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J. Vernon (Surrey, UK)

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Jesus for the Non-Religious
Jesus for the Non-Religious
by John Shelby Spong
Edition: Paperback
Price: 9.99

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Recovering the human from the car crash of the divine, 25 Sep 2011
I was lent this book by a friend, and I had finished it within 5 days, having put aside other reading books to enjoy this one. It gave a great intellectual frisson, even a shock. This is a modern theological book that demolishes traditional religion, `rescuing Jesus from the church', as the dust cover proclaims it!

The detailed scholarship of analysing the gospels was most impressive and persuasive. Basically, Spong is arguing that much of what we read there is a literary construct, rather than an eye-witness account. Certainly he regards Jesus as an historical figure, born in Nazareth, and dying on the cross in Jersusalem. But he argues that the Bethlehem birth is a fiction, Joseph probably did not exist, the attendant stories about the Magi, slaughter of the innocents and so forth are made up, or built on Old Testament scriptures. The miracle stories are fiction (or embellishments). He has no truck with people walking on water or turning water into wine.

He carefully demonstrates how many gospel passages are built on previous Jewish texts and liturgies. He explains how Mark's account of the death of Jesus is split into neat literary 3-hour periods, and infused with Jewish traditions of the Paschal Lamb. He argues that the crucifixion probably did not occur at Passover. Many of the words supposedly spoken by Jesus (given that no disciple was there to witness the private interviews with the High Priest and so on) are quotations from Isaiah, Zechariah, Psalm 22 and so forth.

For instance, it is undeniable that close textual analysis shows that Mark lifted passages from Psalm 22 to write his account of the Crucifixion, for the Psalmist writes: `They divide my garments among them and for my raiment they cast lots.' These references would be well-known to the educated Jews and would resonate deeply. Spong argues later Christians have taken these accounts as literal descriptions of what happened, rather than poetic/literary interpretations of a shocking event for the followers of Jesus. He clearly states that all the disciples ran away the evening before, and were probably too afraid to show themselves in public again for a while.

Christians would argue that the prophets were given divine inspiration to foresee future events. A more honest appraisal would say that the writers of the gospels took these passages for flesh out and shape their interpretation of the life of Jesus. Most interestingly, Spong argues that the synoptic gospels were structured to fit the major Jewish festivals of the year, and certain sections were probably read out in Synagogues at the appropriate time of year. His detailed knowledge of Jewish religion and culture makes writers such as CS Lewis look very sloppy in their pronouncements about the bible.

The author enjoys his demolition work of much of traditional Christianity, as taught by the established Church. This is all the more remarkable given that he served as a priest and bishop in the American Episcopal Church for 45 years! I enjoyed this part of the book too, since he refuses to compromise his honest appraisal of the many contradictions within the traditional accounts of Christianity. It also articulated much of the puzzlement I have felt about unresolved issues within the bible. I used to take the view that the bible is peppered with metaphor and poetic truths, but had a large core of historical and literal truth. Now I perceive that hard core as shrinking to maybe 5% of the whole.

Spong, like other modern theologians such as Don Cupitt, then goes on to try and construct a new Christianity. This last quarter of the book is written in powerful language, with passionate sincerity. It also makes many good points about Jesus challenging tribal boundaries, fighting prejudice and widening our understanding of our own common humanity. However, overall, the attempt is ludicrous. He resorts to appeals to our `real' humanity and a wishy-washy life force. This kind of stuff would be logically and philosophically ripped apart by CS Lewis. What is the moral, objective basis for his assertions now? Lewis has demonstrated the problem in `The abolition of man' and `Miracles'. If our consciousness is 100% determined by nature / evolution, we have no grounds for making any moral assertions about right and wrong.

The author forgets his earlier sceptical rigour and picks out stories that he thinks represent the core message of love in the message of Jesus. Now he is simply selecting parts of the Gospel story that suit him. Just to embrace `Christpower' is not enough, for life is constantly interspersed with moral dilemmas. The ineluctable fact is that statements of right and wrong must be accompanied by concepts of punishment. We cannot just embrace a warm wish for love and friendship amongst all mankind. There are perennial evils and failings which Christianity faces. He wants to reject the core Christian message of `salvation'. Without that I don't think he can claim to be a `Christian'.

