Saturday, December 12, 2015

Lemony Snicket, A Series of Unfortunate Events


Opening Passage: (from The Bad Beginning, p. 1)

If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle. This is because not very many happy things happened in the lives of the three Baudelaire youngsters. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire were intelligent children, and they were charming, and resourceful, and had pleasant facial features, but they were extremely unlucky, and most everything that happened to them was rife with misfortune, misery, and despair. I'm sorry to tell you this, but that is how the story goes.

Summary: The three Baudelaire children were playing alone on the beach one day when they are given very bad news: their house has burned down, and their parents both died in the fire. According to their parents' will, they are to be raised by a relative in the most convenient way; because of this, they are placed in the care of Count Olaf, a distant relative in blood, but a very close relative in distance, since he lives in the same city. But they have never heard of him. Count Olaf, who lives in a dirty house with carvings of eyes everywhere, is a not-at-all-pleasant man, and it becomes clear very quickly that he is out to get his dirty hands on the Baudelaire fortune. His plan for doing so is to use a little-known legal provision to marry Violet, which will give him the power to manage the fortune she stands to inherit. The Baudelaires will have to use their abilities to bite, to research, and to invent in order to get out of the mess.

The Bad Beginning is also a very simple beginning; Violet Baudelaire, the eldest, is only fourteen years old, and Sunny is barely more than a baby. Their full scope of action is quite small. But this is a recurring theme throughout the series: everyone's scope of action in the entire world is actually quite small, although it can be increased a bit by things like intrepidity, reading, and mechanical invention. Mr. Poe accomplishes nothing except what is his duty; Justice Strauss is only able to help to the extent that the Baudelaires help her to do so. The nice, decent people accomplish nothing of significance, and the villains fail -- but get away.

In the first book, the children are failed by the law. They will successively be failed by science (The Reptile Room), family (The Wide Window), industry (The Miserable Mill), education (The Austere Academy), high society (The Ersatz Elevator), community (The Vile Village), medicine (The Hostile Hospital), entertainment (The Carnivorous Carnival), their own plan (The Slippery Slope), trusted friends and allies (The Grim Grotto), themselves (The Penultimate Peril), and religion(The End -- although it is much more coyly done than the rest, which is interesting, given that Daniel Holder is himself a secular humanist). This is not particularly surprising; when we speak about any of these things, we are really speaking about what human beings do, and failing themselves and each other is one of the things human beings, sad to say, do best. (It is also not particularly surprising writing-wise, since the series drums up interest by deliberately letting standard story conventions fail on a regular basis.) But one thing does not fail, and that is the firmness with which the Baudelaires stick with each other, through thick and thin, through good and bad.

Much of the storytelling is cyclic. The same things keep happening in different variations. In parts this is handled quite well, so that you hardly notice it unless you are looking for it; in other parts, it does not work so well, as with the more formulaic books at the beginning of the series, in which the cycles are too obvious. This is a series that clearly grew with the writing. One of the flaws that creates is that the things that make the series particularly interesting arise too late with too little foreshadowing. The real appeal of the series is the V.F.D. and its schism, and we have nothing about it, beyond some very brief and very limited clues (like the dedications and vague asides by Lemony Snicket), until the tail-end of The Austere Academy (Book the Fifth). It is only with The Ersatz Elevator, which I would say is the strongest book in the series, capturing both the attractions of the earlier books but also setting up the later books, that the secrets and mysteries begin to unfold -- into other secrets and mysteries, of course, but that is precisely what makes it all interesting. For example, little clue toward the end of the series suddenly sheds a little light -- although only a little light -- on why Aunt Josephine in The Wide Window is so terrified of realtors. And learning about the differences -- and all too often non-differences -- between villains and volunteers, is really what makes it possible to get through the series.

The series is sometimes said to take a turn into moral relativism toward the end, but having read it more than once, I don't think this is at all true. The line between being a villain and being a volunteer -- between being the sort of person who starts fires, both literal and figurative, and the sort of person who puts out fires, both literal and figurative -- always remains clear. It is true that beginning with The Slippery Slope, the Baudelaires start worrying about what they are doing in order to escape the clutches of Olaf, and in particular about whether they are becoming villains themselves; and it is true that by The Penultimate Peril, their participation in villainous deeds has become clear enough. But to focus on this is to miss the point, which is made quite clear by the end. Everything becomes more complicated as the Baudelaires grow older and become more experienced. At the beginning of the series, for instance, the occasional mentions of the Baudelaire parents always place them in the glow that comes from children missing their parents. As we learn more of the role of the Baudelaire parents in the V.F.D., a few qualifications start to arise, as we wonder about their role in the schism, the theft of Esmé Squalor's sugar bowl, and, worst of all, the poison darts at the opera. Likewise, we learn that there is more to Count Olaf than one might think, and that he has a surprising amount in common with the Baudelaires. But this is simply the price of knowledge, and of the failures of the world.

