Saturday, August 30, 2014

Books Read in August

This was a rough month, or at least a very full month.  We've done a spot of camping.  We've had people going back to school in waves.  I had a meeting that may launch a very big project (fingers crossed!).  To top all of that off, my Kindle broke down a bit and I lost all of my notes on the second half of 'Paradise Lost'.  I'm now trying to figure out if I can nurse it for a couple more months or if I need to replace it sooner. 
Which isn't to say that I didn't get some quality reading in:
  • A History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell - With more Kant coming up, I thought that I needed some more grounding before I tackled him.  To that end, I read the last third of Russell's history (basically from the Renaissance on).  I found this book fascinating, especially about the Renaissance.  I'm sure I'll write about that at some time.
  • Foucault's Pendulum, Umberto Eco - Set in Milan, this book is about a group of publishers that attract some mystical writers.  For a game, they mix up the mysticism (Templars, Illuminati, Rosicrucians, etc.) and make up a 'plan', basically a long theory that explains a partial message.  Some of the mystics get wind of this 'plan' and they mistakenly believe that it's true.  Trouble ensues.  This is sometimes mentioned as 'a thinking man's 'Davinci Code'.  It's probably not fair to Eco as his book is much, much deeper and less of a thriller.
  • Black Out/All Clear, Connie Willis - This is a two part novel about a group of time traveling historians that get stuck in World War II during the blitz.  The story is interesting and well told, but the most striking thing is the behavior of the Brits during the bombing campaign.  I can't imagine what that must be like.  This was a reread for me.
Everyone is now back at school and the routine is (hopefully!) settling down again.  

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. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Federico Garcia Lorca - Poetry

Another new poem and poet for me.  Maybe I'll go back and count, but this seems more common with the newer poems in the book.  This poem is by Federico Garcia Lorca.  The title is 'Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias' and what I have is a translation from Spanish.

The bull does not know you, nor the fig tree,
nor horses, nor the ants on your floors.
The child does not know you, nor the evening,
because your death is forever.

The saddleback of rock does not know you,
nor the black satin where you tore apart.
Your silent recollection does not know you
because your death is forever.

Autumn will return bringing snails,
misted-over grapes, and clustered mountains,
but none will wish to gaze in your eyes
because your death is forever.

Because your death is forever;
Like everyone's who ever died on Earth,
like all dead bodies discarded
on rubbish heaps with mongrels' corpses.

No one knows you. No one. But I sing you -
sing your profile and your grace, for later on.
The signal ripeness of your mastery.
The way you sought death out, savored its taste.
The sadness just beneath your gay valor.

Not soon, if ever; will Andalusia see
so towering a man, so venturesome.
I sing his elegance with words that moan
and remember a sad breeze in the olive groves.

Well.  That's a heavy poem and a strong lament.  It would help us if we knew how Ignacio Sanchez Mejias was.  But let me look at the poem before I bring Google to bear.
Someone has died and, as we're repeatedly reminded, death is forever.  No one knows the person.  No thing knows the person.  The body has been discarded and will soon disappear like rubbish.  The only lament (or certainly the most important!) is the one given here by Senor Lorca.
Lorca honors the man.  He 'sought death out, savored its taste'.  He was sad but valorous.  He was towering and venturesome.  This lament has made the poet so sad that he can only moan and remember the past.  This is the lament of a lover, right?  A lover talking about his fallen love, that no one will love as much as he does.
A quick look at his Wikipedia page suggests that I'm right.  A Google search tells me that this is the fourth part of a longer poem.  The full work is here.  The rest of it is also passionate and very, very sad.
This is a very touching piece.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Biography of Milton

John Milton was born in 1608 in London.  His father was a composer of some note, successful enough that Milton was raised with a tutor.  At an early age he learned both Latin and Greek.  A contemporary of his said that "When he was young, he studied very hard and sat up very late, commonly till twelve or one o'clock at night".
He spent time at Cambridge, where he was apparently suspended for fighting a few times.  While there he also made contacts with various people, like Roger Williams a theologian.  While at Cambridge, Milton was already marked for his poetic skills.  After school he went to his father's house and studied hard on subjects of his own choosing for the next six years.  He kept a record of his studies, which is now in the British Library.
Milton toured Europe, mostly France and Italy.  While doing so, his poetic skills were given a larger audience and he met several of the leading intellectual lights of the continent.  He skipped a visit to Greece because he wanted to return to England before civil war erupted there.
During the civil war, Milton was outspoken against Catholicism and a vocal proponent of 'republicanism', the belief that the head of state should be elected, not inherited.  He also made an ill considered marriage and wrote about the advisability of divorce.  These writings were attacked and Milton wrote the subject of this month, 'Areopagitica'.
After the war was over, Milton worked for Cromwell's government as the 'Secretary for Foreign Tongues'.  His job was mainly to translate the correspondence into Latin but he also worked as a propagandist and censor.  He wrote several defenses of the regicide of Charles I.  By 1654, he was totally blind and had to dictate his work to assistants.
Cromwell died in 1658 and the Restoration (of the monarchy) period was a hard one for him.  He went into hiding, only emerging after a general pardon had been issued.  He was still arrested and briefly spent time in prison.  Some influential friends sprung him and he lived quietly in London, being forced to move out of the city during the plague of 1665.
In 1667, 'Paradise Lost' was published.  He'd been working on it since at least 1658.  It's widely regarded as one of the best poems ever written in English.  He followed it up with 'Paradise Regained' and other notable poems such as 'Samson Agonistes'.
He died of kidney failure in November of 1674.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Awake and Sing! - Odets (93)