However, his attempts to create a modern 'Theology' make me uneasy. Demolition is easier than construction.

John Milton: A Biography
John Milton: A Biography
by Neil Forsyth
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.74

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The life and works of our greatest poet, 25 Sep 2011
It is usual to characterise Shakespeare as the greatest poet in English, but given the fact that a large part of Shakespeare's legacy is in drama, one could argue that John Milton is our greatest poet. Or so I am inclined to think, having picked up and read long sections of `Paradise Lost' again recently, spurred on by this biography by Neil Forsyth. It was serendipitous that I encountered this book in the Guildford Cathedral bookshop, showing the joys of browsing in physical bookshops.

This is a manageable biography of Milton, giving us a judicious balance of events in his life, interpretations of his character and views and analysis of his writings. It is not burdened with too much scholarly detail, but is lively passionate about the importance of the subject. Forsyth is well qualified for the job, being a Classics scholar. Anyone who wants to understand Milton's works has to have the ability to read the large quantity of Latin (and Greek) that he wrote.

Milton absorbed the characteristics of the classical epic from decades of diligent study, and used his deep knowledge to create the greatest epic poem of the modern era: `Paradise Lost'. One cannot exaggerate the excellence and importance of this long poem. It excels in so many dimensions, including vocabulary, rhythm, sensuousness, philosophy, theology, excitement, pathos, revolutionary politics and universality that a serious reader feels their brain is being microwaved.

By reading this biography, one can gain many useful insights into this and the totality of his works. It covers a vital period in British and world history, when revolutionary ideas were openly debated in parliament, pamphlets, military conferences and so on. Such ideas were carried into the abolition of Bishops, civil war, the execution of the anointed king, the creation of many religious sects and many other events. These went on to influence the American and French Revolutions. John Milton was in the thick of it, employed by the Republican government. This led to him being in extreme danger of execution following the restoration of Royal power under Charles II in 1660.

One of the most poignant aspects of Milton's life was his blindness, which became total by 1652, before he wrote `Paradise Lost'. There are moments in his poetry when he expresses his feelings about his blindness, such as:
"Thus with the year
Seasons return; but not to me returns
Day, or the sweet approach of ev'n or morn,
Or sight of vernal bloom, or summer's rose,
Or flocks, or herds, or human face divine;
But cloud instead, and ever-during dark
Surrounds me, from the cheerful ways of men
Cut off, and for the book of knowledge fair
Presented with a universal blank
Of Nature's works to me expunged and razed
And wisdom at one entrance quite shut out."

House of Meetings
House of Meetings
by Martin Amis
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.39

4.0 out of 5 stars Deep, rich and short book about the Gulag and more, 25 Sep 2011
This review is from: House of Meetings (Paperback)
The house of meetings is a hut where conjugal visits were allowed in the latter part of the Soviet Gulag era. Two brothers are in love with the same woman, and both are in a prison camp in Siberia. The younger brother is married to Zoya, who comes to the camp for a day and a night in the house of meetings. This story is narrated by the elder brother, and how he views and interacts with his brother, his brother's wife, women in general and the sick edifice of the Russian state. The younger brother, Lev, finds a voice, through a letter in the penultimate chapter.

Amis employs a distinctive style, deep and rich in resonances. He is very creative, imagining the whole world of the Gulag (aided, as he acknowledges, by books such as by Solzhenitsyn). I wonder if he did an investigative field trip to Siberia. It feels like it.

The writing is very literary, and I was gratified to have half Amis's erudition, in order to understand some of his references. For instance, in the last paragraph, he has written `Go, little book; go, little mine tragedy'. This is a reference to Chaucer's `Troilus and Criseyde' - a super-smart reference to another tragic love triangle. Other writers invoked include Conrad, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Coleridge.

The depth and richness is manifested in a stunning stream of metaphors and aphorisms. For instance:
* "Oppression lays down bloodlust. It lays it down like wine."
* "My hangover is not a hangover. I was mistaken. It is death. There is something in the centre of my brain, something like a trapped sneeze."
* "Increasingly, people do everything early in Russia. Because there isn't much time."

