An Iliad

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They laughed. But the truth is that they were young, and the young have an old idea of war. Honor, beauty, heroism. Like the fight between Hector and Ajax: two princes who first try savagely to kill each other and then exchange gifts. I was too old to believe in those things still. We won that war by means of a huge wooden horse, filled with soldiers. We won by a trick, not by an open, fair, honorable fight. And this they, the young men, never liked. But I was old. Odysseus was old. We knew that the long war we were fighting was old, and that it would be won in a day by those who are able to fight in a new way.

Letters from a Stoic

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Detail from “Head of an Old Man, Possibly Seneca,”
Circle of Peter Paul Rubens; circa 1620. I captured the image at the Rubens, Rembrandt, and Drawing in the Golden Age exhibition at the Art Institute.

Letter II
Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.

Letter III
For a delight in bustling about is not industry — it is only the restless energy of a hunted mind. And the state of mind that looks on all activity as tiresome is not true repose, but a spineless inertia.

Letter V
:: Finding wealth an intolerable burden is the mark of an unstable mind.

:: Wild animals run from the dangers they actually see, and once they have escaped them worry no more. We however are tormented alike by what is past and what is to come. A number of our blessings do us harm, for memory brings back the agony of fear while foresight brings it on prematurely. No one confines his unhappiness to the present.

Letter IX
What is my object in making a friend? To have someone to be able to die for, someone I may follow into exile, someone for whose life I may put myself up as security and pay the price as well. The thing you describe is not friendship but a business deal, looking to the likely consequences, with advantage as its goals.

Letter XVIII
It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself to deal with difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favours on it then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs.

Letter XCI
The fact that it was unforeseen has never failed to intensify a person’s grief. This is a reason for ensuring that nothing ever takes us by surprise. We should project our thoughts ahead of us at every turn and have in mind every possible eventuality instead of only the usual course of events. For what is there that fortune does not when she pleases fell at the height of its powers?

“That’s one of the risks you take.”

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From the poem “On Rachmaninoff’s Birthday”:

You’ll never be mentally sober.

From The Summer House:

p. 80
That’s strange, Grandmother thought. I can’t describe things any more. I can’t find the words, or maybe it’s just that I’m not trying hard enough. It was such a long time ago. No one here was even born. And unless I tell it because I want to, it’s as if it never happened; it gets closed off and then it’s lost. She sat up and said, “Some days I can’t remember very well. But sometime you ought to try and sleep in a tent all night.”

p. 127
“I didn’t know that,” Grandmother said. “No one told me.” She went into the guest room and tried to read. Of course, you moved a potted plant to wherever it would get on best. It would do fine on the veranda for a week. If you were going to be gone longer than that, you had to leave it with someone who could water it. It was a nuisance. Even potted plants got to be a responsibility, like everything else you took care of that couldn’t make decisions for itself.

p. 131
“Oh, you mean he’s dead,” said Grandmother. She started thinking about all the euphemisms for death, all the anxious taboos that had always fascinated her. It was too bad you could never have an intelligent discussion on the subject. People were either too young or too old, or else they didn’t have the time.

And from George Takei’s graphic memoir, They Called Us Enemy:

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Yes.

E7082997-B99A-4021-8548-2150A2EB9FE8According to Goodreads, I began my reread of Ulysses on April 7 and had covered fourteen of the eighteen chapters by mid-May. Even with the accompaniment of James Heffernan’s lectures (four remaining now), however, the project was bit of a slog. My bookmark (by then a ticket from Remy Bumppo’s production of Bloomsday) camped at the boundary of the Circe episode until I had stamina to wander into Nighttown in mid-September. Once I crossed that 150-page expanse, though, completing this project was a matter of a week’s time.

Chapter 5, p. 66
Yes, bread of the angels it’s called. There’s a big idea behind it, kind of kingdom of God is within you feel. First communicants. Hokypoky penny a lump. Then feel all like one family party, same in the theatre, all in the same swim. They do. I’m sure of that. Not so lonely. In our confraternity. Then come out a bit spreeish. Let off steam. Thing is if you really believe in it. Lourdes cure, waters of oblivion, and the Knock apparition, statues bleeding. Old fellow asleep near that confessionbox. Hence those snores. Blind faith. Safe in the arms of kingdom come. Lulls all pain. Wake this time next year.

Chapter 13, p. 309
Curious she an only child, I an only child. So it returns. Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way around is the shortest way home. And just when he and she. Circus horse walking in a ring. Rip van Winkle we played. Rip: tear in Henny Doyle’s overcoat. Van: breadvan delivering. Winkle: cocks and periwinkles. Then I did Rip van Winkle coming back. She leaned on the sideboard watching. Moorish eyes. Twenty years asleep in Sleepy Hollow. All changed. Forgotten. The young are old. His gun rusty from the dew.

In anticipation of seeing A Doll’s House at Writers Theater next month, I also reread the Rolf Fjelde translation of Henrik Ibsen’s play.

Act I
HELMER: Well, but what of the people I’d borrowed from?
NORA: Them? Who cares about them! They’re strangers!
HELMER: Nora, Nora, how like a woman! No, but seriously, Nora, you know what I think about that. No debts! Never borrow! Something of freedom’s lost — and something of beauty, too — from a home that’s founded on borrowing and debt. We’ve made a brave stand up to now, the two of us; and we’ll go right on like that the little while we have to.

