Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Blogging the Restoration

The most famous diarist in the English Language has a blog, it seems. Some industrious soul has been posting Samuel Pepys diary entry for each day on the web since 2003. Thus, today you can read what old Sam was up to on March 29th 1664.

Like every good blogger, Pepys has archives up, so you can also start from the beginning on January 1st, 1660. Pepys diary spanned the period from 1660 to 1669, and important one in English history since 1660 was the year in which the monarchy was restored.

Unless his faithful webservant gets tired, this blogger should be good for another five years worth of daily content.

My heart is ready

The antiphon for the first psalm for today's Morning Prayer is My heart is ready, O God, my heart is ready.

I read the antiphon this morning and my immediate reaction was a recoil. "No, it isn't. Not even close. My heart is no where near ready." There are too many things in it, on it, around it. At best it is a divided heart, not a simple heart--a singular gift for a Simple God.

I couldn't pray this in all honesty. But also in all honesty, I could say, "I want my heart to be ready, O God, make my heart ready." That, I could say because it true at the core, at the very marrow of bones. I want to be ready, I know I am not. My heart is half hard, half missing--a rocky field fit only for weeds and dodder--a shadow life thrown into relief by the season in which shadows are drawn more sharply and light is more visible.

--Steven Riddle

Lately I've been pondering whether I would be ready to die, were I suddenly taken. The thought of facing Judgment scares me, frankly. I am not prepared to see God face to face. There was a time when I would feel secure after I'd received absolution, because my soul was clean. That doesn't seem enough now, on my part.

Imagine that a person were to give a gift to a king of a metal tray. Although clean and polished, the tray is without adornment or etching. The king accepts the gift graciously because it is the best that his subject has to offer, but the gift in itself is not worthy of his magnificence. Even if none of his subjects can offer the king a fitting gift, the quality of each one's gift will reflect the love and respect in his heart.

My heart is ready, O God, my heart is ready. I'll always link this verse with the scene in The Passion where Jesus whispers it in the pause before the whips fall on his back. Can anyone ever be ready to be beaten to a pulp? Perhaps this is one of those prayers that God realizes even as we pray it.

Classic Classics Resources

Those with an eye towards good Greek and Latin resources may be interested to note (if they don't know of it already) (hat tip: Bernard of L'Abbe Faria's Cell)

One of the things about the classics is that while new things are said about them, they themselves have remained much the same for some time. And indeed, some of the best texts on learning Latin and Greek are getting quite old at this point.

The folks at TextKit have been scanning in classic Classics texts and making them available in free, downloadable PDF format. I took a look at a couple of their texts last night, and they are definately clear and readable. Among the texts available for download are Smyth's Greek Grammar, Allen & Greenough's New Latin Grammar and a number of good classic schoolboy reading texts of Greek and Latin authors.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Modern Greats

Last week I posted some general reactions to the later reaches of the list of great novels in Susan Wise Bauer's book, The Well Educated Mind. I listed some "modern greats" of my own choosing, and A Philosopher obligingly listed off some great modern novelists in the comments.

Anyway, the question of what might constitute "modern greats" in the novel genre continues to intrigue (as do A Philosopher's suggestions, a couple of which I just picked up at the library). Anyway, I thought it would be helpful if I went ahead and posted the post 1940 section of Bauer's list (which is the part I'm wondering about -- perhaps as someone pointed out because it's too soon to tell what is "great" in that period).

Native Son, Richard Wright
The Stranger, Albert Camus
1984, George Orwell
Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
Seize the Day, Saul Bellow
One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, Italo Calvino
Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison
White Noise, Don Delillo
Possession, A. S. Byatt

Now, of these I've only read 1984 and The Stranger, and a bit from the beginning of One Hundred Years of Solitude (MrsDarwin then took possession and read it -- and I never got around to continuing).

Of the two I have read, 1984 is certainly an essential piece of cultural literacy, but I'm not sure that I'd label is as a great novel qua novel. The Stranger certainly helps you understand some things about mid 20th century intellectual movements, though I think you might be better off reading No Exit by Sartre instead (though that's not a novel, so I guess that doesn't count here.) However, I'll admit to finding The Stranger pretty darn unsatisfying just taken as a novel.

My point here is definitely not to attack Bauer's choices -- my literary education gets pretty spotty after 1940, so I'm in absolutely no position to do that. However, I'm trying to understand what sort of list this is. Is it more a "this is what English departments study" (Bauer is, after all, a grad student in English literature), or is it a list of novels that typify major 20th century intellectual trends, or is it an attempt to identify the "great" works of the period? (My impression from her introduction to the novel and various schools of novel writing is that it's one of the former two, but the overall plan of the book would just the last possibility.)

Whatever it is, I do have ambitions of improving on my knowledge of modern novels one of these days, so I'm curious as to whether these, or perhaps some other list, are what I should be reading.

Rules of Engagement

Say you do something well -- sing, play piano, clean houses, babysit, rebuild old cars. You like what you do, and you want to help others do it as well. Or, someone asks to give lessons or take on a job for them. What fun, right?

Well, not always. The sad fact of life is that not everyone values your time and talent as much as you do, and very few people value it more. It may seem proud or too complicated to set ground rules for providing your services, especially if you're just helping out a friend. Anyone who has ever known the friction of a quasi-business relationship gone wrong, however, can appreciate how laying down a few basic rules right at the start can ward off much later stress.

I've taught violin lessons on a fairly informal basis for the past three years. As I try to wriggle free of my last student, here are my reflections on what rules I set at the beginning, what rules I implemented during that time, and what rules I wish I'd made. This set of notes refers largely to a service provided in your own home (as, in my case, music lessons), but I think that most of the points are adaptable to other circumstances.
  • If you don't charge a fee at the start, think about what kinds of situations might cause you to start charging, and note those up front.
  • If you want to be paid for your work, don't be coy about it -- set a clear rate for your services. Indicate what circumstances would cause you to raise your rate -- overtime, lateness, an increase in your own proficiency.
  • Keep records noting when you are paid and what period the payment covers.
  • Others will treat your time as valuable if you do. Have a clear start and finish time, with an acceptable window for lateness.
  • Be circumspect about moving or rescheduling a lesson -- every now and then is fine, but if you're too accomodating with your schedule in the beginning, it will come back to haunt you later.
  • It should be common courtesy on the part of your student to notify you if he has to cancel the lesson. If you insist on nothing else, insist on this.
  • Machievelli says it best: it is better to be feared than loved. It's far easier to be strict at first and then lighten up later than to be accomodating and flexible at first and try to impose discipline after your reputation as a softie has been set. (This has been my particular downfall.)
  • Stipulate at the beginning what events might cause you to terminate the service. For instance: consistent lateness, repeated absences, a student's neglect of practice, inappropriate behavior.
If anyone else has any good advice, feel free to share it.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Coming Soon to the Darwin Gun Case

For quite some time, I'd been planning to make a side trip up to Camp Perry during the planned family trip to Ohio in May in order to pick up an M1 Garand from the Civilian Marksmanship Program store there. However, the CMP is apparently rapidly running out of Garands, so last week I pulled together the paperwork to send off an order by mail.

A little background for those not deeply into military firearms: Entering World War II, every major power except the United States had a .30 caliber bolt action rifle little different from its WWI predecessor as their primary battle rifle. US forces, however, carried the M1 Garand, the world's first semi-automatic main battle rifle.

The M1 fired .30-06 cartridges loaded into eight round en bloc clips. A soldier could fire eight rounds as fast as he could aim and pull the trigger. With the last round, the clip ejected out as well. (For those of you who've seen Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers, this produced the Garand's famous: bang, bang, bang, bang, ping... [pause] bang, bang firing pattern.) The soldier then slapped another en bloc clip into place, released the slide, and resumed firing.

As well as being the first semi-automatic battle rifle, the Garand developed a nearly peerless reputation for rugged design, reliability and accuracy, such that it remains to this day one of the standard rifles used in high powered rifle matches in the US. After the M1 Garand was replaced by the M14 and (shortly after) the M16, Garands were sent on loan to a number of US allies including Italy, Greece and Denmark. They also continued to be used for training in the US army through the 70's.

More recently, surplus M1s were turned over in large numbers to the Civilian Marksmanship Program, which made them available to civilian shooters throughout the country. A piece of history, and a great all-around rifle.

I might still have to stop by the CMP when we're in Ohio, though, since I hear that they've got hold of a bunch of M1 Carbines returned by the Italian government...

