Definition of classic

daphneOn another blog, there was a conversation that broke out on the meaning of the word “classic”. I gave my initial response, but decided eventually to look in the dictionary. The editors of dictionaries put a lot of work into them, so it’s only fair that we make use of them. I started, however, with my Latin dictionary, where “classicus” meant “belonging to the first class, of the highest class”, usually in reference to some segment of the Roman people. If this is where the English word “classic” originates, then it gives us some idea of what it will mean. Moving on to the Oxford Dictionary, I think every definition stated on that blog post is contained here in one way or another.

“Classic” as an adjective has two definitions. First, “judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind”. This definition combines the time criterion that showed up in many comments with the criterion of being the best of its kind, again where the fact it has lasted a long time seems more an indication of the worth, which is the more important factor. The second definition of the adjective is similar but distinct, “very typical of its kind”. Typical in the sense of “having the distinctive qualities of a particular type of person or thing” (Oxford). In this sense, the Iliad and the Odyssey are classic epics, Moby Dick is a classic American novel, and Hamlet is a classic tragedy. This definition accounts for why certain books are called classics of a genre or region, but are not unqualified literary classics.

“Classic” as a noun has two relevant definitions. The first is related to the adjective just described, “a work of art of recognized and established value”. The second is limited but related, “a subject at school or university which involves the study of ancient Greek and Latin literature, philosophy, and history”. I think there’s a way in which the Greek and Latin cultures laid the groundwork for Western notions of excellence in art, so there’s a reason why the name “classic” is attributed to them in a special sense.

golf ballThe third sense of the noun does not apply to this conversation, but is worth reporting for the sake of completion: “a major sports tournament or competition, especially in golf or tennis”. This name probably comes from the event being regular and traditional in its own fashion.

As for the word “classical“, this adjective primarily means “relating to ancient Greek or Latin literature, art, or culture”, and secondarily “representing an exemplary standard within a traditional and long-established form or style”, such as classical music and classical dance.

Now while all the respondents on the original post recognized some aspect of one of the definitions above, there were also questions about how to determine if a work is a classic. One response said, “the question is unanswerable, unless we are willing to elect some governing body the supreme keeper of literature”, indicating the difficulty of knowing who can determine the excellence of a work. Another response placed this responsibility in the reader: “I’d say we as humans determine individually what is classic to US. That’s sort of what we’re doing here in the club, I think — hunting down our own classics.”

audenThis reader is, nevertheless, guided by others. I’m reminded of Aristotle’s Topics, where he talks about how to attain knowledge by dialectical reasoning (rather than certain demonstrative reasoning), and he says you must start with opinions held “by all, or by the majority, or by the most notable and illustrious of them” (Topics, I.1). For this reason, we who read classics often look at lists of books put together by either a wide survey of readers, or by a group of notable intellectuals, or perhaps by one individual in particular who we believe to be particularly insightful.

As I was considering the role of the reader in determining which works to consider classics, I was reminded of a few quotes from W.H. Auden (that I once read on another literary blog) on the intersection of judgment and taste. These reflections indicate how a work could be a classic without necessarily being a book one enjoys.

“My taste tells me what, in fact, I enjoy reading; my judgement tells me what I must admire. There are always a number of poems that one must admire but that, by reasons of one’s temperament, one cannot enjoy. The converse is not necessarily true. I don’t think I like any poem that I do not also admire, but I have to remind myself that in some other fields–tear-jerking movies, for example–I revel in what my judgment tells me is trash.” (W.H. Auden, 19th Century British Minor Poets)

“As readers, we remain in the nursery stage so long as we cannot distinguish between taste and judgment, so long, that is, as the only possible verdicts we can pass on a book are two: this I like; this I don’t like. For an adult reader, the possible verdicts are five: I can see this is good and I like it; I can see this is good but I don’t like it; I can see this is good and, though at present I don’t like it, I believe that with perseverance I shall come to like it; I can see that this is trash but I like it; I can see that this is trash and I don’t like it.” (W.H. Auden, A Certain World: A Commonplace Book)

