Friday, March 20, 2015

Too Good a Workman to Live

the original babe
What a pleasant feeling it is to read something other than Plato (or scholarship about Plato) without guilt. At the beginning of Spring and of Spring Break, I turn again to Thomas Hardy, who never fails to delight. For who can so thoroughly immerse his reader in the intricacies of our world as Hardy? If we except Vergil from the competition, I think no one can. Like the Georgics, Hardy's novels work because he does not sacrifice agrarian precision for aesthetic value. Rather, the detail he provides in shepherding or masonry or dairy-farming are essential to the beauty of the text. Indeed, I think I would still enjoy Hardy without his plots. When such a poet turns his pen to the seemingly ordinary practices of the field, we uninitiated city-dwellers must rejoice, for Hardy is no Levin, who delights in the agrarian world from the safe distance of the study; rather, he knows it intimately, is a son of it, and clearly loves it, as one can only love one's own. 

Not unlike his own character Gabriel Oak, we could say of Hardy that "Being a man not without a frequent consciousness that there was some charm in this life he led, he stood still looking at the sky as a useful instrument, and regarded it in an appreciative spirit, as a work of art superlatively beautiful." (Far from the Madding Crowd 15, Norton Critical Edition) Hardy's recognition of the marriage of utility and beauty breathes life into the hard fibres of earth and stone and star. For Hardy, beautiful things are not still and lifeless like the stillness of a chinese jar in Proust (or Eliot). Rather they throb with birdsong and the bleating of ewes. Part of this liveliness grows from the fact that Hardy is not bent on making distinctions and systems. The categories of "useful", "beautiful", and "good" do not necessarily denote a separation from each other, rather beauty, for Hardy, is enhanced by utility, goodness by beauty, utility by goodness and so on. 

In what is little more than an aside about an ill-fated and overzealous sheepdog, Hardy remarks:
George's son had done his work so thoroughly that he was considered too good a workman to live, and was, in fact, taken and tragically shot at twelve o'clock that same day--another instance of the untoward fate which so often attends dogs and other philosophers who follow out a train of reasoning to its logical conclusion, and attempt perfectly consistent conduct in a world made up so largely of compromise. (33-34)
What was the dog's mistake? He understood his task to be the herding of sheep and did not foresee their tragic plunge over a precipice! 

George & George's son--the evolution of the English sheepdog

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Nonsense Botany

To break up the monotony of serious writing, I thought I'd share some of the work of this blog's namesake's (well, the inventor of this blog's namesake).

I've always thought botanical names were a bit nonsensical (pseudo-Latin and all). But, here's the proof. In his book of Complete Nonsense, Edward Lear includes some rare and wondrous specimens of plants (some so bizarre and obscure botanists wonder whether they are plants at all). I am particularly fond of the Pollybirdia Singularis because of the delightful trans-linguistic pun at work. Enjoy.