If you are reading this, you have probably never been “in the fell clutches of circumstance.” You’ve likely never suffered “the bludgeonings of chance.” And odds are, you haven’t been engulfed by a metaphorical night as “black as the pit from pole to pole.”
If you have not been tested to the utmost, how can you know whether your soul is unconquerable? Or whether you really are the master of your own fate? And, more relevant for our present purposes, what good is the poem Invictus by William Ernest Henley?
In his youth, Henley suffered from tuberculosis. He had a leg amputated when he was sixteen. Later, rather than submitting to the amputation of his remaining foot, Henley traveled to Scotland to be a patient of a doctor later to be known as “the father of modern surgery,” Joseph Lister. Lister’s antiseptic treatments saved Henley’s foot. During his three-year course of treatment, Henley wrote and published his famous “hospital poems,” including Invictus. Although he eventually lost the battle with tuberculosis, a disease that caused him constant pain and cost him his leg, Henley had spent his whole life with his head unbowed.
Invictus is also associated with Nelson Mandela and his time at the infamous Robben Island prison. Sentenced to life imprisonment, and consequently with no obvious hope of ever again being a free man, Mandela supposedly recited Invictus to fellow inmates. Even in a cage, Mandela remained the captain of his own soul. (As an aside, the CIA had a hand in Mandela’s arrest. So there’s your fun fact for the day.)
For men such as Henley and Mandela, Invictus appears to affirm their mettle. The poem’s value, however, is not as an affirmation, but as a bulwark. The poem is not a boast about one’s fortitude and strength of character, but a brace against the bludgeonings of chance. Just as The Quitter by Robert W. Service helped Douglas Mawson overcome the compounded difficulties of being sick and alone in the uncharted antarctic wilderness, Invictus has served as a source of inspiration for those in fell circumstances. It would behoove us all to study poems such as Invictus while we are relatively safe and comfortable, so that we can call them to mind if and when we must face true suffering.
Beer of the week: Official by Bell’s Brewery – This hazy wheat IPA pours with a white, rocky head. It has a very faint aroma, with a hint of grass. Notes of peach are followed by a dry finish and nice wheat notes.
Reading of the week: Invictus by William Ernest Henley – This poem also lent its name to the most successful rugby movie ever made. On the eve of the Rugby World Cup Final, it is worth a revisit. (By the way, this poem uses the adjective “fell”–meaning “terrible” or “ferocious”–to describe the “clutches of circumstance.” It is the only time I can think of where that adjective has been used to describe anything other than a “swoop.”)
Question for the week: In case of emergency, you may stock up physical needs such as canned foods, candles, and bottled water for disaster. But how do you prepare for your mental well-being?
Consider the following thought experiment (based, I believe, on work by the philosopher Warren Quinn):
A surgeon implants a dial into your bellybutton, with numbered settings ranging from 0 to 99. Each setting represents a level of permanent and irreversible discomfort, with 1 being scarcely noticeable and 99 being utterly agonizing. However, the difference between any two sequential settings is imperceptible. The dial can only be turned up, never down; once set to any given number, the discomfort will remain at that level for the rest of your life (unless you turn the dial up further.) The scientist who did this to you is not totally unkind, however. He offers a deal: you never have to turn the dial; it can just stay at 0 for your whole life. But if you do turn the dial, he will pay you $10,000 for each setting you reach. What do you do?
The crux of this question is that consecutive settings differ only imperceptibly. So once the dial is set to 1, there seems to be no reason not to turn it up to 2 and collect the additional money. And because the difference between 2 and 3 is imperceptible, why stop at 2? And so forth all the way up to the excruciating 99th setting. Eventually you may find yourself in constant and terrible pain, having crept to that point by imperceptible degrees.
Beer of the week: Devils Backbone Vienna Lager – Based on the reading of the week, one might have expected a beer from Sierra Nevada, but that’d be too obvious. Instead, I’ve chosen a beer named for a different mountain. This amber lager has a delicious, bready aroma. This Virginia beer is loaded with lots of toasted malt flavor with hints of caramel. It is a very nice brew.
Reading of the week: Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada by Clarence King – The theme of imperceptible gradual change is explored in this reading. King describes how the the forests of the Sierra Nevada mountains transition gradually from “a great, continuous grove, on whose sunny openings are innumerable brilliant parterres” to “a dismal thicket, a sort of gigantic canebrake, void of beauty, dark, impenetrable, save by the avenues of streams, where one may float for days between sombre walls of forest.”
Question of the week: Would you turn the dial? If you do, is there any way to keep yourself from eventually working your way to 99?
According to the Socratic Paradox, Socrates knew more than anybody else because he knew that he knew nothing. I would like to suggest that I personally have surpassed Socrates in that respect.
