It's time to take a little break from The Best That Has Been Thought And Said. The family and I are travelling East, where we will see members of my family (who are the core audience of this blog), and also TV-director-turned-master-pickler Rick Field.
(Seriously, order (or procure, if you're Whole Foods-adjacent) a jar of his Windy City Wasabeans, and, even if you make your guests fish them out of the jar with their fingers, they will still give you the respect and esteem reserved for elite society hostesses. )
The dilletantism should resume sometime next week -- Tuesday or Wednesday, maybe.
There must be some English majors reading this; has anyone ever heard of Thomas Moore?. Apparently, according to the Harvard Classics, he is immortal, and here is the beginning of the evidence:
|OFT in the stilly night|
|Ere slumber’s chain has bound me,|
|Fond Memory brings the light|
|Of other days around me:|
One of the upsides of poetry no longer being popular is that no one uses "ere" anymore. It's hard to see how this poetry was ever popular ("Oh! the last rays of feeling and life must depart,/Ere the bloom of that valley shall fade from my heart"), but I guess it's just that people get their mawkish, overdone sentiment from somewhere else nowadays -- singer-songwriters, Hallmark cards, like that. Meanwhile current poetry has moved to the Higher Sentiment, where the tearjerking load is carried by what is (carefully) not said.
And since I am at the point myself of having much not to say, I think that will do it for tonight.
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing has three awesome names, the last of which is on this big pile of oversize books in what I believe passes for a theme park in Germany:
Nevertheless, I think Lessing is wrong right from the get-go in justifying God's ways to Man:
THAT which Education is to the Individual, Revelation is to the Race.
Education is Revelation coming to the Individual Man; and Revelation is Education which has come, and is yet coming, to the Human Race.
(Note: this is one of those weird Bartelby formatting issues that I'm too tired to reformat into blockquote.)
Nice try, liberal! (Lessing, according to Wikipedia, was one of those eighteenth-century Enlightenment types. Couldn't have proved it by me.) If God thought we needed education, then why does He allow TV and licentious dancing -- frequently mixed together? I'm not even sure the non-revelation part of this thesis is correct:
Really? I might be able to educe out of myself -- or "teach," to use a slang term -- molecular biology? To say nothing of the fact that it tries to make Revelation reasonable, which is not only not possible, but also -- and I say this as someone with a certain amount of sympathy to Revelation -- not desirable. If Revelation is reasonable, what's the point of it? It's like when, after a lifetime of Catholicism, I first went to a Protestant service -- all they're gonna do is talk? Where's the magic trick?
But I suspect Lessing is trying to reconcile the fundamentalist fire-breathers with the newfangled book-learnin', like the guy in your dorm who wanted to use the Big Bang as a way to prove Genesis. He's trying hard to please both sides -- Lessing spends much of the excerpt trying to placate the smartasses who point out that God forgot to mention an afterlife in the Old Testament:
In the same way, in the writings of the Old Testament those primers for the rude Israelitish people, unpractised in thought, the doctrines of the immortality of the soul, and future recompenses, might be fairly left out: but they were bound to contain nothing which could have even procrastinated the progress of the people, for whom they were written, in their way to this grand truth. And to say but a small thing, what could have more procrastinated it than the promise of such a miraculous recompense in this life? A promise made by Him who promises nothing that He does not perform.See, God didn't think the Israelites could handle the truth, so he "forgot" to tell them. How surprised they must have been after they died! "And such small portions," I hope they said.
But, lest the fire-breathers start complaining that Lessing only wants to meet the needs of the smartasses, he also throws in some anti-Semitic red meat:
In other words, God could have chosen any people, but to make it doubly hard on himself, he chose Jews. He's like Paul Bunyan or something! A small-g god would have chosen, I don't know, Hittites, but not Yahweh, the guy who drinks hot sauce in 55-gallon drums. It's a good thing the Daily Reading Guide mentions that Lessing was a pioneer of tolerance or I might get the wrong idea, (although by what I imagine the standards of Harvard faculty clubs to be back in 1908, this was a tolerant attitude).
To leave the theological part aside, I have another question, which is -- Lessing seems to assume that we, the human project, need our baby steps; we are in the process of being educated, and progress is slow. And I do wonder: are we doing as well as we can? Or are all the innovations that make life so different than it was in Lessing's time (1729-1781) -- is all the stuff we should have come up with centuries ago, and it's just that we're kind of idiots?
I think it's mostly a factor of having the surplus population to spare for the think tanks, myself. The downside of that is that you also have plenty of extra people who go into the law. But all progress comes at a price, I guess.
Lear is crazy, of course -- everyone calls him so right at the start of the play. But isn't Cordelia a little irrational too? Aren't you supposed to humor your dotty elders, not get into an argument over pleasantries ("Why have my sisters husbands, if they say/They love you all?") I almost think that Cordelia is trying to score points against her bigmouthed sisters, rather than paying attention to where Lear is at.
It occurs to me that this is one of the differences between reading and seeing plays; Lear seems too crazy in this scene, as I read it, what with blowing up at Kent and trashing his daughter to the other nobles. (And yet not too crazy to speak in verse; old habits die hard, I guess.) But when you watch a play you don't have time to say "Hey, wait a minute," or the play will barrel right past you.
This is particularly true, I imagine, with great actors in the parts (I've never seen "Lear"), for one thing I like in great acting is the amount of detail that's in it, that's where the surprise in it comes, from an unusual emphasis of a word, or surprise in posture or movement. You'd need that here, I think, to sell Cordelia, who indeed is dragging the whole kingdom down out of some notion of self-righteousness.
(I realize that I sound a little bit like a Wall Street Journal editorial -- why won't Cordelia wear her flag lapel pin? She even marries a Frenchman, making matters even worse. But, considering what does happen, things might have been better for the Lears all around if she had just greased the wheels a little bit.)
UPDATE: I forgot to mention that Shakespeare follows faultless sitcom form by beginning with the B-story -- with Edmund the bastard. You can begin scenes with the B-story, but people don't like it if you end with them.
I am single-dading it this weekend, so I am not going to give Emerson's "Heroism" the treatment I'd like to...unless single-dading it for a weekend makes me a hero!
