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February 17, 2017
On This Date in History: Philosopher Caitlin Tess Varner was Born
Join me in saying Happy Birthday to philosopher and pundit Tess Varner. Dr. Varner’s seminal work in feminist animal philosophy has drawn glances of wonderment over the last several years in the American South, particularly in Birmingham, Alabama and in Georgia. Her seminal work Common Animals: Looking Beyond Linguistics with Nonhuman Stakeholders, A Pragmatist-(Eco) Feminist Framework for Democratic Deliberation. This work studies the outdoor pets of John Dewey’s household and how they voiced their nonhuman concerns. Currently Varner serves on the faculty at Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota.
February 12, 2017
On this date Charles Darwin was born in 1809 in Shropshire, England. He died in 1882.
Before the fame brought on by his books The Origin of Species in 1859 and The Descent of Man in 1871, Darwin had begun to develop his reputation as one of the most influential naturalists in history with the publication in 1839 of The Voyage of the Beagle.
The Voyage of the Beagle is a delightful and readable account in journal form of Darwin’s original voyage to the South Pacific.
In commemoration of Charles Darwin’s birthday here is a short clip in which Darwin describes his original visit to Tahiti. Sit back with a cup of coffee and read this glimpse of paradise from 1835.
November 15th. — At daylight, Tahiti, an island which must for ever remain classical to the voyager in the South Sea, was in view. At a distance the appearance was not attractive. The luxuriant vegetation of the lower part could not yet be seen, and as the clouds rolled past, the wildest and most precipitous peaks showed themselves towards the centre of the island. As soon as we anchored in Matavai Bay, we were surrounded by canoes. This was our Sunday, but the Monday of Tahiti: if the case had been reversed, we should not have received a single visit; for the injunction not to launch a canoe on the sabbath is rigidly obeyed. After dinner we landed to enjoy all the delights produced by the first impressions of a new country, and that country the charming Tahiti. A crowd of men, women, and children, was collected on the memorable Point Venus, ready to receive us with laughing, merry faces. They marshalled us towards the house of Mr. Wilson, the missionary of the district, who met us on the road, and gave us a very friendly reception. After sitting a very short time in his house, we separated to walk about, but returned there in the evening.
The land capable of cultivation, is scarcely in any part more than a fringe of low alluvial soil, accumulated round the base of the mountains, and protected from the waves of the sea by a coral reef, which encircles the entire line of coast. Within the reef there is an expanse of smooth water, like that of a lake, where the canoes of the natives can ply with safety and where ships anchor. The low land which comes down to the beach of coral-sand, is covered by the most beautiful productions of the intertropical regions. In the midst of bananas, orange, cocoa-nut, and bread-fruit trees, spots are cleared where yams, sweet potatoes, and sugar-cane, and pine-apples are cultivated. Even the brush-wood is an imported fruit-tree, namely, the guava, which from its abundance has become as noxious as a weed. In Brazil I have often admired the varied beauty of the bananas, palms, and orange-trees contrasted together; and here we also have the bread-fruit, conspicuous from its large, glossy, and deeply digitated leaf. It is admirable to behold groves of a tree, sending forth its branches with the vigour of an English oak, loaded with large and most nutritious fruit. However seldom the usefulness of an object can account for the pleasure of beholding it, in the case of these beautiful woods, the knowledge of their high productiveness no doubt enters largely into the feeling of admiration. The little winding paths, cool from the surrounding shade, led to the scattered houses; the owners of which everywhere gave us a cheerful and most hospitable reception.
I was pleased with nothing so much as with the inhabitants. There is a mildness in the expression of their countenances which at once banishes the idea of a savage; and intelligence which shows that they are advancing in civilization. The common people, when working, keep the upper part of their bodies quite naked; and it is then that the Tahitians are seen to advantage. They are very tall, broad- shouldered, athletic, and well-proportioned. It has been remarked, that it requires little habit to make a dark skin more pleasing and natural to the eye of an European than his own colour. A white man bathing by the side of a Tahitian, was like a plant bleached by the gardener’s art compared with a fine dark green one growing vigorously in the open fields. Most of the men are tattooed, and the ornaments follow the curvature of the body so gracefully, that they have a very elegant effect. One common pattern, varying in its details, is somewhat like the crown of a palm-tree. It springs from the central line of the back, and gracefully curls round both sides. The simile may be a fanciful one, but I thought the body of a man thus ornamented was like the trunk of a, noble tree embraced by a delicate creeper.
