Monday, December 27, 2010

An extraordinarily photo-heavy Christmas post.

I thought it might be nice to post many, many photos from Christmas here at the Mathers house.

Here's Laurie with many food item gifts.  She received a lot of food item gifts.  I received a lot of beverage item gifts, mainly orbiting the spheres of coffee, tea, and wine.

My folks were in town and Tony joined us for presents and the Christmas meal.

I received the complete Jeeves and Wooster television series. I should mention that the obvious exclusion from these photos is the brand new digital camera that my parents gave me.  I suppose I could have worked something up with mirrors, but there are no photos of the camera itself.

A "french press" style coffee maker.

A pair of Freudian slippers.  That is to say slippers made to look like the head of Dr. Freud.

My toes operate the tongues.

I bought a ring for Laurie.  Gold and amethyst.

Laurie also received a cookbook.

Karina made a quilt for Laurie.  Some of the patches are from Laurie's mother's clothes.

Tony and Karina bought me a tea set.

I also received a wine aerator.

And we mocked nature at the expense of poor Schubert.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Milton up to Paradise Lost

I wanted to write a post on the poetry of John Milton contained in the Complete Poems in English (the distinction made because Milton also has a body of poetic work in Latin and Italian) up to Paradise Lost.  I wanted to do this because a whole post on all of the works of Milton would tax the patience of my readers.  So, I decided to split it up into three portions of which this is the first.  I speak primarily here of On The Morning of Christ's Nativity, Comus, and Lycidas.  The other, largely topical material, while executed with the grand poetic skill we come to expect from Milton, left me a bit cold.  The feeling reminded me of reading Allen Ginsberg's political poems ("Yes, I'm sure whatever the CIA was doing in Central America 35 years ago was repulsive.  Yes, I'm sure it probably has something to do with current global politics.  Yes, I'm sure I should be interested.")  I could go on to point out more parallels between those two important poets of their days, but then I would want to punch myself in the mouth, so I won't.  Although I should add that even in the minor works, Milton's execution is impeccable.

But, I find I am already starting on the wrong foot.  I do not feel I am waxing hyperbolic when I say that Milton's poetry is some of the most beautiful and talented composition in the history of the English language.  I merely meant to introduce by stating that I think there are three key texts prior to Paradise Lost, not coincidentally, an opinion that seems to be shared by the syllabus of the Yale lecture series I'm working through on Milton.

Actually, I don't have a lot of original input on On The Morning of Christ's Nativity aside from a bit of gushing.  I am amazed that such a dynamic poetic work on the theme of the current season is so buried in our culture.  I suppose I could make an argument here about poetry in our culture, the survival of Shakespeare (who wrote entertaining plays) and the obscurity aside from academic lip service of Milton, and even the floundering of the arts in an educational culture of bare testing producing an increasingly nihilistic society.  But I'm finding myself remarkably non-committal today.  I'm sure my Inner Analyst will be chewing on this all night.

I could imagine a family tradition with our hypothetical child (I think Laurie and I have settled on Dalton Browne Mathers for our hypothetical son) of rising Christmas morning and listening to father read On The Morning of Christ's Nativity aloud to the family, father being quite oblivious to the fact that he is the only one not thinking of opening presents.

Comus (which isn't its actual title.  Much like what happens with symphonic pieces, it is a nickname that has emerged over time) is a remarkable little play.  I was reminded very early on of a statement by Philip K. Dick who said words to the effect that a good sci-fi/fantasy writer tells a great story without cramming their beliefs in there.  He said that the reader ought to be able to read and enjoy the piece without being able to discern the political or religious or any other belief system of the author based on the material they've just read.  He added that he didn't do that and, in fact, didn't know of anyone who did aside from Ray Bradbury.  Of course, applying such a rubric to Comus would be absurd.  The entire point of the piece seems to be to explore ideas.  For me, one of Milton's most attractive features is that he does not shy away from exploring different facets of ideas and, in his lifetime, had room for change and growth.

The play also reminded me of a particular director I worked with back at Shakespeare Orange County who insisted, whenever a question of this type would arise, that there is no subtext in Shakespeare.  I remember many months of bickering and bantering over this point.  I remember asking if he thought there were no neuroses before Freud.  He outright denied any Oedipal undercurrents in Hamlet's relationship to Gertrude.  But I remember his concept finally clicking for me when the highly and vocally atheistic actor playing Hamlet asked a few questions about the scene where Claudius is praying.  The actor asked if Hamlet might really not be hesitating for this reason or that.  The director said sternly, "No, Hamlet is afraid if he kills Claudius now, Claudius will go to Heaven.  You need to figure out a way to make that real onstage."

And he did.

I say all of this because of the question of how we are to interpret Milton's play.  In the Yale course I'm iPodding through right now, the professor presents a thought experiment of thinking of Comus as Shakespeare, The Lady as Milton, and Sabrina as Spenser.  Shakespeare is the secular, satyr-godlike poet (bear in mind, this is to Milton's Lady, not my own judgment on Shakespeare by any means) arguing greatness in leading away from the "pure path" Milton would eventually pursue.  In other words, had Milton inclined more toward The Bard, we might not have Paradise Lost or, in other words, Milton's epic poem may have gone a more secular thematic route.  But the epic poetry of Spenser freed him from the paralysis he experienced in the shadow of the greatest poet in the English language.  It's an old story for great artists in the shadow of great artists in recent memory.  Think of The Lady as Brahms and Comus as Beethoven. 

Although I'm not sure I believe that the Yale professor really meant to suggest that this was his interpretation or one that one ought to adopt.  I think he was using it as a key to discuss that aspect of Milton's anxiety (or neurosis.)  I, personally, tend more toward the simpler interpretation that Comus represents the temptations of the easy "beauty" to be found in the carnal, which the Lady resists and is then allowed to pursue higher aspirations, the more elevated world of art if I might be so pretentious, represented by Sabrina.

There would be difficulty in trying to produce the show to a contemporary audience.  I have difficulty imagining presenting the brother's argument that the virtue of chastity will protect the lost, lonely girl in the woods in such a way that it wouldn't get a laugh.  More seriously, any post-Woolf production of this Miltonic play would require tremendous Theater of Cruelty commitment to guide an audience past the surface rape fantasy to the truths underneath.  In short, I think it would be an extremely difficult piece to produce today.  I would add that the theater would do well to do more extremely difficult pieces.  Your local Civic Light Opera production of Seussical is probably not going to catalyze your transcendent soul.

Lycidas, it will probably not surprise anyone to know, was both difficult and healing for me.  As many of you know, my best friend died suddenly over this past summer.  Having had this experience at this time, and I'm serious about this, I think I've come to find that the best advice I can give someone who is mourning a loved one is to read the Harvard Classics Library.  It has helped this uncouth swain immeasurably.

Scholars make much of the mixture of Christian and Pagan figures in the poem.  I don't have much to add aside from how astonishingly brazen Milton tends to be.  Having recently taught a class on Puritan history, I am astonished to think that this man called "The Puritan Poet" writes about loss of faith in a universe that would kill a man in his prime, in support of divorce on the grounds of incompatibility, in opposition of censorship (kind of), in support of regicide (although I hasten to add that I am not so dense as to miss the political aspect of the British Puritans at that time), and, as we'll see later, giving Lucifer very troubling arguments which are never properly addressed by the opposing party.  Still, this man was undeniably a Puritan and undeniably a Christian, which may require some on either side of severe dogma to reassess their rigid definitions of both.

