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Talking about talking about Paradise

April 14, 2014

[For context, read this post.]

Portrait of Dante by Sandro Botticelli

Portrait of Dante by Sandro Botticelli

My readers are probably, for the most part, familiar with Dante Alighieri’s Commedia; some may even have read it. It’s about heaven and hell, right?

Well, yes. The Commedia [Comedy; often called Divina Commedia, Divine Comedy] is an Italian poem some 14233 lines long begun around 1308 and left complete but unfinished at Dante’s death in 1321. Perhaps it helps to say that it tells the story of Dante’s journey through the after-life: he visits the Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise, spending 33 cantos in each (cantos, akin to chapters, are on average 142 lines long; 33 cantos x 3 cantica + 1 prologue equals 100 cantos in all). But to say this is also quite deceptive. The Commedia is about personality, politics, poetry, and philosophy and much as it’s about the Catholic faith. Dante himself wrote (in his letter to his patron Cangrande della Scala):

For me be able to present what I am going to say, you must know that the sense of this work is not simple, rather it may be called polysemantic, that is, of many senses; the first sense is that which comes from the letter, the second is that of that which is signified by the letter. And the first is called the literal, the second allegorical or moral or anagogical. Which method of treatment, that it may be clearer, can be considered through these words: ‘When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a barbarous people, Judea was made his sanctuary, Israel his dominion’. If we look at it from the letter alone it means to us the exit of the Children of Israel from Egypt at the time of Moses; if from allegory, it means for us our redemption done by Christ; if from the moral sense, it means to us the conversion of the soul from the struggle and misery of sin to the status of grace; if from the anagogical, it means the leave taking of the blessed soul from the slavery of this corruption to the freedom of eternal glory. And though these mystical senses are called by various names, in general all can be called allegorical, because they are different from the literal or the historical. Now, allegory comes from Greek alleon, which is Latin means ‘other’ or ‘different’.

Every poetic work, of course, can be read on multiple levels. But Dante claims to have purposefully put them there. You might think this would make it easier to talk about the multiple levels, but it actually makes it more difficult. In many works it’s quite easy to describe the connections between one level and another; not so for Dante.

To describe the Commedia is to indulge in paradox. It’s both an allegory of the soul journeying toward God, and the autobiography of a poet becoming more than an ordinary man. It’s both an epic alluding to pagan mythology drawn from the Latin classics, and a comedy about Christian theology written in a low style of vernacular. It’s both a visionary portrayal of the after-life, and a prophetic polemic against the politics of this world. It’s both a meticulously arranged poetic structure evoking the harmony of God’s creation, and an eclectic collection of interviews with dead people revealing the full reality of the human person. It’s both the culmination of the theological medieval world-view, and the beginning of the humanist Renaissance. Its author was both a devout Catholic who hated the pope, and an exiled Florentine who put all his political hopes in a dead German emperor.

How can we keep all these together in our thoughts? How can we examine the psychological nuances of, say, Dante’s portrayal of his encounter with Brunetto Latini in Inferno XV, while at the same time remembering the intricacies of the role Dante gives the subcircle of the “violent against Nature” in the moral logic of the afterlife?

This is a problem for all three cantica of the Commedia, but perhaps especially so for the Paradiso, the portion of the poem I’ve put on my exam list. Dante’s claim in the first two cantica, though astonishing, is quite definite: the journey he describes actually happened to him. But at the beginning of the Paradiso Dante warns us that what he experienced he cannot, strictly speaking, describe at all (I.67-72):

As I gazed on her, I was changed within,
as Glaucus was on tasting of the grass
that made him consort of the gods in the sea.

To soar beyond the human cannot be described
in words. Let the example be enough to one
for whom grace holds this experience in store.

So in addition to all the tensions I mentioned earlier, the Paradiso suffers from an additional strain: its subject matter supposedly cannot be communicated, and yet the poem does bring us to an experience of extraordinary power. What do our experience of the poem and the experience of heaven Dante claims for himself have to do with one another? What does the stately progression of the Ptolemaic (geocentric) heavenly spheres, on which Dante models the structure of his metaphorical heaven, have to do with the eternal rose of the timeless Empyrean? If the Commedia can be described as “the Summa [theologica] in verse”–an exaggeration, but there’s some truth to it–the Paradiso presses pretty hard on the Summa‘s first few questions, the ones about what knowledge of God is possible and what language we can use to describe him. Given what I said about my interest in Thomas’ Questions on God, you can perhaps imagine why I chose the Paradiso in particular.

