Kind Nepenthe

This is the twenty-second in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXII: The Odyssey, Homer

Everyone has a memory or two that he’d rather not. But, as the saying goes, “some things cannot be unseen.” We are blessed and cursed with our powers of memory, but what would result from the ability to chose what memories we retain or erase?

On the tv show Arrested Development, there is a character who takes pills that he calls “forget-me-nows”. The pills are, in fact, Rohypnol: commonly known as roofies. He drugs himself to forget decisions that he regrets. Predictably, by wiping out his memories, he dooms himself to make the same mistakes again, unable to learn and grow from them.

In Homer’s Odyssey, Helen prepares a draught of nepenthe to help Menelaus and others forget their sorrow over comrades lost during and after the Trojan War, particularly the then-missing Odysseus. Nepenthe literally means “anti-sorrow”, but Homer tells us that it worked by bringing forgetfulness. The characters continue to reminisce, however, and ultimately resort to sleep to ease their sorrow. “But come,” says Telemachus, “bid us to bed, that forthwith we may take our joy of rest beneath the spell of sleep.” Perhaps the drug induced the sleep, and in sleep the heroes could forget their melancholy, but it is not clear at all that the nepenthe delivered on its promise of forgetfulness.

Nepenthe is also mentioned Poe’s The Raven. The narrator exhorts himself, “Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget the lost Lenore.” The raven predictably replies, “nevermore.” The narrator has no literal nepenthe, and, as is clear from the raven’s reply, none exists. He is doomed to remember his lost love. There is no nepenthe to forget sorrow and no balm in Gilead to cure a broken heart.

Whether we learn from our memories as GOB fails to in Arrested Development, or we put our memory aside only while we sleep as the characters of The Odyssey do, or whether our memories drive us mad as in The Raven, we cannot really cannot chose to forget. Our only real option is to turn our memories to our advantage, lest they destroy us.

Beer of the week: Tell Tale Heart IPA – Happy Friday the 13th! By all rights, this beer should be paired with Poe’s story The Tell Tale Heart. But that Poe is not included in the Harvard Classics, and I had no interest in sitting on this review for a year until I am through with this Harvard series. So here it is. RavenBeer makes a whole line of Poe-themed brews. This is an orangish IPA with a nice, creamy head. There are nice floral hops in the aroma and a well-balanced combo of malt and hops. Tell Tale Heart is a good East Coast IPA.

Reading of the week: The Odyssey by Homer, Book IV, lines 184 – 314 – After Helen has poured the nepenthe, she tells the company how Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, once sneaked into the besieged city of Troy.

Question for the week: What would you forget if you could?

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What Hope

This is the twentieth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XX: The Divine Comedy, Dante

Having descended to the very pit of hell, and climbed the mountain of purgatory, Dante the pilgrim at last ascends into the celestial spheres of paradise. As was the case through Inferno and Purgatorio, Dante meets many souls in Paradiso. Among them, James son of Zebedee. St. James poses three questions about hope.

In context, the questions clearly refer to hope as a theological virtue. In the previous canto, St. Peter inquires about faith. In the next, St. John tests Dante on charity. Canto XXV is about the sister of those two virtues: hope. But how do Dante’s answers square with the common definition of hope rather than the theological?

What is hope?

Dante says that hope is the sure expectance of a joy to come. This oversteps the usual meaning of hope. It is possible to hope for a joy that never does come. (As when I hope that my favorite baseball team will win.) On the other hand, if one is absolutely certain that a joy is forthcoming, we might not call that hope at all. Such certainty would preclude mere hope.

Rather than Dante’s formulation, it seems more likely that commonplace hope is the present experience of a joy to come. Hope allows us to experience now some portion of a possible future joy. For example, I hope one day to visit Munich for Oktoberfest. That present hope of a potential future occurrence allows me to experience some joy today in the planning and dreaming. Even though I am not certain that I will ever make it back to Germany, I hope that I will. I am therefore able to take present joy in the hoping.

How does it flourish in you?

Dante does not answer this question for himself. Rather, Beatrice vouches for his hope. She tells St. James that not a single member of the church has more hope than he.