There is often an echo-like shorter sentence, after a longer one, to twist or reinforce the statement. One problem I have is that Lev's letter is written in an identical style to the narrator's own voice. Amis is a little weak on characteristic reported speech.

I liked the shortness of the book. It enhances the jewel-like intensity of the book, counterpointing the classic long baggy Russian novel. Amis is almost consciously anti-Russian or anti-Soviet.

There is a strong thread of extreme violence in the book, reflecting, no doubt the time and places it describes. But I noticed this imaginative attraction to violence in another Amis book, `London Fields'. And it is a violence often directed towards women. In fact, the whole book is a confession of a rapist and murderer.

Struggle for Life (Oneworld Classics)
Struggle for Life (Oneworld Classics)
by Llewellyn Powys
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.87

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An Epicurean true to his philosophy, 30 Jan 2011
Reactions to the written word can be extraordinarily diverse and startling. Critical evaluations of literature often tell you more about the critic than the text. Judgements about irony, sarcasm, sentimentality and so forth are quite subjective.

I was interested to note in Anthony Head's excellent introduction that the poet John Wain judged one of L. Powys's books to be the `corniest' book he had ever read. I can empathise with that reaction, and had a streak of that judgement as I read some of the essays collected in the book. L. Powys tries hard to tug the heart strings, and waxes eloquent in a florid, almost Euphuistic style at times. One could easily parody and satirise his writing.

However, more strongly, I felt a closeness to the experiences of the author and the views he expresses. For one, he lived in Africa for five years, somewhat paralleling my own decade or so living in Zambia. He also has an abiding love of the culture and nature of the English countryside, which I share, though bowing to his much greater knowledge and experience. His reverse Pilgrim's progress away from what he sees as the syrupy delusions of conventional Christianity has points of contact with my own views. The debilitating and serious disease he suffered from finds a kinship in my heart. Lastly, his love of Laurence Sterne's `Tristram Shandy' and of the beauty of the stars are big recommendations.

Tony Head has made a judicious selection, covering many topics and the broad sweep of his life, in Dorset, the USA, East Africa and Switzerland. The first essay `A struggle for life' introduces us to the central tragedy of his life, his contraction of pulmonary tuberculosis, diagnosed when he was only 25 years old. This damaged the rest of his life, eventually killing him, but did not hold him back from enjoying his time on earth to the full. This admirable essay is written in an unsentimental and un-self-pitying way.

The four essays on aspects of his life in Africa are vivid, but reveal a colonial callousness. He shoots leopard and hippo without any compunction, all the more surprising given his otherwise tender nature, and the later essays `Christian Fingers' and `Barbarians', in which he criticises hunting and cruelty to animals.

The philosophical essays appealed particularly, though I find his attitude to religion inconsistent and unstable. He often refers to God, admires aspects of Christian culture and expresses sentiments close to conventional religious opinions, yet he professes himself an atheist at other points. In the essay `The Epicurean Vision', he declares his adherence to a joyful, sturdy enjoyment of the simple physical pleasures of life. He criticises `Christians at prayer' as `obsequious', `sycophantic' and `craven, unhealthy, neurotic'. Strong words! He dislikes the creed of the church in trying to discredit life upon earth, with all its talk of absurd Trinities, fables about ascensions, dead men rising from the grave and a focus on a mythical heaven. Powys follows the teachings of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, wanting us to look at the world we live in now, to make the best of it, with unfaltering loyalty to our senses. He urges us to "enjoy our hour of sunshine".

Powys's philosophy of life is expressed even more eloquently in `The Aebi Wood'. He stared at this green wood for many hours from the balcony of his sanatorium in Switzerland, and it came to symbolise the immediacy of the physical life and world we inhabit. He writes "Make no doubt of it, it is matter that matters. In all else there is mirage, man himself, for all his vaunts, being but a cheap and accidental phantom of cleaver clay. There may well be other dimensions, but in so far as we allow the suspicion of their existence to dim our worship of what is, we suffer ourselves to be entangled in a cloud-net of folly. Our paradise, our hells, are here and now, we shall see no other."

