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"Read No History; Only Biography…. "

Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini
       -- Benvenuto Cellini; read by Jonathan Reese
    The slimy underside of the golden Renaissance: corruption, casual violence, veniality, betrayal. Benvenuto Cellini, a skilled goldsmith and sculptor, counted kings, dukes, popes and cardinals among his patrons,  and he strode through the thick of it all. He relates some genuinely fascinating stories, such as a prison escape, and how he carried on casting a statue while the roof was on fire, a storm blew through the windows and the bronze was curdling. But Benvenuto was a contentious fellow, and most of the "Autobiography" consists of detailed descriptions of innumerable quarrels and assaults, interspersed with an occasional homicide. One sword fight being very like another, this is not as exciting as it sounds. Other anecdotes are often distasteful, sometimes appalling: Benvenuto and the pope screaming at one another over a piece of table décor; Benvenuto, in company with two priests, carrying out necromantic rituals in the middle of the Roman Coliseum; Benvenuto's cheerful account of raping a 13-year-old servant girl. His works (he assures us repeatedly) "astonished" everyone who saw them. He was brilliant at everything he undertook. But as a man, he repels.

Blake
       -- Peter Ackroyd; read by Ian Whitcomb
    Poor William Blake. He was born into an age of reason, the era of scientific enlightenment. But he extolled the powers of imagination, mysticism and what we nowadays call the 'subconscious' (Blake had an intuitive understanding of psychology.) He admitted to seeing visions and spectral beings, and he conversed with angels. He was high-tempered, contentious and quick to suffer hurt feelings. Most people thought him mad. He boasted little formal education, save as an apprentice engraver. He worked at this trade throughout his career. His patrons regarded him as more skilled workman than brilliant artist, and they smiled condescendingly at his poetry. An exhibition of his paintings (held in his brother's hosiery shop because Blake was too poor to rent a hall) produced few visitors and no sales. Today, those paintings hang in great museums, and his poetry astounds us with its power and beauty. Justice has finally come for William Blake. He has even found a worthy biographer. Ackroyd writes with sympathy and understanding about this most peculiar man, his extraordinary works, and the times in which he lived. This richly detailed narrative gives us Blake as the complicated, vital, sometimes rough-hewn, eccentric, but kindly man of visionary genius he probably was.

Dante
       -- R. W. B. Lewis; read by Grover Gardner
    We know Dante Alighieri as the stern-faced author of the "Divine Comedy", a poet of encompassing vision who mapped out  Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, and unflinchingly placed several popes and dignitaries in the lower regions. But Dante was also a love poet; the lover-- hopelessly and from afar -- of the beautiful, doomed Beatrice. He was a soldier, a statesman, and, finally, a homesick exile from his beloved Florence. Lewis treats his subject with respect but not awe, bringing  out the many facets of this extraordinary man without losing sight of the fact that he was a man. He ties together Dante's life and his work. "La Vita Nuova", Dante's poignant, semi-autobiographical, partly allegorical story of himself and Beatrice Polinari, receives much attention. It merits this, for it serves as a prelude to Dante's great work. As pilgrim Dante and his guide, Virgil wend their course from the dark wood where "the straight way was lost", through the depths of Hell, up Mount Purgatory and through the celestial regions beyond, Lewis takes us with them, explaining incidents and characters, serving as our guide. Anyone interested in Dante and his work should enjoy this.

Disraeli
       -- Andre Maurois; read by Bill Kelsey
    "Read no history:" Benjamin Disraeli once counseled, "nothing but biography, for that is life without theory." Disraeli's life was always a work in progress, and this biography is as much a work of art as of history. "Disraeli" presents to us-- with much insight, warmth and humor -- a complex, strongly ambitious, sometimes ruthless, sometimes contradictory but ultimately very sympathetic man. Maurois manages to explain Disraeli's byzantine political course, and the fixed tenets which guided it, without being dull. He examines the influences of Disraeli's Jewish heritage and his Christian faith. Best of all, he brings to life three vital partners in Disraeli's story: his wife, Mary Anne, who told a friend, "Dizzy married me for my money, but if he had it to do over, he'd marry me for love"; his great enemy, William Gladstone, who viewed their parliamentary jousts as a struggle between Good and Evil; and his sovereign, Victoria, who began by distrusting him, and came to love him as a true friend. This is a wonderful book, excellently read, and it serves as a fine introduction to the life of a remarkable man.

The Education of Henry Adams
        -- Henry Adams; read by Jonathan Reese
    Grandson and great-grandson of presidents, historian, and self-described "stable-companion for statesmen", Henry Adams must have been a lovely man to know. He writes with gentle, self-depreciating humor, insight and a genuine interest in the world. He gives us wonderful little vignettes: a rebellious young Henry being taken by the hand and led, firmly but silently, to school by his ex-president grandfather; Henry in England a dozen years later, realizing his British education has prepared him to be an English country gentleman…"of the time of Chaucer"; an elderly Henry Adams, still in search of "accidental education", strolling through Rome and pondering the meaning of history. Many quotations and pithy sayings originate from this book ("a friend in power is a friend lost"), and it is a pleasure to hear them in context. Adams, a bit player in the major events of his time, assumes his audience knows the details of such matters as the Trent Affair, the Exposition of 1893, and William McKinley's foreign policy. He was interested in theories of history, sometimes wandering off into abstruse trains of thought. But it is worth a little mystification to spend time in the company of such a man.

Leonardo Da Vinci
       -- Sherwin Nuland; read by Scott Brick
    A fascinating little book, written with an enthusiasm for Da Vinci and his work which is contagious. One may not agree with all Nuland's conclusions, but he writes with insight and passion, and this is well worth a listen.

Oscar Wilde
       -- Richard Ellmann; read by David Case
    Oscar Wilde defined the 1890s, and he holds a place in our lives today. We still read his works, attend his plays, quote his
bon mots. ("I never seek to take the credit;" Dorothy Parker remarked, "We all assume that Oscar said it.") Richard Ellmann's Oscar Wilde provides a definitive biography: thoroughgoing, well written, sympathetic and insightful. He presents a Wilde of charisma and complexity, at ease with both the miners of Leadville, Colorado and the Prince of Wales; a disciple of both the romantic, moralizing Ruskin and the aesthetic admirer of corruption Pater; a man drawn toward both the Apollonian and the Dionysian, Hellenism and Catholicism. His desire to charm vied with his urge to outrage. (He was also, Ellmann tells us, "the kindest of men". ) His ambiguous sexuality - eventually resolved into homosexuality - his need to take risks and, perhaps, his own naiveté, set the stage for one of literary history's great tragedies. But then, Wilde's greatest art was always his own life.
 


Quotes to Note

(Continued from page 26)

telling, and worthless. In other words, modernism didn't attack academic art. It attacked art itself."
       -- Fred Ross,
Bouguereau and the Real 19th Century

    "You are the noblest and dearest thing that the world has had to show me; and if no lesser loss than the loss of you could have brought me so much bitterness, I would still rather have had this to endure than have missed the fullness of wonder and worship which nothing else could have made known to me."
       -- Dante Gabriel Rossetti,
letter to Jane Morris, 1870

    "Poetry should seem to the hearer to have been always present to his thought, but never before heard."
       -- Dante Gabriel Rossetti

    "I'm not sure that I believe in good spirits, but I have the uncanny feeling that there might be evil spirits."
        -- Peter H. Rossi

    "All things are literally better, lovelier, and more beloved for the imperfections which have been divinely appointed, that the law of human life may be Effort, and the law of human judgment, Mercy."
       -- John Ruskin,
The Stones of Venice II, (1853)

    "I believe I once had affections as warm as most people; but partly from evil chance, and partly from foolish misplacing of them, they have got tumbled down and broken to pieces .... Now you know the best and worst of me, and you may rely upon it it is the truth. If you hear people say I am utterly hard and cold, depend upon it it is untrue. Though I have no friendships and no loves, I cannot read the epitaph of the Spartans at Thermopylae with a steady voice to the end, and there is an old glove in one of my drawers that has lain there eighteen years, which is worth something to me yet."
       -- John Ruskin,
letter to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1856

    "… the first strong impression which the spectator receives from the whole scene is, that whatever sin it may have been which has on this spot been visited with so utter a desolation, it could not at least have been ambition."
       -- John Ruskin,
describing the island of Torcello near Venice II (1853)

