Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Loot

Let's get down to brass tacks.  What we got for Christmas:

My biggest gift was from my parents. It's a laptop and I am currently typing on it.  I can even be social as I blog.  I'm blogging in the kitchen right now.

I won't list everything that Laurie got since this is my blog and not hers, but she did get this PBS art history series.

Laurie also got a Kindle.  We are amazed at how much of the sort of thing we read is available for free, being firmly set in the public domain.

We also got a board game based upon the players' knowledge of the first lines of books.
The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick is a book which I have waited my adult life to read (not literally.  In spite of what appearances might suggest, I've done other things with my adult life as well), rather suspecting that I would never have the opportunity.  I do have the "excerpts from" which was published back in the 1990s, but this is the san gréal for PKD fans.  This is the Exegesis.
Another book I am beside myself with joy to own and read is the Journals of Spalding Gray.
We got garden gnomes climbing a rope for my mother.

Edgar Allan Poe tea.

My aunt sent me a sketchbook, which was a wonderful choice.  Ever since that Lagerfeld film I have been thinking of getting back into sketching, specifically design ideas that will never see realization.
 I think these are in reverse chronological order, but we had a lovely dinner.

Gina brought us wine from Georgia.  It has Joseph Stalin on it.
I bought Laurie a scarf/shawl by Karl Lagerfeld.
Laurie got me a cultural history of ballet, which I immediately started reading.
Schubert got a splendid little hat.
Gina brought me a book of Georgian poetry.
Gina brought Laurie art from Georgia.

Laurie bought me a messenger bag.  For the sake of brevity, Laurie bought me some wonderful new clothes.  I bought her a few books.  There were other things.  But the big news is Tony and Karina who got us a grandchild for Christmas.  Ezekiel Anthony was born on the 23rd.
That was our Christmas in brief.  It was undoubtedly on the short list of my favorites in my life so far.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Time Capsule

Dear Ezekiel,

On the day you were born, your great-grandparents were up visiting for Christmas.  They gave me the laptop on which I write this for that very Christmas.  They took your Oma and I out to dinner and I had a martini that tasted like toasted marshmallows.  Aunt Gina was there too.  She had just returned from the Republic of Georgia a few days before. She had been teaching English over there.

They let me leave work early on account of your being born and, as I'm sure you're used to by the time you read this, the maddening beat of the impending holiday, like a heart under the floorboards. 

It was a slow news day.  Newt Gingrich failing to file the signatures required for him to get into the Virginia primary was one of the top news stories.  Newt Gingrich was a man who ran for president in 2012.  Believing in a benevolent God, I assume you will never have heard of him.  The Sherlock Holmes film with Stephen Fry as Mycroft Holmes was the top grossing film.  If I live long enough for you to get to know me, I'm sure you'll know exactly who that was.  Also perhaps worth mentioning, there were people who said that the world would end just shy of a year after you were born due to some blip in an ancient civilization's calendar.  Early in the year you were born, a charlatan predicted a date on which the world would end and then, when it didn't, picked another date later in the year.  Some people were fooled both times.  I hope you'll take this as a lesson about secret knowledge, conspiracy theories, and people trying to sell themselves as special with the sexy temptation of being a present "insider" (and future fool.) 

Earlier we had gone to visit you at Enloe.  I held you when you were only about an hour and a half out of your mother.  You didn't open your eyes and we didn't hear you cry for two more days.  You were a very peaceful baby.  May you remain so.

I intend to teach you Shakespeare and Shaw, Beethoven and Mozart, Socrates and Schopenhauer.  I intend to buy a high-end telescope so that we can look into the heavens.  I hope that we can travel and I hope that you will see the world.  I especially hope to take you to the theater, the opera, and the ballet when you are old enough to shut up and not wiggle around in your seat the whole time.  This past Sunday, which was Christmas, I was talking to my pastor after the service and he talked about how it's difficult to produce a Christmas sermon.  One must present the Advent story, a story which one can assume that almost the entirety of the congregants know.  I remembered when I performed my first (hopefully not last) one-man show a few years ago.  So many people expressed that they wished that I would have recorded the event on video.  I would always reply that it wasn't staged for video, but more importantly, it wasn't for the ages.  It was, like so much of life, a moment in time that exists within the space-time frame, but, as far as we are concerned, has passed out of our reach through the progression of time.

That's part of why I love photography so much.  The picture above is of the moment when I first held you.  As you can see, people were rushing around us.  The room was full of activity and vistors.  But the camera captured the light of that moment and now you can see it, your hypothetical children can see it, and the alien archeologists of the 45th century can see it.  There is a beauty in and of itself to the preservation of beauty, but there is also a beauty to the fleeting in its ungraspability.  There is wonder in both and, indeed, in all things.

I hope you get to experience a multitude, a veritable glut of ideas and world-views.  You get to choose the ones you love, the ones you adopt, the ones you improve upon, the ones you reject outright.  You get to make ones of your own. 