Crawling Back Among the Living

There is nothing more frustrating than an illness with no symptoms, other than a general malaise that would put the mid seventies to shame.

The thing is, it's hard to be taken seriously with "I'm not coming in to work today because I have a headache" or "I'm not coming in because I feel lousy".

However today's rosy-fingered dawn brought signs of feeling better, so hopefully I'm back to both functionality and blogging today.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007


Uber-homeschooler/writer Maureen Wittman emails about her teen daughter hitting one of those milestones that ought to warm any parent's heart:
Some mothers cherish the day they take their daughters out for their first manicure or to buy their first prom dress.

This week I took Teen Daughter One out to buy her first shotgun.
Nor, it seems, is this by any means their first venture into shooting sports.

Now those Darwin girls just need to hurry up and grow up enough to be able to do fun stuff. (More fun than trike-riding, that is.)

Monday, March 26, 2007

When Bad Trees Bear Good Fruit

We hear quite often the "by their fruit shall ye know them" quote. However, I've had cause to think a bit about it the last few months as I worked through the clean-up stages of having done a fair amount of work for a medium-size Catholic apostolate on a business footing. I'd never worked for a Catholic organization other than a school or parish before, and it was in some ways a disillusioning experience, in other ways perhaps an eye-opening one.

One thing it made me rather conscious of is that few people or organizations produce only one variety and quality of fruit.

What is one to make of an apostolate that on the one hand a number of people have credited with providing spirituality and apologetics resources that have helped them grow in their faith, and on the other hand seems to have an internal culture in which bullying, rudeness and systematic attempts to take squeeze both employees and volunteers dry while paying the minimum possible seem systemic? (NB: I try to keep my business and blogging lives very separate, and I don't want to commit detraction, so any comments naming the organizations I'm talking about will be deleted. I'm trying to get at the general principle here, not throw stones.)

When I first ran into this, I went through a stage of serious disillusionment, thinking that whatever apparent good this organization might be doing was illusory, perhaps even inherently corrupted. (How seriously can you take apologetics written by someone who just chewed you out in now uncertain terms a few days before?)

The more I thought about it, however, the more I realized that at least some of the benefits that people were getting from this apostolate were very real. And as I absorbed that, it clicked in some way with the rest of life.

After all, most of us got used quite a while ago to the idea that the people around us in our families, parishes, schools, etc. are not strict black hat/white hat characters. This should be something especially clear to us as Catholics, seeing people as neither elect vs. damned nor universally and totally corrupt, but with some covered with the snow of Christ's salvation. Rather, nearly all who die in a state of grace will require some purgation after death before being ready to enter into the heavenly union with The Good.

Still, I found, at least in myself, a certain expectation that Catholic organizations would be either "good" or "bad". Either "of the Church" or clearly not. So my initial reaction on disillusionment was that it should be trumpeted from the housetops: "These guys seem like a great ministry, but they're all jerks. There's probably something wrong with what they're saying too."

But I didn't, since that would be impolite, and also bad for business.

And after a while, I realized that most organization are heavy on warts just like people. The fact that an organization appears to have good fruits (whether it's a parish with beautiful liturgy or a publisher with wonderful books or a school with a very orthodox theology department) doesn't mean that it doesn't also have its share of faults -- and the possession of the faults, in turn, does not mean that the other value one finds in them is illusory.

Biber: The Rosary Sonatas

I came across a fascinating piece of music last night, while browsing around on Magnatune: Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber's Rosary Sonatas. (Magnatune allows free previews of the entire tracks from all their albums, so feel free to go listen.)

Dating from the 1670s, the rosary sonatas are fifteen baroque instrumental pieces, each one a musical meditation on a decade of the rosary. The collection concludes with a violin solo piece dedicated to the guardian angel.

While the music is clearly baroque in style, the emotional specificness with which some of the mysteries are described by their sonatas seems like something of a much later date. This is added to by Biber's use of selective re-tuning of the violin to achieve different effects in each sonata. The violin starts at a standard turning for the first sonata, and is retuned for each subequent piece, until it returns to standard tuning in the 15th decade. The most extreme re-tuning is shown below, where the center strings are restrung to form a symbolic cross for The Resurrection.

Really interesting music. Unless the baroque bores you, give it a try.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Commedia Meditations: The Pit of Hell

Leaving behind them the ten concentric trenches of fraud, the poets of reached a cliff face, which falls away steeply before them into the deepest pit of hell, the cold and lifeless center of the world. In the dim light, as the approach the edge of the pit, Dante sees what he thinks are looming towers built along the edge. Virgil explains that these are, however, giants. As they get closer, Dante can discern their figures, and is amazed by their size and ugliness. The giants are a mixture of classical and biblical figures. The titans and sons of Earth are here, condemned for their revolt against Jove. Nimrod, who built the Tower of Babel is there as well, and babbles senselessly at the poets.

At Virgil's command, one of the giants lifts them down to the bottom of the pit. Here they find themselves standing on a lake of ice, so smooth it looks almost like glass.

When we were there below in the darkened hole,
Far down the slope beneath the giant’s feet,
And I still stared up at the steep-pitched wall,

I heard someone tell me, "Watch out how you pass!
Be careful not to step upon the heads
Of this weary, wretched brotherhood."

At that I turned around and saw before me
And underneath my feet a lake of ice
So frozen that it looked like glass, not water.

Neither the Danube in Austria nor the Don,
Far-off under the cold sky, ever fashioned
So thick a veil in winter for its current

As was here: for if the peaks of Tambernic
Or Pietrapana had fallen down on it,
Not even at its edge would it have creaked.

The way frogs sit to croak with muzzles out
Of water, in the season when the peasant girl
Often dreams about her harvesting,

So these mournful shadows were sealed in ice,
Livid to where they blush their cheek with shame,
Teeth chattering with the clatter of a stork.

Each held his face bowed down before the ice,
Witnessing to the cold by their mouths,
Witnessing to the heartache with their eyes.

When I had gazed around me for a while,
I looked down at my feet and saw two shades
So clasped, the hair of their heads knit together.

"Tell me, you who squash your chests together,"
I said, "who are you?" They bent their necks back
And, when they had their faces lifted toward me,

Their eyes, which had before wept inwardly,
Wet drops down on their lips, and the frost froze
The tears between the two and locked them tight.

Never was board on board bolted more firmly
Than these two, so that they butted one another
Like two he-goats, such anger drove them wild.

And one shade who had lost both ears from cold,
With his eyes still cast downward, spoke to me,
"Why do you have to stare at us so hard?

"If you desire to know who this pair is,
The valley from which the Bisenzio cascades
Belonged to them and to their father Albert.

"One womb bore them both, and you can search
All Caina and you shall not find a shade
More worthy to be riveted in ice:

"Not Modred who had breast and shadow pierced
With but one blow dealt by the hand of Arthur,
Not Focaccia, not this one here who blocks

"My view with his head so I see no farther —
And his name was Sassol Mascheroni:
Should you be Tuscan, you now know who he is."
(Inf. XXXII, 16-66)

The poets are in Caina, the first of three regions of the frozen lake that contains traitors. Named after Cain, who killed his brother Abel in the world's first murder, this is where traitors to kin lie encased in ice.

The poets continue on after talking to the betrayers of kin, until Dante accidentally kicks and nearly trips over the head of a sinner who cries out and demands to know who they are.

Dante explains the nature of their journey:

"I am alive, and it may be worth your effort,
Should you seek fame, that I would now note down
Your name with the others." This was my reply.

And he cried, "I want just the opposite!
You have a poor grasp of how to flatter us!
Get out of here and give me no more trouble!"

At that I grabbed him by the scruff of his neck
And said, "Either you give me your name now
Or you won’t have a hair left here on top!"

Then he cried at me, "Go right ahead and scalp me!
I wouldn’t tell you who I am or show you
Though you pummel my head a thousand times!"

I had already twisted his hair in my hand
And pulled out more than a full hank of it,
While he yelped on and kept his eyes down low,

When someone else shouted, "What’s with you, Bocca?
Don’t you sound off enough with your clattering jaws
But now you have to bark? What evil’s got you?"

"Now," I said, "I don't need you to blab more,
Evil-minded traitor, because to shame you
I’ll carry back the real news here about you!"

"Go away!" he answered, "Tell all you want!
But if you do get out of here, do not
Shut up about this one with the big mouth!

