Classical Beauty

At the end of the novel Jenny by Sigrid Undset, the character Gunnar Heggen is left alone in a cemetery, clutching a handful of anemone flowers to his heart. The last chapter also mentions violets, narcissus, camellias, daisies, lilacs, lilies, and primroses. Gunnar doesn’t pick any of those flowers; he plucks anemones. The choice of anemones, rather than any of the other flowers, has important implications for Undset’s opinions about education and culture. You might want to open your beer now; this could take a while.

Before we can fully appreciate the import of Undset’s choice of flowers, we have to establish a bit of common literary ground. Ovid’s Metamorphoses includes the story of Aphrodite and Adonis. Here’s the short version: the goddess Aphrodite is in love with the incomparably beautiful mortal Adonis. She warns him against hunting dangerous game and advises him only to hunt prey animals: “To furious animals advance not nigh, / Fly those that follow, follow those that fly.” Predictably, the young and spirited Adonis goes hunting for wild boar anyway and gets himself gored to death. When Aphrodite arrives at the scene, she sprinkles sweet nectar over the spilt blood and causes a new type of flower to grow: the anemone.

So much for the origin of the flower, but what does that have to do with Jenny? Well, this is how Gunnar is described earlier in the book: “Looking at his features separately, they were exactly those of a rustic Adonis. His brown hair curled over a low, broad forehead and big steely blue eyes; the mouth was red, with full lips and beautiful white teeth. His face and his strong neck were tanned by the sun, and his broad, somewhat short body with well-knit muscles was almost brutally well shaped. But the sensual mouth and heavy eyelids had a peculiarly innocent and unaffected expression, and his smile could be most refined. The hands were regular working hands, with short fingers and strong joints, but the way he moved them was particularly graceful.”

So Gunnar is directly compared to Adonis and ends the story in a cemetery holding the very flowers associated with the death of that mythical figure. That could, possibly, be a mere coincidence. But it’s not. Gunnar’s speech immediately after the above-quoted reference to Adonis solidifies the connection between Jenny and Ovid’s Adonis.

Gunnar tells Jenny that “[h]e had been working the whole summer, reading Greek tragedies and Keats and Shelley.” He has become obsessed with the classics and strongly advocates for a return to classical education with Greek and Latin at its core. Students, he believes, should all be intimately familiar with, “the old beautiful tales, symbols, and parables that will never grow old. Think of Orpheus and Eurydice—so simple; the faith of love conquers death even; a single instant of doubt and everything is lost. But in [early 1900’s Norway] they know only that it is the book of an opera.”

As an aside, it is worth pointing out that there are actually dozens of Orphean operas. By pure happenstance, I listened to some of Jacques Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld the same day I started to read Jenny.

Back on topic: what is the connection between Orpheus and Adonis besides the fact that they are both characters of Greek mythology? The tale of Orpheus and Eurydice appears in Metamorphoses as well. In fact, the stories of Orpheus and Adonis are in the very same book of Metamorphoses: Book X. So it would be incredible for Undset to be familiar with the story of Orpheus but not with the story of Adonis and, by extension, the mythological significance of the anemones that feature so prominently in her book.

Undset purposefully chose anemones because of their connection to Greek mythology. This would be as clear as day to anyone who had been educated in the way proposed by Gunnar. Undset’s choice of flowers, I think, signals that she personally agrees with Gunnar’s sentiments about art and culture. From Undset’s point of view (as expressed through Gunnar,) Norwegians–and all people who “consider Greek and Roman history as the oldest history of [their] own culture”–ought to study the ancients in an attempt to understand the “classical spirit.” It doesn’t matter that anemones are not really the derived from magical blood, or that “[t]he Persian wars were really trifles,” historically speaking. What matters is that the stories of these things, handed down from the ancients, are calculated to instill the virtues and aesthetics needed to maintain a worthwhile culture today, a culture where “all the noblest and soundest instincts… are valued, and [the] people believes that it has certain qualities to uphold, and a past, a present, and a future to be proud of.”

