Sunday, March 24, 2013

Back to the Books

justice past mother

I'm up to about March of 2009 in my reading updates. That's pretty good, but I am going to try to pick up the pace a little anyway, though not so much in this post. I am adapting some new rules. My observations and quotation excerpts, however brilliant, are going to be limited to a reasonable amount maybe five for every 100 pages or so. We can still feel like we are celebrating literature and the life of the mind, in however microscopic a way.

As the readings come straight from an old GRE test booklet, there is frequently a set of related books, often five. Today I will just deal with the remaining two books from the question which has already given us Browne, Locke and Burton. These two are much shorter than the last two that I picked over here.

John Milton, Areopagitica (1644)

Begun March 10, 2009. It came up in another question and per a technicality in the rules I have set for myself which I will spare you here I read the piece (which runs 41 pages) a second time and wrote the following comment in the margin on August 14, 2010:

I think there is a bit of overkill with some of his arguments here, but there are certainly frequent demonstrations of the inimitable Miltonian brilliance, learning and mastery of the language. The prose is in places really exquisite and exemplary. The language is visibly being formed and turned to a more elevated use. The ingenuity of his arguments/examples/references more noteworthy than their ultimate susbstance. JM is as always a little self-serving in his motivations, as well as the unwitting captive of serious prejudices.

Aren't we all, I guess it could be countered.

This pamphlet, an indignant protest against a censorship law that had been passed in 1643, during the tense period of the English Civil War, is sometimes invoked as one of the pillars of the Anglophone tradition of freedom of speech. I have to confess it did not make a deep impression on me, and I do not readily remember any specific details about it. I made several notes about the prose being extremely elaborate, and remarked that people had more time (or perhaps just greater concentration) in those days to lay out their arguments at great length. I am always a little taken back, acknowledging what must strike anyone who reads him, that he is such a smart and learned man, that he is apparently so convinced of Protestant righteousness as against Catholic error. His tolerance does not extend to the Romish faction, I presume because they speak nothing but lies.

"For this is not the liberty which we can hope, that no grievance ever should arise in the Commonwealth--that let no man in this world expect; but when complaints are freely heard, deeply considered and speedily reformed, then is the utmost bound of civil liberty attained that wise men look for." This was well-said.

"What advantage is it to be a man over it is to be a boy at school, if we have only escaped the ferula to come under the fescue of an Imprimatur..." Milton was a man who had high self-confidence and was not afraid of conflict and dispute. Combined with his intellectual and especially linguistic talents, I am sure this was overall an important and good thing for society in the long term, if not perhaps so much to his contemporaries.

I enjoy reading Milton's poetry. I am well past the time of life where I can either impress English professors or gain anything by sucking up on them, and it is pretty well documented that no one has ever induced a woman out of her knickers by professing his predilection for this poet, so I hope my assertion can be accepted at face value (this also reminds me of an episode of Love Connection where a male contestant was looking for a woman, preferably possessed of that singular southern California beauty no doubt, who shared his appreciation of Milton, among other similarly antique poets, and Chuck Woolery, the urbane host of the program, had to cut him off and offer him the chance to say he was really kidding and give him the chance to take another tack, but the guy foolishly insisted he was serious. His date, which, and I can't believe I can recall it, was with a fairly perky but sarcastic blonde, and was predictably a disaster). But back to Milton, he is not someone that I took to right away of course, but over time, and some immersion in the various traditions of which his work constitutes a part, I began to welcome him and find pleasure in reading him, though as Chuck Woolery knew instinctively, it is pleasure of a lonely and not especially sensual sort. There is no other poet in English like him. He seems to me to be somewhat like Tolstoy in this matter of style. the heaviness of his words density and knack for setting on the correct words and details and phrasing to make his effect...

Ben Jonson--Timber (1641--published posthumously, Jonson died in 1635)

Begun March 12, 2009. This was a nice little book (87 pages of 'text', but 74 of footnotes, and 19 of worthwhile introductory materials). It was an internet reprint--an unusually readable copy for a book of that class--of an 1892 edition edited by Prof. Felix E Schelling of the University of Pennsylvania. Considering the quality and interest of the book and the important status of its author in English literary history I am surprised by the dearth of more recent editions. The book is subtitled Discoveries Made Upon Men and Matter and it would seem to belong to that category of books that I would think of as pensees, short entries or meditations on subjects of general interest, given greater interest of course by the distinction both of thought and person of its author. Typical topics would include fortune, the envious, Shakespeare, untalented authors, Francis Bacon, etc.

