Thursday, July 31, 2014

Books Read in July

Another busy month in the books.  I read a bunch of plays but only a few books. 
  • 11/22/63, Stephen King - In this novel, King imagines a man who has an opportunity to go back in time and prevent Oswald from killing JFK.  King is very good at laying down rules and then forcing his protagonist to live by them.  A very satisfying book.
  • The Enchantress of Florence, Salman Rushdie - A new Rushdie novel for me!  In this one, a roguish young man shows up in the court of the emperor of the Moguls with an outlandish story.  What's true and what isn't?  I loved this.  
  • The Confusion, Neal Stephenson - I've been on something of a Stephenson kick of late, all rereads.  This is the middle book of his 'Baroque Cycle', a long historical fiction set in the 17th and 18th century.  This is my favorite part of the series, a story of complicated plan in which a group of galley slaves ends up being chased all the way around the world.
All in all, it was a very happy month in the books.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Liberal Education

An interesting article about the aims of a liberal education and how we could benefit from more of it in our system.
The expression “liberal education” is quite important. Today, when we think “liberal education”, we think “Would you like fries with that?” But as the common root with the word liberty suggests, liberal education is an education that helps make us free. Only by first understanding not only the empirical scaffolding of our Universe–a.k.a. science–but also its conceptual scaffolding, a.k.a. the ideas, concepts and history which shape the world we live in, can we ever hope to be free, that is to say to be able to make informed, conscious decisions.
Similarly, the great men (and, sorry, they were mostly men) who bequeathed us this wonderful order understood that a regime of majority rule cannot long withstand the test of time without having a citizenship that takes seriously the notion of virtue. The virtues, to Aristotle and others, are not so much about being a goody-two-shoes, but rather about the lifelong effort to reach self-mastery through confronting our passions (today, perhaps, we would say: our addictions) and properly ordering our will towards that which is good. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll see how growth in virtue is itself a form of liberal education.
Nobody stops to ask what education is for, because the answer is implicitly accepted by all: an education is for getting a job. It is, in other words, for being a cog in the giant machine of post-industrial capitalism. It is, in other words, for the opposite thing that our forefathers wanted for us. I do not use these words lightly, but it is against–in the sense that a headwind is against a ship–the very foundations of our liberty and our civilization.
 A couple of thoughts:
  • When I was in high school (twenty some years ago) I only read some classic works in a few elective classes.  We covered a bit of Plato in my Humanities class and I got some Swift in an English Lit class.  And some Shakespeare here and there.  We did cover the Declaration of Independence and Constitution in a class on government and I think that was a required course.  Otherwise, you could go through your whole school experience without exposure to the classics.
  • It's striking when reading works from the 19th century and older, just how much the educated reader was expected to know.  References to classic mythology, poetry and the ancients abound.  Now, if you want to include an ancient reference, you need a paragraph (at least) to explain it.  Set aside whether or not this is good or bad, it most certainly a change.
  • The idea that education should be for making a more rounded person and not as a job training program sounds almost . . .  heretical.   Think of the assumptions that we have now.  A large part of the grading system in my school was explicitly based on a) doing work and b) turning that work in on schedule.  Very little was based on essays and similar expressions of thoughtfulness.  There are few non-physical jobs that don't require a college degree.
  • I'm speaking of public schools.  I don't know how well private or parochial schools do on the classics.  It would surprise me if Catholic schools didn't cover some Augustine or Thomas Aquinas.  But I've been surprised before!
I've mentioned before that I'd put Mill's 'On Freedom' in the hands of every high-schooler if I could. Maybe some Rabelais as well...?

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Wilfred Owen - Poetry

Both this poet and this poem are new to me.  The poet is Wilfred Owens and the play is titled 'Dulce et Decorum Est'.  (This is part of a latin phrase that means "it is sweet and proper to die for one's country'.)

