Apr 30: Elitist!

What kind of a future does this man have in politics, when he talks in paragraph-long sentences:

I dwell on this prospect with every satisfaction, which an ardent love for my country can inspire; since there is no truth more thoroughly established, than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness, between duty and advantage, between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy, and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity; since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right, which Heaven itself has ordained; and since the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the republican model of government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked on the experiment intrusted to the hands of the American people.
This is kind of boring even by the standards of eighteenth-century prose, but look at the syntax! Obviously Washington is not a guy you want to have a pewter tankard of hearty early-American ale with.

But then Washington doesn't want to have a beer with you either -- as this anecdote I Googled shows:
Gouverneur Morris entered, bowed, shook hands, laid his left hand on Washington’s shoulder, and said, “My dear General, I am very happy to see you look so well!” Washington withdrew his hand, stepped suddenly back, fixed his eye on Morris for several minutes with an angry frown, until the latter retreated abashed, and sought refuge in the crowd. The company looked on in silence. At the supper, which was provided by Hamilton, Morris said, “I have won the bet, but paid dearly for it, and nothing could induce me to repeat it."
The other interesting thing about this little address (which was delivered on this date 229 years ago), is that it's larded with references to God. Actually, not to God. The word "God" isn't in this speech. He's just "the Almighty," and I hope I will be forgiven if I say that Washington's conception of this Being (who he also calls a "Parent"), looks a little like...Super-Washington:
...who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that his benediction ...may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success the functions allotted to his charge.
Another jawbreaker sentence! Does this guy never learn!

NOTE: You can actually see a copy of the address in Michael Gerson's Washington's own handwriting here.

Apr 29: The Thousand and One Nights...Of Terrorism!

The past is another country, indeed. The First Voyage of Sinbad takes place in Baghdad, but a fictional Baghdad, one peopled with Arabs and such who labor under the illusion that they are a civilization. We know better, of course. They are marauders and we, who guarantee -- to even the poorest among us! -- a cool spot on the floor of any emergency room in town, are the true bearers of civilization.

Does Daniel Pipes know about this man?

Okay, down off the soapbox. One of the interesting things about this Sinbad (properly "Es-Sindibad," but that's ever so much longer to type) yarn is that after:

• He goes on a voyage
• They land on an island that is really a huge fish, who takes offense, drowning everyone;
• But Sinbad clings to a wooden bowl, and drifts to another island;
• Where, after days and days, he finally finds a mare
• Who is being led to the shore in order to mate with sea horses;
• And then is led to the king of this remote, magical place;

The topper is...he gets a job in the civil service!
O my son, by Allah thou hast experienced an extraordinary preservation, and had it not been for the predestined length of thy life, thou hadst not escaped from these difficulties; but praise be to God for thy safety! Then he treated me with beneficence and honour, caused me to draw near to him...and he made me his superintendent of the seaport, and registrar of every vessel.
For the finest treasures of Arabia are as nothing next to a Port Authority pension.

Eventually, he does get back to Baghdad (which we know by its modern name of "strife-torn Baghdad"), by means of a crazy coincidence. But then the whole story only is told because of an another crazy coincidence, which is that an Es-Sindibad, a porter who carries stuff on his head, takes a little unscheduled break in a merchant's house, and, because the merchant is also named Es-Sindibad, he (the merchant) decides it's tale-telling time. Oh, and also because the merchant is enchanted by Sindibad the porter's bitching about God:

How many wretched persons are destitute of ease! and how many are in luxury, reposing in the shade!

I find myself afflicted by trouble beyond measure; and strange is my condition, and heavy is my load!

Others are in prosperity, and from wretchedness are free, and never for a single day have borne a load like mine;

Incessantly and amply blest, throughout the course of life, with happiness and grandeur, as well as drink and meat.

Honestly, don't you think Sinbad should be madder at God than he is? Maybe he's just enchanged by God's ability to focus on the essentials:
How great is thy dignity! and how mighty is thy dominion! and how excellent is thy government! Thou hast bestowed favours upon him whom Thou choosest among thy servants, and the owner of this place is in the utmost affluence, delighting himself with pleasant odours and delicious meats and exquisite beverages of all descriptions.
That's how you know who God loves: they have a lot of beverages.

Apr 28: The Things That's You're Liable to Read in the Bible

Why is Ecclesiastes even in the Bible?

So I hated life, because the work that is wrought under the sun was grievous unto me; for all is vanity and a striving after wind.

And I hated all my labor wherein I labored under the sun, seeing that I must leave it unto the man that shall be after me.
Just one of them days, I guess, but who knew that such a bus-driver level attitude was canonical? To be sure, the Preacher ends his speeches with a "stay in school"-like message: "There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and make his soul enjoy good in his labor. This also I saw, that it is from the hand of God." (He says a variant of this four times in the five chapters to read tonight.) But I've worked in advertising, and I know the phrase "nothing better" is slippery -- it means "just as good." There's nothing better than eat, drinking, making (another interesting word choice) your soul enjoy, etc. etc., but it just means that there's nothing better than the moment when Life switches from grinding lit cigarettes out on your skin to the cool, sunlit uplands of merely punching you in the gut.

You don't get that sense at all from that Byrds song they set to some of these verses: "as a song they are commonly performed as a plea for world peace," says Wikipedia. Well, all due respect for Pete Seeger, but I think the Preacher is more accurately conveyed later in the same chapter: "And moreover I saw under the sun, in the place of justice, that wickedness was there; and in the place of righteousness, that wickedness was there."

As the DRG itself says, "Sophisticated and modern is this writer of 2,300 years ago."

Apr 27: Emerson, king of blowhards

Sometimes I'll be doing my reading and I'll wonder, "Why again did the Daily Reading Guide tell me this would be good for me?" So today, with Emerson's On Beauty. I couldn't remember what attitude I was supposed to take towards it, so I went back to the Daily Reading Guide and found this: "The Puritan world feared Beauty. Emerson, great American essayist and philosopher, declared that the world was made for beauty, and openly worshiped at beauty's shrine."

Not before declaring war on science first, though. Emerson has this problem with facts, which is that they are factual:

We should go to the ornithologist with a new feeling, if he could teach us what the social birds say, when they sit in the autumn council, talking together in the trees. The want of sympathy makes his record a dull dictionary.
But that is to want things to be different from what they are. I mean, we should go to ornithologist with a new feeling, if he would give us a solid-gold Cadillac when we did so. But that's not what ornithologists do. And, of course, they probably do know a lot more about what the social birds are saying these days, which shows you that Emerson was impatient in addition to having his head up his ass.

I mean, read this passage:
Chemistry takes to pieces, but it does not construct. Alchemy which sought to transmute one element into another, to prolong life, to arm with power,—that was in the right direction.
One hardly finds enough pro-alchemy arguments these days! (Outside of the National Review, presumably.)

So then, after wishing away science and its stupid dull invention of smallpox vaccinations, etc., we're now ready to tackle something really important -- what is Beauty? Well, I'm confident the Old Alchemist is ready to settle this once and for all:
I am warned by the ill fate of many philosophers not to attempt a definition of Beauty. I will rather enumerate a few of its qualities.
Good job, Ralph. Depending on how much he got paid for this by the Atlantic, he really found a way to transmute shit into gold. And, to show you what kind of readership Emerson was expecting in his day, here's a choice passage:
The felicities of design in art, or in works of Nature, are shadows or forerunners of that beauty which reaches its ...height in woman. ...A beautiful woman is a practical poet, taming her savage mate, planting tenderness, hope, and eloquence, in all whom she approaches. ...Nature wishes that woman should attract man, yet she [Which "she"? Nature? Woman? Someone Emerson hit on at an ice-cream social?] often cunningly moulds into her face a little sarcasm, which seems to say, “Yes, I am willing to attract, but to attract a little better kind of a man than any I yet behold.”
Or maybe the expression seems to say, "Do you ever shut up?" But you'll agree this is hardly a passage that could end with, "Am I right, ladies?"

