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And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said, Speak to us of Children.

And he said:

Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

When I was fifteen years old I began taking driving lessons. For those of you out there keeping score, I am thirty-one and still not legally allowed to drive a car….yeah, I get distracted often.

ANYWAY – my driving instructor was a very patient young fellow, with whom I tended to rant about sundry subjects. It was a very pleasant way to spend a Saturday afternoon, as he cleverly noticed that I became less tense when chatting away and encouraged my little flights of digressive fancy while speeding through suburban Dublin. One day he handed me a copy of Khalil Gibran‘s The Prophet. It inspired in me an interest in philosophy, which I later chose to study in college.

Here’s the thing though – before today I had no memory of the book itself. For it to have presumably made enough of an impact on me that I decided – ‘yes, repetitive beard stroking while talking about Life is what I hope to do for the rest of mine’ – and yet nothing of Gibran’s writing has stayed with me struck me as extremely curious. So when I saw a copy of the book today I decided to revisit it.

The titular prophet is Almustafa, a teacher in a foreign land who has spent years in the city of Orphalese and is shortly about to sail home. Before he leaves, the people of Orphalese led by a priestess named Almitra requests that he give them one last sermon. He agrees and commences answering questions on various topics such as marriage, death, work, the act of giving, in the form of rhetorical parables.

The style of the book is a form of ongoing free verse, which lends itself to Gibran incessant use of metaphors and riddles. It certainly is a pleasant read, but Almustafa comes across as needlessly obtuse at times and then overly fond of truisms at others. ‘Love should not be possessive’, is certainly not a revelation, but it is phrased in such a way to seem enigmatic.

This particular passage struck me as interesting:

But your god-self dwells not alone in your being.

Much in you is still man, and much in you is not yet man,

But a shapeless pigmy that walks asleep in the

mist searching for its own awakening.

Is it just imagination or does that sound an awful lot like Freud’s Id, ego and super-ego mental structure? Gibran first published his work only three years after Freud introduced the notion of a tripartite division of the mind. Perhaps it is just a coincidence.

What annoys me about the Prophet is his abundant hero-worship. This strikes me as quite false. I want to imagine how an encounter between Almustafa and Nietsche’s Zarathustra would go (I would pay good money for a cage battle…). For one Gibran’s philosophical hero is quite the populist. His words do not move the citizens of Orphalese to anger. In fact they merely listen passively to his monologue. Zarathustra, by comparison, was a hermit who presented people with terribly upsetting notions such as ‘god is dead’, which is not the kind of thing that inspires the devotion enjoyed by Almustafa.

I am sure all of this sounds quite silly, but to my mind wisdom is something that is not only hard-won, but incredibly lonely. Gibran’s book encourages a curious faddishness, a naieve fantasy of philosophical wisdom, which no doubt explains its popularity during the 1960’s counter-culture.

Prettily phrased, but lacking any true rhetorical heft.

Imagination about travel corresponds in Verne to an exploration of closure, and the compatibility between Verne and childhood does not stem from a banal mystique of adventure, but on the contrary from a common delight in the finite, which one also finds in children’s passions for huts and tents; to enclose oneself and to settle, such is the existential dream of childhood and of Verne.

In 2000 I spent a month living in both Paris and Brussels. This was with a view to practicing French so that I could pass my final exams in college. While I was in Paris I did a lot of browsing in book shops and found the book I am reviewing today. Barthes is often discussed in literary theory workshops due to his ‘Death of the Author’, argument. What is more I was drawn in by the cover of the book, a picture of Greta Garbo. I suspected that this was Barthes tackling an early form of film theory, so I snapped up the book, threw it into my luggage and returned to Dublin some weeks later.

When I got home, a good friend of mine saw my copy of Mythologies and asked for a loan. This was in August 2000. He returned it to me before I left Ireland in May of this year. Well, better late than never as they say.

