Sunday, January 30, 2011

Ancient Greek Classics: Selected Myths by Plato


When the Classics Circuit announced its Ancient Greek tour I was sure I'd go with drama--The Oresteia or An Oresteia, I pondered over the course of several days, occasionally wondering if perhaps I should sign up for a comedy--say, The Frogs--instead of always heading straight for a wallow in the grim and gruesome depictions of extreme family dysfunction.

Before I'd committed one way or the other, Plato's Selected Myths, with its lovely Joachim Patenir cover of Charon Crossing the River Styx caught my eye on one of the "just checked in" book carts at the library, and I realized my choice had been made for me.

Plato wrote myths? Did everyone know this but me? I'd been operating for years under the conviction that by the time Socrates and Plato came around, Greek mythology was, if not over for the society at large, at least brushed aside by these emerging powerhouse philosophers, who had more important matters on their minds than relating the further adventures of Zeus and Poseidon and the gang. "The Cave" was an allegory, not a myth, right? Plato was all Politics and Socratic Dialogues and the Academy, um, right?

Well, when I'm wrong (more often than I like to admit), I'm wrong. Plato's philosophical writings incorporate many myths, I now know, both traditional retellings and his own creations.

As Catalin Partenie's introduction tells the reader, "Both Plato's myths and his dialogues are narrative: in all of them a story is being told by a story-teller. But the mythical story is different from the frame-story of the dialogues, in which two or more characters--in a particular setting and at a particular time--carry on a philosophical conversation. The mythical story is a fantastical story, for it always contains a fair amount of fantastical details. Plato is aware of that and he often makes the myth-teller admit it. In Phaedo, for instance, he makes Socrates say, after expounding the long myth about the afterlife, that 'to insist that those things are just as I've related them woud not be fitting for a man of intelligence' . . . The myth, then, is not just fictional (made up), but fantastical (unrealistic), whereas the frame-story of the dialogues contains no fantastical details. This story is certainly fictional, for Plato has invented most of it, but it is a realistic fiction: apart for some incidental anachronisms, all dialogues describe realistic conversations between realistic characters in realistic settings. Thus Plato embeds philosophy-cum-fantastical stories into realistic stories."

Selected Myths pulls ten fantastical stories from eight dialogues of Plato, preceding each with a couple pages of explanatory context. We learn that Plato's setting for a discussion of the philosophical truths regarding love was a symposium, or drinking party, and that a discussion on virtue was set in the house of a rich Athenian where the intellectuals had come to talk. The story of the ancient city of Atlantis is told at a banquet where conversation is to be the "key entertainment."

 My favorite myth, "Er's Journey into the Other World," comes from the end of The Republic. Er is killed in battle, but his body doesn't decay like everyone else's. Nevertheless he's placed on a funeral pyre twelve days later where he comes back to life and tells the story of what awaits us all: punishments or rewards both ten times the amount of the earthly deed, experienced for a thousand years in either Hades or Heaven; the Fates, the Spindle of Necessity, the harmony of the spheres, and the lottery that determines an individual's next life, the Plain of Oblivion and the River of Neglect. We're told of Orpheus choosing the life of a swan, Ajax, the incarnation of a lion; Agamemnon, that of an eagle.

"As the luck of the lottery had it, Odysseus' soul was the very last to come forward and choose. The memory of all the hardship he had previously endured had caused his ambition to subside, so he walked around for a long time, looking for a life as a non-political private citizen. At last he found one lying somewhere, disregarded by everyone else. When he saw it, he happily took it, saying that he'd have done exactly the same even if he'd been the first to choose. "

Er tells his funeral party that most souls met with a reversal of fortune during the lottery, but that it is best of us to "always keep to the upward path, and we should use every means at our disposal to act morally and with intelligence, so that we may gain our own and the gods' approval, not only during our stay here on earth, but also when we collect the prizes our morality has earned us. . ."

The quirkiest myth included in Selected Myths would have to be Plato's "The Androgyne," which relates an aetiological story on love. "You see, our nature wasn't originally the same as it is now: it has changed. First, there used to be three human genders, not just two--male and female--as there are nowadays. There was also a third, which was a combination of both the other two. Its name has survived, but the gender itself has died out. In those days, there was a distinct type of androgynous person, not just the word, though like the word the gender too combined male and female; nowadays, however, only the word remains, and that counts as an insult."

Nowadays we're just half of our complete shape (we were round like our original parent: the sun, the male gender; the earth, the female; the moon, the combined gender) because Zeus cut us in half to weaken us and keep us in our place. Love is our desire to once again be whole. Only those from the androgynous gender are heterosexual, the rest are homosexual.

