So Much Duckweed

According to legend, the Chinese sage Liu Ling was at all times followed by a servant carrying a wine bottle and a shovel. The purpose of the wine is obvious; Liu Ling liked to drink. The shovel’s purpose was somewhat darker. Liu Ling thought of the whole world as his home. “The sun and moon [were] the windows of his house; the cardinal points [were] the boundaries of his domain.” Because he felt equally at home wherever he ranged, he had no sentimental desire for his mortal remains to be laid to rest in any particular place; no “bury me on the old farmstead” for him. More important than his detachment from any specific place, it seems that Lui Ling had no particular sentimental attachment to his own body. Consequently, he did not care where it was buried. And so Lui Ling’s servant carried a shovel, ready to inter his master’s corpse wherever he should happen to drop dead.

Many centuries later, Lui Ling’s thoughts on mortality (and on alcohol consumption) inspired Jack London. In his autobiographical novel John Barleycorn, London reminisces about “Liu Ling, a hard drinker, one of the group of bibulous poets who called themselves the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove and who lived in China many an ancient century ago.” In particular, London seems to agree with Lui Ling’s statement “that to a drunken man the affairs of this world appear but as so much duckweed on a river.”

But why the do affairs of the world appear as duckweed? When alcohol reduces the drunken man’s problems to mere trivialities, is it because the alcohol blinds him to the true extent of his troubles? Or does it make him neglectful of things that actually matter? It seems more probable that the drunk man is actually seeing more clearly than before. The alcohol helps him to understand the transience and insignificance of human concerns, a realization that is perhaps difficult for a sober mind to bear. Like Liu Ling himself, the drunken man sees the whole world as his home and all eternity as but an instant.

Pearl River Beer
Beer of the week: Pearl River Beer – This Chinese brew pours clear and golden with little carbonation. The aroma is mostly of grass and rice. The flavor is rather plain with some lingering sweetness. It isn’t a particularly bad beer, especially considering its nation of origin. On the other hand, if it has to travel halfway around the world, it had better be pretty good.

Reading of the week: The Genius of Wine by Liu Ling – The translator tells us that the “old gentleman” of this story is Liu Ling himself. This very short passage gives a couple hints of Liu Ling’s philosophy, and relates how he withstood the intervention of “two respectable philanthropists” who tried to get him to quit drinking by berating and lecturing him.

Question for the week: Why are so many people so adamant about what should become of their mortal remains?


Women’s Studies

What an embarrassment! By my count, this is post #199 on this blog. And yet, there has not been a single weekly reading written by a woman. (I honestly thought that I had included a reading by Baroness Orczy, but it seems that I mixed up The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Prisoner of Zenda.) What can account for such a tremendous oversight? A number of factors probably play a part.

One fairly innocuous factor is that the women authors that I am familiar with wrote novels. It is much harder to find an appropriate reading for this blog from a long form book. Prefaces, essays, and the like are much easier to dip into for an excerpt. However, there are quite a few readings on this blog from novels, so that cannot account for much of the disparity.

Additionally, many of the readings on this blog come from so-called “great books” lists. In particular, the Harvard Classics (partially pictured below) has been the an excellent resource. However, a quick review of the index confirms that the editor of the Harvard Classics totally omitted any female authors. It seems that I’m neither the first nor the most prominent curator of readings to do so.

For similar reasons, my reliance on public domain and ancient works certainly skews this blog away from female authors. The vast majority of older works, particularly from antiquity, are by male authors. Aside from Sappho, I am not sure that I could name an ancient Greek woman, let alone an ancient Greek woman author. Although the balance shifts somewhat as we approach modernity, there are simply a lot more readily available works by men than by women.

But perhaps the biggest reason is my own biases and flaws. I gravitate toward authors with whom I am familiar and with whom I perceive common interests and ideas. And those authors are almost exclusively men. (They are also predominantly American or Western European, but that is another bias for another day.) It is not that I don’t believe that women are capable of producing great works; Jane Austen and George Eliot would have wiped out that belief in me if I’d ever held it. But a combination of my experiences, resources, and my own narrow world view has resulted in a reproachable lack of appreciation for female authors. One that I hope to remedy.

