Culturally-significant texts – Across genres, across the ages


April 2011

The World As Will and Idea

The World As Will and Idea
Arthur Schopenhauer

Alternatively titled The World As Will and Representation and most recently …Will and Presentation, this is, without question, the central text of the German philosopher and a hugely important reflection on will and knowledge emerging from the tradition of Immanuel Kant.

What is the nature of knowledge? How are we to understand the relationship between the objective world and the subjective person? What is existence of any thing without our experience of it? For Schopenhauer, there can be no knowledge of the world that is not always-already mediated by the individual subject. No less than individual reflection, the basis of our ‘objective knowledge’ – sensory experience – is intimately bound up with subjective ideation, such that there is no meaningful distinction between mind and body, between our idealist and materialist experiences of the world. Time, space, bodily experience, causal relationships, physical observation and analytical interpretation – these are a densely-woven network which ultimately has no comprehensible existence outside of our individual subjectivities, or wills. That is, the body and the will are one and the same, the latter being the consciousness of the former. And the world outside the will? Idea, representation, presentation – in German vorstellung – that external stuff that while it may exist for us all does not exist for us all in precisely the same way, and whose ‘real’ substance is never knowable by beings such as we who are, at our very cores, beings of will.

Schopenhauer was a student of world religions, and borrowed heavily from Buddhist and Hindu traditions, combining these with Kantian epistemology to examine the ways that the problems of knowing are the problems of subjectivity and the problems of human existence itself. A hugely influential piece, the impact of The World As Will and Idea can be seen in Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Freud, and Einstein among a great many others.



Carl Sagan

Planned initially as a film, then written as a novel, then made into a film after the book’s massive success – Contact is a classic of sci-fi, one of the best-loved, top-ranked, and most-influential books of the genre in the last few decades.

Eleanor (Ellie) Arroway (named for Eleanor Rooselvelt and Francois-Marie Aruoet, aka Voltaire) is involved in a project to send transmissions into space in the hopes of locating and intiating contact with extraterrestrial civilizations. Contact is indeed made, and is followed by an expedition to meet the senders – beings who appear as humans significant to Ellie and her companions, and provide some suggestion as to the existence of a universal creator. On return to earth, though, Ellie and the others do not receive the hero’s welcome or excited congratulations they might expect. For the individuals involved, and for the world as a whole, contact raises more questions than it answers.

A scientist as well as a popular novelist, Sagan’s work on life in the cosmos is significant and far-reaching, and relied upon by university and NASA scientists exploring similar issues. This ain’t just space-adventure; it is serious consideration of the possibiities of extraterrestrial life and the question of contact, and it’s impact extends far beyond the literary to the cutting edge of scientific research.

Don Quixote

Don Quixote
Miguel de Cervantes
1605 – 1615

One of the world’s first novels and considered a foundational text of modern literature, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha follows the comic adventures of a gentleman farmer who decides to live out the fantasy of knighthood, dressing up in an old suit of armour, designating a neighbour his great love and inspiration, and hitting the road to chivalrous heroics with his “squire” Sancho Panza. Quixote sees grave insults and corruptions everywhere around him, battles for justice, glory and honour at every turn. To him, a great steed stands in place of his broken-down horse, a loyal servant is made of a bumbling neighbour, castles arise in the place of local inns, and giants – ferocious, menacing giants – replace the windmills on his journey. The neighbours see a crazy old man who’s just going to get himself hurt, and plot to get him home and safe and quiet once more. But Don Quixote will suffer no such indignation.

It’s the last great hurrah of chivalry, a laughing glance at the myths we live by, and still a nostalgic reflection – if not on what we’ve lost, on what we believe we’ve lost. And now, Cervantes’ book itself has entered history in the same way – as myth, as nostalgia, as a work of literature emblematic of worlds that collide, the death of the middle ages, the rise of modernity, a new literary form for a new cultural age and yet entirely occupied with what was lost even if it never really was to begin with.

Threepenny Opera

Threepenny Opera
Bertolt Brecht (music, Kurt Weill)
Who’s the greater criminal – the bank-robber or the banker? This is the question posed by Brecht’s masterpiece of musical theatre, a Marxist critique of capitalism set to music and performed across the stages of the world. First staged in 1928, within 5 years there had been some 10,000 showings and translations into 18 languages; and within 5 years, too, Brecht and composer Kurt Weill were living in exile following the rise of Hitler.