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys, - An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and the thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smother dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing hin his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,-
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Simple theme here.  The horrors of war are so horrible, the price so high, that patriotic sacrifice is a bad deal.  The book lists the authors lifespan as 1893-1918.  According to Wikipedia, he was English and fought in WWI.  In fact, he died exactly one week before the armistice was signed.  A terrible waste.
The poem is certainly effective.  All wars involve horrors.  The American civil war happened about 50 years earlier and it chewed up people in awful ways.  WWI was in a different league though, in the 'new horrors' department.  This poem describes a gas attack and I'm sure they were surreally awful.  A look back from the future doesn't help because the war led to little good.
However, I want to push back against the main theme.  My chief objection (taught to me by Heinlein) is that this approach becomes dangerous when it becomes widespread.  If highly civilized country A decides that it won't fight and barbarian country B decides that it still will, then who wins?  If you don't want to think about a simple war between two countries, then replace the above question with cultures.
At some point a country (or culture) will find that it is in a situation where it must fight or be utterly defeated, dismantled and enslaved.  It is a source of shame that the Oxford union voted to not fight against Germany.  Meanwhile, the Battle of the Blitz is one of England's proudest moments. 
Which doesn't mean that the broader point of the poem doesn't still have truth.  War is awful and we should try extremely hard to make those situations where countries must fight rare.  I honestly don't know if the approach of this poem is the best one. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Brothers - Terence (94)

I wrote a bit about Terence here.  To recap, he was one of the more important Roman playwrights.  He was very widely read amongst the learned peoples at least up until the early 1800s.  And he has mostly dropped off of contemporary radars for whatever reason. 

'The Brothers' is about two sets of brothers.  The first set is an older, middle aged, set.  One works on the farm while the other is in the city.  One is married with two sons while the other is a bachelor.  The married brother is letting the unmarried one raise one of his sons.  (And no, I can't picture that either, but different times, different customs.)
The two have different styles of raising children and that's where the most interesting part of the play comes up.  The farm brother is very hands on in guiding and raising while the city one says:
'Tis this then is the duty of a father,
To make a son embrace a life of virtue,
Rather from choice than terror or constraint.
Here lies the might difference between
A father and a master. He who knows not
How to do this, let him confess he knows not
How to rule children.
This sets up the plot as the brothers end up in a very sit-com type plot of mistaken intentions and money paid for wives.  But, no fear, eventually the mistakes are cleared up and weddings abound.  The 'loose-ruled' brother speaks again:
     In these youths I see
The marks of virtue; and, I trust, they'll prove
Such as we wish them. They have sense, I know;
Attention; in its season, liberal shame;
And fondness for each other; all sure signs
Of an ingenuous mind and noble nature:
And though they stray, you may at any time
Reclaim them.
 This is a reasonable set of goals for a parent to set for their children.  I'd be very happy if my three qualify in all respects. 

Did I like it?  It's an ok play, but nothing special.  This is probably one where there is some large benefit from actually seeing a production rather than reading it cold.  (This is true of a very many ancient play.)  I would mostly recommend Terence for historical value, in much the same way that I would Lope de Vega.  In other words, if you find one of his plays in an anthology or elsewhere, go ahead and read it.  It won't be life changing but it will let you better understand just how the entire Dramatic experience got from there to here.

Next up is #93, 'Awake and Sing' by Clifford Odets.  I have now gotten my mitts on a copy of #96, 'Accidental Death of an Anarchist' but I've already started the Odets so I'll come back for it.  My (very loose) plan is to try and power ahead until I get to the point where this is one play per month.  Hopefully by this fall.  My hope is that will make it easier for others to join in.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Lady Macbeth

(I did say that she deserved her own post, right?)

