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.