Books 2012


Jan Assmann:
     Moses the Egyptian
William Boyd:
     Stars and Bars
Mark Twain:
     The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Thomas Hardy:
     Jude the Obscure
John Steinbeck:
     The Grapes of Wrath
Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner:
     The Gilded Age
W. Somerset Maugham:
     Of Human Bondage
Régis-Evariste Huc:
     Lamas of the Western Heavens
     The Bhagavad Gita
G.E.R. LLoyd:
     Greek Science
H.E. Bates:
     The Darling Buds of May
Neil MacGregor:
     A History of the World in 100 Objects
W. Somerset Maugham:
     Rain and Other South Sea Stories
William Faulkner:
     As I Lay Dying
Thomas Hardy:
     The Mayor of Casterbridge
Mark Twain:
     Is Shakespeare Dead?
Harriet Beecher Stowe:
     Uncle Tom's Cabin
Josiah Henson:
     His Life
Jon Ronson:
     The Psychopath Test
Martin Suter:
     Der letzte Weynfeldt
Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides:
     The Greek Tragedies
Ian McEwan:
John le Carré:
     A Most Wanted Man
Mark Twain:
     Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Sara Gruen:
     Water for Elephants
Richard Ollard:
Geraldine Brooks:
Thomas Hardy:
     The Return of the Native
     Two on a Tower
H. G. Wells:
Stephan Greenblatt:
     The Swerve

Moses the Egyptian, by Jan Assmann

     This was a Christmas present from an Egyptologist relative in Heidelberg. The great figure there is the author, Professor Jan Assmann. The book, with the subtitle "The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism", is extremely learned, with 48 pages of notes and references at the end. A difficult, academic book to read.
    But as anyone who has visited a modern-day bookshop can plainly see, the bookshelves of the world, particularly those marked esoteric, are filled with countless volumes concerned with the religion of ancient Egypt; its relationship to modern religions, to esoteric theories, to secret societies, and all sorts of other things which are of little interest to me. Thus it is surely a brave step for a respected professor of Egyptology to add another volume to this overflowing fountain of religious speculation.
    Perhaps also for this reason, the text is filled with even more complicated words and difficult sentence constructions than is normally the case to be found in an academic work. This book is not a translation from Assmann's native German. Instead he wrote it in English, thanking a colleague who is a native speaker of English for correcting his text. As an illustration of the problems which might arise, I noticed that towards the beginning, when dealing with the concept of "cultural memory", it is said that somebody named Siegfried Morenz "spoke of the "Lebenszusammenhang" of Egypt-Antiquity-Occident. Then in parenthesis, the German word is translated by Assmann into the English "vital coherence", an expression which, if having any meaning at all for a native English speaker, would certainly be very much at variance with the meaning of the German word. But I suppose it is silly to quibble too much about such things.
    The subject of the book is something which has been the subject of many investigations starting in the ancient world (such authors as Strabo are extensively quoted), through countless renaissance authors such as John Spencer, and ending with Sigmund Freud, with his last published book "Moses and Monotheism". The idea is that in the Bible, the character Moses leads his people out of Egypt through various travails, then gets up onto his Mount, and proclaims huge numbers of commandments, many of which seem to be quite strange. Upon closer examination, one finds that most of these commandments (there are of course many more than 10, as anybody who is actually prepared to read the Bible can easily verify) - and especially the first one - are simply concerned with prohibiting what was usual in Egypt and encouraging what was prohibited in Egypt. That is to say, according to the Bible, everything Egyptian is forbidden, taboo, impure. And on the other hand, the Children of the God of the Bible are instructed to do things which within the ancient Egyptian culture would themselves be forbidden, impure. From the Egyptian point of view, we have the writings of Manetho, writing a history for Ptolemy II in the third century B.C.E. There he explains that Egypt wanted to cleanse itself of the lepers, who were expelled to Israel, and they were led there by a priest of Helios, namely Osarsiph, who, for some reason is our Moses of Biblical fame.
    So was Moses really an Israelite, or was he an Egyptian priest (and the one place in the Bible where this is asserted is in 7:22 of the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament), or is all of this just a lot of mystical nonsense designed to get people to start fighting with one another?
    Of course the name "Moses" is obviously Egyptian. For example we have the various kings named "Tuthmosis", and so forth. According to Assmann, the word moses means "son" or "son of".
    Then there is the interesting case of Akhenaten (ca. 1350 B.C.E.), the husband of Nefertiti and father of Tutankhamen. He shocked his people by declaring that all of their religion was illegal, and instead it must be replaced by his new, monotheistic religion of Aten. No more of this absurd afterlife nonsense. Instead we have the reality of Nature, the real world. All these horrible priests should be driven out of their temples.
    Yes, a very good idea!
    So do we have the equation Akhenaten = Moses? Or at least (The High Priest of Akhenaten) = Moses? You can go into lots of bookshops, or examine the archives of, and find countless books "proving" such hypotheses. But of course Jan Assmann is above such things. In reality, the memory of Akhenaten was quickly stamped out of Egypt, perhaps only living on in a kind of "cultural subconscious". In any case, this is the basis of the idea that the high priests of Egypt guarded a "secret" knowledge about the oneness of Nature, and that Moses belonged to such a caste.
    The most interesting theory was that of Freud, working on the idea that all of religion is nothing but a mass hysteria, or neurosis. It was all part of a cultural Oedipus complex. Namely, in the primitive world, the tribes of those simple creatures were dominated by the prime male - the "father" - who had the mating rights with all the females of the tribe. But then, as this father figure aged and his sons grew in strength, they killed the father so that they could also mate with the females. In this interpretation, Moses was the father who was killed by the Children of Israel. Thus the hysteria of religion is a symptom of the suppressed cultural guilt of this original murder. Freud published his book in 1937, perhaps with the hope of doing something to make people understand the hysteria which was about to lead to the catastrophe of the concentration camps. How sad and helpless all of this seems today.

    But what is the true origin of religion? Why are there so many books on the subject, and why is it the cause of so much human conflict and misery?
    While a book such as this is interesting as a history of many of the myths which people have been telling one another down through the ages, it is not concerned with the basic cause of the illness. And that has nothing to do with the details of all of these myths. Assmann says that before Akhenaten, the various gods were common to all people. You had a god of thunder, of the winds, of the sun, and so forth. And while one tribe had one name for them, and another tribe had a different name, the people could simply agree that it was sensible to translate one name into another to denote the same thing. And so people lived happily ever after in peace with one another up until the unfortunate time that Akhenaten brought in this monotheistic thing. Such may be the view of the historian, with all his texts in ancient learned languages.
    But by studying such texts we only learn of the folly of mankind, not its cause. Years ago I read a most interesting book named "Games of Life", by Karl Sigmund. There he shows how the behavior of interacting organisms can be modeled using computer simulations. And the question is, what is the most successful strategy for survival? The answer is quite interesting. Basically speaking, the best strategy is "tit for tat", or to use the Biblical term "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" (see Moses on the Mount for this). Going beyond this, the strategies become more refined, and we find that the optimal strategy for survival incorporates most of what we think of as "moral" behavior.
    It is also a very successful strategy to form groups, or cliques within the whole population, mutually defending one another and aggressively competing with other groups. Religion is one method - perhaps the primary method amongst human beings - of defining such groups. Thus religion is not some sort of neurosis which can be cured by means of a cultural psychoanalysis. Instead it is a means of expressing a basic property of life. In the jungle, or wherever primitive people lived, such mutually aggressive cliques could live their lives in continuous conflict, such as they were. But in the civilized world, the myths of religion obscure the catastrophe to which they lead.

Stars and Bars, by William Boyd

     A funny book about a character named Henderson Dores, an Englishman in the U.S.A. He is an expert on impressionist paintings for an English auction house. An eccentric person in the Deep South - Georgia - has some paintings he would like to sell. It is hoped that by selling them, the New York branch of the auction house will become firmly established in the New York art scene. Thus Henderson is sent down south.
    It's a complicated story. Many laughs, but often a bit drastic. I couldn't put the book down. These books by William Boyd are always enjoyable. In the end, things become rather chaotic, and the whole situation remains unresolved, up in the air. Like a Hollywood movie.
    Indeed, looking at William Boyd's Internet site, I see that there was a movie made of the book. Unfortunately it only seems to be available as a VHS tape, not a DVD. But we threw our defective VHS player into the garbage years ago. A shame, since I would have enjoyed seeing the movie.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain

     This Christmas we were given a Kindle ebook reader. I wouldn't have taken such a step by myself, but now we do have it. According to the hype, reading such "electronic ink" is just as pleasant and easy on the eyes as is reading printed words on real paper. Well, the letters on the screen are not as sharp as printed letters, and also there are only two basic fonts (together with the italic versions). Also the screen is grayish, not like the nice clear white of paper. And light reflects from the glass of the screen, so you sometimes have to hold it at an angle to avoid the glare. On the other hand, since the screen is passive it uses very little electricity, so that the battery holds its charge for a long time. And of course by avoiding paper, fewer trees are chopped down in comparison with the situation if people buy the paper book. Another good thing is that it has dictionaries in various languages integrated into the device, so that if a word is unclear, you simply move the cursor over to that word, and the dictionary entry is immediately shown. And then it is possible to change the size of the type, so that for people with weak eyes, a very large typeface can be chosen.
    We were also given a 100 euro gift certificate for, with the recommendation that we immediately download a certain humorous Swedish novel in its translation into German. Thus our credit with amazon was decreased to 90 euros or so, and I started reading that book. But I must admit that after a couple of chapters, I rather got bored with it. So then I decided to have a look at the Project Gutenberg collection of books. These are older books whose copyright has expired so that they can be freely transmitted. And I see that many of them are offered in the Kindle format. Having no real idea about where to look, I saw that they list the 100 most popular books in the last 24 hours, or last 30 days, or whatever.
    The most popularly downloaded book in is the Kama Sutra. Having a quick look at the html version for normal computers, just now, as I write this, I see that it does not appear to include illustrations. It has a very modest size of only 418 kilobytes. Yet the Kindle versions are smaller: 255 kilobytes, and for the version with illustrations it is 259 kilobytes. Thus I suspect that eager downloaders, looking for titillating pictures to accompany the text, might be disappointed by the fact that they add a mere 4 kilobytes to the volume of the book.
    The second most popular book is The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which I listened to as an audio-book a year or two ago. The third most popular one is Dickens' Christmas Carol, which we read out to one another in our reading circle recently. And the fourth book is Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Downloading it into the Kindle, it starts off by saying that it continues the story which was started in the earlier book about Tom Sawyer. (Which is Gutenberg's 14th most popular book.) Thus I downloaded that, and started to read.
    If anybody does happen to read this and then happen to think it would be a nice idea to read the Gutenberg Tom Sawyer, then let me tell you that you should download the version with illustrations. In fact, the normal html version does have the illustrations, and they are much clearer on the computer screen in comparison with the Kindle screen. The Kindle is really rather weak when trying to reproduce illustrations.

    But the book itself was an enjoyable read. Having read it now, I am sure that I didn't read it as a child. Mark Twain begins by telling the reader that it is for children, but he hopes that grown-ups might enjoy it too. He tells us that the characters of the children in the story are taken from his observations of the children he knew, growing up on the banks of the upper reaches of Mississippi, north of the Deep South. The one point which raised a question in my mind was at the end, where Tom and Huck discover the treasure which was hidden away in the cave by Injun Joe. Obviously it was stolen property and was thus not lawfully theirs. Nevertheless, the story ends with them openly displaying their riches to the authorities in the town, and nobody objects to them keeping the treasure. If it were a grown-up story, the end would not be quite so sanguine.
    The greatest thing about the book is the illustrations. I didn't count them. There must have been at least 50, all very beautifully executed. I would recommend that you have a quick look at the first few illustrations by following the link I have given above. The first is a portrait of Tom Sawyer. How different this picture is in comparison with the Walt Disney - Hollywood version! How America has changed in the 150 years between the publication of this book and today. The illustrations transport us back into a world of bygone times. Was it a better world?

Jude the Obscure, by Thomas Hardy

     Looking further in, I thought I'd try a slightly more "grown-up" book, and so downloaded this one. Long ago, as a student, I did read Far from the Madding Crowd, but I can hardly remember what it was about. Jude the Obscure was the last book Hardy wrote. It was published in 1895 (yet Hardy lived on until 1928). According to the Wikipedia article on Thomas Hardy, this book has some relationship to the life of the author. Hardy was born into modest circumstances, and thus he was denied the education he desired, never achieving a university education. Also his wife became increasingly carried away with morbid religious superstition. And in his early life, he was an architect.
    The Jude of this book was born into very much more straightened circumstances. Everything takes place in Wessex, which of course no longer exists in England. In medieval times, much of the south-west portion of England was the Kingdom of the West Saxons, or Wessex. (Essex was the Kingdom of the East Saxons, but apparently that was a rather obscure kingdom in old England. The true center of the Saxons was around the state of Lower Saxony, whose capital is Hanover in today's Germany. For some reason which I don't understand, the present state of Saxony is over in the eastern part of Germany where Dresden and Leipzig are. But in medieval times, that territory was occupied by the tribe of the Thuringians. During the Saxon Wars around the year 800, all of this pleasant tribal life was brought to an abrupt end by Charlemagne, who imposed his cruel, oppressive Christian rule.)
    Anyway, in Thomas Hardy's novels, this Wessex is a kind of parallel, imaginary England, where the towns correspond with real towns, yet they have have different names. The Wikipedia article gives a table for translating these names. Thus, for example, we have the correspondences Oxford = "Christminster", Salisbury = "Melchester", Shaftesbury = "Shaston", and so forth.
    The plot of the book is well summarized here. The story has been filmed, most recently in a version with Kate Winslet playing the role of Sue, Jude's almost, but not quite, wife. But when reading the book, my picture of Sue was of a thin, nervous, flighty person, the opposite of the sensual, earthy Kate Winslet.
    I very much enjoyed the book. It's written in a very direct way, describing things - basic human emotions - which still exist today, but now sometimes wrapped in different forms. Thomas Hardy shows how religion, and the institution of marriage as sanctified by religion, may lead to tragedy. Of course the church in late Victorian England condemned the book, even to the point of having it burned. The reaction against it was so great that Hardy wrote no more books in his lifetime.

