Time for a reassessment

Discussions relating to John Fowles' novel Daniel Martin.

Time for a reassessment

Postby drkellyindc on Sun Dec 09, 2007 1:42 pm

"Daniel Martin" turns 30 this year, and in my view it richly deserves a full critical reassessment. I've read it about every 3 years since I was 23, discovering new things about it and myself each time. I've recently researched the scholarship on this novel and written an essay that argues "Daniel Martin" is a contemporary masterpiece, with an emotional range and imaginative reach comparable to that of Melville's "Moby-Dick."

My case is partly built on how other critics have described "Daniel Martin":

“an inquiry into the systems that structure art and life” (Jacqueline Costello);

a book which “initiates the readers to a critical attitude towards their own perceptions” (Gunther Klötz);

its narrative structure is “commensurate with the complexities of contemporary life” (Ellen Pifer);

its culminating events “attain the objective status of a myth integrating individual experience and cultural history” (David H. Walker);

it is “truer than life because it is life described and illuminated and extended and enlarged beyond our own normal experience—and which therefore increases our own life” (Maxwell Geismar).

Many other scholars and artists have analyzed and praised "Daniel Martin" in writing, among them John Gardner, H.W. Fawkner, Paul H. Lorenz, Susan Klemtner, Gray Kochhar-Lindgren, Thomas M. Wilson, Katherine Tarbox, Thomas Docherty, Jeannette Mercer Sabre, John Mortimer, Mahmoud Salami, P.J. Boomsma, Susana Onega, Carol Barnum, Patricia Beatty, Frederick Busch, Nicholas Delbanco, Claude Prevost, and Peter Wolfe.

I'd like to hear from others on this topic. I'm especially interested in hearing what you've gotten from going back to the book after a first reading.
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Re: Time for a reassessment

Postby sally brice on Wed Jan 09, 2008 2:17 pm

I am just winding up my approximate fifteenth reading of Daniel Martin. I first picked it up from a publisher's rep when I returned home to San Francisco from a year in Paris in 1978, when I was 30. What do you think the two nations the German Egyptologist says are the only that truly exist are? Men and women? Two lovers? This is the first time I've reread it that I can sense it being at all dated, not in a bad way, just inevitably. For example, I would like to hear Dan comment on the punk movement. Scary, though, how one can merely substitute Iraq for Vietnam in the discussion with the young Americans. For the first time I've been less lazy and started actually looking up the words I don't know that crop up every c. 100 pages. These are just a couple of differences in this time reading it. Good topic, that. I'll try to think of more. --sally
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Re: Time for a reassessment

Postby sally brice on Thu Jan 10, 2008 12:22 pm

Maybe I'll try an answer of my own question. On the last page of DM, Fowles says it is a matter of "choosing and learning to feel." Maybe those who do and those who don't are the two nations. I also noticed for the first time Dan's interest in Zen, as I am a sometime practioner of that faith. I found the Egyptologist's mystical experiences reminiscent of Maughm in Razor's Edge and Of Human Bondage. I am also a great fan of Maughm, especially Cakes and Ale. Any other Fowles lovers feel that way? Finally, I was impressed by the number of Fowles readers from Russia and China. Is that because, aside from Doris Lessing, he seems to be one of the few modern novelists to take politics seriously?
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Re: Time for a reassessment

Postby JimJman on Fri Jan 11, 2008 12:36 am

Thank you so much for marking the 30th birthday of Daniel Martin. Although my "head" tells me it's not an entirely successful novel (perhaps because at times I'm too aware that the author's various political and artistic views are being inserted into the mouths of the characters) -- NEVERTHELESS, it remains one of my three or so favorite novels, and it gives me a certain comfort to keep it at all times by my bedside, even if I don't refer to it for months -- sometimes years -- at a time.

But when I do return to Daniel, his past, and his endless present (he's always there for me, in California,with Jenny, just about to get the urgent phone call from England) what has always most appealed to me is the visceral jolt I get from experiencing the actual structure of the book. Especially the leaps in time, with no explanation or filler material (i.e. there are no passags like: "Nearly thirty years earlier, I was ensconced in Oxford...") So the "ride" one takes in the earliest chapters, from wartime Devon, to mid-seventies Los Angeles, to postwar Oxford, never fails to provide me with a kind of thrill, as if things are in constant flux. Like life. We sort of enter Daniel's brain, and observe that all the various people and events in his 46 years actually coexist; thus Fowles avoids chronological orderliness for deeper truths about why we think and act as we do.

