The World in 2014–North, Central and South America


Yesterday I went to the local Barnes & Noble bookstore and bought The Economist’s double holiday issue, and a copy of their special report The World in 2014.   I wanted to make sure to read through them both this week in the time I have left before work starts up again next week.    I decided that it would be a good way to make sure I read the contents thoroughly by summarizing and commenting on the various articles in The World in 2014 that are devoted to the various regions of the world, starting today and continuing on through the weekend.    My regular posts on project management will start again next Monday, January 6th.

A.  United States

Here are some of the major events that will occur in the political and economic landscape of the United States in 2014.

1.   Obamacare Rollout

Although the first paragraph of the article deals with the mid-term elections in November 2014 (see paragraph below), there are two events that will effect these elections and I am going to comment on them first.   First of all, the Obamacare rollout.    The technical problems with the online enrollment onto the health exchanges, much hyped by the media and the Republican party, seem to have tapered off.     The problems will now come from the following areas:

  • Health exchanges playing catch-up:   Republican governors refused to set up “health exchanges” in their states , so the federal government is now scrambling to fill in the gap.
  • Uninsured remain:    Although the number of uninsured will fall from 55 to 44 million i 2014, one in eight Americans will remain uncovered by health insurance.    This is because the Supreme Court made Medicaid expansion optional, and Republican-controlled states are again refusing to do so.
  • If enough young, healthy people do not buy insurance in 2014, it could create a “death spiral” where the insurance prices for the remaining pool of older, more sickly people jumps in 2015.

If those in Republican-controlled states blame their political leaders for denying them access to health insurance or Medicaid, then this may have an adverse reaction in the November 2014 mid-term election.

2.  Budget Negotiations

Although a budget compromise was reached before the holidays, the government will run out of money to pay its bills by late February or early March unless the debt ceiling is raised.    If a deal is not reached when Congress gets back in session, then this would delay progress on a variety of urgent matters such as

  • finalizing a farm bill
  • getting started on immigration reform
  • potentially extending long-term unemployment benefits.

Failure to make progress on these issues would anger the American public and, if the Republicans try to hold the economy hostage to yet another futile attempt to destroy Obamacare (especially now that many million more Americans are actually enrolled in the system), that anger might be directed towards them in the mid-term elections.

2.  Mid-Term Elections

Since the Republican gerrymandering of districts has made a few dozen House seats “safe” from Democratic challengers, the challenge has come in many districts from the right, i.e., the so-called Tea Party activists.    If extreme right candidates win the primary challenges, the Republicans could end up throwing away some promising Senate seats.

3.  Fiscal Policy

Four years of job-cutting by state and local governments came to a halt in 2013 as revenues at last started to increase.    In 2014, some 40 states out of 50 are expected to boost outlays in fiscal 2014 which ends in June.   However, the ending of austerity measures at the state and local level was overshadowed by the ramping up of austerity measures at the federal level, with

  • the expiration of payroll-tax cuts and other stimulus measure
  • the implementation of spending cuts and tax increases
  • the failure to extend long-term unemployment benefits

In 2013, the fiscal policy decreased 1.8% from growth in 2013.    The best political outcome in 2014 would be the slowing of long-term growth of spending on health care and other social programs in exchange for modestly higher near-term spending.   Either of these would difficult for one side to accept, and would require a bipartisan compromise to carry out.    It is possible that in the run-up to the mid-term election, the Republicans facing primary challenges would be less, rather than more, willing to compromise with the Democrats.

4.  Monetary Policy

The Fed has promised not to raise short-term interest rates so long as unemployment is at least 6.5%, which is a pretty safe bet.    So although GDP growth is not in danger from a raise in interest rates, there is another source of danger, which is the paring back of the “quantitative easing” which Ms. Yellen may seek to do when she takes over from Chairman Ben Bernanke in February.   However, just hinting at a “tapering” of QE back in mid-2013 created a global stampede out of bonds, so it is likely that this would happen again if the real thing were to occur.

5.   Mid-Term Elections

The primaries in the Spring will determine whether the Republicans are putting up extremists or moderates for election in November.    The Democrats will try to put together a coalition of young voters, blacks, college-educated women and Hispanics.    The Republicans would find it more difficult to penetrate this coalition if they

  • do not support immigration reforms
  • support legislative restrictions on women’s reproductive rights

The danger for Democrats is that his base may find Obama well-meaning but ineffective.   This is why the Republicans tried to capitalize on the problems with the Obamacare rollout, but as those problems start to fade, the Republicans will try to look for another angle of attack.

B.   CANADA

Canada is turning conservative in 2015 because of the government led by Stephen Harper.   This means the support of very “un-green” policies like promoting exports from Alberta’s tar sands, and foot-dragging on reducing carbon emissions which might adversely impact the oil industry.    It also means a retreat from policies which promote the welcoming of immigrants and the celebration of cultural diversity.

