December 31: And we liked it!

New Year's Eve 1952, from the Life photo archive on Google Images. This woman won the "Prettiest Teacher in America" contest sponsored by "Our Miss Brooks." Who the guy was or what he did is not mentioned. I'm sure they both went on to loathe hippies.

When my sister used to live in Troy, one of the highlights of my visits to her was reading "Sound Off!" in the Troy Record. A lot of small-town papers have these leave-your-comment columns. I loved it because it showed that the voice of the people is, in general, p.o'd. Here's a sample from yesterday:
Inquiring minds want to know

It's 7:08 a.m. Dec. 22, I'd like to know why the Department of Public Utilities always manages to plow out an employee on Sixth Avenue. If they're going to do private plowing, I'd like them to do mine. I live on the next corner at 107th. Just drove by and saw this.
I could read this stuff for pages, if newspapers still had more than one page, that is. The LA Times has a version of this in the Saturday sports section, only it's more self-satisfied and "humorous", like (and I'm making this up): "I'll gladly take Andruw Jones off the Dodgers' hands. I have a teenage son, so I'm used to having someone unproductive who does nothing but eat." It's really all they can do not to use exclamation points -- then it would really sound like Dave Berg in "Mad" magazine.

Well, our valedictory reading, the one that's making the all-important last impression, sounds like "Sound Off!" in the Troy Record. It's Thomas Carlyle talking to the young people at the University of Edinburgh, and after some throat-clearing about how Books Are Good he wanders into a digression about Oliver Cromwell:
I should say also of that Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell’s, notwithstanding the censures it has encountered, and the denial of everybody that it could continue in the world, and so on, it appears to me to have been, on the whole, the most salutary thing in the modern history of England.
It has the unmistakable tone of cranky literature -- that "everyone thinks I'm wrong, huh? Well, I'm right because everyone thinks I'm wrong!" vibe. (And I should say also that the faculty of Harvard must really have assumed, 100 years ago, that the Irish in Boston were of no account to have featured such a pro-Cromwell sentiment.)

Continuing to wander, Carlyle starts to frag his own profession: "In general, I hardly think that out of common history-books you will ever get into the real history of this country, or ascertain anything which can specially illuminate it for you, and which it would most of all behoove you to know." Which leads to another digression about the good old days of the aristocracy, before the Stuarts ruined it:
...the King, with a beautiful approximation to accuracy, [would] nominate this kind of man; saying, “Come you to me, sir. Come out of the common level of the people, where you are liable to be trampled upon, jostled about, and can do in a manner nothing with your fine gift; come here and take a district of country, and make it into your own image more or less; be a king under me, and understand that that is your function.” I say this is the most divine thing that a human being can do to other human beings...
"Come you to me, sir." This might be the craziest reading of the year. Maybe the Compiler wanted to simulate the experience of talking to a old drunk coot on New Year's Eve, in order to suggest that perhaps we've stayed too long at the party. Well, I can take a hint.

* * *

And with that, I'm out. I'm surprised I got to the end, frankly, but I wouldn't have made it into March without knowing that a few hardy souls were out there reading. So, thank you heartily. I am tempted to draw conclusions, but I rather think that, like Mary, I should ponder in my heart some first. I will say that I intend to gather the readings up, do the twenty or so days I missed, make a futile attempt to simplify my sentence structure, and publish the results in a little booklet on one of those Creative Space/Amazon deals. (My working title: The Knowledge-Faker's Almanac.) It's more to have it up on my bookshelves -- a souvenir of a deer I killed -- but drop me an e-mail (my address is on the sidebar) if you want to be notified in the event this ever really happens.

And for 2009, I'm just reading books subtitled "How Small Unlikely Item X Changed The World By Doing Thing You've Never Heard Of Y." That should take me quite a while. Happy New Year, y'all!

December 30: The More Things Change

The state, the lifestyle, the tablecloth. You spilled gravy on San Diego!


Today Richard Henry Dana's ship is trading in Monterey in 1835, I think it is. While Dana is taking pains to show his East Coast audience how different the place is, the modern California resident can read it looking to see what's the same.

Prejudice against California, first of all: "The Californians are an idle, thriftless people, and can make nothing for themselves." It's also, of course, filled with Mexicans, as it is, at this time, actually in Mexico. But there are still plenty of Eurocentric racists around:
Generally speaking, each person’s caste is decided by the quality of the blood, which shows itself, too plainly to be concealed, at first sight. Yet the least drop of Spanish blood, if it be only of quadroon or octoroon, is sufficient to raise them from the rank of slaves, and entitle them to a suit of cloathes...and to call themselves Españolos, and to hold property, if they can get any.
Also, though there are no Beverly Hills as of yet (just "Hills"), we do see this stereotype as well:
The fondness for dress among the women is excessive, and is often the ruin of many of them...Nothing is more common than to see a woman living in a house of only two rooms, and the ground for a floor, dressed in spangled satin shoes, silk gown, high comb, and gilt, if not gold, ear-rings and necklace. If their husbands do not dress them well enough, they will soon receive presents from others.
Mm-mm-mm (shakes head). Of course, the women can scarcely be blamed -- California is a playground even then: "Monterey is also a great place for cock-fighting, gambling of all sorts, fandangos, and every kind of amusement and knavery." Fandangos! Every kind of knavery! Dana might as well call it "the land of fruits and nuts," like some old dude back East.

Another thing that Dana found in Monterey that we still have out here is beefcake. I'm going to quote a lot of it because it also shows that the mid-19th century audience was more open to unashamed descriptions of manly beauty than we are. I know, I know -- Whitman already proves that. But Whitman was...well, artistic, whereas Richard Henry Dana was a respectable U.S. Attorney:
One of them I shall always remember as the best specimen of the thoroughbred English sailor that I ever saw. ..He was tall; but you only perceived it when he was standing by the side of others, for the great breadth of his shoulders and chest made him appear but little above the middle height. His chest was as deep as it was wide; his arm like that of Hercules; and his hand “the fist of a tar—every hair a rope-yarn.” With all this he had one of the pleasantest smiles I ever saw. His cheeks were of a handsome brown; his teeth brilliantly white; and his hair, of a raven black, waved in loose curls all over his head, and fine, open forehead; and his eyes he might have sold to a duchess at the price of diamonds, for their brilliancy. As for their color, they were like the Irishman’s pig, which would not stay to be counted, every change of position and light seemed to give them a new hue; but their prevailing color was black, or nearly so. Take him with his well-varnished black tarpaulin stuck upon the back of his head; his long locks coming down almost into his eyes; his white duck trowsers and shirt; blue jacket; and black kerchief, tied loosely round his neck; and he was a fine specimen of manly beauty ... his captain said he was a perfect seaman, and worth his weight in gold on board a vessel, in fair weather and in foul. His strength must have been great, and he had the sight of a vulture.

It is strange that one should be so minute in the description of an unknown, outcast sailor, whom one may never see again, and whom no one may care to hear about; but so it is. He called himself Bill Jackson; and I know no one of all my accidental acquaintances to whom I would more gladly give a shake of the hand than to him.
And yet Prop 8 passed. Go figure.

The last chord fades. The night is cold and fine.


This weekend, while I was musing on the end of this project, this poem by James Merrill popped into my head. In my spaniel-like devotion to my readings, I identify with the title character; I'm aware it's very self-dramatizing for me to do so. However, I wouldn't be the first person to be self-dramatizing around the holidays. Anyway:


The Victor Dog

for Elisabeth Bishop


Bix to Buxtehude to Boulez.
The little white dog on the Victor label
Listens long and hard as he is able.
It’s all in a day’s work, whatever plays.

From judgment, it would seem, he has refrained.
He even listens earnestly to Bloch,
Then builds a church upon our acid rock.
He’s man’s—no—he’s the Leiermann’s best friend,

Or would be if hearing and listening were the same.
Does he hear? I fancy he rather smells
Those lemon-gold arpeggios in Ravel’s
“Les jets d’eau du palais de ceux qui s’aiment.”

