Thursday, July 17, 2014

Learning to let go of the past in Eudora Welty's novel 'The Optimist's Daughter'

A plot summary of 'The Optimist's Daughter' by Eudora Welty. In this novel, an American Southern woman releases herself from the grip of her memories of her family.

Originally published to Helium Network on Dec. 6, 2013.

"The Optimist's Daughter" is a short novel by Eudora Welty (1909-2001) that won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1973. It follows a middle-aged woman in the American South as her father dies and as she copes with the aftermath of his death, finding herself left alone except for a heartless, foolish stepmother. The story is written in four parts. The first part is the father's long stay in the hospital, and the second part is his funeral. The third and fourth parts are devoted to the woman's memories of her family and to her redemptive realization that she can let go of her past.

Part One

Clint McKelva is a 71-year-old retired judge in Mount Salus, Miss. He has traveled to New Orleans, La. to see a particular eye doctor, Nate Courtland, a longtime friend. Judge McKelva reports having seen a fig tree while staring at a courthouse, and he says, "I was forced into the conclusion I'd started seeing behind me." Dr. Courtland diagnoses him with a slipped retina. Courtland prefers to delegate the necessary surgery to another doctor, but McKelva insists that he do it himself. He declares himself an "optimist" although he's warned the surgery is risky.

Two women have traveled to support McKelva: his forty-something daughter Laurel, described as "a professional designer of fabrics in Chicago," and his new wife Fay, a part-time typist who is perhaps even younger than Laurel and whom he married only a year and a half previously. Laurel's mother, Becky, is dead. The second wife, Fay, presents herself as a disagreeable, egocentric character from the moment of the diagnosis of her husband's slipped retina, as she cries: "I don't see why this had to happen to me." It seems that Judge McKelva still cares deeply for the memory of his first wife, as he asks for Becky, not Fay, as he wakes from surgery.

While waiting in New Orleans for Judge McKelva to recover, Laurel and Fay stay in separate rooms at a "decayed mansion" called the Hibiscus, a streetcar ride away from the hospital. One night, Laurel knocks on Fay's door hoping to acquaint herself better with Fay. Fay tells her that she had left Texas and come to Mississippi because all her family members were dead, and she implies that she looks down on Laurel for having left her father behind in favor of pursuing a career in Chicago. "Oh, I wouldn't have run off and left anybody that needed me," Fay said pointedly. "Just to call myself an artist and make a lot of money."

The judge immobilized and bandaged across both eyes shares a recovery room with another man who is blind and mostly deaf. A nurse, Mrs. Martello, watches over both patients. For weeks, Laurel reads Nicholas Nickleby aloud to her father in the recovery room. He weakens. One day, she arrives at the hospital to find a commotion between Fay and Mrs. Martello. The nurse is physically restraining Fay and bars her from Judge McKelva's room, claiming that Fay is "abusing" and stressing her husband during his recovery. Dr. Courtland immediately closes himself in with the patient and asks both women to stay away from the hospital.

At the Hibiscus again, Laurel tells Fay, "I believe he's dying." He does die, suddenly, without explanation. Fay screams, "You picked my birthday to do it on!" when Dr. Courtland delivers the news. Dr. Courtland's comments are regretful but not precisely apologetic; he seems to be frustrated by the medical case and sad more for himself than for his patient. Laurel and Fay travel back to Mississippi on a train that also carries Judge McKelva's body home.

Part Two

Laurel is greeted at the train station by six women who were bridesmaids at her wedding to Philip Hand. (Laurel is a widow now, her husband having disappeared in combat only a year after their marriage. She still wears her wedding ring.) These bridesmaids include the eye doctor's sister, Miss Adele Courtland, and Tish Bullock. Laurel and Fay are driven to the home that Judge McKelva shared with Fay. It is filled with Judge McKelva's friends who make affectionate comments about the departed man, such as "He was never sick a day in his life!" and "Can't believe Clint's gone for good." Fay cries, "What are all these people doing in my house?" That night, Laurel sleeps in the same bed she had slept in as a child, while Fay sleeps in her predecessor Becky's bed.

The next day, the funeral is held at the house. Mr. Pitts, the undertaker, reveals his cosmetic work on the dead man's face. Laurel prefers the casket closed, but Fay exercises her authority as widow to demand that it be kept open.

A broad cast of characters turn out to mourn the judge, who was a public figure in the small town. The mayor says of Laurel: "This girl here's surrounded by her oldest friends! And listen further: bank's closed, most of the Square's agreed to close for the hour of services, county offices closed. Courthouse has lowered its flag out front, school's letting out early." The mourners turn out platitudes and generally make buffoons of themselves, retelling funny tales of Judge McKelva's alleged antics as a younger man, which Laurel suspects are not entirely true. "I don't think that was Father," she tells Tish, in reference to an especially unlikely tale of bravado, and she thinks to herself: "The mystery in how little we know of other people is no greater than the mystery of how much." Laurel has a more serious attitude during the funeral, but few of her thoughts are made explicit. She does say aloud: "He loved my mother." The judge is buried in the local cemetery, although Fay refuses to bury him near his "old wife."

