Friday, December 30, 2011

Why Read the Classics

From Why Read the Classics by Italo Calvino (1923-1985). This list is only a small portion of an essay worth reading in its entirety:

1. The classics are the books of which we usually hear people say, "I am rereading . . . " and never "I am reading . . . "

2. We use the words "classics" for books that are treasured by those who have read and loved them; but they are treasured no less by those who have the luck to read them for the first time in the best conditions to enjoy them

3. The classics are books that exert a peculiar influence, both when they refuse to be eradicated from the mind and when they conceal themselves in the folds of memory, camouflaging themselves as the collective or individual unconscious.

4. Every rereading of a classic is as much a voyage of discovery as the first reading.

5. Every reading of a classic is in fact a rereading.

6. A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.

7. The classics are the books that come down to us bearing the traces of readings previous to ours, and bringing in their wake the traces they themselves have left on the culture or cultures they have passed through (or, more simply, on language and customs).

8. A classic does not necessarily teach us anything we did not know before. In a classic we sometimes discover something we have always known (or thought we knew), but without knowing that this author said it first, or at least is associated with it in a special way. And this, too, is a surprise that gives much pleasure, such as we always gain from the discovery of an origin, a relationship, an affinity.

9. The classics are books which, upon reading, we find even fresher, more unexpected, and more marvelous than we had thought from hearing about them.

10. We use the word "classic" of a book that takes the form of an equivalent to the universe, on a level with the ancient talismans. With this definition we are approaching the idea of the "total book," as Mallarmé conceived of it.

11. Your classic author is the one you cannot feel indifferent to, who helps you to define yourself in relation to him, even in dispute with him.

12. A classic is a book that comes before other classics; but anyone who has read the others first, and then reads this one, instantly recognizes its place in the family tree.

13. A classic is something that tends to relegate the concerns of the moment to the status of background noise, but at the same time this background noise is something we cannot do without.

14. A classic is something that persists as a background noise even when the most incompatible momentary concerns are in control of the situation.

Sappho's Jealousy

Sappho (630? – 570? B.C.) is still revered as a poet although little more than fragments of her work have survived to the present. It is clear that her poetry was highly esteemed in the ancient world.

Hermaic pillar with a female portrait, so-called “Sappho”; inscription "Sappho Eresia" ie. Sappho from Eresos. Roman copy of a Greek Classical original.
Early 5th century B.C.

Longinus, a Greek literary critic who lived in the first century A.D., lavished this praise on Sappho:

Are you not amazed at how she evokes soul, body, hearing, tongue, sight, skin, as though they were external and belonged to someone else? And how at one and the same moment she both freezes and burns, is irrational and sane, is terrified and nearly dead, so that we observe in her not a single emotion but a whole concourse of emotions? Such things do, of course, commonly happen to people in love. Sappho’s supreme excellence lies in the skill with which she selects the most striking and vehement circumstances of the passions and forges them into a coherent whole.

The modern poet and translator Kenneth Rexroth added this:

Translations of Sappho, until recent years, have been fantastically inappropriate. . . . Today a sufficient number of literal translations by modern poets may enable the reader of English to envelop Sappho and measure her as we do distant stars by triangulation from more mundane objects. It then becomes apparent that we are not deluding ourselves. There has been no other poet like this. Wherever enough words remain to form a coherent context, they give one another a unique luster, an effulgence found nowhere else. Presentational immediacy of the image, overwhelming urgency of personal involvement — in no other poet are these two prime factors of lyric poetry raised to so great a power.

Longinus was referring to one particular poem by Sappho, on jealousy. Only because Longinus quoted that poem in his critique can we read it today. One website has collected 29 different translations of the Sappho poem, demonstrating just how much variety one can find in the English translations of the Greek classics. The following is a translation by Guy Davenport:

He seems to be a god, that man
Facing you, who leans to be close,
Smiles, and, alert and glad, listens
To your mellow voice
And quickens in love at your laughter
That stings my breasts, jolts my heart
If I dare the shock of a glance.
I cannot speak,
My tongue sticks to my dry mouth,
Thin fire spreads beneath my skin,
My eyes cannot see and my aching ears
Roar in their labyrinths.
Chill sweat slides down my body,
I shake, I turn greener than grass.
I am neither living nor dead and cry
From the narrow between.
But endure, even this grief of love.

Tyrtaeus' Spartan Creed

We don’t know the exact dates for the Greek poet Tyrtaeus, but his poem The Spartan Creed was written around 650 B.C. Tyrtaeus was a poet and a general in Sparta at the time it was becoming the dominant military power in Greece. Sparta’s social system and constitution were focused almost completely on military training and proficiency. Women in Sparta had more rights and greater equality with men than did women in other parts of Greece. The modern usage of the word “spartan” derives from the austere conditions under which Spartan soldiers lived and trained.

The Spartan Creed

I would not say anything for a man nor take account of him
for any speed of his feet or wrestling skill he might have,
not if he had the size of a Cyclops and strength to go with it,
not if he could outrun Boreas, the North Wind of Thrace,
not if he were more handsome and gracefully formed than
Tithonos, or had more riches than Midas had, or Kinyras too,
not if he were more of a king than Tantalid Pelops,
or had the power of speech and persuasion Adrastos had,
not if he had all splendors except for a fighting spirit.
For no man ever proves himself a good man in war
unless he can endure to face the blood and the slaughter,
go close against the enemy and fight with his hands.
Here is courage, mankind's finest possession, here is
the noblest prize that a young man can endeavor to win,
and it is a good thing his city and all the people share with
him when a man plants his feet and stands in the foremost spears
relentlessly, all thought of foul flight completely forgotten,
and has well trained his heart to be steadfast and to endure,
and with words encourages the man who is stationed beside
him. Here is a man who proves himself to be valiant in war.
With a sudden rush he turns to flight the rugged battalions of
the enemy, and sustains the beating waves of assault.
And he who so falls among the champions and loses his
sweet life, so blessing with honor his city, his father, and all his people,
with wounds in his chest, where the spear that he was facing
has transfixed
that massive guard of his shield, and gone through his
breastplate as well,
why, such a man is lamented alike by the young and the elders,
and all his city goes into mourning and grieves for his loss.
His tomb is pointed to with pride, and so are his children, and
his children's children, and afterward all the race that is his.
His shining glory is never forgotten, his name is remembered,
and he becomes an immortal, though he lies under the ground,
when one who was a brave man has been killed by the furious
War God
standing his ground and fighting hard for his children and land.
But if he escapes the doom of death, the destroyer of bodies,
and wins his battle, and bright renown for the work of his spear,
all men give place to him alike, the youth and the elders, and
much joy comes his way before he goes down to the dead.
Aging, he has reputation among his citizens. No one tries to
interfere with his honors or all he deserves;
all men withdraw before his presence, and yield their seats to
him, the youth, and the men his age, and even those older than he.
Thus a man should endeavor to reach this high place of
courage with all his heart, and so trying, never be backward in war.

-Translated by Richmond Lattimore

The Price of Vengeance

Zeus, who guided men to think,
who has laid it down that wisdom
comes alone through suffering.
Still there drips in sleep against the heart
grief of memory; against
our pleasure we are temperate.
From the gods who sit in grandeur
grace comes somehow violent.

-from Agamemnon, by Aeschylus

This reading program got off to a very rewarding start with the Epic of Gilgamesh and Homer’s Odyssey. I enjoyed those two so much that I wondered if it would all be downhill from here. Next on my list came the tragedies of the Greek playwright Aeschylus. I admit that I struggled with his Oresteia trilogy. Richard Lattimore is a highly respected translator of the Greek classics, but I found his version of the play challenging, the language difficult.

Achilles, Odysseus, Agamemnon & Menelaus

As with any of these ancient works, various translators create versions that are more or less readable, and more or less true to the original. It is worth comparing passages side-by-side to find a translation that flows and reads well. I find Robert Fagles’ translations very readable, though I suppose some classics scholars quibble with certain liberties he takes. I do notice that on re-reading some passages of the Oresteia, Lattimore translation, the complex and awkwardly-constructed sentences are less obscure to me. Of course, I expected that some of the works on this list would be more challenging than others.

Aeschylus staged the Oresteia trilogy in 458 B.C. At this point, the Homeric epics had been told and retold for three hundred years, and this was what the playwright drew upon for these plays, Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides.