Nah, I don't think so either. Anyway, even though I can hardly HTML format straight, let me start this kind of this-n-that post with some bracing Emersonian prose:
We have seen or heard of many extraordinary young men who never ripened, or whose performance in actual life was not extraordinary.Oh shit. Well, I deny it; I think there's still plenty of mileage left for me to get out of my high school Latin medal, no matter what Emerson says.
This project has softened me on Emerson. I mean, he's still a blowhard, and there's a lot of the Rocky Todd in him, and yet I can't help nodding my head from time to time. It's probably because I'm becoming a blowhard, but, whereas I always hated having him shoved down my throat, now that school is over I can appreciate him for what he is. It's kind of like the way I feel about disco.
In this essay he started to win me over when he talked about hospitality as a characteristic of the large-souled hero:
Citizens, thinking after the laws of arithmetic, consider the inconvenience of receiving strangers at their fireside, reckon narrowly the loss of time and the unusual display: the soul of a better quality thrusts back the unseasonable economy into the vaults of life, and says, I will obey the God, and the sacrifice and the fire he will provide.My wife is like this; she loves to feed and water people who wander by, but without the Emersonian touch of acknowledging that she is thrusting back unseasonable economies into the vaults of life. She just likes conversation.
The Emersonian way seems to be to shove five pounds of potatoes into a ten-pound sack, and then spray paint the sack gold:
Our culture therefore must not omit the arming of the man. Let him hear in season that he is born into the state of war, and that the commonwealth and his own well-being require that he should not go dancing in the weeds of peace, but warned, self-collected and neither defying nor dreading the thunder, let him take both reputation and life in his hand, and with perfect urbanity dare the gibbet and the mob by the absolute truth of his speech and the rectitude of his behavior."Let him hear in season..." The whole construction is ornate, but I love the "in season" -- it's such an extra dipsy-doodle, it's like tailfins on a Cadillac. Ditto "dancing in the weeds of peace." The executive summary is "Always do right."
Aside: one of the things about reading a variety of authors, as this project requires you to do, is that you start to realize that there are only so many stances one can take about human affairs -- pretty much everyone is in favor of "rectitude in behavior," always has been -- and that originality consists of providing new frosting on the age-old cake.
And yet the truth is that frosting is delicious. The dailyness of our lives can be a little dull, and it's nice to think, when I am driving the kids to their various lessons, that "the unremitting retention of simple and high sentiments in obscure duties is hardening the character to that temper which will work with honor, if need be in the tumult, or on the scaffold."
The word VALUE, it is to be observed, has two different meanings, and sometimes expresses the utility of some particular object, and sometimes the power of purchasing other goods which the possession of that object conveys. The one may be called “value in use;” the other, “value in exchange.” The things which have the greatest value in use have frequently little or no value in exchange; and on the contrary, those which have the greatest value in exchange have frequently little or no value in use.An SUV would be a perfect example of this. It is also a good thought for Memorial Day, where we commemorate those who exchanged their lives, often for reasons that were less than strictly economic.
Kind of a getaway day, I know, so how about a poem about suicide from someone you've never heard of?
Ere her limbs frigidlyEnjoy the beach, everybody!
Stiffen too rigidly,
Smooth and compose them;
And her eyes, close them,
Staring so blindly!
(There's also this poem which I remember being parodied in a MAD magazine anthology I must have read when I was eleven. It occurs to me that there's a lot of alter-kocker culture I must have imbibed from seeing it parodied in MAD and Bugs Bunny cartoons. Stuff like the lyrics to musicals and "I'm Looking Over A Four-Leaf Clover (That I Overlooked Before)."
(The other poem is this one, which takes place at a death-bed. SPOILER ALERT: she dies. )
(Wikipedia tells me that Thomas Hood -- whom I'd never heard of until now, despite having been in the company of English majors basically all my life -- was a humorist. Couldn't prove it by these entries, although they do prove that humorists are tremendously maudlin people deep down.)
An Italian curate who is a bit of a nebbish (technical Catholic term), walks home one night when he sees two men who give him pause:
Each had a green net on his head, which fell upon the left shoulder, and ended in a large tassel. Their long hair, appearing in one large lock upon the forehead: on the upper lip two long mustachios, curled at the end: their doublets, confined by bright leathern girdles, from which hung a brace of pistols: a little horn of powder, dangling round their necks, and falling on their breasts like a necklace: on the right side of their large and loose pantaloons, a pocket, and from the pocket the handle of a dagger: a sword hanging on the left, with a large basket-hilt of brass, carved in cipher, polished and gleaming:—all, at a glance, discovered them to be individuals of the species bravo.
That's right -- bravos! You can tell them by their tassels! They were some bad-ass mofos in 1628.
This is a great way to open a novel -- a historical novel, anyway. (Maybe not so much, if your novel is a tender coming-of-age story, set against the background of the Iowa Writers Workship. Actually, I take that back -- a tale of bravos haunting the Iowa Writers Workshop is exactly what fiction needs. ) Or it would be a great way to open a novel, if we didn't already have two pages of the geography of Northern Italy.
My problem with this novel (this is the third excerpt I've been assigned) is that Manzoni seems to have thought, "You know what the problem is with fiction? Not enough supporting data." Because between the time the good father (Don Abbondio) (unable to resist "of Don Abbondio Lincoln/Mercury" joke) sees the bravos and their fear-inspiring tassels, and the time when the bravos tell him he is not to perform a wedding he is supposed to perform tomorrow, there's two more pages concerning the history of bravoes in general. It's like David Foster Wallace, except the historical digressions aren't in footnotes, or entertaining.
One of the things adulthood has taught me, however, is guilt-free skipping over passages, so I am happy to report that the best part of the chapter is the portrait of a weak man, the Don himself:
Don Abbondio, continually absorbed in thoughts about his own security, cared not at all for those advantages which risked a little to secure a great deal. His system was to escape all opposition, and to yield where he could not escape....If he were absolutely obliged to take a part, he favoured the stronger, always, however, with a reserve, and an endeavour to show the other that he was not willingly his enemy. It seemed as if he would say, ‘Why did you not manage to be stronger? I would have taken your side then.’OMG, I think I've been this guy. And then the Don, for his weakness, gets yelled at by his earthy servant, who, to make him feel better, does something that feels stereotypically Italian (or Jewish, or Chinese -- it's kind of a universal mom thing, really):
‘Very well: you can think about it to-night; but now, don’t be doing any mischief to yourself; don’t be making yourself ill—take a mouthful to eat.’Hey, good advice -- it's lunchtime here.
