Daisy Miller, by Henry James

Daisy Miller (Penguin Popular Classics)Daisy Miller by Henry James
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Flirting is a purely American custom; it doesn’t exist here” (69).

I thoroughly enjoyed Henry James’ novella. My previous exposure to James’ work was through The Bostonians, another text that I enjoyed, and I was not at all hesitant to pick up this quick read from my gf’s bookshelf.

I won’t summarize the length of the story, but will remark that it concerns a rich, American family traveling through Switzerland and Italy—sans Father, which should, psychoanalytically, speak for the uncouth behavior of the protagonist, Miss Daisy Miller. What I most enjoyed were the brief witticisms used by James to depict Miss Miller, and, thus, this uniquely American behavior of flirtation and childish, light of air quality of person. While Daisy often refers to the narrator, Mr. Winterbourne, as “stiff,” he is, up until the end, mystified by Daisy’ and while regarding her as “uncultured” he is absolutely fascinated by her ‘devil-may-care’ attitude. It is for Mr. Winterbourne her very, to borrow the phrase, The Unbearable Lightness of Being that makes her so attractive.

As an American who frequents month long visits to Germany, and is in a relationship with a European, I can understand this relation quite well. It still rings true today, albeit often in far more vulgar behavior, that Americans are, well, “childish” (in a positive light) and “uncultured” (in a negative light). And, from this American’s perspective, the adjective “stiff” used by Daisy Miller could not more resemble the truth when regarding the European standard of behavior (68). (No offense to all those good, up-standing Europeans eating  with their tines down; or those hearty Germans organizing party games in order to coerce socialization out of their fellow “stiff” citizens.)

This little novella also spoke to the romance of Rome. After having lived in Rome for some six months, albeit over ten years ago, the propensity for Italian men to both attract and relentlessly court American girls has survived these 100 years. In other words, the myth of Giovanelli and Miss Daisy Miller is still alive for the American girl studying abroad. I recall many a fond night sitting on the Spanish Steps watching helpless, young, blonde American girls attract flocks of Italian men & boys—but it is unfair to pronounce them helpless, no?

So, yes, as you might have guessed, I sympathize with Miss Miller’s behavior—even her obstinate hold upon her cultural norms. And I think the greatest revelation of her and many—although they may not want to admit it—American characters & personages is contained in the following exclamation: “‘That’s all I want — a little fuss!’ and the young girl began to laugh again” (38).
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Halt Your Enthusiasm!

I am here in Germany visiting my gf, and I happen to be here when the city of Mainz is celebrating their annual Johannisnacht festival. Last night was the final night, and it was celebrated in style with a 15-minute firework display, which my gf and I watched from Theodor-Heuss Bridge that links Wiesbaden and Mainz.

Johannisnacht 1On the first night of the festival, Friday night, my gf and I walked to the city center where the festivities were held and ate a bit of food and had a beer or two. That was the night I learned my first lesson in Germany enthusiasm: Wait until the song, event, phenomenon, is completely finished before celebrating. I am quiet serious. That Friday night we enjoyed a few songs from an all too impressive Black Sabbath cover band playing at one end of the festivities. Being a Sabbath fan from my teenage years, I sang along and cheered whenever I was struck with excitement. And for this, I received some good ol’ fashion German upbraiding: the stare! First, yes, I was the only one clapping… of which my gf informed me I was, um, premature in my celebration (soooo American, she says). And then I got a stare. The stare from an older German gentleman whose fun I was apparently ruining. Lesson learned.

Three night later and I am about to test my new found knowledge at the final celebratory night. It was tough. It was tough for this red-blooded “didn’t-know-how-American-he-was-until-fireworks-came-out” guy NOT to “oooh,” “aaah,” and cheer every time some pretty colors burst over the Rhine. So, I was quiet. I stood and listened to some sparsely hasty, yet hushed, German excitement over the larger fireworks. But for the most part, the collection of citizens in the photos below didn’t make as sound during the whole fiery procession.

Only one dared to make a sound. As an acute cluster of fireworks dissipated, one promisingly remarkable firework shot forth into the sky. As the dormant firework traveled upwards, I heard from a man on my right as the rocket shot high, a barely audible remark; a lovely admission of the pretense of excitement echoed in the most German way possible. A small, yet significant, word was uttered in an almost official tone: “Jawohl…”.

Fireworks 1Fireworks 2

Fireworks 3Fireworks 4

Jawohl. You’re damn right, “Jawohl”.

Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi

Reading Lolita in TehranReading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was surprised that I enjoyed this book. It was recommended to me by a reader of an essay I am writing, and after reading a few Goodreads reviews, I had my doubts. But I found the writing to be articulate, emotional, and intelligent; and it was an enjoyable read.

