May 25, 2002

1. Cape Cod

Our book discussion group is now reading Thoreau’s Cape Cod, a light-hearted narrative about Thoreau’s excursions to Cape Cod. When I was 15 or 20, I would have had trouble with a book like this, I would have expected something weighty, something profound, from a famous philosopher like Thoreau, and when I found nothing weighty, I would have become frustrated. But now I can enjoy a book like Cape Cod, a book that isn’t serious, that doesn’t have big ideas, that deals with everyday matters. Prose style is more important in such a book than it is in a book about Big Things, and it is the mark of genuine literature to emphasize style as much as content.

Unfortunately, many of Thoreau’s best sallies of wit are old to me, I heard them before when we read The Days of Henry Thoreau, a big biography of Thoreau that describes his Cape Cod excursions, and quotes his wittiest observations. But some of Thoreau’s sallies of wit are fresh, and make me laugh out loud. In the following passage, as in other passages, he takes a humorous view of local history, which he studied as he traveled:

The ecclesiastical history of [Eastham] interested us somewhat.... “In 1662, the town agreed that a part of every whale cast on shore be appropriated for the support of the ministry.” No doubt there seemed to be some propriety in thus leaving the support of the ministers to Providence, whose servants they are, and who alone rules the storms; for, when few whales were cast up, they might suspect that their worship was not acceptable. The ministers must have sat upon the cliffs in every storm, and watched the shore with anxiety. And, for my part, if I were a minister, I would rather trust to the bowels of the billows, on the back-side of Cape Cod, to cast up a whale for me, than to the generosity of many a country parish that I know. You cannot say of a country minister’s salary, commonly, that it is “very like a whale.” Nevertheless, the minister who depended on whales cast up must have had a trying time of it. I would rather have gone to the Falkland Isles with a harpoon, and done with it.

When we finish Cape Cod, our group is going to read Ibsen’s Wild Duck.

2. Aphorisms

A. Corners On several occasions, he tried to fit into an institution, but he never succeeded, it was like fitting a square peg into a round hole — he had too many corners.

B. Anticipations We often anticipate turning-points in our lives. Before I met my wife in 1988, I anticipated that I would soon meet a “significant other.” Before I took up meditation and yoga in 1993, I anticipated that I would begin exploring the “spiritual dimension,” which I had long neglected in favor of intellectual pursuits. Before I moved to Providence in 1995, I anticipated that I would be involved in business in Providence.

Napoleon said, “I always had an inner sense of what awaited me.... Nothing ever happened to me which I did not foresee, and I alone did not wonder at what I had accomplished.”1 One of Jung’s disciples said, “Important events in Jung’s life often announced themselves beforehand in dreams. Such was the case with his discovery of alchemy.”2

C. Three Ideals The three most attractive ideals in our time are

  1. the Zen ideal: stillness, awareness of the present moment;
  2. the Jung ideal: communion with the unconscious, finding a midpoint between consciousness and the unconscious; and
  3. the Nietzsche ideal: the classical Western ideal, which has its roots on the Acropolis, of the full development of the individual, inspired by heroic ethics and by culture.
The Zen ideal is the most practical, it can be applied most readily in our daily life. The Jung ideal lies between Zen and Nietzsche, it builds a bridge between East and West. The Nietzsche ideal appeals strongly to young intellectuals, especially young philosophers, because it addresses itself to such individuals, it describes the situation of such individuals.

3. Publishing and Self-publishing

My second book, Realms of Gold: A Sketch of Western Literature, was recently published in Taiwan, in my wife’s Chinese translation. (Though it hasn’t been published in English, you can read it for free on my home page. Some sections of Realms of Gold were published in earlier issues of Phlit.) A couple years ago, the same Taiwan publisher published my first book, Conversations With Great Thinkers, in an edition of 5,500 copies. That edition sold out, and the book was re-published with my second book, as a two-volume set, with matching covers. Whether the first book will continue to sell, and whether the second book will sell, remains to be seen. Stay tuned. If sales are satisfactory, perhaps I’ll publish a third book in Taiwan, The Best of Phlit or Conversations With Nietzsche.

As a preface to Realms of Gold, the Taiwan publisher chose an autobiographical essay from my website. This essay was originally published in the April 2000 edition of Phlit. After it appeared in Phlit, I received e-mail from a Phlit subscriber in India, Amrit Hallan, who said that he enjoyed it, and wanted to use it in his own e-newsletter. This positive feedback prompted me to give the essay a prominent place on my website, which led to its being chosen by the Taiwan publisher as the preface to Realms of Gold. Feedback is valuable for any writer, and the feedback that I’ve received from readers like Amrit has made this e-newsletter a worthwhile experience for me.

Conversations With Great Thinkers was published by two Beijing publishers in 1998. Both publishers were mad at me and my wife for giving the manuscript to another publisher. Since we haven’t spoken to these publishers in years, we don’t know if the book sold well, if it was re-published, etc. (Why did I give the manuscript to two publishers? They didn’t stay in touch with me, they didn’t say they had decided to publish the manuscript. I interpreted their silence as lack of interest, so I sent the manuscript to other publishers. Then one fine day, two publishers say, “we’re publishing your book now.” We asked one to “stop the presses,” and let the other one publish alone, but he said it was too late, he had to go forward. He also said that having one book published by two Chinese publishers wasn’t a big problem, it was a common occurrence.)

None of my books has been published in English, though Conversations With Great Thinkers was self-published in English in 1997. I sold a few copies (some through bookstores, some through Amazon), sent some “free sample” copies to bookstores, and still receive some orders from the big book distributors (such as Ingram and Baker & Taylor). All in all, self-publishing was a positive experience.

If anyone is surprised that I’ve been published and read more by people on the other side of the world than by people in my own neighborhood, I would say that this is an old story, and not at all surprising:

“And when he was come into his own country, he taught them in their synagogue, insomuch that they were astonished, and said, Whence hath this man this wisdom, and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us? Whence then hath this man all these things? And they were offended in him. But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and in his own house.”(Matthew, 13:54)

© L. James Hammond 2002
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1. Napoleon the Man, by Dmitri Merezhkovsky, ch. 9 back
2. Aniela Jaffé, From the Life and Work of C. G. Jung, ch. 2 back