Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Disturbances in the Field by Lynne Sharon Schwartz - What I wanted now was the adventure of being happy in the ordinary way

Disturbances in the Field (1983) by Lynne Sharon Schwartz.  Rohan Maitzen recommended the novel to me because of its unusual use of the Pre-Socratic philosophers.  This is a domestic novel, a fine example of, borrowing from Trollope, the way we live now (or, to me, the way they lived then), smart, dense, and insightful.  And also full of a surprising amount of Heraclitus and Thales and Parmenides.

The “they” is mostly the narrator Lydia, the New York City pianist and mother of four, her family, and her close group of college friends (Barnard College, Class of ’61).  I do not remember reading a similar novel where the college experience is so thoughtfully integrated into the characters’ lives.  The friends bond while taking a year-long introduction to philosophy from a professor who overindulges in the Pre-Socratics, squeezing down Plato and Aristotle, because they are so much fun.  Just what I have found.

The way up and the way down are one and the same, Heraclitus said, endless and, above all, reversible.  (“The Middle of the Way,” 370)

That is from the next to last page of the novel.  Thales appears on the last page.

The first half of the novel is about, roughly speaking, ordinary life and the passage of time.  How do Lydia’s, and her friends’, choices, match up with their youthful ideals?  How do those ideals change?  What is a good life?  Philosophical but also novelistic questions.

Her liberal education served her well. (“Wedlock,” 125)

Schwartz argues, I think, that the liberal arts education of the characters makes their lives richer.  Not happier, oh no no, but deeper.  The good life is full of books:

The long wall in the living room, where we gather, is lined with bookshelves.  The center, most accessible, shelves hold her thick science books.  Below, books of philosophy, politics, sociology.  Above, novels (Nina is an insomniac; Epictetus does not always work) and poetry: Frost, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams – she enjoys the sanctification of the ordinary.  (“The Philosophy Study Group,” 142)

Although our narrator Lydia is more interested in the desanctification of the ordinary.  A musician, she perhaps reserves holiness for the Trout Quinter – this is also a terrific music novel, with a number of insightful passages about music performance.  But in her life, with her family:

What I wanted now was the adventure of being happy in the ordinary way.  (“The Philosophy Study Group,” 160-1)

Disturbances takes a terrible turn exactly halfway through, when the ordinariness of life is destroyed by a tragedy that becomes the subject of the rest of the book.  I wondered if now Schwartz would invoke the consolations of philosophy, but she is more hard-headed than that.  Philosophy does not console, nor does music, nor does anything, really.  This half of the novel is rough going, emotionally.  A chapter entitled “Bed,” two scenes in which Lydia and her husband work on their grief in their new king-sized bed, was especially brutal.  Disturbances in the Field and its narrator are the products of second wave feminism – Jill Clayburgh would have been perfect in a film of the novel – where sex is discussed without prurience or sentimentality but with an honesty that is, in this chapter, almost hard to read.

This land of ours, coarsened by blight, cannot endure.  It’s only a matter of time.  (241, “Bed”)

Rohan, thanks so much for the recommendation. I wonder what Schwartz’s other books are like.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

The sophists and their rehabilitation - they clearly cause the ruin and corruption of their followers

I have been pursuing the sophists, the great antagonists of Socrates and Plato.  Minimized for centuries in the history of philosophy as, following Plato (but not Socrates), hucksters, they, or some of them, are now taken seriously as an intermediate step between the cosmological pre-Socratics and the purely ethical Socrates.

The rise of the sophists looks almost necessary to me.  After a century of bold new ways of thinking about the biggest subjects, it was inevitable that someone would begin to set aside the contents of the arguments and begin to work on how the arguments functioned.  Meaning logic, the movement through an argument, and rhetoric, the devices, often not so logical, used to persuade.

Aware of Wittgenstein, it seems normal to me for a period of innovations in ideas to be followed by a period of investigation of the language of the ideas.  What was less inevitable is that the rise of Greek democracy, especially in Athens, created a substantial, wealthy audience in the market for rhetorical and argumentative tools useful for suing your neighbor and convincing your fellow citizens to expel or execute your enemies.

