Thursday, January 31, 2008
This is going to be the last post on the Faerie Queene (I promise).
Although I find myself of late disliking almost all of the real writers, artists, intellectuals, etc, that I see or read about, I do still believe that regular human beings have naturally a much larger capacity for artistic development and engagement with life than most seem to attain. I also increasingly think that our culture and way of life stifles this and makes artistic, as well as intellectual, behavior, when it does occur, much more artificial and outside the common stream of life than it properly ought to be. An incident that occurred when I was in the Czech Republic made a strong impression on me in this regard. In that nation it was not unusual, at a party or even at a tavern, for people to sing communally, accompanied by a guitar or other instrument if one happened to be at hand, and though nearly everyone had a reasonable level of competence in these areas, enough at least to contribute to a genuinely lively atmosphere, there was no distinction between performers and non-performers, indeed the performers were participating rather than performing, and anyone desiring to join in would have found no barrier to his doing so. On one of these occasions another American, besides myself, happened to make one of the group and he asked if he might play something on the guitar. Having been given the instrument he demonstrated no awareness of the spirit of the gathering and immediately began to play some piece requiring technical virtuosity, no doubt seeking the admiration of the crowd, or the most important part of it, that being in his mind at some deep level what one ultimately played music for. As it was not an especially beautiful song, nor was it one in which anyone else could really join it had the effect of rather quickly draining all the life from the room. This display seemed to illustrate to me much of the attitude of our entire culture towards learning and art and the place of these in actual life, in which it is my opinion most of us (not the best people, of course) have badly lost our way.
VII. vi. 42 (7-9) From one of the two cantos of Mutabilitie, a fragment of some further unfinished book, on Faunus's lust for Diana:
"Foolish God Faunus, though full many a day
He saw her clad, yet longed foolishly
To see her naked mongst her Nymphes in privity."
Why was this desire foolish? I asked myself. Well, it was foolish because upon seeing the beautous sight the faun could not contain himself in silence in the bower from which he peeped, and he suffered painful and humiliating punishment for his trangression.
VII. vii. 11 Description of a hill. This is what is meant by seeing with an artistic eye. It is not merely a display of cleverness, but conveys to the beholder what this hill, at least, actually is:
"And Mole himselfe, to honour her the more,
Did decke himself in freshest faire attire,
And his high head, that seemeth alwayes hore
With hardned frosts of former winters ire,
He with an Oaken girlond now did tire,
As if the love of some new Nymph late seene,
Had in him kindled youthfull fresh desire,
And made him change his gray attire to greene;
Ah gentle Mole! such joyaunce hath thee well beseene."
I think I touched on this before but I cannot begin to fathom how many symbols I must have missed in the course of this book. In my edition the dedicatory letters and verses are put at the end of the poem, and in the author's letter to Ralegh he makes mention of an incident in Booke I where "the Lady told him that unlesse that armour which she brought would serve him (that is the armour of a Christian man specified by Saint Paul v. Ephes.) that he could not succeed in that enterprise..." This whole language of symbols is just not part of my mental repertoire, and doubtless most people would say, so what? Well, first of all as far as I can tell nearly all of the really great, super high art and literature in the world (I cannot say about music), most of which has its basis in sophisticated religion, is very symbolically sophisticated at some level of its meaning. Indeed, it seems almost necessary that it has to be. I do not believe but that we must in some fundamental way be impoverished, however blissfully unconsciously we may be of it, if we are cut off so nearly entirely from this source of insight. Secondly the symbols form a reference of ideas that, as they are in some way independent of man's existence and its immediate concerns, in nature say, or in the idea of immortal beings and spirits, lend themselves more easily to the sensation of universality that I believe men crave and that I also believe is desperately missing from even the private moments of contemporary life. I am probably wrong in thinking this is why any of this matters to me, I probably really just want to be able to prove somehow that I am smarter than other people so can I have a sinecure where the occasional nineteen year old girl will think I am a superior person and want me to talk to her all about life. But competition for desirable status aside, I do maintain that even dreadfully mediocre people in terms of intelligence, beauty and other abilities prized by science and economics, still have the potential to lead more intelligent and artistic, more humanistic lives than most do. If they do not, then human life has no inherent meaning whatsoever but is just a vulgar competition among beasts in which we ought not to take any pride, however enjoyable it is for the winners.
The rather Spanish-looking gentleman in this picture is supposedly our poet. It is a great picture, but it does not look anything like any other likeness of Spenser that I have seen.The commendatory verses and dedications in these old books are always great fun, being so over the top in their flatteries and other hyperbole. Ralegh wrote two "visions", in the first of which the graces who had been watching over the tomb of Laura, Petrarch's poetic inspiration, abandon it to attend to the Faerie Queene, leaving only Oblivion behind; in the second, perhaps as a result of some bad tobacco he had been smoking, he advises Spenser:
"If Chastitie want ought, or Temperaunce her dew,
Behold her Princely mind aright, and write thy Queene anew."
There is only, I think, so much Queene even Spenser could have been expected to write.
In one of the Commendatory Verses, "To the Learned Shepheard", addressed to the poet, we have a little patriotic nod:
"Elyzas blessed field, that Albion hight.
That shieldes her friends, and warres her mighty foes.
Yet still with people, peace, and plentie flowes."
The dedication to Lord Buckhurst has some of the most absurd sucking up I have ever seen in a poem, especially by a great poet:
"In vain I thinke right honourable Lord,
By this rude rime to memorize thy name;
Whose learned muse hath writ her owne record,
In golden verse, worthy immortal fame:"
His Lordship apparently was a versifier as well. Spenser goes on to suggest that while Buckhurst is too busy carrying out his duties on her majesty's privy council to record that monarch's virtues "In loftie numbers and heroicke stile" he may still perchance be able to correct the "grosse defaults" of Spenser's own efforts.
The picture below recreates a scene from one of my favorite sections of the poem, Sir Calepine's rescue of Serena from the cannibals, which we quoted from at some length in parts 9 & 10 of this series. "To all the gratious and beautifull Ladies in the Court":
"If all the world to seeke I overwent,
A fairer crew yet no where could I see,
Then that brave court doth to mine eie present,
That the worlds pride seemes gathered there to bee.
