November 30: Nothing ever changes

Why the Harvard Classics wants to preserve failures so bad I can't say, but today Jonathan Swift tries to correct people's faults in conversation, and I think it's safe to say that his attempt failed utterly. Or, to put things sarcastically, "Did you know that some people used to be pedantic?" Well, fortunately for us, fantasy sports changed all that!

Or this:

Where company hath met, I often have observed two persons discover, by some accident, that they were bred together at the same school or university, after which the rest are condemned to silence, and to listen while these two are refreshing each other’s memory with the arch tricks and passages of themselves and their comrades.
Or this:
There are some people, whose good manners will not suffer them to interrupt you; but, what is almost as bad, will discover abundance of impatience, and lie upon the watch until you have done, because they have started something in their own thoughts which they long to be delivered of.
Which, in our day, was summarized by Fran Lebowitz: "There's talking, and there's waiting." I also recognized the society of comedy writers in this observation:
There are some faults in conversation, which none are so subject to as the men of wit, nor ever so much as when they are with each other. If they have opened their mouths, without endeavouring to say a witty thing, they think it is so many words lost: It is a torment to the hearers, as much as to themselves, to see them upon the rack for invention, and in perpetual constraint, with so little success. They must do something extraordinary, in order to acquit themselves, and answer their character, else the standers-by may be disappointed and be apt to think them only like the rest of mortals.
That's just what it's like to hang out with us for long periods of time -- extremely entertaining, and then it dawns on you that no one is ever going to say anything. That's why you can really only have a few of us at parties (sort of like dogs, I guess).

And then at the end comes the really provocative thing; for the time. But as if to prove that nothing ever changes, the passage may also be one of the theses of "Mad Men" -- people who know the show better will have to confirm this:
In default of which [proper conversational manners -- ed.], we are forced to take up with those poor amusements of dress and visiting, or the more pernicious ones of play, drink, and vicious amours, whereby the nobility and gentry of both sexes are entirely corrupted both in body and mind, and have lost all notions of love, honour, friendship, generosity; which, under the name of fopperies, have been for some time laughed out of doors.

This degeneracy of conversation, with the pernicious consequences thereof upon our humours and dispositions, hath been owing, among other causes, to the custom arisen, for sometime past, of excluding women from any share in our society, further than in parties at play, or dancing, or in the pursuit of an amour.
In other words, any all-male grouping will inevitably degenerate into a society of baboons. I'd buy that. I only wish Swift hadn't buried the lede like that.

November 29: David Hume is bitchy

Hume. The toga is not slimming.

This will be brief because it's David Hume and, as noted, I don't cotton to philosophy. But, in all honesty, Hume doesn't seem to care too much for it either:
All ideas, especially abstract ones, are naturally faint and obscure: the mind has but a slender hold of them: they are apt to be confounded with other resembling ideas;...

On the contrary, all impressions, that is, all sensations, either outward or inward, are strong and vivid: the limits between them are more exactly determined; nor is it easy to fall into any error or mistake with regard to them.
I don't know if Hume thinks philosophy is better than a sharp stick in the eye, but the sharp stick is certainly easier to comprehend.

This will also be brief because the reading is brief and makes a simple point, which I will express in an equation:

Thoughts = experiences + additives

Where "additives" means our fooling around with experiences, like making a mountain out of gold. Or a molehill. Or making God out of a molehill, which Hume suggests we do:
First, when we analyze our thoughts or ideas, however compounded or sublime, we always find that they resolve themselves into such simple ideas as were copied from a precedent feeling or sentiment. Even those ideas, which, at first view, seem the most wide of this origin, are found, upon a nearer scrutiny, to be derived from it. The idea of God, as meaning an infinitely intelligent, wise, and good Being, arises from reflecting on the operations of our own mind, and augmenting, without limit, those qualities of goodness and wisdom.
Clever Hume, to make God appear small and made up without literally saying that, since he would have been tarred and/or feathered had he done so.

Oh, and here's Hume being bitchy:
I must own it to be my opinion, that LOCKE was betrayed into this question by the schoolmen, who, making use of undefined terms, draw out their disputes to a tedious length, without ever touching the point in question. A like ambiguity and circumlocution seem to run through that philosopher’s reasonings on this as well as most other subjects.
Meow! Add a pair of thick, black-framed glasses and Hume could be a fashion editor.

November 28: I can't say that I have much of an appetite

This just makes me think of how many of these entries must be past their expiration dates.

Actually, when it comes to leftovers I have a huge appetite; what I have never hungered for is William Blake, what with the piping and the bleating lambs and the geographical features talking to each other. Nor is the question of who framed the tiger's fearful symmetry strike me as a whodunit of the highest order. Maybe tigers were a more offbeat item, worthy of interest, in Blake's day. Then there's the earnestness. There was no one more earnest than William Blake, but I guess earnest is what you need if you want to get Classicifed -- I'm thinking about John Woolman in Volume 1. La Rochefoucauld fans must look elsewhere. (Note that I'm not talking about Blake's art, about which I am not qualified to write, and which it seems too weird to be earnest.)

Having said all that, I was -- well, not blown away exactly, but very impressed by "Auguries of Innocence". That's this one:
TO see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
A totally banal thought -- I realize it wasn't then, so it isn't Blake's fault, but by the same token it isn't my fault that I heard "Nights In White Satin" out of all those car radios in my youth, which this quatrain has always reminded me of, for some reason. But what I didn't know, as part of my own Auguries of Ignorance, is that there's more to the poem -- animal rights stuff, for one:
A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all heaven in a rage.
A dove-house fill’d with doves and pigeons
Shudders hell thro’ all its regions.
A dog starv’d at his master’s gate
Predicts the ruin of the state.
A horse misused upon the road
Calls to heaven for human blood.
Who cages robins, first of all, but there is something I like about linking the idea of animal cruelty and the health of the state. It feels true -- a society that tolerates great wickedness towards the defenseless cannot be very healthy. My sense is, however, that this is not borne out by the evidence. Dickensian England was also at the height of its power. But then statecraft is a wicked business -- there's no getting around that. Then there's this kind of almanac-style rhymes of very sturdy sentiments:
Man was made for joy and woe;
And when this we rightly know,
Thro’ the world we safely go.
Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine.
When I had kids I realized what a godsend cliches are. It's like serving them soup for dinner -- something more original would be counterproductive and not as nourishing. That's what these lines sound like -- it's not exactly striking, but it sticks to your ribs. And anyway I find originality, like authenticity, to be way overrated as artistic virtues.

