Thursday, August 30, 2012

The literary background of Paradise Lost

The Great Courses
Western Literary Canon in Context
Lecture Twenty-Two 
The Rebel as Hero—Milton’s Paradise Lost

The purpose of this course is to introduce readers to pivotal works in the Western Literary Canon. Professor Bowers focused a good deal of his lecture on outlining the literary sources that Milton referenced when writing his epic:

Milton was a very well educated man. He is said to have read every book available, usually in its original language. Many of these books were used as the framework for Paradise Lost. Milton based his epic loosely on the Book of Genesis, but changed a few incidents and added many of his own invention. 

Much of Milton's inspiration came from the the Greek and Roman ancient texts. He very likely considered Aeschylus’s Prometheus for his model of Satan revolting against divine law. Likewise, Sophocles’s Oedipus served as a model for the suffering and fall of Adam. And Virgil's Aeneas is called to mind when, in the end, Adam sees a vision of the future. 

Satan uses Athenian rhetoric when he twists logic and makes the worse situation seem better. Milton's God imposes order on the universe with the scientific precision of an Aristotelian God. Professor Bowers says: "Aristotelian notions of pattern, logic, connection, and plausibility hold the whole epic together. "  

Milton also relied heavily on medieval theology. Milton's avowed purpose for the epic was to "justify the ways of God to men." Early on, he sets a theme that even very bad situations result in good with God's plan. He seems to support the medieval Christian concept of felix culpa: "the happy fault" which suggests that the seemingly disastrous fall of Adam was, indeed, good because it necessitated the coming of Christ. This philosophy is in keeping with Boethius’s notion of theodicy in The Consolation of Philosophy. (Theodicy attempts to resolve the problem of evil by suggesting that in God's omnibenevolence all evil leads to good.) Another theologian we are reminded of by Milton is Augustine--Milton's portrayal of original sin as a fall into sexual depravity has a distinct Augustinian ring to it. And Milton got many of his notions of Heaven and Hell and of the war between Satan and God's angels from Dante. 

Finally, Bowers suggests that Milton may have wanted to model Satan's craving for revenge on Shakespeare's Hamlet, but "in the end, Satan lacks the grandeur of Shakespeare’s tragic characters; instead, he suffers a kind of comic debasement also found in Shakespeare."

Milton's learnedness extended beyond just literature. He studied all maps of Africa, Asia, and the Americas which were being produced during his time. Paradise Lost can be considered an allegory for British colonization. Each mention of modern-day places could be a reference to a British colony, or a place which Milton imagines the empire might soon set its boots upon. 

Milton also intended Paradise Lost to be an allegory for the failure of Oliver Cromwell's rebellion. This allegory led to one of the many paradoxes of Paradise Lost. Milton was a very voluble supporter of Oliver Cromwell throughout the rebellion and right on to the Cromwell's terrible end. Milton only escaped execution because he was seen as a "harmless" blind man. Although in life he was a champion of freedom from tyranny and a supporter of the fallen rebel, he outwardly condemned Satan's revolt. Because Milton could sympathize with Satan's injured pride, he made Satan into an alluring character--so charismatic that many people thought (and some still think) that Milton was on Satan's side without knowing it.  

This view led to a romantic view of Milton which strongly influenced literature for the following centuries. Wordsworth and Keats both longed to emulate Milton. Lord Byron emulated Milton, but chose a comic epic: Don Juan. However, none of the emulations reached the literary sublimity of Paradise Lost, which was the last great epic Poem of English literature. However, the epic style was soon adopted in a new format: the novel. James Joyce carried on the epic tradition, while Virginia Woolf introduced lyrical novels. Milton's rebel-as-a-hero tradition was picked up in the 19th century in Lord Byron's Manfred and Shelley's Prometheus Unbound. Heroes like Bronte's Heathcliff, Goethe's Faust, and Melville's Captain Ahab are anti-heroes. 

