Summer and Summer Reading

Finals are done. With that, summer begins.

I subscribe to the school of thought that states that spring, fall, and winter all properly belong to school. Summer, however, has a sacredness about it that is profaned by classes. Summer classes are, frankly, an abomination, and though I realise that they are necessary for some, I have only scorn for those who would destroy their summer vacation willingly.

Not that my summer will be completely free, of course. Besides a part-time job and mowing the lawn regularly, I have also a few goals set out for myself. The first is to build up my art skills a bit for a drawing class I’ll take in the fall. Second is to avoiding forgetting everything I’ve learned in Japanese the last two semesters. The third is to tackle a summer reading programme I’ve developed for myself – perhaps “programme” is too ambitious, but anyway it’s a list of what I’d like to read in the coming months. The early version looks like this:

Absolom, Absolom! – William Faulkner (just finished, actually)

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young DogDylan Thomas

Rashomon and Seventeen Other StoriesRyunosuke Akutagawa

Literary Essays of Ezra Pound Ezra Pound

All Quiet on the Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque

Mencius

In the past, I’ve failed at summer reading lists, because I always get distracted by other projects or other books. Maybe this year will be different?…

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Junior-year Reflections

I am wrapping up my third year of university, and am consequently in a reflective mood regarding my collegiate experience so far. Looking back on the classes I’ve taken, I cannot help but be amazed at what a waste most of them are.

Now, it is better to know something than not know it, and there is much to be said about a broad-based education, but nonetheless of the thirty or so classes I have taken through this semester, only a handful are at all related to my field of study. Even including those, the classes that were worth the effort (and money) involved I could count on one hand.

The reason is not something I can quite define. One problem lies in the number of “Core Curriculum” classes, which seem overly numerous. Another is the fact that, as a secular school, there is no common foundation from which to teach.

Perhaps a fundamental difficulty lies in the purpose of the university system. An especially honest professor of mine, expanding on a point made by Ezra Pound, pointed out that the university’s purpose is not education – one can educate oneself as well as the school. Rather, the purpose is accreditation – which is something else entirely. Much like primary and secondary education, university does not exist to teach students how to think critically or approach difficulties, but instead they ensure the student (customer?) possesses enough knowledge (separate from wisdom or understanding) that they can be given a diploma with which the student can prove the fact to prospective employers – employment, not education, being the ultimate goal of most students.

The root problem, I suppose, is cultural. Education in itself is not valued as highly as good employment. What once were universities, then, become technical schools to train students in practical skills for the end of finding a job. How this is to be reversed, I do not know. Probably it should begin in a change of attitude on the part of the students and professors.

For the time being, I am mostly just thankful that I received scholarship money and thus did not have to pay too much for my accreditation. Unfortunately, I will have to pay for others in the form of taxes to pay for government-sponsored scholarship programmes.…

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Intro to America First

I’ve done more blogging in the past couple months than I’ve ever done before, but none of it’s been here. That’ll change soon as the school year winds down, but for now I’d like to direct your attention to another project.

America First is a political blog, of which I am co-editor. The goal is to seek solutions to some of the myriad problems the United States face. I have contributed most of the material so far, but my co-editor should be working on some articles soon, and ultimately we would like to build up a lively comments section.

So, stop by, and be sure to comment.…

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Orwell’s Review of ‘Mein Kampf’

In March 1940, George Orwell published a review of a translation of Adolf Hitler’s manifesto Mein Kampf. The whole review is of at least historical interest, including the note that, since the edition had been published a year earlier, was edited from a pro-Hitler angle.

Of more lasting value, though, is Orwell’s reflection on why Hitler seemed so appealing to so many, even outside Germany. The first is familiar to many already: charisma. Hitler was not attractive, his writing clumsy, but his appearance and personality make him look like a “martyr,” in Orwell’s words, “One feels, as with Napoleon, that he is fighting against destiny, that he can’t win, and yet that he somehow deserves to.” This seems incredible today, when reductio ad hitlerum is often taken as a valid argument, but of course that view comes with the benefit of hindsight and the effect of the public schools emphasizing the Holocaust. Some of our own modern messiahs may also age poorly, though it’s too soon to tell for certain.

Orwell finds a second point of appeal to Nazism: “Hitler has said to them [Germany] ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death.'” Sounds great, right? Sign me up!

Seriously, though, I can see the appeal. Hedonism, the mere seeking of pleasure, seems attractive for a while, but many people prefer a sense of adventure. Something glorious, historic, like what they read in history and fables; that sense of belonging to a movement greater than oneself.…

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A Look at Student Government

Today, I got a glimpse future leadership of the nation, and the view is not good.

The venue was a debate at my university among Student Government candidates for president and vice-president. These five yammerheads went on for about an hour, mostly about the importance of representing “the students.” What none of them seemed to grasp was that “the students” are not a homogenous mass, but a collection of individuals who have differing, perhaps even conflicting, opinions on what their “representatives” should do.

Actually, the vast majority of students probably don’t care about Student Government, since they don’t seem to accomplish much beyond the occasional idiotic expenditure; for example, the purchase of three “spirit rocks” for students to express school spirit (i.e., graffiti) for several thousand dollars.

One of the vice presidential candidates was especially honest when he stated that he may not have totally agreed with a particular bill he had recently voted for, but since surveys indicated “the students” approved of the bill, “the students'” opinion became his opinion.

