Monday, 30 January 2017

Politics and the English Language by George Orwell



I haven't yet read enough of Orwell's works to decide whether I like him or not, but one thing I have learned in our short acquaintance is that he's not one to prevaricate or candy-coat his ideas.  If you don't want his opinions, don't read him, and if you do, get ready to duck!

Orwell begins his essay, Politics and the English Language, by speculating on the impending collapse of the English Language. Is its demise a mirroring of society's cultural suicide, simply an innocuous descent that is only natural given the state of our world?  Yet Orwell believes that there is not just a natural cause, but more pointedly, political and economic ones, and even the effects themselves can become causes that reinforce the original cause.  For example:
"A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks.  It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language.  It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier to us to have foolish thoughts."
There is a remedy though: if we clean up our bad habits when applying language to thoughts, our thoughts will become clearer.

A Song Without Words (1919)
John William Godward
source Wikiart

Orwell now gives five writing examples exemplifying problems with how people use language:

  1. an essay by Professor Harold Laski (who uses 5 negatives in 53 words)
  2. a paragraph from Interglossa by Professor Lancelot Hogben (mixed metaphors)
  3. an essay on psychology in Politics (meaninglessness)
  4. a Communist pamphlet (stale phrases)
  5. a letter in the Tribune (words and meaning part company)

The two main problems in all these examples are a "staleness of imagery" and a "lack of precision".  Modern English prose is ripe with these issues, but they crop up continuously in political writing.   Instead of sticking with concrete thoughts, the abstract creepy in, melting away the valuable meaning of ideas, instead consisting of a stringing together of hackneyed phrases.  He then lists examples of the ways that the adequate construction of prose is habitually avoided.

Dying Metaphors:  These are metaphors between the good and bad, a garbage dump of metaphors that have lost all expressive power and are used only to avoid the trouble of creating new evocative phrases.  Whenever inconsistent phrases are mixed or the original meaning is convoluted, it is evidence that the person is not particularly interested in what they are saying.

Operators of Verbal False Limbs:  Used to avoid choosing correct verbs and nouns but give the appearance of a harmony by expanding the sentence with the use of extra syllables.  Examples of such are: make itself felt, exhibit a tendency to, etc.  In addition, the passive voice is preferred instead of the active, noun constructions are employed instead of gerunds (by examination instead of by examining), verbs are cut down by -ize and de- formations, clichéd statements are presented as intelligent by the not un- formation, clean conjunctions and prepositions are replaced by phrases such as, with respect to, the fact that, etc, and sentence completions are made to sound mundane by such phrases as deserving serious consideration, etc.

Pretentious Diction:  Catch words are used to adorn simple statements to give biased judgements an appearance of scientific authority.  He goes on to describe specific words used in political writings, claiming the result is slovenliness and vagueness, to obscure the real issues.

Meaningless Words:  Passages with a complete dearth of meaning abound in many areas of writing, but principally in art and literary criticism.  Orwell gives a few examples, such as:
"The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far it signifies 'something not desirable.'  The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice, have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another.  In the case of democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides.  It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of régime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning.  Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way.  That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different."
In an attempt to show that modern writing does not choose words for meaning nor does it evoke powerful images for clarity, Orwell gives first an example from Ecclesiastes, and then his own modern translation.  His experiment is quite fascinating:

Ecclesiastes:
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, or yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Modern English:
Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

He then analyzes them to show the weakness of the translation and claims modern writing is lazy, borrowing ideas and phrases and "gumming" them together in order to use minimal mental effort; also there is often an attempt to convey emotional meaning without attention to detail nor the actual point.

Language is Not Transparent
Mel Bochner
source Wikiart

A responsible writer will ask himself the following questions when writing:

What am I trying to say?
What words will express it?
What image or idiom will make it clearer?
Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
Could I put it more shortly?
Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

However, Orwell says, most writers are contend to string together cliches, obscuring their meaning even to themselves.

In politics, the writing is particularly dreadful, all the literary mistakes converging and causing the viewers to feel that "one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy," who is being transformed into a machine by the very words he speaks.  By the constant bombardment of meaningless jargon, people's consciousness becomes sleepy and allows atrocities to be labelled as pacification, or transfer of population, or elimination of unreliable elements.  This particular phraseology has no metaphor content and therefore images are lacking, allowing the reader/listener to easily dismiss the human connection and thus controlling our emotional response to it.  Inflated euphemisms are used to justify cruelty.

The Treachery of Images (1948)
Rene Magritte
source Wikiart

Yet while thoughts are able to corrupt language, the reverse is also true.  You can catch this impoverished writing, like a disease, and have your mind affected by it.  Orwell admits that in his essay he has committed some of the literary crimes he is attempting to reveal.  The only way to avoid these faults is to continually be on guard against them. We can start by eradicating worn-out phrases and metaphors, but the change must go deeper.  He goes on to explain what these changes do not imply, then gives the reader rules to follow when intuition fails:
  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
By applying these rules, one could still write badly, but one could not write the drivel of which he has been speaking or using as examples.  His goal with his essay is not to consider "the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought."