I don't know what the experience of life will be like for you or what the combined forces of nature and nurture will produce in you.  I hope you will be happy.  I hope you will come to understand the necessity of kindness, compassion, and peacefulness.  I hope that you will learn that you need not doff your hat to any man, as we are all created equal.  I hope you will share and love truth. I hope you will not be tempted to the overwhelming trend toward the trite and bourgeois emotional life of our day, which presents such asininities as boredom and self-righteousness as birthrights.  They aren't.  They are both born from the pit of Hell.

Anyway, welcome.  I hope you have fun. 

Your loving Papageno,
Paul Mathers

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Effects of Karl Lagerfeld on the Soul of Paul Mathers

I almost never write about movies we've watched.  I do tend toward movies that inspire or provoke or have great ideas.  While I do try to use the blog to interact with the higher aspirations of humankind, it's really just that I don't want to have the sort of blog where I talk about movies.  I am breaking that self-imposed rule here for the sake of something Laurie and I watched which has been like a splinter under my fingernail.  The film was Lagerfeld Confidential.

I try not to place too many of my eggs in the "heroes" basket and, aside from Stephen Fry, I am hard pressed to think of many living people who would qualify for that distinction in my own mind.  However, I do have a great deal of people of interest in my life and, as people who know me well know well, Karl Lagerfeld is one of those people.  For those of you who don't know, Mr. Lagerfeld is the Creative Director of Chanel, Fendi, and his own lines.  He is also an extraordinarily accomplished photographer.  He is a highly intelligent man, a bit of a Classicist himself with a fluency in Greek and Latin (and German and French and English and Italian.)  He has one of the famous and coveted personal libraries in the world.

One thing I do not wish to do here is to pass judgment on Mr. Lagerfeld's life based on a 90 minute movie nor, more to the point, on my emotional reactions to that 90 minute movie.  I felt a magnificent loneliness in the film, and I felt as if it were by the design of the documentary filmmaker.  It seemed to me that the interview segments interspersed with the action of the film were full of questions that attempted to lead  Lagerfeld to comment on his loneliness.  There were questions about his mother, his love life, his intense work ethic, the frivolity of the world in which he works, the distance of friends, his ability to break long-term ties, all of which Lagerfeld explains away as to why he is not lonely.  However, the evidence seems to mount to us, the viewers, as the many variations on the question are asked.

Along with that, the footage that was chosen from a long period of following the man often seems to back up that thesis.  In one scene Lagerfeld is shown affectionately patting a colleague's hand.  The lady comments on how it hurts when he does that because of all of the rings he wears.  In another scene Lagerfeld sits in a villa courtyard surrounded by bags of books that he has purchased on a trip.  In the background there are people milling about.  Lagerfeld, one of the most iconic figures on the planet, is framed in such a way so as to amplify that he is sitting alone with his bags of stuff.  On the streets he is stopped on a walk every few steps by someone wanting to have their photograph taken with him.  He graciously obliges and, after the photos, the people walk away looking at the picture on their cameras.  Getting a collection together, he is filmed walking up the famous Chanel mirrored staircase alone, stepping on sketches to do so.

At the end of the film, I found I felt like I knew less about Karl Lagerfeld than when I started.  I caught myself wondering what Christmas is like for Mr. Lagerfeld or what it's like when Mr. Lagerfeld has a head cold.  But there is also an appropriate armor to the whole experience.  I am not to know those things, nor should I really.  I almost felt as if the point of the movie was to show me that I should enjoy the work of the artists I enjoy and leave off trying to know anything about people I will never get to know.  I think there is a good lesson there.  We know next to nothing about Shakespeare's life, yet his work is universal and we can all still enjoy it 500 years later.  Why shouldn't that be true for contemporaries as well?  Why should we always be so concerned over who made a thing? 

Lagerfeld seems to have sort of an Epicurean Stoicism of a practical philosophy, with a dash of Existentialism.  He is not a man of faith, nor a man to whom faith seems to hold any attraction.  He speaks of his mother's constant frivolity along with Germanic arms' length, and I certainly saw the apple on the ground right next to that tree.  His is a life of constant work and he has built an empire in which he is able to 1) create the art that he wants to create, 2) surround himself with the beauty he wants to surround himself with, and 3) allow himself as much time alone as he wants.  He is constantly moving forward, chasing the dragon as it were, never looking back.  There's almost a bit of the heavenly in that sort of forgetting, the sort of thing, I know from experience, I was looking for, and to some extent finding, in alcoholism.  That sounds way more condemning than I mean it to sound.  What I mean to say is that I feel like I totally understand the impulse to constantly look forward and forget what lays behind.  Of course, his version is a lot more healthy as it is an active version: a constantly mutating vision.  But I was rattled by how much I understood this part of it viscerally.

