Ben Douglass is an old grumpy white guy who writes poems, novels, reviews, essays, and short fictions, for his own amusement and the amusement of others.
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This is an annual test of the blog page.
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December 19th, 2020
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[The Quiet in the Land. Toews, Richard. Steppenwolf Publishing. 2017. 258 pages. ISBN: 9-781978-381988]
This is a tough story to read. It is a tale of unspeakable horror of being a German Mennonite youth during the dark days preceding the Russian Revolution of 1917 and after. A sweeping panorama of historical fiction that is reminiscent of Tolstoy and Solzhenitzyn.
Summary: Johann learns from an early age what his father and village Elders practice is quite different from the teachings of the Mennonite Church and the teachings of Christ. He escapes to the river to fish and to dream. He finds himself obsessing about why the Russian peasants in the village across the river are hated by his own people and simply treated as beasts of burden. He soon meets a new friend, Piotra, a peasant from the Russian village, who provokes him into action for revolutionary change.
As this friendship between the boys grow, and then falters miserably, Johann becomes a witness to and complicit in the gruesome butchery of a factory owner's wife and son by a group of young anarchists, led by Piotra.
Later, Johann and his brother David join the army as ambulance corpsmen and go to the Prussian front. Johann is severely injured and spends six weeks in a field hospital, then discharged from service and told to find his way back home.
After convalescing at home awhile, Johann goes to Moscow to study medicine at the University. He changes his name and creates a Russian persona as "Ivan Sholokhov." The times were not good for anyone confused with being a German living in Russia. From this day forward, he would be a Russian from Ukraine who settled in Moscow.
Ivan meets the Russian writer, Maxim Gorky, and quits the University to work on Gorky's newspaper in Petrograd. This becomes the beginning of a new life for Ivan. He falls in love with Natasha, another youthful revolutionary. They move in together in a small flat and work long hours for the cause on the Petrograd Party Committee.
Natasha is arrested, charged with being a subversive and jailed at the Peter and Paul Fortress. Ivan leaves Petrograd and moves in with members of the Social Revolutionary Group at Tokmak. What follows is a general strike and a bloody street battle between Bolshevik's and the Tsar's Cossacks. The Tsar finally abdicates in favor of the Kerensky government, which is then overthrown by Lenin's Bolsheviks in a civil war. Ivan starts a slow process of disillusionment with the revolution and consequences of his own actions.
While on Party business he visits his home village, but finds that his old friend, Piotra, now an anarchist commander of a large militia, has destroyed everything; pillaging, beating, raping, and executing children wholesale. the absolute horror Ivan witnesses here is almost physically intolerable and he nearly faints as a result.
Ivan is then discovered to be a German using a false persona and possibly being a spy. He is immediately arrested and imprisoned for seven years at Peter and Paul Fortress. Everyone who ever knew him, including Gorky and Natasha repudiate him. Ivan, now known again as Johann, is then transferred to a prison camp on the island of Sakhalin.
Structure: All through this engaging narrative the author slips in paragraphs of historical context that lends credence to the story. In the chapter, "A New Russia," Mr. Toews offers a succinct but thorough analysis on the changing nature of Russia and how the seeds of revolution were planted while those in charge were oblivious to the future. This chapter also speaks of where the title of the novel came from. In other parts of the story, personal speeches, letters, and short memoirs play a huge role in furthering the narrative along. The author flips back and forth between the microcosm and the macrocosm with expertise and finesse.
Description: The author's descriptive powers are so enormous and artistic, it is as if you are standing inside a painting, with all five senses on fire. Here is but one of many examples of what I speak: "The bare brick walls were dark with smoke that also blackened the ceiling. In the middle stood a large stove around which were wooden bunks. The walls reeked with smoke, the earthen floor with damp, and the bunks with sweat and rotten rags. There were large washtubs lying about. It was common to find goats, a pig and some chickens bedded down in the straw alongside the Osipovitch family. The moist warmth and smell of the animals, the black fumes of the kerosene lamps, and the pungent odor of the home-cured tobacco, which Piotra's mother smoked in rolled up newspaper, combined to create a unique, noxious atmosphere." The reader can't help but to absorb the wretched poverty of this family.
Historical Narrator: Mr. Toews liberally infuses this story with an aloof historical narrator that lifts the reader above the action on the ground, so they can see the bigger picture of all the human drama. At the beginning of the chapter, "The Gesture," the omniscient narrator comes alive and tells us: "What I am about to recount to you now is very difficult. we are entering now a dark and tragic part of our story. It concerns the actions of Piotra, which, in turn, will have a profound effect on Johann; but also, the following account will give shape to the rest of our story; it will set the context of our story within a larger tragic tale of the Mennonites in Russia during the Russian Revolution. It begins with a meeting in a forest at night."
The Nature and Role of God: It appears to this reviewer that, the author's big picture concern is the nature and role of God in human events and how his characters react to or interpret this concept. Mr. Saul Enns, a Mennonite school teacher and expounder of revolutionary ideas clashes with the village elders on the point of belief in God. In arguing with the village's Mennonite minister, he says: "I said I don't believe in God, I did not say that God does not exist. Perhaps God exists out there, somewhere, but if he does, he's quite detached from the world. I don't believe God cares one way or another about what is happening here. I believe that man has to make his own way if we are to make a better world." Here, Mr. Enns', socio-politico-theological worldview is a close second to the Christian Humanism of Leo Tolstoy - not a mystical state, but Christianity as a new theory of life, which Tolstoy robustly defends in his masterwork, The Kingdom of God is Within You.
During his incarceration on the island of Sakhalin, our hero, Johann, comes closer to the Tolstoyian conception of God than Saul Enns. During a moment of deep introspection, Johann concludes: "The life I have lived, the choices I have made, come with consequences. I believed in a God of Justice, as my father, and his fathers before him believed, as they taught me. But that God of Justice seemed too much fettered by religious certainty. After all that I have seen, and done, all in the name of some ideal, that what we were doing was realizing the Kingdom of God on earth, the reality is that all our attempts ended up in chaos."
Conclusion: The chapter, "Peter and Paul Fortress: A Memoir," stands as an unequal fictional portrayal of the nightmare politics of the years just after the revolution. Johann's imprisonment and psychological torture by the Party to which he has dedicated his life is indeed troubling. He relives his short career that embodies the terrible ironies and human betrayals of a totalitarian movement masking itself as an instrument of deliverance. Almost unbearably vivid in its depiction of one youth's solitary agony.
The final chapter, "Fr. Francis," speaks volumes about Johann's relationship with the world and its many twists and turns, and, also about his relationship with Christ. These two chapters are the most powerful of the novel, filled with insight into the human condition. The ending is so powerful, it can be rear and re-read many times.
The Quiet in the Land asks questions about ends and means that have relevance not only for the past but for the perilous present. A grimly fascinating interpretation of the logic of the Russian Revolution, and at the same time an intense intellectualized drama. I give this work a rating of five out of five stars for all the points spoke about: Structure, description, narration, and the Nature and Role of God put forth in the story. I highly recommend this debut novel for anyone who loves a good story embedded in history.
About the Author: Richard Toews is a screenwriter and film director. His first film, "The Prodigal," has been screened at numerous film festivals in Canada and the U.S. The film was awarded a Gold Remi at the Houston International Film Festival. His novel, The Quiet in the Land, is his debut novel.
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[Alexander the Great: The Invisible Enemy: A Biography. O'Brien, John Maxwell. New York: Routledge. 1992. 336 pages. Bibl. Index. ISBN: 0-415-07254-9]
What if I told you that the greatest military leader of all time was defeated by the simple grape? Well, that is the assertion of Professor emeritus of History, John O'Brien. Let me refresh the reader with a summary of Alexander's life before I move onto the task at hand: O'Brien's unorthodox approach to this great leader's downfall and eventual defeat.
