Posts Tagged ‘Socrates’

Bildungsromane

October 27, 2021

The idea of the bildungsroman – the novel that shows a character’s development through childhood to maturity, with a focus on the influences that shape the personality, is an interesting one, that has fallen out of favour: I think it was a creature of the earlier days of psychology when it was not only scientists but also writers who explored, in their different ways, how we become who we are.

And we can look at our own lives from that perspective, too, although it seems to have become easier as I have grown older, and have a greater span of time to look back on, as well as some greater clarity about the sort of person I’ve turned into. I can perceive all sorts of influences, first from my parents, obviously, and then from significant friends and acquaintances at various points in my earlier life. And I suspect there comes a point where I cease to be strongly influenced by anyone any more; perhaps I am now ‘fixed’ as it were…

I realise that Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre comes from the days before psychology, yet it’s surely a novel about the formation and development of Jane’s personality, from the malign influences of her early days to the kindlier ones of her friend Helen Burns, and some of her teachers at Lowood School. Her strength of character is tested by her feelings for Rochester, as is her moral sense; her acquired wisdom happily leads her to refuse the wiles of St John.

I can now remember very few details from Samuel Butler’s later and now sadly neglected novel The Way of All Flesh, but there is a clear picture of the malign influence of his overbearing father, and his struggles to break away from him, become a separate individual, and make his own choices about his life, which may have a chance of leading to happiness.

And then there’s the modernist James Joyce, and his marvellous A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, autobiographical in places, and using the stream of consciousness to explore the inside of the character’s head. Here it’s the suffocating combination of the small-mindedness of Irish patriotism and Catholicism combined that leads to breakdown and the decision that the only way to escape is exile… The oppression of the child Stephen is evident in that novel, and it’s explored further, and differently, in parts of Ulysses.

Various other titles occur to me, and also the idea that all of these novels about the development of an individual into their own person, finding themselves and creating their lives, came along at a similar time in my own personal development and growth: I first read almost all of these texts avidly, and maybe not all that critically, in my later teens and early twenties. I remember being powerfully moved by the search for meaning undertaken by the hero of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, by various of Hermann Hesse’s heroes, perhaps particularly Siddhartha, and even by some of D H Lawrence’s characters.

I often return to Socrates’ famous dictum, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’, at times like this, and realise that perhaps not everyone does look back and consider the ways in which their lives have been shaped in key ways at certain times. Parental influence is perhaps the most powerful, given that it lasts the longest; then there is that of certain friends at particular moments, and perhaps later in life of people whom we might describe as mentors, maybe at crucial moments in the development of a career. You can’t undo your past, of course, but seeing clearly can be useful, as well as realising the moments where the choices made were actually one’s own, and therefore acts of conscious control over one’s life. And there is Umberto Eco’s (I think) observation, that one who reads lives hundreds or thousands of lives…

Ernst Wiechert: The Simple Life

August 11, 2021

     Literature set in the Great War is fairly well-known and accessible; literature set in the aftermath, exploring attempts to come to terms with that horror rather less so. And the more I’ve gradually discovered and read, the more powerful it seems, and the more I realise the extent of the trauma of the survivors.

Wiechert wrote this novel after the Nazis released him from what was basically a warning imprisonment in the concentration camp at Buchenwald. What is the former naval captain, who commanded a ship at Jutland, to do with himself? What can his life mean now? Well-meant advice from a priest suggests meaning comes through work. He abandons wife and son and home and treks into the depths of the forests of East Prussia (Wiechert’s homeland), returning to earth and nature as manager of an estate fishery and living in a hut on a small island. He is joined by his former first mate, who saved his life during the naval mutiny at the end of the war.

His life becomes a cleansing, redemptive, un-religious though spiritual experience; withdrawal from the world leads him to an almost timeless, contemplative state, and we come to understand how devastating the war must have been for so many people. I was often reminded of the French author Jean Giono, who lived, experienced and wrote at the same time, and remembered studying his novel Regain for A-level: it’s also about forsaking the world to bury oneself deep in nature…I must track it down and re-read it.

I’m really not sure how good a novel it is; it’s flawed in some ways. The idyllic simplicity seems at times too good to be true, and the relationship with the granddaughter of the retired general on whose estate the fishery lies, feels ever so slightly creepy in our post-Lolita days, though it’s never a sexual one, and that possibility is clearly ruled out.

There is the mutual incomprehension of father and son, the perennial difference between generations, and the son and his peers imagine that they will regain the glory of the German navy through their efforts.

It’s also a novel about the end of an era, with things never the same again – echoes for me of Lampedusa’s The Leopard, certainly – the Prussian aristocracy is dying out, and for us there is the added hindsight: Hitler’s war is to come, and East Prussia ceases to exist in 1945, divided between Poland and the Soviet Union, the German population extirpated.

