Champagne Dream

I dreamed I was trying to help a friend celebrate a birthday or anniversary by treating him and his family to dinner at what I took to be a low or middle grade family restaurant, judging from the kids running around amongst the tables. However, I failed to pick up on the smooth-talking waitress’s description of a certain champagne (they have champagne?) as “exquisite” and “very well thought of” and proceeded to order a bottle. When the check came, it totaled nine thousand dollars, of which seven thousand was for the champagne. I began a desperate negotiation with the waitress, which ended with my friend producing his credit card with an “I’ve got this,” and I woke up screaming.

Book Review: Northwood, or Life North and South, by Sarah Josepha Buell Hale

Written in open anticipation of the Civil War, Northwood, or Life North and South (1852) posits basic differences in character between Yankees and Southrons. Some character traits are caused by geography and climate, as in:

The universal necessity for constant labor or application to business, which yet happily exists in the New England States, contributes, perhaps more than any other cause, to preserve the purity of morals which distinguishes the inhabitants of that section of our country. Had the Puritans and their descendants been fed with manna and fattened with quails in their wilderness, they would, doubtless, long before this, have spurned the hand that bestowed the unsought favors. (p. 240)

In some cases, the climatic factor gives way to the social:

‘Your cool climate keeps your temperament cool; and the perfect equality subsisting in your society makes the controlling of the passions more indispensable than with us, where the overflowings of wrath may be poured out on the heads, and bodies too, of unresisting menials.’ (pp. 205-206)

The novel’s protagonist, Sidney Romilly, shifts back and forth between New Hampshire and South Carolina and thus tries both halves of the experiment on himself. The results he relates in a letter to an English friend:

‘As a fair parallel I will mention Napoleon the Great. Like him I was taken from humble life, to be the heir of a sovereignty; make what exceptions you please to my use of the term sovereignty, the southern slaveholder is as absolute in his dominions, or plantation rather, as the grand seignior, and when I had become accustomed to command, and my mind was weakened by indolence and enervated by dissipation, I was suddenly thrown back to my former insignificance, and compelled to dig for my daily bread. “O, what a falling off was there!”…. [However,] the activity which we are compelled by our situation to exert…operates to dispel the gloom of grief. Employment is an excellent comforter, and fatigue the best opiate in the world. I never slept so soundly since my childhood, and my slumbers are most refreshing. I awaken in the morning without any solicitude save just the business of the farm. I have no appointments to keep or engagements to escape, no punctilios of honor or intrigues of love. In short, could I fairly forget the last dozen years of my life, I think I might now enjoy the best felicity of which mortal men can, on earth, be partakers.’ (pp. 324-326)

Northwood’s author, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, directly addresses the problem of slavery only toward the end of the book. While against the institution – as something that is bad for white people – she is equally against its violent overthrow and rather dreams, somewhat like Gandhi, of a swelling of (Christian) soul force that will compel slave-owners of their own accord to manumit their menials, educate and evangelize them, and then allow them to colonize and Christianize Africa. She holds no belief in racial equality (or amalgamation) and supposes black and white coexistence in America to be impossible.

Otherwise, Northwood is chock-full of little bits of wisdom I’m more prepared to accept. For example, it rebukes me for excessive romanticism by commenting favorably that a certain love-letter “was not an unmeaning rhapsody – alternately fire and frost; now breathing out his affections and now lamenting his destiny”… but rather addressed to the lady “as his friend and therefore entitled to his confidence – as a reasoning being and therefore able to understand his situation and assist him with her counsel.” (p. 207) It chides me too for my regrettable Machiavellian conception of respect, when it quotes Sidney’s report that “‘I am more respected and less feared; better, far better beloved, yet less flattered; have fewer followers and firmer friends.’” (p. 340)

In refutation both of Machiavelli and of the Chinese philosopher Han Fei, it supplies the Christian argument that love is superior to law: “Even God, reverently speaking, could not, by force, compel His rational creatures to be, in heart and soul, obedient to His law. Therefore, He sent His beloved Son to die for us, and thus, by His love, to move us to love, which includes obedience in return.” (p. 394)

Finally, the book has a few things to say about the general struggle between equality and aristocracy. On the one hand, it heralds the bitter reaction of the latter against the former that, in my humble opinion, has given rise to all totalitarian doctrine from Marxism to Nazism and that has constituted the chief driving force of history since the mid-nineteenth century:

‘Neither is it strange that the aristocratical spirit of the old world should be alarmed and revolt at the democratical influence which the new is so rapidly obtaining. We cannot expect those who pride themselves on an ancestry, whose pure blood has flowed through proud veins for many hundred years, will forget at once this fancied superiority, and look on what they call our plebian origin, without feelings of contempt.’

