Tuesday 9 August 2016

Inanimate and Formless Lumps of Flesh

Another week in my ongoing adventures in Western literature.

From a reading perspective, this week was a good one. The lovely weather has made reading while walking to and from work a possibility, which allowed me to knock off everything except my nemesis Euclid, who requires more careful study. The weather helps to keep a cheerful attitude about everything, too. Long may it continue.

This Week:

The Odyssey of Homer
Books XXI-XXIV (48 pages)

It all ends with a bang, with just desserts being handed out left and right, blood and entrails and all the good stuff that we've come to expect from a proper Greek epic. I'd forgotten that Odysseus extends mercy to the bard but holds the priest to a higher standard and executes him with the rest, there's probably a whole thesis in that little morsel. Then there's the conclusion, reconcilation with Penelope, with a revisit to the greatest hits of the Illiad and Odyssey and a little musing on the house of Atreus along the way, and then the classic Deus Ex Machina where Zeus intervenes and imposes order on the revenge culture and cycle of violence and we're left knowing Odysseus is about to bugger off again. All good, all very Greek.

I toyed with the idea of not approving the Odyssey for my personal canon, but the idea is farcical. No matter how little it seems relevant to the modern reader in and of itself (I've always preferred the Iliad), this is the birth of recorded Western Literature. Without the Odyssey, how could we appreciate Don Quixote? Without Odysseus, how could we appreciate Jean Valjean? And besides all that, it's a lot of fun, it's just hard for us unschooled readers to find the fun hidden amongst the guff sometimes.

Elements by Euclid
Book III (25 pages)

Favourite proposition: 22

I think the most interesting part in the study of the Elements is what Euclid doesn't say, rather than what he doesn't. With such a logically (ha!) set out document, where there are glaring omissions, especially where the same omissions are made in multiple proofs, tells us something about the way that the Greeks thought about the world. Somehow, Euler didn't have any concept of Area, that's just...what a shape IS. But he didn't see the need for angle to only be made of straight lines either, even if he didn't use these curvilinear angles for anything. What a fun dude.

Observations like these help make the Elements bearable, but it's not exactly fun. Especially as the propositions become more outlandish and the proofs continue to get longer. Am I learning? Probably not. I need to write more of this down if I'm going to retain it.

I notice that am not comfortable with proofs by negation in geometry. I see the need, but somehow the way that Euclid describes them I just can't get my brain to accept their truth. The other proofs in this chapter were surprisingly lucid. Either Euler put more effort in to this chapter or I am learning after all. We can hope.

Death of Abraham Lincoln by Walt Whitman
(10 pages)

I see why people don't jump up and down about Whitman's prose. He's got the pretty turn of phrase that one would expect of a poet, but that this is a lecture he liked so much that he gave it at least three times doesn't fill me with confidence in his judgement. You'd think being a fan of Hugo I wouldn't mind rambling so much, but here it was just distracting, and his trying so consciously to create an American martyrology just seems a little pretentious. No more Whitman for me until Leaves of Grass, I think.

Of Idleness by Michel de Montaigne
(2 pages)
After reading this one, I'm quietly confident that Montaigne is the Leaflocker's spirit philosopher, which might not actually be a real thing, but just feels sort of right. You'd better put your mind to doing something with your time, he says, or you'll go crazy thinking of all sorts of nonsense, which pretty much sums up why this blog exists at all. 

Some of the similes in this one are a little odd; his knowledge of female reproduction in particular seems usually lacking for a married man, but hey, sometimes a good image is a good image and you just gotta run with it. Our first real encounter with Michel, and I have to say I was impressed, let's see if he can Montaigne our interest going forward. #punachieved

When reading works of philosophy like this one in which Montaigne throws up classical quotation after classical quotation, using them to build his ideas and then adding his own unique spin, it's easy to see where this idea of a 'Great Conversation', some enormous discussion between all the philosophers to have ever lived with the ultimate aim of enlightenment, has sprung from. Seeing it in scientific and fictional forms is harder, but once you're approaching your reading like this, it does feel like a rewarding way to look at these works.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
Book Five, Chapters V to VIII (12 pages) 

'His name was Javert. He belonged to the police.' Now those are some intimidating words, right there, I'm trembling with anticipation at the thought. 