On second thought, it occurs to me at this point that I may very well be recasting Milton in my own image at this point.  So, let me wrap up the Egghead stuff by saying that all of Milton's surviving poetic works in English are simply masterful.  If you have never read Milton, you are missing out on perhaps the greatest craftsman in the history of English literature and the emotion I feel toward you is very close to something resembling pity.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Penguin 10 Essential Classics Retrospective

Most people don't realize that I was the inspiration for the Penguin logo.

As many of you will well remember, about a year and a half ago I started a Classics reading group based upon a list of "essential classics" compiled by Penguin Books.  As you may also well know, the recent post on the end of Moby-Dick marked the completion of that series.  On completion of such a project I feel compelled to indulge myself in a few moments of reflection.

The original website still exists here. An extremely cynical view of the original compiled list would be that it was initially created to move stock on titles that Penguin sells.  I am not quite that cynical.  Although I am cynical enough to believe that, in spite of what Penguin says on their 10 essential classics redux website, a major staple in the publishing industry could not be so mad or short-sighted as to have actually believed that their original list was comprehensive. They have (much like I did on this very blog earlier in the series) created a space where one can vote on one's own list of 10 essential classics (wontedly from their pool of titles) with the possibility of then winning those titles.  Das ist natürlich.  I know of my own public blustering over their micro-canon.  I am certain I was not alone.  When marketing gives you lemons, offer sugar to those making a sour face.

It seems clear to me now (likely even clearer than when I embarked on the project) that the list was compiled for a demographic under which I do not fall.  The campaign was geared toward young people entering the world of adulthood whose dependence upon the typically spotty reliability of the public education system may have produced gaps in their cultural literacy (as it were.)  Of course, the main backfire was that there are not 10 essential classics. There are hundreds, if not thousands of essential classics. The road of opportunity grows ever shorter every moment we are not reading them.  By Gadfry, why on Earth are you still reading this?!!? To the library!

In spite of the gross inadequacies inherent in every endeavor to distill humankind's highest aspirations into a pill easily swallowed, I do want to make one point abundantly clear.  I have come out the other side of the reading list with the report that I found the foundation solid.  I do think it was a decent list of basic cultural literacy for the average 18-21 year old and would recommend its employment to same.  I even say this in light of having strongly disliked two of the titles on the list personally. I am not so narcissistic to believe that they (Walden and Moby-Dick, for those who may not have followed along closely.  Both of which, incidentally, conspicuously fail the Bechdel Test) are not ingrained in our culture.  And, as a good Miltonian, I would add that to the pure, all things are pure and that Solomon seeking wisdom pleased the Lord. I think one can profit greatly from reading material that one struggles with or outright disagrees with.

On the other side of that coin, there is the matter of being enlightened to great material.  There were titles on the list I was previously predisposed to love (Inferno and The Odyssey) but one of the greatest rewards I find in these projects is the discovery of material one might not have otherwise read. I speak mainly of Jane Eyre here, which I had not read nor was I planning on reading anytime ever. Yet it turned out to be one of my favorite titles on the list.  Of course, in following a reading regimen one must needs engage a trusty Virgil.  I would recommend Dr. Charles Eliot.  Although I would be remiss if I did not link this project to my eventual, current Harvard Classics Library reading project.

I believe that my take-away from this project is how profitable such reading projects can be, rather than simply blowing wherever fancy or trends or best-seller lists take you.  For that, I thank the Penguin Group.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- Moby-Dick- Fin

"The first man to spot the white whale gets his picture printed on every United States penny!"
And so I've reached the end of both Moby-Dick and the Penguin Essential Classics reading project.  I shall comment on the project as a whole anon.  I have a few thoughts upon completion of Moby-Dick.
My conclusion on Moby-Dick is that it is a great 200 page work of literature.  Unfortunately, it is 520 pages long.  I thought that the final 80 pages of the book were as astounding as I think they have always been hyped up to be.  There is a great book in there, it is just wrapped in a great deal of blubber.  I do not feel I am treading too heavily on the toes of audacity to offer my opinion that the book would be transcendent if it started with the narrative up to Queequeg and Ishamael beginning the Pequod voyage to the scenes of whaling in the middle of the book to the final 80 some pages of narrative.  I have not a doubt in my mind that the "informational" chapters are entirely superfluous, injure the book as a whole, and that the work would benefit infinitely from their excision.  Unfortunately, even I bristle at the thought of doing that now.  I just think it's unfortunate that Melville didn't have a friend to pull him aside and said "Look, Herman, you really don't need four chapters on whale skulls.  Save it for the posthumous Unpublished Journals of Herman Melville."
I imagine one might ask "So, do you think that people ought to read Moby-Dick at long last?"  To which I say this:
Given what in my experience is the capricious nature of Atropos, I feel that there are literally (as it were) hundreds of books you require in this lifetime before Moby-Dick were I given the task of assembling a curriculum vitae (or, rather, a curriculum legere.)  Sublime material is contained within, but there is far more nutritious fare on far lower shelves before one gets to hacking away at the white whale.  

The end is packed with excellent material.  The encounters with the other ships which range from the Biblical to the heart-breakingly ironic (the joyful ship returning home meeting the grim Pequod on their way into the hunt was one of my favorite sections of the book) to the prophecies in homage to the Scottish play ("Paul Mathers, you can be killed by nothing but the caverns within your breast growing hard and filling with debris!") to the Horatio style epilogue.  I will say I thought, for such an otherwise turgid work, that Ahab's final scene passed quickly and with very little exposition.

I will also leave the question which I shall answer in my next post, which is: was the project worthwhile as a whole?

More soon.

Religio Medici by Sir Thomas Browne

One of the most precious fruits gleaned thus far from my bypath into the Harvard Classic Library has been the books I'd not previously heard of, yet now am called upon to read.  To date, the list's most remarkable entries in that category are Epictetus and Sir Thomas Browne.  The latter's work I was so taken with, I was very close to buying a case of Religio Medici and giving them out as Christmas presents this year.  I really do want everyone I know to read this wonderful work.  I stopped short only upon realizing that I don't know a case of books worth of people.

I also (and I am quite serious about this) have drawn from this work the epitaph I want on my grave as my wife seems to be set on giving me a traditional Christian burial.  And since the disposal of remains are for the comfort of the living because the dead don't care, I have given her permission so long as Siegfried's Funeral March is played at my funeral.  A burial would probably more comforting to the hypothetical loved ones (assuming I don't outlive them all) I leave behind than my original plan which was this.

The words are from one of the several lyrical intermezzi of Sir Thomas Browne's Religio Medici:
"O come that hour, when I shall never sleep again but wake forever."
The words are for the living, but look toward eternity. 

Religio Medici is quite simply one of the most beautiful books I've ever read and without doubt one of the most beautiful religious texts.  His rhetoric is astonishing in its clarity and poetry.  It is so rare to read a 17th century author who reads as if one were conversing.  If I may be so bold as to offer my own opinion, I also find this a rare example of a religious author before the Age of Reason who writes so reasonably, so moderately, and yet with no less passion or devotion than the other great figures in church history.

It is singularly unlike any religious text of this sort that I am aware of.  It is not like Augustine's Confessions or other earlier personal Christian testimonies in that it does not concern itself with biographical details of the author's personal walk.  There is no "I stole a peach and felt guilty."  Rather, as the title suggests, it is about the religious life of the mind of that particular doctor.  As an aside, this was before the divorce between science and religion were so keenly self-imposed by both sides as we see today.

A great deal of the text is consumed by meditations on Christian virtue: Faith, Hope, and Charity to be specific.  His portions on charity are gorgeous.  Other themes he deals with are the wisdom of seeking knowledge, the immortality of ideas in the evolution of human thought (though the thoughts themselves may perish), the appropriateness of agnosticism over finer points of theology, the question of cessation of miracles, the order and nature of beings physical and spiritual, aging and Original Sin, prophecy, alchemy, Heliocentrism (he does not shy from the hot topics of the day), and such a wealth of more that I would be foolish to attempt to list all.  I would especially mention that I found his section on damnation especially comforting with a lot of the issues I've been wrestling with in my personal life of late.