All of which I find compelling, and all of which mirrors some of my own more earthly desires.  I think if I were not a man of faith, Mr. Lagerfeld's view would be about as good as it gets.  Still, after the movie, Laurie was, I think, even more disturbed than I was by it.  In talking with her about it, I mentioned that there is a figure in Christian theology who is known to have Beauty removed from Love.  Again, I do not wish to pass any sort of judgment here.  Aside from the trappings of the persona, I don't feel there's anything particularly Mephistophelean about Mr. Lagerfeld, at least no more so than any other figure in the fashion industry.  He is, after all, just another human trying to live his life.  I sincerely hope that he is very happy as he has brought a lot of beauty into this world.  I admire his work tremendously.  However, I find myself a little unnerved by what this suggests to me about beauty in and of itself.  I am inclined toward the pat little axiom of Keats about how Truth is beauty and beauty truth.  I am inclined, like Wilde, to advocate a sort of inherent goodness in beauty, a reflection of the divine delight in the aesthetically pleasing.  But after watching this film, it makes me question a bit about what is a "good life."  I think the answer is more of a question of balance.  Even in the Platonic understanding, beauty is not one of the cardinal virtues.  I do think that there is a goodness to beauty, however I feel that it is entirely limited to beauty.  We foolish creatures always want to extend that value to other aspects, but it just is not so.  Take it from a homely man.

Mr. Lagerfeld, especially in response to the sections regarding his mother, eschews analysis.  In that sense we are almost the polar opposite.  I believe in a life well examined.  I am a passionate enthusiast of Freud and Jung.  I also know that we all are beings created through a mixture of circumstance and will.  We show what we choose to show and are fully capable of hiding what we choose to hide.  It doesn't make things disappear to hide them.  He says near the end of the film "I don't want to have reality in  anyone's life because I don't want it in mine."  I understand this completely and there is a level in which I can almost covet that kind of thinking.  Reality is unspeakably awful, but I can't be a ghost.  It's not enough for me.


Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Few Notes on the Translation

My preferred sort of libation bearers

I thought I might follow up on my post about Agamemnon by providing some examples of what I was talking about in regards to translations.  As a quick aside, I would also like to encourage everyone, once again, to write letters to people that you admire and to do it immediately.  In preparing for this post, I learned that Robert Fagles died only 4 years ago.  I should liked to have written to him and thanked him for his work.

What I'm going to do is simply to show you three different translations of the first line of The Choephori (or The Libation Bearers.) 

The first is the version used by Dr. Eliot in the Harvard Classics series.  Do bear in mind that Dr. Eliot was assembling his series in 1910 and that we currently and constantly reap the benefits of an accelerated culture to the point of taking it for granted.  I retain my charter membership in the Dr. Eliot Fan Club.  The translation is by E.D.A. Morshead (Edmond Doidge Anderson Morshead in case you were wondering.)  As a cute aside, Mr. Morshead was marked by his students to have a distinctly peculiar and eccentric upper-class accent which they called "Mushri" as if it were a different language.  His students compiled a "Mushri to English" dictionary, nicknamed him "Mush", and, predictably, his classroom was called "The Mushroom."  I think I would have liked Mr. Morshead.  He was a fellow Classicist of a Liberal mind.  He championed scientific advances as a Classicist, believing that reaching toward the highest aspirations of humankind is what the classics point to and what ought to be going on at any given time in a great society.  He also made academic translations of classical literature which I find next to unreadable.  Here is his opening lines of The Libation Bearers:

"Lord of the shades and patron of the realm that erst my father swayed, list now my prayer Hermes, and save me with thine aiding arm, Me who from banishment returning stand on this my country; lo, my foot is set on this grave-mound, and herald-like, as thou, once and again bid my father hear."

Doesn't exactly trip off the tongue and I have a difficult time imagining how to perform sentences like that in a way that would engage an audience.

Philip Vellacott translated the version I own, which is an older Penguin edition.  Vellacott was of my great-grandparent's generation.  He was a conscientious objecter to the Second World War, being a member of the Peace Pledge Union.  The Peace Pledge was a document that members of that union signed which stated "I renounce war, and am therefore determined not to support any kind of war. I am also determined to work for the removal of all causes of war."  I might get in trouble for saying this because it is largely considered the "just war," but I do have some admiration for the special courage it takes to make that kind of a stand.  Although as another aside, I'm a little shaky on my enlistment criteria history, but he was around my age at the beginning of that war and I do have some doubts as to how much demand he would have been in anyway.  I have a soft spot for conscientious objectors due to my Quakerism and due to my father's heroic (to me at least) conscientious objection to what I believe was the second most "unjust war" in my nation's history to date. 

I will also include some of Professor Vellacott's obituary by Richard Luckett from The Independent in 1997: "In person he was slim, erect, quizzical and tenacious. He was a resolute walker, and a pianist of professional competence who knew the entire Art of Fugue by heart, if at a rather steady pace. He had Shakespeare virtually word for word. His sister Elisabeth is a distinguished artist, several of whose finest works he possessed."

I think I would have liked Mr. Vellacott as well.  Here's a work by Elisabeth Vellacott called Evening Walk:


Philip Vellacott claimed that he got in a bit of trouble with the Classical establishment over positing that these works in particular were filled with political motivation.  This seems to smack a bit of falsehood as Classical literature in his day was almost entirely composed of such theories and I feel that his translation may suffer a bit from putting forth theories, rather than to attempt to recreate the work itself.  Also, he wrote a translation that was used widely for decades which is precisely the sort of thing that allows the Classical establishment to continue to exist. 

