Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Letters of Pliny the Younger

There have been a number of pieces in this series to which I've grown so attached as I read that finishing them was like saying goodbye to a close, dear friend.  The letters of Pliny the Younger was one such piece.  I was grateful for the placement.  Just as before what you suspect will be two very starchy, heavy meals later in the day, it can be some great comfort to take a pleasantly light meal.  My next two are Adam Smith and Darwin.

Which is not to say that Pliny the Younger was not rich material.  By no means!  The letters of Pliny (pronounced Pl-in-ee, not Pl-eye-nee, although I have found that inevitably when you speak of him in a group of any size, someone will try to correct your pronunciation with the wrong one.  You have my permission to make much of their faux pas and shame them out of the room) are a historical jewel.  They put you right into the lives of the Romans.  I found Pliny himself to be charming, warm, intelligent, and informative.

His letters take on a number of forms.  Some are words of encouragement, a remarkable number of them are letters of grief over a recently deceased friend or loved one, some are accounts of important events of his day, some of those events may have seemed more important to him than they do to us, but be that as it may, even that gives us a rare portal into another time in human history.  I was continually amazed at how little difference there actually was between the world of a man nearly 2,000 years dead and my own time.  People live and die, they fight, they learn things, economics and class struggles appear to be just about the same as they ever were.

Some of my favorite passages came from Pliny's love of gardens and architecture.  He had several letters where he would try to entice people to visit his estate by describing beautiful features (the flowers and plants, the different rooms, books, streams, and so forth) of the place in great detail.

 Aside from just being charming, he also exhibits great wisdom in his letters detailing legal proceedings to be sure, but especially in his letters to Emperor Trajan.  These letters are a bit drier than the rest and seem a bit obsequious to modern American eyes, but they show a discerning character.  Of special interest is the section concerning the treatment of Christians.  It's finally decided, if I understood them correctly, that the policy of that administration would be that the Christians wouldn't be persecuted so long as they don't do it in the town square (where they might scare the horses.)

One thing I am learning about this series is that all of the material has been profitable and undoubtedly educational.  There are, however, some books that I expect to reread again and again over the course of my life and others which I will be perfectly happy to have read once.  This is, without a doubt, one of the former.  

Saturday, March 17, 2012

As Smoke Is Driven Away

I was having coffee with my friend (who is also my pastor) and, within the natural course of the conversation, he handed me a metaphorical key.  It was an answer I had been seeking and, in fact, an answer that, to some extent, I had already found.  I told him that, since he had preached on Psalm 68 the previous Sunday, I had been reading the Samuels, specifically the life of King David.  He said, "So much of my own mental health comes from that section of scripture."

Intellectually speaking, I understand that having heroes can be a good practice, to set up a standard toward which to aspire.  I feel like I've always been too cynical to do this properly.  I don't have Homeric heroes who are perfect human specimens.  I don't have great, perfect men up on pedestals whom I fancy myself to be like.  But show me a smarty-pants with glaring personal flaws and I'll immediately put a poster of them up in my bedroom.  I mentioned Spalding Gray before and thought of my internal list.  Alexander Woollcott could be venomous and childish.  Andy Warhol was, in some ways, an extremely destructive force in the lives of those he surrounded himself with.  Glenn Gould makes me look socially well-adjusted.  Ben Franklin hated his son.   

I asked Laurie before writing this how she would respond if someone asked her "Does Paul consider Karl Lagerfeld one of his heroes?"

She hesitated, "I wouldn't say a hero.  Certainly he admires his work a great deal and he is a person of great interest to Paul, but he wouldn't want to emulate Mr. Lagerfeld."

I think I put certain people in flimsy, biodegradable hero baskets for two reasons.  Firstly because it's an out, a way to distance myself from the hero if I choose.  Secondly because I know my own failings and admiring people with failings keeps me from despairing under their harsh gaze in my own less admirable moments.

Let us rewind the narrative to a few weeks ago when I was wrestling with some of my more persistent demons.  As I mentioned above, the Sunday morning exegesis of the 68th Psalm (which you can listen to or download for yourself here) had me thinking of what I knew of King David.  He was a lowly shepherd and the runt of the litter.  He killed Goliath.  He got chased around by a mad king.  He misbehaved with/for/towards (as well as diverse and sundry other prepositions) Bathsheba and paid for it.  But I also knew that he was a peculiar figure in the Bible in that there is all of this highly personal, emotional response to what he was going through in his life contained in the book of Psalms.  I mentioned to Laurie that I was hard pressed to think of another Biblical figure like this.  You have stories like Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac with almost no emotional exposition, only the bare journalistic facts of the story.  You have some peripheral emotional exposition in the Prophets and the Epistles.  Laurie said, and quite astutely I think, that the only other person in scripture she could think of that had a similar thing, albeit more briefly, was Mary.

