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?
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?
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?
‘When I wish to find out how wise, or how stupid, or how good, or how wicked is anyone, or what are his thoughts at the moment, I fashion the expression of my face as accurately as possible in accordance with the expression of his, and then wait to see what thoughts or sentiments arise in my mind or heart, as if to match or correspond with the expression.’
These are the words of a clever schoolboy in Poe’s The Purloined Letter. The story of the boy is tangential, but it explains the actions of Poe’s detective hero C. Auguste Dupin. It also contains in it two important principles. The primary principle in the story is “know your enemy.” In most direct competition, the surest path to victory is correctly anticipating one’s opponent. Although certainly not novel, one must admit that this axiom is solid.
The second principle is highlighted in the above quotation. It is strikingly similar to the opinions of William James (which we’ve seen here before.) Namely, one’s state of mind does not only cause changes in body language, but body language causes changes in one’s state of mind. James wrote about emotion, but Poe goes beyond emotion. For his schoolboy, ones physical appearance is related even to his intelligence, goodness or wickedness. This approach to physiognomy is actually fairly ancient, but Poe’s revival of this concept (while mentioning Machiavelli and La Rochefoucauld in connection with it) came while James was still in diapers.
Beer of the Week: Sol – The clear glass bottle must be to show off the beautiful light-golden color of this beer. The clear glass also lets in a lot of light, which speeds up the spoiling of beer, but it sure looks pretty. And as long as the beer is fresh, Sol is pretty good for its genre. It is a little more flavorful and certainly less watery than many other Mexican lagers, but still goes down smooth after spicy food or on a hot summer evening.
Reading of the week: The Purloined Letter by Edgar A. Poe, Lines 94-96 – The story of how a schoolboy took all of his classmates’ marbles by gambling is meant to illustrate the methods Dupin uses to understand the criminal mind. And how he eventually uncovers the purloined letter.
Question of the week: Some people are more likely to like or dislike somebody just because of how they look. Could it be that what appears to be shallow is actually just very perceptive?