Discover more from The Underline
Book Report August 2023
Here’s a small thing I love about living in New York: my neighborhood’s Free Store. Located in what was once shoulder parking since reclaimed when all the outdoor dining structures went up, it’s just a little shed basically. People drop clothes, knickknacks, and whatever else there. Most importantly, they drop off books.
Not to sound like a snob but past experience with little free libraries had taught me that they’re usually full of pretty weak stuff—mass market crime, YA I’ve never heard of, self-help. This is so not the case at my neighborhood’s free store. People here are reading good stuff! Liz recently came back from a walk past it with the classic Walter Kaufmann-edited Nietzsche reader and an introduction to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus with a gloriously 70s cover. I found a slightly water-damaged cheapie edition of Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that I sun-dried on the windowsill. And there’s so much else that we passed up that we could have taken. On my most recent pass there were multiple Franzen books, The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, Nathanael West, and lots else but our bookshelf is at capacity already.
So that’s cool. Definitely makes up for the crushing rent burden.
Thank you so much to everyone who has subscribed. It has been so gratifying to have this outlet for my thoughts and to share my enthusiasm for what I’m reading and it just really means a lot to know I’m reaching an audience. I think I’m pretty locked in to the book report plus one standalone piece per month for now. Always looking to write more but it’s hard to find the time; Patrick is on the verge of walking and I imagine that will only make life more hectic. Again though, I’m just so grateful that you all are reading—thanks so much.
The Farthest Shore, Ursula K. Le Guin, 1972
Seventeen years have passed between The Tombs of Atuan and this, the third Earthsea book. Ged has aged into his 40s and ascended to the position of Archmage, making him the supreme sorcerer of Earthsea, head of the magic school on Roke, and guardian of the world’s balance.
But strange reports are creeping in from the outer reaches telling that magic is failing. Wizardry in Earthsea comes from language—to know and speak a thing’s true name, in the old tongue of the dragons and the world’s making, is to have power over it. But wizards are finding themselves struck dumb, unable to recall or speak their words of power. Prince Arren, who comes to Roke seeking Ged’s help and ends up accompanying him on his journey to the source of the blight, gives a firsthand account. On his home island of Enlad, the court wizard was unable to complete an annual ritual of blessing and increase for the crops and livestock, having lost his words; Arren’s father, a middling sorcerer in addition to ruler, went to town and did it himself but returned home shaken, reporting, “I said the words, but I do not know if they had meaning.” Heady stuff, and the great terror of the writer.
So Ged and Arren set out, seeking they know not what. This is a grimmer Earthsea than we’ve yet seen. Their first stop is a grimy port town, now grown more chaotic and dangerous than ever, strewn with drug addicts and menaced by slavers. Ged has only grown more withdrawn with age—he tells Arren little of his thinking and offers no comfort to him against the hardship and uncertainty of their quest. Le Guin almost succeeds too much in putting us in Arren’s frustrated and discouraged mind as I found myself disappointed by Ged’s withholding silence—I wanted my buddy and I got this grumpy old man instead.
The thaw eventually comes, of course, and the second half of this book blossoms wonderfully. I won’t recap the whole plot, but the way it develops and unfolds its dimensions and layers of meaning and emotion is typically brilliant and culminates in a scene for the ages. Against the bleakness of a world leaking its light and life away, I was struck again by Le Guin’s true gift, which is to render goodness—to create characters who are rich and interesting without being conflicted about right and wrong. Over and over throughout her work, she staked an important and neglected moral position, that goodness is complex and multifaceted while evil is thin, inert, and weak—tenacious, cunning, and insidious, without a doubt!—but fundamentally brittle and impoverished and shallow.
The Golden Bough, James George Frazer, 1890
Frazer published this landmark work of anthropology, subtitled “A Study of Magic and Religion,” first in two volumes in 1890, then in three volumes in 1900, and then in twelve volumes from 1906 through 1915. He eventually prepared his own abridged edition which cut some of his most controversial passages, particularly his speculations about the non-divinity and essentially archetypal nature of Jesus Christ. I read the Oxford abridgement from the 90s that’s mostly a condensation of the long third edition but which also restores those cut sections; it still runs 800 pages.