Among the visitors are Fay's mother, who is referred to as Mrs. Chisom, and several of Fay's siblings. Mrs. Chisom elaborates that they are all still living in Texas. "Yes, me and my brood believes in clustering just as close as we can get," she says. This contradicts Fay's previous story to Laurel that her entire family was dead. One of Fay's sisters compliments the family on the "large crowd" that was drawn to the funeral, "without even having to count those Negroes." After the funeral, Mrs. Chisom asks Fay if she'll consider allowing the entire family to move into the large house she is inheriting.

Laurel calls Fay on her previous claim that her family was dead. Fay is nonplussed: "It's better than some lies I've heard around least my family's not hypocrites. If they didn't want me, they'd tell me to my face."

Part Three

After all is said and done at her childhood home in Mount Salus, Laurel is consumed by memories of her parents that are triggered by the furniture, garden and books whose spines are colored with lamp-black and whose words she can remember hearing her parents read aloud to each other in bed. Someone has already cleaned out her father's desk. She insists on returning to Chicago, although some friends suggest that she stay.

Alone at last, Laurel discovers a chimney swift in the house. Anxiously pursuing the bird in the dark, she is flooded with thoughts: about Fay, about her longing for her dead mother. She finds her mother's sewing machine engraved with the year 1817, and then she is surprised to find her mother's personal papers intact. She recalls many details about her parents, especially that Dr. Courtland had removed a cataract from her mother's eye, and that her mother had subsequently suffered a stroke and spent five years in bed, disoriented, "in exile and humiliation," before dying.

Part Four

Laurel recalls parts of her brief marriage to Phil: their honeymoon in Cairo, Phil's work designing houses, his death by the kamikaze in the Pacific. When morning comes, Laurel enlists the help of a man named Mr. Cheek in catching the chimney swift, but he does not succeed. A woman named Missouri arrives and opines that the "vermin" bird doesn't fly out the open door because "they just ain't got no sense like we have." Laurel catches the bird and brings it outside.

Then, standing in the driveway, Laurel burns the family papers and books she has found. When Fay returns, Laurel accuses her of dirtying and damaging the breadboard that her husband had made for her mother. Fay replies that "it's just an old board" and "it's my house now." Laurel tells Fay, enigmatically, that her mother had predicted that Fay would come into her house someday. Laurel says she is taking the breadboard back to Chicago, and she lifts it out of Fay's reach; Fay accuses her of threatening to strike her with it, and Laurel admits to herself that "she had been ready to hurt Fay." At the last moment, she chooses to leave the breadboard behind as she departs the house, saying, "I think I can get along without that too."

"The Optimist's Daughter" is an unusual novel. It doesn't have an action-driven plot, and neither does it feel primarily like a character study given that the main character is so silent and challenging to understand. It is about a woman who, in loneliness and under unrelenting pressure, finally cracks and has a psychological breakthrough.

Illustration by Chester A. Reed, published in "The Bird Book," 1915 © Public domain in the United States.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden's philosophy in 'The Virtue of Selfishness'

Published in 1964, "The Virtue of Selfishness" outlines the belief that selfishness, not altruism, is the best guideline for behavior.

Originally posted to The Resplendent Tree 1999-2006. Revised and posted to Helium Network Jan. 6 - July 14, 2014.

"The Virtue of Selfishness," written by the objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand (with some chapters written by her lover Nathaniel Branden) and published in 1964, outlines her belief that selfishness, as opposed to altruism, is the best guideline for behavior. Selfishness, as she uses the term, is not about merely about acting so that one's own self will benefit; selfishness additionally requires a principled explanation of why one is acting and specifically what one hopes to gain.

As Rand considered herself the primary author of the book, her contributions are summarized first, followed by Branden's.

Selfishness isn't gain at others' expense (but neither should you allow someone else's gain at your expense)

The only person you can count on is yourself; you must have a plan to achieve your goals. Rand rejects the idea that "to injure, enslave, rob or murder others is in man's self-interest" and instead claims that "man's self-interest can be served only by a non-sacrificial relationship with others." Trade is an indirect means of achieving one's own goals, and she believes that "the principle of trade is justice." Therefore, self-interest forbids treating people unjustly.

Also pertaining to justice is her admonition that one should not step out of one's way to assist others who are not already doing everything they can to survive and thrive. People should earn their way in the world, and anyone who is undeserving should neither be given nor accept any charity. Under normal conditions, people should not try to lift others out of "poverty, ignorance, neurosis or whatever other troubles they might have."

Why altruism can lead to injustice

Altruism, by definition, requires that the beneficiary of an action be someone other than oneself. It does not inherently assume what values one has; it only requires that a different person must benefit from the exercise of those values. One problem is that a person's values might be terrible, and therefore other people might not really benefit from them at all. (Consider, for example, a genocidal dictator who claims to act altruistically on behalf of the people.) Another problem is that altruists are never assured of being compensated for their efforts and must depend on someone else's reciprocal good will. Altruism thus promotes "mutual resentment," and perhaps worse, "the doctrine that concern with one's own interests is evil means that man's desire to live is evil - that man's life, as such, is evil. No doctrine could be more evil than that. Yet that is the meaning of altruism..."

Altruism assumes a "malevolent universe" metaphysics; it assumes that humanity's goal is to combat disaster. Rand prefers the idea of selfishness, in which a person has the goal of personally surviving and thriving and must still be rational and just.

What is value?

Rand defines "value" as "that which one acts to gain and/or keep." If something is valuable, it is valuable to a specific person for a specific purpose. Value boils down to "the preservation of life," and similarly ethics is "an objective, metaphysical necessity of man's survival." Thus: "The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do. So much for the issue of the relation between 'is' and 'ought'."