The correct adjective for Lady Macbeth is 'bloodthirsty'.  We know very little of her from before the story.  She is introduced reading a letter from her husband.  In it he tells her of the three weird sisters and there prediction that he will become king.  He then tells her that he wanted to share this with her, his partner, so that she could rejoice in promised greatness.
Her reaction?  Why then, we must kill the king!  No seriously.  She spends a bit of time worrying that Macbeth isn't vicious enough to attain his ambition.  Then she learns that the king will be staying at their castle and says:
     The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. Come, you spirits
that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full
Of direst cruelty! Mack thick my blood,
Stop up th' access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th' effect and it! Come to my woman's breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murd'ring ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature's mischief! Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
to cry  "Hold, hold!"
Just a lovely woman.  And remember, this is before she has had any chance whatsoever to talk with her husband.  She doesn't know if he has been put in the line for the throne.  She doesn't know if the weird sisters told him anything else.  All that she knows is 1) someone predicted that he'd be king and 2) the current king is going to be staying at her castle.  Therefore 3) she needs to become murderous.

I've never actually seen Macbeth on stage and now I'd really like to.  I watched a rather recent movie adaptation with Patrick Stewart in the title role.  I can't recommend it.  Lady Macbeth was played by Kate Fleetwood; I'm not familiar with her.  They played her almost like a horror movie villain and I thought that was too much.  She wasn't believable as a person.  Or at least not a person that anyone would choose to be in the same room with.
Having said that, I'm having trouble picturing just how that tightrope would be walked.  Her she is, a bloodthirsty Lady.  A contradiction of sorts.  Maybe she'd be secretly passionate but the really awful stuff would just bubble to the top when she couldn't hide it anymore?  Or maybe she really is just full evil at all times and poor Macbeth is somewhat bullied by her.  Or maybe there is some other reading that I'm not seeing.  (If I was a woman, I'd jump at the chance to play her once, just to see what I could come up with!)
I wonder if she is Shakespeare's most vicious main character?

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Edna St. Vincent Millay - Poetry

This is a new poet to me, Edna St. Vincent Millay.  The poem itself is new to me too, though the subject isn't.  The name of it is 'First Fig'.

My candle burns at both ends;
     It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends-
     It gives a lovely light!

What a fun little poem!  The idea that burning the candle at both ends, while maybe not smart, can still have an added benefit is a good one.  I think what really sells this for me is the 'ah, my foes' bit.  It's almost like a little bit of a taunt thrown in.  A little salt.  A little zest.
I fully approve.

Reading for August

One poem.

Milton: Paradise Lost link

If you're afraid of epic poetry, this is a good one to get your feet wet with.  The story makes sense, the written scheme is unforced and Milton is a (can't resist the pun) damned good writer.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Macbeth - Shakespeare

This was the first time that I'd read 'Macbeth' since high school.  I remembered the basics and I think that they're fairly well known.  To wit: Macbeth is a Scottish lord who is tricked by some witches so that he kills his king.  He is then proclaimed king and has to kill more and more people.  Finally, battling both his guilt and some remaining lords, he is killed.
Things that I didn't remember?
  • The three weird sisters are wildly clever.  The whole mechanism where they play on his ambition is wonderful.  They foresee one promotion and promise another.  When the first prediction is proved, the second one seems like a lock.  The hook is baited and the fish bites hard.
  • The reaction from Lady Macbeth is wildly extreme.  Shockingly so.  (But I think I'll give the Lady her own blog post.)
  • I think there is an element here that doesn't translate well in our time.  Macbeth was guilty of murder, of regicide really.  But what really made it bad was that he killed a guest.  If you read about someone in the paper that killed a guest, you'd be horrified by the murder but wouldn't care about the 'guest' part.  
  • In some ways 'Macbeth' was a big ol suck up to the new King James.  James was of Scottish descent and the play makes it clear that the future Scots were wonderful in comparison to that awful Macbeth.  Even though he was just trying to flatter his king, he wrote a wonderful play.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

T.S. Eliot - Poetry

Ok, I've heard of T.S. Eliot before.  The poem, 'The Love Song of Alfred Prufrock' is unknown to me.  I have to believe that Eliot's best known poem is 'The Wasteland' but the title of the book is 'The 100 Best Poems of all Time', not the 100 best known.  The full poem is too long for me to type out, so I'll just give you part near the beginning.  The full deal can be found here.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-desterted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question . . .
Oh, do not ask, 'What is it?"

