Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Gulliver in Laputa

Gulliver's third voyage out has him shipwrecked again.  This time he washes up on an uninhabited island.  He is alone, but not for long.  Soon another island glides down from the sky.  He catches their attention and is brought aboard.  He learns that the flying island is named Laputa.
Gulliver soon finds that "the people of their island had their ears adapted to hear"the music of the spheres, which always played at certain periods...".  They live a mental life, with their heads both literally and figuratively in the clouds.  In fact, they get so lost in thought that they employ a system of servants to flap their mouths and ears when it is time to speak or listen. 
Laputa is the capitol of a group of islands.  Swift has an interesting explanation for how the island floats, an embedded giant magnet like rock.  Whoever rules the island, rules their neighbors, since the airborne position is an enormous threat.  Interestingly, the women of Laputa are desperate to get down to the ground.
Gulliver gets down to solid ground as he is allowed to visit the island Balinbarbi.  This is a land that has prosperity and strange mixes of desolation.  He soon finds out that forty years prior, a group of men went up to Laputa.  After five months they returned with ideas on improving everything.  Unfortunately:
The only inconvenience is, that none of these projects are yet brought to perfection; and in the mean time, the whole country lies miserably waste, the houses in ruins, and the people without food or clothes. By all which, instead of being discouraged, they are fifty times more violently bent upon prosecuting their schemes, driven equally on by hope and despair; . . . 
Some resisted:
that some few other persons of quality and gentry had done the same [stuck with the old ways], but were looked on with an eye of contempt and ill-will, as enemies to art, ignorant and ill common-wealth's men, preferring their own ease and sloth before the general improvement of their country."
What a perfect description of the people who think they can simply theorize better ways without practical experience.  Also a great description of the way they think of those who are skeptical.  Gulliver then travels to the academy where he finds out all of the wonderful research that is going.  I highly recommend this section (book three, chapters five and six) as it is simply hilarious. 
After some time, Gulliver goes to another island, Luggnagg.  The interesting thing there is the occasional birth of an immortal, named a Struldbrug.  Gulliver thinks this would be a wonder, but instead it's a curse.  The Stuldbrugs grow old and senile and frankly the whole deal sounds awful.
Eventually Gulliver gets to Japan where he can catch passage on a Dutch ship.  He has to do some fancy footwork to avoid 'stamping on a cross', a custom the Japanese have enforced on the Dutch to try and keep Christians out.  He succeeds and finally gets back home.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Browning - Poetry

The next poem in the book (the booking being 'The 100 Best Poems of All Time', edited by Leslie Pockell) is Robert Browning's 'Memorabilia'.  The little blurb before the poem says that it is in the form of 'ironic dramatic monologue'.  Here it is:

Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,
And did he stop and speak to you
And did you speak to him again?
How strange it seems and new!

But you were living before that,
And also you are living after;
And the memory I started at-
My starting moves your laughter.

I crossed a moor; with a name of its own
And a certain use in the world no doubt,
Yet a hand's-breadth of it shines alone
'Mid the blank miles round about:

For there I picked up on the heather
And there I put inside m;y breast
A molted feather, an eagle feather!
Well, I forget the rest.

Irony is a tough medium, especially in print.  If I'd read this cold, I would have baffled that anyone had remembered it.  But . . . if you put it in the mouth of some loud mouth, I can see it.  The strange, circular thoughts and the forgotten event at the end work well there.  In fact, I can see memorizing this, so that you can return fire when cornered by a boring relative at Thanksgiving.
Not my favorite, but good for what it does.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Gulliver in Brobdingnag

