Of Anglo-Saxon Drink and Old-Style Philology

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery . . .
— Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach, ll. 15-18

 

Part One

On the Taste and Strength of Anglo-Saxon Drink: A formal effort

Much ink has been spilled on the Old English words, beor, ealu, medu, and win, but little perhaps by critics familiar with both Old English and brewing. There has often been an underlying assumption that the words refer to some sort of standardized and distinct beverages, and so, we have a number of broad efforts to identify the qualities of the various beverages produced by the Anglo-Saxons. When one considers that the Anglo-Saxon period covers at least five centuries of human development, defining Anglo-Saxon beverages should be at least as difficult as trying to pin down the distinctions between such products of the last five centuries as purl, lager, ale, claret, icewine, stout, beer, small beer, imperial stout, India pale ale, and bock.

It is clearly a mug’s game, but . . .

Apparently very clear and important information, although much cited, has been largely misunderstood or overlooked. British Library MS Royal 12D17 was published in 1851 by Thomas Cockayne. This manuscript, commonly referred to as Leechdoms, from a bit of the title of Cockayne’s multi-volume work, provides a seemingly clear picture of the relative specific gravities of water, win, beor, and ealu, and so, as most home brewers would see immediately, a fairly clear idea of sweetness, and perhaps, of alcohol content, of the beverages familiar to the author of Royal 12D17. There certainly would have been regional variations we may never understand in beverages produced by the Anglo-Saxons, but very clear information seems to have survived about one particular suite of libations:

Pund eles gewihð xii penegum læsse þonne pund wætres & pund ealoð gewihð vi penegum mare þonne pund wætres & 1 pund wines gewihð xv penegum mare þonne 1 pund wætres & 1 pund huniges gewihð xxxiiii penegum mare þonne pund wætres & 1 pund buteran gewihð lxxx penegum læsse þonne pund wætres & pund beores gewihð xxii penegum læsse þonne pund wætres & 1 pund melowes gewihð vi penegum læsse cxv þonne pund wætres & 1 pund beana gewihð lv penegum læsse þonne pund wætres & xv pund1 wætres gaþ to sestre.2
— Cockayne, Leechdomes, Wortcunning and Starcraft of Early England, volume II, p. 298

If one concludes, as may seem reasonable given the long history of 240 pence to the pound, whatever the actual weight indicated by “pund”, that there are 240 “penegum” to a “pund”, then it is a quite simple of matter of arithmetic to work out specific gravities of the Royal MS’s beor, ealu, and win:

Water: 240 penegum ÷ 240 penegum = 1.00
Beor: 218 penegum ÷ 240 penegum = 0.90
Ealu: 246 penegum ÷ 240 penegum = 1.025
Win: 255 penegum ÷ 240 penegum = 1.0625

Ann Hagen (p. 200) and Christine Fell (p. 84, etc.) argue that Beor is a sweet drink, “sweeter than wine, ale, or skim milk” (Hagen p. 200). If the Royal MS is accurate this cannot be the case: Beor, at a specific gravity of 0.908 must be very dry or, if sweet, impossibly high in alcohol. A modern wine is considered to be sweet at a specific gravity from 1.010 to 1.025. A modern wine of higher gravity is likely made from concord grapes and either sacramental or kosher. The Royal win was apparently a very sweet wine and ealu either very sweet, very full bodied, or both. But Royal’s beor, no matter how high we might reasonably speculate its alcohol content, can never be argued to be a sweet beverage. Even at 40% alcohol, such a sweet modern drink as Cointreau measures at 1.040. At 0.908, Beor must have a sweetness equivalent to a modern dry wine or a strong beer such as an imperial stout or a barley wine.

Whatever the tastes may have been in other regions and periods of Anglo-Saxon England, at the time and place the information in Royal 12D17 was recorded – if accurate – the taste was for sweet wine and ealu and for dry, strong beor.

It must be noted that Hagen (p. 200) makes a patently false claim: “a port at twenty percent alcohol, even if sweet, will weigh noticably less than the same volume of water.” Despite the evidence of Cointreau mentioned above, I have myself tested Hagen’s claim with a nice bottle of Madeira standing in for the port she mentions. I measured the specific gravity of my Madeira by weighing equivalent volumes of both it and ordinary tap water and doing the simple arithmetic. The Madeira was noticeably heavier than was the water, despite the former’s 20% alcohol. Apparently Hagen neglected to consider that sugar is far, far heavier than alcohol and a small amount of sweetness easily outweighs a fairly high amount of alcohol.

 

Part Two

Revisiting the Land of Cockayne: A conversational effort

One evening (for the sake of the narrative I’m assuming it to have been an evening) I was sitting quietly reading Ann Hagen’s Anglo-Saxon Food and Drink when I was struck by a passage which included words “quoted” from Leechdoms:

An interesting passage from Leechdoms states that ‘a pint of ale weighs six pence more than a pint of water, and a pint of wine weighs 15 pence more . . . and a pint ofbeor weighs 22 pence less . . .’ (pund ealoð gewihð vi penegum þonne pund wætres & 1 pund wines gewihð xv penegum mare þonne 1 pund wætres . . . ond pund beores gewihð xxii penegum læsse þonne pund wætres). p. 200<

I’ll ignore for the moment the fact that the word “mare” has been dropped from Hagen’s transcription of the passage from Leechdoms – thing are dropped at times in every scriptorium.

As a homebrewer and home winemaker, I immediately recognized that if the numbers in this passage of Old English accurately represented a Medieval reality, it would be only a matter of simple arithmetic to roughly calculate the alcohol content of Anglo-Saxon ale, wine, and beor. Hagen is correct in stating “if we could be sure of the volume of an Anglo-Saxon pint, and weighed it against some Anglo-Saxon pennies, it would be possible to discover the alcohol content of beor”(p. 200) provided we can trust the numbers provided by the Anglo-Saxon scribe, but we may not need to know the volume of that old pint. But Hagen makes a sad and incorrect assumption when she states that “Alcohol weighs only four-fifths of the same volume of water, and a port at twenty percent alcohol, even if sweet, will weigh noticeably less than the same volume of water.” (p. 200) In fact, I have conducted the experiment and found that a nice Madeira (a convenient stand-in for Port), sweet by any standard, weighs 14% more than an equal volume of water. Even and extremely high alcohol liqueur such as Cointreau, at 40% alcohol, has a specific gravity of 1.04, making even such a high alcohol sweet beverage noticeably heavier than water.

Obviously, between transcription error and easily tested and dismissed false assumption, I was not going to take Hagen at her word for what was in Leechdoms – I both sought out the original passage she quotes and decided to do my own arithmetic.

The arithmetic first. Not being certain of the weight of the Anglo-Saxon penny or pound or the volume of the pound (pint), I thought, why not just assume for a moment that a pound (pint) is a measurement of both weight and volume. Furthermore, why not assume that there are a very British 240 pennies in a pund. One could run the numbers and see what one finds out.

As preliminary, lets look at ealu:

One pund of ealu equals 1 pund six pennies of water. If we assume that the six pennies are 6/240 of the pund of water, that would give ealu a specific gravity of 1.025, which is roughly equivalent to a Russian Imperial Stout.

So far so good. What about wine and beor? Long story short: Wine, 1.0625, Beor 0.95. These numbers put Beor into an American “lite” lager range and wine becomes something very sweet, in the range of a Reisling Icewine.

Hagen’s conclusions, based largely on evidence from other texts, in contrast, are that beor was sweeter than wine, ale, or skim milk. Furthermore, she argues that was probably dry (p. 295). As mentioned, Hagen is drawing on many other lines of evidence than just the specific gravity measurements recorded in Leechdoms.

But why such a disparity?

Well, as it turns out, the numbers recorded in Leechdoms are manifestly and obviously inaccurate and unreliable, but to see this one must actually look at the entire passage rather than (mis)quoting an expurgated version from a secondary source, which Hagen has apparently done.

Christine Fell, in “Old English Beor” (Leeds Studies in English, 8(1975), p. 84, quotes the same passage from Leechdoms, with the same ellipsis Hagen includes (excludes?). Clearly Hagen didn’t bother in this instance to go back to Cockayne’s 1851 edition which she cites. If one examines the complete list of comparative weights in Cockayne’s edition (as I have), one finds that there can be little certainty about any of the numbers or comparative weights, and one is left with little more than a word list.