The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

     An unpleasant, dismal story. Much worse than the movie with Henry Fonda. We follow the Joad family from their small, indebted farm in Oklahoma, along Route 66 in a dilapidated jalopy, to their end in the inhuman, rapacious cynicism of Southern California in the 1930s. The book is a long, tedious read, filled with unpleasant dialogue. I had the impression that at least 50% of it consisted of this dialogue. Opening the book at random just now, my eye happened to find the following fragment, spoken by the "Ma" character.
"Didn't none of these here have no breakfast?"
    And the answer from the children:
"We et good. We're a-goin' south to-night."
    And so on.
Now it is true that when reading these words, I knew immediately what the first sentence was supposed to mean, just as did the children. Nevertheless, when the question is written out more clearly, namely: "Did none of these here not have no breakfast?", then I think that the overabundance of negations serves to make the whole thing almost incomprehensible. It would be a challenging problem on an I.Q. test to inquire as to whether a yes or a no answer - or something else - would be required in order to convey the information that at least some of the children did, in fact, have breakfast.
    The fact that this book is a classic obviously rests not on the elegance of its prose. Rather it is the shocking state to which the Midwestern farmers in the story are reduced, and the thought that their story was shared by many during the Great Depression.
    According to the story - and perhaps it was true in real life - the large land holders of Southern California distributed hundreds of thousands of printed advertisements to the destitute farmers of the Midwest, saying that there would be many well paid jobs for fruit picking. The cynical motive was to flood the country with hoards of desperate, starving people, willing to work for almost nothing. These people, the "Okies", were to be kept under control by brutal bands of police and militias, serving their masters, the landed aristocracy of California. Yes, I'm sure it was horrible. In a way, even more horrible than the experiences of Valentino Achek Deng in South Sudan. Refugees who have fled to a foreign country have the hope of regrouping and returning to a better life, or at least the hope of forming a community within the foreign country to give one another mutual support. The Okies were alone in the world with their families, fighting one another to survive.
    Undoubtedly many people would say that the book is commendable, merely owing to the fact that we have sympathy with the plight of the people who are represented in the book. But still, having read it, I am left with a number of questions.
    For example, much is made of the idea that these Midwestern farmers were living life in some sort of "natural" way, before their lives were destroyed by capitalism, by unnatural, mechanical farming methods, and so forth. And thus John Steinbeck, writing in the 1930s, transports us into the dream-world of the modern "eco"-lobby.
    But what about the lives of the Indians who were living in Oklahoma in the days before all those lovable "granmas" and "grampas" drove them out in the 1870s, or so? Surely they were living more "naturally" than the "sod-busters" who came in, plowing away much of the vegetation, annihilating the vast herds of buffalo which roamed the lands. And going back even further, one can say that the Indians were not living naturally (if we take this term to mean what the eco-lobby apparently wants it to mean). After all, the Indians regularly burned the vegetation in order to create the "Great Plains". In a dry climate, such as that in Australia, trees and bushes grow if they are not gotten rid of by people.
    If the granmas and granpas of this book destroyed the Great Plains of the Indians, then surely it was a natural development for the small, inefficient farms of the sod-busters to be amalgamated into larger blocks which could be more easily farmed, using modern machinery. John Steinbeck devotes pages to romanticizing the use of horses in heavy farm work. And then, after the long trek along Route 66, his main character, Tom, expresses - using his Okie dialect, as always - the pleasure of pounding away at the ground for eight or ten hours a day, using a hand pick. In contrast with this, Steinbeck gives us a long-winded passage describing tractors as being dead objects, and the people driving them as being mindless robots. And yet, strangely enough, he seems to attribute more human characteristics to the lonely truck drivers, driving their trucks along Route 66. Why is a truck better than a tractor? Whereas a modern harvester retains almost all of the grain in a field, the old methods with primitive, hand held tools, resulted in as much as half the harvest being lost in the dirt to rot and be wasted.
    Reading the description of John Steinbeck's life in the Wikipedia article I have linked to above, it seems doubtful if he ever had the romantic "pleasure" of manually swinging a pick-axe all day long in the hot sun. This was more of a pleasure for his imagination. And quite frankly, I prefer to see horses in their modern role as the playthings of young girls, rather than being whipped by a cruel farmer in order to force them to drag heavy plows across fields, or stuck with spurs and having their gums painfully squeezed by bridle bits. For me, the sight of a man sitting comfortably in the air-conditioned cabin of a modern tractor or harvester, doing the work which in earlier times required hundreds of men and animals, exerting themselves in back-breaking, menial labor, is a magnificent testimony to the genius of the human spirit.
    There are parallels between the situation of the 1930s and that of today. 40 million Americans are on food stamps. The true rate of unemployment, according to some estimates, is greater than that during the depths of the Great Depression. The level of debt is certainly much greater. The conditions in Greece, or Spain, caused by the introduction of the common European currency ten years ago, are a catastrophe. All of this is caused by a corrupt combination of moneyed interests and a bloated government dependent upon those interests. Back in the 1930s, such people as Steinbeck romanticized the Russia of "Uncle Joe" Stalin, who was perhaps the greatest mass murderer of all time. Hopefully in the modern world people will be more sensible.

The Guilded Age, by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner

     A longish, rather complicated story, involving a simple family in the Tennessee of the 1850s which owns thousands of seemingly useless acres of backwoods land. They move on to another backwoods place in Missouri, and we are introduced to various larger-than-life characters living there. All of them have schemes for making lots of money at the expense of other people. The main character we follow is Laura, who, after a tragic boiler explosion on a Mississippi paddle-wheeler, lost her parents and was adopted by the family. She grows up and goes to Washington in order to convince Congress to buy the Tennessee land for millions of dollars. The story now takes place sometime after the Civil War, in the 1870s. She quickly becomes a leading lobbyist, manipulating things at will. In the end, she becomes disgraced and dies of a broken heart. The Tennessee land is not bought by Congress, but on the other hand, one of the other characters close to the family finds a thick vein of coal so that everybody is saved from poverty, and everybody except Laura lives happily ever after.
    The story is about the corruption and cynicism of the politicians in Washington. I wonder how much of the book was due to Mark Twain. Somehow it lacks his usual humor.
    Obviously the situation in Washington has not improved in the hundred and forty years between the time this book was first published and today. Back then, in 1873, the details of Laura's transition from a simple, but beautiful, country girl to a powerful lobbyist are glossed over in a few implausible pages. A contemporary author would undoubtedly revel in the sexual depravity elicited by the modern Washington call-girl. The unfortunate thing is that the power modern politicians have to produce evil has been multiplied out of all proportion to the situation back in 1873. But it is astonishing to read this book and to realize how little things have changed in the United States in all that time. The religious hypocrisy. The bumbling incompetence.
    Having just read The Grapes of Wrath, this book puts that other story into a different light. The world today seems to be entering into a new Great Depression, perhaps even greater than that of the 1930s. The world is drowning in debt, owing to the fact that the central banks of the world - following the lead of America's Federal Reserve - have reduced interest rates to way below the level of inflation. That is to say, government is paying speculators to increase their debt beyond all reason, and if the various parties to debt get into difficulties, then they can rely on their corrupt lackeys in Washington to "bail them out", meaning that we normal people must pay for their extravagances.
    At least in 1873 money was a stable thing. The dollar was backed by gold or silver. And so if you got 5% interest on an investment, then you really got it. In today's world, if you get 1.5% interest, while inflation is three or four percent, then you are simply losing things slightly slower than would be the case if you put them in the piggy bank. And then you must pay a capital gains tax on your losses!
    Thus many people say that we should go back to the gold standard. Perhaps that would be a good thing, particularly in view of the absurd corruption here in Europe which has accompanied the dreadful euro currency. Unfortunately though, as this book shows, even a world with "real" money is no utopia. The fact of the matter is that in earlier times, when coins were really made of silver, most people had very few of them, and the 1% (or more realistically, the 0.01%, or even less) of people who were rich swam in their ill-gotten hoards of gold and silver.

    As a final note, I must say that I found the punctuation of the book to be very strange. Now of course I have no idea about proper punctuation. Perhaps it was taught at school, but I am sure that if it was, then I turned my mind to other thoughts. Thus I have no idea where to place commas. I imagine that they should be there in order to break up the ideas in a sentence into logical segments which can then be more easily read. But both in this book, and also in Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, the commas seem to appear all over the place, often in the most inappropriate places.

Of Human Bondage, by W. Somerset Maugham

     This is the story of the youth and coming of age of Philip Carey, an English boy in the 1890s. Apparently there are many parallels with the life of the author. Maugham was born in Paris (in the British Embassy, so technically on British soil) and grew up initially as a French speaker. Thus English was a problem for him, and he developed a stammer, which was an embarrassment. Similarly, the Philip of this book has a club-foot which is an embarrassment. Maugham's mother, to whom he was most devoted, died when he was only 8, and his father died two years later. So he was sent to live with his uncle, a cold, straight-laced vicar in an English country town. The Philip of the book had the same experience. Both were sent to unpleasant boarding schools. Both quit school and went for a year to study at Heidelberg. Both returned to England to study accounting, for which they found they had no aptitude. But at this point, the story of the book departs from the story of the life of the author. The author went directly into medical studies, whereas Philip decided to become an artist and moved to Paris, where he spent two years amongst the English art students, living the low life. In this way he was able to make up for the French experience which the author had already lived through as a small boy. After realizing that he had no talent for art, he then returned to London where he also studied medicine. And at this stage of things, the story of the author, and of his character, Philip Carey, diverge into different worlds.
    It is a wonderful book. Such a contrast with Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence, which I read a year or two ago. We suffer with Philip through all his trials: love, money, the meaning of life.
    At the beginning we are told that Philip's parents left him about 2000 pounds. Putting this into the inflation calculator, we find that the British pound of 2012 is only worth about a hundredth of its value in 1900. Thus, thinking in terms of today's ephemeral paper money, he had 200,000 pounds. This was invested for him by the lawyer acting on his behalf in mortgages which returned 5%, giving an annual income of 10,000 pounds. But of course the 100 pounds he was receiving in 1900 was real money. It wasn't disappearing in inflation. This was sufficient to pay for all of his expenses.
    On his return from Paris, when starting his medical studies in London as a grown man, he gains control over his finances. But he is not particularly thinking about them. An experienced nurse in his hospital tells him that nobody commits suicide for love; instead it is always the problem of money, lack of it, hunger, homelessness. And so the book concerns itself with similar subjects to those of earlier 19th century novels - one thinks of Jane Austen - where everything is concerned with money, wealth - and love. Only on the last page does the hero or heroine of such a romance marry the wonderfully wealthy object of desire, and we are left to imagine that life then continues forever afterwards in perfect bliss.
    But in contrast with Jane Austen's novels, Philip experiences true hardship on his passage to the last page of this novel. Rather than falling madly in love with the person who will eventually fulfill his dreams, he becomes infatuated with Mildred, a dreadful character. She really hates him, but since he spends huge amounts of his money on her, hoping thus to buy her love, she finds it convenient to use him. Dreadful scenes. We think surely he has now realized that it is hopeless. And many times, just when we think Philip has gotten himself into a more sensible path of life, Mildred again turns up, weeping, asking for more money, and Philip takes her back. This process was so painful that I often had to exclaim out loud, "Oh no!". All of this leads to Philip becoming totally destitute. He is starving. He sleeps on park benches. Thankfully though, his uncle, the vicar, dies, leaving him enough to be able to resume his medical studies.
    In the end, Philip realizes that Sally, the healthy, uncomplicated daughter of a good friend, loves him. He thinks that he doesn't love her, since in his imagination love is the selfish, destructive, one-sided infatuation which he had experienced with Mildred. After a summer night's tender coupling on a rural holiday with Sally's family, the question arose as to whether she was pregnant. At first he was shocked, thinking that this is now the end of all his romantic plans for travels to exotic, tropical places as a ship's doctor. But then he comes around to thinking that life would be good in a comfortable medical practice on the English seaside, together with Sally and all the children they would have. They meet and Sally tells him that he is free; it was a false alarm. But he tells Sally that he loves her still, and so they are set to marry and live happily ever after.