I don't know why I'm so thrilled by this technique alone. But how many novels eschew chronology with such abandon? Joyce's Ulysses throws a new style at you in each chapter (gloriously!) but still the novel moves ever forward, hour by hour. I suppose, to use a cliche, Fowles is practicing a "cinematic" technique. Well, whatever it is, it works for me.

Although I've expressed reservations about the book, I can't help strongly identifying with Daniel. I did when I first read it, when I was younger than he, and I continue to, even as I've surpassed his fictional age a bit. These are the marks of a great, believable character.

Nothing else need be said now except to express the deep satisfaction one feels in finding others (on this site) who share one's deep appreciation for this neglected, but beautiful, book.
Jimmy
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Re: Time for a reassessment

Postby drkellyindc on Mon Jan 14, 2008 10:05 am

It’s wonderful to read the posts so far on this topic. I’m tracking with Sally’s question about the German professor’s dividing the world into two nations. I've had various ideas for what the two nations could be (elect/non-elect, free/bound, modern/primitive, the concepts of “ka” and “ba” from Egyptian mythology) but I like Sally’s idea that it relates to “choosing and learning to feel.” Fowles charitably left this issue open, like the endings of some of his other novels.

I concur with Jimmy’s comment about how deeply satisfying it is to connect with others about “Daniel Martin” on this site. I share his sense of “visceral jolt” from the book’s structure. Each time I re-read the novel, the different time periods and perspectives become newly interrelated, as if the book was a prism or a kaleidoscope. I love how the scholar Katherine Tarbox describes the novel in art-historical terms as a fusion of symbolist and cubist perceptions of reality. She suggests that understanding “Daniel Martin” is tantamount to understanding life itself:

“[Fowles’s] complex novel has dozens of characters, locations, and time levels, mirroring the large, complex business of life, which stands as the greatest impediment to understanding. Yet there is an extraordinary number of parallels in this book, a substructure of coincidence, correspondence, recurring events, motifs, even leitmotifs, that serve to tame the chaos by the logic of, say, an Escher drawing; that is, if one reads life (and this book) properly, one can begin to see the connections.”

What an amazing thing to say. No wonder this book has continued drawing me back. Reading it in my mid-20s, I was like a botanist with a new species—carefully examining the allusions, myths, recurring words and images, noticing minute psychological shifts, and subtleties I'd missed earlier. Over the years “Daniel Martin” has been the single-most useful guide to me as a writer and artist. I’m now in my late 40s and reading it for the 8th time. My high estimation of the book is emboldened by my connections with others like you. “Daniel Martin” strikes me as having all the best aspects of mythology: supporting a social order, imparting wisdom on how to live, serving the human capacity for wonder, and helping us to imagine the shape of the universe.

I’m eager to hear more comments.
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Re: Time for a reassessment

Postby JimJman on Wed Jan 16, 2008 3:12 am

In addition to the juggling of time periods with little or no explanation, a second "visceral jolt, " I now recall, comes at those times when Fowles suddenly switches from Third Person to First. When "Dan" or "He," without warning, is now "I." And to me, "I" represents the oldest Dan, the Dan who has lived through all the experiences recounted in this book and is now ready to write the novel, Daniel Martin. The playwright/screenwriter has "chosen to feel" and has gradually discarded his older selves, and the people associated with his older selves. "I" has emerged; and "I" is Dan. the novelist, ready to move into the next chapter in his life. If this were a musical (I'm a composer!), there would definitely be a song here, a concluding song about moving on, a song akin to the sort of numbers Georges Seurat sings in Sondheim's Sunday In the Park With George. A moving way to end Dan's story and begin the rest of Dan's life. (I can't resist pointing out here that Daniel Martin also concludes in a park, in this case, Hampstead Heath, and in Kenwood House, where Dan and Rembrandt stare at each other.)

