Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Second Treatise on Government

In August, the Classics Club theme is the Enlightenment.  It so happens that Locke's Second Treatise on Government is on my CC list and my TBR challenge list for this year, so I figured this would be the perfect time to read it.

Locke is clearly a genius, but since he was writing over 300 years ago, he isn't all that easy to understand all the time.  He would certainly repay repeated readings.   As some background, he wrote the treatise anonymously, partly to support William III's ascension to the British throne in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and to discredit James II, and partly to rebut Hobbes' Leviathan treatise.  Hobbes said that since everyone was pretty rotten, people needed an authoritarian government--an absolute monarch--to keep control, while Locke argued that the only legitimate government was one derived from the consent of the people governed.  James II was in the absolutist tradition, and William was supposed to be a king subject to the law.

Locke argues from first principles, imagining people living in a state of nature, with no government--everyone is equal to each other and subject to none.  In such a state, when one person attacks another, that produces a state of war.  For protection and freedom of trade, people might group together, which puts them in a society, and then there have to be laws.  What constitutes property and how do we know when someone owns something?  What does a just society look like?  Who has the authority to administer the law?  What powers does a government justly have, and how can it wield them?  Under what circumstances it might be ethical to overthrow a government?

Locke leads the reader on from one conclusion to the next, building his model of civil society out of clear statements and logical arguments.  It's interesting to watch.  I would like every high school student to read it as part of their government studies, but the fact is that it's a very difficult essay to read now.  I'm sure there are paraphrased versions out there.  It would be interesting to know what modern 'translations' exist, and if any of them try to convey the sense exactly, or if some of them tend to throw in some biases one way or the other.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

History Reading Challenge Check-In

Fanda at ClassicLit is doing a check-in for her history challenge:

Time flies so really quickly, and here we are already on the eighth month of 2014, two third of our sail to the past with History Reading Challenge 2014. This is our second check in, to check how we have been progressing since our start. Let’s share in the comment below (or if you want to write it in a post, you could link up your post here),

  • How many books have you read so far?
  • Are you on schedule or left behind?
  • What is your most favorite so far?
  • Which history are you looking forward to read?

(You don’t have to answer all the questions; basically tell us what you think about this challenge so far).

And I would like to remind you, that in the end of this challenge there will be two giveaways, one of them for the Analysis posts. If you haven’t submitted your posts, there is still enough time to do so. 
I managed to miss the last check-in post, so I think this is actually my first.  Here are the titles I've read:
  1. The Perfect Summer, by Juliet Gillespie
  2. The History of the Ancient World, by Susan Wise Bauer
  3. Arthur's Britain, by Leslie Alcock
  4. The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman
  5. A Time of Gifts, by Patrick Leigh Fermor
  6. Savage Continent, by Keith Lowe
  7. In the Steps of the Master, by V. H. Morton
I've therefore technically hit my goal of 7 or more books, but I have at least two more that I would really like to read by the end of the year: The History of the Renaissance World, by Susan Wise Bauer, and Eight Pieces of Empire, by Lawrence Scott Sheets.  I feel that I'm right on schedule.

It's been kind of a blood-soaked year of history reading (I guess that's what history's like, but those WWII books were particularly brutal).  The Guns of August was excellent but not a lot of fun.  A Time of Gifts, though, was just a delight the whole way through, so that's certainly a favorite.  In the Steps of the Master was also wonderful and at the top of the list.  I'm looking forward to both of my next picks, though I don't expect them to be very fun either.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Two Lives of Charlemagne

Two Lives of Charlemagne, by Einhard and Notker the Stammerer

Charlemagne, King of the Franks, lived from 742 to 814 and was practically a legend in his own time--which is illustrated by these two accounts of his life.

The first is by Einhard, who actually served under Charlemagne as a diplomat.  It's a straightforward, factual account, not very long, that still manages to get several major things a bit wrong.  Of course, Einhard also glides over some of the less heroic details of court life too; he is strongly biased.  The entire account is strictly realistic; for example, I noticed the incident that was later turned into the Song of Roland.  In the poem, written centuries later, Roland and his men fight off hordes of attacking Moors; Einhard's account shows it to have been a guerrilla-style attack on the rear baggage train by Basques.

Notker the Stammerer was a monk, writing his account for the benefit of Charlemagne's great-grandson, Charles the Fat.  It's a book that collects lots of short anecdotes together, always illustrating the king's character as shrewd, clever, fair, devout, and generous.  By this time, a couple of generations later, Charlemagne was well on his way to legendary status and stories collected around him.  (You can even see Notker doing it as he mixes up Charlemagne with his own grandfather, Charles the Hammer.)  These anecdotes are very entertaining and usually do stay in the realm of the possible, but the footnotes are constantly having to point out that the chronology is all wrong, this or that never happened, or that various people in the story were in fact quite dead by that time.

Einhard is quite interesting, and Notker is downright fun to read.  If you're looking for a fairly easy and short piece of medieval history to enjoy, this is a good possibility.  (Note by the way that I have the really old Penguin edition from 1969, translated by Lewis Thorpe.  The current edition has a new translator, and I'm sure all new footnotes and so on.)

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Savage Continent

Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, by Keith Lowe

I've been slowly reading this book for at least half of the summer, and then suddenly someone put it on hold at the library, so I rushed through the last 100 pages in two days.  It is such an awful litany of terribleness that I could only read so much at a time.

Post-war Europe was a destroyed wasteland.  Entire cities had been burnt down.  Many villages were simply gone.  Farmland had been ravaged, and large populations shoved around and killed.  Institutions like schools, police, government, and everything else--were missing, or else staffed by thugs.  In this desolation, people starved, got sick, and perpetrated yet more violence and oppression upon each other.  The Nazis made actions like ethnic cleansing and making populations disappear into routines, and many others copied those atrocities on a smaller scale (especially upon German ethnic groups).  Mixed regions that had been rubbing along for centuries in relative peace discovered that they could get away with slaughtering each other instead.

Lowe chronicles all this with histories of events in areas across Europe, from France to Greece to the USSR.  By the end, everybody has some very serious wrongs to think about (even the usually-surprisingly-benign Danes, who made life miserable for thousands of half-German children).  Eastern European lands, as the triple victims of Soviets/Nazis/Soviets, suffered most as usual, and the results were hundreds of thousands more deaths, as populations were persecuted, deported, and slaughtered, and then turned to do the same back again.

Ethnic minority populations were moved and exchanged all over Europe; Poles shoved out of Ukraine into Poland and Ukrainians into Ukraine, and of course German minorities everywhere were expelled and forced into Germany, which was destroyed and unprepared for refugees.  This was regarded as "the least worst option," Lowe emphasizes, often even by those moved.  Germans, after all, had used their minority populations to start half the war and no one wanted to risk that again.  After World War I, they'd tried moving borders to fit populations and that had obviously failed, so they tried moving populations to fit borders instead.   This really puts the existence of Israel in a whole new light--establishing a country for Jews was only one of a couple of dozen similar actions.

If there's anything I took away from this, it's that revenge is a very natural desire, and that indulging it is a really bad idea.  Reading how all these people enacted revenges and brutalities upon each other in a never-ending spiral of violence was truly awful.  (Yes, OK, the spirals eventually ended, usually in a Stalinist purge of some kind.)  Another really bad idea is nursing communal grudges and victimizations over generations; today, 70 years later, we can observe obvious differences between populations that have moved on and built new communities, and those that have made it a point never to forget or forgive the wrongs done to their grandparents.

Yet another important piece of history we should pay attention to.  Just about all of this was new to me, and Lowe makes the point that we tell ourselves very particular stories about the war for psychological reasons, but the realities were often different, and we've purposely ignored some things.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Some Poetry by Yeats

Selections from The Wild Swans at Coole, and others, by William Butler Yeats

One of my Classics Club items is The Wild Swans at Coole, one of the books of Yeats' poetry.  I looked for it at the library, and what I really found was a Norton collection covering his entire career.  So I read the poems from Wild Swans, and then I read as many others as caught my eye.

The Wild Swans period was in the late 1910s, and Yeats was rounding 50.  The woman he'd loved for years had refused him.  (Soon she married another man, and then he tried to court her daughter (of all people!) who refused him too.)  He was thinking he would never be able to marry, and that he was entering the autumn of his life, and everything was winding down for him.  The poems all have an elegaic, autumnal feel--one really is an elegy, for a friend killed in action.  In fact, Yeats was on the brink of entering his 'great' period, and much of his best work was in the future.  He also married and had children.

I read quite a few other pieces too, including "Leda and the Swan" and "Crazy Jane Talks With the Bishop."  Overall, I think I got a nice taste of Yeats to build on in the future.

Since it's August and we're all talking about World War I, here is a piece from that war, about Yeats' friend, Major Robert Gregory.  The third and fourth lines refer to Irish indifference to the "English" war--Gregory doesn't hate the Germans or love the English.

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death

I know that I shall meet my fate  
Somewhere among the clouds above;  
Those that I fight I do not hate  
Those that I guard I do not love;  
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,  
No likely end could bring them loss  
Or leave them happier than before.  
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,  
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight  
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;  
I balanced all, brought all to mind,  
The years to come seemed waste of breath,  
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

PS This completes my summer goal of getting to 75/150 on my list!  Halfway there!

Monday, August 11, 2014

And the Spin number is...

Today we find out our lucky Spin number!  And that number is 17, which means I'll be reading Trollope's The Small House at Allington.  Fun!

The Man Born to be King

The Man Born to be King, by Dorothy Sayers

I've had this for a few years, so I put it on my TBR pile for this year.  I love Sayers, but drama makes me nervous, and this is a collection of 12 short plays written as a cycle.  They were actually written to be performed on the radio (and were, on the BBC).  They make up a life of Christ, written in a modern vernacular so as to be more immediate and less like stained-glass pictures (that is, all fancy and remote).  Jesus and his followers were not really fancy or remote people, after all. 

Sayers was very careful with her project; she was a serious scholar and theologian, so while she's translating into a vernacular she is being extremely cautious about it, making sure to get the right feeling and not to let it turn into the utter disaster it could so easily be. So the introductions to each play describe the social station of each character and what the players should aim for, which is great information to have.

I wasn't sure what to expect, but I loved these plays so much.  They are so easy to get immersed in, and just really good.  The characters jump right off the page.  It's fantastic stuff.  I've found what look to be online streaming recordings of performances, so I'll be listening!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Three Plays by Chekhov

Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard, by Anton Chekhov

I wanted to read some of Chekhov's plays, and figured I'd better start with the ones I'd heard of.  All three of these plays take place on country estates, with families who are unhappy and feel stifled on said estates.  A funny thing happened while I was reading the first play, Uncle Vanya--I was at the swimming pool with a friend and we were reading.  Hers was a humorous mystery novel, and at one point she laughed and read out to me the line "Stop talking past each other; we aren't in a Chekhov play!"  (Or something like that.  I can't remember exactly.)  So from then on I was watching out for people talking past each other, which indeed they did pretty often, especially in the last two plays.

As always, it would be much better if I could see these dramas performed.  It's hard to keep all the Russian characters straight.  The Cherry Orchard was the trickiest that way. I will sometime.

Uncle Vanya features an old professor, Serebryakov, and his young and beautiful wife Yelena.  All the other men feel that Yelena is wasting her youth on this old dried-up man who complains all the time, and they frequently declare love for her.  Meanwhile, Sonya, the daughter of the house, is in love with Dr. Astrov (who pursues Yelena).   Serebryakov plans to sell the estate, enraging Uncle Vanya, who has sacrificed years of his life to manage the estate and lift it out of debt.  What will Sonya do if her home is sold out from under her?

Three Sisters has the three women living with their brother in their home in a provincial capital (well, one is married, but all the action is in the house).  They long to move to Moscow and spend all their extra energy dreaming about it and planning.  Andrey, the brother, marries a local girl whom they really kind of despise (and who becomes vicious and controlling as the play continues).  The play covers about four years.

The Cherry Orchard shows a woman returning to her country estate after years away.  She and her two daughters are in debt and will have to auction off the estate, yet she cannot stop throwing money around or face the imminent loss of her home, especially the cherry orchard.  Although Chekhov called it a comedy and it does have funny bits, it's much more like a tragedy.

I enjoyed reading the plays, but will definitely need to see them performed and read them again.  This was a good start.

Saturday, August 9, 2014


 Tristan, by Gottfried von Strassburg

Here's my third version of the Tristan and Iseult story, but the first one that has been available as a complete manuscript.  Gottfried von Strassburg was one of the great German Arthurian writers of the Middle Ages, and though we don't know much about him, he probably wasn't a courtier or a knight.  He seems to have been something more along the lines of a prominent town official.

He might not have been a courtier, but his story is more 'courtly' than the other two I've read, which are more straightforward and rough.  This Tristan has a lot in it about manners and rich clothing, and it's generally more elaborate, with fancy little touches.  It's not so detailed on the fighting; Gottfried is clearly more interested in clothes than in war (maybe he came from a family of textile merchants?).

Tristan gets a whole long backstory, with parents who fall in love and a foster father and a childhood.  That was quite fun; I've never read any of that before.  There's lots of good stuff about King Mark and Isolde's Irish home.  It's a very nice read that moves along pretty well.