His most powerful chapter is `Reflections of a Dying Man'. Somebody suffering from worsening Tuberculosis, with no cure in sight, has a right to record such reflections, I don't find this passage `corny'. It is unblinking and objective, rejecting easy solutions, recognising mankind is blessed with self-knowledge "on a rainbow planet that is tumbling through a physical universe of inconceivable dimensions". He preaches joy in what we have, and an admirable stoicism: "It is by the rarest chance that we have ever lived, and does it then become us to grudge when the hour arrives for us to walk the way of all nature? Surely to look at the sunlight for the last time should rather be an occasion for the trembling of our marrow bones with gratitude."

Throughout the book, Llewellyn Powys displays a marvelous turn of descriptive phrase, and an infectious enthusiasm that lifts the reader. We acquire a vivid sense of the countryside in which he loved to live, walk and work.

From this excellent selection we learn a good deal about a writer who should be better known.

So Lovely a Country Will Never Perish: Wartime Diaries of Japanese Writers (Asia Perspectives: History, Society & Culture) (Asia Perspectives: History, Society and Culture)
So Lovely a Country Will Never Perish: Wartime Diaries of Japanese Writers (Asia Perspectives: History, Society & Culture) (Asia Perspectives: History, Society and Culture)
by Donald Keene
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 15.62

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Striking and illuminating, 30 Jan 2011
Donald Keene, a renowned scholar of Japan, has read, edited and selected from the diaries of prominent Japanese writers, who recorded their thoughts and events, during and immediately after the Second World War. This is history as experienced first-hand by individuals, not from tendentious text books. The diaries reveal the raw thoughts and emotions of our (former) enemies - though admittedly not those who fought in the front line. But these men (mainly men) had experiences being bombed, and some worked in some overseas territories. It occurred to me that all school children should read history written by our enemies, not those written by our own side, especially those texts blessed by our own governments.

The diarists from which Keene quotes were all novelists, poets or literary figures of some fame. They naturally experienced the war differently, and interpret events in varying ways, sometimes diametrically opposed. They were swept along by the euphoria of success in 1941-42, and scorched by the defeats and humiliations of 1943-47. It is sobering to see how the zeitgeist, public opinion, rumours, military lies and government propaganda have a large influence on their thinking. It is even more sobering to reflect that such large-scale influences impinged and still impinge on all of us - such as the way the USA and Britain were swept into war with Iraq, or even how we perceive our own history in the Second World War.

I have to confess that there were not sufficient markers for me to distinguish between the different writers clearly. Unfortunately, they blended into one self-contradictory voice. Maybe symbols in the margins would help, as Phillip Pullman uses in `The subtle knife'?

We peep into the minds of these diarists through the choices that Donald Keene has made for us. So one may pause to wonder how representative they are. It is a question of trust, and I give him that trust. By inserting some personal information about his own war experiences, such as his interviewing of Japanese prisoners of war, and his landing on Okinawa, we can perceive that he is a sympathetic and balanced commentator.

His distillation of these various (semi-)private thoughts are something I have read and enjoyed, whereas it is unlikely that I would ever have had the chance, or inclination, to read the whole of each of the memoirs. Even with diaries, we often have to encounter them at one remove.

The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms
The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms
by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Edition: Hardcover

40 of 42 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Am I a sucker too?, 30 Jan 2011
This elegant little hardback is Taleb's latest publication (2010). It contains thoughts that carry straight on from his arguments in `Fooled by randomness' and `The Black Swan'. Instead of a narrative and argument in a full book, he presents us with his private almost-poetry. We are given a series of aphorisms, well spaced out, only four or five to a page. This slows us down and persuades us to pause to think about each cluster of words.

The aphorisms are generally witty and designed to provoke a fresh perspective. They do not have the frivolity of Oscar Wilde, and do not achieve his level of charming, mischievous humour. They are certainly often wise and counter-intuitive, shaking us out of a conventional, shallow view of our modern world. Some structure is given by clustering them in chapters, revealing the preoccupations with which his readers will already be familiar. For instance, there is a chapter called `Fooled by Randomness', one on `The scandal of prediction' and one on `Robustness and fragility'. However I don't see how some of the aphorisms fit into their categories.