Azar Nafisi’s memoir is structured as a memory, with the beginning and ending containing a framing structure of a present tense private course she is teaching out of her home for seven promising female students. The middle two chapters (“Gatsby” and “James”) contain past memories leading up to Nafisi’s leaving her academic position in 1995, and, thus, teaching this literature course from the sanctity of her home. I felt that the structure of the story is quite engaging, and Nafisi’s oft-pedantic nature concerning various literature to be quite refreshing against the critical discourse of women’s rights, freedom, tyranny, and such. I think it would be too easy to make this a story only about the antipathy between Iran and “the West,” and the lacing of literatures and literary criticism offers a layered approach to these contentious themes.

As you might presume, my criticism does not contend with the story, its structure, or its popularity. Instead my criticism considers something close to my own sensibility: this content regarding the innumerable influences upon the Iranian government and its revolutionary subjects: namely, who and how those individuals are represented by Nafisi throughout her story.

The difficulty is clear: when criticizing a non-fictional memoir, whom, or what, is one criticizing? Usually it is the author and that author’s real life experiences. It is illogical to criticize any individual’s real life experience, because they will retort with the infallible, “but you weren’t there,” “you didn’t experience it” rejoinder. And, they are verily right to do so. So, as I have no position on these things regarding Iran or Dr. Nafisi’s personal experiences with Iran, I will assume my criticism of a representation. That of the various revolutionary groups in the story, and the students who are given the most prominent voices for these groups: Mr. Nyazi, from Chapter 2; Mr. Ghomi, from Chapter 3; and Mr. Nahvi, in Chapter 4. These are the classroom voices (all male) denouncing Western literature as “decadent, vile, corrupt, imperial” and therefore un-Islamic and a decrepit influence upon Iran’s holy culture, politics, people, etc. (290). I want to promote a shocking argument with these representations in mind: they are correct.

Let me explain.

Dr. Nafisi is writing a book in English for an English audience about reading Western literature in a country that is attempting to eradicate, through criticism and more obvious and violent means, the influence of said literature and culture. Against this argument, a few in the story articulate that literature is innocuous in its ability to cause change, revolution, or independence. It is first voiced against Mr. Nyazi, who possess the fault that he “‘can no longer distinguish fiction from reality’,” and must be reminded that “Gatsby was a work of fiction and not a how-to manual” (128, 120). The presumption is that Mr. Nyazi, et al are taking literature to literally and bestowing it too much power. The counterargument is that literature has little or no power, or is rather, not a “how-to manual,” as voiced by a student of Dr. Nafisi’s, Zarrin, who argues, “Did people all go on strike or head west after reading Steinbeck? Did they they go whaling after reading Melville? Are people not a little more complex than that?” (135). No. But they did commit suicide in droves after the publication of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe‘s The Sorrows of Young Werther and Selected Writings. To this extent, the social purpose of literature is to communicate, reflect, and inspire. And to this even Zarrin concedes that Gatsby is “an amazing book… It teaches you to value your dreams…” something the Islamic Republic cannot afford (ibid, my emphasis).

In order to consider this argument, one must accede that literature is influential; it’s form, language, illustrations, chapters, structure, everything; all of this informs and mirrors a culture. Whether you read or not, reading influences our culture in the very form of the solipsistic and silently contemplated novel. Mr. Nyazi knows this when he argues that the West and its literature is a “‘sinister assault on the very roots of our culture'” (126). The problem, the very sincere issue here, is where a person departs from knowing how important literature is to a culture and uses violent means to annihilate its influence. Mr. Nyazi, et al, are far to busy criticizing and violently eliminating a supposedly antithetical literature to be busy doing what he should be doing to combat this “sinister” culture he depicts: creating his own literature. In fact, this is voiced by a student during Dr. Nafisi’s class who states to Mr. Nyazi: “‘Why don’t you write your own novel?'” (133). But that’s the point: how could he? where would he begin?

