The Fall of Gil-the-Fad: A Parody

Funny how these things come back to you. In the run-up to the release of Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring (2001), I composed my first online attempt at Tolkien Parody. Dear god… eighteen years ago. I was still in my teens.

But with the money being thrown around Fantasy these days, especially with the Amazon TV show in the works, I think it’s worth wheeling this one out for posterity.

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The Fall of Gil-the-Fad

Gil-galad was at Burger King

Where cash registers gladly sing:

Buy a burger and get him free

Along with Durin and Finwe.

The queues were long, consumers keen,

The neon lights afar were seen;

The sword and spear that he could wield

Went nicely with his plastic shield.

But tie-in products had their day:

For poor Gil-galad none would pay

And onto scrap heaps fell his star

In skip bins where the Spice Girls are.

**

It was 2001, remember, in case you didn’t notice via the Spice Girls reference (I also did a variant where the last line was “in bins where Teletubbies are,” but I think the above version flows better). And, yes, I still thought Finwe was pronounced Finwee, rather than Fin-way. It’s not the end of the world.

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Abandon Hope Ye Who Enter Here: Tolkien, Dante, Shakespeare, and Andrew Dagher

Andrew Dagher has recently put out a couple of comparative literature essays, looking at J.R.R. Tolkien’s influences. The first looks at the potential influence of Dante Aligheri’s Divine Comedy on Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Or at least Inferno anyway – as will be seen, it’s a crying shame Dagher didn’t go beyond the first book in his analysis. The second, and better, essay is Dagher’s look at Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and its influence on Rings, though, again, the essay would have been improved via a broader survey of Shakespeare. I had been meaning to write a response, but my involvement in the University of Otago’s German Language Production delayed me. Until now.

Starting first with the Dante essay… let’s be frank. Dagher, though undoubtedly well-meaning, stretches analogies to breaking point and beyond. The most useful point in the entire piece is a reminder that Tolkien was familiar with Dante – though even there, I would have thought the point obvious, based off Letter 294. The rest of it? Oh dear.

dante-inferno

Dagher cites the passage in Inferno, where Virgil suggests that we should not pity the damned: “Here pity lives when it is dead to these. Who could be more impious than one who’d dare to sorrow at the judgement God decrees?” (Dante XX.28–30). Dagher then, with a straight face, attempts to draw thematic parallels with Tolkien’s Gollum, and how he is not to be trusted: “Perhaps the biggest lesson here is to not be so quick to forgive or pity the damned.”

Which, literally, is Dagher missing the entire thematic point of The Lord of the Rings.

Victory in the War of the Ring is not achieved through force of arms. It is not even achieved by inner strength – Frodo famously fails in his mission at the last moment. It is achieved via the Power of Mercy. Dagher focuses on Gollum’s betrayals, but ignores the fact that his intervention at Mount Doom saved Middle-earth, and only through the forgiveness imparted by Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam is the eucatastrophe made possible. Honestly, if Dagher wanted to focus on the ill-effects of forgiveness in Tolkien, Saruman’s activities in the Scouring of the Shire would be a better bet. As it is, Dagher gets Tolkien’s message back-to-front – Tolkien may not embrace forgiveness in consequentialist terms (“do this because it helps you”), and via Saruman he shows that, but he certainly embraces it in deontological terms, (“do this because it is the right thing to do”).

Gollum

Not that Gollum is actually damned anyway. The key difference between Inferno and The Lord of the Rings (or a key difference…) is that the characters are all very much alive. Gollum is a living, breathing person, with the capacity to do good as well as harm, and it is not our place to damn him. Curiously, Dagher misses this distinction, even though Tolkien and Dante do actually dovetail on this point. Dante’s argument is that we should not question the damnation of souls, because to do so usurps God. Tolkien’s argument is that we should not prematurely damn people in this life, because to do so would be to claim God-like knowledge. “Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. Even the very wise cannot see all ends.” Tolkien and Dante aren’t so much contradicting each other, so much as talking about completely different things: one pre-death, one post-death.

Dagher follows up his thematic consideration with a look at plot similarities between Inferno and Rings: the notion of needing to pass through a Hell in order to get to Heaven (with a respective guide dropping out at the end of Hell). This is, again, a deeply flawed argument.

