‘The Supreme Court is 9 scorpions in a bottle’—Alexander Bickel, law clerk to Justice Frankfurter 1952-53.
Of these 9 Justices (all FDR appointees) Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter, William Douglas and Robert Jackson would become great Justices. This audio book is dedicated to them. They were allies and close associates of FDR, contributed in essential ways to FDR’s New Deal, were all influenced by Justice Louis Brandeis, had taken on Wall Street and considered themselves liberals. Eventually their visions would diverge, their personalities would clash and they would become enemies. Each with his own theory about how to understand the constitution, they nevertheless reinvented this document, albeit along 4 diverging paths.
Black hailed from the Deep South and obtained his seat as Senator by wooing the KKK, even becoming a member—an association which dogged his Supreme Court appointment. He had a stint on the Bench as Magistrate in a Birmingham Police Court handling misdemeanours. For all his past KKK associations, he became a Supreme Court Justice who espoused noble human causes, most notably in the field of free speech. He maintained an absolutist view in this regard, i.e., Congress shall make NO law abridging free speech; the Constitution says NO law, and this means NO law.
Frankfurter, an Austrian born Jew arrived in the US aged 12 without a stitch of English. A Harvard law Professor, he had been, before his appointment to the Supreme Court the country’s foremost liberal, but he would become the leading Conservative on the Bench.
Douglas left his post as Yale law Professor to join the SEC, and became an adviser and friend of FDR. Douglas had Presidential aspirations and narrowly missed the Presidency. He became the most unabashedly liberal, results driven Justice ever to have sat on the Supreme Court.
Jackson, a back country lawyer, started off trying cases about cows. He was appointed Solicitor-General, and thereafter Attorney-General by FDR and played a seminal role advising the President on the legality of aiding the UK during WWII at a juncture when such assistance might have jeopardised America’s neutrality—Congress also having barred such assistance He would take an unprecedented leave of absence as Supreme Court Justice to conduct the most important International Criminal trial ever as Chief Prosecutor at Nuremburg.
Between 1937 and 1939 FDR appointed Black, Frankfurter and Douglas. In 1940 the Court had to decide on the legality of the expulsion from school of 2 Jehovah’s Witness siblings for refusing to salute the flag on religious grounds. In an opinion written by Frankfurter (Black and Douglas concurring), the Court upheld the school’s decision.
Jackson was appointed in 1941. The 4 Justices sat together for the 1st in the case of 8 German saboteurs. The Court, in a single unanimous order, had rejected their objection to a trial before a Military Commission. Their opinion would be delivered after the execution of 6 saboteurs. The Military Commission had not followed the Congressional Articles of War Rules, also FDR ordered that no court would have the authority to review the verdict. The Justices were hard-pressed to give a unanimous opinion as they had acted highly unusually by summarily approving the Military Commission. The Court might be embarrassed if it turned out that there were good reasons to doubt the constitutionality of the trial—6 defendants having already been executed already. Black felt that FDR had overstepped the bounds. Jackson disagreed, maintaining that the Court had no business reviewing FDR's decision. Frankfurter intervened proposing his judicial restraint punch-line: it is a wise requirement of Courts not to get into needless rows with other branches of Government by talking about things that need not be talked about if the a case can be disposed of with intellectual self-respect on grounds that do not raise such rows. Following Frankfurter’s circulation, the Justices decided not to make the disagreements public, the Court thereby showing war-time loyalty to FDR.
In 1943 the Government tried to strip the secretary of the Communist Party, California of citizenship. Frankfurter who was, like the defendant, a naturalised Jew, and whose Americanism had replaced his Judaism, and who lived the creed of a convert who is more zealous than one born to the faith, would have no truck with the Communist’s purported unpatriotic activities. The majority of the Court disagreed and Frankfurter was left to join in the dissenting opinion by Stone CJ.
In a case concerning the Jehovah’s Witness right to be exempt from a tax on the distribution on pamphlets, Black, Douglas and Murphy filed an unusual dissent, openly regretting their earlier votes in the 1940 flag salute-case. A year later the Court overturned Frankfurter’s judgment. In an opinion written by Jackson (not on the Court when the 1st case had been decided) the court held that the children should be protected against having to declare a believe which they did not hold. Frankfurter took the reversal of his opinion as a personal and professional calamity, especially because Jackson used the flag salute as a metaphor for Nazi’s oppression of Jews. Frankfurter responded with the most agonised and agonising opinion recorded anywhere in the US reports, defending his jurisprudence, liberalism and Jewishness. Several Justices unsuccessfully begged him not to publish the opening lines of his opinion expressing these sentiments which they thought too personal.