Then, of course, there's the fatal potion and love affair between Tristan and Isolde.  Here, there is no three-year time limit.  It's permanent.  It's always interesting to me how the authors deal with this problem that they are in love, they are adulterers committing what would normally be considered a severe crime (queens don't get to have lovers!), but they're also the sympathetic protagonists of the story and it's not quite their fault...but it's still adultery.  You get incidents like Tristan praying:
O Lord in thy mercy and goodness have us both in thy keeping!  Stand guard over Isole on this path!  Guide her every step!  Make the blameless woman somehow aware of this vile ambush which has been set for us, lest she say or do anything that could give rise to ugly thoughts.  O my Lord, have pity on her and me!  I commend our lives and honour this night to Thee!

--this while hoping that Isolde's husband won't catch her talking with Tristan, because they don't want him to find out that they are indeed doing exactly what he suspects.  In fact, Isolde later goes through a trial by fire to prove her innocence, and she passes.  The author of the introduction, A. T. Hatto, explains this by commenting
So far as we can recover his thoughts, the author of the earliest discernible version of the story seems to be saying: 'Well, if the Lord will permit such things as love-philtres to ensnare innocent mortals, be it on his own head!'
Which I think is about right.

The potion does have a definite effect on the two though.  They both become willing to sacrifice everything to their affair, so that Tristan isn't so interested in knightly ideals like honor, and Isolde actually plots the death of her faithful maidservant Brangane.  I've never seen that before, so it was quite interesting to see von Strassburg pointing out the downside to the love potion.  (On the other hand, they also become able to live entirely on Love, needing neither food nor drink!)

Tristan spends a good deal of time playing the harp.
This was quite a good read.  Next I'm going to tackle another German story, the Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach.  After that I plan to read Thomas Malory, or at least I'll wind up with that, but I'll probably do another Arthur story too.  

Monday, August 4, 2014

Classics Spin #7!

 It's time for another Classics Club Spin!  I love these.  Haven't missed one yet.  Here are the rules:
  • Go to your blog.
  • Pick twenty books that you’ve got left to read from your Classics Club List.
  • Try to challenge yourself: list five you are dreading/hesitant to read, five you can’t WAIT to read, five you are neutral about, and five free choice (favorite author, rereads, ancients — whatever you choose.)
  • Post that list, numbered 1-20, on your blog by next Monday.
  • Monday morning, we’ll announce a number from 1-20. Go to the list of twenty books you posted, and select the book that corresponds to the number we announce.
  • The challenge is to read that book by October 6, even if it’s an icky one you dread reading! (No fair not listing any scary ones!)

Ha ha! :D All for fun, and of course, the “rules” are, as always, very relaxed. Really, you can make up your own rules. We don’t actually care. :P

So, here's my list.  As usual, I have not put them in any particular order; I like to mix them up.  Given that it will be October by the time we're done, I'm putting in any titles I can plausibly stretch to be Halloweeny....and it just wouldn't be a Spin list without The Makioka Sisters, right?  I put them on every time, but they never get picked.  If you have a title that really scares you, I advise you to put t in the #16 spot.
  1. Edgar Allen Poe, US, 1839. Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque.
  2. Shakespeare: Henry IV
  3. Lawrence Sterne, Tristram Shandy. 
  4. Confucius, China, 551-479 BCE. The Analects.
  5. Leo Tolstoy, Russia, War and Peace
  6. Omar Khayyam, Persia, ca 1100. The Rubaiyat
  7. Willa Cather, My Antonia
  8. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, England, 1818. Frankenstein.
  9. Franz Kafka, Czechoslovakia, The Castle.
  10.  Naguib Mahfouz, The Cairo Trilogy 
  11. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Germany, 1808. Faust
  12.  Nathaniel Hawthorne: a novel.  (My list says I have to read two Hawthornes of choice.)
  13. Murasaki Shikubu, Japan, ca. 990.The Tale of Genji.  (abridged, sorry, but that's the one I have)
  14. Mario Vargas Llosa, The Time of the Hero or another work.
  15.  Moa Martinson, Women and Appletrees.
  16.  Junichio Tanizaki, Japan, 1943. The Makioka Sisters
  17.  Anthony Trollope, 1864, The Small House at Allington.
  18.  “The Crucible,” Miller (1953)
  19.  Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks
  20.  Gunter Grass, The Tin Drum (or other selection)
 Of these, I'm really looking forward to War and Peace, Frankenstein, and The Small House at Allington--it's too long since I read a Trollope novel.  War and Peace and The Cairo Trilogy are both scary because they are very long indeed, and I've never read this Llosa dude so he makes me nervous.