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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Failed—Desmorious

Every writer has several projects initiated with gusto, abandoned with reluctance. My first was a forty-page novel in middle school—a Lord of the Rings knock-off called The War of the Bowl. In high school, my friend Jon Ying and I devised a western desperadoes-and-dragons webcomic called Dustbound. In college, I wrote rough drafts and buried them in the rough. Even now, as I revise my novel, I fear its future in a back-folder on Dropbox.

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Fiction—”Rabbits and Eagles”

Blue sky. Clouds shaped like rabbits and eagles. Faro Claret looked up at a statue of an old war hero, a bowcock adorned with gumdrops—no—buttons, and a gray uniform, and a conglomeration of names. Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard. Faro knew very little about art history, or history, and today was a rare adventure away from his windowless office where he worked for another conglomeration of names—Merklee Shipping Commissions Incorporated. This was one stop of many. Moments before he had admired a tree with similar awe, as if a tree were a sculpted thing too, carrying mysteries in silence. Continue reading “Fiction—”Rabbits and Eagles””

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).

Works Cited

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.

Who said it? Donald Trump or a Disney Villain? A Special Presidential Post

“I’m surrounded by idiots.”

Was this Donald Trump speaking in a rally about the White House, or Donald Trump speaking to the White House about one of his rallies, or Scar from The Lion King?

“The most beautiful girl in town, that makes her the best! And don’t I deserve the best?”

Insensitive remarks from Donald Trump’s conversation with Billy Bush or Gaston in Beauty & the Beast?

“They’re not like you and me, which means they must be evil.” Also: “Off with their heads!”

Donald Trump riffing on Mexicans or Ratcliffe riffing on Native Americans in Pocahontas or the Queen of Hearts ripping up her citizens?

“You are deformed, and you are ugly, and these are things for which the world shows little pity.”

Trump tweeting his daughter Tiffany or Frollo twittering at Quasimodo?

“I killed Mufasa!”

Trump or Scar?

“You poor, simple fools. Thinking you could defeat me. ME!”

Maleficent or the 2016 inaugural address?

“You’re speechless, I see. A fine quality in a wife.”

Jaffar or Trump proposing to his third wife?

“Triton’s daughter will be mine and then I’ll make him writhe. I’ll see him wriggle like a worm on a hook.”

Obviously Trump.