Tuesday, April 26, 2016

A bleg: sources for teaching the Bible as literature

Next school year I want to go through parts of the Bible with my boys, focusing on literature aspects of it. That is, if they're going to fully understand authors such as Faulkner, Melville, Lincoln, Marilynne Robinson, (and many others), they need to be grounded as to what's in the Bible and the language of the King James Version.

So I have a question for anyone that has some expertise or exposure on this subject. I hesitate to raise it with secular homeschool friends ("You're teaching the Bible?" [both eyebrows arched]) or religious homeschool friends ("You're teaching the Bible as literature?" [both eyebrows arched]). I already know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of multiple-arched eyebrows.

Some sources I plan to include is Robert Alter's Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible (2010). Another book I'm familiar with that would be helpful is Adam Nicolson's God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, so they understand how its eloquence and, at times, inaccuracies came into being. I've planning on using the Oxford World Classics' copy of the King James Bible (and Apocrypha) since it a) is inexpensive, b) has Apocryphal texts, and c) supposedly has a good history of the Bible in its Introduction. And I'm willing to go through the MIT Open Courseware course on The Bible since the course description covers a lot of what I'm trying to cover...albeit for a younger crowd. Although if you're going to approach the writing as literature, I don't understand the exclusion of the Psalms.

So my request is to pass on any sources you think would be helpful on this subject. I'm sure there's more out there, but I'm a little overwhelmed with the end of the schoolyear and planning for next year. Not to mention the whole eyebrow thing I'm trying to avoid. Thank you so much!

Monday, April 18, 2016

His Only Son by Leopoldo Alas...upcoming from NYRB

I was such a huge fan of La Regenta by Leopoldo Alas that I tracked down several of his out-of-print English translations and devoured them, too. So I was extremely happy to see NYRB will be releasing His Only Son with a new translation by Margaret Jull Costa this fall. (Nice to see I have a blurb on it.) I thoroughly enjoyed the translation I read by Julie Jones, who was kind enough to answer some of my questions on the novel, so I'm excited to see a version of the novel return to print.

To be included with His Only Son is the novella "Doña Berta," something I thought would be a great introduction to Alas in my post on it, with translation by Robert M. Fedorchek. In addition, I called it rich and perplexing (and ambiguous), so I'm also happy to see it included in the NYRB release.

I hope readers will take advantage of this opportunity!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Bill (2015 movie: UK)

Last night my wife and I went to see the 2015 movie Bill, which has the tagline of "How Bill became Shakespeare." As far as I know, this was the only U.S. screening before its DVD release in the states next month. Thanks to Fathom Events for another wonderful media experience.

If you're familiar with the live Horrible Histories series, you'll know exactly what to expect with the movie (seeing as it's mostly the same people). The movie supposedly fills in some of the gaps of Shakespeare's "lost years"—how he moved from obscurity in Stratford-upon-Avon to a famous London playwright. Don't look for it to make sense...just let the lunacy and gags wash over you. And the gags come at warp speed. The musical group "Mortal Coil," after kicking Bill out of the band (for doing an extended solo on his lute), doesn't just leave...they shuffle off. After being told, "Saying things in a short snappy way instead of a long drawn-out way is the soul of wit," Bill asks, "You mean brevity?" When Bill stands on a stage in an empty theater that looks eerily familiar, you hear strains of music in the background that sound a lot like the Shakespeare in Love soundtrack. You get the idea, and either you enjoy this kind of humor or you don't.

Much of Shakespeare's entire career and the surrounding history of both Elizabethan and Jacobean eras are crammed into the few days during the Lost Years shown. The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 provides a crucial plot device (even though it's...well, I'm not really sure how many years earlier since I'm not sure what year it is exactly). And for me, that was the fun of it. There are running gags throughout about an espionage agent not understanding the meaning of a Trojan Horse. Lines from Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet get mashed together. There's a musical number providing a lot of insight into theater at the time. Christopher Marlowe not understanding some of the basic principles of humor. And even if some of the themes are ahistorical, it serves the purpose of the movie.

