Great writers are not necessarily great people in the integrity of their characters, which perhaps most of us know, and yet cannot help but associate the excellence in letters with the personal attributes of the writers simply because we are enchanted and gobsmacked by the mind. Samuel Johnson, an eminent English cultural critic of the 18th century, also knew about these somewhat restively volatile facts about famous writers and poets of his time. The result was these entertaining and informative composite biographies of the poets of his time with his trenchantly honest eyes and esteemed erudition to disembarrass the person of the poet from the genius of the poetry.
Originally written as a referencing preamble to an edition of The Poets of Great Britain complete from Chaucer to Churchill, Johnson’s supplementary prefaces became so popular that the booksellers decided they were worthy of separate publication under the subject title of this review. And there were reasons that make Johnson’s biographies of the eminent poets attractive among the insipid panegyrics to the famous. A good bio is read in a way a good novel or short story is enjoyed with characters that are differentiated from the common because of their recalcitrant individualism that gets away with the intellectual attraction and personal flairs despite their flaws. In this regard, Johnson’s wit and sagacity play an essential role in being an objective judge of the characters and their works to the extent that none of his subjective poets could escape from his hawk-eyed criticism, be that ever great or small. Johnson’s biography resembles Herodotus’ parataxis in narrating the accounts of people and events. It consists of a summary of the subject’s life; accounts of their personalities and analyses of their works. The individual narrative account became a history of the poet, which showed something about his work and indicated the person himself.
For example, Johnson’s take on John Milton was so freshly revealing that it upended my view on the creator of The Paradise Lost. I used to think of Milton as a benevolent-looking wise poet whose blindness didn’t stun his will to knowledge and creativity and whose fatherly tenderness toward his daughters encouraged them to be his eyes and hands when the visions of the world became blackout totally for the poet. Instead, Milton was one of those who clamored for the liberty of others but did not grant liberty to others. He was an arrogant intellectual who disparaged the works of others whom he regarded as less intellectually esteemed than his standard, which was despotically biased in terms of impressive academic credentials. Milton’s poetry was intrinsically intellectual and not for the light-hearted pleasure of the heart roving through the meanders of fairyland. His elevated soul ascended in the sphere of the Form, the perfect beauty that was unattainable in this real world.
Johnson also cast somewhat contradicting masks on the creator of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift. Like Ben Jonson’s iconic characters in his plays, Johnson’s Swift appeared to be both miserly and munificent, flaunting and humble, aloof and social. I particularly liked Swift because, unlike other writers of his time and of our time, he was not an ace student with flying colors on academic subjects. Swift was, however, a great student of learning, always pursuing and laboring to learn however long it might take. He was a man of industry and diligence, which made him all the more human and imitable because his genius was hard-won, not easy born. Methinks that Swift’s resilient spirit tinged with feistiness for an Anglican Church priest had to do with his Irishness. He was an Irish man at heart, in nature and soul. Johnson also attributed the protean imaginativeness and admiring independence of ideas to his Irishness that resulted in wondrous creatures during Gulliver’s travels.
There are other poets than Milton and Swift in the book, and you do not have to read about them all if you are unfamiliar with them or their works because that would go against Johnson’s purpose of the writing. Or you can read the book as an admirer of Johnson’s signatory witty and erudite writings from which you can learn a lot about his subjects and himself. The book serves as an eighteenth-century intriguing exclusive close-up documentary. It is about celebrity poets whom someone like Johnson, who was something of Roger Ebert in the criticism of the art of literature, could unpick and reconstruct as they might have been sans the mindless blinded paeans to their works without even being read. Undoubtedly, Johnson’s views on the poets have been and will be subject to criticism too, but his writings piled with a bonfire of splendidly sparkling expressions and apposite vocabulary drawn on his natural faculty of mind are nonetheless worthwhile to spend your time reading.
We are easily apt to presume that what we can do was an impossibility for those of different eras and places. Yet, what is happening now has happened before, although in various modes of Operandi. Global trade was also part of the ancient world’s economy that affected civilization’s fortune just as it is today in our time. This book shows the reader how ancient commerce happened thousands of years ago across a great distance of continents from the Far East to the West to propagate the prospects and prosperity of Europe and Asia’s far-flung regimes via silk routes through Central Asia.
