Review: Autobiography (Darwin)

Review: Autobiography (Darwin)

The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809–82The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809–82 by Charles Darwin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have attempted to write the following account of myself, as if I were a dead man in another world looking back at my own life. Nor have I found this difficult, for life is nearly over with me. I have taken no pains about my style of writing.

This is the quintessential scientific autobiography, a brief and charming book that Darwin wrote “for nearly an hour on most afternoons” for a little over two months. Originally published in 1887—five years after the naturalist’s death—it was somewhat censored, the more controversial religious opinions being taken out. It was only in 1958, to celebrate the centennial of The Origin of Species, that the full version was restored, edited by one of Darwin’s granddaughters, Nora Barlow.

The religious opinions that Darwin expresses are, nowadays, not enough to raise eyebrows. In short, his travels and his research slowly eroded his faith until all that remained was an untroubled agnosticism. What is interesting is that Darwin attributes to his loss of faith his further loss of sensitivity to music and to grand natural scenes. Apparently, in later life he found himself unable to experience the sublime. His scientific work also caused him to lose his appreciation for music, pictures, and poetry, which he heartily regrets: “My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts,” he says, and attributes to this the fact that “for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry.”

The most striking and lovable of Darwin’s qualities is his humility. He notes his lack of facility with foreign languages (which partially caused him to refuse Marx’s offer to dedicate Kapital to him), his terrible ear for music, his difficulty with writing, his incompetence in mathematics, and repeatedly laments his lack of higher aesthetic sensitivities. His explanation for his great scientific breakthrough is merely a talent for observation and dogged persistence. He even ends the book by saying: “With such moderate abilities as I possess, it is truly surprising that thus I should have influenced to a considerable extent the beliefs of scientific men on some important point.” It is remarkable that such a modest and retiring man should have stirred up one of the greatest revolutions in Western thought. Few thinkers have been more averse to controversy.

This little book also offers some reflection on the development of his theory—with the oft-quoted paragraph about reading Malthus—as well as several good portraits of contemporary thinkers. But the autobiography is not nearly as full as one might expect, since Darwin skips over his voyage on the Beagle (he had already written an excellent book about it) and since the second half of his life was extremely uneventful. For Darwin developed a mysterious ailment that kept his mostly house-bound, so much so that he did not even go to his father’s funeral. The explanation eluded doctors in his time and has resisted firm diagnosis ever since. But the consensus seems to be that it was at least in part psychological. It did give Darwin a convenient excuse to avoid society and focus on his work.

The final portrait which emerges is that of a scrupulous, methodical, honest, plainspoken, diffident, and level-headed fellow. It is easy to imagine him as a retiring uncle or a reserved high school teacher. That such a man, through a combination of genius and circumstance—and do not forget that he almost did not go on that famous voyage—could scandalize the public and make a fundamental contribution to our picture of the universe, is perhaps the greatest argument that ever was against the eccentric genius trope.

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Review: Two Books by Henry Adams

Review: Two Books by Henry Adams

The Education of Henry Adams : An AutobiographyThe Education of Henry Adams : An Autobiography by Henry Adams

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Once more! this is a story of education, not of adventure! It is meant to help young men—or such as have intelligence enough to seek help—but it is not meant to amuse them.

Everyone agrees that this book is difficult and odd. An autobiography of an American man of letters, the son of a diplomat, grandson of a president, historian, journalist, secretary, all told in the third person, written for his private circle of friends. At once claiming to be the story of one man’s life, a critique of the educational methods of the nineteenth century, a parable of the fin de siècle, and a new theory of history, the book is, in reality, none of the above, and is instead the sigh of an old man looking back on his life.

I must admit that I found this book exasperating in the extreme. One quickly gets the impression that, when Adams uses the word “education,” it is meaningless or worse than meaningless. He goes to London with his father, and becomes intimately acquainted with the workings of British politics, all during the difficult years of the American Civil War, and complains that he received no useful “education.” He teaches at Harvard for seven years, a professor of Medieval History, and concludes: “On the whole, he was content neither with what he had taught nor with the way he had taught it. The seven years in teaching seemed to him lost.” He becomes a journalist in the capital, and then works on a seven-volume history of America during Jefferson’s presidency; and still, after all this, he insists he has received no useful “education.” And after every phase of his life, when Adams rings the same gloomy bell, the reader asks: “What on earth would satisfy you, Mr. Adams?”

