September 30: I hate working

because now I can't give today's Emerson (King of Blowhards) essay the attention it deserves. I think I'll bullet-point my way through it. (One of these days I should live-blog one of these suckers -- it's hard to believe from my 1/8th-inch-thick analysis, but I actually do read these before starting to type.) OK:

• Emerson is to assertion what In-N-Out 100x100 is to lunch -- heavy on the overkill. For instance:

What fact more conspicuous in modern history, than the creation of the gentleman?
How about...the steam engine? But he's writing about "Manners" so manners is the most important and crucial thing that anyone could possibly imagine, and the proof of it is that he, Emerson, is writing about it.
The gentleman is a man of truth, lord of his own actions, and expressing that lordship in his behavior, not in any manner dependent and servile either on persons, or opinions, or possessions.
Although he also said this, about the non-gentlemanly life, awhile back:
He who knows the most, he who knows what sweets and virtues are in the ground, the waters, the plants, the heavens, and how to come to these enchantments, is the rich and royal man.
Truly this man was King of the Blowhards.

• It's also worth noting that, for an American scholar, he is quite into the natural aristocracy of everything. I'm a horrible elitist myself (that is, I believe in it, but I'm bad at it) so I don't disagree. In fact, I give him credit for recognizing that this elitism must be based in flux because the people you want in it might come from someplace completely un-obvious:
It is a spontaneous fruit of talents and feelings of precisely that class who have most vigor, who take the lead in the world of this hour, and, though far from pure, far from constituting the gladdest and highest tone of human feeling, is as good as the whole society permits it to be.
Emphasis added there at the end, because I think that's right too -- nobody's forcing us to have stumblebums and airheads as our most powerful and admired people, that's just who we've anointed, though they are mighty far for purity or the gladdest tone of human feeling. In fact, their next human feeling with be their first, it seems like.

• And dig, if you will, this passage:
Fine manners show themselves formidable to the uncultivated man. They are a subtler science of defence to parry and intimidate; but once matched by the skill of the other party, they drop the point of the sword,—points and fences disappear, and the youth finds himself in a more transparent atmosphere, wherein life is a less troublesome game, and not a misunderstanding rises between the players.
Doesn't it seem like they should be making out? And this:
Know you before all heaven and earth, that this is Andrew, and this is Gergory;—they look each other in the eye; that grasp each other’s hand, to identify and signalize each other. It is a great satisfaction.
Mm-hmm. No wonder he doesn't talk about women in this excerpt.

• Finally, here's the meat:

September 29: Larry King and the Mandate of Heaven

If you're seeking after wisdom, I'll be at Nate 'n' Al's.

I say this with some trepidation, because I am who I am, whereas Confucius has been around for thousands of years. But if you were deciding to read a bunch of the Harvard Classics, and if you landed on Confucius in its century-old (at least) translation, and if the reading assigned were this reading, then you might be thinking what I'm thinking, which is that Confucius sounds like Larry King. Specifically, He sounds like a (less insane version of) Larry King's old "USA Today" column, where, on the page, random synapses would fire, tied together by three dots. I used to collect them. Here are some:
I get a good feeling when I see a police officer on a horse.
I never get tired of listening to Canada's National Anthem.
How do women choose from all the lipsticks available to them?
Jell-O is still one of the all-time great desserts.
If the first phone call of the day is a good one, all of them usually are.
The designs of the new ties are better than ever.
How do you celebrate Flag Day?
I hesitate to say it, but as I look at these, the word that comes to mind is "inscrutable."

Confucius isn't as random, because, of course, he's a wise old man, not a crazy one, but they're just as bullet-pointy:
The Master said: “Honeyed words and flattering looks seldom speak of love.”
The Master said: “In governing, cleave to good; as the north star holds his place, and the multitude of stars revolve upon him.”
“Our manner is the hard part. For the young to be a stay in toil, and leave the wine and cakes to their elders, is this to fulfil their duty?”
“A man without love, what is courtesy to him? A man without love, what is music to him?”
“Preaching to princes brings disgrace, nagging at friends estrangement.”
In Confucius's defense, he died in 479 B.C., where advice not to nag was still relatively fresh, having only been given a hundred thousand times, as opposed to a trillion like now. And, to be fair, because I'm painfully conscious of having insulted this world-historical figure by comparing him to Larry King, there's definitely things here and there to hang on to:
THE MASTER said: “In learning and straightway practising is there not pleasure also? When friends gather round from afar do we not rejoice? Whom lack of fame cannot vex is not he a gentleman?”
The Master said: “A man and his faults are of a piece. By watching his faults we learn whether love be his.”
The Master said: “A scholar in search of truth who is ashamed of poor clothes and poor food it is idle talking to.”
Although I have to say, it's one thing not to be ashamed of poor food. It's another thing to claim it's a positive good -- which I, whatever Confucius might say, do not officially recommend.

UPDATE: Fixed link. Sheesh.

September 28: This will be short


This will be short.

This will be short because I'm a dumb humanities major and I can't follow Pasteur's lecture on germ theory, with sentences like:

Whilst the microbe-producing pus, when acting alone, gives rise to a thick pus, white, or sometimes with a yellow or bluish tint, not putrid, diffused or enclosed by the so-called pyogenic membrane, not dangerous, especially if localized in cellular tissue, ready, if the expression may be used for rapid resorption; on the other hand the smallest abscess produced by this organism when associated with the septic vibrio takes on a thick gangrenous appearance, putrid, greenish and infiltrating the softened tissues.
I do know that it's gross.

This will be short because, other than wondering why this reading is later than the reading from Lister, who based his discovery on Pasteur's after all, I don't have anything else to say (also, this is a good reading for fans of the word "putrid," which who isn't?)

This will also be short because it is all glorious and temperate and Californian outside, with nice autumn light (I wish the Lawrence Weschler article "L.A. Glows" were online, because I could link to it), and I'm going out to enjoy it.

This will be short because I deserve to write a short one. Dammit.

And, finally, this will be short because I am short.

Photo by Flickr user JenWaller used with a Creative Commons license.

September 27: Jesus (the bad news and the worse news)


The bad news: According the Pascal's Fundamentals of the Christian Religion: Christianity only works if you feel like shit:

We can then have an excellent knowledge of God without that of our own wretchedness, and of our own wretchedness without that of God. But we cannot know Jesus Christ without knowing at the same time both God and our own wretchedness.
There's a lot more of this wretchedness stuff, and also this:
Without Jesus Christ the world would not exist; for it should needs be either that it would be destroyed or be a hell.
But isn't it already a hell, because we're so wretched? It seems like a terrible argument. I mean, under these circumstances, having everything be meaningless would be a tremendous comfort; better than concluding that it all adds up to a hellish wretchedness.

There's also the bad news that Pascal's God prefers riddles -- that the very fact that he's hidden proves his existence -- that only a real God would occasionally decide, not only not to answer your prayers, but not even bother to listen to them. "Recognise, then, the truth of religion in the very obscurity of religion, in the little light we have of it, and in the indifference which we have to knowing it."

I don't even get this, really, but it's sort of surprising at a method of apologetics to claim that God shines intermittently like a cheap neon sign. (Although I've always been fond of the saw that the universe is run by a god who's 90% malevolent but only 10% competent.)

But that's not the worse news. The worse news is that Pascal proves the truth of Christianity from the evidence of how hateful the Jews are:
To give faith to the Messiah, it was necessary there should have been precedent prophecies, and that these should be conveyed by persons above suspicion, diligent, faithful, unusually zealous, and known to all the world.To accomplish all this, God chose this carnal people, to whom He entrusted the prophecies which foretell the Messiah as a deliverer, and as a dispenser of those carnal goods which this people loved.

...
For when blessings are promised in abundance, what was to prevent them from understanding the true blessings, but their covetousness, which limited the meaning to worldly goods?

Wow. It's bad enough that Pascal wrote this in 1660; but it's worse that the Harvard people decided to point us to it in 1930. Maybe the world is wretched and a hell after all.

Two links from the aggregator

• Objects in this close reading may be less significant than they appear.

• From Quick Study:

Can anyone argue with this point by Doug?

