A Meditation on Freedom and Equality, Inspired by The Last of the Wine

Though freedom and equality are the warp and woof of American life, some difference of opinion exists as to how to they are related. For example, the argument between the political left and right may be viewed as one of ends versus means, with those on the left believing that equality is the key to freedom and those on the right believing the opposite.

In Mary Renault’s The Last of the Wine, a remark made by Lysis suggests another relationship between freedom and equality:

I want a City where I can find my equals and respect my betters, whoever they are.

In other words, equality is a subset of freedom: the freedom to recognize our equals (and betters) without having them recognized for us.

It’s interesting that while searching for his equals and betters, Lysis mentions no inferiors. Perhaps he is conscious that he lives surrounded by people possessing talents he lacks, and that absent an unfree system of imposed social classes, designed to denigrate most talent as menial, the notion of inferiority is meaningless. Thus does Melville’s Ahab, in contemplation of his ship’s carpenter, lament, “Here I am, proud as a Greek god, and yet standing debtor to this blockhead for a bone to stand on!” More acceptingly, I reflect that when I summon a plumber to my house, the very reason for my doing so is that he can do at least one thing I cannot. In him, therefore, and in enjoyment of the freedom imagined by Lysis, I see only an equal or a better.

Book Review: The Queen’s Necklace, by Antal Szerb

It’s fitting how I’ve been putting off writing this review of The Queen’s Necklace, Antal Szerb’s last book; for Szerb, likewise, seemed to have been putting off finishing it. A lifelong Hungarian Catholic whose Jewish ancestry doomed him to underemployment and murder under Nazi occupation, Szerb passed up several opportunities to escape, preferring to share his people’s fate. With the final, fatal crisis approaching in 1943, Szerb sought refuge in the history of eighteenth-century France, dwelling on its most minute details, digressing and diverting along myriad tangents, as though contriving, like Scheherazade, never to reach the end. The Queen’s Necklace is Szerb’s valediction, how he wanted to go: not in bitterness but in erudite frivolity.

Pausing one last time, just before the close, Szerb makes the subtlest of allusions to creeping melancholy:

This age was as beautiful as the most finely worked lace, as a piece of Sèvres porcelain with its timeless charm and fragile delicacy; as the noble oozings of the Tokai grape, full and rich with sweetness; as the autumn air in Hungary, when the reddening leaves are scented with the inexpressible sweetness of death.

Not inexpressible, Antal. You expressed it. Thank you.

Thoughts on ‘First Man’

Neil is only comfortable in space. Only when Earth’s atmosphere falls away is he able to escape his bleak, stressful life. And his bleak, stressful life, of preparation for each escape, thus comes to make sense.

As if to emphasize this paradox, each of Neil’s escapes from Earth, via rocket, is jarring and cacophonous, like being in a clothes dryer with a dozen pairs of shoes. And then the booster engine cuts off, and all becomes silent and still, and the stars become visible against the blackness through the window; and Neil smiles.

And then he leaves behind not only the oppressive Earth but the confining spacecraft, to stand on the surface of the moon, alone and finally free.

He walks to the edge of the crater, the one in which he was nearly buried during the landing, and buries his grief in it instead.

Book Review: The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

This book is very powerfully and economically written, with poignant understatement sufficing very well. As is known, its main conceit is to take the underground railroad literally, as a subterranean locomotive, as it conveys the runaway Cora through a variety of states of freedom, each with hopes, mysteries, and dangers and each stressing a usually sinister aspect of race relations, involving, to name two examples, medical experimentation and violent segregation.

One splendid sentence is a line of dialogue: “Sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useless truth” (p. 285). A few lines later, America is named as the grandest delusion of all, hopefully a useful one; and since the ending of the story doesn’t involve total genocide, perhaps it might count as a (very relatively) hopeful one.

