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?
This is the seventh in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts are available here.
INDUSTRY: Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
It is often discouraging to observe how much work has yet to be done. There are papers to write, dishes to wash, bridges to build. And the sheer quantity of work that will remain undone at the end of each day can make one despair of every really making a difference. This pessimism must be combated.
According to Helen Keller, Charles Darwin’s ill-health made it impossible for him to write for any more than half of an hour at a time; “yet in many diligent half-hours he laid anew the foundations of philosophy.” In fact, it seems that Keller vastly undersells Darwin’s illness. According to Wikipedia, “Darwin suffered intermittently from various combinations of symptoms such as: malaise, vertigo, dizziness, muscle spasms and tremors, vomiting, cramps and colics, bloating and nocturnal intestinal gas, headaches, alterations of vision, severe tiredness, nervous exhaustion, dyspnea, skin problems such as blisters all over the scalp and eczema, crying, anxiety, sensation of impending death and loss of consciousness, fainting tachycardia, insomnia, tinnitus, and depression.” Chronic vomiting is bad enough, but to have to find the puke bucket a bucket with blurred vision and vertigo must be a special kind of hellish. Yet somewhere between the cramps and sensation of impending death, Darwin was still able to change the world.
Helen Keller herself was no slouch in the overcoming adversity department. Unable to see or hear, she still learned to read, write, and speak(!) several languages. She also became a noted political advocate and lecturer. But international fame was not her primary ambition. “I long to accomplish a great and noble task;” she writes, “but it is my chief duty and joy to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble. It is my service to think how I can best fulfill the demands that each day makes upon me, and to rejoice that others can do what I cannot.”
So when the mountain of work seems unclimbable, follow Franklin’s advice and waste as little time as possible. Remember Darwin and let nothing, even yourself, prevent you from achieving your goals. Be like Keller and take pride in even the most humble tasks. And heed the exhortation of Thomas Carlyle:
“Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy whole might. Work while it is called To-day; for the Night cometh, wherein no man can work.”
Beer of the week: Sublime Ginger – This hazy, straw-colored offering from Forbidden Root is really good. The base is a dry wheat beer, with ginger, key lime, and botanicals. And those additions all make themselves known. The aroma is dominated by the ginger and citrus. The flavor is bright and limey. The ginger and herbs are also in the flavor, but without as much bite as one might expect. Overall, a nice refreshing drink.
Reading of the week: Optimism by Helen Keller, Part I – Keller’s optimism must be among the most sincere examples in history. For seven years, she lived in a totally isolated world of darkness and silence. Then she learned language, and the inertia of that “first leap out of the darkness” carried her forward for the rest of her life.
Question for the week: Recreation and relaxation are productive to a point; they improve our state of mind and reinvigorate our bodies and souls for the tasks ahead. But is there any clear line between relaxation and idleness?
The night before Thanksgiving, I visited the Lutheran church where my friend’s father is the pastor. His sermon, as one might expect, was about giving thanks. Specifically, he argued that one of the principle advantages of giving thanks is to prolong enjoyment of the blessing. Taking the time to enunciate what one is thankful for effectively draws out the enjoyment of it. Giving thanks beforehand allows one to enjoy the anticipation. Giving thanks afterwards allows the enjoyment to linger. Giving thanks during forces one to focus on what is enjoyable. The sermon really rang true to me. Also, there was a pie social after the service.
The desire to extend enjoyment indefinitely is a constant factor in my day-to-day life. I have watched countless re-runs late into the night rather than go to bed and “give up” on the day. I also have looked for reasons to have another beer rather than stop drinking. The bulk of this blog post, in fact, was written late at night as an excuse to stay up and have another beer rather than go to bed and end my enjoyment of the day.
I not only attempt to drag out time; I am a great hoarder of consumable goods. Halloween candy lasted for months in my childhood because I was keenly interested in prolonging my enjoyment from it for as long as possible. When there is good beer in the house, I ration it carefully. As I mentioned in an earlier post, an elderly Australian man once mocked me for how slowly I consumed a glass of Coopers. He was not a beer drinker himself, so my efforts to explain the purpose of savoring a good beer were wasted on him.
Attempts at prolonged enjoyment are not always successful. I have also let things go to waste rather than accept the finality of their enjoyment. I have let my tea grow cold rather than finish it and accept that it is gone. When I was little, I had toys that I would hardly play with for fear that they would break and thus end my enjoyment. I grew out of nice clothes that I had barely worn since I did not want to risk staining or tearing them. When I was small, I would use my roller-skates only occasionally to minimize the chances that they would get scuffed or damaged. One day, they no longer fit. I had tried so hard to preserve them for future enjoyment that they had become no use to me at all.