Pund eles gewihð xii penegum læsse þonne pund wætres & pund ealoð gewihð vi penegum mare þonne pund wætres & 1 pund wines gewihð xv penegum mare þonne 1 pund wætres & 1 pund huniges gewihð xxxiiii penegum mare þonne pund wætres & 1 pund buteran gewihð lxxx penegum læsse þonne pund wætres & pund beores gewihð xxii penegum læsse þonne pund wætres & 1 pund melowes gewihð vi penegum læsse cxv þonne pund wætres & 1 pund beana gewihð lv penegum læsse þonne pund wætres & xv pund1 wætres gaþ to sestre.2

— Cockayne, Leechdomes, Wortcunning and Starcraft of Early England, volume II, p. 298.

 

Part Three

In For a Penny, In For a Pound: a lot of numbers

Leechdoms lists Oil, Ale, Wine, Honey, Butter, Beor, Meal, and Beans. In the following chart I compare the Leechdoms’ specific gravity numbers to modern measurements. Oil, Honey, and Butter are fairly safe comparisons. Beans and Meal are less safe as there is no indication of what type of meal or beans is meant and the state of dryness (which makes a very significant difference of specific gravity for beans) is unknown. The Oil numbers look very promising, but both the Honey and particularly the Butter numbers are quite far from expectation. Leechdoms says honey weighs 34 pennies more than water and butter weighs 80 less but honey actually weighs 40% more than water and butter weighs just 9% less. I can see no way to reconcile these numbers from Leechdoms’ with physical reality, no matter the weight of the Anglo-Saxon Pennies and Pund.

               Leechdoms5               Actual

Oil          0.95                         0.92 (Olive)
Ale         1.025                        ?
Wine     1.0625                      ?
Honey   1.14                          1.4
Butter   0.666                         0.959
Beor      0.908                         ?
Meal      0.975                        0.61 (Oatmeal)
Beans    0.77                          0.64 (Fresh, Fava) 0.908 (Dry)

When examined in their textual context, it becomes clear that the apparent specific gravities preserved in Leechdoms, if they were ever to any degree accurate, have become garbled into hopeless inaccuracy in textual transmission.

 

Part Four

The Incredible Lightness of Being an Old-Style Philologist

 

The proper response to the hero on the beach is likely not a recognition of a familiar literary convention, but the recognition of a situation intimately known to every individual — for every [one] is at some point in [their] life “on the beach.”

— Me, “The Critic on the Beach,” Neophilologus 71 (1987), 118.

A long time ago I wrote a very pretentious and apparently unpublishable paper titled “Playing Ball on the Road to Xibalba: The Hero on the Beach and Faith in Eternal Life in the Popul Vuh, Arnold’s Dover Beach, and The Wanderer”. It was a study of what had first been described as an “oral-formulaic theme” in Old English poetry, but with the passage of scholarly time, the object of study came to be discovered so widely that if had become clear that the Emperor was somewhat underdressed, if he were an emperor at all, as I came to demonstrate in “The Critic on the Beach”. After an epigraph of a few lines from Arnold’s poem, I began my unacceptable piece with:

I can well remember sitting one evening in a cafe with friends discussing some books I’d just bought, including a copy of Virgil’s Eclogues. At the time I had been expending a good deal of energy wrestling with the concept of the Hero on the Beach, a staple of Old English oral-formulaic theory. It was with a certain amount of surprise that while reading aloud from Virgil my friends and I discovered that the old Roman poet had used the same elements in the same combination that Old English poets were thought to have used. I had by that time already finished a paper on the Hero on the Beach in The Wanderer and I had considered my little work to be modestly revolutionary, taking, as it did, the theme to be more metaphorical, or even allegorical, than merely descriptive. But here we had stumbled onto something much more revolutionary: Virgil seemed to be anticipating the Old English convention by about a millennium. Even if one does not accept the bilingual pun suggested by my friends in their paper on the subject, there is a suggestion of something not yet fully understood about the Hero on the Beach.

I went on for close to thirty pages and fifty-something footnotes referencing and/or quoting at length the popular music of Jane Siberry and The Bangles, the Quiché Maya epic The Popul Vuh, Eliot’s Prufrock, Sophocles’ Antigone, and, perhaps most satisfyingly, my own published scholarly work. It’s a rambling, impressionistic piece which concludes, after a few more cups of coffee and tea:

One of the first incidents which lead me to question the conventional view of the Hero on the Beach occurred as I sat at a traffic light with an old friend I had not seen for some months. We were at a crossroads, about to turn from a country road onto the main road into the city. As I sat, I realized that we were ourselves “on the beach”. The question in my mind became, is the significance of the theme dependent on the details being written down, on being described? Or can the details be significant on their own? It has been recently that I have seen that the details make up a vitally malleable situation, a situation which is magically able to express a perhaps infinite number of profound meanings, often a number of meanings in a single work. In the three works discussed in the present study, the Hero on the Beach is a means of expressing a faith which must necessarily be a paradox: a faith in a form of eternal existence in the face of a painfully evident human mortality. Whether the theme’s ability to express profound meaning is merely a wide-spread coincidence or a result of the inherent wiring of the human brain is a question I do not feel qualified to address. But it should be pointed out that C. G. Jung suggested that there is an underlying principal in man’s universe which leads to “meaningful coincidences.” Perhaps my discoveries in the cafe with Virgil, while listening idly to music, and while sitting at traffic lights are examples of Jung’s synchronicity. The speculation tells us little about The Wanderer as an independent entity, but it suggests a wealth of questions about The Wanderer, and literature in general, as expressions of mankind’s relationship with, and understanding of his universe. These questions might never have been asked if the Hero on the Beach had continued to be studied only in the context of Old English poetry.

Of rejection letters I’ve received over the years, one of those I received for “Playing Ball on the Road to Xibalba” stands out as my favourite because of the included anonymous peer reviewer’s comments. They are truly a wonderfully funny piece of literature, and so, I include most of them:

On the validity of the argument, dependability of the method and data:

This is a shockingly untheorized paper. There is no sense (at all) of where things are going or why. I did like the informal style, however inappropriate for an academic discussion, since it is lively and irreverent. But underneath all the fizz, there lurks an old-style philologist with an old-style textual problem: He has discovered some analogies and wants the world to know. One might, in the author’s personal mode, compare the procedure to an [sic] weary beachcomber, staggering along, dried up in the sun, rancid from the heat, but spraying himself with Old Spice. (He could also be imagined, given the egotistic self-reference of the discussion, as singing love-songs to himself.) There is simply no concpetual [sic] map provided here. Why are analogies significant? Do they show something about the commanalities [sic]/banalities of the human “wiring”? Or merely the restrictions of a narrow genre (if the hero is on the beach without a bright light then he isn’t a HERO ON THE BEACH but something else, like Leopold Bloom or Edgar, perhaps)? Or an archetype? But if the latter, there should be empirical, as well as textual, evidence to show its true universality.

On the style:

The author’s style is informal and self-referential, but lively. There is some fizz (but lots of fluff) to decorate the dead(ly) body of philology. The chief objection to the paper is more a question of method than style; it lacks any theoretical grounding, it is mapless, it doesn’t even seem to be aware of the problems (some interesting) that it touches upon but does not take up. . .

Well. This was the 1980s when Theory had at last become fully ensconced and fortified in Academia, and I was about to give my academic sandals a few good shakes and move on to fresh forests and pastures new. Academia had determined that the time for young Old Philologists had passed.

But now I am become old, and I find I like being an old philologist, with leisure and no ties to the fashions and fetters of theory-bound academia. A philologist is a bit of a magpie. A philologist outside academia is a free-range magpie, able to gather information where ever fancy is struck. Because I am a homebrewer, I recognized the potential of that old list in Leechdoms. Being a philologist, I dug into the source. Unlike many contemporary scholars, who seem to merely quote each other’s references rather than consulting the primary sources, I looked at Cockayne’s full transcription. And I did the arithmetic. And I conducted actual real-world experiments. And out of the happy fizz and fluff, I drew some conclusions: Leechdoms is unreliable as evidence of the character of Anglo-Saxon drink; theory is no substitute for the leisurely collection of and rumination on evidence; theory is too often a hammer for which everything must be a nail; there is still lots of beach combing waiting for an old-style philologist.