Of each a part I stole by cunning thefte:
Forgive it me faire Dames, sith lesse ye have not lefte."
This is a bit of silliness, obviously, but it is still elegantly done. One of the results--in my opinion a somewhat unfortunate one--of the ever increasing separation between "art" and "life" is that all legitimate art now is supposed to be edgy and threatening, especially to anyone outside of the art world, to whom the artist(s) seem to be as often antagonistic as sympathetic. While this type of thing is undoubtedly necessary on occasion, I don't think the artist should conceive himself as presenting a challenge to the audience so much as grappling, from more or less the same psychological starting point as they are, with an issue both have in common--and on all matters of the greatest import the artist and the audience should start out from, and even end at, a fairly similar position in terms of the overall magnitude of the question. This is where the use of slight but skillful little dainties such as this find their purpose.
Spenser's birthplace is unknown, other than that is supposed he was born in London, and he was buried in Westminster Abbey. Indeed, he is said to have set in motion the custom of interring poets in the area that is now named after them, as he requested to be buried next to Chaucer, who had been laid there because he had been an employee of the Abbey at the time of his death.
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
It is pretty standardly accepted that there is nothing more boring than reading or being told about someone else's dreams, but I had one the other day that was so ridiculous and illustrative of the petty nature of my true mind that I thought I had better write it down. I have noted before that on occasion I have some doubts as to whether I ought not to have been a doctor, though this would have required adopting a completely different mindset and mode of life years before even going to college, though I actually care nothing about people's health, though I find the entire subject of sickness and disease singularly uninteresting whenever it comes up (indeed even with the most boring people, unless some monstrous growth has broken out on their face, their illnesses are still more boring than anything else about them), and though I hardly would want to wake up and perform the actual tasks and duties of being a doctor every day. What I want of course when I have such thoughts is to be in the position to make people feel they have to watch their behavior and words around me, to consider that I am every bit the serious adult that they are and indeed probably much more so, to make them feel that they and their children will never be able to overcome me and my children either intellectually or in any other competitive arena--in short, to be able to make other people feel as inadequate and bad about themselves as I have generally always felt around substantial people. This is an awful spirit in which to think about anything, and I usually beat it down within a few minutes and try to turn my attention to some improving and more uplifting subject; but still it is there and obviously it floated somewhat to the surface in this dream.
In the dream I was, although I am now 38 years old, in the science classroom of some high school--it had sinks and bunsen burners and glass cabinets and all that sort of thing--taking my medical school examination. I found I was quite giddy to be doing so, all my fellow test-takers (we were all wearing white doctor coats) being obviously intelligent and capable people, and indeed, at my table were two men I had gone to college with, neither of whom to my knowledge became physicians, though either certainly could have, and both would, if they had, probably been as trusted and beloved by their patients, nurses and community as Dr Kildare or any of the other superdoctors of 1960s TV. The questions on the test were not in the least difficult--indeed they were trivia questions--however the test came in a little metal sliding-box in which the letters of the alphabet were all jumbled and one had a pair of tweezers with which to rearrange them quickly to make the right answer, sort of like the game Operation. This is the extent of detail that my mind is apparently capable of conceiving where the study of medicine is concerned.
Thursday, January 24, 2008
This is the point, now that I am nearing the end, when I begin to feel I will miss this subject once it is over and buried in the archives. Every topic one takes up is an opportunity to make, in some way, the experience, the perception of all life better, even if only momentarily; but most of the time the opportunity ends up eluding one, and one feels the loss. This is where I am at the moment.
VI. viii. 41, 42 & 43 (1-3) This is a lot, but I think it is finely done. With this poet it is extremely hard for me to lay hands on the details that make this work. It is something along the lines of: by maintaining his pristine, finely molded verses even when describing savage characters and their vile lust for a beautiful naked woman, he imparts something of the refinement of his writing into our image of the woman, and even our own lust, and elevates them perhaps to something resembling a civilized man. Perhaps:
"But all bootes not: they hands upon her lay;
And first they spoil her of her jewels deare,
And afterwards of all her rich array;
The which amongst them they in peeces teare,
And of the pray each one a part doth beare.
Now being naked, to their sordid eyes
The goodly threasures of nature appeare:
Which as they view with lustfull fantasyes,
Each wisheth to him selfe, and to the rest envyes.
"Her yvorie necke, her alabaster brest,
Her paps, which like white silken pillowes were,
For love in soft delight thereon to rest;
Her tender sides, her bellie white and clere,
Which like an Altar did it selfe uprere,
To offer sacrifice divine thereon;
Her goodly thighes, whose glorie did appeare
Like a triumphall Arch, and thereupon
The spoiles of Princes hang'd, which were in battel won.
"Those daintie parts, the dearlings of delight,
Which mote not be prophaned of common eyes,
Those villeins vew'd with loose lascivious sight..."
The observation of my man James Swan (the previous owner of my book) blows me away. At VI. viii. 47 (9) he notes when Sir Calepine catches up "his armes streight to the noise forth past" that he had been stripped of his arms 35 pages earlier and had not had occasion to acquire new ones. That is like finding an inconsistency between two panels at opposite ends of a frieze that is twenty feet above one's head. I can't believe he noticed that on his own. He didn't seem to have that kind of keenness.
Spenser is one of the very few English language authors, it is worth remembering, whose chance it was to be free from the immense shadow of Shakespeare, and comparisons with the same, while active, which is a state of mind scarcely imaginable for almost any other English poet. The ancients would have loomed as giants and exerted a considerable influence on him of course, but one still had the luxury of working in a language, at least, as well as in many significant ways a distinct culture on which these precursors had no claim. We cannot as yet meaningfully rewrite Shakespeare and the other icons of post-medieval culture as Shakespeare, Racine, etc, even onto Joyce, were able to do with the ancients. But Spenser is almost, I think, as if obliterated by his nearness to Shakespeare; and if he were truly great, it seems we ought to be able to rewrite him, if we cannot read him as he was originally written.
