Utopia by Thomas More (trans. Paul Turner)

In this slim book, Thomas More wrote a work that lent its name to an entire sub-genre of fiction. This is not to say More created the first piece of literature that could be called utopian. Many ancient works, such as the Garden of Eden from the Bible to pick one example, have dreamt of a perfect society where worry is nonexistent and all our needs are met. In the work, More writes himself as a character recalling a diplomatic mission where he met a sailor named Raphael. During this time More, along with some lawyers, and Cardinals begin a discussion about the societal ills plaguing England. As a world traveler, Raphael has seen many different societies and cultures with unique ways of life and offers his views on how to fix the endemic problem of thieves. He goes so far as to criticize the entire economic system of capitalism. Later, Raphael tells More about Utopia, a land that organizes it society along communist lines.

As my introduction discusses the satires of Lucian were a major influence on the text. However, Raphael’s description of the lives and society found in Utopia are reminiscent of Plato’s discussions in The Republic when he outlines his ideal society run by philosopher-kings. Yet for all the ways the text looks back at the past for influence, it is amazing how modern its ideas feel. During the discussion about how to deal with the growing problem of thieves, Raphael condemns the death penalty for such a minor offense. Raphael suggests that people who become thieves are just desperate and have no other means of securing their needs. The rich, in this case nobles, have created a situation where they cannot attain jobs. One of the English lawyers disagrees with him.

“There’s adequate provision for that already . . . There are plenty of trades open to them. There’s always work on the land. They could easily earn an honest living if they wanted to, but they deliberately choose to be criminals (22).”

The lawyers reply could be a stereotypical conservative’s response to a discussion about welfare or criminals today. The lawyer presents the idea that all those commoners turned thieves could find a job if they wanted, but choose not to. However, Raphael points out that it is the rich nobility’s greedy policies, such as converting arable land to pasture for their sheep, which creates job loss in the first place. Raphael advocates slavery for thievery instead of a death sentence. It is an uncomfortable defense of slavery and a difficult proposition for a modern reader.  Basically criminals would be slaves and work on projects for the public good. Although he does state some will be given freedom for good behavior.

While this might all sound like deep philosophical pondering, the work is often funny and satirical. During the early discussions about England’s social ills, the reader gets to see that the people in court around the Cardinal are all sycophants. They constantly reject Raphael’s strange ideas as being ridiculous, until the Cardinal agrees with them.

“This, from the Cardinal, was enough to make everyone wildly in favour of an idea which nobody had taken seriously when I produced it. They were particularly keen on the bit about vagrants, since that was his own contribution (32).”

The next part involves the character Thomas More trying to convince Raphael to join a court and provide his sound advice to a ruler. Raphael explains to Thomas More the character why he won’t.

“There’s no room at Court for philosophy (41).”

 

Most kings would rather fight wars, fleece money from their population, and subvert justice in their own favor than listen to good advice and govern their subjects well. In other words, most kings are corrupt. So good advice would be a waste of time.

The central problem of society is the inequality of wealth.

“I don’t see how you can ever get any real justice or prosperity, so long as there’s private property, and everything’s judged in terms of money . . . I’m quite convinced that you’ll never get a fair distribution of goods, or a satisfactory organization of human life, until you abolish private property (44-45).”

 

How seriously should we take this work? I don’t think More is asking us to adopt Utopian society wholesale or even Communism. Instead by creating an imaginary society based on these principles called Utopia, More envisions a better world than the Europe of  his day. He is not necessarily saying his current society needs to become Utopia, but rather he wants the reader too contrast his social institutions of his or her own society against this imaginary “perfect” one. It is a reminder that the societies we are born into are not perfect. The work forces the reader to consider the faults in his or her own society by comparing it to an imaginary one and consider ways of improving it without necessarily demanding we follow any particular prescription.