Act III
HELMER: Before all else, you’re a wife and a mother.
NORA: I don’t believe that anymore. I believe that, before all else, I’m a human being, no less than you — or anyway, I ought to try to become one. I know the majority thinks you’re right, Torvald, and plenty of books agree with you, too. But I can’t go on being satisfied with what the majority says, or what’s written in books. I have to think over these things myself and try to understand them.

Were there books?

F480DF2B-242F-45C4-AA6E-B7DA1A372A56From Louise Penny’s third Chief Inspector Gamache novel, The Cruelest Month:

p. 79
Gamache loved to see inside the homes of people involved in a case. To look at the choices they made for their most intimate space. The colors, the decorations. The aromas. Were there books? What sort?

How did it feel?

He had been in shacks in the middle of nowhere, carpets worn, upholstery torn, wallpaper peeling off. But stepping in he also noticed the smell of fresh coffee and bread. Walls were taken up with immense smiling graduation photos and on rusty pocked TV trays stood modest chipped vases with cheery daffodils or pussy willows or some tiny wildflower picked by worn hands for eyes that would adore it.

And he’d been in mansions that felt like mausoleums.

p. 80
Grief sometimes took time to tell. The first days for relatives or close friends of murder victims were blessedly numb. They almost always held together, going through the motions of a normal life, so that a casual observer would never know disaster had just rammed into them. Most people fell to pieces gradually, like the old Hadley house.

Who indeed.

B75B1E05-6781-4D85-ADE4-500F5A7BE9E5From An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic (Daniel Mendelsohn; 2017):

p. 41
This strangely tentative careering between concrete specifics and unhelpful generalities gives you a familiar feeling: the feeling of what it’s like to be lost. Sometimes it’s as if you’re on familiar territory; sometimes you feel at sea, adrift in a featureless liquid void with no landmarks in sight. In this way, the opening of this poem about being lost and finding a way home precisely replicates the surf-like oscillations between drifting and purposefulness the characterize its hero’s journey.

p. 149
Children always imagine that their parents’ truest selves are as parents; but why? “Who really knows his own begetting?“ Telemachus bitterly asks early in the Odyssey. Who indeed. Our parents are mysterious to us in ways we can never quite be mysteries to them.

p. 215
For the best teacher is the one who wants you to find meaning in the things that have given him pleasure, too, so that the appreciation of their beauty will outlive him. In this way — because it arises from an acceptance of the inevitability of death — good teaching is like good parenting.

p. 277
You never do you know, really, where education will lead; who will be listening and, in certain cases, who will be doing with teaching.

Catching my breath

2B129CD5-D012-4E53-9F9E-B4C1899B8E94Earlier this month, my older daughter and I spent a morning reading and birdwatching by the lake. When we arrived at our usual spot, lifeguards were dragging battered rental canoes to the water’s edge, and maintenance crew members were rolling mowers off the truck, so we headed to a less frequented part of the shore and lingered there until nearly lunchtime. It was lovely.

While some summer breaks are, metaphorically speaking, mornings by the lake punctuated by flurries of activity, this summer break has been a flurry of activity punctuated by the occasional morning by the lake. Yesterday over lunch, though, I realized that at least four days of (metaphoric) mornings by the lake stretch ahead of me. Walks, books, and music practice; maybe a movie or two and some games. I don’t even care that it’s supposed to rain. Again. The house is clean. The yards are mowed and trimmed. The refrigerator and pantry are full. This is going to be great!

Speaking of books, here are commonplace book entries from True West by Sam Shepard:

Act Two, Scene Five
LEE: It’s not a film! It’s a movie. There’s a big difference. That’s something Saul told me.
AUSTIN: Oh he did, huh?
LEE: Yeah, he said, “In this business we make movies, American movies. Leave the films to the French.”

Act Two, Scene Nine
LEE: Sounds original now. “Intimate terms.” That’s good. Okay. Now we’re cookin! That has a real ring to it.
[…]
LEE: (continues) “He’s on intimate terms with this prairie.” Sounds real mysterious and kinda’ threatening at the same time.

And from the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf:

Lines 24 – 25
Behavior that’s admired
is the path to power among people everywhere.

With Beowulf, I reached sixty books read this year. So how am I doing with my reading resolutions, particularly my “Read from the shelves” challenge? Well, twenty-seven of those books were from my shelves; seventeen from the library, twelve acquired this year, and four other. With only a little more than half the year remaining, then, it seems unlikely that I will read one hundred books from my shelves. But my acquisition rate has certainly slowed, and I will handily meet my goal of thirty non-fiction titles — I’ve already read twenty-one. Of course, only ten of those were from my shelves, and my goal was twenty-four non-fiction titles from the shelves, so I have some work there. It’s achievable, though.

I also remain optimistic about reading at least one book from each of the following “special collections”: Shakespeare, poetry, NYRB, Vonnegut, Joyce Carol Oates, philosophy, art, and children’s / YA. In fact, I reread Hamlet last month and will reread Vonnegut’s Player Piano over the summer. As for my close (re)reading of Moby Dick, that may be a fall project.