For:
"Political language --- and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists --- is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."
Young Girl Learning to Write
Camille Corot
source Wikiart

A very powerful essay by Orwell and one that requires time and deep thought to digest. On most points, I agree with him wholeheartedly, but there are a few minor claims that poke at my passion for words.  To use less words that have Greek or Latin roots, seems overly particular.  These words have been in use for centuries and add to the language instead of detracting from it.  And while Orwell didn't directly say that he takes offence at larger more complex words, the appearance in his examples was to severely diminish them (sorry, if I misread you, George, but that was my impression).  While I certainly do not advocate using complex words to diminish meaning or cloak intent, I do think that they are valuable for enjoyment in reading.  Would one rather have a French seven course dinner, or MacDonald's?  If one is discerning in the culinary arts, certainly the former.  However, just as the ingredients for the seven course dinner would have to be used with style and attention, so must complex words be, when writing.

My next choice for my Deal Me In Challenge is suppposed to be a children's classic, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aitken, but I'm having some trouble finding it (yes, those of you who know of my "issue" of losing my DMI choices can laugh at me), so next week might find a different post appearing.  Time shall reveal!


Week 5 - Deal Me In Challenge - Eight of Spades









Friday, 27 January 2017

Herodotus' The Histories ~ Book II



Book II (Euterpe)


"When Cyrus died, the kingship was inherited by Cambyses."

Upon the death of Cyrus, his son Cambyses took power and immediately led an expedition to Egypt, including the conquered Ionians whom he saw as slaves. Herodotus now falls into a long narrative about Egypt's land and customs.

Architecture and Art of the great Temple of Karnak
David Roberts
source Wikiart


He claims the Phrygians are the oldest people, citing an experiment done with babies to see what the first word uttered would be, however the Egyptians were the first to discover the year by dividing it into twelve parts and adopt names for the twelve gods. Here begins a lengthy description of the land and terrain, the soil and the flooding of the Nile and its channels.  Herodotus claims the Hellenes have three theories about the Nile's floods: 1) the Etesian winds cause the flooding, which Herodotus says is ridiculous; 2) the Nile flows from the Ocean and the Ocean surrounds the entire world, which Herodotus states is even more ludicrous, and; 3) the floods are caused by melting snow from Libya which pass through Ethiopia.  The last is the most believable explanation, yet the most erroneous.  Herodotus presents his own theory which has to do with the sun being pushed off course by storms, then in spite of Herodotus' promise to be brief, he offers a rather complex explanation.

The Nile (1881)
Vasily Polenov
source Wikiart


Next, Herodotus launches into a description of Egyptian customs, claiming they are opposite to the customs of other peoples.  Here are a few for your enjoyment:


  • The women go to the market to sell goods, whereas the men stay home and do the weaving.
  • The men carry loads on their heads and the women on their shoulders.
  • Women urinate standing up; men sitting down.
  • They ease themselves (urinate & defacate, I believe he means) inside their houses but eat outside on the streets.
  • Sons do not have to support their parents, but women do.
  • Women cannot be priestesses, only men can be priests
  • They live together with their animals
  • They knead dough with their feet but lift up dung with their hands


..... and so on and so forth.

The Egyptians are pious and Herodotus explains in detail animal sacrifices, then moves on to their understanding of Herakles, which is very different from the understanding of the Hellenes.  In fact, Herodotus proves his dedication for discovering the truth by visiting Tyre in Phoenicia to discover how these people viewed the god, as well as a sojourn in Thaos.  Herodotus finally concludes that the Hellenes myths of Herakles are the most foolish.

The Sanctuary of Hercules (1884)
Arnold Böcklin
source Wikiart

A discussion about where the Hellenes derived the names for their gods follows, and Herodotus is certain most of the names came from barbarians, namely the Egyptians, although Poseidon seems to be borrowed from the Libyans.  As to their origin, Herodotus believes that Hesiod and Homer, who lived no more than 400 years before him (modern scholars believe 200 years before), composed the theogony of the gods along with bestowing them with their attributes, behaviours, skills and descriptions. From there we move to religious rituals and festivals, and the Egyptians care of their animals. Do not intentionally kill an animal or you are sentenced to death.  For the death of a cat, the household will shave its eyebrows, but for the death of a dog they shave their whole body and head.  Many animals get buried in sacred places or tombs.  The crocodile is sacred in some places as is the hippopotamus, and my favourite animal, the otter. Herodotus's description of the hippopotamus is rather implausible:

" .... it has four feet with cloven hooves like an ox, a blunt snout, a mane like a horse, conspicuous tusks, and a horse's tail.  It neighs.  It is the size of the largest ox, and its hide is so thick that once it is dried, spear shafts are crafted from it ..."

There is a very impolitic footnote stating that obviously Herodotus has never seen a hippopotamus, but honestly who really knows?  I choose to believe him, or at least that he thought he saw one, as later he describes a phoenix but is very careful to reveal that he has never actually seen one.  From this evidence we can conclude that, at the very least, Herodotus is attempting to be accurate and transparent.  In any case, this phoenix carries the body of its father wrapped in an egg of myrrh from Arabia to the sanctuary of Helios when he dies, or so the legend goes.