The Essays by Michel de Montaigne (Trans. M. A. Screech)

“I take the first subject Fortune offers: all are equally good for me. I never plan to expound them in full for I do not see the whole of anything: neither do those who promise to help us to do so! Everything has a hundred parts and a hundred faces: I take one of them and sometimes just touch it with the tip of my tongue or with my fingertips, and sometimes I pinch it to the bone. I jab into it, not as wide but as deep as I can; and I often prefer to catch it from some unusual angle.” – On Democritus and Heraclitus

 

In the spirit of the Renaissance, Montaigne borrows the ideas of ancient writers as a guide for his own original and sometimes very modern thoughts. Despite extensively quoting writers from the past, he gives a prominent place to his own thoughts rather than the authority and opinions of others. As the essays declare numerous times his main subject is himself: his thoughts on various matters, his habits, his abilities and weaknesses, which he employs as a way of exploring the human experience more generally. He never leaves the impression he is trying to persuade you that his own views represent the ultimate truth on matters, but rather his style comes across as a man sharing his private thoughts and opinions in a conversation with an intimate friend, while acknowledging those friends might feel differently and come to different conclusions. The essays cover a wide variety of subjects related to philosophy, society, politics, education, exploration, and the self. The one constant for Montaigne is a world dominated by human variability. Montaigne grew up in an age where civil wars over religion were occurring in his country and Europe was exploring the Americas. These historical events serve as a backdrop and sometimes even the main topic of some of his essays.

 

An important topic for Montaigne is education. Montaigne questions the value of rote learning of facts and suggests the true purpose of education should be to develop our virtue and judgement. One might view him as an early proponent of critical thinking.

 

“A good education changes a boy’s judgement and morals.” – On Presumption.

 

Montaigne suggests that philosophy, since its primary concern is how to live, is the most important subject a child can study. Learning should not be just memorizing dates and being able to recite every last rule of grammar, but rather it should be connected to how we ought to live our lives. In the essay “On books” he elaborates on this point by saying he prefers cultivating knowledge of himself rather than spending his time acquiring factual knowledge. However, he is not suggesting we should merely navel gaze and ignore books altogether. In that same essay, he discusses the books of poetry, philosophy, and history that he found most profitable to exploring his own ideas, feelings, and nature. Books that fit into areas that we would typically call the Humanities assist us in exploring ourselves, our own values, experiences, and ideas. The Great Books can teach us to value ourselves properly by seeing our strengths and shortcomings.

“If anyone looks down on others and is drunk on self-knowledge let him turn his gaze upwards to ages past: he will pull his horns in then, discovering many thousands of minds which will trample him underfoot. If he embarks upon some flattering presumption of his own valour let him recall the lives of the two Scipios and all those armies and peoples who leave him so far behind. No one individual quality will make any man swell with pride who will, at the same time, take account of all those other weak and imperfect qualities which are in him and, finally, of the nullity of the human condition.” – On Practice.

Montaigne offers a justification for reading the Great Books and the study of history by suggesting that they help us understand ourselves and provide an honest assessment about our own character. They help us see our own place in the world and make us realize the world does not revolve around us. They help us measure our own ideas and experiences to those of the past.

He also has thoughts about pedagogy. A student should not passively read a philosophical dialogue, but share their own views on the arguments and ideas presented, much like what he is doing in the essays. In his attack on rhetoric and grammar as the foundations of education, he also defends the virtues of straightforward speech, while not quite dismissing rhetoric all together. He accepts that there is some value in possessing a great ability with words. The problem is that too often writers hide behind pretty rhetoric and flourishes, while lacking any real substance and content, and uncritical people are easily fooled into accepting bad ideas being masked behind the pretty language.

All of this leads to one of Montaigne’s other big concerns: the importance of virtue. One of the main methods of making ourselves virtuous is cultivating knowledge of ourselves. We have to be careful of caring too much about what other people think of us. Our happiness should not depend on things outside ourselves and thus outside of our control such as property, our relationships, and even good health. We should judge men by their inner qualities, not their rank or wealth or fine clothing. Those things are matters of fortune and superficial outer appearance; just as you would judge a horse by how fast it can run, not how luxurious its saddle might be. Solitude and tranquility are not found by fleeing society and the company of other people, but through the careful cultivation of reason and wisdom. We need to use reason and wisdom to control the vices and fears of our own mind; only then can we achieve tranquility.

“It is not enough to withdraw from the mob, not enough to go to another place: we have to withdraw from such attributes of the mob as are within us. It is our own self we have to isolate and take back into possession” – On Solitude.