Mythologies is a collection of previously published magazine articles and essays by Barthes that expand upon de Saussure’s theories of signifiers and codified meaning. It is seen as a landmark work in semiotics. Barthes explores how commonly accepted meanings and objects actually mask a series of competing narratives that lie behind our cultural understanding of the world. This he applies generally to French culture and the media particular to that country, but also generally to literature and cinema.

In many respects Barthes prefigures the work of the mad Slovenian Slavoj Zizek, who extrapolates trends in human behaviour or political consciousness from populist movies and famous recent historical events. The chapter titled The Brain of Einstein describes how the mind of a famous scientist, an ephemeral think indelibly linked to the understanding of the man himself, has become objectified in keeping with his status as an avatar of scientific discovery. Einstein’s cerebellum has become a machine, an object to be fought over by museums and hospitals.

In The Poor and the Proletariat Barthes challenges Charlie Chaplin to live up to the proletarian imagery of movies such as Modern Times and overly embrace a political consciousness that emanates from the working classes, as Brecht has done. The Face of Garbo presents the iconic actress as a Platonic Idea of beauty, whereas starlets like Audrey Hepburn are individualized ‘events’.

This conflict between universals and particulars is central to Barthes presentation of myth, a collection of signs and signifiers that define our understanding of the world. The observer of this order of representation Barthes classifies as a mythologist and in the last essay of this collection, Myth Today, he explains the arguments that lie behind his terminology.

Accessible, erudite and very readable, Barthes avoids the self-reflexive jargon of academic philosophy. A most edifying collection of essays.

I have read so many books…And yet, like most autodidacts, I am never quite sure of what I have gained from them. There are days when I feel I have been able to grasp all there is to know in one single gaze, as if invisible branches suddenly spring out of nowhere, weaving together all the disparate strands of my reading – and then suddenly the meaning escapes, the essence evaporates, and no matter how often I reread the same lines, they seem to flee ever further with each subsequent reading, and I see myself as some mad old fool who thinks her stomach is full because she’s been attentively reading the menu.

This novel about intelligence hiding behind an ordinary mask in a Paris apartment building, the necessity of having to disguise one’s interests for fear of being exposed as someone with ambitions beyond the norm, posed an interesting problem for me. Francophiles the world over know the average French person is just moments from a marvelous quip, or a stunning observation. They all have impeccable taste, wearing gorgeous fashions all year round and eat without gaining an ounce! They live and breathe beauty, do they not? So what makes Madame Michel and the precocious child Paloma Josse so special? It would appear our French teachers and those insipid travelogues on television have been lying to us friends. The French are just like us. Lonely, tired of having to pretend to fit in all the time, depressed at the thought of what life is all about.

Oh did I mention this is a delightful book? Sorry, perhaps I’m leading you astray.

Madame Michel is the concierge for number 7, Rue de Grenelle. She is a widow and has few friends in this world, besides a Portuguese cleaning lady who meets her for tea after cleaning the soiled underwear of the building’s tenants. The residents of number 7 are very wealthy, very cultured members of the upper class. To them Renée Michel and her friend Manuela Lopes are invisible, members of the lower classes whose sole purpose is to open their doors, check their mail and clean up their mess. Our story begins with Renée accidentally admitting to knowledge of Marx to one of the residents of the building, a pretentious student who has just declared himself enlightened after a brush with Communist theory. Before she can stop herself, Renée mentions that The German Ideology is an essential text for students of Marxism. Cursing herself, she quickly retreats into her concierge’s lodge. The role of the concierge is not to be seen, or acknowledged by her betters. She is not meant to admit to her love of literature, her dismissive assessment of modern philosophy and appreciation of Japanese cinema. If Renée were to mention Edmund Husserl, or Ozu to her employers, they would assume she was babbling nonsense. So she hides herself in her duties and lives a secret life of quiet contemplation.

