Mary Wollstonecraft Birthday

On this date in 1759, Mary Wollstonecraft was born in London, the second of seven children. The industrious young woman worked as a companion, governess and then opened her own school. Her first book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, was published in 1786, followed by a novel, a children’s book (re-issued with illustrations by William Blake), a translation, and The Female Reader. When Edmund Burke read her review of a sermon by dissenting minister Richard Price, he wrote a famous attack on the American and French Revolutions. Mary was the first to rebut his polemic. A Vindication of the Rights of Men was published five weeks later, rejecting all arguments from authority or precedent. Her seminal A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published in 1792. The first influential book calling for the equality of the sexes, it urged that women be educated and treated as “rational creatures.” Wollstonecraft championed dress reform, breast-feeding, early education and a national system of coeducational primary schools. She warned of those who practice “on the credulity of women.”

She gave birth to a daughter in an unhappy liaison with Gilbert Imlay, then married atheist William Godwin in 1797. Following an uneventful pregnancy, 38-year-old Mary gave birth to a second daughter, Mary. The new mother died of a childbirth infection after ten intense days of suffering. Her daughter Mary ran off as a teenager with poet Percy Shelley, and wrote Frankenstein at age 19. Wollstonecraft was an ardent rationalist and Deist who adopted an agnostic point of view toward the end of her life. D. 1797.

“. . . the being cannot be termed rational or virtuous who obeys any authority but that of reason.”
~ Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)

William Shakespeare on Religion

On this date in 1564, William Shakespeare was born in England. He died in 1616. The “master” playwright was eulogized by 19th century agnostic orator Robert Green Ingersoll. In one of his famous lectures, Ingersoll said that when he read Shakespeare, “I beheld a new heaven and a new earth.” (The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, Interviews, Vol. IV, p. 39.) “All well-educated ministers know that the Bible suffers by a comparison with Shakespeare.” (Vol. VIII, p. 297) “If Shakespeare could be as widely circulated as the Bible . . . nothing would so raise the intellectual standard of mankind. Think of the different influence on men between reading Deuteronomy and ‘Hamlet’ and ‘King Lear’ . . . The church teaches obedience. The man who reads Shakespeare has his intellectual horizon enlarged.”

No one knows Shakespeare’s personal religious views, although he certainly was not orthodox, and put many different types of sentiments into the mouths of his characters. His philosophy seems most succinctly described in the famous “Seven Ages of Man” speech from “As You Like It,” which begins: “All the world’s a stage/ And all the men and women merely players:/ They have their exits and their entrances;. . .” ending with “mere oblivion./ Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” Below are several of Shakespeare’s most famous irreverencies. D. 1616.

“In religion, what damned error but some sober brow will bless it, and approve it with a text, . . .?”
~ “The Merchant of Venice,” Act III, Sc. II

Charlotte Bronte

Charlotte Brontë was born the 21 April 1816 was an English novelist and poet, the eldest of the three Brontë sisters who survived into adulthood and whose novels have become classics of English literature. She first published her works (including her best known novel, Jane Eyre) under the pen name Currer Bell.

Jane Eyre had immediate commercial success and initially received favourable reviews. G. H. Lewes wrote that it was “an utterance from the depths of a struggling, suffering, much-enduring spirit,” and declared that it consisted of “suspiria de profundis!” (sighs from the depths). Speculation about the identity and gender of the mysterious Currer Bell heightened with the publication of Wuthering Heights by Ellis Bell (Emily) and Agnes Grey by Acton Bell (Anne). Accompanying the speculation was a change in the critical reaction to Brontë’s work, as accusations were made that the writing was “coarse”, a judgement more readily made once it was suspected that Currer Bell was a woman. However, sales of Jane Eyre continued to be strong and may even have increased as a result of the novel developing a reputation as an “improper” book.

“Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell; the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because — without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called “feminine” – we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality, and for their reward, a flattery, which is not true praise.”
~ Charlotte Bronte

Isak Dinesen

On this date in 1885, Karen Dinesen, later known under the pen-name Isak Dinesen, was born in Denmark to a well-to-do Unitarian family. She attended the Royal Academy of Art in Copenhagen, and studied in four European countries. She published several short stories in 1907. She married her cousin, Baron Bror Blixen-Finecke, in 1914, and lived with him on a coffee plantation in Kenya. After they divorced in 1921 (he famously had given her syphilis, which she recovered from), Dinesen ran the plantation herself until 1931, when she returned to Denmark.

Those years are chronicled in her famous book, Out of Africa (1937), whose accounts of her adventurous struggles captured the public imagination. A film of the same name, directed by Sydney Pollack in 1985, was loosely based on the book. Her other books include Seven Gothic Tales (1934), several collections of short stories, and two other autobiographical works written after she returned many years later to Africa. Anecdotes of Destiny includes “Babette’s Feast,” originally written for a magazine, which also became the basis of a movie. Dinesen wrote in English, then translated her writings back into Danish. D. 1962.

“Africa, amongst the continents, will teach it to you: that God and the Devil are one, the majesty coeternal, not two uncreated but one uncreated, and the Natives neither confounded the persons nor divided the substance.”
~ Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa (1937)

Joseph Campbell on Immortality

“Those who know, not only that the Everlasting lives in them, but that what they, and all things, really are IS the Everlasting, dwell in the groves of the wish-fulfilling trees, drink the brew of immortality, and listen everywhere to the unheard music of eternal concord. These are the immortals.”

~ Joseph Campbell, from “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”

#JosephCampbell #Mythology #FavoriteBooks

Christopher Hitchens

On this date in 1949, writer and columnist Christopher Hitchens was born in Portsmouth, England. He attended Cambridge and graduated from Oxford in 1970, reading in philosophy, politics and economics. From 1971-1981 he worked as a book reviewer for The Times. In 1981 he emigrated to the United States. Hitchens wrote “Minority Report,” a column for The Nation, from 1982-2002. He then wrote for Slate, The Daily Mirror, as a contributing editor to The Atlantic Monthly and Vanity Fair, and also wrote for Harpers and many other U.S. newspapers and journals. As a foreign correspondent, he covered events in 60 countries on all five continents. Hitchens wrote a host of books, but is best-known in freethought circles for authoring God Is Not Great (2007). His criticisms of Clinton and pro-Iraqi war views made Hitchens increasingly controversial among progressive readership, but he remained a stalwart atheist and iconoclast. In “Papal Power: John Paul II’s other legacy” (, April 1, 2005), Hitchens pointed out that the pope “was a part of the cover up and obstruction of justice that allowed the child-rape scandal to continue for so long.” Hitchens became a U.S. citizen in 2007. D. 2011.

“Gullibility and credulity are considered undesirable qualities in every department of human life—except religion . . . Why are we praised by godly men for surrendering our ‘godly gift’ of reason when we cross their mental thresholds? . . . Atheism strikes me as morally superior, as well as intellectually superior, to religion. Since it is obviously inconceivable that all religions can be right, the most reasonable conclusion is that they are all wrong.”

~ Christopher Hitchens, “The Lord and the Intellectuals,” Harper’s (July 1982), cited by James A. Haught in 2,000 Years of Disbelief (1996)

Samuel Barclay Beckett

Samuel Barclay Beckett (13 April 1906 – 22 December 1989) was born, an Irish avant-garde novelist, playwright, theatre director, and poet, who lived in Paris for most of his adult life and wrote in both English and French. He is widely regarded as among the most influential writers of the 20th century.

Beckett’s work offers a bleak, tragicomic outlook on human existence, often coupled with black comedy and gallows humour, and became increasingly minimalist in his later career. He is considered one of the last modernist writers, and one of the key figures in what Martin Esslin called the “Theatre of the Absurd”.

Beckett was awarded the 1969 Nobel Prize in Literature “for his writing, which—in new forms for the novel and drama—in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation.”