Taking the mundane meaning of hope, we may see that people are always possessed of some hope. Humans are always forward thinking. To be sure, sometimes we do not think very far ahead, but we always think ahead somewhat. Even as we reach for the beer mug, we look forward to the pleasure of taking a sip. Is the expected joy more than a moment away? No. But is it in the future relative to when we start to reach for the glass? Absolutely. Because the first motions toward any objective are aimed at the completion of that objective, there really is no such thing as “instant gratification”. Rather, every single decision is made with an eye to a future good. The only truly instant gratification that exists is hope. Even before we begin to move toward the future good, we experience some joy of it through hope.

What is its source?

Dante, still discussing the theological virtue of hope, says that its source is scripture. He singles out the Book of Isaiah, John’s Gospel, and the Epistle of St. James. (What an apple-polisher!)

Surely scripture can be a source of commonplace hope, but we need not set our sights so high. In fact, it is the smallest things that may be the greatest sources of hope. As discussed above, every action is performed with the hope of achieving some goal. The smallest actions are the most likely to succeed. I flip the light switch in hopes of lighting the room; I go to the bar hoping to get a beer; I cross the street hoping to get to the other side. In all of these things, my chance of success is so high, that I am entitled to hope for the best. Cynical as it may sound, I have virtually no hope of becoming an astronaut at this late stage in my life. So, although the potential future joy is very great, the present “hope value” is quite low. And although the joy of trying a new beer is relatively low compared to visiting the moon, the odds that I will like the beer of the week are quite high. As a result, the present hope value (to coin a term) is quiet high.

Anyway, I hope you liked this post.

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Beer of the week: Mississippi Mud Black & Tan – From the celestial spheres to the Mississippi Mud. Pre-bottled black & tan misses out on the very best feature of the classic mixed beer: the layering. Layering is not only visually appealing, it allows the drinker to experience the two beers as they mix, so no two sips are ever quite the same. Even so, pre-mixed black & tan is usually delicious. This is a very tasty combination of porter and pilsner. It is deep amber in color with a creamy tan head. The aroma is of fresh sourdough and cocoa. The flavor is full without being heavy, with some nice dark cherry notes in the finish. Good thing it is sold by the quart; one glass might not be enough. Oh, and the name is a lie; Mississippi Mud is brewed in upstate New York.

Reading of the week: Paradiso by Dante Alighieri, Canto XXV – This canto is pretty well outlined above.

Question for the week: Is Dante’s definition of hope (the sure expectance of a joy to come) or my definition (the present experience of a potential future joy) better? Is there a better definition still?


Donne and Done

This is the fifteenth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XV: Pilgrim’s Progress, Donne & Herbert, Bunyan, Walton

In his youth, the poet John Donne had a motto: “How much shall I be changed, before I am changed!” Of course, he was right. As the ancient saying goes, change is the only constant, and humans prove no exception to that rule. Even how we react to change changes over time.

“Variable, and therfore miserable condition of Man;” Donne writes in his Meditation I. He goes on to lament that despite our rigorous efforts to maintain our health, “a Sicknes unprevented for all our diligence, unsuspected for all our curiositie; nay, undeserved, if we consider only disorder, summons us, seizes us, possesses us, destroyes us in an instant.”

Yet, when Donne faced his terminal illness, he embraced the final change. Rather than the careful study of health by means of deliberation “upon [his] meats, and drink, and ayre, and exercises,” as described in Meditation I, Donne more or less abandoned such attempts to remain healthy and alive. He followed through on about half of the regimen prescribed by his doctor, but only did that much for the doctor’s sake. He swore that he would take no more medicine, even “upon the best moral assurance of having twenty years added to his life.”

But it is not very surprising to see a change from fearing death to embracing it. Especially in a man who experienced at various times deep depressions and religious ecstasies. One who went from being a penniless love poet to being a prominent Anglican preacher. How much he changed before he changed!

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Beer of the week: Staropramen Premium- Some things do not seem to change. The Staropramen brand has been registered for over a hundred years, and brewing in what is now the Czech Republic has been going on for ten times that long. This is a classic Czech pilsner. It is clear and golden. The aroma is a bit of bread with a bit of those traditional hops. Like the smell, the taste is very well balanced between the malt and hops. This is, simply, an exemplar of the style.

Reading for the week: The Life of Dr. Donne by Izaak Walton – Izaak Walton is best known for The Compleat Angler, a meditation on the art of fishing. He also wrote some biography, primarily of fellow anglers, including his friend John Donne. This excerpt describes Donne’s preparation for his final change.

