Saturday, June 30, 2012

Rougon-Macquart: Keeping the Family Straight

Rougon-Macquart family tree (not mine)
As mentioned in my post about The Conquest of Plassans, I have found that the first novel of the Rougon-Macquart cycle (The Fortune of the Rougons) is an important reference for the other novels. Knowing Zola's intent was to explore heredity as a core influence on people's characters and lives, I drew out a family tree while reading The Fortune of the Rougons  to keep all the family relations straight. Zola introduces new characters in later novels of the cycle, and I added them to my tree as I went, however much of the detail about the family is included in the first book.

In addition, I also made a list of the Rougon and Macquart family members Zola depicts in The Fortune of the Rougons and wrote the page numbers from that novel in which they figure. Since many of the members of the family are to be developed by Zola in one or more books of the cycle, there is often only a smattering of information. However, this information is often very useful background to get an idea of where Zola might be headed with each character.

If anyone else out there plans to tackle the Rougon-Macquart cycle, I recommend these two exercises as a  way to keep the characters straight and to create easy access to Zola's introductory information on each member of the family. In this way, The Fortune of the Rougons becomes a reference to help understand Zola's intent with many of the characters. It's been very helpful to me in getting the most out of several of the novels.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Jakob Lindberg - Weiss Lute Music

I like all kinds of music. Everything from rap to classical, bluegrass to IDM, lounge to black metal. However, when I play piano, I only choose classical music. This preference led me to slowly explore classical music. While I could definitely use a music appreciation course to better understand periods and composers, I find myself drawn to music with interesting instrumentation as opposed to standard major composers. Anyway, I thought I would share some of the classical music I've been listening to.

Jakob Lindberg is a lutenist and, on this recording, he performs lute sonatas written by Silvius Leopold Weiss (1687-1750). I became interested in the sound of lute music after hearing one played several years ago. The difference between the sound of a lute and of a guitar (for me) is akin to the difference between a harpsichord and piano. There's a mellower sound that evokes in my mind images of the Renaissance, knights on horseback, and courtly life. I also like the sense of solo musicianship the lute conjures up. It's akin to how I feel when I play piano; it's something that's all mine and I can play and express the music as I wish. There is pleasure in playing and listening at the same time.

What's interesting about this recording is that Lindberg plays these early 18th Century sonatas on a lute that was likely made no later than 1560! This fascinated me. Music hundreds of years old being played by a master on an antique lute! Who doesn't want to own that? This CD is beautiful to listen to, either just lying back and letting it wash over me or during a warm evening with the windows open, a light breeze coming in, a glass of wine, kitty in my lap, and a good hardcover book.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Genghis Khan Exhibit at the Field Museum

Jim and I took off from work yesterday to spend the day together, and we decided to go into the city to see the Genghis Khan exhibit at the Field Museum. It was a beautiful day for the drive and to walk around by the lake.

I didn't know a whole lot about Genghis Khan or his empire prior to going to the exhibit.  The fact that the Mongol Empire was twice as big as the Roman Empire was news to me! Most of my information about the Mongols comes from Henryk Sienkiewicz's Trilogy, where they are portrayed as fierce warriors and a dangerous threat to Europe (which they most certainly were). I also saw the Sergei Bodrov movie Mongol a few years back, which was the first film in a proposed trilogy about the life of Genghis Khan. Not sure how historically accurate that movie is, but it certainly provided a different view of Khan than the ruthless warlord I normally think of when I hear his name.

Anyway, the exhibit was really interesting. There was a reasonable historical flow through his youth, his conquests, his death, what happened when the empire was split between his four sons, and finally some information on modern Mongolia. Short videos throughout provided useful background. While I admit that I was most intrigued by the saddles, weapons, and armor, I liked seeing the example of a yurt they had on display (see picture below). It was also illuminating to hear about the lack of cohesion in Mongolian culture before Khan came along. To bring all these tribes together and then organize them into a working military force was clearly a monumental feat of politics, leadership, and personal charisma.

