Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Longfellow’s Optimism

I’ve been reading about mindfulness recently, and the discipline of observing the present moment without distractions from past or future has been helpful in some recent, trying circumstances. But as a way of life, I can’t accept it completely. The past and future possess more than just distractions and anxieties: they offer lessons and hopes, as well. A healthy soul plans – to a healthy degree – for the future and learns from the past – learns how to do things better, learns what not to worry about since one has survived it before, learns how to forgive in other what one has struggled with. As the healthy, reformed Scrooge says, “I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.”

Longfellow embodies Scrooge’s vow admirably, if he indeed lived the inner life that his poetry represents. He regularly exhibits tremendous optimism based on his belief in God’s righteous justice and a coming kingdom of eternal joy in the Divine Presence. Yet his is no blindered smile-and-ignore-the-truth enthusiasm. Longfellow is no perky ostrich, looking through rose-colored glasses at every grain of sand surrounding his obliviously buried head. He knows the darkness in his heart, in his past, and in his world. “And in despair I bowed my head; // ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said.”

Of all the beautiful poems I read in the last few days, none struck me quite like “The Bridge of Cloud,” originally published in the Atlantic in 1864 and still on that magazine’s website.

Burn, O evening hearth, and waken
Pleasant visions, as of old!
Though the house by winds be shaken,
Safe I keep this room of gold!

Right out of the gate, Longfellow joins present and past: the hearth has awakened pleasant visions before and is about to do so again. But the visions that Longfellow-of-the-present sees are different from what they were in the unspecified past:

Ah, no longer wizard Fancy
Builds its castles in the air,
Luring me by necromancy
Up the never-ending stair!

But, instead, it builds me bridges
Over many a dark ravine,
Where beneath the gusty ridges
Cataracts dash and roar unseen.

In the olden days, the comforting visions seen in the fire all portended lovely futures of success, happiness, and ease. But his architect was necromancy. What an image! The typical necromancer of tales makes the appearance of life out of what was once living, but Longfellow’s makes the appearance of life out of what is not yet alive.

Unlike those fanciful castles, in the present the unfolding scene is one of a bridge of cloud, bright and soft and fresh in itself, but hovering over a dark past, where, in contrast to the floating hazy water droplets of the cloud, “cataracts dash.” What a perfect phrase! Confusion and chaos abound in those sounds with their four closely packed consonants near the end. Think how much weaker the image would be if instead Longfellow had said, “waterfalls dash.”

And I cross them, little heeding
Blast of wind or torrent’s roar,
As I follow the receding
Footsteps that have gone before.

Nought avails the imploring gesture,
Nought avails the cry of pain!
When I touch the flying vesture,
‘T is the gray robe of the rain.

These last two stanzas are the most cryptic for me. I think that the present Longfellow tends to think of the past as better than it was, gliding over the dark ravines on a bright highway in the sky, but, inspired by the fire that burns to do his soul good, here learns to take an honest look at the trouble the misty clouds tend to obscure. Whose is the imploring gesture? A younger Longfellow, I suppose. But even present Longfellow isn’t sure, I guess, because as he reaches to touch the beckoning hand, the figure proves to be only a gray patch of rain in the clouds. Clouds look so different from different angles. (Yes, I find it very hard to think about this poem for very long without hearing Joni Mitchell. She had the advantage of seeing the tops of the clouds from an airplane, but the earlier poet flew with the airship of his mind.)

Baffled I return, and, leaning
O’er the parapets of cloud,
Watch the mist that intervening
Wraps the valley in its shroud.

And the sounds of life ascending
Faintly, vaguely, meet the ear,
Murmur of bells and voices blending
With the rush of waters near.

Well I know what there lies hidden,
Every tower and town and farm,
And again the land forbidden
Reassumes its vanished charm.

Well I know the secret places,
And the nests in hedge and tree;
At what doors are friendly faces,
In what hearts a thought of me.

OK, here comes the truth. Longfellow leans over the parapets of his nimbus bridge and takes a cold, honest look at his past. What he does with the towns, farms, and people he recognizes is as surprising – to me in any case – as it is exactly right:

Through the mist and darkness sinking,
Blown by wind and beaten by shower,
Down I fling the thought I’m thinking,
Down I toss this Alpine flower.

Oh! If only a younger me could have received an Alpine flower dropped through the heavens from present me! That very wish should lead present me to look up at the clouds and imagine the perspective that future me will have of this troubling time, a vantage point surrounded by asters and edelweiss. 

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Asimov and the Great Conversation

Isaac Asimov’s books may not be considered “Great” as in canonical, but he does contribute to what Mortimer Adler called the Great Conversation, exploring in his stories questions of human agency and free will, of what minds are, what thoughts are, and what emotions are. Sometimes I don’t agree with his answers, and sometimes I don’t know if I agree with his answers, but he always makes me think.

Although it was written rather late in Asimov’s life, Robots of Dawn takes place relatively early in his world’s history: to give a rough indication, over the course of this ten-year reading plan, I’m going through all of his robot, empire, and Foundation novels in in-world chronological order, and this is only year three of my schedule. Humans have settled a few planets, but there is no empire yet. So what will happen as they expand? Will the future empire be designed by robots? For robots? Or will robots, bound by the Laws of Robotics not to harm humans, stay out of the way and let humans do the work themselves since challenges are good for society?

Asimov seeks the truth behind the truth (I’m tempted to say the foundation under the foundation, but that’s getting ahead of the story) in asking this question of whether robots will best help humanity by not helping humanity. I would add yet a third layer by asking whether strengthening society is in fact keeping humans from harm. The First Law of Robotics says nothing about Humanity in the collective plural but only one-at-a-time humans: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” Many individual humans have led happy lives in societies less knowledgeable than ours or Asimov hero Lije Baley’s, less scientific, less crowded, less organized. Since the Robot Daneel Olivaw recognizes that challenges are good for humans, might it not be good to make society weak so as to give societal challenges to individual humans? In other words, I’m asking if robots would best help individual humans by not helping society, which they would in turn do by helping to make it easy for human society to expand to other planets.

Near the end of the book, it is stated as undebatable that robots have no feelings, only positronic surges interpreted (mostly by us) as feelings. But perhaps, the narration suggests, humans have no feelings, either – that what we call feelings are only neuronic surges interpreted as feelings. I don’t really understand how Asimov can ask this. Humans do interpret these phenomena as feelings, and that very interpretation makes them feelings without a doubt. How can I think I’m feeling something and not have a feeling? As the old philosophers pointed out, if you think you see a green man, that is in fact the visual sensation you are having, even if you are hallucinating, which is likely in this scenario. On the very next page after this supposition, Baley envies the robots for having no fear of rain, while Baley himself is terrified. Believing that the fear is irrational and comes from neuronic activity doesn't negate the terror that he knows exists in at least one conscious mind: his own. No one could hold a hot coal in the hand and believe that pain was only a neuronic surge.

Suppose you’re reading a book, and at the bottom of page 3, you find the words "Please don't turn the page." You turn the page anyway (who wouldn’t?), and on the left side of the next spread, page 4 says, "That hurt." Page 5 says, “Please don’t do that again,” but of course you again turn the leaf over. Page 6 bears a single word, “OUCH!” The next says, "If you continue turning pages, you will kill me." And on and on it goes. The book responds to every page turn you make; it delivers a message that would not be delivered if you didn’t turn the pages. But would anyone consider this series of responses the equivalent of a human’s internally felt pain after stepping on a nail?

A random note as a coda: I was thinking the other day about the Turing Test, which a computer would pass if its part in a conversation with you – a conversation carried out in written form as, for instance, in phone texts – made you believe you were talking with a human. I think that Alan Turing imagined the test as an incentive to make AI grow ever more sophisticated. But does it take all that much sophistication for a computer program to convince you that you are texting with a typical teenager?

One month later, I have to add a coda to the coda of this post by recommending a story by my friend Jared Oliver Adams. Here my buddy speculates on what might happen if God were to give robots sentience, that is, if they were able to feel the pain indicated (or caused by or accompanied by) their “positronic surges.” At least that’s one interpretation of the story’s wonderfully speculative setting. The tale of Pope Packard also has suspense and adventure, theology and philosophy, and possibly ghosts. If you enjoy it, please visit Jared’s website and let him know!