VI. x. 35 Fine contrast between the heroic and the ordinary cowardly man, delightful rhymes. I am not, in the future, going to reproduce so many quotations. This happens to be a very unique book full of many wondrous feats that I am certain I would forget otherwise:
"Which Coridon first hearing ran in hast
To rescue her, but when he saw the feend,
Through cowherd feare he fled away as fast,
Ne durst abide the daunger of the end;
His life he steemed dearer than his frend.
But Calidore soone comming to her ayde,
When he the beast saw ready now to rend
His loves deare spoile, in which his heart was prayde,
He ran at him enraged in stead of being frayde."
VI. x. 37 (3-4) Followed by the judgement of Coridon:
"But Coridon for cowherdize reject,
Fit to keepe sheepe, unfit for loves content:"
It is easy to forget, and unfortunately it is not clearly articulated by the zealots of firearms and other weaponry who view the bearing and willingness to use arms as a moral question, that in primitive times and economies, indeed even as it is today in druglord and mafiosi culture, where all one's possessions, including one's women, are at great risk of being physically taken from one at any time, it is genuinely necessary that one is able to personally muster some force to defend them, a necessity that does not really exist on an immediate level in today's world, such that many get by quite nicely without even confronting the question. VI. xi. 1 This is a tremendous poem, lost in this vast work, that if any minor poet of the 19th or 20th century had published singly in a magazine would have had the triumph of his career:
"The joyes of love, if they should ever last,
Without affliction or disquietnesse,
That worldly chaunces do amongst them cast,
Would be on earth too great a blessednesse,
Liker to heaven, than mortall wretchednesse.
Therefore the winged God, to let men weet,
That here on earth is no sure happinesse,
A thousand sowres hath tempred with one sweet,
To make it seem more deare and dainty, as is meet."
The sudden descent into captivity/slavery/murder (not sensational, criminal murder such as makes the newspapers, but murder as a force afoot in the world rendering its victims into oblivion) is a recurring and doubtless symbolic theme throughout this book, as well as many other works of similar antiquity. It is again a state of existence of which we in modern society are not so much exactly ignorant, but unwary, faithful that our wealth or inoffensiveness will somehow protect us.
We have a sighting of the old one-guy-armed-with-a-spear-single-handedly-kills-a-hundred-other-men motif. Being a democratic man, I tend to identify too much with the hapless slayees to fully embrace the greatness of the champion. It is one of my goals to overcome this weakness however.
XI. xii. 23 (1-3) In this stanza it is revealed that the hero Calidore has just completed a tour through the estates of man, leaving many massacres behind, and is now at last come to the Clergy. I completely missed this detail.
XI. xii. 30 (6-9). The demon Calidore is fighting in this booke breaks into a monastery in the climactic scene and runs amok, smashing the altars, chasing the monks, etc, until the hero puts him down in what I suppose could be seen as an expression of the triumph of civilisation over barbarism:
"His shield he on him threw, and fast downe held,
Like as a bullocke, that in bloudy stall
Of butchers balefull hand to grounde is feld,
Is forcibly kept downe, till he be thoroughly queld."
Sunday, January 20, 2008
One of my worst indulgences now that I do not get out much anymore (I have not been on an airplane since 2001; I leave it to the public to ask themselves what sort of person in this day and age goes seven years without travelling on an airplane) is to search the internet for vacation accounts by people approximately as earnest and desiring of improvement and knowledge I am, though perhaps a touch more attractive and socially and professionally successful, who go to the same sorts of places I would go to and do the same sorts of things. This guy, for example: now he is pretty conventionally good-looking, goes to Harvard grad school, has a more ambitious plan laid out for the next six months than I have for the rest of my life, runs businesses and operates comfortably and capably in the dynamic environment of global commerce, has by any sensible measure an attractive and equally successful-looking blonde girlfriend; yet for all this impressive and visible greatness, his sojourn in Europe seems to have been as vanilla as any I might have taken. With his lovely, no doubt well-organized, and indeed for all we know perhaps perfect, girlfriend in tow at all times, he visited the most commonly touted cities and countries, saw the most famous sites, stayed in the most perfectly safe and bland hotels, ate in restaurants recommended by Rick Steves (indeed sat at the same table with Rick Steves in one of them), appreciated when appropriate the high-quality indigenous dishes and alcoholic beverages, these latter no doubt in proper moderation. There seem to been not even a brush with any arrests, nor brawls, prostitutes, opium dens, intense intellectual or sexual affairs of some duration that drove him off his original plan, nor wild nights of drunken sex with strangers in alleyways or on crowded bohemian apartment floors and the like; all in all the sort of trip that makes most men a little wistful at having behaved so inoffensively on it when they get to be about 35...but now I am projecting psychological effects where there is no reason to expect them. This guy really is of a completely foreign race of men to the likes of me. He appears to have a developed will, for one thing.
Anyway, he did a survey of superlatives at the end of his trip, and since I felt there was something strange and unsatisfying about the categories as well as most of his answers I thought perhaps I ought to try taking it myself, with much unnecessary commentary added. Also I am going to include everywhere I have been when considering my answers, which will add the Northeastern U.S. and Quebec. Here it goes:
Best Cathedral in the World: First I extended this category to include all churches of a very large size, such as basilicas, abbeys, etc, even if they are not technically cathedrals, which some people, assuming a man like me must have no conception of the subtle differentiations delineated by these terms, will not be able to resist pointing out if I do not print this caveat. Second, I am going to award separate my honors by exterior and interior. Best outside: the Duomo in Florence. The actual design and details of the architecture are perhaps not as great as other churches, but the whole experience of coming upon this building in person after winding through a series of narrow streets is a thrilling and transformative moment in one's life in a way that I still cannot exactly account for. At the same time I know someone who for no reason obvious to herself wept at seeing the Prime Meridian marked along the ground at Greenwich, so one must accept that there are unforeseen stimuli even in lives apparently devoid of serious mental activity which force a throb of humanistic emotion to wash over one. Best Inside: St. Peter's (the Vatican); Basilica of Notre Dame in Montreal. I found St Peter's, which my wife and many of my other fervently anti-Papist connections found gaudy and even a little creepy, to be both highly exciting and moving; I am also a complete sucker for overwhelming displays of marble in all its colors and artistic manifestions, of which a greater one than this is hardly to be found. I love the blue ceiling and dark wood paneling of the Montreal church, though I admit there is probably a good deal of North American bias at work in this: whenever I happen to go there I have usually not seen any comparable cathedral in some time and therefore the impression when coming into the church out of modern life is doubtless stronger. That makes it no less effective, however. I have not been to Chartres, which the most thoroughly no-nonsense intellectuals (especially, perhaps, those reared in an Espicopalian, German protestant, or Jewish environment) have nearly unanimously declared the best of all cathedrals, though I have some great photographs of it taken in the 50s that I often look at seeking some sort of humanistic inspiration. Our guy Rick Harvard went with St Paul's in London, which I like too of course, being a craven idolator of everything this building represents, but it isn't even my favorite church in London (I like the Abbey) and it doesn't have the quite the effect of fully distracting one's attention from one's own worldly matters as the other places I have named.
