Feb 29: I sing the monotonous hexameter

And so on Leap Day today's reading is Goethe's Hermann and Dorothea
Which was written in noble hexameters (so beloved of the Greeks and the Romans)
But preserving the meter in English makes the poem sound kind of retarded
For the ponderous length of the line makes characters talk just like windbags:

“Tell us,” the pastor returned, “what legerdemain he made use of.”
“That will I gladly relate, for all may draw from it a lesson;”
(That's my favorite part of the reading, involving not Hermann, nor Dorothea
Instead it's just business, delaying the entrance of our nominal heroes
And to us imparting a lesson -- that the cure for impatience's the coffin:
Then that house of boards they will busily bring over hither,
Which must at last receive alike the impatient and patient,
And which is destined soon with close-pressing roof to be covered.’
The poem otherwise is a love story -- she's French and he's a big German
She's running away from the Terror, and he hires her as his servant.
What our would-be maid's little suspecting is that she's to be wedded instead --
Although in terms of the workload there seems to be little distinction.
What a treat it must be for a French girl, to become Mrs. Hermann the hausfrau!

Feb 28: Under the weather

I have read my Montaigne today, but I am not feeling up to writing about him, except to note that the translation is from the 1500s. To quote the Introductory Note, it's "in a style so full of the flavor of the age that we still read Montaigne in the version which Shakespeare knew." Not really, but we do read him in this version when we don't want to pay someone to translate it into our English.

Having had to read this style and spelling a lot in my college days, I can take it, but it's still tough to read:

...as even now I did in Plutarke, reading his discourse of the power of imagination, wherein in regard of those wise men, I acknowledge my selfe so weake and so poore, so dull and grose-headed, as I am forced both to pittie and disdaine my selfe, yet am I pleased with this, that my opinions have often the grace to jump with theirs, and that I follow them a loofe-off
I kind of feel like a loofe-off myself. (I do like "hony" for "honey," though; I find it charming, somehow.)

The essay is "On the Education of Children," and more than that I will not say. Montaigne's super discursive style -- the first two pages are about quoting the classics without attribution -- does not lend itself to the achy.

Design!

I went back to the old template. I don't much like it, either, but I think it's marginally more readable. Perhaps if unemployment continues I will learn how to design my own. Probably not, though.

Feb 27: Longfellow Serenade

I apologize for the Neil Diamond reference, but look how late it is. You people don't know what suffering is until you've put the kids to bed, cleaned up the kitchen, made the lunches for tomorrow...and then realized you have to read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

I feel like I read somewhere that Longfellow may be coming, not all the way back, but somewhat back into fashion. Based on I absolutely can't see it.

STARS of the summer night!
Far in yon azure deeps,
Hide, hide your golden light!
She sleeps!
My lady sleeps!
Sleeps!
Dude, be cool about the exclamation points! She's sleeping!

There are eleven poems assigned, because apparently Longfellow, as a poet, was of the Let's Move Some Units School. Actually, he was of the Set Your Poem At Night For Guaranteed Results school -- seven of the eleven poems take place at night. In another one it's gray and rainy.

I had always associated Longfellow with the uplift (to use a phrase of Mencken's), but actually he seems incredibly sad. One poem is about a dead child. There's the rainy one (helpfully called "The Rainy Day".) Then there's this one, about the feeling we all have coming home from work:
A feeling of sadness and longing,
That is not akin to pain,
And resembles sorrow only
As the mist resembles the rain.
Plus the one which is, "Remember the time I was going to throw myself off a bridge?"

I think a good measure of the progress of human happiness is the fact that, in Longfellow's day, such sadness made him Top Poet. I mean, there were probably a lot of people who knew what it was like to lose a child, or even to have a lot of your friends die young. Harder times.

The one I liked the best was The Wreck of the Hesperus. It doesn't end happily. The old sea captain, with his daughter on board, sails into a hurricane (against the advice of his crew). The results are forseeable:
‘O father. I see a gleaming light,
Oh say, what may it be?’
But the father answered never a word,
A frozen corpse was he.
So she prays to Christ. No help -- she dies also. These are the "poems that have charmed and cheered thousands"? (As today's DRG says.) Wow.

Sweet dreams, everybody!

Feb 26: Shut up, Victor

Before we get to Victor Hugo today, I should note that this is from Volume 39, Famous Prefaces. This is a fantastic idea for a general here-is-all-human-knowledge project like the Harvard Classics. If you read the preface, it’s almost like reading the work -- the perfect thing for people like me, who pretend familiarity with books and movies that we’ve only read reviews of. (Actually, I don’t pretend, these days – I come right out and admit that I’ve only read the review. I think it adds to my mystique.)

This preface (to a play called “Cromwell,” which, Wikipedia tells us, “was considered ‘unfit for acting’”) is kind of hilarious, in the laughing-at-not-with sense. Hugo, who was twenty-five when he wrote this, is exactly the kind of twenty-five year old artiste who, on a perfectly good Saturday night, would corner you in the narrow kitchen of someone’s shitty apartment, constantly refill his the red plastic cup with box wine, and give you The Big Picture:

“The same type of civilization, or to use a more exact, although more extended expression, the same society, has not always inhabited the earth.”



Jesus. Although this is the start of his argument, it doesn’t happen until 10 paragraphs in, because first he has to settle some scores, using (if I may borrow the language of Stephen Potter), the Fake Third Person Variant of the Fake Innocence Ploy:
Considerations of an altogether different sort acted upon the author. It seemed to him that, although in fact, one seldom inspects the cellars of a building for pleasure, one is not sorry sometimes to examine its foundations. He will, therefore, give himself over once more, with a preface, to the wrath of the feuilletonists. Che sara, sara. He has never given much though to the fortune of his works, {bullshit – ed.] and he is but little appalled by dread of the literary what will people say. In the discussion now raging, in which the theatre and the schools, the public and the academies, are at daggers drawn, one will hear, perhaps, not without some interest, the voice of a solitary apprentice of nature and truth, who has withdrawn betimes from the literary world, for pure love of letters, and who offers good faith in default of good taste, sincere conviction in default of talent, study in default of learning.
There then follows one of my least favorite just-so speculations ever, The History of All Aesthetics Up To This Day. I.e.
Now, as poetry is always superposed upon society, we propose to try to demonstrate, from the form of its society, what the character of the poetry must have been in those three great ages of the world—primitive times, ancient times, modern times.
There’s not enough box wine in the world to get me to go along with this speculation. Or rather, there is, but it’s not to hand. Suffice to say that Christianity apparently invented melancholy. Aristotle, Virgil, Sunt lacrimae rerum? Idiots!


This brings us to the almost interesting part of the preface – and also the end, since the actual preface is about three times as long as the assignment, which makes you wonder how full of hot air the play must have been -- Hugo’s love of the grotesque, which is also been brought to perfection by Christianity:

We will simply say here that, as a means of contrast with the sublime, the grotesque is, in our view, the richest source that nature can offer art. Rubens so understood it, doubtless, when it pleased him to introduce the hideous features of a court dwarf amid his exhibitions of royal magnificence, coronations and splendid ceremonial. The universal beauty which the ancients solemnly laid upon everything, is not without monotony; the same impression repeated again and again may prove fatiguing at last. Sublime upon sublime scarcely presents a contrast, and we need a little rest from everything, even the beautiful.
Of course, speaking from the Age of Howard Stern, maybe we went overboard with the whole grotesque deal. The dwarf/ceremonial ratio is not in our favor, I’m afraid.

Dafoe at Gitmo, or, Satire/Not Satire

Today it's "The Shortest Way With Dissenters,", an essay by Daniel Dafoe (which was censored on this day in 1703) -- a satire so scathing we are told he was pilloried for it.

It's topical -- about the establishment of the Church of England, it would appear. One longs for footnotes. What does this even mean: "that having sworn allegiance to their lawful and rightful King, could not dispense with that Oath, their King being still alive; and swear to your new hodge podge of a Dutch Government?"

Wait a minute. The Dutch? It's hard to shake off years of the Dutch being used as a punchline; what makes it harder is that I have no idea what Dafoe is talking about.

But it becomes clear. Dafoe's modest proposal is that all Dissenters should be executed; the tone gradually becomes rabid:

But, says another hot and cold Objector [to Dafoe's proposal],...This will be cruelty in its nature! And barbarous to all the World!

I answer, It is cruelty to kill a snake or a toad in cold blood, but the poison of their nature makes it a charity to our neighbours, to destroy those creatures! not for any personal injury received, but for prevention; not for the evil they have done, but the evil they may do! [C]orrupt our posterity! ensnare our children! destroy the vitals of our happiness, our future felicity! and contaminate the whole mass!

Shall any Law be given to such wild creatures! Some beasts are for sport, and the huntsmen give them the advantages of ground: but some are knocked on the head, by all possible ways of violence and surprise!...

But if we must be frighted from this Justice, under the specious pretences, and odious sense of cruelty; nothing will be effected! It will be more barbarous to our own children and dear posterity, when they shall reproach their fathers,' as we ours, and tell us, "You had an Opportunity to root out this cursed race from the World, under the favour and protection of a True Church of England Queen! and out of your foolish pity, you spared them: because, forsooth, you would not be cruel!"...