My first impression was that the Odyssey and Oresteia could not be more different. But on further reflection, I see that they share quite a few similarities. Each work involves a Greek king (Odysseus and Agamemnon, respectively) returning from the Trojan War to a home in turmoil. (Both works vividly depict the toll that war takes on families.) In each story, there is bloodshed in the palace after the king’s arrival. And in the end, in each work, Athena intervenes to break the traditional cycle of eye-for-an-eye vengeance. In both works, we see the struggle between human will and what is fated by the gods. The Odyssey makes fleeting references to Agamemnon, and Oresteia makes fleeting references to Odysseus.

Although I intend move quickly through the western canon, compared with the amount of time each of these works deserve, this is what I hoped for from the beginning: that reading the classics in order and context would reveal some synergies that I might otherwise overlook. To use the old cliché, the whole truly is greater than the sum of the parts.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Outline of Ancient Greece

A news item published by the Associated Press this week caught my attention:

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece's top prosecutor on Tuesday ordered an emergency inquiry into a Turkish newspaper report that Turkish government-funded agents set forest fires in Greece in the mid-1990s….
Tensions between traditional rivals Greece and Turkey were running high at the time referred to in the newspaper report, with the two countries coming to the brink of war in 1996 over disputed sovereignty of a tiny island in the Aegean Sea….

Of course, Homer’s Trojan War, occurring shortly after 1200 B.C. was a conflict between the people of Greece and the people of Troy, on the western coast of Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). The rivalry between the people living on either side of the Aegean Sea is an old, old story.

Homer, if Homer existed, and if he was present around 850 B.C., appeared at a pivotal time in Greek history.

The Greek mainland and isles were settled by Indo-Europeans arriving from the Balkans to the north around 2000 B.C. In the subsequent centuries, the Mycenaean Greek culture rose in power and prominence during the Bronze Age. The art, economy and culture of this era reached its zenith around the time of the Trojan War, and went into decline shortly thereafter, possibly due to the invasion of the Doric-speaking Greeks who overran the Greek cities ruled by kings (such as Ithaca in Homer’s epic).

The decline of the Mycenaeans ushered in the Dark Age of Greece (roughly 1100 B.C. – 800 B.C.) marked by economic and cultural deterioration. Homer appeared around the time that the Dark Age gave way to a Greek Renaisassance of commerce, culture, poetry and art. Though Homer’s timespan is uncertain, he was more or less contemporary with the establishment of the Olympic games in 776 B.C., a panellenic competition of athletic prowess. Although the Greeks had no church to speak of as a dominant force in society, it is thought that the games had roots in religion and worship of their many gods.

Greek civilization continued its rise in power, and by 500 B.C. the Greeks had colonized much of the coastal regions of the Mediterranean and Aegean. Most of the Greek writers and thinkers whose works have become classics of the western world were active from around 500 – 300 B.C.

The Peloponnesian War (431 – 404 B.C.) reshaped the Ancient Greek world and the city-states engaged in warfare. By the end of the war, the once mighty Athens had been surpassed by Sparta as the leading power of Greece. The following decades were marked by chronic hostility between the rich and the poor in most Greek cities. Historian Walther Kirchner writes:

Economic changes, including a great expansion in commerce and banking and the growth of a wealthy “bourgeoisie,” hastened the disintegration of society…The old simplicity in habits and manners was replaced by a love of luxury which sapped the strength of the country. The initiative and imagination of earlier times was lost. Even where democratic institutions endured, they proved no safeguard against the domination of society and the direction of public will by a small group of ambitious aristocrats, rich merchants, or professional politicians and demagogues.

Sound familiar?

In the past, citizen armies had helped to defend the sovereignty of individual city-states, but fractures in the social order undermined attempts to maintain effective militias, giving way to professional armies that operated on a larger scale. Local interest took a back seat to national interest.

The trend toward consolidation of power came during the time of Philip of Macedonia. Just to the north, Macedonia had close cultural and economic ties with the Greek city-states, but was considered semi-barbaric by its southern neighbors. With Athens and Sparta weakened, Philip conquered Greece in 338 B.C.

Empire-building reached a high point during the reign of Philip’s son, Alexander the Great, from 336 – 323 B.C. Intent on conquering the whole world, Alexander marched against the Persians in 334 B.C. and expanded the Greek Empire far to the east. Although the Greece of old was never the same, it was during the Hellenistic period (323 – 30 B.C.) that Greek culture was disseminated throughout the Near East, in the kingdoms won by Alexander. After his death, Alexander’s general fell into conflict among themselves, and three factions emerged, one centered in Macedonia, another in Asia and a third in Egypt. Thousands of Greeks migrated from their homelands hoping to find better opportunities in the distant reaches of the empire. During the flowering of Greek culture, farmers and city folk were closely linked but as the gap widened between the urban elites and the rural peasants, the old social order broke down. Farms were abandoned. Villages were deserted.

The torch was passing to the Romans. Milestones in the rise of the Roman empire (and the diminution of the Greek empire) were the conquest of Macedonia and Greece in 146 B.C., the Asian provinces in 64 B.C., and Egypt in 30 B.C.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Homer's Odyssey

The Odyssey is a Greek epic poem attributed to Homer and was composed around the end of the 8th century B.C (according to many scholars). In part a sequel to Homer’s other poem, the Iliad, it recounts the aftermath of the mythical Trojan War, and may have been based on historical events from around 1200 B.C.

King Odysseus, a hero in the Trojan War, encounters many deadly challenges and adventures on a ten-year quest to return to his home in Ithaca.

Odysseus slays the suitors

In the fourth century B.C., the Greek philosopher Aristotle summarized the poem in these words: “A certain man has been abroad many years; he is alone, and the god Poseidon keeps a hostile eye on him. At home the situation is that suitors for his wife's hand are draining his resources and plotting to kill his son. Then, after suffering storm and shipwreck, he comes home, makes himself known, attacks the suitors: he survives and they are destroyed.”

The story begins in media res, as Telemachus (the only child of Odysseus) struggles with how to deal with the suitors who have overtaken his home in pursuit of the presumed widow of Odysseus, Penelope. With their constant partying, the rude and boorish suitors are depleting the wealth that Odysseus had accumulated prior to leaving for the Trojan War two decades before.

The goddess Athena comes to Telemachus, suggests a course of action, and assures Telemachus that she will be with him. After speaking out against the suitors, Telemachus sails off to Pylos and Sparta in an effort to determine the fate of his father once and for all. In his absence, the suitors make plans to ambush and assassinate Telemachus upon his return.

At this point, Homer leaves the story of Telemachus and introduces Odysseus, whom the gods are setting free from Calypso, the goddess that held Odysseus captive for seven years. Odysseus is sailing toward home when the sea god Poseidon takes notice. Poseidon’s son Cyclops had been blinded by Odysseus in an earlier encounter and so the sea god takes revenge on Odysseus, by wrecking his ship on Phaeacia. The hospitable Phaeacians treat Odysseus kindly and encourage him to tell of his adventures, so he begins to recount all that has happened to him in the ten years since the Trojan War ended:

At the close of the Trojan War, Odysseus and his men start for home, but they pause to raid the land of the Cicones. They loot the town, but linger there too long, and the people launch a successful counter-attack, killing some of the Greeks before they can escape. A storm sent by the gods blows the flotilla off-course and to the land of the Lotus-eaters, where Odysseus has difficulty convincing his men to leave that land of complacent bliss.

Odysseus and Calypso, by Arnold Bocklin, 1883

After they do sail on, they reach the land of the Cyclops and stop to explore. These cannibalistic, one-eyed giants trap the Greeks and eat several of them. To escape, Odysseus blinds the monstrous Polyphemus, incurring the wrath of his father, Poseidon. But coming to the aid of Odysseus, the wind god Aeolus captures all adverse winds and puts them in a bag. Their ships comes to within sight of Ithaca, but while Odysseus sleeps his men become curious about the contents of the bag, thinking it holds treasure. The winds let loose from the bag send them back to Aeolus, who refuses to help anymore, believing the party must be cursed by the gods.

Their next encounter is with the cannibalistic Laestrygonians who destroy all of Odysseus’s ships except his own. When the survivors sail on to Aeaea, the beautiful enchantress turns several of the men into pigs. Aided by the god Hermes, Odysseus becomes the lover of Circe and lifts the spell from his men. One year later, Circe cooperates with the departure of the Greeks, on the condition that they sail to the Land of the Dead. Once there, he performs the sacred rites and is met by a procession of the dead, including various Greek heroes and his own mother, who died after his departure for the Trojan War.

