Jan 31: A short passage from Don Quixote

I hope you’re ready to rollick, because my favorite copywriters promise that “Worlds of fun and killing satire are in this absorbing story of Cervantes.”

I know, because I’ve read about Don Quixote (without actually reading Don Quixote), that this is a very important book in our Western Literary Tradition, so I’m pleased to find that it gets a volume all to itself. I have to say that the HC also does a pretty good job of including foreigners – I realize that’s part of the cachet (so is saying “cachet”), though; and besides, in 1910 I’m not sure what Americans they would have included. I have a feeling that the 19th century people we like (Dickinson, Twain, Whitman) would have been on their list.

Okay, volume 14, chapter VIII…it’s the windmills! Now that’s a classic. And Cervantes dives right in – the windmills are the first thing mentioned.

It’s an extremely brief encounter – just one sentence long:

And, after saying this, and commending himself most devoutly to his Lady Dulcinea, desiring her to succor him in that trance, covering himself well with his buckler, and setting his lance on his rest, he spurred on Rozinante, and encountered with the first mill that was before him, and, striking his lance into the sail, the wind swung it about with such fury, that it broke his lance into shivers, carrying him and his horse after it, and finally tumbled him a good way off from it on the field in evil plight.

And it’s all stage direction. It’s remarkable. It’s like when you go to a movie set for the first time and you realize how small it is. Helpfully, however, my favorite copywriters haven’t built up this one incident, and Don Quixote quickly moves on.

I really don’t have much to say just because this work is so famous and it’s so direct. It’s comedy – these characters always work. A tall thin guy and a short fat guy – what more do you need? I’m surprised it’s not on a cave painting. Simplicity is one of the great satisfactions of comedy (I think it’s why some comedians get tired of it).

The only other thing I’ll note in passing is that the Don and Sancho fulfill one of my requirements for comic characters, which is that they think well of themselves. I once worked for a guy who’d say, “Depressed people aren’t funny,” and the more characters think well of themselves the easier it is for us to look down on them. (There are exceptions, of course.)

Heads up

Had a meeting with my agent today and the message was, basically, get to work. Owing to a pre-existing condition (mortgage), that means that once the strike ends I will have to grub for paying jobs, so enjoy the long luxurious posts while you can.

Jan 30: Antigone...On Ice!

I’m reading this while at the Culver City Ice Arena, where the young Master Delicious is skating (my being able to take him is a collateral benefit of the strike). However, I don’t have my book with me – instead, I printed out my reading from Bartleby. Rest assured that it still looks pretty pretentious, though, what with all the white space (indicating Poetry) on my document which, depressingly is all of 11 pages.

Let me stop myself right there. None of that don’t-wanna-do-my-homework attitude. It will filter down to the children.

Anyway, because I don’t have an Introductory Note, or even access to the Internet, I don’t know who anyone is in this play going in. Will Sophocles provide the pipe (as we sophisticated sitcom writers call exposition)? I’m guessing so: after It’d been working iin sitcoms awhile I went to see “The Merchant of Venice,” which I hadn’te even read since college, and talk about expositional! The whole beginning was filled with “as you and I both know” dialogue – it was like the Pompidou Center, with all its pipe on the outside.

But I digress. To the reading! And speaking of “as you and I both know" -- this also has one of my favorite bonnet-bees, where characters who know each other well nevertheless refer to each other by name:

No tidings of our friends, Antigone,
Painful or pleasant since that hour have come
When we, two sisters, lost our brothers twain,
In one day dying by each other’s hand.
Okay, now I remember hearing about this play. Antigone is not allowed to bury her brother Polynices, but she’s going to do it anyway. Her sister counsels her to work within the system:
And think, how much more wretchedly than all
We twain shall perish, if, against the law,
We brave our sovereign’s edict and his power.
For this we need remember, we were born
Women; as such, not made to strive with men.
And next, that they who reign surpass in strength,
And we must bow to this, and worse than this.
But Antigone, she's hard :
ISM. Fiery is thy mood,
Although thy deeds might chill the very blood.

ANTIG. (lighting Marlboro -- ed.) I know I please the souls I seek to please.
A friend of mine once worked on that Method Man sitcom, and Meth apparently divided all ideas into two camps – “hard” and “corny.” Antigone is hard.

Okay, now here comes the chorus, which is divided between “Stroph I,” “Antistroph I,” “Stroph II,” and “Antistroph II”. I’m pretty sure these are parts of the Chorus’s speech, but I like to think of them as parts – like, an Athenean actor would have had “Antistroph II” as a credit on the back of his headshot (head-tablet in those days, possibly.)

One of the interesting effects utter ignorance gives me is that I don’t know what Polynices has done to deserve his punishment, so I don’t know how much I should sympathize with Antigone. What if he’s really a bad guy? The ambiguity is delicious – and it’s one that I have and the Athenean audience didn’t.

Now Creon comes in. Creon tells us that Polynices was a rebel, which in the “you’re either with us or against us” atmosphere is a v. bad thing. Also it’s apparently a huge deal to be unburied, although it seems worse for Thebes, what with the germs and all.

The guard enters:
I will not say, O king, that I am come
Panting with speed and plying nimble feet,
For I had many halting-points of thought,
Backwards and forwards turning, round and round;
For now my mind would give me sage advice:
“Poor wretch, and wilt thou go and bear the blame?”
Or—“Dost thou tarry now? Shall Creon know
These things from others? How wilt thou escape?”
I can’t tell you how much I love this ("wilt"s and "dost"s aside). The guard, after all, is a bit player – he’s not really involved in our story, he’s just telling us stuff that’s happened that we can’t afford to stage. Yet Sophocles gives him a great attitude to play – a kind of craven careerist indecision. It also helps illuminate Creon as the kind of badass you don’t want to be telling bad news to.

The guard lowers the boom (the body has been covered in dust), but, again, he gets his own little story:
…for we [the other guards] neither saw
How to oppose it, nor, accepting it,
How we might prosper in it. And his speech
Was this, that all our tale should go to thee,
Not hushed up anywise. This gained the day;
And me, ill-starred, the lot condemns to win
This precious prize.
If I may continue in the Wu-Tang mode – and I apologize for the mid-90s references, showing my age I guess – Creon replies, basically, C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me):
No thing in use by man, for power of ill,
Can equal money. This lays cities low,
This drives men forth from quiet dwelling-place,
This warps and changes minds of worthiest stamp,
To turn to deeds of baseness, teaching men
All shifts of cunning, and to know the guilt
Of every impious deed.
Creon wants to know what guy did this. We’re ahead of Creon – even those of us who don’t know the plot going in. And now we know that he’s going to hit the ceiling when he finds out. But how hard will he hit it? I guess this seems like penny-ante criticism, but it’s exciting to me how well-constructed this is.

The guard provides the blow to the scene:
You will not see me coming here again;
For now, being safe beyond all hope of mine,
Beyond all thought, I owe the Gods much thanks.
Still characteristic, that guard. It’s very castable. I’m thinking Kevin Chamberlain.

Then the Strophes and the Antistrophes come out and talk about Man and how’s he’s like. (“Wonderful in skill,” for example.) Does anyone do this, nowadays, in art? Just opine for a page on what we’re like as a species? Radio preachers, maybe. Or Deepak Chopra.

Now they’ve found Antigone and they go get Creon, who comes in saying “this better be important” (“What chance is this with which my coming fits”). The guard tells us more about himself (“I can claim a right/To wash my hands of all this troublous coil.”) – he’s really the one who has the story in this excerpt, in fact it’s really the Guard who’s caught in the middle, like someone who has to arrest nonviolent protestors:
But this to me both bitter is and sweet,
For to escape one’s-self from ill is sweet,
But to bring friends to trouble, this is hard
And bitter. Yet my nature bids me count
Above all these things safety for myself.
This was written almost 2500 years ago. For all our chain restaurants, we don't seem to have much changed.

This was my favorite reading so far, because I appreciate what Sophocles did in his adaptation – adding a regular guy to stand between these mythic characters. Good construction, too, dude. And I think, with a little tweaking here and there, it would be perfect for ice ballet.

Jan 29: The Road to Tierra Del Fuego

I was never raised to think of much of a conflict between Jesus and Darwin, but thanks to the culture wars there now is; so it’s funny to see Darwin follow Thomas a Kempis, making a “careful and vitally interesting study of that land and its ill-fated inhabitants.” Darwin gets his own volume, so we can regard him as at least as important as Robert Burns.

-- Here's another example of the argument thing I was talking about the other day:

Tierra del Fuego, first arrival—Good Success Bay—An Account of the Fuegians on board—Interview with the Savages—Scenery of the Forests—Cape Horn—Wigwam Cove—Miserable Condition of the Savages— Famines—Cannibals— Matricide—Religious Feelings—Great Gale—Beagle Channel—Ponsonby Sound—Build Wigwams and settle the Fuegians—Bifurcation of the Beagle Channel—Glaciers—Return to the Ship—Second Visit in the Ship to the Settlement—Equality of Condition amongst the Natives
Now you’ve read the whole chapter!

Darwin says:
I could not have believed how wide was the difference between savage and civilized man: it is greater than between a wild and domesticated animal, inasmuch as in man there is a greater power of improvement.
Why are they savage? Because they’re shouting and telling them where to land, that's why -- not that different than what us civilized people would do now. Actually, a lot of us civilized people would probably not want different-colored boat people to land, but these were more innocent times.

(As an aside, I will admit here that my knowledge of the dates of the theory of evolution are pretty hazy. Maybe it’s because of the Scopes trial that makes me think that the theory is a late 19th-century development, like the player piano or something. But James Madison was still alive when Darwin was on the Beagle. )

In Darwin's defense, he notes that the savages are painted like people in the opera "Der Freischutz." So maybe they’re not so civilized. Or maybe they were putting on a production of Der Freischutz when the Beagle landed! I bet Darwin didn’t think of that.

