Review: Le Morte d’Arthur

Review: Le Morte d’Arthur
Le Morte d'Arthur: King Arthur and the Legends of the Round Table

Le Morte d’Arthur: King Arthur and the Legends of the Round Table by Thomas Malory

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It happened one Pentecost when King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table had all assembled at the castle of Kynke Kenadonne and were waiting, as was customary, for some unusual event to occur before settling down to the feast, that Sir Gawain saw through the window three gentlemen riding toward the castle, accompanied by a dwarf.

I fully expected to dislike this book. The prospect of five hundred pages of jousting knights struck me as endlessly tedious, and I only opened the book out of a sense of respect for its status as a classic. But immediately I found myself entranced. This is a thoroughly engrossing read. And I should not have been surprised, since it delves so heartily into the two staples of popular entertainment: sex and violence. Indeed, one of the most amusing aspects of this book is how completely out of harmony is the chivalric code with the Christian religion; the characters do nothing but mate and slaughter, while the name of “Jesu” is on everybody’s lips.

Sir Thomas Malory assembled Le Morte d’Arthur out of several pre-existing legends, some of which he translated from French manuscripts, with a few stories of his invention thrown in. His major innovation was to arrange these traditional tales into a semi-coherent order, beginning with Arthur’s ascension to the throne and ending with his death at the hands of his son. The result is a patchwork of stories nested within stories, all told at a pace which, to a modern reader, can seem ludicrous. Major developments occur on every page, one after the other, in a staccato rhythm which can make the stories appear bluntly humorous, even if it was not Malory’s intention.

The world depicted in these pages is so frankly unreal, the level of violence so constant and gratuitous, that its final impression is that of a cartoon: “They fought once more and Sir Tristram killed his opponent. Then, running over to his son, he swiftly beheaded him too.” Daily life is entirely hidden from view. There are no peasants, no merchants, no artisans; there are no friends or happy families. There are only questing knights, heavily armed men who are obsessed with challenging one another. And though they profess a knightly code of conduct, even the most chivalrous of knights are seen to be unscrupulous murderers and, with few exceptions, unrepentant adulterers. The hero of this book, Sir Launcelot, feels very few pangs of guilt for continuously sleeping with his liege’s wife, Gwynevere; and he is the best of knights.

But the characters are so flat, their actions so stereotyped, their lives so monotonously dramatic, that I found it impossible to view them as moral actors, praiseworthy or damnable. They are, rather, centers of this bizarre world that Malory constructs. And it certainly is an exciting place. Monsters, magicians, enchantresses, prophesies, curses, visions, and of course endless combat and manic love—the small isle of Britain can hardly contain it all. Sure, there are parts of the book that drag, particularly during the tournaments. Malory’s descriptions of combat are heavily stylized, consisting of the same basic elements over and over again; and, as in the Iliad, large engagements are pictured as a series of individual contests between heroic foes. But for the most part Malory combines his traditional motifs together dexterously, enlivening larger stories with innumerable episodes, creating a raucous forward momentum.

As a result of all this, I greatly enjoyed Le Morte d’Arthur, even if it was not for the reasons that Malory intended. I found the book delightfully absurd, almost parody of itself, a sort of whimsical fantasy novel. What Malory hoped to convey with these stories—whether they are supposed to represent a model of heroism, an ironic comment on violence, or a response to the Wars of the Roses—I cannot say; but his book is better than any television show I know.



View all my reviews

Review: Essays of E.B. White

Review: Essays of E.B. White

Essays of E.B. WhiteEssays of E.B. White by E.B. White
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is really no way for a man to put his arms around a big house plant and still remain a gentleman.

E.B. White’s name, along with Will Strunk’s, is now synonymous with good style. If that isn’t a compliment to a writer, I don’t know what is.

My first encounter with the duo was in my high school English class of junior year. My teacher was old-fashioned enough to believe that we should learn how to use punctuation. This came as a shock, since none of her predecessors had spared so much as a moment on a semicolon. It was with bewilderment and wonder, then, that I opened up The Elements of Style and encountered this sentence: “The colon has more effect than the comma, less power to separate than the semicolon, and more formality than the dash.” How often is so much instruction packed into so few words?

