Dan Sandman

Archive for December, 2014|Monthly archive page

52: Civilisation by Kenneth Clark

In Art, Books, History, Non-Fiction on 26/12/2014 at 12:00 pm

Civilisation by Kenneth ClarkIt’s non-fiction this week, and Kenneth Clark’s classic Civilisation (British spelling), first published in 1969, is the book I have chosen to finish this year with. Within its pages are thirteen essays spanning the history of Western civilisation, from the fall of the Roman Empire to rise of The United States of America, and almost everything in between – excluding Eastern civilisation and the history of woman. Brilliantly written and loosely matching the BBC television series of the same name, this book is written by an enthusiast whose work has set the standard for quality broadcasting ever since. I think in many ways, as a post-television form of art history, this gripping narrative is yet to be surpassed.

Each chapter is focused around a particular heading – for example ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’ or ‘The Worship of Nature’ – explores this topic referencing great works of art or philosophy or music or literature or engineering or science, and broadly follows a chronological timeline, weaving in and out freely. The essays teach a generally humanistic outlook, and one which argues ‘that order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction (pg.245).’ Through his authoritative enthusiasm for art and knowledge, Clark stresses the important role that ‘men of genius’ have played throughout history and advancements in learning. For Clark, its Michelangelo or Einstein or Shakespeare – the geniuses of this world – who carve out a path towards a better world. And his arguments are very convincing, well thought out and founded by years of intense reading.

However, as the subtitle suggests, this is A Personal View and one which is open to debate. To highlight this, even I myself – a newly converted Clark fan – think that Clark is a little bit biased towards his Catholic and Scottish roots (as he very well should be, if that’s where he’s preaching from). But for what little my thoughts are worth, I agree with many of Clark’s opinions and tastes – despite the fact that he was writing fourteen years before I was born. He is right to think that not everyone will agree with his personal view of European civilizaion, and that cynical intellectuals will continually seek to undermine those with a humanistic outlook. Personally speaking, what I continue to like and support, is Clark’s appreciation of courtesy and nature, his stance against those interested in vendetta and violence (again, see pg. 245), and the intellectual curiosity of his every sentence.

Search for Civilisation by Kenneth Clark online, buy the book from a bookshop or borrow it from your library.

51: Pamela by Samuel Richardson

In Books, Fiction on 19/12/2014 at 12:00 pm

Pamela by Samuel RichardsonPamela (1740) consists of a long series of letters and journals, and has been praised for setting a new standard of realism in English fiction. Subtitled or Virtue Rewarded, this rather long-winded story is about a young religious teenager, and the villainous sexual pursuit of her master Mr. B. Despite being imprisoned in a locked room and mistreated by the evil Mrs. Jewkes, Pamela finds sollice through the act of writing to her beloved parents. Understandably, she begins to write down suicidal thoughts, compounded when Mr. B attempts to rape her. With great bravery, the poor and down-trodden Pamela holds on to her virginity, refusing to become the mistress of Mr. B.

To the modern reader, volume one – which is where I left this book at page 279 – is a tale of eighteenth century sexual harassment and physical abuse. The shocking actions and behaivour of Mr. B are unacceptable, whatever society they take place in. A woman, from any social background or point in history, should never be forced to suffer under the hands of a man whose pride has been wounded. And yet distressingly, a working class woman, such as Pamela, would have been commonly treated as an unequal and subordinate member of society. Mr. B is given licence, by an unjust social system, to treat his servant as a sexual commodity, buying and selling her body as he chooses. The outstanding part of Pamela’s character, is her ability to resist her tormentors and to stay true to her moral upbringing. By sticking to her principles, and fighting her oppressors though the self-affirming power of the written word, Pamela rebels against the injustice she has been forced to endure.

As I finish the first half of this rather slow moving novel, I am impressed by the methods Pamela has used to resist oppression. Like Winston Smith in nineteen eighty-four by George Orwell, Pamela has fought to keep a hidden journal, writing to maintain some form of sanity and to give herself much needed therapy. As well as this written act of defiance against her oppressive master, she has powerlessly attempted to escape from her prison. I hope that in volume two, Pamela does not succumb to the abusive courting of Mr B., and that the poor girl is reunited with her mother and father.

From what I hear, this might be wishful thinking.

50: The Time Machine by H. G. Wells

In Books, Fiction, Science Fiction on 12/12/2014 at 12:00 pm

The Time Machine by H.G. WellsH.G Wells (1866-1946) was the most important exponent of the ‘scientific romance’, eclipsing the French writer Jules Verne, who had led the field since the 1860s. He was friends with Joseph Conrad and Henry James, once interviewed Joseph Stalin, and made a significant intellectual contribution to the early twentieth century, helping to found the League of Nations (1914 – 1920). An ethically concerned prophet of his time, he predicted the tank and the atomic bomb. Not only did he use his scientific education to make these predictions feel believable to the reader, Wells also produced highly entertaining stories that would sell millions. A giant of English literature, H.G Wells early novels, of which The Time Machine (1895) is the first, would spawn an entire genre, now known as science fiction.

I agree with Wells himself, who in a later preface said that he most admired the beginning section of his first book. The novel opens – ten years before Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity – with a scientific discussion about the fourth dimension Time, and how time could be, theoretically speaking, traversed. Talking after dinner, to a room full of intelligent men, the Time Traveler states that he has invented a time machine. Following several skeptical remarks, his hypothesis is demonstrated when a lever is pulled on a small mechanical device, spontaneously making it disappear from the room. The Time Traveler then takes his guests into the lab, to show them a larger version with a bicycle-like chair attached, and plainly says that he intends to explore time using his metallic looking machine. Just as our bodies can move from left to right, from thick to thin, and sometimes safely up in the sky (think air balloons), the Time Traveler’s body will cross all four dimensions: ‘Length, Breadth and Thickness’ (pg.4) and – Duration.

The idea of the Time Traveler character has been a staple of science fiction ever since – most recently seen in the film Interstellar (2014). Allowing characters to witness human civilization in the year 802,701 AD or to explore planets in far distant galaxies, gives a writer great scope for raising a social and political message. For example, the binary way in which the human species has evolved in The Time Machine raises concerns about the state of late Victorian England. In Wells’ realistically distant future (over eight-hundred thousand years hence), English society has become utterly divided along class lines. The Eloi live above ground, eating fruit and seeking pleasure; the Morlocks live in subterranean tunnels, trapped in darkness and feeding on flesh. It is a depiction of hell, where ignorance is rife, civilization is lost, and where socialist fears about class division are portrayed with Gothic horror.

Hugely imaginative and expertly weaved.

49: The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

In Adventure, Books, Fiction on 05/12/2014 at 12:00 pm

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest HemingwayErnest Hemingway (1899 – 1961) blew off his head with a shotgun, depressed and too old to fish. This biographical fact is tragic and upsetting; a sad end to a great novelist’s life. Hemingway traveled his whole life, and just could not cope with old age and infirmity. He was an adventurer, a hunter, and he liked to fish in his boat, particularly when he lived in Havana. Standing still and growing old would mean no adventuring, and no fishing. Maybe this is why he fell into a deep depression, chose the shotgun, and ended his brilliant life.

The Old Man and the Sea (1954) won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and is about one-hundred pages of continuous prose, without chapter breaks. It can be read in one sitting, and requires a rudimentary knowledge of tarpaulin (a term coined by William Golding to describe seafaring words). So much has been written about the book, that there really is nothing left to say. It is concise, has three main characters (one of which is a fish), and is about one man’s heroic battle against the sea – its waves, sharks and isolation.

I think Hemingway was a sexist and a drunk, but he could write a good story, and his books are fascinating because they take certain prejudices for granted. Men should be men, and woman should know their place. It is men who do heroic things; like kill sharks with just a harpoon, or hold the (fishing) line whilst their manly hands bleed with pain. Woman are at best observers to this macho world, occasionally asking ‘What’s that?’ (pg.99).

It’s like Robinson Crusoe, set on a boat, in the 1950’s, without the boring bits.