Catching the references. Understanding the sight gags. It may be geeky fun, but non-geeks can like it, too. Many reviews I've seen of the movie say it is Monty Python-esque, and while I don't disagree, I think the "Horrible Histories" people have established themselves well enough to say that it faithfully follows their franchise's family-friendly approach, even though it isn't officially affiliated. I look forward to seeing it with my boys, where they might actually learn something by accident. Which is the whole point of "Horrible Histories."

The showing had bonus content, with an introduction on special facts about Shakespeare and a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the movie, some of which I'm sure will be on the upcoming DVD release. All in all, a lot of fun if you like snarky humor. Definitely recommended.

Friday, April 08, 2016

Killing Eratosthenes: A True Crime Story from Ancient Athens by Debra Hamel

Killing Eratosthenes: A True Crime Story from Ancient Athens by Debra Hamel
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform: 2016 (978-1523995691)

My first introduction to Debra Hamel was with Reading Herodotus: A Guided Tour through the Wild Boars, Dancing Suitors, and Crazy Tyrants of The History, a great introduction to one of my favorite books, The Histories (and yes, a post on it is overdue). She has recently written a fun little book looking at a murder trial in ancient Athens. Although no accurate date is available for the trial, it would have been within a decade or so of 400 B.C. Here are a few quick comments on this entertaining and educational book.

Euphiletos was on trial for having murdered Eratoshenes, a man committing adultery with Euphileots’ wife. Lysias, a speechwriter included in the ten Attic orators of the Classical era, wrote the defense speech for Euphiletos. (Don’t confuse the murdered Eratoshenes with the Greek mathematician who calculated the circumference of the earth).

The defense speech at times seems full of Athenian comedic tropes with Euphiletos as the cuckolded husband. His main points lay out the story of the adultery and how he came to discover it as well as going into detail about what happened the night of the murder. Even though the prosecution’s argument is lost to history, the emphasis placed on the discovery of the adultery with witnesses as well as the non-premeditation of the murder show what Euphiletos would have been most worried about in establishing as fact.

While Lysias’ text is fairly straight forward (and can be found online in my notes below), Hamel walks the reader through some of the intricacies of the speech, what Euphiletos had to establish in his defense, and relevant social background that helps place the admitted murder in proper context. Here are two quotes straight from Lysias’ speech:
“Wherefore I, sirs, not only stand acquitted of wrongdoing by the laws, but am also directed by them to take this satisfaction: it is for you to decide whether they are to be valid or of no account. For to my thinking every city makes its laws in order that on any matter which perplexes we may resort to them and inquire what we have to do. And so it is they who, in cases like the present, exhort the wronged parties to obtain this kid of satisfaction. I call upon you to support their opinion: otherwise, you will be giving adulterers such licence that you will encourage thieves as well to call themselves adulterers; since they will feel assured that, if they plead this reason in their defence, and allege that they enter other men’s houses for this purpose, nobody will touch them. For everyone will know that the laws of adultery are to be given the go-by, and that it is your vote that one has to fear, because this has supreme authority over all the city’s affairs.” (Sections 34 – 36)

“I therefore, sirs, do not regard this requital as having been exacted in my own private interest, but in that of the whole city. For those who behave in that way, when they see the sort of reward that is in store for such transgressions, will be less inclined to trespass against their neighbors, if they see that you also take the same view. Otherwise it were better far to erase our established laws, and ordain others which will inflict the penalties on men who keep watch on their own wives, and will allow full immunity to those who would debauch them.” (Sections 48-49)

These were major arguments in Euphiletos’ defense. He has explained the circumstances he found himself in, how he did what the law allows him to do, and why finding him guilty of murder runs counter to the laws of Athens. Hamel does an extremely good job of showing how shadowy some of these argument actually are and how they might not fully acquit him. Let's just say the speech is slanted in his favor, and Hamel shows exactly why that is.

