Monday, September 29, 2014

Top Ten Reading Suggestions

I wanted to share this strong list of book recommendations from Hillsdale College.  No surprise, it's fairly heavy on works from the Great Books, with a couple of more modern entries.  I haven't read the modern ones, but I'm putting them on my to-do list right now.

Blog Updates

This is more of a 'state of the blog' type post than anything else.  If you're here just for the Great Books, you can skip it.

Last week there were hardly any new posts.  The posts on the Great Books themselves have become fewer and further in between.  I don't exactly like that, but I expect that it will continue.  This post is a way of coming clean on that instead of pretending that it isn't happening.
There are several reasons for it, and I'll share the biggest one here.  Some time ago I got an idea: what if, in the span of one year, a person could see all of Shakespeare's plays on stage?  It would take a lot of theaters to make that happen.  Minnesota boasts of 'most stages per capita' so this is one place where it could work.  So I wrote some letters to various theaters and pitched the idea.  Some people liked the idea and, long story short, I'm now working with some people to make a statewide celebration of Shakespeare.  This means time and, more importantly, mental energy.  And thus the blog suffers.
There may be some other life changes happening too, most notably a change in employment.  This (probably) won't change my pace of reading the Great Books, but it will change how much I blog about them.  It will also mean that for the time being, I'm putting the 100 best plays project on hiatus.  The poetry project wraps up in a few weeks, so I'll let that end on time.  I expect that I'll still log the other books I've read because I kind of like having a record and (more importantly!) I like to spread good books to other people.

Anyhoo, there may be fewer posts but the reasons behind that is good.  If the Shakespeare celebration happens like I picture, it will be an enormously good thing.  That's worth putting some other things on the back burner.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Dylan Thomas - Poetry

This next poem is from Dylan Thomas and it's titled 'Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night'.  This poem was written to his father as he was dying.  Sadly, Dylan Thomas didn't live very long.  Died before he was forty.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, to late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

In some ways this seems more like a classic poem than a modern one.  There is a rhyme scheme, though a very simple one.  I think that it's the repeated poetic phrases though.  'Do not go gentle into that good night/... Rage, rage against the dying of the light.'  Both phrases are magnificent.  The rest of the poem hardly matters.
I'm also struck by how dated this sentiment seems.  There is a popular thought in our society that when someone feels ready to die, we should cheer them on to the finish line.  Not so, says Thomas.  We should fight on.  We shouldn't meekly submit.  I'm quite curious about how this poem would be received by advocates of euthanasia. 
I quite like it myself.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Woody Guthrie - Poetry

I'm hit or miss with these 20th century poets, but this one is a hit.  The poet is Woody Guthrie and the poem is one I've known since I was a child.  First verse anyway.  It's 'This Land is Your Land'.

This land is your land
This land is my land
From California to the New York island
From the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway:
I saw below me that golden valley:
This land was made for you and me.

I've roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond desserts;
And all around me a voice was sounding:
This land was made for you and me.

As I went walking, I saw a sign there,
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back,
This land was made for you and me.

As I mentioned up above, I only really knew the first verse.  The second and third verses are familiar to me, so maybe we sang them in school.  (I wonder if school kids still sing this?  I'll have to ask my daughter.)  The first half is a well loved song, maybe second only to 'America the Beautiful' in terms of well loved patriotic American songs.  The second half gets into some touchy politics and I'm sure isn't as well loved.  I'll just say that I'm more a fan of property rights than Woody Guthrie and leave it there.
Maybe it's just because I'm more familiar to this as a song, but I think it doesn't work as well as a straight poem.  Which isn't that much of an issue, since Woody Guthrie clearly meant it as a song.  Still, I don't know that I would include it in a list of greatest poems.
Editors prerogative, I guess.

Readings for October

Two pieces for September.

Mill: Representative Government (Ch1-6) link
Lavoisier: Elements of Chemistry (Part 1) link

Some solid reading there but nothing too bad.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

What is Science?