Lamas of the Western Heavens, by Régis-Evariste Huc

     I first read this book about 30 years ago, when it was published by the Folio Society, and now I have re-read it. It seems to be possible to obtain copies through various online antiquarian bookshops, and also through For those who can understand French, there is a beautifully set pdf version of the original publication from 1850.
    Around the year 1845, Huc, together with Joseph Gabet, both of whom were French Catholic missionaries to China, belonging to the Lazarist congregation, set off on a long trek from their mission in Manchuria, through northern China and Mongolia, and then across the mountains to Lhasa in Tibet. Their idea was establish a Christian mission in that center of Buddhist religion. But they were not religious fanatics. They dressed in the costume of "lamas". According to the Wikipedia article, the definition of a lama is a "venerated spiritual master", or to use the Sanskrit word, a "guru". And thus they were accepted by all of those Buddhist monks traveling about in central Asia as one of them. This despite the fact that the Christian religion had been declared illegal by the Emperor of China.
    In fact lamas had much freedom of travel. Huc and Gabet, being French, only had to make sure that nobody thought that they belonged to the nation of those horrible "sea-devils", the English. At that time, China was fighting a "war on drugs" involving the opium which the sea-devils were bringing from India in their warships to Canton. Unlike the poor Mexican drug barons of today who live in fear of helicopter gunships, and all the other advanced armaments of the United States, the sea-devils of the 1840s enjoyed a military superiority with respect to the overwhelmed Chinese police. Both in China, and also in Tibet, there was great fear that the English in India, who were known for their trickery, might soon cross the mountains and overwhelm central Asia.
    The book is a fascinating account of their long trek over some of the most extreme terrain in the world. Huc tells us of the many conversations they had with Buddhist monks, and their extended stays in large monasteries. Upon arrival at Lhasa, they began by setting up a small chapel in some rented rooms. But soon a suspicion arose that they might be English spies, making maps in order to facilitate an invasion. Some years before that, the Englishman William Moorcroft settled in Lhasa, staying there 12 years or so. And then it was discovered that he had spent his time making maps of the country, for which he was executed. Thus Huc and Gabet were arrested and brought to the worldly administrator of Tibet (the spiritual administrator, the Dalai Lama, was a 9 year old child then, and small-pox was going around, so it was decided not to introduce Huc and Gabet to him). They had a nice long talk with the administrator about philosophy, religion, geography, and what have you, and so they became great friends with him. Of course the "Western Heavens" from which they told everybody they came was Europe, and particularly France, not England!
    The Chinese Ambassador, who at first put on a show of force, also became great friends with these two French monks. The Chinese Ambassador, whose name was Kichan (or Qishan), had a few years before been sent by the Emperor to Canton to try to deal with the sea-devils. He found that when they were not drug-running, they were a reasonably civilized people. So he negotiated with them, and agreed to let them have a small island - Hong Kong - in the Pearl River Delta. When the Emperor heard of this, he at first wanted to have Kichan executed for treachery. But he spared him, and later sent him to the wilds of Tibet in order to let him try and rehabilitate himself.
    So Kichan was in a delicate position, and he realized that if the Emperor got wind of the fact that he was tolerating the presence of Christian monks in Lhasa, then he would certainly be executed. Thus he ordered Huc and Gabet to leave Tibet via China, rather than the more simple crossing of the Himalayas into India and the English. They objected, saying that they were guests of the Tibetans, and the Administrator of Tibet was very much on their side. But they soon realized that the conflict they were provoking could even lead to armed conflict between the small Chinese force in Lhasa and the Tibetan forces, perhaps with further consequences. Thus they reluctantly agreed to leave.
    Kichan provided them with a large escort, and they traveled with all the honors which would be accorded to highly placed Chinese mandarins. But still, the difficulties of the return journey eastwards through the mountains were again most extreme. In the end, the old Chinese general who was accompanying them, traveling back to retirement, and two other people of the aristocratic class, a father and his son, died on the journey, so that they finally reentered China accompanied by three coffins and the ragged remains of their escort.

The Bhagavad Gita

     This was one of this year's Folio books. It is a very nicely made book, a beautiful cover, and many illustrations by the (presumably Indian) artist Anna Bhushan in water color, giving often dream-like, but apt visions of the thoughts in the text. Of course you can also read the book in various formats at Unfortunately, I must say that while most of the books of the Folio Society have sensible, well-written introductions, providing the reader with a clear picture of what the book is about; introducing him to the background and the circumstances of the book; arousing his interest, the introduction to this book fails on all these counts. It is written by somebody named Amit Chaudhuri, obviously an Indian. Perhaps, as with many of his literary inclined countrymen, he seems to imagine that he floats above the world in an ethereal plane, inaccessible to such primitive, simple-minded people as me. A far better introduction is given by the Wikipedia article which I have linked to above. There it is said, for example, that Gandhi came back to the text again and again throughout his life, drawing inspiration and guidance from it.
    Famously, Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, says in this video, that when observing the detonation of the first atomic bomb - for which he determined that it be given the biblical name "Trinity Test" - he thought of a quotation from the Bhagavad Gita, namely:
"Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."
On the other hand, according to his brother, who is quoted here, in reality, he simply said "It worked!". And others said that "his face relaxed into an expression of tremendous relief".
    Be that as it may, I looked carefully through the book in order to find this quotation, but without success. Thinking that I must have missed it, I downloaded the version of the book and let the computer search through the text, but it failed to find anything resembling that quotation. Looking further, I find that Oppenheimer actually learned enough Sanskrit in order to read the thing in the original, and so that was his interpretation of one of the verses. The verse must be 10:34, which in the translation by Juan Mascaró, which is the basis of this Folio edition, is:
"I am death that carries off all things, and I am the source of things to come. Of feminine nouns I am Fame and Prosperity, Speech, Memory and Intelligence, Constancy and patient Forgiveness."
Perhaps when thinking of the brilliance of the light emitted by the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer was also thinking of 10:21, which is translated as:
"Among the sons of light I am Vishnu, and of luminaries the radiant sun..."

    Indeed, the basic story of the text is that Arjuna, a member of the warrior caste of ancient India, is about to engage in a deadly battle. But he realizes that his adversaries include members of his own clan. Is it right to go to battle and murder his own people? In order to resolve this difficult problem in ethical and moral philosophy, he invokes Krishna, the God of all things. Krishna appears to him in human form and expounds at length on the various points of his philosophy. It is, indeed, rational and often inspiring. He describes in detail the things that distinguish the upright, honorable man. One who lives in harmony with his existence. And yes, for Arjuna, the message Krishna has to tell him is that he should go for it. Fulfill his destiny as the great warrior, conquering all before him. I can well imagine that Oppenheimer saw himself placed into the role of the Arjuna of the Atomic Age, and he gained some measure of inner peace with the thought that according to Krishna, he was doing the right thing.
    Thankfully I am not a member of the warrior caste. Towards the end of the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna describes the various forms of yoga. Sattva yoga is obviously the most sublime, being (according to 14:6) pure, giving light, health, and so on. Raja is passion, thirst. "It binds the soul of man to action." I would hardly think that applies to me. Yet having just now enjoyed a nice large portion of very dry, salty popcorn, topped with sizzling butter, I see that according to 17:9: "Men of Rajas like food of Rajas: acid and sharp, and salty and dry, and which brings heaviness and sickness and pain." Oh well. All I can say is that despite all of this, I enjoy popcorn, consumed in a state of mind transcending the raja mode of Indian philosophy.

Greek Science by G.E.R. LLoyd

     Having just finished this book, I wonder why I bothered to read it in the first place. One is simply impressed with the fact that the ancient Greeks really didn't have very sensible ideas about how things work. How was it possible for Aristotle to maintain that the speed of a falling object is proportional to its weight when even a small child, playing with its toys, soon learns that such an idea is absurdly false?
    And then we have their speculations on astronomy - or rather their attempts to understand the movements of the planets. Placing the earth at the center of the universe, and having the universe rotate about the earth each 24 hours is no great problem. After all, following Einstein we see that everything is relative. According to Mach's principle, in such a frame of reference this rapid rotation of the universe about the earth will result in the centrifugal force which - in the usual frame of reference - would be attributed to the earth's rotation in a non-rotating universe. The real problem was the fixed idea which the ancient Greeks had, attributing strictly uniform, circular motion to the planets. This led to the nonsense of epicycles within epicycles. The book has many illustrations to describe such things. Even Ptolemy realized that his system simply didn't work, and later writers were satisfied to say that the problem of describing the motion of the planets is beyond the capacity of the human mind to understand it. But we now know that the planets follow the simplest paths imaginable, namely "straight" lines (geodesics) in the curved space and time of the world. Somehow it is depressing to read how the dogmas laid down by the earliest Greek philosophers blocked any real progress for almost 2000 years.
    But what is science? For the ancient Greeks, living in a culture of debate, perhaps their main innovation was to base their arguments on - more or less - rational ideas, rather than simply appealing to the gods and to ancient superstition.
    For us, science has a much more rigorous definition. (Or at least it should have!) Given some physical phenomenon, then hypotheses are put forward to explain it, and experiments are performed to test the hypotheses. And even after people have settled upon an agreed explanation, we are still open to the idea that something might come up to falsify the explanation, leading to a search for new explanations.
    LLoyd shows that in medicine the ancient Greeks were somewhat more practical. After all, sick people want to be healed. They will not be satisfied with vague philosophical reflections about nothing in particular. But surely many different ancient cultures also accumulated practical methods for dealing with injuries, sicknesses, and so forth. This is nothing unique about the ancient Greeks.
    So why do people say that "science" originated in ancient Greece?
    I suppose the one area where the Greeks are thought to have made important contributions is mathematics. But again, this begs the question, what is mathematics? The Greeks concentrated upon geometry, and the text of Euclid played a central role. The idea was that, starting from certain basic assumptions, geometric relationships can be proved. However, in fact, Euclid made many extra, unstated assumptions in his proofs, rendering the whole work inconclusive. In contrast, we have for example Tarski's axiomatic scheme for geometry, which reduces everything to a clear, logical basis. Perhaps it is computers which have focused peoples minds on the true basis of mathematics in the modern world. If you write a computer program, then you must tell the machine what to do, step for step, to accomplish the task you have set. If you are going to write a computer program dealing with geometry, then it would get you nowhere trying to define in the computer language such things as: "A point is that which has no part", or "The edges of a surface are lines", and so on. (See this site for an online version of Euclid's Elements.)
    I had always thought that at least Archimedes accomplished lots of sensible things. Yet I was astonished to read in the book that he wished the fact to be engraved on his tombstone that the volume of a cylinder of radius r and height 2r is two thirds the volume of a sphere of radius r. Was this his greatest accomplishment? After all, such a cylinder has a base area of πr2, and a height of 2r, giving the volume 2πr3. On the other hand, the volume of a sphere is r3/3. Was it this later formula which Archimedes was so proud of? The fact that the area of a circle is πr2 is demonstrated very nicely here. But the business of the volume is a bit more complicated. The standard method is to use a simple integral, as shown here. Archimedes used instead something called Cavalieri's principle, which also gives a very obvious geometrical derivation.
    Was all of this so very much unique to the ancient Greeks? When thinking about this it is interesting to consider the case of traditional Japanese mathematics, which developed independently of European thought. In particular, we have the achievements of the great Seki Takakazu. The results were often simply written on wooden tablets and placed as ephemeral offerings in the temples. Who can say that, for example, the Maya did not also develop such a tradition?
    According to both the Epicurean and the Stoic schools of Hellenistic philosophy, the true goal of science, mathematics, philosophy, is to achieve a state of peace of mind. And so in a more peaceful world which is not as preoccupied with progressing into the future as ours is, I can imagine people making scientific discoveries which they then offer to the winds, or to a temple fire, as a deep form of meditation.
    Perhaps the thing that distinguishes modern science from everything that came before is the technology we have, enabling us to make machines which would have been unimaginable in the ancient world. Thus the true basis of science is the gradual accumulation of practical knowledge about materials in the 2000 years after Aristotle. For the scribes in the scriptoriums of the monasteries of the middle ages, such things - the innovations of blacksmiths, and what have you - were of no interest, and thus they are lost to modern historians.

The Darling Buds of May by H.E. Bates

     A very lightweight book. From his Wikipedia entry, I see that this Bates was a prolific writer, satisfying the imagination of the English reading public in the post World War 2 world of the 1950s. The story is concerned with the lifestyle of the Larkin family. Before reading the book, I had vaguely thought that it might be concerned with the family of the poet Philip Larkin. But no, the Larkins of this book are ridiculous caricatures of what I suppose the straight-laced, class-conscious English people of those days secretly admired. The book is filled with unrestrained gluttony - pork, eggs, beer, champagne... is consumed continuously from morning to night. While the wife and mother is correspondingly fat, the husband, at least in the illustrations in my copy of the book, is not, and the children, particularly the sex-obsessed oldest daughter, a pregnant, sweet sixteen, is depicted as being breathtakingly beautiful. These must be the dreams of a bygone generation of English people. Unfortunately, the children, or rather the grandchildren of such families as the 1950s English Larkins have now grown up to become the hooligans which infest such otherwise pleasant places as Majorca or Ibiza.

