Reading Journal

What I'm reading

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Look Homeward, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists, by Bill Kauffman

Whether you agree with him or not, this is a book worth reading. Kauffman contrasts local, small town America with the patriotic nationalism of the American Empire. The American Empire pursues world power as national policy, and sees people as game pieces in a larger strategy. Kauffman wants our priorities to flip the Empire's order: be concerned first with our families and small communities, and care less and less about what happens as the scale grows larger. For example, why should the people in New London, Iowa (for example) really care about Saddam Hussein? If New Londoners do want to bomb Baghdhad, it's because their focus has been diverted from what should be most important to them - New London, Iowa.

Kauffman, though not an Iowan, spends a lot of time talking about a renaissance in Iowa culture that happened before World War II. It really made me proud to be an Iowan -- this summer I want to see some things in Iowa that I've never seen before. Anyway, apparently in the 1930s Grant Wood and others created distinctive Iowa art, Iowa poetry, and so on. World War II wiped all that out.

Even "good" wars like the Civil War and World War II get harsh treatment from Kauffman.

"His sympathies were for race -- too lofty to descend to persons," a wit once said of the righteously abolitionist senator Charles Sumner. For how else could a man not merely countenance but positively rejoice in the slaughter of his countrymen, not only rebel southerners but noble Robert Gould Shaw and Berkshires boys, too?

Influential men, men of state, their days a blur of movement, retainers at beck and call, come to see others as toadies or supplicants (with the toothsome few laid aside as bed partners). In their eyes we are all expendable. Why was anyone surprised when Ted Kennedy swam away, leaving Mary Jo Kopechne to scream in her air pocket till the water rushed in? Kopechnes serve, and Kennedys are served; Vietnam was just Chappaquiddick with rice paddies. Shut up and die.

Who are these creatures, capable of decreeing... the mass execution of, say, Iraqi children or Vietnamese peasants?

That reminds of what Tolstoy said about Napoleon and the Tsar in War and Peace. Why do people obey when commanded to go kill strangers half a world away?

This was a pretty funny jab at Reagan.
The only compliment more glowing is that a president "made America believe in itself again," as Ronald of Bel Air was said to have done. Indeed, who among us will ever forget where she was at the moment she learned that Grenada had been liberated?

He quotes Nixon "Defending and promoting peace and freedom around the world is a great enterprise. Only by rededicating ourselves to that goal will we remain true to ourselves."

Kauffman's satirical comment on Nixon's words sum up the book:
True to ourselves. You might think you can be true to yourself by raising a family, planting a garden, participating in the life of a small and vital community, writing books about your people's history, building houses or farming land or simply studying with the birds, flowers, trees, God, and yourself, as Dvorak put it -- but you would be wrong. Worse, you would be small, meager, mean, niggardly. The measure of a man's greatness is his willingness to abandon his family and go abroad to murder strangers on behalf of... your guess is as good as mine. Mr. Nixon's "great enterprises," I guess.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser (volume 2)

This book held some surprises for me. First, I was surprised by the amount of female nudity described in it. Remember, it was published in the 1500's during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. It described quite a few "frolics", "lily white paps", "lustie youths" -- well, you get the picture. A faithful screen adaptation would certainly be rated R for both sex and violence.

It proves that Elizabethan England wasn't exactly Puritan. No wonder the Puritans felt unwelcome and came here!

Second, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed all the knight vs. monster fights. He did a great job of making the monsters fearsome, and the battles seem larger than life.

So, now that I'm done, I'm going to miss the world of knights, honor, goodness, and chivalry. I feel somewhat like I did at the end of The Pickwick Papers. If only the world were really like this!

More favoriate passages from The Faerie Queene --

His name was Daunger, dreaded over-all,
Who day and night did watch and duely ward
From fearefull cowards entrance to forstall
And faint-heart-fooles, whom shew of perill hard
Could terrifie from Fortunes faire adward:
For oftentimes faint hearts, at first espiall
Of his grim face, were from approaching scard;
Unworthy they of grace, whom one deniall
Excludes from fairest hope withouten further triall.

Truth, not power, is in the end what should be admired.
...deedes ought not be scand
By th' authors manhood, nor the doers might,
But by their trueth and by the causes right.

I like this quote because he uses a water mill as a metaphor. It makes me picture an English thatched roof scene in a forest somewhere.
Like as a water-streame, whose swelling sourse
Shall drive a Mill, within strong bancks is pent,
And long restrayned of his ready course,
So soone as passage is unto him lent,
Breakes forth, and makes his way more violent;
Such was the fury of Sir Calidor

A knight was not just a warrior, but a virtuous warrior. I admire that ideal.
"For nothing is more blamefull to a knight,
That court'sie doth as well as armes professe,
However strong and fortunate in fight,
Then the reproch of pride and cruelnesse.
In vaine he seeketh others to suppresse,
Who hath not learnd him selfe first to subdew"

Sir Calidore made his Squire take an oath of honor. Wouldn't the world be a better place if young men today swore faith to a knight and truth to Ladies all?
There him he causd to kneele, and made to sweare
Faith to his knight, and truth to Ladies all,
And never to be recreant for feare
Of perill, or of ought that might befall:
So he him dubbed, and his Squire did call.

A shepherd taught Sir Calidore about contentment regardless of circumstances. The shepherd's philosophy reminds me of the Stoic Epicticus.

Interestingly, later in the story this shepherd and his wife are murdered by bandits.
"It is the mynd that maketh good or ill,
That maketh wretch or happie, rich or poore;
For some, that hath abundance at his will,
Hath not enough, but wants in greatest store,
And other, that hath litle, askes no more,
But in that litle is both rich and wise;
For wisedome is most riches: fooles therefore
They are which fortunes doe by vowes devize,
Sith each unto himselfe his life may fortunize."