Question for the week: Like everything else, tastes change. How has your taste for beer changed since your first brew?


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?


The Father of Invention

This is the eighth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume VIII: Nine Greek Dramas

Prometheus, the light-bearer, is known most for giving humanity the gift of fire. But in Æschylus’ version of the myth in Prometheus Bound, he taught a great many arts to man, including: brickwork and carpentry; astronomy; agriculture; calculation and writing; the domestication of animals; sailing; medicine; augury; and metallurgy.

What stands out the most about such an important catalogue of arts is the fact that all of these skills predate not only the play, but recorded history itself. As John Meynard Keynes put in his essay Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren:

“Almost everything which really matters and which the world possessed at the commencement of the modern age was already known to man at the dawn of history. Language, fire, the same domestic animals which we have to-day, wheat, barley, the vine and the olive, the plough, the wheel, the oar, the sail, leather, linen and cloth, bricks and pots, gold and silver, copper, tin, and lead -and iron was added to the list before 1000 B.C.- banking, statecraft, mathematics, astronomy, and religion. There is no record of when we first possessed these things.”

We may add to that list, of course, the brewing of beer. Indeed, some think that the discovery (or invention) of beer, like the other innovations listed above, was instrumental in the in the formation of civilization. Æschylus’ fire-bearer might just as well have been a Libation Bearer.

Beer of the week: Voodoo Ranger 8 Hop Pale Ale – New Belgium brews a number of varieties of its Voodoo Ranger line. The standard IPA was the beer of the week a fortnight ago. This version is slightly cloudy, with a nice hoppy aroma. The smell has notes of pineapple and apple. The 8 Hop Pale Ale is a nice beer, but there is something in the aftertaste that I cannot place and that I don’t care for. I like the other Voodoo Ranger varieties better.

Reading of the week: Prometheus Bound by Æschylus, Lines 435-567 – This excerpt of the play really does portray Prometheus as the greatest patron of humanity. “All arts, for mortals’ use, Prometheus gave.”

Question for the week: Is Keynes correct in his assertion that no innovation “that really matters” was discovered or invented “in the four thousand years which ended (say) in A. D. 1700”?


Tint in Translation

This is the sixth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume VI: Poems and Songs, Burns

One obvious observation about the Harvard Classics is the very heavy Anglo-American bias. This is evident even from the very first volume: Franklin, Woolman, Penn. None of those authors are indispensable in a set that purports to be a collection of essential readings for a basic liberal education, but all are Anglo-American. Whether Dr. Eliot’s reliance upon American and British authors is reasonable, it is at very least explainable.

The Harvard Classics was published for an American public, with the intent to provide the framework of a liberal education. As such, at least twa considerations favor American and British works over others.

In the first place, it makes sense that an American liberal education should focus on American thought and literature. If a similar project were undertaken in France, it would be shocking if more French authors and works were not included. The same would be true of Russia, or China, or any other nation or region. British authors similarly feature heavily in the Harvard Classics because the history of American thought and literature is inextricably linked with that of England. (William Penn is an instructive inclusion on this point; he is American in the sense that he is the founder and namesake of Pennsylvania, but he was an English gentleman his entire life.)

In the second place, the inclusion of American and British works avoids the serious problem of translation. The books, intended for an English-speaking public, must needs be in English. To the extent that Dr. Eliot was able to select works already in his native tongue, he was able to avoid the serious, and occasionally impossible, task of finding a good translation.

This consideration brings us to this week’s volume: the poems and songs of Robert Burns. On the one hand, Burns is an important part of the Anglo-American literary tradition. On the other hand, his most famous works were written in Scots. (The debate over whether Lowland Scots is a distinct language or merely a dialect must be put off for another day. For now, it is enough to note that it is has limited mutual intelligibility with English.) Although much of Burns’ Scots writing is clear enough for the average American Reader, his vocabulary often requires notes or a dictionary. For example, in The Twa Dogs, (the title of which, itself, is in Scots but is readily comprehensible,) some lines are practically straight English:

“Love blinks, Wit slaps, an’ social Mirth
Forgets there’s Care upo’ the earth.”