To put it another way, I would call Lysias' speech a modified Eric Stratton defense. (Please note these are my comments, not Hamel’s.) For readers who haven’t seen Animal House in a while, I’ll give the gist of the defense:

“You can't hold a whole fraternity responsible for the behavior of a few, sick perverted individuals. For if you do, then shouldn't we blame the whole fraternity system? And if the whole fraternity system is guilty, then isn't this an indictment of our educational institutions in general? I put it to you, Greg: isn't this an indictment of our entire American society? Well, you can do what you want to us, but we're not going to sit here and listen to you badmouth the United States of America!”

This is part of the direction of Euphiletos’ defense after he established the adultery part (lurid details that would have been entertaining for the jury). “I followed the law. If anyone or anything is at fault, it’s not me…it’s the law!” I’ll emphasize again, Hamel goes into detail while this is a reductionist summary, but I couldn’t help thinking of it in reading her analysis and Lysias’ text.
Highly recommended.

Additional notes:

After reading the book, you can vote on the outcome of the trial

The Wikipedia page on Lysias’ speech

On the Murder of Eratosthenes by Lysias, translated by W.R.M. Lamb
Available at the Perseus Project

The work can also can be found in Loeb Classical Library # 244, starting on page 2 of the text.

In the notes on sources, Hamel also mentions a more recent translation by S.C. Todd published by the University of Texas Press. I’ve not had a chance to look at it, yet.

Something I thought more worthy of inclusion in the main text instead of the notes was a mention that John R. Porter has argued that Lysias’ speech was a rhetorical exercise instead of an actual case. That seems rather important, but upon further (albeit limited) investigation, there’s no way to know for sure (which is a good reason to relegate it to the notes, as I'm doing here, too). A helpful rebuttal to Porter’s argument can be found in Pavel Nývlt’s article Killing of Eratosthenes Between Reality and Mime (Or, was Lysias 1 Really Pronounced?). Despite believing the defense really occurred as written, Nývlt has to concede that it is possible the speech may be a modification to a real case for rhetorical practice or, as he believes and argues, the speech was genuine.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

The Galdós Portrait in The Realists by C. P. Snow

I stumbled across a copy of The Realists: Eight Portraits by C. P. Snow (Scribners, 1978) in our library and promptly checked it out when I saw Benito Pérez Galdós listed. I had no idea this existed, so I wanted to pass this on. I thoroughly enjoyed Snow’s essay and highly recommend it for readers wanting to know more about Galdós.

I quote from the Preface in order to credit the people that helped Snow in his portrait on Galdós. There were

two friends who have given me the most generous help about Galdós. I came to him, unlike all the others in the book, late in life. As soon as I read him, I had no doubt that he was one of the major realistic novelists. But I was very ignorant about him apart from the texts I was reading. Then I had the good fortune to get in touch with David Ley, now the London editor of the Revista de Occidente and for years the cultural attaché at the British embassy in Madrid. Through him I met Pedro Ortíz Armengol, at present minister-counsellor at the Spanish embassy in London, a devoted Galdós scholar who has remarkable knowledge, not only of Galdós’s work, but of the history and geography of Galdós’s life, including the streets he walked in nineteenth-century Madrid. Señor Ortíz is engaged himself in preparing a new edition of Fortunata y Jacinta and writing an introduction to that great work. Both of these friends have provided me with their own material, published and unpublished, answered and discussed matters of judgment. It was an unusual piece of luck to have come to know them, and I am more grateful than I can easily say.

A sidenote: in Galdós: Fortunata and Jacinta (Landmarks of World Literature) by Harriet S. Turner (Cambridge University Press, 1992), the author mentions Pedro Ortíz Armengol’s annotated edition of Fortunata and Jacinta published in 1979 “contains genealogies, illustrations and maps of Old Madrid. A revised version of the notes, Apuntaciones para Fortunata y Jacinta (Madrid, 1987), packs this wealth of information into one, accessible paperback volume.” (page 119).

