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“Justice”

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Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? is an accidental find and a very great read (so far). I stumbled upon it at the neighborhood book and decided to take it home after perusing the first two chapters. Michael J. Sandel, a professor of government at Harvard University, seeks to bring implicit arguments over justice into the open, and to persuade liberals that there is nothing wrong with being judgmental. In debates ranging from affirmative action and surrogate parenting to abortion and same-sex marriage, we must talk, he says, about virtue and desert, not just compassion and choice. “Justice is inescapably judgmental,” he writes. “A politics emptied of substantive moral engagement makes for an impoverished civic life. It is also an open invitation to narrow, intolerant moralisms. Fundamentalists rush in where liberals fear to tread.”

Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?, based on a famous course that Sandel teaches, offers a discussion of what Sandel regards as the three main competing views of justice. The first of these takes welfare to be the criterion of justice. Another approach takes freedom and rights to be fundamental to justice. The third view, the one to which Sandel is himself inclined, stresses virtue. What character traits should the government, as well as society as whole, endeavor to inculcate in the population?

Belles Lettres

The Oxford Dictionary defines belles lettres as “essays, particularly of literary and artistic criticism, written and read primarily for their aesthetic effect.” In a more general sense, literature considered as a fine art. In French it literally means “beautiful letters.” More old-fashioned bookstores and library employing the Dewey Decimal system usually have a section devoted to belles lettres, which to the young, inquisitive mind that I was, remained an ambiguity.

A New Handbook of Literary Terms by David Mikics notes on belletristic style: “A piece of prose writing that is belletristic in style is characterized by a casual, yet polished and pointed, essayistic elegance. The belletristic is sometimes contrasted with the scholarly or academic: it is supposed to be free of the laborious, inert, jargon-ridden habits indulged by professors.”

In other words, the belles lettres style is individual in a sense. This is one of its most distinctive properties. Individuality in selecting language means (including stylistic devices), extremely apparent in poetic style, becomes gradually less in, let us say, publicist style, is hardly noticeable in the style of scientific prose and is entirely lacking in newspapers and in official styles.

My understanding is that prose fiction differs from general fiction in the style of prose, which has the quality of poetry and drama. Owing to this rigid criterion, it is no wonder the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison, Mikhail Bulgakov, Virginia Woolf, and F. Scott Fitzgerald are categorized as belles lettres. The common ground of their works is that a peculiar individual selection of vocabulary and syntax, or a kind of lexical and syntactical idiosyncrasy is employed to create a context unique within the work itself.

“Mark-Down”

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I checked in at the Booking Through Thursday blog, which is the host for a weekly book meme or blogging prompt. Here is this week’s prompt:

Does the price of a book affect your decision about buying it? Do you wait for cheaper editions of books you want?

I have to stay on budget for the huge number of books I buy. So quick answer is yes. I don’t buy hardbacks unless it’s a book that I desperately want to read hot off the press. Trade paperback is my preferred edition, which is usually not available until at least 9 months after the hardback release. Publishers usually cut the price of remaining hardback stock when trade paperback is released. That’s a good time to buy discounted hardbacks. That said, I still prefer paperback. Prices of older editions also plunge when new editions become available. The truth is—who doesn’t like deal, even if it’s a slight mark-off? My local bookstores have a discount section where you can find great bargains for books that publishers would buy back. Some books are heavily discounted. It’s not uncommon that hardcovers originally priced at $20+ would be marked down to $5-$6 within a few months. The bottom line is what you pay is what you get. Heavily discounted books could be a tell-tale sign of poor writing or dreadful story. Classics—the very timelessness that makes them so—seem to do better in fighting depreciation. Except for the titles that publishers repeatedly, regularly, roll out with new rubs and editions (and therefore the older editions are marked down), classics usually don’t have discount. Paper copy of Ulysses is now $18, the annotated edition $21, Magic Mountain $17—and I almost have never seen any mark-down for new copies.

[650] A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – James Joyce

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” I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning.” (Chapter V, p.268-9)

The novel portrays Stephen Dedalus’s childhood and youth up to the age of about 20. “This race and this country and this life produced me,” declares Stephen, an alter ego, and artistic image of James Joyce himself. As a young boy growing up in Ireland during a period of political turmoil, Stephen’s Catholic faith and Irish nationality heavily influence him. The world presses on him incessantly and he cannot tolerate the painful form form of reality—the dread of boarding school life, bullying, class difference, poverty, perpetual struggle between catholic and Protestant, and a continuing quarrel with his mother.

He had known neither the pleasure of companionship with others nor the vigour of rude male health nor filial piety. Nothing stirred within his soul but a cold and cruel and loveless lust. His childhood was dead or lost and with it his soul capable of simple joys, and he was drifting amid life like the barren shell of the moon. (Chapter II, p.102)

Joyce has a cunning capacity to externalize Stephen’s consciousness. Reader is given only some highly concentrated sense of home, school, and streets that presses so intensely upon Stephen’s spirit. While he is acutely sensitive to all that happens around him, he doesn’t necessarily understand everything. As reality slowly encroaches upon his internal reveries and teenage angst, he becomes alienated from his peers as his family struggles from one property to another and his father, for whom he loses respect, from pub to pub seeking work. Straitened finance also means withdrawal from boarding school. The prize from an essay contest also becomes succor for family rent and provision. During his attendance in a prestigious day school in Dublin, Stephen, in defiance of religious upbringing, throws himself with debauched abandon.