Hatwell's Gallopers': Hippopotamus Hunt
Henry Whiting
source ArtUK


After, Herodotus discusses various themes such as fish, methods of embalming, Egyptian boats, and then begins to share some Egyptian history.  Priests told him that the first Egyptian king was named Min who founded the city of Memphis and dammed the Nile.  After him, 330 kings followed which included one Ethiopian and one woman (Nitokris - different than the Babylonian Nitokris of Book I) who avenged her brother by locking his numerous murderers in a chamber and drowning them before throwing herself into a chamber of ashes to escape retribution.  However, the Egyptians claim these kings were more or less useless except for the last, Moeris (king Amenemhet), who produced a memorial to himself and excavated a lake.  King Sesostris, who came after, marched all over Asia erecting pillars to commemorate his victories and would put on them the genitals of a woman for those whom he thought cowardly.  When his brother plotted his murder, Sesostris used two of his six children as a bridge to cross a flaming pyre, burning them up, and in this way, escaped with the rest of his family.  His son, Pheros, ruled Egypt after him and then came Proteus, with whom Helen and Paris stayed.  Herodotus calls into question Homer's account of the Trojan War stating in his opinion that Helen was in Egypt the whole time of the war.  After all:

" ... considering that if Helen had been in Troy, the Trojans would certainly have returned her to the Hellenes, whether Alexandros (Paris) concurred or not.  For neither Priam nor his kin could have been so demented that they would have willingly endangered their own persons, their children, and their city just so that Alexandros could have Helen."

Thebes Colosseums, Memnon and Sesostris (1856)
Jean-Leon Gerome
source Wikiart

After Proteus, Rhampsinitos assumed kingship, amassing great amounts of silver for which he built a great vault.  But the builder made a secret entrance which he told to his sons upon his death and they began to borrow from the king.  The king discovered the theft and laid traps for the robbers whereupon one of them was caught, but he convinced his brother to behead him so their identity would not be discovered.  The king then took the headless body and hung it as bait but, upon the urging of his mother, the thief made the guards drunk and stole it.  The king then set his daughter up as bait in a brothel to attempt to identify the robber (Herodotus expresses his disbelief at the veractiy of this account), but although the thief confessed his sin while enjoying the daughter's favours, he offered the arm of a corpse he had brought along with him when she tried to grab him, and once more eluded capture.  So impressed, the king pardoned the man and gave him his daughter in marriage, then King Rhampsinitos descended to Hades to play dice with Demeter. (Yes, seriously!)

While Egypt prospered under Rhampsinitos, the next king, Cheops (Khufu), laid the people under bondage, forcing the people to do labour for him, hauling stones to build causeways and his great pyramid.  His brother, Chephren (Kafre), was not much better and built his pyramid of coloured Ethiopian stone, however, his son, Mykerinos (Menkaure), disliked his father's policies and enacted change.  He is liked more than any other king but at times his leniency caused him great trouble.  After sexually abusing his daughter who killed herself, an oracle told him that he only had 6 years left to live, therefore he stayed awake twice as long and extended his life to 12 years.  Asychis followed, who built his pyramid of bricks, then a blind king, Anysis, who fled the Ethiopian king who took over, who then fled himself after a dream, whereupon Anysis returned. The Egyptians believe that before the kings, the gods ruled over Egypt.


Great Pyramid of Giza
source Wikipedia

After Ethiopian rule, they divided the kingdom into twelve districts and kings ruled each, forming alliances but promising not to depose each other.  To commemorate them all, they had a marvellous labyrinth constructed that Herodotus claims eclipses the pyramids themselves and he would know as he was shown the upper chambers although denied the lower ones.  Yet even with their pact for peace, a mistake brought about dissent. While meeting together, only 11 golden cups were brought out for libation and Psammetichos had to use his helmet.  A horrified hush came over the rest of the kings as they realized the oracles proclamation was coming true: that the one who drank from a bronze vessel would reign over all the kingdoms.  They decided to exile instead of kill him but Psammetichos returned and with the help of the Ionians and Carians, became sole ruler of the kingdoms.  Nechos, the son of Psammetichos, reigned after, constructing a canal and leading military campaigns, before his son, Psammis took over, followed by his son, Apries.  Due to a failed military campaign, the people blamed his poor leadership and Apries had to send an envoy, Amasis, to quiet them, however they crowned Amasis king, so Apries sent Patarbemis to fetch his disloyal envoy.  Amasis (Ahmose II) refused to return, but Patarbemis was able to determine his intent to attack the king.  However, upon return, Apries was so furious that Patarbemis had returned empty-handed, he seized him to cut off his ears and nose before the man could relate his discovery.  Amasis with his foreign army of the Ionians and Carians who had settled in the land, met Apries' Egyptian army in battle and Apries was eventually captured. Amasis treated him well, however, yet the citizens complained and Amasis turned him over to them at their request, whereupon they strangled and buried him.