The Economist thinks that the support of the Canadian government for the oil industry may create a backlash in the United States and actually endanger the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline which would carry tar-sands bitumen from Alberta across the border.

C.  LATIN AMERICA

Here are a list of the elections that will be held in 2014 in chronological order, with the country, election month, the likely winner, and the political leaning that the country will remain under if that candidate or party wins.

Country Election

Month

Winner Political

 

Chile January Michelle Bachelet Centre-right
Costa Rica February National Liberation Party Centrist
El Salvador March ARENA Party Conservative
Colombia March Juan Manual Santos Centre-right
Panama May CLOSE Jose Domingo Arias or Juan Carlos Navarro Conservative or Centre-Left
Brazil October Dilma Rousseff Left (Socialist)
Uruguay October Tabare Vazquez Left
Honduras November Xiomara Castro Left
Bolivia December Evo Morales Radical Conservative

In other countries, there are no elections but the main political concern will be the following:

  • Mexico:   President Enrique Pena Nieto will continue his ambitious reforms, in particular his struggle to change the constitution to allow private investment in energy sources (oil, gas, and electricity)
  • Argentina:   Power will ebb away from Cristina Fernandez
  • Venezuela:   Opposition hopes that their strong performance in local elections in December 2013 will lay the foundation for victory in a legislative election in 2015, which would mean the beginning of the end of Hugo Chavez’s revolution in the hands of the current President Nicolas Maduro
  • Cuba:   The National Assembly will meet in Havana for the first time since 1959, signaling Raul Castro’s desire to separate the institutions of state from the ruling Communist Party before he steps down in 2018.

It should prove to be an interesting year in North, Central and South America.

 

 

 

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Multilingual Plan for 2014


I’ve been enthused about language learning all my life, but my discovery of Benny Lewis and his multilingual abilities at his website fluentin3months.com has really inspired me to become multilingual in 2013.

One of the things he encourages those members of his community to do is to set out a plan on how they want to tackle a new language in the coming year.   Last year around this time I put together a “multilingual plan for 2013.”

In the chart below, I list for each language what level of fluency I am at now, any notable accomplishments I’ve done in learning that language in 2013, and then what my target level for 2014 is, together with any specific goals I have and what method I plan to use to reach those goals.

I must first, however, explain the shorthand I use when it comes to the fluency level for each language. This is the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. This framework has been influential worldwide because China’s proficiency exams have been changed to conform to this framework.

Level Explanation
A1 Beginner Can introduce oneself and understand familiar everyday expressions.
A2 Elementary Can describe oneself and communicate about one’s immediate environment.
B1 Intermediate Can talk about past and future events and about most situations encountered at work or school.
B2 Upper Intermediate Can communicate about simple ideas and concepts in a way that is generally understood.
C1 Advanced Can communicate about complex ideas and concepts in a way that is easily understood.
C2 Fluent Can summarize complex idea and concepts and create coherent presentations.

With the fluency levels understood to be those referred to above, here’s my language planning chart for 2013. In the chart, RS means “Rosetta Stone”, DL means “Duolingo,” TB means “Textbook”, FSI means “Foreign Service Institute course.”  The various abbreviations in the “Achievements” column are for the officially recognized proficiency exam for that country.

Language 2013
Fluency

Level

Achievements in 2012, 2013 2014 Fluency

Level

Plan for 2014 Learning Resource(s)
Spanish B1 Passed DELE A1,
RS Level 4
B2 DELE A2, B1,
RS Level 5, FSI Advanced Spanish
FSI, DL
French B2 Passed DELF B2, RS Level 4 C1 DALF C1,
RS Level 5, FSI Advanced French B
FSI, Duolingo
German B1 Passed Zertifikat B1
RS Level 4
B2 Zertifikat B2,
RS Level 5, FSI Advanced German
FSI, Duolingo
Japanese C1 Passed JLPT N2 C2 JLPT N1 (C2), Kanji Kentei Level 5 TB (Live in Tokyo), iPhone Apps for Kanji
Chinese B1 Passed HSK 3 (B1) B2 HSK 4 (B2), FSI Module 7 (out of 9) FSI, iPhone Apps for Chinese Characters
Arabic A1 Completed RS Level 1 A2 RS Level 2-3, ALPT A1 RS, Textbook (Al-Kitaab)
Portuguese A1 Completed RS Level 1 A2 Duolingo 25, RS Level 3,
CELPE-Bras A1
RS, Duolingo, FSI
Italian None N.A. A1 Duolingo 15, FSI Duolingo, FSI

 

So essentially my plan is to move up one level of fluency in the five languages I’ve studied and am already proficient in (B or C level), as well as in the two languages I’ve studied and am still a beginner in (A level).   I also plan to continue my study of Italian this year.   There are other languages I’ve wanted to study for a while, such as Korean or Farsi, but the biggest thing I’ve learned this year is consistency.  

I study each of these eight languages EVERY DAY.   How did I do it?   Through the following practice:

  1. I subscribe to the List app, which helps you create and maintain daily habits through the power of social media.    This helps you create a consistent practice:   even if you study for only 5 minutes every day, this is better than studying 30 minutes every week!
  2. I listen to foreign language recordings while driving, in particular my Chinese recordings from the FSI course.
  3. I listen to language recordings while doing housework.  It takes away the drudgery of routine physical tasks by listening to foreign languages while doing it.   You’ll reorder your brain while putting order into your environment, let’s put in that way.
  4. I use Duolingo for my European languages.    It is like Rosetta Stone lite, in that it helps you practice the four language skills of reading, writing, listening, and (to a lesser extent) speaking.
  5. For a more difficult language like Arabic, I use Rosetta Stone.   Now that I’m using Rosetta Stone every day thanks to the Lift app, I am really starting to progress!    
  6. Finally, the proof of language learning is in the speaking, and I plan to find incorporate the learning of foreign languages through Meetup Groups, and specialized Toastmaster clubs as my High Performance Leadership project in the coming year at Toastmasters.     

These are some creative ways I try to use my time so that I can do something as audacious as to follow Benny Lewis’ lead, whom I mentioned at the beginning of the post.   There’s no reason why I can’t shoot for the same goal of being fluent (C2 level) at a dozen or more foreign languages.   It is a journey of 1,000 miles, but I can do it–one step at a time for each language I’m studying!

Essential Integral, Lesson 7: Conclusion


This learning asset compiles the content from each lesson’s interactive review, bringing everything together into one quick-access summary of every major concept concerning quadrants, lines, levels, states, and types.

TO BE CONTINUED

Great Books of Western Literature: Shakespeare’s Early Comedies


1.  Introduction

In 1994, Harold Bloom, the Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University and Berg Professor of English at New York University, wrote The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, in which he argued for the more conservative viewpoint that literature should follow the “art for art’s sake” ideal and not have it be subservient to some program of social engineering or political correctness.

After I moved to Chicago this summer, I found that the local library, together with the interlibrary system that stretches across the libraries of the Chicagoland area, is a wonderful resource.   I re-read Harold Bloom’s book and decided to embark on a program of reading (and in some cases, re-reading) the Great Books of Western Literature, in particular as set forth by

  • The Great Books of the Western World series by Encyclopedia Britannica
  • Harold Bloom’s book The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages

I am planning on reading the works of the Theocratic Age, as Harold Bloom describes it, i.e., the literature of the ancient world), but I wanted to intersperse it with reading the complete works of Shakespeare, the plays (the histories, comedies, and tragedies) and the poems (the Sonnets and the other poetical works).    This latter has been a lifelong dream, but although I have certain plays here and there during the course of my life, I have never set forth on a program to read the complete works until now.    For that project, I have the additional work:

  • Harold Bloom’s book Shakespeare:  The Invention of the Human

I have not yet started to read the plays based on the chronology that Harold Bloom gives, but I have listened to recordings of the play to hear how they have been performed by a modern theatrical company.    This particular work covers the three early comedies of Shakespeare, The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1592), The Comedy of Errors (1593), and The Taming of the Shrew 1594).

2.  The Two Gentlemen of Verona

As an apprentice work, this is the weakest of the three early comedies.    It’s plot is confusing, the characters’ motives at times unconvincing, and the language is uninspired, except for a lively scene spoken one of the character’s servants, Launce, about his dog Crab.    For those who have seen the film Shakespeare in Love, Ralph Fiennes plays Shakespeare right after he completes this apprentice work and before he completes his first authentic tragic work Romeo and Juliet.

One of the reasons why this period is considered the “apprentice” period of Shakespeare is because he was imitating the works of other playwrights such as Christopher Marlowe.   However, he was imitating them more in the genre of tragedies and  histories rather than comedies.    In the area of comedies, he was freer to invent, but the fruits of that formidable cognitive power and imagination were yet to be evidenced in this early work.

3.  The Comedy of Errors

This is a work which outshines the Two Gentlemen of Verona and the early history written about this time, the three parts of Henvy VI, because

  • the plotting is ingenious,
  • he starts to creates the representation of introspection

For the plotting, he takes two plays by the Roman comic playwright Plautus, The Two Menachmuses and Amphitryon, and combines them so that not only are the masters of the play twins (confusingly with the same name Antipholus), but their servants are as well (and also have the same name Dromio).    They get separated in a shipwreck when their boat splits in half, with their father Egeon saving one of the Antipholus twins  and one of the Dromio twins, with their mother in the other half of the boat with one of each pair of twins!    He goes to live in Syracuse, and the mother goes to Ephesus.    However, these two cities are normal enemies of each other, and citizens of one city are not allowed to enter the other.

The play starts when Egeon is defying the decry to try to find out whether his other son went to Ephesus or not.   He is found out, and the Duke of Ephesus says he must be killed if he cannot pay a ransom within 24 hours.    His son and servant try to find the father, but are amazed that everyone seems to know them, even though they have never set foot in the town!   Of course, the complications multiply as one of the two servants talks to one of the masters, goes away, and then the other servants comes back.    However, the master does not understand why his orders previously given were not obeyed, by this servant who now seems to claim he doesn’t know what the master is talking about.

By the end, they go to the temple to seek the advice of the priestess, but then there is a final recognition scene because she turns out to be the mother of the Ephesus twins who disappeared on their arrival!   It’s all absurd, but it’s also very fast paced, because the action takes place on a single day.    Shakespeare has taken his Roman precursor and improved upon the already complicated plot by combining the plots of two different plays.    This shows the inkling of the creative genius that was to come.

Even more important for the history of literature, one of the two Antipholus characters, the one from Syracuse, is the introspective one, as opposed to the other more outwardly-directed Antipholus from Ephesus.    He is constantly not just commenting on the action, but reflecting on its metaphysical meaning.   Of course, he is not doing this yet in the way of “overhearing” himself, which is the way that Shakespeare creates the sense of presence in the character, but at least he is reflective on the events around him, the first step of that introspection that would later be perfected in the character of Hamlet.

It was a very enjoyable play, and one where I think Shakespeare started to show the potential he would evince later on.

4.   The Taming of the Shrew

This play is unusual in that starts out with a frame-tale of a peasant who is drunk, and on whom a passing nobleman decides to play a prank by dressing him in fine clothes and making him think that he is actually a nobleman himself, with the former lifetime as a peasant just an unpleasant dream from which he has fortunately awoken.

The nobleman decides to entertain himself by watching the peasant’s reactions to a play which is put on by the nobleman in the peasant’s honor.   However, the action of the play now goes totally over to the play-within-a-play, and it never comes back to the peasant at the end of it.    It was not until Hamlet that Shakespeare came up with a play-within-a-play that worked dramatically to enhance the frame tale; this early experiment is not successful at all in comparison.    But it does show Shakespeare’s willingness to experiment with form, even if again this experiment didn’t turn out as well as his later ones.

What is interesting is that the “engagement” of Kate, the shrew, and Petruchio, her suitor, is at first such a mutual provocation.   And yet underneath the surface, Kate understands that she is the equal in boisterous spirit and temperament to Petruchio and thus is attracted to him.   Kate realizes that, as we would say today, she has to “go along to get along,” but by doing so of her own free will, she is the one who controls the situation going forward.

According to Harold Bloom, the modern sensibilities of women’s liberation have left theater audiences repulsed by Petruchio’s patriarchal attitude towards Kate, but this is because political correctness has robbed many modern theatergoers of the gift of irony, of which Shakespeare had in abundance.    It is the opposite problem that many have to the viewing of the play Lysistrata by Aristophanes, where the women of Athens stage a sex strike to prevent the seemingly never-ending war with the Spartans from continuing.    Many modern readers think that Aristophanes is advocating an anachronistic attitude of “women’s liberation,” but that is only because they do not see that Aristophanes is being ironic in his portrayal of Athenian women, and is advocating the opposite of what appears on the surface.

Kate in her final speech, therefore, is NOT asking women to be obedient, but rather “how to rule absolutely, while feigning obedience.”   The subtlety of this position is something which Shakespeare puts in the mouth of his female characters, which shows that Shakespeare, although capable of creating characters from any sex, gender or class, he often gave his best lines to the female characters rather than to the male ones, and to the servants rather than to the masters.

5.  CONCLUSION

I enjoyed both of the last two comedies, although I am glad I finally read the first one (Two Gentlemen of Verona), if only to be able understand more fully the background to the movie Shakespeare in Love.    There are hints here and there of the greatness to come.   However, as Harold Bloom has once pointed out, if Shakespeare had died after this early period, he would have left works that would have put him perhaps close to the level of theatrical rivals such as Christopher Marlowe, but not their equal.    He was not the figure that overshadowed them all, and created the representation of introspection on the stage which changed the course of Western Literature.

 

 

Great Books of Western Literature: The Epic of Gilgamesh


1.  Introduction

In 1994, Harold Bloom, the Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University and Berg Professor of English at New York University, wrote The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, in which he argued for the more conservative viewpoint that literature should follow the “art for art’s sake” ideal and not have it be subservient to some program of social engineering or political correctness.

After I moved to Chicago this summer, I found that the local library, together with the interlibrary system that stretches across the libraries of the Chicagoland area, is a wonderful resource.   I re-read Harold Bloom’s book and decided to embark on a program of reading (and in some cases, re-reading) the Great Books of Western Literature, in particular as set forth by

  • The Great Books of the Western World series by Encyclopedia Britannica
  • Harold Bloom’s book The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages

Gilgamesh is the epic from ancient Mesopotamia in the area of the world that is now modern-day Iraq.   It was unearthed in 1853 in the ruins of the ancient city of Nineveh, but was not deciphered until 1872 by a curator named George Smith.   It was written about 1700 B.C., and portrays events that supposedly happened almost one thousand years earlier.    In this, it is like the Iliad and the Hebrew Bible in that it consists of a written version of an oral tradition that had been around for centuries.

For this post, I am using the English translation by Stephen Mitchell.

2.   5 Themes of Gilgamesh

a.  Mythological “Backstory” of the Hebrew Bible

One of the episodes in the book is the visit by Gilgamesh to the Babylonian version of Noah named Utnapishtim.   When this epic was made known at the end of the 19th century, there was much excitement among Biblical scholars because this for them confirmed the historicity of the Biblical Flood as described in Genesis.    However, although the Hebrews drew upon the mythological material they encountered during the Babylonian exile, as Joseph Campbell explained in The Power of Myth, they put quite a different “spin” on it.    Noah, for example, takes Yahweh’s word for it that a flood is coming and makes preparations for it with alacrity.    Utnapishtim, on the other hand, questions the god who is about to unleash this calamity upon the world and unsuccessfully tries to dissuade him from doing so, according to Professor Amy-Jill Levine, who gives the Teaching Company lectures on the Old Testament.    In so doing, he is clearly more on the side of the humans than on the side of the gods, as opposed to Noah, who takes God’s word without question.

Thus, while the iconography of the Hebrew Bible is lifted from the Babylonian mythos in which the Jews had been acquainted during their exile, they changed many of its thematic emphases for their own theological purposes.   Utnapishtim, although rewarded with immortality for his part in saving the world after the Flood, still remains on the side of the humans and gives Gilgamesh wise advice in the last part of his adventure.

b.  Social Justice

Gilgamesh at the beginning of the work is acting like what we would call today “the 1% behaving badly”.    He creates conditions of such inequality and hardship for the people of Sumer that they cry out in supplication to the gods.    The gods create a man of the wild called Enkidu that possesses strength equal to Gilgamesh as a kind of counterpoint to the king.    The next section of the work is where Enkidu is lured from the wild into the city, where he confronts Gilgamesh and then fights him due to the injustice the king has wrought upon the inhabitants of the city.

However, in one of the work’s wonderful scenes, the two fighting each other to exhaustion at some point realize that the two are counterparts in a way, and they embrace each other and become friends.    At this point in the work, rather than Gilgamesh terrorizing the populace, it is Gilgamesh and Enkidu who set forth as a team helping each other to fight monsters of the world that are terrorizing the populace.    Gilgamesh thought it was he who was civilizing Enkidu, but in reality Enkidu ended up civilizing Gilgamesh.    Rather than him preying upon the weak in his own civilization, he formed an alliance with Enkidu to fight against monsters who themselves were preying upon that civilization.

c.   The City as the Center of Civilization

The garden of Eden is considered the cradle of mankind in the Hebrew Bible, but it is clear in the epic of Gilgamesh that it is the city that is the cradle of civilization.    The wild man Enkidu is tamed by the wiles of the priestess/prostitute from the temple of Ishtar who, after laying with Enkidu out in the wild, causes the birds and beasts who once accepted Enkidu to now shun him.    He now has no choice but to go with the woman to the city where Gilgamesh rules, and he then gradually learns how to be not a natural man, but a civilized man.   The poem begins with images of the city, and ends with it as well, so the city is clearly a thematic anchor for the work.

It is in contrast with the forest, where the monster lies that attacks those in the cities, and against whom Gilgamesh and Enkidu do battle in the second section of the work.

d.   Friendship

The story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu is the first great portrayal of friendship in literature.   Enkidu is created by the gods almost like the double of Gilgamesh, but he is also the opposite of Gilgamesh in that he is created as the master of beasts, not the master of humanity as Gilgamesh is.    It is this combination of like and opposite that causes them to go from fighting each other, to fighting together.   So distraught is Gilgamesh when Enkidu dies later on in the epidemic, that he tries to find the secret of immortality so as to revive his departed friend and thus not be parted from him.

e.  Immortality

Adam is prevented from the secret of immortality in the garden of Eden through the machinations of the serpent, which causes Adam and Eve to be punished by God by expulsion from the garden.    In the epic of Gilgamesh, the snake also appears and is also the reason why Gilgamesh is thwarted from achieving the secret of immortality.   Gilgamesh, based on the directions of Utnapishtim’s wife, finds the plant which confers upon the person who eats it the gift of immortality, but Gilgamesh is exhausted by the search for the plant at the bottom of the ocean and decides to take a nap.    The snake comes in and takes the plant from him, and thus achieves immortality itself and prevents man from obtaining it.    Gilgamesh returns to the city and reconciles himself to the fact that he cannot himself achieve immortality.    He is reconciled in large part because he realizes that mankind can create through civilization, which is passed down from the memory of one generation to another, something which can approximate immortality.   And the poem of Gilgamesh has achieved a sort of immortality of its own, as it is being read thousands of years after its creation.

3.   CONCLUSION

All five of these themes are ones that are accessible even to the modern reader, and that is the reason why it has enthralled millions of readers since it was first brought back to the consciousness of the world at the end of the 19th century.    It is a story that is morally more ambiguous than the moral universe portrayed in the book of Genesis, but that is probably why it is able, at least in my mind, to resonate even more strongly with a modern audience.

Celebration of friendship, reconciliation to the reality of death which deprives one of those friendships, and solace in the immortality that comes from contemplating enduring works of art, are all themes that are as real to me sitting here at the beginning of the 21st century A.D. as they were to the people in the 21st century B.C. at the time of Gilgamesh.

Great Books of Western Literature: The Iliad


1.  Introduction

In 1994, Harold Bloom, the Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University and Berg Professor of English at New York University, wrote The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, in which he argued for the more conservative viewpoint that literature should follow the “art for art’s sake” ideal and not have it be subservient to some program of social engineering or political correctness.

After I moved to Chicago this summer, I found that the local library, together with the interlibrary system that stretches across the libraries of the Chicagoland area, is a wonderful resource.   I re-read Harold Bloom’s book and decided to embark on a program of reading (and in some cases, re-reading) the Great Books of Western Literature, in particular as set forth by

  • The Great Books of the Western World series by Encyclopedia Brittanica
  • Harold Bloom’s book The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages

The Iliad, along with the Odyssey, is contained in the first volume of literature in the Great Books of the Western World series.    Along with the Iliad, I read notes to the Iliad by various scholars that were edited by Harold Bloom himself.    However, since the work was originally a work of oral poetry, I went and downloaded the LibriVox recording of the 24 books of the Iliad to listen to them as well as read them.

For a synopsis of the work, I ask that readers turn to the Wikipedia article on The Iliad and refer to the section on Synopsis.   I will focus on 5 themes of the work as I encountered it in my reading and listening to the work.

2.  5 Themes

a.   The Epic

The Iliad is an example of a epic, which according to William Harmon and C. Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature, 8th ed. (Prentice Hall, 1999), has the following 10 elements.

  1. It begins in medias res, in the middle of the story.
  2. The setting is vast, covering many nations, the world or the universe.
  3. Begins with an invocation to a muse (epic invocation).
  4. Begins with a statement of the theme.
  5. Includes the use of epithets, or descriptive stock phrases, such as “swift-footed Achilles.”
  6. Contains long lists, called an epic catalogue.
  7. Features long and formal speeches.
  8. Shows divine intervention on human affairs.
  9. Features heroes that embody the values of the civilization.
  10. Often features the tragic hero’s descent into the Underworld or hell.

 

For me, the tension in the Iliad comes from the fact that, against this background of what an epic should consist of, the values of the civilization (epic feature #9 in the list above) called the Heroic Code are in fact threatened at the outset by the anger of Achilles (the theme of the work, feature #4 in the list above).    The aristocratic heroes of the Iliad belong to what we might anachronistically call “the 1%”, in that they get the best food, the best women, and the best land in ancient Greece.   However, there is a sense of noblesse oblige in the sense that these highest rewards also come at the price of high responsibility, in this case, to go and fight the enemy and go to risk one’s life.    Agamemnon takes from Achilles his “prize” that he has one by capturing one of two Trojan maidens when the other one must be returned to the Trojans by Agamemnon.    Achilles’ petulant anger at this insult to his ego causes him to withdraw not just physically into his tent to sulk, but also from the social compact implied by the Heroic Code, because he refuses to fight and do his duty.    It is only the death of his fighting companion Patroclus which causes him to return to the Heroic Code at the end of the work.    So the tension between the social compact of the Heroic Code and Achilles’ overweening anger is what gives this epic story a personal dimension.    The problem with the epic is that it covers such a sweeping panorama both in time (the Trojan War takes place over 10 years) and space (the Iliad covers the actions on earth and in the immortal realm of the gods), that it has to have someway to ground the reader emotionally in the story of individual people or the reader would be simply overwhelmed.    The fact that Homer accomplishes this is the equivalent of a filmmaker like Peter Jackson who shoots epic battle scenes of The Lord of the Rings with a wide-angle lens but who stops from time to time for a close-up shot of the various heroes of the story doing battle.    In terms of aesthetics, it is a tension between the beautiful (the relationship of the reader to the human element of the story) and the sublime (the apprehension of the trans-human or elemental aspects of the story).