There’s far too much material to cover in full but in broad strokes, Frazer’s inquiry is about the development of belief systems and human understanding, which he traces as a three step sequence: from magic to religion to science. He frames magic as any ritual practice that seeks to influence nature by imitation and it’s on such examples that he mostly dwells. He looks at spring festivals and rites intended to stimulate crop growth and related ceremonies “casting out Death” after his winter reign. This leads to examinations of human impersonations of spirits of vegetation and abundance, which descend into impersonations of gods and goddesses. He links, for instance, the myth of Persephone and the seasons to similar beliefs across Egypt and the Near East and eventually locates in all of them the same rudimentary myth expressed differently across cultures.
Now I thought this book was a lot of fun and I think it’s still worth reading, if only for the immense influence it had writers and thinkers like Freud (Totem and Taboo are two major concepts here) and Joseph Campbell, to name just a couple. But there’s no denying that it has a lot of problems. I haven’t dug into this too much but I suspect almost everything Frazer asserts has probably been rejected by later anthropologists. In particular he believes that all primitive societies the world over practiced human sacrifice as a routine part of their magical and religious ceremonies, reasoning that the effigy versions we have evidence of must have arisen as a gentler substitute to older, bloodier rites. I find this doubtful. He is additionally hyper-fixated on tree worship and related veneration of harvest deities and always finds his way back to that point. Thus in addition to uncontroversial crop gods like Demeter and Persephone, Osiris and Isis end up being “corn-spirits” as well. In the Norse pantheon he finds that Balder was originally an oak spirit—it’s all rather overdetermined. He also generally conducts his investigation by reasoning, “Well if the logic was such in this culture, a similar explanation must apply to this other one,” rather than embracing the wonderfully multifarious nature of the human imagination. His argument becomes so exceptionally tenuous, resting on such a long string of “If I am correct about this, then this must also be the case” that even the most sympathetic reader will have trouble accepting some of his conclusions.
I love mythology and I love imagining what the Druids were up to at Stonehenge so I don’t regret slogging through The Golden Bough off and on for the last six months, but it’s certainly a homework book. Even if you go in with overwhelming enthusiasm for this sort of thing or a concrete goal for what you want to get out of it, you will almost certainly be reduced to the most cursory skimming during certain sections. Other parts are genuinely beautiful. As an accurate portrait of mankind and its beliefs, it almost certainly fails; as a framework for considering the meaning of ritual and as a wellspring of creative inspiration, it’s a titanic work.
Persecution and the Art of Writing, Leo Strauss, 1952
Well, it was only a matter of time before Strauss popped up here. Born in 1899 and died in 1973, he was a classicist and political philosopher who taught at the University of Chicago. Many of his students went on to be big-time neocons and worse, which has complicated his legacy. More on this some other time but as far as I’ve read in his oeuvre—this book and his Natural Right and History—his conservatism manifests in his preference for the ancients over the moderns, in his denigration of historicism and relativism in favor of more classic principles, which is something rather different from how we generally mean it today. I don’t think Strauss would have been on board for the Reagan revolution either.
Anyway, one of the ideas Strauss is best known for is his theory of esoteric writing; this book is the fullest presentation of it. Throughout history, the idea goes, thinkers have had, for one reason or another, cause to fear that their ideas would bring down the wrath of the ruling regime, resulting in persecution or worse. The prototypical example being of course the execution of Socrates. Therefore it’s reasonable to suspect that philosophers might hide their most radical propositions, embedding them in the text through incongruities, intentional defects of argument, and contradictory statements in order to protect themselves while still getting their ideas into deserving hands. Ideally any insufficiently sophisticated readers will scan the surface of the work and come away unperturbed while those properly initiated into the philosophical tradition—and therefore openminded and trustworthy—will see past the obstructions to the truth of the matter.
Strauss is talking specifically about treatises but in a major way what this idea boils down to is reading them like literature. Rather than simply reading along and taking their explicit words as the meaning of the writing, Strauss is asking us to think holistically about these works and juxtapose disconnected passages to discover the points of contradiction and obscurity, on the basis that the full meaning of the text arises as something greater than its mere statements.