This is a very interesting article on the definition of science. 
A little history: The first proto-scientist was the Greek intellectual Aristotle, who wrote many manuals of his observations of the natural world and who also was the first person to propose a systematic epistemology, i.e., a philosophy of what science is and how people should go about it. Aristotle's definition of science became famous in its Latin translation as: rerum cognoscere causas, or, "knowledge of the ultimate causes of things." For this, you can often see in manuals Aristotle described as the Father of Science.
The problem with that is that it's absolutely not true. Aristotelian "science" was a major setback for all of human civilization. For Aristotle, science started with empirical investigation and then used theoretical speculation to decide what things are caused by.
What we now know as the "scientific revolution" was a repudiation of Aristotle: science, not as knowledge of the ultimate causes of things but as the production of reliable predictive rules through controlled experimentation.
This is somewhat hand in hand with the history of 'Le Cid' in which Corneille got grief for going outside of Aristotle's rules.
Galileo disproved Aristotle's "demonstration" that heavier objects should fall faster than light ones by creating a subtle controlled experiment (contrary to legend, he did not simply drop two objects from the Tower of Pisa). What was so important about this Galileo Moment was not that Galileo was right and Aristotle wrong; what was so important was how Galileo proved Aristotle wrong: through experiment.
This method of doing science was then formalized by one of the greatest thinkers in history, Francis Bacon. What distinguishes modern science from other forms of knowledge such as philosophy is that it explicitly forsakes abstract reasoning about the ultimate causes of things and instead tests empirical theories through controlled investigation. Science is not the pursuit of capital-T Truth. It's a form of engineering — of trial by error. Scientific knowledge is not "true" knowledge, since it is knowledge about only specific empirical propositions — which is always, at least in theory, subject to further disproof by further experiment. Many people are surprised to hear this, but the founder of modern science says it. Bacon, who had a career in politics and was an experienced manager, actually wrote that scientists would have to be misled into thinking science is a pursuit of the truth, so that they will be dedicated to their work, even though it is not.
Even though I've quoted at length, the full article is worth reading, especially for the comparison to modern approaches.  As far as the critique of Aristotle goes, Bertrand Russell said something similar about the launch of the Italian renaissance.  The rediscovery of old texts allowed readers to choose between Aristotle's insights and those of Plato (and others).  This opened up intellectual space for challenges to settled dictum.  New things were discovered, new avenues were explored and things absolutely blossomed. 

I do wonder how well we do this today.  I'd argue that once a scientific idea gets politicized, it is very hard to keep it in the scientific realm.  Each camp looks for signals of agreement rather than testing for evidence.  The only way that this can change is by a revolt amongst scientists and I don't see that happening any time soon.
I also wonder about the art world.  Makers of art have never had more freedom of theory to pursue their ends.  In fact, the idea that there is a limit to what may be described as art is wildly unpopular.  I don't know that this has led to a better overall universe of art.  In the museums of the year 3000, will there be more art from 1700's or the 1900's? 
I've got my suspicions but if I'm right, what does that say about the usefulness of rules?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Le Cid - Corneille (91)

Reading 'Le Cid' is somewhat like seeing a version of 'Romeo and Juliet' with a different focus.  Oh, the style is more straight poetry and the events are certainly different, but the overall focus of a conflict between love and family and honor is the same.  The major plot points in 'Le Cid' are:

  • We start with our heroine, Chimene, waiting for the arrival of her true love, Rodrigue, also known as le Cid, or 'the lord'.  He gained this nickname on the battlefield.  While waiting, her father and his father get into a fight.  Rodrigue's father is struck and he calls on his son to avenge him.  
  • Le Cid is stuck between honor and his love for Chimene.  He chooses the honorable avenue and challenges Chimene's father to a duel.  Le Cid is victorious and the father dies.  
  • Now Chimene is in a bind.  Does she side with her love or does she ask the king for help to avenge her father?  She also chooses honor and asks the king for Le Cid's death.
  • Chimene and Rodrigue meet.  They both love each other but they feel compelled to go forward.  Rodrigue offers to kill himself but Chimene won't let him.  She must still pursue honorable justice though and press on with the king.
  • The Moors attack the city.  Le Cid goes to defend the city and covers himself with glory. 
  • Chimene realizes that the king can't order him to be executed so she asks that he be tried by single combat and offers to marry anyone that can kill him.  (And you thought your love life was complicated!)  
  • The king can see that the two love each other.  He changes the conditions of the fight so that she must marry the victor.  
  • Chimene and Rodrigue meet again.  He tells her that he won't defend himself in this duel and she urges him to do so.  She wants him to win, but, for the sake of honor, he must go through with the fight.
  • Le Cid wins the fight but spares the other fighter, Don Sanche.  Don Sanche goes to Chimene and she believes that he has killed Rodrigue.  This is straightened out.
  • The lovers aren't sure that they should wed but the king gives them his blessing.  They acted as nobly as they could and they should be married.
  • Finis.
I mentioned 'Romeo and Juliet' up top, but what kept coming to my mind was 'West Side Story'.  Maria has lost her brother to Tony but she still loves him.  Can't stop loving him.  (In fairness, if she had more time to come to grips with what had happened, the story might have been different.)  Here we see a similar dynamic, but with a father instead of a brother.  And, in much the same way as Maria, Chimene has almost no time to absorb any of this.  (Did I mention that all of the above plot points happen over the course of a single day?)

I liked 'Le Cid' and it's worthy enough to be on a list like this on its own merit.  I think though, that it was given further historical weight because it brought about a large argument in France when it came out in 1637.  Enemies of Corneille argued that the play was improper for a number of reasons.  Corneille had based all of the action in one single day so that he could satisfy the dramatic rules laid down by Aristotle.  His critics argues that this day was overloaded.  (They have a point.)  They also said that it was highly improper for a daughter to happily wed the man who killed her father.  Corneille pointed out that his story was rooted in historical fact but they answered that 'There are monstrous truths that must be repressed for the good of society'.  
I don't remember reading that in Aristotle.  

Next up is #90, 'The Weavers' by Gerhart Hauptmann.  The play was published in 1897, so not quite 20th century but close to it.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Elizabeth Bishop - Poetry

Another new name to me, Elizabeth Bishop.  The poem is titled 'Visits to St. Elizabeth's' and is based on an actual visit the poet made to see Ezra Pound while he was in a mental hospital.

This is the house of Bedlam.

This is the man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.

This is the time
of the tragic man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.

This is a wristwatch
telling the time
of the talkative man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.

This is a sailor
wearing the watch
that tells the time
of the honored man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.

This is the roadstead all of board
reached by the sailor
wearing the watch
that tells the time
of the old, brave man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.

These are the years and the walls of the ward,
the winds and the clouds of the sea of board
sailed by the sailor
wearing the watch
that tells the time
of the cranky man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.

This is a Jew in a newspaper hat
that dances weeping down the ward
over the creaking sea of board
beyond the sailor
winding his watch
that tells the time
of the cruel man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.

This is a world of books gone flat.
This is a Jew in a newspaper hat
that dances weeping down the ward
over the creaking sea of board
of the batty sailor
that winds his watch
that tells the time
of the busy man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.

This is a boy that pats the floor
to see if the world is there, is flat,
for the widowed Jew in the newspaper hat
that dances weeping down the ward
waltzing the length of a weaving board
by the silent sailor
that hears his watch
that ticks the time
of the tedious man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.

These are the years and the walls and the door
that shut on a boy that pats the floor
to feel if the world is there and flat.
This is a Jew in a newspaper hat
that dances joyfully down the ward
into the parting seas of board
past the staring sailor
that shakes the watch
that tells the time
of the poet, the man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.

This is the soldier home from the war.
These are the years and the walls and the door
that shut on a boy that pats the floor
to see if the world is round or flat.
This is a Jew in a newspaper hat
that dances carefully down the ward,
walking the plank of a coffin board
with the crazy sailor
that shows his watch
that tells the time
of the wretched man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.

Hmmmm.  There is an interesting trick to this poem.  As you read it, did your reading speed up?  Each stanza is a bit longer and you naturally bump up the speed to keep up.  Very clever. 
The 'story' of the poem tells us how terrible things are in the mental hospital.  How surreal and unworthy for a great man, such as Ezra Pound.  It's not hard to believe this. 
But still, the poem doesn't do much for me.  It doesn't hit the emotional hot-spots that some of the other on this list have.  Maybe that's just me.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Essay Concerning Human Understanding - Locke

(This concerns various chapters of Book 3 only.)

In this piece by Locke, he considers how language came about.  In the first three chapters, he opens by suggesting that early man made sounds and that over time, those sounds gained shared meaning.  The concrete items would be first (rock, fire, animal, etc.).  More abstract terms would take time and would have a much greater amount of potential misunderstanding.  I don't know how this squares with our modern understanding of early languages but this makes sense to me.  I'd never considered the probable differences between concrete and abstract concepts, but that also makes sense.  'Fire' is 'fire' and there isn't much argument about it.  On the other hand, even common abstract terms like 'love' are very subjective and easily misunderstood. 
Chapters 9-11 deal more with the imperfection of words (and those that use them).  He speaks of such things as words with double meanings and poorly defined terms.  The most interesting part to me though was Locke's observation on how badly we talk about important things, like art, religion and politics.  This seems to include increasingly technical language.  He says:
What have been the effect of those multiplied curious distinctions, and acute niceties, but obscurity and uncertainty, leaving the words more unintelligible, and the reader more at a loss? How else comes it to pass that princes, speaking or writing to their servants, in their ordinary commands are easily understood; speaking to their people, in their laws, are not so?
 This section came back to me several times while I was trying to puzzle out Kant.  It also made me think of Mark Twain, of all people.  If you read various 19th century novels, you'll note an enormous stylistic difference between writers like Hawthorne and Dickens and Mark Twain.  The former have always given me problems while the more plain spoken, easy going Twain never has.
The other thing that I wondered was how much of an influence did Locke's thoughts have on eventual dictionaries?  Locke published this essay in 1690.  Samuel Johnson's landmark 'A Dictionary of the English Language' was published in 1755.  Could be.

