Archive for the ‘Classics’ Category

Where is Dante When we Need Him?

Friday, January 25th, 2013

Where is Dante when we need him? Faust: A Tragedy is indeed a tragedy, but neither Goethe or Faust know it.  The tragedy is that this Romantic tale lacks a tragic ending. We Christians earnestly, fervently hope that it does.  The notion that there is no moral universe with no consequences, no cause and effect, invites inevitable chaos and nihilism that is so much a part of our Post-Modern world. Faust’s yearning for experience and knowledge created a type for the Modern (1900-1990) and Post-Modern (1990-Present) ages still known as the Faustian hero, though in reality Goethe’s Faust is more a villain than a hero; and the purported villain–Mephistopheles–is one of the most likable characters in the play. His yearnings draw him toward the heavens, yet he is also powerfully attracted to the physical world. Ultimately the tragedy of Goethe’s tragedy, is that mankind cannot have his cake and eat it too:  we cannot reject Christ as Savior and suppose that we will spend eternity in his presence.  The fact that Goethe thinks otherwise is remarkable in its presumptuousness.

Faust is a very learned professor, who is dissatisfied with human knowledge, which by its nature is limited. Using magic, he conjures up the Earth Spirit in his darkened study. Regarding himself as more than mortal, he tries to claim the Earth Spirit as a colleague, but the Spirit rejects him scornfully and disappears.  Despairing, Faust contemplates suicide. He is saved by the sound of the bells welcoming Easter morning. He and his research assistant, Wagner, go out into the sunlight and enjoy the greetings of the crowd, which remembers the medical attention given to the people by Faust and his father. Faust is still depressed, denying the value of medicine and feeling torn between the two souls in him, one longing for earthly pleasures, the other seeking the highest spiritual knowledge. A dog follows Faust and Wagner home.  The dog, of course, is Mephistopheles!   The overall theme of this work is the struggle mankind undertakes to overcome evil and to discriminate between good and evil.

Faust Part One is a complex story. It takes place in multiple settings, the first of which is heaven. Mephistopheles makes a bet with God. He says that he can deflect God’s favorite human being (Faust), who is striving to learn everything that can be known, away from righteous pursuits. The next scene takes place in Faust’s study where Faust, despairing at the vanity of scientific, humanitarian and religious learning, turns to magic for the revelation of ultimate knowledge. He suspects, however, that his attempts are failing. Frustrated, he ponders suicide, but rejects it as he hears the echo of nearby Easter celebrations begin. He goes for a walk with his assistant Wagner and is followed home by a stray poodle.  God is only one among equals—epistemology is more important than faith, truth is subjective, not objective. We are no longer enjoying sunsets with William Wordsworth and speculating on their origins—we are looking into Hell itself, the New Age, Modernism, what Nietzsche calls “the vacuum.”

With Goethe, we move forward four hundred years through the Reformation, through the Renaissance, and into the Enlightenment. The period of Neoclassicism and Romanticism, the greatest epoch in German literature, fell within the lifetime of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The age of Goethe went beyond the Enlightenment’s substitution of science for religion, inasmuch as it ascribed to science only a peripheral position in relation to the ultimate questions of life. It insisted upon the value of feeling in face of the limitations of reason. Impulse, instinct, emotion, and intuition acquired a quasi-religious significance as being the links that connected man with divine nature—one way to define Romanticism. The ideal of the classical age was that of the fully developed personality in which intellect and feeling should be harmoniously balanced. We see the enigmatic Doctor Faust representing all three movements. Three phases may be distinguished in the evolution of this new outlook: Sturm und Drang (storm and stress), Classicism, and Romanticism. Goethe belonged to and profoundly affected the Sturm und Drang movement, which aimed at overthrowing rationalism. There is, however, something that is modern: the emphasis on an amoral vision. We see the beginning of a Friedrich Nietzsche’s “survival of the fittest” mentality.   It continues today . . .

In a World With No Classics

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

In The Western Canon; The Books and School of the Age (1994), Yale literary critic Harold Bloom examines the Western literary tradition by concentrating on the works of twenty-six authors central to the Canon. The “Canon” to Bloom includes the most important classical works in western civilization. This Canon, as it were, establishes a literary tradition. A central component of that tradition is the Homeric Epics, including the Odyssey.  The importance of the Odyssey to the western canon is without dispute.  The problem is, as Bloom laments in his first chapter “An Elegy for the Canon,” no one reads the classics! Or rather, people read any old thing they want and they call it “great literature.” “The Western Canon, despite the limitless idealism of those who would open it up, exists precisely in order to impose limits . . . by its very nature, the Western Canon will never close, but it cannot be forced open by our current cheerleaders.” (Bloom, “An Elegy for the Canon,”)

What does it mean to live in a society and culture that does not read the classics?  It means we have no way to talk to one another.  We no longer have common metaphors and motifs from which to share consensus.  We wonder from one existential moment to another.  Bloom, and I, dread that eventuality.  It is up to you, young people, to be such competent, but Godly writers, that society cannot ignore and then, you will resurrect the old and add to the expanding canon.

