Sunday, April 16, 2006

Lazy Long Weekend

We're into the third day of the Easter long weekend in Melbourne, and the weather's wonderful. Slight showers are followed by the sun coming out from behind the clouds. The night air is sharp and cool, and the whole city is calm. It's my kind of weather, alright. It might seem a bit odd to non-Australian readers, but if you ever experience the Australian summer - good for inducing sweats and rashes and attracting flies and mosquitoes; not good for comfort or relaxation - you might see why winter is my favourite time of year, and Melbourne is my favourite city.
We've still got a day and a half of the long weekend to go, and I plan to spend most of it reading. Suitably enough for this time of year, the two books I'm reading have a rather pious theme.

Phantastes is the first book written by George Macdonald, a Christian and mystic from Scotland who fell under the influence of the German romantics. It's a nineteenth century fantasy novel, with a free-flowing, dreamlike plot; a little like the Alice in Wonderland books, but written with a slightly more allegorical intent.
I first came across Phantastes on the seventh floor of Fisher library, an unlikely, gigantic, nine-and-a-half-storey bookshelf in the middle of Sydney University campus. I'm not sure how, exactly, I came across it; I think I'd read of Macdonald's name in connection with C.S. Lewis or G.K. Chesterton and went exploring for other books written by him. I have to say Phantastes was well worth finding.

The other book I'm reading might seem to go a little against the spirit of this weekend:

The Devil's Dictionary is, to my knowledge, the only book Ambrose Bierce ever wrote. I could be very, very wrong about that, though.
I've always been fond of fictional lexicons, and made up dictionaries (see as an example my latest Poet's Dictionary post), although I have to confess that comic writers today have overused the idea. Bierce's work may or may not have been the first 'satirical' dictionary; so if you like, you can blame him for starting it all. If only The Devil's Dictionary wasn't so damned good!
Bierce uses what appears to be a narrow idea - a book of definitions - to ridicule all the established piueties and opinions of his time. The book is compiled, like C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters, by an imaginary diabolic figure: probably Satan himself. And - again like The Screwtape Letters - it's best read with this in mind. It's full of cheery advice to the pious Christian on how best to land themselves in hell. Definitions are occasionally illustrated by short, satirical poems, mostly of Bierce's own invention.
The definitions are sharp and precise, but occasionally - very occasionally - they become fanciful. 'Chimpanzees' are defined as a 'species of pansy grown in Africa'; Abelians as a 'religious denomination' who unfortunately flourished at the same time as 'Canians, and are now extinct'. I guess Bierce's idea was to lighten the harsher satire with more fanciful passages; and it works well.

Perhaps the last word should be left with Bierce - or is it Satan?

Dictionary: A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic.

(Cross posted here.)


Tim S said...

Are you a fan of "The Deeper Meaning of Liff" by Douglas Adams and partner-in-crime? I think it's kinda hit and miss (but then, aren't we all?) but I do get a good chuckle out of it.

Comic Mummy said...

Sorry Tim that was me - didn't realise I was logged in under me ole hubby's name. I've got access to another identity, imagine the havoc I can spew forth. The world will never be the same!


TimT said...

Yeah, the only problem is when your double-identity finds out you've logged in under his name ... Made up double-identities are better in that way, because they tend not to grumble when you find out you've been using their name.

The Deeper Meaning of Liff, haven't read that one; but did read some of The Meaning of Liff, by the same author. It's a nice concept. Douglas Adams was sometimes at his best writing non-fiction: some of the essays in "The Salmon of Doubt" are fantastic!
Borges wrote a story called "Tlon, Uqbar, Tertius" about the discovery of an Encyclopaedia written about a different world. Fantastic idea.

Rob said...

Timt, Ambrose Bierce wrote brilliant stories in the American Gothic genre. He's overshadowed by Poe, but some of his stuff in on a par. "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" invented (AFAIK) a new literary motiif: the condemned man who imagines all the details of his escape, presented as reality, in the course of the drop from the gallows that broke his neck.

TimT said...

Ah yes, I HAVE heard of that one!

Guess some American writers - especially those from the southerly parts, like Poe and Bierce - had a fascinatination with the diabolical ...

Fatman said...

You should also have a gander at John Ralston Saul's 'The Doubter's Companion'.

TimT said...

I'll look out for it. Only trouble is, I'm going to have to look out for all those other comic dictionaries around, as well.

The ones that are most popular, I think, are the more original ones.

Rachy said...

Anything that is from or influenced by the German Romantic era is usually quite outstanding and magical. I studied quite a bit of literature from the German Romantic era at Uni, and one of my friends made a wisecrack that it must be an oxymoron. They just didn't get it, man.

I have just finished unpacking all of my books and I can't wait to get into some of the ones I haven't read yet, as well as some of my old favourites like Schnitzler and Kafka and Musil, just to name a few.

I think I have a few copies in English that I can lend you

TimT said...

Schnitzler and Musil.

It sounds like a menu at the German restaurant.

'Are you having the Musil with apricots?'

'No, I think I'll have some Novalis on toast.'

Love to borrow them.

Email: timhtrain - at -

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