Hottest People: I take this to mean "Best-Looking Girls": 1. Norway 2. Wroclaw, Poland. Choosing a Scandanavian country is not particularly original but I also don't think it is possible to fully comprehend if you have not been there both how good-looking the women actually are and how extensively into the population the pool goes. It is not uncommon to see a girl who looks like a swimsuit model, or at least a candidate for Playboy's Girls of the Big Ten issue (was always my favorite college conference issue; sorry SEC and Pac-10 fans) working at a hot dog stand or a gas station. Also, compared to the beautiful women from the ex-Soviet Union that everyone is so mesmerized with these days, my impression of the Scandanavian women is that in addition to being generally intelligent they are relatively sane and materially pretty low maintenance. They support socialism, for goodness's sake and seem to enjoy things like hiking and going to rustic lakeside cottages and they tend to eschew extravagance in their travel and nightlife, perhaps having realized that being gorgeous and intelligent is more than the equal of any extravagance to be acquired by gross expenditure of riches. What is not to like? As to 2) I have written previously about my love for Polish college girls.
Prettiest Place: Bad Ischl & surrounding area (Salzkammergut), Austria. Alps. Rural getaway of Kaiser Franz Josef and other members of the Hapsburg family for hunting and hiking. Many people, particularly those with a lot of vitality, do not like this region because of the coldness of the people, the antiseptic efficiency (this place is not Brazil in terms of a raucous street life, if that's what you're into) and the genral sense of deadness (some say darkness) that does pervade the atmosphere. I am kind of a cold, antiseptic, half-dead Northern type myself however, so I felt very calm and comfortable in this environment.
Prettiest City: Paris. Rick Harvard went with Prague. I was in Prague for a year and while the old part of it is also very pretty in a more melancholy sort of way, as well as much more affordable, it does not quite soar to the heights of its Gallic rival. Like all cities I suppose, most of Prague, including the neighborhood where I lived, is actually rather grimy and polluted, full of badly built concrete Communist housing projects, corrugated-metal fences, scrap-iron yards, etc. I did love it though, and even now occasionally have a dream that I am riding the bus out in the no-man's land of the housing projects and feeling overjoyed that I had never left after all.
Best Palace: I'm not a big palace guy (mainly because the tickets to get into them are $20-30 a pop; I am very cheap). Rick says Versailles. I was at Versailles once, though unfortunately it was when I was 20 and I do not remember much of anything about it, being perhaps especially occupied on that day with thinking about drinking and why none of the international crowd of babes were coming my way. I did enjoy Hampton Court, especially the 17th and 18th century wings where Charles II and William IV resided, which one has pretty much to oneself, the crowds mainly sticking to the Henry VIII-themed areas. They had a nice tea room there in one of the old brickworked cellars too. The Breakers and the other gilded age cottages in Newport, R.I. are essentially palaces, and have about as much obscene wealth on display.
Best Castle: Nothing stands out except Karlstejn outside of Prague, and that more for the setting and approach to get to it than the actual castle, which was rebuilt in the late 1800s and is nearly empty inside. I guess I haven't been to many castles.
Castle Runner Up: Salzburg Castle was very atmospheric because I happened to be there on a dark and snowy day, but looking at photographs of it in the summer it doesn't look that extraordinary. Prague Castle is good for a city castle and looks great from far away but it is always so crowded that it is kind of hard to work up that romantic feeling. I am guessing it must be closed at night because I never heard of anyone going up there at that time, which would have been very pleasant.
Cutest Place: The reproduction of the Globe Theatre, London. It's adorable.
Wildest Place: I wish I knew. Rick Harvard chose Oktoberfest in Munich, which I have not had the pleasure of attending. Initially this gave me some hope, since you can still go to Oktoberfest even if you are nearly 40 and fat, and the primary activity at this event involves sitting under a tent at a long table and drinking enormous glasses of beer, which is something actually within the range of my abilities, for a while anyway. Then I thought that it probably isn't really very wild, then I thought it was but in a very corporate/expense account vacation kind of way that I wouldn't be a part of. My impression is that the party islands of Spain and Greece--Mallorca, Ibiza, Ios, Corfu, etc, are the truly wild places for skinny middle class white kids on budgets of my youthful dreams (The problem with Cancun and other spring break/party destinations Americans go to are that there are too many superrich and/or guys with perfect bodies who monopolize all the girls who go to such places, and the girls who don't like these guys, the type who in Europe go to Ibiza and have sex with impecunious skinny guys, seem to prefer to just stay home in the States and hang out with their tight-knit, closed circle of hand-picked cool male friends).
Best Architecture: Paris. Venice. Rome. There are many learned volumes which support me in these opinions.
Friendliest People: Italy. They made me feel how lacking in natural warmth I was myself.
Snobbiest People: Americans are probably snobbier at the individual level, about education, professional credentials and so forth, than just about anybody in the world right now, with the exception of people from India. Germans appear snobby but I think many of them are just unbelievably arrogant and prideful, particularly about their cosmopolitanism and language knowledge. I knew several Germans in Prague, one guy in particular, who were continually boasting about their accomplishments, their knowledge, correcting my ideas about all areas of human life, etc, but then they would invite me and my then future wife to go to their house or do things with them on the weekend, which an American snob would sooner slit his throat than do. I was very confused by this though at the time, since it had never occurred to me, as apparently it had to the Germans, that we were somehow friends.