I was struck by the completeness of the transformation that M. le Maire has undergone, by his sheer goodness, particularly in contrast to the petulant and vengeful Odysseus. It's just nice to have an actual hero to read about, someone self-sacrificing and kind for a change. What a modern reader I am.

It seems that I included one chapter more than I should have, and in chapter eight the focus moves to Fantine. I guess this is one of the hazards of setting a reading list ahead of actually doing the readings myself, but it was frustrating to have a change in focus and then only to read the one chapter. I may have to read Les Mis in bigger batches from now on to try and mitigate that problem.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Chapters 4-5 (22 pages)

Some good world building in these chapters, looking into the conditioning that the citizens have gone through, without any actual movement in the story. We also meet Hemholtz, Bernard's co-dissident, and get a bit more of a sense that not everyone is quite as happy in this utopia than it might appear on the surface. Nothing particularly stands out for me in these chapters, but that's always been my experience of BNW in general, so no real surprises there.

The Stats

This week we flew past the milestone that was 1000 pages of what the GBWW calls 'Imaginative Literature' but those of us living in the real world call 'fiction'. Some weeks it's hard to find a milestone worth making a big deal about, but this is not one of those weeks.

Pages last week: 119
Pages so far: 1347


What will we do with ourselves come the conclusion of the Odyssey? Never fear, I have a plan. We'll delve back into American history by reading their Constitution, continue muddling our way through Bacon and Euclid, and sample the founding work of modern western philosophy. Oh, and some Moliére on the side, just because the name Moliére rolls so romantically off the tongue. Since this week is relatively heavy we'll lay of of Brave New World for a week, which is going to make for some very French reading, but I think we can manage.

Elements by Euclid
#gbww  #mathematics #greek
Book IV (14 pages)

Euclid, Euclid, Euclid. I have to wonder if I'm getting anything out of continuing to persevere apart from a healthy respect for maths teachers. Looks like we're going to continue exploring the properties of circles in this chapter. At least it's a relatively short one, so that might make it a little more manageable.

Of Love by Francis Bacon
#gbb  #philosophy #english #reallyshort
(2 pages)

Bacon hasn't really done a whole lot for me so far, but let's see if my newfound appreciation for this whole 'Great Conversation' idea makes him any more profound.

#gbb  #play #comedy #french #oneshot
(30 pages)

I've never read any 17th century French satires before, so no matter what happens with this one, at least I'll be able to put that essential notch into my belt. Who says this project would never achieve anything useful?

#gbww  #constitution #english #short
(11 pages)

It seems an age ago that we were talking about the Declaration of Independence, doesn't it? Anyways, time to brush up on the Constitution. If it's anything like the Declaration, it will be fun to focus on the parts that don't get much attention these days (so pretty much anything in it apart from the first couple of amendments). For these purposes, I've taken 'Constitution' to mean the thing itself and the Bill of Rights.

Discourse on Method by René Descartes
#gbww  #philosophy #french #oneshot
(26 pages)

Are you scared? I admit to being a little scared. What if I read this and don't find the whole 'I Think Therefore I Am' argument very compelling? Not only would that just be depressing, but it would also be a poor sign of my ability to continue muddling through all these philosophy texts. I want this one to wow me. I hope that it does. High expectations going into this one, let's see if it delivers.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
#not_gbww #fiction #french
Book Five, Chapters IX to  XIII (32 pages) 

This week we'll take a big bite out of Les Mis, which should be a nice change after consuming it in little nibbles lately. One expects that we finally get to the inevitable downfall of Fantine this time around.

Should be a little bit in that selection for everyone. Everyone likes one of French literature, Greek mathematics or Usonian political history, right?

Blaugust writing prompts:
1) If you had a spirit philosopher, who would it be?
2) Who's your favourite hero, fictional or otherwise?
3) If you weren't blogging right now, how would you be using your time?


Mark said...

I have to admire your dedication to reading all these things that I'd find rather difficult to enjoy. That said I do have a lot of love for Brave New World. I was definitely a better reader when I was young!

I would describe myself as a Hedonist or a Utilitarian, but I am not sure of my Spirit Philosopher. I might make that a little personal mission to figure out by bothering to read more. Probably starting with good ol' John Stuart Mill.

UnwiseOwl said...

Well, if it's Mill you want, keep reading. Sometime in the next few decades I'll be talking three of his. Considerations on Representative Government, Utalitariarism, and of course, on Liberty.