Monday, June 23, 2014

"The Red Badge of Courage" by Stephen Crane (1895)

This is a book that you read in high school and you remember not liking it. But, then again, you were kind of an idiot in high school. You saw it again in the local library and decided to give it a second chance. You are glad you did.

This book describes one young Union soldier's first experience with combat. It takes place over the course of two days on a nameless battlefield in Virginia.  When "The Red Badge of Courage" was published, thirty years after the war in which it's set, Stephen Crane was credited with writing one of the most accurate first person accounts of what combat in the Civil War was really like. Veterans swore they had been in that exact battle with him. Some even claimed to have seen him in the field and vouched for the accuracy of his accounts. Stephen Crane, however, was born in 1871, six years after the war had already ended.

That's how good this book is.

You have found that all of the things you complained about when you read this book in high school were things that you enjoyed now that you are an adult. The colloquial speech, the nameless soldiers, the inner monologue, and the protagonist's constantly changing emotions all added a realism that sucked you right in to the narrative.

On the eve of his first battle a young soldier, named Henry Fleming but most often called "the youth," is consumed with worry that he might turn and run in the face of his enemy. He is afraid that his childish ideas of himself as a glorious warrior might evaporate in the heat of actual warfare. He fears his own cowardice more than death, since he thinks it more likely. Asking his fellow soldiers if they too share this fear of their own moral weakness does not help since they all lie and deny any such fears.

His emotional self awareness is rare amongst protagonists of war novels. His honesty in his fear of failure is universally human, but tends to be too unattractive to make for a common literary theme. This emotional self awareness is a hallmark of "The Red Badge of Courage." Throughout the novel, Crane describes every fleeting emotion and every passing fear, only to have those fears reversed or those emotions negated within a few pages. Henry's mind constantly vacillates between contradictory thoughts, sureness and uncertainty, confidence and doubt, bombast and fear, alternating between claiming the spotlight and shrinking from stage. It's very human.

When battle finally finds him, Henry, the youth, finds himself swept up in the bloodlust and duty of it all. He instinctively joins his brothers in arms and automatically performs his role as a soldier in his nation's army, pouring rifle fire into the rank of a charging Rebel army. He is a part of a larger machine, one bent on defeating the enemy. He is powerful and integral to a greater plan. His enemies turn back from their charge. He has conquered his fear of cowardice.

The book is far more psychological than you remembered. Crane climbs into the minds of all soldiers who have ever fought: their fear of combat, their dread of failure, all combined with their instincts of a finely honed warrior. He vividly and succinctly details the immediacy of battle. The staccato speech of fighting men, the shock of the carnage, the odd moments that form flashbulb memories, the surprise rude realization that the world did not stop spinning simply because your own life was in danger, the feeling that your ten yards of perception constituted the entire war. Not bad for a man who had never seen war first hand.

Soon after his moment of triumph, Henry, the youth, does succumb to his worst fear. Following the lead of other men in his regiment in the face of another rebel charge, he turns tail and runs for his life. He wanders in the rear areas and comes across a column of walking wounded men, heading for a rear hospital area. He finds himself envying the wounded and longing for his own wound, his own red badge of courage. He watches a friend die horribly, crazed and alone in a nameless field, and Henry wishes now that he were dead instead of wounded.

Returning to the front, with men he does not know, Henry is caught up in a mass retreat. Lost in a tide of terrified and shamed men he reaches out to ask one what is happening. The other soldier, his brother in arms and shame, smashes Henry in the head with his rifle and gives the youth the wound he recently wished for. Henry stumbles off to find his regiment and is cared for by a friend who acts very differently than he did just that morning, more tender, more patient and understanding. Battle has changed him. War changes all who experience it.

The next day Henry takes part in several bloody clashes and distinguishes himself in the fighting, even taking up the regimental flag when the color sergeant is killed. He leads a charge, finds his courage, and realizes that terrible secret that makes all good soldiers worth a damn; in order to be an effective soldier, you have to understand that you are already dead, that it is only a matter of time so you might as well fight as hard and as honorably as you can before your number is up.

