Category: literature

Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Even if you haven’t read Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, you almost certainly know the premise. The image of Jekyll and Hyde has entered the English language as an idiom right along many allusions to Scripture and Shakespeare, and it’s been adapted into other media many times. Talking about it here, then, seems almost like a waste of time; after all, it’s already one of the most famous stories in English.

Well, I’ve found that many classic books, even if they are well-known, are in reality often seldom read, so one can never assume that just because something is famous that many people are actually familiar with the original work. Besides, there are a handful of books that are more enjoyable in their adaptations than in their original form, like Dracula, I’m afraid to say. At a glance, Jekyll looks like it may fall into that category, since it’s old, everyone knows the plot twist and themes, and it’s written in a slow-paced, wordy style common in the Nineteenth Century but unpalatable to many today. So, is Jekyll still worth reading?

I’m actually not going to give an unqualified “yes,” but will say that for most people, especially if you’ve managed to avoid spoilers your whole life, will enjoy it as long as you have the patience for Stevenson’s writing style. Not that his style is bad, of course – as we’ll discuss shortly, I think it’s very good. It’s just not for everyone. It is short, though, so it’s worth a shot.…

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Examining Neovictorian’s Sanity

Note: This is another article first published at Thermidor, on May 24, 2018. I’ve been republishing these in chronological order, but since Sanity is still fairly new I decided to expedite this one.

How does one go about writing a “Right-wing” novel? The wrong way is to emphasise the “Right-wing” part, which transforms the novel into mere propaganda. At best, an ideological novel will succeed only in entertaining the already converted. Rather, the author should focus on writing a good novel. For those deeply invested in politics this can be hard to do, since they likely took up the pen at least in part because of a belief in the role of art in the culture war. Why take the time to write something and not take full advantage of an opportunity to spread the gospel, so to speak?

It’s important to understand, though, that few have ever changed their beliefs based on a single work of fiction. Rather, fiction operates as part of a larger cultural milieu, not acting alone as a single work but in combination with dozens of other books, movies, songs, and so on, and even then the effect is generally subtle. Besides, it’s unlikely that a Reactionary author will be confused for a Leftist since one can typically guess the rough ideological position of several of the Right’s favourite authors even if they aren’t explicit, as with, say, Tolkien or O’Connor. Even Chesterton almost managed to restrain himself in his fiction.

I bring this all up because preachiness was my main concern going into today’s novel, Sanity, written by Neoreactionary blogger Neovictorian. Since I only knew him through Twitter and his articles and was unaware of any previous experience he may have writing fiction, I feared that his book would turn out as either a political tract thinly disguised as a story or a wish-fulfilment fantasy. Though there are NRx and broader dissident Right gang signs all over the joint, they never get in the way of the narrative and the end result is, I’m happy to say, a genuinely good novel that stands well on its own as a novel.

Though fairly short, Sanity is difficult to summarise because it’s one of the fastest-paced books I’ve ever read. Chapters are seldom more than a few pages long, and every one skips to a new time or location with something significant happening in all of them. Even the slower chapters, with the protagonist, Cal Adler, camping out in the desert or just having a conversation with someone take on a narrative significance in part because of the contrast with the frenetic pace of the rest of the book. To give an idea, the very first chapter opens with a mass shooting, then the next chapter skips ahead a few years to Cal thinking back on the experience, and the next skips all the way back to his school days dealing with a playground bully. Soon he’s in high school and the guidance counsellor is essentially giving him an invitation to a secret society, and the rest of the work follows Cal as he moves from one experience to the next, job to job, place to place, in a way that seems almost random but which, by the novel’s climax, has has worked its way to a classic rebirth metaphor.…

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Hesiod’s Works (and his Days, as Well)

Note: This is another old Thermidor post, originally published on May 18, 2017.

Among Greek poets, two stand tall above all the others, Homer and Hesiod. One can easily see Homer’s appeal, with his renowned tales of heroes, war, and adventure, told with great craftsmanship and sublimity. Then you have Hesiod, who surveys the fields, tugs at his overalls, and says, “Good season for crops.”

