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Wednesday: August 1, 2012

Happy Birthday, Mr. James

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Today is the 150th birthday of Montague Rhodes (‘M. R.’) James. Go to this University of Adelaide website and read at least one of his ghost stories.

Monday: June 18, 2012

Happy Birthday, Ivan Alexandrovich

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I’d been thinking of tackling some long novel I’d never read over the summer break, and having trouble deciding which of the many such books to begin with, when I noticed that today is Ivan Goncharov’s 200th birthday. That settled it. Here are some of the bits that caught my eye in the first three chapters of Oblomov (Everyman edition, translated by Natalie Duddington):

1. I had thought that this famous passage was the opening of the novel, but it actually comes on the second page (4):

“Lying down was not for Ilya Ilyitch either a necessity as it is for a sick or a sleepy man, or an occasional need as it is for a person who is tired, or a pleasure as it is for a sluggard:it was his normal state. When he was at home – and he was almost always at home – he was lying down, and invariably in the same room, the one in which we have found him and which served him as bedroom, study, and reception-room.”

3. Just a little further on, after mentioning the dirty plate left (as always) from last night’s dinner (5):

“If it had not been for this plate and for a freshly smoked pipe by the bed, and for the owner himself lying in it, one might have thought that the room was uninhabited – everything was so dusty and faded and devoid of all traces of human presence. It is true that there were two or three open books and a newspaper on the chiffoniers, an inkstand and pens on the bureau; but the open pages had turned yellow and were covered with dust – evidently they had been left so for weeks; the newspaper dated from last year, and if one dipped a pen into the inkstand a startled fly might perhaps come buzzing out of it.”

3. Nice work if you can get it – Oblomov’s friend Volkov (28):

“I have a post that doesn’t oblige me to go the office, thank goodness; I only go twice a week to see the general and have dinner with him.”

There is much more on the banal horrors of bureaucracy – too much to quote here. I’m surprised that LanguageHat, with his love for Russian literature, has not mentioned the anniversary.

Sunday: February 5, 2012

More Significant Than ’42’?

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On his fifty-sixth birthday, Terry Teachout laments that “56 is a thoroughly uninteresting number”. Au contraire: it is quite significant as a birthday, perhaps the most significant birthday of all.

Solon was the first (or one of the first) to write on the ‘Ages of Man’ theme, best known to English-speakers from Jacques’ “All the world’s a stage” monologue in As You Like It, II.7. Where Shakespeare distinguished seven ages with no specific lengths in years, Solon had divided the life of man into ten ‘hebdomads’ or periods of seven years each. I quoted the whole passage (Fragment 27, in M. L. West’s English translation) without comment on my fifty-sixth birthday. The most important part for Terry is lines 13-18:

With seven hebdomads and eight – fourteen more years –
    wisdom and eloquence are at their peak,
while in the ninth, though he’s still capable, his tongue
    and expertise have lost some of their force.

For the mathematically-impaired, that means that one’s mental peak (or perhaps plateau, given its extent) is from the 42nd to the 56th birthday, and after that it’s all downhill. Welcome to the downhill slope, Terry.

Saturday: November 5, 2011

Truer Today, But Already True Then

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Dicaearchus, that great and prolific Peripatetic, wrote a work called On the Extinction of Human Life. Having assembled the other causes – floods, epidemics, ravages of nature, sudden invasions by hordes of wild beasts, the onset of which he demonstrates has caused the exstirpation of certain races – he then shows how many more men by contrast have been wiped out by attacks made by other men in wars or civil commotions, than by all other disasters.

(Cicero, De Officiis 2.16, tr. P. G. Walsh, Oxford, 2000)

The Latin:

Est Dicaearchi liber de interitu hominum, Peripatetici magni et copiosi, qui collectis ceteris causis eluvionis, pestilentiae, vastitatis, beluarum etiam repentinae multitudinis, quarum impetu docet quaedam hominum genera esse consumpta, deinde comparat, quanto plures deleti sint homines hominum impetu, id est bellis aut seditionibus, quam omni reliqua calamitate.

Thursday: September 29, 2011

Best Unintentional Pun Ever?

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Volume II of The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, edited by Fredson Bowers (Cambridge, 1955), contains these five titles:

  • The Honest Whore, Parts I and II
  • The Magnificent Entertainment
  • Westward Ho
  • Northward Ho
  • The Whore of Babylon

Four out of five is not bad, though it would be better if the second title were omitted.

Saturday: September 24, 2011

Blackfriars Quiz

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The following eight foodstuffs represent eight different plays presented at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia in the last three years. Can you identify them all? These are not verbal jokes, and the quantities (such as the three apples in #4) are not significant. (The eyes in 4 are also not significant: it was the only picture I could find.) Answers may be posted in the comments or mailed to me.









To cut down on the possibilities slightly, the plays put on at the Blackfriars in the last three years are:

Shakespeare: As You Like It, The Comedy of Errors, 1-2 Henry IV, Henry V, 1-3 Henry VI, King Lear, Macbeth, Measure for Measure, The Merry Wives of Windsor, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, Richard III, Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, The Tempest, Titus Andronicus, Twelfth Night, The Winter’s Tale; Marlowe: Dr. Faustus and Tamburlaine (Part I); Chapman: The Blind Beggar of Alexandria; Jonson: The Alchemist; Middleton: The Revengers’ Tragedy, The Changeling, A Trick to Catch the Old One; Massinger: The Roman Actor; Ford: ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore; Wilde: The Importance of Being Ernest; Stoppard: Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

There were one or two more, but they are not correct answers for this quiz.

All images are from the web, except #7, which was part of my lunch today.

Tuesday: June 14, 2011

D. M. G. K. Chesterton and J. L. Borges

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Two more author anniversaries today, and again authors best known for their short stories. It is the 75th anniversary of the death of G. K. Chesterton, and the 25th anniversary of the death of Jorge Luis Borges. Here’s a bit from Chesterton’s ‘lost’ Father Brown story (collected here), “Father Brown and the Donnington Affair” (1914):

“Human troubles are mostly of two kinds. There is an accidental kind, that you can’t see because they are so close you fall over as you do over a hassock. And there is the other kind of evil, the real kind. And that a man will go to seek however far off it is – down, down, into the lost abyss.”

Sunday: June 12, 2011

D. M. M. R. James

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Today is the 75th anniversary of the death of M. R. James, author of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904) and three other collections. There is a very readable webtext here. Here is a pedantic bit from “Count Magnus”:

“Like many solitary men, I have a habit of talking to myself aloud; and, unlike some of the Greek and Latin particles, I do not expect an answer.”

The subject’s habit of talking to himself aloud turns out to be very bad for his health.

Wednesday: March 23, 2011

The Charms of the Irrelevant

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Call me a pedant, but I thought the most interesting thing about Terry Teachout’s Youtubed clip from a BBC film of The Cherry Orchard is that it seems to be subtitled in Catalan.

Monday: September 6, 2010

Shakespearean Riddle

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A very easy one, I’m afraid. Which play did I see at the Blackfriars Playhouse tonight? One that reminded me of something I hadn’t thought of in many years. Back in 1985 or so, I was working for a ‘beltway bandit’ at Tysons Corner, and one of the other companies in the same mid-rise office building had an executive who always parked her car diagonally in the far corner of the parking lot so she could take up two spaces and avoid ‘dings’ without offense (though not without envy). After all these years, I don’t recall whether it was a Porsche or an MG or what, but it was a very shiny and very expensive-looking red convertible with vanity plates. What message best befits an executive on her way to the top, already far along but with quite some distance left to go, and willing to do almost anything to get there? Select the parentheses to see the answer, which will also tell you the play I saw tonight: (CAWDOR). It’s been a quarter of a century, and I never met the owner of the car, so my analysis of her reasons is pure speculation, but it seems plausible. What else could such a license plate reasonably imply?

Sunday: July 4, 2010

Domitian and White Castle

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A Volokh Conspiracy post puts me in mind of Suetonius. Jonathan H. Adler reports that the White Castle hamburger chain says that “a single provision” of the recently-passed health insurance reform bill “will eat up roughly 55 percent of its yearly net income after 2014”. In the comments many people sneer at the claim, insisting that White Castle is run by greedy plutocrats who could easily afford the new expenses and are simply lying about the costs of the bill.

That reminded me of a favorite saying of the emperor Domitian. As Suetonius put is (Life of Domitian 21):

He used to say that the lot of princes was most unhappy, since when they discovered a conspiracy, no one believed them unless they had been killed.

Let’s hope we don’t find out how bad the health reform bill is only after it has killed off White Castle and other useful corporations, large and small.

Monday: June 28, 2010

Quotation of the Day

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Tim was so learned, that he could name a Horse in nine Languages; So ignorant, that he bought a Cow to ride on.

(Poor Richard’s Almanack, 1750)

Sunday: June 27, 2010

Quotation of the Day

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Proud Modern Learning despises the antient: School-men are now laught at by School-boys.

(Poor Richard’s Almanack, 1758)

Sunday: May 9, 2010

Pedantry Pedantically Denounced

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On a Latin play about Richard III by the master of Caius College, Cambridge (1579):

. . . Legge’s was a poverty-stricken mind; his Latin versification might crimson the cheek of a preparatory schoolboy, and but for the sad fact that by the time they have read sufficiently to write on English literature, scholars have only too often lost the gift, unhappily for their readers, of knowing what is boring and what is not, this fatuous production of a shallow pedant would have been treated with as little respect as it deserves.

