Wednesday, May 25, 2016

A Rarely Acquired Taste

When a translator’s preface starts off by saying that most people don’t like the work at hand, I tend to want to find the best in the book just to prove everyone else wrong. After all, I even liked Ishtar. But Racine’s Britannicus was rough going for me indeed. The translator noted the rigid form of rhyming pairs of Alexandrine lines and the extreme economy of vocabulary: just 600 different words. He said nobly that while some translators mentioned these characteristics as problems to be worked around, he didn’t see why any translator would want to spend so much time with something he didn’t like. Well, I’m glad Neil Bartlett likes it, but this severe classic French drama didn’t tickle my fancy.

It occurs to me, though, that there is a potential audience I might recommend it to. Home-schooled boys might find this just the thing. The limited vocabulary puts Britannicus well within reach of the typical 12-year-old reader. And many adolescent boys find the subject matter fascinating. Aggripina has placed her son Nero on the throne in the place of Claudius's son, Britannicus. But then she senses that, having outlived her usefulness to her tyrannical offspring, she may need to watch her back. I’ve included some Roman history in the Latin classes I’ve taught to home-schoolers from time to time, and in my experience, the more the heads got chopped off, the better the boys liked it.

Corneille’s The Cid went much better for me than Britannicus, but it’s still hard to take seriously. Count de Gormas insults the aged Don Diego. To defend the old man’s honor, his son, Don Rodrigo (whose name means “son of Diego” and who becomes the Cid during the course of the play by defeating two Moorish kings) duels with and kills Count de Gormas. But the Count was father to Chimène, who is in love with Don Rodrigo, so now she has to defend her father's honor by killing Rodrigo. "Even in offending me,” she says to her love, “thou hast proved thyself worthy of me; I must, by thy death, prove myself worthy of thee." But she can't bear to do it by her own hand, although Rodrigo offers to let her. So Chimène announces that she will marry the winner of a duel, should anyone be willing to take up her cause against the redoubtable warrior. Enter Don Sancho. Rodrigo says at first he has no will to defend his life and will let Don Sancho kill him. But when Chimène tells Rodrigo she hopes he will win, he suddenly finds determination. Rodrigo defeats Sancho but spares him. And everyone is happy. Unbelievable? Yes, but then so are the plots of Romeo and Juliet and The Merchant of Venice. Amo quia incredibile.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Austen and Role-Playing

Every thing united in him; good understanding, correct opinions, knowledge of the world and a warm heart. He had strong feelings of family-attachment and family-honour, without pride or weakness; he lived with the liberality of a man of fortune, without display; he judged for himself in every thing essential, without defying public opinion in any point of worldly decorum. He was steady, observant, moderate, candid; never run away with by spirits or by selfishness which fancied itself strong feeling; and yet, with a sensibility to what was amiable and lovely, and a value for all the felicities of domestic life.
Thus Jane Austen describes what Persuasion’s Anne Elliott thinks is an ideal man. Of course, he turns out to be a cad by the end of the book. But still, it's a good example of the Age of Austen's rational assessment of a man's virtues, and an excellent catalog of excellencies.

I once joked to a game-playing friend about the idea for a Jane Austen role-playing game. In the granddaddy of all RPG’s, each player handles one character regulated by six attributes: Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. Perhaps players in the Austen RPG would define their characters by Understanding, World Knowledge, Moral Strength, Decorum, Observation, and Sensibility.

Let’s say Harriet Balmore, an NPC controlled by the Village Master, comes into the room with a secret; perhaps she has heard a rumor that Mr Creighton, Curate of Bingley Wells, has come to town with the intention of paying her court. Your character, Captain Ellis, also has an eye for the eligible Miss Balmore, so the VM asks you to roll against your Observation. You roll 3d6 and score a 15 (odds: 4.630%). Alas! Your Observation is only a 13, so you fail to notice her changed demeanor. (The Primary Rule of the Jane Austen RPG: you must roll at or under your attribute to succeed in any given attempt.) You begin a conversation with Miss B by complimenting her on a plate she has painted. Roll against Sensibility. You are, after all, a military man, so you have a lowly 7 in that attribute. But your three dice come up 1, 3, and 2, for a total of 6! You have impressed her with your remark about the melancholy aura of the clouds. Perhaps the Curate of Bingley Wells won’t have the most pleasant of visits to your town after all.

Of course, there’s more to life and role-playing than attributes. Where the typical fantasy game has orcs and half-elves, rangers and magic-users, the Austen RPG would incorporate ranks and titles: laborer, shopkeeper, gentry, baronet, curate, parson, bishop, lieutenant, captian, and so on. It probably also needs something like disposition: Cheerful, Cynical, or Serious.

I think it’s a great idea. But my friend (who is DM-ing in Oklahoma City today) says it would never work. Players, he says, would want to say Austenesque things to each other, not just roll dice and then claim, “I succeeding in saying something Austenesque to you.” But we simply don’t receive the proper training in eloquence anymore. (See as evidence the end of my favorite post.) But surely readers of Jane Austen, like the best characters in Jane Austen, transcend the normal standards of their culture. I’m ready to try it!