In the London of Queen Victoria, street criminal Mack the Knife loves Polly Peachum; Peachum’s daddy – who’s gotten rich playing pimp to the city’s street-beggars – will have no part of it, and turns up the pressure on the cops to arrest Mack and have him hanged. Simple enough as far as a plot goes – the beauty is all in the lyrics and the music.

Ed Asner, Bea Arthur, Raul Julia, Sting, Cyndi Lauper – they’ve all hit the stage to perform the Threepenny Opera, and its songs have been widely recorded – most notably Mack the Knife, which became a jazz standard in the hands of Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darrin, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and countless more.

You can read the play; you can get a recording of the score and listen through. Both worth your time, perhaps. But what is important about Brecht is the way he fashioned theatre as social critique and theatrical performance as collective conversation. There ain’t many playwrights whose influence has been this widely felt, who impacted all aspects of theatre as broadly and as deeply as Bertolt Brecht. This is is theatre to be seen, to be shared, to be adapted to the politics of the time. And it’s always playing somewhere, so you’ve got no excuse not to check it out.

The Lottery

The Lottery
Shirley Jackson

When first published in the New Yorker, Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” resulted in reams of hate mail and canceled subscriptions; decades later, it is one of the most well-known of American short stories, taught to high school students across North America and beyond.

At the start of summer, the residents of a small US town gather for the annual celebrations and rituals to make a good harvest, the most important being the lottery – a tradition increasingly abandoned by neighbouring communities. In all likelihood you’ve read the story and know the ending; but on the off chance that is not the case, I’ll say no more here. Read it.

Jackson was popular in her time, but since has been recognized as a major literary force, and an important influence on contemporary authors such as Neil Gaiman and Stephen King. Her stories are dark, often gothic fantasies drawn from a world careening between the holocaust and the Cold War. She largely refused, though, to comment on or even promote her work, shunning interviewers and critics and refusing the frequent invitations to comment on literary or world affairs that came her way.

“The Lottery” is what we all know Shirley Jackson for; but it’s only the start of an incredible body of work including stories, novels, and children’s books. Read it again. And read more of her. It’s worth the time.

The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success

The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success
Deepak Chopra

(By way of intro: As this post goes up today, I am just returning from a week at Breitenbush Hot Springs in Oregon. Two things I’m not especially keen on – visiting the U.S. and hippy retreat centres – but I’ve gone, relaxed, laid in the hot springs, and generally blissed out on a week doing nothing but loving my girl and spending some time in quiet contemplation. And, yes, I admit it – I absolutely fell in love with Breitenbush. In honor of the new-age-ness, then, today’s offering – Deepak Chopra’s little manual to the good life, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success.)

I normally try to write pretty objective little posts on the books here, and even when I make clear my own view I do at least try to be fair. Confession – I am not even trying in this case. For a balanced view, you’ll need to look somewhere else.

Chopra is the guru of gurus as far as the new-age, pseudo-eastern version of prosperity religions goes. He’s a master at taking bits and pieces of important spiritual traditions and re-framing them as life lessons for success and happiness in the hyper-individualism of western capitalism. And The Seven Spiritual Laws…is his handy guidebook to the question: How can I [and yes, it’s an “I” not a “we”] make self-interest and self-awareness mean the same thing?

1. Judge nothing, just ‘be’. Take in the world, but don’t let it get to you.

2. Give and you shall receive. OK, pretty standard, and never a bad thing to encourage a little generosity of spirit.

3. A little insight from physics – every action has an equal and opposite reaction. You put out fear, you’ll be afraid. You put out anger, you’ll get it back. You put out kindness, you’ll get kindness.

4. If it is, it is as it should be. Don’t fight the man, don’t get all upset cause things seem pretty screwed up out there. What is is, and you can’t change it, so just let it all be, and be content.

5. The power of the universe is yours for the asking. If you want something, believe in it, focus your good energy on it, and it’ll all come to you. (And, by extension, if something is wrong it’s probably your own damn fault.)

6. Detach from the world. Let it all flow by. Don’t try to change nothing, fix nothing, do nothing, cause the universe is what it is and all you’ll get for your efforts is a whole lot of stress and a whole lot of disappointment.

