Candide & Zadig

Candide was required reading for me during High School. I can honestly say that of all the novels I was required to read, this was my least favorite. Now it is now over twenty years later. I was questioning whether I would see Voltaire differently now than I did then, so I have spent the last couple days listening to Candide and Zadig to find out. In a way, the activity was an act of curiosity. It was a challenge in another. I try to glean at least something from every book I read, even if I didn’t like it. Voltaire had also been referenced in several novels I’ve read over the past couple years, so it seemed apropos to revisit him.

François-Marie Arouet, aka. Voltaire (1694 -1778)

I ought to like the guy. Voltaire was a prolific writer. He is known for many thousands of published works. He penned plays, poems, novels, essays, and even scientific papers. He was a notorious political figure that believed in the freedoms of religion and speech, and was a strong proponent for the separation of church and state. Voltaire was (and still is) renown for his satiric wit. He loathed intolerance and religious dogma while risking censorship from the French monarchy. This wasn’t an individual whom kept his opinions silent. In fact, his part in the Enlightenment movement is considered foundational to the French Revolution.

Voltaire was a forward-thinking author of great independence and will – what’s not to like?

I like this portrait of Voltaire. Doesn’t he look amused?

This seems to be a case of the man vs. his art for me. From the little I know about Voltaire, I agree with him. I actually relish a good satire. There is something about Candide and Zadig though that left me cold. It did when I first read him and it still does now. My hypothesis? The culture of his day is so different from the culture of now that his novels have lost their relevance. That isn’t to say his message is out-dated — These topics are some of those which we as a species still debate upon today. I think that it is the way in which he wrote about these things that is failing the test of time.

In Candide, there are countless references to women being owned, traded, used and abused. True, that is still something humanity struggles with. The passive way in which Voltaire references it seems more aligned with those whom would support inequality than to point out a need for further change. There is no outrage. There is no taking offense. There is only near-mute acceptance of horrific treatments and victimization as though it were simply a matter of course. Too often even today, various forms of maltreatment against women is a matter of course. I beg to ask where the satire is? Candide reads to me as incredibly misogynistic, and I fail to see how that has anything to do with great wit.

This excessive theme of the denigration of women is so distracting that his curt warning against excessive optimism nearly passed my notice. The concept that there is negativity in the world, regardless of whether we believe it is “for a reason” or “in God’s plan” or perpetually “out to get us”… etc? That’s relevant. I am a person who likes the idea of attaining balance in life. I would argue that excessive optimism is as unhealthy as excessive pessimism. But do Voltaire’s characters learn from their horrible experiences? They don’t seem to. Instead, it is left to the reader to decide how ridiculous their outlooks are. To me, Candide implied that it is acceptable to never grow as a person or strive for wisdom. (How is that Enlightenment?)

It almost seems like Voltaire wrote with a cheekiness of purporting that his work is a satire while intending it to be otherwise. (That would be a great inside joke to smirk at, right?)

Can one have too many puppies and rainbows?

It could be argued that this irritation at ineptitude was Voltaire’s point. Few things get people I know stirred up more than having to deal with someone they consider to be “stupid”. Voltaire wants his reader to be smarter and more insightful than his characters. He wants the reader to see the shortcomings of logic that these fictitious persons make and absorb the bigger picture of their folly. Maybe by using these people as an example of what not to do in life, he invites people to make improved choices. I find this type of character to be intolerable though. I expect more. I’d rather share in the struggle of a protagonists’ downfall as they realize universal truths than to see them simply avoid growth.

Maybe that’s just me. I’m fully aware that there are plenty of people out there that still love to read him. From my own vantage point, I see his works as a creature of over two centuries ago. (And, as someone who revels in dusty old books clear back to Socrates and Virgil, I’ll venture that’s saying something.)

Astrology and Game of Thrones

I am going to side-step my usual format here and try a little something different this time. This stems from a conversation I was having with my lovely wife R’Chel a few days ago. Recently, I picked up an interest in astrology. We have been listening to Game of Thrones on audiobook, and that day, the two interests coincided.

