June 30: And the joke's on us because we're restricted

I should start Mill's On Liberty with some discussion of his, you know, thesis:

the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.
because there's any number of interesting things that might be said about it -- do "health care costs" make smokers join the collective, stuff like that -- but instead, in the interest of jazzing things up, I'm going to begin with Woody Allen's "The Moose" (a transcript is here if you don't want to watch):

And there's any number of things that can be said about that (look how weird and jacked-up and confident Woody is, for one thing) but it's the last line that I'm thinking about -- "and the joke's on them (the New York Athletic Club) because it's restricted." Because what struck me in this excerpt isn't what the law should do, but what custom does:
The effect of custom, in preventing any misgiving respecting the rules of conduct which mankind impose on one another, is all the more complete because the subject is one on which it is not generally considered necessary that reasons should be given, either by one person to others, or by each to himself.
Of course a guy who was basically reared on Mars, like Mill was, would point out that "your customs are highly irrational." What I want to point out is how much this attitude persists. The experiment of letting Jews join the New York Athletic Club seems to have worked, for instance. And women voting? So far so good. But the state allowing gays to marry? Negative. It is not our custom.

Whenever I hear someone complaining about how many goddamn lawyers there are I am always sympathetic to them, but I believe such a lawyering up is inevitable in a situation where custom is inadequate. You can have either a million goddamn lawyers, or four or five guys down at the country club getting everything settled, but you can't have both. Mill understood this:
Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.
There's more to be said about this: the influence of technology and -- my favorite -- demographics in the erosion of custom (a small town can have four or five guys down at the country club settle everything, but modern Los Angeles can't). But maybe I should just quote the Woodman again: "In summing up, I wish I had some kind of affirmative message to leave you with, I don't. Would you take two negative messages?"

Have a good weekend


A friend of ours (not in the GoodFellas sense) has just loaned us her beach house. See you Monday, possibly.

June 27: Of "Of Envy"

One thing you can say about Francis Bacon, he is wicked organized:

we will handle, what persons are apt to envy others; what persons are most subject to be envied themselves; and what is the difference between public and private envy.
Bacon was held up as an example when they were trying to teach us essay writing, and the writing is so clear you can practically see through it to the Roman numerals, the letters, and the numbers of his outline. It didn't take with me because I am too disorderly, but I see now that one thing being wicked organized has going for it is that it keeps you from asking questions. If you get swept up in the flow (chart), you start to think, "This person must have thought of everything! But he hasn't, although noting that "bastards are naturally envious" is a nice touch.

What Bacon doesn't cover is why people should be envious, which is the interesting question to me. It's obvious enough that someone should be envious when they haven't got what to eat, but why does envy work its green-eyed magic on someone who has a reasonable amount of cars, and climate control in their house? Perhaps we could express it in an equation:

(Capricious, irrational way that life is) - (Rational way we think life should be) = envy

In other words, envy is our protest against how unfair everything is. There's a lot of envy in show business (not that there isn't in the HVAC industry, it's just that showbiz is what I know), because there is so much luck involved. When I was making a lot of money, I knew there was luck involved, and now that I'm making none, I feel the same way. But that doesn't stop me from railing against my current luck (to my wife, mostly) -- anxiety has a lot to do with it, of course, but I think part of me is just offended at the senselessness. It turns out the music of the spheres is super-discordant, when we thought it should sound hosannas for us.

And as I think about what we think we should deserve, it occurs to me that one of the advantages of Original Sin as a doctrine is that it teaches that the only thing we deserve is judgement (or Judgement) -- everything else is playing with the house's money.

Well, this is not very Baconian, and kind of gloomy besides, so I will close with my favorite part of this essay, which is Bacon, slightly, as Machiavelli:
Those that have joined with their honor great travels, cares, or perils, are less subject to envy. For men think that they earn their honors hardly, and pity them sometimes; and pity even healeth envy. Wherefore you shall observe that the more deep and sober sort of politic persons, in their greatness, are ever bemoaning themselves, what a life they lead; chanting a quanta patimur [how great things do we suffer!]. Not that they feel it so, but only to abate the edge of envy.

June 26: Dang, I screwed up the futureposting

You know Beowulf would pour out some for his homies. No Weder-Geat lord would do otherwise.

The Daily Reading Guide begins things SUPERDRAMATICALLY:
26 In the Lair of the Green-Eyed Monster
At the bottom of the ocean was the home of the monster who had desolated the king's halls. Beowulf, bravest of warriors, descended beneath the waves to fight the beast. The king's men, waiting above, saw the waves become colored with blood. Hero or monster - who had won?
Uh, well, the poem is named "Beowulf," so I'm betting on the title character. (Though I'm told he dies at the end.) What they don't tell you is that Beowulf is fighting a she-monster: the mother of Grendel (his nemesis; I was going to say "archnemesis," but if the nemesis is dead halfway through the epic or saga I'm afraid he must be denied the "arch" honorific.) And she is a grade-A badass:
She grasped out for him with grisly claws,
and the warrior seized; yet scathed she not
his body hale; the breastplate hindered,
as she strove to shatter the sark of war,
the linkéd harness, with loathsome hand.
Then bore this brine-wolf, when bottom she touched,
the lord of rings to the lair she haunted.
This should give you an idea of the alliteration which they say is the brawny essence of Old English poetry. But more importantly -- Guys, Beowulf is the Lord of Rings! In fact, those who, unlike me, made the long slog through Tolkienworld will be at home here, especially during the cool part with the sword after the battle:
Now that sword began,
from blood of the fight, in battle-droppings,
war-blade, to wane: ’twas a wondrous thing
that all of it melted as ice is wont...
Freaky!

Two other things of note:

• All things considered, I have to agree with my dad, who knows his way around Old English (the literary kind) -- this translation isn't bad at all. This reading finally made me open my Seamus Heaney version, and, while his is more understandable, the readability distance between his and the Harvard Classics version is much smaller than, say, the Inferno, which is impossible for me to read in the Harvard Classics version without looking at Pinsky.

• Kennings! There's a few of this OE staple in our reading, but for a discussion of the form in rap, I refer you to the kids at Overthinking It.

1. As

June 25: Sexy Priest

Hello, handsome!

Robert Herrick, we are told, was a parish priest back there in the 17th century. One wonders if he started out his sermons like this:
A SWEET disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness:—
Or this:
WHENAS in silks my Julia goes
Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.

Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
That brave vibration each way free;
O how that glittering taketh me!
I guess that's a little gay, with all the talking about the flowing line of the clothes, so it's more like what we expect from priests, these days; but still. Today's selections are delightful, frolicsome lyrics concerning 1) how awesome pretty women are, and 2) death.

We have short time to stay, as you,
We have as short a Spring!
As quick a growth to meet decay
As you, or any thing.
We die,
As your hours do, and dry
Away
Like to the Summer’s rain;
Or as the pearls of morning’s dew
Ne’er to be found again.
When you put it that way, a nice silk starts to mean more.

June 24: Of Love


Let us take as our text -- well, actually, our text is The Tale of the Christian Broker from The Thousand and One Nights, but let us take as our motto some Auden:

Money cannot buy
the fuel of Love,
but is excellent kindling.
And if, to continue in an Audenesque vein, about suffering the Old Masters were never wrong, this old tale is onto something about love too. The Christian Broker is not the kind of broker who makes an ass of himself in lower Manhattan on summer Friday afternoons; he seems to be a nice Cairo-area merchant who happens to fall in with a rich, mysterious client who eats with the left hand -- a faux pas in the Arabia of the day, second only to invading a country under false pretenses (/soapbox). He confesses that he has no right hand, and, you guessed it -- a woman is mixed up in it.

