Sunday, January 29, 2006

Shiloh by Larry J. Daniel

The subtitle is “The Battle That Changed the Civil War,” and the author argues that this is the case since no one after Shiloh thought the war would be a thirty-day fight. It’s another one of those battle histories in which the movements of every unit at every moment is described and mapped, another one of those battle histories that I’m becoming less and less interested in. Forgive me, sometimes they get so far down into the details that I lose track of which units are Federal and which are Confederate. Two ways of looking at that. One. How can I ever hope to understand the war if I get lost on such a basic separation? Two. When all is said and one, does it really matter which are Federal and which are Confederate? The war taught them and should teach us that such artificial separations are what caused the war in the first place.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Virginian by Owen Wister

The Virginian looked on at this, silent and somber. He could scarcely interfere between another man and his own beast. Neither he nor Balaam was among those who say their prayers. Yet in this omission they were not equal. A half-great poet once had a wholly great day, and in that great day he was able to write a poem that has lived and become, with many, a household word. He called it The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. And it is rich with many lines that possess the memory; but these are the golden ones:—

He prayeth well who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.
He prayeth best who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

These lines are pure gold. They are good to teach children; because after the children come to be men, they may believe at least some part of them still. The Virginian did not know them,—but his heart had taught him many things. I doubt if Balaam knew them either. But on him they would have been as pearls to swine.

This is an interesting little book. The father of all the Westerns and it’s easy to see why. It sets up the frontier morality of good versus evil that all subsequent westerns seem to embody. But it goes deeper than Hollywood usually does, exploring what happens when good must do evil in order to be good. I think my favorite part of the book are the two chapters, “Progress of the Lost Dog,” from which the above quote is taken, and, “Balaam and Pedro.” In many ways they seem to come out of nowhere, as many of the episodes of the book do, but together they comprise an engaging and tight little morality play about archetypal elements of human nature in conflict with one another.

- - - - - - - - - -

The cow-boys were told that not only they could do no good, but that if they did continue to, it would not help them. Nay, more, not only honest deeds availed them nothing, but even if they accepted this especial creed which was being explained to them as necessary for salvation, still it might not save them. Their sin was indeed the cause of their damnation, yet, keeping from sin, they might nevertheless be lost. It had all been settled for them not only before they were born, but before Adam was shaped. Having told them this, he invited them to glorify the Creator of the scheme. Even if damned, they must praise the person who had made them expressly for damnation.

Sometimes life is full of funny coincidences. The perfectly random elements that decide the order of books I read, brings this one and this little passage within it to my attention at the same time I’m trudging through Rick Warren’s treatise on the purpose of life (which had an even more random trajectory into my world). Thanks, Owen, for summing up my thoughts so well, even writing them as you did 103 years ago. Rick, how many people have been conned by your tired philosophy since Owen’s time?

- - - - - - - - - -

Judge Henry sat thinking, waiting until school should be out. He did not at all relish what lay before him. He would like to have got out of it. He had been a federal judge; he had been an upright judge; he had met the responsibilities of his difficult office not only with learning, which is desirable, but also with courage and common sense besides, and these are essential. He had been a staunch servant of the law. And now he was invited to defend that which, at first sight, nay, even at second and third sight, must always seem a defiance of the law more injurious than crime itself. Every good man in this world has convictions about right and wrong. They are his soul’s riches, his spiritual gold. When his conduct is at variance with these, he knows that it is a departure, a falling; and this is a simple and clear matter. If falling were all that ever happened to a good man, all his days would be a simple matter of striving and repentance. But it is not all. There come to him certain junctures, crises, when life, like a highwayman, springs upon him, demanding that he stand and deliver his convictions in the name of some righteous cause, bidding him do evil that good may come. I cannot say that I believe in doing evil that good may come. I do not. I think that any man who honestly justifies such a course deceived himself. But this I can say: to call any act evil, instantly begs the question. Many an act that man does is right or wrong according to the time and place which form, so to speak, its context; strip it of its particular circumstances, and you tear away its meaning. Gentlemen reformers, beware of this common practice of yours! Beware of calling an act evil on Tuesday because that same act was evil on Monday!

Do you fail to follow my meaning? Then here is an illustration. On Monday I walk over my neighbor’s field; there is no wrong in such walking. By Tuesday he has put up a sign that trespassers will be prosecuted according to law. I walk again on Tuesday, and am a law-breaker. Do you begin to see my point? Or are you inclined to object to the illustration because the walking on Tuesday was not wrong, but merely illegal? Then here is another illustration which you will find a trifle more embarrassing to answer. Consider carefully, let me beg you, the case of a young man and young woman who walk out of a door on Tuesday, pronounced man and wife by a third party inside the door. It matters not that on Monday they were, in their own hearts, sacredly vowed to each other. If they had omitted stepping inside that door, if they had dispensed with that third party, and gone away on Monday sacredly vowed to each other in their own hearts, you would have scarcely found their conduct moral. Consider these things carefully—the sign-post and the third party—and the difference they make, And now, for a finish, we will return to the sign-post.

