July 31: Women, quibbles, etc.

Quibbles concerning Daniel Defoe's short op-ed The Education of Women (note -- he is for it):

• We could get all self-congratulatory that we're on the right side of history like Defoe, but this essay was written 289 years ago, so it's more like, Jesus, we ought to be. In fact in some ways we're not much past Defoe. Consider this sentence:

For I cannot think that GOD Almighty ever made them so delicate, so glorious creatures; and furnished them with such charms, so agreeable and so delightful to mankind; with souls capable of the same accomplishments with men: and all, to be only Stewards of our Houses, Cooks, and Slaves.
They're not only Stewards of the House, fellas! But they're not not Stewards of the House, either. Nearly three hundred years later, and we're still struggling over an equitable division of the house-stewarding.

• The "Sewards, Cooks, and Slaves" issue, I think, points us to why women were screwed out of education in the first place. It seems kind of un-obvious to me why you would do that, but as tedious and time-consuming as housework is now, it was many times more time-consuming back in the day. So you don't want the class of people assigned to that incredible amount of work reading Seneca; then they'll be uppity in a different language.

• There's also a kind of class thing that's in here, in that Defoe uses "education" and "breeding" (sometimes also "Breeding") interchangeably. In fact, here's his equity argument right at the start:
And I would but ask any who slight the sex for their understanding, what is a man (a gentleman, I mean) good for, that is taught no more?
So while gentlewomen should be as educated as gentlemen, yobs need not apply. Because there's still a hell of a lot of backbreaking labor to do.

• Defoe's argument for the utility of education is as follows:
The soul is placed in the body like a rough diamond; and must be polished, or the lustre of it will never appear. And ’tis manifest, that as the rational soul distinguishes us from brutes; so education carries on the distinction, and makes some less brutish than others.
I note that there's nothing about making sure people are prepared for the demands of the 18th-century workforce. I find it irritating, and a little creepy, when Education is discussed solely as a means to manufacture employees, as if the kids going into those public (which, frequently, means Other) schools were not also supposed to be citizens, as if we did not lay waste our powers in getting and spending.

• Finally, sorry there's no illustration. I had found a cartoon of a woman with a rolling pin, because I find cartoon women with rolling pins hilarious, but in a laughing-at-retro-stereotypes way that also makes me feel guilty for feeling superior. And it didn't quite fit with the reading, anyway. So I didn't put it up. Now, if I'd been able to find a good Andy Capp in time...

July 30: The Beginnings of Manifest Destiny

Today we got an an account of Sir Humphrey Gilbert's kind of disastrous 1583 voyage to Newfoundland, where he claimed a fishing port for the British Crown -- which, arguably, began the great English-language adventure in North America that will soon end when English is superseded by Klingon and Leet.

In some ways the money quote from this passage could be this. To set up the clip, let me say that one of the boats in the expedition is in trouble:

...the men in the Swallow were very near scanted of victuals, and chiefly of apparel, doubtful withal where or when to find and meet with their Admiral, they besought the captain that they might go aboard this Newlander, only to borrow what might be spared, the rather because the same was bound homeward. Leave given, not without charge to deal favourably, they came aboard the fisherman, whom they rifled of tackle, sails, cables, victuals, and the men of their apparel; not sparing by torture, winding cords about their heads, to draw out else what they thought good....
Then, having "borrowed" everything, they got back on the Swallow, which promptly sank. Once again, as with Raleigh's near-simultaneous description of his voyages in the Caribbean, you get the sense of how Deadwood-like the whole colonization business was. Maybe one of the reasons we don't have space colonies is that we've been sending the wrong people up -- Mars needs to be settled by guys who like to wrap cords around people's necks.

But, notwithstanding the above, or the bad omen part where Gilbert really wants to sail to Florida, but only has enough food to sail to Newfoundland, to me the money quote is this:
...it seeming probable by event of precedent attempts made by the Spaniards and French sundry times, that the countries lying north of Florida God hath reserved the same to be reduced unto Christian civility by the English nation...whensoever afterwards the Spaniards, very prosperous in all their southern discoveries, did attempt anything into Florida and those regions inclining towards the north, they proved most unhappy... as if God had prescribed limits unto the Spanish nation which they might not exceed; as by their own gests recorded may be aptly gathered.
God has saved this part of the New World for the English (a sentiment still popular among the anti-immigrationists, I guess). In fact, this document exists to plead the case that, while Spanish disasters to settle North America are proof of God's dislike, Gilbert's disaster doesn't prove that at all, you just need to read a little closer.

The onlie begetters

Today's my parents' anniversary. Happy anniversary, folks!

July 29: So Emerson and Carlyle walk into Stonehenge

It is important to enjoy the obvious.

Although I'm actually not that interested in Stone'enge -- it's cool and all, but it doesn't have the hold on me that it does on, say, Nigel Tufnel. What does have a hold on me is what you could do there that you could never, never do now:
We walked round the stones, and clambered over them, to wont ourselves with their strange aspect and groupings, and found a nook sheltered from the wind among them, where C. lighted his cigar.
Clambered over them. Is the visitor allowed to clamber now, much less light up a smoke? I've never been; maybe you are allowed to get a good Druidical clamber.

So, even though this piece of Emerson is from English Traits, what's more germane is (and perhaps of course) Emerson on America. First of all, he gets all Thoreauvian:
My friends asked whether there were any Americans?—any with an American idea,—any theory of the right future of that country? Thus challenged, I bethought myself neither of caucuses nor congress, neither of presidents nor of cabinet-ministers, nor of such as would make of America another Europe. I thought only of the simplest and purest minds; I said, “Certainly yes;—but those who hold it are fanatics of a dream which I should hardly care to relate to your English ears, to which it might be only ridiculous,—and yet it is the only true.”

So I opened the dogma of no-government and non-resistance, and anticipated the objections and the fun, and procured a kind of hearing for it. I said, it is true that I have never seen in any country a man of sufficient valor to stand for this truth, and yet it is plain to me that no less valor than this can command my respect. I can easily see the bankruptcy of the vulgar musketworship,—though great men be musket-worshippers;—and ’tis certain, as God liveth, the gun that does not need another gun, the law of love and justice alone, can effect a clean revolution.
Well, the revolution will not be essayed; five years later the Civil War started, and there was plenty of musketworship to be had, and ever after; though the valor of the peacenik is still with us too -- one can only imagine that the damage might have been worse without these dissenters.

Then there's this:
...my friends asked many questions respecting American landscape, forests, houses,—my house, for example. It is not easy to answer these queries well. There I thought, in America, lies nature sleeping, overgrowing, almost conscious, too much by half for man in the picture, and so giving a certain tristesse, like the rank vegetation of swamps and forests seen at night, steeped in dews and rains, which it loves; and on it man seems not able to make much impression.
Too much nature for man gives way to tristesse? I think the tristesse is all the other way these days:

Hey, it's our own Stonehenge! Only in our case it's a burial ground of equity.

July 28: An early proposal for A&Ms

When you are tired, and weary, and sleepy, and tired, you don't want to open your Abraham Cowley and see this sentence:

THE FIRST wish of Virgil (as you will find anon by his verses) was to be a good philosopher, the second, a good husbandman...
It's the "anon"s that get you, every damn time. This is one of these 17th century essays ("Of Agriculture," to be specific) where the most devastating clincher to your argument possible is finding evidence that some Roman had already made it.
It [farmin'] does certainly comprehend more parts of philosophy, than any one profession, art, or science, in the world besides: and therefore Cicero says, the pleasures of a husbandman, “mihi ad sapientis vitam proxime videntur accedere,”
Cicero FTW!

The main argument is the old chestnut which I always find tedious -- the essential virtue of the country vs. the fleshpots of the city:
...we walk here in the light and open ways of the divine bounty; we grope there in the dark and confused labyrinths of humane malice...Here, pleasure looks (methinks) like a beautiful, constant, and modest wife; it is there an impudent, fickle, and painted harlot.
Well, I guess we explained why people leave the country for the city, right there. I might note that Cowley hung out in London and Paris before heading for the country, so it's just like the guy who chases harlots in his youth and then, when they will no longer have him, he points out that they're just a bunch of harlots anyway.