Outside of the wealth! of exclamations! this doesn't seem like satire to me, although it might have before 9/11; what it seems like is a defense of torture and the very latest mouth-foamings about Islam. Yet Dafoe's logic (or "logic") here is hard to fault:

We hang men for trifles, and banish them for things not worth naming; but that an offence against GOD and the Church, against the welfare of the World, and the dignity of Religion shall be bought off for FIVE SHILLINGS: this is such a shame to a Christian Government, that it is with regret I transmit it to posterity.

If men sin against GOD, affront His ordinances, rebel against His Church, and disobey the precepts of their superiors; let them suffer, as such capital crimes deserve! so will Religion flourish, and this divided nation be once again united.

I'm surprised they even caught on that it was satire. They wouldn't, these days. Maybe it was the implication that people are being hung for trifles -- doesn't seem law-and-ordery enough.

It's funny -- I'm sure when they put this reading in the DRG it was with a look-how-far-we've-come flourish: the Know-Nothings were far in the rearview mirror; and if they didn't want Jews in their country clubs, they didn't want them hanged either. Maybe that's why the classics stay classics -- the folly is eternal.

Feb 24: Well, it's no Oscars

I knew I should have written this before the Oscars, because now it's paused on the Tivo and I'd rather see that than write about "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso." So I'll be brief, especially because what do I have to say about "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso"? Just a couple of things:

1. I can't believe I had to read this in high school. Actually, I don't remember reading this in high school, but I can remember how the print looked in one of my high school English textbooks. But what American since, maybe, the (T.) Roosevelt administration can read with a straight face:

Haste thee, Nymph, and bring with thee
Jest, and youthful Jollity,
Quips, and Cranks, and wanton Wiles,
Nods, and Becks, and wreathed Smiles,
Such as hang on Hebe's cheek,
And love to live in dimple sleek
Although the alliteration in the last two lines is nicely done. It's still a little -- how shall I put this? -- wedgie-worthy.

2. I vote for Il Pensoroso, and I suspect Milton wants us to, because here's his idea of a good time:
And the milkmaid singeth blithe,
And the mower whets his scythe,
And every shepherd tells his tale
Under the hawthorn in the dale.
The reader is perforce like that guy in Animal House who smashes the dude's guitar against the wall.

3. The only other thing I will say about that laff riot Il Pensoroso is that I didn't realize that it's in part the story of an all-nighter (" Thus, Night, oft see me in thy pale career,/Till civil-suited Morn appear").

4. Milton is irritating because he drops all these Greek myth references; he's like someone who just got back from Junior Year Abroad. That's not the only reason he's irritating, however.

Okay, honey, unpause the Tivo! Here I come!

Feb 23: Not the thing itself but ideas about the thing

Good thing I hadn't put away Volume 28 -- we're right back at it, because it's Pepys' birthday. And what better thing to read today than the great diary itself! Except it's not in the Harvard Classics. So what next better thing to read than an essay about it -- by Robert Louis Stevenson, a name I bet hasn't been mentioned at actual Harvard for 50 years.

However. My father -- in addition to being the #1 reader of this blog -- is a huge Pepys' Diary enthusiast, so I am always happy to be in the company of another one, even if Stevenson has a certain twee mustiness ("We have now to read our author.") I admit that I may be imposing that style on him, maybe because I almost read Stevenson as a boy and so associate him with grand outmoded adventures.

But so to our assignment, which is to read a classic in which someone reads a classic. Having dabbled in Pepys's diary, bio, etc., but not really knowing what the state of the scholarship is, Stevenson's reading seems fine to me. I enjoyed this observation:

Although not sentimental in the abstract, he was sweetly sentimental about himself. His own past clung about his heart, an evergreen. He was the slave of an association. He could not pass by Islington, where his father used to carry him to cakes and ale, but he must light at the “King’s Head” and eat and drink “for remembrance of the old house sake.”
Enjoyed it up to the point where RLS calls it "childish egotism," that is, because I am exactly the same -- just yesterday I was driving past Universal, where I picketed, and thinking that I'll probably always drive by it and remember that I picketed there. Then again, I would have difficulty getting myself exonerated from charges of childish egotism.

Other than that I have not much else to say in this third-order blog post -- except that, writing every day as I am doing now, I do find it's an unavoidable and welcome shape in the landscape of the day, and so I'll close where our excerpt does:
The greatness of his life was open, yet he longed to communicate its smallness also; and, while contemporaries bowed before him, he must buttonhole posterity with the news that his periwig was once alive with nits.... [The diary] was his bosom secret; it added a zest to all his pleasures; he lived in and for it, and might well write these solemn words, when he closed that confidant forever: “And so I betake myself to that course which is almost as much as to see myself go into the grave; for which, and all the discomforts that will accompany my being blind, the good God prepare me.”

Feb 22: Washington's Birthday, badly observed

I groused about this a little yesterday -- here we have Washington's Birthday, the anniversary of the great and really somewhat underappreciated father of the country, and we are sent off to read Robert Burns. For the third time. I mean, I like Scotch as much as the next man, especially if he's willing to drive, but this is too much. Couldn't we have read some legal documents or something?

And if I may directly address the anonymous compiler from 1908 -- sir (or madam), the Burns fetishization has got to stop. Maybe they like Burns because, being Scottish, he seems more manly than your typical traipse-y tubucular poet:
Anyway, to the Ode for General Washington. It is four stanzas. General Washington is never mentioned. The gist of the poem seems to be that, if the Americans (here referred to as "Columbia") can kick the ass of the hated British ("Dare him to his very beard/And tell him he no more is feared"), then why can't the Scots:

In this the ancient Caledonian form,
Firm as her rock, resistless as her storm?
Show me that eye which shot immortal hate,
Blasting the Despot's proudest bearing!
Show me that arm which, nerv'd with thundering fate,
Braved Usurpation's boldest daring!
Dark-quench'd as yonder sinking star,
No more that glance lightens afar,
That palsied arm no more whirls on the waste of war.
Of course I am always skeptical of poems praising "immortal hate." Nor does it seem very Washingtonian. Maybe this is why we no longer observe his birthday.


Feb 21: The Cardinal pipes up for meatspace*

It's the first part of Cardinal Newman's essay "The Idea of a University" (Vol. 28, "Essays English and American"). It starts off promisingly enough: " IF I were asked to describe as briefly and popularly as I could, what a University was,..." but just when you think it's going to be brief and popular -- "I should draw my answer from its ancient designation of a Studium Generale, or 'School of Universal Learning.'"

Okay, so it's one of those. The expository prose I find to be the toughest going; it's reading the essays, in general, where I long for our modern invention of punchiness.

Oh, and I almost forgot that this has the best intro yet from the DRG: "Does Football Make A College?" Even in 1908! The Cardinal would answer "no" -- which is why, although he enjoyed a distinguished career, he was pretty clearly never a university president.

Basically this essay, or the portion of it we're to read, is an answer to the question, "What can you get at college that you can't get in books?" (Books like the Harvard Classics -- the whole rationale of the series is that it's just as good as a college education.) Here's Newman's formulation of the question:

Considering the prodigious powers of the press, and how they are developed at this time in the never-intermitting issue of periodicals, tracts, pamphlets, works in series, and light literature, we must allow there never was a time which promised fairer for dispensing with every other means of information and instruction. What can we want more, you will say, for the intellectual education of the whole man, and for every man, than so exuberant and diversified and persistent a promulgation of all kinds of knowledge? Why, you will ask, need we go up to knowledge, when knowledge comes down to us? ... works larger and more comprehensive than those which have gained for ancients an immortality, issue forth every morning, and are projected onwards to the ends of the earth at the rate of hundreds of miles a day. Our seats are strewed, our pavements are powdered, with swarms of little tracts; and the very bricks of our city walls preach wisdom, by informing us by their placards where we can at once cheaply purchase it.
And that was even before Us Weekly.

Newman's answer: FTF. Of course, this being the nineteenth century, which was not known for its summarizing acronyms, he goes further:
...if we wish to become exact and fully furnished in any branch of knowledge which is diversified and complicated, we must consult the living man and listen to his living voice. ... no book can convey the special spirit and delicate peculiarities of its subject with that rapidity and certainty which attend on the sympathy of mind with mind, through the eyes, the look, the accent, and the manner, in casual expressions thrown off at the moment, and the unstudied turns of familiar conversation. ..The general principles of any study you may learn by books at home; but the detail, the colour, the tone, the air, the life which makes it live in us, you must catch all these from those in whom it lives already. You must imitate the student in French or German, who is not content with his grammar, but goes to Paris or Dresden: you must take example from the young artist, who aspires to visit the great Masters in Florence and in Rome.
In fact, Newman even goes further and argues for the city as teacher (an argument very much to my taste):
...Thither come up youths from all parts of the country, the students of law, medicine, and the fine arts, and the employés and attachés of literature. There they live, as chance determines; and they are satisfied with their temporary home, for they find in it all that was promised to them there. They have not come in vain, as far as their own object in coming is concerned. They have not learned any particular religion, but they have learned their own particular profession well. They have, moreover, become acquainted with the habits, manners, and opinions of their place of sojourn, and done their part in maintaining the tradition of them. We cannot then be without virtual Universities; a metropolis is such[.]
Sure, you get mugged. But that's part of your education too.

