2016: A Human Work

The first really successful year for Everything is Oll Korrect! was back in 2012, and going into 2013 I had a lot of momentum built up with the weekly posting schedule and generally improving post quality. I had high hopes, but that year turned out to be the Agincourt of web logging (from the French perspective), and in 2014 it really came tumbling down. So even though 2015 was Everything’s best year, I was only cautiously optimistic about how 2016 would turn out.

Well, post views are up significantly from last year, but more importantly, if I may give myself a pat on the back, post quality is up – and so is post length. Four of my five longest-ever articles were written this year, and in a highlight reel of Everything, 2016 would certainly be the best-represented single year.

I began the year planning on going back to a weekly schedule, but couldn’t keep that up and nixed that idea in late March. As fruitful as weekly posting was from late 2011 through early 2013, that was much easier to do when this was effectively an aniblog; I could knock out a volume of a graphic novel or a movie in an afternoon and have a short review ready to go in a day or two. Now that I’m mostly reviewing books of prose and some poetry, though, there’s no longer an easy way to whip up a post that’s worth sharing on short notice. I did, however, manage to post thirty articles this year.

The most popular of those posts was my article on Robert Lewis Dabney’s book A Defense of Virginia and the South. This was also the most ambitious of the year and the most difficult to write because it took me a while to decide how to approach a book so wildly politically incorrect. I decided to give a brief introduction and conclusion, but mostly let Dabney do most of the talking for himself as I go through chapter-by-chapter. At 5,556 words it’s also by far the longest I’ve ever written, over twice as many as the second-longest’s 2,180 words. That second-place finisher was also the third most-popular of the year, “Why Do You Not Study the Odes?” This was my call to everyone, but especially those on the Right, to focus on the beautiful and not get caught up in outrage porn and degeneracy. In my opinion, these two are my best posts of the year, though I slightly prefer “Odes” because it’s on a subject I’ve always cared a great deal about but haven’t addressed adequately before. I’d give a bronze to “Is There a Hierarchy Among the Arts?” This also addresses a topic I’ve touched on previously, but this is easily the best expression of it.…

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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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Medieval Monsters

I recently received the book Medieval Monsters, an art book collecting illustrations from various medieval manuscripts, by Damien Kempf and Maria L. Gilbert, as a gift, and it’s one of those books whose main flaw is that it’s not big enough. That is, I wish it were bigger both in the sense of having more content and just being physically larger. At just 6″ x 7.5″, this is the smallest art book I own. More typical  would be something like The First World War in Colour, which is 8.5″ x 11.5″. To be fair, most of these illustrations don’t have a lot of detail and so may not merit as much space as some other genres of art, but a larger size would also allow for more content. On a positive note, the paper and print quality is nice, so what is here looks good.

One other small complaint, at just under a hundred pages there’s not really space here for a full treatment of the art. Anyone looking for a full discussion of medieval art and manuscripts will need to look elsewhere. However, Kempf and Gilbert do accomplish just what they set out to do, and there’s just enough text to give some context to the pictures and to relate some always-interesting myths and anecdotes. Discussing a picture of St. Dominic, for example, the authors say:

The Spanish saint was known for h is intense devotion to Christ: he would spend sleepless nights praying and reading. According to a medieval legend, Dominic’s mother, when pregnant, dreamed of a dog carrying a torch in its mouth that would teach and enlighten the world. Dominic and the members of the monastic order he founded, the Dominicans, were called the ‘dogs of the Lord’ (Domini canes), and their mission was to fight against the evil temptations of the world.

medievalmonsters3

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Plato’s Dialogues: Euthyphro

So, we’ve made it to one of Plato’s most famous dialogues, Euthyphro. Socrates is on his way to court, having been charged with corrupting the youth of Athens, when he meets a young man, Euthyphro, who is there to charge his father with murder. The primary question here is how to define piety, but with a theme throughout the dialogue of intellectual humility, even more so than in the other works so far.

Now, Euthyphro’s case is a difficult one. One of his father’s servants had killed a man, so his father had bound him and, while deciding what to do with him, the servant died. He certainly caused his servant’s death, though not intentionally, and few would find much sympathy for the murderous servant. There’s also, of course, the question of whether one should charge one’s father with a crime at all. Socrates doesn’t seem to think so, at least in most cases, and he says to Euthyphro in astonishment, “And the man your father killed, was he a relative of yours? Of course he was? You never would prosecute your father would you, for the death of anybody who was not related to you?”

It may be helpful to compare another philosopher’s opinion on a similar subject; the situation reminds me of an exchange in The Analects, in Book XIII:

The duke of Sheh informed Confucius, saying, ‘Among us here there are those who may be styled upright in their conduct. If their father have stolen a sheep, they will bear witness to the fact.’

Confucius said, ‘Among us, in our part of the country, those who are upright are different from this. The father conceals the misconduct of the son, and the son conceals the misconduct of the father. Uprightness is to be found in this.’

Translator James Legge notes, “[Confucius’] expression does not absolutely affirm that this is upright, but that in this there is a better principle than in the other conduct. Anybody but a Chinese will say that both the duke’s view of the subject and the sage’s were incomplete.”…

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Plato’s Dialogues: Meno

Plato’s dialogue Meno begins with the titular character asking Socrates whether virtue is something that can be taught. Socrates, of course, wants to begin by defining what exactly virtue is. Now, in LysisLaches, and Charmides, Socrates and friends couldn’t even figure out what a few particular virtues are, so it seems unlikely that we’ll find out what virtue as a whole is (spoiler: we don’t), but interestingly, unlike those three aporetic dialogues, Socrates does present a positive argument of his own and even offers a conclusion at the end.

So, in response to Socrates’ question, Meno attempts to define “virtue” as “desiring fine things and being able to acquire them.” This doesn’t stand up to Socrates’ scrutiny, though, in part because, when Socrates starts asking for more detail and examples, Meno isn’t able to define virtue as a whole without reference to individual parts of virtue, like justice, temperance, and so on.…

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A Brief Introduction to Mencius

When discussing Confucianism, the first book people think of is The Analects of Confucius, which is understandably the most famous Confucian work by a wide margin. This book is, Scripture aside, the most important book I’ve ever read in forming my own political and social ideas, and my opinion of Confucius is largely the same as his student Tsze-kung:

Were our Master in the position of the ruler of a State or the chief of a Family, we should find verified the description which has been given of a sage’s rule: he would plant the people, and forthwith they would be established; he would lead them on, and forthwith they would follow him; he would make them happy, and forthwith multitudes would resort to his dominions; he would stimulate them, and forthwith they would be harmonious. While he lived, he would be glorious. When he died, he would be bitterly lamented. How is it possible for him to be attained to?

Eventually, I’ll need to write an article on The Analects (aside from Lyall’s substandard translation). In any case, less known, at least in the West, are the rest of the “Four Books,” The Doctrine of the MeanThe Great Learning, and Mencius, which is awkwardly named after its author. I’ve just finished going through all four of these to gather material for my Twitter bot and it struck me that Mencius may be a better introduction to Confucianism than The Analects.

You see, one distinguishing feature of The Analects is that it’s composed mostly of individual sayings and very brief dialogues, often without context, and very few chapters are more than a paragraph or two. For example, Book VII Chapter VII, “The Master said, ‘From the man bringing his bundle of dried flesh [as tuition] for my teaching upwards, I have never refused instruction to anyone.'” Another, from Book VIII Chapter VIII, “The Master said, ‘It is by the Odes that the mind is aroused. It is by the Rules of Propriety that the character is established. It is from Music that the finish is received.'”…

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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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Getting Started with Plato (Lysis, Laches, and Charmides)

My trip through the Classics so far was, to a large extent, a preparation for the works of Plato. I’ll work my way through The Collected Dialogues, edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, a few dialogues at a time, and posting about them as I go.

Now, one choice I had to make at the outset was what order to read these in. There is no one perfect method, it seems, but in a project like this I like to have some plan going in. When I asked about this on twitter I got a few very helpful suggestions (beginning here) from Megillus, who knows the dialogues well, and I also found this recommendation online. That one is fairly close to Megillus’s recommendation, so I slightly modified it and will proceed through them like so:

  • Getting started: Lysis/Laches/Charmides
  • Socrates’ trial: Meno + Euthyphro/Apology/Crito
  • The Sophists: Protagoras +Hippias major/Gorgias/Hippias minor
  • The soul: Symposium + Phaedrus/Republic/Phaedo
  • Logos: Cratylus + Ion/Euthydemus/Menexenus
  • Dialectic: Parmenides + Theaetetus/Sophist/Statesman
  • Kosmos: Philebus + Timaeus/Critias/Laws

 

You may notice that I cut out Alcibiades I, and I did that because it’s not included in my edition of The Collected Dialogues. I may look it up later; after all this I’ll be so close to being a Plato completist anyway that I may as well.

In any case, the first three, very short, works are all aporetic dialogues, that is, they each raise a question concerning some virtue that Socrates and his interlocutors try to define, but never come to a definite conclusion. At first glance that sounds rather pointless, but it does a few valuable things, namely introducing us to the style of Socratic dialogue, and forces us to begin thinking seriously about these virtues ourselves. This is why I don’t have a lot to say about LysisLaches, and Charmides, because I don’t think that the ideas raised are the point; rather, the point is the process, which isn’t something that can really be summarised adequately.

The style of these dialogues is taking some getting used to for me. When I read philosophy I generally prefer someone like Aristotle or St. Thomas Aquinas, who approach a question systematically, with all the directness and charm of a dictionary entry, and who offer a conclusion at the end of a discussion. I know a few people who much prefer Plato’s style, because it feels more natural, and philosophy does seem more entertaining when it includes a little storytelling and characterisation of the interlocutors. So I completely understand why many people like Plato’s work so much, but personally I much prefer a formal approach in works of non-fiction.

In any case, these are like the appetiser for the main course, and there’ll be more to follow, probably over the next several months.…

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