Another exasperating element is the degree to which Adams assumes a familiarity with the intricacies of 19th century politics. Reading the chapters when he was in England felt like reading a grocer’s shopkeeping books. It was disjointed, jerky, and, worst of all, didn’t explain a thing. At first, I assumed this difficulty resulted from Adams’s originally writing the book for his circle of friends; but the obscurity goes even further: it is as if Adams wrote the book only for himself. The book swings wildly in tone from dry note-taking to half-formed and half-coherent abstractions, all written in a prose style lucidly opaque.

Adams also gives the impression of being a bit muddle-headed. He spends some time talking about Lyell’s geology and Darwin’s evolution, and it soon becomes apparent he understands neither. He goes on long tangents about “force,” while it is obvious that what Adams means by that word is as meaningless as what he means by “education.” He ends the book on a very confused and seemingly pointless attempt to give a mathematical explanation of history, but never reaches above vague commonplaces, endlessly repeated. I seldom came across an insight of his that was insightful.

In short, the impression was that Adams had taken all of the stuff of his life—his doings, his friendships, his thoughts, his career, his background—and left it out to bake in the hot sun, until all the savor and succulence was scorched out of it, leaving only a tough jerky that wearies the jaw in the attempt to chew the husk.

Still, after all this, I must admit that this book has a strange power. There were times I could not put it down, even when I felt I wasn’t understanding a thing. Adams always seemed to be only two steps away from a great insight, an astounding thought; but he never quite reaches it, which is why the book can seem so tragic. He was always searching and never finding; and the reader is left in doubt what he was searching for, and whether anyone will ever find it. In his elegant, knotty prose, he turns out aphorism after aphorism—all apparently insightful, but in reality empty—popping like soap bubbles leaving nothing but air. And what saves the book is that Adams knew this, and yet could do nothing better.


Mont-Saint-Michel and ChartresMont-Saint-Michel and Chartres by Henry Adams

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

 

Saint Thomas did not allow the Deity the right to contradict Himself, which is one of man’s chief pleasures.

I read this book in preparation for my visit to Chartres, which was just last week. I had not been very fond of Adam’s most famous book, his Education, but I had high hopes that his writing would improve when his focus shifted to something other than his own life. Yet I have found the two books discouragingly similar.

As a stylist Adams appears, at least superficially, quite strong. His sentences are clear and mostly elegant, occasionally epigrammatic. But stylistic problems appear on a higher level of organization. Both Adam’s autobiography and this book were not originally written for publication, but for his close circle of family and friends; and as a result, Adams seems to explain everything except what most needs to be explained. His ideas float against a background that he does not provide, making his train of thought appear out of context. In this he reminds me of George Santayana, who similarly omits to signal where he is going and why he is going there, though Adams lacks the philosopher’s occasionally forays into sublimity to compensate. The result is rather irritating, superficially clear but actually opaque, like overhearing an eloquent old man talk to himself.

But my gravest complaint about Adams, both here and in his autobiography, is his tendency to organize his books around central ideas that I find vague and vapid. In the Education, this takes the form of his armchair theorizing about “force,” the Dynamo, and the laws of physics as applied to history, and even more prominently in his main theme of “education,” his conception of which remains unclear to the very end. In this book it mainly takes the form of his insistence that “The Virgen” was personally involved in the construction of Chartres Cathedral. To be fair, he tends to treat these ideas (and himself) with a considerable amount of irony; but the irony does not amount to full satire, leaving it unclear whether he is merely kidding or if he intends these ideas to be somehow insightful.

Again, just as in his autobiography, here the dominant mood is notalgia. Though extremely successful, Adams apparently felt out of harmony with his world and yearned for a time when society was simpler and more unified. This leads him quite naturally to the Middle Ages, to the poetry, to the great cathedrals, and to the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, which unite art and science into a seamless whole. Consequently this book, far from being historical analysis, is more of a personal appreciation of the French Medieval period, spinning off into fantasy or speculation wherever it suits him. This self-indulgent tone is grating to somebody trying to learn about Chartres.

Now that I have gotten all this criticism out of the way, I must admit that the book, like his autobiography, has its merits and charms. He is obviously fond of this period, and so writes in a tone of enthusiastic admiration that proves quite infectious. This keen appreciation for the “spirit” of the Medieval period is the book’s most useful attribute, helping to put the reader in the mindset to appreciate the epoch’s art, poetry, and thought. I found Adams’s chapters on architecture, specifically on Chartres, to be stuffy and difficult to follow—for here, as in his chapters on British politics in the Education—he assumes a level of familiarity (specifically about the French royal family) that the reader is unlikely to possess. But when context is provided by an external source, Adams can be quite pleasant. When I visited Chartres, and saw its magnificent stained glass for myself, his chapters ceased to be so vexing.