Well, okay, that’s totally unfair to Hesiod, but the two poets’ themes and subject matter could hardly be more different. Before getting into that, though, let’s back up a little.

Hesiod lived between 750 and 650 B.C., roughly a contemporary of Homer. There’s even a story among the ancient Greeks that the two competed against each other in a poetry competition, but historians apparently dispute this, because there’s nothing historians hate more than a good story. Hesiod won that alleged competition, but even if that did happen, Homer got the last laugh since Hesiod today sits in his rival’s shadow. Many people have read The Odyssey for school, and possibly The Iliad as well. Even the average philistine, then, is at least aware of these works. On the other hand, though Hesiod is by no means an obscure figure, The Works and Days, Theogeny, and The Shield of Herakles have nowhere near the presence of Homer’s epics.

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Aristotle’s Poetics

Note: This is another post originally published at Thermidor Magazine, in this case on March 21, 2017. Again, I’m posting this with only minimal editing.

Much of the process of moving politically Rightward consists in correcting the inadequacies of ones education. This process is most obvious in things like history or human biodiversity, but is certainly present in the arts, as well. Though a handful of books from the Western canon are still commonly covered in school, like Beowulf or The Odyssey, most curricula, even at the university level, fall far short of a comprehensive treatment. I majored in literature in college, and even aside from the cultural problem of being one of the few students truly passionate about this stuff, my formal education covered very little written prior to about 1800 aside from Shakespeare, and almost nothing not originally in English.

How does one go about correcting this? The simplest is just to start reading. Beginning with the Classics is a solid option, and I’ve offered my own suggestions elsewhere, but almost anything is better than nothing, so, as long as one builds a habit of reading, most works above the level of young adult literature will do as a start. SWPLs are deservedly mocked for their obsession with the Harry Potter series, not because they started their reading “careers” there but because they stopped there. So even relatively light material will work as a starting point, as long as one progresses towards the Classics.

Now, though selecting one’s reading according to whim is good enough for many, some of us do prefer a more structured approach and appreciate some guidance. One often recommended resource is Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren’s How to Read a Book, which focuses on non-fiction but much of their advice is broadly applicable. They also include a handy list of recommended reading. Henry Dampier’s review from a couple years ago offers a solid overview. For something more specific to poetry, there’s Ezra Pound’s idiosyncratic but helpful ABC of Reading, which is especially valuable for anyone interested in Pound’s own work. Those who feel a little braver, though, and really want to get into the nuts-and-bolts of how fiction is put together, may want to take a look at Aristotle’s straightforwardly-titled Poetics.…

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Chesterton and The Man Who Was Thursday

Note: This post was originally published at Thermidor on March 6, 2017, but since it recently shut down I’ve decided to republish my articles here. I plan to post one per week until they’re all back up, with only light editing.

What’s there to say about G. K. Chesterton? He’s a contender for the most-quoted man on the Right; spend some time in any broadly Right-wing community, Conservative, Reactionary, or even just moderate Christian, and it won’t be long before someone quotes one of his famous aphorisms or anecdotes. Though not a particularly rigorous thinker, and a bit light for those used to reading the Joseph de Maistres and Julius Evolas of the world, he’s among the best authors who’ve written primarily for popular audiences.

One thing that makes his work especially impressive is that, besides his innumerable essays, he wrote several deservedly popular novels. After burning myself out a bit on his non-fiction, I recently decided to revisit some of his novels, beginning with The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare. It’s about poet Gabriel Syme, recruited by Scotland Yard and tasked with infiltrating a cabal of anarchists. It’s a classic setup for a spy or detective story, aside from the poet protagonist, and up until the final chapter plays out much as one would expect of a Chestertonian detective novel.…

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Of an Estranged World: Flannery O’Connor and the Grotesque

I’ll preface this post with a brief note that it was actually written several years ago, back in 2012. I set it aside at the time because it was so different from everything else I was writing, but I was reminded of it while re-reading Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood recently. The style is a bit different than what I generally use now, but I think there’s enough material here to be of interest that I’ve decided to finally publish it with only minor revisions.

