A Stack of Books: Prison Diary Excerpt

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A Stack of Books:  Prison Diary Excerpt

by Alan Carl Nicoll

Copyright 2018 by Alan Carl Nicoll
All right reserved.

Full of spoilers, of course.  These are more “comments on books” than book “reviews.”

{5/3/08} Reading [Aldous] Huxley’s Brave New World. A quote: “…that is the secret of happiness and virtue—liking what you’ve got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their inescapable social destiny.” Bantam Books, NY, 1958 pb (reprint of 1939 original), p. 10

Finished Brave New World. After 1984 and Clockwork Orange, I have to say that this one is at least as good, and it also presents a very challenging question. One feels a need to refute the assumptions of the society presented, but it’s surprisingly difficult. This civilization has sacrificed growth (“spiritual” or mental, not economic) for happiness—the happiness of the pig. Most of the citizens are capable of no more than this, by design. The question suddenly occurs to me: don’t we already have this bottom rung in place? Except for those who aren’t “making it,” of course. Well, the comparison is strained. Also strained is the plausibility of the idea of a stable world government ruled by one man. One suspects that many “alphas” might plot to see themselves in the top spot, if only to “fix things.”

But that’s beside the point. Huxley presents a not obviously impossible society which is stable and seemingly eternal, where “everyone is happy.” What’s wrong with that? Huxley clearly expects us to believe that there is something dreadfully wrong, but, while I love Shakespeare, I have to wonder: is art really worth so much? Aren’t most of us just as mindless, just as conditioned and incapable of freedom as Huxley’s Deltas? Don’t we just have poorer teachers? Great book, great questions.

Diderot is a promising “discovery” I made today. a very interesting character—stay tuned.

{5/6/08} From Rameau’s Nephew, by Diderot: “One gulps down the flattering lie and sips the bitter truth.” p. 279, GBWW

{5/8/08} From Diderot: “There was in all he said much that one thinks to oneself, and acts on, but that one never says. This was in fact the chief difference between my man and the rest of us. He admitted his vices, which are also ours: he was no hypocrite. Neither more nor less detestable than other men, he was franker then they, more logical, and thus often profound in his depravity. I was appalled to think of what his child would become under such a tutor. It was clear that if he was brought up on a system so exactly framed on our actual behavior, he would go far—unless he was prematurely cut off on the way.” p. 296

“…how in the name of sense can one feel, think, rise to heights, and speak with vigor while frequenting people such as those I must frequent to live—in the midst of gossip and the meaningless words that one says and hears…?” p. 298

{5/9/08} Finished Rameau’s Nephew yesterday. It’s delightfully witty and cynical, rather odd, and sometimes seems to border on the profound. Some paragraphs are a bit tedious, being descriptions of Nephew’s imitating musical instruments, singers, and such; and, naturally, some references are obscure. But it’s a quick read and a good deal of fun.

{5/10/08} “To be unwanted is also to be free.” NY Times Book Review, 4/27/08, attrib. to Germain Greer in The Change.

{5/14/08} Finished Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Penguin Books, NY, 2005-6 (pb). Excellent book, but like Guns, Germs, and Steel, a bit thick with the detail. I skipped a few pages about the effects of mining. He establishes a “five-point framework” for understanding why civilizations have failed (or not): environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, trading partners, and the society’s response to environmental problems. He also takes a look at where we are now. He asks, “…how much of our [“first world”] traditional consumer values and first world living standard can we afford to retain? I already mentioned the seeming political impossibility of inducing first world citizens to lower their impact on the world. But the alternative, of continuing our current impact, is more impossible.” p. 524 He finds reason for guarded optimism in all the science (re the environment) and communication we |46B| have that the societies he studied that failed, did not. It’s worth noting that he offers a guide to “what each of us can do” on pages 555-560. I’m much more inclined to think that the US, at least, will never “bite the bullet” until something calamitous happens—and probably not even then. We will continue applying band-aids while the rest of the world shrivels, until we have the final privilege to be the last to starve to death.

{5/17/08} Beginning my study of Robert Graves & Alan Hodge: The Reader Over Your Shoulder: A Handbook for Writers of English Prose, Second Edition (rev. & abridged), Vintage Books, Random House, New York, 1979 (pb). First quote: “To write English well, it is generally agreed, is not to imitate, but to evolve a style peculiarly suited to one’s own temperament, environment and purposes.” p. 4

“English dictionaries are collections of precedents, rather than official codebooks of meaning.” p. 15

“There is not, and cannot be, any permanent model of literary English…” p. 17

“There should be two main objects in ordinary prose writing: to convey a message, and to include in it nothing that will distract the reader’s attention or check his habitual pace of reading…” p. 36

The authors provide 25 “Principles of Clear Statement” and 16 “Graces of Prose.” I paraphrase: #1-7: The text should be perfectly clear and precise about: who, which, what, where, when, how much, and how many; #8-10: Every word or phrase should be appropriate to its context, unambiguous, and in its right place in the sentence; #11-25: One should avoid unintentional contrast, repetition of an idea, tautology, omitting important details, raising expectations which are not fulfilled, abandoning a theme without completing its anticipated development,…

I see that this list is a complete waste. I need a fuller statement of each point if this study and summary is to be of value. My impatience with the seeming lameness of nos. 1-7 should not lead me to treat the whole work as trivial. I must go more slowly.

{5/24/08} Goethe: “I am like a snake, I slough my skin and start afresh.” in GBWW vol. 45, Biographical Note, p. ix.