The section de Shakespeare nostrat[i] is brief, but even so, as one of the few personal accounts, however sparse, of the man I can remember reading, I would think it would be more famous and constantly referred to, though other than the "I loved the man, and do honor his memory, etc" part in the middle, I haven't noticed that it is. Perhaps it lacks some credibility that I don't know about? It would certainly seem to lend support to the argument that Shakespeare was an theater full-timer who was known in the business and about town generally rather than the Earl of Oxford or Francis Bacon. I know, the person known as "Shakespeare" was a front for those other guys--"Shakespeare" was living a lie. I think the Shakespeare reminiscence is interesting enough to include in its entirety:

"I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare, that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, 'Would he had blotted a thousand,' which they thought a malevolent speech. I had not told posterity this but for their ignorance, who chose that circumstance to commend their friend by wherein he most faulted; and to justify mine own candor, for I loved the man, and do honor his memory on this side idolatry as much as any. He was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free nature; had an excellent fancy, brave notions, and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed with that facility that sometime it was necessary he should be stopped. 'Sufflaminandus erat,' (trans. given as "He ought to have been clogged") as Augustus said of Haterius. His wit was in his own power; would the rule of it had been so too. Many times he fell into those things, could not escape laughter, as when he said in the person of Caesar, one speaking to him: 'Caesar, thou dost me wrong.' He replied: 'Caesar never did wrong but with just cause;' and such like, which were ridiculous. But he redeemed his vices with his virtues. There was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned."

"Such are all these essayists, even their master Montaigne. These, in all they write, confess still what books they have read last, and therein their own folly so much, that they bring it to the stake raw and undigested; not that the place did need it neither, but that they thought themselves furnished and would vent it." Hmm...

Bacon was praised as "one of the greatest men, and most worthy of admiration, that had been in many ages," and the Novum Organum "though by the most of superficial men...not penetrated nor understood, it really openeth all defects of learning whatsoever..." I like to make a point of noting when something is praised by someone who scarcely praises anything, and even spends the majority of his remembrance of Shakespeare picking out what he considered flaws in the work.

"They say princes learn no art truly but the art of horsemanship. The reason is the brave beast is no flatterer. He will throw a prince as soon as his groom."

"No more would I tell a green writer all his faults, lest I should make him grieve and faint, and at last despair. For nothing doth more hurt than to make him so afraid of all things as he can endeavor nothing." Ben Jonson was a pretty hard guy--he killed a man in a duel and went to prison, though it doesn't seem to have been for a very long time. Still, this was at the outset of his career, and he was able to get past this crisis both professionally and socially. That is why the apparent sensitivity and desire to be compassionate here are perhaps unexpected.

"To judge of poets is only the faculty of poets; and not of all poets, but the best." I think I generally agree with this.

Further notes: I don't know enough about Latin authors (Terence, Plautus, Seneca, etc). By which I mean I don't know enough to be the person I once wanted to pass myself off as, the person whom I thought becoming would cause me to be happy. I actually would still like to be that person, I just do not have the illusions that it will bring me the happiness, love, social status, intelligence, talent, etc, that I once believed it would anymore.

One of my great problems (when I wrote I obviously was still regarding myself as some kind of working writer)--not making my stories cohere, tend to one end. It is one of the main tasks of composition that I found harder to do than I had anticipated.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Movies (Most Common Themes: Homosexuality in the 90s? Professionalism)

life bestowed him little

As Bad As It Gets (1997)

This movie, for reasons that remain elusive to me, was a hit with a substantial number of film critics and members of the general public whom you could probably stand to have as your neighbors, and apparently continues to be so to this day. I thought it was pretty ordinary, and did not strike a congruous note with regard either to art or reason. The movie of course stars Jack Nicholson. His character is in his 60s, appears to have some form of Asperger's Syndrome which makes him speak to people in a more than usually cruel and obnoxious manner, and he appears to be a lifelong bachelor who has no friends. Naturally he is the romantic lead. The female romantic interest is played by the frigid (and at least 25 years younger) Helen Hunt, perhaps the most annoying actress of her (my?) generation. Meryl Streep comes off as cuddly in comparison. As we are often reminded, Helen Hunt is a consummate professional--there is little praise higher in this cultural era in which we live, which really began to blossom around the time that this movie came out. For me this quality does not compensate for her being almost inveterately unlikeable, but I suppose she has her fans. Both of these stars won best acting honors at that years' Oscars, and one senses it was only the unstoppable presence in that season of the colossus Titanic (which, I may as well note, I have managed as yet to avoid seeing) that prevented it from taking home the Best Picture trophy as well. There is  a messy and not especially interesting subplot featuring a gay artist, his dog, his black agent, some other minor characters, an assault, and medical bills. Medical bills are a common theme throughout the movie, in fact, though they mainly afflict the younger characters. The movie is usually billed as a comedy, but I don't recall anything funny that happened in it.

