Posts filed under “Books & Literature”

DOCTOR FAUSTUS.

If you are a student of English literature, you have read Marlowe’s Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. You might have been puzzled by the sudden shifts in tone from slapstick comedy to dire tragedy; and you might have read a lot of nonsense in explanation of those shifts in the introduction to whatever edition of the play you picked up in a university bookstore—presuming, of course, that you read the thing in that long-gone and nearly forgotten era when university bookstores sold books.

What was missing from your study of the play was an examination of its source. The English prose romance of Doctor Faustus, loosely translated from a German original, was very popular in the late 1500s under the title The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Dr. John Faustus. And if you do read it (it is very entertaining, by the way), you will at once see that Marlowe’s play had to be what it was, because he had to give the audience what they expected. If they showed up for Doctor Faustus and did not see him invisibly beating up the Pope, there would be a riot.

Unfortunately, the prose romance of Doctor Faustus has not been in print for a century and a half, so it was until now nearly impossible for professors of English literature to assign it to their students.

We say “until now,” because Dr. Boli, in the spirit of self-interested mercenary calculation that makes capitalism the best economic system ever devised by the absent mind of man, has brought the book back into print for you in an affordable and very legible paperback edition. It includes a learned introduction by William J. Thoms from his 1858 edition, in which he printed it as part of his large and expensive multi-volume anthology of Early English Prose Romances; but it has been completely reset in new type, each letter designed by Dr. Boli himself.

Naturally, universities will want to order copies in large quantities for the literature classes that are now bound to be studying this book intently. But as a special favor to his own readers, Dr. Boli is making an ebook version available free for instant download right here.

The English Prose Romance of Doctor Faustus
MOBI file for Amazon Kindle
EPUB file for every other ebook reader in the world

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From DR. BOLI’S UNABRIDGED DICTIONARY.

Fundamentalist (noun). An adherent of any religion who latches on to the extraneous details and decorative fripperies of the faith, to the utter neglect of the basic principles. A Christian fundamentalist insists on the literal truth of the creation hymn in Genesis while defying every precept in the Sermon on the Mount. An Islamic fundamentalist worries himself sick over whether the faithful can carry their groceries in paper bags (because infidels might have recycled the paper from old Korans, infidels being just the sort of people who would do that), while continuing to kick the poor and helpless in the teeth, which is the one thing known for a fact to make Allah mad as a hornet.

Etymologically, the word comes from a Latin term meaning having to do with the fundament. 

Fundamentalists are unpleasant, but fortunately you will never meet one. The word is used in modern English only to describe the religious beliefs of third parties not present in the current conversation.

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ASK DR. BOLI.

Dear Dr. Boli: My Kindle reader suddenly started playing the Valse triste by Sibelius, and now it won’t stop. It just keeps playing the Valse triste over and over again. It’s kind of freaking me out. How can I make it stop? —Sincerely, Jeffrey Preston Bezos.

Dear Sir: You have not mentioned what it was that you were reading. Were you reading a particularly sad book, like something by Mrs. Henry Wood or perhaps Richard Nixon’s memoirs? Ebook readers are sentimental creatures most of the time anyway, but a steady diet of sad books can turn them from sentimental to morose if you are not careful. It sounds as though your Kindle may already be in the advanced stages. The only cure, or at least palliative, is to read only amusing books on the Kindle for the next few weeks. Fill it with the works of P. G. Wodehouse or Robert Benchley, and read your sad books on paper.

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SPEAKING OF FINNEGANS WAKE…

You, of course, would never be the sort to play silly pranks on harried editors. But if you were that sort, you might try sending an email to the editor at Penguin Random House who is responsible for the backlist:

Madam,

I found a very embarrassing error in your edition of Finnegans Wake by James Joyce. It is on page 267. I will not repeat it, but it will be obvious the moment you see it.

You would—hypothetically, if you were the sort to play silly pranks on harried editors—send that off and never respond to any messages sent in reply.

 

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ONE OF THE FOUR GREAT CLASSICS.

In Chinese literature, four works are considered the Four Great Classical Novels. Unfortunately, they are almost unknown to Westerners, and—with the exception of Dream of the Red Chamber—it is hard to find them in translation.

But now we have computers! The Chinese texts are on line, and Google Translate us up to the task. For a peek at what we’ve been missing, here is the beginning of the second chapter of Journey to the West (traditionally attributed to Wu Cheng’en), as translated for us by Google:

Satoru Tooru second time off the magic Bodhi really Miaoli owned by the co-soul

Monkey King got word table names, contend enthusiastically, before the ceremony to Bodhi Kai Xie. That Patriarch ordered that the public cited Monkey out two door sweep teach him to deal with, deal with the advance and retreat section. Immortal pursue out. Wukong to the door, and thanks to the public brother, sleep at the arrangements between the Gallery veranda. The next morning, and all the brothers learn verbal politeness, preaching on the road, copybooks incense. Daily true. That sweeping leisure garden hoe, gardening repair tree, lights the fire and look for firewood, pick waterway pulp. Where things used, and both equipment. Six or seven years in the cave feel prosperous.

