Recent links of note:
“‘The Self-Help Compulsion’ Review: Better Living With Beckett”
Joanne Kaufman, The Wall Street Journal
Livy once wrote that “the study of history is the best medicine for a sick mind”—or so the countless motivational posters and internet graphics that set the quote against generic black-and-white landscapes would have you believe. In reality the phrase “sick mind” is conspicuously absent from the original Latin and must be credited to some subsequent translator. But this loose rendering remains instructive. According to Joanne Kaufman of The Wall Street Journal, one of most striking conclusions of Beth Blum’s new monograph, The Self-Help Compulsion, is the facile “cross-pollination” in the history of books between two genres that appear worlds apart: high literature and self-help. Tracing her argument back through the canon, from Samuel Beckett and James Joyce to Flaubert and even further (Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, anyone?), Blum sheds light on just why we might be so eager to read a “sick mind” into Livy’s famous dictum. Whether our pretensions are high or low, sometimes we all want a little help.
Those with even a marginal interest in Shakespeare are familiar with the sonorous phrase “First Folio,” which refers to the seminal collection of the Bard’s works printed in 1623. Of the 240 extant copies, an estimated six are in private hands today; news that one will be going up for auction at Christie’s this April has resulted in no small fanfare. The book is currently on a world tour with stops in the United States, England, and China. In addition to rumination on the otherworldly price tag—the last copy to be auctioned garnered over $6 million, in 2001—the occasion presents a chance for reconsideration of what was so particular, indeed extraordinary, about this landmark edition. We often forget, for instance, that theater was hardly considered high art before Shakespeare, and so overlook the significance of the folio’s regal typeset and elaborate ornamentation, all calculated to give the impression of tremendous significance. Or we might look more closely at the now-famous engraving of Shakespeare that adorns its first pages and the prefatory poem singing his praises: did these, too, not have a hand in launching the “long history of bardolatry” that has ensued, to borrow a phrase from Tessa Peres (writing for Apollo)? And yet the more we examine the artifact, which was published only seven years after Shakespeare’s death, the more we are forced to recognize the inevitable: all the money in the world could not bring him back from the dead. Alas, poor Shakespeare—we did not, nor can we now, truly know him.
“At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’”
James Davidson, London Review of Books
Far more familiar to us today than the Troy of history is the Troy of myth. This has been the case since Homer first immortalized the city, and that myth has only been amplified through the ages. Herodotus tells of a stop there by Xerxes at the head of his million-man march into Greece, which surely added to the city’s renown; writing for the London Review of Books, James Davidson adds that “Trojan tourism got a boost from Xerxes’ ultimate successor,” Alexander the Great, when he did the same in 334 B.C. Perhaps nowhere in human history is the tension between fiction and reality better illustrated than at Troy. The “real” city was actually a series of settlements, ruled by a series of foreign powers and, barring some groundbreaking discovery, seriously undersized in comparison to Homer’s epic tale. “Troy: Myth and Reality,” on at the British Museum until March 8, ought to put one in mind, if nothing else, of the tremendous potential of what Socrates called “the noble lie.”
From the February issue:
“Roger Scruton, 1944–2020”
Roger Kimball on the life and work of the brilliant and tireless philosopher.
William Logan on The Dolphin, its source material, and recent editions thereof.
“Conservatives & conservatives”
Simon Heffer on the past and future of party membership in Britain.