As for me, I hold more or less the opinion of a boxing manager quoted by A.J. Liebling: "I like the country. It is a nice spot."

I did like, here, that Cowley makes a pitch for the establishment of the land-grant college:
...it would suffice, if, after the manner of halls in Oxford, there were only four professors constituted ...to teach these four parts of it: First, Aration, and all things relating to it. Secondly, Pasturage. Thirdly, Gardens, Orchards, Vineyards, and Woods. Fourthly, all parts of Rural Economy, which would contain the government of Bees, Swine, Poultry, Decoys, Ponds, &c...
Nowadays, of course, Bees would be its own department, and they would try hard to have their conferences in someplace fun, like a city.

July 27: The Halls of Medicine, or, Against Nostalgia

"The Gross Clinic"! Eakins! Culture up your Sunday!

I think you need to be a bit of an antiquarian for a project like this to be appealing, although my suspicion is that the culture trapped between the covers of the Classics was, in 1908 (or even 1930, which is my edition), a usable past and not just a curio like it is now. There have been, like, two or three modernities since then, and so an interest in Plutarch et al. is now as eccentric as a straw boater.

But of course drinking in a love of the past can quickly turn into a bender of nostalgia, which has always seemed to me to be a decadent and narcotic emotion. Today's reading, Joseph Lister on the antiseptic principle brings us a little cure for it:
I left behind me in Glasgow a boy, thirteen years of age, who, between three and four weeks previously, met with a most severe injury to the left arm, which he got entangled in a machine at a fair. There was a wound six inches long and three inches broad, and the skin was very extensively undermined beyond its limits, while the soft parts were generally so much lacerated that a pair of dressing forceps introduced at the wound and pushed directly inwards appeared beneath the skin at the opposite aspect of the limb.
The 1867-era language (this is an extremely polysyllabic selection today) helpfully puts a little bit of a screen over how gross that is. Or this:
In April last, a volunteer was discharging a rifle when it burst, and blew back the thumb with its metacarpal bone, so that it could be bent back as on a hinge at the trapezial joint, which had evidently been opened, while all the soft parts between the metacarpal bones of the thumb and forefinger were torn through. I need not insist before my present audience on the ugly character of such an injury.
No, you needn't. Lister's point is, before is invention of antiseptic bandaging, these people would have been prime suspects for raging infections, which, in a hospital, have a cascading effect:
Previously to its [antiseptics] introduction the two large wards in which most of my cases of accident and of operation are treated were among the unhealthiest in the whole surgical division of the Glasgow Royal Infirmary, in consequence apparently of those wards being unfavorably placed with reference to the supply of fresh air; and I have felt ashamed when recording the results of my practice, to have so often to allude to hospital gangrene or pyæmia.
"Hospital gangrene" -- so common it had a name. (And, in fact, hospitals are still dandy places to catch infections, but that's a consequence of our eternal arms race against tiny microbes. At least hospitals aren't miasmas, as before.)

Out of which I draw the following two obvious conclusions: 1) While some things never change in human affairs, some things do. Perhaps infection once seemed as inevitable as nuclear weapons do today. It doesn't do to be to pessimistic. 2) Not to get too Julian Simon, but Lister was inspired by Pasteur's work, and, having invented away to keep people around longer, no doubt helped springboard more useful inventions. In some ways the cause of our current environmental fix -- billions and billions of people around -- could also be the solution to it, if the billions are sufficiently inventive.

That's a little more portentous than I like to be, so here's a picture of a straw boater:

July 26: Jesus and the cool table

For the groupies?

Unfun fact about Thomas à Kempis: he was buried alive. When they dug up his corpse (Wikipedia doesn't say why they dug up his corpse), they found splinters under his fingernails. It was just like "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," in that he was not quite dead yet. And it was for this reason that he was not canonized -- he couldn't take it like a saint.

Which is a good exercise in separating the teller from the tale, because that guy with the splinters under his nails opens his famous book with this:
It is vanity to desire a long life, and to have little care for a good life. It is vanity to take thought only for the life which now is, and not to look forward to the things which shall be hereafter. It is vanity to love that which quickly passeth away, and not to hasten where eternal joy abideth.
Of course, even faced with the inevitability of not being able to live up to your ideals, it's not a bad thing to have them, if you are so inclined (not everyone is -- I live in Hollywood, after all). Unless your ideals are crazy somehow. Are TàK's?

Well, he certainly warns against "knowledge" as such ("Therefore be not lifted up by any skill or knowledge that thou hast; but rather fear concerning the knowledge which is given to thee. If it seemeth to thee that thou knowest many things, and understandest them well, know also that there are many more things which thou knowest not."); and yet I have a feeling that he felt betrayed by the state of the medical art there at the end. On the other hand, how anti-knowledge is he, really? He wrote books, after all. It does seem like he's more worried that the smartest guys might think that they're sitting at the cool table in the monastery.

Telling you that people who think they're cool aren't really cool is a big theme in this excerpt:
The proud and the avaricious man are never at rest; while the poor and lowly of heart abide in the multitude of peace.
This I don't buy -- or, more precisely, I buy the first part, which is basically "Mo' money mo' problems," but not the part that it's peaceful to be poor. If peace and contentment were really to be found among the poor (or, in the variant version of this trope, the rural), how come everyone wants to move the other way? (We might call the rural version the "Green Acres" fallacy.) You can't get people to do even if you supply them with an ideology.

Come to think of it, that "people who think they're cool aren't really cool" is an important message, not just of teen movies, but of Christianity itself. "The worse, the better" is the paradox that supplies the energy of Christianity (and Buddhism, maybe, but I don't know enough to really say).

What makes this excerpt not like a teen movie is its emphasis on negative self-esteem:
That is the highest and most profitable lesson, when a man truly knoweth and judgeth lowly of himself. To account nothing of one’s self, and to think always kindly and highly of others, this is great and perfect wisdom.
I'm not so sure, but I guess it's just a measure of degree. To really hate oneself is a recipe for disaster (and, believe me, the comedy world is full of that); but, as TàK might have said, but did not, people with obviously high self-esteem tend to be assholes. This includes people who know they're saved. The second half of this paragraph, though, contains a good lesson for todayr:
Even shouldest thou see thy neighbour sin openly or grievously, yet thou oughtest not to reckon thyself better than he, for thou knowest not how long thou shalt keep thine integrity. All of us are weak and frail; hold thou no man more frail than thyself.
Bloggers take note!

July 25: I am confused, Gunnar

Unlike the Browning, I did actually do the reading this time.

It is a fine summer day here in Los Angeles, not too hot, brilliant sunshine, etc., and it makes me question why excerpts from the great Epic of the North have been chosen for today. Wouldn't a bitter February evening be a better choice for something like this --
Some the wolf roasted,
Some minced the worm,
Some unto Guttorm
Gave the wolf-meat,
Or ever they might
In their lust for murder
On the high king
Lay deadly hand.
This from the Lay of Brynhild, and I have to say that it is the most confusing damn reading of the year so far -- and, because it's also an obscure reading, I had to Google far and wide to figure out what the hell happened in what I just read. Maybe it would be different if I were a Wagner fan, but a kind Fate has spared me that, thank God.

My incomprehension, however, is my own fault, for the translator says:
As to the literary quality of this work we might say much, but we think we may well trust the reader of poetic insight to break through whatever entanglement of strange manners or unused element may at first trouble him, and to meet the nature and beauty with which it is filled: we cannot doubt that such a reader will be intensely touched by finding, amidst all its wildness and remoteness, such a startling realism, such subtilty, such close sympathy with all the passions that may move himself to-day.

For this is the Great Story of the North, which should be to all our race what the Tale of Troy was to the Greeks—to all our race first, and afterwards, when the change of the world has made our race nothing more than a name of what has been—a story too—then should it be to those that come after us no less than the Tale of Troy has been to us.
I get it now -- I'm not the right race to understand it! I don't have the necessities to fully savor something like this:
Think’st thou not, Gunnar,
How that betid,
When ye let the blood run
Both in one footstep?
With ill reward
Hast thou rewarded
His heart so fain
To be the foremost!
Honestly, I think the Iliad's crown is safe. I like Greek food better, also.