Beer of the week: Rodenbach Classic – Speaking of classics, this oak-aged Flanders red ale comes from the Rodenbach Brewery in Belgium. It is clear and reddish-brown and pours with a fluffy head. The aroma is tart with yeasty esters. Although the flavor is tart, the sour notes are not super sharp. I don’t know if the barrel aging mellows the sourness, or whether the sweet fruit notes just balance the beer out. Either way, Rodenbach Classic is not too intense to be sessionable, but is still flavorful and tasty.

Reading of the week: Jenny by Sigrid Undset – This excerpt, quoted extensively above, makes a compelling–if somewhat manic–case for classical liberal education.

Question of the week: Does the fact that Gunnar survives Jenny rather than the other way around undermine my claim that Undset meant to evoke the myth of Adonis and Aphrodite?


Quiet Desperation

“That a man who is beset with care should be quiet and in a state of peace, is impossible. For the necessary things which cohere with those things upon which he expends his labour, cannot but have the effect that he be shaken; and they will bereave him of his rest and quiet.” So says the seventh-century ascetic monk Isaac of Nineveh. The ultimate goal for Isaac, obviously, is Christian salvation. For him, the abandonment of mundane cares and quiet go hand in hand. He advises that one should “be like a Cherub who has no care for earthly things” and that one should “[l]ove silence above all things.” Silence, he says, is more valuable than all other religious disciplines combined, because it brings one closer to those sacred things which the tongue cannot express.

A bit over twelve-hundred years later, American poet Léonie F. Adams also explored the connection between quiet and cares. In her poem Quiet, she writes that taking quiet “into [her] breast” brought an end to her pain. But she ultimately laments the loss of her pain, because with her pain she lost all feeling. The quiet had severed the “countless strings” of her heart, that had formerly resonated “[u]nder a least wind’s fingering.” She invited quiet into her breast to help her overcome a specific care, but was left unable to care.

Adams–or at least the narrator of her poem–has turned Isaac’s asceticism on its head. Adams used quiet to banish earthly attachments and was left empty, while Isaac banished earthly attachments to achieve quiet so that he could be fulfilled.

Beer of the week: Ol’ St. Auggie’s Hoppy Farmhouse Ale – Nobody names beers after ascetics who lived on bread, water, and the occasional raw vegetable. So I have chosen a beer named after a more likely saint. Chicago’s Twisted Hippo Brewing produces this beer, named for St. Augustine. Augustine, of course, is the patron saint of brewers and was the bishop of the city of Hippo. (Get it?) Ol’ St. Auggie’s is slightly hazy and gold in color. It pours with a tight, long-lasting head that retains the lovely aroma of yeasty esters and clove. This is a delicious, fruity farmhouse ale with a nice finish of hops and spice.

Reading of the week: Quiet by Léonie F. Adams – This short poem is sad, in part, because it is all too relatable. The narrator has been hurt, so she cuts herself off from feeling, only to find that even pain is better than no feeling at all.

Questions of the week: Do you enjoy silence? Do you seek it out?


The Pure Essence of Sensation

“As early as the days of Solomon,” writes Noah Webster in his History of Animals, “[peacocks] were imported into Palestine. When Alexander was in India, he found them in vast numbers on the banks of the river Hyarotis, and was so struck with their beauty, that he forbid any person to kill or disturb them.”

From time immemorial, the beauty of peacocks has been observed and admired by humans. But what interests me most about their splendid feathers is how sorely deficient we are at appreciating them. Humans are trichromats, meaning our eyes have three types of color-perceiving cone cells. With the aid of these rather imperfect tools, we see the range of colors with which we all–save for the blind or color-blind–are familiar. Most birds, however, are tetrachromats. Their four types of cone cells allow them to see a much wider range of color, particularly in the ultraviolet spectrum. So no matter how intently and admiringly we gaze upon the plumage of a peacock, it will never appear as brilliant to us as it does to other peafowl.

