Sunday, July 31, 2016

Books Read in July

July felt like a busy month for reading.

Great Books, by David Denby - I chanced on this book while at a used bookstore.  Denby is a film critic who had something of a mid-life crisis and decided to go back to school and take some humanities classes at Columbia.  He'd taken them years before but couldn't remember the impact of the various readings so he went back.  The results are quite book.
This book is arranged, chapter by chapter, by which author is being read.  This allows Denby to concentrate on what he read and how it affected him.  He also talks quite a bit about the war on 'dead white men'.  His conclusion is that the readings of the western canon are too much in conflict and invite too much self inspection to be ably accused of setting up hegemony.  I quite agree.
Night, by Elie Wiesel - I've had this book on my shelf for years but had never read it.  When I heard of Wiesel's death, I finally made time to do so.  'Night' is Wiesel's account of being rounded up and taken into the Jewish holocaust.  It starts with ignoring a warning from an escapee and takes him through various camps.  Near the end, death is everywhere.
'Night' is like a punch to the gut.  The experience related is so incredibly awful.  Wiesel writes not only about the physical atrocities but also about his loss of faith and larger humanity.  Fathers and sons are destroyed and destroyed so completely that they have trouble caring if the other survived.  Incredible book.
Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehsi Coates - This is the most recent of the books that I read in July and it seemed almost taken from the headlines.  Coates has written a booklength letter to his son about the problems he will have growing up as a black man.  The biggest problem is that his physical safety will be at risk because of a society that doesn't care about the safety of black men.
This book is something of a personal history as Coates narrates how his approach to the world was created.  It's touching and eye-opening.  I was reading this while two very high profile deaths of black men by police happened.  While I didn't agree with everything written here, Coates is right that this part of the system is absolutey broken.  Very well worth reading.
A Room of One's Own, by Virginia Woolf - This choice was inspired by Denby's 'Great Books'.  Back in 1928, Woolf was asked to give a lecture on 'Women and Fiction'.  She made up the lightly fictionalized experience of a 'Mary Beton' and talked about how women were systematically excluded from the broad opportunities of school and learning.  She shares how the simple expedient of having some dependable money to live on and a room of one's own are the minimal keys to allow someone to write.  She then explores how rare these opportunities have been for women.
The most devastating part of this lecture to me was an extended thought experiment on how a sister of Shakespeare would have been treated.  Her poetic talents wouldn't have been fed through schooling.  She would have been forced to marry by her parents.  Even if she'd run away to the big city (like William did), she wouldn't be able to work in the theater.  And if her trying to do so, her chastity was lost, she could end up being fully rejected by society.
This was also a great read.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Links to the Past

Vatican digitizes a 1600 year old manuscript of the Aeneid link

Why China's love affair with Shakespeare endures link

The man who invented fiction: What we owe to Cervantes link

Where we get Hercules 12 labors from link

Zeno and Zeno (Existential Comics) link

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Letter Concerning Toleration - Locke

Locke's 'A Letter Concerning Toleration'  seems a bit odd at times, because the message is so completely obvious.  Locke says 'I esteem that toleration to be the chief characteristic of the true Church' and then backs up this observation at length.  I liked this bit:
The toleration of those that differ from others in matters of religion is so agreeable to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to the genuine reason of mankind, that it seems monstrous for men to be so blind as not to perceive the necessity and advantage of it in so clear a light.

And this:
I esteem it above all things necessary to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion and to settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other.

That still seems like a tricky distinction to some, but mostly now because of our difficulties with drawing barriers for government actions.  As I said, the message is obvious because this has been our reality for some time but we must remember that when Locke wrote this, England was in convulsions over how people worship.  Today we see little difference between Catholics and mainline protestant worshipers but the distinction then was big enough to cause wars.
One interesting note is that Locke does not preach tolerance to atheists.  He was afraid that their disconnect from belief in God would make them wholly amoral and untrustworthy.  I don't know what he would have thought of the Deism of Jefferson or similar.
This piece is interesting and short, but more of historical interest now than a guide to personal behavior.  Yes, we should let people worship how they will, especially without the guidance or interference of the state.  Yes, it's wrong and un-Christian to try to physically force people to worship in a certain way. 
But we know that now.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Timon of Athens - Shakespeare