I think newspapers have hurt themselves greatly by the ways they've come to think about arts coverage. There's a huge audience out there, but newspapers have pursued a dumb strategy when it comes to A&E coverage.
I've never really considered myself a journalist, at least not primarily, but have enjoyed writing for newspapers over the years (even at the cost of having to put up, from time to time, with the usual cheap and ignorant condescension by academic towards reporters); and the piecemeal destruction of serious cultural coverage by newspapers has been painful to watch, since it is often accompanied by efforts to be that much more "hip, hot, and happenin'" in ways that are almost always pretty cringe-inducing.
You'd think, what with newspapers becoming a luxury good, they'd try to focus more on the carriage trade; but the opposite appears to be happening. I suspect that all newspapers, outside of NYC, should adopt a your-readers-are-our-shoplifters attitude -- or, go completely tabloid and lurid. LA, in particular, could use a tabloid, because it would provide narrative for a metro area that could use it.

September 26: Delusional

In my "relevant" translation of Don Quixote, this chapter would take place here.

This is the part in Don Quixote where the Don spends the night at an inn, which he thinks is a castle, and has to watch his arms overnight in the side yard (chapel) so that in the morning the innkeeper (noble lord) can confirm him in his folly (knight-errancy).

As always it's better to be a true believer than a skeptic, for the Don emerges from his evening unscathed (or, more precisely, he's braced for scathing, so he doesn't really feel it), while the innkeeper, who "when he heard him speak in that manner; and that he might have an occasion of laughter, he resolved to feed his humour that night" winds up having two of his guests clubbed by the Don and, in the end, "without demanding of him anything for his lodging, he suffered him to depart in a fortunate hour." It doesn't do to be too skeptical, maybe; or, if you are skeptical, maybe you should give the true believers a wide berth.

In some ways this reminds me of the current financial crisis (but everything does, right now) -- the Don believes that this crappy inn is actually a high-end castle that could use a new 1-year ARM; full of theories of chivalry and finance, he is confident such a place can always be flipped. And the innkeeper is a practical man who lets himself get sucked in, thinking that this theory is crazy but he can take advantage of it, only to wind up stiffed at the end. While the true believer rides serenely on, probably to a commentary position at CNBC.

OT: George and Ira Eliot

So Beche-la-mer over at Two Cents (a blog that linked here, thanks very much) notes that it's both George Gershwin's and T.S. Eliot's birthday today. She wrote this:

One of these mornings
You're going to rise up singing,
Then you'll spread your wings
And you'll take to the sky.
Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song,
Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long.
And I reply thusly:
I'll build a stairway to paradise
At the first turning of the second stair
With a new step every day
I turned and saw below
I'm going to get there at any price
The same shape twisted on the banister
Step aside, I'm on my way
Under the vapor in the fetid air
I've got the blues, and up above it's so fair
Struggling with the devil of the stairs who wears
Shoes, come on and carry me there
The deceitful face of hope and despair
I'll build a stairway to paradise
At the second turning of the second stair
With a new step every day.
One could do this all day.

September 25: Utilitarian In Love



John Stuart Mill's romance -- he was in love with a married woman for 20 years, then got to marry her when her husband kicked; then she died -- might make a good costume-drama movie starring, I don't know, Colin Firth? I feel like I ought to make a more original suggestion than Colin Firth; but he is good at communicating how his over-articulateness can't get at what his heart is feeling:

In general spiritual characteristics, as well as in temperament and organisation, I have often compared her, as she was at this time, to Shelley: but in thought and intellect, Shelley, so far as his powers were developed in his short life, was but a child compared with what she ultimately became.
Are you crying, Mill? Are those tears? Get a hold of yourself, man!
It is not to be supposed that she was, or that any one, at the age at which I first saw her, could be, all that she afterwards became.
There we go. That's better. And more objective.

The tricky part about the Mill-in-love movie is that it's hard not to make fun of Mill, he is so serious, and yet he's your hero, and also on the side of the angels. The solution is the make the movie from her point of view, which doesn't survive -- though that's probably a feature, not a bug, as it allows more freedom for invention and a better part for Keira Knightley. (Ask for Keira Knightley, settle for someone who's been on British TV.) You wish Mill would be more helpful in describing her, but he can't help being Mill (you may recall he was raised extremely weirdly), so this sentence looks promising:
What I owe, even intellectually, to her, is in its detail, almost infinite; of its general character a few words will give some, though a very imperfect, idea.
But it's followed up with a Generalization:
With those who, like all the best and wisest of mankind, are dissatisfied with human life as it is, and whose feelings are wholly identified with its radical amendment, there are two main regions of thought.
Grrr. Open your heart, man! Say something ardently. Oh, wait:
Ardently as I should have aspired to this complete union of our lives at any time in the course of my existence at which it had been practicable, I, as much as my wife, would far rather have foregone that privilege for ever, than have owed it to the premature death of one for whom I had the sincerest respect, and she the strongest affection. That event, however, having taken place in July, 1849, it was granted to me to derive from that evil my own greatest good, by adding to the partnership of thought, feeling, and writing which had long existed, a partnership of our entire existence. For seven and a half years that blessing was mine; for seven and a half only!
Using "ardently" and "practicable" in the same sentence seems like pure Mill. But, in that context, that exclamation point really hits.

Finally: I don't mean to keep poking fun at Mill, but I can't resist noting that his chapter headings ("Commencement of the Most Valuable Friendship of My Life. My Father’s Death. Writings and Other Proceedings up to 1840") remind me of the chapter headings in one of my favorite favorite books ("Effect upon my father of his disclosure. My Xtian confidence in journeying to Enfield. Paternoster Towers and its mistress. Unfortunate detachment of my posterior trouser-buttons. Melancholy death of Silas Whey.")

Still, I can totally see this movie, and perhaps you will -- Christmas 2011.

September 24: With Great Power Comes Great Personality Defects

I don't know what it stands for, either. Cool badge, though.

The battle of Salamis, we are told, was the Most Significant Battle In Human History -- at least in the non-metaphorical division, because what about the Battle Against Greasy Buildup? But we're talking about a different Greece today, and if its Grecian spirit -- inquiry, the individual, democratically elected leaders sandbagging their rivals, etc. -- had been vanquished by the Persians all those centuries ago, today we'd be the ones wanting Iranian blue jeans. Or something.

Anyway, the genius behind the Greek victory was Themistocles, and we get some of his story today via Plutarch. What emerges is a guy who was a paragon of virtue, old-school definition, as opposed to virtue, contemporary definition. In other words, he got things done, but not in Common Cause-approved ways. Here he is performing a little trickeration on the rubes:
Themistocles, being at a loss, and not able to draw the people over to his opinion by any human reason, set his machines to work, as in a theatre, and employed prodigies and oracles. The serpent of Minerva, kept in the inner part of her temple, disappeared; the priests gave it out to the people that the offerings which were set for it were found untouched, and declared, by the suggestion of Themistocles, that the goddess had left the city, and taken her flight before them towards the sea.
And here he is after his success, as un-humble as an NFL wide reciever:
When chosen admiral by the Athenians, he would not quite conclude any single matter of business, either public or private, but deferred all till the day they were to set sail, that, by despatching a great quantity of business all at once, and having to meet a great variety of people, he might make an appearance of greatness and power. Viewing the dead bodies cast up by the sea, he perceived bracelets and necklaces of gold about them, yet passed on, only showing them to a friend that followed him, saying, “Take you these things, for you are not Themistocles.” He said to Antiphates, a handsome young man, who had formerly avoided, but now in his glory courted him, “Time, young man, has taught us both a lesson.”
Hey, it turns out the homos saved Western Civilization! I'm not sure Western Civ. has returned the favor (although I imagine it's better here than in Iran). Themistocles eventually drove the Athenians crazy, apparently, and you can see why. Still, he is the kind of shitkicker who you like to have in a crisis. Another noteworthy thing about Themistocles is that, when push came to shove, he was anything but grandiose. Here he abandons his post-Salamis grand designs in the face of hardheaded advice:
Themistocles, being desirous to try the opinion of Aristides [his archrival, whom he has brought back because of the urgency of the situation], told him that he proposed to set sail for the Hellespont, to break the bridge of ships, so as to shut up, he said, Asia a prisoner within Europe; but Aristides, disliking the design, said, “We have hitherto fought with an enemy who has regarded little else but his pleasure and luxury; but if we shut him up within Greece, and drive him to necessity, he that is master of such great forces will no longer sit quietly with an umbrella of gold over his head, looking upon the fight for his pleasure;...Therefore, it is noways our interest, Themistocles,” he said, “to take away the bridge that is already made, but rather to build another, if it were possible, that he might make his retreat with the more expedition.”
I think it's in Murray Kempton's great essay about Eisenhower where he says one of Ike's principles was "Always give an enemy an exit," and here you see another example of that. Again, not particularly virtuous, but effective.