In the 1950 German radio operators case the Court had to deliberate an issue that would resonate 60 years later in the Guantanamo detentions: ‘Did the power of the US Courts extend overseas to protect persons who are not US citizens, yet have been tried under the auspices of the US Government?’ Jackson replied in the negative. Black and Douglas dissented, in favour of the principle of equal justice not for citizens alone, but for all persons coming within the ambit of US power.
In Dennis v US the defendants (Communists) were charged with violating the Smith Act. The question which the Court had to decide was whether the First Amendment permitted Congress to pass a law that in essence made it a crime to belong to the USACP. Frankfurter (applying his judicial restraint doctrine) and Jackson joined the majority in upholding the convictions. Black and Douglas dissented—Black of course expounding his absolutist free speech doctrine, which was his hallmark.
In Brown v Board of Education (1954) the Court revisited Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) in which the constitutionality of State laws applying racial segregation had been upheld on the ground of the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine. The scorpions would sit together as a quartet for the last time. It was also the 1st time these fiercely independent Justices agreed in a case of such great moment. They joined in the unanimous opinion delivered by Earl Warren CJ, striking down school segregation. FDR’s team had the opportunity to show their mettle as custodians of liberalism, and they rose in unison to the occasion in the most liberal of swansongs.
Related Audible.com books—‘The Majesty of the Law: Reflections of a Supreme Court Justice’ by Sandra Day O’ Connor, ‘The Great Decision: Jefferson, Adams, Marshall and the Battle for the Supreme Court’ by Cliff Sloan & David Mckean and ‘Freedom for the Thought that We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment’ by Anthony Lewis. Related material available through Amazon.com—‘The Supreme Court’ (4 DVD box set) narrated by David Strathairn.
At high school mid to late ‘70s I was really keen on reading mostly books on which movies were based. For example “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, “Marathon Man”, “Black Sunday”, “The Omen”, “Zorba the Greek”, “To Kill a Mocking Bird” and the book under review. And then I’d read only to make me understand these movies, all of which were in my 2nd language and spoken very hastily.
Then reading “All the President’s Men”, I didn’t have a clue whatsoever as to what it was all about. I was in my mid-teens, on the tip of Africa and knew absolutely nothing about the inner workings of US politics. Upon lending this book to a school friend I asked him what he thought of it (although I myself wasn’t capable of forming any such opinion): “Boring” he said, “like reading a newspaper.” I retorted: “But they ARE newspaper men!” To which he replied “Ok, small wonder; now it makes sense.” My friend obviously knew a little more about form than content.
Listening to this book now refreshed my memory; almost therapeutically allowing me to relive and reconstruct past events―like cheating on myself by only now allowing myself to understand more in retrospect than what had as a teenager been completely incomprehensible to me.
In conclusion allow me these seemingly insignificant acknowledgements. I'd often enhance my vocabulary by jotting down words the meanings of which I didn't know and consult a dictionary. Two of the abovementioned books in their very opening lines already contributed to my vocabulary. Harper Lee’s “Mocking Bird” taught me the word “assuage” and Messrs Woodward and Bernstein gave the word “fumble”. These contributions to what I regard as my intellectual development (political enrichment notwithstanding) I still cherish and am most grateful for even now as an adult, more than 35 years down the line. "The Child is the Father of the Man"—William Wordsworth.
I’m only an hour into this book (the story line of which is old hat) but I’m at this stage already prepared to proclaim without fear of being gainsaid that as compared to any of my hundreds of Audible listens (or for that matter any other audiobook) George Guidall ‘s narration Of “Zorba the Greek” is by far the most exciting, spell-bounding, breath-taking, electrifying, engrossing and emotionally original and honest. His voice's overlapping and oscillating with great ease and smoothness from the speech of one character to that of another is like trying to figure out what melody begins and ends where or when in a contrapuntal Bach tune.
