Saturday, August 23, 2014

BOOK: Nicholas of Cusa, "Writings on Church and Reform"

Nicholas of Cusa: Writings on Church and Reform. Translated by Thomas M. Izbicki. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 33. Harvard University Press, 2008. 0674025245. xx + 663 pp.

This book contains a selection of miscellaneous pieces by Nicholas of Cusa, a 15th-century theologian and cardinal. I can't say that I found any of this stuff particularly enlightening or interesting to read, but then I'm not really part of the intended audience anyway. The front flap of the dustjacket says he is “widely considered the most important original philosopher of the Renaissance”, so I can only hope that this volume does not contain his best work :P

To the Bohemians: On the Use of Communion

This piece strikes me as something I would expect to find in a poorly-written satire by some anti-clerical propagandist, and it's a bit depressing to see that the debate was actually going on in earnest. Apparently one of the points of contention between the mainstream catholic church and the Hussites (a Czech denomination that was considered heretical by the church) was about the ritual of communion: the Hussites believed that both the priest and the congregation should consume wine and bread during the ritual, whereas the church believed that the congregation should only get the bread, but not wine.

And now we get a 40-page treatise arguing about this topic, bristling with references to ancient theologians and the like. It starts with a summary of the Hussite point of view; they argue that their version of the ritual is in fact the original one, and is supported by various ancient authorities. But then Nicholas's reply says very plainly that the main point here is about obedience to the church and nothing else. If the church changes its mind about some ritual or some theological question or whatever else, you should stick to its new position, because either god himself has changed his mind (so the new version is the correct one), or in the unlikely case that the church is wrong about this, god won't hold it against you for obeying it, whereas if you go your own way and happen to be wrong, you're shit out of luck (¶15, 18, 33). Nice.

I suppose in a way it's refreshing that he is so direct about this. At some level we know that religion is largely about power and control, but nowadays I don't have the impression that they like to admit it quite so openly as Nicholas does in this treatise. But it's depressing to think that people allowed such tyrannous institutions to achieve such a monstrous degree of influence.

Letter to the Bohemians on Church Unity

Later in the book there's a long “Letter to the Bohemians” on the same subject; this was apparently written much later in his career but his arguments are more or less the same as in the first essay. Among other things he goes into a thorough review of various historical practices of communion, trying to argue that the Hussites were wrong in thinking that the laypeople used to receive the bread (¶30–40).

I found all of this rather embarrassing to read — to think that a smart and educated person (as Nicholas undoubtedly was) would waste so much effort on arguing such ridiculous minute details of such thoroughly pointless and fictional issues. This is just as silly as if you had a bunch of geeks quarrelling on whether Star Wars is better than Star Trek or vice versa — except that in that case, everyone including themselves would at some level know that they're just being silly, whereas Nicholas and the other theologians no doubt took their disputes extremely seriously.

A curious passage from ¶36, where he describes various eucharist-related customs: “Others even forced the Eucharist on the dead, which was prohibited synodally”.

Councils and authority

The next two essays (“Is the authority of the holy councils greater than that of the pope?” and “On presidential authority in a general council”) are on the subject of universal councils of the church; they are a bit less authoritarian than I expected after reading the first essay. Nicholas argues that the pope must obey the decisions of such a council, and that if he or his representatives are present at the council, they may preside over it only in the sense of facilitating the discussion, not actually forcing others to adopt a specific point of view. In fact Nicholas says that the real president of such a council is god himself. He does however emphasize that decisions taken at such councils should be as unanimous as possible.

Judging by the translator's introduction (p. x), these questions weren't as academic as they might appear at first sight: they had a practical relevance to Nicholas, who was attending just such a council (Council of Basel).

Oration at the Diet of Frankfurt

This memorandum is almost 50 pages long, so I feel sorry for those who had to listen to it as a speech in Frankfurt :P (The translator's introduction says: “In fact, the princes [who were supposed to be listening to this speech in the diet of Frankfurt] went hunting and left their advisers to hear these orations, which went on for three days each.” P. xii.) It deals with various controversies surrounding the Council of Basel, which I can't say I found very interesting, but it was encouraging to think that the various controversies of our present day will seem equally irrelevant a few centuries in the future as the council of Basel seems now, which I think is a comforting thought.

Apparently the council was at some point approached by representatives of the orthodox church from Greece, who wished to merge their church back under the Roman catholic church, thereby ending the schism from a few centuries earlier; but in order to do so, they asked that the council be moved to some more easily accessible location so that the various elderly Greek patriarchs, prelates etc. could actually survive the trip there (¶9). The council decided to move to the town of Ferrara in Italy, but a few members remained in Basel, claiming that the move to Ferrara was invalid and that the ones in Basel are still the universal council; they even proclaimed a new (anti)pope since the current pope supported the move to Ferrara. To make matters more bizarre, their antipope was one duke Amadeus, i.e. not even a clergyman (¶17).

Nicholas of course argues against all this, pointing out that you can't really have a universal council without a sufficiently representative set of prelates being present, so once most of the delegates left Basel, there simply was no longer a council there, regardless of what the remaining ones claimed. Besides, the council of Ferrara was obviously more universal because it also included a big delegation from Greece.

(See the Wikipedia for more on how this story continues: the Greek delegation at Ferrara included the patriarch of Constantinople and even the Byzantine emperor himself. After long discussions of the theological differences between the western and the eastern church, the council managed to reach some sort of compromise, but the Greek representatives at the council lacked the power to impose the agreement on the rest of the eastern church: “Upon their return, the Eastern bishops found their agreement with the West broadly rejected by the monks, the populace and by civil authorities”, so it all came to nothing. Anyway, I was particularly surprised to see that the Byzantine emperor himself attended the council; this was in 1438, merely 15 years before the Turks destroyed the Byzantine empire for good, so I would have naively imagined that the emperor had more pressing things to do than travel to Italy for a religious council.)

Occasionally his righteous anger gets highly amusing, e.g. in ¶47 where he refers to the Council of Basel as “that conventicle of wicked schismatics” :))) Makes it sound way more fun than it probably was :)

A Dialogue against the Amedeists

There's also a dialogue on the subject of the Council of Basil, which like many such dialogues isn't really written as a conversation of two equals, but consists of a disciple's questions and a teacher's explanations. Thus it's more like a modern-day FAQ list than a real dialogue. In any case, the dialogue gives a bit of an overview of how the controversy came about and then repeats Nicholas's arguments about why the faction that remained in Basel is wrong and the legitimate council is now the one that's sitting at Ferrara.

Now, I might not be too fond about some of Nicholas's arguments — he seems to rely very heavily on the idea that a council doesn't have the authority to tell the pope what to do, which means that the Basel faction is wrong mainly because the pope supported the move to Ferrara — but in any case, I'm surprised that there even was so much debate about these things. I mean, the prelates that remained in Basel were much fewer than those that agreed to move to Ferrara; besides, the pope and the representatives of the Eastern church were also on the side of the council of Ferrara; how then could anybody seriously claim that the Basel faction was a universal council and the Ferrara one was heretical and wrong? The idea seems completely ludicrous.

Letter to Sánchez de Arévalo

I was extremely impressed by this letter — it consists more or less entirely of industrial-grade theological word salad. It's more impenetrable than most postmodernist essays, including those generated by the postmodern essay generator :P I suppose that someone who has a suitable amount of the right background knowledge could follow his arguments, but I could do little more than stare and marvel in dumbfounded amazement. Here are a few choice examples:

“All created things participate, in an unfolded, indeed varied way, the unity of the eternal Word, which enfolds all things, so that the Word Itself, although as such it is imparticipable, is participated in the variety of a multitude of participants in the best way possible.” (¶1)

“All rational creatures, therefore, can achieve the ultimate happiness in no other way than by participating the grace of Jesus. In all those participating that grace, therefore, the grace of Jesus is unfolded in a variety of participants. In this way the grace of Jesus is everything which is in all who are pleasing to God; and all those pleasing to God are, in Jesus, everything that is pleasing to God.” (¶2)

“Since, however, a multitude can participate unity only in a varied diversity, the Church cannot subsist, consequently, except in a varied participation of unity.” (¶6)

“There is no unfoldable unity in the multitude, as though a greater virtue of unity exists in an unfolded way. We know this universal principate, originally enfolding every particular principate, to be inexhaustible through multiplication of particular principates.” (¶6)

He must have been smoking some really good stuff :)

In the end, Nicholas returns to his usual themes (usual for this book, at least) of councils and papal authority; apparently the purpose of the theological wharrgarble in the earlier parts of the letter was to justify his ideas about the importance of church unity and obedience to the pope (as opposed to allowing councils to disagree with him, etc.). He really is like a broken clock on this topic.

Sermons

The book also includes several sermons, but for the most part I didn't find them particularly interesting. Admittedly I was until now almost completely unfamiliar with sermons as a genre, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect. Still, I rarely had any clear idea of what he was trying to say and it felt more as if he was just waffling and rambling, meandering randomly from one topic to the next without any clear purpose, his ‘argumentation’ proceeding almost entirely on the basis of bald assertions and wishful thinking.* I expected that a sermon would have to be more accessible and understandable, perhaps include some parables and a clear message; maybe Nicholas's background was too academic for him to be writing that kind of sermons. I wonder what effect, if any, his sermons had on his original audience when he delivered them in church.

*And he isnt't at all embarrassed to admit it: “whatever the intellect desires is truth.” (Sermon 126, ¶8.)

A General Reform of the Church

This essay starts with a few pages of his usual incoherent theological wharrgarble, but the rest of it is a pretty sensible plan of church reform. His main idea is to send out visitation committees which should verify and ensure that everything is being done by the rules. Of course he can't resist his old obsession with “observances and practices” (¶10), i.e. you can almost imagine him trying to drag out the old debates on who should get what during communion yet again. Most of the rest of the plan focuses on more reasonable things, such as making sure that priests, bishops, monks, abbots etc. are doing their jobs, living decently and modestly (¶31–2), etc.; he wants such visitations to apply even to the pope and cardinals (¶25–27), and has various ideas on how to prevent prelates from piling up multiple benefices (¶14–17) and spending too much time involved in church politics instead of pastoral work (¶30, 37–9). The visitators would even have the right to sack non-complying prelates (¶19–20). He also wanted to clamp down on the veneration of fake relics (¶22).