Finally, when I read all the lively thoughts that DM has inspired on this site, I recall that the New York Times review, and undoubtedly, the London reviewers, generally missed the depths and complexities upon which this book is constructed. They spoke of its so-called "happy ending," considered uncharacteristic for Fowles, and other superficial observations. I imagine that they all read it too fast, and didn't allow it to "marinate" for a while in their brains. I heard that author John Gardner adored DM and wrote a passionate appreciation of Fowles in the Saturday Review, If anybody has access to that article, I'd sure like to see it.
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Re: Time for a reassessment

Postby Magusbob on Wed Jan 16, 2008 8:14 pm

John Gardner's review of Daniel Martin is in the October 1, 1977 issue of The Saturday Review. I got my copy some time ago on eBay, and I'm sure if you search the net (try a Google search on back issues of magazines) you can find it for a few dollars. This is the article where Gardner famously asserts: "Fowles is the only writer in English who has the power, range, knowledge, and wisdom of a Tolstoy or James." Perceptive fellow, Gardner was.
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Re: Time for a reassessment

Postby drkellyindc on Thu Jan 17, 2008 7:25 am

Thank you, Bob, for providing the John Gardner reference, and for your passion for creating and maintaining this site. I want to follow up with a lesser-known passage Gardner wrote later that year in his review of the year’s best fiction. This excerpt is from “John Gardner on fiction,” in the Dec. 3, 1977 issue of “The New Republic.” Among other things, it helps explain why some of us have read "Daniel Martin" so many times.

Gardner writes, “The best novel this year, according to my tastes anyway, is John Fowles’s “Daniel Martin.” Fowles is always good, probably better than anyone else now writing in English, but in his new book he’s better than ever. The novel is, as every true novel should be, a treasure hoard: an abundance of interesting characters and suspenseful, meaningful events, a banquet of beautifully done landscapes and interiors, all working together to think out and test serious ideas. It’s true of course that not all novels have to be philosophical . . . but when I come right down to it I have to admit that all of my favorite books, from “Pride and Prejudice” to “Moby-Dick,” are works in which part of the pleasure is in the artist’s working out of important ideas. That has always been one of the things Fowles does best. To readers who want only “entertainment,” and a number of reviewers seem to fall into that class, “Daniel Martin” may seem slow. But to those who care about the ways in which a novel can think out by means of concrete situations the most difficult philosophical ideas, and out of this process can get judgments we trust as we would be wrong to trust mere logic and abstraction, Fowles’s novel is pure joy. He knows, of course, about novelistic entertainment which is why we have to read his novels, especially this last one, two or three times. The first time through one is so worried about Martin’s love life, so concerned about how all the characters will turn out, even the most minor, we cannot stop to savor all the rest. With each rereading the book and each character becomes richer. It’s the kind of book that one chooses to teach if one’s lucky enough to have a college or high school English class to teach again and again. Such books are rare: one appears every 25 years or so.”
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Re: Time for a reassessment

Postby sally brice on Fri Jan 18, 2008 12:05 pm

I am also interested in the Eastern religious thought Fowles alluded to v. briefly in D.Martin. Somerset Maugham, who is somewhat similar to Fowles, refers to Buddhist thought in A Razor's Edge & Of Human Bondage, although Cakes & Ale is really my favorite Maugham. Why do you posters like DM the best of Fowles, as I do? I, infortunately, loathe A Maggot & Mantissa, but adore French Lieutenants Woman, Magus, Ebony Tower w/ attached short stories, & Wormholes. The Collector = so-so. I read the bio by the woman that came out shortly after his death. I need to get Journals I & II.--Sally Brice
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Re: Time for a reassessment

Postby drkellyindc on Mon Jan 21, 2008 9:44 pm

I’ve been pondering Sally’s question about preferring “Daniel Martin” to other Fowles works. It's not that I dislike the rest—I keep “The Aristos” close on my shelf, and “The Magus” and “French Lieutenant’s Woman” too. Passages in “Magus” and “FLW” capture certain feelings and experiences in ways that I think will never be surpassed. For me those passages are not just beautiful, but solid enough to support the weight of serious thinking. However, the “Daniel Martin” I've come to know is a register for EVERY feeling and experience that humans can have. Delight, anguish, rage, heartbreak, first love, self-doubt, fear, shame, loss, bitterness . . . In a conscious and programmatic way beginning with the novel's first sentence, Fowles includes the entire behavioral gamut, and makes it seem part of an interconnected whole.