Felt Most At Home: Prague. Ireland. England of course. Maybe more in some ways than I do when I am home.
Best Food: I am not a gourmet. That said, France probably does have the best food meal for meal, but I even like British food and Czech food, which are supposed to be abominable.
Most Expensive Place: New York City, because there is almost nowhere to go, and nowhere at all to stay, that is not painfully expensive. I admit that the cheap hotels and restaurants in London are pretty grotty, but at least if you want to just be in the city for a few days, especially if you are young, you have that option more readily than you do in NY.
Cheapest Place: In the area of Bohemia formerly known as the Sudetenland it was possible to have a full dinner and drink until one had to be carried home for less than $5. I stayed in a $3 a night hotel room in the mountains near the Polish border. It was neither luxurious nor warm but one did feel like a man when he awoke the next morning with a blizzard raging outside his window.
Coldest Place: Quebec. Province and city.
Most Scenic: I don't know. Vermont is very scenic. As is Maine. As is Quebec. As is Italy. As is France. As are the Alps. As is Bohemia. I enjoy most places. I like Florida.
Best Museum: I am easily satisfied with museums too. There was a museum across the street from where I grew up, in Burholme Park in Philadelphia, some Victorian lady's collection of artifacts, mainly Indian, Chinese and Japanese, probably completely mislabeled, that I thought was great. The museums in London are all good, especially since as they are free, and everything outside them costs a fortune, you have a lot of incentive to take your time and look closely at what they've got. The day I went to the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square I had no money whatsoever and was hanging on till 3pm for my U.S. bank to open when I anticipated a check would clear (this was pre-internet banking and I didn't do credit cards at that point either). I tell you I remember more paintings I saw in that museum than just about anything I've done in all my life.
Best Art: See above. But overall the city of Florence collectively had the best art. One felt marinated in the highest reaches of Western Civilization just being in town. However, having read Ruskin's Stones of Venice, I sense that I missed much of great glory in that city, the history and significance of which I must confess to being almost wholly ignorant of when I went there.
Most Traditional Place: Rick Harvard says Czech Republic, and I suppose that is true, though it is probably even more true of the other Eastern European countries (I think they keep it pretty real in Moldova). Though the right-wing press depicts a nation in total collapse, there still appeared to me to be a certain amount of tradition in England. Much of Pennsylvania evokes the way America was in the 1940s and 1950s. St John's College in Maryland is perhaps the most purely traditional place in the whole world; on the rare occasions that anything novel occurs there it immediately is made into a tradition and re-enacted dutifully every year therein.
Best Accents: Ireland. Educated English. Educated Russian. Of the U.S. Southern accent I think Tennessee is where it achieves its most attractive form. When I was in Cork, Ireland I went to a fish and chip shop and there was this girl--black hair, bangs, bright blue eyes, bored-looking, leaning on the counter watching the Jerry Springer show--today she'd probably be on her cell phone--she said to me, "Would you like peas with that?" It was almost worth having been born just to hear that sentence (Yes, I had the peas, though they were cold).
Best Bridge: New York City has the best bridges in the world; the Brooklyn, the Verrazano-Narrows, the Triboro, the Throgs Neck, the Whitestone, the GW--I've crossed them all, and they're all awesome.
Best Clock: The clock of St Mark's lion on the Piazza San Marco in Venice with the bronze moors who pound out the hours on the bell is one hell of a clock. The gros horloge in Rouen is a great clock as well.
I would wrap this up better, but I have to go to bed.
Friday, January 18, 2008
I am not going to turn this into a cute-kid picture website. However my wife got a digital camera for Christmas and I am trying to see how the thing works. It may be useful in the future for other purposes pertinent to the mission of the site.
My children love this paper doll advent/nativity scene that is in this picture by the way, and it serves an educational purpose too, as there is a story accompanying each animal, tree, structure or character that is to be solemnly read every night with the introduction of each new piece. Having grown up in a totally secular/atheist household--my parents, though raised in an environment so Catholic that I don't believe either of them met a person who was not of that persuasion before they were around twenty, had utterly rejected all religious practice by the time I was a conscious being--I was completely ignorant of the context of even the basic Bible stories until I was in college at least, and I don't think there is any good reason for that.
Here we have the guys playing with toys. The child on the right does not naturally have a tail, but is dressed in the lower half of a faun costume based on the Mr Tumnus character in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. My wife, who is an exceptionally ingenious personage, conceived the idea to not only read the children the book, but to actually find an old wardrobe and fill it with costumes of her own design and making.
Here is the king costume.Here is the baby attempting to affix a halo upon his head, though this would seem to be in violation of Church doctrine.
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
I have to leave off politics for a few days. It is always a tiring and humbling subject for me to try to write about. Literature is generally not much better but at least I have a sense of something that I want to get across regarding it, even if I almost never succeed in doing so. I have by comparison no principled political ideology, other than a collection of vague dislikes--of police, of lawyers, of masses of degraded people--the influence or presence of which in society I would like to see diminished. I am going to try to make to make the literary reports livelier, and do away with all pretensions to seeking profound understanding, if I have had any. If this last must always be elusive to one I still do not think it necessarily means that he has to live wholly cut off from any noble influence that is bestowed by such things as contain it; this hope being more or less the overarching theme of this entire blog.
I had hoped to make this the last post about the Faerie Queene, but there is just too much material remaining which I don't want to give up, though I am giving up some. VI. ii. 17 (1-3) For example, I can't leave out the lines about the bad lusty knight:
"Whom when my knight did see so lovely faire,
He inly gan her lover to envy,
And wish, that he part of his spoyle might share..."
He later attacks the other knight when the latter is unarmed. In most classic, and nearly all ancient, art and literature, characters invariably either have to master their impulses or act upon them. There is very little of the type of neurotic who dominates the modern Western intellectual classes, and by extension its polite literature, which sort of person generally never masters his desires, and only acts upon such as are conveniently attained, and pose no threat to public order, prosperity, health, and so on. Successful artistic endeavors however usually require either a demonstration of strength of character, by which is largely meant superior abilities combined with self-mastery, or the conflict brought upon by the active pursuit of a superior person's basest impulses.