And finally we have some rootin-tootin auguries:
He who mocks the infant’s faith
Shall be mock’d in age and death.
He who shall teach the child to doubt
The rotting grave shall ne’er get out.
He who respects the infant’s faith
Triumphs over hell and death.
Blake seems like a conventional modern icon, with his railing against oppression and visionary art style and all, but then he points out how much he hates doubt, and then you think, "Oh, right, he's really religious too." Although I believe he was one of the first to use the "I'm spiritual but not religious" dodge. But he did so earnestly.

Photo by flickr user Muffet used with a Creative Commons license.

November 27: Addams Family Utopia

The Seelbach. "Bourbon does more than More could do/ To bring Utopia into view."

How was everyone's Thanksgiving? I made Seelbachs which went over big. There was also turkey of some sort. And, the most American thing of all, Ritz Cracker dressing. I had also read the excerpt from More's Utopia but was a little too wiped out to write about it.

I'm not going to beat myself up too much, though, because one of the shocking things from the reading is that Thomas More, who wore a hair shirt as a constant reminder of self-mortification, takes up for the cause of self-esteem:
Then if it be a point of humanity for man to bring health and comfort to man, and specially (which is a virtue most peculiarly belonging to man) to mitigate and assuage the grief of others, and by taking from them the sorrow and heaviness of life, to restore them to joy, that is to say, to pleasure: why may it not then be said, that nature doth provoke every man to do the same to himself? For a joyful life, that is to say, a pleasant life... if thou not only mayst, but also of duty art bound to procure it to others, why not chiefly to thyself, to whom thou art bound to show as much favour as to other? For when nature biddeth thee to be good and gentle to others she commandeth thee not to be cruel and ungentle to thyself. Therefore even very nature (say they) prescribeth to us a joyful life, that is to say, pleasure as the end of all our operations.
I'm still kind of blown away from that -- that's like the last attitude I would expect from a martyr of the Church.

I also want to emphasize the "very nature prescribeth to us...pleasure as the end of all our operations." Most of the "cultural literacy" handwringing that gets into the media makes being acquainted with some of the treasures laid up here in Western Civ feel like a painful duty. The headline might as well be, "WHY AREN'T OUR CHILDREN SUFFERING MORE?" But in reality it's been pleasurable, this year, loping around the Excerpt Museum like a baboon. Maybe it's not fun in the going-to-Disneyland sense, but it's a pleasure to read and talk and think about things outside of the sucking vortex of oneself and one's own problems. You are not alone, etc. And it's nice to see More speak up for it -- he does seem like a man who really enjoyed sitting around the table talking about stuff, even if his guests must have wondered why he itched so much.

However, Utopia itself, as described by More, looks to be a very tedious place. I know that allowances must be made, as he was inventing this genre, but it all seems very Addams Family -- i.e. the things they like are the opposite of the things we like! Check it:
For whereas they eat and drink in earthen and glass vessels, which indeed be curiously and properly made, and yet be of very small value: of gold and silver they make commonly chamber pots, and other like vessels, that serve for most vile uses, not only in their common halls, but in every man’s private house. Furthermore of the same metals they make great chains, with fetters, and gyves wherein they tie their bondmen.
Heavy stuff. And, you know, dollars are just pieces of paper, man. Utopia is also not a place for the individualist:
If any man of his own head and without leave, walk out of his precinct and bounds, taken without the prince’s letters, he is brought again for a fugitive or a runaway with great shame and rebuke, and is sharply punished. If he be taken in that fault again, he is punished with bondage.
It would have been hell on Thoreau.

And The Fair Land

The Wall Street Journal has its Thanksgiving traditions, and I have mine:





There's also something hilarious to me that this song is about not having a Cadillac, yet the video here shows nothing but Cadillacs. I don't think that's balm for the wound of not having one, especially not one with the TV antenna in the back.

Still, happy Thanksgiving y'all. This has been a lean, sad year for me in many ways, but I can still read and type and enjoy the cooking smells.

November 26: Lamb, Crosby, and Shakespeare

Remember that radio show Shakespeare had in the 30s? The "Snyder's Codpieces Pentameter Hour?" A great show, and also the launching pad for a man named Eddie Cantor (stage name -- his given name was Christopher Marlowe).


Charles Lamb makes me rise to the defense of actors -- which isn't the default position of those who write for them, believe me -- by telling them they suck at Shakespeare:
>Why, nine parts in ten of what Hamlet does, are transactions between himself and his moral sense, they are the effusions of his solitary musings, which he retires to holes and corners and the most sequestered parts of the palace to pour forth..These profound sorrows, these light-and-noise-abhorring ruminations, which the tongue scare dares utter to deaf walls and chambers, how can they be represented by a gesticulating actor, who comes and mouths them out before an audience, making four hundred people his confidants at once? [H]e must insinuate them into his auditory by some trick of eye, tone, or gesture, or he fails. He must be thinking all the while of his appearance, because he knows that all the while the spectators are judging of it. And this is the way to represent the shy, negligent, retiring Hamlet.
Basically the argument is twofold. First, actors are idiots:
how people should come thus unaccountably to confound the power of originating poetical images and conceptions with the faculty of being able to read or recite the same when put into words; 1 or what connection that absolute mastery over the heart and soul of man, which a great dramatic poet possesses, has with those low tricks upon the eye and ear, which a player by observing a few general effects...can easily compass.
And second, even non-idiot actors, if there are any, of necessity have to stomp around and roll their eyes and stuff so you miss the sublime glory of Shakespeare:
Some dim thing or other they see, [the idiot non-Charles Lamb part of the audience -- ed.] they see an actor personating a passion, of grief, or anger, for instance, and they recognize it as a copy of the usual external effects of such passions...but of the grounds of the passion, its correspondence to a great or heroic nature, which is the only worthy object of tragedy,—that common auditors know anything of this, or can have any such notions dinned into them by the mere strength of an actor’s lungs...I can neither believe, nor understand how it can be possible.
Underneath all this is a kind of Shakespeare-olatry which, while I appreciate -- especially since I had to read one of his competitors yesterday -- I also instinctively rebel against. Come on -- no other dramatist is sublime?

But mostly I disagree with the conception of acting Lamb presents, as an art basically incapable of registering subtlety -- as if all actors were basically walking 104-point New York Post headlines. That doesn't square at all with the kind of acting I've seen up close, on sitcoms yet. And I was thinking that acting must have changed since Lamb's time (early 1800s) when it hit me -- of course it has. The microphone and camera changed it. What Bing Crosby is said to have done for singing -- used the technology to make intimate an art that, previously, had to reach the second balcony -- the movie stars did, bit by bit. "The Method" or more loosely the attempt for actors to establish more psychological intimacy in their acting, probably wouldn't have worked as well in Lamb's time. Or maybe it's us in the audience, more affluent, better educated, who have caught up to Lamb (if not Shakespeare), and now there's enough of us to fill a theater once in a while to watch a performance that's not all fireworks.