Finally, in getting around to talking about how appeal to the imagination is Beauty's highest quality, Emerson betrays the source of his dislike of Science:
The feat of the imagination is in showing the convertibility of every thing into every other thing. Facts which had never before left their stark common sense, suddenly figure as Eleusinian mysteries. My boots and chair and candlestick are fairies in disguise, meteors and constellations. ...What! has my stove and pepper-pot a false bottom! I cry you mercy, good shoe-box! I did not know you were a jewel-case.
The problem with science is that it's not more like the "Be Our Guest" number from Disney's "Beauty and the Beast," apparently.

Try the Transcendentalism, it's delicious!
Don't believe me? Ask the dishes!

Oh, brother.

I guess I wouldn't mind it so much except Emerson has that "we" tick, like towards the end:
Wherever we begin, thither our steps tend: an ascent from the joy of a horse in his trappings, up to the perception of Newton, that the globe on which we ride is only a larger apple falling from a larger tree; up to the perception of Plato...
What do you mean "we," white man?

Apr 26: David Hume and the Miracles

I should note that I tried doing this project in 2000, when these volumes first moved from my parents' upstairs hall to my upstairs hall, and I said the hell with it after about five weeks. Why am I so much more successful this time? I think there are three reasons. First of all, of course, is that I don't have a day job (as of yet), so I can do my reading first thing in the morning, or any old time.

The other two reasons are technological. One is that I'm blogging about it. This makes the project quasi-public (in that my parents know about it) and so I have to be responsible even when I'd rather just drink beer and watch hockey, which is what I'm going to do once I finish writing this.

And the other is Wikipedia. Sometimes, the timeless, important authors that I have to read are people I've never heard of. Often -- indeed generally -- even if I have heard of these timeless, important authors, their fascinating, immortal works are completely unknown to me. But now I have an easy resource to prep myself, or just to turn to when I can't make heads or tails about what I'm reading. Wikipedia's like having an informative, if at times over-garrulous, TA. Although you can make this TA start talking about virtually anything, which is distracting to some people (me).

All of this is prologue to say that today's reading, David Hume on miracles, is far better summarized at its Wikipedia page than I could do. There is one thing I do want to pull out, though:

For first, there is not to be found, in all history, any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned good sense, education, and learning, as to secure us against all delusion in themselves; of such undoubted integrity, as to place them beyond all suspicion of any design to deceive others; of such credit and reputation in the eyes of mankind, as to have a great deal to lose in case of their being detected in any falsehood; and at the same time, attesting facts performed in such a public manner and in so celebrated a part of the world, as to render the detection unavoidable: all which circumstances are requisite to give us a full assurance in the testimony of men.
This is an anti-democratic argument, it seems to me. It's not aristocratic, exactly, but it is elitist: it requires that men of good sense, education, and learning function as something one could appeal to. In other words, that they think themselves better than everyone else. I just don't see how that's going to fly. David Hume had better not run for public office, is all I'm saying.

Apr 25: The Germanic origins of the playoff beard and other bullet points

There’s not a lot of coherence in Tacitus’s travelogue through Germany – it’s just, here’s this tribe, here’s something interesting/unusual/downright weird that they do, and moving on. If he were writing it today he probably would have done it in the form of a chart. Therefore I am being equally incoherent and Friday-rific, and just pulling out random stuff that I find interesting:

• Guess what the Germans drink. You’ll never guess. Aw, you guessed: "For their drink, they draw a liquor from barley or other grain; and ferment the same, so as to make it resemble wine."

• The French-are-pussies trope extends a long, long way back: "The Treverians and Nervians aspire passionately to the reputation of being descended from the Germans; since by the glory of this original, they would escape all imputation of resembling the Gauls in person and effeminacy."

• As does the playoff beard: "As soon as they arrive to maturity of years, they let their hair and beards continue to grow, nor till they have slain an enemy do they ever lay aside this form of countenance by vow sacred to valour. Over the blood and spoil of a foe they make bare their face."

• As does, also, the endless imperial war: "It was on the six hundred and fortieth year of Rome, when of the arms of the Cimbrians the first mention was made...If from that time we count to the second Consulship of the Emperor Trajan, the interval comprehends near two hundred and ten years; so long have we been conquering Germany."

• As does misogyny: "Upon the Suiones, border the people Sitones; and, agreeing with them in all other things, differ from them in one, that here the sovereignty is exercised by a woman. So notoriously do they degenerate not only from a state of liberty, but even below a state of bondage."

In general this volume (No. 33, "Voyages and Travels"), shows the persistence of the human situation. We are always voyaging and traveling and gossiping about what we've heard; it's no surprise that Herodotus, who was just profiled in The New Yorker, is in here too.

Apr 24: Charles Darwin, excitable boy

What I hadn't realized before today is that there are two different Darwin books in the Harvard Classics -- "Voyage of the Beagle," which the previous Darwin readings had come from, and the big one, "Origin of Species," which is the source of today's reading. Imagine -- those old folks in 1909 doubled down on the greatness, the Classic status, of Darwin. If Harvard were starting this series over again -- of course, there's no need to, you can probably pick up volumes at two-thirds of all yard sales -- I question whether they'd have the guts to be so pro-Darwin today. Gotta move units, etc. It reinforces my basically lazy idea that Culture used to be a more top-down enterprise back in the day; people were expecting to be dictated to by a bunch of Ivy League professors -- that's what they were buying. Today the Ivy League guys have to prove they can bowl.

Anyway this excerpt -- which is from the "Struggle for Existence" chapter -- is more exciting than the Voyage of the Beagle ones, but not in a way I can point to specifically. It's more that Darwin seems so excited about his theory, he sees it everywhere, and he wants to show it to you. The theory, itself, can almost be summarized by its section headings: Geometrical Ratio of Increase, Nature of the Checks to Increase, Complex Relation of All Plants and Animals to Each Other in the Struggle for Existence, Struggle for Life Most Severe between Individuals and Varieties of the Same Species. (Actually, they read like New York Times subheads used to.) But Darwin wants to show you the pains he's taken:

Seedlings, also, are destroyed in vast numbers by various enemies; for instance, on a piece of ground three feet long and two wide, dug and cleared, and where there could be no choking from other plants, I marked all the seedlings of our native weeds as they came up, and out of 357 no less than 295 were destroyed, chiefly by slugs and insects.
Darwin, or someone who works for him, dug a six-square-feet bed just to see the weeds come up. I like the idea that it was someone who works for him, just because I can envision the following dialogue:

Darwin: See here, Murgatroyd, I want you to dig up a piece of ground three feet long and two wide.
Murgatroyd: That's a lovely bit of fluff, innit? And what should I to plant there, guv'nor?
Darwin: Nothing, by Jove. I just want to observe the bloody weeds.
Murgatroyd: 'Allo, 'Allo!

(One of my best qualities as a writer is my great ear for the way people actually speak.)