After having been home for a few months, our narrator Gulliver goes to sea again.  This time he washes up in a land of giants, the land of Brobdingnag.  The contrast from Lilliput is clear and we get to experience both sides of the giant situation.  Swift is terribly clever here as he thinks through what it must be like to actually live with creatures that are so much bigger than yourself.  For instance, he finds all of them ugly because he can see every skin blemish clearly. 
Gulliver becomes something of a sideshow exhibit.  He is taken around to all the other towns even though he finds the travel exhausting.  His fortune changes when he is sold to the king and queen.  They keep him in one spot and try to learn what he is.  At first the kings advisers doubt that he is sentient but he finally convinces them that he can think and act with will and judgment.
Not that opinions of him are all that positive.  After explaining the various political parties of England to him, the Prince says:
"how contemptible a thing was human grandeur, which could mimicked by such diminutive insects as I: and yet," says he, "I dare engage these creatures have their titles and distinctions of honor; they contrive little nests and burrows, that they call houses and cities; they make a figure in dress and equipage; they live, they fight, the dispute, they cheat, they betray!"
The idea of an elected parliament also gets questioned:
He laughed at my "odd kind of arithmetic," as he was pleased to call it, "in reckoning the numbers of our people, by a computation drawn from several sects among us, in religion and politics." He said, "he knew no reason why those, who entertain opinions prejudicial to the public, should be obliged to change or should not be obliged to conceal them. And as it was tyranny in any government to require the first, so it was weakness not to enforce the second: for a man may be allowed to keep poisons in his closet, but not to vend them about for cordials."  
I wonder how sympathetic Swift was to these views?  As Milton pointed out, there is a huge difference between speech and poison.  Swift himself dealt with tyranny and censorship so it's hard for me to think that these thoughts represented his own.
Eventually Gulliver is picked up by an eagle and carried out to sea.  There he is rescued by a ship and eventually returns home to England.  This won't be his last voyage!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Modern 'Poetry'

Interesting article here.  The idea is that modern memes are taking the place of poetry.  What kind of things?
Younger poets are find it stimulating: they are reclaiming this “found” poetry and uploading it to the self-publishing platform Lulu. They create print-on-demand books that, most likely, will never be printed, but will live as PDFs on Lulu—their de-facto publisher and distributor. These are big, ridiculous books, like Chris Alexander’s five-hundred-and-twenty-eight-page “McNugget,” which reprints every tweet ever posted that contains the word “McNugget”; Andy Sterling’s “Supergroup,” which appropriates over four hundred pages’ worth of Discogs listings of small-bit session players from long-forgotten nineteen-seventies LPs; and Angela Genusa’s “Tender Buttons,” which converts Gertrude Stein’s difficult modernist text of the same name into illegible computer code.
Doesn't that inspire you?
Quality is beside the point—this type of content is about vast quantity of language that surrounds us, and how difficult it is to render meaning from such excesses. In the past decade, writers have been culling the Internet for material, making books that are more focussed on collecting than on reading. These ways of writing—word processing, databasing, recycling, appropriating, intentionally plagiarizing, identity ciphering, and intensive programming, to name just a few—have traditionally been considered outside the scope of literary practice.
Seriously, this is some kind of combination of put on and public masturbation.  No wonder it's so easy to throw your hands in the air and dismiss art as unimportant.  

Monday, October 21, 2013

Readings for November

Two things for November:

Rousseau: A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality link
Kant: Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals link

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Edward Lear - Poetry

Next up on the list is 'The Owl and the Pussycat' by Edward Lear.  I've seen pictures depicting the owl and pussycat but I don't know that I've ever heard the poem. 

The Owl and the Pussycat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five pound note.
The Owl looked up the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
"O lovely Pussy! O pussy my love,
What a beautiful pussy you are,
You are,
You are!
What a beautiful pussy you are!

Pussy said to the Owl; "you elegant fowl!
How charmingly sweet you sing!
O let us be married! too long we have tarried;
But what shall we do for a ring?"
They said away, for a year and a day,
to the land where the Bong-tree grows
And there in a wood a Piggy wig stood,
With a ring at the end of his nose,
His nose,
His nose,
A ring at the end of his nose.

"Dear pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?" Said the Piggy, "I will."
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on a hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.

