So much of comedy is context. Things are often especially funny when they are incongruous with the background. For example, the behavior of the Blues Brothers in a fancy restaurant is much funnier because their vulgarity is especially out of place in a formal setting.
But in many ways not just the setting but also the history and cultural background is needed to “get” a joke. For example, when Aristophanes makes a joke about Cleonymus throwing away his shield, we have to know that shield throwing is shorthand for cowardice, and that Cleonymus had a reputation along those lines. Not knowing who that person is or what it means to throw down a shield, such a joke just can’t land.
Or to get a joke about Hercules at the dinner table one must know that the demigod’s insatiable appetite was something of a cliché in Aristophanes’ time.
Obviously, these are not great examples. A modern person who has never held a sword may still understand the implications of throwing down one’s shield. And even if Hercules is not a regular character in our comedic repertoire these days, gluttony is still readily understandable. But I am at a disadvantage in picking my examples; the best of them go right over my own head.
As a result of this need for background information, much ancient (or otherwise culturally remote) comedy is quite inaccessible. Certain people, customs, or places that form the butt of jokes might not be known, so the joke must fall flat.
Aristophanes is often accessible. In The Clouds, for example, a lizard defecates onto Socrates’s face. Classic. However, at other times, I just feel like I am not in on the joke. He lampoons people that I’ve never heard of, and makes all manner of social comments that are simply beyond me.
Beer of the week: Pacifico Clara – This is yet another bland Mexican lager. There is not much else to say about it. It is a little sweet and a lot bland. Pacifico is not bad, but there is just not much to it.
Reading for the week: The Wasps by Aristophanes, Lines 986-1121 – In this part of the play, Aristophanes (through the chorus) lets us know that there is much more at stake than getting his jokes. He believes that there are bigger, more important things going on in his satire than getting laughs.
Question for the week: What about comedy is truly universal?
I have heard, and it is almost certainly true, that more new books are published every year than one could conceivably read in an entire lifetime. The same is probably true of blog posts. So cheers to you for spending some of your limited reading time on this blog. It is downright humbling to think about.
“Classics” make up the bulk of my (and consequently, this blog’s) reading. This is in no small part because the status of a work helps to single it out from the ever-growing piles of books out there. To be sure, there are some books that are regarded as classics but are not to my taste. But at least it’s a starting point. Because time is limited and the number of things to read never stops growing, we need help in deciding what to read.
Reader’s Digest has a bad reputation among many well-read folks, but I am not sure that it is well deserved. Obviously, it is somewhat unfair to an artist to publish his work abridged. We must presume that every word in a book was chosen with care, and any alteration changes the whole work. But as discussed above, there simply is not enough time in the day to read everything. So if a skillful editor can present us with a great book cut down to a manageable length, it may certainly be better than not reading any of it. Of course, it has to be done well, but that is why it is fair to say that editing is its own art. Like a translator, the editor is tasked with modifying the original work to make it accessible to his audience. In general, that probably means changing as little as possible. But it takes a very delicate touch to maintain the artist’s vision while still making the work manageable for the reader.
In his essay Of Studies, Francis Bacon writes that “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Some books also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others…” So there is a time and place for reading extracts or abridgments, just as there is a time and place for deep and thorough study.
The weekly reading on this blog is usually a small section of a longer work, taken out of context. There is usually a link to the complete text, but the advanced webpage statistics indicate that almost nobody clicks on those. Still, I think that this is a necessary way to get across certain ideas. Surely it is better to read a scene from a Shakespeare play or a canto by Pope than none at all. So I acknowledge that this blog does some harm to the original works by presenting only excerpts. But I think that consideration is far outweighed by the value of having short, curated samples available for people with limited time. At least that’s the hope.
Beer of the week: Kozel Černý – Kozel is a very prominent Czech brand. This offering is their dark Munich-style lager. The head is foamy and quick to dissipate. The aroma is of sweet, dark roasted malt. Notes of caramel dominate the flavor. I would like a bit more hops to balance the sweetness. Nevertheless, Kozel Černý would be my go-to Czech beer.
Reading for the week: New Atlantis by Francis Bacon – Although Of Studies is cited above, that (entire) essay has already been a reading on this blog. A selection from New Atlantis seemed more appropriate, since it would be an excerpt from an unfinished work.
Question for the week: The quotation from Of Studies seems to indicate that each book in itself is worthy of close study, skimming, etc. But my conclusion is that how a book should be read has more to do with the time and interest of the reader than about the book itself. Which is more accurate?