I enjoyed this.  Locke had made a somewhat Aristotelian attempt to classify language, find common problems and propose solutions to them.  

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Rover - Behn (92)

Before I talk about 'The Rover', let me speak a little about the author, Aphra Behn.  I'd never heard of her before, and perhaps you haven't either.  (Here is her Wikipedia page, if you want more depth.)  Aphra Behn was (probably) the first woman to earn her living by writing.  Or at least the first European one.  She published 'The Rover' in 1677, some sixty years after Shakespeare died.  Her drama is very bawdy and, from what I can tell, she is little produced nowadays.
Which is a damn shame because 'The Rover' is a fun, fun play.  It focuses on a household of women in Naples.  The women are of different status levels and experience in love.  They have certain romantic and commercial entanglements.  And in fact, the romance and the commerce are quite tangled together.  They meet a band of English cavaliers and, well, the tangling continues more and more.  It's a comedy, but the topics covered have a tinge of seriousness. 
The women are smart and sophisticated.  They understand that vows of true love come with a dear price.  When one of the women, Helena, is talking to one of the cavaliers before he goes to a duel, she asks:

And if you do not lose, what shall I get? A cradle full of noise and mischief and a pack of repentance for my back?
What a great line!  The dialogue is full of wonderful lines.  It's a shame that this isn't better known.  I could easily see a period piece movie done from this script.  It would do as well as a good Shakespearean adaptation.  Anyway, if you get a chance, do see it.

Next up: 'Le Cid' by Pierre Corneille, also from the 17th century.  I've been somewhat delayed from writing so I've already read ahead.  Expect this review to go up next week.  

Monday, September 8, 2014

Admitting Defeat - Kant

I'm throwing in the towel on Kant's 'Science of Right'.  I've worked and worked at the first quarter of it and it's just not making sense to me.  I've decided that life is too short and I'm moving on.  I'll read  a few summaries of the piece in the hopes that other people could write better than Kant could.  (This isn't a tough bet.)  I'll post on those and if anyone wants to correct my misunderstandings, then they are welcome to do so.

I don't feel good about this, but I'm sure it's the right move. 

Sunday, September 7, 2014

W.H. Auden - Poetry

This week's poem is by a poet that I have heard of, W.H. Auden and, as luck would have it, the poem is literally the only one of his that I know.  This is 'Funeral Blues'.

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling the sky the message He is dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, My South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Wow.  Just wow.  What a powerful poem.  What a rendering of utter grief.  You read this and your heart simply aches for the speaker.
This if familiar to me from the movie 'Four Weddings and a Funeral'.  You may remember the scene:

Simply amazing.

Wednesday, September 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

Monday, September 1, 2014

Pablo Neruda - Poetry

Ok, this poet I know, though I haven't read any of his works before.  This is Pablo Neruda, one of the most famous poets of the 20th century.  The poem is titled, fittingly enough, 'Poetry'.

And it was at that age . . . Poetry arrived
in search of me. I don't know, I don't know where
it came from, from winter or a river.
I don't know how or when,
no, they were not voices, they were not
words, nor silence,
but from a street I was summoned,
from the branches of night,
abruptly from the others,
among violent fires
or returning alone,
there I was without a face
and it touched me.

I did now know what to say, my mouth
had no way
with names,
my eyes were blind,
and something started in my soul,
fever or forgotten wings,
and I made my own way,

that fire,
and I wrote the first faint line,
faint, without substance, pure
pure wisdom
of someone who knows nothing,
and suddenly I saw
the heavens
and open,
palpitating plantations,
shadow perforated,
with arrows, fire and flowers,
the winding night, the universe.

And I, infinitesimal being,
drunk with the great starry
likeness, image of
felt myself a pure part
of the abyss,
I wheeled with the stars,
my heart broke loose on the wind.

I like it.  I love the idea of the spirit of poetry descending upon an unaware boy and changing him over.  (I don't know if that's really how it works.)  We've all had times like that when something simply clicks in us and the world opens up.  This captures that moment in perfect poetic quality.  The original is in Spanish but I think that this translation works well.
I'll keep an eye out for more Neruda.

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

The Locke is pretty easy to read through.  I started the Kant last night and, well, it's going to take some effort.  Good luck!