July 24: Thanks, Chuck

Maybe today's reading is meant to show Darwin's interest in any natural phenomena, not just the biology. Or maybe it's meant to contrast his patient scientific worrying of a problem with the natives' more superstitious theories. But to me, living in Los Angeles, it's just meant to be scary:

The earthquake commenced at half-past eleven o’clock in the forenoon. If it had happened in the middle of the night, the greater number of the inhabitants (which in this one province must amount to many thousands) must have perished, instead of less than a hundred: as it was, the invariable practice of running out of doors at the first trembling of the ground, alone saved them. In Concepcion each house, or row of houses, stood by itself, a heap or line of ruins; but in Talcahuano, owing to the great wave, little more than one layer of bricks, tiles, and timber, with here and there part of a wall left standing, could be distinguished. From this circumstance Concepcion, although not so completely desolated, was a more terrible, and if I may so call it, picturesque sight...
I got your picturesque right here:

Darwin continues, unhelpfully:
Earthquakes alone are sufficient to destroy the prosperity of any country. If beneath England the now inert subterranean forces should exert those powers, which most assuredly in former geological ages they have exerted, how completely would the entire condition of the country be changed! What would become of the lofty houses, thickly packed cities, great manufactories, the beautiful public and private edifices? If the new period of disturbance were first to commence by some great earthquake in the dead of the night, how terrific would be the carnage! England would at once be bankrupt; all papers, records, and accounts would from that moment be lost. Government being unable to collect the taxes, and failing to maintain its authority, the hand of violence and rapine would remain uncontrolled. In every large town famine would go forth, pestilence and death following in its train.
I haven't read enough of Chuck to know whether the exclamation points are characteristic. But he is very excited here, isn't he? (Of course, here in California in the 21st century, we don't need to fret as much about the lost papers, for all our important public records are backed up onto a set of 5 1/4-inch floppy disks. I also like that Darwin's worries are 1) what will happen to all the papers? and then, 2) violence and rapine. That does seem characteristic.)

But would there really be violence and rapine? Darwin's own observations don't seem to confirm it:
...Pools of salt-water were still standing amidst the ruins of the houses, and children, making boats with old tables and chairs, appeared as happy as their parents were miserable. It was, however, exceedingly interesting to observe, how much more active and cheerful all appeared than could have been expected. It was remarked with much truth, that from the destruction being universal, no one individual was humbled more than another, or could suspect his friends of coldness—that most grievous result of the loss of wealth.
As the adage says, a rising tide lifts all boats, unless it rises too much, then they're all destroyed.

I think I'm going to go make sure all the cabinet doors with the earthquake latches are closed now.

July 23: Angles

Figuring out your angle is as much a part of writing as looking out the window and wondering if you've done enough work to justify getting a snack. Francis Bacon's angle was being the first person to write essays in English. That's a great angle. It had better be, because the only justification to writing this unremarkable sentence (in "Of Expense"):

But ordinary expense ought to be limited by a man’s estate; and governed with such regard, as it be within his compass...
is that you're the first one to do it in English. He also advises, if you're spending money in one place, why not reduce expenses in another? Move over, Suze Orman -- who's living proof, I guess, that no one ever takes this advice, or there would be no need to build your career on continuing to give it.

Now, it's up to me to find my angle on the other essay, "On Friendship," which has long stretches concerning favorites among the Roman emperors. And where I'm angling is here:
A man cannot speak to his son but as a father; to his wife but as a husband; to his enemy but upon terms: whereas a friend may speak as the case requires, and not as it sorteth with the person.
It's like the Promise Keepers' version of marriage -- it would look bad for your position as Head of Household to mingle with the help. It's not even clear, actually, if Bacon (who was Lord Chancellor) even thinks that the common people can have friends, since the first thing he looks at is how the kings do it. Or maybe he is like one of those bloggers who has to refer everything to politics -- like, what does the big WNBA brawl mean for the election?

Always scribble scribble scribble

I am looking into having the first half of the book printed up, which means taking each month's archive and turning it into a Word file, which is painstaking (in the sense that it's a pain). I find that, in January, I wrote about 17,000 words. That seems like a lot for someone whose original goal in life was to be a feuilltonist. Of course, the total would only be 2500 words if all the times I used "interesting" only counted as one.

OT: Drunk history

Just because I haven't put up any videos in a little while, here's the story of A. Hamilton:

July 22: Things I like

Thing I don't like so much: Ouzo. Makes me feel like I have one eye.

That Burns reading yesterday bummed me out so let's tote up some positives here in Book IX of the Odyssey.

• I like that I'm using a Roman numeral to refer to a Greek text. I feel it's multiculti.

• I like the fact that this is not a verse translation, which have been almost universally terrible (exceptions: Beowulf, kind of, and Dryden's Aeneid); and, since I read in these volumes almost every day, I'm not skeered by the "thee"s and "thou"s.

• I like the pro-wine stance right at the top:
... And as often as they drank that red wine honey sweet, he would fill one cup and pour it into twenty measures of water, and a marvellous sweet smell went up from the mixing bowl: then truly it was no pleasure to refrain.
• I like the classic storytelling that this is to set up something -- namely, they're going to get the Cyclops drunk and then poke out his eye.

• What's not to like about a guy getting his eye poked out? It's a classic comedy (unless it happens to you -- and when it does, remember that your mother warned you it could happen if you kept rough-housing like that).

• There's also a fully-rounded portrait of alcohol abuse when Polyphemus ("Mr. Cyclops" to you) gets drunk:
Therewith he sank backwards and fell with face upturned, and there he lay with his great neck bent round, and sleep, that conquers all men, overcame him. And the wine and the fragments of men’s flesh issued forth from his mouth, and he vomited, being heavy with wine.
Like the old adage says, "Humans before wine, everything fine. Wine before humans, like eating raw ablumens."

• Speaking of fully-rounded, I also liked that Odysseus can't help being a bit of a jerk:
But when we had now made twice the distance over the brine, I would fain have spoken to the Cyclops, but my company stayed me on every side with soft words, saying: ‘“Foolhardy that thou art, why wouldst thou rouse a wild man to wrath, who even now hath cast so mighty a throw towards the deep and brought our ship back to land, yea and we thought that we had perished 3 even there?...

So spake they, but they prevailed not on my lordly spirit, and I answered him again from out an angry heart: ‘“Cyclops, if any one of mortal men shall ask thee of the unsightly blinding of thine eye, say that it was Odysseus that blinded it, the waster of cities, son of Laertes, whose dwelling is in Ithaca.”
Most heroes have a Flaw -- or the hit movie this week would be The Light Knight -- but I like that the Flaw here is an excessive fondness of woofing. It's on after that, when you fuck with Polyphemus (a fancy name for a dumb Cyclops; he fell for the "Noman" ruse -- which, and I know Odysseus's reputation, but it doesn't seem that clever) you fuck with Poseidon, and when you fuck with Poseidon you fuck yourself. Basically the whole Trojan war story resembles gang warfare anyway, what with Achilles obsessing about being disrespected, etc.

• I also like the adjective "lordly," especially because it gets Odysseus into trouble, as lordliness so often does.

Photo of ouzo from Flickr user dullhunk, used with a Creative Commons license.

July 21: Light verse in a kilt

The utilikilt -- perfect for the man who'd rather install pipes than play them.

Consider the 1908 house.

It is filled, overwhelmingly, with reality: everything you see is actually there in the house, everything you hear (the neighbor's dog, your older sister trying, once again, the difficult part of the Mendelssohn on the piano) is locally generated. If only there were a screen you could roll in front of the window where you could watch photo-plays -- or, better yet, a competition between two offices, to see which was the better at performing choreographed musical numbers!

But there is no screen. There's just the room, filled with antimacassars, and the window, where it's raining.

It is in such a climate as this that the weird fondness of the Harvard Classics for Robert Burns becomes understandable. This feels like the 20th time I've had to cut my way through the jungles of "twa'" and "dinna," only to find, at the end, that my labors have brought forth light verse.

Who read this stuff? Scots fetishists, of course, and I get that; but I think Burns -- along with the other light-versifiers of the now-bygone print-intensive days, the FPAs, the Nashes -- are part of the bygone world of verbal entertainment, where words were the only means of escaping the antimacassars. But now, and this is probably true of poetry more generally, the broad effects are now done more effectively elsewhere, and its subtle effects -- well, there's not much of an audience for subtle effects.

Link here, BTW.

Blogroll, fresh from the oven

I see where Paige, who I know as a former doyenne of the Hollywood ice skating scene, left a comment on the last post, and, lo and behold, she has a blog, which is mostly, as far as I can skim, on food. I'll probably need to check it again closer to dinner time.

She and hers have actually done what many people in showbiz only bluster about, which is leave L.A. and light out for the territory -- and in this case it's Columbia County, N.Y., excellent territory for sure. I know I have a fair amount of Capital District readership, thanks to my dad's evangelizing, so there may be some pointers to be exchanged on which farm stands still have corn (a critical late-summer/early fall issue from my youth) and so forth.

July 20: It is the nature of Christians to be beset

Not what Bunyan had in mind. Besides, Christian already knows what time it is.

If they were doing the Harvard Classics again, I bet they'd still keep the Koran, because it's got a newsworthy peg, first of all, but also because it tells us the Exotic Psychology of Ancient Peoples from Distant Lands. Sort of like a print version of those Putamayo CDs they sell at the Whole Foods (and at the place I get my car serviced, oddly).

But would they include Pilgrim's Progress? I think our thought-experiment trustees should, and for the same reason as the Koran -- in this country, at least, a bunch of super-secular kids are going to meet a bunch of super-religious kids, and Pilgrim's Progress is still a decent, certified-Literature way to understand how Christian seems himself.

I won't get too much into summarizing what happens in Pilgrim's Progress -- I can't even remember when I was taught it, and maybe I only was because I went to Catholic school -- but it's basically the journey of Christian, a Christian, through Capitalized Allegorical Landmarks on his way to Heaven (located, I believe, near Plano, Texas). Today's excerpt begins with his battle with Apollyon (played by Satan) in the Valley of Humiliation (and if I were elected mayor of that place the first thing I'd do is hire some naming consultants). But first they talk a little 17th-century smack at each other:

Chr. But I have let myself to another, even to the King of Princes, and how can I with fairness go back with thee.
Apol. Thou hast done in this, according to the Proverb, changed a bad for a worse; but it is ordinary for those that have professed themselves his Servants, after a while to give him the slip, and return again to me: Do thou so too, and all shall be well.
Apollyon undervalues Christ’s Service

(Note to newbies: there's a weird formatting thing that happens when I cut-n-paste things with line breaks from Bartleby. Apologies. Consider it rustic charm.) I had forgotten that Bunyan puts the gloss in the margins, as if it weren't clear what he meant by calling something the Valley of Humiliation. Christian says something noteworthy in here:
...and besides, O thou destroying Apollyon, to speak truth, I like his Service, his Wages, his Servants, his Government, his Company and Country, better than thine; and therefore leave off to persuade me further; I am his Servant and I will follow him.
He likes being a Christian, it's more enjoyable. This is a vibe I don't get from media Christians, they seem tremendously unhappy. On the other hand, I often do get that vibe from actual Christians, the people you see at, I don't know, church.

From here on in, though, it's all pain -- a long fight with Apollyon, and then the Valley of the Shadow of Death. It's just like an action movie! (And why haven't they made this book yet -- CGI + Christianity = B.O.!) This is where I realized something -- Christian is talking to some people who have fled the V. of the S. of D. :
Why, the Valley itself, which is as dark as pitch; we also saw there the Hobgoblins, Satyrs, and Dragons of the Pit; we heard also in that Valley a continual howling and yelling, as of a people under unutterable misery, who there sat bound in affliction and irons; and over that Valley hangs the discouraging clouds of Confusion; Death also doth always spread his wings over it. In a word, it is every whit dreadful, being utterly without Order.
Note, if I am not mistaken, the Hobbesian note at the end. And then, later, in the Valley, this:
Just when he was come over against the mouth of the burning Pit, one of the wicked ones got behind him, and stept up softly to him, and whisperingly suggested many grievous blasphemies to him, which he verily thought had proceeded from his own mind. This put Christian more to it than anything that he met with before, even to think that he should now blaspheme him that he loved so much before; yet, if he could have helped it, he would not have done it; but he had not the discretion neither to stop his ears, nor to know from whence those blasphemies came.
Just problems at every turn, this Christianity. And that's where I think a quick look at Pilgrim's Progress would help those baffled by Christians -- their life is
going to be beset.

Being a Pilgrim, like Pilgrim's Progress itself, is literally one damn thing after another.

OT: A real classic

My favorite books are appreciated in the Wall Street Journal by Joseph Epstein (who predictably gives a damn-hippies sting at the end, but I pay it no mind).

July 19: The Wild West in 1595

I know, it's off topic, but I'm as much a sucker for the Babe as he is for his coffin nails. Was, I should say.

Sir Walter Raleigh was an enterprising go-getter, and there was no greater field for enterprising or go-getting -- free of the dead hand of regulation! -- than the New World. Here's the kind of stuff he did in his Guianese voyage in 1595 -- first, he gets the Spanish who are already there drunk, to get some information:
...some Spaniards came aboard us to buy linen of the company, and such other things as they wanted, and also to view our ships and company, all which I entertained kindly and feasted after our manner. By means whereof I learned of one and another as much of the estate of Guiana as I could, or as they knew; for those poor soldiers having been many years without wine, a few draughts made them merry, in which mood they vaunted of Guiana and the riches thereof, and all what they knew of the ways and passages...
Clever. Add to that some strategic misrepresentation:
[I] bred in them an opinion that I was bound only for the relief of those English which I had planted in Virginia, whereof the bruit was come among them; which I had performed in my return, if extremity of weather had not forced me from the said coast...
So that they don't think he's actually come there to conquer them, which he has (and which he says, later, he would have done if someone else hadn't screwed up). I also like the idea that, you know, he meant to do the thing he was lying about doing, so it doesn't count.

Also, when you're in the business of colonizing , you can't be afraid to get your hair mussed:
They [the Spanish] abode not any fight after a few shot, and all being dismissed, but only Berreo and his companion, I brought them with me aboard, and at the instance of the Indians I set their new city of St. Joseph on fire.
But enough of the rough-and-tumble. What Raleigh wants you to know about the New World is that it's a fantastic sales proposition:
And whatsoever prince shall possess it [Guiana], that prince shall be lord of more gold, and of a more beautiful empire, and of more cities and people, than either the king of Spain or the Great Turk.
And speaking of the King of Spain, you don't want him to treat you like a pipsqueak, do you? Well, do you?
For we find that by the abundant treasure of that country the Spanish king vexes all the princes of Europe, and is become, in a few years, from a poor king of Castile, the greatest monarch of this part of the world, and likely every day to increase if other princes [I'm looking at you, Queen Elizabeth! -- ed.] forslow the good occasions offered, and suffer him to add this empire to the rest, which by far exceedeth all the rest. If his gold now endanger us, he will then be unresistible.
Pluck, luck, and setting cities on fire. That's what it took to bring us civilization.

OT: Me

I don't talk that much about politics over here -- at least I don't think I do -- but I talk about over here in a political way in this post on 23/6, the Huffington humor site.

July 18: No thanks

Right in the beginning of A Blot in the 'Scutcheon", which I'm sure is a fine verse play, I read:

Second Retainer. Now, Gerard, out with it!
What makes you sullen, this of all the days
I’ the year? To-day that young rich bountiful
Handsome Earl Mertoun, whom alone they match
With our Lord Tresham through the country-side,
Is coming here in utmost bravery
To ask our master’s sister’s hand?
My eyes roll, audibly. You've got the lords and earls and the retainers and the exposition and the master's sister's hand...it's too much for me. Like TMQ, I wrote "Game Over" in my notebook.

See you tomorrow.

July 17: July must be incest month, I guess.

According to Wikipedia, Dame Edna says she wants to play Phèdre. But more to the point: a stamp?

