Sunday, September 30, 2012

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Pilgrim's Progress: Part 2- The Other Part

Did you remember what happens in the second part of The Pilgrim's Progress?  I sure didn't!  I have been trying to analyze why none of Part 2 stuck in my mind from previous readings as it is certainly as good as Part 1.  I would speculate that more happens in Part 2.  But it is sort of "But what would the Pilgrim's Progress look like if you weren't a man?"  I assume this is because it was imagined that men would read the book to their families huddled around a bubbling cauldron of gruel in the bleak midwinter, affording devotional material for all present: the father toiling and laboring for their happiness, the devoted wife who tries to knit with hands acutely calloused from chopping wood, the children nervously scratching their erysipelas.

In this section, two women and some children set out on the same journey that Christian took in Part 1, being the road to the Celestial City and/or the allegory of the Christian's spiritual walk.  Along the way they pick up many other pilgrims in their entourage and meet with a hefty portion of peril.  Part 2 reminded me of C.S. Lewis.  It seemed like the sort of thing that had an influence on his writing.  I am fairly certain that it did as he wrote a modern version early in his career, but I was specifically referring to the successful journey of vulnerables through great danger.  There is a sweetness to this that appeals to my sensibilities greatly. 

I think my favorite passage in Part 2 was Great-Heart's relating of the story of the pilgrimage of Mr. Fearing.  I told Laurie, "I think I've just reached the allegory most like me.  And it is a cautionary tale."  To my great relief, Mr. Fearing makes it!  He makes it just as much as Christian does at the end of Part 1 and, in fact, his journey is quantitatively easier than Christian's.  However, at the end of his journey we are struck by the fact that he spent his entire journey in abject fear. 

One of the honest absences I found in this book (likely not one that Bunyan would have appreciated if pointed out) is God's silence.  God does not appear in the book.  Christ sort of appears as the guy who opens the gate, but that is the extent of divine appearances in the book.  I found this a realistic consideration that I truly wonder if Bunyan intended.  In the achingly archaic linear understanding of time presented in this road metaphor, pilgrims meet with distractions, demons, problematic ideas, temptations, but nowhere do they meet God within the narrative.  Such is life.  Such is faith.  Bunyan is never so crass as to attempt to explain what the man behind the curtain is doing, a useless appendage of theology that gets the bulk of the air time and sullies our understanding of our lives.  Rather, we are held responsible for what we do, how we react, the fruit that we produce.

Bunyan also manages to produce some of the most beautiful and least discouraging death scenes in all of literature.  The end of Mr. Stand-Fast I found, fittingly, transcendent.  The book ends with pages upon pages of rhymed couplets in which Bunyan makes exceedingly Puritan apologies for the book we've just read. 

This is a book that will stick with me for the rest of my life. As well it should.  There is great wisdom and truth in this book but, a increasing rarity in instances of truth, it is also one of the most encouraging books I've ever read.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan- Part 1

This is yet another work that is so magnificent in scope that it is difficult to write about in something as flip as a blog entry.  I suppose I could start with the fact that this is one of the most printed books in the history of book printing (at least in its day.  I imagine the "most printed books" list would need to be adjusted for population inflation, advanced printing technology, and so forth).

This will not surprise readers of the book.  It is a helpful and trenchant allegory of the Christian spiritual walk.  It illustrates the pitfalls and victories that await the persevering saint while it encourages and exhorts.

John Bunyan loved allegory and, I daresay, allegory loved John Bunyan.  This is the key exemplification of allegory in Western culture.  Bunyan's characters are named to reveal their character.  Ignorance is ignorant, Talkative is... you get the picture.  I wondered what I would be.  "And the two pilgrims saw a man on a bicycle named Neurotic Overintellectualizer coming around the bend."  I did keep thinking, and far be it from me to criticize Bunyan, that one of the scarier realizations in reading this book is recognizing how I, in my own walk, can shift from character to character.  One likes to identify with the protagonist in this book, but one sees bits of themselves in Mr. Worldly Wiseman or Talkative or even Timorous.  I would imagine that Bunyan would expect one to take this as a warning and a call to mend the ways in which one finds resonations with those damned characters.

