Nature Walk + Thoughts for the Week

Well, it’s finally come – the end of a long, much needed, and memorable weekend.

Today my family and I went for a walk at a local bird reserve.  We’ve been going here for over a decade; it’s like visiting an old friend now.  Autumn is the best time to see it, though already a lot of the maples have lost their leaves.

After a short detour through the woods, the trail opens up to the tidal flats, home to plenty of sea gulls, mallards, and Canadian geese.  I’ve always thought this looks like something out of Middle Earth.

Though a cold day, it was a great way to unwind and mentally “reset” before the coming week.

Speaking of which, work has been pretty exhausting, and I’m trying very hard to stay positive.  Rapid changes and new responsibilities are the challenges right now.  I hope things will get easier by January.

To offset the stress, I’ve been alternating between several books:

  • The Concept of Anxiety – Kierkegaard, aforementioned
  • Open Letters – Václav Havel
  • Manalive – G. K. Chesterton.  (So far disappointing, to be honest.)

If you’ve never read Havel, I suggest dropping everything (as soon as is convenient) and reading “The Power of the Powerless” which you can find online.  Though a political piece, it can be read apolitically as well.  It is a call to “live within the truth” – as profound as it is simple, and as terrifying as it is essential.  I have started reading some of his other work in Open Letters and finding it just as excellent, so far.

Kierkegaard I shall soon finish; only about 26 pages to go.  It is tough to read, because in The Concept of Anxiety he is replying to a myriad of other philosophers (e.g. Hegel) and I am lost most of the time.  It seems like a book I’ll want to reread in the future.

I have found one quote I like very much.  It’s reminiscent of Myshkin’s “even in prison” quote from The Idiot, although a little less fanciful:

But life is rich enough if one only knows how to see.  There is no need to travel to Paris and London – and it does not help if one cannot see.

It’s something I believe in wholeheartedly. 

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.

Wednesday Quote: Neighbors

Kierkegaard 20090502-DSCF1495
Statue of Kierkegaard, photo by Arne List
[GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

“. . . love your neighbour!  As already shown, you can easily find him; him you can never lose.  The beloved can treat you in such a way that he is lost to you, and you can lose a friend, but whatever a neighbour does to you, you can never lose him . . . it is not your neighbour who holds you fastit is your love which holds your neighbour fast.”

This is from Soren Kierkegaard’s analysis of “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” in his Works of Love (transl. Howard and Edna Hong).  I’d not fully realized the simple profoundness of this commandment before reading this book a couple of years ago.  Though it’s a tough one to peruse, there’s many such great quotes in Works of Love.

Mount TBR 2016 – Recap

For this recap, something a little different.  I was mighty pleased with the little mountain of to-be-reads I climbed, so everyone’s a winner – and they all get awards!  Thanks to Bev for hosting this challenge!

*** The Unexpected New Favorite Award ***
 An Artist of the Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro
This was a thrift store find I bought on a whim.  I was greatly moved by this fictional historical memoir, written by Ishiguro (of The Remains of the Day fame).  An aging Japanese man realizes his past is not creating the bright legacy he had envisioned.  Subtly written, yet incredible.
*** The Finally, Finally Read It Award ***
The Red Badge of Courage – Stephen Crane
I liked the beginning of this book a lot.  That made the ending somewhat disappointing.  However, I had to admit it is a worthy American classic, with good writing and thought-provoking scenes.
*** The History Is Disturbing Award ***
Evita: The Real Life of Eva Peron – Nicholas Fraser, Marysa Navarro
This is supposedly the best, most judicial biography of Eva Peron out there.  After that masterful T. E. Lawrence biography by John Mack, I was underwhelmed by Fraser and Navarro’s sources; this book read more like magazine articles than a scholarly paper.  More than once, there was a statement that was an opinion, and there was no easy way for me to tell from whence the opinion originated.  Writing aside, the topic matter was chilling.  Eva, Juan, the political situation in Argentina at the time – all of it was very depressing.  An interesting read nonetheless.  Especially pertinent was reading how the Perons controlled the media and depictions of themselves.
*** The Polar History Is More My Thing Award ***
In the Land of White Death – Valerian Albanov
This little book deserves all the glowing reviews it has.  If you’re looking for an introduction to polar literature, I highly recommend the Russian navigator Albanov’s account of his survival trek through the Arctic.  The human element comes through strongly in his narrative; it’s great that he did not edit out the personal side to his story.
*** The I Need to Read More Hoffmann Award ***
Nutcracker and Mouse King and The Tale of the Nutcracker – E.T.A. Hoffmann, Alexandre Dumas
(Side note: E.T.A. is such a great set of initials.)
I let myself forget the Nutcracker I knew before, and I really, really loved the Hoffmann original.  Dumas’s version is also great, but more polished.  Read them both!  What better month to do so?

