2017: The Renaissance Man Challenge

blog-picsThe New Year is almost upon us. Many (including myself) are going to start diets or go the gym as a resolution. That’s great, of course. Always good to be fit. But what about getting the Brain to hit the gym too?  Well, I have spent some time putting together a list of semi-resolutions for 2017. I call it the Renaissance Man Challenge.

blog-pics

Hildegard von Bingen and Leonardo da Vinci, two of the most famous polymaths in history

Also known as a polymath, a Renaissance Man is a person who excels in the study and appreciation of many different subjects. They have a thirst for knowledge and a love of learning. For example, Hildegard von Bingen, a medieval German nun. She was well educated in and pioneered music, philosophy, writing, medicine and several sciences. There is also Leonardo da Vinci, who is famous for his work in subjects such as art, science, invention, astronomy, architecture and many others. Seriously, many others. Of course, we can’t all be Hildegards and Leonardos. But then again, why not? We may not be able to pioneer subjects, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn them and love them.

So, just for fun, I have composed a list of twenty five activities specifically designed to either find or develop new interests in diverse subjects. Some are quick and easy. Some will last a few months. Some take all year. I suggest picking at least three. Time to become a polymath!

Renaissance Man Challenge 2017

1.) Read one classic novel longer than 500 pages or three shorter classics. The only rule? Make sure they are all books you have never read before! Some great authors of long books are Dickens, Hugo, Dumas and Tolstoy.

2.) Become familiar with one of the main historical eras of music. For Western music, those are the Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, and Romantic. With YouTube and the rest of the internet, it is easy to listen and learn about these eras!

ma-31816931

Japanese art is very beautiful and interesting to study

3.) Become familiar with the works and artists of one art period from any part of the world. You can choose a Western movement like Rococo or Renaissance or an Eastern movement, like the Tang Dynasty or Heian Period. There are so many books, websites and documentaries out there waiting for you.

4.) Take up a handcraft, such as knitting, wood-burning, sculpting, leather-work or jewelry making. There is nothing like being able to make something with your own hands. And if you work hard enough at it, you can even end up selling your work and making a few extra dollars!

5.) Read a book in a new language. Any difficulty or length, as long as you learn enough of the language to understand it.

6.) Read a book of the folk takes or mythology of a different culture. Preferably of another continent, so that you get to learn about a history and culture that is different than your own. Practically every culture has unique stories you can read. Some suggestions: Greek, Egyptian, Japanese, Hawaiian, Native American, Celtic, or Norse.

7.) Write a short story, at least 20-30k words. Write it about something you dreamed or always wanted to do. Write characters based on your friends, family or coworkers. Tip: You can kill off the characters based on people who drive you crazy!

blog-pics

La bohème is an excellent place to start in the world of opera

8.) Watch five operas and/or ballets. Get in touch with the entertainments of history!

9.) Write an essay about the images, themes or characters of one of your favorite movies. This is a really cool exercise, as it helps you to understand exactly what it is you love in a story.

10.) Pick one Shakespeare play and hyper focus on it. Read the play, analyze the themes, characters and messages. Watch every filmed version of it you can find and discover in what ways you like the interpretations and what ways you don’t. It’s much better to do this with a tragedy than a comedy, and preferably one of his Big Four: Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear or Othello. These plays are exceptionally rich and you can practically feel your brain expanding as you study them.

11.) Learn about something new using only books, no internet. A period of History is especially good for this entry.

12.) Try a different country’s cuisine for one week. The more different from your usual, the better!

44ff5169bbecfd049ec93efd4fb18224

Tolkien’s Tengwar alphabet is very elegant and is surprisingly easy to learn

13.) Learn to write one calligraphic script. Or learn to write with a new alphabet like Greek, Cyrillic, Chinese or even Elvish!

14.) Read an epic poem or a ballad. Ballads and epics can be some of the most exciting and moving forms of literature. A few of my favorites are the Illiad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Ballad of the White Horse, and the Ballad of Reading Gaol.

15.) Watch at least one historical or scientific documentary every month.

16.) Read three Greek Dramas, tragic or comedic. They are some of the finest and oldest dramas that the world possesses, and are really worth a read.

17.) Learn about the history of the city or town in which you live. Sometimes it’s more interesting than you think it is!

18.) Once a month, try making a food that you have never had before. If you have to go to a special store for the ingredients, that’s a good sign! And maybe invite friends over to try it with you. If you can get them in on it, you can have a multi-cultural potluck!

19.) Learn to read Music. This is an incredible thing to do. When you can read music, it’s like knowing another language.

20.) Read or watch three things geared towards a demographic to which you do not belong. For instance, read a Jane Austen novel if you’re a dude. Watch an old John Wayne Western if you’re a girly girl. Read a children’s’ book series. And always look for the artistic value. You might find you have interests you never thought you had!

a3251-2-150dpi

La donna è mobile is a fun and catchy aria to sing with

21.) Teach yourself to sing a classical aria or an art song. Switch up your commute sing-a-longs from Bruno Mars and Taylor Swift to Verdi and Mozart. And YouTube has orchestral backing tracks for countless operatic hits, so Classy Karaoke is possible!

22.) Memorize a poem at least a page long. It can be a whole poem, or part of one. Just push your memory to the maximum!

23.) Pick a science that interests you. Animal, astronomy, anatomy, physics, anything. Study it. Don’t just read about it a little. Dive into it, teaching yourself as best as you can. Be that cool person who knows those random facts!

24.) Find a type of math you were always really bad at and learn it all over again. Go, see, and conquer! Make Geometry and Calculus fear your name!

25.) Study the architecture of certain era or culture, historical or modern. It’s astounding how much artistry can be put into buildings.

You’ll have to forgive me that a lot of these are pretty Western-centric. I know unfortunately little about Eastern Culture. But that’s one of the things I’m planning to change this year! I’m picking Numbers 6 and 13 on my list, and reading about Japanese folklore and how to write some Japanese calligraphy. I’m also planning on 18! I want to try some of the tasty dishes that the world has to offer. And I’ve been meaning to read The Count of Monte Cristo, so I’ll be doing Number 1 as well.

Any other Hildegards and Leonardos out there to give this a try?

Classy Recipes: Smoking Becket

Blog pics.pngMerry Christmas, everyone! Let’s celebrate the holiday the Victorian way with a bowl of Smoking Bishop: the spicy, fruity beverage drunk by Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Smoking Bishop is a is a spiced wine punch, served hot and flavored with oranges. It is a traditional drink of England and was very popular in the Victorian Era as a winter (and especially Christmas) drink. It is famously mentioned in Charles Dickens’ aforementioned book, when Scrooge is a changed man. He offers Bob Cratchit his help and a fortifying drink of the season: Smoking Bishop.

blog-pics

Henry II and Thomas Becket

Honestly though, there are lots of articles about Smoking Bishop in the blog world. You could go anywhere to get those recipes. So I decided I should come up with a twist on the classic Christmas beverage: Smoking Becket! It is inspired by the famous English saint, Thomas Becket, the 12th Century Archbishop of Canterbury who defied King Henry II. His feast day for Catholics and Anglicans and the day of his death is on December 29th , so perhaps, save a glass for a toast next Thursday!

This drink is made with spices, bold like Becket himself. And because the saint met a martyr’s death, the punch is uniquely flavored with Blood Oranges rather than the traditional Valencia or Seville varieties. Smoking Becket is served hot and is perfect for winter-time. It is a strong, flavorful and rich beverage that warms the drinker to the toes with robust and exotic flavors of citrus and spices.

Smoking Becket (Spiced Blood Orange Punch)

blog-picsIngredients:

Six small blood oranges
One Lemon
About 36 Whole Dried Cloves

2 ½ cups (600 ml) of Water
1 ½ cup (350 ml) of Port
1 ½ (350 ml) Fruit Wine (I used Manischewitz Blackberry Wine)
1 tsp (5 ml) fresh grated ginger (or ginger paste)
1 tsp (5 ml) allspice
2 cinnamon sticks
1 tsp (5 ml) Anise Extract (optional)
1 cup (225 ml) unbleached cane sugar

1 ½ (350 ml) more cups of Port (Three cups in whole recipe)
4-6 cups (950-1400 ml) medium bodied red wine (I used Merlot)

Instructions:
blog-pics

1.) Preheat oven to 325°F (About 165°C)

2.) Stud the blood oranges and lemon with cloves, five or six in each. To do this, make a small incision in the peel with a knife and stick the clove in, making a criss-cross incision if the peel is very thick. Place the studded fruits in a baking dish and roast in the oven for one hour.

blog-pics3.) While the oranges are baking, heat the water, the fruit wine and half the port to boiling. Add ginger (or ginger paste), cinnamon sticks and allspice. (You can add dashes of ginger powder and ground cinnamon if you like it spicier). Also add the Anise extract, if desired. Stir in the sugar and simmer, allowing it to steep, whisking occasionally. It should be a little bit thicker, reddish brown and very fragrant.

blog-pics4.) Take the oranges and lemon out of the oven. Half them and squeeze the juices into a cup (careful, they will be hot!) and then add the juice to the spice syrup. Make sure to remove the seeds.

5.) Add the remaining port and the wine to taste. Start with four cups of red wine, but if the flavor is still too strong, you can add more wine or even water. Whisk the punch thoroughly and heat it until it is at a nice warm temperature for drinking. Preferably smoking hot!blog-pics

You can garnish each glass of Smoking Becket with a slice of Blood Orange and a cinnamon stick, if desired. This recipe makes almost a gallon, enough for a nice hefty punch bowl and maybe a little extra to help you recover after cooking for the Christmas party!

 

This recipe is very flexible. If you want to use a favorite fruit wine, a special port, a different red, more orange, or less spice, you can! It’s really a made to order drink.

If you like my recipe and want to share it, please do! But do make sure to tell everyone where you got it from and link back to my post.

(To learn more about Thomas Becket, you can visit this link: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Thomas-Becket. You could also read T.S. Elliot’s fantastic play Murder in the Cathedral, or watch the two great actors Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole in the 1964 film Becket. While highly dramatized and not entirely true to the real story, the film is marvelous.)

Classy Days in History: Happy 531st Birthday, Katherine of Aragon

There are important days in history. There are sad days in history. There are just plain cool days in history. But this is Mind Vitamins, so when I mark a day, it’s going to be because it is classy. Today is the birthday of several historically classy people, but my favorite one shall take precedence.

December 16th, 1485

220px-michel_sittow_002

Katherine in her youth

Let us give a large slice of Historical Birthday Cake to a most impressive woman: Katherine of Aragon, Queen of England and first wife of Henry VIII. I confess that I am a bit of a fangirl for Queen Katherine, a historical hero of strong womanhood. While usually remembered as simply being the poor sap who got booted by Anne Boleyn, she was so much more.

In a time when ideal womanhood consisted of being blonde and shutting up, Queen Katherine stood apart. As the daughter of the powerful, though definitely controversial, Queen Isabella of Spain, Katherine had a strong female role model from the beginning. Differing from many of the European nobility of the day, she and her three sisters received just as excellent an education as their brother, John. From her childhood, Katherine was thoroughly educated in arithmetic, literature, philosophy, law, theology and more alongside the all of the domestic skills women learned in those days. Besides her native Spanish, she achieved mastery over French, Latin, Greek and eventually English. She was almost certainly one of the most educated and impressive people, especially women, in Europe at the time. Even without her title and position as a Princess of Spain, she was a fit spouse for a king.

aragonunknown1

Katherine as Queen of England

At first, Katherine was married to Henry VIII’s older brother, Arthur. When Arthur died of an illness, they decided Katherine should marry Henry, next in line for the throne. This arrangement was a bit irregular, but Katherine gave her word that her marriage to Arthur had never been consummated, so they were able to receive a special dispensation to marry from the Pope.

Katherine proved to be an excellent queen. She was a patron of education and the arts, and was known for her charity to the poor and her mercy to the condemned. The English people adored her. Whenever her husband crossed metaphorical swords with her father, the King of Spain, she gave her allegiance to her husband and her new country of England. Several times, she even performed her husband’s duties for him. She once acted as regent for six months when Henry was in France. During this time, a very important battle took place, and rather than let down the troops, Katherine rode to the battlefield while pregnant and in full armor. There, she gave them a reportedly superlative and memorable speech, which spurred them to a great victory.

blog-pics

Queen Katherine (detail from The Great Matterby  Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze

Then, in came the event for which Katherine was sadly best known: the infamous divorce. As a woman, I find complaining needlessly about sexism to be a sign of weakness. However, the treatment Katherine of Aragon received is a truly disgusting testament to the misogyny of the Tudor Era. Her protests of her royal validity meant nothing to the court of Henry VIII. Discounting all of her intelligence, accomplishments, virtue, and the decision of the church on the validity of her marriage, she was cast aside for the simple reason that she could not produce a male heir. Henry, now self-proclaimed leader of the English Church, declared that their marriage had never been valid. This proclamation now made the great Queen Katherine little more than a mistress and her daughter, Mary, a bastard. To make matters more humiliating, Katherine’s replacement would be Anne Boleyn, her lady in waiting:  inferior in rank, education and every other way besides.

But it was done. How he could do this to a woman who had done so much for him is beyond comprehension, but Henry cast Katherine aside and took her daughter away from her. After all of the rejection and humiliation, she was exiled to an isolated home in the English countryside. She was offered better treatment and the ability to see her daughter Mary if only she would acknowledge Anne Boleyn as rightful Queen. But the truth and her dignity was more important to Katherine than her own comfort, and she never conceded her title and status as long as she lived. She died in banishment without any of her family. She had every reason to hate Henry and never wish to see or speak to him again. No one would have thought any less of her if it had been so. But, being a devout Catholic, Katherine chose to be “the bigger man” as it were and forgive him. This, her final letter to Henry, is witness to the nobility of her heart.

My most dear lord, king and husband,
The hour of my death now drawing on, the tender love I owe you forceth me, my case being such, to commend myself to you, and to put you in remembrance with a few words of the health and safeguard of your soul which you ought to prefer before all worldly matters, and before the care and pampering of your body, for the which you have cast me into many calamities and yourself into many troubles. For my part, I pardon you everything, and I wish to devoutly pray God that He will pardon you also. For the rest, I commend unto you our daughter Mary, beseeching you to be a good father unto her, as I have heretofore desired. I entreat you also, on behalf of my maids, to give them marriage portions, which is not much, they being but three. For all my other servants I solicit the wages due them, and a year more, lest they be unprovided for. Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things.
Katharine the Quene.

For a woman of such strong and bold character, this letter is surprisingly gentle. But all of the love, forgiveness and concern she expressed for Henry were lost on him. Both he and his new Queen, Anne Boleyn, were reported to have openly and callously celebrated her death and Henry would not give Katherine any funerary honors more than was due to a “Princess Dowager”, referring to her marriage to his brother Arthur.

It would have appeared that Katherine would be wronged forever. However, history has happily justified her. Although she was stripped of the title of Queen in life, in the 19th century, her grave was re-marked by the will of the people to read “Katharine, Queen of England” in golden letters. A historical jab if ever I heard one. And well-deserved. Katherine of Aragon was a pillar of strength and dignity. She was and is truly an inspirational figure of history. She was loved by her people and respected by all and is represented in books, plays and cinema almost always with grace and majesty. Even her enemy, Thomas Cromwell could not help but admire her, and said of her: “If not for her sex, she could have defied all the heroes of History.”

Happy Birthday, Queen Katherine! You will be remembered forever.

012716

Katherine’s grave at Peterborough Cathedral adorned with pomegranates, a symbol of power and sovereignty

Featured picture: Calendar by Johannes von Gmunden, 1496

Greek to Me: Gods of Olympus

olympus-greek-mythology-wallpaperAre Greek myths befuddling to you? Have trouble understanding scholarly references to people like Icarus and Pandora? Don’t know the difference between Epimetheus and Eurystheus? Well, you need fear the Minotaur of ignorance no longer: Welcome to Greek to Me, my blog segment where you will learn about some of the most important and complex myths in the history of Western literature, all accompanied with beautiful art for your visualization! I believe that, given the history and the artistic omnipresence of Greek mythological themes, that knowledge of them is essential for a rounded education on Western culture. In this article, we’ll start from the beginning and give a brief summary of the famous gods of Mount Olympus.

800px-skourta

The mythical home of the gods, Mt. Olympus

Each of the Greek gods and goddesses were very well developed characters, with distinct and unique personalities. For those who do not know, each god and goddess was the patron of an aspect of nature or humanity and had special symbols of these patronages which are often used to identify them in art. They are also known by different names to the Ancient Romans, who worshipped them as well. The focus today is on the twelve Olympian gods, those who were believed to dwell on Mount Olympus. These included Zeus, Hera, Hestia, Demeter Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Aphrodite, Hephaestus, Ares, Hermes and Dionysus. In today’s article, we’ll cover the first seven.

blog-pics

Zeus and Hera, accompanied by their symbols, the eagle and the peacock

First on the list is the famous Zeus. He was the god of lightning and ruler of all. After being rescued from being eaten by his father Kronus by his mother Rhea, Zeus defeated his father, rescuing his siblings Hestia, Hades, Poseidon, Demeter and Hera. He took kingship of the heavens for himself and assigned the rule of the Sea and the Underworld to his brothers Poseidon and Hades respectively. He was famous for many great feats of power, but most myths featuring Zeus center on his unbelievably numerous love affairs. His romantic escapades and attempts to hide his paramours from his wife provided much amusement to the ancient Greeks in their stories and plays. Zeus’ symbols included the lightning bolt or the mighty eagle, and his name to the Romans was Jupiter

Second is Hera who was, awkwardly, both the sister and the wife of Zeus. She was Queen of the gods and the patron goddess of women, marriage, and childbirth. She was very beautiful and was portrayed with a fairly clever, but haughty and vengeful nature. Zeus’ constant affairs with other women, both mortal and divine, made her jealous and bitter and she often tried to take out her anger on Zeus’ many illegitimate children since she couldn’t punish him for it.  Hera was known to the Romans as Juno and her symbols are most commonly the cow and the peacock.

blog-pics

Demeter and Hestia

Hestia was the virgin goddess of the hearth, her symbol. She attended the sacred fire of Olympus. She was known as Vesta to the Romans, whose ‘Vestal Virgins’ famously attended the sacred Roman fire. Her sister Demeter, was goddess of the harvest and mother of Persephone, goddess of spring and flowers. Demeter was a generous goddess, willingly sharing the fruit of the earth with mankind and ruling over the seasons. Her Roman name was Ceres, and her symbols were grain and a sickle. Hestia is not featured in many myths, but is usually portrayed with a calm and motherly demeanor. Demeter is similar, but has flashes of protective motherhood and can be quite passionate and dramatic.

blog-pics

Athena

My personal favorite of the gods and goddesses is Athena. She was said to have been born directly from the head of Zeus. In fear that his child would be more powerful than he, Zeus had swallowed Athena’s mother Metis. But the child developed in Zeus’ head, and eventually burst forth from his cranium fully grown as Athena. She was another virgin goddess, and being the offspring of the mind of Zeus, she was the patroness of wisdom and learning, as well as skilled warfare and handcrafts such as weaving. She was always pictured with symbols of war, such as a helmet, spear or a shield bearing the symbol of Medusa’s head. Her other symbols were the Olive tree, whose creation was attributed to her, and the owl, whose symbolism of wisdom lives on even in modern culture. Athena is of an intelligent, witty and strong personality. While a goddess of war, she is dignified and sophisticated and only very rarely does she lose her temper. She often assists heroes such as Perseus, Odysseus and Jason. Her Roman name is Minerva.

blog-pics

Apollo and Artemis

Apollo and Artemis were twin brother and sister, children of Zeus and the nymph Leto. Apollo, known as Phoebus to the Romans, was god of many things: light, art, music, poetry, prophecy, archery and medicine. His most famous symbols were the lyre and the laurel wreath. He is of an unsurprisingly artistic temperament, wise, poetic and intelligent. However, his passions, both angry and romantic, occasionally flare over his better judgement.

His sister Artemis, Roman name Diana, was goddess of the Moon, archery, hunting, woodlands, animals and chastity, being another virgin goddess. She was also occasionally associated with childbirth, as the legend went that, after being born, she immediately assisted her mother in the delivery of her twin brother. She is often portrayed with an energetic, youthful and independent temperament and occasionally waxes very headstrong and a little spiteful. Her most identifiable symbols were the deer, her bow and arrows and the crescent Moon.

And so, these are the first seven of the Greek’s Olympian deities. Next time, there will a second article for the rest of the Olympians as well as the lords of the Sea and the Underworld. You’re well on your way to becoming a Greek mythological expert!

Poetry Snippet: Pearl of Delight

blog-pics

Page of the Pearl manuscript from the Cotton Library in Great Britain

Time for a Poetry Snippet! This is where I simply recommend a classic poem by sharing a bit of it and some of its background with you. My first Snippet comes all the way from the 14th Century. It was written by man who, despite his great talent and works, we do not even know the name of. As a result he is usually referred to as “The Gawain Poet”. Behind Chaucer, he is considered among the finest of the Medieval English Poets. He is named after his most famous work, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The poem I am sharing with you today is not as famous, but in my opinion is one of the most beautiful things ever written: Pearl.

blog-pics

Through grass to the ground from me it shot…

Pearl of delight that a prince doth please
To grace in gold enclosed so clear,
I vow that from over orient seas
Never proved I any in price her peer.
So round, so radiant ranged by these,
So fine, so smooth did her sides appear
That ever in judging gems that please
Her only alone I deemed as dear.
Alas! I lost her in garden near:
Through grass to the ground from me it shot;
I pine now oppressed by love-wound drear
For that pearl, mine own, without a spot.

The language in this poem can only be described as exquisite. I, unfortunately, do not speak Middle English (learning it and Anglo-Saxon is on my bucket list) but this version, translated by the wonderful J.R.R. Tolkien, captures such rich imagery with its choice of words and skillful alliterations that I am sure the original author would give it his stamp of approval.

blog-pics

14th century illumination of the Jeweler and the Pearl Maiden

The story is more than it seems in the first stanza. For the main character, a jeweler, is not in fact mourning the loss of an actual pearl, but something far more dear: his daughter, a sweet baby girl who sadly died. The story begins with the Jeweler’s anguish and loss of faith. In his grief, he lays down by his ‘pearl’s’ garden grave and falls asleep. But in his sleep, he has a vision: His daughter, resplendent and beautiful in the joy of Heaven. Comforting him with wise and kindly words, she heals her father’s broken spirit and helps him regain his faith.

There seems to be little that could make the poem more touching, but there is. Rather than merely being a fiction, it is believed that the Gawain Poet may have actually lost his baby daughter and wrote this ballad in her honor. Indeed, the heart-rending language seems to hold a type of grief that only a lost child could bring. Some scholars disclaim the story, however, insisting that the allegorical poem cannot possibly have only one, simple interpretation. But whether the story of the lost daughter is true or not, the poem is a masterpiece.

Although the work is definitely a Christian one, with heavy Christian themes and Biblical allegory, I believe at least its aesthetic beauty can be appreciated by all. I’m also very fond of reading the poem aloud in its original language, even though I don’t actually understand it. There is something very pleasing to the ear in the rustic and yet delicate sound Old and Middle English. To hear and speak it is truly a delight. “I dewyne, fordolked of luf-daungere/Of that pryvy perle wythouten spot…”. It is a very beautiful tongue from which our modern English springs.

You can read the entire poem translated by Tolkien at this Link. If, like me, you love Middle English or are interested in how it sounds, you can go here and feel your mind transported back about 700 years. But no matter how you read or interpret it, the poem is a treasure; a precious pearl, indeed.

blog-pics

The Description Confectionery: Hound of the Baskervilles

blog-picsTime for another Description Confection! This time, we are going to go to one of the greatest and most famous mystery stories of all time: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fantastic The Hound of the BaskervillesThis extract comes from the moment Dr. Watson is coming upon Baskerville Hall, a very old manor in the desolately beautiful northern English moors.

We had left the fertile country behind and beneath us. We looked back on it now, the slanting rays of a low sun turning the streams to threads of gold and glowing on the red earth new turned by the plough and the broad tangle of the woodlands. The road in front of us grew bleaker and wilder over huge russet and olive slopes, sprinkled with giant boulders. Now and then we passed a moorland cottage, walled and roofed with stone, with no creeper to break its harsh outline. Suddenly we looked down into a cuplike depression, patched with stunted oaks and firs which had been twisted and bent by the fury of years of storm.

                                          ~Chapter 6, Baskerville Hall

200px-cover_28hound_of_baskervilles2c_190229First, notice the words Watson uses to describe the land which they left behind; fertile land, threads of gold sunlight, and red earth. You can almost feel the warmth of the sunshine peeking through the clouds.

But when Watson turns back to the direction in which he and the driver are bound, the description dramatically shifts. The welcoming words such as fertile and glowing are sharply replaced by words like bleak and harsh. Instead of the fertile red earth, there is now a stone cottage, so inhospitable that a vine cannot even cling to its walls. The colors, which before were warm and pleasant ones like red and gold now turn to the tones of russet and olive, both colors having distinctly cool, dreary undertones. Without Sir Arthur even mentioning a change of light, the reader sees the land before Watson as gray, dark and eerie, sapped of color and life. The description is capped off with the addition of storm-gnarled trees, giving the land an unmistakably wicked and spooky atmosphere.

The entirety of this book is filled with marvelous descriptions, but I particularly love this one. It introduces a sinister, foreboding feeling to the reader, perfect for this book which emphasizes the battle of logic and knowledge over the terror of the unknown. This short but masterful paragraph wonderfully sets the tone in only a few sentences. Indeed, one can almost hear the feral baying of the Hound itself, echoing across the land to fill the hearer with a nameless fear.

blog-pics

 

 

Catharsis, the Medicine of the Mind

blog-picsIf I were forced to choose a favorite kind of literature- my “desert island” genre, if you will- I’m fairly sure it would be the Tragedy. No other genre inspires me or makes me happier to be alive than a good Tragedy. No doubt, this sounds a bit weird. Tragedies are sad. They are supposed to make you cry and feel miserable. Let me confuse you further by saying: Yes, exactly. That’s why I like them!