If you are at all interested in Benito Pérez Galdós, whether you’ve read a little bit about him or even one of his books (or several, for the lucky ones), I highly recommend Snow’s portrait. It gives plenty of personal background on Galdós that I have not seen in English. What follows is a superficial summary of what Snow provides (and note that Snow mentions only two of Galdós’ novels were in print in English translation at the time…not much has changed on that front).

One of the most beneficial things that Snow covers is Galdós’ personal life. While growing up, the emphasis is on his unobtrusiveness while taking in everything that was going on around him. Anyone who has read Galdós will understand the…well, the understanding that the author provides. And also the irony and contradictions in his writing, which seems to have been present in his life from the start. His family provided both the desire for him to make a name for himself professionally, which for some (like his mother) didn’t include being an author, while others supported him emotionally and financially.

Galdós seemed happy to follow family advice to go off to Madrid, not because he would be studying law, since the faculty repeatedly reported that he had failed his courses because of insufficient attendance, but because he was in Madrid instead of Las Palmas in the Canary Islands. He earned a nickname from the tertulia group he hung out with: “While the other young men talked for hours about politics, religion, women, he sat unobtrusively making paper birds. … Galdós also made paper figures of celebrated Madrid prostitutes. In most student circles, that must have been even more popular. Some of them nicknamed him El chico de las putas.” By dubbing him “the child of whores,” his classmates seemed to have figured out at least part of what he had been doing instead of attending class. More on that proclivity later…

Then the family packed Galdós off to Paris, which is difficult to see how this would redirect his thoughts toward practicing law. It was this trip that Galdós probably immersed himself in Balzac and formulated what he wanted to do. And also highlights his peculiar devotions. It’s clear from his writings that he loves Spain, but he also thought that Spain needed a rebirth, which could only come from individuals. His novels show models of behavior he admires as well as behavior that didn’t. While seeming to be a very religious person, Galdós constantly lampooned the Church, pointing out that “in its medieval power and in blank ignorance, … kept Spain primitive.” (226)

Galdós’ first success were in his historical novels, which led to him becoming a best-selling author in Spain. Some of these novels were translated into other languages, but unfortunately few cared to read about a country waning in power and outside the mainstream. Once translated and ignored, it’s difficult to get a second chance.

His episodes of Spanish history make him successful in Spain, providing fame and money, but it’s at this point he began his greatest works. Snow spends a lot of time covering Las Desheradada (The Disinherited) and Fortunata y Jacinta, probably because those were the only two translations available in English at the time of Snow’s portrait. Snow highlights the historical events underlying these novels, royal abdications and restorations for example, that isn’t what makes the novels successful. It’s the detail Galdós spends with the characters, usually from the Spanish middle class and below. These are the people that Galdós knew from his time in Madrid through direct interaction or from exploring Madrid’s under-/other-side.

Galdós’ success in his novels for me (and notably for Snow) is the voice and understanding he gives to female characters. And then there’s the accusations of Galdós going over to Zola-type naturalism, which don’t interest me at all in the distinctions between realism and naturalism, but Snow provides what he describes as an alleviating difference Galdós provides that keeps him closer to realism: “There is always an interpreting and personal intelligence” (238).

Snow goes into much more detail about Galdós’ personal life and habits in Madrid than I’ve seen elsewhere, even highlighting some of the self-recriminations (and possibly admissions) he included in his novels. It’s clear Galdós knew the streets of Madrid, both upscale and otherwise, and his proclivity for afternoon trysts with women may have been a major reason for his financial difficulties. Some of the best portraits of characters in his novels are from the lower classes, and while it may be too much to say he had a comfort with the people on this level he was describing, I think it's not too much of a stretch to say that he understood them extremely well.

These assignations and hideouts of Galdós are detailed more than I’ve seen elsewhere, and I think they help explain the incredibly detailed and compassionate descriptions of such interiors in his novels. As friends of his used to say, Galdós had two passions: writing and women.