He also tries to look on the other hand:
They could repeat with perfect correctness each word in any sentence we addressed them, and they remembered such words for some time. Yet we Europeans all know how difficult it is to distinguish apart the sounds in a foreign language. Which of us, for instance, could follow an American Indian through a sentence of more than three words? All savages appear to possess, to an uncommon degree, this power of mimicry.... How can this faculty be explained? is it a consequence of the more practised habits of perception and keener senses, common to all men in a savage state, as compared with those long civilized?
Still, all this “savages” and “civilized” diction is making him sound like Commander McBragg to me, especially because they’ve named one of their Fuegans guides “York Minster," which is a building, I believe. On the other hand we named one of our great heroes "Refrigerator" Perry.

As a lifelong urban man, however, I despise the idea that those who are close to nature are more virtuous than us city folk with our bookstores and leash laws, and Darwin is of like mind, in a way:

At night, five or six human beings, naked and scarcely protected from the wind and rain of this tempestuous climate, sleep on the wet ground coiled up like animals. Whenever it is low water, winter or summer, night or day they must rise to pick shell-fish from the rocks; and the women either dive to collect sea-eggs, or sit patiently in their canoes, and with a baited hair-line without any hook, jerk out little fish. If a seal is killed, or the floating carcass of a putrid whale is discovered, it is a feast; and such miserable food is assisted by a few tasteless berries and fungi. They often suffer from famine.
Think of how far we’ve advanced, to the point where we’ve invented the Cheeto. And speaking of those whose way of life we look down on:
Although such reflections [i.e., why the hell do these people choose to live here? – ed.] must at first seize on the mind, yet we may feel sure that they are partly erroneous. There is no reason to believe that the Fuegians decrease in number; therefore we must suppose that they enjoy a sufficient share of happiness, of whatever kind it may be, to render life worth having. Nature by making habit omnipotent, and its effects hereditary, has fitted the Fuegian to the climate and the productions of his miserable country.
The “effects” of habit are hereditary? I’m not sure what that means, nor that the Fuegian is fitted by nature to live in Tierra del Fuego. I can see where, if you didn’t have the Fuegian culture and knowledge, you’d shrivel (picture Vince Vaughn in a fish-out-of-water movie set in Tierra Del Fuego); but, if you were sufficiently hardy, you could make it (Vince Vaughn befriends a native (Russell Peters) and learns to wear the blubber poncho, which is a hilarious scene we can use in the trailer.)

I guess this is the only anthropology we're going to get in the Harvard Classics -- the kind that lends itself to a Vince Vaughn movie.

Jan 28: Jesus-y

Today from the Imitation of Christ (Vol. 7, paired with Augustine’s “Confessions”.) We’ve been just Jesus-ing it up the past couple days; I don’t mind, so much, but what would the Greeks have said? Is this really the kind of company they want to be keeping?

I’m a fan of Jesus, however, his early work in particular, so I’m happy to dive in – or fly, “since by two wings is man lifted above earthly things.” The title of the chapter is “Of a pure mind and simple intention,” which is so unobjectionably spiritual that even a masseuse would agree with it.

Again with the “reacheth” stuff in the translation. The King James Bible has a lot to answer for – you can say what you want against modernity, but it least it freed us up from stuff like this.

“If there is any joy in the world surely the man of pure heart possesseth it, and if there is anywhere tribulation and anguish, the evil conscience knoweth it best.” – SO, if you feel bad, it’s your fault.

Now to Chapter V, of self-esteem (or “self-steam” as I like to think of it). As far as I can see it’s saying not to judge others because one’s own record is hardly a prize. Self-esteem has surely come a long way since the 16th century.

-- Apparently this Jesus person seems to be very important, as one should love him and not living creatures. And yet he also “canst quickly drive away Jesus and lose His favour if thou wilt turn away to the outer things.” So he’s touchy, too. No wonder they needed a chapter on self-steam.

-- “But a true lover of Christ, and a diligent seeker after virtue, falleth not back upon those comforts, nor seeketh such sweetnesses as may be tasted and handled, but desireth rather hard exercises, and to undertake severe labours for Christ.” I think they should have had this reading closer to Lent. As the possessor of a Catholic boyhood, it has a familiar tone (even if my own high Vatican II youth had much less of it than is stereotypical).

-- This seems wise: “I have never found any man so religious and godly, but that he felt sometimes a withdrawal of the divine favour, and lack of fervour.” I mean, it’s followed by exhortation which those of you with a church background will find (too) familiar, but it’s nice for the flaws to be acknowledged once in a while.

I’m kind of surprised this is even in the Harvard Classics. The Confessions are one thing, but this is really super-heavy Jesus. And, if the Harvard Classics are kind of a monument to self-improvement, it’s kind of funny that they include a manual to a completely different kind of self-improvement within it.

Jan 27: Purgatory Hath No Fury

Today we're promised "Dante and Beatrice in Paradise." And what better day to celebrate this great love than this – the 706th anniversary of “Dante victim of political persecution in Florence”? Just on one day?

Anyway, it’s canto XXX (like on a likker jug) of the Purgatorio, for you highbrows. Today’s translation is by a Henry F. Cary about whom little is discovered, except that he finished his translation in time for it to be in the public domain by 1910. (And if they re-did the HC now, what fights they’d have about the translations!)

Our canto has an “argument” (“Beatrice descends from Heaven, and rebukes the Poet”), and that is something I miss in modern-day literature, as little as I know of it – the italicized stuff that summarizes the chapter for you. (E.g. “A conversation -- Yet Mary has different plans – A dinner of rabbit.”) They have executive summaries everywhere else, why not in literature?

This also has footnotes, whereas Burns, or the Odyssey, doesn’t. The inconsistency is a little maddening. I suppose if you read it volume by volume like you’re supposed to you don’t notice it so much.

This is going to be tough sledding:

SOON as that polar light, 1 fair ornament
Of the first Heaven, which hath never known
Setting nor rising, nor the shadowy veil
Of other cloud than sin, to duty there
Each one convoying, as that lower doth
The steersman to his port, stood firmly fix’d;
I think it's supposed to mean “morning”.

-- Hey, this is the canto where Dante has to leave Virgil behind. I think I would have spent a little more time lamenting the end of this now-classic buddy movie, but no time -- Beatrice is talking. (“I am, in sooth, I am/Beatrice.” -- just like any MC would.)

-- This thing is goddamn replete with epic similes. As a Denny’s, where the Grand Slam breakfast is placed before you, and you think, “Must I consume this entire grease-coated meal? Surely it can’t be that good for me” – so larded is the plate of the Divine Comedy with the epic simile.

-- Beatrice tears him a new one:
Soon as I had reach’d
The threshold of my second age, and changed
My mortal for immortal; then he left me,
And gave himself to others. When from flesh
To spirit I had risen, and increase
Of beauty and of virtue circled me,
I was less dear to him, and valued less.
She’s jealous. Even in heaven. It’s kind of cute. Actually, I think Dante intends for us to be on her side, but what the purgatory is he supposed to do? He's not dead. And he's still Italian.

-- Now to Canto XXXI. Here’s the summary (or, “Next week -- on Purgatorio”):

Beatrice continues her reprehension of Dante, who confesses his error, and falls to the ground; coming to himself again, he is by Matilda drawn through the waters of Lethe, and presented first to the four virgins who figure the cardinal virtues; these in their turn lead him to the Gryphon, a symbol of our Saviour; and the three virgins, representing the evangelical virtues, intercede for him with Beatrice, that she would display to him her second beauty.
And that’s exactly what happens in this Canto. I feel like an undergraduate again – the kind that doesn’t understand a single word of what’s going on, and falls upon the Cliffs’ Notes like a drowning man. Or – “as an sophomore, taking classics of world literature, does sometimes feel beset…” Ah, screw it. ("Display to him her second beauty," though -- that's a summation from more innocent times.)

-- I have nothing to say about XXXII either. The symbolism is the kind that’s immediately explained in the footnotes (plumes=donation of Constantine), so what’s to be beguiled by? Except that it’s nice he thinks so well of Beatrice that she gets such special attention in Heaven. But overall -- and I blame the translation -- it's as soporific as a similarly Roman-numeraled Super Bowl.

Oh no (3)

I have misplaced Volume 48 (Pascal). Hopefully he doesn't have anything else to say the rest of the year.

Jan 26: Yarns of the Ancients

I have to pay bills, and start thinking about an actual project, one that might make me money. But I know if I don’t do this reading now, I won’t get to it today. Today it feels like an olive-bound millstone.

Perhaps a “delightful story of old Egypt” from Herodotus will change the mood. It’s from Volume 33: Voyages and Travels. (There’s a certain “ripping yarns” subtheme in the Harvard Classics – “Two Years Before The Mast” gets its own volume – and all to the good, I say. You’re not a sissy because you read classics! On the contrary! Now don’t hold your glasses like that, you’ll get them smudged. )

The whole of page 65, where I’m supposed to start, is the middle of one paragraph. I have no idea where to start, but helpfully the DRG’s description (“a king who entombed his daughter in a golden cow” – that sounds delightful) allows me to scan down in the middle of the paragraph and get started.

-- perhaps, they say, the daughter was entombed because she killed herself because her father “ravished her”. Delightfuler and delightfuler!

-- you wouldn’t think you’d be reading a capital-K Classic and see the word “cow” so much. But that’s the thing about the classics -- they're surprising.

-- I like this also:

This king also left behind him a pyramid, much smaller than that of his father, of a square shape and measuring on each side three hundred feet lacking twenty, built moreover of Ethiopian stone up to half the height. This pyramid some of the Hellenes say was built by the courtesan Rhodopis, not therein speaking rightly: and besides this it is evident to me that they who speak thus do not even know who Rhodopis was…
The whole rest of the paragraph is about Rhodopis. Then we shift back. It’s like a stereotypical country yokel tellin’ yarns (or Grandpa Simpson), but even more breathless.