The problems addressed by this plan — corruption, simony, etc. — seem to be more or less exactly the ones that eventually, being unaddressed, triggered the reformation. So I guess that Nicholas's plan was either not adopted at all or perhaps wasn't implemented effectively. It's interesting to speculate how different the course of history might have been if his plan had succeeded and no protestant reformation had taken place.

Conclusion

What to say at the end? I'm really not the right target audience for this book. Perhaps someone who is religious and/or is interested in theology would find Nicholas's essays interesting, but I for my part couldn't help regretting that smart and intelligent people like him were wasting so much time and effort on something as barren, misguided and pointless as theology. Heck, even a rabid atheist like myself can have some sympathy for some religious ideas (I always had a certain admiration for ‘do unto others as you would have them to unto you’ and ‘turn the other cheek’, even if they are utterly impractical), but when it degenerates into authoritarian legalese (which basically is what nearly all of Nicholas's writings in this book boil down to: ‘obey the pope’), it's hard to have anything but contempt for it.

Perhaps I should have read this book as essentially a *political* one; instead of complaining about its religious and theological arguments, I should have seen his writings as a part of various political power-struggles within the church of his day. When a politician nowadays writes a speech, or a quasi-intellectual pundit from a think-tank writes a policy whitepaper, nobody looks to such documents expecting truth or wisdom — they are merely tools, weapons in their arsenal. Perhaps Nicholas's writings in this book should be understood in this light as well; that would not make them any more interesting to read, but would perhaps make them slightly less disappointing.

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Saturday, August 16, 2014

BOOK: Bartolomeo Scala, "Essays and Dialogues"

Bartolomeo Scala: Essays and Dialogues. Translated by Renée Neu Watkins, introduction by Alison Brown. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 31. Harvard University Press, 2008. 0674028260. xviii + 314 pp.

Scala was a 15th-century humanist author and in his day also a noted politician in Florence. This book contains six of his essays (some in the form of dialogues) on miscellaneous subjects, collected from various parts of his career. It was not an uninteresting read, but at the same time I can't say that I found Scala's essays terribly enlightening. I was however very impressed by their erudition, and got the feeling that people like Scala couldn't write anything without a few dozen references and allusions to ancient Greek and Roman authors. But this, although it is impressive, seems to me to be rather getting in the way of actual communication; instead of telling us his opinions plainly and directly, he feels that he has to bury them underneath all this classical scholarship.

In any case, I suspect that reading these things for the sake of their contents is the wrong approach anyway; the impression I got from reading the introduction of this book is that these essays are nowadays chiefly interesting to people who study how humanist ideas evolved over time and how the influence of certain ancient authors spread during the time of the renaissance.

On the Philosophical Sects

This is a short (about 15 pages) summary of various ancient Greek philosophers and their ideas. It was interesting enough to read, but did little to dispel my impression of philosophy as a somewhat sterile effort, one which involves lots of wrangling with words and bickering, but gains little wisdom.

I was particularly intrigued by his mention (¶3) that a Roman author named Varro had categorized the various philosophical sects according to several criteria into a system allowing up to 4 × 3 × 2 × 2 × 2 × 3 = 288 possible sects :S

I always imagined Plato's and Aristotle's ideas as being somehow fundamentally opposed, but Scala argues that they can be reconciled and that those two philosophical schools should really be considered one and the same (¶6).

Considering the time he wrote in, I guess we shouldn't be surprised that Scala's views have a bit of a christian bias: he praises philosophers that seem more compatible with christian beliefs (e.g. Plato and the Neoplatonists, ¶12) and criticizes those who aren't (e.g. Epicurus, ¶14). He even emphasizes that where some philosopher's ideas are incompatible with christian beliefs, the latter of course take priority (¶20).

Whether a Wise Man Should Marry

This is another of those things that give philosophy a bad name. It's obvious that a question like this cannot produce anything other than pointless back-and-forth with no clear resolution — though I suspect that for some people this is a feature rather than a defect.

Scala spends about half the essay arguing against marriage, and then the second half arguing in its favor, so that the conclusion is also in favor. In both parts his arguments mostly consist of quoting and summarizing what various ancient authors had to say on the topic. Epicurus says that wives might be either good or bad, so a wise man should avoid marrying since he can't be sure which way his wife would turn out to be (¶4–5). And Theophrastus says that “a wise man should never take a wife unless she is beautiful, of good character, and sprung from honorable parents” (¶6), which is again taken to be an argument against marriage since you can never be really sure about another person's character, and her beauty will inevitably fade anyway. Nor should you marry for the sake of having children, as they might turn out to be bad people (¶10); and you should most definitely not marry for love, as a wise man wants to have nothing to do with that sort of emotional disturbances anyway (¶13); far better to remain celibate and study philosophy instead.

One can't help thinking that, given these philosophers' ideas of how a wise man should think and act, it's far from clear why one would even want to be wise and act according to these ideas of theirs.

Then in ¶16, Scala makes a big ado about how he has by now no doubt offended various obscure Roman deities of marriage, and will therefore try to propitiate them by arguing in favor of marriage for the rest of the essay. He points out that people have a natural desire to marry and have children, and to fight against nature (by eschewing marriage) is not wise (¶18); and that even if marriage does have some bad sides as pointed above, a truly wise man (which seems to be something of a cross between a stoic and a zen buddhist) would not let himself be bothered by such trivialities as e.g. his wife being a tiresome scold and his children being annoying. And in any case, a wife might turn out to be a source of happiness: he cites numerous examples of good wives from ancient history, to prove that women are also capable of loyalty, courage and so on (¶20–5). In hindsight, it's rather sad that such things needed to be argued at such length; but I don't doubt that it was indeed necessary.

There's an interesting passage in ¶7, where Scala complains that one is expected to take a wife “without being shown anything of her first, either of her body, beyond her face, or her mind, than which nothing more is hidden”. This is a good illustration of how times have changed, and how irrelevant many of his concerns are from a present-day perspective; nowadays people usually live together for a long time before marrying, and get to know their partner's body and mind as well as one could reasonably hope to know such things.

Dialogue of Consolation

Scala presents this dialogue as a conversation between himself and Cosimo de' Medici, who was grieving after the death of his son; but I suspect that this is really just a treatise given the form of a dialogue, rather than something based on any real conversation, since Cosimo does most of the talking and he sounds more like a lecturer than a normal person having a conversation.

Just like in the previous essays, the two interlocutors here can't express any idea without piling up huge amounts of references from Greek and Roman literature (which, however, does not mean that they can't be robustly critical of ancient philosophers and their ideas). There's a little passage that illustrates just how deeply immersed these humanists were in ancient culture: Scala talks about gods in the plural so routinely (¶6) that Cosimo feels compelled to remark on that, pointing out how silly the polytheism of the ancients was (¶7); Scala replies that of course he knows that there is only one god, and he then waffles on something about the holy trinity (¶8). (I agree about polytheism being silly, by the way; but I wish they had realised that monotheism is just as silly.)

I particularly liked the part where Cosimo rejects the ideas of Stoics and Epicureans. He sensibly points out that the Stoics' ideas are simply unrealistic: you can't just ignore pain like they would have you do, and he mentions the example of one Dionysius of Heraclea, a former Stoic: “later, when he experienced pain in his kidneys, he said that everything taught in the Stoa was altogether false” (¶19). “They offered and taught things to men that men, being human, could not follow.” (¶21 — he is right; but isn't Jesus's ‘turn the other cheek’ equally unrealistic and useless advice?) And as for Epicureans, their idea of focusing on the pursuit of pleasure isn't really helpful to someone trying to cope with pain (¶25).

This is not to say that Cosimo has any more helpful ideas on how to cope with grief. He says, realistically enough: “in reality we are all unhappy. It is not easy for those in the prime of life, possessing honors and wealth in abundance and in good health, to believe this” (¶31). He tries to argue, not very convincingly, that harm can come even from things which are generally considered good, such as health and wealth (¶32–6). Misery and pain are simply a part of life, or even of human nature (¶39–43); this leads to an interesting discussion of how life itself is not necessarily a good thing (¶44–6) — something I am very much ready to agree with.

But finally he concludes with a step in which I cannot follow him: he finds consolation in religion, believing that life is going to be followed by a more pleasant afterlife (¶47–9). He even resorts to that hoary old bit of christian grotesqueness: “God established this [i.e. our misery and pain] for a very good reason, namely, so that being little attracted by the lures of this world, we might not forget that we must return to truer delights.” (¶49)

In ¶11, Cosimo mentions “the three kinds of gods posited by Scaevola, whom the Romans considered their most learned jurist — those invented by poets, those invented by philosophers, and those invented by the leaders of cities”. This reminded me of Gibbon's even more famous observation (and I wonder if he was influenced by Scaevola?), “The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.”

There's a funny anecdote about Philip of Macedon (Alexander's father) in ¶13: one day when he heard too much good news at the same time, he “raising his eyes to heaven, asked for some middling calamity to offset so much success” :)))

A hilarious factoid from ¶35: “Plato deliberately established the Academy in an insalubrious place, judging that health was an obstacle to philosophical studies” :))

Scala's own role in the dialogue is mostly limited to cheering Cosimo on and agreeing with him. At one point he is so convinced by Cosimo's arguments that he comes up with a sentence I would not have expected from anyone other than Oscar Wilde: “I am so affected by your words that I shall become perfectly willing to become wretched.” (¶37)

Preface to the “Cosimo de' Medici Collection”

Cosimo de' Medici, whom we encountered in the previous essay shortly after the death of his son, died himself about a year later. Scala then apparently compiled a book of quotations in praise of Cosimo, drawn from the works of various poets, orators and the like. (I imagine there must have been plenty of material of this sort, since Cosimo had been the de facto ruler of Florence for a long time and thus lots of people had probably been trying to suck up to him.) He sent this collection to Cosimo's grandson Lorenzo (later known as Lorenzo the Magnificent) and included this preface with it.