“God doesn’t play dice”—Albert Einstein
I enjoyed the biographical aspects of this interesting book. Actually I had little choice. I could hardly fathom some arcane formulae, let alone audibly. But that’s no draw back. There’s the humanness of household name geniuses with adventures à la Greek gods, replete with destructive atomic bolt toys and tabloid fashion sexual escapades: Albert Einstein’s secret love child, Erwin Schrӧdinger’s “open marriage”, both spouses indulging in extra-marital affairs and his keeping notes of his promiscuity.
Einstein (Max Planck notwithstanding) effectively launched the quantum story. Starting with a high school temporary teaching post, he secured an appointment at Switzerland’s Bern Patent Office as a technical expert 3rd class. In 1905, his “Miraculous Year”, age 26, he published inter alia, papers on relativity and the photoelectric effect. He submitted one of these for a Doctoral thesis. His dissertation had initially been rejected—apparently for being too short. He added a single sentence, resubmitted and was awarded the Doctorate that same year. This year he also formulated his E=MC2 equation. In 1906 he was promoted to technical expert 2nd class.
Niel Bohr left Denmark for Cambridge In 1911 aged 25, worked in the laboratory of 1906 Noble Prize laureate J. J. Thompson. March 1912 he joined Rutherford’s team in Manchester, didn’t care much for experimental physics and devoted time to theoretical problems. He investigated the structure of atoms—the hydrogen atoms. In 1913 his theories appeared in “Philosophical Magazine”. He proposed a new quantum mechanics to replace the classical theory applied to the internal structure of the atom.
Luis De Broglie postulated that Einstein’s 1905 theory should be generalised by extending it to all material particles, especially electrons. This is known as Luis De Broglie’s dual wave particle hypothesis—relying on his knowledge of chamber music. His theory was dubbed La Comedie France .
Werner Heisenberg publishes his theory which spawned quantum mechanics. The term electron spin is coined, arguably first by Bohr. Wolfgang Pauli presents his exclusion principle in terms of which no electron in an atom can have the same set of 4 quantum numbers. In 1926 from Jan-June, Schrӧdinger produced a series of 6 papers—his “late erotic outburst in his life”— his theory of wave mechanics. This apparently laid the foundation for the theory of quantum mechanics.
In Copenhagen the interpretation of quantum theory is proposed—Max Born’s interpretation on the significance of Schrӧdinger’s wave functions. Bohr, Heisenberg and Schrӧdinger become involved in an intense debate on the reality of quantum jumps. Heisenberg uncertainty principle sees the light of day in 1927. Einstein becomes a stern tailspin critic of quantum theory.
Enter the Einstein-Bohr debates, with Einstein, attempting to discredit quantum physics with ingenious thought experiments, adding that “God doesn’t play dice”. Bohr, proved equal to Einstein’s genius, extricating himself from near chess mate entrapments with protean elusiveness. Schrӧdinger proposed arguably the most famous “Gedankenexperiment”, i.e., the “Cat Paradox”. Paul Dirac’s relativistic electron equation enters the fray. In 1935 Einstein, Nathan Rosen and Boris Podolsky published a short paper seeking to refute quantum mechanics.
Post WWII a series of crisis meetings were held culminating in the development of quantum electro-dynamics (QED) by Julian Schwinger, Richard Feynman, Sin-Itiro Tomonaga and Freeman Dyson. 1954 the saw the development of quantum field theory, based on local gauge symmetry by Chen Ning Yang and Robert Mills. In 1960 Sheldon Glashow, Abdus Salam and Steven Weinberg developed an early version of a unified theory of the electro weak force and predicted the existence of heavy photons. In 1963 Murray Gell-Mann identified the ultimate units of matter as the particles he calls “quarks”. At this stage quantum physics become synonymous with the history of particle physics.
In 1968 there were ever larger and more expensive particle accelerators and colliders with the discovery at Stanford Linear Accelerator Centre (SLACK) that the proton possesses an internal structure. Feynmann discovered the hypothetical “charm quark”—protons being bombarded with beams of high-energy electrons, revealing “partons” i.e., hard, point-like charged particles appearing to move freely. GellMann shrugged off Feynmann’s “partons” as “put-ons”—“quaks”.
