What Makes a “Classic”

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Why Read the Classics?

The existence of a “classical canon” in literature raises a multitude of questions when we begin to examine the idea itself. Which pieces of literature are considered classics? Why are those considered classics? Why read classics? Who decides what is a classic? I’m not sure any two people have the exact same list of classics, as there is no exactly identical human experience between two people, so how can the art they consume and value and respond to and see as a required part of their lives possibly be identical. On top of that, in the words of Italo Calvino, “however vast any person’s basic reading may be, there still remain an enormous number of fundamental works that [they have] not read.” We simply cannot experience the vast entirety of art and literature that has been created. In short, classics are not black and white, but rather a tag we attach to an ever changing, individually subjective pool of literature that matter to us in some undeniable way. So here is one wonderful rationalization of the classical category by the aforementioned Italian author Italo Calvino:

1. The classics are those books about which you usually hear people saying: ‘I’m rereading…’, never ‘I’m reading….’

2. The classics are those books which constitute a treasured experience for those who have read and loved them; but they remain just as rich an experience for those who reserve the chance to read them for when they are in the best condition to enjoy them.

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Exorcism Through Literature

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Over my Thanksgiving break, I finally finished reading the novel King Leopold’s Ghost, by Adam Hochschild, which illustrates in great detail the horrible atrocities committed during the Scramble for Africa by King Leopold II of Belgium, including the genocide of natives and rape of a country in a grievous display of greed and hubris on the part of the European monarch Leopold. I highly recommend reading this novel, for many different reasons, if not simply to learn about the deaths of roughly 10 million Africans at the hands of white colonialism that inspired the very accurate Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, that occurred only a little over one hundred years ago, an event that has since lost its impact and place in the minds of people across the globe.

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A Poem for Your Monday

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Adonis

Iram the Many-Columned

Our city fled
So I ran to see its roads
I looked—I saw nothing but the horizon
I saw that the fugitives tomorrow
And those returning tomorrow
Were a body that I tore on my paper.

And I saw—the clouds were a throat
The water was walls of flame
I saw a yellow sticky thread
A thread of history hanging on to me
With which a hand that inherited
The race of puppets and the dynasty of rags
Was pulling at my days, knotting them and undoing them.

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Foundations in Literature: The Islamic World

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A Brief, Wondrous History of Arabic Literature

When I talk about the humanities, and the importance of art, and literature in particular, in the world as a whole, I struggle to articulate any coherent, empirical argument. I can say that it is an essential component of humanity, that there would be no civilization or culture without art, and that it is what makes life worth living, but for many people, nothing is true except statistics and tangible benefit. Well, that’s not the world art exists in, and I’m okay with that, even if it makes arguing my case a little harder.

But difficulty does not imply defeat; art is the foundation of civilization, and perhaps the clearest example of this connection lies in Arabic culture, to whom we owe much of our societal progress to this day. This is a culture founded upon language in the most literal way possible. Arab literature precedes the Islamic religion and caliphates, but achieves its true height and impact with the Prophet Muhammad’s writing of the Qu’ran, in Arabic of course, setting in stone the importance of the Arabic language and poetry within this new culture. Bedouin poetry was an important cornerstone in Arab society, illustrated by the tribal position of rawis, whose only job was to memorize and recite poetry, and this importance lasted into the Golden Age of Islam with the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates and beyond.

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Beyond the Words

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The Art of Translation

As humans, we have a tendency to organize ourselves into different groups. We create these tribes of people which we identify with on some level, and these tribes in turn produce divisions among people. These distinctions are, of course, artificial, but we are drawn to them in order to find solidarity in those who we perceive as like us. We look for people who have the same struggles, feel the same emotions, and hold the same ideas and values that we do. Most of the time, this grouping creates antagonism, an “us vs. them” mentality, a negative tribalism that breeds ignorance and fear when we align ourselves against others. What is often ignored amidst all this divisiveness and polarization is the fact that we all belong to the single tribe of persons, and that we are all in the same boat as human beings on this planet.

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Dostoevsky and Humanity

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A little while back, The Paris Review published this article on the empathy and humanity of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Russian author of multiple masterpieces including The Brothers Karamzov, Crime and Punishment, and The Idiot. His is a body of work that has affected me greatly, and my reading Crime and Punishment is one of those rare events in our lives that we can look back and point to as a turning point in who we were to become as people. I was remarkably moved by Raskolnikov’s fall and redemption, particularly by his supporting cast of characters like Sonya and Razumikhin .

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A Poem for Your Monday

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[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]

by e. e. cummings

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
                                                      i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)
Image courtesy of https://www.pinterest.com/abridges81/trees/

A Poem for Your Monday

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Ode on a Grecian Urn,

By John Keats

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
       Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
       A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
       Of deities or mortals, or of both,
               In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
       What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
               What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
       Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
       Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
       Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
               Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
       She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
               For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

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Processing the World We Live In

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Literary Voices React to President Donald Trump

I’m in a whirlwind. I am angry, sad, confused, disillusioned, heartbroken, hopeless, and genuinely shaken to the core. I am afraid to write on this because I don’t know what will come out. But here are the voices of others who have spoken.

Please love each other. Please care for each other. Please protect each other. I do not have a government that speaks for me and I apparently misunderstand human nature. But I do know that I, as a straight, white male, will not be as affected as others. And I will do everything in my power to fight for those who have been shouted down and cast out and ostracized and made to fear for this entire campaign process and the foreseeable future.

I still believe in the power of the personal. I see a lot of hate, more than I ever could have truly imagined existed. And that has been shocking. But I still have hope that there is good in the world, and I will fucking fight for it. Please do the same. Fight for the good in humanity and the world and the country and every person you see. We are going to have a lot of shit thrown at us in the next four years and maybe even beyond, but I know that I am going to face the storm in the embrace of the people I love, and that is the only way to survive. To change. To hope.

Just love.

Image courtesy of http://16411-presscdn-0-65.pagely.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Screen-Shot-2016-11-09-at-9.24.06-AM.png

Murakami and Darkness

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On the day of this election and the eve of the next four years, we are finally coming to the end of a campaign of hateful national discourse that has stirred up the darker sides of our humanity and country alike. Haruki Murakami, perhaps Japan’s most prominent working author, was recently awarded the Hans Christian Andersen literature award, and in his acceptance speech, addressed this shadow that must accompany the light in our individual selves, our society, and our country. The Guardian has an excellent article here that touches on quite a few topics, but this addressing of darkness seems the most relevant at the moment.

Murakami states that “no matter how high a wall we build to keep intruders out, no matter how strictly we exclude outsiders, no matter how much we rewrite history to suit us, we just end up damaging and hurting ourselves,” a sentiment that opposes segments of both American and European politics, which call for anti immigration measures and to reject refugees and people in need. Continue reading