Day, founder Gordon Gaozuo altar, Zhu Xian call set, lecture Avenue. So it’s: hype, Musella lasiocarpa. Three times wonderful play to teach, subtle methodology whole. Slow roll stag tail jet bead, move the ringing thunder nine days. Said a Club Road, talk for a while Zen, three with this as natural. Gui Cheng enlightened word processor, no guidelines had sex mysterious.

Magic! Sex! Gardening! Typing! Now, with the aid of almost supernaturally intelligent machine translation, we can see why this is one of the Four Great Classical Novels in Chinese literature. It’s got Finnegans Wake beat all hollow.

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DISCOVERING A NEW WORD.

Arthur Schopenhauer espouncing his philosophical pessimism.

From a short paragraph on Arthur Schopenhauer:

He is known for having espounced a sort of philosophical pessimism that saw life as being essentially evil and futile, but saw hope in aesthetics, sympathy for others and ascetic living.

Dr. Boli actually looked up the word “espounce” to make sure it was not a word that had been out there in the wild all this time without his noticing it. It does not seem to be very common, at any rate.

But we can see what happened here. To espouse a philosophical position, in the current use of the term, is to adopt it as one’s own (or, in the original sense, to marry it, which may or may not be legal in your jurisdiction). To expound an idea is to set it forth in detail. A philosophical writer naturally does both: one expounds the ideas that one espouses. The two notions go together and are easily conflated, and we end up with something like espounce. If jaguars had philosophical ideas, they would certainly espounce them.

This is a more perfect portmanteau word than most. Your average portmanteau word, like “transponder,” is an obvious combination of the first part of one word and the last part of another. In espounce the words seem to have collided at such a high velocity that they have become inextricably blended. It is possible to recognize the blending, but it is not possible to see where one begins and the other ends. It is something like mocha, in which chocolate and coffee combine to make a flavor that is obviously chocolate-and-coffee, but not first chocolate, then suddenly coffee.

In fact, it is a portmanteau word in the original sense of the term, for the term “portmanteau” was adopted by Humpty Dumpty to explain some of the unusual vocabulary in “Jabberwocky”:

“Well, ‘slithy’ means ‘lithe and slimy.’ ‘Lithe’ is the same as ‘active.’ You see it’s like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word.”

Slithy is just the same sort of construction as espounce. It is not first one word, then the other, but the two words folded together completely. Or, if you prefer a chemical metaphor, it is not a suspension, but a solution.

So we have discovered a new word. Now, we could mock the writer for an obvious mistake. In fact, that is what Dr. Boli set out to do. But instead he began to like the word espounce, and is now disposed to suggest that we should embrace it as expressing an idea not otherwise easily expressed: the idea of simultaneously espousing an idea and expounding it to others.

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THE POWER OF THE INTERNET.

Another victim sinks into the tomb,
Struck by Consumption,s dire
unering dart again fond friends
are call,d to bewail the doom of
one whom love had link,d to
many a hart.

This was the epitaph on the tombstone of a young man who died in 1830 at the age of nineteen. Our friend Father Pitt found it in the old Bethel Cemetery, and it immediately struck him that it was probably not an original composition. It looks like a semiliterate transcription of a published poem. But where was the poem published? asked old Pa Pitt. It took exactly twenty seconds to type the first line into Google and come up with the answer:

It is from The Casket, a popular American magazine of the day; click on the image above to be taken to the full volume in Google Books.

Twenty seconds, and we have the answer. Think about that for a moment. How long would it have taken a mere quarter-century ago? Dr. Boli suspects that it literally could not have been done. The poem was, as far as he knows, never reprinted after its initial appearance; it can be found only in the June, 1830, issue of The Casket. Probably half a dozen libraries in the world, at the very most, have  copies of that magazine in dusty bound volumes somewhere. The odds are pretty well stacked against stumbling across one of them by accident. It might occur to one in a brilliant flash of insight that the poem had come from a current magazine; but even then, to search through all the extant magazines published in 1830 in all the libraries in North America would have been such a daunting project that one would almost certainly not have begun it.

Every once in a while, when we wonder whether the Internet is good for anything but YouTube comments and quack cancer cures, we can remind ourselves that it makes whole species of knowledge possible that were not possible before.

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