This is the twenty-seventh in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXII: English Essays: Sidney to Macaulay
This blog is more than seven years old, yet somehow, the ultimate “question for the week” has not been asked: if you could have a beer with any author, who would you chose? And, to take it to another level, what beer would you order for the two of you? A few answers suggest themselves to me.
Helen Keller – Keller wrote in her autobiography, “I remember the morning that I first asked the meaning of the word, ‘love.'” Because she only began to learn language at the age of 7, she had distinct memories of her first words and her first exploration of language as a method for abstract thought. It would be amazing to converse with her about the nature of language and how it shapes thought. Because she is from Alabama, I would pick a light and refreshing kölsch. Unfortunately, I’d be worried about our ability to actually communicate. Although she learned to speak, she never could speak clearly enough to be understood by most people. And as for her understanding me, she’d need a translator or to feel my mouth move as I talk. Either way, it seems like a bit much to manage while having a drink. (Also, check out this video of her talking; it’s pretty wild.)
H. L. Mencken – I would love to hear Mencken apply his caustic wit to all of our modern inanities. With our current political and social climate, he would have a near limitless supply of zingers. Moreover, his humor may be a guide to truths that I might otherwise have missed. “The final test of truth is ridicule,” he wrote. “Very few dogmas have ever faced it and survived. Huxley laughed the devils out of the Gadarene swine. Not the laws of the United States but the mother-in-law joke brought the Mormons to surrender. Not the horror of it but the absurdity of it killed the doctrine of infant damnation. But the razor edge of ridicule is turned by the tough hide of truth. How loudly the barber-surgeons laughed at Huxley—and how vainly! What clown ever brought down the house like Galileo? Or Columbus? Or Darwin?” Because Mencken was such Teutonophile, I would order a German-style dark lager. It is possible, of course, that he would be too caustic (or just too big a fan of Nietzche) to be good company.
Benvenuto Cellini – Cellini is definitely my wildcard pick. On the one hand, if his Autobiography is half true, I’d be in for a night to remember. On the other hand, if his Autobiography is half true, I’d stand more than a passing chance of getting stabbed by the end of the night. For Cellini, nothing but the strongest malt liquor would do. He’d tell great stories over a beer, but it is probably not worth the risk.
Francis Bacon – So many of the names that jump to mind in response to this question are people of whom I’d have a hundred questions. But I would want to drink with Bacon to hear what questions he has for me. Bacon revolutionized the way we think about inquiry in science and philosophy. I think I could learn a tremendous amount just hearing what he is curious about. (Also, I would try to suss out whether he was the real Shakespeare.) Because of Bacon’s interest in technology, I’d order something new and experimental. Perhaps a beer brewed with oysters or a beer “hopped” with cannabis.
Beer of the week: Brooklyn Naranjito – Like several beers from Brooklyn Brewery, Naranjito is only getting limited releases around the world. This is a very pale and slightly hazy beer with a nice head of small white bubbles. The aroma of citrusy hops and orange zest is backed by that same citrus bitterness in the flavor. By the end of the sip, the bitterness is balanced by the malt, so the bitterness doesn’t hang in the throat as much as with some other beers. Because it is brewed with orange peel rather than orange juice or flesh, Naranjito’s orange notes are not especially fruity or sweet. Overall, a very nice beer.
Reading of the week: Of Persons One Would Wish to Have Seen by William Hazlitt – Although this essay is somewhat longer than the usual weekly reading, it is certainly worth the time. Hazlitt’s good friend (and fellow literary luminary) Charles Lamb scoffed at Isaac Newton, John Locke, William Shakespeare and John Milton as possible answers to this week’s question. Newton and Locke, he opined, were not personally interesting beyond their written works. And he’d gotten enough of an impression of Milton and Shakespeare from their portraits. The other suggestions in the essay range from Voltaire to Genghis Khan.
Question for the week: Who would you share a beer with if you could pick anybody? Tell us in the comments below.
One of the easiest mistakes to make when reading a story is ignoring the narrator. Not ignoring what the narrator says, but ignoring who the narrator is. Like an eye witness on the stand in a murder trial, a narrator’s biases, perception, and credibility ought to be carefully criticized.
Among the most suspect narrators are autobiographers. Who could possibly be less reliable than somebody testifying to their own great deeds? Giacomo Casanova would likely be forgotten today if he had not published outlandish memoirs of his adventures and sexual conquests. Similarly, Benvenuto Cellini would only be known as a relatively minor Renaissance artist if not for his (quite literally) incredible autobiography which features not only daring feats, but supernatural beings. But there is good reason to question the reliability of even less outrageous autobiographers. Neither the Confessions of Augustine nor Rousseau are totally reliable since each man had a specific agenda in writing about his own life. Benjamin Franklin was notoriously self-serving in his public and professional life, so why not in his autobiography?
Even more academic work must be critically examined for author bias. Herodotus, “the father of history”, never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Plutarch was similarly more interested in the stories of his Parallel Lives than the facts. (To say nothing of the fact that both Herodotus and Plutarch include anecdotes about events and conversations that they could have no way of knowing.) And how could Tacitus be objective about the lives of the early emperors of Rome when he was a member of the Senate that had lost so much of its power to those princes?
What is easier, but no less important, is to assess the biases, perceptional flaws, and reliability of fictional narrators. Faulkner has a habit of telling his stories through very unreliable narrators. The mentally retarded narrator Benjamin in The Sound and the Fury obviously has perceptional issues that make it very difficult to be sure what is actually going on. Similarly, his older brother Quentin’s deteriorating mental health makes him an unreliable narrator. In As I Lay Dying the narrators include a very confused little boy, a dead woman, and a young man sent to a mental institution. Clearly they are not all capable of telling the entire story.
Obviously the reader of any story cannot simply take everything the narrator says at face value. That is not to say that the narrator or the story itself should be totally discounted. Despite the observations above, not one of the books that I have mentioned is not worth reading. You can trust me, right?
Beer of the week: Post Road Pumpkin Ale – Halloween is tomorrow, so we are well and truly into the season for pumpkin beer (and pumpkin everything else.) The Brooklyn Brewing Company makes some fine brews, not the least of which is Post Road. This pretty orange beer pours with a fluffy head and smells of gingerbread. The rich, full body of Post Road is balanced nicely by tingling carbonation and spice. It evokes thoughts of warm pumpkin pie without trying to taste like pie. It is still a beer, and it tastes like a beer. A good one, at that.
Reading for the week: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving – This story is a Halloween classic. What I have never considered before, however, is the fact that Irving does not tell the story in his own name. Before the story even begins, Irving tells us that it was “found among the papers of the late Diedrich Knickerbocker”. Is the story more or less reliable because it was found rather than written by Irving?
Question for the week: This post is about narrators of stories and histories, but what about purely philosophical writings (if such a thing exists)? How much must one know about Kant’s background before he can seriously study Kant’s writings? How much does it matter which pseudonym Kierkegaard used for a given work?