I Struggle With Milton

Blake's vision of Milton
Confession time: I find a lot of epic or narrative poetry a slog. Milton, Homer, Dante… I have read my way into them all, but unlike my other books, I never get very far in any of them at each reading, although I make the effort and do so often. I don’t even enjoy reading Shakespeare’s two long poems, Venus and Adonis, and The Rape of Lucrece, and I read everything else by the bard with great relish. 

It’s odd because I love reading Chaucer’s poetry, even his longer pieces. I delight in Shakespeare’s sonnets. I have dozens of collections of works by poets like Auden, Yeats, Frost, Pound, Stevens, Lorca, Cummings, Eliot, Cohen, Dickinson, Horace, Rumi, Catullus, Li Po, Williams, Ginsburg, and many, many others. I have read the Gilgamesh and Beowulf epics in poetic form, both several times in different translations and enjoyed them. I have translations of poets from around the world. I have limericks and numerous books filled with Don Marquis’ Archy and Mehitabel poems. I read the poems in the Tanakh and in the 1,001 Arabian Nights. I read the blank verse in Shakespeare’s plays, especially his great soliloquies.

And I enjoy reading them all.

So it’s not the poetic form that stymies me: I like poetry in almost all of its styles and forms. And it’s not the reading: I consume books, reading hundreds of pages a day spread across a half-dozen or more books most days. But when I pick up Milton, as I am doing these days, I find I read like I’m wading through molasses.

Nor is it the author. I find in Milton great lines, masterful language, powerful emotions. I marvel at his skill and his vocabulary. The story he tells is rich and complex, with well-imagined and deep characters. Yet when I pick him up, time moves at a slower speed. Ditto with Homer and Dante.

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The Hermeneutics of Suspicion

Enough SaidThe title is a phrase I encountered while reading Mark Thompson’s excellent book on political rhetoric, Enough Said: What’s Wrong With the Language of Politics? Thompson’s book is both about the current and historic use of political rhetoric (from Aristotle forward), but also about the role of journalists in covering it. Thompson — a former new editor and executive in the BBC and now with the New York Times — maintains we are in  “a crisis of political language” that comes from a combination of modern media, social media use, and also in the changing way politicians speak (“characterised by lies, spin and demagoguery.”)

The phrase itself was coined by the French philosopher Paul Ricœur, in his book on the writings of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche, but Thompson uses it to describe the mindset of suspicion and disbelief in modern journalists towards politicians, and the reverse shared distrust, as well as the public’s suspicion of the media in presenting its content.*

Personally, I believe a strong sense of skepticism and disbelief is necessary for a journalist to see through the spin and the bullshit to the hidden truths and the corruption below the surface. It’s necessary to have a skeptical perspective so as not to be conned by the blandishments and empty assurances of the corporate elite, too. Without skepticism, journalists are vulnerable to piffle in an age where there is so much disinformation and claptrap around.

In a speech given in 2008, Thompson said, 

…proportionate, rational scepticism is healthy and a civic good – as well as being a prime building block of good journalism… the evidence points rather the other way: the less you trust politicians and public institutions, the more likely you are to believe in outré conspiracy theories, not to mention witches and warlocks and so on.
What the evidence points to, I think, is of a large group of the population who feel outside a charmed circle of knowledge and power. Modern public policy is fiendishly complex and debates about it are conducted in a mysterious, technocratic language which – despite the best efforts of the BBC and some of the rest of the media – many people find hard to understand. This by the way may be why, as Onora O’Neill pointed out, the modern mechanisms of accountability, which are riddled with this impenetrable language, have not only failed to arrest the decline in trust but may have accelerated it.

And also in that same speech, he noted,

One of the tasks of a free press is to uncover public malfeasance. The media is right to be alert to it and to pursue and investigate any evidence that it is taking place. But no good – and almost certainly some ill – is served by exaggeration or endlessly crying wolf… However, this does not seem to be one of the main drivers of broader public disillusion…The biggest reason people give is because, in their view, politicians don’t tell the truth. People also think politicians “say what they want people to hear” and they don’t give straight answers – all issues related to the theme of truth telling.