Pursuing a whim is undesirable whether one is acting altruistically (to fulfill someone else's whim) or selfishly (to fulfill one's own whim). The question of what things are good (for what people, for what purpose) has correct answers that can be discovered. The answers will also help in the identification of good role models. Desires, feelings, emotions, wishes and whims are not valid standards of value, nor are they criteria of interests. A rational man sees each moment in the context of the rest of his life, and thus he rationally forms his values and interests.

The role of love

Love itself is a selfish value. It expresses and asserts self-esteem, because it is about the pursuit of selfish joy derived from the other person's existence and the reflection of one's own values in that person. "To love is to value," Rand writes; "the man who does not value himself cannot value anything or anyone." A "selfless," "disinterested" love is a contradiction in terms; it means that one is indifferent to that which one values. People help their loved ones, not as a kind of "self-sacrifice," but because they have a personal interest in seeing their loved ones succeed.

It is better to save one person you care about than to sacrifice yourself to save ten people you don't care about. It is good to help strangers in emergency situations as a form of species solidarity, appreciating them as human beings who are capable of practicing the same values you practice, but you should not risk your life for them, subordinate your goals to theirs, act beyond your means or feel obligated to ambulance-chase more crisis situations where you can be of assistance. Emergencies are exceptions, not general rules for behavior: "The fact is that men do not live in lifeboats - and that a lifeboat is not the place on which to base one's metaphysics."

Objectivist values

Rand lists the "Objectivist values" of Reason, Purpose and Self-Esteem and the "Objectivist virtues" of Rationality, Productiveness and Pride.

There can be compromise on the price of a good in the marketplace, but it is absurd to compromise on principles such as those of life and death or of freedom and slavery. To compromise a principle is to surrender or betray it.

A person must vocally defend their moral stance in black-and-white terms and be willing to praise and condemn the stances of others. Not to do so is moral cowardice. Silence is a "moral blank check one gives to others in exchange for a moral blank check one expects for oneself." It is better to judge erroneously than to refuse to judge at all or to use a poor standard for judgment (such as altruism or compromise).

Some people make moral pronouncements with the implication that those who disagree with them are immoral or corrupt. This is nothing more than a kind of intimidation, and hence it is a fallacy, a "symptom of cultural bankruptcy" that can only be resisted by "moral certainty." Unfortunately, some people buckle under intimation, especially when they think that avoiding social disapproval is worth denying their own beliefs. It is important to remember that even true beliefs must be supported by rational argument.

The ideal economic and political policy

Capitalism is the only system that enables progress. Even the poor are relatively well-off in capitalist countries compared to non-capitalist countries. Property rights - including the right to own what one produces - are essential to human rights. Socialism, as the denial of individual property rights and the government control of production and distribution, offends human rights and freedom. Socialized medical care is analogous to robbery, insofar as doctors are forced to provide it. "Those who advocate laissez-faire capitalism," she says, "are the only advocates of man's rights." She believes that taxation would be voluntary in a fully free society. No one - neither individual nor state - has the right to enslave anyone.

As an extreme individualist, Rand shuns theories that presume to collectively evaluate people. Racism, as a type of collectivism, is irrational and brutish; it is "a quest for automatic self-esteem" rooted in "the racist's sense of his own inferiority." The cure for racism is capitalism, which is "the only system that functions in a way which rewards rationality and penalizes all forms of irrationality, including racism."

In a free society, "a private individual may do anything except that which is legally forbidden; a government official may do nothing except that which is legally permitted." The reverse situation, in which the government is free and the citizens must receive special permission to act, would be rule by brute force.

Nathaniel Branden's contributions to the book

Branden wrote the chapters "Mental Health versus Mysticism and Self-Sacrifice," "Isn't Everyone Selfish?", "The Psychology of Pleasure," "The Divine Right of Stagnation" and "Counterfeit Individualism."

Branden sees "faith" as something that distorts perception of reality and reason, and therefore undercuts "self-esteem," a value that "entails the need for a sense of control over reality." Emotions, too, are out: "Just as feelings are not a tool of cognition, so they are not a criterion in ethics." He thinks reason is primary and that emotions somehow flow as a result of correct or incorrect reasoning: "Emotions and desires...are the product of the premises one has accepted." By "changing his values," a man can reprogram his "emotional mechanism."

He says that traditional moralists explain that altruism isn't suicidal only because most people don't follow it to the extreme; in other words, they don't thoroughly sacrifice their own lives or well-being to help others, so they don't actually commit suicide over the altruistic principle. Nonetheless, the rhetoric of altruism, Branden says, makes people feel guilty for their desire to survive and thrive.

To the objection that selfishness is tautological because all actions are self-motivated ("Everyone does what he really wants to do - otherwise, he wouldn't do it"), Branden corrects the record by saying that ethics hangs on the question "by what is man to be motivated?" There is a meaningful difference between selfish and non-selfish people. "The issue of an action's selfishness or unselfishness depends," Branden writes, "not on whether or not one wants to perform it, but on why one wants to perform it." It's a question of goals. Egoism is the doctrine that man is an end in himself; altruism is the doctrine that man is a means to the ends of others.

There are five areas of enjoyment: productive work, human relationships, recreation, art and sex. Productive work is the most important, as this is connected with the ability to active deal with reality and transform one's environment. It is integral to self-esteem. "Self-esteem," he writes, "is not a value that, once achieved, is maintained automatically thereafter; like every other human value, including life itself, it can be maintained only by action. Self-esteem, the basic conviction that one is competent to live, can be maintained only so long as one is engaged in a process of growth..."

As Rand also says, Branden reiterates that risking death for one's own freedom or to save someone you love is not self-sacrifice, but rather is selfishly motivated; capitalism is the best method because it demands action and penalizes passivity, just as natural reality does; and simple rebellion, psychosis or nonconformism isn't the same as individualism, which requires being able to see the reason why one's own beliefs are true and why others' are false.


Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden's philosophy of "objectivism," as expressed in the book "The Virtue of Selfishness," was popular in its day and still appeals to many people today. The book takes a simplistic approach to deflecting counterarguments and does not reveal deep knowledge of related philosophical matter. One might legitimately question some of their central assumptions, such as whether capitalism is indeed the best political model to avoid racism and whether reason controls both morality and emotion. For the curious, however, this book is a straightforward introduction to objectivist belief.

Image: The 2008 Canadian Grand Prix. Photo by Mark McArdle from Canada. © Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Dangers of seduction: 'The Power of Sympathy' by William Hill Brown

A plot summary of the late 18th-century book "The Power of Sympathy," which may be considered the first American novel.

Originally posted to Helium Network on April 2, 2013.

William Hill Brown’s late 18th-century book "The Power of Sympathy" is widely considered as the first American novel. Primarily written to convey moral opinions, it is not as plot-driven as modern novels, but it does offer a plot twist.

In a short preface, the author complains that “ladies” eagerly read novels that all too frequently lack any moral message. He announces that he has written a story in which “the dangerous consequences of seduction are exposed, and the advantages of female education set forth and recommended.”

Written entirely in epistolary format — that is, as letters exchanged as correspondence between characters — the story opens with a young man, surnamed Harrington, who declares himself passionately in love with a girl named Harriot. His father is opposed to his “early marriage,” so the pair resolve to marry privately.

The first part of the book contains a good deal of sermonizing on the subject of what girls and women ought to read. In selecting a book for a young teenager, Harrington's friend Worthy says that “unless a proper selection is made, one would do better never to read at all.” The elder Harrington, the protagonist’s father, then declares that “our female libraries are overrun” with novels that are “not regulated on the chaste principles of true friendship, rational love, and connubial duty, [which] appear to me totally unfit to form the minds of women, of friends, or of wives.” This lengthy digression is important to understanding the author’s intentions behind writing this book, but it does not advance the plot.

After this exchange, Harriot travels from Boston to Rhode Island. Her host, Mrs. Martin, is pensive and sad upon her arrival, because it has been revealed that her sister, Ophelia, had an affair with Mr. Martin. Ophelia retired to the country and gave birth to “a child, at once the son and nephew of Martin.” When Ophelia’s enraged father tried to force a family confrontation, the culpable sister drank poison.

After hearing this tale, Harriot’s friend Myra Harrington (her fiance's sister) replies, gasping, “Surely there is no human vice of so black a die, so fatal in its consequences — or which causes a more general calamity — than that of seducing a female from the path of honour.”

Worthy is the next to share a story of a wayward woman. He heard a despairing girl, Fidelia, singing in the woods; her intended husband drowned himself after she “was carried off by a ruffian.” Worthy avers, “Seduction is a crime that nothing can be said to palliate or excuse.”

Meanwhile, as the young Harrington continues to plan his hasty marriage to Harriot, his sister Myra warns him repeatedly: “Better not marry her.” Her warning is vague, and it seems she is not quite sure why she feels that way. “I give no heed to it,” Harrington says of her warning, “and yet why should it affect me in this manner?”

In a digression, Harrington speaks to a female slave who bears the scar of a whip on her shoulder, a lash for which she volunteered in place of her child. Harrington congratulates her with a blessing:

“May he whom you call the best of beings continue you in the same sentiments...Then shalt thou feel every circumstance of thy life afford thee satisfaction...All thy labors will become easy — all thy burdens light, and the yoke of slavery will never gall thy neck.”

Although, to modern ears, this sounds presumptuous and patronizing to the extreme, the author doesn't seem to have intended to paint Harrington as a fool or a pro-slavery advocate, but rather as a romantic swept away by the force of sentiment. Even others’ bondage seems a noble condition to a man so in love with his divine Harriot.

A friend then gives Myra justification for her concerns: Harriot is a Harrington, too, by blood. The elder Harrington secretly fathered Harriot with a woman named Maria. This Harriot who plans to marry into their family is, in fact, already their sibling.

The tale of the long-gone Maria is the novel’s third example of a seduced woman who met an ignominious fate. “Melancholy and guilt transfix her heart, and she sighs out her miserable existence,” the friend remembers Maria. Having born a child out of wedlock, Maria welcomed death, since her life was “no longer a blessing to its possessor, or a joy to those around her.”

Mr. Harrington, for his part, chimes in to accept some responsibility for impregnating Maria. “The picture you have exhibited of a ruined female is undoubtedly just, but that the rude spoiler has his share of remorse is equally so,” he says.

Upon learning that his son intends to privately marry Harriot, he has no more time to waste in reflection on past sins. “I fly to prevent incest,” he announces. He cannot bring himself to tell his son that his beloved Harriot is his sister, so he enlists a friend to break the news.

The younger Harrington and his Harriot are both distraught by the revelation. Having already fallen in love, passionately if chastely, they cannot manage to think of themselves as brother and sister. Harriot perishes from stress and grief, and Harrington then takes his life with a pistol, leaving a long suicide note and a copy of Goethe’s "The Sorrows of Werter." "My heart presaged it," his friend Worthy intones.

Unlike the other negative examples in the novel, the couple’s deaths do not seem to be a punishment for their own sexual transgression. They did not transgress. Rather, their deaths may be interpreted as a punishment for the transgression of their father and of Harriot’s mother. The intended lesson seems to be that seduction, infidelity, and births out of wedlock bear consequences for successive generations.

Modern readers will likely find the format of this story a little unusual. It is a morality play told through letters. While it begins slowly and pedantically, the plot thickens in the second half and makes the antiquated message more entertaining to read.

Image by: Serge Melki from Indianapolis, Ind. © Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

What makes print books special, compared to e-books?

Print books have certain qualities that give them an advantage over e-books. Chiefly, their permanence has great value, whereas digital content is more easily altered.

This article was originally posted to Helium Network on Aug. 12, 2012.

Books have long been considered objects of art. After the writing and editing is complete, serious publishers pay attention to typesetting, illustrations and even paper quality and bookbinding. An expert can recognize a printed book as a product of a certain era. Book lovers have long recognized that their tomes can be inscribed and given as gifts, and that the pages can be marked up with comments. Books can be passed down to the next generation or sold as valuable antiques. They can carry sentimental value. Many insist that the tactile "feel" of holding printed material in one's hand and the visual pleasure of scanning a page that has been painstakingly laid out cannot be mimicked by electronic media.

The rise of e-books has begun to change how people think of books. It is now easier to consider a "book" as its content alone, independent of the paper it may (or may not) be printed on. Ancient peoples, for whom books were rare and expensive, could not have dreamed of the kind of catalogues available today for instant download anywhere in the world. Consider the New Testament reference to the eunuch official of an African queen who traveled all the way to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage, a journey that must have taken months, and who was in possession of the Book of Isaiah, presumably on a fragile, hand-lettered piece of parchment. (Acts 8:26-40) What would he have thought if he had been told that, two thousand years in the future, an ordinary person would have the ability to carry over a thousand books on a single device in her pocket? There is no doubt that he would have been impressed, but wouldn't it also be reasonable for him to suspect that, as books become economically cheaper and easier to carry and store, people will no longer have the same sense that books are precious and holy objects?

With all that can be said in favor of e-books, they are simply not precise substitutes for print books.

First, purchasing a license to read content is not the same as purchasing a material object of art that is one's rightful property forever and can be given as a lasting gift. While some e-book programs allow the legitimate temporary loaning of content – assuming, of course, that the recipient has a compatible device or app – other programs do not allow the file to be transferred at all. When the devices finally become obsolete or the companies go out of business, there is a risk that the content will no longer be retrievable by the consumer.

Second, the digital economy is fueled partly by the money involved in storing data about what has been read and who has loaned books to whom. While the "book recommendations" made by computerized algorithms can be helpful, there can also be great value in the sense of lifelong privacy when a print book is bought with cash and then finally – secretly – passed on to a used bookstore or to a friend. Whose business is your choice of reading material? With print, it is easier to keep it your own business and not allow it to become some company's data point about you.

Third, print books are currently perceived as the friendlier format in social situations, given the current relative ease of lending them and given their visible covers. When someone on the train is reading a print book, others around them can see the title. They can form an idea about what is trendy or intriguing, and they can even strike up a conversation.

Fourth, when one has a copy of a print book, one has more certainty that it's substantively the same copy that other people saw when they read the same edition. The publisher's imprint serves as a trustworthy historical record that the book is "real"; this is why people cite sources. If necessary, a particular book could even be carbon-dated to prove how old it is. With e-books, readers have reason to be a little more skeptical: how can one know that someone has not changed the text in the file? Does a recently digitized text contain exactly the same words that one's parents and grandparents read? What may have been misinterpreted, mistyped or deliberately purged?

There is no one right answer to the question of whether print books or e-books are "better." Each format uses different material resources and may be priced differently, taxed differently, reach different audiences and be read for separate reasons. Even with the rise of personal computers and e-reader devices, there is still much to be said in favor of print books.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A character analysis of Clytemnestra in 'Electra' by Sophocles

Electra is a tragedy written by Sophocles that chronicles a chapter of the ongoing difficulties of the House of Agamemnon.

Years earlier, Agamemnon had sacrificed his daughter to the gods when it seemed that some supernatural force was preventing the Greek fleet from advancing. The girl's grieving mother, Clytemnestra, eventually killed her husband in revenge. (Her motive was complicated by the fact that she was involved with another man, Aegisthus, who helped her commit the murder and whom she subsequently married.) Three surviving children feature in the play Electra: the boy Orestes, the girl Chrysothemis, and another girl, Electra herself.

When the play opens, Electra is grieving the death of her father Agamemnon. Electra defends the sacrifice of her sister as having been necessary and she finds fault with her mother Clytemnestra for having killed her father.

Clytemnestra first appears onstage a third of the way into the play, at which point she delivers two monologues. She has only short lines for the rest of the play.

