Arrears blogging: November 15 -- Hard Times

I am often amused by the disconnect between the Daily Reading and the Guide's description of it. Today, for example, we're promised:

Food profiteering was as active in plague-stricken Milan 300 years ago as in modern times. Shops were stormed for food. Read how the Council strove heroically to fix fair rates.
And in the actual reading (from Manzoni's "I Promessi Sposi"), we read how it wasn't heroic at all, but a terrible policy that was a disaster:
The multitude had tried to procure abundance by pillage and incendiarism; the legal arm would have maintained it with the galleys and the scourge...It is easy, too, to see, and not useless to observe, the necessary connection between these stranger measures; each was an inevitable consequence of the antecedent one; and all of the first, which fixed a price upon bread so different to that which would have resulted from the real state of things. ... In proportion, then, as the consequences begin to be felt, it is necessary that they whose duty it is should provide a remedy for each, by a regulation, prohibiting men to do what they were impelled to do by the preceding one...[T]he disproportion between food and the demand for it, (which far from being removed, was even increased, by the remedies which temporarily suspended its effects)
The free-marketers reading this will smile -- see what happens when government gets mixed up in the magic of the market? But Tories like myself would urge them to look a little deeper; the government only got mixed up because a mob formed; the key is to promote wise policies that prevent mobs in the first place -- and laissez-faire often seems to cause the mobs to form. (Although we in the TV business are doing our best to keep them at home and away from the meetings!)

There is also something in here that will satisfy the non-conservative. In the tale of a heroic priest, Manzoni also draws a little object lesson in favor of the permanent welfare state:
But these fruits of charity, which we may certainly specify as wonderful, when we consider that they proceeded from one individual, and from his sole resources, (for Federigo habitually refused to be made a dispenser of the liberality of others), these, together with the bounty of other private persons, if not so copious, at least more numerous, and the subsidies granted by the Council of the Decurioni to meet this emergency, the dispensation of which was committed to the Board of Provision, were, after all, in comparison of the demand, scarce and inadequate.
However, Manzoni notes that by then people were too hungry to be a mob, and the passage ends with a little meditation that seems appropriate when we contemplate the monstrous totalitarian evils of the 20th century:
It is worthy of remark, that in such an extremity of want, in such a variety of complaints, not one attempt was ever made, not one rumour ever raised, to bring about an insurrection: at least, we find not the least mention of such a thing. Yet, among those who lived and died in this way, there was a great number of men brought up to anything rather than patient endurance; there were, indeed, in hundreds, those very same individuals who, on St. Martin’s-day [when there had been bread riots -- ed.], had made themselves so sensibly felt...But so constituted are we mortals in general, that we rebel indignantly and violently against medium evils, and bow in silence under extreme ones; we bear, not with resignation, but stupefaction, the weight of what at first we had called insupportable.
Yucky but true. Or, in the words of one of my favorite Onion headlines, "Americans Shrug, Line Up For Fingerprinting."

Arrears blogging: November 14 -- Our High-Strung Planet

One of the things about the science stuff in the Harvard Classics is that it's difficult for the non-scientist to figure out how outdated it is. Take Charles Lyell, giant of geology (apparently), and stimulator of Darwin. In today's reading he makes an argument that the geologic processes we've seen are the same ones that made the geologic world we dig into and puzzle about, or at least he appears to; it's pretty dense going:

The readiest way, perhaps, of persuading the reader that we may dispense with great and sudden revolutions in the geological order of events is by showing him how a regular and uninterrupted series of changes in the animate and inanimate world must give rise to such breaks in the sequence, and such unconformability of stratified rocks, as are usually thought to imply convulsions and catastrophes.
Do we believe this anymore? I mean we believe it in the sense that we don't believe that the fossil record is the way it is because of the Flood; but I think we have a better sense of all the catastrophes our poor planet has been through -- extinctions and the planet almost freezing to death and it's current incarnation of deciding that it would rather be Venus.

