Mar 31: Donne's eternal book-jacket photo

Did you know you can get John Donne wallpapers for your computer? This truly is a golden age. Donne, when he wrote, could not inspire himself with Chaucer wallpapers. Unless they were made of actual wallpaper. Maybe that's what they did with the old manuscripts.

All this is because today's reading is, not Donne himself, but Issak Walton on Donne -- specifically, his last days. (Today is --surprise! -- the anniversary of his birth. Or perhaps I should say "anniversarie.")

Donne, as is known, became an Anglican preacher and quite a fervant one in the last part of his life, but, as Walton presents him, there's a little bit of the literary showman left in the dying man. Writing from the country, where he is fighting his last illness, he takes offense at the rumors that he's announced his death to get out of preaching:

It is an unfriendly, and, God knows, an ill-grounded interpretation; for I have always been sorrier when I could not preach than any could be they could not hear me. It hath been my desire, and God may be pleased to grant it, that I might die in the pulpit; if not that, yet that I might take my death in the pulpit; that is, die the sooner by occasion of those labours.
Don't mind me; I'm just dying because I'm pursuing my calling here. And he also comes up with a kind of showman's idea for his memorial:
Several charcoal fires being first made in his large study, he brought with him into that place his winding-sheet in his hand, and having put off all his clothes, had this sheet put on him, and so tied with knots at his head and feet, and his hands so placed as dead bodies are usually fitted, to be shrouded and put into their coffin, or grave. Upon this urn he thus stood, with his eyes shut, and with so much of the sheet turned aside as might show his lean, pale, and deathlike face...
It looked like this when they turned it into sculpture:


Walton summarizes this well: "It is observed that a desire of glory or commendation is rooted in the very nature of man; and that those of the severest and most mortified lives, though they may become so humble as to banish self-flattery, and such weeds as naturally grow there; yet they have not been able to kill this desire of glory, but that like our radical heat, it will both live and die with us; and many think it should do so."

Mar 30:

You know how, like, global warming might be threatening the existence of our very civilization, yet no one seems to act any differently, except maybe Bon Jovi? Well, it would be easy to blame our terrible times, what with the Nintendos and the Entertainment Tonights and the Powermax Starting Lineup Presented By The Military-Industrial Complex -- but it turns out it's human nature. Today's reading from I Promessi Spozi covers the 1630 plague in Milan. Given my prejudice about turn-of-the-20th-century WASP prejudice -- where philosophy is left for Northern Europeans (the French technically count), and Italians are there for emotion and waving their garlic-scented hands in the air -- I was thinking it would be another ripping yarn like the one they gave us two weeks ago. But instead it's journalism:

And, to say the truth, it is not only our object, in this narrative, to represent the state of things in which our characters will shortly be placed; but at the same time to develop, as far as may be in so limited a space, and from our pen, an event in the history of our country more celebrated than well known.
Or, "see, I only made up this story and characters so I could get a chance to talk about something really interesting -- to wit, on what day did the first plague victim enter Milan in 1630?"

But the thing that's resonant is the universal human drive for denying anything bad is going on.
But that which, leaving censure, diminishes our wonder at his [the Bush-like leader who thinks his war is more important than anything else -- ed.] behaviour, which even creates another and greater feeling of wonder, is the behaviour of the people themselves; of those, I mean, who, unreached as yet by the contagion, had so much reason to fear it...who would not have thought that a general stir would have been created, that they would have been diligent in taking precautions, whether well or ill selected, or at least have felt a barren disquietude? Nevertheless... if any one had attempted, in the streets, shops, and houses, to throw out a hint of danger, and mention the plague, it would have been received with incredulous scoffs, or angry contempt. The same incredulity, or, to speak more correctly, the same blindness and perversity, prevailed in the senate, in the Council of the Decurioni, and in all the magistrates.
You just can't get people to feel a barren disquietude when they don't want to. Then the plague actually reaches Milan and no one gives a shit -- the band played on, to reference the famous AIDS history:
Many physicians, too, echoing the voice of the people, (was it, in this instance also, the voice of Heaven?) derided the ominous predictions and threatening warnings of the few; and always had at hand the names of common diseases to qualify every case of pestilence which they were summoned to cure, with what symptom or token soever it evinced itself.... Dread of sequestration and the Lazzaretto sharpened every one’s wits; they concealed the sick, they corrupted the grave-diggers and elders, and obtained false certificates, by means of bribes, from subalterns of the Board itself.
It ends disastrously, of course, and on March 30 (why else would we be assigned this passage if not for the anniversary-mania that characterizes the Daily Reading Guide?) the Capuchin monks have to step in and run things. It was not for this that they named the cappucino after them, but it's something for the Capuchins to be proud of nevertheless.

Mar 29: The gloomy love lives of the Norse

If you have any friends who are fans of Wagner, and they try to explain to you what the plot of the Ring cycle is, and you start to think that maybe the gods deserved their twilight for being so similarly named, that's the feeling you might get with today's reading, from the Norse epics.

(Digression: why is Epic and Saga, which is our volume today, volume 49 -- the last one? You'd think it'd be the beginning, when our stories were young. Maybe confounding expectations is a key to fine teaching. Or maybe they forgot.)

I had to refer back to the DRG's summation for this, so I'll paste it in here: "Brynhild, favorite goddess of Norse mythology, plighted troth with Sigurd, fearless warrior. But Sigurd forgot Brynhild and married Gudrun, whose brother, Gunner, then set out to win the beautiful Brynhild. Complications very like a modern tri­angle arose." Helpfully, Gudrun and Gunner's mother is named Grimhild.

What struck me today is a feature of these kind of epic-and-saga type stories: the fact that the characters themselves know that disaster's coming. Here, Gudrun (who is a she) is having dreams and goes to visit Brynhild for interpretation:

...this deer we were all fain to take, but I alone got him; and he seemed to me better than all things else; but sithence thou, Brynhild, didst shoot and slay my deer even at my very knees, and such grief was that to me that scarce might I bear it...
(Digression 2: the translation isn't terrible, but it's super old--fashioned and kind of D&D-ish. For example: "Alswid answered, 'Short space there was betwixt the coming hither of the twain of you.'" This is why I never finished Lord of the Rings.)

Anyway, what could this dream mean? Brynhild knows:
...for Sigurd shall come to thee, even he whom I have chosen for my well-beloved; and Grimhild shall give him mead mingled with hurtful things, which shall cast us all into mighty strife.
This immediately happens. Nobody fights against it at all. Nobody tries some subterfuge which, in fact, brings about the end they're trying to forestall, like in Greek myths. The gods must endure their own lives as if they were weather. Just like you can't stop the rain, you can't stop your mother from giving Sigurd the mingled mead and throwing yourself at him. Of course we sometimes have this feeling too -- this probably won't end well -- but in the narrative we tell ourselves we also include the reason that, this time, it's different. The Norse gods don't deceive themselves like that. Maybe because they're all gloomy and Scandanavian. Sigurd has met Brynhild:

“Thou art the fairest that was ever born!”

But Brynhild said, “Ah, wiser is it not to cast faith and troth into a woman’s power, for ever shall they break that they have promised.”

Ruin the mood, why don't you? Brynhild is also in a "heavy mood" at the end of our excerpt, too, when Gunnar woos her. Maybe a positive attitude doesn't count for as much as they say!
Talk

Mar 28: In defense of the lazy

Another undoubted classic today, The Wealth Of Nations. And not just any part, but the classic part of the classic -- the classic sirloin, if you will -- the part about pins and the division of labor. (Which doesn't have my favorite Smith quote: "People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.")

This is pretty famous, and unimpeachable, so I only want to point out two passages that are offensive to a lazy man such as myself. The first one is where Smith is talking about how the division of labor keeps workmen from doing more than one task:

A man commonly saunters a little in turning his hand from one sort of employment to another. When he first begins the new work he is seldom very keen and hearty; his mind, as they say, does not go to it, and for some time he rather trifles than applies to good purpose. The habit of sauntering and of indolent careless application, which is naturally, or rather necessarily acquired by every country workman who is obliged to change his work and his tools every half hour, and to apply his hand in twenty different ways almost every day of his life; renders him almost always slothful and lazy, and incapable of any vigorous application even on the most pressing occasions.
I bolded the "necessarily" to point out the one excuse Smith will give workmen -- they can't help being shiftless, it's just that they haven't been maximized. I speak up for them, however, having done some boring repetitive work among the chicken carcasses in the past. You need to gab.