Professor Bowers even suggests that in a twist of mimesis, the cultural climate created by this barrage of Satanic heroes opened the door for a real-life Satanic hero: Napoleon. The rise of Napoleon later influenced writers like Tolstoy and Stendhal. Life imitates art, and art imitates life. :)


The Embittered Ruby, by Nicole O'Dell

2012 Book 127: The Embittered Ruby, by Nicole O'Dell (8/29/2012)

Reason for Reading: I'm leading a discussion on this book for my Christian Fiction bookclub in October.

My Review

When Carmen's parents get a divorce, she is forced to move with her mother and two sisters from her classy home in upstate New York to a small, dilapidated apartment in Hackensack New Jersey. Willing to do anything to get her classy life back, Carmen makes bad decision after bad decision. Finally, she has no choice but to leave her family for The Diamond Estates--a refuge for teenage girls who need to get away from life and find God. This was a very difficult book for me to read and review. Carmen's decisions were so supremely selfish that I spent most of the book either groaning or feeling angry at her. I think O'Dell was very brave to create a character like Carmen for readers of Christian fiction. That said, O'Dell did an impressive job of making Carmen likable despite an overwhelming number of unlikable traits. That takes talent. I would recommend this book to parents of troubled teens or to troubled teenagers who are seeking God.

Skios, by Michael Frayn

2012 Book 126: Skios, by Michael Frayn (8/29/2012)

Reason for Reading: I'm trying to get through at least SOME of the Booker longlist before the winner is announced. This is one of the 5 easily available in the US, and one of the 3 which is available in audiobook format (since I seem to be limited in my ability to physically read books lately, this seemed the best place to start).

My Review
Dr. Norman Wilfred has flown to Skios to give a distinguished speech to a group of rich academics at the Toppler Foundation. Due to an unfortunate string of coincidences, he is whisked off to a villa while a con artist, Oliver Fox, takes his place at the Toppler gathering. At first blush, this may seem to be only a farcical comedy of errors. Fun is poked at the distinguished empty-headedness of academia, at silly assumptions people make when they don't have all the information (which, of course, they never do), and at the openness of people to accept whatever is said--as long as it is said by a charismatic person. However, I can see why this book was chosen for the Booker longlist--upon a more careful reading this book has a much deeper undercurrent. It asks questions about identity and about chance Eureka! moments. I found the ease with with Oliver Fox moved into Norman Wilfred's life almost believable because that IS how academia works sometimes. Sometimes, it IS more about how charming you are than about what's actually coming out of your mouth. Sometimes it IS more about your name and about who people think you are than about who you ACTUALLY are. I understand that this book isn't for everybody...but I'm a person who doesn't generally read farcical novels, and I enjoyed this one immensely.

Al Capone Shines My Shoes, by Gennifer Choldenko

2012 Book 125: Al Capone Shines my Shoes, by Gennifer Choldenko (8/24/2012)

Reason for Reading: Sequel to Al Capone Does My Shirts, which was adorable.

My Review
In this sequel to the Newbery Honor book Al Capone Shines my Shoes, Moose Flanagan continues his adventures on Alcatraz Island--this time he must face consequences for choices he made in the previous book. VERY cute and funny and every bit as enjoyable as the first book.

Beauty, by Robin McKinley

2012 Book 124: Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast, by Robin McKinley (8/23/2012) 

Reason for Reading: Green Dragon Group Read

My Review

Beauty must sacrifice her own freedom in order to save her father...she ends up trapped in a castle with a beast who wants to marry her! I really enjoyed this story because it was sweet and simple. It was a refreshing change from all the more recent "twist" retellings of the story. Highly recommended to any fan of children's fairy tales.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Philosophy of Composition, by Edgar Allan Poe

