What non-Go book are you reading right now?

I just finished Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse. His novels had a surge in popularity during the sixties and seventies. Readers had their antennae out for books of philosophical/spiritual weight, especially if it seemed to promote the use of mind altering substances. (As I recall, Carlos Castaneda’s books were likewise popular at the time.) Many readers no doubt had their first exposure to Buddhist doctrine through Hesse. It was prominent throughout his body of work.

Steppenwolf is about a lonely, middle-aged intellectual who experiences a spiritual awakening through a series of encounters with various uninhibited nightclub dwellers. Personal growth is largely a matter of stripping away old assumptions. It invites a certain amount of disorientation, and in that respect I suppose the nightlife might be as suitable a vehicle as any. By degrees Harry the Steppenwolf learns to overcome his cultural snobbishness, gently pushing Mozart and Goethe aside to make room for jazz, dancing and all-round merriment. He gains enough confidence as a dancer to participate in a costume ball, and it’s there he has his big breakthrough, albeit with a little help from hallucinogens.

Storywise it’s a somewhat slight creation, but Hesse seems to keep it moving along nicely. If I have one reservation it’s that the Steppenwolf’s transition to bon vivant too often feels like a male fantasy. His guides are mostly young attractive women, and while this in no way diminishes the message, I wondered whether it might have been more convincing had they been less endowed with sex appeal. I realize that this perspective is itself problematic, and I can only plead personal bias and try to work around it.

Mostly I just enjoyed watching a master prose stylist at work. It feels strange to say that since I wasn’t reading it in the original German. My compliments to the translator Basil Creighton, and to Hesse himself of course. I don’t doubt that the story is equally compelling in a host of languages.

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Yeah, I know. Only vaguely related to the topic.
But hell, nice memories …

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I second your enthusiasm for Hesse. I read Narcissus and Goldmund for a religion class in college and liked it pretty well, but never followed up. Then 6 or 7 years ago, I came across Journey to the East, which I also liked, and after reading several more that I liked, I decided I should read everything (not there yet).

About his style: I think you are referring to his narrative style, his way of telling a story, involving voice, tone, atmosphere, selection of descriptive details, and a hundred other things. As you say, his stories are often “slight” in terms of plot, but easy to read and powerful in a quiet way. Exactly how he achieves this remains a mystery to me.

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At The moment I’m reading selected poems of Jim Harrison, Mary Oliver, A diplomat in Japan by Satow, and recently The Dalai Lama’s Cat by Michie.

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When I referred to Hesse’s style I was thinking about his ability to turn a phrase, although I would agree that the things you mentioned are really all of a piece, not so cleanly separated. Like you I marvel at how writers like Hesse are able to work this out. The thing with plot considerations is that you don’t want to appear to approach it too directly and bluntly. Some exposition is required, and yet the line between what’s essential and what’s excess baggage is amazingly thin. Suddenly the writer feels that he’s writing about everything under the sun except for the one thing he truly wanted to write about. The further he seems to progress, the more the destination appears to recede. The best writers seem to resolve this intuitively, and I wonder if this skill is even learnable.

Side note: When I think about Treasure of the Sierra Madre (movie version) I can’t help seeing some striking similarities to McTeague. That scene near the end with the wind scattering all that gold dust makes me think of McTeague in the desert with his doomed canary. There’s even something in Bogart’s body language that I find McTeaguish. Maybe it’s that Jewish junk collector, or maybe it’s Trina and her almost lascivious relationship with that pile of coins. There’s a lot of defensive and paranoid posturing in both stories, lots of grasping behaviour. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Traven was a major fan of Norris’s novel.

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I appreciate your observations, which I agree with. It’s not a spoiler, I suppose, to say that the scattering of the gold dust is in the book, too, although better staged in the movie. Although Traven was about a generation younger than Norris, they were both realists and socialists/Communists (in Traven’s case), so I do think you are right that Traven may well have been a fan of McTeague.

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I love Sci Fi too, but I mostly read history and science books. Haven’t read much in the last few years, because it seems like every Sci Fi book nowadays is one of a long series. I read one recently called “The Parable of the Talents” which I loved. It’s sort of along the same lines as “The Handmaid’s Tale”, in that it deals with a future U.S. where religious law has taken over, but it is much more thoughtful and wide ranging in what it deals with.

I’m currently reading my second Steven Pinker book, called “The Better Angels of Our Nature”. Pinker is an absolutely brilliant thinker, one of the greats of our time, in my opinion. The other one I read was “Blank Slate” (I think) also brilliant.

