RJ’s 2022 Draw-bag Booklist

It was Benjamin Franklin who gave us the axiom that “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” He might have added tempus fugit, or that time flies. Here we are again, another New Year, launching a journey into the unknown, trusting it will end well. As I’ve done the last three years, I am posting my annotated draw-bag list of anticipated reads, fiction and non-fiction, drawn from the finest sources. Covering a wide range, they excel in delivering counsel, encouragement, enjoyment and, yes, sanctuary. Keeping a list has kept my reading disciplined and meaningful—the very best books, nothing less. Perhaps this list or one of your own will do the same for you. HAPPY NEW YEAR everyone! —rj


Akhtar, Aryad. Homeland Elegies A Novel. (Akhtar’s second novel, a probing critique of America’s embraced narratives.)

Beaty, Paul. The Sellout. (First American to win Man Booker Prize, Beaty’s satiric novel depicts an isolated Black protagonist, whose case ultimately goes before the Supreme Court.)

Boyd, William. Any Human Heart. (Boyd’s sprawling novel and popular BBC dramatization sure to draw you in, and a reread for me. It’s that good. )

Butler, Samuel. The Way of All Flesh. (V. S. Pritchett called this book “the bomb of Victorian literature.” A clergyman loses his faith.)

Byatt, A. S. Possession. (Exhilarating Man Booker Prize intellectual novel of love and mystery.)

Camus. The Plague. (The classic more relevant than ever.)

Chandler, Raymond. The Big Sleep. (I never tire of a good mystery, and Chandler, the great master, never disappoints.)

Chaudhuri, Amit. Odysseus Abroad (Along with Salmon Rushdie, Chaudhuri ranks among India’s most prominent writers in English. With seven novels, this work is a good place to begin your acquaintance).

Herbert, Frank. Dune. (Among the most widely read science fiction novels, an exploration of a future interstellar landscape.)

Kundera, Milan. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. (A cogent examination of the way we live our lives.)

Leilani, Raven. Luster. (The adultery novel, successor to Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, finds updated boldness in Leilani’s first novel. On Barak Obama’s reading list for 2020.)

Márquez, Gabriel García. One Hundred Years of Solitude. (The great master’s timeless novel.)

Pritchett, V. S. Short Stories. (Famed man of letters, especially known for his short stories, essays, and crafted sentences.)

Robinson, Marilynne. Gilead. (A Pulitzer Prize winner, first in series of four novels by America’s internationally acclaimed literary fiction writer.)

Tharoor, Shashi. The Great Indian Novel. (An amalgam of myth, legend, folklore and anecdote in a retelling of Indian history from its ancient beginnings to its present day.)

Trevor, William. The Stories of William Trevor. (Now an established literary presence, Trevor’s collected short stories will unceasingly delight.)

Yanagihara, Hanya. A Little Life. (National Book Award Finalist and NPR Best Book, 2015), four friends grapple with hopes, fears, and unspeakable losses.)


Arana, Marie. Bolivar: American Liberator. (Outstanding biography of Simon Bolivar, the South American revolutionary often compared to Washington.)

Benedict, Ruth. Patterns of Culture (Classic delineation of cultural patterns, drawing on Nietzsche’s Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy).

Davis, Wade. Light at the Edge of the World: A Journey Through the Realm of Vanishing Cultures (Renowned anthropologist Davis explores unique indigenous versions of life and humanity’s loss consequent with tribal extinction.)

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs & Steel. (I have been aspiring for some time to read this best selling popular science book, translated into 33 languages and a Pulitzer winner. Diamond brings a wealth of knowledge from many disciplines, explaining historical European dominance.)

Ehrman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus (Biblical scholar Ehrman chronicles his transition from belief in divine inspiration of the Bible to contradictory and falsified biblical texts.)

Frankl, Victor. Man’s Search for Meaning. (Holocaust survivor Frankl’s life-changing book on the aegis of human happiness.)

Gates, Bill. How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need (An optimistic, sensible argument that we possess the wherewithal to mitigate climate change apocalypse.)

hooks, bell. All About Love: New visions (The late black feminist’s acclaimed book defining love as it should be.)

Levi, Primo. If This is a Man. (A classic, riveting holocaust story of survival replete with resonant insights engendered through duress.)

Mance, Henry. How to Love Animals: In a Human-Shaped World. (A beautifully written, candid appraisal of humanity’s relationship to the animal world.)

Mishra, Pankai. Bland Fanatics. (Sixteen essays offering a revised reading of Western history in the context of racial exclusion.)

Orwell, George. A Collection of Essays. (I have always appreciated Orwell as one of our supreme essayists, forthright, prescient insights, and style mastery.)

Shapiro, James. Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past And Our Future. (A Shakespeare scholar offers timely Shakespearian nuance for a troubled nation.)

Solnit, Rebecca. Orwell’s Roses. (An exploration of both Orwell’s political rage and his consummate love for cultivating roses, revealing a fascinating inner dimension. Solnit never disappoints. Makes me want to visit his Hereford cottage.)

