Gulliver’s Travels

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Google images result for the title…most of these are the famous scene from chapter ONE.

I read this last summer, and while it starts out strongly enough, it gets much better as it goes on–the satire gets far darker and more biting. Maybe that’s why the single part everyone seems to know and like–Gulliver being tied down by the tiny Lilliputians–is from chapter one. Nobody ever talks about the better parts later on.

The second half of the book really ramps ups the social commentary to Voltaire levels of savagery. Consider these observations of a university, from part III:

I saw another at work to calcine Ice into Gunpowder; who likewise shewed me a Treatise he had written concerning the Malleability of Fire, which he intended to publish.

There was a most ingenious Architect who had contrived a new Method for building Houses, by beginning at the Roof, and working downwards to the Foundation; which he justified to me by the like Practice of those two prudent Insects, the Bee and the Spider.

There was a Man born blind, who had several Apprentices in his own Condition: Their Employment was to mix Colours for Painters, which their Master taught them to distinguish by feeling and smelling. It was indeed my Misfortune to find them at that Time not very perfect in their Lessons; and the Professor himself happened to be generally mistaken: This Artist is much encouraged and esteemed by the whole Fraternity.

In another Apartment I was highly pleased with a Projector, who had found a Device of plowing the Ground with Hogs, to save the Charges of Plows, Cattle, and Labour. The Method in this: In an Acre of Ground you bury at six Inches Distance, and eight deep, a Quantity of Acorns, Dates, Chestnuts, and other Maste or Vegetables whereof these Animals are fondest; then you drive six Hundred or more of them into the Field, where in a few Days they will root up the whole Ground in search of their Food, and make it fit for sowing, at the same time manuring it with their Dung. It is true, upon Experiment they found the Charge and Trouble very great, and they had little or no Crop. However, it is not doubted that this Invention may be capable of great Improvement.

And this rather wry bit where the joke about government working purely and productively might seem like a lame cliche today just shows us, yet again, that there’s nothing new under the sun:

In the School of Political Projectors I was but ill entertained, the Professors appearing in my Judgment wholly out of their Senses, which is a Scene that never fails to make me melancholy. These unhappy People were proposing Schemes for persuading Monarchs to chuse Favourites upon the Score of their Wisdom, Capacity, and Virtue; of teaching Ministers to consult the Publick Good; of rewarding Merit, great Abilities, eminent Services; of instructing Princes to know their true Interest by placing it on the same Foundation with that of their People: Of chusing for Employments Persons qualified to exercise them; with many other wild impossible Chimaeras, that never entred before into the heart of Man to conceive, and confirmed in me the old Observation, that there is nothing so extravagant and irrational which some Philosophers have not maintained for Truth.

The final section of the book has the darkest humor, such as this almost invisibly veiled swipe at expansive governments spreading their influence:

But I had another Reason which made me less forward to enlarge his Majesty’s Dominions by my Discovery. To say the Truth, I had conceived a few Scruples with Relation to the Distributive Justice of Princes upon those Occasions. For instance, A Crew of Pyrates are driven by a Storm they know not whither, at length a boy discovers Land from the Top-mast, they go on Shore to Rob and Plunder; they see an harmless People, are entertained with Kindness, they give the Country a new Name, they take formal Possession of it for their King, they set up a rotten Plank or a Stone for a Memorial, they murder two or three Dozen of the Natives, bring away a couple more by Force for a Sample, return Home, and get their Pardon. Here commences a new Dominion acquired with a Title by Divine Right. Ships are sent with the first Opportunity, the Natives driven out or destroyed, their Princes tortured to discover their Gold; a free Licence given to all Acts of Inhumanity and Lust, the Earth reeking with the Blood of its Inhabitants: And this execrable Crew of Butchers employed in so pious an Expedition, is a modern Colony sent to convert and civilize an idolatrous and barbarous People.

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Dante’s Paradise: A Celebration of the Celestial

danteI finished Dante’s Divine Comedy this week, and it ended as strong as it started. Paradise takes the social commentary of Inferno and the moralizing of Purgatory and then just cranks that gorgeous poetry amp up to 11. It is, by far, the most beautifully written entry in the trilogy and maybe even imbued with the deepest ideas.