First off, a passage through the underworld – which Moria is – is a staple of the Hero’s Journey, and as such, long predates Dante. Nor is Lothlórien Heaven – it is not a goal, but rather yet another point on the road. Frodo vanishing off into the West for healing is far closer to Arthuriana or Kalevala than it is to the Divine Comedy, where Heaven is the end point unto itself. The Comedy cuts off as Dante views the face of God.

More importantly – and I would suggest that this also ties back to the themes of the respective works – is that Dagher never once mentions Purgatory. Going through Hell is not enough in Dante – before one can ascend to Heaven, one must pass through Purgatory (note that it is here, not Hell, that Virgil the guide leaves, which again breaks the Gandalf analogy). The funny thing is, a minor adjustment in Dagher’s premise would make for a much stronger argument…

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If one envisages Mordor as Hell (its layout does not resemble Dante’s structured Hell, but let’s run with it), one could very well imagine Mount Doom as Purgatory. A place where sins are purged, and souls made pure. Not least because Dante’s Purgatory is a mountain, and we see souls cleansed of, for example, Pride when they climb it (Pride is purged via carrying great big boulders up the mountain. Remind you of anything?). Applying Dante to Rings, one could hypothesise Frodo going through Hell (Mordor), then being cleansed of sin (the Ring) at Purgatory (Mount Doom), thus making him able to visit Heaven (Aman). Bonus points for the fact that Frodo cannot cleanse himself of sin, however much he tries, but rather needs the divine to do it for him. This is still not necessarily the most useful way to interpret Tolkien, but it is a good deal better than anything in Dagher’s piece. A shame he only focused on Inferno – Purgatorio would have been a much better point of focus.

So that’s Dante. What of Dagher and his Tolkien/Shakespeare essay? To be honest, it is broadly uncontroversial, with his points about Great Birnam Wood and the Witch-King’s death being well-covered ground. I would note, however, that Glorfindel’s prophecy (from The Lord of the Rings Appendix A, not The Silmarillion) is “not by the hand of man will he fall.” This is commonly misread as “not by the hand of man can he fall” – there was nothing stopping a man killing the Witch-King, it was just that that wouldn’t happen (comparison point – Princess Diana died in a car accident. That doesn’t mean she was immune to bullets). I’d also suggest that Tolkien’s solution to the prophecy – Eowyn is a Man, not a man, and Merry is a man, not a Man – is far cleverer than Shakespeare’s caesarian cop-out. But that’s a matter of personal taste, and I agree with Dagher that Tolkien was “improving” on the perceived flaws of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

One area of Shakespearian comparison I wish Dagher had gone into was King Lear and Denethor. In short, King Lear divides up his realm for his three daughters, but (because he’s a fool, and easily deceived) favours the nasty elder daughters over the honest, loving daughter. Bad things happen, and Lear has to deal with the death of the ‘good’ daughter, Cordelia. He goes insane and dies. One can (sort -of) see parallels with Denethor/Faramir, and Lear/Cordelia (Peregrin Took as the honest Fool is stretching things, regardless of Gandalf’s line). It’s not a comparison that ought to be pushed too far, however – Boromir is far from being Goneril or Regan, and Denethor has genuine political reasons to distrust Faramir (he’s paranoid, not gullible). Bizarrely, as bleak as Denethor’s story is, it somehow ends up as less depressing than King Lear – though that’s not saying much – and Denethor is not defined by his poor judgement in the way Lear is. Make of that what you will, and while one could potentially argue that this was Tolkien “improving” Lear’s story in a more rationalistic direction, I’m not sure I’d make that argument.

That concludes my rebuttal of Dagher’s pieces. I don’t mean to be overly critical here, but when I feel a commentator has missed the point of a work, I feel obliged to point it out. And the Dagher Dante essay not only misses the point of The Lord of the Rings, but also passes up much more appropriate Dante comparisons. The Shakespeare essay, while not necessarily breaking new ground, is at least less problematic.