And when I advanced to the writing rooms of the major studios, where all us writers made princely sums, we had to gab and saunter and trifle before we could buckle down to the work which the free market said was extremely valuable.

The other little passage is right at the end:
...and yet it may be true, perhaps, that the accommodation of an European prince does no always so much exceed that of an industrious and frugal peasant, as the accommodation of the latter exceeds that of many an African king, the absolute master of the lives and liberties of ten thousand naked savages.
The peasant may indeed be accommodated better than the king, but the peasant has to be industrious and frugal. The king does not.

Mar 27: The lighter side of failures to communicate

To get things out of the way: "Truth of Intercourse". Heh heh huh huh.

This is an essay where allowances must be made, for Robert Louis Stevenson writes in the full Anglo pipe-n-slippers style -- the kind of thing where "Alas!" is used unironically. Consider this opening sentence:

AMONG sayings that have a currency in spite of being wholly false upon the face of them for the sake of a half-truth upon another subject which is accidentally combined with error, one of the grossest and broadest conveys the monstrous proposition that it is easy to tell the truth and hard to tell a lie.
It ends well, but it takes forever to get there. (I should talk, with my syntax.)

The whole essay is like this -- interesting thoughts dressed up in old-fashioned clothes so they seem uninteresting. It's like eating Lobster Newburg or something -- quality ingredients, but prepared in this heavy noncontemporary style. Look, here's a picture:

And here's the prose:
An orator makes a false step; he employs some trivial, some absurd, some vulgar phrase; in the turn of a sentence, he insults by a side wind, those whom he is labouring to charm; in speaking to one sentiment he unconsciously ruffles another in parenthesis; and you are not surprised, for you know his task to be delicate and filled with perils. “O frivolous mind of man, light ignorance!” As if yourself, when you seek to explain some misunderstanding or excuse some apparent fault, speaking swiftly and addressing a mind still recently incensed, were not harnessing for a more perilous adventure; as if yourself required less tact and eloquence; as if an angry friend or a suspicious lover were not more easy to offend than a meeting of indifferent politicians!
Two sentences, is all that is! (Not counting the one with the "O" -- which is in storage with the "alas"es.) But the idea that, when you're having a fight with, say, your wife, you need to have more skill than a professional talker -- that's an interesting observation.

In fact, one begins to suspect RLS of writing this one from life:
The world was made before the English language, and seemingly upon a different design. ... I hate questioners and questions; there are so few that can be spoken to without a lie. “Do you forgive me?” Madam and sweetheart, so far as I have gone in life I have never yet been able to discover what forgiveness means. “Is it still the same between us?” Why, how can it be? It is eternally different; and yet you are still the friend of my heart. “Do you understand me?” God knows; I should think it highly improbable.
Yeah, I'm sure that worked. Nothing defuses the tension in an argument with your loved ones than trying to redefine the terms philosophically. More seriously, I find myself agreeing with Stevenson's point -- we can only come close to understanding each other, never fully arrive there -- and the kind of sherry-scented way he makes helps his case. It's as if a local humor columnist, tired of writing about how funny it is that people never use their turn signals, instead focused their whimsy on the impossibility of human communication.

It's interesting, too, that Stevenson closes his essay in a rush. In the penultimate paragraph, he (again) is in the midst of an argument -- a "Mr. and Mrs.," as a French friend of mine described them.
Sometimes we catch an eye—this is our opportunity in the ages—and we wag our tail with a poor smile. “Is that all?” All? If you only knew! But how can they know? They do not love us; the more fools we to squander life on the indifferent.
That's some head-in-the-oven awesomeness, right? But, like a performance of Hamlet where everyone jumps up to sing a closing number, he tacks on a happy ending:
But the morality of the thing, you will be glad to hear, is excellent; for it is only by trying to understand others that we can get our own hearts understood; and in matters of human feeling the clement judge is the most successful pleader.
He doesn't hold out much hope, it seems. But he does it so kindly-like!

Mar 26: The Harsh Face of Fable

Welcome back to the nightmare world of Aesop. (ATTN anyone who's reading along via Bartelby. There's a million of these in today's reading. For today's reading, I started at the link and stopped at "The Tortoise and the Birds.") It's a world, where, when you ask people to help you, they end up killing you. Or, when you help them, you end up being killed. Where slavery is terrible. But freedom means dark Satanic mills and the inevitable crushing of pride. Where wolves live in sheep's clothing, dogs soil mangers, and boys cry "Wolf!" (I'm tired of making the links, but they're there.) Where is Beauty, where is Truth, where are Other Capitalized Metaphysical Properties? They're reserved for humans -- in Aesopworld, we're all animals.

It's basically the same worldview as "The Wire," I guess. Or, to keep things tony, like Auden on Jane Austen:

You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
Besides her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle class
Describe the amorous effects of `brass',
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.
And they teach (taught?) this stuff to children? Well, they probably should -- the distance between Aesopworld and the schoolyard isn't that much, either.

Mar 25: Throw it down, big man!

Well, what’s to be said of Hamlet?

When I was in college I took a Shakespeare course and my TA said something to the effect of, “When I started graduate school, I believed the line that Shakespeare’s privileged position was just a result of our discourse. But now, having read all the other dramas of his time, I have to say that he really is that much better than everyone else.”

He certainly keeps his characters busy. Here in act III, scenes 1 and 2, Hamlet
• Soliloquizes (“To be or not to be”)
• Acts crazy toward Ophelia, sending her away (“Get thee to a nunnery”)
• Has a plan hatched against him (“Madness in great ones must not unwatched go”)
• Offers a little criticism of actors
• Hatches a plan with Horatio to watch his stepdad during the play
• Now flirts with Ophelia, but all crazy-like
• After the play, goads his mom and stepdad (“they do but in jest, poison in jest”)
• Busts Rosencrantz and Guidenstern (“do you think I am easier to play on than a pipe”) and Polonius (“very like a whale”)

That’s two scenes. It’s replete, I tell you, replete! (You can certainly see how one would be tempted to overplay Hamlet; I haven’t seen enough Hamlets to judge, though.)

Now, thanks to this project, I have now had to read a few other bits and pieces from the Elizabethan drama volumes — and I begin to see that Shakespeare is as over-the-top as his contemporaries, but his over-the-top also goes in different directions. Like a great slam-dunk champion, he not only gets above the rim, he can maneuver once he’s up there. Between that, and his quoteability, he really is the true Human Highlight Film, with apologies to this man:



I ought to use a more random photo, in the manner of Free Darko. But I don't have the Flickr skills.


One other point — the argument in “To be or not to be” is, Sure, we’d all love to kill ourselves, but we’re afraid of what might happen next. (In his own words, It’s the dread of the undiscovered country that keeps us bearing the fardels.) Is this true? Do atheists — who by definition must not have this dread — off themselves even more than, say, cops? (Although I believing in just or a merciful God must be a terrific strain if you’re in the L.A.P.D.) I don’t know; although I suspect atheism of being a luxury good — metaphysical comforts can be disposed with when you have enough of the physical — and if that’s the case maybe you’re less likely to off yourself. I dunno.

Mar 24: The rules for hot fictional characters.

Today is William Morris's Defense of Guenevere, which seems like more of a subject for an essay than terza rima, but there you go. It is her self-defense -- against getting busted for sleeping with Launcelot, apparently (the poem doesn't tell us).

The first thing I thought of was that the Arthurian mumbo-jumbo used to be beloved of the highbrows (Malory's in the HC as well), but now it has migrated to geeks and Spinal Tap and such. So it's hard not to hear "Stone'enge" when you read this -- almost the exact opposite of what William Morris must have intended.

About the poem I won't say too much. I like terza rima as a form, because it keeps the momentum up, but I don't like it when it cuts away or has a long flashback, because I find it hard to keep everything straight. I think it's because of all the stanza breaks; I'm a little ashamed to confess that I'm that easily confused, but it's so. So when Guenevere goes into a long thing about Launcelot and some guy named Mellyagraunce, which actually seems like it should be the name of a town -- well, I started to scan down to see where we'd come back into present time.