The preface doesn't really say much except praise Cosimo's life and achievements, both in the sphere of action as well as in that of learning, wisdom and even religion. Scala tries to give a broader implication to all this by saying that the example of Cosimo's life can be used to refute the claims of those who say that human life is too short to accomplish anything much.

I'm not quite sure what to think of this preface, or indeed of the whole collection that Scala was sending to Lorenzo. Is it a touching way for Scala to say goodbye to a dead man who had been not only his patron but perhaps his mentor and in a way even his friend, and to express condolences to the deceased man's grieving grandson? Or is it just the next ass-kissing step in a long series of ass-kissing steps, with Scala trying to ingratiate himself with the grandson of his former patron so as to make sure that he will stay on good terms with the next bigwig of the town?

For me, it's hard to be enthusiastic about the accomplishments of someone like Cosimo. Scala praises him for his public service but the truth is that his influence in Florence was almost like that of a monarch, even though the city was technically a republic; I think it's inevitably harmful when an individual person wields that much influence in politics. Likewise, when Scala praises him for endowing churches and libraries and the like, I think it's tragic that any individual was allowed to become so rich that he could make such donations in the first place; it makes him seem charitable whereas the truth is that he had no moral right to such wealth in the first place. Rather than relying on the hope that occasionally some rich person will do something charitable, the state should take such excesses of property away from them and make sure they are spent for the common good.

An interesting factoid from ¶10: in the libraries set up by Cosimo, there are “not only works in Latin and Greek, but in Hebrew, Arabic, Chaldaean, and Hindu”. I'm impressed; I didn't know they had any Hindu texts in Europe at the time. Cosimo died in 1464, well before the time of Vasco da Gama etc., so the texts must have reached Europe by land, not by sea.

Dialogue on Laws and Legal Judgments

This is a dialogue between Scala and Bernardo Machiavelli (the father of the better-known Niccolò), discussing the role of laws and their connection to justice. In the first half or so of the dialogue, Scala argues that having everything firmly fixed in the laws is not a good idea, and you should instead rely more on the human sense of justice, assuming of course that your judges do in fact possess it. In the second half of the dialogue, Machiavelli makes a strong defense in favor of laws, and Scala seems to be content to let him have the last word.

I guess this is one of those questions that doesn't have just one obvious correct answer. Even nowadays some countries incline more towards defining things very precisely in their laws, while others leave some more wiggle room and hope that details will gradually be sorted out by judicial predecent. I tend to be distrustful of judges, who are after all part of a self-perpetuating elite of experts, whereas the lawmakers are (at least theoretically) democratically elected representatives of the people, so I prefer for things to be defined in laws rather than left to the interpretation of judges and courts. But I do agree with Scala when he says, very sensibly: “if laws must be passed, they should be obeyed insofar as they do not contravene Nature's laws” (¶32), i.e. he suggests a middle ground between obeying laws to the letter and having no laws at all.

Both speakers in this dialogue use a few arguments that struck me as dodgy. Thus Scala tries to bolster his point of view using the example of that haven of justice and humanity, the Turkish empire! They, he says, dispense with most of the laws and even with lawyers; the pasha listens to the plaintiff and the defendant and then delivers the judgment based on his sense of justice. The only safeguard, it seems, is that you can complain to the sultan who will have the pasha brutally impaled on a stake if he feels that the judgment was unfair (¶11). How can it not have been obvious to Scala (and to anyone else) that this is a recipe for the most perverse and arbitrary tyranny that has nothing whatsoever to do with justice? (Machiavelli points that out as well, ¶55.)

On the other hand, Machiavelli also has a few odd ideas about laws. He seems to think there is an underlying Truth™ about what should be done in any particular legal question or situation, and the aim of the laws is to get as close to this Truth™ as possible; so that if a law gets it right, it's pretty much perfect and there's no reason to ever change it or do things otherwise (¶44–5). I'm surprised that he didn't recognize how a very large proportion of the laws is essentially arbitrary, even though he himself listed some examples of how laws and customs differ between cultures (¶35–6).

Both speakers occasionally invoke a curious type of ‘argument by etymology’, which would be odd even if the etymologies in question were correct, though they are more likely than not completely wrong. See e.g. ¶11, where Scala suggests that the Turkish pasha (which he spells bassias in the original Latin text) is derived from the Greek word for a king, basileus; and in ¶58, Machiavelli tries to illuminate the word jus (law) by reference to its various proposed etymologies. (See also a similar discussion of the word frater in essay no. 6, ¶28.)

Machiavelli mentions a few examples of bizarre laws: “Under the laws of Lycurgus, the ancient Spartans admired the ability to steal” (¶35). “There are others [i.e. other nations] who copulate in public, an act which philosophers of the Cynic school also endorse” (¶36). :)))

Defense against the Detractors of Florence

I didn't find this essay terribly interesting but I guess it made more sense in its original historical context. Scala starts with some remarks about how Florence was on the just and right side of some of the recent wars (I have no opinion on whether that was true or not, but then doesn't every country at war say such things?), but subsequently he mostly focuses on defending the political constitution of Florence.

He refers to one of the traditional divisions of states into monarchies, aristocracies and republics, and says that a republic is the best option because it's the least likely to degenerate into a tyranny (¶17). I basically agree, although some of his enthusiasm for democracy strikes me as a bit too optimistic, e.g. then he says that people will promote the public good because they will understand that this will also lead to their own personal good, etc. (¶23). Apparently some critics of Florence at the time were saying that it was too democratic, so Scala includes a few decent and sensible paragraphs about how it's a good idea to allow even farmers, craftsmen etc. to participate in politics (¶21). He does however point out that they don't allow just anyone, e.g. they exclude criminals, lunatics, foreigners, young people etc. (¶25).

The last part of the essay gets a bit weird. This was apparently the time when Savonarola had a big influence in Florence, and Scala attempts to defend that as well, partly by saying that priests and friars are after all good people too and should be admitted to politics on a similar basis as other parts of society (¶28), but partly also by the extremely ludicrous argument that prophets (Savonarola claimed to be one) receive insights into Truth™ from god and it would after all be foolish to disregard their wisdom (¶30–2).

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A note on the reactivation of my blog

In the early days of my blog, I was aiming for one book-related post per week, and later to at least one per two weeks, and I would occasionally split a post into two or more parts to make it last longer. One of the main reasons why I eventually gave up posting was that I realized I could no longer maintain that sort of schedule.

Part of the reason for my efforts to post regularly was the idea that the blog did, after all, have a few people that I optimistically thought of as ‘regular readers’, and whom I did not want to disappoint by not having something new at least once per week or two. Even back then, I suspect that any such regular readers were outnumbered by those more random ones who were brought here by search engines.

By now, after a hiatus of almost six years, there are surely no regular readers who could be disappointed, and as a result I felt comfortable deciding that I'd try posting again; but without pretending to commit to any sort of regular schedule. I'll simply post new book-related posts if and when I have something ready. Some of the next few posts will be things I've written (about books I had read) over the past few years, while my blog was on hiatus, while others will be about books I've read recently or which I'm reading now.

In any case, the main audience that I've always had in mind when writing these posts remains the same as before — namely myself.

*

I thought I'd take this opportunity to try clearing up a bit of a misconception that seems to underly some of the comments under my posts. Some people think of my blog posts as book reviews, and then unsurprisingly find them very bad. Now admittedly, my posts do in some superficial outside ways resemble book reviews, but really they aren't meant to be anything of the sort.

I'm just a random nobody, without any particular skill or education that would make me competent to review books; I read various books that I am, for various reasons, at least vaguely interested in, and in some cases this includes books that I really shouldn't be reading as I'm definitely not part of their intended target audience; and be that as it may, I try to then write a post with my impressions of the book and whatever curious or interesting things I might have found in it.

A review is something else, something much more serious, and ought to be undertaken by someone who's actually competent at doing such things, which I'm definitely not. I'm just a random person with an uneducated, unqualified opinion about books I've read. My main purpose in writing these posts is because otherwise I'd often completely forget everything about some of the books I've read; but if I've written a post about it, I can look back at it later and I feel that the time I'd spent reading the book hadn't been completely wasted after all. But if you approach my posts looking for the sort of information and evaluation that you'd get in a real book review, it's inevitable that you'll be disappointed.

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Friday, August 01, 2014

BOOK: "The Works of John Keats"

The Works of John Keats. The Wordsworth Poetry Library. Ware, Herfordshire, 1994: Wordsworth Editions Ltd. xv + 491 pp. 1853264040.

I'm fond of romantic poetry; I read Byron and Shelley some time ago, but for some reason never got around to reading Keats until now. I'm glad I finally read his poetry, as I found many beautiful and enjoyable things there, though overall I didn't enjoy it as much as I did Byron's. I wouldn't be surprised if it turned out that in a certain sense Keats is the more purely romantic of these two — less action and more feeling — and that would explain why I lack the sensibility to really appreciate much of his work.

Endymion

The longest poem in this book, Endymion, is what he called a “poetic romance” of about 4000 lines. I remember reading plenty of romances by Scott and Byron, but this is a very different beast, and not as much to my liking. In Scott you basically get a nice, straightforward narrative that makes you keep turning the page simply because you're curious what will happen next. In Byron there's still that, plus the additional psychological interest coming from the usual Byronic heroes, tired of themselves and of the world, etc. But here in Endymion, hardly anything happens. It's basically industrial-grade romanticism; lots of moaning and whining, visions, poetical descriptions of nature and the like.

The story, such as it is, is set in a kind of idealized early pastoral-age Greece. Endymion is a young man that falls in love with the moon, and/or the moon-goddess Cynthia, not that there is any real distinction between the two. He spends much of the rest of the poem, well, mooning — wandering about and generally being miserable because he doesn't know how to get to her. In the last book, he falls in love with a mortal woman named Phœbe instead, and decides to become a hermit, but then it turns out that Phœbe was really just the goddess Cynthia in disguise, and the story ends with a happy end. [I suppose I should have seen that one coming; Phœbe is obviously the female form of Phœbus, which is another name for Apollo, who was the brother of Artemis, who is the goddess usually referred to as Cynthia.]

I'm sure this is an excellent poem for people who like this sort of thing, but I prefer to read something with a bit more plot and action. My favorite part of the poem was Book III, in which Endymion encounters an old man named Glaucus, who has been cursed by the witch Circe to stay alive, but old and decrepit, for a thousand years. He's been spending this time sitting on a rocky shore and burying the corpses of shipwrecked lovers. Now his thousand years are up and with Endymion's help they bring them back to life.

A minor thing that bothered me about this poem (and others, e.g. Hyperion, on which more below) is that, although it's set in ancient Greece, the poet uses the Roman names of the gods all the time. I found it very jarring, although perhaps his excuse is that his readers would find the Greek names even more jarring since they were used so rarely in English works at that time.

Nevertheless there were many passages that I liked in this poem. Here's one that is a beautiful statement of what you might call extreme romanticism (1.835–42):

———— but who, of men, can tell
That flowers would bloom, or that green fruit would swell
To melting pulp, that fish would have bright mail,
The earth its dower of river, wood, and vale,
The meadows runnels, runnels pebble-stones,
The seed its harvest, or the lute its tones,
Tones ravishment, or ravishment its sweet
If human souls did never kiss and greet?

A lovely passage from a draft manuscript, which Keats didn't include in the final version of the poem (2.526, see note on p. 98); the poet professes himself unable to adequately describe the encounter of Venus and Adonis:

—————— O foolish rhyme
What mighty power is in thee that so often
Thou strivest rugged syllables to soften
Even to the telling of a sweet like this.
Away! let them embrace alone! that kiss
Was far too rich for thee to talk upon.
Poor wretch! mind not those sobs and sighs! begone!
Speak not one atom of thy paltry stuff,
That they are met is poetry enough.

A touching passage of despair from 3.539–54, where Glaucus just wants his suffering to end:

———— “Potent goddess! chief
Of pains resistless! make my being brief,
Or let me from this heavy prison fly:
Or give me to the air, or let me die!
I sue not for my happy crown again;
I sue not for my phalanx on the plain;
I sue not for my lone, my widow'd wife;
I sue not for my ruddy drops of life,
My children fair, my lovely girls and boys!
I will forget them; I will pass these joys;
Ask nought so heavenward, so too—too high:
Only I pray, as fairest boon, to die,
Or be deliver'd from this cumbrous flesh,
From this gross, detestable, filthy mesh,
And merely given to the cold bleak air.
Have mercy, Goddess! Circe, feel my prayer!”

And another contribution to my growing collection of depression-inducing quotes, from Phœbe's song in 4.173–80:

    “To Sorrow,
    I bade good-morrow,
And thought to leave her far away behind;
    But cheerly, cheerly,
    She loves me dearly;
She is so constant to me, and so kind:
    I would deceive her
    And so leave her,
But ah! she is so constant and kind.

Hyperion

Apparently I'm not the only one who didn't care much for Endymion; Keats was so hurt by negative reviews of it that he abandoned his next romance, Hyperion, after less than 900 lines. I think that's a great pity, because, judging by what we have of Hyperion, I'd probably like it a lot better than I did Endymion.

This poem was meant to deal with the Titans, who used to be the ruling group of Greek gods until Zeus Jove and the other Olympian gods overthrew them. Now their leader, Saturn, is in a deep sleep and the rest of them are either vegetating miserably in some sort of cave or wandering around (see start of book 2). Only Hyperion has retained his former splendor and his job as the Sun-god. His wife Thea wakes Saturn up, whereupon he and the other Titans have a discussion on what to do.

This debate was my favorite part of the poem and reminded me a little of Milton's devils in Paradise Lost, which was perhaps an inspiration for it. One of the most eminent Titans, Oceanus, makes an interesting argument (2.173–243) that the replacement of the Titans by the Olympian gods is just a kind of evolutionary step forward and that the Titans should accept the new reality, since the Olympians are simply better, just as the Titans were better than their predecessors (Earth and Uranus). But others aren't so resigned to their fate, and I'm curious how the story would have continued if Keats hadn't abandoned the poem.

A fine stoical passage from Oceanus's speech (2.202–5):

“Now comes the pain of truth, to whom 'tis pain:
O folly! for to bear all naked truths,
And to envisage circumstance, all calm,
That is the top of sovereignty. ——

Lamia

This is probably my favorite among the longer poems in this book. According to the note on p. 193, it was inspired by an anecdote about Apollonius, a Greek philosopher. A young man named Lycius meets a beautiful and mysterious woman, falls in love with her and comes to live with her in Corinth. Eventually he persuades her that they should get married; his old teacher, Apollonius, also shows up for the wedding, and recognizes that the bride is really a lamia, a kind of demon; as a result, she vanishes, along with her riches, which were mere illusions.

Keats modifies this story a little, to make it more romantic. In his poem, Lamia (which is her proper name here) is not a demon and has no ill designs upon Lycius; she is more like a nymph and is genuinely in love with him, as is made clear in the early part of the poem. However, she pretends to be a regular mortal woman because she knows he'd freak out if he knew the truth. When he convinces her to announce a wedding, she urges him not to let Apollonius attend it, but the old man turns up anyway and practically stares her down into disappearing.

So in Keats's version, Apollonius is undoubtedly the bad guy, going out of his way to ruin Lamia's and Lycius's happiness for no good reason whatsoever. I suppose Apollonius would say that he didn't want Lycius to base his entire life on an illusion, but that doesn't strike me as much of an excuse. Who is Apollonius to say that it's better to know the truth and be miserable, than to live an illusion and be happy? Besides, who is to say that she couldn't still reveal her true nature to Lycius after a while, once she got more comfortable trusting him with that sort of information? Whatever happened to the good old idea of minding your own damn business, Mr. Apollonius?

Actually this old question of romance vs. philosophy (nowadays we'd probably say ‘science’ in its place) is a notable theme of this poem. Keats of course sides with romance here, and I for my part am happy to agree with him. There's a beautiful passage about this in book 2 (ll. 229–238):

———— Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine—
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person'd Lamia melt into a shade.

Now, of course the well-known excuse of scientists, skeptics, philosophers and their ilk is that understanding a phenomenon doesn't necessarily detract from its charm, and may in fact add to it; for example, Richard Dawkins makes that argument in one of his books, Unweaving the Rainbow, whose title was in fact inspired by the lines quoted above. Such people do have a point, in a way; but at the same time, it's easier and more pleasant to get charmed by letting your imagination wander freely around a phenomenon that is unknown and not understood, whereas by committing yourself to a scientific approach you have basically chained your mind to reality such as it really is, regardless of whether you find it appealing or not.

Of course, while being charmed by Keats's take on the story, my more practical side couldn't help wondering how the relationship between Lycius and Lamia would work in practice. What would it be like to be in a relationship with an immortal person? How would Lycius react in a couple decades time when he realizes that she doesn't age? If she cuts her finger, does she bleed? What happens if she gets squished in a car accident? Will she find someone new after he dies, and so on indefinitely? How will she deal when she reaches the modern time, when they will ask to see her papers before she can get married, and when her next Lycius will become suspicious why she isn't filing out an income tax form every year?

Incidentally, before reading this poem, my vague idea of the word ‘lamia’ was that it refers to some kind of vampire, as I remembered seeing it in a fake Latin phrase occasionally found on the web: “nunquam lamiae morde me dice”, meaning “never say ‘bite me’ to a vampire” :) See also the Wikipedia page about Lamia for several beautiful pre-Raphaelite paintings on the subject.

Isabella, or The Pot of Basil

Another very pleasant and touching narrative poem, based on a story from the Decameron. Isabella and Lorenzo fall in love, but alas! she is from a rich merchant family and he is just the servant employed by Isabella's two brothers. When the brothers find out about this, they secretly murder Lorenzo and tell Isabella that they sent him away on a long business voyage. Three months later, his fate is revealed to Isabella in a vision, she finds his grave, digs up poor Lorenzo's head and buries it in a pot of basil, which she then proceeds to water with her copious tears. The brothers eventually take even this pot away from her, and she dies of grief.

I was particularly impressed by stanza 51, in which Isabel digs up Lorenzo's corpse (remember that he has been buried for three months):

In anxious secrecy they took it home,
    And then the prize was all for Isabel:
She calm'd its wild hair with a golden comb,
    And all around each eye's sepulchral cell
Pointed each fringed lash; the smeared loam
    With tears, as chilly as a dripping well,
She drench'd away:—and still she comb'd, and kept
Sighing all day—and still she kiss'd, and wept.

On the one hand, of course: ewwwwwwww. I mean, it's a three-month-old corpse, come on.

But on the other hand: awwwwwww <3 Nowadays such a thing would be laughed at as unrealistic, or condemned as pathological; but at one time it was possible to write such a scene in such a way that it conveys to the sympathetic reader a portrayal of an incredibly intense sort of love-inspired grief. I wonder how one would describe a feeling of such intensity today without seeming grotesque; would it even be possible? I can't help feeling that people in the middle ages (when this story probably originated) simply lived, and felt, so much more intensely than in modern times, both for good and for bad.

Otho the Great

This is a verse tragedy of about 1800 lines, and seems to be Keats's only play. Some of the historical background of the story seems true enough: the titular Otho really existed, fought off a Hungarian incursion and dealt with a rebellion of his son L(i)udolph. The rest is, I guess, Keats's invention. Prince Ludolph, the son of emperor Otho, was set to marry the emperor's niece Erminia, but the intrigues of duke Conrad and his sister Auranthe have ruined her reputation and he marries Auranthe instead. Eventually their guilt comes to light and leads to the usual kind of tragic denouement.

This play was pleasant enough to read, but in hindsight, it does have a few defects. Scene 1.3 makes much of Ludolph's proud character and his complicated relationship with Otho, but this doesn't seem to have any real effect on the rest of the story. Ludolph going mad with grief after the guilt of his wife is discovered (scene 5.4) is very silly; after all, he was a medieval German prince, not some sort of sissy-ass emo romantic poet. This is the wrong way of trying to make us sympathize with what is probably supposed to be one of the tragic characters of the play.