So, I went right home and picked up the Samuels and starting reading about David from my own place of plaintive prayer.  Laurie reminded me, upon reading my previous post about Spalding Gray and my recent epiphany associated with same, of one of my pet peeves (and hypocrisies).  I so often see people associating themselves with people in movies or television shows or behaving as if they are the star of their own movie or television show.  Boy oh boy, did I ever enter this reading expecting to identify with David.  But what I found was myself identifying with having a mad king chasing me around inside my own head. I feel like I have the guy in there who trusts God and tries to do what is right, good, to live holy and with austerity and virtue.  I also have a guy upstairs who goes barking mad every once in a while.

David lives in a world of absurdities in the Existential sense of the term, especially in his pre-annointment days.  He is destined for royalty entirely without designs toward that end.  His people are threatened by a seemingly insurmountable foe and, in one of the early manifestations of the Salvation from Death by way of a Savior motifs contained within scripture, David is able to defeat the undefeatable all the more remarkably with the barest minimum of a weapon.  There is also crazy, crazy Saul who fixates his raging malice on David for no good reason at all.  The madness leads to the end of Saul, Jonathan, and many others, as well as to the ascension of David to the throne.

How does David handle all of this?  He focuses on what is pleasing to God and walks in beauty and righteousness.  He will not tolerate regicide, or any disrespect to the office of King, although I suspect some practical aspects of one destined to be king himself in setting the example of meticulous reverence of the Divine Right of Kings.  Perhaps it is another image of Christ in the Old Testament in a "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" example.  I felt that this is driven home when, long after the strife with Saul is over, David honors Mephibosheth.

I mentioned before and in my previous posts my psychological "Goliaths" and "Sauls" if you will.  I mentioned earlier my rejection of chemical intervention in my psychological battles, but also hastened to add that I am not prescribing that to anyone else.  I've known people who genuinely can't make the 4 foot long, blue-green, screaming cockroaches on the walls disappear from their sight by mere will-power and chemical intervention may be a helpful solution for those people.  I suffer from mere hysterical misery and know that I grow stronger with each successful experience in overcoming my own manias, by the grace of God of course.  Martin Luther said:
"I would have nothing whatever if I did not plow and sow. God does not want to have success come without work, and yet I am not to achieve it by my work. He does not want me to sit at home, to loaf, to commit matters to God, and to wait till a fried chicken flies into my mouth."
In this, I know that I am blessed.  I know that there are others less fortunate than I.

Of all of the vices available to humankind, Worry is the most attractive strumpet to me.  Worry comes to me with ease, indeed, often comes to me unbidden when I'm not paying attention.  As a result, I would often feel, if I ever would even reflect on such a thing, that worry was compulsory or entirely beyond my control.  Yet my propensity for worry was, in and of itself, a self-destructive act, perhaps the grandest act of self-destruction I've engaged in thus far.

 As David says,
 "Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil."
I think when I go searching for avenues to mental health in my reading material, what I usually seek is an instruction manual.  "Do a), b), and c) and then you will be mentally healthy."  Imagine my consistent disappointment!  In the writing of and about David, however, I find something very different.  I find hope.  Hope in spite of myself.  Which, in the end, I think is one of the main attractions of religion for humans. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Kelpie

It was in the mid-summer when I was 14 years old when I happened upon a film version of a Spalding Gray monologue on a cable movie network.  The monologue was Monster in a Box, which focused primarily on the time in his life in which he wrote his novel Impossible Vacation.  I remember the timing because my father had an annual work-related conference in late summer which changed location throughout America each year.  My family would go with him and be tourists while my father would go to his convention classes.  I remember reading Impossible Vacation in New Orleans.

The appeal of Gray's voice was instant for me as a young man.  It was one of those great moments in literature and/or the arts when you realize as though for the first time that you are not alone in the world.  Here was a man who had a career, a fulfilling artistic life, who was candid about his rather extreme neuroses.  His keen intellect was unabashed.  This was not the sort of thing that was being encouraged by my peers and teachers in public school, but it was, none the less, the sort of young man I was becoming.  It was like growing up in a jungle and finally meeting another human being one day.

