Enough Was Said T’inspire a Better Mind – On Reading The Aeneid

I have a nicely-bound, Heritage Library edition of John Dryden’s translation of the Aeneid by Virgil. I’m working my way through it, or at least the first 4 books of it, as research for the deep edit that’s going into The Meditations of Caius Caligulia before I publish it. It also makes for a fun refresh of the rhetorical schemes and tropes I studied in grad school: my notes are filled with Greek terms codified by Roman scholars.

But more than that, Dryden’s lively pentameter lifts the story. As my Latin is poor, I could not dare read the original, but this Early-Modern translation has the right archaic feel for something that, like the Iliad and Odyssey, is at least partly a funeral oration for the collapse of the Bronze Age, an event that left its echoes in Scripture as well. Virgil, long-winded as he could be, also had a marvelous sense for imagery:

And here and there above the waves were seen,
Arms, pictures, precious goods, and floating men.

Aeneid, Book I

I like that Dryden satisfies himself with the half-rhyme in order to give the second line it’s full weight: our mind can form the picture quite easily, and it gives an immediacy to what amounts to the opening scene of our story. Note something else: Virgil chooses to begin the story in media res, with Aeneas, son of Troy, already driving his fleet halfway across the Mediterranean, already on his way to become the distant founder of Rome. We then flashback to the sack of Troy by the Greeks, as Aeneas, blown ashore on Carthage, tells his tale to Queen Dido.

And had not Heav’n the Fall of Troy design’d,
Or had not men been fated to be blind,
Enough was said and done t’inspire a better mind.

Aeneid, Book II

This is a triplet, i.e. three lines rhyming, of which I have found several scattered throughout. Most of the poem is couplets, so these stand out. Given that Virgil wrote in a dactylic hexameter, this is no doubt Dryden’s interpolation, as he was well-known for throwing triplets around. Dryden has been criticized for too loosely translating Virgil, a criticism he embraced, decreeing that the poem would read too dull in English if translated to plainly. I have to say I’m with Dryden on this. Here’s another example:

We leave the narrow lanes behind, and dare
Th’unequal combat in the public square:
Night was our friend; our leader was despair.

Aeneid, Book II

The closing chiasmus is so tasty that I want to find excuses to quote it. Book II is filled with grand phrases that capture the horror that Homer finishes the Iliad before relating:

On the bleak shore now lies th’abandoned king,
A headless carcass, and a nameless thing.

Aeneid, Book II

The strenght of this couplet fills me with admiration, especially the “nameless thing”, the translation of a great and powerful man into nothing makes clear that this story is playing for keeps, and to hear the hero speak it gives him a genuine pathos. I had heard this poem sneered at in my youth, as a dull gong banging in blood. I am glad to know that, as always, “they” are wrong.

Literature in the Age of Zero HP Lovecraft

The self-described “horrorist” Zero HP Lovecraft, aka The Only Man On Twitter Worth Reading, submits to a blog interview. He has much to say on many topics, including “wokenes” and the “school of resentment”, post-modernism, “desire machines” and his own work, and a hose of others. I invite you to read it in full, but I include some choice quotations.

As I have said elsewhere, in order for storytelling to succeed, it must contain a true theory of human nature. Wokeness is a false theory of human nature.

If you read Harold Bloom, I think he makes a kind of personal religion out of the canon. He views reading it and interacting with it as the path to salvation. Criticism for Bloom is soteriology, and that is also why he is a good critic: he likes and reveres the authors he is criticizing. He is correct when he identifies resentment as the driving force behind most other critics. They tend to be people who cannot create things themselves, so they just try to destroy what others have built.

What we need is a right-wing postmodernism, one which can acknowledge the absurdities and contradictions in our epistemology and learn to flow with them, rather than against them. Postmodernists, for all their excesses, stumbled into a vein of truth concerning narratives, knowledge, subjectivity, and technology, and they used that knowledge to construct a painful but effective abstract machine of ideology, which is currently so culturally ascendant that the right is curled up in the fetal position, rocking back and forth saying “no no no, not postmodernism, no no no.”

The school of resentment is just a fancy name for women in academia. They hate Infinite Jest because loser men who haven’t figured out how women feel about their personal philosophy try to tell them about Infinite Jest in order to sleep with them, so IJ becomes a cheap litmus test for “is the man talking to me a loser?” Women hate it when losers talk to them, because it implies that a loser man thinks he’s good enough to get with them, which implies that they aren’t very hot.

I can see how someone might characterize my work as satirical. I sort of cleave to my friend @quaslacrimas definition of satire here, that in order for a work to be satire, someone has to not be in on the joke. A classic satire like A Modest Proposal is a satire precisely because it never slips the mask, and some people will take it seriously, and get angry, and a lot of the humor lies in the reaction of the people who aren’t in on the joke. That’s not what I’m doing. I’m quite sincere in what I write, though I do try to use humor to spotlight some of the absurdities that I see around me in modern, technological life. If there is anyone who is not in on the joke, it’s me.

Whether or not one agrees with his takes, they are more interesting than most of what passes for commentary, on Twitter or elsewhere. He’s a fully online writer, who mostly appears at Substack and his own WordPress site. Writing is for him not a means of making a living but an expression of his life. He’s like Delicious Tacos that way: guys who write weird tales under a pseudonym so they can keep their day job. It’s a purely artistic expression, or at most a side hustle.

Confronting the reality of writing in this century is a serious one. The Old Publishing model is dead or dying, but the New Publishing model has new problems. The Freedom to Publish has become universalized, and therefore you must yourself do market analysis and learn SEO coding. Writing is not enough anymore.

On the plus side, that means there’s an opening for originality. And by originality I mean telling the truth of the moment in a way that immediately connects to whoever happens across it. The Truth does not vary but the Moment does.

Why in the Hell Does Anyone Care That It’s Carrie Fisher’s Birthday?

Every now and again I like to indulge in the temptation to rail against the mindless repetition of uninteresting facts. I know it will accomplish nothing, and indeed is probably counterproductive, but I cannot help myself. This is stupid and I’m going to tell you why. Cry about it in the comments, nerds.

I could easily be mean about this. I could easily go the Ace of Spades route and declare her a coke-addled void-child of dysfunctional Hollywood nobility, who looked so elderly and fragile in the Sequel Trilogy that I expected her to shatter into pieces like a frozen T-1000 (that’s an old movie reference, kids).

Famous for her catchphrase, “Let’s go fuck injustice up!,” Fisher was known for her young-in-life rebellions and scandals, including her May-December romance with Lorne Greene, and playing Andromedan Whore #6, causing an uproar and national boycott due to her participation in Captain Kirk’s first and only non-interspecies kiss.

After her career in acting slowed, Fisher turned her attention to writing, where she turned in famous-but-officially-uncredited “punch ups” to scripts and books, such as Predator 3: Predators In Paradise and “The Bible.”

Considered Hollywood Royalty since her birth, Carrie Fisher was famously the daughter of Joey Buttafuoco and Amy Fisher.

Ace of Spades, “Carrie Fisher Dies at Age 60”

But one wants to be fair, and the older I get, the more I appreciate what Fisher was able to do with the could-have-been thankless role of Princess Leia in the Original Trilogy. Honestly, her acting in that holds up, and her prickly aristocratic mien makes her role as the Resistance Leader in the Sequels at least plausible, however little she had in the tank at the time. Yeah, it would have been nice if they’d given her more to do in Return of the Jedi, but that’s expecting more of Lucasfilm screenwriting than it’s ever been capable of delivering.

And I can’t escape the notion that if she’d read Ace’s mock obituary, Fisher would have laughed hard at it. Because no one was quicker to send up her own career than she was. I caught one of her spoken-word shows on one streaming service or another, and she had her moments, perhaps not as “OMG, hiLARious” as people are wont to say, but seeing a celeb allowed to be merely human, and wryly comment on this, is always to be saluted.

Nor was this an isolated reality, the joke turn at Comic-Con. This was Fisher’s second career. She wrote a comical pseudo-fiction novel about her life, and had that turned into a movie she wrote the screenplay for, both under the title Postcards From the Edge, which is a pretty good title. Not many people actually have the talent and drive to turn their down-and-out moments into art. She did. Can’t take that away from her.

But she’s not a Saint. She’s not even a Blessed. You don’t know her, and you honouring her Feast Day is creepy.

This is gross. You’re being marketed to by sharps and drones. Her death took literally nothing from your life (if she’d been alive, she’d have done exactly what she did in Rise of Skywalker, which is to say almost nothing). It is human to honor the dead and the great. But celebrity is false greatness, the intersection of momentary marketablity and fragile talent. They are feeding you pap and calling it Spirit.

Stop retweeting this crap. Stop reacting to it (But aren’t YOU reacting to it? Yeah, you got me. Walk away and enjoy how much you totally DeSTrOyeD my point. Nothing to see here, move along). Stop pretending you were a massive fan of the next old rock star who kicks the bucket. Honor your family, your friends. Honor the art that stands the test of time. But stop building emotional cults of devotion to corporate product. None of them will ever reciprocate your love.

Rimbaud Dreams of War

Jean Artur Rimbaud wrote strange prose-poems in the Belle Epoque. He was an exceedingly odd duck: not ostentatiously wierd like Van Gogh, but the sort of man who could drop everything and spend his final years as an arms-dealer in North Africa. He’s kind of like William Burroughs, except his stuff is short enough so that I can digest it in one go, rather than get tired of not understanding anything and chuck the book a the wall (how many times have I tried to read Nova Express? At least three. How many times have I got farther than 20 pages? I do not know).

I find his strangeness appealing perhaps because he is not dogmatic about it. Poetry works best when it is a process of discovery, of the writer overhearing himself. There’s a tradition as old as Pindar to the effect that poets are prophets; speaking truths they themselves dimly understand, throwing words together in a disciplined kind of way because it feels right. A purely right-brained approach.

Now, no artist actually works this way. The stuff gets edited. It is shaped. It is messed with. This is itself part of the process, so that you leave your own interpolations at the door and get to the Real Thing. How do you know you have the Real Thing? If you have to ask, you don’t have it.

So here’s War, part of the Illuminations collection:

When a child, certain skies sharpened my vision: all their characters were reflected in my face. The Phenomena were roused.–At Present, the eternal inflection of moments and the infinity of mathematics drives me through this world where I meet with every civil honor, respected by strange children and prodigious affections.–I dream of a War of right and of might, of unlooked-for logic.

It is as simple as a musical phrase.

Jean Artur Rimbaud, “war” The Illuminations, pg. 133

That’s it. The whole Madness. It is not analytical. It is not concerned with understanding, only with experiencing. It is an irruption of Id-sense, Id-longing. Might be the phenomenon Huxley was getting at in The Doors of Perception: certain folk have a spiritual sensitivity that can lead either to Enlightenment or Insanity. In times past the old boy might have become a monk or mystic and offered prayer-poems to whatever Deity would have him. Perhaps a martyr or a passionate heretic, if the cards played out right. Instead he became a pieta to the more erudite segment of nerds.

Still, there’s something to the economy of expression, something I’ve written on before and probably will again, as it’s never been something I could master. My sentences flow like rivers, like dams breaking. And so do some of his. But he doesn’t have eighty of them together. I am the more concerned, it seems, with not being misunderstood.

Books Fall Apart: Chinua Achebe and Joseph Conrad

Recently I went on a quick camping trip and happened to take along my copy of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It included some selections from Conrad’s “Congo Diary”, a record he kept of his 1890 journey into the Belgian Congo, events of which clearly informed the subsequent story. This made for an immersive diversion as I watched a soft rain fall on my tiny cabin.

A book as intense as Heart of Darkness, written about so vivid a topic as Colonialism, as it was happening, is bound to provoke an active critical response. So to pad out my paperback volume’s slim 100 pages, we are treated to a series of critical takes on the book, ranging from H.L. Mencken to Virginia Wolff. But the most significant is that of Chinua Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart, which in many ways provides a mirror and counterpoint to the earlier work.

Achebe’s critique stipulates the book’s virtues and then cuts right to heart, as it were, of darkness: the book exists as a horror story for the European mind, an encounter with Dark Africa, who in her primordial sublimity, shreds the European man’s faith in Progress, and in Himself, like the lamb in the lion’s mouth.

It is important to note that Conrad, careful as ever with his words, is not talking so much about distant kinship as about someone laying a claim on it. The Black man lays a claim on the white man which is well-nigh intolerable. It is the laying of this claim which frightens and at the same time fascinates Conrad, “the thought of their humanity–like yours… Ugly.”

The point of my observation should be quite clear by now, namely that Conrad was a bloody racist. That this simple truth is glossed over in criticisms of his work is due to the fact that white racism against Africa is such a normal way of thinking that its manifestations go completely undetected.

From “An Image of Africa”, Massachusetts Review, 1977

I have no intention whatever of refuting Achebe’s point. To expect a European, observing Africa in its colonized state, in 1890, to come away without the revulsion that is Heart of Darkness‘ central theme, is to expect a thing that never happened. 1890 was the era in which common tribalism had been ballooned by “Science” into the Biological Racism that reached its thunderhead in the Second World War. The Races, as such, were in closer contact than ever before, and had very little understanding of each other. The fact that Conrad savages the European characters in the story for their pirate morality is beside the point. He does not want to see Africans as humans, even as he cannot help it. He reduces them all to cannibals on the riverside.

