Archive for the 'General' Category

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March 15, 2018

Today a set of items sewn together by threads firm and flimsy:

  • Some of us read not so much for plot as for style, but what is style? At The New Criterion Dominic Green has some ideas about it, expressed with style. It’s a splendid essay.
  • Joseph Epstein has written a nice appreciation of that delightful stylist P.G. Wodehouse. It led me to Roger Kimball’s older essay in a similar vein. And that led me to Christopher Hitchens’ thoughts on the subject. Wodehouse has been an obsession of mine of late; I’ve nearly completed all the Jeeves and Wooster novels. As displays of wit they are hard to beat.
  • And what about displays of Whit?
  • The film that won the Best Picture Oscar this year was del Toro’s The Shape of Water, which Ross Douthat sees as a rather unsubtle example of liberal myth-making. I’ve not seen it myself.
  • Neither have I seen — it was a strictly auditory affair — a recent debate between Jordan Peterson and philosophy’s own Angel of Death, David Benatar. At issue is anti-natalism, a view that holds that sentient life is an evil. (Peterson’s against it; so am I.)
  • I’m more likely to throw my support behind a proposition implicit in the novels of our great English moralist Charles Dickens: that coffee is an evil.
  • You have to wonder what the dickens the consciousness deniers are thinking. (Technical answer: nothing.) The linked essay is a good one, but over contented with its preferred solution, and not quite grappling with the scope of the problem. Most educated Westerners today are committed to a metaphysics that leads where the consciousness deniers have ended up. Do I hear someone whistling past this graveyard?
  • I think so, and I think I know the tune. Didn’t Ian Bostridge mention it in his reflections on the English choral tradition?

As an envoi, let’s hear something from that tradition. Here is Herbert Howells’ A Spotless Rose, sung by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

Blessed John of Fiesole

April 17, 2016

I’ve written a short appreciation of the painter Blessed John of Fiesole (aka Fra Angelico) for the 52 Saints series at The Three Prayers. I’ve loved Angelico for years, and, with this opportunity to write about him, I’d really hoped to turn out a thoughtful essay on art, beauty, and holiness. Alas, the best I could manage was to witlessly point at a few of his paintings. If you’re interested, it’s here.


April 1, 2016

This month marks the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare. I hope to do a few Shakespeare-themed posts over the next few weeks, but I thought I’d start by collecting some from the past history of this web log:

I’ve also covered a number of adaptations of Shakespeare in the “Great moments in opera” series:

It’s not much, considering how long I’ve been doing this.

Hither and yon

March 30, 2016

A few interesting items that came my way over the past few weeks:

  • Joseph Pieper’s wonderful book Leisure, the Basis of Culture merits whatever loving attention it receives, but I never thought I would see an admiring appraisal illustrated with pictures from children’s books.
  • My heart rose when I heard that Bob Dylan would be releasing another album later this year, rumoured to be called Fallen Angels … and then it fell when I learned it would be another batch of Sinatra songs.
  • Meanwhile, Dylan has made available a cornucopia of notebooks and paraphernalia for scholarly study. Time to book that flight to Tulsa?
  • Fr Paul Murray, O.P. delivers a very fine lecture entitled “Aquinas: Poet and Contemplative”, in which he considers the devotional life of the great philosopher saint, especially as manifest in his Latin poetry. This is a side of St Thomas which we don’t consider often enough.
  • Matthew Buckley has begun a series of articles explaining the physics under study at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, where the Higgs Boson was discovered a few years ago. I’ve not known of Matthew Buckley before, but the first instalment in his series is a superb example of popular science writing.
  • The largest ever exhibition of the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch has opened at the Noordbrabants Museum in the Netherlands. I do love Bosch! The highlight of my visit to Madrid some years ago was spending a few hours in the Bosch room at the Prado gallery, and were I to be in ’s-Hertogenbosch in the next few months I’d be there to see those paintings, and others, again. In this overview of the exhibition, Michael Prodger argues that Bosch is not best understood as a Renaissance artist, much less a modern (as he has sometimes been said to be), but as a medieval artist through and through.
  • Roger Scruton, in an excerpt from a forthcoming book, writes about the relationship between two post-war German masterpieces: Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus and Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen.

For an envoi, let’s hear Metamorphosen, for 23 stringed instruments:

Ash Wednesday, 2012

February 22, 2012

Allegri’s Miserere, sung by The Sixteen.

Shakespeare on film

August 18, 2011

Last week Joe Carter drew attention to a list of great Shakespearean films compiled by the folks at Rotten Tomatoes. I consider myself something of an enthusiast for Shakespeare on film, so I examined the list with interest.