Villainy and volunteering are abstract, but villains and volunteers are not. Villains may sometimes volunteer good deeds; volunteers may occasionally do villainous ones. It can sometimes be extraordinarily difficult to tell the difference, particularly since we all have our secrets, good and bad. But the difference between the two sides themselves is not blurred by this. The Baudelaires growing more uneasy about what they do in order to escape indicates a maturation of their ability to tell the difference between what is villainous and what is not. It does not change their recognition that they should not be villains. Count Olaf may have had things bad himself; but he remains unrepentant of the bad deeds he has done, a villain until the end.

For here is the thing of it. As the villains and the volunteers result from a schism in the V.F.D., so it is throughout the world. All our lives are a series of unfortunate events. They are even, over and over again in a neverending cycle of variations, the same kinds of unfortunate events -- deaths, and divisions, and confusions, and losses, and serious mistakes, and failures, and betrayals, and fires figurative and literal. We all experience the treachery of the world -- and we all contribute new treacheries to it. We all have secrets, bad as well as good. We even all use the same kinds of excuses, over and over and over again -- give the people what they want, don't rock the boat, he who hesitates is lost, we didn't have a choice, we were doing our jobs, what else could we do? Whether what we are doing is good or bad is not a matter of what team we are on, even though some teams are better to be on than others. But this is all just the way moral life is. It is not relativism; it is realism.

Thus far. But the series, of course, is unremitting and unrelenting in its pessimism, in part for the comic effect and fun of it. The regular theme is that the world is a terrible place, so one might as well be kind and noble, and to the very end it appeals to precisely that sense in the readers. But it is a weak appeal to a weak hope, and does not pretend to be anything else.

To a great extent, of course, talking about these heavy moral issues is foreign to the nature of the books. The series is not about morality. It is about reading. Morality has to come up because morality plays an ineliminable role in reading, with villains, and heroes, and all that. And morality is the heaviest kind of topic with which books deal, pretty much by definition, since all of our heaviest topics are kinds of things we call morality. But it is far from being the only thing involved in reading. There is the delight in reversal, the love of words and the play of expressions, our taste for allusions and clues, and most of all, for our love of reading itself. (This is one reason why moral relativism is impossible for the series: the pursuit of being well-read is a marker, defeasible but real, between villains and volunteers and the kinds of moral characters they have.) People often complain that The End does not solve the mysteries. There was never any intention to do so. The entire series is structured as a novel. We start with The Bad Beginning, the action rises and becomes more intricate through the next several books, until we reach Hotel Denouement in The Penultimate Peril, and, finally, find ourselves at The End. And as Lemony Snicket tells us, the beginning of a story is not an absolute beginning, nor is the end of a story an absolute end. But more than that, the series was never merely about the Baudelaires, or even, despite appearances, primarily about the Baudelaires. The series is the story of the reader reading a story about the Baudelaires. This is explicit throughout. That story began before The Beginning. And no matter what may happen to the Baudelaires or not, the end of the story of the reader reading about them does not and cannot stop with The End.

Favorite Passage: (from The End, pp. 232-233)

The sun filtered through the shade of the enormous apple tree, and shone on the gold block letters on the spine of the book. The children wondered whether the letters had been printed there by their parents, or perhaps by the previous writer of the commonplace book, or the writer before that, or the writer before that. They wondered how many stories the oddly titled history contained, and how many people had gazed at the gold lettering before paging through the crimes, follies, and misfortunes and adding more of their own, like the thin layers of an onion. As they walked out of the arboretum, led by their clay-footed facilitator, the Baudelaire orphans wondered about their own unfortunate history, and that of their parents and all the other castaways who washed up on the shores of the island, adding chapter upon chapter to A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Recommendation: Recommended.


Quotations from:

Lemony Snicket, The Bad Beginning, HarperCollins (New York: 1999).

Lemony Snicket, The End, Egmont (London: 2006).

Friday, December 11, 2015

They're 'Bout What Everybody Knows

Hard Luck
by Edgar Guest

Ain’t no use as I can see
In sittin’ underneath a tree
An’ growlin’ that your luck is bad,
An’ that your life is extry sad;
Your life ain’t sadder than your neighbor’s
Nor any harder are your labors;
It rains on him the same as you,
An’ he has work he hates to do;
An’ he gits tired an’ he gits cross,
An’ he has trouble with the boss;
You take his whole life, through an’ through,
Why, he’s no better off than you.

If whinin’ brushed the clouds away
I wouldn’t have a word to say;
If it made good friends out o’ foes
I’d whine a bit, too, I suppose;
But when I look around an’ see
A lot o’ men resemblin’ me,
An’ see ’em sad, an’ see ’em gay
With work t’ do most every day,
Some full o’ fun, some bent with care,
Some havin’ troubles hard to bear,
I reckon, as I count my woes,
They’re ’bout what everybody knows.