The "Beagle" excerpts are pretty mellow. But in this excerpt, he's all excited:
...what war between insect and insect—between insects, snails, and other animals with birds and beasts of prey—all striving to increase, all feeding on each other, or on the trees, their seeds and seedlings, or on the other plants which first clothed the ground and thus checked the growth of the trees!
Its opponents find evolution depressing, but Darwin finds it literally marvel-ous. It's hard to come away from this excerpt without finding the opponents of this theory a little tight-assed and afraid to dig up their lawns to see what happens.

Apr 23: Just a fun evening with King Lear

Nothing chases the taste of Kant from your mouth like King Lear! One thing I notice about Shakespeare, when you haven't been spending much time with him, is that he's not afraid of being so over-the-top that the top looks like a little tiny ant. As a modern comedy writer, of course, I lack this lack of fear. When someone is at, or over, the top, my instinct is to say, "Ah, come off it." So, not having this boldness, I do admire it. Lear goes crazy, and Shakespeare takes the time to tell some political truths about The Way It Is:

Through tatter’d clothes great vices do appear;
Robes and furr’d gowns hide all. Plate sins with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks;
Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw does pierce it.
Take that, Wall Street Journal editorial page! But, unlike a lesser writer, he gets off it right away (not before having one of his other characters mention how reasonable Lear is, all of a sudden.)

And, of course, Lear kind of has to be that over-the-top, because how otherwise is he worthy of Cordelia? The Lear we see in the play is stupid and shitty, yet, because he goes wrong greatly, we understand that he had, or has, greatness in him; and Cordelia loves him for that. Cordelia is immensely appealing because, underneath our own robes and furr'd gowns, we understand ourselves to be pretty shitty and stupid also; yet, under that, we hope we have some goodness, and a Cordelia to believe in it. No wonder it was hard to take that (SPOILER ALERT!) they both wind up dead.

More upper-middlebrow YouTube

That Kant ad made me think of "Strindberg and Helium," so here's one:

Although it seems antithetical to the whole Strindberg project, enjoy!

Apr 22: Funny videos about Kant

Kant's "Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals" sounds even more difficult in the German: Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten. But it's not so bad. The excerpt is short enough to be a tidbit -- barely a Fundamental Principle, singular, which is, you don't get points for doing things you want to do, you only get points for doing things because you have to do them. In Kant's (translated) words:

...there yet remains in this, as in all other cases, this law, namely, that he should promote his happiness not from inclination but from duty, and by this would his conduct first acquire true moral worth.
Happiness is for the animals, you see. I think it's okay if you enjoy your duty, but you have to make sure that you're not doing it because you enjoy it. Kant also goes on to say that you don't need highfalutin philosophers to know what your duty is:
Here it would be easy to show how, with this compass in hand, men are well able to distinguish, in every case that occurs, what is good, what bad, conformably to duty or inconsistent with it, if, without in the least teaching them anything new...
It would be easy, that is, except:
there insensibly arises in it a dialectic which forces it [practical reason, or common sense -- ed.] to seek aid in philosophy, just as happens to it in its theoretic use; and ...it will find rest nowhere but in a thorough critical examination of our reason.
Which leads to the Kant which I read in a theology class and promptly forgot even before the final(unfortunately).

Now, to the funny videos. (Warning: only funny if you find academic humor funny. I know, it can be a little leaden, but I have a soft spot for it.) First, from this Crooked Timber post, a Kant attack ad:

Which prompted this response (the video is not so great, but some of the comments are funny:

Interactivity is fun! And it's also, for the blogger, a duty.

Apr 21: Literary Theory, Cats, etc.

Who's up for a little literary criticism today? No one? What if I show you a picture of today's author, Hippolyte Taine, with a cat?

Have I got your attention now? No? How about if I tell you the criticism is racial:

Here we reach what is deepest in man; for, to explain this conception, we must consider the race he belongs to, say the German, the Northman...
Go on, tell us about this North-man:
that tardiness and frigidity of sensation which keeps him from rashly and easily falling under the empire of sensual enjoyments, that bluntness of taste, that irregularity and those outbursts of conception which arrest in him the birth of refined and harmonious forms and methods; that disdain of appearances, that yearning for truth, that attachment to abstract, bare ideas which develop conscience in him at the expense of everything else. Here the search comes to an end.

I'll say. Northwomen don't count, of course, because this is 1863, and women, for Taine, had yet to discover they had brains. The other thing that's great about this is the claim that German Protestants had no harmonious forms and methods.

That's the ending, but actually I thought it began well, although it's the school of criticism that believes literature is a means, not an end:
The discovery has been made that a literary work is not a mere play of the imagination, the isolated caprice of an excited brain, but a transcript of contemporary manners and customs and the sign of a particular state of intellect. The conclusion derived from this is that, through literary monuments, we can retrace the way in which men felt and thought many centuries ago. This method has been tried and found successful.

No evidence for that last statement, of course, which is my own prejudice about the French. I successfully avoided literary theory when in college -- the lit. crowd struck me as English majors in black leather jacket, a look I couldn't pull off at all -- but doesn't this sound a little structuralist? The author doesn't write the work, it is written on him (her), etc. Yet Taine can't help writing, in my favorite passage in the reading:
A modern poet, a man like De Musset, Victor Hugo, Lamartine, or Heine, graduated from a college and traveled, wearing a dress-coat and gloves, favored by ladies, bowing fifty times and uttering a dozen witticisms in an evening, reading daily newspapers, generally occupying an apartment on the second story, not over-cheerful on account of his nerves, and especially because, in this dense democracy in which we stifle each other, the discredit of official rank exaggerates his pretensions by raising his importance, and, owing to the delicacy of his personal sensations, leading him to regard himself as a Deity.
I don't understand that last phrase at all (maybe the modern equivalent would be tenure?), but really, if you add a reference to McSweeney's you can see that things haven't changed all that much.

Anyway, the rest is left for you lit. theory enthusiasts. I only note that it's an "Introduction to English Literature" where English Literature is not mentioned in the first eight pages, except for a passing reference to Sir Walter Scott. So be warned! And remember -- he liked cats.

Apr 20: Deems and wisting

Byron today, and while I love Don Juan, this is more serious Byron -- Byronic, in fact:

The mountains look on Marathon—
And Marathon looks on the sea;
And musing there an hour alone,
I dream’d that Greece might still be free;
For standing on the Persians’ grave,
I could not deem myself a slave.

Oh -- and I say this with all due sensitivities to differing times -- brother. Who "deems" anything, nowadays? What's kind of funny is that Byron was dashing and scandalous, and reading this verse you just think of a big ol' schoolmarm, scented with lavender, her voice perhaps cracking a little at that last line. Or you think that someone wrote something like this, with far worse scansion, upon the death of Barbaro.

Why is that? Why does the 392-line narrative poem about a prisoner in a castle, which forms the bulk of the reading, seem so obviously unappealing that I would have skipped it, if not for this bet I've made with myself? Is it because everything we need to have said about prisoners chained up in castles can be done in New Yorker cartoons? Because this poem ("The Prisoner of Chillion") is not, to my mind, a neglected classic. It's the kind of poem where deeming might occur -- I didn't search for it, but I do know that the narrator wists, although, in his defense, he is scarce conscious of the fact of his wisting.

