July 9, 2009

1. Asimov

Asimov says that the ancients used careful measurements, and mathematical techniques, in astronomy. Galileo and Newton used careful measurements, and mathematical techniques, in physics. But not until a century after Newton did chemistry “grow up” and begin using careful measurements. Asimov praises Lavoisier:

From the beginning of his chemical researches, Lavoisier recognized the importance of accurate measurement.... Lavoisier’s new theories involved a complete rationalization of chemistry. All mysterious “principles” were done away with. Henceforward, only materials that could be weighed or otherwise measured were of interest to the chemist.1

In my view, science needs to move in the opposite direction — needs to accept mystery instead of “doing away with it,” needs to accept what can’t be measured, needs to accept the non-rational. I don’t deny, however, that measurement has been useful, that Lavoisier’s work is an advance on earlier chemistry (as is Galileo’s and Newton’s in their field). But to insist that everything must be visible, tangible, measurable, and rational is to approach nature with preconceived ideas, instead of taking it as it is.

Since Asimov’s New Guide to Science discusses all the sciences, it sometimes moves too swiftly. For example, Asimov mentions the Foucault Pendulum, but doesn’t explain it in such a way that a novice can understand it. So I tried to supplement Asimov with Wikipedia, but I found that Wikipedia isn’t geared to novices, either. Wikipedia is often highly technical, though it sometimes tries to meet the needs of novices with special articles and links.

Perhaps Curriki, a user-created educational website, can meet the needs of novices. There are also websites that try to simplify specific scientific topics: I found an excellent tutorial on the seasons here, a good introduction to astronomy here, and an explanation of the Foucault Pendulum here. Encarta (Microsoft’s encyclopedia) has good educational quizzes, but it’s closing, perhaps because it can’t compete with Wikipedia.

2. Mysteries and Catholics:
Remarks on Some Modern Writers

A. Rex Stout

Asimov was a fan of the mystery writer Rex Stout, who wrote about a detective named Nero Wolfe and his assistant, Archie Goodwin. Stout grew up in the Midwest, but his characters live in Manhattan. (Stout was nominated for Best Mystery Writer of the 20th Century, along with Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Dorothy Sayers, and Dashiell Hammett; Agatha Christie won the award.)

B. Wodehouse

Stout admired, and was admired by, the English writer P. G. Wodehouse. Like Stout, Wodehouse was born in the 1880s, and lived into the 1970s. Wodehouse is best known for stories and novels about a valet named Jeeves; he also wrote numerous works set at a fictional castle called Blandings. Most of Wodehouse’s fiction is set in pre-World War I England. Wodehouse himself spent much of his life in the U.S. “I go in for what is known in the trade as ‘light writing’,” Wodehouse wrote in his autobiography, “and those who do that — humorists they are sometimes called — are looked down upon by the intelligentsia and sneered at.”2

C. Evelyn Waugh

One of Wodehouse’s many fans was Evelyn Waugh, the English novelist. Waugh’s early novels were humorous and satirical. In 1930, Waugh converted to Catholicism, and his religious beliefs are evident in his novel Brideshead Revisited, and in his trilogy Sword of Honour, which draws on Waugh’s experiences as a soldier in World War II. Waugh wrote a biography of the Catholic martyr Edmund Campion, and a biography of Ronald Knox (like Waugh, Knox converted to Catholicism; Knox was the author of religious works and crime novels). Waugh also wrote a historical novel about the Empress Helena, a Catholic saint and the mother of Constantine. Waugh was a favorite of the American conservative William F. Buckley, himself a Catholic. The critic Edmund Wilson called Waugh “the only first-rate comic genius that has appeared in English since Bernard Shaw.”3 Waugh’s travel books are highly-regarded; several of his travel books (and two of his novels) deal with Africa. Among Waugh’s relatives were many writers: his father (Arthur), his brother (Alec), his son (Auberon), and his grandson (Alexander).