Two other things of note in this reading. First, those of you who have to go to scholarly conferences can now take comfort in the fact that this ritual is defended by someone who may one day be declared to be a saint:
Such gatherings would to many persons appear at first sight simply preposterous. Above all subjects of study, Science is conveyed, is propagated, by books, or by private teaching; experiments and investigations are conducted in silence; discoveries are made in solitude. What have philosophers to do with festive celebrities, and panegyrical solemnities with mathematical and physical truth? Yet on a closer attention to the subject, it is found that not even scientific thought can dispense with the suggestions, the instruction, the stimulus, the sympathy, the intercourse with mankind on a large scale, which such meetings secure. A fine time of year is chosen, when days are long, skies are bright, the earth smiles, and all nature rejoices; a city or town is taken by turns, of ancient name or modern opulence, where buildings are spacious and hospitality hearty. The novelty of place and circumstance, the excitement of strange, or the refreshment of well-known faces, the majesty of rank or of genius, the amiable charities of men pleased both with themselves and with each other; the elevated spirits, the circulation of thought, the curiosity; the morning sections, the outdoor exercise, the well-furnished, well-earned board, the not ungraceful hilarity, the evening circle; the brilliant lecture, the discussions or collisions or guesses of great men one with another, the narratives of scientific processes, of hopes, disappointments, conflicts, and successes, the splendid eulogistic orations; these and the like constituents of the annual celebration, are considered to do something real and substantial for the advance of knowledge which can be done in no other way.
Sorry for such a long excerpt but I wanted to show how lovingly he discusses what your whole weekend will be like.

Finally, when the Cardinal closes with:
Such is a University in its idea and in its purpose; such in good measure has it before now been in fact. Shall it ever be again? We are going forward in the strength of the Cross, under the patronage of the Blessed Virgin, in the name of St. Patrick, to attempt it.
I am sorry, but I can only think of this:
Good luck, Eminence.


*Defined here.

The story thus far

We're about 50 days in, right? Here's the volumes I haven't pulled down yet:

2: Plato/Epictetus/Marcus Aurelius
3: Bacon/Milton's Prose/Thos. Browne
5: Emerson (! -- I guess they're not as New England as you'd think over there)
10: The Wealth Of Nations
12: Plutarch's Lives
15: Pilgrim's Progress/Donne & Herbert/Bunyan/Walton
23: Two Years Before The Mast
30: Faraday/Helmholtz/Kelvin/Newcomb Etc.
36: Machiavelli/More/Luther
37: Locke/Berkeley/Hume
38: Harvey/Jenner/Lister/Pasteur
42: English Poetry 3: Tennyson to Whitman
44: Sacred Writings 1
47: Elizabethan Drama 2
49: Epic and Saga

I make this list only because tomorrow I have to read Robert Burns for the third time.

Feb 20: Our Far-Flung Correspondents

Voltaire on the Quakers today, and while this may be a classic, what it feels like is that you're reading a magazine article -- a high-toned one, like The New Yorker or Atlantic. It's the famous writer doing a little reporting on this odd and somewhat prominent religious sect. He gets to know one of them, then he tells us their history, then he gives us the current state of play. The tone is exactly the same -- clear, witty, detached. ("George Fox... took it into his head to preach, and, as he pretended, with all the requisites of a true apostle—that is, without being able either to read or write.") Voltaire even puts himself in the story, in the manner of the New Journalists, as we learn that he's uncircumcised.

(And here I have to digress to tell the story about a prop guy on one of my shows, who one day confided in a fellow writer, "I'm leaving this world the same way I came into it. Foreskin intact." Other than that, though, that guy was nothing like Voltaire.)

The equivalent today would be an article on the Scientologists, and there are parallels:

Rich convert William Penn = Rich convert Tom Cruise
Pennsylvania = Hollywood Boulevard
Native American esteem for the Quakers = Battlefield Earth

There it breaks down a little. The Quakers do seem more admirable than the Scientologists, what with the pacifism. Here's Voltaire's Quaker friend:
We never war or fight in any case....Our God, who has commanded us to love our enemies, and to suffer without repining, would certainly not permit us to cross the seas, merely because murderers clothed in scarlet, and wearing caps two foot high, enlist citizens by a noise made with two little sticks on an ass’ skin extended.
Xenu has never topped that. No magazine article would be complete without interesting facts, and so Voltaire also tells us why they thee'd and thou'd so much -- because it gives people airs if you address them in the second person plural. I wonder if that distinction even signified much back then.

And what of the Quakers going forward? Voltaire proves that he is the better class of writer by avoiding the Remains To Be Seen dodge:
I perceive it dwindles away daily in England....Their children, whom the industry of their parents has enriched, are desirous of enjoying honours, of wearing buttons and ruffles; and quite ashamed of being called Quakers they become converts to the Church of England, merely to be in the fashion.
Kids and their ruffles, right?

Feb 19: The plank in my own eye

...and the religious reference is OK, because today we're into Sacred Writings 2, Volume 45. The plank in my own eye is my modern feelings of condescention toward the Harvard Classics, which crystallized with today's reading, from Buddhist Writings. I guess I wanted the Daily Reading Guide description to be kind of racist and Orientalist, so that I could feel PC and non-racist and modern. But, alas, it's this:

The thousandth celestial wife of the Garland God slipped and fell to earth, where she took mortal form and served as an attendant in a temple. Death finally released her and she went back to heaven to tell her lord of the ways of men.
Which is a pretty flat and accurate depiction of the first of our two stories. However (aha!) she is described as Chinese, which is a pretty neat trick, since, upon her falling from heaven, she winds up in a high-caste family. Even I know the difference between China and India! PC wins!

More seriously, though, it says something that in 1908 this volume, Sacred Writings 2, would have Christian/Buddhist/Hindu/Mohammedan texts. (Sacred Writings 1 is Confucian/Hebrew/Christian.) Don't they know they're encouraging heresy? I guess in some ways it's almost easier to include other religions in 1908, when they were safely far from Boston and environs; nowadays, when it's more a "but would you want your sister to worship one?" question, maybe (some) people are a little more threatened.

This also goes to the question of whether anyone cares anymore about broadmindedness, the very quality the Harvard Classics is kind of a touching tribute to.

Anyway, to our stories. The first one has been summarized already. Two critical details have been overlooked, however. The first is that, though our heroine fell from heaven and always longed for her god-husband (I have no idea if this is an accurate translation; I can only go by what's in my book) while she was on earth, nevertheless she married and had four kids. What the earth-husband thought of the whole tale is unrecorded. Kids who, like me, spent some time in church wondering what Joseph thought of the First Christmas will recognize a kindred question.

The other detail is the moral of the story, which occurs in the middle. (The story's pretty short, though.) The god Garland-wearer delivers it, and it is:
“Men, it appears, are born to a life of only one hundred years, yet they recklessly lie down and sleep away their time. When will they ever get free from misery?”
When? Never, of course -- why do you think they sleep so much? And how do you escape misery? By taking care of the priests and the temple. Nice racket they have there -- see, maybe there is common ground after all!

The second story is about the Hare-mark in the moon, and it also takes place in India, or, as the DRG might call it, "China." It turns out the future Buddha was born as a hare, and he and his buddies the otter, jackal, and monkey were going to keep the fast day. Well, the non-Buddha animals laid some food aside to give to supplicants, but the hare decided to offer himself. Sakka, who apparently is some kind of authority, finds his marble throne growing hot at this (nice touch), and decides to disguise himself and test him out:
When Sakka heard this speech, he made a heap of live coals by his superhuman power, and came and told the Future Buddha. The latter rose from his couch of dabba-grass, and went to the spot. And saying, “If there are any insects in my fur, I must not let them die,” he shook himself three times. Then throwing his whole body into the jaws of his liberality, he jumped into the bed of coals, as delighted in mind as a royal flamingo when he alights in a cluster of lotuses.
Except it doesn't burn him up, because...well, it's hard to say. I guess because he was so willing to burn up, he doesn't in fact burn up. Sacred Writings are full of neat tricks like that.

Also, it's always nice to see the word "flamingo" in your nightly reading.

Feb 18: Legalese

As if the compilers of the DRG back in 1908 had mystical knowledge that someday there would be a Presidents' Day that wasn't Washington's Birthday, and that we would have extra time on this day to read sentences like:

It is further agreed between the two contracting parties, that in case any of the islands mentioned in any of the preceding articles, which were in the possession of one of the parties prior to the commencement of the present war between the two countries, should, by the decision of any of the boards of commissioners aforesaid, or of the sovereign or State so referred to, as in the four next preceding articles contained, fall within the dominions of the other party, all grants of land made previous to the commencement of the war, by the party having had such possession, shall be as valid as if such island or islands had, by such decision or decisions, been adjudged to be within the dominions of the party having had such possession.
Cue up the Lee Greenwood! We're reading the Treaty of Ghent! You know, the one that ended the War of 1812! There aren't enough exclamation points in the world to make this exciting!

If you're expecting to refresh your vague memories as to why they fought the War of 1812 (covered here), prepare to be disappointed -- it's basically a treaty of border disputes. In fact, there are two examples of the treaty-maker's art that all might admire here:

1. Kick the problem down the road. All the territorial disputes (such as, Where does Nova Scotia begin?) are referred to commissioners. If they can't agree, a "friendly sovereign or State" will decide. Which one? You're not going to catch them naming that person now.

2. The road to peace is paved with good intentions.. Here's Article X, in full:
Whereas the traffic in slaves is irreconcilable with the principles of humanity and justice, and whereas both His Majesty and the United States are desirous of continuing their efforts to promote its entire abolition, it is hereby agreed that both the contracting parties shall use their best endeavours to accomplish so desirable an object.
I can only imagine that the Americans must've really wanted the war ended even to agree to this language. The political climate I'm used to does not allow useless meaningless language that's opposed to our institutions. Maybe the Americans got confused because one of the British negotiators was the "Admiral of the White," and they thought that was a racial, as opposed to a naval, distinction.

Feb 17: Why Satire Isn't Funny

Act I of "Tartuffe" today (from Vol. 26, "Continental Drama" -- Continental, eh? Sounds foreign!)
I've actual seen "Tartuffe," in college, although I remember nothing about it except Austin Pendelton naked. Am I remembering that right? I must be -- there are some things you can't unsee, etc.

Okay, so we know from the get-go that this is not going to be Richard Wilbur's translation, instead it's by Curtis Hidden Page, or, as he ought to have been known, Curtis "Hidden" Page. Or Komedy Killer Kurtis, because this isn't funny. Of course C.H.P. is laboring against a number of difficulties, including but not limited to:

1. This is an old work. The humor of the past is often unfunny in the present. If you don't believe me, go read Petroleum V. Nasby, one of Lincoln's favorite humorists. Readers of Joey Adams in the New York Post may have had the same experience.

2. It's in another language. The French, Jerry Lewis, etc. -- nuff said.

3. Finally, it's satire. My own feeling about satire is that you must never show your cards; and, in fact, the more fervent you are in your desire to satirize, the more you must hide that desire. Moliere disagrees:

And as I find no kind of hero more
To be admired than men of true religion,
Nothing more noble or more beautiful
Than is the holy zeal of true devoutness;
Just so I think there’s naught more odious
Than whited sepulchres of outward unction,
I guess the justification is that there was no Western Union in those days, so they actually did have to send the message in the middle of the play.

Maybe Moliere is more like the Aaron Sorkin of his day.

The other noteworthy thing is this:
While with delight our master sees him eat
As much as six men could; we must give up
The choicest tidbits to him; if he belches, (’tis a servant speaking)
Master exclaims: “God bless you!”
And the footnote tells us about the stage direction:
Molière’s note, inserted in the text of all the old editions. It is a curious illustration of the desire for uniformity and dignity of style in dramatic verse of the seventeenth century, that Molière feels called on to apologize for a touch of realism like this. Indeed, these lines were even omitted when the play was given.
One often wearies of living among Americans with their frequently crappy manners and young people with the pants hanging off their butts and such. But at least our characters can belch unapologetically. Something to remember on Presidents' Day weekend.

Weird formatting issues

The last couple of posts look weird to me; I think what's happening is that some of the pages I'm copying from Bartleby come with a lot more encoding than others, so when I paste it into my posts I paste all the encoding. Hence the weird look. I apologize, although I make no promises about fixing it, because I'm lame at that sort of thing. I think I may be able to fix it going forward, or maybe I'll just try Gutenberg for some of it.

Feb 16: Little Ant Slaves

Darwin, finally, today; I was wondering when we'd crack open "Origin of Species." And, perhaps to soften the reactionary critics of Darwin, the editors have chosen a passage about ants who have slaves -- see, natural selection may contradict Genesis, but it least it allows you to rationalize poor working conditions!

I'm not quite sure how to summarize this. First, the goofy stuff -- one of the ant species discussed has the scientific name F. (for "Formica" -- I bet naming firms hire science majors as consultants all the time) flava. "Flava!"

The other thing that leaps out is that, in this four-page passage, Darwin waits until the last paragraph to note its effect on his theory:

By what steps the instinct of F. sanguinea [one of the slave-making species] originated I will not pretend to conjecture. But as ants which are not slave-makers will, as I have seen, carry off the pupæ of other species, if scattered near their nests, it is possible that such pupæ originally stored as food might become developed; and the foreign ants thus unintentionally reared would then follow their proper instincts, and do what work they could. If their presence proved useful to the species which had seized them—if it were more advantageous to this species to capture workers than to procreate them—the habit of collecting pupæ, originally for food, might by natural selection be strengthened and rendered permanent for the very different purpose of raising slaves.
But why the three or four pages of observation beforehand -- more than seems necessary? Because Darwin thinks it's cool, that's why:
During the months of June and July, on three successive years, I watched for many hours several nests in Surrey and Sussex...One day I fortunately witnessed a migration of F. sanguinea from one nest to another, and it was a most interesting spectacle to behold the masters carefully carrying their slaves in their jaws instead of being carried by them, as in the case of F. rufescens.

Another day my attention was struck by about a score of the slave-makers haunting the same spot, and evidently not in search of food; they approached and were vigorously repulsed by an independent community of the slave-species (F. fusca); sometimes as many as three of these ants clinging to the legs of the slavemaking F. sanguinea. The latter ruthlessly killed their small opponents, and carried their dead bodies as food to their nest, twenty-nine yards distant; but they were prevented from getting any pupæ to rear as slaves. I then dug up a small parcel of the pupæ of F. fusca from another nest, and put them down on a bare spot near the place of combat; they were eagerly seized and carried off by the tyrants, who perhaps fancied that, after all, they had been victorious in their late combat.
(I guess you have to be reared as a slave, otherwise it doesn't take.) I like that idea, Darwin, in his long beard, just lying on the ground, looking at ants, perhaps with his own servants to get him food and so forth.

Feb 15: The regrettable consequences of Valentine's Day

Today is Dryden's version of Antony and Cleopatra (no, I didn't know there was one either) -- "All For Love," act III; from Volume 18 "Modern English Drama". Modern English Drama? Let's let it pass. For we have a tale of love and dynastic politics -- Dryden's version of "The Tudors," if you will, but written at a time where people might still remember the Tudors. (Or "Rome," I realize, but I haven't seen "Rome".)

When Antony says this to Cleopatra, in the opening:

There’s no satiety of love in thee:
Enjoyed, thou still art new; perpetual spring
Is in thy arms; the ripened fruit but falls,
And blossoms rise to fill its empty place;
And I grow rich by giving.

I thought, shouldn't we have been reading this yesterday? But complications ensue. First Antony's old buddy Dolabella comes from Caesar's camp. Old buddy...or something:

Ant. ’Tis he himself! himself, by holy friendship! [Runs to embrace him.
Art thou returned at last, my better half?
Come, give me all myself!
Let me not live,
If the young bridegroom, longing for his night,
Was ever half so fond.

Whoa. Those Italians, so demonstrative. Did the Harvard people know this was in here? Anyway, Dolabella gives Antony, who is up against it, a way out -- get back together with your wife (Caesar's sister Octavia) And he produces her! (Music sting.)

Then, there's something I really like, which is that Antony and Octavia get into a "Mr. and Mrs." (a phrase I got from a Parisian friend of mine), which is summed up by one of the bystanders: "Was ever such a strife of sullen honor!/Both scorn to be obliged." I've had that fight. Here's theirs:

Ant. Then I must be obliged 365
To one who loves me not; who, to herself,
May call me thankless and ungrateful man:—
I’ll not endure it; no.
Vent. I am glad it pinches there. [Aside.
Octav. Would you triumph o’er poor Octavia’s virtue?
That pride was all I had to bear me up;
That you might think you owed me for your life,
And owed it to my duty, not my love.
I have been injured, and my haughty soul
Could brook but ill the man who slights my bed.

I'm sure marriage counselors hear stuff like this all the time. Then Dryden brings Antony's kids in to turn him around -- using kids so shamelessly being the mark of the master. And then, to end the act, Octavia and Cleopatra meet, and it's a surprise not to see a stage direction like [She slaps her.

It's super-pulpy, if you can get past the language:

Cleo. Oh, you do well to search; for had you known
But half these charms, you had not lost his heart.
Octav. Far be their knowledge from a Roman lady, 510
Far from a modest wife! Shame of our sex,
Dost thou not blush to own those black endearments,
That make sin pleasing?
Cleo. You may blush, who want them.

Kitty has claws! One thing I've definitely learned from this project is that subtlety in the dramatic art is overrated; the masters prove it so.

Feb 14: Je voudrais parler la langue of d'amour

The DRG has assigned me Pascal's "Discourse on the Passion of Love" -- because, really, what are Shakespeare sonnets next to the disquisition of French philosophers? It is an extremely disjointed work, random notes really. You keep waiting for the Woody Allen punchlines, like in those fake-deep pieces where he'd write, "Not only is there no God, but try finding a plumber on weekends." (Or, my favorite, "Should I marry W.? Not if she won't tell me the other letters in her name.") Look, here's an example right at the open:

MAN is born for thought; therefore he is not a moment without it; but the pure thoughts that would render him happy, if he could always maintain them, weary and oppress him.
My punch line is, "Also, he is frequently hungry." Readers are invited to submit their own in comments.