A History of the World in 100 Objects, by Neil MacGregor

     The author is the director of the British Museum in London, and this book has 100 short chapters, each describing some particular object in the museum. It seems that the idea for the book was the result of a series of radio programs on the BBC, where these objects were described. It's all quite interesting. MacGregor describes in detail what is known about the circumstances of each object, what the people were like who made it, and how their history fits in with the histories of the other peoples living in the world at various times.
    Of course, as a man of the modern world and the representative of an iconic institution of the English Establishment, the author takes great care to maintain a perfect level of political correctness. In so doing, he diverges strongly from the original founders of the British Museum in 1753. Their curiosity was more concerned with the superiority of the English race of people, and the fact that it could be demonstrated to the public by means of an exhibition of the primitive artifacts of the inferior races.
    For example, MacGregor is at great pains to show that the populations of the Americas were on an equal level with those of the Eurasian populations in the time before Columbus. But that is nonsense. The Indians had not yet invented the wheel. The art of writing was only established within a few nations, based on hieroglyphic structures. In the great empire of the Inca, it was completely missing (their system of coding information using knots on string seems to have mainly been used for recording numbers, but perhaps some other information was coded as well). It is more plausible to say that the more highly developed Indian civilizations of 500 years ago - the Maya or the Aztecs - were comparable with the classical Egyptian culture of 4000 years ago, or the Indus Valley Civilization.
    But who is to say that those peoples were living at a "lower level", more "primitive", than the world of today? This may be true when measured in terms of our modern idea of "progress". We have many machines, artificial chemicals, and what have you to help us in our hectic progression into the future, thereby destroying much of what is naturally given to us on the earth. But despite all of this progression from one thing to the next, the end of life - death - is the same for us as it was for people in those earlier civilizations. And who is to say that the period that counts, namely our limited time in this world, is better today in our hectic world than it was for the Indians. Of course the Incas were dreadful people. Mass murderers. But there were many other, surely more sublime, Indian cultures besides the Incas.
    One object in particular has a great story to tell. It is an Australian Bark Shield, taken from the Aborigines at Botany Bay during Captain Cook's first landing in Australia on the 29th of April, 1770. A small group of people were on the shore, and they ran away at the sight of these seemingly dangerous intruders. But two men stood their ground, trying to tell the English to clear away. Since that had no effect, they resorted to throwing stones at these strange people, and Cook's reaction was to take a pot-shot at them with bird-shot in one of his muskets. Thus they too ran away, dropping this bark shield which is now displayed in the British Museum. When thinking about this scene, I imagine that if I had the choice of either being a member of the Aboriginal community living at Botany Bay (but before the intrusion of the English!), or being a common sailor amongst Captain Cook's crew, then it is obvious which alternative I would choose.

Rain and Other South Sea Stories, by W. Somerset Maugham

     I was somewhat put off by The Moon and Sixpence, but the stories in this book are very good. Well worth reading. Each of them is only 20 or 30 pages long, so it would be simpler for you to just read the stories, rather than reading what nonsense I have to write here about them. I've linked to an online version of the title story, Rain. In most of the stories, much is made of the fact that the women are wearing "Mother Hubbard dresses", which were imposed upon them by the intolerant Christian missionaries.
    One of the stories, namely The Pool, did remind me of some of the things I objected to in The Moon and Sixpence. The story of the Pool describes the way an Englishman ruins his life by "going native" and marrying a young maiden of the Samoan Islands. At first our hero travels to Apia, the capitol of Samoa, to escape the English climate. Perhaps he had tuberculosis. He gets into the habit of swimming in a small, isolated, natural pool of water, surrounded by the beautiful, lush vegetation of the tropics. A young woman also swims there. Her father is a Swede who has "gone native" and married a Samoan woman whose family belonged to the ancient royal caste of Samoa. All the regulars at the local pub, or at the "English Club", tell our hero that he should just enjoy himself with this half-caste woman, but it would be a disaster to actually marry her. Despite this, he does it. Thus all the fine ladies of the European and (white) American colony in Apia are embarrassed to have anything to do with him. He becomes an outcast, resigned to spending more and more time in the overcrowded, somewhat soiled hut of the Swede and his extended native family. Thus he resolves to return to England with his exotic wife. At first she is excited about the prospect, but in England, the cold and darkness gradually gets to her. And one day she secretly disappears with her children, taking the next ship back to her home in Samoa. The hero is devastated. He follows her, but finds himself despised by both white society and the natives who see him as a despicably weak person. His wife hates him. But he grovels in his sorrow, in the end drowning himself first in alcohol, then finally in the pool.
    I suppose W. Somerset Maugham was describing the true situation of racial intolerance in the South Seas back in those days, a hundred years ago. In The Moon and Sixpence, he seemed to be adopting this view as his own. But surely today, most people would say that it would be a wonderfully romantic thing to see a young couple in the situation of this Englishman and his South Seas bride, swimming in a tropical pool in Samoa.

As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner

     During the 1920s and 30s it seems to have been the fashion to write stories as if they were incoherent riddles, using fragmentary, illogical bursts of words and half words in order to describe - or at least to convey in some measure - the thoughts of the characters in the stories. The most famous example of this technique must be James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. As a student I did try wading through the first couple of pages of that book before deciding that there are better things to do in life than to spend large amounts of time trying to make sense out of nonsense.
    This book by William Faulkner starts off in this tradition. It consists of short chapters, each of which describes the thoughts of one of the characters in the story. There are many characters, all of which have extremely strange names. But by putting the book aside, then coming back to it after a couple of days when getting into the mood and just reading a few half understood pages, then putting it aside again, I did gradually get into the story.
    It all has to do with an extremely dysfunctional family of farmyard hicks, somewhere in the Deep South of the USA, or maybe they are hillbillys, or something. The mother of this family is in the process of dying. The eldest son, whose name is Cash, is sawing timbers in order to make a coffin for the mother. This sawing business goes on and on, being observed by the various characters, using their various, more or less incoherent effluences of words. The student of literature may be able to read into such things one or another philosophical observation on the futility of life, the role of religion in the bucolic mind, the hopelessness of the downtrodden, and what have you.
    But things finally get going when the mother expires and enters the coffin. The family has the task of transporting the mother's corpse to the distant town of Jefferson, using the primitive means available to it, namely a broken down wagon drawn by a mule of two. The task is made difficult due to the circumstance that a heavy rain has fallen, causing the local river to overflow its banks, washing away the bridges. The simplest thing would be to just bury the body near the local farm. But for some reason the family feels obliged to transport it to Jefferson for burial. Other characters, not part of this crazy family, also have their short chapters, offering to help in some way. The father, "pa", whose name is "Anse", refuses help. He continually says that he does not want to become "beholden" to others. Thus the nights are spent crouching by the wagon in the rain, refusing the food and accommodation offered to them by less dysfunctional farmers in the districts through which they pass.
    At least the prose of William Faulkner becomes progressively more coherent in inverse proportion to the chaotic wanderings of the family in their trek through the waterlogged Deep South. When attempting to draw the wagon through a ford in the raging river, the wagon overturns, drowning the mules. Yet the family manages to salvage the wagon together with the corpse in its coffin. But also Cash is a casualty of this business, suffering a broken leg and various other injuries. So he is strapped on top of the coffin, and the caravan proceeds ever onwards in its journey to Jefferson. The decomposing body emits an increasingly revolting smell. Cash's leg begins to putrefy. The family decides that rather than consulting a doctor, the best idea would be to pour concrete around the leg to "set" it, which increases the level of putrefaction. During a further episode, the second son of the family, "Darl", apparently in a fit of madness, sets fire to somebody's barn. So he gradually disappears into the hands of Justice. The daughter, "Dewey Dell", has gotten pregnant, and she enters one drugstore after another on the trek, seeking some illegal medicine for aborting the fetus. An unscrupulous druggist takes advantage of the naivety of Dewey Dell and rapes her himself.
    And during all of this narration, we find out more about the dead mother and why she wanted to be buried in Jefferson. She was not the happy center of Apple Pie America, which we had at first suspected. In fact we find out that she was the cause of this whole mess of a family, not only in the sense that she bore the children of Anse, but also because she created the initial seeds of discord.
    It certainly is an unpleasant story. Yet despite this, it is considered to be one of the great classics of 20th century literature. Such are the whims of fashion. For those who have a destructive view of the human condition, it might perhaps be said that the story is a surreal allegory on the life of Everyman. But at least the edition of the book which I read, from the Folio Society, is interspersed with beautiful watercolor illustrations of various scenes in the whole drama.

The Mayor of Casterbridge, by Thomas Hardy

     This is another one of these books in the semi-imaginary regions of Hardy's "Wessex" in England. According to the table for translating Hardy's place names into their real-life versions, Casterbridge is Dorchester. It is interesting to zero in on Dorchester via Google Earth. In particular we can see the Maubury Rings, which occasionally come up in the story. Hardy himself was born near Dorchester and he lived in a very comfortable house, Max Gate, in Dorchester.
    The opening scene of the book sets the whole drama. A young, itinerant farm laborer, Michael Henchard, together with his wife who carries their baby, walks toward an English town, not Casterbridge. A country fair is being celebrated. They enter a tent in order to have a drink - non-alcoholic - but the helpful woman who is serving the drinks is prepared to put a shot of rum in by request. Thus the laborer becomes totally drunk and begins to say dreadful things to the crowd about his poor wife. Eventually in his drunken ravings he announces that he will sell his wife to anybody in the tent who is prepared to pay five pounds for her. Suddenly a man at the entrance, a sailor, says that he will pay the five pounds, which he does, and so the wife gets up, carrying her baby, and leaves with the sailor. The rest of the story relates the consequences of this dreadful act.
    The lonely Henchard vows to become a better man, drifts to Casterbridge, prospers, and becomes mayor. Various things lead to his downfall, not the least of which is his relationship with Lucetta, whom he met on the island of Jersey some years before in his lonely life. She only vaguely knows the history of Henchard. He tells her that his first wife might return, but not the circumstances of her leaving. On the assumption that she might be dead, they had become engaged. But then for the rest of the story, this sub-plot is treated as a dreadful scandal which must be kept secret from society. If people knew about it,  it would be the downfall of them both, and so forth.
    What strange, distorted ideas of morality the people of Victorian England had! Is it such a sin to break off an engagement? The whole idea seems incredible. And it all leads to a famous scene in literature, where the members of the "lower class" of Casterbridge perform a so-called "Skimmington Ride". This was apparently a custom in the England of those days. According to the Wikipedia article on the subject, the purpose was to publicly humiliate a husband who did not keep his wife under control to the extent demanded by Victorian values. On the other hand, of course the lower classes welcomed, and even expected their (male) masters to be unfaithful to their wives, maintaining mistresses and what have you. Such were the hypocritical values of Victorian England. In any case, the poor Lucetta was so upset about the fact that she was the object of a skimmington that she fainted, retired to bed, and expired.
    And yet the book was an absorbing, enjoyable read. It can be freely downloaded at to be read on a Kindle, as I have done.

Is Shakespeare Dead?, by Mark Twain

     Some months ago, there was a movie being shown in town which I thought might be interesting. The movie was called Anonymous, and it was apparently concerned with the theory that Shakespeare was not the person we had always thought he was, but rather he (that is, the true author of the plays and poems) was the Earl of Oxford, or Frances Bacon, or somebody. But I didn't get around to seeing it at the movies, and now, since sufficient time has passed that the proprietors of the movie theaters can no longer see the gain in withholding the movie from release as a DVD, it is now available in that medium, and I ordered it via Amazon.
    Well, it turned out to be a typical example of the usual loud and hectic Hollywood nonsense which is so common these days. All the Hollywood cliches of renaissance life are portrayed: the streets of London are filled with mud; the houses are muddy gray in color; the sky is continually overcast in gray; the occasional dance scenes in dreary and somewhat smokey interiors, where the characters are at last allowed to have colorful costumes, are accompanied by boring, lifeless recorder music. The story line, jumping back and forth, here and there through the story, only gradually becomes clear. It is supposed to be a dramatization of the Tudor Prince Theory of Shakespearean speculation.
    Now there are various lines of speculation here, leading to a variety of sub-theories. The most extreme of these, namely the "Theory: Part II", holds that the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, was the secret son of the "Virgin Queen", Elizabeth I, born when she was a mere teenager. Then, when de Vere had grown up somewhat, she coupled with him as well, thus becoming guilty of incest, and as a result bearing further aristocratic children who were genetically composed of 3/4 of a "Virgin Queen". In the middle of all this royal incest and other excitements, Edward de Vere found time to write the Shakespearean works which, owing to his illustrious position in the neighborhood of the Royal Household, he could not publish as his own. Thus he found a simple-minded actor named William Shakespeare who agreed to pretend to be his pseudonym. And of course the modern-day movie people who took it upon themselves to make the movie Anonymous chose this farcical version of the theory to be the basis of their story.
    But having watched the movie through to its end, I did click about in the Internet to see what can be found in relation to the idea that William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon was not the author of "his" works. In fact there is much serious speculation about who the true author of the Shakespearean works was. And furthermore I saw that Mark Twain wrote a little book on the subject, so I downloaded that into my Kindle and have now read it.
    Mark Twain is the perfect source for good, honest, down-to-earth thinking on a subject such as this! What man is better able to puncture the inflated pretension of a Shakespearean scholar with his pointed humor than Mark Twain? There is even a reading of portions of Twain's argument on YouTube which I would recommend you have a look at.
    Back in the days when Mark Twain wrote this book - in 1909, when he was 73 years old - the main alternative candidate for the authorship of Shakespeare's works was Frances Bacon. I don't know if I have ever read anything by Frances Bacon, and so I decided to have a look, downloading his New Atlantis. Reading a few passages here and there in that book, it all seems much too earnest, filled with religious moralizing, in comparison with the Shakespeare plays. Surely the biography of Edward de Vere describes a much stronger candidate.
    But Mark Twain doesn't really try to argue that some specific person was the true author. Instead, he shows absolutely clearly that William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon could not possibly have been the author of the plays and poems. As argued in the YouTube video, the name Shakespeare, which was spelled in various ways back in the original Elizabethan times, may have simply been a substitute for the modern word Anonymous. And so the works may have been variously authored by a number of those literary gentlemen who come up in these modern theories. After all, the King James Bible was also authored by various such gentlemen, and despite this it displays a certain uniformity of style. This would make a mockery of the painstaking, and well-funded researches of those eager academics in a Californian college who published a paper, describing computer comparisons of the word frequencies of various authors in Elizabethan England.
    After thinking about all of this, I thought I would have another look at a book which I had read a couple of years ago, namely: Will in the World, by Stephen Greenblatt. I see that back then, Greenblatt's book did convince me that Shakespeare was Shakespeare. But looking through it again just now, I see that it is filled with all of the expressions which Mark Twain hated: "maybe", "it could have been", "we can suppose that", "it is reasonable to believe", and so forth. Expressions designed to lure the causal reader into accepting the illogical conclusion that since the plays display such erudition, it follows that William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon must have been a clerk in some lawyers office, must have been magically transported to Italy, Spain, and other places in between, and so on, despite the total lack of any concrete records of any such things. Of the very few things that are really known about William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon, we have his detailed testament which lists no books at all in his possession at the time of his death. The only poem that we know to actually be a product of the mind of William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon is the following bit of badly spelled, embarrassing doggerel which is to be found on his tombstone in Stratford:

Good frend for Jesus sake forbeare,
To digg the dust encloased heare.
Blest be ye man yt spares thes stones,
And curst be he yt moves my bones.
    I would be interested to know if anybody can actually read Mark Twain's book, and afterwards continue to cling to the belief that William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon could possibly have been the author of those plays and poems. For me at least, it is pleasant to know that the plays were not the product of that seemingly simple-minded actor from Stratford, but rather they were the product of the greatest minds of renaissance England. Some years ago I got a beautifully printed edition of the collected plays of Shakespeare in eight generous volumes by the Folio Society, and to be honest, that iconic image of the Stratford actor has kept me away from them. But now that I am rid of that image I have found a renewed enthusiasm for these great works of the renaissance.

Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe

     This was the second best selling book of the 19th century, outsold only by the Bible. Today it is an insult of the worst kind for an African-American to call another African-American an "Uncle Tom". Such an insult implies that the insulted person is prepared to cringe and grovel in the presence of European-Americans in the hope of obtaining some advantage for himself. But that is not really quite the character of the Uncle Tom of the book.
    When thinking about it, slavery seems to be something far away, lost in the more horrible cobwebs of history. But is it? I have read that it is openly practiced in the Somalia of today. And of course it is a commonplace to say that many people are enslaved by debt, becoming in effect owned by their creditors. Young people who have been forced into armies, whether they be those of African warlords, or the armies of "civilized" industrial nations, become the slaves of their commanders. The ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome were based upon slave labor. And during the middle ages in Europe, almost all people were serfs, owned either by a local warlord with the title of "Count" or "Earl", or by some even more oppressive and cruel Bishop or Cardinal. According to the description of Mungo Park in his Travels in the Interior of Africa at the end of the 18th century, exploring the upper reaches of the Niger River, all labor in the interior of western Africa was exclusively done by slaves.
    But if slavery alone is a repulsive business, its practice in the United States of America in the first half of the 19th century was even more disgusting owing to the fact that it became based upon racism. People of African ancestory were automatically slaves, and those of European ancestory were free men. And this kind of racism even today distorts the world. What a contrast it is to read Mungo Park's book. He traveled alone, totally dependent on the goodwill of the people he met on his journey. For him the people of West Africa were on a par with those of his native Scotland. He was interested to see how they lived, what they thought. There is no suggestion of any superiority of one race of people over another. That came later, in the 19th and 20th centuries.
    The thing that irritated me most about Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin was the fact that it is seeped in racism, combined with a continuous outpouring of fundamentalist Christian doctrine. And yet anyone who is prepared to actually read the Bible can plainly see that it was written in terms of a slave culture. It is concerned with such questions as, what is the difference between the good slave and the bad slave? What characterizes a good slave owner? (For some reason, the people who translated the King James Bible in the 17th century decided to systematically translate the words for slave into the less objectionable word "servant", thus distorting the meaning.) In the present story, Uncle Tom progresses from being a slave in a "good" family to being sold as a slave into a "wonderful" family living a life of continuous religious ecstasy, to finally being sold into a devilish situation where torture prevails. We are reminded of modern-day visions of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. Uncle Tom dies at the hands of his tormentor in the mystical role of a black Jesus Christ. Through all of this religious sentimentality, the basic feeling Stowe gives us is that the Africans are simple-minded, childish people, and life and religion are good if they live in a nice family, owned by the more serious, and religiously more sophisticated Europeans. For her as a mother, the evil of slavery was expressed in the fact that at a sale of slaves, the children would be cruelly separated from their mothers.
    This attitude, which I suppose was the norm in those days, is expressed clearly in a speech of Abraham Lincoln which I have copied from the Wikipedia, and which those visitors to Washington D.C. who go to worship at the marble temple, containing a gigantic marble statue of the god, might do well to think about. Lincoln said:

I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And in as much as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything. I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. My understanding is that I can just let her alone.

The Life of Josiah Henson, by Himself

     Anyone who has not been put off reading Uncle Tom's Cabin by what I wrote above should read this book. The link is to a website where a very clear facsimile of the original printing of Josiah Henson's short (only 76 pages) book from 1849 can be read online.
    It seems that the real-life Josiah Henson was the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe. But he was no Uncle Tom! The book is a calm, dignified narrative of the stations of his life. He was born into slavery on a plantation in Maryland. It was no Abu Ghraib. As he grew up, he gradually took on more responsibilities, until in the end he was practically running the plantation for his master. But we get a very clear picture of the fact that slavery led to the corruption and degeneration of the slave owners.
    His master spent his time at the local tavern, drinking from morning till night, throwing his money away on gambling. Henson was required to collect the dead-drunk master in the evenings, preventing him from falling off his horse or out of the wagon. Sometimes barroom brawls developed, and the responsible slave was required to save his master. On one occasion, his master was being beaten by the primitive overseer of a neighboring plantation, and Henson had to push him away in order to extricate his master from the fray. Some days later, the overseer ambushed Henson, breaking his arms and both of his shoulder blades. From then on he went through life partially disabled, unable to raise his hands above his head. His owner sued the overseer, but since African-Americans were forbidden to testify in an American court of law, the witnesses were dismissed and his owner lost the case.
    All of this led to the plantation falling into financial difficulties, not the least due to heavy gambling debts. In order to try to save some of his property, the owner decided to send all his slaves to his brother's plantation in Kentucky. Henson was entrusted with this task, and during the trip they passed through the free state of Ohio, where people told them that they needn't go further, since they were free in Ohio. Nevertheless, he followed the call of duty, delivering them to the brother who, on the instructions of the original owner, sold them all - with the exception of Henson and his wife and children - down the Mississippi into the Deep South, breaking up families, separating mothers from their infant children, husbands from wives.
    Some time later it was also decided to sell Henson himself, and for this purpose the brother traveled with Henson down to New Orleans to put him on the market. Henson's wife and children were not part of the sale (and even if they were, they would have been sold in separate lots). But as luck would have it, on the night before the sale, the brother was struck down with malaria and lay in bed in his cabin in the river steamboat which he had booked for the return journey, unable to do anything, near death. Henson nursed him back to life, and upon the return to the Kentucky plantation, all were grateful to him for what he had done. But it made no difference. He was to be sold anyway. And so he escaped with his wife and children to Canada, where he was treated as a human being, and where he did much to improve the lot of other people in his situation. What a contrast there was between the sensible, civilized life of Canada and the terrorism and inequality in the United States of America!
    This is the thing that is missing in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel. The fact that slavery corrupts the slave owner. It has nothing to do with mystical effusions of fundamentalist Christian beliefs. Other countries eliminated slavery in the 19th century in a civilized, rational way. But the United States sank into a catastrophic Civil War whose repercussions are still felt in that country.
    It seems that the price of a slave in those days was about 1000 dollars. According the inflation calculator, that would be worth something like $20,000 today. Say the price of an average new car. A person like Josiah Henson would have been worth more than that, comparable say to one of the more extravagant Mercedes models. And so I can imagine the state of mind of an American slave owner in the early 19th century. After all, perhaps even you, dear reader, might have developed a certain degree of affection for your car. Many people even give their cars names, as if they were people, or family pets. You don't want to mistreat the family car. After all, you have put a lot of money into it. But on the other hand, when it gets old, and the repair bills gradually get the upper hand, you do sell it, perhaps trading it in for a new car and not really thinking about what the dealer will do with the old one. A modern, successful farmer might be able to afford the luxury of a large Mercedes, but then he would also have lots of farm equipment - tractors, harvesters, and what have you. Imagine that each of these is a human being.
    The consequence was that this system of treating people as if they were property led to degeneration, corruption. In a more civilized country, this would have been recognized. But Harriet Beecher Stowe's religious outpourings produced instead hysteria, leading to a brutal resolution

The Psychopath Test, by Jon Ronson

     I started reading this book and hardly put it down before finishing it. An absorbing trip through modern-day psychiatry. It is not a novel. Ronson describes himself as a journalist, and he tells us that he writes occasional pieces for the Guardian. In this book, he learns about a person named Bob Hare, who has developed a list of 30 or so things which distinguish the psychopath from the rest of us. Psychopaths are, of course, those dangerous people who appear to lack normal feelings. They torture and kill people, seemingly without emotion.  One theory is that the functioning of the amygdala in the brain has somehow become impaired in such people. Ronson visits a number of them in various prisons. They are very pleasant men, correct, polite, intelligent. Yet if they are let loose on society, they soon repeat their horrible crimes.
    During his researches, Ronson travels about, interviewing people, getting a feeling for what goes on in psychiatry these days. He becomes friends with Bob Hare, often meeting with him in airport hotels to discuss his latest ideas and what he has found out in his interviews with famous psychopaths. Hare tells him that it is not only the few violent psychopaths in prison who display the psychopathic character of mind. In fact, at least according to the Hare Test of psychopathy, as much as one percent of the general population is psychopathic. We think of the leaders of industry, banking, politics. Donald Rumsfeld. Dick Cheney. Yes, Indeed! In one chapter, Ronson travels to Florida to interview Al Dunlap, who is apparently considered to be one of the worst examples of ruthless, rapacious modern capitalism. Dunlap lives in spacious luxury in his retirement, filling his huge Florida mansion with everything his ill-gotten riches can buy. He was quite open with Ronson, admitting that his business methods were often brutal, yet telling him that such things are often necessary in our world. Even if he were to score badly in the Hare Test, still he was proud of what he had achieved in life.
    As the book progresses, Ronson gradually begins to see psychopathic tendencies everywhere. Perhaps he, himself, as a journalist, always trying to find the worst, juicy details in a person in order to include them in his latest book, or article for the Guardian, is something of a psychopath, even if his amygdala does seem to be functioning normally. This brings him to think about what is insane in modern journalism, and he is led to interview the unfortunate David Shayler. As a young man, Shayler was recruited into MI5, the English spooks. He became a whistle-blower, divulging to the English newspapers the fact that there was a secret plot to blow up Gaddafi in Libya. And thus he became lionized by the Guardian and all those other bastions of liberal thought. When Ronson first met him, Shayler was very much into the "Truth Movement", whose goal it is to expose the Truth behind the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, and the London Underground in 2005. Shayler asserted that those events were perpetrated by people - national secret services - whose motivation was to stir up racial hatred of the Arabs. At that point, Ronson shouted angrily at him and walked out, to later write nasty articles about the episode in the Guardian. But then, a few years later, Ronson again interviewed David Shayler. He seemed to have become mildly insane, claiming to be an incarnation of Jesus Christ, and what have you. He was living rough, homeless. A very sad case. Certainly not a psychopath, but hardly normal. All these ideas had driven him crazy.
    The book ends with a discussion of the modern tendency - particularly in the USA - to imagine that there are hundreds of different mental illnesses, each of which is to be treated by swallowing some drug or another. An idea which finds great approval within the pharmaceutical industry. For example, 20 or 30 years ago, only one in 2000 children was diagnosed with autism, yet now it is supposed to affect more than one in 100. Also it used to be said that no children had bipolar disorder; that was something which first appeared in the adult phase of life. But now millions of American children are swallowing up to 10 pills per day in order to treat bipolar disease, and I suppose to later lose the functions of their livers and kidneys, thus resulting in a further stream of income for the pharmaceutical industry.
    And then the last chapter describes Ronson's trip to the psychiatric hospital - or prison - at Broadmoor in England, where he had become acquainted with "Tony", who maybe is, or maybe is not a psychopath. The doctors, warders, and so on, decide to release Tony into society. But the authorities are reluctant to let him free so quickly. He is sent to the hospital/prison at Bethlem (which is the modern name for Bedlam, since the word "bedlam" has entered the English language as a way of conveying the idea of insanity, chaos). At the end, Tony is also released from Bedlam and he tells Ronson that he was thinking of heading for Belgium where he has a girlfriend who, unfortunately, is married to another man. The possible confrontation between Tony and the Belgian husband, and thus the resolution of the question of whether or not Tony really is a psychopath, is another story which is no longer covered in this book.

