Drinking and Thinking

This is the eighteenth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XVIII: Modern English Drama

For as long as humans have consumed alcohol, its effect on thought, particularly creative thought, has been an important issue.

According to Herodotus, in Book I of his Histories, the Persians made alcohol an essential part of their decision-making. “Moreover,” he writes, “it is their custom to deliberate about the gravest matters when they are drunk; and what they approve in their deliberations is proposed to them the next day, when they are sober, by the master of the house where they deliberate; and if, being sober, they still approve it, they act on it, but if not, they drop it. And if they have deliberated about a matter when sober, they decide upon it when they are drunk.” There are several important features of this comment. In the first place, the Persians applied this practice for “the gravest matters”; the most important decisions require the most complete deliberation. Additionally, the order does not seem to matter; the initial deliberation can be either drunk or sober, so long as the decisions are reviewed in the opposite state. The ultimate decision making is not left exclusively to sobriety.

Two thousand years later, the notion of alcohol as an aide to thought was still common. In Oliver Goldsmith’s 1773 comedy She Stoops To Conquer, the jokester Tony Lumpkin sings a drinking song that starts with the lines:

Let schoolmasters puzzle their brain
With grammar, and nonsense, and learning,
Good liquor, I stoutly maintain,
Gives genus a better discerning.

More important than intellectual training, Lumpkin declares, is the consumption of good liquor. Of course, it is not at all clear that this song should be taken at face value. The song meets with the universal approval of the barflies… a group whose decision making is, itself, questionable.

Shortly before our own day, we have come to better appreciate how alcohol adversely affects our mental processes. H. L. Mencken, although an avid tippler, never mixed alcohol and intellectual work. In his essay Giants at the Bar, he wrote,I never touch the stuff by daylight if I can help it, and I employ it of an evening not to hooch up my faculties but to let them down after work. Not in years have I ever written anything with so much as a glass of beer in my system. My compositions, I gather, sometimes seem boozy to the nobility and gentry, but they are actually done as soberly as those of the late William Dean Howells.”

Ultimately, it seems that different amounts of alcohol (from zero to tipsy) provide different mental effects. So for each individual, each mental task probably has its own optimal level of intoxication. (Many, if not most, of which are almost certainly stone sober.) I suppose that it would require years of dedicated study to determine how many beers are ideal for any given task. I’d better get to work.

Beer of the week: PC Pils – Founders Brewing Co. makes this “American hopped pilsner.” But PC Pils doesn’t strike me as very pilsner-like. For one thing, it is a bit hazy, while pilsners are most often clear and golden. And without the classic noble hops aroma and taste, it just doesn’t fit the bill. That said, I quite like PC Pils. Although the aroma is faint, it is nice and hoppy. The flavor is primarily of floral hops and a subtle hint of ginger. Whatever style they claim this is, Founders has done a great job with this summer seasonal.

Reading of the week: She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith – This scene sets up the primary story arc of the play. After performing the song introduced above, Lumpkin misleads some travelers into mistaking their destination. A series of misunderstandings ensues. More alcohol may have helped.

Question for the week: Is there any task, mental or otherwise, that you are better at after a beer or two?

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Mermaid Blood

This is the Seventeenth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XVII: Folklore and Fable, Aesop, Grimm, Andersen

SPOILER ALERT: This posts contains spoilers for centuries-old fairytales.

Those raised on Disney films and picture books are likely to be shocked by the original versions of the fairytales that they learned growing up. The basic formula for so many of these stories are 1) witch causes magical transformation, 2) protagonist finds true love, 3) kiss breaks the spell, and 4) they live happily ever after. In the older versions, however, there is often another important plot point: brutal violence.

In Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Sea-Maid, there is plenty of violence that got left out of the Disney version. In the first place, the transformation from mermaid to human is extremely painful, as if she were being run through with a sword. And her new feet bleed constantly, so that every step that she takes feels “as if [she] trod upon sharp knives.” This is compounded by the fact that the prince loves to see her dance, so, for his entertainment, “she danced again and again, although every time she touched the earth it seemed as if she were treading upon sharp knives.” But at least that wins his heart, leading to the kiss that would make her transformation complete, right? Wrong.