In “The Aristos” he wrote, “Science is, legitimately, precision at all cost; and poetry, legitimately, inclusion at all cost.” In this light, “DM” represents a new kind of poetic inclusiveness. One of Fowles’s great challenges in “DM” was to forge the most inclusive structure he could, while still keeping it accessible and moving forward.

The novel’s inclusiveness has been a great comfort to me over the years. I can follow Dan from his formative years at Thorncombe and with Nancy Reed, to his years as an atheist and aesthete at university, to his religious moment of happiness in the Tarquinia night-bathe scene, to his sharp sense of loss as he’s exiled from his Oxford friends, to the regrets he feels in middle age (“The compromises of his life seemed to lie on him almost physically, like warts”), and to the gradual reawakening he undergoes as he faces up to his past. I can trace Jane’s life-path in a similar way. The book is like an emotional almanac, or a spiritual guide that can accompany me to the heights and depths of experience, and everything in between.

As Fowles notes, such inclusiveness has a cost. One cost of “DM”’s inclusiveness is reflected in its pace. Another passage in “The Aristos” states, “In atoms as in men, complexification causes loss of energy.” By this token, “DM” has a higher number on the Periodic Table than “Magus” or “FLW,” and accordingly moves more slowly. But to me “DM” has a pace to be savored, and is no less compelling for its lack of cliffhangers.

Thanks for the question, Sally. I’d love to hear others on this issue.
--Kelly
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Re: Time for a reassessment

Postby JimJman on Wed Jan 23, 2008 12:37 am

In an interesting exchange with Kelly, he asked me to elaborate upon my initial remark that in Daniel Martin (love it though I do!) Fowles was putting his strongly-held views on various political and social issues, into the mouths of his characters in such a way that they didn't ring true for me. I should have been clearer. Fowles's political, artistic and social views are driving forces in his art -- so they must be there. But -- are they truly absorbed and digested by his characters, or does it sometimes seem like Fowles, himself, is talking directly to us, characters and story be damned?

Fowles was passionately engaged with the world of ideas and philosophy and politics, if not the world itself (preferring the seclusion of Lyme Regis), but when I read the book I sense (I can't prove it) he felt obliged to absorb and reconcile every possible contemporary hot-button issue. (I speak from instinct, not scholarship, so please contradict me! I write these thoughts humbly, to see what others think -- I'd be delighted if someone agreed with some of what I posit -- and to learn something myself, from all of you.)

The passages involving the hot Seventies issue of Women's Liberation feel to me like they were inserted into the text because they were, well, an issue at the time. Not that Women's Lib didn't figure importantly in the lives of the women of Daniel Martin--but, my instinct tells me this is very much the author editorializing here.

The same goes for the related Seventies issue of Sexual Liberation. Jenny's orgy experience, which she relates to Dan in a letter (admittedly, as vividly recounted as any great Fowles tale), feels pasted on, unnecessary to the plot, and only there for the reasons listed above.

Fowles puts no limit on the amount of issues he wishes to voice and tackle.

I contrast Fowles with James Joyce, whose fictional representative, Stephen Daedalus (in "A Portrait of the Artist..), contends that "the artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails."

That could not be said of author Fowles.

I found support for this view in Denis Donoghue's review of DM in the New York Review of Books, when he states about Fowles: "...he rarely trusts his vision enough to let it disappear in the work. That is why Daniel Martin contains so many pages and chapters which have not been given the authority of vision at all: odds-and-ends which have shaken loose from the work because they were never attached to it by force of faith to begin with."

I'll continue with a few more things that bother me a bit:
That Dan (Fowles) felt that his postwar Oxbridge generation had blown it, had not made the most of their brains and opportunities, is said too often, almost whined, with a self-pitying tone. And using Barney (Caro's lover), the TV talk show host, as a prime example of this generation, Fowles resorts slightly to caricature to hammer his point home. (Again, I'll admit I can read the lunch scene with Dan and Barney over and over, year after year, without tiring of it! But then I always adore accounts of British men's club-type lunches, with polite words and smiles on the surface, and daggers beneath! There's an equally great one in Le Carre's The Constant Gardener.)

Then there are Fowles's views of filmmaking in Hollywood, USA. Well-rendered, as always, but, in my opinion, an easy target, with predictable put-downs, broad caricatures, and an elitist disdain that we've all heard a thousand times before, and from our own countrymen. Absolutely nothing new here.