The 1964 John Bell formulated a mathematical theorem which applied to any hidden-variable theory inequality that satisfied (but which was not valid for) quantum mechanics. It exposed the true nature of Einstein’s challenges, providing a straightforward test of local versus non-local reality. The first experiments were performed by Alan Aspan and his colleagues in 1981 and 1982, showing that the quantum world was determinantly non-local.
Disastrously in 2008 CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, costing 5 billion pounds, all but blew up when switched on for the first time. Perhaps, since God doesn’t play dice, this incident might even have been a vis major (an act of God) as if to prove than Einstein had a point after all!
RELATED INSIGHTFUL AUDIBLE MATERIAL: The Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Physics was Reborn—Louisa Gilder / Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science—David Lindley / American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer—Kai Bird , Martin J. Sherwin / A Brief History of Time—Stephen Hawking / Quantum Theory: A Very Short Introduction—John Polkinghorne / The Tao of Physics—Frijof Capra
The recording quality of this book is as poor as that of a worn-out 4 track tape of yore. I ran a random check on it by listening to samples from all of the 5 parts it consists of, but this product is not worth the salt of the other Audible.com recordings in my library—and I do have a good many of them. In an attempt to get a handle on its narration, I had to forgo concentrating on its contents and I eventually sopped listening. Therefore, as for giving a helpful review on the merits of its contents, suffice it to say that this is well-nigh impossible.
This Audiobook is a tour de force of its subject matter. It traverses what would have been an arcane topic in an accessible and easy to understand manner. Although breath-taking and awe-inspiring, the simplicity in which the content is conveyed makes it informative and highly recommendable.
The First Amendment provides that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech or press. I’ll discuss some of those Supreme Court opinions Lewis has brought to life in this book.
In Ch.2 Lewis deals with the Sedition Act of 1798 which made punishable utterances deemed detrimental to the Government, House or President. Three of the presiding officers in prosecutions under the Act were Supreme Court Judges. Given the standing of these Judges (who also brought out convictions), the constitutionality of the Act would almost surely have been upheld in the Supreme Court. It was only in 1964, in NYT v Sullivan that the Supreme Court pronounced upon the validity of the Act — 163 years after the date set down in the Act itself for its expiration, to wit March, 3 1801.
Ch. 3 introduces Patterson v Colorado in which Justice Holmes dismissed a First Amendment defence and upheld a conviction of contempt of court where the defendant had criticised a Judge. In 1917 Congress enacted the Espionage Act which in 1919 led to 3 Supreme Court First Amendment judgments, all by Justice Holmes.
Schenck is judicially of the most importance. In affirming the defendant’s conviction, Justice Holmes made a statement of perennial impact: “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.” Holmes gave the following formula for deciding these cases: “The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.” Lewis says that these “Delphic Words”, have been scrutinised for generations by scholars.
Three great dissenting judgments were delivered between 1919 and 1929 by Justices Holmes and Brandeis. This “remarkable pair” (as Lewis calls them) would shape the Supreme Court opinions on the First Amendment profoundly in later years.
Abrams v US (1919): Justice Clarke, for the majority, dismissed the First Amendment arguments and affirmed the conviction. Justice Holmes (with Justice Brandeis) held that he never had any reason to doubt that the questions of law before the Court in Schenck, Frohwerk and Debs and he confirmed that they had been rightly decided. Holmes said that he didn’t doubt that the Government constitutionally may punish speech that produces or is intended to produce a clear and “imminent” danger that it will bring about “forthwith” certain substantive evils. The words I have put in inverted commas don’t appear in the so-called “Delphic Words” of the Schenck decision quoted above.
Holmes said that “nobody can suppose that the surreptitious publishing of a silly leaflet by an unknown man, without more, would present any immediate danger that its opinions would hinder the success of the government arms or have any appreciable tendency to do so.” Therefore the harsh sentences of 20 years have been imposed for the publishing of 2 leaflets that the defendants had as much right to publish as the Government had to publish the Constitution now vainly invoked by them. Lewis elaborates on this apparent about turn by Holmes and gives possible explanations for this, but in essence, the mystery remains.
Whitney v California (1927): Justice Brandeis wrote the dissenting opinion, regarded by many as the greatest judicial statement of the case for freedom of speech. Brandeis said that those who won independence believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that without free speech and assembly discussion would be futile; that with them, discussion affords ordinarily adequate protection against the dissemination of noxious doctrine, that public discussion is a political duty, that this should be a fundamental principle of the government, that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies, that recognizing the occasional tyrannies of governing majorities, they amended the Constitution so that free speech and assembly should be guaranteed. The Governor of CA pardoned Whitney, quoting Brandeis’ dissent at length in his pardon message.
