good at painting atmosphere and the impression of things.

The Piazza

Another kind of mystery/word-painting…it seemed like this takes place in the Green Mountains in Vermont, though I’m not sure.  It’s about how the grass seems greener on the other side, but becomes less so the closer you see it.

The Encantadas

A whole set of sketches about the Galapagos Islands!  In the middle of reading this, I rewatched Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, so some of the places they visit finally “clicked” for me as I read about them in these stories.  Some of the tales are purely descriptive, others are anecdotes, including “Sketch Eight: Norfolk Isle and the Chola Widow,” about a woman who had “A heart of yearning in a frame of steel.”  Really great stuff, very thoughtful and often poetic.

The Bell-Tower

This was a strange story, more akin to a Doctor Who episode than anything else.  What grabbed my attention was the fact that it was about a mechanical figure, practically a contraption, but Melville made you think it was as mobile as an (lowercase-a) android.  Weird story.

Benito Cereno

To me, this was the dud of the group, which is unfortunate since it’s the longest story.  There was a lot of buildup and very little surprise in the plotline, and throughout, a lot of racist mentality coming from the main characters.  By that, I don’t even mean “ignorant prejudice” or “man of the times”; at least, it came across worse than that.  Not much to recommend here on any front.

The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids

Honestly (and after “Benito”), I had no idea what to expect with this one.  It was excellent.  This story contrasts two lifestyles – British bachelors in a prestigious club and New England single women working in a paper mill.  If you want to know why Melville is a great author, you need only read “The Tartarus of Maids” and you’ll understand.  He conveys such a vivid scene through beautiful writing, ultimately to shock you with what reality was for someone who could have been you – “At rows of blank-looking counters sat rows of blank-looking girls, with blank, white folders in their blank hands, all blankly folding blank paper.”

Billy Budd, Sailor

I knew this story from listening to a radio drama version many years ago.  Still, there was so much in it that was thought- and question-provoking.

Billy Budd was an illegitimate child abandoned at birth, who later became a sailor on an English merchant ship, late 1700s.  Though happy, content, and well-liked on his “home” ship, he gets suddenly impressed into the Royal Navy, taken onto a ship under a Captain Vere.  Billy takes this in stride, cheerfully adapting to his new life and making no enemies of anyone – except, unbeknownst to him, a petty officer named Claggart.  Claggart’s dislike of Billy grows into hatred, and to the captain he takes his false accusation – that Billy is complicit in an imminent mutiny.

Wow…this story is like Moby-Dick in the sense that you could argue about it for hours.  Not simply over the moral dilemma, but over the story itself.  Why does Claggart persecute Billy?  What were Vere’s parting words all about?  And what did the surgeon have to do with it anyway (if anything)?

One thing that bothered me was the long speech the captain gives.  In it, he essentially says that, despite his belief in the ultimate Judge’s vindication of the accused, martial law must be still followed under the extenuating circumstances.  I find it difficult, especially in the context of a state (England) with a state church, that an authority figure would say “God will find him innocent” and “We need to dole out punishment” in the same breath.  Poor writing, captain’s paranoia, or what?  I don’t know.  It’s much more plausible to say “Let’s make an example,” which he indicates later on.  That at least makes utilitarian sense, and it is either practicality or paranoia that drives the captain’s reaction in this plot.

“Billy Budd” is a very good story, and I won’t say anything more, except that I recommend it.  Don’t read the synopsis ahead of time, yet if you do, you will nonetheless empathize with the “Handsome Sailor,” who never understood what happened to him.  5 stars.

Final Thoughts on Lord Jim

Note: Before getting into the review, I want to mention how disappointed I was by the Barnes & Noble Classics edition.  There was an unnecessarily massive amount of footnotes, and one of the endnotes disclosed a major spoiler, long before I reached that plot twist!  Normally I’d recommend B&N Classics, but this one I cannot.

Seascape - Sunset

It’s been more than fitting to have read Lord Jim during my last quarter of college.  I would say, in fact, that this ‘bildungsroman by Joseph Conrad is a timely read for those of us who can sympathize with Jim – a Romantic holding his ideals in one hand and finding his place in the world with the other.  Is it best read as a warning, a fairytale, or a historical fantasy?  Hopefully, by the end of this post, I will have figured it out.  One thing is certain: Lord Jim is not your typical trainwreck.  It’s a longer, more tedious disaster, realistic in its portrayal of events whose consequences are as realistically ambiguous.

Once again, we meet up with Marlow, the narrator from Heart of Darkness, who is telling his audience the life story of the titular Jim.  The son of an English cleric, Jim’s ambition since childhood is to go to sea, like many another sea story protagonist.  Jim’s dream, however, is to be more than ordinary – he wants to be a hero.  He wants to be in life-threatening situations and, if necessary, give his all to save someone.