    But I was left with a certain feeling of disappointment. It is true that for a time I did subscribe to the online edition of the Guardian, and indeed, for many years we received the Guardian Weekly each week, sent to us on that thin, lightweight paper, designed for airmail. These days, on Sundays when the local paper is not delivered to our house, I turn on the WiFi and read the Guardian on this laptop over breakfast. What you read there is often amusing. Witty. Typical is the quote of someone named Will Self, who apparently is also a writer for the Guardian, reviewing this book. He wrote that he "found myself laughing like the proverbial loon for page after page" when reading the book. Another review quoted as a blurb on the cover is from a reviewer for the Observer - which of course is part of the Guardian. "The belly laughs come thick and fast - my God, he is funny..."
    Well, I didn't think the book was so funny. Although it is all lightly written, Tony is a real person, as is Al Dunlap and David Shayler. I don't think these are people to be laughed about. And there are no real jokes in the book. If you are going to laugh, then you are laughing about these people, and about Jon Ronson's description of them.
    What is all this laughing at the Guardian and at the other haunts of the "chattering classes" really about? An earlier best-seller of Jon Ronson was the book "The Men Who Stare at Goats". Apparently this is concerned with describing various ridiculous ideas which have been thought about in secret by people in the military, or in the secret services - CIA, MI5, Mossad (and of course we should not forget the secret police of Libya, Syria, Egypt, China, and what have you). I am sure it is a very funny book. Lots to laugh about. Many of their ideas are indeed insane!
    But if we accept the idea that these institutions are, at times, really insane, then why does poor David Shayler deserve nothing but a belly laugh? Surely the insane part of his life was when he was actually a member of MI5. Is it worth nothing more than a belly laugh when he tries to tell us that these insane institutions might be causing much of the suffering in the world? After all, they really do exist; they are no joke!
    So what is it that is truly psychopathic in the modern world? Just today I came across this story in The Nation of a poor man from Zanzibar who was sold for money to the CIA, and who then disappeared into the archipelago of concentration camps which has been set up from Guantanamo Bay to Bagram in Afghanistan, and which includes countless other, less well known concentration camps, designed for murder and torture. I suppose the link to this story will die some time soon, to be replaced by another such obscure story, again to disappear beneath the laughs of the chattering classes.
    Surely the true psychopathic monster of the modern world is these secret police forces and the fact that society tolerates them. You can go through the properties which Bob Hare has established for defining a psychopath, point for point, and you will see that every one of them is satisfied by this monster.

Der letzte Weynfeldt, by Martin Suter

     This was a fun book to read. The author, Martin Suter, is Swiss, although he no longer lives in Switzerland. But the hero of the story, Adrian Weynfeldt, does live in Switzerland. He is 50 years old, unmarried, childless, rich. He lives in the building his rich parents occupied back in their day. His apartment in the upper floor of the building measures 500 square meters. The rest of the building is occupied by a Swiss bank which pays him a million Swiss francs in rent each year. He inherited another similar building somewhere else in town. After his parents died, he had his apartment completely renovated, getting rid of all that old stuff and replacing it with the classic design furniture of the famous minimalist Italian, French, Swiss designers. Everything is extremely exclusive. He spends much time at the shop of his tailor in town. His wardrobe is filled with countless tailor-made, elegant suits, for every occasion. He has a Ph.D. in Fine Arts, and he occupies himself with an auction house in town, estimating the value of various paintings. His field is Swiss art of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He seems to swim in money.
    He has two groups of "friends". The first group is somewhat younger than he is. 40ish. They meet every Thursday in an expensive Italian restaurant in town. (Of course all restaurants in Switzerland are expensive these days!) These younger friends are all failed artists in one way or another. One is an architect whose opinion of himself is that it would be beneath his dignity to merely create expensive weekend houses for rich dentists. Thus his only income is the occasional, expensive rebuilding of parts of Weynfeldt's apartment. Another is a film maker whose project, namely what happened to the suitcase which Ernest Hemingway lost after his famous stay in a simple guesthouse in the Swiss Alps in the 1920s, has been in the gestation stage for many years. Weynfeldt finances his fruitless attempts to write a script. And another is a painter, Rolf Strasser, who, while having great technical mastery, being able to imitate the styles of many past masters to perfection, still, he has not yet found his own style, and thus his original paintings are relatively worthless. Weynfeldt has a whole table of such friends at the restaurant. Afterwards, he always pays the bill, so that everybody always orders the most expensive food and the most expensive wine, champagne, and so on. We imagine that Weynfeldt must have a yearly income of many millions of Swiss francs.
    The second group of his friends are the geriatric acquaintances who used to be the friends of his parents. One of them, Klaus Baier, had the hobby of playing around with all the millions which he had inherited from his parents. As is often the case with such things, he lost most of it. And so Baier found himself, in his old age, in serious financial straits. He had sold off almost everything. The paintings he had inherited had been auctioned off, replaced by copies, painted by Rolf Strasser. Only one original painting remained: Femme nue devant une salamandre, by the Swiss artist Felix Vallotton, painted in the year 1900.
(Unfortunately, the link I had provided seems to have become hijacked by some unpleasant people. Therefore I would recommend that you google the thing yourself in order to find a better link to the picture.)
    The nude is kneeling, facing away from us. She seems to have a strangely distorted body. The bottom half is tremendously fat, while the top half is that of a normal, attractive young woman. Since it is a realistic painting, we expect the artist to have depicted the figure in more or less correct anatomical detail. But where are her feet? Her lower legs? We can only imagine that her legs have, for some reason, been amputated at the knees. Looking at the various Internet sites devoted to this painting, we see that it is indeed privately and anonymously owned. According to the story of the novel, the owner, Klaus Baier, has been looking at the picture, which was in his father's study, since his earliest childhood. He is fascinated with the enormous backside of the woman. And so in his long life he has successively married three different women with similarly enormous backsides, and then divorced them. His distorted erotic fantasies remain unfulfilled. And now in his old age, in order to finance a dignified end to his life in a luxurious Swiss retirement home, he estimates that he needs about a million and a half Swiss francs, which he hopes to receive by placing this picture up for public auction. And thus he sends the picture to Adrian Weynfeldt.
    But is it the original version of Vallotton, or is it the copy by Rolf Strasser? And if it is Strasser's copy, why is it of less value than the original if nobody is able to tell the difference? For Klaus Baier, the painting has great emotional significance. But for some anonymous buyer, it is only a question of money, which itself is an abstract concept. The story is complicated by the circumstance that a younger - end 30ish - woman, Lorena, who does not suffer from the awkward proportions of Vallotton's woman, suddenly appears and becomes Weynfeldt's girlfriend. Or is she really just trying to cheat him out of his money? Is she in cahoots with Klaus Baier?
    The whole thing is an amusing satire on modern Switzerland. If you travel into the Swiss Alps you will find that there actually still do exist traditional farmers, climbing hundreds of meters up steep grassy slopes each morning, hacking away at the grass with hand-held sickles as if they still lived in the middle ages, then transporting the grass all the way down to their little barns to be stored for the cow or two they have so that it will have something to eat during the long, snowy winter. How do they exist like this? I can only surmise that the Swiss tourist people must provide them with a sufficient income in order to be able to exist in Switzerland, and thus they can be admired by all the tourists hiking about the countryside. In reality, Switzerland is awash with money.

The Greek Tragedies, by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides

     I've been gradually reading through this five volume collection of all the surviving tragedies of classical Greek theater. Aeschylus and Sophocles only have one volume each, whereas there are three volumes (of about 400 pages each) of the works of Euripides. But this is not to say that Euripides was more prolific than the other two playwrights. In fact each of them wrote very much more than that which has survived the depredations of time. And although we have three times as many of Euripides plays in comparison with those of Aeschylus and Sophocles, in reality the people of ancient Greece considered him to be very much inferior to the other two. While the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles regularly received the first prize in the annual Dionysus festival, those of Euripides generally received nothing.
    I was surprised to find that all of these plays are very readable. There are only few characters, the plot is always quite clear, and the dialogue is easy to follow, expressing clearly all of the emotions involved in the given situation. Perhaps this is due to the fact that these modern translations emphasize clarity, rather than trying to imitate the awkward, artful rhyming of the classical translations of the 18th and 19th centuries. So the plays can each be read through smoothly in one session.
    The subjects dealt with come from ancient Greek tradition: the Iliad and the Odyssey, Jason and the Argonauts, and so forth. In particular the saga of the Oresteia is the basis of various plays by all three of the authors. The most famous is the complete cycle of three plays by Aeschylus. The story is the following. We all know about Odysseus, the hero of the Odyssey with his various adventures in the aftermath of the Trojan War. But in these tragedies, Odysseus is not the main character. In fact he is portrayed as the bad guy: evil, cunning, a nasty character. The true leader of the Greeks was Agamemnon, the king of Argos. His brother, Menelaus, was married to Helen who famously violated her marriage vows by falling in love with Paris and going off with him to Troy. Thus, in a seemingly absurd over-reaction to this form of marriage drama which in today's world would hardly be thought to be exceptional, all of the Greek towns which normally occupied themselves with fighting one another decided to unite and go over to Troy in order to recapture Helen, thus forcibly and brutally returning her to her lawful husband Menelaus. (In the Introduction to one of these plays, the Australian feminist, Germain Grier, writes a few sensible words about such outrages.) But there is a problem. Lacking modern means of propulsion, the Greek ships were encalmed, or at least faced with contrary winds. And somehow the idea caught on that in order to get the whole thing moving, Agamemnon should sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to the god Artemis. So he does that, either brutally, or through weakness of character, according to one playwright or the other, and they sail off to eventually, after 10 years of war, return victorious. Agamemnon's poor wife Clytemnestra was obviously not very happy about this, and so, in contrast to Odysseus' wife Penelope, she took advantage of Agamemnon's absence and married his rival, Aegisthus. A messy business. The children of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, besides poor Iphigenia, were Orestes, the son who was removed to grow up elsewhere, and the daughters Electra and another daughter whose name I have forgotten.
    So at the end of the Trojan War, Agamemnon returns with his new girlfriend, a captured Trojan woman named Cassandra. Poor Cassandra would have preferred to remain at Troy, but it is her fate to enter the palace at Argos with Agamemnon, where Clytemnestra and Aegisthus take their revenge for the death of Iphigenia, killing them both. And thus Electra hates her mother, praying that her brother Orestes will return to take revenge and kill both Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. He does. But for some reason this killing of a mother by the son is thought to be a worse crime than the killing of a daughter by the father, and thus Orestes is pursued by the Furies, driving him mad.
    Our three different playwrights have different takes on all of this. For Aeschylus, the revenge of Electra seems to be quite reasonable. As I understand it, the Greeks subscribed to the theory that during the act of procreation, the seed from the male was implanted into the female in the same way that the seed of a plant would be planted in the earth. Thus only the father was the source of life; the mother was the mere earth in which that life could grow. Thus for Electra and Orestes, their father was everything in spite of his crimes, the mother nothing. In contrast with this, Euripides shows us the situation from the point of view of Clytemnestra. For him, Electra is a dreadful, vengeful, repulsive figure. But then in another play, Iphigenia in Tauris, he imagines that Iphigenia is not sacrificed at all. Instead she is magically transported in a puff of smoke, just at the moment her father is about to slit her throat with a knife, to some faraway land, where she becomes a goddess of human sacrifice - a situation which she hates, and from which she eventually escapes with the help of Orestes.
    And then of course there are various other stories as well. Sophocles gives us the whole saga of Oedipus. In contrast with Freud's strange fantasies on this theme, King Oedipus in Sophocles' version of the story was drawn into the situation by chance, or by the evil intentions of the gods, without having the least idea about what he was doing. Perhaps an allegory on the pitfalls of life.
    I was surprised about the fact that women play such powerful and central roles in these plays. The standard picture we have of ancient Greek society (if we disregard all the slaves) is of men gathering together for the evening symposium, or perhaps displaying themselves naked in the gymnasium, reclining on sofas, drinking wine, being entertained by "flute girls" in various ways, indulging themselves with homosexual activities, and generally living a life of indulgence and depravity. The women, in contrast, hide themselves away in the back rooms, confined to the limits of narrow domestic life, as indeed their sisters in some of the more repressive modern Arab countries are reputed to live. But these Greek tragedies give us a completely different picture. The women are the decisive figures. And so I wonder if our picture of a male dominated ancient Greece may not be true to life after all.

