Thursday, September 30, 2010


There have been a few small additions to our house in the past two weeks which I thought I would take a moment to mention, especially as they are all little things, the sort that so often go unnoticed but which, in fact, make up the bulk of our lives.  On our front porch, we have a ceramic cardinal (of the avian variety, not the Roman Catholic.  Apologies for the washed out quality of the photo.  In September the light changes and one of my two cameras seems to be in the moribund way.)  I was given this statuary to my great delight.  I brought it home and placed it atop Laurie's writing desk.  I knew it was far to garish for indoor decor, but would suit our garden area nicely.  I thought I would get a rise out of Laurie by initially placing it in the house in a major focal point.

As is so often the case, it went completely unnoticed in that spot the following day.  So, right before work, I called Laurie to a position where the cardinal was directly to the right behind my head in her view and said, "You ever have one of those moments where there was something you didn't see and someone points it out to you?  And then you can never unsee it?  Like a ceramic cardinal?"

Laurie staggered a bit and braced herself.  She said it was as if I'd conjured the thing out of thin air.

Also in my haul of bird effigies was the eagle you see here.  It lives on the shelf above my desk.  But I was more interested in pointing out to you the book set in the center of the photo.  It is Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust which I am planning on diving into sometime early next year.  Yes, while simultaneously working through the Harvard Classics.

What's this now?!!?  The wine rack is filling!  At the suggestion of a shoppie, we bought Emergence which is a cuvée from the central California coast.  48% Syrah, 29% Mourvèdre, 23% Grenache.  Brooding and earthy boasts the label.

Really we need to start entertaining to give an opportunity for me to write reports on these wines.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Proust's Questionnaire - know your blogger

Marcel Proust, along with being one of humankind's greatest authors, made famous a questionnaire which he filled out as a sort of personality test.Below is a compiled version of two of his questionnaires with the duplicate questions edited out. I thought it would be a fun thing to fill out on my blog.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery? Indefinite separation from Laurie, being unforgiven for a wrong you know you've committed, loss of faith, doing one's best and failing none the less, having a loved one die.

Where would you like to live? One version of an honest answer would be "right here." Another would be "London, Prague, Vienna, Paris, somewhere outside but near major East Coast cities, I think I would like to spend a lot of time in India, and retiring in Downieville."

What is your idea of earthly happiness? Achieving earnest contentment and tranquility regardless of external circumstances.

To what faults do you feel most indulgent?Worry. Occasional snobbery.

Who are your favorite heroes of fiction?
Odysseus, Hamlet, Falstaff, Huckleberry Finn, Faust, Siegfried, Edmond Dantes, Wodehouse's Jeeves, probably several I'll kick myself later for not remembering.

Who are your favorite characters in history? Socrates, Epictetus, St. Peter, Joan of Arc, Martin Luther, John Woolman, William Wilberforce, Ben Franklin, Oscar Wilde (I don't want to overlap too much from the favorite authors and artists lists, but the man himself was fascinating as well), Virginia Woolf, Alexander Woollcott, Warhol, Edie Sedgwick, Glenn Gould, Karl Lagerfeld    

Who are your favorite heroines in real life? Those who don't "swallow the lie." Women who are who they are unapologetically. Women who seek wisdom.    

Who are your favorite heroines of fiction? Brünnhilde, Clarisse McClellan, Mrs. Dalloway, Shaw's St. Joan, Jane Eyre, Miranda, Portia, again, others I'm sure.    

Your favorite painter? I would most likely say Toulouse-Lautrec. Whenever I'm at a museum which contain them, I seem to park in front of his work the longest.    

Your favorite musician? Oh dear, that's difficult. Probably Beethoven.    

The quality you most admire in a man? Wisdom. Virtue. Intelligence. Curiosity.    

The quality you most admire in a woman? Wisdom. Virtue. Intelligence. Curiosity.    

Your favorite virtue? Either tranquility or humility. Or frugality. I am better at the latter.    

Your favorite occupation? My ideal occupation would be to make a living somehow encouraging a love for the arts and teaching about them.    

Who would you have liked to be? A better version of myself. Happier, more content, kinder, more loving.I think, in my estimation, an idea life would be similar to Felix Mendelssohn's. Happy, productive with excellent and enduring output, and mercifully short.  

Your most marked characteristic? Um, I'm told I'm very quiet in person. Sort of invisible in a room full of people.    

What do you most value in your friends? Endurance. As in endurance of the friendship. Having just lost my oldest continual friend I've realized what a treasure that was.    

What is your principle defect? Anxiety.    

What would you like to be? I would like to be a person who raises awareness of and kindles love for great art and literature. Like a Bernard Berenson or an Alexander Woollcott or a Harold Bloom. Or even a Sister Wendy. They all had careers that eventually elevated them to that level though. I am one literary critic crying out in the wilderness.    

What is your favorite color? Purple. You can tell by my prose.    

What is your favorite flower? Orchids and sunflowers. Which for some reason seems to me like both ends of the flower spectrum in a way. At least as far as flower seriousness goes.    

What is your favorite bird? I admire the tenacity of penguins.  

