Category: literature

The Moral Dimension of Judging Art

Every once in a while, usually after something sensational and traumatic, discussions crop up on the moral dimension of art, by which I mean the question of to what degree art reflects or influences society and individuals, and whether we should therefore take this into account when evaluating a work, especially in popular culture.

On that first question, on whether art primarily influences society or is merely a reflection of it, one can begin with the observation that a work must be created by somebody in an act of will. This creation is not done ex nihilo, however, because the will is informed by the intellect. “No man is an island,” and that intellect relies on outside data, such as interactions with other people and what a man has read or watched, including the artwork he’s encountered. Thus, those who create art are themselves influenced by other works, and their own work influences others, creating a circular relationship between art, culture, and individuals. The impact of any particular work will almost always be small, except perhaps for children for whom each individual experience is weighted more heavily in their minds, and for the mentally unstable, but the general themes found across a large number of works in a society can tell us both what that community generally believes, and where it is likely to go. For the individual, though he certainly possesses free will, he must use the information he has in his intellect to inform his will, and the art he’s experienced will certainly factor into that calculus.…

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Analects of an Autodidact

Don’t you hate it when a blogger introduces a post by apologising for only being able to write up something short and quick, because he’s been busy with school?


Well, anyway, vocational training aside, it’s been an exciting week for me, because I’m in the home stretch of Sandberg and Tatham’s French for Reading, which I’ve mentioned before. All the main lessons are finished, I just need to get through a final section of reading passages, which I’ll probably finish this week. After that, I’ll start taking my newly-gained ability into the wild, starting off slow with Le Petit Prince, then parallel-text editions of Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud, all of which I already own. Once I’m reasonably confident, I’ll order Les Miserables.…

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Welcome to the NHK (Novel)

In his mostly autobiographical comic Disappearance Diary, Azuma Hideo notes that in order to maintain an optimistic outlook on life, he’d removed as much realism as possible from his book. Azuma’s dry humour and cartoony art style make what should be a depressing story about a man running away from his responsibilities and living homeless seem rather light-hearted and funny.

Author Takimoto Tatsuhiko, in the afterword to his novel Welcome to the NHK, notes that his book also has a fair amount of autobiography. NHK also has a depressing subject, a twenty-two year old college drop out living as a shut-in (Japanese: hikikimori). Like Disappearance Diary, there’s a dry sense of humour, but here it serves to sharpen, rather than dull, the story’s edge, and though well-written, that edge makes it a sometimes difficult book to read.…

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The Epic of Gilgamesh

Last summer, I decided to brush up my knowledge of Classical literature by reading a few Greek authors. Last week I decided to read The Epic of Gilgamesh, which is older by around a millenium, because I always like to go one step beyond.

I read Maureen Gallery Kovacs’s translation, and she provides a lot of supplementary material, including an introduction to the composition and history of the text, a glossary of proper names, many footnotes, and summaries of each “tablet.” The annotations and summaries come in handy, because as the introduction explains, much of the Epic is lost. In fact, Kovacs uses a few different versions of the Epic to fill in gaps in the “Standard Version.” Now, Kovacs’s translation was published in 1989, so perhaps newer editions have more of the work restored. Either way, though, these gaps generally do not create a serious obstacle to understanding. Kovacs is able to provide a probable description of what happens in the lacunae. More often they’re simply nuisances. For example, when Gilgamesh confronts the demon Humbaba, we get the initial threats, dialogue, and some of the action, but then suddenly Gilgamesh has captured Humbaba. How did he accomplish this, exactly? There’s no way to know.…

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More Bibliophilia

Though I haven’t mentioned it recently, I’ve long suffered from bibliophilia. I say ‘suffer’ because it is something of a disease. Though I do occasionally sell a handful of books, I buy far more than I sell, and significantly more than I can even read. I’ve got three completely full bookcases, have taken over a couple other shelves in other parts of the house, and also have a stack on my floor.

Lately, though, I have tried to buckle down and start getting through some of my backlog. So far, I’ve made some progress. Here’s a highlight reel:…

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Early January Highlight Reel – Books

My writing has slowed down lately, but that’s because holy crap have I been consuming a lot of media. Here are the highlights of what I’ve read in the last couple weeks:

Akira – by Otomo Katsuhiro. I wrote about this a couple posts back, and the remainder of the series did not disappoint. The artwork was excellent throughout, the story kept me on my toes, and the plot kept up a breakneck pace which made a set of very long books feel much shorter.