Four favorite passages may serve to illustrate.

First, from canto four, we see a meditation on how spiritual truth must be understood metaphorically by our merely mortal minds. The top and bottom of this page are pithy quotes by themselves, but the body between constitutes some of the more clever comparisons I’ve ever seen:

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Next, from much later on, this part starts with lines that could apply to art and writing in general, but then wax eloquent about matters of faith, integrating mind and spirit, but ending with a paean to scripture and the Holy Spirit.

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The REALLY Old Farmer’s Almanac

978053I recently read the Latin poet Virgil’s work The Georgics, a four-part poem about the world of rural shepherds. Pretty decent pastoral stuff, especially part I.

Still, with its emphasis on astrology, agriculture, and animal husbandry, I felt like I was reading an ancient Roman version of the Old Farmer’s Almanac.

The Aeneid

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The Aeneid

I liked the rest of The Odyssey more than the part with all the monsters; I liked The Iliad more than The Odyssey; and I liked The Aeneid even more than The Iliad. In fact, I love how The Aeneid is clearly structured as a condensed complement to the earlier epics:

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I’ve now read all three in the excellent recent translations by Robert Fagles (I like that he produced these works in chronological order, but The Aeneid was the last major translation of his long and storied career; he died only two years after publishing it, in 2008). My overall reactions to The Aeneid fall under three headings:

Fathers and sons

The first thing that struck me about The Aeneid is its focus on duty and family–themes that resonate strongly with me. I posted about one such passage on another blog.

At the end of book 2, Aeneas faces a choice–take revenge on the villainous Helen, or rescue his family from the crumbling, flaming ruin of Troy? In cinematic fashion, the scene cuts from his enraged face struggling with this decision to him running through the bowels of the city, young son in his hand and elderly father on his back.

In fact, I see another structure here: the first half of the book focuses mostly on his loyalty to his father, looking to the past, and the second half focuses on his loyalty to his son, looking to the future.

Indeed, the end of book 6–his visit to his father in the underworld, and the unveiling of his divine new shield, with its illustration of his people’s glorious destiny–is the perfect transition between the two. The quote below comes right at the midpoint of the tale, and gives me goosebumps.

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Book 8, lines 854-858

Of course, the little boy from the beginning of the story grows up over the years, and by the great battle at the end, he is a young man fighting at his father’s side.

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Some Dark Humor in The Aeneid

I’m in book 10 of The Aeneid–a major battle scene–and I just came across this lovely bit:

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Ha! “There were these two identical twins…at least, they were identical twins until one got his hand cut off and the other got decapitated. NOW we can tell them apart just fine!”

Anthony Esolen’s Translation of Dante’s Inferno

downloadI had never read the Inferno because, unlike other classics where there is broad agreement on which translations are the best, opinion here is divided. However, over the summer I read this amazing essay by Anthony Esolen (which I cannot recommend highly enough–it may be the best essay I’ve read all year); I was so impressed that I looked to see what else he had written, and lo and behold, he’d translated Dante.

This book was a beautiful joy from beginning to end. Dante’s story is even better than I’d imagined it would be. I was surprised to see it so full of, what was for Dante, contemporary social criticism. Quite a few of the movers and shakers of his world–men who had wronged him personally–were called out by name and given the retribution of having their eternal torments depicted in poetry. Even more surprising was the fact that popes were among that number (indeed, multiple passages basically say, “Hey, Pope Boniface VIII–you suck!”).

Dante’s criticism even veers into satire at points, with the punishments of hell fitting that “poetic justice” paradigm we expect. He seemingly relishes such opportunities to kick some of his targets when they’re down; for example, noting not only that one kind of sinner might spend eternity with their heads literally turned around backwards, but that the tears they always shed are running down between the cleft in their buttocks. Other sinners are seen wallowing in raw sewage forever. Stay classy, Dante!

This is not to make light of the text at all, though. In fact, the last several sections contain some of the most gruesome, horrific scenes I’ve ever come across in a book (and I read a whole lot of Stephen King as a kid!). The final scene, in the very center of hell, is fantastically graphic: Satan, frozen from the waist down in a lake of ice, has a second and third face on either side of his giant head, and each of the three mouths is eternally chewing on one of the great traitors of history: Brutus, Cassius, and Judas Iscariot. The image is incredibly vivid–below is just one of the more tasteful illustrations I found online.

