March 19, 2014

Some people never lose their childlike sense of wonder. Elizabeth Goudge, one of my favorite English writers, never lost the ability to think as a child, no matter how old she got.

Just so, Emily Dickinson, America’s greatest poetess, enchants us still, well over a hundred years later, because she never lost that trait.

Have you ever wondered how you’d respond to a child’s queries about something as prosaic as mornings?

Following is Dickinson’s try at it:


“Will there really be a morning?
Is there such a thing as day?
Could I see it from the mountains
If I were as tall as they?

Has it feet like water-lilies?
Has it feathers like a bird?
Is it brought from famous countries
Of which I never heard?

Oh, some scholar! Oh, some sailor!
Oh, some wise man from the skies!
Please to tell a little pilgrim
Where the place called morning lies!”

–“Morning,” published in
St. Nicholas, May 1891

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Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables”

September 25, 2013

Last month, I let you relax, walk the beach, and regenerate your batteries. But now autumn is here, school is in session, and it’s time to lower the boom on you! It’s time for one of the world’s greatest heavyweights. Heavyweights indeed: depending on a number of variables, an unabridged copy comes to somewhere between 1400 and 2000 pages.

But remember this: Don’t ever waste your time reading an abridged copy of any book worth reading! I always wonder when I look at an abridged book, How can any human being have the gall to conclude that s/he knows more about what is important in a book than the person who wrote it?

So I expect you to read every word in the unabridged version. But I am not a Simon Legree: Because I want you to take the time to really savor the book, I am permitting you to take two months to complete it. There won’t be another Book of the Month until December. First of all, purchase an unabridged you can mark up, reason being Les Miserables is one of the most quotable books ever written. An additional word of warning: In recent years more and more publishers have committed what I call a crime: publishing abridged versions of classic books without indicating inside the book that it is incomplete. So, do your homework in this respect.

* * *

Victor Marie Hugo (1802-1885), French poet, novelist, dramatist, and leader of the Romantic Movement in France, lived life on the grand scale. Since his father was a Bonaparte general, Hugo’s early years were lived in luxury; but then came the fall of the Napoleonic Empire, and life got much harder. Suffice it to say that he is generally considered to be one of the towering figures in world literature.

Since it would take years to fully digest all that Hugo accomplished, I won’t even try, leaving such a fascinating journey to you. Most of the growth in my own life has resulted from just such side trips of discovery as I am suggesting to you now.

If you only tackle a few of Hugo’s books, I suggest you seriously consider The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Toilers of the Sea.

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Hugo spent fourteen years laboring on this monstrous book. I don’t want to deprive you of the pleasure of discovering the novel on your own, so I certainly won’t spoil your reading pleasure by giving away the plot of what is almost universally considered to be one of the greatest novels ever written. I might even go out on a limb by admitting I have yet to read a more powerful or deeply moving book than this. When I completed it for the first time, I wrote down this summation: I am numb. It is a book to go back to again and again, for it is inexhaustible and it is suspenseful—a great read!

I think the best summation of its power was penned by the English scholar and critic, Algernon Charles Swinburne:

Les Miserables is the greatest epic and dramatic work of fiction ever created or conceived. The epic of a soul transfigured and redeemed, purified by heroism and glorified through suffering; the tragedy and comedy of life at its darkest and its brightest, of humanity at its best and at its worst.

Vincent Hopper and Bernard Grabanier, in their two-volume Guide to World Literature (Barron’s Educational Series, 1952), declared that Les Miserables “is one of the most moving appeals ever made in the history of literature to our common humanity; only a great soul could have written it.” They also point out that it is more a collection of novels than just a novel.

Don’t be tempted to lose interest when Hugo appears to have forgotten what he was writing about, and wanders off in what will seem to be a totally irrelevant direction. Those side trips will all prove their relevance later on; and if you failed to carefully read them, I guarantee you will end up failing to internally capture the power of the novel! Indeed, those side-trips have developed world-wide fame on their own—especially the passages depicting the Battle of Waterloo, the sewers of Paris, the flight of Jean Valjean, the portrait of the Bishop, the drama of the candlesticks, and the description of the Benedictine monastery. Indeed, the book might aptly be likened to a vast mosaic or puzzle: as you read along you will keep slotting in images, many seeming not to fit in anywhere, but by the moving conclusions, all the pieces will finally be placed—and you’re left with the completed masterpiece. Interestingly enough, John Steinbeck, much later on, borrowed from Hugo in his own sidetrips in The Grapes of Wrath.

Welcome to one of the world’s greatest books. I look forward to hearing back from you after you return from Victor Hugo’s world, from experiencing first-hand the French Revolution.

Dr. Joe’s Book of the Month Club – “BRAVE NEW WORLD” and “BRAVE NEW WORLD REVISITED”

May 8, 2013




The Book of the Month that follows the tripartite “Paralysis of the American Mind” series had to be a heavyweight, preferably a book that would build on the three previous blogs. For this, I reach back to two books featured in my 1968 thesis for my masters in English degree from Sacramento State University: Plato to Orwell, a Study of Utopian and Dystopian Fiction. Utopias in literature depict idealized happily-ever-after societies, each written during time-periods in history where such societies appeared possible in real life societies. Dystopias, on the other hand, depict anti-utopias (unhappily-ever-after societies). I chose five: Wells’ When the Sleeper Wakes, Zamyatin’s We, Huxley’s Brave New World and Brave New World Revisited, and Orwell’s 1984.

Of these, Huxley’s fictional world mirrors most accurately the world we see in our everyday news. Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), novelist, short-story writer, essayist, poet, critic, and dramatist, was born into one of England’s most illustrious literary and scientific families. Brave New World was first published in 1932 and Brave New World Revisited in 1959. Unlike George Orwell who predicted in 1984 that the future would be modeled after dictators such as Stalin, Huxley felt a world characterized by hedonism and pleasure would endure a lot longer.

Easily one of the most significant 25 books of the last century, these two books should be on the Bucket List of every thoughtful reader. The first is fiction, the second is a chilling essay. In Brave New World, as you read from page to page, you will wonder how it was possible for Huxley to foresee the world of today so clearly. Originally, however, Huxley felt it would not become a reality until 632 years after Ford (a hybrid term combining Henry Ford and assembly line sameness and Sigmund Freud’s dethroning of God and Christianity). Instead, only 27 short years after he’d written Brave New World, Huxley was horrified to discover it was beginning already and would be a reality by the 21st century.

Note some of his predictions in Brave New World (the title taken from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in which Miranda responds to seeing other men besides her father for the first time, with these euphoric worlds, ‘How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world. . .”). Only Huxley flips those four words upside down meaning-wise, almost as though he was mocking Miranda’s naivette. Upon publication of his dystopian bombshell, overnight Huxley assumed world-wide prominence, and he has retained it ever since.

So what will you find?

• Pneumatic women (who give themselves indiscriminately to anyone and everyone) are to Huxley the logical result of contraceptives and the lowering of physical barriers to free sex resulting from mankind’s turning away from Christianity and monogamy.

• Ford (Ford/Freud) is deified above God, and is considered the culture’s founder/god.

• Neo-Pavlovian Conditioning Centers where babies are cloned. According to their predestined places in society, the babies are given more or less oxygen. Betas are given the most oxygen, followed by those with less: Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons.

• Children are raised and educated by the state.

• The filthiest words in the language are “Mother” and “Father.”

• There is no old age; bodily functions are artificially reinforced by medicine; no one shows signs of aging until about the age of sixty, then suddenly the cumulative effects of the drugs take effect and the individual buckles, senility arrives, and usually the individual dies quickly.

• There are ten Controllers who rule over the entire world.

• “Soma,” a drug, is dished out to everyone each day—it increases in intensity as it is sorely needed in a society with all challenges removed. In heavier doses it can be used for trips that can put the individuals into weekend dream worlds [much like LSD].

• Music too is synthetic; sex and music turns Fordism into an inspirational orgy.

• It is dangerous to be too stunted or too brilliant.

• Education begins even before birth in bottles, where specific traits are implanted.

