Tolstoy on History and Causation

When an apple ripens and falls—what makes it fall? Is it that it is attracted to the ground, is it that the stem withers, is it that the sun has dried it up, that it has grown heavier, that the wind shakes it, that the boy standing underneath wants to eat it?

No one thing is the cause. All this is only the coincidence of conditions under which every organic, elemental event of life is accomplished. And the botanist who finds that the apple falls because the cellular tissue degenerates, and so on, will be as right and as wrong as the child who stands underneath and says that the apple fell because he wanted to eat it and prayed for it. As he who says that Napoleon went to Moscow because he wanted to, and perished because Alexander wanted him to perish, will be both right and wrong, so he will be right and wrong who says that an undermined hill weighing a million pounds collapsed because the last worker struck it a last time with his pick. In historical events the so-called great men are labels that give the event a name, which, just as with labels, has the least connection of all with the event itself.

Their every action, which to them seems willed by themselves, in the historical sense is not willed, but happens in connection with the whole course of history and has been destined from before all ages.

Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace (Vintage Classics) , translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, Danilo Kiš

What is it? What’s it about?

A Tomb for Boris Davidovich is a collection of seven short stories by Danilo Kiš written in 1976 . The stories are based on historical events and deal with themes of political deception, betrayal, and murder in Eastern Europe during the first half of the 20th century (except for “Dogs and Books” which takes place in 14th century France). Several of the stories are written as fictional biographies wherein the main characters interact with historical figures.

wikipedia

davidovich (2)

Excerpt:

Like so many provincial children, the pharmacist’s son, Karl Taube, dreamed about that happy day when, through the thick lenses of his glasses, he would see his town from the bird’s-eye view of departure and for the last time, as one looks through a magnifying glass at dried out and absurd yellow butterflies from one’s school collection: with sadness and disgust.

In the autumn of 1920, at Budapest’s Eastern Station he boarded the first-class car of the Budapest-Vienna Express. The moment the train pulled out, the young Karl Taube waved once more to his father (who was disappearing like a dark blot in the distance, waving his silk handkerchief), then quickly carried his leather suitcase into the third-class car and sat down among the workers.

What did you think?
It had some poetic writing, but as far as storytelling it left me bored. It was hard to follow and it lacked continuity.

Note what wikipedia said: “Several of the stories are written as fictional biographies.” That technique was why it was hard to follow. Also, this is the second book in a row that I’ve read that did this fictional form thing. The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum was a fictional investigative report. Both of them leave out character introductions and make reference to things the reader is assumed to know.

Thumbs up or thumbs down?
Thumbs down from me dawg.

Desultory Notes International Book Club

Welcome to Vietnam

That night we had an alert. I found out later it was just a probe on the perimeter, but I didn’t know this while it was going on and neither did anyone else. The airfield had already been hit by sappers. People had been killed, several planes and helicopters blown up. It could happen again. You know that an attack is “just a probe” only after it’s over. I stood outside with other fresh arrivals and watched bellowing, half-dressed men run by in different directions. Trucks raced past, some with spinning lights like police cruisers. Between the high, excited bursts of M-16 fire I could hear heavy machine guns pounding away, deep and methodical. Flares popped overhead. They covered everything in a cold, quivering light.

No one came to tell us what was going on. We hadn’t received our issue of combat gear, so we had no weapons or ammunition, no flak jackets, not even a steel helmet. We were helpless. And nobody knew or cared. They had forgotten about us—more to the point, forgotten about me. In this whole place not one person was thinking of me, thinking, Christ, I better take a run over there and see how Lieutenant Wolff is doing! No. I wasn’t on anybody’s mind. And I understood that this was true not only here but in every square inch of this country. Not one person out there cared whether I lived or died. Maybe some tender hearts cared in the abstract, but it was my fate to be a particular person, and about me as a particular person there was an undeniable, comprehensive lack of concern.