To be clear, the solution is not inclusion for inclusion’s sake. Reading anything simply because it was written by a woman is patronizing. It does a disservice to the author by neglecting her merits in favor of her sex. And it does a disservice to the blog and its readers for the same reason. Our time is valuable, so what we read has to have its own worth independent of its author.

The solution, it seems, is to cast a wider net. To seek out new readings from other resources. Rather than relying on my past experience with authors or on their interactions with each other, I need to find a way to encounter a greater variety of writers of quality. I hope not to overlook any truly great books, regardless of who wrote them.

One valuable resource that I have found (at a thrift store for 69¢ per volume) is the Heath Anthology of American Literature. The Heath has the stated goal of publishing the under-appreciated works of women and minorities alongside the established literary canon to present a broader view of the development of American literature. An unsurprising inclusion in the Heath is Anne Bradstreet, the first New World poet of either sex to have her work published in England. Her poetry is clearly of the finest quality, and more than worth the reading. Bradstreet rightfully scoffed at those who would look down on a work because its author wore a dress:

“I am obnoxious to each carping tongue
Who says my hand a needle better fits.
A Poet’s Pen all scorn I should thus wrong,
For such despite they cast on female wits.”

Writing, too, is women’s work. And a woman’s work is never done.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Beer of the week: Dundee India Pale Ale – This New York IPA is pretty amber. The smell is of sweet biscuits and marshmallow. The malt is definitely dominant in the flavor. The beer is hoppy, but it is not overly bitter, and certainly not as strongly hopped as many American IPAs. Dundee makes quite a serviceable beer.

Reading for the week: In Reference to Her Children, 23 June 1659 by Anne Bradstreet – What could be a better reading for Mother’s Day Weekend than this touching poem about a mother’s dedication to her children? Bradstreet does well to portray the pride and joy of motherhood, as well as the bittersweet experience of watching her children grow up and start their own independent lives.

Question for the week: Who are other female authors that would be good readings for this blog? Comment below.


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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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?


Profound Poop Jokes

There is no doubt that P.G. Wodehouse was a brainy fellow. Although he wrote the nincompoop exceedingly well (Bertie Wooster, for example), he also wrote convincingly bright characters (such as Bertie’s valet, Jeeves). Beyond the characters themselves, Wodehouse displayed his education in the form of humorous references to “the poet Burns“, and other literary giants. An excellent example is from his short story Rough-Hew Them How We Will. The title of the story, incidentally, is taken from a line in Hamlet.

About halfway though, Wodehouse makes this observation on the subject of Chaucer:

“It is pretty generally admitted that Geoffrey Chaucer, the eminent poet of the fourteenth century, though obsessed with an almost Rooseveltian passion for the new spelling, was there with the goods when it came to profundity of thought.”

It is understandable if some people associate Chaucer more with toilet humor than with “profundity of thought.” After all, in The Miller’s Tale, young Absalom is tricked into kissing an anus, and is then nearly blinded by a thunderous fart to the face. He gets his revenge by sticking a red-hot poker where the sun don’t shine. Profound, indeed.

As has been mentioned on this blog before, the works of Aristophanes, Rabelais and Swift are filled with serious thoughts as well as scatological humor. It is a testament to the authors’ skills that these universally regarded writers were able to marry the divine and the profane, the intellectual and the bodily, the profound and the downright childish in their works. This shows both range, and an understanding of the whole of the human condition.

Newcastle Brown Ale

Beer of the week: Newcastle Brown Ale – An English beer is a good pair for the Father of English literature. This attractive red-brown beer has long been a favorite of mine. There is sweet, caramel malt in the aroma. The flavor tracks the smell, with malt dominating. There is not a lot of hops to balance the malt out, though, so Newcastle can be a bit too sweet at times.