The limits of our own perception are necessarily hard to comprehend, let alone regularly account for. We cannot even imagine what a peahen sees when she looks upon her suitor. What other phenomena may surround us at all times in all places without us even conceiving of them? What sights, sounds, smells, or even unnamed phenomena are we simply blind to? How much of the darkness around us is actually brilliant light that we simply can’t see?

The imperfection of our senses is not all bad, perhaps. I am told that some people do not like the taste of cilantro because their taste buds can perceive a chemical compound that I cannot. In that case, my lack of perception appears entirely to my benefit. It may be that the bulk of what we cannot perceive would only be ugly anyway; maybe those grapes really are sour.

Beer of the week: Murphy’s Stout – I am sure that I have seen this beer marketed as Murphy’s Irish Stout before. But I noticed that this can was labeled as Murphy’s Imported Stout. I suspect that the discrepancy is because this particular can was brewed under contract in Edinburgh, Scotland. It is therefore not technically Irish at all. Scottish or Irish makes little difference to me; it still tastes great. The aroma is of chocolate chip scones and coffee. Because of the nitrogen widget, the beer is very smooth, and the head is creamy. The taste is like an iced coffee, especially in the bitter finish. Delish.

Reading of the week: Barren Ground by Ellen Glasgow – This passage from Glasgow’s novel describes the main character’s experience at a concert of classical music. Once the music begins, she is overwhelmed by a synaesthetic experience, perceiving the music as flashes of color and physical pain. I have never experienced anything like what is described by Glasgow. Perhaps I simply lack the capacity for such sensation.

Question of the week: If you had to do without one of your senses, which would you give up?


My IPÁntonia

Jimmy, the narrator of Willa Cather’s novel My Ántonia, begins his story as an orphan, shipped off to Nebraska to live with his grandparents. At the end of his first full day in his new home, he sits alone in the garden. He reports that, “Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.”

At a glance, we can see Jimmy’s moment in the sun as part of the familiar concept of “becoming one with nature.” With the sun on his face and the soil between his fingers, Jimmy is no more separated from the natural world than the pumpkins growing around him.

The thing is, however, that pumpkins–like Jimmy–are not native to Nebraska. In fact, pumpkins have been cultivated for so long, they probably do not resemble “natural” pumpkins very much. And the soil, rich though it may naturally be, had to be tilled before Jimmy could run his fingers through it, otherwise it would have been firmly held by the roots of the red native grasses that had been displaced. By the end of the first book of My Ántonia, we learn that within a generation, “the open-grazing days were over, and the red grass had been ploughed under and under until it had almost disappeared from the prairie; when all the fields were under fence, and the roads no longer ran about like wild things, but followed the surveyed section-lines.” The settlers of Nebraska, including Jimmy, could only be “one with nature” in the sense and to the extent that human nature is to shape the world to our purposes. Jimmy, for his part, sees nothing wrong with the development of the prairie; “The changes seemed beautiful and harmonious to me; it was like watching the growth of a great man or of a great idea.”

The human drive to change the world, too, is natural. Jim mentions a “big prairie-dog town” where the rodents had dug a series of tunnels and chambers in the ground. He never mentions buffalo wallows, but it is likely enough that he knew about the large depressions in the prairieland, created by bison wallowing in the same spots year after year. Beavers also reshape the world by building dams. To various extents, all animals, plants, microbes, etc. live in this way. It is impossible to merely exist in nature, one must participate in nature to survive.

As is so often the case in life–and on this blog–moderation is the key. Jimmy’s little pumpkin patch in the middle of a vast grassland seems like just the place for his serene moment in the sun. The garden is surrounded by pristine grasslands, but is a man-made oasis. One can hardly imagine Jim achieving the same sort of happiness sitting in a giant monoculture cornfield or a massive cattle feedlot.

Beer of the week: Hop Belly IPA – This session IPA comes from the Lancaster Brewing Company, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania–Amish country. I wonder if the Amish aversion to technology allows them to experience the kind of happiness that Jim did. Anyway, Hop Belly is hazy and straw-colored, with a nice rocky head. The aroma has light pineapple notes. The flavor is light, crisp, and has just a bit of a juicy hops finish. Overall, a decent session IPA.

