Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche

This work by the philosopher Neitzsche doesn’t quite live up to the promise, implied in its title, of providing a deep and coherent understanding of ethics that transcends the normal cateogories of good and evil. For its time, it was likely a revolutionary overturning of traditional Judeo-Christian values, but a lot of the content is rambling in nature, veering off into all sorts of peripheral avenues, including a large section on Neitzsche’s view of women – which is particularly hard to accept in today’s world. Nevertheless, the book had its moments of brilliance, and provided some very quotable quotes (some of which are darkly humourous):

Insanity in individuals is something rare – but in groups, parties, nations, and epochs it is the rule.

Not their love of humanity, but the impotence of their love, prevents the Christians of today – burning us.

Christianity gave Eros poison to drink; he did not die of it, certainly, but degenerated to Vice.

Neitzche views morality as man-made, consisting of master morality and slave morality – those who lead, making use of what he terms the Will to Power, and those who wish only to be led.

“Exploitation” does not belong to a depraved, or imperfect and primitive society. It belongs to the nature of the living being as a primary organic function, it is a consequence of the intrinsic Will to Power, which is precisely the Will to Life.

On whatever points we may disagree with Nietzche, he was clearly a very self-realised person, willing to look at human nature without masking it in self-delusion or wishful thinking. Not the best book I have read on ethics, but valuable nonetheless.

Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott

Imagine a world of only two dimensions: length and breadth, but no height. Imagine sentient beings living in this world. Everything appears as a horizontal straight line, like looking at coin on table, keeping your eye level with the edge of the table. Now imagine that a sentient sphere, gazing at this Flatland from above, decides to venture down and communicate with a square. From his vantage point, he can see everything. The walls of Flatland are no barrier to his all-seeing gaze. He speaks to the square, but the square cannot see him, so he physically descends into Flatland. As his girth intersects with the dimension, he appears to the square as a circle which widens as he descends. The poor square has never seen anything like this, and believes that he is experiencing a paranormal visitation. Things become even more alarming for the square when the sphere pulls him up into Spaceland. But the sphere is shortly in for a suprise when the square questions him about the logical possibility of a fourth dimension of which the sphere is not privy, just as the square was not privy to the third.

Now, you either love this sort of a mindfuck or you don’t. I’m a great believer (for philosophical reasons that I won’t go into just now) that there is more to the universe than material reality. This charming fiction provides a mathematical basis for such a notion. It behoves us to try and conceptualise a fouth dimension which sees into the third in much the same way that the third can see into the second. It’s impossible to wrap your head around, just as in the story it’s impossible for the square, once returned to Flatland, to describe his experience to his companions, or even to accurately remember it. I’m someone who has an appreciation for things of a magical or psychic nature, so I know that there’s something to the idea that Abbott presents, although I would hasten to add that his presentation is an approximation, not a factual description, of a higher reality than the physical dimension.

Concurrent with a discourse on dimensionality, the story also provides a satirical commentary on social customs of the Victorian era in which it was written, especially as it concerns the abuses of religious authority in preventing the free speech of those who think different. Although this book is classified as fiction, because it is first and foremost a story, I believe that a reader seeking entertainment will find much less pleasure in it than the philosopher-at-heart. To the latter, I thoroughly recommend this little volume.

King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard

Allan Quatermain, an adventurer of some notoriety, is approached by Sir Henry Curtis, who proposes a mission to rescue the latter’s brother, lost on an expedition to find King Solomon’s diamond mines. Together with a third man, Captain Good, they begin their journey across Africa. Along the way they pick up a brave Zulu called Umbopa, who accompanies them on the final stage of the quest – across a perilous desert from which no one has ever returned. On on the other side they encounter the land of the Kukuanas, led by evil king Twala. The people of this hidden land regard the strange visitors as “white men from the stars.” Twala’s actions soon put the adventurers right in the middle of a bloody war.

I found this novel difficult to read. The content of the adventure wasn’t very exciting by today’s standards, and some of the sections were long and drawn out – in particular the Kukuanaland war and a pointless early chapter about an elephant hunt. (I couldn’t help questioning the morality of the hero of the story, as he gunned down a herd of elephants without conscience, for no other reason than to profit from their ivory tusks. Different times, I guess.) Still, it’s hard to argue with a novel that’s been turned into a couple of films, and which is probably the chief inspiration behind the Indiana Jones films.

There is one brief moment of humour about halfway through the book that made me laugh as hard as I’ve ever laughed at written words (a rare thing!), where Good tries a few tricks to prove that he’s “from the stars”; I won’t spoil them for you. I had hoped that this comical trend would continue for the remainer of the story, but sadly it was the exception rather than the rule.

I always hate to speak ill of a classic, but I can only tell it like I see it. The story was too simple and it failed to hold my attention. Hence, it took me about half a year to read it through. There are better adventures out there to invest time in.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

Having reviewed almost forty books so far, it has recently struck me how much time I’ve been investing (or wasting) in mediocre literature. Life’s too short, as they say, so I’ve decided (for now) to delve into some novels that have stood the test of time. And first off the shelf is Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

This is my second read of this book. I tackled it about seven years ago and I’m pleased to report that it’s every bit as fresh and enjoyable this time round. At eighty-eight pages, it’s barely more than a novella, and the content of the story complements its length perfectly.

I probably don’t need to mention the storyline at all, because everyone has likely seen the old black-and-white B-movies. Actually, from what I can remember, the films do the original tale a great disservice. What has universally been regarded as a “horror” story is actually much more at home on the “murder mystery” shelf.

The protagonist of the story is not Jekyll himself, but a lawyer friend by the name of Utterson, who becomes very concerned and curious about strange events surrounding the doctor. The immensity of this strangeness is hidden until the closing chapter of the novel. Prior to that, there isn’t the barest hint of anything remotely supernatural afoot. The novel was first published it 1886, and I envy the original Victorian readers, who were able to enjoy the mystery without knowing the punchline.

Stevenson’s command of the English language is excellent. The complex sentence structure and vocabulary of classic literature can sometimes turn reading into hard work, but I found Stevenson’s style reasonably easy to master.

People who like their fiction to stay firmly in the real world might view Jekyll and Hyde as a load of old fluff. But if you read between the lines, what you have here is a very intelligent dissection of temptation and evil. I found Stevenson’s observations on the coarser side human nature to be very true to life, and it’s a rare experience to find this sort of bare-faced frankness in fiction.

If there’s one point that grates on me, it’s Stevenson’s too-casual association of deformity with evil character. Those two things are completely unrelated and promote an unnecessary stigma on people who genuinely do suffer with deformity. However, the novel was fully entertaining and at the same time very insightful about human nature – a rare combination.