"He weeps here for the bribe of Frenchman’s silver.
‘I saw Buoso da Duera,’ you can report,
‘There where all the sinners cool their heels!’

"Should you be questioned, ‘And who else was there?’
Right at your side you have Beccheria
Whose head was cut off by the Florentines.

"Gianni de’ Soldanier I think is farther
On with Ganelon and Tebaldello
Who opened Faenza’s gates while it slept fast."
(Inf. XXXII, 91-123)

Moving on, the poets soon come to perhaps the most pathetic and revolting sight of their journey. Two souls are plunged together in the ice, their heads sticking out through the same hole. All the while, one of them chews at the back of the skull of the other, spilling blood, brains and bone upon the ice.

His mouth raised up above his savage meal,
That sinner wiped his lips upon the hair
Of the head that he had chewed on from behind.

Then he began, "You want me to make new
A desperate grief which even to call back
Crushes my heart before I start to speak.

"But should my words become a fruitful seed
Of infamy for this traitor whom I gnaw,
You’ll see me speak and weep at the same time.

"I don’t know who you are or by what means
You’ve come down here, but when I hear you talk
You surely seem to me a Florentine.

"You need to know I was Count Ugolino,
And this is the Archbishop Ruggieri.
Now I shall tell you why I am his neighbor.

"How I was captured and then put to death
As the result of his own evil scheming,
I, who trusted him, need not explain.

"What you cannot have heard, however, is
How cruel my death was: that you now shall hear
And you will know whether he has wronged me.

"A narrow window in a tower cell,
Which for my sake is called the Tower of Hunger
And in which others must be yet locked up,

"Had through its opening shown me several moons
Already, when I dreamed the nightmare
Which rent the veil of the future for me.

"This man seemed lord and master of the hunt,
Chasing the wolf and whelps upon the mountains
Which block the Pisans’ view toward Lucca.

"With well-trained hounds, a lean and eager pack,
He had sent up ahead of him, in front,
Gualandi, with Sismondi and Lanfranchi.

"After a short run, so it seemed to me,
Father and sons fell tired, and with sharp teeth
It seemed to me I saw their sides ripped open.

"When I awoke before the break of day,
I heard my little sons who were with me
Crying in their sleep and asking bread.

"You are cruel if by now you do not grieve
To think of all that my own heart forewarned:
And if you do not weep, what would you weep for?

"They then awakened, and the hour drew near
When customarily they brought us food,
But each of us was worried by his dream.

"Below I heard them nailing up the door
Of the horrible tower — at that, I looked,
Without a word into my young sons’ faces.

"I did not weep, I had so turned to stone
Within me. They wept. And my little Anselm
Said, ‘You stare so... Father, what is it?’

"At that I shed no tears, and I said nothing
In answer all that day nor the next night
Until another sun rose on the world.

"When a small ray of sunlight made its way
Into that forlorn prison and I saw
By their four faces the look in my own,

"I bit both of my hands in desperate grief,
And they, thinking I acted out of hunger,
All of a sudden stood straight up and wailed,

" ‘Father, the pain for us would be far less
If you ate us! You put this wretched flesh
Upon us and now you may strip it off!’

"I calmed myself, not to make them sadder.
That and the following day we kept silence.
Ah hard earth! Why did you not open up?

"After we had come to the fourth day,
Gaddo threw himself down full length at my feet
And cried, ‘Father, why don’t you help me?’

"He died then, and just as you see me
I saw my three fall one by one by one
Between the fifth day and the sixth, and then,

"By now blind, I went groping over each boy
And for two days I called them who were dead.
Then fasting did what grief had failed to do."

When he had spoken this, with his eyes rolling
He once more seized the loathed skull in his teeth
Which were as strong on the bone as a dog’s.
(Inf. XXXIII, 1-78)

The story of Count Ugolino was so notorious at Dante's time, that his narrative leaves out (or merely hints at) some of the details. Ugolino had plotted with Archbishop Ruggieri against his own political allies (and oldest son) and engineered their destruction. However, Ruggieri then turned on Ugolino and had him, his two younger sons and two grandsons imprisoned. After a period of being kept prisoner in a tower, the door was locked one last time and (on the archbishop's orders) the keys were thrown into the river. When the tower was finally opened eight days later, the prisoners all had starved to death.

In Dante's telling, Ugolino has clearly not repented of his betrayal of family and allies, but is consumed for all eternity with desire for revenge against his fellow traitor, Archbishop Ruggieri.

The poets leave this gruesome scene and move farther still toward the center of the frozen lake. Here the souls at encased in ice with their heads pointing up, so that only the facial features are exposed, and their tears freeze over their faces in a mask that makes further tears impossible.

This is the third region of the lake, Ptolomea, in which are the traitors against hospitality: one of the most basic and ancient moral laws, that a host cannot kill a guest, and a guest cannot kill a host. One of the sinners here calls out to Dante begging the poet to chip the ice off his eyes. Dante promises to do so on the condition that the soul tells him who he is and how he came to be in hell. The shade reveals himself to be a Friar Alberigo, who was notorious for a murder several years before. His younger brother, Manfred, had struck him across the face during a quarrel. Friar Alberigo publicly forgave his brother, and later invited Manfred and his sons to a banquet. Then, at a word from Friar Alberigo, armed servants rushed in and killed both Manfred and his sons.

Dante is shocked to find Friar Alberigo here, because he is still alive, but the friar reveals that the slaughter of guests is so grave a sin that those who do it are sometimes plunged immediately into hell, while a demon inhabits the sinner's body until it dies. He lists off several other notorious traitors to guests who, while their bodies are still alive, have already had their souls plunged into the ice of Ptolomea.

Alberigo then begs Dante to fulfill his promise and chip the frozen tears from his face, but Dante refuses saying that rudeness is courtesy to such a one as this.

The poets now reach the innermost region of the lake. Here the damned are fully submerged under the ice. In the distance, Dante can now see the giant form of Lucifer. He who was once the most beautiful of God's creations is now ugly. He has three faces, each of a different color, and in each of his three mouths he chews one of the three great traitors of history: Judas, Brutus and Cassius. The first requires no explanation, he is the traitor against God and against love, the one who took money for the blood of the innocent lamb. Brutus and Cassius were the main plotters against Caesar, and as such Dante uses them as the symbols of ultimate betrayal of the state.

Satan's wing beat constantly, sending a cold wind blowing out across the lake. And the tears dripping from his six eyes feed the frozen lake itself.

The poets approach his giant, hideous form, and climb down his side, beneath the ice, using his shaggy fur for hand-holds. Half-way down, the world seems to turn over, and they find themselves climbing up instead of down. They have passed through the center of the earth and are now in the antipodes, the far side of the world.

At last they reach a cavern in the rock, from which a path spirals upwards towards the world above.

Along that hidden path my guide and I
Started out to return to the bright world.
And without a thought for any resting-stops,

We bounded up, he first and I second,
Until, through a round opening, I saw
Some of the lovely things the heavens hold:

From there we came out to see once more the stars.
(Inf. XXXIV, 133-139)

With those lines, and that image of hope in the beauty of the stars, ends the long dark journey of Inferno. Next is the long steady ascent up mount Purgatory.

Are we up for more, or have we had enough? I think that with steady work I could probably get us through all of Purgatorio by Easter, and then have Paradiso, if we want to go for completeness, for Easter season.

Thanks to:

The translation and notes of James Finn Cotter

The translation, original text, and notes provided by Allen Mandelbaum

And most especially the translation and extensive commentary by Dorothy Sayers, which Penguin keeps appearing to drop, but never quite has.

Orthodox Catholic = Cannibals?

In the Screwtape Letters, and their several amusing spin-offs by other authors, it is explained that those demons who fail in their missions of temptation and corruption routinely end up as main courses upon the banquet tables of hell. It fits well with the culture of hell that there would be little tolerance for failure, nor any interest in whether failure was actually the responsible person's fault. Hell is the ultimate un-community, a group of angels and souls united in their refusal to follow any authority and willingness to prey upon others.

It is a little disappointing, however, that this tendency towards mutual cannibalism also seems strong within orthodox Catholic circles...

This is brought to mind, again, watching the shockwaves moving out from Naples, Florida after the announcement that Tom Monaghan and the board of Ave Maria University have asked Fr. Fessio to resign his post as Provost immediately. I first caught the story at Pro Ecclesia, which in turn linked to Amy Welborn (whose comboxes bloomed with doom-filled predictions), and Whispers in the Loggia (where Rocco relays speculations -- which seems to me highly unlikely -- that this was the result of a liturgical turf war between charismatics and traditionalists).

