Hippolytus

(Ἱππολυτος)

Euripides

429 BC

(Disaster follows when Phaedra falls for her stepson!)

Pierre-Narcisse Guerin - Phaedra and Hippolytus 1815Crop of Phaedra and Hippolytus (1802), by the French neoclassical painter Baron Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (Louvre, Paris). The painting manages dramatically to squeeze in several elements of the plot: the youth expresses his resistance to Phaedra, even as the nurse whispers in her ear; meanwhile Theseus clenches his fist in rage.

The gods will have their play, and we piteous humans must suffer in double jeopardy. First, vice will eventually bring destruction, and yet we are by nature weak and prone to vice. Second, everyone is subject to fate, which is not kinder to good people than to bad. So we are doomed—we cannot be virtuous as we want to be, and so we are in trouble; and yet even if we could be virtuous we would get smacked anyway by the vicissitudes of fate! Hence Euripides’ fist-waving at the gods… yet he manages to preserve some reverence. Artemis tells us that the pious are still much more highly regarded by the gods than the impious. When the impious person suffers, the gods nod “take that!”, whereas the faithful incur their favor, which can bring some benefit. So, given our sad lot in life, it is better to be suffering and good than suffering and evil. Or that is Euripides’ line anyway. In this play we see how this web of cosmic influences plays out in the life of a chaste and honorable man destined for greatness by rights, when (through no fault of his own) his stepmother takes an improper liking to him.

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The Little Prince

(Le Petit Prince)

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

1943

(A little man leaves his tiny planet to explore the universe, only to discover that the most important things in life can be found anywhere.)

ExuperyIllustration

Watercolor illustration by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry from chapter 26 of Le Petit Prince. Original drawings, watercolors (though not this one!), and pages from the only known handwritten draft of the novelette are housed in The Morgan LibraryNew York. Saint-Exupéry wrote and illustrated this story in New York City and Long Island following the Nazi invasion of France.

As hackneyed as the term “gem” is in the description of short and delightful books, The Little Prince has got to be the epitome. What other modern story is so small, simple, beautiful, and valuable? It radiates purpose modestly, its convincing naivete managing somehow to soften sharp lessons within a sweet and personal story. An actual gem, however, can be valued by anyone, even the unworthy—those who value it only because they can use it to get something else. The Little Prince has no such utility. Its essence is a rebellion against the importance we tend to place on utility. If we find ourselves appreciating The Little Prince, it can only be because we see some light in the book’s countercultural perspective—because we love this small meandering tale according to its true worth.

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The History of Mr. Polly

H. G. Wells

1910

(A man of precisely 37.5 years of age can’t seem to find success or happiness in life… perhaps he has to do something drastic.)

 John Mills stars in the 1949 film version of the History of Mr Polly.John Mills as Alfred Polly in the 1949 Anthony Pelissier film.  Mills’ expression seems to capture Polly’s listless anomie.  This still was also chosen to head the description of the novel for The Guardian‘s list of the 100 Greatest Novels (Robert McCrum named it #39– but meant it to represent all of H. G. Wells’ work).  This photograph is in the Ronald Grant Archive

 

“HOLE!” said Mr. Polly, and then for a change, and with greatly increased emphasis: “ ‘Ole!”  He paused, and then broke out with one of his private and peculiar idioms. “Oh! Beastly Silly Wheeze of a Hole!”

Thus begins an entertaining fictional biography of a man who really needs a whack upside the head– one of several greats in that odd subgenre– Tom Jones, Babbitt, and Updike’s Rabbit series, for examples. (H. G. Wells writing fictional biography? In a contemporary setting? This might surprise those of us, such as myself, who had equated him with science fiction and socialist nonfiction. But anyway…) Our protagonist is an endearing and vivid, if frustrating character, who hides his depression with funny one-liners and his poor education with deliberate mispronunciations. And, as with many colorful characters in real life, beneath the wit cowers a man who hasn’t a clue where he’s going. His path through life is that of a flat boat with untethered sails– he might as easily plummet to his death over a waterfall as drift into a homely port.  Or, to use Alfred Polly’s own metaphor, he’s in a hole.  And no amount of quaint phrasing and amusing epithet, no ability to make women giggle, and no success as a shopkeeper is going to hoist him out of it.

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stories

Mark Twain

1865-1890

(A champion of common sense and nonsense casually delivers his colorful yarns, witty satires, and twisty dramas.)

KolmanRosenberg_lodi-farmhouse-porchCrop of a photograph of the front porch of a 200+ year old farmhouse in Lodi, Ohio, by Kolman Rosenberg.  Such a setting is perhaps the most agreeable for the telling of Twain’s rambling tales of American life and human foibles.  This photograph can be found on Kolman Rosenberg’s blog Photography Unposed.

 

Sitting with Mark Twain when he’s in a storytelling mood, we get to know the man—or at least he leads us to believe we get to know him. He lets us in on private jokes; he talks to us freely and without affected polish, perhaps puffing on his pipe in the middle of a sentence; and he doesn’t mind making clever offhand remarks about even the touchiest of matters. And, to reciprocate the casual friendship, we allow him to wander on tangents, even if it prevents him from ever getting to his point; and we don’t let on that we mind when he decides not to tell us the end of a story, or when he makes fun of something that we happen to like; and, especially, we just don’t get too critical with him in general.  Since Twain’s favorite literary pastime is to smirk at people who take themselves too seriously, when we take him too seriously the joke is on us!  Besides, the path of his narrative, though unpredictable, is as organic and spontaneous as a stream– who can criticize a stream?

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The Mayor of Casterbridge

Thomas Hardy

1886

(The fortunes of a strong-willed hay-trusser prove to be as volatile as he is.)

HardyCasterbridgeHenchardAndSusan“Hay-trussing–?” said the turnip-hoer, who had already begun shaking his head. “O no.”  The first of Robert Barnes’s 20 illustrations for The Mayor of Casterbridge in the 1886 weekly magazine The Graphic, where the novel appeared between January-May 1886.  Here the protagonist, Michael Henchard, is asking whether there is local work available.  All 20 illustrations can be seen on The Victoria Web.

 

Michael Henchard is an unemployed field laborer who, under the influence of rum at a fair, impulsively starts to auction off his wife and baby daughter, to much laughter.  His wife stands.  A hush falls as a sailor actually puts five guineas on the table.

“Now,” said the woman, breaking the silence, so that her low dry voice sounded quite loud, “before you go further, Michael, listen to me. If you touch that money, I and this girl go with the man. Mind, it is a joke no longer.”

But Henchard will not be shamed or threatened.  When he says something he means it!  And so minutes later he sits there blinking away his disbelief as Susan, with little Elizabeth-Jane, walks away with a stranger.  Thus begins The Mayor of Casterbridge: The Life and Death of a Man of Character.  Here we see how a person’s destiny is shaped by the interaction of external forces and internal qualities– the world and the self.  Take one part circumstance, add one part decision, repeat continually towards success or failure.

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early poems

Matthew Arnold

1840-1849

(A man of intellect and of spiritual sensitivity contemplates the purpose of life and its struggles.)

MunchMelancholyCrop of Melancholy (1894), by Edvard Munch.  This painting is in The Rasmus Meyer Collection at The Bergen Art Museum (now part of the KODE museum group in Bergen, Norway).

 

“Unwelcome shroud of the forgotten dead,/ Oblivion’s dreary fountain, where art thou”.  What a dark way to begin one’s poetical efforts, at 18 years of age!  And we need read no further to suspect (correctly) that in Matthew Arnold we are in for something very different from the Romantics, and quite different also from his Victorian contemporaries Browning and Tennyson.  The essence of the distinction is in his preoccupation with the meaning of life, and by extension death and the loss of faith.  This spiritual decline that disturbed him so much, often called the maladie du siècle or the “sickness of the century”, had been treated more seriously on the continent, while in England Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley were grasping at Nature or the humanism of the Greeks for their spiritual anchor.  Arnold was a more melancholic, more skeptical poet, and doubted that the sickness could ever be cured, although he certainly loved the ancients (many of his early poems have classical subjects), and he also did look to nature for inspiration.  Even as a teen he presaged the Existentialists, and indeed much of the spirit of the twentieth century, in trying to devise a way to preserve our spirituality and sense of wonder while being brutally honest about our mortality and the fleeting nature of all human endeavor.  Matthew Arnold was a great poet not mainly because he was imaginative, spiritual, morally sensitive, and wonderstruck, nor on the other hand because he was freethinking, scholarly, and skeptical; he was great because he was somehow both of these sorts of people at once.  If his poetry could be said to have a single goal, it was to merge these two halves of his consciousness, the spiritual and the intellectual.

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Cimarron

Edna Ferber

1930

(The Oklahoma land rush of 1889 gives Yancey Cravat an opportunity to rescue his wife from civilized mediocrity, and head west for the untamed life of the pioneer.)

XiangZhangOklahomaLandRush1893Oklahoma Land Rush 1893, by contemporary Chinese-American painter Xiang Zhang.  This painting can be found in his online gallery.

Yancey Cravat is the Cimarron—the wild one, like an aimless river or a jousting bighorn sheep.  He may tote legal volumes as easily as a gun, and be as quick with a Shakespeare quote as with a trigger; and yes, he’s a lawyer and the editor of a socially active newspaper… but this is no milktoast city boy.  This is Buffalo-Head, the tall, gruff, steel-eyed pioneer for whom three years in the same place or a single day without some sort of risk or conflict is evidently his idea of hell.  And, no doubt, the wife of such a one is bound to be some kind of woman: Sabra, a sharp, spirited, strong, self-sufficient saber of a woman.  In fact, although most assessments of this book will tell you that its permanence lies in its presentation to the world of the unforgettable Yancey Cravat, who is it that ties the book together?  Whom does the narrative follow, when Yancey’s itchy traveling bone takes him to Alaska or the Spanish-American war?  Not him, but the determined, toiling Sabra.  Granted, she lacks the explosive flash of her husband– her way is much too pragmatic to put her in much danger or make her many enemies.  But she is really the central character of the book, the one who grows, the one who succeeds in adapting herself to the various jolting cultural shifts that get thrown into her path by the errant Yancey, or by her son, or by the discovery of oil.  At first entry into the fledgling land rush town of Osage, Oklahoma, fresh from the overprotection of her family the proper Venables of Wichita, she breaks into sobs when kissed by a stranger on the street.  But give her eight or nine years, and she’s riding in the middle of the night into an Indian reservation during a mescal ceremony and demanding that her unconscious son be thrown onto her cart so she can bring him home.  But of course, yes, we do want to hear about Yancey, despite… or maybe partly because of… his refusal to stick around.  He’s idealistic, imposing, and indomitable.  Take one particular tent meeting, for instance. In the course of giving a sermon, he manages to work in a self-defense killing—yes, the actual killing, not the story of a killing.  And when warned that his pro-Indian editorials are going to get him killed, his reply is simply the unearthly death-scream of the Cherokee.

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“The Judgment”

(“Das Urteil”)

Franz Kafka

1912

(After treating a needy friend superficially for years, Georg finally pays the price.)

CharlesBridge_PaulCookCrop of Charles Bridge (2009), by Paul Cook.  Charles Bridge (Karlův most) lies over the Vitava River in Kafka’s hometown of Prague.

 

This is an existentialist horror tale about a man Georg who treats a distant friend superficially, then pays for this crime with his life.  The distant friend is sick, poor and unmarried.  Georg cannot think of what to say to him, so he writes only trivial things.  He offers no advice or heartfelt consolation.  He conceals his own prosperity and even (for a while) his own engagement.  His father, meanwhile, behind his back, has been revealing the truth about Georg to the friend, and has been lying in wait for Georg to raise the situation in conversation.  When Georg finally does broach the subject, his father condemns him as a betrayer of his friend and a selfish cold-hearted bum, and orders him to drown himself.  As elderly as the father is, he is stronger of will than his son, who feels himself urged out of the room and to a nearby bridge.  Georg flings himself to his death.

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Go Down, Moses

William Faulkner

1942

(Vivid tales from the deeply rooted McCaslin family of Mississippi explore the human desire to dominate others.)

BoydSaundersEtchingCropCrop of an etching by Boyd Saunders illustrating Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.  Courtesy of HottyToddy.com

 

Faulkner raises a novel, especially Go Down, Moses, like a mountain range.  A small peak here, another one some indefinite distance to the side but nearer to the viewer, another apparently between them but actually much further in the distance.  The slopes are irregular in grade, no shape is symmetrical, no sequence predictable.  The greatest of the mountains has flanking foothills—here at least is order and intelligibility!  One is prepared for the most gigantic landforms.  Actually all of them, though apparently haphazardly arranged, are obviously part of a single landscape, each part depending on those around it for its qualities and significance.  The suggestion that each mountain be viewed as an isolated individual, despite distinctions of personality and structure, is ridiculous.  One best realizes this, perhaps, by receding somewhat from the view.  For when close to it, when stumbling over craggy outcrops and struggling to circumvent gorges, the scene seems hopelessly chaotic and fragmented.  Such is Go Down, Moses, a challenging and awesome range of tales.

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Lyrical Ballads, and other early poems

William Wordsworth

1785-1799

(A poetic sage takes lessons on goodness and beauty from nature.)

WilliamHavellTinternAbbeyCrop of Tintern Abbey (1804), by William Havell.  Hikers laze above the abbey in the Wye Valley, just as Wordsworth did with his sister before composing his most famous poem.  This painting is at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology in Oxford.

 

A man of wisdom, a poet of nature, is Wordsworth.  These are the goals to which he aspires, goals that are discernable in his work from a very early age.  He wrote many of his greatest poems in the years covered here, before he reached 30.  Wisdom, or more specifically a yearning for and contemplation of goodness and beauty, suffuses his poetry.  Thus he is keen to deliver moral advice, and almost seems to teach or prophesy rather than reflect.  But it is the deepest and most profitable kind of reflection, I can almost hear him replying, whose results teach the reflector something.  And since he insists in the Preface to his Lyrical Ballads that he writes each poem with a purpose, and with the intent of delivering objective truths rather than ideas that one may take or leave as a matter of preference, we must prepare for a slight didactic or pedagogical flavor now and then.  For Wordsworth, though firmly against elitism in poetry, is aware of his own wisdom, and is driven to share it with others.  The topics range from attitudes towards people (as in “Matthew”), to attitudes towards nature (as in “Lines Written in Early Spring”), to a straightforward exhortation to be good (as in “Goody Blake and Harry Gill”).  He imparts his values on social matters as well, regarding for instance the evil of slavery (at the end of “Descriptive Sketches”), the necessity of legislated charity (at the beginning of “The Old Cumberland Beggar”), and thoughts on education (e.g. “Expostulation and Reply”).

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