Since the age of Socrates, there has been an unthinkable increase in things that can be known. Among the newly knowable things are scientific facts that had been unknowable because the technology had not yet advanced sufficiently. But the universe of knowable things has also grown by production. Socrates could not have known any Shakespearean poetry, for example, because the English language did not yet exist. Similarly, Socrates could not know how to change a fuel filter on a 1987 Buick Regal. For me, however, the poetry of the Bard, and the basic maintenance of mid-sized American automobiles are well within the realm of knowable things. Socrates may know that he knows nothing, but the nothing that I know is even less!
I do know, however, six more poems than I did three months ago. In that time, as in the first three and second three months of this year, I memorized two poems per month:
Invictus by William Ernest Henley,
I taste a liquor never brewed by Emily Dickinson,
The Village Blacksmith by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,
Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge,
To Althea, From Prison by Richard Lovelace, and
Hot and Cold by Roald Dahl.
As I typed that list, I could not recall the title of Hot and Cold for the life of me. Somehow I had a poem totally memorized and yet I could not think of it. I can’t really claim to know the sixth poem if I cannot think of it. I don’t even know the things that I know. Take that Socrates!
Beer of the week: Tuckerman’s Headwall Alt – This “German style brown ale” is a handsome red-brown, with a lovely head. The aroma is of dark bread. Dark bread notes dominate the flavor as well, with a pleasant smokey finish.
Reading of the week: I taste a liquor never brewed by Emily Dickinson – The flavor of “a liquor never brewed” is one of the many things that I do not know. But I know that this is a fun poem that draws on a lot of temperance imagery, including being an “inebriate of air” and “debauchee of dew.”
Question of the week: The sum total of human knowledge is much greater now than it was in antiquity. Consequently, each individual–even the most educated among us–knows a smaller portion of the total. So do we know more than the ancients or do we know less?
This post was made possible by a generous contribution by Cole toward the BeerAndTrembling education fund. EDIT: Now that the campaign is no longer live, I have removed the links. I still encourage readers to participate by reaching out in the comments or through the “Make a Recommendation” page.
Natural affinities exist between dogs and men. We love them, they love us. They are our companions, our pets, and–as in the case of sheepdogs or bird dogs–our colleagues. But what about dogs makes them our friends?
Spiritedness, according to psychotherapist (and dog-lover) Gary Borjesson, is central to friendship. In his book Willing Dogs & Reluctant Masters, Borjesson writes that our spiritedness, the “feisty, domineering part of our souls… makes us friendly.” It is, he claims, the spiritedness of dogs and their owners that links the two in friendship. But I wonder if Borjesson’s insight is as universal as it seems. He relies heavily on Aristotle, Socrates, and his own experience, resources that are exclusively and unapologetically masculine. It makes sense that male-male friendships (like friendships with dogs) are characterized by spiritedness–and the play-fighting and competition it engenders. But is that also the case in friendships with and between women?
Little boys seem to exemplify friendship through spiritedness. They are forever going on small adventures, fighting mock battles, and inventing new games. Their spiritedness leads them to compete, and their competition breeds friendship.
All of my closest male-male friendships from childhood through college were characterized by competition and play-fighting. At college, my friends and I played every intramural sport on offer, stared at video game screens until our eyes were dry and strained, and even tried to “keep score” in our classes.
(Very rarely, we also played drinking games. More often than not, we simply drank while discussing great books and great ideas. Arguably, such conversations were more competitive than any drinking game.)
Every male-female friendship of mine, however, has lacked any prevailing sense of competitiveness. And it is my sense that spiritedness is not at the heart of female friendship the way it is for men. It is widely acknowledged that girls are generally more cooperative and less competitive than boys. And while boys who dislike competition often have a hard time making friends, I never observed that that about girls. Tug-of-war and such mindless competition may be enough to cement friendship with a boy or a dog, but I get the sense that friendship with girls is more nuanced. Perhaps something less aggressive than spiritedness is at the heart of girls’ friendships.
Spiritedness is not a uniquely masculine trait; don’t get me wrong. As Kipling famously recognized, “the female of the species is more dangerous than the male.” I’ve known and admired many very spirited girls and women. It merely appears to me that the friendship of women is less spirited (though no less ardent) than the friendship of men. But, like Aristotle, Plato, and Borjesson, I am out of my depth in opining what makes women’s friendships tick.
Reading of the week: Eulogy of the Dog by George G. Vest – This famous oration was actually part of Vest’s closing arguments at the end of a jury trial. His client was suing the man who killed his hunting dog. The argument was evidently persuasive; the jury returned a verdict in favor of Vest’s client. Borjesson, “with all due respect to” Vest, claims that if dogs were truly as Vest described them, they would be “too undiscriminating, too foolish and lacking in self respect to be friends.”
Beers of the week: Castaway IPA – Kona may have started as a Hawaiian Brewery, but this particular bottle was brewed in New Hampshire. Castaway is one of Kona’s delicious IPAs. It pours with a creamy head, and smells of bready malts and prominent, but not overpowering hops. Very well balanced, very delicious.
Question for the week: Is spiritedness the lynchpin of friendship?
One of the best known of Aesop’s fables is The Fox and the Grapes. The fable goes like this:
ONE hot summer’s day a Fox was strolling through an orchard till he came to a bunch of Grapes just ripening on a vine which had been trained over a lofty branch. “Just the things to quench my thirst,” quoth he. Drawing back a few paces, he took a run and a jump, and just missed the bunch. Turning round again with a One, Two, Three, he jumped up, but with no greater success. Again and again he tried after the tempting morsel, but at last had to give it up, and walked away with his nose in the air, saying: “I am sure they are sour.”
“IT IS EASY TO DESPISE WHAT YOU CANNOT GET.”
Naturally, The Fox and the Grapes is the origin of “sour grapes”, an expression that is endlessly useful. However, I am not aware of an expression that signifies the opposite of sour grapes. That is, if sour grapes refers to convincing yourself that something is bad simply because you cannot get it, there should be a turn of phrase for convincing yourself that something is good simply because that is all you can get.
People who can’t afford filet mignon might say, “SPAM is actually pretty flavorful.” Those to whom BMWs are beyond reach might claim, “my old Geo is actually a really smooth ride.” While the fox focused on disparaging what he could not get, a more positive individual might extoll what he has (even if it really isn’t that great.)
I’d propose the expression “sweet crab apples” after the story Paper Pills by Sherwood Anderson. In that story, Anderson talks about the gnarled little apples that are left in the orchard after all of the “good” apples have been picked and sold. Despite their appearance, the narrator claims that these twisted apples are actually sweet and delicious. But I can’t help but wonder whether the people who eat the rejected apples are just deluding themselves.
The SPAM eater may genuinely enjoy canned meat product. The Geo driver might get a lot of joy out of his car. And Anderson may really love the gnarled leftover apples. But have they discovered genuine quality that everybody else overlooked? Or have they just convinced themselves to be happy with what they can get?
Beer of the week: Natural Light Naturdays – I’d be willing to bet that a substantial number of college students would claim that they genuinely like the taste of Natural Light. Whether this preference is genuine, or merely self-delusion based on what beer they can afford, we may never know. Naturdays is a “light lager with natural flavor” meant to approximate a shandy made with strawberry lemonade. Basically, it comes off as a strawberry alcopop. What little head it has dissipated before I could snap a photo. The color is so clear and pale that I would guess that nothing resembling a strawberry came within a mile of the brewery where this was canned. The aroma is like a strawberry candy, but with hints of beer. Honestly, Naturdays is actually pretty good for what it is. It has a nice lingering tartness, and only a little bit more sweetness than I think would be ideal. I suppose it could also have more beer flavor, but it’s refreshing and different.
Reading of the week: Paper Pills by Sherwood Anderson – I actually think that Anderson is serious in his claim that the gnarled, rejected apples actually are delicious. However, in the story, a young woman has bad luck with suitors and ends up marrying an eccentric doctor. Her appreciation for this third-choice mate is likened to an appreciation for the rejected apples.
Question for the week: Does the world need a phrase like “sweet crab apples”?
Occasionally, upon witnessing some great athletic performance, hearing some beautiful music, or viewing some astounding work of art, I think to myself, “wouldn’t it be great to have some discernible talent?”
Of course pure, raw talent is exceptionally rare. For the most part, any remarkable performance is the culmination of an immense amount of work. Malcolm Gladwell popularized the the 10,000 Hour Rule, the idea that greatness (in performing arts, computer programming, or whatever) requires 10,000 of practice.
But 10,000 hours of practice is not simply 10,000 hours of practice. It is also 10,000 of not doing something else. Every hour in the gym, the library, or the studio is an hour not spent with family, or relaxing, or anything else. The sacrifices made to achieve greatness are more than the 10,000 hours of practice, they are also the 10,000 not not practicing. We can see the hours of training, but what we can’t see may be more important in the long run.
Beer of the week: Green – The brewers at Tree House Brewing Company must have put in their 10,000 hours because Tree House is one of the hottest names in beer. Green is one of their many renowned IPAs. Green is cloudy, practically muddy, and pours with a big, rocky head. The aroma is hop-forward with some tropical fruit notes. The beer is smooth and creamy with hints of citrus and pineapple and a lingering taste of orange. Green is an excellent IPA.
Reading of the week: First Sorrow by Franz Kafka – I almost wrote that this very short story is about a trapeze artist, but I am never sure what Kafka stories are really about. The main character of the story is a trapeze artist who “never came down from his trapeze by night or day . . . from a desire to perfect his skill.” That’s one way to rack up 10,000 hours quickly.
Question for the week: Can greatness coexist with balance? Or must the great (in any field) have some off-setting deficiency, such as in family life?