Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Notes on Dead End Reading

The Pilgrimage to Parnassus; The Return from Parnassus (c. 1598-1602)

A series of plays put on at St John's College, Cambridge around the end of the Elizabethan period, as part of their Christmas festivities, though they are not about Christmas. They are about a couple of students who decide to make their way in the world as poets, and the predictable indifference, humiliation, and poverty that befall them when they set out to do this. There is some comfort in being reminded that the problem of impractical young people with liberal arts degrees leaving school without any prospects for obtaining an income, nor any realization of how one might ever go about developing any did not just spring up in the last 20 years. Maybe these kinds of schools, which ironically seem to be most emotionally necessary as a pleasant refuge during youth from the otherwise pitiless business of real life for the less successful of their graduates, will continue to sputter along in some form, in spite of even the most well-meaning, though mistaken efforts to kill them off and spare these more hopeless graduates from what is perceived to be the source of all of their perceived subsequent misery.

The plays themselves are hard going at times to read--I guess they have not been edited so as to be made intelligible to modern readers, assuming that can be done, and there are lots of references to people and inside jokes and slang that doubtless meant something to the assembled audience but can signify nothing to me. There are numerous references to contemporary as well as historical English poets (i.e. Chaucer), including Shakespeare, which accounts in some part for its historical interest. Shakespeare is identified only as a poet and the author of the Rape of Lucrece and Venus and Adonis. His plays I did not notice as being referenced at all, though even by 1598 a good part of the comedies and histories would already have been written.

It could be interesting if it could be made more intelligible, I guess, though even most of the experts seem to be of the opinion that only the middle play (the first part of The Return) contains any real literary value.

Philippics--Cicero (44-43 B.C.)

This was the first Cicero I had ever read, and I am well into my forties. My education has been light on the Romans, so he is not the last of them that I have yet to read either (all in translation, of course, which I know scarcely counts anyway). These writings, being purportedly the transcripts of orations, are much different in tone from those of other classical authors with which I am familiar, having much more raw agitation and hostility in them. Of course Cicero here is an active partisan politician who has to sway the wavering opinions of, if not precisely a mob, a body of senators. I suppose I was expecting the style of delivery and the subject matter to be grander, less earthbound.

The Young Cicero Reading--Vicenzo Foppa (1464)

The fourteen Philippics are denunciations of Mark Antony, who at this time following the assassination of Julius Caesar was out of the city seeking military allies and in Cicero's opinion carrying on the worst of the dead Caesar's transgressions against the traditions of the old Republic. It is a different view of Antony than we usually get from both classical and post-renaissance literature. His arrogance, which in other depictions is usually presented with a heavy emphasis on vanity, here is expressed as of a more dangerous and willful quality. He is ambitious, a driver of events and a leader, of sorts anyway. I didn't previously think of him (based mainly on Plutarch and all the Shakespeare and Cleopatra plays) as a man capable of rousing this degree of anger and condemnation as a main target in himself, separate from his association with other people or events that are greater than he is.

I did not read this all that well. I suppose it is possible that the entire book is not great as a whole (various of the individual Philippics, especially the second, seem to be considered more important than the whole collection), maybe the translation did not perfectly capture the mood of high excitement and historical seriousness. I also have the sense that the Orations against Catiline (which Cicero himself, reliving that glory, references dozens of times in the course of the Philippics) are the essential Ciceronian reading. In any case he demands a more serious consideration than I seem to be able to give him at present.

Ben Jonson's Conversations with Drummond of Hawthornden (1618-19)

There is not much conversation here, on Drummond's part anyway, and what was recorded was mostly snippets--what would become popularly known as table talk--of Ben Jonson's observations, which amounted to 58 printed pages, most of which were more than half taken up with footnotes. The impression given is that there was not much in the way of give and take between Drummond and his guest, but that their talk consisted mostly of Jonson making pronouncements in a vaguely bullying manner. I don't remember much of this, either. Obviously I have reached the point where it is pointless for me to read any more. I am struck by so little of it, and as you can see I have trouble even putting my most simple general observations into words at this point. But I would have to take up some other pursuit to fill the time--I still can't just spend all my waking hours doing laundry and dishes, but maybe I am being ground down to the state where that is all I will be capable of doing--and I still desperately want to have some communication with the reasonably intelligent (and socially relevant) part of the world, and I don't know how else I can achieve this than by some attempt at producing content.

Drummond of Hawthornden

Tour of the Hebrides--Boswell (1773)

Not included in most editions of the Life of Johnson, this comparatively under-celebrated work is a book-sized bonus treat for people like me who are fans of this lively duo and their exploits in the social and literary society of their day. Johnson wrote his own account of this famous trip as well, which is one last further treat for me to look forward to, assuming I ever get around to reading it.

This is the edition I read.

I ordered my copy of this book online, and as sometimes happens with older memoir-type books, the edition I received was not the edited and polished standard one that all of the professors and other critics who have promoted the book as great are primarily thinking of, but the rougher version of the tour as it appeared in Boswell's journals. Nothing was left out as far as the major episodes of the trip went; on several occasions where pages of the journal had gone missing, the editors filled in the missing parts with the text from the printed Tour. These finished excerpts were far superior from a reading standpoint to the journal account, giving off much of the same high-spiritedness and humor of the Life itself, and I kind of wish now I had abandoned my edition entirely and found a copy of the traditional printed Tour. The journal was by no means a bad read, and almost certainly was more representative of what the trip was like on a day to day basis. There were numerous passages in it detailing parts of the trip where Johnson especially was bored and restless on account of the inferior level of education and dull conversation of many of the people they encountered, which provoked in him some rather harsh and decidedly unforgiving observations with regard to the limitations that several of their hosts and new acquaintances had revealed. My impression from the scholarly notes is that most of this material was either left out of the published version, or softened so as to appear more in a humorous and flattering light. And I think this was a good idea, as much of the special quality of these Johnson books come from the atmosphere of heightened intellectual alertness and drama that the scenes in them evoke. The life and conversation in them is far more entertaining and captivating than anything that ever occurs in real time, while plausibly resembling reality (if nothing else, the contrast between the journal and the published book reminds the reader of the art that is essential even in the production of a ostensibly non-fiction account to give it this sheen of heightened reality); but I realize more and more that it is these appearances of life heightened and made more consistently intense and significant and exhilirating that I seek in reading and other artistic entertainment.   

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