In fact, in the section of this reading where Lyell starts talking about why the fossil record is so random, you get the sense that Mother Earth is one of those unstable, ever-changable moms you read about in the My-Crazy-Family genre of memoir:
Forests may be as dense and lofty as those of Brazil, and may swarm with quadrupeds, birds, and insects, yet at the end of thousands of years one layer of black mould a few inches thick may be the sole representative of those myriads of trees, leaves, flowers, and fruits, those innumerable bones and skeletons of birds, quadrupeds, and reptiles, which tenanted the fertile region....

The sediment of the Rhone, for example, thrown into the Lake of Geneva, is now conveyed to a spot a mile and a half distant from that where it accumulated in the tenth century, and six miles from the point where the delta began originally to form. We may look forward to the period when this lake will be filled up, and then the distribution of the transported matter will be suddenly altered...

Rocks before concealed may have become exposed by denudation; volcanos may have burst out and covered the surface with scoriƦ and lava...
Of course, being a Californian, I know that the earth cannot be propitiated. Geologists, taking the long view as they do, seem to be fairly cool about this. Maybe natural philosophy is the best one after all.

Arrears blogging: November 13 -- Portrait of a Puritan As A Young Man

In the opening of today's passage (which I first encountered in an Updike short story, coincidentally enough) St. Augustine is hard (heh, heh) on himself:

TO CARTHAGE I came, where there sang all around me in my ears a cauldron of unholy loves. I loved not yet, yet I loved to love, and out of a deep-seated want, I hated myself for wanting not. I sought what I might love, in love with loving, and safety I hated, and a way without snares... For this cause my soul was sickly and full of sores, it miserably cast itself forth, desiring to be scraped by the touch of objects of sense. ... I defiled, therefore, the spring of friendship with the filth of concupiscense, and I beclouded its brightness with the hell of lustfulness...
He got all up in there, is what he's trying to say, and what an awful sin he found it to be, his rolling around in the hay with girls. (I particularly like, as an image, his sick soul "desiring to be scraped by the touch of objects of sense" -- true enough, really -- why do bankers build big houses? To scrape the sores of their souls with them.) And then, even worse, he went to the theater:
But I, miserable, then loved to grieve, and sought out what to grieve at, when in another’s and that feigned and personated misery, that acting best pleased me, and attracted me the most vehemently, which drew tears from me. What marvel that an unhappy sheep straying from Thy flock, and impatient of Thy keeping, I became infected with a foul disease?
It's good that the Harvard Classics contains within it at least one rant against popular culture infecting a wayward youth? For that's what Augustine is, in this part of his autobio -- he's nineteen. Somehow I missed this fact when I was assigned this book in college, even though I was nineteen myself at the time. I suspect that, like the young saint, I had my mind on other things.

And when you go back and read the passages, they seem to be describing not so much an archsinner as a typical nineteen-year-old, let loose at college in a big city, weepy over his pop culture, feeling deeply, chasing the opposite sex, hot for love and perhaps confusing lust with it. He even wants to be a lawyer to please his mother. He could be anybody (which is his point, I guess). And that he presents himself here, in later life, condemning the wild ways which he has made sure to enjoy already -- well, that's small-c classic too.

Arrears blogging: November 12 -- Everybody Loves Adam

A friend of mine who grew up in France introduced me to the phrase "A Mr. and Mrs." to describe a marital fight, and today we have the first one in history, at least according to the Biblical literalists: Adam and Eve's spat in Book IX of Paradise Lost. If I were a thoughtful person I would be drawn to the little colloquium between Satan and Eve ("Resolved: The Fruit Is Delicious"), or I might weigh in on the question of whose fault it is. But I'm not thoughtful, especially when Mom and Dad are fighting:

Adam, estranged in look and altered style,
Speech intermitted thus to Eve renewed:—
“Would thou hadst hearkened to my words, and stayed
With me, as I besought thee, when that strange
Desire of wandering, this unhappy morn,
I know not whence possessed thee!
To the moon, Eve! Then Eve complains about sitting around the garden all day:
Was I to have never parted from thy side?
As good have grown there still, a lifeless rib.
Being as I am, why didst not thou, the Head,
Command me absolutely not to go,
Going into such danger, as thou saidst?
To which Adam replies (in Jim Belushi's voice):
And am I now upbraided as the cause
Of thy transgressing? not enough severe,
It seems, in thy restraint! What could I more?
And then he ends a little whiny:
But I rue
That error now, which is become my crime,
And thou the accuser. Thus it shall befall
Him who, to worth in women overtrusting,
Lets her will rule...
I love "which is become my crime," because how many millions of husbands (or wives, for that matter) have said something like that since? It's a great fight. You can see why Milton was such a big proponent of divorce.

(I will, however, note that Original Sin seems more elegant to me without the story of Adam and Eve, because it seems grander and more tragic. Under the Adam-and-Eve story it just seems like someone broke curfew. )

Arrears blogging: November 11 -- (The Lack Of) Arms and the Man

The Daily Reading Guide uses the old-style and more graceful term of "Armistice Day" to describe November 11, and, in the war-to-end-wars-has-ended style that people might still have had in 1930, does not flinch from giving us Whitman, who didn’t flinch either:

On, on I go, (open doors of time! open hospital doors!)
The crush’d head I dress (poor crazed hand tear not the bandage away),
The neck of the cavalry-man with the bullet through and through I examine,
Hard the breathing rattles, quite glazed already the eye, yet life struggles hard
(Come sweet death! be persuaded O beautiful death!
In mercy come quickly).
That’s “The Wound-Dresser,” my favorite of today’s poems. To me it’s powerful because Whitman doesn’t change his super-heavy incantory sound to tell you This Is Important. You read a bunch of Whitman poems, and you watch him hit some long foul balls going for the home run, (“Of physiology from top to toe I sing”); and then it’s kind of arresting when you realize he’s connected. The occasion rises to Whitman, you could say:
I dress a wound in the side, deep, deep,
But a day or two more, for see the frame all wasted and sinking,
And the yellow-blue countenance see.
I dress the perforated shoulder, the foot with the bullet-wound,
Cleanse the one with a gnawing and putrid gangrene, so sickening, so offensive,
While the attendant stands behind aside me holding the tray and pail.
I like the attendant here;. even in our tragic, poetic moments, prose follows us, holding the tray and pail.

Arrears blogging: September 14 -- Orals

When you click on the online Reading Guide for this date, you get Cantos 24 and 25 of Dante's Inferno, filled with monsters and curses and people being turned into snakes and forced to meld with each other. Sick, right? But it turns out that's not the actual reading. The actual reading is Cantos 24 and 25 of the Paradiso, and instead of mindbending creatures, we get scholastic philosophy:

Rightly hast thou deem’d,”
Was answer’d; “if thou well discern, why first
He hath defined it substance, and then proof.”
Will Dante answer the questions correctly? Or will he screw up and assume that which he's supposed to define? The answers will be found in Divine Comedy III: Enter The Logician I suppose in those 13th-century days anyone who could read the Inferno also had his fill of Aquinas and the like, so it was a more relatable test, but still, this shows you why it's so hard for sequels to work, especially the third one. (The translation doesn't help, either, and I'm without my own Virgil -- Pinsky's version -- which got me through the Inferno excerpts.)

The super-theological content of this reading also reminds me that, considering the American intellectual climate of 1908, the Harvard Classics isn't really all that Christian. I think this is a good thing because education is supposed to be broadening -- stuff you didn't know, by definition -- and people talking about Christianity you can find on AM radio. Or the House of Representatives.

Arrears blogging: October 31 -- Footnotes

What to say about a Robert Burns poem that the Robert Burns website says "becomes tedious in spite of the lively movement and the skilfully manipulated verse"? But don't take my word for it, take these incomprehensible words:

They hoy’t out Will, wi’ sair advice;
They hecht him some fine braw ane;
It chanc’d the stack he faddom’t thrice
Was timmer-propt for thrawin:
As they say in Scotland, Oy.

You could read the footnotes, of course, featuring Burns's descriptions of charming Scottish Halloween customs. There, travelling back in time (using your imagination!), you truly experience how boring the world was before mass entertainment:
They go to the barnyard, and pull each, at three different times, a stalk of oats. If the third stalk wants the “top-pickle,” that is, the grain at the top of the stalk, the party in question will come to the marriage-bed anything but a maid.

Take a candle and go alone to a looking-glass; eat an apple before it, and some traditions say you should comb your hair all the time; the face of your conjungal companion, to be, will be seen in the glass, as if peeping over your shoulder.

Steal out, unperceived, and sow a handful of hemp-seed, harrowing it with anything you can conveniently draw after you. Repeat now and then: “Hemp-seed, I saw thee, hemp-seed, I saw thee; and him (or her) that is to be my true love, come after me and pou thee.”
Wow! Making your own fun sounds lame!

The other question I have is this: how many people of marriageable age could there have been in an 18th-century Scottish village, that you need all these primitive-eHarmony tricks with the mirrors and the hemp-seed? It's not like your average lassie back then had a studio apartment on Essex Street, yet felt lonely in the midst of millions. There's just Rob and Andrew and Willie and, confusingly, Rab.

Also of note in Burns's poem: no Nixon masks. It doesn't seem like Halloween without them.

Arrears blogging: June 29: Saucy

Irritatingly, I can't find it now, but I was just reading an interview with Michael Emerson from Lost where he was talking about the theater, and how much he likes it when language is more than just a means of communication. And then I had a Shakespeare reading, and it's easy to see exactly what he's talking about. Or, as Lady Macbeth puts it:

To feed were best at home;
From thence, the sauce to meat is ceremony;
Meeting were bare without it.
Ceremony is our sauce; language is our sauce with which we dress our subsistence need for communication. It's possible that in Shakespeare's time, filled as it was with infant mortality and shit in the street, the thick sauce of ceremony was accordingly more prized and needed, to disguise the world the way it was. In our more pleasant circumstances, we can get away with a more nouvelle cuisine version of our lives. For example, I believe one of the reasons that men in L.A> don't wear suits as much as that they tend to be more buff; old-timey businessmen had bellies and needed the sack suit to disguise it. Either way, the act of display is kind of universal.

And this, of course, may be one of my favorite lines of Shakespeare:
I am in blood
Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er.
That's every war that ever was right there, in red sauce, no less.

Arrears blogging: June 28: Charles Darwin, bumblling detective

First of all, I apologize for being so dilatory with the arrears blogging (I still owe about 10 days) -- it's just that real work has come, and not a moment to soon. I do intend to finish the thing so I can gather it all in one place. You have my half-assed guarantee on it!

The thing that charms me about Darwin is that he's not afraid to look ridiculous (remember when he hung out watching crabs and coconuts?). Today he has a "Mr. Bean Goes To Argentina" style experience:

One day, as I was amusing myself by galloping and whirling the balls [the bolas, a kind of three-balled slingshot -- ed] round my head, by accident the free one struck a bush; and its revolving motion being thus destroyed, it immediately fell to the ground, and, like magic, caught one hind leg of my horse; the other ball was then jerked out of my hand, and the horse fairly secured. Luckily he was an old practised animal, and knew what it meant; otherwise he would probably have kicked till he had thrown himself down. The Gauchos roared with laughter; they cried out that they had seen every sort of animal caught, but had never before seen a man caught by himself.


Darwin would be a hell of a fictional detective, because he seems all English and clumsy and cutting a comic figure, but he's also intensely interested about why things are -- a long passage begins, "The general, and almost entire absence of trees in Banda Oriental is remarkable." This leads him to muse on why the Falklands don't have the same trees as nearby Tierra del Fuego, but, after considering a number of factors, he gives up; this also is admirable in fictional detectives, because it would allow the cops to bring in the wrong guy and use up a big chunk of your novel. I guess all scientists are detectives, really, but Darwin seems more open to telling us how ludicrous he looks; maybe because he has the confidence of the self-funded. And, of course, he nailed the biggest perp of all, the guy behind the Genesis project.

Arrears blogging: June 1: Let's go Devils!

You know that film cliche where the angel appears on one shoulder and the devil on the other one? I think we may have a source for it right here in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus. Faust is on the verge of repenting and this random old man comes out to urge him to do so. I puzzled over who this old man might be, and, smiling at the idea that I might read the rest of the play, decided that maybe he's supposed to be Faustus's conscience:

Old Man. Ah, Doctor Faustus, that I might prevail
To guide thy steps unto the way of life,
By which sweet path thou may’st attain the goal
That shall conduct thee to celestial rest!
One of the things I might point out is the smooth way that the old man refers to him as "Doctor," even though I believe that Faustus is not an M.D.. Non-M.D. doctors love that, I have found.

Now, you'd think Mephistopheles would make a counter-argument: Women! Fame! Grapes out of season! (Which just happened in the previous scene.) But you don't get to be a devil by not knowing how to deal with the weak -- instead, he goes for intimidation, and it works:
Meph. Thou traitor, Faustus, I arrest thy soul
For disobedience to my sovereign lord;
Revolt, or I’ll in piecemeal tear thy flesh.
This works and Faustus asks Mephistopheles to torture the old man -- another classic sign of the weak.

Finally, after some time, the jig is up for Dr. Faustus, and this leads into a long monologue that makes one think that the Elizabethan stage must have been noted for its shouting:
My God! my God! look not so fierce on me! Enter DEVILS.
Adders and serpents, let me breathe awhile!
Ugly hell, gape not! come not, Lucifer!
I’ll burn my books!—Ah Mephistophilis!
Exeunt DEVILS with FAUSTUS.
I would love to know how the devils and Faustus exeunted. Did they have smoke bombs in the 16th century?

Arrears blogging: May 31: Exhibit A for American

I guess Memorial Day weekend was American poetry weekend (and why not), so I might as well quote one of my favorite United Statesean lines that has the added benefit of being true. It's from William Carlos Williams:

The pure products of America
go crazy--
And we happen to have Exhibit A right here, Walt Whitman, writing a preface to Leaves of Grass that's so nutty you wonder how anyone ever went on to read the poems. But don't take my word for it -- not when you have Whitman's hundreds and hundreds of words:
The known universe has one complete lover and that is the greatest poet. He consumes an eternal passion and is indifferent which chance happens and which possible contingency of fortune or misfortune and persuades daily and hourly his delicious pay. What baulks or breaks others is fuel for his burning progress to contact and amorous joy.
The unusual thing is, not so much that these sentences are in the Harvard Classics, but that they're set in type at all -- generally you find them in tiny handwriting on the beginning of page three of the pamphlet.

But one of the big differences between Whitman and most crazy people is that Whitman doesn't have axes to grind -- as he said of himself, he contains multitudes. Whitman doesn't turn anyone away, and while (let's be honest) that is crazy, it's crazy in a holy fool kind of way, a there-but-for-the-lack-of-grace-of-God kind of way.

Plus he loves America; he's crazy about it, you could say:
the enormous diversity of temperature and agriculture and mines—the tribes of red aborigines—the weather-beaten vessels entering new ports or making landings on rocky coasts—the first settlements north or south—the rapid stature and muscle—the haughty defiance of ’76, and the war and peace and formation of the constitution … the Union always surrounded by blatherers and always calm and impregnable—the perpetual coming of immigrants—the wharf-hem’d cities and superior marine—the unsurveyed interior—the loghouses and clearings and wild animals and hunters and trappers … the free commerce—the fisheries and whaling and gold-digging—the endless gestation of new states—the convening of Congress every December, the members duly coming up from all climates and the uttermost parts … the noble character of the young mechanics and of all free American workmen and workwomen … the general ardor and friendliness and enterprise—the perfect equality of the female with the male … the large amativeness—the fluid movement of the population—the factories and mercantile life and laborsaving machinery...
I'm sorry that quote is so very long, but it's hard not to get caught up in the excitement, even if it is 150 years old. One likes to think this energy is still around today, just as the Union is still surrounded by blatherers.

Whitman doesn't count as a blatherer, though, for all his crazy talk. He breaks through somehow:
The greatest poet has less a marked style and is more the channel of thoughts and things without increase or diminution and is the free channel of himself. He swears to his art, I will not be meddlesome, I will not have in my writing any elegance or effect or originality to hang in the way between me and the rest like curtains. I will have nothing hang in the way not the richest curtains.
I don't think this is even true (Shakespeare, bitches!) and yet I love it.

Arrears blogging: May 30: Deep Ship

Back when they were putting the Harvard Classics together Longfellow was classed with the poets, but I think he should be classed (instead? no, also!) with the pop artists -- like Capras or Goffin/King, guys who know how to put the hay down where the goats can get at it. While artists like these have cooler contemporaries (Whitman, Sturges, Holland/Dozier/Holland), there's still something pleasurable about them.

Today Longfellow is building a ship. The ship stands for the Union. We know this because he tells us, twice:

"Choose the timbers with greatest care;
Of all that is unsound beware;
For only what is sound and strong
To this vessel shall belong.
Cedar of Maine and Georgia pine
Here together shall combine.
A goodly frame, and a goodly fame,
And the UNION be her name!
All caps in the original; Longfellow's not one of these guys who's going to wait around for you to get it. But if a ship bearing symbolic freight isn't enough for you, maybe you'd like some...romance:
For the day that gives her to the sea
Shall give my daughter unto thee!’
Well, handing over the daughter doesn't seem that romantic to us, but she doesn't seem to mind:
Like a beauteous barge was she,
Still at rest on the sandy beach,
Just beyond the billow’s reach;
But he
Was the restless, seething, stormy sea!
I'm not much at courtin', but I never thought to compare a girl to a barge before. Have any readers tried that? I would be interested to know the result.

Note also that Longfellow changes the length of his lines and his rhyme scheme -- this is what I mean by saying he's a pop artist, a lesser talent would be more monotonous. Another nice detail, much later, when the boy/ocean-girl/boat metaphor is reintroduced, is the admission that sermons are boring:
The worthy pastor...
Spake, with accents mild and clear,
Words of warning, words of cheer,
But tedious to the bridegroom’s ear.
The ship then, at the end, turns around and becomes a metaphor for the nation again. And yet the bride and groom seem to come from the same New England town; you'd want one of them to be from Alabama or something. But who am I to say? All of this ship-of-state stuff, and the New England-ness of it, reminds me of this Donald Hall poem (after Horace) that my dad once gave me:

Ship of state, hightide rising
carries you off again, far
from land. When you packed
black traffic

to Virginia's shore, whole
cloth expanded under blue
heaven. New England's
enlightened

gentry constituted you
of stout pine and steam-bent oak
for the seasonal
hurricane

but not to withstand the rage
that your cargo turns on you
as you divagate
uncaptained

on the greedy fitful winds
of your final century.
I beg you to sink
abruptly.

Arrears blogging: May 29: No shortage of gore

One thing about the Thousand and One Nights, they sure know how to keep a story moving. And, even better, they know the virtues of a slow introduction -- here, in The Tale of the Barber's Fifth Brother (must focus-group that title), we begin with a long daydream of wealth -- and not just of wealth, but of the things wealth buys, such as repercussion-free meanness to women:

I will command her to stand before me as stands the timid and the abject; and I will not look at her, on account of the haughtiness of my spirit and the gravity of my wisdom; so that the maids will say, O our master and our lord, may we be thy sacrifice! This thy wife, or rather thy handmaid, awaiteth thy kind regard, and is standing before thee: then graciously bestow on her one glance; for the posture hath become painful to her.
In defense of these old tales, we know the guy is a fool, for he's daydreaming while selling bits of glass, and, when he gets too much into the daydream, he actually kicks over his tray of glass, breaking it -- ha ha! (One of the chief things I think I've learned on this project is not to be afraid of the basic jokes; they have worked for millienia.)

Anyway, that's how the B5B (Barber's Fifth Brother) gets involved in the serial-killing ring, which seems over-elaborate -- it involves meeting a bewitching woman with money, and then, the next day, an old lady who promises access to said bewitching woman. Then the nefarious plot moves into action:
...the slaves laid hold upon him, and stripped him, and struck him more than eighty blows with the flat of his sword, until he fell sprawling upon the floor; when he retired from him, concluding that he was dead, and uttered a great cry, so that the earth trembled, and the place resounded at his voice, saying, Where is El-Melihah? upon which a girl came to him, holding a handsome tray containing salt; and with this she forthwith stuffed the flesh-wounds with which my brother’s skin was gashed until they gaped open...whereupon the old woman came to my brother, and, dragging him by the feet to a deep and dark vault, threw him into it upon a heap of slain.
But he survives, extolling Allah's perfection, because what is a better example of perfection than a serial-killing ring? But he gets his revenge, action-movie style:
So my brother rose, and, as the slave walked before him, he put his hand to the sword which was concealed beneath his clothes, and struck the slave with it, and cut off his head; after which he dragged him by his feet to the vault, and called out, Where is El-Melihah? The slave-girl, therefore, came, having in her hand the tray containing the salt; but when she saw my brother with the sword in his hand, she turned back and fled: my brother, however, overtook her, and struck off her head. He then called out, Where is the old woman?—and she came; and he said to her, Dost thou know me, O malevolent hag? ...The old woman exclaimed, Fear God in thy treatment of me!—but my brother, turning towards her, struck her with the sword, and clove her in twain.
It will not surprise students of human nature to find out that the pretty girl gets spared. And then, just as we're wrapping things up, here's the last sentence:
Some robbers, however, came upon him, and stripped and beat him, and cut off his ears
I love that, as an ending: "Oh, and also? They cut off his ears." All the people who left this story early, to beat the traffic, are denied the pleasure of that twist at the end, and it's also a twist that could really only be in print, although I guess you could do something where the guy takes off his turban at the end and someone says, "Good heavens, you're earless!" But that's not as satisfying.

Arrears blogging: April 18 -- Reading is bad for you

In resolution, he plunged himself so deeply in his reading of these books, as he spent many times in the lecture of them whole days and nights; and in the end, through his little sleep and much reading, he dried up his brains in such sort as he lost wholly his judgment.
First Faust, and now Don Quixote: the great authors seem to agree that getting way into books is a good way to go crazy. But where Faust was moody and changeable, Quixote is the same thing always -- the loser who thinks he's a winner, perhaps my favorite comic conceit, and one that almost always works because who doesn't like feeling superior to a character who doesn't realize that people are feeling superior to him?

What also always works is the physical comedy. This seems like a Mr. Bean sketch (and I should add that I don't really like Mr. Bean, except that as someone who's appallingly clumsy I often find myself in Mr. Bean-like situations while, e.g., making coffee):
for by reason his helmet was on, and his beaver lifted, he could put nothing into his mouth himself if others did not help him to find the way, and therefore one of those ladies served his turn in that; but it was altogether impossible to give him drink after that manner, and would have remained so for ever, if the innkeeper had not bored a cane, and setting the one end in his mouth, poured down the wine at the other: all which he suffered most patiently, because he would not break the ribbons of his helmet.
I like the idea that they missed a couple of times with the cane, too, thereby getting wine under the armor.

In the end, I think I would prefer it if Quixote got into Heaven ahead of Faust, even if they are equally full of book-begotten delusions of grandeur. Tragedy is as common as grad students, but fools suffer for their passions too, and with much less complaining.

Arrears blogging: March 22 -- High-Strung Dudes Of Literature

I see by Wikipedia that Faustwas played recently by Bruno Ganz, who I remember seeing as the soulful, soulful angel in "Wings of Desire" just before I fell asleep in it. Based on this translation, anyway, I think someone more skittish is appropriate. Hugh Laurie, maybe, but then I think he'd be good in anything -- and not serious "House" Hugh Laurie, but Bertie Wooster-goes-to-graduate-school Hugh Laurie. David Cross, maybe?

Because Faust is at the end of his extravagantly educated rope here:
And dost thou ask why heaves thy heart,
With tighten’d pressure in thy breast?
Why the dull ache will not depart,
By which thy life-pulse is oppress’d?
Instead of nature’s living sphere,
Created for mankind of old,
Brute skeletons surround thee here,
And dead men’s bones in smoke and mould.
Followed by a complete mood switch:
Up! Forth into the distant land!
As I may have mentioned, I read Faust when I took German in college, and it always bugged me that he was redeemed just for striving. I was bad at German, so I know that may not be the actual ending, but my poor opinion of Faust is confirmed in this excerpt because he consults Nostradamus. At times he also sounds like a guy on a street corner telling you why Communism has never really been put into practice:
The few who somewhat of these things have known,
Who their full hearts unguardedly reveal’d,
Nor thoughts, nor feelings, from the mob conceal’d,
Have died on crosses, or in flames been thrown.
It's the system, man! And then he quickly moves on to contemplating suicide. How interesting of Goethe to being with a scene telling us that all intellectuals are crazy.

Arrears blogging: March 12 -- Yes Man

In order to complete the year I have 24 days of readings to do. Why not blog them?

Here's a dialogue from my least favorite writer in the Harvard Classics, the good Bishop Berkeley. I'm not into the Bish because I don't like arguing about God, and I don't like arguing about God because the history of the human race shows that it is a generally unprofitable activity.

Not that there's really any arguing; here's samples from one side of the "dialogue" -- this guy Hylas is a huge patsy. The dialogue may not prove the existence of God, but it does prove the existence of sycophancy:

Hyl. I own there is a great deal in what you say.
Hyl. I do not deny it.
Hyl. I must confess they are.
Hyl. I begin to suspect my hypothesis.
Hyl. I now clearly see it was a mere dream. There is nothing in it.
Hyl. It is too plain to be denied.
Hyl. You are in the right.
I believe Hylas will go far in life. The actual argument can be summarized by these two limericks. Or maybe you'd rather read this:
But, on the other hand, it is very conceivable that they should exist in and be produced by a spirit; since this is no more than I daily experience in myself, inasmuch as I perceive numberless ideas; and, by an act of my will, can form a great variety of them, and raise them up in my imagination: though, it must be confessed, these creatures of the fancy are not altogether so distinct, so strong, vivid, and permanent, as those perceived by my senses—which latter are called real things.
Didn't think so.

Envoi

Since the first discovery of the arts, war, commerce, and religious zeal have diffused, among the savages of the Old and New World, those inestimable gifts: they have been successively propagated; they can never be lost. We may therefore acquiesce in the pleasing conclusion that every age of the world has increased, and still increases, the real wealth, the happiness, the knowledge, and perhaps the virtue, of the human race.
Gibbon, "General Observations on the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West".