Amasis II
source Wikipedia


The people at first despised Amasis because he was merely a common man, but Amasis won them over.  Yet he was not a serious man and enjoyed drinking with his friends.  Concerned about his reputation, his close friends and family admonished him but Amasis answered:

"When archers need to use their bows, they string them tightly, but when they have finished using them, they relax them.  For if a bow remained tightly strung all the time, it would snap and be of no use when someone needed it.  The same principle applies to the daily routine of a human being: if someone wants to work seriously all the time and not let himself ease off for his share of play, he will go insane without even knowing it, or at the least suffer a stroke.  And it is because I recognize this maxim that I allot a share of my time to each aspect of life."

Egypt prospered under Amasis and he was also friendly to the Hellenes.



⇐  Book I (Clio)                                                                                Book III (Thalia)


Wednesday, 25 January 2017

The Tanglewoods' Secret by Patricia St. John

"Philip and I lived with our Aunt Margaret in a white house on the side of a hill."

Philip and Ruth reside with their aunt and uncle while their parents are away.  While Philip is a responsible and thoughtful eleven year old, Ruth, at nine, is impulsive, adventurous and sports a fiery temper.  Her relationship with her aunt is tenuously cordial and often she is disciplined due to some tantrum or neglected chore.  On one of the children's daily rambles, they meet a poor boy named Terry who knows everything about their favourite pastime, birdwatching, and the three spend some lovely days together.

A chance meeting with Mr. Tandy, a shepherd looking for his lost lamb, gives Ruth a glimpse of the Good Shepherd.  Slowly her perceptions change and she begins to see not only her behaviour in a new light, but those around her.  A new-found grace and understanding pervades her soul, yet Ruth carefully guards this precious secret.  Yet when tragedy strikes and Ruth wonders why the Good Shepherd can't put things aright if he truly does love them, she finds that her secret is one that needs to be shared.

The Good Shepherd
Frederick James Shields
source ArtUK


This was a lovely, simple little book that demonstrates how the grace of God can change even the most selfish of hearts, and how disinterested selflessness can alter those around us, enacting a tangible transformation within community.

Apparently, the edition of the book I read is a sanitized version that was printed to simplify the language for modern readers.  Blah!  I'd now like to get my hands on the original text.  I'd imagine that the story would be more rich and meaningful without being dumbed down for today's audience.

Curiously, next week, I'll be reading George Orwell's essay, Politics and the English Language, which will address the dumbing down of the English language. Stay tuned!


Week 4 - Deal Me In Challenge - Six of Hearts





Monday, 23 January 2017

The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare

"A wretched soul, bruised with adversity,
We bid be quiet when we heart it cry.
But were we burdened with like weight of pain,
As much or more we should ourselves complain."

In a quest to focus on my Shakespeare Project for 2017, I'm reading through some of the plays following the schedule of the A Bard a Month group on Goodreads.  They have The Comedy of Errors listed as the first play of Williams Shakespeare yet my The Life and Works of William Shakespeare has it listed as the 5th.  From the evidence, the only thing that's certain is that no one knows for sure, right?  In any case, it definitely shows in its structure and method a rather simple presentation of a budding farce that nevertheless manages to capture the audience's interest and tickle their humour.

The play appears to be dated somewhere between 1589-1591.  It did not appear in Quarto form but made its first appearance in the Folio of 1623 and the first documented performance in the Gesta Grayorum was at Gray's Inn on December 28, 1594.  In dating this play, the rhyme scheme is also of assistance, and classical allusions, fantastic imagery, wire-drawn wit, conceits and puns abound as in earlier plays.  The action occurs within a single day, and the buttressing of dual improbabilities in the duplication of the twin masters and servants, the romantic tension of the parties, and the blending of tragedy and comedy bring some complexity to this unseasoned work.  Resembling Plautus' play, Menæchmi, portraying whimsical confusion and mistakes involving twins of Syracuse, The Comedy of Errors may also have the basis in another drama, The Historie of Error, performed in 1577-78, although the parallels are certainly less apparent.

source Wikimedia Commons


A trader from Syracuse, Egeon, is apprehended in the port city of Ephesus.  As the law forbids either inhabitant from entering the other's city, Egeon is sentenced to death unless someone is found to provide the fine of one thousand marks.  In despair, he reveals to the Duke of Ephesus that thirty-three years ago in a storm at sea, he was separated from his wife, one of his twin sons, and one of his two twin servants; he and one son were picked up by a Corinthian ship and his wife, his other son and the other servant by an Epidaurian ship.  The years pass as Egeus grieves the loss, renaming his remaining son Antipholus after his lost son and the servant, Dromio, after the lost servant.  Now, against all statues, he is here in Ephesus to discover the fate of the missing part of his family.