It seems that our hero is lounging with one of his clients when a dame walks in with a veil up to here:
She wore a headkerchief inclined on one side, and the odours of sweet perfumes were diffused from her, and she captivated my reason by her beauty and loveliness as she raised her izar and I beheld her black eyes.
But what wins her heart is the fact that she wants to buy a piece of gold cloth on credit and he pays cash on the nail:
I then took the piece of stuff from him, and wrote him the paper with my own hand, and gave the piece of stuff to the lady, saying to her, Take it and go; and if thou wilt, bring the price to me in the market; or, if thou wilt, it shall be my present to thee. She replied, God recompense thee, and bless thee with my property, and make thee my husband!
I'd like to see Axe body spray do that. Well, it's love, and here's the big night:
She wore a crown set with pearls and jewels; her hands and feet were stained with henna; and her bosom was ornamented with gold. As soon as she beheld me she smiled in my face, and embraced me, saying, Is it true that thou hast come to me, or is this a dream?—I am thy slave, I answered: and she said, Thou art welcome. ... and not long had I thus remained when a repast was placed before me, consisting of the most exquisite dishes, as fricandoes and hashes and stuffed fowls.
The alert reader will be reminded of nothing so much as Smoove B:
I will serve you cooked pheasant with succulent gravy and white wine. I will serve you hand and foot. I will serve you on a soft, silk table-cloth that has been freshly laundered and purchased from the finest table-cloth store in all of creation. It will be the most spectacular dinner you have ever consumed.

There will also be corn served.
Well, to make a long story medium, as each of these assignations involve our hero bringing fifty gold pieces to his lady, eventually he winds up broke, tries to steal, and gets his hand cut off. And it turns out she was rich too! Why this is surprising to our guy what with the crown set with pearls and jewels, I don't know; but I just went with it, because I was charmed with what I took to be the subtext: these two genuinely loved each other, but it was because they were both rich. They could smell each other rich essences -- it was cash calling out to cash. And when he was poor, he was willing to do anything to appear rich; none of the My Man Godfrey crap in old Cairo. It's the unembarassed-ness of it, the Austenesque frankness (or Sex and the City-esque, maybe), that charms.

Photo courtesy flickr user Cembas

June 23: The Most Depressing Reading In The World

Too much studying will make you turn green (I have heard)

When I was in college, and feeling pretty proud of my promise, which I was assured was great, I happened to be assigned Mill's Autobiography, and it was this sentence where I first saw my place and was put in it: "I have no remembrance of the time when I began to learn Greek. I have been told that it was when I was three years old."

Damn! But wait, there's more:
I learnt no Latin until my eighth year. [punk! -- ed.] At that time I had read, under my father’s tuition, a number of Greek prose authors, among whom I remember the whole of Herodotus, and of Xenophon’s Cyropædia and Memorials of Socrates; some of the lives of the philosophers by Diogenes Laertius; part of Lucian, and Isocrates ad Demonicum and Ad Nicoclem....From my eighth to my twelfth year the Latin books which I remember reading were, the Bucolics of Virgil, and the first six books of the Æneid; all Horace except the Epodes; the Fables of Phædrus; the first five books of Livy (to which from my love of the subject I voluntarily added, [emphasis added for exasperation -- ed.] in my hours of leisure, the remainder of the first decade); all Sallust; a considerable part of Ovid’s Metamorphoses; some plays of Terence; two or three books of Lucretius; several of the Orations of Cicero, and of his writings on oratory; also his letters to Atticus, my father taking the trouble to translate to me from the French the historical explanations in Mongault’s notes. In Greek I read the Iliad and Odyssey through; one or two plays of Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes, though by these I profited little; all Thucydides; the Hellenics of Xenophon; a great part of Demosthenes, Æschines, and Lysias; Theocritus; Anacreon; part of the Anthology; a little of Dionysius; several books of Polybius; and lastly Aristotle’s Rhetoric, which, as the first expressly scientific treatise on any moral or psychological subject which I had read, and containing many of the best observations of the ancients on human nature and life, my father made me study with peculiar care, and throw the matter of it into synoptic tables.
Your science fair diorama with the erupting volcano is looking worse and worse, isn't it? (Don't feel bad, though; I didn't even do that.) But it wasn't all a grind there in the Mill household, Father Mill knew how to switch things up:
It was no part however of my father’s system to exclude books of amusement, though he allowed them very sparingly. Of such books he possessed at that time next to none, but he borrowed several for me; those which I remember are the Arabian Nights, Cazotte’s Arabian Tales, Don Quixote, Miss Edgeworth’s “Popular Tales,” and a book of some reputation in its day, Brooke’s Fool of Quality.
One can almost hear the sound of Father Mill's gritting teeth as he allows his lad to ruin himself by reading Don Quixote.

But the worst part is, having read this passage in college and realizing that I was a terrible scholar, now I read it and realize I'm a terrible father. Why don't I make my kids read Quintilian? Why do I tell them about the 1959 "Go-Go" White Sox, when I wouldn't know Xenophon if he suddenly re-animated and went on a book tour? And why are the Harvard Classics people making anyone read this passage? Why make us feel worse -- why would anyone have the Harvard Classics if they weren't insecure enough as it is?

If it weren't for the last paragraph of this chapter, where he talks about how clumsy he is (and which is not included in the reading), the whole thing would be a total wash.

I hate nerds.

June 22: A short post for a short reading

Ghosts are strange things, but they are not more strange than the past.

My springboard for this is the ghost stories we have today via Pliny the Younger (and when are we going to start referring to the Bushes as Younger and Elder?). I'm not on a particular mission to de- or re-bunk, so Athenodorus the philosopher spending a night in a haunted house (perhaps the first appearance of that trope, although it's not for a million dollars), seems kind of ho-hum, but this caught my eye:

A young lad of my family was sleeping in his apartment with the rest of his companions, when two persons clad in white came in, as he says, through the windows, cut off his hair as he lay, and then returned the same way they entered. The next morning ... there was the hair again, spread about the room.

Nothing remarkable indeed followed these events, unless perhaps that I escaped a prosecution, in which, if Domitian (during whose reign this happened) had lived some time longer, I should certainly have been involved. For after the death of that emperor, articles of impeachment against me were found in his scrutore, which had been exhibited by Carus. It may therefore be conjectured, since it is customary for persons under any public accusation to let their hair grow, this cutting off the hair of my servants was a sign I should escape the imminent danger that threatened me.
Wait, what? "It is customary for persons under public accusation to let their hair grow?" I think of Washington, and imagine a long-locked Scooter Libby doing a perp walk to his trial, and I find it bizarre. Do they have to grow it long, to show that they're under the gun? Or do they choose to grow it long, to appear brazen and innocent? How long does the impeachment process take, anyhow -- do they look like David Crosby at the trial, or just guys who need a trim?

I don't get it at all. I guess they would find neckties to be similarly weird.

June 21: Reading is hard, which makes us awesome for doing it


I kind of thing they should have had this reading by John Ruskin as early in January, to set the tone for the year and make you think you're doing something more than what you actually are:

When you come to a good book, you must ask yourself, “Am I inclined to work as an Australian miner would? Are my pickaxes and shovels in good order, and am I in good trim myself, my sleeves well up to the elbow, and my breath good, and my temper?” And, keeping the figure a little longer, even at the cost of tiresomeness, for it is a thoroughly useful one, the metal you are in search of being the author’s mind or meaning, his words are as the rock which you have to crush and smelt in order to get at it. And your pickaxes are your own care, wit, and learning; your smelting-furnace is your own thoughtful soul.
And your fellow-readers? Those are the guys who are going to knife you in your sleep and steal your theses. And college towns, they're like those mining towns where you can get cheap beer and floozies in exchange for a few grains of precious insights. And then people who read a lot, and very intensely, become the richest people in the world!

