I asked professors who teach the meaning of life to tell me what is happiness.
And I went to famous executives who boss the work of thousands of men.
They all shook their heads and gave me a smile as though I was trying to fool with them.
And then one Sunday afternoon I wandered out along the Desplaines river
And I saw a crowd of Hungarians under the trees with their women and children and a keg of beer and an accordion.
"Happiness" is from Carl Sandburg's volume of 1916, Chicago Poems. Since I'm in Chicago as this post appears, and possibly recovering from a poetry reading and beer bash celebrating the 200th anniversary of Walt Whitman's birth this seemed altogether too appropriate.
Oh, and a proper Chicagoan pronounces that the Dess Plains river. Don't even ask what we do with Goethe Street.
"His [Sheridan's] comic muse does not go about prying into obscure corners, or collecting idle curiosities, but shows her laughing face and points to her rich treasure--the follies of mankind...The 'School for Scandal' is, if not the most original, perhaps the most finished and faultless comedy which we have."
-William Hazlitt, The English Comic Writers
Rowlandson's print based on The School for Scandal
In Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The School For Scandal (1777) we first see Lady Sneerwell and her hangers-on retailing and even manufacturing gossip for public consumption. Their report: Miss Prim was about to run off with her dancing master, Miss Nicely was married to her own footman, and Miss Piper had twins. But most importantly, Charles Surface, a spendthrift young man, has gone beyond being broke and deep into debt; and Charles has also seduced Lady Teazle, the unhappy much younger wife of Sir Peter Teazle. It's none of it true.
Well, mostly none of it. Charles is spendthrift, Lady Teazle is unhappy, and one of the Surface brothers is trying to seduce Lady Teazle; only it's the hypocritical Joseph who's trying, and he hasn't yet succeeded.
This will all need to be made right, of course: fortunately Charles and Joseph have a rich, wise, and tolerant uncle in the background, just now returning from the Orient; Charles has a beloved in the foreground, Maria; and Sir Peter and Lady Teazle are still really in love. It's helped along by the clever servant, Rowley, straight out of Plautus.
I found the opening acts a little broad in their comedy, though I imagine it would work on stage, particularly Mrs. Candour, who kept saying that sure it was terrible about all that gossip, though somebody (who knows who?) would be repeating it, so she might as well. But then when it got to the fourth act, first with Charles selling off the family portraits unknowingly to his rich uncle, and then in Joseph's drawing room, with multiple people hidden in various corners, I was laughing out loud even reading it on the page, and I have to imagine it would be a great hoot on stage. I've seen productions of Sheridan's The Rivals (perhaps better known as The One With Mrs. Malaprop) twice on stage, and now I'm going to hope for a production of this one.
In the meantime I made do with this silent version, with Basil Rathbone (!) as the hypocritical Joseph. It's only ten minutes, and by no means all the play, nor it seems all the movie either, though maybe all that survives. I'm not quite sure it would work if you hadn't just read the play, but I enjoyed it:
Sara Paretsky's Indemnity Only (1982) is the first V. I. (Victoria or Vic) Warshawsky mystery. It, together with Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone series, were the beginning of the modern female P.I. mystery movement. The series takes place in Chicago, and since I'm going to Chicago in a few days...
The setup is this: Warshawsky is hired to find somebody's daughter, except her client doesn't give his real name, and doesn't tell her the daughter's real name either. When she goes to follow the one lead she's given, she finds a dead body, clearly murdered by a pro. She figures she's been had. But not for long.
She ends up in the middle of an insurance fraud scheme, an unholy alliance of labor bosses, insurance executives, bankers, and the mob. (Well, it is Chicago we're talking about...we're only missing a politician or three...) Vic sorts out the mystery--its outlines are never much in doubt--its real and considerable suspense is in how she sorts the goons and gets the goods.
She compares herself twice to Lord Peter Wimsey, but the final scene is straight out of The Maltese Falcon.
Quite a lot of fun.
I usually think of Vic as a Southsider, and the backstory has her raised there, but she lives near Belmont and Halsted in Chicago on the north side--where I lived for two years in my twenties. And she's not much of a Southsider, because she's a Cubs fan.
Maud went to college.
Sadie stayed at home.
Sadie scraped life
With a fine-toothed comb.
She didn't leave a tangle in.
Her comb found every strand.
Sadie was one of the livingest chits
In all the land.
Sadie bore two babies
Under her maiden name.
Maud and Ma and Papa
Nearly died of shame.
Every one but Sadie
Nearly died of shame.
When Sadie said her last so-long
Her girls struck out from home.
(Sadie had left as heritage
Her fine-tooth comb.)
Maud, who went to college
Is a thin brown mouse.
She is living all alone
In this old house.
My spellchecker doesn't like "livingest," but I love that word.
This is from Gwendolyn Brooks' first book, A Street In Bronzeville, of 1945. Bronzeville is a neighborhood on the near south side of Chicago, historically black and, by the standards allowed for African-Americans, middle-class. There's not much of it left any more, I think, what with various urban renewal projects.
I was a kid when Gwendolyn Brooks was appointed Poet Laureate of Illinois, and so I guess I've always known of her, but I'm quite sure the poem we were generally given at the time was "We Real Cool" about the dangers of skipping school...
Jennifer at Holds Upon Happiness is featuring Maggie Smith this week.
Ellis Peters wrote another mystery series before the Brother Cadfael ones started; it's set in contemporary England and features Inspector George Felse, often assisted by his son Dominic, his wife Bunty, and not infrequently by Dominic's current girlfriend. It's a family affair.
This is the fourth of the Felse mysteries I've read and it's the first in the series, from 1951.
The war hasn't been over long when this takes place, and a German P.O.W. named Helmut Schauffler, is still in England, working on farms and waiting to be repatriated. Helmut insists he was just an innocent soldier, and all that Nazi stuff never meant anything to him, but we quickly learn that's not true, and he's slyly hiding his real white supremacist/anti-Semitic feelings. Well, everybody in the town knows, too, and when he's discovered murdered, there are plenty of suspects. High on the list is Chad Wedderburn, now the Latin master, but recently a ruthless Army commando.
It's Dominic and his not-quite girlfriend Pussy (they're both thirteen in this one) who stumble on the body, and from that moment Dominic thinks of it as his murder, even though his father tells him quite forcefully to stay away. A second murder complicates things--Dominic is the last person to see the victim alive except for the murderer--and it ends with a trap sprung on the perpetrator and some nice suspense.
I started reading the Felse mysteries when I was nearly out of Cadfaels, and they are a pretty good substitute. They're perhaps not quite as charming as her better-known series, but still a lot of fun. You will know, if you're at all a reader of Peters, that since Chad Wedderburn is in love with Io the barmaid, and she loves him back, there is no way Wedderburn will turn out to be the murderer.
That said, this is the first of the series. Peters was no tyro when she wrote this, but she would get better. This would be stronger if it were fifty pages shorter, and the identity of the murderer was signalled much earlier than it needed to be. Wikipedia tells me that it was ten years until the next Felse came out, and her style had changed substantially between the two, and I think, for the better. No need to read them in order.
Another book I read from Ellis Peters' Felse mysteries.
An entry for the Gold card in the My Readers' Block vintage mystery challenge:
Where. Set in a small village.
I have decided I'm divine
Caligula and Nero knew
A godliness akin to mine,
But they are strictly hitherto.
They're dead, and what can dead gods do?
I'm here and now. I'm dynamite.
I'd worship me if I were you.
A new religion starts tonight!
No booze, no pot, no sex, no swine:
I have decreed them all taboo.
My words will be your only wine,
The thought of me your honeydew.
All other thoughts you will eschew.
You'll call yourself a Thomasite
And hymn my praise with loud yahoo.
A new religion starts tonight.
But (you might think) that's asinine!
I'm just as much a god as you.
You may have built yourself a shrine,
But I won't bend my knee. Who
Asked you to be my god? I do,
Who am, as god, divinely right.
Now you must join my retinue:
A new religion starts tonight.
All that I have said is true.
I'm god and you're my acolyte.
Surrender's bliss. I envy you.
A new religion starts tonight.
Tom Disch is better known as a science fiction writer, but he was also a bravura formal poet. He died, alas, a suicide, in New York in 2008.
"There once was a mayor who had adopted Aristotle's doctrine [of the golden mean]; at the end of his term of office he made a speech saying that he had endeavoured to steer the narrow line between partiality on the one hand and impartiality on the other."
Oh, so clever, Mr. Russell. This is, of course, meant to be a satire on Aristotle's idea of the golden mean, that a virtue consists of hewing to the medium between two extremes, which are both vices. But, hey, I come from Chicago: a mayor who could say that and do so truthfully sounds just fine to me.
I could even build an argument that, in an elected official, too much impartiality is not entirely desirable, a little partiality to one's partisans is called for, and that Aristotle actually wins this round. But we'll save that for another post, on a more political blog...
The things that one grows tired of--O, be sure They are only foolish artificial things! Can a bird ever tire of having wings? And I, so long as life and sense endure, (Or brief be they!) shall nevermore inure My heart to the recurrence of the springs, Of the grey dawns, the gracious evenings, The infinite wheeling stars. A wonder pure Must ever well within me to behold Venus decline; or great Orion, whose belt Is studded with three nails of burning gold, Ascend the winter heaven. Who never felt This wondering joy may yet be good and great: But envy him not: he is not fortunate.
Robinson Jeffers was an American--and mostly Californian--poet who died in 1962. I always think of this as a poem for being outdoors, in the wilderness, maybe around a campfire. And have been known to declaim it under such circumstances.
I no longer recall where I first came across this poem. That's my poetry commonplace book above, a little tea-stained, in which this is written, a book now mostly obsolete, since poems I want to keep get typed into an HTML file and transferred to my phone. (Sigh. The modern world.) On the other hand, my handwriting is so appalling it may be all for the best.
Jennifer at Holds Upon Happiness is featuring a Pablo Neruda sonnet this week.