The book is a fine organization of roads, resources, and governments involved in the ancient business world that surprise the modern reader that without airplanes, cars, and computers even, our forefathers of humankind found ways to travel a great distance for profits with flares for adventure. First, the term “Silk Roads” became famous by the 19th Century German geographer/explorer Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen, who surveyed the land routes crossing Central Asia from Afghanistan to China as used in the ancient Chinese and Roman texts. His ambitious plan was to construct a railway line across Central Asia that would have linked the German economy to Chinese markets. In ancient times, the Romans imported Chinese silk that came to Roman Syria from Iranian caravan routes crossing the Parthian Empire from Uzbekistan to Mesopotamia. The Romans’ Eastern business also included Indian valuables via the Persian Gulf that reached Parthian markets in Babylonia. An ancient text reveals that one Indian sailor from the wreckage of a trade ship from India around the Red Sea rescued by a Greek patrol ship from the Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt around the Arabian Peninsula told the Greeks how to sail from India via season Monsoon winds.
The Romans had already known about India but not the Far East until 1 B.C., when silk began to reach the Mediterranean Sea through the Parthian Empire ruling in ancient Iran via caravan routes, aka the silk roads. It appears that commerce contacts and cultural interactions indeed existed. Modern archeologists discovered the graves of slave workers of textile production during the first century A.D. at Vagnari in southern Italy; one of them had a DNA of Far Eastern ancestry inherited from his mother. From Julius Caesar to Caligula, silk both ornamental and devotional in the panoply of magnificent Roman authority. The Romans made ceremonial silk curtains dyed in royal Tyrian purple as awnings in public ceremonies to protect spectators’ eyes from the fiery Mediterranean Sun’s glare. Silk also made beautiful garments and garlands presented to classical gods’ images and offered to the protective household deities. The reader would be pretty surprised to learn that the end of Cleopatra VIII and her paramour Mark Anthony was a purple augury of lucrative Roman trade from the eastern world. The accumulated Roman economy from Ptolemaic Egypt’s annexation and control over the eastern legions made the distribution of the Roman citizens’ funds possible. The empire gained direct sovereignty over the Red Sea shipping lanes into the Indian Ocean.
Reading this book confirmed my conviction that people would find the way to do what they needed. However, the younger generations of our time often make the anachronistic mistake of judging the previous generations as culturally retrogressed and hemmed in insular thoughts. It is only a different way of doing business, however slow or primitive it may seem. The ancient commerce contacts show that a country cannot stand alone and survive alone in the world if it refuses to measure the truth with the desire based on ethnocentrism growing into xenophobia. Human cultural progress is a collective enterprise. We live not in isolated islands but a global village.
Last week, I reread Aesop’s Fables as an adult (that is, in terms of the ages on an evolutionary scale) in the 21st century and found them just as attractive as the first time reading it as a child. What a feeling! A freed slave once, Aesop’s natural wit combined with protean imagination made him able to investigate the essence of things, the nature of things, and attribute it to human nature’s characteristics, which ultimately brought him mortal death and immortal life. He was, in a way, a lot like Hephaestus, the god of fire, blacksmith, presider of the arts, and the only legal husband of the goddess of love and beauty Aphrodite who found him unbearably unromantically ugly.
Aesop’s Fables still scintillates in the brilliance of affabulation and humor that nicely relates to Nietzsche’s concept of immanence, the understanding of nature of all things; the Natural Law called conscience the supreme ruler of the universe has inculcated in us. The Fables are full of lessons that are akin to Jesus’s parables employed in his teaching of ethical codes for Christians in daily life. Of course, Aesop was of the Pre-Jesus era. Still, his stories bespeak something of human nature that had already existed, which is ongoing and will continue as long as humanity exists. The cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude, and Christian values of faith, hope, and charity are all embroidered on the elliptical, imaginative, and impressive episodes of and among humans, animals, and even gods in this immemorial anthology of ancient wits. “The North Wind and the Sun” teaches about the force of gentility over the fear of intimidation. “The Woman and Her Hen” resonates with the timeless adage of everything in moderation. “The Milkmaid and her Milk Pail” corroborates the famous proverb that you should keep a bird in your hand than catch two in a bush. Treating others in a way you want in reciprocity illustrates the dinner scenes in “The Fox and the Stork.” And yes, I believe President Ted Roosevelt must have gotten inspiration from “The Astronomer” that you should look at the stars while keeping your foot firmly on the ground. And there are more stories to wow modern readers.
Aesop’s Fables are so practical and amusing that all of them collapse millenniums between his telling and our reading it. Besides, all of them read like Book of Proverbs or Psalms in free verse or prose version, which makes the reader unburdened with textual analysis to decipher meanings intentionally obfuscated by the high intellect the academic writers of the sort. The Fables are comprehensive to all, serving a purpose of providing tenets of reading; to bestow pleasure of the sense and satisfaction of reason in a way you do not consult a help of a dictionary or other lexical or literary reference. Reading the Fables gives a feeling of watching a TV cartoon, say Woody Woodpecker, which tells something about man’s nature wrapped in an animal hide. So do not fear reading Aesop’s Fables now. It is well worth spending your free time discovering the universality of the truth with that “A-Ha!” moment regardless of the subjectivity of time.
Balzac’s Paris is no more different from today’s big cities like Los Angeles or New York City. It populates with the good, the bad, and the ugly, but mostly filling the in-betweens by the middling’s – the not-so-wretchedly poor yet decidedly needy with pride and prejudice –. The story about Father Goriot (no, he’s not a priest.) is about the people around him living inside and outside the Maison Vauquer. It is a boarding house in which the characters bring their stories to pay their dues of existence. The reader sees it as a microscopic view of the contemporary Parisian society where the poor, even in post-revolution, remains at the bottom of society—only the cold, indifferent climb up to the upper echelon.
The residents of the widow Madame Vauquer are neither defiantly evil nor angelically good but realistically neutral. The house symbolizes the society of the somebodies who long for social mobility for respect and recognition. Balzac’s passionate narrative endures no sight of injustice and proudly averts the eye from inhumanity, making even egotism and selfishness move to a pity dipped in pathos.
Balzac is a superb writer with detailed descriptions of the state of mind in the art of realism in a classical frame that makes scenes of everyday life a sight of history, banality of ordinary life a profundity of human life. Indeed, any of his famous fellow writers could have done it, but none of them can do it as blatantly well as Balzac does. For he knows how to make a villain sympathetic with an insightful eye looking into the depth of his wounded soul.
Whether it is for the pursuit of artistic aestheticism or indulgence in sheer egoism, writers tell their stories in books where, in the peculiar alchemy of words dipped in imagination, they blend the real with the ideal. That said, Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle is a beautiful world of magic and witcraft that cast a spell on the gloomy reality to make it a gorgeous fantasy.
A melancholy of vertiginous existential crisis in a life fraught with responsibilities and duties morphs into a fantastic narrative of the imaginary world where magic, wizards, witches, and demons mingle with ordinary people and even fall in love with them like those of Olympus gods with mortals until Hesiod’s Heroic Age. Sophie Hatter, the book’s heroine, is Jones’s alter ego, only younger in age and freer in status. Still, everything else about her is Jones herself, most prominently her being the eldest child responsible for all things adult – by alas, birthright. Sophie’s self-analysis of being the oldest for the principal cause of misfortune applies to Jones’s family background, being the oldest of three sisters just as Sophie is for Martha and Lattie. I remember reading elsewhere that at the time of writing this book, Jones was going through the crisis in adulthood: a sickly husband, live-in mother-in-law, friends in need, children to take care of, etc. Despite Jones’s degree in English Literature from Oxford University, she felt injustice for her talent and mind eroding in the seemingly endless Sisyphean maneuvering of rolling up a daily boulder. So she took a pen to paper and wrote the book to spur her reservoir of existential frustrations on writing her story in the guise of fiction.
However, after the book’s success, Jones withstood from telling it a reflection of her inner world. She referred it to a certain boy who wanted to create a moving castle. Although the integrity of the inspiration belongs to the author’s literary license, Jones appeared to be reluctant to admit that she told her story in the book due to her celebrity. On a personal note, I could understand her volition to employ a more lovely pretext in safely hiding her existential frustration in privacy. Still, the book’s background written at the time of a crisis of adulthood puts together tesserae in a fanciful puzzler. The agency of magical elements in the story enables Jones to free herself from the mental inhibitions to depict the world’s realism, which seems too dreary and drab, gloomy and harsh, for the reader to be burdened with the author’s frustrations. Instead, Jones created the world populated with witches and wizards not looking like creepy worshippers of the devil and a fire demon far from being diabolic. All the menageries of wondrous characters neutralize the pathos of Sophie.
I read the book with a kindred spirit of being the firstborn child in the family, so it was a pleasure to know that I was not the only person who felt burdened with family and others’ cares. Witch of Waste’s turning Sophie into a ninety-year-old spinster adumbrates Jones’ feeling of oldness in her soul that affects her appearance due to her continuously solitary labor of care. Yet, Jones is kind to Sophie with the eccentric but wonderful Howl and other helpful characters, including Calcifer, a fire demon, all of whom recognize Sophie’s worth and beauty of heart with respect and care that she deserves so much. Jones does a fabulous job of transforming a vehement narrative of angst as an adult in the real-world into a fairytale of love and luck, where those who feel burdened with the weight of life will be awarded fabulous surprise long overdue.