2019 Reading More: August

Completed reads for August:

  • Egil’s Saga, by Anonymous
  • The Axiochus, by Anonymous
  • The Demodocus, by Anonymous
  • The Eryxias, by Anonymous
  • The Halcyon, by Anonymous
  • The Hipparchus, by Plato
  • On Justice, by Anonymous
  • On Virtue, by Anonymous
  • The Rival Lovers, by Plato
  • The Sisyphus, by Anonymous
  • All’s Well That Ends Well, by William Shakespeare
  • The Instructions of Shuruppak, by Anonymous
  • Lord of Emperors, by Guy Gavriel Kay
  • The Statesman, by Plato
  • The Minos, by Plato
  • The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, by L. Frank Baum
  • The Laws, by Plato
  • The Epinomis, by Plato
  • The Definitions, by Anonymous
  • The Epigrams, by Anonymous
  • The Epistles, by Plato and Others
  • Henry VIII, by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher
  • The Merry Wives of Windsor, by William Shakespeare
  • Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay
  • The Discarded Image, by C.S. Lewis
  • Out of the Silent Planet, by C.S. Lewis
  • Perelandra, C.S. Lewis

Egil’s Saga is Scudder’s translation. The various Pseudo-Platonic pieces – Axiochus, Demodocus, On Justice, On Virtue, Sisyphus, Minos, Definitions, and Epistles (minus the Seventh Letter) are Burges’ translations. The Eryxias and Laws are Jowett’s. The Hipparchus, Rival Lovers, and Epinomis are Lamb’s. The Statesman is Skemp’s. The Seventh Letter is Harward’s.

Another great month, but as per July’s note, a fair number of these reads were short. On the other hand, I can now say I have read the entire Platonic corpus, including the apocrypha. Yay. 🙂

Ranking Father Ted

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I’ve finished a binge of that great comedy classic, Father Ted, my first in a good three years. Here’s my attempt at ranking the episodes.

(Bearing in mind that there are no “bad” episodes here, and this simply reflects personal preference).

  1. Hell (S2)
  2. Speed 3 (S3)
  3. Are You Right There, Father Ted? (S3)
  4. Kicking Bishop Brennan Up the Arse (S3)
  5. A Song for Europe (S2)
  6. The Passion of Saint Tibulus (S1)
  7. Flight Into Terror (S2)
  8. Cigarettes and Alcohol and Rollerblading (S2)
  9. New Jack City (S2)
  10. Tentacles of Doom (S2)
  11. Rock a Hula Ted (S2)
  12. And God Created Woman (S1)
  13. Grant Unto Him Eternal Rest (S1)
  14. Think Fast, Father Ted (S2)
  15. The Plague (S2)
  16. Night of the Nearly Dead (S3)
  17. Churpy Burpy Cheap Sheep (S3)
  18. Going to America (S3)
  19. A Christmassy Ted (S2)
  20. Escape from Victory (S3)
  21. The Mainland (S3)
  22. Old Grey Whistle Theft (S2)
  23. Entertaining Father Stone (S1)
  24. Competition Time (S1)
  25. Good Luck, Father Ted (S1)

Radio Interview (The Library Mix)

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Together with fellow Dunedin Speculative Fiction authors, Carolyn McCurdie and Rachel Stedman, I took part in a half-hour radio interview on Tuesday afternoon. It’s The Library Mix, the weekly piece on Otago Access Radio.

See here for the relevant podcast.

A Platonic Reading Order

So, in the last couple of months, I have managed to work my way through the entire Platonic literary corpus, including apocrypha*. The only exceptions were the Euthyphro, the Apology, the Crito, and the Phaedo, which I read last year.

*By apocrypha, I mean the various bits and pieces that were attributed to Plato over the centuries, but which weren’t actually written by him. The sad thing about the apocryphal works is that once they’re turfed in the “fanfiction or forgery” bin, no-one really bothers with them any more, which means finding translations gets hard. Dear god, some of the stodgy mid-nineteenth century translations made my eyes bleed.

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So yeah. That’s a lot of reading, with a lot of different dialogues. Along the way I decided to put together a proposed Platonic Reading Order – not in the sense of an “ideal” Reading Order that exists off in another dimension, or in the sense of a Reading Order you are just friends with, but in the sense of “which Platonic texts to read in which order.” Apparently it’s actually a serious question for some people, and there is good reason for that. The Platonic corpus is large, and let’s say that there are some monsters therein that are best tackled with preparation.

Note that you could read the corpus in chronological order – which wouldn’t be the worst idea. Hell, you could actually do worse than reading the thing in alphabetical order – at least until you hit L, and ran away screaming. But in putting this Reading Order together, I thought I’d tackle stuff like accessibility and theme – trying to be complete, while noting that some stuff is more critical than others. Also, in contrast to most other suggested Platonic Reading Orders, this one includes the apocryphal works.

