I am half-way through Anna Karenina. Everyone knows the basics of the story, but I've never read it before. It was a favorite of F. R. Leavis and Lionel Trilling, who drew large implications about humanity and the novel from it.
But for me at this point, at the end of an academic career in English, the best parts of good novels lie in those dramatic moments when a profound and long-frustrated satisfaction is reached.
Miss Betsey facing Murdstone squarely and explaining to him exactly what he is: a selfish, scheming, preening cad who has tormented his wife into the grave and beaten and bullied her son David because that youth has witnessed it all. If only we all had her moral courage and could stand up to villains!
Philip Marlowe's curt wisecracks to blustering rich guys and gals—if only we had the freedom and wit to do the same!
Hester's missing husband, arriving at the village only to find his wife up on the scaffold, disgraced, and as he realizes what has happened and they lock eyes, he communicates to her a message: “he slowly and calmly raised his finger, made a gesture with it in the air, and laid it on his lips.” Chillingworth is evil, but still . . . if only we could face a personal devastation with such immediate and far-reaching cognizance.
In Anna Karenina, one such moment comes early. Count Vronsky, who shall become Anna's illicit and all-consuming love, has sparked the attractions of Kitty, who has just rejected Levin because of her infatuation with the Count. Her mother loves the idea and she encourages it. But not her father. We know what's coming later in the book, and we want to shout out: “No! Stop! Stay away from Vronsky.” That's why we savor what her father the Prince says to his wife:
What have you done? . . . It makes me sick to see it, simply sick, and you have had your way and have turned the child's head. Levin is a thousand times the better man. This one [Vronsky] is a little Petersburg fop. They are machine-made by the dozen, all to one pattern, and all mere rubbish.
And a minute later:
I can recognize a man who has serious intentions—such as Levin—and I can see through a weathercock like that popinjay who only wishes to amuse himself.
That's just the kind of discernment that puts moral deficiency into the light and corrects the errors of the deluded.
The clerk in a Mexican shop on Third Street told me that she'd discount the Sacred Heart I was eyeing if I said the name “La Catrina.” I didn't know who or what Catrina was—kind lady? violent goddess?—but I said her name and took the heart home. I later learned the following about my helper: she is thin, well-to-do, and stylish. Sketchy details, I admit, but what more can one expect of a woman who is, after all, nothing more than a drawing of a skeleton?
What more there is to learn—about La Catrina and about her creator, the nineteenth century Mexican printmaker Jose Posada—can be found in the recently published Posada: A Century of Skeletons. The book covers Posada's whole career—political cartoons, devotional images, etc.—but the best images are the memento mori. Well dressed skeletons are Posada's way of asking why, if we are all equal in death, we aren't also a little more equal in life. A good question, though it should be said that even in death inequalities persist. For example, very few receive testaments as handsome as this book. Fewer still merit it, as Posada certainly does.
I just finished reading Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It is a story, told through flashbacks, of a young Nigerian woman who immigrates to the United States, and it ends with her return to her native country. Adichie succeeds in presenting a compelling narrative that covers difficult issues: race, identity, and the tension between assimilation and authenticity, to name a few. But the book is also a love story, and that part of it fell flat for me. I don't want to give any spoilers, but the ending lowered my estimation of characters I'd enjoyed, and I finished Americanah
I'm now starting Chasing Justice, by Kerry Max Cook. It is an autobiographical account of Cook's ultimately successful fight to be released from prison after spending twenty year on death row for a crime he did not commit. I'm a true crime fan, so I'm looking forward to digging into this.
I have been (slowly) making my way through Being in the World: A Maritain Reader by Mario O. D’Souza. This book lends itself to being picked up and put down continually, as it is, as the title suggests, a compilation of quotations of Jacques Maritain’s on an almost breathtaking multitude of subjects—from “The Christian Life” to “Evil” to “Politics, Society, and the State,” to “Science.” Maritain was a Catholic philosopher whose work I have barely touched, but from my time with this book I can see that his work is just as much a sustained commentary on the history of philosophy as it is a commentary on the integral life of the human person in interaction with the “wealth of the created and uncreated orders.” D’Souza’s title, then, “Being in the World,” begins to make sense.
One striking theme among themes here is Maritain’s vigorous rejection of interacting with the world in exclusively empirical and measurable terms. In such empiricism he saw the reduction and diminution of human personhood itself which, in turn, “would lead to the diminution of society and of the common good.” The common good, he knew, is much more than the visible patrimony of a state. He maintains: “the common good is not only a system of advantages and utilities but also a rectitude of life, an end, good in itself or, as the Ancients expressed it, a bonum honestum…Only on condition that it is according to justice and moral goodness is the common good what it is, namely, the good of a people and a city, rather than a mob of gangsters and murderers.” Human values such as goodness, truth, beauty, the progression of society, etc, are, for him, all forms of being in the world, and of being free in it.
Maritain’s voice, then, is a ringing challenge to the prevalent materialistic and economic view of the world. A challenge, but also an offer of freedom—which opens up into art and poetry and contemplation. His unflinching belief that “man is an animal who lives on transcendentals” calls for this necessary tension between the material and the immaterial, between the pragmatic and the painter.
I'm in the midst of James Shapiro's The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, which is his follow-up to A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599. His strategy in 1606 is much the same as for 1599: rather than try to track Shakespeare's year with precision (something scant documentation makes difficult) Shapiro paints a picture of the drama unfolding in London on stages, scaffolds, and the halls of power—then, speculatively, places Shakespeare in the crowd.
Shakespeare's world was very different in 1606, and Shapiro argues that his plays of that year (King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra) reflect that. The succession crisis of the dying Virgin Queen had passed; now England and Scotland were united under King James, who was pushing for a more permanent union of Great Britain. Some of the connections between Shakespeare's plays and the new monarch are well known: Have you heard that King James's obsession with witches and demonic possession influenced Shakespeare's Weird Sisters in Macbeth? Shapiro does good work fleshing out these links, recounting, for example, an obscure 1605 episode of King James being greeted by three actors dressed as prophetic Sibyls saying, “Hail, King of Scotland,” “Hail, King of England,” “Hail, King of Ireland,” and finally “All-hail, who divided Britain joins into one.” Shakespeare would re-stage a version of this pageant with Macbeth and the Weird Sisters in the following year.
James's push for union in Great Britain forces Shakespeare to change the scope of his plays. In his two history tetralogies under Elizabeth, Shakespeare had worked to dramatize (and, arguably, to create) an English national identity. Now the king of England was a Scot, and the powers-that-be wanted a national identity of “Britishness.” Shapiro charts how Shakespeare's vocabulary reflects this shift: Lear's Edgar, feigning madness, says, “Fie, fo, and fum:/ I smell the blood of a British man.” Like us, Shakespeare's audience probably expected to hear “Englishman” completing that old rhyme. But with a new king and a new nation came new words, and Shakespeare, perched on the precipice of a career revival, seized his chance to prove himself once again the master wordsmith of our language—even as the English language became part of an identity stretching beyond England.