Returning from the Land of the Dead, the Greeks sail past the temptations of the Sirens’ call and survive attacks by the six-headed monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis. Landing on the island of Thrinacia, Odyssesus’ men ignore the warnings not to disturb the sacred cattle of the sun god Helios. But Odysseus awakens from his sleep to the odor of beef on the fire. As a divine punishment, later on, their ship is sunk and all but Odysseus drown. Washing ashore on Calypso, he is held there as her lover for seven years, until Zeus orders his release.

The Phaecians, having heard this account by Odysseus, agree to sail him home to Ithaca. They deliver him at night, while he is asleep, on a hidden shore of Ithaca. Athena then disguises him as an old beggar and he finds his way to the hut of one of his former slaves, the swineherd Eumaeus. He learns how things stand in his old household and tells a fictitious tale of his travails since the Trojan War. Meanwhile, Telemachus evades the ambush of the suitors on his return to Ithaca and himself goes to the hut of Eumaeus to prepare for his return to the palace. At the swineherd’s hut, the old beggar reveals his true identity to his son, Telemachus, and the two begin to plot the slaughter of the suitors that have infested their home.

Still under the disguise of an old beggar, Odysseus returns to his palace and is subject to the cruel taunts of the suitors. Penelope is still grieving the loss of Odysseus, but reluctantly agrees to hold an archery competition using Odysseus’ bow. The man who can string the bow and shoot it most accurately will win her hand. But even the strongest of the suitors lack the strength to string the bow. After their failure, the old beggar asks that he be given a chance. To the amazement of all, he strings the bow and shoots an arrow through a dozen axe heads.

He then turns his arrows on the suitors and aided by Telemachus, Eumaeus and the cowherd Philoteus, Odysseus slaughters all the suitors. At last, he identifies himself to Penelope and convinces her that he really is her long-lost husband. The next day, he goes visits the country farm where his father Laertes has retired to mourn the loss of his son. Odysseus teasingly reveals his identity and the father and son have a joyful reunion. Odysseus prepares to face the vengeful kinfolk of the men whose deaths he was responsible for – his sailors and the suitors – and a festering feud is averted with the intervention of Athena. A truce takes hold and Ithaca is at peace, with Odysseus restored to his home.

Homer, The Odyssey, translated by Robert Fagles.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Skills of Freedom

Antagonism toward the liberal arts is nothing new. Any right-wing politician can rouse the rabble with an attack on the study of literature, philosophy and history. Florida Governor Rick Scott followed the script recently when he proposed shifting funds away from programs like anthropology to those that actually prepare students for real jobs.

Unfortunately, most of the defenses of liberal arts that I’ve read are less than fully convincing. Too often, the apologists are just making a case for the preservation of their own university departments – an understandable response, but incomplete.

One of the more thoughtful discussions of the matter is found in an address, LIBERAL ARTS EDUCATION IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY, by W. R. Connor, president of the National Humanities Center.

Connor fleshes out the truism that a liberal arts education is something essential to preparing free persons to be responsible citizens:

When we say ‘liberal’ education, we are not, of course, talking about the dreaded ‘L’ word of recent American political sloganeering, nor are we even referring to the free play of ideas as in traditional liberal political theory. We are borrowing and translating a Greek term eleutherios, ‘free’, a word used most commonly to contrast free people from slaves. It also has connotations of generous, spirited, outspoken, and living the way you want.

A ‘liberal education’ means what a free person ought to know as opposed to what a well educated and trusted slave might know. Such a slave might well know a trade, manage a business, run a bank, cut a deal. Athenian slaves did these quite well from time to time, and sometimes did quite well for themselves, too. Some of them developed a craft or a skill, a techne, the Greeks would call it, using the word from which we get ‘technique’ and ‘technology’. …Some slaves possessed valuable skills and could be better managers than their masters. What slaves were not allowed to do, was speak in the assembly, or participate in any other of the rights and duties of a free citizen, the jury system, diplomacy, war. These activities also took skills—technai, but skills of a kind quite different from those looked for in a slave.

Our term ‘liberal arts’ is derived directly from a Latin translation of the Greek technai. Since the skills needed to be an effective citizen are so prominent in the Greek conception of a liberal education, it’s not too much of a stretch to retranslate ‘liberal arts’ as ‘the skills of freedom.’ Since freedom or slavery was so often at stake in citizen decision makings, these were, as well, the skills needed to preserve freedom….Those skills certainly included the ability to speak correctly, persuasively, and cogently—grammar, rhetoric and dialectic as they would be called in the later trivium. The included enough arithmetic to keep an eye on the city’s books, enough geometry to deal with surveying and land issues, and eventually enough astronomy not to be trapped in superstitious dread every time an eclipse appeared. Add harmony to arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy, and you have the quadrivium of medieval times….

In thinking back to the origins of these skills of freedom in the developing democracy of Athens, the central question for the liberal arts today is not: How do we market ourselves? How much vocationalism do we put into the curriculum? Or, how closely can we imitate the research university? It is, what does it take to create a truly open, free society in this strange new world we have entered in recent years? What are the skills of freedom today?

Considering that we’re witnessing a rising tide of modern-day tyrants who want to hold us in bondage to their cult of consumer capitalism, I suppose we’ll continue to see more and more attacks on anything as dangerous and subversive as liberal education.

But a question for a later post is whether or not the university can be counted on to provide such an education.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Hesiod and the Ages of Man

I’ve started reading some of the Greek poets and intend to note a few of them here in the coming weeks. At this point, my source is The Norton Book of Classical Literature, edited by Bernard Knox.

Hesiod and the Muse, by Gustave Moreau, 1826-1898

Approximately one century after Homer, Hesiod was active (ca. 700 BC) as a poet. Hesiod identified himself as a farmer in Boeotia, an area in Central Greece. Bernard Knox introduces selections from Hesiod’s The Works and Days by explaining:

The poem [full text online] is concerned, as no other extant Greek work of literature is, with the work that, until the coming of the Industrial Revolution in the West, has been the hard lot of the majority of humankind – the year-long, backbreaking incessant work of plowing, sowing, and reaping, of threshing, winnowing, and grinding.

Being a child of the rural South, I can relate to this. This "incessant work" of humanity was a way of life for my ancestors, ones that I knew personlly, who had been born in the nineteenth century, and themselves witnessed the arrival (more or less) of the Industrial Revolution upon the rolling hills of the Carolina piedmont.

The following “Pandora" passage of The Works and Days deals with the question: why must man labor so hard when it could have been different? We’re familiar with the treatment of this question in the Old Testament story of Adam and Eve. (The book of Genesis had been written about 700 years prior to Hesiod’s time.) The consequential transgression in this account (the "Fall," so to speak)came when the demigod Prometheus defied Zeus and gave the gift of fire to mankind. An enraged Zeus punished Prometheus and the human race through the instrument of Pandora, the woman who let loose upon the world the evils of work, sickness and old age.

From Richard Lattimore’s translation:

For the gods have hidden and keep hidden
what could be men's livelihood.
It could have been that easily
in one day you could work out
enough to keep you for a year,
with no more working.

Soon you could have hung up your steering oar
in the smoke of the fireplace,
and the work the oxen and patient mules
do would be abolished,
but Zeus in the anger of his heart hid it away
because the devious-minded Prometheus had cheated him;
and therefore Zeus thought up dismal sorrows
for mankind.

He hid fire; but Prometheus, the powerful son
of Iapetos,
stole it again from Zeus of the counsels,
to give to mortals.
He hid it out of the sight of Zeus
who delights in thunder
in the hollow fennel stalk. In anger
the cloud-gatherer spoke to him:
"Son of Iapetos, deviser of crafts beyond all others,
you are happy that you stole the fire,
and outwitted my thinking;
but it will be a great sorrow to you,
and to men who come after.
As the price of fire I will give them an evil,
and all men shall fondle
this, their evil, close to their hearts,
and take delight in it."
So spoke the father of gods and mortals;
and laughed out loud.

He told glorious Hephaistos to make haste, and plaster
earth with water, and to infuse it with a human voice
and vigor, and make the face
like the immortal goddesses,
the bewitching features of a young girl;
meanwhile Athene
was to teach her her skills, and how
to do the intricate weaving,
while Aphrodite was to mist her head
in golden endearment
and the cruelty of desire and longings
that wear out the body,
but to Hermes, the guide, the slayer of Argos,
he gave instructions
to put in her the mind of a hussy,
and a treacherous nature.

