Prison Diary: A Potpourri of Books



Spoiler alert (re George Eliot’s Middlemarch)

{10/20/08} Quote(s) from Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D., My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey, Viking, Penguin Group, New York, 2008, hc: “My right hemisphere is all about right here, right now. It bounces around with unbridled enthusiasm and does not have a care in the world. It smiles a lot and is extremely friendly. In contrast, my left hemisphere is preoccupied with details and runs my life on a tight schedule. It is my more serious side. It clenches my jaw and makes decisions based upon what it learned in the past. It defines boundaries and judges everything as right/wrong or good/bad.” p. 139. Sounds like Perls’ top dog/underdog, or rather, vice versa. The next paragraph continues in this vein, but the first sentence is worth preserving: “My right mind is all about the richness of this present moment.” p. 139.

“Step one to experiencing inner peace is the willingness to be present in the right here, right now.” p. 158. She mentions having worked with a gestalt therapist.

{10/21/08} You can win a million dollars in the lottery if you buy two million dollars in tickets.

Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy in America, George Lawrence, tr., GBWW Vol. 44, begins thus: “No novelty in the United States struck me more vividly during my stay there than the equality of conditions.” Author’s Introduction, p. 1. Published in 1835 and 1840. (What about the slaves?) A quote from p. 2 clarifies his meaning: “The noble has gone down in the social scale, and the commoner gone up; as the one falls, the other rises.” In the U.S. we are all “commoners”; that, unfortunately, is the beginning and the end of our “equality of conditions.”

“Have all ages been like ours?…where nothing any longer seems either forbidden or permitted, honest or dishonorable, true or false?” p. 6.

{10/22/08} Finished Middlemarch yesterday. It’s a good novel somewhat in the Jane Austen mold. I found Book One to be the most entertaining, and as the above entries show [not included here], it is an immensely quotable book, for a novel. Its greatest strength is the large number of memorable and believable characters, as good in this respect as War and Peace. Perhaps equally noteworthy is the author’s sly sense of humor; but unfortunately, this quality is lacking for long reaches of pages. But the book is rarely dull, and rarely exciting; it is consistently interesting. There are few surprises in the plot, which is, I think, consistently logical and rather too predictable; it is expected from Book One that Dorothea will end up with Will. Enough. Oh, and Rosamond is a credible monster of vanity.

Beginning the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, which I remember from a few years ago as being sensible but very repetitious; I did not put up with that fault for very long. Here’s an early quote: “[From Rusticus I learned] to read carefully, and not to be satisfied with a superficial understanding of a book…” (1:7, p. 239, GBWW) It’s a lesson I’ve often told myself but rarely practiced: I read many books, but rarely attain more than a superficial acquaintance, even of those I most appreciate. However, in Book II he says, “…cast away the thirst after books, that thou mayest not die murmuring, but cheerfully, truly, and from thy heart thankful to the gods.” (II:3, p. 243). [11/23/18:  This diary and my habit of highlighting “important text” both reinforce whatever it is I want to be getting from my reading; so, more writing!]

Never turn your back on yourself.

{10/25/08} Read Shaw’s Saint Joan, though I haven’t finished the lengthy Preface yet. Here’s a quote from the play, Joan speaking: “But I cannot tell you the whole truth: God does not allow the whole truth to be told. You do not understand it when I tell it. It is an old saying that he who tells too much truth is sure to be hanged.” (GBWW, p. 111). Why she refused to swear to tell “the whole truth.”

The play is unfortunately not that interesting, but, perhaps surprisingly, it is worth reading, if only to learn that there is a statue of Joan in Winchester Cathedral.

When does a series of “coincidences” become a “miracle”? This is the sort of question that occurred to me while reading Travels in a Stone Canoe: The Return to the Wisdom-keepers, by Harvey Arden and Steve Wall. Two National Geographic contributors travel the U.S. to learn from some mostly very old Native Americans. At first skeptical of the prophecies and powers of these indians, they become believers. The reader is tempted also. It’s a question I’ve faced before; my standard answer is that I can’t become a believer based on other peoples’ experiences. It suffices here, too, and perhaps unfortunately, the authors seem at times a bit too eager to believe. The overall message of the WKs seems a bit thin, too. Quotes (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1988, hc.):

“Strange, looking back now over the years, how birds have again and again become meaningful to us. It was an owl’s call and an eagle’s feather that launched this journey of ours in the first place. There was the Maestro’s condor in Peru, which I now see as another kind of personal fortune telling. And there would be others: Frank Fools Crow’s miraculous eagle at Wounded Knee, the crows that foretold our friend Lee Lyons’s death, the seemingly living eagle in the red coals at the Ute peyote ceremony. You either see and acknowledge such signs, or you don’t. They are not true unless you make them so. Like everything else on the path of the Wisdomkeepers, they assume for you the meaning you choose to give them. Disregard them, negate them, and they give back to you exactly what you’ve given to them—nothing. We create our own meanings.” p. 88. This seemingly calm and rational view troubles me. It’s a license to be superstitious, and I don’t think that more superstition is what the world needs. [Though some may be harmless or even “beneficial,” i.e., have “good effects.”]