In her first monologue, Clytemnestra criticizes Electra for having started the fight between them. She defends the righteousness of her choice to slay Agamemnon on the grounds of a mother's love. She makes the somewhat strange argument that a different man could have sacrificed her daughter or else another girl could have been chosen; she finds it particularly repellent that Agamemnon sacrificed his own daughter by his own hand.

Electra asks to be permitted to share her opinion, which Clytemnestra makes a pretense of being willing to listen, saying "didst thou always address me in such a tone, thou wouldst be heard without pain." After listening to Electra's complaint, she angrily vows "thou shalt not fail to pay for this boldness, so soon as Aegisthus returns."

Clytemnestra's second monologue is a prayer to Apollo foreshadowing her own death, asking that no evil come to her. She asks to enjoy prosperity in the company of her friends and specifically with only those of her children "from whom no enmity or bitterness pursues me."

A messenger then comes to announce the accidental death of Clytemnestra's son Orestes, who had allied with Electra in opposing their mother. Clytemnestra rejoices in a muted and conflicted fashion as it seems that her prayer has already been answered. "'Tis a bitter lot," she admits, "when mine own calamities make the safety of my life." She had feared that Orestes might kill her. "A mother may be wronged," she adds contemplatively, "but she never learns to hate her child."

As it turns out, the announcement of Orestes' death is a lie. Orestes soon appears and, with his sister Electra's approval, kills his mother Clytemnestra and his stepfather Aegisthus in revenge for their murder of his father Agamemnon. The victims are not given an opportunity to speak before they are killed. Clytemnestra only manages to shriek a few words of alarm offstage before her end comes. Her conflicted character does not achieve any sort of resolution or final apology in this play.

Article originally posted to Helium Network on Aug. 29, 2011.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Greek god punishes skeptics in Euripides' 'Bacchae'

The premise of the fifth-century B.C.E. Greek tragedy "Bacchae" is the god Dionysus's punishment of the inhabitants of Thebes for denying his divinity. He causes all Theban women to go into a mad frenzy and to run into the cold mountains, drinking wine, dancing to flutes and drums, ripping apart cows with their bare hands, and making the contextually odd declaration that Dionysus is a beneficent god of pleasure who helps people forget their sorrows. Pentheus, the new king of Thebes and a nephew of Dionysus's mortal mother, is annoyed by the strange cult and refuses to acknowledge the god. Dionysus appears as a mortal man to specifically punish Pentheus, and here the play begins.

The action is interspersed with quasi-philosophical arguments in which Dionysus' apologists and deniers alike are made to look slightly ridiculous. The chorus members are true believers and insist that worshippers, despite their bizarre and immoderate behavior, are pious and pure. They also make somewhat contradictory comments about wine's effect on sexual desire. The blind prophet Tiresias exaggerates that drink is the only way that humans can mollify their sorrows and he makes the dubious claim that alcohol doesn't spark sexual desire in chaste women. The cult's nemesis Pentheus pontificates from a different angle but he is not a credible moral teacher either. He alleges that Dionysian worshippers are sexually licentious and therefore deserving of imprisonment. Having heard a rumor of a male stranger who has come to town heralding the god (this stranger would be the god Dionysus himself in human form), and without even having seen him or knowing his name, Pentheus wants him executed.

When the servants of Pentheus arrive to capture Dionysus, he surrenders laughing, warning them not to try to subdue him any further. They ignore him. Dionysus releases himself from the chains, shatters Pentheus' palace in a storm-like event, and mocks the king by causing him to stab at a phantom image of an opponent. He also magically releases his worshippers from their chains.

The second punishment for Pentheus is humiliation. Dionysus prods the king to admit that he'd like to watch the Theban women in their drunken and possibly erotic dances. Officially Pentheus only wishes to put a stop to their suspected misbehavior, but there are overtones that his curiosity is not entirely for strategic purposes. Dionysus warns him that the frenzied women will kill him on sight, so - first reducing the king's mental clarity - he coaches Pentheus in disguising himself in women's clothes. He then speaks to the chorus and admits that his real goal is simply to have Pentheus embarrass himself in front of Thebes by parading in a dress. This may be in revenge for Pentheus' previous mockery of Dionysus as an effeminate man.

Dionysus's third and most severe attack is to place Pentheus at the top of a pine tree where he is totally vulnerable and attacked by the mad worshippers. His own mother, not recognizing him despite his protests, participates in his dismemberment and sticks his head on a pike. When she returns to the city, her father Cadmus gently wakens her from her fantasy and helps her to see that the head belongs to her son and that she has murdered him. The tragic death of the king affects the entire family.

The tale contains several important moral lessons. To the contemporary Greek mind, the surface interpretation may have been that of a cautionary tale about piety displaying the utter dependence of humans on the angry whims of the gods. There is, however, a deeper lesson in the extended example of how evil begets evil. Zeus impregnated Semele and killed her; her misfortune was compounded by her family's disbelief in her story; her divine son Dionysus goads the disbelieving king into deeper heresy, then congratulates him for fighting evil (drunken revelry) with evil (deceit), when the compliment properly belongs to the god himself for his cruelty and duplicity in leading the king to a hideous death. There is also a subtle warning at the end of the play about the risks of being overly concerned with honor. It comes to light that Pentheus had been trusted by his grandfather Cadmus as a protector of the old man's honor to the extent that he would initiate violence against anyone who had offended him. It cannot be foreign to the royal family, then, that the gods also have a sense of honor and will destroy mortals who ignore, deny, or malign them.