Taleb is a wise man, and well worth listening to. His erudition and originality are on full display. Here are samples to give you a flavour:

"The calamity of the information age is that the toxicity of data increases much faster than its benefits."

"Mental clarity is the child of courage, not the other way round."

"You can only convince people who think they can benefit from being convinced."

"English does not distinguish between arrogant-up (irreverence towards the temporarily powerful) and arrogant down (directed at the small guy)."

"To understand the liberating effect of asceticism, consider that losing all your fortune is much less painful than losing only half of it."

"Suckers think that you can cure greed with money, addiction with substances, expert problems with experts, banking with bankers, economics with economists and debt crises with debt spending."

You may notice that he blends a wide vocabulary with American idioms such as `Guy' and `Sucker', which lends a disconcerting instability to his voice. But he generally achieves the balance of an epigrammatic style, and there is an immediate impact for most of his aphorisms, plus an added sequence of afterthoughts, akin to the sensation of a perfume.

I remain a fan of Mr Taleb, and would urge others to read this book too. However I have a complaint that must be articulated. This may sound like an `ad hominem' attack. I agree that the `ad hominem' riposte of questioning a man's motives or qualifications for saying something is inadmissible in civilised argument. His book is not an argued case, but much closer to a literary work, hence I believe this complaint is valid.

The author has made a lot of money trading options, and more recently from the sales of his books. Fine, and the best of luck to him. Possibly he is the beneficiary of randomness, as he may admit. Now he sets himself up as a philosopher and part poet. He has valuable things to say, but (and here is my complaint) he adopts a sneering tone against the majority of humanity, believing himself as someone much superior in understanding and heroism. I find it hard to stomach his long stream of aphorisms despising those having to work - which is the majority of us. Hence he shows a lack of respect for the readers.

"Work destroys your soul by stealthily invading your brain during the hours not officially spent working."

"There is no intermediate state between ice and water but there is one between life and death: employment."

"Karl Marx, a visionary, figured out that you can control a slave better by convincing him that he is an employee."

And so on. Mr Taleb has revealed too much of his nasty side, diminishing himself. While he sits on his millions in Treasury Bills, I can do without the sound of him snickering as I trudge off to earn an honest penny. Where is his heroism in this attitude?

I receive the distinct impression he regards me as a 'sucker'. For that reason I mark him down to a 3 in this review, which is an average of the 5 I want to give him at some moments and the 1 I want to throw back at him at other moments.
Comment Comments (8) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 29, 2012 1:30 PM GMT

A Week in December
A Week in December
by Sebastian Faulks
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fiction or reality?, 30 Jan 2011
This review is from: A Week in December (Paperback)
Sebastian Faulks has written a novel covering one week in December 2007, set in London. It follows the intertwining lives of a handful of characters, and aims to be a state of the nation novel, in the tradition of Disraeli, Gaskell and Dickens. It is up-to-date, with descriptions of second worlds on the internet, `reality' TV programmes and sickeningly rich financiers (though what's new there?).

The story opens with a hostess drawing up her guest list, which introduces us to some of the main characters. The bombardment of names and details is hard for the reader to digest. I had to turn back and reread the first eight pages to absorb who was who, and what they did. The novel almost ends with the actual dinner party, which neatly brings some of the characters together in conflict, lust and other interactions. I noticed that one person on the guest list, a schoolteacher called Radley Graves, was not mentioned at the dinner, which may be an error and a missed opportunity on the part of the author.

The final pages are devoted to the climax of one drama: a Muslim boy who jettisons his backpack of bomb fuses in the Thames, and visits his girlfriend instead. The final scene is of the evil hedge fund manager, John Veals, who stands at the window of his office, on the verge of his scheme's success, and laughs.