Now, I greatly admire the accomplishments of Fr. Fessio, and pretty much everything I've heard about him. Still, it's not as if the AMU board has suddenly announced they're splitting off to start their own church with Monaghan as its head or something.

Maybe spending much of my time working in the corporate world I've become inured to it all, but honestly, an executive shake-up in which powerful personalities clash irreconcilably and one is told it leave doesn't exactly strike me as a sign that the smoke of satan has entered the sanctuary. I suspect that in Fessio and Monaghan, who personalities which both insisted on having their own way came together, and eventually, when neither could bend, the one who didn't write the checks got pushed overboard to find his own kingdom.

However, most people don't seem to see this as an unfortunate but probably minor dust-up between two executive personalities. Instead, most commenters seem to have drawn two or more of the following conclusions:

a) Monaghan is a power-hungry and/or money-corrupted nut job.
b) Fr. Fessio has "a record" of blowing up projects.
c) The entire AMU projected is DOOMED and people better head for the hills and know better than to try to do a Catholic higher education start-up any time again in the near future.

Now, I've got no particular feelings invested in AMU. I've never donated to them and don't really plan to. (Steubenville occasionally gets twenty five bucks or so from us, but until we've got all student loans paid off, I feel no need to donate.) I know some people who went there and really liked it, I know other people who really don't like it for whatever reason.

I guess what I find disappointing is the tendency of all disagreements at a Catholic institution to turn into religious crusades. All sources of contention (style of liturgy, whether to have a dorm with separate male and female wings rather than separate buildings, how late visiting hours should go, whether there should be a core curriculum, whether to building a science building, etc.) all seemed to end up with various groups announcing they were praying for each others conversion, were concerned that no one seemed to care about the Truth, could see how the Culture of Death held sway even in the heart of Steubenville, etc.

Which is not to say that I didn't tend to have opinions in these quarrels, but that they should not have been treated as primarily religious quarrels, when they were in fact administrative quarrels.

Since college, I've seen the same tendency dealing with parish organizations and with certain Catholic ministries/organizations. Somehow, the sense of general culture war and being at odds with the world seems all too often to lend itself to a scorched earth "if you are not with me, you are against me" attitude being applied to everything.

Sure, there are other parts of the overall orthodox Catholic community that I don't like. Charismatics creep me out. Some ultra-traditionalists strike me as waaaay too worried about the Masons. Highly organized small faith communities strike me as too prone to political infighting and abuse. I'm not universally against the death penalty. (I guess I better stop while there are one or two readers I haven't offended yet...) But none of these are articles of faith. We don't need to go to war over them, and no one has to end up on the dinner table over it.

It seems that whatever exactly Fr. Fessio and the rest of the administration's differences were, they've reached the compromise that Fr. Fessio will assume the position of "Theologian in Residence" and both teach courses at AMU and help deal with their study abroad program. What exactly this means about the nature of the original disagreement remains unclear.

Life's too short

Flipping through the mail yesterday, I discovered a brochure from a cleaning company. The cover had a photo of a high-end enjoying some leisure time in their high-end house. The caption: "Life's too short to clean your own house."

Life is too short to clean your own house. This has already become a catchphrase at chez Darwin. There are many reasons why one might outsource the cleaning of her home: the ability to afford such help; the inability to do the cleaning oneself, due to illness or pregnancy. To argue that life is too short to perform a necessary task of hygienic purposes, however, presupposes a fundamental lack of seriousness. Life's too short to take a shower. Life's too short to do your own laundry. Sheesh.

Look: I don't really enjoy cleaning my house. It's dull and has an inherent frustration in that I know I'm just going to have to repeat the same activities tomorrow, or even later the same day. (Wanna know how often I have to sweep my kitchen floor?) But complaining that life is too short to clean is just silly, as if "life" were some hazy shining ideal that exists just outside the scope of the mundane. "Life's too short to clean your own house": no, life is cleaning your own house.

As they say, that's life.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Art Novels vs. Real Novels

As people may have noticed, I'm a sucker for lists and also a sucker for intellectualism. Thus, I ended up picking up a copy of Susan Wise Bauer's The Well Educated Mind at the library the other night. (Of course the other danger with this kind of move is that I seem to have this rivalry impulse with any author of a book on classical curriculums -- hold-over homeschooling one-upsmanship, I guess.)

Anyway, I was looking over her list of 'great' novels that should be read, and realizing that despite my pretensions I've only read about 30% of them -- not that this is causing me to lose sleep or anything. (Most of the things that cause me to lose sleep are under four feet tall and kick when they show up in mommy and daddy's bed in the middle of the night. We don't need a daddy in our house, we need a conveyer belt that leads from the parental bed to the kids' room. But that's another story.)

But I digress...

One of the things that hit me is that aside from 1984 I hadn't read a single one of the listed 'greats' from post 1940. I hadn't even heard of most of them. And this got me wondering: with something so recent, how exactly do you classify something as 'great' other than the fact you liked it a lot?

One thing I've wondered about a bit is whether novels have in some sense split into two tracks, a self-consciously 'art' group of novels which English departments spend their time on, and others which, however good, are considered only 'popular', but might also be termed 'real novels' -- as in, novels written for the quaint but original purpose of the genre: so that people will enjoy reading them.

I'm not just talking about the old "are Tolkien and Lewis literature" debate, though that's perhaps part of it. Authors of the last 60 years that spring to mind and seem to me to be 'literature' of some sort would include:

Robertson Davies
Yasunari Kawabata
Kazuo Ishiguro
Evelyn Waugh
Anthony Powell
Donna Tartt
Tom Wolfe
Umberto Eco

Yet these don't seem to be the sort of people who show up on "20th Century Literature" reading lists.

Is there some essential difference between "good" and "great" that I'm missing here? Something that divides these from those authors who are often listed among the great authors of the later 20th century? Or is it rather a matter that liturature as a field has fallen into studying those authors who tend to write in self conscious knowledge of being studied by literature faculties, rather than those who write otherwise very high quality works for readers rather than for academia?

Or is it just a matter of different taste?

(Anyone know of a link to an online version of Bauer's lists? I can't seem to find anything on the Well Educated Mind site.)

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Commedia Meditations: Fraud III

With great effort, the poets scale the fallen boulders that are all that remain of one of the bridges over the sixth malebolge, and thus escape the region of the hypocrites. Looking down into the next malebolge, Dante sees a mass of snakes.

And there within I saw a repulsive mass
Of serpents in such a horrifying state
That still my blood runs cold when I recall them.

No more need Libya boast about the sands
Where chelydri, jaculi, phareae,
And cenchres with amphisbaena breed:

She could not show — with all Ethiopia
Nor the lands that lie surrounding the Red Sea —
So rampant and pestiferous a plague.

Among this cruel and miserable swarm
Were people running stripped and terrified,
With no hope of hiding-hole or heliotrope.

They had hands tied behind their backs by snakes
That thrust out head and tail through their loins
And that coiled then in knots around the front.

And look! A serpent sprang up at one sinner
Upon our strand and it transfixed him there
Where neck and shoulders knotted at the nape.

No o or i was ever written faster
Than that sinner flared up and burst in flames
And, falling down, completely turned to ashes.

And then, as he lay scattered on the ground,
The ashy dust collected by itself
And suddenly returned to its first shape.

Just so, men of high learning have avowed
That the phoenix dies and is then reborn
When it approaches its five-hundredth year;
(Inf. XXIV, 83-108)

Virgil questions the now re-formed shade, and he reveals that he is Vanni Fucci, notorious for having robbed the cathedral of Pistoia. Angry at having had to confess his identity and his crime, Vanni prophesies Dante's downfall in Florentine politics, and mocks him.

At the end of this harangue of his the thief
Raised high his fists forked into figs and cried,
"Take that, God, I screwed them against you!"

From then on the serpents were my friends
Because one of them coiled around his neck
As though to say, "I’ll not have you say more!"

And another whipped about his arms and tied him,
Wrapping itself so tightly in front of him
That with the knot he couldn’t jerk a muscle.
(Inf. XXV, 1-9)

Giving the fig consists of making a fist with the thumb poking out between first and middle fingers, and carries roughly the obscene connotation which the gesture appears to suggest.