Without a friend in the city, Egeon's fate seems certain, but his son, Antipholus of Syracuse and his servant, Dromio, turn up in Ephesus unbeknownst to him, also looking for his missing brother as he has been searching for seven years.  And lo, the missing Antipholus of Ephesus indeed resides in the city with his servant, Dromio, and thence the "errors" begin, causing a rollicking adventure of humour and suspense. Adriana chastizes her husband, but why does he not appear to know her?  Lady Luciana, her sister, is horrified by the advances of her brother-in-law.  A gold chain ordered by Antipholus of Epheus, mistakenly ends up in the hands of his brother and accusations, threats and recriminations follow.  An abbey becomes a refuge, yet who exactly is the regal abbess, and will Egeon eventually be saved and the family reunited?

A Scene from The Comedy of Errors
Thomas Stothard
source ArtUK

In spite of all my questions, there wasn't much mystery to the play, but while hilarity is perceived by the audience who can regularly guess at the outcomes of situations, the characters themselves are often in states of anguish, irritation, despair, and confusion, not at all comedic from their point of view.  The well-crafted tension between these two aspects of the play gives us a glimmer of promise for Shakespeare's later works and taste of his genius to come .....


Further reading:



Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Le Horla by Guy de Maupassant

"What a wonderful day! - Quelle journée admirable!"

What a lovely start to the story.  The narrator describes himself reclining on the lush grass of his yard under a gorgeous plane tree.  He loves his house and the region of his forebearers close to Rouen. The Seine flows lazily alongside his garden and in early afternoon he spots a parade of ships drawn by a tugboat, including an impressive Brazilian three-mast ship, gleaming white and he is filled with such joy at the sight that he salutes the magnificent vessel.

Five days later, he claims that he has been seized by a fever, a mysterious force that makes him feel rather sad more than sick.  His despair grows and in spite of seeing a doctor, it continues to worsen.  Finally, he decides to take a short trip to set him aright, visiting Monte St. Michel, and while he does return refreshed and certain that he is cured of his malady, he relates a curious experience that he had at the monastery.

While being guided by a resident monk, the monk tells him that at night the local folk often hear two goats bleating, one with a strong voice and one with a weak voice, and while some people discount the tale, fishermen have seen a faceless shepherd leading two arguing goats, one with the head of a man and one with the head of a woman.

Monte St. Michel
source Wikipedia

Our narrator is perplexed.  Surely if rational beings other than ourselves existed we would have encountered them by now.  The monk, however, gives a perceptive reply:

"Do we see even the hundred-thousandth part of what exists?  Take the wind, for example, which is the greatest force in nature, which knocks men down, demolishes buildings, uproots trees, sends up the sea in mountains of water, wrecks cliffs, and throws mighty ships against the shoals, the wind that kills, that whistles, that moans, that groans ---- have you ever seen it, and can you see it?  It exists, regardless."

With the sickness coming back upon him, the man agonizes with nightmares, and the unexplained consumption of water and milk from his carafes in the morning.  Escaping to Paris, he has an unsettling experience with a doctor, a clairivoyant, which further cements his mental exploration of other-worldly phenomenon.  Yet again when he returns home he experiences an increasing unease and a consciousness of an entity which has invaded his home, apparently from the Brazilian schooner that he glimpsed months ago.  He is distaught, deranged and we can only guess at the outcome as he attempts to dispose of this being who has not only penetrated his home but his soul.

"Woe to us!  Woe to man!  He has come, the ... the ... what is his name ... the .. it seems as if he's calling out his name to me, and I can't hear it ... the ... yes ... he's calling it out ... I'm listening ... I cannot ... say it again ... the ... Horla ... I heard it ... the Horla ... it is he ... the Horla ... he has arrived!"



It may sound odd to say, but this was one of the more delightfully suspenseful short stories that I've read in awhile.  While I believe that we cannot control what happens to us in life, we can control our reactions to it, yet in this story, the man's self will is appropriated to an extent that he loses part of who he is.  His mind, while not necessarily possessed, is subjugated by a force that is able to manipulate his thinking and apprehending.  What could be more terrifying? Complete loss of control.  It makes an extraordinarily creepy tale.

Next week, I have a children's classic on slate, The Tanglewood Secret by Patricia St. John.  With my unexpectedly busy life that has left me little time for reading, I just hope I can finish it and review it in time!

*** Note:  I did read ¼ of this short story in French before my brain gave out and time began to run away from me.  An accomplishment nonetheless, but it made me realize that I need much more practice with this excellent language!

Week 3 - Deal Me In Challenge - Four of Clubs










Monday, 16 January 2017

Herodotus' The Histories - Book I




Book I (Clio)


"Herodotus of Halicarnassus here presents his research so that human events do not fade with time.  May the great and wonderful deeds --- some brought forth by the Hellenes, others by the barbarians --- not go unsung; as well as the causes that led them to make war on each other."

Immediately Herodotus establishes who he is, that he is conducting an inquiry into events, and that he is an unbiased observer, treating both the Hellenes and barbarians alike, lauding each of their deeds.