Suppose that I went over my neighbor’s field on Tuesday, after the sign-post was put up, because I saw a murder about to be committed in the field, and therefore ran in and stopped it. Was I doing evil that good might come? Do you not think that to stay out and let the murder be done would have been the evil act in this case? To disobey the sign-post was right; and I trust that you now perceive the same act may wear as many different hues of right or wrong as the rainbow, according to the atmosphere in which it is done. It is not safe to say of any man, “He did evil that good might come.” Was the thing that he did, in the first place, evil? That is the question.

Forgive my asking you to use your mind. It is a thing which no novelist should expect of his reader, and we will go back at once to Judge Henry and his meditations about lynching.

Monday, January 2, 2006

Antic Hay by Aldous Huxley

The latest audiobook, and even though I still don’t know what Antic Hay means, I just may add this to my must read list. Huxley is such an interesting writer, capturing ideas and emotions on paper that I never even knew existed. My favorite character, by far, is Coleman, who is always on the lookout for the obscene and blasphemous, not because he is particularly vile himself, but because life is so stuffy and dull that only the obscene and blasphemous can get his attention. There’s one chapter (20, I think) in which Rosie is mistakenly led to thinking he is Gumbril, and they have an encounter that is truly memorable. Horrible, my dear. Simply horrible. I just tried to find the text online but was unsuccessful. Now I’ll have to read it again.

- - - - - - - - - -

Tried again. He's what I found on Wikipedia:

The title is from the play Edward II by Christopher Marlowe c1593. Act One, Scene One, "My men, like satyrs grazing on the lawn, shall with their goat feet dance an antic hay" which is quoted on the frontispiece. "Antic hay", here, refers to a playful dance.

Sunday, January 1, 2006

Magnetic North: The Landscapes of Tom Uttech by Margaret Andera

This is the exhibition book for an art exhibit that came to my local art museum a few years ago. I liked the exhibit a lot. I thought I would after seeing some of the advertising for it and I am really glad I went. The exhibit featured Uttech's landscape paintings from the last twenty years or so, landscapes inspired by his time spent in Northern Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Canada’s Quetico Provincial Park, landscapes that are dark and mysterious, painted in colors that only exist at sunrise or sunset or not at all, and featuring twisted shapes of rocks and trees and totemistic animals staring back at you as if to say that they know you are there.

My three favorites all feature bears, animals that Uttech said in one of the placards accompanying one of the paintings represented danger and mystery to him. As a boy he was always warned to be alert for bears when walking in the woods, so much so that they took on mythic properties, properties that were only reinforced for Uttech when he did encounter a bear and was confronted with its powerful presence.

The first is called Kawnipi Lightning Bugs, and shows a bear standing upright on a narrow ribbon of land between two bodies of water, at dusk with forked bolts of lightning illuminating the sky behind him. The second is Makwa Anamie Gagikwewin, which again shows a bear standing upright between two bodies of water, this time at sunrise on a clear day. What I like best about these paintings is the symbolism that perhaps I have given them. They both represent a portage, a place where you must get out of your canoe and carry it over land from one lake to the next. This journey, from one place to another, is attended by the danger and mystery that the bear represents, watching your approach and giving no indication of the best way forward with its blank face. Even though Kawnipi is more ominous in its use of color and shadow, I think I like this metaphor better in Makwa, since the portage itself is obscured by rocks and the way forward is even less clear.

It should be noted that Uttech began using Ojibwa Indian words to name these paintings early on, even though even he doesn’t know what all the Ojibwa words mean. I suppose that adds to the mysterious and primordial aura they all exude.

The third one I like is Wineboujou Gaie Manidog, which shows the back of a bear sitting in the water at the base of a tremendous waterfall, the water falling and crashing over rocks, one of which looks decidedly like a human face. It’s reverential in a way that’s hard to describe and one of the few paintings in the exhibit where you observe the animal without the animal observing you. It makes me wonder how often the bear comes to see this sight, this sight that we would otherwise never see because we don’t sit in rivers like that, how long he stays, and what his primitive brain chews on and understands that we cannot. The human face makes me think of toppled civilizations and worlds that existed before ours. The whole thing makes me think of places I will never see and the magic that may exist there without needing my knowing.

If I was filthy rich I would buy there three paintings and hang them in my sprawling cottage deep in the northwoods where I did most of my writing. Since I’m not filthy rich, I spent $30 on the official book of the exhibition.