Having said this, I do not want to immediately present myself as a wimp, but the idea of having my teeth bashed in by a rock, a fate which occurs on numerous occasions in this and other poems and romances of medieval warfare, disturbs me greatly. I have lived a pretty much sinfully pain-free life to this point--and I am well into it--and there are moments when I cannot believe that I am going to be permitted to get all the way through without having to suffer some horribly painful violence or torture at some juncture. I certainly cannot claim to have done anything that might argue me to be particularly deserving of exemption from such a fate as opposed to anyone else.
VI. iv. 35 (4-9) About 700 pages in, we have the first suggestion, which is heartening after so many grim thoughts, that philosophy is an equal option with war for a worthy young man to dedicate himself to:
"This litle babe, of sweete and lovely face,
And spotlesse spirit, in which ye may enchace
Whatever formes ye list thereto apply,
Being now soft and fit them to embrace;
Whether ye list him train in chevalry,
Or noursle up in lore of learn'd Philosophy."
VI. v. It also took us a long time to get to a hermit, but we got one! I may well have been a hermit had I lived in the middle ages, particularly since there was so little comfort, information, entertainment and fine dining experiences for common people to forgo anyway, which one would think are the major temptations discouraging people from adopting this mode of living in our time, and all records of hermits that have come down to us indicate that this class of men were uniformly far past any point of life where they might have had a thought of being and acting as sexual creatures. I have the temperament for this calling, and I would certainly have had no doubts or misgivings about God or anything in the whole Christian doctrine had I lived at any period probably up to about the 1870s or 80s, and perhaps much later. What evidence in the visible world would have suggested to me that all was not as the ecclesiastical and political authorities said they were? I would not have suspected anything, and that is one reason why I could never be a scholar even of literature. I always assume that every important matter surrounding anything which has a long existing tradition is settled, and neglect even to wonder whether it is really so or not.
I do wonder though if modern poets should not start more often from the base of a broader, more conventional story, just to experiment and get them selves going a little, give them somewhere to move. The great problem, as far as I can tell, with much modern poetry, academic and otherwise, is that it fixes itself on too small or precise a detail or idea and has no room, or no capacity, to expand. Of course miniaturism can be exquisite when it is done well, but most of the origins of poetry, and English poetry especially, were not on this small scale, and I suspect were not so for good reasons. VI. vii. 8 (7-9) Books of this type frequently remind that death can come in an instant. One moment you are riding your horse in the woods, you are recruited by a villain, two minutes later your corpse is stretched out on the earth. Obviously one can get this reminder by reading a newspaper account of a soldier killed in the war zone, or a woman struck by a car crossing the street, or, even more vividly of course, by witnessing such a thing oneself, as many people have. In this instance however the poetic image made a particular impression on me, at least at the moment. I think I like the "cold steele" and the "to the ground him bore" especially, as if these satisfy my idea of what being slain by a sword really consists (of? I have backed myself into a grammatical corner with this sentence):
"That the cold steele through piercing, did devowre
His vitall breath, and to the ground him bore,
Where still he bathed lay in his owne bloody gore."
VI. vii 26 (3-5) & 27 (1-2). The story of all civilization. Domination of one man over another. In this instance the morally better man has triumphed, so it is actually occasion for rejoicing. However, the weak must always remain conscious that they live wholly at the mercy and benevolence of the strong, which thought does not seem to be a comfort to many in our age:
"But as he lay upon the humbled gras,
His foot he set on his vile necke, in signe
Of servile yoke, that nobler harts repine...
"And after all, for greater infamie,
He by the heeles him hung upon a tree..."
I wish I loved this poem better because it is not a book that a lot of annoying people are territorial about, and would doggedly deny others their enjoyment of, such as is the case with Flaubert, or Tristram Shandy. Of course no one can do this literally, but one can feel very lonely seeing a book one admired for its good humor, interesting characters, and dispassionate but very adroit observations about human nature constantly trumpeted and understood in a spirit that to me is really rather trivial compared to these other qualities. I don't think anyone has much of a grasp on the essential spirit of the F.Q. anymore; even its professional scholars strike me as approaching from too great a psychological distance to be wholly trusted about what it really is.
VI. viii. 3 (8-9)
"For aye the more, that she did them entreat,
The more they him misust, and cruelly did beat."
It is just very funny to come across verses like this when in the middle of a mostly serious 38,000 line poem. But it shouldn't be.
VI. viii. 37 (6-9) & 38 (6-9) The deliberations of the cannibals on coming upon the beautiful sleeping maiden offer more hilarity (and there was even more than this that I left out), cannibals being as irresistible a plot introduction to the Elizabethan artistic mind as nerds desperate to get laid are with us:
"Then gan they to devize what course to take:
Whether to slay her there upon the place,
Or suffer her out of sleepe to wake,
And then her eat attonce; or many meales to make.
"Unto their God they would her sacrifize,
Whose share her guiltlesse blood they would present,
But of her dainty flesh they did devize
To make a common feast, and feed with gurmandize."
There are actually some more incredible verses from this adventure, which I will continue with in another post.
Thursday, January 10, 2008
I did an internet search for this site, which I had not done in a long time since nothing ever turned up when I did so, and there was not much on this occasion either, though I discovered that the page has been added, without any explanation, and for no obvious reason, to someone's blogroll (in which I fall under the category of Purgatory). I don't have any idea who it is. As the sight appears to be devoted to earnest meditations on Christianity, I cannot think but that it might be some error.
