Thursday, October 01, 2015

Monsieur le Duc, Meet Mr. Bond...

I should not have been surprised to learn that Ian Fleming's Bond series of novels was inspired by Dennis Wheatley's earlier success with the Duke de Richlieu and his intrepid team of adventurers. The Forbidden Territory came out in 1933, featuring the Duke and Simon Aaron on a perilous journey into Soviet Russia to rescue their friend Rex van Ryn. While the next turn, The Devil Rides Out, turned to the supernatural, Wheatley wrote other espionage adventures and they were popular. A list of all his novels gives you an idea of where his imagination roamed.

Ballantine Books' 1971 edition of Wheatley's famous novel

But by the time Fleming came along with Bond, I imagine readers were ready for more sex and violence, but what amuses me is the similarity in their writing styles and their sensibilities.

1959 edition of Ian Fleming's James Bond novel

The casual, upper middle class racism stands out. Also the casual drinking. In Devil Rides Out, for example, Rex makes more than a few mid-day cocktails for Tanith and himself during a stopover at the Duke's 'cottage' on their trek across the English countryside. No worries about drunk driving in those days, apparently.  

Interesting that, although he blazed the trail in a sense, Wheatley saw none of the success of his books translated into film the way Fleming did with Bond, even though he outlived Fleming.  The Devil Rides Out remains the most famous of the four films based on his books--and in spite of its still impressive production design, as Christopher Lee often lamented, from the get-go the film suffered from unforgivably low-budget visual effects.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

The Dandelion Rides Out

This summer I've been going back to classic paperbacks I read when I was a teenager. It's been fascinating to re-read Alistair MacLean, Dennis Wheatley, and most recently Ray Bradbury.

For fun I posted snaps of the books from the beach cottage where we vacation. The Dandelion Wine cover brought a groan of recognition from one of my fellow high school classmates on Facebook.

"Gawd I hated that book..."

I have to say, for all the shortcomings of the two British authors, MacLean and Wheatley, which I'll address in separate posts, Ted A. was right. Bradbury could write beautiful prose, but it only served to underline the almost cloying self-absorption of the main character-- twelve-year-old Douglas Spaulding. And I don't care if most twelve-year-olds are in fact self absorbed. I know I was. But Bradbury could have done a much better job of presenting his characters.

In fact, as I was reading the short chapter where Douglas accompanies his father and brother into the countryside to gather berries, I was reminded of a more recent novel--The Shipping News--which I put down after 60 pages.

Bradbury can be excused to a certain extent I think because he was self taught--in an age long before MFA writing programs. Annie Proulx I just couldn't stand. When the prose draws so much attention to itself to the detriment of the characters and the story, I don't feel the slightest guilt about throwing the book into the Goodwill bin.

Between 6th and 8th grades I read just about everything Bradbury had in print: Martian Chronicles, Golden Apples of the Sun, Machineries of Joy, S is for Space, etc. But even before high school, I came to realize how narrow his range was as an observer of human beings and human nature. (He must've ended at least half a dozen stories with the same stupid homage to Edgar Allan Poe's Cask of Amontillado.)

I thought perhaps revisiting him after all these years I might see something new, something I missed as an adolescent.

And while I do appreciate how well he could write, and how evocative, in a poetic sense, his prose could be, I don't regret getting rid of that paperback collection once I got to high school.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Prague's Grand Old Astronomical Clock

In Prague this week. The ‘old city’ section is a treat for history of science buffs. We managed to get a perch in front of the medieval astronomical clock in the Square. This is the oldest operating clock in the world, and the third oldest overall, surviving from the fifteenth century. The clock strikes on the hour, but was more ambitiously designed to follow the phases of the moon and the passage of the sun through the Zodiac year around. Note in my video (about forty seconds in), the chimes begin with Death, personified by the skeleton, ringing the bell, while the apostles pass by the opening windows above.

(continued at Forbes....)

The Pope, The Encyclical...and Darwin.

Because you knew I would find evolution in there somewhere....

Christopher Lee (1922--2015)

My tribute to Christopher Lee at Forbes. To say he led a full life is an understatement. It was an honor to meet him, to write about him--and to write for him. But that's another story....

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Can Science Provide A Big History?

Over at The Edge, John Brockman features British historian David Christian on the need to come up with a new origin story that can serve the global community.

Christian, the author of This Fleeting World: A Short History of Humanity, started his career as a professor of Russian history, and over the years as he refined his lectures on the Cold War, he realized…

(continued at Forbes)

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Gregor Mendel, Call Your Office

Some thoughts on the recent, excellent Houses of Worship article by Steve Barr and Dermott Mullan in the Wall Street Journal.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Vatican and Evolution: Help Wanted

Today, popular attitudes toward evolution and religion take three forms, and the Vatican sits uneasily between two of them. The first, and most widely touted in recent years by prominent atheists, is that science in general and evolution in particular have completely debunked the claims of the major monotheistic religions.

The second, what might be called the deist alternative, acknowledges that Darwinian evolution undermines key beliefs of Christianity but is completely compatible with a generally theistic view of the cosmos, one that owes its creation to a God who is content to wind up the clock, as it were, launch the Big Bang, and let the Universe run by itself. This view does not embrace the traditional understanding of a benevolent deity who takes a personal interest in human history and answers people’s prayers. But it’s a middle ground between atheism and theism – and it tends to annoy atheists as much as it does religious traditionalists.

The third position, one embraced by many fundamentalist Christians and more conservative adherents of both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, is the frank rejection of science where and when it directly contradicts Christian doctrine or scripture, such as the belief that God created the world in six days, the story of Noah and the flood, or that Adam and Eve were the first parents of the entire human race.

For ample reasons, the Vatican is unwilling to embrace this third option. It has long had a proud tradition of balancing faith with reason, as in the classic works of St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas. It is clear, however, that when it comes to evolution, Rome is not sure how to find a way to balance a continued support for the Catholic tradition and the consensus of science.

But such a way must be found….

(Full text at Aeon)

Friday, April 24, 2015

The Curse of the System….

There is an enormous distinction which must be drawn between the insights of Thomas Aquinas and the system which has come to be known as Thomism. The insights of St. Thomas are magnificent realistic flashes of  illumination which lay open a tremendous range of experience, cosmic, human and divine.  Like the authentic insights of every other great thinker, man will never allow these gifts to be lost. But the system, the pedagogical blueprint, that St. Thomas drew up for the purposes of an age of scholasticism, has needed constant revamping from the first day of publication. The manual tradition of Thomism has not done its homework. The invaluable insights have often been obscured by uncritical and useless accretions. It is the system, the demands of the cosmic order and the order of knowledge, into which all things known and all things knowable must fit, which I find so unrealistic and illusory.
 ~Raymond J. Nogar, OP