Journal: Aristotle, Dante, hopefully more

ps4 books pngWith each day, it looks like this isolation will last longer. Even it is eventually lifted, the schools have been called off for the year, which means no chaplain duties until September. So it’s as if my summer is beginning two months early: the routine and habits I take up now could theoretically carry me through the next 5 months, so it’s important to make a good start. I have continued reading since my last post, but not nearly with the consistency I had hoped. My reading chair is placed far too close to the PlayStation, which offers absolutely no help to completing my syllabus. Here’s what I’ve picked up lately though:

Aristotle, Metaphysics XII. I finished reading that book of the Metaphysics where Aristotle arrives at immaterial being and numbers them. I had begun in my last post to consider the notion of circular motion as present in self-movers. Aristotle shows that there must be something which is moved with an unceasing motion, and that this mobile itself must be eternal, and also there must be something which moves that ever-moving mobile. This mover itself is moved by nothing as it moves the mobile, which is the “first heaven”, the outermost sphere of the universe. One might ask, “Is it possible to move another without being moved oneself?” And he points out that this is clear the case with objects of desire: The glass a of beer moves me to pick it up, not by being moved itself, but through being an object of knowledge and desire. This leads to a whole school of interpretation (perhaps the most common) that says, for Aristotle, the unmoved mover only moves in the mode of a final cause and not in the mode of an agent cause. Thomas will disagree with this interpretation, since God must be both final cause and agent cause, but I can see how people arrive at the conclusion based on this text. Aristotle says, “The final cause, then, produces motion as being loved, but all other things move by being moved” (XII.7), the implication being that things which move but are not moved only do so in the mode of a final cause. Other texts, for example the talk about power in Physics VIII (if I recall correctly), indicate that the first mover does indeed move in the mode of an agent cause without being moved. Continue reading

Journal: A return to Aristotle

plato and aristotleRecently I had a long phone conversation with a friend who is working on a doctorate in philosophy. I expected a few questions about book recommendations and how to worship with the present pandemic, but the conversation was mostly spent on the object of his study, namely, the actions of the simple substances (angels) upon man. Without going into the points around which our conversation turned, the chief effect was that I wanted to fill in those gaps in my reading concerning the angels, what they are and what we can know about them, both from reasoning and from faith.

The first book I picked up to this end contained the Enneads of Plotinus, a philosopher who certainly speculated on the multitude of incorporeal beings. But realizing how “out of shape” I was philosophically, I retreated to more familiar ground. I found my copy of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, and started reviewing sections I did not remember well, namely, Book IX on actuality and potency and Book X on unity. Unlike a novel, where one can read continuously and reasonably hope that what is obscure will become clear later on, when something is obscure in Aristotle, I have to slow down. The questions I ask myself the most often when reading Aristotle are “Is this true?” and “How do I know that?” This is especially true when he talks about motion, about which he makes many universal statements. Aristotle did not grow up hearing about the big bang, the expanding universe, inertia and universal gravitation, atomic models, waves and particles, the death of stars, and so on; therefore, a contemporary person is reasonably skeptical when such a person makes a universal statement about motion itself. And yet, I have the same “macro” experience that Aristotle did. I should at least be able to understand why he thinks certain truths are self-evident or demonstrable. Continue reading

Angels in NGE and St. Thomas Aquinas

arcangels[I previously said I wanted to write on the Human Instrumentality Project from theological point of view, but as I continued thinking, I was taken in more by another aspect of the series.]

First of all, if you have not seen Neon Genesis Evangelion and you do not want any revelations about the final episodes, do not keep reading. From this point on, I will make no effort to conceal plot details.
Continue reading

Journal: Neon Genesis Evangelion and more Zweig

Well, even with all the extra time, I somehow managed not to pick up a book since my last post. Between making family visits (before Michigan’s stay-at-home order went into effect) and unexpectedly changing my place of residence in the last couple days, I haven’t been sitting down all that much. Nevertheless, I still found a few things to ride about.