The Primary is over, the candidates and their staffers have left us behind, and most of the well-informed people who really understand what is going on on the national and global scenes remain in their permanent states of dismay or bemusement. This said, the final days before the event were, as they always are, pretty exciting in these parts. I still didn't meet any celebrities myself, but I have many firsthand reports to give of such encounters. My wife met Sheila Jackson-Lee, the representative from Texas who according to her website was named as one of the 100 most fascinating black women of the 20th century (one certainly does not meet such a person as this every day), in front of the State House doing something to arouse support for Hillary Clinton. This lady was reported to be tall and charming, and she complimented my wife on the beauty of our children. The famous television and radio personality Bill O'Reilly was observed by numerous locals in the audience at one of the Hillary rallies doing some light bullying and glowering at the assembly of teachers and secretaries and putting such people in their places by forcefully confronting them on what they think ought to be done about Pakistan (appallingly, it seems, they by and large had no idea). Another person I know met Hillary and Chelsea Clinton at Dunkin' Donuts, and several others were at the aforementioned Hillary rally at the local high school and upon beholding her in person reported extremely positive impressions of the senator (much higher than they had of Bill O'Reilly, anyway), who is often presented (frequently not unconvincingly) as not much less than the Antichrist incarnate. Indeed, her campaigning over the last three days before the voting was very impressive--lest the intellectuals get riled up to dispute, I am not talking about ideological rigor, but in doing the necessary tasks to secure the most votes in a popular election. Whatever one may say about the Clintons, they know how to work, and they give the appearance that they like to work. Since I cannot make any claim to either, and have gradually come to recognize it as a real hindrance to my advancement in life, I confess I do admire this quality when it is so thoroughly and relentlessly possessed. They made the other candidates look as if they weren't trying to compete, though I recognize that this illusion was made possible in great part by the money Mrs Clinton was able to raise, but, as with top private schools, art collections, libraries, etc, that have overwhelming financial resources, it made no less of an impression for that. What was most impressive was that she--Mrs Clinton--seemed to have found just the right persona to put on to connect with the audience she was going after, and needed, at least in New Hampshire. I really think that most of the people who went for her in the heat of the voting booth moment were not merely being calculating or reacting against rival candidates as people often are but were pretty strongly for her. A lot of this too of course is that many middle class people now look back on the Bill Clinton years as a better time, certainly an economically easier one in any case, and that if Hillary can get in she and the people she will bring with her will be able to restore conditions that are more favorable to them than what they perceive as existing now. I think that, as far as the many go, the majority of the population that makes less than $50,000 a year in actual cash income, this is in fact true. Many will scream for data (or would, if anyone read this blog) to back up this assertion, but I do not have the time nor the interest to dig around for such, and I am not sure that data, even if it appears to support the case, would prove much as far as what I am thinking of. I will attempt to briefly explain my meaning below.
You know what. I will post this much and finish the rest in a couple of days. I have too much more to put here.
Monday, January 07, 2008
It occurred to me the day after finishing my last entry that I had made--and have been making throughout the history of this blog-- a giant blunder when I indicated that my idea of the purpose of a thorough and organized understanding of various areas of learning would be so that life would be more fun. While certainly a degree of fun is allowable from time to time if one's mind is developed interestingly enough to have earned the right--the Greeks themselves had the festival of Dionysius, after all--on the whole any highly serious person, whether he be a philosopher, a Christian, a scientist, a great artist, etc, is not greatly concerned with having "fun" as the term is ordinarily understood--ease, pleasure, sensualism, projecting a desirable appearance--so much as in realizing his human potential to the fullest possible extent, which usually requires hard work, discipline, and confronting the sort of hard and unpleasant truths that, we are told, people who prefer comfort don't even dare to look in the face. I have known this for a long time, too, but have always been unable to keep it consistently before me. At the time that this idea recurred to me I rapidly made a list of deadly serious people--Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Adorno, Dante Aligheri, Ezra Pound, Mohammed, and such like--and rhetorically asked an imaginary banquet table of fellow idlers on holiday--we were in Venice--"Did they have fun? Was that the object of their exertions?" I then imagined the responses: "But those people were all insane fascists!--What do I care about some dick who lived a hundred years ago?--I get more action than all of those guys put together, except Mohammed--Stop worshipping the idea of famous people. Are they friends of yours? Then they don't matter. Decide what it is you want, and either do it or shut the fuck up--Everybody's life is irrelevant. Especially Nietzsche's. Get over it--Kick back and have another glass of wine--Hey, that girl over there has a tattoo in Hebrew on the small of her back. Somebody tell me what it says--" In short, since they could afford them, they were comparatively well-satisfied that their wisdom and abilities and accomplishments were good enough, and justified their indulging in and enjoyment of pleasures. This is a state to which I have not fully attained, though of course I do not forgo any opportunity to wallow in sensualism that presents itself, however unearned and gross of a spectacle I must present in so doing.
I had thought about stopping all of the book referencing, but as 1) I view the blog as in some sense an organ for seeking wisdom as well as a record of what I was doing on such and such a day, and the consideration of literature ought to stimulate some activity of that nature, and 2) I have read in several places that it is a common, and generally considered a good, practice, for writers to copy out passages that they admire or that strike their fancy, I think I will keep at it a little longer, though I will try to mix in other observations more frequently so it does not become a codex of ancient quotations.
So, onto V. vii. 29 (5-9) Ladies fighting, at least in the guise of allegories. Also pervasive in Cuchulain stories; not however in Ossian, the Morte d'Arthur, Beowulf, Sir Gawain, etc.
"...ne spared not
Their dainty parts, which nature had created
So faire and tender, without staine or spot,
For other uses, then they them translated;
Which now they hackt and hewed, as if such use they hated."
V. vii. 31 (5-9) Good image, especially ll. 8-9:
"So long they fought, that all the grassie flore
Was fild with bloud, which from their sides did flow,
And gushed through their armes, that all in gore
They trode, and on the ground their lives did strow,
Like fruitles seed, of which untimely death should grow."
V. viii. 28 (6-9) The horses of the Souldan (he's a bad guy, blatant infidel, etc):
"And drawne of cruell steedes, which he had fed
With flesh of men, whom through fell tyranny
He slaughtred had, and ere they were halfe ded,
Their bodies to his beasts for provender did spred."
The possibility of a fate like this no doubt was an especial encouragement to men to take both care to and hope in the state of their souls.
V. viii. 31 (1-4) You probably saw this coming, but the strategy employed above does not always pay off:
"Like to the Thracian tyrant, who they say
Unto his horses gave his guests for meat,
Till he himselfe was made their greedie pray,
And torn in peeces by Alcides great..."