The chapters I most enjoyed were the final three, about philosophy—specifically, Abelard, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Thomas Aquinas—since here my background was not so lacking. Yet even here it must be said that Adams’s comments are more in the spirit of an amateurish aficionado rather than a serious student. He interprets Aquinas as an “artist” rather than a thinker, repeatedly disqualifying himself from passing sentence on Aquinas’s arguments (though he says some perceptive things in spite of this).

By contrast I thought the chapters on poetry were the worst, since they mainly consisted of excerpts of poetry, in Latin or Medieval French, with repeated assurances of their high quality and their untranslatable beauty. (His mostly bland translations serve to prove his point.) But in general Adams’s approach to poetry is the same as his approach to architecture and theology, mostly confined to passionate declarations of affection, without much attempt at analysis or insight.

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(Cover photo by Benh LIEU SONG; licensed under CC BY 2.5; taken from Wikimedia Commons.)

Review: The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini

Review: The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini

The Autobiography Of Benvenuto CelliniThe Autobiography Of Benvenuto Cellini by Benvenuto Cellini

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All men of whatsoever quality they be, who have done anything of excellence, or which may properly resemble excellence, ought, if they be persons of truth and honesty, to describe their life with their own hand

Why we like or dislike someone, why we admire or despise them, why we are happy or annoyed by their conversation, are questions more difficult than they look. After reading this book, for example, I have grown quite enamored of Benvenuto Cellini, even though he had many ugly sides to his character—besides being criminally immoral. These flaws were unmistakable and impossible to ignore; and yet he had one quality that allowed me, and has allowed many others, to grow fond of him nevertheless: charisma.

Born in Florence in 1500, Benvenuto Cellini was a goldsmith and a sculptor, considered one of the most important artists of Mannerism. During his lifetime he traveled all around Italy and France, making rings, necklaces, salt shakers, statues, fountains, buttons, lapels, and coins for rich and powerful patrons. Perhaps his most famous work is the statue of Perseus standing over the body of Medusa, her bloody head held aloft in his hand, which can be found in Florence. As far as I know, the only work of his I have personally seen is his fine crucifix in the Escorial near Madrid. But despite Cellini being, to quote his book, “the greatest artist ever born in his craft,” he is nowadays mostly remembered for his autobiography, which is without doubt the most important work of its kind from the Renaissance.

Cellini wrote his autobiography in a simple, matter-of-fact style. His main focus was on his development and career as an artist, but he also relates many stories from his personal life along the way. And from this narration emerges a remarkable portrait of the man himself.

The most conspicuous part of Cellini’s character is his arrogance. He says near the beginning “in a work like this there will always be found occasion for natural bragging,” but occasional is hardly a fitting description of his boasting. Every page is stuffed with self-praise. He compliments himself for his robust constitution, his strong body, his keen mind, his kind nature, his skill in combat, and most of all his artistic prowess. The only artist he thinks equal to himself is Michelangelo, and with few exceptions he considers his rivals to be incompetent dunces, or worse.

It does not take shrewd judgment to read between the lines of this autobiography. Cellini only admits to being in the wrong once in his life. (After taking sexual advantage of one of his models, he viciously beat her. He felt guilty because the day before he had forced her at gunpoint to marry her lover. The next day, he beat her up again.) Other than this, Cellini would have you believe he is a decent, honest, respectful man and that all his enemies were motivated by jealousy or pure wickedness. And yet, the speed and consistency with which he finds himself surrounded by enemies, and the frequency with which he gets into disputes and fights, makes it painfully clear that he must have been a bellicose and infuriating fellow.

The degree to which Cellini was blind to his faults is both terrifying and oddly endearing. That someone could be so unconcerned with the morality of his actions or with the justice of his behavior is an instructive lesson in human nature. (And that he is still likable is another lesson.) Cellini narrates the vilest deeds in such a mundane tone that you almost forget what he is talking about. Here is Benvenuto’s forth murder, the killing of Pompeo, a rival goldsmith:

I drew a little dagger with a sharpened edge, and breaking the line of his defenders, laid my hand upon his breast so quickly and coolly, that none of them were able to prevent me. Then I aimed to strike him in the face; but fright made him turn his head round; and I stabbed him just beneath the ear. I only gave two blows, for he fell stone dead by the second. I had not meant to kill him; but as the saying goes, knocks are not dealt by measure.

(Besides the tone of that passage, the most amazing thing for me is that he aimed for Pompeo’s head but professed he didn’t mean to kill him. The guy was seriously nuts.)