Gustave Dore

I just finished reading "The Philosophy of Composition," by Edgar Allan Poe, which is an essay published in 1846 in response to nasty critiques and parodies of his poem "The Raven." Keep in mind, Poe was himself a rather feisty critic, so he probably needed to take a little of what he'd been dishing out. The purpose of the essay was to show the modus operandi by which he assembled his poem. 
It is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referable either to accident or intuition--that the work proceeded step by step, to its completion, with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem [1].
If I hadn't been forewarned by G. R. Thompson that this essay may have been half tongue-in-cheek [2], I might have been quite confused. In his essay, Poe provides a step-by-step description of the birth and growth of "The Raven." 
  1. Consider length: "there is a distinct limit, as regards to length, to all works of literary art--the limit of a single sitting...can never properly be overpassed in a poem" [1] (Here, he inserts an aside suggesting that Paradise Lost, by John Milton, is half-poetry/half-prose, since it is too long for one sitting.) However, "a certain degree of duration is absolutely requisite for the production of any effect at all." Thus, approximately 100 lines was chosen for his new poem.
  2. Consider effect to be conveyed: Poem should be universally appreciable. "Beauty is the sole legitimate province of a poem." 
  3. Consider tone: "Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears. Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all poetical tones."
  4. Artistic piquancy: here, he realized that refrains as an artistic effect were vastly underused.
  5. Refrain choice: Limited to lyric verse. Depends on the force of repetition for its effect. Decides to diversify by changing the context, but leaving the answer the same. Refrain must be brief. Must form the end of each stanza. Must be "sonorous and susceptible of protracted emphasis." The long "o" is the most sonorous vowel, and "r" is the most producible consonant. Hmmm, what word has a long "o" and an "r" in it, but keeps the tone of the poem? Oh, of course! "Nevermore!"
  6. Pretext for refrain: A human being wouldn't say "nevermore" over and over again, but an unthinking being might. Like a talking parrot, or better, a raven (for they talk too, and ravens are fitting for the tone). 
  7. Subject: "I asked myself--'Of all the melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?' Death--was the obvious reply. 'And when,' I said, 'is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?'" This was also obvious: "death...of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world--and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover."
  8. He then wrote the denouement because "nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its denouement before any thing be attempted with the pen.
And the poem continued to be written through the same process. Without Thompson's forewarning, I would have been shocked and skeptical that Poe actually wrote his poems in this way. This mechanical process might pump out a poem-esque work, but would it have any soul? The whole process seems rather art-defying. According to enotes, critics have suggested that "The Philosophy of Composition" was anything from a deliberate hoax to "possibly half tongue-in-cheek [2]." However, I have also noticed quite a few people on the internet who find it inspirational and say that it really helps them to compose their own works. I'm sure these people really DO find the structure helpful. It is very sensible. But I imagine, if anything, that Poe came up with the idea of "The Raven" and THEN went through a rigorous process of refining it. 

That said, I think the essay is a fantastic look into the mind of Poe. It explains why the majority of his poems are about dead women--because he felt that melancholy is the most legitimate of poetic tones, and that the most melancholy of all themes is the death of a beautiful woman. My dad disagrees with Poe here and says that the death of a child is the most melancholy topic. Personally, I think that doubt in God's existence or in his love for me would be the most melancholy. But I agree that the death of a child is more melancholy than the death of a beautiful woman. 

Out of curiosity, what do other people think the most melancholy theme is?

Find all of Gustave Dore's illustrations for The Raven here:

[1] The Philosophy of Composition, by Edgar Allan Poe. Reprinted in: The Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe (Norton Critical Edition). Ed. G.R. Thompson. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc. pp675-684. 

[2] The Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe (Norton Critical Edition). Ed. G.R. Thompson. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc. pp57.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Culture of blame: how we perceive certain diseases

In her article "Scandal of Underfunded and Undertreated Cancer" [1], Linda Geddes describes the heart-breaking struggle of a non-smoking mother-of-two against the ravages of lung cancer. The purpose of the article was to point out the disparity between research funding and number of deaths for the various cancer types. Leukemia and breast cancer draw from huge sources of public and private funds, receiving much more than their deaths : research-dollars share. There are more deaths from lung cancer than from breast cancer or leukemia, but the funding for lung cancer research is pathetically small. Part of the reason for this is that many family physicians view lung cancer as untreatable--a diagnosis of death--so why fund research into an untreatable disease? But, after all, how are we to learn how to treat the disease without research? And how shall we perform research without funding? 