Anyway, since there's no argument to engage with, I thought I would just pull out a few random pieces of advice for the lovers among you, with snarky comments added, so that you may improve your game, French-philosophical-robot style:
How happy is a life that begins with love and ends with ambition! If I had to choose, this is the one I should take. So long as we have ardor we are amiable; but this ardor dies out, is lost; then what a fine and noble place is left for ambition!
Sadly, Pascal leaves undeveloped here the concept of the "trophy wife" which comes after ambition.
For we do not wish for beauty alone, but desire in connection with it a thousand circumstances that depend on the disposition in which it is found, and it is in this sense that it may be said that each one possesses the original of his beauty. [W]omen often determine this original. As they have an absolute empire over the minds of men, they paint on them either the qualities of the beauties which they possess or those which they esteem, and by this means add what pleases them to this radical beauty. Hence there is one epoch for blondes, another for brunettes.
I think there was a Dean Martin movie about that.
Beauty is divided in a thousand different ways. The most proper object to sustain it is a woman. When she has intellect, she enlivens it and sets it off marvellously. If a woman wishes to please, and possesses the advantages of beauty or a portion of them at least, she will succeed.
Pascal, always with boosting the self-esteem. You only need a portion -- the left half of your face, for example. And for you gents:
Yet between being fastidious and not being so at all, it must be granted that when one desires to be fastidious he is not far from actually being so. Women like to perceive fastidiousness in men, and this is, it seems to me, the most vulnerable point whereby to gain them.
Shorter Pascal: Would it hurt to comb your hair once in awhile?
Attachment to the same thought wearies and destroys the mind of man. Hence for the solidity and permanence of the pleasure of love, it is sometimes necessary not to know that we love; and this is not to be guilty of an infidelity, for we do not therefore love another; it is to regain strength in order to love the better.
That's what they all say when they're caught cheating. Is it me or does that seem super-duper stereotypically French?

That's probably enough. The next essay in the book is "Of The Geometrical Spirit." But I'll save that one for my anniversary.

Toldja

As threatened, work is starting up again -- I have an interview today for a show. And among my first thoughts was, "How am I going to do my reading?" If I get hired, that is. I can always ruin my job prospects by talking about how I'm doing this.

Feb 13: Papal indulgences...of murder!

Today is from the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, who I had never heard of, but who gets his own volume in the Harvard Classics. And good thing -- this is easily one of the most awesome, if not the most awesome, readings yet. The following passage shows you why. Setup: Cellini is at Castle Sant'angelo, defending the Pope (a Medici, I believe) during the sack of Rome in 1526:

I fired, and hit my man exactly in the middle. He had trussed his sword in front, for swagger, after a way those Spaniards have; and my ball, when it struck him, broke upon the blade, and one could see the fellow cut in two fair halves. The Pope, who was expecting nothing of this kind, derived great pleasure and amazement from the sight... He sent for me, and asked about it... Upon my bended knees I then besought him to give me the pardon of his blessing for that homicide; and for all the others I had committed in the castle in the service of the Church. Thereat the Pope, raising his hand, and making a large open sign of the cross upon my face, told me that he blessed me, and that he gave me pardon for all murders I had ever perpetrated, or should ever perpetrate, in the service of the Apostolic Church.
Awesome! I mean, not awesome, in that it's a nasty religious-political war, and we have plenty of examples right now of how senseless and awful they are. Except Cellini (whom the introduction describes as "a wonderful combination of artist and knave") doesn't care. He's having a blast:
My drawing, and my fine studies in my craft, and my charming art of music, all were swallowed up in the din of that artillery; and if I were to relate in detail all the splendid things I did in that infernal work of cruelty, I should make the world stand by and wonder.
And that's the other thing that's so awesome about it: Cellini's sky-high opinion of himself. Maybe it's just refreshing because our contemporary memoir style is to talk about suffering, not about how you were this great artist, but unfortunately you had to go to the war where you were even greater:
I went on firing under the eyes of several cardinals and lords, who kept blessing me and giving me the heartiest encouragement. In my enthusiasm I strove to achieve the impossible; let it suffice that it was I who saved the castle that morning, and brought the other bombardiers back to their duty.
Good on the harvard Classics for including this volume. It's not philosophical at all -- just a ripping yarn -- and as such maybe a commentary on all the other philosophies:
Alessandro, in a panic, cried: “Would God that we had never come here!” and turned in maddest haste to fly. I took him up somewhat sharply with these words: “Since you have brought me here, I must perform some action worthy of a man;” and directing my arquebuse where I saw the thickest and most serried troop of fighting men, I aimed exactly at one whom I remarked to be higher than the rest... I discovered afterwards that one of our shots had killed the Constable of Bourbon.
Naturally.

Feb 12 (Observed): Lincoln

True greatness in blogging consists of being unafraid to have an opinion on something that everyone else has an opinion on, too. And so it is with yesterday's reading on Lincoln. What makes Lincoln great? Everyone has an opinon. Here are some points from the readings (Gettysburg Address, 1863 Proclamation of Amnesty, the letter to Mrs. Bixby) that inform my view of the wonderfulness of Lincoln:

First of all, of course, he is a very great stylist. Example (from the letter to Mrs. Bixby, the woman who lost five sons):

I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming.
This is also the "so great a sacrifice on the altar of freedom" letter, but honestly, anyone could have written that. It sounds like Reagan. But "beguile"! The whole idea of doing anything other than grieving is a lie! Notice also that Lincoln doesn't take the time to give himself credit for his honesty; the word does the work for him, he doesn't need more words to point out that a word just did it.

In fact, it's interesting that a lawyer, and a good one, would wind up being called Honest Abe, and I think it's because he's so good a lawyer (and so confident in his work) that he doesn't need to sugarcoat anything. In fact, one of his tactics is always the "I'm just a simple country lawyer" gambit. Here it is at the end of the proclmation of amnesty (which was his proposal for setting up provisional Union-friendly governments in Confederate states):
"and, while the mode presented is the best the Executive can suggest, with his present impressions, it must not be understood that no other possible mode would be acceptable."
With that tactic it shows off how breahtaking he is in his concepts -- Gettysburg dedicates us, of course, and my favorite passage from the second inaugural:
Of we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall, we discern therein, any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?
That's enough for today. It's not even his birthday.

Feb 11: They have wireless here

Here I am, a mile above sea level, and my assignment is Descartes, who's even loftier:

...for as to the Reason or Sense, inasmuch as it is that alone which constitutes us men, and distinguishes us from the brutes, I am disposed to believe that it is to be found complete in each individual; and on this point to adopt the common opinion of philosophers, who say that the difference of greater and less holds only among the accidents, and not among the forms or natures of individuals of the same species.
It's Discourse on Method time. As I am at a camp with a bunch of fifth graders I will note that Reason or Sense is not yet to be found complete in each individual. But it's basically Descartes trying to discover how to think like a modern person and not just following the traditions of the past.

About this reading I will note three things:

The first is, in the words of Nanny in "Eloise in Paris," "The French the French." The problem Descartes has with knowledge is that it's not wicked organized enough:
Of these one of the very first that occurred to me was, that there is seldom so much perfection in works composed of many separate parts, upon which different hands have been employed, as in those completed by a single master. Thus, it is observable that the buildings which a single architect has planned and executed, are generally more elegant and commodious than those which several have attempted to improve, by making old walls serve for purposes for which they were not originally built.
In fact, when reality is too hard to organize, Descartes retreats into himself ("I think therefore I am" isn't in this selection, but you can see it from here.)

The second is the feeling I get that I'm watching Descartes, who wrote this in the 1600s, at the start of the modern era, and his dear hope that we might, by trying hard, escape the ignoramuses of the past. No more astrology! Sad, really.

Finally, I think there's a patter song to be written in this:
I should not, however, on this account have ventured at once on the examination of all the difficulties of the Sciences.... for this would have been contrary to the order prescribed in the Method, but observing that the knowledge of such is dependent on principles borrowed from Philosophy, in which I found nothing certain, I thought it necessary first of all to endeavour to establish its principles. And because I observed, besides, that ... precipitancy and anticipation in judgment were most to be dreaded, I thought that I ought not to approach it till I had reached a more mature age, and had first of all employed much of my time in preparation for the work, as well by eradicating from my mind all the erroneous opinions I had up to that moment accepted, as by amassing variety of experience to afford materials for my reasonings.


And that's how I'm ruler of the Queen's Navee! In order to fix the sciences, he has to use Philosophy. SO he needs to fix philosophy first. But before he does that, he has to be a little older and use his time by amassing experience. Easy as pie!

The French the French.

A brief silence

I'm off to the mountains with my son's fifth-grade class. I've printed out my readings and everything. However I can't post on them till I get back on Wednesday night, and it's possible I may not post on them at all.

Till (possibly) Wednesday.

Feb 10: The French they are a funny race

Among my many character defects is that outmoded prejudices seem funny to me. Current prejudices not so much, because we can do something about them, but back before WWII there used to be a lot of hooey about the characteristics of the “Anglo-Saxon” “race” that seems, well, funny to me – it’s like one of those old-time bathing costumes. (this book is only tangentially about that but it has great examples of admissions officers of the 20s talking frankly about the natural manliness of Anglo-Saxons when compared to, say, Italians (and especially Jews).) It really reinforces that Harvard is, as they say, a construct.