I think anyone who's a fan of Greek mythology or is a Plato newbie like myself would enjoy Selected Myths. I'll definitely seek out The Republic as my next Plato based on my all-to-brief introduction to it here.

But first I want to read some of that grim and gruesome Greek drama. The Oresteia or An Oresteia? I still can't decide!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A progression for newbies to Rebecca West

I'm thrilled that Bernard Schweizer, president of the International Rebecca West Society, left a comment earlier today on the Rebecca West post from yesterday. I'm reproducing it here since he provides expert guidance on how to approach West's considerable body of work.

~~~~

I'm glad to see that people out there are finding and enjoying Rebecca West--her legacy should only grow, given her towering stature as one of the twentieth century's greatest public intellectuals and most gifted creative writers.

Here's the progression for newbies to West that I would suggest: start with The Essential Rebecca West to get a taste of just how multi-talented and brilliant she is. Is there a more delightful mini-memoir than "Why My Mother Was Frightened of Cats"!? Continue with The Return of the Soldier, an enigmatic and highly evocative tale about the time of World War I. Then read what I find her best long fiction work: the Aubrey Trilogy (i.e. The Fountain Overflows, This Real Night, and Cousin Rosamund)--a real treat. Then approach Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. All other works are, of course, full of wisdom and beauty, too, especially A Train of Powder and The Birds Fall Down.

Don't expect to be always agreeing with West. She can be a thorny political thinker and hardly ever politically correct. But she was a pioneering feminist, an influential anti-communist, and an occasional blasphemer. Reading her is a bracing, invigorating experience.

Find out more about Rebecca West by visiting the homepage of the Society www.rebeccawestsociety.org

-Bernard Schweizer (President of the International Rebecca West Society)

Monday, January 17, 2011

Rebecca West project, internal adjustments

Long-time readers may remember that I started my Rebecca West project back in June 2006. I read West's fiction and interviews with and books and articles about her pretty steadily for a couple of years, then, through no fault of her own (the first book I read in 2008, her The Birds Fall Down, was in fact my favorite book for the year), I stopped reading her. This was due more to my having become such a distracted-by-life/lazy blogger that I knew I wouldn't do her justice if and when I wrote about her.

And while I still feel too scattered to do her justice (not that I could, anyway), I do feel more inclined to make an effort: I'm getting older every day and I shouldn't count on any right time to do anything anymore. Carpe diem and all of that.

So far I've followed publication dates and read The Return of the Soldier, The Judge, Harriet Hume, The Harsh Voice, The Thinking Reed, The Fountain Overflows and The Birds Fall Down, all the novels published during her lifetime. I've skipped War Nurse, which she ghostwrote for Cosmopolitan and wanted to disown, although I intend to ILL it at some point. This month I read two posthumous novels, This Real Night and Cousin Rosamund, part of the family saga that began with The Fountain Overflows and was intended to continue through a fourth, unwritten novel. I'll be posting my thoughts on the saga within a few days.

There are two additional posthumous West novels that came out in 1986 and 2002, respectively--Sunflower, which fictionalizes her love affair with Lord Beaverbrook and and the end of the H.G. Wells years, and The Sentinel, which is probably West's first full-length novel and draws on her days in the suffragette movement. And there's a 1992 Virago hardback edition of a collection of West's short stories, The Only Poet and Other Stories, with still more uncollected stories remaining to be gathered together. I want to get to these titles eventually, but right now I'm feeling the need to shift direction and delve into her non-fiction.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is of course her masterpiece, but I'm going to first dip into journalism and essays that don't run on for 1,100 plus pages. A Train in Powder (the first book I bought this year), subtitled Six Reports on the Problem of Guilt and Punishment in Our Time, a volume of uncollected prose entitled The Essential Rebecca West that was published last year, and West's biography of Saint Augustine are the ones most likely to be read this year.

And if you've never considered reading Rebecca West and don't understand the need of such a project, allow me to take the lazy blogger's way of introducing her to you via the Anne Bobby introduction to her previously uncollected prose: she's the "greatest writer you've never heard of."

Carpe diem.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The strangeness of the obsolete

Late in Rebecca West's Cousin Rosamund, sisters Rose and Mary, first introduced to readers as children three books back in The Fountain Overflows, now professional musicians, are advised by their agents that they need not go on tour "in America" anymore; the stock market crash of 1929 has put a stop to the "good tours" they once could expect.

But they've had difficulty processing what's actually gone wrong there; they've grown up believing, indeed have experienced on previous concert trips, the providence of an "emptying [of] a vial of prosperity over the United States" and the conviction that anyone "poor and oppressed" there "would soon be rich."

