Sunday, January 31, 2010

Coming Full Circle: The Platypus Reads Part LVII



This string of posts began with a brief review of my three favourite books. The first two, "The Lord of the Rings," and the "Oresteia" became the subjects of the opening reviews. The Third, Tennyson's "Idylls of the King," fell behind and it's only just now that I'm reading it again.

I read "Idylls of the King" in my tenth grade year and it changed my life. When I was asked this past summer if I would take over 10th grade Literature, I made sure to add it to the reading list. Right now, my students are beginning "Jane Eyre," but once that's done, we'll be moving on to Tennyson. I'm interested to see how it goes over.

The problem with having favourite books from when you were a kid is that somewhere, deep down, you're afraid that you'll stop liking them. There's that worry that the day will come when adulthood sinks in and the poetry ceases to enchant and the depths of meaning are plumbed. Diving in for what must be my seventh or eighth time, I can say with confidence that the poetry has only grown more powerful and the depth to be plumbed ever deeper. In a world where so much comes up dry, that's a comfort.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Platypus Penses

Someone should really turn Garth's "Tolkien and the Great War" into the basis for a screenplay. They could call it "T.C.,B.S." While I'm at it, I might also add that someone needs to turn "The Children of Hurin" into either a stage play or an opera.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

To Meson: The Platypus Reads Part LVI

I'm almost finished preping a unit on "Jane Eyre" for my 10th graders and, as with "Hamelt," new aspects of the work are impressing themselves this time through.

The first is what I call "middleness." If you wanted to sum up "Jane Eyre" in three words you could do it with "the golden mean." Like Aristotle, and the Greeks in general, Bronte is obsessed with being in the middle; specifically, that virtue is a mid-point between two opposites. In each area of her life, Jane is called to avoid extremes personified in the other characters of the work. In religion, Jane avoids Brocklehurst's Evangelicalism as well as Eliza's Anglo-Catholicism. She avoids (barely) Helen Burns' optimistic universalism, but also (barely) St. John's pessimistic evangelism. In matters of the heart, Jane learns to temper her passionate nature at Lowood and so resists being Rochester's doxy, but she keeps enough of her romanticism to reject St. John's utilitarian offer of marriage. In matters of class, Jane works hard to overcome the boundaries placed on her by her low birth, but also rejects 3/4 of the fortune left to her by her uncle. In terms of femininity, Jane rejects both Georgiana's coquetry and Eliza's prudery. Everywhere we look in the book, Jane finds a mean between mighty opposites.

The second is what I call the "quasi-allegory." Bronte was heavily influenced by Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress." This is especially apparent in the structure of "Jane Eyre." The novel represents a journey; not to a celestial city, but to finding a place in this world.

Jane begins her journey at Gateshead (a metaphor for setting out) as a friendless a status-less orphans. Here, Jane is under the strict discipline of Mrs. Reed (In an interesting play on her name. Mrs. Reed keeps a switch by her bed for discipline). Because of her ill considered revolt, Jane is sent to Lowood school. Like Dante, Jane finds this low-wood to be a place of moral confusion. Jane is rescued by Miss Temple and Helen Burns. Miss Temple, true to her name, teaches Jane to reverence her personal worth. Helen, named for the most beautiful of women, teaches Jane how important it is to have a beautiful soul. Having grown into a young woman, Jane again feels out of place and so takes on a job as a governess at Thornfield Hall. Here, Jane labors under "the curse" (indeed, Thornfield is literally under the curse of Bertha) as Adam after eden, but it is also a place where Jane must resist the temptation to let the thorny cares of this world, in the form of Mr. Rochester, choke out the seed of faith within her. In a final act of trust, Jane flees Mr. Rochester and casts herself on God's mercy. This leads her to whitcross, where she loses the parcel that contained all her worldly goods. The image of losing a parcel at a cross is deftly lifted from "Pilgrim's Progress," but the image of choice and decision is hightened by setting the scene at a literal crossroads. Jane is saved from the false paradise of being Mr. Rochester's doxy, but is left a beggar both spiritually and physically. Alone, she almost perishes from want until she is taken in by the Rivers. With a St. John Rivers and a thorough drenching from a storm, Jane's metaphorical baptism is complete and she is admitted into Christian fellowship. Moor house, a bleak but wholesome place, becomes a school of spiritual discipline for Jane. The two Rivers sisters, Mary and Diana, both impress Jane with their cultivation and she learns from them. The words "pagan" and "christian" are used throughout the chapters detailing Jane's stay at Moor house and it is interesting that "Diana" is the Greek goddess of ideal virgin womanhood and Mary the Christian ideal of the same. St. John, spiritual and aloof, with his eagle eyes (think "tetramorph"), presides over the whole. Her time of spiritual growth at an end, Jane is faced with a choice that tests her willingness to follow God and her ability to hear Him. Jane almost acquiesces to St. John's seemingly godly call for Jane to become a missionary, but at the moment of crisis, Jane calls out on God to make His will known and hears the voice of Rochester calling to her. Jane takes it as a sign and refuses St. John's offer in spite of the estrangement that it brings. After a search, Jane is untied with Rochester who has lost his wife, his house, one hand, and one eye. Symbolically, he has been purged of the sins of the eye, the sins of the flesh, and the boastful pride of life. Thus reformed, Jane can now marry him and live in the more modest estate of Ferndean where she finally finds her home in an edanic-like place. Lest we be lulled into thinking that a lasting paradise can be made on earth, however, the novel gives the last word to St. John Rivers as he lays down his life for the gospel in India.

