Two nights ago, I found The Bonfire of the Vanities on the shelf and began reading. It was the blockbuster book of the 1980s, catching the spirit of the age in all its glittery egotism (“Masters of the Universe”) and cheap urban politics (the opening scene is an 80s version of“mau-mauing” that ends up exploding in chaos, not like the scripted routines Wolfe described in “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers” a decade earlier). It is exuberant, observant, and fun. It places Wolfe in the great tradition of social-commentary novelists, a lineage Wolfe hailed in his great Harper's essay, “Stalking the Billion-footed Beast.” I'm only fifty pages in, but already looking forward to proceeding tonight, at 9pm, well tucked-in, a low light . . .
The weekend before last I read How to Raise a Puppy You can live With, by Clarice Rutherford and David H. Neil. It made me feel really guilty about how badly we raised our Doberman back in the 1960s. We did all the things Rutherford and Neil (and all the other modern dog-owner manuals) tell one never to do—we punished the dog, yelling at him when he was bad, and hit him when he was very bad.
Our dog was a self-willed, disobedient, and unhappy dog, and How to Raise a Puppy rightly makes me feel convicted under sin. When I joked with Roland's owner that if this puppy manual did not work I could at least use it to hit him with, he said, ‘Nah, never hit a dog.' At three months old, my dog Olivier is already more meditative than Roland, and he is never going to be hit or shouted at. But there is one irony in all of this, one which it will win me no admirers for mentioning. Back in the benighted days when we trained our dogs with punishments more than with rewards, crates and ‘crate-training' were unheard of. I had barely heard of this new procedure of ‘crate training' when I began to seek for a dog. I know that all modern dog owners insist their dogs love their crates and feel it to be a safe space. To me, there is a certain irony in the fact that the dogs of old who were punished until they became obedient never entered a cage, roaming free through the house and the yard, while the modern dog is trained through treats, and spends most of his life inside a cage (‘crate'). Just after I finished How to Raise a Puppy, a friend mailed me his old copy of How to Be Your Dog's Best Friend, by the Monks of New Skete. It sounds really appealing to be a dog-breeding monk. I am now following this book's advice and giving Olivier an all body massage after I toss him off my armchair.
I’ve been reading Edmund Campion: A Scholarly Life, by Gerard Kilroy. The task of writing a biography of this man is undeniably a hard one, as Campion eluded categorization even in his own day. Campion has his name on more warrants for torture than any other person in English legal history, and his treatment at the end of his life attracted so much criticism from lawyers and courts both at home and abroad that the Queen had to issue a proclamation declaring his trial and execution just. The Lord Treasurer had to defend his torture in several European languages. “Every cause,” writes Kilroy, “wanted Campion to be on their boat; even his opponents called him the ‘champion,’ and chose him to represent the opposition.”
In this biography, Kilroy, drawing on newly discovered manuscript sources, devotes much attention to the scholarly life of Campion before he was summoned, on his London upbringing among printers and preachers, and on his growing stature as an orator in an Oxford that was being fractured by religious divisions. Half the book, though, is given over to the drama of the last year of his life: from his having to live in disguise, to his capture, torture, disputations, and trail and execution. Kilroy also includes the “complex legacy” of these events. An impressive and illuminating integration of archival material.
Lately I’ve been reading three books. First, The Savage Mind by Claude Levi-Strauss. Levi-Strauss is most famous for his structuralist anthropology of primitive human societies. This book examines the nature, structure, and anthroplogical function of the primitive systems of meaning, “power”, and “magic” known collectively as “totemism.” Levi-Strauss’s main thesis is basically Aristotelian: all men by nature desire to know, and aspire to a kind of totalizing wisdom about the objects they encounter. In human society this aspiration is expressed by a desire to find significances and uses for things which otherwise have none, assigning meaning to things by virtue of their affinity to other things or personalities available in the natural world. Levi-Strauss’s analysis is most enjoyable because of the light it casts on the contrast (and sometimes lack of contrast) between “primitive” and “scientific” systems of knowledge.
The second book I’ve been mulling over recently is Stanislaw Lem’s The Futurological Congress. I became aware of this book after watching Ari Folman’s 2013 film adaptation of it, The Congress, in which the actress Robin Wright sells her identity to a film studio, which uses it to create a wide range of customized fantasies for the public. Folman’s adaptation attempts to update some of the themes of Lem’s book to fit our modern obsession with entertainment, but the original novel is more about the use of psychotropic drugs to create a dream world in which everyone thinks himself happy. A hilarious book, certainly worth reading.
Over the past few days in spare moments I’ve been working through another novel by Lem, His Master’s Voice, which is considerably more philosophical than The Futurological Cogress. His Master’s Voice takes the form of a mathematician’s memoirs of his work on a massive government project aimed at decoding a mysterious signal originating in deep space. We are informed at the beginning that the signal was never decoded, and so the novel is less a story of scientific triumph than a series of ruminations on hermeneutics, the hubris of scientists, and the sociology of academic cohorts. A somber read, but thought provoking.