For Chess and Go players, I recommend any book by Douglas Hofstadter, professor of cognitive science at (last I heard) the University of Indiana. This is stuff truly worthy of someone who has a good mind and likes to think about thinking itself. My favorite was “Le Tombeau de Marot”, about translation, legend and parable in different languages, through the lens of one particular French Poem which he has translated by a bunch of different people, to and from several languages. (Written in French, the title of the book is a pun on “Tombeau” (tomb) and “Ton Beau” (beautiful tone)). But don’t start there, as its much about his experience in getting his other books translated, and the nature of language and symbolism, etc. I recommend “The Mind’s I”, co-written with Daniel Dennett et al.) or “Metamagical Themas”. His Magnum Opus, if you will, is called “Godel, Escher, Bach; An Eternal Golden Braid”, a Pulitzer Prize winning work on consciousness that brings philosophy, mathematics, computer science (esp. AI), music, poetry and literature, and visual art all together in an incredible journey into the nature of thought itself. Absolutely amazing book.

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Huygens is definitely one of the unrecognized (outside the scientific/ historical writers) scientists in history. DaVinci had nothin’ on that guy fir versatility.

This thread has had a lot of talk about SF. I am a huge SF fan myself.

Continuing from post 132, since a discussion in another topic about teachers and politicians made me remember of this text, I thought it would be nice to make another translation from one of those amazing, imho, essays.

Translation notes:

  • I will be putting some extra/helpful words in italics and parenthesis, as well a small note afterwards.
  • Words in parenthesis and not italics are actually in the original text, as such and in parenthesis
  • Some quotes from ancient texts will be translated and the original text will be added after the text.
  • Nothing is in bold in the original text. I am adding some to make it easier to read/focus.

Translation begins:

Teachers of virtue

___This deep turmoil that our country is going through at the time and is, if analysed at depth, an ethical crisis of our total social organism/structure, brings to the mind of every stochastic person the meaning of the words Politics (art) and the Politician (the person) and urges them to investigate them. What is the purpose ( the “telos (end)” as the ancients would have called it), which the “reason of existence” of Politics, its actual meaning? And what program of life is being reflected by the intentions and actions of a Politician, an authentic, worthy of the word Politician?
___It is futile and worthless for someone to repeat the same things over and over again, by changing the words, please allow me to answer to these questions by inserting here two passages from my earlier studies:
___“Politics, since it is a mental calling, is a form of Pedagogy(education/morphosis). It belongs, therefore, in the sphere of Ethics. The “mask”(visage) of the Politician is the image of a power hungry individual or someone that fights (with weapons and cunning) for monetary(economic) gains. On its actual face however the Politician as a meaning coincides with the meaning of Pedagogy, of law creator, of leader of the masses. Power is the means and not the ends of the Politician. And a Politician’s work is it save the collective human efforts from damage(erosion) and expand the margins within which humans can actualise their ethical(moral) parsonality, free of inane or ill-conceived limitations.” (Excerpt from “The Ethical consciousness and its issues”)
___In times like ours, where the internal and external politics of the countries, both small and large, is being conducted in a way that makes it very hard (even in the eyes of the naive or the people who are not in the know) to hide under the mask of some pale ideas the orgy of greed that guides them, it is maybe scandalous for someone to support that Politics is a mental calling and, as such, it should have had educational character and ethical qualities. It would take a long historical recounting to explain how this calling/vocation which, in other countries and civilisations had a sacred aspect, (“divine” where once considered in the eyes of the people the “leaders” and “lawmakers”) has reached in this neo-european civilization to its current decripit state. If, however, Politics today usurps the ideas and represents personal interests, that does not mean that this has always been its function or that necessarily that is its intended meaning and purpose.
___The meaning of the usefulness of politics will become known to us not if we study those that are in politics by sense of self-promotion or profession, but by those who are in politics with full realisation of the responsibility and see this calling as an important charge left in their care and as a destiny that needs to be fulfilled. Fortunately examples like that are not scant … Let’s take, for example a person on the precipice between myth and history, Lycurgos; A person that is totally historical like Solon; A politician recorded in history by Thucidedis, Pericles of Athens or even the philosopher-politician of the Platonian Republic and the Platonic Laws. The politician as a lawmaker and governor/leader is there to educate the public and is, in its most integral sense, a teacher of ethics. This deeper meaning is the purpose of the political leadership. The power with which it is surrounded is the means, and not the end/purpose, as it happens in the politically immature or degenerate government system of cruel despotism. And if one of the uses of politics is to be there to balance, in some way, the conflicting interests and feelings that bring in contest the various members of society, that is being done in order to free the individual and collective will from the pressures and problems of their common needs and turn them upwards towards the actualisation of a higher, more humane, way of living. To save the human powers from the fricture that is brought about by the arrhythmias (difference in rhythm) of the various social relations; To prevent the erosion that is caused by arbitrariness or greed or immorality and to instead promote the institutions that will promote and enhance the indicidual consciousness; To enlarge the margins within which the public, free of prohibitions, will be able to express their personality, without inhibiting the expression of the personalities of others or putting barriers to the progress of society as a whole - that is its program. A program that is mainly educational, with a long-term planing that begins now, but its real goal is a better future. Education for the young, convincing for the mature or even pressure towards those that oppose progress, is its program. A program that requires great toil, sacrifice and danger. Always alert, steady and decisive, the politician will make this his life’s goal. It will not be a matter of getting drunk on power or greed or the fever of being the best that might help in such a super-human task. It is an overflow of the soul that is in this case the first cause and the final justification. A deep fiery passion to offer yourself to help, to enlighten, to save. Who will deny the ethical quality of those intentions and those actions?" (Excerpt from the book: “Ethics”)
___In essence this meaning of Politics and the Politician is hellenic. It is designed by the hellenic thinkers of Ionia and Megalis Elladas, it is conceived purely by Socrates and it is expressed in an inimmitable way by Plato and Aristotelis: "the rhetoric of trying to make the souls of the citizens asgood as possible and of striving to say what is best, whether the audience will find it more pleasant or more unpleasant." is according to Plato the work of a politician/orator. This exactly is the goal, says Aristotelis, of the actual politician “αυτό που θέλει ο πολιτικός είναι να κάνει τους πολίτες αγαθούς και υπάκουους στους νόμους. Παράδειγμα έχουμε τους νομοθέτες των Κρητών και των Λακεδαιμονίων — και όσους άλλους υπήρξαν σαν κι αυτούς.” On Plato’s Gorgias we have a marvelous exchange (full of vigor and humor) of Socrates against Callicles who has recently entered politics with grand ambitions, but equally grand levity.
“Tell me now , my bright man” says Socrates at some point of the dialogue “since now you have begun dabbling in politics and you are inviting me and criticising me for not being involved in it, will you sit here with me and process this issue? And see: Has Callicles, so far, made any citizen better? Is there anyone, foreigner or citizen Athenean or slave or free who was once wicked, unjust, unethical and thoughtless, but has now become, due to Callicles, good and moral? Tell me, Callicles, if someone ever asks you this question, what will you answer? Which man, will you say, has become a better person by your ministrations? Do you hesitate to answer if there is such a result of yours from the time before you were a simple citizen, before you attempted to get into politics?”
-“You brag about your victory, Socrates” replied Callicles
-“No (continues Socrates), I am not asking the question to show you that I won, but because I trully want to know this: In which way do you think that politics should be conducted in our town. Now that you are into politics will your first and primary goal be for us the citizens to become better or will you be striving for some other goals?” (Gorgias 515 a-c)
___This retrospection to those thoughts and texts that I am presenting, I think you will agree that is far more than a simple philosophical venture. In this ridicule and shamelessness of these dire days for our country I think everyone feels the need to pose this question to our politicians: In the way that you are into politics, are you trully educators of the people, teachers of morals? With your example, what are you expecting to happen? Will the citizens of this country become better or worse? What have you taught them, not with your words, but with your actions? The pride of the free democratic citizen? The reverence for the moral values and the laws of the land? The consistency towards all you declare? The selflessness and wisdom?
___During the night-time, where you will be alone with yourself and you will be doing the review of the “work of the day”, what if inside you those questions arise with the voice of the timeless and eternally “annoying” Socrates: “Which citizen of this country or foreigner, became a better person that they were before, by following your lead and example?” What will you reply? Maybe that Politics has nothing to do with Ethics?


23 of September 1965,
E. P. Papanoutsos

Written for the newspaper “Ta nea” (The news). Published later in his book “Practical Philosophy”

Translator’s note:
Isn’t it amazing that it was writen back in 1965, eh? It seems that our countries and lives are always in a perpetual ethical and political crisis, which gives texts like that a timeless quality. I hope that you found it interesting. :slight_smile:

The original Ancient Greek passages for those interested in linguistics:
“τὸ παρασκευάζειν ὅπως ὡς βέλτισται ἔσονται τῶν πολιτῶν αἱ ψυχαί, καὶ διαμάχεσθαι λέγοντα τὰ βέλτιστα, εἴτε ἡδίω εἴτε ἀηδέστερα ἔσται τοῖς ἀκούουσιν.” (Γοργίας 503Α)
“βούλεται γὰρ τοὺς πολίτας ἀγαθοὺς ποιεῖν καὶ τῶν νόμων ὑπηκόους. παράδειγμα δὲ τούτων ἔχομεν τοὺς Κρητῶν καὶ Λακεδαιμονίων νομοθέτας, καὶ εἴ τινες ἕτεροι τοιοῦτοι γεγένηνται” (Ηθικά Νικομάχεια Α13 )

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At the moment I am doing some rereading.
But tomorrow if the postal service brings me a package as promised and on time I will start with

I used to work at ABN AMRO Bank. A few years after I left - just before the international financial crisis of 2007 - 2010 the bank was sold to RBS, Fortis and Banco Santander.
A classic example of bad timing.
After the crisis ABN AMRO was kept alive by huge government / EU subsidies and since 2014-15 as an independent bank.

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The other day I picked up a delightful, absorbing book, Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee (2018). It’s hard to put down, and I’m already almost half done with its 507 pages of text, notes, and bibliography. This is the best sociological history of the development of American SF, as embodied in the authors named in the title. It will seem trivial to anyone not already interested in the subject, and cannot be fully appreciated, I think, unless one has lived in those days in their imagination. I fall into the latter category. Although I grew up about one-and-a-half generations after that era, I have read extensively in its literature, criticism, and memoirs, and I had the good fortune to meet and even become friends with many of the oldsters, “First Fandom” fans and pros alike.

I was afraid the book might grind axes, but this has not happened. The treatment is honest about the facts. and the tone is sympathetic, as the author puts events in a proper context. The scholarship is awesome, taking advantage of the many resources that have become available in the last 30 years (especially authors’ letters and papers). It fills in many facts I did not know, such as the close friendship between the Heinleins and the Campbells, and the details of their estrangement. It also gives the full history of the government security investigation triggered by the March 1944 publication of Cleve Cartmill’s “Deadline,” a mediocre atom bomb story that has provocative technical details. The investigation was much more extensive and serious than the SF community has ever realized.

The book also highlights something I already knew, that Heinlein was said to have a “mean streak,” in contrast to the great generosity of spirit in Asimov. After their estrangement, Heinlein repudiated the idea that Campbell had had any significant influence on his development, contradicting many of his earlier statements. Although Asimov also became alienated from Campbell due to Campbell’s increasing tendency to crackpotism in the 1950s, he was, nevertheless, always grateful and vociferous in his praise of Campbell’s mentorship in his development as a writer.

The only defect I see so far, is that Van Vogt is only a minor character in the narrative. He was, in fact, one of the original “Big Three,” second only to Heinlein in contemporary popularity. He also was closely involved with Campbell (with whom he had a huge correspondence) and Hubbard, who conned him into his Dianetics hoax. Maybe I will have the chance one day to ask the author about this.

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shopping
The Black Death: the Worst Disaster to Strike Europe (2000)

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Events in Ukraine got me thinking about Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914. It’s a lengthy novel with many characters, and it wouldn’t be exaggerating much to say that you need a map and a scorecard to follow the story. My hardcover edition does include a map, yet I often found myself in confusion. Ultimately it doesn’t seem to matter, because the root cause of Russia’s military struggles is thoroughly consistent from one failed battle to another.

In August 1914 the Russian first and second armies poured into East Prussia, driven by patriotic fervour, most of it coming from people far removed from the actual fighting. It was a Keystone Cops affair virtually from the start. An ill-conceived pincer strategy had soldiers marching for days on end without encountering a single German. Reconnaissance was almost nonexistent, and what information did get passed along was typically obsolete by the time it reached the appropriate people. Supply lines struggled to connect with troop movements, which was unsurprising given that those combat units lacked a coherent overall sense of what they were about. It became commonplace for units to reverse direction and cover the same ground twice on the same day, rather like the proverbial work crew that’s been ordered to dig holes only to then be told to fill them in.

As portrayed by Solzhenitsyn the Russian high command had little interest in expertise or a record of success in the field. For the most part, promotion was reserved for those who had learned to bide their time and create as little friction as possible. In effect they were an extension of the society of courtiers attached to the Tsar, people primarily concerned with their personal status quo, possibly with the occasional sideways glance at the bigger picture, but probably not.