Steele, Andrew. Ageless: The New Science of Getting Older Without Getting Old. (Exploration of future expansion of longevity and well-being. This book will get you moving.)

Williams, Joy. Ill Nature: Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals. (Essays by a short-listed National Book Award and Pulitzer nominee.)

Wilson, E.O. Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life (The last in the eminent biologist’s trilogy, it offers bold strategies to save earth and ourselves.)

Wulf, Andrea. The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (Wulf’s illuminating biography of the father of modern environmentalism, selected as A Best Book of the Year (2016) by The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Economist, Nature, Jezebel, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, New Scientist, The Independent, The Telegraph, The Sunday Times, The Evening Standard, The Spectator.)

The East India Company: A Cautionary Saga of Corporate Greed

The Red Fort

Should we be concerned about the growing aegis of international corporate entities monopolizing markets, often with the connivance of government?

A new iPod series, Capitalisn’t, hypothesizes our future. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg becomes President and manipulates anti-trust law in his favor, assuring his company can never be broken up. Too extreme? Luigi Zingales, of the University of Chicago, co-creator of the series along with Kate Waldock, of Georgetown University, reminds us of the disgraced Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who parlayed his media shares into political power. If Zuckerberg were able to emulate his example, he could conceivably become president and control both government and the world’s largest communication network.

Far-fetched? Not according to historian William Dalrymple, utilizing the East India Company as his exemplum, the threat is papable and emerges the underlying thesis of his recent highly esteemed The Anarchy: The East Corporate Violence and the Pillage of an Empire (2019).

Dalrymple, who lives in his adoptive India and has written fifteen other books on India, offers us a scenario where the unlikely actually happened in the swift rise of an initially small private enterprise to absolute power, replete with its own army, and achieving power hegemony over India.

I had come across Dalrymple’s book in compiling my drawbag reading favorites, posted annually on New Year’s day. Since I had majored in Victorian literature in grad school, I was not unfamiliar with the Company’s aggressive exploitation in Bengal under the ruthless Robert Clive in the mid-17th century, which saw its vast expansion.

I also remembered that John Stuart Mill, my favorite Victorian, had been a major functionary in the EIC for many years, ultimately becoming Chief Examiner, overseeing relations with several Indian states. His father had written the still highly influential History of British India and served as spokesman for the EIC’s board of Directors. I wasn’t aware of any notoriety on their part, so I was intrigued.

More specifically, The Anarchy traces the founding of the corporation, replete with stock investors in 1599 to 1803, when it had amassed a private army of 200,000, twice the size of the British army, and acquired dominance over the sub-continent with the defeat of the Marathi (not fully so until 1818), resulting in unprecedented opulence extracted from subjugated monarchs and ruthless taxation, even among the poor, setting the stage for the British Raj (1858), when the Company would become subordinate to the Crown following the sepoy rebellion of 1857.

India constituted Britain’s consolation prize for having lost its colonies in America. (Ironically, the EIC’s transgressions in India had agitated colonists that a like corporation might descend upon them.) In 1781, the defeated General Cornwallis at Yorktown was appointed Governor General by the EIC to preempt its repeat.

The book isn’t easy reading for the squeamish, as Indian history reeks with conspiracy, warfare, and carnage, continual conflict pitting huge armies, even by modern standards, against one another. Cities like Delhi and Calcutta are routinely pillaged and laid waste by rival Mughal factions serving-up unbridled brutality and repression, with the rare exception of enlightened monarchs like the blinded Shah Aram, last Mughal emperor, and the beloved Tipu Sultan, killed by EIC allied forces. A substantial portion of Dalrymple’s narrative details the many battles waged for control of India.

Dalrymple chronicles the rapacious Company’s opulence in a huge transfer of Indian wealth from trade, taxation, and payments from subjugated or protected local sovereigns. It brought to mind the Spanish in the New World bent on mercantile profit, heedless of unleashed cruelties on indigenous tribes.

One of the most riveting episodes of Company pecuniary malfeasance occurred with the horrendous famine of 1769-70, consequent with the absence of monsoon rain. Rice stocks grew ten times more expensive, exacerbating an already public emergency. Despite some efforts to provide famine relief, “anxious to maintain their revenues at a time, the Company, in one of the greatest failures of corporate responsibility in history, rigorously enforced tax collection and in some cases even increased revenue assessments by 10 per cent….Even starving families were expected to pay up; there were no remissions authorised on humanitarian grounds,” Dalrymple writes.

Two-thirds of Bengal peasantry perished from famine or ensuing disease. In all, an estimated 1.2 million died in Bengal, India’s formerly richest and most fertile province. Shamelessly, the Company would inform investors back in England of an increase in revenue, despite the famine.

Dalrymple’s account of the Company’s presence in India is balanced. There were good Brits, like distinguished linguist and simple living Warren Hastings, de facto first Governor General of India from 1773 to 1785. Hastings tried earnestly to stop the rampant looting of Bengal by Company associates. He would later wound his persistent antagonist Philip Drake, who survived being wounded, only to accuse him and his Chief Justice, Elijah Impey, of impropriety. Recalled to England, both would be tried in court, but ultimately acquitted.