Pass the Old Spice, please.

We have to go down deep to play this game of literature and literary criticism. But it is a game, a game of searching for questions and then searching for answers. I think that anonymous reviewer knew well that it is a game, and I take his playful comments less as criticism and more as a hat tip to a fellow player. But his apparent dismissal of old-style philology troubles me. “These questions might never have been asked if the Hero on the Beach had continued to be studied only in the context of Old English poetry.” Or only in the context of theory. Or only in the context of reused quotes from tertiary sources. Experiments call out to be conducted. Old texts wait to be read and reread. Arithmetic must be done and redone. And, always, we sit on the shoulders of a vast and various army of giants.

The poetry that goes by this misleading and unfortunate title attracts occasionally from afar people of various sort — philologists, historians, folklorists, and others of that kidney, but also poets, critics, and connoisseurs of new literary sensations. The philologists (in a wide sense) have as usual done most of the work, and their ardour has not more than usual (probably less than in Beowulf ) been diverted from at least intelligent appreciation of the literary value of these documents.

It is unusually true here that a real judgement and appreciation of these poems — whose obscurity and difficulty is such that only the devoted labour of many philologists has made them available — is dependent on personal possession of a knowledge of the critical, metrical, and linguistic problems. Without the philologist, of course, we should not know what many of the words meant, how the lines ran, or what the words sounded like: this last is in old Scandinavian verse of possibly more importance even than usual. . .

— J. R. R. Tolkien, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, p. 16.

Now and then we each bring a little tidbit to the meticulously crafted groaning board of human expression. I am happy with participation, whether it ends in rejection or acceptance. I have no interest in throwing over the banquet table of the ages in favour of a rickety TV tray of this week’s theory. If I am to sit at this banquet, on the shoulders of these giants, I would prefer to look to the horizon now and then as I pick at the philological crumbs on their bibs, rather than turn my blindfolded eyes to a wall, untouched by experiment, trailing flatulent clouds of theory.

 

______________________

1Cockayne reads pund here as an error for yntsan, “ounce”.

2Cockayn has note: “Sexterius medicinalis habet uncias decem. Plin. Valer. Pref.”

3Cockayne reads pund here as an error for yntsan, “ounce”.

4Cockayn has note: “Sexterius medicinalis habet uncias decem. Plin. Valer. Pref.”

5Based on 240 pennies to the pund.

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I’ve Been Thinking About the End of the World

 It seemed to me that I had happened upon humanity upon the wane. The ruddy sunset set me thinking of the sunset of mankind. For the first time I began to realize an odd consequence of the social effort in which we are at present engaged . . . .
— H. G. Wells, The Time Machine

An image has haunted me since at least some time after my eleventh birthday when a school chum gave me a lovely one volume copy of The Time Machine and The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells:

A steady twilight brooded over the earth. And the band of light that had indicated the sun had, I now noticed, become fainter, had faded indeed to invisibility in the east, and in the west was increasingly broader and redder. The circling of the stars growing slower and slower had given place to creeping points of light. At last, some time before I stopped, the sun, red and very large, halted motionless upon the horizon, a vast dome glowing with a dull heat. The work of the tidal drag was accomplished. The earth had come to rest with one face to the sun even as in our own time the moon faces the earth.

The Time Machine (1895 version)

This image of the ancient sun, “a vast dome glowing with dull heat” rests forever on my mind and returns for me in readings as an instant image of the last days of a world, if not devoid of life, emptied of living humanity and, most likely, cleansed by time even of human artifact.

Wells, of course, as a man of science, grounded his description in rational predictive extrapolation from known geological and astrophysical principals. But even such a hopelessly unscientific fellow as C. S. Lewis (his Cosmic Trilogy notwithstanding) conjured this same bloated sun when he needed a bit of shorthand for a world on its death-bed. Consider Chapter V of the penultimate Chronicle of Narnia, The Magician’s Nephew:

Much more light than they had yet seen in that country was pouring in through the now empty doorway, and when the Queen led them out through it they were not surprised to find themselves in the open air. The wind that blew in their faces was cold, yet somehow stale. They were looking from a high terrace and there was a great landscape spread out below them.

Low down and near the horizon hung a great red sun, far bigger than our sun. Digory felt at once that it was also older than ours: a sun near the end of its life, weary of looking down upon that world. To the left of the sun, and higher up, there was a single star, big and bright. Those were the only two things to be seen in the dark sky; they made a dismal group. And on the earth, in every direction, as far as the eye could reach, there spread a vast city in which there was no living thing to be seen. And all the temples, towers, palaces, pyramids, and bridges cast long, disastrous-looking shadows in the light of the withered sun. Once a great river had flowed through the city, but the water had long since vanished, and it was now only a wide ditch of grey dust.

So many echoes of Wells. But here is added the dead, empty city. A world at its end, humanity and, indeed, life wiped away, but still humanity’s works stand mighty.

Almost a century before Well’s Time Machine and far in time from Lewis’ dead city under a swollen sun, the poet Shelley and his friend Horace Smith challenged each other to compose a sonnet on the subject of some newly discovered bits of Egyptian statuary. The result of the challenge was, on Smith’s side, a sadly overshadowed and forgotten poem, and on Shelley’s, Ozymandias, one of the world’s greatest elegies to humanity’s doomed striving against entropy. “Look upon my works ye mighty and despair!” Despair indeed, for these great works, intended and expected to last an eternity, have been reduced to dust in a few dozen lifetimes. One can almost see the red giant sun looming over Shelley’s antique land, as it looms over each of us, doomed to age and die on an aging Earth.

And Smith’s sonnet more explicitly tells us to consider our entropic future:

. . . some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London Stood, holding the wolf in Chace,
He meets some fragment huge and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

I think of an inversion of Conrad’s Marlow in Heart of Darkness sitting on the deck of the Nellie and intoning into the London night “This too [again will be] one of the dark places of the earth.” Smith’s hunter stands like John in New York, in Benet’s “By the Waters of Babylon”, like Charlton Heston’s Taylor in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty in The Planet of the Apes. So many apocalypses.

Most often at the ends of these worlds there is a survivor to observe “the lone and level sands.” The Time Traveler sees the final snows of Earth’s condensing atmosphere; Polly and Digory look on the bloated sun and empty city of the Witch’s world; Matthew Arnold and his unnamed love stand at the window hearing the “long, withdrawing roar” of the sea of faith in “Dover Beach”. But there is one notable but little-noted work in which not a single human observer survives in the landscape of apocalypse. In 1920, the dark shadow of the trenches still brooding on Europe’s collective mind, Sara Teasdale gave us a beautiful and hopeless little poem usually titled “There will come Soft Rains”:

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white,

Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

The first septet (save the fence wire) is all wild nature. The wire in line 6 and the war in line 7 are the pivot of the piece. Most of the last three couplets is about absent humanity: “war”, “mankind”, “we”. But “we” are not in the landscape. We have left the landscape to nature, and nature is indifferent. Unlike so many other imaginings of human autumn and winter, Teasdale allows of no survivors in her vision. Where Horace Smith imagined a future hunter, Shelley a traveler from an antique land, Wells a traveler in time, Lewis children with world-jumping magic,, and Arnold a meaningless meaning of faithfulness to a companion in a faithless world, Teasdale does not shy away from a world with neither humanity nor human meaning.

Teasdale’s audacity is a rare thing. Think of Ray Bradbury’s post-nuclear-holocaust story titled after Teasdale’s poem. Bradbury’s 1950 “There will come soft rains”, part of his The Martian Chronicles, tells the story of the final days of an automated house, emptied of humanity by nuclear war. As in Teasdale’s poem, the landscape contains only nature and humanity’s artifacts, no humanity. But Bradbury does not allow himself to fully face humanity’s extinction. In the universe of The Martian Chronicles, humanity survives as a small colony on Mars, and , Bradbury expresses an extreme optimism in the title of the next and final story of the Chronicles: humanity’s stay on Mars will be “The Million Year Picnic”.