I’ve now read this novel four times; it’s one of my all-time favourites. How it speaks to me has changed over the quarter century since I first read it. Sadly, it’s a novel very much of its time, and consequently will probably vanish into obscurity. It’s a novel about ageing, growing older, and what that means for a thinking person (remember Socrates’ dictum, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’!) It’s about acceptance of oneself, who one is and who one has become, coming to terms with one’s lot, one’s life and one’s achievements. It’s about the hope, the wish for contentment and a sense of achievement. I think it’s marvellous. And the theme is haunting: from Psalm 90 ‘Swift as a breath our lives pass away.’

Philip Pullman: The Secret Commonwealth revisited

April 4, 2021

     It was time to revisit The Secret Commonwealth, which was published a year and a half ago; I’m looking forward to the next and possibly final novel, which may come out in the autumn, if Philip Pullman and his publishers stick to the existing schedule…

This time around, I was struck by just how much this book is about daemons, the relationships between humans and their daemons, and, for those of us living in the world without them – at least without the separate, visible companions – quite deep reflection on what the daemon may symbolise. In Lyra’s world, as she grows older, it becomes apparent/ she learns that quite a number of humans can separate/ be separated, voluntarily and involuntarily, from their daemons: we are a long way from the horrors of Bolvangar in the first volume of His Dark Materials. Lyra and Pan have fallen out; she changes as she grows older, becomes more cautious, less adventurous, and he leaves her, to try and find and bring back her imagination…

Lyra has read a novel set in a world in which humans have no daemons (and yet, curiously, she does not seem to make a clear connection with Will’s – ie our world), and she has read a philosophical work which argues that daemons are a figment of the imagination; in my terms, she’s struggling with the relationship between the material and the spiritual, a struggle which many manage completely to avoid in our world. But the secret commonwealth, a sense of hidden but real connection in mysterious ways between all sorts of beings and creatures, which does not exist on a rational level, keeps impinging on her as she pursues her adventures.

We’re also engaging with Pullman’s view of our own world, as reflected at one remove in Lyra’s. Pullman clearly does not like many things about the ways we live – and I’m happy to agree with him there – and we see characters engaging in that struggle for the Republic of Heaven that was formulated at the end of His Dark Materials, working beneath the surface of society in numerous ways for decency, and a sane and sensible attitude to life for everyone, against superstition and power games. Pullman’s message is a subversive one, especially as he engages with the blurring of the lines between truth and lies which is going on even as I write. For Pullman, the rational approach alone is not sufficient, and furthermore seems to be being used to reassure people that it’s OK to be selfish… which it’s not (within limits).

I’d have expected the cataclysmic events at the end of His Dark Materials to have made more of a difference to Lyra’s world even ten years later, than they actually seem to have done; the Magisterium and its religious fanaticism seem as strong as ever.

I think Pullman is also writing about what happens to us as we grow up, grow older, hopefully mature, certainly as we become adults. Lyra’s journey isn’t an easy one, as she reads and argues, and tries out new ideas for size. Many people do this, and are perhaps radically transformed, or develop along quite unexpected paths; her conflict with her daemon is at one level an obvious externalisation of a process a good number of us experience internally as we grow older. Pullman wants his readers to stop and reflect, I feel: back with Socrates’ idea of the unexamined life not being worth living. And beneath it all are the important values of decency in our own behaviour, and care for the less able or less fortunate than ourselves, very Christian values expounded by an author who at the same time is ferociously challenging the mind-controlling structures of established religion. Subversive, as I said before, and very good stuff.

You may feel I’ve said precious little about the novel itself. True, and I invite you to read what I wrote first time around, here.

Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching

March 16, 2021

     I’ve wrestled a couple of times with this ancient Chinese wisdom text and felt I’d not really got anywhere: I know it’s partly a cultural thing, in the sense of how my mind has been trained/ trained itself to think over many years, and not finding it easy to tune into the elusive, enigmatic and contradictory ways that eastern sages present their ideas. So, when I discovered that Ursula Le Guin had done a version, I thought perhaps she might succeed where other translators had failed, as far as I’m concerned.

I found her version – and she’s careful to make clear it’s a version, not a translation – more readable, less archaic and arcane in language, and therefore somewhat more accessible, and she provides helpful glosses and explanatory notes on the page as you read, as well as more detailed information at the end.

And yet, as I read through, I still found myself with questions: how, exactly, am I meant to be reading this text? Through from start to finish? Much more slowly? Chapter by chapter? This isn’t by way of a complaint, more of a realisation that I don’t (yet) have a frame of reference from which to access the book.

Some chapters are much more accessible – I think – than others. I have the impression of an ideal being put forward, which is not attainable though to be striven for, but then at other points I’m reading common-sense, practical hints on how to face life. So what, exactly, is the purpose of the book? At the moment, it seems, the intention is to have the reader slow down, and reflect on their life, how they live it and what they get from it, as well as what they offer others.

Having found Le Guin’s approach more accessible, I shall continue with the Tao, alongside other ancient works of wisdom that have in different ways supported my reflections on life: Socrates many years ago made the point I’ve always cherished, that the unexamined life is not worth living. And the one thing I took away from this reading was something of a revelation about my life and career as a teacher, à propos of Lao Tzu’s point about not hoarding: teaching for me was always about giving and sharing the amazing stuff I’d learnt…

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