On the other hand – or perhaps on the same hand – these pages also note the development of a pseudo-aristocracy, arising among the plebians, that may, in spite of its origins, exemplify the reaction of the aristocratical spirit against the democratical one:

‘I do think the real English gentleman has more of dignity, and less of arrogance, than our purse-bound citizens. The Englishman is more proud, perhaps, but is free from that puffing consequence which is the most offensive part of the folly in our own countrymen. This may arise from the superiority of the former being established and acknowledged, whereas our own gentlemen are continually striving to maintain their precarious honors, and seem determined, by making the most of what they happen to possess, to indemnify themselves for the transientness of its continuance.’ (pp. 244-245)

It is ultimately the totalitarian, in his twentieth-century guise, who seeks to “maintain precarious honors” and indemnify himself against the transientness of democratical society by reimposing upon it a fixed hierarchial order, with himself at its apex.

In the meantime, the pseudo-aristocrats of Northwood, are described by Hale consistently as people of fashion. Examples of her use of the term are almost beyond counting:

His appearance, rank, and fortune, made his alliance a prize not lightly to be rejected by people of fashion. (p. 182)

Thus gently and almost imperceptibly, Stuart was loosening the chains which fashion had twined around our hero and restoring him to the freedom of that rational enjoyment which his soul was formed to appreciate but for which the Circean cup of luxury had nearly destroyed his relish. (p. 237)

Now he must put forth his own strength and depend on his own exertions. Yet strange as it may seem to those who connect felicity only with wealth, splendor, and distinction, he was never, in the proudest moment of his prosperity, when he was the star of fashion and minion of fortune, so cheerfully and equally happy as now, while confined to labor and living in obscurity. (p. 323)

He whispered to Sidney in great confidence that he fancied Miss Redington’s accession of wealth had already begun to make her dissatisfied with a residence in that unfashionable place and that he presumed she would soon depart for Boston. (p. 332)

I’ve always found fashion to be imposingly hierarchial, a ready means by which even Americans, who lack a true aristocracy, strive to concoct a false one. It’s therefore confirming to see how often Hale presents fashion as the antithesis of New England’s virtuous, egalitarian simplicity.

The Best Books about the Struggle of the Individual in the Crazy World

The good people at Shepherd.com invited me to contribute this list to their site. Please enjoy.

Who am I?

“Whosoever shall promote himself shall be abased.” – Matthew 23:12

(I’m not in the mood to blurb myself at the moment. If you want to know who I am, please send me an email.)

[This is the version I wanted to use. I ended up promoting myself in the finished product.]

I wrote…

Southern Rain

What is my book about?

My book is about a carpenter’s son who rescues an apprentice Buddhist nun from an arrogant official, as China’s Ming dynasty falls all around them. Its main theme is – you guessed it – the struggle of the individual in the crazy world, but I hope it says a few things about men and women and freedom and power too. It’s set in seventeenth-century China, but it’s not about China. The story, I think, is universal.

The Books I Picked and Why

The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster

Young Milo, who doesn’t know what to do with himself, is teleported into a crazy world indeed: The Lands Beyond, where the Forrest of Sight contains an invisible city, where the Valley of Sound is silent, and where you have to take care to avoid getting lost in the Doldrums or jumping to (the island of) Conclusions. Milo’s quest is to find the princesses Rhyme and Reason and restore them to the realm. His sidekick is a watchdog named Tock (who ticks); the most loathsome demon in his way is a bureaucrat called the Senses Taker.

Works, by Thomas Malory

The “Knight Prisoner” Malory must have found the world a tough place to get along, and his collected work, which publisher William Caxton didn’t know what to make of, is a veritable bible of striving amidst chaos. From the early tale of “Balin or the Knight with Two Swords,” in which the hapless hero, involved in a fast-moving pursuit through a castle, unwittingly delivers the Dolorous Stroke, blighting the world, to the piteous tale of the “Morte d’Arthur,” in which the knights of the round table turn against each other, all is confusion. In between can be read “The Tale of Sir Gareth” and the story of La Cote Male Tayle, which seem identical – but are they? Why is everything so easy for Sir Gareth and so difficult for LCMT? The answer may very well provide the key to life itself. Be sure to read these stories in the original Middle English (edited by Eugène Vinaver), to enhance the sense of the arcane.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

For that matter, why is life a game for Tom Sawyer and a grimly serious struggle for Huck? Accompanied by the runaway slave Jim, the runaway Huck must live by his wits, sometimes by concocting frauds of the type that others employ for fun or profit. Huck’s quest is for freedom, as he and Jim float down the Mississippi River, into the heart of slavery. In addition to the smarts he needs, Huck possesses his own practical value system (“I couldn’t see no profit in it”) and a courageous morality (“All right, then, I’ll go to hell”), which explain better than anything else why he’s on the quest in the first place.

The Sot-Weed Factor, by John Barth

This is the funniest book I’ve ever read. The hero, Ebenezer Cooke, seeks to earn his estate in colonial Maryland, in spite of losing it by a misplaced act of justice (the Dolorous Stroke of the story). Nearly every important man he meets turns out to be his childhood tutor in disguise. Nearly all the women in the book are prostitutes. Pure mayhem.