US v Schwimmer (1929): Lewis relates that, when he was reporting on the Supreme Court for the NYT around 1960, he was talking to Justice Frankfurter in his Chambers. The Judge handed him the report of the Holmes dissent in US v Schwimmer. Lewis read the opinion and when he came to the paragraph ending with the words “Sermon on the Mount” he felt his hair rise at the back of his neck.
Justice Holmes said: “Some of her answers might excite popular prejudice, but if there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate. I think that we should adhere to that principle with regard to admission into, as well as to life within this country. And recurring to the opinion that bars this applicant's way, I would suggest that the Quakers have done their share to make the country what it is, that many citizens agree with the applicant's belief and that I had not supposed hitherto that we regretted our inability to expel them because they believed more than some of us do in the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount.”
Ch. 4 contains Stromberg v CA (1931) in which the majority for the first time upheld a First Amendment defence. Having enforced it as law, the Court faced the challenge of defining from case to case what the words of the Amendment meant. Giving concrete meaning to its all-embracing words was a daunting and endless job, as restrictions in some cases inevitably had to be imposed on the freedom of expression. Words that were not liberally spoken or printed have been given protection as in the Stromberg case where the defendant was not prosecuted for uttering words, but for carrying a red flag — held to be “symbolic speech” and given First Amendment protection.
In Near v Minnesota (1931 ) the ban on an Anti-Semitic publication was overturned on First Amendment grounds. This decision was regarded as a great bulwark of press freedom, and it is because of this judgment that it is now very difficult to convince a Judge to issue a PRIOR restraint on the press. Although the court held that remedies for libel remained available and unaffected, this decision freed the author of a damaging statement from proving the truth of a statement made BEFORE publication.
In NYT v US (1971) the NYT published top secret documents (the Pentagon Papers) from a secret official history of the still on-going Vietnam War. Pres. Nixon alleged that the documents threatened national security. The Supreme ordered that the NYT could resume publication.
NYT v Sullivan (1964) deals with a libel suit AFTER publication. The Court was required to determine for the first time the extent to which the constitutional protections for speech and press limit a State's power to award damages in a libel action brought by a public official against critics of his official conduct. At the time of the Sullivan case there were certain evidentiary presumptions favouring the defendant in a libel suit. The NYT couldn’t discharge the presumption of proving the truth of its publication in all material respects and the trial Judge found that the allegations were thus libellous. The NYT appealed to the Supreme Court. Until then libel had always been regarded as outside the protection of the First Amendment and no libel judgment had ever been found to violate the guarantees freedom of speech and press. Counsel for the NYT set upon the unenviable task of requesting the Supreme Court to reverse a long chained course of legal history — a route the Court had always been reluctant to follow.
The defence argued that the law, which prohibited criticism of public officials, should be compared to the Sedition Act of 1798 and that the Court should declare this Act unconstitutional. Justice Brennan held that the court considered this case against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that “debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.” Justice Brennan said that the Sedition Act “first crystalized a national awareness of the central meaning of the First Amendment.” Thus the Act was found to violate the First Amendment 1963 years after its expiry date..
In Ch. 6 Lewis asks whether journalists have a constitutional privilege unavailable to others. He considers Branzburg v Hayes (1972)— the first Supreme Court judgment on a press privilege claim. At issue was whether requiring newsmen to appear and testify before grand juries abridges the right to freedom of speech and press. Justice White, for the majority, held that it did not. Although news gathering may be thus hampered, the press is anyway regularly excluded from grand jury proceedings, Supreme Court conferences, meetings of other official bodies gathered in executive session, and meetings of private organizations.
Justice Powell concurred but held that a newsman is not without remedy if he believed that the grand jury investigation wasn’t being conducted in good faith or if the information sought only bears a remote and tenuous relationship to the subject of the investigation. Judges should consider these matters on a case by case basis. Many lower courts read Justice Powell’s opinion as effectively modifying Justice White’s flat rejection of a journalist’s privilege claim.