Her defense? I think it's here:

While I was dizzied thus, old thoughts would crowd

“Belonging to the time ere I was bought
By Arthur’s great name and his little love;
Must I give up for ever then, I thought,

“That which I deemed would ever round me move,
Glorifying all things; for a little word,
Scarce ever meant at all, must I now prove

“Stone-cold for ever? Pray you, does the Lord
Will that all folks should be quite happy and good?
Basically, she needed a little fun in her life. They say Guenevere is Welsh, but I'm suspecting she's French. Oh, the second part of her defense is that she's hot:

....say no rash word
Against me, being so beautiful; my eyes
Wept all away to gray, may bring some sword

“To drown you in your blood; see my breast rise
Like waves of purple sea, as here I stand;
And how my arms are moved in wonderful wise,

“Yea also at my full heart’s strong command,
See through my long throat how the words go up
In ripples to my mouth; how in my hand

“The shadow lies like wine within a cup
Of marvellously color’d gold; yea now
This little wind is rising, look you up,

“And wonder how the light is falling so
Within my moving tresses: will you dare
When you have looked a little on my brow,

“To say this thing is vile? or will you care
For any plausible lies of cunning woof,
Where you can see my face with no lie there

“For ever? am I not a gracious proof?—

Well, it's not much of defense, but, like they say, a hot girl who defends herself has a hot girl for a client.

Mar 23: Presto chango

I don't want to get all comp. religion here, but it does seem appropriate that today was a religious festival of transformation! and our reading includings women turning into mules. Yes, it's the Thousand and One Nights yet again -- back when the fact that Muslims were exotic didn't mean they were going to kill us in our beds once the Democrats take over. How could they -- when they're so busy telling tales and transforming into animals?

We get into stories-within-a-story-within-a-story land. Shahrazad (a much better spelling; it's like saying "Scheherazade" fast) is telling a story about a merchant who learns a lesson about using the proper receptacle for your date pits:

...an ‘Efrit [a kind of Jinni, I guess] , of enormous height, who, holding a drawn sword in his hand, approached him, and said, Rise, that I may kill thee, as thou hast killed my son. the merchant asked him, How have I killed thy son? He answered, When thou atest the date, and threwest aside the stone, it struck my son upon the chest, and, as fate had decreed against him, he instantly died.
"Well, it's fate's fault, then," the merchant could have said, if he'd a been a lawyer; but instead, he declaims some verses, which I won't go into, especially because the verse ends with, "the Jinni said to him, Spare thy words, for thy death is unavoidable." (In sitcoms we'd call the whole verse thing an "up and back.")

He is allowed to arrange his affairs and then comes back to the prearranged spot. He's early, though -- let this be a lesson to you, young people! -- and three merchants with various animals come, sympathize, and hang out. They then buy back his life by each telling the Jinni a story (Shahrazad-style; that the King doesn't notice the similarities shows that he was not trained in close reading, or close listening, as the case may be). Basically they're all of the form of, "See this animal I have? That was a loved one." There are twists. I won't go into them. My favorite thing, actually, is that, by the third one, we're all so wise to the form that what used to take pages now takes a paragraph:
THE MULE that thou seest was my wife: she became enamoured of a black slave; and when I discovered her with him, she took a mug of water, and, having uttered a spell over it, sprinkled me, and transformed me into a dog. In this state, I ran to the shop of a butcher, whose daughter saw me, and being skilled in enchantment, restored me to my original form, and instructed me to enchant my wife in the manner thou beholdest.
Yeah, yeah. If she's so skilled in enchantment, what's she doing in a butcher's shop? Probably helping with the displays.

Kind of a nice diversion for a reading, anyway, and even more so because the Mrs. and I just came back from Sweeney Todd, a story where the transformations only go one way.

Another sick-out

I'm actually not that sick, just tired from a long day's driving, and completely uninspired by today's pudding-like translation of Faust (click the link and see for yourself, but do not read this translation and drive). It can take some energy to dig up a take when none presents itself.

I often ask myself why I'm doing this; the closest thing I can compare it to is another midlife project, training to run a marathon -- similarly useless, but something nice to look back on having done. So today's a day when I'm cutting my miles short.

I will note that I read Faust for a German class I took in college, very poorly I might add, and that me and a couple of other guys in the back row became outraged when we discovered that Faust gets redeemed at the end, merely for striving. It still pisses me off, although I'm not sure why -- I'm usually not so sensitive about the sanctity of contracts.

Mar 21: Sexy gods!

This will have to be quick as I am dashing out the door for the day, but here's what the Daily Reading Guide promises from today (the eighth book of the Aeneid, vol. 13):

Venus, mother of Æneas and wife of Vulcan, obtained from her husband, by seductive witchery, a marvelous shield whose surface reflected a thousand years of future events. Venus describes the wonders of the magic armor.
It's the seductive witchery that's the part you'll remember -- it's actually kind of better in the prim Dryden translation. It starts out like any sitcom: Venus needs something from her husband, so she's willing to sleep with him:
When love’s fair goddess, anxious for her son,
(New tumults rising, and new wars begun,)
Couch’d with her husband in his golden bed,
With these alluring words invokes his aid;
And, that her pleasing speech his mind may move, 490
Inspires each accent with the charms of love

Basically she wants a shield for her son (Vulcan's stepson). We'll skip the details -- I doubt Vulcan was paying attention either, when it got to this:
She said; and straight her arms, of snowy hue,
About her unresolving husband threw.
Her soft embraces soon infuse desire;
His bones and marrow sudden warmth inspire;
And all the godhead [heh heh heh -- ed.] feels the wonted fire.
Not half so swift the rattling thunder flies,
Or forky lightnings flash along the skies.
The goddess, proud of her successful wiles,
And conscious of her form, in secret smiles.
The "secret smiles" would be to the camera, these days. Vulcan, of course, is down for whatever:

Trembling he spoke; and, eager of her charms,
He snatch’d the willing goddess to his arms;
Till in her lap infus’d, he lay possess’d
Of full desire, and sunk to pleasing rest.

I like "infused," because I haven't ever heard that used as a euphemism before. You do learn stuff from the classics!

Wikipedia says that Virgil wanted to cut this scene. He's crazy -- there's already too much of this:

Not far from hence there stands a hilly town,
Of ancient building, and of high renown,
Torn from the Tuscans by the Lydian race,
Who gave the name of Cære to the place,
Once Agyllina call’d.

Right, right. And the shield, of course, is amazing, because you'd think it'd have to be the size of of a Rockefeller Center mural to fit everything that's supposed to be on it. I don't even think our Pentagon could do that now in a million years of cost overruns. The other interesting thing to me is that Cleopatra -- the Egyptian who fought on the losing side -- gets the biggest description. It's like the Conn Smythe going to someone on the losing team.

Okay, off for the weekend.

Calling in sick

I have whatever bug is going around my house, therefore I can't follow whatever Voltaire is getting at in his writing on Newton. I do want to call attention to his excitement in one passage:

THE PHILOSOPHERS of the last age found out a new universe; and a circumstance which made its discovery more difficult was that no one had so much as suspected its existence. The most sage and judicious were of opinion that it was a frantic rashness to dare so much as to imagine that it was possible to guess the laws by which the celestial bodies move and the manner how light acts. Galileo, by his astronomical discoveries, Kepler, by his calculation, Descartes (at least, in his dioptrics), and Sir Isaac Newton, in all his works, severally saw the mechanism of the springs of the world...The circulation of the blood in animals, and of the sap in vegetables, have changed the face of Nature with regard to us.....
We've been living in that world for a long time, so it's boring to us, but it wasn't to Voltaire. I sometimes wonder if we're not in a similar position -- still in the infancy of our human story, still with a lot of things left to discover.