Read this book!  I cannot recommend it highly enough and it is entirely beyond my hearty imagination why it is not more widely read today.  Or maybe I'm just running in the wrong circles.

Monday, December 6, 2010

In the Brief Midwinter

I wanted to post a few photographs from our recent life.  The damp and cold weather occasioned a mushroom growing in the knot of a tree across the street from our house, giving rise to hilarity and mirth on the part of Laurie and I. 

We went and purchased a Christmas tree a few days ago.  I believe this is our first Silvertip.  I think it looks very striking and elegant.
Also, we have our new couch.

Reading the Classics with Paul- Moby-Dick- Week 12

In this week's reading two things happened in the text and one thing happened to the reader.  In the text, Ahab encountered a British vessel which had recently come across Moby-Dick.  Ahab throws social conventions to the wind in his haste to get to the hunt, tipping his hand of madness to the Captain and alcoholic doctor of the British ship. 

The rest of this week's reading was taken up by Ishmael's description of a very large whale skeleton he saw one time.  He then talks about whale skeletons, how big whales can get, what's inside a whale, what's outside a whale, and probably a lot of other things about whales I forgot mere seconds after I read them.

What happened to me was just this.  I was gripped by Ahab's obsessive, leg-breaking leap back to the ship and likewise overcome realizing I was within 90 pages of the end of the book.  Suddenly keenly aware that I am the last man standing in this series and therefore beholden to no one for the schedule, I think I've decided to muscle through and finish the book this week.  Next week I intend to post my concluding post on the book.  After which I will probably very soon post a sum up of the entire 10 essential classical series.  Also a forthcoming post about Sir Thomas Browne and a Christmas decoration post. 

Which I plan on doing in my copious free time.  I suppose 'tis the season when we feel keelhauled by our obligations, even the self imposed ones.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I have an appointment with three ghosts.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Christmas List 2010

A "French Press" style coffee maker- "But wait a minute, Paul!"  I hear you cry, "Don't you already have a french press?"
"No, I had one.  But I wash dishes like the West Wind and apparently that is why we can't have nice things."
"So, what sort of coffee maker do you have?"
"Your standard American auto-drip."
"Oh really?  Do you also roll in your own filth and hate all things beautiful?"
"Look, let's get something straight about our labels.  Yes, I am an aesthete and a gastronome.  But first and foremost, I am a Bohemian.  In other words, I have made music from a four-track machine that I found by a dumpster on a college campus on graduation day.  I have taken a vow of poverty which is a synonymous way of expressing that I majored in Theater.  In short, I either come by things through the largess of others which, if I'm not mistaken, is the true meaning of Christmas, or I go without."
"My dear man, I apologize abjectly.  How you suffer without a french press coffee maker is an inspiration to us all.  Truly you, of all men, deserve a french press coffee maker."
"Yes, it has been many a year of toil and labor for my happiness.  But somehow I have suffered through it all.  You know, for art."
"Well, allow me to do my part and let your readers know that a french press coffee maker can be found at any major chain coffee house or decent kitchenware store.  Cost Plus certainly carries them for a modest price.  Smaller, local, Mom and Pop places may have them, but then they may not.  And it's not like anyone else is going to know where you bought it, so why not relax and make it easier on yourself?"
"Ah, I see you're kind of a corporate shill as well!  Back into the void of non-existence with you, Imaginary Objector!"

The Autobiography of Mark Twain Vol. 1- The new book by Mark Twain or, rather, the book that he made sure 100 passed before it was published.  Doesn't that make you curious?

The Classical Style- possibly the essential text on late 18th century music and a gross oversight in my personal library mainly due to its wide availability in public lending libraries.  Not that I need more books right now as I'm steeped in the Harvard Classics Library, wading through Moby-Dick, and threatening to start Remembrance of Things Past in the top of the upcoming year.

The Most of Wodehouse- Also in books, this seems to be an excellent Wodehouse anthology.  Readers of this blog know how much I love the Jeeves stories.  If you like it when I lighten up, this is the manner in which I lighten up.

Wagner: The Terrible Man and His Truthful Art- With a title that pretty much sums up Wagner and, as I understand the reviews, a text that follows suit, I would love to read this book about a man who is at once one of my favorite artists in history and a person I am glad I'll never have to meet.  Ah, but I see I've already put four books on this list when I promised myself I would put none.  Moving on!

The Jeeves and Wooster DVD set- I would love to own this.  I would love to sit and watch this with Laurie.

The Top 10 Classical Albums of the Year-  at least, so says Tom Huizenga, but I happen to think I would be interested in every title on this list.  Yes, I just went back and re-read it and any one of the albums on this list I would be absolutely tickled to own.

Sonic New York by Sxip Shirey- One of the best new musicians I know of.

Unemployed Philosophers Merch- I love this catalog.  This is catalog from which I got my Friedrich Nietzsche watch.  People who know me can poke around and find many things I would like from this catalog.  Almost anything from them would be fantastic.  I would especially mention the Freudian Slippers because 1) that's hilarious and b) my current slippers are looking super-bohemian at the moment.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- Moby-Dick- Week 11

Real ambergris from a whale. Photographed by Peter Kaminski. Used by some Wikimedia Commons general permission grant.
I think at long last I settle on my judgment on this book.  It is as follows: uneven.  There are passages of truly sublime writing.  This week I find myself wondering if I'd spoken too soon about self-reference in Moby-Dick.  I thought the ambergris chapters were well written and compelling in the midst of many very dull, bloated, unwieldy chapters about whaling.  The chapter in question is about finding a very valuable item in a whale corpse after going through a ridiculous and difficult rigmarole in order to get to it.  Again, this chapter could be a metaphor for the entire book. 

Exhibit B for uneven writing this week is the minor character of Pip.  Pip encompasses the theme of the seemingly capricious nature of the gods and the often horrible, crushing realities of existence.  However, Pip is a minor character in the middle of a long, hefty book filled with material I would call superfluous.  This serves to make a minor character all the more minor.

I've also been thinking about a discussion Rob and I had over the years about The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym by Edgar Allan Poe.  Rob thought that was an uneven piece of writing because the tone and style of the very end of the book shifts so quickly that he felt the transmission go out.  I, on the other hand, thought it was an excellent book.  Putting on my comparative literature glasses, I think it is by far the superior Victorian American nautical proto-Existentialist work of fiction.

This next week we read through chapter CVII which, in my text, brings us to page 430.

John Milton's Areopagitica and Of Education

I am going to be spending a lot of time with John Milton's work over the next month or so.  I've just completed these two and am about to finish Sir Thomas Browne's strangely brilliant Religio Medici, after which in the Harvard Classics lineup comes the complete poetic works of Milton in English.

Milton was a very strange man. While Milton was distinctly ranked as a Non-Conformist in his day, he had the hubristic and distinctly Un-Puritanical belief that God had ordained him to be the greatest epic poet in the English language.  This was before he'd ever even written a poem. 

In the introduction, the author of the introduction (unnamed, so I must assume it's mine host Dr. Charles Eliot) writes:
"In spite of Milton's association with the Puritan party in the political struggles of his time, the common habit of referring to him as "the Puritan Poet" is seriously misleading.  The Puritans of the generation of Milton's father were indeed often men of culture and love of the arts, but the Puritans of the Civil War, the Puritans whom we think of to-day in our ordinary use of the term, were, in general, men who had not only no interest in art, but who regarded beauty itself as a temptation of the evil one."