Granted, that doesn't stop people within the Classical establishment from complaining about it.  I am continually amazed by how low ratings almost all operas have on Netflix.  Not because they are bad by any means, but rather because the opera fans are so devising, persnickety, and catty that not their favorite soprano or too many close ups means the opera gets a lower rating than Troll 2.  This is really where I feel that Classicists cut their own throats in front of the rest of the world. 

Philip Vellacott's version is an improvement over the Morshead to be sure, but still a bit clunky and wordy I thought.  But infinitely more readable.  Here, again, the opening line:

"Hermes, Guide of the dead men's souls below the earth, Son of Zeus the Deliverer, fill your father's office: Be my deliverer.  Receive my prayer; fight in my cause. An exile newly returned to this my land, my home, I seek my native right.  Over this mound, his tomb, before my deed is in hand, I call on my dead father to hear, to sanction."

I hope that my examples will make this needless to say, but I would read anything Robert Fagles translated.  Fagles, as I mentioned before, is the most modern of the three and I feel that there is a lot of be said for constantly renewing the most accurate and most contemporary translation of a classical piece of literature, especially as our language continues to evolve so rapidly.

I recognized the name when I went to the library yesterday as the same translator who afforded a solution to a similar problem I had when reading The Odyssey a year or so ago.  Fagles was a Princeton professor.  His father died when he was 14 and it only just struck me that the very text I've pulled for this post is Orestes at the grave of his father. 

He translated "The Big Three" of Classical Literature, being The Odyssey, The Iliad, and The Aeneid.  In a New York Times interview concerning the latter he said, "It says that if you depart from the civilized, then you become a murderer... The poem can be read as an exhortation for us to behave ourselves, which is a horse of relevance that ought to be ridden.”

I was immediately struck by the clarity of his translation and instantly put aside any thought of reading any other version when I read his opening line:

"Hermes, lord of the dead, look down and guard the fathers' power. Be my saviour, I beg you, be my comrade now. I have come home to my own soil, an exile home at last, here at the mounded grave I call my father, Hear me, -I am crying out to you..."

I would also add that, of the three, I feel like this is the one that would play best on stage.  The language provides opportunity to explore and convey the emotion involved and communicate said emotion to the audience clearly.

And, at the end of it, I feel like if one let's the stories speak for themselves, one can feel the rustle of the ages behind it.  One can identify with the very human stories.  But, like so much of life, the ground becomes richer the deeper you dig.

Friday, December 9, 2011

“I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all year.”

Don't blink.

Last year, I embarked on a project sometime in very early December to post a "Christmas song that doesn't suck" on Facebook every day until Christmas.  I remember that my self-imposed task became very difficult very quickly, but, in spite of remembering that difficulty, I had a few moments of toying with the idea of doing it again this year (I also toyed with the idea of posting Christmas songs that suck tremendously.)  I came back across one of my favorite contemporary Christmas songs by Tim Minchin.  I think it is one of the most beautiful Christmas songs I know.  High on the short list anyway.

We live in an age where truth is both abundantly available and, largely, considered repulsive in polite company.  The major blows to the human ego have long since been definitely dealt by Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud, precluding any further illusions of human specialness in ways beyond John Calvin's wildest dreams.  Perhaps more germane to my point at hand, we are around 100 years into the portion of our history where medicine's reach in regards to physical human health is more helpful than hurtful.  As a result, we have finally rocketed out of the period of human history where we mainly die from calamity and horrific disease to the period where we largely die of decay.

As most of you probably know, I work in elder care.  I believe that, largely based on the fact of our collective medical condition that I've just mentioned coupled with our staggering procreative capacity, elder care is our immediate future.  There is a coming tidal wave of need in that department, considering the mess of a health care and insurance industry we have in America and the Have Generations giving way to the Have Not Generations.  What's past is prologue.  There is a massive coming need. 

One phenomenon I've observed in my work is that of rampant despair.  I often find myself called upon by someone to explain to them why they are still alive and I'm afraid I don't have an answer to that question.  I usually explain that I too am not exactly sure why I'm still alive a great deal of the time and given that the Almighty has fixed His canon 'gainst self-slaughter, ours is simply to persevere in the faith that there is a reason and enjoy what's left of the gift we've been given.  Usually followed by suggesting an activity.  There is nothing like an activity to dispel despair.  I also mean to suggest that the qualitatively best application of that gift can be found in religion.  A mix of the Epicurean and Kierkegaardian Existentialism to be sure, but that is the man that I seem to have become.  That is where I find myself coming into this, my 34th Christmas.  In other words, I am faced with the bald truth and am left with nothing else but to carry on.

The song is, of course, a highly personal one.  Not everyone's family is a place where one feels safe.  When I re-listened to this song this afternoon in what was probably at least in my second dozen times of hearing it, I was struck by the part where he speaks to his future daughter at ages 21 or 31.  What specifically struck me was that those are around the ages in which it is reasonable to assume that one's mother, father, and possibly even grandparents will still be alive.  I feel that all the more keenly as moment by moment I draw closer to the following decade.