Friday, February 8, 2019

Dombey Redux

Well, it’s happened. I’ve kept up this blog long enough that I’ve reread a book I already blogged about. So this return to Dombey and Son creates a problem for me. (Admittedly, this is a first-world geek’s problem!) My first post about this forgotten jewel is one of my very favorites on this site: a tribute to Captain Cuttle, one of Dickens’s greatest comedic creations. So what else am I to say this time?

One option is to praise Captain Cuttle even more – especially easy to do when seen next to characters from some other recent reading. In a double dose of Dickens this year, I’ve also made my third visit to Barnaby Rudge, surely my least favorite novel by the Inimitable. I remembered thinking that the part of BR that isn’t dreadful was as good as anything else by Dickens, and innkeeper John Willet a very funny fellow. But this time through, John, although funny as far as being dull-witted in a Dickensian way goes, just struck me as self-centered and cruel. Captain Cuttle, by contrast, compounds his hilariously challenged intellect with kindness and heroism, even risking exposure to the frightening Mrs. MacStinger in order to protect young Florence. On top of that, he prays perhaps more than any character in the Dickens world other than Mrs. Jerry Cruncher in A Tale of Two Cities, even if he does have a very difficult time understanding the words of the Prayer Book.

Or perhaps I could mention some of the other fabulously funny characters in Captain Cuttle’s circle. There’s Susan Nipper, caustic yet nurturing, and ever ready with twisted aphorisms such as “Though I may not gather moss I'm not a rolling stone.” Then there’s the man the Nipper calls “that innocentest creetur,” Mr. Toots. Toots is hopelessly in love with Florence, but interrupts every rebuff before it can be completed with the assurance that “it’s of no consequence.” While on a mission to identify sources of laughter, we cannot omit those two wise counselors, Jack Bunsby and the Game Chicken. The Chicken, a boxer by trade, can’t give Mr. Toots advice that doesn’t involve punching, and Bunsby, with a voice that appears out of a head that seems to have no moving parts, delivers guidance as cryptically ambivalent as anything from any ancient oracle, always to the appreciative amazement of the good Captain Cuttle.

Considering the direction this post has taken, I think my best conclusion is to pay tribute to my favorite funny characters throughout the Dickens world. I don’t know how to order them by level of humor, so I’ll just mention them as they come to me.

• Wilkins Micawber, David Copperfield. In any method of ordering, this author of overeloquent epistles has to come at or near the top.
• Fanny Squeers, Nicholas Nickleby. Douglas McGrath, writer and director of the 2002 film adaptation, calls her letter one of the funniest pages in all of literature. Amen.
• The Crummles, Nicholas Nickleby. Their pony is in the theatrical profession!
• Prince Turveydrop, Bleak House. He has that name and runs a dancing school. ‘Nuff said.
• Dick Swiveller, The Old Curiosity Shop. Dick finds his routes through London getting longer and longer along with his list of streets he must avoid because of unpaid shopkeepers.
• Mr. Wemmick, Great Expectations. How can you top either the humor or the human kindness of a man who sets off a cannon every evening because his Aged Parent looks forward daily to the only sound he can hear?
• John Chivery, Little Dorrit. John’s unrequited love for Amy Dorrit results mostly in daydreams about how his tombstone will describe his tragically lonely life.
• Matthew Bagnet, Bleak House. Friends seek Bagnet’s wisdom, which he dispenses by asking his wife to “Tell them what I think.”
• Tony Weller, Pickwick Papers. How to explain in twenty words or fewer his eccentric view of the spelling of his own name?
• Mr. Twemlow, Our Mutual Friend. Mr. Twemlow holds his palm on his forehead most of the time, unsure whether the Veneerings consider him their best friend or don’t know him at all.
• Ebeneezer Scrooge, A Christmas Carol. Tight-fisted, hard-hearted, and hilarious.
• Sarah Gamp, Martin Chuzzlewit. Some critics put this drunken nurse with the possibly imaginary friend at the top of the list.
• Mr. Mantalini, Nicholas Nickleby. The ludicrous Mantalini tries to manipulate his “heart’s joy,” Mrs. Mantalini, into loving him by threatening suicide with butter knives. “Oh, demmit!”
• Mrs. Plornish, Little Dorrit. The good woman repeatedly offers to translate her Italian friend’s utterances to neighbors into loudly spoken pidgin – even though he speaks in perfectly understandable English.