Young John Milton also had a fervent and outspoken devotion to the concept of chastity which he drew from a bizarre reading of Revelation.  He believed, if I am understanding him correctly, that the 144,000 written of in St. John's Revelation chapters 7 and 14 are poets or writers (hence the "new song") and that since he (Milton) is clearly to be numbered among them he must retain his virginity.  His college chums (if any) at Cambridge said that he was all the time on about virginity.  It is difficult to imagine such a person in today's colleges. 

Although, left on its own, that part of his personality might not grate too harshly against one's preconceptions of Puritans, but I should also mention that in spite of this early fervent fixation, by the time he left this world he had been married three times.  This did not seem to effect his standing as the greatest epic poet in the English language.

I am a bit charmed that he would say things like "I am predestined by God to be the greatest epic poet in the English language" and then turned out to be exactly what he predicted.  I'm further charmed by his rhetoric.  I heard from Professor John Rogers upon going in to read Milton that one possible key to appreciating his work is to allow yourself to be charmed by his verbosity, logophilia, and his love of his own knowledge.  And there was a point early on in my reading where I thought, "My gosh, he's just like me!"

Areopagitica was a speech given by Milton to Parliament in support of unlicensed publishing/printing in England.  As you may know, in 1643 Parliament passed a licensing law in which censors would have the first read and veto power over anything published in England.  Milton was arguing against censorship from (get this.  Also possibly hard for some with modern eyes to imagine) a Christian point of view.  There lies the main value of the work for me as every once in a while some Pharisee will inevitably make a disparaging remark against my reading of material that does not bear their preferred Christian label.  Previously my response was to re-examine the circles I'm moving in.  Milton's arguments range from the importance of seeking wisdom to the true Christian's incorruptibility therefore how all avenues of wisdom should be accessible to censorship smacking of Papism, specifically monasticism and the Inquisition.

Two smacks of irony after the fact: First, this speech was made all the more famous by being widely published.  Second, Milton never lived to see the censorship in England slackened.  In fact, at the Restoration at the end of Milton's life, censorship became much more severe.

Of Education was written by Milton at the request of his friend Samuel Hartlib.  Hartlib requested Milton write down the thoughts he'd expressed in conversation on the topic of educational reform.  It reveals a vigorous educational regimen which reveals a lot about Milton's values and the different values of that period of history.  For example, Milton recommends languages which include Greek, Latin, and even Syrian.  Most charming, I thought, was his exercise portion which included fencing and wrestling.  This was meant to prepare the young student for the possibility of warfare.  Although, to modern American eyes, fencing is usually reserved for more nerdy elements.  I should know.  I loved fencing. 

Milton also, probably not surprisingly, proves a fellow Classicist.  He also stresses a strong foundation in virtue which I suspect Dr. Eliot took to heart while compiling this series of books.

I look forward to the month or so ahead of me with John Milton.  He is both an excellent writer and highly entertaining whether or not the latter was intentional.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- Moby-Dick- Week 10

I really don't think I have a lot to talk about this week as this week's reading remarkably resembled last week's reading.  A couple of chapters on whaling, specifically on whale anatomy, followed by a whaling account.  This week's whaling account featured being chased by native islanders (who I was secretly rooting for) and a pod of many whales.

The week's reading ended with a chapter about the British practice of the whole, if not all, of any whale captured in British seas belonging to the royal family.  An account is given of some poor sailors whose whale is appropriated by a government official.  The story is rather blatantly manipulative in its anti-Crown attitude and while there may be truth in the observation, one of the more difficult struggles with Melville and I has been than I don't find Melville to be a particularly interesting thinker.  Or an original one by any means.  He's a man of his time and he is, in my estimation, inelegant in presenting his thoughts.  His metaphors are so close to the surface that you can see their blowhole a mile away.  Which I think I find even more discouraging than the repetitiveness.

I read Moby-Dick when I was in college for Professor James "Killer" Miller's American Literature class (the nickname was given him by other students on account of his difficult tests.  I never really understood the epithet as I excelled in his classes.)  The advent of the internet has been a boon to civilization and here I remark on an extremely micro-level.  Try as I might, I have no memory of my reaction from that earlier reading by that earlier Paul.  I really wish I did.  I am very glad that now I will have a record I can look back on and see how I felt now in times to come.  So, I thought I would take a moment and make a brief argument in favor of journaling on what you are reading.  Not only may it help others but at the very least it will be there for you fifteen years from now when you think "You know, maybe I should try to read Moby-Dick again."

What I do recall from my earlier reading is the impression that there was a great density of chapters on whaling information.  I also remember a few plot points to come which I find myself encouraged to know are still coming.  I haven't lost hope that exciting passages may be in my near future.

Next week we shall read through Chapter XCIX which, in my text, brings us up to page 401.  If I'm counting correctly, we have four weeks left in this series.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Podcast Roundup!

It's been years since I've assembled a post like this, but occasionally I like to write a post of podcasts I listen to, perhaps to effect the outcome of directing some reader toward something they would like but did not previously know existed.  And, as I so often find is the case with posts of lists, most of you will not read more than two sentences of the exposition before the list, so we may as well dive right in.

The Splendid Table: A podcast for epicureans.  Excellent food and drink resource, often with recipes, usually linking to the interactive website.  You will learn wonderful things about food with this podcast.

WGBH Classical Performances:  Simply put, WGBH brings highly talented classical musicians into their studio and records them playing a piece, often with a bit of exposition on the piece.  This is very often my "drive home" podcast.

Judge John Hodgman:  It may not surprise you to learn that I am not terribly interested in comedy in general.  However, two (arguably three) "comedy" podcasts have made it onto my list although this one is a bit of hybrid.  The podcast takes an argument, allows the two sides to present their case, and John Hodgman makes a decision that they half-jokingly agree to adhere to.  What strikes me is not only the brightness of the creators of the podcast, but the remarkable brightness of the "litigants" on the show.  Topic so far have included "Is chili a soup or stew?" "Are machine guns robots?" and "Does handsoap belong in a kitchen sink dispenser?"

Fresh Air: Which doesn't really need my publicity as it's already one of the most downloaded podcasts in the history of everything.  I don't always download this one because it is daily, but the quality of interviews on this show is beyond anything anyone else is doing.  Usually at least once a week they'll have a guest on an episode that I feel I absolutely need to download.  I don't think I've ever been disappointed either.

 Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me!: This is NPR's weekly news quiz show.  It is a highly entertaining presentation of the week's news.  Very clever and I always come away a bit more informed.

Orland Evangelical Free Church:  Our church podcasts our pastor's weekly sermons.  Given my work schedule, I often listen to it in the car instead of in the pew.  The website seems to be down at the moment I'm writing this, but it is on iTunes as well.

Smiley and West:  This is a new one and one of my favorites.  Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornel West have a weekly radio show where they offer commentary on bits of the week's news, have a segment devoted to allowing a listener who disagrees with something they said to voice their point of view, and then a long interview segment with a public figure who doesn't necessarily have something to promote at the moment.

The Pod F. Tompkast: As I've said, I don't think of myself as a jokey guy and I usually can't stomach what passes for comedy these days.  Paul F. Tompkins, however, is close as I've found to my sense of humor in a contemporary comedian.  I think his podcast is excellent and surprisingly charming.  If you do check in on this one, it's newer and only has four monthly episodes so far.  But they are episodic, so you will probably want to start with #1.

This American Life: I think that This American Life is simply the best thing on the radio right now.  The stories they tell are always fantastic.

Radiolab:  Although Radiolab is a very close second.  They produce fewer episodes, but are of such great quality that one finds oneself listening to them many times over.  They take a big topic like Sleep or Time or Mortality or Stress or Animal Minds or Race or Cities (etc.) and devote an hour to exploring the meaning of the topic and, often, recent scientific breakthroughs in our understanding of them.