Book Review: Crossing the Horizon, by Laurie Notaro

Laurie Notaro’s Crossing the Horizon promises a tale of “three remarkable women” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kan7FDWhDcc), but one of its three main subjects, Mabel Boll, doesn’t belong with the other two. Granted, Ms. Boll was one of at least three women who hoped to cross the Atlantic before Amelia Earhart did. However, she was not herself a pilot (she would have made the trip only as a passenger) and comes off in these pages as a frivolous socialite and gossip. She might have been remarkably witty, but she wears out her welcome halfway through the book and is tolerable after that only as comic relief. If there is any lesson in her story it would be that her dependence on other people to realize her dream proves fatal to her chances: Anyone with any merit runs as fast as he can in the opposite direction, leaving her in the rotten company she more commonly keeps (especially the scoundrel Charles Levine), with everyone trying to take advantage of everyone else and no one really helping.

Notaro’s other two protagonists, Ruth Elder and Elsie Mackay, are the true heroes. Both are addicted to freedom and stop at nothing in the pursuit of it. Both run away from home, eloping with men who seem to offer fresher prospects – though neither one does, and both women return to their families. Both are enamored of fast cars and aeroplanes and quickly obtain pilot’s licenses.  Both are inspired to follow in Charles Lindbergh’s footsteps and set their sights on the Atlantic, although they plan to cross in opposite directions – the American Elder flying east and the British Mackay flying west.

In fact, there are at least as many interesting differences between the two heroes, beside their proposed directions of travel. Elder, of Anniston, Alabama, is supported by her family in her transatlantic endeavor, while suffering at least some measure of opposition from society. It is Ruth’s mother who dresses her in a necktie and trousers, and all her relations turn out for her flight. (This reviewer is also extremely pleased that Elder’s family is not depicted here as a pack of cartoonish hicks.) However, the press seems a bit too preoccupied with the question of Ruth’s husband, and one reporter says that she’d do better as a typist. Even Eleanor Roosevelt calls her ambition “very foolish.” Conversely, Mackay is the favored daughter of aristocrats who, owing to overprotection, forbid her from making the crossing. It cannot be said for sure how much society in general would have supported her plan, for she keeps it a secret; but she seems generally to get her way in the world, and her crew is quite devoted to her.

Nothing stops either woman, of course, but the edge would have to go to Ruth Elder for her pluck at making things happen. True, most doors open for her because of her winning looks. Conscious of this advantage, she employs her lipstick and her smile strategically. However, her pretty face can get her only so far. When the world stops taking her seriously (if it ever did take her seriously) and the doors slam shut, she is forced to rely on her intelligence, her voice, and her ability to prevail in argument.

The turning point of the book comes when a smart-aleck reporter discovers her husband.

“Mister,” Ruth demanded, pointing at the young reporter who thought he had just scooped everyone. “You, sir. What is your name?”

He looked shocked and surprised and pointed to himself. “Me?” he asked, and Ruth nodded. “Dan Shear. Jersey Journal.”

Ruth nodded again and put her hands behind her back.

“Mr. Shear, have you ever been to Anniston, Alabama?” she asked without a trace of malice, but not sweetly, either.

“Can’t say that I have,” he said with a snarky laugh.

“Well, I am from Anniston, Alabama, and I am the second of seven children. Eight if you count my little brother who died when I was ten,” she said.

After revealing more of where she’s from, way more than the reporter bargained for, she asks,

“Do you know that kind of living, Mr. Shear?”

“That wasn’t my question,” he stammered. “My question was–”

“Well, this is my question to you, Mr. Shear,” Ruth interrupted. “Do you know what that kind of living is like? For a seventeen-year-old girl in Anniston, Alabama?”

“No, Miss Elder, I do not,” he finally admitted.

“Now you do,” Ruth stated firmly. “So you can stop asking those questions….My name is Ruth Elder and being married makes no difference in how I fly that plane. It doesn’t make me better or worse. It doesn’t change a thing.” (pp. 199-200)

There’s a lot of waiting around for favorable weather, but Ruth Elder and Elsie Mackay end up flying their planes.

Book Review: Ants Among Elephants, by Sujatha Gidla

In capturing the Indian caste system in all its wretchedness, Sujatha Gidla’s Ants Among Elephants comes close to a depiction of hell. The reader will come away from this book with an enhanced religiosity, in that he will thank God that he was not born an outcaste in India.