It is difficult to imagine a work with this level of earnestness written in our time and I think we are the poorer for it.  I kept thinking of what a glib, silly, and frivolous time in which we live, a time in which dialogue about matters of grave importance are never heard.  It is difficult to imagine a contemporary equivalent of The Pilgrim's Progress in which the author did not feel the need to resort to humor.  This reminds me of my own previous paragraph in which I employed a jokey version of my self in an imagined "lost chapter."  Which, again, is another way in which this book fostered a fervent desire in me to turn my back on this world.

In case you've never read it (in which case your education is missing one of the cornerstones of Western Civilization), it is an account of a man named Christian who realizes that he needs to flee The City of Destruction for reasons that the name might suggest.  His family refuses to go with him, but he must go nonetheless.  He has a terrible burden on his back.  He is shown the way to the Celestial City by Evangelist.  On the way he encounters places like The Slough of Despond and Vanity Fair.  

Part 1 concludes with Christian arriving at the Celestial City.  It is a beautiful passage.  We are happy for Christian and desire to do likewise.  I imagine it's been nearly 15 years since I've read this book and I had no recollection of what happens in Part 2.  I thought it was either an account of Celestial City or it is more people journeying on the same path.  It is the latter, which illustrates the variety of experience on that same path.

As I've mentioned, the impact of this book has been immeasurable.  People have used this as devotional reading for centuries.  People huddled around reading by the light of the fire beneath the cauldron, people reading in salons and castles, people reading in smokey industrial cities, people reading it Starbucks on Kindles.  In reading it, you are brushing material with Lincoln, Melville, Dickens, and a list that will include just about every Western name you can think of from the late 1600s through the dawn of the post-Christian age.

As a side note, Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote an opera from it.  The Pilgrim's Progress starts with Bunyan in prison (which is the clip below), follows the narrative of the book, then returns to Bunyan at the end.  I especially love the austere and British instrumentation.  I would expect nothing less from Vaughan Williams who seems to me perfectly suited to adapt this work into music.

There is a cumulative effect I am finding from this project, especially in some of the more recent offerings.  I often have this sense of the weight of the work, as if I am not worthy to comment on something so timeless and important as, say, The Pilgrim's Progress or Don Quixote as I am beginning to read them.  But then I find that they speak directly to me.  Their greatness does not lie in their inaccessibility, as lower culture might lead you to believe, but because of their universal accessibility.  There is a game within the religion of anti-intellectualism (perhaps the fastest growing faith in my country right now) which seeks to spook people away from greatness by suggesting that the top shelf is too high for their grasp.  They ought to, rather, enjoy the low fruits of television offerings and smut culled from fan fiction and repackaged to give the illusion that you can read it on the bus without people judging you.

I declare war on that sort of thinking and intend to fight it wherever I see it.  I think Bunyan would agree with this exhortation: if you know something is great, pick it up and own it.  Live in it.  Don't let it out of your grasp.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Aeneid- Conclusion: We Need To Talk About Virgil

Boy oh boy, that got violent!  The ancients up through modern times put Virgil at the pinnacle of great poets.  Dante considered him great enough to be the closest to redemption of the unredeemed.  Today if Virgil turned this work in to his high school creative writing class he would be suspended and sent to the school psychiatrist.  Thus falls the concept of an evolving civilization.

Let's employ an example that will also serve as a comparison between the Fagles translation and the Dryden.  First, here's a passage from Book Ten in the Fagles (I won't even try to reproduce the verse line breaks):
"Now up steps Clausus from Cures, flushed with his young strength and flings his burly spear from a distance, hitting Dryops under the chin full force to choke the Trojan's throat as he shouted, cutting off both his voice and life in the same breath, and his brow slams the ground as he vomits clots of blood."
And now the same passage in the Dryden:
"In the pride of youth the Sabine Clausus came, And from afar, at Dryops took his aim. The spear flew hissing thro' the middle space, And pierc'd his throat, directed at his face; It stopp'd at once the passage of his wind, And the free soul to slitting air resign'd: His forehead was the first that struck the ground; Lifeblood and life rush'd mingled thro' the wound."
This illustrates, for me at least, why I chose the Fagles.  The Greeks need that poetic majesty, but the Latins are so very Roman.  I may be exaggerating, but it seemed to me like the second half of the book was primarily like this passage, what with all of the gentlemen's brains dripping down the side of their faces and blood gushing from open cavities in their chests.  I really appreciated a text that drove forward so briskly.  More grey matter with less art.