We also need to keep in mind that even good forces that are generally helpful such as philosophy, matrimony, virtue, wisdom, etc. can be harmful if taken to excess. In Montaigne’s view traditionally positive practices are only beneficial if they are tempered by moderation. He also suggests that goodness and virtue are related but not the same. Virtue requires difficulty and opposition to one’s own inclinations, while goodness can arise from one’s natural temperament. Reading about virtue and understanding it are not enough. Without practice, reason and education cannot establish habits of mind and behavior. It is important to continually practice what we preach in order to make our ideas and ideals a part of our everyday thoughts and behaviors. There is so many more topics and ideas to be found in Montaigne, but all this variety makes it difficult to cover everything. While not always as entertaining as reading a novel, the essays are definitely thought-provoking.

The Praise of Folly by Desiderius Erasmus

The Praise of a Folly is a quintessential Renaissance work. In the work, Folly gives an oration about her own importance, claiming that her followers are everywhere in the world, and goes on to document the man ways that folly and hypocrisy features in everyday experience and in various human institutions such as: philosophy, education, politics, poetry, and religion. At the beginning of the work she describes her mythical origins in the vein of Hesiod, claiming to be to child of Plutus (Greed), which suggests allegorically human folly often stems from greed. The Roman satires of Juvenal and Lucan are a strong influence on the work as well as  The Consolation of Philosophy, which features the allegorical figure of Philosophy herself discussing the nature of the world, along with the medieval allegorical traditions, which features allegorical figures that give long orations (i. e. The Romance of the Rose).

While many parts of the work are amusing in its playful and satirical critique of society, there are elements that might irritate a reader.  The work is a bit repetitive. It is difficult to tell if this is a flaw in the writing or Erasmus was attempting to match style to content. Folly rambles and repeats herself, in which the style can be seen as a type of folly itself, the sort of person who rambles without being concise and to the point, as well as the type of person who endlessly repeats their story without realizing they’re repeating themselves.

One critique that is repeated a lot is that against philosophers. In a world built on human folly and the pleasure it brings, who wants to listen to a bunch of pedantic philosophers telling us to ignore human pleasures! The true knowledge of philosophy only brings trouble, annoys other people, and brings no pleasure to the individual. Indeed, so much stoic philosophy is built on putting aside and ignoring human pleasures. Unfortunately, this critique is repeated over and over again.

Folly also critiques princes who believe it is their duty to focus on their own pleasure rather than the good of people.

“They believe they have discharged all the duty of a prince if they hunt every day, keep a stable of fine horses, sell dignities and commanderies, and invent new ways of draining the citizens’ purses and bringing it into their own exchequer; but under such dainty new-found names that though the thing be most unjust in itself, it carries yet some face of equity; adding to this some little sweet’nings that whatever happens, they may be secure of the common people.”

His strongest critiques, however, are reserved for religious institutions of his day. The work with its irreverent tone and critique of medieval theology is cited as a major inspiration for the Reformation. For example, the work tackles the institutions of monks and their variety of orders.

“these are Benedictines, those Bernardines; these Carmelites, those Augustines; these Williamites, and those Jacobines; as if it were not worth the while to be called Christians. And of  these, a great part build so much on their ceremonies and petty traditions of men that they think one heaven is too poor a reward for so great merit, little dreaming that the time will come when Christ, not regarding any of these trifles, will call them to account for His precept of charity.”

Folly suggests that all these monks would rather be called other names associated with their various order than simply Christians, delude themselves that their petty rules and ceremonies associated with each order will somehow merit them a higher place in heaven, and that they are in fact performing many practices and buying into many assumptions that are not in line with Christ’s teachings.

He also tackles theologians, those professional scholars of religion who “are so taken up with these pleasant trifles that they have not so much leisure as to cast the least eye on the Gospel or St. Paul’s epistles.” By Erasmus’ time, theology spent an exorbitant amount of time arguing about minor details that had little relationship to the message of the Gospels. Despite dealing with trifling matters about the secret meaning of Christ’s name or some other esoteric subject, these theologians puffed up their own importance “requir[ing] that their own conclusions, subscribed by two or three Schoolmen, be accounted greater than Solon’s laws and preferred before the papal decretals.” Anything they dislike is dismissed as irreverent or heresy.

