Songs and Sonets

John Donne

d. 1631

(An earthy, imaginative, thoughtful soul reveals his view of love, steeped in metaphor and emotion.)

WilliamDyce_FrancescaDaRimini_1845Crop of Francesca da Rimini with her lover Paoloby the Scottish painter William Dyce (1837).  This painting can be seen in the National Galleries of Scotland. Though not quite as scandalous as Paolo, who is here courting his brother’s wife, John Donne snuck around with his master’s daughter against his will, eventually marrying her.

 

Donne is a master of love poetry– some say the best of them all– because he combines rich experience with deep and varied thought.  The whole person is writing here, his intellect and his heart in a powerfully effective, if strained, cooperation.  He is at once philosophical and romantic, a learned dreamer, an impassioned thinker.  On one hand these poems are often acutely emotional and physical, full of sweat and tears. Love and death are often intimately associated, by virtue of heartbreak as well as the sheer weight of true love itself. But at the same time the poems are bursting with erudite imagination, especially loose analogy and illustration (“conceits”) from physical science, alchemy, astronomy, and ancient and medieval philosophical and theological ideas. Donne sees no problem in linking his love to events and bodies of astronomic or even divine proportions. He employs so many characteristic devices, has so many surprising and intriguing perspectives, that his poems can be enjoyed just for these, even if we knew nothing of love.  But of course, love is the main thing on his mind… really the only thing on his mind.  Everything else is playing a supporting role. For those who think of Donne as the Reverend Doctor, the dean, the spiritual teacher… you will see that person here mainly in his cleverness, his breadth of education, a few metaphors, and of course his deep affinity for things spiritual.  Otherwise, here our Donne is a much more earthy bloke– here he is Jack Donne, the lover.  Then again, perhaps there is more to the continuity. The man who is first fascinated by women and drama and then later by God and church, is a man of fierce and fervent heart, seeking a worthy object of devotion.

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Breakfast of Champions

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

1973

(Little do a frustrated writer and a troubled car dealer realize, that their impolite author is using their journey to meet each other as an excuse to mastermind a deconstruction of modern values!)

RaboKarabekianTheTemptationOfSaintAnthonySort of The Temptation of St. Anthony, sort of by Rabo Karabekian, 1950. Sort of Sateen Dura-Luxe acrylic wall paint and day-glo tape. 20 x 16 feet. This can sort of be seen in the Midland City Art Gallery, to which it was sort of sold by the artist for $50,000.

 

A Vonnegut novel grows on you… like an exquisite acquired taste… or else a nagging corn on the foot. All three experiences are underestimated at first, and with time a realization dawns that there is something here that cannot be ignored. Some deride Breakfast of Champions as one of his “lesser”, although more popular, novels. For my part, I think that here we have a wine that is initially very peculiar on the palate, and its apparent confusion will conceal the vibrant undertones if one is not careful to taste it slowly and carefully. Or else, here we have a blasted gadfly of a corn that starts insidiously in a part of the foot’s ball that is unlikely to feel it until the thing has incubated for a mighty long time, insinuating deeply into one’s tissues. And when finally noticed, ouch does that root go deep!

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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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One of Cleopatra’s Nights

(Une nuit de Cléopâtre)

Théophile Gautier

1838

(A young hunter is willing to die to be with queen Cleopatra for just one evening.)

AlexandreCabanel_CleopatraPoisonsSlavesAlexandre Cabanel’s 1887 painting, Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Those Condemned To Death (Cléopâtre essayant des poisons sur des condamnés à mort).  It can be seen at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts (KMSKA), Antwerp.

 

Word for word, this little novella (three times the length of a typical short story at about 12,700 words) probably paints the most vibrant description of ancient Egypt in all of literature.  This is my favorite aspect of the work, though for others it might be the engaging romantic plot, or the typical though attractive take on the queen’s psychology.  It is a simple tale, but richly set and beautifully told.

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The Scarlet Pimpernel

Baroness Emmuska Orczy

1905

(A master of disguise rescues French aristocrats from the guillotine and drops them safely into London society—until a sly French inspector tracks him down.)

