Useless Joy

In his Shah Nameh (The Book of Kings), the great Persian poet Ferdowsi starts the tragedy of the mighty paladin Rustem and his son Sohráb with a warning against reveling in youth:

“O ye, who dwell in Youth’s inviting bowers,
Waste not, in useless joy, your fleeting hours,
But rather let the tears of sorrow roll,
And sad reflection fill the conscious soul.
For many a jocund spring has passed away,
And many a flower has blossomed, to decay;
And human life, still hastening to a close,
Finds in the worthless dust its last repose.”

This sentiment is reminiscent of several of Shakespeare’s sonnets. It seems that Shakespeare often went on about the end of youth and the ravages of time. Sonnet #12 comes to mind, where Shakespeare writes:

“Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;”

Although it is important to confront our mortality it is equally important to carry on with the business of living. Ferdowsi says “Waste not, in useless joy, your fleeting hours.” But can that be serious advice? Is joy ever truly useless? And if joy is occasionally useless, isn’t youth the most appropriate time for such useless joy? It seems likely that “tears of sorrow” and “sad reflection” are much more useless than joy, especially if we are quickly returning to “worthless dust.” There is time enough for sadness when we are dying or dead; joy in our youth ought to be encouraged.

Sir Dunkle

Beer of the week: Berghoff Sir Dunkle – This is a Munich-style dark lager that pours a deep red-brown. The aroma is of dark, ripe fruit. The flavor is mostly dark bread, with a surprisingly full body for a lager. Overall, a very good beer.

Reading of the week: Shah Nameh by Ferdowsi – At the end of Sonnet #12 Shakespeare suggests procreation as a remedy against mortality. But for Ferdowsi, even procreation is futile in the grand scheme. Of course, that might have something to do with the subject matter of the story he is telling. This reading is the beginning of a a tragic tale in which a man unwittingly kills his own son.

Question of the week: How can one strike the proper balance between joy and sad reflection?


Selective Reading

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.

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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?


You can never drink the same beer twice.

There is an undeniable appeal to the statement by Heraclitus that “you cannot step twice into the same stream.” Impermanence is perceived everywhere we look. People who spend any time along the banks of a river or the seashore know that change is constant. Waters rise and recede; sandbars form and wash away. And this is true about everything else around us. We are always in the midst of growth and decay. We see organic growth and decay in plants and animals, but we also see mechanical growth and decay in buildings, cities, and technology. And, although we are incapable of perceiving it at any instant (because it is constant rather than instantaneous,) we recognize change in ourselves and our loved ones.

But the mere observation that change is constant does not do justice to Heraclitus. What makes the stream metaphor really interesting is the fact that it is paradoxical. Yes, the stream is different from one moment to the next, but we still recognize it as the same stream. How can we know that the river is always changing, but at the same time recognize that it is the same river?

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness begins with a reflection on the history of the River Thames. The characters observe that it is the same river that Roman soldiers navigated as they pushed the dark and dangerous boundaries of the Roman Empire. Likewise, it was the same Thames down which Francis Drake and other “knights–errant of the sea” sailed as they carried the torch of the English Empire to dark new lands. But while holding on to this recognition of consistency, they also acknowledge that the river’s “tidal current runs to and fro” unceasingly and that that the shoreline and the people have all changed.

Although the bulk of the main story takes place in Africa, Heart of Darkness begins on a pleasure yacht in London, as a conversation among ex-seamen. To sailors, we are told, “One ship is very much like another, and the sea is always the same.” But even us landsmen know that there are high seas and calm seas, and that the conditions at sea are actually very changeable. Again, it appears that Conrad is hinting at the paradox that Heraclitus was interested in: in spite of all its vicissitudes, there is something constant about the sea. And, for that matter, the entire world.

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Beer of the week: Negra Modelo – A Heart of Darkness reading deserves either a dark beer or a tropical beer. Negra Modelo is something of a compromise in both respects. Although “negra” means “black”, this beer is actually more of an amber color. And although Groupo Modelo is based in Mexico City, (and therefore technically tropical,) this bottle was probably brewed north of the tropics in Piedras Negras. (This is due to a complicated anti-trust settlement that I do not fully understand.) As to the beer itself, it is a bit thinner and less flavorful than might be hoped. There are some good dark-roasted malt notes throughout, but this beer is mostly uninspiring.

Reading of the week: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad – This novella is an excellent read, and raises a lot of interesting questions about empire, individuals, and the nature of human society. Conrad apparently based some of the book on his own experiences as captain of a steamboat on the Congo River.

Question of the week: Rivers, like all things, change with time. But civil engineers literally reversed the course of the Chicago River. We may say that the River Thames of today is same river as when the Romans first explored it, but is the Chicago River of today the same river as before it was reversed?


Bitter Cold

When the weather turned cold on my last visit to the Czech Republic, I had many a glass of hot blackcurrant wine. But whether my winter warmer is mulled wine, hot rum, or high alcohol beer, I have a habit of thanking my drink with a line from Hamlet:

For this relief much thanks: ’tis bitter cold,
And I am sick at heart.

To be sure, I am rarely actually sick at heart, but I often feel more morose in the winter. Cold is more oppressive than heat, in my opinion. According to Dante’s Inferno, hell is icy cold at its core. The reason for this is simple: humans are creatures of heat. We would much rather live in a world of fire than in a world without fire.

Our bodies function best at temperatures in excess of 98 degrees although most of us live in ambient temperatures that are far lower. To some extent, we must bundle ourselves against the cold even on temperate days. Our evolutionary roots are embedded in equatorial Africa. We are drawn to the fire and turn our backs to the cold and the dark.

And to the extent that we are attracted to cold things, the attraction is usually with reference to heat. Downhill skiing is best when there is a roaring fire and a cocktail waiting for us après ski. An ice-cold beer is best on a hot summer day.

We are children of warmth. Bundle up and drink something with a little fire in it!

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Beer of the week: Novopacké Třeskuté – Last week I admitted my ignorance of the Polish language. This week I admit my ignorance of Czech. I think that the name of this beer might be a pun. I looked up “třeskuté” and found that it means “bitter”. As in English, (I think,) this could refer to the taste of the beer or the severity of the winter cold. Another hint that the name is a pun is the fact that this dark winter lager is not actually very bitter tasting. It really tastes more like toasted crackers: somewhat sweet and somewhat burnt. At 6.3% alcohol, this is definitely a winter warmer, and I have only seen it in 1.5 liter bottles. If that much beer can’t warm you, no amount can.

Reading for the week: Hamlet by William Shakespeare, Act 1, Scene 1 – The tragedy of the melancholy Dane begins in the middle of a cold, dark night. This scene sets a tone for the entire drama.

Question for the week: What warms you?


An Excellent Piper

Can you sprint through the first several levels of Super Mario Bros.? Can you throw a ping pong ball behind your back and into a cup at the far end of a table? Can you play “Tom Sawyer” on Rock Band without looking at the screen? Can you… play a real musical instrument?

Some skills that require a significant amount of practice seem pretty worthless in the long-run. Some of them may be even worse than worthless since every hour spent playing video games or sports or music is an hour not spent on something more valuable.

“He who busies himself in mean occupations produces, in the very pains he takes about things of little or no use, an evidence against himself of his negligence and indisposition to what is really good.” What Plutarch means is that we have a duty to ourselves to direct our energy toward those activities that are truly improving.

It is important, however, not to be too dismissive. Plutarch suggests that the dedicated study of music, for example, is frivolous. He tells us that an excellent pipe player must be “but a wretched human being, otherwise he would not have been an excellent piper.” I disagree.

Music is a valuable and even essential component of a well-rounded education. And beyond a casual acquaintance with the principles of music and a passing familiarity with some of the greatest composers, the actual playing of music does a great deal of good. Practicing music improves discipline, requires focus and determination, and helps instill an appreciation for order and harmony that transcends music itself. It is true that an excellent piper may be a wretched human being, but it is certainly not a foregone conclusion.

Less obviously, other seemingly frivolous pursuits may likewise have value beyond their evident scope. Video games improve coordination and problem solving skills. Sports improve physical health and social relations. The key, it seems, is not to disregard these pursuits entirely, but to remember always that they are not undertaken for their own sake. Everything we do should be done with an eye toward self-improvement. And if we are improved by something that we enjoy, all the better.

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Beer of the Week: Bernard Černý – Becoming an excellent brewer, for example, is clearly not a “mean occupation”. Bernard is a family-owned Czech brewery. Their dark lager has an exceptionally full flavor. The dark roasted malt gives this beer hints of chocolate covered espresso beans. The smooth brew ends with a pleasant bitterness that really rounds out the flavor nicely. This is one of the best Czech beers I have had.

Reading for the Week: The Life of Pericles by Plutarch – Plutarch starts this book with a story about Caesar rebuking people for fawning over puppies and baby monkeys. It would be much better if that sort of affection were shown to other human beings, rather than being wasted on beasts.

Question for the Week: It is easy to spend too much time on video games or even music and neglect other improving studies. Is their any pursuit for which any time spent is too much?


Seriously, he looks like a cartoon vulture.

Happy Friday the 13th! Today I will focus on one of the spookiest, creepiest poets of all time: Charles Baudelaire. His poems are dark as Guinness stout and chilling as… a simile about cold beers.

When I first read the works of Charles Baudelaire, I was none too impressed. Had he been an American teen in the early years of this millennium, Baudelaire would have been a goth kid with whiny LiveJournal. Everything is corpses and skulls with that guy. “Nobody likes me,” his poems lament, “but that is because my soul is a that of a beautiful poet and everybody else is a dick.” (By the way, I am only half making this stuff up. His poem The Albatross compares the poet to a majestic bird that is mocked when it condescends to land among normal men.)

But Baudelaire was more than just a whinging kid with macabre tastes. Perhaps his greatest contribution to literature was his translation of the works of Edgar Allan Poe. (Which sheds some additional light on his morbid sensibilities.) It seems that Poe was more or less forgotten in the United States in the generation after his death. Luckily, Baudelaire translated Poe into French and popularized his works. The so-called Decadent Movement spread across Europe, to England, and across the Atlantic, and it brought Poe back into vogue with it.

Of course, Baudelaire’s own work is not without value. I particularly like his poem Get Drunk. The ceaseless crushing gears of time are unbearable unless one gets drunk. “Get drunk! Stay Drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue, on whatever you want.” Find something that intoxicates you, something that alters your perception of time. And if you should wake up with a hang-over on the steps of a palace or in the grass of a ditch, ask the world what time it is. And the answer will be: time to get drunk!

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Beer of the week: 5 Vulture Oaxacan-Style Dark Ale – Find a photo of Baudelaire and tell me that he doesn’t look like a cartoon vulture. Which, given his dark style, seems totally appropriate. 5 Vulture Ale is brewed by 5 Rabbit Cervecería, a Latin American inspired brewery near Chicago. This dark ale is brewed with ancho chili peppers. The color is dark amber and the head is tan. The aroma is distinctive and sweet. The taste has hints of dark chocolate and a subtle fruit presence that I can’t quite pin down. The ancho chilies used in the brewing give a pleasant tingle at the end, though I’d actually prefer a bit more spice. It also feels thinner than one would expect from such a dark, flavorful beer. It is so different that I really don’t know what to think about it.

Reading of the week: Get Drunk by Charles Baudelaire – The first version of this poem that I read was an English translation that included the word “beer”. When I checked the French, I was disappointed (though not surprised) to find that the word used was “vin”. Beer would have been better, but wine will do.

Question of the week: I am sure that I understand being drunk on wine. I think that I understand being drunk on poetry. But I can’t quite get my head around being drunk on virtue. What can that mean?


A Not Uninteresting Novella

As I noted in last week’s post, Orwell’s Politics and the English Language had a very pronounced effect on my enjoyment of reading Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor and Benito Cereno. I was arrested surprisingly often by expressions that Orwell would have found objectionable. The not uncommonest objectionable language was Melville’s incessant use of “not un-” structures.

Orwell would that the “not un-” structure be laughed out of existence. “One can cure oneself of the not un- formation by memorizing this sentence: A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field.” As his example shows, this formula is usually a pretentious and asinine way of saying something that could be said more simply and directly. Why say that Billy’s expression was “not unlike that of a dog” rather than “like that of a dog”? What value is there in throwing in a double negative?

I strained my mind for a defense of this questionable structure. The best I could do is quote the great Welsh philosopher Tom Jones: “It’s not unusual to be loved by anyone.” Somehow, that line does not seem to mean the same thing as “it is usual to be loved by anyone.” For the not un- structure to work, there has to be some subtle difference between [adjective] and not un[adjective]. For some adjectives or adverbs, exist a sort of neutral middle ground in that space. But every example I try to put into words seems to fall apart. It seems like simple math; a = -(-a). There is no room for subtle distinctions.

And even if there is a significant meaning between [adjective] and not un[adjective], Melville’s use of the dubious formula never seems to convey such a subtle distinction. I was not unaffected by having to read so many not unwell written sentences from by a not unfamous author. Nevertheless, his stories are not unenjoyable.

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Beer of the week: Krušovice Černé – This dark lager comes from one of the Czech Republic’s oldest breweries. In fact, the “1581” does not refer to the founding of the brewery, but to the year the brewery was offered for sale to Emperor Rudolf II. The beer itself is very dark, with a tan head that laces nicely on the glass. The dark roasted malts are evident in the aroma and in the flavor. However, the beer feels very thin and there simply is not a lot of flavor to it. It is not a bad beer, but I would hope for more from a 500-year-old operation.

Reading of the week: Billy Budd, Sailor by Herman Melville – This week’s chapter does not include any not un- sentences. It also does not include any of the characters of the story. It is a tangent on the old glory of naval warfare before clunky ironclads replaced shapely men-of-war and before “martial utilitarians” replaced the likes of Horatio Nelson, “the greatest sailor since our world began.”

Question of the week: Can you think of a situation where a not un- structure adds some meaning to a sentence?