He flatters us bookish types further, by making us intellectual Green Berets, the best of best:
Do you deserve to enter? Pass. Do you ask to be the companion of nobles? Make yourself noble, and you shall be. Do you long for the conversation of the wise? Learn to understand it, and you shall hear it. But on other terms?—no. If you will not rise to us, we cannot stoop to you. The living lord may assume courtesy, the living philosopher explain his thought to you with considerate pain; but here we neither feign nor interpret; you must rise to the level of our thoughts if you would be gladdened by them, and share our feelings, if you would recognize our presence.
I admit a certain fondness for this attitude -- as if the books are saying that it's your job to be relevant to us. It's not a very innovation-friendly attitude, it's not pro-freshness, but there's something temperamentally appealing about it -- maybe because when we have a canon we have a common tongue between generations, even with the dead; but when we confine ourselves to the strictly contemporary one finds oneself middleaged and bald and at seas on Facebook. (I'm not even sure that's a good reference -- see the point?)

The second half of the reading is a pitch for knowing etymologies, especially for our mongrel English tongue, which I am certainly in favor of (you can fool around here if you agree), although there is a section where Ruskin is making a pitch for plain Anglo-Saxon and uses the word "contumely," which made me smile. There follows a close reading of a passage of "Lycidias," which is left to the fan of close reading. (I am one myself; but that because, as I aspire to the condition of a water beetle, I can't do it.

Photo courtesy flickr user sansanparrots used with Creative Commons license.

It's back!

The Daily Reading Guide onliney.

June 20: Charles Darwin, sexy beast

The darker the berry, the sweeter the juice, according to Mr. D:

The common people [in Tahiti], when working, keep the upper part of their bodies quite naked; and it is then that the Tahitians are seen to advantage. They are very tall, broad-shouldered, athletic, and well-proportioned. It has been remarked, that it requires little habit to make a dark skin more pleasing and natural to the eye of an European than his own colour. A white man bathing by the side of a Tahitian, was like a plant bleached by the gardener’s art compared with a fine dark green one growing vigorously in the open fields.
Survival of the fittest indeed! Note also that, in personal appearance, the women "are far inferior in every respect to the men."

One of the things I have come to enjoy about Darwin is his artlessness. In the various excerpts from the "Voyage" and the "Origin" (for Darwin gets two volumes in the Harvard Classics -- that progressive thing again), you never see him out to destroy competing theories. Instead, he's almost more like a kid; when he is in nature (or "Nature") he notices something and wonders, "How does it work"? In the opening of today's reading, he wonders how come the birds on the Galapgos are so tame:
As the birds are so tame there, where foxes, hawks, and owls occur, we may infer that the absence of all rapacious animals at the Galapagos, is not the cause of their tameness here. The upland geese at the Falklands show, by the precaution they take in building on the islets, that they are aware of their danger from the foxes; but they are not by this rendered wild towards man. This tameness of the birds, especially of the waterfowl, is strongly contrasted with the habits of the same species in Tierra del Fuego, where for ages past they have been persecuted by the wild inhabitants.
And in a footnote to this passage, there is real wonder:
There is much, as Dr. Richardson well remarks, utterly inexplicable connected with the different degrees of shyness and care with which birds conceal their nests. How strange it is that the English wood-pigeon, generally so wild a bird, should very frequently rear its young in shrubberies close to houses!
First of all, "shrubberies," but also, where pigeons do or don't build their nests doesn't even seem like much of a strange fact to the normal person, but for Darwin it's exclamation-point worthy.

But, as the quote indicates at the beginning, Darwin is a man of appetites:
When in the evening I descended from the mountain, a man, whom I had pleased with a trifling gift, met me, bringing with him hot roasted bananas, a pine-apple, and cocoa-nuts. After walking under a burning sun, I do not know anything more delicious than the milk of a young cocoa-nut. Pine-apples are here so abundant that the people eat them in the same wasteful manner as we might turnips. They are of an excellent flavor-perhaps even better than those cultivated in England; and this I believe is the highest compliment which can be paid to any fruit.
Better than English pineapples! You don't mean it!

June 19: Puppies! or, The Rewards Of Patient Reading


There's nothing to be said about Holinshed on English Dogs, in fact it was slow going for a little while. And then, by patiently slowing down and tuning my mind to its 16th-century style ("eftsoones," for example, but also the sentences are much longer), I began to find it delightful So today is a blockquote festival as I just pull out my favorite passages.

It's okay to enjoy this archaic style. I give you permission. It doesn't mean you want to work at a Rennaissance Faire or anything. Just don't walk around saying "good morrow" -- that would be going too far.

NOTE: parts I particularly enjoyed in italics.

The third sort of dogs of the gentle kind is the spaniel gentle, or comforter, or (as the common term is) the fistinghound...These are little and pretty, proper and fine, and sought out far and near to falsify the nice delicacy of dainty dames, and wanton women’s wills, instruments of folly to play and dally withal, in trifling away the treasure of time, to withdraw their minds from more commendable exercises, and to content their corrupt concupiscences with vain disport—a silly poor shift to shun their irksome idleness....It is thought of some that it is very wholesome for a weak stomach to bear such a dog in the bosom, as it is for him that hath the palsy to feel the daily smell and savour of a fox.
The Caspians make so much account sometimes of such great dogs that every able man would nourish sundry of them in his house of set purpose, to the end they should devour their carcases after their deaths thinking the dog’s bellies to be the most honourable sepulchres. The common people also followed the same rate, and therefore there were tie dogs kept up by public ordinance, to devour them after their deaths: by means whereof these beasts became the more eager, and with great difficulty after a while restrained from falling upon the living. But whither am I digressed?
Divers of them [mastiffs] likewise are of such jealousy over their master and whosoever of his household, that if a stranger do embrace or touch any of them, they will fall fiercely upon them, unto their extreme mischief if their fury be not prevented. Such a one was the dog of Nichomedes, king sometime of Bithynia, who seeing Consigne the queen to embrace and kiss her husband as they walked together in a garden, did tear her all to pieces, maugre his resistance and the present aid of such as attended on them.
Moreover they [whippets] bite very sore, and love candles exceedingly, as do the men and women of their country; but I may say no more of them, because they are not bred with us. Yet this will I make report of by the way, for pastime’s sake, that when a great man of those parts came of late into one of our ships which went thither for fish, to see the form and fashion of the same, his wife apparelled in fine sables, abiding on the deck whilst her husband was under the hatches with the mariners, espied a pound or two of candles hanging on the mast, and being loath to stand there idle alone, she fell to and eat them up every one, supposing herself to have been at a jolly banquet, and shewing very pleasant gesture when her husband came up again unto her.
I'm a little skeptical of the candle-eating queen, myself.

UPDATE: My wife points out that candles used to be made of beef tallow. This takes the tale from the realms of the improbable into the merely gross.

June 18: Lentilella

The lentils, after being sorted by magical friends (blogger's conception)

The Brothers Grimm apparently lived in the same house all their lives; I wonder what they made of Cinderella, the last word in sibling-rivalry stories (or is it the first word? Wikipedia says there are versions of this story in Egyptian myths). Maybe they tried to hide their opinion in the service of objectivity, and the evidence of this is the fact that the men come off very badly in this story.

First of all, Cinderella's dad is around the whole time, he's even at the festival where Cinderella makes her splashes. ("Festival" instead of "ball" and "splashes," plural -- the big prince set-piece is a three day, no night deal. Perhaps it's like a State Fair, although there's no mention of fried dough. Maybe it's a lentil festival -- sorting lentils is also a big deal in this story.) He's also there at the big climax:
“This also is not the right one,” said he, “have you no other daughter?” “No,” said the man, “There is still a little stunted kitchen-wench which my late wife left behind her, but she cannot possibly be the bride.”
It's not news, but it's always shocking how rude they were, in the old school. Not that the prince is much better -- when Cinderella runs off the first time she hides in the pigeon house, and the prince and her father decide to chop it down in order to search for her. Real smart.

