Sunday, July 15, 2012

My Major Biases

When I started to read the classics, paying attention to my reactions and thinking about what I would write about each piece of reading, my biases started to come more into focus.  I speak of my biases not in a bad way, as in bigotry and unfair stereotypes (although I’m sure I’m not completely free of those) but in a general way, denoting the culture I grew up in, and the beliefs I embraced or abandoned as an adult.  We all see the world through different lenses, whether we want to or not.  It’s who we are, where we came from. 
I first noticed a lot of feminine anger at male-oriented literature, which got me thinking about my own world view and how it affects my perception of the classics.
So, here are some examples of what I call my biases:
·        Being a female – probably the first influence in life, how girls are treated differently (not necessarily worse, just differently) than boys, family and cultural expectations, physical and other limitations, hormones, etc.  Being a wife, a mother, a woman in the workforce, an old lady.
·        Growing up in the United States in the mid-twentieth century – the time and place where I happen to have been, and am, by chance or some grander design.  The automatic assumption of freedom of thought, and living in a democracy.
·        Being white – although to be more accurate, beige with age spots. It’s hard to explain how the few students (who would now be called “people of color”) in our small town school didn’t seem but passingly different to me.  I didn’t think much about it, but maybe I was just blind, and definitely sheltered.  There was one Native American set of siblings, one Chinese girl, one boy and one girl who had darker skin, but I’m still not sure of their families’ ethnicity, one adopted Korean girl, one tall boy with a Japanese-sounding last name.  They must have all been “assimilated”, mixed, or second or third generation, because there was no difference of language or accent, or what their daddies did for a living.  But, there were no African-American or Latino children in our schools.
·        Being Christian – first raised in a strict Catholic family, a minority in our mostly Protestant small town.  As an adult, not Catholic but searching, later a Protestant of various stripes.  Now, non-denominational, still Christian but much more relaxed about it.
·        Being working-class, not so poor as to go hungry but not having many extras.  By the time I was born (7th and last child) in the early ‘50’s our family, and country, was doing better financially.  But my parents suffered through the Great Depression, and their experience profoundly colored my attitude toward money.
There are many other biases through which I see the world and its literature.  I’m sure I’ll discover more as I continue on this journey.   It seems the earlier the influence in my life, the stronger the bias.  My later experiences, while they definitely tweak my perception of life, don’t seem to be etched so deeply, and seem more likely to change over time. 
For me, there is no moral right or wrong to most of these world views.  But when I find myself having a behavior that I don’t like, or want to change (for example, being cynical) it helps to be able to see where it came from.  Who knew that discovering the classics would mean self-discovery, too?  Maybe that’s the true value of education.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Aesop's Fables

Fables are stories, usually about animals that talk and behave as humans, but still have their animal traits.  The stories are short and entertaining for kids and adults, and teach a moral; a practical character-building lesson.  The themes are often about survival, how to get by in the world by using your wits, keen observation, and good manners.  The fables are full of common sense advice.  Many familiar sayings in our culture come from the morals of Aesop’s Fables, such as:
Necessity is the mother of invention – (The Crow and the Pitcher)
Misery loves company – (The Fox Who Had Lost His Tail)
Look before you leap – (The Frogs and the Well)
Slow and steady wins the race – (The Tortoise and the Hare)
I recently read the two children’s versions that I own.  One, The Aesop for Children (original copyright 1919) was illustrated by Milo Winter.  I’ve used it as a decoration on top of my kitchen cabinet for several years.  (Yes, I also decorate with books!)  The illustrations are beautiful, and probably the most well known.  The Fox and the Grapes picture I used in my last entry is from that book.   The other book that I have is Aesop’s Fables, part of the Great Illustrated Classics series.  I couldn’t find the name of the illustrator, but the black and white line drawings are wonderful.  I plan to use some of them for embroidery panels for my third grandson’s twin-size quilt – a future project.
I’m listening to audio downloads of 284 fables from  Many are familiar, as I’ve recently read them, but some are brand new to me.  One I heard yesterday was about every person being given two bags – one bag that holds our own faults which we carry on our back, and another bag that holds the faults of others which we carry on our front.  The moral, of course, is that it is much easier to see the faults of others than our own.  How true! 
One thing that I like about most of the fables is that it’s so easy to make a mental image to remember the moral.  I think that the shortness of the fables, and their clear images of familiar animals, helped them to remain popular through the centuries.  I also like the fact that it’s often easier to take advice from a make-believe animal than it is from a real human advisor or counselor.  Aesop’s fables are never preachy, but they hit home.   

Who was Aesop?

When I was a kid, we had a book of Aesop’s Fables, and I loved to read them and think about “the moral of the story”.  I especially remember The Fox and the Grapes, and The Lion and the Mouse, and can still visualize some of the pictures from our book.  It would be fun to see if I could find the same edition that I had as a child.   
I hadn’t realized that Aesop was Greek, or a slave.  No one can prove whether or not Aesop was a real person or a legendary figure, but most historians agree that he was a slave in Ancient Greece, and was born around 620 BCE.  It is said that he was freed from slavery by his second owner because of his ability as a master storyteller.  Some of the fables attributed to Aesop probably already existed in the culture of Greece and surrounding areas, but it is believed that Aesop created many of them.
At the time of Aesop, Greece had not yet experimented with democracy; many of the fables deal with a king, portrayed as a lion.  My impression from the stories is that their author lived at the bottom rungs of society at a time when there were few rich and many poor.  Thus, it was not surprising to me to learn that Aesop had been a slave.  (From one source, up to 30% of the Greeks were slaves around that time.)   He understood how to be vigilant, learn from the mistakes of others, and draw lessons from everyday life.  Some of the fables show his observations of good and bad government.  He was familiar with farming, hunting, and all kinds of animals and the ways of nature.  He seemed to believe that even the humblest people could improve their lives if they made wise choices.  That's still true today, isn't it?

Friday, June 8, 2012

Other (distracting) Books

My journey through the classics has not progressed very sequentially, although what I have added to this blog is in chronological order by approximate publishing date.  I’ve been distracted by more modern books, classics and non-classics, since I started this project in March.  It seems I’m still in my usual pattern of randomness.  (Can randomness be a pattern?  According to fractal geometry...ahem!  Focus!) Here is the other reading I've done, which explains why I'm not making much progress on the classics.

Classics that I’ve read out of order, and will comment on later:
One Thousand and One Nights in Arabia (Arabian Nights)

The Sayings of Confucius – listened to an audio version.  This I found interesting enough to find an old paperback edition, and read the long Introduction by translator Arthur Waley.  More on that later. 

Beowolf – listened to audio

The Story of My Life by Helen Keller – not usually included in a list of classics, but I’ll consider it a classic autobiography.

The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austin -- listened while driving.

Other Books

Finished Care of the Soul by Thomas More

Read A Good Idea at the Time by Alex Beam – part of my research about what makes a classic.  Humorous, historical, worthwhile.

Honor Thy Father by Gay Talese  – read for my book group.  Long, okay.

Nothing to Envy:  Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick – read for my book group.  Enlightening, current, political, sad.
You Just Don’t Understand – Women and Men in Conversation by Deborah Tannen, Ph.D.  Sounds like self-help, but its linguistics.  Valuable!

Where God Was Born by Bruce Feiler.  Excellent!  Historical and current.

I listened to part of an audio of The Kama Sutra.  Weird.  I think I'm too old for this.

Why Do I Still Have Thyroid Symptoms? When My Lab Tests are Normal, by Dr. Datis Kharrazian.  Excellent, a must-read for anyone with thyroid problems.  Good luck finding a copy!

To Hell and Back by Maurice S. Rawlings, M.D.  Was supposed to be about negative NDE’s, but had few examples. Made a point, but lots of preaching, disappointing.

Saints and Villains by Denise Giardina.  Excellent, perhaps a life-changer.  I got very emotionally involved in this historical novel about Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  I kind of fell in love with him, and grieved when he died at the end.

I’m currently re-reading The Introvert Advantage – How to Thrive in an Extrovert World, by Marti Olsen Laney, Psy.D.  Great book for introverts or those married to one, or parents who want to understand their introvert temperament children.

And currently dabbling in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

I started to read The Devil in the White City by Erik Larsen for my book group, but gave it up, just didn’t enjoy it.

Listened to some of Aesop’s Fables yesterday.

Currently reading The Greek Way by Edith Hamilton – giving the Greeks another chance to entice me, and get myself interested in some works I have been putting off.

No wonder my windows haven't been washed in five years.

Friday, June 1, 2012

The Odyssey

After my pathetic experience with The Iliad, I didn’t have much hope for appreciation of The Odyssey.  I listened to the Samuel Butler translation on audio, this time taking on the adult version. 

Not being an English or History major, or a poet, much in the way of literary appreciation was lost on me.  The story itself was a lot more interesting than The Iliad.  I can’t say that it was particularly edifying, or that I’d read it again.

Odysseus had lots of adventures in his ten-year journey home from the ten-year Trojan War.  Meanwhile, his wife sat at home, weeping daily for twenty years (as a good wife should) and not giving up on his return.  Penelope was quite a saintly victim, not giving in to the marriage proposals of dozens of suitors, yet allowing them to despoil her household.  Their son was not much of a help, either.  Although twenty years old by the time of his father's return, he had been powerless to boot out the rowdy intruders. 

I guess an epic can only have one hero, and Odysseus took center stage and didn’t share the glory, not even with the capricious gods who intervened regularly, but not always helpfully. 

As for the pantheon of Greek gods, it’s amazing to me that, in real history, people actually believed in and offered sacrifices to them.  This led me to an interesting couple of hours of web surfing on the subjects of animal sacrifice in Greek and other religions, polytheism, paganism and the spread of Christianity with its forced conversions, blending of pagan and Christian holidays, etc., etc.

As for The Iliad and the Odyssey, I’m still not sure what all the hoopla is about.  But I’ll try to keep an open mind, as there’s a lot more Greek stuff to wade through.   

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Iliad (for children?)

I decided to listen to The Iliad on a free audio download from  Having had a cold at the time, I got comfy on the couch, put on the Iliad on my laptop, and promptly drifted in and out of sleep.  I just couldn’t get interested in the mouthy, egotistical heroes and all their fighting.  And their gods weren’t any better.  They were just as immature as the men.  It drug on like a bad football game, when you're sitting in the cold and just want it to be over.   

The next day I found The Iliad for Children, also a librivox recording, and thought “Hey, maybe I can keep track of the story in a children’s version.”  Wrong!  It was just as boring, and probably almost as long.  What was really bizarre is that the reader had a really delicate, lilting voice.  The contrast between her reading (which would have been perfect for a bedtime story) and the gruesome content was just too discordant.  Who would read The Iliad to children, anyway?

Now I’m even more disappointed that my high school mascot was the Trojans!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Gilgamesh and Loss

Last night I re-read the last part of Gilgamesh.  It had been a couple of months since I read it, and I hadn’t taken notes on the last half.  I think for this log to work, I’ll need to journal right after finishing a piece, or even better, during my reading of it.  Does that say something about my long term memory?  Hmm…

A little intro piece in the book says:

It is an old story
But one that can still be told
About a man who loved
And lost a friend to death
And learned that he lacked the power
To bring him back to life.
It is the story of Gilgamesh
And his friend Enkidu.

Here are a few lines that I had underlined in my book, and my comments:

“He was no more a king, but just a man who had lost his way.”   

Grief is the great equalizer.

“His life became a quest to find the secret of eternal life.”

“He yearned to talk to Utnapishtim,
The one who had survived the flood
And death itself, the one who knew the secret.”

Death is so mysterious, it makes us seek to understand, find some secret knowledge, as if knowing will make us feel better.

“No one grieves that much, she said.
Your friend is gone.  Forget him.
No one remembers him.  He is dead.”

One of the most painful things about grief is the ill-given advice that one receives.  Advice-givers don’t understand that you just need to talk.  Gilgamesh talks a lot about his friend Enkidu, to everyone he meets.

The same friend says, “…you, who are so blind with love of self, and with rage…”
to whom he replies, screaming, “I am not blind with self-love, but with loss!”

Grief makes one very self-centered for a time.  True is the friend who can listen to our rage and our incessant talk about our loss.

Later, Gilgamesh starts to tire of his own story. 

“Don’t ask me to retell my pain, he said.
I only want to bring him back to life.”

Utnapishtim sadly tells Gilgamesh about all the death and destruction he witnessed after the great flood receded.  (It’s interesting to note that in the Bible story, there is no counterpart of Noah feeling grief for all those who died.)  Then he says,

“…I would grieve
At all that may befall you still
If I did not know you must return
And bury your own loss and build
Your world anew with your own hands.”

Utnapishtim tells the secret of a plant that “will give to you new life”.  Gilgamesh finds and picks the plant, but while he was refreshing himself in the river, a serpent came out of the water and ate the plant that he had picked.  This was kind of the last straw, a loss of hope of defeating death, a giving in.

“In time he recognized this loss
As the end of his journey
And returned to Uruk.”
I recommend this story to anyone who is grieving the death of any loved person.  His experience is so universal, his emotions so current in all our lives, it is at first hard to believe that it was written so long ago. The main impact Gilgamesh had on me is the realization that people really haven’t changed down through the ages.  There’s an idea about that humankind has evolved somehow, spiritually or psychologically, but I don’t think that’s true.  I tend to agree with the writer of Ecclesiastes when he says “There is nothing new under the sun”.