The day I find a man who’ll say
He’s never known a rainy day,
Who’ll raise his right hand up an’ swear
In forty years he’s had no care,
Has never had a single blow,
An’ never known one touch o’ woe,
Has never seen a loved one die,
Has never wept or heaved a sigh,
Has never had a plan go wrong,
But allas laughed his way along;
Then I’ll sit down an’ start to whine
That all the hard luck here is mine.

One of the reasons for all the Guest poems recently is that Edgar Guest is sharply criticized by Lemony Snicket, especially in The Grim Grotto, who describes him as "a writer of limited skill, who wrote awkward, tedious poetry on hopelessly sentimental topics", and in which the villains wear Edgar Guest badges. But it's only in reading him a bit more recently that I've realized how many optimistic poems Guest has -- I've only posted a handful -- which, of course, cuts entirely against the melancholy pessimism of the Lemony Snicket persona. He certainly wouldn't say that the misfortunes of the Baudelaire orphas are "'bout what everybody knows"! So it's perhaps not surprising that Lemony Snicket hates Edgar Albert Guest.

But he makes a good poet for times of grading!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Political Syllogism

Every State contains in itself three Powers, the universal united Will of the People being thus personified in a political triad. These are the Legislative Power, the Executive Power, and the Judiciary Power.—1. The Legislative Power of the Sovereignty in the State, is [166] embodied in the person of the Lawgiver; 2. the Executive Power is embodied in the person of the Ruler who administers the Law; and 3. the Judiciary Power, embodied in the person of the Judge, is the function of assigning every one what is his own, according to the Law (Potestas legislatoria, rectoria et judiciaria). These three Powers may be compared to the three propositions in a practical Syllogism:—the Major as the sumption laying down the universal Law of a Will, the Minor presenting the command applicable to an action according to the Law as the principle of the subsumption, and the Conclusion containing the Sentence or judgment of Right in the particular case under consideration.

Immanuel Kant, Science of Right

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Just Start in to Sing as You Tackle the Thing

It Couldn't Be Done
by Edgar Guest

Somebody said that it couldn’t be done
But he with a chuckle replied
That “maybe it couldn’t,” but he would be one
Who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.
So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin
On his face. If he worried he hid it.
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it!

Somebody scoffed: “Oh, you’ll never do that;
At least no one ever has done it;”
But he took off his coat and he took off his hat
And the first thing we knew he’d begun it.
With a lift of his chin and a bit of a grin,
Without any doubting or quiddit,
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it.

There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done,
There are thousands to prophesy failure,
There are thousands to point out to you one by one,
The dangers that wait to assail you.
But just buckle in with a bit of a grin,
Just take off your coat and go to it;
Just start in to sing as you tackle the thing
That “cannot be done,” and you’ll do it.

I am immersed in a sea of grading this week and into the next, so things should be fairly light around here.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Metaphor and Knowledge

Analogy of proportion is the basis of the figure of speech known as metaphor. It would be a mistake, however, to infer from this that what is thus analogically predicated of a number of things belongs intrinsically and properly only to one of them, being transferred by a mere extrinsic denomination to the others; and that therefore it does not express any genuine knowledge on our part about the nature of these other things. It does give us real knowledge about them. Metaphor is not equivocation; but perhaps more usually it is understood not to give us real knowledge because it is understood to be based on resemblances that are merely fanciful, not real. Still, no matter how slender and remote be the proportional resemblance on which the analogical use of language is based, in so far forth as it has such a real basis it gives us real insight into the nature of the analogues. And if we hesitate to describe such a use of language as "metaphorical," this is only because "metaphor" perhaps too commonly connotes a certain transferred and improper extension of the meaning of terms, based upon a purely fanciful resemblance.

Peter Coffey, Ontology, pp. 38-39.

Maronite Year VII

The Feast of the Immaculate Conception does not have a distinctive liturgical celebration in the Maronite calendar. However, they do celebrate it. The way in which they do so brings a bit of the Season of Pentecost into the Season of Announcement. In the Season of Pentecost, the calendar goes into a cycle of commemorations (actually two cycles, Week A and Week B, which alternate), with each day of the week having its own theme. Wednesdays are the commemorations for the Virgin Mary, and so any special Marian feasts throughout the year not already given their liturgical celebration use one of the two commemorations for the Wednesday of Pentecost.

Feast of the Immaculate Conception
Hebrews 7:11-17; Luke 11:27-32


Our Lord on the cross a great gift gave us;
Mary He made the Mother of the Church.
We turn to you, O Mother; intercede!
May the Word who dwelt in you dwell in us;
may He who took His true body from you
make us His true Body through your prayers.