He ponders the Schumann Concerto’s tall willow hit
By lightning, and stays put. When he surmises
Through one of Bach’s eternal boxwood mazes
The oboe pungent as a bitch in heat,

Or when the calypso decants its raw bay rum
Or the moon in Wozzeck reddens ripe for murder,
He doesn’t sneeze or howl; just listens harder.
Adamant needles bear down on him from

Whirling of outer space, too black, too near—
But he was taught as a puppy not to flinch,
Much less to imitate his bête noire Blanche
Who barked, fat foolish creature, at King Lear.

Still others fought in the road’s filth over Jezebel,
Slavered on hearths of horned and pelted barons.
His forebears lacked, to say the least, forbearance.
Can nature change in him? Nothing’s impossible.

The last chord fades. The night is cold and fine.
His master’s voice rasps through the grooves’ bare groves.
Obediently, in silence like the grave’s
He sleeps there on the still-warm gramophone

Only to dream he is at the première of a Handel
Opera long thought lost—Il Cane Minore.
Its allegorical subject is his story!
A little dog revolving round a spindle

Gives rise to harmonies beyond belief,
A cast of stars . . . Is there in Victor’s heart
No honey for the vanquished? Art is art.
The life it asks of us is a dog’s life.

December 29: Action!

From "Drunken Master," an epic for our time.

You know how you'll be watching an action movie, or a kung fu movie especially, and the hero is like one on six, and you're wondering, "Why don't they all fight him at once?" It's just the same in the slam-bang conclusion to the Odyssey -- killing time has come, and the suitors decide to fight Odysseus one at a time:

Therewith he [some suitor guy] drew his sharp two-edged sword of bronze, and leapt on Odysseus with a terrible cry, but in the same moment goodly Odysseus shot the arrow forth and struck him on the breast by the pap, and drave the swift shaft into his liver. So he let the sword fall from his hand, and grovelling over the table he bowed and fell, and spilt the food and the two-handled cup on the floor...[nice insert shot, that -- ed.]

Then Amphinomus [a different suitor guy] made at renowned Odysseus, setting straight at him, and drew his sharp sword, if perchance he might make him give ground from the door. But Telemachus was beforehand with him, and cast and smote him from behind with a bronze-shod spear between the shoulders, and drave it out through the breast, and he fell with a crash and struck the ground full with his forehead...
And there's another action-movie trope -- everyone shoots at the hero and misses. At least this time it makes sense because 1) they're throwing spears and 2) a goddess is involved:
Then once more the wooers threw their sharp spears eagerly; but behold, Athene so wrought that many of them were in vain. One man smote the doorpost of the stablished hall, and another the well-fastened door, and the ashen spear of another wooer, heavy with bronze, struck in the wall.
I mean, you must have seen this kind of thing a hundred times, right? Well, this must be one of the first time it happens. That's why they're called the Classics.

There are two things in this reading that aren't in our modern action movies, though. The first is something I've always wanted to see. After the big final action sequence, I generally find myself wondering, "Who's going to sweep up all the broken glass?" In Odysseus's time it was the servants:
‘Begin ye now to carry out the dead, and bid the women help you, and thereafter cleanse the fair high seats and the tables with water and porous sponges. And when ye have set all the house in order, lead the maidens without the stablished hall, between the vaulted room and the goodly fence of the court, and there slay them with your long blades, till they shall have all given up the ghost and forgotten the love that of old they had at the bidding of the wooers, in secret dalliance.’
Oh, and that's the second thing -- the women who were collaborating with the suitors must be slaughtered en masse. (In fact, Odysseus's son Telemachus notes that a clean death for them would bring dishonor on the house.) The end of the Odyssey, I guess, is a huge tribute to the double standard -- Odysseus, who you may recall managed to sex Calypso every night, is the big hero, but killing is to good for the servant girls who hung out with the suitors while Odysseus was away (for twenty years). Well, no one said that the action genre was a genre of justice.

December 28: Last hail of bullets

A great Bullet.

Sir Francis Drake mucks around with the Spaniards some more today -- part of the general superviolent "Deadwood"-like environment which characterized the Old World's beginnings in the New World:
In all the time of our being here, neither the governor for the said King of Spain, which is a Portugal, neither the bishop, whose authority is great, neither the inhabitants of the town, or island, ever came at us...

[S]ince they came not at us, we left written in sundry places, as also in the Spital House (which building was only appointed to be spared), the great discontentment and scorn we took at this their refraining to come unto us, as also at the rude manner of killing, and savage kind of handling the dead body of one of our boys found by them straggling all alone, from whom they had taken his head and heart, and had straggled the other bowels about the place, in a most brutish and beastly manner. In revenge whereof at our departing we consumed with fire all the houses...
They would have given them the smallpox blankets too, if they'd thought of it, or if it would have worked on fellow-Europeans.

• Actually, it might have. Here's the very next paragraph:
From hence putting off to the West Indies, we were not many days at sea but there began among our people such mortality as in a few days there were dead above two or three hundred men. And until some seven or eight days after our coming from Santiago, there had not died any one man of sickness in all the fleet. The sickness showed not his infection, wherewith so many were strucken, until we were departed thence; and then seized our people with extreme hot burning and continual agues, whereof very few escaped with life, and yet those for the most part not without great alteration and decay of their wits and strength for a long time after.
I wonder if you're more likely to be superviolent under conditions where you don't expect your own life to be very long. If you're going to go out with an ague tomorrow, you might as well take some Spaniards down with you.

• One of the guys who is under Drake's command is named Captain Careless. I think I read about him in a Highlights in third grade.

• In the same vein of mindless-and-pretty-juvenile observations on the text, here's an always-welcome use of "naughty": "... we were forced by the vile sea-gate, which at that present fell out, and by the naughtiness of the landing-place..."

That's a good landing place for me today.

Only a few days left

Of the WKCR Bach Festival, that is. It ends Tuesday. Click on the link to listen.

(Thanks to The Agonist for reminding me.)

Great books!

Via Arts & Letters Daily, a review of a book about the Harvard Classics' successor project -- The Great Books of the Western World. (You must say the title in your deepest voice.) It's interesting. Here's a quote:

Beam is a columnist for the Boston Globe, not a cultural theorist. He correctly locates the Great Books among other middle class diversions like the Saturday Review of Literature and the Book of the Month Club. Newly affluent Americans wanted the trappings of learning – and the faux-leather volumes of the Great Books of the Western World fit the bill.

But beyond this, Beam doesn’t give much consideration to Hutchins’s brand of cultural uplift. Does establishing a canon of cultural greatness aid the preservation or defence of democracy? It’s not an easy question to answer...
First of all, I totally see the Harvard Classics as a piece of upwardly mobile furniture -- the equivalent of something cool from Pottery Barn. (In fact they'd be great in the background of Pottery Barn photo shoots.) I'm sure that's why my great-grandfather 1) bought them but 2) never seems to have opened them.

But the question of whether cultural greatness = more democracy is an easy question to answer. The answer is "No." It seems to me, after a year of reading this stuff, that there's nothing inherently democratic, or inherently undemocratic for that matter, about cultural greatness. The instinct to make culture is universal and will persist under almost all political conditions -- except famine, maybe. The twentieth century is full of cultured barbarism; to avoid the obvious Furtwanglery example, look what happened to all the Russian arts institutions that only flourished under Communism.

Personally I'm skeptical of whether we can derive any political use from culture. Or to shade this statement a little bit, that we can derive any consistent or predictable use from it. It's part of my greater skepticism of the "Good For You" argument that seems to be the way they sold these Great Books series. Not that high culture, which we might define as works that have trouble paying their own way, isn't Good For You -- it's just that if it were only Good For You I'd say the hell with it.

December 27: Mmmm, tortoise urine

You may have seen this picture before:


These are Darwin's finches -- similar birds with different beaks and so, different species. Darwin encountered them on his famous visit to the Galapagos and he writes:

The remaining land-birds form a most singular group of finches, related to each other in the structure of their beaks, short tails, form of body and plumage: there are thirteen species, which Mr. Gould has divided into four sub-groups...

Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends.
One might fancy that, and, of course, Darwin would go on to fancy that and more. But, while Darwin may be a saint of science, he is also an aesthete -- which is not unusual among scientists, I have found; many if not most of them know more about the arts than artists know about science. We saw him passing judgement on New Zealand a few days ago, and now there's this: "All the plants have a wretched, weedy appearance, and I did not see one beautiful flower." If he weren't so excited about the finches, you'd almost guess he was pouting.

But my favorite thing is the part about the tortoise urine:
When the tortoise arrives at the spring, quite regardless of any spectator, he buries his head in the water above his eyes, and greedily swallows great mouthfuls, at the rate of about ten in a minute... For some time after a visit to the springs, their urinary bladders are distended with fluid, which is said gradually to decrease in volume, and to become less pure. The inhabitants, when walking in the lower district, and overcome with thirst, often take advantage of this circumstance, and drink the contents of the bladder if full: in one I saw killed, the fluid was quite limpid, and had only a very slightly bitter taste.
I have two reactions: 1. I'm sure Anthony Bourdain has done this already, and 2. Now you know why Coca-Cola was so popular when they started selling it around the world. I might also speculate that, once you've seen a man drink tortoise pee, it engenders a certain skepticism in the claims of his special divinity.

December 26: A Christmas gift for me!



What better family to spend Boxing Day with than the Lears? And when I got to this part of today's reading:

Through tatter’d clothes great vices do appear;
Robes and furr’d gowns hide all. Plate sins with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks;
Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw does pierce it.
I remembered that it had struck home with me before -- because I've read it already! (Here.) So I'm out, except to note that the message of these four lines is even more appropriate during pardon season, when power ("robes and furr'd gowns") particularly helps break the lance of justice.

December 25: Mary's silence

Not Jesus's arm.

In front of my own open fire I discover that the good people at Collier's have given me Luke 2. It's hard to read parts of it without hearing Linus from a "Charlie Brown Christmas." The thing I always remember from church is this line: "But Mary kept all these sayings, pondering them in her heart." How cagey of Mary, one might think, especially since this line comes after the shepherds come talking about the angels, good tidings of great joy, etc. What's to ponder? It's all good. But a few verses later, when they go to take Jesus to the temple, blind religious nut Simeon lets us know why Mary has a lot to think about:
Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the falling and the rising of many in Israel; and for a sign which is spoken against;

yea and a sword shall pierce through thine own soul; that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.
Jesus is not a force for stability; yea, there is no apple cart in Israel that will not be upset. I do wonder if the sword piercing Mary's soul has to do, not only with the tribulations of her son, but also "that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed." For someone like Mary, who preferred to keep her own counsel, just the revealing of what's in your heart might pierce like a sword.

In general Mary's son appears to be a handful -- by the end of the chapter, 12-year-old Jesus is blowing off his parents to trade theology snaps with the bigwigs in Jerusalem:
And when they saw him, they were astonished; and his mother said unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I sought thee sorrowing.

And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? knew ye not that I must be in my Father’s house?

And they understood not the saying which he spake unto them.

And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth; and he was subject unto them: and his mother kept all these sayings in her heart.
Again with the silence. But how they don't understand what Jesus is talking about when he mentions his Father's hosue, since Mary has been told why Jesus is special, I don't get. One of the mysteries of faith, I guess.

December 24: Church Politics

It's not the bread of life, but on Christmas Eve I make very plain babka that looks a little less nice than this.

The task of compiling these readings was sometimes too much for the compiler, so he pulled this Holinshed excerpt out of thin air and hoped that it would describe Christmas in England in 1577. Instead it describes the C of E post-Reformation:
As for our churches themselves, bells and times of morning and evening prayer remain as in times past, saving that all images, shrines, tabernacles, rood-lofts, and monuments of idolatry are removed, taken down, and defaced, only the stories in glass windows excepted...
Which are going to be replaced by attrition. There's also this description of churchmen under popery that I liked:
For, if you peruse well my Chronology ensuing, you shall find that they went either in divers colours like players, or in garments of light hue, as yellow, red, green, etc., with their shoes piked, their hair crisped, their girdles armed with silver, their shoes, spurs, bridles, etc., buckled with liek metal, their apparel (for the most part) of silk, and richly, their caps lacede and buttoned with gold, so that to meet a priest in those days was to behold a peacock that spreadeth his tail when he danceth before the hen, which noew (I say) is well reformed.
Inequality is more colorful than equality -- just look at the ads in the Sunday Times Magazine if you don't believe me. But the melancholy thought that this reading leaves the believer (or those of us who are belief-adjacent) is this:
...and, in like sort, what officers, widows, and other persons were daily maintained in those seasons by the offerings and oblations of the faithful it is incredible to be reported, if we compare the same with the decays and oblations seen and practised at this present. But what is that in all the world which avarice and negligence will not corrupt and impair?
Italics added, with a Gallic shrug. On the other hand, Jesus knew it was a fallen world when he got mixed up in it. In a way, he's really got no one to blame but Himself for his pains.

And since I'm being so irreverent and all, I leave you with this Smigel joint that popped into my head when I was listening to one of my favorite Christmas albums, "A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector":


I gotta take my bread out of the oven! Merry happy, everyone!

Photo of babka by flickr user roboppy used with a Creative Commons license.

December 23: Refined and sensible, sane and beautiful

I don't really have a good photo that goes with the reading, so here's a Christmasy picture of the house with all the Davids in front of it in my neighborhood.


I remember reading someone who used this quote from Renata Adler: "Sanity is the most profound moral option of our time." Then I read the actual Renata Adler novel ("Speedboat," maybe) and didn't like it. But I still like the quote, and these difficult times bring it home: it's easy to think of sanity as our default condition, but I doubt that it is, you have to choose it. It's a lot easier, really, to let yourself get carried away -- all you have to do is just sit there.

The above thought is brought to mind by today's essay by Sainte-Beuve, a name which is fun to say in a phony French accent. It's titled "What Is A Classic?" and the translation, sadly, is not supple:
It is true that in writing of such subjects, always slightly abstract and moral, it is advisable to speak of them in a season of quiet, to make sure of our own attention and of that of others, to seize one of those moments of calm moderation and leisure seldom granted our amiable France...
I suspect that this is what my writing sounds like. Maybe (a little like that character in Moliere) I have been writing translationese all along.

Sainte-Beuve's answer to the question doesn't occur till halfway in. I would have totally abandoned the piece by then if I hadn't had to read it. But I liked it:
A true classic, as I should like to hear it defined, is an author who has enriched the human mind, increased its treasure, and caused it to advance a step; who has discovered some moral and not equivocal truth, or revealed some eternal passion in that heart where all seemed known and discovered; who has expressed his thought, observation, or invention, in no matter what form, only provided it be broad and great, refined and sensible, sane and beautiful in itself; who has spoken to all in his own peculiar style, a style which is found to be also that of the whole world, a style new without neologism, new and old, easily contemporary with all time.
Some of this is tautological -- a classic is something that's great! -- and some of this is in response to the idea that a classic must be very old, but the part that stands out to me is "refined and sensible, sane and beautiful." These are old-timey adjectives, pre-modern adjectives -- I wouldn't limit a classic to only those that have these qualities, but the classics I love, by and large, do. (Sainte-Beuve's great example, in fact, is Moliere; but he also loves Shakespeare who, in my opinion, is not refined. Refinement actually seems more appropriate to the French than to us Anglos -- it's why we needed to import the word "finesse".)

Another thing I came to like in this essay is that Saint-Beuve is looking to cast his net widely. To be sure, he wants to make distinctions, like a good French critic should, but I got the sense he'd rather include than exclude:
Meanwhile there is no question of sacrificing or depreciating anything. I believe the temple of taste is to be rebuilt; but its reconstruction is merely a matter of enlargement, so that it may become the home of all noble human beings, of all who have permanently increased the sum of the mind’s delights and possessions.
Exactly so. The feeling I enjoy here is that even us no-talents ought to share in the progress of the human project. Even in satire, I prefer art that's for something, not against something -- especially in satire, because how can you eviscerate someone for falling short of something if you yourself don't know what the "something" is that they're falling short of?

Anyway. The essay ends with a little fantasy of all his favorite writers sporting themselves around what appears to be a first-class retirement home, and which we can skip, but the last lines are a description of why one loves the classics, and it's a little sentimental, perfect for the holidays:
...of some one of those excellent and antique minds shall we request an interview at every moment; of some one of them shall we ask a friendship which never deceives, which could not fail us; to some one of them shall we appeal for that sensation of serenity and amenity (we have often need of it) which reconciles us with mankind and with ourselves.


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

December 22: "What a dump!" -- Charles Darwin

I guess when you've been at sea for four years, ocean views no longer do it for you.

I'll just give away the ending of today's excerpt from "Voyage of the Beagle" -- though I realize I did this yesterday:
I believe we were all glad to leave New Zealand. It is not a pleasant place. Amongst the natives there is absent that charming simplicity which is found in Tahiti; and the greater part of the English are the very refuse of society. Neither is the country itself attractive.
Somebody go put that up at TripAdvisor!

If I were smarter, if I had read Lèvi-Strauss in college like the cool kids (that's how I knew I wasn't a cool kid; one of many ways, believe me), Darwin's distaste for New Zealand would be occasion for interesting insights on cultural imperialism. However, screw that. Instead I observe that Darwin appears to have disliked the place because it resembled a fraternity:
But their persons and houses are filthily dirty and offensive: the idea of washing either their bodies or their clothes never seems to enter their heads. I saw a chief, who was wearing a shirt black and matted with filth, and when asked how it came to be so dirty, he replied, with surprise, “Do not you see it is an old one?” Some of the men have shirts; but the common dress is one or two large blankets, generally black with dirt, which are thrown over their shoulders in a very inconvenient and awkward fashion. A few of the principal chiefs have decent suits of English clothes; but these are only worn on great occasions.
Like when you're trying to convince the Dean not to throw you out. Oh, and here's a former frat president-type, to the life (who, I might add, is also heavily tattooed):
Physiognomy here spoke the truth; this chief had been a notorious murderer, and was an arrant coward to boot. At the point where the boat landed, Mr. Bushby accompanied me a few hundred yards on the road: I could not help admiring the cool impudence of the hoary old villain, whom we left lying in the boat, when he shouted to Mr. Bushby, “Do not you stay long, I shall be tired of waiting here.”
I swear, all that guy needs is a bluetooth in his ear. I can see why Darwin, a quiet man, one of the nerds, was put off. Also understandable is his McDonalds-in-the-Champs-Élysées moment:
After having passed over so many miles of an uninhabited useless country, the sudden appearance of an English farm-house, and its well-dressed fields, placed there as if by an enchanter’s wand, was exceedingly pleasant. ...Around the farm-yard there were stables, a thrashing-barn with its winnowing machine, a blacksmith’s forge, and on the ground ploughshares and other tools: in the middle was that happy mixture of pigs and poultry, lying comfortably together, as in every English farm-yard.
I suppose this is a little culturally imperialist too, but come on, people -- the guy had been four years at sea! Of course, it works both ways too:
There is not nearly so much tattooing as formerly; but as it is a badge of distinction between the chief and the slave, it will probably long be practised. So soon does any train of ideas become habitual, that the missionaries told me that even in their eyes a plain face looked mean, and not like that of a New Zealand gentleman.
Finally, all this New Zealand talk gives me an excuse to include my favorite Flight of the Conchords song. No, not "Business Time." This one, which, appropriately, is about understanding other cultures:

December 21: This Is The End

Madame Bubble's husband, here seen with a child who was forced into modelling when his parents defaulted on their Henderson, Nev. condo.

So now I know how Pilgrim's Progress ends: everyone dies. It's like Hamlet, but with a gloss in the margin where the author tells you what everything means -- something Shakespeare, for all his brilliance, failed to do. Like, our travelers come upon a guy named Stand-Fast, and they ask him, "Well but Brother, I pray thee tell us what was it that was the cause of thy being upon thy Knees even now?" and the gloss says, like a parent's stage whisper, "They found him at prayer" We wouldn't have guessed.

One of the things that is often implicit in "Pilgrim's Progress," and indeed in Christianity itself, but is quite explicit here, is that death is preferable to life. For almost the whole excerpt, our travellers make their farewell speeches before they cross the river (hint: death), and they all pretty much say the same thing. Here's an example, from Stand-Fast (who, I like to think, had a son who married an Italian girl so that his grandchildren were named Stand-Fast-Vicinanzo):
I left behind me a Wife and five small Children, let me entreat you at your return...that you send to my Family, and let them be acquainted with all that hath and shall happen unto me. Tell them moreover of my happy Arrival to this place, and of the present late blessed condition that I am in... I have little or nothing to send to my Family, except it be Prayers and Tears for them; of which it will suffice if thou acquaint them, if peradventure they may prevail.
Tell my family I feel bad that my afterlife is better than your life. I find this a mite heartless, myself, but if death is preferable to life it makes more sense, although it's still a little unseemly for the husband to gloat about his poor wife raising the five rugrats while he's off on the Eternal Bowling Night.

The Pilgrims also talk about Madame Bubble -- how timely! She hit on Stand-Fast:
Then she made offers again, and said, If I would be ruled by her, she would make me great and happy, for said she, I am the Mistress of the World, and men are made happy by me. Then I asked her name, and she told me it was Madam Bubble. This set me further from her, but she still followed me with Inticements.
With his outsider's perspective Bunyan is onto something here -- the World, or the "real world," as it is also known, is inherently bubblicious. To be getting and spending is to leave yourself open to bubbles -- tulip bulbs, ARMs, what have you.

Bunyan also engages in another classic of the outsider's perspective, ethnic stereotyping:
Hon. Madam Bubble, is she not a tall comely Dame, something of a swarthy Complexion?
Something of a swarthy Complexion, eh? I wonder what he means by that. Greeks, I'm sure.

December 20: Greek for "Chatty Cathy"



This translation of Herodotus is not bad, but I wish it were better -- chattier. Herodotus seems chatty to me. Today he's talking about Egypt, and it sort of hops from one thing to the other, including doing that talkative-person thing where he brings up a subject in order to say that he's not going to talk about it:

Those of their narrations which I heard with regard to the gods I am not earnest to relate in full, but I shall name them only, because I consider that all men are equally ignorant of these matters...
Note also the fairly laissez-faire attitude of Herodotus towards what the gods might be -- "all men are equally ignorant of these matters." He's a good guest -- willing to give credit where credit is due:
...the priests agreed with one another in saying that the Egyptians were the first of all men on earth to find out the course of the year, having divided the seasons into twelve parts to make up the whole; and this they said they found out from the stars: and they reckon to this extent more wisely than the Hellenes [his own people -- ed.], as it seems to me...
He's not the first person to go visit another people and prefer some of their customs to his own, but he's the first to write about it, and so agreeably, too. As I believe that no people can truly be called civilized until they are willing to steal from other civilizations, I'm all in favor of Herodotus's vibe. (This is one of the reasons I feel America is #1 -- we've hardly had a civilization, so we get to steal from everybody. "Novus Ordo Seclorum," like it says on the dollar bill.)

There's also a lot of boring stuff about the general geography of Egypt -- like watching a vacation slide show. (I realize that reference establishes that I'm about as old as Herodotus.) You know how it is with the chatty -- they're not always the best editors.

December 19: Revenge! (The bummer December reading event continues)

But now I'm giving away the ending.

The first thing I think of when hearing the name Samson is that of a noirish tale of a high and mighty man done in by a dame. But then there's the third act of the Samson story, the revenge, and the end of it is what we get today in Milton's hit adaptation Samson Agonistes, which is a poem in play form -- the surprising things you learn when you're not an English major.

Samson, you may remember, is the prototype of a suicide bomber: he brings the roof down on the Pharisees:
...those two massy pillars
With horrible convulsion to and fro
He tugged, he shook, till down they came, and drew
The whole roof after them with burst of thunder
Upon the heads of all who sat beneath,
Lords, ladies, captains, counsellors, or priests,
Their choice nobility and flower, not only
Of this, but each Philistian city round,
Met from all parts to solemnize this feast.
Samson, with these immixed, inevitably
Pulled down the same destruction on himself...
Underneat Milton's general stentoriousness, in fact, lurks a revolutionary who has a Che Guevara poster up in his dorm room:
O, how comely it is, and how reviving
To the spirits of just men long oppressed,
When God into the hands of their deliverer
Puts invincible might,
To quell the mighty of the earth, the oppressor,
The brute and boisterous force of violent men,
Hardy and industrious to support
Tyrannic power
I like "reviving," here -- as if Samson's crushing of the Pharisees were a refreshing (Molotov) cocktail.

Milton came by these sentiments honestly, having been an actually revolutionary forced into retirement by the return of the monarchy. So, when we complain about the partisan tone of our politics, at least we don't have Karl Rove writing 1700-line poems fantasizing about the violent destruction of his enemies.

See you tomorrow

I don't think I'll get to finish today's post today. Hopefully there'll be two tomorrow.

December 18: John Locke Is Permissive

I wonder if spelling will count even more in the URL era.

The classics can be relevant. Here's John Locke holding forth on how to teach your child Latin. The best way, as we all know, is to hire someone who will do nothing but talk to your kid in Latin, then he'll pick it up. This would be the most incredible career niche ever. Here's the second-best, but first-best in terms of sanity, way :
by taking some easy and pleasant book, such as Æsop’s Fables, and writing the English translation (made as literal as it can be) in one line, and the Latin words which answer each of them, just over it in another.
Oddly enough, the other day I read this story on the Loeb Classical Library from the Boston Globe:
As it happens, the Loeb Classical Library, those famous red and green books published by Harvard University Press, have the translations on the facing page of the text. For that reason they are usually banned from beginning and intermediate language classes, branded as unhelpful crutches.
Not to our 17th century dude, they aren't!

But then Locke is kind of laid back, in general. His thoughts concerning education remind me a little of a theory my dad, who spent 30 years teaching and administrating, said he encountered in grad school -- which is, we should keep the kids out of school till they're 12, and in one year we can teach them what we've been trying to teach them for the past seven. Certainly with boys I can see the utility of this. Locke knows what boys are like:
There is yet a further reason, why masters and teachers should raise no difficulties to their scholars; but on the contrary should smooth their way, and readily help them forwards, where they find them stop. Children’s minds are narrow and weak, and usually susceptible but of one thought at once. Whatever is in a child’s head, fills it for the time, especially if set on with any passion....It is a contradiction to the natural state of childhood for them to fix their fleeting thoughts. Whether this be owing to the temper of their brains, or the quickness or instability of their animal spirits, over which the mind has not yet got a full command; this is visible, that it is a pain to children to keep their thoughts steady to any thing.
Thank god that now we've got all these TV and video games to calm them down, right?

The other interesting thing I found was that Locke is at the very beginning of the swing away from the liberal arts. It sounds like he hates the idea of Latin being taught and thinks it's foppery. In fact, this passage might be the very first theoretical underpinning of the Business major:
Could it be believed, unless we had every where amongst us examples of it, that a child should be forced to learn the rudiments of a language which he is never to use in the course of life that he is designed to, and neglect all the while the writing a good hand and casting accounts, which are of great advantage in all conditions of life, and to most trades indispensably necessary?
Why, Locke goes on to say, teaching people Latin is as meaningless as church! (That's a paraphrase, of course; if Locke had actually said it that way he'd have been arrested.) It's hard to refute this, and yet government by MBA's doesn't seem so hot either. I still feel that the long view you get from the classics might help you avoid folly, even though one of the things the long view teaches you is that folly is unavoidable. Maybe there's something to that accounting jazz after all.

December 17: Santa Monica

Amazingly, St. Monica is not the patron saint of sport fishing, or boating. Unless your kids cut school to take up these activities, because she is the patron of disappointing children.

St. Augustine's, in his Confessions, wants to make you think that it was all a big struggle, his progress to sainthood. But it turns out he was a legacy all along! His mother was a saint too-- St. Monica, who is memorialized by her son today.

And the first thing he talks about is how she never gave her dad any lip, which is what kept her from being beaten:
And she so endured the wronging of her bed as never to have any quarrel with her husband thereon....But besides this, he was fervid, as in his affections, so in anger: but she had learnt not to resist an angry husband, not in deed only, but not even in word. Only when he was smoothed and tranquil, and in a temper to receive it, she would give an account of her actions, if haply he had overhastily taken offence. In a word, while many matrons, who had milder husbands, yet bore even in their faces marks of shame, would in familiar talk blame their husbands’ lives, she would blame their tongues...
Augustine is literally saying that women who get smacked around deserve what's coming to them. This is the type of thing that reminds you that the Harvard Classics were assembled before women got the vote.

Eventually we come to the end of her life, which is prefigured in the following conversation:
Thou knowest that in that day when we were speaking of these things, and this world with all its delights became, as we spake, contemptible to us, my mother said, “Son, for mine own part I have no further delight in any thing in this life.... One thing there was for which I desired to linger for a while in this life, that I might see thee a Catholic Christian before I died. My God hath done this for me more abundantly, that I should now see thee withal, despising earthly happiness, become His servant: what do I here?”
In other words, now that you've become a nice priest, I can die! No pressure on Augustine, there. It reminds me of the joke about how Christmas celebrates the birth of the only Jewish son ever to live up to his mother's expectations. Anyway, Monica dies, and Augustine is devastated, despite the strong, saint-level strength of his faith. How bad is it? Even a bath doesn't help:
It seemed also good to me to go and bathe, having heard that the bath had its name (balneum) from the Greek [Greek], for that it drives sadness from the mind. And this also I confess unto Thy mercy, Father of the fatherless, 47 that I bathed, and was the same as before I bathed.
This is the kind of quasi-ludicrous detail that softens my heart. We who are regularly bathed -- or so I hope -- will never endow bathing with the same mystical power that the ancients did.

Of course, my mom's a saint too. But I was trained not to be a braggart about it.

Most importantly, and in keeping with the season, the invocation of St. Monica allows me to share Tom Lehrer's "I'm spending Hanukkah in Santa Monica," which I take it both she and her son would have hated:

December 16: Sexy, Sublime Political Philosophy

From "The 18th Century: Too Hot For Portraiture"

The Burke reading is very long today. Maybe it just seems long because it's philosophy, and it's meticulous, and meticulousness seems long. I mean, it shouldn't feel like a slog -- not with sex right in the first section:
On the other hand, the generation of mankind is a great purpose, and it is requisite that men should be animated to the pursuit of it by some great incentive. It is therefore attended with a very high pleasure...
How hot is that? Completely not hot, is the answer. (So like an Irishman, one is tempted to say.) But in order to get this hot sexy sentence in, we've been parachuted right into the middle of Burke's making the distinction (meticulously!) between the sublime and the beautiful. Fortunately our excerpt also includes the conclusion of said distinctifying, which goes something like this.

In this corner, weighing a terrifying amount, the "Near Death Experience," ladies and gentlemen, The Sublime:
The passions which belong to self-preservation turn on pain and danger; they are simply painful when their causes immediately affect us; they are delightful when we have an idea of pain and danger, without being actually in such circumstances...Whatever excites this delight, I call sublime.
Give it up, people! And in this corner, weighing but a trifle, The "Tender Trapper," The Beautiful:
beauty... which is a name I shall apply to all such qualities in things as induce in us a sense of affection and tenderness, or some other passion the most nearly resembling these.
In other words, the thrill of feeling like something could kill you, but it didn't, is sublime. (This is why cigarettes are sublime.) The beautiful is everything else, especially (for Burke) women, but also cute animals:
Men are carried to the sex in general, as it is the sex, and by the common law of nature; but they are attached to particulars by personal beauty. I call beauty a social quality; for where women and men, and not only they, but when other animals give us a sense of joy and pleasure in beholding them, (and there are many that do so,) they inspire us with sentiments of tenderness and affection towards their persons...
Now, before you say, "Burke is using 'men' as 'humans' in this quote," well, I thought the same thing, until I got to the conclusion and found out that men are inspired to the beautiful by women, whereas women...well, Burke doesn't even venture a guess as to what goes on inside their women heads. It's really kind of shocking, even for the 1700s. But then Burke is the father of modern conservatism.

Oh, and here's a conservative sentiment that I actually agree with:
...for I should imagine, that the influence of reason in producing our passions is nothing near so extensive as it is commonly believed.
Anyone who has ever had a crush on someone, and lived in the vain hope that the crushee would just see all the reasons for reciprocating the crush, knows the truth of this. But it also has a political application, since the whole philosophical idea of conservatism is that reason is overrated. Keep your brains off our laws, you could say. (Didn't Mill describe the Conservatives as "the stupid party"?) And their example is the Year Zero, execution-happy shenanigans that went on after the French Revolution.

For their part, liberals often forget the truth of this saying, and often try to solve the problem it presents by hoping that everything will be okay if we only explain ourselves in a more supercilious tone of voice. This doesn't work when you have a crush on someone, and it doesn't work in politics. In fact you might say that the history of liberalism, from the Reform Bill forward, is to wait around for things to get so stupid that people have no choice but to try technocrats -- for the electorate's heart to be so broken, in a way, that they'll settle for the best friend.

December 15: Sympathy For The Ancients, or, Call Your Mother

I took an intellectual history course in college, but it was at 9 am so I can't claim to remember much of it. Nevertheless I am aware of the battle between the Ancients and Moderns back in the 17th century -- the time when there was suddenly a big pile of non-Ancient writing, which, for lack of a better label, was called modern. It's confusing because all the stuff that was in the Modern department back then is now ancient -- indeed, harder to read than some of the ancient stuff. It should read like this:


But instead the feeling you get is this:


In any case, I always got the impression that we, right-thinking thinkers that we are, should be rooting for the Moderns instead of those stuffy old Ancients. But today's excerpt from the Odyssey might give you pause, because it's hard to top the scene where Odysseus meets his dead mother in Hades:

But I abode there steadfastly, till my mother drew nigh and drank the dark blood; and at once she knew me, and bewailing herself spake to me winged words: ‘“Dear child, how didst thou come beneath the darkness and the shadow, thou that art a living man? Grievous is the sight of these things to the living, for between us and you are great rivers and dreadful streams...
It's a good thing this translation is a little old and musty, because, having had a parent recently cross the dreadful stream, I would be laid low by a powerful rendering of this incident.
So spake she, and I mused in my heart and would fain have embraced the spirit of my mother dead. Thrice I sprang towards her, and was minded to embrace her; thrice she flitted from my hands as a shadow or even as a dream, and sharp grief arose ever in my heart.
And then a bunch of other women come up -- " all they that had been the wives and daughters of mighty men." Without their mighty men, too -- it's like a reproach against Odysseus and his he-man wandering and thirsting after fame, right in the middle of the epic that makes him famous. You can see why the party of the Ancients felt that it was unimprovable.

I should also note that, a little before this part, there's some comic relief -- Odysseus meets one of his men who died because he fell off a roof. I don't think it's supposed to be comic relief, actually, but anyone who's seen, or read, a lot of "Meet The Fockers"-level studio comedy knows that falling off a roof is comedy gold. It's just like two drunk guys -- always funny. Like Jerry Lewis, it transcends any Académie française dispute.

P.S. Confidential to Mom: I actually did call you today but it just kept ringing. I guess you were on the other line.

December 14: Smarter Than You

As the Daily Mail article said, "Presumably spelled this way for the benefit of Sean Connery imitators."

I've hardly read Andrew Marvell, outside of "To His Coy Mistress," which I guess many people have run into in English class ("Mistress"! So spicy!). But he's a Metaphysical poet, and I like the Metaphysicals, so I liked his poems, all of which were new to me.

(Digression: I almost wrote "I like me some Metaphysicals," but I think this usage is tired and MUST BE STAMPED OUT. "I like me some X" is the "talk to the hand" of our time.)

One of the things I like about the Metaphysical poets, I must confess, is the idea that these poems are for the Smart Set, people who would become ever so bored by constancy of meter:

SEE with what simplicity
This nymph begins her golden days!
In the green grass she loves to lie,
And there with her fair aspect tames
The wilder flowers, and gives them names;
But only with the roses plays,
And them does tell
What colour best becomes them, and what smell.


However it's not as conceited (i.e. conceit-heavy) as Donne. Marvell, also, was apparently a little cleverer about managing his career, as this poem, a "Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return From Ireland" attests. "Horatian" is appropriate, as I take Horace to be another poet who knew which way the wind was blowing. While praising Cromwell, Marvell carefully puts in some to-be-sure stanzas upon the previous absolute ruler:
That thence the Royal actor borne
The tragic scaffold might adorn:
While round the armèd bands
Did clap their bloody hands.

He nothing common did or mean
Upon that memorable scene,
But with his keener eye
The axe’s edge did try;

Nor call’d the Gods, with vulgar spite,
To vindicate his helpless right
But bow’d his comely head
Down, as upon a bed.
In fact, just before this, there's some lines that might justify the idea of trimming your sails to catch those prevailing winds:
Though Justice against Fate complain,
And plead the ancient Rights in vain—
But those do hold or break
As men are strong or weak,

Nature, that hateth emptiness,
Allows of penetration less,
And therefore must make room
Where greater spirits come.
It's basically like, "Power isn't given -- it must be taken!" I was kind of surprised, though, to find Marvell on the side of Cromwell. I don't know where I got the idea that the Metaphysicals were Royalists -- probably from Eliot, a king of smarter-than-you poetry. (I think Ashberry might be the reigning king. Everyone tells me he's great, but I can't follow it at all.)

Oh, and here's his ode to the Hollywood Farmer's Market:
What wondrous life is this I lead! Ripe apples drop about my head; The luscious clusters of the vine 35 Upon my mouth do crush their wine; The nectarine and curious peach Into my hands themselves do reach; Stumbling on melons, as I pass, Ensnared with flowers, I fall on grass.
Except for the "grass" part, that is; in Hollywood (the actual neighborhood, not the shorthand for showbiz), "glass" would be better -- as in, broken glass from car windows. And this poem doesn't have the young dudes in goatees who play bluegrass. But otherwise it's pretty accurate.

December 13: A Sad Footnote, A Polite Execution

Today we're talking about Sir Francis Drake's circumnavigation, 1577-80. Here's a routine occurrence in the travelogue:

The 7. day we were driven by a great storm from the entering into the South Sea, 200 leagues and odd in longitude, and one degree to the southward of the Strait; in which height, and so many leagues to the westward, the 15. day of September, fell out the eclipse of the moon at the hour of six of the clock at night. But neither did the ecliptical conflict of the moon impair our state, nor her clearing again amend us a whit; but the accustomed eclipse of the sea continued in his force, we being darkened more than the moon sevenfold. 7
And if you click on footnote 7 you get this:
Note 7. In this storm the Marigold went down with all hands.
Think of how much drama must have been packed into that footnote! Like being in turbulence, only you can actually try to keep the vessel from going under, and finally, wet and cold, you realize that it's not going to happen and you're not going to attain the extravagant goal that didn't even exist a century ago -- instead, you're going to die halfway there, in a place you'd never ever heard of when you were growing up in Plymouth or Devon or wherever.

And the other thing I like is the extremely polite execution for mutiny:
In this port our General began to enquire diligently of the actions of Master Thomas Doughty, and found them not to be such as he looked for, but tending rather of contention or mutiny, or some other disorder, whereby, without redress, the success of the voyage might greatly have been hazarded...Which when our General saw, although his private affection to Master Doughty, as he then in the presence of us all sacredly protested, was great, yet the care he had of the state of the voyage, of the expectation of her Majesty, and of the honour of his country did more touch him, as indeed it ought, than the private respect of one man. So... it was concluded that Master Doughty should receive punishment according to the quality of the offence. ...Which being done, and the place of execution made ready, he having embraced our General, and taken his leave of all the company, with prayers for the Queen’s Majesty and our realm, in quiet sort laid his head to the block, where he ended his life.
The English, they hate to be unseemly.

December 12: How They Brought The Good News From Grinch To Aix

Ruffian, another horse ridden to death like the ones in the poem. I found her death more shocking than Barbaro's, maybe because I'm more callous than I was in 1975.

This will have to be quick, as I have lots of homework this weekend. (I think it was Lawrence Kasdan who said that being a writer means you have homework for the rest of your life.)

So, first of all, I always hated this poem, which I had to read as a child -- a sixth-grader, maybe. One of the reasons for my conviction, which I have developed over the course of the year, that literature should not be taught at all to minors is that they are bound to have a bad attitude towards anything that is associated with school -- especially stuff that adults think kids should like, like this poem, which is filled with horses and derring-do. Except you never get to the horses and derring-do because, by the end of line two, you're already have four proper nouns thrown at you that you've never heard of before (or since): Ghent, Aix, Joris, and Dirck. The mind swims. Through the window, the school parking lot begins to look interesting.

Also the meter, whatever it is -- I should be better at prosody than I am -- sounds little-kid like; or, when you're of school-age, baby-like I think it's the same as the "Grinch Who Stole Christmas". Let's see:
I SPRANG to the STIRrup, and JORis, and HE;
I GALloped, Dirck GALloped, we GALloped all THREE;

All the WHOS down in WHOville liked CHRISTmas a LOT
But the GRINCH, who lived NORTH of WHOville, did NOT
Browning seems to clip that first foot but they're pretty similar. Here's the part that really made me think of Seuss -- a town called "Boom":
’Twas moonset at starting; but while we drew near
Lokeren, the cocks crew and twilight dawned clear;
At Boom, a great yellow star came out to see;
At Düffeld, ’twas morning as plain as could be
Was it the star-bellied Sneetches that came out to see, at the town of Boom? Only Little Cat A knows for sure.

Maybe this poem would be more controversial if it were made clearer that two horses died, and one was almost ridden to death, in the making of it:
And there was my Roland to bear the whole weight
Of the news which alone could save Aix from her fate,
With his nostrils like pits full of blood to the brim,
And with circles of red for his eye-sockets’ rim.
That's pretty good; and sort of a typical complex Browning moment -- good news purchased at the cost of proud horses. Unfortunately most readers will have long since checked out.

UPDATE: Bob Going emails me the following:

Pundit:

I have recently picked up a one-volume collection of Robert Browning's extremely-small-type complete works, out of respect for my dear mother, who after her first date with Dad wrote him opining that while Dad's favorite, Stephen Vincent Benet, was very good, Browning was better.

Having previously read a volume of Benet's short stories, I can now conclude that my mother, at least at 22, was nuts. It also appears that Browning never had an un-versed thought. The sheer volume of his poetry is staggering. Much of it I find just impossible to get into, as it is extremely common for him to assume that the reader knows everything about every little crevice and personality of every age in Italy. His versed plays I can mostly see as a somewhat pleasant evening of experimental theater, and his work as a whole is well-crafted, but very, very little of it do I find interesting.

Maybe because most of it is just too long. Duke Machete farts, Rabbi Ben Ezra ponders the meaning of it for 22 stanzas, that sort of thing. Oddly, it is his version of the Pied Piper story, written for a friend's child, that holds up the best. Tells the story without embellishment, in language that children and lesser beings, like 21st century guys with seven years of higher education, can understand.

I haven't completely given up yet, but I do not expect to come across anything like The Devil and Daniel Webster.

December 11: Handsome Is As Handsome Does

I think we know what the article "Fun In A Hot Tub" was about, especially in 1978.

Way up at the top of his description of Alcibiades, Plutarch says this:
It is not, perhaps, material to say any thing of the beauty of Alcibiades, only that it bloomed with him in all the ages of his life, in his infancy, in his youth, and in his manhood; and, in the peculiar character becoming to each of these periods, gave him, in every one of them, a grace and a charm.
His beautifulness, in other words, is his top attribute. And as if you needed any more evidence that life tilts toward the good-looking, the life of Alcibiades gives ancient sanction to it. Plenty of young rich d-bags would try this:
He gave a box on the ear to Hipponicus, the father of Callias, whose birth and wealth made him a person of great influence and repute. And this he did unprovoked by any passion or quarrel between them, but only because, in a frolic, he had agreed with his companions to do it.
But only a handsome man could get out of it like this:
...early the next morning, Alcibiades went to his house and knocked at the door, and, being admitted to him, took off his outer garment, and, presenting his naked body, desired him to scourge and chastise him as he pleased. Upon this Hipponicus forgot all his resentment, and not only pardoned him, but soon after gave him his daughter Hipparete in marriage.
If you present your naked body to a rich dude, and it has back acne and a spare tire and stuff, you're not getting his daughter in marriage. We all know that. Unsurprisingly, after such an auspicious courtship, the marriage didn't go well:
Hipparete was a virtuous and dutiful wife, but, at last, growing impatient of the outrages done to her by her husband’s continual entertaining of courtesans [heh -- ed.], as well strangers as Athenians, she departed from him and retired to her brother’s house. Alcibiades seemed not at all concerned at this, and lived on still in the same luxury; but the law requiring that she should deliver to the archon in person, and not by proxy, the instrument by which she claimed a divorce, when...she presented herself before him to perform this, Alcibiades came in, caught her up, and carried her home through the market-place.
And yet he still beguiled Socrates, who risked his life to save him in battle, which I think would not have happened if Alcibiades had looks that would stop an eight-day clock. (Thanks to my Southern in-laws for the pithy saying.)

The other handsome thing Alcibiades did, which is not in the excerpt, was to switch sides from Athens to Sparta during the hard-to-spell Peloponnesian War, and then switch back, without anyone stringing him up or anything. It's sort of like the way you can never lose your job as a cable news expert no matter how wrong you are, except I doubt the cable news experts looked as good naked as Alcibiades must have. But then he had to -- he had more to live down. The dude got away with everything. Keep doing those crunches, gentlemen!

December 10: Benvenuto, I think I'll miss you most of all

Cellini himself. Not pictured: all his fine ladies.

My love for Cellini is well documented. I have come to respect that blowhard Emerson and admire Darwin's thoroughness and appreciate Tennyson's craft, and all that probably contributed to my growth as a human being. [Ed. note -- not really.] But those volumes will stay on my shelves untouched. Cellini, however, a terrible, selfish person, given to violence, addicted to bragging... my love for him will cancel out any human-being-style growth, and he will be with me always.

Here's a sentence whose clauses are all about the same person, and yet what the "and"s connect will make your neck snap:
He was the son of one of the Pulcis, who had been beheaded for incest with his daughter; and the youth possessed extraordinary gifts for poetry together with sound Latin scholarship; he wrote well, was graceful in manners, and of surprising personal beauty; he had just left the service of some bishop, whose name I do not remember, and was thoroughly tainted with a very foul disease.
It will not surprise you to hear that this Luigi Pulci is bad news; he cheats on Cellini's woman -- who he, Cellini, hates, but it's the principle of the thing, and so Benvenuto responds in old-school fashion: that is, with blind, unreasoning rage:
I could see Luigi in the street, together with Pantasilea; and I heard Luigi saying: “Oh, if that devil Benvenuto only saw us, shouldn’t we just catch it!” She answered: “Have no fear; only listen to the noise they’re making; we are the last thing they’re thinking of.” At these words, having made them both well out, I leaped from the window, and took Luigi by the cape; and certainly I should then have killed him with the knife I held, but that he was riding a white horse, to which he clapped spurs, leaving his cape in my grasp...The company at supper rose immediately, and came down, entreating me in a body to refrain from putting myself and them to inconvenience for a strumpet. I told them that I should not have let myself be moved on her account, but that I was bent on punishing the infamous young man, who showed how little he regarded me.
You couldn't even make a movie of this -- it would seem ridiculous. Maybe an HBO comedy series, full of nudity and buggery and people waving their hands in the air.

I mean, what is this even doing in the Harvard Classics (besides being awesome)? I used to suspect that the sour old WASPs up in Boston put it in to make Catholics look bad (today's passage ends with Cellini killing people for the Pope during the Sack of Rome). But now I wonder if it's more 1) to give people some entertainment value for their Harvard Classic investment, and 2) as a dissent from a bohemian. Cellini's life is the classic artist (he was a great sculptor) who refuses to agree to rationality, norms, not getting 15-year-olds pregnant, etc. It's as if the Harvard Classics were 49 volumes of people building civilization and one volume of someone who drinks and wenches and has friends who shit themselves with fright ("Overwhelmed with fright, my poor gossip was suddenly taken ill with the colic, and withdrew to ease himself apart; indeed, he could not buy obey the call.") I love him.

Typically belated realization

I think Christina Rossetti is the only woman I've had to read all year.

December 9: We Dare Not Speak Its Name

The Fugitive Slave Act (part of the Bummer December Reading Event) doesn't mention slavery. It mentions "fugitives," but they are "fugitives from service or labor" -- a phrase that could describe someone reading a sports blog at their desk. But we all know what it means.

It's pretty heinous, of course -- "In no trial or hearing under this act shall the testimony of such alleged fugitive be admitted in evidence," for example -- but then we knew that. But to me the interesting thing is the refusal to call a slave a slave. Maybe there's some legal reason they can't, but I suspect it's just another example of euphemism. It's pre-Orwellian, you could say. In fact I'm sure "advanced interrogation techniques" were used on these "fugitives from service".

It also (and here wikipedia is again invaluable) was an expansion on the War on Fugitives:

And be it further enacted, That any person who shall knowingly and willingly obstruct, hinder, or prevent such claimant...or shall harbor or conceal such fugitive, so as to prevent the discovery and arrest of such person, ... shall, for either of said offences, be subject to a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars, and imprisonment not exceeding six months.
In other words, even in the Northern states, you had to be on the side of the masters, or the persons in service or labor. The Northern states, apparently, did not like this. But the alternative was instability, and people will almost always choose a deteriorating stability over the unknown.

The Compromise of 1850 was the North's Munich, in a way; it just kicked the inevitable confrontation down the road. But (to be contrarian), maybe that's not so bad. There's something to be said for letting things disintegrate to the point where you have new people come in who have no interest in keeping the existing ways. Think Lincoln over Fillmore, or Roosevelt over Hoover, or Churchill over Chamberlain, or even, potentially, our own situation. Before that you'll try anything, even euphemism (or, to use a euphemism for eumphemism, "rebranding.")

December 8: Apologia pro vita sua

De Quincey's school days (artist conception).

The Harvard Classics Bummer December reading event continues! Here's a typical sentence from today's Thomas de Quincey:
Every slave that at noonday looks up to the tropical sun with timid reproach, as he points with one hand to the earth, our general mother, but for him a stepmother,—as he points with the other hand to the Bible, our general teacher, but against him sealed and sequestered;—every woman sitting in darkness, without love to shelter her head, or hope to illumine her solitude, because the heaven-born instincts kindling in her nature germs of holy affections which God implanted in her womanly bosom, having been stifled by social necessities, now burn sullenly to waste, like sepulchral lamps amongst the ancients; every nun defrauded of her unreturning May-time by wicked kinsman, whom God will judge; every captive in every dungeon; all that are betrayed and all that are rejected outcasts by traditionary law, and children of hereditary disgrace,—all these walk with Our Lady of Sighs.
It gets worse, as this Our Lady of Sighs (not an officially sanctioned Our Lady, I hasten to add -- it's a personal Our Lady, like the woman by Shea Stadium who had visions) has two sisters, of whom she, apparently, is the peach. Basically, De Quincey's apprehension of human sorrow is so strong he needs four supernatural beings to personify it (the fourth being names Levana, a Roman goddess here pressed into service in De Quincey's droopy army):
If I say simply, “The Sorrows,” there will be a chance of mistaking the term; it might be understood of individual sorrow,—separate cases of sorrow,—whereas I want a term expressing the mighty abstractions that incarnate themselves in all individual sufferings of man’s heart; and I wish to have these abstractions presented as impersonations, that is, as clothed with human attributes of life, and with functions pointing to flesh.
That's another single sentence there. That's value; the magazine reader got what she paid for in De Quincey's day. (Also note: De Quincey uses comma plus dash, -- which is considered bad form nowadays. Good on the Harvard Classics for being too cheap to clean that up.)

Obviously I find this a bit over the top. ("...through the treble veil of crape which she wears, the fierce light of a blazing misery, that rests not for matins or for vespers, for noon of day or noon of night, for ebbing or for flowing tide, may be read from the very ground.") Over the top, but, also, true. De Quincey's right: the world is full of sorrows and anxieties and regrets about roads not taken, even though you suspect that odds are it would have been same shit, different road. And that just describes those of us with internet access, as our gigantic fat haunches squat on the rest of world.

All this is true, and all this is why I love comedy -- because comedy is (or, perhaps more accurately, can be) a refusal to roll over accept the wickedness of the world. I privilege comedy over tragedy because the fact that life is tragic is not news, whereas comedy is a sandcastle that defies the bitter, undrinkable ocean that's coming for us all. De Quincey defied it with opium and overheated prose; I like the occasional cocktail and a good punch line.

December 7: The Life Of Cicero, by Anne Hathaway

I got this image from a blog called "World Haircuts." Because I am a scholar.

Okay, here's what we do: We sneak the character-building lessons of Plutarch to the young by taking Plutarch's name off the book and putting a celebrity's name on it. That way the book is no longer a classic, which we all know is the kiss of death; instead it would be a celebrity writing a book for young people, which these days is the highest form of literature next to the memoir! I feel this plan is 100% brilliant and incapable of failure, and we would be building characters in bulk, like they were McMansions and this was 2005.

We would, however, have to pay a graduate student $500 to re-translate Plutarch, because this one stinks. And we should probably skip today's excerpt, which has a lot to do with Cicero and the Cataline conspiracy -- unless the dicey political situation of the late Roman Republic is of special interest to Keira Knightly or whoever. However, there are a couple of things worth pointing out while we wait for this book proposal to percolate:

• Even the Romans made jokes about keeping kosher:
When a man named Cæcilius, one of the freed slaves, who was said to be given to Jewish practices, would have put by the Sicilians, and undertaken the prosecution of Verres himself, Cicero asked, “What has a Jew to do with swine?” verres being the Roman word for boar.
No, that's not a particularly good joke, but when you're the judge in this case, as Cicero was, you can be sure that everyone will laugh.

• Those of us who have worked hard on obscure cable shows, and coasted on network primetime shows, will enjoy this story Cicero tells on himself, after he returned from working his ass off in Sicily:
Meeting an eminent citizen in Campania, whom he accounted his friend, he asked him what the Romans said and thought of his actions, as if the whole city had been filled with the glory of what he had done. His friend asked him in reply, “Where is it you have been, Cicero?”
• If this book idea works, the next one is Roman Diet and Health Secrets:
He rarely, if at any time, sat down to meat till sunset, and that not so much on account of business, as for his health and the weakness of his stomach. He was otherwise in the care of his body nice and delicate, appointing himself, for example, a set number of walks and rubbings.
Walk and rub your way to fitness! Actually, maybe we should do that book first. The Classics are indeed thought-provoking.