There follows a yarn about the time when the Ethiopian was a-rulin’ Egypt, and he stops because of a dream. This seems odd, but then we have rulers who also invade Middle Eastern countries because God tells them too, so maybe it’s not so different. Is the Ethiopian ever named?…you have to flip back…yes, there he is: Sabacos. Btu the rest of the time he’s just “The Ethiopian”. Herodotus might have just as well called him “that black fella.” Although the Ethiopian is both preceded and succeeded by “the blind man”. Who can keep track of all their funny names?

-- Then the next guy lost his throne because field mice ate his army’s quivers and bows. Again with the mice! Maybe Burns should have plowed that nest up after all.

-- Herodotus keeps translating the Egyptian gods into Greek Gods -- “Osiris in the tongue of Hellas is Dionysos” Is this common? It’s interesting – just the assumption that of course they’re the same gods, they just go native wherever they are.

There now, all done. I’m not particularly delighted, but it wasn’t so bad, all things considered.

Oh no (2)

I have a feeling the writers' strike may be drawing to a close. My evidence is

1.Nikki Finke, but also

2. My agent want to talk to me all of a sudden.

This is bad news for this project because I'll have to work. Farewell to doing my reading at 4 in the afternoon or whenever.

The plus side is that I can try to make my way through the DRG under actual field conditions, but, in this case, plus = minus.

Jan 25: Burns's Urban Dictionary and other mystifying adult things

Tonight’s reading is Robert Burns. Immediately there were flashbacks. Didn’t my father (an English teacher) would occasionally throw on his birthday…didn’t he use the Harvard Classics edition? Might I be using one of the few books in this collection that’s been used before?

And, stuck in the cover, is an old ditto (the purple ink, I remember), on the back of which are page numbers for poems he’d read, after everyone had had a bit of the barleycorn, no doubt. I am practically up in my childhood bedroom, hearing that adult talk-and-laughter that’s so mystifying to a child (how can they have that much fun just sitting?) The past is another country…would high school teachers really get together in this day and age for such an evening? It’s no weirder than a book club, really, plus – Scotch. (Although one I think is supposed to frown on Scotch today, especially on school nights.)

I’m tempted to read his page numbers…but the DRG has fewer, so it wins.

I will say that I never know what to write about the poetry, really, except to point out what’s strange about it. I don’t think I’m really capable of offering criticism. Maybe I need a little barleycorn myself to get in the spirit of the thing.

-- First is “To A Mouse,” which I think was in one of my kids’ English books. This is the “the best—laid schemes of mice and men/gang aft agley.” Note that one could be ponderous and note that the line says “schemes,” not “plans.” One will, no doubt.

Earlier in the poem there is this sentiment: “I’m truly sorry man’s dominion,/Has broken nature’s social union,” which is nice. I tend to hate the pastoral fallacy of this kind of thing – Man bad, Nature good – if only because I like vaccinations and stuff. But here, with the plow bisecting the nest, it’s charming. It’s the kind of thing that it the line were later in the poem, so it’s supposed to be the point of the poem, it would be tedious. But here so early it’s like a throwaway line, and like a good throwaway line it gains its force from not being emphasized.

-- “Tam O Shanter” So it’s not just a restaurant in Atwater Village? No, in fact, the restaurant was inspired by the poem. This alone justifies Burns getting a whole volume to himself. Is there a restaurant called “The Waste Land”? No. Suck it, Eliot.

It is 100% infuriating that the HC did not want to mess up its fine design by telling you what the words mean. For instance: “While we sit bousing at the nappy,/An’ getting fou and unco happy.”

Actually, “bousing” “fou” and “unco” could all be on Urban Dictionary. (Not to mention “nappy,” but not in this sense.) Perhaps the secret of Burns’s popularity back in more bibulous times is that you’re practically required to have knocked a few back in order to try to read it aloud.

Also, “Raymond” alert:

Ah, gentle dames! it gars me greet,
To think how mony counsels sweet,
How mony lengthen’d, sage advices,
The husband frae the wife despises!
This premise is timeless, I tell you. I think I’ve already encounted this kind of rolling-pin humor three times in this reading, and its only January. Or is it less that it’s timeless, and more that the Compiler had a difficult marriage?

“bleezing” – also a candidate for the U.D.

For a famous poet, Burns uses feminine rhymes a lot (“awfu’/unlawfu’”), for example. I thought that was only for your light versifiers and your Cole Porters. However, as is pointed out here, Burns doesn’t really care to be Great.

Is this where “Cutty-sark” (who is the name of the hot girl in tha club who almost winds up killing our hero) comes from? Apparently so. One hopes Burns had the rights to all this stuff.

Fun stuff, if you don’t mind flipping to the glossary every three words.

And bear in mind

This is hardly the only project of its kind, and I find myself dipping from time to time into this project, where a critic named Christopher Beha read the whole 50 volumes.

Although I have to read every day, whereas he could wait until, like, Sunday to read the whole volume. (He whined.)

Jan 24: The Misadventure With The Kine

The Odyssey today – or, as they could have, but did not, say, the Classic’s classic. Why is it Volume 22? Do they feel we’re not ready for it until then? And why after the Aeneid? It’s not Homer’s birthday, is it?

And why read it anyway, if the DRG is going to give away the plot – “When his ship approached the siren's rock, Odysseus stuffed the ears of his crew with wax and had himself bound to the mast that he might hear the alluring voice of the siren and yet not wreck his ship on the enchanted rock.”

Well, now that it’s ruined for us, let’s read it anyway.

-- Awesome, a “these” and “thous” translation. There’s even a reference to “kine”. And “barque,” a favorite archaic word of mine.

It’s interesting that they went for the verse translation of the Aeneid (admittedly, a public domain verse translation – Harvard didn’t get that endowment by being fools), but here it’s this super-stuffy prose. It sounds like a classic, because it's practically unreadable, and I suppose it saves wear and tear on the volumes as people put them back, but still.

Well, for all the buildup in the DRG, it only takes a paragraph to get by the Sirens. A little crosscutting would help here, Homer – take note for next time.

-- Now they’re going into Scylla and Charybdis. Scylla just scoops up men, while Charybdis likes to belch sea-water at them. Scylla then eats a half-dozen. All in another paragraph. Homer moves fast.

-- Odysseus’s men then convince him to camp out for the night on the island of the sun. Okay, says Odysseus, but don’t kill any of the sheep or cows. Of course not, they say. Perhaps this is one of the first examples of a “nothing can go wrong” type plan in literature.

-- In paragraph 30 Odysseus “laved” his hands. That’s pushing it. Again, one can see why Modernism had to happen.

-- Also, while the crew is killing the Sun’s cattle, Odysseus falls asleep, and he blames it on the gods. This seems a little transparent, no?

-- And eventually all the crew is killed (which they knew was coming, they just preferred it to starving), and Odysseus has to go back through Scylla and Charybdis (nice structure), and winds up with Calypso, and there we leave him.

Jan 23: The Pascalian triangle

Can you ever really know a triangle? Apparently so! For today’s reading promises, “Pascal Knew Men and Triangles.” I would kill for this knowledge of triangles, which is apparently available without getting high, but I have a feeling we’re going to learn about Men, or, as we call them today, people.

I believe in fact we’re to read his “searching analysis of man’s conceit” from Volume 48 (“Thoughts and Minor Works,” this being one of the latter. You’re not ready for major works when you’re on the Daily Reading Guide.)

First paragraph hits you right between the eyes: “THE ART of persuasion has a necessary relation to the manner in which men are led to consent to that which is proposed to them, and to the conditions of things which it is sought to make them believe.”

It’s going to be a tough eleven pages. I can only hope that this is more persuasive in French.

“Then it is that a doubtful balance is made between truth and pleasure, and that the knowledge of the one and the feeling of the other stir up a combat the success of which is very uncertain, since, in order to judge of it, it would be necessary to know all that passes in the innermost spirit of the man, of which the man himself is scarcely ever conscious.”
I think we know who wins that one these days, assuming they’re still fighting, that is.

I like this: “… So that the art of persuasion consists as much in that of pleasing as in that of convincing, so much more are men governed by caprice than by reason!”

I like the exclamation point particularly. I’m surprised that you’re surprised, Pascal. Having realized that pleasing is more important than convincing, Pascal moves on to talk only about convincing, because it might please us too much if he’s actually helpful.

There now come some rules, and since Pascal has me pegged, I’m pleasure-loving, I confess that I will skip them. This is why I would have been a terrible lawyer.

Now there’s “after having established………” What? It turns out: The rest of the phrase is wanting; and all this second part of the composition, either because it was not redacted by Pascal, or because it has been lost, is found neither in our MS. nor in Father Desmolets

Later in the piece we get this: “The method of not erring is sought by all the world. The logicians profess to guide to it, the geometricians alone attain it, and apart from their science, and the imitations of it, there are no true demonstrations.” It’s nice that Pascal has some school spirit.

And then, just as my boredom is almost complete, there is a turn at the end:
The mind must not be forced; artificial and constrained manners fill it with foolish presumption, through unnatural elevation and vain and ridiculous inflation, instead of solid and vigorous nutriment. And one of the principal reasons that diverts those who are entering upon this knowledge so much from the true path which they should follow, is the fancy that they take at the outset that good things are inaccessible, giving them the name of great, lofty, elevated, sublime. This destroys every thing. I would call them low, common, familiar: these names suit them better; I hate such inflated expressions.


Why, he almost sounds American! Or does he sound like we think Americans ought to sound – perhaps Americans are more likely to use the “resplendent kings they were written to please” mode. Or is it both – do the Harvard Classics exist so people can put on airs, or do they exist to take the knowledge away from the people who might put on airs?

Three sides to this story – like a triangle!