Reading of the week: The Parson’s Tale by Geoffery Chaucer – Although The Canterbury Tales was not completed, it is clear that this was meant to be the final tale. However, The Parson’s Tale is not a tale at all, but a sermon on sin and penance. Giving the parson the final word was evidently important for Chaucer’s project. This sermon shows a great familiarity with scripture and doctrine, quoting extensively from the Bible as well as Saints Augustine, Ambrose, Bernard, etc. This excerpt focuses on pride, and although the parson is extremely dry and grave, I find his discussion of current fashion very funny. (Particularly his suggestion that particolored hosery creates the impression that the wearer’s “privy members are corrupted by the fire of Saint Anthony, or by cancer, or by other such misfortune,” and the lamentation that tight hose and short jackets cause some people to “show the very boss of their penis and the horrible pushed-out testicles that look like the malady of hernia in the wrapping of their hose; and the buttocks of such persons look like the hinder parts of a she-ape in the full of the moon.”) The narrator is pretty clearly not trying to draw laughs with this section, but I am pretty sure that Chaucer is.

Question of the week: Who is your favorite potty-mouthed profound pontificator?


My Kingdom for a King

As repugnant as many Americans find the idea of monarchy, there are some arguments to be made in favor that particular form of government:

  1. A monarch has a vested interest in the continuing stability of his country. If he may be on the throne for several decades and then pass the crown to his son, there is a lot of incentive for a king to plan for the long-term. Compare this to an elected politician, who is either subject to term-limits or must always have an eye on the polls for the next election. Once he reaches his term-limit, he is at liberty to steal as much as he can and let the next office-holder take the blame. If there is no term-limit or if he has not yet reached it, the elected politician has a lot of incentive to prioritize short-term results lest he be ousted at the next election. Fiscal responsibility, therefore, seems much more likely to exist in a monarchy than in a republic.
  2. A monarch may act as a very effective check on popular government. Because he has no fear of being removed when the people go to the polls, a king may safely attempt to stand in the way of a popular faction that would inappropriately impose itself on others. Emperor Franz Joseph supposedly claimed that his role as monarch was “to protect my peoples from their governments.” Alcohol prohibition in America is a great example of how a dedicated faction can overrun all official opposition with the threat of the ballot box. The result is often gross incursions of the government into private affairs.
  3. A monarch also serves as a unifying principle. Like the flag, the crown is a non-partisan symbol of national unity. To be sure, not every monarch is universally loved. But it is possible for an American president to be elected by a relatively small fraction of the population. (Bush the Second got some 50 million votes in 2000, and the total population of the USA at that time was well over 280 million.) And elections are almost always very decisive. As a result, it is uncommon for Americans generally to “rally behind” their elected officials the same way royal subjects may rally behind their king.

These arguments are certainly somewhat compelling. In particular, the independence of the monarch from popular whims and contentious factions is an attractive feature of the system. History, however, tells us that people are not always better off under a king than under a republic, (or under a rightful king rather than a usurper.) The customary means by which one ascends to the throne is birthright, but not every child of a king is fit to wear the crown. In Meno, Socrates antagonizes Anytus, one of the men who would eventually accused him of corrupting the youth of Athens, by listing great men who had inferior progeny; if Themistocles, Pericles, or Thucydides did not have sons who lived up to their fathers’ reputations, why should we expect great kings to fare any better? And if the notion of birthright is abandoned on these grounds, what is left of monarchy?

Beer of the week: Arthur – Speaking of progeny, Arthur has a family connection. This farmhouse ale is not named for King Arthur, but for one of the brewers’ uncles who grew up on the farm that gives Hill Farmstead Brewery its name. It pours a cloudy straw color with lots of big, white bubbles. The aroma is of yeast and tart grapes or white wine. The finish is more sour than expected, with lots of lemon, white grape, and earthy yeast flavor. I really enjoyed this Vermont treat.