Alexander III of Macedon, commonly known as Alexander the Great, was a king of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon and a member of the Argead dynasty. He was born in Pella in 356 B.C. of his mother Olynpias and father, Phillip II. He went on to succeed his father to the throne at the age of 20. He died in Babylon. Alexander's spouses were Roxana (m. 327-323 B.C.), Stateira II (m. 324-323 B.C.), and Parysatis II (m. 324-323 B.C.). Polygamy was commonplace among royalty. After many successful military campaigns, Alexander established the largest empire the ancient world had ever seen. This empire stretched from the Balkans to modern-day Pakistan. During his life, Alexander served as King of Macedonia, from 336-323 B.C. During his time of leadership, he united Greece, reestablished the Corinthian League and conquered the Persian Empire.
The author's intent with this biography was with the general reader in mind and then, with an eye towards students of classical history and admirers of this great king. Military strategies and politics have been kept to a bare minimum while focusing on the inner life or mindset of Alexander. Those readers solely interested in the politics and military strategies need to look elsewhere. The ancient historian/general, Arrian, would be a good place. Also, the author has an extensive notes & bibliography section. The 43-page bibliography is one of the finest I've ever seen on Alexander. This book is not to be taken as a definitive study of the man because actual sources are at best, fragmentary and contradictory. The author is simply making an educated guess on his assertion based on the evidence.
Not only using the historical record at hand, but also relying on the modern concepts of behavioral sciences and depth psychology, the author concludes simply the why and how of Alexander's deterioration during the last years of his life: the pattern of drinking undiluted or uncut wine excessively as he grew older, turned him into a raging alcoholic. The king's obsession with everything Dionysus became his Achilles Heel. Dionysus was indeed the "Invisible Enemy" - the jealous man/god who drove mad all who did not properly worship him.
Most Greek tragedies tend to be family affairs and since alcoholism plays a significant character within these family groups, we can see how and why Alexander turned out the way he did. It is useful to acknowledge that Alexander's father, Phillip II, of Macedon (382-336 B.C.), was himself an alcoholic of the first order. So, in a sense, Alexander never had a chance because of behaviors learned and possible genetic markers.
As the author says in his Preface: "The most perplexing of all such considerations is Alexander's metamorphosis. Even as he performed one epic deed after another, this superb warrior began to exhibit a disturbing personal transformation. During the last seven years of his life Alexander became increasingly unpredictable, sporadically violent, megalomaniacal, and suspicious of friends as well as enemies. What could have caused such a lamentable transformation? This book explores that question in a way that requires the reader's forbearance until exposed threads begin to reveal patterns in Alexander's behavior."
Professor O'Brien is no historical revisionist attempting to make a name for himself but rather, his evidence is deeply rooted in many substantial and credible sources, classical as well as modern. I think his bibliography speaks volumes as proof of his deep readings and analysis on the subject. The reader is left to decide for themselves whether the grape was indeed the cause of Alexander's downfall, or merely a symptom of something else. The respect the author gives to the many factions of Alexander scholarship is what makes this book stand out from all the others in the field. He took a grave academic chance with his assertion and it paid off brilliantly.
During an email exchange with the author on 9/13/2020 he claimed: "I taught a course in Alexander the Great from an historiography point of view. Equally brilliant people could look at the same sources, one seeing a man who embodied the best in all mankind, the other seeing a rapacious narcissist who was a menace to the human race." Even after saying this, I think the good professor has stated his case in the most believable manner.
[About the Author: John Maxwell O'Brien is an emeritus professor of history (Queens College) who has written numerous articles and books on ancient history, medieval history, and the history of alcoholism. His celebrated biography of Alexander the Great has been translated into Greek and Italian. he also just recently completed a novel, Aloysius the Great (which parallels James Joyce's Ulysses). The author, who is 81 years young, currently resides in New Milford, Connecticut.]
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[ Aloysius the Great. O'Brien, John Maxwell. United States: Propertius Press. July 2020. 332 pages. ISBN: 978-1-71689-483-1]
What might your reaction be if I told you that an 80-year old, retired university professor living in small town Connecticut is channeling the spirit of Irish author, James Joyce?
Well, it's true! After reading the story I can't help but think something remarkable and supernatural is going on here. Those in the know make the claim that the only chapter worth reading in James Joyce's Ulysses is the 70-page chapter known as the "Ithaca episode," the penultimate section. It's also informally known as the "catechism chapter." The reader can rest assured that chapters 20 & 33 of O'Brien's novel are significant, but unlike Joyce, this author's entire story is worth reading.
Aloysius the Great is the timeless tale of Aloysius Gogarty, a young alcoholic American professor, pressured into becoming resident director of his colleges study-abroad program in England. He leaves the United States full of apprehension and resentment of the task before him. He is also disturbed at having to leave behind a young lady he has become obsessed with. While in England, Gogarty finds himself on a runaway roller-coaster of rebellious students, drugs, sex, and academic politics. As he continues to court his lady friend from afar, his drinking spirals out of control. Gogarty gets help in coping with his problems from an Oxford counterpart who is a wickedly witty and steadfast companion. They consume epic quantities of alcohol while concocting outlandish schemes to address these challenges. Gogarty not only survives the cacophony of events, but emerges on the other side as a hero and crowns his achievements by coming to grips with his alcoholism.
O'Brien's novel is a powerful Rabelaisian romp fest that at first read can be a companionate volume to Joyce's Ulysses. They should actually be read together, if you have the time, to get the most out of this book. After the first reading of this novel I could not stop thinking of the Irish folk song, "Seven Drunken Nights." Even if I had never read any of Joyce's works, this story is a fine, well-crafted character novel bubbling with clever dialogue and humor. If the reader happens to be Joycean aficionado like myself, it becomes a treasure chest of Joycean puns, saucy dialogue, comedic relief, and many allusions to Ulysses. That's why chapters 20 & 33 are so important to this work.
As a Joycean knock-off, the author definitely achieved his goal and was enormously competent at it, as shown by the following scenes in the novel. At Ensign Ewart's Pub, the Scottish barkeep is giving Aloysius advice on whiskey:
"Now, let me tell you something about whiskey. It's like a woman: it's all a matter of taste. I can give you something smooth with a long, round finish; something spicy with a peaty aftertaste; or something soft with a heathery, honey flavor. What suits your mood today?"
This Scottish barkeep further advises Gogarty on the wisdom of when you know you've had enough to drink, which is hilarious:
"Me dear departed father once told me, he said, 'Billy boy, every man has his own God-given quota when it comes to drink, and you'll know when yours has been reached. That'll be the crossroads. Either you'll keep sucking it up like a sponge or you'll step back and watch the other laddies blow themselves up with it.' I reached my limit seven years and thirteen days ago."
"How did you know your time was up?"
"When it dawned on me I was allergic to the stuff."
"Allergic? How did you know you were allergic to alcohol?"
"Because when I overdid it, I kept breaking out in handcuffs."
"I choke on a mouthful of Devchars, spitting some of it on the bar. He wipes up the mess cheerfully, pleased with my reaction."
I could log many more pages of this kind of Joycean humor but it would spoil all the fun for the reader. I highly recommend this novel for the Joycean aficionado as well as for the general reader looking for a good page-turning story with lots of punch. It is the kind of novel to be read twice, or even thrice, to pick up all manner of nuances, puns and stylistic allusions missed in the first reading. For this, a previous reading of Ulysses would be helpful.
[John Maxwell O'Brien is an emeritus professor of history (Queens College) who has written numerous articles on ancient history, medieval history, and the history of alcoholism. His bestselling biography, Alexander the Great: The Invisible Enemy (Routledge), has been translated into Greek and Italian, and he authored the article on alcoholism in the Oxford Classical Dictionary. Professor O'Brien's second life has been devoted to his first love, creative writing, and he has published a variety of poems and short stories in literary journals. Aloysius the Great is his debut novel and was inspired by James Joyce's Ulysses.]
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Being an observer of human nature and society-at-large, I came to the conclusion a long time ago that humankind has the innate inability to learn from history. Even though history does not repeat itself, as is the prevailing common myth, it has echo's and shadows that modern humans latch onto in a most negative and self-destructive manner.
In today's America of 2020, people have latched onto some of the ugliest echo's and shadows of the past. The cause of this reality is a multiplicity of events and fears leading to a perfect storm: COVID-19 pandemic; permanent job loss on a massive scale; historic wild fires caused by a climate crisis; social-political-religious divisions fueled by the irresponsible rhetoric of the President of the United States; and social media driven conspiracy theories fed to the public twenty-four-seven. We are at war with one another and the outcome does not look good.
Looking back to Corfu of 427 B.C., we can note a comparison of civil strife and unrest leading to death and destruction, not unlike today. The historian, Thucydides, in his The War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, book 3, section 81-85, edited by Jeremy Mynott, he says:
So it was that every kind of wickedness took root in Greece as a result of these civil conflicts. Simplicity of spirit, which is such an important part of true nobility, was laughed to scorn and vanished, while people were largely divided into opposite and mutually suspicious camps. No words were binding enough, no oath terrible enough, to reconcile them; all those who were sufficiently strong calculated that it was hopeless to expect any security and preferred to protect themselves against injury rather than rely on trust. And the less intelligent were the ones who most often came out on top. They were afraid that because of their own shortcomings and their opponents' cleverness they might be defeated in any battle of words and be caught unawares by plots devised by their quick-witted opponents. They therefore committed themselves boldly to action. Those, on the other hand, who disdainfully assumed that they would foresee things well in advance and that there was no need to secure by action what would come to them by power of intellect - they were instead taken off-guard and perished.
Thucydides goes on to say further, specifically about Corfu:
It was in Corcyra (Corfu), then, that most of these outrages were first perpetuated. there were all the acts of retaliation you might expect men to commit when they see an opportunity for revenge on rulers who have shown them more arrogance than moderation. There were the deliberate crimes of those who were prepared to break the law to escape their familiar treadmill of poverty and who as a result of their hardships cast especially covetous eyes on their neighbours' property. And there were acts of savage and pitiless aggression by people who were not in this case motivated by personal gain but who turned particularly on their equals in a frenzy of uncontrollable passion. At this crisis in the breakdown of civic life human nature, which is in any case conditioned to defy the laws in doing wrong, now triumphed over them and revelled in showing itself powerless against passion, too strong for justice and hostile to anything superior. No one would otherwise have put revenge before reverence and profit before the avoidance of wrongdoing, but for the pernicious power of envy. As for the common laws about such things, from which everyone derives hopes of their own salvation when facing disaster, men see fit to abolish them in advance when they are inflicting revenge on others, instead of leaving them in place against some time of danger when they might need their protection.
In conclusion, I don't have any real solutions for our American civilization today, other than one: the reading and analysis of history from youth, continuing into adulthood. And hopefully, by doing so, we can make a little bit of progress towards an enlightened future for our children and grandchildren.
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The Quatrain Poem
In the last several months I have been experimenting with the "quatrain" - a poetic form that goes back to Rumi (and before). More specifically, I have been writing poems using the Shairi or Rustavelian quatrain.
For those that may need a review of the quatrain form, it is a stanza in a poem that has exactly four lines. Some quatrains comprise entire poems (Rumi), while others are part of a larger structure. Quatrains usually use some form of rhyme scheme, especially the following forms: AAAA, AABB, ABAB, and ABBA. Lines in a quatrain can be any length and with any meter, but there is usually a regular rhythm to the lines as well.
Now more specifically, a Shairi or Rustavelian quatrain has a rhyme scheme of AAAA, also known as monorhymed. It comes from the country of Georgia, and has four lines of sixteen syllables each. The name Rustavelian comes from the Georgian poet Shota Rustavelli. In the 12th century he published his greatest work, The Knight in the Panther Skin. The best translation is by Lyn Coffin. This book of quatrains is listed as one of the great master works of world literature. Rustavelli is often called the Georgian Shakespeare. This work tells the story of medieval romance of chivalry.
When I think my own quatrains are complete and polish for public reading I will publish them, but not before. I will not put a time limit on the publication of my quatrains.
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Bottom Line: COVID-19 Is A Game Changer
If you look at the raw numbers it may not seem that impressive, especially since the number of cases and deaths are much higher for seasonal flu. But don't be confused or mislead - this is a much more deadly virus, it is very contagious, and causes serious respiratory failure. Our hospital system will be overwhelmed (like in Italy) if we don't slow down the spread of this disease through aggressive social restrictions (like China did at the beginning). Everyone needs to take this very serious as if their life depends on it, because it does.
Ironically however, if we are successful and avoid a worst-case scenario, like Hong Kong and some other locations have, then the uninformed cynics will say: "See, I told you so, it was all media driven hype to create a panic, and trash our economy and trash Trump." Don't believe them. Don't believe the right-wing conservative talking heads (Hannity, Limbaugh, et al.) saying that it isn't that bad, that you should just wash your hands, go about your business and ignore so-called government over reach.
Rather, we should be seriously preparing for social isolation for several weeks, if not months. This is likely beyond the experience of most Westerners living today, and it may be challenging, but I think we're up to it if we ignore the ignorant naysayers who trivialize this crisis. Listen to the experts instead: World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and your local health department officials. Trust your mayors and governors! They really do have our best interests at heart during a public health crisis. And yes, some mistakes will inevitably be made. We need to support each other and work together in a time of community need. Remember: successful solutions start at the grass roots level. Be a patriot. Be brave. We can fight this BUG and win.
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In all of my writing, be it long or short, the character is always front and center of the story. During the last 40 years I have collected 30 of, what I think, the best character novels from the classics down to modern times. I've read and studied each of them 5-7 times. A college professor back in 1978 once told me, if you want to write the great character novel or story, then study the great ones, ancient and modern. And so I have over my lifetime.
The one character novel that has had the greatest impact on my writing has been Against Nature by J.K. Huysmans. It was originally published in 1883 as A Rebours. It is beautifully written and beautifully structured.
In gold and purple prose the book recounts the exotic practices and perverse pleasures of Duc Jean Floressas des Esseintes, an unhealthy hero who resembles several of the more gorgeous dandies of the time, but is essentially Huysmans himself in the thinnest of disguises. Huysmans himself was the quintessential Decadent, tortured by that vague longing for an elusive ideal; torn between desire and satiety, hope and disillusionment; painfully conscious that his pleasures are finite, his needs infinite.
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The following is a summary of an email that I received from the Daily Stoic. I think we can all take lessons from this, whether we be leaders in our community or just individuals who wish to make a difference.
General James Mattis is part of a long line of tradition of Stoic warriors. Just as Frederick the Great carried the Stoics in his saddlebags as he led his troops, or Cato proved his Stoicism by how he led his own troops in Rome's Civil War, Mattis has long been known for taking Marcus Aurelius' Meditations with him on campaign.
"Reading is an honor and a gift," he explains, "from a warrior or a historian who - a decade or a thousand decades ago - set aside time to write." Yet many people spurn this gift and still consider themselves educated. "If you haven't read hundreds of books" Mattis says, "you're functionally illiterate." Channeling Marcus Aurelius, Mattis notes that human beings have been fighting and dying and struggling and doing the same things for eons. To not avail yourself of that knowledge is profoundly arrogant and stupid. To fill up body bags of young soldiers while a commander learns by experience? It's worse than arrogant. It's unethical, even murderous.
The same is true for much less lethal professions. How dare you waste your investor's money by not reading and learning from the mistakes of other entrepreneurs? How dare you so take your marriage or your children for granted that you think you can afford to figure this out by doing the wrong things first? What is the upside of trying to make it in the NFL all on your own, and not looking for shortcuts and lessons from seasoned pros and students of the game who have published books? There is no real job training for an emperor or the advisor to the emperor, but you can imagine both Marcus Aurelius and Seneca read heavily from and about their predecessors. The stakes were to high for them not to.