All that having been said, it is clear that this is a great work of literature.  It is a rollicking good read, one that I imagine a 12 year old version of my self would have loved (and that is not meant as a backhanded compliment).  But what did I glean from the experience?

I suppose it reinforced the writing advice of "show, don't tell."  That is to say, when writing narrative, show the audience what you want them to see, don't point it out.  No long soliloquies here.  The fourth wall is firmly in place.  I kept thinking of Hemingway and, likewise, felt a little convicted over my own smarty-pants leanings towards the clever.  A well told story is simply a well told story.  There is little better in this world than a well told story.

There is also getting another cultural key in one's tool belt.  This is one of the most influential pieces of literature in human history.

Also, it is the perfect thing to be reading while you are recovering from a head cold.  It's hard to feel too bad about a stuffy nose when you're reading about self-immolation, decapitation, serpent constriction, and amateur thoracoscopy.

Fun read.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


I've a dash of melancholy and the mean reds this evening, which I suppose is to be expected on account of the date.  Eleven years ago, I was working in a theater and Tuesdays were my days off.  I was living with my parents at the time and was woken up very early by my mother.  On television we saw the second plane crash and watched the towers fall.  This was in Orange County.  I spent the day trying to contact my New York friends.  I didn't know anyone who died in the buildings, but I knew people who did. And I knew one guy who was right there, just a block or two from the buildings.  He heard the planes, felt the heat, saw the bodies fall, ran as the buildings fell, had lung problems later from the dust and smoke.

My best friend was in New York.  His fiancée watched it from her office window.  He wrote one of the best poems I've ever heard in my life about the experience and the aftermath.  He has since died.

I watched it on the television of the house in the photo at the beginning of this post.  The photograph is of my cat Boingo on the porch of my parent's house.  I got Boingo when I was in college.  My father found him and his brother in a sealed box in the parking lot of his work, mewing loudly.  He brought them home and they let me pick which one I wanted to keep.  Boingo picked me.  He was so lively and ferocious.  He would bring birds to the door as well as one time a fighting rooster and another time a rabbit.  He died today.

In July, when I was down visiting my parent's house, the house where I grew up, I took a lot of photographs of the house, as if I were doing architectural restoration.  I did this because I am increasingly gripped by the impermanence of this world.  I knew that someday I would value having pictures of the hallways, the doors, the cabinets, and so forth of the place on which my early development hinges.  Boingo used to jump up on that door and hold on with his claws, meowing at us sitting inside.

Also, today, my sister was attacked by a dog in Huntington Beach.  The doctors told her that she might lose her leg.  That is all of the information I have at the moment.  Needless to say I am horrified.  I have not seen her in many years and she was going to drive up to visit me recently.  Circumstances hindered her visit.  Especially in violent moments I so often find myself thinking about how different circumstances might have turned out if anything slightly different had happened.  If I had decided that my tie clashed with my outfit and gone back to change it maybe I wouldn't have been hit by the car because that car would be two miles further down the road at the point whe eventually cycle through that intersection.

The other day I posted a video of me reading the story of the death of Laocoön.  I mentioned that I've had a mini-obsession with that story.  I was telling Laurie the other day:
"It is entirely possible that no such person ever really existed, but let's pretend for a moment that Laocoön was a real person.  He did not wake up that morning thinking, 'Today the Greeks are going to roll a giant horse into our city and I'm going to die from hideous god-snakes.'  He woke up that morning just like the rest of us, getting out of bed, performing his ablutions, expecting another day of life on Earth no different from any other."
When I was leaving my parent's home this past July, I took a picture of Boingo right before we got into the car.  This is the picture I took:

It reminds me a little bit of the last photograph taken with my best friend Rob who passed away over 2 years ago.
He came to visit my house and this was right before he got into his car to drive back to the airport and fly back to New York.  We were goofing around, both unaware that it would be the last time that we saw one another.