September 23: Montaigne, corpse groom

At home in Bordeaux.

I was excited about today's reading, because one of the useful things my undergraduate education accomplished is that it exposed me to Montaigne, who is right up my alley, and then I remembered that the free translation is from the 1500s and is almost impossible to follow:
Allthough they say, that in vertue it selfe, the last scope of our aime is voluptuousnes. It pleaseth me to importune their eares still with this word, which so much offends their hearing. And if it imply any chief pleasure or exceeding contentments, it is rather due to the assistance of vertue, than to any other supply, voluptuousnes being more strong, sinnowie, sturdie, and manly, is but more seriously voluptuous.
Even the fact that they occasionally use the word "lustie" doesn't help. Fortunately a brief Google found a free translation from Australia, and here's the same passage:
Let the philosophers say what they will, the main thing at which we all aim, even in virtue itself, is pleasure. It amuses me to rattle in their ears this word, which they so nauseate to hear; and if it signify some supreme pleasure and excessive contentment, it is more due to the assistance of virtue than to any other assistance whatever.
That's a little clearer, and kicks off my favorite passage in this Essay, "To philosophize is to learn how to die," which (typical for Montaigne, IIRC), veers almost immediately away from how a philosophy helps you get ready for the inevitable end, and takes up the subject about how Montaigne is ready for his inevitable end. Step 1 is "Brooding." Step 2 is, "See Step 1":
In the company of ladies, and at games, some have perhaps thought me possessed with some jealousy, or the uncertainty of some hope, while I was entertaining myself with the remembrance of some one, surprised, a few days before, with a burning fever of which he died, returning from an entertainment like this, with his head full of idle fancies of love and jollity, as mine was then, and that, for aught I knew, the same destiny was attending me....I am at all hours as well prepared as I am ever like to be, and death, whenever he shall come, can bring nothing along with him I did not expect long before.
He doesn't write like a Tim Burton character, but I guess he thinks of himself as one. He is also one of our first collectors of "oddly enough" manners of death:
Hast thou not seen one of our kings killed at a tilting, and did not one of his ancestors die by the jostle of a hog? Aeschylus, threatened with the fall of a house, was to much purpose circumspect to avoid that danger, seeing that he was knocked on the head by a tortoise falling out of an eagle’s talons in the air. Another was choked with a grapestone; an emperor killed with the scratch of a comb in combing his head. Aemilius Lepidus with a stumble at his own threshold, and Aufidius with a jostle against the door as he entered the council-chamber. And between the very thighs of woman, Cornelius Gallus the praetor; Tigillinus, captain of the watch at Rome; Ludovico, son of Guido di Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua; and (of worse example) Speusippus, a Platonic philosopher, and one of our popes.
That put me in mind of this Onion piece:
In the grief-management retreat I attended after Brad died, I met a lot of people who share my point of view. How would you feel if your wealthy relative careened into a swimming pool on a runaway golf cart that had been sabotaged by "slobs" and then drowned? It wouldn't seem quite so funny then, would it? Especially if those responsible had never been brought to justice and had, in fact, won the big tournament by sinking a lucky putt at the very last second.
But to return (Montaigne style) to my favorite part, which isn't at all on theme. It's about virtue v. pleasure:
Those who preach to us that the quest of it [virtue] is craggy, difficult, and painful, but its fruition pleasant, what do they mean by that but to tell us that is always unpleasing? For what human means will ever attain its enjoyment? The most perfect have been fain to content themselves to aspire unto it, and to approach it only, without ever possessing it. But they are deceived, seeing that of all the pleasures we know, the very pursuit is pleasant.
In other words, if Virtue is really its own (and only) reward, then what's the point of getting off the couch to seek it? But what if, instead of thinking about whether it makes us good, we only thought about whether it makes us happy? (Or "lustie.")

September 22: Guess Who's Coming To Poitiers

Rated I for "Almost all of these people were illiterate."

So maybe you're in a Starbucks or something and there's two leftie types at the next table -- I won't say "old hippies," but out here, they could be -- and one of them says something like, "You know, war is just boys playing with destructive toys," the other says something like, "Yes, and the so-called 'media' is just a way of manufacturing consent," and you, as a nonhippie, roll your eyes and think, "Then what the hell are you two doing in a Starbucks?"

Well, I hate to say it, but if I'm reading my Froissart correctly, they're onto something.

Today we have his chronicle of the Battle of Poitiers, and not only is it completely unclear what they're fighting for, or how, but they don't seem to be particularly energized by the cause, whatever it is. They just like fightin' and killin'. Here they've captured the French King and they bring him to the Prince of Wales:
When the two foresaid lords saw and heard that noise and strife among them, they came to them and said: ‘Sirs, what is the matter that ye strive for?’ ‘Sirs,’ said one of them, ‘it is for the French king, who is here taken prisoner, and there be more than ten knights and squires that challengeth the taking of him and of his son.’ Then the two lords entered into the press and caused every man to draw aback, and commanded them in the prince’s name on pain of their heads to make no more noise nor to approach the king no nearer, without they were commanded. Then every man gave room to the lords, and they alighted and did their reverence to the king.
Emphasis added. I suppose it's just like keeping Hirohito, and when your own country's power structure is based on hereditary principles, disrespecting another country's hereditary principle is bad in the long run, but it seems so...calm. Especially because a few minutes before the King was having at the English big-time:
The fighters on both sides endured much pain: king John with his own hands did that day marvels in arms: he had an axe in his hands wherewith he defended himself and fought in the breaking of the press.
An axe in his hands! One thing for these old-school nobles -- they didn't just talk the talk, they chopped the chop. But just the fact that he's doing marvels in arms makes me marvel: isn't there a better use for the king than just an axeman? After all, it wound up costing twice the GDP of France to ransom him back after he got captured. It makes you think that these powerful people were careless about their country's fate -- quite a contrast to our time!

I recommend this reading, also, to the medieval-fetishist, as the translation dates from 1525, I believe, and so has old-timey diction and plenty of people who are "hight" someone-or-other, and knights crying "Saint George!" and, of course, warlike churchmen:
The prince was informed that the cardinal’s men were on the field against him, the which was not pertaining to the right order of arms, for men of the church that cometh and goeth for treaty of peace ought not by reason to bear harness nor to fight for neither of the parties; they ought to be indifferent: and because these men had done so, the prince was displeased with the cardinal, and therefore he sent unto him his nephew the lord Robert of Duras dead: and the chatelain of Amposte was taken, and the prince would have had his head stricken off, because he was pertaining to the cardinal, but then the lord Chandos said: ‘Sir, suffer for a season: intend to a greater matter: and peradventure the cardinal will make such excuse that ye shall be content.’
"Peradventure (HIGH OFFICIAL X) will make such excuse that ye shall be content." Yeah, right. Those hippies in Starbucks might be onto something. Maybe the Pentagon should hold bake sales.

September 21: Italy, Hell, etc.

I like Dryden's Aeneid translation; you have to get into the jingle of the iambic pentameter, but once you do it's fine -- it's like swimming in the ocean. Of course if you immerse yourself in it too much your sensibility will wrinkle under the punchlines of DA-da DA-da da(pause) DA DA-da DA-da -- or its variants:

But you, if pious minds by pray’rs are won,
Oblige the father, and protect the son.
Or
A soldier’s fauchion, and a seaman’s oar.
I might add that one of the great things about being a dilettante ("Through Trivia's grove they walk," as Dryden says) is that it doesn't bug you when you don't know what "fauchion" means.

