Saturday, 8 August 2015

"All things are at odds when God lets a thinker loose on this planet": Edith Hamilton and sexism in education, succeeding as a woman, and exploring like the Greeks

Edith Hamilton visiting Greek ruins, 1957. Photo by
James Whimore.

In 1958, when Edith Hamilton was ninety-one years old, Life magazine declared her to be the world's “greatest living woman classicist". She lived to the age of ninety-five, and was described by The New York Times as the classical scholar who "brought into clear and brilliant focus the Golden Age of Greek life and thought ... with Homeric power and simplicity in her style of writing".

Describing her childhood in Indiana, she said, 

My father was well-to-do, but he wasn't interested in making money; he was interested in making people use their minds. 

Her father guided her towards the Classics, and, when she was seven years old, he began teaching her Latin, then French, German, and Greek.

Edith travelled with her sister, Alice, to Germany to study humanities and classics at Leipzig, but discovered that women were still not allowed to earn a doctoral degree. The situation didn't improve when she moved to the University of Munich, either. 

Alice writes in her biography that when Edith arrived, "she was forced instead to sit on a chair up on the platform beside the lecturer, facing the audience, so that nobody would be contaminated by contact with her."

She remembered Edith saying, "The head of the University used to stare at me, then shake his head and say sadly to a colleague, 'There now, you see what's happened? We're right in the midst of the woman question.'"

Yet Edith went on to write several landmark texts on the classics, including The Greek Way (1930). It was here, in her earliest exploration of "the calm lucidity of the Greek mind", that she wrote of Aeschylus,

Life for him was an adventure, perilous indeed, but men are not made for safe havens. The fullness of life is in the hazards of life. And, at the worst, there is that in us which can turn defeat into victory.

This is a wonderful quote–one of my favourites–and is included in David Brooks's The Social Animal. If you hadn't read this, it's a superb "story" of the lives of two fictional characters that is intersected with psychological, biological and sociological explanations of their motives, growth and discoveries as they progress through life.

To reference another quote from Hamilton, "All things are at odds when God lets a thinker loose on this planet" (The Greek Way).


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Friday, 31 July 2015

The power of a sunset: how Viktor Frankl & Tolstoy’s Pierre Bezukhov are lifted from hardship by the beauty of nature



Despite experiencing unimaginable hardship during the Holocaust, Viktor Frankl describes in Man’s Search for Meaning how he was able to admire the beauty of a sunset like never before:

If someone had seen our faces on the journey from Auschwitz to a Bavarian camp as we beheld the mountains of Salzburg with their summits glowing in the sunset, through the little barred windows of the prison carriage, he would never have believed that those were the faces of men who had given up all hope of life and liberty.

This experience links to Viktor Frankl's concept of logotherapy, a treatment literally meaning “therapy through meaning” that is based on the premise that we are motivated by an inner pull to find a meaning in life. Essentially, life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones.

I find it interesting that in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Pierre Bezukhov has a similar experience to Frankl when he is falsely imprisoned for arson. One morning, Pierre recognises the awe of,
a sudden glint of light in the east followed by the sun’s rim rising majestically from behind a cloud, and the domes and crosses, the hoar-frost, the horizon and the river all merrily sparkling in the new light

Despite his captivity, Pierre develops an awareness of his self and surroundings in contrast with his earlier absentmindedness and desire for distraction. As a result, he is able to recognise the beauty of nature around him. This leads to "a new surge of strength and vitality, the like of which he had never known before", which only expands "as the hardships of his plight had gone on increasing".

As Andrew Kaufman describes in Give War and Peace a Chance,
Suddenly there is no better place to be–no world to save, no utopia to create, no alcohol or beautiful woman or poker game in which to seek intoxication [...]

Instead, circumstances force Pierre to “plant his feet firmly on the ground, and live, like [the peasant Platon Karataev], in the here and now”.

Look around. If you spot “a sudden glint of light”, try to savour it for a moment.


Read more:
Logotherapy and stoicism in Viktor E. Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning


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Friday, 24 July 2015

Reading The Great Gatsby when you can't sleep, as in Donna Tartt's The Secret History


I've posted before about insomnia and the books that might help to alleviate it. However, sometimes nothing seems to work. If you struggle with insomnia too, you might find this quote from Donna Tartt's The Secret History resonant. It mentions F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, as just one of the many books referenced in Tartt's novel.

The sleepless character in The Secret History is Richard Papen: the narrator who belongs to an elite group of six close-knit classics students. The novel is a stunning tale of destruction and creation and irrationality and rationality, and is in many ways akin to a Greek tragedy. Do read it if you get a chance.

Nothing is lonelier or more disorienting than insomnia. I spent the nights reading Greek until four in the morning, until my eyes burned and my head swam, until the only light burning in Monmouth House was my own. When I could no longer concentrate on Greek and the alphabet began to transmute itself into incoherent triangles and pitchforks, I read The Great Gatsby. It is one of my favourite books and I had taken it out of the library in hopes that it would cheer me up; of course, it only made me feel worse, since in my own humourless state I failed to see anything except what I construed as certain tragic similarities between Gatsby and myself.