History of the English-Speaking Peoples – by Winston Churchill. I finished volume two, but don’t have three, which I’m afraid seems to have gone out of print in the edition I have (I have vols. 1, 2, and 4). I’ve long felt like I should improve my grasp of English history, and I’ve certainly done that. Churchill, for the most part, does a good job avoiding taking sides in his presentation, though he assumes that readers know their British geography, so I had to get out my atlas at a couple points.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces – by Joseph Campbell. Cripes, this was disappointing. Campbell asserts, but doesn’t really prove, that mythology and dream analysis are connected, and spends a large portion of the book discussing psychoanalysis and the similarity between the meaning of symbols found in dreams and the symbols of mythology. His idea of the “monomyth” is already so broad that it’s a bit suspect, but I could accept his outline of the archetypes that connect world mythologies. Adding in the psychoanalysis stuff was too much.

More than that, though, I object to some of his ideas about the importance of mythology. I’d agree that myths are important to society and that every culture has and needs them. I’d even say that men generally learn better allegorically than by reason. However, he also says, referring especially to Christianity, that it doesn’t particularly matter whether these myths are true, and that all religions and mythologies teach fundamentally the same things. Unless I misunderstood the point Campbell was making, the latter idea is plainly false. As for the former, though I agree that “mere” symbolism can be quite powerful, and a story needn’t be true to have meaning, surely a story is all the more powerful if it is literally true…

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Impressions of ‘The Iliad’

Just this afternoon I finally finished Homer’s The Iliad, translated by Robert Fitzgerald. “Finally,” partly because I should probably have read it years ago, and partly because it took me a solid two months to get through – slow going, even at the more relaxed reading pace I’ve adopted since graduating university.

So, I thought I’d share a few impressions from the epic. For one, like The Odyssey, it began in media res, in the ninth year of the Trojan War. Unlike The Odyssey, it also ended in media res. I thought that may happen as I neared the end, since there were several events I know happen during the war that there simply wasn’t room for in the volume I held, but I didn’t expect it to just… stop.

Akhileus struck me as mopier than I expected. One of the most famous heroes in Western literature spends the vast majority of the poem moping in his tent. I’ve heard enough synopses of The Iliad to know that Akhileus was a moody one, but I expected to see more of the poem’s best-known character. He did make up for it when he finally did emerge to fight, and seemingly single-handedly turned back the Trojan army.

If Akhileus came across as too moody for my taste, though, the other heroes carried the epic brilliantly. The poem is more action-heavy than I expected – in fact, most of the book describes combat, and Homer spares no detail in describing who killed whom and how. Homer uses (and Fitzgerald translates) his language beautifully. His metaphors were always vivid, though perhaps a bit repetitive with some imagery. He describes men asĀ  lions and cattle, for example, several times.

I also liked the multitude of speeches, though I did find it hard to imagine how some of these men found time to stand and talk during battle. I also noticed that apparently when a Greek wanted to propose something, he first had to set forward his credentials by giving his family history, and acknowledge the credentials of his fellows. An inefficient mode of speech, perhaps, but impressive nonetheless.

Overall, I really enjoyed the epic, though I do prefer The Odyssey. It’s something I needed to read eventually, but I’m always glad to read a classic and see immediately why it’s held in such high esteem.…

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I Still Have Too Many Books

It occured to me about a week ago that I didn’t have enough literature on my shelves. Though my bookshelves groan under the weight of my books, novels and poetry make up less than a third of them. Non-fiction makes up about a third, and the most represented genre are the graphic novels, though the number of volumes per series gives that contingent an unfair advantage.

Anyway, I wanted to read some good fiction or poetry, so off I went, and have set myself even more hopelessly behind in my reading backlog. I found good stuff, and for cheap too (they were all used), but I look at this list of books I got and despair. I list only those books I’ve purchased in the last seven days.

From Half-Price Books:

The Iliad, by Homer (trans. Robert Fitzgerald)

Vile Bodies, by Evelyn Waugh,

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

La Vita Nuova, by Dante (trans. Dante Gabriel Rossetti), which I just finished reading today, all 48 pages of it.

I had actually wanted to pick up Les Miserables, but HPB didn’t have any copies except for one abridged edition. They did have eight or nine copies of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, oddly enough.

I also picked up On Duties, by Cicero, while there.

From a neighbourhood garage sale:

Bullfinch’s Mythology, ed. Edmund Fuller

The Martian Chronicles and Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury

The Gulag Archipelago, by Solzhenitsyn again. I got One Day because it was shorter at HPB, but at garage sale prices I couldn’t resist. I also got a non-fiction book here, Searching for Your Ancestors, by Gilbert Doane.

From a local comic-book store:

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill.…

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