Who are your favorite prose writers? Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, John Gardner, Jeanette Winterson, Djuna Barnes, Dickens, Capote, Bradbury, Richard Brautigan, Hunter Thompson, Spalding Gray, Caitlin Kiernan, Wallace Shawn.    

Who are your favorite poets? I'm afraid I'm predictable here.Shakespeare, Milton, David, Dante, Burns, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Whitman, Dickinson, Verlaine, Baudelaire. For moderns, also predictable: Ginsberg, Mary Oliver, Gary Snyder, Robert Pinsky, Seamus Heaney, Tony Hoagland, Billy Collins, June Melby, Brendan Constantine.    

Who are your heroes in real life? As in people I know? My dad. My 8th grade history teacher Mr. Boyle. Michael Nehring and Tom Bradac, two director/actors from Shakespeare Orange County who had a tremendous influence on me.    

Who are your favorite heroines of history? Joan of Arc, Emma Goldman, Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth I, Dorothy Parker.    

What are your favorite names? If we had a boy child, we would name it Dalton Alexander.If we had a girl child, we would name her Temperance. I don't know if we've settled on a middle name for a girl although I always like the granola sounding ones like Peace or Shalom or Luna.  

What is it you most dislike? Automobiles, willful ignorance, anxiety.    

What historical figures do you most despise? Judas, Robespierre, certainly Hitler, Norman Mailer, Pol Pot, Nixon.    

What event in military history do you most admire? The rare periods of peace in human history.    

What natural gift would you most like to possess? Speaking in a manner where people don't interrupt me. I've observed people who seem to have this and also observed that I do not have this. But I don't know what I'm doing wrong.  

How would you like to die? The manner is of little importance although I should like to die with the assurance that the loved ones I leave behind will be provided for and I should like to die in a way consistent with a virtuous life.    

What is your present state of mind? I am enjoying doing this more than other things I could be doing.    

What is your motto? We'll give Socrates the final words:
"A man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong- acting the part of a good man or of a bad."
"Not life, but good life, is to be chiefly valued."

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- Moby-Dick- Part 2

Well, it was an eventful week in our reading.  We started with Father Mapple's sermon which I thought was very well written.  Full of blatant, unapologetic speculation on the part of the preacher in  a way that would probably grind on me if I were actually in the pew, but in the context of this novel I thought it was well done.  It also serves the function (I would argue the sole function.  There wasn't a huge call in the narrative for a sermon at this point) of indicating what kind of a story we are to have.  It's to brim with symbolism and have spiritual significance.

Queequeg and Ishmael enter into the service of a ship in a rather raucous manner.  In Nantucket, they eat a good deal of chowder.  They also cuddle.

Queequeg's ethnicity is to actual South Pacific Islanders what Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado is to actual Japanese culture.  Queequeg has a little idol (which, to illustrate how my brain works, was immediately cast in my brain as the Trilogy of Terror doll.  See photo above) who tells Queequeg (off camera) that Ishmael should choose the ship they are to voyage on.  Ishmael happens upon the Pequod and a plurality of captains.  Ahab looms in the narrative to come like the whale and the voyage.  Melville was fond of looming in ways our modern, cynical society would probably not be as forgiving toward.

As my friend Christopher pointed out, there seems to be an anti-western religious hypocrisy message when Bildad "concerns" himself over the welfare of Ishmael's soul and attempts to insure that the man doesn't become to worldly minded.  They hire Ishmael and seem open to his companion while still unseen (who, for them, is looming in the coming narrative.)  We hear about Ahab, his missing leg, peripherally about the whale, and that Ahab is a family man.

Ishmael returns to the Inn where Queequeg is observing Ramadan (see first sentence of the previous paragraph) by sitting on the floor with his idol, not eating, speaking, and presumably "holding it."  Ishmael gives further example of his concern for a pagan over "his own people" (as I mentioned last week, there seems to be a well meaning message from a very much less enlightened age here) by breaking down the door.  Our two captains have misgivings about hiring Queequeg until he exercises his skill and we now seem primed for our voyage. 

Next week, we shall read through the chapter titled Queen Mab, which, in my text, takes us up to page 126. 

Friday, September 17, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- Moby-Dick- Part 1

Reportedly, this is the real life Spouter-Inn painting.

Our reading begins with a long, strange list of quotations from great, pre-Melville works of human writing having to do with whales.  Or sentences that at least mention whales in passing.  They don't seem to need to be relevant (note the one from Hamlet is simply Polonius agreeing with Hamlet that a cloud is shaped like a whale.)  I assume the purpose of the list is not simply a overzealous devotion to the custom of epigrams.  I'm fairly certain it's there to gather the dark clouds that loom over the first chapter, to foreshadow the behemoth lurking below in the deeps.

I really liked the first chapter.  In fact, I made Laurie listen to me read a lot of it out loud.  Melville was a tremendous wordsmith.  He makes me feel ashamed to ever write again in his looming shadow.  He makes me want to crawl in an ice cave and drink the tepid tears of orphans.  

