Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Poetry - 3

The third poem is instantly recognizable.  It's Psalm 23, the King James version. 

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul; he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yeah, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me in all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever. 
When reading and studying, I greatly prefer using a more modern translation but man, that poetry is something very beautiful.  The Elizabethan poets were simply wonderful.  I think that the 'valley of the shadow of death' is probably the most famous but my favorite bit is the green pastures. 
I read a theory recently that the decline of the King James version of the Bible was having a cascade effect on appreciation of Shakespeare.  The idea was that people used to have more exposure to that style of language and modernized versions put the Bard on an island by himself.  I don't have any idea if that's true or not.  I do wonder if modern translations reduce the awe of religion.  I wonder if the the Bible loses out by not having something of a special (though decipherable) language. 

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Why Rabelais?

(Good grief, I screwed up the formatting on this.  Or had conflicting edits or something because now that I look at it, there are parts missing from what I wrote.  I've updated it and hopefully now it makes more sense.  Sorry!)

Why are we reading Rabelais anyway?  He's educated, true, but he's also one of the coarser and filthy writers that you'll find.  At least, let me say, I'd be shocked if anything else in the Great Books series compares. 
So.  Should it be included in the Great Books?  As a fellow blogger asked:

I just don't get why this made the Great Books... especially when books like Ovid's Metamorphoses and Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur are noticeably absent.
Rabelais started publishing in 1532 and quickly came under fire from the church and the universities.  His work would have been banned if the King himself hadn't stepped in.  Eco writes of a man a full century later who is still upset that he is being persecuted for his reading tastes.  And persecuted by men who are full of sin.Well . . . let me take a swing at this.  I'm going to lean a bit on two different books by Umberto Eco, one of my favorite authors.  If you're not familiar with Eco, he's an Italian author who studied medieval philosophy and literature and used that knowledge to create some wonderful historical fiction.  I was reading from his 'Island of the Day Before' and there is a description of a fighter in the 30 years war.  The figher is complaining about the state of the world and says:
Now Jesuits lascivious as rams fulminate against the readers of Rabelais and the latin poets, and would have us all be virtuous and kill the Huguenots.

The state church of the 16th century had too much power.  Any organization that can ban books probably has too much power.  That's doubly true if they can also grab the ear of the state and spark religious wars.  In short, they had too much authority and needed someone to stand up to them. 
That's the role that Rabelais played.  He said that man should laugh and he provided targets for them to laugh at.  He also deflated the authority of some groups that dearly needed to be taken down a notch.  (I'd also argue that it does the church no good to become that powerful in worldly affairs.  The higher levels of the church were notoriously corrupt.  Several medieval popes were contemptible creatures.  It's hard to imagine that today.)
But Rabelais is sooo crass!  Yes, he is and if he wasn't, he might not have been nearly as effective.  His writings wouldn't have been as popular if they'd been more subtle.  If he had only offended a little, he would have been quickly forgotten. 
The other book by Eco is one of my all time favorites, 'The Name of the Rose' and if you haven't read it before, well, I can't recommend it highly enough.  The book is set in an abbey in the late 12th century and it involves a murder mystery.  During the book there are a few discussions on the value (if any) of laughter and the ridiculous.  Eco's protagonist argues that humor, especially that of the crass and absurd, is important because there is no better weapon against the too powerful.  Authority can stand power and challenge but it has trouble with laughter. 
Did Rabelais have some effect on the move towards the Enlightenment?  I'd have to read more but I wouldn't be surprised if he did.  There was a long period of time when much scientific effort was spent solely on Biblical study.  Not that such a study is wasted, no, but if it keeps the brightest from studying other areas as well, that's a problem.  If Rabelais convinced some of the geniuses of his age to branch out, then he did the world a huge favor. 

If I get more time, I'll look online and see if I've suggested too much about Rabelais' influence.  Other opinions are certainly welcome and if I'm wrong I look forward to correction in the comments.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Year One

Since we're at the half way point of the year, I thought I'd repost the remaining six months in case anyone wants to read ahead.