Evidently it is a difficult thing to imagine, as Teasdale somehow has, the absolute extinction of ourselves. As I’ve been considering this essay, I’ve looked back at a number of works and I found that complete pessimism is a rare thing. I made a little list of works, each with a flippant précis appended:

“Ozymandias” (Shelley/Smith, 1818) — Fortune’s Wheel turns.

The Last Man (Mary Shelley, 1826) — We are excruciatingly done!

The Time Machine (Wells, 1895) — It’ll be done a long, long, long time in the future and we’ll have an unimaginably long run.

“The Machine Stops” (E. M. Forster, 1909) — There’s light at the end of the tunnel.

“There will come soft rains” (Teasdale, 1920) — We’re done and the birds don’t care.

“Twilight” (John W. Campbell, 1934) — We’ll be done eventually, but we’ll build android replacements for ourselves.

Against the Fall of Night/The City and the Stars (Arthur C. Clark, 1948/1956) — Same tunnel as Forster’s, but a whole lot longer.


“There will come soft rains” (Bradbury, 1950) — We’re done for on Earth, but we’re picnicking on Mars!

The Magician’s Nephew (Lewis, 1955) — It’s done in that other place but we’re okay.

Wall-E (Disney/Pixar, 2008) — Everything’s going to be okay in the end!

I won’t draw any conclusions from the fact that the two totally pessimistic works on my list, the two utterly without the offer of hope, are the two written by women. I expect I could look through my library a moment and find something hopeless by a man and something hopeful by a woman. What I find more interesting is the apparent need to provide light at the end of the existential tunnel.


As I was pondering the end of the world, I came across philosopher John Leslie’s The End of the World: The Science and Ethics of Human Extinction (1996) which discusses at length the likelihood that a particular individual – you or I, for example – would be kicking around closer to the beginning or the end of humanity’s run on the planet. I won’t get into the argument in any detail at all, but basically Leslie demonstrates that we’re most likely living close to the end of our run on earth. But, interestingly, Leslie still seems to find hope for our future, that we will outwit probability. Even after a few hundred pages of careful argument of mathematical probabilities, the philosopher desperately clutches at the straws of optimism.


As I read Leslie’s book I came to realize that his probabilistic argument rests on a continued expansion of human population to 10 billion and it remaining there until 2250. I couldn’t help thinking of the closing pages of Colin Tudge’s The Time Before History (1996) in which he argues that if humanity could drastically reduce its numbers by a voluntary two-children-or-less policy, then humanity’s run on earth could last indefinitely and with a high standard of living for all. Such a future would offer far more individuals a happy life than would continued population increase to the point of crash and/or extinction. Again there is hope, if we can control our disastrous drive to spawn large numbers of children.


I also, sadly, found myself reading Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us (2007), ostensibly a scientifically grounded speculation into what the world would be like if humanity disappeared as in Teasdale’s poem. What a hopeless piece of writing! As well as being rife with factual error and bad writing, this is a book with a social agenda that is not susceptible to argument. It pretends to be “What if?” but is actually, “This, Gentle Reader, is NOW, you selfish pig! You’re the problem! And when it really comes down to it, I don’t care about science!” A toxic Trojan horse of a book. And, to top it off, on page 272, in a typically ill-constructed (and cruelly compulsory) sentence, Weisman paraphrases Tudge, whom he never once cites:

“. . . henceforth limit every human female on Earth capable of bearing children to one.”

Compare Tudge’s hopeful argument, an optimistic argument based not simply upon a dread of Wells’ “huge red-hot dome of the sun” glowing over an empty future earth, but rather on humanity’s better angels:

In practice, common sense plus the experience of the past few decades shows that several preconditions must be met if the two-child family is to become the norm worldwide, all of which are difficult in practice, but are conceptually undramatic. First, all efforts must be made to minimize infant mortality. People must know that two children out of two are liable to survive. Second, everyone worldwide needs a pension, so that they do not need to rely upon their children when they stop working. Third, the trend in rich countries toward earlier and earlier retirement must be reversed, for if people retire earlier and the birth rate goes down, then within a couple of decades or less, we will find there are too few young recruits for the job market and indeed that only a small minority of the population is actually working. . . . As modern family planners say, the point is not to coerce but to empower. Coercion is obviously undesirable, but modern experience shows that it is also unnecessary.

The Time Before History, p. 320.

Tudge’s hopeful vision is awfully attractive: A world in which couples are happy with one or two or no children, where being single carries no stigma, where society smiles equally on all the small, happy, healthy, prosperous families, where humanity and nature both have a long life ahead of them on a green and pleasant Earth.

I hope there will come soft rains to that Earth, falling gently on both birds and humans. And I hope, in that fine future, and in this difficult present, every human will very much mind if any bird or tree perishes utterly, whatever the birds and trees might think about us.

Seventy of My Favourite Books and Why You Shouldn’t Read Them

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The Internet seems cluttered with lists of books. Prescriptive lists of books. Thirty books every man should read by such and such an age. The one hundred best books ever. Twenty-seven must-read books about Medieval tapestries. Lists of various celebrities’ favourite books.

I hate those lists. To me “You should read” is a complete sentence and the only and most detailed imperative about reading necessary in polite society. No object is needed there. As soon as “this” or a book title is added, I turn off. One’s reading history is intensely personal. If you consider “you should read this because it had an important effect on me” to be a worthwhile recommendation, then aren’t you conforming more than a little? Aren’t you thinking at some level “I want to be just a little like the person recommending the book, I want to feel what they felt, I want to have their shape”?

I have been shaped by the thousands and thousands of things I have read over the last half century. You have been shaped by the things you have read. I have no interest in giving you a list of the books that have formed me and saying “these are Must-Read books!” any more than I have an interest in conforming to some Internet dweeb’s idea of the Thirty Books that Make a Real Man. I find book clubs a sort of interruption in my reading journey. I don’t generally want my reading choices made by others. I want my past and present reading to lead organically to my future reading. I don’t want a visitor from Porlock to interrupt my blissful journey to Xanadu.

I wish everyone felt that way.

As an exercise, perhaps in absurdity, and as a sort of illustration, I’ve made an annotated list of some of my favourite books. These are not Must-Read books. Some are not great books or maybe even good books. Most people would find many of them dull and in a few cases, completely unreadable. A good number are in “dead” languages. But they are books that helped make me the person I am today.

Please, if you take anything from this list, be inspired to follow your own unique, quirky, unashamedly self-guided trajectory through the magnificent, infinite Library of Human Feeling and Knowledge.

I have tried to limit myself to one book per author, but have not always succeeded. If I don’t mention a translator of some non-English books it’s because I can manage that language, often to my surprise. If I may impolitely suggest, the first duty of a serious reader is to learn another language. Regularly and repeatedly.

The List, in no particular order

1. Challenge of the Stars, Patrick Moore and David Hardy

Hardy’s space art in this book was my first inspiration to pick up a brush and a tube of paint. Perhaps enough said.

2. Intelligent Life in the Universe, I. S. Shklovskii and Carl Sagan. Russian translation by Paula Fern.

A book by Carl Sagan had to be on this list, and this odd Cold War collaboration had to be the one. This book revealed to me when I was about thirteen years old the beauty and wonder of the poetry of Yeats. And the book is also full of all sorts of beautiful and wondrous scientific space stuff!

3. The Ascent of Man, Jacob Bronowski

I have written at length about Bronowski’s masterpiece elsewhere, so, a link.

4. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Tolkien/Gordon edition.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is perhaps the finest poem of winter in English, although its English is awfully difficult for most modern readers. Although available in many translations, nothing compares to the real thing.

5. The Exeter Book

The Exeter Book is the largest surviving collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry, a magnificent cross section of the types and qualities of poetry produced in the Old English period. The short poem modernly titled “The Wanderer” is recognized as one of the great achievements of World Literature, and the book is packed with gems both long and short, enough verse riddles to keep Bilbo and Gollum guessing for days, and, perhaps my favourite, a beautiful, melancholy, fragmented piece of poetry modernly titled “The Ruin”.

6. The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien

The Lord of the Rings is the single book that led me directly to study Old English poetry. And, the sustained epic vision in Tolkien’s works was such a refreshing tonic to C. S. Lewis’ annoying Narnia books!