*** The Unexpectedly Disappointing Award ***
Tales of Unrest – Joseph Conrad
I’ve come to the conclusion that Conrad wrote in two ways: sheer genius, and not.  This series of depressing (unrestful) tales is not genius.  It’s not great, unfortunately.  I didn’t like any of them.
*** The Terrifying, Also Would Not Recommend Award ***
Dracula’s Guest – Bram Stoker
Friends, when a Goodreads reviewer advises you to skip a story, do not try to be a completionist.  Heed their advice.  They know what they’re talking about.  You don’t need to read all the creepy stories.  You really don’t.
*** The Beautifully Written, Tough to Understand Award ***
Memories of the Future – Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
This author was new to me; I read the book because he’s supposed to be similar to Kafka.  Even in translation, Krzhizhanovsky is a lovely writer; his analogies and word choices seem so fresh, even original, compared to other writers.  The trouble is, I was confused most of the time.  I did like the last story, “Memories of the Future,” but it’s very similar to The Time Machine.  Would read more by him in the future (ha. ha.).
*** The Better Than the Movie Award ***
Pinocchio – Carlo Collodi
I’m not big on this fairytale, but it was certainly entertaining.  Pinocchio is such a bad son to Geppetto, and still I felt sorry for him.  Like most fairytales, the amount of exaggeration makes it hard to believe at times (I really think Pinocchio would have learned his lesson faster than he does!).  I’ll probably keep this one, though; it’s definitely a classic.
*** The Childhood Heroine Award ***
Joan of Arc: In Her Own Words
Joan of Arc has always been an inspiration to me.  This books is a compilation of quotes by her, which forms something of an autobiography.  It’s sobering to realize that the main reason we have these quotes is because she was captured and spoke the majority of these statements at her trial.  I really recommend this to anyone who wants to learn more about her.  Reading what she did and said 600 years ago makes you feel both how long ago and recent it was.
*** The Childhood Memory Award ***
The Silent World – Jacques Cousteau
I have a vague memory of watching a Jacques Cousteau film as a child.  He is probably one of the many reasons I grew up with a fascination for all things to do with the ocean.  This memoir talks about Cousteau’s early diving career, his various diving projects, and general opinions on topics related to diving.  It wasn’t gripping, but I learned quite a few things, historical and scientific, and the writing style is accessible.  A good read to learn more about him.
*** The Changed My Life Award ***
Works of Love – Søren Kierkegaard 
I left the sticky notes in this book – and not just the few that are pictured.  It’s difficult to describe a book like this without feeling vulnerable, because I can’t adequately summarize it, and I can’t say I agree with him 100%, and I can’t tell you it’s a must read.  I have no idea how Works of Love affects one reader from the next.  Yes, it changed my life; it made me look at something familiar in a new way.

I think of Kierkegaard as this lonely person who is thinking through everything out loud, and some of it is confusion, and some of it is inspired, and he offers it all up to the reader without apology, because he is only human and never expected to think “perfect” thoughts, only to strive for truth.  I don’t know if that’s Kierkegaard, or me projecting myself onto the impression of him.  I think he was born to write this book, in any case.

Whatever the world takes away from you, thought it be most cherished, whatever happens to you in life, however you may have to suffer because of your striving, for the good, if you please, if men turn indifferent from you or as enemies against you…if even your best friend should deny you – if nevertheless in any of your strivings, in any of your actions, in any of your words you truly have consciously had love along: then take comfort, for love abides. (p. 279)

Fear and Trembling – Abraham revisited

 
For he who loved himself became great in himself, and he who loved others became great through his devotion, but he who loved God became greater than all. 

I gave this books 5 stars on Goodreads, but I almost gave it none.  By that, I mean it is an almost impossible book to rate in a generic sense.  I don’t know where you are in your spiritual beliefs and growth, and so as a reviewer I can’t possibly say what this book will be to you.  On the other hand, to me it was a five-star book – the caveat is that my rating is inherently personal.  Because of that, it may not be of much use here whether it has five stars or no rating.

To quote the first sentences of his biography, in this Penguin edition:

Søren Aabye Kierkegaard was born in Copenhagen in 1813, the youngest of seven children.  His mother, his sisters and two of his brothers all died before he reached his twenty-first birthday.

For context, Fear and Trembling was published in 1843 – he was only about thirty at the time.  He had already lost these loved ones, and broken off his relationship with his fiancee, by the time this book entered the world.  It’s hard to imagine what he was feeling as he wrote it; maybe it helped him through these losses, to turn to philosophy and self-examination.

I wish I could say Kierkegaard is easy to read.  He makes Chesterton seem tidy and concise – Kierkegaard reads like a person trying to think their way through a difficult problem, sometimes taking detours and rabbit trails, but always coming back to the main point.  I was frustrated and utterly at sea at times; still, he makes you care so much about his main point that you keep going.  In this sense, I love his writing: he is a real person thinking real thoughts, sacrificing tidiness and even “perfection” for a hammering-out, if you will, of all the things that he is trying to reconcile in his mind.

In a nutshell, Fear and Trembling is about the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac.  I counted, and in this tiny book I have fifteen sticky notes for each quote that really struck me; I’ve never thought about Abraham and Isaac so much, which is exactly Kierkegaard’s issue.  “There were countless generations that knew the story of Abraham by heart, word for word.  How many did it make sleepless?”  (p. 58)  He is right.  The Old Testament has many challenging stories in it, but sometimes we are so used to them, we take them somewhat for granted (I know I have).  Abraham preparing to sacrifice his promised son to God is one of the very hardest stories, when you look at it as with new eyes.

The key phrase Kierkegaard refers to throughout the book is, as the translator puts it, “the strength of the absurd.”  Faith is outside of, apart from, and higher than mere human logic and understanding, to the point it may appear foolish to the world – “ the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him” (I Cor. 2:14).  To relate this to Abraham, Kierkegaard writes:

…he further makes, and at every moment is making, the movement of faith.  This is his comfort.  For he says, ‘Nevertheless it won’t happen, or if it does the Lord will give me a new Isaac on the strength of the absurd.’

It compels you to slow down and see the reality of a man, who waited all his life to have a son, who was promised to have generations and generations of descendants, be told to kill that same son – then, through faith, to follow through unfalteringly until the very last moment when God stops him.  Finally, as if for the first time, you see Abraham as the “knight of faith” which Kierkegaard reminds you he was.

There is much more I could say, but I’ll leave it there.  It’s a short book, but takes some time to process.  I still don’t understand half of it, but he showed me something familiar in a new way, and that is a worthwhile read.