'Awake and Sing!' is very much a play of the Great Depression.  The play is set in a New York home, over-crowded with people all looking for a break.  Life is bleak and unhappy for all.  The home belongs to the Bergers, an overworked mother, a dream stricken father, an ambitious son, a wise grandfather and a daughter, Hennie, who has accidentally gotten herself in a family way.  The son, Ralph, is something of the hero of the play.  He wants a chance to succeed but he can't figure out how to do it.  Other characters also board at the house, all of them interesting.  The characters are one of the strong points of the play.
All of them are unhappy and their unhappiness is made worse by the regular visits of a rich uncle who subtlety rubs his wealth in their faces.  He can't understand why they can't make it.  What's worse, they don't understand it either.  The grandfather, Jacob, wistfully hopes that the fine things happening in Russia will provide some clues on how to get society on track. 
The climax comes when Jacob sacrifices himself to get some insurance money into Ralph's hands.  If Ralph takes it, he can become self sufficient.  But it may cost him his family as there is plenty of resentment from his mother about this kind of nest egg.  She worked hard and sacrificed her life for her family and thinks it only just that a windfall should come to her as well.  In the end, Ralph decides that the only way he can make himself an honorable life is to let the money go and confidently make his own fortune in life.

It's an interesting play and I can easily see why people would go to see it.  It's thought provoking and well written.  It debuted in 1935 at a time when society really did seem broken and people were looking for answers.  I'd recommend it.
However, I can't just casually dismiss the Marxism of the piece, especially the fond words for the communists in Russia.  If I were to find a newspaper article or play from 1935 that praised the Nazis in Germany, I could understand that the writer didn't know what horrors were ahead.  Fair enough.  In retrospect though, we'd assess a very heavy penalty to that piece.  Same rules should apply here.  A couple of years before this play was being put on in America, the Soviets starved about 4 million people in Ukraine.  We should hardly be wistful about such an awful government.

Next up, we take a step back to 'Accidental Death of an Anarchist' by Daniel Fo.  The play is from 1970 and I know virtually nothing about it yet.  It's #96 on the list and this will finally fill that gap.

Monday, August 4, 2014

e.e. cummings - Poetry

I've heard of e.e. cummings before, even read some of his work, though I don't know any of his poems specifically.  He is famous for his avant-garde style, especially the lack of capitalization.  This work is called 'Buffalo Bill's'. 

Buffalo Bill's
     who used to
     ride a watersmooth-sillver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
he was a handsome man
          and what I want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
Mister Death

I've long been turned off by the avant-garde style and I just figured out why.  The entire style seems to be screaming 'pay attention to how weird I am!'.  It doesn't feel natural or organic.  It seems calculated and tiresome.  (Maybe I would have felt differently at the time these pieces were created though frankly I doubt it.)  The lower case letters and the run on words here are a perfect example.  They seem like more of a showcase of strangeness than as an aid to poetic understanding.
But let me put that aside and focus on the story.  Buffalo Bill was a showman and I take from this poem that during his act he would ride in all smoothly and proceed to kill some pigeons.  He was handsome and suave and at the same time cruel and monstrous.  No good and civilized person could enjoy such a performance.
But Mister Death could.  I don't know if Mister Death is attending the show or if those who enjoy such things are some kind of manifestation of death.  Either way, do they actually enjoy this blend of beauty and violence?  They must, right?  Even though they shouldn't. 
Incidentally, I agree with that point.  I'm the type of guy who rolls his eyes at the 'no animals were harmed in the making of this' style disclaimer, but I'm not happy watching animals be hurt or killed.  I don't find it entertaining in the least.  However, the style of this poem makes me want to mount a defense to the show-goers, though I'm not quite sure why. 
Perhaps, the packaging is so obviously artificial that it's hard for me to take the message seriously.

Sunday, August 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