Well -- leaving aside the whole question of why I Promessi Sposi gets its own volume, which I never will understand --
Five metric feet crawl up a misanthrope:
It's "Happiness," by Alexander Pope.
In flawless couplets fearless concepts roll:
Enjambment's scorned, and dark nights of the soul.
Shaded by a hierarchical sun,
Pope sheds his light: "Places, everyone!"
"Whatever is, is right" -- if discontentment breeds,
Tough: God (by definition) met your needs.
You toil, and the wicked take your bread?
Your cupboard full of virtue keeps you fed!
Want money stacked as far as eye can see?
Don't, says Pope. (He echoes B.I.G.)
Nor in fame should wise men place their hope
(Does not apply to Alexander Pope).
Still, I'm too harsh. (It's what rhymed couplets bring --
A sitcom moppet's artificial zing.)
Pope says that all the shit for which we strive
Seems much smaller when it does arrive,
And that seems true. But what to do instead?
"Be excellent to all," like Bill and Ted.
Pope's recipe: take some thrift-shop Stoic,
Accessorize with rhymes -- behold! heroic.
Concerning Shakespeare's sonnets, what's to say? "They're great"? Who am I, Helen Vendler? My Daily Reading Guide says, "...they reveal the inner Shakespeare more truly than do any of his great plays." How they're so sure, I don't know, but it says "Harvard" right there on the label so they must be right.
There might be something to it after all, for the "I" in the sonnets does resemble a writer -- he keeps track of his rivals ("Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope"), he is alternately boastful ("Not marble, nor the gilded monuments/Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme"), and then he hates his writing ("These poor rude lines of thy deceased lover"). He is even bald ("Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.")
Like a writer, but, of course, a better writer than most. I like poetry with stunts in it, and Shakespeare obliges:
FAREWELL! thou art too dear for my possessing,I wonder if he had a draft where it was all "ing" words up until the couplet. Or this one, my favorite of this batch -- well, "That time of year thou may'st in me behold" is one I've always liked, and the middle quatrain of When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes has popped into my head from time to time -- but this one was one that I'd forgotten about, and just once I would like to go to a wedding where it was read instead of "Let me not to the marriage of true minds". A wedding of two political staffers, say:
And like enough thou know’st thy estimate:
The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing;
My bonds in thee are all determinate.
For how do I hold thee but by thy granting?
And for that riches where is my deserving?
The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting,
And so my patent back again is swerving.
Thyself thou gav’st, thy own worth then not knowing,
Or me, to whom thou gav’st it, else mistaking;
So thy great gift, upon misprision growing,
Comes home again, on better judgment making.
Thus have I had thee as a dream doth flatter;
In sleep, a king; but waking, no such matter.
TIRED with all these, for restful death I cry,—
As, to behold desert a beggar born,
And needy nothing trimm’d in jollity,
And purest faith unhappily forsworn,
And gilded honour shamefully misplaced,
And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,
And right perfection wrongfully disgraced,
And strength by limping sway disabled,
And art made tongue-tied by authority,
And folly, doctor-like, controlling skill,
And simple truth miscall’d simplicity,
And captive Good attending captain Ill:
Tired with all these, from these would I be gone,
Save that, to die, I leave my Love alone.
The last few days have been days of alternation in the Daily Reading Guide. Friday and Sunday we had tales and adventures -- talking owls, and dancing flowers, and children and kings and gay students (old-fashioned use of "gay," although I suspect new-fashioned use would also apply). And on Saturday and Monday old men, in the harsh Mediterranean light, tell us that it is all bullshit. This, plus math, is about the sum total of the human experience.
Today's crusty old man is the Stoic Epictetus and some of his golden sayings. When I was a youth I was attracted to Stoicism, because what teenager doesn't need to hear its essential message of "sit down and shut up"? Or as Epictetus puts it:
Above all, remember that the door stands open. Be not more fearful than children; but as they, when they weary of the game, cry, “I will play no more,” even so, when thou art in the like case, cry, “I will play no more,” and depart. But if thou stayest, make no lamentation.And the other Stoic point -- that we should try to create our own mental weather, rather than allow others to create it -- is a useful one to hear, too:
These books are, as I have mentioned, my great-grandfather's. I never knew him, but I believe he was not a fancy man; fancy men were not thick on the ground in the mill towns. It was for such people that the Harvard Classics were made, so that, in the words of the Daily Reading Guide, they "might bring to your side, in the comfort of your own home, a liberal education,, entertainment and counsel of the greatest men the world has ever seen."
I just don't know where this fits into that plan:
“MY poor flowers are quite dead!” said little Ida. “They were so pretty yesterday, and now all the leaves hang withered. Why do they do that?” she asked the Student, who sat on the sofa; for she liked him very much. He knew the prettiest stories, and could cut out the most amusing pictures.It's Hans Christian Andersen, boys and girls! I guess the idea at Collier's was that, by putting some Hans Christian Andersen in the Harvard Classics, you would have bedtime stories too, and it would be economical (for the celebrities of the early part of the last century had not yet learned that they should write children's books).
Or maybe the idea was that once we hit the warm May weather it would be too hot for Kant; this theory certainly seems appealing to me after watching my daughter's softball game in 90-degree weather today.
Whatever it is, "Little Ida's Flowers" is the type of writing that makes your mind immediately wander to anything else but what you're reading. I found it childish. I'm supposed to, of course, but if I think if I were smarter I would find a reason that it's the people who find it childish who are the real children.
It ends with the cutest li'l funeral, however:
“That shall be your pretty coffin,” said she, “and when my cousins come to visit me by and by they shall help me to bury you outside in the garden, so that you may grow again in summer, and become more beautiful than ever.”I do respect H.C.A. for throwing in the pretty coffin.
I had not the boldness or impudence or inclination to address you as you would have liked me to address you, weeping and wailing and lamenting, and saying and doing many things which you have been accustomed to hear from others, and which, as I say, are unworthy of me...I would rather die having spoken after my manner, than speak in your manner and live.As Macaulay said, "The more I read about Socrates, the less I wonder that they poisoned him." (A quote I got from a very good article here.)