There you go.  Those are the podcasts I download and listen to.  I also often download lectures from iTunes U (currently working through a Yale course on John Milton) and audiobooks from Librivox which run the gamut from excellent to unlistenable.  But, needless to say, everything mentioned at this post are available to everyone with a computer absolutely free.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- Moby-Dick- Week 9

I knew, back when I was arbitrarily picking the week's reading schedule for this book, that there would most likely end up being weeks entirely comprised of Melville's sprawling chapters of dated encyclopedic material.  This was very nearly that week, but we were rescued at the last moment by a depressing whaling account (is there any other kind?)

I am not sure I could exposit on the chapters about the heads of sperm whales and right whales, even if I felt the desire to try.  You know, there was one Melvillian apologist I read recently who was trying to make the argument that these informational chapters are Melville attempting to create in the reader the sense of a long ocean voyage.  Not only does one get the information associated with the world of whaling, but one also gets the feel of being in a very boring, long boat ride (the apologist would not have used the word "boring" but that is, in essence, what he was attempting to communicate.)  I'm afraid I reject this hypothesis entirely.  I see no evidence to convict Melville of that level of sophistication.  Which is not a dig at Melville per se.  Art doesn't seem to have evolved to that point of self-awareness or infinite regress of self-commentary in the Pre-Joyce, Pre-Dadaist/Cubist, Pre-Stravinsky world.  It is a danger of the Modern that one can misuse it to interpret the past in ways that the past may not have even been able to understand.  I don't know about you, but this sort of hypothesis always feels a bit like someone walking over my grave.  In my own Modernist, excruciatingly self-aware brain, I catch myself wondering through what kind of filter the people 300 years in the future are going to use to mis-interpret our contemporary works.

What Melville is fairly consistently guilty of is finding the highest point of metaphorical saturation.  I feel we definitely have another example of this in the sinking whale corpse chapter. 

As a brief aside, I would point out another aspect of our narrative that strikes me as being a bit clunky.  Melville has chopped up the through line of the narrative so much that, at this long, middle section, it almost reads more like "The Pequod Tales," a collection of short stories about an established set of characters.  We are that far afloat at this point.  I think the apologist above may have had it in mind to salvage these sections with an argument along the lines of "there is no superfluous material in Moby-Dick."  Which is almost the polar opposite of the Moby-Dick I am reading.

But we were talking about a sinking whale corpse or, rather, a more literal one.  Melville sets the scene of meeting another, decidedly lesser vessel of whalers.  Stubb makes sure to include the slap-stick convention of putting a fine point of the high value of the thing about to be lost.  In a sort of Pre-Darwinian Darwinistic scene, the more intrepid Pequod team bags the whale.  However, the corpse sinks to the bottom of the sea.  Much like life or our dreams or something like that.  An exercise in futility, a great risk taken and lost, leaving me with the rather difficult task of maintaining my position that the book lacks self-awareness.

Next week, we read through Chapter XC which, in my text, brings us to page 370, rather magically 30 pages on the nose.  Which makes me very happy as that is do-able in a single afternoon and let's be get back to things I would much rather be reading at this point.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Chronicle Books Contest!

Chronicle Books is having a contest which I am entering even as I am writing about it now!  In order to enter the contest, the blogger makes a list of titles from the Chronicle Books catalog up to $500 in value (which means there will be math involved in this post) and, if they win, they win their list of books.  And here's where it gets interesting for you.  If I win, one person who comments on my blog post will also win my list.

And, one imagines, if one doesn't win, one has just posted their first Christmas wishlist of the year on their blog entirely from the Chronicle Books catalog.  Well played, Chronicle Books.

So, here is my wish list:

1.  I Love Macarons by Hisako Ogita $14.99- Somewhere at the beginning of the new year, I have slated to read Marcel Proust's Rememberance of Things Past.  I think owning a good macaron cookbook is going to be essential for this project.

2. Dante's Divine Comedy boxed set by By Sandow Birk and Marcus Sanders $100.00- I read about this version back when I was deciding which version of Inferno to read this past year.  I ended up passing on it because of the uncertain line between version and adaptation, but it is a work I've read very good reports on.  Considering the full Divine Comedy is coming up in my Harvard Classics series, this is one I would love to have and am very curious about.  Curious enough to blow 1/5th of my make-believe money on it.

3.  This is NPR  By Cokie Roberts, Susan Stamberg, Noah Adams, John Ydstie, Renee Montagne, Ari Shapiro, and David Folkenflik $29.95-  Laurie and I are rabid NPR heads and everyone knows it.  My step-daughter, completely unprompted, knew that the perfect Christmas gift for me would be a season of This American Life.  One of the most exciting things that ever happened to me was when Robert Krulwich wrote on my blog comments urging me not to really vote for him for president.  We get most of our news from Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me.  This would be the perfect coffee table book for our home. 

4.  San Francisco Ballet at Seventy-Five By Janice Ross $60.00- A venue of world class proportions so close to us that we would both like to visit someday.  This looks like a gorgeous book and one that both Laurie and I would enjoy.

 5. Tea & Crumpets: Recipes and Rituals from Tearooms & Café By Margaret M. Johnson $19.95- Ah, something for the twee, cardigan wearing, Pooh Bear Paul.  I love tea, European culture, and comforting foodie books.

6. Coffee: Scrumptious Drinks and Treats By Betty Rosbottom $14.95- However, as a bohemian, an Americano, a fervent J.S. Bach fan, and one who rages against his natural tendency to sleep about 10 hours a night left to his own devices, I also love coffee.  Having worked in a few coffee houses in my past, I also am a bit of a coffee snob.  Also, I make elaborate coffee drinks.  I think I would get a lot of use out of this book.

7. New Vegetarian: More Than 75 Fresh, Contemporary Recipes for Pasta, Tagines, Curries, Soups and Stews, and Desserts By Robin Asbell $19.95- As vegetarians, we are always looking for new recipes.

 8.  Absinthe Cocktails: 50 Ways to Mix with the Green Fairy By Kate Simon $19.95- Favorite drink of most of the stark raving mad historical figures I read about.  Picasso, Lautrec, Van Gogh, Poe, Wilde, Baudelaire,Verlaine, Rimbaud, Alfred Jarry, Erik Satie.  I hear Mark Twain used to drink absinthe too.  Due to its scarcity and my poverty, it seems likely that this will be more of a pretty decorative book and conversation piece than anything practical, but I think it would still be fun to have in my library.  However, should we ever happen upon the Green Fairy, this seems like to book to have.

9. Cheese & Wine: A Guide to Selecting, Pairing, and Enjoying By Janet Fletcher $24.95- This is more our actual speed.  It's a book about two of Laurie and my favorite gustatory delights.

10. Dean & DeLuca: The Food and Wine Cookbook By Jeff Morgan $35.00- Anyone who has read my blog know that I consider myself a Classicist.  One of the reasons for that is that I like to go directly to the excellent and stay there without wasting time wading through a bunch of muck to find the diamonds.  This translates to music, movies, and, indeed, cookbooks for me as well.  The product description touts this volume thusly :
 In the alphabet of gourmets, D stands for Dean & DeLuca, long considered one of the finest food emporiums in the world. Now they bring their vast culinary expertise to this stunning new cookbook with over 80 inspired recipes, each complemented by carefully chosen wines. 
Sounds like a book I ought to own.

11. Guastavino Vaulting: The Art of Structural Tile By John Ochsendorf $60.00- Also, those who follow my photo dumps on my other blog know of my fascination with architecture.  This book looks just gorgeous.

12. Edie: Girl on Fire By Melissa Painter and David Weisman $29.95- Edie Sedgwick is a cultural figure I find absolutely fascinating.  A figure from (arguably also a casualty of) the Warhol scene, Sedgwick was one of those doomed figures of the glamorous life of the fat days of mid-last century America.  It's a piece of space-time shared with Warhol, Truman Capote, The Velvet Underground, Taylor Mead, Dennis Hopper in his arty period, Candy Darling, Studio 54 and all of that jazz straddling the gilded age between the Hepburns and the Hiltons (wow.  I may as well submit this for a writing position with E!)

13. Ramayana: Divine Loophole By Sanjay Patel $29.95- I've heard wonderful things about this artistic adaptation of the Ramayana.  Contemporary religious art is of great interest to me.

14. Paris Out of Hand: A Wayward Guide By Karen Elizabeth Gordon With Barbara Hodgson and Nick Bantock $22.95- Someday.  Someday.

 So, there's my list.  I hope I win it.  If you would like a chance to win this entire list too, comment (on the blog.  If you're reading this in a Facebook cross post, you're going to have to go to my original blog post to comment)!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The New Atlantis by Sir Francis Bacon

The New Atlantis is a book in a form that has nearly entirely fallen by the wayside, which is to say the Utopian work. In earlier manifestations of Western Civilization, great thinkers would sit down and write a book about their version of Utopia. Merriam-Webster defines the term as follows:
a place of ideal perfection especially in laws, government, and social conditions
Whose ideal perfection? The author's task in a work such as this is to make the case for their Utopia being agreeable to the reader.

One could make the argument that the replacement in popularity with Dystopian works indicates the collective unconscious' resignation to a society in decline. I wouldn't overtly make that claim. I would, however, make the suggestion that a Dystopian work is just the other side of the coin of Utopian works and that the existence of a Dystopia presupposes a standard of ideal from which it deviates. 

Although, there have been modern examples of Utopian works. Aldous Huxley wrote a very good one called Island. If you have access to a large selection of movies through this modern age's vast film resources, I would recommend the 1937 Capra film adaptation of James Hilton's Lost Horizon.

They tend to follow a form out of necessity. In the beginning of the work the author must needs explain how we came to knowledge of this place and why we aren't going there all the time. This usually works out into somewhat of a brief adventure story. (I sailed a wild, wild sea, climbed up a tall, tall mountain, etc.)  The key to exploring the fictional location's virtues is usually whatever reason/philosophy the society has for allowing the outsiders in to explore the fruits of their culture. Sharing wisdom seems to be your entry level Utopian fantasy. This is usually followed with what tends toward part-travelogue of a fictional location, usually with a sage for a tour guide. This is where the writing craft comes in because this could either be terrifically engaging or tremendously boring depending on the author's skill.

Bacon's Utopia, as I understood it, goes something like this:  It's a secluded and exclusive island in which the society revolves around the advancement of human knowledge. This, of course, necessitates the exclusion of the evil outer world, but their thirst for human knowledge also necessitates a corps of intellectual reconnaissance agents who travel abroad checking out inventions and thought. (A major point in Bacon is the pragmatically elegant or beauty in function.)  It's also probably worth mentioning that this is an unfinished work or, at least, unperfected. Written after Bacon's fall from public life, it's likely that he didn't polish it as much as he might have wanted, on account of his dying. 

The island has several rituals described in the text. Family is highly valued (our modern eyes have to allow for the ignorance of earlier stages of naturalism. There is no mention of the generational effects of genetics in a highly closed pool of coupling candidates. It probably didn't even occur to Bacon whereas it's one of the first objections that sprung to my mind.) Celibacy is only broken in cases of extreme monogamy. (If someone felt the irrepressible urge to characterize Bacon as a nerd, I doubt I would expend too much precious energy defending him against that allegation.) There is a large section at the end where an official talks at length about their advances in industry and breakthroughs in the natural sciences. Also, there is financial integrity in the officials (which may be an indication that Bacon learned a lesson in his own life or may be an indication that our understanding of his biography might differ dramatically from what his own interpretation of events would have been) as well as a great culture of generosity. 

I feel I'm not overstating my case when I say that the hibernation of the form of Utopian works is much to the detriment of human civilization. The purpose of the works seems to me to show that we can create whatever kind of world we choose. At present, we, as in America, don't seem to be convinced as a society that we are ascending. We also may be too rapacious and individualistic to seek unity in a vision; a byproduct of an economy based upon the human constant of cupidity. It may be too optimistic and socially responsible for current societal trends in the West, but the function of a Utopian work is an attempt to set up a bellwether toward which a Great Society can aspire. Which is a wise move because otherwise we're kind of just rushing around patching leaks as they arise. A Utopian work is having a plan instead of just having a system in which to put your faith for all situations. Of course, Utopias are most likely objective, but the purpose of great minds at one time all producing their own Utopian vision may help to focus emerging patterns. 

So, your homework and mine:

What would your Utopia look like?

If you want, write a report or a Utopian work.  If you choose to make a diorama, please send photos.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- Moby-Dick- Week 8

I found this to be one of the more interesting weeks of reading thus far.  We start with the grotesque scene of the whale steak.  The comparison of the ravaging sharks on the whale carcass and Stubb eating the steak on-board seemed a fairly concise argument for vegetarianism.  Once again, I question if Melville is horribly archaic in his views on race or if he is offering subtle commentary on views of race in his day.  Although in my less generous moments I would be tempted to remind you that Melville's track record on subtlety tends toward the scanty fare.  Ah, I'm mixing metaphors again.  Oh well.  I've buttered my bread and now I must lie in it.

Still, there is something horribly lonely and desperate behind the jocularity of the scene.  Perhaps I'm bringing my own baggage to the table (let's just do away with metaphorical consistency, shall we?)  but there was, for me, a dark, existential absurdity to the scene of the disgusting, carnivorous Stubb commanding the ancient black cook to "preach" to the sharks who were eating the whale, each other, themselves, their own innards eaten by them and coming back out of their gaping wounds upon swallowing.  It struck me as a ferocious microcosm of the human experience beyond anything I've read in more contemporary dark writers (and if there's one thing I know, it's dark writers).  This was one of the more excellent scenes in the book so far in my opinion.

We encounter the Jeroboam, a ship with a bizarre power dynamic at work.  I thought this was a fairly overt commentary on the sort of fiery "gifts" one like Melville would no doubt have encountered in the Second Great Awakening, which would have been going on in New England around the time of the composition of this book.  In essence, you have a group entirely perverted by and at the whim of a religious charlatan who gets people to do as he wishes by adding divine authority to his speech.  It's a dark view of religion... and, in my experience, not an inaccurate one.

We end this week with the acting out of the repulsive superstition of lashing the head of a sperm whale to one side of the ship and the head of a right whale to the other side (I'm sure there are nautical terms for each side.  I find myself blocking out nautical terms by this point in our reading) to prevent them from capsizing literally, if not morally.  If there were a theme to this week's arbitrary section of the book, I think it would be along the lines of the horrible things that human beings do, most of which are entirely unnecessary, much of which cause great suffering, all of which reveal our fragility and inherent madness in the face of an irrational, rudderless universe.

In short, I loved it this week!

In this next week, we shall read through Chapter LXXXIII which, in my text, will take us up to page 340.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

A bit chilling

Jess posted this picture of Rob and I, taken about a year and a half ago, and it struck me very hard.  It was the weekend of the worst storm in recorded history in the area.  Rob and Jess came to visit and we cooked dinner without electricity.  The next morning we went out to lunch at the Sierra Nevada Brewery.  This picture was taken right as Rob and Jess were leaving.  The storm had passed and we were stalling good-byes out in the front yard.  I think Rob called for Jess to take a picture of he and I in front of my house.  I also believe, in spite of weekly phone calls, unknown to either of us at the moment captured here, that this is a photo from the last five minutes I saw my best friend alive.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Essays of Sir Francis Bacon


The Essays of Sir Francis Bacon reads very much like a secret, although mostly benign, document for ruling the Western world in the age immediately following Elizabeth (as Bacon puts it, the post hempe period, an acronym which stands for Henry Edward Mary Philip and Elizabeth. The old wives' rhyming "prophecy" of the day was "When hempe is spun England is done."  Bacon points out, rather astutely in my opinion, that there is truth to the saying in that James followed and England became the British Empire.)  Although it should probably be noted that there was nothing secret about it.  Bacon lived an extremely public life (much to his eventual detriment. I'll leave that tidbit dangling for those who might be tantalized into further investigating Bacon's fascinating biography.  Don't miss his place on the list of scientists killed by their own experiments!)  The book is simply the accumulated wisdom of a very sharp man.

A man who was not William Shakespeare by the way.  Let's get that out of the way right off.  For those of you who don't know, there has been a aberrant school of thought in Shakespearean scholarship which posits that Sir Francis Bacon actually wrote the works of William Shakespeare.  Scuttling Occam's Razor, there are books which talk about Bacon's connections to people associated with the London theater, skepticism cast of the production history of Shakespeare's first play, links made between Bacon's passion for English history, and phrases hidden in acrostic in the First Folio. The "Bacon as Shakespeare" school was a hypothesis I've been familiar with for years, but now that I've read Bacon, I feel entirely safe in assuring you of the bêtise of said hypothesis.  Utter rot, I say!  One need only have the barest grasp of their stylistic differences to bury that theory.  

Such ear-tickling theories of esoteric knowledge may sell books, but does not have a place in serious scholarship anymore than suggesting Bacon was also the Merovingian ambassador to the Mole People who live beneath the surface of the hollow Earth.  One can speculate anything.  That doesn't make it scholarship or worth considering.  Even though we are talking about a time 300 years before the invention of television, I'm sure Sir Francis Bacon's life was far too busy to also produce the works of Shakespeare in his free time. 

His Essays are a remarkable collection of human thought.  He writes about, as I mentioned, aspects of ruling and deportment in positions of power.  He also covers general human behavior and experience.  They are brilliant and I found it a little unnerving that, for example, a man 400 in the grave observed the formulaic state that atheism will rise when there is widespread, well-known corruption  in the clergy coupled with gross disunity in the Church, leading to a culture which condones mocking religion.

There was a great deal in his work that I found rich and rewarding.  A few points on which I already heartily agreed with him (I thought his assessment of prophecy was entirely in line with my own experience.  He agreed that instances appear to have existed, then went on express his extreme distrust of prophecy and suspicion that most of it is concocted ex post facto.)  Also he mentions the stages of a great society in formulaic form.  He says that a great empire focuses on diversification of goods, services, peoples, climes, and so forth.  There is great wisdom in this although one might level the accusation that this mode of thinking lead to the British imperialism that made life very unpleasant for a lot of people in the following centuries.  His formula also states that an early great society focuses their attention on arms, a middle period great society focuses on learning, a period follows of a mixture of the two, and an empire in decline focuses on merchandise and mechanical arts (what Mark Twain would call "gee-gaws.")  Although I think I take a little issue when he elsewhere encourages leaders who want a great nation to focus on arms.  The Quaker in me objects.

I wont write at length about the individual essays as there are many, but I found this to be a highly valuable volume of human thought.  I'm sure it will, like so many books in this series, give me great food for thought for years to come.  I would recommend it to anyone.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- Moby-Dick- Part 7

The chief bypath of this week's reading was a survey of whales in art history.  More specifically, Ishmael spends several chapters comparing the appearance of whales in famous paintings and then stating that the paintings do not capture the appearance of whales as they appear in consensus reality to sailors a-hunting them.  Rather an archaic, Philistine's view of art if he were really suggesting that art need "look like stuff looks," but I'm sure the point he was driving at was to lead people away from fantastic representations toward a more accurate mind's eye view, especially as we're about to get to some whale killing in our story.  Let's take a moment and appreciate a novel instance of relevance in transitions from informational chapters to narrative.

Ah.  Sweet relevance.

The painting above is Pêche de la Baleine by Ambrose Louis Garneray.  Garneray was a contemporary of Melville's although it's doubtful they ever crossed paths.  The painting above is what Ishmael finally arrives at as a good representational example of whaling in art.  Note the "stripping" of the other whale in the background by the ship.

So much of this book would have demanded a tremendous amount of research (or apathy) from the reader in days before the advent of Google Image Search.  Having the ability to readily see the images he's referring to proved quite helpful to me this time and far more engaging.  Still, this was a bit of an exception to the text which, at this point in our reading, seems to be entirely side-trails.  I'm not sure the chapter about whaling lines was necessary.  I'm also not sure the chapter about the squid was necessary, although that one at least had the feature of idiosyncrasy to shake the reader awake.

Here is an example that Ishmael sites as a bad example, although more in step with the bulk of whales in paintings (albeit this one is an illustration rather than a painting.  One imagines mainly from the artistic problem of depicting something that dwells beneath the surface of the ocean.)  It's William Hogarth's depiction of Perseus and the whale:

Just for the sake of fun, compare with modern illustrator Tony Millionaire's whale:

The whale in art, as far as my own quick overview has revealed, seems to be more of a source to communicate unbridled, natural power beyond the means or comprehension of humankind.  Which is rather in keeping with what Melville seems to be trying with this book.  Again, his time spent poo-pooing whales in art history here seemed to me more a means to direct the mind's eye in viewing the coming chapter of whale hunting with a modicum of realism.  I found it to be a successful technique, although, again, only with the benefit of the visual examples to which he refers. 

We then have a chapter about the line used in whaling, a chapter where a giant squid shows up and spooks the easily spooked crew.  Then we finally get a good, full description of a successful whale hunt.  Stubb bags himself a whale through the efforts of his subordinates.  I guess the commanding officer gets the distinction of the successful whale hunt just for showing up.

I don't have a lot to add at this point.  Merrily we roll along.  Something's bound to happen sooner or later.

In the coming week, we shall read through Chapter LXXIII which, in my text, takes us up to page 306.

Friday, October 29, 2010


Each Hallowe'en, Laurie and I do a bare minimum of joining in on the festivities.  We're not against the holiday or any such nonsense.  We are simply two working adults without small children nor a circle of friends who throw parties which they invite us to.  This year, I'm working on the night of the holiday.

So holidays tend to be a bit low key around our house.  This mainly translates to "we do the part of the festivities that we like and ignore the rest."  In the case of the very strange hybrid holiday known as Hallowe'en, the part we like is carving pumpkins and roasting their seeds.  We also tend to get a modest bag of candy on the off chance that a mendicant, masquerading moppet comes a-gently rapping on our chamber door.  Given our neighborhood, we tend to have a lot of leftover candy.

So, we went to Trader Joe's.

Laurie notes that, in keeping with our tastes, Laurie chose the large, handsome, classical one and I chose the small, elegant, white one. 

Then comes the choice of Jack-o'-lantern style.  I put it to the internet Hive Mind and got some excellent suggestions (including The Pope, Wilford Brimley, something from a Beckett play, and Dr. Mabuse.)  Finally, however, I was struck with the whiteness of the pumpkin and chose to go with a theme from my reading.  So, I produced this:

That's right!  It's the Great White Whale!  I would direct your attention to the harpoons sticking out of his side which I fashioned from paperclips and thread.  The fluke is simply a wire hanger with the stem also papered over.

To answer your question, yes, I was the kind of kid who loved to make dioramas for school projects.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- Moby-Dick- week 6

The bulk of this week's reading comprised a story which sort of serves as our "we're going to need a bigger boat" scene.  In this story within-the-story, we finally see Moby-Dick in action.  In all fairness to Ahab, at this point one might mention that the number of whales eaten by people remains at 0 so far, while the number of people eaten by the white whale is now at 1.25.  The rather violent tale serves to further illustrate not only the dangers of the whaling trade (which I can't believe is even still a thing!) but especially the dangers of this particular whale.  If Ishmael's meditation on the unbearable whiteness of being didn't do it for you, now you have a dead guy in the whale's belly.

I don't have a lot to add this week.  The story was long and rambling although I was engaged at the parts where the narrator stuck to the story.  I was confused, to the point of flipping back a page to see if I'd missed something, at the breaks in the narrative to talk to the people listening to the story.  And the priest part at the end struck me as a bit maudlin, although, again, in such a way that raised fears that I may be too modern and cynical to appreciate this book.

Although, I thought the fight, with the guy's jaw gushing blood on the deck much like the whales they cut up, was well described and kind of exciting.  As was the account of the insubordinate sailors hiding in the forecastle (although they were being drama queens, didn't you think?)  This served to further my contention that Melville was a decent adventure story author.  As I understand it, in his lifetime, that's largely what he was known as.  I feel it's telling that no one reads his other works today.  I haven't and I have no intention of ever doing so.  The strangeness of this book, and I'm not sure I've ever had this experience reading before, is that it does occasionally hit transcendence, but it's so clunky, so few and far between, so buried in notes on knot tying and what-not, that I find myself constantly hyper-aware of this fact the whole time I'm reading.  I've jokingly suggested to friends that this might be very early meta-fiction, that the greatness of the book is like the white whale itself, unseen and constantly looming below the surface.  You are pretty sure that it's going to emerge from the deeps sometime in the process of reading it, you just don't know when.  If someone posited that hypothesis in seriousness, I would refuse to take it as such.

On the other hand, we are in the middle of Moby-Dick where nothing happens.  That was my recollection from having read it a decade ago.  I came to this reading assuming my brain was indulging in its usual propensity for exaggeration.  I found that I was right on the money.  We're driving around in an ocean looking for one particular whale.  Get comfy.

That's all I have for this week.  Next week, we'll read through Chapter LXIII which, in my book, takes us up to 273 (and we're past the halfway mark, people.)

Monday, October 18, 2010

Meditations on Meditations

Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.

When Rob died, I was reading the Stoics and Dante's Inferno. This was not planned. It was an accident of my reading lists, although my reading of the former works at that critical time smacked a bit of divine superintendence to me. It was, for me, the right words delivered at the right moment. The Stoics have helped me through a difficult time (although, to reveal a chink in my armor and have a moment of sincerity on this too too public blog, I should admit that I say "through" with a hint of ironic, self-deprecating cynicism) with a stipulation.  I'll come back to my closing thoughts on my Stoical sojourn in a moment.  First, I need to talk a bit about this final Stoic work in the Harvard Classics series, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. 

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was the emperor of Rome from the year of our Lord 161 until his death in 180.  He was one of the better Roman Emperors, especially at that time, although one of the dark marks in his otherwise fine record is that he did persecute the early Christians for a time. This was apparently buckling to popular opinion on his part. This is not one of the more important details of his biography as he was hardly a Nero, but it may be worth noting that scholars have apparently tried to rescue Marcus Aurelius from this black spot on his record. George Long (the translator), in an essay following the text, mentions a document that has surfaced which claims to have been written by Aurelius begging the Senate to not persecute the Christians. Long says it's a rather ham-fisted forgery and it is unlikely that Aurelius put that much thought into the matter at all.

The saddest part of the text is that it is a book written for one seeking to live a virtuous life, full of the wisdom gained by the insightful ruler, apparently for the amelioration of his son, Commodus. Commodus was one of the bad emperors. It was Pax Romana under Aurelius, but Commodus threw a spanner right into those works. In the case of this book, I envision a scene much like the claim of old Bosie Douglas upon receipt of Wilde's De Profundis that he threw it into the fire unread.

I got slightly less out of Aurelius than I did from the excellent Epictetus, partially because Aurelius was a little more obscure and Long admittedly tried to preserve Aurelius' innocence of rhetorical skill. This lead to some confusing passages. But I still found it to be an excellent work. Aurelius camps long on contentment which, as a Christian myself, I find rather lacking without the focus on glorifying God. Aurelius has a great deal of that as well, although he and I would be speaking of different Gods. However, his focus on chucking attachments of pain and pleasure put me in mind of the areas in which Buddhism and Christianity meet in ways I find helpful.

I would be remiss if I didn't speak on the struggle that ensued for me from the Stoic presentation of contentment. I found it a bit hollow and soon realized why. It stems back to the old question "Is it possible to have morality without God?"  A question to which my personal answer, at least in my experience in my own life, is "no." You see, Aurelius' instructions for a life of contentment are all well and good. If followed as prescribed they should effect the desired outcome. But that's just it. For me (and, I daresay, for Commodus), it lacked the reasoning as to why one should desire to, as it were, "keep it on the rails." Why does it matter to live a life of contentment over one of gross hedonism? Why, even, is it preferable to alive or dead? In the case of the Harvard Classics series, one supposes that its place in the progression, following Socrates' fairly solid case for living a virtuous life for the sake of living a virtuous life, it offers some keen tools. However, taken on its own, it's a bit like having a detailed and easy to follow recipe for Boeuf Bourguignon, but having no idea how to eat.

Fortunately, I have an answer which causes all of the pieces to fall into place and makes contentment a very valuable lesson indeed. The answer I have is the focus of a life toward God and the outworkings that stem from that focus.

However, even more helpful in this temporal life, I thought, was his focus on social justice. He brought forth concepts like: what is bad for the hive is bad for the bee. He also appeals to our nature in doing what is set before us, just as a fig tree produces figs, do what you are to do.

Also, he is a bit starkly honest in admitting that life is not all about happiness and good times. I remember when I was a child having a reaction at a certain part of a popular children's film. It was the Gene Wilder version of Willy Wonka and there was a line that the Oompa-Loompas sing in one of their finger-wagging songs, after having dispensed their advice concerning the chapter of the story that had just closed, along the lines of "you will live in happiness too, like the Oompa-Loompas doompity-do." I remember thinking that they didn't strike me as being particularly happy-seeming. They seemed rather stern and, as it were, stoic. But age brings perspective and now I see that there is wisdom in the house of mourning. So often I've found that living at the frequency of levity makes the fall much further when tragedy inevitably strikes. Also, if one maintains a level of gravitas in one's character, one is more accessible to those who need someone in times of trouble.

Aurelius and the rest of the Stoics are often criticized on this point, but then, we do live in a remarkably silly culture. I personally think that there is an honesty there that many are uncomfortable with. We have no guarantee of happiness and certainly none of longevity. Aurelius' advice is, in the most simple terms, "be content regardless." If you can find contentment in times of struggle, you can tap into it at any time. Again, I find the divorce from my spiritual walk unhelpful, but remarrying the two I've found this to be a great help to me, a great comfort during a great trial.

In the case of Rob, I've been left holding a bag full of questions. Why him and not me? Why now? What was that all about? What do I do for the remainder of my life without being able to talk to him? The Stoics don't answer those questions directly because no one can. Either there is no answer or it's not for us to know. But now I feel a bit more equipped to be content in my circumstances. Now it's just a matter of employing those tools at the necessary moment instead of wallowing in discontent and worry.