I would suggest that no one go into this exhibition expecting a trove of artifacts from the period of Khan's life. There is a moderate number of objects and they are worth seeing, however, as Jim pointed out, this was clearly a nomadic society.  It's unlikely they saw much use in creating items to endure the way a more settled culture would. Travelling light was key. In fact, another thing I learned from this exhibit was that the Mongols had no written language until Khan introduced it. His influence on this civilization and the direction it took clearly cannot be overstated, and it's hard to think of another leader who did so much to single-handedly shape his civilization.

I felt like I learned a good deal from the exhibit and not just about the way the Mongols fought (though I did love the descriptions of the nomadic life, their expertise in archery while standing in saddle on a moving horse, and that they'd drink horse blood if food was tight). This exhibit is incapable of making you an expert on Mongolian culture and its people, but it does provide a broad overview and will pique your imagination and curiosity. I was disappointed that the gift shop at the exit didn't have any serious-looking, comprehensive volumes on Mongolian history. There were recipe books, travel guides, and cutesy books for kids, but nothing that looked as though it would appeal to an adult interested in learning more about the man and/or his culture.

Unfortunately, beyond the exhibit, the Field Museum was a disappointment. I hadn't been there since I was a kid and I found it to be a collection of stuff clumped together in thematically unified but jumbled piles. The Egyptian section was really underwhelming in both the chronologically disorganized manner of display and that everything is so dimly lit you can barely see the artifacts. The Oriental Institute - also in Chicago - is a much better museum for an intelligent trip into the past. Maybe Jim and I will go there later this summer!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Emile Zola - 'The Conquest of Plassans'

One of my goals is to read all twenty novels in Emile Zola's Rougon-Macquart cycle. I got through the first five books rapidly, but then took a break to read other things. However, I never assumed I was giving up and I'm back! The Conquest of Plassans is the sixth novel in the cycle (I'm reading them in the order Zola preferred them to be read rather than the order in which he wrote them). This book is interesting in that it combines a focus on religion and politics.

The story concerns the Mourets, Francois and Marthe. These characters are especially significant in Zola's overarching theme of heredity because this is the only instance where a member of the Rougon line (Marthe) marries a member of the illegitimate Macquart line (Francois). As a result, their marriage and the resulting children: Octave, Serge, and Desiree have special thematic significance.

In The Fortune of the Rougons, where Zola lays out the entire family as he depicts the coup d'etat which establishes the Second Republic, Ursule Macquart Mouret (Francois' mother) is given minimal attention. She is sickly and probably suffering from mental defects akin to those of Adelaide Rougon (the matriarch of the Rougon-Macquart family). Zola, however, asserts Francois took his character from his father, a hatter. That said, the hatter Mouret hangs himself when Ursule dies. On the other side, the graft of Pierre and Felicite Rougon - Marthe's parents - has been clearly conveyed by Zola. Even so, Zola draws a clear connection between Marthe and her insane grandmother (Adelaide) in both this book and The Fortune of the Rougons. In both texts, he references the similarity of Marthe and Adelaide's appearance and demeanor.

The mental weaknesses of the Mourets make them easy prey to the central character in The Conquest of Plassans, Abbe Faujas, a priest sent to Plassans by the Republic in order to recapture political control of the town. The novel's plot revolves around his efforts, and he is depicted as calculating and grasping from the start.  No spoilers here, but little conclusion is provided to the stories of Octave and Serge, because they figure prominently in the next three novels of the cycle. Not sure Desiree makes any further appearance or not but, since she is retarded, her presence may simply be a device with which Zola may tacitly comment on the union of the two branches of the family. As to other characters from the family: Felicite plays a key role, Pierre makes a brief appearance or two, and Antoine Macquart (apparently set up by Pierre) plays his disreputable part by making sure their mother remains safely tucked away in her insane asylum. Where Antoine ends up at the conclusion is so blackly humorous that you don't even laugh (especially in the context of the larger points Zola is making). The point of his presence is to depict in one person the futility of what the entire town of Plassans is undergoing en masse.

While I would have to dig deeper to prove my point, I believe this novel is making assessments of religion and politics, and uniting these assessments to show the destructive power religion plays in 'earthly matters'. First, the religion. The way Faujas manipulates Plassans society - and Marthe Mouret in particular - may be a metaphor for the way religion manipulates people in general. All of Faujas' actions in terms of sociability and charity are motivated by his venal character and have nothing to do with religion, yet he is entirely effective because of the cloak of virtue the Church provides. He is the epitome of a wolf in sheep's clothing and he actually torments Marthe, the person who admires him most. This observation could be extended (or perhaps stretched) to include the novel's conclusion, which involves several character dying in a fire (hell?).

The other metaphor I found was in the lawn game played by the town leaders as they discuss candidates for election. The game is searching for a handkerchief hidden by one player, who cries 'hot hot' or 'cold cold' depending on whether the seekers are looking in the right direction or not. The repeated certainty of finding the hidden item, only to hear the cry 'cold cold' is paralleled with the ridiculously arbitrary way in which candidates are proposed, step forward, and are then discarded. It reminded me of the recent Republican Presidential primary with its parade of 'here today, gone tomorrow' candidates.  There is an acute sense of absurdity and caprice to the entire process.

However, the process is being controlled - by Abbe Faujas. He works behind the scenes, using the mask of his kindness and charitable works to slowly move everything in the direction his backer wants (that backer being Eugene Rougon, who is mentioned with the same caution as Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter movies). The power of religion to manipulate people and society becomes a dangerous weapon when society - and the people that compose it - lack the scruples and/or intelligence to make responsible decisions. While the citizens of Plassans broke free of the influence of the Second Republic, they end up in an election between two dictatorial influences: the Second Republic and the Church. In a sick marriage of influence (a mirror of the Mouret marriage?), Faujas is a Church man who is working for the Republic. So the choice is no choice at all and, on top of that, no one really has a say since Faujas is in the driver's seat. In fact, as Pierre and Felicite end up back in control, the entire process has a futility to it that is blackly satirical. Not surprisingly, Zola is painting a very bleak picture behind his plot of parlour room machinations and poisonous afternoon parties. The thematic aspects of the novel are definitely rich.

The plot is good too, and the book certainly moves. However, I found several things wanting in the narrative which could be either Zola's fault or the result of this being a Vizetelly translation (Vizetelly edited his translations to remove anything salacious). First, it is unclear exactly how Faujas attains control over Marthe. The religious angle is certainly presented and the way it affects her makes sense given her heritage, but it's not strong enough to drive dramatic tension. Key here is the sexual innuendo, which is never really clarified. Maybe I'm more curious than I need to be or am expecting things to more explicit than possible but...what 'base' did Faujas get to with Marthe? Secondly, the issues of insanity in the novel are not clearly dealt with. Knowing the back story from The Fortune of the Rougons, having a theme about the impact of religion, and with the prior book in the cycle (The Dream) dealing with religious passion so clearly, I get what's likely going on. Still, this novel would need a stronger narrative in this area to truly stand alone. As such some of these devices come off with little dramatic build and/or seem abrupt. That is disappointing from Zola, because we know from other novels in the cycle that he is a master of depicting the 'slow motion train wreck' in chilling clarity.

The Conquest of Plassans was a strong - but not great - book.  I enjoyed reading it. The cast of characters does require a bit of a road map or you miss some of the politics, but otherwise it was crisp and well-paced. I think what it lacks is that extra dramatic power (or unflinching ethical 'ick factor') that elevates novels like L'Assommoir, The Masterpiece, and Nana into the dizzyingly unpalatable works of genius that they are.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Andre Gide, 'The Immoralist' (1902)

I just finished The Immoralist, my first novel by French avant-garde author Andre Gide (1869 - 1951). He's a brilliant writer (I read the Modern Library edition, translated by Richard Howard).  I enjoyed The Immoralist a great deal, and I plan to read more work by this man who's style and subject matter seems to lay the groundwork for later giants such as Sartre and Camus. By the way, the book was published in 1902 just after Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams and the year before Nietszche published The Will to Power.

Aside from his skill as a writer, Gide's life - even in topline overview - is fascinating. A gay man who enjoyed an active romantic life, despite the bigotry of the time, he married a woman in an apparently asexual relationship. He had a brief affair with Oscar Wilde in 1895. After a period of intellectual inactivity, he founded a literary magazine in 1908. In 1916, when Gide was 47 he left his wife for a 15 year old boy. Their relationship lasted for 11 years, and they travelled through Africa before returning to France. Upon his return, Gide wrote of the cruelty of French colonialism in Africa and helped shape the anti-colonialism movement in France. The young man who was his lover, Marc Allegret, grew to become a successful screenwriter and movie director, producing more than 50 films.

In 1923, Gide had what sounds like a one-night stand with Elisabeth van Rysselberghe. His only sexual experience with a woman, it produced a child and Elisabeth left her husband for Gide despite the relationship not being sexual afterwards and there being no marriage. Elisabeth was the daughter of Theo van Rysselberghe, a well-known artist of the time who did this portrait of Gide in 1907. In the 1930s, Gide endorsed communism, apparently responding to its idealism. However, he became an outspoken critic of the system after being invited to and visiting Soviet Russia. He said after the trip: "No one can begin to imagine the tragedy of humanity, of morality, of religion and of freedoms in the land of communism, where man has been debased beyond belief." His vehement position caused a rift with many members of his avant-garde circle, much as his written endorsement of pederasty drew wider public disapproval.

Rather amusingly, the Catholic Church - an institution known all over the world for immorality and child exploitation - placed all of Gide's works on it's 'Index of Forbidden Books' in 1952...five years after Gide was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Morons.

Anyway, I was drawn to Gide because of his influence on writers like Sartre and Camus, but also because he was openly gay (or as openly gay as you could be at the time). Although The Immoralist is necessarily veiled in its sexuality, Gide's protagonist - Michel - is clearly gay and it's impossible to miss the implication he has an active sex life. From what I understand, all Gide's books deal with themes of freedom of self expression versus societal expectations, a tension any gay man can relate to deeply. I loved reading something that truly addresses an issue of such relevance to me, written by a brilliant and successful gay man who must have felt the difficulty of this issue as much - if not more - than I do/did.

The plot of The Immoralist concerns the awakening of a sickly bookworm to the joys and pleasures of life. As he discovers and pursues his own potential as a man, the freedom and self-determination he attains physically alters him. He turns from a doddering weakling of a boy into a robust, sexy, and sexual man. The focus of his career also shifts - symbolically - from burying himself in the study of ruins and ancient civilizations to trying to understand those civilizations within a modern context. The present means more to him than anything that has occurred before. However, the boundaries of this freedom are ambiguous, and the morality of it remains in question. Michel's exploration of his autonomy ultimately leads to both amazing and chilling truths. For example, his pursuit ends up tiring his ill wife so that she weakens and dies. His reaction leads one to questions of what we owe other human beings as we grow and change.

At the end of The Immoralist Michel has achieved a degree of freedom few of us can hope to attain, yet he has no idea what to do with it. This 'what now?' creates an unbearable psychological crisis. "I am at a moment in my life past which I can no longer see my way," he tells several friends he has summoned to his aid at the start of the book. "The capacity to get free is nothing; the capacity to be free, that is the task." He has no intention of going back and does not regret anything, but this does not make moving forward any easier. Perhaps that is the natural state of true freedom, a sense of uncertainly and angst underlying the joy it brings? If so, why do we pursue it? It's obvious how such questions lead to Sartre and Camus.

Somehow, these questions of freedom seem to resonate more loudly with the subtext of the pseudo-'coming out' story that lives within The Immoralist. Gide's portrayal of Michel's journey is clearly advocating such freedom, but it is also unsparing in presenting the potential implications such freedom has beyond the scope of oneself. Big questions with no easy answers. This was a truly thought-provoking book.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Hawks...and Up to 84 Miles

Photo: jimbophoto
Jim and I went biking this weekend and logged another 24 miles. We're going to push the distance each time out now so we can be sure to get up to around 30 miles a ride.  This ride brings us to 84 miles this season...way, way, way short of what a good season total would be. But then things have just gotten started, and this is actually not bad given the crazy unpredictable weather we've had.