Mar 19: Ramble in old Egypt

Today, Herodotus, who, unlike some of the guys we get in here, I have heard of; but he's equally unread for all that. A lot of it is travelogue, like slides from his trip -- or he was trying to convince you of buying a vacation time-share:

It has twelve courts covered in, with gates facing one another, six upon the North side and six upon the South, joining on one to another, and the same wall surrounds them all outside; and there are in it two kinds of chambers, the one kind below the ground and the other above upon these, three thousand in number, of each kind fifteen hundred.
There then follows an account of the early kings of Egypt. It actually mixes in a lot of people and places, so it might well be called the Parade of Proper Names. Incidentally, as today is a very special anniversary and all, this might be a reassuring measure of human progress:
....as for Psammetichos, he was king over Egypt for four-and-fifty years, of which for thirty years save one he was sitting before Azotos, a great city of Syria, besieging it, until at last he took it.
Also this:
...Now whether the Hellenes have learnt this also from the Egyptians, I am not able to say for certain, since I see that the Thracians also and Scythians and Persians and Lydians and almost all the Barbarians esteem those of their citizens who learn the arts, and the descendants of them, as less honourable than the rest; while those who have got free from all practice of manual arts are accounted noble, and especially those who are devoted to war...
It's sort of like cable news now. There's also the Egyptian version of Vegas (which I guess is called "Luxor"):
...and in the sacred enclosure stand great obelisks of stone, and near them is a lake adorned with an edging of stone and fairly made in a circle, being in size, as it seemed to me, equal to that which is called the “Round Pool” in Delos. On this lake they perform by night the show of his [some god Herodotus won't name -- ed] sufferings, and this the Egyptians call Mysteries. Of these things I know more fully in detail how they take place, but I shall leave this unspoken...
So discreet, that Herodotus.

Mar 18: Grousy

It's been a while since I snarked on the DRG's habit of forcing readings based on anniversaries. Well, today, as you know, is the anniversary not of the birth, nor of the death, but of the burial of Philip Massinger. No, I've never heard of him either. Does it help if I say he is the author of "A New Way To Pay Old Debts" -- the kind of 17th-century drama where the guy who owns the tavern is named Tapwell and the baker is named Furnace? It doesn't? Does it get you psyched if Wikipedia says that "It seems doubtful whether Massinger was ever a popular playwright"? Me neither.

But enough grousing -- wait, not yet. What is the deal with the old-timey playwrights and their affection for the Sir Giles Overreach (who is the most famous character from this play, apparently) style of naming? Did they think it was hilarious -- their version of putting Will Farrell in a funny wig? Or is it just to make it easier to keep track of everyone -- "oh, right, Furnace is the baker"? I dunno.

My other grouse is the excerpter's habit of just taking the first scene or two of a play. I find this lazy. It would give the reader the impression that "Hamlet" is about a couple of security guards who see a ghost. (Actually, I think that might have been a good plot for Method and Red.) So what we got is more Explorations In Early Modern Exposition. It's a new one, though: Wellborn a (no shit) well born wastrel, is out of credit with Tapwell. Tapwell tells Wellborn all about himself in order to humiliate him:

What you are, is apparent. Now, for a farewell,
Since you talk of father, in my hope it will torment you,
I’ll briefly tell your story.

(This is one of those times where I'm pasting formatted text so it's going to look weird.) It reminds you of a Bond villain, but instead of killing Wellborn, he's just going to cut off his tab. It ends the same way, though, because Wellborn beats the shit out of him:

Thou viper, thankless viper! impudent bawd!—
But since you are grown forgetful, I will help
Your memory, and tread you into mortar,
Nor leave one bone unbroken. [Beats him again.]

See, nowadays, the P.C. squad would be all out in full force if a rich kid beat up a bartender. It's not like the old days, no sir. I also wonder how you would stage it.

Well, the excerpt kind of went downhill after that point. Owing the aforegroused excerpting policy we never meet Sir Giles Overreach, although judging by his last name I think by the end he might go by Overreach-Comeuppance. We do get an example of why Massinger is commended to us in the volume as a wonderfully moral playwright, and also a hint of why he wasn't popular:

...but for such
As repair thither as a place in which
They do presume they may with license practise
Their lusts and riots, they shall never merit
The noble name of soldiers.

How Margaret Dumont!

Mar 17: The stereotypes of the Irish

It's too tempting today. Most days I try to take the reading seriously, on its own terms, and keep the jokes in proportion, but to be given "The Poetry of the Celtic Races" -- well, it's hard to stop oneself. Here, let's get started:

"Poor Ireland, with her ancient mythology, with her Purgatory of St. Patrick, and her fantastic travels of St. Brandan, was not destined to find grace in the eyes of English puritanism."

Oh, here's another one, from earlier in the piece (which was written by Ernest Renan in the 19th century when it was very progressive and P.C. to talk about the characteristics of the "races" -- the fact that today the very opposite is what's progressive is what's making it hard for me to stop with the jokes):
Other legends related that when St. Patrick drove the goblins out of Ireland, he was greatly tormented in this place for forty days by legions of black birds people.
See what I did there? Because the Irish were supposed to be famously racist. Another passage that gives rise to a stereotypical joke is:
... With the consent of the abbot of the neighbouring monastery, they descended into the shaft, they passed through the torments of Hell and Purgatory, and then each told of what he had seen. Some did not emerge again; those who did laughed no more, and were henceforth unable to join in any gaiety.
Those were the ones who went to teach in Catholic schools. Again, I apologize to all Irish or part-Irish (such as myself), but if "30 Rock" and "The Simpsons" can't resist, how can I, who don't even have Standards and Practices? (Deadspin, too.) Somehow Irish-bashing has become an acceptable comedy meme. Renan, for his part, is "an equal opportunity offender":
Among the features by which the Celtic races most impressed the Romans were the precision of their ideas upon the future life, their inclination to suicide, and the loans and contracts which they signed with the other world in view. The more frivolous peoples of the South saw with awe in this assurance the fact of a mysterious race, having an understanding of the future and the secret of death.
Yes, if there's one adjective that leaps to mind when you think about the Romans, it's "frivolity."

I do have some sympathy towards Renan at the end of this piece, when he speaks up for the crazy Irish and their wacky tales which leave us cool, rational, 19th-century people shaking our heads as we head for our phrenologist appointment:
Which is worth more, the imaginative instinct of man, or the narrow orthodoxy that pretends to remain rational, when speaking of things divine? For my own part, I prefer the frank mythology, with all its vagaries, to a theology so paltry, so vulgar, and so colourless, that it would be wronging God to believe that, after having made the visible world so beautiful he should have made the invisible world so prosaically reasonable.
This guy agrees:
"The decided leaning of the Celtic race towards the ideal, its sadness, its fidelity, its good faith, caused it to be regarded by its neighbours as dull, foolish, and superstitious. They could not understand its delicacy and refined manner of feeling. They mistook for awkwardness the embarrassment experienced by sincere and open natures in the presence of more artificial natures."

Mar 16: Darwin Spring Break!

This won't be long; I have spent much of the day driving the boy to the camp he's going to for Spring Break and then driving myself back, so I am road-weary, trucker-song weary. Wouldn't it be great to be on a tropic island...with Charles Darwin?

To see a field of glittering white sand, representing water, with the cocoa-nut trees extending their tall and waving trunks around the margin, formed a singular and very pretty view.
No beach novels for Darwin, though -- he has the book of Life:
I have before alluded to a crab which lives on the cocoa-nuts; it is very common on all parts of the dry land, and grows to a monstrous size: it is closely allied or identical with the Birgos latro.
You can see why he doesn't choose Fort Lauderdale. About two-thirds of this reading is walking us through the differences in kinds of reefs, which isn't that interesting to me -- and, honestly, I believe we're destroying all the reefs anyway, so why indulge in nostalgia? But the crab adventures, that part's got a little more action.

The thing that I like in Darwin is his firsthand close observation -- not so much, for me, because I'm interested in the observation, but because I like to think of this bearded Victorian gentleman lying on the ground watching a crab trying to crack a coconut:
The crab begins by tearing the husk, fibre by fibre, and always from that end under which the three eyeholes are situated; when this is completed, the crab commences hammering with its heavy claws on one of the eye-holes till an opening is made. Then turning round its body, by the aid of its posterior and narrow pair of pincers, it extracts the white albuminous substance.
In my imagination, Darwin does this wearing either A) full black-frock-coat Victoriania, or B) an old-timey swimming-costume with horizontal stripes. And zinc oxide on his nose -- it's the South Sea, after all.

And the best part is that there's no natural-selection theory in this excerpt, so your Baptist friends can enjoy it too.

