October 30: Puny humans, revisited

You people all look like ants...to the rocks! (In that case, admittedly, the photo should be shot from below.)

One way to sum up what I've learned this year is that the human heart never changes but the human brain is always learning. And how mind-blowing it must have been once Darwin's message was taken to heart. Before that, though, there was Charles Lyell's similarly mind-blowing revelations that the earth is a lot older than you think it is, and, in fact, doesn't particularly need you at all:
In the vast interval of time which may really have elapsed between the results of operations thus compared, the physical condition of the earth may, by slow and insensible modifications, have become entirely altered; one or more races of organic beings may have passed away, and yet have left behind, in the particular region under contemplation, no trace of their existence.
Not only might you and all your ilk pass away without anyone caring, but you (and most, if not all, of your ilk) aren't particularly good at figuring out what happened to you.
Even when they conceded that the earth had been peopled with animate beings at an earlier period than was at first supposed, they had no conception that the quantity of time bore so great a proportion to the historical era as is now generally conceded. How fatal every error as to the quantity of time must prove to the introduction of rational views concerning the state of things in former ages, may be conceived by supposing the annals of the civil and military transactions of a great nation to be perused under the impression that they occurred in a period of one hundred instead of two thousand years. Such a portion of history would immediately assume the air of a romance; the events would seem devoid of credibility, and inconsistent with the present course of human affairs....He who should study the monuments of the natural world under the influence of a similar infatuation, must draw a no less exaggerated picture of the energy and violence of causes, and must experience the same insurmountable difficulty in reconciling the former and present state of nature.
In other words, most all y'all are idiots.

I imagine that if we were fully sensible to the huge indifference of the earth we'd never get out of bed; so there's probably something to be said for our default setting denying this fact. Additionally, when we make man the measure of all things, it saves us many trips to Home Depot.

photo from flickr user Kaptain Kobold used with a Creative Commons license.

No post today

Blog post, anyway. There might be goal posts as I'm going to the Kings game tonight. However, I have done the reading (Charles Lyell) and may, repeat may, be able to write about it tomorrow, which would suit me fine because then I wouldn't have to read any more Robert Burns.

In the meantime, enjoy Anze Kopitar:

October 29: Ode noes


Let me complain.

In the Daily Reading Guide introduction -- highly recommended as a guide to early 20th-century advertising prose -- we read:


PRESIDENT ELIOT wrote in his introduction to the Harvard Classics, “In my opinion, a five-foot shelf would hold books enough to give a liberal education to any one who would read them with devotion, even if he could spare but fifteen minutes a day for reading.” With this very definitely in mind, we have prepared a daily reading guide in which the assignments chosen appropriately enough, will take the usual person about fifteen minutes to read with leisurely enjoyment.
Emphasis added. Now, how long should it take to read Keats's "To Autumn" (here called "Ode To Autumn" -- everything is dressed up for the Harvard Classics, it's like when they started calling Albany State "The University at Albany")? I'm talking really read it, like you should do with great poetry, letting its effects wash over you, and then, through close reading, teasing out how the poet achieved them. Such patient work should take you upwards of, like five minutes, right? Maybe even more.

Well, the DRG has also poured on "To Melancholy," "Grecian Urn," "To A Nightingale" -- the whole hit parade. And thus surfeited, thus forced to drink the fine brandy straight from the bottle until it's drained, I have nothing to actually say about any of them. Except this:

1. Keats was the guy who invented "negative capability," which was later perfected by Lee Atwater, and there's a lot of defining things by what they're not -- the sweeter unheard melodies, the songs of Spring which Autumn is not, the rosary of yew-berries that Melancholy should not make. That seems like kind of an English major-y thought, in that the insight is almost interesting, but then isn't, really. But by the time you realize that, the paper has been written!

2. I always hated the line "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" ever since I first had to read that poem in seventh grade. It still seems manifestly untrue; and, let's face it, it's aMadeline Bassett attitude. The truth is ugly, frequently; there are tricks you can learn where, with the right contortions, you can see it as beautiful, but it takes above-average suppleness, in my opinion.

3. But, again, less, in this case, would have been more. We can't all be tubercular geniuses, you know.

October 28: BREAKING: John Locke recommends twenty-six sided die!

"...good old reliable Nathan, who always plays as an orc/In the oldest established permanent floating D&D game in New York"

Was John Locke all Dungeons-and-Dragons during a time when there were actual dungeons? Check it:
For example, what if an ivory-ball were made like that of the royal-oak lottery, with thirty two sides, or one rather of twenty four or twenty five sides; and upon several of those sides pasted on an A, upon several others B, on others C, and on others D? I would have you begin with but these four letters, or perhaps only two at first; and when he is perfect in them, then add another; and so on till each side having one letter, there be on it the whole alphabet. This I would have others play with before him, it being as good a sort of play to lay a stake who shall first throw an A or B, as who upon dice shall throw six or seven.
Unfortunately, this is all in the service of teaching people how to read. But, to be sunny and optimistic, once a child learns to read, can D-and-D be far behind? (Seriously, can it? I've never played the game.)

But we're not here to talk about some crazy system that claims to simulate existence -- we're here to talk about philosophy. Specifically, we're here to talk about "Some Thoughts Concerning Education," the whole of which is summarized here. You may know this work already because you wrote a paper about it back in college. It's pretty breezy in style for 1693, it seems eminently paperable. I never encountered it, myself; I didn't read any philosophy, as I believe I have amply demonstrated during the course of this year. But, god, college. Remember that time we went to that party and drank a lot of beer? And then somebody had a crush on somebody else and talked a lot about it. And some of our friends didn't know what to do with their liberal arts education, so they went to law school. I wonder what happened to them? And also, we wrote a paper on John Locke, or someone we knew did, or perhaps the paper was on "Self-Portrait In A Convex Mirror," and we were so high when we wrote it. Good times, good times.

Maybe a higher (heh heh) education experience like the above is Locke's fault; he seems awfully permissive by today's working-for-the-clampdown standards:
Thus children may be cozen’d into a knowledge of the letters; be taught to read, without perceiving it to be any thing but a sport, and play themselves into that which others are whipp’d for. Children should not have any thing like work, or serious, laid on them; neither their minds, nor bodies will bear it. It injures their healths; and their being forced and tied down to their books in an age at enmity with all such restraint, has, I doubt not, been the reason, why a great many have hated books and learning all their lives after.
"Children should not have any thing like work laid on them?" How in the hell are they going to be ready for the global economy? Does life in the global economy seem fun to anyone? Clearly not. So why teach kids that life is fun? Locke obviously doesn't know what the hell he's talking about. What are schools for, if not to be a dumping ground for all our anxieties?

But I digress in the manner of a parent of school-age children. And, as a middle-aged parent of school-age children, I find myself somewhat tired of an evening (I'll say one thing for teen mothers -- I bet they have more energy than I do), so I will touch on two more things and then watch last night's Daily Show on Tivo.

Thing 1. Locke on the Portugese:
...’tis so much a fashion and emulation amongst their children, to learn to read and write, that they cannot hinder them from it: they will learn it one from another, and are as intent on it, as if it were forbidden them.
"As if it were forbidden them." I still think the surest way for atheists to spread skepticism about prayer to God is to require the schools to compel it. It only looks good when you raise a big stink about it.

Thing 2. Locke wants everyone to learn shorthand. I think we have missed out on this hint; it would be useful to me. Ditto typing. I was required to take typing in high school, while I don't really remember the plot of The Great Gatsby, I can find the home keys drunk. Earlier this year, I advocated for the abolition of the teaching of literature to minors, and its replacement with the study of cookery. Maybe that's in this treatise too -- if you wrote a paper on it, could you let me know?

October 27: The Buddha Is No Help At All

It's doctrinally correct if the bottle's recycled, right?

