The Suitors — Gustave Moreau

Batrachomyomachia, The Battle of Frogs and Mice

Theodor Severin Kittelsen

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” — Jack London

“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. Continue reading ““The Shrinkage of the Planet” — Jack London”

“Thoughts on Various Subjects” — Jonathan Swift

“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. Continue reading ““Thoughts on Various Subjects” — Jonathan Swift”

“On Sleep” — Samuel Johnson

“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.” Continue reading ““On Sleep” — Samuel Johnson”

“The Great Bridge Between Modernism and Post-modernism” — David Foster Wallace on Jorge Luis Borges

. . . 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.

 

“Don’t blame me, I voted for Kodos”