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.