Montaigne: 'Essays' (Of Custom; Of Pedantry; Of the Education of Children; That it is Folly to Measure Truth and Error by Our Own Capacity; Of Cannibals; That the Relish of Good and Evil Depends in a Great Measure upon the Opinion We Have of Them; Upon some Verses of Virgil) Kindle/Nook/Google


Shakespeare: 'Hamlet' Kindle/Nook/Google


Locke: 'Concerning Civil Gov't', second essay Kindle/Nook/Google
Rousseau: The Social Contract books 1 and 2 Kindle/Nook/Google


Gibbon: 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire', chapters 15 and 16 Kindle/Nook/Google


Declaration of Independence Kindle/Nook/Google
Constitution of the United States Kindle/Nook/Google
The Federalist Nos 1-10, 15, 31, 47, 51, 68-71 Kindle/Nook/Google


Smith: 'The Wealth of Nations' Introduction - Book 1, Chapter 9 Kindle/Nook/Google
Marx-Engles: 'Manifest of the Communist Party' Kindle/Nook/Google

Should be some good stuff!   

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

July Reading

Montaigne: 'Essays' (Of Custom; Of Pedantry; Of the Education of Children; That it is Folly to Measure Truth and Error by Our Own Capacity; Of Cannibals; That the Relish of Good and Evil Depends in a Great Measure upon the Opinion We Have of Them; Upon some Verses of Virgil) Kindle/Nook/Google

Monday, June 18, 2012

Poetry - 2

The second poem in the book is from Sappho, one of the very few women whose writings have survived from ancient Greece.  I don't know if this is a full poem or a fragment but here it is:
He is a god in my eyes-
the man who is allowed
to sit beside you - he

who listens intimately
to the sweet murmur of
your voice, the enticing

laughter that makes my own
heart beat fast. If I meet
you suddenly, I can't

speak - my tongue is broken;
a thin flame runs under
my skin; seeing nothing,

hearing only my own ears
drumming, I drip with sweat;
trembling shakes my body

and I turn paler than
dry grass. At such times
death isn't far from me.
This is obviously a vision of a very passionate love.  Perhaps something early in an infatuation.  I definitely remember feeling like this at times in my teens.  If you read this in a more modern setting it would fit without any problem.  Well, the first paragraph would stand out since we almost never refer to someone as 'a god' anymore. 
In fact, that first paragraph is very interesting.  'The man that sits beside you'.  Who is the poem written about?  The companion of a friend?  After the completion of the first full sentence the peom changes its target from 'he' to 'you'.  Is the man some kind of god only because he is allowed to sit so near the beloved one? 
Anyway, I like it. 

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Pantagruel - Rabelais

This was the novel that Rabelais first published, even though it read second in my set.  Rabelais opens by walking through the genealogy of Pantagruel, very much patterned after the begat sections of the Bible.  He even explains how these giants made it through the flood.  The ancestral giant simply rode on top of the ark, like a toy horse.  I doubt that the church was very happy with this.
The book moves along in a like manner.  Pantagruel develops a reputation by successfully trying a very difficult case in court.  It was difficult because both parties were so full of nonsense that no one else could even understand what they were arguing over.  After listening to the two buffoons, Pantagruel matched their buffoonery and both were pleased with the verdict.  I doubt that the courts were very happy with this.
But the really crazy stuff happens once we are introduced to Panturge.  He speaks to Pantagruel and his companions in about ten different languages until the admits to speaking French.  They quickly become the best of friends.  And man, Panturge is amazingly wicked.
The book relates a long argument of Guesstures where Panturge is declared the winner.  After this he becomes famous in Paris and, um, wears out his codpieces.  There is only one woman who resists his advances, a very religious married woman.  Panturge tries various methods to seduce her but each one fails.  Finally he devises a way to attract every dog in Paris to her and they all try to mate with her.  I doubt that polite society was very happy with this. 
And that's without relating the story of the lion and the ax wound which is almost too over the top to be believed!

Rabelais published this and there was immediate clamor from all of the respectable establishments (church, school, etc.) to have it banned.  The King of France himself intervened and we still have it today. 
I didn't enjoy this as much as 'Gargantua'.  The biggest reason is that I was somewhat horrified by Panturge.  Maybe in one of the later books he has some kind of comeuppance or change of character but here is astoundingly wicked.  Wicked and well liked.  That seems to cross the line between laughing at authority and laughing at cruelty.  Which meant that the smile I read sometimes became pursed lips. 
At the end of the introduction to 'Gargantua', Rabelais says:
Good friends, my Readers, who peruse this Book, Be not offended, whilst on it you look: Denude yourselves of all depraved affection, For it contains no badness, nor infection: 'Tis true that it brings for to you no birth Of any value, but in point of mirth; Thinking therefore how sorrow might your mind Consume, I could no apter subject find; One inch of joy surmounts of grief a span; Because to laugh is proper to the man.  
(Italics mine.)  I thought that 'Gargantua' hit the target well, 'Pantagruel' not quite as much.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Curse of Smarts