b.  The Greek Map of the Kosmos

If you think of the physical universe, and then the universe of supernatural beings imposed on it, you get the larger view of what might be called the Kosmos.    The Kosmos is mapped differently for the Greeks that it exists for the people of today.    For example, the relationship between animals and man might be similar, but the relationship between man and the supernatural beings called gods is conceived differently.    God in Western religion is more remote, more transcendent of the mortal world, than the gods of the ancient Greek religion were.    In the Christian religion, Jesus is considered both mortal and divine, but he is the only figure to have that status.    In Greek myths, mortals and divine beings mixed more frequently, and there were many that had the status of both (like Achilles), which was explained by their being the offspring of both mortal and immortal beings.

It is the fact that the divine beings are more imminent in human affairs than transcendent of them, that gives the Iliad quite a different feel than an epic story of our modern age, like the D-Day Invasion or the landing on the Moon.

c.  Sex, Gender, and Power

Another element that makes the world of the Greeks partially alien to us is the fact that homosexuality or bisexuality was not considered aberrant, but rather part of the normal range of human sexual expression.    Taking the word “gay” in all of its modern cultural implications and labeling the Greek culture with it is a hazardous enterprise at best.  But the Iliad’s final chapters, where Achilles comes back to himself and fights for against the Trojans, is only made possible because of his grief for the death of Patroclus.     Entering into that world and comprehending Achilles’ mental turmoil at the death of his fighting companion and lover is only possible if you leave your 20th-century prejudices behind.   (I say 20th-century not just because that was the century I was born into, but because these prejudices show signs of disappearing in the 21st century that we are in.)

The entire work of Iliad takes place in a man’s world with women such as Helen playing only an ancillary or supporting role.    The conflict between the works of the Iliad  and the Odyssey is the conflict between “waging the war” and “waging the peace”, but it is also the difference between the male only world of the Iliad and the Odyssey, which is a reconciliation between the relationships of men and women.    Women must be related to as wives, mothers, and daughters, and not just as extensions of property and power, as they are in the Iliad.

d.  The Language and Structure of the Iliad

One of the reasons for the epithets or formulaic constructions (#5 in the list above) is that the Iliad is a poem written in a particular combination of syllables, and these combinations give the poem its rhythm.    The epithets such as “swift-footed Achilles” fit the formula for these syllables, and that is why they are used.    But the formulaic constructions go beyond the level of the phrase, and even extent to entire scenes.   Whenever there is a sacrifice of oxen given to the gods, the sacrifice is described in almost identical language each time.    These type-scenes become like puzzle-pieces that are fit together to form a verse, and one of the reasons why they are there are because they are an aid to memory:    this work was written down only later, but was originally composed as a long poem to be memorized.

Another interesting feature of the structure of the Iliad which makes it interesting reading, is the simile, which describes the warlike action in terms that sometimes come from the peaceful, domestic life of the Greeks.    Besides being images that are very vivid and descriptive, they also provide a remarkable contrast between the peaceful life at home away from the war and the horrific violence that the fighters are undergoing during that war.    It can often be quite jarring, and is the opposite from the “flashback” that happens to those experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder in our modern world, where scenes of violence get recalled upon returning to that peaceful world.

In any case, it is that juxtaposition of those two worlds of peace and war, and their merging through these Homeric similes, as they are called, which gives the work its unforgettable character.

e.   Empathy

One of the interesting things about reading the book is the extent to which Homer allows the ostensible antagonist, Hector, the leader of the Trojans against whom the Greeks are fighting, a more sympathetic portrayal than the protagonist Achilles.   Hector is the one who seems the most level-headed in that is a warrior as brave as Achilles, but who has tender relations with wife and child, respectful love for his father, and who never has an equivalent of what we call today an “emotional meltdown” like Achilles does.    It is the work of a mature artist to create an enemy with whom one can sympathize, and who is not a cartoon villain, but someone whose point of view can easily be empathized with.

This was a constant source of wonder for me as I read the work, because I was rooting for Hector and I wanted him to succeed, but I knew that he was doomed to lose, which made his death towards the end of the work even more poignant.   I suspect that is how the Greeks felt as well.

3.  Conclusion

This epic was a great work in and of itself, but what is more marvelous to me is the fact that the Iliad and the Odyssey are such different works, and yet they are the work of the same author.   I look forward to reading the Odyssey and having Odysseus return from the battle of Troy.

Great Books of Western Literature: A Christmas Carol


1.  Introduction

In 1994, Harold Bloom, the Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University and Berg Professor of English at New York University, wrote The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, in which he argued for the more conservative viewpoint that literature should follow the “art for art’s sake” ideal and not have it be subservient to some program of social engineering or political correctness.

After I moved to Chicago this summer, I found that the local library, together with the interlibrary system that stretches across the libraries of the Chicagoland area, is a wonderful resource.   I re-read Harold Bloom’s book and decided to embark on a program of reading (and in some cases, re-reading) the Great Books of Western Literature, in particular as set forth by

  • The Great Books series by Encyclopedia Brittanica
  • Harold Bloom’s book The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages

Although I’m starting generally with the works of what Harold Bloom calls the Theocratic Age (i.e., the ancient world), I thought for Christmas I would re-read the classic A Christmas Carol and write down some of the themes of the work as they struck me while reading the work last night.

As a reminder to the reader, it is the story of an old miser named Ebenezer Scrooge who is visited by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley, who tells Ebenezer that he is doomed to walk throughout eternity carrying the moral burden he has created by not helping others in need.    He warns Ebenezer that this too is his fate if he continues in his miserly ways, but that he has procured a chance of redemption by the visitation of three spirits, the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come.

These three spirits cause Ebenezer Scrooge to have a transformation that not only changes his life, but the life of those around him.    It was immensely popular at the time and continues to be so, through the medium of film versions such as the British production of Scrooge (1951) starring Alastair Sim  or the American production of A Christmas Carol (1984) with George C. Scott in the starring role as Ebenezer Scrooge.

1.   Social criticism in the novel

Harold Bloom would not put A Christmas Carol in the list of Great Books of Western Literature for the reason that it was a form of criticism about economic policies; he would probably say it is a great work of literature for aesthetic reasons despite the fact that it contains social criticism.   But let me talk about this theme because it is important even now.    The idea that it is not the government’s role to mitigate social inequality caused by economic dislocation was a popular conservative notion then as it is now, but the novels of Charles Dickens portrayed that inequality in such moving terms that it helped the progressive cause both in Britain and the United States at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.    This is the reason for its ongoing popularity, but not the reason why it is a great work.

2.  The Structure

On the surface of the work, it looks like it takes place within a single day, from Christmas Eve to Christmas Day, but since the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Christmas Yet to Come show him scenes from his entire lifetime from the time of his childhood to the time of his death, the scope of the novel really opens up in a way that is reminiscent of modern science fiction.     The various scenes from his life are very vividly drawn, which is one of the reasons why it has been successfully been made into stage adaptations in the 19th century and films in the 20th century.    And yet the work, at the length of a novella, is easily read in a single sitting.     I think this is one of the few works of literature, then, that partakes of the aesthetic of the sublime as well as the beautiful.    That may be one of the reasons for endurance in the public’s imagination.

3.  Redemption

The theme of redemption, the idea that one can make a change in one’s moral choices and become altruistic, even late in one’s life after a lifetime of selfishness, is the main message of hope in the work.   However, in order to get to that hope, Ebenezer has to be brought to the edge of despair as he sees the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come show him that his perpetuation of an uncaring system will eventually claim himself as a victim.    This power of redemption is portrayed as having the emotional power of a religious conversion, and yet without any overt religious references to Christianity.    This is one of the reasons for its powerful effect on audiences.

4.  A Revival of Christmas Iconography

At the time of the writing of a Christmas Carol, the Protestant Reformation had almost totally expunged the Christmas holiday of any of its festive character as we think of it today, and had turned it under Puritan influence into a purely religious holiday.    The center section of the novella, where Ebenezer encounters the Ghost of Christmas Present, emphasizes the holiday as one of fellowship with friends, co-workers and family, and shows this across various social classes.    It was such a warm-hearted portrayal of Christmas that it was responsible for a revival of Christmas pageantry, and the enfolding of the pagan traditions within the Christian traditions that had previously superseded them.    Again, this is a reason for the social impact of the novel, but one of the reasons why it succeeds artistically is because it presents the glory of Christmas fellowship in such short, deft strokes.

5.  The Leavening of Humor

The emotional journey that Ebenezer Scrooge takes is lightened by the sense of humor he takes in reaction to his experiences.    When he first expressed doubt over the reality of the ghost of Jacob Marley, for example, he thinks that his vision of Marley may be the result of indigestion, and says “There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”   His sarcastic, outwardly-directed humor transforms gradually into a self-deprecatory sense of humor at the end after his transformation.     Humor no longer becomes a weapon of self-defense but an expression of humility, and it is an example of the masterful portrayal of the change that comes over Ebenezer Scrooge.

Because of the themes expressed above, Charles Dickens’ book is a great book and will likely continue to have a positive effect on generations to come.