There’s another reason I should mention. For the first two cantica Dante is guided through hell and purgatory by the shade of the poet Virgil, an allegory (in Dante’s polysemantic sense) for human reason unaided by divine revelation. But at the end of the Purgatorio Virgil is replaced by Beatrice, a Florentine woman who died an early death, and whom Dante had never met, but whom he had claimed to love from afar in his earlier autobiography-cum-poetry-collection La Vita Nuova [The New Life]. Before I settling on the Paradiso I considered putting La Vita Nuova on my list instead; it’s a fascinating work in its own right, engaging with the courtly love tradition, with its strange mixture of idealization and objectification, without fully subscribing to it. The Paradiso, too, always has courtly love in the background–with Beatrice as Dante’s guide, it can’t not–yet it’s also about the need to love God above all else. How can these two go together?

Perhaps what most sets Dante apart from other medieval poets is his confidence that they can: any contradiction can be resolved by an authority of sufficient poetic genius. When it comes to the compatibility of courtly eros and divine caritas I find the pessimism of the Middle English poem Pearl far more convincing, but Dante’s hubris is part of the thrill of the Commedia. By the end of the Paradiso Dante claims to have seen more of Heaven than any other living person ever has, with the possible exception of St. Paul. What could possess him to say such a thing? How seriously can we take it? If we don’t take it seriously, how can we allow the poem to matter to us? How can we not allow it to matter?

The cult of Bayes

April 7, 2014

Every so often I wander into a dark corner of the internet and find myself surrounded by creatures who speak to one another at length in a language I can hardly recognize. Except that’s not right–libertarians, skeptics, and transhumanists all speak perfectly fine English; I just can’t quite understand what would lead them to say the things they say, or to care about the things they care about. At least not with some effort. Though there was a time when I, too, spoke a dialect of nerd, and I can still sympathize with those who speak the lingo of open source, speculative fiction, and mathematics.

I found myself in such a dark wood this weekend; specifically, it was the dark wood of LessWrong, “a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality.” It’s essentially a bunch of traditional rationalists who have come to the realization that human minds are really terrible at being rational, and who are trying to develop strategies 1) to cope with that fact and 2) to bring on the Singularity in the form of Friendly AI. Their cult leader is a fellow named Eliezer Yudkowsky, who has a number of interestingly, ultimately wrong thoughts about how to define intelligence. Strangely, he also writes a Harry Potter fanfiction in which Harry was raised to worship the scientific method. Surprisingly, it’s worth reading–in fact, the world-building is better than in J.K. Rowling’s version. I suspect Eliezer intended to write Harry as a Mary Sue, but somewhat missed his target due to his philosophy being in fact rather tragically pathetic to anyone with a decent sense of the postlapsarian condition.

G.K. Chesterton wrote that “Every heresy is a truth taught out of proportion.” Eliezer Yudkowsky overstates the importance of Bayes’ Theorem, but he’s right that it’s quite important, and he’s right that it’s difficult to make intuitive. I encourage everyone, even (especially?) those not mathematically inclined, to read his introduction to Bayesian probability theory. Otherwise, you will answer the following question wrongly. You won’t be alone–”studies show” 85% of people answer wrongly–but you’ll still be wrong.

Here’s a story problem about a situation that doctors often encounter:

1% of women at age forty who participate in routine screening have breast cancer.  80% of women with breast cancer will get positive mammographies.  9.6% of women without breast cancer will also get positive mammographies.  A woman in this age group had a positive mammography in a routine screening.  What is the probability that she actually has breast cancer?

Most people say a number between seventy and eighty percent, that is, three out of every four, but the correct answer is more like one out of every thirteen. If this surprises you, you will misinterpret the results of almost every scientific study you hear about.

“Questions on God”: Why?

March 31, 2014

[For context, read this post.]

I turn now to consider the inclusion of “Questions on God” on my Fundamentals list, about which I have two questions to raise:

  1. Should one read the Summa theologica of Thomas Aquinas?
  2. Should one read, in particular, Thomas’ “Questions on God”?
Thomas Aquinas with Summa theologica, model church, and sun on chest

Thomas Aquinas with Summa theologica, model church, and sun on chest

Article 1. Should one read the Summa theologica of Thomas Aquinas?

  1. It might seem that one should not put a work by Thomas Aquinas on one’s Fundamentals list. For many philosophers might be considered more fundamental than Thomas, for example, Descartes, Kant, or Hegel. For Bertrand Russell writes, “I cannot, therefore, feel that he deserves to be put on a level with the best philosophers either of Greece or of modern times.”
  2. Moreover, the Summa theologica, as its name demonstrates, is not a work of philosophy, but rather of theology, and so does not belong on the Fundamentals list. So Bertrand Russell writes, “Before he begins to philosophize, he already knows the truth; it is declared in the Catholic faith. If he can find apparently rational arguments for some parts of the faith, so much the better; if he cannot, he need only fall back on revelation. The finding of arguments for a conclusion given in advance is not philosophy, but special pleading.”
  3. Moreover, it might seem that some other work of Thomas’ might be more suitable, for example, De ente et essentia, or the Summa contra gentiles.

To the contrary,  the examinee’s Fundamentals list says: “Thomas Aquinas – Summa Theologiae, Questions on God“.

Thomas has long been considered one of the greatest philosopher-theologians ever to live. His work sought to incorporate into medieval Christian theology the newly rediscovered philosophy of Aristotle. The naturalistic thrust of that philosophy, which argued, for example, that forms did not exist outside of the matter they informed, and that the aim of virtue was happiness in this life, posed a radical challenge to Christianity’s reliance on a more naive metaphysics for expressing its theological (stricto sensu), eschatological, and ethical doctrines. Thomas’ work navigated these difficulties and set a high water mark for the comprehensiveness of Christian philosophy. Soon after his death, nominalist worries began to chip away at his achievement. The “humanist” neo-Platonist “Renaissance” and the populist Protestant Reformation, and later the skeptical turn in Baroque philosophy, led to the transformation of Thomism into a byword for “doctrinaire” and “dogmatic”–a transformation aided by the Catholic elevation of Thomas into official Church philosopher.

Nor are these terms entirely inappropriate. The Summa theologica, Thomas’ magnum opus, was intended as an introduction to theology for students who had already mastered the study of philosophy. Its three divisions (the second divided into two sub-sections) deal with theology, ethics (principles and applications), and Christology, respectively. They add up to a summary and exposition of all of the most important Christian doctrines. Still, Thomas is not afraid to make controversial theological arguments. In fact, both before and after his death the bishop of Paris issues multiple condemnations of positions defended in his philosophy. Moreover, the Summa theologica in particular is not a work of apologetics. Arguments are given, but primarily so they can be understood, not so they can be wielded in defense of the faith. The Summa theologica is hence of particular interest for its distinctive dialectical attitude: it combines explicit argumentation–it consists of a series of questions, arguments, and counter-arguments–not with a defense of those positions from the reader, but rather with an invitation to the reader to inhabit those positions alongside the author. It seems to be among the last major philosophical works not to fear skepticism.

The biography of Thomas is not necessary for an understanding of his work, but the Catholic Encyclopedia article offers a good overview. Notably, Thomas is also the examinee’s Confirmation saint. A maxim of Thomas’ might be taken as the motto of the Fundamentals exam: “hominem unius libri timeo”: “I fear the man of a single book.” This does not mean, as is commonly thought, that it is dangerous to study only a single book; rather, it means that the man who studies only a single book, but studies it thoroughly, will know more, and be a more dangerous opponent in dialectic, than the man who studies many books superficially.


  1. Even if other philosophers might be considered more influential historically, historical influence has no direct implication for placement on the Fundamentals list. Personal influence bears somewhat more relevance, for an ideal list does not exist, and each list must be tailored to the circumstances of the examinee. The present examinee has read little in Kant and Hegel. Descartes was considered, but the possibilities of skepticism were considered to be adequately represented by their rejection in Pascal and Wittgenstein.
  2. The Fundamentals category under which the Summa theologica falls is termed, not “philosophy” alone, but “philosophy, religion, and theology.” The Summa theologica clearly falls into this category. Also, while it deals with theology properly speaking, people do not always speak properly, and in certain contexts it might be more accurate to refer to the work as philosophy rather than theology. Russell, for example, seems to think that “theology” stands in opposition to “philosophy,” and means “doctrinal or dogmatic statement without rational argument.” So even if the category had been “philosophy” alone, an argument could have been made for the Summa theologica falling under it.
  3. The present examinee has read a limited amount of Thomas, and perhaps a superior fundamental work could have been found. Still, reasons can be given, to a certain extent, for the specific choice made. De ente et essentia was considered, but found to be too narrow in scope. The Summa theologica contains many of the same arguments in condensed form, alongside much else. The examinee has not read the Summa contra gentiles, but rumor has it that it is less doctrinal and more apologetic.


Article 2. Should one read, in particular, Thomas’ “Questions on God”?

  1. It might seem that one should not include on one’s Fundamentals list the 26 quaestiones of the first part of the Summa theologica, excluding 16, 17, 23, & 24. For, as this description of the contents of the so-called “Questions on God” indicates, the selection is arbitrary. But works on Fundamentals lists must be works, and so must have an intrinsic unity. So the so-called “Questions on God” cannot be Fundamental works.
  2. Moreover, while Thomas’ Treatise on Law (Ia IIae Q 90-108) has occasionally been put on a student’s Fundamentals list, the Questions on God appear never to have been. But if a work were fundamental, then it would have been put on at least some student’s list. So the “Questions on God” cannot be fundamental.

To the contrary, the examinee’s Fundamentals list says: “Thomas Aquinas – Summa Theologiae, Questions on God“.

The examinee’s list takes a particular interest in the relation between metaphysical speculation and lived human experience, in particular as that abstract speculation has concrete ethical consequences, and as it finds concrete expression in language philosophical and poetic. The “Questions on God” thus interest him for three reasons.

First, they deal with an extremely abstract, indeed nearly incomprehensible, doctrine, namely that of divine “simplicity,” yet they are placed at the beginning of an introduction to a Christian theology which at times will lead to extremely specific practical prescriptions. Moreover, even within these apparently theocentric questions, topics of obvious relevance to humanity immediately surface, such as the possibility of free will and the problem of evil. So these questions offer an excellent opportunity for considering the relationship between metaphysics and ethics. Compare the presence on the list of Augustine and Pascal.

Second, the “Questions on God,” though they set out to explain a doctrine of divine simplicity, must also set out a theory of language so that they can talk about God at all. That theory of analogical application of words drawn from human experience to the ineffable divinity is both immensely sophisticated, and immensely problematic, assuming, as it does, both that language can for the most part adequately describe “reality” and that there is a “reality” beyond language. So these questions offer a challenge both to most modern conceptions of language, and to most modern conceptions of divinity. Compare the presence on the list of Plato and Wittgenstein.

Finally, the doctrine of divine simplicity elaborated in “Questions on God” possesses an incredible elegance, and will drastically re-orient the perspective of any mind that accepts it. So it has an aesthetic and psychological importance even if the arguments for it are found inadequate. Compare the presence on the list of Dante and Melville.


  1. It is true that the selection of questions is not original to Thomas. However, grouping these questions together has been endorsed by Thomistic scholars Brian Davies and Brian Leftow, who have published an edition of them under the title “Questions on God.”  So this selection has at least an accidental unity, if not a substantial one. Fundamentals lists are allowed to include only portions of large works, given that the selection can be justified.
  2. The composition of previous Fundamentals exam lists ought to inform, but need not strictly determine the composition of any new Fundamentals exam list. If no work on a list had ever been included before, that would be cause for concern, but the inclusion of one or two new works need not, given that an argument can be made for the fundamental nature of the works included.

On virgins and elves

March 25, 2014
Fra Angelico's Annunciation

Fra Angelico’s Annunciation

I’ve always been particularly fascinated by the feast of the Annunciation, which we celebrate today. It’s calendrical importance cannot be overstated. You might think that it’s on March 25th because that’s nine months before Christmas, but it’s actually the other way around. The Nativity is on December 25th because that’s nine months after the Annunciation, which was thought to have taken place on March 25th because, according to widespread tradition, so did all the other major events in salvation history: the creation of Adam, the binding of Isaac, the Passover, the Crucifixion…. March 25th was even used sometimes to mark the change from one year to the next–in England, it served this purpose from 1155 to 1751 (though January 1st was still called New Years’ Day (it sounds confusing, but then, so is our having to negotiate the legal, academic, financial, and liturgical calendars, none of which begin at the same time)).

Oh, and–not coincidentally–March 25th marks the fall of Sauron due to the casting of the one ring into the fires of Mount Doom. Accordingly, here are a few scattered thoughts on Tolkien, elves, and, in a way, the Virgin Mary.