My own “classical” list can be found at my website,

Click on “Free Downloads” and then “Classical Reading Lists: Creation to Present.”

What are my top 10 choices:

  1. The Bible
  2. The Odyssey
  3. Confessions, Augustine
  4. Sound and Fury, Faulkner
  5. Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky
  6. War and Peace, Tolstoy
  7. Faust, Goethe
  8. Heart of Darkness, Conrad
  9. Macbeth, Shakespeare
  10. The Wasteland, T. S. Eliot

Student Essays – Part 6

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

Occasionally I feature special essays that my students write.

My students were asked to create imaginery diary entries for Anne Frank (if she had survived).

March 6, 2005
Dear Kitty,
This is Jane, daughter of the woman who has written to you for so many years. I just wanted to write that my beloved mother died yesterday in her sleep. About ten years ago, mom asked me to write to you when she died. I never have kept a diary and am not really sure how to, but I am trying my best for mom. Although you are only an old journal, mom talked about you as if you were her best friend. I just wanted to tell you, even though you are not alive, how much you meant to my mother and how you sustained her through some very tough points in her life. For this, I thank you.

Student Essays – Part 5

Monday, February 8th, 2010

Occasionally I feature special essays that my students write.

My students were asked to create imaginery diary entries for Anne Frank (if she had survived).

October 20, 2001
Dear Kitty,
That fateful day in September has caused me to think. Once I married and began having children, I slowly stopped writing and speaking across America. Now, I want to be able to thank the people who helped free me. I have spoken to John, who is a World War II veteran, about joining the American Legion that he belongs to. I understand that it is for American war veterans, but I feel like this would be a better chance for me to thank them for all they have done, instead of just speaking to them once. John has talked to them and they have decided to make a special exception with me. My first meeting was yesterday, and it was wonderful. When I was introduced formally to all of them, they stood up and began to clap. It was both an honoring and humbling experience. The World War II veterans were especially interested when I explained what life for me was like during the war. I told them about our reactions when the radio announced that the invasion had began. They laughed. I believe that I belonging to the American Legion will be a benefit for both the veterans and myself.

Student Essays – Part 4

Friday, February 5th, 2010

Occasionally I feature special essays that my students write.

My students were asked to create imaginery diary entries for Anne Frank (if she had survived).

September 12, 2001
Dear Kitty,
I am devastated. My country is devastated. The world is devastated. Yesterday, in my own city, the great Twin Towers fell to the ground. Yes, a plane crashed into them and brought them down, on purpose. Who did this? Early reports are saying the ones who caused this are Muslim terrorists from the Middle East. I must admit, when I first heard about this devastating event, immediately I prayed that the Germans were not behind this. Although I am an old lady now, I often worry about the Germans rising up against the Allies. I fear that someone in the German army who has a Nazi past will recognize me and kill me, because I am a Jew. Actually, I never thought about it that much until yesterday afternoon. An event like this has rekindled many peoples’ fears I bet. I must go now, something on the news has caught my attention. !!!!!!

Student Essays – Part 3

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

Occasionally I feature special essays that my students write.

My students were asked to create imaginery diary entries for Anne Frank (if she had survived).

November 8, 1973
Dear Kitty,
I am tired of war! I have had to live through World War II, the Korean War, and the never ending war in Vietnam. This war has lasted fourteen years, and still it continues. I suppose every war has a reason it was fought, and, from what I can tell, the United States has fought for the right reason. But for fourteen years? Of course, the worse part of this war for me has been John serving in Vietnam as a surgeon. I understand why John wants to go, and I will certainly never be one of the anti-war protestors, but you would believe that Vietnam could have solved its differences by now. As someone who had to live in hiding for more than two years because of war, I know firsthand what one goes through in a war torn country. My heart goes out to them.

Student Essays – Part 2

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

Occasionally I feature special essays that my students write.

My students were asked to create imaginery diary entries for Anne Frank (if she had survived).

January 23, 1970
Dear Kitty,
I don’t know how I am able to keep writing to you with a husband and three children! Honestly, I don’t know a single woman my age who still keeps a diary. I suppose you are the only one I can confide in. Well, I suppose I should tell you how my trip to the Netherlands with my family went. But I cannot take too long, since I have to make dinner before John comes home from work. Probably one of the most exciting things on the trip for the twins was the airplane ride there and back. Imagine that, I detest flying. I suppose Andy and Austin take after their father. Little Jane though loved being able to see her grandparents. They absolutely spoil her when they have a chance. It was also fun for the little ones to be able to play with Margot’s children. Although John had met my family before, he had never seen the Secret Annexe. When I showed him it, he couldn’t believe what he saw. Our home in New York may not be very big, but compared to this, it is gigantic! Later on that day, John pulled me away from all the activity and asked me if I was okay with remembering what my life was like during the war. I had never been asked this before. Truthfully, I told him yes. I am glad that this has all happened to me. Otherwise I may not have been where I am now. Because of what I did during the war, I have been able to educate so many Americans about what happened in my small corner of the world, and why they helped me get out of that small corner. I must be going now, I can hear the twins making trouble and the pots boiling.

Student Essays – Part 1

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

Occasionally I feature special essays that my students write.

My students were asked to create imaginery diary entries for Anne Frank (if she had survived).

If Anne Frank had lived…

May 7, 1955
Dear Kitty,
Forgive me Kitty, for losing you. After almost eleven years without you, we have finally been reunited. Let me explain, please. You see, when we heard that the war had ended, we rejoiced! Although everyone told us it was still unsafe, we all ran out into the streets. Oh, Kitty, to be outside after so long. Miraculously, our old house had survived, so we were able to move back in. This is where I lost you, amidst the packing of all our possessions. Although it took me quite a while to come to the realization that all of my friends were dead, I did go back to school. Our family started to adjust to being back in our actual home. And so life carried on. Now here I am, twenty-five years old. You will never guess where I am living now. America! When the war ended, I began to realize how much I owed my life to the allied countries, particularly America. I never knew when I was in hiding how much they were doing for us. So, although I can never fully repay them, I decided to move to America, and tell the people around me how much they were appreciated in Europe. Now, I am an author and speaker who travels across the country to educate Americans on how much of a difference they made to the Netherlands, and many other countries during the war. I have even had the great privilege to meet the president. My family decided to stay in the Netherlands. Daddy has gone back into the business world with Mr. Van Daan. Although I try to visit my old country often, I love my new country. Perhaps one of the greatest joys in America for me is the openness to Jews. I can rest knowing that, as long as I am in America, I will never go into hiding again because of my religious beliefs.
P.S. I never told you how I found you. Well, on my last trip to the Netherlands, I visited our Secret Annexe and discovered you, with an inch of dust. How embarrassed I am

Webinar Vignettes – Part 8

Monday, February 1st, 2010

Hart Crane (1899-1932)

Hart Crane was a disturbed young poet who committed suicide at age 33 by leaping into the sea. He left striking poems, including an epic, The Bridge (1930), which was inspired by the Brooklyn Bridge, in which he ambitiously attempted to review the American cultural experience and recast it in affirmative terms. His exuberant style works best in short poems such as “Voyages” (1923, 1926) and “At Melville’s Tomb” (1926), whose ending is a suitable epitaph for Crane:

This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.

Marianne Moore (1887-1972)

Marianne Moore once wrote that poems were “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” Her poems are conversational, yet elaborate and subtle in their syllabic versification, drawing upon extremely precise description and historical and scientific fact. A “poet’s poet,” she influenced such later poets as her young friend Elizabeth Bishop.

Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

One of many talented poets of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s — in the company of James Weldon Johnson and others — was Langston Hughes. He embraced African- American jazz rhythms and was one of the first black writers to attempt to make a profitable career out of his writing. Hughes incorporated blues, spirituals, colloquial speech, and folkways in his poetry.

One of his most beloved poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (1921, 1925), embraces his African — and universal — heritage in a grand epic catalogue. The poem suggests that, like the great rivers of the world, African American culture will endure and deepen:

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset
I’ve known rivers
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Webinar Vignettes – Part 7

Friday, January 29th, 2010

E. E. Cummings (1894-1962)

A painter, e. e. cummings was the first American poet to recognize that poetry had become primarily a visual, not an oral, art; his poems used much unusual spacing and indentation, as well as dropping all use of capital letters.

Like Williams, Cummings also used colloquial language, sharp imagery, and words from popular culture. Like Williams, he took creative liberties with layout. His poem “in Just ” (1920) invites the reader to fill in the missing ideas:

in Just —
Spring when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame balloonman
whistles far and wee

and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it’s