Jan 22: Never Ask About My Business

[Note that I'm going to start writing my own headlines instead of just copying them out of the book.]

This hasn’t felt very choreful, but today it does. Could it be the French verse plays? Why shouldn’t I be excited when “The classic plays of French literature are produced to-day precisely as when they were given for the resplendent kings they were written to please.” OMG, it is impossible for me to get tired of the promotional writing. It’s nonstop fancified optimism is balm to my soul. “The resplendent kings [great band name -- ed.] they were written to please.” Why, the syntax alone is reminiscent of the upper classes!

Also: the plays are produced in precisely the same way as when they were etc. etc.? I say that’s a bug, not a feature.

Okay, it’s “Polyeucte” (what?) by Corneille (who?) Written in the 1600s. I have no idea what’s what. This’ll be exciting!

And it’s in rhymed verse. I’m actually charmed.

-- Hey, guess what, they’re talking about women. Until they start talking about baptism. (“For this I yearn,
For that exhaustless fount I thirst, I burn.”)

Okay, I’m completely lost. I will use something they didn’t have in great-grandfather’s day and Wikipedia it.

[Pause for Wikipediaing...]

Oh, now I see: Polyecute’s going to become a Christian on the down-low, this being Roman times. I guess this will make up for some of the rampant skepticism they’ve been working on this month. Now back to the text.

-- now I get it. Polyeucte must keep his Christianity from his wife or she’ll be executed too. Hence the secrecy.

-- Plus:

“He is Armenian, thou of Roman line.
We, of Armenia, mock thy dreams to scorn,
For they are born of night, as truth of morn;
While Romans hold that dreams are heaven-sent,
And spring from Jove for man’s admonishment."
You know, I never know of an Armenian-Roman marriage that worked out, at that.

-- She also hates Christians:

Their sect is impious, mad, absurd and vain,
Their rites repulsive, as their cult profane.
Deride their altar, their weak frenzy ban,
Yet do they war with gods and not with man!
Relentless wills our law that they must die:
Their joy—endurance; death—their ecstasy;
Judged—by decree, the foes of human race,
Meekly their heads they bow—to court disgrace!

Jan 21: The Nightingale's Healing Melody

Okay, did you like Aesop? How about Hans Christian Andersen? It’s like these people who bought the Harvard Classics didn’t have childhoods. Nowadays, of course, it’s perfectly acceptable to not have read Hans Christian Andersen, because there are so many children’s books written by celebrities. I never read him, either, as I recall. I can’t really remember what I read as a kid. “Johnny Tremain,” I remember. And stuff from Scholastic like “Strange But True Baseball Stories.” But not the classics. But in those times concern about being deficient in the classics was not really fashionable. Were we really going to need those classics…on our moon base?

Then everything went to hell and our lack of knowledge of the classics was there to reproach us, just like always. Anyway, it’s his story “The Nightingale,” and it’s appropriate on this MLK day that “Chinaman” be a word in the very first sentence, it being a descriptive of the Emperor of China. Well, at least he’s not a Polack.

Seems there’s this nightingale in the Emperor’s garden, and the Emperor is miffed not to know him. The people at court don’t know him, for he lives outside of the court (like a mythical heartland voter).

And then, like a heartland voter in a Washington Post piece, the nightingale is replaced by automation, only when the bird wears out, and the Emperor is dying, only the real nightingale will do, just as economists are not welcome at deathbeds.

It all ends happily, but one wishes for payback from the nightingale, who has been ill-used. I suppose us artists are merely grateful for gigs.

Another auspicious sign

I have been using this page to read online when I haven't been able, or wanted, to read the book version.

It only goes up till tomorrow. It's like reading Scott's journal or something.

Jan 20: "Ah! It Is St. Agnes' Eve -- "

Beautiful, back on the beam. And once again back is the incredible, rhyme animal – Volume 41, “English Poetry Collins to Fitzgerald.”

It’s St. Agnes eve, don’t you know, so it’s time to read the famous poem by Keats. I’m actually not sure that any of my contemporaries have read Keats, even the English majors. They must have, but I roomed with two, and I remember Milton and Pope and Joyce etc., but no Keats. Perhaps his value is about to rise, the way 50s/60s furniture did.

Let me just limber up here in order to read a 10 page poem – which Poe just told us yesterday is too long to be a true poem! If the Harvard Classics doesn't read itself, why should I?

-- “Bitter chill it was!” It’s like the open for the NFC Championship game (if I can sound like Relevant English Teacher for a minute here).

-- We start with an old Beadsman, and then we DISSOLVE TO: our Lady. The Beadsman was just atmosphere. If you were Keats’s editor and had to lose three column inches you’d know where to cut.

-- Our Madeline is mad for this St. Agnes fad:

She danc’d along with vague, regardless eyes,
Anxious her lips, her breathing quick and short:
Kids! They’re all the same!

-- Oh, I get it. Porphyro (they don’t have names like that anymore; think of him as Zack, though it would never scan) is from the wrong family. This old warhorse – it always works.

-- So then Porphyro’s going to hide in a closet while Madeline has her vision. This’ll go well. I think he’s going to crash into a tambour or lute and give the game away.

-- I’m sorry to be so jokey about this classic of English literature but really, can we be said to be honestly engaged with the classics if we don’t think they’re full of shit sometimes?

-- The “little smoke” of her candle after she puts it out is nicely observed, though.

-- Then:
Of all its wreathèd pearls her hair she frees;
Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one;
Loosens her fragrant bodice; by degrees
Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees;
An early example of "Good heavens, Miss Jones! You’re beautiful!"

-- Wait a minute. He fixes her jellies? Times sure have changed. And they don’t even have time to eat them because they must fly, fly!

-- And then, just when the modern reader is conditioned for an action-packed chase scene, possibly with helicopters, the thing ends.

This is the type of poem where you begin to see why modernism was necessary.

Jan 19: Poe on Poetry

Yes, of course, it's Poe's birthday. So “Essays English and American” tonight (Volume 28), with Poe (“Regarded in Europe as one of America’s greatest writers” – if you sent it to France, it would taste imported, I guess. “Here he unravels the fabric of which all poetry is woven.” Somehow the metaphor sticks out to me – I guess because it could be anything. He provides the recipe from which all poetry is simmered. He diagrams the play from which all poetry takes it to the hoop. He provides the drywall of which all poetry is constructed.

Well, it’s not Poe’s fault. Let’s go to “The Poetic Principle”…oh, wait, another thing occurs to me. The description says that Poe

-- originated the detective story
-- perfected the mystery short story, and
-- produced America’s first great poems.

…and that’s why we’re making you read his essays. Bizarre – but that’s Poe-like too!

-- I must note that I get lost in Stevenson’s essay on Samuel Pepys, who I like, but who is a particular favorite of my dad’s.

-- There’s also an essay on “The Elevation of the Laboring Classes” – which I tend to think of the HC as being, although really it’s more the striving middle class who’s supposed to buy the volumes. Whatever – the point is that this effort failed; nobody’s elevated at all, and, in fact, the question of “elevatedness” is much in dispute. I miss it, myself – hence this project – but I can’t miss it too much or I wouldn’t find the “elevated” tone – the tone of which all pretension shares – so hilarious.

Okay, this time for reals.

-- Poe hates long poems which you can hardly find these days, so another round of laudanum for E.A., please! It can’t sustain the degree of excitement, it’s like prog rock, or something.

-- Poe approvingly quotes a lyric of Shelly’s thusly: “Their warm, yet delicate and ethereal imagination will be appreciated by all; but by none so thoroughly as by him who has himself arisen from sweet dreams of one beloved to bathe in the aromatic air of a southern midsummer night.” These days, of course, you can get arrested for that. Actually, in Poe’s time, you probably could too.

-- “The demands of Truth are severe; she has no sympathy with the myrtles. All that which is so indispensable in Song is precisely all that with which she has nothing whatever to do.” I begin to admire Poe, and not just as a fellow over-italicizer. When I was made to read “Ode on a Grecian Urn” in 7th grade the phrase “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty” seemed asserted but not proven. And I still don’t believe it these days, but the sentiment persists among the airy-fairy set, I guess. Not Poe. Another round of laudanum!

-- And then, right after excoriating the “theory-mad,” he divides “”the world of mind into its three most immediately obvious distinctions.” No wonder he was popular in France.

-- Poe turns out to be a great believer in rhythm as necessary for poetic greatness. Sure, I’ll go along with that. I might even claim that it might be a particularly American sentiment, but I’ll duck as I say it; I don’t have any evidence for it, except for the way our hot rhythms have swept the world repeatedly.

Jan 18 (19): Origins of Yale's "Brekekekex"

That’s right, I missed a day. I work worked all day and then fell asleep early. If you’re hoping to see me beat myself up about it, guess what: you’re barking up the wrong kettle of fish. Aristophanes waited over 2000 years for me to read an excerpt from his work, he can wait another day.

What I love is that this excerpt in the DRG is titled, “Origins of Yale ‘Brekekekex-Ko-Ax.” This is what they say at Yale, is it? Well, by all means, I must take a look! Actually, I get it; I remember doing research for a project that was set in 1962, and in Sports Illustrated and places like that there was still this patina that hung around “college” in general and the Ivies in particular; a patina that would wear away when more people got to college and failed to see what all the fuss was about.

Anyway, Xanthias and Dionysus are supposed to be “an up-to-date vaudeville team,” so it should be pretty enticing. Vol 8 pp. 439-499 it is, then….

-- I like in the introductory note that the “undoubted coarseness of many of the jests” is ascribed to the audience (festival of Dionysus, don’t you know), rather than “the individual taste of the poet.” I don’t believe it. But then I also don’t believe, as our introducer does, that this is a mark against “a man of noble character.”

-- This is from the “Frogs,” by the way, which I’ve never read (of course), but appears to be an early example of meta, which appropriately enough is a Greek prefix.