In this excerpt Aeneas descends into the underworld, and the highlight is that it's pretty much as bad as we feared:
Just in the gate and in the jaws of hell,
Revengeful Cares and sullen Sorrows dwell,
And pale Diseases, and repining Age,
Want, Fear, and Famine’s unresisted rage;
Here Toils, and Death, and Death’s half-brother, Sleep,
Forms terrible to view, their sentry keep;
With anxious Pleasures of a guilty mind,
Deep Frauds before, and open Force behind;
The Furies’ iron beds; and Strife, that shakes
Her hissing tresses and unfolds her snakes.
I don't know why Dryden hates sleep so much; maybe we're living in the Golden Age of Napping without realizing it.

Oh, I almost forgot the part that lets me get on my soapbox. Aeneas has found the Sybil's temple, which has previously-on-the-classical-myths tableaux on it, and we find this:
Here hapless Icarus had found his part,
Had not the father’s grief restrain’d his art.
He twice assay’d to cast his son in gold;
Twice from his hands he dropp’d the forming mold.
You know what I take that to mean? Don't write about your kids -- don't use your kids in your business. Last night, for professional reasons, I had to look at "Dan In Real Life," and immediately I hated that guy because he puts his family in the paper. Stage parents are generally terrible (TRUE STORY) but at least the kids get to act, which can be somewhat fun; when you're written about you're as passive as Icarus getting gold poured over him. I am glad to have classical sanction for one of my prejudices.

September 19/20: Peoples of the Books (let's blog two today)

Note to Muslim fanatics: please don't kill me. Note to Disney lawyers: ditto.

As it turns out, yesterday's reading (Don Quixote), and today's (Koran), both partake of that wonderful cocktail -- fire, books, and religion:

‘Yet, on mine honesty,’ replied the curate, ‘his father’s goodness shall nothing avail him. Take this book, old mistress, and open the window, throw it down into the yard, and let it lay the foundation of our heap for the fire we mean to make.’

Do they envy man for what God has given of His grace? We have given to Abraham’s people the Book and wisdom, and we have given them a mighty kingdom. And of them are some who believe therein, and of them are some who turn from it, but Hell is flaming enough for them.
Verily, those who disbelieve in our signs, we will broil them with fire; whenever their skins are well done, then we will change them for other skins, that they may taste the torment. Verily, God is glorious and wise.
I hope that it will not be considered terribly Eurocentric if I go with Cervantes' bumbling enforcers over the white-hot holy book, if I prefer the curate-cum-critic:
therefore, taking eight of them together, she [an old woman] threw them all out of the window, and returning the second time, thinking to carry away a great many at once, one of them fell at the barber’s feet, who, desirous to know the title, saw that it was The History of the famous Knight Tirante the White. ‘Good God!’ quoth the curate, with a loud voice, ‘is Tirante the White here? Give me it, gossip; for I make account to find in it a treasure of delight, and a copious mine of pastime.
To the Koran's how-to-treat-your-woman advice:
Men stand superior to women in that God hath preferred some of them over others, and in that they expend of their wealth: and the virtuous women, devoted, careful (in their husbands’) absence, as God has cared for them. But those whose perverseness ye fear, admonish them and remove them into bed-chambers and beat them; but if they submit to you, then do not seek a way against them; verily, God is high and great.
In fact, controlling for the differences in dogma, culture, etc., you might see the two readings as pointing out that the flame of purity inevitably becomes something just a fire you entertain yourself by. People can't live like fanatics forever; they are always going to be tripped up by some romance or other:
‘This book,’ quoth the barber, opening of another, ‘is The Twelve Books of the Fortunes of Love, written by Anthony Lofraso, the Sardinian poet.’ ‘By the holy orders which I have received,’ quoth the curate, ‘since Apollo was Apollo, and the muses muses, and poets poets, was never written so delightful and extravagant a work as this...Give it to me, gossip, for I do prize more the finding of it than I would the gift of a cassock of the best satin of Florence.’
It's a bit of a stretch, but another thing to note in these readings is that the curate is letting himself be subject to a different way of experience -- not only by love poetry, but also by the classical culture Christianity was supposed to supersede; whereas the Koran is trying to get all of experience subject to itself. Most of the reading is actually about property rights:
Men should have a portion of what their parents and kindred leave, and women should have a portion of what their parents and kindred leave, whether it be little or much, a determined portion. And when the next of kin and the orphans and the poor are present at the division, then maintain them out of it, and speak to them a reasonable speech.
Although that paragraph ends, "Verily, those who devour the property of orphans unjustly, only devour into their bellies fire, and they shall broil in flames." Again with the fire!

Regrets

It's this or the bad Cervantes translation.

The press of the day will make me unable to get to the reading today, unless I do it when I get home from the Dodger game. But I will try to do today's and tomorrow's tomorrow, when they will be yesterday and today's.

UPDATE: The Dodgers got skunked so the teams I'm rooting for are 0-2 when I mention that I'm going to go see them. We did get free flip books, however.

September 18: Home is the sailor

Where the whores at?

Richard Henry Dana's two years before the mast come to an end today as his ship comes in to Boston. Shouldn't this reading be a little later in the year? Or is it already late in the year, and I just don't know it because I'm in California and I still don't want to heat up the kitchen at dinnertime?

Anyway, there is, as always, a lot of stuff about spars and studding-sails that will have the Patrick O'Brian reader nodding his (almost certainly "his," I bet) head knowledgeably. And then there's this, to warm the urbanite's heart:
As we drew in toward the mouth of the harbor, as toward a focus, the vessels began to multiply until the bay seemed actually alive with sails gliding about in every direction; some on the wind, and others before it, as they were bound to or from the emporium of trade and centre of the bay. It was a stirring sight for us, who had been months on the ocean without seeing anything but two solitary sails; and over two years without seeing more than the three or four traders on an almost desolate coast. ...We were coming back to our homes; and the signs of civilization, and prosperity, and happiness, from which we had been so long banished, were multiplying about us.
In my mind's eye I have the image of the bay clotted thick with sail; a pre-rail traffic jam. But also -- busy-ness=life=happiness. To me there's something sad and tomblike about gated communities; ditto business districts on weekends. (At least show free movies, like they do at the Hollywood Cemetery; you can see "Rear Window" and on your way out walk past the grave of that other great mid-century artist, Mel Blanc.)

This passage might also be an early recorded instance of someone who went to Harvard casually making sure you know that he went to Harvard:
...a beautiful little pleasure-boat luffed up into the wind, under our quarter, and the junior partner of the firm to which our ship belonged, jumped on board. I saw him from the mizen topsail yard, and knew him well. He shook the captain by the hand, and went down into the cabin, and in a few moments came up and inquired of the mate for me. The last time I had seen him, I was in the uniform of an undergraduate of Harvard College, and now, to his astonishment, there came down from aloft a “rough alley” looking fellow, with duck trowsers and red shirt, long hair, and face burnt as black as an Indian’s.
But don't worry -- all he needs is a haircut and a few days inside at the club and he'll be ready for the ruling class! (Although that's not fair to Dana, who appears to have been one of the good guys.)

Finally, Dana tells me what I will be feeling if I make it through the end of the year with the DRG:
As for myself, by one of those anomalous changes of feeling of which we are all the subjects, I found that I was in a state of indifference, for which I could by no means account. A year before, while carrying hides on the coast, the assurance that in a twelve month we should see Boston, made me half wild; but now that I was actually there, and in sight of home, the emotions which I had so long anticipated feeling, I did not find, and in their place was a state of very nearly entire apathy.

Something of the same experience was related to me by a sailor whose first voyage was one of five years upon the North-west Coast. He had left home, a lad, and after several years of very hard and trying experience, found himself homeward bound; and such was the excitement of his feelings that, during the whole passage, he could talk and think of nothing else but his arrival, and how and when he should jump from the vessel and take his way directly home. Yet when the vessel was made fast to the wharf and the crew dismissed, he seemed suddenly to lose all feeling about the matter. He told me that he went below and changed his dress; took some water from the scuttle-butt and washed himself leisurely; overhauled his chest, and put his clothes all in order; took his pipe from its place, filled it, and sitting down upon his chest, smoked it slowly for the last time.
The days are getting shorter, at that. I better get some pipe tobacco.

September 17: Outmoded skills

The great 60s instrumental, "Whittier Boulevard," by Thee Midniters, can be found here.