7. The Road to Xanadu, John Livingston Lowes

The Road to Xanadu is a breathtaking piece of scholarship. In meticulous detail, Lowes researches and reconstructs Coleridge’s reading that was distilled into “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. Lowes sources everything in the poems, down to individual words, exhibiting the poet as a great synthesizer, an arithmetician creating magical new and greater sums from startlingly disparate parts. A simply remarkable and artful piece of scholarship.

8. The Odyssey, Homer, Robert Fitzgerald’s translation

The Odyssey is so rich, and so earthy, and so totally human. Every reading is exhilarating.

9. Aeneidos, Liber Sextus, Virgil, edited by R. G. Austin

This favourite is actually a favourite physical object, my own copy of Austin’s edition of Book Six of the Aeneid. This is the book in which I first read epic poetry in Latin. This is the book in which I discovered Cumae and Lake Avernus, and the Golden Bough and the gates of horn and ivory. This is the book which caused me to shout “Cumae!” from the back of the van on the Italian highway when the Director asked “We’ve a free weekend coming up. Does anyone have anywhere they’d particularly like to see?” This book was absolutely vital in the making of present day me, but it would be absurd for me to say this is a Must-Read book for anyone other than 1981 me.

10. History of the Conquest of Mexico, William H. Prescott

Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico is a tour de force of historiography (as is his History of the Conquest of Peru). More than a century old, it remains a wonderful and eye-openingly informative understanding of the events that led to the fall of Tenochtitlan and the Aztec Empire under the assault of the well-armed infantry of rebellious vassal city-states and a rag-tag few dozen vicious foreigners, veterans of the generations-long crusade against the Moors in the Iberian Peninsula.

11. Incidents of Travel in Central America, John Lloyd Stephens

Together with Stephens’ Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, this is an exciting travelogue of the first English-speaking traveller (with literary ability) to visit the ruins of Classic Maya cities. Catherwood’s illustrations are somewhat fanciful, but are sometimes remarkable in their reproduction of Maya inscriptions, which were unreadable at the time. When driving through Chiapas in the early 1990’s I often thought of Stephens’ writings and of Catherwood’s illustrations.

12. The Myth of the Eternal Return, Mircea Eliade, translated by Willard R. Trask

Eliade’s writings on the History of Religions influenced my thoughts immensely when I was younger. While I’ve come to realize that Eliade was a “creative” scholar and to be taken with a large grain of salt, I still find his ideas and inferences to be thought-provoking.

13. Guns, Germs, & Steel, Jared Diamond

A great popular synthesis of modern understandings of what, largely geographic, circumstances led to the European colonial dominance over Africa and the Americas.

14. Goedel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Douglas Hofstadter

Goedel, Escher, Bach is a simply exquisite piece of writing. I don’t know what more to write.

Hofstadter’s later book, Le ton bon de Marot, largely about translation and its challenges, is also a favourite of mine.

15. Paradise Lost, John Milton

Epic. In English. What’s not to like?

16. The Tempest, William Shakespeare

It might seem like a hard prospect, choosing a single favorite Shakespeare play, but really, it’s not for me. The Tempest is a tireless piece, whether it’s on stage at Freewill or in Christopher Plummer’s stunning Stratford performance, or Julie Taymor’s film with Helen Mirren, or Paul Mazursky’s brilliant modern adaptation with John Cassavetes. Simply tireless and of unplumbable depth. The Tempest is a play to be enjoyed and explored for a lifetime.

17. The Real Thing, Tom Stoppard

The Real Thing is so full of great Stoppard lines! Again, a play I never tire of.

18. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon

Another tour de force of Historiography. And Gibbon is a brilliant prose stylist.

19. The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury

Mars the way it was supposed to be. Dying Martian civilization, square-jawed colonists from Earth, breathable atmosphere, canals. Science Fiction that concentrates on the Fiction.

20. Dune, Frank Herbert

The first book in this never-ending series is the best. Always re-readable.

21. Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake

Peake, painter and poet as well as novelist, is a startling writer. His prose is poetry and intensely visual. The writing in Titus Groan is so beautiful that it’s a pure joy to read, however weird the characters, setting, and plot. Peake’s description early in the book of the Grey Scrubbers who clean the Great Kitchen of Castle Gormenghast is beautiful, melancholy and brain-etching.

22. The Monk, Matthew Lewis

Brilliant Gothic terror! The Monk is simply gripping.

23. The Golem, Gustav Meyrink, translated by Mike Mitchell

Like The Monk, The Golem is a brilliant piece of fright writing, but more understated than The Monk. The Golem is one of the few books that has actually sent a shiver down my spine.

24. A High Wind in Jamaica, Richard Hughes

A children’s book for not faint-at-heart children. Real pirates, real kidnapping, real danger, and really strong drink! And real fun!

25. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

The moment when Marlow says “And this also, has been one of the dark places of the earth” forever changes one’s perspective on so many things.

26. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett

Not so much a favourite because it changed my opinion on anything, but that Dennett articulates things so well.

27. On The Origin Of Species, Charles Darwin

The first edition of On The Origin Of Species is a wonderful piece of clarity and all the exposition needed of what really is a totally obvious thing: descent with variation together with variable reproductive success inevitably produces evolution.

28. Voltaire’s Bastards, John Ralston Saul

Saul exposes our contemporary society as a system run by management consultants for whom management theory is everything and humanity is irrelevant. A terrifying dystopia we’ve come to accept unquestioningly.

29. Project Apollo: Mission to the Moon, Charles Coombs

This is the first library book that I wanted to own a copy of. My father generously ordered it from some bookstore in Downtown Sudbury, Ontario when I was about nine years old. My first Space Book.

30. The Gilgamesh Trilogy, Ludmilla Zeman

Ludmilla Zeman’s trilogy is simply beautiful. Zeman’s illustrations of her retelling for children of the Gilgamesh Epic are wonderfully evocative of a mythic time of great cities in a mysterious wilderness world.

31. Tom Jones, Henry Fielding

One of the funniest novels ever written.

32. Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne

Even funnier than Tom Jones. And daringly experimental.

33. The Once and Future King, T. H. White

Here is where I first experienced the Arthurian tales. And White’s novel is grand and eccentric. When I read it as a boy it was a wonderful challenge and was so when I read it again as an adult.

34. English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Francis James Child, editor

The Child Ballads are a tremendous archive of folk song material collected from throughout England and Scotland in the 19th century while the traditions were still fully alive. Child presents multiple variants of most of the ballads as well as the vast scholarly apparatus so loved by the Victorians and me.

35. The Oresteia, Aeschylus, translated by Richmond Lattimore and David Grene

The raw, fundament of the Western dramatic tradition. Primal and stirring.

36. The Crazy Ladies of Pearl Street, Trevanian

I simply love the novels of Trevanian, one of the most overlooked English language novelists. A brilliant and versatile writer, in his final (maybe) novel, he lovingly recreates his childhood in Albany in the 1930s. Lovely, loving, sad, sweet, sunlit and hilarious.

37. Theogony, Hesiod, Richmond Lattimore’s translation

The raw beginnings of Western Literature, a rustic farmer on a mountainside calling on the Muses of true lies to tell about the still-close primeval world of the gods and goddesses.

38. The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, edited by F. N. Robinson

Chaucer’s voice is a joy, telling of very real and happily ordinary human beings finding laughter and even bliss in the gritty, smelly world of Medieval Europe. Chaucer’s English is fresh and his verse sings. It is impossible to tire of Chaucer.

39. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

Sure Steinbeck writes with a sledgehammer, but it’s a beautifully mythic sledgehammer and in The Grapes of Wrath it hammers out social(ist) justice and hope with a vengeance.

40. The Latin translations of Rolfe Humphries

Rolfe Humphries’ translation of The Metamorphoses was my first meeting with Ovid, and, despite the severe look of Humphries in the author photo on the back, Rolfe was certainly a playful enough fellow to make over Ovid (and Martial and Juvenal and Virgil and Lucretius) into English verse, and poet enough to make that verse poetry. Almost never slavishly literal, Humphries’ translations are most often audacious recreations, what the old poets might have written if they’d been writing in America in the ’50s.

41. The Poems, Catullus, edited by Kenneth Quinn

Catullus is a treasure, never more so than when he’s translating Sappho. I got this book in the summer of ’83, the summer I was digging Roman ruins, and I translated into English some of Catullus’ Latin translations of Sappho’s Greek.

42. The Passionate Friends or Mr. Blettsworthy on Rampole Island, H. G. Wells

I’m not sure that I really have a favourite Wells book. But The Passionate Friends is up there because of the moment in my life that I read it and Mr. Blettsworthy on Rampole Island is attractive because it is a very odd novel. Of course, Wells was always reinventing himself. It’s sad that he is now remembered mainly for his youthful Science Fiction novels and not for his more mature work in a multitude of genres.

43. Selections from Five Roman Poets

This little kind of Victorian-looking school text was were I first read truly connected Latin poetry, so, how could it help be a favourite?

44. Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader, 15th edition

And here is were I first read Old English. I well remember getting my texts in the summer before my sophomore year and thinking “I’ll get a head start!” I opened up Sweet’s to the first selection and, after a vast meadow of introductory matter in fine print, I saw this: “Her Cynewulf benam Sigebryht his rices ond Westseaxna wiotan for unryhtum daedum, buton Hamtunscire” and I thought “what have I gotten myself into?”

45. Wagner’s Ring, Robert Donington

I am not a musician, but Donington’s book made me feel like I deeply understood Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and that was quite a feeling.

46. Myth and Meaning, Claude Levi Straus

Isn’t it odd that a book by astrophysicists led me to the poetry of Yeats and a book by a French anthropologist led my to my almost religious reading of Scientific American from cover to cover each month? Strange, but true.

47. American Empire and the Fourth World, Anthony J. Hall

This is just a big, rich, eye-opening scholarly book about the history and future of the Americas.

48. I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, Crystal Zevon

This biography of the great Warren Zevon is fascinating. Crystal Zevon, Warren’s ex-wife, as well as writing a personal account of her late-husband’s life, managed to draw together reminiscences of those who knew him, both in the music industry and outside. The picture that emerges is of a brilliant musician and song-writer who had mental health issues, huge personality flaws, and problems with addiction, but remains lovable despite the warts and clay feet.

49. The Jeeves Books, P. G. Wodehouse

How could Wodehouse not be here?

50. Wonderful Life, Stephen J. Gould

Gould’s books always interested me. Wonderful Life opened my eyes to the idea that evolution is massively contingent on circumstance, and that rewinding the tape of life and letting it play again would not necessarily end with me sitting at my little computer listening to Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Wonderful Life is a bit of an exclamation mark to follow Darwin’s great theory: Evolution Is Aimless!

52. The Rebel Angels, Robertson Davies

This was my first encounter with Robertson Davies. The garlic press has stuck with me forever.

53. Norstrillia, Cordwainer Smith

The Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith was a revelation to me as a teen. His world was so richly foreign compared to the stuff I’d been reading by Asimov and Clarke and Larry Niven. This was a Science Fiction growing in soil that was not Anglo-American, and it was wonderful.

54. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley

Frankenstein and Dracula first came to me as a pair of paperbacks bought in Hudson’s department store in Detroit when I was not much more than ten. . . .

55. Dracula, Bram Stoker

. . . Dracula and Frankenstein will always stand together in my mind.

56. Time Enough for Love, Robert Heinlein

Heinlein is a hard one to call a favourite as he writes uncomfortable and unfashionable things about pedophilic incest and economic and social systems easily mistaken for fascism (it’s actually Social Credit he’s talking about). But Heinlein has to be on this list because I’ve spent so much damn time reading (almost) everything he’s written.

57. If on a winter night a traveller, Italo Calvino, translated by William Weaver

A fascinating experimental novel.

58. The Time Traveller’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger

I just really loved this book when I read it, although the age difference between the lovers at times in the novel was thought provoking and discomfiting.

59. Maya Cosmos, David Freidel, Linda Schele, and Joy Parker

I had to but a Linda Schele book on the list because she was in the thick of the breakthroughs in decipherment of Maya glyphs, a subject fascinating to me from childhood.

56. Backlash, Susan Faludi

A sad prediction of what was just beginning at the time Faludi wrote, the conservative backlash against the advances made by feminists up to the eighties. I’m not sure that the backlash has been as successful as she dreaded, but certainly we still aren’t in the non-sexist world I had hoped we would have built by now.

57. The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf

Not so much an eye-opener for me, but definitely a confirmation of what my open eyes were seeing.

58. The Cheese and the Worms, Carlo Ginsberg, translated by John and Anne Tedeschi

I might have chosen Ginsberg’s Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath, translated by Raymond Rosenthal, but The Cheese and the Worms was the first Ginsberg book I read, so let’s go with it. Ginsberg does this fascinating historiography by deeply examining a lives and thoughts of social outliers rather than of the traditional subjects of history, kings and generals. Marvelous stuff.

59. The Divine Comedy, Dante, translated by John Ciardi (for the felicity of the English) or by Charles S. Singleton (for the facing Italian)

No explanation should be needed.

60. Cantos, Ezra Pound

Pound’s Cantos had hung over me for decades since I read his translation of the Old English poem “The Seafarer” (the subject of my first academic publication). Finally I knuckled down and read the thing, mostly on a cruise ship off the coast of B. C. and Alaska, and it just felt good to finally know it.

61. Love Poems, Pablo Neruda

Everybody seems to rave about Neruda and I thought “Okay. Better read the fellow and see what the fuss is about. I found this pretty little volume with the Spanish on the left and English translation facing and soon realized I was reading the whole thing in Spanish, not realizing it had somehow become one of my languages. Neruda’s poetry is crushingly beautiful and earthy and beautifully simple and earthy. Just wonderful.

62. Collected Poems, Irving Layton

Speaking of earthy poetry. Layton’s is a perfect example of what Sir Maurice Bowra described as Prophetic Poetry. Interestingly, a few weeks ago, long after I first made the link between Layton’s poetry and Bowra’s lecture on Prophetic Poetry, I heard an old recording on CBC radio of Layton describing himself as a Prophet, and I did a little fist bump for myself.

63. The Nature of Paleolithic Art, R. Dale Guthrie

Not a well-known volume and probably not a well-accepted one, but I found Guthrie’s hypothesis about who actually made most European cave art (paleolithic teenage boys) to be compelling and his tentative first investigations (measuring the hands of people he knew) suggestive if not conclusive.

64. The Cyberiad, Stanislaw Lem, translated by Michael Kandel

In The Cyberiad, Lem anticipates so many of the issues being faced by Artificial Intelligence researchers it is remarkable. My reading of The Cyberiad in the late Seventies informed my understanding of so much of Star Trek: The Next Generation, of my readings of Hofstadter and Dennett (obviously), of my relationship to computer games, and of a particular philosophy course I took in the late eighties. The Cyberiad is pretty much constantly hovering in a corner of my waking mind.

65. The MLA Handbook, Joseph Gibaldi and Walter S. Achtert

This little book helped me survive the typing (yes, on a typewriter) of my Master’s thesis and of the manuscripts of all of my academic publications. Somewhat important.

66. A Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing, Casey Miller and Kate Swift

And this book helped me learn that non-sexist writing is more creative and more intelligent than just plugging in the status quo. A marvelous book that should be more widely available and more widely referenced.

67. Lyrical Ballads, 1798 Edition, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge

This little book contains so much that is so great, not least Wordsworth’s introduction. I treasure my copy.

68. Faust, Johan Wolfgang von Goethe. Walter Kaufman’s translation for the free flow and facing German, Stuart Atkins’ translation for rigid accuracy and completeness.

Goethe’s Faust is the rich and fertile soil on which so much of later literature grows. I just finished reading Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita and, as much as everyone says an understanding of Stalinist history is what is needed to fully understand that book, I can’t imagine reading it without some familiarity with Faust.

69. Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke

So much more sensible and rational and, dare I say, Enlightened, than Tom Paine’s emotional defense of the Revolution in Rights of Man.

70. The Bible, including The Apocrypha, King James Version, preferably.

Okay, here’s the exception that proves the rule: This is a Must-Read book. If you haven’t read The Bible, you simply cannot fully understand Western Literature composed on a date with an A.D. or a C. E. after the year. This is not a religious opinion. The Bible is one of the foundational pieces of Western Literature. That is all.

There.

Some of my favourite books.

Now go out and create your own list, and your own individual, unique self.