In this sense, the work is very modern in its willingness to critique the institutions of its time. It has a critical voice that is different from earlier medieval works. Like Juvenal, Erasmus is willing to question and critique all that is wrong, or at the very least, absurd and ridiculous about society and human affairs

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Little Women is a female bildungsroman about the moral growth of the four March sisters: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. Jo is wild, boyish, unladylike, and has dreams of being a famous literary writer. Meg is the oldest, pretty and sweet, but covetous of nice things and jealous of her wealthy friends. Beth is the quiet reserved one who never complains, does her duty, and is the comfort of her family. Amy is the spoiled youngest child and constantly complaining about her snub-nose. She dreams of becoming a famous artist and hopes to marry into high society. The novel, especially the first half, is very episodic, with each chapter feeling like an episode of a television show with smaller problems that have some sort of life lesson for the girls to learn rather than a part of a larger unified plot.  During the first half of the story, the girls must work outside their home due to the family falling on hard times, growing up under the care of their mother, while their father is participating in the Civil War. The second half of the book is about the girls grown up into women, each finding love, and coming to terms with the changes that happen to their dreams and expectations that they had as children. Jo is initially successful as a writer, but ends up selling popular thriller stories to make fast money, failing to achieve her true literary aspirations. Despite claiming she will never marry, she ends up married in the end and running a young boy’s school. Meg falls in love with a poor teacher and marries him, which helps her see that she has more happiness in her poor home than her rich friend has with all her many possessions.

Early in the book, Mrs. March gives each of the sisters a copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress to help serve as a moral guide for their lives. This Christian allegory helps each sister deal with the burdens they carry much like Christian in Bunyan’s allegory carries his worldly burdens. Even many of the chapters are named after allegorical figures from Bunyan’s work. The idea is that each girl has their burdens and vices they must overcome. Each has their “castle in the air” (their individual dreams) that they must sacrifice to find their true happiness. Each of them must grow. What we dream will make us happy isn’t always what will actually make us happy.  The story suggests that virtue and self-improvement is better than riches and success.

Domesticity is another major theme of the book. Despite their lack of riches, their early home life is depicted as a warm and happy place, especially as the violent Civil War is happening in the backdrop. In a good home, there is a happiness and contentment to be found with family and loved ones, no matter what awful events are occurring in the world. This theme relates directly back to the growth of their virtue: they grow as individuals in contrast to growing more worldly (wealthier, successful, etc.), while there is joy to be found at home rather than in the world.

Night by Elie Wiesel

With the recent passing of Elie Wiesel I thought I would transfer over my post of his famous book from my old blog. Wiesel employs a style both chaste in its short sentences and gaudy in its exuberant descriptions, a style which reflects the contradictions of the holocaust in which a supposedly “civilized” modern society committed one of the most barbaric uncivilized acts imaginable with the help of modern technology and urban planning.

The title of Night itself is an interesting choice as it is the beginning of the new Jewish day. All celebrations of holidays begin at nightfall. But in Wiesel’s work night is never-ending, the next day never comes. It is a catalog of the dehumanization process where all ties of community, family, and humanity are eviscerated in the crematory flames, and we follow him from camp to camp where he is stripped, showered, forced into hard labor, sick, and abused. He summarizes the holocaust experience early on with this description:

“In one ultimate moment of lucidity it seemed to me that we were damned souls wandering in the half-world, souls condemned to wander through space till the generations of man came to an end, seeking their redemption, seeking oblivion–without hope of finding it.”

The early life of Elie is a religious and mystical one, learning Kabbalah from Moshe the beadle. Moshe discovers the Nazi’s plans and like a prophet of ancient times tries to warn the Jews of Sighet, but they refuse to believe such wild tales of trains shipping Jews off to death camps and civilized countries murdering their Jews in mass. Moshe fits into the archetype of the prophets of old who warned the Israelites in the Bible of various enemies and to reform their behavior, but who ultimately went unheeded.

Soon Elie finds himself sent to the camps with his family, only to be separated from his mother, and clinging desperately to his father as they sort through the Jews like so many pieces of cattle. His arrival at the camps brings him face to face with the crematorium where they shovel babies into the flames, an event that tests Elie’s fragile faith and burns it in the flames with all the corpses. Elie Wiesel grows frustrated at God’s silence amidst all this horror.

“For the first time, I felt revolt rise up in me. Why should I bless His name? The Eternal, Lord of the Universe, the All-Powerful and Terrible, was silent. What had I to thank Him for?”

This doubt of faith proves to be one of the major themes of the book. As the holy days come around, he doesn’t understand why the other Jews around him insist on celebrating God who has abandoned them and does nothing to relieve their suffering.

