Balzac, Treatise on Modern Stimulants

This work seems like a challenge to write about for 30 minutes since it is such a short work. 41 small pages. Nonetheless, here some thoughts (unorganized by the end).

Me, enjoying a modern stimulant somewhere in California. 2014.

Though I have read Balzac before, this was in the form of novels (Eugénie Grandet, The Wild Ass’s Skin, Colonel Chabert), and I expected my next foray would be a novel. But when I turned to Twitter for reading recommendations, this came from one particularly well-read friend. And since it was much shorter than the last book he recommended to me (“one of the most amusing books in our language”), it seemed worth a shot.

This little treatise ended up as a perfect follow-up to my reading of The Count of Monte Cristo. The Count of that novel, who keeps his normal fair to a minimum, makes no secret of the substances by which he regulates his sleep. When we first see his hidden palace room, he offers his guest a serving of hashish which brings about deeply satisfying hallucinations. He carries around an emerald which contains his “sleeping pills”, and we see another scene where a child breaks into his cabinet full of vials which induce untold effects.

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The Count of Monte Cristo

Preliminary note. It seems good to write something on each book that I finish, but it also doesn’t seem worth too much time. The time limit is set for 30 minutes. At that point, I will wrap it up and post. That will save more time for reading.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas was an excellent novel. The only point against it is its length! Providence was kind enough to grant me a period of isolation from society which allowed me to finish it. Some thoughts.

[All spoilers below.]

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Another Round of Classics

The first classics challenge was a success: I read 50 classics within 5 years. I did this even with sets of months where I read almost nothing. The existence of the goal always prompted a return to reading, and so it makes sense to start again. Last time, my starting list was composed mostly of books that were sitting on my shelves. So also now: there are two shelves in my room filled with literature I have not read, so these are the titles I will start with.

  1. Naguib Mahfouz, The Cairo Trilogy.
  2. Charles Dickens, David Copperfield.
  3. James Joyce, Ulysses.
  4. Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow.
  5. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Demons.
  6. Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain.
  7. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot.
  8. John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath.
  9. Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady.
  10. John Steinbeck, East of Eden.
  11. Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers.
  12. Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet.
  13. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Italian Journey.
  14. Rumer Godden, In this House of Brede.
  15. Orhan Pamuk, The Black Book.
  16. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
  17. Italo Svevo, Zeno’s Conscience.
  18. Fernando Pessoa, A Little Larger than the Entire Universe.
  19. Orhan Pamuk, Snow.
  20. Charles Dickens, Hard Times.
  21. Olga Tokarczuk, Flights.
  22. Rebecca West, The Fountain Overflows.
  23. William Faulkner, Go Down, Moses.
  24. Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth.
  25. António Lobo Antunes, The Natural Order of Things.
  26. Molière, The Misanthrope.
  27. Molière, Tartuffe.
  28. H.G. Wells, The Time Machine.
  29. Jules Verne, Journey to the Center of the Earth.
  30. Leo Tolstory, The Kreutzer Sonata.
  31. John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress.
  32. José Saramago, The Elephant’s Journey.
  33. Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons.
  34. Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.
  35. Ismail Kadare, The Traitor’s Niche.
  36. Stanislaw Lem, Hospital of the Transfiguration.
  37. Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.
  38. Henry James, The Europeans.
  39. Hugo von Hofmannsthal, The Lord Chandos Letter.
  40. Stefan Zweig, The Post-Office Girl.
  41. J.A. Baker, The Peregrine.
  42. Jens Peter Jacobsen, Niels Lyhne.
  43. Luigi Pirandello, The Late Mattia Paschal.
  44. James Joyce, The Dubliners.
  45. George Eliot, Scenes of Clerical Life.
  46. Graham Greene, Brighton Rock.
  47. Herman Melville, Moby-Dick.
  48. Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows.
  49. Isaac Bashevis Singer, Shosha.
  50. Honoré de Balzac, Père Goriot.

As I finish books, I will edit this post and move them from the list above to the list below.

  1. Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo.
  2. Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness.
  3. Honoré de Balzac, Treatise on Modern Stimulants.

First Classics Challenge Complete

Within this last week of 2021, I have completely the challenge I set out for myself of finishing 50 classics within five years, starting from April 22, 2017. If I were to include dates, it would be clear that there were vast stretches of time without any books finished, and certain intense periods when I read a number of titles quickly.

It is also apparent from the lack of hyperlinks after #30 that I no longer took time to write about the books I finished. The benefit didn’t seem to justify the time spent on them. All in all, participating in this challenge probably helped me read more than I otherwise would have in the last five years, so it was worth it over all. My next post will contain a proposal for renewing this challenge. Continue reading

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.
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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.