No pleasure can be extended indefinitely, but there is usually the option to prolong the enjoyment somewhat by patience and focus and thanksgiving. In the end, a fine touch is required. Neither let the beer grow warm and unpleasant, nor gulp it down without savoring.
Beer of the week: Troegs Perpetual IPA – If only this beer could be enjoyed perpetually. Troegs Perpetual is a lovely golden IPA with a nice foamy head. The aroma is dominated by sweet floral hops, but the bitterness of the hops is very well balanced with nice malt body.
Reading for the week: Gorgias by Plato, lines 493d-495b – A crucial question that this post does not address is whether prolonging pleasure is actually a good thing. In the dialogue Gorgias, Socrates makes his interlocutors squirm by forcing them to address whether even the most base and immoral pleasure seeking can be considered good.
Question for the week: Are efforts to prolong pleasure at odds with an ideal of “taking life as it comes”?
The fear of forgetting is exceedingly common. More than a few people have nightmares about forgetting to study for an exam or forgetting to prepare for a presentation or speech. And it is not difficult to see why the fear of forgetting is so serious; the consequences can be dire. Forgetting an anniversary can result in marital discord. Forgetting to turn off the stove can result in a house fire. Forgetting about a project can result in a lost job. Forgetting is scary.
But forgetting is not only scary because of it’s consequences; it can also be scary because of it’s causes. Have you waken up after a night of drinking and not remembered how you got home? That is really scary. Since you don’t remember getting home, you have no way of knowing how close you may have come to doing something extremely dangerous. It may be the merest accident that you did not get seriously hurt or die, but you have no way to know because you drank so much that you can’t remember. Isn’t that terrifying?
To me, the most terrifying thing about forgetting is the fear of deteriorating mental health. I do not have any reason to think that I personally am losing any of my mental powers, but everybody who reaches old age has reason to fear that their body will outlive their reason, and that prospect is truly horrifying. I plan on living for many more years, but I extremely anxious about the prospect of living past the point where I can remember how to feed myself or recognize my loved ones’ faces.
Forgetting, however, is not always scary or bad. In fact, sometimes remembering is even worse. There is a reason that people talk of “being haunted” by memories. Edgar Allan Poe’s classic poem The Raven is about memory and the terrifying possibility of never being able to forget. The poem starts with the narrator reading a book of “forgotten lore.” And why is he reading forgotten lore? In the hopes that he can forget his lost love. He is trying to drive out his memories and replace them with something else that has already been forgotten.
The poem’s titular character, the raven, is the embodiment of the narrator’s inability to forget. Try as he might, the narrator will never rid himself of the bird just as he will never rid himself of the memory of “the rare and radiant maiden” whom he has lost. Even when he feels that he is on the verge of forgetting, when he gets distracted by other thoughts, he is brutally and unexpectedly forced to remember by the ominous fowl. And the worst thing about the raven is the knowledge that the narrator will be able to forget nevermore.
Beer of the week: Ghost Ship White IPA – With Halloween just around the corner, a beer that is advertized as “scary good” seems appropriate. This cloudy orange brew comes from Capital Brewery in Wisconsin. It pours with a sticky white head. The aroma is of strong hops with a hit of grapefruit. The smell, however, is a bit misleading; the body of the beer is lighter and the flavor is less hoppy than I expected based on the aroma. Although the flavor is surprisingly slight, the finish has a pleasant spice and a bit of a tingle from the citrusy hops.
Reading of the week: The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe – Surely this is one of the most famous American poems ever written. In The Raven, Poe does not mention beer, but he does mention nepenthe. Nepenthe is an ancient Greek potion to induce forgetfulness and chase away sorrow. Sounds like beer to me.
Question of the week: What fear is worse: forgetting something important, or the inability to forget something devastating?
The only time I was ever in an ambulance was when I suffered a broken nose and several fractures to my upper maxilla. As a consequence of those injuries, I had my jaw wired shut for quite a while. To add insult to injury, I found that when the wires were finally removed my jaw muscles had become so tight that I still could not open my mouth. I was so looking forward to solid food, but would have to wait another week.
My disappointment at that time stands in stark contrast to my state of mind while sitting in the ambulance. I had just been reading Epictetus shortly before the injuries occurred, so I had an idea fresh in my head: “If, for example, you are fond of a specific ceramic cup, remind yourself that it is only ceramic cups in general of which you are fond. Then, if it breaks, you will not be disturbed.” So I thought to myself (no fooling, I actually thought this,) “if your face gets broken, you shouldn’t be disturbed. Faces occasionally break, but that is beyond your control.”