Snow continues with Galdós’ career as he turned his attention to plays and his difficulty with money. His poverty became a cause célèbre in Spain, with subscriptions raised and royal stipends granted. Worse, though, was the stroke he had in his mid-sixties and his failing eyesight. He had operations for the cataracts he had in both eyes, but they failed and he was effectively blind. The last seven years of his life he had no sight, and this was a man that “lived more through the eye. It was a dark and at times a Lear-like end.” (253) He was able to dictate plays and didn’t stop visiting the women, with help on both fronts—someone to take dictation for the former, and a manservant escort for the latter. Snow describes his funeral train, with possibly twenty thousand people following it, comparing it to the demonstrations of grief for Dostoevsky’s and Hugo’s deaths.

Snow’s portrait is no substitute for Galdós’ writing, but it does help explain some of what I've seen in his writings and what he was thinking when he wrote. Because it is much more detailed that anything else I’ve seen on Galdós’ literary and personal life that is available in English, I highly recommend it.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Head to head with Alexander the Great

I found an interesting article on an upcoming paper about Alexander the Great and the possible cause for his erratic behavior: CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), the same problem many American football players experience after multiple concussions. A quote from the article on Alexandra Morris' goal:
“I believe Alexander deserves better than to be thought of as an out-of-control drunk,” Morris said. “A lot of warriors probably had this type of injury. At present, I am probably the only person in the world working on this thesis. Everyone thinks Alexander was an able-bodied warrior, but he wasn’t.”

I hope this gets reviewed seriously. Obviously we're trying to piece together something long ago with limited resources, but it seems plausible. OK, and exacerbated by the "out-of-control drunk" thing.

For examples of CTE effects, my first thought was watching the November 1984 Chicago Bears/Oakland Raiders game, where player after player was carted off the field, only to return later (usually briefly) in the game. It was brutal, and the turning point for my love of football after seeing the damage done to these players. A couple of years ago, an article about a childhood hero of mine cemented that aversion. I'm anxious to see how Alexandra Morris' paper and follow-up research develops.

Note: I had forgotten I had mentioned the Bears/Raiders game in an earlier post. Here's the previous post on capturing the sounds of autumn.

Terry Beasley and Pat Sullivan

Friday, March 04, 2016

"Discover Don Quijote de la Mancha" Live Session 3

The third live session hosted by Universidad Francisco Marroquín's MOOC on Don Quijote. It felt like this was going over previous territory, but that was fine by me. One of my questions had to do with film versions of the novel, especially since I had recently read something that Terry Gilliam might be attempting to film the novel again. I like Dr. Graf's response that the novel would probably work best as a TV series...the more I think about it, that does seem the best approach. Regardless, I want to pass on the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Don Quixote. I have no idea what a stage adaptation of the novel could be like, but I give them credit for attempting it. And I look forward to hearing more about it.

One of my questions mentions Mark Van Doren's Don Quixote's Profession (1958, Columbia University Press), a book that gathered three lectures Van Doren given at Emory University in November 1956. Even though I disagree with Van Doren on a few points in his interpretation, I find many great points in his talks. One isn't exactly a new concept, but it's one I'm happy to pass on:

We may insist that instead of destroying the literature of knight-errantry Cervantes saved it by producing the one treatment of the subject that can be read forever; and he did this by permitting his satire to ripen into comedy, his ridicule to deepen into love; yet over the centuries we still see his smile, and we can wonder how much of it is pity for us because we cannot leave his book alone.

The point I focused on in that quote that was Cervantes made sure that chivalric novels lived on by satirizing them. If you want something to die a quiet death, you ignore it. If you make fun of it (especially in a great novel), you've made sure they will live as long as your novel does. Or as I learned growing up (maybe from MAD Magazine?), "we learn the classics so we can mock them."

Update (5 Mar 2016): When I get around to posting on Don Quixote's Profession, I need to mention 1994's movie Quiz Show with Paul Scofield as Mark Van Doren. There's a scene where class is letting out at Columbia University and some students (including a young Ethan Hawke), is asking him questions about Cervantes. The point of the novel, says Van Doren, is, "If you want to be a knight, be a knight." (I wonder if there's a tie-in with Hawke's latest book Rules for a Knight). Not to mention this makes me want to go back and re-visit Mark Van Doren's Autobiography.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Firing Line with Eudora Welty and Walker Percy: The Southern Imagination

When I posted about Win Riley's documentary on Walker Percy, my brief comments in this post noted my disappointment there wasn't more from the episode on Firing Line that had Eudora Welty and Walker Percy (although I understood the legal issues). At the time, though, you could find the transcript of the episode online and it was an extremely fun read. Unfortunately, the transcript is not currently available.

The good news is that the episode is currently available on Amazon Prime. As the summary mentions, it starts a little slow but it definitely picks up steam as it goes. A summary at Amazon's site can be found here. Highly recommended for fans of Welty and Percy.

Update: A few quotes after having seen this and what stood out in comparison to having read the transcript a few years ago:
  • The ghost of William Faulkner haunts the discussion, and one point that Percy and Welty repeatedly drive home is how an author focuses on the individuals in the novel, not the issues. One of my favorite quotes by Percy: “You know, nothing is more difficult to write than a good protest novel. The angrier you are, the worse novel you’re liable to write.”
  • Buckley makes a point that any Southerner of my generation (approaching, if not having already entered, old fart territory) will understand, concerning the “entrenched bigotry in other parts of the country that made a living off of moralizing at the expense of the South.” Welty and Percy have some very gracious comments that soften the judgment, but you will note they don’t exactly contradict Buckley.
  • More on race relations, and repeated questions of whether either writer felt like leaving the South (with several references to intellectuals leaving 1930’s Nazi Germany…of course with apologies saying that wasn’t the direct comparison they meant): Percy notes that while violence mars the South, “there’s a certain tolerance and civility toward people and their opinions. Maybe it’s because Southerners look on writers as harmless and eccentric. And you’re expected to say strange things. … And do.”
  • (Possibly my favorite quote from the whole program): Percy, quoting Flannery O'Connery when she was asked why she had so many freaks in her novels: "And then she said, well, in the South we still recognize freaks, you see...as freaks."

Saturday, February 20, 2016

"Discover Don Quijote de la Mancha" Live Session 2

I'm really enjoying the Universidad Francisco Marroquín's MOOC on Don Quijote and wanted to share the second live session that was held this past Thursday (18 Feb 2016). The session covered questions from Chapters 15 through 28 in Part I. I was fortunate to get a few questions in on the call...enjoy!

Live Session 2 - Discover Don Quijote de la Mancha

If you're interested in digging more into the topic, check out UFM's New Media YouTube page.

Update (22 Feb 2016): When I posted this session, I couldn't find the first session in English. I have since found it and it can be found here.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Reading in 1957's movie "The Enemy Below"

Since I love seeing books used in shows and movies, I thought I'd share a few screenshots from 1957's movie The Enemy Below. The story follows a cat-and-mouse game between an American destroyer and a German U-Boat during World War II (and is currently available on Netflix). The following screenshots take place about an hour into the movie. The U-Boat is resting on the ocean floor, at 1,000 feet depth, while the destroyer is directly over it. Both vessels are trying to remain completely silent. The camera pans through the American destroyer first and we see one of the sailors engaged in some serious reading.

The camera keeps moving and we another sailor enjoying something a little less weighty.

The references keep coming...meanwhile on the deck of the destroyer, an officer is quoting from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner ("a painted ship / Upon a painted ocean"). It's not quite as painful on the screen as it is in print here.

A minute later the focus is on the sailors in the U-boat. First up we see a sailor enjoying some lighter fare.
As the camera continues, we see the German equivalent of the more serious book...easy to guess what it will be...