Augustine and the Bizarre Creatures

I’m currently listening to Augustine’s City of God. It definitely shows its age. His Confessions is much more timeless. LibriVox is a great resource (there is even an app for that). I don’t have the patience to read the work. I listen to it in the background while I’m cleaning. Some passages are brilliant, but most are either outdated, irrelevant, or superfluous. It’s not necessarily Augustine’s fault. He lived in the 4th century and wrote City of God in the early 5th after the sack of Rome by Alaric. If you are interested (as I am) in medieval history you should read it because it was highly cited by theologians, philosophers, and especially political leaders beginning in the Carolingian Empire.

In Chapter 8 of Book XVI, Augustine describes what is taught in the secular histories of his day. These things were believed by people until the modern era. Too funny!

It is also asked whether we are to believe that certain monstrous races of men, spoken of in secular history, have sprung from Noah’s sons, or rather, I should say, from that one man from whom they themselves were descended.  For it is reported that some have one eye in the middle of the forehead; some, feet turned backwards from the heel; some, a double sex, the right breast like a man, the left like a woman, and that they alternately beget and bring forth:  others are said to have no mouth, and to breathe only through the nostrils; others are but a cubit high, and are therefore called by the Greeks “Pigmies:”they say that in some places the women conceive in their fifth year, and do not live beyond their eighth.  So, too, they tell of a race who have two feet but only one leg, and are of marvellous swiftness, though they do not bend the knee:  they are called Skiopodes, because in the hot weather they lie down on their backs and shade themselves with their feet.  Others are said to have no head, and their eyes in their shoulders; and other human or quasi-human races are depicted in mosaic in the harbor esplanade of Carthage, on the faith of histories of rarities.  What shall I say of the Cynocephali, whose dog-like head and barking proclaim them beasts rather than men?  But we are not bound to believe all we hear of these monstrosities.

With beliefs such as these it is no wonder that xenophobia reigned supreme.

The Second Coming – W.B. Yeats

This poem seems particularly relevant today.

 THE SECOND COMING

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Review of Name of the Rose

What was it about?

The Franciscan friar William of Baskerville and his sidekick, a Benedictine novice named Adso of Melk, arrive at a Benedictine abbey in Italy run by Abbot Abbo to help defend Franciscan poverty in a theological dispute between the Minorites and the Avignonese pope John XXII. Upon his arrival, William learns that a monk named Adelmo committed suicide. After the translator Venantius is found headfirst in a jar of pig’s blood, the abbot commissions William to determine the cause of the deaths. The murder seems to revolve around a book found in the labyrinthine library at the monastery, but unless William finds the book the safety of the monks and the integrity of the Franciscan ideal will be compromised. Set in the 14th century, Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose is at once a murder mystery and an exploration of the theological, philosophical, and political debates of the Late Middle Ages. Eco, a semiotician by trade, explores the use and meaning of signs through a story set in a world obsessed with signs. William of Baskerville is a disciple of William of Ockham whose philosophy guides the friar-detective in his investigation. Name of the Rose is the quintessential postmodern novel.

What did I think of it?

What Eco is able to accomplish in this work is astounding! The murder mystery is set in a time period so very different than our own; therefore, the detective and his sidekick use the knowledge of their time period to try to unravel the mystery. Adso (who is also the narrator) not only describes the views of the people but demonstrates their views in the way that he tells the story. A knowledge of Franciscan history is recommended but not necessary (I recommend C.H. Lawrence’s The Friars). Eco explains it well. What is perhaps more important is a basic knowledge of the views of William of Ockham (also known as nominalism). It is the medieval philosophy that has most influenced the modern world. It also underpins aspects of postmodernism. Eco demonstrates well in this work William of Baskerville’s dictum that ” [t]he idea is a sign of things, and the image is sign of the idea, sign of a sign. But from the image I reconstruct, if not the body, the idea that others had of it.”

The story itself is brutal in parts, but you would expect that in a book set in the 14th century. Heretics and inquisitors abound. Cruel and unusual punishment is the law of the land. The Franciscans are convinced that the apocalyptic prophesies of Joachim of Fiore are being realized in their day. Discovering the murderer turns out to be as hard as determining the layout of the labyrinthine library. If you like Dan Brown’s works, love books about books, and/or are looking for deftly constructed murder mystery told from a unique perspective I highly recommend Name of the Rose. It is just as gripping as Angels and Demons but much better written. Honestly, it doesn’t hold a candle to Brown’s book. I can’t believe I waited so long to read Name of the Rose. It felt like it was written for me.

Favorite Quote

“Until then I had thought each book spoke of the things, human or divine, that lie outside books. Now I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves. In the light of this reflection, the library seemed all the more disturbing to me. It was then the place of a long, centuries-old murmuring, an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and another, a living thing, a receptacle of powers not to be ruled by a human mind, a treasure of secrets emanated by many minds, surviving the death of those who had produced them or had been their conveyors.”

Review of I, Claudius

What was it about?

Claudius, the future Roman Emperor, writes his autobiography for posterity. He consults the Sibyl who prophesies in verse the fall of the Roman Empire and describes the kind of men who will assume the throne before its fall. Because Claudius has a severe stutter his family considers him unfit for administration. Still, he is well-respected as a historian. Claudius describes the Julio-Claudian dynasty until his accession to the throne, emphasizing the influence of Augustus’ wife Livia on the fate of the empire. He insists that there are two kinds of Claudians – the good and the bad. But even the best Claudians are tyrants and self-professed gods. Inbreeding results in a highly complicated family tree; characters have similar-sounding or even the same names. Marriage is almost always a back-stabbing institution.  Robert Graves’ I, Claudius is not only an imaginative retelling of the history of the life and family of Emperor Claudius but a commentary on Ancient Roman historiography.

What did I think of it?

I actually read this book six months ago, but I never wrote a review for it. This is definitely the greatest work of historical fiction I’ve ever read. The writing is gorgeous, the characters are complex, and the story is exciting. I spent hours drawing a family tree to keep straight all of the characters (a family tree at the start of the book would have been nice), but I did not want to give up on the book. Graves does so much more than tell a good story. He makes insightful commentaries on the politics of language and Ancient Roman historiography (here is a sample passage). Historians today try to reproduce a historical event as accurately as possible, but this was not the goal of ancient and medieval historians. History was not only written by the victor but was deliberately distorted by him. In one scene, two historians fight over the purpose of writing and reading histories. Before reading the sequel, Claudius, the God, I will reread I, Claudius because I am sure that I have forgotten many details in the book. After finishing the books I will watch the award-winning 1976 mini-series. Even if you normally dislike historical fiction I suspect you will enjoy I, Claudius. It is incredible how much violence and deception can exist in one family!

Favorite Passage

“As you see, I have chosen to write in Greek, because Greek, I believe, will always remain the chief literary language of the world, and if Rome rots away as the Sibyl has indicated, will not her language rot away with her? Besides, Greek is Apollo’s own language.”

Review of Kidnapped

What was it about?

In the aftermath of the Jacobite rising of 1745, recently orphaned David Balfour receives a letter from Mr. Campbell, the minister of Essendean, to give to his uncle Ebenezer Balfour of the House of Shaws. It soon becomes clear to David that the Shaws have a bad reputation in Scotland. No one is comfortable to give David directions. When he reaches his uncle’s house, Ebenezer hesitates before accepting his nephew. He forbids David from asking questions about his father and generally seems displeased to have David in his home. But it is only when Ebenezer sends David to fetch his inheritance from the top of a tower without any light to guide him that David realizes that his uncle wants him dead. The tower is unfinished and the ladder leads to nowhere. He nearly avoids falling to his death. The next morning, Ebenezer has him kidnapped by a ship headed to the Carolinas. On the ship he meets Alan Breck, a Jacobite, who tries to convince the captain of the ship to drop him off on the mainland. When Alan learns that the crew is plotting to kill him, he and David work together to kill the assailants. Although David is a Whig, perilous circumstances cause him to befriend Alan and to help him in his quest to bring justice to the Highlanders of Scotland. Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson highlights the tension between the Highlanders and Lowlanders in Scotland in the aftermath of the Jacobite rising, making it one of the most famous works of Scottish historical fiction.

What did I think of it?

I have absolutely no knowledge of Scottish history, so the Historical Note at the start of the book gave me a much-needed introduction to the Jacobite rising. In many ways Kidnapped reads like an adventure novel for young boys. The story line is simple and the conclusion quite predictable. Still, David and Alan’s relationship is quite interesting. Although their friendship waxes and wanes throughout the book Alan and David know that they need each other. Alan is a bad man, but the reader cannot but love him as a character. He has a lot of affection for the youthful David. I wasn’t overly impressed by the book, and some of the dialogue was poorly written, but it was much more memorable than Treasure Island, and it has made me want to learn more about the history of Scotland.

Favorite Quote

Sir,” says I, ‘with a proper reverence for your age and our common blood, I do not value your favour at a boddle’s purchase. I was brought up to have a good conceit of myself; and if you were all the uncle, and all the family, I had in the world ten times over, I wouldn’t buy your liking at such prices.’