Imagine a sunny day, suddenly turned dark. But it is no cloud that is blocking the sun, and the drops that have started to fall are not rain. There is a hum vibrating the air. You look up to see that the sky is positively filled with birds. A tremendous flock of passenger pigeons is passing overhead, and the flock stretches as far as the eye can see. There are literally millions of birds and it will take hours for the entire flock to pass.
Such was the experience of those who witnessed the passenger pigeon. These birds were possibly the most numerous in the world, yet ingenious men were able to hunt them out of existence. It was the most spectacular human-caused extinction… so far.
Flocks of passenger pigeons were so dense and low flying that they provided obscenely easy hunting. Hunting, of course, is hardly the right word for the wholesale slaughter of the passenger pigeon. Native Americans would bring down birds by simply hurling sticks and rocks into the passing flock. At places, the flocks would fly low enough for long poles to strike birds right out of the air.
The introduction of firearms made the harvesting of pigeons even easier. A single shotgun blast into a thick flock could bring down a great number of the birds. Huge nets were also introduced, capable of catching hundreds or even thousands at a time. These readily killed and captured birds became an important and affordable food source for a great number of people, and commercial operations continually ramped up “production”, taking tens of thousands of birds a day.
Over time, of course, this proved unsustainable. The large-scale hunting of pigeons, particularly when they gathered to breed, caused the population to dwindle from the billions to the millions. Legislation was eventually introduced to try to prevent the eradication of the entire species, but it was ineffective.
The last large nesting happened in 1878, and the hunters were ready. Over the next five months, commercial hunters killed over seven million birds. The few survivors scattered, and breeding all but stopped. The last confirmed sighting of a wild passenger pigeon was in 1901. It was shot.
Although there were several pigeons at various zoos, captive breeding was unsuccessful. In 1914, Martha, the last passenger pigeon, died in the Cincinnati Zoo. The most prolific bird in the world had gone extinct in a remarkably short time.
So what is to be made of this disturbing tale?
A pessimist may look on the demise of the passenger pigeons as a sign of man’s cruel and destructive nature. The practice of blinding captive birds to act as live decoys (aka “stool pigeons”) to draw in other birds, sure seems to make men seem downright evil. And although the pigeon is a spectacular example, there are all sorts of other ways in which we see man wreaking unchecked havoc on our natural world.
An optimist, however, may look at how far we have come in a century. Today, hunters are leaders in conservation efforts. There are several species of animals that are slowly making a comeback from the brink of extinction. Now more than ever, we are beginning to understand the vast power we have to impact nature. As a result, we have the ability to avoid similar tragedies in the future.
A detached economic thinker may view passenger pigeon presents a remarkable real-world example of the tragedy of the commons. Each hunter personally benefited from each bird that he killed, but the whole society shared the loss. This imbalance created the incentive for hunters to take as many birds as they could, even if that meant unsustainable depletion of the entire flock.
Additionally, the demise of the passenger pigeon allows for reflection on seen and unseen economic results. We see that there are no more birds, but what we do not see is the effects that the extinction has on other groups. Farmers, presumably, are not overly upset at the loss of the passenger pigeon. The birds were tremendous agricultural pests. In fact, it has been suggested that the pigeons only reached the height of their population with the introduction of European-style agriculture. Although we have lost a valuable resource in the form of the birds, it is worth considering the positive results for the farmers who are rid of such a numerous menace.
And a maniac may think of the passenger pigeon as a wonderful opportunity to do morally questionable things with science. See, Martha and a number of other specimens have been stuffed or otherwise preserved. Given the state of cloning technology, it is not impossible that the passenger pigeon should be de-extincted. That seems like an awfully expensive project. Perhaps that money should be spent on trying to conserve other species. Maybe that would show that we have learned something from the demise of the passenger pigeon.
Beer of the week: Coopers Original Pale Ale – Thomas Cooper founded Coopers Brewery in Australia in the 1860’s. There is no reason to think that Thomas is any relation to James Fenimore Cooper. But who knows? This bottle conditioned ale is pale and cloudy. (Although the neon lighting in this picture makes it look a bit odd.) The aroma and flavor are somewhat floral. Overall, it is a delicious and eminently drinkable beer. As something of a bonus, it comes in 12.7 oz bottles. It seems that when Australia went metric, they decided to go up to 375 mL bottles rather than down to .3 L bottles like some countries.
Reading for the week: The Pioneers by James Fenimore Cooper, Volume 2, Chapter III – This novel was published in 1823, many years before any significant decline in the pigeon population was noted. The pigeon hunt described in this chapter is thoroughly impressive. In the end, a few of the characters come to see how disturbing and unsustainable the practice is. “It’s much better to kill only such as you want, without wasting your powder and lead, than to be firing into God’s creatures in this wicked manner,” says one of the main characters.