Art is not created in a bubble. It is not created without the appreciation and understanding of art that comes before or beside it. When eliminating Western literature, Mr. Nyazi has eliminated his people’s own ability to truly triumph over Western literature: with “Eastern” literature. The problem would be for Mr. Nyazi that he would have to engage with the literature itself before overcoming and creating his own works. Hmmm… for example. Nikolai Gogol is considered the first “Russian novelist”. But before him, Russia had a great poet and producer of written art: Alexander Pushkin. The difference between the two? Pushkin imitated and mimicked French style and art, which was necessary to gain influence at the time due to the French influence in Russia’s aristocracy, and Gogol wrote Russian stories with his own Russian style. In other words, Gogol used Russian folk tales to create his stories, where Pushkin used French novels and poems to create his. The point is that Mr. Nyazi is so busy destroying and condemning an influential Western literature that he is unable to become Gogol—in fact, he can’t even be Pushkin! And it is made apparent by a conversation between Mrs. Rezvan and Dr. Nafisi that a national literature is needed because “[t]he state of literature in this country could not be any worse, and the state of English literature is most hopeless of all” (179, my italics).

I wrote earlier that Dr. Nafisi agrees with me that literature and reality often intertwine and heavily influence one another, although many of her characters and her own statements contradict this statement. In the final chapter, Nafisi writes that “Fiction was not a panacea, but it did offer us a critical way of appraising and grasping the world—not just our world but that other that had become the object of our desires” (282). Yes. This is the pursuit and love of fiction: that other world. And when Mr. Nyazi, et al, destroy and burn all books that hold those other worlds, then he will finally have incinerated the desire to see and experience a world other than the one he has created. His war against literature is not against Western decadence, etc., but against outside influences in general. Because Power, unlike Art, can exist and flourish inside a bubble.

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Praise of Folly, by Erasmus

Praise of FollyPraise of Folly by Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For the layreader, I would recommend skipping the introduction to this text, which comprises the first fifty pages of this edition, and continuing on to Erasmus’ essay, Praise of Folly. The essay itself is quite an easy ready, if one approaches it in a superficial manner excluding historical, metaphorical, or personal references. Without those things considered, this essay reads something like our modern bestsellers that reveal some secret way of living that eludes anxiety, stress and worry, e.g. The Secret, or author, Sylvia Browne. Approaching Erasmus’ philosophical treaty as a popular self-help book is problematic, but I think reveals more about our culture then we would like.

Structurally, Erasmus’ essay is organized in “chapters,” or small sections that cover a certain topic, e.g. marriage, play, common sense, fools, science, etc. The “plot,” if there is one, is limited to a speech or oration by the goddess, Folly, who is speaking on her own behalf—and defense. The reader can extract at the very least one aphorism from each chapter, and perhaps find themselves enlightened by a banal truism—although it may confront the very thing they perform on a regular basis.

I don’t believe I can do justice to this review without quotations and examples—I will now flip through the text at random… einen Moment, bitte. Folly states, “But it’s sad, people say, to be deceived. Not at all, it’s far sadder not to be deceived” (135). Is this not the precursor to Friedrich Nietzsche and his Dionysian man? Is not the absolution of facts for the beautiful complexity of opinion a mode that informs our postmodern, interrogative culture? Folly continues, “For human affairs are so complex and obscure that nothing can be known of them for certain…” (ibid). There are no facts, only opinions. Quite the statement in 1509 for a religious scholar—even if he is highly critical of theologians and the church.

To return to my earlier assertion that Praise of Folly is obscurely related to our self-help books. One of the gods who follow in Folly’s leadership is Self-Love. Self-Love is continually and highly praised by Folly—even so more than the other followers, e.g. Pleasure, Flattery, Idleness, etc. (73). Folly states in a glorious rhetorical aphorism, “Now tell me: can a man love anyone who hates himself?” (94). And later on states that “happiness consists in being willing to be what you are [and] Self-Love [ensures] that no one is dissatisfied with his own looks, character, race, position and way of life” (95). Beautiful. One can extract quotes continually, but they add up to our culture’s way of selling self-recognition and self-affirmations through quick guides to better living. Of course this is only one aspect of Erasmus’ essay, but the usefulness of Folly’s instruction and observations are reflected in our culture of self-denial and overwhelming desire to treat Self-Love as a mortal sin.

Folly Steps Down from the Pulpit

Folly Steps Down from the Pulpit (Wikipedia)

Folly is in direct conflict with the pretensions of knowledge. Her skewer cleaves itself in the wise man—the very man who escapes Plato’s cave—and, as I read it, neither Folly nor Erasmus, is expounding this theory in jest. The wise man, according to Folly, does not lead a happy life—and this is THE goal of Folly’s mortal tutelage. The wise man does not admit himself a beast, nor does he admit himself to the absurdity of the basic elements of man. For example, Folly takes complete responsibility for the propagation of the entire human race (75). Why, you may ask? Well, ahem, excuse my vulgarity, but it is basic biology. Folly states that the part of the body that reproduces men is unspeakable do to its humors and that “it can’t be named without raising a laugh” (76). And that even philosophers, if they want to reproduce, must come to Folly. For, Folly asks, what woman does not praise a man for his humor, his pleasure, his love, his wit? Rather then his ability to expound numerous theses. And since Pleasure is a follower of Folly, it is but that emotion to bridge the necessary gap of reproduction…

But, I digress.