First though, a little background. I noticed that there are several outlets for looking up the signs of some of these characters online. They mostly deal with the sun sign of each of these identities. (Your sun sign is the most referenced sign that people generally know about.) Even so, there is a widespread practice that observes which zodiac signs that every celestial body is in at the time of birth. This means that everyone also has a Moon sign, a Mercury sign, Venus sign… etc.

Each celestial body represents different energies. Most simply stated, the sun represents your identity. The moon represents your emotions. One also has a rising sign, which coincides with whatever zodiac constellation was coming over the horizon at the moment of birth. In general terms, your rising sign is how other people see you. If that seems confusing, don’t worry, it will probably make more sense as we go on.

First up was Varys. I figured him to be a Gemini Sun, Capricorn Moon, and Virgo Rising. Gemini has associations with communication, logical thought and cleverness. To me, this is the heart of whom Vary is. His network of “little birds” has him well-connected to the whispers and motives of Westeros, while keeping apprised of how this litany of knowledge interrelates must take some wit. Even so, Varys is not known for his displays of emotion. Regardless of what is going on, he remains even and grounded. He is calm, steady, and structured: All Capricorn traits. Virgos are characteristically fastidious and are best suited to some line of service, while this led me to chose this as his rising sign. With a shaved head, tidy hygiene, and having outright stated he was in service to Westeros itself, I think Varys presents himself clearly as aligned with this sign.

I got to thinking about Littlefinger next. I want to call him a Libra Sun, Cancer Moon, and Gemini Rising. Petyr Baelish surrounds himself with beauty at every available opportunity and never shies away from acquiring whatever attractive thing is available to him. As treasurer of the realm, he is considered capable of finding monies enough for any grand feast or cause. Though he is incredibly shifty as a character, he is nevertheless intent on peaceful, diplomatic relationships. He tells Ned outright not to trust him, in a pleasant tone and friendly voice… like don’t get upset about the fact that I despise you. I think this outlook is also aligned with a Cancer Moon, though in its less gracious format. (We are talking about someone who lost the love of their life and so has become bitter and manipulative.) He seems to be choking on suppressed emotion, while coming off to others as the clever wit that Varys exudes from his core.

Arya was presented as the challenge to our astrology game. For her, I figured Scorpio Sun, Scorpio Moon, and Sagittarius Rising. I believe that it would take a Scorpio to embody all the changes that Arya goes through over the course of her character arc. Like a Scorpio, she is unflinching in the face of facts, whether that involves suffering loss, deciding upon vengeance, or establishing the miraculous malleability that she develops. She is secret with her emotions. Alternatively, Sagittarius has alignments with adventure, philosophy and religion. Arya embarks upon her journey outside of the Stark homeland for the sake of her secret pact with herself rather than for new experience, and uses the tools of her religious study for her personal vendetta rather than as a true follower. I think this is why Sagittarius fits as her rising sign, but not as her core identity.

I thought that Stannis Baratheon would make a great Capricorn Sun, Aries Moon, and Capricorn Rising. He is (and is seen as) structured, unrelenting, and strict. The largest obstacle between his assuming the title of King is his utter lack of charm and charisma. He is also demanding, reactive, and easily drawn into the machinations of others who are capable of manipulating his anger and indignation. Aries is a highly energized sign that is strongly motivated to act, and act is precisely what Stannis does.

Robert Baratheon? I figure he is a Taurus Sun through and through. He loves the things that give him pleasure of every sort, and preferred to have these things to excess. I thought that he needed a dose of fire to gain a kingdom and keep it. I choose Leo as his Moon sign. Robert was enlivened by adoration, while he was also brave enough to be vulnerable with his friends and council when discussing his fear of Daenerys. I think Robert is also a Sagittarius Rising. Though building his kingdom is well aligned with long-distance travel and adventure, it also seemed to be his habit to create a comfortable place to drink up and chow down wherever he went, so I think his Sagittarius side was not his core self.

I suppose then it would be right to go for Renly next. Renly was a little more refined and appreciative of the finer things, which inclines me to think of a Libra Sun. He was open with his emotions, needed encouragement to follow his desires, and well-liked by just about everyone. I want to say that he is a Cancer Moon, in the non-embittered and supportive of others sense. (So in contrast to Petyr!) Renly was seen by others to be a bit peculiar and aligned with unconventionality. I think he’d fit in as an Aquarius Rising. Renly’s ideas may not be incredibly inventive to our current culture – but they were to his.

Theon? Here’s a character that tried desperately to be loyal: To the Starks, to the Greyjoys. He thought himself a good diplomat, but wasn’t really. He is always subject to the needs and drives of others, despite his wont to be self-important. I think he fits as a Virgo Sun. Because of his apparent sensitivity and desire to understand the mechanisms of his world, I would place him as a Pisces Moon. Theon put on pomp and circumstance as a way to open doors or gain admiration, so I suspect him to be Leo Rising. (It also took quite a bit of bravery for him to aide Sansa.)

Personalities are complex and there is quite a bit of astrology that I’m not considering here. This isn’t taking houses or planets into consideration. It’s all meant in practice of characterizing fictitious people and fun! Anyone else you want added to my list?

Mansfield Park

I will have to start this post with a few words about Jane Austen. First, I think her prose is worth mention. I believe her to have been a well-read woman who took time with her words insofar as expertly arranging interestingly descriptive sentences. I like that she has realistic characters in believable settings whereby the dialogue and motives of those characters are both diverse and concise. I have a wellspring of respect for her as a woman writing timeless novels in a society that did not value female writers. That being said, (with the caveat that I have only read Pride and Prejudice apart from Mansfield Park) Jane Austen is not my favorite author.

Perhaps that is unfair, given that I loved watching Downton Abbey, so I’ll include that tidbit here as well. Sorry Jane Austen, but also, thank you for inspiring generations to celebrate British literature, culture, and storytelling in a way that started out as being uniquely your own. I do celebrate you.

Mansfield Park is allegedly the darkest of Jane Austen’s novels. I picked it up because of this, and because Vladimir Nabokov referred to it with some acclaim in his lectures. (I am a Nabokov fan, due to his wickedly intelligent sense of wit and vocabulary.) I wanted to know what made Mansfield Park different from the frivolous drama of finding a suitable husband that I would otherwise have expected. I wanted to know, how does Mansfield Park break the stereotype?

Primarily, the main character Fanny Price is not the vapid girl in a frilly dress that predominates these kinds of stories. She’s a Cinderella archetype with sense and gravity, though I did feel this conferred a slow pace to the novel. It is almost as though Fanny has a magnetism that affects the reader and draws them deeper into her story. Her quiet verisimilitude is attractive, compelling, and pleasantly calm.

Though her contemporaries in the novel are somewhat disposed of the mania more frequent in Dostoevsky, Fanny is the wallflower that everyone is aware of, but few heed. She faces ridicule because she’s an easy target (she doesn’t fight back), but also because others are jealous of her more refined qualities (she’s pretty, intelligent, and not at all brazen about it). I think Jane Austen excels here in understating Fanny in a way that the reader realizes that there is more to her than anyone in the novel is actually capable of stating.

Unfortunately, that was as far as my compulsion to be interested in this novel went. I could summarize the whole thing by saying that some things happened to a group of people I mostly cared nothing about and then it was over. My curiosity about Fanny faded about halfway through. It took me a week to finish the last hour and sixteen minutes of the novel simply because I got bored. My main complaint? I did not see a single character become anything more than what they were at the beginning.

I like to see characters grow and feel this makes them more interesting.

There are no great character arcs here, like Kitty in W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil. There is no apparent point to the relationships between characters like in the Brother’s Karamazov by Dostoevsky. I saw no real insights, message, or tone. It didn’t seem as though Austen knew what she wanted to accomplish. The sense I got was when the story failed to pan out, she ended it.

With the concern that maybe I missed something along the way, I took a trip over to the Spark notes page for this novel. Usually, there are entries for themes, motifs, and symbolism. There are entries for chapter summaries available and some quizzes there, but nothing else. (Maybe it is not just me!) If you’ve read this novel and feel otherwise, maybe you could clue me in to what I missed?

The Gulag Archipelago: Volume One (ch 4-6)

For those of you following along with me in The Gulag Archipelago, here is my next installment. I am about a chapter away from halfway through the first volume. I no longer need my notebook to scribble down pertinent facts to keep track of where I am at. The whole GPU, OGPU, NKVD, SMERSH issue is behind me. Essentially, whatever they called the Russian secret police at the time of the protagonists’ arrest, he’s imprisoned now and the letters mean little.

Now the alphabet comes in the form of V– or Y–, in the sense that secrecy was so extreme in the prison system that when the guards came to collect a prisoner for interrogation, they only did so by offering up the first letter of the name of the prisoner they were after. If they asked whether Volov was present in a particular cell, and he wasn’t, then the officials have admitted to prisoners in a non-related cell that Volov had been captured. As such, they inquired instead, “Is there anyone V– here?”

Volov? Victor? Vladimir? Captain of State Security Yezepov? Was there anyone with a Y–? As prisoners were being shifted about from cell-to-cell, prison-to-prison, and freedom-to-exile, the number two past time (the first being ignoring how hungry you are) was to glean whatever information you could from your fellow prisoners – especially when they were new to your cell. (If all I had to do all day was stare at a brick wall, shiver, and maybe get a book to read during the hours they allowed me my glasses, I’d probably get excited about someone new coming in the door as well.) However, it is also noted that the interrogators were given an allowance of cigarettes to give out in reward for confessions and information offered up from nasedka (stool pigeons). Someone was always listening. Even in prison, the pressures of interrogation and further punishment did not relent.

What I suspected of the bluecaps and being decent people overall though pressurized to immoral behavior by prevailing circumstances was mostly accurate. Apparently, low totals in the collection of new prisoners was not an option, for “Stalin could never be convinced that in any district, or city, or military unit, he might suddenly cease to have enemies.” If enemies could not be found in high enough numbers, then confessions enough to generate an appropriate number had to be concocted and claimed. If not, then interrogators whom did not meet their quotas could be arrested under Section 10 as subversive to the state.

One interesting point in chapter four was learning that works by authors such as Dmitry Merezhkovsky and Panteleimon Romanov, whose works were banned by the state, were available as reading material in prison.

The phrase “Ivan plen nicht” also stood out. It means “Ivan no prisoner” and was apparently used by German soldiers in reference to Russian POWs. Solzhenitsyn states that “There is war, there is death, but there is no surrender.” He explains this to mean that there was a sentiment in Russia that it was acceptable for soldiers to go to war and die in the service of their country. The country itself would remain. However, if those soldiers were to escape death and face captivity, then their only hope of returning home would be to face a conviction.

Why? Because it is impossible for anyone to disprove that they were colluding with the enemy while in a foreign cell.

As it was, prisoners at home were responsible for proving that they were not guilty. “As always, the interrogation began with the hypothesis that you were obviously guilty,” Solzhenitsyn states, about a hundred pages from noting that “it was clear to the interrogators at least that the cases were fabricated.” Accused, without the capability of leaving prison, could only gather witnesses among themselves by mail as a resource for proving their innocence. Apparently there was quite the campaign of inquiries and responses shuttling from institution to institution.

This segment of The Gulag Archipelago is getting a little convoluted. (The rationalizations within the text have always been, so I refer to the act of reading it here.) There are a few places were Solzhenitsyn’s running personal commentary in the form of footnotes takes up over three-quarters of the page. So if you’re wondering why I’m reaching for half-way, it is because of super teeny-tiny footnote text.

Regardless, the protagonist has made a couple “friends”, and it is oddly more comfortable spending time with him in his cell despite the living conditions. Chapter five is titled “First Cell, First Love”, insinuating that every cell a prisoner spends time in is always judged in comparison to their first. I find that I am getting a feel for the differences between incarcerations as well. The tone of the novel has side-stepped outrage a time or two, and is now seeming more informative. It is clear that for all of the neglect for human rights and needs this novel retells, that the individuals involved are treated as complex, multifaceted people even though the political philosophy of the time did not want to allow for that.

Surely with the lionshare of this work still to go, moral outrage has plenty of room to resurface.

The Plot Against America

As someone who was enthralled by the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (1933-2018) seemed like something I ought to put on my reading list. American Pastoral was exceptional, so I was willing to spend some more time this year with Roth before moving on to someone else. I picked up a copy of The Communist Manifesto on Audible before getting started, spent a couple hours with Karl Marx, and then started in to this alternative history “what-if” novel.

I’ll start by saying that, although I’m glad to have crossed off the Communist Manifesto from my to-read list, it was completely unnecessary for me to have read for The Plot Against America. For those of you whom do not recognize this title, here is what it is about: Famed aviator Charles A. Lindbergh is elected president of the United States of America in 1940 after his world-famous solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927. Though he does not outwardly support the Hitler’s regime in Germany, Lindbergh is a suspected Nazi. His anti-Semite views as a man in supreme political authority drive the themes and plot of The Plot Against America in contrast to a fractured Jewish family.

What’s real: Lindbergh was an outspoken racist. He was against the United States involvement in World War II. He did fly to Germany to receive a medal in person from the commander of Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring, on behalf of Hitler. Charles was skyrocketed to fame when news of his successful flight hit the media, after which that admiration turned to robust sympathy in 1931 when his 20-month old son was nabbed from the Lindbergh family home and subsequently found murdered.

Everyone knew who Charles A. Lindbergh was, and from a standpoint of extreme popularity, I daresay it was possible that he could have won the presidency over Franklin D. Roosevelt. However, that’s the not real part.

The Plot Against America is about fear. The Lindbergh in the novel never speaks outright against the Jews. As they are announced to the populace, changes that are effected by his presidency are meant for the good of America as a whole though they are ridiculed by the elders of the Jewish faith. The younger individuals of the family believe in Lindbergh (to various degrees) and are at odds with their parents. What develops is the looming question of whether the reader is justified in suspecting conspiracy theories and unspoken motives.

I finished this novel a week ago and have been sitting with the idea of whether to write about it or not. I felt that the plot was oversimplified and lacked any real depth. It briefly brought to mind when George W. Bush became president in 2001, supported by the claim that politics is a religious vocation. I remember the fallout expressed by those religions that did not coincide with his, but also a certain kind of terror to think that the lines of church and state would be further blurred. Roth was afraid that the acceptance of Jews in the United States was conditional and precarious. Is that not true of any non-Christian faith?

To me, The Plot Against America (2004) lacked the insidiousness that was so beautiful (meaning so remarkably creepy and enthusiastically well done) in American Pastoral (1997). I noticed while doing some research though that HBO picked The Plot Against America up and made it into a series featuring John Turturro. Season one aired in 2020 and maybe the expertise of those behind it gave it the meat I felt was missing.

What more did I want, you might wonder?

Let’s jump authors for a moment and consider Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Here you have a cringe worthy protagonist that does not shy away from the thoughts and rationalizations that (for me) provoked a visceral reaction. I knew what Humbert was thinking and in knowing how his thoughts seemed perfectly normal to him, my emotional response to him had real weight. In The Plot Against America, Lindbergh wasn’t scary. He more of a placeholder than a person, and so it was difficult to attribute feelings towards him at all. The situation was disagreeable, but did not strike me as tragic. I started to care when a particular character died over halfway into the story and then it seemed like the novel lost momentum again.

If you haven’t read Philip Roth before, I wouldn’t judge him off of this book. I still have The Human Stain on my reading list, though it is the last of Roth I have in mind for now. Maybe it is because I’m reading Solzhenitsyn’s non-fiction work The Gulag Archipelago at the same time that the severity of experiences in The Plot Against America seems so trite. Or, maybe I shouldn’t start out with the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by an author if I intend to read more than just one of their repertoire.