Question for the week: If the passenger pigeon could be revived through cloning, should it be done?
“The most certain of all basic principles is that contradictory propositions are not true simultaneously.”
That is just one expression of the law of noncontradiction. It can be put in a number of ways, but it always comes down to saying that mutually exclusive conditions cannot coexist.
This raises the first classic St. Patrick’s Day problem (the second classic St. Patrick’s Day problem is alcoholism): what is to be made of the Trinity? The trinitarian notion of God is that God is three persons in one being. The Father begot the Son, and the Holy Ghost proceeds from the two of them. Yet, the three are eternal and exist as a single God. This sure looks like a violation of the law of noncontradiction: nothing can be both one and many. Additionally, one cannot be primary and coextensive. That is, one thing cannot both precede another and be coeternal with it.
St. Patrick attempted to explain the mystery with a sprig of clover, known as a shamrock. A sprig of clover, Patrick observed, has three leaves that are all connected. Each leaf is independent and identifiable, yet they form a single shamrock. So the shamrock is both three and one. Just like the Trinity.
The shamrock example, however, is not very convincing. The leaves of the clover are separate and divisible from each other, and no one leaf is the whole clover itself. In effect, each leaf is just one part of the whole. And the mystery of the Trinity is not that simple (hence the term “mystery”.) The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are each believed both totally independent and totally united. An inescapable violation of the law of noncontradiction.
Dante’s attempt at a visual depiction of the Trinity seems more appropriate than the shamrock. Rather than describing the three persons as simple thirds of the single being that is God, Dante describes God as “three circles, Of threefold colour and of one dimension.” Each circle is simultaneously the same circle and distinguishable. He then goes on to state that “all speech is feeble and falls short” of describing the Trinity.
I dare say that he is right.
Beer of the Week: Primátor Stout – Guinness (both original and draught) has already been featured on this blog. So this St. Patrick’s Day beer is a stout from another part of Europe altogether. This Czech beer pours a very, very dark brown and has a head of large, tan bubbles. The mouthfeel of this surprisingly thin. As it warms, though, this beer really shows its rich malt flavor. Not bad at all.
Reading for the week: Paradiso, Canto XXXIII by Dante Alighieri – After a journey through hell and purgatory, the pilgrim Dante makes it to and through heaven to see the very face (or circles) of God. Not included in this reading is the 4th Sphere of Heaven, where the pilgrim Dante see Boethius. In a recent post on this blog, it was noted that Boethius was put to death by the order of King Theodoric the Great. Theodoric, as it turns out, was not a Trinitarian. He was a follower of Arianism, a heterodox view that Jesus, as “begotten God”, is not co-eternal with God the Father and the Holy Ghost.
Question for the week: Paradiso ends with the the pilgrim Dante’s “desire and will” being acted upon by “The Love which moves the sun and the other stars.” I take that “Love” with a capital “L” to be God Himself. Is it better, or merely oversimplifying to think of God as Love itself rather than as a Trinity?
The question “why do bad things happen to good people?” is a classic of philosophy and theology. But rather than address that question head on, perhaps it is better to pursue a more practical inquiry. Once we accept the premise that “bad things happen to good people”, the practical question is “how should one deal with bad things happening?”
Obviously, there is no shortage of literature and philosophy that could shed light on this question. The Book of Job, Augustine’s Confessions, Epictetus’s Handbook all spring to mind, and those are just among the writings that have already been featured here. But time is short and my beer is getting warm, so I’ll limit myself to three examples of how calamity may be met:
When the title character of Robinson Crusoe found himself stranded on a desert island his reaction seems somewhat undignified. He relates:
“After I had got to shore and escaped drowning, instead of being thankful to God for my deliverance, having first vomited, with the great quantity of saltwater which had got into my stomach, and recovering myself a little, I ran about the shore wringing my hands and beating my head and face, exclaiming at my misery, and crying out, ‘I was undone, undone!’ till, tired and faint, I was forced to lie down on the ground to repose, but durst not sleep for fear of being devoured.”
But eventually, Crusoe was able to turn his mind and energies toward practical work. He collected necessary goods from among the shipwreck, including books, paper, and ink. He also set about constructing a habitation complete with shelves and furniture. Only after he had taken care of the immediate bodily concerns of his predicament could he turn to contemplation and religion. It looks like dedicating one’s energy to the labor of surviving is the key to bridging the gap between despair and contemplation. One can’t properly reflect while still in a panic, so Crusoe must settle himself down by establishing his settlement.