The glib answer to the question might be, "Hey, maybe our modern attention spans aren't too short -- maybe your old-timey attention spans are too long." Yes, yes, it's scandalous that everyone thinks The Great Gatsby was a failed Hanna-Barbera character, but at least there's a lot of old claptrap they're also free of. And, a little more seriously, the part that really seems musty to me is the message-ness of it, its pro-freedom agenda. It's a little like I felt reading those Wordsworth poems -- maybe more needed to be made of daffodils in his time, but now it's hard to hear. Whereas Shakespeare, who hardly takes sides, endures.

There's much more to be said on this subject (like, "But what about Pope? You like Pope and he's didactic." To which I reply to myself, "Shut up," and "But he's also funny."). But not by me, not now.

Apr 19: Concord Recessional

Inspired by Emerson's "Concord Hymn," which is today's reading.

The stone they raised still stands to-day
Where embattled farmers fought the foe;
Interactive, I'm sure, is the display
To which the field-tripped children go.

'Gainst empire, then, the farmers fought.
But for it, now, our mission creeps.
The liberty their blood had bought
Goes down the stream which seaward sweeps.

Skip day

Meetings, for some reason, have been popping up out of nowhere, so I find myself to be v. tired tonight, too tired for Don Quixote. I'm giving myself the night off.

The tiring part of it isn't the driving all around Los Angeles, it's the having to be perky and upbeat. If I were naturally perky and upbeat, why on earth would I have gone into comedy? Comedy people, as a class, do not score high in the people-skills department, although many of them are perfectly charming once the ice is broken. Strangers, however, can be difficult.

In the meantime my son is playing this YouTube thing over and over, so I don't see why y'all shouldn't have to hear it too:

Apr 17: What if Franklin had gotten an STD?

Franklin today, and I'll begin with a period-appropriate digression: I gave up on HBO's "John Adams." I had them all on my Tivo and watched two of them. Their gelid pacing, the reverence. You have Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney and instead of taking advantage of these actors' splendid ability to go fast, you have them look into the middle distance meaningfully, as if to see the Stop & Shop that's going to be there in the future, or perhaps they're wondering whatever happened to Tom Hanks, who used to be so funny.

Anyway, it's an extremely interesting excerpt because it begins near the place where he stopped writing it before the war (I had forgotten that -- there's a huge gap in the composition of this book). Right off the bat we get Randy Ben:

In the mean time, that hard-to-be-governed passion of youth hurried me frequently into intrigues with low women that fell in my way, which were attended with some expense and great inconvenience, besides a continual risque to my health by a distemper which of all things I dreaded, though by great good luck I escaped it.
He had good luck with the ladies, which is even more impressive when you consider that he had to be "early to bed". (Can you imagine how the course of history would have changed if Franklin had caught a low-women-related "distemper"? Perhaps he never would have invented the Franklin Stove or the 360 dunk!)

Anyway, he starts setting up a library, and then the manuscript ends. But the transition to the later-written stuff is not seamless, instead we get pages and pages of two letters telling Franklin how great he is and how he must continue autobiographing for the good of Humanity:
Life is uncertain, as the preacher tells us; and what will the world say if kind, humane, and benevolent Ben. Franklin should leave his friends and the world deprived of so pleasing and profitable a work; a work which would be useful and entertaining not only to a few, but to millions?
It reminds me of Twain's famous essay about Franklin: "He was always proud of telling how he entered Philadelphia, for the first time, with nothing in the world but two shillings in his pocket and four rolls of bread under his arm. But really, when you come to examine it critically, it was nothing. Anybody could have done it."

One of the things I find charming in Franklin is his huge ego, as seen in publishing the genuflecting letters noted above. Because he knows how to be charming about his vanity:
...I therefore put myself as much as I could out of sight, and stated it as a scheme of a number of friends, who had requested me to go about and propose it to such as they thought lovers of reading. In this way my affair went on more smoothly, and I ever after practis’d it on such occasions; and, from my frequent successes, can heartily recommend it. The present little sacrifice of your vanity will afterwards be amply repaid.
In other words, "I don't present myself as so great, and that's one of the things that's so great about me."

Somewhat OT

Our tasks are Great Books, not Great(TM) Music, but I can't recommended these CBC podcasts on the Beethoven Symphony enough. The conductor of the Vancouver Symphony sits down at the piano and walks us through all the themes, etc. of each symphony, gently prodded by the awesomely Anglo-Canadian-accented host. It helps if you actually know the symphonies somewhat in advance (I'm looking at you, Symphony #4), but I had to drive around hither and yon today doing meetings and they were great entertainment in the car.

Apr 16: In which I need the translation to help with the translation

First of all, it's my mom's birthday today, and I know she reads this, so, "Hi, Mom!"

Secondly, it's unfitting that today's reading is from The Inferno (Cantos VIII and IX for you Dante-heads). It might be fitting if my Mom's name was Beatrice, but it isn't. And, also unlike my mom, the translation is antique and hard to follow:

Mine eyes he loosed, and spake: “And now direct
Thy visual nerve along that ancient foam,
There, thickest where the smoke ascends.”
I mean, if you squint you can figure out what's going on, somewhat, but it's difficult. Fortunately, I have Pinsky's translation in my bookshelves (its smooth spine betraying the fact that I've hardly opened it), and he has retranslated it into modern:
Taking his hands from my eyes, he said, "Now look:
There where the very harshest fumes abound,
Across the ancient scum."
Was that so hard? Pity the poor translator: if the past is another country, and translation is by definition another country, then old translations are very far away from us indeed. And it's worth noting that, despite the terrible lowfalutin times in which we live in, one can still translate the "Inferno" and get it published as a nice trade paperback. Somebody should do the same for "Faust." Also, Juvenal.

About the content itself, there's not much to say, but I am amused by the way the Daily Reading Guide sets it up:
The city of Dis, within the gates of Hell, was guarded by monsters and surrounded by a moat filled with the tormented. Dante, protected by Virgil, entered the forbidden city, and viewed sights never before seen by living man.
Never before seen by living man? He made it up! When Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, he saw sights never before seen by living man. If I write a scene in which my enemy is in a pit of muck, and is descended upon by unholy demons, and starts biting himself, that's not a "sight" at all. It' s just a fantasy -- or Canto VIII. The "Inferno" must be one of the all-time great monuments to "Oh, they'll pay. They'll all pay" in Western literature.

Apr 15: Conveniently numbered reactions to today's reading

1. Why have they been keeping Whitman from us until now? I've had to read Berkeley twice. And even today it has to have a Lincoln hook (You may remember that Lincoln decided to get out of the house and take in a play on this date in 1865.)

Is it because he's too fruity? Explain Wordsworth, then. But maybe all Englishmen were considered fruity. Admittedly, "O Captain, My Captain" is pretty fruity. It reads like something one would write for the newspapers ("Where on the deck my Captain lies/Fallen cold and dead."). (Digression: maybe what the newspapers need today is more folks writing poetry in them, like Don Marquis. I mean, if it's going to be increasingly fusty to read newspapers, why not go balls-out fusty?) But even so, Whitman so self-identifies as an American that you'd think the DRG compliers would just have thrown him in before now out of civic duty.

2. I greatly enjoyed "When Lilacs Last In The Dooryard Bloom'd" and wondered why it was even assigned to me in eighth grade or whenever it was. (Eleventh grade, maybe?) Why is any literature assigned to teenagers? We don't let them drink; how are they supposed to enjoy one without the other?

This actually seems like a dangerous poem to give to adolescents, for "Don't Fear The Reaper"-type reasons:

Come lovely and soothing death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later delicate death.