See, in Andersen’s version, the prince falls in love with a princess and marries her instead of the mermaid. The irony is that he thinks the princess, rather than the mermaid, saved him from his shipwreck. After the prince and princess marry, the mermaid takes a magical knife and prepares to stab the prince right in the heart. The plan is for his heart’s blood to fall on her feet and cause them to “grow together again into a fish-tail” so that she she can return to the sea. But she cannot bring herself to murder the prince (although she does get so far as to stand over the prince and his bride as they sleep, knife in hand.) Rather, she jumps back into the ocean and dissolves into sea-foam. There is, however, a sort of happily ever after for the little mermaid. She is given the chance to earn an immoral soul through good deeds. In a way, this is a much more positive message than the idea that being loved by the prince is the key to lasting happiness; her destiny is in her own hands rather than in his.

The Disney version of Cinderella is less markedly different from the source material, but there is still a good bit of violence left out. In the Bros. Grimm version, when the prince goes out looking for the owner of the lost slipper, the step-sisters go to terrible lengths to try to make it fit. The first sister cuts off her big toe and the second cuts a chunk off of her heel. The prince, evidently not one of the smartest characters in literature, is fooled by each in turn. Each time, talking birds save the day by telling the prince to look down at all of the blood that is positively streaming from the slipper. After he finds Cinderella and marries her, those same birds go and peck out the eyes of the step-sisters to punish them for their dishonesty, as if having mutilated feet is not bad enough.

It is constantly bemoaned how violent popular media has become, so how does one account for the softening of these violent stories? In part, it may be that the intended audience for Andersen and Grimm are not young children. Or at least not young children exclusively. Also, the violence serves the purpose of hammering home a moral lesson. The last line of Grimm’s Cinderella is not about the prince and Cinderella living happily ever after; it is about the step-sisters: “for their wickedness and falsehood they were punished with blindness as long as they lived.”

Next time you are shocked by how violent a movie is, remember the sea-maid hiking up a mountain as her shoes fill with blood, or the step-sisters being blinded by pigeons who are also total snitches.

Beer of the week: Blood of the Unicorn Hoppy Red Ale – Now, to transition from step-sister and mermaid blood to Blood of the Unicorn. Chicago’s Pipeworks Brewing Company makes this fantastic(al) red ale. In truth, the beer is dark brown with just a hint of red, which becomes more pronounced when the sediment is swirled from the bottom of the can and poured out. It comes with lots of smooth soft foam (not sea foam) and an aroma of herbal hops. Although it is plenty hoppy it also has some sourdough yeastiness and a bit of burnt caramel. Blood of the Unicorn is a very smooth, very deliciously brew.

Reading of the week: The Frog-King, or Iron Henry by The Bros. Grimm – Young king gets transformed into a frog, he finds a princess to break the spell, her kiss frees him. Right? Not quite. In this version, the princess finds the frog to be so odious that she “took him up and threw him with all her might against the wall.” Hurling a frog against a castle wall cannot be described as anything other than attempted amphibicide. Yet, somehow, that act of disgust and rage breaks the spell.

Question for the week: Why have fairytales been watered down and sweetened?


Trending Up

This is the fourteenth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XIV: Don Quixote, Cervantes

In the preface to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Mark Twain does not profess to know the laws or customs of Arthurian England. However, he asserts that whatever the laws and customs were in the sixth century, they must necessarily have been worse than those that exist today. “One is quite justified in inferring that whatever one of these [modern] laws or customs was lacking in that remote time, its place was competently filled by a worse one.” Society, he seems to say, necessarily improves over time.

This idea is seconded by the title character Hank Morgan. Hank finds the people of sixth century England to be boorish, gullible, superstitious, and stupid. (Even, we must take it, when compared to the people of nineteenth century Connecticut.) He reports that among the knights of the round table, there were not enough brains to bait a fish-hook. Society must have come a long way indeed if the cream of medieval society were so much dumber than people today.

As to Twain’s apparent belief in the perpetual progress of society, Don Quixote de La Mancha would certainly disagree. Don Quixote perceived that society had declined since the time of Arthur rather than progressed. The time of knights-errant was an era of men who were brave and true, and faithful to their lovers and their God. Since that time, however, society generally descended cockering and excess. How can society as a whole be better off when the upstanding knights-errant have been replaced by people soft, indulgent, and deceitful?