The Eden Express, by Mark Vonnegut

The memoirist, son of Kurt Vonnegut, sets out with his girlfriend and his dog in a VW Beetle to establish a commune in Canada in the early 70s. Two things go wrong: First, society proves to be mostly supportive; and second, Mark begins having schizophrenic episodes. Aside from being a groovy hippie yarn and a guide on how to set up a commune, this book shows that sometimes, in the struggle against the crazy world, the craziness turns out to be inside us.

Review: Balin, or the Knight with the Two Swords, by Thomas Malory

Balyne le Saveage’s character can be gleaned from the following passage:

Than hit befalle so that tyme there was a poore knyght with kynge Arthure that had bene presonere with hym half a yere for sleyng of a knyght which was cosyne unto kynge Arthure. And the name of thys knyght was called Balyne, and by good meanys of the barownes he was delyverde oute of preson, for he was a good man named of his body. (Malory, Works, 1971 collection ed. by Vinaver, p. 39)

The two main points that emerge are 1) that Balin often kills when he shouldn’t and 2) that Balin is self-righteous (because “a good man named of his body” may mean “a man who esteemed himself good”). The latter defect may account for the former, but in any case the combination of the two defects isn’t promising.

Balin’s self-righteousness becomes evident a few lines later, when he draws the sword from the damsel’s scabbard (which no others had been able to do) and is overly glad to believe her claim (suspected by Merlin to be counterfeit) that only good knights could so obtain the weapon. He refuses her request that he return it to her and gazes upon the false proof of his goodness with immoderate pleasure.

Balin’s tendency to kill too much – to kill at least one person too many – is evident throughout the rest of the story. First, he kills the Lady of the Lake, whom be holds responsible for the death of his mother (his righteous excuse). Then, he slays Sir Launceor, who indeed had it coming, but wrongfully watches when Launceor’s paramour kills herself out of grief. Later, he shows Sir Garnyssh the infidelity of his paramour, causing Garnyssh, likewise, to kill himself. These latter two deaths, among many that occur wherever Balin goes, are deaths of love, which, if God is love, can perhaps be described as sacrilegious. Of course, the ultimate unfortunate blow is the Dolorous Stroke, a stab at good King Pellam collateral to the justifiable killing of the evil knight Garlon, which results in the blighting of three kingdoms.

I hypothesize that Balin’s “two swords” are not swords at all but the representation of his penchant for excess, especially excessive self-regard. One sword should be enough for any knight. Readers of the story may try to count the swords Balin carries at any given time, and unless there is an unnamed sword or swords in his valise, it never amounts to two. The meaning of the story might be that all faith in oneself is misplaced (for it belongs with You Know Whom) and can do tremendous damage in proportion to its strength – or in proportion to the strength of its possessor.

Book Review: The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu

The Tale of Genji, which some might dismiss as a tale of serial rape, is in fact a Buddhist tragedy, in which the seducers are slaves to their desires, with miserable results.

Throughout this time Genji was constantly reminded of his separation from Oborozuki at the time when she became Consort of the Emperor Suzaku. She too was Lady-of-the-bedchamber; she too was carried away and locked up in a place whither it was impossible for him to pursue her. He remembered being very unhappy then, but nothing like so miserable as he was now. Was it that he was becoming more and more sentimental, he asked himself, or merely that the sufferings of the moment always seem more acute than those which we conjure up out of the past? But whether or no the miseries of today were really worse than those of yesterday, of this much he was sure, that from none of his divagations had anything but torment and agitation ever ensued. (pp. 586-587 of 1935 one-volume Arthur Waley translation)

It is inconceivable to me that any of the subject matter in this book is being treated dispassionately. Its author is surely acting as social critic. Lines such as “In this life rank is everything; it’s no use pretending the contrary” (p. 965) very effectively advocate the contrary. As for women’s issues,

“Girls without a father or brothers to protect them cannot expect to be treated with much consideration.” (p. 970)

“Perhaps her worst misfortune, poor soul, is to have been born a woman at all; for we none of us, high or low, seem to be given much of a chance either in this world or the next.” (p. 973)

“The Governor said that in the long run it was always the woman’s fault when such things happened.” (p. 1032)

naturally imply unfairness. That the author of Genji was a woman, or whether or not her work is “feminist,” makes no difference.

Otherwise, the most interesting aspect of the novel is the division of Genji’s personality between Kaoru and Prince Niou. The former inherits Genji’s sensitivity and the latter his rakishness, causing remarkable differences in performance.

Seeking a Collective Noun

If it’s “school of fish” and “raft of ducks,”
Then what would the grouping-word be for schmucks?
“A swarm of schmucks” is sweet to say.
To “box of schmucks” I’ll not say nay.
“Cohort” and “legion” have classical rings,
And “chorus” would work, if the schmucks like to sing.
Yet puzzling’s done. It’s time to say fuck it:
I think I’ll be taking my schmucks by the bucket;
For “a bucket of schmucks” is a barrel of laughs,
Almost as good as “a tower of giraffes.”