If you've never seen the work of Spalding Gray, I highly highly recommend that you do.  They are excellent pieces of theater.  There are at least three film versions readily available: Swimming to Cambodia, Monster in a Box, and Gray's Anatomy.  The latter is the monologue I saw live in Irvine in the mid-1990s.  As we were walking from the parking structure to the theater, I saw Mr. Gray come out of the back door of the theater with a photographer from what I assume was a local or college newspaper.  In spite of knowing that he was preparing for a performance, I walked right up and met him.  He signed a few of his books for me that I had brought, and talked for a few minutes.  He seemed distracted, but also perfectly willing to talk to a young fan.

Spalding Gray was the reason I majored in Theater in college.  If someone had asked me what I intended to do with my life, I would say, "I want to be the next Spalding Gray."  In fact, the one play of mine that actually was produced was similar to a Gray monologue, autobiographical and addressed directly to the audience.  Mine was in the round and had a stool that looked like it came from a log cabin in the center, rather than a desk on a proscenium stage, but the influence was unmistakable.

Then, in 2004, after years of depression, Spalding Gray jumped into the East River from the Staten Island Ferry in the middle of Winter.  It took weeks for them to find his body.  I stopped saying that I wanted to be the next Spalding Gray so much.

Laurie says I have this dark cloud that comes over me at times like a Plinian Eruption.  I can go from pleasant and happy to the absolute depths of despair in an instant.  I am not proud of this, and I don't speak about it often.  It is something that seems completely beyond my control when it comes, like a tidal wave washing over me.  I am well aware that I could walk into any doctor's office in this country, explain the sort of things that happen inside of my brain, and walk out with a prescription for some form of anti-depressant.  I don't, and not just because I can't afford medical insurance.  I've never had a suicidal moment in my life, not because the Everlasting fix'd His canon 'gainst self-slaughter, but simply because I am not wired that way.  So there doesn't seem to be any great danger to this. 

When Laurie was proof-reading this entry, she stopped at this point and said, "Wow.  You've never had a suicidal moment?"

"No.  Never."


"Well, I've had moments of intellectually considering the concept.  I suppose there may have been some moments in extreme depression where I might have thought of walking into the creek and putting a shotgun in my mouth, but never so much that I would actually go get the gun."

"Really?  Never?"

"No.  I would always think `But then I would never have another cup of coffee or the last thunderstorm I saw would be the last one I would ever see, instead of having the promise of possibly seeing another one.  I still haven't read Don Quixote.'  You know?"

"So, even in the depth of it, you still have hope of future happiness."

"Now, mind you, I've been extremely self-destructive at certain points in my life, which is sort of like a Schrödinger's Cat version of suicide."

I understand that there are people in this world with genuine chemical imbalances whose quality of life could be greatly improved by chemical intervention.  I personally feel that I am one whose quality of life is greatly improved by forcing myself to overcome these things on my own.  I will go into more detail on that in my next post.

When Rob died and my religious faith fell apart within a 6 month period, I went through one of those long dark nights of the soul that you hear tell of.  I had a high stress job for a time and, enmeshed in all of that angst, I had one of my latent fears come boiling to the surface in a bizarre manner.  I gradually became maniacally afraid of catching a cold.  I am not employing hyperbole.  I say "maniacally" advisedly.  I am speaking of opening doors with cloth or paper towels, a tremendous amount of hand washing and hand sanitizer, a phobic avoidance of shaking hands, constantly taking cough drops and Cold-Eeze, using the Neti Pot four or five times a day.  If I was in a supermarket and a child at the end of the aisle would cough, I would go home and use the Neti Pot.  
The fear transformed gradually from the fear of catching something into a fear that I was, in fact, coming down with something, and then evolved into the conviction that I was coming down with something.  Today, I have worked it down to asking Laurie to look at my throat and feel my forehead maybe once a day.  Maybe sneaking off to take my temperature only once or twice a day.  This is how I have spent a great deal of the past year of my life.  I should probably add the significant fact that, within that year, I have not fallen ill.  Laurie has taken to reminding me "You're healthy as an ox."

How did this happen?  Well, the Little Internal Analyst says that it is a manifestation of my fear of losing control on a number of levels.  There is the fear of an inability to work based on having spent almost a year and a half out of work a few years ago.  There is the fear of inflicting harm on others through no fault of my own (in fact, the fear of doing my best and failing anyway is one of my greatest fears.)  There is also the baggage of a childhood spent being on the receiving end of bullying.  Illness reminds me a great deal of being bullied.  It's painful and, once it's attacking you, there's not much you can do to get out of it.

