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Mark Twain’s writing is always quotable, usually funny, and occasionally sublime. There are, of course, the odd missteps. For example, I find A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court to be a very uneven mix of sunny humor and dark, cynical satire. And I was generally unimpressed when I recently cracked open Innocents Abroad. But tastes vary, and no body of work can be all chefs d’oeuvre.
Even Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not unalloyed genius. Earnest Hemingway advised readers of Huckleberry Finn to quit before the final chapters. But, at least in my opinion, almost everything before Hemingway’s recommended cutoff point is excellent. The book begins with a notice: “PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” Despite this stern warning against looking for meaning in the book, it is impossible not to see something important in Chapter XXXI.
By that point in the book Huckleberry Finn and Jim have travelled a considerable distance down the Mississippi River together. Huck is running from his abusive father and Jim is running from slavery. Eventually, they fall in with two traveling grifters. These frauds try to earn quick money by giving dance lessons and lectures on temperance, “missionarying, and mesmerizing, and doctoring, and telling fortunes, and a little of everything.” They are, however, generally unsuccessful. Eventually, they decide on a more profitable scheme: they betray Jim and sell him back into slavery.
It is under these circumstances that Huck is faced with a moral crisis. He sees two options. One option is to contact Jim’s “rightful” owner, in the hopes that Jim may return to his previous slavery rather than the possibly harsher slavery with of his new masters. Or he can attempt to help Jim escape bondage yet again. It may seem easy, from the reader’s point of view, to see what the “right” thing to do is. The problem for Huck is that he has been taught that what is lawful is good, and what is unlawful is bad. And, according to the laws of man and God, Jim is meant to be a slave. To defy those laws is to become a social pariah and invite eternal damnation.
Huckleberry, as the narrator, describes his inner turmoil. He knows that helping a slave to get his freedom, according to society, is about the most wicked, low-down, rotten thing that he could do. He’d be positively ‘shamed to death to face his friends and neighbors after doing such a despicable thing. Moreover, he believes truly that “everlasting fire” is the reward for aiding Jim’s escape. He sincerely, desperately wants to be good. But being good means he must abandon his friend when he needs him the most. Huck tries to pray, but can’t because he cannot repent wanting to help Jim. And if he cannot repent, he cannot be saved. So he makes his choice:
“All right, then, I’ll GO to hell” …
It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head, and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t. And for a starter I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.
Twain later wrote that Huck’s inner conflict was the collision of “a sound heart and a deformed conscience.” Society had played Huck a cruel trick by convincing him that virtue was evil and evil was virtuous. So while he believed honestly that he was irredeemably wicked, he was actually irrepressibly good. His sound heart overcame his deformed conscience.
Beer of the week: Bud Light Orange – Like some of Twain’s writing, this beer seems caught between being for children or adults. On the one hand, it smells and tastes like an orange lollipop. It occasionally even causes that peculiar pain you can get in the back of your jaw when eating citrus candies. On the other hand, it is beer. In fact, although it is too sweet, it is not quite candy-sweet. It actually tastes a bit like beer. But whoever Bud Light Orange is for, it ain’t me. (Although I honestly would try it as the base for a float with vanilla ice cream, because I am a kid at heart.)
Reading of the week: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain – There is not much more to be said about this excerpt that I didn’t say above. But I really do find this to be one of the most moving pieces of writing I’ve ever read.
Question for the week: How can we avoid having our consciences deformed by a misguided society?
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?
“What was I thinking?”
That rhetorical question is often used to express dismay at a lack of foresight e.g. “A while back, I passed on a chance to buy a Bitcoin at $400; what was I thinking?” Sometimes it goes to absentmindedness e.g. “I peeled a banana and accidentally threw away the banana and went to take a bite of the peel; what was I thinking?” But in both of these cases, the question is purely rhetorical because it is pretty easy to determine the thought process involved. In the Bitcoin example, the person presumably thought about the risks and advantages of buying a Bitcoin and determined that the potential upside was not worth the $400 risk. In the banana example, the person was clearly thinking about something totally unrelated to the task at hand, and mere distraction caused the errant movements.