3. The advantage of this poem being assigned to adolescents, in our web age, is that you can find out what it's about quite easily, from Cliffs Notes online:
The poet’s realization of immortality through the emotional conflict of personal loss is the principal theme of this great poem, which is a symbolistic dramatization of the poet’s grief and his ultimate reconciliation with the truths of life and death.
That's a good principal them. If it is the principal theme, that is. SparkNotes begs to differ:
Unlike the pastoral elegies of old, which use a temporary rift with nature to comment on modernity, this one shows a profound and permanent disconnection between the human and natural worlds.
Simmer down, you two! Take it outside!

4. I am not critic enough myself (partly because I'm lazy, but only partly) to weigh in on the poem as a whole. The only thing I note is that, about halfway through, Whitman tells us that he hasn't even started yet:

O how shall I warble myself for the dead one there I loved?
And how shall I deck my song for the large sweet soul that has gone?
And what shall my perfume be for the grave of him I love?

Then, in section 14 -- the homestretch -- he seems to outsource the song to the bird (that's the pro-death song I referred to earlier); and, even after that, he sees stuff, but he doesn't sing:

I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them,
And the white skeletons of young men, I saw them,
I saw the débris and débris of all the slain soldiers of the war,
But I saw they were not as was thought,
They themselves were fully at rest, they suffer’d not,
The living remain’d and suffer’d, the mother suffer’d,
And the wife and the child and the musing comrade suffer’d,
And the armies that remain’d suffer’d.

You might say that Whitman's mourning is so powerful that he can't bring himself to sing of it -- or to portray himself as singing of it, rather. He must recede into the background and let other singers and scenes do it for him.

5. The final thing is that Whitman has one of those styles that seems like a child could do it, and yet he pulls it off in a manner that's complete Cliff Notes-proof:

Passing the visions, passing the night,
Passing, unloosing the hold of my comrades’ hands,
Passing the song of the hermit bird and the tallying song of my soul,
Victorious song, death’s outlet song, yet varying ever-altering song...

I can hear three effects right away -- 1) a rule of three in the opening lines. But 2) the third line is longer and, since it's a conjunction, it kind of makes you stop a second at "the tallying song of my soul," which is just slightly different from the incantation that goes before it (it has more stresses, maybe), to provide a break. And 3), the clause "yet varying ever-altering song," is hard to say (the hidden "v" in "ever"), which slows you down -- the song is altering before your eyes.

Well, I certainly went on longer than I thought. But seriously, publishers, consder my suggestion for the light verse in the papers. And more guys like Bill Gallo.

Apr 14: Hello Old Friend

I missed one, yesterday, obviously, so instead of doing today's (which was about Sir Francis Drake), I am indulging myself with yesterday's reading -- Cellini! He's my favorite. Why? Here's how today's selection opens:

NOW let us return to Piero Torrigiani, who, with my drawing in his hand, spoke as follows: “This Buonarroti [Michelangelo, to you -- ed.] and I used, when we were boys, to go into the Church of the Carmine, to learn drawing from the chapel of Masaccio. 1 It was Buonarroti’s habit to banter all who were drawing there; and one day, among others, when he was annoying me, I got more angry than usual, and clenching my fist, gave him such a blow on the nose, that I felt bone and cartilage go down like biscuit beneath my knuckles; and this mark of mine he will carry with him to the grave.”

Tip to young writers: always try to add a scene where Michelangelo's nose gets broken like a biscuit. Today's selection involves the perils of freelancing; specifically, how hard it is to get paid -- something that hasn't changed a bit since the Renaissance:
...I took it into my head, as soon as I had finished them, to change my master; I had indeed been worried into doing so by a certain Milanese, called Pagolo Arsago. 2 My first master, Firenzuola, had a great quarrel about this with Arsago, and abused him in my presence; whereupon I took up speech in defence of my new master [and] I reminded him of the money he owed me. He laughed me in the face; on which I said that if I knew how to use my tools in handicraft as well as he had seen, I could be quite as clever with my sword in claiming the just payment of my labour.
If only I had taken those dang swordplay lessons, I might be able to get by without an agent today. On the other hand, my agent would definitely have prevented me from doing something like this (Cellini has gotten into a fight with his former masters):
...my rage grew to such a pitch that, turning wholly to evil, and being also by nature somewhat choleric, I waited till the magistrates had gone to dinner; and when I was alone, and observed that none of their officers were watching me, in the fire of my anger, I left the palace, ran to my shop, seized a dagger and rushed to the house of my enemies, who were at home and shop together. I found them at table; and Gherardo, who had been the cause of the quarrel, flung himself upon me. I stabbed him in the breast, piercing doublet and jerkin through and through to the shirt, without however grazing his flesh or doing him the least harm in the world. When I felt my hand go in, and heard the clothes tear, I thought that I had killed him; and seeing him fall terror-struck to earth, I cried: “Traitors, this day is the day on which I mean to murder you all.”
Who knew that the goldsmith business was such a den of passions? I also like that someone who "turns wholly to evil" is willing to admit that, yeah, I'm a little choleric too. Cellini lives not like other men; and, if he made up half this stuff as he is said to, I prefer his embroidery to that of the James Freys and so forth.

No posting today

It's my anniversary :)


I note, also, that I've done over a hundred of these readings. Am I smartering yet?

Apr 12: How to be tedious in argument.

A dialogue today -- and it's supposed to be actually useful! Or so says the DRG:

12 The Perfect Argument
You would doubtless like to know how to hold your own in any argument. Read what Leslie Stephen declares the finest speci­men in our language of the conduct of argument.
One wants to turn on one's Homer Simpson voice: "Leslie Stephen says it, does he? Well, let's turn to the dialogue so that I may learn well how to conduct myself in your precious, precious argument." (Note that I don't know who Leslie Stephen is either.)

Doing so, we immediately we find lesson one -- hog the floor. This is about 5% of the opening speech:
Raise now your thoughts from this ball of earth to all those glorious luminaries that adorn the high arch of heaven. The motion and situation of the planets, are they not admirable for use and order? Were those (miscalled erratic) globes once known to stray, in their repeated journeys through the pathless void?
Poor Hylas -- he's the patsy in this dialogue -- the Beaker to Philonius's Bunsen:
Except that Philonius is way more patronizing, in his eighteenth-century way, than Bunsen Honeydew:
Phil. How often must I inculcate the same thing? You allow the things immediately perceived by sense to exist nowhere without the mind; but there is nothing perceived by sense which is not perceived immediately: therefore there is nothing sensible that exists without the mind. The Matter, therefore, which you still insist on is something intelligible, I suppose; something that may be discovered by reason, and not by sense.

Hyl. You are in the right.

Phil. Pray let me know what reasoning your belief of Matter is grounded on.

Nowadays, of course, we would expect Philonius to eventually get hit on the head with a hammer, which is probably why we're in accursed and fallen times -- no respect for authority, etc. But geez, all I can say is that Leslie Stephen must have been a tremendous bore at the dinner table.

As to the philosophical arguments, I cannot really say anything useful about them, because I am not A) a philosopher, or B) drunk. I have tries very hard during this project to read these things sympathetically, and get what I could out of them, but honestly this debate on whether things exist or just our perceptions of them do -- well, I'm with Dr. Johnson.

Apr 12: Talk to the Chair

It is difficult to get psyched for today's passage, in which Faust begins his campaign to woo Gretchen, in uninteresting 19th-century verse. What I imagine I'll remember from it is this:

(He throws himself on the leather arm-chair beside the bed)
Receive me thou, who hast in thine embrace,
Welcom’d in joy and grief the ages flown!
How oft the children of a by-gone race
Have cluster’d round this patriarchal throne!