But what happens when there is no labor to be performed? What if all work is already accomplished or if all work is futile? This is the condition of Boethius in his Consolation of Philosophy. Boethius was imprisoned by Theodoric the Great on a charge of treason. Realizing that his situation was inexorable, he fell to weeping. Like Crusoe, Boethius was initially consumed by despair. But unlike Crusoe, Boethius had no practical labor to turn his mind from his grief. But he did have a pen and ink. Even without the bridge of practical work, Boethius was able to direct his mind to philosophy. In a prison cell, sure that he would lose his life shortly, he produced what proved to be one of the most influential philosophical works the in world. Boethius was able to move directly from despair to contemplation, without needing some labor to take his mind off of his predicament.
And finally, for those who have neither the practical skills of Crusoe, nor the intellectual powers of Boethius, one can always take the Baudelaire approach to dealing with the inevitable calamities of life: Get Drunk.
Beer of the week: Staropramen Unfiltered (Nefiltrovaný) – This unfiltered wheat beer is quite a treat. Unlike many wheat beers, this one has a strong aroma of floral hops. The beer itself is very cloudy and the remaining yeast provides some extra texture and spice. Although it is sweet, with hints of fruit, the hops and coriander provide a finish that really balances the sweetness.
Reading for the week: The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, Book I, Sections 2 &3 – Last week’s claim that Chaucer was a profound thinker is somewhat bolstered by the fact that Chaucer translated The Consolation of Philosophy from Latin. It was, in Chaucer’s day, perhaps the single most popular philosophical work.
Question for the week: What do you do when bad things happen?
There is no doubt that P.G. Wodehouse was a brainy fellow. Although he wrote the nincompoop exceedingly well (Bertie Wooster, for example), he also wrote convincingly bright characters (such as Bertie’s valet, Jeeves). Beyond the characters themselves, Wodehouse displayed his education in the form of humorous references to “the poet Burns“, and other literary giants. An excellent example is from his short story Rough-Hew Them How We Will. The title of the story, incidentally, is taken from a line in Hamlet.
About halfway though, Wodehouse makes this observation on the subject of Chaucer:
“It is pretty generally admitted that Geoffrey Chaucer, the eminent poet of the fourteenth century, though obsessed with an almost Rooseveltian passion for the new spelling, was there with the goods when it came to profundity of thought.”
It is understandable if some people associate Chaucer more with toilet humor than with “profundity of thought.” After all, in The Miller’s Tale, young Absalom is tricked into kissing an anus, and is then nearly blinded by a thunderous fart to the face. He gets his revenge by sticking a red-hot poker where the sun don’t shine. Profound, indeed.
As has been mentioned on this blog before, the works of Aristophanes, Rabelais and Swift are filled with serious thoughts as well as scatological humor. It is a testament to the authors’ skills that these universally regarded writers were able to marry the divine and the profane, the intellectual and the bodily, the profound and the downright childish in their works. This shows both range, and an understanding of the whole of the human condition.
Beer of the week: Newcastle Brown Ale – An English beer is a good pair for the Father of English literature. This attractive red-brown beer has long been a favorite of mine. There is sweet, caramel malt in the aroma. The flavor tracks the smell, with malt dominating. There is not a lot of hops to balance the malt out, though, so Newcastle can be a bit too sweet at times.
Reading of the week: The Parson’s Tale by Geoffery Chaucer – Although The Canterbury Tales was not completed, it is clear that this was meant to be the final tale. However, The Parson’s Tale is not a tale at all, but a sermon on sin and penance. Giving the parson the final word was evidently important for Chaucer’s project. This sermon shows a great familiarity with scripture and doctrine, quoting extensively from the Bible as well as Saints Augustine, Ambrose, Bernard, etc. This excerpt focuses on pride, and although the parson is extremely dry and grave, I find his discussion of current fashion very funny. (Particularly his suggestion that particolored hosery creates the impression that the wearer’s “privy members are corrupted by the fire of Saint Anthony, or by cancer, or by other such misfortune,” and the lamentation that tight hose and short jackets cause some people to “show the very boss of their penis and the horrible pushed-out testicles that look like the malady of hernia in the wrapping of their hose; and the buttocks of such persons look like the hinder parts of a she-ape in the full of the moon.”) The narrator is pretty clearly not trying to draw laughs with this section, but I am pretty sure that Chaucer is.
Question of the week: Who is your favorite potty-mouthed profound pontificator?