The blaspheming thief is set upon by several snakes, restrained by their coils, and wanders off down the malebolge. This is the malebolge of thieves, and the precise nature of their punishment only becomes clear to Dante a little later, as he watches a strange series of events:

While I was staring down at the three sinners
I saw a serpent with six feet, from in front
Leap up on one and entirely grip him.

It wrapped his stomach with its middle feet
And with its forefeet pinned him by the arms;
Then sank its teeth in one cheek, then the other.

It spread its hind feet down about his thighs
And thrust the tail out between his legs
And at his back pulled it up straight again.

Never did ivy cling to any tree
So tightly as that horrendous beast
Twined its limbs around and through the sinner’s.

Then the two stuck together as if made
Of hot wax and mixed their colors so
Neither one nor other seemed what once they were:

Just as, in front of the flame, a brown color
Advances on the burning paper, so that
It is not yet black but the white dies away.

The other two glared at one another, each
Crying out, "O Agnello, how you change!
Look! already you are neither two nor one."

The two heads by now had become one
When we saw the two features fuse together
Into one face in which they both were lost.

Two arms took shape out of the four remnants;
The thighs with the legs, belly, and chest,
Changed into members never before seen.

Then every former likeness was blotted out:
That perverse image seemed both two and neither,
And, such, at a slow pace, it moved away.

Just as the lizard, that under the giant lash
Of the dog days darts from hedge to hedge,
Looks like a lightning flash as it crosses the path,

So seemed, heading straight out toward the gut
Of the other two, a small blazing serpent,
Black and livid like a peppercorn.

And in one sinner it bit right through that part
From which we first take suck and nourishment;
And down it fell full length in front of him.

The bitten sinner stared but uttered nothing.
Instead, he just stood rooted there and yawned
Exactly as though sleep or fever struck him.

The serpent looked at him, he looked at it:
One through the mouth, the other through his wound
Billowed dense smoke and so the two smokes mingled.

...[T]he snake slit its tail into a fork
While the wounded sinner drew his feet together.

The legs with the thighs locked so firmly,
One to the other, that shortly one could find
No sign whatever where the seam had joined.

The slit tail then assumed the very shape
That had been lost there; and the hide of one
Softened as the skin of the other hardened.

I saw his arms returning to the armpits
And the two feet of the reptile — they were short —
Lengthen out while the two arms shortened.

Afterward, the hind feet, twisted up
Together, became the member that men hide,
While from his member the wretch grew two paws.

While smoke veiled both the one and the other
With new color and made the hair grow matted
On the one skin, and the other it made bald,

The one rose upright and the other fell,
Neither averting the lamps of evil eyes
As, staring, they exchanged a nose and snout.

The one standing drew back the face toward
The temples, and from the surplus stuff massed there
Ears emerged above the once-smooth cheeks;

The surplus not pulled back but still remaining
In front, then formed a nose for the face
And filled the lips out to their proper size.

The one lying down sprouted forth a muzzle
And withdrew the ears back into the head
In the same way a snail pulls in its horns.

And the tongue, once single, whole, and suited
For speech, split, while the other’s forked tongue
Sealed back up, and the smoke also stopped.

The soul that had been turned into a beast,
Hissing, filed off along the gully, fast,
And the other, speaking, spat after its tracks.

He turned his new-made shoulders then and told
The third soul left there, "I want Buoso to run,
The way I did, on all fours down the road!"
(Inf. XXV, 49-94, 103-141)

Think what Dante could have done with CGI. This is medieval special effects par excellence.

In life, the sinners had no respect for the property of others. In death, they no longer own the one thing which in earthy life is inseparable from us: our physical form. Half the thieves are snakes and lizards of various kinds, while half are human in form. And each time one of the reptiles bites a human, the the reptile takes the form of the human and vice versa.

Given this tool, the thieves torment each other endlessly stealing each others forms and stealing them back again, sunk eternally in their vice which denies that others can own anything.

Leaving behind the thieves of the seventh malebolge, the poets descend to the eighth, which at first appears to be inhabited by fireflies or some other source of small dancing flames. As they draw closer, Virgil explains that these moving flames are the souls of the counselors of fraud, enwrapped in flame.

A twin flame approaches, and Virgil identifies it as Odysseus and his friend Diomedes, who together hatched so many trickeries which helped bring victory to the Greeks in the Trojan War. Dante desperately wants to hear about these heroes adventures, and so Virgil commands them to speak. Odysseus tells about his last voyage (after the action of the Odyssey) in which he and his comrades set sail again, and journeyed beyond the ends of the earth. In this telling, Odysseus reveals that they came within sight of the mountain of Purgatory in the antipodes (the opposite side of the globe) and were then sunk by a sudden whirlwind of divine wrath.

Odysseus falls silent and moves on. They next meet an Italian shade, who asks Dante for information about political developments in the region since his death. Dante eagerly brings him up to date, and then asks the shades own story.

After the flame had roared on for some time
In its unique way, the pointed tip swayed
Back and forth and then released this breath:

"If I thought that my answer was to someone
Who might one day return up to the world,
This flame would never cease its flickering.

"However, since no one ever turned back, alive,
From this abyss — should what I hear be true —
Undaunted by infamy, I answer you."
(Inf. XXVII, 58-66)

Thus imagining that he is safe from bringing posthumous shame upon himself, the shade reveals that he was Guido da Montefeltro, a soldier and nobleman, who, as he grew older, retired and joined the Franciscans in hopes of making amends for his earlier life and winning an eternal reward. However, he was sought out by Pope Boniface VIII and asked for advice on how to destroy a rival Italian noble family.

Guido says that Boniface promised him absolution in advance of the sin of plotting this treachery, and Guido thus believed him and went along. However, when he died he found this promise of absolution in advance to be of no avail:

"Francis — the moment that I died — came then
For me, but one of the black cherubim
Called to him, ‘Don’t take him! don’t cheat me!

" ‘He must come down to join my hirelings
Because he offered counsel full of fraud,
And ever since I’ve been after his scalp!

" ‘For you can’t pardon one who won’t repent,
And one cannot repent what one wills also:
The contradiction cannot be allowed.’

"O miserable me! how shaken I was
When he grabbed hold of me and cried, ‘Perhaps
You didn’t realize I was a logician!’

"He carried me off to Minos who twisted
His tail eight times around his hardened back,
Then bit it in gigantic rage and blared,

" ‘This is a sinner for the fire of thieves!’
So I am lost here where you see me go
Walking in this robe and in my rancor."

When he had finished speaking in this fashion,
The lamenting flame went away in sorrow,
Turning and tossing its sharp-pointed horn.
(Inf. XXVII, 112-132)

After Guido has moved on, the poets proceed to the ninth malebolge, in which the sowers of discord are punished.

Who could ever, even in straight prose
And after much retelling, tell in full
The bloodletting and wounds that I now saw?

Each tongue that tried would certainly trip up
Because our speaking and remembering
Cannot comprehend the scope of pain.

Were all those men gathered again together
Who once in the fateful land of Apulia
Mourned the lifeblood spilled by the Trojans,

And those who shed their blood in the long war
In which the spoils were a mound of golden rings,
As Livy has unerringly informed us,

And those also who felt the painful gashes
In the onslaught against Robert Guiscard,
And those others whose bones are still stacked up

At Ceperano where all the Apulians
Turned traitors, and those too from Tagliacozzo
Where old Alardo conquered without weapons,

And those who show their limbs run through and those
With limbs hacked off — they all could not have matched
The ninth pocket’s degraded state of grief.

Even a cask with bottom or sides knocked out
Never cracked so wide as one soul I saw
Burst open from the chin to where one farts.

His guts were hanging out between his legs;
His pluck gaped forth and that disgusting sack
Which turns to shit what throats have gobbled down.

While I was all agog with gazing at him,
He stared at me and, as his two hands pulled
His chest apart, cried, "Look how I rip myself!

"Look at how mangled is Mohammed here!
In front of me, Ali treks onward, weeping,
His face cleft from his chin to his forelock.

"And all the others whom you see down here
Were sowers of scandal and schism while
They lived, and for this they are rent in two.

"A devil goes in back here who dresses us
So cruelly by trimming each one of the pack
With the fine cutting edge of his sharp sword

"Whenever we come round this forlorn road:
Because by then our old wounds have closed up
Before we pass once more for the next blow.