Bold: This stuff is important. Depending on what you’re after, you still might want to skip it, but it’s at least worth realising what you’re missing.

(Parentheses): This stuff is definitely not written by Plato. Note that I have taken the broadest possible definition of Plato’s works here – if it’s only a dubious work, it’s treated as authentic. The spurious stuff may or may not be worth reading depending on what you’re after.

Here goes…

***

  1. Symposium: It’s famous, it’s fun, and it’s about one of the great human universals (romantic love), without getting dogmatic or overly complicated. Bonus points for imagining how many stuffy academics down the centuries have found the homoeroticism awkward (this is Ancient Greece, remember). Double bonus points for the fact that it’s much shorter (and much simpler) than the Republic, and as such is the ideal entry point into Plato.
  2. Rival Lovers: There is some debate about whether this one was actually written by Plato, but it has its authenticity defenders, so I’m generously treating it as such. This is a short, straight-forward piece (almost too straight-forward) on what a Philosopher does. Again, this is Ancient Greece, so the titular Lovers are, of course, both male.
  3. Ion: Plato looks at Poetry – what a Poet does, and where the creative impulse comes from. It’s another fun, easy piece that reminds you how different the world of Socrates and Plato really was to our own. It’s also the shortest dialogue that was definitely written by Plato.
  4. Charmides: What is Temperance? This one – and the two dialogues following – is a short and decent introduction to the Socratic Method. Socrates , who claims he knows nothing, asks people a basic question, then picks holes in the answer until it’s clear that the people have no idea what they’re talking about. Why yes, Socrates (as portrayed by Plato) was a great historical troll.
  5. Lysis: What is Friendship? Socratic Method in action, deconstructing assumptions without coming to any actual conclusion.
  6. Laches: What is Courage? More Socratic Method. Et cetera.
  7. (Eryxias): Definitely spurious, this is a Platonic fanfic on why Money Can’t Buy Happiness.
  8. Hipparchus: If Ayn Rand time-travelled to Ancient Greece in a desperate attempt to throw herself at Aristotle, only to get stuck fifty years too early, and then found herself writing Platonic dialogues to pass the time, the Hipparchus would be the result. It’s basically a dialogue where the premise is “any gain is good” – never mind that it contradicts the Laws, among other things. If I’d hazard a guess, this one was either fanfiction or Plato reporting Socrates being a troll. At least it’s short.Image result for socrates
  9. Euthyphro: What is piety? This is the Socratic Method again, but this time Plato throws up a genuinely significant philosophical issue – the Euthyphro Dilemma – which is worth remembering the next time you encounter the argument that morality necessitates God.
  10. Apology: Short and famous, this is Socrates’ defence speech at his trial (spoiler: Socrates was tried for impiety and corrupting the youth, and I am sure you know the result). One gets the impression that Socrates really couldn’t help himself.
  11. Crito: An immediate follow-up to the Apology, this is a dialogue between Socrates and his followers about the merits of escaping, or whether to stay and face execution. The argument about following laws has led to… unfortunate popularity of this dialogue among certain historical regimes.
  12. Phaedo: Socrates drinks the hemlock, but first muses on the immortality of the soul. Given the way hemlock operates, one suspects that Plato was glossing over the nastiness of his teacher’s death.
  13. Menexenus: A weird one. The dialogue is really a framing device for a piece of oratory. In this case, the oratory is Socrates delivering a set-piece funeral oration (which, given the previous dialogue on this list, seems appropriate).
  14. (Axiochus): A blatantly spurious dialogue between a dying man and Socrates. The latter comforts the former by listing various philosophical reasons why Death is not to be feared.
  15. Clitophon: Moving away from the Death-themed dialogues, this dubious dialogue is the shortest one in the entire Platonic corpus. It’s a young man complaining that Socrates is very good at inspiring desire for virtue, but never actually gives answers. Which obviously leads on to…
  16. Republic: The one everyone has heard of. It’s Plato’s most important book – in the modern era anyway – starting with the Socratic question of What is Justice, and ending up with a lengthy look at Plato’s ideal state. It’s where you find the core Platonic concept of the Cave, together with other famous bits and pieces – the idea of Philosopher-Kings, the Ring of Gyges, and so on. Some people suggest that a beginner to Plato should start with the Republic, but given the length and complexity of the thing, I’ve pushed it down the order a bit.
