Harvard Classics, Volume 21: I Promessi Sposi

The most recent volume of the Harvard Classics is the only modern fiction novel included in the set of 50 volumes. While there is a whole set of 20 volumes dubbed the “Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction”, I Promessi Sposi’s inclusion in the original set points to its significance and quality. Alessandro Mazoni’s 1827 work comes in second to Dante as the most important work in the Italian canon, and for good reason. I Promessi Sposi is a masterful historical fiction novel that blends the personal conflicts of lower class Milanese with the backdrop of war, pestilence and famine.

I Promessi Sposi starts with a simple personal conflict. Late at night, a local clergyman is accosted by ruffians, warning him of the dire consequences should he perform the wedding of the two protagonists. This conflict, however, eventually leads to a pageant of personal struggle for both protagonists as they separate and find themselves in a series of ever-escalating predicaments.

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Harvard Classics, Volume 20: The Divine Comedy

Usually in these posts I talk about a work, and how it fits into the Western canon, but with Dante that is a little bit different. The Divine Comedy is doesn’t just fit into the Western canon, it defines a large portion of it. Compared to other volumes, I spent significantly more time working through Dante and getting everything I could out of it. A short blog post certainly does not suffice to do more than to hopefully encourage further study by the reader.

The Divine Comedy was written in the early 14th century, and is the most important literary work of a whole millennia of our civilization. The Divine Comedy marks the beginning of an explosion in literature. The world Dante describes is still the Medieval one, with a highly structured and hierarchical universe where things tie together in a way that seems almost allegorical today.

Unless you’re taking a dedicated course in the book, most college courses cover a selection of the 100 Cantos that make up the Divine Comedy. Even though I found the whole experience very valuable, I can understand why colleges run their courses this way. The moments when Dante is transcendent are truly something special. But those instances do not occur in every Canto and as far as I can tell, my own assessment of which Cantos were the most interesting agreed with collegiate opinion.

The Divine Comedy is split into three main components, the Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. Inferno usually gets the most attention because it is the least interested in theology, and the descriptions of people who do not eventually make it to heaven, especially those near the boundary, are some of the most interesting parts of the book. The common thread that runs through all three books is Love. In Inferno we see the result of putting other emotions ahead of Love. In Purgatorio, people are struggling with misplaced love. At the end of the Paradiso, Dante sees that the source of energy behind the whole of creation is Love. The object of Dante’s love, driving him forward is Beatrice. Dante longs after Beatrice through most of the books until she arrives to help him ascend into heaven, where she is with him almost to Dante’s final meeting with the Trinity.

It really is a silly exercise to try and talk about the depth, beauty and poetry of the Divine Comedy in a limited post. All I can really do is agree with the consensus that it is a sublime work that can be appreciated by from a single reading, but can also occupy the careers of scholars.

But now, with the Divine Comedy finished, we’ve reached a turning point in the Harvard Classics. From here on out, most of the readings are more modern, and there are fewer epic tomes known to everyone who goes to college. The big exception is the Odyssey, which is Volume 22. Before we get there, I’ll be reading the Italian novel I promessi sposi (The Betrothed).

Harvard Classics, Volume 19: Goethe & Marlowe

This volume of the Harvard Classics was dedicated to Napoleonic-era German poet, dramatist, novelist, scientist, and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In addition to three works by Goethe, Christopher Marlowe’s Elizabethan drama “Dr. Faustus” is included as both reference and an important work of English drama.

Beginning with Marlowe, “Dr. Faustus” is the greatest play of its era not written by Shakespeare. “Dr. Faustus” tells the story of a German scholar who, seeking arcane knowledge, makes a pact with the devil for the services of Mephistopheles. The deal is Mephistopheles will serve Faustus throughout the remainder of his life, at which point Faustus’ soul will belong to the devil. The action of the play consists of Faustus’ search for knowledge, his pact with the devil, and his subsequent fall. In between are humorous scenes, possibly added after the fact, with the Pope and the Emperor. Marlowe’s “Dr. Faustus” is a great piece of drama, but Goethe surpasses it entirely.

Goethe’s take on the Faust legend is a bit different. In this one, Faust strikes a better bargain with the devil. In this case, the Faust’s soul is contingent on Mephistopheles being able to satisfy Faust’s quest for knowledge. The Harvard Classics only includes Part 1 of Faust, which is powerful enough on its own. While the devil brings Faust to a series of pleasurable encounters, the second half of the story is dominated by Faust and his lust for the maiden Gretchen. The main object of Goethe’s Faust is the depiction of the modern soul. Faust strives for knowledge and the sublime, but can never be satisfied in his quest for either of them. Spengler uses this characterization to describe modern society as a whole. This focus on the emerging modern man in the wake of the Enlightenment and the beginning of the Romantic era makes the verse relevant to today. The issues Goethe grapples with in Faust are issues we still have with us today.