書評: 陶淵明詩選(中國歷代詩人選集#4)

本人前半輩子因為看得懂「陶淵明」三個字,就買下了此書,在書架上一擺就是幾十年。近來突然下了決定,要把整本書讀一遍,說不定是陶先生的靈魂在呼喚我。這篇小文當然是出自外行的拙作,還望不會鬧出什麼大笑話。(感謝柯松韻協助校訂本文。若有不足之處,則是筆者有所疏漏。)

本文結構從最雞毛蒜皮的批評開始,漸入較為深刻的分析討論。文章首先要來抱怨陶先生太愛喝酒,愛到不斷地在作品中提及飲酒,實在無聊,最明顯的例子是《和郭主簿》第二首:

和澤週三春,清涼素秋節。
露凝無遊氛,天高肅景澈。
陵岑聳逸峯,遙瞻皆奇絕。
芳菊開林耀,青松冠巖列。
懷此貞秀姿,卓爲霜下傑。
銜觴念幽人,千載撫爾訣。
檢素不獲展,厭厭竟良月。

在令人心怡的大自然中既然已達到精神的高點,卻又縱情飲酒,未免不解風情。

不過除了這個例子之外,陶先生寫到飲酒並不是混淆詩意。其實,陶先生提到飲酒,通常只是代表個人樂趣的追求,因此讀者可以放遠來看,不必放大檢視詩中反覆出現的飲酒行為。

即使我們接受詩作中飲酒之舉一再出現,詩中一再提到辭官,再三考量是否退隱,也讓人反感。詩選中有八成的內容,似乎都是陶先生的自我辯護,解釋自己為何辭官。反覆強調這個話題顯得單調,且藏著一種酸葡萄心理,就像孔子騙人的說詞「人不知而不慍, 不亦君子乎? 」(《論語》 1:1)。(屈原的自我可憐更不要說,不過至少比孔子老實多了。)同理,陶先生堅持說他不要做官,也很可能是吹噓自己最有資格做官。

但是,這樣的想法,只要看幾首陶先生的詩,就會發現他是玩真的。他不像孔子掩飾政治野心。反而,陶淵明看破了儒家教化的騙局。他辭官歸田不符合孔子所說「天下有道則見,無道則隱」(《論語》8:13),因為他不誇大自己的重要性,也不承認學仕者的偽善。可以說他的主張是「見則無道,隱則有道」。

陶淵明多次強調做官完全是為了俸祿。這不是他輕率地抱怨他人的腐敗,而是揭示一個惡劣現象,連自己也包含其中。 《飲酒》十九的第一句 –「疇昔苦長飢,投耒去學仕」– 以及《歸去來兮辭序》的「公田之利足以為酒,故便求之….猶望一稔, 當斂裳宵逝」等都說得一清二楚。

《雜詩》的第八首說得更直接,把做官的意義說成純粹的寄生手段:

代耕本非望,所業在田桑。
躬親未曾替,寒餒常糟糠。
豈期過滿腹,但願飽粳糧。
御冬足大布,麤絺以應陽。
正而不能得,哀哉亦可傷。
人皆盡獲宜,拙生失其方。
理也可奈何,且為陶一觴。

「代耕」是指着「以祿代耕」說的。並且,筆者認為這首詩裡的「代」和「替」兩個字的用法都是屬於使動用法,意味着「使別人代替我耕田」或 「把耕田的任務推卸給別人」。選集的選注者,徐巍先生,認為這個替字的意思是廢棄。可是前面的「躬親」表示「自己做」,所以最有意義的對比就應該是「使別人做」。陶先生描寫耕田者的辛苦,再談到學仕者的「盡獲宜」是非常巧妙的筆法,也把孟子的「治於人者食人,治人者食於人」苛責得片甲不留。 筆者念了這首就很想為陶一觴。

除了經濟方面之外,陶先生也很懷疑儒家文化上的意義。這邊要探討的是《飲酒》第二十首:

羲農去我久,舉世少復真。
汲汲魯中叟,彌縫使其淳。
鳳鳥雖不至,禮樂暫得新。
洙泗輟微響,漂流逮狂秦。
詩書復何罪,一朝成灰塵。
區區諸老翁,為事誠殷勤。
如何絕世下,六籍無一親。
終日馳車走,不見所問津。
如復不快飲,空負頭上巾。
但恨多謬誤,君當恕醉人。

在表面上這首詩向古時的賢人表示常見的尊敬,可是感覺上似乎含着變相的諷刺。「汲汲魯中叟」…「區區諸老翁」真的讓人想到文化英雄嗎? 「汲汲」可以形容努力不休,也可以表示虛偽奸詐,反正好像是暨忙碌又沒有意義的活動。「區區」也許是說誠摯,也許是說瑣碎,都不算高明的姿態。「魯中叟」…「諸老翁」也有點太輕薄的,缺乏尊重。在這方面,陶先生的寫法很工:他利用雙關語跟儒家打游擊戰,不值接批評魯中叟而躲在雙關語的模棱兩可,來避免反攻。