Paloma is an equally intelligent and fiercely proud individual who simply wants to hide away. Her father is a government minister who likes to pretend to be an ordinary bourgeois at home, with a bottle of beer in hand as he watches the football. Her mother has been in therapy for ten years, although in actuality this translates as having been medicated for ten years. She embarrasses Paloma with her insipid observations and interfering manner. Colombe, the eldest Josse child, is a student at the École normale supérieure and enjoys looking down on anyone she deems inferior. She’s a philistine in philosophy drag. Unwilling to spend the rest of her life hiding from the world like Renée has, Paloma decides that on her thirteenth birthday she will kill herself. Until then she keeps a journal of thoughts, on the offchance that something she observes will convince her to continue living.

This is a wonderful book.  Each of the two main characters narrate their respective chapters to the reader. Renée speaks of her past, her love of literature and Ridley Scott films. Paloma writes haikus at the start of each journal entry and professes her love for Manga, in between suicidal digressions. Their shared appreciation of Japanese culture leads to a fateful encounter with a new tenant at number 7, who changes their lives.

Read the book, watch the film and fall in love with the delicate story of two lost souls finding something worth living for.

‘What I’m thinking is: here I am, lying under a haystack…The tiny little place I occupy is so small in relation to the rest of space where I am not and where it’s none of my business; and the amount of time which I’ll succeed in living is so insignificant by comparison with the eternity where I haven’t been and never will be…And yet in this atom, in this mathematical point, the blood circulates, the brain works and even desires something as well…What sheer ugliness! What sheer nonsense!’.

I like Russians. Oh sure, if you dig into the classics every character has triple-barrel names, there’s talk of serfs and agriculture the entire time (that bloody neverending chapter in Anna Karenina for one), and half the dialogue is in French. I still enjoy reading Russian novels though, both modern and classic, because they have a consistent dry sense of humour. Whether the author is Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Mikhail Bulgakov, Victor Pelevin, the tone is similar, to my mind at least. That’s what surprised me the most about this tale of misunderstandings between the young and the old, the regrets that crowd the space between parents and their children. It was pretty funny, in a sort of ‘a-ha’, way.

Nikolai Petrovich Kirsanov is a widower, an unsuccessful landowner and a proud father. The novel begins with him impatiently for his son’s return from St. Petersburg. The year is 1859. Nikolai Petrovich is an old man, given to daydreaming and poetry. He lives with his brother Pavel, always the more outgoing of the two, a handsome military officer with a one-time promising career, who threw it all away over a doomed love affair. They are both trapped by their pasts, country aristocrats with little understanding of how to manage the serfs who live on their lands.

Arkady, his son, arrives back from graduation with his charismatic friend Bazarov in tow. The two young men converse frequently about exciting new ideas. Poor Nikolai Petrovich is left behind by their discussions. Bazarov in particular disturbs the balance of the house. His manner towards all aristocrats is contemptuous and snide. He declares that all art is nonsense, only what we can determine through science is of value. Arkady is enthralled by his commanding friend, echoing his opinions on most everything. Over dinner the young men send Pavel into a rage when they announce that they are nihilists. All the old values must be swept away, society is corrupt and only proper reform will solve the problems of modern life. This ideological gulf between the two generations increases the antagonism between the four men and over time each of them finds their certainties tested.

As I have said, I was surprised at how funny this book can be. Pavel has a particularly wicked tongue and his debates with Bazarov are extremely witty – However, we are unable to understand one another. I, at least, have the honour not to understand you.’ The nihilist’s young ward in training Arkady is naieve and easily shocked by his friend’s cynicism, although he tries to hide it. Bazarov in particular is contemptuous of intellectual women. For all his talk of ‘reform’, and criticizing of old values, he is peculiarly conceited in many ways. His nihilism is an extravagantly inverted form of egotism. Only provable scientific theories are of value and as he intends to become a doctor, he reduces everything in life to biological drives, pronouncing himself an enemy of romance. Which makes it all the more amusing when he falls in love. Bewildered and angry at these strange emotions, he becomes curiously sympathetic, despite his abrasiveness. Apparently Turgenev was viciously attacked by members of both the political Left and Right for his caricature of nihilistic views. Personally I think Bazarov is a well realized character who happens to claim to be a nihilist, but is in fact simply very confused by life.