As Rose expresses it, "We believed the Americans when they told us this. The United States is the child of Great Britain, and no parents wish to think that their children are not to be eternally happy. Also it seemed a shame, if people took the trouble to sail six thousand miles over the ocean and face the hardships of emigration, in order to found a society better than the one they had left, that they should not get what they wanted. It would have been as if, after all our practising, we had not been able to play any better than other people."

So they go to the United States and while staying at the white frame New England home of the composer Arthur Todd whose sonatas they will be performing, they encounter a poor, starving man whose physical collapse on the sidewalk in front of the house shakes them from these convictions:

"We had till then thought of starving people as slum-dwellers, or peasants in a blighted land, who would claw at food when it was offered them. A starving man so thoroughly geared to a complicated society that he dared not relieve his hunger till he had consulted a doctor struck on my understanding as strangely as atonal music strikes on an untrained ear. We were to be more disconcerted after he had gone, when we asked the Todds how much unemployment benefit the man would be getting, and we learned that he would get none. Mrs. Todd told us of neighbourhood projects to help the unemployed, and again what we heard struck us as strange, though not with the strangeness of novelty, but of the obsolete. This was Victorian charity of the soup-kitchen sort, which in England had long been rejected, because it offended against the idea of equality, which one had thought was specially dear to the Americans. The poor should not be put in the position of dependants on the rich; the state could not exist without their work, and therefore the state should keep them if by some accident it had for a time no work for them to do. . . .  there came to us a frightened sense of America as an artificial society with insufficient artifice; and that had always to be succeeded by the admission that up till them America had certainly had all the artifice it needed. This was not a thoughtless, not a cruel country. It had been visited by an unpredictable event which had afflicted on it wounds of a sort it had not known before, and it had not yet improvised the bandage and the tourniquet."

One wishes Rebecca West were still around to help us with the continuing improv.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Unless that touch is withheld

But really it did not matter if as a child I had practiced magic, or not. I might be deluded into thinking that I had raised a paper from the ground and held it in mid-air by supernatural means. But I was not wrong when I remembered that Richard Quin had turned from me and wept when I made him watch me at this trick, whatever it was, and had grown sick and nearly died. For he had been a saint. For he had been a saint whose repulsion from evil had been absolute; and at that time I had been evil. I had used that other trick, thought-reading, to confuse poor Queenie. I had shown her that for me life was not so rigid as was supposed; and she, crazed by her hunger, had drawn the conclusion that it was in all ways more flexible. She had seen me knock down the wall between one child's brain and another's, she had believed that I could knock down the wall between the present and the future, and she had rightly divined that all walls would tumble down at a touch. She had not perceived that unless that touch is withheld, unless the walls are left standing, the universe collapses, we are back in chaos again. So she knocked down the huge wall running across eternity and infinity which is the existence of a human being. She killed Harry Phillips, and would not have killed him had I not imparted to her my false belief that if one can break down walls one should break them down, that if one can alter the universe one should use that power of alteration to its uttermost. I had not then learned that one must move delicately, since creation is plainly a last and desperate resort, a danger improvised to avert another of a more final kind.

--Rebecca West, Cousin Rosamund

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Top Ten Books to Read in 2011

On New Year's Day I posted a list of 20 books from the five-year Read From the Stacks project that I hope to finish in 2011. Below are ten books not on that particular list that I am most anxious to read this year.

1. David Lodge's Man of Parts. I can't find a U.S. publication date for this, but it comes out in early April in the U.K. A novel about H.G. Wells's life, it will dovetail nicely with my ongoing Rebecca West project. I'm more excited about this one particular title than any other new book in 2011.

According to the product description:

Sequestered in his blitz-battered Regent’s Park house in 1944, the ailing Herbert George Wells, ‘H.G.’ to his family and friends, looks back on a life crowded with incident, books, and women. Has it been a success or a failure? Once he was the most famous writer in the world, 'the man who invented tomorrow'; now he feels like yesterday’s man, deserted by readers and depressed by the collapse of his utopian dreams.

He recalls his unpromising start, and early struggles to acquire an education and make a living as a teacher; his rapid rise to fame as a writer with a prophetic imagination and a comic common touch which brought him into contact with most of the important literary, intellectual, and political figures of his time; his plunge into socialist politics; his belief in free love, and energetic practice of it. Arguing with himself about his conduct, he relives his relationships with two wives and many mistresses, especially the brilliant student Amber Reeves and the gifted writer Rebecca West, both of whom bore him children, with dramatic and long-lasting consequences.