The article suggests another alarming reason for this funding disparity as well: many people, consciously or unconsciously, believe that lung cancer is the fault of the victim. If they hadn't smoked, after all, would they be in this situation? Shame on them! And they're endangering us with their second-hand smoke as well! But what about non-smokers who get lung cancer? (After all, that second-hand smoke is going somewhere, isn't it?) And what right do we have to blame the victim of a disease, anyway? Is a person's death less tragic because he was a smoker? Trust me, I fall prey to those adverts of children with leukemia...I want to send them money, too. But does our culture of blame induce us to spend money on those we consider "deserving" but not on the "undeserving?" Are we ok with that? 

I think a good example of our society (and the world) overcoming a prejudice against a culture-of-blame disease is our relative success with suppressing the dreaded AIDS epidemic. Many a politically-incorrect statement about AIDS victims was bandied about when I was younger...but now, I think, those negative connotations are mostly remembered only by older members of society. And although we haven't successfully "cured" or fully protected against AIDS, we can now suppress it with anti-viral drugs--the result of well-spent research funding. Perhaps we can take a good lesson from our success with AIDS. Perhaps we can see lung cancer for what it is--a tragic disease that steals the lives of tens of thousands of people in the US every year*. Perhaps we can bring a halt to our culture of blame.

Geddes, Linda: Scandal of Underfunded and Undertreated Cancer. New Scientist issue 2871. 28Jun, 2012.

*This number was 35,000 deaths in the UK in 2010 according to Geddes' article.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Bells, by Edgar Allan Poe

Listen to The Bells

The first of Poe's poems that I've read (recently) is The Bells (you might want to listen to it before reading my commentary). This poem was written in 1948, in the year following his wife Virginia's death of consumption at the age of 25. Wikipedia suggests that the poem depicts a man mourning his lost wife. He courted her at Christmas to the sound of sleigh-bells in stanza one, married her in the second stanza, and then she dies in a fire as the husband watches in the third stanza. In the fourth stanza,  the grief-stricken husband goes mad. This is certainly an approachable interpretation. I think a life-cycle interpretation is more interesting though. In my opinion:

The first stanza is about the playful innocence of childhood. The merry tinkling of sleigh bells suggests a care-free mood--pure enjoyment of the moment. Even the Heavens twinkle with delight at the youthful merriment. But the poem also suggests that time is passing: 

              Keeping time, time, time
              In a sort of Runic rhyme 

"Runic rhyme" suggests an occult influence...perhaps a spell is cast over the innocents, trapping them in a ghoulish foreplay for the dance that lay ahead.

In the second stanza, the poem has matured. It is no longer care-free, since it is motivated by love for a new spouse, rather than by simple delight at existence. The bells are now "mellow" with "molten-golden notes." These words suggest a sunset. Immediately following this symbolic sunset, the moon rises:

              What a liquid ditty floats
              To the turtle-dove that listens while she gloats
              On the moon!

Notice in this stanza the Heavens no longer join in the celebration, instead they are admired from afar. The universe has distanced itself from the poem. 

The third stanza tells of torture in the eve of death. This torture could represent a plethora of pains. To me, the fire recollected the turbulence of war and politics. Throughout Poe's life he would have experienced the tortuous birth-pains of a new nation in a world at war. It could also symbolize the suffering of someone dying of disease--such as consumption, like his wife. Or the "deaf and frantic fire" could be the moral or religious guilt of a man who has lived a life of profligacy and regrets his youthful vices. He might be overcome by waves of self-abhorrence.

             Yet the ear, it fully knows,
             By the twanging 
             And the clanging,
             How the danger ebbs and flows--
In this third stanza the poet is "now to sit, or never / By the side of the pale-faced moon." No longer does the poet admire the splendor of the moon. It is pale--it has lost its glory. Now, or never, he must sit and mourn by the Heavens which have deserted him.

In the final stanza Death (or perhaps Satan) triumphs. There are people--ah, the people! that dwell up in the steeple...all alone. These are spirits separated from their bodies. 