The other big difference is no Fairy Godmother, instead the magic is related to her mother's grave, which is much more economical storytelling as opposed to bringing in a whole other supernatural entity. Mom is stepping up where Dad won't; one wonders why she died -- foul play, perhaps? There's also less magic -- lentil-sorting (by no means easy, I admit) and dressing her up for the ball:
On the third day, when the parents and sisters had gone away, Cinderella once more went to her mother’s grave and said to the little tree—
“Shiver and quiver, my little tree,

Silver and gold throw down over me.”
And now the bird threw down to her a dress which was more splendid and magnificent than any she had yet had, and the slippers were golden. And when she went to the festival in the dress, no one knew how to speak for astonishment.

Because it wasn't a day dress. Magnificent gowns always look weird in sunshine (a small feature of Los Angeles is seeing people get into limos for awards shoes at two in the afternoon). Also, her magical friends are narc:s
They were, however, obliged to pass the grave, and there, on the hazel-tree, sat the two pigeons and cried,
“Turn and peep, turn and peep,

There’s blood within the shoe,

The shoe it is too small for her,

The true bride waits for you.”
Then he looked at her foot and saw how the blood was streaming from it.
Her stepsister had cut her toe off in order to wear the slipper, a detail I would have loved to see Disney animate. As I believe is typical for the Bros. Grimm, it's a lot more gory than the version we Americans get (we prefer our violence in real life, thank you).

June 17: Idealism, Indians, and memos



Generally, I hate the word "interesting" -- it reminds me of the book reports I used to do in elementary school. ("'A Wrinkle In Time' is an interesting book. It features the interesting idea of spacetime travel, which it uses in interesting ways." Maybe I haven't progressed much, come to think of it.) But the "Brief Narrative of the Progress of the Gospel amongst the Indians in New England, in the Year 1670" has a variety of, uh, aspects of interest.

We might start with the historical aspect; it is, after all, in "American Historical Documents." John Eliot learned the native language (called Natick, Wikipedia says) in order to preach Jesus to them; he even organized the converts into "praying towns" near the Puritan settlements. The Introductory Note notes, "This pamphlet gives an interesting (! - ed) picture of the conditions of evangelisation among the natives at the end of the first generation of intercourse with the colonists," and really, when you think about it, the encounter between the Puritans and natives is a strange one. The Virginians were just in it for the money; it resembles the Europeans coming into Asia in centuries past. (Or the Mongols.) But here, among the Massachusetts tribes, we have a people who have had a megachurch dropped on them, and Eliot only wants to make it more mega:

Here [Natick] we have two Teachers, John Speen and Anthony; we have betwixt forty and fifty Communicants at the Lord’s Table, when they all appear, but now, some are dead, and some decriped with age; ...Sundry more are proposed, and in way of preparation to joyn unto the Church.
Eliot, with I guess some support from the higher-ups, is trying to get a beautiful rainbow coalition going, and you might say to yourself, well, it could have worked, except you know going in (from the Introduction) that, "The movement which was so vigorously started by Eliot was checked before his death by King Philip’s war, 1675–6." That war wiped out more than sundry of the Indians, and made the brotherhood-of-man jazz applicable to English only. NINA -- No Indians Need Apply.

So do all idealistic enterprises end in power politics.

Unless they end in paperwork, that is; because the second interesting aspect is the bureaucratic. The title is "Brief Narrative," but really it's a memo-slash-grant proposal. It starts with the implication that he screwed up his last presentation:
THAT brief Tract of the present state of the Indian-Work in my hand, which I did the last year on the sudden present you with when you call’d for such a thing; That falling short of its end, and you calling for a renewal thereof, with opportunity of more time, I shall begin...
And soon you realize that this is an update of how all the branch offices are doing ("Magunkukquok is another of our Praying-Towns at the remotest Westerly borders of Natick"), along with time-honored bitching from people in the field about money and personnel:
I find a blessing, when our Church of Natick doth send forth fit Persons unto some remoter places, to teach them the fear of the Lord. But we want maintenance for that Service; it is chargeable matter to send a Man from his Family: The Labourer is worthy of his Hire: We are determined to send forth some (if the Lord will, and that we live) this Autumn, sundry ways...We have Christ’s Example, his Promise, his Presence, his Spirit to assist; and I trust that the Lord will find a way for your encouragement.
Yeah, throw the mission statement back in their face, that'll work. And he does a little CYA for ordaining Indians:
...it is needed to add a word or two of Apology: I find it hopeless to expect English Officers in our Indian Churches; the work is full of hardship, hard labour, and chargeable also...An English young man raw in that language, coming to teach among our Christian-Indians, would be much to their loss; there be of themselves such as be more able, especially being advantaged that he speaketh his own language, and knoweth their manners.
And this kind of brings me to the last thing I found interesting, which is historiographical -- in other words, what is this doing in the Harvard Classics? I enjoy my cheap easy fun at Dr. Eliot's expense taking shots at their 1908-era prejudices, but really, to include this document of 17th century can-we-all-get-along seems kind of...progressive. (To say nothing of Dr. E's decision to include two Darwin volumes in the pre-Scopes era.) By our standards, of course, it's impossibly imperialistic to admire someone who wants to convert Indians, but by our standards it's OK to run our computers on coal.

June 16: You and your boons can just stay in the closet

Speaking of works of art by megalomaniacs...


Wikipedia says (and right off the bat I must apologize for the "Wikipedia says" lede) that Byron's Manfred is what they call a closet drama, that is, a poem written like a play, but not meant to be performed, in Manfred's case because it would be the worst play of all times.

First of all, it's the kind of play where boons are granted -- actually, they're not granted, but Manfred, our Byronic hero, is too good for them:
From my youth upwards
My spirit walk’d not with the souls of men,
Nor look’d upon the earth with human eyes;
The thirst of their ambition was not mine,
The aim of their existence was not mine;
My joys, my griefs, my passions, and my powers
Made me a stranger; though I wore the form,
I had no sympathy with breathing flesh,
Nor midst the creatures of clay that girded me...

Yeah, we love you too, buddy. Maybe we don't want your spirit walking with our souls -- did you ever think of that?

The introductory note to this play in the HC psyches us up with this paragraph: "For dramatic writing Byron was not favorably endowed. His egotism was too persistent to enable him to enter vitally and sympathetically into a variety of characters, and the hero of his plays...is usually himself more of less disguised." That explains why Manfred seems to have slept with his sister:
She was like me in lineaments—her eyes,
Her hair, her features, all, to the very tone
Even of her voice, they said were like to mine;
But soften’d all, and temper’d into beauty;
She had the same lone thoughts and wanderings,
...Pity, and smiles, and tears—which I had not;
And tenderness—but that I had for her;
Humility—and that I never had.

Oy, and I go on to add, vey. How could someone who wrote this:
Man, being reasonable, must get drunk;
The best of life is but intoxication:
Glory, the grape, love, gold, in these are sunk
The hopes of all men, and of every nation;
Without their sap, how branchless were the trunk
Of life's strange tree, so fruitful on occasion:
But to return,—Get very drunk; and when
You wake with headache, you shall see what then.
Write this:
Man. Think’st thou existence doth depend on time?
It doth; but actions are our epochs: mine
Have made my days and nights imperishable,
Endless, and all alike, as sands on the shore,
Innumerable atoms; and one desert,
Barren and cold, on which the wild waves break,
But nothing rests, save carcasses and wrecks,
Rocks, and the salt—surf weeds of bitterness.

I guess it explains why he drinks.

June 14: The Peasants Are Revolting


During Wat Tyler's rebellion, in 1381, the peasants could have easily killed Richard II. It was a pretty serious rebellion (not least because it would have deprived hammy, gay-seeming actors of a Shakespearean role to play in repertory). Well, why did it happen? Froissart, anticipating the Wall Street Journal editorial page by 600 years, gives us the reason right at the start of his Chronicle: "There was never realm nor country in so great adventure as it was in that time, and all because of the ease and riches that the common people were of, which moved them to this rebellion."