"But who are you, moping upon that ridge
Perhaps to put off facing the penalty
Pronounced on you by your own accusations?"
(Inf. XXVIII, 1-45)

The shades who, in life, divided the body politic by starting and fostering conflict are now themselves dismembered. (Note that the first sinner named in this circle is Mohammad. Dante saw Islam as at root a heresy, and Mohammad as someone who had created the greatest division and source of conflict in the known world at the time.)

A procession of famous instigators of conflict process by in Mohammad's wake, mainly contemporaries of Dante's, but also several ancient figures, including Curio who urged Julius Caesar to start the civil wars that brought down the Republican and began the empire with the claim that "one who is well prepared can only suffer loss by hesitation." The man whose words started one of Italy's bloodiest wars has had his tongue cut out.

Last seen is Bertran de Born, who was believed to have instigated the rebellion of prince Henry against his father Henry II of England.

I saw for sure — and still I seem to see it —
A body without a head that walked along
Just as the others in that sad herd were walking,

But it held the severed head by the hair,
Swinging it like a lantern in its hand,
And the head stared at us and said, "Ah me!"

Itself had made a lamp of its own self,
And they were two in one and one in two:
How can that be? He knows who so ordains it.
(Inf. XXVIII, 118-126)

Bertran, speaking through the head he carries like a lantern, has become one of the justly famous nightmare images from Inferno. But like all nightmares it must pass, for the poets have darker and deeper sights yet before them. Dante is hesitating to leave the ninth malebolge, waiting to see an ancestor of his whom he believes may be suffering there, but Virgil tells him that he has already passed, unseen among the press of bleeding souls. So Dante turns his back on the sowers of discord and approaches the last malebolge of fraud.

What the suffering would be if all the sick
In hospitals at Valdichiana, Maremma,
And Sardinia, from July to September,

Were thrown down altogether in one ditch,
Such was it there and such a stench surged up
As usually comes from putrefying limbs.

We climbed on downward to the final bank
Of the long ridge by always keeping left,
And then my eyes descried a clearer vista

Toward the bottom, where the emissary
Of the high Lord, unerring justice, chastens
The falsifiers registered on earth.

I do not think the grief could have been greater
To see the people in Aegina all diseased —
When the air was so infested with the plague

That every animal, down to the smallest worm,
Sickened and died, and later the ancient peoples
(Poets record it as a certainty)

Were born again from the progeny of ants —
Than was my grief to see, through that dark valley,
The spirits languishing in scattered stacks.

Some lay on their stomachs, some on the shoulders
Of another sinner, some hauled themselves
On hands and knees along the careworn roadway.

Step by step we tread on without talking,
Watching and listening to the infirm souls
Too weak to raise their bodies from the ground.
(Inf. XXIX, 46-72)

These are the falsifiers, those who performed fraud itself. First Dante meets an alchemist, now afflicted with sores, who tried to pass off base metals as precious ones. This shade points out to him several other practitioners of fraud. One who took on the identity of a dead man in order to re-write his will now runs rabid, biting other sinners.

Another, now bloated with dropsy confesses to having been a counterfeiter. Unable to move, his greatest wish is to be able to creep around the malebolge until he finds the nobleman who employed him to debase the currency, in order to take his revenge on him. The counterfeiter points out several other sinners, including the Egyptian wife who falsely accused Joseph in the Old Testament. One of the souls he names takes offense at being named, and the souls (though so stricken with illness they can barely move) fall to hitting each other and hurling insults and accusations back and forth.

The poets leave them to their bickering and abandon this last of the malebolges and move toward the cliff that leads down to the pit of Cocytus, the deepest part of hell in which the traitors lie.

Thanks to:

The translation and notes of James Finn Cotter

The translation, original text, and notes provided by Allen Mandelbaum

And most especially the translation and extensive commentary by Dorothy Sayers, which Penguin keeps appearing to drop, but never quite has.

Good times, good times

Lazily she wished for an easy post, and voila! A forward appeared in her inbox.

I wish to say, for the record, that I have done most of these things in my day.

You know you spend too much time in theater when...
.....your living room sofa spends more time on stage than you do. have your own secret family recipe for stage blood.'ve ever appeared on stage wearing your own clothes.'ve ever driven around the back of stores looking for discards that can be used for set pieces. can find a prop in the prop room that hasn't seen the light of day in ten years, but you don't know where your own vacuum cleaner is. have a Frequent Shopper Card at the Salvation Army.

.....Rogers and Hammerstein is synomous with 3 months of rehearsals. start buying your work clothes at Goodwill so you can buy your costumes at the mall.'ve ever taken time off your job to work on the show.'ve worked your vacation time to coincide with tech week.'ve ever cleaned a tuxedo with a magic marker.'ve ever appeared on stage in an outfit held together with hot glue.'ve ever appeared in a show where tech week is devoted to getting the running time under four and a half hours.'ve ever appeared on stage in an English drawing room murder mystery where half the cast spoke with southern accents. (OR....)'ve ever appeared in a show where the cast out-numbered the audience 2 to 1 .'ve ever gotten a part because you were the only one who showed up for auditions.'ve ever gotten a part because you were the only male who showed up for auditions.

....the audience recognizes you the minute you walk on stage because they saw you taking out the trash before the show.'ve ever menaced/threatened anyone with a gun held together with electrical tape.'ve ever had to haul a sofa off stage between scenes wearing an evening gown and heels.'ve ever had to haul a sofa off stage between scenes wearing an evening gown and heels -- and you're a guy.'ve ever played the father of someone your father's age.

....your kids know your rehearsal schedule better than you do.

....your kids know your lines better than you do.

....your kids deliver your lines better than you do. get home from rehearsal and have to go back to the theatre because you forgot your kids.'ve ever appeared in a show where an actor leaned out through a window without opening it first.'ve ever heard a director say "Try not to bump into the furniture" and mean it.

....the lead vocalist complains that the music keeps changing tempos, but the fact is the music is on a tape/cd've ever heard the head of the set construction crew say "Just paint it black -- no one will ever see it."'ve appeared in a show featuring a flushing toilet sound effect.

....the set designer has ever told you not to walk on the left half of the stage because the floor's still wet - five minutes before curtain.'ve ever been told that the reason your director has no eyebrows is because he/she handled special effects for the last show. actually know the difference between Good Shakespeare and Bad Shakespeare, and have tried to explain the difference.'ve ever had to play a drunk scene opposite someone who really was drunk.'ve ever said "Don't worry -- use the gaff tape. If that doesn't work, we'll just hot glue it."

Monday, March 19, 2007

Gargoyle Code

C. S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters are a delightful and much imitated piece, seldom with success. However, Fr. Longenecker of Sanding on My Head has definately caught the witty, incisive and very instructional feeling of Lewis' original with his Gargoyle Code series.

If you haven't been reading it already, do give it a try. Under all the fun, it's very thoughtful lenten reading. And reminds me that we need to make it to confession this week... Nothing makes those demons squirm so.

Papal Images Close-out Sale

Some of you may already know, we've for several years had a small family side-line selling high quality photo prints of the pope. However, due to steadily declining sales and the need to move on to other projects, the time has come for us to close down.

This has been a wonderful project for over two years now, but the time has come to clear out the last of our inventory and move on to other things. All prints have been marked down 40%. We'll maintain this sale as long as inventory lasts.

If you've been wanting a picture of the Holy Father for your home, or to donate to your parish or school (we offer sizes up to 16x20) this would be a great time to get one. Or if you have any good friends coming into the Church this Easter, or need presents for a first communion, this might be just the thing you're looking for.

All the prints are professionally printed on archive quality Kodak photo paper, and on the matted photos we use museum quality 100% rag mat board.

Click here to view the PapalImages online store. A few of our best images are shown below.

All sale items.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Go Tell the Spartans

To hear most film critics tell it, the world is currently divided into those who thought that 300 was a bloodsoaked but essentially soul-less load of crud, and those whose knuckles drag the ground when they walk.

To hear some others tell it, the world is instead divided into those who are able to appreciate shear, pounding, bloody masculinity, and those who are too busy prissing on about "high art" to know a good time when they see it.

Well, chances are I won't get around to seeing 300 till it's on DVD, or more likely won't get around to seeing it at all (given the kind of reviews it's been getting.) But I have to take a moment as your local weapons collecting classicist to say it's a damned shame that when such an eminently filmable story finally got put on screen (where I've been wanting to see it for twenty years, since I knew the story existed) it got there by means of a production team that thinks Greeks fought naked, Persians were Africans with a body piecing and chain fetish, and Spartan women were pretty.

The thing is, with an action spectacular like this, I'm not all that clear how much quality actually increases the box office take. 300 will make a lot of money, because it's an adrenalin pounding event movie about three hundred buff guys who fought to the death against thousands of stunt artists. However, if an incredibly good writer and director had got together on the project and brought in Russell Crowe to play Leonidas, it would still only make slightly more money. So in a sense, where's the incentive? And now no one will be making another Thermopylae movie for another 10-15 years at least, if ever. Sigh...

Well, here's the real story for them as is interested:

Then the Medes rushed forward and charged the Greeks, but fell in vast numbers: others however took the places of the slain, and would not be beaten off, though they suffered terrible losses. In this way it became clear to all, and especially to the king, that though he had plenty of combatants, he had but very few warriors. The struggle, however, continued during the whole day.

Then the Medes, having met so rough a reception, withdrew from the fight; and their place was taken by the band of Persians under Hydarnes, whom the king called his "Immortals: " they, it was thought, would soon finish the business. But when they joined battle with the Greeks, 'twas with no better success than the Median detachment - things went much as before - the two armies fighting in a narrow space, and the barbarians using shorter spears than the Greeks, and having no advantage from their numbers. The Lacedaemonians fought in a way worthy of note, and showed themselves far more skilful in fight than their adversaries, often turning their backs, and making as though they were all flying away, on which the barbarians would rush after them with much noise and shouting, when the Spartans at their approach would wheel round and face their pursuers, in this way destroying vast numbers of the enemy. Some Spartans likewise fell in these encounters, but only a very few. At last the Persians, finding that all their efforts to gain the pass availed nothing, and that, whether they attacked by divisions or in any other way, it was to no purpose, withdrew to their own quarters.

During these assaults, it is said that Xerxes, who was watching the battle, thrice leaped from the throne on which he sat, in terror for his army. Next day the combat was renewed, but with no better success on the part of the barbarians. The Greeks were so few that the barbarians hoped to find them disabled, by reason of their wounds, from offering any further resistance; and so they once more attacked them. But the Greeks were drawn up in detachments according to their cities, and bore the brunt of the battle in turns, - all except the Phocians, who had been stationed on the mountain to guard the pathway. So, when the Persians found no difference between that day and the preceding, they again retired to their quarters.

[The Persians then succeed in flanking the Greeks, who, realizing they are surrounded, send the bulk of their forces home.]

So the allies, when Leonidas ordered them to retire, obeyed him and forthwith departed. Only the Thespians and the Thebans remained with the Spartans; and of these the Thebans were kept back by Leonidas as hostages, very much against their will. The Thespians, on the contrary, stayed entirely of their own accord, refusing to retreat, and declaring that they would not forsake Leonidas and his followers. So they abode with the Spartans, and died with them. Their leader was Demophilus, the son of Diadromes.

At sunrise Xerxes made libations, after which he waited until the time when the forum is wont to fill, and then began his advance. Ephialtes had instructed him thus, as the descent of the mountain is much quicker, and the distance much shorter, than the way round the hills, and the ascent. So the barbarians under Xerxes began to draw nigh; and the Greeks under Leonidas, as they now went forth determined to die, advanced much further than on previous days, until they reached the more open portion of the pass. Hitherto they had held their station within the wall, and from this had gone forth to fight at the point where the pass was the narrowest. Now they joined battle beyond the defile, and carried slaughter among the barbarians, who fell in heaps. Behind them the captains of the squadrons, armed with whips, urged their men forward with continual blows. Many were thrust into the sea, and there perished; a still greater number were trampled to death by their own soldiers; no one heeded the dying. For the Greeks, reckless of their own safety and desperate, since they knew that, as the mountain had been crossed, their destruction was nigh at hand, exerted themselves with the most furious valour against the barbarians.

By this time the spears of the greater number were all shivered, and with their swords they hewed down the ranks of the Persians; and here, as they strove, Leonidas fell fighting bravely, together with many other famous Spartans, whose names I have taken care to learn on account of their great worthiness, as indeed I have those of all the three hundred. There fell too at the same time very many famous Persians: among them, two sons of Darius, Abrocomes and Hyperanthes, his children by Phratagune, the daughter of Artanes. Artanes was brother of King Darius, being a son of Hystaspes, the son of Arsames; and when he gave his daughter to the king, he made him heir likewise of all his substance; for she was his only child.

Thus two brothers of Xerxes here fought and fell. And now there arose a fierce struggle between the Persians and the Lacedaemonians over the body of Leonidas, in which the Greeks four times drove back the enemy, and at last by their great bravery succeeded in bearing off the body. This combat was scarcely ended when the Persians with Ephialtes approached; and the Greeks, informed that they drew nigh, made a change in the manner of their fighting. Drawing back into the narrowest part of the pass, and retreating even behind the cross wall, they posted themselves upon a hillock, where they stood all drawn up together in one close body, except only the Thebans. The hillock whereof I speak is at the entrance of the straits, where the stone lion stands which was set up in honour of Leonidas. Here they defended themselves to the last, such as still had swords using them, and the others resisting with their hands and teeth; till the barbarians, who in part had pulled down the wall and attacked them in front, in part had gone round and now encircled them upon every side, overwhelmed and buried the remnant which was left beneath showers of missile weapons.

Thus nobly did the whole body of Lacedaemonians and Thespians behave; but nevertheless one man is said to have distinguished himself above all the rest, to wit, Dieneces the Spartan. A speech which he made before the Greeks engaged the Medes, remains on record. One of the Trachinians told him, "Such was the number of the barbarians, that when they shot forth their arrows the sun would be darkened by their multitude." Dieneces, not at all frightened at these words, but making light of the Median numbers, answered, "Our Trachinian friend brings us excellent tidings. If the Medes darken the sun, we shall have our fight in the shade." Other sayings too of a like nature are reported to have been left on record by this same person.

Next to him two brothers, Lacedaemonians, are reputed to have made themselves conspicuous: they were named Alpheus and Maro, and were the sons of Orsiphantus. There was also a Thespian who gained greater glory than any of his countrymen: he was a man called Dithyrambus, the son of Harmatidas.

The slain were buried where they fell; and in their honour, nor less in honour of those who died before Leonidas sent the allies away, an inscription was set up, which said: -

"Here did four thousand men from Pelops'land
Against three hundred myriads bravely stand."
This was in honour of all. Another was for the Spartans alone: -
"Go, stranger, and to Lacedaemon tell
That here, obeying her behests, we fell."
This was for the Lacedaemonians. The seer had the following: -
"The great Megistias' tomb you here may view,
Whom slew the Medes, fresh from Spercheius' fords.
Well the wise seer the coming death foreknew,
Yet scorned he to forsake his Spartan lords."

These inscriptions, and the pillars likewise, were all set up by the Amphictyons, except that in honour of Megistias, which was inscribed to him (on account of their sworn friendship) by Simonides, the son of Leoprepes.
Even through the 19th century prose style of Rawlinson's translation, it sounds exciting.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar

I have two announcements to make:

1) I spent yesterday in bed because I was sick enough that Darwin had to stay home with the girls;



Ya'll. Can a woman not get the 24-hour stomach bug without everyone wanting to telegraph congratulations? When I am pregnant, I will announce it by saying, "I am pregnant!" not by hinting coyly about how sick I've been. I hate hinters.

And I am better now and not in bed, so speculation may cease.

That is all.

Commedia Meditations: Fraud II

Now new punishments I must fit to verse,
Shaping the subject for my twentieth canto
Of the first canticle on the buried damned.

Already I was fully set to look
Far down into the depth that opened to me
To see its bottom bathed with tears of anguish,

When through the valley’s circling I descried
People coming hushed and weeping, at the pace
Followed by processions in this world.

As my fixed gaze descended lower to them,
Each seemed bizarrely twisted at the neck
Between the chin and top part of the chest,

Because their faces turned round to their haunches
So that they were compelled to walk backwards
Since they could not possibly see ahead.
(Inf. XX, 1-15)

The poets have reached the fourth malebolge, where sorcerers, magicians, astrologers and fortune tellers walk in sad procession, weeping. Their heads, however, have been twisted round to face directly backwards, and so they are forced to walk backwards in order to see where they are going. Those who attempted to use unnatural means to see the future and gain power while on earth, now suffer from unnaturally twisted sight throughout eternity.

Dante is overcome at the site of this punishment, and Virgil chastises him:

When I saw close at hand our human image
Contorted so the tears streaming from their eyes
Bathed their buttocks and ran between the cleft.