When the weather gets hot'n'sticky, even the Puritans up in old Boston start to get steamy. We just had Shelly's incest drama "The Cenci," and forbidden-passion fans who look down on telenovelas can indulge in Acadèmie Française-certified love crimes in Jean Racine's "Phèdre". (And if this project has taught me nothing, it has at least taught me how do type diacriticals online.)

I had, vaguely, heard of this work, but didn't know anything about it. Well! We got Phèdre, who's married to Theseus (it's no fun typing diacriticals, though), but it really married to her guilty secret -- she' s in love with Hippolytus, Theseus's unfortunately-named son from a previous marriage. Or as she puts it (apparently in French these are graceful alexandrines, whatever they are):
I look’d, alternately turn’d pale and blush’d
To see him, and my soul grew all distraught;
A mist obscured my vision, and my voice
Falter’d, my blood ran cold, then burn’d like fire;
Venus I felt in all my fever’d frame,
Whose fury had so many of my race
Tormented, Phèdre wants to kill herself, she hates the Sun (who she's related to) -- she's like a parody of a Goth teen. But then good news! -- her husband is dead! And that's the end of the reading. It's not going to turn out well, though.

Of course, this isn't quite incest -- she's not related to Hippolytus (who, inevitably, loves another), so they wouldn't have a goat-headed baby or anything. But then this is the Greek myths, so maybe they would.

But it made me realize that, nowadays, we like our love stories to have happy endings, and for Racine and the Greeks love spoils everything: "O fatal animosity of Venus!/Into what wild distractions did she cast/ My mother!" exclaims Phèdre. Love is disorderly and, like other natural forces, leaves destruction in its wake. It's worth noting that Theseus stole Phèdre away while killing the Minotaur -- in that sense, a tragedy is the play that starts after the storybook ending of the previous play.

July 16: Mohammed covers the Bible

Obviously, the good people at Collier & Son wanted the Harvard Classics to be on every classy-aspirational bookshelf in the country; that's why I bet there's no fiction in it (novel-readers, as we all know, are not to be relied on), and I'm sure they felt that everything was safely noncontroversial.

And now it's a century later and we discover it has two volumes of Darwin and the Koran. Was this but the first step in Harvard's long-range plan to destroy America? (Step 2: Vietnam.) Or was the Koran merely a holy book of an exotic people most of us would never care about, because we didn't know they had oil, which we hardly used in 1908? I think the latter, of course, but it is kind of funny in a the Trilateral-Commission-controls-your-microwave way to believe the former.

Anyway, it's our first dose of The Koran today, and to be helpful we get a sura (see, I've already been to Wikipedia) about stuff from the Bible. It's basically Mohammed's free-flowing, Cassandra Wilson-like cover of some of the classics from the Great Biblical Songbook:

These are those to whom God has been gracious, of the prophets of the seed of Adam, and of those whom we bore with Noah, and of the seed of Abraham and Israel, and of those we guided and elected; when the signs of the Merciful are read to them, they fall down adoring and weeping.

And successors succeeded them, who lost sight of prayer and followed lusts, but they shall at length find themselves going wrong, except such as repent and believe and act aright; for these shall enter Paradise, and shall not be wronged at all,—gardens of Eden, which the Merciful has promised to His servants in the unseen; verily, His promise ever comes to pass!
One thing you definitely can conclude from this sura is that Islam! Has its! Excitable! Passages!
They take other gods besides God to be their glory! Not so! They shall deny their worship and shall be opponents of theirs!
The antecedents kind of float around, and it's kind of hard to follow what's going on, or what the argument is. Here's the Nativity story -- it's kind of long, but you didn't mind it when Linus did it on the Charlie Brown Christmas special, so show a little sensitivity:
So she conceived him, and she retired with him into a remote place. And the labour pains came upon her at the trunk of a palm tree, and she said ‘O that I had died before this, and been forgotten out of mind!’ and he called 2 to her from beneath her, ‘Grieve not, for thy Lord has placed a stream beneath thy feet; and shake towards thee the trunk of the palm tree, it will drop upon thee fresh dates fit to gather; so eat, and drink, and cheer thine eye; and if thou shouldst see any mortal say, “Verily, I have vowed to the Merciful One a fast, and I will not speak to-day with a human being.”’

Then she brought it to her people, carrying it; said they, ‘O Mary! thou hast done an extraordinary thing! O sister of Aaron! 3 thy father was not a bad man, nor was thy mother a harlot!’

And she pointed to him, and they said, ‘How are we to speak with one who is in the cradle a child?’ He said, ‘Verily, I am a servant of God; He has brought me the Book, and He has made me a prophet, and He has made me blessed wherever I be; and He has required of me prayer and almsgiving so long as I live, and piety towards my mother, and has not made me a miserable tyrant; and peace upon me the day I was born, and the day I die, and the day I shall be raised up alive.’

That is, Jesus the son of Mary,—by the word of truth whereon ye do dispute!
I got whiplash there around "son of a harlot" -- and, I barely had time to register the birth-pang-consoling dates (a touch I love, but then I enjoy dates also) when the newborn baby speaks, and then the sura stops the narration and is immediately off on theological disputes:
God could not take to himself any son! celebrated be His praise! when He decrees a matter He only says to it ‘BE,’ and it is; and, verily, God is my Lord and your Lord, so worship Him; this is the right way.

And the parties have disagreed amongst themselves, but woe to those who disbelieve, from the witnessing of the mighty day! they can hear and they can see, on the day when they shall come to us; but the evildoers are to-day in obvious error!
(Note the Rocky Todd-ism.) The Wikipedia article says that "the seeming "disorganization" of Qur’anic literary expression.. is in fact a literary device capable of delivering 'profound effects — as if the intensity of the prophetic message were shattering the vehicle of human language in which it was being communicated.'" It does sound more urgent than the Bible, which has been smoothed down over the centuries (and by Greek philosophy) -- it sounds a little like Christopher Smart -- if it hits you right you'd be totally won over and wonder why people bother with that fusspot Paul of Tarsus.

It also sounds like something that needs a big superstructure of theology around it. Jobs for everyone -- the perfect scripture!

Hello Sweeneyites

I see where my old friend Julia Sweeney, with whom I have shared the occasional Bacardi, has sent folks my way. Hello, and enjoy the dilletantism!

Today's reading (the Koran!) to follow sometime, maybe tonight.

July 15: From before the era of English-food jokes

Just like the last post which involved Holinshed, I'm just going to pass along various anecdotes that caught my eye; that's what he did, apparently. Today, he bellies up to the table with his English pals, 1577-style:

• The English eat more than their Mediterrean friends, because they need to keep warmer, but thank god they're not like the Scots:

...so otherwise they far exceed us in over much and distemperate gormandise, and so ingross their bodies that divers of them do oft become unapt to any other purpose than to spend their times in large tabling and belly cheer.
"Belly cheer" being another one of those great phrases one is tempted to use, until realizing how stupid it would make you look.

• Gross:
...each one, as necessity urgeth, calleth for a cup of such drink, as him listeth to have, so that, when he has tasted of it, he delivered the cup again to some one of the standers by, who, making it clean by pouring out the drink that remaineth, restoreth it to the cupboard from whence he fetched the same.
Emphasis added for public health reasons. And they thought it was enough to outsmart disease by not drinking water. Holinshed, naturally, assumes you know they don't drink water, which is why he devotes many paragraphs to describing how his wife makes beer. I skipped them, however; but they are there for the home-brew enthusiast.

• A little 16th century observational comedy: What's the deal with glassware?
It is a world to see in these our days, wherein gold and silver most aboundeth, how that our gentility, as loathing those metals (because of the plenty) do now generally choose rather the Venice glasses, both for our wine and beer, than any of those metals or stone wherein before time we have been accustomed to drink...The poorest also will have glass if they may... but in fine all go one way—that is, to shards at the last, so that our great expenses in glasses (beside that they breed much strife toward such as have the charge of them) are worst of all bestowed in mine opinion, because their pieces do turn unto no profit.
See, in his day, Pottery Barn meant Pottery Barn.