November 25: Comedy

Some comedy, however, is timeless.

Really, any day of the year would be OK to start a stunt like this. New Year's Day is a little obvious, even, but I was on strike and not picketing. (Digression: It really is remarkable how much show business shuts down over the holidays. You could totally Basil E. Frankweiler inside CAA from like the 23rd till after New Year's, but it would be no fun. They have crappy office coffee just like everyone else. )

But if you chose today, I pity you, because you're going to snap your book or laptop shut and go back to working your way through the Kama Sutra once you encouter today's reading, an Elizabethan comedy called The Shoemaker's Holiday. Like most comedies that are more than a generation old, it's not funny. Here's the great comic character of the piece, Simon Eyre:
Where be these boys, these girls, these drabs, these scoundrels? They wallow in the fat brewiss of my bounty, and lick up the crumbs of my table, yet will not rise to see my walks cleansed. Come out, you powder-beef queans! What, Nan! what, Madge Mumble-crust. Come out, you fat midriff-swag-belly-whores, and sweep me these kennels that the noisome stench offend not the noses of my neighbours.
In my professional opinion, none of that works. ("Powder-beef queans" is borderline, but disallowed because it's only spelled funny.) And the only way to make it work is for the poor actor to overplay it so much that you, the audience member, just hope he can't see you averting your eyes.

To be fair (although why I feel compelled to be fair to a long-dead Elizabethan playwright is a mystery), my aversion might have something more to do with the fact that this is not Day 1 of the project. This has been a year heavy with people who are Earls and Lord Mayors; they start to pall after awhile, even here, when they only exist to be contrasted with hearty folk of the people. Although I notice that back in early February I talked about how Falstaff's not funny, either. On the other hand I saw a production of "Twelfth Night" this summer in Barnsdall Park and found Sir Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek kind of funny; they walked around with little bubbles of drunkenness popping all around their heads. This isn't exactly a golden age of lush comedy, so I found it refreshing.

The idea of actual drinking also seems kind of refreshing right now. Maybe I'll try that.

November 24: Darwin Does Crackers

The Crackers. A dated reference, I know, but it still makes me smile.


Today Darwin shows the difficulty of talking about a subject — in this case genetics — before the jargon for that subject has been fully invented. Generally, of course, jargon is odious, but here, swimming through this prose, I kind of feel the lack of it:
Many laws regulate variation, some few of which can be dimly seen, and will hereafter be briefly discussed. I will here only allude to what may be called correlated variation. Important changes in the embryo or larva will probably entail changes in the mature animal. In monstrosities, the correlations between quite distinct parts are very curious; and many instances are given in Isidore Geoffroy St-Hilaire’s great work on this subject.
Even the use of the term “monstrosities” and the reference to the awesomely-named “Isidore Geoffroy St-Hilaire” fails to cheer. Although there is, later, farmers in Virginia are referred to as “crackers”. I didn’t know Darwin used the term “cracker” like this. No wonder they hated him in Tennessee.

Since I am not qualified to talk about genetics — or even to read about it, apparently — I will only note today how carefully Darwin, here and in the other readings from Origin of Species, builds his case. His detractors have always run around with the Drudge siren on their heads talking about how humans is descended from apples and stuff; but Darwin deliberately dulls it down. He spends a lot of time, here and elsewhere, talking about how gardeners and breeders of domesticated animals go about their business — it’s a “evolution is going on all around you!” argument, but without the childlike wonder that’s always so annoying. And every few paragraphs Darwin kinda casually drops in another reference to some other scientist’s study, in order to sensibly protect himself from appearing like a crackpot. You got a problem with Darwin? Then you also have a problem with Isidore Geoffroy St.-Hilaire. And that’s not a name you mess with, my friends.

November 23: Progress

A portion of the proceeds of this movie went to Cheech Marin's formidable art collection.

Of course there's been some progress over the centuries. Why, in the 1800s, it used to take forever to get anywhere in Manhattan! And as for the ruthless exploitation of prison labor -- well, now that takes place a whole ocean away from where we can see it. As a comedy writer my temperament makes me root against progress, at least as it pertains to the human soul. Because that would be bad for business.

However, I do wonder sometimes, and reading Pascal today is one of those times. Because Pascal was one of the smartest men in Europe at the time, the 1660s, yet here in the Pensees he sounds like a bright, but stoned, freshman:
The whole visible world is only an imperceptible atom in the ample bosom of nature. No idea approaches it. We may enlarge our conceptions beyond all imaginable space; we only produce atoms in comparison with the reality of things...

Let a mite be given him, with its minute body and parts incomparably more minute, limbs with their joints, veins in the limbs, blood in the veins, humours in the blood, drops in the humours, vapours in the drops. Dividing these last things again, let him exhaust his powers of conception, and let the last object at which he can arrive be now that of our discourse. Perhaps he will think that here is the smallest point in nature. I will let him see therein a new abyss...

For who will not be astounded at the fact that our body, which a little ago was imperceptible, in the universe, itself imperceptible in the bosom of the whole, is now a colossus, a world, or rather a whole, in respect of the nothingness which we cannot reach? He who regards himself in this light will will tremble at the sight of these marvels....
Or at least get very very hungry. And have you ever really noticed those crescent moons on the bottom of your fingernails? How come they're there?

As further proof of my brillant-genius-of-the-past-seems-like-stoner thesis, Thought 76 (I don't feel like re-figuring out how to do the accents) also seems like the kind of fragmentary note one puzzles over upon seeing it the next morning:
76

To write against those who made too profound a study of science. Descartes.
For some reason it reminds me of a fake classified ad from Monty Python: "FOUND. Small green and brown thing. Could be a Vermeer."

My other complaint about this passage, in addition to high-ness, which isn't so bad really, is this quietist part right here:
If this be well understood, I think that we shall remain at rest, each in the state wherein nature has placed him. As this sphere which has fallen to us as our lot is always distant from either extreme, what matters it that man should have a little more knowledge of the universe?
To this I have two replies: 1. Easy for Pascal to say that there's nothing worth discovering -- after he'd already invented the syringe, and 2. With this advice to spend our lives doing nothing, Pascal proves his point that we can't really understand human nature. Too much can be made of our Eternally Questing spirit, god knows, and I have a bias in favor of the lazy, but the fact is that we are bound to get into mischief, as the sparks fly upward. If people were inclined to stay where nature had placed them, no one would ever work off the books. And yet it happens all the time. To say nothing of philosophy students dealing pot out of their dorm rooms -- that would be Pascal's Double, in my opinion.