This ride took us from downtown Wheaton up towards Elgin (we actually stopped to turn back at Rte 25 - Stearns Road). The lack of rain has left a lot of the marsh areas really low on water. However, we did see a hawk glide down and roost on a branch. This picture here is a cooper's hawk, but the one we saw could as easily have been a red-tailed hawk.

Now, by themselves, hawk's aren't such an amazing sight (not trying to be jaded, they're just not that uncommon). What made this sighting interesting was that the hawk seemed to be trying to get away from another - larger - bird. The hawk had landed and then made its scree-scree sound. As we passed, I happened to look back and saw a much bigger bird (I'm guessing another hawk) slowly gliding by above the branches just over where the hawk was.

I don't think hawks prey on each other, so perhaps it was a territorial thing. Or maybe the second bird was an egret or a crane or something and was chasing the hawk off.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Kayaking at Rainbow Springs, Florida

As a follow-up to my disastrous first experience kayaking, I felt it would be best to try again in a kayak by myself as the ability to coordinate rowing with others was obviously beyond me.  I was down in Florida to see my parents, and my mom and I went kayaking at Rainbow Springs. Each in our own kayak.

The spring water that feeds the river was crystal clear and the light current left most of the river smooth as glass. As a result, I could see down to the bottom. Plus we were early enough so that the sun wasn't too hot and there weren't a whole ton of people on the river. We saw plenty of fish, foul, loads of sea turtles right at the surface near the kayaks, and even a few otters trolling along the banks of the river.

This time, I did much better. I'm certainly no expert kayaker, but I was able to control my craft and get a good head of speed going when I wanted to.  I definitely had some nice achiness in my shoulders later that evening, so it was a good workout as well. 

With a bit more practice, this is something I could really get into!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Monarch Butterfly Birth

In Florida visiting my parents right now. The house and the plants outside the house are dotted with monarch butterfly chrysalises. They're a lot smaller than I imagined they would be...almost too small to hold these butterflies.

We came home one day and found this butterfly drying its wings just outside its chrysalis, so I snapped a pic.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Mumonkan, Koan 21: Ummon's "Kanshiketsu"

A monk asked Ummon, "What is Buddha?" Ummon replied, "Kanshiketsu!*"
* shit stick - what people back then used as toilet paper

Ummon also appears in Koan 15 ('Tozan's Sixty Blows') and 16 ('When the Bell Sounds'). He seems to be a rather colorful and feisty guy, which may explain why he had such an incredible reputation as a teacher and how he was able to found one of the five schools of Zen.

Anyway, this koan is very much like Koan 18 (Tozan's 'Masagin'). In my entry about that koan, I had mentioned that I'd thought I'd heard a nastier version of 'Masagin'. This koan must be the one I was thinking about!

Koan 18 and 21 are exactly the same, other than the name of the monk who is asked about Buddha and the answer he offers, so the basic interpretations I have are the same. Beyond that, the focus in 'Masagin' may have also been on the possibility of it being easier to have direct perception with something like masagin - or some other mundane object. In 'Kanshiketsu' Ummon' answer suggests something a bit different to me on top of the basic interpretation.

In a good deal of modern Zen writings of the new age flavor, there's stress placed on 'inner peace' and 'oneness' and 'world peace'. There's also tons of accoutrements you can buy at stores that get into that line of thinking: Zen gardens, clothing, pillows, music, gongs, crystals, incense, statues, self-help books, vegan recipes, etc. By saying Buddha is something you wipe your ass with, Ummon reminds us of the raw simplicity of Zen. This is what has led me to avoid - as much as I can manage to do so - the purchase of 'Zen stuff' or adopting 'a Zen lifestyle or diet'. I feel like it's the absolutely wrong way of going about it, innocent as the purchases and intentions may be. It also makes me not avoid necessarily but shy away from talking about Zen too much with people.

Maybe if I think 'shit stick' every time I'm tempted in the wrong direction, then I can completely avoid it altogether!