It's the ease and riches, people! You want your commoners to be well fed enough to work, but not so well-fed that they can leave the fields and rebel without fainting. Although I wouldn't have been surprised if Froissart had attributed the rebels crazy beliefs to hypoglycemia:

...for they were neither angels nor spirits, but men formed to the similitude of their lords, saying why should they then be kept so under like beasts; the which they said they would no longer suffer, for they would be all one, and if they laboured or did anything for their lords, they would have wages therefor as well as other.
Froissart thinks this is so crazy it's not even worth refuting -- it's self-evidently crazy. Wages for peons! What's next, complaints about social inequality? Whoops:
We be all come from one father and one mother, Adam and Eve: whereby can they say or shew that they be greater lords than we be, saving by that they cause us to win and labour for that they dispend? They are clothed in velvet and camlet furred with grise, and we be vestured with poor cloth: they have their wines, spices and good bread, and we have the drawing out of the chaff 2 and drink water: they dwell in fair houses, and we have the pain and travail, rain and wind in the fields; and by that that cometh of our labours they keep and maintain their estates...
No need to drag religion into the class war, and indeed the troublesome priest who gave this sermon was thrown into prison by the Archbishop of Canterbury. (Of course, I'm one to talk, I have guys come and do my own lawn and stuff. But they do get wages, I'm told.)

Of course, just when one wants to sympathize with the doughty peasants, possibly wearing jerkins, they give us a long hot summer, medieval-London-style:
Then the captains, as John Ball, Jack Straw and Wat Tyler, went throughout London and a twenty thousand with them, and so came to the Savoy in the way to Westminster... And when they entered, they slew the keepers thereof and robbed and pilled the house, and when they had so done, then they set fire on it and clean destroyed and brent it. And when they had done that outrage, they...went straight to the fair hospital of the Rhodes called Saint John’s, and there they brent house, hospital, minster and all. Then they went from street to street and slew all the Flemings that they could find in church or in any other place, there was none respited from death.
As it turns out, a revolution is not a tea party, even at the Savoy. (Also, Wat Tyler: Flemings::Lou Dobbs:Mexicans, I guess.) Tensions are high; three of London's twelve alderman take the rebels' side, and they demand the king:
...then the king sent to them that they should all draw to a fair plain place called Mile-end, whereas the people of the city did sport them in the summer season, and there the king to grant them that they desired; and there it was cried in the king’s name, that whosoever would speak with the king let him go to the said place, and there he should not fail to find the king.
And our excerpt ends, a cliffhanger. Perhaps the editors of the DRG won't tell us the ending so that, as good Americans, we might not have to see the pro-Royal, anti-people clampdown that followed, according to Wikipedia:
... Sir Ralph de Standish, one of the King's squires, drew his sword and ran it through Tyler's stomach, killing him almost instantly. Seeing him surrounded by the King's entourage, the rebel army was in uproar, but King Richard, seizing the opportunity, rode forth and shouted "You shall have no captain but me.", a statement left deliberately ambiguous to defuse the situation. He promised the rebels that all was well, that Tyler had been knighted, and that their demands would be met - they were to march to St John's Fields, where Wat Tyler would meet them.

This they duly did, but the King broke his promise. The nobles quickly re-established their control with the help of a hastily organised militia of 7000, and most of the other leaders were pursued, captured and executed, including John Ball and Jack Straw, who was beheaded. Following the collapse of the revolt, the king's concessions were quickly revoked.
"Put that in your pipe and smoke it," he might have said, but they were 200 years away from having tobacco.

June 14: Crito and the Man

It's probably pronounced "Cry-to," isn't it? I'm too in love with this cheesy joke to check.

Having previously watched the admirable, yet dickish, Socrates immolate himself for his principles in the "Apology," we now turn to the Holy Saturday of the Socratic passion, the Crito.

The Crito is like the travel day in the World Series of Martyred Philosophers, for it takes place between the trial and the execution, and is itself an argument for inaction. Indeed it can be summarized like this:
Crito: Golly, Socrates, don't you want to escape?
Socrates: No.
Done!

Actually it begins in a more literary way:

Socrates. WHY have you come at this hour, Crito? it must be quite early.
Crito. Yes, certainly.
Soc. What is the exact time?
Cr. The dawn is breaking.
Soc. I wonder the keeper of the prison would let you in.
Cr. He knows me because I often come, Socrates; moreover, I have done him a kindness.
Soc. And are you only just come?
Cr. No, I came some time ago.
Soc. Then why did you sit and say nothing, instead of awakening me at once?
(his is funnier if you cast Grandpa Simpson in your head in the role of Socrates.

The detail of Socrates sleeping -- to show how peaceful he is even as the deal is going down -- is choice. But once Socrates wakes up and does his deep knee bends, etc. this kind of back-and-forth ends, and we have "Socratic dialogue," which means that Socrates says one thousand words and Crito says three, and Crito, like a good Socratic straight-man, throws Socrates batting-practice fastballs, e.g., "Are you not afraid that if you escape hence we may get into trouble with the informers for having stolen you away, and lose either the whole or a great part of our property; or that even a worse evil may happen to us?" Or, my favorite, that Socrates should escape because "the many" -- and you get the sense that Plato can't even write that without shuddering -- will think that Crito could have helped him escape, but decided not to.

To me the question Crito should ask is, "Don't you think this whole business is rather self-serving on your part? Aren't you basically engineering your own martyrdom in order to prove how much better you are than the rabble?" It's answerable, I think (Socrates is going to death as a form of civil disobedience, perhaps) but Plato prefers the softball questions.

My favorite part is at the end, after Socrates gives a 920-word speech, Crito says: "I have nothing to say, Socrates." Of course not.

June 13: Role Models and Insurgents

One of the conclusions I seem to be coming to because of this project is this: literature should not be taught in high school at all. Every time I've had to read something which I read in high school, I realize that 1) I totally didn't understand, then, what I was reading, and 2) there was probably no way I could have understood it. Abolishing literature class would have the additional benefit of people learning it on the street -- in the exact way it was produced.

But what to replace it with? My first thought is the study of cookery, and I stand by that, but they could do worse than to read Plutarch. As it says in the Introductory Note, "All classes of people have taken delight in them, from kings to shepherds [two classes of people with country places -- ed.], and it is safe to say that the influence has always been wholesome." (Wholesome! Even fogeys don't use "wholesome" anymore, although "natural" and/or "artisanal" has some of that force.)

Nerds would enjoy it, too, for today we learn that Aristedes was exiled from Athens for being too smart and good:

Moreover, the spirit of the people, now grown high, and confident with their late victory, naturally entertained feelings of dislike to all of more than common fame and reputation. Coming together, therefore, from all parts into the city, they banished Aristides by the ostracism, giving their jealousy of his reputation the name of fear of tyranny. For ostracism was not the punishment of any criminal act, but was speciously said to be the mere depression and humiliation of excessive greatness and power; and was in fact a gentle relief and mitigation of envious feeling.
Aristedes, wholesomely, goes quietly, and presently the Persians invade and, forgetting the wrong he's been done, he goes and helps the Greeks thrown them out. Not without difficulties, though. Because, as so often happens in war, it's hard to find a trustworthy oracle:
In this juncture, Arimnestus, who commanded the Platæans, dreamed that Jupiter, the Saviour, asked him what the Greeks had resolved upon; and that he answered, “To-morrow, my Lord, we march our army to Eleusis, and there give the barbarians battle according to the directions of the oracle of Apollo.” And that the god replied, they were utterly mistaken, for that the places spoken of by the oracle were within the bounds of Platæa, and if they sought there they should find them.
As in our time, it's not the oracle but how the MSM interprets the oracle that's important. (I add that the difficulty in doing this reading is all these Greek names. I might wish for footnotes but in some way it would add to the distraction while not adding understanding.)