I suspect that few would associate the word “grotesque” with Christian art. Though Medieval and Renaissance depictions of demons or hell were suitably horrifying, in most cases today “Christian” is often little more than a synonym for “family-friendly.” This is one reason I enjoy Flannery O’Connor’s short stories so much; her work is thoroughly Christian, yet it draws heavily from the gothic and outright grotesque style that I’ve always been drawn to.

Since the term “grotesque” is often used but seldom clearly defined beyond a synonym for something like “disgusting” a clear sense of this aesthetic is necessary for a meaningful discussion of her fiction. One study of the genre that I’ve found helpful is Wolfgang Kayser’s The Grotesque in Art and Literature. His book-length review of the history of the grotesque in the arts concludes that it has three primary elements common to almost all of the writers and artists who have employed the form. First, the grotesque represents the “estranged world,” second, it is “a play with the absurd,” finally, it is “an attempt to subdue the demonic aspects of the world.” Though the first two aspects are certainly applicable to O’Connor’s work, the last describes it best. Kayser wrote that a certain comfort is found in the grotesque, where “The darkness has been challenged…” In few of O’Connor’s stories is the “darkness,” the sinful or deformed aspect of human nature, really defeated, but it is at least discovered and some catharsis can be achieved from that alone.

O’Connor, though, also had her own ideas on what constitutes the grotesque. She does not write about freaks and the repulsive just for the sake of sensationalism. There is a purpose behind them, and that purpose can best be found by reference to her Catholic beliefs, because the characters she creates are not grotesque just because they are physically or spiritually ugly, but because they deviate from a natural order. Though they are freaks, O’Connor also knew that most of her readership would not find them so, or at least not for the reasons she did; therefore, she exaggerated their faults all the more, and used violence to shock her audience out of complacency. She once wrote, “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” To illustrate, let’s take a look at three of her short stories, “Good Country People,” “Revelation,” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”…

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Notes on the Odyssey

One notable thing about the Iliad is that it inspired a huge number of other poets and playwrights to use it as source material for their own works. Some filled in the gaps left by Homer, since he’d only addressed a relatively small part of the Trojan War, while others covered the adventures of the poem’s heroes after the war. The Greeks themselves were the most prolific and successful at this, but the Romans and even modern authors, musicians, and filmmakers have attempted their own additions and adaptations to the epic. I think it’s safe to say the most celebrated of these attempts was the Aeneid, making Virgil the world’s greatest author of fanfiction, but we’ll get to his work some other time.

Today, I thought I’d share some observations on the only official sequel, the Odyssey. This one needs less of an introduction than the Iliad, since it’s one of the few Classical works still commonly assigned to high school and college students, at least among Americans. I still won’t assume much familiarity – after all, I’m writing in large part for people who’ve finished schooling and are ready for an education. Since it is more accessible than the Iliad, though, I’ll talk about it less formally than I did about that epic and just offer a few observations about it.

So, as you might guess from the title Odyssey follows Odysseus after the Trojan War, whose trip home went about as well as every other hero’s – badly.

Very badly.

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Sixteenth Friend: Abraham Cowley, “The Given Heart”

Another poet, another friend, another cavalier, this time Mr. Abraham Cowley. He was born in 1618 and like a few other writers we’ve covered, especially from this era, he was multitalented and had some success as a poet, playwright, essayist, and even as a promoter of the Royal Society. During the Civil War he accompanied the queen to France, where he worked for the royal household. He was able to return to England in 1656, and spent most of the rest of his life living a largely solitary life writing.

Like most of the cavalier poets, despite some success in his own lifetime Cowley isn’t widely read today. His reputation has had its ups and downs over time, and Dr. Johnson said that he “has been at one time too much praised and too much neglected at another.” Though not the best poet of his era, he was a talented man and I suspect that his current neglect stems not so much from any fault of his so much as from fashion. Those who read poetry at all are still caught up in something of a romantic mode, looking for outpourings of emotion, so the more formal, restrained style of the Seventeenth Century comes across as stiff to our ears regardless of how heartfelt a given poem may have been. The explosion of (mostly bad) free verse has deadened our senses to technical skill, and many readers find it difficult to read verse not written in modern, everyday language.