Wolff, Tobias. In Pharaoh’s Army

Castle Building, Two Types – C.S. Lewis

A pleasing imaginative construction entertained incessantly, and to his injury, by the patient, but without the delusion that it is a reality. A waking dream—known to be such by the dreamer—of military or erotic triumphs, of power or grandeur, even of mere popularity, is either monotonously reiterated or elaborated year by year. It becomes the prime consolation, and almost the only pleasure, of the dreamer’s life. Into ‘this invisible riot of the mind, this secret prodigality of being’ he retires whenever the necessities of life set him free. Realities, even such realities as please other men, grow insipid to him. He becomes incapable of all the efforts needed to achieve a happiness not merely notional. The dreamer about limitless wealth will not save sixpence. The imaginary Don Juan will take no pains to make himself ordinarily agreeable to any woman he meets. I call this activity Morbid Castle-building.

The same activity indulged in moderately and briefly as a temporary holiday or recreation, duly subordinated to more effective and outgoing activities. Whether a man would be wiser to live with none of this at all in his life, we need not perhaps discuss, for no one does. Nor does such reverie always end in itself. What we actually do is often what we dreamed of doing. The books we write were once books which, in a day-dream, we pictured ourselves writing—though of course never quite so perfect. I call this Normal Castle-building.

Lewis, C. S.. An Experiment in Criticism (pp. 51-52).

The Power of the Press, Ted Conover on the Impact of Newjack

Did my book result in any reforms in the corrections system? I like to think so, but I’m sure of only one. In Newjack I describe B-Block, the immense building where I worked. Housing six hundred inmates, it is one of the largest freestanding cellblocks in the world. Horrific and very dim inside, it seemed as if the windows hadn’t been washed in fifty years. I included that detail in the book. The wife of a B-Block inmate sent me an e-mail after visiting her husband and wrote, “My husband just wanted you to know that a month after your book came out, they washed the windows.”

So there’s the power of the press for you.

Ted Conover, on his book Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, quote taken from Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University

Why Hunt Moby Dick? Starbuck and Ahab Discussion.

“Vengeance on a dumb brute!” cried Starbuck, “that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.”

“Hark ye yet again— the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event— in the living act, the undoubted deed— there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines. Take off thine eye! more intolerable than fiends’ glarings is a doltish stare! So, so; thou reddenest and palest; my heat has melted thee to anger-glow. But look ye, Starbuck, what is said in heat, that thing unsays itself. There are men from whom warm words are small indignity. I meant not to incense thee. Let it go. Look! see yonder Turkish cheeks of spotted tawn— living, breathing pictures painted by the sun.

The Pagan leopards— the unrecking and unworshipping things, that live; and seek, and give no reasons for the torrid life they feel! The crew, man, the crew! Are they not one and all with Ahab, in this matter of the whale? See Stubb! he laughs! See yonder Chilian! he snorts to think of it. Stand up amid the general hurricane, thy one tost sapling cannot, Starbuck! And what is it? Reckon it. ‘Tis but to help strike a fin; no wondrous feat for Starbuck. What is it more? From this one poor hunt, then, the best lance out of all Nantucket, surely he will not hang back, when every foremast-hand has clutched a whetstone. Ah! constrainings seize thee; I see! the billow lifts thee! Speak, but speak!— Aye, aye! thy silence, then, that voices thee. (Aside) Something shot from my dilated nostrils, he has inhaled it in his lungs. Starbuck now is mine; cannot oppose me now, without rebellion.”

“God keep me!— keep us all!” murmured Starbuck, lowly.

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick: or, the White Whale

FOMO and Chekhov

When I first heard the expression “FOMO” (Fear of Missing Out), I immediately thought of Chekhov. He based his entire life’s philosophy on questioning our obsession with comparing ourselves to others, imagining how richer our lives would be if only we had taken a different path and daydreaming about how someone somewhere else must have it better than we do.

This quality is summed in the refrain of “Moscow! Moscow! Moscow!” in Three Sisters, where the protagonists constantly hunger for life in a city they can barely remember and are completely unable to see that the good life they are actually missing out on is the life that is going on around them.