這層意義,傳統的讀者可能無法感到。 像做選注的徐巍先生,介紹這首詩,只重複了崇儒的套話:「本首讚揚孔子及漢儒,慨歎當世道義淪亡,惟有藉飲酒來排遣憂世的心情。」 不過「六籍無一親」不包括陶淵明本身? 他「不見所問津」不是因為里人能夠靠自己的知識?「若復不快飲 ,空負頭上巾」不是說要戴着頭上巾喝酒? 那算是讚揚孔子及漢儒嗎? 算是憂世嗎? 陶淵明說他「但恨多謬誤」究竟是恨誰的謬誤? 是當世的人的還是孔子及漢儒的? 還有,陶先生為甚麼最後道歉? 他怕得罪了誰? 慨歎當世道義淪亡的詩文會得罪朝夕慨歎當世道義淪亡的文人嗎? 不會吧。陶淵明所慨歎的並不是當世道義淪亡而是愛慨歎當世道義淪亡的偽君子。所以道歉了。(同樣,陶先生的《詠三良》似乎是詠大忠,其實是刺愚忠。) 總之,陶淵明絕對不屬於那些先天下的憂而憂,後天下的樂而樂的人物。他飲酒的意義就在這裡。

的確,說陶淵明不是普通的儒家也不算甚麼突破的結論。不過,否認他憂世的心態就可以看出他入世的真面目。陶淵明辭官歸田可以說是重新建構他的哲學角度。他這份工作的過程是從最現實的基礎進行到最玄妙的終點。講具體一點,陶淵明在平凡的生活當中就發現了美妙的真理,而最後,面對着自己的死亡,他也尋求了一種不朽。

最平凡的活動就是為生活勞動。《飲酒》第十首形容得不錯:

在昔曾遠遊,直至東海隅。
道路迥且長,風波阻中塗。
此行誰使然,似為飢所驅。
傾身營一飽,少許便有餘。
恐此非名計,息駕歸閒居。

在這首,陶先生又承認做官本來是為了吃飽(也是為了出名) ,可他也承認在田裡勞力只要「傾身」就可以「有餘」。這方面跟梭羅一致,認為經濟的問題其實很容易解決(雖然跟上面引用的《雜詩》八意思不同)。

跟梭羅不一樣的一點是陶先生也說到家庭的重要性。有關詩是《雜詩》四:

丈夫志四海,我願不知老。
親戚共一處,子孫還相保。
觴絃肆朝日,樽中酒不燥。
緩帶盡歡娛,起晚眠常早。
孰若當世士,冰炭滿懷抱。
百年歸丘壟,用此空名道。

當世士追求名利,而陶先生只願不知老而已。怕丘壟的淹沒就不敢希望甚麼空名會當作解藥,只有親戚、子孫可能會彌補絕望。

不過這首的部分樂觀只算是個例外。陶先生可能只有這一次提到子孫可以帶來幸福。通常,陶先生以個人的角色進入大自然的深奧,培養自己的敏銳度,發掘可靠的真理。《和郭主簿》二已經提過了。《飲酒》五更代表這種心理:

結廬在人境,而無車馬喧。
問君何能爾,心遠地自偏。
採菊東籬下,悠然見南山。
山氣日夕佳,飛鳥相與還。
此中有真意,與辨已忘言。

這首所描寫的大自然能夠動人到想像旅遊的能力。筆者認為「飛鳥相與還」不是說「鳥兒相隨回巢」而是說「我跟着鳥飛去」。反正陶先生毫無疑問的是離開人境,隨心飛到遠地。

這首被認為是陶先生最有名的作品,實至名歸。 而且它顯示陶淵明主要的立場是充滿着個人主義。他所重新建設的哲學觀念是受到個人的限制。他很少揣想社會的問題。(或許《桃花源詩》的「怡然有餘樂,于何勞智慧」是指着孟子所謂「勞心者治人, 勞力者治於人」。從陶先生的主要態度來看,至少他的理想社會不會容許甚麼勞心者治人的剝削。)

身為個人主義者都會遇到寂寞的危險。陶先生的《飲酒》八真會讓讀者哭:

青松在東園,眾草沒其姿。
凝霜殄異類,卓然見高枝。
連林人不覺,獨樹眾乃奇。
提壺挂寒柯,遠望時復為。
吾生夢幻間,何事紲塵羈。

即使能夠與鳥高飛,生活在夢幻間的詩人也遲早會落地,記得他只是一棵獨樹,被眾草隱蔽了, 也被人家忽視了。個人的驕傲會帶來失望/沮喪。再加上人總免不了一死,就會造成很精神極度低落。陶淵明常常透露這類的憂鬱。

好在,陶先生找到了一個解決寂寞的方法,那就是知音。只要有一個人了解他,那棵獨樹的寂寞就可以接受。陶先生的作品有幾首提出歷史上的隱士,各有特別的人能夠賞識。像《詠貧士》六,有一句「舉世無知者,只有一劉龔」 是說隱士張仲蔚跟唯一理解他的劉龔(字孟公) 。《怨詩楚調示龐主簿鄧治中》有一句「慷慨獨悲歌,鍾期信為賢」是說只有鍾子期一個人能夠欣賞伯牙彈琴。 只要有一個人知音,連獨悲歌的也可以算贏家。

