Thursday, 21 April 2016

History Geeks Gonna History Geeks

You know how I like history? (You don't? Hello, new reader! Do stay, but be warned, I do like history A LOT).

So, as a notorious history geek, I went and did a thing. To be perfectly exact, Simon did a lot of it. But I digress.

Patapon has now reached the age where he's talking up a storm, loving all the new words, doing adorable distortions which we only half-heartedly correct (except "avidoosh", we are never ever correcting avidoosh. He is going to university still thinking that is how you say "elephant". Don't you dare tell him otherwise!). It is fascinating to see him navigate the two languages, which he does remarkably well, and delighting in sounds.


"Tout Tourne", for example, is delightful ("Everything's spinning" for the non-francophones)

One thing he does not do however, is discriminate. As far as he is concerned, a word is a word. It is not high-brow, or impressive or vulgar. It's just a collection of sounds. 

Enter the thing we did.

If any word is just a collection of sounds, then why teach him "Thomas the Tank Engine", just because it is meant to be child-friendly? Why not, I don't know, this one instead?


So we went ahead and printed a few historical characters,taped them to his shelves and taught him to recognise them. So far we have Elizabeth I, Bob Dylan, Karl Marx (Patapon's favourite), Louis XIV, Gandhi, The Beatles, Henry VIII, Pope Francis ("Pa-pi-fa"), Napoléon, Cardinal Richelieu, Caesar, Alexander the Great and Einstein. We discussed having Adolf Hitler, but the thought of our toddler having a picture of him in his room did give us pause, so we decided against it in the end.

Now, before you start shouting at me because he is way too young for formal education, let me be clear: he LOVES it. Most of the time, he is the one who wants to play.

Secondly, we are under no illusion that this is in any way educational. Give it whatever spin you want, he simply doesn't know who these people are, even though he can recognise them in Gombrich and their names sound familiar. 
Maybe because we have done this, he will feel like they are already old friends when we do start actually teaching him about them. Maybe. Maybe not. I am ok with that. 

I think the only way in which this can be useful is more as an expression of our family culture. Patapon is the son of two history geeks, who frequently talk about the ins and outs of Napoléon's career or the role of Talleyrand at the Congress of Vienna as chit-chat during dinner. He will be free to reject this as he grows more aware of what he likes, but right now, we're just going to be happy history geeks together. Because that's what we do.

Besides he's never watched a single episode of Thomas the Tank Engine in his life. As far as he is concerned, "Tomash" is his friend "Ovil"'s daddy, who taught her how to recognise Hera and Apollo, and whose tome on Shakespeare he likes to use as a construction block. 

Geeks, you know. There are more of us than you know.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Treasury of Lies, Magazine of Deceits, Storehouse of Rogueries, Inventor of Mischief and Publisher of Absurdities

So, I finished Don Quixote.

Our laptop died (booo!), so I had lots of time to read (yay!) and no opportunity to blog (boo!) - can you handle how much of a roller-coaster of emotions this post already is?

But now we have a new one, so, here are my thoughts (which I am sure you were all awaiting with bated breath).

If you don't care about Don Quixote, I've added some random pictures of the boys to distract you. If you like neither literature nor babies, I can't do anything for you (and seriously doubt that you are even a human being at this stage).

Jude thinks books make excellent Duplo blocks

It is easy to assume that whatever is current is new. But that is pure Whiggishness. Humanity does not follow “the urge and impulse of the ages that humanity will move forward toward its goal” (as Winston would put it) and neither does literature. Extreme intertextuality and an abundance of metanarratives are expected in the texts written around the time when the buzz-words were created. But one begins to suspect that the best (and possibly funniest) example of such things is actually to be found in a Spanish novel written at the beginning of the seventeenth century.

I wonder whether Cervantes simply set out to make people laugh, and in doing so, stumbled upon what serious academics would enunciate with much gravitas and no small amount of self-satisfaction in their clever lectures three hundred years later. Except Cervantes did not bother to name his inventions, nor did he assume that they should entitle him to the reverence of starry-eyed eighteen-year-olds who have just finished reading Chomsky.

But I digress.

Gabriel is appalled by the state of healthcare in Angola.

The structure of Don Quixote revolves around a constant back and forth between presenting books as yielding extreme power and influence, and exposing their fakery with a broad laugh (and a few farts). In doing so, Cervantes both reveals the power of a good story and its very mechanism. He both enjoys the fine embroidery on the emperor’s cloak, and shouts out from the crowd that the emperor is, in fact, naked.