History repeated itself.  As I was clawing my way out of that deep pit, I was given a copy of The Journals of Spalding Gray, which is exactly what it sounds like.  I found the same kind of identifying that I experienced when I was a young man.  One of the themes that recur in Mr. Gray's journals is that of a sort of doomed fate, a sort of infection of tragedy.  In his case, his mother committed suicide when he was a young man.  At one point he intimates his fear that that act of her's would, in fact, eventually drag him down, which is all the more startling in light of the end of his story. 

But then, about three-fourths of the way through the book, I had an epiphany.  I am not like Spalding Gray.  Spalding Gray was a man who lived on the East Coast and did performance art in the 1970s through the 1990s, gained a reasonable amount of fame, had the personal life which I was reading, and died.  I am living in Northern California in the early 2000s; I pour medications for a living, and have a very different personal life.  I am married, religious, introverted, and any number of other differences.  As a matter of fact, to identify myself with the experiences of someone whom I, in reality, have nothing to do with really just kind of cheapens both of us.  After that, it occurred to me that I am not a hypochondriac by fate like how I have brown eyes.  I sort of think that my earlier, regrettable dalliances with Calvinism left me with a nervousness around anything to do with exerting human will. 

So much of my recent adult life has been finding myself at a place of bare foundations, trying to figure out what is my voice and what are the voices of external influences.  In my next post, I intend to consider some of the tools I've been collecting to build a structure inside my brain that is not at the mercy of the elements, blown over by the slightest wind of change or disappointment.  I want to talk a bit about how I am learning to tread water when the tidal wave washes over me.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Ubi est fumus...

Pliny the Elder laid prone in the afternoon sun, anointed with oil, corpulent and content.  As was his custom, he rose as the sun began to edge toward the horizon and waddled toward the bath that his servants had prepared to rinse the oil before the late afternoon meal.  He relaxed into the steaming pool, thinking back over his previous scholarly work and forward to the evening's study ahead of him.  His Natural History, an attempt at compiling the collected scientific knowledge of humankind, was already hailed as one of the great achievements in Roman civilization.  Unknown to him in that particular bath on the cusp of the gloaming on a day like any other in the year 79 was that nearly every achievement in his luminary life was behind him at that point.  Every remarkable act save for one.

Pliny walked into the dining hall and saw his nephew, young Pliny, already reclining with a speech of Cicero unrolled before him, thoroughly engrossed in what he read.  Pliny the Elder's sister, Plinia, walked in from the balcony that overlooked the harbor and said, "Pliny, you might be interested in this.  There is a bizarre plume of smoke rising from Mount Vesuvius."

What an oddity!  Everything about the character of the curious and scientifically-minded man compelled him to investigate further.  He sent his lead servant to prepare his ship and asked Pliny the Younger if he would care to join him.  "No, thank you.  I think I would prefer to stay with my reading tonight."

Pliny climbed into the boat and looked down the beach at a man approaching at a sprint.  It was one of the sailors under his command.  "Sir!  Rectina sends a call for assistance.  She is trapped in her home at the base of Mount Vesuvius and fears for her life.  Please go at once to rescue her!"

Cutting quickly across the water, the air around them blackened.  Ash collected on their bodies with increasing thickness the closer they drew to shore.  Suddenly, burning coals began to rain from the sky, burning holes in their sails as they fell.  The helmsman said that he highly recommend that they turn back.  Pliny shouted back "Fortes fortuna iuvat (Fortune favors the brave)!"  He saw his friend Pomponianus standing on the shore, waving frantically to Pliny's vessel.  "Steer toward Pomponianus!"

Pomponianus was beside himself with fear.  He was reduced to uncontrollable sobs when Pliny stepped onto the shore.  Pliny embraced him, told him not to be afraid.  "Come inside!  Let's have a feast while we wait for this inclement weather to pass." He said with a wink.

Pomponianus' home was about a dozen yards from the shore, built on a rock.  Pliny reclined at Pomponianus' table with all of the calm he could project in hopes that his ease would diffuse the alarm in his friend.  Instead, Pomponianus stood by and nervously asked, "Don't you think this would be a good time to flee in your ship?"

What Pliny meant to say was "By no means!  I would not do you the disservice of neglecting to partake in your hospitality.  Then, upon eating our fill and at our leisure, we shall pay a call on my dear friend Rectina.  Then, if the mood suits us, the three of us can repair to my ship and head for the clearer air."