In addition to Faust, another Goethe play, Egmont, was included in this collection. Count Egmont was a noble in the Spanish Netherlands whose execution was a flashpoint that started the Eighty Years War, which resulted in Dutch independence. The play outlines the last days of Egmont’s life, and the tumults going on in the Netherlands. Ultimately, this play casts Egmont as an early progenitor of Goethe’s ideal of national self-determination and liberty. The most famous part of Egmont however, is not the play itself. The score for the play was written by Beethoven, and the overture does a better job describing the play than my measly paragraph ever could.

The final work of Goethe in this volume was Hermann and Dorothea. A simple love story, beautifully written in verse, and set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars make it an engaging work of literature.

Next up on the docket is Dante’s Divine Comedy, followed by Il Promessi Sposi, The Odyssey, and Two Years Before the Mast to round up a long stretch of narrative-driven works.

Harvard Classics, Volume 18: Modern English Drama

This volume of the Harvard Classics, focusing on the best drama from the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries, is both a collection of classics of the English language and a volume that highlights the limitations of something like the Harvard Classics. Since this volume was put together in 1909, it missed out on plays from the late 19th and 20th centuries which would have displaced some of the weaker plays in this volume. That’s no fault of the people putting the collection together, they took the relatively bare landscape of English-language drama from after the English Civil War through the Napoleonic wars and selected the six best representatives of that century and a half timespan. However, the difference in time between today and when the collection was assembled means that important contributions to the English dramatic canon by Shaw, Miller, Beckett and Stoppard aren’t in contention for spots in this volume.

The collection begins with Dryden’s All for Love. The preeminent poet in England after the death of Milton, Dryden has already been an important component of the Harvard Classics for his translations of Plutarch and Vergil. This play, however, is an original work that draws heavily from Shakespeare and Plutarch. All for Love tells the story of Marc Antony and Cleopatra in Alexandria after the Battle of Actium. Dryden takes the tense historical scene of the besieged lovers and adds a new element to the drama, Antony’s wife, and Octavian’s sister, Octavia. With Antony, his wife and his mistress all present, all set against each other and with the armies of Agrippa about to engulf them all, the personal drama stays at a fever pitch. Antony is portrayed as a man torn between despair, a desire to reconcile with his Roman roots and his love for Cleopatra. All for Love is distinctly different from the rest of the collection as it is more a hearkening back to the Greek and Elizabethan forms than a foreshadowing of things to come.

With that said the second play in the collection, A School for Scandal, by Richard Sheridan, could not be more diffierent from the high drama in the final days of Ptolemeic Egypt. A School for Scandal is a comedy of manners lampooning the British upper classes. The comedy relies on hidden identities, mistaken assumptions and secret machinations to weave its humor. The crux of the story leans on the perception and misperception of affection between husbands, wives, bachelors and maidens. It is a tough story to read through casually, as the intricacies of identity vary quickly and regularly throughout the play.

In my opinion, the other comedy in this collection, She Stoops to Conquer, by Oliver Goldsmith told a simpler, better contained story that certainly did not lack in truly funny moments. The pretense of the story is two old friends are putting up their son and daughter as a prospective marriage, and the son is traveling to meet the daughter to see if romance takes off. In a story that could only take place in the pre-modern period, the son ends up at his intended’s home, thinking it was an inn instead of the home of a family friend. Hilarity ensues as it is unveiled that the son also is very nervous around women of high birth. This is where the “stooping to conquer” element comes in, as the host’s daughter plays a maid to win the love of the doubly-duped guest. All of these misconceptions lead to misunderstandings and weave with a secondary plot to come to a head at the end of the play. Ultimately, the play is a fine example of the 18th century romcom.

The next play in the collection, Shelley’s The Cenci, could not have a more opposite demeanor. Oedipus, Antigone, and King Lear are rolled into one drama that is seldom performed due to the darkness of the subject matter. The play is based on the true story of an Italian noblewoman who was raped by her father, conspired to murder him and then was found guilty of murder by the Pope. The main element of artistic power here is Shelley’s brilliant verse that is so compelling and captures the spirit of the characters involved in this unfolding tragedy. At every step of the way Shelley’s verse paints an emotional portrait of people under the worst stresses imaginable enduring different types of suffering.

The fifth play in the collection, Browning’s A Blot in the ‘Stucheon is one of the weaker members. The drama of the story is very reminiscent of Euripides in its simplicity and the role of chance in comparison with the other dramas of its age. The dramatic framework of a couple entering into an arranged marriage who were already secretly seeing each other clandestinely only turns into a drama when the woman’s desire to keep her guardian and brother from knowing about the pre-marital affair. Fate intervenes to turn a possibly comedy into a tragedy, resulting in the deaths of all three lead characters.

The final play, Lord Byron’s Manfred, stands out from the rest. Manfred tells the story of a superman who has, through intense study and training come to rise above the mortals around him. Searching for more, Manfred consults with demons and clergy to accumulate more strength, but in critical opposition to Faust, Manfred refuses to submit himself to any being, even God himself, in exchange for more. While not a triumph of storytelling, Manfred serves as a bridge between Milton’s Satan and Nietzsche’s ubermensch and represents an important development in the artistic expression of morality.

While Manfred was a response to Faust in many ways, the next volume of the Harvard Classics focuses on this story. Both Goethe’s and Marlowe’s version are presented against each other along with two other plays by Goethe. Once I’ve finished those four plays, I’ll be embarking on Dante, I Promessi Sposi, The OdysseyTwo Years Before the Mast, a collection of Burke’s writings, and a volume of JS Mill & Carlyle. Once I’ve finished all of those, I’ll officially be half-way through with the Harvard Classics.

Harvard Classics, Volume 17: Fables

Volume Seventeen of the Harvard Classics covered the biggest names in Western storytelling. Beginning with Aesop and continuing through The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. Pretty much every fairy tale you’ve heard of comes from one of these three sources. After reading these, its pretty easy to see why these are such important parts of the Western Canon, and why they are good for people of all ages to engage with.

Aesop’s Fables is a collection of short parables which were added to over the course of two millennia from a variety of sources. In Crito, Socrates makes reference to Aesop and his animal-based parables, but some of the parables are of biblical origin, like “The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing”, and some come from Indian stories as well. Together, these form a collection of stories that not only communicate the moral conclusions of western people over the course of its development and history, but have been etched into the minds of European & American children to this day. “The Tortoise and the Hare” is easily the most famous, but “The Ant and the Grasshopper”, “The Country Mouse and the City Mouse”, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”, and plenty of others are instantly familiar parables that have been recycled, repackaged and reused in a variety of formats over the years. Aesop’s Fables represent the collective decision making of dozens of generations on what it means to be a moral and productive individual and is worth the read.

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Harvard Classics, Volume 16: Stories from One-Thousand and One Nights

One of the nice things about a long, relaxing vacation is the chance to read books quickly. This helps the intricacies of the story stay organized in my mind and makes it easier to see the major themes of the work in question.

Arabian Nights or The One-Thousand and One Nights is the most important work of literature to come out of the Islamic world. Drawing on Arab and Persian sources, this collection of stories is an important source for understanding the culture and world of the Islamic Golden Age.

This particular collection included in the Harvard Classics is both abridged and taken from an early English translation. Each volume of the Harvard Classics is limited to 450 pages, so oftentimes, longer works are abridged, as I always try to mention.

In the case of the One Thousand and One Nights, we are treated to the introduction to the overarching narrative along with 6 distinct stories plus Aladdin and Ali Baba as later additions. The stories escalate in their strangeness and wonder as the nights progress.

For those who are unaware, the overarching plotline is the story of a King, who, along with his brother, discover their households are full of sin and their wives and harems are totally unfaithful the moment the Kings leave their respective castles. As a result, one of the brothers decides to start marrying brides and killing them in the morning, so that they can never commit adultery against him. Needless to say, the pool of available brides in the Kingdom quickly disappears until finally the only eligible maids left in the kingdom are the daughters of the Grand Vizir. The elder daughter marries the King and proceeds to tell him stories at night, and each of the successive thousand nights, in order to keep herself alive.

The bulk of the text is twisting interlaced narrative as we receive stories within stories within stories to ensure that the King finishes stories infrequently. We’re treated to instances where a barber tells the stories of all six of his brothers and the increasingly odd ways they became dependent on him. As time goes on, the stories become more adventurous, wonderous and heroic.

An example of these later stories are the seven voyages of Sinbad the Sailor, in which an elderly Sindbad recounts his seven voyages, which each time lead to successively worse disasters. Sinbad luckily recovers from these and is able to retire as a rich man in luxury. Sinbad journeys out the Persian Gulf and down the coasts of India and Africa encountering strange kingdoms, strange animals and strange people.

These later stories, which are much less convoluted but much more interesting become highly entertaining and start to become reminiscent of sword and sorcery stories, “The City of Brass” in particular reminding me of the Conan adventures, where Emir Musa is sent on a mission by Caliph Abd Al-Malik to find the genies imprisoned by King Solomon.

The best story in the collection, although not a part of the original nights, is “Aladdin and his Magical Lamp”. The story covers Aladdin’s ascent from a lazy ne’er-do-well into a heroic figure. The story is pretty close to the Disney movie, but ultimately different enough to still be something new to a contemporary reader.

The next volume continues the trend of fables and stories with three collections of European tales: Aesop’s Fables, The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. I am looking forward to these stories with particular interest. Looking farther forward, English theater and Goethe comprise the volumes following folklore.

Harvard Classics, Volume 15: Pilgrim’s Progress, Lives of Donne & Herbert

This volume of the Harvard Classics was dedicated to 17th century English religious writing. This is a period of great importance for British religious life, as a major axis in the conflicts that broke out in the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution were the religious friction between the Puritans, Anglicans, Catholics and Presbyterians.

Starting with the second author in this volume, Izaak Walton wrote short biographies of spiritual leaders and poets John Donne and George Herbert. These two men crossed paths in their own lives and were influential on the development of the Anglican Church coming in the century following the beginning of the English Reformation. Their life stories as presented by Walton are somewhat like Plutarch’s Lives in terms of length and pace. The main difference is the actual events of their lives were somewhat less exciting than the grand brushstrokes of history. Their lives are interesting as a window into the times, but overall I found myself wondering why they were included in the Harvard Classics. My main thought is they were progenitors of the theological movement that was still playing out in New England seminaries, like Harvard, at the time the Classics were assembled.

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Harvard Classics, Volume 14: Don Quixote

As the Harvard Classics transitions from the ancient to the merely old, Don Quixote stands out as a work of fiction that occupies a similar place as the Canterbury Tales, laying the foundations for modern fiction while being something quite different from it.

The first parts of Don Quixote are the most modern and the most famous. The ’tilting at windmills’ scene happens in the first bit of the book. The story of Don Quixote and his two knightly journeys spans the whole of the book, but an approximatly equal portion of the pages are dedicated to the stories of people they meet along the way.

The main purpose of the work is to satirize Spainish society in its various aspects. Don Quixote, most obviously, is a satire of the still-stereotypical medieval knight, going on adventures and protecting the innocent. That Don Quixote can only find adventure through his own imagination and that his chivalrous pretnesions immediately clash with everyone around him is the main focus of the story. One can’t help but place this in the cultural context of the era, in which Spain was 100 years removed from the end of the 800-year-long Reconquista. The clash of civilizations, the warring kingdoms and emirates and the general uncertainty that made the medieval knight the stuff of legends was over, and had been replaced with the Hapsburgs.

The other stories paint tales of the lives of Don Quixote’s contemporaries, including the upper class, city dwellers, goatherds, and slaves. Each story speaks to the humanity of people at all levels of society. Ironically, the lowest person has had the farthest flung and most daring adventure, participating in naval battles, visiting exotic places and escaping home.

As a part of any worthwhile discussion of a translated work, I should mention that I read the original English translation, only several years after the book was written. I’m not quite sure whether the old style of writing was balanced by the benefit of a contemporary translation. I think a more modern translation would have been more enjoyable to read, because Don Quixote is supposed to be a book where the story delivers the message, and not the minute qualities of each line.

Up next are some English novels that come a bit after Don Quixote: The Pilgrim’s Progress, The Life of Donne, and The Life of Herbert. Following these are Arabian Nights and the triumvirate of Western fabluists: Aesop, The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson.

Three YouTubers Who Embody The Values That Need To Make A Comeback

YouTube, despite its controversies over demonitization and censorship, is home to numerous people posting videos regularly about relatively mundane topics that don’t stray into politics and are free from controversy. For anyone with enough savvy to find interesting content, YouTube can entirely replace television outside the world of scripted drama.

While most professional-quality YouTubers represent the worst of modern society, I want to highlight three that I enjoy and that I believe highlight principles that need to make a comeback.

I’ve written before about David the Good, an extreme composter, gardener and homesteader who lives with his wife and children in the tropics. David’s channel combines humor, useful advice, and interesting knowledge. That’s enough to recommend the channel, but it is not what I want to praise the channel for right now.

David the Good and his channel focus primarily on his homestead and what he is growing there. His viewers get to witness the hard work and patience that it takes to make food and other goods for oneself. We don’t just see the reward at the end, we see the steps that go into it and we have to wait along with David to see how things turn out. That’s what I want to praise David for: showing people the value of hard work, persistence and patience.

One example that comes to mind was the saga with David and the chickens, which I’ll summarize here and link to a few of the videos that focus on them. One day David bought some chickens intending to produce his own free range eggs and poultry. This first required rehabilitating an old coop for the chickens to live in. Then, the chickens didn’t like living in it, and preferred perching in trees. As time went on, the hens didn’t lay eggs in the coop, which meant David and his family had to go looking for where they were. These led to David changing his management of the chickens and how they lived.

Eventually, David got some turkey eggs and some chicken eggs and he managed to get the hens to lay on them. A few weeks later, the chicken eggs hatched, but the turkey eggs never did. We got to see the chicks roam around the coop very cutely, only for them to get eaten by rats getting into the coop soon thereafter. Eventually, David sold off his chickens and ended his attempts at chicken farming for the time being.

The saga of the chickens was, all in all, an unremarkable story, played out over many videos released as they were happening, without a planned coherent narrative. It was a story that unfolded before us over, with the participants unsure of the final result. However unremarkable the story would be as the plot of a scripted drama, novel or “reality” TV show, the chicken saga showed some very real truths about work, patience and perseverance, as well as the fact that sometimes you have to admit failure and move on. Those are virtues I think we need to see more of and the kind of thing that plays out on many simultaneous strands on David’s videos.

The next YouTuber I’d like to talk about is a channel I’ve only just found but I am readily enjoying. The channel “Forgotten Weapons” follows around an expert in antique weapons as he teaches about, reviews and fires, a wide range of weaponry. The channel is extremely prolific and is both entertaining and informative.

What I’d like to praise about “Forgotten Weapons” is its dedication to expertise and education. On the second point, firearms are something of a mystery to people who aren’t familiar with them. They are capable of great violence very suddenly, and therefore quite intimidating. “Forgotten Weapons”, by carefully reviewing the mechanisms and features of all of these weapons lifts the veil of ignorance that surrounds then. I can’t help but watch the channel and learn more about a field I’m only slightly familiar with.

The dedication to expertise Ian demonstrates in every video on forgotten weapons is a testament to years of learning and continual effort to stay on top of the game. In a society that treats expertise as having a Wikipedia or first page on Google level of understanding, Ian’s deep knowledge shows us what true expertise is and how far apart from the casual observer it is.

The final YouTube channel and personality I’d like to praise is perhaps the one you anticipated when you read the title, “The Report of the Week”. The Report of the Week is the pseudonym of the host, and the name of the channel, which these days is primarily for episodes of “Running on Empty: Food Review”, a series of reviews of fast food dishes.

Colloquially known as “Reviewbrah”, the host stands out with his youth, northeastern accent, slicked hair and classic suits. Reviewbrah carefully and thoughtfully reviews several fast food products a week, focusing on the latest releases.

Besides his dry humor, and calm demeanor, I would like to praise Reviewbrah for his dedication to excellence and merit. When Reviewbrah reviews an item of fast food, he applies a well-honed technique for reviewing. First, he lays out the marketing pitch from the company, the broader context of the menu item, and his expectations. Next, Reviewbrah examines the food, noting it’s appearance and whatever interesting information he can glean before he tries the food. After several bites and a few moments of contemplation, Reviewbrah notes his immediate experience with the food before generalizing his thoughts for a wider audience and specifying what works, what doesn’t, and for marginal items, who will like it and who won’t. He finishes by using his experience to update the broader context he mentioned before and then concludes the review.

I don’t know if Reviewbrah is familiar with Aristotle, Burke or Goethe, but his process of reviewing, even for something as mundane as fast food, is an example for anyone who reviews consumer products and even people who review artistic work. Reviewbrah’s dedication to this level of technique shows a real concern for the search and identification of excellence that just does not rear its head very often among countless blogs, videos and podcasts.

These three channels illustrate principles that I find lacking today, which I believe are necessary for a rebirth of American greatness. Those principles are: achievement takes hard work and time, demonstrated expertise is something to learn from and aspire to, and that excellence is something worth searching for and celebrating. Make sure to check out all three.

Harvard Classics Volume 13: The Aeneid

Virgil’s Aeneid is billed as the great work of Latin literature. Composed during the reign of Augustus, the Aeneid tells the story of refugees from Troy, fleeing the city and led by Aeneas, Trojan prince and son of Venus, and their journey to carve out a new homeland on the banks of the Tiber. This is an incredibly powerful narrative of a people on the verge of destruction battling the elements, their weariness and enemy armies in their quest to make it to their new homeland.

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