On His cross, Christ carried the human race;
you, O Mary, carried Christ crucified.
In your womb, in your heart, you carried Him.
Through you He fulfilled prophetic promise
made to Abraham, Judah, and David.
You gave to us our High Priest; intercede!

Blessed are you above all women on earth,
blessed be God who by you gave a great blow,
striking the head of the old enemy.
Your deed of hope we will always recall,
for you, fountain of mysteries, are pure.
Thus we are astonished and worship God.

You had baptism's grace from the beginning.
You gave birth to Him because you believed;
you heard the word and had a pure faith.
That faith made you Mother of the Word!
Our Lord on the cross a great gift gave us;
Mary He made the Mother of the Church.


By your Yes, O maiden, you made truths true.
The prophets had spoken great things to come;
through your faith those prophecies were fulfilled.
They were the words of God, who does not lie,
and by the Son you bore they were made true.

So great a thing it is to bear the Lord!
And yet your faith is greater than that deed!
As you were made our Mother on His cross,
for our defense, O Mary, intercede!

By your Yes, O maiden, you gave us light,
for Light was born from your unsullied sky.
In His light, the light of God we will see
for from you comes a Priest forevermore,
the Lamb upon the Throne, who is our Light.

So great a thing it is to bear the Lord!
And yet your faith is greater than that deed!
As you were made our Mother on His cross,
for our defense, O Mary, intercede!

Monday, December 07, 2015

Go Forward Bravely

The Future
by Edgar Guest

"The worst is yet to come:"
So wail the doubters glum,
But here's the better view;
"My best I've yet to do."

The worst some always fear;
To-morrow holds no cheer,
Yet farther on life's lane
Are joys you shall attain.

Go forward bravely, then,
And play your part as men,
For this is ever true:
"Our best we've yet to do."

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Notable Links, Linkably Noted

* A hundred years of Orson Welles

* The Turks & Caicos National Museum has a collection devoted to messages in bottles -- given the location of the islands relative to the currents, a lot of things wash up on their shores, so it's one of the places messages in bottles are most likely to end up, if they survive at all.

* C.S. Lewis’ Greatest Fiction: Convincing American Kids That They Would Like Turkish Delight

* Olga Lizzini, Ibn Sina's Metaphysics, at the SEP

* A review of some new letters by Iris Murdoch, with some brief but interesting comments on her reading of Tolkien.

* Terence Blake discusses Neal Stephenson's Anathem

* An interesting discussion of two languages that have massively richer dedicated olfactory vocabularies than most languages.

* Richard J. Ross, Binding in Conscience: Early Modern English Protestants and Spanish Thomists on Law and the Fate of the Soul

* An account of what a professional quarterback has to do to get ready for a game.

* Mar Ignace Youssif III Younan, Patriarch of the Syrian Catholic Church, has some sharp words for how the West has handled the Syrian situation.

* A significant number of Iraqis think that the United States is actively backing ISIS. Of course, one has only to look at the comments to see that you can find Americans who think this, too.

* I mentioned last year that there was an English translation of the official Ukrainian Greek Catholic catechism coming out at some point; it is currently on track for release in early 2016.

* I've been doing a poem cycle on the Maronite liturgical year. If you're interested in the Melkite liturgical year, the Eparchy of Newton has placed some excellent easy-to-use commentaries on it online.

Maronite Year VI

The first four Sundays of the Season of Announcement form a sort of forerunner of the Nativity, covering as they do the prophetic role of John the Baptist: his conception, the conception of the one he heralds, his first prophetic recognition of the one he heralds, and, today, his birth.

Sunday of the Birth of John the Baptizer
Galatians 4:21-5:1; Luke 1:57-66

I will send my herald, the Lord has said;
he will prepare the way before his Lord,
who will come to the Temple;
the herald of the covenant will come.

Be glad, O woman who never bore child;
rejoice and shout out with prophetic voice;
your child, a prophet, has come,
a covenant linking two covenants.

Rejoice, O woman who never bore child;
all neighbors share your resounding joy.
A sign of God's grace has come,
the bright star who goes before the promise.

By light of natural law and Torah
You prepared us for the Gospel light.
By prophets You spoke Your word
and by Your forerunner You showed Your way.

In the womb the Lord knew Jeremiah;
in the womb the prophet John knew his Lord.
None greater has woman borne
than he who preached the Christ while yet unborn.

Cry out, O woman who never bore child;
your child brings word of great liberation.
He will be the voice that speaks truth,
a fuller bleaching stained garments white.

Praise God, O woman who never bore child;
God is gracious -- let that be the boy's name.
An astounding birth is seen;
infinity breaks the bound of the world.

The child of wonder is the first token,
the first sign, of a glorious freedom;
he waits for the Lamb of God
and cries out for all to make way for God.

The Father sent John with a pure mission,
to herald the Son by word and by deed
in the prophetic Spirit;
O Holy Trinity, save us from sin.