A few observations:

  • I understand that Shakespeare is a great dramatist, but for me it is his use of language that gives the most pleasure. Consequently I am mostly unmoved by very loose adaptations in which the dramatic structure is based on a Shakespearean model but in which the language is updated to modern English. Into this category go films like Ten Things I Hate About You and The Lion King. (The Lion King?!?!) For similar reasons, I am not eager to see Shakespeare adapted into other languages. (Kurosawa’s Ran, for instance, which adapts King Lear, was a big disappointment for me.)
  • There are quite a few highly regarded adaptations that I have never seen, nor, in some cases, heard of. I have seen none of the Laurence Olivier or Orsen Welles adaptations, for instance, which, based on these rankings, is evidently a major oversight. I am an admirer of Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespeare, but somehow I missed his Othello. I was also unaware of Polanski’s Macbeth.
  • Having said that, all of my favourite adaptations made the list. Almereyda’s Hamlet, about which I have written before, made the cut. The 1995 Richard III rests principally on a terrific, riveting performance by Ian McKellen. But my very favourite Shakespearean film, which gives unalloyed pleasure on each viewing, is Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing.

None of which takes anything away from this memorable soliloquy:

I am curious to know which Shakespearean films you would recommend. Feel free to leave a comment.

Ernest Shackleton

February 21, 2011

Ernest Shackleton is another of the great names associated with Antarctic exploration. Like Scott before him, he was a Navy man for whom Antarctica proved irresistible. Between the ages of 25 and 47 he was a part of four Antarctic expeditions, three of which he led himself.

His first taste of Antarctica came as a member of the Discovery Expedition, under the leadership of Robert Falcon Scott. Shackleton held a fairly minor post in the expedition’s roster — third lieutenant — but he was one of three chosen to make an attempt on the South Pole during the Antarctic summer of 1902-3. The trip was not a success, making it barely half the distance to the Pole before turning around, but it did establish a new “furthest south” record, reaching latitude 82°17′. Shackleton was in ill health in the latter part of the trek, suffering from scurvy, and upon arriving back in camp he was shipped home to convalesce.

He was shipped home, which might have seemed an inglorious outcome, but, being the first expedition member to arrive back in England, there was a great deal of interest in him, and he achieved a certain degree of celebrity. Turning the situation to his advantage, he began to make plans for another Antarctic expedition, this time with himself as leader.

By 1907 plans were in place, and the Nimrod Expedition set sail. Early in 1908 they established a base at Cape Royds, on Ross Island, and settled in for the winter. As the Antarctic spring came, they prepared for the expedition’s main event: a trek to the South Pole. The trekking party consisted of Shackleton, Frank Wild, Eric Marshall, and Jameson Adams.

The Beardmore Glacier

They walked south across the Ross Ice Shelf and climbed to the Antarctic Plateau by way of the 160 km (100 mile) long Beardmore Glacier. (That same route would be taken by Scott’s Polar party a few years later.) They then set out across the vast Plateau. After over 2-1/2 months of trekking they had reached a point — latitude 88°23′ — about 160 km (100 mile) from the Pole when Shackleton made the difficult decision to turn back. They were dangerously low on food, and would not have survived the return journey. As it was, they had to make some of their return distance on half-rations. Shackleton later summarized the reasons for his decision in this way: “A live donkey is better than a dead lion”.

Nimrod's South Pole trekkers. L to R: Wild, Shackleton, Marshall, Adams.

Just two years after Shackleton’s near miss, both Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott successfully reached the South Pole. Shackleton, however, had not had his fill, and began casting about for another Antarctic feat to perform. He settled on a trans-Antarctic trek: he would march from one side of Antarctica to the Pole, and then continue to the other coast. The expedition’s formal title was the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, but it is popularly known, after the name of its famous ship, as the Endurance Expedition.

I’ll have more to say about the Endurance Expedition in the coming week; it turned into one of the most beloved adventure stories in recent history. For now, I will just note that Shackleton never took a single step of the trans-Antarctic journey. When he returned to England in 1917, he seems to have still had Antarctica in his heart.

And so it was that in 1921 he set sail yet again, at the helm of the Quest, for an expedition with rather unclear objectives. Many of Shackleton’s men from the Endurance signed on again, and the whole enterprise had an air of nostalgia about it, as though it were an attempt to recapture the camaraderie and adventure of glory days. Once again, as with the Endurance, they docked in South Georgia before proceeding to Antarctica, but this time Shackleton went no further: in the early hours of 5 January 1922 he suffered a heart attack and died. He was 47 years old.

At the request of his wife Shackleton was buried on South Georgia, a fitting resting place for a man who had loved Antarctica, who in life had been restless and adventurous, courageous and resolute, and a well-beloved leader of men.

Shackleton's grave in South Georgia.

