Over the next few weeks, I will be tweeting Hugh G. Evelyn-White’s 1914 translation of Batrachomyomachia, of The Battle of Frogs and Mice, a comic epic sometimes attributed to Homer. If the idea of reading a fairly short text over a few weeks seems insanely stupid to you but you want to read this parody, read it here.
“The Shrinkage of the Planet” by Jack London
What a tremendous affair it was, the world of Homer, with its indeterminate boundaries, vast regions, and immeasurable distances. The Mediterranean and the Euxine were illimitable stretches of ocean waste over which years could be spent in endless wandering. On their mysterious shores were the improbable homes of impossible peoples. The Great Sea, the Broad Sea, the Boundless Sea; the Ethiopians, “dwelling far away, the most distant of men,” and the Cimmerians, “covered with darkness and cloud,” where “baleful night is spread over timid mortals.” Phœnicia was a sore journey, Egypt simply unattainable, while the Pillars of Hercules marked the extreme edge of the universe. Ulysses was nine days in sailing from Ismarus the city of the Ciconians, to the country of the Lotus-eaters—a period of time which to-day would breed anxiety in the hearts of the underwriters should it be occupied by the slowest tramp steamer in traversing the Mediterranean and Black Seas from Gibraltar to Sebastopol.
Homer’s world, restricted to less than a drummer’s circuit, was nevertheless immense, surrounded by a thin veneer of universe—the Stream of Ocean. But how it has shrunk! To-day, precisely charted, weighed, and measured, a thousand times larger than the world of Homer, it is become a tiny speck, gyrating to immutable law through a universe the bounds of which have been pushed incalculably back. The light of Algol shines upon it—a light which travels at one hundred and ninety thousand miles per second, yet requires forty-seven years to reach its destination. And the denizens of this puny ball have come to know that Algol possesses an invisible companion, three and a quarter millions of miles away, and that the twain move in their respective orbits at rates of fifty-five and twenty-six miles per second. They also know that beyond it are great chasms of space, innumerable worlds, and vast star systems.
While much of the shrinkage to which the planet has been subjected is due to the increased knowledge of mathematics and physics, an equal, if not greater, portion may be ascribed to the perfection of the means of locomotion and communication. The enlargement of stellar space, demonstrating with stunning force the insignificance of the earth, has been negative in its effect; but the quickening of travel and intercourse, by making the earth’s parts accessible and knitting them together, has been positive.
The advantage of the animal over the vegetable kingdom is obvious. The cabbage, should its environment tend to become worse, must live it out, or die; the rabbit may move on in quest of a better. But, after all, the swift-footed creatures are circumscribed in their wanderings. The first large river almost inevitably bars their way, and certainly the first salt sea becomes an impassable obstacle. Better locomotion may be classed as one of the prime aims of the old natural selection; for in that primordial day the race was to the swift as surely as the battle to the strong. But man, already pre-eminent in the common domain because of other faculties, was not content with the one form of locomotion afforded by his lower limbs. He swam in the sea, and, still better, becoming aware of the buoyant virtues of wood, learned to navigate its surface. Likewise, from among the land animals he chose the more likely to bear him and his burdens. The next step was the domestication of these useful aids. Here, in its organic significance, natural selection ceased to concern itself with locomotion. Man had displayed his impatience at her tedious methods and his own superiority in the hastening of affairs. Thenceforth he must depend upon himself, and faster-swimming or faster-running men ceased to be bred. The one, half-amphibian, breasting the water with muscular arms, could not hope to overtake or escape an enemy who propelled a fire-hollowed tree trunk by means of a wooden paddle; nor could the other, trusting to his own nimbleness, compete with a foe who careered wildly across the plain on the back of a half-broken stallion. Read More
“Thoughts on Various Subjects” by Jonathan Swift (From The Battle of the Books)
We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.
Reflect on things past as wars, negotiations, factions, etc. We enter so little into those interests, that we wonder how men could possibly be so busy and concerned for things so transitory; look on the present times, we find the same humour, yet wonder not at all.
A wise man endeavours, by considering all circumstances, to make conjectures and form conclusions; but the smallest accident intervening (and in the course of affairs it is impossible to foresee all) does often produce such turns and changes, that at last he is just as much in doubt of events as the most ignorant and inexperienced person.
Positiveness is a good quality for preachers and orators, because he that would obtrude his thoughts and reasons upon a multitude, will convince others the more, as he appears convinced himself.
How is it possible to expect that mankind will take advice, when they will not so much as take warning?
I forget whether Advice be among the lost things which Aristo says are to be found in the moon; that and Time ought to have been there.
No preacher is listened to but Time, which gives us the same train and turn of thought that older people have tried in vain to put into our heads before.
When we desire or solicit anything, our minds run wholly on the good side or circumstances of it; when it is obtained, our minds run wholly on the bad ones.
In a glass-house the workmen often fling in a small quantity of fresh coals, which seems to disturb the fire, but very much enlivens it. This seems to allude to a gentle stirring of the passions, that the mind may not languish.
Religion seems to have grown an infant with age, and requires miracles to nurse it, as it had in its infancy.
All fits of pleasure are balanced by an equal degree of pain or languor; it is like spending this year part of the next year’s revenue.
The latter part of a wise man’s life is taken up in curing the follies, prejudices, and false opinions he had contracted in the former. Read More
“On Sleep” by Samuel Johnson (From The Idler, No. 39. Tuesday, March 20, 1753)
—[Greek: Oduseus phulloisi kalupsato to d ar Athaenae
Hypnon ep ommasi cheu, ina min pauseie tachista
Dusponeos kamatoio.]—HOM. E. 491
—Pallas pour’d sweet slumbers on his soul;
And balmy dreams, the gift of soft repose,
Calm’d all his pains, and banish’d all his woes. POPE.
If every day did not produce fresh instances of the ingratitude of mankind, we might, perhaps, be at a loss, why so liberal and impartial a benefactor as sleep, should meet with so few historians or panegyrists. Writers are so totally absorbed by the business of the day, as never to turn their attention to that power, whose officious hand so seasonably suspends the burthen of life; and without whose interposition man would not be able to endure the fatigue of labour, however rewarded, or the struggle with opposition, however successful.
Night, though she divides to many the longest part of life, and to almost all the most innocent and happy, is yet unthankfully neglected, except by those who pervert her gifts.
The astronomers, indeed, expect her with impatience, and felicitate themselves upon her arrival: Fontenelle has not failed to celebrate her praises; and to chide the sun for hiding from his view the worlds, which he imagines to appear in every constellation. Nor have the poets been always deficient in her praises: Milton has observed of the night, that it is “the pleasant time, the cool, the silent.”
These men may, indeed, well be expected to pay particular homage to night; since they are indebted to her, not only for cessation of pain, but increase of pleasure; not only for slumber, but for knowledge. But the greater part of her avowed votaries are the sons of luxury; who appropriate to festivity the hours designed for rest; who consider the reign of pleasure as commencing when day begins to withdraw her busy multitudes, and ceases to dissipate attention by intrusive and unwelcome variety; who begin to awake to joy when the rest of the world sinks into insensibility; and revel in the soft affluence of flattering and artificial lights, which “more shadowy set off the face of things.” Read More
. . . Borges is arguably the great bridge between modernism and post-modernism in world literature. He is modernist in that his fiction shows a first-rate human mind stripped of all foundations in religious or ideological certainty — a mind turned thus wholly in on itself. His stories are inbent and hermetic, with the oblique terror of a game whose rules are unknown and its stakes everything.
And the mind of those stories is nearly always a mind that lives in and through books. This is because Borges the writer is, fundamentally, a reader. The dense, obscure allusiveness of his fiction is not a tic, or even really a style; and it is no accident that his best stories are often fake essays, or reviews of fictitious books, or have texts at their plots’ centers, or have as protagonists Homer or Dante or Averroes. Whether for seminal artistic reasons or neurotic personal ones or both, Borges collapses reader and writer into a new kind of aesthetic agent, one who makes stories out of stories, one for whom reading is essentially — consciously — a creative act. This is not, however, because Borges is a metafictionist or a cleverly disguised critic. It is because he knows that there’s finally no difference — that murderer and victim, detective and fugitive, performer and audience are the same. Obviously, this has postmodern implications (hence the pontine claim above), but Borges’s is really a mystical insight, and a profound one. It’s also frightening, since the line between monism and solipsism is thin and porous, more to do with spirit than with mind per se. And, as an artistic program, this kind of collapse/transcendence of individual identity is also paradoxical, requiring a grotesque self-obsession combined with an almost total effacement of self and personality. Tics and obsessions aside, what makes a Borges story Borgesian is the odd, ineluctable sense you get that no one and everyone did it.
—From “Borges on the Couch,” a 2004 NYT piece republished this month in the David Foster Wallace collection Both Flesh and Not.
- The first 20 minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey
- The last 10 minutes of if . . . .
- The first half of Barry Lyndon but not the second half
- Every minute of Days of Heaven
- Every minute of Russian Ark
- The opening sequence of Ponyo
- The last five minutes of Aguirre, the Wrath of God
- The closing titles sequence of INLAND EMPIRE
The loose, brief breeziness of Barry Hannah’s 1987 novella Hey Jack! belies the terror and rage at the heart of this hilarious tragedy. It’s a slim volume—133 pages in my hardback copy—with the same rambling flightiness that characterizes Hannah’s better known 1980 novel-in-vignettes, Ray.
Hey Jack! bears many comparisons with Ray: Like Ray, this novel is told from the perspective of a war vet (Korea this time, not ‘Nam); like the eponymous speaker of Ray, the narrator of Hey Jack!, Homer, finds himself frequently besotted, binged out, or horny; like Ray, Homer tries to make a marriage work; like Ray, Homer comes into conflict with a poor white trash family.
And like Ray, Hey Jack! tests the boundaries of what is and is not a “novel.” Hey Jack! is discontinuous and meandering; there’s a plot, sure, but Hannah’s apt to jump over place and time freely, tripping over months at a time, sparing not even a sentence to cue his readers in the right direction. No exposition here, folks. I suppose I should summarize the plot though: Homer, passing middle age, takes up a friendship with Jack, an older man, a former sheriff and fellow Korean War vet who runs a coffee shop popular with the college kids. Together, the pair (sort of) face off against Ronnie Foot, a local boy turned rock star who has the gall to begin an affair with Jack’s forty-year old daughter:
Ronnie Foot, the rock star had her. Or Jack thought he had her, he was sure he had her. Jack was mumbling. Jack was talking about ingratitude and pride and scum hanging on meat, things of that nature. It was astonishing to see him creep and rise suddenly, like a crazy old man. . . . “Nobody ever had a daughter like me. You want me to just her go, like a fart?” He was fingering the gun again.
Jack, once the lone bastion of sanity and order in Homer’s small, chaotic Mississippi town, begins to slide into the insanity and violence that marks the rest of the populace. Jack’s stability is the closest thing Hey Jack! offers as a slice of normalcy (to be clear though, Hannah’s characters skew grotesque, not quirky).
What unites the volume isn’t Jack’s slow slide to the dark side, but rather the narrative’s distinctive, ornery voice. It’s worth quoting Homer at length; here he condenses several of the novel’s themes in the sort of crazy-or-wise? rant indicative of the novella’s tone and rhythm:
In love, in love, in love. A mule can climb a tree if it’s in love. A man like me can look himself in the mirror and say, I’m all right, everything is beloved, I’m no stranger to anywhere any more. I’m a man full of life and a lot of time to kill, shoot every minute down with a straight blast of his eye across the bountiful landscape, from the minnow to the Alps. Something looks back at you with an eye of insane approval. Something looks back at you; out of belligerent ignorance of you it has come to a delighted focus on you and your love, together, sending up gasses of collision that make a rainbow over the poor masses who are changing a tire on the side of the road on a hot Saturday afternoon, felling like niggers. There is a law that every nigger spends a quarter of every weekend changing tires, my friend George, the biochemist, says. What do we know? What do we mere earthlings, unpublished and heaving out farts like puzzled sighs, know, but what is in our blood? I had broken up once with a woman who was in Europe, and coming out of the mall movie (I don’t even remember the movie) I gave out this private marvelous fart that was equal to a paragraph of Henry James, so churned were my guts and so lingering. And I was free. Free to discuss it. Delighted in the boundless ignorance and destruction that lay out there under the dumb lit cold moon. Enough about me and my poetry.
There’s so many shifts here. Hannah’s Homer comes off like a besotted barstool philosopher, gazing at his navel through an empty tumbler and finding both gut and abyss. We see the casual racism that so many of Hannah’s characters dip into; we see the conflation of art, spirit, and expulsion. Need I comment on the fart joke? It’s worth just repeating: “I gave out this private marvelous fart that was equal to a paragraph of Henry James” — if you don’t like that you’re not going to like Hey Jack!
Beyond that voice, there’s little to organize Hey Jack!—it’s a riff, sometimes a howl, often a jape, a joke, sometimes a verbal slap. This isn’t to say there isn’t a trajectory to the novella or a payoff at the end. Hannah seems unable to resist a tragic arc, the same one he pulls through the whiskey haze of Ray. Perhaps he takes his cues from Edgar Allan Poe’s essay “The Philosophy of Composition“: ” . . . the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” (To be fair Poe is hardly the first fella to find a dead beauty such a worthy topic; also, I’ve never really been sure how to measure the tone of his essay—I can’t help but think he’s being somehow simultaneously tongue-in-cheek and deadly earnest. But enough about Poe).
But arcs be damned. The best bits of Hey Jack! are the stray little paragraphs that erupt from nowhere either to fizzle out or burn up in a bang. At its best, the novella offers bizarre little stories piecemeal that read equally absurd and true. To wit:
I began hollering at my wife for her shortcomings. She left the house, 11 P.M. I’d quit drinking and smoking. She brought me back a bottle of rye and a pack of Luckies, too. I hadn’t smoked for two weeks. I must have been a horrible nuisance.
I took a drink and a smoke.