Timon is a wealthy man of Athens.  He is generous with his wealth, perhaps to a fault.  Near the opening of the play, he casually assists a friend of his with money so that he can be married.  The word 'casual' is perhaps the best way to describe his finances.  He gives gifts and feasts to all of his friends. 
This drives his steward, Flavius, mad.  Timon's wealth is all draining away and, try as he might, he cannot get his master to take the problem seriously.  This is true, right up until several creditors appear at the same time and demand their money immediately.  Flavius can't pay them and Timon at last understands his problems. 
The word quickly goes out to Timon's friends that he is in difficulty and they are asked to give a little to help him out.  All of them find reasons to beg off from helping him.  Timon's generosity has destroyed him and the ingratitude of his former friends has rubbed salt in his wounds.  Timon invites them over for one last feast and serves them nothing but warm water.
Timon then retreats to the woods to become something of a cynical hermit and misanthrope.  He hates all humanity and if anyone comes across him in the woods, he isn't afraid to let them have it.  After several such encounters, we finally learn that he has died and left not one, but two different epitaphs cursing everyone that dares come near his grave.

This wasn't my favorite of Shakespeare's tragedies, by a long shot.  Timon's generosity is overdone and the reaction of his suitors is too.  Both seem more like cartoons than real people.  The final acts are unrelentingly bitter and angry.  Timon doesn't appear flawed so much as stupid.
There are a couple of sub-plots that I skated over.  There is a philosopher named Apemantus who is something of the cynical bent.  The script describes him as 'churlish' and that might be.  Frankly the man is an ass and no one wants to be near him.  Near the end, Timon competes with him to see who can be more unbearable.  They both lose.
There is also a subplot regarding Alcibiades, an Athenian captain who is exiled from Athens.  He returns with soldiers to wreak havoc on his former city in much the same way that Coriolanus does.  Athens is weak and fat and the message is that they deserve such treatment. 
Probably they do.  If a theme of King Lear is disaster brought down upon the undeserved, then a theme of Timon is that the deserved will get their disaster good and hard.  It's not the most cheerful of plays. 
Frankly, I didn't care for it. 

Monday, July 25, 2016

Romeo and Juliet - Shakespeare

This may be Shakespeare's most well known story, so I won't bother with a plot recap.  Instead, I'll just jump into the parts that interested me most.

I was in this play more than twenty years ago (back when I had hair and looked like my profile picture), but I hadn't reread it since.  I've seen the Baz Lurhman version and the movie 'Shakespeare in Love' which features the story prominently.  (I own both of them.)  But I haven't read through it.
I was amazed at how fresh the language seemed to me.  Large chunks of it came back, most from the spaces where I was on stage.  An enormous amount seemed familiar to me.  But it isn't stale.  The language is still fresh and authentic.  It isn't hard to imagine the teenage love of Juliet and Romeo producing that set of thoughts and words.
When the two lovers talk about each other, it creates some of the greatest love poetry ever.  They have given each other over to love, perhaps in the way that only teenagers without the scars of previous refusal can.  It is the way that we want to feel about being in love.

How many times do the lovers actually meet?
1. They first meet at the party.
2. Shortly after, they meet in the garden/balcony.
3. The next day(!) they are secretly married.
4. After killing Tybalt, Romeo visits Juliet for their wedding night.  They part in the morning.
5. They meet in the tomb, each thinking the other dead.  They kill themselves.

Five meetings in total.  Only four while living.  It's a very quick love story.  Of interest, to me, at least, this makes the story more closely fit into Aristotle's theory of unity of theater.  The action takes place not in one day, but over the space of just a few days.
I have no idea if Shakespeare had that in mind when he wrote this.  His earlier tragedy did not fit this pattern and of course the histories take place over a lengthy time period.  His comedies are a bit more hit and miss, with at least fairly compressed time spans.  Of the tragedies, however, I believe this one takes the shortest amount of calendar time.

As adults, we can cynically sit back and wonder about this.  If my children, when they become teens, become so passionately wrapped up in love as Juliet or Romeo, I would be worried.  I would constantly urge them to patience and time.  (My personal theory is that we don't know who anyone will be until about the age of 22.)  One reading of the play is that they burned so bright and so fast because they were young.  If they could have slowed down, they could have averted tragedy.
Maybe.  Though Shakespeare gives them a spur.  Juliet is to be wed to Paris, who is something of a blank.  This wedding will be quick, a weeks notice or less.  They don't really have time for patience.
If anything, the warning here should be not to force your 13 year old daughter to marry someone.