When I worked in advertising, ever so many years ago -- well, here's how long ago it was: we had type guys. Every afternoon around 4 or 5 or so, the reps from the type houses would come to get orders from the art directors -- "SMOOTH SMOKING GOODNESS!" in 72-point Baskerville or whatever, and the next morning, or later that night, the type would come back in smooth sheets. (Yes, we did cigarette ads. But I was too junior for that account.) It was a great business, and the type guys had season tickets to everything, which meant that once in a great while the seats would trickle down to me and my officemates -- usually a game that no one wanted to go to (Knicks v. Clippers, e.g.)

And then, almost instantly, that business ceased to exist.

So it is with the popular versifier like John Greenleaf Whittier. Once a titan of American letters, turning to his verse now is to have an experience that's beyond Quaint, or perhaps beneath it:
BLESSINGS on thee, little man,
Barefoot boy, with cheek of tan!
With thy turned-up pantaloons,
And thy merry whistled tunes;
With thy red lip, redder still
Kissed by strawberries on the hill;
With the sunshine on thy face,
Through thy torn brim’s jaunty grace;
From my heart I give thee joy,—
I was once a barefoot boy!
It goes on. It actually has a nice image at the end, where Whitter looks forward sadly to the boy being shod for work, as a horse is. (And this poem, though corny, is sad.) But reading these poems is like watching someone work as a blacksmith; it seems so distant from our own time. (And come to think of it, schoolchildren are often exposed to Colonial Williamsburg-like blacksmiths and this kind of verse.)

Where did the appetite for this kind of rhyming go? Don't say "hip-hop" -- people do love the rhymes, but it hardly seems the same audience as the Whittier-consumers, even controlling for changing notions of appropriateness, and besides, there's still a few decades between the collapse of this kind of pop-verse and Grandmaster Flash. Maybe all the talent was snapped up by the greeting card industry. Or maybe it was radio -- a versifier could make a lot more cash writing songs to be sung by, I don't know, Vaughn Monroe.

My own theory is that the cartel controlling supplies of words like "thy" and "fain" suddenly went belly-up.

September 16: Bloody minded


The English, the English:

our nation is free, stout, haughty, prodigal of life and blood...
More Holinshed today (I have wicked Stockholm Syndrome; I'm coming to like Holinshed). You sadists in the audience, or you law-and-order types, buckle your seat belts -- or whatever else it is you like to buckle -- and enjoy pages of punishment:
The greatest and most grievous punishment used in England for such as offend against the State is drawing from the prison to the place of execution upon an hurdle or sled, where they are hanged till they be half dead, and then taken down, and quartered alive; after that, their members and bowels are cut from their bodies, and thrown into a fire, provided near hand and within their own sight...

...But if he be convicted of wilful murder, done either upon pretended malice or in any notable robbery, he is either hanged alive in chains near the place where the fact was committed (or else upon compassion taken, first strangled with a rope), and so continueth till his bones consume to nothing...

...If a woman poision her husband, she is burned alive; if the servant kill his master, he is to be executed for petty treason; he that poisoneth a man is to be boiled to death in water or lead, although the party die not of the practice...

Perjury is punished by the pillory, burning in the forehead with the letter P, the rewalting of the trees growing upon the grounds of the offenders, and loss of all his movables.
Branding plus rewalting (whatever that is). And there's more. Much, much more. (Including a description of a 16th-century guillotine, peculiar to the town of Halifax.) The chapter is called "Of Sundry Kinds of Punishment," after all. And yet, despite all the punishments, they are still beset: "Our third annoyers of the commonwealth are rogues, which do very great mischief in all places where they become." Rogues, dammit! There's rogues in these here parts! And yet you get a sense that people are either unwilling to put the rogues through all the punishments lined up for them, or maybe they're just plain lazy:
I have known by my own experience felons being taken to have escaped out of the stocks... because the covetous and greedy parishioners would neither take the pains nor be at the charge, to carry them to prison, if it were far off; that when hue and cry have been made even to the faces of some constables, they have said: “God restore your loss! I have other business at this time.”
See? There's precedent for us lardasses!

Photo by flickr user John Worsely UK used with a Creative Commons license.

September 15: What a country!

What I saw when I crossed the Delaware.

I like politics myself, and I could pull out a thing or two from Washington's Farewell Address that accord with my way of thinking -- thereby making myself seem like Washington, even though he was taller. (I can imagine how Adams felt.)

But, before the tendentiousness, let's look at how worried Washington was about his young country. Everyone talks about how the Farewell Address lays out a foreign policy, but when you read it, you find it's front-loaded with a long argument about why it would be a bad idea to fly into a million little pieces:
The North, in an unrestrained intercourse with the South, protected by the equal Laws of a common government, finds, in the productions of the latter, great additional resources of maritime and commercial enterprise—and precious materials of manufacturing industry.—The South, in the same intercourse, benefiting by the agency of the North, sees its agriculture grow and its commerce expand....The East, in a like intercourse with the West, already finds, and in the progressive improvement of interior communications, by land and water, will more and more find, a valuable vent for the commodities which it brings from abroad, or manufactures at home...
It's in your own interest not to flirt with the French! You can't blame Washington, though -- he had only just gotten the British to leave the Great Lakes once and for all. His vision for the U.S. is that it should be the World's Biggest Switzerland:
If we remain one People, under an efficient government, the period is not far off, when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected. When belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by our justice, shall counsel.
The benefit of this? It's all about the as-yet-uninvented Benjamins:
But even our commercial policy should hold an equal and impartial hand:—neither seeking nor granting exclusive favors or preferences;—consulting the natural course of things;—diffusing and diversifying by gentle means the streams of commerce, but forcing nothing;—establishing with Powers so disposed—in order to give trade a stable course, to define the rights of our Merchants, and to enable the Government to support them...
"To give trade a stable course," which it had not yet had yet, I guess; I find Washington to be full of anxiety that his vision for the country might come to pass, but won't -- if things go wrong. Washington was, certainly rightly, a man of anxiety. No wonder he made whiskey at Mount Vernon.

Another interesting point, much remarked on I'm sure, is this graf:
Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion, and Morality are indispensable supports.—In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and Citizens.—The mere Politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them.—A volume could not trace all their connexions with private and public felicity.—Let it simply be asked where is security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion...
We should be religious, not because it is true, but because it is useful. Without religion the property values will go down. That's a real Episcopalian for you! Not that I'm against it, mind you -- hot religion does seem incompatible with a state founded by a bunch of people who seem to have preferred the Romans to the Christians.

Now for the selective quotation!
Hence likewise they will avoid the necessity of those overgrown Military establishments, which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to Republican Liberty.
I couldn't agree more.

September 15: Well, I tried

Maybe my problem is reading Dante in shirt & tie. I should try something more comfortable like this.

I've complained about the Dante translation before; the past couple of times the reading's been from the Inferno, so I can just turn to my Pinsky and figure it out. But what happens when it's Canto XXIV of the as-yet-untranslated-or-if-it-is-translated-unowned-by-me "Paradiso"? Nothing, that's what. (Note: long compound adjective probably one word in German.) I can't make head or tail of it. It doesn't help that our text appears to be a theological discussion:
“The deep things,” I replied, “which here I scan
Distinctly, are below from mortal eye
So hidden, they have in belief alone
Their being; on which credence, hope sublime
Is built: and, therefore substance, it intends.
As Dante did not say, Oy.

So....how was everyone's weekend? The wife and I saw "Burn After Reading," which we enjoyed very much. It's really too small a movie to have a summarizable theme, but if it did it would be that Americans are too dumb to be the proprietors of a giant national security establishment. I'd go along with that. But maybe that's for tomorrow, which is the Farewell Address.

September 13: Forsaking all others

I suspect this man of not actually being a Pilgrim.

This will be a short post, although not for lack of liking Pilgrim's Progress, which we get the beginning of today.

One of the admirable things about Pilgrim's Progress -- in addition to the fact that one of the many synonyms Bunyan is obliged to use for misery is spelled "Wo" -- is that Bunyan isn't one of those writers who screws around telling us what the weather is the day before our action starts, and what effect it had on the landscape. No, by the end of the first paragraph, we are already into our dilemma:
AS I walk’d through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a Den, and I laid me down in that place to sleep; and as I slept, I dreamed a Dream. I dreamed, and behold I saw a Man cloathed with Rags, standing in a certain place, with his face from his own house, a Book in his hand, and a great Burden upon his back. I looked, and saw him open the Book, and read therein; and as he read, he wept and trembled; and not being able longer to contain, he brake out with a lamentable cry, saying What shall I do?
As I walked through the wilderness of this world. Already we have the real message of Pilgrim's Progress -- which isn't, "there's a wonderful goal at the end," but "you are extremely unlikely to reach it, because the world is filled with snares and sloughs and whatnot."

