24 January 2007

Why Do We Like This Philosophy?

I'm not too familiar with the Daodejing, but happened to be reading Chapter 3 today, and this is what it says:
Don't reward excellence, and people won't get competitive;
Don't cherish rare goods, and they won't steal.
What they can't see they can't wish for, can't stir up their hearts with unruly desires.
This is the inspired leader's governance:
Empty their minds
Fill their bellies
Weaken their wills
Toughen their bones.
Let them be ignorant, free of aspiration.
Make the ones who think they're clever too afraid to act.

Act without acting. Govern all.
Wing-tsit Chan lets this pass by without comment. Arthur Waley says it is "bait for Realists." I am too ignorant to know what that means; whether this is because someone has been trying to empty me out to keep me from making trouble I am unsure. The implication of Waley's comment is that the chapter is not to be taken seriously, but I suspect that's just because Waley didn't want to.

But I have no grounds for this assumption, of course. I guess that means I have to read the whole rest of the gunfunned book, an undertaking that has never appealed to me. It is become necessary to me, however, to investigate my suspicion that the self-actualizing wispy egalitarians one is likely to espy drifting about in the vicinity of a bookcase with Daodejings on it are addled by incense and have got it all wrong.

Now I shall go back to my reading, and then perhaps later on I shall sit myself down to dine upon my hat.

23 January 2007

Seventeenth Summer. Maureen Daly.

I'm fond of ancient teen romances, the sort of thing you pick up out of a library discard bin or dig up from the bottom of a big pile in the kind of used bookstore that seems to have owned its space ever since property in its neighborhood cost nothing, and can therefore afford to stock vast quantities of almost-unsorted little-desired texts. Last year I found one about telephone switchboard operators. It was missing a few pages, but was otherwise delightful, and contained many details about how a switchboard actually works, and how the operators work with it, that I'd had trouble digging up a few years ago when I was attempting to do research on the subject.

Seventeenth Summer was actually republished recently, with A BOOKLIST 25 BOOKS THAT SPAN THE DECADES SELECTION printed on its cover, so I had to forgo the joys of faded covers and musty yellowed pages. And it turned out to have been written when Daly was still in college and still, evidently, under the sway of strong feeling, so it didn't have the quaint emotional tidiness I like in my aged teen romances. The fun ones develop a mild liking into a marriage proposal, whereas in this book the central couple is stricken with mute, unconsummated lust and then torn asunder.

It was, in other words, too good a book for my taste, but fascinating nonetheless. Daly depicts her character's state of heightened awareness by giving tremendous amounts of detail about everything, and as the book was written somewhere around 1940 (first published in 1942) these details about daily life are now very interesting.

For instance:
  • When the boy (Jack) first appears on the garden path, selling baked goods, the girl (Angie) is picking radishes and onions for lunch, in her bare feet to keep her shoes from getting muddy. When Jack asks her a question she sidles into some tall grass so that he won't see that she has no shoes on.
  • In Angie's mother's bedroom, there is a crocheted circle attached to the blinds as a sort of handle to pull them down with.
  • Angie's glamorous college-age sister keeps curlers in her hair at all times except when she's actually leaving the house. She applies her lipstick with a brush, and puts vaseline on her eyelashes.
  • Jack smokes a pipe.
  • The family drinks tomato juice at breakfast.
  • The family has an established routine for distributing the parts of the evening paper.
  • At the high school kids' hangout, there are four things you can order: beer, root beer, Coke, peanuts.
  • Angie does dishes with soap chips.
  • A really nice Sunday meal is roast and cauliflower.
  • Knowing which forks to use and that it's necessary to avoid letting the spoon click against your teeth when you're eating ice cream is associated with having a top sheet on the bed.

22 January 2007

Solstice Wood. Patricia McKillip.

I read McKillip for the spell cast by the cool clarity of her language. She writes lots of books and I don't read them all, but occasionally when I wish to be enthralled and no other reliable set of shackles comes to hand, I turn to McKillip. Once I am ensorceled I may still have enough independence of mind to regret finding myself once again on the edge of the wood where humans, if they stray too far in, may be lured away forever, or stumble out of the trees to find their former companions aged or buried, but by then there's naught I can do but sigh and keep reading.

