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It isn’t often that I dip the ol’ port-swiller beak into what the gels are reading these days, but due to the persistent enthusiasm of the eldest, I sat down yesterday and read The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan, the first of a series of books entitled Percy Jackson and the Olympians.

On one level, it’s the usual sort of pre-teen angst story.  Percy is an oddball and a failure and can’t understand why he’s so different from everybody else and can’t get on in the world.   On another, it is pure pre-teen escapist fantasy: it turns out that the problem is that he’s actually a demigod, the son of Poseidon and a mortal woman.  The Olympic gods are still very much alive and kicking, inhabiting our world and interacting with it where necessary.  Percy finds all this out on the fly, so to speak, as he suddenly finds himself in the middle of a desparate attempt to head off a war among Zeus, Poseidon and Hades.

What intrigued me, however, was a larger story arc set down early on.  Percy finds himself at a summer camp on Long Island, a place where other demigods go to train and learn.  There, he is given some Olympic history by his old classics teacher at boarding school, who turns out actually to be Chiron the Centaur:

“Come now, Percy.  What you call ‘Western Civilization.’  Do you think it’s just an abstract concept?  No, it’s a living force.  A collective consciousness that has burned bright for thousands of years.  The gods are part of it.  You might even say they are the source of it, or at least, they are tied so tightly to it that they couldn’t possibly fade, not unless all of Western civilization were obliterated.  The fire started in Greece.  Then, as you well know – or as I hope you know, since you passed my course – the heart of the fire moved to Rome, and so did the gods.  Oh, different names, perhaps – Jupiter for Zeus, Venus for Aphrodite, and so on – but the same forces, the same gods.”

“And then they died.”

“Died? No.  Did the West die?  The gods simply moved, to Germany, to France, to Spain, for a while.  Wherever the flame was brightest, the gods were there.  They spent several centuries in England.  All you need to do is look at the architecture.  People do not forget the gods.  Every place they’ve ruled, for the last three thousand years, you can see them in paintings, in statues, on the most important buildings.  And yes, Percy, of course they are now in your United States.  Look at your symbol, the eagle of Zeus.  Look at the statue of Prometheus in Rockefeller Center, the Greek facades of your government buildings in Washington.  I defy you to find any American city where the Olympians are not prominently displayed in multiple places.  Like it or not – and believe me, plenty of people weren’t very fond of Rome, either – America is now the heart of the flame.  It is the great power of the West.  And so Olympus is here.  And we are here.”

As the story unfolds, it turns out that Olympus itself is now set on the 600th floor of the Empire State Building.  The entrance to Hades is in a recording studio in Los Angeles.  There is a casino in Vegas equivalent to the Island of the Lotus Eaters.  And so on.

Also as the story unfolds, however – and I presume I’m not going to upset anyone with any plot spoilage here – it becomes clear that the pending civil war among the Olympians is not just the result of the alleged theft of Zeus’s thunderbolt (hence the title) by one of his brothers, but instead is being carefully stage-managed by Kronos, who is slowly gaining power in his prison of Tartarus, and means to break free, wipe out the Olympians and Western civilization, and reinstitute his “Golden Age,” reducing what’s left of Mankind to a renewed state of primitive savagery.  And I gather that young Percy, as a certified hero in the classical sense, is going to be heavily involved in the effort to keep the Olympic flame alive in the face of the onslaught of barbarism.

Now, I don’t know where Riordon is going with this – there are five books in the series – but it struck me that there are some pretty clear parallels here between Kronos’ plan and the vision of both domestic leftist radicals – the “Eco-warriors” and so on- as well as Islamofascist types abroad.  (The book was written in 2005.) And I’m delighted that Riordan is so unabashedly pro-Western Civ in setting up the story.  In fact, I believe I will go ahead and read the other four books, just to see what he does and if the parallels are made more explicit. 

Of course, the gel has probably not picked up on this Why We Fight theme yet, at least not consciously.  She’s more delighted at this stage simply with spotting the classical characters and allusions and enjoying the adventures (which come fast and furious).  But I’m hoping that somewhere or other, the seed of the idea is being planted in her brain.