Reading of the week: My Ántonia by Willa Cather – Before Jimmy has his transcendent experience in the garden, we see a number of ways in which the pioneers make choices about whether and how to interfere with the natural conditions. For example, Jimmy’s grandmother explains that “she had killed a good many rattlers”, but that Jimmy is not to harm any bull-snakes, which “help to keep the gophers down.” She also is also protective of a badger that lives nearby: “He takes a chicken once in a while, but I won’t let the men harm him. In a new country a body feels friendly to the animals. I like to have him come out and watch me when I’m at work.”

Questions for the week: How do you commune with nature? How do you defy it?


Done-Dee

A fortnight ago, the beer of the week was 12 Horse Ale from Genesee Brewing Company. As I noted at that time, 12 Horse had been discontinued at some point, but has been revived by Genesee as a “Special Edition”. Over the last few years, it seems, Genesee has been rebranding its beers and shuffling around its offerings. And the changes have not always to my liking.

This week’s beer of the week is central to last 30 years of the Genesee story. Genesee Beer (a basic macro lager) and Genny Cream Ale have long been popular budget options in Upstate New York and the surrounding area. The company has also contract brewed for, among others, Narragansett, Big Flats and Seagram’s. But in the mid-nineties, Genesee wanted to cash in on the growing demand for craft beer. So they introduced J.W. Dundee’s Honey Brown. The brand was so successful–as was the craft beer movement generally–that Genesee created an entire line of Dundee “craft” beers of various styles. There was an IPA, an English-Style Ale, a Stout, and several other varieties. In my experience, they were all pretty good offered at an excellent price. A few of years ago, however, I noticed that they were no longer on the shelf at my local liquor store.

In 2017, Genesee dropped the Dundee line. Honey Brown–now without the “J.W. Dundee’s” part of its name–was the lone survivor. At the end of last year, Honey Brown was again rebranded as Genesee Specialty Honey Brown. The can pictured below must have been among the last in the previous packaging.

As resistant as I am to change, and as much as I lament the demise of the Dundee line of beers, there are positive signs in all of this. The Genesee brand name, which has so long been associated with cheap, basic beer is now seen as a viable vehicle for more innovative and experimental beer. No longer does Genesee feel obliged to hide the fact that its craft beer efforts are its own. Genny now offers an Oktoberfest, a Schwarzbier, a grapefruit Kölsh, and a spring bock. I have to imagine that the best of the Dundee recipes will sooner or later be rebranded as Genesee seasonal or special releases. Everything old is new again, which seems to always be true about beer.

Beer of the week: Genesee Specialty Honey Brown – The current marketing materials refer to the beer as “right smack dab in the middle” between “watered-down light beer” and “heavy craft beer”. To be honest, that seems like a pretty fair description. The name, however, is a mislead; it’s dark gold, not brown. Honey Brown is highly carbonated and has a fast-fading head. There is a faint aroma of sweet grain. The flavor is biscuity, with just a hint of honey in the finish. Honey Brown is a cheap, crushable beer that is just different enough from most macros to be interesting.

Reading of the week: Winter Rain by Christina Georgina Rossetti – It is once again the time of year to revisit the ancient proverb that, as Rossetti puts it, “But for fattening rain / We should have no flowers”. One may consider the whole image to be trite, but I do not. It is an exercise in recursion to return, time and again, to reflections on the cycles of our lives. Rain, spring, flowers, summer, fruit, autumn, decay, winter, rain… . Everything old is new again.

Question for the week: Is there a discontinued beer (or other product) that you sorely miss?


Pickers and Choosers

In the poem Picking and Choosing, Marianne Moore writes that “literature is a phase of life.” But does she mean that literature is a phase in the same way as childhood, or adolescence, or getting really into indie music? Is literature a part of life that is experienced and then passes? It sure doesn’t appear that there is enough time in a single life to “grow out of” a literature phase.