In Ch. 7 deals with the culture of fear under various Statutes which criminalises acts against organised institutions. In Gitlow v People (1925) the defendant was convicted of criminal anarchy. The majority of the Court dismissed the First Amendment argument and affirmed the conviction. However, the Court for the first time held that that freedom of speech and of the press protected by the First Amendment, are among the fundamental personal rights and 'liberties' protected by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment from impairment by the States. The court concluded that previous case law to the effect that the Fourteenth Amendment imposed no restrictions on States concerning freedom of speech, was not determinative of this question.
In De Jonge V Oregon (1937) the defendant helped to conduct a meeting held under the auspices of the Communist Party. The sole basis for the conviction was that CP had called the meeting. There was no charge that a criminal syndicalism or violence was conducted at the meeting. The Supreme Court overturned the conviction in a unanimous decision. Hughes CJ did not apply the “clear and present danger” test but relied solely on the question as to whether or not there was a violation of freedom of speech or assembly protected by the First Amendment. Hughes stated that the right of peaceable assembly is a right cognate to those of free speech and free press, and is equally fundamental.
Ch. 8 deals with Cohen v CA in which the defendant was convicted for walking through the corridors of a court wearing a jacket on which was visibly inscribed the words: “F *** the Draft”. Justice Harlan, in upholding the defendant's right to freedom of expression said: “One man’s vulgarity, is another man’s lyric.”
In Ch. 9 Lewis examines the tolerance, apparently unique to US jurisprudence, surrounding “Hate Speech”. In Brandenburg v Ohiio (1969) the defendant, a KKK member, said: “Personally, I believe the n----r should be returned to Africa, the Jew returned to Israel.” The Supreme Court held that his words were protected by the First Amendment.
This audiobook is entitled “How Proust Can Change Your Life” by Alain De Botton, is in one part and runs for 5 hours, 6 minutes.
I find this audiobook tedious and hard to digest. Having initially skimmed through the titles of the respective chapters, this forewarned (or perhaps prejudiced) me that what would follow might not be to my liking. Taken together, the headings struck me as an over-ambitious venture, contrived, convoluted and laden with affectation. When I eventually listened to the actual contents of the book itself, my suspicions were confirmed.
So, here are these headings of the chapters:
Chapter 1: How to Love Life Today; Chapter 2: How to Read for Yourself; Chapter 3: How to Take Your Time; Chapter 4: How to Suffer Successfully; Chapter 5: How to Express Your Emotions; Chapter 6: How to Be a Good Friend; Chapter 7: How to Open Your Eyes; Chapter 8: How to be Happy in Love; Chapter 9: How to Put Books Down
I myself, having read the novel (after a fashion, for only a few persons can honestly be heard to say that they’ve really read it although they might have done just that) find it difficult to relate any of these headings to what I’ve managed to make myself understand of Proust’s work. Potentially the most boring and impenetrable novel to read, it was surprisingly less taxing on my patience and concentration than listening at times to this audiobook — in my attempt to make sense of it.
In Chapter 2, De Botton introduces what I regard as an unfortunate element of subjectivity into his work. He recognises in some of Proust’s characters (for example, Albertine, Madame Guermantes) certain persons of his own acquaintance. He gives us their names — one of whom, despite her likeness to Proust’s character, has never read Proust and, in any event, prefers George Elliot. I myself of course don’t know these acquaintances of De Botton and I can therefore not identify them in the respective characters in Proust’s work. I also fail to recognise any of my own acquaintances in Proust.
Granted, as De Botton points out, Proust was of the opinion that, in reality the reader is, while he’s reading, the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is therefore merely a kind of optical instrument which the writer offers to the reader to discern that, without this book, the reader would perhaps never have had inner experience of. Consequently, Proust held, recognition by the reader in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its veracity.
I’ll concede that to me this information is very informative and helpful. I do not have an in depth knowledge of Proust or his work. I would have been unaware of Proust’s sentiments if I hadn't heard them from Alain De Botton. He gave me more insight into the mind of Proust and goes a long way toward clarifying the manner in which Proust perceives his reader.