With all that said, let’s take a quick look at today’s poem, “The Given Heart.”

I wonder what those lovers mean, who say
They have giv’n their hearts away.
Some good kind lover tell me how;
For mine is but a torment to me now.

If so it be one place both hearts contain,
For what do they complain?
What courtesy can Love do more,
Than to join hearts that parted were before?

Woe to her stubborn heart, if once mine come
Into the self-same room;
‘Twill tear and blow up all within,
Like a granado shot into a magazine.

Then shall Love keep the ashes, and torn parts,
Of both our broken hearts:
Shall out of both one new one make,
From hers, th’ allay; from mine, the metal take.

For of her heart he from the flames will find
But little left behind:
Mine only will remain entire;
No dross was there, to perish in the fire.

Well, it’s a quite solid, respectable love poem, albeit not a happy one. I do like the explosive imagery in the third and fourth stanzas, and the work ends on a strong note in the last stanza contrasting the purity of his heart with hers. This probably isn’t a poem I’ll remember forever, but may hang onto the ending.


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Fifteenth Friend: Walt Whitman, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”

Last week we discussed Ezra Pound’s “Pact” with Walt Whitman, which turned out to be about as peaceable and long-lasting as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. This week, we’ll meet with Walt Whitman himself.

Mr. Whitman was born in 1819 and grew up in Brooklyn. Professionally, he struggled for most of his life both in his day jobs (editing newspapers and as a clerk for the Department of the Interior) and as a poet. Some of this was just bad luck, like one publisher going bankrupt at the start of the War Between the States, while others stemmed from the content of his poems; Ralph Waldo Emerson was a supporter of his, and he also became popular in England because of his reputation as a champion of the common man, but the first few editions of Leaves of Grass did not sell well and critics responded poorly to his use of free verse. Exacerbating matters were accusations of indecency in his poems, which is why he was dismissed from his post at the Department of the Interior, and in 1881 a Boston publisher stopped publication of Leaves of Grass thanks to the efforts of an outfit called the Society for the Suppression of Vice. The controversy did bring some attention to the book, though, and once he found a new publisher finally found some moderate financial success.

I should also mention that Whitman was a supporter of the Free Soil Party, which opposed the extension of slavery into new territories and was eventually absorbed into the Republican Party. As one might guess, then, he also supported the Union cause in the War Between the States, despite being disturbed by the level of suffering the war caused. To his credit, he often went to hospitals to visit wounded soldiers, both Union and Confederate.

Now, to his poetry. Here’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.”

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Folks, I’m gonna be honest: I’m pretty sympathetic to Mr. Pound’s assessment of Mr. Whitman’s poetry, and I chose this poem in large part because it’s short. It does have its virtues; I like how the lines get progressively longer, making the lecture feel heavier and more oppressive, until we get some relief when he goes outside. He does get his point across by contrasting the abstract “charts and diagrams” and so forth with the more concrete “moist night-air” and “stars,” though “mystical” doesn’t convey much. He also contrasts the crowded and noisy lecture room with his later solitude and silence. However, none of these images really grab me like those in some of the other, better poems so far have, and because of the free verse it also doesn’t have as much musicality as I like.

Well, I’ll still respect Mr. Whitman for what he does do well, and for his influence on later poets, but frankly, American icon or not, I can take it or leave with his poetry.…

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Fourteenth Friend: Ezra Pound, “A Pact”

I’ve written about today’s friend, Mr. Ezra Pound, a few times before, including addressing his war literature, a very short poem, and a brief reflection on his birthday. In literary terms, he’s a strong contender for the most accomplished friend we’ll meet during this whole series, as he was a great poet, a skilled though idiosyncratic translator, a thoughtful and opinionated critic, and an editor with a knack for finding and fostering talented writers. Because of all that he may be, apart from the Bard himself, the most important poet in English. His reputation suffered because of his support for Benito Mussolini, but I feel confident predicting that in a few centuries Mussolini will be a footnote to the Cantos, much as many great and powerful men are now footnotes to the Divine Comedy.

Read More Fourteenth Friend: Ezra Pound, “A Pact”