Mr. Minchin is an atheist.  I am not, although I talk about God's silence and absurdity and the void (and being freaked out by churches) with all of the faith of an atheist.  As most of you know, I do, however, go in for ancient wisdom and feel that some tenacious ideas have survived out of worthiness while others not so much.  One must needs evaluate them for one's self.

However, I am not responding to an atheist with the customary snide Christian attitude of having the market cornered on truth.  I almost became an atheist a few years ago.

There is an Arthurian legend about the Fisher King which, like a lot of Arthurian legends, has a wide range of versions.  One version is that there is a king who is wounded on the thighs or groin with a wound which will not heal.  The king's land becomes a barren wasteland (symbolic of the wound and, I would add, where T.S. Eliot got the name for his masterpiece) and he is forced to fish for food.  Parzival or Percival happens by on his quest for the Holy Grail.  Percival fails to ask the Fisher King about his wound at the correct moment.  That act of Christian charity, compassion, and concern would have healed the Fisher King of that very wound.  Stories vary over the resolution (if any.)  I was thinking about this story the other day and toying with the idea of a reinterpretation in which the wound came from Christianity, but was healed by Christ.

I was ardently religious in my late 20s and early 30s, but a little over two years ago I was first introduced to a contemporary movement in Christianity which is one of the most evil things I've ever heard of.  I am fully convinced that that side of Christianity is destined to be as regrettable and as black of an eye to the face of Christ as the Crusades or the Inquisition or the witch hunts.  I've written about it before and so won't rehash that part of it.  I really needed to see Christianity oppose this evil, but instead found that a great deal of the Christian world either condoned and defended it, or simply ignored it. 

At around the same time, my best friend died.  It was sudden and he was not ill.  

I reached a point, within the past year or so, where I asked myself if I could not believe.  I found that I could not not believe.  I was one of Pascal's "doomed to be a believer."  Once I came to that realization, it was a relief, but a relief like how it was a relief to Kafka to get tuberculosis.  I passed the point of no return, but I am still a product of the experiences which brought me past that point.  The house had blown down, but I found that the foundation was still intact. 

I also came to the realization that there are two ways to handle pain in this life.  One is to arrange one's life in such a way so as to avoid that pain in the future at all costs.  This is a decision born from a sort of informed fear.  I'm not a big fan of fear.  The other is to persevere in the face of future pain, to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.

So, I have the religious side of Christmas to deal with too, but I am entirely sympatico with the sentiment of choosing to just enjoy it.  I feel like so much of our culture is so jaded and ironic that one is shamed into not enjoying things like Christmas.

Which not to say that I feel that there is any war about Christmas in our culture aside from that between the tasteful and the gauche.  My unsolicited advice to the alarm junkies, who are hoisting their own petard in perpetuating the nonsensical notion that there is, in fact, some sort of culture war involving Christmas, would be simply this: Then work to make Christmas something worth preserving in our culture.  Your outrage ought not go to someone bidding a sincere "Happy Holidays."  You should be outraged over stores pulling people away from the very hallowed day of Thanksgiving now with the temptation of bargains.  I mean, is putting up a tree or a tawdry plastic light-up Nativity scene on a lawn so damned important that you'll let it stand in the way of fellowship and brotherhood?  Over a day in remembrance of He who taught that loving your neighbor and God was the sum of the Law and told stories about loving Samaritans?!!? 

Just because an idea is tenacious doesn't mean that it's worthy.  A healthy society preserves that which is worth preserving.  I certainly agree with the Socratic ideal that a good life is a virtuous life and I believe that can be applied to everything we participate in.  In fact, I think it better had.

There is another point I would like to make about the Season as I wrap up.  Laurie and I were reading Charles Hummel's Tyranny of the Urgent in which Mr. Hummel is struck to the core by a piece of ancient wisdom that a factory manager tells him.  He said, "Your greatest danger is letting the urgent things crowd out the important."

I can assure you that, unless you're exceedingly creepy or haunted by a history riddled with "priors", you can walk into any assisted living facility, walk up to the activities director, and offer your services.  It could be as little as a half an hour a week.  You can sing, you can make crafts, you can write, you can have a book club, you can play games, you could even just read aloud to the residents.  They would be thrilled and you would be a valued rarity.  Why would I say that at this point?  Well, as James wrote, "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world."  That's how you honor Christmas.

This Christmas I hope that you get to be surrounded by the people you love and who love you.  I hope you have people who make you feel safe and I hope you can be surrounded by them.  I wish you joyful memories that you can carry with you for the rest of your life.  I pray that you can disregard all of the white noise.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


I would like to start out by talking about the art of translation.  The translation that I read was awful.  What I tend to look for in a translation is 1) readability with minimal sacrificing of 2) the intended meaning of the original writers.  Ideally, 3) also beautiful.  That is why I am more likely to read, say, Robert Pinksy's translation of Dante's Inferno than one by an academic who is focused on accuracy.   I look for the Apple Computers of translations.  Elegant, user-friendly, without limiting one's options intellectually.