There are times, however, when the question “what was I thinking?” is more than rhetorical, times when one honestly does not understand his own motivations. Every once in a while, we each do something that we are later unable to explain. It is occasionally impossible to determine what thought process or motivations led to the decisions made.
There appear to be multiple potential causes for such internal confusion. For one thing, not understanding one’s own motivation may be a simple failure to carefully self-evaluate. For another, there may be pre-rational motivations that get overlooked in the search for a rational explanation, such as instinct or something like it. But most likely, it seems, is the likelihood that the decision in question is the product of a great many thoughts and motivations, possibly even at odds with each other. The complicated interplay between our various desires, instincts, goals, etc. may simply be so convoluted that we are unable to untangle (or even recognize) them all.
In The Underdogs by Mariano Azuela, the motivations of the belligerents during the Mexican Revolution are explored. A rebel leader called Demetrio tells about the time that he got drunk and spit in the face of a local political boss, Señor Monico. As a result, Monico brought “the whole God-damned Federal Government” down on Demetrio, who narrowly escaped into the hills. Demetrio asserts that all he wants is “to be let alone so [he] can go home.”
His interlocutor, however, sees more in Demetrio’s motivations than Demetrio sees himself:
“It is not true that you took up arms simply because of Señor Monico. You are under arms to protest against the evils of all the caciques who are overrunning the whole nation. We are the elements of a social movement which will not rest until it has enlarged the destinies of our motherland. We are the tools Destiny makes use of to reclaim the sacred rights of the people. We are not fighting to dethrone a miserable murderer, we are fighting against tyranny itself. What moves us is what men call ideals; our action is what men call fighting for a principle. A principle! That’s why Villa and Natera and Carranza are fighting; that’s why we, every man of us, are fighting.”
This speech certainly works on Demetrio’s men, who emphatically embrace this noble characterization of their motivations despite the manifestly ignoble acts of plunder, rape, and murder in which they engage. But Demetrio’s reaction to this impassioned speech is more subdued; he orders more beer.
Beer of the week: Corona Light – A Mexican reading deserves a Mexican beer. Corona Light is clear and pale and foamy. The aroma and flavor are pretty standard macro. There is a hint of lime in the aroma, and just a trace of nuttiness in the finish. A pinch of salt brings out the lime in the flavor, which is a big improvement. Still, Corona Light; what was I thinking?
Reading of the week: The Underdogs by Mariano Azuela – The title The Underdogs (Los de Abajo in the original Spanish) refers not to the rebels, but to the common folk of Mexico. Throughout the novel, it becomes clear that the people are always oppressed, no matter which faction has the ascendency.
Question of the week: Is it really the case that some motivations cannot be discovered through self-examination? Or is it possible that we are just too afraid to look deep enough?
Ever since Al Gore won a bunch of awards for his PowerPoint presentation on global warming, carbon emissions have been one of the biggest environmental hot topics. Proposed solutions for excessive carbon emissions include carbon credits, hybrid cars, and local sourcing. But people continue to ignore their personal carbon emissions. They really ought to consider this startling equation from an article in The British Medical Journal:
Well, it is not startling for anybody who hasn’t had high school chemistry for a few years. I’ll translate for those readers whose chemical notation is rusty: one fat molecule (a triglyceride in this example) combines with and 78 oxygen molecules to produce 55 carbon dioxide molecules, 52 water molecules, and energy. Even more simply: whenever your body burns fat, you take in oxygen and literally breathe away the pounds in the form of carbon dioxide. (Water is also released and excreted from the sweat glands or… elsewhere.) Every pound of fat you burn results in 2.8 pounds of CO2 emissions.
Frankly, I do not find any of that surprising. I have always thought it was awesome how plants take in CO2, separate the carbon from the oxygen, and turn it into fruit and leaves and all manner of plantstuffs. Trees turn air into wood. That’s amazing.
Some 250 years ago, Antoine Lavoisier showed that animal respiration is basically the opposite of that; animals consume plant matter, combine the carbon in it with oxygen, and breathe it out as CO2. However, distressingly few people understand this simple biological process. According to that BMJ article, most family doctors, dietitians, and personal trainers surveyed did not know where the fat goes when people lose weight. Most of them answered that fat is simply converted into heat or energy. As if the law of conservation of matter doesn’t apply to beer guts!