'As to Aristotle's influence on him [Alexander,] we are left free to conjecture whatever seems most plausible. For my part, I should suppose it nil. Alexander was an ambitious and passionate boy, on bad terms with his father, and presumably impatient of schooling. Aristotle thought no state should have as many as one hundred thousand citizens and preached the doctrine of the golden mean. I cannot imagine his pupil regarding him as anything but a prosy old pedant, set over him by his father to keep him out of mischief.'
-from Bertrand Russell's The History of Western Philosophy.
Ha! So much for all those who want to make Aristotle's tutoring of Alexander into something important.
Lazily, I rather wanted the most recent Classics Club spin to force me to read something long and challenging, but the random number generator refused. So I thought, well, I'll just have to do it myself then, won't I? Spenser's Faerie Queene and Plutarch's Lives are still sitting next to my reading chair, but it looks like it's going to be Bertrand Russell's The History of Western Philosophy. I'm 200 pages in (out of 800+).
I'm a bit shocked how readable, and even amusing, I'm finding it. Let me once get to the chapters about Kant and Hegel, and I'll probably start groaning.
The actual spin for me, Sheridan's The School for Scandal still awaits, but I'm expecting to find that a fun and easy read.
Well, perhaps it was just another empty invention--there are certainly fables enough in this world. And yet, even if the story isn't true, it does have some grain of sense and instruction to it, and it's entertaining as well, so it's worth the telling.
I pulled Stanislaw Lem's The Cyberiad off the shelf for the #1965Club, but didn't finish it in time. I read enough of it, though, to make me certain I needed to reread it.
I likely first came across Stanislaw Lem (and Borges and Raymond Smullyan and Thomas Nagel and, and, and...) when I read The Mind's I, (1981)edited by Richard Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett. It includes three stories by Lem, including two that come from this book. So, these are stories that give mathematician/philosophers something to talk about, "some grain of sense and instruction." But then they are entertaining, too.
Trurl and Klaupacius are constructors, that is they build intelligent machines to solve various problems. Mostly these are problems that didn't need solving, like Trurl's machine capable of creating everything that begins with the letter N. That makes it sound science-fiction-y, and it is, and quite possibly silly, which it is, too, though in a good way; but these are also fables, as the subtitle says. This may be a universe with robots, but it also has pirates and princesses and (repeatedly) kings who commission something from Trurl and then refuse to pay. So the proud are pulled down and the lowly exalted, generally, except when they ain't...and in any case it makes a good story.
Many of the stories in this are satirical in intent. Stanislaw Lem died at the age of 84 in 2006 in Poland, and so most of his career and, I assume, all of these stories, were written under the former Communist regime. Now I know from other things of Lem's I've read, he's capable of satirizing capitalism with perfect aplomb, but really, were the Polish censors completely asleep? Or did they simply not care about science fiction?
"Revolutionary solutions, on the other hand, boil down to either the Carrot or the Stick. The Stick, or bestowing happiness by force, is found to produce from one to eight hundred times more grief than no interference whatsoever. As for the Carrot, the results--believe it or not--are exactly the same,..."
This from a story in which Klaupacius assists a hermit in hunting down the population with the H. L. P. D., the Highest Level of Possible Development, in order to bestow human (and robotic) happiness throughout the universe. The hermit, undeterred, makes such a botch of things, he's stuffed in a cannon and fired across the galaxy to get rid of him.
The translator Michael Kandel is justly praised for his translations of Lem, and this one is full of brio; there are crazy, wonderful puns and poeticisms, just the sorts of things that are usually labelled untranslatable.
the roach that scurries
skips and runs
may read far more than those
i know what family skeletons
within your closets
swing and dry
not that i ever
play the spy
but as in corners
dim i bide
i can t dodge knowledge
though i try
i see things from
the under side
the lordly ones the
heads held high
the up stage stiff
miss much that meets
my humbler eye
not that i meddle
perk or pry
but i m too small
to feel great pride
i see things from
the under side
above me wheel
the stars and suns
but humans shut
me from the sky
you see their eyes as pure
i see their wayward
feet and sly
i own and own it with
my point of view
is somewhat wried
i am a pessimistic
i see things from the
prince ere you pull a bluff
before you fake
and play the snide
archy s nigh
i see things from
the under side
-Don Marquis (writing as Archy)
Archy was a recurring character in the newspaper columns of Don Marquis. His home paper was the New York Evening Sun. Archy made his first appearance on March 26, 1916, and we learn that in a previous life he was a vers libre poet, but when he died he was reincarnated as a cockroach, for his sins. As a cockroach typing his poems, he couldn't operate the shift key, which is why they're all lower case and without punctuation.
Mehitabel the cat became a frequent companion of Archy.
Three volumes of Archy's poems came out during Marquis' lifetime; there have been various collections of the otherwise uncollected as well. This is a fairly early one, first appearing August 5, 1916.
That's Archy shown above, drawn by George Herriman, of Krazy Kat fame. He's finding the office paste a little stale.