But what he actually said was "By no me- {cough} {cough} {cough} {cough} sorry {cough} breath {cough cough cough} can't {cough cough} Let's {cough cough} to the boat {cough cough cough.}"

As they walked down the beach toward the ship, Pliny fell to his knees.  Pomponianus turned to come back and try to help him up, but Pliny said, "No {cough cough} you go  {cough cough} don't {cough cough cough cough} let me slow" and siezed by another fit of coughing, waved his friend away.  His friend made for the ship, calling out to the sailor's for help.  Two jumped from the boat and ran to Pliny's side.  They draped one arm each over their shoulder and began to help the large man stand.  He said, "I thank {wheeze...}" and collapsed.  His spirit left him, and they laid his body on a torn piece of sail on the shore.

Many days later, sifting through the disaster of Pompeii, a party came upon the body of Pliny the Elder on the shore.  The fire had not touched him.  He was not a mound of ashes like those in the city proper.  He looked rather peaceful, actually.  As though he were only sleeping.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Letters of Cicero

Here we have a collection of letters from one of the great figures of antiquity, indeed arguably the giant upon whose shoulders the entire Renaissance later rested.  The man lived through at least one of the key events in Western Civilization and, in fact, was killed in the aftermath of that event.  His work was unspeakably influential on Shakespeare, Luther, and the founding fathers of America.  This is a volume of his personal correspondence and, as such, is a unique peek into the world of the ancient Rome at its zenith.

So, why are we not all reading this?  Why do more people get through the years that (unfortunately) are the only ones in which our society expects a citizen to gain an education with perhaps Caesar's Gallic war account, maybe some Marcus Aurelius, maybe even the speeches of Cicero, but more often than not neglecting this rare glimpse of unrehearsed humanity?  Well, I may be in a position to illuminate those questions.

These letters were not composed with posterity and publication in mind.  They are, rather, missives meant for specific people and to address specific points at a certain time.  They do not "cheat to let the audience in."  They do not offer much by way of exposition.  Loath as I am to compare with a piece that I have not yet finished, the next piece in this series is exactly what the letters of Cicero are not.  Pliny the Younger's letters were clearly written with publication and posterity in mind.  Aside from being a dash stagey, they are a much more compelling read in my estimation.

So, why did our wise and benevolent host Dr. Eliot include this piece in the series?

Cicero not only lived through the civil wars in the century preceding Christ as well as the murder of Julius Caesar, but he was directly involved in those events. First hand accounts of this type are virtually non-existent and, therefore, the historical value of this piece is beyond measure.  I would also add that we have just finished two topical pieces by Cicero on the topics of Friendship and Old Age.  This is not to say that these letters are "padding" per se, but perhaps rather a fleshing out of that particular portion of space-time in which the great orator inhabited. 

All of which may sound nice and pat to you, but let me speak for a moment about what I've read so far in this series.  It seems clear to me that Dr. Eliot has a specific plan for the education of the readers of this series.  So much of the earlier pieces were clearly intended for the moral and virtuous amelioration of his students (Ben Franklin, Epictetus, Plato, William Penn, et al.)  Then we had the Greek plays which were educational as well as marvelously diverting.  So it is a bit jarring to transition into the purely educational material.  I kept looking for the deeper lessons, but found that there may not have been an intended lesson aside from the historical value.  Evidence of my unprovable hypothesis here is that the next two volumes are an economic work and a work in the field of biology.  I do not expect my soul to soar outside of that which the joy of learning provides and intend to seek spiritual growth elsewhere as I continue to read this series.  All which is to say that when I finished reading this piece I thought, "Okay, what did I learn from Cicero's letters?"

I have to say that I "got it" infinitely more from his topical pieces.
On a personal note, I, Paul Mathers in the year 2012, found Cicero to be the ancient version of what a modern equivalent might be the much hated and derided 1%.  He is of the ruling class and, as a result, his problems are not the problems of the people (I seem to recall Friedrich Engels expressing a distaste for the classism apparent in the man.)  Much of the earlier letters are focused on land management and descriptions of improvement projects on what seem to be massive homes.  The later letters (culminating in the rather dramatic final letter to Brutus himself) are more focused on times of extreme political turmoil.   Both of which, I might say, struck me as having some definite parallels to contemporary America.

Aside from that, I confess I am happy to be moving forward from a reading experience that I don't expect to ever re-experience.