D. Chesterton

Another prominent Catholic writer, from the generation before Waugh’s, was G. K. Chesterton. Chesterton wrote defenses of Christianity (such as Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man) that were intended for a broad audience. He was admired by C. S. Lewis, a later defender of Christianity; he’s also admired by Ross Douthat, a conservative and Catholic who recently began writing a column for the New York Times. Chesterton often debated with George Bernard Shaw, an unbeliever who was looking for a way to make man into superman. Chesterton believed that man was a sinner, and it was a mistake to try to build a utopia. Chesterton wrote short stories featuring a detective, Father Brown, who understands that evil is universal, and tries to put himself in the shoes of the criminal. Chesterton’s study of Dickens helped spark a Dickens revival. Chesterton was a busy journalist as well as a prolific author. He advocated distributism, that is, broad-based ownership, in opposition to capitalism (ownership by a few) and socialism (ownership by the state).

E. Hilaire Belloc

Chesterton often collaborated with Hilaire Belloc, who was also Catholic; Shaw referred to them as “Chesterbelloc.” Belloc was born in France to a French father and an English mother; his father died when he was 2, and he grew up in England. Belloc wrote numerous biographies (Richelieu, Cromwell, Napoleon, etc.) in which he champions the Catholic faith; he also wrote several books about military history. A tireless walker, Belloc described his walk from central France to Rome in a book called The Path to Rome; he also wrote other travel books, such as The Cruise of the Nona (about sailing around England) and The Pyrenees.

F. Graham Greene

The English novelist Graham Greene was also Catholic. Greene’s long life spans most of the 20th century: he lived from 1904 to 1991. While most of the writers we’ve discussed gravitated toward Catholicism as they aged, Greene converted early (age 22), and drifted away from Catholicism in his later years. In the 1950s, he stopped attending Mass. Political themes became important in his fiction; he was critical of American foreign policy, and sympathetic toward Castro’s Communism. Greene travelled widely, and was employed by the British secret service; many of his novels are set in foreign countries. For example, The Heart of the Matter is set in Sierra Leone, and deals with espionage as well as religious themes; it won the James Tait Black prize, Britain’s oldest literary prize. If you want to learn more about Greene (and Waugh and Chesterton and Belloc), consider Ian Ker’s book, The Catholic Revival in English Literature, 1845-1961.

G. Maugham

Another prominent English writer, older than Greene, is W. Somerset Maugham, best known for his novel Of Human Bondage. Early in his career, Maugham achieved success both as a novelist and as a playwright. In 1908, “he had four plays running simultaneously in London, and Punch published a cartoon of Shakespeare biting his fingernails nervously as he looked at the billboards.”4 But despite his popularity, Maugham was never regarded by critics as one of the great writers of his time; Maugham himself said he was “in the very first row of the second-raters.”5 Like Greene, Maugham served in the British secret service, and drew on his experiences in his writings; Maugham’s novel Ashenden influenced later spy novels, such as the James Bond series (as Poe’s detective stories influenced later detective fiction). Maugham’s commercial success enabled him to travel widely — visiting outposts of the British Empire, listening to stories, gathering material; it is said that he left behind a string of angry hosts, who didn’t like the way he portrayed them. Maugham travelled to the Pacific to research his novel about Gauguin, The Moon and Sixpence.

H. John Galsworthy

Another famous English novelist and playwright from the early 20th century is John Galsworthy; he won the Nobel Prize in 1932, and died the next year. Galsworthy is best known for his series of novels, The Forsyte Saga. Galsworthy has endeared himself to Oxfordians by referring to Looney’s “Shakespeare” Identified as “the best detective story” he ever read.

3. Teddy Roosevelt and the Parks

I recently saw a two-hour C-SPAN interview with historian Douglas Brinkley. Brinkley has written a book about Theodore Roosevelt’s land-preservation efforts. He says that TR preserved 240 million acres, and created numerous parks, mostly in the western U.S. and Florida. If you believe that land-preservation is important, and that these lands wouldn’t have been preserved without TR’s efforts, then you might conclude that TR was our greatest President. One can argue that what Lincoln achieved would have been achieved by someone else, that he was the instrument of Fate (and felt himself to be such), but it’s hard to imagine anyone else doing what TR did, preserving 240 million acres of land.