In college I picked up the habit of rereading Strunk and White at least once a year. Probably I should do so more often, since verbal profligacy—Strunk’s sworn enemy, the capital sin of writing—is something that I can’t seem to shake, no matter how often I try. One of the reasons I picked up this book was the hope that, by observing White at work, his example might serve where his precepts failed.

With White, the style is the man; and any discussion of his works inevitably becomes an analysis of his prose. To begin with, White is not what I’d call a vocal writer. A vocal writer is one whose writing seems to come alive and speak, whose writing cannot be read in your own voice, only in the author’s own accent. White’s writing, while personable, charming, and full of feeling, does not leap from the page into your living room. It is writerly writing.

His style is conversational, not aphoristic. His sentences are not pointed, his wit is not barbed, his lines are not militantly memorable. His writing is loose; it breathes like a cotton shirt; it is drafty like an old wooden cabin. You might say that his essays are a controlled ramble, a balancing act that looks like a casual stroll. They take their time. Like a scatterbrained errand boy, they pause in a thousand places for momentary rendezvous and covert dalliances before reaching their destinations.

White seldom speaks in abstractions, and hardly makes an argument. His writing is held together not by the logic of ideas but by the tissue of memory. This is partly why the style is unfilterable from the content. There is no thesis to take away. He is not trying to make a point, but to communicate his perspective, to encapsulate a piece of his personality.

White’s personality is delightful. Modest and gently humorous, he is animated by a curiosity for the little things that comprise his world. He can study a train schedule with avidity, he can spend hours gazing at a spider’s web, he can write poetry on the life-cycle of a pig. This is what makes him such a consummate essayist. In the humdrum facts and quotidian occurrences of life he hears music and meaning, and spiderlike weaves his own web to stitch them into a delicate structure:

As I sat at table, gnawing away at a piece of pie, snow began falling. At first it was an almost imperceptible spitting from the gray sky, but it soon thickened and came driving in from the northeast. I watched it catch along the edge of the drive, powder the stone wall, and whiten the surface of the dark frozen pond, and I knew that all along the coast from Kittery on, the worst mistakes of men were being quietly erased, the lines of their industrial temples softened, and U.S. 1 crowned with a cold, inexpensive glory

There is not much to be said against these essays, except what can be said against all stylists. Since what White says is less important than the way he says it, upon finishing the reader is left with nothing but echoes and aftertastes. Yet it is a delicious aftertaste, tart and tangy with a touch of smoke, and it whets my appetite for more.

View all my reviews

Quotes & Commentary #35: Bacon

Quotes & Commentary #35: Bacon

Revenge is a kind of wild justice; which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out.

—Francis Bacon, “Of Revenge”

The thirst for revenge is one of our ugliest, most satisfying, and most basic tendencies. It isn’t hard to see why.

The urge to revenge ourselves is a straightforward consequence of the urge to preserve ourselves. If somebody has hurt us in some way—by stealing a mate, by physical violence, or merely by a rude remark—then they have clearly shown themselves to be a threat, a dangerous person who can’t be trusted. The logical thing to do then becomes to neutralize this threat, to diminish or destroy his capacity to further hinder us.

This counter-attack will serve two purposes: first, it will harm the enemy, reducing his capacity to harm you in the future; second, by publically revenging yourself on an enemy, it will signal to others that you are not one to be trifled with, and that you will retaliate if anybody tries something funny. The practical benefits of revenge are thus preventative.

It is paradoxical, therefore, that revenge is not often thought of as oriented towards future security, but instead toward bygone injuries. The purpose of revenge, we feel in our bones, is to right the wrongs of the universe, to put the cosmic scale of justice back to zero, balancing a good action for a bad one.

When revenge is conceived this way, as retaliatory and not as preventative, then it can lead to absurdly unproductive actions, notable only for the resources they waste. In this connection, I can’t help thinking of Iñigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, whose obsessive quest to kill the murderer of his father consumed decades of his life.

Ask anyone to tell you about their ex, and there’s a good chance you will be met with the same vengeful fixation. The revenge intoxicated man is something of a narrative cliche, repeated ten thousand times in novels and television and movies. I would guess that revenge is second only to romantic love as the emotional engine of drama.

The folly of orienting your life around getting back at an enemy is clear to anyone with healthy sense of perspective. The best form of revenge, after all, is being happy, and all-consuming quests for personal justice are not conducive to happiness.