More Zweig. Driving around these last few days, I’ve listened to another three hours or so of Zweig. I must say, I feel like the classiest driver on the road while listening to the gentleman who narrates this book (apparently his name is David Horovitch). He goes on about the theater and the cafes where Zweig and his childhood companions learned about the greatest poets of their time before they reached fame, how they memorized entire collections of poetry by Whitman and Rimbaud, and submitted their own compositions for publication under pseudonyms since it was not possible for a young student to publish in his own name. Even when Zweig describes things as sordid as brothels or as insipid as the 19th century school system, he does so in a way that reveals the heart’s motion as it is affected or infected by these things. The worst part about this memoir are all the works of literature he mentions that are making my to-read list longer! I had never even heard of Hofmannsthal, but Zweig describes him as a genius who inspired an entire generation of literary endeavor, comparing him to Napoleon who showed that even a young person can rule the entire world without the favor of heritage. The most recent section in the book is talking about the Dreyfus Affair and the eventual introduction of Zionism by Theodor Herzl. When Zweig talks about the Jews in Austria, it is not just a discussion of his own ethnic background. He shows how the bourgeois Austrian Jews were important patrons of the arts and how their role in Austria at that time is an exemplar of the tolerance and lack of prejudice that existed at that time. With this explained, the fate of the Austrian Jews is an importance sign of the fate of Austria itself. This continues to be a very enjoyable read.

unit 01

EVA, Unit-01

Neon Genesis Evangelion. Am I allowed to talk about things other than books on here? Of course I can: it’s my blog. Taking advantage of the fact that I can watch TV shows on my phone while getting my steps in, I recently watched the 26-episode Neon Genesis Evangelion and its follow-up movie End of Evangelion. I had probably seen an episode or two of this as a child (I remembered the penguin), but as the show became more grotesque, it made sense that my parents did not let me keep watching the show. What first looks like a beautifully animated robots-vs-monsters series with angsty teenagers, soon becomes much more than that. It’s hard to really talk about the themes of the series without talking about the end and where it goes, so I’ll save that for another post. penpenApart from the stunning animation, what makes the series intriguing is how it brings together things that don’t obviously go together: crippling depression and goofy breakfast scenes, technology and occult Jewish symbols, evolution and the nature of the soul. Even without going into the deeper questions of the series (which you end up having to consider), everything is so interesting that you just wonder: What are the Angels? What are the Evas? Why are children piloting these? What is the Human Instrumentality Project? What happened at the Second Impact? And so on and so forth. In the near future, I want to write from a theological perspective about the Human Instrumentality Project and the most difficult episodes of the series, but I’ll leave off here for anyone who doesn’t want the later episodes spoiled.

Now to go pick up a book!

Journal: Andrić, Zweig, Julianus Pomerius

It feels like a very long time since I’ve written anything on here, and nearly as long of a time since I even finished reading a book. Perhaps it is because I am in my first year out of school, but it’s been difficult to set aside the time for reading that I once did. Whether it is because I’m actually busy or because reading doesn’t seem appealing when time finally opens up, all of the excuses are gone now. Everything is cancelled. Meetings, appointments, school visits, and so on. So now it is time to read again.

As I often find it difficult to remember all the poignant details of books after reading them, this time I think I’ll do something more like a journal. Instead of waiting until I finish a book, I will periodically talk about what I’m reading. This sort of update will also encourage me to continue reading when the interest ebbs and wanes.