I wept, surely, while I leaned back against
A rock there on that rugged ridge; my escort
Said, "Still like all the other fools, are you?

"Here pathos lives when its false meaning dies,
Since who is more pathetic than the person
Who agonizes over God’s just judgments?"
(Inf. XX, 22-30)

The first four malebolges have been dark in their imagery, but there is still much that is darker and more terrible to come before the poets reach the deepest pit of hell. Dante here, as he no doubt imagines his reader may, is overcome by the sheer scale of the grotesque suffering that he is witnessing. Virgil, however, reminds him that what he is seeing here is merely sin made explicit: the true nature of these sins with all their fair pretense stripped away. If the visions of nether hell are grotesque and squalid, this merely underlines the wrongness of remaining steadfastly attached to such sins.

Dante as character is certainly no preening pharisee. He knows and is personally fond of several of the characters that he meets, and he is shocked at the severity of some of the punishments that he witnesses. Yet Dante as narrator, and Virgil as his voice, must bring both Dante the character and the reader to an understanding of what sin is, and the importance of rejecting all attachment to it.

Virgil points out a number of magicians and astrologers, ancient and contemporary. They then move on to the fifth malebolge, where corrupt officials are boiling in a river of pitch. A troop of devils, the Malebrache, oversee the shades punished for their corruption (the civic version of the corrupt churchmen of the malebolge of simoniacs).

And I saw behind us a blackened devil
Come running up along the ridge’s length.

Ah, what a ferocious look he had!
And how fierce his actions seemed to me,
With his wings wide-open and his light feet!

Upon his shoulders, which were high and pointed,
He had loaded a sinner by both legs,
Gripping him in front by the ankles.

From our bridge he called, "Oh, Malebranche,
Here is one of Saint Zita’s elders!
Toss him below while I go back for more

"To that city which is so well supplied:
All men there, except Bonturo, are grafters!
In Lucca they will change no to yes for cash!"

He plunged the sinner down and turned about
Upon the rocky ridge: no hound freed from
Its leash ever chased a thief so swiftly!

The sinner sank and surfaced rear end-up,
But the demons under cover of the bridge
Shouted, "The Holy Face has no place here!

"Swimming here is not like in the Serchio!
If you don’t want to feel our grappling-hooks,
Don’t raise yourself up above that pitch!"

They chewed him with a hundred prongs or more,
Screaming, "Here you frolic under cover!
See if you can snitch the chance to surface!"
(Inf. XXI, 29-54)

Virgil parleys with the demons and secures safe passage (after invoking the threat of God's will that the journey should take place) from one of their leaders, Malacoda. This demon guides them along the malebolge, and warns them that the nearest bridge over the sixth malebolge (hypocrits) was destroyed at the time of Christ's harrowing of hell. (In fact, the demon is lying to them. All of the the bridges over the sixth malebolge were destroyed. He's probably planning some sort of trap for them from the beginning. This is, incidentally, probably the part of the journey where Dante is in most danger of being detained with the damned souls, since he was himself accused of corruption while serving in Florence's government, and also stands in danger of hypocrisy.)

Malacoda calls together a squad of demons and leads the poets off along the river of pitch. The interlude with the demons provides a bit of comic relief similar to that found in many medieval mystery plays.

"O master," I said, "what am I looking at?
Ah, let us walk alone without an escort:
You know the way? I want no part of them!

"If you remain alert as usual,
Do you not notice how they grind their teeth
And how they threaten harm with their fierce looks?"

And he: "I have no wish to see you panic.
Let them grind away all that they want to:
They do it to impress the boiling wretches."

They turned around upon the left-face bank,
But first each pressed a tongue between his teeth
To sound a signal to their commandant,

And with his ass he blew a bugle-blast.
(Inf. XXI, 127-139)

And yes, that translation by Cotter above is quite accurate. Mandelbaum translates the line "And he had made a trumpet of his ass." which is a pretty literal translation of the Italian: ed elli avea del cul fatto trombetta.

As they march along, Dante is watching the boiling pitch carefully.

My whole attention was fixed on the pitch
To study every aspect of this pocket
And of the people who, within it, burned.

Just as dolphins do, when with arching backs
They signal a storm-warning to the sailors
To make all hands ready to save the ship,

So here at times to soothe the suffering
Some sinner showed his back above the top
And hid again as fast as lightning flashes.

And just as on the water’s edge of ditches
Frogs squat with only their muzzles showing,
To hide their legs and the rest of their fat flesh,

So here on all sides these sinners squatted,
But the instant Barbariccia stepped forward,
They dived back underneath the boiling pitch.

I saw, and still my heart shudders with it,
One lag behind — just as sometimes one frog
Will stay back while another leaps below —

And Graffiacane, the closest to him,
Hooked him up by his pitch-knotted hair
And hauled him out — he looked just like an otter!

I knew all of the devils now by name,
For I had watched them when they were selected,
And when they called each other, I had listened.

"Oh Rubicante, see that you get your claws
Into his back so you can skin and flay him!"
The whole damned squad shouted all together.

And I: "My master, if you can, please do
Find out the name of the unfortunate soul
Who’s fallen in the clutches of his foes."
(Inf. XXII, 16-45)

Virgil asks Ciampolo, the captured sinner, to tell his story, and he obligingly does so, telling how he was a young man of no family who was put in the service of King Thibault II of Navarre, where he proceeded to make his fortune by taking bribes. He then tells Dante about some of the other notable corrupt officials who also inhabit the boiling pitch.

The demons, however, are restive, wanting to tear Ciampolo to pieces for being caught lurking on the shore out of the pitch. However, the wily ex-official tricks the demons and (in the moment they are distracted) leaps back into the pitch, escaping the shredding they had planned for him. After failing to catch him before he vanishes into the boiling river, a fight breaks out among the demons, and two of them fall into the pitch themselves and have to be fished out with pitchforks.

The poets slip away in the commotion, however the demons are furious with them and come flying after them to avenge themselves for their humiliation, forcing the poets to dash down into the sixth malebolge to escape them. Thus, Virgil and Dante find themselves among the slow procession of the hypocrites.

Below that point we found a painted people
Who walked in circles with the slowest steps,
Weeping and worn in looks and overwhelmed.

The cloaks they wore had cowls drawn down low
Over their eyes, made in a similar style
As those that are made for monks in Cluny.

These are so gilded outside that they dazzle,
But inside, solid lead, and so heavy that,
Compared to them, Frederick’s capes were straw.

O mantle of unending weariness!
Once again we turned to the left hand,
Along with those souls rapt in their sad tears.

But with their weights the tired people trod
So slowly that we had fresh company
With every step we took along the way.
(Inf. XXIII, 58-72)

Again Dante shows us a physical manifestation of the sin for which these souls are condemned. Hypocrisy puts a bright exterior on a base reality, as symbolized by the gold plated lead of the hypocrites cloaks. There is also the weight of lies which grows with time as pretence is layered on top of pretence, all in the effort to achieve an appearance of virtue, which the incredible weight of these cloaks symbolizes.

Hypocrisy resides rightly in nether hell, the region of fraud, for hypocrisy consists of lies (to ourselves and to others) designed to make us look better than we are. But like the cloaks of those treading the endless path around the sixth malebolge, when we build a cloak of lies to hide ourselves under, we slow ourselves to a crawl, held down by a weight of falsehood and guilt that pushes us to add ever more lies to the weight of our cloak of hypocrisy.

Dante converses briefly with two members of a military order, who describe to him the punishment of the hypocrites. Dante is about to remonstrate with them when he sees something which catches his attention.

I began, "O friars, your wicked ..." — but said
No more: my eyes caught the sight of one
Crucified with three stakes on the ground.

When he saw me, he twisted all around,
Breathing hard into his beard with sighs,
And brother Catalano, who observed this,

Said to me, "That one you see nailed down
Advised the Pharisees it was expedient
To sacrifice one man for the people.

"Stretched out naked he lies, across the way,
As you yourself see, and is made to feel
The full weight of every passer-by.

"In the same way is his father-in-law racked
In this same ditch, and the rest of that council
Which has sowed so much evil for the Jews."
(Inf. XXIII, 109-123)

Thanks to:

The translation and notes of James Finn Cotter

The translation, original text, and notes provided by Allen Mandelbaum

And most especially the translation and extensive commentary by Dorothy Sayers, which Penguin keeps appearing to drop, but never quite has.