Classics Club: October Meme

It’s time for my post for the Classics Club October Meme! This meme is a way for all of us classics clubbers to interact with each other and remind ourselves that we can’t always be introverts. ūüėČ The question of the month is: Why are you reading the classics?


I have always loved reading the classics. First of all, if they’ve survived this long, that’s generally because they’re so powerful that they resonate throughout the ages. I appreciate a good book! Second, I enjoy learning about history. Reading books that were written in a certain historical period is a fantastic way to help me learn about that time period. Third, I enjoy picking up on allusions to classics in popular culture (and other books). It is fascinating how certain ideas stay with us forever…how some of them morph with time and become new ideas. I enjoy following this process because it helps me understand what is important to us psychologically.¬†

Update: So far, I have read and reviewed 3 of 50 on my classics club list.

For those of you who are not members of the classics club (and therefore don’t have your own blog post on the topic) please feel free to answer this month’s question in my comments! ūüôā


The Blind Owl, by Sadegh Hedayat

2012 Book 136: The Blind Owl  

Written by Sadegh Hedayat; Translated by D.P. Costello; Introduction by Porochista Khakpour

Reason for Reading: 
In order to increase awareness of speculative fiction authors-of-color for A More Diverse Universe blog tour, I have read and reviewed The Blind Owl, by Sadegh Hedayat. Although The Blind Owl may not be considered speculative fiction by critics, I felt that the surreal nature of this book fit with the spirit of speculative fiction. 

My Review
In this surreal novella, an unnamed protagonist unburdens the deadly weight on his chest by confessing to his own grotesquely owl-shaped shadow on the wall. 


“in order to explain my life to my stooping shadow, I am obliged to tell a story. Ugh! How many stories about love, copulation, marriage and death already exist, not one of which tells the truth! How sick I am of well-constructed plots and brilliant writing!”

In his mind-spinning narration, it is difficult to tell when the events described are cloaked with opium, veiled with madness, or are simple truth. This novel is deeply disturbing in many ways. It narrates horrific events, certainly, but it is the manner that they are conveyed that is frightening. His imagery is surreal. His repetition is hypnotic. His words are oppressive. 

“Only death does not lie. The presence of death annihilates all superstitions. We are the children of death and it is death that rescues us from the deceptions of life.”

The imagery and symbolism used by Hedayat portrays his personal marriage between Western and Eastern culture. Although this book is considered the essence of Persian literature, there are signs of Poe and Kafka. The Blind Owl bled, vomited, and wept Freudian symbolism. 

This was an amazing book, and highly recommended to people interested in Persian fiction or in modernist fiction. 

About the Author and Book: 

Sadegh Hedayat (1903-1951) was one¬†of the two fathers of Persian fiction, and sole father of¬†modernist Persian literature. He was born to an aristocratic family in Tehran, and grew up during a turbulent time in the history of Iran. After WWI, the country underwent¬†“modernization” and “Westernization.” As always happens with modernization, many people felt oppressed by the loss of culture and ceremony…by the loss of what makes them THEM and by the adoption of foreign values. Hedayat was apparently not one of these people. In 1925 he left Iran for studies in Europe. After short-lived attempts at studying engineering,¬†architecture, and dentistry, he dedicated his life to studying Western literature and to learning Iranian folklore and history. From 1937 to 1939, Hedayat lived in India.¬†The Blind Owl was first published in 1937 in Bombay, India with the label: “Not for publication in Iran.” At the¬†time of publication Iran was suffering from the oppressive later years of the reign of Reza Shah. Free press was limited, the middle class was ruled with an “Iron Fist,” and the¬†bureaucracy¬†was falling apart under corruption.¬†

In Hadayat’s later years, his writings attacked the monarchy and the clergy of Iran, which he felt were leading to its downfall. However, he felt¬†alienated¬†by everyone around him in Iran, and moved to Paris. In 1951, he gassed himself in his apartment by plugging all the windows and doors with cotton. He left money for his burial in plain view.¬†

The introduction to The Blind Owl, written by¬†Porochista Khakpour in the Costello translation is well worth reading. She tells about her history with the novel…how her father wouldn’t let her read it when she was a child because it had lead to so many suicides among Iranian youths. I get the impression that Khakpour’s family was of a melancholic nature and was strongly affected by books of this nature. I found The Blind Owl disturbing, but I didn’t experience any inconvenient urge to off myself after reading it.¬†

Personal interpretation that will contain middle-of-story SPOILERS:

I generally roll my eyes whenever the phrase “Oedipus complex” is introduced into an interpretation. However, in this case, I think “Oedipus complex” is exactly what Hedayat was aiming for. The ONLY character named in the entire book was his mother. He described his mother’s dancing in sensual detail. He obsessed sexually about all maternal figures in his life, including his aunt and his nanny. He admits to marrying “that bitch” his wife because she reminded him of his aunt (whom he worshiped with an almost sensual passion). He viewed his mother, nanny, and aunt as sexually unattainable…but that view was extended to his wife. He insisted that he had never slept with her. That he had gone mad from her denial of him and her promiscuity with flea-ridden brutes off the streets. I interpreted these obsessive delusions as false. I assumed that he had, indeed, coupled with his wife, but in his madness repressed those memories and created new delusional memories about other men. (On a side note, I’m not even certain his wife was his aunt’s child…she may have been the daughter of his nanny…but I don’t know why that would matter?)

The Oedipus complex extended towards his feelings for his father, his father’s brother, and his father-in-law. He seemed to fear and loathe the very idea of any of these men–they had, in fact, merged with each other in his own mind. Worse, they had merged with his own self-image so that he feared and loathed himself–probably for his unsatisfied¬†sexual desires towards maternal figures.¬†

Of course, I don’t think the entire story was about an Oedipus complex…that was just the theme that jumped out at me on my first perusal. The story was about a man who was isolated from the rest of the world. A man who would never belong. A man who had no one to unburden himself to as the world around him crumbled into surreal chaos. The isolation was likely a reflection of Hedayat’s own feelings of alienation. The world crumbling around him was likely how he viewed the socio-economic failure of Iran.¬†

I’m sure this is the type of book that you find something new each and every time you read it…even if you meticulously study it for years.




The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury

2012 Book 135: The Martian Chronicles
Written by Ray Bradbury, Narrated by Peter Marinker
Reason for Reading:Fantasy and Science fiction Coursera Course


My Review 
This is a collection of Ray Bradbury’s Mars colonization stories which were originally published in pulp magazines over a period of a few years. They are independent of each other in plot, but it is fascinating how Bradbury managed to pull them all together in a cohesive whole which told a story in itself. This book is considered the bridge between classic pulp science fiction (which targeted lowest-common-denominator audiences) and the more thoughtful and sophisticated modern science fiction. The stories have the same raw imagination as pulp, but each one tackles one or more social issues as well. The stories are fast and fun, and yet intriguing.
My favorite story is about two missionaries bent on saving the Martians from sins that we humans haven’t even imagined yet. The philosophical discussion of sin and the ironic use of Christian symbolism meshed surprisingly well with the sf-pulpy imagery. Bradbury also touched on evils-of-colonization, race-relations and xenophobia, and politics…to name but a few issues. I was also impressed by Bradbury’s expectations of “the future” (1999 – 2020). Unavoidably, some of his themes were dated–we no longer worry about nuclear holocaust and (I hope!) lynch mobs are very rare in the US these days. He didn’t foresee the civil rights movement or the cooling of the arms race. Despite this lack of foresight, he showed that humans never change. We may think we’re living in an enlightened age, but xenophobia still exists and we’re still willing to destroy the history and of an old land in order to set up our new world. Yes, I did feel that the stories tended to be a bit on the dreary side, but for some reason it didn’t bother me so much because it was made palatable by Bradbury’s fantastic imagination.
This is a fantastic classic that any science fiction fan should read. 

Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

2012 Book 134: Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman 9/14/2012

Reason for Reading: Fantasy and science fiction Coursera

My Review:

On an exploratory trip in “savage” lands, three young American men find a country composed entirely of women. As these men learn about the history and culture of Herland, they are at first dismayed but later impressed at the asexuality and absolute social perfection of these women. For the first time, they notice the flaws in their own society and feel ashamed.¬†


I’m having a really hard time deciding what to think about Herland. I tend to prefer plot-driven novels, or at the very least character-driven novels. Herland was neither plot- nor character-driven…it was concept driven. Gilman was trying to convey a set of principles using an allegorical dialog. Gilman felt that women are subjugated by their sexuality. Because their economic happiness depends on their ability to attract men, they resort to jealousies and obsessions with fripperies. In Herland, there are no men…therefore they do not depend upon their sexuality to land them a¬†desirable¬†place in life–they depend only upon hard work and virtue. Since there are no men, they have no reason to be jealous, catty, gossipy, or hysterical. Thus, they are perfect.¬†

My major shock was that I’d previously had the impression that Gilman believed in the healthiness of sexuality. I believed this partly because of a comment in the introduction to the Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader, ed. Ann J. Lane, which suggested that Gilman was deeply sexually attracted to her first husband, but that he had felt overwhelmed by her expressions of desire in their Victorian-valued home. However, the women in Herland are completely asexual. They have no sexual desires at all (not surprising, since they have no men). I find it disturbing that Gilman might have been suggesting that sexual desires (outside procreation) may be a male phenomenon? It’s also possible that Gilman felt the men had something to teach the Herlanders after all…they could teach them about healthy sexuality. At first, I interpreted the story this way. But after further thought, I decided that useful men are completely out of character in this book. I think she actually intended to convey the idea that sexuality-only-for-procreation was the most sensible and healthy alternative. But I could be wrong. The jury’s still out on that one. ūüôā

In her comments on Herland, Fence objected to the focus of the women on maternity. This issue (like the sex-only-for-procreation issue) is in stark contrast with the views of today’s feminists. There’s nothing wrong with maternal feelings, but most feminists feel that women should have a choice about maternity…and they may not WANT to be mothers. I think there’s a little irony with Gilman’s focus on maternity in Herland. She, herself, suffered from the censure of society after she left her daughter under the care of her first husband. Of course, the fact that she divorced her husband for “no good reason” exacerbated the censure (for more on that, read my comments on “The Yellow Wallpaper”). Perhaps the focus on maternity in Herland was expressions of guilt for her inability to care for her daughter due her own illness. I know depressed people DO tend to be wracked by misplaced guilt.¬†

At some level, I approved of the socialist views displayed by Gilman’s allegory. I thought it was wonderful how everything was shared among the whole…there was no poverty and there were no insanely rich. This made the socialist education system work perfectly. Educating the children was considered fun by both the children AND the adults. Education was not a burden, but a joy which all members of society shared. However, I think the only way a socialist society like that would work is if everyone is equal in skill, and devoid of individuality and self-serving jealousies. These women WERE devoid of such horrific traits, but they were also really boring and annoyingly perfect.

For the most part, I did not enjoy reading Herland. I found the dialog grating due to the sickening perfection of the women and the irksome sexism of the men. The men’s characters were very flat–their purpose was simply to present a contrast to the perfection of Herland. The three men came in three stereotypical varieties: gentlemanly to the point of sexism, brutishly sexist, and imperfect-but-somewhat-objective observer. Other than these characteristics, the men had no personality at all. The women also lacked character partly due to their obnoxious perfection, but also due to their nature as a social “we” instead of being unique individuals. In other words, the perfection and socialism merged them into one character with many names (with the slight exception of Alima who ¬†brought Terry’s brutish behavior on herself by having a “far-descended atavistic trace of the more marked femaleness, never apparent till Terry called it out.”) In other words, the presence of men brought out the bad characteristics of women? Of COURSE they did. ūüėȬ†

See? Herland needed these men so that they could catalyze atavistic femaleness. This trait could then be bred out of the next generation. Men ARE useful after all! 

Seriously, though, the eugenics of Herland was a little disturbing. The officials of Herland apparently got to decide who was worthy of giving birth to none, one, or *gasp at the honor* TWO children. The officials also got to choose how much influence the mother had over the child’s rearing. I didn’t view this process as racist since I assumed they were all of the same race (at least, they were all white by the time the men arrived), but according to Wikipedia, “Gilman also believed old stock Americans of British colonial descent were giving up their country to immigrants who, she said, were diluting the nation’s reproductive purity.” So I can’t discount the possibility that she DID mean that the women of Herland bred out the “less desirable” races.¬†

I think Herland was an interesting thought experiment, but I personally didn’t enjoy reading it. If your’e interested in concept-driven allegories, especially feminist and socialist allegories, then this is the book for you. ūüėÄ