Anyway, on to the fruit of the looming: Ishmael seemed very dark and edgy as well as, as my friend Christopher pointed out, surprisingly well-read.  He lays out the dark time of the soul leading him to sea.  With but a few spare coins in his pocket, he finds his way to The Spouter-Inn where Melville sits down and flexes his descriptive powers for a while.

Ishmael either undergoes a sudden shift in character or the writing is a bit uneven here or I mistook his character from the earlier chapters.  Or I am way off base with my reaction.  He complains and becomes quite fussy over having to share a bunk with an unseen harpooner.  He even makes the inn-keeper shave his bench and then doesn't sleep on it after all (although I doubt anyone was upset over the bits of extra fuel on the fire.)  Granted, the cryptic bits of information dropped by the inn-keeper serve to inflame the situation.  It would seem that Melville is aiming toward a "judge not by appearances" message with manner of the introduction of Queequeg.  Still, I catch whiffs of a less enlightened age in this section.  However, Melville also makes sure to include, in The Street chapter, that New England born sailors are as strange in foreign ports as Queequeg is in New England.  Which was nice and showed at least an effort toward breaking from the ethnocentric shackles of his day. 
We end with a description of the church, the pulpit (oh, that pulpit!), and Father Mapple clears his throat to begin his famous sermon, which we will cover next week.

Next week, we will read through the His Mark chapter which, in my text, takes me up to page 92.  As I mentioned, we are going at a very leisurely pace.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Golden Sayings of Epictetus

I really did not expect to gain anything from this text when I read the first page.  In fact, I was expecting it to be a bit of a slog.  With the benefit of hindsight, I can say with confidence that this was due to the translation.  It seemed to me that the translator was either 1) approaching the text with such a high and lofty regard that he felt it necessary to employ achingly archaic language and tone to the point of alienation of the common reader or 2) translating at a time when the English language was at a vastly different point in its evolution.

The book itself quickly quashed any misgivings and turned out to be, I am not ashamed or even slightly reluctant to report, one of the more valuable books I've ever read.  I will also readily admit that before I started this series and picked up this particular volume, I think I had gone 33 years without ever having heard of Epictetus.

Epictetus was a Greek around the first century.  Epictetus was a slave with an obvious disability of some sort (note the crutch in the picture.)  He slept in the dirt and had no wife, no horse, no mustache.  He was banished from Rome.  He was also content with his life by all accounts.  He was able to acheive this through the miracle of philosophy.  He was a Stoic philosopher and I think I came to realize that all previous descriptions I'd heard of the Stoics were inaccurate.

The basic idea is this: God is in control and you're not, so be content with whatever is set before you.  Suffering is an outworking of kicking against the goads/fighting the flow (very Eastern as well as very post-Constantinian Shift ascetic.  Which certainly gave me pause over the originality of the latter just as the Socratic explanation of the afterlife for the unvirtuous had previously given me pause over the originality of the popular, in my view extrapolated, and seemingly extra-scriptural Christian version of Hell.)  Also, seeking wisdom and virtue, working toward becoming a better human, were major themes.  Also social justice and good works.
"First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do."
Also, the equality of humankind regardless of class or social status (reminded me very much of Quaker authors, as well as the Epistle of James.)
"Thou shalt not blame or flatter any."
Also, he scored major points in my assessment book by being utterly devoted to the teachings/example of Socrates.

It actually turned out, as all of this series has for me so far, to be an efficacious healing balm in a time in my life which, if not the one famous long, dark night of the soul, is at least a "night that has stayed about 45 minutes after it would have been socially appropriate to leave" of the soul.  I've found something helpful and it seems to be directing me into a different person.  I feel as though I haven't quite bagged tranquility yet, but I've found fresh footprints.

I would highly recommend Epictetus to anyone.  I know an ancient Stoic philosopher probably wasn't topping your to-read stack, but so often in life I've found help and/or answers where I least expected them.  I think Epictetus would be happy to hear that... or at least content.

Monday, September 13, 2010

A Wine Rack, You Say?!!?

It's been a while since I've had a picture post (and, it's been a while since I've had a short post.) Here's something new!

This is the top of our pantry cabinet in our kitchen.  Laurie has been making the house even more beautiful while I've been working nights.  I don't make a lot of demands about our home.  I told Laurie, back when I proposed to her, that she could do whatever she wanted with the house.  But it occurred to me recently that we ought to own a wine rack.  Laurie concurred and we bought the one pictured. It was fairly inexpensive and, I thought, a lovely addition to our kitchen.

I came to the decision that we ought to have one mainly over the bottle of port in the foreground of the lower picture.  If you can't read the inscription, it was inscribed to Laurie and I by Rob and Jess as a wedding gift to be opened on our 25th anniversary. It was the catalyst for obtaining a wine rack as I want to make sure it's properly stored on its side.

So, Laurie and I may have a new, modest hobby.  I think Rob would have been happy to know that.  We thought we might, when we are able, get a nice bottle every once in a while and have a little rack for special occasions.  I think we both also like the fence that this particular rack sets.  We can have eight.  Plus the freestanding black cat Reisling.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

What I'm Reading

Dr. Eliot and grandchild. I am also resolving to wear that same style of shirt while reading.