The Weirdos of Russian Literature On the Foibles of Genius, From Tolstoy to Akhmatova
Viv Groskop, Literary Hub

Fernando Pessoa visits a barbershop and reflects. Book of Disquiet quote.

“I went into the barbershop as usual, with the pleasant sensation of entering a familiar place, easily and naturally. New things are distressing to my sensibility; I’m at ease only in places where I’ve already been.

After I’d sat down in the chair, I happened to ask the young barber, occupied in fastening a clean, cool cloth around my neck, about his older colleague from the chair to the right, a spry fellow who’d been sick. I didn’t ask this because I’d felt obliged to ask something; it was the place and my memory that sparked the question. ‘He passed away yesterday,’ flatly answered the barber’s voice behind me and the linen cloth as his fingers withdrew from the final tuck of the cloth in between my shirt collar and my neck. The whole of my irrational good mood abruptly died, like the eternally missing barber from the adjacent chair. A chill swept over all my thoughts. I said nothing.

Nostalgia! I even feel it for people and things that were nothing to me, because time’s fleeing is for me an anguish, and life’s mystery is a torture. Faces I habitually see on my habitual streets – if I stop seeing them I become sad. And they were nothing to me, except perhaps the symbol of all life.

The nondescript old man with dirty gaiters who often crossed my path at nine-thirty in the morning… The crippled seller of lottery tickets who would pester me in vain… The round and ruddy old man smoking a cigar at the door of the tobacco shop… The pale tobacco shop owner… What has happened to them all, who because I regularly saw them were a part of my life? Tomorrow I too will vanish from the Rua da Prata, the Rua dos Douradores, the Rua dos Fanqueiros. Tomorrow I too – I this soul that feels and thinks, this universe I am for myself – yes, tomorrow I too will be the one who no longer walks these streets, whom others will vaguely evoke with a ‘What’s become of him?’ And everything I’ve done, everything I’ve felt and everything I’ve lived will amount merely to one less passer-by on the everyday streets of some city or other.”

Pessoa, Fernando. The Book of Disquiet (Penguin Modern Classics) .

What did you read in translation over the past year?

Prisoner of the Caucasus, Tolstoy
The Forged Coupon, Tolstoy
Galileo, Brecht
Inferno, Dante
In the Penal Colony, Kafka
The Marquise of O, Kleist
Madame Bovary, Flaubert
Pierre Menard, Borges
Diary of a Madman, Tolstoy
The Iliad, Homer
Miss Julie, Strindberg
Ghosts, Ibsen
The Cafeteria, Singer
My Life, Chekhov
Wittgenstein’s Nephew, Bernhard

Past year – beginning of summer 2018 to beginning of summer 2019.

Kitchen sink realism

Kitchen sink realism (or kitchen sink drama) is a British cultural movement that developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s in theatre, art, novels, film, and television plays, whose protagonists usually could be described as “angry young men” who were disillusioned with modern society. It used a style of social realism, which depicted the domestic situations of working class Britons, living in cramped rented accommodation and spending their off-hours drinking in grimy pubs, to explore controversial social and political issues ranging from abortion to homelessness. The harsh, realistic style contrasted sharply with the escapism of the previous generation’s so-called “well-made plays”.

List of films
Look Back in Anger (1959)
Room at the Top (1959)
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)
The Entertainer (1960)
A Taste of Honey (1961)
A Kind of Loving (1962)
The L-Shaped Room (1962)
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)
This Sporting Life (1963)
Billy Liar (1963)
Sparrows Can’t Sing (1963)[11]
The Leather Boys (1964)
This is My Street (1964)
Alfie (1966)
Georgy Girl (1966)[12]
The Family Way (1966)
Poor Cow (1967)
Up the Junction (1968)
Kes (1969)
Bronco Bullfrog (1969)[13]
Spring and Port Wine (1970)

List of plays
Look Back In Anger (1956)
My Flesh, My Blood (Radio play, 1957)
A Taste Of Honey (1958)
Sparrers Can’t Sing (1960)
Alfie (1963)
Up the Junction (TV play, 1965)
Cathy Come Home (TV play, 1966)

via wikipedia

Thomas Bernhard – Mr Restless

“Once in Nathal I ask myself what I am doing here, and I ask myself the same question when I arrive in Vienna. Basically, like nine tenths of humanity, I always want to be somewhere else, in the place I have just fled from. In recent years, this condition has, if anything, become worse: I go to and from Vienna at diminishing intervals, and from Nathal I will often to to some other big city, to Venice or Rome and back, or to Prague and back. The truth is that I am happy only when I am sitting in the car, between the place I have just left and the place I am driving to. I am happy only when I am traveling; when I arrive, no matter where, I am suddenly the unhappiest person imaginable. Basically I am one of those people who cannot bear to be anywhere and are happy only between places.”

Bernhard, Thomas, Wittgenstein’s Nephew 

The Art of the Probable: Literature and Probability – Course Description

“The Art of the Probable” addresses the history of scientific ideas, in particular the emergence and development of mathematical probability. But it is neither meant to be a history of the exact sciences per se nor an annex to, say, the Course 6 curriculum in probability and statistics. Rather, our objective is to focus on the formal, thematic, and rhetorical features that imaginative literature shares with texts in the history of probability. These shared issues include (but are not limited to): the attempt to quantify or otherwise explain the presence of chance, risk, and contingency in everyday life; the deduction of causes for phenomena that are knowable only in their effects; and, above all, the question of what it means to think and act rationally in an uncertain world.

MITOPENCOURSEWARE

The Best of Simple, by Langston Hughes

Who Is Simple?

I CANNOT truthfully state, as some novelists do at the beginnings of their books, that these stories are about “nobody living or dead.” The facts are that these tales are about a great many people—although they are stories about no specific persons as such. But it is impossible to live in Harlem and not know at least a hundred Simples, fifty Joyces, twenty-five Zaritas, a number of Boyds, and several Cousin Minnies—or reasonable facsimiles thereof.

“Simple Speaks His Mind” had hardly been published when I walked into a Harlem cafe one night and the proprietor said, “Listen, I don’t know where you got that character, Jesse B. Semple, but I want you to meet one of my customers who is just like him.” He called to a fellow at the end of the bar. “Watch how he walks,” he said, “exactly like Simple. And I’ll bet he won’t be talking to you two minutes before he’ll tell you how long he’s been standing on his feet, and how much his bunions hurt—just like your book begins.”

The barman was right. Even as the customer approached, he cried, “Man, my feet hurt! If you want to see me, why don’t you come over here where I am? I stands on my feet all day.”

“And I stand on mine all night,” said the barman. Without me saying a word, a conversation began so much like the opening chapter in my book that even I was a bit amazed to see how nearly life can be like fiction—or vice versa.

Forward to The Best of Simple, Langston Hughes

A Christmas Carol – Jacob Marley visits Ebenezer Scrooge

Scrooge fell upon his knees, and clasped his hands before his face.
“Mercy!” he said, “Dreadful apparition, why do you trouble me?”
“Man of the worldly mind!” replied the Ghost, “do you believe in me or not?”
“I do,” said Scrooge. “I must. But why do spirits walk the earth, and why do they come to me?”
“It is required of every man,” the Ghost returned, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world—oh, woe is me!—and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!”
The spectre raised a cry, and shook its chain and wrung its shadowy hands.
“You are fettered,” said Scrooge, trembling. “Tell me why?”
“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?”
Scrooge trembled more and more. Continue reading A Christmas Carol – Jacob Marley visits Ebenezer Scrooge

Revelation, by Flannery O’Connor – beautiful clock

The short story, Revelation, by Flannery O’Connor, starts off with a Mrs Turpin in a doctor’s waiting room with her husband Claud…

“That’s a beautiful clock,” she said and nodded to her right. It was a big wall clock, the face encased in a brass sunburst.

“Yes, it’s very pretty,” the stylish lady said agreeably. “And right on the dot too,” she added, glancing at her watch.