The commentary employs the method favored for contemporary Hollywood films of having the actors, producer, writers and so on involved in the picture shill for the awesomeness of the movie. If you take the word of the commentary, everyone was incredible to work with, the screenplay was a masterpiece, every scene features brilliant acting and direction that the layman would be unlikely to pick up on. They even got Jack Nicholson to take part (a little). Helen Hunt, too, of course--she probably looked at it as a professional duty. I have elsewhere come across the idea that the screenplay is somehow exceptionally outstanding, which is absurd. I thought it was markedly labored, overlong (over 2 1/2 hours), full of clunky scenes and entire subplots that neither run smoothly in themselves nor fit smoothly with the rest of the movie, and there are numerous extraneous characters whose purpose as far as the core thrust of the story goes is not clear. I suppose you could say the movie holds together, in the way that one of those old sheds welded out of disparate sheets of metal holds together. But there is no sensation of true unity either in parts or the whole, which in most instances is the holy grail for a would be work of art.

I also found that my mood was deflated by being set back in the world of the late 90s. I had not anticipated this, for as you know I am I generally given to nostalgia, and I usually like revisiting the world of the 80s and early 90s even when the movie is so-so. But evidenly I am not nostalgic for the period starting from around '97. My feeling in watching the movie was that these were years when I should have been the most deeply engaged in the life of the time, and emerging in some way as an actor on the stage of life that never managed to happen (I was age 25 to 29 in these years) so seeing various motifs of that time I feel oddly disconnected from it, as I do from nearly everything since then.

Ballot Measure 9 (1995)

This is a documentary about the campaign to pass an anti-gay referendum in Oregon in 1992 and the resistance against it. The measure was defeated by a statewide vote, though only by about 56-44%. Had it passed, discrimination based on sexual orientation would have been legally allowed, and there were also several clauses that would have defined homosexuality as a deviancy, and required schools and other arms of government to regard it as such in the carrying out of their functions.

Well, I am glad it didn't pass. I cannot believe that the measure as written could ever have been enshrined as state law anyway, though maybe it could have, and I doubt that was really the point of the movie anyway, that being to show the frightening extent of the hate out there. According to the film there was an unbelievable amount of property violence against homosexuals and activists during the campaign, and even an murder, all of which crimes the movie gives the impression went utterly unsolved or were not in some cases perhaps even seriously investigated. From today's standpoint I would be inclined to question some of this but 20 years ago there weren't cameras everywhere, GPS systems installed in cars and phones and so on, and it is easy to forget the amount of vandalism and robbery and assault that went unsolved. The movie is obviously heavily biased in favor of the pro-gay rights contigent--which is fine for its purpose--though for the film viewer who is not especially inflamed by the cause some of the drama queen hysterics , the relentless and uniform stupidity and evil of the opposition, the incredible wisdom and sense and moral authority emanating from the representatives of the gay community and other oppressed peoples can be a little wearying. Most evolved people, of whom I wish I were one most of the time anymore, I assume will have a more visceral response, partaking equally of compassion, desire for justice, deep disturbance, and ferocious outrage, directed to the appropriate quarters.

The Gunfighter (1950)

This is a western that does not seem to be very widely celebrated, but it is quite good, at least up to the ending, which I thought was hurried and lacked the drama that the buildup of the plot up to that point promised it should have. It operates on what I consider to be the most classic Hollywood model. It does its work in 85 minutes, the plot being moved almost entirely by constant rapid-fire dialogue that is not however exhausting to follow. Apart from the first ten and last ten minutes there is surprisingly little action and the scene is limited to the saloon and the main street and a couple of the buildings in full sight of it opposite. The director was Henry King, a Hollywood dinosaur who had directed his first movie in 1916, and who would keep going for another decade, including being the helmsman on Carousel, which I wrote about recently on here in 1956 (though according to the commentary he did not personally direct the ballet scene). I am guessing that King would be generally considered less an artiste than a competent, experienced professional manufacturer of film product (wait, did I say professional? That makes it sound like Helen Hunt could have starred in this--actually she probably would have been good in this as the love interest [played by Helen Westcott, who was almost as frigid, and more dour, than Helen Hunt herself; I think Helen Hunt would benefit from the faster pace of dialogue too]--Still, I have an instinctive distrust of people whose professionalism seems to be their defining characteristic; I am not sure whether this was the case with Henry King or not). The strength of this movie upon a first viewing does seem to be the screenplay, but the staging I thought was good, as well as the economy of scenes and the use of very brief visual cues to subtly but clearly indicate transitions, a common skill among the old filmmakers that is underutilized nowadays.