My friend Christopher recently posted about a personal reading curriculum he's undertaking. I was struck by his post (I thought it was an excellent post) and thought I might take a moment to post about a few directions I'm taking as well. I've actually found a bit of focus for the life of my mind while gripped by the brevity of life and subsequent panic over neglecting nutrients for trifles.

I remember one day laying in bed after a long illness, half my lifetime ago, and realizing that I had not yet ever listened to any of Beethoven's symphonies all the way through. "I hear they're supposed to be pretty good." And yet I knew probably thousands of perfectly asinine pop songs and commercial jingles by heart without having tried. Indeed, that moment in that sickbed was one of my life-changing moments, albeit a quiet one. I would add, probably not a surprise to anyone who knows me, that this has been heavily inflamed by the recent, sudden, and, I'm willing to say, untimely death of my best friend.

On top of that, I had an experience last year with... well, I wasn't going to name it for the sake of those who may have liked it, but it was The Time Traveler's Wife, which everyone was raving about and quoting on their Tumblrs. I picked it up at the library and only made it about 20 pages in. I think the last straw in what I thought was a grossly overrated book was when the narrator gives evidence of how delightful said Time Traveler must be by listing the books he had on his bookshelf. I thought, "By golly, I would rather be reading any one of those books. And that very well may have been the end of me reading something "to see what all the buzz is about." I hope so anyway. But my point is, my time is limited. I would like to improve as a human, which I think glorifies God with the gift I've been given. I would like to seek virtue and truth and I would like to fill myself with that which is excellent and important. This may sound insufferably lofty to you, but I would hasten to point out that I am not telling you what you should do.

Another reason is an ongoing conversation I've had with Laurie about source texts. If I might be so bold as to dip into the theological for a moment, one of the focuses of this conversation is how often we've found that we read probably 5 or more commentaries or expositions by people in regards to our religion for every time we actually read our religion's source text for ourselves. We spend far more time listening to people tell us how we ought to look at the thing than we spend actually looking at it. This was especially driven home for me with my recent realization of how many doctrinal views of the afterlife stem more from Dante than the source text (and how much of Dante stems from the Ancient Greeks.)

Another reason is that I am already decidedly hooked on the series. I'm sure Laurie is sick of hearing me talk about Socrates.

So, my idea is this: I am going to take my stab at reading through the Harvard Classics Library Five Foot Shelf of Books. When I am finished, I am hoping to continue to seek what is excellent and important, eschewing the trivial, and seeking great reward in meatier challenges of life. Hopefully you can see that the decision extends beyond my reading matter, more toward the whole man.

I've mentioned my series on the Harvard Classics Library, which I expect to finish around the end of 2011. Here is the very long list of titles in the series.

Harvard Classics Complete Set 51 Volumes First Edition (The Five Foot Shelf Of Books)

VOL. I. His Autobiography, by Benjamin Franklin
Journal, by John Woolman
Fruits of Solitude, by William Penn
II.The Apology, Phædo and Crito of Plato
The Golden Sayings of Epictetus
The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius
III. Essays, Civil and Moral and The New Atlantis, by Francis Bacon
Areopagitica and Tractate on Education, by John Milton
Religio Medici, by Sir Thomas Browne
IV. Complete Poems Written in English, by John Milton
V. Essays and English Traits, by Ralph Waldo Emerson
VI. Poems and Songs, by Robert Burns
VII. The Confessions of Saint Augustine
The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis
VIII. Agamemnon, The Libation-Bearers, The Furies and Prometheus Bound of Aeschylus
Oedipus the King and Antigone of Sophocles (depending on my mood, I may skip the ones that overlap from Penguin Essential Classics list that I am just now finishing.)
Hippolytus and The Bacchæ of Euripides
The Frogs of Aristophanes
IX. On Friendship, On Old Age and Letters, by Cicero
Letters, by Pliny the Younger
X. Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith
XI. The Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin
XII. Lives, by Plutarch
XIII. Æneid, by Virgil
XIV. Don Quixote, Part 1, by Cervantes 
XV. The Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan
The Lives of Donne and Herbert, by Izaak Walton
XVI. Stories from the Thousand and One Nights
XVII. Fables, by Æsop
Household Tales, by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
Tales, by Hans Christian Andersen
XVIII. All for Love, by John Dryden
The School for Scandal, by Richard Brinsley Sheridan
She Stoops to Conquer, by Oliver Goldsmith
The Cenci, by Percy Bysshe Shelley
A Blot in the ’Scutcheon, by Robert Browning
Manfred, by Lord Byron
XIX. Faust, Part I, Egmont and Hermann and Dorothea, by J.W. von Goethe
Dr. Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe
XX. The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri
XXI. I Promessi Sposi, by Alessandro Manzoni
XXII. The Odyssey of Homer
XXIII. Two Years before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana, Jr.
XXIV. On Taste, On the Sublime and Beautiful, Reflections on the French Revolution and A Letter to a Noble Lord, by Edmund Burke
XXV. Autobiography and On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill
Characteristics, Inaugural Address at Edinburgh and Sir Walter Scott, by Thomas Carlyle
XXVI. Life Is a Dream, by Pedro Calderón de la Barca
Polyeucte, by Pierre Corneille
Phædra, by Jean Racine
Tartuffe, by Molière
Minna von Barnhelm, by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing
Wilhelm Tell, by Friedrich von Schiller
XXVII. English Essays: Sidney to Macaulay
XXVIII. Essays: English and American
XXIX. The Voyage of the Beagle, by Charles Darwin
XXX. Scientific Papers
XXXI. The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini
XXXII. Literary and Philosophical Essays
XXXIII. Voyages and Travels: Ancient and Modern
XXXIV. Discourse on Method, by René Descartes
Letters on the English, by Voltaire
On the Inequality among Mankind and Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar, by Jean Jacques Rousseau
Of Man, Being the First Part of Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes
XXXV. The Chronicles of Jean Froissart
The Holy Grail, by Sir Thomas Malory
A Description of Elizabethan England, by William Harrison
XXXVI. The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli
The Life of Sir Thomas More, by William Roper, Utopia, by Sir Thomas More
The Ninety-Five Thesis, Address to the Christian Nobility and Concerning Christian Liberty, by Martin Luther
XXXVII. Some Thoughts Concerning Education, by John Locke
Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous in Opposition to Sceptics and Atheists, by George Berkeley
An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, by David Hume
XXXVIII. The Oath of Hippocrates
Journeys in Diverse Places, by Ambroise Paré
On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals, by William Harvey
The Three Original Publications on Vaccination Against Smallpox, by Edward Jenner
The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever, by Oliver Wendell Holmes
On the Antiseptic Principle of the Practice of Surgery, by Joseph Lister
Scientific Papers, by Louis Pasteur
Scientific Papers, by Charles Lyell
XXXIX. Prefaces and Prologues
XL. English Poetry I: Chaucer to Gray
XLI. English Poetry II: Collins to Fitzgerald
XLII. English Poetry III: Tennyson to Whitman
XLIII. American Historical Documents: 1000–1904
XLIV. Confucian: The Sayings of Confucius
Hebrew: Job, Psalms and Ecclesiastes
Christian I: Luke and Acts
XLV. Christian II: Corinthians I and II and Hymns
Buddhist: Writings
Hindu: The Bhagavad-Gita
Mohammedan: Chapters from the Koran
XLVI. Edward the Second, by Christopher Marlowe
Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth and The Tempest, by William Shakespeare
XLVII. The Shoemaker’s Holiday, by Thomas Dekker
The Alchemist, by Ben Jonson
Philaster, by Beaumont and Fletcher
The Duchess of Malfi, by John Webster
A New Way to Pay Old Debts, by Philip Massinger
XLVIII. Thoughts, Letters and Minor Works, by Blaise Pascal
XLIX. Epic and Saga: Beowulf, The Song of Roland, The Destruction of Dá Derga’s Hostel and The Story of the Volsungs and Niblungs
LI. Lectures on the Harvard Classics

The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction (which were a later addition, capitalizing on the success of the original series. I may very well still attempt this list as well although I've already noticed that our local library does not have this set in stock. Although I'm fairly certain it probably has all of these titles available in other editions.)

VOLS. I and II. The History of Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding
III. A Sentimental Journey, by Laurence Sterne
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
IV. Guy Mannering, by Sir Walter Scott
V and VI. Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray
VII. and VIII. David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens
IX. The Mill on the Floss, by George Eliot
X. The Scarlet Letter and Rappaccini’s Daughter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, by Washington Irving
Three Short Stories, by Edgar Allan Poe
Three Short Stories, by Francis Bret Harte
Jim Smily and His Jumping Frog, by Samuel L. Clemens
The Man without a Country, by Edward Everett Hale
XI. The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James
XII. Notre Dame de Paris, by Victor Hugo
XIII. Old Goriot, by Honoré de Balzac
The Devil’s Pool, by George Sand
The Story of a White Blackbird, by Alfred de Musset
Five Short Stories, by Alphonse Daudet
Two Short Stories, by Guy de Maupassant
XIV. and XV. Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship and The Sorrows of Werther, by J. W. von Goethe
The Banner of the Upright Seven, by Gottfried Keller
The Rider on the White Horse, by Theodor Storm
Trials and Tribulations, by Theodor Fontane
XVI. and XVII. Anna Karenin and Ivan the Fool, by Leo Tolstoy
XVIII. Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
XIX. A House of Gentlefolk and Fathers and Children, by Ivan Turgenev
Pepita Jimenez, by Juan Valera
A Happy Boy, by Björnstjerne Björnson
Skipper Worse, by Alexander L. Kielland

"Wait a minute!" I hear you cry, "You've recently done the first volume and a half!" You are correct. I got antsy and already started without announcing it. I do have a life outside of this blog, you know. Anyway, I thought that this would be impractical as a reading group although I would encourage anyone to join me who wants to (and, given that I've still got Moby Dick for the Penguin Essential Classics Reading Group to slow me down, this would be a fine time to catch up.)