Many of the elder people had their feet covered with small figures, so placed as to resemble a sock. This fashion, however, is partly gone by, and has been succeeded by others. Here, although fashion is far from immutable, every one must abide by that prevailing in his youth. An old man has thus his age for ever stamped on his body, and he cannot assume the airs of a young dandy. The women are tattooed in the same manner as the men, and very commonly on their fingers. One unbecoming fashion is now almost universal: namely, shaving the hair from the upper part of the head, in a circular form, so as to leave only an outer ring. The missionaries have tried to persuade the people to change this habit; but it is the fashion, and that is a sufficient answer at Tahiti, as well as at Paris. I was much disappointed in the personal appearance of the women: they are far inferior in every respect to the men. The custom of wearing a white or scarlet flower in the back of the head, or through a small hole in each ear, is pretty. A crown of woven cocoa-nut leaves is also worn as a shade for the eyes. The women appear to be in greater want of some becoming costume even than the men.
Nearly all the natives understand a little English — that is, they know the names of common things; and by the aid of this, together with signs, a lame sort of conversation could be carried on. In returning in the evening to the boat, we stopped to witness a very pretty scene. Numbers of children were playing on the beach, and had lighted bonfires which illumined the placid sea and surrounding trees; others, in circles, were singing Tahitian verses. We seated ourselves on the sand, and joined their party. The songs were impromptu, and I believe related to our arrival: one little girl sang a line, which the rest took up in parts, forming a very pretty chorus. The whole scene made us unequivocally aware that we were seated on the shores of an island in the far-famed South Sea.
Realize, of course, that Darwin writes to an English audience with no knowledge of Tahiti or the South Pacific except what they might have read in fancifully exaggerated tales from previous imaginative voyagers. Here is a 19th-century version of scientific description writing aiming at accurate detail.
Notice, though, how Darwin begins by describing specific features of the land, comparing the strange and unusual to the ordinary and well-known from back in England. But then he shifts abruptly to describing the people, in general terms, not specific people. And just like his readers back home, these South Pacific islanders were all about fashion. Their peculiar way of shaving the middle of their scalps while leaving a ring of hair about the edges was essential fashion: “The missionaries have tried to persuade the people to change this habit,: Darwin says, “but it is the fashion, and it is sufficient answer at Tahiti, as well as at Paris.”
January 25, 2017
To commemorate Robert Burns’s birthday in The Literary Life here is one of the Scotch poet’s more humorous poems:
To a Louse: On Seeing One On A Lady’s Bonnet, At Church
(Hover over the dialect words for definitions.)
|Ha! whaur ye gaun, ye crowlin ferlie?
Your impudence protects you sairly;
I canna say but ye strunt rarely,
Owre gauze and lace;
Tho’, faith! I fear ye dine but sparely
On sic a place.Ye ugly, creepin, blastit wonner,
Detested, shunn’d by saunt an’ sinner,
How daur ye set your fit upon her-
Sae fine a lady?
Gae somewhere else and seek your dinner
On some poor body.
Swith! in some beggar’s haffet squattle;
Here’s what I said about “To a Louse” in my Historical Dictionary of Romanticism in Literature:
Robert Burns wrote this poem in his familiar Standard Habbie stanza form. Since Burns rarely attended the common Scottish Presbyterian assemblies, this poem is his imagining of a church service with its hypocritical churchgoers. The speaker sits in a pew behind a respectable young lady during the service. She has dressed in her finery for Sunday church. The speaker notices a louse crawling in her hair. The fine lady is, of course unaware and would be utterly horrified to know someone had spotted lice in her hair. The poem’s obvious theme is that we seldom see ourselves as others see us.
The Standard Habbie stanza form perfected by Robert Burns, Burns adapted the stanza from the 17th-century Scottish poet Robert Sempill who used it in his ballad “The Life and Death of Habbie Simpson.” A Standard Habbie stanza consists of a six lines, or sestet, with three lines of iambic tetrameter rhyming aaa followed by an iambic dimeter line making the b rhyme. The last two lines are iambic tetrameter and iambic dimeter rhyming ab. Burns uses this stanza in other poems as “Address to a Haggis” (traditionally read tonight, “Holy Willie’s Prayer,” and “To a Mouse.”