After the battle, however, he is haunted by his shortcomings. He is convinced that no acts of valor can make up for the sins he hides in his heart. He ran from his duty, he witnessed a friend die, he ran in shame from another wounded soldier who needed help but kept asking whether Henry was hurt. But, looking inward, Henry finds he can forgive himself. He too has been changed and is no longer the boy he was the day before. War has changed the youth into a man.

The brilliance of "The Red Badge of Courage" is it's ambivalence. You read it and heard a cautionary tale warning of the dangers of war to the hearts, minds, and bodies of those who fight. The desperation, the sorrow, the destruction are rarely worth the sacrifice. You saw no glory in the story, only dire warnings. But you also saw how someone else could read it, someone more inclined to embrace the virtue of armed conflict, and hear it as an impassioned endorsement of the glories of war. Valor and sacrifice can be very attractive. Crane does not tell you what to think; he writes the story as empathetically and realistically as he can, and leaves it to you to decide. Brilliant.

It is also remarkable that Crane had never set foot on a battlefield before writing this book. He says that he grew up listening to old veterans talking about what the war was like, soaking in every detail, imagining what it must have all been like. This is the magic of literature and also of the human mind. These gifts allow us to face things we may never face in real life, to examine fears we may never have to deal with, to understand things we would never otherwise be given the chance to understand. A great book can tap in to that miracle of human empathy, our ability to recognize the complexity of other people, and it can provide us a glimpse of the human condition through the eyes of others, even if those others never existed.

On to the next book!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

"Myths to Live By" by Joseph Campbell (1972)

You have always wanted to read a compendium of human mythology, a brief account and comparison of different mythologies throughout cultures and eras. Joseph Campbell seems like the best place to start. Campbell is one of those people who you have always heard of. He's always either been presented to you as a brilliant teacher with a genius insight into the nature of the human experience, or he's been presented as a Great Satan whose teachings should be avoided at all costs. It's that last one that has always made you want to read his stuff, of course. Yet again, you read a book your wife should review instead of you. You're probably not smart enough for this.

"Myths to Live By" is a collection of essays based on public speeches given by Joseph Campbell from 1958 through 1971. Campbell's goal is to show how human mythologies throughout the ages all have similar themes, a continuity that runs far deeper than coincidence or chance could ever explain. It's one of those books that can change the way you see the world forever.

"Myths To Live By" begins with the idea that the staggering progress of human knowledge has lead to the loss of the primacy of ancient symbols and legends, of myths which have proven essential to the human animal. Campbell proposes that humanity's primary psychological motivation is clearly to mythical concerns rather than economic or physical. This explains why millions of Hindus could refuse to eat herds of perfectly edible cattle surrounding them and why a destitute people would bother erecting extravagant cathedrals (eat your heart out, Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs). Campbell postulates that the historical record shows that the loss of these myths and symbols threatens to begin the crumbling of society and offers a solution that might save human civilization. So, the premise is a bit grandiose and based on questionable assertions (since human civilization still exists 50 years after the book was written) but the premise maintains a fascinating wisdom and clarity. Campbell tends to cherry pick his examples to fit his preconceived notions, but these weaknesses might just be something that, like the primacy of myths, form a part of human nature.

Campbell asserts that the primacy of mythology in human beings is a symptom of humanity's unique recognition of its own mortality coupled with the realization that "society" still lives on after the individual dies. Humans are born, again unique in the animal world, about a decade too early. We need mythology and ritual and the influence of a distinct culture to shape us into the cultural beings we have become. Our instincts are more of an open book than the scripted impulses of less evolved life forms. We are made to allow other people and the stories they tell to help make us.

In "Myths to Live By" Campbell claims that a proper mythology should 1) instill awe and reverence for the mysteries of the universe, 2) present the universe in accord with general knowledge of the day (so, there go most modern religions), 3) validate and reinforce the cultural norms of society, and 4) help guide citizens through every stage of their lives. He is clearly of the opinion that Western religions do not meet humanity's need for satisfying mythology. He urges you to look Eastward and inward and skyward. Humans can create new mythologies based on our own potential for enlightenment and bolstered by our own extraordinary ability to reach beyond our home planet and possibly colonize the very heavens we once believed ruled our fates.