"Now hold on!" You exclaim, "Who are these high and mighty people who decide what is great, excellent, important, and worthy of the laurel Of The Western Canon?" Well, there are several answers to that. One is: us! It's a conversation anyone can take part in as a global citizen (even if you're from The East. The ethnocentrism of the list is something we will be tackling as we sally forth as well.) Another is: Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard starting in the late 1800s. Which sounds at first like name dropping, but consider this: I am five pieces into the series and every single one of them, I feel I can say without indulging in hyperbole, have been life-changing for me. Just about everything we end up reading is by the suggestion of someone, be they in person or in writing. If someone came and gave me a list of "you've got to read" books and the first five were life-changing, I would very likely read the rest of the list as well. In this series, I have found that very thing.

Another answer is: people who have spent their lives sorting through the literature that has endured over long periods of human history. Even then, it's still a gutsy thing to do, although it's hard to be taken seriously in criticizing the list if you haven't read the material for yourself. So there's another reason for a project like this.
But this, of course, is not the real reason. I would do this if I were alone on a desert island, or immured, or in space, or in solitary confinement for the rest of my days with nothing else to do but attempt to use the knowledge gleaned from books to make explosives out of the gardening materials the foolish warden allowed me to order for the small planter in my barred window, so high and bright, and the serene austerity of the cinder-block walls, now so innocent, but soon to have "The coward does it with a kiss, The brave man with a sword!" written on them with a blood smeared finger as I fly from the charnel house I've created to freedom.
I am, in the end, doing this for the man I wish to become.
Of course, this lifestyle of reading curriculum won't end there. One of the first things more intrepid readers will notice about Dr. Eliot's list of titles is the extreme dead-white-malehood of it. Another first glance gleaning might be the very few books that would not have been at the disposal of, say, Mark Twain. In fact, most of the books seem to predate the 19th century. There is a lot of modernity and diversity I am going to miss during this project, but, on the other hand, that's a bit like waffling on visiting Paris because you might have had the opportunity to visit Rome. If you live long enough, you might visit both! I don't know if I shall spend the rest of my days mining Western Canonical lists like these (although there are worse things one could do with one's life, and I must say I these are some fences that greatly appeal to me.) But there are many others with many more modern suggestions. Yale and Princeton have their own variations (although lack the kicky gimmick of a five foot shelf of books). As Christopher points out, there is the excellent list suggested by Harold Bloom which contains quite a few more modern suggestions. But, this is my project at hand. You can expect a few more trickles in this series while we, the Penguin Essential Classics Group, tackle Moby Dick through the remainder of this year. After that, I intend to dive head first into this project.

Reading Group Reminder- Moby Dick

This week begins the final entry in our Reading the Classics Reading Group.  Our final book is Moby Dick by Herman Melville.  I would encourage everyone to join in.  We are going to go at a very leisurely pace with this one, aiming at finishing around the end of the year. 

This first week, we will read through the section titled "The Pulpit" which, in my edition, will take us through page 46.  If you would like join in the reading group, simply get a copy of the book and read this section by next weekend (I try to get the reading group posts up on Fridays.  I try really hard.) 

Here's Orson Welles as Father Mapple from the John Huston film version (which was written by Ray Bradbury in case you didn't know!)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- Inferno- Conclusion

And so we reach the end of the book in our series that I personally found most troubling.  A few thoughts on why.  The first is the placement in this book series.  I know it's sort of a cultural given, but Inferno is the only bit of the Divine Comedy in the series.  People, in general, if they read Dante at all, tend to read Inferno.  I imagine it's a sort of schadenfreude or outright Sadism that leads an individual to only take interest in the listing of creative forms of eternal suffering and neglecting the point of the whole piece.  The point of the piece lies more in the later books, especially Paradiso (more on that in a soon to be forthcoming post.  Again, I apologize for the shift in my consistent bloglife.  As most of you have probably noticed by now, I haven't yet mastered my new schedule with, you know, living life.)

Of course, another discomfort is the existence of Hell.  I am not speaking to belief on the matter one way or another, but as I've said before, I have a difficult time with people who are comfortable with the concept.  I think that even one who is a solid believer in the doctrine ought not be comfortable with the idea or they are, in my estimation, either being flip or missing the point of the doctrine entirely.

But as for this week's reading, the lower reaches of Hell are, as one would imagine, increasingly terrible to the point where the description (at least in my version) seems to slip into a bit more poetic.  The Damned tear into one another with their teeth and so forth.  We have liars and false accusers.  He have Nimrod and the giants.  Nimrod speaks gobbledygook, presumably carrying over punishment from the Tower of Babel.  The stark, huge, terrifying Antaeus conveys our travelers to the Ninth Circle.  The Ninth Circle is reserved for the treacherous.  We meet a lot of treacherous people, as usual some known to Dante for the sake of social commentary.

The very bottom is reserved for traitors to their benefactors.  This includes Lucifer, Judas, Brutus, and Cassius (the latter three in the mouths of the three faces of Lucifer.)  Again, this shows a knowledge and interest in antiquity on the part of Dante that we so rarely see today (on that note, I had also planned to mention in this admittedly rather rushed conclusion, the similarities between Dante's Hell and Socrates' version of the afterlife for the unvirtuous.  The former resembling the latter arguably more than the compiled scriptural description of Hell.  Which is part of what I was talking about in earlier posts when I suggested that many modern religious types in the Christian tradition may have a good deal of their views formed more by Dante and Milton than: 1) the key text of their religion and 2) they realize.)  If anyone's hackles are raised over crimes against Caesar seeming to be raised to the level of crimes against Christ and the Godhead, I would suggest that this is not the point.  The point is to illustrate that being treacherous against one who is nothing but benevolent toward you is, in the eyes of the author (and, at least in concept, the church he seeks to serve in writing this) the worst of all sins.  That's because it is pretty much the opposite of God.  God is love and meeting the extension of love toward one with treachery is about as far from God as one can fall according to Dante (and on a personal note, in spite of my uneasiness with the whole infernal concept, I am inclined to agree on this point.) While these are sufferers in Hell, they are also, in this case, examples.

Hell, in this story, is quite literally in the center of the Earth and Virgil climbs down Lucifer at this point to get out.  They emerge in New Zealand or something on the other side of the world and just as suddenly they roll credits.

As I mentioned above, I will return to the Divine Comedy for the remaining portions sometimes next year.  More on that soon.

I am now about to begin the final book in our series.  Next up is Moby Dick by Herman Melville.  I am going to do one of those "reminder" posts at the end of this week (I'm taking a short break before starting this final book because I have a library book I want to finish before the due date.)  I would highly encourage everyone to take part in this next one.  We will be going at a very leisurely pace so that by the end of the year you will have read Moby Dick.  If you've never read it before, you should.  If you have, you probably don't need a lot of convincing that it's well worth more than one trip through in a lifetime.  So, again, around the end of the week I shall announce the first week's reading (Deo volente and the creek don't rise.)

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Let's All Write Something With Assonance!

This exercise seems to be another aimed toward focusing one's poetic chops and igniting a sense of language play/craft in the poet.  I found Pagett's explanation of assonance a little obscure (raising the question in my mind of the difference between it and rhyme) but found a more helpful explanation from Merriam-Webster: 

a : relatively close juxtaposition of similar sounds especially of vowels b : repetition of vowels without repetition of consonants (as in stony and holy) used as an alternative to rhyme in verse

So, what we're talking about is a euphonious flow of vowel sounds in our words.  I had an example of Alan Rickman reading Shakespeare's 130th Sonnet that I was going to use as an illustration, but driving home down a country road after 3 am after work lately has brought me to a place of listening to wild, loud music for about half an hour every day to stay awake.  One of my favorites has been Tom Waits' Real Gone album and yesterday it hit me how perfect the song Don't Go Into That Barn works for this exercise.  Also, Tom Waits' music tends to be "coming off the rails" and beautiful mixtures of the flaws falling in line, elements of discord lining up in beautiful ways, like dropping a set of pots and pans down a flight of stairs and having them just happen to, for the one time in statistical history, create a perfectly executed song on their way down.  I feel that assonance is a perfect fit for his work.

I would especially point out this section:
"Bank since Saginaw Calinda was born
It's been cotton, soybeans, tobacco and corn
Behind the porticoed house of a
Long dead farm
They found the falling down timbers
Of a spooky old barn
Out there like a slave ship
Upside down
Wrecked beneath the waves of a rain
When the river is low
They find old bones and
When they plow they always
Dig up chains"
 Note the flow of vowel sounds and the pairing of near rhyme in "low" and "bones," "farm" and "barn," etc.

Padgett does not provide the fence of a form this time, so I'm just going to free associate a bit.  Remember, I never said these exercises had to produce excellent material on the first try, just like sparring matches aren't expected to win heavy-weight championships (I was really taking a risk attempting a sports metaphor, I'll have you know.)  We are doing exercises here.  The important thing is to do them.

If you choose to do this exercise, feel free to try it with any form you choose.

The Assonance of Lost Time
 by Paul Mathers

Old oily Rome with stony, holy domes,
Battered walls caterwauling, the obvious ancient.
My abode in my globe corner seems so recent.
A modern fresco masking the echo of footprints. 
The ancient painted over with sassy artifice, 
to mask matter's eternality, mutability,
all reborn, dust reformed,
cities made of clay remains
of whatever came before.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Plato's Crito and Phaedo

Plato's Crito and Phaedo are two dialogues dealing with the death of Socrates.  I recently wrote about the Apology which was Plato's recording of Socrates' defense at his trial.  Crito is a dialogue soon after in his prison cell with a disciple (Crito) who brings before Socrates potential ways in which they could extract him from this present situation as well as reasons why he thinks they should.  Socrates gently deflates these reasons in a manner I will get to a moment, although it seems to me given Crito's behavior at the end of Phaedo that Socrates did not completely soothe all of Crito's misgivings.  Phaedo is an account after Socrates' death of the conversation leading up to and the death of Socrates.

