Friday, May 17, 2019

Seneca, "On Tranquility of Mind"

Seneca (ca. 4 BCE to 65 CE)
"Even though a man's hands are cut off, he finds that he can do
 something for his side in battle if he stands his ground
 and helps with the shouting"

--Seneca, "On Tranquility of Mind"

Friday, May 3, 2019

Walt Whitman Crowd Pleasers

This past Monday evening, April 29th, was the occasion of our Walt Whitman Read Out Loud!, in commemoration of the bicentennial of the birth of poet Walt Whitman in the township of Huntington.

Participants read favorite Whitman pieces aloud.  I share with you a partial list of the poems:

"Song of Myself 6"
"The One I Heard at the Close of Day"
"As I Ebbed with the Ocean of Life"
"On the Beach at Night"
"I Think I Could Turn and Live with Animals"
"When I Heard the Learned Astronomer"
"So Long!"
"Roaming in Thought after Reading Hegel"
"Beautiful Women"

In contradiction of Whitman's reported lament that "no one gives a da-n about my prose," two readers, myself being one of them, read prose pieces:

From Specimen Days:

"Van Velsor and Whitman"
"My Passion for Ferries"

From Reminiscences (first published in the Camden Courier):

"Starting Newspapers": a delightful account of how Whitman founded The Long Islander, published to this day right here in Huntington, L.I., N.Y.!

Friday, April 5, 2019

Friday, March 22, 2019

"To Room Nineteen," by Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing (1919-2013) at the
 2006 Cologne Literature Festival  
When Doris Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007, the Nobel committee cited her as an "epicist of the female experience."    

On Monday evening our selection is Lessing's "To Room Nineteen," in which she writes: "A high price must be paid for the happy marriage with the four healthy children in the large white gardened house."

Lessing's craft is fully on display in the story . Her every sentence leads us on the path that takes main character Susan Rawlings to Room 19.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Of Love and Loss in Eudora Welty's "A Still Moment"

White heron by John James Audubon
Kudos to the fourteen members who came out on a February evening marked by 50-mile-per-hour winds for our discussion of Eudora Welty’s short story “A Still Moment.”

With the benefit of our discussion, it seems to me a fundamental question to ask of the story is, “How was Lorenzo transformed by his encounter with Murrell, Audubon, and the heron.” Specifically, “How did it influence what he will preach to his followers?”

An answer lies in the story’s final account of Dow’s thoughts on Time, Love, and Separateness. Dow had experienced, with the other men, a lovely vision of the heron. The shooting of the bird shattered that vision. Welty writes, “… suddenly it seemed to him [Dow] that God Himself, just now, thought of the idea of Separateness. For surely he had never thought of it before, when the little white heron was flying down to feed." His thoughts continue: “Perhaps it was that God never counted the moments of Time; Lorenzo did that, among his tasks of love. Time did not occur to God. Therefore – did He even know of it? How to explain Time and Separateness back to God, Who had never thought of them, Who could let the whole world come to grief in a shattering moment [emphasis added]."

The last sentence implies belief in a transcendent God who is indifferent to the joys and sufferings of humankind. When Lorenzo looks upon the place where the heron had been, “the sweat of rapture poured down from his forehead.” He shouts into the marshes, “Tempter!”

The use of the word “rapture” has obvious parallels with Christian “end-of time” beliefs, just as Dow’s exclamation of “Tempter!” has parallels with the biblical Garden of Eden story.

Dow now speeds his way on his horse to his flock, fully realizing, as we just learned, that God has no concept of Time. We mortal humans, on the other hand, cannot get by without Time.

The title of his sermon will be “In that day when all hearts shall be disclosed.” Earlier in the story, before his encounter with the others, Dow had rehearsed his sermon while riding on the trail: “Inhabitants of Time. The wilderness is your souls on earth. Look about you, if you would view the conditions of your spirit, put here by the good Lord to show you and affright you. These wild places and these trails of awesome loneliness lie nowhere, nowhere, but in your heart.”

"A Still Moment" poses many deep enigmas of our existence in relation to a supernatural force, but does not give clear-cut answers. Nonetheless the story leaves us with the impression that our personal journey on the trail -- and the people, creatures, scenes we encounter -- makes us better able to touch the souls of others. One expects Dow to deliver a powerhouse of an address.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Eudora Welty

To the left I've posted the cover of an 1986 anthology of critical writings on this month's author, Eudora Welty.  The cover illustration is inspired by our story, "A Still Moment," whose characters -- the preacher Lorenzo Dow, the artist and naturalist J. J. Audubon, and the bandit James Murrell -- were real historical personages.

Welty has written in her memoir One Writer's Beginnings that "A Still Moment" is a "fantasy in which the separate interior visions guiding three highly individual and widely differing men marvelously meet and converge upon the same exterior object."  That object: the white heron depicted in the lower right.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Simone Weil

Simone Weil in 1921.
Simone Weil's fame was posthumous, and owed in part to her life story. Weil was the daughter of a secularized French-Jewish family, and excelled in her studies in the prestigious École Normale Supérieure.  She was a supporter of left-wing causes during the 1930s, and worked in various factories and farms in order to experience first hand what the lives of working-class people were like.  In 1936 she travelled to Spain to support the Republican cause in the early months of the Civil War, where she aligned herself with the anarcho-syndicalist CNT trade union. In the years immediately preceding the start of the Second World War, Weil had mystical revelations that led her to embrace Christianity.

The essay we will look at on Monday, "Human Personality," was one of the last pieces Weil wrote before her untimely death in London in the summer of 1943 at the age of 34.  Commentators have written that Weil's unusual life and times have diverted attention away from her thinking and writing.  It is in many ways easier, after all, to focus on a fascinating life than to tease apart the complex ideas that are the product of that life.  "Human Personality" is considered an excellent synopsis of many of Weil's original ideas.  So far from expressing an idealized love of "humanity," the essay displays the warmth and the love Simone Weil had for the living and breathing people with whom she came in contact.