And as to Hank Morgan’s claim that people are smarter now, he seems to confuse intelligence with knowledge. He thinks that because he knows the formula for gun powder and the dates of certain eclipses, he is more intelligent than those who lack that specific knowledge. But it is foolish to conflate the possession of certain facts with total intellectual capacity. (And it should not be taken for granted that memorizing the dates of celestial events at least back to the sixth century is a sign of intelligence rather than a sign of unhealthy fixation.) If Hank Morgan is smarter than King Arthur because he can build a lightning rod, is he also smarter than Newton, Galileo, or Aristotle for the same reason?

At any rate Twain hints that Hank himself is not as smart as he thinks. Hank fancies himself something of a connoisseur of chromolithographs, an popular form of colored print. But Hank is quite critical of a “new artist” called Raphael who did a number of well-circulated chromos, clearly unaware that the prints are copies of Raphael’s paintings and that the artist lived and died more than 300 years earlier.

Beer of the week: Supper Club – This lager from Wisconsin’s Capital Brewing Company is slightly hazy, with a nice malty flavor and aroma. It is not very hopped, just a pleasant, bready lager. There is something to be said for simple, grain-heavy midwestern fare.

Reading of the week: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes – In this passage, our hero explains to some fellow travelers what it is to be a knight-errant. They, of course, perceive him to be insane. (As an interesting aside, this translation uses the archaic adjective “wood” meaning “insane.” Coincidently, near the beginning of A Connecticut Yankee, the narrator reads an old tale about Sir Lancelot in which a giant, terrified by the brave knight “ran away as he were wood.” Twain includes a note explaining that “wood” means “demented”.)

Question for the week: Does human society have a generally upward trajectory? Or generally downward? Or is there any discernible trend at all?


Mother of Mercy

This is the fourteenth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XIV: Æneid

DISCLAIMER: This blog post treats Greek and Roman mythology as interchangeable. There are, of course, reasons to differentiate between the two traditions. However, at least part of Virgil’s project was to co-opt Greek mythology for Roman purposes. So for the present blog post there is no need to differentiate between the Roman gods of his Æneid and the Greek gods of Homer.

Mothers are remarkable beings. Not least because even those who regard motherhood as primary to their identity are never merely mothers. Mothering requires a wide range of skills and tasks. Keeping a child alive (to say nothing of keeping it happy, healthy, well-fed, safe, etc.) is a tremendous feat which deserves special recognition.

The idea of mothers as multi-taskers is nothing new. Consider the goddess Venus. Venus is primarily thought of as a lover. But, like any mother who’s ever kissed a boo-boo, comforted a crying babe, or taken marriage vows, Venus is also a healer, a nurturer, and a wife. (And, like every mortal wife, she has not always been a perfect helpmate. But that is another post for another time.)

The Romans regarded the goddess as Venus Genetrix, “Venus the Mother.” Her son was the Trojan hero Aeneas. Aeneas escaped the fall of Ilium and led the remnants of his people to Italy. When the Trojans established themselves in that new land, the groundwork was laid for the eventual rise of Rome.

This great project, however, would not have succeeded without the love and attention of Aeneas’ mother. In his final battle against the native Italians, Aeneas is badly wounded. Although he has an arrowhead lodged deep in his flesh, Venus will not let his injury prevent him from fulfilling his destiny:

“But now the goddess mother, mov’d with grief,
And pierc’d with pity, hastens her relief.”

She goes to work healing him with herbal medicine and divine skill.

“Stanch’d is the blood, and in the bottom stands:
The steel, but scarcely touch’d with tender hands,
Moves up, and follows of its own accord,
And health and vigor are at once restor’d.”

Aeneas’ recovery allows him to return to the fray, slay the Italian foe, and establish the colony that is to become Rome.

And this is not the first time that Venus came to the aid of her beloved son. During the battle for Troy, Aeneas was nearly killed by Diomedes, son of Tydeus. Again the goddess came to his rescue.

“Aeneas sprang from his chariot armed with shield and spear, fearing lest the Achaeans should carry off the body. He bestrode it as a lion in the pride of strength, with shield and on spear before him and a cry of battle on his lips resolute to kill the first that should dare face him. But the son of Tydeus caught up a mighty stone, so huge and great that as men now are it would take two to lift it; nevertheless he bore it aloft with ease unaided, and with this he struck Aeneas on the groin where the hip turns in the joint that is called the “cup-bone.” The stone crushed this joint, and broke both the sinews, while its jagged edges tore away all the flesh. The hero fell on his knees, and propped himself with his hand resting on the ground till the darkness of night fell upon his eyes. And now Aeneas, king of men, would have perished then and there, had not his mother, Jove’s daughter Venus, who had conceived him by Anchises when he was herding cattle, been quick to mark, and thrown her two white arms about the body of her dear son. She protected him by covering him with a fold of her own fair garment, lest some Danaan should drive a spear into his breast and kill him.”

Although Venus is not a warrior like Minerva or Mars, she descended to the field of battle and was even wounded by Diomedes for the sake of her child. So great is the goddess’s love for her son. And to whom did Venus turn to heal her own wound? Her mother, of course.

“Venus flung herself on to the lap of her mother Dione, who threw her arms about her and caressed her.”

So cheers to the comforters, healers, lovers, and heroes whom we call “mother” for short.

Beer of the week: Two Hats Pineapple – To trot out a tired metaphor, mothers wear many hats. And so, this reading is paired with the new Two Hats beer. This is advertised as a “crisp light beer with natural pineapple flavor.” The marketing for Two Hats is aimed at young drinkers. The tag-line is “Good, cheap beer. Wait, what?” Advertising copy also includes “Quit wine-ing!” and “Beer for people who are ‘meh’ about beer.” Clearly, they are trying to recapture early twenty-somethings who have turned to wine and spirits over beer. And, although the name “Miller” does not appear on the can, this is a product of the MillerCoors family, brewed by the Plank Road Brewery division of Miller.

As much as I hate the advertising and transparent attempt to appeal to “millennials,” I think it is actually a decent alternative to flavored seltzer. Two Hats is very, very pale in color and smells of pineapple. The amount of pineapple flavor is actually about right, but the beer itself is too light. This tastes more like a flavored seltzer than a beer. There is a bit of malt in the finish, but not quite enough to balance out the pineapple. Basically, this comes across as an alcoholic La Croix, which is fine if you want alcoholic flavored seltzer rather than a beer.

Reading of the week: The Æneid by Virgil – At the end of this excerpt, Aeneas has a moment with his own son Ascanius. “Thou, when thy riper years shall send thee forth / To toils of war, be mindful of my worth;” / he tells him, “Assert thy birthright, and in arms be known, / For Hector’s nephew, and Æneas’ son.” Aeneas doesn’t bother to mention Ascanius’ mother or grandmother. Typical.

Question for the week: What have you done for your mother lately?


Crazy Cowboy Categories

This is the eleventh in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XI: Origin of Species, Darwin

Beer used to be an extremely local product, made with local ingredients and techniques. As a result, each region had its own styles, but few people had access to a wide range of different beers. As more beers have gotten wider distribution, people have attempted systematic categorization of beers. Here is my taxonomy for the beer of the week:

Kingdom – Beverage
Phylum – Fermented drinks
Class – Beer
Order – Lager
Family – American Adjunct Lager
Genus – Malt Liquor
Species – Crazy Cowboy American Lager

Although “malt liquor” is not on the can, there is good reason to think this is a proper identification. For one thing, I have only seen it sold in individual 1.5 pint cans, rather than in more traditionally sized units or in six-packs. Also, the price was $0.99 (before tax) for 24 oz. And although the alcohol content does not appear on the label, Untappd has it listed as 5.6% abv. Super cheap, relatively high-alcohol beer? This one could probably have been categorized before the can was even opened. Once it was poured, no doubt remained.

Beer of the week: Crazy Cowboy American Lager – This is a clear gold beer with some slightly sour aroma. The flavor confirms the style; it tastes of cheap grain and little else, with a slightly metallic aftertaste. Not great, but it does remind me of some crazy times.

Reading of the week: The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin – This chapter tackles the question of where mere varieties end and distinct species begin. We take for granted a lot of the larger taxonomic distinctions, but as we get closer to the individual specimen, it becomes harder to draw firm lines.

Question for the week: Is there a principled distinction between a stout and a porter? And are different brewing technique or ingredient list more important in distinguishing styles?


Justice Delayed

This is the tenth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume X: Wealth of Nations

A popular measure of the quality of an individual judge or an entire court system is the speed with which cases are disposed. Where accused criminals must wait in jail for extended periods before their cases are tried, or where civil litigants cannot get finality on their claims in a timely manner, there is a problem. In the words of William Penn, “to delay Justice is Injustice.” And “delays have been more injurious than direct Injustice.”

Adam Smith, in his Wealth of Nations, even recommended a system whereby judges would be paid only at the conclusion of each case. “By not being paid to the judges till the process was determined, [the judges’ fees] might be some incitement to the diligence of the court in examining and deciding it.”

But there is more to an efficient judiciary than disposition rate. At the extreme, a judge could summarily convict every accused without taking the time to consider the evidence. That would be a very timely method, but not a just one.

To be sure, courts should be accessible and efficient and speedy in their distribution of justice. But to judge a court entirely, or even primarily, on its disposition rate is to miss the mark. Some cases require a long, deliberate consideration. Other cases benefit from the parties having ample time to develop their theories and evidence, and to explore a negotiated resolution. Justice delayed is justice denied, but justice rushed is no justice either.

Beer of the week: Home Grown American Lager – This is a tasty brew from Victory Brewing Company in Pennsylvania. It is brewed with six varieties of hops, and they impart plenty of juicy flavor. This pours pale and cloudy lager is quite nice.

Reading of the week: Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith – Wealth of Nations is best known as a glowing recommendation of free markets. But this excerpt discusses a couple of services that, Smith argues, must be provided by the sovereign rather than the market: national defense and courts of justice.

Question of the week: Smith goes on to point out that when attorneys are paid by the page for their legal writing, they tend to “have contrived to multiply words beyond all necessity, to the corruption of the law language.” What is the best method for determining attorney’s fees?


Skill and Judgment

This is the ninth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume IX: Cicero, Pliny the Younger

“None but those who are skilled in painting, statuary, or the plastic art,” writes Pliny the Younger, “can form a right judgment of any performance in those respective modes of representation.”

This statement can be reduced to the universal statement that the ability to perform is a necessary prerequisite for the ability to judge a performance. To some extent, this claim seems intuitively true. But it is not necessarily so.

Roger Ebert was an extremely popular and well-respected film critic. But did his ability to judge acting and filmmaking come from his own skill as an actor and filmmaker? I think not. Clearly, a great deal of effort was put into studying the art of film, but not necessarily study of the practice of film.

Similarly, one could imagine a great student of the visual arts who, due to some physical disability, is unable to paint. Without ever putting brush to canvas, such a student could still know well every theory of color, composition, and aesthetics. What could keep such a person from being a great judge of paintings?

Even if it is not strictly necessary, at least some practice in any given art is helpful for truly appreciating all of the skill required to excel therein. Knowing first-hand how difficult it is to become competent may provide valuable perspective on what must go into works of real genius.

My single attempt at brewing beer was not exceptionally successful, though it was far from a failure. I would not claim to be skilled in brewing. Yet I consider myself competent to form a judgment about beers brewed by others. At the very least, I can form the most important judgment of all: do I like it enough to have another?


Beer of the week: Citradelic Tangerine IPA – The aroma of this New Belgium IPA is overwhelmingly of tangerine. The flavor is much the same, but with the lingering tingle of citrusy hops. It is enjoyable, but you have to really like tangerines.

Reading of the week: Letter to Attius Clemens by Pliny the Younger – This letter is primarily a glowing recommendation of a contemporary philosopher known as Euphrates the Stoic. Unfortunately, none of Euphrates’ work has survived.

Question for the week: Pliny’s statement about judging the arts assumes that there actually is “a right judgment” of art. Is that a valid assumption?