             They are neither man nor woman--
             They are neither brute nor human,
             They are Ghouls:

These ghouls have lost their identities. They are now simply servants of the king, Death. With finality they: "Feel a glory in so rolling / On the human heart a stone--" This is a tombstone, rolled over their hearts so they can no longer love. And the king's merry bosom swells as he dances and yells

             Keeping time, time, time,
             In a sort of Runic rhyme
             To the throbbing of the bells--

Again, the "Runic rhyme" casts its spell over the ghouls. And they are captured for eternity.

Similarity to Paradise Lost:

While writing my interpretation of The Bells, I was reminded of my studies of Milton's Paradise Lost. In lecture 18 of his series Why Evil Exists, Professor Charles Mathewes suggests that the difference between Satanic sin and human sin is that Satan sins out of a self-aware wish to rebel against God; Adam's sin is that he loves Eve more than he loves God. He eats the forbidden fruit because Eve has already partaken. If he denies her, she will be "dead" to him, and he can't handle that loss. So human sin ropes in feelings about other people. (See my full summary of the lecture here.)

While I was pondering how to express my feelings on Stanza II, I thought that this second stanza could represent Adam's choice of Eve over God. It represents his marriage to her, and his subsequent separation from the Heavens--which, now, he could only admire from afar instead of living in its presence as in the first stanza. Following this train of thought, the third stanza would represent a human's life on earth after the fall--filled with waves of earthly disaster. The final stanza would be the torment of Hell. 

Of course, I'm not suggesting that this is what Poe had in mind when he wrote the poem. But I think it's interesting how such themes recur in literature. They are very powerful images that resound throughout time. Perhaps I'll even wax Jungian and suggest that they are an archetype of our collective consciousness. ;)


Another issue that struck me while I was reading this poem is thematic similarities between Poe's poem and Quasimodo's song about his bells in Notre Dame de Paris. I wonder if the playwright was influenced by Poe when he wrote this song? :)

Image taken from:

Friday, August 17, 2012

Dracula, by Bram Stoker

2012 Book 123: Dracula, by Bram Stoker (8/15/2012)

Reason for Reading: Coursera Fantasy and Science Fiction Course. Listened to it on my car ride to MN. :) Didn't finish it in time for the assignment though!

My Review
This review is for the Audible Edition of Dracula, narrated by Alan Cumming et al. (Wow, I just used et al. in a review. That makes me pretty darned special.) 

In this classic novel, a group of acquaintances must rid themselves of the sinister Count Dracula who has descended upon London with the eager desire to create a flock of bloodsucking fiends. This is my second reading of the novel--the first being when I was a young teenager. This time, I was impressed by Stoker's ability to set a dark mood and maintain it through the entire book. There was always some creepy fog or a terrified dog or a creepily sleep-walking woman to spook the reader. The full-cast performance was delightful. It really brought the various characters to life. The end of the book dragged for me a little because I was on a long car trip, counting down the last 6 hours in 10 minute intervals. But that's not really the fault of the book. :)

Riptide, By Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

2012 Book 122: Riptide, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (8/8/2012)

Reason for Reading: It was there 

My Review
Malin Hatch has avoided Ragged Island, Maine ever since he had witnessed a disaster there as a child. But when a treasure hunter finally convinces him that it's time to delve into the mysteries of the Ragged Island Treasure once again, he signs on as the team's physician. The team must wend their way through a booby-trapped tunnel to find the treasure. This book was a quick, light read without much substance. It's much like Douglas and Preston's other adventure novels (and rather like Michael Crichton)--a mixed team of scientists gathers for the "big find" and ends up with more than they bargained for. I felt that the characters made poor decisions throughout the book, but I guess gold has that effect on some people. If you like Preston&Child, you'll probably like this book.

Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte

2012 Book 121: Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte (8/8/2012)

Reason for Reading: Group read 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die

My Review
When the Grey family begins to have financial problems, Agnes, a sheltered minister's daughter, begins life as a governess. She is shocked and appalled by how she is treated and what miracles she is expected to achieve. This book is a social commentary on the treatment of governesses and unruly children. It also touches on the charms of marrying for love instead of money. It was a quick read, but rather unexceptional.

Inheritance, by Christopher Paolini

2012 Book 120: Inheritance, by Christopher Paolini (8/7/2012)

Reason for Reading: Fourth and final book of the Inheritance Cycle

My Review 
I can't claim to actually have READ this book. I only burdened myself with it because I wanted to know how Galbatorix was killed (assuming he was, of course). I read the first 300 pages, skimmed the next 350 pages, and skipped the last 100 pages. :) I got what I wanted out of it, which is the important part. All I can really say to those of you who are interested: Paolini's writing got significantly better in this book. Still not fantastic, but he's got potential. He did a much better job of pacing (though it could have been shorter), and the style flowed better than the last two books--it was less pedantic. If you're a more patient person than me and are interested in how the story ends, I think it's worth a read. :)

Alice in Wonderland (Norton Critical Edition)

2012 Book 119: Alice in Wonderland Norton Critical Edition, by Lewis Carroll (8/5/2012)

Reason for Reading: Coursera Fantasy and Science Fiction course

My Review 
This NCE contains Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, and The Hunting of the Snark. I was pleased with the footnotes, which were helpful in clarifying many of Carroll's jokes. The critical information included some interesting biographies/diaries of Dodgson (Carroll), as well as a few critical essays. I was disappointed in these because although they were mostly good, the editor clearly has some negative feelings about Dodgson's morals and included many unnecessary Freudian-finger-pointing passages. If I were younger or more impressionable, I'd have been left with a very negative view of Dodgson indeed! Because of these attempts at manipulating the readers' good opinions of Dodgson, I wish I had gotten The Annotated Alice instead.

Note about the stories themselves: These were a re-read for me. Although I love Alice and really enjoyed reading the stories with footnotes (I understood them a lot better this time around!), I tend to prefer books with a little more plot development. Scandalous, I know, but what can I say?

Monday, August 6, 2012

Alice Transformed: Coursera Essay

Lewis Carroll*

In the beginning, Alice falls down a rabbit-hole, landing in a room containing a tiny key, a tiny door, and a large table. When she is small, the door is locked--she's not allowed out. But then she grows very large, she can hardly fit into the womb room anymore. Ah! Now she can reach the key! But the way out is so tiny! Luckily, she is taken up by a force outside of her control (a sea of tears) and is thrust into Wonderland.

This initial entrance into Wonderland is a metaphor for Alice’s birth into a new life. In Wonderland, she sees many unusual sights that amaze, frustrate, and/or delight her. The Caterpillar leads her to question her own identity—an elusive concept in the ever-changing world of Wonderland. The Cheshire Cat encourages her to be self-aware: "we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad." The Cat is the only creature in Wonderland who recognizes his own madness! After talking to the Cat, Alice is less frustrated by the madness that surrounds her. She allows the Mad Tea-Partiers to entertain instead of frustrate her.

After the tea party, she again finds the room from which she was first thrust into Wonderland. This time, she does not hesitate. She confidently grabs the key, drinks the shrinking potion, and walks through the door--reborn as a new, confident Alice.

Alice is essentially “born” into Wonderland twice. The first birth is full of frustration and self-doubt. But the second birth is followed by self-confidence. She now applies lessons that she learned the first time around. For instance, she stops herself before telling the Mock-Turtle that she eats lobsters and fish. She confidently deals with the intimidation tactics of the Queen of Hearts, whereas she would have been frightened or angry before. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is an allegory in transformation. It’s a story about growing up.

Yes, I have done the unthinkable. Just to spite all those angry essay-format-Nazis, I have written *dum dum dum* AN ESSAY WITHOUT A THESIS STATEMENT. I hope you will all forgive me for this unkindness. ;)

*Images were taken from: 

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Lemon Tree, by Sandy Tolan

2012 Book 118: The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, by Sandy Tolan (8/4/2012)

Reason for Reading: I realized I know much less than I should about this politically vital conflict and am enjoying learning more about it. I read this for the Reading Globally Middle Eastern Literature theme read.