So Zeus spoke. And all obeyed Lord Zeus,
the son of Kronos.
The renowned strong smith modeled her figure of earth,
in the likeness
of a decorous young girl, as the son of Kronos
had wished it.
The goddess gray-eyed Athene dressed and arrayed her;
the Graces,
who are goddesses, and hallowed Persuasion
put necklaces
of gold upon her body, while the Seasons,
with glorious tresses,
put upon her head a coronal of spring flowers,
[and Pallas Athene put all decor upon her body].

But into her heart Hermes, the guide,
the slayer of Argos,
put lies, and wheedling words
of falsehood, and a treacherous nature,
made her as Zeus of the deep thunder wished,
and he, the gods' herald,
put a voice inside her, and gave her
the name of woman,
Pandora, because all the gods
who have their homes on Olympos
had given her each a gift, to be a sorrow to men
who eat bread. Now when he had done
with this sheer, impossible
deception, the Father sent the gods' fleet messenger,
to Epimetheus, bringing her, a gift,
nor did Epimetheus
remember to think how Prometheus had told him never
to accept a gift from Olympian Zeus,
but always to send it
back, for fear it might prove
to be an evil for mankind.
He took the evil, and only perceived it
when be possessed her.

Since before this time the races of men
had been living on earth
free from all evils, free from laborious work,
and free from
all wearing sicknesses that bring
their fates down on men
[for men grow old suddenly
in the midst of misfortune];
but the woman, with her hands lifting away the lid
from the great jar,
scattered its contents, and her design
was sad troubles for mankind.

Hope was the only spirit that stayed there
in the unbreakable
closure of the jar, under its rim,
and could not fly forth
abroad, for the lid of the great jar
closed down first and contained her;
this was by the will of cloud-gathering Zeus
of the aegis;
but there are other troubles by thousands
that hover about men,
for the earth is full of evil things,
and the sea is full of them;
there are sicknesses that come to men by day,
while in the night
moving of themselves they haunt us,
bringing sorrow to mortals,
and silently, for Zeus of the counsels
took the voice out of them.

So there is no way to avoid what Zeus has intended.


Later in the poem, Hesiod addresses another universal theme, expounding on the story of the five ages of humanity. Each successive age - from the gold to the silver, to the bronze, and the iron – is worse than the one before. A similar story appears in the Old Testament book of Daniel (likely written shortly after Hesiod’s day) where Nebuchadnessaz, the Babylonian conqueror of Jerusalem, dreams of a figure with a head of gold, breast and arms of silver, stomach and thighs of brass, and feet of iron and clay. Daniel the prophet interprets it as a succession of kingdoms, each inferior to its predecessor.

Hesiod, however, inserts one more age just before the iron age, and that is the age of the divine race of heroes who fought at Thebes and Troy. This corresponds to the high point of Mycenean civilization and the events that Homer described in his epic poems, a time of greatness contrasting sharply with the miserable state of Hesiod’s contemporaries:

In the beginning, the immortals
who have their homes on Olympos
created the golden generation of mortal people.
These lived in Kronos' time, when he
was the king in heaven.
They lived as if they were gods,
their hearts free from all sorrow,
by themselves, and without hard work or pain;
no miserable
old age came their way; their hands, their feet,
did not alter.

They took their pleasure in festivals,
and lived without troubles.
When they died, it was as if they fell asleep.
All goods
were theirs. The fruitful grainland
yielded its harvest to them
of its own accord; this was great and abundant,
while they at their pleasure
quietly looked after their works,
in the midst of good things
[prosperous in flocks, on friendly terms
with the blessed immortals].

Now that the earth has gathered over this generation,
these are called pure and blessed spirits;
they live upon earth,
and are good, they watch over mortal men
and defend them from evil;
they keep watch over lawsuits and hard dealings;
they mantle
themselves in dark mist
and wander all over the country;
they bestow wealth; for this right
as of kings was given them.

Next after these the dwellers upon Olympos created
a second generation, of silver, far worse
than the other.
They were not like the golden ones either in shape
or spirit.
A child was a child for a hundred years,
looked after and playing
by his gracious mother, kept at home,
a complete booby.
But when it came time for them to grow up
and gain full measure,
they lived for only a poor short time;
by their own foolishness
they had troubles, for they were not able
to keep away from
reckless crime against each other,
nor would they worship
the gods, nor do sacrifice on the sacred altars
of the blessed ones,
which is the right thing among the customs of men,
and therefore
Zeus, son of Kronos, in anger engulfed them,
for they paid no due
honors to the blessed gods who live on Olympos.

But when the earth had gathered over this generation
also-and they too are called blessed spirits
by men, though under
the ground, and secondary, but still
they have their due worship-
then Zeus the father created the third generation
of mortals,
the age of bronze. They were not like
the generation of silver.

They came from ash spears. They were terrible
and strong, and the ghastly
action of Ares was theirs, and violence.
They ate no bread,
but maintained an indomitable and adamantine spirit.
None could come near them; their strength was big,
and from their shoulders
the arms grew irresistible on their ponderous bodies.

The weapons of these men were bronze,
of bronze their houses,
and they worked as bronzesmiths. There was not yet
any black iron.
Yet even these, destroyed beneath the hands
of each other,
went down into the moldering domain of cold Hades;
nameless; for all they were formidable black death
seized them, and they had to forsake
the shining sunlight.

Now when the earth had gathered over this generation
also, Zeus, son of Kronos, created yet another
fourth generation on the fertile earth,
and these were better and nobler,
the wonderful generation of hero-men, who are also
called half-gods, the generation before our own
on this vast earth.

But of these too, evil war and the terrible carnage
took some; some by seven-gated Thebes
in the land of Kadmos
as they fought together over the flocks of Oidipous;
war had taken in ships over the great gulf
of the sea,
where they also fought for the sake
of lovely-haired Helen.
There, for these, the end of death was misted
about them.

But on others Zeus, son of Kronos, settled a living
and a country
of their own, apart from human kind,
at the end of the world.
And there they have their dwelling place,
and hearts free of sorrow
in the islands of the blessed
by the deep-swirling stream of the ocean,
prospering heroes, on whom in every year
three times over
the fruitful grainland bestows its sweet yield.

These live
far from the immortals, and Kronos
is king among them.
For Zeus, father of gods and mortals,
set him free from his bondage,
although the position and the glory still belong
to the young gods.

After this, Zeus of the wide brows
established yet one more
generation of men, the fifth, to be
on the fertile earth.
And I wish that I were not any part
of the fifth generation
of men, but had died before it came,
or been born afterward.

For here now is the age of iron. Never by daytime
will there be an end to hard work and pain,
nor in the night
to weariness, when the gods will send anxieties
to trouble us.
Yet here also there shall be some good things
mixed with the evils.

But Zeus will destroy this generation of mortals
in the time when children, as they are born,
grow gray on the temples,
when the father no longer agrees with the children,
nor children with their father,
when guest is no longer at one with host,
nor companion to companion,
when your brother is no longer your friend,
as he was in the old days.

Men will deprive their parents of all rights,
as they grow old,
and people will mock them
too, babbling bitter words against them,
harshly, and without shame in the sight of the gods;
not even
to their aging parents will they give back
what once was given.
Strong of hand, one man shall seek
the city of another.

There will be no favor for the man
who keeps his oath, for the righteous
and the good man, rather men shall give their praise
to violence
and the doer of evil. Right will be in the arm.
Shame will
not be. The vile man will crowd his better out,
and attack him
with twisted accusations and swear an oath
to his story.

The spirit of Envy, with grim face
and screaming voice, who delights
in evil, will be the constant companion
of wretched humanity,
and at last Nemesis and Aidos, Decency and Respect,
their bright forms in pale mantles, shall go
from the wide-wayed
earth back on their way to Olympos,
forsaking the whole race
of mortal men, and all that will be left by them
to mankind
will be wretched pain. And there shall be no defense
against evil.

Of note are these paragraphs from the Wikipedia entry on the ages of man describing the uncanny parallels to Hesiod's five ages which have appeared at various times and places:

These mythological ages are sometimes associated with historical timelines. In the chronology of Saint Jerome the Golden Age lasts ca. 1710 to 1674 BC, the Silver Age 1674 to 1628 BC, the Bronze Age 1628 to 1472 BC, the Heroic Age 1460 to 1103 BC, while Hesiod's Iron Age was considered as still ongoing by Saint Jerome in the 4th century AD.