I loved reading this again.  My daughter is almost nine.  She knows the bare outlines of the story, but not the heart of it yet.  I look forward to sharing it with her, and the boys, when they are old enough.  Such beauty.
I don't exactly envy teens who have fallen in love, but I recognize how wonderful/terrible it can be.  It is a prime human experience.  Shakespeare captures the wonderful/terrible aspect of it as well as anyone has.  This is a great play. 

Monday, July 18, 2016

Titus Andronicus - Shakespeare

We open the curtain on a Roman general, Titus Andronicus, returning from a conquest over the Goths.  He has brought back a Gothic queen, Tamora, and several of her sons.  He is quickly convinced to sacrifice one of the sons to the gods.  Tamora pleads for mercy but he won't hear of it and the son is killed.  Titus will come to regret this.
I won't go through the entire plot, because it is complicated and, more importantly, I greatly enjoyed reading it as it unfolded.  Revenge is sought and gained.  This brings about even more revenge in more and more terrible forms.  And I do mean terrible.  'Titus Andronicus' is one of Shakespeare's earliest and most bloody plays.  (Even more than Macbeth, though perhaps not as famously.) 
In this play we get rape and mutilation.  We get family killing each other.  We get people tricked into mutilating themselves.  And (most famously) we get people killed and secretly baked into food.  This play is a parade of horribles.
We also get passionate family love.  We get breathtaking treachery.  And we get, in Aaron, one of Shakespeare's best written villains.  Aaron is a Moor, i.e. black, and I'm sure that his role doesn't not reflect well on Shakespeare's racial sensibilities or the time in which it was written.  But he is clever and ruthless and also tender and loving. 

Did I enjoy the play?  I did.  While it doesn't have the high nobility of the later tragedies, it does have a plot with a lot of push.  As I was reading it, I very much wanted to know what would happen next.  It's fascinating in a horrible way, but still fascinating. 
I was reading about a performance in England back in the 50's where they tried to stay true to the violence in the text.  The audience was greatly upset with people fainting and having to leave early because they were so upset.   I can see how that would be the case.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Light Blogging

Apologies for the lack of posts.  This week turned crazy busy.  Next week I'll be away from the computer completely, so it will be slow (except for a schedule post or two).  Hopefully things will get back to normal after that.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Gargantua and Pantagruel - Rabelais

(This concerns books 3 and 4 only.)

With book three, we rejoin Pantagruel and his friend Panurge.  Panurge now has some money to himself and there is a lengthy discussion about whether or not he should marry.  Pantagruel says that he should but Panurge is afraid that he will be cuckolded; that his wife will sleep around on him.  They agree to consult various sources for advice.  This includes wisemen, learned men, married men.  It also includes various forms of fortune telling.  The answer is remarkably uniform: if he marries, his wife will sleep around and he will end up beaten and robbed.
Panurge refuses all of these answers.  He constantly finds ways to deflect and reimagine the advice or prediction.  In this, he shows off high abuse of logic in every way imaginable.  He also shows disrespect for every level of authority he can find.  I laughed and laughed.
In book four, the two friends go on a long sea voyage so that they can consult with an oracle known as the 'Divine Bottle'.  This trip reminded me of Gulliver's Travels, in that they go to many different bizarre and absurd places.  The strangest is an island of 'Chitterlings', which are sausage like beings.  They fight against Pantagruel until a giant pig flies overhead and excretes mustard over everyone.  The book ends without a satisfying conclusion.  There is a fifth book but there is great doubt as to whether it was written by Rabelais.  It was published some years after his death.  There is speculation that it contains materials of his that were then polished up by someone else or not.  I didn't read it.

Rabelais is something of an acquired taste.  He is disrespectful of authority, writes outrageous things about women, is incredibly fond of bathroom humor and is very, very funny.  I wouldn't recommend him to everyone, but he has an important role in Western thought (as I've argued here).  We need to be able to laugh at those in power and Rabelais helps us in this.  I love that he is included in the Great Books of the Western World.
Not that his role is as easy as others to communicate.  Last year I read a book called 'Dead White Guys' by Matt Buriesci.  The author wrote this book as a gift to his young daughter for when she turns 18.  He read through the first year of the ten year plan and wrote about each of the pieces.  Except one.  He skips Rabelais. 
I don't blame him for this.  I would be hard pressed to really explain to my young children why Rabelais was important and why he still is important.  For one, they have no trouble questioning my authority and two, they're already too fond of bathroom jokes for my taste. 
One other small note: the ten year reading plan divides Rabelais in an awful manner.  His first two books come up in the first year.  The second two don't arrive until the seventh year.  Putting six years (and more than 100 other works) between the two sections is outrageous. 

Friday, July 8, 2016

Links to the Past

Shakespeare's politics and his sonnets link

Reddit thread: What's the most intellectual joke you know link

Reflections on Athenian democracy from today's Britain link

Early encounters with Shakespeare link

Intellectual Value of Modern Philosophy link

Socratesman (Existential Comics) link 

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Romances - Shakespeare

There are only five plays that are commonly put into Shakespeare's 'romance' category. 

The Winter's Tale
The Tempest
Two Noble Kinsmen

Of the five, I liked the Tempest the most and The Winter's Tale the least.  Of the other three, I'd probably change the ranking from day to day.  As a group, I didn't like them as much as the comedies.  (Or the histories or tragedies, for that matter.)
From what I've read, in the latter stages of Shakespeare's career, his productions moved from a larger, more open theater to a smaller, more intimate one.  It's been suggested that this created a desire for more effect laden shows.  (I have no idea if that's true.)  If so, the plays suffer from being read and not watched.
It's also been noted that the later part of Shakespeare's career involved a different type of language construction and I can attest to that.  As each play started, it was hard for me to get into what was being talked about.  The speech is more convoluted and most be followed very closely.  I didn't care for it, though I understand that others may feel differently.

The feel of the romances is very different than the comedies.  The love stories are secondary.  There is death and injury everywhere, both threatened and realized.  The main men are largely unsympathetic.  I smiled and chuckled at times while reading the comedies, but not here.  They all end happily (to an extant), usually with family reunions, but they all feel like hard fought escapes rather than light fun.
Other connections?  Appeals to Roman gods.  With the exception of the Tempest, the Roman gods are all appealed to, or actually make an appearance.  They guide the players towards a conclusion, for good or ill.  I don't know why this is and I wouldn't have noticed it if I hadn't read them all in a tight timeframe.
Also, this is an era of simply outstanding names.  From 'Pericles' we get characters such as Thaisa and Leonine.  (Not to mention the title character.)  From 'Cymbeline', we get Imogen.  'Winter's Tale' gives us Hermione and Perdita.  'The Tempest' has such wonderful names as Prospero, Ariel and Caliban.  And finally, 'Two Noble Kinsmen' has Artesius and Emilia.  I'm sure that baby-naming books get a workout from these five plays.

These five weren't my favorites (though I'm glad I can now say that I've read them).  If these were representative of the full Shakespeare canon, he would not nearly be so well thought of today.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Two Noble Kinsmen - Shakespeare

'Two Noble Kinsmen' opens with the Duke of Athens, Theseus, and his new wife Hippolyta, being asked by three queens to come to their aid.  Their kings have been killed by the city of Thebes but the king there, Creon, won't allow them to be buried with proper rights.  Theseus goes to war with Thebes.  In battle, he captures two Creon's nephews, Palamon and Arcite.  It is generally agreed that they were outstanding in war.  Theseus decides to hold them prisoner.
Palamon and Arcite quickly become the stars of the prison.  These two cousins are fast friends and exemplars of cousinly love.  Until they spot Emilia, Hippolyta's sister.  They both fall for her and quickly denounce the other for daring to intrude on that love. 
Arcite is freed on bail but refuses to leave the kingdom.  He hides and disguises himself.  He then becomes a member of Theseus' court so he can be near Emilia.  Palamon breaks free from prison with the help of a jailor's daughter.  He also seeks out Emilia so he can be near her. 
The two cousins meet and after much friendly discussion, decide to settle the matter in combat to the death.  Theseus and his court come upon them and stop the fight.  The court is overwhelmed with the nobility of the cousins and they beg Emilia to choose one of the suitors.  She can't.  Instead, the cousins are bound to come back in one month and do battle for her.
Before the battle takes place, the members of the love triangle all make pledges at shrines for Mars, Venus and Diana.  (Or, loosely, War, Love and Virginity.) Each is given a sign in response.  The battle takes place and Arcite bests Palamon.  But before a wedding can take place, Arcite's horse throws him and busts his head.  He gives his blessing to Palamon and dies. 

