Friday, September 23, 2011

Mankind as Grandiose Gnomes

Sophocles (ca. 496–405 BC)
Greek dramatist.

Πολλά τα δεινά κουδέν ανθρώπου δεινότερον πέλει.

(Spoken by the chorus in
Antigone, and taken from the Gnomokologikon.)

MANY a wonder lives and moves, but the wonder of all is man,
That courseth over the grey ocean, carried of Southern gale,
Faring amidst high-swelling seas that rudely surge around,
And Earth, supreme of mighty Gods, eldest, imperishable,
Eternal, he with patient furrow wears and wears away
As year by year the plough-shares turn and turn,—
Subduing her unwearied strength with children of the steed.
From: Sophocles: The Seven Plays in English Verse (1906) [Project Gutenberg]
by Lewis Campbell, M.A., from the University of St. Andrews

(Children of the steed = mules)


BY now the dominion of man over the earth has become a trite concept, and one might argue that the dominion is inevitably imperfect and therefore an inaccurate posit.

But, given the ambiguity of 'ta deina' which can also I think be translated as 'greatnesses' or 'terrors,' Sophocles' line can be interpreted as a sharp criticism of humans' destructive capacity, which is how I was taught it. (My class looked at the quotation in isolation, so I'd forgotten that it was by Sophocles and only figured out today that it comes from Antigone.)

While that idea is then too self-hating or smotheringly moody to do be fair or uplifting, at least it is comforting to have an expression to use in 'emo,' misanthropic moments. It is nicer besides than adopting a Malthusian philosophy or saying that mankind is a scourge, by which one generally means that one should like to have other people die and somehow be given an exception for one's superior, omniscient self.


Picture: Sophocles Bust, National Gallery in Oslo
Photographed by Cnyborg (via Wikimedia Commons)

Friday, September 09, 2011

War and Peace, Piecemeal: Round Three

Another installment at an unhallowed hour of liveblogged War and Peace (tr. by Rosemary Edmonds), starting with Chapter 16 at the name-day party for Countess Natalia Rostov and her daughter, little Natalia Rostov.

1:28 AM THE dinner draws to a close after a further heated discussion as to whether Russia should enter the war or not — Shinshin is against while Nikolai Rostov is filled with militaristic fervour and supports a colonel who declares otherwise — and Natasha's high-pitched and naughty inquiry — in the face of the dragonish Maria Dmitrievna, who waives her dragonishness for her little cossack, and of the entire assembled company — as to what will come for dessert.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

War and Peace, Piecemeal: Round Two

A live blog of my thirdish reread (minus the essay at the end) of Tolstoy's War and Peace in the Penguin edition. It is not a Thursday, where the book would fit into the classics category, but to reuse an analogy, I'm not good at issuing forth a stream of creativity with regularity, like Old Faithful. The story is continued from the end of Chapter 10.

 1:48 AM To hop over a lot, the party at the Rostovs' in St. Petersburg ends and Princess Drubetskoy with son Boris in two go forth in their carriage, hat in claw as it were, to mooch from Count Bezuhov. Bezuhov is on his deathbed but they don't much care, though Boris finds this humiliating. There they encounter fellow harpies Prince Vasili Kuragin and one of the count's nieces. Pierre is hanging out in his room in the absence of harpydom and in the presence of great discomfort.

Skipping back a few days earlier, Pierre has come back from Moscow and his disgrace not looking forward to much. His female cousins greet him with self-righteous contempt on the one hand and greedy schadenfreude on the other, and when he awkwardly asks whether he might see the Count, the eldest declares, "The count is suffering both physically and morally, and your only anxiety, it seems, has been to increase his sufferings." No, really, could I see him, repeats Pierre. Only if you want to see him die!! answers his cousin. (Obviously not in those exact words.) The next morning Prince Vasili comes hopping in and after similar self-righteousness and caution not to approach the count, etc., confirms Pierre in his mini-exile.

Returning to the present, a human is sighted on his threshold at last in the form of Boris, while Pierre is play-acting a Napoleonic tirade. Which is, I think, as embarrassing to the rightminded person as being caught solemnly dancing the can-can in undersized high heels. Boris seems to think so; at any rate he is quite condescending. After they are introduced, he is astute enough to painstakingly state that neither he nor his mother are after Count Bezuhov's money. Pierre mistakes this for painful honesty and that establishes Boris on a friendly footing with him, which was I think Princess Drubetskoy's purpose in sending Boris to Pierre's room and Boris's purpose in going. Anyway, I think Tolstoy conveys very well how nice, unassuming and clever as well as attractive Boris can be, without being wellmeaning, altruistic or intelligent.

When Boris has descended again, Princess Drubetskoy has been in Count Bezuhov's room, and oddly enough the Count hasn't joined the angels and struck a harp yet. So clearly the point in keeping Pierre away from the Count's bed is to keep his father from making a will in his favour. Before the Drubetskoys leave, the Princess promises to return and sit with the Count, who would do well to have a good stock of incense, a couple crosses and a vial of holy water (if these are all compatible with the Russian Orthodox tradition) at hand.

In the meantime Countess Rostov, who regards her friend Princess Drubetskoy as an impoverished unfortunate rather than an inveterate leech with unadmirable principles, asks her husband for 500 rubles, which they can ill spare. The husband asks his employee, Mitenka, for 700 rubles in 'nice clean' notes and then the Countess forks over the dough to the Princess. I guess it's worthwhile to remember that the Rostovs in themselves are a family of seven and that they have the servants in their household, grocers, fishmongers, dressmakers, etc. to support and compensate. While the Countess could be hardheaded, she appears to be brought up to find it unladylike to be too precise about finances.


Inspecting the Troops at Boulogne, August 15th, 1804
via Wikimedia Commons

(The Boulogne expedition, which Pierre debates one-sidedly with Boris, refers to Napoleon's plan to invade England from in and around Boulogne-sur-Mer, where he did train and quarter a large invasion force. It was also fortified and equipped with numerous barges, which were I think predecessors of the Allies' amphibious landing vessels. Obviously it fizzled. ["Napoleon's planned invasion of the United Kingdom" from Wikipedia] But, peculiarly enough, in 1840 his nephew Louis-Napoleon, Napoleon III, tried the same thing in the opposite direction with somewhat fewer soldiers. That fizzled too. ["Napoleon III" from Wikipedia])


Chapter 15

03:17 AM The evening party has begun at the Rostovs' and fearsome Maria Dmitrievna Ahrosimov — "le terrible dragon" — is expected. She is

Friday, September 02, 2011

Pope's Pardon

Alexander Pope (1688-1744)
English writer and critic
To err is human; to forgive, divine.
— From An Essay on Criticism (1711)


Alexander Pope has been relegated, in my understanding and experience which is hardly broad enough for such an assessment yet, to one of the minor great figures, since he pursued grand substance less than coruscating wit. Besides the formality and artifice with which his works were associated seem to have run afoul of the Romantic movement and been whelmed beneath its depths, as it were, so that it was not only Marianne in Sense and Sensibility who valued (at least in Elinor's sarcastic character sketch) "admiring Pope no more than is proper."

Thursday, September 01, 2011

War and Peace, Piecemeal III

After a good night's sleep and the transit to work, the live blog of War and Peace (tr. by Rosemary Edmonds) resumes with the end of the sixth chapter.

11:19 AM In German one uses an expression, evolved from Luther, that one shouldn't draw the devil on the wall. It roughly describes Pierre's self-fulling inverse prophecy that evening; for he goes off to lark with the Kuragins as soon as he is out of Prince Andrei's periphery.

Anatole Kuragin's house is in a dissolute uproar, orchestrated among others by a sly army officer, Dolohov. He bets that he would be able to drink a bottle of rum in one go without turning dizzy enough to fall out of the window. The footmen who are standing by and will have to clean up all and any resulting messes are not entirely pleased but everyone else is until they become too worried. Dolohov wins the bet (which is easier to follow when one watches the film with Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn) by a bloodcurdling hair. Pierre at first approves, then is apprehensive and then is unfortunately inspired to his own misdeeds. He drunkenly hugs and tries to dance with a bear who (likely more sensible than any of his human companions) has been pressed into entertaining the party, and that is where Tolstoy drops the curtain.

To anticipate, we find out in the next chapter that the young men stray from the house to paint the town red; and if it were a modern play one might hear, offstage, the menacing approach of a siren, or in a puppet play, espy th'impending constable's truncheon.


The Bear and the Apes, by Egyptian artist (ca. 1325-50)
Paper, 11,5 × 9,7 cm, Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
From 10,000 Meisterwerke der Malerei via Wikimedia Commons


12:10 PM In the meantime a nicer party is transpiring in the house of the Rostovs in Povarsky Street.

War and Peace, Piecemeal II

After a bite to eat, and at the rousingly early hour of 03:29 AM, and in the middle of Chapter 3, the attempt to liveblog War and Peace, in Rosemary Edmonds's translation, continues.

04:17 AM Anna Pavlovna is not pleased that an earnest and loud discussion has arisen between Pierre and Abbé Morio as to whether Russia should intervene to keep Europe from being swallowed whole by France. By twittering a commonplace question, she dumbs down the conversation entirely, much to her relief.

The newest arrival is Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, who is polished and goodlooking and intelligent and blasé, and who treats his wife like a nitwit. He is consumed by important matters like his future military duty as an aide-de-camp to General Kutuzov. Despite their diametric opposition in some aspects, he is greeted warmly by Pierre and vice versa. I still find it hard to believe that he is so patient with Pierre and so impatient with the princess, and he does seem arrogant.

Outside the room an elderly guest, Princess Drubetskoy, whose circumstances are reduced as the cliché goes, hunts down Prince Vasili and humbly begs for her son Boris to be transferred into the Imperial Guard. He decides that he owes her a favour and besides (being a sort of military stage mother) that she could become a tremendous nuisance, then escapes. Rather like a successful KGB agent who has inserted an operative into a critical position, she returns inconspicuously to the party and is coolly calm.