November 22: The Break-Up



So in this Guardian article Jeanette Winerson is saying

So when people say that poetry is merely a luxury for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn't be read much at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language - and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers - a language powerful enough to say how it is.
(Via, incidentally, The Page, indispensable for the poetry-inclined). This gives us a test -- does Dryden's account of the unpleasantness between Dido and Aeneas measure up, toughness-wise?
What have I said? where am I? Fury turns
My brain; and my distemper’d bosom burns. ...
I should have torn him piecemeal; strow’d in floods
His scatter’d limbs, or left expos’d in woods;
Destroy’d his friends and son; and, from the fire,
Have set the reeking boy before the sire.
That's pretty good. I had to make some cuts for optimal pissed-off-ness, but no question that Dido's drift is gotten.

It's good of Virgil to let Dido make her case that Aeneas is the biggest loser ever, considering that the whole point of the poem is to make the case that Aeneas is the founder of the #1 res publica. You don't see Toby Keith allowing the opposition to make its case in his national epics. On the other hand it's probably easier for Virgil because the Romans had already sown Carthage with salt, and we haven't done that to the Middle East (yet).

The other thing I liked is actually in the argument -- that synopsis at the start of the chapter. I needed to turn to it because I got a little lost (not Dryden's fault). Dido's rage and bargaining is termed thusly: Dido finds out his design, and, to put a stop to it, makes use of her own and her sister’s entreaties, and discovers all the variety of passions that are incident to a neglected lover. I love that. You can make a long list of the advantages our age has, starting with Zappos.com and working your way down, but we don't have the knack for circumlocution that they did in wordier days. The last good one I can think of is when Hirohito, after Hiroshima, told the Japanese that "the situation has developed not necessarily to our advantage." The situation was the same for poor Dido. Tough language didn't help her any.

UPDATE: Robert Going of The Judge Report couldn't post in comments, but he reminded me of how our high school Latin teacher, Sister Anna Roberta, used to teach it in Latin IV, although I didn't have her in Latin IV; she retired around III, I think. She actually taught very little Latin by my time, but I did learn a lot of rhetorical terms like chiasmus and hendiadys (a wonderful word to say, by the way).

Another Harvard classic


Full prank here.

November 21: Recycled, or maybe vintage, insights

I think I found a mascot.

How do newspaper columnists do it? Here I was all set to type up some fresh insight about Voltaire, and at the last minute I remembered it was an insight I'd had two months ago. That insight was probably not all that fresh then, either, but my lack of knowledge about Voltaire prevents me from knowing who's had what insights about him. (The reason ignorance is bliss is that the ignorant brain always has that morning-fresh feeling.)

Of course, when it comes to recycling insights, I observe that newspaper columnists seem to be washed clean of shame. Maureen Dowd's been writing the same column for fifteen years. At this point, all she has to do is hit F6 and the column is extruded -- shitty pop-culture metaphors gently circling, one atop another, like the coils of a McDonald's shake. The Internet is unfair.

You could say that Voltaire's "English Letters" recycle the same insight -- which was that England equals progress, and guess what French-speaking nation does not -- but at least he makes himself find fresh examples. Today it's inoculation; the English have had the good sense to steal this disease-fighting practice from the Turks, who (Voltaire says) did it to make sure the pipeline of good-looking prostitutes would continue to flow. Lady Mary Wortley Montague, who seems like an extremely interesting person, brought it to England, and Voltaire, who seems like a guy who knows how to kiss up, manages to credit someone higher-ranking:
Lady Wortley Montague...at her return to England, communicated the experiment to the Princess of Wales, now Queen of England. It must be confessed that this princess, abstracted from her crown and titles, was born to encourage the whole circle of arts, and to do good to mankind. She appears as an amiable philosopher on the throne, having never let slip one opportunity of improving the great talents she received from Nature, nor of exerting her beneficence...The moment this princess heard of inoculation, she caused an experiment of it to be made on four criminals sentenced to die.
See how enlightened she is? She performs medical experiments on prisoners! (My understanding, however, is that by the standards of the House of Hanover this is enlightened.)

The only other insight I'm going to dust off from the inoculation story is the notion that Western Civilization, so called, is largely a collection of stuff from other civilizations that we stole and then repurposed. Like how a bunch of John Philip Sousa instruments got turned into jazz. Recycling can be fun!

November 20: The power of dress

     Right.                      Wrong.

One of the things I don't like about comedy writers, as a class, is that they dress in a low-status way, with their baseball hats and flannel shirts, which is what I'm wearing right now. Plus pants, I hasten to add. On the other hand, you can't dress too fancy out here, or you're weird, and it's hard to live up to weird.

But while it's all very well to say that it doesn't matter what you look like, it's what's in your heart that counts, the truth is that we prefer a whited sepulchre to one that's tumbling down, and this lesson is reinforced for the children -- who, I have heard it said, are our future -- in today's Grimm's Fairy Tale. Our hero is a little tailor who kills seven flies at once, stitches himself a "girdle" commemorating this fact, and then is deferred to by giants and kings and stuff. Not that they don't suspect him of boasting -- they're constantly asking him to prove himself. But he always outwits them in harebrained ways, a lot like those Duke students who are going to save the economy so they can keep their frat house. Here's an example:
After a while he perceived both giants. They lay sleeping under a tree, and snored so that the branches waved up and down. The little tailor, not idle, gathered two pocketfuls of stones, and with these climbed up the tree. When he was half-way up, he slipped down by a branch, until he sat just above the sleepers, and then let one stone after another fall on the breast of one of the giants. For a long time the giant felt nothing, but at last he awoke, pushed his comrade, and said, “Why art thou knocking me?” “Thou must be dreaming,” said the other, “I am not knocking thee.”
I think we can guess how this will end.

The only other thing to note is that our hero, like many heroes in unsantized fairy tales in my experience, is an extremely disagreeable man. Here's how we meet him:
Then came a peasant woman down the street crying, “Good jams, cheap! Good jams, cheap!” This rang pleasantly in the tailor’s ears; he stretched his delicate head out of the window, and called, “Come up here, dear woman; here you will get rid of your goods.” The woman came up the three steps to the tailor with her heavy basket, and he made her unpack the whole of the pots for him. He inspected all of them, lifted them up, put his nose to them, and at length said, “The jam seems to me to be good, so weigh me out four ounces, dear woman, and if it is a quarter of a pound that is of no consequence.” The woman who had hoped to find a good sale, gave him what he desired, but went away quite angry and grumbling.
What a jerk! And he's a self-promoter. And his comeuppance is that he gets to be rich and powerful. Let that be a lesson to you, children.

November 19: Old-fashioned workmanship

The Excalibur in Vegas. It was not of this that Tennyson wrote: “The old order changeth, yielding place to new,/And God fulfils Himself in many ways,/ As here, where the town's loosest slots reside."

Tennyson can't be fashionable. As discussed, he is superfruity and Victorian. And it is impossible to read today's poem, "Morte d'Arthur", and not think in parts of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail":
In those old days, one summer noon, an arm
Rose up from out the bosom of the lake,
Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,
Holding the sword...
Which, as we know, is no basis for allocating political power. And yet I admire the poem. It has narrative drive -- enough so that you find yourself yelling at the character of Sir Bedivere, whom the mortally wounded Arthur tells to deep-six Excalibur. He can't do it -- it's too bright and shiny -- so he lies when he reports back to Arthur, proving that Cover Your Ass belongs in the very realm of myth (it occurs to me that Adam and Eve provide literal proof of this as well):
And answer made the bold Sir Bedivere:
“I heard the ripple washing in the reeds
And the wild water lapping on the crag.”
Come on, Sir B. just told the boss what he wanted to hear -- is he really bold? Plus Arthur can tell in an instant that he's lying. So then Arthur sends him to destroy the sword again, again he can't do it, and he comes back and tells him the exact same lie! I realize, for poetical purposes, that the refrain-ness of repeating the same answer lends a certain Mythic Greatness to the poem. But it would never happen that way in real life.

But here's the passage that finally made me like the poem for good. Bedivere has finally ditched the sword, and now must carry the dying Arthur to the lake so he can make his ferry:
But the other swiftly strode from ridge to ridge,
Clothed with his breath, and looking as he walk’d,
Larger than human on the frozen hills.
He heard the deep behind him, and a cry
Before. His own thought drove him, like a goad.
Dry clash’d his harness in the icy caves
And barren chasms, and all to left and right
The bare black cliff clang’d round him, as he based
His feet on juts of slippery crag that rang
Sharp-smitten with the dint of armed heels—
And on a sudden, lo! the level lake,
And the long glories of the winter moon.
First of all, "Clothed with his breath" is a great phrase. But mostly, as I sat on my patio reading, the craft in this passage -- and I don't even know anything about poetic craft -- jumped out at me. The phrases don't end at the lines because he has to keep moving -- although he get one sentence for the long shot ("Larger than human"), and a state-of-mind status report ("His own thought drove him, like a goad.") And look at the sound pattern -- not just the alliteration, but "barren" and "bare" in consecutive lines, or how "goad" echoes "drove" -- "drove" drives "goad," almost. The craft is conspicuous -- it would pretty much have to be, for me to pick up on it -- but it doesn't seem ostentatious.

It's still Victorian and superfruity and, though easy to admire, hard to love. It's sort of like the way you admire the Victorian lords and ladies for being able to endure those clothes and those long afternoons in those antimacassar-filled rooms without running away screaming and dunking their head into a sink full of absinthe. Good on them for not doing that. But we'd probably have to.

Noted

Our Girl In Chicago, who really should post more, has an excellent appreciation of "To Autumn" (dealt by me very superfically here last month). This is how it's supposed to be done

November 18: Things I DIdn't Know About William Tell

Old-school parenting.

• He apparently did not exist.

• But if he had existed, the reason he shot the apple off his son's head, according to Schiller, was because he was made to do so by an evil colonial official.

• This led to Swiss independence because people finally saw how evil colonial officials are:
Rud. My people I forsook—renounced my kindred—
Broke all the ties of nature, that I might
Attach myself to you. I madly thought
That I should best advance the general weal
By adding sinews to the Emperor’s power.
The scales have fallen from mine eyes—I see
The fearful precipice on which I stand.
You’ve led my youthful judgment far astray,—
Deceived my honest heart. With best intent,
I had well-nigh achiev’d my country’s ruin.
• This example has not deterred colonial adventures in the centuries since. (Actually I did know that, but not in reference to William Tell, so it counts.)

• Tell's son went willingly to his post of being shot at, which only shows that the younger generation hasn't gotten any more reckless since the 14th century.

• Apparently in Switzerland the country people all talk in unison, in a manner reminiscent of The Plain People of Ireland:
Country People (surrounding TELL). Our last remaining comfort goes with you!
• I'm aware that this is a crappy moldy translation, but nevertheless I am of the opinion that William Tell would be small potatoes and not in the Harvard Classics if it weren't for Rossini's overture, which should give all the budding lyricists out there a reminder of which is more important, the words or the music.

November 10: Country and City and Goldsmith and Willie and Laura Mae Jones

Okay, so I'm doing last Monday's reading, which I had read but not written about, mostly because it saves me labor, but also because it's on a favorite topic of mine: the alleged virtues of the country over the city. Or, in Oliver Goldsmith's case, the superiority of The Deserted Village of Auburn over the stinking lanes of London.

There's always been good money in this take. Hell, there still is -- Thomas Kinkade, Master of Light, doesn't paint the evening traffic on the 405, he paints stuff like this:

How often have I paused on every charm,
The shelter’d cot, the cultivated farm,
The never-failing brook, the busy mill,
The decent church that topp’d the neighbouring hill;
The hawthorn bush, with seats beneath the shade,
For talking age and whispering lovers made!
You can just see the set of plates. To be charitable, this poem is also a social commentary: Auburn is deserted because the land has been taken over for big, Hamptons-style mansions, and people have left for the city to find work:
Where, then, ah! where shall poverty reside,
To ’scape the pressure of contiguous pride? ...
Those fenceless fields the sons of wealth divide,
And even the bare-worn common is denied.

If to the city sped—what waits him there?
To see profusion that he must not share;
To see ten thousand baneful arts combined
To pamper luxury and thin mankind;
To see each joy the sons of pleasure know
Extorted from his fellow-creature’s woe.
Which is pretty trenchant. You could also express this sentiment (gone are the old ways, they paved paradise and put up a parking lot) in prose. It fact, it's been done, at least once, like so:
The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It ... has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment” ... All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
Italics mine; they are italics of wonder, because (digression!) why do conservative religious people ever ally themselves, politically, with capitalists -- the very people who want to open the mall early on Sunday? I never understood that. I also make the English major-y note that Goldsmith uses a couple of stages-of-life metaphors when he's describing this decay, as if this regrettable process is completely natural and so incapable of reform -- it can only be deplored.

Despite the trenchantness, though, I find Goldsmith just a tiny wee bit condescending toward the country people. Please note, I'm being sarcastic -- it's actually immensely irritating, partly because I come from (and have just come back from) the type of town that city folk either dismiss condescendingly or laud in the same way. Goldsmith gives this game away early when he confesses why he's so upset at poor Auburn's demise:
I still had hopes, my latest hours to crown,
Amidst these humble bowers to lay me down;
To husband out life’s taper at the close,
And keep the flame from wasting, by repose:
I still had hopes, for pride attends us still,
Amidst the swains to show my book-learn’d skill,
Around my fire an evening group to draw,
And tell of all I felt, and all I saw;
He was going to do us hicks a favor by living among us and telling us about how he knew Sir Joshua Reynolds. No thanks, pal. (Unless you're buying.) What's worse to me is that what's so charming about us is that we're dumb. Here's the schoolmaster:
The village all declared how much he knew;
’Twas certain he could write, and cipher too; ...
While words of learned length and thundering sound
Amazed the gazing rustics ranged around;
And still they gazed, and still the wonder grew,
That one small head could carry all he knew.
I trimmed a few lines in this passage and now notice that Goldsmith uses "knew" twice for his rhyme in a short space. Who's the genius now?

Finally, to show how eternal Goldsmith's take is, here's a couple of lines near the end:
Good Heaven! what sorrows gloom’d that parting day,
That call’d them from their native walks away;
When the poor exiles, every pleasure past,
Hung round their bowers, and fondly looked their last.
And here's Tony Joe White (via Dusty Springfield) on the same subject (especially in the third verse; note that there's basically no video, but I like this song a lot, so too bad):

New post tomorrow

Which will be either Carlyle on Scott (technically tomorrow's reading), or Oliver Goldsmith (which I had read last week but then didn't write on).

I won't say when tomorrow, though: I have paying work to go through too.

Work suspended

When I started this blog I knew my dad would love it; after all, they were his volumes that all my childhood were in the bookcase in the upstairs hall, before I shipped them across the country to the bookcase in this upstairs hall. After a couple of weeks, when I proved to myself that I could do this every day, I opened up the blog and told him. He did love it, and on days when I didn't feel like reading or writing I did it anyway, because I knew he'd be checking in, and his enjoyment of it would keep me going and made me feel good.

Today my dad received the last rites. It's time for me to go back across the country one last time on his behalf, like I did last week; but last week he could tell Mad Men-like stories about working for the Travelers' Insurance in Boston in 1960, and today he can't talk at all. And no longer will I sit at my desk here in LA, and smack a post about one of these readings across the Net and wait for him to return it. Our game is called on account of darkness.

I'll return at some point in the next couple of weeks. I want to see the year out -- now more than ever, really.

Melanoma got him, and quickly. Wear your sunscreen.

UPDATE: I suddenly remembered that he copied out these lines (from "Arkansas Traveller," by Charles Wright) and had them on his desk:

Knot by knot I untie myself from the past
And let it rise away from me like a balloon.
What a small thing it becomes.
What a bright tweak at the vanishing point, blue on blue.

November 9: Psalms on Psunday, or, It Is Not Enough To Succeed. Others Must Fail.

I can't really add to much to the two prior reading of Psalms that we've had this year, but one thing did strike me in this bunch, which is that of the nine Psalms (137 to 145) to read today, almost all of them make sure to add a little "and kill my enemies, Lord" there at the end; the Biblical equivalent of driving the car up onto the sidewalk to pick off someone who's looking at you funny.

But don't take my word for it. Take the Word's word for it:

137 ("By the rivers of Babylon"):

O daughter of Babylon, that 3 art to be destroyed,
Happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee
As thou hast served us.

Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones
Against the rock.

139 ("For I am fearfully and wonderfully made"):

Surely thou wilt slay the wicked, O God:
Depart from me therefore, ye bloodthirsty men.

I hate them with perfect hatred:
They are become mine enemies.

140 ("Deliver me, O Jehovah, from the evil man")

Let burning coals fall upon them:
Let them be cast into the fire,
Into deep 2 pits, whence they shall not rise.

141 (which, to be fair, does say, "Let the righteous smite me, it will be a kindness")

Let the wicked fall into their own nets,
Whilst that I withal escape.

143 ("My soul thirsteth after thee, as a weary land")

And in thy lovingkindness cut off mine enemies,
And destroy all them that afflict my soul;
For I am thy servant.

144 ("What is man, that thou takest knowledge of him?")

Cast forth lightning, and scatter them;
Send out thine arrows, and discomfit them.

145 ("I will extol thee, O God")

Jehovah preserveth all them that love him;
But all the wicked will he destroy.


The last one is the prime example -- a beautiful song of praise that makes sure to sprinkle some blood-of-the-wicked as a spice. Not that this is unique to the Psalms; it's just the Judeo-Christian version of jihad, really. Or maybe you could say that the Psalms have a touch of Irish Alzheimer's: Let me forget everything, Lord, except mine enemies.

November 8: Versifying is hard

Milton's verse may linger in your brain, but Milton's Pop-Tarts stay in your arteries.

Sequels now I sing, sequels Miltonic
With syntax grand, wherein the sentences
Like Slinkies cascading slowly downward,
Traverse the lines, till wish’d-for periods --
Those precious pausing drops that signal rest --
Appear at last to bring them to a close.

Since my skill in verse is like to Homer’s
I should be brief. Here’s my favorite excerpt
From this classic already once excerpted
(To set it up, Christ is in the desert
Musing expositional on his youth):
When I was yet a child, no childish play
To me was pleasing; all my mind was set
Serious to learn and know, and thence to do,
What might be public good.
And swiftly in my mind an image formed
Of young Jesus, in new sandals, sent to school
Where He the games decries, the Purim masks --
And a locker, then, is with our Saviour's stuff'd.

November 7: Islam giveth, and Islam taketh away


They say the classics aren't relevant anymore, but today's story starts like this:

O PRINCE OF THE FAITHFUL, my story is wonderful; for these two bitches are my sisters...
But -- sorry hiphop fans -- it turns out the two bitches are just dogs. By now I should expect such transformations from "The Thousand and One Nights." As has often happened in the other readings from this volume, we have not only the presto/chango, but rooms full of gold, and also what seems to have been a key concern in the mentalité of the Arab World of the time, commercial shipping:
...I replied, Ye are welcome, O my sisters; for I have no one dearer to me than yourselves:—and I received them, and treated them with every kindness, and we remained happily together for the space of a year.

After this I resolved to fit out a vessel for a mercantile voyage.
Our narrator (or narrator within the narrator, or, possibly the narrator within the narrator within the narrator -- it's hard to tell sometimes with the "Thousand and One") then recounts her trip, where they come upon a people rich, but, unfortunately, turned to stone. Except for one guy, who quite conveniently turns out to be the Prince of the place, who was also a secret Muslim -- in this translation, "Muslimeh," or Canadian Muslim.

So naturally, they fall in love -- our Prince being, in these stony circumstances, something like the last man on earth, but with the added advantage of being rich. So they decide to head to Baghdad, where you can get a decent meal from people who aren't literally as dumb as rocks. And here's where Allah gets all capricious:
We continued our voyage with a favourable wind, and, quitting the sea of peril, entered the sea of security, across which we proceeded for some days, until we drew near the city of El-Basrah...but as soon as we had fallen asleep, my sisters took us up in our bed, both myself and the young man, and threw us into the sea. The youth, being unable to swim, was drowned; God recorded him among the company of the martyrs; while I was registered among those whose life was yet to be preserved.
In other words, God saved him long enough so that he could be drowned in the sea of security, where, I suppose to make it even more ironic, he sank like a stone. And what's worse is that it sounds like a clerical error -- "upon further review of your case, your application to live has not been granted because you have been recorded to be among the martyrs," etc.

Fortunately our heroine frees a Jinnyeh who transports her back home with all the loot intact and turns her sisters into dogs --
...She then said to me, I swear by that which was engraved upon the seal of Suleyman, that, if thou do not inflict three hundred lashes upon each of these bitches every day, I will come and transform thee in the like manner:—so I replied, I hear and obey:—and have continued ever since to inflict upon them these stripes, though pitying them while I do so.
Hmmm...I smell a PETA-neoconservative Islamophobe alliance in the works.

November 6: Gravity lets you down

Figure 5.


Mr. Faraday continues his lecture on gravity that he began back in May, and I continue to be completely beguiled by the illustrations, as you can see.

It's hard to really form a blistering opinion about gravity -- I think we're all in favor of it, especially those of us who just pile things up on their desks instead of filing them -- so I will note that Faraday uses the word "beautiful" four or five times in the course of this lecture, including these sentences (technically not in the reading):
Hence, we come into this world, we live, and depart from it, without our thoughts being called specifically to consider how all this takes place; and were it not for the exertions of some few inquiring minds, who have looked into these things, and ascertained the very beautiful laws and conditions by which we do live and stand upon the earth, we should hardly be aware that there was any thing wonderful in it.
Here I have what we call a weight [an iron half cwt.]—a thing called a weight because in it the exercise of that power of pressing downward is especially used for the purposes of weighing; and I have also one of these little inflated India-rubber bladders, which are very beautiful although very common (most beautiful things are common), and I am going to put the weight upon it, to give you a sort of illustration of the downward pressure of the iron...
Burnt-out literature professors are a common trope, but are there burnt-out scientists? There must be. But the relatively few science folk I have known (mostly science majors who turned to comedy writing in the vain hope of being cooler) are still geeked on what they study. And maybe that's because for them, as for Faraday, science is an aesthetic pursuit. Only instead of imposing an aesthetic upon the world, they seek to find how the world imposes its principles upon us.

Hey, maybe that's what'll get kids interested in science -- just tell them it's a branch of aesthetic philosophy! Also, a cartoon cat of some sort might be helpful. Like a jaguar or something. Also also, illustrations, like my friend Figure 9 here:

Nuff said!

November 5: Politics

Also, I believe that it will become fashionable again to join the Masons. You just watch.


Today I will start off with a confession, and then hopefully it will wind around to the reading. The confession is this: I voted for Nader in 2000. My exculpations are as follows: 1) I wouldn't have done it if I'd been living in someplace like Pennsylvania instead of safely blue California, but 2) I was sympathetic to the radical critique that our political opinions are forced into narrow little boxes, as if we were veal. (Recall, too, that 2000 is pre-blogosphere; it was a lot harder then to get your nutty ideas out to the people.)

In fact, given my default Tory sensibilities, wrapped up in my readings like old plaids (to paraphrase Larkin) as I am, I am skeptical of the words on the dollar bill: Novus Ordo Seclorum. But sometimes, even for us cynical believers in the overarching power of The System, change happens; I felt decidedly uncynical yesterday, and here is more pro-change evidence today, in an account of Thomas More written by his son-in-law.

More is remembered, of course, as a martyr and creator of martyrs. But before that unpleasantness he was Speaker of the House of Commons, and his petition to King Henry to allow the Commons to speak freely during debate is so groveling it is shocking:
Yet such is the weight of the matter, such is the reverend dread that the timorous hearts of your natural subjects conceive towards your high Majesty (our most redoubted King and undoubted Sovereign) that they cannot in this point find themselves satisfied, except your gracious bounty herein declared put away the scruple of their timorous minds, and animate and encourage them out of doubt. It may therefore like your most abundant Grace (our most gracious King) to give to all your Commons here assembled, your most gracious licence and pardon freely, without doubt of your dreadful displeasure, every man to discharge his conscience, and boldly in everything incident among, declare his advice, and whatsoever happeneth any man to say, it may like your noble Majesty of your inestimable goodness to take all in good part, interpreting every man’s words, how uncunningly soever they be couched, to proceed yet of a good zeal towards the profit of your Realm and honour of your Royal person, the prosperous estate and preservation whereof (most excellent Sovereign) is the thing which we all your most humble loving subjects, according to the most bounden duty of our natural allegiance, most highly desired and pray for.
I like that "timorous" is used twice; also, "most dreadful displeasure". In light of this, maybe you don't have to be a full-on subscriber to the Whig interpretation of history to feel that we're making progress, even though this is exactly how I imagine Bush's advisers have to talk to him. Still, compare More's rhetoric with this story about New Yorkers yelling at Bloomberg for wanting a third term. Democracy in action! And Bloomberg's even richer than Henry VIII was.

Also of note is a little snapshot of More the dad:
...to provoke his wife and children to the desire of heavenly things, he would sometimes use these words unto them. “It is now no mastery for you children to go to heaven. For everybody giveth you good counsel, everybody giveth you good example. You see virtue rewarded, and vice punished, so that you are carried up to heaven even by the chins.” If his wife or any of his children had been diseased, or troubled, he would say to them. “We may not look at our pleasure to go to heaven in feather beds, it is not the way. For our Lord himself went thither with great pain, and by many tribulations, which is the path wherein he walked thither, and the servant may not look to be in better case than his Master.”
I don't really have any opinion, I just like the diction ("carried up to heaven even by the chins" -- my poor children are going to be hearing this, mark my words.) He also taught his daughters Latin, which was considered quite remarkable in his time, while in ours, by contrast, it would merely be considered remarkably eccentric. So maybe change is the only constant.

November 4: Greetings from the Golden Age

Golden Age Beer -- For refreshment that complies with the dramatic unities.


The Golden Age is now.

At least it is for us upper-middlebrows with Internet connections. Classical music pours out of Pandora like nothing on earth. The WFMU blog brings us footage of Jack Benny interviewing Issac Hayes. A college professor who talks to journalists about Niebuhr and who's willing to be photographed wearing a bike helmet could be President of the United States. And the Harvard Classics are all on line -- and, what's more, there's Wikipedia and Google (see also: "Google, The") to ameliorate the frequent incomprehensibilities of the Harvard Classics.

Take today, Corneille's Polyeucte. At first glance, it just seems like a boring nonsensical old 17th century drama translated into sub-Richard Wilbur doggerel. But, thanks to Wikipedia, you can take the "nonsensical" right out of it. Then it becomes intriguing -- not to read, god knows, but to think about, for this appears to be a drama where everyone is so damn noble.

In our scene we meet Severus (this is set in Roman times), who's in love with Pauline (it's not set too strongly in Roman times), who has been promised to another:
Duty—her father—Fate—these willed, she but obeyed;
Not hers the woe, the strife that envious Ate made!
Untimely, Fortune’s shower must drown me, not revive;
Too lavish and too late her fatal gifts arrive.
...Peace! Peace! She comes!

FABIAN. To thine own self be true!

SEV. Nay! True to her! Shall I her life undo?
She loves the Armenian!
"She loves the Armenian" doesn't quite make it in the lists of the All-Time Tragic Lines of Love, I'm afraid. Then Pauline comes and says, more or less, it cannot be -- Duty has promised her to another, Polyeucte. So then we're expecting Polyecute to whisk her away, right? But no, he wishes her well: "May Heaven shower bliss and peace on Polyeucte and thee!" Then Polyeucte arrives and Pauline tells him about what just happened, completely torpedoing the possibility of skulking around. And Polyeucte says it's OK! For -- and this is the part I needed Wikipedia's help with -- he's about to become a Christian martyr and saint, after which, apparently, he will match up Pauline and Severus.

I was fascinated, thinking about whether we could actually bear to see a drama in which everyone's the good guy. But then I realized that it's sort of like Casablanca from Ingrid Bergman's husband's point of view, but with less Epstein brothers wisecracks and more declamations. And it would probably be a lot more boring, because who can even remember Ingrid Bergman's husband's character's name? I can't even remember who played him -- Bill Pullman, probably. And yet I could look it up on IMDB -- because, as I said, this truly is a golden age for a pedant.

November 3: No Pliny today


I am travelling without my books, and my Daily Reading Guide link can't possibly be right: I was assured that I was to get a ringside seat to Christian persecution, but instead I find letters from Pliny to Trajan about stuff like what the interest rates should be; interesting, in a way -- if only because it gives me the sense that the Christians were just another in a long line of pains in the ass to the provincial governor -- but, in another and more realistic way, completely uninteresting.

Tomorrow we will return with stirring tales from the French drama that couldn't be less relevant to the election.

November 2: The Audacity of Audacity

One of the things that characterizes really great people in any field, I think, is that they're conscious of their greatness. They have to be, or how would they dare to do what only the great can do?


The problem is that one of the things that characterizes crazy people is that they're also conscious of their greatness. And, speaking for myself anyway, I have a default setting of preferring false modesty to no modesty at all. Dante, however, doesn't agree, as we find in this moment in the Inferno. Dante is hanging out in Limbo with Virgil and Homer and Horace -- you know, famous classical poets whose names are now given to the kids of eccentric parents at your preschool:
When they together short discourse had held,
They turn’d to me, with salutation kind
Beckoning me; at the which my master smiled:
Nor was this all; but greater honour still
They gave me, for they made me of their tribe;
And I was sixth amid so learn’d a band.
In other words, is Dante the equal of Virgil and Homer? Sure he is -- just ask him! He's a mouthy entertainer, like Terrell Owens or Shaq or someone like that. Or John Lennon, although Dante takes pains to let you know he's less popular than Jesus.

Limbo smees like a nice place, by the way. The only drawback, according to Virgil, is "that we live/Desiring without hope." It's just like Hollywood! (And so many people think Hollywood's close to Hell already.)

November 1: Shakespeare and Nice Buns

All the world's a mall.

There’s a goodly amount of theater stuff in the Harvard Classics, which they choose to call by the more fancifying name of “drama.” But in the Daily Reading Guide – the “tasting menu” of the 50 volumes – you could call the drama selections “Act I, Scene i: An Anthology.”

Not that that’s all bad. In fact it’s been educational. One thing I’ve learned as a TV writer from this year of reading has been to be less afraid of the obviously expository. Your audience needs exposition! And that’s what we get today, pages of it, in the opening of “The Tempest.”

Of course exposition on TV, where people can bail on you instantaneously, is a little different than in the theater, where the audience is eager to get into the story, because they paid for their tickets and so are rooting for their money. (Digression: when I was a well-paid TV writer, a condition that sadly no longer obtains, we used to go to New York where we’d see Broadway shows, and there’s an example of people rooting for their money. I never saw jokes so over-liked.) Also, I suspect, people liked lots of fancy talkin’ in Shakespeare’s time -- talk is cheap, and the Elizabethean budget was not exactly spacious. So you get stuff like this:
...I, thus neglecting worldly ends, all dedicated
To closeness 7 and the bettering of my mind
With that which, but by being so retir’d,
O’er-priz’d all popular rate, 8 in my false brother
Awak’d an evil nature; and my trust,
Like a good parent, did beget of him
A falsehood, in its contrary as great
As my trust was; which had indeed no limit,
A confidence sans 9 bound.
I do like Prospero's admission, here, that his usurpation is kind of his fault; but otherwise, about the themes and stuff, I can’t say. Or rather I could try to say, but I’m intimidated because it’s Shakespeare. There is one line, however, that really sticks out, and perhaps has been unappreciated by scholars.
Gon. I’ll warrant him for drowning though the ship were no stronger than a nut-shell and as leaky as an unstanched wench.
As leaky as an unstanched wench. Gonzalo is, we are informed, a wise old counselor, so presumably this person was played by the Philip Baker Hall of his day. And he’s saying something dirty! I can’t tell you how tickled I was when I put this together. You see, I (and I am far from only among my comedy writing friends) have an acute appreciation for the trope of old people talking sexy and/or with hiphop slang – like the rappin’ Granny in the trailer for The Wedding Singer or the Granny who says “He’s got nice buns!” in the trailer to, I think, The Runaway Bride. It’s always hilarious! Sexy talk and/or hiphop slang is like the absolute last thing you’d expect an old person to say! It’s like the record-scratch sound effect – age cannot wither, nor custom stale, its awesome effect. Especially in a trailer.

And here I thought the “I speak jive” lady in “Airplane!” was the godmother of this trope. But no, it’s Shakespeare. That dude should have written trailers.

Warning

I am called away from today thru Election Day so it is dicey whether I'll be able to post. Just think of every day that I do as a victory! In case I don't, though: