Introduction to My Blog

This will be a preface, an introduction to my blog which will consist of  a series of essays which will eventually and ultimately find their way into print.  I’ve chosen to title this collection ‘Occasional Essays’ because in their conception and execution they will arise from things encountered in real time. In most of my work I exhibit an obsessional need for symmetry. I must always pair, balance, systematize. I recur again and again to the numbers two, three, and four and through them to their products. I don’t know how many of these essays I will write, and not to cast these works into an overall structure, an architectonic is very strange for me. It’s also very liberating. I don’t know how many essays there will be, and although I have a list of subjects, a rather long list, more will come from things I hear and read.

I haven’t written anything read by another human being since I left university, and that was some time ago. Since then I’ve done a great deal of reading and thinking, and at this stage I feel an almost irresistible impulse to inflict my ideas on the world. All the sciences and arts can be divided into those of which I know a little and those of which I know nothing. I flatter myself that I’m a fair judge of prose but I know nothing of poetry. While I do love Milton, I can appreciate Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes only as if they’re prose written in blank verse and much of their beauty is beyond me.

I sense the world more with the ear than the eye and the visual arts don’t communicate to me as they do to many. My commentary will tend toward praising works that are exceptional, and exhorting others to experience them, rather than aspersing those works that fall short. This is only fair to those that created them, given my confessed shortcomings as a critic.  I should warn the reader in advance that every review, breakdown, and analysis will contain spoilers.  If I forget to issue the proper warning at the beginning of the post, I’m sorry but this should serve as a general caution.

For these reasons i’ll mostly concern myself with books, history, and anything that might interest fellow geeks.  if you have any topic that you think merits a blog, feel free to suggest it in the comments.

Plutarch’s Parallel Lives

Plutarch had the good fortune to live during the period from the accession of Trajan to the death of Marcus Aurelius when the Mediterranean world which had seen the rise and fall of so many empires had reached its zenith. The revolutions, convulsions, and wars were now all in the past and it was now left to the present generation in their peace and prosperity to reflect on what had gone before.

The Roman Empire was built up of many nations speaking many different tongues but in the west Latin was the first language of many and the second language of the rest. In the east, it was Greek that was used to communicate by strangers who could not otherwise understand one another.

 

While the Roman Empire was vast and various, it was Roman and although the Romans admired the grace of their letters, and the beauty of their arts, they nevertheless considered even the most illustrious of the forefathers of the Greeks inferior to themselves. Himself a Greek, Plutarch designed his Parallel Lives to assert the equality of the greatest of the Greeks with the greatest of the Romans, the sons of Achaea with the sons of Troy.

These were biographies of the great soldiers and statesmen of the past, some leaning to the martial and some to the civil but every public figure partaking of both. Every notable Roman was paired with a Greek whom he resembled in character, whether in their virtues, or in their faults, whether coming to a violent end long before their time, or in enjoying a long life and a peaceful death. These were not biographies in the modern sense, so much as moral studies.

It was the middle course where virtue and wisdom were to be found. Courage lay between rashness and timidity, sagacity between indifference to the appreciation of the good and longing for the acclamation of the mob, temperance between the indulgence of the appetites in gluttony and lasciviousness and insensibility to the pleasures of this life. When rediscovered during the Renaissance, his readers encountered the fullest articulation of what it meant to be a good pagan and how markedly it differed from what the Church demanded of a good Christian.

While Christians were in the world but not of the world, the pagans thought the only worthwhile life was a public life. Christianity extolled the ascetic, the anchorite, the hermit, while for the pagans any man who was blessed with good health, had been granted a comprehensive education, and enjoyed the means to be independent, owed it to his fellows to render his service to the state. Such a man could withdraw from public life only under some excuse, such as illness, grief, or misfortune. The morality presented and the lively stories of the triumphs and failures of these illustrious statesmen made a great impression on these first Renaissance readers and subsequent generations.

The tales of the lives and deaths of Caesar, Coriolanus, Mark Antony, and Timon became the basis for plays by Shakespeare. This classical morality that made virtue not faith the highest aspiration of the human soul was the model for the leaders of the French Revolution. Plutarch always takes great pains to contrast the true statesman from the demagogue. The true statesman tells the truth to people even when it’s disagreeable or disheartening. When they are faced with unavoidable hardship, toil, and poverty he reconciles them to their fate and fortifies them against what is to come.

The demagogue can never speak such hard truths but assures them that happy days are just ahead. Lest some ask why he alone can discern the solution and take the measures needed to end the troubles that afflict the state, he distracts the mob by flattering them and inflaming their petty resentments. He points out a small group amongst them and blames them for their misfortunes and promises that they will soon be dealt with harshly. He leads them into foolish and ignoble acts and they compound their misery with shame.