After writing recently about Tolkien’s “Ainulindalë” (here), I actually went back and re-read the Silmarillion (for the first time in too many years) and was surprised not to be disappointed. It’s no Commedia, to be sure, but it still has a certain excellence, and even a certain moral seriousness. I suggested previously that it’s too nostalgic, and I stand by that, but it’s a self-conscious and self-troubling nostalgia–a poetics of nostalgia, if you will.

The category of “elf” does a lot of the poetic work here. For the first half of the Silmarillion the elves stand in for humanity, which hasn’t yet appeared on the scene. They travel to Valinor, the land of the Valar (i.e. archangels); they create beautiful jewels, chief among them the silmarils; they accidentally assist the theft of the silmarils by Morgoth (the devil); they pursue him to Middle-Earth to retrieve them; they establish kingdoms, war against evil, and wait. And one of them weds a Maia (angel) and has a daughter. Then humans arrive and take center stage. Elves become kind foster-fathers or hostile fathers-in-law, loyal or treacherous companions, attained or unattained objects of romantic desire. That these are elves, not men, is incidental to the literal story.

In a way, that adds to its poetic significance. The point is that men own nothing, love no one, and live nowhere, until they receive them from the elves. Love, especially, comes from the elves. The human is always the man, the elf, always the woman. Elves become for men what the angels were for elves: a feminine beauty almost but not quite forbidden. Whereas the beauty of the angelic realm really is forbidden to men, as the human kingdom of Numenor (Atlantis) demonstrates when it tries to invade the Valinor and so sinks into the ocean. Soon after the fall of Numenor, the elves begin vanishing into the West; now the Numenoreans play the role of the elves to the rest of humanity.

So angels, elves, Atlanteans, each in turn fade away. As they fade they become the object of their successors’ desire, while their predecessors move from desirable liminality to prohibited sublimity.


The work the Silmarillion most closely resembles may be Ovid’s Metamorphoses. One might think that one shouldn’t force too much unity on what’s ultimately an anthology of vaguely related stories, but in a way, the literal connections between the stories are secondary. Both offer abbreviated accounts of a myriad of mythological stories from the beginning of the world up to the end of legendary history (and a bit beyond), but the account is always at the service of the artistry.

And it’s always about the artistry, even when it doesn’t seem to be; about the power of art and its danger. The Silmarillion has little practical to say about politics, romance, or economics, despite centering on the loss and recapture of three invaluable jewels, the love affairs of ten or twelve elves and men, and the rise and fall of many kingdoms. The jewels are art as it can be seen and held, the cities art as it can be lived within, the elf-maidens–perhaps the most important of all–art as it can be loved. These are the Silmarillion‘s key categories: not flux and stability, as in the Metamorphoses, but light and dark, possession and loss, entrance and exclusion, fecundity and envy.

There’s dangers here, of course. Aestheticized politics can turn into place- or race-worship, aestheticized economics into thing- or mammon-worship, aestheticized romance into sex- or passion-worship. How can beauty not lead to idolatry?


Perhaps it is idolatry, but Tolkien’s fascinations look less like Israel prostituting itself to lustful baalim than, well, like a Catholic praying to the Virgin Mary. Tolkien certainly thought so. He even borrows traditionally Marian emblems to characterize the beloved elf-maidens. One suspects he’s not thinking of the girl whom an angel unexpectedly visits, but rather of the girl whom Joseph sees and desires, the girl he can’t relate to the way he expected because that angel visited her. Under the former aspect, the Annunciation announces the entrance of God into the world; under the latter, it announces the transformation of part of the world’s beauty into something immaculate.

It’s surely difficult to see the Silmarillion as a Christian work without seeing it as specifically Catholic. Just as many Protestants think Catholics worship the Virgin Mary, they would, if they worked out his poetic logic, conclude that Tolkien idolized beauty, or, at least, held it in uncomfortably high esteem. Few Protestants believe in the immaculateness or the perpetual virginity of Mary; one doubts whether those who don’t could make complete sense of the importance Tolkien ascribes to March 25th.

It’s well known that Tolkien disliked C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. Most people (e.g. this article) suggest that he thought Narnia both too much of a mythological pastiche and too abstractly allegorical. Both sound accurate, but I suspect there a third reason: Narnia excludes the dialectic of desire and prohibition. Its beauty is never morally dangerous save when actively evil. Narnia has cute talking animals, sure, but nothing like Tolkien’s innocently fey elf-maidens; instead, it has the White Witch. Aslan takes the place of Christ, but there’s no Virgin Mary in sight, and certainly no St. Joseph. Neither does Narnia have any silmarils, or any Gondolin; possession of magical artifacts is never a point of contention, and cities may be in ruins, but they’re never destroyed from within. Even if Aslan is “not a tame lion,” Narnia’s enchantment has nevertheless been tamed. And so, Tolkien may have believed, it fails to enchant.

Thinking alongside

March 16, 2014

Postings centered on my list of Fundamental books will begin soon, but not quite yet; insert excuse here. For now, I’ll refer the faithful reader to two academic articles I’ve recently come across (though they’re from a few months back). They’re on the longer side and demand a bit of concentration, but they do reward the effort, if you care about the topics. Neither deals directly with books on my fundamentals list, but both tangentially approach my core interests; perhaps a way of putting it is that I would encourage thinking about both of them alongside Moby-Dick. (A good way to define “fundamental,” in the sense of “fundamentals list,” might be “worth not just thinking about, but also thinking alongside.”)

1) “The Iconographic Fiction and Christian Humanism of Flannery O’Connor,” an article in Anamnesis, a traditionalist interdisciplinary academic journal. Offers, among other things, a good close reading of her short story “Parker’s Back.” Compare Parker’s tattoo-lust with Queequeg and Ishmael’s tattoos; both embody, literally, the modern desire for the lost coherence of ancient religion.

2) “The Hollowness of Radical Bioethics,” an article in The New Atlantis (“a journal of science and technology”) by my classmate John Sexton. Offers, in the form of a book review, a charitable critique of inadequate criticisms of radical bioethics, including what I’ve often discussed here, the “transhumanism” movement. I’m reminded again of how whenever one hears “transhumanism,” one should immediately think “Ahab’s peg leg.” Also makes intriguing mention of a so-called “Darwinian conservatism”; what might that turn out to be? Calling Darwin a conservative is almost as strange as calling Melville one–but perhaps neither is entirely wrong.

Two Goethean ballads

March 9, 2014

Some say that the best way to study a poem written in a foreign language is to translate it. I spent a few hours this weekend testing out that theory on two of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s ballads, “Der Fischer” und “Der Erlkönig,” that is, “The Fisher” and “The Alder-king”; I submit the fruits of those labors here.

Both of these poems were written early in Goethe’s career, when he was around thirty years old (though he had already written the best-selling The Sorrows of Young Werther and numerous other works). They pretend to be anonymous folk ballads, but are actually extremely artful. I find it helpful to think of both as in some sense about art, about contemplating it, making it, its power to ensnare us. But the traps the two poems set are quite different from each other. One is about desire, the other about language; art as marriage, art as fatherhood.

“The Fisher” enacts an erotic seduction: the fisher sets out to lure a fish, but instead gazes Narcissus-like at the water, a lovely faerie-wife who lures him to drown in it. “The Erlkönig” enacts a hidden abduction: the father sets out to carry his son home, but for the trees fails to see the forest, a rival faerie-father who carries his child away. In the first, the poet wants to bring a poem out of powerful emotions recollected in tranquility (to anachronistically quote Wordsworth), but his desire seizes control of him. In the second, the poet wants to write a poem that will remain his own, but the spirit of poetry takes its meaning away from him just as he finishes it.

Notes on the translations. They’re quite precise, hence a few lines sounding somewhat awkward grammatically; I make no claim to their poetic excellence. It’s difficult to retain the original rhymes in translation (though easier for the German-English transition than for most language pairs). Still, I do think pleasing patterns of assonance and consonance still emerge. Choice of vocabulary for translation is always a difficult task. I’ve made three in particular that may need defending. 1) In “The Fisher,” I translate “feucht” as “foamy,” when most often it would be translated “moist”; I do this because the English word “moist” sounds disgusting and the line should instead be vaguely erotic. I would have used “dewy” and the word “Tau”=”dew” shows up later. 2) I’ve translated the title “Der Erlkönig” as “The Alder-king,” when most have “The Elf-king.” Of course the poem is about Faerie, and we associate Faerie with elfs; and perhaps Goethe came up with “Erlkönig” as a mistranslation of a Danish word “Elverkonge” when he should have put “Elfenkönig”; but that doesn’t justify ignoring what Goethe actually wrote. “Erlkönig” means “Alder-king”; the tree motif runs throughout the poem; and the specificity of “alder” lends the poem an eerie beauty that a generic “elf” would miss out on. 3) When the father in “Der Erlkönig” asks “what do you hide your face from?” I’ve completely ignored the word “bang,” which means “fearfully,” because the line is quite long enough even without three extra syllables. This is the only instance of such an excision.