Ants Among Elephants narrates the trials and tribulations of the author’s maternal ancestors in the mid-twentieth century. The two most prominent characters are the author’s mother, Manjula, and uncle, Satyam. The latter becomes a leading Communist in Andhra Pradesh, in India’s southeast, an understandable decision, given the rottenness of the status quo as highlighted in these pages. Indeed, the treatment of Satyam’s career in this book is rather undiluted propaganda, of the type this reviewer has often seen in accounts of the revolution in China. The power structure is shown to be so wantonly exploitative that the reader finds himself forced to agree that any effort to overthrow it – nay, to exterminate its members and appropriate their property – is justifiable. In Ants Among Elephants, this pattern is established early in the case of the Nizam’s regime in Telangana, where the custom of vetti made every citizen liable to the arbitrary demands of the dora class of overlords (p. 42). Gidla lets slip the fact that, after Independence and the annexation of Telangana by the Indian army, the vetti system was abolished; yet this victory is not admitted here to have been enough, for the army repossessed land that peasants had appropriated and restored it to its former owners (p. 60). Therefore, the struggle must go on, not to stop when the peasants achieve only “freedom from bondage” but to continue until they win “land” and “dignity” (p. 50).

If the chapters on Satyam are political, those focusing on Manjula are personal and therefore more satisfying. They also are better guides to the myriad oppressions suffered by the Indian people, far beyond the simple dynamic of landlord vs. peasant, the preoccupation of the Communists. The central fact of Indian society is its state of division. A typical passage reads:

Every girl in the hostel belonged to a clique. North Indians bullied south Indians and never mingled with them. There were separate messes for north and south. North Indians wouldn’t go to the south-Indian mess while south Indians wouldn’t dare set foot in the north-Indian one.

Within both north and south were subcliques based on language. (pp. 189-190)

The fragmentation never works out in Manjula’s favor. Even when she would seem to be with her own people, she is shunned and exploited, largely because she is a woman, with reputation-wasting snares strewn before her, but also owing to any number of reasons related to caste.

Interestingly, Manjula’s academic successes – she ends up with a Master’s degree – offer very little in the way of liberation from her miserable condition. The Indian reality shown here is very different from the Chinese, in which education separates the rulers from the ruled, so that the occasional peasant who earns an academic degree is transformed instantaneously into a mandarin or commissar; and in America, too, education is believed to be the key to general advancement. In Manjula’s case, her Master’s degree makes her technically eligible for certain teaching jobs, but her position at the bottom of society is irredeemable, and the economic advantages are nearly meaningless. The following sort of episode occurs in the book more than once:

On her way to the library one morning, Manjula was accosted by the history department’s peon [Of course! Why wouldn’t the history department have a peon?]. He told her the head of the department wanted to see her.

Professor R.S. Tripathi was old and doddering, but his renown as a historian was such that he was welcome to keep his position at the university as long as he liked. Inside his office, Manjula saw her own instructor, Professor Pathak, sitting to one side with a broad smile on his face. He proudly introduced Manjula as the most brilliant student in his class.

As Professor Tripathi gazed at her, his face darkened; his eyes shrank into black slits. He was revolted by the sight of Manjula. One look at her and he knew she was poor and untouchable….

‘She is the one I told you of,’ Pathak explained. ‘You wanted to meet her.’ But Tripathi merely stared at her coldly and said nothing. Humiliated, Manjula excused herself. (pp. 191-192)

A mind, and an education, is a terrible thing to waste on an outcaste, apparently.