I didn't know this beforehand, but this is Shakespeare retelling the Knight's story from Chaucer, which I just read in May.  Almost all of Shakespeare is a retelling but this is the first time that I have read the source story first.  It's interesting to see how the two great authors emphasize different elements of the story.  With Chaucer, there was much more of a gloss on the fine chivalry of the event.  Shakespeare leavens that with a side story of the jailor's daughter who was used and thrown away.  (I felt very sorry for her.)
Shakespeare also feels more grounded than Chaucer.  The people feel more real than the more legendary feel from the Knight's tale.  I'd give the edge to the Bard, but both versions are enjoyable. 

There are some very good roles here, but the one that interested me most was Emilia.  She is a girl of high status who suddenly finds that these two guys (boys? men? teens?) are fighting for her love.  The choice is up to her and if she can't make a choice then one of them will kill the other.  Talk about being put on the spot! 
She can't choose and she feels awful about this.  I would love to see a modern retelling with the focus on Emilia.  How does she sort through all of this?  How far should she go to avoid bloodshed?  And yes, this is all wildly unfair to her.  Even at the end, as she agrees to marry Arcite, he is suddenly killed and she gets to marry Palamon.  How awful!

Most of the romance plays have disputed authorship issues.  'Two Noble Kinsmen' has less of a dispute and more broad agreement that this was written as a partnership.  The version I read points out some of the probable areas that are not Shakespeare.  This includes a prologue and an epilogue and neither of them is especially noteworthy.
Is it still worth reading?  Yeah, I think it is.  It would crack the top half of the comedies in my mind, but there is still a good story here.  I would enjoy seeing a production of it.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Winter's Tale - Shakespeare

The Winter's Tale starts with the trouble a-brewing.  The king of Bohemia, Polixenes, has been visiting his dear friend the king of Sicilia, Leontes.  Apparently the stay has been a long one as Leontes is urging him to stay a bit longer but Polixenes is anxious to go.  As an aside, Leontes is certain that Polixenes has been invading his marriage bed and has knocked up the queen of Sicilia, Hermione.  He is so certain of this, that he is planning killing the visiting king and requests that one of his lords off him.
This lord, Camillo, won't do it.  In fact, he tells Polixenes of the danger and all flee to Bohemia.  Leontes is so certain of the guilt that he publicly accuses Hermione of adultery.  She is sent off to prison where she gives birth.  Leontes demands that the child be sent off to the wilderness and left for dead.
There is some back and forth about a trial but the upshot is that the queen is declared guilty and then quickly dead.  Also, Leontes has asked for a word from the Oracle and defied it.  As soon as he does so, his grown son is reported dead.  Leontes is very upset that he has lost his whole family.  (No kidding!)
The child, Perdita, is indeed taken off to the wilderness by a defender of the queen's named Antigonus.  As soon as he arrives in the wild, he meets a bear and is famously chased offstage.  ('Exit pursued by a bear.')  Perdita is found by a shepherd and saved.
Many years pass (in a speech literally given by Time) and things pull together about how you'd expect.  Polixenes son, Mamillius, meets Perdita and falls in love.  They flee Bohemia and end up in Sicilia where they are taken in front of the king.  They've been chased there by Polixenes himself and together, the kings reconcile.  Leontes realizes that this is his lost daughter and all that is needed for a full reunion is his poor queen Hermione, dead all these years.  But it turns out ok, as she has been hiding as a statue for some time.  Everything ends happily.

Leontes jealousy in the beginning is very reminiscent of Othello, though this time we don't get any of the front story.  In some ways, he also reminded me of King Lear, tearing his family apart without any mercy or forethought at all.  The roof caves in on him and I'm sure the audience feels like he ends up getting off easy. 
This play might have the greatest collection of names in all of Shakespeare.  JK Rowling got 'Hermione' from here, but Polixenes and Perdita are both great.  In fact, both would be good names for a pair of kittens...  As would Leontes, Dion and Florizel.  The name work here is really spectacular.

Did I like the play?  I don't know.  Leontes seems so heavy handed that you can't identify with him.  The threads for the happy ending are so obvious as to be bothersome.  The only real surprise is that of the 'statue' coming to life at the end.  It's hard for me to see how that would work well without seeming hokey.  Maybe it's better on the stage than from a book, but I wasn't thrilled by it.