-- Indeed, they’re starting off talking about what jokes to do. I myself like the idea that a god has a slave. I thought we were all slaves (God as LBJ: “they’re all my helicopters, son.”) It’s like God having a personal copy of the Bible; what if he loses it?

-- Xanthias manages to sneaking in a joke (“I’m getting crushed”) that Dinoysus told him not to do – nice. Jack Benny would approve.

-- Dionysus (who doesn’t much seem like a god, maybe that’s why he was popular as a god) has had his heart broken by Euripedes – there’s the famous Greek man-love! Is this the kind of stuff the Introductory Note was warning us about?

-- It turns out Dionysus wants to go to Hades to find Euripedes, and there follows a long discussion of the best way to commit suicide to do so, which, while not so funny to read, would still be pretty funny in the hands of the right, indecisive actor.

-- And here’s the famous “Brekekekex.” A little disappointing. The stuff on suicide was better, honestly.

-- And then Xanthias and Dionysus are afraid, like a good comedy team ought to be (think Coen Brothers).

-- Then it ends with the chorus calling Iacchus – Bacchus, I guess.

I like the ideas of a bunch of plays around some event which the audience all knows, allowing for a bunch of references and in-jokes. Maybe there ought to be a Super Bowl drama festival in the future.

Oh no

I realized I forgot to do my reading yesterday. Hopefully I can double up today.

Jan 17: Franklin's Family Tree

Franklin again? There are 49 volumes in the Harvard Classics. There have been 16 days in the year. We haven’t even touched Vol. 39, “Famous Prefaces”! (Which has a big water stain on the cover.) Yes, it’s Franklin’s birthday, but this smacks of the extremely un-Franklin vice of indolence.

“Good middle-class people, Franklin boasts, were his ancestors,” says the description…hey, that’s just like me, the guy building his Harvard Classics library by mail order! (I might also note that, if memory serves, they were the kind of good middle class people Franklin couldn’t wait to get the hell away from.)

Volume 1 (easy to reach), pp. 5-15. Let’s rock it.

-- Oh, it’s the beginning of the autobiography – the first page, practically, of the first volume. This is the most read page in the history of the Harvard Classics!
And I’m sure it has a Secretariat-at-Belmont lead over the next-most-read page. “Famous Prefaces,” itself practically a racehorse name, is way up the track.

--- Franklin’s uncle, for whom he was named, taught himself a shorthand. I should teach myself a shorthand. What am I doing reading this? On the other hand, I know how to type, so I’m smarter than Franklin. And I can drive a stick, so I’m smarter than Alexander Pope.

-- Franklin, like my son, was terrible in arithmetic and great in everything else. Now I’ve learned something practical!

-- Franklin also asserts the virtues of eating terrible food (which is, you don’t mind when you are served terrible food) – perhaps he is also the father of WASP cuisine as well as the postal service.

-- He also regrets reading a lot of theology when he was little. Also, attention bloggers: “[A] disputatious turn, by the way, is apt to become a very bad habit, making people often ex

tremely disagreeable in company by the contradiction that is necessary to bring it into practice; and thence, besides souring and spoiling the conversation, is productive of disgusts and, perhaps enmities where you may have occasion for friendship. I had caught it by reading my father’s books of dispute about religion. Persons of good sense, I have since observed, seldom fall into it, except lawyers, university men, and men of all sorts that have been bred at Edinborough."


I think that’s supposed to be a ba-dum-bum right there.

Another auspicious sign

Googling around for "Harvard Classics," I found this page where it was announced as someone's goal. The money phrase:

"1 person thinks this is worth it."

Jan 16: The Old Woman and the Wine Jar

I’m reading this in the café next to my daughter’s clarinet lesson…truth that the great thoughts can follow you wherever you go.

More EZ literature today – that’s not a crack against EZ, either. If the whole idea of this is to provide a refreshing highbrow oasis in your daily life, then what’s wrong with a little Aesop instead of, say, Juvenal? Plus, the everydayness of this project can be a slog from time to time – and I say this with authority as an overweight person who hates to exercise. (My cappuccino here has non-fat milk; virtue is busting out all over.)

Okay, to Volume 17 we go….

Well, they’re Aesop’s fables, full of cunning wisdom, the kind of thing where the Fox is the most admirable creature, for he avoids getting eaten, as in the Lion, the Fox, and Beasts, where the Fox won’t go into the Lion’s cave even though the Lion is sick. Sort of like Bob Hope in Bob Hope movies. The clever unidealistic coward is an eternal type, although I’m having trouble thinking of a current example. (It’s because execs want everyone to be so damn likable, maybe.)

But if there’s any reading this year that can be easily summarized into The Gist, it’s got to be Aesop’s Fables, and so I’m going to write out the morals and let you, the reader, come up with the fables that go with them.

“Never trust a friend who deserts you at a pinch”
“The strong and the weak cannot keep company:
“United we stand, divide we fall”
“A little thing in hand is worth more than a great thing in prospect”
“Vices are their own punishment”
“Little by little does the trick.”
“Greed oft o’erreaches itself”
“Cunning often (not ‘oft’ – ed.) outwits itself.”
“Kindness effects more than severity.”
“The gods help them that help themselves”
“Please all, and you will please none.”
“Wealth unused might as well not exist.”
“Distrust interested advice.”
“You cannot escape your fate.”
“It is easy to propose impossible remedies.”
“Plodding wins the race”
“We would often be sorry if our wishes were gratified.”
“He that has many friends, has no friends.”
“Love can tame the wildest.”
“Union gives strength”
“It is easier to get into the enemy’s toils than out again.”
“Wit always has an answer ready.”
“We often give our enemies the means for our own destruction.”
“Do not count your chickens before they are hatched.”
“Nature will out.”
“Better humble security than gilded danger.”
“Words may be deeds.”
“Men often applaud an inmitation and hiss the real thing.”
“What memories cling ‘round the instruments of our pleasure”
“Never trust the advice of a man in difficulties.”

Typing it over like this, two things occur to me:

1) Almost all of these can apply to the writers’ strike.
2) Aesopworld is an unfriendly, bitter place full of people who are unfriendly, and people who might become unfriendly if you’re stupid enough to give them a chance. Aesop would be a terrible Presidential candidate.

Jan 15: "The moving finger writes"

I like to think that the person tasked with selecting these readings was some unnamed graduate student, some poor churl who was given like a week to pick out 365 readings from 50 volumes. Or maybe it was someone from P.F. Colllier and Son, perhaps a Harvard graduate himself -- think John Held meets “Mad Men” -- who was roped into it.

Anyway, he (actually, the work of choosing this stuff might have been sufficiently unpleasant to have been given to a woman) has outdone himself with the description today:

“Omar Khayyam laughed and enjoyed the good things of life. His “Rubaiyat,” the most popular philosophic poem, is the best of all books to dip into for an alluring thought.”

The most popular philosophic poem. The best of all books. It’s like reading character descriptions in a screenplay – everything is the most whatever-it-is it can possibly be. Well, the best of all books is there, volume 41 (“English Poetry 2: Collins to Fitzgerald”), time to dip:

First of all, note that it’s actually put under Edward Fitzgerald, which is probably appropriate, since to get it into these quatrains probably took some wrestling. Also, not knowing anything about the Middle East, I am always skeptical when I see “The Sultan’s Turret with a Shaft of Light” – even the idea of a “Sultan” makes me think of Aladdin. It’s like the Tiki Room or something (although I actually love the Tiki Room).

Here’s stanza XVII:

The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon
Turns Ashes—or it prospers; and anon,
Like Snow upon the Desert’s dusty Face,
Lighting a little hour or two—was gone.
Did this rather commonplace (though true) sentiment have added force from its exotic framing? In other words, are we present at the creation of New Age wisdom? One is almost tempted to think so:
Up from Earth’s Centre through the Seventh Gate
I rose, and on the Throne of Saturn sate;
And many Knots unravel’d by the Road;
But not the Master-knot of Human Fate.
On the other hand:
Then to the Lip of this poor earthen Urn
I lean’d, the secret Well of Life to learn:
And Lip to Lip it murmur’d—“While you live,
Drink!—for, once dead, you never shall return.
(Vague memories of high school English are returning; I think we might have remarked with pleasure on the wisdom of this ancient-seeming pro-drinking stance. )

Or, to synthesize, maybe this is New Age for drunks:
And if the Cup you drink, the Lip you press,
End in what All begins and ends in—Yes;
Imagine then you are what heretofore
You were —hereafter you shall not be less.

So when at last the Angel of the Drink
Of Darkness finds you by the river-brink,
And, proffering his Cup, invites your Soul
Forth to your Lips to quaff it—do not shrink.
I also like the “Cypress-slender Minister of Wine.” We could not have read that part in high school, or we would have appointed someone to that office.
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.
Good night, honey! Sweet dreams!

Open for bidness

This blog's been private because I wanted to make sure I could do it for two weeks before I let anyone else witness my progress. And I'm still going to feel like a public fuckup if and when I finally run out of steam. But maybe that's just the stick I need -- "she would've been a good woman if there'd been someone there to shoot her every minute of her life," etc. (a personal motto).

I've been characteristically haphazard about providing links to the daily readings, but you're two clicks away from them if you click here. Of course it won't have that old book smell like I get, but maybe the Glade people have done something about that.

And, to quote again from my favorite piece of writing in the Harvard Classics -- the reading guide itself --

"The Harvard Classics are 'all things to all men'. They are universal in their appeal and universal in their power to bestow pleasure, self satisfaction and the joy of mental growth to each man, woman and child with impartiality and in infinite variety."
To which I say: 1) This may be an early documented instance of something from Harvard bestowing self-satisfaction, and 2) "to every...child"? Even the Rousseau?

Jan 14: The First Step Toward Independence

More political science…in honor of the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, adopted this day in 1639. I kind of romanticize it in my head – a bunch of lonely Englishmen, becoming Americans, enduring long, cold, dark nights, with nothing to pass the time but to establish "the first written constitution as a permanent limitation on governmental power, known in history." Here's how the Harvard Classics does it: “It is the work of the Connecticut Yankee.” Sounds like a description that was written close to closing time.

I was going to read it online, but when I saw that the printed text uses the old spelling, whereas the online version doesn’t, I crawled down to the bottom shelf and got the printed text. What better to add to this project of meaningless affectation than a reading with added meaningless affectation?

Okay, bam, Vol 43, pp. 60-65. This is a great volume, by the way (“American Historical Documents”). Think of how many people had a volume containing the text of the annexation of Hawaii without knowing it!

Oh, I see the point of cleaning up the spelling: “…vppon the River of Conectecotte and the Lands thereunto adoiyneing”. My son, who is a terrible speller, would be very reassured…but seriously, who is supposed to read this? I studied 16th century history in college, and I kind of like the random spellings, but wouldn’t it be a little off-putting?

Or maybe it’s supposed to be fascinating and a little inaccessible and magical. It’s not that hard to read (“doe therefore assotiate and conioyne our selues to be as one Publike State or Comonwelth”), and it makes you feel like an adept.

Otherwise? It’s just bylaws – one of those documents where it doesn’t seem significant unless you’re told why it is (in this case, I guess), because it limits terms of office – and, oddly enough for a seventeenth century New England state, has very little God in it, much less God than you would find on a presidential debate on NBC.

And finally, as to the title -- having been forced to study English Puritanism I find the Reading Guide's title over-determined. Isn't it really more of a step towards Cromwell's Commonwealth than a nation formed with a bunch of dissolute Virginians?

Oddities

I was on the floor in the upstairs hall dragging out volume 43 and it caused me to look at the collection as a whole. Two odd decisions jump out: 1) The decision to put the introduction in Volume 50, and 2) Giving a whole Volume to Two Years Before The Mast.

At first, I thought the second decision was odder, but really -- putting the introduction at the end? On the shelf where the middle-aged guy has to get down to the floor?

I guess it's a good analogy to a college education itself, where you don't figure out what you should be studying until after you're done with it.

Jan 13: Rousseau Seeks Sanctuary In England

Today, after a typical Sunday biking with the kids etc., we relax and turn to the Classics. Whose birthday is it today…Lou Costello’s? No Rousseau’s. Actually, it isn’t – he merely arrived in England on this date in 1766.

Burke and Rousseau side by side (or, perhaps, one on top of the other like in a pousse-café), both equally Classic. I guess it’s the job of the HC not to pick sides, although they might have made the classics more fun by trying to pick of fight, along the lines of “Rousseau: Threat or Menance?” But that seems Relevantizing, which I tend to think of as not something they did in 1930 and, in any case, kind of dumb. (My friend Chris Harris used to have a room bit he’d do, Idealistic Young High School Teacher – “Romeo and Juliet were just kids like you! And if Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be a rapper!” Maybe the HC’s older hucksterizing voice is better.)

Okay, onto vol. 34, Rousseau’s “Inquiry on Inequality,” pp. 215-228…and what a find! between pages 166 and 167, there’s a bookmark (a piece of torn newspaper – judging from the large P. 33, and knowing my dad’s history, I’m guessing it’s a seventies-era New York Post. But it could be from a Sunday Times-Union as well. It has been between these two pages for so long that its shadow – vaguely New Hampshire-ish on the right-hand page – remains. So I’m not the first person to look at this after all!

Vol. 34, incidentally, is “French and English Philosophers – Descartes Voltaire Rousseau Hobbes”. It’s like an old episode of Steve Allen’s Meeting of Minds.

Okay, the live blog:

• More of the philosophical presupposition that kind of drives me crazy, The State of Nature. I don’t know why it drives me crazy, maybe because it’s not provable. I assume that’s what the attraction is as well.

• Naked savages, in their liberty, better than us with our European pleasures. This dude sounds like half a right-winger (without the other half – that the naked savages must then be converted to Western ways without the pleasures, thus getting the worst of it all around).

• Also political systems are compared to a father and his children, which I’m sure pleases all the ladies!

• “I shall not now enter upon the inquiries which still remain to be made into the nature of the fundamental pacts of every kind of government, but, following the common opinion, confine myself in this place to the establishment of the political body as a real contract between the multitude and the chiefs elected by it.” Good call. Don’t enter upon it, dude, not in the slightest. This is bringing back memories fo my own liberal education, and how I thought I was going to like political theory and how I actually didn’t. But this time I’m not going to get a lot of coffee and Suzy Qs in order to learn it. Three more pages, three more pages…

• Some social contract stuff, here, I believe. R. posits that religion has been good for tranquility because it has beguiled the people into thinking their kings are divine, thereby reducing the amount of overthrows.

• Scanning quickly now….

By thus discovering and following the lost and forgotten tracks, by which man from the natural must have arrived at the civil state; by restoring, with the intermediate positions which I have been just indicating, those which want of leisure obliges me to suppress, or which my imagination has not suggested, every attentive reader must unavoidably be struck at the immense space which separates these two states.
’ Keep scanning, keep scanning…

• Conclusion (or, as I like to think of it, “Executive Summary”):
“It follows from this picture, that as there is scarce any inequality among men in a state of nature, all that which we now behold owes its force and its growth to the development of our faculties and the improvement of our understanding, and at last becomes permanent and lawful by the establishment of property and of laws.”
Your starvation is progress, notes Rousseau bitterly. Well, I’d give him that.

Jan 12: What is good taste?

I feel bad whenever I read my HC stuff online because it makes me think I am not being true to the green books in the barrister’s bookcase. Plus, of course, I’m so much more distractible when I’m reading on the computer. What would Cicero say?

A minor victory – after getting through 11 days, I have to actually turn the page in the reading guide. Like dieters who lose a half-a-pound, you have to take your victories where you can get them.

Today is Burke on Taste (Vol. 24, pp. 11-26)…my taste runs to Burke, so I think this is going to be fun. (Or “fun”). Burke, of course, was born on this date in 1729. This basically is birthdays through the year, I guess.

To Volume 24…

Just as reason may be systematized, says Burke, so too might taste, then wriggles out of having to prove this statement by immediately attacking the idea of defining it. Good trick – I need to absorb that.

Like the Hamilton/Jay essays yesterday, this is laid out in the eighteenth century, there’s-no-ESPN-so-lawyerly-brief-is-a-popular-pastime style: “All the natural powers in man, which I know, that are conversant about external objects, are the senses; the imagination; and the judgment. And first with regard to the senses.’

The plus side of this argument is that it’s good for skimming. Burke takes two pages to explain that sugar is sweet for everyone, right?

Correction: four pages.

Now to the imagination – and we define wit as finding similarities, judgement as finding differences, and in “making distinctions we offer no food at all to our imaginations.” I have no idea whether contemporary aesthetic theory holds with this, but certainly making distinctions seems like more of an acquired taste…but then, if you listen to sports-talk radio, it’s nothing but making distinctions between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.

On the other hand, metaphors and allegories are characteristic of barbarous nations, and distinguishing and sorting of good ones. What would Burke make of our elections? And what would we making of a Member of Congress who wrote a long book called “On Taste”? We’d need rotten boroughs to hold such a man.

When Burke gets to the judgment I’m kind of losing his thread, and this is the difference between doing something for class and doing it as a side project – I’m less likely to go back and find the thread again. But I do like this:

...the judgment is for the greater part employed in throwing stumbling-blocks in the way of the imagination, in dissipating the scenes of its enchantment, and in tying us down to the disagreeable yoke of our reason: for almost the only pleasure that men have in judging better than others, consists in a sort of conscious pride and superiority[…]
Which anyone who has ever told a rock-critic friend that they like Billy Joel has experienced.

Jan 11: Hamilton -- Father of Wall Street

(Note: this excerpt has nothing to do with Wall Street.)

It has come to pass – friends came over for dinner, my head is full of wine, I want to go to bed but I have to do my homework. It’s a recipe for perfunctoriness but it somehow builds character -- as these Ivy League schools were reputed to do back in the day. The kind of character that you couldn't get by going to college with a lot of Jews and Catholics. But I digress...

Today is “Hamilton: Father of Wall Street.” Hamilton was born on this day in 1757; I hope you spent a 10-dollar-bill, or were shot by someone in a duel, to commemorate this. It is introduced in the reading guide by this sentence, which I find obscure: “He penned most of the Federalist papers, which were greatly influential in bringing New York into the Union - the first step toward its eminent position in national and world finance.”

I guess it’s the antecedent I don’t get – or maybe it’s, because I am an ex-New Yorker, I resent the idea that New York owes something to the Union, instead of the more natural position of the other way around.

Okay, here we go, Federalist #1, (Vol. 43, pp. 199-207):

Right from the start he echoes Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address:

“It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.”


I also like this: “Happy will it be if our choice should be directed by a judicious estimate of our true interests, unperplexed and unbiased by considerations not connected with the public good. But this is a thing more ardently to be wished, than seriously to be expected.” Hamilton really like the “x and x” formulation – no “omit needless words” devotee he! Of course, they had nothing else to do in those days but read pamphlets, so you wanted to make sure people got their money’s worth.

Further on...I challenge the reader to drink some wine and then read this sentence:

“I am well aware that it would be disingenuous to resolve indiscriminately the opposition of any set of men (merely because their situations might subject them to suspicion) into interested or ambitious views: Candor will oblige us to admit, that even such men may be actuated by upright intentions; and it cannot be doubted, that much of the opposition which has made its appearance, or may hereafter make its appearance, will spring from sources, blameless at least, if not respectable; the honest errors of minds led astray by preconceived jealousies and fears.”
It’s not as easy as I make it look. Of course, in Hamilton’s day they had beer for breakfast, a tradition I hope they continue at Columbia.

In the next paragraph, which I am not going to quote, Hamilton comes out and says that big government is the true guardians of the liberties of the public. Big Government! And he’s on the 10, people!

Okay, now we have #2, by John Jay (of the high school whose football players I used to see on the F train). And, perhaps appropriately, it’s about teamwork – we should all be one country rather than a bunch of separate states, an issue that, as we know all too well, still burns unto our own time.

“Nothing is more certain than the indispensable necessity of Government, and it is equally undeniable, that whenever and however it is instituted, the people must cede to it some of their natural rights, in order to vest it with requisite powers.” Does the Federalist Society know that this stuff is in the Federalist?

Okay, I’ve done my work, and so to bed (which I don’t think is in the Harvard Classics).

Jan 10: Where Love Lies Waiting

Okay, I read yesterday’s off the computer, and I think it just added to my modern-style ADD, so I’m going back to great-grandfather’s books for today’s reading, which is…from The Bacchae, another actual classic!

Apparently we’re going to be ringside for the fight between King Pantheus of Thebes and Dionysus…”Eurpides tells the story in a masterpiece of Greek drama.” (Vol. 8, pp. 368-372 – only 5 pages, Harvard Classics? Ha! I laugh in advance! Now it’s going to be in Greek or something)

The volume is called “Nine Greek Dramas,” and it would be great if “Seven Against Thebes” was in “Nine Greek Dramas.” On second thought, no it wouldn’t. I’m not funny anymore. At least I have my nascent liberal education to fall back on.

This is the opening of the Bacchae, which was produced after the death of Euripedes by his son in 405 B.C.

I forgot, from my religious studies training, that Dionysus was referred to as “God’s Son.” Then, in line two, we get these Paris Hilton-esque lines: “Whom the brand/Of heaven’s hot splendour lit to life.”

Who translated this, anyway? Why, Gilbert Murray, of course! Must Google it after reading.

One of the things in the opening is that Dionysus tells us 1) who he is and 2) what he’s doing here “thus I must speak clear/To save my mother’s fame, and crown me here/As true God”. See, coming out of TV, I was taught that you must disguise your exposition a little better. But Euripedies goes for it. Shakespeare does too. Is it a theater thing – you’re so interested to see these other people projecting into the second balcony that you’ll listen to them“lay pipe” (as we say in TV)? TV and movies are necessarily more intimate. Maybe it’s also that the theater is more like a conference room – we all need to be got up to speed. Watching stuff on screens is more one-to-one. Maybe.

Turns out Dionysus (and if I’ve learned nothing else today, it’s how to spell “Dionysus”) has a beef with Pentheus, who “thrusteth me away/From due drink-offering”.

Only now, because of all the enjambment, do I realize that this is in rhymed couplets. They certainly don’t write them like that anymore, except in hip-hopera, that is.

Dionysus leaves and fifteen Eastern Women come in, “the light of the sunrise streaming upon their long white robes and ivy-bound hair…Many bear the sacred Wand (heh heh – ed.) They begin their mystic song of worship and the rhyme scheme changes (and we learn that “Dionysus” rhymes with “espies us.” Wait a minute, these are the title characters – the Bacchae (or “Dreamgirls”).


The segment ends, suddenly, with the end of the story of Dionysus’ birth, so we’re not going to see King Pantheus at all in this go-round. As compensation I think I'll post this picture of Reggie Theus:


Stuff I decided to Wikipedia: 1. Bacchae (which redirects to "Maenad"):

"Their name literally translates as "raving ones". They were known as wild, insane women who could not be reasoned with. The mysteries of Dionysus inspired the women to ecstatic frenzy; they indulged in copious amounts of violence, bloodletting, sexual activity, self-intoxication, and mutilation."
Like Lake Havasu at Spring Break, right!? I disgust myself. SPOILER: the Bacchae kill King Pentheus.

2. Gilbert Murray. There's quite a sizable entry, as befits the leading classical scholar of the first half of the twentieth century (and, perhaps ironically for this project, someone involved with the temperance movement).

Great footnote from this entry: "From the 1880s onwards, amateur performances in Greek had been popular, particularly for students dramaticals." Also like Lake Havasu at Spring Break!

Jan 9: A Treasure Hunt in Nombre de Dios

This is the first time I’m actually doing my reading at night, as I imagine the hard-pressed middle manager doing in the 1930s. (I seem to be replacing the romance that the HC people initially put in – that of a fancy education – with a more up-to-date version, which is to lose my fancy education and then reacquire it through strenuous self-improvement.

Anyway, today we have “A Treasure Hunt in Nombre de Dios,” which reminds me of an old Robert Benchley humor piece, which might have been written at the same time, called something like “Holiday Week In Sunny Los Las.” But in reality it’s about Sir Francis Drake attacking the Spanish at Nombre de Dios, where, I see, he died on this day in 1596.

But this is an earlier trip to Nombre de Dios, back in 1572, so your mental image of Sir Francis should have him dressed in 1570s style, not 1590s style. Got it?

Drake has entered the town: “But the soldiers and such as were joined with them, presented us with a jolly hot volley of shot, beating full upon the full egress of that street, in which we marched; and levelling very low, so as their bullets ofttimes grazed on the sand.”

The whole passage is better is you have the voice of cartoon character Commander McBragg in your head as you read.

It takes you a little while when reading it to realize that Drake keeps referring to himself as “our Captain,” which seems modest, undtil you get to something like this:


… the Negro formentioned, being examined more fully, confirmed this report of the gold and the silver; with many other intelligences of importance: especially how we might have gold and silver enough, if we would, by means of the Cimaroons, whom though he had betrayed divers times (being used thereto by his Masters) so that he knew they would kill him, if they got him: yet if our Captain would undertake his protection, he durst adventure his life, because he knew our Captain’s name was most precious and highly honoured by them.
Silly Cimaroons!

On the whole, a rollicking tale of adventure written in a manner more obscure than rollicking tales of adventure one could get off the shelf.

Jan 8: Trying The Patience Of Job

Okay then, today we go to the bottom shelf…Volume 44, Sacred Writings 1, pp. 71-87: “See how each succeeding affliction visited on Job shook the depths of his nature, and how he survived.” We’re out of the anniversaries temporarily – I had half-expected to read, “Job born on this date 4000 B.C.”)

Why is Sacred Writings volume 44, anyway? Wouldn’t you expect it to be closer to the front, old-school style? Why is anything in the Harvard Classics, anyway? (A subject for further investigation.)

I am reluctant to write anything about the Book of Job, there’s been so much written. It’s not exactly new territory, although it’s always good to refresh oneself, I guess, in God’s capriciousness.

Although in 1:13-19, I think it would have been funny if the messengers who alone escaped to tell Job all keeled over with heart attacks.

What is a “potsherd” (2:7), anyway? Let’s look it up…it’s a piece of broken pottery, useful in scratching, I suppose.

Hey, this is the origin of “A mighty wind” (8:2) – lots of other stuff, too, but it’s nice to know that Christopher Guest has his roots in the classics.

Our passage ends with Job complai

Jan 7: If He Yawned, She Lost Her Head!

The kids are back at school, Allah be praised. This is the first day of seeing whether I can do this under normal conditions (although, to be fair, I’m on strike, so things are not completely “normal”. But, even so, here we are.

Also, my cable is out, so I have to read this the old-fashioned way, the way they would have done it in 1995 – with books. the selection is from “The Thousand and One Nights” (“If he yawned, she lost her head!”) -- Vol. 16, p. 5-13.

It turns out it’s the introduction, and I realized I’ve never read the Thousand and One Nights and have no idea who it’s author might be. You know who would know, though, is Edward William Lane, the translator, or Stanley Lane-Pool, who revised it. (or who, it turns out from the introductory note, translated “Ala-ed-din and the Wonderful Lmap” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.”

Ah… it turns out, from the introductory note, that it was translated into French in the first decade on the eighteenth century…Could be Persain, perhaps?

I don’t know how to feel about this passage, from the Introductory Note:

“In the two hundred years of their currency in the West, the stories of the “nights” have engrafted themselves upon European culture. They have made the fairy-land of the Oriental imagination and the mode of life of the medieval Arab, his manners and his morals, familiar to young and old; and allusions to their incidents and personages are wrought into the language and literature of all the modern civilized peoples…how pervasive has been the influence of this wonder-book of the mysterious East.”


Not so mysterious now, of course, now that we know it has oil.

So it’s the setup to the tales, which involve two kings who are brothers, both of whom have the same predicament, which is that their women can’t keep their hands off of the black slaves. Disheartened, the two brothers go a journey, and find a Jinni who’s wife says, “when one of our sex desires to accomplish any object, nothing can prevent her.” Yeah! Grrl power!

Naturally, the King’s reaction to this is to take virgins to bed and then behead them. This leads to Shahrazad (the vizier’s daughter, I didn’t know that) volunteering for the suicide mission. The vizier then tells a story that takes two pages, about the ass and the bull, but what it’s really about is a man who got his wife in line by beating her. But Shahrazad is undeterred, thus making the two pages of story about the Ass and the Bull meaningless.

Jan 6: Warned by Hector's ghost

Okay, well, I never finished Mazzini’s essay, which makes me a bad student of the Classics (Harvard), but does bring back good times of being a bad college student.

Today we have the Aeneid (because "H. Schliemann, discoverer of ancient Troy, born Jan. 6, 1822"), which is exciting, because I know that’s an actual classic. For mood I am reading it, on this rainy Califronia Sunday, in front of a fireplace. I’m also going to read it off the computer (at this site, here) because to give myself enough light will spoil everything. Why doesn't a computer also spoil everything? Shut up, that's why.

What it is: “Warned by Hector’s Ghost,” where, we are informed, Hector tells Aeneas to get the hell out of Troy. Off to Latium! -- that's what the HC says, anyway.