Let us go and make our visit.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michaelangelo.
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That life and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And fora  hundred visions and revisions,
Before taking of a toast and tea.

That's the first part.  As I said, the full poem is available up ahead.  You can read the full thing if you'd like.  Frankly, I didn't understand it.  (Full disclosure: I don't claim to understand 'The Wasteland' either.)  Oh, there are phrases that I like.  Further on than I typed is this: 'I have measured out my life with coffee spoons'.  What a lovely phrase!  In fact, the most meaning that I could get is that this is a long worry about life passing by.
A quick look at Wikipedia tells me that Eliot started writing this when he was about 22 and it was published five years later.  Now that I've passed forty, I can't help but . . . sigh . . . at twenty-somethings that worry about their old age.  Also per Wikipedia: "Because the poem is concerned primarily with the irregular musings of the narrator, it can be difficult to interpret."  So good, it's not just me.
Maybe someday, someone will sit me down and explain Eliot to me.  Until then, I'm lost.  (And I will dare to eat a peach.)

Friday, July 11, 2014


In my last post, I mentioned that the next play is by Terence, a playwright of ancient Rome.  I should have mentioned that you can read 'The Brothers' online for free here.  If you have some time, I recommend it but I'm not going to pretend that it's life changing.  Terence was one of the most important Roman authors.  Not so much, in his time, but in the time since. 
From wikipedia:
Terence's plays were a standard part of the Latin curriculum of the neo-classical period. US President John Adams once wrote to his son, "Terence is remarkable, for good morals, good taste, and good Latin...His language has simplicity and an elegance that make him proper to be accurately studied as a model."[11]
Two of the earliest English comedies, Ralph Roister Doister and Gammer Gurton's Needle, are thought to parody Terence's plays.
Due to his cognomen Afer, Terence has long been identified with Africa and heralded as the first poet of the African diaspora by generations of writers, including Juan Latino, Phyllis Wheatley, Alexandre Dumas, Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou.
American playwright Thornton Wilder based his novel The Woman of Andros on Terence's Andria.
 So he was a heavy and heavily influential.  The thing is, before this project, I'd never heard of him.  Ok, so there are plenty of playwrights that I've never heard of.  I'm not pretending that I'm some kind of subject expert or anything.  But Jean Genet, the author of 'The Balcony' that I just reviewed, published about 60 years ago.  It's very possible that a similar list compiled in 2100 AD wouldn't have him on it.  The play is relatively young and its star could fade quickly.  Not so with Terence.  His work has been around for more than two thousand years.  His 'classic' status is unquestionable.

Still.  It has been very enlightening to read a selection of lauded plays interspersed with some of the works of Shakespeare.  Terence was without a doubt a great influence.  His plot in 'The Brothers' is interesting and his characters are more like real people than, say, Euripides or Aeschylus.  But as classic as he (and the others) are, they don't really exceed the work done today.  Yes, modern authors are taking their plots and the tricks that these great men taught them.  Yes, they should be honored for being there first.  I'm not trying to devalue them one little jot.
But you know what?  Shakespeare is different.  If you asked 100 writers today to write a 'lost' play by Terence, you could get some reasonably close facsimiles, maybe some improvements.  If you tried the same thing with Shakespeare, you'd get 100 failures.  Yes, he was playing a somewhat different game than a modern like Stoppard, but no one can outplay him at that game
We can make stories that are loosely based on Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet or Macbeth, but we can't improve on them.  No one can make the characters more interesting.  No one can bend the language quite so sweetly.  No one else can take such a simple idea and make it absolutely flower into something so brilliant. 
People often glibly say that Shakespeare is the top playwright.  I've long taken that at face value.  Now that I have some more experience under my belt, I can only nod my head vigorously.  Yeah, he really is.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Balcony - Genet (95)