I know I’m forgetting someone obvious and important. But whatcha gonna do? I’ll have to amend the list the next time I read Dombey and Son.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Elliptical Approaches

Poorly taught Americans (almost a redundancy these days) sometimes tell amazed college professors that the proper form for a paper is (1) to tell what you’re going to say, (2) to say what you have to say, and (3) to tell what you have just said. It’s a gross misunderstanding of the form, to begin with. But what this pattern misrepresents isn’t even a universal custom: only American essays typically follow the introduction-body-conclusion format. In some parts of the world, a writer launches into a topic and then adds accretions of nuance and complexity layer-by-layer. Some cultures prefer a spiral approach to the core idea of an essay, establishing every point of context first and only presenting the thesis near the end.

The British have a lovely way of starting an essay a thousand miles away from the ultimate topic and then surprising the reader with a turn halfway through. The first half is often just as instructive and entertaining as the second, even if its topics don’t find their way into the piece’s title, and I almost always find this form much more delightful than the utilitarian American scheme.

Earlier this month I read an excellent essay in the British idiom by Robert Louis Stevenson. I got the tip to read the piece from Chesterton in his book on Victorian literature, and I read Stevenson’s magnificent “The Lantern Bearers” just after enjoying his novel Black Arrow. Doubly mysterious, the essay takes an elliptical path to the elliptical path that eventually leads to the main point, and since the title refers only to the middle, Stevenson delivers a very satisfying second surprise.

First we hear of the geography of a seaside resort town which Stevenson visited for a week or two at a time for several years as a child. His vivid description puts the whole scene before my eye in great detail and makes me want to visit. After a few paragraphs, I even felt some of the relaxation and comfort I would experience on my own summer getaway. Then the author of so many great adventure novels for (as we see it now) children tells about a custom among the adventurous boys visiting the quaint town. Each one lit a lantern and hid it under his coat while wandering on the strand or along the village streets, every meeting between lantern bearers resulting in unspoken, internal acknowledgement that the pair shared a great secret.

But as wonderful and romantic as that image is, Stevenson has his own secret light to reveal in the second big shift of the piece and makes the custom of the lantern bearers a figure for the secret flame every person carries around at all times. This summit of the essay deals a bit with poetry, as Stevenson delivers his own version of the “mute inglorious Miltons” vision, and has some to say about the weeds of life choking out the life-energy of youth. But Stevenson’s main point, I think, is to remind us that every person we meet has – or is – a hidden treasure. I could go into more detail, but of course, you’d be much better off spending a quarter of an hour reading “The Lantern Bearers” instead of reading my little blog post, so I won’t be offended if you get up and leave now.

I have a schedule of reading precisely because it leads me to just such moments as my discovery of “The Lantern Bearers.” This beautiful essay is itself a burning lantern hidden away under the coat of the more famous works of RLS, and I wouldn’t have uncovered it if I hadn’t planned to read Chesterton’s guide and hadn’t had a Stevenson novel slated the very next month. It’s the best thing I’ve read in quite a while and already a front-runner for my end-of-year rewards next December.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

It’s All Latin to Me: John Webster Edition

I just finished reading John Webster’s The White Devil. There’s a lot of scheming and killing in the play, and as to the question, Who precisely is the white devil? several characters provide compelling cases for themselves. According to Webster’s own preface, the play didn’t go over so well at its premiere. The problem may be due to the lack of any appealing characters whatsoever, but also perhaps to the drama’s generous use of Latin. Here’s a little quiz for you today on several classical Latin phrases found in The White Devil.

Latin phrases
1. "Casta est quam nemo rogavit."
2. "Flectere se nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo."
3. "Haec hodie porcis comedenda relinques."
4. "Haec fuerint nobis praemia, si placui."
5. "Inopem me copia fecit."
6. "Manet alta mente repostum."
7. "Nec rhoncos metues maligniorum, nec scombris tunicas dabis molestas."
8. "Nemo me impune lacessit."
9. "Non norunt, haec monumenta mori."
10. "Non potes in nugas dicera plura meas, ipse ego quam dixi."
11. "Nos haec novimus esse nihil."
12. "O dura messorum ilia."
13. "Quae negata grata."

a. Anything you leave behind is just going to be eaten by the pigs.
b. Chaste is she whom no one asks.
c. If I can't bend the heavens, I will move Hell.
d. It remains deep in my mind.
e. My work will be my reward, if you have enjoyed it.
f. No one provokes me without punishment.
g. These reminders did not know how to die.
h. We know these things are nothing.
i. Wealth has made me poor.
j. What is denied is pleasant.
k. What strong stomachs these farmers have!
l. You can't say more about my trifles than I have said myself.
m. You shall not fear the snoring of the wicked nor become stinky wrappings for mackerals.



1: b. This one is from Ovid. It’s part observation and part advice, I suppose.
2: c. The Acheron is one of the rivers in mythological Hades.
3: a. Don’t cast your pearls before swine; don’t even leave them where the swine can find them!
4: e. Many of these quotations came from Martial, writing about his own writing.
5: i. So many examples come to mind.
6: d. This one is from Virgil. I didn’t look up what exactly was deep in his mind.
7: m. Again Martial, this time speaking to the papyrus he has written upon.
8: f. Oh, tough guy, eh?
9: g. I knew we should have burned the evidence!
10: l. Martial was a humble self-critic.
11: h. And yet they are things . . . .
12: k. Horace could praise anything!
13: j. Didn’t know I wanted it until you took it away!

Hoping you enjoyed today’s quiz. The next post will be about a more pleasant piece of reading, so I’ll have more to say about the work itself.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Book Awards – 2018

Because Americans love awards, on this last day of 2018, as I have at the end of each of the last several years, I offer you my list of encomiums on the highlights of my twenty-second year of planned reading.

Most Deserving of His Own Category: Charles Dickens
Yes, once again, I enjoyed Dickens so much (The Old Curiosity Shop on this circuit of the merry sun), it just wouldn’t be fair to others in the fiction category if they had to compete with the Inimitable.

Best Reread, Fiction: White, The Once and Future King
And since Dickens has his own category, E. B. White is able graciously to accept this well deserved award. When I first read this Arthurian work, I thought White made up a lot of the zanier material to keep it all a little irreverently weird. After all, in the first part, “The Sword in the Stone,” Merlin lives backwards, turns Wart into a fish, and transports himself by accident to Bermuda. Oh, yeah: and Arthur is called “Wart.” So naturally I thought White made up episodes like Lancelot rescuing a girl from a bath that she had been unable to get out of for five years. But now that I’ve read so many of the original Arthurian sources, I can say, Nope, that’s right from Malory. It just hadn’t been in the children’s version by Lanier that I had read.

Best New (to me) Poetry: Horace, Odes
Speaking of Sidney Lanier, I had assumed for years that I would enjoy all of his poetry as much as I did his King Arthur and the handful of his poems I had read before. But on the whole they disappointed me and certainly didn’t stand up to the Odes by the ancient Roman. Whether singing to the gods themselves, country life, drinking, or a lowly fellow whose girlfriend no longer likes him, the activity and character and presence of the gods is always in Horace’s mind, as are geography and flora and fauna and weather. Here is a man whose mental world is made constantly richer by the ever-present context of both nature and supernature.

Best New Read, Fiction: Anthony Trollope, The Prime Minister
This novel of wealth and ethical dilemma in the highest political offices seemed terribly relevant.

Best History: Christopher Duggan, The Force of Destiny
I learned amazing things on every page about the last two-hundred years in Italy. My only disappointment is that alongside Napoleon, schools, rebels, the Cosa Nostra, bandits, kings, railroads, poetry, Fascists, economics, and football, Duggan didn’t have much to say about food.

Weirdest Drama: Charles Williams, Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury
You’d think that Tom Stoppard would win this award with his multiple timelines sharing the stage simultaneously and his plays-within-plays that aren’t really plays. But Williams’s unique (and uniquely opaque) poetic vision coupled with a personified death wins out. In fact, it received 14 of 19 votes in this category, many of which were cast in the Stoppard plays.

Best New Read, Religion: Justin Martyr, “Hortatory Address to the Greeks”
Justin read the classics and taught Greek philosophy. Then he became a Christian and continued to teach philosophy, even opening up his own school in Rome. His basic point in the Address is that no ancient follower of Greek philosophy should have any trouble accepting the truth of Christianity since Plato and company lead us right to the brink. The Roman authorities did have trouble, though, and killed him for his faith.

Best New Read, Nonfiction: C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism
Since it changed the way I think about reading, I should actually just call it the best new book, period.

Three Others Who Need to Be Mentioned Without Unfairly Competing for Prizes
(1) Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers: Beautiful, heart-wrenching, funny, exciting, and inspiring.
(2) Jane Austen, Mansfield Park: Beautiful, heart-wrenching, funny, exciting, and inspiring, except here all the swashbuckling adventure takes place within Fanny Price’s heart.
(3) Dante, The Divine Comedy: Beautiful, heart-wrenching, funny, exciting, and inspiring, except here all the adventure takes place literally everywhere in the physical, spiritual, and moral universe.

Who will receive awards in the coming year? Robert Louis Stevenson? Isaac Asimov? Evelyn Waugh? Henry Wadsworth Longfellow? Abu ‘l-Qasim Firdowsi Tusi? Come back in a year, and we’ll find out together!

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Troll the Ancient Yuletide Carol – 2018

Most years around this time, I’ve shared some thoughts about the words to some of my favorite Christmas carols – which is to say, some of my favorite things in this world. (Click here to see posts from 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016.) But in my enthusiasm, I set out to write about two different carols a year, and now I’m running out of material!

This year, it’s not a carol that I’ve been concentrating on anyway, but the first chorus of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Here are the original words (possibly by Christian Friedrich Henrici) in German:
Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage,
Rühmet, was heute der Höchste getan!
Lasset das Zagen, verbannet die Klage,
Stimmet voll Jauchzen und Fröhlichkeit an!
Dienet dem Höchsten mit herrlichen Chören,
Laßt uns den Namen des Herrschers verehren!
And here’s a translation to English:
Celebrate, rejoice, rise up and praise these days,
Glorify what the Highest has done today!
Abandon despair, banish laments,
Sound forth full of delight and happiness!
Serve the Highest with glorious choruses,
Let us honor the name of the Lord!
It is a glorious chorus indeed that Bach serves the Highest with here, one full of the delight and happiness it calls for. The trills and the fanfares and the insistent, repeated tones in the choir, like the merry chiming of a church bell, banish all laments and give us the courage to celebrate and rejoice. The chorus accomplishes what it can of its own injunction and leads us to complete the rest of the self-fulfilling prophecy.

As one whose black humour outflows the red, yellow, and white, I tend toward the melancholy in most things. I feel justified by sober Bible passages like Solomon’s “With much wisdom comes much sorrow,” and I find great comfort in somber lines from carols such as “Rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing!” But what the angels sing to me is this: “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy!” Yes, there is a season for everything, and Christmas – I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know – is a season for joy. If it doesn’t come naturally to me, then I need to listen to those angels, and to Bach’s chorus, and rejoice.

But look how beautifully this chorus, with at first glance no tinge of dust from the weary road, speaks to those like me. Its own celebration doesn’t come naturally, either. It tells me to get up (Auf!) and to abandon despair. Why tell me this if I have no despair to banish? (And why, the Scrooge in me asks, tell me this if I am past all hope!)

So this December I will honor Christ in two ways. Yes, I will treasure the pungency of the four minor chords on “Fall on your knees! Oh hear the angel voices!” And I will still secretly find satisfaction in the few versions of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” that dare use the lyric “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” But I will set these blue shades aside when I hear Bach’s clarion call and with him will praise these gladsome days.

May your days be merry and bright as you honor den Namen des Herrschers.