When I reread the above excerpt, I think I ought to loathe such a man, who can both commit a murder and then talk about it so coolly. But Cellini’s ego and his personality are so exaggerated that I have trouble thinking of him as a real person. With all his misadventures, crimes, vanities, boasts, and disputes, he seems more like a character invented by Dickens or Cervantes than a man I can identify with. In this, I couldn’t help being reminded of Trump, who is relentlessly egotistical and cruel, but who escapes normal consequences because he seems more like a caricature than a human being.

Because Cellini is focused on his own doings, the world of the Renaissance stays mostly in the background. Sometimes it is easy to forget the setting entirely, since Benvenuto is one of those rare, timeless personalities. But at other times, the great difference between his world and mine was simply alarming.

One night during dinner, for example, his friend brought a prostitute; out of respect for his friend, Benvenuto refused her advances; but after those two went to bed, Benvenuto seduced the prostitute’s 14-year-old serving girl. The next morning he woke up with the bubonic plague. Another time, when he was sick, the best doctors in Rome instructed him that he couldn’t drink any water. His condition got worse and worse—doubtless due to dehydration—until finally, disobeying their orders, he drank a pitcher of water and felt immediately better. The doctors were stunned. The doctors had better luck on another occasion, though. When Benvenuto got a metal splinter in his eye, a doctor successfully flushed it out by slicing open live pigeons and letting their blood rush into his eye.

These are just a taste of some of Benvenuto’s anecdotes. His life was enviously exciting—indeed it’s rather amazing he lived so long, since he had many close calls with death. When he wasn’t being poisoned or fighting off highway bandits, he was suffering illness, injury, and imprisonment. And amidst all this, he managed to attain the highest reputation and skill as an artist, and also to write the most important autobiography of his century. If being a Renaissance Man means living life to the fullest, Cellini is a prime example.

If you are planning on taking a trip to Italy, or just want to learn more about the Renaissance, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I listened to the audiobook version while I was in Rome. Cellini was narrating the time he defended the Castel Sant’Angelo during the 1527 sack of Rome. As Cellini boasted about his heroic deeds—he would have you believe he defended the castle single-handedly—I turned a corner and found myself face to face with that very castle (see above). It was one of the most memorable moments of my reading life.

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Review: Rousseau’s Confessions

Review: Rousseau’s Confessions

ConfessionsConfessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are times when I am so unlike myself that I could be taken for someone else of an entirely opposite character.

This book begins with a falsehood and only escalates from there. Rousseau, prone to hyperbole, boldly asserts that his autobiography is without precedent. Nevermind St. Augustine’s famous autobiography, which shares the same name; and ignore the works of St. Teresa, Benvenuto Cellini, and Montaigne. I suppose this sort of boastful exaggeration shouldn’t count for much; after all, Milton began Paradise Lost by saying he was attempting “Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.” Nevertheless, the second part of Rousseau’s assertion, that his enterprise would “find no imitator,” is even more indisputably false than the first one. This book has found nothing if not imitators.

Rousseau’s Confessions is really two distinct works, the first covering his childhood to his early adulthood, the second up to age fifty-three. For my part, the first is far better, and far more original. Like any modern self-psychoanalyzer, Rousseau traces his personality to formative events in his childhood—quite unusual at the time, I believe. Even more surprising is how frankly sexual is Rousseau’s story. He begins by describing the erotic pleasure he derived from being spanked by his nanny, relates a few homosexual encounters (undesired on his part), and frequently mentions masturbation. Much of the first book is simply prolonged descriptions of all the women he’s had anything to do with.

The second part is less striking, sometimes dull, but still full of interesting episodes. Rousseau has much to say about his career as a composer, something of which I had no idea before reading this book. He begins his career as a musician as a bungler and a phony, but eventually succeeds in closing the gap between his pretensions and abilities. It isn’t long before Rousseau finds himself stitching together some musical and lyrical fragments from Jean-Philippe Rameau and Voltaire into Les fêtes de Ramire, a one-act opera; and he soon becomes Rameau’s enemy, because (Rousseau is convinced) Rameau is jealous of Rousseau’s musical powers.

Rousseau also relates the famous tale of his children. After taking a seamstress, Thérèse, as his mistress, and having several children by her, he persuades her (and himself) to give them up to the foundling hospital. This is probably the most infamous episode of Rousseau’s life, and has provided plentiful fuel for those wish to discredit his ideas on education and child-rearing. As Rousseau grows old and becomes a man of letters, he accumulates ever more enemies, including Diderot and Grimm, who (Rousseau asserts) plotted relentlessly against him, partially because Rousseau scorned city life and modern luxuries.

