Monday, August 25, 2014

More Paradise - Milton

(Sorry for the very brief posts of the last couple of weeks.  The end of the summer has been abnormally busy and my mental energies have been sorely taxed.  The kids are all back in school so things should return to normal.)

I'd like to point readers to a far better review of 'Paradise Lost' than my own effort from last week.  You can read Cleo's full review here.  It sounds like I'm not alone in finding Satan to be a sympathetic character.  I'm just following in some 300 years of footsteps.  Well, it's nice to have company.  Cleo also points out 'A Preface to Paradise Lost' by C.S. Lewis (Amazon link), which sounds like a wonderful companion piece.  It's on my wish list now and I'll let you know if/when I get a chance to read it.


I'd also like to point out some artwork that was inspired by 'Paradise Lost'.  This is the from Gustave Dore and it's simply wonderful.
You can find more here.  Simply wonderful.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Countee Cullen - Poetry

Another new poet for me, Countee Cullen.  I didn't know the poem either, 'Incident' is the name.

Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.

Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, "Nigger."

I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That's all that I remember.

This is another powerful poem from the Harlem Renaissance.  I can't help but feel a stab in the heart for that poor eight year old.  The idea of looking at another person and fixing a label on them is, of course, abhorrent.  I hope that someday we'll be past it.
Let me set aside the racism, though.  It's amazing how pieces of trauma focus our memories.  When I think back on my (relatively uneventful) childhood, the stories that quickly pop out in my head are those of either great pain (like a finger stuck in a door) or great humiliation.  The triumphs and good events are still there, but the memories are more muted and general.  The awful ones are sharper.  The still stick out.
I wonder why that is?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Readings for September

Two of them.

Locke: An Essay on Human Understanding (Book III, Ch 1-3, 9-11) link
Kant: Science of Right link

Some nice chewy reading.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Paradise Lost - Milton

'Paradise Lost' is Milton's epic poem regarding the Garden of Eden and man's fall from grace.  The poem also covers Satan in Tartarus (Hell) and accounts of the war he lost in heaven.  It truly is epic in all senses of the word.
I spoke with my Dad, who has taught 'Paradise Lost' on several occasions and he told me that it in its time, it was second only to the Bible in terms of popularity.  This isn't surprising.  Almost all of our modern conceptions of hell are drawn from Milton's imagery.  With Milton we get burning lakes.  With Dante, a few centuries earlier, hell was a series of frozen rings.  Now we think of Hell as a place of burning torments.
The most surprising element of the poem was how sympathetic it made Satan out to be.  I'm somewhat certain that wasn't the aim of Milton, but I'll be damned if that isn't the result.  Satan famously says that it is 'Better to reign in Hell, then to serve in Heav'n'.  I can't help but wonder if that didn't reflect some of the distrust in the Monarchy that was evident throughout England in the 17th century.  The idea of being subservient to someone else was being seriously questioned.  (This is probably just me projecting backwards, but it struck me.)
The interplay between Adam and Eve was also very interesting.  It deserves its own blog post, but I'll just mention that Milton mixes in a justification for eating the fruit that seems very close to the traditional wedding vows.  I don't know if Milton inspired the vows, or simply copied them.

Did I enjoy the poem?  Parts of it.  There were some long sections of descriptions of scenery or flora that I skimmed through.  There were sections on things like 'free will' that I'm sure were very important at the time but don't seem so very important now.  The arguments of the 1600s between Catholics and Protestants are interesting from an historical perspective but not very captivating on their own merits.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Langston Hughes - Poetry

I know of the name Langston Hughes though I can't say that I'm familiar with his work.  The blurb in the book says that he was 'One of the leading writers of the Harlem Renaissance...'.  This piece, appropriately enough, is titled 'Harlem'.

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore-
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

An effective poem and we've found out the answer to that last line at different times.  I was totally ignorant of the Harlem Renaissance until I read 'Invisible Man' by Ralph Ellison some years back as part of a different reading list.  The book blew me away.  Growing up in a small town in the midwest in the 80's, I had very little connection to the kind of racism that was commonplace before I was born.  (And no, I'm not claiming that it all disappeared, but conditions today are wildly different than they were then.)  It's amazing just how appalling conditions were in the big cities of the Northeast.  I'm curious if the play 'Raisin in the Sun' was named from this poem and the internet suggest that it indeed was.
A very powerful poem.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Accidental Death of an Anarchist - Fo (96)

(Finally, right?  It took a while to track this down, but, oh, what a joy it was to read!)

The prologue to the play helpfully tells us about a bit of Italian history from 1969.  A bomb exploded at an Agricultural Bank in Milan, killing sixteen people.  The police questioned an anarchist and after some time he went out of a fourth story window.  The official story is that he jumped.  This story takes place not long after.
It opens on a man simply called The Fool, who is being questioned by an inspector.  The Fool a) has a long habit of impersonating people and b) has spent time in several mental institutions.  He is incredibly fast talking and before long the inspector chases him out.  The Fool sneaks back in and takes a phone call in which he learns that a judge is coming to speak to the officers about the death of the anarchist.  He seizes this chance to make mischief and decides to impersonate the judge.
The Fool then speaks to the Chief of police and some officers.  He convinces them that he will try and improve their rather thin story but he has to learn the true facts.  Bit by bit we learn what really happened.  After some time a young lady journalist comes in.  The Fool adopts a different disguise and continues to injure the situation for the police.  So on and so on until the explosive ending.

I loved this play.  It was like a cross between a dirty cop show and a Marx Brothers movie.  In fact, the Fool must have some Groucho, Chico and Harpo in his DNA.  This role would be an absolute joy to play.
The politics of the play ground it very much in the Italy of its time.  It involves police corruption and an attempt to scapegoat leftists, anarchists and communists for violent acts.  I know next to nothing about the history of that period but the play isn't shy with its accusations.
The script I was reading was translated in the 80's and had been updated for an American audience.  This meant sneers about the 'actor in the White House' that really felt tacked on to the story.  This is something of a quibble.  I hope that if the play is reproduced in some kind of classic story that they won't try to keep 'updating' it.  As I said, that's a quibble.  I really did love it.

Next up, we get back on schedule with #92, 'The Rover' by Aphra Behn.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Robin Williams RIP

As you may have heard, the comedian Robin Williams was found dead earlier today of an apparent suicide.  Though I haven't seen any of his new movies in a decade or so, the news hit me like a gut punch.  I'm not a big celebrity chaser and there aren't many movie stars that I have any real emotional involvement with.  When Philip Seymour Hoffman died a few months ago, I thought it was sad, but it didn't touch me.  This one did though.
Why am I posting about this on a blog (ostensibly) dedicated to read the Great Books?  Two reasons.  The first one is this:
That's the 'Carpe Diem' scene from 'Dead Poet's Society', of course.  One of the main themes of the reading that we've been doing so far is how we deal with death.  Our days are few and we need to make the most of them.  We should make our lives 'extraordinary'. 
I'll never be able to read 'To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time' without hearing this scene.  I'm certain that I'm not the only one for whom this is true. 

Second reason?  There are truths that we only allow jesters and comedians to tell us.  I think that's why the second half of Robin Williams career was so touching.  The first half was filled with zany, frenetic energy.  Starting with 'Dead Poet Society', Williams moved on to some serious fare.  He followed that with 'Awakenings', which didn't have a single comedic note. 
My favorite of his more serious work was 'The Fisher King', where Williams played a homeless man whose life was shattered by a shooting.  There are certainly funny moments but the dominant emotion is deep sympathy.  It seems that this was something of an echo of the depression that he faced in his real life.  That laughter had a price.