And here one might extract a point about our time. The Persians have invaded Greece, and even the disaffected Greeks rally to the home team cause. There's something about foreigners that brings everyone together. We all know that Athens-Sparta was a rivalry as hot as Alabama-Auburn, but, as Alabama and Auburn would come together against the Big Ten, so do Athens and Sparta join up:
Aristides, making this proposal and bringing back the ambassadors into the assembly, charged them to tell the Lacedæmonians [Spartans. It's confusing! -- ed.], that all the treasure on the earth or under it, was of less value with the people of Athens, than the liberty of Greece. And, showing the sun to those who came from Mardonius, “as long as that retains the same course, so long,” said he, “shall the citizens of Athens wage war with the Persians for the country which has been wasted, and the temples that have been profaned and burnt by them.”
It's hard to win on the road, as the Persian Empire, and our own, have learned. And we had Plutarch and they didn't.

June 12: Krishna, lover of life and killing

If you look at it a certain way, it's a wonder more people don't kill themselves.

Think about it: masses of people without access to decent drinking water; and if they had it, they would soon find themselves bummed by their lack of access to Paxil, or Dolby Surround Sound. People in hospitals engulfed by tubes. Sad teens. And yet we all continue. There's something so powerful about having Life, so you can see what the Bhagvad-Gita is driving at when they make Life itself kind of a deity (in the first two chapters, anyway, which is the reading):

Learn thou! the Life is, spreading life through all;
It cannot anywhere, by any means,
Be anywise diminished, stayed, or changed.
But for these fleeting frames which it informs
With spirit deathless, endless, infinite,
They perish.

How can something make us drag our asses through day after day of cares and woes and troubling skin conditions (I see you trying to hide it with your hair -- trust me, it doesn't help), and yet be gone? You can see how the Indian doctrines would appeal to someone more used to the protection-racket aspects of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

But what is just as eternal as the desire to stay alive is the use of religious scripture to justify war and particular social relationships, and in these two chapters the B-G does not disappoint.
The whole setup for the poem is that Arunja (also called "Arjun," it's slightly confusing) doesn't want to fight in this battle -- although he was tempted by the most martial sound there is, conch-shells:
Arjuna blew
Indra’s loud gift; Bhima the terrible—
Wolf-bellied Bhima—blew a long reed-conch;
And Yudhisthira, Kunti’s blameless son,
Winded a mighty shell, “Victory’s Voice;”
And Nakula blew shrill upon his conch
Named the “Sweet-sounding,” Sahadev on his
Called “Gem-bedecked,” and Kasi’s Prince on his.

(Another constant of ancient Scripture, it seems, is to give you long lists of things you don't need to know -- conches are the "begats" of India, as Diana Vreeland almost said. ) Anyway, Arjuna doesn't want to kill his kinsman, and we're sympathetic, because we don't know what the fight is about, so his charioteer, Krishna (sure, make Krishna a cab driver -- stereotype much, Bhagvad-Gita?) unspools this paean to Life in order to get Arjuna to kill:
Let them perish, Prince! and fight!
He who shall say, “Lo! I have slain a man!”
He who shall think, “Lo! I am slain!” those both
Know naught! Life cannot slay. Life is not slain!
You only feel like you're being slain, but that's just because you're delirious from the loss of blood. And as to wealth and power, don't bother your holy little head about it:
But thou, want not! ask not! Find full reward
Of doing right in right! Let right deeds be
Thy motive, not the fruit which comes from them.
And live in action! Labor! Make thine acts
Thy piety, casting all self aside,
Contemning gain and merit.
Not that this sentiment is wrong -- I wouldn't be doing all this reading unless I thought there was some savor to be found in relatively nonworldly pursuits. I just find myself on Arjuna's side a little. I want to know to whose benefit I'm fighting before I answer the sound of the conch.

June 11: Spenser is a fanboy

"Epithalamion," if I'm cutting and pasting that correctly, is a poem written to celebrate a marriage. So what better time to read one than in June, month of weddings? And how much cooler would that poem be if it were "comprised of 365 long lines, corresponding to the days of the year; 68 short lines, representing the sum of the 52 weeks, 12 months, and 4 seasons of the annual cycle; and 24 stanzas, corresponding to the diurnal and sidereal hours"? Way much cooler, that's how much.

So, if you haven't guessed it already, Edmund Spenser was a nerd. Who else would begin his own wedding poem with "Ye learnèd sisters"? But the big tipoff is how much Greek mythological knowledge he drops:

Like unto Maia, when as Jove her took
In Tempe, lying on the flowry gras,
Twixt sleepe and wake, after she weary was,
With bathing in the Acidalian brooke.
How nice it must have been in the pre-spelling era! And how charmed his wife must have been with all the references to Hymen and Juno and the Nymphs of Mulla! Because if there's one thing women like, it's references -- the more recondite the better, in my experience. And whereas these days, fanboys have more places to whet their expertise -- sports, soul music, what have you -- in Spenser's day I guess it was either the saints or Greek myths.

Of course, we don't know how his wife took it, or was likely to take it, because in the action of the poem, which takes place during the course of her wedding day, she doesn't say a mumbling word, or even take any action (she is brought to the altar):


Behold, whiles she before the altar stands,
Hearing the holy priest that to her speakes,
And blesseth her with his two happy hands,
How the red roses flush up in her cheekes,
...
But her sad eyes, still fastened on the ground,
Are governèd with goodly modesty,

It's nice that she's so quiet -- more oxygen for Edmund!

As to the poem as poem, I'm not so sold on it. I enjoy the alternation of long and short, but the one really striking image in the following passage (her breasts are like uncrudded cream!) doesn't float my boat:

Tell me, ye merchants daughters, did ye see
So fayre a creature in your towne before;
So sweet, so lovely, and so mild as she,
Adorned with beautyes grace and vertues store?
Her goodly eyes lyke Saphyres shining bright,
Her forehead yvory white,
Her cheeks lyke apples which the sun hath rudded,
Her lips like cherryes charming men to byte,
Her brest like to a bowle of creame uncrudded,
Her paps lyke lyllies budded,
Her snowie neck lyke to a marble towre;
And all her body like a pallace fayre,
Ascending up, with many a stately stayre,
To honours seat and chastities sweet bowre.

I do like the idea that the ultimate arbiters of taste are merchants' daughters. Some things indeed never change.

NOTE: Sorry for the formatting, by the way. It's the cutting-and-pasting-stuff-with-line-breaks issue again.

June 10: Riddles (or, Oedipus, P.I.)


What is it with the Thebans and their riddles?

First of all, there's Oedipus and the riddle of the Sphinx, which has happened before the action begins in Oedipus The King (released in Europe under the title "Oedipus Rex"). Now a new riddle faces Thebes -- they must de-plaguify themselves by finding the guy who killed King Laius. Oedipus cuts his way through the bureaucratic red-tape mumbo-jumbo at Thebes P.D. and gets after it with the Q&A:

ŒDIP. Yes; but where are they? How to track the course
Of guilt all shrouded in the doubtful past?

CREON. In this our land, so said he, those who seek
Shall find; unsought, we lose it utterly.

ŒDIP. Was it at home, or in the field, or else
In some strange land that Laius met his doom?

CREON. He went, so spake he, pilgrim-wise afar,
And nevermore came back as forth he went.

ŒDIP. Was there no courier, none who shared his road,
From whom, inquiring, one might learn the truth?

CREON. Dead are they all, save one who fled for fear,
And he had naught to tell but this:…

ŒDIP. [interrupting] And what was that? One fact might teach us much,
Had we but one small starting-point of hope.


I like the [interrupting] -- there are hardly any other stage directions, but Sophocles wants to make clear that Oedipus is like "The Closer" here.

Then, after some Strophes and Anti-strophes (this is where you'd put the commercials), they bring in Teiresias as the expert witness. And he speaks in riddles. So Oedipus flips over the table in the interrogation room (somehow my copy of the Harvard Classics omits this stage direction), and gets all bad-cop:

ŒDIP. Yes; I will not refrain, so fierce my wrath,
From speaking all my thought. I think that thou
Didst plot the deed, and do it, though the blow
Thy hands, it may be, dealt not. Hadst thou seen,
I would have said it was thy deed alone.