He goes on to deal with the cause of the enmity between them:  according to the Persians, those dratted Phoenicians started it all.  They sailed to Argos and kidnapped some women, Io, the daughter of the king being one of them, and that is how she arrived in Egypt.  This version is vastly different than the Io version told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses.  In retaliation, the Hellenes then kidnapped the king's daughter, Europa, from the Phoenician city of Tyre, again a different version from Ovid's recounting of Europa's kidnapping.  Yet not being satisfied with one kidnapping, the Hellenes set out again, this time absconding with the king of Colchis' daughter, Medea. Now, when Paris, the son of Priam, heard about these kidnappings, he thought nothing of stealing Helen.  Even though the Hellenes were seen as the aggressors who began the hostilities, the Persians thought it plain silly to be so concerned about these women, as they would not have been kidnapped unless they were willing.  Well, okay .....  But to add another twist, the Phoenicians disagree with the Persians, saying that Io had relations with the captain of the Phoenician ship and had to sail away to hide her pregnancy.  Heredotus will not say either way who was right, but he does know the first man to commit unjust acts towards the Hellenes .....

The Abduction of Helen (c.1740-60)
Johann Georg Platzer
source ArtUK


Croesus of Lydia was the first man to subjugate the Hellenes and his rule passed to Kandaules.  Now, Kandaules had a beautiful wife and he insisted on showing her, in all her nakedness, to his servant, Gyges, so he would confirm her loveliness.  Gyges is appalled, but what can he do?  He is told not to allow the queen to know that he has seen her naked, but she spies him slipping out the door and plots her revenge. Confronting Gyges, she says he must either slay Kandaules and become king, or die immediately.  Gyges chooses the former, dedicating much silver as an offering to Delphi, and therefore is able to invade Smyrna and Miletus. Thus runs a list of Lydian rulers and their deeds.

The Imprudence of Candaules (1830)
William Etty
source Wikipedia


Croesus, the son of Alyattes, attacked the Ephesians, the first of the Hellenes to be assailed.  He subdued city-state after city-state: the Lydians, Phrygians, Mysians, Carians, Ionians, Dorians, Aeolians, etc, etc.  At the pinnacle of his wealth, a man named Solon arrived in Sardis with many wise men of Hellas.  He had effected laws for the Athenians at their invitation, then travelled for the ten years the laws were in place so as not to be convinced to repeal any of them.  Croesus was curious as to who was the happiest and most prosperous man in the world, expecting the answer to be him, but Solon frustrated his expectations by naming two others.  When Croesus challenged his answers, he replied that to be considered for this title, it must be judged how a man ends his life; until then he can only be called "lucky".  Croesus disparaged Solon's wisdom and was sent a dream that his son, Aryes, would die by an iron spear.  He, with hesitation, allows his son to go on a boar hunt, commissioning Adastos, a slave who he had rescued, to ensure his safety.  Ironically, Adastos accidentally kills Aryes with his spear throw and though Croesus pardons Adastos, the slave kills himself on the tomb of Aryes.

Croesus Showing Solon His Riches (1655)
Casper Casteleyn
source ArtUK

Herodotus relates more stories about Croesus and his ancestors, then returns to the worry of Persia and their possible aggression.  Croesus sends a delegation to Delphi where the god, Apollo, returns his answer, advising him to ally himself with Sparta, and Croesus understands this to mean victory. Finally, he and his Lydian army meet the Persians, led by Cyrus, at Sardis, but the Persians are victorious and Croesus is taken prisoner.  On his pyre, when Croesus recounts the words of Solon, Cyrus has a change of heart and commands his release, but the fire is already raging and only an unexpected storm of rain in answer to Croesus' prayer to Apollo saves him.  Now friends with Cyrus, Croesus instructs him how to stop the plundering of his city and therefore rescue his army from corruption, then requests the right to question the oracle on his mistaken prophecies, yet he learns that he is the one who had misunderstood and accepts blame.

Priestess of Delphi (1891)
John Collier
source Wikiart

Thus runs more Lydian history and moves to the birth of Cyrus, whose grandfather plotted his death at his birth because of dreams he'd interpreted of Cyrus' overthrow of him:  Grandfather Astyages discovered that Harpagos, his servant, disobeyed his orders to kill the boy (instead giving him to a herdsman to kill who ended up raising him as his own) under the guise of friendship he gets Harpagos to send him his son, and then serves his son for dinner to the father.  Harpagos unknowingly eats his son, and then all is revealed when Astyages has the son's head, hands and feet brought in.  This was not a good decision, for, when the wisemen or Magi reveal to Astyages that Cyrus is no longer a problem to his rule and his grandfather allows Cyrus to live in Persia, Harpagos stirs up dissent among the populous who already dislike Astyages' cruel reign.  The servant contacts Cyrus in Persia and Cyrus raises an army, who defeat the Medes who were not dedicated to fight for their despised leader.  This is how Cyrus became king and later deposed Croesus to rule all of Asia.

King Astyages of Media Orders Harpagos to Kill Young Cyrus (late 18th century)
Jean Charles Nicaise Perrin
source Wikimedia Commons

Herodotus now launches into a monologue of the customs of the Persians.  Fascinating to learn that the Persians will not vomit or urinate in front of anyone.  Good to know. Our sensibilities are all safe.  Fortunately, although they will make business decisions while drunk, they will reconsider the decisions the next day when they're sober. Strangely though, the decisions they make when they are sober, they will also evaluate while they are drunk.

