Friday, May 24, 2013

2013 Summer Reading: The Platypus Reads Part CCXIV

The school year ended yesterday amid much tidying of classrooms and eating of comestibles.  Another year of teaching down and another class of seniors sent off into the world of adulthood.  What that means practically is that summer is here and with it a return to the other things in my life.  After all, teachers, contrary to popular belief, don't spend the vacation resting in coffins beneath the school yard until the bell rings and they rise again to feed on the blood of the living (At least I don't).  Summer is the privilege of our professional status combined with our relatively smaller(compared with equally educated and qualified professionals) paychecks.  It's a time to refresh, recharge, and regroup before returning to the task of tutoring the next generation into adulthood.  My grand aunt, who was single for years, spent her summers traveling the world and becoming the sort of person that anyone would be privileged to learn from.  At the university level, I have friends and relatives who hit the conference circuit sharing their ideas and consulting with others in their field.  I do my share of travel too, but for me summer is chiefly a time to reflect and expand, allowing my soul to unwind from the tight coil it assumes each school year that allows me to do what I have to do.

So where have I been roaming?  There are three places where my mind tends to wander most often: the rolling hills and quiet waters of southern Connecticut, the vast, clear leagues of Middle Earth, and the shady groves of Ancient Greece.  Don't ask me how those places connect.  Each one is an inner castle, a fortress of the spirit, a place from which energy flows to accomplish the thousand homely mundanities that compose human life.  These mundanities -and I call them "homely" for a reason- aren't bad.  If fact, they are half the comfort and the glory of life -but they are only half.  Affirmation in negation, negation in affirmation until the Fire and the Rose are one.  I digress, but the point is that summer winds blow wide the doors to these demesnes of the soul.  Those doors, for me, so often come in the form of a book.

To pass from the metaphysical to the mundane: what books have I been reading now that school's out for the summer?  First on the list is Stratford Caldecott's The Power of the Ring, a revised edition of his earlier work The Secret Fire.  I've been looking for Catholic perspectives on The Lord of the Rings to help point out things I might have missed as a non-Catholic.  The Power of the Ring promises to do that in spades, but with a sensitivity to the non-Catholic reader that is much appreciated (so far as I've gotten at least).  I particularly appreciate the way that Caldecott brings in Tolkien's statements on metaphysics in language and myth to emphasize that The Lord of the Rings was, among other things, a devotional activity to write and can be, among other things, a devotional activity to read.  The second work I jumped into was Hammond and Scull's The Art of the Hobbit.  I very much enjoyed their J.R.R. Tolkien Artist and Illustrator and I think I will enjoy this equally as well.  While no expert, Tolkien's art has a strange and mystic quality that matches perfectly with the worlds he created.  It also, incidentally, reminds me in an allusive way of the worlds of 8-bit and 16-bit video games that I enjoyed so much as a kid.  The quality of the works may be miles apart, but the fundamental stamp of fantastic sub-creation is upon them both.

So there you have it: the official kick-off for this year's summer reading.  I plan on returning to "The Summer of Shannara" as well with Terry Brooks' First King of Shannara, but that will have to wait until after next week and the wrapping up of some business first.  Until then, remember: the Platypus speaks Truth.          

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Those Wacky Spartans: The Platypus Reads Part CCXIII

While my academic interests have run (since college) towards the Ancient Greeks, I have to confess to not being terribly interested in Sparta.  I'm always a sucker for literature and the Spartans didn't really produce much (Tyrtaeus and Alkman).  However, Sparta is the second most attested Greek polis in the ancient sources.  That means that if you want to study "Ancient Greece" and have it mean anything more than just "Ancient Athens," you have to deal with Sparta.  So, helping me come to grip with those laconic Lakonians are Paul Cartledge's The Spartans and Spartan Reflections.

The Spartans is an introduction for a popular audience to the world of the ancient Spartans.  It's well laid-out, covering in an efficient and pleasant manner the relevant political history, key figures, and key questions in Spartan studies.  Spartan Reflections is a collection of Cartledge's essays on Sparta running up to the early oughts.  That makes it a little dated, but a wonderful way to go deeper and get into the scholarly controversies surrounding Greece's famed warriors.  Both books have been enjoyable reads and Cartledge's interest in his subject is infectious.