Beyond the degradation of the caste system, Manjula also faces Neanderthal sexism (apologies to Neanderthals for the association). While the men in her family are pampered – her communist brother and man of the people Satyam cannot even button his own shirt – Manjula is essentially a slave. Malnourished and about to give birth to her third child, she is chided by her mother in law for being slow to make her husband a cup of tea; her husband, encouraged by his mother, throws the tea out the window, just after we have seen him throw a radio at her (pp. 242-243). Toward the end of the book, with her Master’s in hand and her family situation finally stable, she is as bad off as she ever was:

Since she and her husband now both had permanent jobs and regular incomes, Manjula had entertained a hope that their financial troubles would finally go away. But that, too, never happened. In Kakinada, she lived as married women commonly do, not only with her husband and his mother and brother, but also his uncles, aunts, cousins, and their spouses and children. At any given time some twenty to twenty-five people lived in two adjoining houses, and as no one else except her, her husband, and her husband’s brother, Percy, was educated and employed, the others all lived off those three salaries. Although the cooking was done by each family separately, when Manjula was at work, the other families would come and pillage her kitchen for rice, lentils, tamarind, chili powder, cooking oil, and kerosene. If they couldn’t find what they wanted, they went to the grocer’s and put it under her account. They stole her saris and bedsheets from the clothesline.  (p. 293)

Even the animal kingdom seems to be against her. At one point, after moving to an apparently comfortable lodging, Manjula and her children are attacked by a cohort of monkeys. Henceforth, they must schedule their activities, particularly food handling, so as not to coincide with the primates’ incursions. (pp. 278-279)

I recommend this book for its educational value. Then, after you are finished reading it, I recommend listening to a lot of Beach Boys and thanking God for the lives that we have.

 

Book Review: The Stolen Bicycle, by Wu Ming-yi

Here is a passage from toward the end of the book:

I rode around [Taipei] but felt I didn’t know her anymore. She keeps on getting renewed, over and over again, as if in a rush to shed some sort of shell, the grotesque, mournful, scandalous past. With each renewal, so many things that shine with an incredible radiance in many people’s memories disappear. I felt a bit sorry and lonely. ‘Yes, this is gone, and that too!’ I could say that on practically every street. (p. 334)

Here is another passage, from more toward the end of the book:

I rode circles around the city, ring upon ring. As the slowest vehicle on the road, I was able to appreciate scenes the others left behind. (p. 359)

These two passages suggest the purpose of The Stolen Bicycle: to recapture, before it’s too late, the “grotesque, mournful, scandalous past,” which has already been erased from view but which yet lingers in memory. Using the protagonist’s father’s lost and found bicycle as a device, Wu Ming-yi embarks on an odyssey through a hundred years of Taiwanese history. His footsteps take us through the provinces of culture, including material culture, language, psychology, and family. The subtle implication of his narrative is that Taiwan is no mere subset of China but a unique mélange of aboriginal, Fujianese, Japanese, postwar Chinese, and Western influences.

Despite the overarching melancholic nostalgia, the tone of The Stolen Bicycle is actually rather positive.  Absent is the entitled, cosmic angst of Western literature, and the element of conflict is likewise missing. Instead, Wu’s narrator copes with bleak reality by cultivating private enthusiasms such as antique collecting and bicycle restoration. Often this sort of occupation leads to camaraderie (say, with fellow junk collectors), creating a sense of fellow travelers if not intimate friendship. Obviously, the attention given to junk collecting in the story points to the larger task of the writer, as he forages through Taiwan’s past; but the feeling  of wandering souls coming together stands in contrast to the strife for its own sake that one often finds in Western novels. (I wonder if some generalizations along these lines might be food for thought.) The passage describing a somewhat paranormal scuba dive in the basement of an old building made it especially difficult not to think of Haruki Murakami. Perhaps Wu’s Taiwan, like Murakami’s Japan, is an outwardly peaceful but historically troubled land, compelling its literary types to become detectives of the past, as a sort of therapy.

I have made a study of Taiwanese literature in recent months and can report that The Stolen Bicycle may be the most accessible recent work to have been translated into English and therefore the most pleasant to read. Many other recent Taiwanese books have been written using experimental methods, like stream of consciousness. The Stolen Bicycle, by contrast, follows a straightforward first person narration, and it is, again, a lot like a detective story. I previewed this book in electronic form, which I don’t generally enjoy, but I found it nearly impossible to stop reading, even on a computer screen. It is jarring, about two-thirds of the way through, when the narrative device switches briefly from bicycles to elephants; but that is a minor complaint. The Stolen Bicycle is a fascinating book about a very special place.