  17. First Alcibiades: This one was actually considered the best place to start Plato by classical authors. It’s a short, simple dialogue on the importance of Knowing Thyself, and you might remember Alcibiades from the Symposium.
  18. (Second Alicibiades): An even shorter follow-up to the First Alcibiades, this spurious piece basically boils down to Be Careful What You Pray For.
  19. Theages: Nietzsche references this one, but it’s otherwise obscure. Socrates has a dialogue with a young man with rulership ambitions, while revealing that he has an Ancient Athenian version of the Pinkie Sense from My Little Pony.Image result for pinkie sense
  20. (Halcyon): This one’s been known as spurious for a while, so finding an online version was damned hard. It’s a shame, because it’s quite a pretty little piece, a short (and pretty un-Platonic) musing on “there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio.”
  21. Meno: What is Virtue (and can it be taught)? You met Plato’s World of Forms in the Republic, but here they are again: the ideal world, of which our own is but a reflection. Via the famous slave-boy geometry scene, this is also where Plato suggests that all learning is simply recollection. It is as weird as it sounds.
  22. (Sisyphus): Not that Sisyphus, unfortunately. A spurious reformulation of Meno’s Paradox from the previous dialogue – the idea that learning is impossible, since either you know something (in which case you don’t need to learn it), or you don’t (in which case, you don’t know what to learn).
  23. (On Virtue): Not just spurious, but actual plagiarism. Yes, really. Some dude in Ancient Greece basically cut and pasted bits from the Meno, and pretended it was a separate dialogue.
  24. (On Justice): Another spurious non-event, that revisits the questions dealt with in better, more authentic, dialogues. Yet another reminder, however, of Plato’s notion that no-one ever does bad knowingly (i.e. doing bad comes from a lack of understanding of what is Good).Image result for sophist
  25. Lesser Hippias: Now we turn to the Sophist section. Plato really, really did not like the Sophists, figures who claimed to teach rhetoric and virtue in exchange for money (and, because Plato’s work survives, the poor old Sophists have really suffered). The Lesser Hippias is basically Socrates in full troll mode against one of these guys, arguing that being good at lying is Good. I’ll leave the logical fallacy as an exercise for the reader.
  26. Greater Hippias: What is Beauty? Plato has another go at Hippias, with some truly glorious snark.
  27. Euthydemus: The single funniest Platonic dialogue, Plato takes logical fallacies (which he is accusing the Sophists of being guilty of), and just runs with it into absolute absurdity.
  28. (Demodocus): A Sophist argument that somehow got lumped under Plato’s name (it’s definitely not Plato’s authorship). The Demodocus tries to argue that one can never trust any advice whatsoever, and in the translation I read, the thing is practically incomprehensible.
  29. Protagoras: The Sophists Strike Back. Protagoras was a famous moral relativist (“man is the measure of all things”), and he and Socrates square off in a debate as to whether virtue can be taught. Protagoras says it can, Socrates says it can’t. Protagoras makes a series of excellent arguments, Socrates concedes the point, and then changes tack in order to trip Protagoras up. It’s almost like Socrates was trying to win, Sophist-style…
  30. Gorgias: Thank you, Callicles, for finally calling up Socrates on his tactic of nonsensical equivocation. Quite apart from the Sophistry, the Gorgias also has an interesting discussion on ethics – about whether it is better to suffer or to inflict suffering. There is also a strange little section towards the end where Socrates debates with himself.
  31. Phaedrus: My personal favourite dialogue of the entire corpus. This one touches on several areas – romantic love (in some respects it is a follow-up to the Symposium), rhetoric, and writing. Plato introduces the notion that the soul is akin to a chariot being pulled by two winged horses – Socrates himself may hate writing, but what his student produced here is a beautiful piece of work.
  32. Cratylus: A dry follow-up to Meno that links Naming with the World of Forms. The dialogue immediately concludes that names are not simply creations of social convenience, but rather things that say something about that which they are naming. Actually quite Tolkienian in subject matter.
  33. Thaetetus: What is Knowledge? Not light reading, but the Big One as far as epistemology is concerned. Socrates considers several possible ideas, and rejects them all – making sure to take a pot-shot at Protagoras’ relativism along the way.
  34. Parmenides: Thus far, the World of Forms has been a given in Plato. As has Socrates’ general superiority in debate. Sure, Protagoras nearly gets him, and Callicles from the Gorgias gives him a run for his money, but generally Socrates beats the Muppet of the Week with ease. That all changes in the Parmenides. The first half represents elderly Parmenides and his colleague Zeno (yes, that one) ripping the youthful Socrates apart, and raising some killer arguments against the World of Forms (including Aristotle’s later Third Man Argument). The second half of this dialogue, where Zeno discusses an example with another young man, is incomprehensible. Seriously, people have been trying to figure it out for millennia, and there is still no agreement on what is going on. So take heart that you are not the first person to be confused by the Parmenides.Parmenides.jpg
  35. Philebus: On the surface, this is just a straight-forward argument about which is better – pleasure or wisdom (spoiler alert: wisdom’s better, but you really want a combination of the two. Groundbreaking, I know). The dialogue is actually more interesting for how it reaches the conclusions it does, with some further elaboration on the World of Forms and other Big Issues.
  36. Sophist: Socrates actually takes a back seat in this one, as the main character is the Eleaic Stranger. Ostensibly about how to properly classify a Sophist, the piece features heavy use of division categorisation, and makes some further elaboration on the World of Forms. Fun Platonic fact – ‘Not-Being’ also partakes in the form of Being.
  37. Statesman: A follow-up to the Sophist, this was actually the second part of an incomplete trilogy (the unwritten third dialogue was to be the Philosopher). The Statesman is about defining Statesmanship… and is a good deal more grounded in its political ideas than the Republic. Sure, Plato thinks the Philosopher King is the best… but a written law is second best. The dialogue also features some interesting myths, including a world where men age backwards.
  38. Timaeus: As a curiosity, this was actually considered the most important Platonic dialogue in the medieval era, primarily because the first half (translated into Latin) was the only Plato directly available in Medieval Europe. The Timaeus, part acid trip, part dry science textbook, is Plato engaging with natural philosophy, and it is profoundly odd. The mystical elements contained here, along with the Parmenides, are the basis of Neoplatonic mysticism, and along with the follow-up, the Critias, this dialogue is the foundation of the Atlantis myth. Meanwhile, Plato believed in reincarnation, with good people ending up on appropriate stars (bad people end up as women. It’s moments like this that you realise Plato’s famous gender equality thing from the Republic was just him being a Spartan fanboy).
  39. Critias: An unfinished follow-up to the Timaeus, the Critias is Atlantis world-building notes. Yes, really. Image result for atlantis fall
  40. Minos: A dubious dialogue that traditionally functioned as a preamble to the Laws, the Minos is seen as an early attempt at exploring legal philosophy (not a particularly deep one – legal ideas have advanced a bit since, and I am sure that most people would be sceptical of the notion that the best legal framework is the one that has endured the longest).
  41. Laws: Ugh. The Laws. Plato’s last undisputed work, the Laws is the longest Platonic dialogue (it’s longer than the Republic) and does not feature Socrates. It’s also a depressing piece of work in every respect, to the point where you wish for Plato’s sake that it had been lost to history. Long gone is the utopian dream of the Republic, here replaced with the mundane minutiae of planning a Cretan colony. The Laws has to be considered an important Platonic work, but honestly, it’s only useful for specialists interested in specific parts. Taken as a whole? It’s eminently hate-worthy, and I don’t just mean the regulations on what to do with slaves. In terms of the wider corpus, think of a lonely old man, sitting on a graveyard bench in late autumn, as dry leaves scatter around him. The old man dwells on the failures of his life. That is the Laws.
  42. Epinomis: A short follow-up to the Laws (hence the name), the Epinomis isn’t really about law. It’s about the soul, and how the Greeks regarded astronomy. Actually worth reading if you are interested in the more mystical side of Platonism.
  43. (Definitions): Not a dialogue, but a list of 184… definitions. Definitely spurious, and of minimal philosophical value – though the definition of Man ties back to that old “featherless biped” story (cue Diogenes and his plucked chicken).
  44. (Epigrams): Again, not a dialogue, and not Plato’s work, this is literally just eighteen poetic ruminations, each only about 2-3 sentences long.
  45. Epistles: Plato’s letters. Allegedly. There are thirteen of them, some of them more authentic than others (everyone agrees the First one is a fake, but the others are up for debate). The longest and most important one is the Seventh Letter, which I would recommend reading first, since it provides some useful biographical and contextual information for the others. Apart from the Seventh and the Eighth Letters (which, if authentic, ties back to the Laws), the other Epistles – real or otherwise – are just fluff from Plato’s time on Sicily.

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So yeah. The Platonic corpus and apocrypha. I hope someone finds this useful 🙂

From Russia With Hate: Correspondence with a Mass-murderer

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Oh dear. Someone on the internet – allegedly from Russia – decided to write to the Christchurch shooter, as he sits awaiting trial. He wrote back, sending a letter that was apparently six pages long, and dated 4th July.

There has been understandable outrage at this. To which there needs to be a clarification: prisoners in New Zealand are able to send and receive letters from prison. In fact, I have written to a prisoner myself (you have to get their permission first, and it is all done via old-school physical letters. No E-mail). So, as much as we may dislike the Christchurch shooter, he is quite within his rights.

The problem here isn’t that he was writing, it was what he was writing. All incoming and outgoing mail from prisoners is read (or supposed to be read) – and withheld if necessary (there are guidelines for this). Allegedly, there’s some nasty stuff in the Russian letter that meant the thing should never have been sent – basically, someone on the prison staff ticked off the letter as fit to send, when it clearly wasn’t. Probably because they didn’t actually read the six pages in its entirety, or just didn’t pay close attention.

I’m not one of those theorising that there is some far-right sympathiser working at Corrections, who let this thing out. It was clearly a screw-up. Nor should we be clamping down on a prisoner’s right to send mail – we’re not monsters. We should, however, take a long, hard look at the withholding guidelines, and make sure that the people who monitor this stuff actually do their jobs properly.

Edit: A law professor weighs in.

Mulled Wine

It’s been yet another warm Winter in this part of the world… but thankfully over the last few days Dunedin has returned to normal. We may or may not be getting some snow too, which reaffirms my belief in the natural order of things.

Anyway, to celebrate the belated (and no doubt temporary) arrival of Winter, I popped down to the supermarket, and grabbed the ingredients for some mulled wine.

Mulled Wine

I like my mulled wine sweet. Very sweet. And choc-full of spices.

Anyway, my preferred way of making it:

  • Three litres of cheap cask wine
  • 400g of brown sugar (yes, really)
  • Two tablespoons of honey (no kill like overkill…)
  • Four oranges
  • Ginger
  • Cinnamon
  • Mixed Spice
  • Nutmeg
  • Cloves

Pour the wine into a nice big saucepan. Chop the oranges into quarters, and squeeze the slices into the wine. Then drop the slices in too, and leave them.

Add the sugar, honey, and spices. I personally take the viewpoint that one cannot have too much ginger and cinnamon, though I’m a bit more sparing with the nutmeg (obviously) and cloves. Stir, while heating the saucepan until the wine is hot (not boiling, but at least giving off a decent amount of vapour).

Once the wine is hot, turn down the heat, and ladle out some, into a glass. Try the wine as an experiment. If it’s not sweet enough, add more sugar. If you can’t taste the cloves or other spices, add some more of that. If in doubt, add more ginger and cinnamon. If it’s fine… let the wine sit overnight in the saucepan (seriously, it gets better the longer you leave it), reheat, then consume. Chances are, the three litres will last you several days.

The big trick is leaving the orange slices in, and don’t worry about cloves between the teeth, or the gunk at the bottom of your glass. It’s all part of the experience.

2019 German Play

It’s that time of year again, when I get roped into the University of Otago’s annual German language production (this would be the seventh consecutive year for me. Not bad for someone who only did German to High School level). 2019 (like 2018) is the ever-popular fairy tale play, and it means that August will be all about line memorisation…

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I am playing Meckermann, a villainous watchman.

Look On My Works Ye Mighty and Despair: The Literary Future

I think everyone has these thoughts occasionally. You know, pondering what the world will be like long after you’re gone. Matters of great importance, or even the entire human race, reduced to eventual insignificance by the tyranny of chronology… it’s an underlying staple of a certain pessimistic branch of science-fiction. H.P. Lovecraft had something to say about this, but he was not the first, not by a long chalk. Olaf Stapledon engages with the idea even more directly, first through exploring the next few billion years of human evolution (The Last and First Men), and then having a work on such a scale, that he resorts to characterising sentient stars (Star Maker).