    "Perhaps there is no more impressive scene on earth than the solitary extent of the Campagna of Rome under evening light. Let the reader imagine himself for a moment withdrawn from the sounds and motion of the living world, and sent forth alone into this wild and wasted plain. The earth yields and crumbles beneath his foot, tread he never so lightly, for its substance is white, hollow, and carious, like the dusty wreck of the bones of men.' The long knotted grass waves and tosses feebly in the evening wind, and the shadows of its motion shake feverishly along the banks of ruin that lift themselves to the sunlight. Hillocks of mouldering earth heave around him, as if the dead beneath were struggling in their sleep ; scattered blocks of black stone., four-square,  remnants of mighty edifices, not one left upon another, lie upon them to keep them down. A dull purple, poisonous haze stretches level along the desert, veiling its spectral wrecks of massy ruins, on whose rents the red light rests like dying fire on defiled altars. The blue ridge of the Alban mount lifts itself against a solemn space of green, clear, quiet sky. Watch-towers of dark clouds stand steadfastly along the promontories of the Apennines. From the plain to the mountains, the shattered aqueducts, pier beyond pier, melt into the darkness, like shadowy and countless troops of funeral mourners, passing from a nation's grave. Let us, with Claude, make a few "ideal" alterations in this landscape. First, we will reduce the multitudinous precipices of the Apennines to four sugar-loaves. Secondly, we will remove the Alban mount, and put a large dust-heap in its stead. Next, we will knock down the greater part of the aqueducts, and leave only an arch or two, that their infinity of length may no longer be painful from its monotony. For the purple mist and declining sun, we will substitute a bright blue sky, with round white clouds. Finally, we will get rid of the unpleasant ruins in the foreground; we will plant some handsome trees therein, we will send for some fiddlers, and get up a dance, and a picnic party."
       -- John Ruskin,
on Claude Lorraine

    "You might sooner get lightning out of incense smoke than true action or passion out of your modern English religion."
       -- John Ruskin,
Sesame and Lilies, (1865).

    "At most, one exchange would be possible between the most distant galaxies in the universe. Two exchanges of information at the velocity of light would take more time than there is, according to modern cosmology."
           -- Carl Sagan,
The Cosmic Connection

    "Clearly, the best time to be alive is when you start out wondering and end up knowing. There is only one generation in the whole history of mankind in that position. Us."
            -- Carl Sagan, 1974

    "Let us imagine that Keats, instead of writing an ode on a Grecian urn, plunged into a study of classical art, took voluminous notes and sketches in the British Museum, then set out to write a definitive work proving that Greek painting is the greatest the world has ever seen and using a particular urn as his crowning example. In the course of a long book, he provides chapters on courtship (advising modern couples to defer marriage because of the pleasures of self-denial), on ancient rituals, and on various theories of the imagination, including also some footnotes proposing a restructuring of the British Museum, and, finally, suggesting that we turn to the Arcadians for models of our social institutions. Let us also assume that the individual points are made in the form of general assertions, some of them evidently hyperbolical, so that we would not at first, perhaps, trust the voice and would need to sort out the statements and reconcile them afterward. Somewhere along the way would appear the sentence "Beauty is truth, truth beauty," as if spontaneously but with great emphasis. Finally, let us assume that Keats wrote prose assiduously for over fifty years and that the present example is typical of his style of organization."
       -- Paul L. Sawyer,
Preface to the author's Ruskin's Poetic Argument: The Design of the Major Works

    "When I wished to sing of love it turned to sorrow. And when I wished to sing of sorrow it was transformed for me into love."
            -- Franz Schubert

    "The green, ghostly light seems suddenly to spring to life with rosy blushes. There is infinite suggestion in this phenomenon, and in that lies its charm - the suggestion of life, form, color and movement - never less than evanescent -- mysterious -- no reality. It is the language of mystic signs and portents -- the inspiration of the gods -- wholly spiritual -- divine signaling - remindful of superstition - provocative of imagination. Might not the inhabitants of some other world - Mars? - controlling mighty forces, thus surround our globe with fiery symbols - a golden writing - which we have not the key to decipher?"
       -- Robert Falcon Scott,
1911 journal, describing the aurora australis

    "Since the 21st, we have had a continuous gale from WSW and SW. We had fuel to make two cups of tea apiece and bare food for two days on the 20th. Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity but I do not think I can write more. …. For God's sake look after our people."
       -- Robert Falcon Scott,
last diary entry, March 29th, 1912

    "The two most potent post-war orthodoxies--socialist politics and modernist art--have at least one feature in common: they are both forms of snobbery, the anti-bourgeois snobbery of people convinced of their right to dictate to the common man in the name of the common man."
       -- Roger Scruton,
In Praise of Bourgeois

    "Only scattered pockets of hunting man survive. Yet the hunting way of life has been the most successful and persistent avocation of man. It has dominated human evolution, and it enabled man to colonize the earth. Agriculture, on the other hand, has influenced less than 1% of human history."
       -- Robert Leo Smith,
Biology and Field Ecology

    "He was having, under trying

(Continued on page 35)

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