Image result for omer pasha latasI decided to start with a shorter book on the shelf, and picked out Omer Pasha Latas: Marshal to the Sultan by Ivo Andrić. Andrić is the only Southern Slav to win the Nobel Prize in literature, writing in Serbo-Croatian. His most famous work is The Bridge on the Drina, which is a novel that takes place over 300 years where the only consistent figure throughout is the bridge in the title. So far, Omer Pasha Latas resembles The Bridge on the Drina in many respects: it is set in the region of Bosnia, the timeline is extensive, there is a clash of cultures Eastern and Western, and a vying for dominance between the imperial and the local. Though both of the books are composed, more or less, from vignettes about different personalities here and there, the stories in Omer Pasha Latas all revolve in some way around the title character, much as The Bridge on the Drina revolves around the life of that bridge. Omer Pasha was an Austrian who abandoned his faith and consequently worked his way up through the ranks of the Turkish empire. Although he externally takes on the appearance of Turk, he is considered an outsider in everywhere to the Bosnian subjects he attempts to put in order.

Image result for stefan zweig world of yesterdayIn addition to this novel, I decided to give Audible a try and began listening to the memoirs of Stefan Zweig in The World of Yesterday. I’ve only just started it and I only listen to it as I drive, so it may take awhile to get through the 17-hour listening time, but already he explains why his perspective makes a good story: he has witnessed two world wars, and the secure order he grew up in during the late 19th century is unimaginable to those growing up in his own time. He talks about the beauty of Vienna, with its multiculturalism and artistic talent, and the Jewish genius, which prizes the intellectual life above all things. Though I never wrote a post about it, one of the last books I finished was a collection of novellas by Stefan Zweig. Each novella put in deep relief some particular movement of the human heart. I expect his own memoirs to do as well in expressing his own feelings at seeing the world turned upside-down.

Image result for bartholomew of the martyrsThe last book I want to mention is called The Contemplative Life by Julianus Pomerius, a 5th century African writer. How I discovered this work: I was reading about the recently canonized St. Bartholomew of the Martyrs, a Portuguese Dominican friar who became a bishop and assisted with the reform of the clergy around the time of the Council of Trent. I discovered that he wrote a manual for bishops, called the Stimulus Pastorum, which became one of the favorite books of St. Charles Borromeo. This work had never been translated into English, but my curiosity led me to a Latin version of the work. Whereas the second half of the work reads like a manual for bishops, the first half of the work is composed entirely from other works: On the Priesthood by St. John Chrysostom, The Pastoral Rule of St. Gregory the Great, On consideration by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and several other well-known works and authors. One extensively quoted work that I did not recognize was De vita contemplativa by Julianus Pomerius, a work I had never heard of, but which was available in English. So I obtained an English copy and began reading. So far, it’s an excellent work of eschatology. judgment angelicoApparently, the author was responsible for bringing the thought of St. Augustine from North Africa up to Gaul, where he was ordained and served as a teacher. Whereas St. Augustine sometimes sounds silly in the City of God, as he ponders and proposes about the nature of the next life and the resurrection of the body, the work of Pomerius trims down these doctrines to their essential points and presents them in a manner useful for meditation. For example, he usefully proposes that the active life is to the contemplative life as the contemplative life is to the life of the blessed in heaven. With this proportion in place, every description of the coming beatitude and resurrection of the body helps to illustrate the life to which contemplatives are called, while at the same time highlighting the perfection that remains for the next world. If someone was unfamiliar with the Christian doctrines of the beatific vision, the resurrection of the body, the last judgment, or the superiority of the contemplative life, I would certainly recommend this book as a level and clear explanation. The second half of the book will give counsel for those caught up in the active life, something I hope to find very useful.

Comedy of Errors

The first work I finished reading upon my return home was The Comedy of Errors by Shakespeare. I simply picked up my volume of Shakespeare and went down the table of contents until I found a play that I hadn’t read yet. And what a happy choice it was! I remember once (was it actually 12 years ago?) picking up this same play on a lazy Saturday afternoon, but quickly becoming overwhelmed by the abbreviated roles (Aege., Duke., etc.), the characters with identical names, and the lack of footnotes. I put it down after one scene. Over a decade later with the experience of reading 20 other Shakespeare plays, I was able to enjoy this as the comedy it is.


Location. Oftentimes I find it difficult to set a stage in my head when all I have is the dialogue between the characters. Although I have never been to Syracuse or Ephesus (the key spots in the play), I have been to the modern-day Sicily and Turkey which contain these ancient cities. Even if a bit anachronistically, this helped to populate my imagination with fashions and manners, so that I was not merely reviewing a dialogue, but reading a play. Continue reading

Two by Balzac

As I write from the exotic-sounding but none-too-exotic city of Kalamazoo, the memory of the first novels I read this year brings to mind some journeys to more exotic places. They are two novels from Balzac: one obtained from a used bookstore at ground level of a mall in Jerusalem, the other bought brand new at a train station bookstore at Florence. Though I picked them up during quiet moments on planes and trains, I finally finished both of them on the island of Ischia (off the coast of Naples) which itself has a story worth telling.

wild skin

The Wild Ass’s Skin, obtained in the used bookstore, itself starts with a lengthy account of a shop filled with antiquaries. Continue reading

Overview of 2018 Reading

Literary classics. I was able to finish 16 different classics this year, and each by a different author! I won’t go into detail here as I wrote a blogpost for each of them. The authors, in the order I read them, are: Virginia Woolf, Honoré de Balzac, Sigrid Undset, Evelyn Waugh, Willa Cather, Ismail Kadare, George Eliot, Chaim Potok, Kazuo Ishiguro, Émile Zola, Vladimir Nabokov, Aristophanes, Rainer Maria Rilke, Jane Austen, Stanislaw Lem, and Mikhail Bulgakov. (Clicking any of those names will direct you to my posts on them.)

Other literary books. Following recommendations from workers at a local bookstore in Rome, I read and finished a couple other literary works this year that I would not list among the classics. The first of these is Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer, an autobiographical account of the author’s attempt to write a biography of D.H. Lawrence. I had previously heard of Dyer only from a lengthy article on Rebecca West, but the recommendation was strong, so I went for it. It was an unfortunate choice. Apart from a few amusing anecdotes about Italy (which eventually led to me watching spaghetti Westerns this summer), the books is basically just a cranky monologue. Another worker from the same bookstore recommended The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood. In this case, the book was entertaining and clever at parts, but ultimately left me wanting to read the real thing.


Michigan. I have often thought: Spain, Italy and Greece have all produced great literature. But what do they have in common? They are peninsulas. Should not then Michigan have an even greater literature? For it is two peninsulas. Indeed, according to the barely-known and perhaps unfortunate 1972 Pledge to the State Flag, it is:

two beautiful peninsulas united by a bridge of steel
where equal opportunity and justice to all is our ideal.

And so I searched for the literary treasure that I expected to find in Michigan, and though I did not have time to search as thoroughly as I would like, I found a very helpful book for this journey: Michigan Literary Luminaries by Anna Clark. In this book, Clark brings forth the best Michigan has to offer: from the more literary Ernest Hemingway and Joyce Carol Oates to the more popular Elmore Leonard and Donald Goines. Anna Clark concludes with a much more hopeful estimation of Michigan’s literary output than I arrived at, but she does a great job telling the story along the way. I will continue my search once I am back in Michigan.

Odd coincidence: While talking with workers at a bookstore in my home town, I found out that Anna Clark once worked there! She was scheduled to give a talk there after I left, but I was able to meet her at another venue in Kalamazoo where she was presenting her newest book on the Flint water crisis. She seemed very excited that someone had found and enjoyed her book on Michigan’s literature!

Also on the subject of Michigan literature, I mention here Michigan author Jon Oldham’s project which I recently wrote a post on.