“Why, but why should I bless Him? In every fiber I rebelled. Because He had had thousands of children burned in His pits? Because He kept six crematories working night and day, on Sundays and feast days? Because in His great might He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many factories of death? How could I say to him: ‘Blessed art Thou, Eternal, Master of the Universe, Who chose us from among the races to be tortured day and night, to see our fathers, our mothers, our brothers, end in the crematory? Praised be Thy Holy Name, Thou Who hast chosen us to be butchered on Thine altar?

Wiesel raises the issue of the Jews’ choseness in this passage and flips the concept around on its head. He hints that God seemed to have chosen the Jews to suffer through history, all of it culminating in the holocaust and the crematories. He finds the idea of worshipping such a God ludicrous.

If this is a memoir about Elie’s experience during the holocaust, then it also equally about Elie’s relationship with his father and how they attempt to survive in the camp together. The camp causes him to betray his relationship with his father, even as he clings onto this relationship as a kind of security blanket. The camp forces him to resent his father and his weaknesses because Elie  is not in a position to protect his father from punishment, forcing him to violate the commandment to honor one’s parents. His own impotence makes him resent his father’s stupid mistakes around their oppressors.

“What is more, any anger I felt at that moment was directed, not against the Kapo, but against my father. I was angry with him, for not knowing how to avoid Idek’s outbreak. That is what concentration camp life had made of me.”

Camp life forces Elie to sublimate his anger at his oppressors, and to direct it at his father for being so foolish and not knowing how to prevent himself pain. He remarks early in the narrative about a son beating his own father to death in order to steal his rations. At the end of the narrative, Wiesel’s own father grows very sick and another confronts him with this same suggestion.

“Listen to me, boy. Don’t forget that you’re in a concentration camp. Here, every man has to fight for himself and not think of anyone else. Even of his father. Here, there are no fathers, no brothers, no friends. Everyone lives and dies for himself alone. I’ll give you a sound piece of advice–don’t give your ration of bread and soup to your old father. There’s nothing you can do for him. And you’re killing yourself. Instead, you ought to be having his ration.”

Survival matters more than family relationships. For a moment, Elie finds himself agreeing with this man’s suggestion to rob his father of his food, but then chastises himself for even considering such a horrible betrayal to his parent. Eventually his father succumbs to his sickness and Elie feels more guilt for the relief it brings him.

“I did not weep, and it pained me that I could not weep. But I had no more tears. And, in the depths of my being, in the recesses of my weakened conscience, could I have searched it, I might perhaps have found something like–free at last!

I can’t imagine a more terrible feeling than to feel relief that your father is dead and to think of the person who gave you life as a horrible burden. It’s the relationship with his father that provides the emotional core of the narrative, and had me near tears at many points. The book is an emotionally powerful narrative that depicts brutality of the holocaust, the death of a man’s father, and the end of his faith.

Collected Poetry and Prose by Wallace Stevens

“The poem refreshes life so that we share,
For a moment, the first idea . . . It satisfies
Belief in an immaculate beginning
And sends us, winged by an unconcscious will,
To an immaculate end.” – From “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.”

To call Stevens a difficult poet is an understatement. His work is full nonsense words, archaic words in English, French, and other languages, bizarre metaphoric associations reminiscent of the French Symbolists, philosophical meditations on metaphysics, and manipulates the syntax of his verse to the breaking point. Even if one struggles to understand the meaning of his poems, a reader can still appreciate the musicality and the sound of his poetry. In his own words, Stevens cultivated “the gaudiness of poetry.” Such gaudiness, the music of his words, can be heard in lines like this:

After the final no there comes a yes
And on that yes the future world depends.

from “The Well Dressed Man with a Beard”

It was as if thunder took form upon
the piano. . .

from “Woman Looking at a Vase of Flowers”

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and big him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

– first stanza from The Emperor of Ice-Cream

Those unable or unwilling to decipher the deeper meanings behind his poetry can still find enjoyment in the unique and beautiful verses he constructs. Indeed, Stevens is a poet that demonstrates the centrality of sound and language itself to poetry. He is a poet that tempts us with his obscurantism to stop searching for the meaning and just enjoy the sound of the poem and beauty of the language as it rolls like music across the page. This is one way to approach Stevens: ignore what he might have to say and just enjoy the beauty of the words themselves, wallow in the messy confusion of his language, and melt into an awestruck stupor at his magical molding of a poem. For a reader willing to work a bit harder, however, there is plenty Stevens has to say.