Mar 15: St. Ides

In honor of the Ides of March we have Plutarch on the death of Caesar. Plutarch's one of the things I'm glad to encounter in this project -- I've heard of him plenty, but when would you read him? He's not scholarly enough for college, I suspect, and too irrelevant for high school.

In fact, Plutarch would probably benefit from a hip translation like all the epics get, because biography will endure as a genre as long as there is Father's Day. And now, when we've screwed everything up, a there-were-giants-in-those-times reproach biography (also known as "The McCullough"), would go over big, I think.

And Plutarch is so gossipy, too. The first two pages of this are all about the signs and omens, most of which (as I recall) made it into that arch-sensationalist Shakespeare. And, at the end of the reading, when Cassius and Brutus are on the run, Plutarch seems most excited to report how freaky it is:

The most remarkable of mere human coincidences was that which befell Cassius, who, when he was defeated at Philippi, killed himself with the same dagger which he had made use of against Cæsar. The most signal preternatural appearances were the great comet, which shone very bright for seven nights after Cæsar’s death, and then disappeared, and the dimness of the sun, 16 whose orb continued pale and dull for the whole of that year, never showing its ordinary radiance at its rising, and giving but a weak and feeble heat.
I like the division of "mere human coincidences," and the more significant "preternatural appearances".

(This is actually a pretty good translation, by the way; I know I complain a lot but I didn't even notice. To hip up the translation I'd probably make it a little more noir.)

I won't get into the story, which is familiar enough from Shakespeare, but I will pull out one detail:
Casca gave him the first cut, in the neck, which was not mortal nor dangerous, as coming from one who at the beginning of such a bold action was probably very much disturbed. Cæsar immediately turned about, and laid his hand upon the dagger and kept hold of it. And both of them at the same time cried out, he that received the blow, in Latin, “Vile Casca, what does this mean?” and he that gave it, in Greek, to his brother, “Brother, help!”
Our modern assassins are lucky if they're fluent in one language. Maybe everything is going to hell after all.

Pour some out in honor of J.C.

Speaking of weird high culture projects

The New York Public Library has a show, or, according to the New York Times, a showette, about John Milton (volume 4):

"...it is startling that this work, once central to the literary and religious experience of the English-speaking world, is so much a curiosity, sentenced to the margins by its preoccupations with biblical interpretation, condemned by the density of its prosody, which does not instantly seduce but, instead, commands the reader to give way before it, persisting until no resistance is possible."
On the other hand, they do have Milton-inspired music by a band called Cradle of Filth.

And, while we're speaking of Canons, I should point out this Dial M for Musicology post about old-fashioned musicals as another kind of canon which high-schoolers are exposed to.

Not only excerpts, but articles!

Because I must read my Malory, I don't really have time to comment on it, but here's kind of an overview/criticism of the whole Harvard Classics I Googled up awhile ago, but haven't read.

Mar 14: Malory, My India Pale Ale, and Me

I'm pushing the boat out, because it's Friday evening, and you are the beneficiaries!

I can never make up my mind about whether I believe in Progress. Sure, many more people have all their teeth nowadays, and, with the exception of the subway station I used to use in Brooklyn, you don't encounter as much shit on the streets; but, on the other hand, aren't we just the same apes we always were -- just with better access to home improvement projects on the Internet? The fundamental things apply, as time goes by, and all that. (Another argument against: the kind of Kunstlerian apocalypse-of-progress forecasts you read about in the comments of The Oil Drum. Maybe improved public health will be the cause of our downfall after all.)

The reason why I'm bringing up this ambivalence is because today we have some crazy Arthurian stories from Malory, and it reminds me of the kind of "childhood of the race" kind of intellectual history I used to encounter here and there: like, back in medieval times, people were not only shorter, but they acted shorter - i.e. like children. This always seemed to me to be privileging our own moment to a high degree; who are we to patronize these old-school writers? They didn't even have eyeglasses!

However, today's story really does seem like something a kid would think up: our guys (Percival, Galahad, etc.) are stopping by a castle:

So in the meanwhile there came out a ten or twelve knights armed, out of the castle, and with them came gentlewoman which held a dish of silver. And then they said: This gentlewoman must yield us the custom of this castle. Sir, said a knight, what maid passeth hereby shall give this dish full of blood of her right arm.
Some custom. Our (three) knights, sensibly, call bullshit. They then have to fight first, ten knights, and then, no lie, sixty:
Then there came out of the castle a three score [! -- ed.] knights armed. ... We will let you go with this harm, but we must needs have the custom. Certes, said Galahad, for nought speak ye. Well, said they, will ye die? We be not yet come thereto, said Galahad. Then began they to meddle together, and Galahad, with the strange girdles, drew his sword, and smote on the right hand and on the left hand, and slew what that ever abode him...
This also seems a little kid-like, as does the heading of the next part: "How Sir Pericivale's Sister Bled a Dish Full of Blood for to Heal a Lady, Wherefore She Died; and How That the Body Was Put in a Ship." And that's what it's about. They need the blood to heal the lady of the castle; Sir Percivale's sister, who I guess was around but didn't take part in the hot three-on-sixty killing action, has the magic blood that heals the lady of the castle. (I also like the frank self-interest she expresses as her motive: "an I die for to heal her I shall get me great worship and soul’s health, and worship to my lineage." Sort of like endowing your alma mater's new basketball arena, but with blood.

Maybe she's more modern than I think. In fact, maybe I'm selling Malory short -- god knows there's a lot of kid-like entertainment these days, and back then the literate demographic was even smaller than it is today. So bring on the sixty dead maidens -- at least it will help us understand Monty Python better.

Hey, this bottle's empty. Must do something about that.

Mar 13: Airport reading of the 19th century

Okay, let's wash out the taste of my failure to read philosophy with a little classic Italian literature. Now, I count myself pretty good at faking knowledge of the great classics, but I had never heard of Manzoni or I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed) before today -- this in spite of the fact that I spent my entire pre-college life sleeping not 5 yards from it, in its guise as Volume 21 of the H.C.

This is where Wikipedia comes to the rescue. Manzoni turns out to be a titanic figure in Italian literature (Verdi's Requiem was written for his funeral). My favorite Wikifact, though, is this: " ...only after his marriage, under the influence of his wife, did he exchange [anticlericalism] for a fervent Catholicism." Most wives concentrate on your giving up smoking or whatever, not so much on the metaphysics. Different times, I guess.

As to I Promessi Sposi, the Daily Reading Guide, while fun, is no help:

13 Before Nobility Ran Tea Rooms
Manzoni has pictured in this thrilling romance of the seventeenth century nobility, the pompous and sporting life of those good old days when nobles lived sumptuously in spacious castles sur­rounded by vast estates.
First of all, how am I to trust the Harvard Classics when they don't know where to put the goddamn commas? Also, the drollness of nobility running tea rooms has palled a little since 1910. And finally, this description sells the excerpt short. It's another ripping yarn. (Cellini, as noted, is also ripping. I like to imagine the austere WASPs of Harvard shunting entertaining, garlic-soaked narrative off on the Italians, and keeping the bland yet worthy porridge of philosophy in the British Isles.)

Of course, we're parachuted into Chapter XX with no map or anything, but that's okay, because it starts with, "THE CASTLE of the Unnamed was commandingly situated over a dark and narrow valley..." Alright! I know exactly where we are. We're in airport-novel-land:
From the height of this castle, like an eagle from his sanguinary nest, the savage nobleman surveyed every spot around where the foot of man could tread, and heard no human sound above him.
The moldy translation actually adds to the enjoyment, as you can make fun of the text and be drawn into it at the same time. Later in this paragraph we find out that the Unnamed employs a number of "bravoes." Aw, snap -- Bravoes! Also, "ruffians" -- but I would expect no less.