The parallel is clear for the reader to draw: Veals does ignite his bomb; his financial bomb. He has obtained insider information about a bank, and set up a series of massive positions for his hedge fund, with the aim of making much money, and helping to topple the bank in the process. Since the book was published in 2010, the reader knows about the fall of RBS, HBOS etcetera in the financial crisis, and so the conclusion to the story does not need to be told explicitly.

One part of my brain was saying that Faulks is nave and does not know how things work, or at least paints too unrealistic a black-and-white picture of hedge funds. Yet just after reading this book, I have had occasion to study some examples of `rogue traders' and `rogue fund managers', and have been reading about insider trading cases at hedge funds such as Galleon and Moore Capital, and dubious actions at Gartmore and Henderson Asset Management. Suddenly I did a mental flip, and perceived Faulk's portrait of John Veals in the novel as deadly accurate.

Veals, the hedge fund manager, lacks an emotional centre and a moral compass. His family is a train wreck, with his wife lonely and semi-alcoholic, while his son gets hooked on drugs in his bedroom upstairs. Hassan, the would-be bomber is a parallel life, whose parents are also unaware of how far their son has slipped down a dangerous slope - though they talk and debate with their son far more.

The withering satire on many other types in British society is accurate and wincingly painful, whether it is a cynical literary critic, or a foreign footballer, or his girlfriend earning money from pornography on the side, or an aspiring politician's wife. The layers of the satire become somewhat painful to read and depressing. It is a bitter book.

There are some redeeming features, though they curiously point to the redeeming power of literature. A modest girl, who drives Circle Line trains, likes to read books. An underemployed Barrister is similarly a sympathetic character with a wide knowledge of books. He has the intellectual curiosity to read the Koran, and criticises it as being simply full of assertions. This appears to me to be Faulks' own voice attacking Islam, together with the story of the corruption of the young Hassan. As far as I know, Faulks has avoided a Fatwa.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 18, 2011 5:32 PM BST

Shakespeare's Philosophy: Discovering the Meaning Behind the Plays
Shakespeare's Philosophy: Discovering the Meaning Behind the Plays
by Colin McGinn
Edition: Paperback
Price: 8.73

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Meaningful nuggets from the Gold Mine, 2 Jan 2011
Shakespeare's texts are a mine of endless wealth. McGinn emerges into the sunlight clutching some new nuggets.

By reading this book, one can learn more about Shakespeare's plays, and enjoy gentle instruction in philosophy. For instance, it tightened up my understanding of words such as `Epistemology' and `Teleology', and quoted a good deal of Montaigne's works. None of this is `hard' philosophy, so do not be put off. Much can be described as existentialist philosophy.

I always feel uncomfortable about books that tell us what Shakespeare thought. We can never know what Shakespeare thought, since all his written works are explicitly works of fiction. One cannot ever ascribe a particular phrase in a play to Shakespeare's point of view. Everything is spoken by a character in a play, put in the mouth of an actor to portray that character. Very little is known about Shakespeare's life, and almost nothing certain is known of what he read, beyond the texts from which he derived his plots (such as Holinshed). However, McGinn's frequent parallels drawn between the Montaigne and Shakespeare are striking. There is often a zeitgeist that affects creative people who may never know each other's works directly.

To give an example of how my understanding has been advanced by this book, I would cite his chapter on `Macbeth'. He demonstrates how this play is much more than an action-packed bloodthirsty thriller, spiced with the supernatural. He draws out the philosophical themes about 1) the relationship between character and action, 2) the power of imagination, 3) the ambiguity of appearance and reality, 4) the nature of time. I had not consciously noted how the play is packed with references to time, even from the very first line: "WHEN shall we three meet again?". The chapter moved me to quickly re-read `Macbeth', and I was thrilled to gain new perspectives on this familiar work, thanks to McGinn.

He also afforded insights into other major plays. For instance, I had previously thought of `A Midsummer night's dream' as a charming but flimsy work. McGinn has helped me see more of how the play is about the difficulty of distinguishing dreaming from wakefulness, illusion from reality, what is merely imagined from what is veridically perceived. (`Veridical' means `coinciding with reality'; another little lesson from Professor McGinn).