“We of the ‘dominant’ culture have our ornithologists and our bird-watchers and our parakeet fanciers; but, alas, to us, birds carry no message. We may eat them, shoot them for sport, put them in cages to admire their beauty, but we set no meaning on their comings and goings. To the indigenous mind, on the other hand, birds are natural carriers of meaning. Their comings and goings are no mere happenstance. They are spirit-messengers, signs to be read, intimations of our innermost selves.” p. 89. Much the same could be said of tea leaf readings, or tarot.  One needn’t wait for birds to do tricks.

“We call it ‘being on the wind’—that intuitive feeling of being swept along by an unseen current into new possibilities. The journey takes us; we don’t take the journey. We try not to do too much planning. There’s a way of doing things without forcing them. A deliberate nonstrategy. Letting what happens happen. Not being totally passive, mind you, since great effort is often involved, but being active in the way, say, that a bird is active as it rides the wind currents, assuming a natural oneness with its environment.

“‘What do you say we go on up to Onondaga and see Leon?’ one of us blithely suggests to the other out of the blue, nudged by some inner urge. And we do just that, not even calling to see if he’s there. If he’s not, we’ll see someone else; follow the path to the next Wisdomkeeper. You go where you go, you see the people you see. Pick a road, any road, and let it take you to the rest of your life. That’s being on the wind. That’s following the path of the Wisdomkeepers.” p. 124-125. I think the author reveals more than he knows. This “low pressure” approach to going places and doing things is a lot easier when you have plenty of money and free time—unlike most of us. Not to mention having no concern about pollution, say. The “true indian way” would more likely be to wait patiently for the return of the one you came to visit. Also, the more planning you do, the more you have invested in seeing those plans fulfilled.

“Getting back on the road now, on the wind again, is like switching from the past to the present tense. Suddenly it’s now in an almost visionary way. Suddenly we are here in a more than physical sense. The ordinary becomes holy, if you only allow yourself to experience it.” p. 186.

“No expectations. Just possibilities. If one possibility doesn’t materialize, that only makes room for some other possibility. If you hew to that philosophy while following the path, the only impossibility is failure itself. Every seeming failure can be, must be, transcended and transmuted. What appears momentarily to be a failure should be seen instead as a gift, an opening to undreamed of new possibilities. The notion of failure is always a fiction, a false self-judgment, self-deceit. On the path of the Wisdomkeepers, there is no failure; there is only the closing of one possibility and the opening of infinite others.” p. 226.

“Wisdom, we’ve learned, is something you do, an action you take in this world, an effort on behalf of something immeasurably more important than yourself: other people, the Us instead of the Me. Without the Us, the Me becomes a devil.” p. 281.

Quoting Mat King, WK: “Look for that goodness deep inside yourself. And then when you find it, take that goodness and put it out into the world!” p. 281.

Quoting Oren Lyons, Iroquois: “Man’s job is not to exploit but to oversee, to be a steward of the earth. Man has responsibility, not power.” p. 297

“Truth isn’t something you think. It’s something you feel. Wisdom isn’t something you believe. It’s something you do.” p. 299.

While I enjoyed reading this book and enjoyed having my worldview challenged, I think the authors may be a bit gullible, and they expressed themselves somewhat loosely. It’s kind of like what I imagine Conan Doyle might have written about his spiritism research: he may be convinced, but the reader must remain skeptical.

{10/27/08} The preface to Saint Joan is really more interesting than the play—informative and often witty. A quote (or three, depending on my energy): “…the penalty of hanging, drawing, and quartering, unmentionable in its details, was abolished so recently that there are men living who have been sentenced to it. We are still flogging criminals, and clamoring for more flogging. Not even the most sensationally frightful of these atrocities inflicted on its victim the misery, degradation, and conscious waste and loss of life suffered in our modern prisons, especially the model ones, without, as far as I can see, rousing any more compunction than the burning of heretics did in the Middle Ages.” p. 52.

The essay is especially interesting in its criticism of previous popular treatments of Joan’s story. “…they illustrate the too little considered truth that the fashion in which we think changes like the fashion of our clothes, and that it is difficult, if not impossible, for most people to think otherwise than in the fashion of their own period.” p. 59.

“Our credulity, though enormous, is not boundless; and our stock of it is quite used up by our mediums, clairvoyants, hand readers, slate writers, Christian Scientists, psycho-analysts, electronic vibration diviners, therapeutists of all schools registered and unregistered, astrologers, astronomers who tell us that the sun is nearly a hundred million miles away and that Betelgeuse is ten times as big as the whole universe, physicists who balance Betelgeuse by describing the incredible smallness of the atom, and a host of other marvel mongers whose credulity would have dissolved the Middle Ages in a roar of sceptical merriment. In the Middle Ages people believed that the earth was flat, for which they had at least the evidence of their senses: we believe it to be round, not because as many as one percent of us could give the physical reasons for so quaint a belief, but because modern science has convinced us that nothing that is obvious is true, and that everything that is magical, improbable, extraordinary, gigantic, microscopic, heartless, or outrageous is scientific.” p. 59-60. I believe that in Shaw’s time, “universe” referred to the solar system.

There’s a nice discussion of Shakespeare’s characters on p. 61, too long to copy here. In essence he says they’re all Elizabethans.


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