You know what's really a snare? Your goddamn family:
Now he had not run far from his own door, but his Wife and Children, perceiving it, began to cry after him to return; but the Man out his fingers in his ears, and ran on, crying Life! Life! Eternal Life! So he looked not behind him, but fled towards the middle of the Plain.
He says "Life! Life! Eternal Life!" but as far as the family's concerned, he might as well have said, "I'm just going to the store for some cigarettes." The effect is the same -- another single mom. Don't worry, folks -- they'll be okay! (Outside of their being damned, that is.)

As a family man myself that's what really sticks out for me today -- the admirable clarity of Christian's running out on his family. That and, as before, the super-beset unhappiness promised to everyone who's been saved -- an unhappiness so obvious that even Mr. Worldly Wiseman (of the firm of Wiseman, Secular, Heedless, and Papadakis) anticipates it:
...here is not a more dangerous and troublesome way in the world than is that unto which he hath directed thee; and that thou shalt find, if thou wilt be ruled by his counsel. Thou hast met with something (as I perceive) already; for I see the dirt of the Slough of Dispond is upon thee; but that Slough is the beginning of the sorrows that do attend those that go on in that way: Hear me, I am older than thou; thou art like to meet with, in the way which thou goest, Wearisomeness, Painfulness, Hunger, Perils, Nakedness, Sword, Lions, Dragons, Darkness, and in a word, Death, and what not!
To which Christian says, "Why, Sir, this Burden upon my back is more terrible to me than are all these things which you have mentioned." You're screwed either way.

All the untidy activity continues

Awful but cheerful.

September 12: Elizabeth Barrett Browning Is Too Intense

I know -- not really sad poems. But it's my favorite graphic.

First of all, this is like twenty-four sonnets, starting here, so it gives one (where one = me) the feeling of cramming for an exam. That's not leisure reading! Ten would be good, maybe; reading ten you have time to get under the hood of the poem and see how it works. Plus, as anyone who's ever had to do coverage knows, when you've got a big pile to read, you're just looking for any words in each individual piece that will allow you to consign it to the airlock and blow it out into outer space:
I LIFT my heavy heart up solemnly,
As once Electra her sepulchral urn,...
No classical references. Next!

The other effect of reading a bunch of them is that Elizabeth Barrett Browning is more than I can handle:
Go from me. Yet I feel that I shall stand
Hence forward in thy shadow. Nevermore
Alone upon the threshold of my door
Of individual life, I shall command
The uses of my soul...
If you had 99 problems, it could well be that E.B.B. would be one also. However, if your taste in women runs to someone who always takes the low-status option (despite all the classical references), she might be the girl for you:
CAN it be right to give what I can give?
To let thee sit beneath the fall of tears
As salt as mine, and hear the sighing years
Re-sighing on my lips renunciative
Through those infrequent smiles which fail to live
For all thy adjurations?
However, "infrequent smiles which fail to live/For all thy adjurations" is a deal-breaker for me. Comedy writers are insecure enough as it is -- O how many courtesy laughs my wife has had to supply over the years! However, this just might be Victorian emotional taste, which we don't understand; since, as we know, on or about the premiere of Gold Diggers of 1933, human nature changed.

The other, final, note I have is regards this from Wikipedia: "Elizabeth was initially hesitant to publish the poems, feeling that they were too personal. However, Robert insisted that they were the best sequence of English-language sonnets since Shakespeare's time and urged her to publish them." They might be -- while R. Browning's reaction could have been the natural husbandly response to "Does this pentameter make me look fat?" I don't think it was -- I'll say one thing, Shakespeare's were dirtier.

September 11: Adam Smith Breaks It Down For You

For more on people wearing barrels, please see this Onion

Wodehouse, whom, of course, I adore, was a master at bringing off the same effect again and again, but he was so good at it that it worked every time. It's like Mariano Rivera's cutter: you know he's going to throw it, but you're still helpless.

Adam Smith complete lack of affect, his utter refusal to take sides, I also find devastating. Check this passage out, about wage-slave/boss disputes:
It is not, however, difficult to foresee which of the two parties must, upon all ordinary occasions, have the advantage in the dispute, and force the other into a compliance with their terms. The masters, being fewer in number, can combine much more easily; and the law, besides, authorises, or at least does not prohibit their combinations, while it prohibits those of the workmen. We have no acts of parliament against combining to lower the price of work; but many against combining to raise it. In all such disputes the masters can hold out much longer....Many workmen could not subsist a week, few could subsist a month, and scarce any a year without employment. In the long-run the workman may be as necessary to his master as his master is to him; but the necessity is not so immediate.
I find this totally bleak, but in Smith's refusal to put his thumb on the scales of this dispute -- his utter Olympian distance -- makes it even bleaker. Oh, speaking of bleak:
...the lowest species of common labourers must every where earn at least double their own maintenance, in order that one with another they may be enabled to bring up two children; the labour of the wife, on account of her necessary attendance on the children, being supposed no more than sufficient to provide for herself. But one-half the children born, it is computed, die before the age of manhood. The poorest labourers, therefore, according to this account, must, one with another, attempt to rear at least four children, in order that two may have an equal chance of living to that age.
I find this incredibly sad, but I think I would find it less so if it were written to make me sad. Maybe it's because Smith is concerned with the calculation of the laborer -- so we're less outside his hovel, having pity on him; rather, we're inside figuring out what we do when one of the kids dies of cholera.

You know where things aren't so sad? America:
Labour is there so well rewarded that a numerous family of children, instead of being a burthen is a source of opulence and prosperity to the parents. The labour of each child, before it can leave their house, is computed to be worth a hundred pounds clear gain to them. A young widow with four or five young children, who, among the middling or inferior ranks of people in Europe, would have so little chance for a second husband, is there frequently courted as a sort of fortune.
Was this really true? I suppose there were tons of widows. It occurs to me that Adam Smith is not only one of the founders of economics, the study of the Wealth of Nations and so forth, but also the founder of Freakonomics, the study of why men like widows and which ones.

Posts to get even crappier, sources say

Between the start of school, and the abrupt start of TV development season, my attention to the Harvard Classics desk may, while persisting, persist in kind of a vegetative state. Yes, I also wonder if I'll notice the difference.

However I do intend to keep it up, because otherwise I'll think about the election, and the way things are going I think I'd rather be a low-information voter.

September 10: The Old School Tie

Who wants to take the high part? And then we can sing my wicked a capella arrangement of "Clocks" by Coldplay!

These poems by Oliver Wendell Holmes (Sr.), are nice enough, but hardly the stuff that makes you want to shout "fire" in a crowded theater or anything. It made me wonder if they would have gotten into the Harvard Classics if OWH (Sr.) hadn't himself been such an eminent Bostonian; if he had had the exact same career, including his important work in medicine, in Philadelphia, would his occasional poems (this one's about how you can't help laughing at old people) be in this volume alongside Whitman and Browning?

It can't be helped, I guess; that's part of the whole Harvard branding, especially in 1908 -- that whole kind of proper Bostonian vibe. It makes you wonder if Emerson is over-represented too, but Emerson is an Important American Blowhard; and how many Americans were regarded (in 1908) as worthy of induction into the Classics? Especially when you rule out fiction, as the HC does; there goes Twain, Hawthorne, etc. They might have also put in Emily Dickinson, but she's a wo- wo- woman, so no sale.

September 9: The Worst Day Fishing Is Better Than The Best Day Philosophizing

So yesterday I was reading a Dial M post about the above ad, from 1965, and the Chrysler ad copy cited in this passage:

What this demonstrates is what Thomas Frank shows us in The Conquest of Cool -- the modern style of advertising (funny, self-deprecatory, low-key, wise to the minutiae of pop culture) was not a "co-optation" of hip culture, but one of its principal creations. Compare the style of this ad with another 1965 ad for the Chrysler Imperial. (Nice car!) Note the bombastic appeal to the highest of high technology and the finest of fine materials:

The claro Walnut used within an Imperial is found only in Northwestern United States, and Eastern Kashmir.