Vocabulary you’ll need to survive in Victorian London Perusing the Public Domain Review you may eventually stumble upon The London Guide & Stranger’s Safeguard against the Cheats, Swindle…
September 13, 2016
If you have not read Part One of this series, posted last Tuesday, scroll down and read it and join the conversation.
So, to restate the concluding question from last time, If the only intellectual tradition available to us in early 21st century America is liberalism, what might be the danger
If liberalism today faces no serious disciplined intellectual opposition, what might become of the vibrancy that has characterized liberal thought over the last many decades?
Or, why hasn’t liberalism, if it is such a powerful force at the intellectual level, made greater progress in influencing the general population, even as more and more of us are earning college degrees and even advanced graduate degrees?
Back to the conservative political movement itself for a few minutes
If such a powerful political movement as is clearly about us today cannot sustain itself intellectually, what might be the consequences?
Try this idea out from Lionel Trilling, an idea not just about his own time but as a general observation still relevant for our times:
“It is just when a movement despairs of having ideas that it turns to force, which it masks in ideology?” (The Liberal Imagination xvi) Well?
Why not start a conversation in the comments box? But if not, think seriously about these questions as part of living the literary life.
September 6, 2016
Welcome back to Season Two of The Literary Life. I trust you indulged yourself in plenty of summer reading and perhaps in building your collection of Great Literature. Last year I spent time with some of the really Big Questions that all of us wrestle with while reading the best literature of Western civilization.
I plan on staying with the Big Questions this season, but I also intend to work a little bit more with profiles of some of the great literary lives behind the Big Questions. Beyond that I hope to keep you posted on some of the significant happenings in the world of serious literature such as exhibitions of the major research libraries in the U.S., the major productions of important plays in the canon, as well as much more. I will also have various series of short takes, such as First Impressions (first encounters by Great Writers in their youth) and Biographical Moments (turning points in our writers’ lives).
If you are reading this blog from one of the social media, take a moment and click on the WordPress blog itself, read the pages about The Literary Life and about me. Then check out last season. If you like what you see be sure to sign up for the blog in your email.
Let’s get going with the new literary and cultural season for 2016 and 2017.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o’er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river and the heaven,
And veils the farmhouse at the garden’s end.
The steed and traveler stopped, the courier’s feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.
Come see the north wind’s masonry
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;
Fills up the farmer’s lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer’s sighs; and, at the gate,
A tapering turret overtops the work.
And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structure, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind’s night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.
Henry Vaughan (1621-95)
Sweet, harmless lives! (on whose holy leisure
Waits innocence and pleasure),
Whose leaders to those pastures, and clear springs,
Were patriarchs, saints, and kings,
How happened it that in the dead of night
You only saw true light,
While Palestine was fast asleep, and lay
Without one thought of day?
Was it because those first and blessed swains
Were pilgrims on those plains
When they received the promise, for which now
‘Twas there first shown to you?
‘Tis true, He loves that dust whereon they go
That serve Him here below,
And therefore might for memory of those
His love there first disclose;
But wretched Salem, once His love, must now
No voice, nor vision know,
Her stately piles with all their height and pride
Now languished and died,
And Bethlem’s humble cotes above them stepped
While all her seers slept;
Her cedar, fir, hewed stones and gold were all
Polluted through their fall,
And those once sacred mansions were now
Mere emptiness and show;
This made the angel call at reeds and thatch,
Yet where the shepherds watch,
And God’s own lodging (though He could not lack)
To be a common rack;
No costly pride, no soft-clothed luxury
In those thin cells could lie,
Each stirring wind and storm blew through their cots
Which never harbored plots,
Only content, and love, and humble joys
Lived there without all noise,
Perhaps some harmless cares for the next day
Did in their bosoms play,
As where to lead their sheep, what silent nook,
What springs or shades to look,
But that was all; and now with gladsome care
They for the town prepare,
They leave their flock, and in a busy talk
All towards Bethlem walk
To see their souls’ Great Shepherd, Who was come
To bring all stragglers home,
Where now they find Him out, and taught before
That Lamb of God adore,
That Lamb whose days great kings and prophets wished
And longed to see, but missed.
The first light they beheld was bright and gay
And turned their night to day,
But to this later light they saw in Him,
Their day was dark, and dim.