These mythological ages are sometimes associated with historical timelines. In the chronology of Saint Jerome the Golden Age lasts ca. 1710 to 1674 BC, the Silver Age 1674 to 1628 BC, the Bronze Age 1628 to 1472 BC, the Heroic Age 1460 to 1103 BC, while Hesiod's Iron Age was considered as still ongoing by Saint Jerome in the 4th century AD.

The Hindu and Vedic writings also make reference to four ages (Yuga) termed: Satya (Golden), Treta (Silver), Dwapara (Bronze) and Kali (Iron). According to the Laws of Manu these four ages total 4.32 million years. Kali-Yuga lasts for 432,000 years, Dvapara Yuga lasts for 864,000 years, Treta Yuga lasts for 1,296,000 years, and Satya Yuga lasts for 1,728,000 years. These four yugas make up a Maha Yuga, a Catur Yuga, or a Divya Yuga. 1000 Maha Yugas taken together equals one day of Brahma or 4.32 billion years. Brahma’s night is of an equal length which is also 4.32 billion years. Taken together Brahma’s day and night are 8.64 billion years in total. Brahma lives for 36,000 "Brahma days" so his lifespan is equivalent to 311 trillion, 40 billion years. After his death there is an equivalent period of 311 trillion, 40 billion years when the Universe is unmanifest. Then a new Brahma is born and the cycle starts all over again. Taken together the life and the death of Brahma equals 622 trillion, 80 billion years. This equals one cycle out of innumerable cycles in the Vedic Universe.

According to the Brahma Kumaris and Prajapita Brahma Kumaris, there are also five ages or yugas in a single cycle of 5000 years in which the Golden Age, or Satya yuga, is first and lasts for 1250 years. Three of the remaining four; Thretha Yuga (Silver Age), Dwarpar Yuga (Copper Age) and Kali Yuga (Iron Age), also last for 1250 years each. A fifth age of only 100 years exists from Brahma Kumari souls called the Sangum Yuga (Confluence Age or meeting with God) during which time the Iron Age is destroyed and the Golden Age created. Every 5,000 Year cycle repeats identically the same.

[More on the Brahma cycle of time]

For a change of mood and scale, here is one more passage from The Works and Days - on summer (translated by Apostolos Atharassakis):

When the thistle blooms and the chirping cicada
sits on trees and pours down shrill song
from frenziedly quivering wings in the toilsome summer
then goats are fatter than ever and wine is at its best
women’s lust knows no bounds and men are all dried up,
because the dog star parches their heads and knees
and the heat sears their skin. Then, ah then,
I wish you a shady ledge and your choice wine,
bread baked in the dusk and mid-August goat milk
and meat from a free-roving heifer that has never calved—
and from firstling kids. Drink sparkling wine,
sitting in the shade with your appetite sated,
and face Zephyr’s breeze as it blows from mountain peaks.
Pour three measures of water fetched from a clear spring,
One that flows unchecked, and a fourth of wine.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Oral Tradition - Hits and Misses

I have a confession to make: I didn’t read Gilgamesh, so much as listen to it. The library had an unabridged audiobook of Stephen Mitchell’s excellent version and so I gave it a try. I found the narrator, George Guidall, pleasant to listen to. The reading of the poem itself was about two hours. Two more discs in the set contain critical essays from the book. Highly recommended.

Ian McKellen, with "Homer"

Believing that hearing, rather than just reading, Homer’s Odyssey would be appropriate, since it came from an oral tradition (some think Homer – if Homer ever existed – was illiterate) I was happy to find that our library had an audiobook of Robert Fagles’ translation, narrated by Ian McKellen.

I was doubly enthused over the listening plan after I got bogged down with my reading of the first book (chapter) of the epic. So many characters, mortal and divine, filled the first few pages of the poem I felt compelled to check the notes and get clear about the identity and genealogy of each one. This is exactly what Mortimer Adler warned about in How to Read a Book. So I figured that listening to the audiobook first would allow me to catch the drift of the story and I could follow-up with a more studied reading.

Ian McKellen is a tremendous actor with a lovely voice. Herein lies a problem. While his approach might be fine for stage or screen, it is not so well suited to the audiobook format. His theatricality draws attention to itself. I had to adjust the bass on my tape player to tone down the boom of the sonorous round sounds of the actor’s voice. Listening to an audiobook is a more intimate setting than watching an actor on stage. The best readers seem to realize this, and don’t allow their performance to detract from the work itself. The “Radio Reader” Dick Estell comes to mind as someone who presents the material in a pleasant way that holds attention to the book, rather than the narrator. In Gilgamesh, George Guidall did a good job of becoming “transparent” to my listening ears.

With McKellen, it was a different story. When he was at his worst, I heard echoes of the campiest lines from Boris Pickett's rock and roll classic, “Monster Mash.”

When McKellen was at his best, I was ever conscious of his theatricality, and could picture him clutching his chest and wailing to the heavens, "m’lord." Months from now, when I make it to Shakespeare, I might want to hear McKellen. But not now. Not for Homer.

I knew that something else about McKellen’s reading seemed out of place and I couldn’t put my finger on it until I was perusing “The Greek Way of Writing” in Edith Hamilton’s book, The Greek Way. She points out that the Greek classics are distinguished by their unadorned clarity, as opposed to the more elaborate style found in the masterpieces of English literature:

The Greeks wrote on the same lines as they did everything else. Greek writing depends no more on ornament than the Greek statue does. It is plain writing, direct, matter-of-fact…The English poet puts before his audience the full tragedy as they would never see it but for him. He does it all for them in words so splendid, in images so poignant, they are lifted to a vision that completely transcends themselves. The Greek poet lifts one corner of the curtain only. A glimpse is given, no more, but by it the mind is fired to see for itself what lies behind.

To make her point, she presents this passage from Byron -

…the monarch of mountains;
They crown'd him long ago
On a throne of rocks, in a robe of clouds,
With a diadem of snow.

- comparing it with a similar thought from the Greek dramatist Aeschylus –

…the mighty summit, neighbor to the stars.

Hamilton discusses the influence of the Bible on English literature and how this reflects old and divergent attitudes about the world:

Hebrew and Greek are poles apart. Hebrew poetry is directed to the emotions; it is designed to make the hearer feel, not think. Therefore, it is a poetry based on reiteration. Everyone knows the emotional effect that repetition produces, from the tom-tom in the African forest to the rolling sound of “Dearly beloved brethren, the Scripture moveth us – to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness and that we should not dissemble nor cloak them – when we assemble and meet together – to ask those things which are requisite and necessary-“ Nothing is gained for the idea by these repetitions; the words are synonyms; but the beat upon the ear dulls the critical reason and opens the way to gathering emotion.

Hamilton contrasts a Bible passage with a similar concept from Aeschylus:

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.
(Matthew 7:7-8)

Men search out God and searching find him.
(from Agamemnon)

Hamilton concludes:

The English method is to fill the mind with beauty; the Greek method was to set the mind to work.

I've given up on the audiobook of The Odyssey - I couldn’t stomach McKellen’s ham-fest anymore. Thanks to Edith Hamilton, I understand why.

And, since I overcame my initial trepidation over the many names in the story, I have found the Fagles translation to be extremely readable on its own.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

"Gilgamesh is Stupendous"

Gilgamesh is often called the oldest work of literature. Oddly enough, this “classic” was lost to the world for more than two thousand years. Only when archaeologists discovered the clay tablets in the 19th century, and started deciphering the cuneiform did the great epic story get pieced together and brought back to the world. This “death and rebirth” is an amazing story that rivals the epic itself. For the archaeological mystery tale, I highly recommend this Smithsonian article by David Damrosch, “Epic Hero: How a self-taught British genius rediscovered the Mesopotamian saga of Gilgamesh after 2,500 years.”

An ancient story pre-dating even the earliest books of the Old Testament, Gilgamesh gives the reader plenty to consider. I interpreted the appearance of Enkidu as an opportunity for Gilgamesh to become whole, to incorporate the qualities of compassion that he lacked, but that Enkidu possessed.

On another level, the two represented a meeting of the civilized world and the primitive world, bringing up all the tensions that can arise from that clash of cultures.

The power and place of dreams in our lives is another thread from the story that would warrant further study.

The precursors to the biblical stories of the flood, Jacob and Esau, the tree of life, the serpent and the Garden of Eden are found in Gilgamesh.