Even as a preventative measure—to incapacitate an enemy and prevent others from springing up—revenge often backfires. This is for two reasons.

First, if you attempt to render an enemy incapable of harming you in the future, there is always a risk you will fall short of full incapacitation. This is dangerous because, if you don’t succeed in fully disabling your enemy—whether psychologically, politically, logistically, socially, or physically—then there is a good chance that you will only embitter him, who will then counter-attack after he recovers his strength.

The second risk, related to the first, is the question of third-parties. If you succeed in fully disabling your enemy, there is still the possibility that he may have powerful friends. The friend of every enemy is another potential enemy, and can be mobilized against you. After successful revenge, you may yourself be the victim of a vengeful act by one of the enemy’s allies. If this revenge against you is successful, then one of your friends might retaliate against this new foe. 

This logic of attack and counterattack is how feuds start. Every act of vengeance can breed another, until half the world is embroiled in a bitter, pointless war against the other half. The most emblematic of these vindictive conflicts was the feud between the Hartfields and the McCoys, but you see this sort of thing in every section and at every scale of human life.

Revenge, as you can see, is a strategy of limited utility. It would, however, be untrue to say that revenge is always futile. In a situation similar to Hobbes’s “State of Nature,” vengeful acts are hardly avoidable. If there is no structure in place to resolve disputes, no laws and thus no method to punish law-breakers, then each party must enforce their own version of right and wrong.

Remember that, for each individual, taken separately, right and wrong are products of self-interest. In other words, in the absence of law, “right” is simply what helps you, “wrong” what hurts you; and without any legal system, you must enforce your own version of right and wrong, since no one else will.

In order to survive in an anarchic world, you must retaliate against those who interfere with your self-interest. If not, it will send the message to those around you that you are a pushover, and that they can take advantage of you without any risk; and you can only expect more enemies to interfere with you in the future. (I teach adolescents, so I know something about an anarchic world.) Some retaliation is therefore necessary. But care must be taken not to take vengeance too readily or too forcefully, or you may be the victim of revenge yourself.

Humans were born into anarchy and we still have the instincts that helped us get through it. This is why revenge comes to naturally to us, and why it tastes so sweet. But this emotional armory does not help us when we live in a society governed by law.

Law is a substitute for revenge, with all of its advantages and none of its defects. With recourse to the legal prosecution—organized retaliation, approved by the community—then we can neutralize threats and protect ourselves from future harm, with only a minimal chance that our enemies’ friends will try to get back at us. Law replaces private desire with public safety; and because the will of the community sanctions the law’s consequences, the law is joined with overwhelming force, to protect its adherents and attack its antagonists.

Living, as we all do, in states governed by law, the emotional urge to take revenge becomes a hindrance rather than an asset. If you are wronged, you can seek legal retribution. But if that is not available, then it is usually unwise to take matters into your own hands, since this makes it possible that legal retribution can be used against you.

True, there are many things that fall outside the confines of the law, the most notable of these being romance. And as expected,  vindictiveness is alive and well in matters of the heart. You still find people revenging themselves on their exes and their rivals, waxing indignant at perceived wrongs and organizing their friends in concerted actions of revenge. Having no social structure to resolve disputes, people fall into anarchy.

Yet I would argue that, even in these cases, revenge is a poor strategy. The revenge mentality is only justified, I think, in anarchic situations, specifically when the consequences for not retaliating are potentially severe. But in the case of romance, there is no chance that you will be seriously damaged. Heartbreak hurts, but it is seldom fatal.

In cases like these—where you can be sure of surviving any enemy attack—then I think another strategy is called for: returning love for hate. This sounds Biblical, but its justification is logical.

Keep in mind that I am talking of a situations like romance, in which harm cannot incapacitate either you or your enemies. (By “incapacitate” I mean render them unable to do future harm.) Since harming your enemies cannot disable them, it can only embitter them and potentially create new enemies; and since you cannot be disabled by being harmed, you have nothing to fear by not retaliating.

Returning harm for harm is thus clearly a poor long-term strategy, even if it might be satisfying in the short-term. You are left with two options: do nothing, or return help for harm. The first option seems superficially like the more logical one. By doing nothing, you don’t risk creating new enemies, and you don’t use resources to benefit your enemy that could be used elsewhere.