ScarletPimpernel_IanMcKellenIan McKellen as the French inspector Chauvelin in the 1982 London Films production of The Scarlet Pimpernel, which also starred Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour.  This and other stills can be found at the blog Of Trims and Frills and Furbelows.  

 

Don’t let the title’s reference to a dainty flower and the femininity of the author fool you.  This is no Austen or Brontë novel.  It is a hearty adventure, more along the lines of the father of adventure stories Sir Walter Scott, or Dumas, or Stevenson.  What a treat to have a woman join these illustrious ranks!  Rugged oaths and swordfights may be lacking, but stories stocked with those can easily be found elsewhere.  Instead Orczy proficiently places a “caped avenger”-style suspense drama (a genre some say she invented) against a backdrop of fashionable London society.  The high manners, the social competition, the gossip, the dress, the flamboyant events… Orczy was a baroness herself, and this is undoubtedly part of the reason why she was able to present these ingredients with such freshness and authenticity.  But all this is ancillary to the mystery and excitement that lend this tale its permanent appeal.

“On Taste”

Edmund Burke

1759

(What does it really mean for an opinion to be “a matter of taste”?)

WhatisArtJacksonPollockpaintingAn art museum visitor observing a Jackson Pollock painting; from the blog Art Now and Then, by Jim Lane.

 

When we say “it’s just a matter of taste”, a bold and negative message lies behind the word “just”.  Whether intended or not, the word creates a whiff of denigration.  We discredit the thing we’re describing, reducing it such that it does not require much attention or respect.  It’s a surefire conversation-ender.  We are in effect saying that the question of whether the food is good, the music inspiring, or the sight beautiful, is not really worthy of discussion.  We are also espousing a momentous philosophical position: that the matter at hand is subjective, in the sense that two individuals considering it may come to contradictory conclusions about it and neither could possibly be justified in criticizing the other.  Probably not very many of us, when we make such a statement, are actually prepared to defend our implicit position, or the accompanying subliminal evaluation.  More likely, we are simply incorporating into our daily language certain assumptions about the world, about truth, about goodness and beauty and love and appreciation and worthiness.  Sometimes we can use quippy phrases because they come easily, whether or not we realize that we are taking a side on something.  In time a fallacious circle is likely to complete itself: someday when we actually consider the matter, we will find ourselves thinking our assumption very likely to be true, simply because our manner of thinking has been shaped by our (and our community’s) manner of speaking.  If we are trained long enough to talk as if something is so, we will tend to think it is so unless we examine our ideas deliberately.

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Njáls Saga

(Njála)

anonymous

1270-1290

(A sage in medieval Iceland attempts to restore order in the face of bloody vengeance and warrior’s honor)

GunnarBillDetail from Gunnar at Rangá, an illustration of an event in Njáls Saga by Andreas Bloch (1898).  This drawing originally appeared in Vore fædres liv: karakterer og skildringer fra sagatiden, or Our Fathers’ Life: Characters and Scenes from the Age of Saga, by Nordahl Rolfsen.

The mighty deeds of a free people in struggle are frequently represented in timeless literature—such stories will never go stale.  Whether tossed on the stormy Mediterranean, afoot in the forests and scrublands of India, or galloping through prairie grasses among stalwart buttes in the American West, there is something deeply inspiring about a small people forging a life in the face of privation, violence, and treachery.  We who live in the comfort of civilization can be tempted to think that a reasonably stable government and the rule of law are guaranteed, automatic, assumed.  Or, even if we endure corruption, are wary of the tyranny or selfishness of our leaders, or have suffered at the hands of criminals, we are among millions and are likely to see ourselves as puny actors on an immense stage—what can we possibly do?!  How fascinating, then, are the tales of those who managed to defend some fragile order amidst a storm of chaos—those whose survival was assured not by the actions of others, whether their venerated ancestors or soldiers on distant front lines, but by themselves:  by the wisdom of their own minds, the words that passed through their own lips, and the swords that hung from their own belts.  The Icelandic Sagas—the Íslendingasögur—are epic narratives of this very sort.  A man in the Age of Saga, so we are told, could cut his own destiny, no matter what coarse fabric sought to hem him in.  And a woman could make the best of things by controlling the men.  Anyone who wishes to see how this sort of lifestyle could play out can do no better than to read Njáls Saga (or, in the alternative title that is at once a spoiler, the Saga of Burnt Njál).  The professionals tend to consider this the greatest and most well-developed of the 40 or so Icelandic Sagas that were written in the 13th-14th centuries.  Whatever the critics say, here we certainly find hefty measures of all the most engaging ingredients in that genre: the bloody swinging of swords and thrusting of spears, the uncompromising defense of honor, the defiant challenge of the sea, the tenuous rise of God over the idols and of Law over bloody feuds, the disastrous fruits of pride and envy, the sly instigations of women, the mystic power of prophecy and fate, the iron duty of loyalty, and the deathgrip of revenge!

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First Love

(Первая любовь)

Ivan Turgenev

1860

(A young man is thrown into the sweet agony of unrequited love for his beautiful new neighbor.)

KonstantinMakovsky_RussianBeauty Russian Beauty, by Konstantin Makovsky (1839-1915).  This painting appears to be in a private collection.  See Makovsky’s paintings at Wikiart.

 

Woldemar, a young man of sixteen, experiences the whirlwind of love descending on him for the first time, as he becomes acquainted with the beautiful and elegant Zinaida, the daughter of a princess, who has moved in next door.  She enjoys a crop of suitors, and in her charming and carefree way pits them against each other.  They make fools of themselves competing for her attention and smiles; but Woldemar is different, so awed he is in her presence.  She is very kind towards him, and eventually gives him more attention than any other.  He is enraptured, able to think of nothing else, obsessed with thoughts and dreams of her.  He is overcome with the pain of his unrequited feelings, and is blissful when with her, sent into reverie with every careless touch or soft look.  In this experience he realizes the power of love, and the strong—even dangerous—grip it can have on a person.  Meanwhile, although he pays little attention to it, his home life is unsettled, with his parents often arguing.

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Apology of Socrates

(Απολογια  Σωκρατους)

Plato

4th century BC

(An innocent man delivers an inspiring speech to the court before he is executed.)

David_DeathOfSocratesJacques Louis David’s neoclassical masterpiece The Death of Socrates (1787), which can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

 

Socrates is a bit of a mystery, if you insist on being a real evidentiary hardliner.  He wrote nothing himself, so we have to rely on others’ characterizations of him.  Xenophon paints him as the conventional wise man of the day.  Aristophanes deems his philosophizing empty and ridiculous.  Plato’s conception, the fullest and most detailed, is of a man worthy of admiration, even awe, both for his intellect and his noble spirit.  Plato’s Socrates seeks truth despite fashion or convention; he is imaginative, reverent, humble, perceptive, eloquent, and sharp as a razor.  I’ll go with Plato, not just because his picture is most complimentary, but because Xenophon’s is simplistic (in fact it suggests that Xenophon—with all due respect—knew Socrates only casually, but wished to write as though he knew him well); and Aristophanes did nothing more than exploit a famous name, attaching it to a caricature for effect.  In fact there were many philosophers in Athens who were very much like those “Sophists” Aristophanes pillories in his play The Clouds.  Socrates was the most famous philosopher around at the time, and he certainly would have associated and debated with the general run of them.  His was probably a household name, to be thrown about as representative of the lot of lounging jabberers even though– to one who actually listened to him– he towered above the rest.

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A Sand County Almanac

 Aldo Leopold

1948

(An ecologist contemplates and celebrates the land, and recommends an expansion of our moral world.)

 LeopoldArcherAldo Leopold in Mexico, 1938.  Courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Archives at the University of Wisconsin

Today it is routine in courses on ecology, forestry, conservation, environmental philosophy or land use, to introduce three personalities as the fathers of modern concern for nature, the three voices that first and most strongly urged us to enlarge our conception of what in this world is a proper object of moral consideration:  Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold.  Contemporary American (and to some extent world) culture has been impacted by A Sand County Almanac, as by Thoreau’s Walden, to such an extent that we cannot yet begin to assess it.  Nevertheless, I would argue that we as a culture have still not attended to the two main lessons A Sand County Almanac would teach us.

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