This isn't exactly an glowing appraisal of Gatsby as a book for insomnia, as it "only [makes Richard] feel worse". However, I think it says a lot about the novels we choose when we cannot sleep. They are "favourites" that we turn to for comfort, and they often do provide this, depending on our place in life and our present feelings.

I certainly think there's something magical about The Great Gatsby, as in the following quote:

In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.

Magic tends to be a good thing at four in the morning when it's getting light outside.


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Thursday, 16 July 2015

Nick Cave's chosen "sad poem of loss": "The Widower in the Country" by Les Murray

Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2012.
Image credit Sally May Mills. 

I was very saddened to hear the news of Nick Cave's son; the family facing a tragic accident not far from where I live in Sussex. It reminded me of the musician's selection for the Poems That Make Grown Men Cry anthology (edited by Anthony and Ben Holden): "The Widower in the Country" by Les Murray.

Nick Cave writes how this "very sad poem of loss revolves mournfully" around the death of the farmer's wife, which remains unmentioned as we follow him through his "dire and ineffectual day's work".

I'll get up soon, and leave my bed unmade.
I'll go outside and split off kindling wood,
From the yellow-box log that lies beside the gate,
And the sun will be high, for I get up late now.

It's the unmade bed and the "I get up late now" that gives away so much. Cave sees the farmer as "that tough old Australian man, so familiar to me, just getting on with the business of life", but views "the violence of the last two lines, that screaming unconsciousness" as the part of the poem that "really brings on the waterworks":

Last night I thought I dreamt – but when I woke
The screaming was only a possum ski-ing down
The iron roof on little moonlit claws. 

It is hard to put words to sad situations like this, but poetry might get close. After all, poems can't always provide solace, but often we can find something close to what we're facing.

My favourite Nick Cave Album? The Lyre of Orpheus half of the Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus double album by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. I'm unsure how O'Children could be more beautiful.

You can read "The Widower in the Country" (1963) by Les Murray in full here and find other superb poetic selections in the Poems That Make Grown Men Cry anthology by Anthony and Ben Holden.


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Wednesday, 15 July 2015

How people (and hobbits) can "find strength they didn't know they had" with books and good company

The End of Your Life Book Club
Will Schwalbe's The End of Your Life Book Club is one of my best-loved non-fiction books, rightly described by Edmund De Waal, author of The Hare with Amber Eyes, as "a true meditation on what books can do".

It is Will Schwalbe's account of the books that he shared with his mother in her final months of living with cancer, and about one third into the book, he relates how, upon returning home on one particularly bad day and unable to sleep, he searches for comfort in his childhood copy of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Schwalbe soon encounters the scene in which protagonist hobbit Bilbo and his dwarf companions find themselves lost and separated in a dark wood. Tolkien's wisdom at this point of the book could not be much more poignant:

That was one of his most miserable moments. But he soon made up his mind that it was no good trying to do anything till day came with some little light.

When sharing his experience of revisiting The Hobbit with his mother the following day, he tries to explain why Tolkien, his childhood favourite, still has a certain power over him:

"I think it's because it shows that people–or hobbits, as the case may be–can find strength they didn't know they had"

Tolkien, throughout The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and his wider work and writing, dispenses a trove of guidance for finding courage when all seems lost (or distant, at least). In The Return of the King, Arwen hands Frodo a diamond that was hanging around her neck and says:

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

"When the memory of the fear and the darkness troubles you, this will bring you aid"

This reminds me that there is a way through difficult and memories, be it with the help of material objects or, say, the memory of happier times. Another wonderful quote is to be found in The Fellowship of the Ring, when Gandalf tells the protesting Frodo ("Why did [the ring] come to me? Why was I chosen?) that:

You have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have.



If you are in need of some extra courage, or a nudge in the direction of mental strength, you could try turning to Tolkien for an hour. Alternatively, perhaps jot down the quotations above for a day with more trials than today.


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Friday, 19 June 2015

Allen Ginsberg on never working again (and living a "literary and quiet city-hermit existence" instead)


Carl Solomon, Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs at the Gotham Book Mart celebrating the reissue of JUNKY, NYC, 1977.

I recently came across a wonderful quote from Allen Ginsberg, the Beat Generation poet best known for his incredible epic poem "Howl" ("I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness..."), and wanted to share it with you.

I think that often we find ourselves reading books, articles and websites that push us to do more, see more, and be more, and I love that this conveys the opposite. Yes, motivating ourselves is important, but so is simplifying life and enjoying the little moments.

It reminds me somewhat of the Nicholas Carr quote that I included in my Arianna Huffington and slowing down article: “there needs to be time for efficient data collection and time for inefficient contemplation, time to operate the machine and time to sit idly in the garden”.

But here's the Ginsberg quote:

“I really would like to stop working forever–never work again, never do anything like the kind of work I’m doing now–and do nothing but write poetry and have leisure to spend the day outdoors and go to museums and see friends. And I’d like to keep living with someone — maybe even a man — and explore relationships that way. And cultivate my perceptions, cultivate the visionary thing in me. Just a literary and quiet city-hermit existence.”

Around 1953 Ginsberg began seeing a therapist at Langley Porter Institute, San Francisco, and recalls saying the above to him. He also remembers the therapists's response: "Well, why don't you?"

Mentioned in On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg by Lewis Hyde (p405)


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