並且,除了當時的知音之外,獨自悲歌的也可以通過文學的管道來尋找生於幾百年後的知音。因此,陶淵明常常寫到「今我不述,後生何聞哉」《有會而作》、「伊懷難具道,為君作此詩」《擬古》六等句,與後代溝通,不但找到知音,而達到不朽。

總之,看完了陶先生的詩選,本人覺得他還活着。 了解他就是多給他一個命。《桃花源詩》最後的一句「願言躡輕風,高舉尋吾契」就是成真的禱告。

Book Review, Midst the Wild Carpathians, by Mór Jókai

Upon finishing this intriguing book, I turned back to page one and began reading again, in the hope that the intricacies of its plot might become clearer the second time around. One dimension of this intricacy relates to the complex political situation of seventeenth-century Transylvania, where Ottoman Turks retained some influence despite the country’s nominal independence and where the word “Hungarian” could refer not only to the native ethnic stock but also to emigres from Hungary proper. Another relates to author Mór Jókai’s inexplicit treatment of cause and effect in the storyline, his disinclination to comment on how certain actions proceed from others. At any rate, my second reading was well worth it, as familiarity built on itself, yielding greater comprehension.

One obvious theme of the book is womanly influence over men. A typical sentence reads, “The chair of state was large enough to accommodate them both. It is true that the pretty wife had to sit half upon her husband’s knee, but that certainly did not inconvenience either of them.” (pp. 75-76) Another runs, “The women, like so many Bacchantes, ran in search of weapons, and mounted the ramparts by the side of their husbands, whom the determination of their wives had turned into veritable heroes.” (pp. 174)

However clever and strong the women of this book may be, though, they operate only through men. They are not independent.

Also intriguing to me is the hero of the last part of the book, Denis Banfi, who seems a typical representative of the gentry in the ease with which he shifts from grandiosity to viciousness. “The traces of noble enthusiasm and of unbridled fury are impressed upon his face side by side just as they are in his heart.” (p. 157)

In short, I enjoyed reading it once and more than doubly enjoyed reading it twice.

Book Review: Lanterns on the Levee, by William Alexander Percy

William Alexander Percy’s Lanterns on the Levee reads like William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience (which I have not read), with the first twelve chapters resembling an innocent rhapsody and the latter fifteen a world-weary dirge. The turning point comes with Percy’s father’s involvement in politics in 1910-12, with World War One, conflict with the Ku Klux Klan in 1922, and the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 making any return to Innocence impossible. Adding a jarring element to the chapters on Experience is Percy’s rather defensive discourse on race relations.

(As for the supposedly unique traits of a certain subset of the Mississippi population, listed in the aforesaid discourse, I find them to be rather universal. For example:

The last time I saw Mims I asked him how he and his wife were getting along. He poked out his mouth: ‘Pretty good, pretty good, I reckon. Cose I always goes up the front steps whistlin’.’

I praised his cheerfulness.

‘That ain’t it, Mr. Will. I want to give anybody what’s in the house and don’t belong there time to git out the back way. You know I never did like no rookus.’ [pp. 301-302]

The same principle is outlined by Fielding:

It hath been a custom long established in the polite world, and that upon very solid and substantial reasons, that a husband shall never enter his wife’s apartment without first knocking at the door. The many excellent uses of this custom need scarce be hinted to a reader who hath any knowledge of the world; for by this means the lady hath time to adjust herself, or to remove any disagreeable object out of the way; for there are some situations in which nice and delicate women would not be discovered by their husbands. [Tom Jones, X/ii])

I liked the first part, concerning Innocence, much better. It’s amazing that Percy, writing at the experienced age of fifty-five, is able to recreate so pristinely the intoxicating wondrousness of his youth:

To climb an aspen sapling in a gale is one of those ultimate experiences, like experiencing God or love, that you need never try to remember because you can never forget. Aspens grow together in little woods of their own, straight, slender, and white. Even in still weather they twinkle and murmur, but in a high wind you must run out and plunge among them, spattered with sunlight, to the very center. Then select your tree and climb it high enough for it to begin to wobble with your weight. Rest your foot-weight lightly on the frail branches and do most of your clinging with your arms. Now let it lunge, and gulp the wind. It will be all over you, slapping your hair in your eyes, stinging your face with bits of bark and stick, tugging to break your hold, roaring in your open mouth like a monster sea-shell. The trees around you will thrash and seethe, their white undersides lashed about like surf, and sea-music racing through them. You will be beaten and bent and buffeted about and the din will be so terrific your throat will invent a song to add to the welter, pretty barbaric, full of yells and long calls. You will feel what it is to be the Lord God and ride a hurricane; you will know what it is to have leaves sprout from your toes and finger-tips, with satyrs and tigers and hounds in pursuit; you will never again need to drown under the crash of a maned wave in spume and splendor and thunder, with the white stallions of the sea around you, neighing and pawing. (p. 55)