That a relatively small private company succeeded in achieving the downfall of the Mughal Empire, attaining unprecedented power in short space, was due to three principal factors: rivalries among Indian ruling factions, some of whom would join the EIC ranks; superior training and weaponry among privately hired sepoys, reenforced by seasoned British military leadership; and no less, by speculative Indian money lenders advancing funds to the Company, allowing it to finance its huge military.

Dalrymple’s history serves as a warning of the dangers posed by international corporations, often in league with government investors, heedless of the public good. As Dalrymple comments in the “Epilogue,” “The Company’s conquest and plundering of India almost certainly remains the supreme act of corporate violence in world history. The East India Company remains today history’s most ominous warning about the potential for the abuse of corporate power – and the insidious means by which the interests of shareholders can seemingly become those of the state.”

Dalrymple has written an informed history, drawing upon multiple sources, scholarly, yet easy to read, relevant to our own time of growing corporate power and the dangers it imposes.

On Reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations

I posted the other day in Facebook about having read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. I wish I had read it as a young man, ordering my life at its outset with its wise, profound counsel, bringing sanctuary and stability in an often troubled world. It’s that good, but read it in the Hays translation to ease your way. There are some books one should read every year. For me, Meditations is one of them:

“People try to get away from it all—to the country, to the beach, to the mountains. You always wish that you could too. Which is idiotic: you can get away from it anytime you like. By going within. Nowhere you can go is more peaceful—more free of interruptions—than your own soul.” (4.3) —Marcus Aurelius

Trading English for Italian: Jhuma Lahiri’s Choice

Pulitzer Prize-winner Jhumpa Lahiri is the author of The Namesake and Interpreter of Maladies.

I happen to be a linguaphile, or lover of languages, having lost count of how many I’ve pursued, at one time or another, with French and Spanish at the top of my list. I like French for its euphony and cultural legacy. It’s also the language of my inheritance. But then I study Spanish, almost daily, largely for its ubiquity and hence utility.

Yet in all of this pursuit, I cherish English as the greatest repository for infinite articulation, featuring the largest vocabulary, eclectically drawn, rich in subtlety of nuance, syntactical variation, and thus fit vessel for poetry in particular. While learning Chinese seems to be catching on, myriad tones, script and accents spell difficulty for Westerners. Finally, English is like no other language in producing so universal a writer as Shakespeare. It bothers me when I see it abused.

I didn’t know until recently that Oscar Wilde wrote his play Salome in French or that celebrated beat writer Louis Jean Kerouac grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts, speaking French as his first language and began writing On the Road in French. Few Americans probably know he wrote other novels and poetry in French, writing in his journal, “It’s hard for me to talk in English.”

Conrad and Nabokov also come to mind, but I think they chose writing in a foreign language more from necessity, than disavowal of their inheritance, ultimately selecting English as their idiom, or much like Danish writer, Isak Denison. Nabokov was bilingual from childhood, never simply Russian speaking. Perhaps today’s most notable writer in another language is Czech born writer Milan Kundera, who insists he should be considered a French writer.

More recently, there is American novelist Jhumpa Lahiri, Pulitzer Prize winner for her short stories in English, Interpreter of Maladies (2000), who became enamored with Italian after a student trip to Florence, subsequently relocating to Rome with her husband and children and no longer reading and writing in English, apart from lately translating her work into English.

As a West Bengali diaspora child, born in London, brought up in Rhode Island, Lahiri experienced the frequent immigrant sense of dislocation. Italian delivered escape from painful memories and opportunity “to reconstruct myself.” Her early novels and short story collections in English mirror the Indian immigrant experience in America. Of all America’s immigrant writers, Lahiri’s thematic is displacement, ironically providing for a universality of readership, whether of race, gender, age or sexual orientation, ad infinitum.

In a revealing essay in The New Yorker {2015), “Teach Yourself Italian,” originally composed in Italian and translated into English by Ruth Goldstein, Lahiri elaborates: “My relationship with Italian takes place in exile, in a state of separation….In a sense I’m used to a kind of linguistic exile. My mother tongue, Bengali, is foreign in America. When you live in a country where your own language is considered foreign, you can feel a continuous sense of estrangement. You speak a secret, unknown language, lacking any correspondence to the environment. An absence that creates a distance within you.”

One of our most accomplished contemporary writers, Lahiri has received many awards that include the Old Henry Award PEN/Hemingway Award, Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. She has been a finalist for the Man Booker Prize and The National Book Award and as mentioned, the Pulitzer Prize. A graduate of Barnard College (Columbia), she has an MA, MFA, and Ph. D. from Boston University.

Her narratives are compelling for their empathetic unveiling of life’s myriad alienated, lonely, and distraught, the quotidian experience of failing relationships, the deaths of loved ones. Transcending the Indian diaspora, Lahiri renders universality without sentimentality.

Her style exhibits simplicity, housed in a refreshing directness, every word le mot juste that would make Flaubert proud. Imagery conveys inner moods, a day’s ordinariness, the anxiety of continuing challenge, inward as well as outer, to not fail, to move past and prevail.