In his poems, Stevens continually explores the relationship between imagination, our perceptions of the external world, and the arts role in negotiating the two. According to many of his poems, objective reality doesn’t exist outside of our thoughts, feelings, and imaginative experiences of it. This shouldn’t be understood literally. Obviously an objective reality exists, but for all intents and purposes we can never truly experience it without it being filtered through our subjectivity and consequently our imagination. Poems such as “The Snow Man” illustrates that even though external reality exists independent of us, we can only experience it after its been filtered through our perceptions and consequently our imaginations and feelings about it. No observation of the world is a neutral observation. He often demonstrates this by showing how metaphor or unusual associations in poetry drastically changes our thoughts and feelings about the object being compared or described. However, while Stevens is dedicated to these themes of the relationship between perception, imagination, the external world, and poetry, he isn’t beyond showing other sides of the issue. In the love poem “Bouquet of Belle Scavoir” a person receives flowers from their lover, which proves an unsatisfactory stand-in for the real flesh-and-blood lover. In this poem, metaphor and poetic representation cannot replace the actual experience of being with the lover in the flesh, which is a different stance from many of his other poems that suggest poetry enhances our experience of the real world. Poetic and artistic representations of love are unsatisfactory in comparison to the real experience of being with the lover.

Stevens views the efforts of those searching for a single Platonic truth governing reality as futile and sees the world as malleable, constantly changing before our perceptions and the way we speak about it, such as in poetry. One such poem that deals with this issue is “The Glass of Water.” In the poem, reality consists not of a single meaning, but a series of constantly different states. Steven starts by looking at a simple glass of water whose physical state changes between solid and liquid depending on the environment. He then compares a beam of light striking the glass to a lion coming down to drink from it. By transforming a simple beam of light on the glass through an unusual comparison to a lion arriving to drink, the poem also transforms the glass of water into a vast pool, which further highlights the idea of changing states of reality through the interference of our language. The metaphors and associations used in the poem actually change our perception of the object. Eventually a character appears in the poem named Fat Jocundus who doesn’t care about the parts of the poem, but desires to know what exists in the true center, not of the glass, but the deepest truth behind the reality of the physical image of the glass. He desires the Platonic ideal, the singular truth governing reality, what many also desire from poetry. He misses the point, which is that like the glass of water with its changing states, which the poem constantly reimagines through metaphor, our experience of reality isn’t supposed to remain static, where not supposed to come to a final truth underlying all existence, but should enjoy the dynamic change of the world around us and the everyday objects we view. In looking for final meaning, a singular truth, Jocundus ironically misses the truth that Stevens’ poem attempts to teach: that the world is a constantly changing place and change is the only truth, making a single indivisible Platonic ideal impossible.

In this way, Steven is constantly thinking through the nature of poetry. In his poem, “Of Modern Poetry,” he meditates on the nature of modern poetry, which has had to abandon the old themes and tropes of previous poetry of the past, which has grown stale in modern times, in order to capture the feelings and emotions of the current times. In poems such as “The Poems of Our Climate,” Stevens suggests that often people want poetry to do more than simply be a poem; they want poetry to reveal some deeper truth about reality, and what we truly enjoy about a poem is its imperfections that allow us to reconstruct the poem in our own image. Whereas in “Prelude to Objects,” Stevens describes a more ideal reader who is so deeply connected to their selves that they have no need for poetry or art to find a deeper meaning in their lives.