All this is prologue to the blurb in today’s DRG:

"Voltaire once visited Congreve. This famous dramatist requested to be regarded only as a plain gentleman. "Had you been that I should never have come to see you," Voltaire cynically replies."

“Cynically”! This is a complement, but, because he’s a Frenchman, of course he’s cynical. To me it betrays an undercurrent in this project – all of our Western Heritage was really just a way to lead up to Imperial Britain, and we in America are maintaining it and maybe improving it a little around the edges, probably by drinking coffee. In fact it’s remarkable (though not amazing) how un-American the HC is. There’s a volume of American Historical Documents (sexy already!) And Franklin’s Autobiography. And “Two Years Before The Mast”. And they shoehorn some Emerson in. (Granted, according to the universities of the time, American literature has as yet not been produced by 1910.)

Anyway, Voltaire (and this has to be the most ridiculous anniversary yet: it’s Congreve’s anniversary of his baptism. I think it’d be easier if they just threw darts at the books.) It’s “Letters on the English” (natch) – number XVIII (Tragedy) and XIX (Comedy).

Tragedy first: Voltaire complains about Shakespeare’s barbarity (He did not know “one rule of the drama”.) He then translates “To Be Or Not To Be” and a passage of Dryden which I very much enjoyed, especially in light of having to vote on the writers’ contract. Here, here it is:

“When I consider life, ’t is all a cheat,
Yet fooled by hope, men favour the deceit;
Trust on and think, to-morrow will repay;
To-morrow’s falser than the former day;
Lies more; and whilst it says we shall be blest
With some new joy, cuts off what we possessed;

See, Dryden knew all about negotiating year 3 residuals against a fixed cap. I’m helpless about the translations, of course. But I do like this line: “Their dramatic pieces, most of which are barbarous and without decorum, order, or verisimilitude, dart such resplendent flashes through this gleam, as amaze and astonish.”

Having just weighed in against prejudice I'm about to contradict myself, but it seems very French to condemn plays for not conforming to regulations.

The comedy essay isn’t as interesting, as he discusses a bunch of playwrights I’ve never heard of, then summarizes their plots, with all of the intense interest plot summarization is known for. And then, at the end, Voltaire himself explains why his essay isn’t interesting:

If you have a mind to understand the English comedy, the only way to do this will be for you to go to England, to spend three years in London, to make yourself master of the English tongue, and to frequent the playhouse every night. I receive but little pleasure from the perusal of Aristophanes and Plautus, and for this reason because I am neither a Greek nor a Roman. The delicacy of the humour, the allusion, the à propos—all these are lost to a foreigner.
First of all, kudos to Voltaire for saying Aristophanes isn’t funny to read (although I think you could rescue it in staging -- it would still smell like a museum, perhaps). But it also shows why we who labor in comedy are building our houses out of straw. (Maybe the only difference is, we know we are the whole time.)

Feb 9: Germans, Meat, and Encouragement

Terrifically distracted by my labor conflict today, but not too busy to read a little Tacitus (Vol 33, “Voyages and Travels” – previously we had seen Sir Francis Drake take on the Papists in South America).

Today, it’s the Germans they are a funny race. He finds them warlike (big surprise). The translation makes all the difference, but an interesting thing is that Tacitus is pretty cosmopolitan – some things about the Germans are pretty odd, sure, but he’s not offended, that’s just the way other tribes are. The only thing that comes off as truly “hideous and rude” is the country the Germans (I guess they’re pre-Kraut) have chosen to settle in. Otherwise he’s quite curious, the way I might be at an SEC tailgate. (Another similarity with SEC country: “Without being armed they transact nothing, whether of public or private concernment.”)

On the other hand, Tacitus neither indulges in what might be called the Putamayo Fallacy: these savage people really know themselves in a way that we, people of patios, don’t. (Despite the fact that this is often a crunchy Whole Foods-type belief, I always find it equally reactionary and false. Many more country people vote with their feet to come to the land of patios than the reverse.) Once in a while it sneaks in: “Silver and gold the Gods have denied them, whether in mercy or in wrath, I am unable to determine.”

Finally – for I must fly -- I found this as interesting as Tacitus did:

Moreover, close to the field of battle are lodged all the nearest and most interesting pledges of nature. Hence they hear the doleful howlings of their wives, hence the cries of their tender infants. These are to each particular the witnesses whom he most reverences and dreads; these yield him the praise which affect him most. Their wounds and maims they carry to their mothers, or to their wives, neither are their mothers or wives shocked in telling, or in sucking their bleeding sores. Nay, to their husbands and sons whilst engaged in battle, they administer meat and encouragement.
Talk about soccer moms! I haven’t seen anyone administering meat at an AYSO game lately.

Feb 8: A little too much Scotch

First of all, let me express my intense pride in myself, that I haven’t left a volume of this lying around the house where I would put a beer bottle or something on it. And that’s important since whoever’s choosing the reading is lazier than me, even: it’s back to Robert Burns, two weeks after the last time we read Robert Burns. I think this is pressing the word “classic” a bit too hard.

Yes, Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded on this day in 1587. But I discover it’s also the anniversary of the charter for William and Mary – can’t we read any colonial history?

Whatever, the DRG tells me she was a world-famous beauty, so I guess we’ll just have to lump it. Maybe it’s just that, after 38 days of this, I feel I am already smarter than the Harvard Classics. There are only two highlights I feel like mentioning:

-- “Lament of Mary, Queen of Scots, on the approach of Spring” Spring is here! Except if you in prison. I did like this stanza:

But as for thee, thou false woman,
My sister and my fae,
Grim Vengeance yet shall whet a sword
That thro’ thy soul shall gae;
The weeping blood in woman’s breast
Was never known to thee;
Nor th’ balm that draps on wounds of woe
Frae woman’s pitying e’e.
Catfight!

I’m going to pass over everything else in this selection, because its full of references to “Phoebus,” little birds singing, etc. – even my eyes are audibly rolling.

Except for the last one, “What can a young lassie do wi’ an Auld Man?” Old men with much younger women are one of my favorite figures of fun – especially because LA is no stranger to this phenomenon -- and I am delighted that Burns, centuries ago, feels the same way (especially after all the little birds singing. I think I’ll just quote it in full and vamp to the fade:
WHAT can a young lassie, what shall a young lassie,
What can a young lassie do wi’ an auld man?
Bad luck on the penny that tempted my minnie
To sell her puir Jenny for siller an’ lan’.
Bad luck on the penny that tempted my minnie
To sell her puir Jenny for siller an’ lan’!

He’s always compleenin’ frae mornin’ to e’enin’,
He hoasts and he hirples the weary day lang;
He’s doylt and he’s dozin, his blude it is frozen,—
O dreary’s the night wi’ a crazy auld man!
He’s doylt and he’s dozin, his blude it is frozen,
O dreary’s the night wi’ a crazy auld man.

He hums and he hankers, he frets and he cankers,
I never can please him do a’ that I can;
He’s peevish an’ jealous o’ a’ the young fellows,—
O dool on the day I met wi’ an auld man!
He’s peevish an’ jealous o’ a’ the young fellows,
O dool on the day I met wi’ an auld man.

My auld auntie Katie upon me taks pity,
I’ll do my endeavour to follow her plan;
I’ll cross him an’ wrack him, until I heartbreak him
And then his auld brass will buy me a new pan,
I’ll cross him an’ wrack him, until I heartbreak him,
And then his auld brass will buy me a new pan.

Feb 7: The credo

The shortest reading yet! And it’s one I know!

I think I can claim to have an above-average familiarity with Samuel Johnson. I have my father’s copy of Boswell’s London Journal. I used to work for a guy who was ABD on Johnson. I took Latin in college, so the sentence structure isn’t foreign to me. And I’m cranky.

So to be given the famous Letter to Lord Chesterfield! Well, it’s every Hollywood writer’s dream to write such a thing. In fact, maybe I’ll just translate some of it into Hollywoodese:

When, upon some slight encouragement, I first visited your Lordship, I was overpowered, like the rest of mankind, by the enchantment of your address
(Hollywood: the assistant offers you coffee or water)
but I found my attendance so little encouraged, that neither pride nor modesty would suffer me to continue it.
(Pride and modesty? There is no Hollywood equivalent for this)

Seven years, my Lord, have now passed, since I waited in your outward rooms, or was repulsed from your door; during which time I have been pushing on my work through difficulties, of which it is useless to complain,
(Note that he’s not saying he didn’t complain, just that it was useless to. I’m nodding my head and thinking, My poor wife.)
The shepherd in Virgil grew at last acquainted with Love, and found him a native of the rocks.
I have always liked this sentence because it’s kind of random. It also works whether Lord C. gets the reference or not. It’s kind of better if he does, but it’s extra-snotty (because of the bareness of the sentence – he doesn’t oversell it with fancy structure or even an “as you know,”) if he doesn’t. It wouldn't work at all out here because it's kind of a demerit to be too showoffy with the book-learning, even though all the executives have gone to Wharton and stuff.