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There is, I think, a certain awe-inspiring terror to truly Deep Time… but as Lovecraft implies, the human mind cannot properly comprehend it. We are, after all, creatures for whom a mere hundred years is a long time, never mind a thousand, or ten thousand – and that is not inherently a bad thing. It is simply who we are. And once we can shrink things down to historical time scales, we can start engaging with ideas properly. More specifically, that strange little grab for immortality known as writing.

Human beings have been expressing ideas for much, much longer than writing has been around. Oral traditions are powerful things. But such is the nature of writing that it enables us to access minds long dead, often in a manner far more direct and unmediated than “mere” word of mouth. Yes, we’ve got the oral stuff that was written down, preserved for the ages. We’ve got the fragments of Gilgamesh. We’ve got the Illiad, and Beowulf, and the Icelandic Sagas, and we sorely need to thank Snorri Sturluson. But we’ve also got stuff that wasn’t oral tradition in the proper sense (even if the works were compiled posthumously). We can access the thoughts of Confucius, Plato, and Aristotle, further removed in chronology from, say, the medieval era than the medieval era is from our own time. These intellectual bedrock figures continue to have such importance, precisely because their work is preserved via the medium of writing. And, more to the point, these ancient written works will continue to be read long after you and I, dear reader, are forgotten.

I think every writer secretly dreams that some aspect of our work will live on after we die. That the work we’ve bequeathed to the world will still entertain and engage future generations – hell, we’ve certainly got a better shot at cultural immortality than those who don’t write, right? Well, yes. And so long as some copy of your work still sits, gathering dust, in a library basement or on the uppermost shelf of a second-hand bookshop, the ghost of a writer’s ideas will never quite vanish from this earth. But… and here is the sobering reality… will anyone actually read us in the years to come? For every giant of the literary canon, there are many tens of thousands whose work will not be remembered. Or, even if they are remembered, are never actually read – poor Bulwer-Lytton, a figure our great-great-grandparents might have read unironically, is now only associated with the “worst opening line in English literature” (it isn’t, but I digress).

To take the fantasy genre, a century ago – and a century is not actually a long time, when one really thinks about it – we had the likes of William Morris, Lord Dunsany, Abraham Merritt, William Hope Hodgson, and E.R. Eddison. Obscure figures now, but at least remembered by fantasy buffs, and still accessible if you do a bit of library hunting, or muck around with Project Gutenberg. These, dear reader, were the lucky ones. If, in a hundred years, any writer producing stuff today still has people picking up their work, they’ve made it, at least for now. A hundred years ain’t a long time, after all – give it another three hundred, and then check back on progress.

And what of the leading genre figures today? Never mind a century – let’s settle for the much more manageable figure of fifty years hence. What will people be reading then? I’d suggest Tolkien – he’s been dead for nearly half a century already, and he’s still a perennial read (though even here fashions change. Walter Scott used to be a Big Name in literature, before dropping off the radar a bit). J.K. Rowling might survive too, perhaps because the tradition of bedtime reading helps the longevity of children’s works – parents remember what was read to them as a child, and so on. But after that? Who knows? It’s entirely possible that fifty years from now, George R.R. Martin is better remembered for producing one of the finest vampire novels of the twentieth century than for A Song of Ice and Fire – and, before you scoff, I’d point out that Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells did not exactly go to plan in the magnum opus department either. History has a very strange sense of humour sometimes.

All this is very deflating to us writers, of course. But what of readers? Are there any lessons to be taken from the transience of human existence? In one sense, no. To be honest, I think there is still a perfectly valid case for just reading what you like, without regard to what survives long term. So what if Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey disappears down the memory plughole in the years to come? If you enjoy those books, go ahead and read them, and if you don’t, don’t judge others for reading them. Different tastes, and all that, and who knows what will end up having the last laugh anyway. The Sorrows of Young Werther, by Goethe, was arguably the eighteenth century Twilight (its reception even anticipated the eccentricities of modern fandom), and it still gets made required reading in some places.

On the other hand – and I have pondered this during my recent binge on the classics – if you extend the time-frame out from fifty years hence to five hundred, what will people be reading then? Who knows… but if I was a betting man, I’d place money on dear old Confucius, Plato, and Aristotle, even above Shakespeare, Dante, and Chaucer. What’s another five centuries when you have already lasted two and a half millennia? Maybe in order to truly engage with the far-future – to anticipate what they will be reading, and thinking about – you have to, at least on some level, engage with the distant past. Just a thought anyway.