The question “why do bad things happen to good people?” is a classic of philosophy and theology. But rather than address that question head on, perhaps it is better to pursue a more practical inquiry. Once we accept the premise that “bad things happen to good people”, the practical question is “how should one deal with bad things happening?”
Obviously, there is no shortage of literature and philosophy that could shed light on this question. The Book of Job, Augustine’s Confessions, Epictetus’s Handbook all spring to mind, and those are just among the writings that have already been featured here. But time is short and my beer is getting warm, so I’ll limit myself to three examples of how calamity may be met:
When the title character of Robinson Crusoe found himself stranded on a desert island his reaction seems somewhat undignified. He relates:
“After I had got to shore and escaped drowning, instead of being thankful to God for my deliverance, having first vomited, with the great quantity of saltwater which had got into my stomach, and recovering myself a little, I ran about the shore wringing my hands and beating my head and face, exclaiming at my misery, and crying out, ‘I was undone, undone!’ till, tired and faint, I was forced to lie down on the ground to repose, but durst not sleep for fear of being devoured.”
But eventually, Crusoe was able to turn his mind and energies toward practical work. He collected necessary goods from among the shipwreck, including books, paper, and ink. He also set about constructing a habitation complete with shelves and furniture. Only after he had taken care of the immediate bodily concerns of his predicament could he turn to contemplation and religion. It looks like dedicating one’s energy to the labor of surviving is the key to bridging the gap between despair and contemplation. One can’t properly reflect while still in a panic, so Crusoe must settle himself down by establishing his settlement.
But what happens when there is no labor to be performed? What if all work is already accomplished or if all work is futile? This is the condition of Boethius in his Consolation of Philosophy. Boethius was imprisoned by Theodoric the Great on a charge of treason. Realizing that his situation was inexorable, he fell to weeping. Like Crusoe, Boethius was initially consumed by despair. But unlike Crusoe, Boethius had no practical labor to turn his mind from his grief. But he did have a pen and ink. Even without the bridge of practical work, Boethius was able to direct his mind to philosophy. In a prison cell, sure that he would lose his life shortly, he produced what proved to be one of the most influential philosophical works the in world. Boethius was able to move directly from despair to contemplation, without needing some labor to take his mind off of his predicament.
And finally, for those who have neither the practical skills of Crusoe, nor the intellectual powers of Boethius, one can always take the Baudelaire approach to dealing with the inevitable calamities of life: Get Drunk.
Beer of the week: Staropramen Unfiltered (Nefiltrovaný) – This unfiltered wheat beer is quite a treat. Unlike many wheat beers, this one has a strong aroma of floral hops. The beer itself is very cloudy and the remaining yeast provides some extra texture and spice. Although it is sweet, with hints of fruit, the hops and coriander provide a finish that really balances the sweetness.
Reading for the week: The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, Book I, Sections 2 &3 – Last week’s claim that Chaucer was a profound thinker is somewhat bolstered by the fact that Chaucer translated The Consolation of Philosophy from Latin. It was, in Chaucer’s day, perhaps the single most popular philosophical work.
Question for the week: What do you do when bad things happen?
There are more forms of intoxication than alcohol induced drunkenness. And I am not referring to drugs. “Drunk with power” is more than fanciful speech. Euphoria after exercise is a kind of intoxication. Byron suggested music as an intoxicant. Baudelaire advocated poetry and even virtue for a reliable high. But these other sorts of intoxicants can be quite as dangerous as any drug.
Three coincident events led me to consider the dangers of such intoxicants. First, I started receiving Lapham’s Quarterly. Lapham’s is a literary magazine that includes a very wide range of excerpts and poems. I feel confident that more than a few readings on this blog will be inspired by Lapham’s. Second, Pope Francis is visiting the United States until Sunday evening. And finally, the recent Republican debates have spent a fair bit of time focused on how to “deal with” ISIS and Iran.
These may seem unrelated, but in one of the back issues of Lapham’s there was an excerpt from Charles Mackay’s Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions about Pope Urban II riling the people to war in the Holy Land. History repeats itself and, as Da Vinci said, “everything connects to everything else.”
Two particularly dangerous intoxicants are combined in Mackay’s story: personality cult and military adventurism. Some people are positively enraptured by the presence of a strong personality who has a way with words. And some people seek the thrill of conquest as incessantly as any junkie seeks his next fix. These two intoxicants are often combined with disastrous results. Among the greatest classical examples is the failed Sicilian Expedition by Athens during the Peloponnesian War. Alcibiades was a captivating figure and was able to stir the Athenians so thoroughly up that they neglected wiser advice and set about the course of events that would eventually see their own city fall into enemy hands.