2. Jaimy Gordon's Lord of Misrule.  Actually, I'm planning a Triple Crown month with books about race horses including the Gordon, Jane Smiley's Horse Heaven (how have I not already read this?) and Willy Vlautin's Lean on Pete.

3. David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. I was so excited to read this one last year that I pre-ordered it in 2009. Now it's slated for a tandem read with my friend W., but we have to read The Waves together first.

4. Connie Willis's All Clear. I'm almost finished with Blackout for the library staff bookclub and I'm definitely going to need to read the second half of the story to find out what happens to all the time travelers.

5. Jean-Christophe Valtat's Aurorarama. I love the idea of steampunk, but wasn't terribly engaged by a usually-tauted title in the field last fall. I'm hoping this one will be a better fit for me.

6. The Robert Fagles's translation of Virgil's The Aeneid. I'm embarrassed by how little of this I've actually read, just the bits we translated in high school Latin.

7. Paul Murray's Skippy Dies. Yet another book I was so eager to read in 2010 that I preordered in 2009. No more languishing on the shelf: Skippy must die for real in 2011!

8. Jane Gardam's God on the Rocks. Because I must read more Jane Gardam. This one was a finalist for the Booker and has been reissued by Europa. French flaps!

9. Johanna Sinisalo's Birdbrain. The last character I encountered traveling about with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness met a tragic end. I don't expect things to go so well for the Finnish couple hiking in New Zealand in this book either.

10. Andrea Levy's Small Island. I may suggest this one again for book club. . .

Be sure to check out all the other top ten lists at The Broke and the Bookish.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Time for the latest reading resolutions!


Happy 1/1/11, everyone!

So I was mentally composing my reading resolutions post this morning, thought to check said resolutions against last year's, and then wondered why I should even bother presenting them as if they were something new:

. . .And in the same old same old department: I'm going to do my level best to read more books that I already own (or already have checked out from the library: 40 plus tenish, or have already preordered: five one) than acquire more. Truly, I have reached the point where I maketh myself sick and I must get it through my head that any new books I hear about in the coming months will still be available in 2011 2012, so why not wait until then to purchase them or get them from the library? I am going to grant myself permission to buy a few books for the Kindle simply because they won't take up any more space in the house and. . . more of the usual blah blah blah . . . 

But I did read Ulysses last year. And I did start The Reading Habits of Fictional Characters, although I have been majorly slack about keeping it up. I've now completed 40 books from the Fill in the Gaps project,  which started in April 2009, and would like to read at least 20 more by the end of 2011, most likely these:

The Children's Hospital. Chris Adrian
The House of the Spirits. Isabel Allende
The Adolescent or The Idiot. Fyodor Dostoevsky
Invisible Man. Ralph Ellison
The Hamlet. William Faulkner
Born in Exile. George Gissing
Far from the Madding Crowd or The Mayor of Casterbridge. Thomas Hardy
Transit of Venus. Shirley Hazzard
Shadow Country. Peter Matthiesson
John Adams. David McCollough
A Suitable Boy. Vikram Seth
Salzburg Tales or Letty Fox. Christina Stead
The Charterhouse of Parma. Stendhal
He Knew He Was Right and Is He Popenjoy? Anthony Trollope
This Real Night, Cousin Rosamund, Sunflower and The Sentinel. Rebecca West
The Waves. Virginia Woolf

I'm reading This Real Night and The Waves right now, so that's a start!

I'm going to remain impervious in the face of all reading challenges with one notable exception: I'm in the saddle for C.B.'s Western Read Along Challenge in May because I've noticed that anytime people blithely tell you they'll read anything, they'll usually qualify that almost immediately with an exception to westerns. And I know for a fact that westerns can be wonderful.

And in other genre reading, I expect to read more science fiction than I have in quite a while. My son requested and received several hard sci fi titles for Christmas and I doubt I can keep my greedy hands off them.

I really am going to try to keep my new purchases under control. Between the download-the-first-chapter-for-free feature on the Kindle (and not ordering the book until I'm ready to read it) and a change in ILL policy at the library, I'm hoping there won't be a need for very many purchases and the stockpiles around here won't continue to grow at abandon.

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.

And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.

When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.

Listen to carrion -- put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.

Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.

As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn't go.

Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.


--Wendell Berry, The Country of Marriage

(I started out 2007 with this poem. Thought it was time for a repeat.)