The Briefest of Thoughts on Canada Reads 2016 after the first day

Some exceptionally paraphrastic and subjective reactions to the Canada Reads 2016 shortlisted books after the first day of debate (maybe I’ll share more expansive thoughts in days to come):

Minister Without Portfolio by Michael Winter – I haven’t finished reading it yet, but my initial impression is very positive in a sort of David-Adams-Richards-depressive way.

Birdie by Tracey Lindberg – This was the first of the five titles I read and I found myself underwhelmed. I found it to be fairly unenthralling, not terribly engaging, and disappointing considering the positive things I’d heard.

Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz – The second book I read and I was enthralled. I totally felt it couldn’t be beaten, until

The Hero’s Walk by Anita Rau Badami – This is an engaging, enthralling, poetic, beautiful, bitter-sweet, realistic, lovely novel.  The Hero’s Walk is a novel of Classic quality that will be read for generations, whatever happens on Canada Reads.

The Illegal by Laurence Hill – For most of the time I was reading The Illegal I felt like I was reading a somewhat sophisticated version of one of Heinlein’s “Juvenile” science fiction novels.   I felt like Laurence Hill was wielding a sledge hammer of didactic message and a clumsy tissue of coincidence. Seriously: everyone is startlingly in the right place at the right time. Are there only ten people in this imaginary land?

In the end, leaving Minister Without Portfolio out of the discussion as it has been left out of the discussion, The Hero’s Walk by Anita Rau Badami is the finest novel on the Canada Reads 2016 short list, whatever its relation to the theme of “Starting Over” is seen to be.

Looking into Yeats has Repercussions, or, That Escalated Quickly

The other day I was reading a bit of Yeats. I’m not quite sure why my glance fell on his “A Thought from Propertius” nor why it was held. Perhaps the name Propertius caught my eye. Although I had at one time been mentored by a scholar of Propertius, I had never read a word of the man’s poetry. For some reason I had spent my time with Catullus and Tibullus.

Here is Yeats’ little thought from Propertius:

She might, so noble from head
To great shapely knees
The long flowing line,
Have walked to the altar
Through the holy images
At Pallas Athene’s Side,
Or been fit spoil for a centaur
Drunk with the unmixed wine.

Well! I had to do some searching and find out what old W. B. had read in Propertius’ Latin to inspire that lovely celebration of a particular woman!  After a bit of mucking about on the Internet, I pinned it down to the second elegy in Propertius’ second book of elegies, conveniently titled “Propertius II, ii”.  As I read the Roman boy’s Latin I thought, “Wow! William Butler really distilled the thing down to its bare essence!”  After spending a week or so with Propertius’ deeply mythical allusions — first while translating them into English verse while riding the LRT, then in just rolling the result around in my head — I think I can honestly say I prefer Propertius’ celebration of his lover.

Here’s what I jotted down on that rush hour train ride (Propertius’ Latin follows):

Propertius II, ii.

Free I was and was prepared
for life in an empty bed.
But now the peace I had composed
has been betrayed by Love.
Why does such a human form
loiter on this earth?
I, Jupiter, forgive you your
intrigues in ancient times.
Yellow her hair and long her hands,
her body statuesque.
When walking she is dignified
like the sister of high Jove,
or Pallas when she strides unto
Dulichium’s altars,
her breast concealed by gorgon head
and its snake-bearing locks.
And she is like Ischomache,
the Lapith heroine,
desired spoil of Centaurs’ rape
while they were in their cups.
Like Brimo when, by sacred font
of Boebeis, laid down
her virgin body, so it’s said
beside swift Mercury.
Now yield the contest, goddesses
whom in those ancient days
the shepherd saw take tunics off
up on Mount Ida’s heights.
And oh! may old age never have
the power to change that face
although she reach the span of life
of Cumae’s prophetess.

And, in Latin:

Liber eram et vacuo meditabar vivere lecto;
at me composita pace fefellit Amor.
cur haec in terris facies humana moratur?
Iuppiter, ignosco pristina furta tua.
fulva coma est longaeque manus, et maxima toto
corpore, et incedit vel Iove digna soror,
aut cum Dulichias Pallas spatiatur ad aras,
Gorgonis anguiferae pectus operta comis;
qualis et Ischomache Lapithae genus heroine,
Centauris medio grata rapina mero;
Mercurio satis fertur Boebeidos undis
virgineum Brimo composuisse latus.
cedite iam, divae, quas pastor viderat olim
Idaeis tunicas ponere verticibus!
hanc utinam faciem nolit mutare senectus,
etsi Cumaeae saecula vatis aget!

 

Creative Commons Licence

My translation of Propertius II, ii is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Like I need to tell you.

Love in The Bengali Night Does Not Die: Maitreyi Devi and Mircea Eliade

Imagine a story like this:

It’s 1930.  A twenty-something Romanian student with Fascist associations who happens to be quite fluent in French and has a bit of English arrives in Calcutta in British India to study with a renowned Bengali scholar.  The scholar takes an interest in the young European and invites him to stay at his home as a member of his large household.

The Bengali scholar’s sixteen-year-old daughter, herself already a revered poet and philosopher, becomes the object of the European’s fascination.  Over the course of a number of months of miscommunication across cultures, everyone speaking their second or third language but never their first, the two young people fall in love — or think they fall in love — which amounts to the same thing.  They visit her elderly guru, they witness the beginnings of the Indian Independence movement, they go to the theatre and see Ravi Shankar’s older brother dance.

Alas, her parents discover their star-crossed love in the delirious beri beri ravings of her younger sister.  Her father orders the young man out of the house and threatens to have him deported if he tries to contact his daughter.

The young man goes to a monastery in the Himalayas for a bit and eventually becomes an important scholar of world religions.

The young poet grows up to be an older poet, novelist, social activist, wife, mother, and grandmother.  Unknown to her, the object of her youthful infatuation, two decades after the events, writes a novel based on his experiences in Bengal.  Showing an unbelievable lack of judgement, while he gave himself a pseudonym in his novel, he uses her real name, and injects extra physical passion into the story.

The unfortunate lady does not know for another 20 years that she has been named by a famous man as his under-aged Bengali sex-partner.  Horrified by the distortions of her experience (it had not been a physical relationship), in 1974 she publishes a novel, forty-four years after the events, giving the true story.  Two years later she publishes her own English translation.  As well, she contacts the now old man and he agrees his novel will not be published in English until after her death.

And then, in 1988, a largely French team makes an English language film based on the European’s novel.  The film stars a young English actor destined to be famous both for his performances on stage and screen as well as public performances of a licentious nature on Sunset Boulevard.

Imagine a story like that!

Well, truth seems to be stranger than fiction.

In 1930, Mircea Eliade, Romanian, Fascist sympathizer, student of religions, and future professor at the University of Chicago, did, in fact, move into his professor’s house in Calcutta.  Eliade did spend time in the company of the then sixteen and already famous Maitreyi Devi.  The young friends did go to visit her elderly guru. The witnessed Indian Independence marches, and they did go to a performance of dancer Uday Shankar, sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar’s eldest brother.  And Eliade was asked to leave the house in some haste.

In 1950, Eliade published La nuit bengali.  It by agreement with Devi, it was not published in English until 1993, when it appeared as Bengal Nights.

In 1974, Devi published Na Hanyate and, in 1976, her English translation titled It Does Not Die.

And the film.

In 1988, French director Nicholas Klotz and French producer Philippe Diaz released their version called The Bengali Night, based on Eliade’s French novel, without any consideration of Devi’s novel.  The film stared Hugh Grant as the Eliade character, now a British Engineer building dams or something.  In 2009 an absolutely awful print of the film was packaged as a DVD.

Now, I’ll review these three versions of the same few months in the lives of Mercia and Maitreyi.

Bengal Nights by Mircea Eliade, translated by Catherine Spencer

Eliade’s work on Comparative Religions was a massive influence on my thinking as a young scholar.  He continues to be one of the giants upon whose shoulders I perch unsteadily.  I’ve long known about his early Fascist leanings.  Bengal Nights shows him to have been, at least in the first half of his life, a petty White man fully and unquestioningly steeped in an ugly colonial superiority, even after he falls in love with the “dark” Bengali girl.