However, to the narrator of the novel, characters come and go — he has scant regard for those he falls in and out of love with, or for those aristocrats whose banquets he frequents, or for his closest of his friends, or even, at least in one instance, for his beloved grandmother, when he fumes at her for wanting to have a photograph taken of herself. I don’t think that Proust wanted us to remember his characters as such, or that he wanted us to see in them reflections of those dear us, or wanted them to assist us in Regaining Lost Time. In this regard, Proust (through the narrator) is more interested in the abstract, the inanimate: i.e., the taste of a madeleine cookie and the sound of a teaspoon against a plate. In my opinion, characterisation does not fulfil such a central role in this novel so as to project the characteristics of any of the personae onto those of any acquaintance of the reader.
I find Chapter 3 informative, only because it gives me as a novice to Proust, what I regard as a basic insight into Proust’s novel. And besides, one can never have enough of this basic information, given the complexity of the work. So, I I’ve enjoyed the simplistic approach adopted in the bulk of this chapter, whereby the nitty-gritty of the difficulties associated in approaching Proust is revealed.
Alain De Botton comments that whatever the merits of Proust’s work, even a fervent admire would be hard pressed to deny one of its awkward features — its length. We learn that even Proust’s own brother, Robert, lamented that people have to be very ill or have broken a leg in order to have had the opportunity to read this work. De Botton comments that this reader faces another challenge — the length of individual sentences which are snake-like constructions. The very longest is located in the 5th volume and would, if arranged along a single line in standard sized text, run for a little short of 4 m and stretch around the base of a bottle of wine 17 times.
In 1913 the head of an esteemed publishing house, upon being asked to consider Proust’s manuscript for publication, remarked: “My dear friend, I may be dense . . . but I fail to see why a chap needs 30 pages to describe how he tosses and turns in bed before falling asleep.” A reader for another publishing house remarked, at the end of 712 pages of the manuscript, that “one doesn’t have a single, but not a single clue of what this is about. What is the point of all this? What does it all mean? Where is it all leading? Impossible to know anything about it. Impossible to say anything about it.” All other publishers went along with such sentiments and eventually Proust was forced to pay for the publication of his work himself.
The other chapters of this audiobook, oscillate with varying degrees of success, between attempting to give us further insight into the life and work of Proust: on the one hand, Marcel Proust the brilliant novelist, and on the other, Marcel Proust the dilettante artist in general, critic, philosopher and even psychologist. To boot De Botton would have us believe that Proust is apparently instructing us on “How to . . . Love Life Today, to Read for Yourself, Take Your Time, Suffer Successfully, Express Your Emotions, Be a Good Friend, Open Your Eyes, be Happy in Love and Put Books Down”.
Insofar as Alain De Botton purports to enlighten me on “How To” achieve any of the above goals, I regard his attempt as unsuccessful. However, his giving me more basic insight into the life and work of Marcel Proust, I find helpful.
PS: I have recently reviewed another Audible book also dealing, inter alia, with Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time”. This audiobook, entitled “The Modern Scholar: Giants of French Literature — Balzac, Flaubert, Proust and Camus” by Prof. Katherine Elkins, is worth acquiring.
This Audible book entitled “The Modern Scholar: Giants of French Literature — Balzac, Flaubert, Proust and Camus” consists of several lectures by Prof. Katherine Elkins. This book, is so instructive in its scope and intellectual insight on the works (and to a lesser degree) lives of the French literary giants Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, Marcel Proust and Albert Camus, that I was as a direct result thereof inspired to have the following books delivered to my Kindle: “The Works of Honoré de Balzac”; “The Collected Works of Gustave Flaubert” and Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time”. I’m yet to purchase Camus.
The publications Prof Elkins discusses critically are:
1. The Balzac novels: “The Wild Asses’ Skin”, “Le Père Goriot”, “Eugénie Grandet”, “Lost Illusions” and“Cousin Betty”.
2. The Flaubert novels:”Madame Bovary” and “Sentimental Education”.
3. Proust’s masterpiece, “In Search of Lost Time”; and
4. Work by Camus incuding: “The Stranger” (aso translated as : “The Outsider”); “The Myth of Sisyphus”, “The Plague”, “The Fall”, and “The First Man”
In my case, this audiobook is where my first experience of reading French literature had its genesis. I would perhaps never have read at least the modest two novels if I hadn’t listened to the lectures by Prof. Elkins. I confess that I first listened to these lectures and with this I was given prescience from which I could draw inspiration and courage to read the novels themselves. Now I’m done reading Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” as well as Balzac’s “Le Père Goriot” (Father bGoriot”) — in that order. So I’ll deal with them in that order.