After a little bit I figured out the plot, but I don't quite see the point of summmarizing it. There's a damsel in distress, I'll say that much. And it's kind of hard to figure out whether Signor Unnamed is one of the good guys or not -- he's some kind of crime lord, yet the ordinary folk love him, but he's going to kidnap our damsel (poor Lucia) -- it's confusing. Then, with the two-inches-deep psychology that separates the class from the trash in action fiction, we find out the Signor U. is confused as well:
...For some time past he had experienced, not exactly remorse, but a kind of weariness of his wicked course of life. These feelings, which had accumulated rather in his memory than on his conscience, were renewed each time any new crime was committed, and each time they seemed more multiplied and intolerable: it was like constantly adding and adding to an already incommodious weight...In his early days, the frequent examples of violence, revenge, and murder, which were perpetually exhibited to his view, while they inspired him with a daring emulation, served at the same time as a kind of authority against the voice of conscience: now an indistinct but terrible idea of individual responsibility, and judgment independent of example, incessantly haunted his mind ... Envying (since he could neither annihilate nor forget them) the days in which he had been accustomed to commit iniquity without remorse, and without further solicitude than for its success, he used every endeavour to recall them, and to retain or recover his former unfettered, daring, and undisturbed will, that he might convince himself he was still the same man.
Every time I try to get out, they pull me back in. Nevertheless, he has Lucia kidnapped. Kidnapping most purple, I might add:
...she writhed her body, but found that she was held down on all sides; she collected all her strength, and made a desperate effort to push towards the door; but two sinewy arms held her as if she were nailed to the bottom of the carriage, while four other powerful hands supported her there.
Manzoni is not to be held responsible for the use of the word "sinewy," of course, until you remember that he is a countryman of Fabio. Finally, as the chapter closes, we get another thumbnail description of the sensibility of the servant type:
All that she had seen and heard around her from her very infancy, had contributed to impress upon her mind a lofty and terrible idea of the power of her masters; and the principal maxim that she had acquired from instruction and example was, that they must be obeyed in everything, because they were capable of doing either great good or great harm. The idea of duty, deposited like a germ in the hearts of all men, and mingling in hers with sentiments of respect, dread, and servile devotion, was associated with, and solely directed to, these objects. When the Unnamed became her lord, and began to make such terrible use of his power, she felt, from the first, a kind of horror, and, at the same time, a more profound feeling of subjection.
This is what it must be like to have your first job at Fox News. In any event, it's pretty great. I can kind of see why it's not much talked about now, because it's over the top -- so over the top you can't even see the top from where it is. Bishop Berkeley seems very far away.

It begins

I'm capitulating tonight. There is too much to do and I am not up for Bishop Berkeley. I think it was around here:

Phil. Aye, but here lies the difference. Men commonly believe that all things are known or perceived by God, because they believe the being of a God; whereas I, on the other side, immediately and necessarily conclude the being of a God, because all sensible things must be perceived by Him.
that my eyes started to swim. And this:
Phil. I do not understand how our ideas, which are things altogether passive and inert, can be the essence, or any part (or like any part) of the essence or substance of God, who is an impassive, indivisible, pure, active being. Many more difficulties and objections there are which occur at first view against this hypothesis; but I shall only add that it is liable to all the absurdities of the common hypothesis, in making a created world exist otherwise than in the mind of a Spirit.
sealed the deal. I capitulate. Tomorrow is another day, and hopefully one with less philosophy in it.

Mar 11: I over-Compensate

So today is part of Emerson's On Compensation, and I was kind of dreading it. As a comedy writer, I have sworn on the altar of God to mock anyone who writes

It seemed to me also that in it might be shown men a ray of divinity, the present action of the Soul of this world...
-- and my impression is that's basically what Emerson is all about. And then I went to a wedding one time where Emerson was the reading. Yes, at least it's not "Let me not to the marriage of true minds," but nothing makes the mind wander like Emerson read by one of your college friends -- and not the friend who tried to become an actor, either.

So, two strikes, but I actually wound up liking it. It started slow, of course, with that line about the Soul. (The literal start, though, is great -- "Ever since I was a boy I have wished to write a discourse on Compensation" -- what fun around the schoolyard!) And there's a whole bunch of throat-clearing to the effect of, "I, Ralph Waldo Emerson, am smarter than my preacher." But then he gets down to brass tacks, which is good, because we've gone a couple pages without having a clue as to what we're talking about when we talk about Compensation:
POLARITY, or action and reaction, we meet in every part of nature....Superinduce magnetism at one end of a needle, the opposite magnetism takes place at the other end. If the south attracts, the north repels... An inevitable dualism bisects nature, so that each thing is a half, and suggests another thing to make it whole; as, spirit, matter; man, woman...
And I thought, holy shit, this is my wedding! For the Mrs. and I had this passage of Wallace Stevens read (again, by a non-actor):

Two things of opposite natures seem to depend
On one another, as a man depends
On a woman, day on night, the imagined

On the real. This is the origin of change.
Winter and spring, cold copulars, embrace
And forth the particulars of rapture come.

Music falls on the silence like a sense,
A passion that we feel, not understand.
Morning and afternoon are clasped together

And North and South are an intrinsic couple
And sun and rain a plural, like two lovers
That walk away as one in the greenest body.
Nice, huh? Plus an open bar -- the perfect wedding. So now I'm on Emerson's side, especially as he goes into a paragraph that could be summed up as, Mo Money Mo Problems:
If riches increase, they are increased that use them. If the gatherer gathers too much, nature takes out of the man what she puts into his chest; swells the estate, but kills the owner.
But then I think he takes it too far. First of all Emerson indulges in a little Rocky Todd-ism:
These appearances indicate the fact that the universe is represented in every one of its particles. Every thing in nature contains all the powers of nature. Every thing is made of one hidden stuff;
And then what sets me off more is that he makes it too perfect:
Justice is not postponed. A perfect equity adjusts its balance in all parts of life. [Greek]. The dice of God are always loaded. The world looks like a multiplication-table, or a mathematical equation, which, turn it how you will, balances itself. Take what figure you will, its exact value, nor more nor less, still returns to you. Every secret is told, every crime is punished, every virtue rewarded, every wrong redressed, in silence and certainty.
This, I think, is obviously untrue. Every crime is punished? I think his rhetoric is leading him astray. Look at this:
Punishment is a fruit that unsuspected ripens within the flower of the pleasure which concealed it. Cause and effect, means and ends, seed and fruit, cannot be severed; for the effect already blooms in the cause, the end preexists in the means, the fruit in the seed.
Pretty writing, but I get the impression that, because Emerson can make his sentences balance, he thinks the universe must balance also. Plus also, too, as well, the metaphors don't jibe. Punishment is the end of pleasure-- its goal (as the fruit is the goal of the seed)? Really? I didn't even know eating desserts had a goal, much less that it's, I don't know, cavities.

(Unless, of course, we resort to dime-store psychology. Take Spitzer and the hookers. He started using them after he screwed up the beginning of his governorship -- maybe this was just a sexy way to get out of being governor. In that sense the punishment truly was the end of the pleasure. Seems pretty crackpot, though.)

But I don't want to grouse too much. I found this reading teeth-sinking good, even if, in this excerpt, it comes down to taking the bitter with the sweet. That's what this project is all about too.

Mar 10: In which the Classics pall somewhat.

But enough of high officials of state and hookers, let's have some old-fashioned Jacobean exposition, Beaumont and Fletcher style:

DION. Yes; whose father, we all know, [my absolute favorite expositional device -- ed] was by our late King of Calabria unrighteously deposed from his fruitful Sicily. Myself drew some blood in those wars, which I would give my hand to be washed from.
CLE. Sir, my ignorance in state-policy will not let me know why, Philaster being heir to one of these kingdoms, the King should suffer him to walk abroad with such free liberty.
DION. Sir, it seems your nature is more constant than to inquire after state-news. But...
I think if I were doing a doctorate I would do it on exposition in early modern drama. This isn't a comedy, or CLE (Cleremont) could be the dumb character. Then we could get all the pipe out.

What I would like to ask someone with a doctorate is why the hell the people are named what they are. Our hero is named Philaster, which might be the name of a nineteenth century Senator or modern point guard. The villain is a Spaniard (of course), so naturally he's named Pharamond, which is more point guard-y than Senatorial, to my ear. Other people in the cast are:

Arethusa
Thrasaline
Galatea
Megna

I guess maybe we're more provincial than the Jacobeans -- or maybe this is just the Jacobean version of science fiction (compare this list of Doctor Who henchmen).

Anyway, what we got is that the King is going to give his daughter away to the Spaniard, Pharamond. I believe we're supposed to hiss automatically. Philaster, who has a claim to the throne that I'm not going to untangle -- one thing about this one-night-stand way of reading, you don't do the work on the relationship that you ought to -- is steaming. He talks hot, and then, the princess (who we haven't seen) calls him for an assignation. It's a setup! his friends cry, but he goes anyway. And...scene!