The Persian (1902)
Vasily Surikov
source Wikiart

Then we swing back to Cyrus: after he conquered the Lydians, the Ionians and Aeolians sent messages asking to be subject to his rule, but since they did not band with him is his battle with Lydia, Cyrus refuses.  Then follows a history of the Ionians, Dorians, etc.  It appears that although these areas are located on the coastline of Asia Minor, the peoples migrated from the Greek city-states, and in fact, Athens is considered an Ionian city although it does not like to be referred to as such.  Halicarnassus, the birthplace of Herodotus (although he does not mention that fact) used to be the sixth Dorian city but now there are only five.



Cyrus not only conquers the Lydians, but conquers all the Ionian coast and we are given more history of the surrounding area.  Next, Cyrus plans to advance on Assyria, and its city of Bablyon is described, including two queens that ruled it, Semiramis and Nitokris. Nitokris is particularly interesting as she made many clever improvements in infrastructure.  She built her tomb in "mid-air" above one of the city gates, saying that if ever a future king was in need of money, he need only open her tomb, but warned that it should only be opened in dire need.  No king dared disturb the tomb until Darius came to power, but instead of money he found a note:

"You would not open up the grave of the dead if you were not so insatiable and shamefully greedy."

Back to Cyrus who went to war against the son of Nitokris, but before he reached Babylon, he was offended by the River Gyndes that swallowed one of his horses (yes, that's right, a river) and he spent the whole summer dividing his army in work to destroy it, dividing the river into 360 channels.  Rather childish of him but I suppose he was quite enraged.  Then in spring he marched on Babylon.  He defeated the Babylonian army outside of the city, but many men returned to the city with great stockpiles of food, and Cyrus found himself at an impass.  However, with great guile, he diverted the Euphrates where it entered Babylon, and attacked by the riverbed, taking the inhabitants by surprise and conquering the city.  Herodotus now describes the Babylonian crops and their enormous yields, their boats, their shoes, and their means of marrying off their daughters in an auction for money but if the couple cannot get along, the money is repaid and supposedly the girl returned.  Sadly however, since the Persian capture, the Babylonians are impoverished and prostitute their daughters.  A fascinating custom is that instead of doctors, they carry the sick person to the square and allow others to advise him, very helpful if someone else has had the same sickness and knows of a cure.  Herodotus says that their most disgusting custom is that once per year every woman must sit in the sanctuary of Aphrodite and have intercourse with a stranger.


Cyrus the Great's Siege of Babylon (1819)
John Martin
source Wikimedia Commons


Cyrus now turned his battle-filled eyes to Massagetai which at this time was ruled by a woman named Tomyris.  Refusing his proposal of marriage, seeing it for what it was, she suggested that he return to rule his people and allow her to rule hers, but if he insisted on battle, either come into her territory or let her come onto his.  The generals of Cyrus suggest that they allow Tomyris onto Persian territory but Croesus convinces Cyrus otherwise.  After having a dream that Darius is plotting his overthrow (which is really an omen of his death), the two sides battle and eventually Cyrus is killed.  Tomyris defiles the corpse by placing his head in a wineskin filled with blood.

Head of Cyrus Brought to Queen Tomyris (1622-23)
Peter Paul Ruebens
source Wikiart




Tuesday, 10 January 2017

A Little Woman by Franz Kafka

Young Woman Drawing (1801)
Maria-Denis Villers
source Wikiart

I can't believe I have never read Kafka.  So with this surprising fact in mind I dived into this short story for my Deal-Me-In Challenge.  Perhaps I expected too much ...

The narrator immediately makes the reader acquainted with his challenges with this "little woman".  She has complete contempt for him and his life, and his perceptions appear wrapped up in her treatment of him.  However, he reveals that she is almost a stranger to him, yet nevertheless, she disparages and demeans him incessantly and with impunity.  She even goes as far as to ellict people's compassion for her struggles to tolerate him, not by revealing them, but by exhibiting a demeanour of quiet suffering.


Landlady (1886)
Konstantin Makovsky
source Wikiart


I did not understand this story at all, nor did I find it the slightest bit compelling.  Given that the narrator reveals that the woman is nearly a stranger to him, one cannot even imagine her as a wife or sister or mother and so there it ends.  How can one be interested in a relationship that is not one, nor experience annoyance that is based on nothing tangible?  Apparently Kafka based the little woman on his landlady when he lived in Berlin-Steglitz.

In spite of this less than inspiring story, I am looking forward to reading more of Kafka with hopefully a different reaction to his works.

Next week, I'll be reading the short story Le Horla by Guy Maupassant.  I'll attempt to read it in French but it's rather long so I'll have to see if my skills are up to it.  Stay tuned .....

Week 2 - Deal Me In Challenge - Nine of Clubs







Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Vulgarity by G.K. Chesterton

Interior of a Tavern, Peasants Carousing (1635)
Master of the Large Jars
source ArtUK

I've been keen to read a Chesterton essay for awhile now, but have not drawn him for the Deal Me In challenge yet.  Luckily, this time, he's my first draw of the year!

Wearing many hats, Chesterton is known for his poetry, philosophy, theology, orating, journalism, biographies, and literary and art criticism.  I haven't read many of his essays, but of those I have, I've found his style entirely unique, a sort of meandering while at the same time being very pointed.  Reading this essay was similar to my previous experience.



Although more practical inventions such as telephones and aeroplanes have foreshadowings of their later inventions, vulgarity itself is so new that even its name is somewhat misleading.  The Latin word "vulgus" was generally used to describe "something that was not particularly common among the common people."  In fact, the vulgar is not very common if one searches for evidence of it.  Farmers, peasants, the poor, and even savages are rarely vulgar.  This new "thing" requires a new name and definition and although Chesterton questions his ability to give it, because he has just been reading a book about love, he has a few ideas.  Curious ..... I can't wait to see what he comes up with.

Vulgarity consists of two elements: facility and familiarity.  The first means that a man may "gush", that his words flow without any thought or self-control; they "stream from him like perspiration".  He appears confident and admired but he "never need stop explaining himself, for he understands neither himself nor the limits of explanation."  The second element can be defined as profanity, a "loss of holy fear and a sin against the mystical side of man."  This man can "handle things confidently and contemptuously, without the sense that all things in their way are sacred things."

"The point is that the fool is so subjective that it never occurs to him to be afraid of the subject."  He can be both a Pagan fool and a Puritan fool, because each is so familiar with his subject that he becomes blind to the depths of it and loses his objectivity.  On the other hand, a man writing to the woman he loves or the saint writing of his sin, is able to view each with a clear perspective because he has a healthy respect for each and the complexities are clear to him.

Phew!  I certainly understood the gist of Chesterton's points but following his train of thought can be challenging.  I suspect that I need more practice!

Next week for my Deal Me In Challenge, I'll be reading the short story, A Little Woman by Franz Kafka, my first reading of Kafka ever.

Week 1 - Deal Me In Challenge - King of Spades






Sunday, 1 January 2017

January 2017 ~ Out With The Old, In With The New !




Inspired by O and Cirtnecce's monthly posts, I've decided to try to follow their most excellent examples and join in the monthly fun.  Not only will these posts hopefully focus me on my reads, but also provide a general journal of the year's happenings.  I truly hope 2017 will be a better year for all.

January not only brings us out of the holidays, but brings me to the realization that not only has the year hardly begun, but I've overcommitted myself in my reading commitments once again.  I'm beginning to read the histories with Ruth at A Great Book Study after we finished our Biographies project in 2016, starting with Herodotus' The Histories; I'm trying to make my way through Anthony Trollope's The Barset Chronicles --- after spending two years on Framley Parsonage, I'll be starting A Small House at Allington; I'm reading Don Quixote with Bookstooge; Dr Zhivago with a Goodreads group, O's The Pickwick Papers read-along, and have been invited to be part of a Goodreads project to read through the Church Fathers starting with Clement I.  Add to these reads, yearly challenges: the Back to the Classics Challenge, a Russian Literature Challenge; the Deal Me In Challenge, not to mention my continuing Shakespeare Project, Great Ideas Project, and C.S. Lewis Project and I can be called insane.  Perhaps Don Quixote has affected me more than I wish to admit.

Madonna of the Book (1479)
Sandro Botticelli
source Wikiart


And since January is a month of new beginnings and resolutions, what would I like to see in 2017?  Personally, a more settled world would bring me great joy.  Does that sound ridiculous, like asking for world peace and an end to hunger?  Not really, especially if I see my wish as a journey rather than a destination.  Because really, change begins with people, and it can begin with one person: yourself.  So I'm going to strive to have more patience with what I see as stupidity and instead, try to see each person as someone who is simply at a different stage in their journey and attempt to be a good example.   On a less altruistic level, I would like to continue losing weight. I lost 22 lbs since the end of August and if I could lose another 20+ I would be thrilled; not probably a realistic goal as that might leave me too thin, but if I aim for it, hopefully I'll meet a happy medium.  I also have plans to take up cross-country skiing!  I've always wanted to do kayaking in the summer and cross-country skiing in the winter, and the beautiful area where we live has plenty of opportunities for both.  I began this resolution a little early, last week in fact, and had a wonderfully exciting time, skiing for 4 hours, climbing up and whooshing down hills.  I can't wait to return to the ski hill.  We're in the middle of blizzard-like conditions so I don't think a lack of snow will be a problem this year!


Skiers (1886)
Frits Thaulow
source Wikiart

Without dwelling too much on the pessimistic, 2016 really stunk as a year, but I have high hopes that 2017 will bring more peace and contentment even within the sometimes whirlwind that we call life.  Focusing on friends, reading and all the things that I'm thankful for, will hopefully help usher in a new improved year!  Wishing everyone all the best for 2017!