These things must be said, mustn't they?

Still a devoted fan of DM, believe me.
Jimmy
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Re: Time for a reassessment

Postby jstuart902 on Wed Jan 23, 2008 3:43 pm

I am a newcomer to conversations on line, and am brought here by my good friend Kelly/DrKelly. Last Spring, we met at a Storytellers conference at the Smithsonian in Washington. He told me of his passion for DM, and I asked him to lead a small phone study group, which met monthly for 8-9 months. In the course of this, I became a fan as well.

I am knocked out by the thoughtfulness and depth of the posts. I will take up a thread Susan has brought in - the spiritual element, and I use the word spiritual in a very broad sense. For example, the opening line: "Whole sight, else all the rest is desolation." expresses, in my eyes, Fowles' deep spiritual yearning for something integral. Below is an email I sent to Kelly last week, reflecting on this aspect of DM:

"Yes. It's the truth through and under the words. It's the
indescribable and wholly real look in Rembrandt's eyes in the
last scene. It's the elemental sacred in the ancient native indian
site. It's what DM senses, yet can't language, in the hospital
conversation. It's the space, imaginative, and therefore real,
in the sacred valley. It's what remains when all things tangible, all
images, and all words are removed. Robinson Jeffers called it "...the
careless white bone, the excellence." We call this domain "spiritual",
because we have run out of words. For me, this domain is almost always
present in DM - sometimes in the foreground; sometimes at the fringes of
the conversation; but never wholly absent."

Jim
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Re: Time for a reassessment

Postby drkellyindc on Sat Jan 26, 2008 1:30 pm

Jim--glad to have you joining our stream. I like the “DM” spirituality angle you and Sally are pursuing. Some lines and moments in “DM” have been a source of deep, faith-like reassurance and inspiration to me, going back a quarter-century now. It’s as if they have the power to ward off evil.

A few examples:

In "The Harvest" chapter: "And his heart turns, some strange premonitory turn, a day when in an empty field he shall weep for this."

Aunt Millie’s quietly saying “Hoping is no sin, Daniel.”

Dan’s line about the creative impulse: “I create, I am: all the rest is dream, though concrete and executed.”

A passage about Ben and his gardening, which ends with the words “failure is the salt of life.” I think it’ll take me a lifetime to really absorb that idea. (There’s a similar idea in Fowles’s Journals, Vol. II, Sept. 21, 1977: “. . . evolution itself is mainly fuelled by faults.” I find that intriguing.)

There's lots more to be said about the link between "Daniel Martin" and spirituality. I found a 1979 Journal of Religion article that places "DM" in the ethically self-questioning tradition of St. Augustine's Confessions.

I'll be glad to hear others' views on this connection.
--Kelly
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Re: Time for a reassessment

Postby drkellyindc on Sun Jan 27, 2008 9:08 am

Jimmy, I’ve been thinking about your Jan. 23 post. I appreciate your being frank about your misgivings. Like you, I remember initially having problems with the Bel-Air sex scene Jenny writes (“A Third Contribution”). I wanted to follow the main plot into Egypt, and Jenny’s long letter was making me wait. However, it helped me, on later rereading it, to notice the chapter’s first sentence, and also its last paragraph. The chapter serves several functions, for Jenny, for Dan, and for Fowles, although it took me a while to recognize them.

Fowles does use some invective talking about Hollywood and Oxford, but he humanizes both these settings and their characters in a way that no satirist would do. He sometimes starts with a flat or caricatured treatment (e.g., Steve “the Prick,” Barney the cynic), but the ensuing story obliges us to see them as having more complexity and dimension. Notice how, at the end of the men’s-club conversation (“Hollow Men”), the hidden daggers are gone, and Dan’s shaking Bernard’s hand is not merely a token grip. There’s also the small matter of Dan’s learning to refer to him by the more adult name Bernard, not Barney.

Back to the spirituality issue: I think that Dan’s having a snit fit about his job in Hollywood and his classmates from Oxford is the only way he can move forward to the later epiphanies.

I remember you said earlier that some critics hadn’t let the novel “marinate” enough (nice verb choice). I also want to suggest the verb “metabolize.” Most of my qualms about the book have undergone a process akin to metabolism as I’ve continued engaging with it. The questions I’ve entertained have usually been answered by the book itself—passages I overlooked, connections I hadn’t yet made.