Leafing through the front of the book (to discover if the HC revealed who the translator was), I find, not only that it was Dryden, and has his dedicatory letter (to the Earl of Mulgrave), but an introductory note where we are promised that Dryden has versified it into “vigorous and nervous couplets.”

“Swoln were his feet” (line 7) – an lol precursor! In the dream he is still bleeding – nice touch.

The Greeks are compared to a flood in this nice triplet (and Dryden is willing to break up the couplets with a triplet, itself very nice):

Or deluges, descending on the plains,
Sweep o’er the yellow year, destroy the pains
Of lab’ring oxen and the peasant’s gains.
I like “yellow year” quite a bit. Later Aeneas notes that the Gods are willing to
behold the Greeks defile
Their temples, and abandon to the spoil
Their own abodes
Stupid gods – as an agent I knew once said, they’re “swimming in their own shit.” Dryden also uses “from whence,” which I was taught not to do. These days it’s probably a good idea not to use “whence,” either.

It would be a lot easier to follow this battle if you knew what side everyone was on. “Automedon,” for example – Greek, maybe?

But Priam had fifty nuptial beds – it’s good to be the king! Are we sure we’re living in more depraved times?

The death of Priam is fine, as they used to say – Achilles’s son kills one of his sons in front of him, which causes this:
‘The gods,’ said he, ‘requite thy brutal rage!
As sure they will, barbarian, sure they must,
If there be gods in heav’n, and gods be just—
Who tak’st in wrongs an insolent delight;
With a son’s death t’ infect a father’s sight.
Not he, whom thou and lying fame conspire
To call thee his—not he, thy vaunted sire,
Thus us’d my wretched age: the gods he fear’d,
The laws of nature and of nations heard.
He cheer’d my sorrows, and, for sums of gold,
The bloodless carcass of my Hector sold;
Pitied the woes a parent underwent,
And sent me back in safety from his tent.’

“This said, his feeble hand a javelin threw,
Which, flutt’ring, seem’d to loiter as it flew:
Just, and but barely, to the mark it held,
And faintly tinkled on the brazen shield.
Funny and sad all at once.

then Aeneas goes to kill Helen, but is stopped by his mother (who I had to make myself remember was Venus), who says that it’s pointless. Then, finding his father, son, and wife, he is about to go kill again, but then on his son (Iulus), there appears a band of fire – clearly the chosen one.

Then we get the famous picture (or famous to me, because I took Latin in high school), of Anchises on Aeneas’s back. The wife follows along behind (of course), and gets lost in the flight. She then appears as a ghost and also tells him to go, saying that he’ll marry again. He meets up with his household and begins the flight – miraculously unnoticed by the Greeks, but then Aeneas’s divine mother had as much as foretold that. What excellent plot devices the gods were – hence the term deus ex machina, I guess.

That was not fifteen minutes. More like 25. I mean, I know I’m taking notes, but by the same token I’m more used to reading 17th-century verse than the average working man. Maybe, being less distracted, they read faster back in the day. (And they were more used to verse, which used to appear in the public papers, after all.)

Jan 5: Soaring Eagle and Contented Stork

But it’s not Animal Week at the Harvard Classics – instead, it’s something from Mazzini (who “labored for the freedom of Italy, but was exiled.”), and his comparison so Byron (eagle) and Goethe (stork). The hook is that Byron arrived in Greece on this day in 1824 to fight for Greek independence, and nothing so far has told me that the Harvard Classics are from another world as this – the fact that Dr. Eliot and friends consider, not even Byron’s writing, but an event from his life, to be celebration-worthy.

One begins to understand the hostility of the old guard when they started writing about cinema in the quality magazines…Pop was the death of the world where Byron’s fight for Greek independence was an appropriate sticker to put on one’s intellectual baggage.

Point for me: I did know that Byron had swum the Hellespont.

Okay, on to Vol. 32, pp. 377-396.

But first another note about volume 32! It’s “Literary and Philosophical Essays: French, German, and Italian.” the lineup is :

• Montaigne (whom I loved in college)
• Sainte-Beuve (who I’ve never heard of, but who is pictured opposite the title page wearing a hat that is almost certainly not a yarmulke, but if it were a yarmulke it would be worn at the jauntiest, Frenchiest angle ever. Presumably this is before the Dreyfus Affair.)
• Renan (who I’ve heard of, but c’est tout)
• Lessing (what’s German for “ditto”?)
• Schiller
• Kant (Kant! No wonder the spines on this edition – and probably all editions – of the Harvard Classics are so smooth! I couldn’t make heads or tails of Kant back when I didn’t get so sleepy. And just shoved in volume of essays with Montaigne and jaunty quasi-yarmulke wearing dudes! )
• And Mazzini. So the volume should really be called “Literary and Philosophical Essays: French, German, and an Italian.”

All right, here we go, here we go. As I turn to the essay (it’s the last one), there’s the crackle you get when you go deep into a hardcover book for the first time. Clearly Great-Grandpa wasn’t having any future metaphysics of morals.

Hey, an introductory note! Mazzini (1805-1872), fought tooth and nail for Italian independence, mostly from London, which I guess was lousy with political rabble-rousers. Apparently finding Italian government disappointing is a long tradition.

Okay, first of all, Byron is compared to a falcon, not an eagle. And Mazzini, or his translator, uses “from whence” (one of the irritating things about the Harvard Classics is that they never tell you who the translator is).

Summary: We overreacted in hating Goethe for his (unnamed) politics. I can only assume they were quasi-reactionary, because he’s being compared with Byron who, as we know, fought for Greek independence.

Then:

Our earthly life is one phase of the eternal aspiration of the soul towards progress, which is our law; ascending in increasing power and purity from the finite towards the infinite; from the real towards the ideal; from that which is, towards that which is to come. In the immense storehouse of the past evolutions of life constituted by universal tradition, and in the prophetic instinct brooding in the depths of the human soul, does poetry seek inspiration.
One waits for Groucho to reply to a Dumontian outburst like this.. The Harvard Classics definitely takes place in a pre-Groucho world.

Onward…it turns out they are the last individualists:
The Poetry of the epoch had represented individuality in its every phase; had translated in sentiment what science had theoretically demonstrated; and it had encountered the void. But as society at last discovered that the destinies of the race were not contained in a mere problem of liberty, but rather in the harmonization of liberty with association—so did poetry discover that the life it had hitherto drawn from individuality alone was doomed to perish for want of aliment; and that its future existence depended on enlarging and transforming its sphere...
Jesus. Maybe poetry was doomed to perish because of criticism like this. I can’t even finish this, not with the children fighting like they are downstairs. Maybe I’ll finish reading it tonight. Maybe it would have helped having read a little more Byron and Goethe before reading a dense second-order essay about them.

Jan. 4: A Flounder Fish Story

(Note that I've found a site that has all the readings.)

Entertainment today, I guess – after Milton and Cicero, the hard-working self-improver needs some release. Whoops – no, it’s that “Jacob Grimm, elder of the famous Grimm brothers,” was born on this date in 1785.) So – Grimm’s Fairy Tales! (Vol. 17 pp. 83-90). How tempting it is to see if they have one of the unsantized super-bloody ones…but it’s about a magic fish, or more precisely, “The Fisherman And His Wife."

A fisherman apparently catches a Flounder (I like the capital letter, so reminiscent of the German), which turns out not to be a Flounder, but an enchanted prince. Why he’s not an Enchanted Prince is beyond me, but there you are.

He lets the flounder (sorry, Flounder) go and then this part’s like a Raymond or something:

“Husband,” said the woman, “have you caught nothing to-day?” “No,” said the man, “I did catch a Flounder, who said he was an enchanted prince, so I let him go again.” “Did you not wish for anything first.” said the woman. “No,” said the man; “what should I wish for?” “Ah,” said the woman, “it is surely hard to have to live always in this dirty hovel; you might have wished for a small cottage for us. Go back and call him. Tell him we want to have a small cottage, he will certainly give us that.” “Ah,” said the man, “why should I go there again?” “Why,” said the woman, “you did catch him, and you let him go again; he is sure to do it. Go at once.” The man still did not quite like to go, but did not like to oppose his wife, and went to the sea.
So she gets her cottage. Then that isn’t enough (wives, right? C'mon, I'm holding my hand up here for a high-five, don't leave me hanging) so she gets him to get her a castle, then to be King, then Emperor, then Pope. The sea gets rougher and rougher each time so we know there's some bad German juju going on. And the husband is more reluctant each time, but he goes, although there’s no scene where the husband discusses his reluctance with the smartass brother or anything, so in this respect it’s not like a Raymond.

Then, finally, when she is Pope (and I like the old-fashioned idea that the Pope is the last word in earthly glory) she decides that she also wants to be as God is, and the husband says,
“Alas, wife,” said the man, falling on his knees before her, “the Flounder cannot do that; he can make an emperor and a pope; I beseech you, go on as you are, and be Pope.” Then she fell into a rage, and her hair flew wildly about her head, and she cried, “I will not endure this, I’ll not bear it any longer; wilt thou go?” Then he put on his trousers and ran away like a madman. But outside a great storm was raging, and blowing so hard that he could scarcely keep his feet; houses and trees toppled over, the mountains trembled, rocks rolled into the sea, the sky was pitch black, and it thundered and lightened, and the sea came in with black waves as high as church-towers and mountains, and all with crests of white foam at the top. Then he cried, but could not hear his own words,

“Flounder, flounder in the sea,
Come, I pray thee, here to me;
For my wife, good Ilsabil,
Wills not as I’d have her will.”

“Well, what does she want, then?” said the Flounder. “Alas,” said he, “she wants to be like unto God.” “Go to her, and you will find her back again in the dirty hovel.” And there they are living still at this very time.
Burnt! I think this couple needs counseling.