• I have seen this often remarked elsewhere, but that "multigrain" bread which is more expensive than white at the local artisan baker would freak Holinshed out:
The bread throughout the land is made of such grain as the soil yieldeth; nevertheless the gentility commonly provide themselves sufficiently of wheat for their own tables, whilst their household and poor neighbours in some shires are forced to content themselves with rye, or barley, yea, and in time of dearth, many with bread made either of beans, peas, or oats, or of altogether and some acorns among, of which scourge the poorest do soonest taste, sith they are least able to provide themselves of better.
• Mead is good for colds.

• And, just like the bean-counters in HR, Holinshed is against long lunches:
They [the goddamn Normans -- ed.] brought in also the custom of long and stately sitting at meat, whereby their feasts resembled those ancient pontifical banquets whereof Macrobius speaketh (lib. 3, cap. 13), and Pliny (lib. 10, cap. 10), and which for sumptuousness of fare, long sitting, and curiosity shewed in the same, exceeded all other men’s feasting; which fondness is not yet left with us, notwithstanding that it proveth very beneficial for the physicians, who most abound where most excess and misgovernment of our bodies do appear, although it be a great expense of time, and worthy of reprehension.
And, actually, it's about lunchtime as I finish this up, so maybe I'll go sit at meat myself.

July 14: Bastille Day -- Bah, humbug!

This made me smile -- here's the DRG:

14 The French People Triumph
(The Bastille surrendered, July 14, 1789.)
What the Fourth of July is to Americans, the Fourteenth of July is to Frenchmen. It commemorates an oppressive tyranny overthrown by a freedom-loving people.
And here's the reading:
Nobility is a graceful ornament to the civil order. It is the Corinthian capital of polished society. Omnes boni nobilitati semper favemus, was the saying of a wise and good man....It was therefore with no disappointment or dissatisfaction that my inquiries and observations did not present to me any incorrigible vices in the noblesse of France, or any abuse which could not be removed by a reform very short of abolition. Your noblesse did not deserve punishment: but to degrade is to punish.
Yes, the anonymous, high-collared functionary who I imagine compiled these readings has decided to commemorate Bastille Day with Edmund Burke, the man made his reputation for all time by regretting that it ever happened.

Burke is hard to resist. Part of it is his willingness to beat you to the punch with his to-be-sure argument against his own position:
I am ready to admit that they [the nobility] were not without considerable faults and errors... Habitual dissoluteness of manners continued beyond the pardonable period of life, was more common amongst them than it is with us; and it reigned with the less hope of remedy, though possibly with something of less mischief by being covered with more exterior decorum...There was another error amongst them more fatal. Those of the commons, who approached to or exceeded many of the nobility in point of wealth, were not fully admitted to the rank and estimation which wealth, in reason and good policy, ought to bestow in every country...
I like this last point, too, saluting the English genius for discovering that, when someone is filthy rich, then they are fitly noble.

He's also a little brazen, confessing frankly that he doesn't really know much about the French nobility and then, a few paragraphs later, when maybe you've forgotten that he doesn't know much about it, saying he is "well warranted" to dispose of the nobility as a cause of the French unpleasantness. You can see why he's a good debater; he is a wonderful writer, for those like myself who have a taste for that 18th-century stuff:
In the meantime the leaders of the legislative clubs and coffee houses are intoxicated with admiration at their own wisdom and ability. They speak with the most sovereign contempt of the rest of the world. They tell the people, to comfort them in the rags with which they have clothed them, that they are a nation of philosophers; and sometimes, by all the arts of quackish parade, by show, tumult, and bustle, sometimes by the alarms of plots and invasions, they attempt to drown the cries of indigence, and to divert the eyes of the observer from the ruin and wretchedness of the state.
These days, of course, Burke is the property of the conservatives, and rightly so, since he's such a champion of the good old ways of doing things. Me, I feel the present conservative love of a New American Century sounds less like Burke and more like the French Revolutionaries Year Zero, but that's just my opinion. What I wonder about even more is whether it's seemly to fight in a partisan way over these dead guys. As Mr. B himself says:
[History] may, in the perversion, serve for a magazine, furnishing offensive and defensive weapons for parties in church and state, and supplying the means of keeping alive, or reviving, dissensions and animosities, and adding fuel to civil fury.
Of course, when civil fury is hot enough, anything will do for fuel.

July 13: Pericles is a complicated man

In this coffee battle, is it unfair to cast Starbucks as Sparta?

I think I'll do a bullet-pointy like post today; Plutarch lends itself to it, first of all, and then I am distracted (my son is in the same room, reading while laying over a yoga ball while I type this).

One thing about the blogosphere -- or maybe it's our current political situation, which is actually older than the blogosphere -- is that it doesn't tend to do nuance. Yet Plutarch's portrait of him will give you something to admire and to detract from in the same paragraph. One the one hand, he built the Parthenon. On the other hand, he appears to have engaged in some budget chicanery in order to do it:
That which gave most pleasure and ornament to the city of Athens, and the greatest admiration and even astonishment to all strangers, and that which now is Greece’s only evidence that the power she boasts of and her ancient wealth are no romance or idle story, was his construction of the public and sacred buildings. Yet this was that of all his actions in the government which his enemies most looked askance upon and cavilled at in the popular assemblies, crying out how that the commonwealth of Athens had lost its reputation and was ill-spoken of abroad for removing the common treasure of the Greeks from the isle of Delos into their own custody; ...and how that “Greece cannot but consider herself to be tyrannized over openly, when she sees the treasure, which was contributed by her upon a necessity for the war, wantonly lavished out by us upon our city, to gild her all over, and to adorn and set her forth, as it were some vain woman.”
Or this, after he has managed to get his chief rival ostracized and has basically unchecked power:
After this he was no longer the same man he had been before, nor as tame and gentle and familiar as formerly with the populace, so as readily to yield to their pleasures and to comply with the desires of the multitude, as a steersman shifts with the winds. Quitting that loose, remiss, and, in some cases, licentious court of the popular will, he turned those soft and flowery modulations to the austerity of aristocratical and regal rule...
This sounds bad, but let Plutarch finish:
and employing this uprightly and undeviatingly for the country’s best interests, he was able generally to lead the people along, with their own wills and consents, by persuading and showing them what was to be done.
Plutarch, writing during the beginning of the Empire, is pro-regal rule, I guess, but still, red flags go up. And Athens lost the Peloponnesian Wars, which Pericles got them into -- a folly of unchecked rulers, IMO.

That Plutarch presents him in such a way that one can argue for or against him is a big point in his (Plutarch's) favor; it is a pity that he (still Plutarch) isn't as well known as he once was. Note that I say this even though he (still Plutarch) unloads a broadside against me and my ilk:
The comic writers of the town,...bespattered him with all the ribaldry they could invent... And how can one wonder at any number of strange assertions from men whose whole lives were devoted to mockery, and who were ready at any time to sacrifice the reputation of their superiors to vulgar envy and spite, as to some evil genius?
On further consideration, fair enough, I guess.

June 12: I'm in love with Massachusetts (Short post)

Today this man:

My vicinity affords many good walks; and though for so many years I have walked almost every day, and sometimes for several days together, I have not yet exhausted them. An absolutely new prospect is a great happiness, and I can still get this any afternoon. Two or three hours’ walking will carry me to as strange a country as I expect ever to see. A single farmhouse which I had not seen before is sometimes as good as the dominions of the King of Dahomey. There is in fact a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within a circle of ten miles’ radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the threescore years and ten of human life. It will never become quite familiar to you.
Somehow reminds me of this man:
I'm in love with modern moonlight
128 when it's dark outside
I'm in love with Massachusetts
I'm in love with the radio on
YouTube excerpts of Thoreau live are hard to come by, but here's a version of fellow New England eccentric Jonathan Richman:

My only other note is that Thoreau, like a punk songwriter, likes to say the same thing over and over:
No wealth can buy the requisite leisure, freedom, and independence which are the capital in this profession. It comes only by the grace of God. It requires a direct dispensation from Heaven to become a walker. You must be born into the family of the Walkers. Ambulator nascitur, non fit.
Thoreau, again like Jonathan Richman, wants you to see what he's driving at.

July 11: Newcomb's Restorative Nerve Treatment or, "The Computer Wore Muttonchops"

That's one fine Canadian-American head of hair right there.