That's right, Faust starts talking to the armchair. He snaps out of it, though, so I don't guess the passage is long enough for an "Addresses to Furniture" anthology, but still.

The plot, however, is, as they say, corking. Faust has set his eye on Gretchen and Mephistophles (which I typed without looking at the passage...now I'm going to go see how I did on the spelling) Mephistopheles, I mean, places some jewels in her dresser, because you know how it is with the ladies and the bling; and, indeed, it does its magic in a passage that needs a little more stage direction in it:
Here by a ribbon hangs a little key!
I have a mind to open it and see!
Heavens! only look! what have we here!
In all my days ne’er saw I such a sight!
Jewels! which any noble dame might wear,
For some high pageant richly dight!

With poetry like that you see why they had to invent Modernism. Also, you want that golden light effect, like when they opened the briefcase in "Pulp Fiction" (Tarantino doing Faust would be great).

So far so good, but immediately -- one of the things that's kind of shocking is how short Goethe keeps his scenes -- Mephistopheles is P.O'd:

I’d yield me to the devil instantly,
Did it not happen that myself am he!

There's got to be a funnier way to say that. It turns out Gretchen's stupid mom has given the jewels to the Church, because they might be unholy. So get more jewels, Faust says. OK, says Mephistopheles. But as a consequence of this up-and-back seeming incident, Gretchen takes her new jewels over to her neighbor Martha's for safekeeping; and, to get in good with Martha, Mephistopheles manages to come up with evidence that her long-missing husband is dead -- basically, by getting Faust to join him in witnessing to this fact, which results in the four of them, all mixed up. What happens next I don't know (even though I have allegedly read this book), but it's some good plotting.

Apr 10: The First American Real-Estate Deal

A short post today because our document is not very long. Or fascinating, for that matter.

Other countries arise out of the mists, or the steppes, or begin suckling on a she-wolf, but American began with a prospectus. Or so one might infer from today's Harvard Classic, which is a grant from King James I (or "the I and VI" to be pedantic, as I was taught to be in college) to the Virginia colonists. It's a sweet deal for all concerned, but especially for the King, who doesn't seem to be putting up anything, but gets to wet his beak anyway:

...YIELDING therefore, to Us, our Heirs and Successors, the fifth Part only of all the same Gold and Silver, and the fifteenth Part of all the same Copper, so to be gotten or had, as is aforesaid, without any other Manner or Profit or Account, to be given or yielded to Us, our Heirs, or Successors, for or in Respect of the same...
It's good to be the king!

Reading legalese isn't a talent of mine, but what I can't see in this document is the whole taxation/representation issue, as is discussed ad sleepyam in "John Adams." I guess it didn't really occur to either party (as I recall, revenue-raising in 1606 was kind of a haphazard enterprise even for the king) -- so, even though our colonies began in legalese, the lesson is that we should have had even more of it. Happily, that dream is being realized today.

Apr 9: The Old New Atlantis

Pre-space science fiction today in Bacon's New Atlantis -- the beginning of it, of course, because if the Daily Reading Guide isn't the Handbook for Dilettantes I don't know what is. The strange people and their customs are in space, in a way -- the wide open, uncharted desert isles of the South Seas.

I don't read science fiction, which I admit is more a judgement on me than it, but one of the advantages of setting your alternative world on Earth is that your people don't have to have invented Klingon-like ridges on their skulls, or anything. They can even be Christian:

At which answer the said person lifted up his right hand towards Heaven, and drew it softly to his mouth (which is the gesture they use, when they thank God;) and then said: “If ye will swear (all of you) by the merits of the Saviour, that ye are no pirates, nor have shed blood, lawfully, nor unlawfully within forty days past, you may have licence to come on land.” We said, “We were all ready to take that oath.”
They're just a little different with the gestures, but otherwise they're just like us! Only, I also note, more credulous: Wouldn't a pirate also swear that he is not a pirate? (They've got a lot of sick people on board and have run out of food, though, so maybe they think that even if they are pirates they're not very formidable.) I was amused at the end of this paragraph, too:
So he left us; and when we offered him some pistolets, he smiling said, “He must not be twice paid for one labour:” meaning (as I take it) that he had salary sufficient of the State for his service. For (as I after learned) they call an officer that taketh rewards, twice paid.
I don't think there's enough works of science fiction that really get at reform of the Civil Service.

UPDATE: Title added -- I write them last, as you may have guessed (thanks, dad!)

Apr 8: Aeschylus's difficult-to-spell telenovela

Today's reading is from Aeschylus's The Libation Bearers, but, far from being "Cheers" from the waitresses' point of view, as the title would suggest, it's actually super-intense, for in our passage Orestes comes to kill his mother (Clytemnestra, the name I think will be the next "Dakota" in popularity).

And he's not going to kill her just by not calling, either. (That was actually the subject of one of the Wordsworth poems I didn't make fun of yesterday. Hi, Mom!) He's going to kill-kill her.


Fate bore a share in these things, O my child!

Fate also doth provide this doom for thee.

Kids these days, am I right? This is not adequately explained in the DRG, but thanks to Wikipedia I learned that this is all part of the crazy Atreus family. Previously on the Oresteia, Clytemnestra had kilt Agamemnon and taken up with Ægisthus. (Aside: I hate naming characters myself, but this is too much. Can't somebody here be named "Dave" or "Coop"?) So Orestes, who's been long-lost, gets psyched up and kills Mom. Immediately (even though he's been promised by Apollo, Mafiosi-like, that it will all be taken care of) he starts to freak out:

...for what the end shall be
For me I know not: breaking from the curb,
My spirit whirls me off, a conquered prey,
Borne as a charioteer by steeds distraught
Far from the course, and madness in my breast
Burneth to chant its song, and leap, and rave—

The translation doesn't give the full effect of how crazy and telenovela-esque the whole thing is.

The funny thing is that, while I was totally gripped by the over-the-top situation while reading it, I can't imagine staging it in a way that would communicate the intensity, because I have trouble imagining an audience who would come to see ancient Greek tragedy also being irony-free enough to give themselves up to the story. The original audience had the advantage of knowing this story already, so to them it's a particularly intense variation on a familar theme, like Jimi Hendrix doing "The Star Spangled Banner". Now it's too foreign, an acquired taste, etc. You might be able to do it in the movies, but you'd have to translate everything -- it'd have to be like "Kill Bill."

Or maybe just a super-violent version of "Casey At The Bat". There's an idea...

Apr 7: A Wordsworth quiz! Or, Lines composed a few moments after coming back from the KU bar in Hollywood

Okay, so it was a mob scene at El Guapo after watching the amazing Kansas comeback amongst 300 Jayhawk fans. I lost my voice, and I've never been anywhere near Kansas.

So what's better after that big celebration of the city game than Wordsworth? A lot, actually, but fortunately I have already done the reading and prepared a quiz -- in which you are to match the Wordsworth selection to its title.


The waves beside them danced, but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:—
A Poet could not but be gay
In such a jocund company!

But all things else about her drawn
From May-time and the cheerful dawn;
A dancing shape, an image gay,
To haunt, to startle, and waylay.


A Life, a Presence like the air,
Scattering thy gladness without care,
Too blest with any one to pair,
Thyself thy own enjoyment.


Though babbling only to the vale
Of sunshine and of flowers,
Thou bringest unto me a tale
Of visionary hours.