It's a cute poem but I can't say that it does much for me.  It's intended for children so I'm not really the target audience.  Maybe I should read it to my kids and see what they think.
I'm charmed, for some reason, by the idea of a cat and an owl hitting it off together.  Those are two of my favorite animals.  Each one is a sign of smarts, but in very different ways.  The owl is more of a stately wisdom while the cat is sly and tricksy.  I'm sure their kids would be something else.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Gulliver in Lilliput

The whole story of Gulliver's Travels is set up with a small framing device in which another man vouches for Gulliver's honesty.  Gulliver then defends himself and tells the reader that various errors have crept in pertaining to spelling and chronology.  This works well as a literary device to suggest to the reader that the work really isn't fiction and shouldn't be read as such. 

The first voyage is to Lilliput.  The ship is wrecked and our hero is washed up on a beach.  He wakes to find that hundreds of tiny men have tied him to the ground.  This is one of the most famous images in all of literature and I'm sure there is a thesis in explaining how such an odd event is somehow so universal. 
Gulliver tries to move and the Lilliputians attack him with arrows.  They're very small but they can still damage him so he gives in.  They develop friendly relations but they still keep him in custody.  They provide him with food and shelter, even though it creates difficulties for them.  He comes to friendly terms with the king and learns much about Lilliput.
Swift uses the 'stranger in a strange land' set up to create fictitious customs and laws in each land that he visits.  This is often set in contrast to the ways of England that he left behind.  In Lilliput:
  • They have a challenge system in their law.  If an accused person is found to be innocent then their accuser is put to death.  The wrongly accused is also given quadruple recompense for hardship and loss of time.
  • They treat fraud as a worse crime than theft 'for the allege, that care and vigilance, with a very common understanding, may preserve a man's goods from thieves, but honesty has no defence against superior cunning'.  
  • They have a reward system in which whenever someone can prove that they have strictly observed the laws for a period of 'seventy-three moons', they will enjoy special privileges and get a sum of money.  The Lilliputians were aghast that England only had laws that punished and none that rewarded.
  • People of great morals were given more respect than those with ability.
  • Only believers in 'Divine Providence' could hold public station because kings are given rights and privileges from Providence.  That belief must be in place or that authority cannot be respected.
There are other laws and customs regarding how children should be raised but they're too long to excerpt.

Gulliver gets into trouble when he tries to help out.  A fire starts in one wing of the palace and it soon grows out of control.  Gulliver, having drank quite a bit of wine, simply pees on the palace and puts the fire out.  Everything is saved, but in a very bad way.  This was seen as an allusion to some actions of the Tories when they were in power, having done good things in a bad way.  For myself, I was reminded most of Rabelais.
He then falls out of favor and flees, fearing for his life.  Gulliver goes to a neighboring kingdom and seeks asylum for a short period of time.  As luck would have it, he is able to find a boat from normal sized humans and he refits it and eventually finds his way back to England.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Novels in the Great Books

The reading for October is Swift's 'Gulliver's Travels'.  This got me thinking about the pure stories in the Great Books.  Outside of the science, history and pure philosophy, we have storytelling.  That breaks down neatly between theater (Aeschylus, Shakespeare), poetry (Homer, Milton) and what are probably best described as novels.  This is a list of the novels, including a breakdown on when we'll come across them in the reading list.

  • Gargantua and Pantagruel - Rabelais; (two parts) June of year one and June of year seven
  • Gulliver's Travels - Swift; October of year two
  • Brothers Karamazov - Dostoevsky; (two parts) November of year three and November of year four
  • Moby Dick - Melville; October of year four
  • Don Quixote - Cervantes; (two parts) July of year five and July of year 10
  • War and Peace - Tolstoy; (two parts) November of year five and December of year six
  • Tristam Shandy - Sterne; July of year eight
  • Tom Jones - Fielding; July of year nine

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Poetry - Holmes

The following poem is 'Old Ironsides' by Oliver Wendell Holmes.  He wrote it in 1830 when the US Navy planned to destroy their oldest frigate, the U.S.S. Constitution.  Holmes, then 21 years old, helped sway public opinion and saved the ship.  It can still be visited in Boston.