• Babies are conditioned by explosions, electric shocks, sirens, screeching sounds, etc., to be terrified of beautiful bowls of flowers and colorful nursery books. Babies are conditioned to dislike books because otherwise they might question stratified society; and all things beautiful in nature are discredited.

• Babies are conditioned to hate their country but to love all sports.

• All through childhood they are constantly being conditioned to consider all words dealing with home and family relationships as smutty. Lecturers stress the filth and horribleness of ancient families.

• Sayings such as “everyone belongs to everyone else,” “ending is better than mending,” “I love new clothes,” “cleanliness is next to fordliness,” are repeated tens of thousands of times subliminally while children and teens are asleep.

• The insinuating voice repeats these injunctions so many times over so many years that eventually, by adulthood, they harden into the state-ordained philosophy of life.

• History and literature are both downgraded:

You all remember, said the Controller, in his strong deep voice, that beautiful and inspired saying of Our Ford’s, ‘History is bunk. History,’ he repeated slowly, ‘is bunk.’

He waves his hand; and it is as though, with an invisible feather whisk, and the dust that was Harappo, was Ur of the Chaldees; some spider-webs, and they were Thebes and Babylon and Cnossos and Mycenae. Whisk, Whisk—and where was Odysseus, where was Job, where was Jupiter and Gotama and Jesus? Whisk—and those specks of antique dirt called Athens and Rome, Jerusalem and the Middle Kingdom—all were gone. Whisk—the place where Italy had been was empty. Whisk, the cathedrals; whisk, whisk, King Lear and the Thoughts of Pascal. Whisk. Passion; whisk, Requiem; whisk, symphony; whisk. . . . [BNW, pp 22, 23]

• Freedom is made to appear as archaic and useless to children and youth. Democracy is “idiotic.”

• Poetical references to the Deity are perverted and attributed to Ford.

• Prior to the establishment of the world state, thousands of culture fans were gassed, museums were closed, monuments were blown up, all books published before A.F. 150 were suppressed, all crosses became T’s. All mention of heaven, God, soul, and immortality were eliminated.

• Another tool of the state is television. Movies have become “feelies” (one holds knobs at the side of the seat, then feels the action as well as hearing it). Even the scent organs are included in these orgiastic productions. Both pain and desire are transmitted electrically. The plots are mostly pornographic.

• Discontented people are exiled to islands where they are locked up with others who dare to question the state.

• Because the state allows all the natural impulses to have free play, there are no longer any temptations to resist!

• Once every month everyone’s system is flooded with VPS (adrenalin, the physiological equivalent of fear, rage, murder, etc.).

* * * * *

In Brave New World Revisited, Huxley noted that “Liberty, as we all know, cannot flourish in a country that is permanently on a war footing, or even on a near-war footing. Permanent crisis justifies permanent control of everybody and everything by the agencies of the central government.” [BNWR, 14]

Huxley also articulated his worry about the rapid acceleration of America’s Power Elite; mass production squeezing small businesses out; sociologists hastening the downward spiral of freedom by urging other-directedness and conformity. Also he worried about the disappearance of thousands of small journals and local newspapers. Only chains can economically survive (with the loss of the small men of the press, comes another link in the totalitarian chain). The constant bombardment of the media [just imagine what he’d think today!] results in the assimilation of so much trivia that mankind will find it harder and harder to resist the encroachments of would-be-controllers:

The dictators of the future will doubtless learn to combine those techniques with the non-stop distractions which, in the West, are now threatening to drown in a sea of irrelevance the rational propaganda essential to the maintenance of individual liberty and the survival of democratic institutions. [BNWR, 37]

Huxley maintains that a Hitler would have a much better chance of staying in power in the modern era. Thanks to technological progress, “Big Brother can now be almost as omnipresent as God.” [BNWR, 39]. He also submitted that parents generally fail to realize the extent to which children swallow media propaganda.

Huxley concludes BNWR with predictions that will curdle the blood of any thinking person. Buy both books and slowly digest them. They are available in multitudes of editions.

I quote from the Brave New World Bantam Classic edition of 1966; and from the Brave New World Revisited Harper Perennial Library edition of 1965.