Otho is a pretty decent and just person, as far as medieval monarchs go. Here are some fine lines of his (1.2.175–8):

I know how the great basement of all power
Is frankness, and a true tongue to the world;
And how intriguing secrecy is proof
Of fear and weakness, and a hollow state.

I liked the negative characters better. Conrad almost rises to mustache-twirling levels with his plotting and trickery; and as for Auranthe — well, evil + beautiful is a combination I always had a soft spot for. At times she sounds like a medieval equivalent of a mean girl (4.1.32–4):

How many whisperers there are about,
Hungry for evidence to ruin me;
Men I have spurn'd, and women I have taunted?

I just wish she had more agency; now she seems too much a pawn in her brother's machinations.

It was getting a bit worrying when I reached the start of Act V and nobody important died yet; I was wondering how he was finally going to kill off his characters. The ending in particular was a bit weak and the deaths of Ludolph and Auranthe struck me almost as a cheap deus ex machina.

The Cap and Bells

This is probably one of the most deliciously frivolous things ever written in Spenserian stanzas. If he hadn't abandoned it after 88 stanzas, it could be a masterpiece of comical poetry.

The story, so far as we have it, is simple and already pleasantly silly. The faery emperor Elfinan is in love with a mortal woman, a Miss Bertha Pearl of Cambridge, England; but he is finally persuaded by his advisors to send an embassy to fetch him a proper faery princess from a nearby kingdom as a bride. Meanwhile he sends for Hum the magician, who reveals to him that Bertha is really a changeling, thus a faery and technically he could marry her instead. Elfinan takes off towards Cambridge, and meanwhile the embassy returns, finding his palace in a chaos.

But the story isn't really the point here; it's the style, the playful inventiveness, the generous abundance of nonsense scattered throughout the poem. Much of the humor is based on contrasts and parallels between the world of the faeries and our real world. For example, there's a rant on the introduction of gas, “Which to the oil-trade doth great scaith and harm,/ And supersedeth quite the use of the glow-worm.” (24.8–9)

I know that for some reason many people dislike puns, but how can you not laugh when a faery says “by my fay” (52.9) :)))

The home of Elfinan's bride can boast the most hilarious blazon ever: “The Imaian 'scutcheon bright—one mouse in argent field.” (65.9)

There are a few jokes about the faeries being small (73.1–3):

“Five minutes before one—brought down a moth
With my new double-barrel—stew'd the thighs
And made a very tolerable broth—

I love the notion of ‘bringing down’ a moth, as if it were an elephant :) On a related note, 86.1–2 refers to “the state purveyor/ Of moth's-down, to make soft the royal beds” :))

Another very funny passage from 68.6–8:

    He bow'd at Bellanaine, and said—“Poor Bell!
    Farewell! farewell! and if for ever! still
    For ever fare thee well!”—and then he fell
A laughing!—snapp'd his fingers!—shame it is to tell!

These lines allude to the opening of Byron's poem, Fare Thee Well: “Fare thee well! and if for ever,/ Still for ever, fare thee well:”. It's one of my favorites among Byron's poems, full of beautiful if somewhat overwrought grief; and in fact I first encountered those two lines not in Byron, but in Eugene Onegin, where they are used as an epigraph for one of the chapters. But here Keats puts them in a silly and light-hearted context, where Elfinan is mocking Bellanaine, his faery-bride, as he is getting ready to fly away just in time to avoid having to meet her. Was Keats trying to tell Byron something like ‘get a grip, George, and stop being so emo’? :)

Some aspects of the faery world have been inspired by India: Elfinan's city stands “In midmost Ind, beside Hydaspes cool” (1.1), their law-code is a “faery Zendervester” (2.5), and the emperor amuses himself by playing the “Man-Tiger-Organ” (37.9).

Shorter poems

Probably about half of this book consists of shorter poems, a much higher proportion than e.g. in Byron; and on average I probably liked them better than the longer ones. In fact the only bits of Keats's work that I knew before reading this book are two or three short poems: Ode on a Grecian Urn and La Belle Dame Sans Merci, which are still among my favorite poems in the entire book; and the sonnet On First Looking into Chapman's Homer, which is also nice. I also enjoyed the Ode to Apollo, in his capacity as the god of poets (pp. 286–7).

There are many fine poems about friendship, and it was really nice to see him on such good terms with his brothers; and there is of course the usual romantic obsession with flowers and birds (“For what has made the sage or poet write/ But the fair paradise of Nature's light?” — from “I stood tip-toe upon a little hill”, ll. 125–6).

For lovers of emo poetry, there's a beautiful Ode on Melancholy (the following is from 3.1–6):

She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;
    And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
    Turning to Poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of delight
    Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine.

And a very touching sonnet on the subject of mortality (p. 303):

When I have fears that I may cease to be
    Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
    Hold like rich garners the full ripen'd grain;
When I behold, upon the night's starr'd face,
    Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
    Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour
    That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
    Of unreflecting love;—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

I guess that for him, this was an especially relevant topic, as he knew that he had tuberculosis and wouldn't live long; see also the introduction, p. xv. On a related subject, there's also the sonnet The Human Seasons (p. 308), which draws parallels between the stages of life and the seasons of a year.

From another sonnet, “Why did I laugh tonight?” (p. 348):

Why did I laugh? I know this Being's lease,
    My fancy to its utmost blisses spreads;
Yet would I on this very midnight cease,
    And the world's gaudy ensigns see in shreds;
Verse, Fame, and Beauty are intense indeed,
But Death intenser—Death is Life's high meed.

Another short poem I liked was “In a drear-nighted December” (p. 338), about how it's remembering past joys that makes people extra miserable.

By contrast, some poems are delightfully lively and cheerful. Stanzas to Miss Wylie begins thus:

O come Georgiana! the rose is full blown,
The riches of Flora are lavishly strown,
The air is all softness, and crystal the streams,
The West is resplendently clothed in beams.

And sometimes he can be surprisingly down-to-earth: “Give me women, wine and snuff/ Until I cry out ‘hold, enough!’ ” etc. (Women, Wine and Snuff,  1–2).

There's a delicious poem called Sharing Eve's Apple, which is about as full of double entendres as you can imagine given the title (pp. 303–4; the following is stanza 3):

O sigh not so! O sigh not so!
    For it sounds of Eve's sweet pippin;
By these loosen'd lips you have tasted the pips
    And fought in an amorous nipping.

In a similar vein, there's The Devon Maid, which begins (p. 314):

Where be ye going, you Devon Maid?
    And what have ye there in the Basket?
Ye tight little fairy just fresh from the dairy,
    Will ye give me some cream if I ask it?

And I love the plausible deniability in the third stanza: “I love your hills, and I love your dales,/ And I love your flocks a-bleating—” he's obviously talking about the beautiful landscape of Devon, what else? ;P

There's a very pretty immitation of traditional ballads (from “Extracts from an Opera”, p. 310):

The stranger lighted from his steed,
    And ere he spake a word,
He seiz'd my lady's lilly hand,
    And kiss'd it all unheard.
The stranger walk'd into the hall,
    And ere he spake a word,
He kiss'd my lady's cherry lips,
    And kiss'd 'em all unheard.
The stranger walk'd into the bower,—
    But my lady first did go,—
Aye hand in hand into the bower,
    Where my lord's roses blow.
My lady's maid had a silken scarf,
    And a golden ring had she,
And a kiss from the stranger, as off he went
    Again on his fair palfrey.

He seems to have done a tour of Scotland at some point, and several of his shorter poems were inspired by it. There's even a nonsense poem in an immitation of Burns's dialect (A Galloway Song, pp. 324–5). He visited Ben Nevis, the highest mountain of Scotland, where the mist inspired a comparison with the general ignorance of himself and all humankind: “all my eye doth meet/ Is mist and crag, not only on this height,/ But in the world of thought and mental might!”, Sonnet written upon the top of Ben Nevis, 12–14). On a lighter note, the same climb inspired a comical dialogue between the mountain and “one Mrs. Cameron of 50 years of age and the fattest woman in all Invernessshire who got up this Mountain some few years ago—true she had her servants—but then she had herself . . .” (note to Ben Nevis, a dialogue, p. 333).

A good deal of poetry in the second half of the book are bits and pieces that he included in letters to his friends and relatives; much of it nonsense verse, written out of the sheer joy of writing poetry, improvising and extemporizing. “There was a naughty boy/ And a naughty boy was he,/ For nothing would he do/ But scribble poetry—” (A Song about Myself, 2.1–4). Other pleasant poems of this sort include “When they were come into the Faery's Court” (pp. 349–52) and Two or Three (a delightful bit of nonsense verse, p. 353).

There's a curious Sonnet on the Sonnet (p. 361), in which he complains about the constraints imposed upon poetry by this particular verse form. Many people have made such complaints, but I wouldn't expect them from one who wrote so many sonnets himself :)

From the first of two Sonnets on Fame (p. 360), where he basically suggests that fame is like those women who like assholes instead of Nice Guys :P

Ye love-sick Bards, repay her scorn for scorn,
    Ye Artists lovelorn, madmen that ye are!
Make your best bow to her and bid adieu,
Then, if she likes it, she will follow you.

From You Say You Love, a poem about mixed signals:

You say you love; but with a smile
    Cold as sunrise in September,
As you were Saint Cupid's nun,
    And kept his weeks of Ember.
        O love me truly!

He seems to have been quite fond of Spenser, and wrote several poems in Spenserian stanzas, occasionally even immitating his archaic language (Spenserian Stanzas on Charles Armitage Brown, p. 342). Perhaps it was simply a bit of a fashion trend; Shelley also wrote much in Spenserian stanzas. In any case, I'm always glad to see another Spenser enthusiast as I enjoyed his work a lot when I read it many years ago; his Daphnaida made me weep on a bus once; but then I was in a weepy mood.

A few revolutionary lines

Unlike in some of the other romantic poets I've read, Keats doesn't seem to have written much on political and revolutionary subjects. There is the occasional hint (Epistle to George Keats, 128–30):

Through which the poppies show their scarlet coats;
So pert and useless, that they bring to mind
The scarlet coats that pester human-kind.

There's also a sonnet to Kosciusko (p. 41).