As you can see, I was unable to find evidence that Simon Newcomb did, in fact, wear muttonchops. But he was in the great 'chops-wearing era of the late 19th century, where he was one of our leading astronomers, and, according to his biographical note, he did work as a computer -- that is, someone who computes things. Today, of course, we would call such a person a calculator.

And today, straight from Volume 30, the "Miscellaneous Science Stuff" volume of the Harvard Classics (Faraday on electricity, Lord Kelvin on tides, that kind of thing), here he is opining on the extent of the universe. Short answer: he was off a little bit -- he says, "we may state as a general conclusion, indicated by several methods of making the estimate, that nearly all the stars which we can see with our telescopes are contained within a sphere not likely to be much more than 200,000,000 times the distance of the sun." Wikipedia says the universe is actually bigger than that (93 billion light-years), but Newcomb is to be excused since this was written, I believe, in 1906, when so much less was known.

But how he came to the conclusion is in the last, mathy, less interesting part of his paper. The part I want to pull out is where Newcomb is engaged in a phenomenon I always enjoy -- scientists showing how happy they are in their science:
The reader who desires to approach this subject in the most receptive spirit should begin his study by betaking himself on a clear, moonless evening, when he has no earthly concern to disturb the serenity of his thoughts, to some point where he can lie on his back on bench or roof, and scan the whole vault of heaven at one view... The thinking man who does this under circumstances most favorable for calm thought will form a new conception of the wonder of the universe.... When attention is concentrated on the scene the thousands of stars on each side of the Milky Way will fill the mind with the consciousness of a stupendous and all-embracing frame, beside which all human affairs sink into insignificance. ...

Bodily rest may be obtained at any time by ceasing from our labors, and weary systems may find nerve rest at any summer resort; but I know of no way in which complete rest can be obtained for the weary soul—in which the mind can be so entirely relieved of the burden of all human anxiety—as by the contemplation of the spectacle presented by the starry heavens under the conditions just described.
First of all, I like his advice: "You know what would make you feel better? Knowing you're insignificant!" It's just a cosmic version of "this too shall pass," I guess, but the idea that the universe doesn't particularly know or care about you can't be good for the self-esteem. (Unless you've fucked up; then I guess Newcomb's restorative is the ultimate "wanna get away?") However, I shouldn't tease too much because his love of the subject is evident, and that's something a lot of scientists seem to have to a particular degree -- I bet biologists are less likely to get sick of mitochondria than English professors do of Milton.

Secondly, note "weary systems may find nerve rest at any summer resort." Systems -- nerve rest -- summer resort. Like light from Arcturus, these words are sent to us from eras gone by. I think I should try to bring back "nerve rest," though, and the whole idea of nerves and nervous disorders and neurasthenia. Like joining the Masons, I think that would be a good retro thing to do.

Finally, note that, even if you believe in the nerve-soothing effects of Newcomb's restorative it simply isn't possible for most of us, because of all the light pollution. (Even at summer resorts, because of the parking.) Another thing to get on our nerves!

July 10: First white flight in North America

Don't let the plushness fool you -- Helga from "Hagar the Horrible" was capable of anything.

Wikipedia says that "Vinland" (discussed today in "American Historical Documents"), may not mean Wine-land at all, but Pasture-land. That's probably just as well, for based on my previous researches into Vikings -- which consist mostly of heavy metal album covers -- they are associated with mead, not wine. (Wine = classical music and Norah Jones. Beer = rock, cheap beer = rawk, and jazz = heroin, of course.)

But since Vinland is in Newfoundland, what's this reading doing in American Historical Documents? My paranoid anti-Catholicism sensors, projecting back on the WASPs of a century ago, tend to think that it's the good people of Harvard trying to make sure we know that America was not discovered by an Italian, and would all those people in the North End please be quiet? But I don't really believe that, it just amuses me to pretend to believe it (which is awful of me). This reading is supposed to be interesting because the first white baby to be born in the New World is in it. Well, I like white babies fine -- my wife and I got a couple a few years back, although I cruelly made her do the unloading -- but I can't help noting that this particular family got the hell out once they saw who their neighbors were. That's right, Skrellings:
The Skrellings advanced to the spot which Karlsefni had selected for the encounter; and a battle was fought there, in which great numbers of the band of the Skrellings were slain..... Then they fled helter skelter into the woods, and thus their intercourse came to an end. Karlsefni and his party remained there throughout the winter; but in the spring Karlsefni announces that he is not minded to remain there longer, but will return to Greenland.
I'm sure he mentioned that the schools were better in Greenland.

The reading then concludes with the lurid story of Freydis (Leif Ericson's sister), which proves -- as if it needed proving -- that there is no Eden so fair that snakes won't appear in it. Freydis has decided to leave Vinland, and has negotiated with one of the other settlers that they'll swap ships so she can leave. Now she goes home after having concluded this deal:
Therewith they parted; and she returned home and Finnbogi to his bed. She climbed up into bed, and awakened Thorvard with her cold feet; and he asked her why she was so cold and wet. She answered with great passion: “I have been to the brothers,” says she, “to try to buy their ship, for I wished to have a larger vessel; but they received my overtures so ill that they struck me and handled me very roughly; what time thou, poor wretch, wilt neither avenge my shame nor thy own; and I find, perforce, that I am no longer in Greenland. Moreover I shall part from thee unless thou wreakest vengeance for this.”

And now he could stand her taunts no longer, and ordered the men to rise at once and take their weapons; and this they yield. And they then proceeded directly to the house of the brothers, and entered it while the folk were asleep, and seized and bound them, and led each one out when he was bound; and, as they came out, Freydis caused each one to be slain. In this wise all of the men were put to death, and only the women were left; and these no one would kill. At this Freydis exclaimed, “Hand me an axe.” This was done; and she fell upon the five women, and left them dead. They returned home after this dreadful deed; and it was very evident that Freydis was well content with her work.
You can say one thing for these Vikings -- at least they're thorough.

July 9: A Few Bullet Points About Francis Bacon

• There are times when Bacon (first six essays today) reminds me of an op-ed columnist. There's a kind of on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand style to his argumentation that I find a little muddy. Like when he's talking about the hot-button religious unity issue:

But we may not take up the third sword, which is Mahomet’s sword, or like unto it; that is, to propagate religion by wars or by sanguinary persecutions to force consciences; except it be in cases of overt scandal, blasphemy, or intermixture of practice against the state...
Just wanting to keep all his bases covered.

• Where he is most interesting, though, is when he about lies. This first essay is "Of Truth," but it seems more about its opposite, which Bacon has anything but a recieved opinion on:
...this same truth is a naked and open day-light, that doth not show the masks and mummeries and triumphs of the world, half so stately and daintily as candle-lights. ... A mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure. Doth any man doubt, that if there were taken out of men’s minds vain opinions, flattering hopes, false valuations, imaginations as one would, and the like, but it would leave the minds of a number of men poor shrunken things, full of melancholy and indisposition, and unpleasing to themselves?
Lying as flattering candlelight is a good image. And then there's this essay which draws a careful distinction between dis-simulation and simulation -- both are lies, but dissimulation, as far as I can tell, means denying you know something, and simulation means pretending you know it. If Bacon really were an op-ed columnist I would expect him to wring his hands and bemoan the fallen state of the world, steroids, etc., but instead he just weighs the options of when you should do it, given that truthfulness is a skill given only to the great ones.
But if a man cannot obtain to that judgment, then it is left to him generally to be close, and a dissembler. For where a man cannot choose or vary in particulars, there it is good to take the safest and wariest way in general; like the going softly by one that cannot well see.
"In seasonable use," though, warns Bacon.