(F. L. Lucas, Seneca and Elizabethan Tragedy, 1922, page 97)

He adds a footnote on the last word:

It may be added that John Palmer of St John’s who took the part of Richard “had his head so possest with a prince-like humour” that he behaved like a potentate ever after, and died in prison as a result of his regal prodigalities.

Wednesday: May 5, 2010

Orwellian LOL

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I just read Animal Farm for the first time in 40+ years. I don’t often laugh out loud while reading books (as opposed to blogs), but half of one sentence made me LOL. In Chapter II, the victorious animals inspect the human house, and Orwell notes: “Some hams hanging in the kitchen were taken out for burial, . . .”

Wednesday: February 10, 2010

BBC Shakespeare On Sale

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Since I wrote about the BBC Shakespeare DVDs two and a half years ago, prices have dropped on both sides of the Atlantic. You can now get the American discs for $99.99 per set, down from $149.99, but that still means paying $389.96 for only 20 plays at Amazon, which comes to roughly $19.50 per play. (One of them is 10% off right now.) The UK box, containing all 37 plays, lists for £199,99, but is on sale right now at Amazon UK for only £81,97, or roughly $128 (US), which works out to less than $3.50 per play. Of course, you will need an all-region DVD player to view them in the U.S., but those are not expensive, and are useful for watching other films not available in Region 1 coding.

The icing on the cake: Amazon UK usually subtracts 15% when shipping expensive items to U.S. addresses, since Americans, not being eligible for the National Health, aren’t expected to pay the VAT tax that finances it. That would bring the price down to less than $3.00 per play, plus shipping, which was fast and reasonably-priced when I bought the set a few years ago.

It’s nice to have all the plays, since the ones not available in the U.S. box sets are precisely the ones you are least likely to see in a theater.

Tuesday: February 2, 2010

Quotation of the Day

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Last year, Dr. Esquirol compiled a table of statistics concerning insanity. It reads as follows: “Driven mad by love: two men, sixty women. Driven mad by religion: six men, twenty women. Driven mad by politics: forty-eight men, three women. Driven mad by financial loss: twenty-seven men, twenty-four women. Driven mad by cause or causes unknown: one man, no women.” The last statistic represents our poor friend.

(Theophile Gautier, “The Painter”, in My Fantoms, translated by Richard Holmes)

“Our poor friend” is the painter of the title, the unfortunately named Onuphrius Wphly. Have the proportions changed much in the last 178 years? I doubt it.

Monday: February 1, 2010

Quotation of the Day

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Like all artists when they are not looking merely outrageous, Onuphrius was very particular about his appearance. It was not that he dressed fashionably, but he always tried to give his lamentable selection of clothes a certain romantic dash, and a sense of style that escaped the everyday. He took as his model a fine Van Dyck portrait he had in his studio, and in fact the resemblance was almost uncanny. It was as if the picture had stepped out of its frame, or as though a mirror had been stood in front of it.

(Theophile Gautier, “The Painter”, in My Fantoms, translated by Richard Holmes)

I do not know why Holmes prefers ‘Fantoms’ to ‘Phantoms’ in the title of the collection and in the text. I am glad he changed the title of the story, since the French title is one of the worst ever devised: “Onuphrius Wphly, ou les Vexations Fantastiques d’un admirateur d’Hoffmann”.

Wednesday: January 13, 2010

Anticipatory Tenterhooks (Is That a Googlewhack?)

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What’s the best thing about the American Shakespeare Center’s production of Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, opening tomorrow night? There’s no way to tell, but the best thing I know before seeing it is that the same actor (John Harrell) is playing Lucifer and the Pope — not to mention the Holy Roman Emperor and the Duke of Vanholt. Whether the implicit parallel owes more to Marlowe or the ASC, and what (if anything) they will do with it, I do not know. I’m looking forward to this play more than most. Dr. Faustus is one of the two books I loved in high school and still love. (The other is Borges’ prose.) I don’t really ‘get’ most of Shakespeare’s plays (especially the comedies) from reading them, but Dr. Faustus has a simple — or at least linear — and powerful plot.

As for my title question, yes: there is one previous use of the phrase. Of course, this will make two.

Sunday: January 10, 2010

An Unexpected Pleasure

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I seldom visit Crooked Timber, and was therefore surprised to see two December threads on Shakespeare (and related topics) that were consistently interesting: Would Bacon’s Hamlet be Hamlet? and A molehill as high as Tenerife. Two commenters on the second post couldn’t resist dragging in Reagan and Nixon and saying stupid things about them, but otherwise the threads are intelligent, informative, and polite — not to mention very long. I would visit the site more often if it had more informal literary criticism and less philosophy, sociology, economics, and politics. I suppose I should stop by once a month to see what turns up.