Trust has to be earned by both sides, and is not a right or a given by either. It starts by being honest. Non-critical acceptance of political or corporate blarney by the media leads to the sort of banal, bland coverage (it doesn’t deserve to be called reporting) we get in the ideological media (like PostMedia and Fox “News”) where everything conservative is treated as wonderful and illuminating, and anything done, suggested, or spoken by a liberal or Democrat is vilified regardless of content or context. This reduces their content to a sort of Tarzan-Jane language of simplisticisms: “Them bad. Us good.” This, of course, appeals increasingly to a polarized audience that views complexity and intellectualism with suspicion and hostility.

Little wonder public disillusion with politicians has extended to the media**. We used to expect of our media to be the watchdogs of the greater good; trusted guardians of the public weal to give us truth and fairness. We also expected them to look deeper into issues on our behalf. Now we expect far too many of them to merely regurgitate the party line, shills for the shallow, self-serving ideology of their corporate owners.

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Social distancing and reading

War & PeaceWith every responsible, mature adult practicing social distancing and self-isolation these days, it means spending lots of time at home, alone or within the small family unit. Trying for some, but it’s the perfect time to catch up on your reading, to explore new authors, to discover the contentment of a comfortable chair, a cup of tea, and a novel. The social-distancing period can become not just a burden, but a great opportunity for immersing yourself in books.

But with so many choices, what should I read, you ask. Blogger/editor Sara Reggiani, writing from Italy in Life in Quarantine, asked, plaintively,

Stay home, read a book! yells everyone, but how am I to know which book I need amidst this din of suggestions that often seem like just another attempt to impose one’s own identity and tastes onto someone else?

A sentiment I don’t agree with: to me, every book suggestion is an opportunity to discover a new author, a new subject, a new way of expression. I do not want to impose my tastes on anyone, but I do have some suggestions, one in particular. The nature of our current solitude offers new possibilities to tackle some longer, more demanding works.

Let me digress a moment. For decades, I’ve collected books (let’s not call it hoarding, as if these were rolls of toilet paper) and put them aside to read “when I retired” as I kept telling myself. But when I actually retired, some years ago — only semi-retired, however — I found I had very little extra time on my hands, what with socializing, gardening, housework, dog and cat care, shopping, some freelance work, committee activities, writing, playing music, coffee with friends, online gaming, and so on.

Back in the 1970s and ’80s, I was heavily influenced in my reading by friends who discovered authors and titles sooner, then introduced me to them. That’s how I got to know (and read) Dostoyevsky, Marquez, Dickens, Bulgakov, Silverberg, Dumas, Machiavelli, and many others. But sometimes after I started to read them, I got distracted by other books, so they returned to the shelf for that imaginary, later period.

Today, with the socializing aspect of my life severely pared down, I can, at last, get to some of those books. My first recommendation is on that list. I’ll have more to discuss in later posts, but first…

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I’m Reading as Fast as I Can

Books, and more booksI don’t recall just when I started putting books aside to read, or perhaps just finish, when I retired. I had this naive, romantic idea that upon retirement, at the age of 65 or thereabouts, I would be able to spend my time puttering around the house and garden, carting a bag of books from place to place, to living out my final years in the warm glow of reading and cups of tea.

Books have long lives in my library. Putting one aside to reach for another, and then consigning it to an imagined peaceful future where I would have more time to devote to it, instead of pausing for a few months while I explored other titles, must have become a practice some time ago. I just can’t recall exactly when.

Years and years ago, I suppose; so many they blur into the haze of faded memory. Partly due, I suspect, to my habit of reading a chapter in one book, then picking up another to read some, then another and so on. Seldom since my teens have I read a book cover-to-cover at the exclusion of others. Some sit unread for months, others years, before being taken up again. I always have a dozen on the go at any time, piled beside my bed for reading at night.

Yet more booksNow and then I come across a book on my shelves that I can actually recall buying it and deliberately putting it aside for “later.” And I find others that I started and read some small number of chapters before putting the book down to finish when the mythical golden years arrived. Ah, but those years are here (more leaden than golden), and I’m still building the library, piling books upon books. Still finding new titles I want to own and, eventually, read. Still haunting bookshops and publishers’ websites.

Where did I go wrong in my retirement planning? Or, in my case, semi-retirement…

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Of dictionaries, memories, and friends

Johnson's DictionaryWhen a copy of this selection from Samuel Johnson’s famous dictionary arrived last week, I was delighted, and immediately reminded of my late, and well-loved friend, Bill. He would have appreciated the book, chuckled over Johnson’s witty definitions, delighted in the words at play. We would have sat around the kitchen counter, alternately reading random definitions from the book, in between sips of wine.

Like every good writer I’ve ever known, Bill loved words, puns, wit, and the interplay of language.

Sadly, Bill died of esophageal cancer late last year, the same cancer that took my father a few years earlier. A nasty, painful, flesh-wasting disease.  Because of that, Bill and I never got to sit down and share our thoughts about this book over a glass of wine, as we had done many times over many different books, before. I saw him a couple of weeks before his death, as he lay, bedridden, in palliative care. A thin shadow of the man who used to come up for long weekends to spend time with us.

Bill was a passionate reader and we shared many books and interests in common; especially those on Napoleonic and English history. He had a passion for British naval history, and Jane Austen’s life and times, and he was a fount of knowledge about the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He could quote Shakespeare, Gilbert & Sullivan, and Austen. He introduced us to numerous BBC dramas, comedies, and specials, and he was generous in lending his DVDs of them. He had a musical streak and we played guitar and ukulele together. And, of course, he loved words.

I was reading through this book the other night, and wondered how Johnson himself felt about friendship and death. James Boswell was his biographer, friend and companion late in his life, but did they share the same sort of closeness as I had with Bill? Boswell went off on a trip to Scotland when Johnson was sick, and was away when the latter died, in 1784. How did Johnson feel about Boswell’s absence, or Boswell and being so far away when his friend died?

Boswell’s comment on hearing of the death was, “He has made a chasm, which not only nothing can fill up, but which nothing has a tendency to fill up.” I felt similarly, when Barbara, Bill’s wife, called to tell me of passing, last year. And I felt relieved, not that he was gone, but that his suffering was finally over. I am not ashamed to admit I cried at the news.

I’d known Bill since the late 1970s-early ’80s, back when we both worked on InfoAge magazine, years even before I met Susan. Many the evening back then we stayed up late and talked, sometimes argued, and drank our wine while playing chess, go, or some wargame – at which he almost always won. He was the smartest, funniest man I ever met and my time with him – our time, really, since he was a friend to both of us – was precious.

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Don Quixote times three

Don QuixotesAt roughly the same time Shakespeare was writing and performing King Lear, Measure for Measure, Othello and Macbeth (1604-1605), Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra was publishing the first part (52 chapters) of his satiric novel, Don Quixote, or more properly titled (in English), The Ingenious Gentleman Sir Quixote of La Mancha. The second part (another 74 chapters) was published in 1615, roughly two years after Shakespeare’s final play, The Two Noble Kinsmen (co-written with John Fletcher).

While it was probably always intended as a single novel, the decade of time between the publication of the two parts has suggested to some scholars it is really two novels (although Part 2 starts only a month after the events that close Part 1). And perhaps it should be marketed as such; the fat combined volume could easily deter readers. I know, I know: there are people who are deterred from reading by any document regardless of its length, and not just local politicians.

Both Cervantes and Shakespeare died in April, 1616, Cervantes a mere day before the Bard, a notable coincidence. Four hundred years later, their contributions to literature and culture still affect us. I heard a local resident comment on “tilting at windmills” only last week. And I still find references to Sancho Panzo in my online reading.

Don Quixote is considered the first “modern” novel. I suppose that means it was not a morality tale, a Christian allegory or written as an ethical training guide to nobility. But also it’s because of the narrative thread and the complexity of the characters.

It achieved international fame almost immediately – the first part was translated into English in 1612 and has been translated many times since. The most recent translation was 2012 (Gerald J Davis). In my own library, I have three translations: John Ormsby (1885, my edition was published 2015), J. M. Cohen (1951, in Penguin books 1985) and Edith Grossman (2003 – which achieved bestseller status that year, remarkable for a book 400 years old). A fourth, translated by Montgomery (2006) is on order.
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