Friday, December 01, 2006

I'm Just Here for More Food : food x mixing + heat = baking
Alton Brown

Standard everyday cooking is relatively forgiving. Baking is rarely so. In fact, baked goods are a great deal like cars: You can change the wheel covers, put in new mats, and change out the stereo, but if you're going to mess around under the hood, you'd better know what you're doing or you may wind up taking the bus.
I confess: I have a mad crush on Alton Brown. Funny and geeky is a winning combination to me (case in point: DH). This book just landed on my doorstep minutes ago, but I wanted to open up a blog post for scribbling since I can't bring myself to dog-ear a hardcover. More to come within the next day, I'm sure...

Monday, October 23, 2006

Madame Bovary, C'est Moi : The Great Characters of Literature and Where They Came From
André Bernard

[Rex] Stout knew nothing of law or crime when he began to write about Nero Wolfe, nor did he pursue any research. He liked to tell aspiring writers that the best method for successful writing was, "Apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair, and go."
My tuches would go numb before I could compose a single interesting sentence.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Climbing Parnassus : A New Apologia for Greek and Latin
Tracy Lee Simmons

"Beauty is not democratic; she reveals herself more to the few than to the many, more to the persistent and disciplined seekers than to the careless. Virtue is not democratic; she is achieved by those who pursue her more hotly than most men. Truth is not democratic; she demands special talents and special industry in those to whom she gives her favours. Political democracy is doomed if it tries to extend its demands for equality into these higher spheres. Ethical, intellectual, or aesthetic democracy is death" (33). ~~ quoting C. S. Lewis

[T. S.] Eliot did not believe students competent to decide for themselves what they needed to learn. The lights of tradition and reason must guide them. "No one can become really educated," he wrote, "without having pursued some study in which he took no interest - for it is part of education to learn to interest ourselves in subjects for which we have no aptitude" (39).

We recognize classical culture now not only by alabaster images of stony ruins, but also through thick gauze of verbal brilliance. The men whose words and ideas we remember best were citizens of a republic of letters. They had learned o think and speak and write with precision and flair. They tried not to say something new; they tried to say something worthy, and to say it perfectly (76).

More [Victorian] students could read Greek with some fluency, though the lazy or thick of mind had to help as Greek works began to be buffered by translations - into Latin. (Apparently, if one couldn't read Latin, he had no business trying to drink at the springs of Hellas anyway) [127].

And English poets of the nineteenth century, despite their Romantic trailblazing, tended to be just as drawn and inured to classical learning as poets of the age before. Shelley was a formidable reader of the classics, as were Coleridge, Byron, Tennyson, and Browning. These were not men of feeling alone, but talents of trained sensibility (136).

People [of the mid-20th century] began to think that classical knowledge closed more doors than it opened; it shut out the light; it slowed the pulse of a quickening world. All things were to be made new. What good is climbing a Parnassus within when we can build skyscrapers without? The dikes could hold back the waters no longer. Après nous le Deluge (149).

Advocates for Latin in the past have often sung its mental advantages to the exclusion of all else. According to legions of these priggish, schoolmarmish stiffs, one didn't learn Latin so as to read it, or even in order to gain entry into the upper reaches of Western literary culture. One learned Latin to help one's English - end of case (166).

C had long credited his high SAT verbal scores to his high school Latin, so when I began studying for the GRE, I wished to study Latin, but as Simmons recognizes, the Latin-as-an-aid-to-English argument breaks down when one realizes there are less formidable roads that lead to the same destination. I also aspired to learn Greek at times, but I never got much past the alphabet. I am almost reluctant to commit it to writing, but I feel I must learn Greek now for its prose - yes, for its poetry - more still, but above all, for its own sake.

As has been truly said, "In Latin, you must be absolutely right, or you are not right at all." But the faultless moments, the ones when the winds fill our sails and the words blow perfectly in all their weight and beauty, are the ones we come to live for. They take us halfway up the mountain. We begin to look down on clouds. / Can anyone seriously maintain that such a stiff training in just expression leaves no salutary marks upon the intellect of someone who, having successfully run its gauntlet, becomes captive to the habits of the precise mind? (177).

Greek is a more supple language than Latin; the tongue of Plato doesn't tend to lay marble slabs and erect domes the way that of Cicero and Virgil can. But its suppleness makes it more elastic. It stretches. A Greek sentence breathes in a way a Latin one rarely does. To say that the poetic mind prefers Greek while the prosaic one opts for Latin would be simplistic - and in some signal cases badly wrong - though some so claim, and a truth may lie somewhere amid the dregs. Greek nouns chime a bit more brightly; prose rhythm is smoother and usually swifter. Sounded from clear pipes, the melody of Greek intoxicates (180).

"I believe that the conventional defence of [classical studies] is valid; that only by them can a boy fully understand that a sentence is a logical construction and that words have basic inalienable meanings, departure from which is either conscious metaphor or inexcusable vulgarity" (185). ~~ quoting Evelyn Waugh
I'm sure Waugh and Derrida would get along swimmingly.

Talk of the American Founders leads us inexorably to American qualms about the utility of classics. We like to be useful; nay, we hunger to be useful. Usefulness is a virtue. We don't care for superfluity, and as a people we are perpetually wary of those inessential add-ons in our schools like poetry, music, and art. They seem so unnecessary: not bad perhaps, but nothing we should give time to until all things needful for the good life - gadgets, comforts, amusements - are secured. (And somehow they never are.) These things we can see. More to the point for some people, they're the things by which one's quality of life is measured. We also fear wasting our time. Yet, as we have seen, the Founders as a group had few doubts about the usefulness of Greek and Latin. For them life was too short and small to contain their utility (210-11).