And now, the first of my two favorite sentences:
Is not a Patron, my Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and, when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help?
This is exactly how I’m going to feel when I have to go meet executives again when the strike is over. It would also be a great acceptence speech. The next sentence is very sad when you realize Johnson’s wife died in the middle of composing the Dictionary:
The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labors, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent, and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary, and cannot impart it; till I am known, and do not want it.
Nowadays, I think, the “solitary” clause would go last, for maximum tear-jerking. Good on Johnson for slipping it in. The rhythm of these two sentences works well, too; Johnson asks his mean rhetorical question, but doesn’t quite stay in this querulous mode – he moves immediately to explain himself in the next sentence, and them shifts from a somewhat elaborate subjunctive to the repetitive (is this anaphora?) set of clauses. He keeps it moving. And in conclusion:
Having carried on my work thus far with so little obligation to any favorer of learning, I shall not be disappointed though I should conclude it, if less be possible, with less; for I have been long wakened from that dream of hope, in which I once boasted myself with so much exultation,
My Lord, Your Lordship’s most humble,
Most obedient servant, SAM. JOHNSON.

Emphasis added for maximum asperity. To be “long wakened from that dream of hope” is the default condition of all writers, I think, and it’s nice to have it out in the open in the early days of freelancing. And just the right amount of self-pity which is the writers' only friend. (Well, that and alcohol. But the latter is more treacherous.)

I hope we don’t have to wait till Johnson’s birthday to read him again.

Feb 6: Marlowe and the Royal Mustache

Why am I doing this again? That’s right, I don’t know. I think it’s just for the fun of a stunt. And it’s easier on my shins than running a marathon, although, after I’m done reading this except from Marlowe's “Edward II" (Vol. 47, more double-dipping), I won’t have burned off enough calories to eat 15 pancakes. Which is not to say that it won’t happen.

So we’re in act V, and it seems cheating, somehow, to look up who Edward II is, although I have a vague idea (I believe he was medieval, and a ponce). Enter Queen Isabella and Young Mortimer, who is woofing:

The proud corrupters of the light-brain’d king
Have done their homage to the lofty gallows,
And he himself lies in captivity.
Be rul’d by me, and we will rule the realm.
“Young” Mortimer? More like “Smooth” Mortimer. Isabella, by the way, is cold towards her husband; suddenly the rut of my everyday existence, which the Harvard Classics is designed to take me out of, doesn’t seem so bad. My wife’s not planning on throwing me in prison. That I know of. Then a messenger comes in with news of him and she’s all like, “Alas, poor soul, would I could ease his grief!” Arranged marriages – not all they’re cracked up to be in the popular press.

Even more so:
Q. Isab. But, Mortimer, as long as he survives,
What safety rests for us, or for my son?
Y. Mor. Speak, shall he presently be despatch’d and die?
Q. Isab. I would he were, so ’twere not by my means.
Plausible deniability! The Royal Mustache must be brought in, so she can twirl it. Marlowe is delivering the goods. He knows how to put the hay down where the goats can get at it.

In scene III we meet Edward:
Must I be vexed like the nightly bird,
Whose sight is loathsome to all winged fowls?
When will the fury of his mind assuage?
When will his heart be satisfied with blood?
If mine will serve, unbowel straight this breast,
And give my heart to Isabel and him;
It is the chiefest mark they level at.
It’s funny – it sounds like Shakespeare, because of rhythm and syntax I guess, but it’s v. plain – Shakespeare would be aiming at something that controls the whole speech (here are some ways that the king dies). But maybe that’s what makes it juicy – it’s just a straight-up messed-up Royal Family, there’s no additional Meaning-assembly (probably a word in German) required.

But then, in scene IV, Mortimer comes in with this brilliant plan:
And therefore will I do it cunningly.
This letter, written by a friend of ours,
Contains his death, yet bids them save his life. [Reads.]
“Edwardum occidere nolite timere, bonum est
Fear not to kill the king, ’tis good he die.”
But read it thus, and that’s another sense:
“Edwardum occidere nolite, timere bonum est
Kill not the king, ’tis good to fear the worst.”
Check it -- the Latin is ambiguous! Marlowe loses all the juicyness there, but I guess these college boys can’t help themselves. Nevertheless Mortimer charges his hired goon (“I learned in Naples how to poison flowers” – Naples, even then!), and basically gives a long “nothing can go wrong” speech.
And to conclude, I am Protector now.
Now is all sure: the queen and Mortimer
Shall rule the realm, the king; and none rule us.
Contemporary melodrama theory states that there must be a comeuppance. But will there be? Once again, ignorance is strength!

Now, in scene V, two different henchmen are trying to torture Edward, but good melodrama hero that he is (I suspect him of being a shithead earlier and being redeemed by suffering), he resists:
Mat. He hath a body able to endure
More than we can inflict: and therefore now
Let us assail his mind another while.
“Let us assail his mind another while” – that’s some timeless villain talk, there. And then King Edward is murdered – in a stage direction. How? I dunno! That must have been one hell of a production meeting.

then, in scene VI, upon hearing the news, Young Mortimer calls for the Royal Mustache again:
As for myself, I stand as Jove’s huge tree,
And others are but shrubs compar’d to me.
All tremble at my name, and I fear none;
Let’s see who dare impeach me for his death!
I think I heard this on a hip-hop album once. But, true to the melodrama, someone comes -- Edward III comes with a letter proving all, and then, in a rush, Mortimer is sent off to be killed, Mom (Q. Isabella) is sent to the tower, and Mortimer’s head is brought back to be lectured too. This takes about a page and a half. It’s like Marlowe had to write the last scene on deadline.

Or maybe the comeuppance of the wicked isn’t as interesting to him as when they’re living large. He wouldn't be the first writer to think so.

Feb 5: Sinbad and the Animal Spirits

Well, it took us, what, 35 days, but we are double-dipping for the first time – it’s back to the 1001 nights (Vol. 16) And that’s okay – we need a chaser after all of yesterday’s Philosophy.

Indeed I’m starting to get into the rhythm of the thing. I really do wonder, “where are you taking me today”? This is just what they intended, I’m afraid: in the words of the Copywriter’s (I’m capitalizing him/her now) awesome prose, “We want something to carry us out of ourselves, to take us a million miles from our humdrum existence, to stimulate our minds to fresh endavor, to give us a new viewpoint upon our problems, to enable us to get a fresh hold upon ourselves.”

I wouldn’t go that far. But it’s kind of fun, in a way, to have part of your day spent reading some weird old text that someone else picked out. Today it’s the Second Voyage of Sinbad -- or “Es-Sindibad” as he’s called in the text, so we can mercifully tell him apart from this guy:


Anyways, Sinbad travels. Why? Because he longs to. Because if he wants to stay at home among his treasures, we got no story.

Everything’s going great – he’s on an island being lulled to sleep by a zephyr. “O if only it had been a breeze,” I’m already thinking. Whoops, they left without him: I looked about it to the right and left, and found not in it any one save myself. I was therefore affected with violent vexation, not to be exceeded, and my gall-bladder almost burst by reason of the severity of my grief and mourning and fatigue.

Who hasn’t been there? My gall-bladder aches right now, thinking about it.

He escapes the island (by tying his turban to the foot of an enormous bird), but winds up in a desert:

I therefore blamed myself for that which I had done, and said, Would that I had remained in the island, since it is better than this desert place; for in the island are found, among various fruits, what I might have eaten, and I might have drunk of its rivers; but in this place are neither trees nor fruits nor rivers: and there is no strength nor power but in God, the High, the Great! Verily every time that I escape from a calamity, I fall into another that is greater and more severe!
If you had a sidekick, this is the point where you hit him with your hat. Also, there are big diamonds. And bigger snakes. And then I hit myself with my own hat and say – of course! Indiana Jones! Young master Delicious, who’s in an Indy phase, is going to love this (probably not).

There’s also this device they use where something happens (in this case, a slaughtered animal falls from the sky), and then Sinbad remembers something important to the plot. I’ve always kind of hated this kind of storytelling – it’s so convenient – but it is economical. Also economical – Sinbad’s device of tying himself to something and then allowing himself to be transported away….where he meets a merchant.

It’s worth noting that the only people who come into this godforsaken place are merchants. It’s really commerce that drives human enterprise – I think the Apollo program fooled us. When we finally build a moon base, it will be because Coca-Cola thinks it’s a good location for a bottling plant.

And then, after a stop at what can only be called a resort hotel, he comes home! The climax was in the middle of the story! Truly the Levantine people do not share our ways.

Feb 4: The Beknownst and the Unbeknownst

I've never read any Carlyle, and I don't even have a sense, as I sometimes do, whether he's fashionable or ridiculous or somewhere in-between. Nevertheless he made it into the Harvard Classics, paired with J.S. Mill (who I have read) in Volume 25, “No-nonsense Brits.” The essays have been slow going for me so far – perhaps prose is the most of-the-time of all the forms – but let’s hope for fire from “Characteristics.”