So, do I plan on sticking with Spartan studies?  No.  I think it will be back to Homer after I wrap up Spartan Reflections.  Still, the time has been well spent and I feel like I've shored up a few points that were getting dangerously shaky after all those years away from college.  So how about you?  Ready to try a little "Lakonizing"?  If so, then Paul Cartledge may have just the book you're looking for.     

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Reynolds and Schaeffer: Academic Platypus

I was talking with a friend today about possible career paths for an academically inclined 20-something.  Much of that period of life seems to be about coming to terms with the fact that you can't do most of the things you are interested in.  In fact, the thing you end up doing may not even be that which interests you the most but merely that which someone is willing to pay you to do.  For those of us with broad interests and a broad education, it can be a particularly painful season of life.

Some, however, do find a way to reject the enforced narrowness that seems to come with adulthood.  These people make a specialty out of generalizing.  I was trying to explain this and the two people that came to mind first were Francis Schaeffer (the Swiss-Chalet-dwelling guru-apologist) and John-Mark Reynolds (founder of the Torrey Honors Institute and Provost of Houston Baptist University).  Both of these men made careers out of generalizing.  Knowing a little about everything, they focused their considerable powers on drawing connections rather than specializing in a single field.

So much of the Modern Project has focused on the idea of breaking Knowledge into discrete fields and forcing individuals to pick a single field and spend a life time tunneling away at it.  As the "tunnels" have gotten deeper, it has become increasingly difficult to communicate between them.  Both Academia and Industry are beginning to realize the problems this lack of connection cause.  If knowledge is connective, making the unknown known by means of connecting it to the known, then specialization that inhibits connectivity threatens our ability to know.  The acknowledgement of this threat seems to be leading Academia and Industry to call for a revival of the "generalist," the one who coordinates between the "tunnels."

How does this apply to my friend's very practical question?  The call for generalists has gone out, but our society remains deeply structured in a way that caters to the specialist and penalizes the generalist.  Thus, for the trained generalist, the question comes up: will there be a job for me if I refuse to specialize?  Figures like Schaeffer and Reynolds were able to carve out places for themselves by dint of their extraordinary personalities.  It remains to be seen if their disciples can do the same.   

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Amusements Old and New: Platypus Nostalgia

The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name. 

-Theseus to Hippolyta, A Midsummer Night's Dream V.i

Finding myself in need of a little enforced recreation, I picked back up one of my favorite games of the past three years, Titan Quest.  This will be my third time through the game.  Aside from the carefully calibrated work-to-reward ratio, what is it about Titan Quest that has me coming back to it for a third time?  I suppose that with all the character-class combos it's highly replay-able.  It's also easier than dealing with all the patches and streaming difficulties of Starcraft II.  Still, there are other games I might be replaying.  So, why this one?

I think the answer to my question may be ambiance.  Titan Quest has the feel of wandering through the mythic Greek past.  I've been studying the Ancient Greeks for over a decade now and I love all the ins and outs of their weird and wacky world.  It's a place that's alive to me, in a way, like Middle Earth or Narnia.  I love seeing film adaptations, sketches, musical adaptations, and paintings of Lewis and Tolkien's imaginary worlds, so why not the historical world of Ancient Greece?  Are there all kinds of innacuracies?  Sure, but since Titan Quest is a mythic/fantasy game they don't bother me very much.  What I value more than anything is simply the attempt: that someone else found the Greeks intriguing enough to try to bring a part of their world to life.  After all, isn't that what historians do on a much more serious level?  We attempt to bring the lost world of the past to life. 

Saturday, May 04, 2013

We Do Antigone and the Getty Villa Does Too: Creative Platypus

A little while ago I posted about my students' successful production of Sophocles' Antigone.  It was a delight, then, to be able to catch some of them and tell them that the Getty Villa is presenting dramatic readings of several Greek tragedies this summer and has already done Antigone in a prior season.  If we all lived in SoCal, I would propose an unofficial summer field trip for anyone who was willing to go and watch the classics come to life.  Alas.  Anyhow, if you are a SoCaler, be aware that this opportunity is available.

The important point in all of this is that interest in the Greek past is alive and may become even more alive if those who know and love it are willing to step out on a limb and share that love with the public.  Shakespeare can still draw a crowd because the bard's fans are willing to dig deep and bring real ingenuity and talent to the task of bringing his works to life.  If those who love Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides are willing to do the same, there's no reason they can't earn the Greeks their own spot in the sun.