Thursday, August 31, 2017

Irrationality Triumphs

Bacchae of Euripides 

Bacchae of Euripides

"Many are the shapes of things divine;
much the gods achieve beyond expectation;
and what seems probable is not accomplished,
whereas for the improbable, god finds a way.
Such was the result of this affair.          
- Euripdes, Bacchae (lines 1388-1392)

This is Euripides' last and best play. The setting of Mount Cithaeron with its maenads, animals and more helps make this macabre and haunting tale unique among the authors works. I found the story bizarre, mysterious, and ultimately terrifying in the savagery of the group worshiping the god Dionysus.

The Bacchae reflects a far more traditional view of humankind and the gods than do many of Euripides’ plays. Dionysus in The Bacchae is still seen as a psychological force or as a state of mind (in this case, irrationality), like Aphrodite and Artemis in the Hippolytus. In this play, however, it is Pentheus, the “modern man” who uses reason to challenge the authority of the gods, who suffers most. At the end of the tragedy, Cadmus cites the fate of Pentheus as proof that the gods exist and that they punish those who resist them (lines 1325-1326).

The final words of The Bacchae are a restatement of the traditional Greek view that the gods act in ways that humankind does not expect and that human knowledge is therefore limited (lines 1388-1392). Not only is it a conclusion that would be appropriate for nearly any Greek tragedy, it resembles the endings of both Sophocles’ Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus. This traditional Greek belief that moderation is best because humankind’s knowledge is limited is central to the entire structure of The Bacchae. While Pentheus is punished for his stubborn resistance to the god Dionysus, his mother, Agave, who accepted the god, also suffers. I found this development to be a troubling aspect of the work; at the end of the play, Dionysus seems to be punishing both his enemies and his own followers. We need to remember that, for Euripides, Dionysus symbolizes irrationality. Those who exclude irrationality totally from their lives become stolid, unimaginative, and dull; when their carefully reasoned worlds collapse, they may be “torn apart” by irrationality, as literally happens to Pentheus in this play. Yet those who succumb to irrationality entirely are playing with madness, and they may eventually destroy what is most dear to them. With irrationality, as with everything, Euripides is saying, the middle way is best.

In dramatic terms, Euripides accomplishes a difficult task in The Bacchae. He manages to change the audience’s opinion about both Dionysus and Pentheus as the drama unfolds. When Dionysus first appears, he wins the audience’s favor: They are told that Pentheus is resisting the god unjustly and that Dionysus has come to Thebes in person to reward the just and to punish the guilty. By the end of the drama, however, Dionysus seems a fearful figure whose penalties are extreme and whose power destroys even those who embrace his cult. Pentheus, on the other hand, first appears as a brash, skeptical, and thoroughly unlikable individual. Yet by the end of the drama, the audience is likely to pity him because of the degree to which he has been punished. This ability to change an audience’s perspective in such a short time is one of Euripides’ finest accomplishments in this play.

The irrationality on display in this drama is something that I have had difficulty understanding. Not that I intend to deny the irrational, that is impossible as demonstrated by Euripides and many since, but I am unwilling to surrender to the enemies of rationality --ecstasy, infatuation, and unbridled nature. Somehow there must be a way to find what Aristotle would call a "golden mean". This play demonstrates the difficulty of that task was just as great in Ancient Greece as it is today.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Convention versus Nature

Hippias/Lesser Hippias 
by Plato

Cratylus/Parmenides/Greater Hippias/Lesser Hippias
"there is an ancient saying, that 'hard is the knowledge of the good.'  And the knowledge of names is a great part of knowledge.  If I had not been poor, I might have heard the fifty-drachma course of the great Prodicus, which is a complete education in grammar and language--these are his own words--and then I should have been at once able to answer your question about the correctness of names.  But, indeed, I have only heard the single-drachma course, and therefore, I do not know the truth about such matters; I will, however, gladly assist you and Cratylus in the investigation of them.  When he declares that your name is not really Hermogenes, I suspect that he is only making fun of you;--he means to say that you are no true son of Hermes, because you are always looking after a fortune and never in luck.  But, as I was saying, there is a good deal of difficulty in this sort of knowledge, and therefore we had better leave the question open until we have heard both sides." - Plato, Cratylus

This volume of Plato's works served as one of the sources for reading and discussion in a class on both Plato's philosophy and the nature of Words in the Basic Program of Liberal Education of The University of Chicago. 

The formal topic of the Cratylus is ‘correctness of names’, a hot topic in the late fifth century BC when the dialogue has its dramatic setting. Sophists like Prodicus offered training courses in this subject, sometimes perhaps meaning by it little more than lessons in correct diction. But that practical issue spawned the theoretical question, what criteria determine the correct choice of name for any given object? And in the Cratylus Socrates' two primary interlocutors, Hermogenes and Cratylus (the latter of whom is reported by Aristotle to have been an early philosophical influence on Plato), represent two diametrically opposed answers to that question. It was particularly interesting to see the defense, by Plato, of an objective view as opposed to the relativism of the Sophists. 

The positions of Hermogenes and Cratylus have come to be known to modern scholarship as ‘conventionalism’ and ‘naturalism’ respectively. An extreme linguistic conventionalist like Hermogenes holds that nothing but local or national convention determines which words are used to designate which objects. The same names could have been attached to quite different objects, and the same objects given quite different names, so long as the users of the language were party to the convention. Cratylus, as an extreme linguistic naturalist, holds that names cannot be arbitrarily chosen in the way that conventionalism describes or advocates, because names belong naturally to their specific objects. If you try to speak of something with any name other than its natural name, you are simply failing to refer to it at all. For example, he has told Hermogenes to the latter's intense annoyance, Hermogenes is not actually his name.

Socrates is the main speaker in this dialogue, and his arguments are generally taken to represent Plato's own current views. He starts out by criticizing conventionalism, and persuades Hermogenes that some kind of naturalism must be endorsed. In the final part of the dialogue Socrates turns to Cratylus and shows him that his expectations as a naturalist are set impossibly high: names cannot aspire to being perfect encapsulations of their objects' essences, and some  element of convention must be conceded.

This is one of the dialogues that reminded me of the integral connections between Plato and Aristotle in Greek philosophy.  Combined with readings of Hamlet and The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, this class took on an ambiance and an aura that I have never forgotten (especially since it occurred more than two decades ago). The importance of words and the source of their meaning took on a new perspective as we discussed the use of language by these authors in light of Plato's philosophical dialogue.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Enchanting Island

South Wind 

South Wind
“History deals with situations and figures not imaginary but real. It demands therefore a combination of qualities unnecessary to the poet or writer of romance - glacial judgment coupled with fervent sympathy. The poet may be an uninspired illiterate, the romance-writer an uninspired hack. Under no circumstances can either of them be accused of wrongdoing or deceiving the public, however incongruous their efforts. They write well or badly, and there the matter ends. The historian, who fails in his duty, deceives the reader and wrongs the dead.”   ― Norman Douglas, South Wind

South Wind is a unique novel. Rather than presenting a traditional plot it seems like an olio or mixture of lectures and observations on various, often obscure, aspects of geology, climatology, history, morality, religion, and folklore, among other topics. The author's use of articulate characters confined to a restricted setting allows for ample airing of views and recalls the methods of English novelist Thomas Love Peacock, whose country house novels were once very popular.

South Wind’s setting itself becomes a character as the island Nepenthe, which is not to be found on a map, comes alive as the narrative progresses.  The literary reference is to the magical potion given to Helen by Polydamna the wife of the noble Egyptian Thon; it quells all sorrows with forgetfulness; figuratively, nepenthe means "that which chases away sorrow" (Odyssey, Book 4, v. 219–221). However, it is usually considered a fictional version of the isle of Capri, about which Douglas wrote a series of scholarly pamphlets and upon which he was living when he completed South Wind. It reminded me of Shirley Hazzard's literary meditation, Greene on Capri in which she also captured the essence of the island. She also noted the friendship between Graham Greene and Douglas in the late 1940's when Greene first began to frequent the isle, "he had the company, when he chose, of a handful of lively and literary resident compatriots . . . [and] had enjoyed the last effulgence of Norman Douglas . . ."(Greene on Capri, p 47)

Douglas did not deny his novel’s debt to a real location but insisted that Ischia, Ponza, and the Lipari Islands (all lying off the southwest coast of Italy) were the actual sources for Nepenthe’s natural scenery. Douglas even incorporated a version of his observations regarding the pumice stone industry of the Lipari Islands, the subject of one of his first publications. Douglas’s creation had deep roots in his own experience—the details of which he drew upon heavily.

The novel’s characters are the result of much the same observational mode which allows the reader, if he is willing, to gradually develop an acquaintance with the place through the idiosyncrasies of the characters.  An example may suffice: "Mr. Keith was a perfect host. He had the right word for everybody; his infectious conviviality made them all straightaway at their ease. The overdressed native ladies, the priests and officials moving about in prim little circles, were charmed with his affable manner 'so different from most Englishmen';" (p 131)

One or two characters may be based on historically obscure acquaintances of Douglas, but others are little more than personifications of facets of their author’s own personality. The voluble Mr. Keith is most likely a spokesman for Douglas’s hedonistic views, and Mr. Eames and Count Caloveglia represent Douglas’s scholarly and antiquarian interests. All are perfectly adequate mouthpieces, but none emerges as rounded or particularly memorable outside of the group.

Several British writers of Greene’s generation were directly influenced by Douglas in general and by South Wind in particular. Aldous Huxley’s satirical novels Crome Yellow (1921, in which Douglas appears as the character Scrogan), Antic Hay (1923), and Point Counter Point (1928) bear its stamp. Greene himself generally wrote books of a darker character, but his lighter comic novel Travels with My Aunt (1969) bears similarities to South Wind. Douglas's erudite yet pleasant style reminds me a bit of Lawrence Durrell. Needless to say this is an engaging novel with plenty of interesting characters that more than offset the lack of a robust plot.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Inspirational Poet

The Works of W. E. Henley: Poems 

The Works of W. E. Henley: Poems
“It matters not how strait the gate, 

How charged with punishments the scroll, 
I am the master of my fate: 
I am the captain of my soul.” 

― William Ernest Henley, "Echoes of Life and Death"

William Ernest Henley is probably best known for his poem "Invictus". However as a popular poet and a central literary figure of his day he wrote several other poems on the same carpe diem theme. The poem below is one of those inspirational verses.
Henley was editor for Kipling, Yeats and others, and his close friendship with Robert Louis Stevenson led to collaboration on a handful of plays. Among his poems one of my favorites is "Between the Dusk of a Summer Night,":

Between the dusk of a summer night
And the dawn of a summer day,
We caught at a mood as it passed in flight,
And we bade it stoop and stay.
And what with the dawn of night began
With the dusk of day was done;
For that is the way of woman and man,
When a hazard has made them one.
Arc upon arc, from shade to shine,
The World went thundering free;
And what was his errand but hers and mine --
The lords of him, I and she?
O, it's die we must, but it's live we can,
And the marvel of earth and sun
Is all for the joy of woman and man
And the longing that makes them one.

William Ernest Henley

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Legendary Dreamer

Hero: The Life and Legend of 
Lawrence of Arabia 

T. E. Lawrence was born on this day in 1888. In the fall of 1916 he was in Arabia on a mission for the British army. Here is how he is described by one biographer:

Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia"One of his companions on the trip behind Turkish lines described him as "an odd gnome, half cad---with a touch of genius," and a superior at headquarters in Cairo may have summed up the general opinion there of Lawrence when he asked, "Who is this extraordinary pip-squeak?"
To Those who judged him be his quirky manner and his ill-fitting wrinkled, off-the-rack uniform, the cuffs of his trousers always two or three inches above his boots, the badge sometimes missing from his peaked cap, Lawrence did not cut a soldierly figure, so most of them failed to notice the intense, ice-blue eyes and the unusually long, firm, determined jaw, a facial structure more Celtic than English. It was the face of a nonreligious ascetic, capable of enduring hardship ad pain beyond what most men would even want to contemplate, a true believer in other people's causes, a curious combination of scholar and man of action, and, most important of all, a dreamer."

(Michael Korda, Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia. Harper Collins, 2010. p. 6)

Writers and Money

Further Notes on Two Years Before the Mast

"When Richard Henry Dana completed his immortal Two Years Before the Mast (1840), he was only twenty five, he had no publishing experience, but he needed money urgently. He considered himself lucky to find a New York publisher willing to pay a lump sum of $250 for all the rights on the book for the next thirty years. Out of this deal, the publisher was to eventually earn $50,000---a colossal sum at the time---not a cent of which ever went to the hapless author. (When a British edition came out in London, the English publisher felt moved to give $500 to Dana, even though he was under no legal obligation to do so; in the entire history of publishing, this must be the only instance of a publisher paying an author money not owed to him). . . 

Returning to Dana's unfortunate experience, one may feel that his New York publisher took unfair advantage of his ignorance; actually, this businessman may have been ruthless, but he was not devious and, at the start, he took considerable risk in publishing the manuscript of an unknown young writer. The fact is that no one could ever have foreseen the huge and long-lasting success of such an unusual work." 

 - Simon Leys, The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays. New York Review Books, 2013. "Writers and Money", pp. 267-68.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

A Voice from the Forecastle

Two Years Before the Mast: 
A Sailor's Life at Sea 

Two Years Before the Mast: A Sailor's Life at Sea

"I determined to go before the mast, where I knew the constant occupation would make reading unnecessary and the hard work, plain diet and life in the open air, away from coal fires, dust and lamplight, would do much to give rest to the nerves of the eye, and would above all make a gradual change in my physical system."  - Richard Henry Dana, Jr., Autobiography

Richard Henry Dana tells the story of his trip, subtitled "A Sailor's Life at Sea", in the brig Pilgrim out of Boston in 1834. Only 19 years old, the Harvard student signed on as a deck hand. For the next two years he experienced a sailor's rugged life, traveling around Cape Horn, visiting Mexico's California territory a full 15 years before it became a U.S. state, and returning home in 1836. The Pilgrim was 'a swearing ship', in which the brutal and choleric Captain Thompson imposed his discipline by bad language, and the Sabbath, normally a kind of token rest day for the crew, was never observed, except by the black African cook reading his bible all day alone in his galley. Apparently Captain Thompson was from the same mold as Herman Wouk's Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny.

The everyday details of his journey are surprisingly vivid. On their first week at sea, they spot a pirate ship, and must outrun it on a moonless night. Dolphins follow the ship as it heads for Cape Horn. The Captain's patience is tried by a lazy first mate who refuses to watch for icebergs. And when a man falls overboard, the captain must assure the crew that a thorough search was conducted. The discipline was brutal and flogging was cruel. The author did not attempt to oppose the Captain, but he did devote much of his subsequent life towards improving the conditions of seamen's lives aboard ship.

What made his story unique was that Dana chose to go "before the mast" and live the life of a real sailor unlike those narratives told by passengers on board ship.  The edition I read included a glossary that was helpful since there were so many terms in the book unique to sailing. I found the book to be an exciting story made interesting by the well-educated young man who chose to go to sea as a shipmate 'before the mast' rather than a cabin passenger in the officers' quarters.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Love's Fine Wit

A Midsummer Night's Dream 

A Midsummer Night's Dream 

"O let my books be then the eloquence
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast,
Who plead for love and look for recompense
More than that tongue that more hath more express'd.
   O, learn to read what silent love hath writ:
   To hear with eyes belongs to love's fine wit. "

- Sonnet XXIII, William Shakespeare

Rereading this play for our local Great Books Foundation group was a delight. While this delight stems in great part from the comedy, the complexity of the play enhances that feeling as well. Consider the opening lines where Theseus announces the upcoming nuptials that he will share with his "fair Hippolyta". "Four happy days bring in Another moon." (I.1, 2-3) 
I will focus on the last word, moon, which will hover over many of the scenes of the play and heralds the importance of the titular Night for the play. This also suggests the importance of shadows and all that happens in the night, for there will be many strange occurrences that just would not happen in the bright sunlight of the day. It is in the night that we dream and in dreaming we lose touch with reality; thus here we find another theme of the juxtaposition of dream and reality. This is a theme that will be furthered by the actions of fairies and also the play that is produced by the "Mechanicals" among whom Ned Bottom stands out.

"The course of true love never did run smooth,” comments Lysander, articulating another one of the play's most important themes—that of the difficulty of love (I.i.134). Though most of the conflict in the play stems from the troubles of romance, and though the play involves a number of romantic elements, it is not truly a love story; it distances the audience from the emotions of the characters in order to poke fun at the torments and afflictions that those in love suffer. The fairies in the night heighten the complications of the lovers, yet not so much that the problems cannot be resolved. The resolution leaves Bottom commenting, "I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream."

The tone of the play is so lighthearted that the audience never doubts that things will end happily, and it is therefore free to enjoy the comedy without being caught up in the tension of an uncertain outcome. And if anyone is still unsure of what they thought just happened, Puck ends the play with a suggestion that it was all merely a dream.

This play has inspired many musicians, notably Felix Mendelssohn who wrote an overture and incidental music for the play (source for the famous "Wedding March"). It also inspired Benjamin Britten to write one of his best and most impressive operas. Britten used the text of the play, relying on Shakespeare's own words, for his libretto which is rarely done. A fantasy, this is among Shakespeare's best and among my favorites of all Shakespeare's plays.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Worthwhile Things

Meaning in Life 
and Why It Matters 

Meaning in Life and Why It Matters

“Meaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness…meaning arises when a subject discovers or develops an affinity for one or typically several of the more worthwhile things…”  -  Susan Wolf

This book presents an argument for the importance of meaning in our lives. That is meaning in the sense that we act out of love for objects that we value. In valuing these objects we identify them as worthy of our love and therefore our attention and concern. This is posed as an alternative to theories that advocate the primacy of egoism or altruism as the motivating force in such choices.  I encountered this book while reading Jonathan Haidt's discussion of the moral principles of different people in his interesting book The Righteous Mind.  Susan Wolf has succeeded in reflecting on the nature of meaning in life in a way that I found much more satisfying.

Susan Wolf discusses a variety of views about the source of meaning in life. One popular one is the argument that fulfillment from the pursuit of one's passion provides meaning for your life. The author comments that "the view is inadequate . . . If , as the Fulfillment View suggests, the only thing that matters is the subjective quality of one's life, then it shouldn't matter, in our assessments of possible lives, which activities give rise to that quality." (pp 15-16)
This view is rejected as too subjective in that it allows for a multiplicity of questionable paths through life and in doing so does not ensure that one's desires for his life are met in spite of the pursuit of a particular passion.

After discussing other views and returning to the argument for fulfillment through attention to that which one loves or values the author concludes with an extended defense of the need for meaningfulness. Most importantly this requires the identification of "objective values". The book concludes with four commentaries on Wolf's thesis and a response to these commentaries from the author. The result is a thought-provoking and engaging presentation of the nature of and importance for meaningfulness in one's life.

Friday, August 04, 2017

Poem for Today

O Daedalus, Fly Away Home

(For Maia and Julie) 

                       Drifting night in the Georgia pines, 
                       coonskin drum and jubilee banjo. 
                               Pretty Malinda, dance with me. 

                       Night is juba, night is congo. 
                               Pretty Malinda, dance with me. 

                       Night is an African juju man 
                       weaving a wish and a weariness together 
                               to make two wings. 

                       O fly away home fly away 

                       Do you remember Africa? 

                               O cleave the air fly away home 

                       My gran, he flew back to Africa, 
                       just spread his arms and 
                               flew away home. 

                       Drifting night in the windy pines; 
                       night is laughing, night is a longing. 
                               Pretty Malinda, come to me. 

                       Night is a mourning juju man 
                       weaving a wish and a weariness together 
                               to make two wings. 

                               O fly away home fly away

© by owner. provided at no charge for educational purposes.

    In 1913, Robert Hayden, poet, essayist, and educator who served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1976–78 (the first African-American writer to hold the title, which is today known as US Poet Laureate), was born.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Emigre Artists

Testaments Betrayed: 
An Essay in Nine Parts 

Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts
“an emigres artistic problem: the numerically equal blocks of a lifetime are unequal in weight, depending on whether they comprise young or adult years. The adult years may be richer and more important for life and for creative activity both, but the subconscious, memory, language, all the under structure of creativity, are formed very early; for a doctor, that won't make problems, but for a novelist or a composer, leaving the place to which his imagination, his obsessions, and thus his fundamental themes are bound could make for a kind of ripping apart. He must mobilize all his powers, all his artists wiles, to turn the disadvantages of that situation to benefits.   [...] Only returning to the native land after a long absence can reveal the substantial strangeness of the world and of existence.”   ― Milan Kundera, Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts

Kundera begins with a riff on Rabelais and leads us on a wild tour of European literature from Cervantes to Gombrowicz, with special attention to authors that I love including Musil and Broch. I found his continual focus on the ideas of literature attractive enough; but he assays music as well including a wonderful chapter on Janacek. 
In part 1, “The Day Panurge No Longer Makes People Laugh,” Kundera speaks of the importance of humor in the novel. He loves the fact that the early novelists, such as François Rabelais and Miguel Cervantes, reveled in humor and delighted in allowing their characters to make fools of themselves. He also writes that the history of humor is closely connected to the history of the novel.

Perhaps more interesting to this reader was his thought-provoking discussion of Stravinsky's place in European music, “Improvisation in Homage to Stravinsky,”. In this section, part 3 of nine-parts, Kundera writes about Igor Stravinsky’s émigré status: “having understood that no country could replace it [his homeland], he finds his only homeland in music; this is not just a nice lyrical conceit of mine, I think it in an absolutely concrete way.” Kundera’s situation is similar to that of Stravinsky and to those of Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov, about whom Kundera also writes. Kundera, the most famous Czech writer, left Czechoslovakia in 1975 to live in Paris. He has continued to write fiction in Czech, but The Art of the Novel (1986; English translation, 1988) and Testaments Betrayed were written in French. As Stravinsky inhabited the world of music and served as one of its most important citizens and statesmen, so does Kundera inhabit the world of the novel, communicate in its unique language, and serve as a spokesman for its worldview and its practitioners.

Kundera’s main area of interest is specifically the European novel, by which he means “not only novels created in Europe by Europeans but novels that belong to a history that began with the dawn of the Modern Era in Europe.” For Kundera the history of the European novel is transnational; he believes that it is a mistake to view the novel in terms of national literary traditions. At one point, Kundera mentions the reaction of the Austrian novelist Hermann Broch to his publisher’s suggestion that Broch be compared to the Central European writers Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Italo Svevo. Broch proposed that he be compared instead to James Joyce and André Gide. Broch, like Kundera, believed that his realm was the macrocosm of the European novel, not the microcosm of Austrian fiction.

For Kundera, the novel is far more than a literary genre. It is a way of viewing the world which, when it is practiced by a great novelist, leads readers to think in fresh ways, to question some of their assumptions, to put aside their prejudices. In one interesting passage, Kundera speaks of the ways in which lyricism has been used in the service of totalitarianism. He mentions as an example the great Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, a true artist who placed his verse at the service of the Russian Revolution. Kundera writes, “Lyricism, lyricization, lyrical talk, lyrical enthusiasm are an integrating part of what is called the totalitarian world; that world is not the gulag as such; it’s a gulag that has poems plastering its outside walls and people dancing before them.” In the world of the true novel, such lyricism is anathema, the enemy of clear thought. Repelled by the totalitarian lyricism he saw around him in the communist Czechoslovakia of his youth, Kundera turned to the novel.

Kundera wishes to be identified with no political position, no country, no rigid philosophical point of view; he wishes to view and to be viewed purely as a novelist. And with this in mind he includes embedded references to literature, great literature, and his own work, most of which I've yet to read. And did I mention his exceptional essay on Kafka. This is a relatively short book, but one of great depth and breadth. It is simultaneously brilliant music criticism, elegant literary criticism, commentary on the art of writing and translation, and a guide to the great literature of modern Europe. With this book, a loaf of bread and some wine (along with dozens of other texts) one could while away a year or two.