My Review
Ostensibly, this is the (true) biography of the friendship between the Israeli woman Dalia Eshkenazi and the Palestinian man Bashir Khairi. However, the book also focuses strongly on background information--providing a wonderful history of the Israel-Palestine conflict since the 1940's. I was hugely pleased by this book for two reasons. First, the friendship between Dalia and Bashir was touching because they both had such strong nationalistic feelings. Somehow, despite their very different views, they were able to remain on good terms for many years. That's touching to me because many books with this let's-make-peace message tend to be about people who are all about love and peace and aren't as strongly influenced by their negative emotions as Dalia and (especially) Bashir. This is a friendship that was difficult to maintain, and yet it prevailed. The second reason I loved this book is because of the wonderful history of the region it provided. It's supposedly a "balanced" view--and it is, in the sense that it recommends justice (and sacrifice) be made by both sides. However, I'd say the book tended to be sympathetic towards to Palestinians. This SLIGHT bias is necessary in this case because many people in the Western world are over-exposed to the Israeli side and don't realize the Palestinians have a side at all. This book is highly recommended to anyone interested in the conflict.

Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson

2012 Book 117: Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson (7/30/2012)

Reason for Reading: It was one of the top 5 books in LibraryThing's recommended list for me. :)

My Review
When 16-year-old David Balfour meets his estranged uncle for the first time, he is shocked by the man's cruelty. Soon, Balfour has been kidnapped and he must rescue himself and travel back to the town of his uncle to claim his inheritance. This is an exciting little book...not quite up to scratch with Treasure Island, but still has quite an adventure. It would probably be a fun book for teenagers to read, if they like classics (or if you want to thrust classics upon them).

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Milton--Epic Evil

The Great Courses
Why Evil Exists
Lecture Eighteen
Milton--Epic Evil

I want to explore the nature of "evil" and popular ideologies. It is, of course, impossible to ever really understand evil, but I think that even scratching the surface of the nature of evil will broaden my horizons. :) I have found what looks like an excellent set of lectures from The Great Courses called Why Evil Exists. I plan on using these lectures as a guide during my quest. I will record my adventures here in my blog. The course's introduction states: people have been addressing the problem of the existence of evil in a "divinely governed or morally ordered world" for millennia. The course aims to chart the answers that the Western world has outlined throughout time. I suppose I am to be left in the dark about the Eastern world's answers to these questions? How evil. ;)

Because I have already started my study of Milton, I will skip ahead to Lecture 18: Milton--Epic Evil. *Watches lecture while taking notes.*


John Milton was a political revolutionary as well as a poet (see also: Milton and Paradise Lost: A Quest to Understand). All of Milton's writings, even the political ones, were centered around how humanity can avoid corruption by evil. As a Calvinist and a republican,1 Milton meant Paradise Lost as an allegory for the failure of Oliver Cromwell's rebellion. "Paradise Lost is the story of a rebellion gone terribly awry, and a leader horribly mutilated by his own revolt." 2

Milton suggests in Paradise Lost that he intended the epic to "justify the ways of God to men." He views God as timeless and eternal--existing at once in the past, present and future. So, although God knows all that has been or will be, it is not preordained. Adam and Eve had free choice, and they chose sin. But their sin was different from the sin of Satan, who represents Evil's self-understanding in Milton's epic.

In order to depict the embodiment-of-evil as a character, Milton had to display Satan in all his alluring charisma--for that is the nature of evil, it charms and tempts the unwary. It is easy to sympathize with Milton's Satan. He oscillates between self-doubt (God has tempted me to fall thus!) and self-confidence (I am acting out my own ambitions, while God thinks he can control me!). Even though his emotions are self-contradictory, they make him more real to the reader...they make him someone the reader can understand. Along with Satan's oscillating paradoxical motivations, Milton also uses paradoxical metaphors to represent evil. One of the most famous examples is Milton's description of Hell as a "visible darkness."