Maybe it’s just my education at a fairly Straussian institution talking but this was obvious to me? I remember so clearly the transition from reading Plato to Aristotle and being frustrated that there wasn’t an interlocutor anymore to evaluate whether what he was saying was correct before realizing that as the reader I was now cast in that role. It had become my job to play Glaucon and after every paragraph say Yes Socrates or No Socrates. (Of course this casts an extra layer of complexity on the actual Platonic dialogues as the reader hovers overhead evaluating the entire dramatic situation but that’s another matter.) This is, again, just basically reading alertly—inquisitive, receptive, skeptical but not dismissive, looking for the coherence of the argument into something larger.
After presenting the general idea, Strauss demonstrates the power of his approach and the amount of effort required to do it properly. If the principles are obvious, the execution is anything but. The three works he examines in depth are Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, Halevi’s Kuzari, and Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise. These are funny picks to me because Maimonides was one of my least favorite readings in college and Spinoza is my go-to example of a book I know I read and discussed but have genuinely no memory of (I’ve never read the Halevi). So I was doubling impressed by Strauss’s dazzling feats of observation and exegesis in the following essays. They are fascinating for what he says about the texts but far more so for watching the way he excavates their authors’ statements and sifts through them to separate the esoteric gold from the exoteric sand.
Now any book that puts forward a theory of writing has opened itself to the question of whether it itself is written in that way. That is, is Persecution and the Art of Writing a piece of esoteric writing? After all, in the Maimonides essay Strauss notes his failure in the Guide to define two key terms until the very end; in the Halevi essay Strauss commits the same sin. He also talks at length about the secret truths the philosophers are at pains to reveal through their esoteric writing but never articulates what they might be. So the answer is yes, probably the book is esoteric to one degree or another. But here’s a question: by discussing it have I made this newsletter esoteric as well? (No.)
The Odyssey, Homer, Emily Wilson translation
One potential definition of a Great Book is one that speaks differently to you at different points in your life. Not that The Odyssey’s canonical status is in question but rereading it these last two months reminded me how potently literature can change as you do. The Odyssey is first an adventure story full of magic and monsters that has enthralled children for millennia—the original fantasy novel—then it’s a complex tableau of ancient society and the descent from the mythical to the real (Odysseus, without a drop of divine blood, supplants Agamemnon, Achilles, and Ajax—the triumph of the wordsmith over the fighter), and now, past age 30, reading it to my son, it’s changed again.
There’s always that dumbass critique of Odysseus that goes “Why is he so intent on getting home? Why not just stay with Calypso? He’s offered the chance to become immortal and sleep with a goddess forever and and he’d rather cry on the beach? What’s wrong with this guy?” Reader, I get it now. Beautiful and heavenly as Calypso may be, she’s simply not Penelope. But beyond that, Odysseus weeps for his son. He was forced to leave Telemachus as a swaddled baby to sail for Troy and has lost twenty years waiting to return home. I couldn’t fathom this part of Odysseus’s pain and longing until now. It’s wrenching to think of enduring this part of his fate. He makes it home, yes, but there’s no retrieving that lost time or making up to Telemachus his absence in his upbringing.
I wonder how many people alive have actually recited the entirety of the Odyssey aloud. It goes into my bag of fun facts/flexes that I have now done so. I will say, it exposes some of the weaknesses of the text: it’s repetitive, characters give instructions in painful detail, the Ithaca section takes forever to get going. But there’s so much to love as well. Wilson does a great job with character voices to distinguish the way they speak and their inner qualities. Her Telemachus is a particular standout—he’s petulant and immature, betraying with every line his unreadiness to rule in his father’s stead.
Of course, there are parts of the Odyssey that aren’t suitable for a baby. Don’t worry, I skipped essentially the entirety of Book 22 because the slaughter of the suitors is really rough. But I did read the whole Cyclops scene verbatim I think. It’s cool don’t worry about it, he’s fine. The other side of this are the passages of pure magic. Circe turning Odysseus’ men to swine, the trip to Hades, Menelaus wrestling Proteus—it’s simply wondrous and I hope Patrick was as enchanted as I was to read it to him.
Subscribe for hidden wisdom and secret teachings