Puffy penguin omelette

February 20, 2011

This dish blends traditional French cuisine with an Antarctic surprise. Perfect for lunch and a lite dinner as well as breakfast.


  • 2 penguin wings, minced
  • 3 penguin eggs, separated
  • 2-1/2 tablespoons milk
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 large tomato, peeled and diced
  • 1 green onion, sliced
  • 1/4 teaspoon Bud Ice (chilled)
  • 1/8 teaspoon dillweed


Separate egg yolks from whites. First beat egg whites until stiff. In separate bowl, beat egg yolks until thick. Add in milk, salt and pepper into egg yolks, stirring stiffly. Fold egg yolk mix gently into egg white mix.

Place skillet in oven pre-heated to 300°F. Coat bottom of skillet with butter. Pour omelette mix into skillet and bake until puffy and light brown. While baking, dice tomato, onion and penguin wings, and add with Bud Ice into sour cream.

When omelette is ready, pour penguin mix into omelette. Fold omelette and remove from oven. Pour remainder of penguin mix over top of omelette.

(Recipe courtesy The Penguin Recipe Page)

Antarctica: Nature’s own preservative

February 20, 2011

Shackleton's Nimrod Hut. (Source: Flickr)

One of the striking things one encounters when reading about Antarctic exploration is how well preserved the sites of the explorer’s activity are today, even a century after they were abandoned. There are no grasses to overgrow the huts, no insects to harvest crumbs, and the cold temperatures prevent even bacteria from being an issue. The air, too, is almost totally free of pollutants. Consequently, those fortunate enough to visit the sites where Scott and Shackleton (for instance) made their bases find them much the same as they were at the time.

A recent news item noted that bottles of scotch left over from Shackleton’s 1907 Nimrod expedition were discovered under some snow. The scotch, shielded by the snow from the more extreme temperatures, was still sloshing around in the bottle. Goodness, but I’d like to try some of that.

Shackleton's old scotch, c.1907.

Even more remarkable is how well organic materials are preserved. The photograph below shows a workbench in Scott’s Terra Nova hut, located at Cape Evans. The penguin on the workbench has been dead for a hundred years. The newspaper on the left is a copy of the 29 February 1908 edition of the Illustrated London News.

That penguin looks well-preserved, mind you, but I am not sure that I would want to eat it.

Roald Amundsen

February 18, 2011

Roald Amundsen was a man of many accomplishments, one of which was that he led the first expedition to successfully reach the South Pole. He had also been to the North Pole, and had led the first successful traversal of the Northwest Passage. He was a consummate professional who knew exactly what he was doing, and executed his plans with care and precision. He made it look easy.

If you have ever wondered why the men who explored the polar regions did what they did, it is illuminating to recall Amundsen’s childhood in Norway. As a young boy he had been fascinated by Franklin’s attempt to find the Northwest Passage, and apparently he even tried eating his shoe to see whether he could survive in those harsh conditions. In his book Roald Amundsen: A Saga of the Polar Seas J. Alvin Kugelmass tells us this about Amundsen’s boyhood:

During the months when the weather was fiercest, from November through April, he was rarely home on his days off from school. He went out, usually alone, to traverse the craggy mountains that ring Oslo. He preferred to be alone, for he wanted to test himself against the rugged terrain and the elements without having to explain to a school chum why he was doing so.

There was something in him that pushed him out to the margins.

It is easy to admire Amundsen, but it is hard to love him. Part of the pleasure of reading about Antarctic exploration and adventure is that one can admire the dogged determination and heroic perseverance of the explorers in the face of overwhelming difficulties. They struggled for their lives  in unimaginably harsh conditions, and we are amazed at them, whether they succeeded or not.

Amundsen, precisely because of his cool professionalism, rather spoiled things from this point of view. He arrived on the scene, with his dogs and his skis and his small group of men. His objective was to reach the South Pole, and he did so. His account of the journey is rather perfunctory: they skied a certain distance, camped, did a bit of scouting, had a good sleep, and then continued the next day. There is none of the struggle and agony that one finds in Scott’s journals, for instance, and also none of the warmth and heart. Amundsen completed his journey, there and back, without any major problems.

He reached the South Pole on 14 December 1911, after a journey of almost two months. At that point Scott and his party were already well into their trek, and they arrived just over a month later to find the Norwegian flag flying at the Pole.

Amundsen never returned to Antarctica, but he did continue his activity in the Arctic. In 1928, when he was 55 years old, he boarded an airplane to help search for an airship, the Italia, which was flying exploratory missions in the north and had crashed. His plane was lost, probably in the Barents Sea, with Amundsen and the others on board presumed dead. Their bodies were never found.

Amundsen at the South Pole.