While looking back, again, with a seamless fidelity to youthful feeling, on how he expanded his consciousness in youthful Arcadia (meaning the liberal arts), Percy is conscious, with the advantage of hindsight, of Arcadia’s true meaning:

Neither from experience nor observation can I quite say what they learn in their Arcadia, though they gad about freely with books and pads. Indeed, many of them attempt to assume a studious air by wearing black Oxford gowns. In this they are not wholly successful, for, no matter how new, the gowns always manage to be torn and insist on hanging from the supple shoulders with something of a dionysiac abandon. Further, even the most bookish are given to pursuing their studies out under the trees. To lie under a tree on your back, overhead a blue and green and gold pattern meddled with by the idlest of breezes, is not – despite the admirable example of Mr. Newton – conducive to the acquisition of knowledge. Flat on your stomach and propped on both elbows, you will inevitably keel and end by doting on the tint of the far shadows, or, worse, by slipping into those delightful oscillations of consciousness known as cat-naps. I cannot therefore commend them for erudition. So it is all the more surprising that in after years the world esteems many of them learned or powerful or godly, and that not infrequently they have been the chosen servitors of the destinies. Yet what they do or know is always less than what they are. Once one of them appeared on the first page of the newspapers because he had climbed with amazing pluck and calculated foolhardiness a hitherto unconquered mountain peak, an Indian boy his only companion. But what we who loved him like best to recall about that exploit is an inch cube of a book he carried along with him and read through – for the hundredth time, likely – before the climb was completed. It was Hamlet. Another is immortal for cleansing the world of yellow fever, but the ignorant half-breeds among whom he worked remember him now only for his gentleness, his directness without bluntness, his courtesy, which robbed obedience of all humiliation. Still others I understand have amassed fortunes and – to use a word much reverenced by my temporal co-tenants – succeeded. That success I suspect was in spite of their sojourn in our greenwoods. The Arcadians learn here – and that is why I am having such difficulty telling you these things – the imponderables. Ears slightly more pointed and tawny-furred, a bit of leafiness somewhere in the eyes, a manner vaguely Apriline – such attributes though unmistakable are not to be described. When the Arcadians are fools, as they sometimes are, you do not deplore their stupidity, and when they are brilliant you do not resent their intellectuality. The reason is, their manners – the kind not learned or instilled but happening, the core being sweet – are far realer than their other qualities. Socrates and Jesus and St. Francis and Sir Philip Sidney and Lovelace and Stevenson had charm; the Arcadians are of that lineage. (pp. 100-101)

Apparently, Percy is drawn to trees, especially the familiar species of his youth, and when among them, he is drawn to the second person! However, when among scenes of foreign beauty, as on his year abroad, the familiar second person is beyond his reach, and thus he discovers a superlative form of loneliness. (This is a real 於我心有戚戚焉 for me, who discovered loneliness on the coastal highways and in the art museums of remote realms, desperately missing a sharer or co-appreciator of all the beauty I found):

At the sight or sound of something unbearably beautiful, I wanted desperately to share it. I wanted with me everyone I’d ever cared for – and someone else besides. (p. 112)

There are racist words in this book, so don’t read it.

Book Review: Washington’s Crossing, by David Hackett Fischer

As our republic is ground to nothing between the boulders of socialism and populism – the abyssus abyssum invocat of our two-party system – it seems pointless except as an act of masochism to read anything about its founding and early history. Our institutions of freedom have been so glibly discarded that books about them can amount only to quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore, immersion in which would make anyone weak and weary indeed.

Neverthehoo, old habits die hard, and this year, with a gap in my reading list and with July Fourth approaching, I decided to re-read David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing, which I’d assigned myself as a morale-booster in the years after 9/11. (External blows stimulated my interest in the history of American freedom; self-inflicted ones killed it.) I’d remembered Fischer’s book for its stress on the ideological aspect of the Revolution and can now report that my memory was in this case true. Washington’s Crossing illustrates how different people (not just British, Germans, and Americans but different groups of Americans such as New Englanders, Virginians, and backwoodsmen) took different views of freedom and related it differently to ideals of equality and social order. My favorite players in this story are the Philadelphia Associators, radical egalitarians, who went so far as to design their uniform to “level all distinctions.” (p. 27)

An important subplot of the book details how George Washington, accustomed to believe in “liberty [within] a system of stratification” (p. 14), became general of an army composed of men (like the Associators) who saw freedom in a different light. As such, Fischer’s book is a study of leadership. Now, leadership today has become something of a fetish, with a cottage industry of how-to courses and its own section in the bookstore. Understood vaguely, leadership can encompass both democratic and undemocratic modes of motivation. Washington’s stereotypical embodiment of leadership is something that should be subjected – as it is in this book – to careful analysis, to yield a more precise conception of how it should function in a democratic society. Fischer’s book starts with an image of Washington as leader – the one in Emmanuel Leutze’s painting Washington Crossing the Delaware – in which he is shown with a telescope, symbolizing “a statesman’s vision.” (p. 2) Someone who leads by virtue of his unique sense of vision calls to mind Plato’s allegory of the cave, in which Socrates opines that only he with the true view of reality is qualified to be king. Indeed it was quite common in the before time to believe that kings were crowned by a special endowment such as vision, and I hope that readers of this review know that such a belief is as obsolete as kings are themselves.