My edition of Fathers and Sons was translated by Richard Freeborn. He choice of phrasing distracted me occasionally from the flow of the novel’s language. Bazarov often says ‘mate’ in an almost contemporary fashion and the dialogue of the serfs appears to be imported from Yorkshire. Still the warmth and empathy Turgenev feels for Arkady and his father is retained.

It’s a simple tale, one that repeats itself with every generation. I enjoyed it very much.

For one thing, as any writer will tell you, people do tell a writer things that they don’t tell others. I don’t know why, unless it is that having read one or two of his books they feel on peculiarly intimate terms with him; or it may be that they dramatize themselves and, seeing themselves as it were as characters in a novel, are ready to be as open with him as they imagine the characters of his invention are.

Most people have had the good fortune to have at least one teacher during their time at school able to inspire and guide them. Mine was a geography teacher. He was a strong influence on my growing wanderlust, interest in movies (Easy Rider for one) and the books I read. One afternoon in class he mentioned W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, although he was quick to add, ‘it’s not that kind of book’. I chased down a copy and found it to be a book about failed ambition and our need to find a purpose in life. It was inspiring to read when I was a teenager and caused me to question many certainties I had.

Of Human Bondage was a semi-autobiographical work, but Maugham goes even further in The Razor’s Edge, inserting himself into the text as a character. The opening chapter has the author speak directly to us, insisting that the story he wishes to tell is based on actual events. He refuses to introduce fiction into the proceedings besides changing the names of his ‘characters’, to protect their reputation. Instead he only relates events in their lives as he witnessed them, or as they were told to him by those directly involved. The three principals are Elliott Templeton, a kind-hearted insufferable snob whom Maugham befriends in Paris; Templeton’s niece Isabel, who confides in the author; and the strangely aloof Larry Darrell.

For all intents and purposes this is Larry’s story. A childhood sweetheart of Isabel’s he returned from the First World War strangely apathetic, not wishing to find work, or enter business as his peers have done. Growing up a member of the American upper class, his decision to devote his life instead to study is bewildering to those who know him. Elliott is personally offended that Larry has rejected the kind of life he lives for, networking at parties and ensuring that one is always a friend to the right people. Isabel, while hopelessly in love with Larry, is troubled that he would prefer to lead a penniless life than settle down with her and enter business.

Eventually she breaks off her engagement to him and he vanishes from their lives. Maugham manages to reconstruct what happened next to Larry and tells his story to us in chronological order, although for the majority of his acquaintance with the intense young American his actions remain a mystery. Having abandoned America just as it takes its first strides to becoming a superpower, Larry travels the world, looking for enlightenment at the bottom of a mine, in a monk’s cell and under the guidance of a yogi. The events of the book take place during the roaring twenties, with the 1929 Stock Market Crash a rude awakening for Isabel’s dreams of a life of ease. When next she meets Larry she finds they are both very different people now, a discovery that is hard for her to accept.

Maugham writes with sincerity and conviction, as well as an obsessive degree of detail. Larry’s quest for happiness and a purpose in life with meaning is eked out in such a way that we are not overburdened with long philosophical rants. By balancing the story between Isabel, Elliott and Larry, he gives equal perspective to three very different accounts of what is important in life.

He also writes in a self-conscious manner, almost apologizing at both the beginning and end of the book for the way in which he has written his tale. He tartly criticizes Henry James for failing to capture the English voice, hence the pretence of being a witness to actual events. This book continues to enthrall readers, with its audacious insertion of philosophy into an entertaining narrative. Most surprisingly Bill Murray was obsessed with making a film of it early in his career.