Let's begin with some baseless speculation (which, in case you didn't know, is more than half of scholarly work.  Also, it's the part that people tend to like best and talk about most.)  There are a number of ways to interpret the "execution" of Socrates.  One is that he was sort of a hippie guru whose choice in disciples may have been injudicious for one who wishes to live out a natural lifespan.  He taught that seeking a life of virtue, knowledge, and wisdom was far more important than seeking worldly wealth.  He seems to have had a number of disciples who were young men from wealthy families.  So, it's entirely likely that he was put to death for that.  It's also been suggested by some scholars that he may have simply been put to death for annoying people.  He had a habit (a method in fact) of leading people to his point of view by asking them questions which would lead a person to answer their way into his mode of thinking.  People are loath to loosen their doberman grip on their paradigms and opinions one jot even on a good day.  I find this an ugly but plausible explanation.  It does not tax my reason to suggest that some humans might put another human to death because they dislike his style.  I remember High School.

Also in the speculation column, I actually read a scholar who suggested that Socrates may have accepted his death to avoid the pain and indignities of aging.  I have to say that this seems to reveal more about the worldview of the scholar than to have been exegeted from any of the actual text.

Which leads us to poor Crito who goes before his master on death row and begs him to let them find a way to pay off his accusers or help him escape, and implores him to think of his children.  It's a short piece.  Socrates' responses are simple.  Why on Earth would he pay those people for what they've done, escape is cowardly, and he is considering his children in the example he is leaving over the importance of truth, tranquility (Crito marvels at the beginning of the piece that Socrates is sleeping like a baby with rum rubbed on its gums), and integrity.  Socrates says that a good life is equal to a just and honorable one.  He believes that a good life is to be valued above life in and of itself.  I would add that I am reading an account of the words of Socrates in the year 2010.  If they had burrowed out through the latrine and scampered off to Spain disguised as women or Barbary apes or something like that, I doubt Socrates would have been deemed worthy of such careful posterity.

Socrates also gives an argument over the relationship between the individual and the State which I imagine would grate on a lot of modern readers.  He talks about how one reaps the benefits all through one's life from the State and therefore the State has rights and position over that individual in certain spheres, including when it deems capital punishment appropriate.  The citizen agrees to obedience to the commands of the State.  The Quaker in me would rail against this were it not the words of a man about to be put to death by the State.  The Contemporary American in me would rankle at this argument too were it not outweighed by my admiration over his tranquility and integrity.  The philosophy student in me wonders how Nietzsche missed this when he blamed slave morality on Christianity.

As I'll come back to in a moment, one of the frustrations of reading the ancients is having a bunch of questions you would like to ask.

Phaedo starts with Phaedo explaining that we are waiting for a boat to arrive to signal the end of a religious ceremonial period where executions don't take place in order to avoid polluting the city (which raises the question in my mind: why do them at all?)  Socrates and his students seize this opportunity to speak of many things, chiefly on the existence of the soul after death.  He starts with what everyone except the reader took as a solid, logical argument for the pre-existence of the soul: the understanding of equality and opposing forces from infancy proving knowledge gained before physical existence.  I would mention that this struck me as very similar to C.S. Lewis' opinion that the universals of right and wrong point toward the existence of God or words to that effect.  I'm not saying that I agree or disagree, but I am not convinced that that is the necessary and only possible conclusion from this data.  In fact, it was highly problematic for me when he got the section of how bad people might reincarnate as donkeys and the vice-ridden are clearly ghosts bound to the world they so loved, while his students replied "Yes, of course!"  The argument for the existence of the soul after death is along the lines of this:

That which the soul possesses bears life.  The soul flees the body at death.  Death is the opposite of life.  The soul will not bear the opposite of what it brings. That which does not admit death is what is known as the immortal.  The soul does not admit death.  Therefore the soul is immortal.

I appreciate the thinking and certainly the line of logic, but I have to admit that, for me, it didn't put the final nail in the coffin of the 4 am, staring at the bedroom ceiling, sweating from the palms of my hands, thinking "My gosh, what if it's all just chemicals and biological processes terminating in oblivion?!!?" 

I think I take away from the piece the lines of reasoning which are very well done, along with a few bits of quite profound wisdom (e.g. "The wise man will will want to be ever with him who is better than himself" or "few are the good and few the evil, and that the great majority are in the interval between them.")  But there was a moment of disappointment for me when he came to the "okay, let's prove the immortality of the soul" section of the piece and left me with a lot of questions and objections long after Socrates had convinced his audience.  So, I must content myself with what I've gained from this reading and, in fact, mourn Socrates over 2 millennia late.

In fact, in spite of all of his reassurances, Socrates death was a terribly sad event to read.  I find this to be a natural reaction of the living to the loss of life, especially the loss of a loved one.  I end up feeling a bit like Dante, rebuked by Virgil for feeling compassion, but unable to shake it in spite of all of the good reasons I'm given.  Much like Crito, I still feel the loss in spite of being told that it's not a loss and, a credit to the work of Plato, 2000 years later I'm missing a teacher I never met.