This article was originally posted to Helium Network on Jan. 4, 2011.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Knowledge of the First Indemonstrable Principle

Originally posted to Helium Network on June 24, 2012.

St. Thomas Aquinas wrote in the Second Article to his thirteenth-century Summa Theologica that "the first indemonstrable principle is that one cannot at the same time affirm and deny the same thing." Appealing to Aristotle's Metaphysics, he says that "this principle is based on the nature of being and nonbeing, and all other principles are based on it." He quickly concludes that "the first precept of the natural law is that we should do and seek good, and shun evil."

Appealing to a law of non-contradiction is a standard trope in Western philosophy that forms the cornerstone of many logical arguments. But is this principle really inflexible? How do you know what you think you know about it?

Qualities such as heat and cold, wetness and dryness, etc., are opposites, but you never see them at their "pure" extremes. Instead, whenever they describe something in nature, they appear somewhere along a spectrum. To say that something is partly wet is also to say that it is partly dry. This looks like a potential case of affirming and denying the same thing. Indeed, it seems that there is some inevitable contradiction in any assessment you might make about the qualities of a thing, since your words are only rough approximations of the world they describe and nothing is ever a pure example of the categories you attach to it. You try to be mostly right, but you are always a little bit wrong. You could speak for hours or write hundreds of pages and never get at the full, exact meaning of what you are trying to convey.

Furthermore, when such observations are made, they typically involve an observer whose subjective appraisal taints the "fact of the matter." For you to say that something is hot is to imply that it is warmer than you might normally expect and also to suggest that you attach a value judgment to it: a pleasingly hot dinner, perhaps, or a scaldingly hot one. Otherwise, if there were nothing interesting to report, why would you be speaking about its temperature? So when you affirm or deny something about your dinner, you're also affirming or denying something about yourself and what you find noteworthy.

This sort of psychological reading of even the simplest factual assertions introduces a new level of complexity. The hard material world may not seem to admit contradictions, but the soft abstractions of humanity certainly do. Happiness and sadness are opposites, yet you can be happy and sad at the same time. You may affirm and deny your happiness simultaneously because you do not know yourself well, because you know yourself too well, or because you wish to influence what others believe about your mental status regardless of whether you are convinced it is true.

As another example, if you ask someone whether they like chocolate, they might reasonably assume you are offering them a small dessert following a meal. In that case, they probably do like chocolate. But they would not like to be forced to eat three pounds of chocolate in the middle of the night. So there are different senses in which they do and do not like chocolate. It's that crucial interpretation that makes your sentence appear (mostly) true or (mostly) false.

Thomas Aquinas wants to apply the "first indemonstrable principle" to the ethical realm. To get started here, you would have to agree that good and evil are opposites; that to be one is not to be the other. This is not as straightforward as one might suppose, since it is not obvious whether evil is merely the absence of good or whether evil is some positive trait in itself that somehow opposes or frustrates good. Good and evil might be on a spectrum just as wet and dry are. After all, anyone giving an honest assessment of themself would have to admit they are neither wholly good nor wholly evil.

This brings you to the psychological angle which cannot be removed from questions of good and evil. If you meet two beggars and only have one coin, how do you choose which one to feed, or whether to feed yourself instead? To choose one person leaves another in the lurch. There is no option uncontaminated by complexity and the possibility of competing ethical valuations. You cannot choose good in one area without choosing the absence of good in another area. And whether you've chosen good at all is arguably a matter of opinion. The beggar who receives the coin will affirm that you've chosen good, while the one who goes hungry will deny that you've done so. How should you evaluate yourself? Why should it be impossible that both beggars' assessments of you are true? Why must you affirm one and deny the other?

There is another problem with Western philosophy's fixation on the supposed law of non-contradiction.  It is that arguments tend to reduce to only two sides. In the nineteenth century, Harriet Beecher Stowe, reflecting on Protestant-Catholic disputes about the proper reverence of the Virgin Mary, wrote in her essay "The Blessed Woman": "Truth has always had the fate of the shuttlecock between the conflicting battledoors of controversy." By this she implied that neither the typical Protestant nor Catholic argument captured what she saw as the real truth about Mary. In other words, the problem is that, when you frame your idea of what the argument is or should be, you tend to close off your imagination to solutions that lie outside the bounds of the argument you've just constructed.

Of course, there may be multiple religious opinions about all sorts of subjects, and many of these beliefs are compatible with each other. If one reduces these opinions to a simplistic debate about whether it is, or is not, proper to make a statue of the Virgin Mary, then one has framed the debate in a way that seems to force everyone to take sides - even those who are not Christian and should have no recommendation about the worship of Mary at all!

One would seem foolish, hypocritical, and untrustworthy if one went around publicly affirming and denying the very same statement. In this way, what Thomas Aquinas calls the "first indemonstrable principle" is somewhat of a social norm governing clear, reliable communication. Non-contradiction helps to manage useful pieces of information and creates boundaries in which people can respect each other. But it is not necessarily descriptive of the way things "actually are."