In a bizarre chain of circumstances and decisions, Jim ultimately becomes a failure to his dream.  He becomes, in his own eyes, the lowest of the low, battling his depressing reality with a strange brand of egotism.  It is a longer and stranger path which later earns him the respectful title of Tuan (“Lord”) Jim, given him by people who truly regard him as a hero. The question is, will he ever see himself again as they see him now?

MJ Heade Passion Flowers and Hummingbirds

I’m hopelessly biased, in that I love Romanticism, Joseph Conrad’s writing, and sea stories.  I’m giving Lord Jim 4.5 out of 5 stars, because Jim’s story really resonated with me.

To be more objective, I can say I don’t remember reading any book that deals with these themes in the way Conrad has.  First of all, Marlow does not concretely judge Jim’s actions.  In fact, the illustration of Jim’s family is a not-so-subtle reminder to the reader that it is difficult, impossible – not even permissible? – to judge him from our psychologically and geographically distant environment.  However, I found myself sympathizing with Jim because there were grounds for sympathy.  There was a real dilemma; this is a book where the ambiguity is real, without sugar-coating the very real wrong of Jim’s actions.

I would say that Marlow certainly wants us to sympathize, but nowhere did it feel like I was being required to take Jim’s side.  The very fact that Jim feels a need for “redemption” indicates there is a wrong needed to be made right.  I think it is subject to interpretation, whether he redeemed himself or not.  Though the ending was extremely unsatisfying – subtracting half a star from my rating – personally I felt Jim had at least forgiven himself.  That was the one conclusion that I could find.

It raises the question of how much of his troubles resulted from his Romanticism.  One of the brilliant aspects of the book is Marlow’s interviews of other characters, in which he learns their opinions of Jim.  One is a French officer, one is an old German adventurer, another is the girl Jim loves, and a fourth is a ruthless pirate.  While excessively varied, the common theme is an awe of (or contempt for) Jim’s heroic ideals.  Do these ideals originate out of moral standards or simply egotism?  Some of both, probably.  Undoubtedly they are the cause of much of his unhappiness, and the greatest source of his sense of what it is to live.

These characters either love or hate Jim passionately.  What most of them don’t understand is he would not be himself without his ideals.   “That was the way.  To follow the dream, and again to follow the dream…”

Romanticism in Lord Jim

Despite a bit of a guilty feeling – not having finished The Brothers Karamazov yet – I was really in the mood to read Lord Jim.  This is my second or third attempt.  Previously I could hardly get past three pages; now I’m nearly a third of the way through and have definitely put BK on hold.

That’s not to the detriment of BK, but to the genuinely captivating prose in Lord Jim.  Once I finally get into a Conrad story, I become intrigued and entranced.  It doesn’t matter if I don’t always understand what is going on.  This novel, probably Conrad’s best-known after Heart of Darkness, is almost quite as surreal, reading like stream-of-consciousness, albeit very structured and subtle.  Part of this comes from a familiar voice: the narrator Marlow.  Ever loquacious, he recounts his perspective of the controversial seaman “Jim,” his trial, and his personality.

There is much to talk about, even so early on.  What particularly stands out are the echoes of Romanticism (and, at times, Melville-esque “Dark” Romanticism).  The story itself is simple: the ship Patna appears to be about to sink; the officers escape, leaving their passengers behind them, and Jim is one of those officers.  It is the psychology of the case that fills pages with nuances and further questions.

Conrad refers back to themes from Heart of Darkness, which he had published earlier that same year (1899).  Again, there is the idea that motives are complex, and that Kurtz is not so much an entity as he is a trait or alternative identity.

The commonest sort of fortitude prevents us from becoming criminals in a legal sense; it is from weakness unknown, but perhaps suspected, as in some parts of the world you suspect a deadly snake in every bush—from weakness that may lie hidden, watched or unwatched, prayed against or manfully scorned, repressed or maybe ignored more than half a lifetime, not one of us is safe.

Juxtaposed with this pessimism is the character of Jim.  He is fascinating because, like many Romantic or Byronic heroes, he is a product of his times and he strives for what he has not achieved – heroism.  Jim spent his childhood dreaming of being a hero, being always prepared to be a hero, yet ultimately missing opportunities and being confronted finally with what, from many perspectives, constitutes not only a disaster but a crime.

It was solemn, and a little ridiculous too, as they always are, those struggles of an individual trying to save from the fire his idea of what his moral identity should be, this precious notion of a convention, only one of the rules of the game, nothing more, but all the same so terribly effective by its assumption of unlimited power over natural instincts, by the awful penalties of its failure.