Books I did not finish. There are probably more books than these that I picked up an put down again, but these stand out. The first is Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain, an autobiographical work about a nurse in World War I. It was highly recommended on a number of blogs and had found a place among the Penguin Classics, but I just couldn’t do it after 200 pages. She struck me self-centered and I wasn’t given reasons to expect any improvement, so I decided to let that one go. Then next one was recommended by a lady working at Barbara’s Bookstore in the O’Hare airport, who said it was her favorite book: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. It starts with a boy discovering a forgotten book in a hidden library, and the drama goes from there. There were many things I liked about it early on, but the main character became less and less interesting with every chapter, and then I stopped. There are too many good books in the world to be spending time on ones that miss the mark. One last book I did not finish a was a collection of poetry by Cavafy, a modern Greek poet. This book is excellent! I dropped it when I went home for the summer and I hope to pick it up again in the new year.

Comics. Should I include this in my reading for the year? When I spent time with my family this summer, we often watched either Marvel movies or the recent sequel series to Dragon Ball Z. Inspired by the first of those and tempted by special offers for Marvel Unlimited, I ended up reading the 1991 Infinity Gauntlet comics on which the recent Infinity War film is at least partly based. This led to reading comics about Adam Warlock as well as his Infinity Watch, a group similar to the Guardians of the Galaxy, each member of which is entrusted with an Infinity Stone. These were fun, but I decided not to renew my month’s subscription—they’re almost endless and they make new ones every day! The other comic I picked up was Jaco the Galactic Patrolman, a recent work from the creator of Dragon Ball Z. It was short and fun, but I don’t think it would reading for anyone but fans of Akira Toriyama.

breviaryPsalms. Back in June, I spent a few days the Benedictine monastery in Norcia, where I was at last convinced to switch to the older use of the Roman Breviary for my daily prayers. Instead of praying the Psalms over the course of a month (as the current Liturgy of the Hours does) the Breviarium Romanum (as it was prayed in 1962) moves through the entire Psalter each week. This takes a little more time, but one eventually gets used to the rhythm and the Psalms quickly become more familiar. Recognizing the how central the Psalms are to my daily prayer and how they are used at Mass every day, it seemed worth the effort to understand them better. I started with a commentary on Psalm 119 by St. Ambrose, and then started going back and forth between the homilies of St. Augustine and St. Jerome on various Psalms. Apart from these ancient commentaries, I read John Bergsma’s Psalms Basics for Catholics, a very simple but very helpful overview on the structure of the book of Psalms and how the entire story of the Old Testament is reflected in them. After that I read N.T. Wright’s A Case for the Psalms, which was not so much an argument for their usage as a reflection on his own experience praying and singing them. On a recommendation in that book, I started listening to recordings of Anglican choirs chanting the Psalms—truly something to work up to in our own churches. I didn’t get around them, but I had hoped to read reflections on the Psalms from C.S. Lewis and Girolamo Savonarola, and then a book recommended by Bergsma called Singing in the Reign.

Saints. I love preaching on the lives of the Saints. If there is a Gospel passage that is difficult to interpret, you can never go wrong by seeing how the Saints lived that Gospel in their own lives. The only life that I read in full this year was a small book on Blessed Margaret of Castello. She was born blind and crippled, was ignored and eventually abandoned by her wealthy parents, and attained to the heights of holiness. I highly recommend her biography by Fr. William Bonniwell, O.P.

State of the Church. With all the craziness in the news about goings-on in the Church, I read The Book of Gomorrah by St. Peter Damian, written about 1000 years ago. He writes about the awful lifestyles of clerics in his own day and about the heights of virtue which God demands of every priest. The other book I read, before any of the scandals this summer, was The Last Testament, an interview with Pope Benedict XVI. What a humble and intelligent man! Only time will tell us the full ramifications of his weighty decision to step down from the Petrine office.

tribunalCanon law. Though I don’t usually write about it on here, I would bet that over half of my reading in the last year was in one way or another related to canon law. In the first half of 2018, I was in a seminar on the power of governance in the Church and so I read many articles related to that, especially on judicial power and its delegation as this was the topic I presented in the seminar. This last semester, my focus shifted almost entirely to presumptions as a form of proof, and especially judicial presumptions, as this is the topic I have chosen for my license tesina. I have whole bibliography of textbooks, commentaries, articles, and original sources on this topic, but I’ll wait until it’s finished before I share a summary.

Books started. There are two books I am going through at very leisurely pace, which I do not think I will finish for a very long time. One of these is the Collected Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges, which collects his many collections of short fiction. As finish each of these collections, I will write a post on it, but I am only reading a couple pages a day. The other book I am plodding through is the Disquisitiones Arithmeticae by Carl Friedrich Gauss. When I was reading Stanislaw Lem, there were many references to Gauss as if he were quasi-deity and, though I knew the name, I could not recall any of his discoveries or contributions off the top of my head. A couple searches later, I found that he wrote a textbook on number theory and sent away for it. It is an exact work and I never get through more than a page in a sitting, but it’s a pleasure to pick up something mathematical after nearly 6 years without anything of the kind. I intend to write a post on it soon, though it may be years before I actually finish it.

Stanislaw Lem: The Cyberiad

cyberiadWhen visiting another land, there is no better souvenir than a book representing the literature of that place. So finding myself with free time in Krakow, I visited the largest bookstore I could find and started to flip through various Polish authors for a book to bring home. Milosz and Sienkiewicz both looked promising, but it was Stanislaw Lem that won the day. I might have ignored him as typical sci-fi, with the robots and astronauts on the covers, but the fact that his works were in a Modern Penguin Classics edition made me suspect there was something more going on.

For all the robots and the fantastic use of scientific terms, the book reads more like Gulliver’s Travels or The Phantom Tollbooth than anything by Ray Bradbury or Isaac Asimov. The stories follow the adventures of Trurl and Klapaucius, two “constructors”, and their machines which often get them into trouble. An early story involves a machine which can make anything that starts with the letter n. Everything starts well with it making neutrons and nuclei, and noses and nymphs. But then someone requests that it produce Nothing, and it starts to dismantle the entire cosmos…

The translation of the work itself is no small wonder, with all the many rhymes and word-games which appear in English, that could easily have been discarded along the way. For example, there is a poem-writing machine which takes in any criteria and then produces a perfect poem. “Have it compose a poem – a poem about a haircut! But lofty, noble, tragic, timeless, full of love, treachery, retribution, quiet heroism in the face of certain doom! Six lines, cleverly rhymed, and every word beginning with the letter s!” And before any objections can be made, we hear:

Seduced, shaggy Samson snored.
She scissored short. Sorely shorn,
Soon shackled slave, Samson sighed,
Silently scheming,
Sightlessly seeking
Some savage, spectacular suicide.

Even in the midst of these silly poetic exercises, Lem reflects on the meaning of poetry for mankind as he depicts robots worrying about who the greatest poet is.


That Lem is well-studied in both sciences and arts appears in each story. The title Cyberiad is an homage to other epic titles and I was pleased to learn that he wrote a work called Summa Technologiae—the title suggesting at least a familiarity with the works of Thomas Aquinas. Although he is an atheist and materialist, he does not discard human questions, but looks at them in light of his theories, even if this means arriving at something absurd or unsatisfying. There is an integrity in his approach that is refreshing, and he pokes fun at so many things that one never feels on the receiving end of a political tirade. There is also something beautiful about a world full of sentient robots using Latin to dignify their speech.

A fun-fact: Apparently the popular video game SimCity was inspired by a story in this book where the constructors make a miniature kingdom for a tyrant in order to satisfy his desire to tyrannize while saving his actual kingdom. A discussion ensues about how oppressing a tiny civilization is any better than oppressing larger one.

[This is #27 on my classics reading challenge.]