Sometimes, working through my own qualms about “DM” has led me to a broader way of seeing. A while back I decided that Daniel (the implied writer of “DM”) could never actually write a book this mature and layered and sophisticated--not on his first venture out as a novelist. So I thought, It’s a magnificent book, but flawed in this specific way. On a later reading, I noticed several clues that indicated Fowles was a step ahead of me. Three such clues are 1) the anagram of the author’s name (S. Wolfe); 2) Dan’s telling Jane, regarding his plans to write a novel, that he’s not professionally equipped for it, but that “a novelist who wasn’t a scriptwriter might do it”; and 3) the reference to “his ill-concealed ghost” in the novel’s last sentence. Noticing this didn’t just satisfy my concern but allowed me to have a kind of summit conversation with the narrator.

Contending with the book in this way, working out its apparent wrinkles, has been a source of extraordinary pleasure to me over the years. It’s like I’m partaking of the same creative process after publication that Fowles underwent before publication.

Fowles’s working methods with “DM” are well-documented in interviews, in the Warburton biography, and in Vol. II of the Journals. He took 5½ years to work out this novel in all its small details, allowing the characters and developments to surprise him. It’s as if he was faced with a large-scale Rubik’s Cube or Sudoku puzzle, but instead of matching colors and numbers he was working with people, motives, values, and how they changed over time.

His journal entry of Dec. 12, 1975 anticipates your concern about “DM” being seen as politically motivated or biased. About the novel-in-progress he writes, “It will be condemned as an elitist book, I know that; and as wicked in its mocking of pessimism and egalitarianism. Once again no one will understand that its real frame is biological, not cultural or political.”

To grasp why “DM” has been misunderstood, I find it helpful to recall the example of “Moby-Dick.” Shortly after Melville’s whaling novel appeared in 1851, people stopped contending with it, dismissing it as a badly edited whaling adventure padded out with a lot of unnecessary digressions and philosophizing. For the vast reading public, it languished for nearly 50 years. Then in 1899 a scholar in Canada, finding that he couldn’t stop thinking about the book, published an essay about it, “The Best Sea Story Ever Written,” in an obscure journal. By the 1920s, as others began catching on to the novel, there was a full-fledged Melville revival, and today we regard “Moby-Dick” as a life-enhancing work of art.

Those of us involved in this discussion bear the seeds of a similar revival for “DM.” I’m convinced that the stakes are even higher now for people understanding “DM” than they were a century ago for understanding “Moby-Dick.” “DM” is a guide to a new kind of emotional literacy, a kind sorely needed in the world today. Few people have grasped its full significance—not because it’s obscure, in the manner of late James Joyce or much of Thomas Pynchon, but because not enough readers have allowed it to marinate long enough. As Katherine Tarbox suggests (see Jan. 14 post above), seeing this novel whole is comparable to seeing life whole. In my view, “DM” stands as an imperative for us to evolve further.

I’m not saying “DM” is the only book that urges us to evolve. But so far, for me, it’s the only such book that’s drawn me back recurrently over several decades, each time with a sense that I’m discovering it anew, and that my own fate—and perhaps a more collective fate as well--is somehow encoded in its pages.

So, all doubts and reservations about “DM” are welcome. And . . . with humility I also want to say, don’t assume that engaging with this book, and with this conversation, is a matter of small importance.

Thanks for listening.
--Kelly
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Re: Time for a reassessment

Postby sally brice on Sun Jan 27, 2008 1:05 pm

Thank you, Dr. Kelly, for continuing the discussion of spirituality in DM. I was struck by the "ghost story without a ghost" the old professor recounts in The River Between chapter. His description of being beyond time, being the river itself, seems very Zen. The reason I brought up Maugham is that, for all his worldliness, his characters in Of Human Bondage and The Razor's Edge go on quests that lead them to similar experiences. I love Maugham's Cakes and Ale because of the similarity of the Blackstable of Willie Ashenden's youth rto Daniel's roots and the fact that both men's fathers were churchmen. Anyone else fond of Maugham? (Bye the way, I have been awed by the fine minds at work out there, as evidenced by the felicity of their literary analysis. Thank you!)
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