It doesn't look good:

So long as the several elements of Life, all fitly adjusted, can pour forth their movement like harmonious tuned strings, it is a melody and unison; Life, from its mysterious fountains, flows out as in celestial music and diapason,—which also, like that other music of the spheres, even because it is perennial and complete, without interruption and without imperfection, might be fabled to escape the ear.
This reminds me of nothing so much as Rocky Todd in the Bertie Wooster stories:

He had his scheme of life worked out to a fine point. About once a month he would take three days writing a few poems; the other three hundred and twenty-nine days of the year he rested. I didn't know there was enough money in poetry to support a chappie, even in the way in which Rocky lived; but it seems that, if you stick to exhortations to young men to lead the strenuous life and don't shove in any rhymes, American editors fight for the stuff. Rocky showed me one of his things once. It began:

Be!
Be!
The past is dead.
To-morrow is not born.
Be to-day!
To-day!
Be with every nerve,
With every muscle,
With every drop of your red blood!
Be!

Everyone bitches about our distracted, electronic world, but at least we no longer have to gas on about Life, because Turner Classic Movies is re-running “Lover Come Back.”

“Life is not given us for the mere sake of Living, but always with an ulterior external Aim” – Darwin is only three books down from you, sir.

I believe him to be saying that it’s better not to know things, sometimes, than to be fully conscious:
So cunningly does Nature, the mother of all highest Art, which only apes her from afar, ‘body forth the Finite from the Infinite’; and guide man safe on his wondrous path, not more by endowing him with vision, than, at the right place, with blindness!
I guess. You will get more accomplished if you’re not thinking, “Gee, this is a wondrous path, isn’t it?”

-- In the next paragraph Carlyle gets off “must needs,” an infallible sign of fusty.
...the truly strong mind, view it as Intellect, as Morality, or under any other aspect, is nowise the mind acquainted with its strength; that here as before the sign of health is Unconsciousness.
Plainly untrue, or how would the kid attached to the Mind console himself after being beaten up at school, if not by priding himself on its Strength? I see his point when he goes on to say that Artists do not know what they are doing, in the way that we lower hacks do. Great artists have a feel for things. But don't they also have to know how to make it artful? And how does Carlyle know, as he claims, that Shakespeare didn’t think he was writing anything special?

And then he goes on to say that the problem with your book-smart people is, they don’t have any common sense:
This is he whom business-people call Systematic and Theoriser and Word-monger; his vital intellectual force lies dormant or extinct, his whole force is mechanical, conscious: of such a one it is foreseen that, when once confronted with the infinite complexities of the real world, his little compact theorem of the world will be found wanting; that unless he can throw it overboard and become a new creature, he will necessarily founder.
Unless he figures out that there's money to be made teaching in business schools! But, really, this isn't a particularly new thought, and what does it signify? It’s too late if you know that you shouldn’t be knowing. Being intellectual about being anti-intellectual combines the worst of both worlds. I’d like it better if Carlyle were actually fighting against someone, otherwise this seems somewhat commonplace, though excellent wordy. In sum:
These curious relations of the Voluntary and Conscious to the Involuntary and Unconscious, and the small proportion which, in all departments of our life, the former bears of the latter,—might lead us into deep questions of Psychology and Physiology: such, however, belong not to our present object.
Good thing, what with all the hating on deep thinking and all.

Feb 3: Jacobean wisenheimers

It’s post-Super Bowl, and I’m feeling lazy, even though I didn’t watch it, except for the end as I was fixing dinner. Even though sports is far bigger than it was in the days of the HC, whoever made the selections must have been feeling lazy too, for we go all the way from Volume 46 to 47, from Shakespeare to…Jonson.

One of the advantages of using the physical book instead of the online version is that all the other stuff swims into your vision. Did you know Ben Jonson worked as a bricklayer? I don’t know why it would matter, but it is interesting.

Also around, but not included in the reading (which is act I scenes I-II of “The Alchemist”), is the “Argument” and the “Prologue”. This thing has more pregame than the Super Bowl (trying to keep topical here).

Oh, the argument is one of those acrostic poems where the first letters of the lines all spell “The Alchemist.” There is no end to the ingenuity of mankind deprived of TV.

I’ll also excerpt these four lines from the prologue because – if I am reading them right – they form a comedy writer’s creed:

..But when the wholesome remedies are sweet,
And in their working gain and profit meet,
He hopes to find no spirit so much diseas’d,
But will with such fair correctives be pleas’d.
As poetry I don’t think so much of it (the last line seems to clump a little), I just like the idea that the writer is pleased when his satire not only corrects people but makes some money.

-- OK, here’s the dramatis personae. The Alchemist is called Subtle. That’s probably the only thing that will be -- what kind of person will “Pertinax Surly” be, do we think? How about Tribulation Wholesome (which could have been the name of an XFL player)? Could you even get away with this nowadays? Sure you could, I realize – wasn’t there just a hit show called “Will & Grace”?

-- By the way, we’re promised “boisterous and ludicrous happenings,” so expect the unexpected! We join Subtle, Face (the housekeeper) and Dol Common mid-argument, so points for that. I think my sitcom background helps me here at the beginning, because the first thing I want to know is what they’re doing, not so much what they’re saying. They’re arguing, I can tell, and I’m not worried what the words are, because there aren’t enough of them to be expositional. So when Subtle says, “I’ll gum your silks/With good strong water, an you come,” I think “yada yada yada” – I’m waiting for the pipe to be laid.

-- Face then asks Subtle, out of anger, “Who am I, my mongrel, who am I?” A great way to get the pipe out! I have a feelling that this year’s readings, with their emphasis on the beginnings of plays, will actually be a master class for me in exposition.

-- “Suburb-captain” is an insult. The suburbs have never gotten respect.

-- Jonson also gives them a device whereby Face wants the volume of the conversation turned down and Subtle wants it louder, which could be funny to play, although I am easily amused.

-- Although he drops it as the two men fight, calling each other a “dog-leech” and “the vomit of all prisons”. It’s like you're practically at the Renaissance Faire right now!

-- I get it now (because the lady is cursing them out) – the three of them have a con going. They set up young Dapper, a lawyer (get it? He's a lawyer, and his name is Dapper.) and, again,, it’s something that would play much better than it reads (although it’s full of alchemical references, so who would want to see it, but this end, where Subtle is setting up the mark, reminds me of various New Age stuff one hears about:
Sir, against one o’clock prepare yourself;
Till when you must be fasting; only take
Three drops of vinegar in at your nose,
Two at your mouth, and one at either ear;
Then bathe your fingers’ ends and wash your eyes,
To sharpen your five senses, and cry hum
Thrice, and then buz as often.


The out, too, seems almost like Billy Wilder:
Well then, away. It is but your bestowing
Some twenty nobles ’mong her grace’s servants,
And put on a clean shirt. You do not know
What grace her grace may do you in clean linen.

Feb 2: One of the greats

All right, Hamlet. Hamlet. Volume 46 – Elizabethan Drama I (a Marlowe play is thrown in to pad the diversity statistics…although I note that the reading for Thursday is from the Marlowe play. Should I even bother re-shelving? Yes, because I am likely to use the book as a coaster otherwise.)

I also note that the four Shakespeare plays are all tragedies. Typical. I’m going to avoid my usual anti-comedy-bias grousing. Except that of course there wouldn’t be any comedies, because comedies aren’t fancy. Owning the Harvard Classics was supposed to be like having an intellectual set of good china. Comedy is too haimish.

On the other hand, I’ve never found Shakespeare to be that funny on the page, (though it can play great, of course). It’s particularly unfunny (Falstaff) when you’re told how hilarious you’re supposed to find it (Falstaff).

What we got today is Act I, from Scene III to the end of the act.

-- Shit, what am I going to say about Hamlet? Except that I like Laertes’s politic advice to Ophelia – i.e. girl, you’re punching above your weight, romantically speaking. Hamlet will have to make a more appropriate match. Then Polonius tells her the same thing. Poor thing. (But I do like that Poor Ophelia was able to volley back at Polonius – don’t be breaking the girls’ hearts off at school.) Earnest Young English Teacher would no doubt try to show his students that, see, “Ophelia’s dad got on her case, too!”

-- Scene IV. Hamlet looking for the ghost. Another thing I’ve forgotten in my years away from the play is Hamlet’s fancy-lad disapproval for some old-fashioned Danish throwing down:

This heavy-headed revel east and west
Makes us traduc’d and tax’d of other nations.
They clepe us drunkards, and with swinish phrase
Soil our addition; and indeed it takes
From our achievements, though perform’d at height,
The pith and marrow of our attribute.
or, "Geez! That’s not how we do it in Paris!"

It’s also interesting that, in Scene V, Hamlet doesn’t know that the ghost is his father. I can’t think of a practical reason for him not to know it – it’s equally expositional, or non-expositional, either way – and in some ways it’s a bigger moment if Hamlet realizes it. Maybe it’s just that it takes the scene in a different direction, about what Hamlet is doing now and not what he has to do.

-- The Ghost crying “Swear!” under the stage is a nice touch, too.

I think this excerpt is more for the “neither a borrower nor a lender be” speech (which, I picked up somewhere in my travels, we are supposed to feel superior too – Polonius is a fool), but I wonder also if the excerpt is so early in the play as to get us to read more; it’s like the trailer for the play.

I’m sneezing all over my computer screen so I think that’s enough for tonight.