It might not surprise you to know that I have had friends so pedantic as to be anti-translated material.  Their argument is that one is not reading, say, Aeschylus, but rather, in my case, one is reading the work of E.D.A. Morshead.  I understand the argument, but that does not change the fact that I want to read Aeschylus.  Also, barring one's self from reading anything translated from another language is barring one's self from an awful lot of great literature, as well as penning one in with the danger of ethnocentrism.  But it is true that unless you're reading Oscar Wilde, chances are you are not going to read the actual literal words of the actual literal original author.

I tend toward thinking of translations as grey areas.  Attempts at a completely literal, word for word translation from one language into English are sort of bi-path into communicating with someone to whom English is their second language (albeit, their mastery of the Queen's English is helplessly in the hands of a second party.)  If we're talking about something like, say, The Message, which is a contemporary paraphrase of the Bible, I am willing to say that one is not really reading the Bible.  But that is purely my opinion and being aware of the grey area of translation, it is hardly a hill I would choose to die on.  In other words, I wouldn't read it, but I also wouldn't be so pompous and divisive as to tell someone who does that they are not really reading scripture.  To make a long point short, I think it's important to know the issues and limitations inherent in reading translated works, and I think it is important to read them anyway.  If anything, I think in a lot of ways it broadens the options presented to the reader of a work rather than limiting them.

All of which was unfortunate in this case.  As with so many great works of antiquity, it is a rip-roaring good soap opera with buckets of blood.  Lamentably, I spent a great deal of my time trying to figure out what they were talking about.  I do not wish to brag, but I am an exceedingly intelligent man.  It shouldn't have to be like that for me!  There are other translations out there available to me and I don't feel compelled to limit myself to Dr. Eliot's choice in this instance (even though I am limiting myself to Dr. Eliot's overall choice for the next few years.)

So, here are a few thoughts, without writing any papers for the seemingly endless line of students who plagiarize my blog:
- We see in Clytemnestra's tempting of Agamemnon to walk on the red carpet a Hero With a Thousand Faces moment with echoes of The Fall in Genesis, right down to the similar results.
- Agamemnon is an enviable part.  Much like Tartuffe, I kept imagining the actor having both the glory of being billed as the title character and a great deal of time to read backstage.  I experienced that firsthand when I played in Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado as the title character.  You show up mooing about with Cassandra, you schlepp up the red carpet, and half an hour later you bellow "O! I am slain" from out your dressing room door.  You'll be in the pub by 10. 
- Sure, Aegisthus is squatting in Agamemnon's house and cuckolding him, but the apple didn't fall too far from the tree.  Just ask Cassandra. 
- Speaking of Cassandra, we have a divine invasion in the play.  I can't decide if the power to see future events but not have anyone believe you until it's too late is a horrible thing or the best thing ever.  I know what the play wants me to believe.  And it doesn't end so well for her.
- Aside from failing the Bechdel Test, I have a difficult time with discerning Aeschylus' view of women.  The two in this show are strong women, but not exactly positive role models.  Actually, upon reflection, it is difficult for me to discern a protagonist in this piece aside from, arguably, The Chorus!
- The Chorus has a more solid Fourth Wall in this show than in some other Greek works.  In fact, they are heavily emotionally invested in the action, to the point where they nearly take it upon themselves to effect justice.

I did enjoy the experience of reading this play, but, again, I am fairly certain I am going to seek out a more readable translation for the balance of The Oresteia.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis

I kept thinking about etiquette books while reading this book, sort of "Rules for Proper Behavior Befitting Monks in the Middle Ages."  Not in the "You shan't pick up your salad fork until the abbot tastes the dressing" sort of way.  But more in the sense that it is exhortations and encouragements on how a Christian ought to live, where their mind ought to be focused, and the fruit to look for from said behavior.  It is an exposition on proper human deportment in light of the Gospel.  In spite of the vastly different age in which it was written, I felt that most of the lessons translate well to modern times.

As a quick side note, these 2011 eyes are continually surprised and delighted by Dr. Eliot's painstaking attention to cultivating the moral fiber of the readers of this series.  In an age where testing, results, and a dermatillomaniacal attention to one's own navel have become the focus of Western education, I find this educational view inclining toward the goal of producing a society whose reigns are held by good human beings a refreshing view.  Although refreshing like Frank Capra films, which always leave me melancholic over how far reality is from the optimism of what's flashing across the screen.

I would hasten to add that I feel that this book may not be for everyone.  It was originally written for his fellow monastics in the early 15th century or thereabouts.  There are a few passages, for instance instructions on giving the Eucharist, which will not apply to most of the blessed, contemporary, literate, chosen few.  There are also passages which I found astonishingly Catholic (we are 1400 years into the evolution of the religion at this point.)  Specifically, Purgatory makes a palpable appearance and the Eucharist is hinted at having spiritually meritorious effects.  It was not exactly meant for the laity and certainly not for the Non-Christian.  Not that I feel that it is any less of a great book.  I am just uncertain that the book would have much practical application for those outside of the sphere of Christian belief.  It is, after all, mainly a treatise on the effects of Christian doctrine on the thoughts and behaviors of the believer.