Thus the horror of Plato and the bad reputation of the sophists.  What began as a search for Truth turns into a bag of tricks, sold for money.

The rehabilitation of the sophists was recent.  I read one of the central books, G. B. Kerferd’s The Sophistic Movement (1981), “still, I think, the finest book on the subject” according to Prof. Hobbs.  It is not even 180 pages and a highly readable, clear and non-technical, mostly, although the chapter titled “The nomos-physis controversy” was awfully rough going.

Since almost no writing by the sophists has survived, the great mass of evidence about them comes from Plato’s dialogues.  Kerferd’s book is a triumph of close reading, almost a deconstructionist exercise, as he searches for the real sophists behind Plato’s massive unreliability.  He does not, in the end, claim that any of them, even Protagoras or Gorgias, were great philosophers, just that some of them made genuine contributions to philosophy, small steps in the decades before Plato and Aristotle swept the field.

Reading around in the dialogues, and under the influence of Kerferd, Plato seems quite fair to a few of the sophists (Protagoras, Gorgias) while others are monsters, like the pair in Euthydemus who recruit students by simultaneously arguing that everyone knows everything already and that nobody knows anything or ever will.  The idea, the way this recruits pupils, is that these sophists will teach you how to argue anything no matter how outrageous or even stupid.  You’ll be invincible, as long as you do not so enrage your opponent that he murders you on the spot.

It is curious that the most brutal anti-sophist prejudice I have come across so far is delivered in Meno not by Socrates but by a character named Amynta:

May no one of my household or friends, whether citizen or stranger, be mad enough to go to these people and be harmed by them, for they clearly cause the ruin and corruption of their followers.  (91c, tr. G. M. A. Grube)

Amynta was one of the lead accusers – murders – of Socrates.  You did not have to be trained by the sophists, it turns out, to be dangerous.  I am learning to see some of Plato’s ironies.

Sunday, February 5, 2023

The endlessly adaptable plays of Plautus - I’ll make it into a comedy with some tragedy mixed in

The plays of Plautus are the foundation of Western comedy.  That they are based on the plays of Menander and the other Greek New Comedy writers was irrelevant, since all of those texts were soon lost.  Plautus (and his successor Terence) carried the stage traditions, the character types, and the jokes into the future.

I read five Plautus plays over the last five weeks.  A play a week seemed like a natural pace.  Amphitryon, Miles Gloriosus (The Braggart Soldier), Pseudolus, Rudens (The Rope), and The Menaechmus Twins, all from the late 3rd and early 2nd century BCE.  Plautus’s plays are also the beginning of Roman literature, the oldest surviving complete works.  The great age of Roman literature (Catullus, Virgil, Lucretius, etc.) is 150 years in the future.  Always curious what is saved and what is not.

How Plautus loves twins.  Separate them at birth and the confusions of their later meeting is all the comedy he needs.  And the play ends when the twins finally meet on stage.  Young Shakespeare turned The Menaechmus Twins into The Comedy of Errors, but added a second set of twins, likely borrowed from Amphitryon, to double the fun.  I have wondered if he was deliberately trying to outdo Plautus.

Revisiting these plays, and having read a lot more plays since I last read Plautus, Amphitryon looks like the star of the bunch.  Jupiter “seduces” Alcmena by appearing as her husband, a general who should be at the front but has returned home for one night just for the sex.  Mercury, disguised as the general’s servant, guards the door.  When the general and his servant return home early, sour comedy ensues as the gods openly torment the humans for laughs.  It all works out, since Jupiter impregnates Alcmena with Hercules, and anyway these are gods so what can you do?

Jean Giraudoux titled his 1928 version Amphitryon 38, putting the question in the title: why another Amphitryon, among the most adapted plays in history.  I’ve read versions by Molière and Heinrich von Kleist.  These versions both at least suggest that part of the comedy of Amphitryon, the abuse of power by the ruler, is not all that funny.  Even Plautus’s Mercury, in a prologue, first calls the play a tragedy, and when the audience groans “turn[s] it from a tragedy to a comedy without altering a line” (3, tr. Lionel Casson):

I’ll make it into a comedy with some tragedy mixed in.  After all, with kings and gods appearing in it, I don’t think it would be right to make it pure comedy.  (3)

But even the more typical comedies, with their young couple in love and loyal slave tricking the grumpy father who is keeping them apart, the purest of comedies, have their sour moments, particularly the way women are treated as property.  And these are the stories where love triumphs over money, fantasies that hint at some of the miseries of ordinary Roman life.