There you have it: "middleness" and "quasi-allegory." That's what's struck me this time through. One way or another, "Jane Eyre" is definitely worth a re-read. Why not pick it up again and see what you find?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Platypus Weather

A friend who hails from Georgia and I were complaining yesterday about the lack of weather in Southern California. We were hoping that this week would bring some much needed relief. So far, it has. Currently, I'm enjoying the view of the storm from the comfort of my office. With the rain coming down in sheets, all I could think of was "tell me about the water of your homeworld Mau'dib." Sad... Really, really, sad...

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Starlight and Trenches: The Platypus Reads Part LV

I've just finished reading John Garth's "Tolkien and the Great War," and the experience has been well worth it. Garth focuses on Tolkien's early life to a much greater degree than either Carpenter or Shippey and in so doing serves as a necessary corrective to both. In fact, Garth takes a few polite shots at Carpenter, and so presents us with a better picture of Tolkien's generosity and gregariousness. He also devotes a greater amount of time to analyzing the "Book of Lost Tales" and the origins of Tolkein's legendarium. Another bonus is the greater emphasis placed on Tolkien's pre-Inklings friendships and his relationship with Edith as formative influences on his work. All in all, I felt that "Tolkien and the Great War" actually advanced my understanding of Tolkien's writings and Tolkien the man. If you're a fan of Middle Earth, this one's well worth the read.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Platypus Past: Bachelor Cooking

Having been married for several years now, I can begin looking on my bachelor past with an "outsiders" perspective. One of the interesting things I've noticed while being married is the different approach my wife and I have to cooking. My wife actually learned How To Cook is quite good at it. Give her a recipe and she can make just about anything. I had to pick up bits and pieces as I went along. I call my style of cooking "bachelor cooking," and the first rule is that there are no recipes.

The main goal of the bachelor cook is to get filling food on the table quickly and in a way that elevates him above the mere ramen-and-t-bell-forever caveman. This goal often has to be achieved in the context of a communal environment with other bachelors where what food is available at any given time may vary widely. This means that formal recipes are out. Instead, the bachelor cook needs to adopt a more open and creative approach to food.

A bachelor cook sees a meal as consisting of three main components: starch, meat, and veggies. When first examining the kitchen cupboards, a bachelor's job is to identify various foods that can fit in the three categories. It may look something like this:

1. Starch: tortillas, white bread, potatoes
2. Meat: ground beef, a chicken breast, a sausage
3. Veggies: peas, tomato soup, onions

There's a lot we can do here, especially if we add a bachelor's second best friend: cheese. If you have cheese and tortillas, or cheese and bread, you've got the base for any fill-in-the-blank quesadilla or grilled-cheese/pattie-melt. Add canned tomato soup and you're good to go. Make sure to pep up that canned soup with oregano from the cupboard. That may seem to easy, however. Crossing off the two obvious starches and the ever-helpful cheese, let's see what we can do.

Potatoes are wonderful things. Sure they're more work to render into food than bread, but not by much; just a little slicing and boiling. Let's try mashing our potatoes and boiling up some of that sausage and using the peas for our side dish. If you've got mustard, all the better. Substitute the sausage for a chicken breast for a more traditional meal. We can also take our ground beef and combine it with our peas, onions, and mashed potatoes in the oven to make a shepherds pie. For sauce, simply combine whatever condiments you have in the fridge (ketchup+mustard+relish or ketchup+salsa).

This, of course, is just one example. In bachelor living, the straits can be far more dire; especially if roommates are involved. To be prepared, a bachelor should always keep a stash of "emergency food." This is food that is cheep (and thus can be bought in bulk) and with a long shelf life (so it can be stockpiled). Essentials include: canned tomato soup, canned chili, canned or frozen peas, mac and cheese, ramen, canned beans, rice. With these items in the hold, you can be sure of a tasty meal no matter what's left in the house. For instance:

1. Ramen+eggs+frozen vegetables= soup
2. chili+mac and cheese= cheesy chili mac
3. canned beans+ham/bacon+sandwich bread= tasty ham sandwiches
4. canned soup+grilled cheeses/quesidillas= self-explanatory
5. beans+rice+sausage+onions+salsa= red beans and rice
6. chicken+oil+mac and cheese+peas= fried chicken with sides

All this, of course, is born out of desperation and failure to coordinate communal meals based on vastly differing work schedules. It's a survivors skill -but it can become an art. The married man relies on meal plans and shopping lists, but there is always the unexpected. When the wife gets sick or is away, or a shopping trip gets missed, or both spouses have a spike in their work hours, the old ways come back. Even as a married man, bachelor cooking can save the day. Just remember, when it comes to food, "there is in fact always something in the house."

Saturday, January 09, 2010

The Neverending Platypus

I was walking through the grocery store today when faintly from the speakers over head I heard: "A Neverending Stooooory, Ah ah ah...." Long live the eighties.

Friday, January 08, 2010

In Memoriam: Charles Smith

The man who gave me a job when I was fresh out of grad school and no one else would hire me died this morning. Mr. Smith was a great Christian, a great mentor, and a great friend. He was always cheerful, positive, patient, and humble. The Church Militant is poorer for his passing. God be with his family and friends in this hour. Amen.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Christmas Haul: The Platypus Reads Part LIV

Christmas, in our house, is a time for amassing books. They're our primary work tool and our primary means of entertainment. This year's haul includes:

"Who Killed Homer" by Victor Davis Hanson
"The Western Way of War" by Victor Davis Hanson
"The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian" by Robert E. Howard
"Tolkien and the Great War" by John Garth
"Writing the Breakout Novel" by Donald Maass
"A History of France" by Guizot

The Hanson books have been fun, but I don't understand two things:

1.) Why he systematically ignores the Middle Ages
2.) How he gets around the charge that the Homeric worldview leads not to change and dynamism, but stagnation, oppression, and ultimately societal collapse.