Power to the books

The whole concept of the novel is based on the idea that novels could so “turn the imagination” that an avid reader could step out of reality and into the book, and force his favourite stories to fit onto an unsuspecting reality. An innocent windmill is turned into a giant, flocks of sheep into battling armies, so strong is the hold books of chivalry have on Don Quixote’s mind.

And no-one questions that books could indeed, have such a power. The barber and the priest find no other way to protect Don Quixote than to burn his books (after careful selection – at least before they, and the narrator, get bored of the process -). Countless characters “marvel at the extent of Don Quixote’s madness”, a few play on it (the innkeeper at the beginning, the Duke and Duchess in the second part), but all accept that this is indeed, a possible result of book-reading. Just like Rousseau took the theatre deadly seriously and therefore condemned it in his Lettre à d’Alembert.

This strong agency of narratives on what passes for reality in the book, leads to the easy stepping from one to the other everywhere in the book, through Don Quixote’s own inventions, first and foremost, through his friends’ stratagems and telling of tall tales to bring him back home, second, but also in the ease with which narratives sprout everywhere that the story takes us. One cannot stop at an inn without finding a mysterious (and entertaining) novel, no shepherd offers you food without regaling you also with a long narrative, complete with poems and laments, and Don Quixote himself cannot argue without launching into a vivid description of a castle hidden under a burning lake.

In fact, narratives are held in such esteem that any interruption leads to dramatic punishment (often involving the beating up of the hero himself, such as when he cannot resist interrupting Cardenio when he comments briefly on books of chivalry). The characters also welcome joyfully any offer of a tale (with the narrator apologising first profusely for his lack of art in doing so) and liberally heap praises onto the teller, his task completed.

Cervantes’ world is one where the argument between men of arms and men of letters is very much moot, as Don Quixote is unable to achieve anything through actions, whilst books reign everywhere supreme.

Patapon also thinks that books are a serious business

This book is naked

And yet. And yet. Cervantes does not simply leave the books on their pedestal, he also methodically points out their flaws, conceits and patterns.

The first obvious victim of his dismantling, is the genre of chivalry books as a whole. Much of it is now lost on us, but the few references I did catch hint at the delight readers at the time might have had. Playing on the trope of every mighty blow of the sword renting opponents asunder, for example, every one of DQ’s opponents, would have surely been cleft from head to groin, had they not shifted ever so slightly at the last minute, and escaped with nothing but a bad bruise. The body also constantly invites itself into DQ’s delusion (and therefore, into the books it parodies): Sancho poos by his side during a night of terrified vigil (which is of course all for naught), and his need to wee reveals to DQ that he indeed, cannot have been enchanted after all. The elevated tales of knight-errantry are tied back down, and very firmly so, to the very earthly bodies of a thin hidalgo and his fat peasant companion.

But this is only the first, most obvious dismantling. Another aspect is a reflexion on the book itself as it is being written. All the characters marvel at DQ’s madness, and yet no-one appears to think anything odd in the fact that every shepherd they meet is a jilted lover, every woman is the most beautiful star of the firmament, and that all protagonists seem to trip over themselves to conveniently gather in one miserable inn of la Mancha in order to offer resolutions to the countless digressions Cervantes revels in creating.

Indeed, most of the narrative can actually be seen as a succession of such dizzying mirror tricks. The preface gives us a clever course in how to fake erudition (I suspect all my students to have read it), which the narrator immediately puts into practice to convince us of the veracity of his tale. Cervantes pushed the conceit even further: if the first book was a book on the impact of books, the second is a book on the impact of a book on the impact of books. If the first book shows novels being found and stories being told in a constant juxtaposition, the second book actually criticises these aspects of the first book as part of its own narrative. The result is that the reader is never allowed to be a wilful dupe, but rather encouraged to join the author in enjoying stories, without ever taking them (or himself) too seriously.

 ‘Tis a pity our current authors, who are so adept at pointing out their own cleverness in handling such devices, have lost the ability to tell good and memorable stories whilst doing so. I suspect this is because Cervantes, whilst exposing the mechanisms, also delights in the working clock. I don’t know how many high-brow writers still know how to delight in anything.

And to explain the title of this post, here is my favourite quote from the book:

[Don Quixote to Sancho Panza] "Avoid my presence, monster of nature, treasury of lies, magazine of deceits, storehouse of rogueries, inventor of mischiefs, publisher of absurdities, and enemy of the respect due to royal personages! Begone! appear not before me on pain of my indignation!"

I'm waiting for the right moment to use it on someone. :-)