Take this passage, for example, from her short story, “A Temporary Matter,” with its straight-forward sensory depiction of marital dissonance, that exhibits, not tells, as all good writing does the pathos of marital alienation:

Tonight with no lights, they would have to eat together. For months now they’d served themselves from the stove, and he’d {Shukumar} taken his plate into his study, letting the meal grow cold on his desk before shoving it into his mouth without pause, while Shoba took her plate to the living room and watched game shows, or proofread files with her arsenal of colored pencils at hand.

Her first work in Italian, In altre parole in which she writes of her choice of Italian, appeared in 2015, followed by her novel, Dove mi Trove in 2018, which she later translated into English, titled Wandering

The anomaly of her exile is that Italy doesn’t provide for the assimilation America features, despite its salient racism. Italians are notoriously xenophobic, resistant increasingly to immigrants who increasingly populate Rome. Lahiri admits to a swelling nativism reflected in the nation’s political life: “I am alarmed and terrified by the rise of the extreme right in Italy, by intolerance toward foreigners, and by acts of brutal violence perpetrated against them. I follow these events closely in the Italian press. I am equally anguished by the populism in this country that made Trump’s election possible. It really strikes me that the two countries I now shuttle between and consider home are places where xenophobia still thrive” (The New Yorker, January 29, 2018).

Has her writing suffered from her language transition? This is a serious question I can’t answer, as I don’t read Italian. There are critics who think so. “Whatever sharpness and shrewdness Ms. Lahiri possesses seems to have been surgically removed,”writes NYT literary critic, Dwight Gardner (February 9, 2016). In her non-fiction In Other Words, translated from Italian, she expounds on her linguistic displacement, confessing that “I know that my writing in Italian is something premature, reckless, always approximate.”

Ironically, Lahiri may now actually be a better writer in Italian than in English. Commenting on her most recent novel, Dove Mi Trovo, or Whereabouts (2018) in its English translation, Alessandro Giammei, an assistant professor of Italian at Bryn Mawr and former colleague of Lahiri, thinks so: “If, in English, Lahiri is an eye, he added, “in Italian, she’s an ear” (NYT, April 27, 2021).

While I appreciate her attempt to assuage the linguistic impositions of birth and early emigration, age three, to America, and transcend bicultural dissonance by deliberately choosing her idiom and culture, I think it a conflict of her own making. So much of life isn’t of our choosing. We don’t choose our parents, skin color, country of birth, ad infinitum.

Still, I admire her daring. It’s one thing to learn another language or more; quite another, to achieve literary mastery in a language not bequeathed by birth or upbringing. Besides, I confess “l’italiano è una lingua così bella.”


RJ’s 2021 Draw-bag Booklist

In compiling my annual draw-bag list for 2021 I’ve invested many hours, seeking the most relevant, informative, and challenging books out there, of which there are so many that I’ve had to practice tough-mindfulness in deciding what to exclude. My list includes classics that remain resonant as well as newer works on many subjects, providing provocation and challenge. As we travel 2021 together, I wish you good reading, health and abundant joy. —rj


Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio. (Often considered among the first modernist American novels, narrated in twenty-two short stories exploring the psychological consciousness of protagonist George Willard, it remains an enduring and influential classic of life in pre-industrial small town America.)

Anyuru, Johannes. A Storm Blew In From Paradise. (Taking Sweden by storm, Anyuru’s novel, drawn from the life of his Uganda father and himself, movingly, and without sentimentality, narrates a story of loss, exile, and search for identity.) 

Bruner, John. Stand on Zanzibar. (Bruner is largely unknown, save to science fiction buffs, which is a pity. A prolific genius, Bruner penned more than 80 SF novels along with short stories, of which Stand7 on Zanzabar (1968) is eerily prescient in anticipating our contemporary world.)

le Carré, John. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. (le Carré’s most renowned espionage novel set in East Germany, it transcends plot to indict practices inconsistent with professed democratic and moral values.)

Lewis. Sinclair. Main Street. (Edged out for the Pulitzer because it was judged too political, it remains Lewis’most renowned novel, satirizing small town America and setting the stage for the Nobel Prize for Literature a decade later.)

Marquez, Gabriel Garcia. Love in the Time of Cholera. (One of Latin America’s greatest writers, Marquez’ embraces love, aging and mortality in what will remain an enduring classic.)

McEwan, Ian. Atonement. (A stunning achievement telling of love, war and the destructive capacity of the imagined, rendered in stunning prose.)

Penny, Louise. Still Life. (First in detective series featuring inspector Armand Gamanche. Penny’s mysteries, numbering fifteen, have been translated into twenty-three languages.)

Robinson, Kim Stanley. Ministry for the Future. (Prolific and gifted, science fiction writer Robinson presciently narrates a killing heat wave that may become our future.  Superbly relevant.)

Roy, Arundhati. The God of Small Things. (Set in Kerala, India, Roy’s novel narrates an illegal liaison with fateful consequence. A novel destined to become a classic.)

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. (Believed to be one of Shakespeare’s last plays, The Tempest has sparked revived interest for its timeless relevance.)