For example, in Picking and Choosing, Moore comments on the works of literary luminaries George Bernard Shaw, Henry James, and Thomas Hardy. She also critiques the methods of literary theorists Gordon Craig and Edmund Burke. And, to round out the poem, she quotes Xenophon’s Cynegeticus. No common puka-shell-wearing phase or terrible-twos phase lasts as long or is as intense as the sort of literature phase that would allow one to completely grasp all of the references in this single six-stanza poem. I may be better read than some, but my knowledge of Shaw, James, and Hardy could hardly fill a single page together. The same could be said of my knowledge of Burke and Xenophon to be honest. And as for Craig and even Moore herself, I confess that their names did not even have so much as a familiar ring to me yesterday.

But I think that my own limited knowledge does not make Moore’s poem totally inaccessible. In fact, I think that it actually helps to highlight the meaning of the poem’s title. There is far too much literature out there for anybody to hope to be familiar with every notable author. We must pick and choose. Hopefully, the Craigs and Burkes and Moores of the world can, like Xenophon’s hunting dog, point us in the right direction.

Beer of the week: George Killian’s Irish Red – The marketing materials for this beer involve an old family recipe from Ireland. However, it would appear that the original beer was a ruby-red ale, and this Coors product is an amber lager. So the marketing is not to be trusted; what else is new? But the false sense of pedigree actually made this beer a popular choice at one point in my life, when I wanted to create the impression of sophistication without the price tag that ordinarily comes with it. And for the price, Killian’s is not a bad choice. The beer is clear amber with off-white head and a toasty malt aroma. The flavor follows the smell, with just a bit of bittering hops. Killian’s is decent easy-drinker with more flavor than a standard macro lager.

Reading of the week: Picking and Choosing by Marianne Moore – As I noted several years ago, Percy Shelley argued that the essence of poetry is not the poetic form but the expression of truth. I think that Moore would agree. In this poem she writes, “Words are constructive / when they are true; the opaque allusion—the simulated flight / upward—accomplishes nothing.” Elsewhere she wrote that, in analyzing poetry, it is not “valid / to discriminate against ‘business documents / and / school-books’ “. What we should look for, more than rigid form or familiar names, is the genuine and the true.

Question for the week: What does it mean for literature to be a “phase of life”?


Call me George.

In the early days of the internet–and ever since–there was a lot of talk about how anonymity can bring out the worst in people. Behind a computer monitor and a screen name, people could say things that they wouldn’t dare say in person. Without any personal responsibility or consequences, anonymous trolls and assholes made the web uncivil and unpleasant. But anybody who has paid attention knows that true internet anonymity is difficult if not impossible to maintain, and the real-world consequences of online speech are no joke. But the history of anonymity suggests that it has tremendous value.

Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay published their famous arguments in favor of the proposed United States Constitution under the pseudonym Publius. The Federalist Papers, in fact, were at least partially anonymous because they were written in response to Anti-Federalists who used pseudonyms such as Brutus and Cato. The use of pseudonyms also separated the authors’ arguments from the authors themselves. Because they were principal figures at the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton and Madison could have expected to have their motivations questioned had they signed their own names to their articles. The use of a pseudonym put allowed the arguments to stand or fall on their own merits, without being tainted by the political positions of their authors.

Similarly, many lady authors have concealed their gender in an attempt to have their writing reviewed entirely on its merits. George Eliot and George Sand are among the most prominent examples of female authors with male pseudonyms, but the Brontë sisters also published their early works under masculine pen names. At least in part, these obfuscations were intended to prevent readers from approaching the writing with preconceptions about the authors.

Authors may also seek anonymity to separate their various pursuits. The fantastic and mirthful writings of Lewis Carroll might have been regarded as an unseemly distraction from the mathematical treatises of Charles Dodgeson if readers knew that Carroll and Dodgeson were one and the same. Søren Kierkegaard’s prolific use of pseudonyms also have an element of this rationale; his distinct personas had distinct interests and styles.

Perhaps the most important feature of anonymity is the possibility for authors to present ideas that are truly dangerous. John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government and virtually all of Jonathan Swift’s satires were published anonymously in an era when political dissent was a perilous pursuit. (And in what era is dissent not perilous?) Thomas Paine and Karl Marx also published much of their work anonymously, at least in part because of the potential for establishment retribution.