Then I was normal. My lungs and my liver cried out: At last, again! The old abuse! I am a confessed major organ beater. I should turn myself in on the hotline to normalcy.
I hope by now that you have a sense of whether or not Hey Jack! is for you. It’s probably not going to gel with most readers: Too ugly, too loose, too nihilistic, perhaps; at heart a sloppy affair . . . but I loved it—it was the perfect book to riffle through over a few Saturday or Sunday afternoons on my back porch, its pages blotting up the condensation from a glass of sangria or can of beer, Homer’s consciousness as loose and discontinuous as my own. Not the best starting place for those interested in Hannah—that might be Airships—but great stuff.
Erich Auerbach parses the structure of history and legend and points out why writing history is such a messy, challenging job. From “Odysseus’ Scar,” the first chapter of his epic work of literary criticism Mimesis—
Homer remains within the legendary with all his material, whereas the material of the Old Testament comes closer and closer to history as the narrative proceeds; in the stories of David the historical report predominates. Here too, much that is legendary still remains, as for example the story of David and Goliath; but much—and the most essential—consists in things which the narrators knew from their own experience or from firsthand testimony. Now the difference between legend and history is in most cases easily perceived by a reasonably experienced reader. It is a difficult matter, requiring careful historical and philological training, to distinguish the true from the synthetic or the biased in a historical presentation; but it is easy to separate the historical from the legendary in general. Their structure is different. Even where the legendary does not immediately betray itself by elements of the miraculous, by the repetition of well-known standard motives, typical patterns and themes, through neglect of clear details of time and place, and the like, it is generally quickly recognizable by its composition. It runs far too smoothly. All cross-currents, all friction, all that is casual, secondary to the main events and themes, everything unresolved, truncated, and uncertain, which confuses the clear progress of the action and the simple orientation of the actors, has disappeared. The historical event which we witness, or learn from the testimony of those who witnessed it, runs much more variously, contradictorily, and confusedly; not until it has produced results in a definite domain are we able, with their help, to classify it to a certain extent; and how often the order to which we think we have attained becomes doubtful again, how often we ask ourselves if the data before us have not led us to a far too simple classification of the original events! Legend arranges its material in a simple and straightforward way; it detaches it from its contemporary historical context, so that the latter will not confuse it; it knows only clearly outlined men who act from few and simple motives and the continuity of whose feelings and actions remains uninterrupted. In the legends of martyrs, for example, a stiff-necked and fanatical persecutor stands over against an equally stiff-necked and fanatical victim; and a situation so complicated—that is to say, so real and historical—as that in which the “persecutor” Pliny finds himself in his celebrated letter to Trajan on the subject of the Christians, is unfit for legend. And that is still a comparatively simple case. Let the reader think of the history which we are ourselves witnessing; anyone who, for example, evaluates the behavior of individual men and groups of men at the time of the rise of National Socialism in Germany, or the behavior of individual peoples and states before and during the last war, will feel how difficult it is to represent historical themes in general, and how unfit they are for legend; the historical comprises a great number of contradictory motives in each individual, a hesitation and ambiguous groping on the part of groups; only seldom (as in the last war) does a more or less plain situation, comparatively simple to describe, arise, and even such a situation is subject to division below the surface, is indeed almost constantly in danger of losing its simplicity; and the motives of all the interested parties are so complex that the slogans of propaganda can be composed only through the crudest simplification—with the result that friend and foe alike can often employ the same ones. To write history is so difficult that most historians are forced to make concessions to the technique of legend.
The kind folks at Picador are offering you, dear reader, a chance to win one of two copies of Zachary Mason’sThe Lost Books of the Odyssey, a dazzling re-imagining of Homer’s epic tale. And you’ll want to read this book, folks. Here’s a snippet from our review–
In his preface to The Lost Books of the Odyssey, author Zachary Mason tells us that before the story we now know as the Odyssey was organized by the poet Homer, the “material was formless, fluid, its elements shuffled into new narratives like cards in a deck.” Mason’s goal in The Lost Books is to echo these older versions of the story of Odysseus, omitting “stock epic formulae in favor of honing a single trope or image down to extreme clarity.” He succeeds admirably — Lost Books is an engaging and perplexing work that challenges our assumptions about one of the most foundational stories of Western literature. Mason’s “novel” (it is not really a novel, of course) strikes a wonderfully resonant and deeply upsetting chord, disrupting our sense of narrative satisfaction, breaking us away from the outcomes we thought we knew.
So, how do you get your grubby little hands on a copy? First, you need to have a U.S. mailing address. Second, you need to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, responding to this simple prompt: Who is your favorite character in The Odyssey, and why? Our esteemed judges will choose the winners from the best responses and post them as an announcement this
Friday Saturday. Good luck!