And what makes the Epic of Gilgamesh a fresh and contemporary story is the king’s fear of death and his struggle to come to terms with his own mortality.

Given our current political climate, it is hard to overlook the themes in Gilgamesh that concern powerful rulers who lack a sense of justice and mercy.

I might have read Gilgamesh back in college, though if I did give it more than the usual cursory skim, it was wasted on me at that early age. Reading it now confirms that this endeavor to cruise through the classics during the coming year is a worthwhile project. I share Rainer Maria Rilke’s enthusiasm, when he wrote, "Gilgamesh is stupendous. I consider it to be one of the greatest things that could happen to a person."

For further consideration:

“The Wild Man: The Epic of Gilgamesh” in Somewhere I Have Never Travelled: The Hero's Journey,by Thomas Van Nortwick.

“A Brief Outline of Jungian Psychology with some Archetypal Images, Themes, and Symbols,” taken in part from The Stuff That Dreams Are Made On: A Jungian Interpretation of Literature, by Clifton Snider

Gilgamesh: A Reader, by John R. Maier

Gilgamesh Among Us: Modern Encounters with the Ancient Epic, by Theodore Ziolkowski

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Epic of Gilgamesh


Drawn from ancient Sumerian stories, the epic of Gilgamesh is an epic poem of Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) dating from approximately 2000 BC.


The king of Uruk, Gilgamesh, was a powerful man who lacked compassion. The gods created the wild man, Enkidu, to be his companion and divert the king from his evil deeds. The two went on dangerous quests and killed monsters. After Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh was stricken with grief and went on a quest to achieve eternal life, but eventually came to accept his mortality.

Gilgamesh, 2/3 god and 1/3 man, is introduced as the mighty king who has built the great walled city of Uruk. However, he oppresses the citizens, i.e. raping young brides on their wedding nights. The people call out to the gods for help and the gods create an equal to Gilgamesh to distract him from his misdeeds.

The primitive man Enkidu is as powerfully built as Gilgamesh, covered with hair and living with the wild animals. A trapper, whose livelihood is threatened by Enkidu’s persistence in destroying the traps and freeing the animals, reports him to Gilgamesh.

Meanwhile, Gilgamesh has dreams foretelling the arrival of a new companion, and sends the temple prostitute, Shamhash, to have sex with Enkidu for seven days. As she “civilizes” Enkidu, she brings him to a shepherd’s camp, where he is introduced to a human diet. Enkidu is outraged to learn of Gilgamesh’s treatment of his subjects and goes to Uruk to confront the king.

They meet and have a wrestling match, but Enkidu is unable to prevail over Gilgamesh, however, they do become friends. Gilgamesh proposes a journey to the Cedar Forest to slay the terrifying monster, Humbaba. Enkidu begs Gilgamesh to abandon the dangerous mission, but failing that, accompanies the king out of loyalty.

On the long trip to face Humbaba, Gilgamesh has five terrifying dreams that Enkidu interprets as good omens. The confront and capture Humbaba. When the monster pleads for its life, Gilgamesh feels pity. Enkidu insists that they kill the beast. Humbaba curse them both and Gilgamesh kills the monster with a blow to the neck.

The two friends cut down giant cedars and build a raft to return home along the Euphrates, where they are greeted by the seductive goddess, Ishtar. Gilgamesh rejects her advances, by reciting the unfortunate fates of her previous lovers. For revenge, Ishtar brings the bull of heaven to Uruk where it causes mass destruction. Gilgamesh and Enkidu attack and kill the bull. While the city celebrates, Enkidu has an ominous dream - that he must die for killing Humbaba and the bull of heaven. Enkidu curses those who brought him out of the wilderness, he becomes sick, and after twelve days, dies.

Mourning the loss of his friend, Gilgamesh dons animals skins and roams the wild. He decides to find Utnapishtim (a survivor of the Great Flood, who was granted immortality by the gods) to learn the secret of eternal life. Gilgamesh endures a long, perilous trip to reach Utnapishtim, who chides him for resisting the inevitable fate of a human being. Utnapishtim tells him the story of the Great Flood, and that the gods gift of eternal life would not be repeated.

As he prepares to return to Uruk, Gilgamesh is offered a parting gift - a plant that restores men to their youth. He retrieves it from the bottom of the sea, and starts home. Stopping to bathe, Gilgamesh carelessly leaves the plant unattended and it stolen by a snake which sheds its skin. Gilgamesh weeps at the loss of what he thought was one last key to immortality. He returns to Uruk, accompanied by the boatman who took him to Utnapishtim. Echoing the opening lines of the poem, Gilgamesh points out the splendor of the walled city and invites his guest to admire the great works that he has done.


Sources for my reading: The Epic of Gilgamesh, translated by Andrew George, Penguin Classics edition, and Gilgamesh, A New English Version, rendered by Stephen Mitchell.

Monday, December 19, 2011

How to Read a Book

Mortimer Adler, one of the founders of the Great Books of the Western World project, also wrote How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading, a book that is precisely what the title suggests.

His mention, early in the book, of speed reading instruction brought back some memories. I recall the special projectors they brought into our classroom, which scrolled a narrow strip of words along the screen faster and faster, forcing us to read faster to keep up. Adler’s book, though, is not about reading as fast as possible, but reading at a pace appropriate to the level of the book and to the reader intentions.

Though Adler starts out laboriously stating the obvious, he does move on to some helpful ideas. He distinguishes between reading for entertainment, for information, and for understanding, and prescribes different approaches to reading in each of those situations.

Among the more evident points he makes is the suggestion to read the table of contents and the index before reading the rest of a book. What caught my attention here was his description of something that used to be more common: detailed tables of contents that contained an outline of the main points made in each chapter. Once in a while you will see such thorough TOCs in old books, but very rarely anymore. Adler prepared a thorough table of contents in his own book, and I can see how it adds much more value to the book than would the abbreviated list of chapter titles one usually finds as a table of contents.

Depending on what I am reading, particularly with more challenging material that contains multiple layers of meaning, I often find myself torn between wanting to read for the story versus plumbing the depths for symbolism, underlying themes and parallels with other works. Adler addresses this matter with the recommendation of reading a book more than once, if it warrants such attention. He urges the reader to ask questions of the book and to make a quick pass through the book with four questions in mind:

What is the book about as a whole?

What is being said in detail, and how?

Is the book true, in whole or in part?

What of it? (What is the significance of the book?)

Adler says these four questions, summarizing the whole obligation of a reader, apply to anything worth reading.

Often, I am at a loss for words to describe a book that I may be reading at a given point in time. So Adler’s advice is well-taken, that is, to summarize what the whole book is about in a single sentence or short paragraph. Adler also suggests that the reader outline the major parts of the book. I have to agree that taking these steps can contribute greatly to the value derived from a book, and I expect to be posting such notes for the titles on my reading list.

Adler has much more to say in his “rules for analytical reading” and his discussion of syntopical reading, which involves the analysis and comparison of multiple books on a given subject. (More on this later, perhaps.)

Initially, I was disappointed with the Adler book, but his methodical approach to the subject offers some valuable techniques that are especially well-suited to the task at hand.

Friday, December 16, 2011

A Preliminary List

My reading list for this project is taking shape. The hardest part is deciding what to leave off. I plan to start with The Epic of Gilgamesh and follow that with Homer’s Odyssey. The library had a reading of Stephen Mitchell’s Gilgamesh on CD and I’ve just started listening as a preliminary to reading another translation of it. What a story! I find, though, that it requires a greater degree of concentration that I ordinarily have to summon up in my life these days. If I am to make good progress with these works, I’ll be applying more concentration than I have in a long time.

I’m not someone who retains what he reads very well and that is one of the main reasons I have started this journal. Summarizing the works, considering the questions they raise, developing an awareness of the cultural context, reflecting on my response…writing all this down should help with the retention and give me something to refer back upon as I proceed with the reading.

As mentioned earlier, this blog format is a convenience for myself and not aimed at an audience. Nothing would be nicer than to engage spirited discussions over the readings, but I have no delusions that such a thing will happen online. I retired a long-running blog last year, partly over the frustration that dialogues just didn’t get going. When I look around the web, I don’t see it happening anyhow, and while comments are welcome in case anyone stumbles upon this blog, I’m not holding my breath for scintillating give-and-take. So it goes.

For purposes of this one-year reading plan, I intend to go in chronological order and probably won’t get beyond the end of the 18th century (it might be overly ambitious to think I’ll get that far.) Though I have huge gaps in my reading background from 1800 to the present, the gaps in the earlier periods are even wider.