Interesting New Yorker post about a vulnerability that smart people share. It seems that people who score well on intelligence tests are more prone to missing trick questions. Studies show that it is harder for smart people to overcome various biases, even if they are aware of those biases.
The scientists gave the students four measures of “cognitive sophistication.” As they report in the paper, all four of the measures showed positive correlations, “indicating that more cognitively sophisticated participants showed larger bias blind spots.” This trend held for many of the specific biases, indicating that smarter people (at least as measured by S.A.T. scores) and those more likely to engage in deliberation were slightly more vulnerable to common mental mistakes.
Why does this happen?
One provocative hypothesis is that the bias blind spot arises because of a mismatch between how we evaluate others and how we evaluate ourselves. When considering the irrational choices of a stranger, for instance, we are forced to rely on behavioral information; we see their biases from the outside, which allows us to glimpse their systematic thinking errors. However, when assessing our own bad choices, we tend to engage in elaborate introspection. We scrutinize our motivations and search for relevant reasons; we lament our mistakes to therapists and ruminate on the beliefs that led us astray.The problem with this introspective approach is that the driving forces behind biases—the root causes of our irrationality—are largely unconscious, which means they remain invisible to self-analysis and impermeable to intelligence. In fact, introspection can actually compound the error, blinding us to those primal processes responsible for many of our everyday failings. We spin eloquent stories, but these stories miss the point. The more we attempt to know ourselves, the less we actually understand.
Eh, I don't know. My guess (and this comes from someone that considers themselves to be smart) is that there is a certain amount of pride that gets in the way. When I come across a math problem I'm often quick to go for the solution, even if it means that I skip or ignore various steps. I want to show off how smarty pants I am and get there first. I doubt I'm alone in this. Now philosophical and ethical questions are a bit different. They are still prone to bias errors but they depend more on value judgments. The article doesn't go into this, but there is at least one good way to get past those biases: work with a group. The more perspectives you bring, the more likely you are to see different angles. (That's one of the reasons I'm glad that I've found other people to talk with about the Great Books!) The moral? Be careful out there, I guess. Look for articles that you disagree with. Find smart people who will oppose you. And be humble and willing to admit error.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Gargantua - Rabelais

This first book of Rabelais, well actually wasn't written first.  He wrote about Garagantua's son Pantagruel first and them came back and filled in some back story.  I hadn't known that until I was about half way through 'Pantagruel' and it is interesting to compare styles back and forth.  While 'Gargantua' is certainly shocking in parts, it is less so than 'Pantagruel'. 
Gargantua is a giant and this is the story of his birth, upbringing and days as a student.  Right away we get a feel for Rabelais' style as he explains in anatomical detail how Gargantua was born to his mother in an usual way.  He came out of her ear.  Rabelais tells us that he sees nothing in the Bible that would prevent such a thing from happening.  He goes on to tell us what kind of things Gargantua would do during a normal day.  There is a Renaissance writing rule that says if you're going to list three things you should probably list fifty.  We get that in full scope.
Two early bits stood out for there shock value.  The first is a list of the euphemisms that Gargantua's maids have for his penis.  The list goes on for paragraph after paragraph.  The second takes place when Gargantua greets his father and tells him that he has been searching for the very best way to wipe his bum.  His efforts were exhaustive and included all kinds of cloths and fine things and then on to various animals.  I won't spoil the ending but I will say that I've never felt 1/100 so adventurous on the toilet.
We read about growing up in France in the early 1500s and we hear about Gargantua's exhausting daily routine of study and exercise.  From what I can tell there is quite a bit of historical value here as a glimpse into life at that time.  I won't dispute that.
Then we read about a dispute over cakes that somehow escalates into a full scale war on Gargantua's home province.  He comes back from school and does mighty things.  I wouldn't be surprised if this wasn't the first time many people had read an account of a foolish war.  In fact, that is one of the wonders of the reading.  I kept asking myself how in the world this got published back in the day that it did.  If it's shocking today (and some of it is) then how must this have been in a time where life was sometimes very cheaply held.
Did I enjoy it?  Yeah, I really did.  Rabelais has a very earthy humor and it's easy to see the smile on his face as he was writing.  Would I give it to teenagers to read?  As I said the other day, I don't know if I would want them to read it but at the same time, I'm absolutely certain they would enjoy it.  