TR was a crusader for land-preservation because he was a learned naturalist, a world-class expert on birds. He wasn’t responding to popular demand, he was leading the way. He understood what Thoreau understood — namely, that there wasn’t much time left, that wilderness was under pressure from development. So deep was TR’s attachment to science and nature that he left the Presidency (he could have run again) to pursue these interests, spent a year in Africa, and then went to Brazil. He was the first (the only?) President to publish a book while in office; the book was on deer (various species of deer). Because TR is so interesting and multi-faceted, it isn’t surprising that one of the most acclaimed presidential biographies of recent years is about TR: Edmund Morris’ multi-volume work.

TR was a friend of John Muir, the famous California outdoorsman, and also of John Burroughs, a nature writer who was widely read in his day, though he isn’t widely read today. Brinkley says that Burroughs was one of the best American writers. Burroughs was born in The Catskills, and often wrote about that region. He was a close friend of Walt Whitman, and helped to boost Whitman’s reputation. John Burroughs should not be confused with William Burroughs (no relation), who was an avant-garde, Beat Generation writer, best known for Naked Lunch.

Brinkley’s 1,000-page book about TR is just the beginning: he plans to write several more volumes about conservation in America, bringing the story up to the present time. Brinkley co-authored several books with Stephen Ambrose, whose writings are more popular than scholarly. Douglas Brinkley shouldn’t be confused with Alan Brinkley, a respected historian who has written about the New Deal, Huey Long, etc.

4. Miscellaneous

A. I recently saw (for the second time) the 1989 movie, “Dead Poets Society.” I don’t recommend it. Beneath a thin veneer of literature, one finds the standard Hollywood themes: ridicule of The Establishment, of the Old Guard, of the aristocracy, of tradition, of discipline, etc. (One is reminded of Titanic, The Sound of Music, and Chocolat.) It’s about a young, innovative teacher at a stodgy private school who urges his students to seize the day and to be unconventional. It was entertaining for a while but ended up dismal. Too heavy, too serious, too weighed down by clichés about the need to be yourself, to rebel against parents and teachers, etc.

B. Mendeleev arranged the elements in a “periodic table,” using atomic weight for his horizontal sequence, and properties for his vertical sequence. Not until later was it understood why certain elements had similar properties — namely, because they had the same number of electrons in their outermost shell. A similar situation is found in philosophy. Nietzsche arranged thinkers and artists by chronology and by properties. For example, he said that Thucydides and Machiavelli were renaissance-type thinkers, and Socrates and Kant were decadent thinkers. But Nietzsche didn’t explain why certain thinkers had similar properties — namely, because they come at the same point in the historical cycle (the cycle of renaissance and decadence).

Though he didn’t understand the concept of “electron shells,” Mendeleev was able to predict what new elements would be discovered, and the properties they would have. Though he didn’t understand the life- and death-instincts of societies, Nietzsche was able to predict a renaissance in our time.

5. Dickens’ Influence On Dostoevsky

A Phlit subscriber in Manhattan, the artist Elliott Banfield, drew my attention to an online essay about Dickens’ influence on Dostoevsky.6 The essay is part of the Victorian Web project.

I knew that Tolstoy was a big fan of Dickens, and I wasn’t surprised to find that Dostoyevsky was, too. (For Tolstoy’s view of Dickens, see Chapter 2 of Leavis’ Dickens: The Novelist.) In his Diary of a Writer, Dostoyevsky wrote

We understand Dickens in Russia, I am convinced, almost as well as the English, and maybe even all the subtleties; maybe even we love him no less than his own countrymen; and yet how typical, distinctive, and national Dickens is.

Dostoyevsky called Dickens “a ‘great Christian,’ admiring especially Dickens’ humbler characters.... As Dickens determined to be their voice in Great Britain, so Dostoevsky determined to be their voice in Russia.”

Dickens helped Dostoyevsky and his wife to deal with poverty:

While living outside Russia, Dostoevsky drew the attention of his wife, Anna Grigorjevna... to the works of Dickens. Joking about their poverty during the Dresden period, Dostoevsky refers to himself as “Mr. Micawber” and to Anna Grigorjevna as “Mrs. Micawber.” Anna Dostoevskaya recalls that “Dickens’ sense of humor was part of our life. We endured our poverty resignedly, sometimes carelessly” ....In Dresden both [Dostoyevsky] and Anna Grigoryevna read Dickens in French and Russian translations.

In her Memoirs, Dostoyevsky’s daughter points out that her father was also fond of Walter Scott: “My father, who forgot the second name of his wife and the face of his sweetheart, remembered the names of all the characters from Dickens’ and Walter Scott’s novels.”

A woman who ran a literary salon in St. Petersburg wrote, “Dostoyevsky’s favorite writer was Dickens.” Dostoyevsky shared Dickens’ skeptical attitude toward reason, and shared Dickens’ belief in the wisdom of the heart:

In Dickens’ novels, Dostoevsky found the idea about what Dickens in Hard Times described as the “wisdom of the heart”... which involves compassion for the insulted and injured, and leads to a spiritual resurrection for those characters such as Thomas Gradgrind and Ebenezer Scrooge, whose callous hearts and hard souls are softened by the influence of love and compassion.

A similar spiritual resurrection is experienced by the protagonist of Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov. Early in the novel, Raskolnikov ponders the question that some rational thinkers were pondering: Who shall live, and who shall die? He decides that the old pawnbroker is one who should die, and murders her. Later in the novel, Raskolnikov’s hard rationalism is softened, and he is transformed, reminding us of Dickens characters like Gradgrind and Scrooge.

After committing the murder, Raskolnikov is anguished, conscience-stricken, just like the Dickens character Bradley Headstone (in Our Mutual Friend) after he attempts murder. Our Mutual Friend also

influenced the whole plot structure of The Idiot.... The tone of both novels is pessimistic, and both authors utilize social “collisions” to effect the moral resurrection of individual characters; both Dickens and Dostoevsky bring their readers to the realization that achieving social ideals is possible only by improving human nature one individual at a time.

As The Idiot attempts to depict an ideal man (Prince Myshkin), so too Our Mutual Friend has an ideal character, John Harmon. As Myshkin feels alienated from Russian aristocratic society, so Harmon

feels deeply alienated from the main values of middle-class Victorian society.... Both have spent their youth abroad (in Brussels, and in Switzerland), and, after coming back to their native land, have inherited vast fortunes. Moreover, both characters are self-sacrificing: John Harmon refuses to reveal his name and thereby rejects his inheritance in favor of his servants, the Boffins, and his beloved Bella, while Prince Myshkin’s love for Nastasya Filippovna, based on compassion, prevails over his real love for Aglaya.... The plot-line involving John Harmon and Bella Wilfer corresponds in psychological terms to the plot-line involving Prince Myshkin and Aglaya Epanchina. Defining the complex of common features in the characters of John Harmon and Prince Myshkin, one could not but mention their deep insight into human nature, their ability to understand refined and subtle spiritual processes, and, most obviously, their generosity.

A minor character in Our Mutual Friend, Silas Wegg, has his leg amputated, and this seems to have inspired the loss of Lebedev’s leg, in The Idiot. Both incidents are treated humorously.

Finally, Dostoyevsky was influenced by one of the most famous scenes in Dickens’ works, the death of Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop. Grandfather Trent and Kit discover Nell’s dead body. Dostoyevsky felt that this scene had “a strength never [before] met in literature.” This scene seems to have influenced “the scene with Rogozhin and Prince Myshkin near the murdered Nastasya Filippovna” in The Idiot.

© L. James Hammond 2009
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1. Ch. 4, p. 64 back
2. Quoted in Wikipedia. The critic Laurence Brander compared Wodehouse to Ronald Firbank, and praised both for their hilarity and grace. back
3. Wikipedia, quoting Classics and Commercials, A Literary Chronicle of the Forties, by Edmund Wilson, page 140, Vintage Books, New York, 1962 back
4. Quoted in Wikipedia back
5. Quoted in Wikipedia back
6. “Dickens’s Influence upon Dostoevsky, 1860-1870; or, One Nineteenth-Century Master’s Assimilation of Another’s Manner and Vision,” by Irina Gredina, Tomsk Polytechnic University, Russia, and Philip V. Allingham, Contributing Editor, Lakehead University, Canada. The essay seems to have been influenced by Davis Gervais’ essay, “Dostoevsky and the English Novel: Dickens, John Cowper Powys and D. H. Lawrence.” Cambridge Quarterly 35, 1 (2006), 49-71. back