#SamuelBeckett #NobelPrizeLiterature

Emile Zola

On this date in 1840, Emile Zola was born in Paris. The novelist pioneered naturalistic writing, believing ugly problems could not be solved as long as they stayed hidden. As a struggling young writer, Zola supported himself as a clerk. Legend has it he sometimes resorted to trapping birds on his windowsill in order to eat. Zola also moonlighted as a political reporter and critic. He was fired from a publishing house after an early autobiographical novel created notoriety. His breakthrough novel was Therese Raquin (1867). By the time his book L’Assammoir (“The Drunkard,” 1878) appeared, Zola was France’s most famous writer, yet he was barred his entire life from the Academy. His book Germinal (1885), about conditions in a coal mine leading to a strike, was denounced by the rightwing. Nana (1880) examined sexual exploitation.

Zola’s most enduring work is his open letter “J’Accuse,” about the Dreyfus case. He campaigned with Clemenceau to free the the French Jewish army officer falsely accused of spying. Zola was sentenced to imprisonment for writing “J’Accuse” in 1898, escaping to England until he could safely return after Dreyfus’ name had been cleared. Zola, who was baptized Catholic, was a notable critic of the Roman Catholic Church (and vice versa). The Church particularly condemned his books Lourdes, Rome, and Paris (1894-98). The agnostic was an honorary associate of the British Press Association in England. D. 1902.

“When truth is buried underground it grows, it chokes, it gathers such an explosive force that on the day it bursts out, it blows up everything with it.”

“The truth is on the march, and nothing shall stop it.”

~ Emile Zola, “J’Accuse!” L’Aurore, Jan. 13, 1898

Amos Oz on Fanaticism

“Fanaticism dates back much earlier than Islam. Earlier than Christianity and Judaism. Earlier than all the ideologies in the world. It is an elemental fixture of human nature, a “bad gene.” People who bomb abortion clinics, murder immigrants in Europe, murder Jewish women and children in Israel, burn down a house in the Israeli-occupied territories with an entire Palestinian family inside, desecrate synagogues and churches and mosques and cemeteries—they are all distinct from al-Qaeda and ISIS in the scope and severity of their acts, but not in their nature. Today we speak of “hate crimes,” but perhaps a more accurate term would be “zealotry crimes,” and such crimes are carried out almost daily, including against Muslims.

Genocide and jihad and the Crusades, the Inquisition and the gulags, extermination camps and gas chambers, torture dungeons and indiscriminate terrorist attacks: none of these are new, and almost all of them preceded the rise of radical Islam by centuries.

As the questions grow harder and more complicated, people yearn for simpler answers, one-sentence answers, answers that point unhesitatingly to a culprit who can be blamed for all our suffering, answers that promise that if we only eradicate the villains, all our troubles will vanish.

“It’s all because of globalization!” “It’s all because of the Muslims!” “It’s all because of permissiveness!” or “because of the West!” or “because of Zionism!” or “because of immigrants!” or “because of secularism!” or “because of the left wing!” All one needs to do is cross out the incorrect entries, circle the right Satan, then kill that Satan (along with his neighbors and anyone who happens to be in the area), thereby opening the gates of heaven once and for all.

More and more commonly, the strongest public sentiment is one of profound loathing—subversive loathing of “the hegemonic discourse,” Western loathing of the East, Eastern loathing of the West, secular loathing of believers, religious loathing of the secular. Sweeping, unmitigated loathing surges like vomit from the depths of this or that misery. Such extreme loathing is a component of fanaticism in all its guises.

For example, concepts that only half a century ago seemed innovative and exciting—multiculturalism and identity politics—quickly morphed, in many places, into the politics of identity hatred. What began with an expansion of cultural and emotional horizons is increasingly deteriorating into narrower horizons, isolationism, and hatred of the other. In short, a new wave of loathing and extremism assails us from all sides.”

~ Amos Oz, from “Dear Zealots.” 2002.