Wharton, Edith. Age of Innocence. (An enduring classic, set in the Gilded Age, it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, making Wharton its first female recipient.)


Aronoff, Kate, et al. A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal. (A specific strategy for limiting global carbon emissions simultaneous with promoting economic equity.)

Aurelius, Marcus. Meditations. Tr. Gregory Hays. (If I were exiled to a remote island I can’t fathom a better companion. Wise meditations on what really matters.)

Berlin, Isaiah. Four Essays on Liberty. (GPS host Fareed Zakaria says Berlin’s book profoundly impacted his political views. That’s good enough for me.)

Blum, David. Quintet: Five Journeys Toward Musical Fulfillment. (The late conductor Blum’s revealing portraits of five beloved classical music performers: cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the conductor Jeffrey Tate, the violinist Josef Gingold, the pianist Richard Goode, and the opera singer Birgit Nilsson. )

Cose, Ellis. The Short Life and Curious Death of Free Speech in America. (A cogent polemic revealing the usurpation of the First Amendment by marginal interests groups bent on distorting truth and despoiling American democracy.)

Dalrymple, William. The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East Asia Company. (The history of an international corporation in India, its arrogance, racism, and corporate abuse.)

Dawkins, Richard. River Out of Eden. (A summation for the layman of Dawkin’s previous works on the legacy and centrality of evolution. )

Davis, Wade. Magdalena: River of Dreams. (Davis’ exploration of Columbia’s arterial waterway, explores not only a river, but through largely indigenous narratives, the lives it touches. Powerful, unforgettable.)

Dillard, Annie. For the Time Being. (Miscellaneous topics, among them Dillard’s rejection of “the doctrines of divine omniscience, divine mercy, and divine omnipotence.”)

Ferry, Matthew. Quiet Mind Epic Life: Escape the Status Quo and Experience Enlightened Prosperity Now. (Ferry compellingly shows us how to escape a chattering mind and find inner peace,)

Graeber, David. Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. (Best selling, Graebner’s exploration of the rise of “meaningless” jobs and their social consequences.)

Hãaglund, Martin. This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom. (A powerful reexamination of our material pursuits under capitalism and challenge to commit ourselves to values that sustain and promote true freedom.)

Jefferies, Richard. The Story of my Heart. (Jefferies died at 39, leaving behind some of the keenest observations of nature ever written. This moving work will leave you wiser.)

Kendi. Ibram X. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. (A sobering critique of the continuing presence of racism in American life,)

Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. (Humanity’s destructive contribution to species decline.)

Nussbaum, Martha. The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis. (A brilliant and candid analysis of the culture of fear by one of our leading moral philosophers.)

Obama, Barak. Dreams from my Father. (I love this man for his decency and eloquence. This seems a good place to begin.)

Obama, Barack. The Promised Land. (No former president has written so remarkably candid a memoir like this, first of two volumes.)

Pickney, Steve. Angels of our Better Nature. (Harvard psychologist’s reasoned contention that violence is not our future.)

Sheehy, Gail. Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life. (The late Sheehy’s 1976 study explores transitional stages of human development from early adulthood to midlife and beyond.)

Thompson, Evan. Why I am not a Buddhist. (A critique of modernism within Buddhism per se. Thompson, for example, views the notions of non-self, mindfulness and nirvana as empirically problematic.)

Westover, Tara. Educated. (Raised in a survivalist Mormon family, Westover recounts her journey to independence, academic achievement and self-esteem.)

Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste: The Origins of our Discontents.
(May well-be the priority non-fiction read of 2020 in its timely assessment of America’s enduring legacy of racial divide. Riveting, transforming, magisterial.)

Zakaria, Fareed. Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World.
(What constitutes good governance? Drawing on economic and cultural resources, Zakaria provides a convincing answer.)


Stein’s Map of the Soul—Persona: Review

Anima, animus, archetype, shadow, persona, apperception, individuation—pure Jungian parlance that remains with me still, despite the passage of years since I first read depth psychiatrist, Carl Jung. For a time, I seriously thought about changing careers and becoming a Jungian therapist.

I initially came upon Jung in teaching a college course dubbed Introduction to Literature, designed to teach students how to write expository essays, using literary models. One of its units featured Jungian archetypes. I was hooked.

The archetypal offered a simple palette for opening up literature for my students, baffled at how I somehow could extract meaning from a text that otherwise was simply prose. Know the pattern and you unlocked the door. The hero archetype, for example, with its separation, initiation, return triad.

Jung began my fascination with myth, which led to a National Humanities stipend to study the subject at Claremont Graduate School in 1978. I would learn that myth transcended what the public associated with, say, Greek and Roman mythology popularized by Edith Hamilton. Much more, myth was any attempt to render meaning in an an accidental cosmos, whether religious, political or philosophical, etc. If nature abhors a vacuum, so does the human mind. Myth confirmed Jung’s notion of a Collective Unconscious, or primordial repository of symbolization embedded universally. All cultures, for example, share legacies of a flood, or of Man’s first sojourn in a garden paradise.

