Category Archives: Literature

Robert Penn Warren – All the King’s Men

Robert Penn Warren – All the King’s Men

As CEI founder and Louisiana native Fred Smith likes to say, “In Louisiana, we don’t expect our politicians to be corrupt. We insist on it.” Warren’s famous novel is a lightly fictionalized biography of Huey Long, the famous Louisiana politician. While raucous and entertaining as a personality study, this novel also helps to take some of the bloom off the rose of the type of people who run for political office. Huey Long was an exaggerated character, and Warren’s fictional Willie Stark is a an exaggeration of an exaggeration. But the difference between such men and more everyday political types is more a matter of degree than of kind.

Also revealing is the way people enabled, rationalized, and defended Stark’s flaws and the hurtful things he said and did to people throughout the novel. Similar things happen today with famous people from athletes and entertainers all the way up to presidents.

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Hesiod – Works and Days, Theogony, The Shield of Heracles

Hesiod – Works and Days, Theogony, The Shield of Heracles

Homer and Hesiod are generally ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the annals of pre-Periclean Greek poetry. The competition is not a close one, and it does not favor Hesiod. His works still had significant historical influence, and have plenty of merit. The Works and Days takes the guise of a letter in verse to Hesiod’s brother Perses. They jointly inherited a farm, and Perses was something of a wastrel. Hesiod tries to convince his brother of the virtues of temperance, hard work, and thrift, while invoking a love of the land, open air, and the agricultural lifestyle. Hesiod’s poem probably felt almost as homiletic and old-fashioned in its own day as it does in ours.

The Theogony is probably as close as Greece ever came to a definitive family tree for its gods. Greek religion was more malleable than most modern religions, and pantheons varied from place to place, integrating with local gods in hodge-podge fashion as Greek colonists moved around the Mediterranean. This process of mixing religions together, called syncretism (think of it as a portmanteau of “synthesizing creeds”) is an early example of spontaneous order in history. I drew on the Theogony in an unpublished working paper I wrote back in grad school that one day, time allowing, I would like to revise and publish somewhere. Revisiting the poem more than a decade later was a genuine treat.

The other important concept in Hesiod’s Theogony is its deterministic view of history. In this case, the trajectory is ever downward, moving from divine to human. A Golden Age degrades to silver, then bronze, all the way down to a Heroic Age (think Perseus, Icarus, et al.) and today’s Age of Iron, where human beings live. Whereas gold shines forever, iron rusts and breaks over time.

This view of history as a series of stages that progress inevitable and in a certain order was the dominant view all over the world before modern times—though it varied in its particulars from civilization to civilization. Such a teleological view—moving inexorably to a certain end—is also familiar to Marxist thought. The common theme of post-Hesiod history was a rejection of progress. There was stability, the rhythm of seasons or dynasties, and often a gradual decline. But there was no sense of progress. This idea would not enter public consciousness in a meaningful way until the Renaissance, and would play a starring role in the modern prosperity we enjoy today. We should be thankful that Hesiod’s historiography is a relic, rather than current thinking.

The Shield of Heracles is Hesiod’s best literary accomplishment. His descriptions of the illustrations etched onto Heracles’ shield are described in beautiful detail, and allow Hesiod to tell the most famous stories of Heracles’ life and labors. Unlike Hesiod’s other works, instruction takes a back seat to beauty.

Robert Graves – I, Claudius

Robert Graves – I, Claudius

Though a novel, this is a popular recommendation among classical historians. Graves based his account in historical sources, in this case leaning heavily on Suetonius, who was something of the National Enquirer of his day. Graves’ efforts to be historically accurate made this novel a milestone event in historical fiction, and its embrace by the profession speaks well both to its accuracy and Graves’ literary skill.

As one might glean from the title, I, Claudius is told in the first person by Claudius, who was at the center of palace intrigue for most of his life. He was a young man when his uncle Augustus became the first Roman princeps, and the book follows all the palace intrigue through Claudius’ eyes from all of Augustus’ long reign through Tiberius’ severity, Caligula’s horrors, on up to Claudius’ own unlikely accession to the purple after Caligula’s assassination. Claudius had a stutter and a limp, as well as a shy, bookish personality. His managing a long life while remaining so close to center of power was due in significant part to people consistently underestimating him as a threat, despite his obvious intelligence.

Tolstoy’s Insights on Political Types

A passage from Part 6, chapter 18 of Tolstoy’s War and Peace reminds me of more than one person I met during my years in Washington:

The visitor was Bitski, who served on various committees, frequented all the societies in Petersburg, and a passionate devotee of the new ideas and of Speranski, and a diligent Petersburg newsmonger—one of those men who choose their opinions like their clothes according to the fashion, but who for that very reason appear to be the warmest partisans.

