Well, this is as pretentious as it gets: I might as well be an old fuddy-duddy nodding off in my fauteuil with these dusty old tomes. I was tempted to cheat and throw in a few baroque and Renaissance titles from the end of 2014, but some restraint is called for. Perhaps to be continued… (See also my post-1900 favorites list for the year.)
Meditations (165 A.D.) – Marcus Aurelius (trans. Maxwell Staniforth, 1964)
I’d begun reading this in 2007 if not prior but could never plow through the middle. Aurelius reprimanding himself, reminding himself to be strong, ever aware of life’s vanity, the final fatality that will wipe all human affairs away, repeats himself, repeats himself, then repeats himself some more. One passage always used to crack me up, where Aurelius chides himself to be like Antoninus, how he was able because of his sparing diet to hold out to evening, not even requiring to relieve himself by evacuations except at the usual hour; his firmness and steadiness in friendship (book 6, section 30). There’s probably no other book I can page through with as much pleasure as this one, although it is always with a strange, perverse irony that I am reading the innermost thoughts (diary) of a man who was writing only for himself and no other. Ever present in his admonitions to himself, there hangs a gulf of difference between what we would like to be, and our natural tendencies (to err, so human). And, on top of that, the awareness that the austerity Aurelius would foist on himself is, after all, impracticable, infeasible.
The Kama-Sutra of Vatsyayana (trans. Sir Richard Francis Burton, 1883)
The Kama-Sutra attracted my attention when I was growing up in Ohio, where I found it in certain illustrated editions in local bookshops, but it wasn’t until I reached Ottawa that I acquired a pocket edition of the classic translation for a buck. I’m no prude, but I didn’t quite expect to find cock rings, penis piercings, lingam ointments consisting of honey, black pepper, and powder of white thorn apple, instructions for biting and scratching during congress and so on and so forth, but it’s all here somewhere or other. There are some tedious parts, and Vatsyayana’s translator, the intrepid Sir Richard Francis Burton, like old Aurelius has an awful tendency to repeat himself, saying in fifty words what he could say in thirty — but remember: To read an abridgment is to try to visualize the ocean by looking at a glass of water.
The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (1988) – Roberto Calasso (trans. Tim Parks, 1994)
This book exhausted me. Once I got ⅔ or ¾ in, I no longer cared to discover the remainder. But Calasso’s synthesis of so many sources for the principal figures of Greek mythology into a seamless whole, while taking into account the innumerable contradictions and paradoxes, parallels, and echoes is truly a thing of wonder. At least on the way out. It made my head spin. (I’ve included this book here not because it is a pre-1900 book, but because it deals with the ancient world.)
Exercises for Holy Dying (1650-51) – Jeremy Taylor
… every morning creeps out of a dark cloud, leaving behind it an ignorance and sleep as deep as midnight, and undiscerned as are the phantasms that make a chrisom-child to smile: so that we cannot discern what comes hereafter, unless we had a light from heaven brighter than the vision of an angel, even the spirit of prophecy. Without revelation we cannot tell whether we shall eat tomorrow, or whether a squinzy shall choke us: and it is written in the unrevealed folds of divine predestination that many who are this day alive shall to-morrow be laid upon the cold earth, and the women shall weep over their shroud, and dress them for their funeral.
Historie comique des états et des empires de la lune (1653) – Cyrano de Bergerac
A curious thing happened: I reread this Menippean satire especially to find a choice passage I remembered from a prior reading in 2006. The remembered passage I could not find. I just as soon realized that the edition I had been reading was hardly the same as the one I had been reading in 2006, but was based on a 19th-century edition of Bergerac’s French text, which had been censored posthumously by Bergerac’s friend and literary executor, Henri Lebret. Some 250 years later, it was Remy de Gourmont who, in 1908, had the censored passages first published. For your delectation, I offer this beautiful heresy in my own original translation:
After Eve and her husband had eaten the forbidden apple, God, so as to punish the serpent who had led them into temptation, confined him to the body of man. Nor has any human creature since been born who does not, as punishment for the crime of the first transgressor, keep and nourish a serpent in his belly, begotten by this first. You may call it your guts, and you think those necessary for life, but in fact they are nothing but serpents looping back on themselves many times. When you hear your entrails crying out, that is but the serpent whistling who, following the natural appetite by which he drove the first man to eat to excess, is asking for food too; because God, who chose to make you mortal like the other animals, made that insatiable hunger your obsession in order to punish you, such that if you fed it too much, you would smother and squeeze the serpent; or if, when with his invisible teeth the ravenous beast bites your stomach, you refuse him his pittance, he cries, he rages and releases that venom which your doctors call bile, and which heats your body so that, by the poison he diffuses into your arteries, you are soon consumed. Lastly, to show that your guts are a serpent you hold in your body, remember that serpents were all found in the tombs of Asclepius, Scipion, Alexander, Charles Martel, and King Edward, still feeding on the cadavers of their hosts.
The Garden of Cyrus. Or, the Quincunciall, Lozenge, or Net-work Plantations of the Ancients, Artificially, Naturally, Mystically Considered (1658) – Sir Thomas Browne
A curious work of pattern-finding, taken to madness-begetting lengths. Pareidolia. In question is the pattern of reticulation, crossing, or decussation — also known as the quincuncial (quincunx) or lozenge pattern. Nature and planting provide no shortage of striking examples of it. A series of questions verging on incomprehensibility, which we read across a gulf of nearly four centuries. E.g., If any shall further quaery why magneticall Philosophy excludeth decussations, and needles tranversely placed do naturally distract their verticities? Browne starts by talking about crop-planting patterns, but then gradually the pattern becomes the world; the quincunx subsumes all. Certainly one of the more soporific texts with which we had reason to deal this annum. But the ending makes it all worthwhile, as the Quincunx of Heaven runs low, and ’tis time to close the five ports of knowledge… To keep our eyes open longer were but to act our Antipodes. The Huntsmen are up in America, and they are already past their first sleep in Persia. But who can be drowsie at that howr which freed us from everlasting sleep? or have slumbring thoughts at that time, when sleep it self must end, and as some conjecture all shall awake again?
The Monadology (1714) – G.W. Leibniz (trans. D. Garber & R. Ariew, 1991)
This is a powerful, very short philosophical treatise. Voltaire thought the conclusion a little wrongheaded (“do we not verily live in the best of all possible worlds?”), but that’s of no consequence to us here: it’s what comes before that counts: Each portion of matter can be conceived as a garden full of plants, and as a pond full of fish. But each branch of a plant, each limb of an animal, each drop of its humors, is still another such garden or pond. And so on and on to never any end.