Towards the end of the book he suggests that Carl Jung, Swiss psychiatrist and founder of analytical psychology, was right when he claimed that humans have an instinctive drive to construct subconscious archetypes, to crave and create myths. Our founding mythologies, from the Greek Pantheon, to the animistic religions of aboriginal peoples of the New World, to the Old Testament are not real, Campbell argues. But that doesn't mean they aren't true or important. In fact, if we give the story of Genesis a metaphorical meaning it might become even more powerful than any literal meaning ever could. What if the Garden of Eden exists within each of us? What if the point of the story is that we are all unable (without divine intervention) to return to that perfect ideal existence? We all have eaten of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Eternity is Eden and we are all Adam and Eve. Creation myths across all people groups and throughout the ages share much in common. Campbell explains that "Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths." There is a truth to these stories more powerful than the patently allegorical "facts." If there weren't we would have ceased to repeat them long ago and we certainly would not ever fashion new ones, which means there would be no Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. No one wants to live in a world like that.

Campbell takes his cues from famous psychologists like Freud and Jung when describing the operations of the human mind, but he only lets them inform his descriptions. He gives these philosophies of mind great significance, but only as a means of discovering deeper truths. He does not allow Freud or Jung to usurp the wisdom of millenia of human social evolution or his own observations. In Eastern religion, for example, he refers to the overarching social structure as the Superego and the individual's compulsion to adhere to that superseding structure as the Id.

Around 4,000 years ago, one of the greatest shifts in human consciousness took place. Some humans began telling themselves stories that implied they themselves possessed free will, not just the gods. This idea of "the individual" is extremely new and wholly foreign to the way most human societies had previously been shaped. When Yahweh destroyed the Earth in a great flood (or when the Sumerian god, Enlil did the same thing around the same time) he did so because the people were so wicked, implying they could have chosen to be something other than what nature intended them to be. This was a new concept in human history and it affected everything west of Iran. You can see this difference reflected in our subsequent mythology and literature. In the Oddesy, the Aeneid, and Dante's Devine Comedy, the heroes who enter into the underworld are able to recognize dead friends and love ones who have passed from the world of the living. Souls retain their individuality even after death. In Eastern storytelling, the heroes only find faceless dead in the afterlife. Once a soul has departed, it assumes the role of the new society of the dead it has been transplanted into. The individual is lost to the fabric of the universe.

But there is even greater diversity within the storytelling traditions of the world than the rise of the concept of individuality. In Judaism's mythology, we are on God's side. He is good and we are subject to sin. In Greek mythology however, we are on humanity's side. Humanity is good and powerful and the gods are the capricious and flawed ones. In Eastern religions on the other hand, we are the gods! Humans are capable of both creation and destruction, but always within the greater framework of the nature of the universe. In this last version, Campbell finds a truth he spends much of the rest of the book trying to convey.
"We in the West have named our God; or rather, we have had the Godhead named for us in a book from a time and place that are not our own. And we have been taught to have faith... in the absolute existence of this metaphysical fiction... In the great East, on the other hand, the accent is on experience; on one's own experience, furthermore, not a faith in someone else's... The Buddha is one awakened to identity not with the body but with the knower of the body, nor with the thought but the knower of the thoughts, that is to say, with consciousness; knowing, furthermore that his value derives from his ability to radiate consciousness - as the value of a light bulb derives from its power to radiate light. What is important about a light bulb is not filament or the glass but the light which these bulbs are to render; and what is important about each of us is not the body and its nerves but the consciousness that shines through them."
He is saying that we all have the power to make our own story into The Story, to make ourselves into Gods by realizing our connection to the very fabric of the infinite universe. Consciousness itself is a miracle that is simply written into the mathematics of reality and we are the beneficiaries of that miracle. We are designed to allow mythology, art, storytelling, and religion to remind us of that miracle every day.

Campbell explains further what he identifies as a weakness of modern Western religions, specifically. "Where synagogues and churches go wrong is by telling what their symbols "mean." The value of an effective rite is that it leaves everyone to his own thoughts, which dogma and definitions only confuse." That sounds a lot like some of the Christian books you have been reading in Bible study lately. It also sounds like something you might have said before. But sometimes Campbell's teachings are maddeningly circular, leaving you wondering if there really is any wisdom in them at all. "Clarity of the mind is the ultimate goal and when you achieve it you discover that there is no one mind to begin with, so what exactly was cleared in the first place?" That kind of thing. But that absurdity is often intentional in order to allow the mind to release classical logical thought and bring it closer to achieving enlightenment.