Gabriel García Márquez – Love in the Time of Cholera

Gabriel García Márquez – Love in the Time of Cholera

Compared to One Hundred Years of Solitude, this book has a much lighter feel. It is almost like a farce at times, though a little more jaded. A a mix of bemused weariness with a touch of nostalgia might be a better description. The book’s lack of epic drama, heartbreak, and tragedy stands in intentional contrast to its title. Marquez had plenty of gray hairs by the time he wrote this book, and he looks on the younger characters’ passions with a bit of an “I remember those times, but don’t always miss them” kind of smile. In line with Márquez’s famous magical realist style, lovesickness in this book is sometimes literal, manifesting itself as a physical illness with symptoms similar to cholera.

The main characters are a young couple who part before they can marry, and a young doctor who the woman meets afterwards and has a loving, mostly happy marriage with. Fifty years later, after the doctor/husband passes away, the former couple, now elderly, meet again. He claims to have stayed loyal to her all that time, but this turns out not be true—and how.

Much of the book recounts the various romantic foibles the three had throughout their lives, some serious and some not, with a mix of amusement and wistfulness. A particularly amusing character is a parrot who taunts the doctor. An excellent example of Márquez’s brand of magical realism, the parrot sometimes talks as though he understands what the doctor is saying and is capable of holding human-level conversation, but other times seems like an ordinary bird.

Adrian Tchaikovsky – Children of Ruin

Adrian Tchaikovsky – Children of Ruin

A big part of the process of modernity is widening one’s circle of concern. People have always looked out for themselves and their family. As trade grew, people’s circle widened from the tribe to include one’s trading partners, whether in a farm-and-village dynamic or including long distance traders. As the scale widened, people had to be more accepting of people who dressed differently, spoke different languages, and worshipped different gods. The process is not over. In the last 70 years or so, the circle of concern has grown to address racism, homophobia, transgender rights, and more. The proper size of one’s circle of concern is at the heart of today’s debates over issues such as LGBT rights, trade, and immigration. Animal rights activists are even trying to expand the circle of concern to other species.

What does the circle of concern have to do with a science fiction novel? A lot. In Children of Time, the first book in this series, a botched attempt at seeding an alien planet with Earth life leads to an advanced civilization of spiders and ants, instead of the intended apes (a literal barrel of monkeys burns up while entering the atmosphere). The nanovirus-enhanced intelligent spiders and humans eventually become allies, widening their circles of concern to include two very different sentient species.

This book is the sequel; I do not know if further volumes are planned in the series. It introduces a race of nanovirus-enhanced octopi as well as an alien life form that is something like a slime mold. Where the first volume was evolution-themed, this volume is about psychology and consciousness. It is more interested in exploring and understanding how different species think, feel, and communicate. It as though Tchaikovsky is expanding Adam Smith’s circle of concern as broadly as he possibly can, and seeing what happens.

Tchaikovsky’s spiders communicate through vibration and touch, and are unable to hear human speech. Both spiders and humans come up with all kinds of translators and ways to understand each other, and though their friendships are sincere, some differences are too vast for them to comprehend. Also of interest is the spiders’ own gender disparity, in which males are discriminated against and discounted as inferior, mirroring our own species’ issues. The spiders have even been making progress in recent generations, with male spiders advancing to prominent scientific research positions, though workplace politics are touchy.

The stars of this book are nanovirus enhanced octopi, who ancient humans seeded on one of two habitable planets in a different star system than the spider planet from the first book. Tchakivsky researched the subject, and the octopi in his book are impulsive, emotional, factional, and quick to change their minds as their emotions explore different sides of an issue. Not being able to use speech like humans or vibrations like spiders, octopi instead communicate by changing colors. Different feelings are automatically expressed in different colorations, which they are unable to hide. They almost literally wear their emotions on their sleeve, and their intellectual deliberations are plainly visible.

Also putting in a turn is an alien life form with a collective consciousness, kind of like an intelligent slime mold or a bacteria with a long collective memory and the ability to interface with and control other organisms. This lets Tchaikovsky explore a whole other form of consciousness, of which we don’t have any examples on Earth.

The plot throws these very different consciousnesses together and lets them try to sort out who is on who’s side, how to overcome communication barriers, and try to come to some kind of understanding. The extent to which they can succeed requires a circle of concern rather greater than most people on Earth have today.

Gabriel García Márquez– One Hundred Years of Solitude

Gabriel García Márquez– One Hundred Years of Solitude

The story of the fictional town of Macondo and seven generations of its founders, the Buendias family. Their ups and downs, passions, quarrels, affairs, fights, triumphs, divisions, and failures are an extended metaphor for Colombian history. The occasional mystic elements Márquez integrates into the story, always told in a straight, matter-of-fact style, became known as magical realism, which became a movement in Latin American literature far larger than this 1967 novel.

It is worth noting that Márquez had a soft spot for dictators, especially Cuba’s Castro regime. Even after the idealism of the Cuban revolution died down and the regime’s human rights abuses became common knowledge, Márquez chose to remain a friend and ally of the regime. As with other figures such as Wagner, considerable artistic merit is sometimes colored by the artist’s questionable judgment or moral sense. In art, as in life, few things are purely good or evil.