The novel has little to recommend it as a novel.  It is a pedestrian version of the young summer love story that has been done thousands of times and usually far better, from Shakespeare to Trevanian.  Bengal Nights never rises to anything lyrical and is often ugly.  Perhaps it is never more ugly than when Eliade, at the end of the novel, goes off to the Himalayas to purify himself like a yogi on a mountain top, and finds cleansing in the bed of a blonde Nordic Valkyrie!

About the only interest Bengal Nights can has is for the student of Eliade’s scholarship — he slips in ideas which became important in his later work — or for the student of Maitreyi Devi who want to see what she was so pissed off about.

It Does Not Die, by Maitreyi Devi, translated by the author.

It Does Not Die is a beautiful, poetic, aching novel.  Here a born-poet is at the height of her powers and maturity and yet is still that vulnerable, joyful sixteen-year-old girl.  Devi slips back and forth in time, not simply remembering 1930 and all the years since, but living them again, even as her family life, her political and charitable work, and her poetry swirl around her.  It Does Not Die is a meditation on memory, and investigation of motivation, a study of the tragedy of self-delusion, and, in the end, a profound philosophical statement on Love and Truth.

At the end of the novel, when Devi meets Eliade for the first time in forty-two years, it becomes a confrontation because Eliade refuses to look at her, preferring the fantasy vision in his memory to the reality in the room with him.

“Mircea, you have read so much, but you have acquired no wisdom!  You don’t speak like a wise man.  Is love a material object that can be snatched away from one and given to another? Is it a property or an ornament? It is a light, Mircea, a light — like the light of intelligence, like the light of knowledge is the light of love.” pp 253-4

But Eliade has always refused to face the reality of Devi.  He has never returned to India because he has clung to his fantasy of her and of her land.

“Mircea, I am telling you, fantasy is beautiful and truth is more beautiful, but half-truth is terrible.  Your book is a nightmare for me.  I was a simple little girl who sometimes played philosopher.  I was no enigma.  The mystery is your creation.  You love the fantastic and unreal.  But now I have really come, to perform an impossible deed.” p. 255

I’ll stop there; no further spoilers.

It Does Not Die by Maitreyi Devi is a simply glorious novel.

The Bengali Night
starring Hugh Grant and Supriya Pathak
directed by Nicolas Klotz
written by Nicolas Klotz in colaboration with Jean-Claude Carriere

What a hash of a film!

Supriya Pathak is marvellously natural as Gayatri, the Maitreyi Devi character but is obviously older than sixteen.  Hugh Grant is somehow both slack-jawed and wooden throughout, and his accent wanders back and forth across the English Channel.  The rest of the Indian cast is professional and comes across as having mysterious depths, one of the few positives of the film.  John Hurt and the other European cast members have pretty much phoned in their performances.  Thankfully, the story ends before Grant meets the cleansing blonde Nordic Valkyrie.

The version in the DVD package from Cinema Libre Studio is visually flat, almost colourless.  Everything is washed out.  And the sound is as muddy as the water of the Sacred Ganges. It is physically difficult to watch.

While the film is merely dull, the DVD “Extra”, a monologue by producer Philippe Diaz is, at best, an uncomfortable experience.  Diaz strangely regularly punctuates his description of making the film with statements that “India was a wonderful experience for the cast and crew” and “Go to India!”  But most of what he says between the punctuation is either condemnation of or superior laughter at Indians and their culture.  And he makes a remarkable point of dismissing Maitreyi Devi, her novel, her upset over Eliade’s novel, and her opposition to the film.

The Indians were all running on Indian-subcontinent Time, not caring whether shooting got done each day, Diaz says.  They’re all used to the Indian film industry which has such quaint, backward little methods.  They aren’t at all like our Western civilized way.  According to Diaz, Eliade’s book is a masterpiece.  Devi’s is just a bitter little backward girl’s foot-stomping response.  Diaz admits he never read Devi’s book “because it’s in Bengali”.  Of course, Devi’s English version had been available for a decade and more.

Diaz’s entire monologue is a European dismissal of Indians, their cultures, and their concerns, despite his half-hearted, ass-covering “Go to India!”

In nutshells

Mircea Eliade’s pedestrian Bengal Nights is an early-middle-aged man’s extremely soft-core paedophilic sexual fantasy based on his youthful myopic brush with a culture much deeper than his own and with a young woman far wiser at sixteen than he ever got to be.

Maitreyi Devi’s It Does Not Die is a brilliant, angry, gentle, loving, beautiful, generous, poetic novel.  When Devi translated her novel into English, she gave a gift to the West that the West hardly deserves.

The Bengali Night, starring Hugh Grant and Supriya Pathak — If you must see it, see it for Pathak’s performance; the rest is a horrid mess.

Personal Reflections on “Mr. Bliss” by J. R. R. Tolkien

 

A cousin (by marriage) of mine, a British physicist, said to me in the summer of 1983:

“I hear it said that Tolkien would have been a fine scholar if he hadn’t wasted all his time writing silly stories.”

I was young and little prepared to rebut. I knew, of course, of Tolkien’s important and influential lecture “Beowulf: The monsters and the critics” and he was sort of an eminence hanging over my Old English studies. And I knew that the influence on me of Tolkien the storyteller and philologist was a major part of why I was in Europe that summer, digging in Roman dirt and visiting a Book in Exeter.

Now I’m older than Tolkien was when The Hobbit was published and rapidly closing the distance to his Lord of the Rings age. I know now that Tolkien didn’t waste time writing silly stories. He spent time on some very fine scholarship and teaching, he devoted much time to being a loving father and husband, and to finally come near to my point, he wasted a lot of time mucking around trying to satisfy his sequel-hungry publisher after the success of The Hobbit (and of The Lord of the Rings later). Which brings me to Mr. Bliss.

When I was very small my father would tell me bed-time stories of Murgatroyd the rabbit and Farmer MacGregor. I know now that he agonized over the creation of those stories. When I was a little older, my mother read all of Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia to me at bed time. Lewis would perhaps be disappointed to learn that his books instilled no Christianity, although they did help interest me in pagan Classical mythology, and, for a time, gave me a tendency to speak to trees. After Narnia, my mother read through The Hobbit and maybe half of The Lord of the Rings before saying, in essence, “Read it yourself!”

I will be forever grateful to my parents for their herculean storytelling efforts during my childhood.

Those who know a little of Tolkien know that he spent a great deal of time telling stories to his children. A number of his posthumous volumes are those stories, formalized as submissions to George Allen & Unwin, his publisher, as potential follow ups to The Hobbit. Mr. Bliss is such a volume. Mr. Bliss was rejected by George Allen & Unwin due to the expense of publishing the many illustrations, and so, Tolkien cast about a little and decided to just start work on another story about Hobbits, almost certainly unaware that an epic had taken him over.

Mr. Bliss was finally published as a facsimile of Tolkien’s manuscript in 1982, almost ten years after Tolkien’s death. That edition is interesting from a scholarly point of view, but the author’s handwriting is often difficult to read and the illustrations are not always ideally placed.  When I first read the Mr. Bliss facsimile many years ago, my reaction was lukewarm.

But in 2011 a new edition was published in which the illustrations have been properly placed within a nicely typeset text, and the result is startling! Mr. Bliss, now that it has been artfully formatted, is an entirely charming children’s book which should be discovered by adults while they read it aloud and by laughing children hearing it and looking at Mr. Bliss’ tall green hat, yellow motorcar and unusual pet girabbit and enjoying the gentleman’s adventures in and around an unnamed English village. Certainly Tolkien’s illustrations are at times ham fisted, but they always have a remarkable fluidity and a strong sense of an England now gone, if it ever were.

I highly recommend this at last truly finished version of Mr. Bliss to parents of young children. It is a refreshing new Tolkien, and a story to be read aloud, with feeling, expression and playfulness.

And, consider: what if George Allen & Unwin could have afforded the cost of illustrations as World War II loomed? What if Mr. Bliss, not The Lord of the Rings, had been the follow up to The Hobbit? What a different world it might have been! And how fortunate we are to enjoy a world with both the dark, sweeping mythic vision of The Lord of the Rings and the sunny, silly joy of Mr. Bliss.

This latest edition of Mr. Bliss, with the 1982 facsimile reprinted at the back, is published by HarperCollins.