It is absolutely true that anonymity can be used to avoid the consequences of mendacious speech. It can unreasonably insulate bad actors and mislead readers about the author’s true motivations. On the other hand, it remains a powerful tool for isolating ideas in a way that allows people to engage them without all of the baggage of their authors. Today, when somebody shares a novel thought online, too often the response is to dig through the author’s entire social media history in search of an “inappropriate” (if unrelated) post with which to smear the author and distract from the actual idea at issue. Aside from unfailingly staying on the right side of popular opinion, even as popular opinion changes, anonymity is the only bulwark against this tactic. So, to (very loosely) paraphrase the United States Supreme Court, if internet trolls are price we have to pay for anonymity, they are worth it to keep the marketplace of ideas free and open.

Beer of the week: 12 Horse Ale – Genesee Brewing Company recently revived this “English-style ale”. 12 Horse is clear gold with a thin white head. The faint aroma is almost all grain. The beer has a slightly tart finish after a sweet start. 12 Horse is a very easy-drinking ale, that seems more like micro lager.

Reading of the week: Silas Marner by George Eliot – Eliot, born Mary Anne Evans, used a masculine pen name to prevent her work from being dismissed out of hand. (Although I have always thought that her feminine aesthetic is unmistakable in Middlemarch.) But her pseudonym also helped keep her private life separate from her public publications, yet another advantage of anonymity. This excerpt from early in Silas Marner describes the title character’s move to a new city, where he is unknown and he knows no one. Marner gives himself over to working, not anonymously, but single-mindedly and totally apart from the community around him.

Question of the week: Do you maintain a pseudonymous internet avatar?


Blissful Ignorance

“I would have been glad to have been deceived, I confess it to my shame;” said the Prince of Cleves on his deathbed. “I have regretted that pleasing, false security out of which you drew me: Why did not you leave me in that blind tranquility which so many husbands enjoy?”

The prince’s professed preference for blissful ignorance is, however, misplaced. His blind trust in his wife has been shattered by a revelation about her infidelity, but in truth she has been faithful (physically if not emotionally.) Rather than blissful ignorance of his wife’s infidelity, he could have had blissful knowledge of her fidelity. Wouldn’t that be so much better?

But for the prince, the truth is happy, namely that his wife is faithful. What about cases where the truth is unhappy? What about those “so many husbands” whose wives really are stepping out on them? Is it possible that their ignorance really is bliss? The same could be asked of all sorts of unpleasant truths.

It is easy to think of examples where knowledge of unpleasant truths could help us improve our situation or avoid greater ills, but it seems at least possible that there are some things it is better not to know. Truth may set one free, but there is a fine line between being free and being adrift. Or, as in the case of the prince, the search for truth may simply replace a happy ignorance with an unhappy falsehood, which seems to be a double misfortune.

Beer of the week: Jelen Pivo – This Serbian lager is clear gold, with a big, fluffy, white head. The aroma is of grassy hops and the flavor is light, with just a hint of hops spice at the end. This would be a fine beer on a hot day, but nothing special.

Reading of the week: The Princess of Cleves by Madame de La Fayette – This excerpt comes from near the end of Madame de La Fayette’s most famous work. Besides the conflict between knowledge and happiness, the prince also raises an important question about the motivations of mortals generally: “What signifies any thing that can happen when I am no more; and why should I have the weakness to trouble myself about it?”

Question for the week: Is there any knowledge that you wish you did not have?


A Decade of B&T

This day, being the last Friday in the month of January, 2021, marks the tenth anniversary of the very first post on this blog. The changes that have occurred over the past decade are far too numerous to list. But the things that have stayed the same are far more numerous. The books, the beers, and the joy of their combination remain. So what if I have had over 350 beers and read as many classics? There are thousands more of each. Who knows how many I’ll get through by the end of this?

Thank you very much, and cheers to the last ten years!