Flitches [huh?] of the walnut (thin slices to be used as inlays) [oh] are examined for color, consistency, and directional grain.

Out of every 52 1/2 pounds of harvested fine-grain claro walnut, only eight ounces are fit for the Imperial.

The 52 1/2 pounds was a nice touch. It's science! And I also like the idea that extravagant waste is a necessary part of making such a fine automobile. ("We then shoot the remaining 52 pounds of claro walnut into high earth orbit, where it will remain for 4426 years, finally being immolated as plunges back to earth, its fiery trajectory through the starry firmament a fitting memorial to the Imperial's custom styling.")
reminds me of this passage:
The tempered light of the woods is like a perpetual morning, and is stimulating and heroic. The anciently reported spells of these places creep on us. The stems of pines, hemlocks, and oaks, almost gleam like iron on the excited eye. The incommunicable trees begin to persuade us to live with them, and quit our life of solemn trifles.
Yes, it's Emerson, king of blowhards, again, and on the greatest blowhard subject of all, Nature (capital N). I guess it reminds me of the Chrysler ad because the Chrysler ad is one of the very last, diminished returns of this kind of He-Man writing style. The hipsters are urban, and, yes, Emerson hates them too:
My house stands in low land, with limited outlook, and on the skirt of the village. But I go with my friend to the shore of our little river; and with one stroke of the paddle, I leave the village politics and personalities, yes, and the world of villages and personalities behind, and pass into a delicate realm of sunset and moonlight... I am taught the poorness of our invention, the ugliness of towns and palaces.... He who knows the most, he who knows what sweets and virtues are in the ground, the waters, the plants, the heavens, and how to come to these enchantments, is the rich and royal man.
Personally, as a city boy, I rebel against this thinking. There seems to be a kind of expansive misanthropy in this essay -- what are we, compared to a pine cone? "Man is fallen; nature is erect, and serves as a differential thermometer, detecting the presence or absence of the divine sentiment in man." It is left to the reader, I guess, to work out just how this thermometer works.

As always in my encounters with Emerson, I instantly cringe at the bombast but also pick out something to like -- here, it's his observation that Americans can't just go into the woods to admire it, they have to have a practical excuse:
A susceptible person does not like to indulge his tastes in this kind, without the apology of some trivial necessity: he goes to see a wood-lot, or to look at the crops, or to fetch a plant or a mineral from a remote locality, or he carries a fowling piece, or a fishing-rod.
But -- and this is what makes Emerson so American to me -- he thinks this is actually a good thing: "I suppose this shame must have a good reason." For a guy who made his living writing and talking, Emerson sure had it in for the arts & sciences.

September 8: Alternate-universe nostalgia

I'm not entirely sure what this photo means (though I don't think it's good), I just find it hypnotic

In my head I dislike nostalgia, because I'm convinced, intellectually, that we should be looking forward into an ever more-glorious future. Otherwise, what's the point of not drinking in the mornings? But often I'm a sucker for its narcotic charms (although I'm doing pretty good at resisting drinking till lunch.)

Today's reading from one of the Science! volumes, Helmholtz on glaciers, manages to evoke two kinds of noncanonical nostalgia -- one for a world I never knew, the other for a world that's still existing, barely.

"The world I never knew" nostalgia comes from the nature of this volume, which consists almost entirely of public lectures. Public lectures! Entertainment for the radio-less! I guess we have the same thing now with TED talks and such, but the idea of gaining knowledge as something to do with your evenings; well, it's hard for the nerd not to feel wistful.

And the other nostalgia, the pre-emptive kind, comes from the fact that its about glaciers, which, of course, we seem to be doing our best to get rid of, because who needs fresh water? Without getting too much into the post, it does remind you of how our planet is an extremely delicate, almost accidental, system:
To this must be added another property of air which acts in the same direction. In a mass of air which expands, part of its store of heat disappears; it becomes cooler, if it cannot acquire fresh heat from without. Conversely, by renewed compression of the air, the same quantity of heat is reproduced which had disappeared during expansion. Thus, if for instance, south winds drive the warm air of the Mediterranean towards the north, and compel it to ascend along the great mountain wall of the Alps, where the air, in consequence of the diminished pressure, expands by about half its volume, it thereby becomes very greatly cooled—for a mean height of 11,000 feet, by from 18° to 30° C., according as it is moist or dry—and it thereby deposits the greater part of its moisture as rain or snow.

And, of course, this, which if it weren't about heat would be chilling:
Our atmosphere is like a warm covering spread over the earth; it is well-nigh entirely transparent for the luminous darting rays of the sun, and allows them to pass almost without appreciable change. But it is not equally penetrable by obscure heat rays, which, proceeding from heated terrestrial bodies, struggle to diffuse themselves into space. These are absorbed by atmospheric air, especially when it is moist; the mass of air is itself heated thereby, and only radiates slowly into space the heat which has been gained.
Hmm. Maybe that morning Scotch is starting to look good after all.

September 7: The Irish, masters of romance


Today we dip into the Irish legends -- "The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel" -- and, I don't know if you know any Irish guys, but apparently they're leg men to a very fine level of detail:

There she was, undoing her hair to wash it, with her arms out through the sleeve-holes of her smock....White as the foam of a wave was the flank, slender, long, tender, smooth, soft as wool. Polished and warm, sleek and white were the two thighs. Round and small, hard and white the two knees. Short and white and rulestraight the two shins. Justly straight and beautiful the two heels. If a measure were put on the feet it would hardly have found them unequal, unless the flesh of the coverings should grow upon them.
When I lived in New York I knew I guy who wanted to have a public access show in which he would play soul music and show pictures of women's feet, but even he, I think, was not a heel man, particularly. As for the knees, I guess they were more important in ancient Ireland -- all the floors to scrub, etc.

This woman, named Etáin, is the grandmother of our hero Conaire -- the man with a name like a 50s car mode, who is to be destroyed at the hostel. Conaire's story has its points of interest, but the courtship of Etáin and Eochaid is enjoyable to the fan of romance. It's quick, but with knees like she's got, who wouldn't fall hard?
The king asked tidings of her and said, while announcing himself: “Shall I have an hour of dalliance with thee?”

“’Tis for that we have come hither under thy safeguard,” quoth she.

“Query, whence art thou and whence hast thou come?” says Eochaid.

“Easy to say,” quoth she. “Etáin am I, daughter of Etar, king of the cavalcade from the elfmounds. I have been here for twenty years since I was born in an elfmound. The men of the elfmound, both kings and nobles, have been wooing me: but nought was gotten from me, because ever since I was able to speak, I have loved thee and given thee a child’s love for the high tales about thee and thy splendour....

...
“Thou shalt have welcome, and for thee every other woman shall be left by me, and with thee alone will I live so long as thou hast honour.”

“My proper bride-price to me!” she says, “and afterwards my desire.”

“Thou shalt have both,” says Eochaid.
Done! She got some cows -- that was the bride-price. Note that Etáin has been longing for this man all her life and still she insists on the cows before she's ready to seal the deal. That girl has her head screwed on right.

My favorite thing here, needless to say, is when the guy says "Query." Starting off with "Query" never worked for me when I used it back in the day, but looking at it I see that I never followed it up with the all-important "whence." Also: "elfmounds." If that doesn't get the D&D players going, I don't know what will.

Fans of doom foretold will want to read on and find out about Conaire -- giving you true 9 m.p.g. luxury for 1957! -- and the destruction, etc. I will only say that Conaire gets the kingdom under the following impossible conditions:
“Thou shalt not go righthandwise round Tara and lefthandwise round Bregia."

“The evil-beasts of Cerna must not be hunted by thee.

“And thou shalt not go out every ninth night beyond Tara.

“And three Reds shall not go before thee to Red’s house.

“And no rapine shall be wrought in thy reign."
No rapine? Sheesh. I wouldn't be king at all, under those conditions.

September 6: Carlyle: Yes, We Do Need Another Hero

With indignities like this you can see why cats are of two minds about domestication.