"Myths to Live By" reminded you of the central duality of all things. Darkness can only exist if there is also light, evil if there is good, bliss if there is agony. It reminded you that there are more things to be inspired by out there (and in yourself) than you usually acknowledge, that hope is not naive, that suffering can be overcome, and that stories and art are intrinsically important. It also taught you that there are not only different religions, but different ways of thinking about religion, about individuality, about the miracle of human consciousness. And above all the book reminded you that "...the greatest steps in the progress of mankind have been the products... of acts inspired by awe."

On to the next book!

P.S. This guy, Jason Silva, has undoubtedly read some Joseph Campbell, and he is pretty awesome.
 and another one from Jason Silva..

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

"John Adams." by David McCullough (2001)

You've never been much for biographies. They tend to be far too tedious. It's said that Eleanor Roosevelt once said that "Great minds discuss ideas, mediocre minds discuss events, and small minds discuss people." You tend to find yourself solidly in the mediocre range of minds since you are endlessly fascinated by the events and the contexts of history. Very rarely have you ventured into the realm of the ideas that inspire these events, but every so often there are certain people who embody ideas so acutely, people who give definite shape to previously mercurial concepts so memorably, that their lives become worth study. Sometimes, certain people are worth a little discussion.

David McCullough is a master at what he does. This was not the first book by him that you had read, and it likely won't be the last, but it might be the longest. It is a complete and expertly told biography of Adams' life, not just an account of his revolutionary or presidential activities. Writing a brief review of such an expansive work is problematic, to say the least. Hitting the high points of the man's life would still result in far too long a review for one little blog. So you decided to try to write down some of the things you most wanted to remember from the book, impressions of the ideas, of the events, and of John Adams himself.

Anytime you read of anyone who was constantly reading, you always feel a deep kinship with that character, real or fictitious. Adams was one of those characters. As a boy, he was an avid reader and a student of human nature. He observed and studied everyone he could, not just those he admired. He searched for what inspired famous thinkers and what had motivated great men. Throughout his life he maintained an extraordinary quality of discernment. A young John Adams was a bit self conscious and tended to look for rivals when none need exist. He was adept at finding the weakness in others but made up for this by honing a knack for finding others' hidden strengths as well (in Adams' eyes, a quick wit covered a multitude of sins). It was this discernment that eventually led him to nominate Colonel George Washington as the commander of the Continental Army and Thomas Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence.

John Adams was never interested in gathering wealth. Instead, he longed to leave his mark on the world. He developed a vision of the future of Western Civilization with a clarity that seems remarkable today. "Creation is liable to change," he wrote in 1755, "Perhaps this... may (eventually) transfer the great seat of empire into America. It looks likely to me. The only way to keep us from setting up for ourselves (as the greatest nation) is to disunite us."

John Adams was honest to a fault, hard working to the extreme, dedicated to his country and to its future. A Harvard graduate and practicing lawyer, he was one of the most brilliant and well read of his generation, a generation marked by brilliant and well read people. He was eloquent when he needed to be, quick with a joke and quicker with a laugh. He was loyal, tenacious, and dedicated to his passions. He recognized his own faults, and so was quick to forgive the faults he found in others. He had the rare ability to imagine other people with a complexity that was (and still is) sorely lacking. Adams trusted his discernment, but was never afraid to change his mind when new evidence was presented. He was a true child of The Enlightenment.

But, having listed all of these attributes, this would not be a proper review of the man's biography if you did not mention that John Adams' greatest strength was his wife, Abigail. Throughout their marriage, they were often separated for long periods, but they maintained a passionate romance and a prolific correspondence. Abigail was equally as well read as her husband. In fact, she was his equal in every way except the public accomplishments her sex and her society prevented her from attempting. Her literary tastes tended towards the poets more than the social philosophes. She quoted poetry in face to face conversations and in her writings. Abigail quoted poetry from memory and always seemed to fit her stanzas perfectly to the moment. She kept herself abreast of current events around the world and she voiced her opinions to people whose response mattered most. While her husband was President of the United States, Abigail was widely known to be the better politician among the two Adamses. When it became clear to him that his entire cabinet (left over from President Washington's administration) was likely politically opposed to him, and his Vice President Thomas Jefferson most certainly was, Adams called for the wisest and most loyal adviser he'd ever had to race to the capital to help him in his hour of need. He called for Abigail. It is fair to speculate that the United States of America would not be the same country had one of its most influential founding fathers not been married to such and extraordinary woman.

Abigail Adams has always reminded you a lot of your own wife. Liz is also a woman who is much smarter than you, much wiser, and whose advice not enough people listen to simply because she is a woman. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

It is often forgotten (or maybe ignored) that John Adams was actually the defense attorney for the British soldiers (officers and enlisted men) who were charged with the murders of the infamous Boston Massacre. He felt that in a nation of free men, a nation of laws, anyone accused of a crime was entitled to a robust defense. At the time, King George still trusted American courts to try British soldiers. That trust soon evaporated and the king decreed that any accused British soldiers were to be returned to England to stand trial for the crimes they had committed in the American colonies, an affront to Adams' efforts that would not be forgotten.

With the Stamp Act of 1765, British taxes actually affected Americans for the first time, and Adams began to find his voice to oppose the British. He wrote a document espousing the principle of No Taxation Without Representation that was adopted by an unprecedented number of cities and towns throughout Massachusetts. It was but the first of many incredibly influential writings he would create over the course of his life. In fact, when "Common Sense" spread throughout the 13 colonies in 1776, and popular sentiment began turning towards independence, it was speculated by many that Adams was the pamphlet's real author. Adams, however, was troubled by the ideas on government ensconced within the popular pamphlet. He was worried that the author of "Common Sense," Thomas Paine, was far better at tearing down rather than building up. This worry prompted him to shape his own ideas on government as a counter to Paine's. Even though he had become the de facto leader of the 2nd Continental Congress in Philadelphia, he took time and drew on his (and his wife's) extensive study of history and human nature and outlined for a few the delegates a system of government based on mutual checks and balances, one built on a framework of a powerful executive, a legislative brach consisting of two houses, and an independent judiciary. If he had never written anything else in his life, Adams' "Thoughts on Government" would have made him worthy of lifelong fame in American history.

McCullough reminded you of a detail you tend to forget when you think of that extraordinary 2nd Continental Congress. The delegates all gathered together in Philadelphia that summer came from such different worlds, almost alternate realities, that it is a miracle that they could agree on anything, let alone the idea that they should all form a single nation together. The aristocracy from Virginia bore almost nothing in common with the farmer stock of New England. In your mind, the obstinate but hard working Adams seems much more admirable than the sensitive and brooding Jefferson, for example. Next to stalwart John Adams, Thomas Jefferson seems prissy, affected, and snobbish. Jefferson's whole life was a hypocrisy; he hated cities but insisted on staying in the heart of Paris when he was the ambassador there (the Adamses stayed in a much more modest home some way from the nucleus of the city), he abhorred debt and praised frugality while living a lavish lifestyle and owing money to lenders the world over until the day he died, he praised humanity's self evident equality but owned and traded human slaves. All humans bear their own contradictions, but Jefferson's seem more glaring to you, especially when viewed through the lens of such a plain and straightforward character as John Adams.

John Adams, the workhorse of the Congress, chaired more than 20 committees in Philadelphia, including the Board of War, more than any other delegate. He made sure that the 2nd Continental Congress was a revolutionary one. Where other delegates fell ill or returned home to convalesce, Adams stayed and attended the urgent business of his new nation. But he didn't simply sit around passing legislation and writing influential papers. In his role as a Founding Father, Adams was a man of action. Putting his life on the line, he was part of the first peace delegation to cross battle lines at the British request to meet with admiral Howe to discuss peace terms. He was chosen to cross the Atlantic to join Franklin as ambassador to France (his ship traded shots with a British merchantman and Adams was in the thick of it all with musket in hand). He traveled to Amsterdam and secured the first of many loans for his nation from Dutch banks. After the War for Independence was over, John Adams was chosen as the U.S.'s first minister to the court of St. James and presented himself before the very king from whom he had made damn sure his fellow countrymen had declared independence.

As the war dragged on, Abigail and John Quincy, as well as Thomas Jefferson joined him in France. The spring of 1785 might have been the best time in the Adamses' lives. The three revolutionaries, Franklin and Jefferson and Adams, were the toast of Paris. They drank deeply of the culture and history of the country that was soon to dissolve into revolutionary chaos. They all enjoyed one another's company and their own considerable fame. But Jefferson and the Adamses were no Jacobins. In fact, they seemed far more conservative than the notoriously morally loose French aristocracy, far more humble and circumspect. The juxtaposition this image posed for you proved charmingly memorable.

Back in the states, Shay's Rebellion (against high taxes) soon illustrated the need for a stronger federal government. Congress was considering how to do that. This afforded Adams and Jefferson the opportunity to spar over their opinions of the best form the new government should take. Jefferson, Adams wrote, was "apprehensive of monarchy" and favored a weaker executive branch while Adams was afraid of "the aristocracy" he had seen arise from too powerful a legislative branch. Both however, favored a new Bill of Rights to be attached to the new Constitution. Their debates were to continue for decades to come and shaped the crux of today's modern political party platforms.

In 1789, Adams became the first Vice President of the United States and, therefore, the first President of the US Senate. After President Washington decided to limit his administration to just two terms, John Adams was elected President with Jefferson as his VP. The Adams administration was consumed with avoiding the gathering storm of war with revolutionary France. The Massachusetts farmer turned Commander in Chief championed peace through engaged diplomacy backed up by a powerful navy. He passed controversial (and likely unconstitutional) laws barring derogatory speech against himself and the government in general, and allowing for the expulsion of suspicious immigrants. The Alien and Sedition Acts are the darkest black eye on the face of Adams the historical figure and likely the reason his face is not on Mt. Rushmore.

His entire cabinet was arrayed against him politically and his own Vice President actively campaigned to undercut his political goals. Unlike almost all of the other politicians of the day (especially Hamilton and Jefferson) Adams refused to vilify his adversaries in the newspapers. He refused to use the press as a weapon against his political enemies. It is not surprising therefore, that John Adams only served one term as POTUS. It is important to remember though, that only 250 votes in New York would have won him the entire state and given him a second term. Remember that tidbit the next time someone tells you that your vote does not count.

Adams ended up doing more for the cause of revolution and more to shape the modern United States than any of his fellow Founding Fathers, but has received far less credit. Jefferson had his Declaration, Revere had his ride, Washington his cherry tree, and Madison the authorship of the Constitution (heavily influenced, of course, by Adams). But at the end of their lives, none of the members of that extraordinary generation would have as many achievements in the American cause under their belts than John Adams.

Above all, Adams was obsessed with serving his country, with securing the future for his posterity. But his devotion to duty never dimmed his vision of a nation that could one day prove to be a beacon of freedom and hope and culture to a world shackled by monarchy and tyranny. In a letter from Paris to his inimitable wife, Adams wrote;
"I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architacture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture in order to give their children the right to study paintings, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain."
John Adams was a man of many controversies and contradictions, but quotes like this show that he had his priorities right. Reading his biography made you wish that his posterity could see the world through his eyes more often.

On to the next book!

P.S. Adams' "Thoughts on Government" in April of 1776, his response to build up the tearing down that "Common Sense" was doing, should be required reading for any high school government class. It is public domain and easily accessible on the internet and it is outstanding.

P.P.S. In the winter of 1761, Adams witnessed, first hand, what he considered to be the birth of American independence. James Otis, Adams' political hero and legal example, argued before the five British judges of the Massachusetts court that the search warrants which had been used by the British government for years, even in England itself, were null and void because they violated the natural rights of Englishmen. This reminded you that great events never spring into existence fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus. History is filled with nameless, forgotten people who toil away in obscurity, always bending the arc of human civilization towards justice. That those people are unsung today does not mean that their actions were meaningless. Actions build upon actions and inspiration is built upon inspiration until sometimes the whole world stops and notices. You may never know what the end result of your choices might be. This anecdote served as reminder to make sure that you act in a way that will shape the world to the form you want to see. Not all of us can be John Adams, but none of us is an island.