Adams and Jefferson would have understood the claim of the philosopher George Santayana that "Music is essentially useless, as life is: but both have an ideal extension which lends utility to its conditions." "Let us not forget," Emerson once said, "that the adoption of the test 'what is it good for' would abolish the rose and exalt in triumph the cabbage." And man cannot live by cabbage alone (213).

Indeed poetry has been justly defined as that which cannot be translated. We can get away somewhat with translations when reading epic poetry: the story carries us along and a few striking images remain, pulsating like strobe lights at every mention. Whiffs of the magic come through. But the problem with translations is that those readers unlettered in the original languages can't know what they're missing. Almost anyone who has read, say, the Odyssey in both Greek and English finds even the best translation (and there are several splendid ones) grossly inadequate. [. . .] A reader of the original language smells a counterfeit. A translation seems as the shadow of a tree to the tree itself, and the discerning mind will not confuse one for the other. Much of the power and the glory no longer shine within the poem that's been run through the enervating sieve of translation. Something leaks out. / Unfortunately that something is often the very essence that once drove centuries of readers to the poem. We lack that which made it great. We've lost the pearl in the center (218-19).

Novelist Somerset Maugham once averred that "you can't imagine what a thrill it is to read the Odyssey in the original. It makes you feel as if you only had to get on tiptoe and stretch out your hand to touch the stars" (224).
I read
Climbing Parnassus with pencil in hand. Those were just a few extracts marked by my squiggle. I didn't always agree with Simmons (or those he quoted), but as I told a friend, "I am seduced."

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Earth Mother
a homeric hymn (tr. Percy Bysshe Shelley)

   O Universal Mother, who dost keep
   From everlasting thy foundations deep,
Eldest of things, Great Earth, I sing of thee!
All shapes that have their dwelling in the sea,
All things that fly, or on the ground divine
Live, move, and there are nourished - these are thing;
These from thy wealth thou dost sustain; from thee
Fair babes are born, and fruits on every tree
Hang ripe and large, revered Divinity!

    The life of mortal men beneath thy sway
Is held; they power both gives and takes away!
Happy are they whom thy mild favours nourish;
All things unstinted round them grow and flourish.
For them, endures the life-sustaining field
Its load of harvest, and their cattle yield
Large increase, and their house with wealth is filled.
Such honoured dwell in cities fair and free,
the homes of lovely women, prosperously;
Their sons exult in youth's new budding gladness,
And their fresh daughters free from care or sadness,
With bloom-inwoven dance and happy song,
On the soft flowers the meadow-grass among,
Leap round them sporting - such delights by thee
Are given, rich Power, revered Divinity.

   Mother of gds, thou Wife of starry Heaven,
Farewell! be thou propitious, and be given
A happy life for this brief melody,
Nor thou nor other songs shall unremembered be.
[public domain]

I ran across this poem while scanning the tables of contents of several anthologies for Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound, which was not to be found, but I did come across this poem, which clearly influenced Shelley's own Prometheus Unbound - serendipity!

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Hesiod (tr. Lattimore)

"For from her originates the breed of female women,
and they live with mortal men, and are a great sorrow to them,
and hateful poverty they will not share, but only luxury" (590-92).
the ancient version of cherchez la femme

I wasn't surprised to find another cave passage. Echidna, half alluring nymph, half monstrous snake, is described from lines 295-306. I can see Scylla and Errour in her but for her ordained isolation.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Odyssey
Homer (tr. Fagles)

"But the great leveler, Death: not even the g.ds can defend a man, not even one they love, that day when fate takes hold and lays him out at last" (3.269-71). ~~ Athena

"That is the g.ds' work, spinning threads of death through the lives of mortal men, and all to make a song for those to come..." (8.649-51).

"No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus! By g.d I'd rather slave on earth for another man - some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive - than rule down here over all the breathless dead" (11.555-58). ~~ the ghost of Achilles admonishing Odysseus for admiring the former's high standing in the afterlife
"It goes against my grain to repeat a tale told once, and told so clearly" (12.490-91). ~~ Odysseus
"Homer makes us Hearers, and Virgil leaves us Readers" (p. 489) ~~ Fagles quoting Alexander Pope, himself a translator of Homer
Fagles' is the third or fourth Odyssey translation I've read, and the most poetic. In July, I read the Fitzgerald translation of the Iliad, and while I admire his translation, I much prefer Fagles' (however, not enough to reread the Iliad so soon).

I jotted down 20-odd pages' worth of quotations and my comments, but I'm not about to post long passages of cave descriptions here. :)

Next up is Hesiod's Theogony.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Caldecott & Co. : Notes on Books & Pictures
Maurice Sendak

Max is my bravest and therefore my dearest creation. Like all children, he believes ina flexible world of fantasy and reality, a world where a child can skip from one to the other and back again in the sure belief that both really exit. Another quality that makes him especially lovable to me is the directnesss of his approach. Max doesn't silly-shally about. He get to the heart of the matter with the speed of a superject, a personality trait that is happily suited ot the necessary visual simplicity of a picture book (152).

Where the Wild Things Are was not meant to please everybody--only children. A letter from a seven-year-old boy encourages me to think that I have reached children as I had hoped. He wrote: "How much does it cost to get to where the wild things are? If it is not expensive my sister and I want to spend the summer there. Please answer soon." I did not answer that question, for I have no doubt that sooner or later they will find their way, free of charge (154-55).
As a collection of essays, Caldecott & Co. is rather haphazard, but Sendak is such a passionate artist that the presentation can be forgiven. Besides Sendak's insights into his own works, his opinions of other illustrators are interesting to say the least, ranging from contemptuous to sycophantic.