Ay, tear her tattered ensign down!
Long has it waved on high,
And many an eye has danced to see
That banner in the sky;
Beneath it rung the battle shout,
And burst the cannon's roar;
The meteor of the ocean air
Shall sweep the clouds no more.

Her deck, once red with heroes' blood,
Where knelt the vanquished foe,
When winds were hurrying o'er the flood,
And waves were white below,
No more shall feel the victor's tread,
Or know the conquered knee;
The harpies of the shore shall pluck
The eagle of the sea!

Oh, better that her shattered bulk
Should sink beneath the wave;
Her thunders shook the mighty deep,
And there should be her grave;
Nail to the mast her holy flag,
Set every threadbare sail,
And give her to the god of storms,
The lightning and the gale!

It's an effective poem, certainly.  The warship has a definite place in the world and Holmes articulates it well.  The ship brings joy to those who shear its goals and fear to those that oppose them.  Having served its intended purpose, it becomes a holy object and must be treated with reverence.  As he says, 'better that her shattered bulk/Should sink beneath the wave' than to be simply pried apart and junked.  (I'll admit that when I was young, I was shocked that old wars ships were scrapped and turned into things like razor blades.)
These points are moot, of course, to pacifists.  We don't live in an era that honors warships, or at least the people that judge poetry tend not to.  In other words, if Holmes had written this two centuries later, it would have faded into obscurity.
Is the poetry itself good?  Hmmmm.  I can't find a phrase that is often quoted.  I can't see any particularly clever turn of phrase.  It's not bad at all, but it doesn't really break through into genius either.  It was influential in its day and I'm glad that it worked to save the U.S.S. Constitution but it's not one that I'll probably return to in the future.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Biography of Swift

Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin in 1667.  His father died shortly before he was born and his mother chose to return to England, where she was from.  He was given over to his uncle to be cared for.  He attended school in Dublin and received a B.A. from Trinity College.  While working on his master's degree, he was forced back to England during the 'Glorious Revolution'.  His mother got him a position with Sir William Temple, a diplomat of some importance.
Swift bounced back and forth a bit from Temple's employ to Ireland.  In 1694 he became an ordained priest and was assigned to a parish in a small remote part of County Antrim, Ireland.  While there he apparently had some sort of romantic encounter with a woman named Jane Waring.  This didn't go well and in 1696 he returned to Temple.  While there he wrote his famous 'Battle of the Books'.
Temple died in 1699 and Swift was at odds for some time.  He pursued various positions, including a secretary spot with then King William.  Nothing worked and he ended up with a very small congregation some twenty miles outside of Dublin.  While there he traveled back to London from time to time and published an anonymous political pamplet.  In the following years he published some other work, 'The Tale of the Tub' and the 'Battle of the Books'.
Swift's skill as a writer began to get attention and he became friends with Alexander Pope and others.  He also became more politically active.  He became a promiment Tory.  Swift also made enemies.  Of note, he angered Queen Anne by publicly noting which women of her bedchamber she could trust and whom she could not(!).
When the Whigs came back into power, Swift moved again to Ireland.  He continued to write, and in 1729 published the wonderful 'Modest Proposal'.  While there he tangled with the Irish judiciary.  He was obviously not a man who feared a fight, or at least he didn't know how to stay out of one.
Around this time he wrote 'Gulliver's Travels'.  It was published anonymously, but Swift was well known as the author.  It sold and sold and sold and was quickly translated into French and German.  It was even pirated back into Ireland.
Some time in the 1730's, it appears that Swift became insane.  His friends were worried that he would hurt himself.  He was declared not to be of 'sound mind and body' and in 1741 he had a guardian appointed.  In 1742 he suffered a stroke, causing great swelling to his left eye.  He didn't speak for a year.  He finally died in 1745.  Years before he had composed an epitaph in Latin.  W.B. Yeats translated it like this:
Swift has sailed into his rest;
Savage indignation there
Cannot lacerate his breast.
Imitate him if you dare,
World-besotted traveller; he
Served human liberty.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Poetry - Tennyson

The next poem is 'Ulysses' by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.  I've run across fragments of this poem in places, but have never read the whole thing before.  Unfortunately, the whole piece is too long to type out so I'll link to the complete poem, which I highly recommend.  Normally I'd excerpt the first part but it's the last that stuck with me so I'll do that.  The poem is told from Ulysses' standpoint and here he speaks about retiring from being king.