I caught myself underlining text, laughing out loud, and sharing my thoughts with my friend while reading Erasmus’ essay. I think it shall be a text I refer to from time-to-time, and look for when my “adulthood” is called into question, or when I am considered childish or immature. For the pretension of man stands upon the annulling of the very nature of Folly, and the absurdity of man a far too beautiful a thing to bear without Folly.

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Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen

Sense and SensibilitySense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Ugh, what a dreadfully boring novel. Now that I’ve written that bold statement, allow me to continue.

This is my third Austen novel, Pride and Prejudice and Emma being the first two novels many years ago, and I trudged through the last 50 pages of Sense and Sensibility. So, I’ll begin at that point of the exegesis with a spoiler: after the elder Dashwood sisters retreat to Cleveland estate before going home to Barton Cottage, Marianne becomes deathly ill, and Austen writes in five chapters what could have been written in two sentences. (I can hear the drum of Philistinism being beaten outside my door at this very moment!). I do realize the point of a novel is to do just that: explain in five chapters what could have been rendered the same in two sentences, but it is painfully obvious with this novel, and, perhaps, with Austen in general. But more on that later…

For the plot: this portion of the novel is always my least favorite of Austen’s and the “comedy of errors” genre—save for William Shakespeare. Specifically the portion of the plot where there is a lulling dramatic moment to induce fervent sympathy and regard for the romantic character, e.g. Marianne’s sickness. It is then that a character or characters is given the ability—through some turn of events, e.g. John Willoughby’s surprising nocturnal arrival—to explain their previous actions and thus redeem themselves. For sure this is a hackneyed, yet sincere, way to create well-rounded, believable characters; but it does not follow for my reading.

Austen is heavy, at least in Sense and Sensibility, with deus ex machina; which, when rendered absurd, is entertainable, but when used and treated as exegesis and a sincere moral motive for a character feels completely false due to its conspicuous nature. In other words, when used within the realm of realism, the deus ex machina appears out of place; discordant with my expectations as a reader. If other character absurdities and plot oddities are present, then the machina seems natural; but when used as a device to surprise the reader—again, e.g., Willoughby’s nocturnal arrival, or even Colonel Brandon’s  announcing in London against Marianne’s expectations (Chapter XXVII), which is nearly entirely forgivable as a plot device—it seems unnatural.

As per a discussion that followed the reading of this novel, I made the all too obvious sexist remark that Austen’s writing is noticeably feminine. I even hated to make the remark due its cliché nature, but it had to be done. (I backtracked and stated that women rave about Austen the way men rave about Hemingway.) So, why is this remark true for me? Why is it even a cliché, i.e. an oft-repeated cultural observation? This interests me a great deal. I think it is rightly attributed to the very nature of the elongated exegesis, and the way Austen can pinpoint emotions. Austen’s use of emotions is sacrosanct. Her study of human character and human folly in general is immaculate; and here it seems as though I am contradicting myself, but I am not.

I will argue here that her precision of human emotion does not oft-align with the necessary absurd plot intervention of the comedy of errors. The gossiping Mrs. Jennings, the Palmer’s, the Steele’s, these characters are gorgeous; but the comedy of errors requires them, not the sincerity of Colonel Brandon, Edward Ferrars, or even Miss Elinor Dashwood. I was informed that Austen’s early novels revolve around this comedy of errors plot device, which is easy enough to notice in the three novels I have read, but that a later novel of hers, like Mansfield Park, is much richer; and lacks the deus ex machina of the “comedy of errors” genre.

Finally, we watched the 1995 film of Sense and Sensibility, and I must add that I thoroughly enjoyed each character. Perhaps it is my own sensibility that is lacking, but I prefer a comedy on stage or on film, and a tragedy, history, historo-tragedy, etc. in solitude. I even enjoyed the stuttering ineptitude of, ugh, the ineffectual Hugh Grant as Edward Ferrars. Alan Rickman, “Snape, Snape, Severus Snape…“, as Colonel Brandon is phenomenal in his solemn love of Marianne; and Emma Thompson is wonderful in her quiet expressions as Elinor Dashwood.

I do not quite think I am done with Jane Austen, or does my critique of Sense and Sensibility keep me from reading her other novels. But, I think I shall approach her under new auspices. One that seeks her writing instead of picking a novel up at random—for that was my position for this reading.

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