• The final bullet point is that I wished I liked his style better. It feels like operating instructions, like something written from 30,000 feet (maybe that's what makes me think of op-ed columnists). Bacon's not in these essays, the way Montaigne is, and the novelty of the arguments is almost concealed by the plainness of the style. But maybe that's me -- maybe I'm too used to caffeinated internet writing. Via Slate, here's Caleb Crain on internet prose:
text on the internet rarely takes for granted your decision to read it or to continue reading it. There is often, instead, a jazzy, hectoring tone. At home my boyfriend and I use a certain physical gesture as shorthand to describe it. To make it, extend your index fingers and your thumbs so that your hands resemble toy pistols. Then waggle them before you, like a dude in a cheesy Western, while you wink, dip your knees, and lopsidedly drawl, "Heyyy." The internet is always saying, "Heyyy." It is always welcoming you to the party; it is always patting you on the back to congratulate you for showing up. It says, You know me, in a collusive tone of voice, and Wanna hear something funny? and Didja see who else is here? This tone is not absent from print; in fact, no page of New York magazine is without it. Certain decorative effects in language may be compatible with it, but it seems to be toxic to imagination.
I'm not sure it's "toxic" to imagination, but I do think it makes you impatient with prose that tries to sneak up on you, the way Bacon's, I think, tries to do.

July 8: Nothing is too hot for the Harvard Classics

Relevantizing Young English Teacher says that The Cenci is just as lurid as Twin Peaks, before realizing he'd have to explain what Twin Peaks was also.

Okay, even though I read that article in the New Yorker, I still have trouble keeping Shelley and Keats straight. (It would have helped if they had arranged for one of them not to die young, perhaps via a coin flip, but that's the Romantics for you -- always thinking of themselves, ultimately.) Or should I say, "had trouble," because now I know that Keats wasn't the one who wrote the play about incest, and Shelley was.

Yeah, that's right -- Shelley knows how to put the hay down where the goats can get at it. By no means is it pro-incest (it's not Byron, after all), but it is pro-over-the-top evil patriarchs, like Old Man Cenci here:
Cenci Tis an awful thing
To touch such mischief as I now conceive:
So men sit shivering on the dewy bank,
And try the chill stream with their feet; once in…
How the delighted spirit pants for joy!
Villainy most metrical, am I right? And, if you read it with enough sympathy for the Romantical diction, it is. Here he is celebrating the fact that his sons have died:
Cenci (filling a bowl of wine, and lifting it up). Oh, thou bright wine whose purple splendour leaps
And bubbles gaily in this golden bowl
Under the lamp-light, as my spirits do,
To hear the death of my accursèd sons!
Could I believe thou wert their mingled blood,
Then would I taste thee like a sacrament...
This is another case of "don't let the 'werts' fool you" -- this guy is a badass. And, Shelley says it's based on a true story, which is how I think such strong stuff got allowed in by the Puritans who (or so I imagine) stocked the Harvard Classics -- it's not only true, but it's about Italians as well, so it doesn't count. As Shelley explains:
But religion in Italy is not, as in Protestant countries, a cloak to be worn on particular days... or a gloomy passion for penetrating the impenetrable mysteries of our being, which terrifies its possessor at the darkness of the abyss to the brink of which it has conducted him. Religion coexists, as it were, in the mind of an Italian Catholic, with a faith in that of which all men have the most certain knowledge. It is interwoven with the whole fabric of life. It is adoration, faith, submission, penitence, blind admiration; not a rule for moral conduct.
Would Mario Puzo agree? He might well.

And other than that, how did I like the play? The HC says its "unperformable," but I think that's due to its strong subject matter; it might be unperformable today because its action/talking about action ratio is much less favorable than Shakespeare. It's still strong stuff, though.

July 7: My head hurts

From time to time I suspect that the Daily Reading Guide was not meant to actually be followed, and today just gives me evidence, for, two months after assigning Act IV, Scene III of the School for Scandal, they now follow up with the opening.

And it is no help. I can't remember which one is Lady Teazle and which one is Lady Sneerwell, and do the brother have to have the same last name? Even Sheridan's super-duper-obvious expositioning, while meant to be helpful of course, only seems to make matters murkier:

Snake. Here are two young men, to whom Sir Peter has acted as a kind of guardian since their father’s death; the eldest possessing the most amiable character, and universally well spoken of—the youngest, the most dissipated and extravagant young fellow in the kingdom, without friends or character; the former an avowed admirer of your ladyship, and apparently your favourite; the latter attached to Maria, Sir Peter’s ward, and confessedly beloved by her.
I don't even think it would help if they spelled "favorite" right. Of course, when you have actors doing this material, it makes it easier -- they've spent all that rehearsal time figuring out who is who, what each of them were like as a child, etc.

The spoonful of sugar, I guess, to all this pipe is the funny names -- the gossip is named "Mrs. Candour," and she gets gems to say like this:
To-day, Mrs. Clackitt assured me, Mr. and Mrs. Honeymoon were at last become mere man and wife, like the rest of their acquaintance. She likewise hinted that a certain widow, in the next street, had got rid of her dropsy and recovered her shape in a most surprising manner. And at the same time Miss Tattle, who was by, affirmed that Lord Buffalo had discovered his lady at a house of no extraordinary fame; and that Sir Harry Bouquet and Tom Saunter were to measure swords on a similar provocation.
Aarrgh. I take back what I said the other day about my love of old-timey obvious jokes. Well, I take back 70% of it, anyway.

July 6: Thomas More, martyr and smooth operator

Utopia is one of those books I read in college which I instantly forgot, and now, years on, I find its prose style forgettable. (It is, I know, translated from the Latin, and so has the old-timey problems that plague most of the translations.) Here's how it starts:

THE MOST victorious and triumphant King of England, Henry the Eighth of that name, in all royal virtues, prince most peerless, had of late in controversy with the right high and mighty King of Castile, weighty matters and of great importance. For the debatement and final determination whereof, the King’s Majesty sent me ambassador into Flanders, joined in commission with Cuthbert Tunstall, a man doubtless out of comparison, and whom the King’s Majesty of late, to the great rejoicing of all men, did prefer to the office of Master of the Rolls.
So there we are, full of debatements and final determinations whereof. It's as if More were the patron saint of lawyers or something! There's one other thing I note, and not to the benefit of the prose either -- which is that More ladles out the flattery like someone introducing the next speaker. It's one thing to overpraise the King (for all the good it did him), but Cuthbert Tunstall? (There's about 100 more words of praise for C.T. that follow). A bit further down we encounter Peter Giles, of whom, "it is hard to say, whether the young man be in learning, or in honesty more excellent."

Utopia having (I looked it up) some radical notions in it, it is possible that all this praise right from the get-go is designed to put the reader off so that only the cognoscenti would bother to proceed. If so, mission accomplished.

Then we meet Raphael Hythloday, who is going to tell us about Utopia, and if I were Idealistic Young English Teacher Who Tries To Make It Relevant, I would talk about how "The New World is like space!" and "Utopia is the first science fiction novel!" but I won't. However, I do like how Raphael is given street cred because he scorns the Latin classics in favor of the Greek ones -- it's sort of (and I guess I can't help relevantizing) like preferring bands before their songs were chosen to be on "Gossip Girl".

The final part of this reading shows that More had paid attention during the many committee meetings he must have sat in on. He and Peter Giles are trying to persuade Raphael to go inside the Beltway and counsel kings, but Raphael says no way:
Moreover, they that be councillors to kings, every one of them either is of himself so wise indeed, that he need not, or else he thinketh [emphasis added] himself so wise, that he will not allow another man’s counsel, saving that they do shamefully and flatteringly give assent to the fond and foolish sayings of certain great men. Whose favours, because they be in high authority with their prince, by assentation and flattery they labour to obtain....Then if a man in such a company...should bring forth anything, that he hath read done in times past, or that he hath seen done in other places: there the hearers fare as though the whole existimation of their wisdom were in jeopardy to be overthrown, and that ever after they should be counted for very fools, unless they could in other men’s inventions pick out matter to reprehend, and find fault at.
It reminds me of a passage about committee meetings in one of those Stephen Potter "Upmanship" books:
If rival makes obviously good bold and original point, counter it
(i) by saying: "Yes, I think that's a good idea -- I wonder if we were right to discard it five years ago where there was all that rows." Or
(ii) if you can only think of something conventional and commonplace as alternative, make your flat suggestions in an "of course I'm completely mad" voice (Flairship) and add: "I know you'll think I'm making a fool of myself, but I think some of us are bound to make fools of ourselves before anything really happens, don't you?" Or
(iii) simply say: "Yes, but that isn't really what we're discussing, is it?"
No wonder "Utopia" means "No place".