It is true that America in general, and Los Angeles in particular, is accused of vulgarizing the delicate tenets of Buddhism;

And it is true that when the hearer is ready, the Word is understood;

So I stand doubly condemned for not getting today's reading from the Buddhist writings:
“The question is not rightly put,” said The Blessed One. “O priest, to say: ‘What is karma? and what is it has karma?’ and to say: ‘Karma is one thing, but it is another thing which has karma,’ is to say the same thing in different ways. If, O priest, the dogma obtain that the soul and the body are identical, then there is no religious life; or if, O priest, the dogma obtain that the soul is one thing and the body another, then also there is no religious life. Both these extremes, O priest, have been avoided by The Tathagata, and it is a middle doctrine he teaches: ‘On ignorance depends karma.’
Maybe it's because when I hear "the question is not rightly put," I think of lawyers, and I didn't think Buddhism was that lawyer-friendly (one hardly hears of lawyer/Buddhists, but I'm sure there must be some). But I just don't get it at all.

Here, let's try another passage, maybe it'll seem less like something you're supposed to know on a test:
To give them here in full, however, meritorious karma consists of the eight meritorious thoughts which belong to the realm of sensual pleasure and show themselves in alms-giving, keeping the precepts, etc., and of the five meritorious thoughts which belong to the realm of form and show themselves in ecstatic meditation,—making thirteen thoughts; demeritorious karma consists of the twelve demeritorious thoughts which show themselves in the taking of life, etc.; and karma leading to immovability consists of the four meritorious thoughts which belong to the realm of formlessness and show themselves in ecstatic meditation. Accordingly these three karmas consist of twenty-nine thoughts.
Twenty-nine thoughts? What is this, a Cosmo cover line? See, we Westerners think religious precepts should only be dispensed in groups of ten.

Buddhism is too hard. But at least if I get good at it, I'll be doing better, right?
“O priests, the ignorant, uninstructed man performs meritorious karma, demeritorious karma, and karma leading to immovability. But whenever, O priests, he abandons his ignorance and acquires wisdom, he through the fading out of ignorance and the coming into being of wisdom does not even perform meritorious karma.”
Now that's just plain bad marketing. You won't catch Rick Warren making mistakes like that.

UPDATE: Typo fixed. ("tenents" for "tenets." Perhaps I should have chosen "tenants" because religious beliefs often prove a temporary shelter, not permanent housing.)

October 26: In which I borrow snark

What this blog needs are some more goddamn charts.

Ben Franklin and his huge ego return after an absence of six months. I confess to be rather charmed by people who acknowledge their own huge egos -- it's what makes me well fitted for show business. And Franklin is never more disarming, and his ego never huger, than when he shows you how he conceals it:
I continu’d...the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence; never using, when I advanced any thing that may possibly be disputed, the words certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather say, I conceive or apprehend a thing to be so and so; it appears to me, or I should think it so or so, for such and such reasons; or I imagine it to be so; or it is so, if I am not mistaken. This habit, I believe, has been of great advantage to me when I have had occasion to inculcate my opinions, and persuade men into measures that I have been from time to time engag’d in promoting.
Then he goes on to show Alexander Pope how he could have written his verse better, ending that particular passage with "This, however, I should submit to better judgments." Ending a passage on modesty by modestly submitting an immodest rewriting of a famous author -- I find that a little showy, like Rickey Henderson's old "snatch" catch; but when you're Rickey, or Ben, different rules apply.

This is also the passage where he shows us how he would get up early and rework essays from "The Spectator" to practice writing good. While reading it, I realized I never did anything like that, nor will I, and for a moment my prized equanimity that I retain concerning the reality that this is as good a writer as I'm ever going to be was upset. But then I remembered I had another writer of genius on my side, and I can't believe I haven't quoted him in the other two Franklin entries. Ben, say hello to my little friend:
He was always proud of telling how he entered Philadelphia, for the first time, with nothing in the world but two shillings in his pocket and four rolls of bread under his arm. But really, when you come to examine it critically, it was nothing. Anybody could have done it....

Benjamin Franklin did a great many notable things for his country, and made her young name to be honored in many lands as the mother of such a son. It is not the idea of this memoir to ignore that or cover it up. ...I merely desired to do away with somewhat of the prevalent calamitous idea among heads of families that Franklin acquired his great genius by working for nothing, studying by moonlight, and getting up in the night instead of waiting til morning like a Christian, and that this programme, rigidly inflicted, will make a Franklin of every father's fool. It is time these gentlemen were finding out that these execrable eccentricities of instinct and conduct are only the evidences of genius, not the creators of it. I wish I had been the father of my parents long enough to make them comprehend this truth, and thus prepare them to let their son have an easier time of it. When I was a child I had to boil soap, notwithstanding my father was wealthy, and I had to get up early and study geometry at breakfast, and peddle my own poetry, and do everything just as Franklin did, in the solemn hope that I would be a Franklin some day. And here I am.


Photo by flickr user Mr. Willeeumm used with a Creative Commons license.

October 25: Review of review

So it turns out the Harvard Classics are filled with the deathless works of literature that have endured for centuries -- plus book reviews! I think this is a good thing, myself, but then I'm someone who freely admits that he forms opinions on books and movies based solely on their reviews. But it's sort of funny to open these distinguished-looking volumes (except that I found an old blank golf scorecard in today's), and find this as the opening:

THOSE who have attended to this practice of our literary tribunal are well aware, that, by means of certain legal fictions similar to those of Westminster Hall, we are frequently enabled to take cognizance of cases lying beyond the sphere of our original jurisdiction. We need hardly say, therefore, that, in the present instance, M. Périer is merely a Richard Roe, who will not be mentioned in any subsequent stage of the proceedings, and whose name is used for the sole purpose of bringing Machiavelli into court.
In other words, says Macaulay, the hell with the book -- let's talk about Italians.

And it is in this spirit that I'm going to throw out the Macaulay reading and just talk about some topics that he brings up.

• First of all, my dad gave me "A History of Histories" for my birthday recently, but I haven't gotten to the Macaulay chapter, so I have no idea whether his history is true, or whether he's such a Whig that everything he says needs to be taken with hypertension-inducing levels of salt. But if he's reliable, I found this interesting (actually, I found it interesting even if he's not reliable):
During the gloomy and disastrous centuries which followed the downfall of the Roman Empire, Italy had preserved, in a far greater degree than any other part of western Europe, the traces of ancient civilization. The night which descended upon her was the night of an Arctic summer. The dawn began to reappear before the last reflection of the preceding sunset had faded from the horizon. It was in the time of the French Merovingians and of the Saxon Heptarchy that ignorance and ferocity seemed to have done their worst. Yet even then the Neapolitan provinces, recognizing the authority of the Eastern Empire, preserved something of Eastern knowledge and refinement.
Is that so? I dunno, but I like to think that it is. Also note Macaulay's lack of fear of lobbing a metaphor in there.

• It would also be nice if this were true, although it's not provable:
The people of that country had observed the whole machinery of the Church, its saints and its miracles, its lofty pretensions, and its splendid ceremonial, its worthless blessings and its harmless curses, too long and too closely to be duped. ...Distant nations looked on the Pope as the vicegerent of the Almighty, the oracle of the All-Wise, the umpire from whose decisions, in the disputes either of theologians or of kings, no Christian ought to appeal. The Italians were acquainted with all the follies of his youth, and with all the dishonest arts by which he had attained power.
I suppose one could adduce our old friend Cellini as evidence of this. I like this attitude in religion, myself. A certain tolerance of imperfection and vice is becoming in the holy. It's as if God has to make the feast from the various leftovers and wilted lettuce He finds lying around the kitchen.

• There's also this pro-urban paragraph:
A people, when assembled in a town, is far more formidable to its rulers than when dispersed over a wide extent of country. The most arbitrary of the Cæsars found it necessary to feed and divert the inhabitants of their unwieldy capital at the expense of the provinces. The citizens of Madrid have more than once besieged their sovereign in his own palace, and extorted from him the most humiliating concessions. The sultans have often been compelled to propitiate the furious rabble of Constantinople with the head of an unpopular vizier. From the same cause, there was a certain tinge of democracy in the monarchies and aristocracies of northern Italy.
Which makes me think of one of my favorite counterfactuals: what if New York had stayed the capital of the United States? There'd probably be more mob violence in our history (people don't riot as much in a company town). And maybe Hudson County, New Jersey would have become our nation's Left Bank. Real estate, on the other hand, would be even more out of control.

• Finally, our reading ends with a chill:
With peculiar pleasure every cultivated mind must repose on the fair, the happy, the glorious Florence, the halls which rang with the mirth of Pulci, the cell where twinkled the midnight lamp of Politian, the statues on which the young eye of Michael Angelo glared with the frenzy of a kindred inspiration, the gardens in which Lorenzo meditated some sparkling song for the May-day dance of the Etrurian virgins. Alas for the beautiful city! Alas for the wit and the learning, the genius and the love!
A time was at hand when all the seven vials of the Apocalypse were to be poured forth and shaken out over those pleasant countries—a time of slaughter, famine, beggary, infamy, slavery, despair.
My own mind would repose more happily if I knew who any of those guys were, but I get the point. This is the third straight reading with declining and falling in it. It's getting positively Lehmanesque around here.

As an antidote, for a college football Saturday:

October 24: Did Cassandra Have It Coming?

So cute! Who's a little prophet of doom? Who's a little prophet of doom?

The fate of Cassandra is the topic of today's reading, a rather dreary translation of Aeschylus's Agamemnon (FACT: the original production was supposed to have songs written by a very young Noel Coward, but Aeschylus vetoed this. Gertrude Lawrence, however, was ravishing at Clytemnestra when it opened at, appropriately enough, the Palladium.)

The fate of Cassandra is certainly very pitable. Nobody deserves to have their native city sacked and burned, and then taken as the general's slave girl, and then killed by the general's wife. But think of how annoying she must have been. She is 1) very hot. God-besotted-with-her-hot. Plus 2) she has the gift of prophecy, so she is -- literally -- a know-it-all. And then she jilts Apollo! She has stones, that one. No wonder Agamemnon took her -- she probably reminded him of his wife Clytemnestra, who proves to be no shrinking violet either, what with committing the double murder and all. The alpha males have types, you know. The point is that she has the total package to make her not care a bit what anyone else thinks of her, and you know how appealing that is.

So then Apollo curses her by saying that no one will ever believe her prophecies. And her woes begin. Yet, perhaps to her credit, although it would have been intensely off-putting in person, apparently it pumps up her screw-all-y'all attitude even more:
Nay, then, believe me not: what skills belief
Or disbelief? Fate works its will—and thou
Wilt see and say in ruth, Her tale was true.
Confidential to Cassandra: You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. (I think that first appeared in the ancient Greek syndicated column "Hints from Hesiod.") At some level I get it, though -- it is so satisfying to be right when everyone else is wrong, that one often forgets that being right is not enough, you must be persuasive also. I also think that the Trojans actually did believe Cassandra but just couldn't man up enough to act on what they knew. I say this because I hate balancing my checkbook these days, as if the numbers will magically change for the better while I'm not looking.

The other thing I noticed in this reading is that Cassandra completely breaks it down for the Chorus -- there's going to be some blood spilled tonight -- and, even though the chorus seems to believe her, they're still surprised. Once the deal goes down, they start running around like panicky CNBC personalities:
ANOTHER
I know not what ’twere well to counsel now—
Who wills to act, ’tis his to counsel how.

ANOTHER
Thy doubt is mine: for when a man is slain,
I have no words to bring his life again.

ANOTHER
What? e’en for life’s sake, bow us to obey
These house-defilers and their tyrant sway?

ANOTHER
Unmanly doom! ’twere better far to die—
Death is a gentler lord than tyranny.

ANOTHER
Think well—must cry or sign of woe or pain
Fix our conclusion that the chief is slain?
The last one is my favorite. Agamemnon has just cried out that he's recieved a fatal blow and this guy is like, "But how do we know it's a fatal blow?" He's like a climate change denier (speaking of disasters everyone saw coming).

October 23: There Is A Great Deal Of Ruin In A Nation


Plutarch has a great farce-quality scene in today's reading featuring cross-dressing in pursuit of adultery:

As Pompeia was at that time celebrating this feast, Clodius, who as yet had no beard, and so thought to pass undiscovered, took upon him the dress and ornaments of a singing woman, and so came thither, having the air of a young girl. Finding the doors open, he was without any stop introduced by the maid, who was in the intrigue. She presently ran to tell Pompeia, but as she was away a long time, he grew uneasy waiting for her, and left his post and traversed the house from one room to another, still taking care to avoid the lights, till at last Aurelia’s woman met him, and invited him to play with her, as the women did among themselves. He refused to comply, and she presently pulled him forward, and asked him who he was, and whence he came. Clodius told her he was waiting for Pompeia’s own maid, Abra, 1 being in fact her own name also, and as he said so, betrayed himself by his voice. Upon which the woman shrieking, ran into the company where there were lights, and cried out, she had discovered a man.
Pompeia is Julius Caesar's wife; Clodius is powerful with the mob. So Pompeia is divorced and Caesar, who's running things, makes sure that Clodius gets off (at least judicially).

This is a political order that's breaking down here; a dictator (Sulla) is introduced in the first paragraph; the people are easily bought and volatile and dangerous; conspiracies abound. And all that is before Caesar really gets his hands on power. And, as noted, men are cross-dressing and subverting sacred religious ritual to get laid. We've declined and fallen a long way from Cato the Elder's censoriousness from the other da.

So it won't be surprising to find out that Rome was wiped out a mere...400 years later. Even the death of Aurelius, which is where Gibbon defines the end of the party, is over 200 years in the future. We Americans can feel like our own Republic is in terminal condition (and I do believe that some of the liberties we have sacrificed for the National Security State are never coming back), but we shouldn't be such drama queens -- really there's quite a bit of action still to come for us. And even if we have passed our zenith, so did Rome, and yet that's still a lovely city, I am told.

October 22: Victorian Must -- the worst fragrance ever

Is "Vanity Fair" any good? I can't imagine that it is after reading this excerpt from Thackeray's essay on Jonathan Swift's love problems. Note that this is economizing, Harvard Classics style -- this way they shove two classic authors in one entry. Way back earlier this year I read Robert Louis Stevenson on Pepys. What's interesting is that Thackeray and Stevenson smell much more strongly of camphor and lavender, than the even older authors they write about (disclaimer: in fact I haven't read that much Swift, so I 'm bullshitting a little (more than usual)). Here's an example of Thackeray, as intricate as a little old lady's doily:

Who hasn’t in his mind an image of Stella? Who does not love her? Fair and tender creature: pure and affectionate heart! Boots it to you, now that you have been at rest for a hundred and twenty years, not divided in death from the cold heart which caused yours, whilst it beat, such faithful pangs of love and grief—boots it to you now, that the whole world loves and deplores you? Scarce any man, I believe, ever thought of that grave, that did not cast a flower of pity on it, and write over it a sweet epitaph.
"Boots it to you" and "whilst"? Reading stuff like this, my instinct is to run sprinting for the nearest absinthe bottle, crying, "Are there no workhouses?" With authors like these, it's amazing the British even had an empire, but maybe wars in malaria-ridden foreign lands start to look good, when the alternative is staying in England and reading magazines with articles by Thackeray.

About Swift's love life, which I guess is one of those things literate people used to know about but now require research (someday Yoko Ono will be like that), I have no opinion. It seems a little creepy that the love of his life is a girl he started tutoring when she was 8, but these things happen -- ask Woody Allen. But I'm sort of on Swift's side now, just because I hate to see him written about the way he is in today's, I mean yesterday's, reading.

The arrears continue

Father Knickerbocker understands.

I'm sorry to get these things up so late but that's the price I pay for working these days. And I may not get to today's reading because I want to watch the World Series on Tivo. Don't tell me in comments who wins!

October 21: Old Roman

Young Roman...and bread enthusiast.

How I wish I could delve a little more into "Of Old Age," which I had to translate in high school and of which I remember nothing, not a word. But my day has been taken up with comedy and dealing with FUCKING Toyota of Hollywood who have managed to screw up my Prius and then deny that they did it.

I should take this development with more equanimity, the way the Romans did. One of the two observations I'm going to make (because I don't have time to gin up something more systemic) is how Roman this essay strikes me -- i.e., tough-guy. First of all, Cicero puts his dialogue into the mouth of the ultimate Roman tough guy, Cato the Elder. Sample of life with Cato the Elder, from Wikipedia:
By strict economy of time he accomplished an immense amount of work; he exacted similar application from his dependents, and proved himself a hard husband, a strict father, a severe and cruel master. There was little difference apparently, in the esteem in which he held his wife and his slaves; his pride alone induced him to take a warmer interest in his sons...To the Romans themselves there was little in this behaviour which seemed worthy of censure; it was respected rather as a traditional example of the old Roman manners.
This guy's from the school they tore down so they could build the old school.

And Cicero's Cato...well, he talks a lot, but much of it can be boiled down to the phrase "Shut up, he explained":
In that category before anything else comes old age, to which all wish to attain, and at which all grumble when attained. Such is Folly’s inconsistency and unreasonableness! They say that it is stealing upon them faster than they expected. In the first place, who compelled them to hug an illusion?...

The fact is that the blame for all complaints of that kind is to be charged to character, not to a particular time of life. For old men who are reasonable and neither cross-grained nor churlish find old age tolerable enough: whereas unreason and churlishness cause uneasiness at every time of life.
And you know what makes Cato churlish? Churlishness. And you wouldn't like him when he's churlish.

The other example of Romanness was this kind of "Humor In Uniform" anecdote:
It was indeed in my hearing that he made the famous retort to Salinator, who had retreated into the citadel after losing the town: “It was owing to me, Quintus Fabius, that you retook Tarentum.” “Quite so,” he replied with a laugh; “for had you not lost it, I should never have recovered it.”
Now stand still while I execute you. One tends to think of ancient Romans as Englishmen or something, but this anecdote reminds me that they were Italians; this exchange could have been on "The Sopranos" (with some updating of the language, naturally). Although it must be noted that the Italians have made a lot of progress on the personal-luxury front since the days of Cato the Elder; Italian shoes alone would probably give the old Roman a conniption.

Cliffhanger

Will I get to blog today's reading? Or will I fall asleep tonight before I get a chance to? What would Cato the Elder do? Stay tuned!

October 20: Odysseus: God's gift to goddesses

On his fists he has tattooed "αγάπη" and "μίσος"


This prose translation of the Odyssey isn't bad. People do things like "spake," and it's lousy with "thines," but, in a generous mood, I just treat it like the hisses and pops on an old record.

For example, this passage (which is even more skippable than the passages usually are) I found affecting in kind of a French movie kind of way. Calypso has gotten orders from Zeus: let Odysseus go. Think Charlotte Rampling as Calypso, and I don't know who as Odysseus, I'm still thinking about Charlotte Rampling:
Therewith the fair goddess led the way quickly, and he followed hard in the steps of the goddess. And they reached the hollow cave, the goddess and the man; so he sat him down upon the chair whence Hermes had arisen, and the nymph placed by him all manner of food to eat and drink, such as is meat for men. As for her she sat over against divine Odysseus, and the handmaids placed by her ambrosia and nectar. So they put forth their hands upon the good cheer set before them. But after they had taken their fill of meat and drink, Calypso, the fair goddess, spake first and said:

‘Son of Laertes, of the seed of Zeus, Odysseus of many devices, so it is indeed thy wish to get thee home to thine own dear country even in this hour? Good fortune go with thee even so! Yet didst thou know in thine heart what a measure of suffering thou art ordained to fulfil, or ever thou reach thine own country, here, even here, thou wouldst abide with me and keep this house, and wouldst never taste of death, though thou longest to see thy wife, for whom thou hast ever a desire day by day. Not in sooth that I avow me to be less noble than she in form or fashion, for it is in no wise meet that mortal women should match them with immortals, in shape and comeliness.’

And Odysseus of many counsels answered, and spake unto her: ‘Be not wroth with me hereat, goddess and queen. Myself I know it well, how wise Penelope is meaner to look upon than thou, in comeliness and stature. But she is mortal and thou knowest not age nor death. Yet even so, I wish and long day by day to fare homeward and see the day of my returning. Yea, and if some god shall wreck me in the wine-dark deep, even so I will endure, with a heart within me patient of affliction. For already have I suffered full much, and much have I toiled in perils of waves and war; let this be added to the tale of those.’

So spake he, and the sun sank and darkness came on. Then they twain went into the chamber of the hollow rock, and had their delight of love, abiding each by other.
It has kind of a King James-y ring to it: "Yea, and if some god shall wreck me in the wine-dark deep, even so I will endure, with a heart within me patient of affliction." "And they reached the hollow cave, the goddess and the man."

Which brings me to one of the striking things about today's reading -- immortal women are constantly falling for Odysseus. The dude must have some kind of heavy Greek mojo; like a shipping magnate's son, but also smart. This excerpt features Calypso, who is stone in love with Odysseus despite the fact that he spends every day weeping over the fact that he's trapped with her. He's not above sexing her every night regardless, but still, you'd think she could better. There's plenty of fish in the sea (almost literally; she fished Odysseus out). But hey -- divine women, foolish choices, am I right?

Then there's Ino, "of the fair ankles." Is that the best Homer can do, epithet-wise? The ankles? Why doesn 't he just say "of the winning personality" and get it over with? She loans him a magic veil to help him with his shipwreck, just out of pity; maybe she hopes she can bribe him into overlooking the non-ankle parts of her body. (It says that she was a mortal who now lived "in the depths of the salt sea" -- maybe she's all wrinkly.) But then, and I think this is a fatal mistake in terms of the romance talk, she immediately goes on to tell him how he should return it: "But when thou hast laid hold of the mainland with thy hands, loose it from off thee and cast it into the wine-dark deep far from the land, and thyself turn away." Geez, Ino -- not even "Call me and I'll come by to pick it up"? One thing could lead to another that way.

Athena also helps out Odysseus, but they are tight from way back, and, anyway, she's more like a coach, always making sure about his rest and stuff: "And Athene shed sleep upon his eyes, that so it might soon release him from his weary travail, overshadowing his eyelids." And then, she doesn't ravish him. I'm glad someone paid attention during the Olympian/favored mortal harassment seminar!

OT: The Green Fields of the Mind


The famous part of A. Bartlett Giamatti's essay, told in baseball cards. (Though when you're an O's fan, your heart comes pre-broken.)

Via Deadspin.

October 19: Breezy Looks At Life and Death

It's not just Shakespeare's and Homer's moon. It's the place where they faked the moon landings on location!

Two essays by Shelley pal, Leigh Hunt, whose life answers the question, what happens when you're a High Romantic and don't die young? You live in poverty, is the answer. But you'd never know it from the writing, which is full of the light touch and the first person plural:
The moon is Homer’s and Shakespeare’s moon, as well as the one we look at. The sun comes out of his chamber in the east, with a sparkling eye, “rejoicing like a bridegroom.”... A common meadow is a sorry thing to a ditcher or a coxcomb; but by the help of its dues from imagination and the love of nature, the grass brightens for us, the air soothes us, we feel as we did in the daisied hours of childhood.
If you're inclined to phrases like "the daisied hours of childhood," I guess you're going to be inclined to see things on the sunny side. Like death, f'r instance:
We cannot easily, for the whole course of our lives, think with pain of any good and kind person whom we have lost. It is the divine nature of their qualities to conquer pain and death itself; to turn the memory of them into pleasure; to survive with a placid aspect in our imaginations. We are writing at this moment just opposite a spot which contains the grave of one inexpressibly dear to us. We see from our window the trees about it, and the church spire. The green fields lie around. The clouds are travelling overhead, alternately taking away the sunshine and restoring it. The vernal winds, piping of the flowery summer-time, are nevertheless calling to mind the far-distant and dangerous ocean, which the heart that lies in that grave had many reasons to think of. And yet the sight of this spot does not give us pain. So far from it, it is the existence of that grave which doubles every charm of the spot...
As with the other quote (which I take to mean that life is richer if we make sure to brighten up our everyday mental furniture with bright but tasteful slipcovers), I do think this is 100% the right attitude -- so much so, that I'm not even going to notice the stuff about the vernal winds piping of the flowery summer-time, even though it seems extremely Madeline Bassett. Positive attitudes are always in danger of seeming Madeline Bassett-y -- that, or "How to get a positive mental attitude through this $250 series of tapes." But, as Bertie Wooster shows us, it's possible to have a positive, if sozzled, outlook on life and still have it in you to ridicule the Bassetts of the world:
"Oh, look," she said. She was a confirmed Oh-looker. I had noticed this at Cannes, where she had drawn my attention in this manner on various occasions to such diverse objects as a French actress, a Provençal filling station, the sunset over the Estorels, Michael Arlen, a man selling coloured spectacles, the deep velvet blue of the Mediterranean, and the late mayor of New York in a striped one-piece bathing suit. "Oh, look at that sweet little star up there all by itself."

I saw the one she meant, a little chap operating in a detached sort of way above a spinney.

"Yes," I said.

"I wonder if it feels lonely."

"Oh, I shouldn't think so."

"A fairy must have been crying."

"Eh?"

"Don't you remember? 'Every time a fairy sheds a tear, a wee bit star is born in the Milky Way.' Have you ever thought that, Mr. Wooster?"

I never had. Most improbable, I considered, and it didn't seem to me to check up with her statement that the stars were God's daisy chain. I mean, you can't have it both ways.
I didn't even know "Right Ho, Jeeves" was online. Maybe I'll go bask in the masters some more.

October 18: I'll Never Be A Literary Critic



Because I don't have it in me to drill down on "Ode to the West Wind" the way Wikipedia does. I didn't notice any of the stuff Wikipedia does. I'm just a gross, fleshly reader, I guess. However, never having read it, I was just getting into the mood that was set in the fourth stanza:

If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share
The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than Thou, O uncontrollable!
Since I miss connecting with the blustery fall weather myself. However, the turn at the end seemed self-aggrandizing:
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like wither’d leaves, to quicken a new birth;
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
My words, my precious words. Maybe it's the jealousy of the mediocre against the great, maybe it's my prejudice against artists congratulating themselves for bringing about political change -- a prejudice which being in Hollywood will do much to cultivate -- but Me, The Poet, As Hero brings out a strong "meh" in me.

(Or maybe I just have a prejudice against reckless confidence, since you see reckless confidence = delusion so often. Maybe genius is reckless confidence + talent. )

While I'm being grumpy I will add that "To A Skylark" reminded me of George Herbert somehow, except I like George Herbert better.

YouTube bonus: "Ode To The Summer Wind," by J. Mercer. Video by some dude driving through Santa Barbara County:

October 17: Balancing Act

The sneaker represents justification!

It's about to get all 17th-century up in here, as Religio Medici, by Sir Thomas Browne, is presented for our delectation. ("Religio Medici," it turns out, means "Religion of a doctor," and doesn't have anything to do with the Medici family who had their own skybox during the Renaissance, which was what I'd assumed whenever I saw the name of this essay, which was seldom.)

I don't often comment on literary style, because it takes me a long time to figure that stuff out, and I tend to want to keep to my more visceral reaction, but today I can't help noticing that Sir T.B. likes to keep things in pairs. Here's a passage where I've put in some line breaks to show what I'm getting at:

Whatsoever is beyond, as points indifferent, I observe according to the rules of my private reason,
or the humor and fashion of my Devotion;
neither believing this, because Luther affirmed it,
or disproving that, because Calvin hath disavouched it.

I condemn not all things in the Council of Trent,
nor approve all in the Synod of Dort.

In brief, where the Scripture is silent,
the Church is my Text;
where that speaks,
’tis but my Comment:
where there is a joynt silence of both, I borrow
not the rules of my Religion from Rome or Geneva,
but the dictates of my own reason.
It's full of hinges, like Home Depot. And this is a case where style = substance, because, as the above passage shows, Browne is a classic Anglican -- we're not this, we're not that, we're just trying to muddle in the middle and keep our eye on the important thing. Which is, of course, Aesthetics:
That allegorical description of Hermes 11 pleaseth me beyond all the Metaphysical definitions of Divines. Where I cannot satisfy my reason, I love to humour my fancy: I had as live you tell me that anima est angelus hominis, est Corpus DEI, [the soul is man’s angel, GOD’s body] as Entelechia; 12—Lux est umbra Dei, [Light is GOD’s shadow] as actus perspicui. 13 Where there is an obscurity too deep for our Reason, ’tis good to sit down with a description, periphrasis, or adumbration...
It is good to curl up with a nice adumbration, especially now that fall is here. Note the footnotes:
Note 11. The description alluded to, “God is a sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere,” is said not to be found in the books which pass under the name of the fabulous Hermes Trismegistus.
Note 12. Aristotle’s word for “actual being.”
Note 13. The active force of the clear.
You can see why Browne never intended this to be published; this was inaccessible by 17th-century standards. I remember trying to read "Urn Burial" many years ago and continually having to scan down to the bottom of the page; it's like constantly going downstairs to try to deal with a leaky faucet. Yet Browne has his fanboys (and girls; one of them was Virginia Woolf), generally other writers. He's a misunderstood giant, I guess, like Ornette Coleman or something.

Photo by flickr user Ted Abbott used with a Creative Commons license.

October 16: Not much to say

for once. And I have actual work reading to do (some producer has bought a book and wants to adapt it). So here are the links to Hippocrates' Oath and Law and you can talk among yourself. This is a good general rule of thumb, though:

But inexperience is a bad treasure, and a bad fund to those who possess it, whether in opinion or reality, being devoid of self-reliance and contentedness, and the nurse both of timidity and audacity. For timidity betrays a want of powers, and audacity a lack of skill.
I forget that recklessness is a part of inexperience, but, given some of the spec scripts I've read (and used to write), I really shouldn't.

As Hippocrates himself would say, Be Well.

October 15: America's First Quagmire

Vespucci, sort of. I imagine he went way over budget too.

Actually, it's Amerigo's first quagmire, but it's a lot less sexy a title. It's Chef Boyardee Presents Famous Italian Explorers Week, sponsored by The Olive Garden and powered by the wines of Ernest and Julio Gallo, and today's Prince Spaghetti reading (for, as my Masshole readers may know, Wednesday is Prince Spaghetti Day -- I don't know how many times I saw that commercial watching the Terry O'Reilly Bruins) is Vespucci's famous (and I guess disputed) letter detailing his discoveries in the New World.

About this reading I have two remarks. The first is that, apparently, one had to be much more cringey in writing to a Florentine noble than in a Spanish one, because there's pages of bootlicking before we get to the Indians. Bureaucrats out there, take note -- I recommend putting the following phrase on top of all your cover sheets to your boss:
...as fennel is customarily given atop of delicious viands to fit them for better digestion, so may you, for a relief from your so heavy occupations, order this letter of mine to be read: so that they may withdraw you somewhat from the continual anxiety and assiduous reflection upon public affairs: and if I shall be prolix, I crave pardon, my Magnificent Lord.
Stop being prolix about being prolix! Still, Amerigo (and why isn't "Amerigo" the name of a moving company?) knows himself -- the dude is way prolix. So, skipping all the way to the end, as though we were doing coverage, let's get to the second thing.

What's happening here is that Amerigo and crew have been tribe-hopping -- some tribes are friendly, some are naked, etc. etc., but they're seeing them all. Think retirees on a cruise, but with more potential for smallpox. Finally they hang out for about a month with some friendlies to repair boats and stuff, and now they're about to shove off:
...and (now) desiring to depart upon our voyage, they made complaint to us how at certain times of the year there came from over the sea to this their land, a race of people very cruel, and enemies of theirs: and (who) by means of treachery or of violence slew many of them, and ate them: and some they made captives, and carried them away to their houses, or country: and how they could scarcely contrive to defend themselves from them, making signs to us that (those) were an island-people and lived out in the sea about a hundred leagues away: and so piteously did they tell us this that we believed them: and we promised to avenge them of so much wrong..
So they go fight these guys! And, while they are not greeted as liberators, it turns out to be a cakewalk:
when the next day arrived, we beheld coming across the land a great number of people, with signals of battle, continually sounding horns, and various other instruments which they use in their wars: and all (of them) painted and feathered, so that it was a very strange sight to behold them: wherefore all the ships held council, and it was resolved that since this people desired hostility with us, we should proceed to encounter them and try by every means to make them friends: in case they would not have our friendship, that we should treat them as foes, and so many of them as we might be able to capture should all be our slaves: and having armed ourselves as best we could, we advanced towards the shore, and they sought not to hinder us from landing, I believe from fear of the cannons: and we jumped on land, 57 men in four squadrons, each one (consisting of) a captain and his company: and we came to blows with them.
No mention of the trying-to-make-friends gambit, I suspect it was bullshit all along. Let the liberation commence:
...and after a long battle (in which) many of them (were) slain, we put them to flight, and pursued them to a village, having made about 250 of them captives, and we burnt the village, and returned to our ships with victory and 250 prisoners, leaving many of them dead and wounded, and of ours there were no more than one killed and 22 wounded, who all escaped (i.e., recovered), God be thanked.
There you have it -- the first New World foreign adventurism. And it couldn't have been easier.

So where is the quagmire? It's right here:
...and we thereon made sail for Spain with 222 captive slaves: and reached the port of Calis (Cadiz) on the 15th day of October, 1498, where we were well received and sold our slaves.
And it was on that day, 510 years ago today, that America lost its innocence for the first of the about a million times it has claimed to have done so.

Holy Geez

I forgot to post! I've read it and everything. I'll try to get to post-bedtimes. In the meantime, please enjoy Look Around You:

October 14: All that glitters or, Adam Smith, fixed.

I bet when he woke up that morning he wasn't thinking, "My bald spot is going to be on the wire services today."

I can't find my copy of "The Essential Galbraith," because this is surely a J.K. Galbraith moment, but Adam Smith, today writing about colonization, is less ostentatiously snarky so maybe it's better:
In consequence of the representations of Columbus, the council of Castile determined to take possession of countries of which the inhabitants were plainly incapable of defending themselves. The pious purpose of converting them to Christianity sanctified the injustice of the project. But the hope of finding treasures of gold there, was the sole motive which prompted to undertake it[.]
Emphasis added because we have less time to discover snark in our busy age. The other day I saw mixed motives in the New World project -- Adam Smith sees more clearly than I do and knows that the Bible is just a fig leaf, if you will, or maybe "justification by justification."

The rest of the reading is even better, and, to save you time, I'm going to edit a highlight so you don't have to:
Of all those expensive and uncertain projects, however, which bring bankruptcy upon the greater part of the people who engage in them, there is none perhaps more perfectly ruinous than the search after new silver and gold mines financial securities. It is perhaps the most disadvantageous lottery in the world, or the one in which the gain of those who draw the prizes bears the least proportion to the loss of those who draw the blanks; for though the prizes are few and the blanks many, the common price of a ticket is the whole fortune of a very rich man... They are the projects, therefore, to which of all others a prudent law-giver, who desired to increase the capital of his nation, would least chuse to give any extraordinary encouragement...

Such in reality is the absurd confidence which almost all men have in their own good fortune, that wherever there is the least probability of success, too great a share of it is apt to go to them of its own accord on CNBC. But though the judgment of sober reason and experience concerning such projects has always been extremely unfavourable, that of human avidity has commonly been quite otherwise. The same passion which has suggested to so many people the absurd idea of the philosopher’s stone Laffer Curve, has suggested to others the equally absurd one of immense rich mines of gold and silver nonstop rises in the real-estate market.
The classics are still relevant!

October 13: Marcus Aurelius Forgets To Thank His Agent

This is the third Aurelius excerpt of the year, but, owing to the weird way the Daily Reading Guide decided to choose the readings, it's the beginning of the book. And what book worth its salt -- if indeed you paid for books in salt -- doesn't begin with acknowledgments? Although it's more fun, because so against the temperment of Aurelius, to think of it as his Oscar speech:

1. FROM my grandfather Verus [I learned] good morals and the government of my temper.
2. From the reputation and remembrance of my father, modesty and a manly character.
3. From my mother, piety and beneficence, and abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts; and further simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich.
4. From my great-grandfather, not to have frequented public schools, and to have had good teachers at home, and to know that on such things a man should spend liberally.
Liberally. Maybe it is an Oscar speech! Note also his dislike of public schools -- proper L.A. showbiz parenting there. Less snarkily, I like his pointing out that his mother abstained from evil thoughts. It's not in this excerpt so much, but I have always liked the Stoic emphasis on how much you creates your own mental weather. I guess I have this dude to thank:
From Maximus I learned self-government, and not to be led aside by anything; and cheerfulness in all circumstances, as well as in illness; and a just admixture in the moral character of sweetness and dignity, and to do what was set before me without complaining.
It occurs to me that, if Maximus was good at the self-government quality, maybe he was bad at the other qualities that Aurelius had to find in other people. Like, Maximus may have been the king at being cheerful during illness, but he was a fanatic for the public schools. You can't have everything. Aurelius himself seems to have a bee in his bonnet against literature: "From Rusticus I learned...to abstain from rhetoric, and poetry, and fine writing," he says, and then, later, he's thankful "that I did not make more proficiency in rhetoric, poetry, and the other studies, in which I should perhaps have been completely engaged, if I had seen that I was making progress in them." We can all agree that self-expression is odious, but I think he takes it a little far here, especially since he turned out to be famous as an author.

October 12: In Fourteen Hundred and Ninety-three

Columbus filed a report. It is like the famous Herman Mankiewicz telegram:

In 1926 Mankiewicz left a job as drama editor at The New Yorker magazine to write for Hollywood. Shortly after his arrival on the West Coast, he sent a telegram to journalist-friend Ben Hecht in New York: "Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots."
Compare and contrast with:
Hispaniola is a marvel. Its hills and mountains, fine plains and open country, are rich and fertile for planting and for pasturage, and for building towns and villages. The seaports there are incredibly fine, as also the magnificent rivers, most of which bear gold. ... They have no iron, nor steel, nor weapons, nor are they fit for them, because although they are well-made men of commanding stature, they appear extraordinarily timid. The only arms they have are sticks of cane, cut when in seed, with a sharpened stick at the end, and they are afraid to use these.
Did Hispaniola even have gold? If so, this is the first bullshit real-estate prospectus in our hemisphere -- so everything we needed for our civilization was there right at the start, including this, which makes me smile:
But our Redeemer has given victory to our most illustrious King and Queen, and to their Kingdoms rendered famous by this glorious event, at which all Christendom should rejoice...with fervent prayers for the high distinction that will accrue to them from turning so many peoples to our holy faith; and also from the temporal benefits that not only Spain but all Christian nations will obtain.
God made us our money!

I know there should be a certain amount of deploring over the European depredation that began with this letter, and I see it, but, being an American and all, I don't wish to wish myself other than what I am; and, without Columbus, there wouldn't be this picture from a Columbus Day parade:
That's America to me.

October 11: From our sporting correspondent

Ribs and the man I sing: eager fans anticipating book V of the Aeneid.

How about we cast off the cares of our collapsing civilization and go to the world's number one most favorite sport? No, not soccer -- a boat race. And we're not going to a boat race, we're going to read about one.

In verse.

In translation.

Who's still psyched?

All right, fine, go look at your 401K statement -- I don't care. Let me just tell you what the third-place finisher gets:
Yet, for his galley sav’d, the grateful prince
Is pleas’d th’ unhappy chief to recompense.
Pholoe, the Cretan slave, rewards his care,
Beauteous herself, with lovely twins as fair.
A slave girl or three. It's the same incentives they use now to linebackers in college football, so I guess there really is nothing new under the sun. I can't think of a better way for Aeneas to memorialize his deceased father. Second prize, of course, is a set of steak knives.

The pregame tailgate is also SEC-worthy:
Æneas then advanc’d amidst the train,
By thousands follow’d thro’ the flow’ry plain,
To great Anchises’ tomb; which when he found,
He pour’d to Bacchus, on the hallow’d ground,
Two bowls of sparkling wine, of milk two more,
And two (from offer’d bulls) of purple gore...
I've stepped in worse in parking lots. Good call on the beef blood, BTW -- excellent for hangovers.

I have sports I would like to watch myself, so I will only add that the festivities seem to be taking place hard on the heels of Aeneas ditching Dido and getting the hell out of Carthage -- much like Don Fernando in the morning reading, I hate to say, except that this is also an early example of a guy breaking up with a woman and immediately seeing if there's a game on.

October 10: Telenovela


Not to overlook Cervantes's irony and wit, which you hear so much about and which is probably completely lost in this translation, but he knows how to bring the cliche:

The youth took off his cap at last, and, shaking his head to the one and other part, did dishevel and discover such beautiful hairs as those of Phoebus might justly emulate them; and thereby they knew the supposed swain to be a delicate woman; yea, and the fairest that ever the first two had seen in their lives...
Good heavens, anonymous youth, you're beautiful! That cliche never goes out of style. It worked in "She Blinded Me With Science" and it worked here, in the 16th century.

There is also virtue ravaged:
‘All the reasons here rehearsed I said unto him, and many more which now are fallen out of mind, but yet proved of no efficacy to wean him from his obstinate purpose; even like unto one that goeth to buy, with intention never to pay for what he takes, and therefore never considers the price, worth, or defect of the stuff he takes to credit....All these demands and answers did I, in an instant, revolve in mine imagination, and found myself chiefly forced (how I cannot tell) to assent to his petition by the witnesses he invoked, the tears he shed, and finally by his sweet disposition and comely feature, which, accompanied with so many arguments of unfeigned affection, were able to conquer and enthrall any other heart, though it were as free and wary as mine own.
Which ends as you might think it would:
...for, after a man hath satisfied that which the appetite covets, the greatest delight it can take after is to apart itself from the place where the desire was accomplished. I say this, because Don Fernando did hasten his departure from me: by my maid’s industry, who was the very same that had brought him into my chamber, he was got in the street before dawning.
And it gets worse for our poor unfortunate Dorothea, when she goes on the lam:
...my good servant, until then faithful and trusty, rather incited by his villainy than my beauty... solicited me of love, with little shame and less fear of God, or respect of myself; and now seeing that I answered his impudences with severe and reprehensive words... he began to use his force; but Heaven, which seldom or never neglects the just man’s assistance, did so favour my proceedings, as with my weak forces, and very little labour, I threw him down a steep rock...
Mur...der! Or at least man...slaughter! It's pretty lurid all the way around. And Cervantes has (at least in these excerpts I've read) earned his luridness, because she's telling her story to the same idiots we saw bumbling around burning books three weeks ago. It's hard to lure in us sophisticates if you're all-telenovela-all-the-time. But Cervantes has used our sense of superiority to suck us in, and now we're very interested in this waxed-mustache melodrama, just like a normal person would be. (Naturally the excerpt ends on a cliffhanger, I had to google around to find out what happens next.)

It's not going to let up


I thought I could get it in, but I think I'm going to have to call today's post on account of rain (of work).

It will be rescheduled as part of a doubleheader tomorrow, requiring separate admissions.

October 9: Catholic hymns, or, What could be better on Yom Kippur?

I assume that when the kid inside there takes off the costume, what you don't smell is the odor of sanctity.

A boatload of old-time Catholic hymns today -- or perhaps a tabernacleful, unfortunately not in Latin. Not that it would make a difference to me, but some reader might get a sense of why these songs have been around for a near-millennium. And pre-Vatican II babies, which I am not, might also have a little tinge of nostalgia at the Veni Creator or whatnot. (I see where the Church no longer uses the Dies Irae in the funeral liturgy, because it's too negative. Even the dead have self-esteem!)

I wish I could say more about them, but lyrics without music often seem a little dead on the page to me. This, for example, seems like a greeting card:
JESU, the very thought of Thee
With sweetness fills the breast;
But sweeter far Thy Face to see,
And in Thy Presence rest.
The last line could also be "When I take my driver's test." The old-timey translation is probably to blame, but even so, most songs that stand the test of time strike a different part of the brain than the part that enjoys seeing words on the page being pushed around in a fancy way.

I do have to note the super-Catholic opening of the Stabat Mater:
BY the cross, on which suspended,
With his bleeding hands extended,
Hung that Son she so adored,
Stood the mournful Mother weeping,
She whose heart, its silence keeping,
Grief had cleft as with a sword.
Blood and Mom. That's the Church I grew up with. When, in "Far Away Eyes" -- one of my brother's favorite Stones songs -- Mick Jagger sings about "The Church of the Sacred Bleeding Heart Of Jesus located somewhere in Los Angeles, California," I think it's not quite right. Protestants, in my experience, keep their crosses bare. It's more about what Jesus can do for you, as opposed to what you did to that slasher-film victim hanging up over the altar at Mass.

October 8: Theories of Comedy



I ought to have more sympathy for Fielding's Preface to Joseph Andrews, for in it he gives some eighteenth-century theory of comedy -- particularly the distinction between the comic and the burlesque, which I won't go into here because I didn't find it interesting. But maybe it's because I had a comedy pitch today which involved some theory of comedy (how in animation you can be crueler to your characters than in live action), so I'm tired. Theory of Comedy is not a change of pace for me, today.

Here's one theory of comedy I like, though: Depressed People Aren't Funny. It's more of a rule of thumb than a theory, because of course depressed people can be funny, but never for long, and it's difficult in your main character if we're supposed to sympathize with him -- as we are supposed to, if we are an American audience. (Brit humor seems different in this way -- note that in the American "Office" we had to have Jim/Pam, as opposed to Tim/Pam in the UK version; Tim was a character I'd never really seen before on TV, the intelligent character we sympathize with who is also a huge failure because of his wimpiness. You can't do that on TV here.)

To continue on this thought, though -- I always thought the audience was right to reject "Arrested Development," as genius as it was, because those characters all hated themselves at some level. Who wants to see characters hate themselves? You can get that at home. You think, these poor people, why don't they get some help? Whereas losers who think they're winners give us permission to laugh at them. Fielding is onto this when he talks about the Ridiculous springing from either vanity or hypocrisy -- affectation, either way.

This essay comes to a sudden stop with another one of Fielding's theories which I like and will quote:
But perhaps it may be objected to me, that I have against my own rules introduced vices, and of a very black kind into this work. to this I shall answer: First, that it is very difficult to pursue a series of human actions and keep clear from them. Secondly, that the vices to be found here, are rather the accidental consequences of some human frailty, or foible, than causes habitually existing in the mind. Thirdly, that they are never set forth as the objects of ridicule, but detestation. Fourthly, that they are never the principal figure at that time on the scene; lastly, they never produce the intended evil.
Ineffectual evil dudes are funny. Effectual evil dudes are reality. And speaking of -- having started with a YouTube theme, let me give you the YouTube variation:

October 7: A hardcore dude and 18th-century offsets

Different offset. Unless it's powered by wave energy, of course!

John Woolman is as hardcore as a Quaker can be. (We saw him earlier in the year opposing dyed clothing. Here, in this passage, he wants to go to Barbados to preach against the slave trade -- but he's worried because the only way to get there is by a ship engaged in the slave trade. So he tells the owner:
If the trade to the West Indies were no more than was consistent with pure wisdom, I believe the passage-money would for good reasons be higher than it is now; and therefore, under deep exercise of mind, I have believed that I should not take advantage of this great trade and small passage-money, but, as a testimony in favor of less trading, should pay more than is common for others to pay if I go at this time.
In other words, he buys an offset to make himself feel better. And the great part is that it just means more money for the very people whose profits, he feels, are immoral. But what is that compared to an easy conscience? He's also a good boycotter:
The oppression of the slaves which I have seen in several journeys southward on this continent, and the report of their treatment in the West Indies, have deeply affected me, and a care to live in the spirit of peace and minister no just cause of offence to my fellow-creatures having from time to time livingly revived in my mind, I have for some years past declined to gratify my palate with those sugars.
(No lie, though: sugar production is still a bitch.) Also note the "livingly," which I love. It sounds religious. You know who else is old-fashioned, though, is God: "In the course of a few weeks it pleased the Lord to visit me with a pleurisy." The Lord doesn't work as much in pleurisy as he used to, preferring motorcycle crashes and domestic disputes in houses with firearms. So it's nice to see Him here in a more classic mode.

Meeting Woolman has been one of the pleasures of this project, and he embodies a paradox that's always fascinated me (maybe it's not really a paradox, though; maybe it's more like a "thing") -- which is that, he seems obviously to have been made crazy by religion, and yet, without religious crazies like this, we'd probably all just be keeping our head down and deploring slavery while shaking down our sugar packets.

I'm still holding on to my dyed clothing, though, particularly the T-shirts that are meant to be vaguely amusing and/or ironic. That's like wearing progress right there.

October 6: Love In The Time Of Terror

The Upper Crust. Is this sublime? Beautiful? Where is Burke now that we need him?


A far smarter discussion of today's reading -- Burke's famous passage of lamentation for the arrest of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette -- can be found here. Read on if you enjoy smartassery and political stridency (Burke is thrown around so often by conservatives, I feel it's OK today).

First of all, this is probably the most famous passage in the book:
It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France, then the dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move in,—glittering like the morning-star, full of life, and splendour, and joy.
This orb, which she hardly seemed to touch. Down, boy! Let's see if our modren conservatives can bring it like the old school. Rich Lowry, ladies and (especially) gentlemen:
I'm sure I'm not the only male in America who, when Palin dropped her first wink, sat up a little straighter on the couch and said, "Hey, I think she just winked at me." And her smile. By the end, when she clearly knew she was doing well, it was so sparkling it was almost mesmerizing. It sent little starbursts through the screen and ricocheting around the living rooms of America.
I prefer orbs over starbursts, but then, like Burke, I have a great affection for the old ways. To be conservative is to be in love with love!
Nothing is left [under the new regime] which engages the affections on the part of the commonwealth. On the principles of this mechanic philosophy, our institutions can never be embodied, if I may use the expression, in persons; so as to create in us love, veneration, admiration, or attachment. But that sort of reason which banishes the affections is incapable of filling their place....There ought to be a system of manners in every nation, which a well-formed mind would be disposed to relish. To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.
I actually agree with this. By logic your country is little more than a flag of convenience -- especially if you're religious, I would think, for how interested could a transcendent God be in border disputes? But no one really feels that way. That's the big Burke point I think he's right on -- declaring a Year Zero and starting over with human relations probably won't work. The fundamental things apply, as time goes by. ( What he might have noted was that, as we saw above, the ancien regime was lovely to Burke. The people of Paris must have been looking at the other end of it. )

And I think he's right when he pointed out, before the Terror, that a state that officially gets off on murder and torture is heading down a slippery slope indeed.

However, Burke's political philosophy can also be summed up by the great Fran Lebowitz:
"The 3 questions of greatest concern are:,
1) Is it attractive?,
2) Is it amusing?,
3) Does it know its place?"
There's a passage about how the Assembly is now full of "vulgarity." I should be making fun of this, but as a half-assed aesthete myself, I'm in sympathy. Less so with his views on education, for example, which violated principle 3:
Learning paid back what it received to nobility and to priesthood, and paid it with usury, by enlarging their ideas, and by furnishing their minds. Happy if they had all continued to know their indissoluble union, and their proper place! Happy if learning, not debauched by ambition, had been satisfied to continue the instructor, and not aspired to be the master!
Yes, because we're much better off with the idiot sons of former rulers. I like Burke anyway. He just argues so hard you can't help arguing against him.

P.S. -- I almost forgot. Louis XVI apparently got in trouble because he wouldn't raise taxes.

October 5: Can we have class outside?

Sure, they look attentive. But they're actually looking at the reflection in the window of a guy doing devil sticks.

The Shorter version of today's reading, by Cardinal Newman (though written before his title, I believe, back when he was just plain Larry Oliver*) is that ancient Athens was awesome. This can't be good news for those who are trying to beat back the Newman is gay rumor:
But a freshman like Eunapius soon got experience for himself of the ways and manners prevalent in Athens. Such a one as he had hardly entered the city, when he was caught hold of by a party of the academic youth, who proceeded to practise on his awkwardness and his ignorance.

However, as to this Eunapius, Proæresius took a fancy to the boy, and told him curious stories about Athenian life. He himself had come up to the University with one Hephæstion, and they were even worse off than Cleanthes the Stoic; for they had only one cloak between them, and nothing whatever besides, except some old bedding; so when Proæresius went abroad, Hephæstion lay in bed, and practised himself in oratory; and then Hephæstion put on the cloak, and Proæresius crept under the coverlet.
Of course, what can you expect, right? When in Greece, etc. And speaking of Greece, one of the downsides of the otherwise perfect Athenian campus is that it was located, literally, in a shithole:
Learned writers assure us distinctly that the houses of Athens were for the most part small and mean; that the streets were crooked and narrow; that the upper stories projected over the roadway; and that staircases, balustrades, and doors that opened outwards, obstructed it;—a remarkable coincidence of description. I do not doubt at all, though history is silent, that that roadway was jolting to carriages, and all but impassable; and that it was traversed by drains, as freely as any Turkish town now.
But it doesn't matter, not to Newman, because you didn't come here for the wireless in the dorm or the meal plan, dammit:
It is but a crib or kennel,—in which he sleeps when the weather is inclement or the ground damp; in no respect a home. And he goes out of doors, not to read the day’s newspaper, or to buy the gay shilling volume, but to imbibe the invisible atmosphere of genius, and to learn by heart the oral traditions of taste...No awful arch, no window of many-coloured lights marks the seats of learning there or elsewhere; philosophy lives out of doors. No close atmosphere oppresses the brain or inflames the eyelid; no long session stiffens the limbs. Epicurus is reclining in his garden; Zeno looks like a divinity in his porch; the restless Aristotle, on the other side of the city, as if in antagonism to Plato, is walking his pupils off their legs in his Lyceum by the Ilyssus.
Yes -- they have class outside; the most distracting form of class, in my opinion (though classrooms in the age of texting must also rank up there). Isn't it wonderful? Short answer: no. In my opinion.

Leaving Academe aside, this passage does bring up one of the key differences between L.A. and other cities, which is that your place is less likely to be a hovel than it is in other, more crowded cities -- the apartment we owned in Brooklyn would seem minuscule to us after all this time here. But the advantage of the laughably tiny urban apartment is that it makes you go out, makes you be a public person. Here you can just get drunk in your backyard and it's perfectly pleasant. And when you get drunk in someone else's backyard, you have to get yourself driven home. It's not authentically Athenian. Newman wouldn't approve.



*Joke stolen by me, but I can't remember from whom. Also, h/t to my dad for the America link.