In the meantime the discussion about Napoleon is becoming more heated. The vicomte says that it serves Prussia, etc., right if it is invaded, because the kings neglected Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and opines that Bonaparte is driving France and its aristocracy to hell in a handbasket. Pierre reveals the equivalent of commie tendencies, suggesting that many aristocrats support Napoleon. Then he argues fiercely that Bonaparte was right and courageous to have the Duc d'Enghien shot for the common good of a unified France, etc. Princess Bolkonsky #2 sees through the humbug and inadvertently raises the pertinent question: "Do you think murder a proof of nobility of soul?" Pierre then argues that the Revolution was right in theory. Which is a pretty gutsy or rude thing to say in front of a French emigrant. The discussion is gently suppressed.

The guests break up after a dead end anecdote by Prince Hippolyte, and Anna Pavlovna is presumably dancing on an imaginary grave as Pierre bids her farewell. Despite his contentiousness, he parts on excellent terms with himself and on fair terms with the others, who find him nice and harmless enough not to be too bothersome. Hippolyte and Princess Bolkonsky #2 flirt a little on the way to the carriage; Andrei Bolkonsky looks like he couldn't care less (which means that he is grumpy) and says goodbye to Pierre.


Bonaparte at the Bridge of Arcole (around 1801), by Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835)
Oil on canvas. 73 × 59 cm, in Versailles (one of several copies)
Art Renewal Center via Wikimedia Commons


04:33 AM Pierre goes straight to Prince Andrei's home and does a little light reading at random — Caesar's Commentaries — until Prince Andrei comes home and they recapitulate the evening and then Andrei nags Pierre about picking a career. Pierre was catapulted into St. Petersburg by his father for that particular purpose, three months earlier. Andrei brings up the army, Pierre says 'Meh' and comments that he has no beef with Bonaparte, and then Andrei hints that he himself is going to tread the old battlefield not out of holy conviction that Prussia must be succoured or that Napoleon is the devil, but because he is sick of his routine.

Terribly appositely, Princess Bolkonsky #2 makes her entrance and suggests that Prince Andrei could leave off this icky war thingy and instead wangle a position as aide-de-camp to the Emperor. Her husband is signally unimpressed and sternly silent. Then she complains about being offloaded to Andrei's sister and father in the countryside, that she is afraid regarding *cough*the baby*cough*, and then that Andrei doesn't love her any more. Pierre, of course, feels extremely uncomfortable.

Over dinner, by which time Lise (i.e. the princess) has left, Andrei recites a verse from the Timon of Athens primer on matrimony:
Never, never marry [. . .] don't marry until you can say to yourself that you have done all you are capable of doing, and until you cease to love the woman of your choice and see her plainly, as she really is; or else you will be making a cruel and irreparable mistake. Marry when you are old and good for nothing. Otherwise everything that is fine and noble in you will be thrown away. It will all be wasted on trifles. [. . .] If you marry while you still have any hopes of yourself you will be made to feel at every step that for you all is over, every door closed but that of the drawing-room, where you will stand on the same level as the court lackey and the idiot.
Then he says that, sure, his wife is faithful but she's pretty much the only one who would be. He'd rather she weren't his wife, though. And he really hates girly activities like parties and gossip when he'd rather be doing something grand. Which in his subtle way is as dishonourable and whiny as what his wife said.

Pierre is surprised that his friend, admirable in mental attainments and characterly strength, thinks that his prospects are so bleak, but says nothing. Andrei then asks why Pierre goes out so much with the Kuragins, especially Anatole and especially since the, er, wenching in that environment is not in the best taste. Pierre agrees more or less and says, you know what, I won't go tonight — which satisfies his friend.

That was the middle of Chapter 6 and the temporary end of this second liveblog.

War and Peace, Piecemeal

Empress Maria Fedorovna, by Jean-Louis Voille, late 1790s
Oil on canvas. Russian Museum in St. Petersburg
via Wikimedia Commons
[Portrait chosen because it conveys court dress, picks up on the mentions of the lady in the book, and depicts the immediate historical backdrop to the early stages of War and Peace.]

While beneath the dignity of one of the world's Great Novels, I thought that I could never write a decent overview of the entire book, so I am giving a "live blog" of my reading a try. (The most recent updates are at the bottom. And I am indeed up rather late. And I admit that the pun in the post title is rather bad.)

01:22 AM Finished introduction by Rosemary Edmonds, which says among other things that Tolstoy began writing this the year after he married (himself 34 years old) 18-year-old Sophie, which not only changed his mind about the overwhelming onset of decrepitude but also inspired a flowering of his authorial ability. He had been teaching the serfs on his estate and was apparently rather bored of it. He spent years writing and publishing (in increments) War and Peace, as Sophie spent the time copying it out by hand, and it was finally all out as a book in 1869. Apparently the argument of the essay at the end of the book (which I never finished reading during my previous conquests of War and Peace and whereof I only remember the argument that history is not guided by God toward some fulfillment because he could fulfill the world at once — which logic really impressed me at the time, though now I think I a) misunderstood it; b) would have to reread the passage; and c) disagree) is that the straightforward goodness of the Russian people won out over the artificial grandeur of a certain Corsican general and his French host.

01:54 AM

Setting: 1805, Russia under Tsar Alexander I and the dowager(?) Empress Maria