Indeed, much like Socrates (right down to phrases like "If you think that you know many things and have great learning, then know for certain that there are many more things you do not know"), some of the super-objective of the book seems to be an exploration on what exactly is a good life, that is to say a life well-lived. 

Humility, anti-materialism, enduring temptations, immovable truth, refraining from judging others, choosing poverty, finding peace within as an act of peace toward the external world, patience, and even a rather Eastern argument for letting go of all desire in order to find enlightenment, are all covered.  I look over that list and I think about so many contemporary issues we hear about daily at this particular junction in space-time.  Corrupt and unfettered bankers leading directly to peaceful, angelic youths being pepper-sprayed.  Foreclosures, unemployment, rampant debt, while the cake-eaters come into our homes through our standard-issue lighted squawk-boxes to make millions off of 72 day long marriages and tell people frantic about not being able to get a job to "get a job."  A culture of polarization, the decay of civility, the death of compromise, all heralding economic collapse.  Rage over the disproportions in the distribution of wealth.  All of which I feel could be addressed by some of the service based (read: Slave Morality) behavior encouraged in this book.  The message is not "there'll be pie in the sky when you die" but rather "love one another" and, perhaps more to the point, "If when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps."

I would also like to say that I found the voice of the author to be pleasant and humble.  I liked Thomas à Kempis quite a bit.  He lived a very quiet life and it shows in his writing. 

Upon reflection, I may dial back my earlier statement about recommended audiences.  I would recommend that every Christian run, not walk, to the nearest location of a copy of this book accessible to them if they haven't had the pleasure of reading it yet.  Every Christian ought to read this book.  But I also feel like the book will, at the very least, provide occasion for a great deal of thought and self-assessment for anyone.  I also put forth without reservation that the life outlined in this book is "the good life."

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Christmas Wish List 2011

After many exhortations and prompts and cues from my mother, today I publish my Christmas wish list for this year.

1. Bad As Me- by Tom Waits: I still don't have the new Tom Waits album.  Life has a way of getting away from me.

2. The Journals of Spalding Gray: As soon as I learned this book existed, I knew I must own it.  From about ages 15 through 26ish, if asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, my stock answer was "the next Spalding Gray."

3. The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton: Laurie and I have been fascinated by the existence of this book and are amazed that we don't already own it.  It's not as grim as the title might suggestion, but rather a book of medical theory from the early 1600s.  Reviews lead me to believe that the New York Review Book Classics edition is the one to get. 

4. a bicycle- I plan on riding to my new job, which is in biking distance.  I shall become all lean and lissom and no longer sweat while I eat.  You'll hardly know me.

5. Last and certainly not least: The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick-  A book which I've waited over a decade to see the light of day.

I should probably also add that Laurie very much wants me to get a laptop and I am not objecting to the suggestion.

Speaking of bigger ticket items, I also wouldn't turn down a Kindle.

Or the entire Harvard Classics Library.

I thank you for your attention.
Ta and bisous!

Friday, November 11, 2011

15 Things To Do In This Life

My friend Megan asked, out of the blue, on Twitter the other day to tell her 15 things we, her followers, should like to do in our lifetime so as not to be the martyred slaves of time.  Much like New Year's Resolutions, she mentioned how clicking off a "bucket list" seems kind of horrible and, I would add, might leave one at the end feeling a bit like Alexander (weeping over the dearth of worlds left to conquer at almost precisely my own age, by the way.)

So, I thought it might be an interesting thought experiment to explore what sprung to mind in my own skull.  I find it interesting that so few of my choices revolved around things having little to do with virtue per se.  Rather than that pointing to a bad direction, I found it indicative of moving in directions in my personal life that speak to a life being well lived.  These are "frosting."  I am fairly content with the current state of my life and the seeming future direction thereof.

A few words on do-ability: my experience has been that the experiment mutates rapidly.  So much of my biography has shifted in ways I never would have imagined.  I consider nothing on this list outside of the realm of possibility and, as is so often true in life, may offer a few of those much needed fences in further life choices. 

But, enough.  On with the list.

1. Visit India- I have a deep love for India and its people.  I think it is a beautiful culture.  I also have friends I should very much like to see.  This was an easy #1 choice for me.

2. Attend the Bayreuth Festival- The Mecca for Wagnerites.  Wagner himself supervised the design and construction of the theater.  To see a Ring Cycle at Bayreuth would be near to one of the peak experiences possible for me on this planet.

3. Tour the Vatican- As an art lover, a theology and church history student, and an aesthete, I would love to tour the Vatican.  I know Laurie would too.

4.  See one of my plays produced- Strictly speaking, this has already happened, but not in a profit making environment and only with a one-man show.  I would love to have the play I am currently writing be produced by a professional theater company.

5.  Finish the Harvard Classics Library- which will happen if I simply live long enough to make it through.  I am working on it.  I would hazard a guess that I still have years in front of me to go, but if Augustine didn't stall the project, nothing shall.

6. Meet - One of my living heroes and, I think, one of the more fascinating people alive.

7.  Also would like to visit Athens- Having already trod the streets where Shakespeare, Wilde, and countless others had trod, I can only imagine the hallowed feeling of the truly ancient beneath one's feet. 

8.  Master Greek and Latin- I don't know about mastering, but this is another project that I am working on.  I am currently at a very stumbly level of Latin.  Laurie and I plan on learning Greek together one of these days.  She has some experience in that classic language.  I have none.  One of these days we will take it up.

9.  Create a mixed drink- Wouldn't it be fun to have a signature drink?  Or having a dessert or sandwich named after one's self?  Maybe it's gauche to think so, but I think it would be a hoot!

10.  Have a poem of mine in the Norton Anthology- Yes, I'll admit vestigial and highly unlikely wishes to join the immortals of literature.

11.  Name a star or asteroid after Laurie- While there is no permanence in this universe, I have plans to buy a high-powered telescope when Ezekiel gets a little older to take out into the wild and look out at the wonder of the macro.  I would love to be able to find Laurie Mathers in the heavens.  In case you haven't guess by now, I am a silly and romantic marshmallow of a man.

12.  Have a rose garden- We should always have roses.

13.  Own an Irish Wolfhound- Such majestic canines!  I am drawn to their temperament as well as their stunning presence. 

14.  Reconcile with everyone- Life is short.  The Living are just the Dead on vacation.  People should live gently and be quick to forgive.

15.  Die before Dementia- Ending on a characteristically dark note, my vocation has taught me the horror of Dementia/Alzheimer's.  It is an awful disease and I should like to go without experiencing it firsthand.  I encourage everyone to get informed about it and, where they can, search and see if there is some place in the world where they can improve life for another.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Chronicle Books' Happy Haul-idays Contest

As you may remember from last year, Chronicle Books hosted one of the more exciting contests of the holiday season.  They are hosting an even more enhanced version of the contest this year.  If one has a blog, one posts on that blog $500 worth of items they would like from the Chronicle Books catalog.  One fortunate blogger who does so shall win their wish list!  One commenter on that blog entry also wins the blogger in question's list as well (see, you're in this too.  All you have to do is comment on this post to have a chance to win the $500 worth of books I am about to list.)  Apparently I get to choose which commenter wins, so dress nice for your user photo.

This year, they've added an additional winner: the charity/library of your choice.  The charity gets to choose their own $500 worth (which is probably wise.  While I love my library, I'm not sure they would share my first choices.)  My choice for a charity is, most likely not surprisingly, the Chico Public Library.  I love the Chico Library, spend a great deal of my free time there, and worry about them in these days of rampant defunding.  I should like to be the champion of lending libraries whenever I can.

And so, here is my Chronicle Books wish list for this year.  I am trying not to simply duplicate last years list and, in fact, this year we have a grandchild coming in December, which opens a Narnian wardrobe door of interest in children's literature for me.

As a side note, I have provided links to the Chronicle Books page on each of the listings.  I usually like to zazz these kind of posts up a bit with photos of the items in question, but I'm having a devil of a time with blogger today.  So, please do check out the books in question.  Don't just take my word for it that they look lovely.

1. Dante's Divine Comedy- Illustrated
Boxed Set
By Sandow Birk,and Marcus Sanders

Be that as it may, I start with the book set in their catalog that I still covet one year later.  A beautiful adaptation that proves that Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot are not the last two humans to have read the second two volumes of the Divine Comedy.

2.  MoMA: My Museum-

Little Ezekiel will need to learn about modern art and begin making his own.

3. The Domaine Chandon Cookbook
Recipes from étoile Restaurant
By Jeff Morgan,Photographs by France Ruffenach

Epicurean cookbooks orbiting around wine are some of my favorite things.

4. Nests
Fifty Nests and the Birds that Built Them
By Sharon Beals

This looks to be an absolutely gorgeous photography book.  I would add that it is also a beautiful idea for a photography book.

5. Bixology
Cocktails, Culture, and a Guide to the Good Life
By Eve O'Neill,and Doug "Bix" Biederbeck,Photographs by Sheri Giblin

Oh dear me, who doesn't love a charming mixology book, filled with guideposts for the bon vivant.  I have an alley.  You will find this book right up it.

6.  Andy Warhol's Colors
By Susan Goldman Rubin

This is how I would choose to teach a small child about color.

7. My Milk Toof
The Adventures of ickle and Lardee
By Inhae Lee

A book from a delightful and creative blog that I have enjoyed for some time now.  It is a charming "photo-comic" series.

8.  The Architectural Detail
By Edward R. Ford

A work on what a "detail" is in architecture, which rather reminds me of the long discussions I've had over what "an action" is in acting.

9. Le Corbusier, Homme de Lettres
By M. Christine Boyer

A book about one of the most fascinating people in recent history and a major force in the world of architecture.

10.  Edie: Girl on Fire
By Melissa Painter,and David Weisman

Edie Sedgwick is, to me, one of the most captivating figures of the 20th century.

11. The Vatican and Saint Peter's Basilica of Rome
By Paul Letarouilly

Oh my goodness, I can't tell you how much Laurie and I would love to have this book in our home!

So, there you go! Comment away for your chance to win this list along with me!  And thank you to Chronicle Books!