Category: literature

The Book of Odes

Anyone who’s read any the Confucian canon’s Four Books will have heard much of the Book of Odes. Confucius and Mencius discuss it and reference it constantly, and Confucius even told his son, “If you do not study the Odes you will not be fit to converse with.” He explains why in another chapter that I’ve quoted and discussed previously, “My young friends, why do you not study the Odes? They will stimulate your emotions, broaden your observation, enlarge your fellowship, and express your grievances. They will aid you in your immediate service to your parents and your more remote service to your sovereign.” The Confucians place so much emphasis on the Odes and their study that one can only have the highest expectations going into the book, but this can also set some false expectations as to what they are exactly. Even Ezra Pound, the great poet, translator, and admirer of Confucius, once expressed confusion as to what exactly the Confucians saw in them.

The Odes, you see, are a collection of 305 folk songs and poems; traditionally Confucius himself is supposed to have compiled them, though there’s much doubt over this. Several were used in a ritual context, as one would expect from the Confucians’ treatment of them, and many do have some moral component, though more often than not, this isn’t explicit. For the most part, though, they’re simply folk songs, and look exactly like one would expect folk songs to look. Most are romantic, some praise famous heroes, a few deal with the hardship of a soldier’s life, and some decry tyrannical government. This is all well and good, and they’re certainly enjoyable, but one can also understand the reservations of people like Pound; it’s as if a great sage urged you to study the great moral instruction of a collection of songs, then handed you a copy of Anthology of American Folk Music. Take, for example, Ode 61, “The River is Broad.”

Who says that the River is broad?
On a single reed you could cross it.
Who says that Song is far away?
By standing on tip-toe I can see it.

Who says that the River is broad?
There is not room in it even for a skiff.
Who says that Song is far away?
It could not take you so much as a morning.…

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How to Write About a Book

What does an author do for a semi-landmark like this, my 300th post? 300 is a somewhat ungainly number; it’s two too many hundreds to be special, but not halfway to a fourth digit like 500. It was made famous at Thermopylae, but a web log hardly merits a comparison to an event of that stature. Nonetheless, since it’s taken over nine years to get to this point, I’ll go ahead and take the opportunity to pat myself on the back – hooray for me!

Anyway, I don’t claim to be a particularly talented writer, but after so many posts, most of them reviews of some kind at this point, I can say that I’m comfortable writing and fairly confident in my ability to talk about books, fiction or non-fiction. So, I thought I’d take the opportunity to share some advice with those who’d like to get better at writing and talking about literature themselves.

This subject will most interest students, of course, and perhaps others thinking of starting a literature blog, or maybe just members of a book club. I can honestly say, though, that writing has been immensely helpful in my own intellectual growth. I’ve written elsewhere that good art is something to be savoured, not scarfed down like fast food. The habits I’ve gained as part of running this blog have ensured that I digest what I read more fully, even for books that I don’t go on to review. So, I hope everyone will find at least some of my advice useful, and if you’ve given any thought to doing some writing of your own then by all means give it a shot, and don’t be discouraged if your early efforts turn out awkward. If you come away from this post with one main idea, let it be this: writing about literature (or non-fiction) is a learned skill, and like any other skill, you’ll only get good at it with practice.…

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The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

My introduction to Robert Heinlein came during a class I took back at college on the literature of science fiction, the same class where I first read Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. The timing was perfect, since I was a Libertarian at the time and Heinlein is fairly well-known for his broadly Libertarian views, which feature prominently in his work. That ideological sympathy wasn’t enough to make me a fan of the novel selected for the class, Stranger in a Strange Land, though. The story had some interesting moments, enough that I am glad that I read it, but it features a hippie version of Libertarianism with free love and such, which even then I had little patience for.

The novel was good enough, though, to make me check out another work of his shortly after, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. The premise alone, a Libertarian revolution on the Moon against Terran authority, was like catnip to me at the time, and the book is full of ideas and speculation, mostly expressed through dialogue and the story itself, on what a more-or-less Libertarian society might look like. There is still some silly, “lolbertarian” stuff, like the rather unorthodox marriage arrangements, but also touches like private, commodity-backed currency competing with government-issued fiat, private courts, and a discussion on how to frame a constitution.

Now, so far this may sound less like a novel and more like a political allegory, like St. Thomas More’s Utopia or parts of Plato’s Republic, but a large reason why the novel works is that this is all presented naturally as part of the story or in the interest of world-building, and Heinlein never goes off on overly-lengthy tangents. So, the private currency is mentioned only in a few lines here and there to give an idea of how the colony is faring economically. The private courts only come up when a character is introduced by being dragged into one. The speech on framing a constitution does go on for a couple pages, but even that doesn’t extend longer than is needed for the plot. In short, there’s enough of these ideas to satisfy those who enjoy political speculation, but at no point does it feel preachy or interfere with the story. Those with an especially low tolerance of Libertarianism, or Liberalism more broadly, will almost certainly find some of the social Liberalism grating, as I did, but the rest of the story is good enough that I’m perfectly willing to overlook that. For what it’s worth, Heinlein himself seems to realise that even if this sort of society could come about, it’s not necessarily sustainable long-term.…

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The Hunting of the Snark

`Let’s hear it,’ said Humpty Dumpty. `I can explain all the poems that were ever invented — and a good many that haven’t been invented just yet.’

As I’ve talked about in previous posts, I think the epic poem is the greatest, noblest form in literature. One reason is the discipline required simply to complete writing one at all. Even a short poem demands much from a writer, and extending that over a lengthy narrative makes for an extraordinary quality filter, and is also why there are relatively few epics out there.

Such is the literary batting average for epics that if you wanted to argue that the three most famous epic poets, Homer, Virgil, and Dante Alighieri, are the three greatest writers in the Western canon overall, well, you’d have a powerful case. Now consider also some of the other famous epic writers – John Milton, of course, the authors of Beowulf, of Gawain and the Green Knight, Tennyson, Ezra Pound, and G. K. Chesterton, among others, and you have a formidable literary roster. Nonetheless, those of us with truly refined taste in literature know that the greatest of all of these is, undoubtedly, Lewis Carroll.

Well, maybe Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits isn’t the greatest, but it is the one I enjoy the most, which is certainly worth something.

Now, everyone knows about Carroll’s Alice novels, which I wrote about last week, but Snark, though not obscure, and certainly more widely read than, say, Sylvie & Bruno, is generally only popular among Carrollians, and that’s too bad. In short, it’s exactly what one would expect an epic poem by Carroll to look like; imagine “Jabberwocky” extended to the length of a short book (about thirty-five pages in one edition I own), and you’ll be close to the mark. In style, it’s more-or-less a condensed, poetic Alice, and if that sounds appealing to you, you’ll almost certainly enjoy it.

Mervyn Peake’s illustration of the Bellman leading his crew
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Lewis Carroll, the Alice Novels, and Sensible Nonsense

`As to poetry, you know,’ said Humpty Dumpty, stretching out one of his great hands, `I can repeat poetry as well as other folk, if it comes to that — ‘
`Oh, it needn’t come to that!’ Alice hastily said, hoping to keep him from beginning.
`The piece I’m going to repeat,’ he went on without noticing her remark,’ was written entirely for your amusement.’
Alice felt that in that case she really ought to listen to it, so she sat down, and said `Thank you’ rather sadly.

When it gets late in the year and with Christmas coming soon, I always find myself in a nostalgic, and somewhat lazy, mood. It’s a time when my reading goes back to old favourites, and these past couple weeks I’ve revisited a couple of my favourite novels from yesteryear, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.

Now, I went through The Annotated Alice, which is my favourite edition of the novels, and in the introduction editor Martin Gardner makes what seems, at a glance, a startling claim: “The fact is that Carroll’s nonsense is not nearly as random and pointless as it seems to a modern American child who tries to read the Alice books. One says ‘tries’ because the time is past when a child under fifteen, even in England, can read Alice with the same delight as gained from, say, The Wind in the Willows or The Wizard of Oz. […] It is only because adults […] continue to relish the Alice books that they are assured of immortality.”

There are two claims here, so let’s start with the first: are the Alice novels really no longer children’s books? To be honest, I didn’t read them as a child, but first read them when I was about fifteen, coincidentally the age Gardner mentions above, though I do remember liking Disney’s adaptation of them. I can say that it’s not hard to find editions of the novel aimed at children, or at least older children, as well as at least one alphabet book. Gardner says that “Children today are bewildered and sometimes frightened by the nightmarish atmosphere of Alice’s dreams.” The books are surprisingly violent in parts and almost every character is a jerk to some degree, with the White Knight (very likely a stand-in for Carroll himself) and perhaps the Cheshire Cat as the only exceptions, but I’d hardly call either Wonderland or the Looking-Glass world “nightmarish,” and how frightened a child is would depend on the child. I’d have probably loved it.

It is true that children today won’t catch much of the referential humour, but recognising the source of Carroll’s various song parodies and such isn’t critical to enjoying the parody, and even if a reader misses one joke, there are so many throughout the books that it won’t be long until he comes to another one he may enjoy. Take, for example, the parody “You Are Old, Father William,” which Alice repeats for the Caterpillar:

`You are old, Father William,’ the young man said,
`And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head–
Do you think, at your age, it is right?’

`In my youth,’ Father William replied to his son,
`I feared it might injure the brain;
But, now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again.’

`You are old,’ said the youth, `as I mentioned before,
And have grown most uncommonly fat;
Yet you turned a back-somersault in at the door–
Pray, what is the reason of that?’

`In my youth,’ said the sage, as he shook his grey locks,
`I kept all my limbs very supple
By the use of this ointment–one shilling the box–
Allow me to sell you a couple?’

That’s the first half. Do you recognise the source? Probably not, but it doesn’t really matter. Carroll himself, as the narrator, even shows some awareness that he’s writing for a young audience. During the trial at the end of Wonderland, for example, we have this incident, with authorial commentary:

Here one of the guinea-pigs cheered, and was immediately suppressed by the officers of the court. (As that is rather a hard word, I will just explain to you how it was done. They had a large canvas bag, which tied up at the mouth with strings: into this they slipped the guinea-pig, head first, and then sat upon it.)

`I’m glad I’ve seen that done,’ thought Alice. `I’ve so often read in the newspapers, at the end of trials, “There was some attempts at applause, which was immediately suppressed by the officers of the court,” and I never understood what it meant till now.’

Some young children probably would be disturbed at stuffing guinea pigs into a sack and sitting on them, even if done by other animals about the same size as a guinea pig, but this is certainly no grislier than many fairy tales, at least in their traditional forms.

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Richard III, Reading Shakespeare, and Another Way to Fail at Kingship

William Shakespeare’s renown in the English-speaking world knows no bounds. He gets his own section in most libraries and bookstores, he’s assigned in every English curriculum, and in any major city there’s almost always a production of one of his plays going on at any time. Take a poll asking for the greatest poet, dramatist, or even general writer in English, and the Bard will win almost every time. In fact, he’s so famous that we don’t even need to call him by his name; just say “the Bard,” and people know who you’re talking about, like how St. Thomas Aquinas just calls Aristotle “the Philosopher.”

However, there’s also a phenomenon with Shakespeare similar to an observation C. S. Lewis once made about Scripture – if you tried to judge the amount of Bible-reading in England by the number of Bibles sold, you’d be far off the mark. A lot of people never approach Shakespeare’s work outside of class assignments, and find him difficult for several reasons. A common one is his diction; coworker of mine once said, only half-jokingly, that he’d be more interested in Shakespeare if Shakespeare wrote in English. Of course, not only did he write in English, he wrote in Modern English, albeit early Modern English.

A good illustration of the difficulties people run into is the famous opening soliloquy in Richard III, which I just watched recently:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smooth’d his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barded steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.

As soon as people see this, I suspect many of them feel like they need to dissect it like a frog in biology class, as they were always required to do in school. “What’s the metre here? Any assonance or alliteration? There is a pun on ‘son’ and ‘sun’, I should mention that. Who is the ‘son of York,’ anyway? There’s also a lot of contrast between images in each lines…” and so on. Are you really supposed to get all of this?…

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Tales of Mystery and Imagination

It’s October and Halloween is just around the corner, so now’s a perfect time to bring out Tales of Mystery and Imagination. Not the Alan Parsons Project album, though that’s good, too, but Calla Editions’ reprint of the classic collection of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories.

Now, among the authors typically assigned for high school English, Poe stands out a bit from other members of the literary canon because, though many other canonical authors wrote for popular audiences, Poe’s stories come across as essentially pulp. It revels in the macabre, often hinges on suspense, and he’s primarily known for horror, and that genre is known for getting snubbed by critics. Most of his stories, because they sometimes do rely on the unknown, don’t benefit from re-reading like most great works, and Poe himself was strongly opposed to didactic fiction, so there aren’t many lessons to take from him, besides things like “Don’t bury your sister unless you’re absolutely certain that she’s dead,” or “Never bet the devil your head.” So what’s he doing on lists of canonical authors?

Simply, because he’s the master of this type of fiction.

"For the love of God, Montresor!" "Yes," I said, "for the love of God!"
“For the love of God, Montresor!” “Yes,” I said, “for the love of God!”
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Is There a Hierarchy Among the Arts?

tezuka_osamuLast weekend I wrote up a recommended reading list as a permanent page, and as I came to the end I briefly considered adding a section for comics, but decided against it because my goal was to direct people to higher art; pop culture already has enough promotion.

While thinking about some of the graphic novels I may have added, I noticed that most of them were works that I’d only really recommend to someone specifically interested in the medium. I took a look at the general fiction section and considered whether I’d encourage anyone to read them before even the relatively lighter works, like The Things They Carried or The Napoleon of Notting Hill, and the answer was no, I wouldn’t.

Why is this? It’s not as though I’m only working from a small sample size; I’ve read dozens of these works, including those that are commonly cited as the best of the medium, like WatchmenThe Dark Knight Returns, a few works by Tezuka Osamu, as well as some more niche titles like Onward Toward Our Noble Deaths or A Bride’s Story. Are comics just inherently an inferior medium? How would one even go about comparing different media?…

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Why Do You Not Study the Odes?

Compared to 2015, I’ve spent much of 2016 so far writing more about literature. Those who started following this blog last year, when non-fiction covered the bulk of my material, at least aside from comics I used largely to pad out the 75 Book Challenge, may see this as a slight change of course. However, it’s a return to what I’ve always considered my primary academic focus, and honestly I think that my discussions of literature are more important than those on history or political science.

Now, I think that much of my audience is already sold on the value of good art, and has some appreciation of beauty. I know a lot of people in my online social circles who’ve given up on television, and in a few cases even on popular music. This is very good; I and most of my readership are on the Right, and the Right stands for order, and good art is conducive to that while bad art is corrosive of it. It’s worth noting that Reactionary blogs have, to a small extent, begun to write more about the arts. Nick B. Steves noticed this trend in a recent edition of This Week in Reaction, in which he was generous enough to include a link to my post on the Cavalier poets, and he attributed it partly to Chris Gale. E. Anthony Gray’s very worthwhile series on various poets like Goethe and Coleridge published on Social Matter is worth pointing out, as well, and of course Wrath of Gnon has been encouraging an appreciation for the beautiful for a long time on both tumblr and Twitter.

Nonetheless, the lesson still hasn’t quite sunk in in many quarters. The overwhelming focus among Reactionaries is politics, some political theory, and occasional forays into history. Though understandable, since these seem to allow for more direct understanding of what’s wrong with the world and what to do about it, it creates a man with a rather inhuman, incomplete, and unpleasant outlook. The worst offenders, and I won’t specify them, are those who revel in outrage porn and finding the most degenerate news stories and social trends they can find, then blogging or podcasting about them, as though it’s something hidden that needs to be exposed. They’re like connoisseurs of crap; when most men would just step around whatever cultural dog turd they come across, these bloggers put it in a jar, label it, and insist on showing the rest of us their collection. Thank you, professor, that is indeed interesting and quite informative. Now, you are going to wash your hands before you eat anything, correct?

This obsession with finding the most dysfunctional people in the Western world and stewing in pots of outrage porn, besides being unpleasant, demoralises those who spend too much time on it, and likely contributes to the fairly high rate of burnout among online Reactionaries. A man of the Right should, of course, be aware of what’s going on in the broader culture he lives in, but he should spend more time on the beautiful than the ugly. Spend more time, much more time, on the beautiful, if only for your own sake. As I’ve discussed twice before, in “The Moral Dimension of Judging Art” and “An Experiment in Fandom Criticism,” too much bad art is unhealthy both spiritually and mentally; good art is healthy in both senses.

As for the practical aspect, the arts may have less immediate application than history or politics, but a well-rounded man will have some familiarity with both realms. No lesser thinker than Aristotle, besides writing foundational work on ethics, politics, and metaphysics, devoted an entire book to poetry, with the straightforward title The Poetics, which is still essential reading for anyone interested in literature.

Rembrandt_-_Aristotle_with_a_Bust_of_Homer_-_WGA19232

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The Homeric Hymns

The Homeric Hymns, traditionally attributed to Homer but with much controversy over that attribution, is another one of those works that shouldn’t really need much of an introduction. Since I know I’m not the only one whose formal education has failed me, though, there’s probably no harm in offering a brief overview of this, as well.

As one may guess from the title, this is a collection of poems praising several of the Greeks’ various gods. They vary greatly in length, the first few going on for over a dozen pages in my edition, but most of them fit easily onto one or two pages. The longer ones tend to be narratives, like Hymn II (to Demeter), and Hymn III (to Apollo), usually covering the god’s birth and one or two other tales. The rest are short hymns of praise, recalling to the audience the god’s accomplishments, things sacred to him, and so on. For example, here’s Hymn XXIV, to Hestia:

Hestia,
you are the one
who takes care of the holy house
in sacred Pytho, the house
of the archer Lord Apollo,

soft oil
flowing forever from your hair.

Come into this house,
come, having one heart
with wise Zeus,

and be gracious to my song, too.…

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