Sunday, October 21, 2012

Challenges in the Third Decade

Several days ago, I posted an introduction to my third ten-year plan. In that post, I concentrated on the fun side of my tentative list; a lot of mystery, science fiction, and adventure yarns. A big part of that fun side of the plan involves returning to books and authors I enjoyed when I was much younger. Of course I assume that these books will look different to me now than they did when I was sixteen, and hope they’ll be different in a good way; I’m not going Back to the Future, I guess, but Forward to the Past. But I haven’t decided only to recapture an enhanced version of my adolescence; I also put some hard reading on my list, with mystery and adventure not in the books themselves but in my approach to them.

The idea of a third decade started with just three categories: finishing the Summa Theologica, rereading Plato and Aristotle, and reading more drama, which I had mostly neglected in the second plan. In some ways, Thomas Aquinas is very hard reading indeed; I couldn’t make any sense of it at all the first time I tried. (I have to laugh at myself now: I was sick, and when Nancy offered to go to the library to get me something to read, I said, “Look for the Summa Theologica. I’ve heard it’s good.”) But sometime during the third or fourth Thomas assignment from the first ten-year plan, I suddenly saw the interlocking pattern, and the scholastic arguments actually started getting easy for me. Plato, by contrast, seems easy on the surface, but gets harder the more you think about him. With Aristotle, as far as I can discern, whether a book will reveal its treasures gladly all depends on what kind of student took notes at the Lyceum that day.

Well, as they say, both work and geeky reading plans expand to fill the time allotted, and my plan for a third decade grew quickly as I started working on it in earnest this summer. First, I found out that the missing run of numbers in the Aquinas volumes of the Britannica set don’t mark a gap in the structure that Aquinas never finished, as I had supposed; there’s way more Summa than I suspected, although at least it’s all readily available on the internet. I’ll plan to read most of it, but now after reading Durant’s account of medieval philosophy, I’m even more eager to read some of Thomas’s teacher, Albertus Magnus, and some of the Sic et Non of Peter Abelard. Abelard is generally known, if known at all, for his secret love for Heloise. But the story of his method of disputation interested me much, much more. Students in Paris actually pooled their money to pay Abelard to teach them; I love the idea but must realistically acknowledge that I would never have a job if higher education still worked this way. Teacher and students would meet together in an unoccupied niche of Notre Dame, and Peter would propose a theological position, say, that a human can comprehend God. “All right,” he would say, “using the scriptures, the Church Fathers, and your own reason, argue sic: that this proposition is true.” After the response had gone on for a while, he would stop the students and say, “Now, argue non: that this proposition is false,” and the students would once more jump in with their knowledge and their ideas. The Church put sanctions on Abelard for a while because he refused to end his classes by saying, “Very fine analysis, students, but we all know that the correct answer is [insert the orthodox position on subject X here].” But I’m not sure at all he wasn’t serving God by his open-ended investigations; after all, maybe the answer to the position I offered as an example is non.

Difficult in a different way perhaps are the novels of Thomas Hardy. Having read some of his poetry this year, I’m more familiar with his bleakly melancholy outlook, regretting the loss of a religion he thought untrue and longing for a spiritual realm he thought nonexistent. The two Hardy books I’ve read seem at first blush like typical Victorian pageants with happy endings, but my friend Jane Vogel convinced me that the real message of Hardy lies hidden in a complex allegory of names. I also have to admit that I’ve read what I think are considered two of his happier books, so perhaps when I get to Tess and Jude, I won’t have to look very far beneath the surface to see the darkness.

I’ve also included a reader of selections from the works of Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin. I don’t know that I’ll recognize the literature he analyzes or understand what he has to say about it; but I’ve heard that he devised the term “polyphonic voices” to describe the fiction of Dostoevsky – characters speaking whatever they have to say about ethics and religion with no apparent commentary or judgment from the narrator – and it intrigues me.

Rounding out this more difficult portion of the Third Decade is a book I’ve heard described as the most obscure novel ever written. The first page of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake “begins,” with no initial capitalization, “ riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay,” and includes the “words” passencore, tauftauf, venissoon and the Rabelaisian  bababadal-gharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovar-rhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk. It “ends” with the deliciously enigmatic “A way a lone a last a loved a long the” (I don’t know how to clarify by punctuation alone that that last “sentence” has no final period.) Whether that lilting formula fades inconclusively into the magical green glow of an Irish dusk or cycles back to the “riverrun, past Eve and Adam's,” those final eleven words possess an enchanting music all their own. Say them out loud. Savor the liquid L’s. Ponder the enigma of whether some or all of the A’s could be heard as prefixes instead of as articles. I don’t know what I’m getting myself into, bur I’ve promised myself for decades that I would someday read Finnegans Wake, and now I know when: sometime around March of 2021, I’ll follow Joyce a way a lone a last a loved a long the

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