Big Planet

Archive for the ‘book review’ Category

Flatland: a Romance of Many Dimensions

In book review, reblog on July 29, 2009 at 8:15 am

I learned about Edward Abbott’s 1884 novella about entities in the two-dimensional world from this video. The book is entitled “Flatland: a Romance of Many Dimensions” and is so eccentric I couldn’t imagine how the Victorian era received it. The video features Carl Sagan trying to explain how a person in a two-dimensional world can perceive an intruding entity with three dimensions. The book also talks about how one flatlander journeyed to space and was branded a madman when he returned to Flatland to report what he had seen about other dimensions. Flatland’s relationship to ours is, of course, the same as our relationship to the four-dimensional realm.

The Translators of “Tao Te Ching” and Arthur Waley

In book review, critique on July 21, 2009 at 6:01 am

Arthur Waley’s translations of Chinese classics are considered the most readable for modern readers. His abridgement of Wu Cheng-en’s The Journey to the West, certainly one of the Four Great Classical Novels of China and which he retitled as Monkey, is praised by Jorge L. Borges (the greatest writer not to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature) as the product of a translator who is simultaneously a sinologist and a man of letters.

I recently finished a version of Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching by Waley in the book The Way and its Power: A Study of the Tao Te Ching and Its Place in Chinese Thought (1934). The Tao Te Ching is composed of 81 short poems talking about the basic principles of Taoism. I have since loved the book after picking up a copy translated by the scholar Stephen Mitchell, who also translated the last version of Bhagavad Gita that I’ve read. Taken on face value, the book of Tao is full of paradoxes, ironies and contradictions, but once the reader has familiarized himself with the iconoclasm of, say, Buddhism and the Zen sect, he will understand the rationale behind these linguistic features.

Waley’s translation of the book, however, is different from his other projects. He admits that the modern reader wanting to read the ancient text for practical ends must look at the version of Richard Wilhelm.  His Tao Te Ching will not try to achieve what Wilhelm’s version has done for the modern reader. Waley reconstructs the ancient book based on historical context in order to capture how it was received by the people during the time of its initial publication. The position of the text is then interpreted side-by-side with the positions of other schools of thought at that time.

There are two kinds of translation. One is historical, the other (as Waley calls it) scriptural. Waley’s version serves the interest of specialists in Chinese literature and sinology. Wilhelm’s version, perhaps like Mitchell’s, is for readers who want to read the book for modern purposes. I have not seen Wilhelm’s translation but Mitchell’s version is surely more readable than Waley’s, but not necessarily better. A reader-friendly translation is not always equal to an accurate one, and the notion of a “best version” depends on the purpose of the translation.

Related posts:
Notes on the film “Hero”
In the mood for Zen
Bhagavad Gita

Kafka, Borges and Perfection

In book review, literary on July 20, 2009 at 12:46 pm

The following piece, “Before the Law”, is the introductory parable of Franz Kafka: the Complete Stories, edited by Nahum N. Glatzer and with foreword by John Updike. What a powerful hook! The closest literary companion of Kafka is the Argentinian master of labyrinths, Jorge L. Borges. Kafka writes best in parables and short narratives. Borges never published a novel.

The literary figures of Kafka and Borges (not necessarily the empirical authors) are obsessed with perfection.  While Borges pretended that the books he wanted to write have already been written, Kafka never “completed” his stories — i.e. they are complete and perfect in their incompleteness. For these two authors, the notion of literary perfection is in the negative.

I’ve never seen a more perfect preamble for a collection than this:

BEFORE THE LAW stands a doorkeeper. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country and prays for admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant admittance at the moment. The man thinks it over and then asks if he will be allowed in later. “It is possible,” says the doorkeeper, “but not at the moment.” Since the gate stands open, as usual, and the doorkeeper steps to one side, the man stoops to peer through the gateway into the interior. Observing that, the doorkeeper laughs and says: “If you are so drawn to it, just try to go in despite my veto. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the least of the door-keepers. From hall to hall there is one doorkeeper after another, each more powerful than the last. The third doorkeeper is already so terrible that even I cannot bear to look at him.” These are difficulties the man from the country has not expected; the Law, he thinks, should surely be accessible at all times and to everyone, but as he now takes a closer look at the doorkeeper in his fur coat, with his big sharp nose and long, thin, black Tar-tar beard, he decides that it is better to wait until he gets permission to enter. The doorkeeper gives him a stool and lets him sit down at one side of the door. There he sits for days and years. He makes many at-tempts to be admitted, and wearies the doorkeeper by his importunity. The doorkeeper frequently has little interviews with him, asking him questions about his home and many other things, but the questions are put indifferently, as great lords put them, and always finish with the statement that he cannot be let in yet. The man, who has furnished himself with many things for his journey, sacrifices all he has, however valuable, to bribe the doorkeeper. The doorkeeper accepts every- thing, but always with the remark: “I am only taking it to keep you from thinking you have omitted any- thing.” During these many years the man fixes his at-tention almost continuously on the doorkeeper. He for- gets the other doorkeepers, and this first one seems to him the sole obstacle preventing access to the Law. He curses his bad luck, in his early years boldly and loudly, later, as he grows old, he only grumbles to himself. He becomes childish, and since in his yearlong contempla-tion of the doorkeeper he has come to know even the fleas in his fur collar, he begs the fleas as well to help him and to change the doorkeeper’s mind. At length his eyesight begins to fail, and he does not know whether the world is really darker or whether his eyes are only deceiving him. Yet in his darkness he is now aware t of a radiance that streams inextinguishably from the gateway of the Law. Now he has not very long to live. Before he dies, all his experiences in these long years gather themselves in his head to one point, a ques-tion he has not yet asked the doorkeeper. He waves him nearer, since he can no longer raise his stiffening body. The doorkeeper has to bend low towards him, for the difference in height between them has altered much to the man’s disadvantage. “What do you want to know now?” asks the doorkeeper; “you are insati-able.” “Everyone strives to reach the Law,” says the man, “so how does it happen that for all these many years no one but myself has ever begged for admit-tance?” The doorkeeper recognizes that the man has reached his end, and to let his failing senses catch the words roars in his ear: “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.”

Related posts:
Argumentum Ornithologicum

Notes on Ulysses

In book review, literary on July 14, 2009 at 9:40 am

This is only the beginning of what is to become a series of notes on James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is hailed by many as the greatest novel of the twentieth century. I like the brutishness in positing superlatives; they do not only appeal to the certainty and integrity of critics, but also to an almost religious testimony that what I am about to behold is borne of the sublime.

A primer: by now, the reader is already familiar with some modern masterpieces. I know nothing yet about what scholars have to say about the author and his works, preferring to get a taste of the work before the commentaries. Arthur Schopenhauer said that we must at least attempt to think on our own before reading what others have to say about the subject — otherwise their commentaries will stain our original thought, and we will be tempted to merely replicate the opinions of others. Ralph Waldo Emerson echoes this advice in Self-Reliance.

I’ve tried to read Ulysses three times in the past, and I failed. Eccentricity is god in this book. But after reading the first 50 pages, I felt extremely gratified. Reading bits of Aristotle helped, but only marginally. It was probably Shakespeare and Borges who led me on, so I delighted in passages like Buck Mulligan’s “He proves by algebra that Hamlet’s grandson is Shakespeare’s grandfather and that he himself is the ghost of his own father”, referring to Stephen Dedalus’ idea of Hamlet.

I love passages that seem to leap out of the page because of their universality. For example:

Stephen bent forward and peered at the mirror held out to him, cleft by a crooked crack, hair on end. As he and others see me. Who chose this face for me? This dogsbody to rid of vermin. It asks me too.

The appeal is metaphysical. “Who chose this face for me?” The mirror is held out not only to Stephen but also to the reader. The passage leaps out and transcends the page, so that we gain the same impression when we hear Goethe’s Mephistopheles say, “And we, when all is said and done, / Depend on creatures we have made”. It is true that while Mephistopheles is referring to Wagner’s homunculus in the Part Two of Faust, we are tempted to read more into it and think about the creatures we have made in our lives.

Another example is when Stephen Dedalus speculates how events in the here and now annihilate their infinite possibilities upon reaching actuality.

Had Pyrrhus not fallen by a beldam’s hand in Argos or Julius Caesar not been killed to death? They are not to be thought away. Time has branded them and fettered they are lodged in the room of the infinite possibilities they have ousted. But can those have been possible seeing that they never were? Or was that only possible which came to pass? Weave, weaver of the wind.

I love almost-philosophical speculations on the naked reality of things — I am contented with “almost” because I’m not really after the dialectics behind them. What I am looking for, instead, is an erotics, not a resolution, of metaphysics, pretty much like Susan Sontag’s erotics of art in place for its interpretation.

Another striking passage is how the narrator demonstrates Dedalus’ state of mind by juxtaposing the “snotgreen sea” with the bowl of his dying mother’s bile.

The ring of bay and skyline held a dull green mass of liquid. A bowl of white china had stood beside her deathbed holding the green sluggish bile which she had torn up from her rotting liver by fits of loud groaning vomiting.

Its effect on the reader’s imagination is astounding! As Dedalus’ mother is projected by the sea’s immensity (conversely, the sea is miniaturized into a bowl of bile), we suddenly feel her monolithic and haunting presence on his memory.

Related post:
Ulysses Seen

Five Favorite Fictional Fathers

In book review on July 13, 2009 at 5:38 pm

A prolific literary blogger (biblioklept) lists down five of his favorite father-child relationships in literature. He has this to say about the topic:

[It] seems like relationships between fathers and their children are somehow usually deferred, deflected, or represented in a shallow fashion. Perhaps it’s because we like our heroes to be orphans (whether it’s Moses or Harry Potter, Oliver Twist or Peter Parker) that literature tends to eschew biological fathers in favor of father figures (think of Leopold Bloom supplanting Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses, or Merlin taking over Uther Pendragon’s paternal duties in the Arthur legends). At other times, the father is simply not present in the same narrative as his son or daughter (think of Telemachus and brave Odysseus, or Holden Caulfield wandering New York free from fatherly guidance).

Among the few works dealing with the relationship between a biological father and his child, he includes Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. See the full article here.

Related post:

Harold Bloom on Blood Meridian

In book review, reblog on July 13, 2009 at 2:32 pm
Leonard Pierce of A.V. Club interviewed Harold Bloom about the Yale professor’s take on Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Bloom confirms my observation that McCarthy is secretly indebted to William Faulkner. I have yet to read As I Lay Dying and Light in August, but based from The Sound and the Fury and the epic Absalom, Absalom! alone, one could readily trace McCarthy’s precursor. An excerpt:

The A.V. Club: Talk a bit about how you came to read Blood Meridian. You apparently had a hard time getting through it the first time.

Harold Bloom:
I read it on the recommendation of a friend, Gordon Lish, a New York book editor and a specialist in fiction. He said that it was a very splendid work, but that he was always appalled by the violence of it, and I wondered what he meant. I think I had read some earlier McCarthy, and had mixed feelings about it—it seemed to me to be Faulknerian in a way that was not really integrated in a way that made it McCarthy’s own. It may have been Suttree, in fact, a book that I haven’t read since. It was a strong book, but you had the feeling at times that it was written by William Faulkner and not by Cormac McCarthy. He tends to carry his influences on the surface, quite honestly.

The first time I read Blood Meridian, I was so appalled that while I was held, I gave up after about 60 pages. I don’t think I was feeling very well then anyway; my health was going through a bad time, and it was more than I could take. But it intrigued me, because there was no question about the quality of the writing, which is stunning. So I went back a second time, and I got, I don’t remember… 140, 150 pages, and then, I think it was the Judge who got me. He was beginning to give me nightmares just as he gives the kid nightmares. And then the third time, it went off like a shot. I went straight through it and was exhilarated. I said, “My God! This reminds me of Thomas Pynchon at his best, or Nathanael West.” It was the greatest single book since Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. In fact, I taught it for several years in a class I gave here at Yale—interestingly enough, in a sequence starting with Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, moving on to Miss Lonelyhearts, then The Crying of Lot 49, and the fourth in the sequence was Blood Meridian.
I finally wrote something about it, and I was contacted by his people at Random House; they were going to put out a nice cloth-bound library version of it, and they requested to put what I had to say about it in a book called How To Read And Why in as an introduction, and I of course consented. Certainly, the book holds up; I wish that the rest of McCarthy, both before and after, was that good. I think the Border Trilogy has its moments, especially the first volume [All The Pretty Horses], but the second [The Crossing] and third [Cities Of The Plain]—especially the third—were disappointments. I was not one of the admirers of No Country For Old Men, which I found strained and the brutality coming through it all so… Nothing really mitigated it. The negative protagonist has none of the legitimacy or grandeur that Judge Holden has. And The Road I’ll have to visit again, because it really wore me down, that book, until the last 40 or 50 pages, where the father-son bond, I felt, was conveyed with real beauty and majesty. I want to make sure my impressions of it were correct. But to have written even one book so authentically strong and allusive, and capable of the perpetual reverberation that Blood Meridian possesses more than justifies him. I don’t think McCarthy will ever match it, but still… He has attained genius with that book.

AVC: When you called it “the ultimate Western”, did you mean merely the paramount example of the genre, or its final expression?
HB: No, I meant the final one. It culminates all the aesthetic potential that Western fiction can have. I don’t think that anyone can hope to improve on it, that it essentially closes out the tradition. And in the sense that it serves as an extension of the pastoral tradition, it provides an interesting and ironic contrast with American Pastoral by my friend Philip Roth.

(Read the whole interview at A.V. Club)

Related post:
The Rhetoric of Blood Meridian

Glas by Derrida

In academia, book review, philosophy on July 13, 2009 at 6:08 am

is divided into two columns. The left one deals with Hegel, the right with Jean Genet. The structure is based on Genet’s “What Remains of a Rembrandt Torn Into Four Equal Pieces and Flushed Down the Toilet”. There are also textboxes that function like annotations, but they’re not. There are no instructions on how to read this, whether you will start with Hegel first, then with Genet, or whether you are supposed to read them alternately or simultaneously (how?). The two columns are commenting on each other, using the same words differently. But you’ll notice that as you read the left column, it does sort of simulate (but does not) Hegel’s Absolute Spirit. I’m not sure about Genet’s column.

Related posts:
Book review: “The Republic”
Note on “Smart” People
Derrida on Forgetting
Aporias on 25 Random Things

The Rhetoric of Blood Meridian

In book review on July 12, 2009 at 9:10 am

Noting the schemes and tropes helps us demystify the text and gain some measure of courage in confronting a novel that describes “times before nomenclature was”. Though it says nothing about the whole, the list is useful for a future analysis of Cormac McCarthy’s verbal techniques. I got the definition of terms from this source and Lee Jacobus’ article on the rhetoric of Milton. I plan to use Blood Meridian as a specimen for identifying as many rhetorical techniques as possible.

Schemes of Omission

1. Ellipsis.  Deliberate omission of a word (or words) which is readily implied by the context; “As well ask men what they think of stone”; “Before man was, war waited for him” (Chapter 17, Page 248)
2. Asyndeton. Deliberate omission of conjunctions between a series of related clauses; “He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt.” (Chapter 1, Page 3)
3. Polysyndeton. Deliberate use of many conjunctions; “They rode through the tracks of their dismounting and they buried their stool like cats and they barely spoke at all.” (Chapter 12, Page 151)

Schemes of Repetition

1. Epanalepsis. Repetition at the end of a clause of the word that occurred at the beginning of the clause; “A man’s at odds to know his mind cause his mind is aught he has to know it with.” (Chapter 2, Page 19)
2. Anaphora. Repetition of the same word or group of words at the beginnings of successive clauses; “Whether his history should run concomitant with men and nations, whether it should cease.” (Chapter 17, Page 243) “Before there were paths anywhere, before there were men or suns to go upon them” (Chapter 17, Page 243)
3. Anadiplosis. Repetition of the last word of one clause at the beginning of the following clause; “he usurped to contain within him all that he would ever be in the world and all that the world would be to him”
4. Temporal Crescendo (my invention, since I can’t find the right term). Arrangement in order of temporal priority; “That is the way it was and will be” (Chapter 17, Page 248)


1. Prosopoeia. Investing abstractions or inanimate objects with human qualities or abilities; “A heraldic tree that the passing storm had left afire.” (Chapter 15, Page 215)
2. Anti-prosopoeia. Anti-personification; “and be his charter written in the urstone itself”
2. Hyperbole. “She weighed nothing.” (Chapter 22, Page 315)
3. Erotesis. Rhetorical question; “In that sleep and in sleeps to follow the judge did visit. Who would come other?” (Chapter 23, Page 309)
4. Antonomasia. Use of proper nouns to stand for something; “doomed and mute as gorgons shambling”

Schemes of Breaking Rules

1. Anapodoton. Deliberately creating a sentence fragment by the omission of a clause; “Spectre horsemen, pale with dust, anonymous in the crenellated heat.”
2. Enallage. intentionally misusing grammar to characterize a speaker or to create a memorable phrase; “When the lambs is lost in the mountain, he said. They is cry. Sometime come the mother. Sometime the wolf.” (Chapter 5, Page 65)


A generic term for changing the normal or expected order of words; “But that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world” (Chapter 14, Page 199) “so like an icon was he in his sitting” (Chapter 11, Page 146) “Hack away you mean red nigger” (Chapter 19, Page 275)

Paradise Lost

In book review on July 12, 2009 at 7:05 am

Like Goethe and Dante, Milton was canonized singlehandedly through his best work. Paradise Lost has that line by line virtuosity that Borges praised in Virgil. In describing hell, the poet does not report the uttermost degree of gloom, but instead says “darkness visible”. Instead of saying that the rebel angels mined precious metals, he says they “Ransack’d the Center”. He sustains analogies across many pages; in Book 1, he describes a hill to be “undoubted sign / That in his womb was hid metallic Ore”, then in Book 6, “These in their dark nativity the deep / Shall yield us, pregnant with infernal flame” (emphasis is mine). He describes the formation of angels as being “in hollow Cube” because the cannon lies concealed at the empty center. He convinces us of the fallen angels’ heroic disposition when Satan speaks, “Hail horrors, hail / Infernal world and thou profoundest Hell / Receive thy new Possessor”.

But I think what distinguishes it from other artificial epics is its cognitive capacity to demonstrate the kind of thinking that we see in Emily Dickinson, John Donne and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This is nothing more than the Prince’s “There is no good or bad, but thinking makes it so”. The cognitive capacity is one that treats the external world a mere stuff of clay for the mind. We see a very fine and calculated weighing of terms, and the poet’s subtle logic is usually expressed in Satan’s speeches. One example is how he justifies fallenness to be better than remaining in God’s grace:

The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
What matter where, if I be still the same
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell

Then many pages later, the poet has Satan say, “I myself am hell”.

Paradise Lost has already anticipated the poststructuralist notion of differance. The design of the epic revolves around how we gain knowledge about death, choice, and a sense of good and evil. What ensues is an argument that concepts cannot be construed with a positive term — they must always rely on other concepts, often their opposite. God commanded Adam and Eve not to eat the forbidden fruit because the consequence is death. But how can they make sense of death if it has not yet been introduced in the world?

We are thus in a situation where nothing can be known without experiencing it first. The Fall gives us knowledge. To know they are capable of choice, the angels must choose the other term (disobedience), because to remain obedient cannot possibly give rise to that knowledge. The editors of the Oxford World’s Classics version of Paradise Lost were right: “We fall with the best of intentions”.

Bhagavad Gita

In book review on June 16, 2009 at 1:36 pm

The Gita is part of the long epic Mahabharata. Some consider it as part of the Vedas, which are the oldest sacred texts of Sanskrit literature. Holy scripture or not, it’s one of the enduring sources of spirit in the spiritless conditions of our times. The Gita is in essence a didactic discourse which takes place in frozen time. The setting is a battlefield, and the speakers are the warrior prince Arjuna and the god Krishna. As the battle begins, Arjuna asks Krishna to place their chariot between two armies, and there the prince grieves because he has relatives and friends on two opposing sides. This petrifies his will. Arjuna declares that he would rather die than participate in the war. Like the dialogue between God and the Satan in the Book of Job, this serves as a prologue to discourse. Time stops and “even the flies are caught in midair between two wingbeats” (Introduction).

Gandhi says the gist of the Gita is the concept of renunciation of the fruits of action. It reconciles the necessity of action and of detachment through sacred duty. It echoes Shakespeare’s Hamlet’s Player King in the play within the play:

Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.

The translator Stephen Mitchell calls the Gita a love song to reality and a psalm to life. The only code to live by is to “let go”. The Gita is comparable to Job, Ecclesiastes, and the dialogues of Chinese Zen masters. They all challenge a Zoroastrian moral world order, like the voice of God from the whirlwind in Job, which is echoed in the second book of Isaiah through an uncanny revelation:

I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.

This passage evokes Krishna’s declaration that he is a shatterer of worlds, but he cannot be considered evil for being such. At one point in the Gita, there is a terrifying theophany where Krishna shows his true form to Arjuna, with his billions of eyes and bellies, and all realities past, present and future existing in him. This reminds me of the ending of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, where Govinda sees in the face of Siddhartha all of space and time. In the Gita, all things live in Krishna, whether good or evil. Zoroastrian duality breaks down, anticipating Hamlet’s “there is no good or bad, but thinking makes it so” and the Shakespearean evocation of Hamletist disinterestedness.