The Big Short Reading Recommendation

Christ Cleansing the Temple by Carl Heinrich Bloch

Reading Recommendation

The Big Short

-What is it?-

The Big Short is a non-fiction book written by Michael Lewis and published in 2010. The book focuses on several narratives that follow various outsiders in the finance industry—from hedge fund managers, to Deutsche Bank traders, private investors, and others—and traces their separate realizations that the U.S. Housing Market is doomed to collapse because of its over-reliance on fraudulent housing loans.

-Who should read it?-

Many people have already been introduced to the general themes and plot of the book thanks to Adam McKay’s 2015 comedy/drama film of the same name. If you’ve seen the movie, there’s a chance you may very well enjoy the book—be warned, however, there are extensive descriptions of financial and investment banking terminology. This language isn’t so dense that it renders the book incomprehensible, but if you’re looking for a real smooth read, this is not it.

However, if you’re interested in a breakdown of the key elements of the Housing collapse—and an incisive look into those who run our markets today, as well as those who work within them to try and prevent the same catastrophe from occurring again—you may find this book rewarding.

 -Some Key Ideas-

Financial markets are a collection of arguments.” (pg. 67)

This quote relates to a major theme in the book, which is that a lot of finance is often packaged in hyper-complex language in order to obscure a simple message—most financial relationships boil down to one person who believes something has value, and another person wants to know if that statement is accurate.  

Both people want to make money.  There’s an outcome where the person with the argument of value will make more money, and there’s an outcome where the person questioning the value of the argument will make more money.   There’s a third outcome where both parties stand to make so much money that neither cares whether the argument is valid—only that it’s valuable. 

This is debatably the zone that the housing bond market quickly entered.  The industry was generating so much revenue—so much so that $700 billion wasn’t even close to enough to cover the losses all the banks suffered in the collapse—that no argument from either party was challenged.  Whatever someone said, as long as it kept the wheels turning, was approved and minted.

“ ‘There should be no greater thing you can do as an analyst than to be the Moody’s analyst. It should be, ‘I can’t go higher as an analyst.’ Instead it’s the bottom! No one gives a fuck if Goldman likes General Electric paper. If Moody’s downgrades GE paper, it is a big deal. So why does the guy at Moody’s want to work at Goldman Sachs? The guy who is the bank analyst at Goldman Sachs should want to go to Moody’s. It should be that elite.’” (pg. 122)

Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s—which is where the S&P 500 comes from—are the credit ratings agencies tasked with evaluating the stocks, bonds, and commodities that major Wall Street investment banks bring to them.  These positions are vital to the health of the market, as whole industries depend on accurate, honest ratings of their financial assets in order to take their financial temperature and track their health.  In the time leading up the housing collapse, these agencies were effectively pitted against each other by the investment banks.  

For example, if Goldman Sachs came to Moody’s and asked for a bond rating, and Moody’s gave them a lower score than they preferred, the investment bank would simply go down to Standard & Poor’s and ask them for a rating.  This kind of relationship is cited in the book as one of the key components of the housing market collapse—because the ratings agencies were incentivized into giving good ratings to whoever came through their door, the credit ratings that the entire industry depended on were severely out of proportion with the reality of the situation.  This distorted view is what allowed the crisis to balloon out of control without anyone needing to deny or question what was going on.  If the ratings were good, the markets were good too.

What are the odds that people will make smart decisions about money if they don’t need to make smart decisions—if they can get rich making dumb decisions?” (pg. 191)

The traders and banks who played instrumental, or at least symbolic, roles in the collapse of the housing market were often let go with hefty payouts.  Howie Hubler, the architect of the single largest trading deal loss in the history of Wall Street, was still paid millions after he left Morgan Stanley.  And the Citigroup Investment Bank, after it received $25 billion in taxpayer investments—bailouts—also received another $20 billion from the Troubled Asset Relief Program—TARP—which was created to prevent major Wall Street Banks from failing.   On top of this, Citigroup was granted $306 billion in government guarantees, meaning the federal government promised nearly half a trillion dollars in order to insure Citigroup from collapse.  This is roughly two percent of the U.S. GDP and nearly all the combined budgets of the departments of Agriculture, Education, Energy, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, and Transportation.  