Gregory Peck (who for the record, is probably among my ten or so favorite male Hollywood actors) is the star of the movie, and among the other actors is Karl Malden. I did not previously much associate either of these guys with the western genre, though in Peck's case this is rather silly because he was in a lot of them, though until now I had not seen any of them.

Netflix does not have this movie available so I had to get an old VHS tape to watch it. Hence no commentaries, extras, etc.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Attempt at Micropost on the Papal Conclave

Contrary to what one might glean from this blog, I am at some level cynical enough to know that almost all of the important people, institutions and pursuits in human life possess by bourgeois standards a darkness and demand a degree of ruthlessness in its practitioners that the likes of me cannot really fathom, and would not want to.

That said, obviously I enjoy the idea of the spectacle of the Papal conclave.

Mostly I enjoy the idea that there are any venerable Western European rituals left that can be considered to have some import to history going forward.

Many experts believe the era of European centrality to history and human affairs ended in 1989.

I always want the Catholics to show well and be respected, even though I am not legitimately one myself (I was christened in the Church, but my participation in its life ceased at that point). I have never since tried to become a real Catholic in any way. I probably don't, and can't, believe in God that way you would be supposed to. I do not significantly identify as a Catholic, I do not have a strong educational foundation in its tenets, and I do not partake socially of what I have perceived to be the group strength that comes with being a fully embedded member of the tribe, though in recent years, as my family life and schooling and leisure and even occupational situations have developed in somewhat of a stereotypically Popish mold, I believe certain people from the tribe to have taken an attitude with me as if they suspected me one of their fellows, and little that has happened to me in the last few years has been more flattering to me than this, though I do not deceive myself that it is so in any way.

I go to Episcopalian Church, for reasons which I have outlined in previous posts which I had not foreseen when I got married, at which time I anticipated living a completely secular life.  My wife is not far removed in blood from being a real Catholic herself, and has at least half of what I think of as a Catholic soul, but she can not abide the Church's extreme patriarchal personality, and probably some of its other positions too. For my part I rarely consider the Church's actual teaching--it all seems rather beside the point. Look at the avant-gardists of the Modernist era, Picasso, Modigliani, Dali, Jean Cocteau, Chagall, etc. Did these people take the teachings of the Church seriously? Did they believe in God? Did they find its official doctrines absurd? One can say that they were not proper Catholics, though nearly all of them did extensive work in the decorating of churches, presumably with the blessing of the ecclesiastical authorities, and of course they all refer endlessly to Catholic imagery and mythology in their artworks. They could hardly have existed as themselves without it.

The pitiful thing is, I almost enjoy going to the Episcopalian Church, apart from certain days when I am overcome with a sense of my total phoniness and lack of propriety in being there and quiver in an ashamed rage at the fraud that is in fact my entire life of which this particular instance is representative. Most of the time however it is a respectable service, and I like the music, and even some of the people I find tolerable, though I do not think anyone there has much of an intense religious sensibility, and I do not have any sense of any deep effects membership in this congregation has on anyone's personality. I went to a Baptist service a few weeks ago--this church is the sponsor of my son's Scout Troop, it was Scout Sunday, and he wanted to go--and it was like a remedial form of religion, although the priest (who, it may be worth noting, was a woman in her fifties) struck me by her demeanor and gentleness towards her fairly dull-appearing congregation to be intelligent and even spiritually attuned at some level. The Baptists were also far less busy than Episcopalians. After the service the parishioners, who tended heavily towards the older (over 55) demographic, were making plans to go over to each others' houses, eat casserole and cake and generally pass a pretty lugubrious afternoon as if it were 100 years ago. Everybody at the Episcopal Church under the age of 85 or so (including us) has to rush off pretty soon after the service for various errands and activities--even the 50 and 60 somethings have to do fund-raising or sit on some committee in the afternoon.

So I don't see how I can ever become a Catholic. Of course I cannot, even though I do not even think for my purposes that 'belief' in the medieval sense is the primary obstacle. I cannot really claim that I identify with them socially, though I always certainly craved their camaraderie and their women in a specific way that it would never occur to me to feel towards followers of other religions. When I love a Protestant or a Jewish girl, for example I merely love the girl; her religious affiliation does not hold for me the same magical aura that is added when the object of my affection is a bona fide member of the Church of Rome.

Priests are not as completely foolish as people want to believe. Whenever I encounter one they especially know I have nothing to do with the faith, and treat me accordingly.

I am inclined to be sympathetic to a lot of the Church's unpopular positions on various social issues, not that I adhere to them or support them politically in real life, but I believe that they have been considered on the whole fairly thoroughly, are in no way in most instances wholly devoid of wisdom, and think it would probably be a good idea if most people--I am not a fanatic, and can tolerate a certain number of outliers, (maybe even including myself) though preferably a small one--more or less held  the same attitudes. But most people who matter do not anymore.

Nothing else to add.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Final Thoughts on the Anatomy of Melancholy (XI)

1. The main takeaway of the book for me (perhaps) is that no aspect of human understanding/experience/history is consistent, pure, true, through & through.

2. The depth of feeling of 16th and 17th century religious disputes is not easily graspable by us.

3. Protestants of the time like Republicans (I wrote this in early 2009, before the Left had really begun to regain its swagger) in their attitudes towards Catholics. So convinced of their mission.

I am gearing up to do some posts bringing my entire primary reading since 2009, much of which I have largely forgotten the contents of of course, up to date, but I thought I should officially bring the last of my multi-part serieses to a close.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Polishing Up a Little the Post That I Was Bogged Down On Before I Went On Vacation

(I am still going to be effectively retired however)

...for "Religious Views" I wrote "I should have been a Catholic but society has convinced me that I am a nihilist and will never be embedded in the body of a living church." I know it is fashionable to think for yourself and not submit to the influence of mainstream opinion, and I did try to convince myself I could overcome it if I had inner resources enough; but I did not...

...for "Political Views" I wrote "1940s-1960s soft socialist. I do not want to kill business and industry entirely, but yes, I would like them subjected to some restraint, as I do not think the culture and mindset that their current extreme dominance encourages is having a good effect on the character and spirit of the populace." Maybe I don't have political views. I don't like my role, the way I fit in in this society as presently organized, or my lack of inner resources, so I suppose I seek a political solution for it, which solution, however, possibly not existing, cannot therefore be considered a political view.

Do I ever worry about how I will pay for my children to go to college? Surpisingly, not much. Mainly I suspect because I don't have, or anticipate having, enough spare money that I stand to be relieved of in its entirety. Those are the people who are the most obsessed about paying for college, the ones who would be able, or perceived to be able, to fork over a substantial pile of cash which would, however, demolish their ability to do lots of other nice things. I am not even in this category, so much so that a great many of these decisions are in effect taken out of my hands. Am I embarrassed or uncomfortable that my children will almost certainly have to apply for financial aid, even for a state school?--New Hampshire's state universities are the most expensive for residents I believe of any in the country, with the other New England states right behind them. For myself, yes, a little, especially as the good schools seem to me to increasingly act as if they are at least mildly irritated with people whose parents are supposedly educated but can't afford their tuition and come cap in hand begging for at least a partial handout for their (probably) similarly mediocre children. And I tell myself that if, when the time comes, I believe that any of my children are not legitimate university material who would be using resources and taking up slots that could be given to more promising candidates, it will be my duty to be somewhat frank with them about their intellectual limitations and discuss other avenues they might pursue, not that I know what any of these might be either. Of course it is also hard to see this as being the case, since I am still at a place in the world where pretty much everybody manages to go to some college, and most of them go to ones that, if not global powers, are fairly legitimate, or at least old, and would be recognizable to most of the general public for their sports teams if not their academics. I can see through the wonder of Facebook that in several families of my old connection that I considered to be non-academic and even mildly hostile to book-learning all of the children have gone to college, usually to a place I think of as not being terrible (though in the photos they put up the students don't look like they ever do things like read Proust or anthropology or physics books for pleasure--however, this is an entirely prejudicial judgement on my part and anyway it is beside the point). All of this makes it difficult to imagine at this time that my own children would not be able to go to some halfway respectable college, assuming they wanted to do so, because I was totally incapable of paying for it. I suppose there are a lot of people who are genuinely in the top 10-15% of academic intelligence being shut out of college due to the cost; but I have to say I am not really seeing it much in the environment I move in.

I'm not big on telling people that they have to study a certain subject, other than that it has some tradition or basis that compels some sense of weightiness and of elevation. I still certainly consider the arts and humanities, if taught and studied seriously, to possess these qualities as much as the hard sciences for most purposes of attaining wisdom and competence in leading life. I would be delighted for my children to take up any noble subject if they were able to do well in it...