Solstice Wood, by its title, gives fair warning of Faery, but I pay too little heed to the meanings of words, especially the ones in really large print. I didn't notice the title, but turned to the first page and found a telephone in a city, which encouraged me. All too soon the heroine flew off to the edge of the woods but--too late.

I've never quite grasped the appeal of stories of mere mortals caught up unawares in the designs of a chill otherworld queen and her hunting-mad court, but this time a new idea occurred to me. Perhaps it was all due to Edmund Spenser! I dug out The Faerie Queen and started reading, thinking to find what fell influence had fallen on all these fantasy writers.

I only got through Book I, but I think that is enough ground for throwing out this Spenser idea. His Faery Land is a cheery place, apart from the odd vomiting monster, and humans and other creatures rush back and forth with no obvious ill effects. Spenser himself, in the letter commending himself and his allegorical plan to Sir Walter Ralegh, says that in the head of this domain "I conceiue the most excellent and glorious person of our soueraine the Queene," which is about as this-worldly as you get.

So I have no idea what McKillip is up to. Perhaps as I grow and mature the weaknesses of character which embroil me in novels will wither and fade away, and I never will find out what McKillip is up to! Particularly, I suppose, if I do get around to reading the rest of The Faerie Queen, which, though I may "delight to read [it], rather for variety of matter, then for profit of the ensample," may still "fashion [me] in vertuous and gentle discipline."

21 January 2007

Modern Technology: In Which I Drink Milky Coffee and Read The Faerie Queen upon Returning from Vacation

"It's still good," Viviane said, sniffing at some old thing pulled out of the refrigerator. "That's kind of scary. It's been in there for weeks."

"Yeah, that's what I noticed the last time I came back from China," I said. "Food here doesn't rot. There, you could only buy what you were going to use in the next day or two. Here, I don't know what they do to the stuff, but . . . "

"It's frightening," she said, and served it out, and we ate it.

Whatever the strange habits of other American foods, milk I have been in the habit of finding comforting. I buy it to put, a few ounces at a time, into tea and coffee. When I happen to want my coffee black a few days in a row, or to drink mostly the sorts of tea that don't like milk in them, I find the milk has soured and I must pour it down the drain.

I woke, this morning, from my first night in my own bed in quite some time. Among my expectations were that I would have to go out and buy milk if I wanted any in my coffee (and I did want it, after a week of coffee mostly black but sometimes adulterated with the strange substances other people keep in their refrigerators: thawed goat milk, whipping cream) and that I would not wish to read The Faerie Queen (for after 11,614 mornings with no desire to read Spenser, I had no reason to think such a fancy would surface on the 11,615th).

I was mistaken. I found a small segment of The Faerie Queen on my shelf in The New Oxford Book of English Verse, and thought I might go out searching for the rest. But there is the internet, of course, where one can find one's ancient texts in seconds rather than hours. The next thing I found was my carton of milk from the week before last, which I'd reminded myself many times to dump before leaving, but evidently not, in my last-minute rush, ever quite in fact dumped. And then I found to my astonishment that the milk showed not the slightest sign of spoiling.

So wondrous is our modern existence, I may not ever leave my home again at all.

Blessed Are the Cheesemakers. Sarah-Kate Lynch.

Very silly novel. Ms. Lynch steadfastly refuses to be inhibited by any knowledge she may possess of how the world actually works, which makes her book a patchwork of dreadful bits and nice surprises. Somehow, in the painful parts necessitated by the plot (in which the hero, basically a good guy, just accidentally marries a beautiful, cold-hearted junkie; descends into a murky pit of drink, drugs, and despair; lays waste to his clients’ accounts; and gets kicked out of his job and his apartment) the complete impossibility of the situation makes it all the more awful, whereas in the nice parts (e.g., when the heroine’s husband seeks her out to remind her that guests are coming and finds her lolling about in warm mud on the riverbank) the unlikelihood of it all is what makes it so pleasant. Naturally, one of the nice bits is situated right at the front of the book, so that when I plunged next into an extended patch of horridness I was willing to slog through until I got to another pleasing spot.