I see thee glittering from afar—
And then thou art a pretty star,
Not quite so fair as many are
In heaven above thee!

And the titles

A. "The Green Linnet"
B. "To The Cuckoo"
C. "The Daffodils"
D. "She Was A Phantom Of Delight"
E. "To The Daisy"

Answers tomorrow! For extra credit, readers are invited to defend the notion of a canon that has this kind of stuff in it.

Apr 6: Marcus Aurelius, smoker

That's how I came to think of him in today's excerpt, anyhow. I remember reading him in high school and really enjoying it, but the idea of fighting emotion is probably pretty appealing when you're an adolescent and that's something you have too much of:

What then art thou doing here, O imagination? go away, I entreat thee by the gods, as thou didst come, for I want thee not. But thou art come according to thy old fashion. I am not angry with thee: only go away.
Now, after decades of exhortation to become a better writer, person, etc. (has it been decades? Yep.) I feel like I see what Aurelius is up to. He's like a smoker -- if he just keeps heckling himself enough, all his dreams will come true:
It is in thy power to live free from all compulsion in the greatest tranquillity of mind, even if all the world cry out against thee as much as they choose, and even if wild beasts tear in pieces the members of this kneaded matter which has grown around thee...
And if he were doing all this stuff he's talking about, when would he have time to write to tell himself to do it?

The other thing that struck me about this passage is the sheer randomness of it. Apparently being Emperor really cuts into the organizing-your-material time. So you get juxtapositions like this:

59. Look within. Within is the fountain of good, and it will ever bubble up, if thou wilt ever dig.
60. The body ought to be compact, and to show no irregularity either in motion or attitude.

It's like, "I should concentrate on the eternal truths. And, maybe grow a mustache." And there's also:
61. The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s, in respect of this, that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets which are sudden and unexpected.
Really? Or is it more like the bear-eater's art, in respect of this, that some days you eat the bear and some days the bear eats you. (Stoically, of course.)

Apr 5: The post I forgot to title

Okay, first of all, Hobbes uses "from whence," which I was told you should never do. And Goldsmith used it yesterday. So there. (Actually, in these less formal times, you should probably never use "whence" under any circumstances; but it's nice to know that, should one insist on a certain dandyish éclat to one's sentences, "from whence" has impeccable sanction.)

Secondly, I became inclined to Hobbes's side because of this:

Nevertheless it is not prudence that distinguisheth man from beast. There be beasts that at a year old observe more, and pursue that which is for their good more prudently than a child can do at ten.
I've had a ten-year-old in the house and agree heartily.

Thirdly, much of this passage brought me back to college -- specifically, the part of college when I had to read philosophy, and woul realize I've just read between two and five pages of this tome and registered none of it. If I close my eyes I can see the fluorescent lighting now. (In retrospect I realize I should have bought more used, already-highlighted books.) I think it was this part that brought back those fluorescent-lit evenings:
All fancies are motions with in us, relics of those made in the sense, and those motions that immediately succeeded one another in the sense continue also together after sense...
I can't bring myself to excerpt any more of that sentence.

As a consequence of thirdly, I would have to say that fourthly I can't be relied on to file a good report of these chapters "Of Imagination" and "Of the Consequence or Trail of Imaginations," except to note that, for all his eye-glazing potential, Hobbes (whom I've never read) is kind of entertaining when he's on the attack. Sometimes it happens in the same sentence, viz:
No man therefore can conceive anything but he must conceive it in some place, and indued with some determinate magnitude, and which may be divided into parts; nor that anything is all in this place and all in another place at the same time; nor that two or more things can be in one and the same place at once: for none of these things ever have or can be incident to sense, but are absurd speeches, taken upon credit, without any signification at all, from deceived philosophers, and deceived or deceiving schoolmen.
Before the colon? Boring philosopher. After the colon? Interesting blogger. A right-wing one, I suspect:
If this superstitious fear of spirits were taken away, and with it prognostics from dreams, false prophecies, and many other things depending thereon, by which crafty ambitious persons abuse the simple people, men would be much more fitted than they are for civil obedience.
That's what we need more of around here -- civil obedience. While not necessarily sharing Hobbes's thirst for that goal, I have to note that I think he's dead wrong. Nothing conjures up civil obedience faster than fear and dreams of ticking-bomb scenarios and the like.

I don't know how much more (if any) Hobbes is scheduled for this year. I suspect he's too cranky for the editors of the DRG to serve up too often. But I'm down for it.

A more palatable completist project

Today's WSJ brings us news of people on eGullet who are going through the entire Savoy Cocktail Book of 1930. While I envy them, I also identify with this part:

"Perhaps the greatest risk in going through the book cocktail by cocktail is not that one will suffer the occasional vile concoction, but that the endless repetition of drinks that are essentially similar will become tiresome. It would take more patience than I possess to count up how many drinks in the 'Savoy Cocktail Book' are made of 2/3 gin, 1/3 dry vermouth and a negligible amount of something else."
Kind of like reading a bunch of "Act I, Scene 1"s

Apr 4: The misadventures of Lord Funnyname

More Annals of Exposition today, as it's the first act of She Stoops To Conquer, from Modern (!) English Drama, volume 18.

Unlike some of the dramas I've had to read, this one actually seems modern, if for no other reason than the characters are given real names -- Mrs. Hardcastle, for example, isn't called Mrs. Idiot. Goldsmith can't bring himself to fully abandon the device -- the dancing master is named Cripplegate -- but at least we never see these characters.
It occurs to me that it's a good thing this obvious-naming tradition has died out in the theater since there's so many agitprop plays -- the last thing they need is for characters to be named things like General Warren Monger. Of course, the funny-name tradition is universal, as I saw on the Daily Show last night (WARNING: Extremely juvenile):

Anyway, Goldsmith's craft is to be admired here also. It's a little pipey here in the beginning, but the mama-who-spoils-her-son motif is right there on page two:

Mrs. Hard. Humour, my dear; nothing but humour. Come, Mr. Hardcastle, you must allow the boy a little humour.
Hard. I’d sooner allow him a horse-pond. If burning the footmen’s shoes, frightening the maids, and worrying the kittens be humour, he has it. It was but yesterday he fastened my wig to the back of my chair, and when I went to make a bow, I popt my bald head in Mrs. Frizzle’s face.
Mrs. Hard. And am I to blame? The poor boy was always too sickly to do any good. A school would be his death. When he comes to be a little stronger, who knows what a year or two’s Latin may do for him?
It's not actually funny, but if you brought it into a room it could be made funny. And, in fact, after the characters come out and, in conversation, "happen" to tell us about how rich they are and what peculiar plot-inciting eccentricities they might have, the act ends on a very sitcomy note: the scamp Tony (he of nailing the wig to the back of the chair), tells the Londoners that the great house they're going to meet their future wives is in fact an inn. An Inn! What comic consequences born out of misperception might then result!

Plus there's a drinking song:

When methodist preachers come down,
A-preaching that drinking is sinful,

I’ll wager the rascals a crown,

They always preach best with a skinful.

But when you come down with your pence,

For a slice of their scurvy religion,

I’ll leave it to all men of sense,

But you, my good friend, are the Pigeon.

Toroddle, toroddle, toroll.

Note the small "m" on methodist -- the denomination hadn't been invented yet (being a Religious Studies major is lots of fun). Also, "toroddle toroddle" is also a little out of style -- kids these days with their "toroddle toroddle" music, am I right?