Too bad more politicians don’t admit they’re cowards who just do what’s popular!…

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George Orwell: Essays

This is the first of a series of posts on George Orwell. I recently bought a giant (1,300+ pages!) collection of his essays and journalism, published by Everyman’s Press. The volume itself is pretty nice, except for what appears to be fudge stains on the back. Thanks, Barnes & Noble.

Anyway, the highlights here are the essays themselves. One would expect in a volume this large that much of the content would essentially be filler. So far, though, that does not seem to be the case at all. The more famous essays I’ve encountered so far – “Politics and the English Language,” “Rudyard Kipling,” “My Country Right or Left” – have all been engaging. Surprisingly, though, even short articles and book reviews often contain still-relevant insights into the subject matter, and even reveal something of the author’s personality.

I’ll delve into all this more over the next few weeks, when I examine individual essays more closely. For now, though, I highly recommend looking into these essays yourself. Orwell is best known for Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, but his shorter work is almost as valuable as those novels, and probably more so for those looking to understand Orwell’s own politics.…

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On Faith and Reason

Last week, I discussed with some friends (all fellow Catholics) some proofs of the existence of God. Of course, we all agreed on most points, including the concept that the proofs, though conclusive, are not coercive or self-evident. More interesting, though, was a disagreement I said little about at the time, but has lingered with me since then.

My friends were all in agreement that God’s existence is not something that can be definitively proven. This view is common enough, but I find it difficult to accept. After all, Christ referred to Himself as the “Truth.” It would seem, then, that any means for arriving at the truth of something should prove – or at least provide evidence for – God’s existence, whether that method be logic or science or any related discipline. If this is not, in fact, the case, then surely there is a major problem.

Many religious people may find my attitude cold, but mine is a largely rational faith – I am Catholic because I find it to be the most rational option, based on what I know. Certainly emotion and upbringing are involved, but ultimately my confidence in the Church rests on my confidence in its rationality.…

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Impressions of The Sound and the Fury

So, I didn’t flunk out of any classes on the first day, but I did encounter another unprecedented situation.

In my American Modernism class, my professor told us that if we have the time we ought to read The Sound and the Fury now, even though it’s not due until later, so that we will have time to re-read it. Figuring that Faulkner’s novel must be quite the beast to warrant such advice, I took the time to read it once through.

After finishing my first read-through, overall I liked it. However, each of the four sections of the novel (each with a different narrator) generally improved as the novel continued. The last two were excellent. The first, however, I could not make heads or tails of.

Now, I don’t mind if a novel is difficult, but the first section is narrated by a retard (literally, not pejoratively). In Faulkner’s own words from a question-and-answer session with an undergraduate class, he is “incapable of relevancy.” Now, that’s a good way to start a novel, isn’t it? Set the theme with the character who can barely string two coherent thoughts together, much less relate an extended narrative. The second section, and to a much lesser extent the third, also wander around more than the typical novel, but are at least coherent. In fact, my greatest frustration of the novel is that, when Faulkner isn’t being deliberately obscure and just gives a (mostly) straight narrative, the book is compelling.

Interestingly, though, Faulkner himself may have had a similar opinion. In the same interview mentioned above (included in my Norton Critical Edition of the novel), Faulkner refers to the disjointed narrative of the first section as “part of the failure[…] that’s a bad way to do it.” He explains that, at the time he wrote the novel, he thought beginning with the idiot was the best way to lay the groundwork for the rest of the novel, but given the previous quote it seems he regretted the decision.…

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Going Back

Classes begin anew in three days. I’ll be starting the semester off right, too – a quiz in my first class on my first day back. It’s the second semester of a foreign-language class and the instructor wants to make sure we all meet the minimum requirements.

I’ve never flunked out of a class on the first day, but there’s a first time for everything!…

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The Same Man – A Brief Review

Sometimes one encounters a book whose subject matter gives the author no excuse for boring his audience. David Lebedoff has had the fortune of finding just such a topic for The Same Man, which was released earlier this year (er, last year). Most of the work is a short biography of George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh. Now, these two at first glance may seem like an odd pair to write about in the same volume, since their personal lives and political and religious views so widely differed, and they only met each other once.

However, this is not just some random pairing, but rather a great insight on Lebedoff’s part, because the theme of the book is just how similar the two men were in their views of modernity. For all their differences, both valued the concept of objective reality while rejecting moral relativism, which have become major underlying problems of the modern world. When discussing my religion with others, I often hear the phrase “All that really matters is what you believe.” Impressing upon those people that there can only be one truth has proven surprisingly difficult, and that attitude seems to have been one that both Orwell and Waugh disapproved of.

One of the most startling parts of the book is Lebedoff’s discussion of Orwell’s statement that “One must choose between this life and the next.” Both men agreed with that, but Orwell, an atheist, chose to focus on this life and improve it. Waugh, a Catholic, felt that this world could not really be improved and thus chose to focus on the next.

Though Lebedoff’s biography and analysis of the two men’s ideas is one of the most enlightening works I’ve read lately, it does have a few minor problems. First, he too often uses the phrase “must have,” which should never appear in a work of history or biography. There are times when a biographer can only speculate about the details of an event, and sometimes he can offer a guess that seems almost certain to be accurate. It’s still a guess, though, and should be presented as such – “probably” or some other such term would be more accurate. Also, so much of the book is straight biography that there is less room for real analysis than I would like. The biography is, of course, necessary to understand the thesis behind the work, and Lebedoff is convincing in his analysis, but at 218 pages most readers could probably stand the addition of some more space to for the author to expand on his central idea.…

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