Obviously, carbon emissions from losing weight are not the same as carbon emissions from burning coal or gasoline. The carbon in fossil fuels has been locked away for millions of years, and the carbon in your paunch has only been locked away since the last holiday season. Also, it is likely that there are significantly more important factors in climate change than carbon emissions. However, feel free to use this as an excuse for skipping leg day.
Beer of the week: Wachusett Light IPA – If you insist on losing weight, you may be tempted to drink “light” beer. The brewers of Wachusett Light IPA claim that it is America’s first light IPA. The beer is hazy orange and has a malty aroma with some of the typical IPA hops. The flavor is a bit more subdued than most IPAs, without the strong punch of hops that one expects from American IPAs. The finish is a bit on the watery side. After swallowing, there is a bit of bite from the hops, but this beer generally light on the flavor. Overall, however, I think this is a decent beer. I get why they call it a light IPA, but I think I would call it it a session pale ale. Of course, I’m not in marketing.
Reading for the week: Elements of Chemistry by Antoine Lavoisier – This excerpt from Lavoisier’s greatest work is somewhat dry, but it presents a few interesting features. First, Lavoisier explains why ice stays ice cold until it is completely melted even though almost every other substance we know of will warm up (or cool down) gradually. Secondly, he introduces a device called a calorimeter for the measuring of heat. The device is interesting in itself, but the name is also worth a bit of thought. Lavoisier defends mixing Latin (calor – heat) and Greek (metron – measure) because “in matters of science, a slight deviation from strict etymology, for the sake of giving distinctness of idea, is excusable.” He then shoves a guinea pig inside a sphere of ice to measure how much heat it produces.
Question for the week: Lavoisier’s word calorimeter is not the only Latin-Greek hybrid out there. Notable hybrid words include homosexual, television, automobile, and claustrophobia. Is there really something objectionable about mixing and matching root words this way?
As I mentioned last week, I am on drugs that are not to be mixed with alcohol. Luckily, however, I have a small back-log of beer reviews that I need only attach to a reading. So the blog goes on…
Speaking of medicine, one of my favorite literary scenes of all time is about patent medicine. In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain lists the remedies that Aunt Polly inflicted upon our titular hero. Tom was depressed because the girl he liked was ill, so Aunt Polly applied all sorts of treatments to him to bring back a healthy disposition. When she settled on pain-killer (although Tom did not have any physical pain,) she certainly got a reaction, but not quite the reaction that she was looking for.
Rather than take the medicine himself, Tom took to “mending the health of a crack in the sitting-room floor with it.” Eventually, Peter the cat got a dose and his reaction was both hilarious and alarming. Aunt Polly was not amused, but learned a valuable lesson. Tom had given the cat a spoonful of the pain-killer with good intentions, just as Aunt Polly had done with him. But “what was cruelty to a cat might be cruelty to a boy, too.”
What we see from this story is that there are no real cure-alls and good intentions are not enough. There must be solid reasoning behind our actions if the results are to be positive. No matter how much we care, it is not caring that solves problems, it is reason.
Beer of the Week: Miller Lite – For better or worse, “light beer” is every bit as American as Mark Twain. Miller Lite was originally known as “Gablinger’s Diet Beer.” Of course, a low-calorie beer is almost inevitably a low-flavor beer. Ironically, diet beer took off not because of the lower calories, but because it is easier to binge drink large quantities. In fact, the bottle doesn’t even advertise the calorie content, it only asserts that the beer is “less filling.” They leave it up to the customer to figure out that “less filling” means you can drink more. The beer itself is as clear as water and just a bit more yellow. If poured aggressively, it produces a decent but quickly fading white head that actually does leave a fair bit of lacing. The smell and taste are both extremely weak, but it sure goes down smooth. After about the 6th or 7th beer I finally understood what the appeal is.
Reading of the week: The Cat and the Pain-Killer from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain – Not only is Aunt Polly a great example of the way that people can get caught up in fads and popular trends, the description of the cat’s reaction to being dosed with pain-killer is one of the funniest scenes ever written.
Question of the week: How often do you rely on medicines (or beer) to solve problems that are emotional in nature?