Beer of the week: Kloud Original Gravity Lager – I toyed with the idea of celebrating this blog’s tenth anniversary with an expensive beer. Instead, I opted to return to the blog’s roots. Lotte Liquor’s Kloud is just the thing. Like other giant Korean conglomerates, Lotte and its subsidiaries do a bit of everything. It owns amusement parks, fast food restaurants, hotels, and department stores. Lotte also produces confections, soft drinks, petrochemicals, whiskey and, yes, beer. Kloud is relatively high-end as far as mass-produced Korean beer goes. Its grain bill is 100% malt, with no rice filler. It is also bottled without watering down to the desired alcohol content, (a practice employed by many large brewers.) The result is a clear golden lager that is otherwise unremarkable. Kloud is, perhaps, a bit more biscuity than other Korean macros, but still unimpressive. How appropriate.

Reading of the week: The Diary and Letters of Madame D’Arblay by Fanny Burney – In this passage from Fanny Burney’s diary, Burney writes about the joy of her novel Evelina being published and the “exceeding odd sensation” that comes with knowing that what she has written “may now be seen by every butcher and baker, cobbler and tinker, throughout the three kingdoms, for the small tribute of threepence.” If she could only have seen the internet age, where somebody such as I can get my (admittedly inferior writing) can be seen by every butcher, etc. throughout the entire world for free!

Question of the week: What’s the best thing you’ve read this past decade?


Historical Fiction

From the beginning of history (as a discipline), the distinction between history and fiction has been somewhat blurry. Herodotus, from whose Histories the discipline takes its name, is known both as “the father of history” and “the father of lies”. Herodotus was worse than a liar, claims Plutarch in his essay Of Herodotus’s Malice, because he presented his lies as simple, frank, and true. “[T]he highest malignity [is] to pretend to simplicity and mildness and be in the mean time really most malicious.”

Seventeen-hundred years later, the novelist Maria Edgeworth made a similar observation about the trustworthiness of biographical authors: “the merits of a biographer are inversely as the extent of his intellectual powers and of his literary talents. A plain unvarnished tale is preferable to the most highly ornamented narrative. Where we see that a man has the power, we may naturally suspect that he has the will to deceive us.” An account is more reliable as the author shows less capacity for lying.

The synthesis of Plutarch’s and Edgeworth’s quotations is that an excellent writer and excellent liar will present his work as simply as possible, leading the reader to believe that he were not capable of a deception even if he tried. That Plutarch leveled such a charge against Herodotus is, it its way, a tremendous compliment; Herodotus was so capable a writer that his lies are scarcely detectable to any but the most perceptive reader.

It is not clear, however, that this sort of deception is necessarily malicious. There are times when the truth may not totally coincide with the facts. In other words, one may convey something deeper and more important by changing or omitting or even creating basic facts. Edgeworth, for her part, seems to do this with her Castle Reckrent. She lauds simplicity and honesty, but does so in the voice of a fictional and unreliable narrator. Plutarch himself presents anecdotes the truth of which he could not possibly have confirmed. For example Plutarch describes Cato the Younger’s last moments, even the period during which Cato was alone in his bedroom. He could not have known what happened in that room, but he was able to convey something much more important than the the simple facts, whatever they were. The lies of Herodotus (and other historians) may convey more truth than any recital of facts could.

Beer of the week: Stay Puft Brown Ale – This “brown ale infused with marshmallow” comes from Chicagoland’s Wild Onion Brewery. It is a clear reddish-brown with a very thin head. The aroma is of vanilla and caramel. The flavor follows the smell, with a bit of an alcoholic aftertaste. Stay Puft is thinner and less marshmallow-flavored than expected, but is pretty good if you are into sweet brown ales.

Reading of the week: Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth – In the Preface to Castle Rackrent, Edgeworth makes a compelling argument that history is far less edifying than biography. The overt acts of historical figures amount to mere facts, but their private lives, their personal relationships, their inner struggles can teach us far more important things.

Question of the week: If lies can convey a greater truth–which is clearly open for debate–is there a reliable way to distinguish between such lies and lies which do not?