Thankfully, Fischer uses the picture of Washington as the true-seeing leader only as a starting point and argues in the rest of his book that the real Washington was a leader of a different sort. At one point, he distinguishes democratic leadership from its non-democratic cousins by quoting Washington himself: “A people unused to restraint must be led; they will not be drove.” (p. 6) At another two places, Fischer draws important distinctions in his own words, remarking that Washington functioned “not only as a leader but a comrade in arms” and “more as a leader than a commander.” (pp. 251, 366) Elsewhere, Fischer employs a qualifier (“consultative leadership”), provides an example (“It was typical of Washington’s style of leadership to present a promising proposal as someone’s else’s idea”), and uses words besides “leading” to describe what Washington was doing (“listening, responding, encouraging, persuading.”) (pp. 265-266)

Since Fischer takes such pains to define Washington’s mode of leadership so narrowly, to the point of having to find better words for it, the reader may conclude that it scarcely warrants the term. (As for Washington’s using other people’s ideas, Fischer reports that the plan to attack at Trenton may have originated with Washington’s adjutant, Joseph Reed, and that the campaign that led to both second Trenton and Princeton was opened by the Associators – and not the officers but the men. If true, these cases stretch the definition of leadership about as far as it can go. [pp. 201-203, 265]) In fact, leadership has long been understood as a paradox, something so dependent on subtlety that it only functions in the absence of its assertion. Laozi’s injunction to “preside yet not control” (Daodejing, ch. 10) is typical of this paradox and seems to anticipate Washington.

The issue with Washington was that he initially failed to grasp leadership’s paradoxical nature and was thus forced to learn on the job. The first part of Fischer’s book is a catalogue of his slowness to learn. He ordered his troops not to plunder farmers, to no avail. He forbade them from visiting prostitutes, with the same result. He insisted that the Connecticut Light Horsemen get rid of their mounts and serve as infantry, causing them, after a brief period of conditional obedience, to leave the army (thereby depriving it of their service as scouts).  (pp. 85-86) Encountering a group of militiamen fleeing the British at Kip’s Bay, Washington beat their officers and dashed his hat on the ground. (p. 104)

The main crisis occurred on the eve of second Trenton, when many soldiers’ enlistments were set to expire. Washington’s expression of vexation on the occasion is interesting for its repetition of the word liberty, once as a cause and once as a curse: “‘The great and radical Evil which pervades our whole System & like an Ax at the Tree of our safety, Interest, and Liberty here again shews its baleful influence – Tomorrow the Continental Troops are all at liberty.’” (p. 270)

“If Washington hoped to remain in the field,” Fischer notes, “he had to persuade some of his veterans to stay with him.” In the event, Washington resorted to bribery and begging, authorizing a ten dollar bounty for an additional six weeks of service (another idea borrowed from someone else) and imploring his men,

‘My brave fellows, you have done all I asked you to do and more than could be reasonably expected; but your country is at stake, your wives, your houses, and all that you hold dear. You have worn yourselves out with the fatigues and hardships, but we know not how to spare you. If you will consent to stay one month longer, you will render that service to the cause of liberty and to your country, which you probably can never do under any other circumstances.’

Two such appeals were necessary, and even then the deciding factor was individual soldiers encouraging each other to stay. As Fischer summarizes, “Only a few days before, Washington was infuriated with these men and ready to clap some of them in irons. Now he was leading them in another way. This gentleman of Virginia was learning to treat a brigade of New England Yankee farmboys and fishermen as men of honor, who were entitled to equality of esteem.”  (pp. 271-273)

There’s at least a little bit of American exceptionalism operating here. For a gentleman to address once-thought-of inferiors as fellow gentlemen and to give up commanding in favor of entreating them was truly extraordinary. (Fischer discusses the evolving use of the term gentlemen and shows that the deemphasizing of formal status and prevalence of consultative leadership would have been unthinkable in British ranks. [pp. 273, 315-316, 331]) Washington could only resign himself to egalitarianism in a polyglot Yankee society in which no one was entitled to tell another what to do. Others were forced to accommodate as well. The immigrant officer Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben wrote home to a Prussian friend, “You say to your soldier ‘Do this and he doeth it’; but I am obliged to say [to the American soldier]: ‘This is the reason you ought to do that’: and then he does it.” (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/baron-von-steuben-180963048/) Sometime later, we are told, Abraham Lincoln, as a militia captain, once issued an order, only to be told to go to hell. (https://www.historynet.com/black-hawk-war)

For this reminder that, in spite of everything, Americans can’t be driven like cattle (and often, as we are daily reminded, speak out of turn), I’m grateful for my Fourth of July reading.