This is where Oedipus could have used the veteran partner who was one day away from retirement -- although, come to think of it, Oedipus is the guy who's one day away from retirement. And Teiresias fingers Oedipus right back, and then, after this outburst of clarity, starts talking in riddles again:

ŒDIP. [starting forward] What? Stay thy foot. What mortal gave me
birth?

TEIR. This day shall give thy birth, and work thy doom.

ŒDIP. What riddles dark and dim thou lov’st to speak.

TEIR. Yes. But thy skill excels in solving such.


A cool customer, that Teiresias. And scene! Tieresias must be well-connected, though, because Oedipus doesn't pistol-whip him (or javelin-whip him, to be historically accurate) until he tells the whole story.

I don't usually summarize to this extent, but most of the I.,i. excerpts I have to read are much duller than this. It helps Sophocles (who apparently was very graceful, the Introductory Note tells us that he was "the most perfectly balanced among the three great masters of Greek tragedy") that we're familiar with the story -- there's a lot less "as you and I both know" here, we can get Creon on with new information right away. And Oedipus is agitated right from the get-go, as befits a king of a plaguey city-state.

Photographic evidence


Now that the site that used to have the Daily Reading Guide has been taken down, I wanted to show some proof that such a thing does exist & that I'm not randomly selecting these readings (not that I would ever do such a thing, I'm too lazy). There are also inspiring little verses at the beginning of each month which I will post if I remember.

This was a DRG that was being sold on ebay -- a nice maroon leather-bound one, not the green, merely cloth-bound set my great-grandfather got. I guess mine could be called "shanty classics".

June 9: We Got Psalms

Who shall ascend into the hill of Jehovah?
And who shall stand in his holy place?

He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart;
Who hath not lifted up his soul unto falsehood,
And hath not sworn deceitfully.
Aw, shit. I was told merely "clean hands" would be enough.

Because of my relatively churchy background I can't even see these Psalms (23 through 32, inclusive, if you're scoring at home), through the fog of all the other times I've read/heard them, either at church, or, at Christmas:
Lift up your heads, O ye gates;
And be ye lifted up...
I can hear the (period authentic!) instruments sawing away right now. Perhaps as a corrective, one might add a "y'all" here and there --
Who is the King of glory[, y'all]?
Jehovah strong and mighty,
Jehovah mighty in battle [y'all].
I have no doubt there's translations like that already; I'm enough of a Tory that I prefer King James (or some early version of RSV; it's not clear what translation they're using). On the other hand, this afternoon when I was reading this it was really noisy and I kept losing the thread for all the fine cadences. So I'd say a line very softly to myself, to focus, and when you say something like "Remember not the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions" softly, you feel like you're in a movie where some heavy shit is about to go down.

And, of course, once you identify with the Psalmist, you too can have heavy shit going down in your life. Suddenly the fact that you screwed up the Jenkins account can be dignified with:
Because of all mine adversaries I am become a reproach,
Yea, unto my neighbors exceedingly,
And a fear to mine acquaintance:
They that did see me without fled from me.

I am forgotten as a dead man out of mind:
I am like a broken vessel.

For I have heard the defaming of many,
Terror on every side:
While they took counsel together against me,
They devised to take away my life.
Which brings me to my other observation, which is that for all the Psalmists' protestations of the excellence of Jehovah, they sure do find themselves in trouble a lot:
When I kept silence, my bones wasted away
Through my groaning all the day long.

For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me:
My moisture was changed as with the drought of summer.
That Jehovah, always changing the moisture on you. I believe he does it every 3,000 miles, or 40 days and nights, whichever comes first.

June 8: America's first fair-trader

Quakers like Woolman knew that you don't need a thermometer to know which way the wind blows. Wait.. No, that's right -- you don't need one.

Maybe you think you're pretty righteous. Maybe you don't wear clothes from Old Navy made from Chinese sweatship prison labor; instead, you wear clothes from Banana Republic made from Chinese country-club prison labor. Maybe you shun produce grown by organic farmers, if those farmers used to be investment bankers. Maybe you, and/or the rear bumper of your car, are unafraid to express your outre political positions.

Well, John Woolman (1720-1772) calls bullshit on your whited sepulcher, because you wear dyed clothing:
Through giving way to hiding dirt in our garments a spirit which would conceal that which is disagreeable is strengthened. Real cleanliness becometh a holy people; but hiding that which is not clean by coloring our garments seems contrary to the sweetness of sincerity... And if the value of dye-stuffs, and expense of dyeing, and the damage done to cloth, were all added together, and that cost applied to keeping all sweet and clean, how much more would real cleanliness prevail.
(I know, I know, how can the sepulcher be whited if it's also dyed? With God all things are possible, even mixed metaphors.)

John Woolman, according to both his HC introduction and his Wikipedia entry, was one of the first Americans to notice something hinky about the whole slavery deal, and then devoted much of his life to trying to get at least the Quakers to agree with him. But, as the clothes-dyeing episode suggests, this was just part of his overall concern with social justice:
Industrious women who spin in the factories get some fourpence, some fivepence, and so on to six, seven, eight, nine, or ten pence per day, and find their own house-room and diet. Great numbers of poor people live chiefly on bread and water in the southern parts of England, as well as in the northern parts; and there are many poor children not even taught to read. May those who have abundance lay these things to heart!

Post-boys pursue their business, each one to his stage, all night through the winter. Some boys who ride long stages suffer greatly in winter nights, and at several places I have heard of their being frozen to death. So great is the hurry in the spirit of this world, that in aiming to do business quickly and to gain wealth the creation at this day doth loudly groan.
Well, fortunately we seem to have everything squared away in re: the creation. It's not groaning any more. (Instead, it's turned to revenge.) We will always need Woolmans, even though you can see that a concern for social justice goes hand-in-hand with being a titantic pain in the ass:
I have several times been entertained at the houses of Friends, who had sundry things about them that had the appearance of outward greatness, and as I have kept inward, way hath opened for conversation with such in private, in which Divine goodness hath favored us together with heart-tendering times.
In other words, after you feed him, he complains about your dyed clothes, and your silver, which he is also against, because of the oppressive conditions in the mines. He's a hippie, straight up.

I remember thinking a few years ago that it would become hip to be a Mason, and, since the prediction is coming to pass (I don't think it is really -- if it's in the LA Times the opposite is likely true), I will now go out on a limb and predict that the Quakers will have a renaissance. In some ways it's the perfect liberal religion -- you're supposed to talk as much you want at Meeting.

But good on the Harvard Classics for including this early crusader among its works, although you might also say that that's just symptomatic of the New England sense of moral superiority that made John Kerry the most beloved figure on our national scene.

Thank you Overthinking it

for my new visitors. I am always happy to be linked to by a blog that has "Anna Nicole Smith" and "dialectic" as two of its tags. (They recently got a lot of traffic from their "Lord of the Rings Nazgul Vs. A Labradoodle" post being linked to on IMDB.)

June 7: Poor Ophelia


Act IV, Scene V of Hamlet today -- wherein we discover that Ophelia has gone mad, because of 1) the death of her father, but also probably 2) the shitty deal she's getting in general.

I am, as always, intimidated by Hamlet and the long tradition of Hamlet commentary. When I'm reading these Classics that I've never heard of I feel freer, because I am also unaware of any scholarly superstructure around, say, the essays of Robert Louis Stevenson. (And yet I know it must exist because graduate students have to study something. ) But Hamlet, Jesus. So I will confine myself to a few bullet points.

• I had forgotten that the murder of Polonius, Ophelia and Laertes's blowhard dad, is really the motor of the second half of the play. These days you would probably want to move it up a little and start your story sooner. "Doesn't Hamlet deciding not to kill Claudius at prayer seem like an up-and-back?" -- that kind of thing. Shakespeare, however, is extravagant.