I think I may steal this plot (which you don't the full sense of in the excerpt -- but I looked it up) the next time I need an episode idea. And then I can claim I bought the set of Harvard Classics and write it off.

Apr 3: Bait and Switch

So today's supposed to be a love story:

3 Romance with a Happy Ending
"As a conqueror enters a surprised city; love made such resolutions as neither party was able to resist. She changed her name into Herbert the third day after this first interview."
But it's only three paragraphs of twelve pages. Why so short? Because it was an arranged marriage:
This Mr. Danvers, having known him long, and familiarly, did so much affect him, that he often and publicly declared a desire that Mr. Herbert would marry any of his nine daughters,—for he had so many,—but rather his daughter Jane than any other, because Jane was his beloved daughter. ... Mr. Danvers had so often said the like to Jane, and so much commended Mr. Herbert to her, that Jane became so much a platonic as to fall in love with Mr. Herbert unseen.
I wonder if he ranked the daughters, sort of like the order of Presidential succession, where Jane is the president and the ninth in line is like the Secretary of Transportation or something. Still, such 17th century-style courtship must have worked, because Walton tells us "there never was any opposition betwixt them, unless it were a contest which should most incline to a compliance with the other’s desires."

But that's about it for Mrs. Herbert -- she's pretty much out of there for the rest of the passage. Except for when George, while away, is persuaded to become a minister (by the Archbishop of Canterbury), and comes home and drops this bomb:
...immediately after he had seen and saluted his wife, he said to her—“You are now a minister’s wife, and must now so far forget your father’s house as not to claim a precedence of any of your parishioners; for you are to know, that a priest’s wife can challenge no precedence or place, but that which she purchases by her obliging humility; and I am sure, places so purchased do best become them. And let me tell you, that I am so good a herald, as to assure you that this is truth.” And she was so meek a wife, as to assure him, “it was no vexing news to her, and that he should see her observe it with a cheerful willingness.”
I just have the tiniest bit of difficulty believing this amount of unvexitude -- to hear not only, "we're moving"; not only "I have a new job," but also "You have a new job -- being humble" -- well, she'd have some right to be a little vexed. But away she goes, away and out of our narrative (talk about humility!), and for the rest of the reading it's How To Pastor. Basically his congregation doesn't know jack about the church they're in, so he has to break it down for them; and Walton has to break it down for us, like in this example:
And for the hymns and lauds appointed to be daily repeated or sung after the first and second lessons are read to the congregation; he proceeded to inform them, that it was most reasonable, after they have heard the will and goodness of God declared or preached by the priest in his reading the two chapters, that it was then a seasonable duty to rise up, and express their gratitude to Almighty God for those his mercies to them, and to all mankind...
I chose this excerpt, which I could see one finding the tiniest bit boring, because of its excellent use of the word "seasonable." Many of the readings in this project are like that -- you just have to keep plowing through and occasionally you find something shiny.

I was a Religious Studies major, so I have a high tolerance for this stuff; besides which, I knew the answers already, except for this:
He made them know also why the Church hath appointed emberweeks;
What? Never heard of them. And after pages of explaining stuff I already knew, now Walton runs for the exits!

I did find out, though -- thanks to Wikipedia. So I guess the Harvard Classics have almost helped me learn something after all.

Apr 2: Whoo-hoo! Teacher screws up!

So I'm partway through today's reading of Darwin when I come upon this paragraph:

Those alone who have tried it, know how delicious it is to be seated in such shade, and drink the cool pleasant fluid of the cocoa-nut. In this island there is a large bay-like space, composed of the finest white sand...
And I thought, "Haven't I read this before?" Indeed I have -- a little more than two weeks ago. And I tell you, I felt like my kids did when I took them to school the day the heating broke and they sent everyone home. Even though I like Darwin, I like my days off too.

I am, however, beginning to suspect laziness back in 1909 about making up these assignments. It's almost as though they never expected anyone to take them seriously. Of course, they drank more at lunch back then also, so maybe that's the reason.

The reading prior to that has two interesting elements. First is the business with the spoon that the DRG was so excited about:
A large wooden spoon dressed in garments, and which had been carried to the grave of a dead man, they pretend becomes inspired at the full of the moon, and will dance and jump about. After the proper preparations, the spoon, held by two women, became convulsed, and danced in good time to the song of the surrounding children and women.
"It was a most foolish spectacle," as Darwin writes. Darwin was smart, but he didn't quite see the power of the household object.

The other passage that caught my eye is how Darwin, who speculates on why a particular coral might have died, and how a stone might have drifted to otherwise stoneless islands (in the roots of a dead tree), finds himself baffled by one thing:
I can hardly explain the reason, but there is to my mind much grandeur in the view of the outer shores of these lagoon-islands.
Doesn't that seem a little robotic, a little "What is...friend?" to you? Why wouldn't there be grandeur in seeing these small islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean? It's also possible that Darwin, who's so used to seeing things at the micro level, is a little baffled by the big emotion. Such as one might feel when his reading is cut in half! So long, suckas.

Quarterly report

Every now and again I wonder why I'm doing this. Unfortunately I'm still not quite sure. My standard answer has been the I'm-running-a-marathon one -- just something kind of challenging you do to prove to yourself you can.

Also, when I'd see those books sitting in the upstairs hall not doing anything, it bugged me.

But am I learning anything? I'm reading all these classics, for God's sake. And my answer to that would be "no." Or, more precisely, "I don't know." I don't walk around feeling like I am the possessor of more knowledge, nor have I gained any philosophy that helps on a day when I'm feeling blue. It's pretty impractical, in other words. What I tell myself is that you never know when it might come in handy -- I'm like an antique collector who's just buying randomly -- this small green and brown thing could turn out to be a Vermeer (to steal a joke from Monty Python).

Over and above that there's just the discipline of having something to write every day (very helpful for the unemployed man); and the odd sensation, when I think about it, of knowing I have something to read, but not knowing what it's going to be, except that it was chosen for me in 1909.

Apr 1: Browning out

So April is the cruelest month, everyone says -- even on Sports Talk radio. When you input "April is the cruelest month" into Google News, you get this as a hit (it's a preview of a roller derby matchup). The difference between making art in Eliot's time and making art now is that back then you would have no idea that your work would eventually be used in the context of roller derby, and nowadays that's what you're shooting for.

Eliot, good Harvard man though he is, is not our reading today. It's the poem that "April is the cruelest month" replaced:

O, TO be in England
Now that April’s there,

Which is by Browning. As I think of the compilers of the Harvard Classics as mouth-frothing Anglophiles, I can only imagine how close this poem must be to their heart:

And after April, when May follows,
And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows!

I can't even read this kind of poetry anymore -- the kind that has "bowers" in it. This poem, in fact, doesn't have bowers, but it could. It's funny that this poem is in this selection, as is Pippa's Song ("God's in his heaven/All's right with the world!"), and it finishes with the masterfully creepy "Last Duchess" (which I remember studying in high school):

Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive.

No bowers anywhere here. As I reread it again (yes, sticklers, you can reread again if your readings > 3), I'm struck by something, which is that a friend of ours (the Mrs. and me) was just over here , complaining about how his girlfriend's personality is too agreeable -- he can't be a uniquely awesome boyfriend, because she takes everything in stride. And here it is in poetry:

She had
A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad.
Too easily impressed: she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ’twas all one!

I personally think the Duke character in this poem is just a little too fusty for me to really love it, but the exclamation point -- the stamping of his tiny Ducal foot -- I really like a lot.