Memoirs of Hadrian
Memoirs of Hadrian
by Marguerite Yourcenar
Edition: Paperback

7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the greatest books ever written?, 15 Feb 2010
This review is from: Memoirs of Hadrian (Paperback)
Is this possibly one of the greatest books ever written? It might be hard to convince others of this view, but somehow I have a nagging huge respect for this book and its author. I remember the powerful effect of first reading `Memoirs of Hadrian' over 15 years ago, with a copy lent me by a good friend, Tony Head.

By chance I came across it in a charity shop, and snatched it up with eager anticipation, even though the years had erased nearly all detail of the book in my memory, except that feeling of awed respect. On this re-reading, I was even more impressed. A book which improves and magnifies its impact on subsequent reading is a rare achievement.

The writing of this book was virtually a life's work for the author. It was first written in French, but she participated in the translation with Grace Frick to produce an equally precious artwork in English. The measured and lapidary nature of the French language comes through in elegant and significant English sentences.

One needs to read the book slowly, for virtually every sentence carries weight. It is deeply philosophical, using the life of the Emperor Hadrian to meditate on matters of love, loyalty, politics, religion, death, decay, memory, futility, betrayal, Godhood, ecstasy, poetry, architecture, self-discipline, courage, nature and on and on with admirable judiciousness and balance. The fictional Hadrian achieved great wisdom from his long, varied and sad life, but it all comes out of the head and heart of its remarkable author.

So this is a profound and deeply moving book. It is infused with melancholy, yet intensely interested to convey thought and explore life. It has real weight, transcending the fictitious historical memoir of a great Roman Emperor, to address universal issues of human life in a perplexing universe.

In such a wide-ranging book, it is difficult to select a passage to convey an impression of this magnificent work. After much thumbing back through the pages, I have selected this elegant paragraph. Enjoy.

"Wine initiates us into the volcanic mysteries of the soil and its hidden mineral riches; a cup of Samos drunk at noon in the heat of the sun or, on the contrary, absorbed of a winter evening when fatigue makes the warm current felt at once in the hollow of the diaphragm and the sure and burning dispersion spreads along our arteries, such a drink provides a sensation which is almost sacred, and is sometimes too strong for the human head. No feeling so pure comes from the vintage-numbered cellars of Rome; the pedantry of great connoisseurs of wine wearies me. Water drunk more reverently still, from the hands or from the spring itself, diffuses within us the most secret salts of the earth and the rain of heaven. But even water is a delight which, sick man that I am, I may now consume only with strict restraint. No matter: in death's agony itself, and mingled with the bitterness of the last potions, I shall try still to taste on my lips its fresh simplicity."
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 10, 2012 10:20 PM BST

Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance (Oxford paperbacks)
Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance (Oxford paperbacks)
by Edgar Wind
Edition: Paperback

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating mysteries of art and philosophy, 15 Feb 2010
I recall buying this book to improve my knowledge of the iconography of Renaissance paintings, following a vivid holiday to Florence the previous year. Quite why I picked this off the shelf and read it now, I cannot say, but it surely proved useful on my recent holiday to Rome.

Indeed, I saw and studied one of the paintings discussed in detail: `Sacred and profane love' by Titian, located in the Galleria Borghese. It shows the same young woman twice, one sitting, gorgeously dressed beside a well, while the other `self' is virtually naked, and half standing beside the same well. The author explains the symbols and iconography of the picture at length, as part of his broad theme of explaining pagan (i.e. Greek/Roman mythology) in Renaissance art.

Edgar Wind is a very academic writer, and on many pages the notes occupy more space than the main text. It could be better written, and made more accessible. There is no biography of Wind, but I think he was an Oxford professor. However the fascination of the subject matter makes this a valuable and unusual book.

One can learn a tremendous about about mythology, symbolism, history, humanism and so on through this book. Some sections are obscure, seemingly addressed to other academics, but some chapters, such as the description of Botticelli's `Primavera' are wonderfully revealing. The meaning of that picture is totally obscure, unless one is initiated into these mysteries. The deep meaning of the word `mystery' is also explained here.

This book will awake your appetite for many aspects of art and philosophy - maybe more as a reference book than as a sit-down read.

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