• Excellent carpentry by Shakespeare, also, where we first hear about Ophelia's madness from Gertrude -- who also must be going a little nuts by now.

• Here's one of Ophelia's bawdy songs:

“By Gis, and by Saint Charity,
Alack! and, fie for shame!
Young men will do’t, if they come to ’t;
By Cock, they are to blame.
"Cock" is footnoted by the Harvard Classics editor, who tells us it means, "A corruption of 'God.'" Of course it does.

• Finally, I think this may be the last "Hamlet" excerpt of the year, so I'm going to put an excerpt from one of my favorite poems, Zbigniew Herbert's "Elegy of Fortinbras":
Adieu prince I have tasks a sewer project
and a decree on prostitutes and beggars
I must also elaborate a better system of prisons
since as you justly said Denmark is a prison
I go to my affairs This night is born
a star named Hamlet We shall never meet
what I shall leave will not be worth a tragedy

It is not for us to greet each other or bid farewell we live on archipelagos
and that water these words what can they do what can they do prince

UPDATE: I forgot my favorite part, which is the description of today's reading from the alas-no-longer-online Daily Reading Guide itself. It is a small masterpiece of early 20th century advertising prose:
"There's Rosemary -- that 's for Remembrance!"
Do you know the rest of Ophelia's famous line? "Hamlet" is the most popular play in the entire world. It has been quoted so often that reading it is like meeting an old friend.
It has it all -- the heartiness of asserting that a play about two families and an entire nation become utterly undone is "like meeting an old friend"; the peer pressure of the fact that "Hamlet" is the most popular play, not just in the world, but in the entire world; and the enticement in the form of a question in the first sentence. "Why, I don't know the rest of Ophelia's famous line," the mark reader is supposed to say. "I best purchase this series of books!"

OT (kind of)

Via Crooked Timber, a parody philosophy exam which are also generating principles for my daily posts:

Philosophy Exam – First Year

Answer two questions

Two hours

1. Patch together some things you have heard in lectures, in no particular order.

2. Has this question vexed philosophers for centuries?

3. Create an impression of original thought by impassioned scribbling (your answer may be ungrammatical, illegible, or both).
There's more over there -- it didn't seem fair to excerpt the whole thing.

June 6: Yar

When last we left Richard Henry Dana, he was chillaxing in San Diego. Well, his ship is approaching Cape Horn, and Spring Break is over:

Rain, sleet, snow, and wind, enough to take our breath from us, and make the toughest turn his back to windward! The ship lay nearly over on her beam-ends; the spars and rigging snapped and cracked; and her top-gallant masts bent like whip-sticks. “Clew up the fore and main top-gallant sails!” shouted the captain, and all hands sprang to the clewlines. The decks were standing nearly at an angle of forty-five degrees, and the ship going like a mad steed through the water, the whole forward part of her in a smother of foam.
I hardly need to add that after this, they let go the halyards and clewed down the yards. That's what I'd do -- I'd be clewing down those yards so fast, I wouldn't even have time to ask what yards are, or how you might go about clewing them down.

This is a gripping yarn, if you don't mind reading a lot of technical Yankee Clipper-type sailing terms without ever learning what they mean. (It does help if you know what "masts" are -- they're the long pointy things, I think.) The anonymous person who makes up these readings makes a good call by starting us at the end of the previous chapter, when the sailing is literally smooth, so that,, when the big swell washes up at the start of this chapter, you're in sympathy with the below-decks tongue-wagging:
Old Bill, who was somewhat of a croaker,—having met with a great many accidents at sea—said that if that was the way she was going to act, we might as well make our wills, and balance the books at once, and put on a clean shirt. “’Vast there, you bloody old owl! You’re always hanging out blue lights! You’re frightened by the ducking you got in the scuppers, and can’t take a joke! What’s the use in being always on the look-out for Davy Jones?”
One of the problems you occasionally run into when reading the classics is that it's the victim of the Moore's Law-like explosion in creative output in the last century. First the movies appropriated seagoing tales, and played it straight, and then magpie parodists such as myself appropriated what the movies did. So it's hard to engage it the way it was meant to be engaged (assuming that's a desirable and/or possible goal).

And, of course, voyages like this were a lot more gripping to a 19th-century audience, because that was how they got their coffee. There was a personal stake in it.

What's timeless, of course, is the need to make men out of boys, and Dana throws in an Outward Bound-type example:
My companion on the yard was a lad, who came out in the ship a weak, puny boy, from one of the Boston schools;—“no larger than a spritsail sheet knot,” nor “heavier than a paper of lampblack,” and “not strong enough to haul a shad off a gridiron,” but who was now “as long as a spare topmast, strong enough to knock down an ox, and hearty enough to eat him.”
Which is a much better phrase than "developed leadership skills."

(I like to think that, thanks to this voyage, this anonymous boy developed the courage and fortitude to keep Catholics out of exclusive Boston clubs.)

June 5: Against landlords and squirrels

The target The enemy

The first thing I want to point out about this reading is that, if you're juvenile like me, seeing the phrase "butcher's-meat" about 10 times in the space of a page makes you smile.

The second thing I want to point out is that disciples of Adam Smith, such as people who write for the Wall Street Journal, like to lionize the captains of industry as the most productive members of society, the men and occasional token woman who endow us with the highest standard of living, etc. etc. Well, they are that -- maybe (although if they're the most productive members of society, how come they can't clean their own offices?) but, as their hero Prof. Smith points out, they are also dicks:

In adjusting the terms of the lease, the landlord endeavours to leave him no greater share of the produce than what is sufficient to keep up the stock from which he furnishes the seed, pays the labour, and purchases and maintains the cattle and other instruments of husbandry, together with the ordinary profits of farming stock in the neighbourhood. This is evidently the smallest share with which the tenant can content himself without being a loser, and the landlord seldom means to leave him any more.
The most boring part of science/social-science writing for the non-scientist/social-scientist is the fact that you have to be walked through all the first principles before you get to where the action is. Adam Smith is a sufficiently good writer, with the occasional waspish sting, that you can stand the walk-through:
The rent of land, it may be thought, is frequently no more than a reasonable profit or interest for the stock laid out by the landlord upon its improvement. This, no doubt, may be partly the case upon some occasions [emphasis added]; for it can scarce ever be more than partly the case. The landlord demands a rent even for unimproved land, and the supposed interest or profit upon the expence of improvement is generally an addition to this original rent. Those improvements, besides, are not always made by the stock of the landlord, but sometimes by that of the tenant. When the lease comes to be renewed, however, the landlord commonly demands the same augmentation of rent, as if they had been all made by his own.
See? Landlords are dicks. But, if you ever rented, you probably knew that.

My "however" part of the post, however, is that I couldn't tell you what the point of this reading was unless I flip back to it. Something about rent, probably, and how the rent you get for turning land out for pasture is controlled by the how much you'd get if you grew corn (= "wheat" in American English, just like "lorry" = "maize"). Maybe I can't remember because I'm too entranced with the anti-landlord stuff. But maybe it's also not my fault. I pad into the other room (my shoes are off) and there pull out my best-of Galbraith, who says, "As a writer Smith was a superb carpenter but a poor architect. The facts appear in lengthy digressions which have been criticized as such." And then he adds, "But for any discriminating reader it is worth the interruption."

And it's true: if you can hang in with the 18th-century-ness of it all, you get a little discussion about whether you should build a wall around your kitchen garden (the ancients did not think so, but "in Great Britain, and some other northern countries, the finer fruits cannot be brought to perfection but by the assistance of a wall.")

Of course, Smith could not have known that, in our time, there would be a dwarf peach tree in California from which we have gotten one (1) ripe peach in seven years because of the fucking squirrels. Perhaps he wasn't as far-seeing as he is often given credit for.