frarjohn: (Default)
2010-12-15 02:03 pm
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Fata Apostolorum

I'm sorry for the break for the past few weeks - the end of the semester got pretty hectic. But the first semester of thesis is complete, and I get a month off to relax and read a whole myriad of stuff. To make up for the silence, have a poem I wrote for the Great Books class.

Poesy )

The original Fata Apostolorum is an Anglo-Saxon poem by Cynewulf, and it's not much longer than mine - only 122 lines. I wrote this as an attempt to render that Old English verse into a Miltonian blank verse style (think Paradise Lost). I don't think I succeeded. Where Milton is dramatic (all those speeches!), I'm almost all narrative. One might say that if this poem was extended, then perhaps that might be overcome? But I think the problem in synthesizing the two is deeper. The unifying image of the original work is that of the Twelve Apostles as war-retainers to Jesus, who engage in battle against pagans, and in their deaths are accorded glory and honor worthy of a loyal thane. Milton doesn't really take that tone. His angels can be glorious in battle, but people are too spirit-wounded for that kind of glory to be a good indicator of what to do.

I may not have succeeded in what I set out to do - make a work that unifies the two styles - but my appreciation for both grew tremendously with the task completed.

frarjohn: (Default)
2010-11-20 01:11 pm
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Njal's Saga

I finished Njal's Saga earlier this week, but haven't really had the time to write about it. Time to rectify that.

In case you weren't following my twitter, let me just say that Njal's Saga is one of the greatest works concerning the evils of vengeance I've ever read. Feuds erupt from injuries to the body or to honor, and then build upon themselves until people are killing each other who have no connection to the original issue.

Perhaps the only works that come close to the narrative force of Njal's Saga on this subject are the Orestes of Euripides or Aeschylus' Oresteia trilogy. Both (as told by their name) deal with Orestes who, in revenge for the murder of his father Agamemnon, kills his mother Clytaemnestra who herself had done the deed at the urging of her lover Aegisthus. Just as in Njal's Saga, violence builds upon violence as more and more blood is shed to bring justice. But where in the myth of Orestes, it is through the lawful judgement of Athena in Athens that Orestes (and by his example all of society) is set free from the eternal cycle, Njal's Saga has a different take.

Njal's Saga makes the very powerful case that law, in its purely human creation, is not enough to break the cycle of violence. The Icelanders love law. They litigate and they bring cases against each other, not just for themselves but for their clients and kinsmen. All according to forms laid down at the Althing. But what the law cannot do here that it did in ancient Greece is break the urge to feud. All too often a party will reject a settlement, their pride having been pricked. At a decisive point in the book, a huge weregild (3 times the standard amount - 600 ounces of silver!) is rejected when the gift of a cloak is misconstrued as an insult to the opponent's masculinity. This collection, which had been brought together by most of the attendees, is useless to actually stopping the underlying causes of the bloodletting. As an even stronger episode, later on the Althing itself becomes a battleground between two factions, and they involve others in the fighting who have nothing at all to do with the original dispute. As the law is - which is just a purely human creation - it can only imperfectly apply a stop to the tendency of most men towards the escalation of violence. Near the end of the work, the author includes a terrifying vision of the fate of men in this cycle, where their destinies are made by witch women (I instantly thought of Clotho, Lotho, and Lachesis) on a loom where entrails are woven, with heads as weights, and swords as beaters. In this vision, there is no escape.

But Njal's Saga does not leave us in the grips of despair. Chapters 100-105 detail the conversion of Iceland from heathenism to Christianity. And this episode sets the stage for how men can get out of what seems inevitable. Several times after the conversion, men will say to themselves before an act that "this is a grave crime we are committing, for we are both Christians". They go about it anyway, but the author really shows how it takes time for the values of Christianity - repentance and peace especially - to filter down into the actions of the Icelanders. Njal himself, essentially a prophetic figure, dies without raising a hand to his enemies, and although left in a burning house, his body is found miraculously unharmed by the flames. And it is ultimately that spirit that saves the last important characters.

Flosi and Kari battle each other across the North Atlantic, Flosi trying to reach Rome and repent his horrific crimes. Kari essentially hunts him, killing off members of Flosi's band when he comes across them in revenge for the death of his young son Thord. It is only after both make their way to Rome, receive absolution, and then return to Iceland that we see how the Christian mentality of the author can save men from themselves. Kari, who has just landed at the start of winter, goes to Flosi's home to test him. When he arrives, Flosi embraces him as a friend, and offers him hospitality for the winter. And with that, the feuds that had antecedents 60 years earlier are gone. The hatred and evil has disappeared as quickly as a summer thunderstorm before the strength of penitence. It's a beautiful showing of just how violence can pop in and out of our lives.

I have read few works as powerful and compelling as Njal's Saga. The style is sparse and direct, and Its characters are terribly human; their flaws, mistakes, and vices riddle the landscape. It truly deserves to be read more widely.

frarjohn: (Default)
2010-11-09 07:34 pm
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San Manuel Bueno, Martir

I read this story on Saturday, and wrote this for my Great Books class yesterday, but here are some thoughts on it regarding truth. I suppose there are some spoilers in this, if you care.
sentiones )
frarjohn: (Default)
2010-10-27 05:13 pm

You Mad!

Finishing up "The Praise of Folly," I have to say that I've read better satires (Swift's "A Modest Proposal" comes to my mind). Now, one or two of you might be saying "But Robert! don't you love everything from this time? How could you dislike something so illustrious from the period? It's Erasmus, for crying out loud!" Well, to you I say THIS: I have two major problems with the work, and I think both have a common ancestor.

First, there are times, mostly in the second half or so of the piece, where Erasmus (as Folly) will get so wrapped up in attacking something that he (Erasmus) disapproves of, that as I was reading it, I was wondering if he had forgotten why he was talking about it in the first place, and kept going just because he was so mad at the topic. I'm thinking primarily of the entire section from pg. 57 onwards, when Folly first begins speaking on theological matters.
Compare the tone of voice near the beginning: "One thing is for sure, without a dash of folly there'd be no fun in it at all. If there's nothing to raise a laugh, in the form of real or simulated foolishness, the revellers will send out to hire a 'comedian' or call for some ridiculous buffoon who by cracking a few jokes and tickling a few funnybones will lift the company out of their morose and dumpish silence."(p. 20)
to her diatribe against professed religious:
"What can be funnier than their habit of doing everything by the book, as if following mathematical rules that it would be a sin to break? ... The greater number of them insist so vehemently on their own ceremonies and petty traditions that they think a single heaven will hardly be adequate reward for such outstanding merit - never imagining that Christ, despising all these observances, will judge by his own standard, which is that of charity."(pp. 62-63)
Where in the beginning Folly is playful, laughingly pointing out our foibles, once she gets into the religious sphere she gets mean, and fast. Which makes sense, because Erasmus was a putative reformer, who did not like monks. As quoted in the Roper essay in the Norton edition, “Monachatus non est pietas” - Monkery is not piety.(p. 274)

Secondly – and this is an issue I have with another satirist, Voltaire – is the fact that Erasmus will sometimes just make stuff up, that I'm pretty sure don't correspond to reality. The first that struck me was the assertion Erasmus makes, speaking for Christ, that he “[spoke] openly and using no intricate parables”.(p. 63) Now correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't the parables one of the defining features of Jesus' ministry in the Gospels? And that even the disciples were confused as to the meaning of them at some points? There was another near the end, but it relies on how people in the Middle Ages interpreted the Mass, so I won't go into it here. But if you're interested, I can find you the article on JSTOR!

What connects these I think is Erasmus' ardor. On these religious topics he's so invested that the referential and playful style of the first half seems to go out the window, replaced with Erasmus wagging his finger at the people he didn't like. And it's that disconnect between the two that I found disappointing.