But as it happens, I have also read Things Fall Apart. Moreover, like many books I was assigned in High School, it made an impression on me. I enjoyed the story’s arc. I enjoyed the anti-heroic protagonist. I savored his rise and his hubristic peripetaia. And then the end happened, and I put the book down feeling rather suckered. I found it anti-climactic and frustrating. In retrospect, I was perhaps unable at that age to appreciate that kind of an ending. But underneath that, is the way the historical/racial aspect of the story interrupted the narrative arc I was expecting in the first part.

This is of course, the point of the story. The reader is introduced to a vibrant and complex clan culture, that of the Igbo, that’s survived for untold years. We see a protagonist struggle within the context of that culture, but also as an individual with his own strengths and weaknesses. It’s fascinating as a human tale.

And then, the book tells us, the White People Show Up, and every part of this is destroyed and/or adulterated. It is a cultural collapse both deliberate – the missionaries fully intended to change the Africans’ culture – and unintended, as not understanding the culture, they could not foresee how the Igbo would react. That some of the whites – such as Mr. Brown – have benevolent intentions is irrelevant. They are the destroyers of the world we’re now invested in. Others, such as the District Commissioner, do not even have names, and function less as characters than as events, irruptions of Whiteness.

One doesn’t have to excoriate Achebe to draw the obvious parallels. Europeans in Things Fall Apart are reductions of their race in the same way that Africans in Heart of Darkness are. It is a mirror, reflecting the same encounter from the other side (albiet in British Nigeria rather than Belgian Congo). And just as I do not expect Conrad to see Africans as anything but Other, I cannot but expect Achebe to see Europeans the same way. The reality of the encounter demands it, even as it frustrates our grander moral principles. Humans have tribal instincts that are tied to our social dynamic. Conformity within that social dynamic creates cohesion and expectation. So any violation of that conformity in one sense feels wrong. As the Africans on the riverside don’t fit Marlowe’s conception of what a man should be, neither do the Europeans to Okonkwo.

It’s important to recognize this, because if we refuse to do so, we allow our sense of Other to permit actions that our moral sense would otherwise have found repulsive. 19th-Century Europeans regarded Africans as sufficiently human to expend time and treasure to shut down the African slave trade. But despite that moral discovery, other economic exploitations, and concomitant cruelties, were allowed to go on. Africans were still Other enough that their lands, their religions, their traditions, etc. were regarded with contempt.

But that was 1890. The modern age pretends to have transcended this dynamic, but they’ve simply reversed the polarity on it. European civilization has gone from being The Best and Most Natural Standard of Good, to the Foulest and Most Horrid Excrescence of Wickedness. That the second fails under examination as clearly as the first did does not deter those who speak it. Anger and revulsion at the darkness in the human heart wheresoever it be found will usually find a scapegoat. Others gonna Other.

For that reason, I favor reading both these books, as both examples and examinations of the problem we have communicating across groups. Human nature might never permit us to transcend the problem, but forearmed, we might pull back some from the Horror.

On Aesthetics

I was inspired by my earlier post to think about aesthetics – the philosophy of art, beauty, etc.  And I did a brief perusal of the related article on the topic on Infogalactic and discovered something:

  • In ancient and medieval world, specific things were called out as being beautiful: order, form, harmony, unity, etc. This was a means of defining beauty.
  • Starting in the Early Modern period (17th-19th centuries), the conversation changed to be about “aesthetic experiences”, wedding aesthetics to rationality and science.
  • Then in the 20th century, two things happen:
    • First, we throw away the artist/author because of the “intentional fallacy”, and center our understanding of a work solely on our individuated responses to it.
    • Second, the Po-Mo’s throw away the idea of beauty itself, and everything becomes about discourses and narratives to be endlessly invoked and endlessly deconstructed

So we move from a set of idea that are clear, evocative, and can be used by a mason to build a temple, to a set of ideas that are esoteric, tendentious, and can only be used by academics to write essays. The nerds have taken over.

“Art is Useless. Go home.”

A “One-Woman Fyre Festival”

That may be unfair. Caroline Calloway isn’t the first person who couldn’t make a book deadline. But the disconnect between reality and InstaReality is as vast:

Caroline Calloway knew she was not who she had made the world believe she was. She had created a public image that was essentially false and, when she was required to commit this image to print — to tell her life story — she experienced an existential crisis. It was one thing to post a photo to Instagram with a clever caption (and editorial assistance from her uncredited helper Natalie), but to compile these scattered vignettes into a narrative and say, “This is my life”? No, she couldn’t do it.

And as the Brutus of her story, Natalie Beach, indicates, there’s a semblance of honesty in there, an insistence that if you just believe hard enough, it will happen. You see the same in Billy McFarland’s pathetic stance on top of a picnic table at Fyre, trying to calm a mob of hopeful glampers just beginning to realize they got hosed.

The worst scammers are those that believe their own bullshit. If Calloway had just let Beach ghostwrite the book, she’d be full of it, but there would have at least been a book. If McFarland had limited his expectations, their at least could have been a party on whatever island that was.

But their minds were warped by saturated images and SEO data. They got high on their own supply.

It’s not at all easy to write a book. I’ve done it. It’s grinding. It’s work. It’s not glamour and bon mots and artisanal pork bellies. There’s a reason writers drink.

One of the best free books about creating, Steven Pressfield’s Do the Work, reminds us that the struggle of delivering the work, or “shipping”

When we ship, we’re exposed. That’s why were so afraid of it. When we ship, we’ll be judged. The real world will pronoubnce upon our work and upon us, when we ship, we can fail, when we ship, we can be humiliated.

For some, an insurmountable bar to clear.

Originality is not Art.

All aesthetic positions are going to offend someone, because concepts of the beautiful are perpetually wrapped up in concepts of the true, and that makes sense in poets’ vomitings but not as an ontological baseline. Whether the beautiful and the true are connected in some way doesn’t really help us to define the beautiful.

The philosophy of aesthetics suffer in a different way from the post-modern inversion. A long time ago Edmund Burke took a shot at defining The Beautiful and The Sublime, and it’s so 18th century you could powder your wig with it. Make an art student read it today and she won’t be able to get past it. Feminism owns the dialogue on what’s considered beautiful, because women have historically been far more concerned with beauty, and all women today feel obligated to at least nod to feminism lest they be accused of harboring the desire to surrender their franchise or some such nonsense. And Feminists regard beauty as a conspiracy against women, because… reasons.

On top of that, the idea of objective aesthetics sounds to many people like “objective enjoyment” and enjoyment is an emotional response to something. You enjoy something. You cannot make yourself enjoy something that you do not, in fact, enjoy. The Star Wars prequels and David Lynch’s Dune are my personal evidence to that.

So aesthetics has to appeal to presuppositions about what people like. If you like horror and your wife doesn’t, then no objective statement about the aesthetic value of say, The Shining, is going to be possible between you. She might agree that, on the whole, The Shining is a better movie that Bye Bye Man, but she doesn’t enjoy either, so she doesn’t care.

Where am I going with this?

I’m aiming at the reality that art of any form needs to be some kind of communication. There has to be something that The Shining is communicating, even if it’s something as simple as dread, mystery, and heart palpitations. So the first judgement of a piece of art is how well in accomplishes its intent (here the po-mo’s shriek that intent isn’t real and there aren’t any authors, because po-mo’s are nerds who think inverting things is valuable and clever). What does it want to convey to its audience? Did it do so successfully?

The second judgement would be the relative value of its intent. This must be judged on a gradient. What Animal House communicates and what Citizen Kane communicates are vastly different, and what the latter communicates is grander in scope, so it gets taken more seriously. That doesn’t mean Animal House has no aesthetic value, or that you shouldn’t watch it (I’m not bringing in any moral objections here. That’s beyond the scope), just that it’s ambitions are obviously more modest.

But in order to say something succesfully, you must find an audience that can hear it. I may have a very clear idea of what I mean when I say “wickle-bickle-num-bum-jarf-jarf-jarf,” but that doesn’t mean anything to anyone else, so I’m failing in communication. So originality isn’t always a bonus to art. You want to be unique, because you want to be heard as you, but originality gets in the way of communication as often as not. If Citizen Kane were a shade weirder, it would not have worked as well, and it would not be as successful a piece of art, by any standard.

Art can be original. They’re not synonyms.

Gilgamesh is Fascinating.

Short, as epics go. And one certainly feels something got lost in translation. But there’s a marvelous universality to it at the same time, and a quaint reflection of a world more enchanted and more innocent. And the way it ends bespeaks a kind of tragedy-of-time, a luminous lamentation, that reminds me of Beowulf.

I don’t know why it took me so long to read it, but I’m glad I did.