Plutarch always felt that feeling and passion must be controlled and mastered by reason. He extols strength, courage, and restraint and has little patience for human weakness. His ideal is the soldier-statesman, a life of exertion and discipline but he has nothing to say to or for the artist, the lover, the mother, the outcast.

Dombey and Son Spoiler Review

DOMBEY AND SON SPOILER REVIEW

 

       Charles Dickens’ novel Dombey and Son begins with a birth. Mr Dombey, a magnate of the London merchant community, the proprietor of a great house and trading concern, is blessed with a son. He was once himself the son in Dombey and Son and for many years he has longed and waited for an heir of his own, and now, as he himself declares, the house is once again Dombey and Son in fact as well as in name. He has dreamed of an heir and already charted out the course of the boy’s future.

Mr Dombey has one child already, Florence, but as a daughter she can take no part in the business, and he’s never taken any exceptional interest in her. Mrs Dombey doesn’t long survive the delivery of her son, and with her death, Florence is left with no mother and an aloof and disinterested father. The infant boy, Paul, similarly deprived, comes to bestow on his sister all the tender attachment he might have felt for the mother he never knew.   Mr. Dombey sees to every detail of his son’s upbringing and education, and loves his in his own stern and obsessive manner, but Paul is never as close to his father as he is to his sister.

It is Florence who is his comfort, it is Florence who is his nurse, it is Florence who tucks him into bed at night. Paul remains delicate and sickly while Florence flourishes, growing in strength and beauty. Mr. Dombey’s former indifference begins to turn into jealousy and bitterness. Florence never suspects that Paul’s love for her is sowing an active hostility in the heart of their father, and she can only wonder why he holds her at such a distance.

Like King Lear, Mr Dombey a proud and powerful man, repulses the love of a daughter, and like King Lear he only appreciates this love and sees his own folly after he’s ruined. It is said that pride goes before a fall, and both Lear and Dombey are both proud, both hearken only to flatterers and betrayers and both fall. Most conclude that Dombey and Son is a story of pride and while pride is one theme it isn’t the main element. Like most Dickens novels there is a large cast of characters and the one trait they all hold in common is an inability to understand what the people around them are thinking and feeling. Mr. Dombey, in his arrogance, mistakes servility for loyalty, sycophancy for admiration, and he’s destroyed by a fawning and treacherous associate. A young man named Walter who comes to falls in love with Florence and works in a minor position in Dombey’s firm, comes to incur his displeasure, and seeks to propitiate Dombey by his cheerfulness and energy, not realizing that the constant display of these qualities which Mr. Dombey has lost over the years if he ever possessed them, is disagreeable to his employer and is regarded as defiance and impertinence.

Walter’s friend, an eccentric sea captain named Cuttle, is granted an audience with Mr. Dombey and he flatters himself that they understand one another perfectly and get on splendidly, oblivious to the reality that, because of the vast gulf between their respective stations, Mr. Dombey can never meet him on terms of equality and greets every familiarity on the part of the captain, every wink, every nudge, with shudders of revulsion and outraged dignity.

Mr. Dombey remarries, taking a haughty beauty much younger than he, a woman who marries a man she neither likes nor respects solely to provide for an elderly grasping mother. She, in the censorious manner of the time, regards herself as no better than a harlot, her purity and innocence lost forever, and in turn she despises her husband for having bought her. Dombey responds to her coldness by attempting to awe her with his rank, wealth, and power, and every show of munificence and ostentation only works to make her more contemptuous and pertinacious. Fanny can never understand that her father resents her because his son and his second wife love her as they have never loved him.

 

Nearly every character, the sympathetic and the contemptible, the kindly and ingenuous, the selfish and insincere, in imagining the opinions and emotions of their fellows are completely and tragically deluded. There are two notable exceptions. The scheming associate who brings down the firm, Mr. Carker, can see through the lies and hypocrisy of those around him, but he can only see the worst, the greed, the craving to be in the circle of power, the expectation of reward, the denigration of dignity in pursuit of profit.

It is the child, Paul, so often described as impossibly young and old all at once, who can see through to the heart and discern the good and the bad. No great Dickens novel is complete without an incompetent and self-aggrandizing educator, and Mrs. Pipchin is an object of much fascination to Paul who seems to look right through her with results very disconcerting to that worthy lady. Paul also can see the warmth and tenderness in Florence and so he loves her above all others. What the son has seen from the beginning, the father sees as well, but only at the end and as an prematurely aged, broken man.

The story has a happy ending in the same bittersweet strain as most of Dickens’ resolutions but the central problem remains unsolved. Almost none of the characters can move past the image they have of themselves and they’re unable or unwilling to really see themselves and the world through the eyes of those closest to them and this leads to all the misery that has come before and is only partly alleviated by the handful of happy coincidences that cushion their landing in the last pages.