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail'
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me-
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads - you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honor and his toil.
Death closes all; but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;
The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
Tis not too late to see a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be we shall all touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are-
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

The story is that of an heroic old man who is choosing to pursue one last adventure, rather than to fade away into death.  Even after all of the voyages that he's undertaken, he will once more go out there and see what happens.  It might even be good.  Or at least the worst wouldn't be terrible as he might be reunited with Achilles whom he knew of old.
It's very much a poem of things that have come to an end.  Not in death, per se, but things are changing and will never be the same again.  Even in that change, that end, the speaker will keep going.  'To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.'  It's a boast, but a calm boast, given from someone who is old and wise.
What a beautiful poem.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Great Books for Children

Interesting blog post here, trying to figure out what books to expect your children to read. 
In particular, I want to put my kids through a Great Books tutorial, and put together a list of books that I want them to read between 12 and 16/18. So I’m trying to come up with my own list of Great Books to put them through. 
 I've thought similar things.  Well not necessarily on the schooling but on the books list. 
In particular, I want to put my kids through a Great Books tutorial, and put together a list of books that I want them to read between 12 and 16/18. So I’m trying to come up with my own list of Great Books to put them through.
I know the lists that are currently in existence, but I want our own list to be slightly different. I want the books to cover disciplines outside the traditional liberal arts (e.g. economics; business) and cover more temporary topics. I also want the list to include literature.
 His list is there, if you're curious.  I believe he's French, but I could be wrong about that.  As I mentioned, I've tossed around similar thoughts about what I want them to read.  They'll get some steady doses of Heinlein, especially 'Starship Troopers', which I think asks some very interesting questions of the state/citizen relationship.  They'll get some other science fiction as well, in part because questions of societal structure comes up there more often than in other books.
And after reading some Plutarch last year, I've been noodling how to get some of that in their diet.  As written, it may be so dense that it will turn them off.  There is a version that is 'edited for boys and girls' so that may be the ticket.
They'll get some Shakespeare and some Mark Twain.  They'll get some science education, especially in astronomy because that's an interest of mine as well.  They'll get some history with me and also with various games.  I'd like to plug 'History of the World', the boardgame.  It looks like it's out of print right now, darn it.
One area that I'm not comfortable with is economics.  I'd like some books for young teens that teach market theory.  I want supply and demand to be on the tip of their brains whenever people ask 'why' questions.  (Suggestions welcome!)

One thing that I've kept in mind is to be looking for opportunities to introduce philosophy to them.  That may mean looking for the right time to suggest Plato's 'Apology', or his philosophical question of the cave.  It means looking for the right time to have them read through Aristotle's 'Poetics'.  Montaigne and Pascal will have entry spots come along, and so on and so on.  I'm afraid that trying to preset these works will turn them into a task, instead of a more organic happening. 
Obviously, this is a work in progress.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Author Timeline

Still in the 17th century, but right at the end of it with Swift.

Homer 7th or 8th Cent(?)
Aeschylus 525-456
Sophocles 497-405
Herodotus 484-425
Plato 428-347
Aristotle 384-322
Lucretius 99-55(?)
Nicomachus 60-120(?)
Marcus Aurelius 121-180
Hobbes 1588-1679
Milton 1608-1674
Pascal 1623-1662
Swift 1667-1745
Rousseau 1712-1778
Kant 1724-1804
Mill 1806-1873

Tuesday, October 1, 2013