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Hair and Nails

When my wife and I take car trips, I usually read to her while she drives. Poor Nancy! I have to keep up with my plan, even if we’re on vacation. So sometimes she gets C. S. Lewis or some history from Will Durant. But sometimes I have to throw in a few minutes a day of something, let’s say, drier. A couple of years ago, I read some Thomas Aquinas to her, three of four articles a day; it’s a little hard to follow just listening to, but she enjoyed it in small doses. We hit the road this past Wednesday, and I thought Thomas might work again. So I peeked ahead to see what would come up: Will hair and nails rise in the resurrection? *sigh* It seemed too silly out of context. So she heard Jane Austen instead (and loved it).

Now why does it matter to Aquinas whether hair and nails will rise in the human resurrection? The positive answer is that Jesus said (as reported by Luke), “Not a hair of your head will perish.” With all his Aristotelian categories and scholastic dialectic, Aquinas was to a great extent just trying to make sense of the Bible. Some followers of Jesus die from persecution, and all clearly die one way or another; so Jesus’s statement, Aquinas reasons, must refer to the glorified body of resurrected believers.

But for the scholastic philosopher, there’s always the negative side to examine, as well. What good reason might a Christian have for not believing that the resurrected body will have hair? My first, admittedly very shallow, thought is that the image of the Blessed walking around in Heaven with no hair or nails is too ludicrous to think about, let alone argue for. But thirteenth-century philosophers don’t bother writing about a tenet unless they see some good reason to doubt it. At the end of the world, bodies will be raised to life. But hair and nails are dead; they have no feelings. In Aquinas’s more precise terms, they do not participate in sensitive soul. So it seems perhaps that the terms of resurrection don’t apply to hair and nails. Yet Jesus said that they do. (Well, OK, he didn’t say anything about nails.) What is a good Christian supposed to do with this apparent contradiction? How can he answer a scoffer? Aquinas’s speculative answer (and he admits all through this section that scholars have differing opinions on a lot of issues regarding the nature of the resurrected body) points out that hair and nails serve as part of the complete design of humanity since they provide protection. No, we won’t need that protection in Heaven, but God’s loving providence will always be on display.

The Dominican philosopher has plenty more questions about the resurrection. Will angels participate? (Yes, they will gather the remains.) Will each person get the same bodily material back? (Yes. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a re-surrection.) Will urine and “dregs” be part of the glorified body? (No, the bowels will be filled with “excellent humors.”) Will all be the same age? (Yes, young and old will all appear in their prime, about 30.) Will wounds remain? (Yes and No. Martyrs’ scars will remain as badges of glory, but missing limbs – and, one would hope, heads – will be restored.) And, of course, The Biggie: If every person’s body will rise, what about cannibals? Food becomes part of the body, so whose body will last Tuesday’s dinner join in the resurrection? Aquinas points out that the particular matter of any individual’s body ebbs and flows (he could have had no good idea of the extent to which elemental particles come and go over the course of a lifetime, but still, he understand that the biceps is like a city whose residents move in and out while still remaining the same city), so we just have to trust God to work out the details. Yes, it’s a God-of-the-gaps answer. But considering that he uses it to help his readers see a more realistic, more complex view of the way life and nutrition work, his God of the gaps is actually on the side of science.

Kant is coming up during the time of the trip home. I wouldn’t even think of reading it to Nancy.

Friday, May 13, 2016

General Characters

Military generals can be fascinating characters: Caesar, Patton, MacArthur. Civil War generals have a special tendency toward eccentricity. And Civil War generals as described by the novelist Shelby Foote in his history of the war could have come straight out of Dickens.

Take Union General Irvin McDowell, for instance. His troops never had much respect for the man who lost First Bull Run. But he certainly did nothing to limit the complaints and wisecracks by regularly wearing, not a regulation cap, but a helmet made of a straw basket covered with canvas. Then there’s his colleague John Pope, who, when taking over the federal Army of the Potomac, told his men to think only of going forward while letting the lines of retreat take care of themselves. When he discovered Stonewall Jackson sitting in his rear with an entire corps, he found that lines of retreat sometimes need a little oversight. He often ended his letters with the sign-off “Headquarters in the saddle,” naturally eliciting from his men the observation that he had his headquarters where his hindquarters should be.

Sometimes the quirks dramatically altered life-and-death situations. Stonewall Jackson got his nickname from standing firm as a stone wall during battle, but he also constantly found ways to nap during action. George McClellan was always quicker to write to his wife than to lead his men into battle and always wrong in his opinions as to which politicians did or didn’t support his vision of single-handedly saving the Union. (He eventually lost the support of the only politician that ultimately mattered: President Lincoln.) Southern General Leonidas Polk once found himself behind Federal lines by mistake and, the color of his uniform hidden in the twilight, calmly ordered the soldiers to cease firing. (The ruse worked.)

Few characters can top Braxton Bragg. His very name indicates a man set apart, for the parents who would give a son such a name raised him. Once while serving as his unit’s own quartermaster, he filled out a requisition as general and then denied it as quartermaster. As general again, he appealed to his superior officer, who again made the request to Quartermaster Bragg, who again denied it.

But my favorite story from this year’s chapters in Foote tells of northern General John T. Wilder. When 20,000 of Bragg’s men surrounded his small garrison of 4000 and asked for surrender “to avoid unnecessary bloodshed,” Wilder retorted that the only way to avoid bloodshed was to retreat beyond the range of his weapons. General James Chalmers, who conducted the negotiations from the Confederate end, urged the rationality of surrender considering the size of his force. Wilder still refused, asking in his reply: How do I know you have 20,000 men? The southern commander sent a new, testier message, saying that the only proof he could offer of the strength of his army was the overwhelming use of it. Wilder, wanting neither to spend the lives of his men without cause nor to fall for an outrageous con, thought of another way to receive proof. He walked to the Confederate lines under a flag of truce and asked his former comrade, Gen. Simon Buckner, C.S.A., what he should do. “War doesn’t work that way,” said his old friend. “I can’t tell you what to do. But I can give you a tour of the camp.” After seeing the size of the enemy troops up close, the deflated Wilder announced that he supposed he had no choice: every soldier under his command surrendered. Then they were all given leave to go back home under their word that they would not take up arms against the Confederacy until properly exchanged.

It was a different world.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Richard Dedekind and Professor Leonard

Once I put a schedule in black and white, it’s hard for me to change it. That’s one of the main reasons I’ve done so well keeping up with my plan over the last nine-and-a-half years. But I have to change something here in the beginning of May. I have hard copies of Shelby Foote, and the volumes are huge. So I won’t be reading about the Civil War during my walks this month. And I sure can’t bring Aquinas with me on a walk if I want to take anything like coherent notes on the Summa. So I reached ahead in time and retrieved Richard Dedekind’s Essays on the Theory of Numbers, which I have on the Kindle.

I got the tip to read Dedekind from Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book. Adler points out that many of the Great Books of science and math are easy to understand since they weren’t directed to experts: Lavoisier discovered oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen, so he couldn’t very well write to people who knew all about them! Still, I wondered what I was in for, and I took a sneak peek a few weeks ago. The first few pages looked like clear sailing; yep, I would just breeze through the last year of my decade-long plan.

Yesterday, I set out for my morning walk, tablet in hand and picked up Dedekind where I had left off. Wouldn’t you know it? It got hard on the very next page. Now what do I do? How do I follow Dedkind’s arguments, especially while I’m walking? Or do I follow them at all? Maybe part of what I learn is that I can’t follow his proofs. I understand his points, and I try to tell myself that I’ll only retain the main ideas anyway, not the proofs. Still, I remember with awe that beautiful moment when I first understood in one unified vision Euclid’s complex proof of the Pythagorean Theorem. (I later found that many simpler proofs exist!)

And I’m spoiled. I’ve been watching Professor Leonard’s videos on calculus lately, and I’m actually learning the stuff! His step-by-step explanations, clear language, multiple examples, elegant pictures, and oft-repeated fundamentals make it very easy to understand. Yes, it helps that I remember high-school algebra and the basics of trigonometry pretty well. But then those memories don’t help me with Dedekind. Maybe if Professor Leonard would draw just a couple of elegant pictures to go with the book!

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Luther and the History of Music Theory

Martin Luther’s views on music in Christian worship certainly have their place in classes on western music history. But he doesn’t really make any contribution to the theory of music. My title merely refers to a similarity that just occurred to me this morning between my reading of Luther and my recent experience teaching a class in the history of music theory. The history of western music theory covers 2500 years and, including as it does such figures as Augustine and Isaac Newton, touches upon not only music proper but also the histories of theology, astronomy, mathematics, rhetoric, and more. It’s a lot to assimilate in one semester, and I understand my students’ view of the assigned source readings as just one more tedious layer in an already complexly multitiered class. But, as I told them repeatedly, I’d rather have them read the sources and skip the textbook and ignore me entirely than to miss out on reading Boethius, Guido, or J. J. Fux themselves. In addition to learning the content of the authors’ teaching about music theory, reading the sources shows students the flavor, the biases, the language, the vanity or humility, and the desire for clarity or desire for obscurity that I can’t put across in a lecture. It’s like the difference between being told about a roller coaster and riding one.

I always come away from reading a source with more nuanced understanding and even more knowledge of the basics than I have after just reading about a historical author. I suppose none of the major content in the Luther reader I just finished this morning surprised me. But without reading Luther himself, I would never have known his style. I would never have experienced his care for his readers. I would never have grasped just how much the controversy over indulgences served only as a launching point. Reading about Luther, I know that he countered the theory of transubstantiation with a view of consubstantiation. Hearing it from Luther himself, I find his argument for the view, his open-mindedness toward people who see it differently (as long as they approach the Lord’s Table in faith), and his total avoidance of the highfalutin word “consubstantiation.” Reading about Luther, I am informed by a historian. Reading Luther himself, I am encouraged by a pastor.

As for those students of mine, I added two questions about source readings to their take-home final. So I know they’ll read at least two of the authors I tried to get them to experience.