V. ix. 6 (2-5) Another great rhyme:
"And eke the rock, in which he wonts to dwell,
Is wondrous strong, and hewen farre under ground
A dreadfull depth, how deepe no man can tell;
But some doe say, it goeth downe to hell." V. x. 23 (2-5) And another:
"Are not all places full of forraine powres?
My pallaces possessed of my foe,
My cities sackt, and their sky-threating towres
Raced, and made smooth fields now full of flowres?"
One can see the fields, too, in all their beauty. Somehow this same effect does not occur when blocks of ruins in American cities such as Philadelphia or Detroit or Newark revert back to a more natural state.
V. x. 36 (6-9) An infidel is slain from behind after trying to flee. I always find this manner of death, which is endemic is books where sword-battles are the dominant mode of warfare, to be particularly unsettling:
"The hindmost in the gate he overhent,
And as he pressed in, him there did slay:
His carkasse tumbling on the threshold, sent
His groning soule unto her place of punishment."
VI. Intro. 5 (8-9) The theme of the sixth Booke is Courtesie. This is some Rhyme Time and philosophy rolled into one:
"But vertues seat is deep within the mynd,
And not in outward shows, but inward thoughts defyned."
By Booke VI, the fights with monsters begin to take on a repetitive pattern. The seemingly overmatched hero dodges a blow, usually involving the sacrifice or debilitation of his shield in some manner, yet he is always able to hold out/wait long enough to find himself for a split second in the only positional advantage available to him, at which point he seizes the opportunity and destroys the monster.
VI. i. 26 (9) More philosophy:
"No greater shame to man than inhumanitie."
Wednesday, January 02, 2008
IV. xi. 19 (7-9) Sorry. At this site we celebrate all allusions to sensual vigor in aging men in real literature:
".....So wise is Nereus old,
And so well skild; nathlesse he takes great joy
Oft-times amongst the wanton Nymphs to sport and toy."
I like much the catalogue of English rivers in IV/xi. Such a treatment is an honor to a place and the people associated with it, a minor one perhaps, but in the scrum of day-to-day life that most people live it is not that insubstantial if you can develop some capacity for feeling its force. For a sample I chose 36, 1-5, which calls on the river's role in human history to give it such a character as might stir a spirited breast:
"Next these came Tyne, along whose stony bancke
That Romaine Monarch built a brasen wall,
Which mote the feebled Britons strongly flancke
Against the Picts, that swarmed over all,
Which yet thereof Gualsever they doe call:"
IV. xii. 6 This could be the new epigraph for the blog:
"Though vaine I see my sorrowes to unfold,
And count my cares, when none is nigh to heare,
Yet hoping griefe may lessen being told,
I will them tell though unto no man neare:
For heaven that unto all lends equall eare,
Is farre from hearing of my heavy plight;
And lowest hell, to which I lie most neare,
Cares not what evils hap to wretched wight;
And greedy seas doe in the spoile of life delight."
The idea expressed in line 3 is widely discredited among the serious people of our own day, the doing classes; we can allow Spenser to have had it because it can be assumed he believed both in a human soul that was susceptible to healing, as well as Christian doctrine to by our standards a fairly advanced degree.
I don't know what this painting is. Someone had stuck it on a page where the Faerie Queene was being discussed but there was no identification on it. I am pretty sure we are talking Italian, mid-15th century, possibly second half; I am not advanced enough to identify an artist or a city, though I am 85% certain it is either from the Tuscan or Venetian school. Is it Titian perhaps? Are the characters Minerva, Cupid & Venus? What is the tomb, and why is Cupid rummaging through it? Is there a party game which involves puzzling out allegories?IV. xii. 13 Speaking of Cupid, here is a good image of the means by which he conquers Man:
"Thus whilst his stony heart with tender ruth
Was toucht, and mighty courage mollifide,
Dame Venus sonne that tameth stubborne youth
With iron bit, and maketh him abide,
Till like a victor on his back he ride,
Into his mouth his maystring bridle threw,
That made him stoupe, till he did him best ride:
Then gan he make him tread his steps anew,
And learne to love, by learning lovers paines to rew."
There is an excellent fight scene in a river between the knight Artegall, representing Justice, and a pagan that takes up much of Canto ii in Booke V. Some favorite selections are 16 (8-9):
"So ought each Knight, that use of perill has,
In swimming be expert through waters force to pas."
and 18 (3-8), on the brutality of death:
"That as his head he gan a litle reare
Above the brincke, to tread upon the land,
He smote it off, that tumbling on the strand
It bit the earth for very fell despight,
And gnashed with his teeth, as if he band (cursed)
High God, whose goodnesse he despaired quight..."
At this point I noted, more hopefully than anything else, that this was a book that at least would help me to read other books in the future and...what? Hasn't it been demonstrated that literature is utterly useless and has no measurable positive effect on at least 97% of the people who still insist on indulging in it in today's world? Yes, well, the thing is, it all still seems like it would be such fun to really get it, really be a master of all that history and philology and myth, to have it all functioning and rolling about smoothly in the brain like the Sirocco (sorry, I forget the names of the other winds; I know this is the hot one) rippling through a grove of olive trees on an Aegean hillside.
V. ii. 41 (3-6) My sentiments exactly:
"The hils doe not the lowly dales disdaine;
The dales doe not the lofty hils envy.
He maketh Kings to sit in souverainty;
He maketh subjects to their power obey..."
To spin, to card, to sew, to wash, to wring;
Ne doth she give them other thing to eat,
But bread and water, or like feeble thing,
Them to disable from revenge adventuring."
I don't think Jim Swan liked this passage either. He made much use of his pink underliner in it.
V. v. 50 (7-9) Like the rhyme:
"And lay upon him, for his greater dread,
Cold yron chaines, with which let him be tide;
And let, what ever he desires, be him denide."
V. vi. 25 This is an excellent verse. It is actually rather Shakespearean now that I look at it again:
"Ye guilty eyes (sayd she) the which with guyle
My heart at first betrayd, will ye betray
My life now to, for which a little whyle
Ye will not watch? false watches, wellaway,
I wote when ye did watch both night and day
Unto your losse: and now needes will ye sleepe?
Now ye have made my heart to wake alway,
Now will ye sleepe? ah wake, and rather weepe,
To thinke of your nights want, that should yee waking keepe."