But no one, outside of a university Classics department, would now perform a Plautus play as such.  They are perfect for adaptation, which is what 20th century playwrights have dome with them.  Pump up the female characters, update the jokes, add new songs, and you have The Boys from Syracuse and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.  You have Amphitryon 38, and then 39 and 40.

In February I will read several plays by Terence, more elegant (I am told) and sophisticated (he invents the double plot) than popular Plautus.  Please try one if he sounds interesting.

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Sōseki's Kokoro and two Tanizaki genre exercises - I resolved that I must live my life as if I were already dead

It is the 16th year of Dolce Bellezza’s remarkable Japanese Literature Challenge – in the old days for some reason we “challenged” people to read – which reminded me, as it often has, that I have never read anything by Natsumi Sōseki, the earliest of the greatest 20th century Japanese novelists,  This year, finally, I read a Sōseki book, Kokoro (1914), written near the end of his short career.  Donald Keene, in his enormous literary history Dawn to the West: Fiction (, 340) calls it “the finest of Sōseki’s mature works,” so just what I wanted.

For half the novel, a purposeless college student, a classic feckless youth, describes his unusual friendship with a much older man who he calls Sensei, in part because he learns from their talk than from his teachers. 

Sōseki does not give a hint of what they talk about. The second half of the novel is Sensei’s long letter justifying his suicide.  He committed a sin when he was in college that led to a suicide and, for him, a lifetime of guilt.

There were even times when I longed for some stranger to come along and flog me as I deserved.  At some stage this feeling transformed into a conviction that it should be I who hurt myself.  And then the thought struck me that I should not just hurt myself but kill myself.  At all events, I resolved that I must live my life as if I were already dead. (Ch. 108, 229. Tr. Meredith McKinney)

This is the ethos of the entire letter, of this character’s entire life, really.  “[A] character study of an egotist” is what Di at The little white attic calls Sensei’s letter, which is grim and distancing, although psychologically completely believable.  Keene says that is why the novel is successful:

The success of the novel, however, owes less to such echoes of Sōseki’s personal life than to his novelistic skill.  The characters are believable and there are scenes of dramatic tension… (340)

Keene, I tell you, really knows how to undersell.

The Japanese Literature Challenge also reminded me that I have plenty of Junichiro Tanizaki to read, so I tried a pair of novellas packaged together, The Reed Cutter (1932) and Captain Shigemoto’s Mother (1949), both translated by Anthony H. Chambers.  The novellas have in common a use of old poem-stuffed Japanese literary forms.  The Reed Cutters begins as a poetic travelogue, like The Tale of Ise or Basho’s The Narrow Road to Oku, while Captain Shigemoto’s Mother, clearly a product of Tanizaki’s years translating The Tale of Genji into modern Japanese, belongs to the Heian era, wandering among historical figures before gelling into a single, pathetic story.

I enjoyed the literary frames a lot, but I suppose it does help to know that they are genre exercises.  Like Basho, the narrator of The Reed Cutter travels to various sites because other travels have written poems about them, and then he in turn adds his own poem to the history, or by the end of the novella, a ghost story.  Later travelers can visit the site and remember the story, or look for the ghost.

The Reed Cutter features another of Tanizaki’s favorite submissive-dominant sexual relationships, although in this case it is clear that the psychology is what really interests Tanizaki, not the sex, since here the three characters are all celibate.

Captain Shigemoto’s Mother has some similarly odd stuff, including a scene where a man steals the chamber pot of the woman he loves in order to cure himself of his love for her.  It doesn’t work.  The scene is like an audacious Japanese parody of Jonathan Swift’s 1732 poem “The Lady’s Dressing Room.”  The novella’s end, when the mother and son in the title are finally reunited, has its pathetic beauty (“like a child secure in his mother’s love, he wiped his tears again and again with her sleeve”, 180) but it is likely that chamber pot scene that will linger.