The past couple days I've been pissing on Swift and Cervantes, and I'd rather not be a hater, but there you are. Even the Daily Reading Guide's reassurance that Beaumont and Fletcher were "men from good families" is no balm. Maybe if I put some Thrasaline on it I'll feel better.

Emerson tomorrow! There's a cure for the blues!

Mar 9: Unswiftian Swift

To Volume 27 again, for Swift's Treatise on Good Manners and Good Breeding. One of the downsides of following the Daily Reading Guide is that the Daily Reading Guide is biased towards "15 minutes a day" length pieces. So, if you're rubbing your hands together in anticipation of some classic Swift broadsides against good manners, I can only say two things:

1. Stop rubbing your hands together, you look ridiculous.
2. And besides, it's not happening.

Oh, the vitriol shows its head -- if vitriol can be said to have a head -- once in a while, like here:

Upon which account, I should be exceedingly sorry to find the legislature make any new laws against the practice of duelling; because ... I can discover no political evil in suffering bullies, sharpers, and rakes, to rid the world of each other by a method of their own[.]
But otherwise it reminds me of nothing so much as one of those "But seriously, guys" movies -- you know, like Interiors. Or whatever Will Ferrell's going to do two years from now. Swift has Serious Opinions on Good Manners and Good Breeding! With, you know, unhilarious results:
One principal point of this art is to suit our behaviour to the three several degrees of men; our superiors, our equals, and those below us. For instance, to press either of the two former to eat or drink is a breach of manners; but a farmer or a tradesman must be thus treated, or else it will be difficult to persuade them that they are welcome.
I guess the guy wasn't a Tory for nothing.

And what is the difference between good manners and good breeding? Good breeding's the kind of thing that would get you punched out:
for besides an uncommon degree of literature sufficient to qualify a gentleman for reading a play, or a political pamphlet, it takes in a great compass of knowledge; no less than that of dancing, fighting, gaming, making the circle of Italy, riding the great horse, and speaking French.
You know, all the things John Kerry was good at.

And then the piece concludes with Swift's practical advice: be on time. Now that's a modest proposal.

Mar 8: A bad one

From Don Quixote today, and all the "dosts" of the translation make your head spin. It's one of those passages where you read a paragraph without having any idea what they mean, hoping that, in the next couple of paragraphs, someone will refer to something that's happened, and, somehow, you can triangulate your way to understanding. That's what this passage is like.

Here's what the Daily Reading Guide promises:

8 Dangerous Experiment with a Wife
Anselmo and Lothario were close friends. Anselmo, anxious to learn if his wife were perfect, as he believed her to be, makes an unusual proposal to his old friend.

Spicy! Here's what it's like in practice:

And presupposing that nothing which thou shalt say to me shall be available to hinder my design, or dissuade me from putting my purpose in execution, I would have thyself, dear friend Lothario, to provide thee to be the instrument that shall labour this work of my liking, and I will give thee opportunity enough to perform the same, without omitting anything that may further thee in the solicitation of an honest, noble, wary, retired, and passionless woman.
Not spicy! It's like being entombed in Cream of Wheat.


And what's worse, the whole reading is just setup. It takes pages and pages of Cream of Wheat to accomplish this: Anselmo bitches about his happiness, because how does he know his wife really loves him, or is it she's just too sheltered and doesn't know any better? So you, Lothario, my best friend, see if you can seduce her. Lothario, sensibly, says that this is stupid. That's it. It takes nine pages. I have a feeling it won't turn out well, but as these characters take the description "all talk" to the 110% logical extreme I don't really care.

Mar 7: Bacon's Op-Ed

One of my little ploys, I've noticed, is to translate the readings into pop culture terms. I suppose I do it to make it relevant -- even to myself. But not "relevant" in the "cool" sense -- if I say Shakespeare play is like a summer blockbuster (to make up an analogy; I don't have any idea if that's a supportable idea), I don't mean that people should like it as much as they do summer blockbusters, it's just that it let me think about Shakespeare in a way that makes him seem less foreign, so I can have a more honest response. The past is another country, after all. ( And a lot of times it's from another country too, which makes it doubly hard.)

So when I point out that Francis Bacon's essay Of Judicature strikes me as basically an Op-Ed from a guy who knows a lot of Latin, I'm not trying to talk it up. I'm saying it's obvious:

Judges ought to be more learned than witty, more reverend than plausible, and more advised than confident. Above all things, integrity is their portion and proper virtue.
And I argue the opposite! Integrity is the worst quality a judge could have! The whole thing, which is short, is like that -- judges shouldn't talk too much! Courthouses shouldn't have corrupt dealings in them! Etc.

There are two things to say in its favor: 1. Of course, the Op-Ed hadn't been invented yet, so there was much less of a history of pieces where judges are urged not to be corrupt. At least pieces written in English, anyway. Op-Ed writers of today have less of an excuse. And 2., the piece is wicked organized. Bacon gives four areas of concern for the office of judge. Each gets a paragraph. One paragraph (the administration of the courts), has four sub-areas. Each area gets a sentence.

I think they tried to teach this to me in high school, but as you see it didn't take. It couldn't be less like Montaigne. Whom I prefer -- but then I am not a practical person.

Mar 6: Flow

Well, it has been a stressful day, for one reason and another, and it's nice to have a Classic to de-bummify things here at close. Now it's time to relax and enter another, more placid world. What do I pluck from the shelves tonight?

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
D'oh!

I don't have hardly anything to say about "The Raven," except to note that Poe has great flow:
You ever witness rapport like this before?
It's cause y'all kiss the floor, say this my lord
It's the chosen one, with the golden tongue
Flow for the old and young when i'm holdin one
Sorry, that's Rakim. Here's Poe:
Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
`Doubtless,' said I, `what it utters is its only stock and store,
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore -
You get the idea. And now, like Poe's narrator himself, I desire oblivion.

Mar 5: Now that's fabrication

On seeing that it could not be helped, I told him before all his servants: “Lock me well up, and keep good watch on me; for I shall certainly contrive to escape.” So they took and confined me with the utmost care.

See, that's how you do it. If you're going to embroider your memoir, put a little swash and buckle into it. Yes, our old favorite Benvenuto Cellini is back again -- after a couple of days of devout Protestants, we get a cheery Renaissance Italian Catholic contrast (imprisoned, he refuses to eat the Pope's food, but a sympathetic Cardinal feeds him.)

Often one of the difficulties of reading excerpts is that you don't know all of the underlying circumstances. In this case it's a strength -- you just focus on the incredible story, which is in five short chapters and runs as follows:

• Cellini is imprisoned by a man who thinks he's a bat.
• He escapes by taking the door off the hinges (a process that takes a long time), and lowering himself down with bedsheets -- perhaps one of the first uses of that escape trope.
• Breaking his leg in the fall, he crawls to town, where, after he's bit by dogs, a servant carries him on his back to the cathedral.
• He's put up by the Cardinal, but the Pope gets wind of it; however, the exploit is so marvelous that a bargain is struck.

That's the end of the excerpt -- a happy ending. But I read ahead and know that Benvenuto gets himself in more trouble, which is foreshadowed by a passage in the excerpt:
I should have been quite safe from recapture by the Pope if I could have stayed there; but my exploits up to this point had been too marvellous for a human being, and God was unwilling to encourage my vainglory; accordingly, for my own good, He chastised me a second time worse even than the first.
William Penn never had it half so good.