I think if I could distill one piece of advice for people in Earth based on my experiences in this world so far, it would be to try to treat one another as if this might be the last time you ever get to see that person.  Sometimes it turns out to be true and, when it does, it is rarely when you are expecting it.


Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Aeneid by Virgil: Part 1 (including Dryden's Dedication)

In his dedication, John Dryden makes the basic High, Middle, Low Brow argument in poetry.  There are poets for the belching groundling, poets from those who have had a taste of quality, and poets who reflect the highest aspirations of humankind.  That latter group, it should surprise no one, is the group in which he places the work he has just spent a great deal of time, money, and energy in translating.  So far in my reading I see no reason to contradict the poet. 

Dryden, in fact, struck me as being a bit charmingly giddy in his Dedication to the Most Honorable John, Lord Marquis of Normanby Earl of Mulgrave, &C and Knight of the Most Noble Order of the Garter (portraited above).  My one critique came from just having read Frank O. Copley's introduction to his own translation in which Copley transgresses far more egregiously in comparing great works of literature to other great works of literature.  This seems to be a strong temptation.  Dryden does it, Copley does it, even Harold Bloom did it in the Don Quixote introduction.  I am sure I've done it and, much like training one's self to stop cussing, while I may slip and do it again, I shall endeavor to be more mindful in the future.

That having been said, the influence of this work upon Shakespeare's Hamlet is undeniable.  Hamlet requests the speech of Aeneas' tale to Dido about Priam's murder.  The arrival of the ghost of his father is almost interchangeable in the two pieces.  I could go on, but a resolution broken is not to be reveled in.

Dryden does offer some fine insight into the work we're about to read.  He suggests that Aeneas might be a stand-in for Caesar Augustus.  He also points out a time of different, pre-Christian morality.  Although I found this was a point where my own reaction was different, I was pleased that he illuminated this point before reading the work.  My main difference came in the story of Dido and Aeneas.  Dryden says that Aeneas retaining the status of hero after shucking Dido reflects this primitive morality.  While my spiritual perspective would like to agree with him on that point, I felt that Virgil does not elevate Aeneas in that action.  It is entirely possible that my mind is far too poisoned by the modern to grasp this sort of heroism, but when Aeneas is out at sea looking back at the shore and saying "I say!  I wonder what that large bonfire is all about!  Oh well, let's go play sports for a chapter or so!"  I felt he came off perfectly beastly.

We will return to Dryden later.  Soon we will reach what seems to be a volume of influential English plays which includes All For Love

I am likely predictable in one of my favorite passages thus far: the story of the death of Laocoön and his sons.  Returning readers will remember my mini-obsession with the story as it appears in art.  Virgil's telling of the story was sublime.  Here, I shall read it to you:

I feel as if I have adequately masticated the scenery.

There is something about the story of the gods sending death to someone, and to innocents even, with no warning and nothing they can do to stop it that speaks to the human condition to me.  At some point in life, we are all Laocoön.

There is a point that I made to Laurie the other day sparked from this reading which I will just throw out there for general analysis:  In the times of the giants upon whose shoulders we stand, some of the people whose thought carried the most weight frequently turned their attention to the subjects of prophecy and the afterlife.  Granted, so have a gross legion of utter fools.  Today those are not generally topics covered by the sort of people you would like to take seriously.  I wonder if that speaks to a quality of our times or a quality of our people. 

I would also call attention to the manly character of Aeneas which includes a great deal of weeping.  Every time he weeps, I feel something I have felt for some time, which is to say the increasing absurdity of treating gender traits as concrete.  

I am currently midway through the journey of this book in which our hero pays a social call to the Land of the Dead (as if I'm not going to spend enough time in the Land of the Dead.  For some reason I feel like I have to spend a vast portion of this life thinking about it).  I expect to finish the piece fairly quickly (although I hesitate to predict in these matters).  I must say that while I expect to return and read the Dryden someday, I have not regretted for one instant choosing to read the actual text in the Fagles translation.

More soon.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

On Getting To Read The Aeneid

I can't remember ever having this difficult of a time starting to read a book.  And it's not, as you may imagine, because Don Quixote was so good (it was.  Did I mention that it was?  Because it was.)

Some of you may know that I used to operate an online used book business, in fact it was my primary source of income for several years back in the '00s when you could do things like that, back before the companies that hosted online used booksellers caught on that they could bleed their sellers dry with fees and long before eBooks were practical.  When I closed up shop, we culled all of the titles that we thought we might like to own.  The Aeneid was one such title, so I owned a copy that happens to be the one that I had for sale at one time.  It's the copy on top of the stack in the photograph.

They have the entire Harvard Classics Library at my local lending library, but I prefer to own copies of the books I am reading, because I like to destroy them with underlining, margin notes, and dog-ears.  So, on Saturday, I began to read the Frank O. Copley translation in the yellow book in the picture and found it... entirely unreadable.  Have you ever had the experience where you are reading something and you realize "Oh, wait a minute.  I did not comprehend a single thing that I just read.  Better go back and try that again" and you go back and have the exact same thought just slightly after where you read the previous go?  Okay, now have you ever had that in the first two pages of a book?!!?  This is new to me.  And I was really trying. 

I would have despaired at this point were it not for the knowledge that Robert Fagles has a translation of the book in print.  It was Saturday and I didn't have to work, so I walked downtown, a half an hour each way in the early September heat, to our two used bookstores, finding that:
1) neither used bookstore had a copy in stock and
2) my town has turned into something like The City of Destruction, but with the hospitality of Sodom.

So, I went to the lending library and found the Fagles immediately.  In doing so, I passed the Harvard Classics and thought "Hey, let's see which translation they have in the actual assigned text." 

It was the Dryden, which some part of my brain knew was the preferred academic text (at least in Dr. Eliot's time.)  But, more to the point, it came to my attention that there was a Dedication to his patron by John Dryden upon the publication of the translation in 1697.  The Dedication was almost as long as the poem itself and I realized that Dr. Eliot wanted me to read that Dedication. 

There in the library, I sighed and made my decision.  I would check out both of the volumes that were in my hands.  I would read Mr. Dryden's Dedication like a good boy, then begin to read Mr. Dryden's translation.  If I didn't like it, I would then switch over to the Fagles for the actual text, returning to the Harvard Classics for the afterword. 

So, I am enjoying the Fagles tremendously.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

So work the honey-bees

Over Labor Day weekend, we were invited by our friends Troy and Molly to help harvest honey from their beehives.  Actually, to be more accurate, Troy removed the honeycombs and we aided in the process of getting the honey out of the combs and into bottles.
Here's Troy with his bee mask and a device which contains a flammable material (similar to styrofoam) which, when lit, produces an abundance of smoke.  There is a bellows on the side of the device to expel the smoke into the beehive.  This pacifies the bees during the harvesting process, ideally minimizing defensive behavior.
As you can see, I kept my distance anyway.
Here is what one honeycomb looked like.  A few of them were much fuller than this one.
In the foreground, in the cart, you can see the honeycombs.  The silver device is a honey-extractor in which the honeycombs are placed and centrifugal forces extract the honey.
But first the honeycomb must be scraped.  The scraper is similar to a comb, but with sharp edges.  One runs it down the honeycomb to break the wax seal, allowing the honey to flow freely.
Like so.
And this is how it looks inside.
Of course, as you well know, honey flows better when warm, so sometimes a little encouragement is called for.
We are almost ready to pour!
A filter is placed on top of the bucket.  A good deal of wax and other bee stuff needs to be filtered out, but we are close to honey... We just have to sit and watch it slowly pass through the filter.
This part takes a while.
Soon we will star jarring.
Success!  The harvest was a couple dozen of these and Laurie and I were able to take some home!  It was a wonderful and fascinating day, one which I shall remember for the rest of my life. 

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Don Quixote Part 2: Conclusion

"Don Quixote begins as a province, turns into Spain, and ends as a universe." -V.S. Pritchett
The sensation is a bit like being drunk, a bit like mourning, and a dash of divine revelation all at the same time.  A few times in one's life, one finishes a book with the realization that they have just finished one of the greatest books that they shall have the pleasure of reading in their lifetime.  While one might read that book again, one will never read it again for the first time. 

I had that last night as I finished Don Quixote and, in spite of the fact that the series I am working through comprises, by all accounts, some of the greatest books ever written, it has been a long time since I've felt this, for lack of a better term, close to the holy as I finished a book.  The last time I can remember is Djuna Barnes' Nightwood.  I sort of stare off blankly for the rest of the evening, as if my brain says, "Well, there you go!  You're not getting anything else out of me today."