Some lines, however, are all but unintelligible without aide:

“At kirk or market, mill or smiddie,
Nae tawted tyke, tho’ e’er sae duddie,
But he wad stan’t, as glad to see him,
An’ stroan’t on stanes an’ hillocks wi’ him.”

And Burns is but one example of this sort of problem. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Middle English can be a real struggle to understand. Even American authors who write in dialect can be a tough read. Consider this quotation from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn:

“Oh, it’s de dad-blame’ witches, sah, en I wisht I was dead, I do. Dey’s awluz at it, sah, en dey do mos’ kill me, dey sk’yers me so. Please to don’t tell nobody ’bout it sah, er ole Mars Silas he’ll scole me; ‘kase he say dey AIN’T no witches. I jis’ wish to goodness he was heah now– DEN what would he say! I jis’ bet he couldn’ fine no way to git aroun’ it DIS time. But it’s awluz jis’ so; people dat’s SOT, stays sot; dey won’t look into noth’n’en fine it out f’r deyselves, en when YOU fine it out en tell um ’bout it, dey doan’ b’lieve you.”

Difficult to understand, perhaps, but fun.


Beer of the week: Magic Hat #9 – This Vermont beer is a very solid choice. It is clear and amber. The aroma is of malt and some sour, dark fruit. Apricot is certainly the star of the flavor, backed by bready malt. Even so, the beer is not overly sweet, just darn good. And I really dig that the 12 oz. bottle is labeled as “3/4 pint”.

Reading of the week: The Twa Dogs by Robert Burns – This poem is a great piece of satire by Burns. The dogs, one a farmers collie and the other a lord’s Newfoundland(?), discourse about how different the lives of the rich are from those of the poor.

Question for the week: Is it better to have copious notes, explaining even obvious words or analogies, or to have too few notes, requiring lots of guesswork?


Origin Story

One of my most vocal critics recently commented about this blog, “It’s not like you write anything original; you just rehash the ideas of classical authors.” For the most part, I agree. Even the original poetry that I’ve posted here is absolutely packed with classical references.

But my critic’s observation is, itself, unoriginal. Virtually nothing is wholly original.

“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” – Ecclesiastes

“If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” – Issac Newton

“A thought is often original, though you have uttered it a hundred times.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

“When Shakespeare is charged with debts to his authors, Landor replies, ‘Yet he was more original than his originals. He breathed upon dead bodies and brought them into life.'” – Ralph Waldo Emerson, quoting Walter Savage Landor, discussing William Shakespeare

“As the ancients
Say wisely, have a care o’ th’ main chance,
And look before you ere you leap;
For as you sow, ye are like to reap.” – Samuel Butler, paraphrasing John Lyly, John Heywood, and St. Paul

“[The] borrowing and refurbishing of shop-worn goods, as a matter of fact, is the invariable habit of traders in ideas, at all times and everywhere. . . .  At the moment of the contemporary metaphysician’s loftiest flight, when he is most gratefully warmed by the feeling that he is far above all the  ordinary airlanes and has absolutely novel concept by the tail, he is suddenly pulled up by the discovery that what is entertaining him is simply the ghost of some ancient idea that his school-master forced into him in 1887, or the mouldering corpse of a doctrine that was made official in his country during the late war, or a sort of fermentation-product, to mix the figure, of a banal heresy launched upon him recently by his wife.” – H. L. Mencken

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Beer of the week: Bavaria Premium – This beer is fairly unoriginal. The name clearly meant to evoke thoughts of the great beer-producing region of Southeast Germany, despite the fact that this beer is from Holland. Similarities in the packaging and price of this beer led me to speculate that Bavaria is a product of the same brewery that gave us Hollandia. A quick search indicates that my hunch was correct. Bavaria is a golden pils with little head retention or aroma. There is a malty sweetness that has a hint of honey. For the price, it is not a bad choice, though I prefer a bit more hops in my lagers.

Reading of the week: In Defense of Women by H.L. Mencken –  The introduction to this book is typical Mencken: plenty of wit and cynicism, and, ultimately, a good deal of sense. “If I knew what was true, I’d probably be willing to sweat and strive for it, and maybe even to die for it to the tune of bugle-blasts. But so far I have not found it.”

Question of the week: Many argue that the word “unique” does not admit of degrees; something either is or is not unique. Is the same true of “original”? Can something be “slightly” or “very” original?