This isn't a play for the faint of heart.  The Balcony is a rather involved brothel, placed in a city that has a rebellion on the outskirts.  The clients have elaborate fantasies that mostly involve themselves in a place of power.  For instance, the opening scene is of a man dressed as a bishop dealing with a penitent woman.  They are working on getting the image right so that they can project the kind of power that they lack in real life.
The contrast is provided by the actual Chief of Police, who wields power but isn't appreciated enough.  He comes to the brothel wondering if any of the clients are dressing up as him.   He's crushed to find out that no one is.  He hopes to achieve enough glory that he can justify the enormous tomb that he has planned for himself.
Yet another counterpoint is provided by a brothel worker named Chantel.  She is adopted by the revolution as an image of their virtues and designs.  She thinks that her training will make her ready for such a role (and her head is turned a bit by the attention). Whereas the men are tawdry, she is sublime in her imagery, but she's still a projection, an image, rather than a source of actual power.

The stage directions call for what sounds like an elaborate set up involving mirrors and sectional costumes.  The play debuted in 1956, in London, and I imagine it was something of a shock then.  Let me just say that this isn't anything that will be selected for a high school production . . .
I liked 'The Balcony' but this isn't really my style.  It's raw and unreal.  I found myself comparing it to 'Macbeth'.  Both plays are about power, but it's easy to imagine a real life Macbeth and (somewhat less so) a Lady Macbeth.  This isn't true of the players in the Balcony which are blown up representations, rather than actual people.  Well, to each their own.

Next up is #94, 'The Brother's by Terence, a playwright of ancient Rome. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Ezra Pound - Poetry

I've heard of Ezra Pound before but this poem is new to me.  Off the top of my head, I can't put him with any particular poem so that's probably my fault.  The poem is called 'Ancient Music'.  The blurb before the poem says that 'This poem almost demands to be declaimed in the most passionate voice possible'.

Winter is icummen in,
Lhude sing Goddamm,
Raineth drop and staineth slop,
And how the wind doth ramm!
     Sing: Goddamm.
Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,
An ague hath my ham.
Freezeth river, turneth liver,
     Damn you, sing: Goddamm.
Goddamm, Goddamm, 'tis why I am, Goddamm.
     So 'gainst the winter's balm.
Sing goddamm, damm, sing Goddamm,
Sing goddamm, sing goddamm, DAMM.

Boy, I could have used this poem during our previous, historically awful winter.  I'm making a mental note to remember this for next January or February.  I fully, fully, understand all of the 'Goddamm'.
Do I like the poem?  I'm not sure.  The creative spelling doesn't do much for me.  In poems like 'Jaberwocky', you have actual made up words that convey meaning.  This just seems like misspelling for the sake of misspelling.  I suppose there is some extra meaning that is conveyed there, but it gets more of an eye-roll from me.
The title is 'Ancient Music' and I want to think about that for a moment.  Does this mean that people have been cursing winter since ancient times?  Probably.  And calling this 'music' seems to give it a ritualistic nod.  I can dig that.
A useful poem.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Author Timeline

Aeschylus  525-456
Herodotus  484-425
Thucydides  460-395
Plato  428-348
Aristotle  384-322
Euclid  Unknown (300 BC?)
Tacitus  56-117
St Thomas Aquinas  1225-1274
Chaucer  1343-1400
Shakespeare  1564-1616
Milton  1608-1674
Locke  1632-1704
Kant  1724-1804
Mill  1806-1873
Lavoisier  1743-1794
Dostoevsky  1821-1881
Freud  1856-1939

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Reading for June

Only one, but it's a bloody good one.

Shakespeare: Macbeth link

Note: this project is now 1/4 complete.  By time, anyway.  I'm a bit past the midpoint for year three.  In the overall picture, I've now covered 46 out of 180 pieces.  If my count is correct, we've covered 37 of the 54 authors contained in the Great Books.

Update: one last word from Chaucer: