Holy See, Wholly Do!

There are more forms of intoxication than alcohol induced drunkenness. And I am not referring to drugs. “Drunk with power” is more than fanciful speech. Euphoria after exercise is a kind of intoxication. Byron suggested music as an intoxicant. Baudelaire advocated poetry and even virtue for a reliable high. But these other sorts of intoxicants can be quite as dangerous as any drug.

Three coincident events led me to consider the dangers of such intoxicants. First, I started receiving Lapham’s Quarterly. Lapham’s is a literary magazine that includes a very wide range of excerpts and poems. I feel confident that more than a few readings on this blog will be inspired by Lapham’s. Second, Pope Francis is visiting the United States until Sunday evening. And finally, the recent Republican debates have spent a fair bit of time focused on how to “deal with” ISIS and Iran.

These may seem unrelated, but in one of the back issues of Lapham’s there was an excerpt from Charles Mackay’s Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions about Pope Urban II riling the people to war in the Holy Land. History repeats itself and, as Da Vinci said, “everything connects to everything else.”

Two particularly dangerous intoxicants are combined in Mackay’s story: personality cult and military adventurism. Some people are positively enraptured by the presence of a strong personality who has a way with words. And some people seek the thrill of conquest as incessantly as any junkie seeks his next fix. These two intoxicants are often combined with disastrous results. Among the greatest classical examples is the failed Sicilian Expedition by Athens during the Peloponnesian War. Alcibiades was a captivating figure and was able to stir the Athenians so thoroughly up that they neglected wiser advice and set about the course of events that would eventually see their own city fall into enemy hands.

Luckily, the current pontiff is not rallying the people to war. But his popularity, even among non-Catholics, is worthy of critical examination. Many people who see him on his American visit are genuinely ecstatic. And like all intoxication, intoxication with a personality can cloud one’s judgement.

More dangerous, probably, are the Republican presidential hopefuls (to say nothing of the equally dangerous Democratic hopefuls.) They aspire to have their own personality cults. Some of the candidates are already cult figures in some circles. And since the politics of the United States is war, there is little doubt that whoever wins will drum up military adventures that intoxicate the thrill seekers and zealots.

Some drugs are safer than others, and I wouldn’t take a sip of any drink that was mixed by somebody I don’t trust.

Svyturys Ekstra
Beer of the week: Svyturys Ekstra – Lithuania has been a predominantly Catholic nation since the relatively successful Northern Crusades, when the Pope Celestine III declared holy war against the Baltic pagans. Catholicism was officially forbidden during the period of USSR control, but it has bounced back considerably. (Astute readers will have noticed that the map in this photo predates the dissolution of the Soviet Union, so Lithuania is not displayed as an independent nation.) Svyturys Ekstra is straw colored. There is not much aroma to speak of, except a little sweet grass and citrus. Malty sweetness dominates the flavor, with biscuit notes and a hint of tart bitterness at the end.

Reading of the week: Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions by Charles Mackay – “Urban the Second,” writes Mackay, “was one of the most eloquent men of the day.” The pope expertly rallied an eager crowd to war in a distant land. Promising salvation for fighting the infidels yielded an unexpected result (although in hind-sight a quite natural one.) Sure of their absolution, the crusaders engaged in all manner of vice and debauchery.

Question of the week: Moderate consumption of alcohol is not unhealthy, what about a moderate indulgence in getting intoxicated by personality?


Scanning the Vault of Heaven

This is a very popular time of year for people to go on vacations. You can tell by all of the beach photos showing up on your facebook feed. So (aside from drinking beer) what is the best way to relax while on holiday?

Turn of the century astronomer Simon Newcomb had a few thoughts on the subject. In his essay The Extent of the Universe, Newcomb writes that “Bodily rest may be obtained at any time by ceasing from our labors, and weary systems may find nerve rest at any summer resort;” but that is merely physical rest. To rest the mind and the soul he prescribes contemplation of the night sky:

“I know of no way in which complete rest can be obtained for the weary soul—in which the mind can be so entirely relieved of the burden of all human anxiety—as by the contemplation of the spectacle presented by the starry heavens.”

The movements of the heavenly bodies are regular, ordered and unchanging. (Well, not exactly unchanging, but Newcomb points out that the amount of change over the whole history of human existence has been all but imperceptible.) This is why the astronomer Ptolemy asserted that the study and contemplation of the skies instills the soul with “the sameness, good order, due proportion, and simple directness contemplated in divine things.”

So even if you don’t get a chance to go on a fancy vacation, pick a clear night when you can lie on your back with a beer in hand (be careful when trying to drink in that position) and marvel at the beauty and order of the heavens. “The thinking man who does this under circumstances most favorable for calm thought will form a new conception of the wonder of the universe.”

Beer of the week: 5,0 Original Export – Despite only 5.2% alcohol it does taste more strongly of alcohol than the 5.0% 5,0 Original Pils. The whole brand is about making beer as cheaply as possible, so it is hard to be disappointed. It isn’t very good, but is exactly what it aims to be: a drinkable, very cheap beer. (No surprise that it is a product of Oettinger.)

Reading of the week: The Extent of the Universe by Simon Newcomb, Excerpt – In the hundred or so years since Mr. Newcomb died, tremendous advances and discoveries have occurred in the field of astronomy, but that is no reason to stop reading his work. The philosophical truths about the contemplation of the heavens remain unchanged.

Question of the week: Why does Newcomb think that the contemplation of the heavens can relieve anxiety while Pascal claims that thinking about the vastness of space fills him with dread? Is the difference in how they are thinking about the subject? Or is it due to a fundamental difference in the men themselves?


Women Workers of the World Unite!

Yesterday was International Women’s Day. As we all know, International Women’s Day was founded as a socialist political event, aimed at liberating women from the drudgery of housework and exhorting them to join the glorious worker’s revolution. It later established as an official holiday of the CCCP by Vladimir Iliych Lenin. Of course, the event has mostly moved away from its specific political roots, but it would seem imprudent to avoid the chance to drink Russian beer and discuss Russian literature and misogyny.

In Anton Chekhov’s The Lady with the Dog, the character Dmitri Dmitritch Gurov first appears as a misogynist who refers to women as “the lower race.” But like all well-crafted characters (and real people,) there is more to him. He is also a philanderer. Of course, there is nothing mutually exclusive about misogyny and infidelity, but the cause of his infidelity seems somewhat incongruous with his professed views on women. Chekhov writes that Gurov does not feel comfortable in the company of men, “but in the company of women he felt free, and knew what to say to them and how to behave.” Can real misogyny coexist with this comfort and ease with women? Could he really disdain women if they are the only society in which he feels himself?

To be sure, he thought little of his own wife, “and he secretly considered her unintelligent, narrow, [and] inelegant,” but that is just one woman. Women who were not his wife attracted him and made them feel at ease. And all of the negative things he had to say about women, he said to men. Why should we give any weight to what he says to men when we have already been told that he does not know what to say around men? “In the society of men he was bored and not himself,” so are his professed misogynistic views to be regarded as really his own? Or are they simply the talk of a man saying what he thinks other men want to hear?

On my first reading, I had no sympathy for Gurov. Even with these questions in mind, a second reading produced very little inclination to take his side. But I suspect that Chekhov meant for the reader to come down somewhere in the middle. The final question of the story is not whether Gurov is right or wrong in anything that he does, but where can he possibly go from here?

Beer of the Week: Baltika No. 7 Export Lager – Having never heard of any Russian beers (I’ve only had American brewed “Russian imperial porters”,) my expectations were not high. This beer definitely surpassed my admittedly low expectations. It is a clear gold color with a pillowy head. The aroma has a slight hint alcohol at the end, as well as a sweet combination of fruit and of caramel malt. The taste is not quite as sweet as the aroma, but has a slight taste of apple cider. It is not the best beer in the world, but it is definitely better than plenty of “big-name” brews. Plus it has a really cool pull-tab cap.

Reading of the week: The Lady with the Dog by Anton Chekhov – Our introduction to Dmitri Dmitritch Gurov is not flattering. He has nothing good to say about women, even if he has nothing but sweet things to say to them. Whether or not the reader becomes reconciled to him as he changes throughout the story depends much on the reader, but only a certain sort of man can find him totally agreeable from the outset.

Question of the week: Chekhov writes that Gurov “had been unfaithful to [his wife] often, and, probably on that account, almost always spoke ill of women.” Does his disdain (or apparent disdain) for women result from his infidelity, or does his infidelity result from his disdain?