I can see why.

He even devised for himself a pseudonym for his alchemical work – ‘Ieova sanctus unus’, as a near anagram of ‘Isaacus Nevtonus’. The assumption of a name meaning ‘the one holy Jehovah’, may seem somewhat blasphemous, but it is perhaps indicative of the young Newton’s self-belief. Had he not been born, like the Saviour, on Christmas Day?

Peter Ackroyd’s historical fiction and biographies of notable figures are always a pleasure to read. He is incisive, witty and brings a vast array of references to the work at hand. He has published collections of his criticism that I would strongly recommend to fans of Clive James, or Anthony Lane. In the past I have enjoyed his novels such as The Lambs of London, The House of Doctor Dee and Hawksmoor, notable for inspiring Alan Moore’s Jack the Ripper tome From Hell.

In short he writes dense, yet very readable accounts of English history. I was surprised that his book on Newton was a straight biography, part of his Brief Lives series. I was expecting a fictional account, more along the lines of John Banville’s Kepler. It remains an authoritative text, despite its slim size.

Isaac Newton’s birth on Christmas Day was seen as something of a good omen, despite his sickly and weak appearance. His family’s circumstances were quite poor, his father already deceased and in truth he was not expected to live. Out of these troubled beginnings grew up a solitary, distracted young boy, already given to explosions of temper that would later be demonstrated by his inability to take criticism as an adult, as well as his controlling nature. Accounts of his early life often express surprise at his poor academic record in school, yet Ackroyd attributes this to a precocious intellectual fascination with more extra-curricular studies, such as experimenting with kites and self-made devices.

His head master and other notables recognized the adolescent’s more cerebral gifts and convinced his mother to allow him to continue with his studies as opposed to a life on the farm. He eventually achieved a place at Cambridge University, where he would spend most of his life. His early fascination with optics led him to study the philosophy of Rene Descartes, even going so far as to insert a ‘bodkin’, between his own eye in order to prove through experiment his own conclusions. Even at this early stage Newton was a fierce critic of overly hypothetical discourses, arguing that experimentation and logic were the only true arbiters of reason. Such passionate self-belief would lead to confrontations with peers such as Robert Hooke and Irish philosopher Robert Boyle. Newton’s contentions with these luminaries emerge only through private correspondence for the most part, as the student was still a sheltered and private man. He was also given over to controversial religious beliefs, such as a refusal to accept the Holy Trinity, preferring early Christian notion of Jesus being the son of man, not the Son of God. In addition, his fascination with alchemy would remain hidden well after his death, as it was seen to besmirch his later rationalist successes.

However, the support of Edmond Haley and his help in Newton’s eventual publication of The Principia Mathematica, a purely logical account of the forces of nature (written in Latin to warn off too-eager critics) catapulted the author onto the world stage. He would be feted by kings and tsars, contend with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and be cited by Voltaire in jest, earn the acrimony of William Blake and the Romantic poets for, in their eyes, stripping the natural world of its wonder. He was even chosen to be the Member of Parliament for Cambridge, on the side of the Whig party and a staunch defender of Protestanism. His quote regarding ‘standing on the shoulder of giants’, is printed on the British two pound coin, as he rose to the rank of controller of the Mint itself. He was a remarkable man, a polymath and undisputed genius.

Ackroyd shines a light on the superficially conflicting aspects of Newton. He was a rationalist with a mechanistic vision of the world who was nevertheless devoted to study of the Scriptures and the alchemical pursuit of the Philosopher’s Stone. A philosopher who has done more to define the nature of science and the necessary objectivity of the scientist. A thinker who was determined to apply himself to the practical considerations of running the Mint.

This is an informed and revealing account of one of the most important minds in scientific history, who did more to define our understanding of the world in his time, than anyone since Aristotle. A brilliant man and a fascinating study.

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