I expect most people would find the book dreadful through and through, but who cares about most people?

15 January 2007

The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia. James C. Scott.

I feel that my vagueness on the Marxist explanation for peasant jacqueries is a significant handicap in understanding this book. It seems evident that Scott set out to find a new answer to the old question of why peasants rebel, and came up with this: they feel that they are being exploited, and also that they have something to (re)gain and little to lose. The novelty would seem to be in Scott’s explanation of their sense of exploitation, in which he tries to relate people’s actions to their perceptions of their own material and social circumstances. He contrasts this with the capitalist explanation, in which people ought to be happier the greater the share of the harvest is theirs, and with the Marxist explanation of peasant rebellion (whatever it may be--I may once have known, but if so I don’t now remember; it would not be too hard to find out, but I don’t want to take the trouble), which relies on measures of exploitation that do not align well with agrarian people’s perceptions (it not, from their point of view, being so much a matter of who owns the means of production as of the likelihood of their starving to death before the next harvest) and then explain people’s perceptions as false consciousness somehow induced in them by the classes that own things, in order to keep the class structure in place.

Scott apparently wanted a theory better grounded in concrete circumstances. And so what he seems to have done was to search for evidence about the social and economic systems in place (and developing, or disintegrating) at the times of the major peasant rebellions in Southeast Asia in the early 20th century, and look for what was common between them. This was (to oversimplify and, probably, misremember) systems in which peasants’ overall share of each year’s production was holding steady or even growing, but old guarantees (from the state or landowning class) of subsistence were falling away. Peasants' sense of justice (Scott postulates) had to do with whether someone saw to it that they stayed alive, by forgiving taxes or collecting no rent in famine years; when such subsistence guarantees were removed, no increase in the percentage of the crop they got to keep in good years could make up for it.

Of course then there was the problem of explaining situations in which it would be impossible not to think peasants’ ideas of justice must have been violated (as, for example, when landlords raised rents and states exacted head taxes in times of drought and dearth), and yet they did not rebel. But Scott didn’t think these situations destroyed his theory, for there might be any number of reasons (for instance, having witnessed rebellious but barely-armed peasants being massacred by modern armies with helicopters) that people might quite reasonably decide not to rebel while continuing to believe they were being treated unjustly.

I confess a book having to do with crop yields, the ideology of religious cults, the taxation practices of colonial regimes, and so on sounds on first description as if it might be rather dull. But it’s somehow always clearly evident why Scott is saying something. He doesn’t seem to just throw bits of information in because he once happened across them in a book somewhere while he was looking for something else. The book is full of all those good things they talk about in texts on proper composition--lines of argument, and so forth. You don’t have to be constantly interrogating yourself about what use there might be in the things he is telling you, for he tells you himself what the use of them is. There should be no need to remark on this, but alas, so many books that ought to be interesting aren’t, for their authors don’t quite know how to think or write. Or can’t be bothered to be interesting, perhaps, and nobody forces them to take the trouble. Scott knows what he’s doing, has standards, and holds himself to them, and so is enjoyable to read even when (as now, for me) he serves no immediate practical purpose.

09 January 2007

Good Soup

For good soup, put most of a chicken in a big pot. Also water, and ginger. Boil for some hours. Let cool. Throw out the big disk of fat that congeals on the top. Remove, also, the chicken, and dispose of it as you will--by dousing it in sesame oil and soy sauce, perhaps, and tearing at it with claws and teeth.

Boil some soba in water, and drain.

Into your broth, put some salted chili-oil turnip, and boil it up again. Pour in a great deal of Shaoxing wine and soy sauce, and a lesser quantity of sesame oil. Wash some watercress good and clean.

When the broth tastes as if it has had enough things poured into it out of bottles, throw in the cress. Put your noodles in a bowl (or bowls). When the cress is just turned bright green, put it on top of your noodles, and ladle broth over.

Be happy with your very good soup.