The second strategy, returning help for harm, is quite obviously more expensive, not to mention less satisfying. (Who likes to see their enemies happy?) Yet I think it is wiser as a long-term strategy, since it is by returning help for harm that enemies are converted into friends. A friend, after all, is somebody who acts in our interest; and it would be a stubborn enemy indeed who could persist in hating somebody who showed them only love and kindness.

Revenge, born of anarchy, is both a social and a personal ill. It is rendered obsolete as soon as people begin living in a society governed by law. It is a waste of resources and a poor survival strategy, and has no place in a just legal system or in the conduct of a wise individual.

2016 in Books

2016 on Goodreads2016 on Goodreads by Various
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This at least of flamelike our life has, that it is but the concurrence, renewed from moment to moment, of forces parting sooner or later on their ways.
—Walter Pater

So ends 2016, already a proverbially bad year. Both in the world at large and in my private life, this year has been one of disappointment and disruption. Things previously taken for granted have crumbled and collapsed; the inconceivable has happened, the impossible is already normal. History, instead of ending, has been frustratingly persistent.

Yet this year has easily been one of the best of my life. And this, not in spite of the disappointment and disruption, but because of it. Now I feel immunized against life’s bitter flavor, or at least toughened against it, since I have come to terms with impermanence. By this I do not mean that I have become embittered and fatalistic; rather, I have learned to enjoy myself more, to drink life’s pleasures to the dregs, to take the cash and let the credit go. Endings will do that; and what has this year been but a series of endings?

The basic theme of this year’s reading has been practice. I have endeavored, as far as I could, to read things that applied directly to my day-to-day life. This endeavor has taken many forms. One has been to read about Spain, her history, her people, and her culture, and this has been one of my most intellectually rewarding projects. Another was a flirtation with spiritual practices, during which I sampled Christian prayer and Hindu meditation, and became a daily meditator. This emphasis on practice even influenced my reading of fiction, leading me to focus on the moral lessons that could be learned from novels.

The mirror-image of this focus on finding the practical in my reading was finding the stories in my actions. This took the form of travel writing. I traveled like mad this year, dragging myself through dozens of cities, climbing walls, ransacking castles, profaning cathedrals with my presence, sampling strange dishes, trying to find a wink of sleep on buses, trains, and planes, and walking, walking, always walking, through fields and meadows, down dark alleys and cobblestone streets, and after each trip I tried to write something about what I did. I am not especially proud of this writing. But the very act of writing was a form of meditation, when I put my memories into order and reflected on what I saw. And just as in book reviewing, this retrospective travel writing allowed me to appreciate my travels more keenly. Indeed, I think travel writing is much like book reviewing, each city a different volume in the world’s library.

The biggest event in my reading and writing life, however, has been learning Spanish. Although very far from fluent, and still bumbling and confused much of the time, I have managed to learn enough Spanish to read at a high level. True, this reading is painful, slow, and difficult, but every day it gets easier, and some of the best books I’ve read this year have been in my new language.

There has been another result of living in Spain. Because of the abundance of beautiful monuments and museums, and perhaps the clearer sunlight and unclouded skies of Madrid, I have belatedly developed an appreciation of visual art. Before this year, I derived very little pleasure from paintings, sculptures, and architecture; but this year I have been moved and shaken to the core by what I have seen.

In that spirit, I will leave you with an image with which I began 2016. Last January I visited Granada to see the Alhambra. On a sunny but chilly day, I stood in the gardens of the Generalife and looked out across the hill at the Moorish palace. The Alhambra is the flower of an entire civilization, the product of a people who built up their knowledge year by year, slowly accumulating sophistication and resources until, in their hour of decadence, they could leave that enchanted place as a monument. Those people are now gone, their civilization vanished; and one day, hopefully far in the future, the Alhambra will crumble too.

I thought about this as I looked at the decaying walls, crowded on the hillside, slowly succumbing to the tooth of time, and felt melancholy in the winter breeze. How tragic, I thought, that nothing lasts. But now I don’t think of this as tragic. I think it is the very principle of beauty.

Thanks to all of you for being a part of this terrible and wonderful year. I look forward to the next one.

View all my reviews