7. You’re special, you’re lovely, you’re amazing. Believe this about yourself.

There you go. No need to read this book, cause it’s all here. Be nice. Accept the world as it is. Be happy with what you’ve got and know that it is all meant to be. You’re a millionaire? God wants it so. You’re broke? God wants it so – or you’re not sending enough good-intention vibes out into the world. Bombs getting dropped on people across the world? It is what it is, you can’t fight it, let it go. This is spirituality from a box, spirituality that is consistent with any morality because it has no core morality, spirituality that asks nothing of you but to say you believe it.

If it’s not abundantly clear yet, I am no fan of this kind of thing. Read the Bhagavad Gita, the Koran, whatever other sources of spiritual wisdom you can find. Don’t bother with this guy. However, lots of people do read it. Lots of people like it, lots of people buy it. Sad as that may be to me, this is influential stuff that gave the west the chance to say, “look at us, we’re all spiritual and exotic, too!” without having to actually learn anything, actually challenge anything, actually build any kind of meaningful spiritual community or spiritual practice. I never said everything on this list was a good book.

History of Sexuality

History of Sexuality, vol. 1
Michel Foucault

Such a small little book. Such a huge, huge impact. Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality is a tremendous work, not only profoundly impacting thinking on sexuality, but deepening his style of critical work on social institutions generally and introducing, in particular, the notion of bio-power – the processes and practices by which states regulate populations and control bodies.

The History of Sexuality is a three-volume work, but it is volume 1 that is most-read and most-noted. Against the conventional wisdom that that the modern state sought to repress expressions of human sexuality and deny the centrality of sex to life, Foucault explores the myriad ways sexuality was re-thought, re-articulated, deployed by agencies of the state to monitor, manage and exploit human populations. Sex is not ignored let alone erased in the nineteenth century; sex is everywhere, and becomes a matter of state interest as general populations are re-cast as citizenry, people as instruments of national production, communities as collections of human beings to be studied, managed, deployed for or against various ends.

A communist and structuralist thinker until the mid to late 1960s, Michel Foucault became one of the central figures in what was called post-structuralism, though he himself rejected the term, defining his work instead as a critique of modernity. Whatever you call it, it is important, it is influential, and there is scarcely a field in the social sciences untouched by Michel Foucault. Plus he didn’t bother nearly so much as most academics with endless footnotes and sources that just make stuff hard to read. For that, alone, I’m thankful.

Read The History of Sexuality, even if you’re not into the academic stuff. Or read Madness and Civilization, or read Discipline and Punish. This is work that not only changes academic discourse, it profoundly changes the way we see social institutions and our complicated relationships with them.

Old Yeller

Old Yeller
Fred Gipson

A boy and his dog. When we think Old Yeller, we often think of the movie, but it’s on this list because before and since the book has had a life and an impact of its own. There’s no especially great commentary to come up with for this one – stray dog wanders into the farm life of a hard-working family; dog loves boy, boy grows to love dog; dog puts its own life at risk to defend the family; tragic ending – we all know it, but I am loathe to give it away just in case. A boy’s love, a good dog, growing up and the hard hard beauty of the world. That’s Old Yeller.

Gipson sets Old Yeller in Texas at the end of the American civil war, but it could be anywhere, anytime. One of those standard, timeless stories that no one ever forgets, just enough hardship and emotional strife to make the perfect Disney film. And a reminder that the most simple stories are often the most lasting.

Because I Could Not Stop for Death

Because I Could Not Stop for Death
Emily Dickinson

A later poem of Emily Dickinson, and one of the most best-known American poems of all time, “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” reflects upon the approaching end of life with calm acceptance, a peace with the recognition that the passage is less an ending than a beginning. Written in the year of her death and published posthumously in 1890, the poems famous opening stanza is followed by a straightforward imagining of her carriage-ride with death past the moments of her life, past the grave and to forever.

Hardly-known as a poet in her own lifetime, Dickinson was recognized more for her gardening, her extensive seclusion, and her virtually-exclusive wearing of white for a good many years. Less than a dozen of her nearly-1800 poems were published while she lived, and for decades afterwards she was often thought of as a mediocre voice if she was considered at all. The 1920s and 1930s, however, saw considerably-more attention paid to Emily Dickinson’s work, and she was increasingly-recognized as one of the great modern poets to emerge from the United States.

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