Fortunately, for many questions you are not called upon to affirm or deny anything at all. Most subjects to most people are irrelevant or beyond their ken. When you are asked to make a choice about some obscure or abstract question, you should be suspicious not just about which of two options is more correct, but about what motivates someone to ask someone to "pick sides" in the first place.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Race, desire and reason in 'Ourika' by Claire de Duras

"Ourika" was based on the true story of a Senegalese girl raised by nobility in France before the Revolution. In the novel, Ourika believes herself in love with her brother by adoption.

Originally posted to Helium Network circa 2012.

The story "Ourika," based on the true story of a Senegalese girl raised by the Princess of Beauvau before the French Revolution, was extremely popular in France in the early nineteenth century. Initially, a few dozen copies were privately printed in 1823. The next year, thousands of copies were printed. The story inspired four plays, two poems and a work of art by the king’s court painter, and it was lauded by Goethe. It was embraced by a growing abolitionist movement. The French colonies outlawed slavery 25 years after its publication.

The author was Claire de Duras. Born in 1777, she spent her early life in several countries after her aristocratic father was executed in the French Revolution. She married the future Duke of Duras, and eventually they returned to France, where she hosted an intellectual salon in their palace. Duras was so well known as a storyteller that she did not have to put her name on the first copies of "Ourika"; everyone knew who had written it.


An introduction by Joan DeJean says that, until "Ourika," French literature employed African characters “to provoke reflection on the plight of slaves: they are not seen as individuals with psychological depth.” The character of Ourika is different.

The story opens with a doctor who is called to the convent bedside of a melancholy young nun and has a “strange shock” (in John Fowles’ translation) upon seeing that she is a “negress.” The bulk of the story is then told by Ourika in the first person voice from her current perspective as she looks back upon her childhood. When the story closes, it is bookended by the doctor’s voice again, saying that Ourika has died.

Growing up in a wealthy household, raised by a white woman called Mme. de B., Ourika judges that “everything prolonged my mistaken view of existence and made my blindness natural.” At the age of fifteen, she overhears Mme. de B. discuss her nonexistent marriage prospects. The only educated, wealthy, high-class men in their 18th-century France are white, and none are likely to marry a black woman. Thus Mme. de B. says: “I see her alone, always alone in the world.” Ourika suddenly realizes the import of her black skin. The overheard conversation is the moment that “ended my childhood.”

She is plunged into self-pity and despair. She believes she will never be able to find an appropriate match anywhere: not in France because of her Senegalese skin color, and not in Senegal because of her French education and culture. Therefore, she says, “I exaggerated my ugliness to myself,” and she declares “I was cut off from the entire human race.” She hides her skin as much as possible by wearing gloves. She withdraws from company. This inner wrestling is an example of the psychological depth mentioned by DeJean.


On a matter less tangible than her skin color, Ourika also comes to be tormented by the question of whether she is in love with Charles, her adoptive white brother. When he returns from school, Ourika feels that he is perfectly open and intimate with her, and she reveres him – yet she cannot share her “secrets” with him. Her secret, of course, is “the extent to which the irremediable stain of my color had made me miserable.”

At the outset of the story, she says, “I believe I felt for Charles exactly as a sister,” contrasting it with a feeling for Mme. de B. that is “more religious than emotional.” Yet her comment about the sisterly feeling may be also be contrasted with the possibility that she feels romantically toward Charles. This foreshadows what is to come.

Charles becomes betrothed to another girl, and Ourika withers further. Mme. de B., in a moment of annoyance, informs Ourika that she suffers from “an insane and doomed passion for Charles.” Ourika has never considered this before, and wonders if Mme. de B. is right. “Had what had canceled my heart really been no more than a forbidden love?” She believes she loves Charles “innocently,” yet a “mysterious voice cried deep in my heart” that Mme. de B. was right. She resolves to become a nun, telling Charles that the convent is “the one place where I may still think of you day and night.”

The author never firmly resolves the question of whether Ourika is in love with Charles. Ourika seems puzzled over it herself, and even as she muses in retrospect, her words are ambiguous. Ourika’s depression may stem from considerations of race, unrequited love, or other aspects of her personality – or all of these things. She acknowledges: “Unspoken desires have a kind of modesty – if they are not guessed, they can’t be satisfied. It’s as if they need two people to exist.”


A third concern in the story, and the least tangible of all, is the role of reason. Ourika observes that people become less dogmatic as they get older. As she puts it: “Youth cannot qualify. For it, everything is either good or bad, whereas the rock upon which old age founders is usually the discovery that nothing is altogether one thing or the other.” This attitude naturally varies between individuals, too. In one of her discussions with Charles, Ourika finds herself less dogmatic than he: “For him all suffering had to have some rational foundation. But who can say what is or isn’t rational? Is reason the same for everyone?” Indeed, even as dogmatism may decline with age, reason may increase, as reflected in her comment: “There is something striking about great suffering in the old, since it has the authority of reason.”

Lastly, Mme. de B.’s friend, a marquise, comments that reason is anyway “powerless against evils that arise from deliberately upsetting the natural order of things.” In other words, individuals cannot escape the trap of social hierarchies using mere wishes and plans. Some social institutions wield more powerful than the reasoning powers of individuals who would abolish those institutions.

A work that had great impact

These three themes – race, forbidden love and philosophical generalizations – make the story a good candidate for literary analysis, all the more so because they are expressed by a character who may be a so-called “unreliable narrator” due to her own depression. "Ourika" had a large impact on the French abolitionist movement and on French literature, and this places it among those rare works that succeed at their political and artistic goals alike.