The Fisher

The water rushed, the water swelled,
A fisher sat there,
Looked calmly at the line and rod,
Cold rising in his heart.
And as he sat, and as he harked,
The flood parted aloft;
From the passionate water rushed
Forth a foamy wife.

She sang to him, she spoke to him:
“What, do you lure my brood
With men’s wit and men’s wiles
Up into death’s heat?
Ah, if you knew how the little fish is
So toasty on the ground,
You’d climb under here, as you are,
And at last be sound.

“Don’t they feast themselves, the kind sun,
The moon, on the mere?
Don’t their wave-breathing faces turn
Doubly better here?
Doesn’t the deep heaven lure you,
The foam-transfigured blue?
Doesn’t your own visage lure you
Here in eternal dew?”

The water rushed, the water swelled,
It wet his naked feet,
His heart waxed full of longing
As when lovers meet.
She spoke to him, she sang to him;
So to him it happened;
Half she drew him, half he sank down,
And never more was seen.


The Alder-king

Who rides so swift through night and wind?
It is the father with his child.
He has the lad well in his arm,
He holds him safe, he keeps him warm.–

My son, what do you hide your face from?–
Don’t you see, father, the alder-king?
The alder-king with crown and train?–
My son, it is a wisp of fog.–

“You dear child, come, go with me!
Quite pretty spells I’ll spell with you;
Many gaudy flowers are on the strand;
My mother has many golden threads.”

My father, my father, and do you not hear
What the alder-king quietly promises me?–
Be still, stay still, my child!
In dry leaves murmurs the wind.–

“Will you, fine lad, go with me?
My daughters shall wait on you prettily;
My daughters will lead the nightly row,
And sway and dance and sing for you.”

My father, my father, and do you not see
The alder-king’s daughters in the gloomy space?–
My son, my son, I see it true;
There shines there the old willows so grey.–

“I love you, it moves me, your fine form,
And if you’re not willing, I’ll bring you by force.”–
My father, my father, it holds me on,
The alder-king has done me harm!–

The father’s in terror, he rides full-speed,
He holds in his arms the groaning child,
He reaches the farm with toil and dread;
In his arms the child was dead.


Translating Goethe is in a way pointless, so many other and better translations have already been made. But the popularity of Goethe’s ballads has benefits too. For example, the fact that Franz Schubert wrote lieder to go along with many of them, including these two. Enjoy.

Franz Schubert – “Der Fischer”

Franz Schubert – “Der Erlkönig”

Fundamentals: the list

March 3, 2014

My graduate program’s qualifying exams have a rather eccentric format. The reading list, rather than consisting of several dozen or hundred books, has only twelve to fifteen works–but they must be “fundamental.” I’m not sure I could precisely define what “fundamental” is supposed to mean. It has something to do with identifying the authorities that represent the intellectual tradition into which you’ve chosen to enter; or, perhaps, with identifying the books that you most want to be friends with. In any case, the books on my tentative list (which, based on the feedback I’ve gotten, is fairly typical, save for the slight imbalance in favor of imaginative literature), will give you some idea. It’s possible, hopefully unlikely, that this list will change; if it does, I’ll update this post.

Since I’ll most likely be taking these exams in the not-too-distant future, many of the posts here between now and then will revolve around the books on this list. I mean, more than they already have been. I’m going to try to write at least once about each, and perhaps more about the ones I need to think more about. I may also post some translations of the Goethe poetry (which I’m reading in the original German).

For now, you can consider this post both a promissory note and a recommendation that you read any books on this list you haven’t already. It’s not quite accurate to say this is the authoritative list of my fifteen favorite books, but there aren’t many books I’d call my favorite that aren’t on it, and there’s none I wouldn’t re-read, even if I didn’t have to.

Imaginative Literature

Philosophy, Religion, and Theology

History and Social Theory


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