Solar, by Ian McEwan

     A fast-paced, funny story. Michael Beard is a Nobel Prize winning Physicist. He's 50 or so. The work which led to his Nobel Prize - something to do with light - was done many years ago. Now he has become a short, flabby, self-important gentleman. He travels about the world, basking in the past glory of his Prize. He has gone through 5 marriages, and countless affairs. His libido would appear to rival that of the famous disgraced Frenchman, Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Real thoughts of physics have been left behind in the past. Instead he is the President of countless committees, institutes, faculties, and what have you, concerned with the great business of modern-day physics. Ian McEwan seems to be fascinated by this realm of esoteric scholarship. In a few paragraphs of Acknowledgments at the end of the book, he drops the names of a number of professors of one thing and another from whom he has become acquainted with various fashionable buzz-words: super-symmetry, super-strings, M-theory, and so on. Einstein, Bohr, Feynman, fill the thoughts of the Nobel Prize winning Beard. His great contribution, which Ian McEwan sketches in terms of quantum gobbledygook, is called the "Beard-Einstein Conflation". Although this has become old-hat, he nevertheless continues to give lectures on this subject to admiring audiences.
    Professor Beard has become the Chairman of an Institute in England, devoted to Global Warming, or Climate Change, or whatever it is now supposed to be called. He is not really interested in such things, but he does take the trouble to interrupt all the drama involved in his disintegrating fifth marriage in order to travel to the Institute once a month and appear to be interested, and thus to continue drawing his generous emoluments from this activity. Amongst the many well-paid workers at the Institute are a number of pony-tailed (but male) post-docs. One of them is a far superior physicist and lover in comparison to our hero, Michael Beard. Not only does the post-doc discover a method of saving Humanity, the Earth, and Everything Else from Downfall, by finding a practical means of applying the Beard-Einstein Conflation to the real world. In addition to all that, he also seduces Michael Beard's fifth wife, who falls madly in love with him.
    Of course Ian McEwan dwells particularly on this later achievement, since the details of all that quantum gobbledygook would be of little interest to the general reader. In a funny passage, the pony-tailed post-doc slips on a rug in the presence of the great Professor Beard, banging his head on the corner of a glass table, and thus expiring in a pool of blood on the floor. And so the great professor pretends that these new and practical discoveries in the realms of green technology are his own, and he embarks on a second career as Savior of the World.
    What is this great discovery which is supposed to save the world? It is artificial photosynthesis. In this link, you can see what progress is really being made in this direction, rather than in the imaginary world of Ian McEwan. It is unclear to me why artificial photosynthesis is superior to natural photosynthesis in the race to save the world. The farmers of Germany are, at least, in no confusion. The field in front of our garden is at the moment again filled with monstrously large corn (maize) plants which the farmer will soon hack up in a big machine and transport to the local "bio-fuel" depot where it will be converted into methane, ethanol, and all those other components. Here, the politicians tried to force through the law that all petrol must contain at least 10% ethanol. Through tax concessions which we must all pay for, it is a few cents cheaper per liter than fuel with 5% ethanol, which is also offered at all the filling stations. The situation seems absurd. But I only use the 5% ethanol petrol, both as a mater of principal, and also owing to the fact that one gets better mileage out of fuel with less ethanol.
    Elsewhere in these writings I have gone on about the evil of wantonly burning food. But beyond this, I have become aware of another evil consequence of this whole business. Not only does a farmer of "bio-fuel" spray everything beforehand with herbicides, thus poisoning the environment, and in the long-term the groundwater. But in addition, I have noticed that there seem to be fewer bees, and other pollinating insects in our garden since all this "bio-fuel" has been growing here. I have recently learned that the seeds of the corn in this modern form of agriculture have been treated with a strong nerve poison in order to prevent anything from eating the seeds when they have been freshly planted. However the poison is so strong that even when the plant has grown so far that it attracts pollinators, it is still sufficiently poisonous to decimate the bee population. This is not so funny. And from what I gather, the pollution to be expected of artificial photosynthesis could be even greater than that caused by these modern practices of using natural photosynthesis in order to produce "bio-fuel".

A Most Wanted Man, by John le Carré

     The author was a British spy during the Cold War and his experiences led him to write all of his well-known spy novels, many of which are concerned with Germany. He is now an old man and the Cold War has long ago disappeared into the mists of history. It has been replaced by a nasty little mess which is called the "War on Terror". John le Carré's opinion of this was summarized in his essay "The United States Has Gone Mad" (2003). The present book is concerned with this theme. The story again takes place in Germany, despite the fact that most of the War on Terror which the United States is imposing on us does not take place in Germany. But at least according to the narrative which is used to justify the War on Terror, it is said that a number of students of Arabian origins lived in Hamburg when they were preparing the events of the 11th of September, 2001.
    In the story, a poor, beaten man turns up in Hamburg. He seeks help. He has spent years in the torture cells of various Russian prisons. This is Russia's "War on Terror", which involves the small territory of Chechnya. Looking at a globe, one has the impression that Russia covers an extremely large portion of the landmass of the earth. Under Stalin's terror, Russia conquered even more, but twenty years ago, a few bits of it were able to free themselves from this Russian domination. Chechnya is a tiny little area, barely visible on the globe, which also wanted freedom, yet for some reason it was refused, and instead Russia started fighting a War on Terror against the Chechens.
    The hero of our story is the son of a Russian military commander, responsible for much of the torture which is the essential feature of these various wars on terror. He took a poor Chechen woman and continually raped her until she became pregnant with the baby who grew up to be the beaten young man turning up in Hamburg. Most of the story concerns a young woman lawyer who tries to defend him, with the goal of perhaps obtaining asylum for him in Germany. But the German version of the CIA - which has the absurd name "Verfassungsschutz", which can be literally translated into English as "Protectors of the Constitution" - is confused. Is our hero a member of the imaginary "al-Qaeda"? (For those readers who have not bothered to delve further into these things, the Arabic word al-Qaeda can be translated as "the Base" (and in common use in Arabian countries, the word apparently might also refer to a toilet seat). According to the former British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, the term "al-Qaeda", in the sense that the purveyors of the "War on Terror" use it, refers to a data base, consisting of a computer file organized by the CIA to keep track of the Mujaheddin in Afghanistan who were fighting the Russians in the 1980s.)
    In the novel, a complicated story develops, and it seems that a way has been found to save the young man from all of the people who are hunting him. But in the final pages, the story takes a brutal twist, and he is snatched by American agents to again be thrown into new torture chambers. A horrible, depressing business. But as a novel it was a good read.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

     This is a kind of sequel to the Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Huck's degenerate father is making life difficult, so he escapes down the Mississippi on a raft, taking with him Jim, the escaped slave of Miss Watson. And they have various adventures, meeting up with numbers of strange, often dangerous characters. So the book could be thought of as giving us a view of the under-layers of American society along the Mississippi before the Civil War. The book was first published in 1884. The Civil War and slavery were then twenty years in the past. Nevertheless, Jim is continually referred to as a "nigger", and his situation as an object of monetary value plays a great role in the development of the story. All of this seems offensive, even when we realize that the book is a satire on the hypocrisy of the Antebellum South.
    I enjoyed the Adventures of Tom Sawyer more than this one. It is a simple adventure story without all of this disagreeable, biting satire. Towards the end of the book, after the raft has drifted a long way down the Mississippi, Tom Sawyer suddenly makes his appearance in a way which involves a ridiculous coincidence. The novel then degenerates into what Ernest Hemingway called "little more than minstrel-show satire and broad comedy". Poor Jim is confined in a slave house, chained to his bed, afraid of being sold down the river at any moment to some cruel overseer. Yet Tom Sawyer, who all along knows that Miss Watson has freed Jim, makes an elaborate game out of dragging things out, creating silly, elaborate plans for Jim's escape. This is a practical joke in the worst possible taste. Despite everything, Jim is grateful to Tom and Huck to the end. This is no longer satire. Instead I am afraid Mark Twain displays the ugly side of racism here.

Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen

     The narrator, whose name is Jacob Jankowski, is an old man in a nursing home recalling what happened when he was a young man in 1931. This is the Depression era United States. While his name is obviously Polish, his ancestors immigrated to America a couple of generations ago. His father was a rural veterinarian, and he himself was studying veterinary medicine at Cornell. But then the parents die in a car crash, Jacob is left penniless and he runs away, jumping onto a random train in the middle of the night. It happens to be a circus train. Thus Jacob becomes its resident veterinarian, despite the fact that he has not quite finished his degree. The whole thing becomes a dramatic love story set against much random brutality both to people and to circus animals. In particular an elephant plays a central role in all of this.
    But quite frankly, I think it is dreadful that animals are still allowed to be displayed in circuses. There is currently an initiative in Germany to ban circus animals, and I hope that it is eventually successful. After all, the curiosity people might have about animals is sufficiently satisfied these days by all of the animal programs on television. It is cruelty of the worst kind to confine lions or tigers in small cages and cart them about from place to place in close proximity with other animals which would be their natural prey. If people want to make exhibitions of themselves in circuses, then OK, but poor defenseless animals should be left out of it.
    A few things in the book seemed to me to be somewhat far-fetched. For example, the elephant, which has been rather chaotically acquired from another circus which has become bankrupt, is apparently incapable of doing any of the standard circus tricks associated with elephants. The brutal bad-guy of the story, a character named August, beats the elephant mercilessly with a horrible elephant hook. This does not result in the elephant performing its tricks. But then, magically, Jacob discovers that the elephant understands the Polish language, and so the cruel August is immediately able to elicit the tricks by uttering Polish words. I see that Sara Gruen has more recently published a novel about bonobos, and perhaps she just got carried away here in thinking about their language abilities.
    I was also interested to see that the unfortunate character of August was described as being a Jewish person. The fact that he is Jewish comes up in many places in the book. The name August, in contrast to the name Jacob, is hardly biblical. And the Jacob of this story is placed firmly in the category of a Polish Catholic. Somehow we are more used to the idea of people with Islamic rather than Jewish backgrounds being placed into unfortunate roles in modern literature. I wonder if Sara Gruen, who is a Canadian, might herself be of a Jewish background, and thus she might feel free to make such an issue of these questions of ethnicity. Her surname is obviously derived from the German word "grün", which means green. (And in this connection it is amusing to remember that that famous composer of romantic operas, Giuseppe Verdi, would simply be named "Joe Green" if he had immigrated to North America and adopted his name to the local conditions.)

Pepys, by Richard Ollard

     An interesting, informative biography. When reading through Pepys's diary it is difficult to keep track of all the names, and to know exactly what he is going on about. For example at one stage of the diary he gets into a panic owing to the fact that Edward Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich, his noble cousin upon whom his position depended, had done something underhanded in his role as admiral in the Second Anglo-Dutch War. But in the diary, although Pepys goes on and on about this, it was unclear what the problem actually was. All of this is explained by Ollard. And of course Pepys reached the zenith of his career well after the time he stopped writing the diary.
    He certainly must have been a most interesting man. Amongst his many interests, his love of music stands out. In his later life as a very wealthy, influential man he sometimes had the greatest musicians of London come to his house to perform privately for his guests. What was it like? Somehow it seems that our idea of music of the 17th century is determined by the occasional period movie, or even modern-day performances of "old music" in a careful, serious style, being concerned with whether or not it is "authentic", and thus rather boring. But surely the reality was totally different from this. Pepys's musical parties must have been wonderful. Funny, delightful, moving. For example think of the Kings Singers in a concert like this.

March, by Geraldine Brooks

     This is an American Civil War story. A good read. Really quite moving. Ending in a horrible mess and tragedy, as all these war stories are supposed to end. Geraldine Brooks derived the hero of the story as a kind of counterpoint to the story of Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, a book which I haven't read. Using this device, we are transported into that Ur-American hamlet, Concord Massachusetts, and we meet all those famous characters: Ralf Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathanial Hawthorne, and what have you.
    Yes, wars are wonderful for producing lots of interesting literature. But the question is, why is the United States the only country - or at least western country - which required a horrible war in order to free its slaves? For example, Brazil had a much longer history of slavery than the southern states of the United States. But at least according to this source, Brazilian slaves were treated far more humanly than their North American counterparts, and so the institution of slavery was peacefully ended in 1888.
    Abraham Lincoln has, of course, been long ago deified, sitting on his gigantic throne in a marble temple in the style of ancient Rome in Washington D.C. But I wonder if a greater man than he might have been able to free the United States of the evil of slavery peacefully. In a better world, the United States would not be obsessed with racism as it is now, 150 years after the American Civil War. It would be a better, more peaceful country.

The Return of the Native, by Thomas Hardy

     I have the feeling that I read this novel many years ago, but reading it now, it all seems new to me; I had completely forgotten the story. And last week I also read (or re-read?) Far from the Madding Crowd, which I'm sure I read back in those days, but again, I couldn't remember the story. In any case, I'm enjoying reading through these old books of Thomas Hardy, imagining what it was like in his England of those bygone years. The rural life, far removed from hectic London. His description of Bathsheba's barn was wonderful, an ancient stone building whose purpose it fulfilled through the centuries, changing even less than the ancient churches which it resembled. But I had to laugh about the scene where she observes Gabriel shearing a sheep in the time-honored way, and she holds a stopwatch in her hand, admiring his skill and the rapidity of his work. He finished in less than 30 minutes!
    Well... I have helped out in an Australian barn where a pair of shearers went through the whole flock of a thousand or more sheep in a couple of days. I think they were working at the rate of 120 or 130 each per day. The world record, as far as I remember, is held by a New Zealand shearer at over 300 sheep in a day. I don't know what sort of shears he was using, but those Australians were using shears which were turned by a system of mechanical linkages to a revolving shaft overhead. Rather like those images of steam driven factories of long ago. And the Australian barn was a simple corrugated metal construction, something you could put up yourself in a couple of days. (Having written that, I looked things up via Google and have found that the present world records seem to be beyond all reason. These days the champion shearers shear at the rate of more than one sheep a minute!)
    But the rural people of Thomas Hardy's England do things at a different pace. Nothing is hectic. If somebody is sent off on an urgent mission then as likely as not he will end up in the local pub with his friends for a few hours, forgetting everything and perhaps lurching the story into a new direction. Was life in former times so relaxed? Now that I have seen the English countryside a few times, I would like to imagine that things were as in Hardy's Wessex.
    In earlier 19th century romances, everything comes to a beautiful conclusion with the marriage of the hero and the heroine. But in Hardy's world things start with marriage and they lead to catastrophe, then in the end, after Death and Adversity removes some of the characters from the scene, we are again led into a beautiful marriage at the end of the story and we presume that everybody lives happily ever after. (But it is true that in the edition of The Return of the Native which is reproduced in, Hardy apologizes for this ending, telling us that he really wanted a more tragic ending, but he was forced into giving us this happy ending by the fact that it was published in the newspapers as a serial story, and I suppose the newspaper editors wanted something nice for their readers.)
    In The Return of the Native, I liked poor old Eustacia much more than that simple-minded Thomasin. After all, Clym was a dealer in diamonds in Paris, and Eustacia was herself a kind of diamond. If he had wanted to give up all the false glamor of 19th century Paris in order to return to the simple rural pleasures of Wessex then he had no business ruining the dreams of Eustacia.
    And the titles of Hardy's books confuse me. Who was the Native? Was it Clym, or was it the reddelman, Diggory Venn? And where is the madding crowd in that other book? The only frenzied or insane person was that unfortunate character, Boldwood, who in the end was sensible enough to turn himself in to the police, who eventually had him committed to an insane asylum.