Mar 4: Quaker Self-help

How did William Penn get to be so famous and successful? First of all, it helps to have a father who's a prominent admiral. That doesn't come up in his Fruits of Solitude, his own book of maxim-style wisdom. Note -- not Maxim:


O how sordid is Man grown! Man, the noblest Creature in the World, as a God on Earth, and the Image of him that made it; thus to mistake Earth for Heaven, and worship Gold for God!
This kind of thing never goes out of style -- here's what you'd do, if you were smart:
The World is certainly a great and stately Volume of natural Things; and may be not improperly styled the Hieroglyphicks of a better: But, alas! how very few Leaves of it do we seriously turn over! This ought to be the Subject of the Education of our Youth, who, at Twenty, when they should be fit for Business, know little or nothing of it.
Get thee a Book of Maxims, Capitalize some Nouns, and you will shortly find your way to true Happiness. Not that I'm disagreeing:

Were the Superfluities of a Nation valued, and made a perpetual Tax or Benevolence, there would be more Alms-houses than Poor; Schools than Scholars; and enough to spare for Government besides.
or
5. The first Thing obvious to Children is what is sensible; and that we make no Part of their rudiments.
6. We press their Memory too soon, and puzzle, strain, and load them with Words and Rules; to know Grammer and Rhetorick, and a strange Tongue or two, that it is ten to one may never be useful to them; Leaving their natural Genius to Mechanical and Physical, or natural Knowledge uncultivated and neglected; which would be of exceeding Use and Pleasure to them through the whole Course of their Life.
7. To be sure, Languages are not to be despised or neglected. But Things are still to be preferred.
8. Children had rather be making of Tools and Instruments of Play; Shaping, Drawing, Framing, and Building, &c. than getting some Rules of Propriety of Speech by Heart: And those also would follow with more Judgment, and less Trouble and Time.

Or
They have a Right to censure, that have a Heart to help: The rest is Cruelty, not Justice.

Still, who'd have paid attention to him if he'd just lived in Pennsylvania, instead of founding it?

Mar 3: I am assigned filler

It says on the spine of Vol. 15, "Pilgrim's Progress/Donne & Herbert/Bunyan/Walton." What it really is, is "Pilgrim's Progress" plus two biographical sketches by Issak Walton of Donne and George Herbert, who is introduced in the DRG as a "preacher whose hobby was poetry," and not one of the leading Metaphysical Poets. ("Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws/Makes that and th'action fine") Of course not, because then you'd have to have his poetry, not a magazine profile of him.

And why not have "The Compleat Angler" instead -- as the source of many a SCA-like irritating alternate spelling? I guess excerpts from a book that says "Compleat" is too much of a tease. And I'd probably be complaining about how I don't know how to fish, either. (Teach a man to fish, of course, and he can read from the Harvard Classics forever, or so I've been told.)

What we get in our excerpt is the rise of the young George Herbert. Actually Walton seems more interested in his mom, and one can see why: she was widowed with 10 children and became good friends in middle age with John Donne. On the other hand, when her eldest went to Oxford, she moved in with him:

yet she continued there with him, and still kept him in a moderate awe of herself, and so much under her own eye, as to see and converse with him daily: but she managed this power over him without any such rigid sourness as might make her company a torment to her child; but with such a sweetness and compliance with the recreations and pleasures of youth, as did incline him willingly to spend much of his time in the company of his dear and careful mother; which was to her great content: for she would often say, “That as our bodies take a nourishment suitable to the meat on which we feed; so our souls do as insensibly take in vice by the example or conversation with wicked company:”
Mo-om! Imagine how pleased she was when young Georgie, at seventeen, sends her a poem that ends
Why should I women's eyes for crystal take?
Such poor invention burns in their low mind
Whose fire is wild, and doth not upward go
To praise, and on thee, Lord, some ink bestow.
Open the bones, and you shall nothing find
In the best face but filth.
Nowadays a parent would be worried about sentiments like these.

I was about to write, "just when his life gets interesting the excerpt ends," but in truth Herbert's life never got interesting -- he fell from favor at court, retired to a small parish, and died of TB. So, preferring the life to the work, let's end with his "Easter Wings":

Lord, Who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
Most poore:

With Thee
O let me rise,
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day Thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

Mar 2: Sunday in San Diego, 1834-style

My favorite volume of the HC -- because it's so weird -- is Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before The Mast, and that's where we get today's reading. It's such an odd volume to include with Homer, etc. But maybe it's just to make the whole Harvard Classics project seem more manly. (Or maybe it's because the Danas knew the Eliots up in Boston; according to Wikipedia Dana's from good solid Brahmin stock.

The reading couldn't be more perfect on this perfect California Sunday, because it's a perfect California Sunday in 1834, and Dana, who has signed on as an ordinary sailor -- ordinary sailors! imagine! -- gets leave:

I shall never forget the delightful sensation of being in the open air, with the birds singing around me, and escaped from the confinement, labor, and strict rule of a vessel—of being once more in my life, though only for a day, my own master. A sailor’s liberty is but for a day; yet while it lasts it is perfect.... Things looked differently from what they did when we talked them over in the little dark forecastle, the night after the flogging at San Pedro.
I should say so. There follows an amusing incident familiar to many graduates of fancy colleges -- an incident of the "Where did you go to college?" "Um...New England" variety. Dana and his friend S. want to get away from the ordinary people for a day, but they can't until they go out drinking with them:
S—— and myself determined to keep as much together as possible, though we knew that it would not do to cut our shipmates; for, knowing our birth and education, they were a little suspicious that we would try to put on the gentleman when we got ashore, and would be ashamed of their company; and this won’t do with Jack. When the voyage is at an end, you may do as you please, but so long as you belong to the same vessel, you must be a shipmate to him on shore, or he will not be a shipmate to you on board. Being forewarned of this before I went to sea, I took no “long togs” with me, and being dressed like the rest, in white duck trowsers, blue jacket and straw hat, which would prevent my going in better company, and showing no disposition to avoid them, I set all suspicion at rest.
Don't play that goddamn college music on the jukebox, either. Well, they get out and, as many a visitor to San Diego does, head for Old Town -- or as they called it then, "Town." This entails a lot of dealings with Mexicans, who have snuck over the border whose country this is:
....endeavoring to get horses for the day, so that we might ride round and see the country. At first we had but little success, all that we could get out of the lazy fellows, in reply to our questions, being the eternal drawling “Quien sabe?” (“who knows?”) which is an answer to all questions.
San Diego's still like that, really, except people will also say "Dude". Other than that there's not much to tell. They ride horses. They eat at the mission. They avoid Sea World, understandably. And, getting back on the ship, they can rest easy in the knowledge that their trip up the coast will be faster than using the 5.

Mar 1: It's the Spectator Show!

Today is the anniversary of Addison and Steele's The Spectator and so we are to read The Spectator Club (from Vol. 27 -- English Essays: Sidney to Macaulay). I vaguely recall having to read this early eighteenth-century prose in -- junior high, maybe? I dunno, but, of course, why would it register at all?

But now, having written my share of failed TV pilots, and read many more, I understand this essay much better. It's the character description page. In a lot of pilots there'll be a page (or more) of description of your characters before the script starts -- which makes sense, because what the characters are what the network's really buying.

And what I have painfully learned is that you cannot sell these characters too hard. I still remember reading the "Will & Grace" pilot and chuckling at the description of Grace being "scary-smart" -- asserted, I remember thinking, but not proven. But it sold the show. Another example: I was reading a pilot where the female character was introduced with, among other things, the description "think Laura Linney." I mean, Laura Linney would never have even watched this show, much less been in it, but I'll be damned if it didn't make the lines seem funnier.

Well, that's what today's reading is -- one of the first known instances of the "Character Description" page. All men, of course, because the discovery that women could be funny would have to be left for a later age. But it's a motley crew. You have:

• Sir Roger de Coverly, the bluff Tory
• The "bachelor" lawyer who really prefers the theater (hint, hint)
• Sir Andrew Freeport, a merchant, who has "made his fortune himself; and says that England may be richer than other kingdoms by as plain methods as he himself is richer than other men." He's our conservative so we can have some political throwdowns.
• Captain Sentry, who's shy
• Will Honeycomb, smooth-talking ladies man. How much of a ladies man? This much: "He knows the history of every mode, and can inform you from which of the French king’s wenches our wives and daughters had this manner of curling their hair, that way of placing their hoods; whose frailty was covered by such a sort of a petticoat, and whose vanity to show her foot made that part of the dress so short in such a year."

Ladies men sure have changed.

• Oh, and an occastional clergyman. Ordinarily the wacky neighbor, except he has "earnestness to have him fall on some divine topic, which he always treats with much authority, as one who has no interest in this world, as one who is hastening to the object of all his wishes, and conceives hope from his decays and infirmities." I suppose it's wacky in the right hands -- Ben Stein or something.

I actually look forward to the Spectator show, and one of the small curses of doing the readings like this is that this pilot won't be picked up; it's on to something else tomorrow. That's showbiz, I guess.