At the risk of allowing myself to be corrupted by the Dead White Men of the western canon, multiculturalism won’t be a high priority. And, no, I don’t suffer from a xenophobic resentment of multiculturalism. Far from it. Actually, I’ve been reading a number of ancient Asian texts in recent months and, again, I’m choosing titles to help fill the most egregious gaps in my reading.

I do want to mix up the genres and forms, covering some science, philosophy, economics, politics, history, plays and poetry along the way.

Here’s how my list is shaping up for the first part of the year:

Anonymous, ca. 2000 BCE. The Epic of Gilgamesh, translated by Andrew George.

Homer, ca. 800 BCE. The Odyssey, translated by Robert Fagles.

Sappho, ca. 600 BCE. Selected poetry.

Aeschylus, 525-456 BCE. The Oresteia.

Pindar, 522-443 BCE. Selected poetry.

Sophocles, 496-406 BCE. Oedipus Rex.

Euripides, 484-406 BCE, Hippolytus.

Herodotus, 484-426 BCE. The Histories.
Thucydides, 470-400 BCE. The Peloponnesian War.
From The Portable Greek Historians: The Essence of Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Polybius (Viking Portable Library).

Aristophanes, 448-388 BCE. Lysistrata.

Early Greek Science: Thales to Aristotle, edited by G. E. R. Lloyd.

Plato, 428-348 BCE. The Republic and other selections from Great Dialogues of Plato, translated by W. H. D. Rouse.

Aristotle, 384-322 BCE. Selections from The Basic Works of Aristotle, edited by Richard McKeon.

Lucretius, ca. 100- ca. 50 BCE. On the Nature of Things.

Virgil, 70-19 BCE. The Aeneid, translated by Robert Fitzgerald.

Ovid, 43 BCE - 17 AD. Metamorphoses, translated by Charles Martin.

Epictetus, 55 AD– 135 AD, Discourses.

Marcus Aurelius, 121-180. Meditations, from The Essential Marcus Aurelius, edited by Jacob Needleman.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Harvard Classics vs. Great Books of the Western World

I need not devote too much space reiterating what you could find through a Google search of “Harvard Classics vs Great Books.”

If you want a set of books that would look impressive on any shelf, I don’t think you’d go wrong either way. But despite the admirably lofty goals of their editors, the collections do have some problems. I won’t try to cover all the reasons why these books spend more time on the shelf than not, but I’ll mention a couple.

When you do pull them from the shelf and open them up, they don’t provide the most pleasant aesthetic experience you’ve ever had with a book. The paper, the typeface, and the heft of the books aren’t necessarily inviting. To go cover-to-cover, end-to-end (with either set of books) would be a feat of endurance requiring a masochistic streak, for sure.

The choice of translations in these collections is a frequent source of criticism. While it might be convenient to have the various works in one collection, you can pick and choose better translations and/or more helpful commentaries elsewhere.

For me, at least, a little help makes all the difference. A while back, I tried to read the Bhagavad Gita, but didn’t get much out of it. Then, I acquired the edition of the Bhagavad Gita introduced and translated by Eknath Easwaran, who brought it to life for me.

Having aged out into the public domain, the Harvard Classics set is available online for free from numerous sources (and I think you can turn up some sites that offer downloads of Great Books). It isn’t hard to find hard copies of the Harvard Classics and Great Books of the Western World at used book stores.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Reflecting and Resolving

The recent publication of The Payne-Butrick Papers is one of the greatest contributions to Cherokee scholarship we’ve seen in a long time. Much of the material was gathered in the 1830s, prior to the Cherokee Removal and the Trail of Tears. Here’s one short sentence from a section on “Sacred Places and Things”:

December and January are the most holy months.

I have no idea why the Cherokees considered those the two most holy months, but I won’t let that prevent me from imposing my own interpretation. Those months can be auspicious because they mark the end of one year and the start of the next: a time to look back and a time to look ahead.

My intention to read the great books in 2012 is a glorified New Year’s resolution, and I recognize that most resolutions fade as quickly as they emerge. Yes, lots of us look ahead and vow to adjust our course into the future, but few of us look back on year almost done and contemplate the journey that brought us here.

I wonder if well-meaning vows for the new year would fare better if we took more time to consider where we’ve been. For me, 2011 has been one of the best years I can remember. If I had the power to exchange it for any of the years that had come before, I would not do it. As a moderately neurotic person with the anxieties common to my age, I slogged through what I had to slog through. Medical concerns, actual and potential, raised various degrees of alarm for me in 2011. Thankfully, it motivated me to make significant changes in my life. I started to recognize that my autonomic nervous system was all out of whack, and a source of intensified fears and elevated blood pressure. So I modified my diet, started going to gym, did deep breathing exercises and Pilates, lost weight and felt better than I had in years. I started running 5-K races. I hiked to places that had been on my to-do list for 20 or 30 years. I went backpacking for the first time in a long time. And my blood pressure came down dramatically, without the use of those nasty pharmaceuticals the doctors like to prescribe. Meanwhile, my levels of equinimity and contentment moved in a positive direction.

Discipline has never been my strong suit, but looking back on 2011, I see that I mustered enough discipline to reap great rewards from new habits of diet and exercise...and frame of mind. Maybe, just maybe, I can apply some of that new-found discipline to complete my reading plan in 2012.

Wouldn't that be nice to reflect upon, a year from now?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Living in the Age of Irony

Postmodernism stinks!

Living in the present age of irony, I find consolation in possessing the capacity to live as a hermit. The largely solitary nature of my day-to-day existence is not the plan I signed up for. It is not the script I would have written. But, after a long and painful struggle against it, I have gradually begun to make peace with solitude.

Albert Einstein is credited with lots of wise statements that he might not have ever made. Einstein is purported to have observed that "insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Whoever said it, the statement is catchy. In retrospect, I was manifesting a form of insanity by returning again and again to the wellsprings of the age of irony, when they invariably failed to provide the refreshment I sought.

What do I mean by "age of irony?"

Here's one succinct definition I found:

...a period of cynicism in society in which extreme beliefs or emotions are not taken seriously or dismissed altogether, typically through vehicles such as black comedy, satire, sarcasm, or absurdity. Some suggest that this reaction, particularly in western society, stems from a sense of invulnerability to the extremities of horror and chaos experienced in other parts of the world. Conversely, others theorize that the sense of detachment which characterizes the Age of Irony arose as a defense mechanism to cope with feelings of extreme vulnerability.

I could speculate about that paragraph all day, but I won't, at least not now.

Instead, I'll admit my discomfort with the ironic age and, I'll admit more than a little nostalgia for earlier eras of American life when virtues and values were so taken for granted that taking them seriously wasn't at question. Don't get me wrong: I am not blind to the evils of the good old days. I am not too young to remember separate drinking fountains for whites and coloreds, and, bad as it was, that was small stuff compared to the uglier transgressions of the golden days of yesteryear.

The contrast between then and now, between sincerity and snark, jumped out at me as I began exploring some of the efforts to bring the classics of western culture to the American masses. From the vantage point of the postmodernist present, they seem almost as anachronistic as chautauqua camps and temperence societies.

First was The Harvard Classics, originally known as Dr. Eliot's Five Foot Shelf, a 51-volume anthology of classic works from world literature, compiled and edited by Harvard University president Charles W. Eliot and first published in 1909. Eliot asserted that the elements of a liberal education could be acquired by spending 15 minutes a day reading from a collection of books that could fit on a five-foot shelf.

An episode of The Waltons, the 1970s television show so devoid of irony as to be unimaginable today, devoted an entire episode to "The Five Foot Shelf" and the family's reluctant sacrifice to purchase a set of books that promised new horizons for the children of the clan.

A competitor to The Harvard Classics debuted in 1952 with Encyclopædia Britannica's Great Books of the Western World series, 54 volumes presenting the western canon. The collection was an outgrowth of a course by University of Chicago president Robert Hutchins in collaboration with Mortimer Adler. Like The Harvard Classics, Great Books celebrated the virtues of exposure to the classics. In his introductory essay to the Great Books collection, Dr. Hutchins wrote of the Great Conversation that would elevate humanity:

The tradition of the West is embodied in the Great Conversation that began in the dawn of history and that continues to the present day. Whatever the merits of other civilizations in other respects, no civilization is like that of the West in this respect. No other civilization can claim that its defining characteristic is a dialogue of this sort. No dialogue in any other civilization can compare with that of the West in the number of great works of the mind that have contributed to this dialogue. The goal toward which Western society moves is the Civilization of the Dialogue. The spirit of Western civilization is the spirit of inquiry. Its dominant element is the Logos. Nothing is to remain undiscussed. Everybody is to speak his mind. No proposition is to be left unexamined. The exchange of ideas is held to be the path to the realization of the potentialities of the race.

Despite the lofty talk, an element of hucksterism accompanied the marketing of Great Books. Alex Beam explores this in his 2009 book, A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books:

Before the dawn of the television age, in an ambitious effort to enlighten the masses via door-to-door sales, Encyclopedia Britannica and the University of Chicago launched the Great Books of Western Civilization, "all fifty-four volumes of them... purporting to encompass all of Western knowledge from Homer to Freud." Led by the "intellectual Mutt 'n' Jeff act" of former University of Chicago president Robert Hutchins and his sidekick Mortimer Adler, the Great Books briefly, and improbably, caught the nation's imagination. In his discussion, Boston Globe columnist Beam looks at how and why this multi-year project took shape, what it managed to accomplish (or not), and the lasting effects it had on college curricula (in the familiar form of Dead White Males). Beam (Gracefully Insane: Life and Death Inside America's Premier Mental Hospital) describes meetings endured by the selection committee, and countless debates over Euripedes, Herodotus, Shakespeare, Melville, Dickens and Whitman ("When it comes to Great Books, no one is without an opinion."), but tells it like it is regarding the Syntopicon they devised-at "3,000 subtopics and 163,000 separate entries, not exactly a user-friendly compendium"-and the resulting volumes, labeling them "icons of unreadability-32,000 pages of tiny, double-column, eye-straining type." By lauding the intent and intelligently critiquing the outcome, Beam offers an insightful, accessible and fair narrative on the Great Books, its time, and its surprisingly significant legacy.

OK, so I tend to exaggerate the virues of "a simpler time." By romanticizing the past, I long for something that never really existed. Have I fallen for what was a cynical marketing scheme even sixty years ago? Am I misguided to think that I should be learning to read Homer, when there are so many other things I could do to engage with society more effectively? People's eyes already glaze over whenever I open my mouth, so why do something to become even more inscrutable? Maybe I should learn to Tweet instead. Maybe I should practice card tricks that I could perform to amuse others. Why bother to read a bunch of books that hardly anyone would ever want to hear about, much less discuss?

I guess I'm beyond the point of being deterred by valid questions like those.

Later, a quick comparison of The Harvard Classics and Great Books and their enduring (though perhaps unwarranted) appeal to ambitious readers of today.


Irony is Dead, by David Beers

For Common Things: Irony, Trust and Commitment in America Today, by Jedediah Purdy

The Big Book of Irony, by Joe Winokur

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Inspiration

Over the weekend, I happened to see a program on Book TV: a 1996 interview with David Denby, author of Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World. The entire interview can be viewed at Book TV's website.

From the Publishers Weekly synopsis of Denby's book:

Does a great books canon exist? Left-wing critics denounce the notion of a canon, while right-wingers often use it to assert unquestioned Western supremacy. This superb book suggests an answer. Denby, the film critic for New York magazine, returned to his alma mater, Columbia University, after 30 years to retake the two core curriculum courses, grapple with the world's classics and regenerate his own lapsed reading habit. It is a heartening portrait of (elite) American education and a substantial, sometimes enthralling, read. His teachers are committed pedagogues, the students a diverse (religious faith separates more than does ethnicity) and thoughtful lot. But the students are young, and the book's richest moments are when the mature Denby engages with the texts. Reading the tragedy of Oedipus Rex, he feels anxious, recognizing the ironic truth "[W]hat we avoid, we become." Hobbes's comments on the state of nature lead Denby to muse on insider trading and the time he was mugged. He contrasts Beauvoir's call for female liberty with the "Take Back the Night" antirape march on campus. Denby steps aside to interview academics and analyze the debate about the canon; he acknowledges that white male critics too long ignored the likes of Virginia Woolf, but resolutely argues for the seeking out of all great books, not merely ones that represent excluded groups. Why? Because the "Western classics were at war with each other," and learning to read Hegel and Marx, or the Bible and Nietzsche, is no lesson in indoctrination but the beginning of "an ethically strenuous education" and "a set of bracing intellectual habits."

In the Denby interview, it was obvious that the author had found the experience extraordinarily challenging and rewarding, which set me to thinking about a worthwhile endeavor that I might undertake in the rapidly approaching new year.

I am someone who loves books and ideas, someone who can't pass by a book shop - or even a shelf of books at a thrift store or flea market - without stopping to peruse the stock. Subsequently, I have accumulated a large and diverse collection of books, so many that I cannot even claim to have read half of them, although of course I intend to.

My reading tastes gravitate toward new and old non-fiction, essays, local history, eclectic philosophies, nature writers, and a wide, wide range of other subjects. I have an omnivorous curiosity, so I'm liable to read almost anything. I don't avoid fiction entirely, but admit that I am often disappointed with the titles I do read. If I invest the time required to read a 500 or 600 page novel, I should be duly compensated for the effort. Too often, especially with modern literary fiction, I have felt let down. On the other hand, I delight in the power of some works of fiction: Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs, which I read just this year, does what I want a good novel to do, magically transporting me to a world that I want to explore. I'll confess to being unsophisticated, since I don't gravitate toward the unrelenting nihilism, depravity, ennui and bleakness that seem to be hallmarks of contemporary fiction.

That said, I really don't think of myself as well-read. Although I obtained a masters degree thirty years ago from a respectable program at a respectable university, I don't consider myself well-educated. Clearly, David Denby was on to something with his return to Columbia for a study of the classics. Wouldn't it be worth the effort to do something similar? Do I have any excuse to be something less than well-read and well-educated, when I have all the resources necessary to improve my lot?

As it may be fairly stated at any point in history, "These are challenging times." I believe that ignorance of the past and the loss of shared cultural values result in a great deal of suffering, although some people might disagree. Twenty-five years ago, I went to hear Thomas Berry speak at the University of North Carolina - Asheville. Mr. Berry has had some important things to say, and I have read a couple of his books, but I don't remember much of what he said that evening. I do recall that when he suggested the Bible be put away, and not read for a while, the audience responded with an enthusiastic ovation. I'd like to think I know where Mr. Berry was coming from with his proposal, and I won't fault him for the point that he was making. However, I found the gleeful crowd more troubling, for what seemed to be a celebration of cultural ignorance. Perhaps those liberal New Agers in the audience had more in common with fascist book-burners than they would have been willing to admit.

A quarter of a century later, I'd venture that the Bible has become less known in our culture. Let's set aside the (mis)use of the Bible as a weapon for hateful behavior, or even as scripture for sincere believers, and consider it strictly as a work of literature. Are we really better off without the stories of the Bible as common cultural currency? I have an opinion on that. Somebody else might have a different opinion.

But the same goes for other bedrock works of western civilization. Some people would hail their abandonment as one sign of our liberation from white male oppressors. (I don't feel a need to make that case.) My concerns run in a different direction. Is the absence of cultural touchstones a sign of the "dumbing down" of our society? Take a look at the old McGuffey Readers, aimed at school children of nineteenth century America. If those are any indication, then the grammar schoolers of a century ago knew more about the classics than do the college sudents of today. And according to a survey by the Jenkins Group, 42% of college graduates will never read another book.

My point is that we have lost something that might be worth reclaiming, and I am resolving to do something about it on the only level that I can: starting with myself.

This is a personal journal posted for my own purposes as I proceed with this project. Writing about this project is one way to help me learn what it is I want to learn from it. I'll be scribbling notes of the backs of envelopes while I read, and a blog is one easy way to collect those various scribblings for my own reference and review. I already have some (as yet sketchy) idea of how I will go about this experiment in independent learning, and in subsequent posts will describe my plans for "a year with the great books" in 2012.

For now, some relevant quotes:

The great books speak to us of honor and love and sacrifice; but they do not always speak in familiar phrases. They do not tell us what we already know. Transcending current opinion and fad, through symbol and metaphor they reveal a clear and uncluttered access to the realities that determine our lives.
-Louise Cowan

A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it, or explore an explosive idea without fear it will go off in your face. It is one of the few havens remaining where a man's mind can get both provocation and privacy.
-Edward P. Morgan

Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.
-P.J. O'Rourke