Milton had the difficult task of portraying self-aware evil (as opposed to portraying man's perception of evil, as in Dante's work). Because of this, he portrayed Satan as a much more interesting character than God or Jesus. Many critics believed that Milton himself sympathized with Satan. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake wrote: "The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it." Other critics, like C. S. Lewis, insisted that Milton's poem complimented Christian faith.

Unlike Satan, Adam and Eve are "surprised by sin." Even though the angel Raphael warns them about sin, they are incapable of understanding the warning because they are too innocent. The warning is useless. Theirs is not "self-aware" sinning like Satan's. Eve sins out of careless folly, vanity, and pride...not a "self-aware" wish to rebel. Adam's sin was that he loved Eve more than he loved God, whom he was supposed to love above all else. This is the difference between Satanic sin and human sin. Satanic sin is about the sin itself; human sin tends to rope in emotions about other people.  


Now that I have a good idea of what Milton was trying to say in Paradise Lost, I'm ready to attack the first book! :)


1. "Republican," at the time, meant a person who believed that the people should govern themselves (as opposed to a monarchy). 

2. Charles Mathewes, The Great Courses: Why Evil Exists, Lecture 18.

3. This is the title of a well-accepted contemporary critical analysis of Paradise Lost: Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost, by Stanley Fish.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Confidence of Alice

As I said in my previous post on Alice (Alice, the Caterpillar, and the Serpent), Lewis Carroll used asterisks to denote metamorphoses in Alice. The last row of asterisks in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was when she shrunk back from a serpent to a reasonably-sized girl at the end of Chapter V. This sudden absence in transformative asterisks suggests that Alice is beginning to gain confidence in herself and to settle into the Alice she will be. 

Chapter VI introduces another well-recognized icon of the Alice books: the Cheshire Cat. The conversation that commences is probably the most sensible she has in Wonderland. Alice asks:

"Would you tell me please, which way I ought to go from here?"
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.
"I don't much care where--" said Alice.
"Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat.  
Alice, in her newly acquired perfectly-sized body, is now feeling ready for an adventure. But she doesn't know where to find one. The Cat, in the guise of nonsense, sensibly points out that if she doesn't have a goal, she'll be wandering aimlessly through life. This prods Alice into a decision--she'd like to meet more creatures in Wonderland, but she doesn't want to "go among mad people."

"Oh, you ca'n't help that," said the Cat: "we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad."
The Cat is the only creature of Wonderland who recognizes that he's mad! This self-awareness allows him to sensibly see the rest of the world as it really is--mad. I believe that, like the Caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat is Alice's alter-ego. He represents the sense, self-confidence, and goal-orientation that arises from self-awareness. After meeting the Cat, Alice marches right up to the Mad Tea-Party and sits down despite the party's calls of "No room! No room!" Later, in the Queen's croquet ground, she stands proud and erect as the queen's procession nears. Her companions lie quaking face-down in the dirt. The Queen interrogates Alice:  
"Off with her head! Off with--"
"Nonsense!" said Alice, very loudly and decidedly, and the Queen was silent.  
Ever since meeting the Cat, Alice does not need to be over-sized to have self-confidence. Her responses to the Mad Tea-Party and the Queen are quite sensible and self-assured. Earlier in the book, Alice's self-confidence fluctuated with size. But the self-assurance she demonstrates at the end of the book is unlike the childish spats she had when she was over-sized. Think of the incident in Chapter IV, where she was stuck in the White Rabbit's house. Instead of sensibly standing up for herself, as with the Queen, she simply used her bulk to terrorize the White Rabbit and poor Bill. 

Alice also demonstrates a mature self-assurance when she bursts out laughing (twice) in the Queen's croquet ground. Earlier in the story, Alice's main emotions were tear-soaking-frustration, foot-stomping-frustration, timidity, and confusion. Now that she is self-aware, she can see the rest of the world as it is--amusingly silly. 

*Images were taken from: