I like to read historical literary texts as well as their inventive modern reinterpretations. Both sets pose questions that don’t go out of style: Who are we as a society? What do we value? What should we teach our children? How do we know what we know? My book stack offers a few examples…
With Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand, author Gioconda Belli takes a line from a William Blake poem and reimagines the conversations of Eve and Adam and the Serpent in the Garden of Eden. Eve, and Adam to a lesser degree, ask the questions that we moderns might also wish to pose.
Eve: “What is there beyond this garden; why are we here?”
Serpent: “Why do you want to know? You have everything you need.”
Eve: “Why would I not want to know? What does it matter if I know?”
Eve: “It seems that you want me to eat this fruit.”
Serpent: “No. I merely envy the fact that you have the option of choosing. If you eat the fruit, you and Adam will be free, like Elokim.”
Eve: “Which would you choose? Knowledge or eternity?”
Serpent: “I am a serpent. The Serpent. I told you that I do not have the option to choose.”
Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey are among the first origin stories of Western Civilization. In The Odyssey, Odysseus (like Eve, above) gets a shot at Eternity — but only if he marries the goddess Calypso. Instead, Odysseus chooses finite life on his own terms, reuniting with his wife Penelope. My copy of The Iliad is a signed first edition of the Robert Fitzgerald translation, a college gift that set me on a lifetime course of inquiry. Together the two books pose grand (and small) questions about how we should live. The texts’ richness in language and allegory has been the source of new literature for almost three thousand years. Each generation reinterprets the original. Four hundred years or so after Homer, Aeschylus wrote The Oresteia, performed in Athenian amphitheaters. A hundred years ago, an Egyptian-Greek poet, C.P. Cavafy, penned a short piece called Ithaca.
More recently, a classics professor at Bard College, Daniel Mendelsohn, wrote An Odyssey. His aging father audited Mendelsohn’s class on The Odyssey, and this book becomes a meditation on what these historic texts mean to college students with brief life experience, juxtaposed with the meaning for someone who has lived a very long life. The elder Mendelsohn audited the class in anticipation of joining his son on a Mediterranean cruise that would track the voyage of Odysseus. An important part of Homer’s Odyssey is a son taking a journey to search for a father he doesn’t know; in Mendelsohn’s Odyssey, it, too, is the search by a son for a father, this time a psychological and emotional expedition.
When my older daughter was a sophomore in college, she invited me to audit a class with her; the course combined architecture with gender studies. Following a conversation with the professor, and germane to the syllabus, I wound up giving a lecture on “advice texts through history”. In addition to the first four chapters of Homer’s Odyssey, other assigned reading included Discourse to Lady Lavinia His Daughter. Here, a nobleman during the Italian Renaissance, Annibal Guasco, prepared his 11-year-old daughter to be a Lady-in-Waiting in the Court of Savoy, and as a gift, wrote the Discourse for her. At such a young age, she required a crash course on decorum. These are two examples offered by Guasco to Lavinia:
- On the subject of talking badly about others behind their backs,“…Guard against this, for not only would it be unworthy of your noble rank, but the very earth would repeat it [even] if men remained silent.”
- On the general topic of being thoughtful in one’s speech,“…Learn well how to control your tongue, considering that Nature enclosed it mysteriously within the lips and the teeth, as if behind two doors, to [hold back certain thoughts] with our teeth, even if they had got as far as the tip of our tongue, and then restrain them with our lips, if they had escaped the confines of our teeth.”
Guasco gave Lavinia advice in many areas of daily life, and among them, this: “…it is very true that no greater happiness is attainable in this world than through intellectual achievement.” In the year 1585, this was quite a bright light from a father to a daughter.
The Swerve – How the World Became Modern is a story that begins in the early Italian Renaissance, in 1417, with the discovery of an ancient text written by the Roman poet Lucretius, a follower of the Greek philosopher Epicurus. (First, though, to set the record straight: to be an “Epicure” is not to be a pleasure seeker in a hedonistic way; Epicurus placed greater emphasis on the avoidance of pain rather than the pursuit of pleasure, with more focus on intellectual pleasure, as it is the longer lasting one.) In 1417, scholars knew of Lucretius, but his work had been lost to history for over 1,000 years – until an Italian manuscript hunter (yes, a real job) found a copy of “De Rerum Natura” (“On The Nature of Things”) tucked away in a German monastery. The ideas contained within “On the Nature of Things” were shocking. Though written before the birth of Christ, the text was heretical to the Catholic Church. Contained in the most beautiful Latin verse were the ideas that all physical matter is made up of an infinite number of very small particles called “atoms”; there are different types of atoms, though the types are limited in number. These atoms move in eternal motion, randomly colliding and swerving in new directions. In this world of Lucretius, there are particles and voids – and nothing else. Once brought back to Florence, the manuscript was treated as a secret document, and very few people were allowed to see it. Scholars and artists learned about the ideas within “On the Nature of Things”, but to write about it would risk a Church accusation of heresy. Painters, though, caught a break; they could paint the ideas of Lucretius onto the canvas, but they had, to use a modern term, “plausible deniability” when confronted by the Church. (“No, Monsignor, that creature is not from an early species that evolved into humans. It is a chthonic beast from Greek mythology.”)
The Order of Time by the Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli shakes up what we know about the nature of time. Rovelli is a lyrical writer, so the book is both a joy to read and a challenge, as our perceptions of time are challenged by him. He tears down our assumptions about time, revealing a universe, where at the most fundamental level, time disappears. Flipping through the pages just now, I see that I am going to have to re-read it.
Last, but not least, is the classic and definitive book on investment bubbles. Written in 1841, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds covers Tulip-mania, the South Sea Bubble, and John Law’s Mississippi Scheme. There are, unquestionably, lessons to be learned from this book about today’s financial world — particularly regarding the Fed’s current money-printing regime, as well as the understanding that people will, and do, pay crazy amounts of money for items of fleeting worth. Popular Delusions shows how the bubbles build. From a distance of two centuries and more, foolishness seems obvious. When we are living in it, though, it takes focus to keep questioning commonly-held beliefs, asking ourselves over and over, “How do we know what we know, and from there, which actions should we take?”
Next time: “What’s the deal with all those record albums in the picture?!”