Beside the text itself, Esolen has given us a great gift in this volume. The translation itself is crisp, clear, and moving, but the other features also make this a great book: the Italian text on each facing page, the extensive endnotes delving into Dante’s references in detail, and a series of appendices that provide excerpts from seminal texts that all informed Dante’s vision. I made frequent use of these, and look forward to a time when I can just sit around all day and absorb them all. For the avid reader of classics, Esolen has provided a truly fine treat.

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Hugh Nibley’s Favorite Books

Not my favorite books by Nibley, but his favorites. I remembered seeing this list a long time ago, and finally tracked it down. Here it is in the Deseret News, October 31, 1980. (Thanks, Google. It’s also in one of the newer volumes of the Collected Works, but not one that’s online yet.) Chronicles and Satyricon are both on hold at my library now…

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“Relatable” Reading

There’s a popular trope among students (and many teachers) that the things people read should be “relatable,” meaning that stories should reflect the ideas, cultures, and even ethnicities of the readers. That, we are told, is what gets people interested, and helps them to enjoy and benefit from reading.

Hogwash. Balderdash. Baloney.

If the point of reading–of education in general–is only to wallow in a celebration of ourselves as we are, then what’s the point?

Some of the best reading experiences I’ve ever had–and certainly the ones that have mattered the most and stuck with me the most–are those that challenged me by presenting things that were not relatable. (I still remember sitting in some waiting room about a dozen years ago and passing the time by perusing a copy of Latina Businesswoman Magazine; it was a joyous glimpse into another world.)

There might even be an almost inverse relationship between the power of a text and the degree to which it resembles the life of the reader.

The pandering instinct behind the push to present more relatable texts to students is only going to stunt their minds further. After all, even for the selfie generation, staring at themselves eventually becomes boring.

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How Leo Tolstoy Exposed Donald Trump in War and Peace

War and Peace came out nearly 150 years ago, in 1869, but some of it–one chapter in particular–resonates with current events.

A man without convictions, without habits, without traditions, without a name, and not even a Frenchman, emerges- by what seem the strangest chances- from among all the seething French parties, and without joining any one of them is borne forward to a prominent position.

The ignorance of his colleagues, the weakness and insignificance of his opponents, the frankness of his falsehoods, and the dazzling and self-confident limitations of this man raise him to the head…his opponents’ reluctance to fight, and his own childish audacity and self-confidence secure him military fame. Innumerable so-called chances accompany him everywhere.

UntitledTolstoy wrote these lines, near the end of his great book, about Napoleon, but when I read them last night, I thought of Donald Trump. Only small changes are needed–just replace “French” and “Frenchman” in the excerpts in this post with “Republican,” for example, and you pretty much have cutting-edge commentary for today’s op-ed page.

This ideal of glory and grandeur- which consists not merely in considering nothing wrong that one does but in priding oneself on every crime one commits, ascribing to it an incomprehensible supernatural significance- that ideal, destined to guide this man and his associates, had scope for its development….

He had no plan, he was afraid of everything, but the parties snatched at him and demanded his participation….his insane self-adulation, his boldness in crime and frankness in lying- he alone could justify what had to be done.

*

He pretends to fall into a swoon and says senseless things that should have ruined him. But the once proud and shrewd rulers of France, feeling that their part is played out, are even more bewildered than he, and do not say the words they should have said to destroy him and retain their power….One after another they hasten to display their insignificance before him.

Really, just read the whole chapter. The whole thing is basically about Trump. Not only that, but the failures of the GOP leadership are also laid bare here. Was Tolstoy a prophet? Are we doomed to see another 1812 in the not-too-distant future?

Great Education Quotes From John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, Chapter 1

Mill’s story of his unusually successful education is worthy of study for every parent, student, and teacher.  Or any lover of clear, precise prose, for that matter.

The single best quote comes from near the end of the chapter:

 

A pupil from whom nothing is ever demanded which he cannot do, never does all he can.