I can’t help comparing this book with another great autobiography I recently read, that of Benvenuto Cellini. The two men are in many ways opposites. Cellini is a man of the world; his eye is turned exclusively outward; he is all action; he is confident in high society; he rarely blushes and never admits a fault. Rousseau is a man of sentiment and feeling, absorbed in his private world, often timid, awkward, and unsure of himself, and who often makes self-deprecating remarks.

And yet, the more I read, the more I saw strong similarities between these two self-chronicles. They are both massive egotists. If I were to write my autobiography, I’d hope that it would include some nice portraits of people in my life; but in these books there is no compelling portrait of anyone except their authors.

Like many narcissists, their vanity is easily wounded. They are obsessed with slights, and consider anyone who doesn’t show the proper respect to be, not only inconsiderate, but downright villainous. They both make enemies quickly, wherever they go. And yet, the fact that so many people they meet turn against them does not prompt them to pause and reflect; rather, they attribute all antipathy to envy, jealousy, or pure malevolence. Both have persecution complexes; both are paranoid; and both entertain extremely high opinions of their own virtues and abilities. In Rousseau’s own words, he is among “the best of men.”

It occurs to me that the urge to write an autobiography, in an age when autobiography was anything but common, requires a certain amount of narcissism. What surprises me is that these two men, Cellini and Rousseau, are also quite oblivious of themselves and utterly unable to question their own opinion. This is in strong contrast to Montaigne, somebody who Rousseau explicitly scorns:

I have always laughed at the false ingenuousness of Montaigne, who, feigning to confess his faults, takes great care not to give himself any, except such as are amiable; whilst I, who have ever thought, and still think myself, considering everything, the best of men, felt there is no human being, however pure he may be, who does not internally conceal some odious vice.

There may be a grain of truth in accusing Montaigne of attributing only amiable faults to himself (though reports by his contemporaries coincide remarkably well with Montaigne’s self-report). Even so, Montaigne had a quality that Rousseau eminently lacked: the ability to jump out of his own perspective. When playing with his cat, Montaigne paused to reflect “who knows whether she is amusing herself with me more than I with her?” And in that simple question—pushing himself out of his own skull, seeing himself from the eyes of his cat—he transcends all of the searching self-analysis of Rousseau. Rousseau’s total inability to, even for one moment, question his righteousness and his enemies’ wickedness is what makes him, by the end of the book, nearly intolerable—at least for me.

So much for Rousseau’s personality. As a portrait of a man, this book is interesting enough; but as the confessions of one of the most influential thinkers in the 18th century, it is far more so. Rousseau, whatever his faults, was undeniably remarkable. To paraphrase Will Durant, Rousseau, with almost no formal education, abandoned early by his father, wandering incessantly from place to place, setting himself as an enemy of the dominant currents of thought and art of the time, the avowed antagonist both of Rameau, the foremost composer, and Voltaire and Diderot, the foremost writers—this Rousseau nevertheless managed to become the decisive influence on the next century.

Cases like Rousseau’s make me stop and reflect about the nature of intellectual work. Neither a strong reasoner nor an adept researcher—any competent professor could poke gaping holes in his arguments and cite reams of factual inaccuracies—it is Rousseau, not they, who is still being studied at college campuses all over the world, and who will be in the foreseeable future. Indisputably he was an excellent stylist, though this hardly accounts for his canonical status.

What sets Rousseau apart, intellectually at least, is his enormous originality. Rousseau himself realizes this:

I know my heart, and have studied mankind; I am not made like anyone I have been acquainted with, perhaps like no one in existence; if not better, I am least claim originality, and whether Nature did wisely in breaking the mold with which she formed me, can only be determined after having read this work.

Rousseau wrote in a way no one had before. His ideas were fresh, his attitude unique. Although he had influences, there is nothing derivative about him. The more I read and the longer I live, the more am I drawn to the conclusion that the ability to form new ideas—genuinely new, not just re-interpretations of old ones—is one of the rarest human faculties. Rousseau had this faculty in abundance. It is impossible to read him within the context of his time and not be utterly astounded at his creativity.

It is just this sort of creativity, the thing we most celebrate and praise, that seems impossible to teach— impossible by definition, since you cannot teach somebody to think totally outside the bounds of your own paradigm. You cannot, in other words, teach someone to transcend everything you teach them. You can teach somebody to solve problems creatively; but how can you teach somebody to examine problems previously unimagined? This is just one of the paradoxes of education, I suppose.

In any case, Rousseau is just another example of those canonical thinkers who could never get tenure nowadays. It’s a funny world.

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