“So, you’re a masochist?” you might be saying now. No. I mean, not exactly… But in a way, perhaps. I look at sadness as a sort of bath for the soul. Through Tragedy, I am able to experience the most important human emotions which, in the comfortable life I have been blessed with, I would not otherwise encounter. I actively seek out literature that rends the heart and touches the soul. I seem to have a bit of an addiction to… Catharsis.

a4a5fdc7031171401c3c5eb3f105542e

Aristotle (detail from Raphael’s School of Athens)

But what is Catharsis? From the Greek κάθαρσις, meaning ‘purging’ or ‘cleansing’, Catharsis is the idea that the experience of strong emotions through a vicarious source (such as art) cleanses and strengthens the mind and soul. This idea was first named by the great Greek Philosopher Aristotle, who compared it to the medical processes wherein the filth accumulated in the body is washed out. The philosopher wrote of this after having attended the performance of a Tragedy, during which, he had experienced this sensation of emotional purgation. He felt Catharsis’ benefit and thereafter, Aristotle and many after him believed that, just as an ailing body must sometimes be cleansed of impurities, so the mind can be cleansed of emotions.

I myself am a strong believer in this idea, having experienced the soothing effect of vicarious emotion many times through some of my favorite books and operas. Being the possessor of an artistic temperament and very passionate emotions, I easily experience the pain of the characters, sometimes on a very deep level. And yet, rather than leave me depressed and unhappy, my mind feels refreshed.

But how does that work? Why would experiencing terrible feelings make a person feel good? It probably sounds like some sort of mystic mumbo-jumbo, but not so: There is science to this, believe it or not.

At some point in your life, you’ve probably experienced what’s known as “a good cry”. Where you’re miserable and you just break down for a while and let the tears flow freely. Perhaps you’ve heard people tell you “Crying never helped anyone.” Unfortunately for them, however, they are actually incorrect. Crying has been scientifically proven to help with mental anguish, as tears caused by emotion have been found to contain stress hormones, which the body is attempting to flush out with water.

If that is so, then it stands to reason that crying emotionally for the troubles of others is even more beneficial to us. We expel those stress hormones without even having the stress caused to us that it usually requires. Almost seems like cheating.

But science isn’t all, in my opinion. More philosophically, I believe that tears shed for others are always nobler than tears shed for oneself. I also believe that empathizing with the suffering of others helps us to find meaning in our own and it conditions our fragile emotions like a sort of mental exercise, making us more able to face hardship when it comes.

premier_deuil-large

The First Mourning, by William Adolphe-Bouguereau

But not all sad works are created equal. There is a bothersome tendency in this age to call absolutely anything “Tragic”. This is because the real meaning of “Tragedy” is a bit lost in our more cushy modern era. Of course, the word “tragic” has changed over time, and can be used to describe anything which makes us sad. But the proper definition of a Tragedy, comes again from our wise old friend Aristotle. According to the philosopher, a tragedy must be the story of a great and/or good person who, through their own Tragic Flaw or through an inexorable power, is destroyed. The destruction can be physical, especially in the form of death, or it can be spiritual, in the form of turning to evil. The meaning of Tragedy has expanded over time, but basically all of the great tragedies have one important theme in common: the annihilation or loss of something good and pure. This is the ultimate pain of mankind. Everything we consider the worst, such as the death of a child or the destruction of a culture, is related to this idea. The very thought of it can make people weep.

karajan_redo-20b430397d48ba8428db24b0ef131c23e8eaaf7c-s900-c85

Herbert von Karajan, conducting

Tragedy is not the only way to reach Catharsis, however. Not everyone reacts to a tragic story the same way. It can make some people sad in a destructive rather than constructive way. For many, it is better to reach the cleansing of the soul by witnessing the best side of humanity. Love, beauty, truth and goodness. This is the way that beautiful things such as Art or especially Music can make someone weep. There is nothing sad about them, but witnessing the composer or artist’s glimpse and attempt at perfection is enough to make us truly grateful to be alive.

Ironic, is it not, that often the emotions that feel the best are expressed through tears? And weeping can be done for countless, often opposing feelings. There are tears for death and for life, tears for hate or for love and gratitude. And not always physical tears are present; sometimes, they are from the heart and are therefore invisible to all. And yet they rain down nonetheless, letting the Catharsis wash and purge our whole being, leaving us refreshed and more human than before.

blog-pics