One of the novel’s more memorable passages involves a troubleshooting colonel named Vorotyntsev who’s trying to assess the current state of the Russian command:

" ‘I’ve never met Artamonov.’
‘Who has? Alexander Vasilich hasn’t met him either. He was made a general and got his gold-hilted sword for beating a crowd of starving Chinese. Just like Kondratovich…’
‘Have you met Kondratovich yet?’
‘Not likely! He’s way back in the rear collecting his corps together. And a good thing too. Notorious coward.’
‘Whom have you seen lately?’
‘Martos.’
‘Good general, I hear.’
‘Good? Him? Terrified of the high-ups and keeps his own staff twitching like puppets. He’s ruined the staff of XV corps, they’re all exhausted already.’
‘What do you think of Blagoveshchensky?’
‘Sack of shit. Dripping wet shit too. As for Klyuev, he’s not an officer, he’s a doddering old woman.’
‘What’s the Chief of Staff like here at I Corps Headquarters?’
‘Complete blockhead. Waste of time talking to him.’
Unable to restrain himself any longer, Vorotyntsev burst out laughing."

Constrained by the fragile egos and incompetence of those above, officers like Vorotyntsev must somehow piece together a functioning campaign, often in the face of directives that have the feel of outright sabotage. There is admirable stoicism and indeed heroism at work, but it bears little relation to anything that might be called a strategy. Those in the actual theater of war must fall back on their cherished Russian identity, and then, finally, on their common humanity. Mere survival has become the objective.

Solzhenitsyn holds all this together through many changes of scene, not all of them involving military personnel. The picture that emerges is remarkably similar to what we see today; a seemingly all-powerful leader with a tight network of accomplices and hangers-on; a war that searches in vain for justification; and, once again, failure to weigh adequately the likely complications in the field. Comparing any two wars must eventually turn into something of a fools errand I suppose (especially when the outcome of one war remains to be seen) but to this point there’s no denying the remarkable similarities.

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Leviathan Falls (The Expanse #9) by James S.A. Corey

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In the past month, I read a couple more Woolrich noir novels, Fright, which is sub-par for Woolrich, and The Black Angel, which is excellent and was made into a movie of the same title in 1946. I’m currently reading a 1972 lit crit volume, Telling It Again and Again: Repetition in Literature and Film by Bruce F. Kawin. This is a subject that interests me a great deal, and Kawin has many incisive observations. For example: “Repetition without insight or excitement creates routine, takes the life out of living, and cannot cause us pain. The idea is to make our entire lives routine, so that we will not feel anything…” (p. 20). Or, “…what is beyond expression is most forcefully put in a syntax of pure emphasis” (p. 57). On the downside, Kawin never lowers himself to truly explain some things clearly for a non-academic audience, and worse, indulges in invented jargon.

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A syntax of pure emphasis? Is the concept as nebulous as it sounds, or is the author able to illustrate it neatly in a sentence or two?

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Frank Bokern - Crapuul, kroniek van een sloppenwijk
(Scum, chronicle of Dutch slum)

Crapuul is drived from Latin crapulates (drunk) and Greek kraipalè (hangover) and means in this context scum, really uncivilised persons.

Chronicle of a slum area in Maastricht in the early days of industrialisation.

You are right to call out Kawin’s phrasing. It does employ what I call “puffery,” that is, puffing up the importance of a statement by various means. However, it tickles me, and it does have a point. I was struck by it because it explained a phenomenon I wondered about in my youth. Why do fanatics almost invariably write using all caps, multiple underlines, triple and quadruple exclamation points, and the like. It is because they lack the ability (either due to stupidity or mental incoherence) to properly express their thoughts, and so they resort to pure emphasis (shouting rather than explaining). (Extreme narcissism may also play a role.)

Kawin makes that statement as a summary after a discussion of narrative repetitions and word repetitions in King Lear (such as Lear’s “kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!”). Immediately preceding the statement I quoted, Kawin says, “Lear’s repeating is the principal way Shakespeare expresses the old man’s madness and pain” (p. 57). When there is no narrator, one must illustrate madness either by crazy speech or wild action (which Shakespeare does do), but it is “most forcefully” illustrated (as Kawin says) by repetition, a device of emphasis. Another powerful use of this (which may have been inspired by Lear) is in James Stephens’s famous poem, “The Wind,” which concludes with “And said he’ll kill, and kill, and kill! // And so he will! And so he will!”

By the way, not trusting my memory, I went to the internet to quote Stephen’s poem, and everywhere I looked it was wrong. I knew this because the rhythm was obviously inferior. So much for “look it up” culture. I have quoted it from my copy of Stephens’s Collected Poems.

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