Friday, June 8, 2012


One of my literary weak points is poetry.  I have enjoyed some poems here and there and I definitely enjoy a poetic turn of phrase, but I've long felt that there was something go on with poetry that I just wasn't getting.  That's especially true with longer, epic poems.  (Of all the difficult works in the Great Books list, the one that most intimidates me is Virgil in year five!)
Last weekend I went to a garage sale and picked up a book called 'The 100 Best Poems of All Time'.  I don't know if it will live up to its grand title and, to be honest, I don't know if it is supposed to do so.  But it seems like a good way to stretch my mind a bit.  To that end I'm going to blog my way through each of those hundred poems, about one a week (though probably not every week).  It will also fill up some of the dead days that otherwise seem to fill up over here. 
Got that?  Ok then, here is the first.  It is a small section of 'the Illiad' by Homer translated into English sometime around beginning of the 17th century.  I'll reproduce the whole thing here:

Achilles' baneful wrath resound, O Goddesse, that imposd
Infinite sorrowes on the Greekes, and many brave soules losd
From breasts Heroique - sent them farre, to that invisible cave
That no light comforts; and their lims to dogs and vultures gave.
To all which Jove's will gave effect; from whom first strife begunne
Betwixt Atrides, king of men and Thetis' godlike Sonne.
Hmmm.  This doesn't do much for me.  I've read some of the Illiad, though it has been some time.  This passeage doesn't seem to stand out much from the rest.  I'll grant its importance but I don't know how much poetic worth it has. 
Ok, I do like the bit about the 'invisible cave/That no light comforts'.  What a wonderful description of the grave.  The last two lines though, leave me cold. 
Maybe the next poem will be more to my liking.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Biography of Rabelais

Francois Rabelais was born some time in the late 1400s.  Some think as early as 1483 and some as late as 1494.  In his early life he was a novice in the Franciscan order but he eventually found it too restrictive and left.  He studied at a couple of universities and ended up studying in Lyons.  He also practiced medicine and you can really tell that from his writings.
In 1532 he published 'Pantagruel' and later the prequel 'Gargantua'.  Both were popular with the people but condemned by the Sorbonne and the Catholic church.  However he received approval from the King himself and was allowed to keep publishing.  He spent quite a bit of time outside of France, probably in hiding from those who had branded him a heretic. 
He died in Paris in 1553 and had at least two different sets of last words attributed to him.  He apparently wrote 'I have nothing, I owe a great deal, and the rest I leave to the poor' and said 'I go to seek a Great Perhaps'. 

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Author Timeline

Aristophanes 446 - 386
Plato 424? - 348?
Aristotle 384 - 322

Plutarch 46 - 120
Gospel of Matthew, Acts of the Apostles (around the end of the first century)
St. Augistine 354 - 430
Machiavelli 1469 - 1527
Rabelais 1494 - 1553
Montaigne 1533 - 1592
Shakespeare 1564 - 1616
Locke 1632 - 1704
Rousseau 1712 - 1778
Gibbon 1737 - 1794
Declaration of Independence - 1776
The Constitution of the US - 1787
Federalist Papers 1787 -1788
Smith 1723 - 1790
Marx/Engles 1818 - 1883/1820 - 1895

I should mention that 1494 is a best guess for Rabelais.  Some have him born as early as 1483.

Friday, June 1, 2012

June Reading - Rabelais


Rabelais: 'Gargantua and Pantagruel' books 1 and 2 Kindle/Nook/Google

Virtually all I know of Rabelais is his inclusion in a song from 'The Music Man'.  You may remember that Marian, Madame Librarian is trying to broaden the minds of some small town Iowan teenagers by introducing them to some classic authors.  The town mothers resist, listing Chaucer, Rabelais and Balzac as the worst offenders.  (On a side note, this is my daughters favorite song to sing in the car.)  One of the things I'll look out for this month is whether or not Rabelais is appropriate for a librarian to give to teenagers. 

Update: I forgot to mention that books 3 and 4 pop up in year seven.  If you want to read the whole thing and make some notes, please feel free to do so.