Reading of the week: The Tragedy of Richard II by William Shakespeare, Act III, Scene 2 – When King Richard returns from Ireland, he finds that some of his supporters are fled, others dead, but most have gone over to the usurper, Henry of Bolingbroke. Richard flashes from hope to despair and back (and back again) in this scene. Two of his speeches are of particular interest to me. In the first, Richard enlists nature itself to preserve his monarchy by setting spiders and vipers and toads in Bolingbroke’s way. In his later speech, however, he acknowledges that there is nothing about the nature of kings that separates them from other men: “For you have but mistook me all this while: I live with bread like you, feel want, Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus, How can you say to me, I am a king?”

Question of the week: Are the above arguments for monarchy really compelling? And if so, how can the problem of unfit heirs be remedied adequately to justify a monarchy?


Caius is dead.

The overwhelming majority of lawsuits settle before trial. By some estimates, fewer than 1 out of every 10 cases make it all the way to trial. And for the most part, settlement is the best option for both sides. Going to trial means more court fees, more attorneys’ fees, and, perhaps most importantly, the possibility of simply losing. A litigant who is able to accurately and rationally appraise the value of his case and the probability of success should be able to negotiate a settlement that minimizes his costs and risk. In that light, it seems that the biggest obstacle to settlement is the simple fact that people are not all that rational.

In The Death of Ivan Ilych, Tolstoy presents a beautiful example of a man who rationally knows one thing, but nonetheless refuses to believe it:

The syllogism he had learnt from Kiesewetter’s Logic: “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal,” had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself. That Caius—man in the abstract—was mortal, was perfectly correct, but he was not Caius, not an abstract man, but a creature quite, quite separate from all others. He had been little Vanya, with a mamma and a papa, with Mitya and Volodya, with the toys, a coachman and a nurse, afterwards with Katenka and will all the joys, griefs, and delights of childhood, boyhood, and youth. What did Caius know of the smell of that striped leather ball Vanya had been so fond of? Had Caius kissed his mother’s hand like that, and did the silk of her dress rustle so for Caius? Had he rioted like that at school when the pastry was bad? Had Caius been in love like that? Could Caius preside at a session as he did? “Caius really was mortal, and it was right for him to die; but for me, little Vanya, Ivan Ilych, with all my thoughts and emotions, it’s altogether a different matter. It cannot be that I ought to die. That would be too terrible.”

The Stoics equate nature, god, and reason. The highest good for man, therefore, would be to achieve purely rational thought. The problem, as Tolstoy observes, is that human thought will always consist of an admixture of reason and emotion. In this particular example, self-love clouds the reasoning of Ivan Ilych. In other cases, including a great number of lawsuits, anger or other emotions interfere with one’s ability to think clearly. One simply cannot be purely rational. For the Stoics, self-love and emotions are to be overcome in the name of reason. For Tolstoy, however, a purely rational life would be no life at all. What makes us human is not our ability to reason alone, but all of our emotional and mental capacity.

NiksickoBeer of the week: Nikšićko Pivo – Tolstoy lived through the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. The culmination of that conflict was the Treaty of San Stefano, which granted the Principality of Montenegro official international recognition and expanded territory. Part of the new lands acquired included the city of Nikšić. And it is from Nikšić that this week’s beer comes. Frankly, I hoped for more from my first beer from Montenegro, and I really did not expect much. Despite the artificial coloring listed in the ingredients, the beer is still very pale. It pours with heaps of white foam. There is not much going on flavor-wise in Nikšićko, mostly just cheap grain and a slightly metallic aftertaste. Oh well.

Reading of the week: The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy, Chapter VI – The above-quoted syllogism is somewhat novel to me. I had always heard it with Socrates rather than Caius. This reading really says a lot about the way that humans think, especially how they think about themselves in relation to the rest of the world.

Question for the week: How often do you persist in something out for emotional reasons when you know rationally that it is the wrong choice?