Luckily, the current pontiff is not rallying the people to war. But his popularity, even among non-Catholics, is worthy of critical examination. Many people who see him on his American visit are genuinely ecstatic. And like all intoxication, intoxication with a personality can cloud one’s judgement.
More dangerous, probably, are the Republican presidential hopefuls (to say nothing of the equally dangerous Democratic hopefuls.) They aspire to have their own personality cults. Some of the candidates are already cult figures in some circles. And since the politics of the United States is war, there is little doubt that whoever wins will drum up military adventures that intoxicate the thrill seekers and zealots.
Some drugs are safer than others, and I wouldn’t take a sip of any drink that was mixed by somebody I don’t trust.
Beer of the week: Svyturys Ekstra – Lithuania has been a predominantly Catholic nation since the relatively successful Northern Crusades, when the Pope Celestine III declared holy war against the Baltic pagans. Catholicism was officially forbidden during the period of USSR control, but it has bounced back considerably. (Astute readers will have noticed that the map in this photo predates the dissolution of the Soviet Union, so Lithuania is not displayed as an independent nation.) Svyturys Ekstra is straw colored. There is not much aroma to speak of, except a little sweet grass and citrus. Malty sweetness dominates the flavor, with biscuit notes and a hint of tart bitterness at the end.
Reading of the week: Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions by Charles Mackay – “Urban the Second,” writes Mackay, “was one of the most eloquent men of the day.” The pope expertly rallied an eager crowd to war in a distant land. Promising salvation for fighting the infidels yielded an unexpected result (although in hind-sight a quite natural one.) Sure of their absolution, the crusaders engaged in all manner of vice and debauchery.
Question of the week: Moderate consumption of alcohol is not unhealthy, what about a moderate indulgence in getting intoxicated by personality?
Happy Friday the 13th! Today I will focus on one of the spookiest, creepiest poets of all time: Charles Baudelaire. His poems are dark as Guinness stout and chilling as… a simile about cold beers.
When I first read the works of Charles Baudelaire, I was none too impressed. Had he been an American teen in the early years of this millennium, Baudelaire would have been a goth kid with whiny LiveJournal. Everything is corpses and skulls with that guy. “Nobody likes me,” his poems lament, “but that is because my soul is a that of a beautiful poet and everybody else is a dick.” (By the way, I am only half making this stuff up. His poem The Albatross compares the poet to a majestic bird that is mocked when it condescends to land among normal men.)
But Baudelaire was more than just a whinging kid with macabre tastes. Perhaps his greatest contribution to literature was his translation of the works of Edgar Allan Poe. (Which sheds some additional light on his morbid sensibilities.) It seems that Poe was more or less forgotten in the United States in the generation after his death. Luckily, Baudelaire translated Poe into French and popularized his works. The so-called Decadent Movement spread across Europe, to England, and across the Atlantic, and it brought Poe back into vogue with it.
Of course, Baudelaire’s own work is not without value. I particularly like his poem Get Drunk. The ceaseless crushing gears of time are unbearable unless one gets drunk. “Get drunk! Stay Drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue, on whatever you want.” Find something that intoxicates you, something that alters your perception of time. And if you should wake up with a hang-over on the steps of a palace or in the grass of a ditch, ask the world what time it is. And the answer will be: time to get drunk!
Beer of the week: 5 Vulture Oaxacan-Style Dark Ale – Find a photo of Baudelaire and tell me that he doesn’t look like a cartoon vulture. Which, given his dark style, seems totally appropriate. 5 Vulture Ale is brewed by 5 Rabbit Cervecería, a Latin American inspired brewery near Chicago. This dark ale is brewed with ancho chili peppers. The color is dark amber and the head is tan. The aroma is distinctive and sweet. The taste has hints of dark chocolate and a subtle fruit presence that I can’t quite pin down. The ancho chilies used in the brewing give a pleasant tingle at the end, though I’d actually prefer a bit more spice. It also feels thinner than one would expect from such a dark, flavorful beer. It is so different that I really don’t know what to think about it.
Reading of the week: Get Drunk by Charles Baudelaire – The first version of this poem that I read was an English translation that included the word “beer”. When I checked the French, I was disappointed (though not surprised) to find that the word used was “vin”. Beer would have been better, but wine will do.
Question of the week: I am sure that I understand being drunk on wine. I think that I understand being drunk on poetry. But I can’t quite get my head around being drunk on virtue. What can that mean?