In this book is the wealth and sorrows of the human experience.  All of the anguish and pathos of being an individual in this world is not only contained in this book, but readily experienced in the process of reading it.  The horrors are tempered, as they are in real life, by beauty, companionship, virtue, and the lighter side of the absurdity of existence.  It is beautiful in every way, one of the most beautiful books I've ever read.  It is also, another rarity, one of the few books which found me laughing out loud in public while reading.

Another major theme, I think, would be how people ruin things for one another.  There is the obvious one, masterfully woven into the plot by Cervantes, of the second rate knock-off non-canon sequel written by someone else after Cervantes original Part 1 and before (catalyzing even) Part 2.  There is a long section of a particularly sadistic wealthy couple who essentially torture Don Quixote and Sancho Panza for their own amusement.  That section contained one of my favorite passages of literature.  They send poor Sancho off to be a governor for their own mocking and scoffing.  He turns out to be as wise as Solomon.  It is the apotheosis of the triumph of the common man. 

Indeed, if you don't fall in love with the two main characters, check your pulse.  Cervantes makes an open and shut case as to the near blasphemy of the "false Quixote" book simply by introducing us to the wonderful two main characters.  I say that anyone who would dare besmirch the character of Sancho Panza deserves all of the treatment that Quixote would threaten to one who would impugn the beauty of Dulcinea.  There is a part of me that is happy to see that, with a little digging, the "false Quixote" is still available in print as it is an important historical document, an important footnote to this piece.  There is another part of me that is also happy to see that it seems like no one ever reads it.

I am going to a take a moment to say that the same diabolical duke and duchess who send Sancho to govern the insula are also the ones who introduce the talking head to the story.  About 100 pages before the end of Part 2, there is a bust in a room which, when asked a question, will speak and answer the questions.  The motif of prophecy is strong in Part 2.  We saw the prophesying monkey last time and this latter section also features a parade of enchanters, including Merlin, who prophesy as well.  It would seem that Cervantes has a skeptical view of prophecy, however possibly a poetic one as well.  The prophets are charlatans, but the prophecies come true!  Or rather, the lead characters do things because of the prophecies.  They sort of willingly become the foot-soldiers of fate.  I suspect there may be a cautionary lesson in there.

Laurie asked me how the book compares to Man of La Mancha (which we do need to address when talking about this piece now just as much as we need to make mention of the "false Quixote."  I felt that Wasserman's Quixote is more valid than Avellaneda's, possibly because the subject matter is handled with such respect, nearly with kid gloves, in the musical.)  We both loved that play and still do.  I think that an entirely valid, separate work of art can be created out of inspiration from a first work of art.  Laurie asked if Dulcinea is a character in the book.  I said, "Well, kind of, but not in the specific, tangible way that she is in the musical.  She is more of a presence or force than an actual character."  She asked about parts of the play that come from the book.  There is also the barber's pan.  And the ending.  Sort of.  The ending presents a few problems.

It is not necessarily a spoiler to reveal that Don Quixote dies, as Cervantes tells you that he is going to die in the introduction.  I think, for me, what was most remarkable was the staggering elevation Cervantes achieves.  Quixote is a bit of a saint/Christ figure throughout, but in his ending he dies to, essentially, save us from more bad knock-off versions.  Although that makes it sound so trite.  Rather I might say that he dies on the altar of greatness. 

One of the only times I've appeared in the local paper was when I was asked one of those "People on the street" questions outside of our post office.  I was asked what, given my druthers, I would prefer to have written on my tombstone (assuming no one goes through with my wishes of donating my body to the crime school that leaves donated bodies out in a presumably secured wild area to observe the effects of long term exposure on corpses for the educational amelioration of future criminologists).  I stammered out some nonsense on the spot, but I think in actuality I should like to borrow an abridgment of Quixote's own:
"It was his great good fortune to live a madman, and die sane."
Reader, you need to read this book.  You need to get a copy of the Edith Grossman translation of Don Quixote and read it while the sun still shines on you.  For your own sake.  You will be a better person for it.