One trope Stevens is fond of is the depiction of painting in his poetry. Some examples of poems that deal with painting are “The Man with The Blue Guitar,” “Study of Two Pears,” “The Common Life,” and “Landscape with Boat.” These poems often use painting to explore the thematic concerns about perception and reality, suggesting all art, not just poetry, plays an integral role in manipulating our perceptions of reality through the imagination. In “Study of Two Pears,” the poem describes an observer viewing a painting of two pears. The opening consists of the speaker insisting that the pear does not resemble viols, nudes, or bottles (other common topics of painting). They resemble nothing other than pears. They are not symbolic in anyway, but depicted realistically. However, as the observer explores this supposedly realistic painting, unusual colors start creeping in such as the bits of blue due to “the way they are modelled.” Such details remind the reluctant observer that he is viewing a painting and not real pears. The fifth stanza speaks of yellows, citrons, oranges, and greens; of all these colors, the Citron is jarring, suggesting a resemblance and metaphorical association with another type of fruit. This comparison has snuck into the observer’s perception, despite his earlier insistence on realism. The final stanza ends the illusion that he can view the artwork as a one-for-one natural representation of pears as he notices that the “shadows of the pears are blobs on the green cloth.” The shadows aren’t naturalistic, but rather appear as green blobs. The observer notices the green cloth of the canvas, suggesting the deconstruction of the illusion, and full awareness that he is viewing a painting. The last lines inform us that “the pears are not seen as the observers wills.” In a way you can view the poem as a kind of philosophical joke: this observer viewing the painting insists that pears should resemble only pears, a desire for realism in the visual arts rather than symbolic distortions of the Cubist sort, but of course, what he is really viewing is paint that is made to resemble pears through artistic invention. He is not looking at actual pears, but paint made to look like pears suggesting that even the most seemingly realistic art on some level is representational and once this is recognized the insistence that art should resemble reality perfectly becomes ridiculous because on some level art will always distort reality to lesser or greater degree, and this distortion is actually a good thing in the way it “refreshes life.”

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

“They tell you to do your thing but they don’t mean it. They don’t want you to do your thing, not unless it happens to be their thing, too. It’s a laugh, Goober, no matter what the posters say.”

Jerry Renault refuses to sell chocolates in the annual Trinity school fund-raiser. At first he is only following an assignment from the secret student-run organization known as The Vigils, but after the period of his assignment is over he continues to abstain from selling chocolates. His radical individuality initially inspires the students, but when Jerry defies The Vigils after they demand he start selling the chocolates again he finds the entire school against him. He pays a terrible price for his rebellion and individuality.

I like that this book refuses to compromise for the sake of fiction. Jerry is a genuinely sympathetic character, while his various enemies throughout the book, the manipulative Archie, the bully Emile, and the corrupt Father Leon are morally repugnant. We side with Jerry, and hope that these characters, especially Archie, have their comeuppance. But, alas, Archie wins in the end. He outsmarts all the people who resent him and want to see him fall, and Jerry barely survives being beaten to a pulp for his convictions.

One scene in particular stands out in my mind as a good example of thinking about the choices a writer makes when constructing a plot. As assigner of The Vigils, Archie invents elaborate assignments for random students chosen from the school population to complete. However, a catch exists to temper the assigners creativity; for each assignment he must select a marble from a box containing four white marbles and one black marble, if he selects the black marble he must take the place of the student assigned and complete the task himself.

In the last scene of the book, Archie forces Jerry and Emile to participate in an elaborate boxing match before the whole student body. One of the other Vigils who resents Archie and looks forward to the day Archie will experience justice pulls out the box right before the boxing match. It seems Archie’s plans will finally backfire. Various characters throughout the book have been hoping Archie will fail; it seems practically foreshadowed that an assignment will backfire, and this is the perfect moment. Many other writers I suspect would’ve taken the story in this direction, and it still would’ve been a good way to end it, if not a more obvious ending and a different message. I appreciate that Cormier doesn’t take his story in this direction, though. Justice doesn’t prevail. Archie selects a marble and the odds hold up in his favor. In fact, the novel ends with Archie bragging how nobody can take people like him down.

Jerry’s ideal to disturb the universe is admirable, but often in reality the rich and powerful and super intelligent win over mere ideals. Idealism fails in this novel. I can see many reading too much into this “message.” It is very easy to view the story as an allegory showing the foolishness of idealism as ever so much hippie mind-rot (after all, it is comments by hippies that set Jerry on this rebellious path in the first place). I think this would be a misinterpretation. As I mentioned the earlier we do genuinely sympathize with Jerry, and we do hope the likes of father Leon, Emile, and Archie will face justice. Rather than wholeheartedly denouncing idealism, then, the story reminds us that idealism has a price, and that as much as we may hope for it and they may deserve it, the good guys don’t always win in the end. It reminds us that life simply doesn’t work that way. The story is also fairly original in that it shows teachers can be morally corrupt as embodied in the character of Father Leon.