Category: Literature & the Humanities

Humanity’s attempt to document and understand the human experience through the fine arts, the less-than-fine arts, history, philosophy, and religion.

Carl Sagan on Books

François Boucher. Madame de Pompadour. 1756, oil on canvas, Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

Literacy is one of the great tools of civilization. Etymology is one aspect of this tool. Your ability to read my writing—another. The moral imagination invoked is a third. Unfortunately, writing is a recent invention—we’re still getting used to it. As Sagan notes in The Demon-Haunted World (335):

For 99 percent of the tenure of humans on earth, nobody could read or write. The great invention had not yet been made. Except for firsthand experience, almost everything we knew was passed on by word of mouth. As in the children’s game “Telephone,” over tens and hundreds of generations, information would slowly be distorted and lost.

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Perrine on Escape and Interpretation

The first question to ask about fiction is, Why bother to read it?

Rembrandt van Rijn. Scholar in His Study. 1634, oil on canvas, National Gallery in Prague, Czech Republic.

Laurence Perrine, an English professor whose Sound and Sense textbook series was immensely popular, splits literature between escape, which helps us “pass the time agreeably,” and interpretive, “written to broaden and deepen and sharpen our awareness of life” (3). Escape and interpretation are not “two great bins, into… which we can toss any given story” but a scale with each inhabiting opposite ends (4).

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Neil Gaiman, Cakes, and Writhing

Gaiman was the reason I always had purple baggy-eyes in elementary and middle school. The simplicity of his writings, the interweaving of mythology, monsters, and modernity, and the cruel world behind-the-magic offered my child-self something gripping, something utterly fantastic and appalling to explore late in the night. His writing still does—today—in my late twenties. Personally, my favorite work by Neil Gaiman is The Ocean at the End of the Lane (and not only because Fiction Beer Company has a citrus wheat beer inspired by the novel). I have a theory about literature (I’m allowed a few theories, being an English teacher) that great works must inspire the moral imagination, even if the wisdoms aren’t the sort we want to hear. In To Kill a Mockingbird, the title clues us in—Harper Lee wants us to understand that it’s a “sin to kill a mockingbird” for they “don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.” The book indicts an American culture which regularly commits this sacrilege against its disadvantaged and minorities. In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, behind an incredible narrative about magic and outsiders, there is an abundance of dark truths about adulthood—its deceptive ontology of control, its routine mindlessness. Gaiman reminds us “Adults follow paths. Children explore;” “Nobody looks like what they really are on the inside;” and—in the most incredible line I’ve read in literature, something that explains the opus of Stephen King and H. P. Lovecraft better than they did themselves—that what marks adulthood is not some maturity or inner growth, but the awareness of how fragile the surface of our lives are, the recognition that reality is “a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger.”

The first five Roman emperors (the Julio-Claudian Dynasty) and their last words

Fact. Fiction. The following may be apocryphal, may be accurate. When it comes to the Romans, we have to trust the ancient writers, or ignore them. My source is Gaius Suetonius, a Roman knight and historian who lived in the first and second century.

1. Augustus. Aged 75. Last words to his friends from his sick-bed: “Since well I’ve played my part, all clap your hands, and from the stage dismiss me with applause.” And to his wife, Livia: “Live mindful of our wedlock, Livia, and farewell.” Finally, at the very moment preceding death, he shouted in terror that forty men were carrying him off, then breathed his last (Suetonius, “Life of Augustus,” 99).

2. Tiberius. 78, violently ill, called for attendants to no response, got up, fell over, and died near the couch. No last words, but the people’s eulogy was: “Tiberius to the Tiber!” in hopes of his body being tossed, as was custom to do to criminals, into the river Tiber (Suetonius, “Life of Tiberius,” 73-75). 

3. Caligula. Assassinated at 29 in a manner similar to Julius Caesar: “I am still alive.” His enemies responded: “Strike again!” The historian takes note that their sword thrusts included his genitals (Suetonius, “Life of Caligula,” 58).

4. Claudius. 63. Poisoned by wife or eunuch, likely by mushrooms (a favorite dish). After swallowing the poison he became speechless, which was probably for the best, as he was known for his stutter (Suetonius, “Life of Claudius,” 44). According to Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis (good satire, go read it), after shitting himself, he whimpered: “Oh dear, oh dear, I think I have made a mess of myself” (3). 

5. Nero. 32. In the face of rebellion, abandoned by allies and his guard, just delivered a false report that he’d been declared public enemy by the Senate, and hearing the sound of horse-steps, Nero wept and said again and again: “What an artist the world is losing!” Finally he drove a dagger into his throat, after shouting, “Hark, now strikes on my ear the trampling of swift-footed coursers!” As centurions rushed in, Nero gasped, “Too late!” and expired (Suetonius, “Life of Nero,” 49).

References

C. Suetonius Transquillus, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars. Loeb Classical Library (1913). University of Chicago Site, 19 Feb. 2017. 

Seneca, Apocolocyntosis. W. H. D. Rouse, trans. Perseus, 19 Feb. 2017.