 

Here are five others worth pondering:

 

  1. It was at this period that I read, for the first time, some of the most important dialogues of Plato, in particular the Gorgias, the Protagoras, and the Republic. There is no author to whom my father thought himself more indebted for his own mental culture, than Plato, or whom he more frequently recommended to young student. I can bear similar testimony in regard to myself. The Socratic method, of which the Platonic dialogues are the chief example, is unsurpassed as a discipline for correcting the errors, and clearing up the confusions incident to the intellectus sibi permissus, the understanding which has made up all its bundles of associations under the guidance of popular phraseology. The close, searching elenchus by which the man of vague generalities is constrained either to express his meaning to himself in definite terms, or to confess that he does not know what he is talking about; the perpetual testing of all general statements by particular instances; the siege in from which is laid to the meaning of large abstract terms, by fixing upon some still larger class-name which includes that and more, and dividing down to the thing sought—marking out its limits and definition by a series of accurately drawn distinctions between it and each of the cognate objects which are successively parted off from it—all this, as an education for precise thinking, is inestimable, and all this, even at that age, took such hold of me that it became part of my own mind.

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The Classics Matter

Some teachers may say that the canon of classics is obsolete.  They may say that basic things aren’t as important as creativity.  They might degrade the value of memorizing facts.

But if you’re a college student and you go on Wheel of Fortune and pronounce “Achilles” incorrectly, millions of people will laugh at you.

Mormon Pioneers = Trojan Heroes?

“Call up your courage again. Dismiss your grief and fear.
A joy it will be one day, perhaps, to remember even this.
Through so many hard straits, so many twists and turns
our course holds firm for Latium. There Fate holds out
a homeland, calm, at peace. There the gods decree
the kingdom of Troy will rise again. Bear up.
Save your strength for better times to come.”

This is a quote from Brigham Young.

Here, the Mormon leader motivates discouraged pioneers as they survey the barren, hostile wilderness they’re passing through, after being driven out of their ruined home.  He reminds them that they’ve already suffered greatly before and endured.  He inspires them with a vision of their destined goal: the establishment of a new headquarters for their people in a land to the west.  Their civilization is to be a re-establishment of a great order that had been lost.  This powerful, cheering attitude helps the people strive and successfully realize the prophecy.

Oh, no, wait.  That’s not right.  This is actually a quote from the Trojan hero Aeneas in Virgil’s epic The Aeneid (Book I, lines 238-244, Robert Fagles trans.).

Here, the Trojan leader motivates discouraged soldiers as they survey the barren, hostile wilderness they’re passing through, after being driven out of their ruined home.  He reminds them that they’ve already suffered greatly before and endured.  He inspires them with a vision of their destined goal: the establishment of a new headquarters for their people in a land to the west.  Their civilization is to be a re-establishment of a great order that had been lost.  This powerful, cheering attitude helps the people strive and successfully realize the prophecy.

Sorry, folks.  Don’t know how I could have mistaken those two episodes.

Recommended Viewing: A Man For All Seasons

mfasI’d actually seen this movie before.  When I was a senior in high school, an older man at my church started inviting me to watch some deep, classic movies with him and then talk about them.  For some reason, it never occurred to me to question why this casual acquaintance was taking such a sudden interest in me.  In retrospect, leaders at church probably saw how unstable I was and had asked him, a steady, intellectual sort with whom I might have some things in common, to take me under his wing and give me some support.  If it was an assignment, it sure never felt like it, and I’m glad we had that time together.

Anyway, one of the movies he introduced me to was A Man For All Seasons.  However, being a slacker teenager, I regret to admit that I feel asleep right away and was out the whole time.  I felt pretty bad, because I remember him telling me that it was his favorite movie. 

I just went back and watched it again yesterday, and now it’s one of my favorites, too.

Let me start with a minor observation: this is a very talky film, and therefore chiefly filmed indoors (or at least enclosed areas), and therefore has few outdoor or panoramic shots.  Still, the background and scenery that we do get is breathtaking.  The alternating snows and flowers of England are a joy to behold, and somehow these older movies capture them for us with a visceral liveliness that the more “sophisticated” current methods lack. 

Now, on to the star of the show.  Paul Scofield’s majestic turn as Sir Thomas More?  No, the dialogue.  Continue reading