All through his boyhood he had mused upon that which he had so often thought to be his destiny and when the moment had come for him to obey the call he had turned aside, obeying a wayward instinct. (Chapter IV, p.179)

Recognized he might be condemned for his sins, he is immersed in a pronounced but short-lived religious devotion. His fate is almost sealed as he is invited to take Holy Orders, which he rejects with conviction, at the realization that he must arrive at his conviction through spiritual agony.

The novel, retrospective speaking, heralds Stephen’s rejection of the environment and traditional voice of authority that eventually shapes his artistic talent. He must break away from the consciousness of the boundaries of family and religion in order to be in touch with his consciousness of the world. Wisdom of the priest didn’t touch him quick because he must experience the snares of the world to see sensual beauty. Joyce’s style is direct and visceral, but memories are recollected in a disjointed manner—so capricious and random is his perception of events. The prose gives reader the sense that he is seeing what Stephen sees and experiencing his life first hand.

329 pp. Penguin Classics 2003. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Joyce

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I have a plan to re-read Ulysses, probably the most difficult and challenging work of literature ever published. Having read it in college, I couldn’t say I have understood it to the full extent, let alone enjoyed it. The book’s reputation for density, erudition, and inscrutability still daunts many readers, including myself. In spite of the glut of guidebooks, summaries, and annotations meant to accompany Ulysses, I have chosen to ignore them. I only remember, from the hasty read back in college, that it generously overflows with insight into the human experience, and it’s very, very funny. This time around, I’ll give myself plenty of time in indulge in the book, without time constraint. It’s okay to re-read passages and go track. But before tackling Ulysses, I decided to read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the first in Joyce’s whopping hat-trick of great novels, is both shorter and more approachable than either of Joyce’s later masterpieces. To say the least, it really unleashed the massive power of Joyce’s innovation and unconventionality upon the literary world. It lays the ground for Ulysses as the novel starts to make use of the famous (or infamous) Joycean techniques such as stream of consciousness narration, interiority (a revealing view of the character’s inner workings), and a very frank realism. In short, it’s Stephen Dedalus’ coming-of-age story and mirrors the author’s life up to age 20.

[649] Siddhartha – Hermann Hesse

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” When the exalted Gautama, teaching, spoke of the world, he had to divide it into samsara and nirvana, into illusion and truth, into suffering and release. One can do nothing else, there is no other way for the one who wants to teach. But the world itself, that which exists around us and inside us, is never unilateral. Never is a man or a deed wholly samsara or wholly nirvana, never is a person entirely saintly or entirely sinful. ” (Part II, Gorvinda, p.112)

Siddhartha is a short philosophical novel that exhausts neither possibility nor interpretations. The premise is simply and almost too conventional to pique my interest at first. A young Indian Brahmin’s (highest caste of society) pursuit of enlightenment, during the same time period of gautama Buddha. It has a strong resemblance to the story of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, except in Hesse’s rendition of his Brahmin prince, Siddhartha forsakes Buddha’s teachings, even though he is highly moved by Buddha’s presence, because he has the complicating (and troublesome) intuition that he cannot achieve what the Buddha has achieved by following the Buddha. In other words, no amount of second-hand knowledge and learning can give him the real sense of peace and happiness unless it’s enlivened by real first-hand experience.

I have had to endure so much stupidity, so many burdens, so much error, so much disgust and disappointment and misery simply to become a child again and to be able to begin fresh. But it was rightly so, my heart affirms, it, my eyes laugh at it. I had to experience despair, I had to sink down to the most misguided of all thoughts, to the thought of suicide, in order to experience grace, again to perceive Om, again to sleep well and properly to awaken. (Part II, By the River, p.76)

So Siddhartha decides the best way to emulate the Buddha is not to follow him. Into the world he goes, allow it to hold him captive—desire, covetousness, lassitude, and avarice. After he tasted wealth, swathed in well-being, he loses his spiritual edge and forgets about his quest, and ends up being disgusted with himself.

Siddhartha reads like a prose-poem interspersed with philosophical insights. Although Siddhartha achieves a kind of surpassing peace as the book draws to a close, throughout the book Hesse’s pursuit of other religions resonates. The language is both lyrical and sensual. Siddhartha himself is an absorbing character, who follows nothing other than the dictates of his heart. Hesse doesn’t enlighten us what “enlightenment” is because enlightenment itself is abstract and intangible. Whether or not Siddhartha attains enlightenment (if there’s such a thing as perfect enlightenment), he experiments with the whole range of possibility. Keeping his own counsel he evolves as a human being to a place of peaceful universal unity.

140 pp. Barnes & Noble Classics. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

“Mark-Ups”

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I checked in at the Booking Through Thursday blog, which is the host for a weekly book meme or blogging prompt. Here is this week’s prompt:

Do you write in your books? Highlight? Make notes? Or do you like to keep your copies as pristine as possible?

I am an indulgent marker of books. It all started with the need to keep track of important quotes and pivotal passages pertaining to the book’s themes. Since only classical texts, Shakespeare and Ulysses come with line numbers on the margin, I need to “pencil in” (actually, pen, I write only with pen, pencil dumped since fourth grade) an asterisk and/or underline key words/phrases for later references when I compose notes. Now I would scribble notes on a separate piece of paper along with page references, that way I can use the paper as bookmark as well. I feel I am engaging in a conversation with what is written on the pages. Marking becomes an involuntary response. Annotations are important when I return to the book later after I finish. Marking therefore is a personal touch. This is why I am annoyed with library books all marked up. I don’t high-light and dog-ear my books.

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