I think I put more effort into going through the Daily Reading Guide than the anonymous author of it did compiling it. Case in point: today's reading. It's supposed to be Carlyle on Sir Walter Scott, but it's a book review, and, as is the fashion of the book review, there's ten pages of throat-clearing before Sir Walter Scott even starts showing up; and that's what's excerpted. I imagine the anonymous compiler, sitting at his office at Collier's in 1908, choosing the first ten pages of this just by looking at the table of contents, before going out to the bar for some oysters and hussies.

It's okay, though, because Carlyle is an ace book reviewer. Views? Panoramic. Pronouncements? Sweeping. Check it:
Understand it well, this of ‘hero-worship’ was the primary creed, and has intrinsically been the secondary and ternary, and will be the ultimate and final creed of mankind; indestructible, changing in shape, but in essence unchangeable; whereon polities, religions, loyalties, and all highest human interests have been and can be built, as on a rock that will endure while man endures.
My favorite thing here is "Understand it well" -- the written equivalent of Carlyle knocking his fist against your all-too-likely wooden skull. If "Ya heard!" had been around in 1831 he would have used it here. He wouldn't have needed to, of course, but that wouldn't have stopped him, because already that sentence has more redundancies than Wernham Hogg. Hero-worship is the primary and the secondary and the ternary as well as the ultimate and final creed; on which polities, religions and other highest human interests (such as lunch, I guess) depend.

The question arises, then: bug or feature? Is hero-worship a kind of vile abasement, a self-sellout, an unnecessary and perhaps dangerous cessation of your soul's power of attorney? Or is it loveable? Carlyle thinks the latter, and if people are going to worship villains and mountebanks, so much the better:
In favour of which unspeakable benefits of the reality, what can we do but cheerfully pardon the multiplex ineptitudes of the semblance... Let hero-worship flourish, say we; and the more and more assiduous chase after gilt farthings while guineas are not yet forthcoming. Herein, at lowest, is proof that guineas exist, that they are believed to exist, and valued.
Note "unspeakable benefits". To my mind that means, "Asserted but not proven." Also, believing in the existence of something is not proof of its existence. To me this whole sentence is like saying, it's okay that you got shot in the head in Napoleon's army so that you come home and your poor wife has to feed you rice pudding with a spoon for the next forty years, because if you'd gotten shot in a good cause, that would have been great. It's funny that this essay is in the same volume as J.S. Mill; I suspect this theory couldn't be farther from Mill's way of thinking.

Personally, I think we get better heroes when we are fighting against the notion of heroes. Consider Washington, who had to define himself as not-a-King, and became more heroic for that. But when you're looking for a hero, anyone will do; it's that 2 a.m. at the bar thing.

Classics in action

From Dial "M" for Musicology on old Nonesuch records:

"There was a triumvirate: Nonesuch, Penguin Books, and Dover. Impossibly obscure stuff reprinted and made available to you—you! The impoverished student with bizarre interests! You have friends and benefactors!—for a song. Penguin: Bede, Celtic Miscellany, Chaucer (that one wasn’t a very good translation, actually), Dante, Virgil, Pliny the Younger, Adam Smith…for a song, folks. The stuff you only see cited elsewhere is yours! Dover: music availability, old books, Debussy’s M. Croche, Jamews Huneker on Chopin… Surely they’re taking a loss on this stuff! I worked fast food jobs for a while, and would bring Penguin classics to get me through. Remember Macchiavelli’s account, from his exile from Florence, about dressing in his best clothes every evening and dwelling among the Ancients and conversing with them? That was me at 19, minus the good clothes—Virgil and Pliny on my break, and the miserable Burger King on Holt Avenue in Pomona would fade into invisibility around me. I mean, come on! Pliny was talking about aqueducts!"
He's right about the translations, too.

September 5: Making you feel small

I guess it's always Darwin time, what with a creationist-friendly national candidate and mentions in The Onion and all.

That Darwin would be enjoyable to read is one of the things I've learned on this journey. Today, talking about extinction, he reminds me of a guy whose grill won't light, so he tests various theories -- is the propane connection? But then why would be hearing that propane hiss? Maybe there's a tube blockage? Are we sure we see a spark from the lighter? We have to think of all the causes that might be contributing to this situation:

With respect to the apparently sudden extermination of whole families or orders, as of trilobites at the close of the palæozoic period and of ammonites at the close of the secondary period, we must remember what has been already said on the probable wide intervals of time between our consecutive formations; and in these intervals there may have been much slow extermination. Moreover, when, by sudden immigration or by unusually rapid development, many species of a new group have taken possession of an area, many of the older species will have been exterminated in a correspondingly rapid manner...
Then there's this passage:
We need not marvel at extinction; if we must marvel, let it be at our own presumption in imagining for a moment that we understand the many complex contingencies on which the existence of each species depends.
While this is an appealing attitude to me -- marveling at presumption is an excellent stance for a comedy writer -- I begin to see why a certain type of religious person might hate Darwin. If you have a personal relationship with God, you're Mr. or Ms. Big -- you can get God on the phone. Then there's Darwin, who says we don't know a lot and is unsurprised at extinction -- including, presumably, our own. It isn't literally contradictory -- you can still believe that we are just like the other animals on this tiny wet dot floating through a vast universe and that you can get God on the phone -- but you start to see that God might be a little distracted when he takes your call.

September 4: Voltaire hails our new bourgeois overlords



Those who wish to change their own country often fall in love with another country, to try to make their country jealous. While I think the make-the-other-person-jealous strategy is low-percentage -- although it does work in that song "Judy's Turn To Cry" -- it is a time honored strategy on the geopolitical level. The classic example is liberals and France, but you could also use Dick Cheney and the Soviet Union, or social conservatives and the America of 1940s movies. Voltaire and England is still another example.

The great thing about England is that it isn't France:

There is no such thing here as haute, moyenne, and basse justice—that is, a power to judge in all matters civil and criminal; nor a right or privilege of hunting in the grounds of a citizen, who at the same time is not permitted to fire a gun in his own field.

No one is exempted in this country from paying certain taxes because he is a nobleman or a priest...The feet of the peasants are not bruised by wooden shoes; they eat white bread, are well clothed, and are not afraid of increasing their stock of cattle, nor of tiling their houses from any apprehension that their taxes will be raised the year following.
As you see Voltaire is so in love with the bourgeois that he champions the small-business owner's hatred of taxes; although, as he notes, it's a lot easier to swallow when the people at the top are paying too. Voltaire is also a fan of class mobility -- in this case, downward:
...indeed, a peer’s brother does not think traffic beneath him. When the Lord Townshend was Minister of State, a brother of his was content to be a City merchant; and at the time that the Earl of Oxford governed Great Britain, his younger brother was no more than a factor in Aleppo, where he chose to live, and where he died. This custom, which begins, however, to be laid aside, appears monstrous to Germans, vainly puffed up with their extraction... I need not say which is most useful to a nation; a lord, powdered in the tip of the mode, who knows exactly at what o’clock the king rises and goes to bed, and who gives himself airs of grandeur and state, at the same time that he is acting the slave in the ante-chamber of a prime minister; or a merchant, who enriches his country, despatches orders from his counting-house to Surat and Grand Cairo, and contributes to the felicity of the world.
Having inherited a certain anti-bourgeois prejudice from the academy, this is bracing. And, while I am no historian of ideas, it's probably a pretty radical stance to take, for 1728.

And, like many who have Seen The Future, Voltaire makes wrong predictions:
The Government of England will never rise to so exalted a pitch of glory [as Rome], nor will its end be so fatal. The English are not fired with the splendid folly of making conquests, but would only prevent their neighbours from conquering.
The sun never sets on wrong predictions. On the other hand present-day London is more delightful than barbarian Rome must have been.

Finally, apropos of our own moment:
The Romans never knew the dreadful folly of religious wars, an abomination reserved for devout preachers of patience and humility. Marious and Sylla, Cæsar and Pompey, Anthony and Augustus, did not draw their swords and set the world in a blaze merely to determine whether the flamen should wear his shirt over his robe, or his robe over his shirt, or whether the sacred chickens should eat and drink, or eat only, in order to take the augury. The English have hanged one another by law, and cut one another to pieces in pitched battles, for quarrels of as trifling nature.
Fun fact: Lesley Gore, who sang "Judy's Turn To Cry," went to Sarah Lawrence.