1. “In Search of Lost Time” — by Marcel Proust
I can now proudly proclaim that I’ve waded through one of the most influential, difficult and obtuse literary works ever written. Its length exceeds what would have amounted to more than 3,000 pages in hard copy. If you read this work, then you will have read approximately 10 novels in one go —estimating that an average novel spans approximately 300 pages.
I would never have come close to “getting it”. Granted, I still don’t. But I, upon first having listened to the lecture and then only reading the novel, was thereafter made alive to the “sound of the spoon on the plate” and the raising to the lips of “a spoonful of tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the [madeleine] cake”. Now I’m in the position to conclude the following with the narrator of this novel: “And suddenly the memory returns. The taste was that of the little crumb of madeleine . . . “
The novel would only have been a boring written instrument (which it unfortunately has the potential of becoming without the proper guidance this lecture offers), devoid of tastes, smells, sounds and for that matter every sensory perception. Had it not been for Prof Elkins, it would not have been possible for me to have experienced these sensory perceptions with the narrator. I might, to begin with, not even have dreamt of reading a novel exceeding 3,000 pages in length in which (as I had heard it rumoured) nothing really happens, without hardly any plot, with no real beginning or end. And seemingly, to make up for these ostensible shortcomings, hundreds of characters, most of whom are aristocrats with their debatable idiosyncrasies. And the sentences, often paragraphs and sometimes even pages long, would to me have been inexplicable drooling rants and raves of a depressed, more often than not love-sick insomniac. Now, given the assistance of Prof Elkins, they are intellectual challenges ready for me to unravel their inner workings, mysteries and meanings.
Why would anyone want to read this novel? (And let’s call it that— Prof Elkins mentions that Proust might have toyed with the idea of writing a work of literary criticism). My attempt at an answer would be that, if you’ve done reading and you afterwards wonder why you’ve done so (as in my case), then the novel has by default attained its goal, because it has sent you on a quest in search of the time lost reading it. Thereby, I hope you would embark upon a quest in search of the soul of arguably the most impenetrable of masterpieces. This would amount to nothing short of a quest in search of your own soul.
2. “Le Père Goriot” (Father bGoriot”) by Honoré de Balzac
According to Prof Elkins, Balzac, in depicting the city, Paris as a character inspired Dickens to do the same for London, Dostoyevsky for St Petersburg and Joyce for Dublin. And besides, Friedrich Engels asserted that he had learned more about Paris from reading Balzac than he did from talking to his contemporaries.
“Le Père Goriot” was published in 1835 and set in 1819 in a quickly changing Paris. Balzac said that only Parisians will be able to understand his novel. He puts it thus: “Will anyone without the walls of Paris understand it? It is open to doubt”. Prof Elkins informs us that in this Paris, there was very little housing, with the result that people sought lodging in boarding houses. It is in one of such boarding houses, known in the neighbourhood as “Maison Vauquer” and kept for the past forty years by its owner, Madame Vauquer where this novel primarily plays off. This boarding house “receives men and women, old and young, and no word has ever been breathed against her respectable establishment”.
One of this motley crew of lodgers is the protagonist, Father Goriot. He is an elderly vermicelli maker who dotes on his two daughters whom he had married off to wealthy husbands and who hardly return his love in kind. In fact, they effectively ruin him financially, mentally and eventually, physically. Another lodger is Eugene de Rastignac, a young law student, worthy of mentioning owing his involvement with Father Goriot as well as both his daughters. The other lodgers don’t feature as prominently in this regard.
Prof Elkins draws our attention to the intricate interplay of relationships: father, daughters, Rastignac. The backdrop is Balzac’s description of the grim living environment of the “Maison Vauquer”, as well as Balzac’s Paris, at times also grim with muddy streets and boots and at times decadent in the artificial wealth, pomp and ceremony of its aristocrats. Prof Elkins gives us the King Lear analogy of the relationship between Father Goriot, who prematurely gives away his all to his daughters, and the daughters, who only suck their father dry and give nothing in return.
I’m yet to read the other writers also dealt with is this series of lectures, to wit Flaubert and
Camus,. So, I’ll be back.
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