But you can see why Socrates was the Jesus of Cool for intellectuals that didn't love Jesus . Us bookish types are always tempted by a sense of superiority; half the fun of being clever is being cleverer than. But it's not as much fun for the people who are being lorded over, some of whom are physically or financially stronger, so one learns a certain becoming modesty, when to hide one's light, how to avoid being killed by one's peers.Socrates doesn't do any of this. Not only does he more or less dare the jury to kill him, he says they'll be sorry:
And I prophesy to you who are my murderers, that immediately after my death punishment far heavier than you have inflicted on me will surely await you...For I say that there will be more accusers of you than there are now; accusers whom hitherto I have restrained.And his brazenness, not to mention his straight-up manliness at taking his punishment -- which, come to think of it, he did mention -- becomes kind of admirable:
For which reason also, I am not angry with my accusers, or my condemners; they have done me no harm, although neither of them meant to do me any good; and for this I may gently blame them."God only knows...Or maybe I do," he forgot to add.
The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways—I to die, and you to live. Which is better, God only knows.
UPDATE: My dad (who was a teacher and administrator) adds in an e-mail: "I remain a skeptic about the efficacy of the Socratic method. I didn't like Socrates when he did it, and I disagreed with Education gurus when they extolled it. It seems to me that what is actually learned in the process is how clever the "Socratic" interlocutor is rather that the lesson to be learned in the Q&A. Besides to make the "method" work requires a good straight man and they are hard to find."
Celtic racism, that is -- we're back in Renan's Poetry of the Celtic Races, back when an academic was proud to talk about all the different races, and how the shapes of their ears proved they'd never learn Latin, or something. Of course, for something like Renan's essay, you could substitute "peoples" for "races" and you'd be perfectly fine, since this is a historical appreciation, not a prediction that Celtic-type people will always and everywhere have a "singular vivacity" when it comes to their "deep feeling for nature."
Renan was a Celt himself, from Brittany, Land of Forgotten Celts. And today he's talking about the Welsh, which means you're going to chip a tooth on the consonant-heavy names:
Kilhwch, the son of Kilydd, prince of Kelyddon, having heard some one mention the name of Olwen, daughter of Yspaddaden Penkawr...Well, of course you'd hear the name "Olwen," it's the only word there that doesn't sound like a tape going backward. And while "Owen" is a fashionable kid name in these parts, you hardly hear anyone at preschool picking up little Yspaddaden.
Thus begins a long tale (characteristic, we are told of the Mabinogion) involving Arthur and the seeking of Mabon the son of Modron. It has the characteristic of all folk tales, which is that the original audience for folk tales were people who had nothing to do during those long winter nights in Wales, and so weren't driven crazy by repetition. Arthur and Kilhwch consult an ousel, stag, owl, and eagle, and finally ride on a salmon's shoulders to Gloucester. After all this (and believe me, I am summarizing), Renan says, "We shall not follow the Cymric hero through trials the result of which can be foreseen." Great.
Right at the end Renan says something kind of provocative, which I think you'd never be allowed to try in today's academy, although it's the kind of thought you'd hear on Bill Moyers, maybe:
...every time that the old Celtic spirit appears in our history, there is to be seen, re-born with it, faith in nature and her magic influences. One of the most characteristic of these manifestations seems to me to be that of Joan of Arc. That indomitable hope, that tenacity in the affirmation of the future, that belief that the salvation of the kingdom will come from a woman,—all those features...are in many respects Celtic...The cottage of the family of Arc was shaded by a beech tree, famed in the country and reputed to be the abode of fairies. In her childhood Joan used to go and hang upon its branches garlands of leaves and flowers, which, so it was said, disappeared during the night. The terms of her accusation speak with horror of this innocent custom, as of a crime against the faith; and indeed they were not altogether deceived, those unpitying theologians who judged the holy maid. Although she knew it not, she was more Celtic than Christian. She has been foretold by Merlin; she knows of neither Pope nor Church,—she only believes the voice that speaks in her own heart.For those of us temperamentally inclined to believe that there's nothing new under the sun this is interesting, although Renan warns us, in a footnote, that we can't handle the maybe-its-a-truth: "very few people are capable of delicately appreciating questions of this kind, relative to the genius of races."
Yes, well, I guess the 20th century proved that.
Today we have Cantos XXV, XXVI, and XXVII. (How did Dante get the idea, way back in the 1200s, of naming his Cantos after Super Bowls?) (I apologize for the previous parenthesis. It's a volume business, this jokemaking.) It has been a busy day with writing and stuff so I will bulletpoint:
• Everything I said in this post I stand by -- I can't make sense of this without turning to my Pinsky.
• Hell, for Dante, is a place where there are a lot of Italians. I'm not sure this is the conclusion he meant me to draw.
• What's Ulysses (Canto XXVI) in for, anyway? It appears to be the Trojan Horse:
|...as erewhile to wrath|
|These in the flame with ceaseless groans deplore|
|The ambush of the horse|
But that doesn't seem so terrible, to me. It always seemed like the Trojans were idiots for taking it (on the other hand, I may be basing my knowledge on a "Simpsons.") Why does Ulysses, who was after all frightfully clever, get the same punishment as Guido da Montefeltro (Italians again!), who advised the pope to promise much and deliver little, which seems obvious? Why is Ulysses even in Hell? It's not his fault he didn't know about Jesus. Is Ulysses a punishment for all the Italians, who think hanging out with Greeks is an infernal punishment?
So many questions. Perhaps this is what makes the Inferno the boundless work of art that it is.
Here's what one of my tomes actually looks like, photographed on the patio table where some of the reading gets done. Note the brilliant sunshine falling, perhaps for the very first time, somewhere other than the spine of the book. I suspect that the majority of the copies of the Harvard Classics are like this, outside perhaps of Volumes 1 or 2.
You know what our problem is -- not just us a blog-readers, we have our own burdens, but us as a species? Edward Jenner knows:
THE DEVIATION of man from the state in which he was originally placed by nature seems to have proved to him a prolific source of diseases. From the love of splendour, from the indulgences of luxury, and from his fondness for amusement he has familiarised himself with a great number of animals, which may not originally have been intended for his associates.To get the obligatory stuff out of the way: "familiarization with animals." Heh heh.