In 1986, I studied Jung and Freud in an eight week seminar at Yale. In that wonderful summer, I read perhaps a layman’s best introduction by the sage himself, Man in Search of a Soul. Critic Northrup Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism proved a cogent, expansive source on archetype, and then there was Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers series, enjoying popular acclaim on PBS.

A few weeks ago, I downloaded on my Kindle Murray Stein’s recent book, Map of the Soul—Persona: Our Many Faces, which gathers not only his own insights, but those of other prominent Jungians.

I knew Murray when he was just sixteen, not yet a Yale student. His father was pastor of our church in Sterling Heights, Michigan, and we’d share long talks on varied topics, especially contemporary biblical criticism. Murray now trains analysts at the International Analytical Institute in Zurich, of which he’s president, has published widely, and lectures internationally.

Stein’s book is a short, but welcome, review of Jungian essentials for lay people, particularly on the persona:

Persona is a type of mask. It hides parts of the self that you do not want to be seen by others, and it also expresses who you feel you are at the present time.…But it does not say who you are when you are alone.

In brief, we are much deeper than the masquerades performed by our personas, which unchanged, inspire those complexes, or sub-conscious elements of charged emotion frustrating our living authentic lives and achieving the happiness authenticity makes possible. Deep within our subconscious, lies the Shadow, or unknown self, contrary to the personas we project. Often, we repress it for its contradictions to our social roles or its resulting angst. And here lies the crux and challenge of the Jungian approach—to acknowledge that repressed element and achieve reconciliation in what Jung called “individuation”:

But if we understand anything of the unconscious, we know that it cannot be swallowed. We also know that it is dangerous to suppress it, because the unconscious is life and this life turns against us if suppressed, as happens in neurosis.…Consciousness should defend its reason and protect itself, and the chaotic life of the unconscious should be given the chance of having its way too – as much of it as we can stand. This means open conflict and open collaboration at once. That, evidently, is the way human life should be. It is the old game of hammer and anvil: between them the patient iron is forged into an indestructible whole, an ‘individual.’ This, roughly, is what I mean by the individuation process.

Stein’s earlier book, also titled Map of the Soul (minus the persona tag), ironically caught the attention of the Korean rock group BTS, which have spread Stein’s Jungian message worldwide in their album, Map of the Soul Persona. Stein comments extensively on the album’s songs and their Jungian components in the book’s opening pages.

I think you’ll find Stein’s book riveting and a good place to begin your acquaintance with Jung, one of psychology’s foremost discerners of the human psyche and a principal influence on my own life.

Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth: Timely as Ever

There are some books written long ago that we still read for good reasons. Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth is one of them.

Though Wharton wrote it in 1905, it remains resonant in our own time with its extant hierarchal social structures where one percent own half our nation’s wealth, twenty percent live in poverty, and the middle class faces inexorable decline.

And yet it seems an anomaly that Wharton, so deeply endowed with wealth, should prove one of its harshest critics. Free from economic anxiety, she never knew the duress of marginal income and its daily weight in meeting the monthly rent or mortgage, paying rising utility bills, putting food on the table, having just enough to last until the next paycheck; worse, the cyclic loss of employment amid the vicissitudes of a market economy. She crossed the Atlantic some 60 times, moving permanently to France in 1913. Her parents, who had accumulated substantial wealth from real estate investment, provided their two children with every privilege wealth can confer. A debutante, she never lacked for suitors and married rich. Enjoying replete cultural exposure, she spoke French, German, and Italian fluently, became expert in architectural design, and was a knowledgeable gardener.  Yet the fact remains, she’s among America’s most insightful literary critics of what we now call the Gilded Age with its plutocracy of concentrated wealth.

Unlike the novel’s protagonist, the snobbish Lily Bart, Wharton is unsparing in bursting the bubble of the wealthy, the often shallowness of their wanton materialism, the competitive rigors of keeping up appearances, its social intrigues, smug superiority and indifference to the working class.

Wharton’s conscience finds its mindset in foil Gerty Farish’s inveterate altruism who, as Lily observes, “likes being good.”

And though she evolves, it comes too late. Adulating the wealthy, “she liked their elegance, their lightness. They were lords of the only world she cared for, and they were ready to admit her to their ranks and let her lord it with them. That very afternoon they had seemed full of brilliant qualities; now she saw that they were merely dull in a loud way. Under the glitter of their opportunities she saw the poverty of their achievement.”

Like all tragic figures, Lily’s downfall is self-wrought, knowing the encumbrance of her social aspirations, yet subscribing to its comforts. As Selden, the man she loves, astutely observes, “She was so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate.”

Selden’s observation, which reverberates throughout the narrative, links her with the naturalist school of writers that includes Crane, Zola, and Dreiser. Cosmic indifference infuses our universe and those unable to adapt it destroys, moral exigencies not withstanding. The House of Mirth has no easy fix. It is tragedy writ large.

As for Selden, he may love Lily, but unable to accomodate her quest for opulence and distinction, he cannot reciprocate. Sadly, he comes to believe the gossip he has heard, stifling his giving her the saving love she requires most by story end: “Selden had given her of his best, but he was as incapable as herself of an uncritical return to former states of feeling.”

Lily’s catalyst to insight is working-class Nettie Struther, whom she runs into toward novel end. In a singular act of previous charity, Lily provided money for Netty to access medical treatment, saving her life. Married and a recent mother, she offers that she had not only been ill, but unhappy. Like Gertie, Nettie has found contentment nonetheless, not in material goods, but in the bonds of affection: “It was the first time she had ever come across the results of her spasmodic benevolence, and the surprised sense of human fellowship took the mortal chill from her heart.”

In the novel’s most salient passage, Lily perceives that

all the men and women she knew were like atoms whirling away from each other in some wild centrifugal dance; her first glimpse of the continuity of life had come to her that evening in Nettie Struther’s kitchen. The poor little working-girl who had found strength to gather up the fragments of her life and build herself a shelter with them seemed to Lily to have reached the central truth of existence….If only life could end now—end on this tragic yet sweet vision of lost possibilities, which gave her a sense of kinship with all the loving and foregoing in the world…The little bottle was at her bed-side, waiting to lay its spell upon her.

Though written in 1905, the novel’s women reflect changing mores and the earliest intrusion of feminism, married women venturing into adultery and divorce and smoking becoming commonplace. Bertha Dorset, Lily’s primary antagonist, has no misgivings about her serial adultery: “The code of Lily’s world decreed that a woman’s husband should be the only judge of her conduct; she was technically above suspicion while she had the shelter of his approval, or even of his indifference.” Its author, trapped in a 28-year unfulfilling marriage, would venture into a long affair, then divorce, rare for its time.

Contemporary readers may find Wharton’s lugubrious sentences tedious to navigate and, yet, read closely, redolent with observational detail probing human behavior in its myriad particulars not unlike England’s literary master, George Eliot, in Middlemarch.

I’ve long held up Wharton as among America’s foremost women novelists, supreme not only in her acuity observing social behavior, but its motivation. Wharton’s novel emerges as America’s rendition of close friend Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, both Isabel Archer and Lily Bart, not only victims of betrayal and lost freedom, but of themselves. The House of Mirth ultimately epitomizes the conflict between society’s impositions and the quest to live our authentic selves.



Reflections on Patti Smith’s Devotion

I hadn’t heard of Patti Smith before reading Devotion, her slim volume of 112 pages that expands upon her lecture presentation at Yale (2016), initiating the Windham-Campbell series, “Why I Write.”

Rock aficionados remember Smith for her punk-rock as a singer with her own band and award-winning albums.  Politically, her “People Have the Power” became the theme song for Ralph Nader in his 2000 campaign for the presidency. In 2007, she was admitted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone ranks her among the top 100 rock artists of all time.

She isn’t the norm among rock artists. A gifted painter, poet, and memoirist, she has achieved eminence both at home and abroad for her literary achievement, winning America’s most prestigious prize, The National Book Award for her memoir, Just Kids (2010), sharing company with the likes of Faulkner, Bellow, Didion, Ellison, Auden and Roth. Earlier (2005), France awarded her one of its most prestigious cultural honors, “Commander of the Order of the Arts and Letters.”

Smith is an ardent francophile, with a special love for symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud. Devotion largely takes place in France, with Simone Weil and Albert Camus receiving special attention.

I stumbled upon the book when I was alerted to Good Reads during our national lockdown and Devotion got mentioned. Years ago, I had read J. M. Cameron’s early biography of the French mystic, Weil, whose posthumous writings became influential. Not least, I’ve always been enamored with Albert Camus. Their presence in the memoir drew me in.

Devotion is divided into three sections, the first and last forming a frame for a fictional narrative of sixteen year old Eugenia, and her fateful liaison with much older Alexander and his exploitation.

In the first portion, we breathe Paris everywhere, its hotels, streets, restaurants, and artist luminaries. Voltaire, Nabokov, Genet, Joyce, Weil, Camus, Modiano—they hover over the City of Light, silent emissaries of the imagination, catalysts of its powers, instigators of imitation. It’s the France I love.

Smith provides readers here with antecedents, or fragments of what we experience, often unwittingly, if not hazardly, of encounters that surreptitiously have a way of becoming part of us, influencing who we are and become.

Devotion doesn’t define the imaginative process. It demonstrates it, and thus the fictional tale at its center, an amalgram of subtle encounters in life’s passage, a mosaic the end result. As she tells us, “Most often the alchemy that produces a poem or a work of fiction is hidden within the work itself, if not embedded in the coiling ridges of the mind.”

Many readers dislike the narrative of Eugenia with its theme of alienation from what gives solace and fulfillment, ending tragically, as its center placement implies: the raison d’etre of Devotion, the essence of imagination’s weaving, or of what Smith fondly calls “alchemy” in the fusing of inchoate elements into an assemblage of unified nuance.

Eugenia, is an Estonian survivor, escaping the deportation of thousands of Estonians to Siberia by a paranoid Stalin during World War II, and owes her genesis to a Martti Helde documentary trailer called Risttuules, translated as In the Crosswind.

Similarly, Eugenia’s studied pursuit of ice skating had its source in Smith’s admiration for a sixteen year old Olympic Russian skater she saw on TV. Smith had no previous experience with the sport.

Weil is important as well in her separation at an early age from her mother through war and Jewish ancestry. Eugenia likewise experiences maternal loss, ultimately learning that her paternal grandmother was Jewish. Like Weil, Eugenia is shy, sensitive and highly intelligent, incorporating Smith’s decision to fuse the physical and intellectual in her protagonist. Writers not only imbibe, they invent.

Eugenia yearns to know her family’s history, having been raised by her mother’s sister, Irna, to keep her safe from the Soviets. She tries to recoup the past “in a futile effort to uncover a father’s eyes, a mother’s face.“

Smith’s pastiche of myriad contributory sources underscores writing as an act of retrieving the past, of making time palpable, of discovering who we are, often unknowable, or as Irina comments in her letter near the story’s end, “There are no signs that tell us who we are. Not a star, not a cross, not a number on the wrist. We are ourselves.”

Artists must be free to hone their craft. Alexander nicknames Eugenia “Philadelphia,“ central in America’s quest for freedom. When he ties her hands late in the story, he symbolically shackles that freedom and pays its consequences:

“Yes, Philadelphia, a hotbed of freedom,“ she said, pulling the trigger.

(Smith grew up in Philadelphia. I did, too.)

Eugenia has been on an archetypal journey, crossing a continent, traversing an ocean, to sojourn on a new continent, now to return to an old. She subsequently enters Alexander’s apartment, reads his notes on presumably Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus:

The text posed a philosophic examination of the question of suicide—Is life worth living? He (Alexander) had written in the margin that perhaps there existed a deeper question—“Am I worthy of living? Five words that shook her entire being.”

Thematically, Eugenia is an orphaned child, vulnerable in her need for affection, abandoned by her last relative at sixteen. She finds compensation in daily ice skating on a secret winter pond hidden in the woods and becomes very good at it. Stalked by outsider Alexander, she is lured away from her devotion to what sustains: “Her defining sense of self was completely entwined with the laces of her skates.”

Having lost her freedom and with it, her innocence, she enters into knowledge, and seeks freedom’s retrieval. Guilt, however, intrudes with its heavy weight and she cannot pay its cost. Earlier, she had asked her tempter of a better life, “What is the price of this privilege?” Social and cultural constructs have done their mischief: “… she vowed to never skate again. It was her penance, to deny herself the one thing she could not live without.”

Devotion manifests not only Imagination’s dynamism, but its necessity for artists to complete themselves.  In sum, Smith has delivered an embedded parable of the consequences of its loss. As she tells us near Devotion’s end, defining the writer’s mission, “What is the task? To compose a work that communicates on several levels, as in a parable, devoid of the stain of cleverness.”

In resuming the frame, we again return to non-fiction in real time, a gathering of additional antecedents informing the embedded narrative—this time, not Paris, but the South of France.

There is Smith’s successful search for poet Paul Valéry’s grave, similar to her search for Weil’s when back in England, having garnered her material. She stops at an older tombstone with the word DEVOULEMENT carved diagonally across its border and asks her friend, what it means. “Devotion,” he replies, and a title is born, resonating the discipline that engenders successful artistry.

I’m curious about this. Despite the anecdote’s implied explanation of the title’s source, we should remember Rimbaud had written a poem, “Dévotion.” Rimbaud is Alexander’s favorite poet, as in real life, Smith’s. It turns out, dévoulement isn’t the word the French employ for devotion as Rimbaud’s poem title indicates. It means “devolution,” i. e., regression to a lower level or abnegation, its synonym in French. Smith doesn’t speak French and reads its literature only in translation.

In a telephone interview, Smith says she first came upon Rimbaud in a bookstall in a Philadelphia bus station. Sixteen at the time, the same age when Eugenia meets Alexander, she saw Rimbaud’s photo on the cover of a 99 cent paperback edition of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, and found him “beautiful.” No money on her, she slipped it into her pocket. Dévotion is one of its poems (Tristram Fane Sanders, telegraph.co.uk, 9 November 2019).

It’s this third section I find Smith at her very best, so many sentences I’m underscoring, observant, moving, waxing poetic. She tells of receiving an invitation from Camus’ daughter, Catherine, to visit the family residence in Lourmarin near my favorite French city, Aix-en-Province.

She is given his bedroom, still housing his books, and access to his uncompleted manuscript, Le Premier Homme. She senses his presence, that affinity of one writer with another: “One could feel a sense of a focused mission and the racing heart propelling the last words of the final paragraph, the last he was to write.” True artistry, impelling its imitation, she senses the urgency, accompanied by confidence, to create her own.

There follows Smith’s compelling close, compe in its succinctness, unceasing in its resonance:

“Why do I write? My finger, as a stylus, traces the question in the blank air. A familiar riddle posed since youth, withdrawing from play, comrades and the valley of love, girded with words, a beat outside. Why do we write? A chorus erupts. Because we cannot simply live.”


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