The ugly girl beside her cast an eye upward at the clock, smirked, then looked directly at Mrs. Turpin and smirked again. Then she returned her eyes to her book. She was obviously the lady’s daughter because, although they didn’t look anything alike as to disposition, they both had the same shape of face and the same blue eyes. On the lady they sparkled pleasantly but in the girl’s seared face they appeared alternately to smolder and to blaze.

This is what I imagined, more or less, based on clocks I had seen in real life, or on TV. I think there was a vogue for this sort of thing in the 60’s and 70’s.

Revelation Clock --vintage-clocks-antique-clocks

To my mind it is kind of loud and garish. Does Mrs. Turpin really think it’s beautiful or is she just making conversation? Where’s her head at?

Mark Winegardner references this scene in the essay – Learning to Lie: An Exercise in Details, which was in the book Naming the World and other Exercises for the Creative Writer.

Herzog looks back on his youth

My ancient times. Remoter than Egypt. No dawn, the foggy winters. In darkness the bulb was lit. The stove was cold. Papa shook the grates, and raised an ashen dust…

Napoleon Street, rotten, toylike, crazy and filthy, riddled, flogged with harsh weather – the bootlegger’s boys reciting ancient prayers. To this Moses’s heart was attached with great power. Here was a wider range of human feelings than he had ever again been able to find.

Herzog, Saul Bellow

Henry James’s style – three specimens.

“Seated at my own table in clear noonday light I saw a person whom, without my previous experience, I should have taken at the first blush for some housemaid who might have stayed at home to look after the place and who, availing herself of rare relief from observation and of the schoolroom table and my pens, ink, and paper, had applied herself to the considerable effort of a letter to her sweetheart.”
The Turn of the Screw

“One day, however, a visitor had arrived. The two young persons, after spending an hour on the river, strolled back to the house and perceived Lord Warburton sitting under the trees and engaged in conversation, of which even at a distance the desultory character was appreciable, with Mrs. Touchett. He had driven over from his own place with a portmanteau and had asked, as the father and son often invited him to do, for a dinner and a lodging. Isabel, seeing him for half an hour on the day of her arrival, had discovered in this brief space that she liked him; he had indeed rather sharply registered himself on her fine sense and she had thought of him several times. She had hoped she should see him again–hoped too that she should see a few others. Gardencourt was not dull; the place itself was sovereign, her uncle was more and more a sort of golden grandfather, and Ralph was unlike any cousin she had ever encountered–her idea of cousins having tended to gloom. Then her impressions were still so fresh and so quickly renewed that there was as yet hardly a hint of vacancy in the view. But Isabel had need to remind herself that she was interested in human nature and that her foremost hope in coming abroad had been that she should see a great many people.”
Portrait of a Lady

“He met you as if you had knocked and he had bidden you enter. Strether, who hadn’t seen him for so long an interval, apprehended him now with a freshness of taste, and had perhaps never done him such ideal justice. The head was bigger, the eyes finer, than
they need have been for the career; but that only meant, after all, that the career was itself expressive. What it expressed at midnight in the gas-glaring bedroom at Chester was that the subject of it had, at the end of years, barely escaped, by flight in time, a general nervous collapse. But this very proof of the full life, as the full life was understood at Milrose, would have made to Strether’s imagination an element in which Waymarsh could have floated easily had he only consented to float. Alas nothing so little resembled floating as the rigour with which, on the edge of his bed, he hugged his posture of prolonged impermanence. It suggested to his comrade something that always, when kept up, worried him–a person established in a railway-coach with a forward inclination. It represented the angle at which poor Waymarsh was to sit through the ordeal of Europe.”
The Ambassadors

Johannes Gutenberg

220px-Gutenberg

Johannes Gutenberg, c. 1400 – February 3, 1468 was a German blacksmith, goldsmith, printer, and publisher who introduced printing to Europe with the printing press. His introduction of mechanical movable type printing to Europe started the Printing Revolution and is regarded as a milestone of the second millennium, ushering in the modern period of human history. It played a key role in the development of the Renaissance, Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment, and the scientific revolution and laid the material basis for the modern knowledge-based economy and the spread of learning to the masses.

via https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johannes_Gutenberg