Not that I agree that, you know, yogurt is such an "indulgence of luxury," but you get the point. All civilization, to Jenner, is in some sense unnatural. (Note the 1798-style atheism where he questions whether the beasts of the field were intended for us.) I happen to agree, which is why I'm always skeptical of the anti-modern idea that there is some order of life X (where our world is not equal to X) that is "natural." It's tempting, I know, but you see a lot more people leaving their simple farms for modern fleshpots than the other way round; Mexico's not the one with the immigration problem. Not that McDonald's is the peak of civilization either, of course -- but when you have so many people alive on the earth as we do, some are going to try to improve Concentrated Solar Power and others are going to open McDonaldses.
And why do we have so many people on the earth? Because of Edward Jenner and his cockamamie notion of vaccination. Here he tells his own story, and its interesting to note that the first part of his hypothesis was all wrong, as a footnote tells us ("Jenner’s conclusion that “grease” and cow-pox were the same disease has since been proved erroneous"). So great oaks from invalid acorns grow.
What's interesting in this excerpt is Jenner's thoroughness. We are given twelve (out of twenty-three) case studies, each trying to prove a different facet of Jenner's hypothesis -- want a guy who had cowpox 53 years before Jenner tries to infect him with smallpox? Try Case III.
Want to know if smallpox makes you immune from cowpox? Try Case VII. Etc.
The other thing of note, of course, is how gross people must have looked in the old days:
William Stinchcomb was a fellow servant with Nichols at Mr. Bromedge’s farm at the time the cattle had the cow-pox, and he was, unfortunately, infected by them. His left hand was very severely affected with several corroding ulcers, and a tumour of considerable size appeared in the axilla of that side. His right hand had only one small tumour upon it, and no tumour discovered itself in the corresponding axilla.You don't see guys like that on The Tudors, I'll tell you that much.
PS -- I also note that this is the first time I've cracked Volume 38 ("Harvey Jenner Lister Pasteur"), yet I've had to read Burns four bloody times already. It's a wonder scientists don't blow up the world out of spite.
I know, I shouldn't get political, but I love a good hook, and Burns's idealization of the honest yeomanry is as good as any (I'm not translating Burns's slang -- no one translated it for me, goddamn it):
See, tho' poor, they have the pleasures of life that we latte-sipping people with our books and Netflix subscriptions to "The Wire" don't have. I have to say that this Burns poem didn't bug me as much as I thought it was going to, although it does bug me that this is the 4th time I've been assigned him. I don't quite get the big love of Burns, or any of the poetry selections, really. In this sense there really is a great divide between now and then. But this one was okay, because it was more like a newspaper column or something -- just two dogs talking about the difference between the upper-crust folk and the common folk. And, as all newspaper columnists are required to do, even now, Burns takes the side of the little people and not the fancy swells who can afford things like newspapers:
|At operas an’ plays parading,|
|Mortgaging, gambling, masquerading:|
|Or maybe, in a frolic daft,|| |
|To Hague or Calais takes a waft,|
|To mak a tour an’ tak a whirl,|
|To learn bon ton, an’ see the worl’.|
France, even! Like John Kerry. It's no wonder that Burns concludes:
|For Britain’s guid! for her destruction!|
Note: I am not a dog person so the adorableness of two dogs concluding "humans is the craziest people" is lost on me. YMMV.
I do not like these poems of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. I don't like them because they start like this:
THE BLESSÈD Damozel lean’d outShe's bless-ed (I can't figure out how to do the accents), she leans out from Heaven, and "Heaven" rhymes with "even." It's like listening to a crooner from the late 40s, like Vaughn Monroe, and realizing they had to invent rock'n'roll.
From the gold bar of Heaven:
Her blue grave eyes were deeper much
Than a deep water, even.
The only one I didn't mind was this one, which I am excerpting in full:
Just because I like the idea of beauty, physical beauty, as a kind of creative genius equalling to the best of poets (and far better business, I might add). And, because living in L.A. one becomes much more cynical about the business of beautiful women, and because I couldn't think of anything else to write, I came up with this travesty. Because I'm in a hurry, I don't apologize for errors of scansion or torturings of grammar. Indeed, I think it makes my verse more rich:
Beauty like hers is genius. It takes pains --
The surgeon's silicone, the salon's dye,
The trainer's sweat, and every tool whereby
She turns all heads in preschool dropoff lanes.
Her husband's ex, a gossipy mom explains,
Was the woman who brought him his first script
Which starred this wife. (Remember? Her space suit, ripped?
And how she wore those glasses to show brains?)
As many men are horndogs in their youth,
But tamp it down to taste responsibility,
And discover depths in their connubial she;
Her husband, like a sophomore, without ruth
Will ditch this trophy wife if she gets gray
Hence her pains with art and science Time to stay.
Shit, I just realized I used a different rhyme scheme in the sestet. Don't you hate it when that happens? Too late now.
PS -- I also apologize for the weird formatting, which I can't figure out how to fix.
Readers who enjoy this kind of high culture jazz may also like Arts & Letters Daily. It's a bit Tory in its sensibility -- which to me is a feature, not a bug, even when I don't agree with the point of view.
Today's Daily Reading Guide is supposed to be a scene from the Duchess of Malfi, but the pages they tell you to read put you somewhere in Beaumont and Fletcher.
I'm taking this as a sign that I should have an off day.
Happy Mother's Day, everybody!
(Based on the plot synopsis "The Duchess of Malfi" sounds like great Mother's Day reading.)
This will be brief, for it's a Walter Raleigh travelogue and, as Raleigh himself says after describing a lot of the country,
He passed by the mouths of many great rivers which fell into Orenoque both from the north and south, which I forbear to name, for tediousness, and because they are more pleasing in describing than reading.Doesn't that phrase fit almost anyone describing their trip? There's just one passage I want to pull out, because it amused me. Raleigh wants to go up country and the Spaniard who has already made a similar trip is discouraging him (emphasis added):
Berreo was stricken into a great melancholy and sadness, and used all the arguments he could to dissuade me; and also assured the gentlemen of my company that it would be labour lost, and that they should suffer many miseries if they proceeded. And first he delivered that I could not enter any of the rivers with any bark or pinnace, or hardly with any ship’s boat, it was so low, sandy, and full of flats... He further said that none of the country would come to speak with us, but would all fly; and if we followed them to their dwellings, they would burn their own towns. And besides that...we could not in those small boats by any means carry victuals for half the time, and that (which indeed most discouraged my company) the kings and lords of all the borders of Guiana had decreed that none of them should trade with any Christians for gold, because the same would be their own overthrow, and that for the love of gold the Christians meant to conquer and dispossess them of all together."Many and the most of these," notes Raleigh, ""I found to be true." He did it anyway, of course.
I almost didn't post on this, because I'm kind of feeling like a day off, and when you see this in the third paragraph:
It only emboldens the "take a day off" voice in your head. However, I persevered, had that sixth cup of coffee, and was then able to actually be somewhat offended by a dangerous doctrine that has lurked unread in my family for generations.
In truth, I will not keep back from you that the assertions which follow rest chiefly upon Kantian principles;
The author today is Schiller, and the work is enticingly titled "Letters Upon The Aesthetic Education of Man". He is also the lyricist of the hit tune "Ode To Joy" (the 11 o'clock number from Beethoven's Scandals of 1824), and there is also a statue of him in Lincoln Park in Chicago, apparently. I find myself touched that the people of Chicago, or some subset of them, put up a statue to Schiller. I have the same emotion when I go on a college campus, or even to a high school building from, like, the 1920s, and there are all the names of The Greats carved into the frieze -- Moses, Plato, Newton, etc. How quaint it seems now, the thought that everyone in this college would know who Hammurabi was! It's like the belief in jet cars -- a failed optimism concerning the human project. Sorry, people who built this auditorium or library or classroom -- you were hoping we'd get smarter, but instead we only got taller. (And fatter.)
But to the outrageousness! I apologize in advance because I found every third sentence or so incomprehensible, so I may be misreading things indeed. Sentences like these:
But when the survey taken is complete and embraces the whole man (anthropology), where the form is considered together with the substance, and a living feeling has a voice, the difference will become far more evident.Despite trying this sentence a couple of times without success, I will attempt to summarize Schiller's argument. It goes like this:
• Beauty is great.
• But political beauty (freedom) is better, because more moral ("the most perfect of all works of art—the establishment and structure of a true political freedom.")
• But a moral political establishment, available to reason, is going to be hard to get to, because we can't just wreck the existing, more primitive political establishment. ("When the mechanic has to mend a watch, he lets the wheels run out, but the living watchworks of the state have to be repaired while they act, and a wheel has to be exchanged for another during its revolutions.")
• So (this is the fourth of our four letters, and the one that's hardest for me to follow), we need a force besides reason to mold the people into a moral political establishment ("and he must be led by natural impulse to such a course of action as can only and invariably have moral results.") This, I guess, is where the artist would come in -- it's not in our excerpt.
Well, I think this is monstrous. It's weakly monstrous to place artists in the service of a moral agenda, but it's strongly monstrous to place the state there. Here's a money quote -- I'm going to give it line breaks in the hope of making it clearer:
If the internal man is one with himself, he will be able to rescue his peculiarity, even in the greatest generalisation of his conduct,Doesn't this sound, I don't know, totalitarian? Here's another quote: "The state... will only respect [its citizens] subjective humanity in the same degree that it is ennobled to an objective existence."
...and the state will only become the exponent of his fine instinct, the clearer formula of his internal legislation.
But if the subjective man is in conflict with the objective and contradicts him in the character of the people,
so that only the oppression of the former can give the victory to the latter,
...then the state will take up the severe aspect of the law against the citizen, and in order not to fall a sacrifice, it will have to crush under foot such a hostile individuality, without any compromise.
In other words, if you don't ennoble the state, the state does not have to respect your humanity. Or maybe it just has to take measures against you in order to make you see the light.
(Political note: one of the reasons the U.S.'s torturing is so pernicious is that it fails to respect the prisoner's humanity, and America's supposed to stand for something better than that, particularly when we are in a hearts-and-minds battle.)
Schiller was writing this...actually it doesn't say when he wrote this, but it was well before states had the technology to crush hostile individualities as effectively as they later did. So maybe he didn't see the conclusions of his writing as clearly as we can see them. (Nor could the editors of the Harvard Classics, for that matter.) But I think this is a pernicious doctrine; one shudders to think what it would be like if it were written more comprehensibly.
I just saw this in the New York Times yesterday: "Deep in the third act of the Pearl Theater Company’s entertaining production of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” I realized how much the sitcom “Frasier” owes to Oscar Wilde."
First of all, I thought, "Breaking news!" But, more than that, there are plenty of influences on sitcoms -- "Fraiser" owes just as much to Noel Coward (it's funny that Ken Levine was complaining (a little bit) about how "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" had the same plot device as a Frasier he'd written when the plot device is also in "Private Lives"). And when they were doing "You Can't Take It With You" at the Geffen a couple of years ago the radio ads were touting it as the ancestor to the sitcom. And the first number of "The Spectator" also reminded me of a pilot, in the way we were assembling the wacky team.
All of which goes to show that there's nothing new under the sun (or, as Issac Bashevis Singer once said about this building, "Tolstoy never made an effort to be original"), and today we have a scene from The School For Scandal that, on some sitcoms, they would call the high scene -- the scene of maximum craziness. (It's almost shorter to read it than to summarize it, but it is summarized, in three paragraphs, here.) And, with one character hiding behind a screen and one character hiding in a closet, it seems timelessly wacky -- and, as they're all noblemen, there's even a whiff of the "boss is coming over for dinner" there, too. (What I'd really like to find is an 18th century masterpiece of the stage where two characters settle a dispute by painting a line down the middle of their flat. )
It reminds me so much of working on sitcoms that I am not surprised to find out that Sheridan kept rewriting the play -- of course you would, it's like tweaking the performance of your car or computer or any other machine. It's not actually funny to read, but you can see, in the right hands, where it might still get laughs, although I estimate that there is a 60% chance that the actors would overplay it, with disastrous results. There's something about costume drama that throws the timing off (cf. the gelatinous pacing of "John Adams."
My only note in this scene is, when the screen falls, revealing Lady Teazle (this is about line 191 in the Bartleby version), she doesn't have anything to say for a long time. That doesn't seem right -- even an "Odd's bodkins!" would be appropriate.
Two Browning poems today, one of which ("My Last Duchess") had already been assigned, not just in 10th grade, but also five weeks ago. 50 volumes of the richness of our Western Civilization and they assign they same thing twice. (And it's Browning.) Could it be that I'm taking this Daily Reading Guide more seriously than the low-level functionary who compiled it back in 1910 -- a guy who probably didn't even own more than two detachable collars?
Anyways, that leaves "The Bishop Orders His Tomb At St. Praxed's Church, Rome, 15--", and, as I have occasionally found, I am a little tongue-tied. I find the great works of literature hard to talk about, because what can I say that Internet crib notes can't say better?
I will say this: I can't decide whether it's supposed to be satire or not, or rather, how satirical it's supposed to be. The story, if you will, of the poem, is that one of these vainglorious Italian (of course! I think an Englishman is supposed to think) bishops tries to get his sons to order the nice marble for his tomb. Honestly it strikes me as a little leaden:
Get it? It couldn't be less like what Jesus was getting at! And he has kids too -- a nominal celibate! It's about time the 16th century got what's coming to it.
But maybe it just seems heavy-handed because I live in a satire-saturated environment, therefore I've built up too much of a resistance to it. Maybe it was a super-brave move (although is Victorian England known for its reverence of the Papists? I don't know.)
But maybe the brave part is Browning's willingness to write in the voice of douchebags (cf. "My Last Duchess"). In The Voices Of Douchebags, actually, would be a great title for a book of poems.
I should note, also, that the poem is fatally crippled by the fact that the rival of bishop who narrates the poem is named "Gandolf." How unfortunate for Browning! At least one of the bishop's kids isn't named "Frodo."
I am a shallow person, and what proves it is that the favorite thing I've read all year, chosen from all the great works I've skimmed -- the literature I've flipped to the end of, the philosophy whose summaries I've read on Wikipedia -- is still Cellini getting blessing from the Pope to murder. He is my favorite, and I had never heard of him before, so thanks Harvard.
Today's Cellini isn't quite up to that, (what with the instructional part where you can learn how to make your own 16th-century bronze statue), but he is still a man who never has any emotion unless he can have it to the utmost! of! emotion!:
NO sooner had I got to bed, than I ordered my serving-maids to carry food and wine for all the men into the workshop; at the same time I cried: “I shall not be alive tomorrow.” ...Unsurprisingly, he pulls it off ("they had learned and seen things done which other masters judged impossible"). And afterward, he reports, he had salad. The ancients -- they're just like us!
While I was thus terribly afflicted, I beheld the figure of a man enter my chamber, twisted in his body into the form of a capital S. He raised a lamentable, doleful voice, like one who announces their last hour to men condemned to die upon the scaffold, and spoke these words: “O Benvenuto! your statue is spoiled, and there is no hope whatever of saving it.” No sooner had I heard the shriek of that wretch than I gave a howl which might have been heard from the sphere of flame. Jumping from my bed, I seized my clothes and began to dress. The maids, and my lads, and every one who came around to help me, got kicks or blows of the fist, while I kept crying out in lamentation: “Ah! traitors! enviers! This is an act of treason, done by malice prepense! But I swear by God that I will sift it to the bottom, and before I die will leave such witness to the world of what I can do as shall make a score of mortals marvel.”
One of my flaws as a writer is that I tend to avoid writing BIG EMOTIONS, which, of course, is what makes drama. Cellini never falls into this error. It is what makes him such a delight to read, although he sounds like the type of guy who, if you knew him in real life, you would set the clocks ahead before he came over -- so that after a couple of hours of his holding forth on his greatness, and his weeping on your shoulder at the excellence of your sausage and peppers, you could finally say, "Gee whiz, look at the time!"
...that La Vida Es Sueno (Life Is A Dream) is a seventeenth-century classic of Spanish drama?
...that the translation used in the Harvard Classics is by Edward Fitzgerald, the same dude who did the Rubiyat?
...that Fitzgerald totally rewrote this drama?
...that, despite these liberties, and despite the fact that, in the play, Polish noblemen have names like "Astolfo" and "Estrella," it's almost impossible to read?
I bet you didn't know any of these things! Although I imagine you guessed at the last one. Here's some evidence:
|Down to the poor, mute, scale-imprison’d things,|
|That yet are free to wander, glide, and pass|
|About that under-sapphire, whereinto|
|Yourselves transfusing you yourselves englass!|
The only other thing I want to say about it is, how come we don't have women-pretending-to-be-men in our dramas anymore? Because, here in act I scene 1 (more Theatre of Exposition), it kind of works. Rosaura, who's fleeing from Russia (the name's a dead giveaway, I know), meets Segismund, who's chained, or "enfettered," and you kind of find yourself rooting for them, as Rosaura says with characteristic Russian fire:
|No angel! And the face you think so fair,|
|’Tis but the dismal frame-work of these rocks|
|That makes it seem so...|
Come on, you two! Anyway, I wonder why this surefire dramatic device has fallen into disuse, and my guess is because it works better when you had boys as the "actresses," like they did back in the day. Or maybe we're just sick of it because we all had to read Shakespeare.
Of course, in our time, the great works of drama are transgressive in a different way:
Thomas Huxley, the guy who called himself "Darwin's bulldog" way, way back in the 1860s, is presented to us today, and he's arguing against the primacy of the famous British classical education -- of what use is it to privledge knowing Greek and Latin, when there's a great scientific world around us? And perhaps you might nod as you watch Huxley fight this battle, knowing, as you do, that the outcome is decided -- we compromised, nowadays people are ignorant of both science and Greek -- and then you come to this:
The notions of the beginning and the end of the world entertained by our forefathers are no longer credible. It is very certain that the earth is not the chief body in the material universe, and that the world is not subordinated to man’s use. It is even more certain that nature is the expression of a definite order with which nothing interferes, and that the chief business of mankind is to learn that order and govern themselves accordingly.Italics mine; the italics are the express the shock that this assertion, made in its of-course-we-all-know-it's-true voice, dates from the era of horses, and yet could not be made by any elected official, or indeed university president, in this country now. The horses are gone but the dislike of man being very small remains. Progress!
I have to go to a wedding today -- in fact I'm there right now, high atop the Oviatt Building in downtown LA. Here's my view:
Ha! You people all look like ants to me! While, thanks to Blogger's future-posting gizmo, I'm able to do two things at once -- as if I were a single mom!
Unless I screw it up, that is. In which case you guys didn't look like ants at all. I was just playing a character.
Today (or is it...tomorrow?) we have the first four chapters of Machiavelli's Prince, which I know I read in college, because this is the volume of the Harvard Classics I took down to college and lost, requiring me, when I took over this set, to get a slightly different-looking Volume 36 from Alibris. Good times.
Having had to read this book back in the day (for two different courses!) I am surprised by how differently it struck me. Mostly because now I've been in plenty of pitches and meetings and stuff and I appreciate how wicked organized Machiavelli ("Don't call me Nick") is. It becomes clearer when you strip out the examples and re-format (and learning to skim is something else that has only happened to me since college). Here's Chapter I:
Princedoms are either hereditary...or they are new.Can't you just see the Powerpoint? I'd do it myself but I don't know how. (Here, however, and I highly recommend it, is the Gettysburg Powerpoint Presentation>.)
New Princedoms are either wholly new...or they are like limbs joined on to the hereditary possessions of the Prince who acquires them....
The States thus acquired have either been used to live under a Prince or have been free;
and he who acquires them does so either by his own arms or by the arms of others, and either by good fortune or by merit.
I do remember being taught that Machiavelli is not to be trusted -- but not because he's being deliberately obscure, but because he's trying too hard to prove whatever case he's arguing at the moment. He appears to be a serial believer. On the one hand:
The Romans, therefore, foreseeing evils while they were yet far off, always provided against them, and never suffered them to take their course for the sake of avoiding war; since they knew that war is not so to be avoided, but is only postponed to the advantage of the other side. They chose, therefore, to make war with Philip and Antiochus in Greece, that they might not have to make it with them in Italy, although for a while they might have escaped both.Invading Greece is a great idea! And then a chapter later:
Hence the repeated risings of Spain, Gaul, and Greece against the Romans, resulting from the number of small Princedoms of which these Provinces were made up. For while the memory of these lasted, the Romans could never think their tenure safe.The invasion of Greece is a bad idea! There is no question that Machiavelli would fit right in on Meet The Press; he may, in some ways, have been the first pundit. Speaking of that, Nick, how do you like the Iraq War? I mean, you were for pre-emptive war just a few paragraphs ago, I'm sure you're not going to change your tune now, right?
But if instead of colonies you send troops, the cost is vastly greater, and the whole revenues of the country are spent in guarding it; so that the gain becomes a loss, and much deeper offence is given; since in shifting the quarters of your soldiers from place to place the whole country suffers hardship, which as all feel, all are made enemies; and enemies who remaining, although vanquished, in their own homes, have power to hurt. In every way, therefore, this mode of defence is as disadvantageous as that by colonizing is useful.See what I mean? He's so smooth! Machiavellian, even. But can he post from the future?
Just three of the 50 volumes of the Harvard Classics are sciencey, and two are by Darwin. This one, Volume 30, is the third. (I don't count "Wealth of Nations" -- that's social science, brah!) It's understandable, of course, because science keeps changing on us, so it's hard to freeze it, Classics-style. But to me it's comforting, because us Humanities types are always being accused of ignoring science, and, although the accusations are true, it's nice to know that we've been ignoring science for generations.
And so, my fellow B.A.s, come with me now to a Michael Faraday, lecture "delivered before a Juvenile Auditory at the Royal Institution of Great Britain during the Christmas Holidays of 1859–60." Juvenile -- is that all we can handle? Probably:
I WONDER whether we shall be too deep to-day or not. Remember that we spoke of the attraction by gravitation of all bodies to all bodies by their simple approach. Remember that we spoke of the attraction of particles of the same kind to each other—that power which keeps them together in masses—iron attracted to iron, brass to brass, or water to water. Remember that we found, on looking into water, that there were particles of two different kinds attracted to each other; and this was a great step beyond the first simple attraction of gravitation, because here we deal with attraction between different kinds of matter...OMG, I wonder what they're serving in the cafeteria for lunch today. The lecture is actually quite good, and, as it was a demonstration, is full of stage directions, as it were: "[The lecturer brought his finger near a jet from which gas was issuing, when, after one or two attempts, the spark which came from his finger to the jet set fire to the gas.]" If you have kids, it will remind you of dragging them to science museums and so forth, and of trying to help them with homework when you yourself can't quite remember the relationship between magnetism and electricity, which, sadly, Faraday doesn't elaborate on -- he just demonstrates magnetism, then electricity, and one must imagine how exciting it seemed, there in the very early days of the stuff, before it became the source of blogs and George Foreman grills and stuff.
Faraday's biography, as provided by the Classics, is interesting of itself:
Faraday’s parents were members of the obscure religious denomination of the Sandemanians, and Faraday himself, shortly after his marriage, at the age of thirty, joined the same sect, to which he adhered till his death. Religion and science he kept strictly apart, believing that the data of science were of an entirely different nature from the direct communications between God and the soul on which his religious faith was based.And you can kind of see that Faraday is the kind of guy who enjoys poking around in Creation, to see how it works. And how do you find out how it works? With things like these:
I really can't get enough of the illustrations, either.
Humor, of course, never lasts from one era to another, and the same must be true for charm. I think this is supposed to be charming:
On the question being started, Ayrton said, “I suppose the two first persons you would choose to see would be the two greatest names in English literature, Sir Isaac Newton and Mr. Locke?” In this Ayrton, as usual, reckoned without his host. Everyone burst out a-laughing at the expression on Lamb’s face, in which impatience was restrained by courtesy."Bursting out a-laughing" might have been an excellent tactic in days gone by, but it has not kept its freshness (nor will its modern equivalent, which is probably something like "shit a brick.")
Therefore, this essay, by William Hazlitt, fails to charm. He and his adorably English friends (including Charles Lamb, which makes me remember that in school I was told to find some Lamb essay terribly charming, which it wasn't) are just sitting around deciding which figures from history they would bring back to life in order to have dinner with -- a Proust questionnaire, kind of, but taking oh so many more words. The kind of thing, in other words, people did before there was broadcasting.
It is the kind of essay where the essayist describes what he's doing as "whimsical," which seems deadly to me now. Maybe it's sort of a comedic Gresham's Law, where bad emotions drive out good, but "smartass" seems much more to our taste these days than "whimsical" -- either because things are worse, so we need to be sharper in our opinions, or because things are better, and we need to shock more to get the same effect.
I was shocked to find in Wikipedia that Hazlitt was a huge rebel who never reconciled with the Establishment. I don't think I've read anything this year that doesn't seem more overstuffed-red-leather-armchair than this essay.