And there's this beautifully aesthetic cry against exploitation from Isabella (14.3–16.8):

And for them many a weary hand did swelt
    In torched mines and noisy factories,
And many once proud-quiver'd loins did melt
    In blood from stinging whip;—with hollow eyes
Many all day in dazzling river stood,
To take the rich-ored driftings of the flood.
For them the Ceylon diver held his breath,
    And went all naked to the hungry shark;
For them his ears gush'd blood; for them in death
    The seal on the cold ice with piteous bark
Lay full of darts; for them alone did seethe
    A thousand men in troubles wide and dark:
Half-ignorant, they turn'd an easy wheel,
That set sharp racks at work, to pinch and peel.
Why were they proud? Because their marble founts
    Gush'd with more pride than do a wretch's tears?—
Why were they proud? Because fair orange-mounts
    Were of more soft ascent than lazar stairs?—
Why were they proud? Because red-lin'd accounts
    Were richer than the songs of Grecian years?—
Why were they proud? again we ask aloud,
Why in the name of Glory were they proud?

Miscellaneous

A nice inspirational quote, from the Epistle to Charles Cowden Clarke (ll.  99–100):

The air that floated by me seem'd to say
“Write! thou wilt never have a better day.”

From Sleep and Poetry (90–5):

Life is the rose's hope while yet unblown;
The reading of an ever-changing tale;
The light uplifting of a maiden's veil;
A pigeon tumbling in clear summer air;
A laughing school-boy, without grief or care,
Riding the springy branches of an elm.

A very fine thought on poetry, which I'm afraid would be considered old-fashioned nowadays (Sleep and Poetry, 245–7):

—————— the great end
Of poesy, that it should be a friend
To sooth the cares, and lift the thoughts of man.

From a beautiful sonnet that's identified in the page header as “Keats's Last Sonnet” (p. 486):

“Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art—
[. . .]
    Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
    Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

Grumbling about this edition

Facsimile reprints of old, long out-of-copyright books are all the rage these days. You see them polluting the catalogues of AbeBooks, Amazon, eBay etc. in huge numbers. Most of them are ridiculously overpriced and come with completely generic covers which give me the impression that they were made by some completely automated process; probably some shady outfit has amassed scanned copies of a few thousand books by crawling the PDF files from archive.org and Google Books, assigned new ISBNs to them and inserted them into catalogues, all in a completely automated manner, and the same system now prints them on demand if/when some poor fool decides to order a copy.

The situation was very different back in the late stone age, when dinosaurs walked the earth and print-on-demand seemed to belong to the sphere of science fiction — that is to say, in the mid to late 1990s. Publishers that wanted to do this sort of reprints had to actually do their own scanning and print the books in advance, so they had to be careful which books to choose and how to price them. One such publisher that had a strong presence in the bookstore where I do most of my book-buying was a small British one called Wordsworth Editions; their main product seemed to be a “Wordsworth Poetry Library”, consisting of a few dozen reprints of single-volume editions of collected poetical works of various well-known British poets. I bought about 15 of those books, and read about half of them by now.

Their main advantage was that they were very cheap (the equivalent of about 4 EUR, if we don't count inflation between then and now) and thus in a sense good value for money. This also had some downsides, of course; the binding was a bit shoddy and occasionally a page or two would fall out. But my main complaint is that the publishers deliberately provided no information about the source edition of their reprints — who was the original publisher, where and when was it published, they didn't even provide the name of the editor. This struck me as rather shameful; first of all, the poor editor did a lot of honest work to bring the book together so he deserves to at least have his name mentioned in it; and secondly, it makes it seem as if Wordsworth was trying to fool us into thinking that this is not a reprint of a book from 100 years ago, which is just plain insulting to the intelligence of the reader.

The other thing that bothers me about these Wordsworth reprints is that they omit the original editorial introductions and often also the endnotes. For example, in their reprint of Byron's works, the poems end at p. 840 and the index begins at the next page; but the index occasionally refers to pages with numbers above 840, even above 900, which suggests that there used to be some notes there and the index originally came after the notes. So they omitted the pages with notes and renumbered the pages of the index to try hiding this fact. I suppose they would say that they tried to save money by making the book a bit thinner; but it's 800+ pages long anyway, so a couple dozen pages more or less surely won't make any difference.

This excuse would make even less sense for the Keats volume, which is just around 500 pages long but they still omitted the original editor's introduction of some 55 pages, as well as the 15-page “List of Principal Works consulted” — judging by the table of contents, from which they surprisingly didn't try to delete the corresponding lines. What we got instead was a new, 5-page introduction by Antonia Till, which is interesting enough, but that's hardly a reason to omit the original one.

Interestingly, I tried looking this book up on amazon.co.uk by ISBN; it turns out to be still for sale, but with a different cover than the one I have, and its amazon page says that the introduction is by Paul Wright, and that the book is 544 pages long. The one I have is definitely around 40 pages shorter than that; either there is some mistake or the new introduction is much longer than any of the introductions I've seen in the Wordsworth paperbacks so far.

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Saturday, July 26, 2014

BOOK: Teofilo Folengo, "Baldo"

Teofilo Folengo: Baldo. Vol. 1: Books I–XII. Translated by Ann E. Mullaney. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 25. Harvard University Press, 2007. 0674025210. xxiii + 471 pp.

Teofilo Folengo: Baldo. Vol. 2: Books XIII–XXV. Translated by Ann E. Mullaney. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 36. Harvard University Press, 2008. 9780674031241. xii + 544 pp.

This is a mock-heroical epic poem of almost 15000 lines, written in the early 16th century. It's somewhat similar to e.g. Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel, except that it's in verse instead of in prose. (As the introduction says on p. xviii of vol. 1, Rabelais was in fact influenced by Folengo's poem.)

The story

The story is rather picaresque but divides pretty naturally into two parts. In the first half of the poem, dealing with Baldo's childhood and youth, he terrorizes everyone around him, teams up with various other rogues and scoundrels, and eventually gets imprisoned; after that, much of this part of the book deals with the intrigues of his friend Cingar, who is just as bad a rogue as Baldo, but relies more on wiles than on brute strength. Cingar plays tricks on various people whom he regards as Baldo's enemies, and eventually succeeds in liberating him from jail.

In the second half of the poem, Baldo and friends set sail for the east; the team gains increasingly bizarre members (including a giant, a centaur, and a half-man half-dog character) and enters upon a series of increasingly surreal adventures, fighting pirates, witches, demons, devils, exploring vast subterranean caverns, spending time on an island which turns out to be an enormous enchanted whale, and eventually they descend into Hell itself.

I liked the second part of the poem better than the first part, probably because it feels somewhat more like a normal tale of adventure, in which you can sort of think of Baldo and his friends as heroes that you can root for. In the first half of the poem they simply come across as rogues and criminals that act like assholes towards people around them for no acceptable reason. (In the second half, they are still violent assholes but at least their victims are now various demons and monsters that you can imagine as being deserving targets of this sort of treatment.)

In which I don't get the joke

I suspect that either humor is one of those things that don't necessarily age too well (or, for that matter, travel across cultures even if there isn't a big gap in time between them), or that something is broken about my sense of humor — which might very well be the case; perhaps a steady diet of gross internet jokes does leave one a bit unprepared to appreciate the humor in the literary works of previous centuries. Whatever the reason might be, the fact is that whenever I tried reading supposedly important comical works, I rarely found them funny: ancient Greek and Roman comedies, Don Quixote, Gargantua and Pantagruel, most of Molière's comedies, there's also the ITRL volume of renaissance comedies that I read a few years ago (see my post from back then), etc.

So I guess I shouldn't be surprised that I mostly missed the humor in Baldo as well. Part of the humor of a mock-heroic epic usually comes from the fact that it uses the same high style that would be used in a serious epic, but applies it to decidedly non-heroic characters, actions and events. And as with any parody, in order to appreciate it, you should be sufficiently familiar with the thing that's being parodied. Some years ago, I read Alexander Pope's Rape of the Lock and enjoyed it a good deal, as I could feel that Pope is using the same pompous classicist style that he used in his translations of Homer, but now applied it to a much more frivolous and insignificant topic. But here in Baldo, I lacked this sort of familiarity; among the translator's notes there are many mentions along the lines of ‘here Folengo is alluding to such-and-such a passage from Virgil, or Ariosto, or Pulci, or some yet other tale of heroism and chivalry’, but I just wasn't sufficiently familiar with these works to be able to appreciate the parodying that's going on.

The language

Another part of the humor which I largely missed was that coming from Folengo's ‘macaronic’ language — that is, the poem is written in a kind of Latin with a copious admixture of various more or less colloquial Italian words. This is largely absent from the English translation, and I don't blame the translator for it as I imagine that this sort of thing is probably difficult or impossible to translate anyway. Occasionally the translation tries to convey a similar effect by resorting to modern-day colloqualisms (“I don't give a shit”, vol. 2 p. 99), but I guess it's still a far cry from what one could get from the original. Unfortunately I know neither Latin nor Italian, so I had to content myself with reading the English translation.

Incidentally, another downside of having to read the translation is that it's in prose, like most translations of poetry in the ITRL series. For me, a part of the charm is inevitably lost in the transition from verse to prose. The front flap of the dustjacket says the original is in hexameters, though my impression from trying to read a few lines and count syllables is that it's more pentameter than hexameter.

A rebel with a cause?

But maybe the biggest reason why I didn't find Baldo to be that funny is that I'm reading it in a very different context than the one it was written in. I imagine that Folengo was sick and tired of idealized, larger-than-life heroes of the ancient epics and chivalric romances which dominated so much of the literature of his day, so he deliberately went to the opposite extreme in his poem: his ‘heroes’ are really rogues and scoundrels, cunning and violent but mostly without a shred of honor; there's lots of violence (the more grotesquely over-the-top the better) but mostly without any redeeming higher purpose; its victims are for the most part not characters you can sympathize with either, being either too dumb or themselves bad enough that they seem to deserve what's coming to them. (This is particularly noticeable in the first half of the poem; in the second half, the enemies are a bit more traditional.)

And as if he was deliberately rebelling against all the unwelcome efforts to elevate mankind towards something higher and loftier, Folengo is downright obsessed with everything that is gross and disgusting, and everything that emphasizes the material aspects of human existence. His particular obsessions are eating (the more gross and gluttonous the better) and defecation — shit is mentioned on practically every page, his characters shit their pants on the slightest sign of alarm, etc., etc.

I imagine that writing (or reading) such things must have felt liberating to him and his original readership, as a big hearty fuck you to the annoying forces of order, religion, morality etc. that are constantly trying to get you to act better than your natural tendencies incline you to do. I can sympathize with that point of view, but things seem very different from the perspective of someone like me. All those references to shit and other gross bodily functions don't feel all that liberating to someone weaned on goatse and tubgirl, and raised on a steady diet of blue waffles and 2-girls-1-cup. Likewise, having scoundrels instead of heroes for your characters, and placing them in a generally shitty world in which almost nobody is particularly sympathetic, doesn't seem all that revolutionary and liberating nowadays, since pretty much no form of storytelling (with the exception of some of the clumsier sorts of political propaganda) has been taking heroism seriously for a long time now.

In short, what to Folengo must have felt like a welcome act of resistance to the oppressive forces of order and decency, simply doesn't have the same effect on us now since we aren't oppressed by those forces to nearly the same extent as he was. I can read his tale and sympathize with his views, but at the same time I can't help wishing that he'd finally stop mucking about in shit and tell us something nice for a change.

As another example, I suppose that the various mentions of corrupt priests and friars must have been fairly daring in Folengo's day, but they seem less shocking and impressive now when you practically can't open a news website without finding articles about how the church is harboring pedophiliac priests, opposing abortion, exploiting orphans and the like.

Interestingly, for all his rebelliousness in these matters, in some others he is remarkably conventional. For example, he comes across as a bit of a misogynist; nearly all the female characters mentioned in the poem are negative (with the exception of Baldo's mother, who however dies very early in the book). Many of them are witches, Folengo denounces them in the harshest terms as whores, sluts, bawds etc. for trying to seduce his characters, and they invariably meet their end in a grotesquely brutal way. He praises Baldo's friend Leonardo highly for resisting such temptations and preserving his chastity (book 17). In short, Folengo might be very much on board with gluttonous eating and defecation, but when it comes to sexuality, he's in no disagreement with the conventional authorities of his day.

Epic lists

Folengo's style has some other curious features which felt more like bugs to me. For example, he's quite fond of long, rambling lists that rarely contribute anything much to the story and often feel more like the sort of padding that we would expect if he had been getting paid by the line. For example, there's a long list of things that individual Italian cities are famous for (2.96–130); of tales of chivalry read by Baldo (3.102–9); letters of the alphabet (8.535–99); winds (12.317–99); an astrological lecture on the heavenly spheres and the seasons which extends over the better part of books 14 and 15; a list of about 40 diseases and ailments (15.361–74); etc., etc., etc.

Was there some phenomenon from bona fide epic poems which Folengo was trying to parody here? I remember Homer's famous “catalogue of ships”, but that at least had a purpose: it increased the chances that whatever local Greek magnate was listening to Homer (or some other similar bard) perform that bit of the Iliad would recognize one of the heroes there as one of his supposed ancestors, and therefore be more likely to reward the singer/poet generously. Here in Baldo, the lists just feel like pointless rambling; I suppose if you enjoy them, you'll be glad that they are there, but for someone like me they were for the most part just a nuisance.

(P.S. Judging by the wikipedia, there exists in fact the concept of an “epic catalogue”, of which Homer's catalogue of ships is just one example, so I guess this is what Folengo was trying to parody.)

The picaresqueness

Another thing that bothered me somewhat is the picaresque nature of the story. Much of it consists of various little episodes that are only very loosely linked to each other, and that could be rearranged without really changing anything. I don't doubt that this is deliberate, and probably some readers like this sort of thing; but I'd like the story better if the plot was a bit more coherent.

The way it's written now, you just have seemingly random things turning up out of the blue without any obvious reason, as if the poet was just improvising and blurting out whatever happened to fall into his mind at any particular moment. Occasionally I felt like ‘Oh, so the heroes, sailing down this underworld river, come across an old man riding a crocodile and accompanied by a bunch of nymphs, and after beating him up they move along, never mentioning him again? OK, great, I'm sure that makes some sort of sense...’ (23.38–101.)

Likewise, advancing the plot often depends crucially on characters turning up suddenly and magically, which ends up feeling like a cheap deus ex machina over and over again. The poet/seer Seraphus is probably the most blatant example (22.490, 23.704, 25.409). I can't help feeling that the author was simply too lazy to construct a proper plot, and he just enjoyed rambling a bit. Who knows, perhaps this whole thing is just a big piece of snark against the very idea of a plot, and I'm just too dense to get the joke.

The world-building

On a related topic, I was also a bit bothered by the ad-hoc nature of the fantasy world in which most of the second part of the poem takes place. Perhaps it's an unrealistic thing to expect from a 16h-century author; but modern fantasy authors try to at least pretend that the fictional world in which their stories are set is consistent and reasonably well planned-out. Some of them do in fact plan everything meticulously in advance (Tolkien would probably be a good example of that), others improvise but at least manage to give you the illusion that their world sort of makes sense.

But here in Baldo, I couldn't help feeling that the author is just making up random stuff as he goes along. You constantly keep getting random things which you had no reason to expect a moment before: a witch inhabiting an island which is really a giant whale (18.294–306); another witch in a giant underworld palace (book 23); the poet/seer Seraphus (18.257 and many subsequent times) and his order of long-dead ancient knights and heroes (book 18); a giant forge in the underworld, populated by naked devils (book 21); suddenly, an armory containing the arms and weapons of ancient heroes (book 22); etc. And the end of book 25 is completely psychedelic; he must have been smoking some really good stuff when writing it. I was reminded of the last scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

When Dante was descending into hell, you had the feeling that things are orderly and well-organized, into levels and various smaller departments, etc.; here in Baldo the only vaguely consistent thing is the sense of constant descent ever deeper into the underworld, towards hell, but apart from that it's just one damn random thing after another.

Folengo's improvisational approach to world-building reminded me somewhat of another early fantasy work that I read a long time ago — Lucian of Samosata's True Story (which, incidentally, also involves an enormous whale, except that Lucian's characters are trapped inside the whale rather than on top of it). I rather enjoyed Lucian's story back then, perhaps because it was shorter than Folengo's poem. In any case, I probably shouldn't be too hard on Folengo's work; there's nothing wrong with it, it's part of a peculiar but well established genre, it just isn't the sort of thing I like best.

So I guess that, as long as you don't demand a coherent plot and a world which makes sense, this can in fact be a very fine thing to read. You get an author exercising his imagination just for the sheer joy of it, generously throwing out his ideas and episodes by the bucketload, improvising and rambling and inventing stuff as he goes along. I found it tolerable enough in small doses, but for the right sort of reader I imagine it could make for a very enjoyable read.

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Saturday, July 19, 2014

BOOK: Pietro Bembo, "History of Venice" (Vol. 3)

Pietro Bembo: History of Venice. Vol. 3: Books IX–XII. Edited and translated by Robert W. Ulery, jr. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 37. Harvard University Press, 2009. 9780674022867. xi + 396 pp.

(Continued from Vol. 1 and Vol. 2.

Book IX

The war against Maximilian continues; towards the end of the previous book, the Venetians re-took Padua from him, and now he's trying to get it back, with the aid of numerous allies (9.18). Both sides spend plenty of time in getting ready for the siege, but eventually Maximillian gives up on it without accomplishing anything concrete (9.30). The Venetians remain on the initiative and conquer several other towns that used to be under Maximilian's control, such as Rijeka (9.33) and Vicenza (9.40); soon afterwards, Maximilian is ready to discuss a truce with them (9.54). On the other hand, they get involved in a war against the duke of Ferrara and suffer a heavy naval defeat (9.56). Meanwhile they are still at war with the pope (and under excommunication), and they decide to submit to his demands due to being unable to fight against so many enemies at the same time (9.60–1).

Bembo quotes “a poem of remarkable antiquity carved in stone” on a tower in Feltre (which was unfortunately destroyed during the war in 1509): “Feltre, thou art condemned to the harshness of snows without ending;/ Never perhaps, after this, will I approach thee — farewell.// Above the poem was inscribed the name of Julius Caesar.” (9.8.) I'm very curious is this is a genuine piece of ancient history preserved until 1509 and then unfortunately lost, or is it simply a medieval fake intended to attract tourists or inflate the locals' egos with a purported link to Caesar. The inscription is also mentioned in Feltre's wikipedia article.

There's an amusing story in 9.27–8, on the efforts to deliver wages to the soldiers that were defending Padua. This was a nontrivial amount of gold and the question was how to get it past Maximilian's forces; the Venetians loaded several mules with bags of sand and sent them towards Padua under heavy guard, thereby giving the impression that those are carrying the gold. The majority of Maximilian's forces went off to chase them and meanwhile other Venetian horsemen, carrying the gold in smaller amounts, were able to get into Padua safely.

Bembo describes yet another scary-sounding kind of siege weapon in 9.29: “It threw a stone ball eighteen inches in diameter up as high as the rooftops in a great arc through the sky.” A slightly more desperate kind of artillery appears in 9.30: “Maximilian took the further step of having letters wrapped around arrows shot into town, in which he urged the townspeople to desert the Republic”.

In each book I wonder if the Venetian financial situation can possibly get more desperate, and it always does. Now “all magistrates should serve for six months without pay or expense [. . .] They were indeed effectively unable to extract any further taxes as the citizens had been cleaned out by such frequent contributions to the treasury” (9.37).

The Venetians are apparently on good terms with king Henry of England; perhaps because they are so far away from each other :P In 9.54 he writes to their enemies, “asking them not to make war on Venice, which if it did not exist, would surely have had to be created by mankind as a whole for the public utility and ornament of the world”. I can't help thinking that this is the sort of quote which, if it hadn't been actually written, the Venetians would have been glad to invent it; and perhaps they did. (I'm not sure which Henry was that, by the way; Book IX covers the year 1509, and according to the Wikipedia, Henry VII died in the April of that year, and was succeeded by Henry VIII.)

There is a curious tale of hot incest action in 9.59, which unfortunately ends badly: Pietro Balbo, the podestà of Padua, “ordered the arrest of one of the commoners who was using his own daughter as a concubine, and of the daughter as well, the crime having been reported by an informer. When both confessed, he had them bound and beheaded, setting fire also to the father's corpse.” Silly commoners should have known that such things are reserved for the princes and the popes :)))

Book X

You probably won't be surprised to hear that this book contains yet more warfare :) Venice is still at war with the French, the Germans, and Ferrara, but on the other hand the pope is now on their side since they made peace with him at the end of the previous book (10.10). This also means they are now able to hire mercenaries from Rome and other areas under the pope's control (10.45). A new party enters the warfare in this book, namely Hungary, who is persuaded by France and Germany to declare war on Venice (10.62), even though it was earlier even getting subsidised by it (10.2). But it appears that Hungary won't actually fight, due to the lack of money (10.62).

Another thing that repeats itself like a broken record are the increasingly desperate efforts by Venice to raise more money and manpower. People who had been exiled for manslaughter (but not premeditated murder) are offered amnesty if they agree to serve in the Venetian fleet (10.8). Civil servants could, by a one-time payment of five times their yearly salary, upgrade their temporary appointment into a permanent one; for twice as much, those with a permanent appointment could buy the right to have the job pass on to their son or nephew after the current holder's death (10.12). This strikes me as an interesting (and unorthodox) way of raising money; I find it hard to imagine something similar being done nowadays. Few people could raise that kind of money, at least not without selling their house; even just taking out a loan wouldn't be enough as they couldn't afford to pay instalments for a loan of that size.

Another curious law is mentioned in 10.16: “no citizen whose son, brother, or nephew was a priest could attend the Senate” when relations between the pope and Venice were discussed, as their association with the church might lead them to favor the pope's interests over those of Venice.

As always, there are occasional interesting anecdotes amidst the warfare. The Spanish soldiers occupying Verona (“men who by nature and training were plainly craftier and cleverer than the French and Germans”) used a trick to identify Venetian supporters by shouting pro-Venetian slogans at night and taking note of the houses from which people replied with approval. The soldiers would then return the next day and plunder the houses of such pro-Venetian townsfolk.

There's also the curious tale of the efforts to find a new captain-general of the Venetian army. They offered the post to Francesco Gonzaga; the curious thing is that this man was being held in Venice as a prisoner at the time, the Venetians having captured him after he had previously deserted from a similar post in the Venetian army and gone over to the German side. I would imagine that they would think twice before inviting him to command their army again, but I guess the endless switching of sides in these wars got everyone used to the idea that all loyalties are just temporary anyway. Admittedly, he said the Venetians could take his son as a hostage, but his wife then refused to hand the boy over, so nothing came of the whole plan (10.23–4). Later, on the pope's advice, they released him (10.53) and appointed him as their general anyway (11.2; and he eventually sent over his son as a hostage, 11.12).

Book XI

Warfare continues in this book, and by this time I was only very vaguely aware who was at war with whom at any particular moment :) It's still mostly Venice and the pope vs. France (and Germany, though the latter is starting to show some signs of being interested in concluding peace; 11.67, 11.80); and the pope manages to get England and Spain involved on his side (11.75, and see also 12.19). Even some of the participants themselves are starting to get a bit confused — the Hungarians declare that “they would not abandon their alliance with the Republic” (11.57), so I can only assume they had entirely forgotten that they had declared war upon it not long ago (see 10.62 above). :)

Even our indefatigable author seems to be getting slightly tired of all the warfare, and he decides to omit a few details in 11.44: “I have not felt it necessary to give an account of these battles.” Yay!

Bembo describes a rather hardcore law against electoral corruption, enacted in Venice in 1510: “henceforth any citizen who asked another to favor him or one of his people in casting his vote would be barred from all magistracies [. . .] for the space of ten years” (11.15). I've always been of two minds about this sort of things — on the one hand I suppose that corruption is bad, on the other hand corruption of this sort is probably the only opportunity for people to get anything from politicians at all. And I'm surprised that they made such a fuss about this, since the Venetian political system was thoroughly undemocratic anyway and all power was permanently concentrated in the hands of a small rich elite.

As usual, this book also chronicles various further desperate attempts by Venice to raise more money for their warfare. They impose a new “property tax of half a percent” (11.17). “Its six-month term having expired, the law about magistrates giving back half their pay to the Republic was extended for another six” (11.45); he says this as if he had forgotten that they had already extended it for several six-month terms and that in fact the previous extension required the magistrates to give back all of their pay, not just half of it (see book IX above). Eventually they reach this hilarious conclusion: “The only remedy that remained untried was that citizens indebted to the state should pay up and give the treasury what they owed” (11.60) :))) They also tried to strengthen this measure by kicking politicians from the senate if they failed to pay their debts, and on the other hand offering future tax breaks to those who did pay up (11.73).

I couldn't help feeling that Venice was stretching itself a bit too much at times. In 11.29 Bembo mentions that certain a Venetian naval commander, “getting nowhere with his repeated attacks of Genoa” was ordered to withdraw his fleet — to Corfu!

On the subject of odd news, there's another case of Siamese twins in 11.32 (see 1.37 for the earlier case): “a boy with two heads and four arms and hands, then four legs and feet [. . .] only one chest with one set of kidneys and the rest of the back. The child lived for an hour and a half”.

Bembo also mentions a big earthquake that struck Venice in March 1511. “A great many pregnant women miscarried and died in paroxysms of fear.” (11.42.)

There's an old proverb about not speaking ill of the dead, but clearly Bembo wasn't too keen on the idea. He doesn't hide his delight at the death of cardinal Alidosi: “Not long afterwards, with many a self-recrimination, he breathed his last, a man of shameful and criminal life, in whom there was no integrity and no religion, to whom nothing was ever inviolate, nothing chaste, nothing holy.” (11.53). :)))

On the occasion of promoting a certain deserving citizen to a senator, doge Loredan makes a curious speech in 11.82; I don't know whether to be touched by these quaint old-fashioned virtues, or to roll on the floor laughing: “he will find far more satisfaction in these labors of his than if he enjoyed every advantage and engaged in a life of endless pleasure with absolute freedom from care. For to be truly alive consists in this: to be useful to your country, to defend the Republic, to protect your fellow citizens, to set no value on a life without liberty, even to prefer death to servitude.”

Book XII

This book again consists mostly of warfare, and various small towns change hands once or twice, but I couldn't really be bothered to keep track of the details. There are some efforts to end at least some of the wars: the pope tries to arrange a peace treaty between Venice and Germany (12.17), though Maximilian (the German emperor) doesn't seem too keen to offer good terms to the Venetians (12.51); but they cave in to the pope's pressure and conclude peace with Maximilian after all (12.63–5, 12.98). Pope Julius dies soon afterwards, and the book ends with the election of a new pope, who by the way appoints Bembo as one of his secretaries (12.102–3).

There are of course also the inevitable new efforts to raise money, such as a new law to seize property of people who didn't pay taxes, and sell it at auctions (12.9); they would also be unable to become magistrates, and might even be sent to prison (12.14). In another example of haphazard and ad-hoc taxation, “lodgers should give the treasury a sum equal to half the income derived from letting out the houses” (12.26). And “[f]rom lack of funds, the Senate also suspended or held back from 13 November [1511] until 1 March all the pensions and payments customarily made by the Republic” (12.32).

There's an interesting passage about the siege of the fortress of Bastia (12.43). The attackers “made a breach in the wall, which was extremely thick. Within the breach they made a sort of little room, which they packed with gunpowder”. The resulting explosion blew up a stretch of the wall “and ten men standing on it, so that they looked like birds in flight” :))

There's another case of hot incest action in 10.84: “A citizen of Chioggia who had violated his three virgin daughters was burned at the stake by the podestà”. It's interesting how he emphasizes that they were virgins; because obviously if they had already been dirty sluts before dad started banging them, the whole thing would be completely unproblematic... </sarcasm>

I was pleased to see, in the index on p. 375, Istria described as an “Adriatic peninsula now in Slovenia”. Now we just need to convince the Croatians to agree with that :)))

*

I'm not sure what to say at the end of these three volumes. This history was not only boring (although perhaps slightly less than Bruni's history of Florence, which I read a few years ago) but also thoroughly unedifying. Not only is there almost nothing but fighting (and descriptions of various desperate efforts to raise money for it), but the belligerent parties are very fickle and unprincipled. There are no heroic personalities and events here from which you could draw inspiration or moral instruction, like you sometimes find in the work of ancient historians. There aren't even any clear good and bad sides; I'm accustomed to wars in which there are two pretty clearly distinct sides, ideally ones in which it is easy to tell which side are the good guys and which side are the bad guys. But here in Bembo's history there's nothing of that sort; at any given point, there are likely to be at least half a dozen various states involved in the war(s), in various configurations, and these arrangements are extremely unstable; you can easily be at war against someone this year, and welcome him as your ally the next year against someone who had been your ally the year before.

Well, I suppose there are some sort of lessons to be drawn from this sort of stuff after all, about cynicism and realpolitik and the like; and it isn't hard to imagine how Machiavelli got his famous cynical ideas — he lived through the entire period covered by Bembo's book.

Additionally, as far as warfare goes, the stuff described in this book is pretty unspectacular. If you expect big epic fights, large numbers of soldiers moving over large distances, you'll be sorely disappointed. It's just various more or less obscure Italian towns changing hands again and again, and the armies involved are small enough that sending a couple hundred horsemen to reinforce the defense of a city is apparently a sufficiently large number to (1) actually make a difference and (2) be worth mentioning in Bembo's history.

By the way, I'm not blaming Bembo for the story being boring; he simply had the bad luck that his chosen period consisted of almost permanent warfare. He made a decent effort to include various other bits of information to make his history a little more interesting, but obviously his manoeuvering space was limited. The thing that amazes me is how the renaissance Italians managed, amidst all this incessant warfare, to find the time to create all those works of art and literature for which that period is still so famous...

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