“His life would be less difficult, poor thing,/Without your gift of heavenly glimmering;/He calls it reason, using light celestial/Just to outdo the beasts in being bestial.” Goethe: Faust, p. xxi

“Wagner. And yet the world, the human heart and mind—/To understand these things must be our aim./Faust. To understand—and how is that defined?/Who dares to give that child its proper name?/The few of understanding, vision rare,/Who veiled not from the herd their hearts, but tried,/Poor generous fools, who laid their feelings bare,/Them have men always burnt and crucified.” p. 4.

Finished with The Reader Over Your Shoulder. It is a poor dull thing, completely dry and uninspiring, though I suppose correct enough. I should not trouble myself with this one again.

Also finished Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, a magnificent long novel, sort of a War and Peace of the Old West, though without the war. I compare it to Tolstoy’s best because it is that good, though however lacking Tolstoy’s passionate commitment to the ultimate questions of life. It is, however, the most entertaining and wonderful of novels, with truly masterful handling of characterization and reader interest. My experience of it was unfortunately tainted by having seen most of the miniseries a couple of times, but then, without having seen the miniseries I likely would never have read the novel.

{5/28/08} There are some regrettable things in it, however: the men obsess over whores and “pokes” (i.e., sex), and McMurtry doesn’t understand, and so gets wrong, the phases of the moon in relation to time of day or night. Mere quibbles. A “great read” with characters to love.

Started rereading Stoker’s Dracula today, vastly more interesting than Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, which I rejected after 60-70 pages.

A passage from Faust, spoken by him: “Ay me, so humbly I entreat for rest,/No more comes sweet contentment to my breast./Must we then find so soon the fountain dry,/And man in thirsty torment left to lie?/That is the truth that long experience brings,/Yet may these sorrows bear a compensation:/We learn to cherish here immortal things,/And look with longing hearts for revelation,/Whose high inspired and wonder-bearing word/Most clear in the New Testament is heard.” p. 11 Surprising words from Goethe!

{5/31/08} Reading Warlock by Jim Harrison, sighing repeatedly over the first few pages, finally putting it down in disgust with the thought eventually formulating itself as, “Anyone who enjoys sex that much has nothing to say to me.” Dissatisfied, I had another thought: “Is there anything more boring than somebody else’s—orgasm?—interest in sex?” Then recognizing the irony of my own writing plans re Miserere.

Despite the sighs, I plan to give the book another try, for no reason that I can think of except, perhaps, that a wanna-be should occasionally read things that rub the wrong way. Roth’s Anatomy Lesson did that, and for a similar reason: too much talk about sex.

{6/5/08} A misplaced note of 5/26 is almost a poem:

Each man must come to terms with his sexuality. A hammer-blow between the eyes would be more manageable. Sex is yucky. Sex is ridiculous. Sex is glorious. [Sex is ignominious.] Sex is dirty when it’s done right. [Woody Allen] Woody, Roman, Michael Jacko, Tiberius, famous lovers all, so we’re told. What’s the point? Fuck if I know. But fatherhood beats all, gives purpose to an existential life. Absurd, ain’t it. If you’re too warped by your childhood, there’s no telling what you’ll do. Sneak your satisfactions however you can, I suppose.

Clearly, the above can be much improved, but there are things to like in it. This could be said of much of my writing. If I hope to achieve significant writing, I need to learn to rewrite. Some writer even said, “Writing is rewriting.”

Browsing in Paul Johnson’s History of the American People, published in 1997. I read quite a few pages at the end, covering recent social changes. He makes no mention of computers, despite going into comparative trivia like innovations in architecture of skyscrapers and gardens!—minor toys for the rich, ignoring the major impact of computers on the average workplace and home. Astonishing, but he says something about having an idiosyncratic approach to selection of topics, at the start.

The pages I read were interesting and informative, maybe especially on the activist Supreme Court, beginning with Brown v. Board of Education, and things like Political Correctness and Affirmative Action. Our social engineering lately seems to have made things worse. Looks like I will read some more in this book.

{6/8/08} Finished rereading Anna Karenina today, in “the modern American translation” by Joel Carmichael. While there were moving scenes, on the whole I found it tedious. A large part of the problem was the characters. Anna and Vronsky just weren’t very interesting this time, Stiva was just too much like Ilya Rostov (Natasha’s father), Kitty was uninteresting except with her baby, and Levin was Pierre-light. Even Vronsky’s horse race, which I had previously called “the most exciting thing I’ve ever read,” here seemed like nothing |48B| special. It may be, at least for the horse race, a difference in translations—I previously read Constance Garnett’s. Or it may be nothing more than the lack of suspense, having read the book once and seen two filmed versions, though that has never bothered me with War and Peace—there, I love the characters so much that the familiar story isn’t a problem. Anna’s fate doesn’t make me pity her; I’m more inclined to agree with the old Princess (I think it was, Kitty’s mother) who blamed Anna unmercifully. Anna “made her bed” but refused to lie in it; as it’s portrayed, she went crazy with unrealistic jealousy. This is not the most sympathetic of victims because she lacks any nobility in her suffering. Rather, she lashes out at Vronsky and, essentially, tries to seduce Levin to spite Kitty.

Levin’s philosophizing or theologizing apparently represents Tolstoy’s later thinking (i.e., later than Pierre’s), but I found it less interesting, less forceful, and really not much different. I’m completely unmotivated to try to answer his questions as I did Pierre’s. Anna K. is just not up to the standard of War and Peace, and I’m inclined to add (so I will), it never could have been. It should not be possible to read of Anna’s death and feel only relief that it’s finally over. I guess if you don’t love Anna, the book cannot work—and I didn’t.

I remember thinking, the first time I read it, that Tolstoy was pitiless towards his characters. This feeling also did not come through this time.

 

Copyright 2018 by Alan Carl Nicoll
All right reserved.

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