Friday, April 30, 2010

Cities and The Sky

My recent rereading kick has lead me back to Italo Calvino's wondrous Invisible Cities. Below I excerpt a passage from near the end of the book.

* * *

Summoned to lay down the rules for the foundation of Perinthia, the astronomers established the place and the day according to the position of the stars; they drew the intersecting lines of the decumanus and the cardo, the first oriented on the passage of the sun and the other like the axis on which the heavens turn. They divided the map according to the twelve houses of the zodiac so that each temple and each neighborhood would receive the proper influence of the favoring constellations; they fixed the point in the walls where gates should be cut, foreseeing how each would frame an eclipse of the moon in the next thousand years. Perinthia--they guaranteed--would reflect the harmony of the firmament; nature's reason and the gods' benevolence would shape the inhabitants' destinies.

Following the astronomers' calculations precisely, Perinthia was constructed; various peoples came to populate it; the first generation born in Perinthia began to grow within its walls; and these citizens reached the age to marry and have children.

In Perinthia's streets and square today you encounter cripples, dwarfs, hunchbacks, obese men, bearded women. But the worse cannot be seen; guttural howls are heard from cellars and lofts, where families hide children with three heads or with with six legs.

Perinthia's astronomers are faced with a difficult choice. Either they must admit that all their calculations were wrong and their figures are unable to describe the heavens, or else they must reveal that the order of the gods is reflected exactly in the city of monsters.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Zero Point Four Grams??

That Mitchell and Webb Look is a skit show on BBC America. Well worth checking out. The clip below should be especially appreciated by the Bond fans among you.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Wombats are Revealed

First passage: My Antonia by Willa Cather.

Second passage: Keats's letters.

I reread Willa Cather a few months ago. I'm going through a rereading phase. Rereading's the only way to understand a book. That's what I say. You only read so you can reread. Who said that? Someone. But it's true. True-ish, anyway.

Anyway: My Antonia. Much better than I remembered. I read it first in Iowa, where I felt the need to read books about settlers and the prairie. But it holds up. Holds up well. I then read O Pioneers, thinking I might go on a Willa Cather kick. (Good band name). O Pioneers didn't do as much for me. Though oddly it was at about this time that Levi's Jeans started showing those adds where pagan worship in blue jeans was accompanied by some prophet-sounding dude reading aloud from Whitman's poem "O Pioneers", which of course is where the Cather book takes its title from.

Now I'm reading my American History textbook from 11th grade pretty much exclusively. Because I have many students right now in AP US History. Which is pretty cool.

By the way, I've decided on my two favorite periods in US History. They are:
1) 1795-1815: Adams' presidency up to War of 1812. (XYZ affair. Rush-Bagot treaty. YES!)
2) 1890-1915

Maybe something to do with the national mood as the centuries turn? Not sure.

I'm kind of reading Wolf Hall, though I'm not making much progress.

Keats was a poet by the way. French. A Parnassian. He wrote Les Fleurs du Mal. Also, a few early episodes of Hawaii Five-O. (Little known but true).

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Wombat The Second

Okay, here's the second passage. (Identity of the first to be revealed forthwith).
"I compare human life to a large Mansion of Many Apartments, two of which I can only describe, the doors of the rest being as yet shut upon me - The first we step into we call the infant or thoughtless Chamber, in which we remain as long as we do not think - We remain there a long while, and notwithstanding the doors of the second Chamber remain wide open, showing a bright appearance, we care not to hasten to it; but are at length imperceptibly impelled by awakening of the thinking principle - within us - we no sooner get into the second Chamber, which I shall call the Chamber of Maiden-Thought, than we become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere, we see nothing but pleasant wonders, and think of delaying there for ever in delight: However among the effects this breathing is father of is that tremendous one of sharpening one's vision into the nature and heart of Man — of convincing one's nerves that the World is full of misery and Heartbreak, Pain, sickness and oppression — whereby This Chamber of Maiden Thought becomes gradually darken'd and at the same time on all sides of it many doors are set open - but all dark - all leading to dark passages — We see not the balance of good and evil. We are in a Mist - We are now in that state — We feel the burden of the Mystery."

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

60 New Pence For A Bottle Of Maltese Claret!

Another of my favorites. Its genius wanes a bit towards the end, but the first three minutes are well worth your time.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Name That Wombat: Passage One

Here's the first passage.:

At the university I had the good fortune to come immediately under the influence of a brilliant and inspiring young scholar. Gaston Cleric had arrived in Lincoln only a few weeks earlier than I, to begin his work as head of the Latin Department. He came West at the suggestion of his physicians, his health having been enfeebled by a long illness in Italy. When I took my entrance examinations, he was my examiner, and my course was arranged under his supervision.

.…When I sat at work I half-faced a deep, upholstered chair which stood at the end of my table, its high back against the wall. I had bought it with great care. My instructor sometimes looked in upon me when he was out for an evening tramp, and I noticed that he was more likely to linger and become talkative if I had a comfortable chair for him to sit in, and if he found a bottle of Benedictine and plenty of the kind of cigarettes he liked, at his elbow. He was, I had discovered, parsimonious about small expenditures—a trait absolutely inconsistent with his general character. Sometimes when he came he was silent and moody, and after a few sarcastic remarks went away again, to tramp the streets of Lincoln, which were almost as quiet and oppressively domestic as those of Black Hawk. Again, he would sit until nearly midnight, talking about Latin and English poetry, or telling me about his long stay in Italy.

I can give no idea of the peculiar charm and vividness of his talk. In a crowd he was nearly almost silent. Even for his classroom he had no platitudes, no stock of professorial anecdotes. When he was tired, his lectures were clouded, obscure, elliptical; but when he was interested they were wonderful. I believe that Gaston Cleric narrowly missed being a great poet, and I have sometimes thought that his bursts of imaginative talk were fatal to his poetic gift. He squandered too much in the heat of personal communication.

Name That Wombat

I'm starting a new feature, one which I'm sure will finally allow this blog to compete with Time, ESPN and The New York Times. It's called "Name That Wombat." The way it works is simple. I excerpt a passage of prose taken from some canonical writer. Anyone who likes may guess who wrote it. Whoever gets it right, wins a Ferrari.

That's right. A Ferrari. I've been saving up.

One rule: you can't just search the passage on the internet.

I hope to choose passages which seem to me representative of not only the writer in question, but also (at least some of the time) the style of the time. Or, one of the (dominant) styles of the time. So even if you haven't read the passage, there should be enough clues to make it possible to guess.

First passage coming soon.