Two on a Tower, by Thomas Hardy

     This doesn't seem to be one of Thomas Hardy's well-known books. At least I had never heard of it before reading the article about the author in the Wikipedia. But I very much enjoyed reading it. The two main characters in the story are not the usual rural farming types which we expect to find in Hardy's stories. Instead it is a romance between the 28 year old Lady Constantine, Viviette, and the much younger - 19 or 20 year old, if I remember rightly - Swithin St. Cleeve, who lives in the small village adjoining Lady Constantine's large estate.
    But she is not a happy person. Her aristocratic husband has disappeared somewhere years ago. Maybe to Africa. Or maybe he his hanging out somewhere in London with his latest mistress. Nothing has been heard for years. Since he was a cruel husband, Viviette hopes he will not return, but since he might still be alive and married to her, she must remain chaste and alone, as was the fate of Penelope, waiting for the return of her cruel Odysseus.
     The young Swithin, whose social position was far beneath that of Viviette, was not interested in such things. Instead he was interested in astronomy. Lady Constantine's estate included an old tower which he was using to set up a telescope which he had built himself in order to observe the stars and the planets. In her loneliness, she buys him expensive lenses and an equatorial mount, thus coming nearer to Swithin, whom she finds to be a beautiful specimen of male youth. He gladly accepts her gifts and is able to begin making new discoveries in astronomy. The idea that Lady Constantine might be interested in more than astronomy does not occur to him. But some talk of the locals opens his eyes to the situation. He discovers that he also loves the beautiful, but awkwardly older and socially unavailable Viviette. And thus a melodrama develops in the typical Hardy style. But it somehow scandalized Victorian England, I suppose since, as in Hindu India, it was taboo to allow the different castes to mix with one another.
    I enjoyed the primitive view of astronomy which Hardy describes when describing the things which were of interest to Swithin. Back in those days, the idea that the universe consists of a multitude of rotating galaxies had not yet arisen. Those fog-like nebula were unexplained. People were interested in comets, the orbits of the planets, perhaps the properties of variable stars. Things closer to home. But these days, amateurs with their home-made telescopes - or the simple home telescopes which may be obtained at - are hardly in a position to make new discoveries. Modern astronomers often make their discoveries on computer monitors, half the world away from the gigantic telescopes in the high, dry mountains of Chile, or wherever, or the telescopes orbiting in outer space, sending the information electronically back to earth. We now know that the "island universes" of the 1920s in all their multitudes and varieties continue out to the limits of observability. Modern astronomers interest themselves in the mystical questions involved with the Creation of the Universe by God. Or the equally mystical Disappearance of Matter into Black Holes. I wonder if the inhabitants of the Future, one hundred years from now, will find the questions which modern astronomers pose to be as quaint as our view of the ancient astronomy of one hundred years ago.

Kipps, by H. G. Wells

     This book of H. G. Wells is not concerned with science fiction. It is another story about the caste system of England at the beginning of the last century. Arthur, or "Artie" to his girlfriend, Kipps is born into a simple family belonging to one of the lower castes. He is being brought up by his Aunt and Uncle. Apart from money, perhaps the main method of determining into which caste a person was to be placed was language. Thus Kipps speaks in a way which, according to the standard rules of English grammar, is incorrect. His Aunt and Uncle waste money on a private school of the cheapest and lowest possible class, hoping thus to establish Arthur into a position slightly above the laboring class of people. And thus at the age of 14 or so he becomes apprenticed to a department store in Folkestone, on the south coast of England, near Dover. He must stand around, serving people, packing and unpacking boxes, and so forth, for 12 or 14 hours a day. The food is dreadful. He must sleep in a barracks with 10 other apprentices in a small cell. He is almost never allowed out into the outside world. Such was the life of a young man near the bottom of the ladder in the England of those days. His childhood girlfriend, Ann, has become the maid in the house of a snooty member of a more upward placed caste of England's South Coast. After 6 or 7 years of this sobering life, Kipps is suddenly presented with an unexpected inheritance of £26,000.
    In those days, such an inheritance was thought of in terms of the income it generated. The figure quoted was £1,200/year. Dividing the one number by the other, I see that he was obtaining a return on his capital of something over 4.6% per annum. That was real money, which wasn't disappearing year for year in inflation! In the modern world, despite the fact that money is disappearing at the rate of 2 or 3% each year (with the prospect of galloping inflation in the near future), interest rates are way below 4.6%. In fact even below the rate of inflation, thus rendering savings absurd and the spendthrift making of debts sensible. But Kipps was living in an age when the world still had real money. And at that time, £1,200 each year was a lot of money. To give a sense of things, I noticed that Wells has his character Arthur Kipps traveling at one stage of his adventures to the big city of London. Of course he stays in the best hotel - the "Royal Grand" - where his room costs 12 shillings a night. He finds the restaurants awkward, and he has a quick look in at a sensible pub for the common people where a meal would cost 1 shilling. But the people there look at him strangely, laughing at him, since his extremely expensive clothes would be totally out of place in such a pub.
    Translating all this into our "virtual", and undoubtedly ephemeral European money, the euro, I think that a simple dinner in a pub would cost you about €10 at the present time. (Twelve years ago, the same meal would have cost about 10 German marks, giving a rate of inflation of 100% between then and now. Of course that is way above the rate of inflation which is "officially" bandied about.) But if the ratios of these things remained constant in time, then that would seem to imply that a night in the Ritz in London, or the Hotel Adlon in Berlin, would be 12 times the cost of a meal in a pub, namely only something like €120. In reality though, the price today would be 10 times that, or more. So it seems that not only the debt-ridden, modern system of inflating money is totally out if kilter, but also the world's luxury hotels are too. In any case, despite the fact that H. G. Wells wrote so many science fiction stories, the fact that our world, which was the World of the Future for him, is so out of kilter is something which is really neither here nor there as far as this story is concerned.
    Kipps in his sudden riches is almost trapped by a beautiful young woman belonging to a higher caste whose family, unfortunately, has become impoverished. Kipps, intoxicated by his riches, believes that he will thus be admitted as a new member of this caste, and he devotes himself to "self-improvement", with the aim of pretending to belong to it. Yet he finds himself being continuously snubbed. He passes from one embarrassing situation to the next. Life becomes intolerable. His lady-friend has now become his fiancé, and she forces him to attend an awkward ladies afternoon-tea cum "anagram party". He feels terrible. And his old girlfriend Ann is the maid, simply but elegantly clothed, opening the door for him in his expensive silk ladies party costume. Thus, as we hope, he elopes with Ann, escaping from all those dreadful people in the high society of Folkestone.
    Artie and Ann decide to build themselves a simple little house along the coast, away from Folkestone. But it turns into an 11 bedroom monstrosity in the Queen Ann style, costing Kipps £3,000 or so. But still, that was only a small fraction of his £26,000. And in this connection, I see that Caerleon, a house built in the Queen Ann style in Bellevue Hill, which is an Eastern Suburb of Sydney in Australia, and which, from the picture would seem to have less than 11 bedrooms, was sold in 2008 for A$22,000,000! Such are the bloated consequences of the present monetary system of the world.
    All this house-building, and various other things, lead to a few unfortunate falling outs between Ann and Artie. But then comes catastrophe. Somebody has gambled away all of Kipps riches, so that he is left with nothing, or at least only £1,000 or so. He starts a little bookshop together with Ann in the small town of Hythe, he prospers, and unexpectedly a punt he had made turns to riches, but despite this, they continue on in the bookshop to live happily ever after. A nice read.

The Swerve, by Stephen Greenblatt

     During the Middle Ages in Europe society degenerated into a state of religious horror, torture, fear, suppression. The church declared that free thought, curiosity, was a sin, to be punished with whips, bludgeons, even burning at the stake. Greenblatt quotes a description by Catherine von Gebersweiler, who was a nun at Colmar in Alsace in the fourteenth century. During the whole of Lent, the nuns
"abused their bodies in the most acute fashion with all manner of scourging instruments until their blood flowed, so that the sound of the blows of the whip rang through the entire convent and rose more sweetly than any other melody to the ears of the Lord."
    Pain was considered to be good while pleasure was sin. The reason for this absurd distortion of reality was the idea that after death, the body lives on in a state which is an inversion of life in the real world. Thus the reward in this imaginary afterlife for pain would be eternal pleasure, while the punishment for pleasure in the real world would be an infinite degree and duration of torture. In order to enforce this dogma, and to demonstrate to people the nature of the eternal punishment in the afterlife, the church regularly performed the horrible public torture of burning people at the stake.
    And yet it is a trivial observation that the body does not live on after death. If it is buried in the ground, it decomposes and gradually becomes part of the soil. If it is burned then it disappears in the fumes of the fire, leaving a bit of ash behind, composed of fine particles of material.
    In the ancient world of the Greeks, similar visions of a horrible afterlife also existed, but they did not take on such monstrous proportions as in the Middle Ages. People were free to think, and curiosity was no sin, so a school of thought developed around the philosopher Epicurus, based on reason rather than nonsense. We know about this through the writings of the ancients which have survived the ravages of time. Unfortunately though, the original writings have almost all disappeared.
    What has survived has come down to us as copies, made some time during the Middle Ages. The monks in the scriptoriums of their monasteries copied manuscripts of religious dogma and, in order to pretend to a certain degree of erudition, they also copied a few of the texts of the lost civilizations of Greece and Rome. Most was ignored and has become lost. But strangely enough, the long poem De rerum natura, by Lucretius, did survive. Three of the copies on parchment, made in the time of Charlemagne, withstood the dark ages despite the fact that the poem describes Epicurus' philosophy, a philosophy totally at variance with the superstitions of the church. Undoubtedly they were stored away in obscure, dusty cellars of those medieval monasteries, unread, and thus not threatened with destruction.
    At the beginning of the renaissance period, some people, disgusted with the state of life in Europe at that time, traveled about, looking for lost manuscripts. This book is concerned with one such character, Poggio Bracciolini, an Italian scholar who discovered a copy of Lucretius in a monastery, perhaps that in Fulda, in Germany. Later two further copies were found. So this book tries to describe what life was like for Poggio; for the people of the Dark Ages; for the Ancients, calmly discussing philosophy; and for the people of the renaissance, moving away from the horrors of the church and as often as not being burned at the stake for their troubles.
    Greenblatt is a Shakespearean scholar at Harvard, and while I enjoyed his earlier book Will in the World, on second thoughts I realized that it was composed to a great degree of nothing more than groundless speculation, fantasizing about what might have been. And also in this book, Greenblatt gives his imagination free reign. But at least we do know that Lucretius was a real person who really did write De rerum natura, describing the philosophy of Epicurus, who really did exist. So it is interesting to imagine what things might have been like in these different phases of history.
    One point which struck me as being a rather large leap of fantasy was where he describes the papyrus rolls which have been recovered from the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum. Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. On the other hand, Lucretius died in about 55 BC, that is well over 100 years before the eruption. Many of the texts in the Villa of the Papyri were concerned with the philosophy of Epicurus, and in fact in recent years, one of the rolls has been found to contain at least part of the text of Lucretius. Thus Greenblatt imagines that perhaps Lucretius himself may have sat in the garden of the Villa, discussing these things with Lucius Calpurnius Piso, who may have been the owner of the Villa in ca. 60 BC. But even if this maybe were to be true, it is still unclear if Piso himself collected the rolls of papyrus instead of some later owner of the Villa, 100 or more years later.
    Be all that as it may, I have been fascinated with Lucretius' book, whose title is translated as "On the Nature of Things", for many years. It is an attempt to describe how the world works. The basic idea is that everything consists of atoms moving through the void. Lucretius then derives from this basic premise numbers of conclusions about the physical world (many of which are absurdly false) and also conclusions about the place of humanity in the universe. Neither the earth nor the sun is the center of the universe. Instead it consists of infinitely many objects all of which eventually come to an end, dispersing their atoms which then in turn assemble into new objects in an everlasting chaos of change. This is true of humans, as it is with humanity as a whole. Thus humans are nothing special; they are the same as all the other animals. And in anticipation of Darwin, Lucretius describes the process of evolution, driven by chaos, freed of any imaginary divine intervention. Death is nothing to us since then we no longer exist. People who devote their lives to false ambitions, hectically wasting themselves, causing pain and anguish, achieve nothing.