I now suspect that I was simply in shock. Once I was at the emergency room, I was miserable. Not very stoic at all. I am not sure that Epictetus would have been more possessed than I was, but he certainly talks a big game. After saying that you shouldn’t be upset if your cup breaks, he says that the same is true of your wife and children. “If you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies.” Brutal.
Since Epictetus was a crippled ex-slave who never married, it is impossible to say how he would actually react to losing a wife or child. Job, however, presents an interesting look at the way a Stoic responds to such a loss. To be sure, Job is a very difficult book to understand and it is arguable that Job’s reliance on faith is somehow opposed to the stoic’s reliance on reason. However, Job certainly starts out sounding like Epictetus.
Epictetus: He who has given takes away… [You say,] “I would have my little children with me and my wife.” What, are they yours? do they not belong to the Giver, and to Him who made you? then will you not give up what belongs to others?
Job (upon learning of the death of his children): The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.
Beer of the week: Blue Moon Belgian White – Incidentally, the same year that I took that ambulance ride, I also stole a few Blue Moons from some friends while playing a prank on them. I sincerely doubt that there was any karmic relationship between the two events. Blue Moon is meant to be a Belgian-style wheat ale. The aroma is sweet and yeasty, with just a hint of fruit. Typical of the style, this unfiltered beer is pale and very hazy. Overall, Blue Moon is rather bland. There is a distinct wheat flavor, but it is similar to that of a water cracker. There is a tiny bit of spice on the back end, but not enough to salvage this beer.
Reading of the week: The Book of Job, Chapter 6 – Job may come across as a stoic at first, but I could hardly imagine Epictetus saying “Oh that my grief were throughly weighed, and my calamity laid in the balances together! For now it would be heavier than the sand of the sea!” On a bad day, this chapter is great for putting life into perspective.
Question of the week: Is it really possible to suffer a significant loss and not be disturbed? If somebody important to you died, could you simply shrug it off as Epictetus suggests, or would you curse your lot as Job did?
As the days get sunnier and warmer, I am reminded of a classic urban legend:
A woman went shopping for groceries. After she finished at the grocery store, she placed her purchases on the back seat of her car in the parking lot. She had a few more errands to run, so she left the groceries in the car while she went about her business. When she returned and entered the car, which had been warmed considerably by the midday sun, she heard a loud BANG and suffered a blow to the back of the head. She reached back to feel the point of impact and found find a gooey mass. Naturally she started to panic. With both hands she attempted to hold her brains in place and screamed for help. When other shoppers came to see what was wrong, she said that she had been shot in the head and that her brains were exposed. Upon closer examination, her brains were safely in place, but she was desperately pressing warm biscuit dough into her hair. Apparently, the heat in the car had caused a tube of biscuit dough to pop, splattering its contents on the woman. One of the “rescuers” told her, “Ma’am, you will be alright. You’ve been shot by the Pillsbury Doughboy.”
This story is a rather amusing little farce, but it says something important about sensory perception and the disconnect between our personal experience and external stimuli. The lady in the story felt warm dough on her head, but her senses did not convey to her mind the reality of the situation. The sense of touch, even when functioning properly, never totally captures the nature of the thing touched.
Descartes used a similar, although far less amusing story to make this very point. A soldier returning from the field feels a sharp pain in his side and thinks that he has suffered a wound that he did not notice in the heat of battle. Upon closer inspection, however, a strap on his armor simply became twisted, causing a buckle to dig into his side. If senses accurately and fully conveyed the nature of stimuli, then the soldier would have known immediately that the pain in his side was caused by the buckle.
To be fair, our senses are pretty trustworthy most of the time and we combine all sorts of additional context and sensory input to determine what is really going on. We are constantly and effortlessly making judgments based on our perceptions and that frees up our limited brainpower to work on more complicated questions. Questions such as what beer to drink.
Beer of the week: Fin du Monde – French-Canadian brewery Unibroue makes some very well regarded beers. Fin du Monde is probably their best known brew, a Belgian-style tripel. It smells of yeast and cider. The body is remarkably smooth and the taste is outstanding. There are hints of pepper and the considerable alcohol content (9%) makes itself known at the end. The aftertaste is similar to that of a dry cider, encouraging sip after sip.
Reading of the week: Le Monde by Rene Descarts – Although Descartes apparently intended to write a complete philosophy of the world, his work was never completed. Instead the title Le Monde (“The World”) was attached after his death to the first part of that project, Treatise on Light.
Question of the week: Humans are extremely visual, and our trust in sight as a reliable source of information is evident in the idiom “seeing is believing.” But we have all experienced optical illusions, so we know that sight cannot always be trusted. Descartes writes that “Of all our senses, touch is the one considered least deceptive and the most secure.” Is he right? Which sense most reliably presents our mind with the reality of the outside world?