Algis Valiunas writes on Handel’s Messiah in the Weekly Standard:

But it is of course Messiah that remains Handel’s nonpareil work. Here the secular and the sacred are joined, as Handel constructs a monument to everlasting truth on a pedestal of familiar, worldly beauty. In Handel’s sound-world, biblical grandeur requires an admixture of joyous levity to portray fully the surpassing love of the God who suffered and died for human salvation. Some of the music is unmistakably churchly, based on the hymn rather than the dance or operatic aria: The bass recitatives and airs have all the majesty of prophetic utterance whose solemnity is amplified as only music can do. But the melody of the alto air He was despised could almost be set to a lament for lost love from Alcina or Rodelinda. Similarly, a chorus such as For unto us a child is born has the ebullient lightness of a pastoral dance from an Italian opera, though it will swell into hieratic magnificence. His yoke is easy is another brightly tripping chorus, which evokes happiness here, in this life, as all suffering is erased when one takes Christ into his soul.

I would also add, speaking of influences, that the famed Hallelujah Chorus is in fact a coronation anthem very much like those Handel wrote for the Hanovers.  Of course, the theological point – the crowning of Christ as King of Heaven – is more appropriate to Easter than Christmas, which is why I generally listen only to the first part of the oratorio at this time of year.

I got a Christmas card from an old high school girlfriend this year in which she asks if I still sing along to The Messiah.  This was something that I used to do with the mater and pater back in the day, listening to an old recording made by goodness-knows who now from some time in the 60’s.  They generally followed the score, while Self tried to pick it up by ear.  The results were what you might imagine, although as we were usually half in the bag anyway, it didn’t matter much.

 Good times.

Funny how such a random piece of trivia would stick, only to resurface some 26 years later.  The answer is that no, I don’t really do it any more.  Not enough time and not enough familial interest.  However, both the younger gels sing in their church choir now – perhaps in a few years I might reintroduce the custom when they’re more likely to take to it.

This week I’ve been making my way through the DVD’s of the old Beeb series The Six Wives of Henry VIII.

The Lord knows there were many terrible things about the 70’s, but one good thing to come out of that miserable decade was the really top-tier teevee historickal drama produced by the Beeb, Granada and other Brit organizations.  In addition to the said ‘Enery, I’m also thinking of such series as Elizabeth R and I, Claudius (I’m sure there are others that readily come to the minds of fellow Port-Swillers above a certain age).  They were all characterized by cheap-o sets, excellent writing and superb acting.

Too bad they don’t make ’em like that any more.

UPDATE:  Vic asks about whether Henry is properly portrayed as plump in this production.  Well here are a couple of pics –


   The actor’s name is Keith Michell.  He’s a big, imposing bear of a fellah to begin with, and seems to keep getting bigger and more imposing as the series goes on.  No chance of a thin Henry here.

Because I know he’s interested in this sort of thing.

Livy on Alexander the Great:

However impressive we find the great reputation of this man, the fact remains that it is the great reputation of a single individual built up from the successes of little more than ten years, and those who sing its praises on the grounds that the Romans have been defeated in many battles, even if they have never lost a war, whereas Alexander’s good fortune never failed him in a single battle, do not understand that they are comparing one man’s achievements – and those of a young man too – with the exploits of a nation now in its eighth century of warfare.  Should it be surprising, then, if on one side there have been more vicissitudes of fortune over so long a period of time than in the space of thirteen years?  Ought you not to compare men with a man, generals with a single general, their fortunes with his?  How many Roman generals could I name whose fortunes in battle never turned against them?  In the annals and lists of magistrates you can run through pages of consuls and dictators whose fine qualities and fortune never gave the people of Rome a single day’s regret.  And what makes them more remarkable than Alexander or any king is this:  some were dictators for no more than ten or twenty days, and no one held the consulship for more than a year; their levies were obstructed by the people’s tribunes; they were late going to war and were recalled early to hold elections; in the midst of their endeavours the year came full circle; the rashness or irregularity of their colleague was a hindrance or did positive harm;  they succeeded to a situation mishandled by their predecessors; they took over an army of raw recruits or one which was undisciplined and badly trained.  Kings, on the other hand, are not only free from all hindrances but are masters of times and circumstances;  their decisions determine and are not dependent on events.  Therefore, an undefeated Alexander would have made war on undefeated generals and hazarded the same stakes on fortune; indeed, he would have run greater risks than they would, seeing that the Macedonians had only a single Alexander, who was not only exposed to many dangers but also placed himself in their way, while there would have been many Romans would could have been his match in glory or in the magnitude of their exploits, each one of whom could have lived and died as his own destiny ruled, without endangering the State.

History of Rome IX.18.9

Livy also muses on the fact that success had not been kind to Alexander or his men as he proceeded East (i.e., the debauchery, the insanity, etc.), and arrives at the conclusion, based on these and other factors, that had he then turned his attention toward an attempted conquest of Italy, he’d have gotten his clock cleaned by the Romans, who at  this point – the mid- to late 300’s B.C., had a vibrant Republic and were busy establishing hegemony over central Italy.  (Funny, isn’t it, how one never connects Roman history with Alexandrian Macedonia – it’s as if the one followed the other chronologically, rayther than bookending it.  I suppose this is because most people only think of the Imperial phase of Rome, forgetting that this only started about 750 years or so after she was founded.)

You may ask why I’m reading Livy to begin with?  Well, part of it is a periodic urge to run through the classics again – Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Caesar, Livy, Tacitus, for example – just for the pure pleasure.  This time around, however, I was provoked by an interesting comparison of the Romans and Carthaginians in G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man.  It’s a long argument and I won’t go into it here, but GKC basically states that the Romans loathed the Cartheginians not just as a rival economic and military power in the Med, but also because the Carthaginians were worshippers of Ba’al and went in for such nasty things as massive child sacrifice, beliefs and practices abhorent to the Romans, whose primary focus of worship was the gods of their hearths and homes.  GKC brings this up in a discussion of what one might call comparitive paganism and goes on to suggest that there was something particular about the Roman religious character – as opposed to that of the Carthaginians and other more bloody-minded pagans – that made her more open and receptive to the concepts of monotheism in general and Christianity in particular later in her development.   Call it Roman blindness as opposed to Carthaginian devil-worship.

Anyhoo, I decided that I would go back through Livy’s description of the Punic Wars and see if I could find any clue of this.  But in order to be thorough, I started Ab Urbe Condita, as they say, and am now, as you can see, working my way through the Roman conquest of Italy.

Perhaps it’s because I’m still behind on my sleep from Christmas.  Yesterday afternoon while idly staring out the window of the Port-Swiller kitchen as I emptied the dishwasher, I happened to notice a fox.  He was in full sunlight on a little hump of ground, 20 or 30 feet out from the tree line of the woods behind the house, and he was absolutely out cold.  (Indeed, I thought he was dead at first.)  I have never seen an animal so completely and utterly relaxed, basking in the sun’s rays with a smile on its face and not a single thing on its mind.

And after staring at it for a little, I began to get so sleepy myself that I almost curled up into a ball then and there on the kitchen floor.

Eldest gel glancing at the book in Robbo’s hand: “The Hidden Manna? What’s that?”

Self: “It’s a book about the Eucharist.”

E.G.: “Oh.  I thought it might be a mystery.”

Self: “Well, as a matter of fact, it is.”

E.G.: “No, no.  I mean about supernatural powers and stuff.”

Self: “Well, again, it is, if you look at it that way.”

E.G.: “Daaa-ad! I’m talking about fragments of treasure maps and ancient curses and mummies in ruins!”

Self: “Well, okay, not so much about that.  But then again, it isn’t fiction.”

Note To Self:  Prior to attending Midnight Mass next Christmas…..take a nap the afternoon before!

Not that participating in the Solemn High Mass with all the fixings wasn’t perfectly wonderful, but about half way through the homily Robbo simply started losing consciousness.

Furthermore, I didn’t get home, jammied and into bed until about 2:30 ack emma, a mere 45 minutes or so before the gels started stirring in anticipation of their presents.   And while they adhered to the letter of the law that said no presents before 8 and no stockings before 7, they failed to follow the spirit of it, which was to let Mrs. R and Self get our rest.  Once up, the gels never really did go back to sleep and, almost needless to say, neither did I.

Yawn.  Despite multiple pots of coffee, I don’t believe I’ve ever attended to the Christmas morning festivities in a more zombie-like state than this year.

(Annunciation to the Herders – Govert Flink, 1639)

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.  And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,  Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

– Luke 2: 8-14

Surely one of my very favorite passages in the Gospels, the annunciation to the shepherds literally brings tears of happiness every time I read or hear it.  Even when I was a kid watching Linus recite it on the Charlie Brown Christmas Special, I remember feeling a very particular, even unique kind of joy, a sense of a special moment of unity between Heaven and Earth.  The image of the sudden appearance of the heavenly host still gives me the shivers whenever I think about it.

The merriest of Christmases to all of you, my fellow port-swillers!


Lawd, do I need the break.

Except during Lent, I leave the radio in my office on all day, tuned to the local classickal station.  (Yes, I know that using good musick as background noise is revolting to purist sensibilities, but there it is.  Rest assured that it’s not the only way I listen.)

About two weeks ago, the station started feeding holiday tunes into its playlist.  At first, they constituted a mere smattering among the regular works, but – kudzu-like – gradually came to dominate.  The past 72 hours or so, the station has played little, if anything, else.

By this afternoon, I was about ready to jam pencils into my eardrums.  As I listened to the umpteenth variant of “Silent Night,”  it suddenly occurred to me that Christmas musick suffers from what one might call the Humanities Doctorate Problem:  There are only so many reasonable ways to present the classics, only so much that can sensibly be said about them.  On the other hand, there is a constant pressure for originality and innovation.  The result?  A lot of damned tomfoolery. 

As it is with Ph. D dissertations on Shakespeare, so it is with arrangements of holiday musick .   Everything good and intelligent has been done already.  The only avenues left for “new” expressions are simply abominable:  Ersatz treatments along the lines of “If Bach Had Written ‘Jingle-Bells'”;  near-sacrilegious medleys featuring combinations of  ‘O Come, Emmanuel’ with ‘Here Comes Santa Claus’;  renderings of ‘Go Tell It On The Mountain’ and ‘I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas’ in full operatic mode (I heard a series of favorites served up by Leontyne Price today – capped off by the inevitable Schubert  ‘Ave, Maria’ that gave me what Mr. John Keats called the guts-ache).     

It seems to me that there ought to be a law.

Uncle unexpectedly gave the Dee Cee area work force the day off today because of the weather.  Couple that with the fact that Mrs. R whisked the gels off to the Great Wolf Lodge for a little vacation treat¹ and suddenly Robbo is at home by himself without the faintest idea what to do next.²   It’s something pretty close akin to leaning against a suddenly open door or thinking there’s one more step on the stairs. 

I’m strongly inclined just to go take a nap.

In the meantime, however, I couldn’t help noticing that today is the birthday (in 1682), of “Calico Jack” Rackham, an English pirate captain.  (Mr. FLG can thank me later.) Says Wikipedia of him:

John “Calico Jack” Rackham is most remembered for two things: (1) the design of his Jolly Roger flag, which contributed to the popularization of the design and its association with piracy in popular culture; and (2) employing two of the most notorious female pirates of the age as part of his crew – Mary Read and Anne Bonny (the latter of whom he had whisked away from her husband).

Rackham originally sailed as a crewman for Charles Vane, an English pirate captain. During 1718, Vane refused to attack a French man-of-war, to the dismay of his crew. The crew voted for Rackham (at the time the ship’s quartermaster) to depose Vane for cowardice. Vane was cast off in a smaller sloop with a handful of crewmen who had voted against Rackham[4].

Once gaining the captaincy, “Calico Jack” made a career of plundering small vessels close to shore. This boldness proved to be his undoing. During the autumn of 1720 he cruised near Jamaica, capturing numerous small fishing vessels, and terrorizing fishermen and women along the northern coastline. During November 1720, he came across a small vessel filled with nine English pirates. Soon after, Rackham’s ship was attacked by an armed sloop sent by Governor Nicholas Lawes, and was captured. Rackham and his crew were brought to Jamaica, where he and nearly all of his crew members were sentenced to hang.

Shiver me timbers!  Armed with the knowledge that today is the birthday of the fellah who first hoisted the Jolly Roger, perhaps I should be thinking of some more active buccaneering meself after all.³

¹In fact, Mrs. R tried to get me to go at the last minute, a suggestion I quite firmly declined.

²This morning I put together the eldest gel’s Christmas bike, spritzed the garlands festooning the house and fixed one of the potties, so it’s not like I haven’t done anything worthwhile today.

³Indeed, my semi-cousin is scheduled to drop by this evening for a glass or two of port (what, you thought this blog was completely fanciful?), so perhaps something will come up.  N’yar!


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December 2009