Ultimately, the point stands—if the top financial analysts and managers in the world aren’t expected to make intelligent and honest decisions with the capital at their disposal, and are in fact paid for their wildly costly mistakes, why would they do anything different?   It’s not as though a system could be developed in order to vet only the best, brightest, and integrous of a population to handle with care the beating heart of a country’s economy.  That would be ridiculous and there’s no precedent for institutions that would perform such a vetting, or any real-world industries that have such controls in place.

-Conclusion-


If you’re feeling up to the challenge, The Big Short is a rewarding, cathartic, and horrific book that puts on full display what happens when a financial system is allowed to generate ludicrous amounts of wealth without having to prove that any of it actually exists.   While the movie certainly does a fantastic job of illustrating the characters and plots in cinematic language, finance and its truths lay in the numbers, and this book is full of them.  You’ll walk away feeling like you could man a Goldman Sachs trading desk, realize what that means, and look to the East and wonder if anyone on that one street actually knows what they’re doing.

-Bibliography-

Lewis, Michael. The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine . W. W. Norton & Company, 2010.

Link to The Big Short Podcast – Spotify

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My Year of Rest and Relaxation Reading Recommendation

Diogenes by Jean-Léon Gérôme

-Reading Recommendation-

My Year of Rest and Relaxation

-What Is It?-

A bleak and wonderful novel about a young woman living in New York who decides to undergo a personal transformation by attempting to sleep for a year. This reads like Dostoevsky meets Clueless. It’s funny, it bites every once in a while, and there are truly moments of sheer brilliance sprinkled throughout. It’s one of the only pieces of recent contemporary fiction I’ve read in a while, and I cannot recommend it enough.

-Why Is It Important?-

My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a book written in a voice that is both grounded in a realism that makes it intelligible, while also allowing itself to drift into literary allusion/metaphor that helps provide a sort of symbolic elevation which keeps the novel from feeling dull or drawn-out.

There’s something incredibly satisfying about inhabiting the headspace of the narrator. Her apathy and acidic, but often sincere and accurate, worldview is highly cathartic to see executed so well. For the same reason people enjoy Regina George in the film Mean Girls, this narrator can be enjoyed as well—simply put, who doesn’t, at some point in time or another in their life, want to feel like a hot bitch?

What’s more, there is genuinely a deep reservoir of sympathy to be found in someone with such a perspective on the world as our narrator has. She has the staple tragedies of any dramatic novel about a young person coming of age in a difficult way—her parents are both dead, her best friend doesn’t quite understand her, she feels isolated and alone in the world at large—but instead of being played out and mined for their saccharine tragedy, they are instead explored by a narrator who must be honest with herself and admit that, despite her losses and her relative disconnect with the world because of them, they grant her no special freedoms or insights. She is someone whom tragedy has happened to, and who’s past has been colored by it, but she herself feels a detachment from. She isn’t sociopathic, not really, though I’m sure some critics have described her in an allusory way as such. More than anything, she accepts that these tragedies have happened, and instead of fixating on them, is more interested in pursuing the idea of what that pain—or what pain in general—really means overall, than what it means in the context of her own experience.

Above all, the prior rationalization may very much be moot. The book is a rather simple one—a young woman, beset on all sides by the tyrannies and tragedies of her life, decides to undertake an experiment of experience. She wants to, for once, be the one who changes her consciousness by a willful act of submission to a greater purpose, instead of bouncing around life and hoping change will come. By the end, she experiences what she set out to—enlightenment. And she finds, in a way, that other people may have the opportunity to do the same.

-Conclusion-

My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a totally engrossing contemporary work of art. There is a cold honesty throughout the entirety of the book, mixed in with a heavy dose of social satire and deprecation, and topped off with an ending that is as tragic as it is hopeful. I can see why people have found themselves attached to the novel, and I think it is well-deserving of the cult following it has already accrued, and the underground fame that will no doubt cement it as a classic popular work for decades to come.

-Bibliography-

Moshfegh, Ottessa. My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Penguin Press, 2018.

Link to My Year of Rest and Relaxation Podcast – Spotify

Link to My Year of Rest and Relaxation Podcast – Apple Podcasts

Link to My Year of Rest and Relaxation Podcast – Libsyn

Phaedo Reading Recommendation

The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David

-Reading Recommendation-

Phaedo

-What is it?-

The Phaedo is the last of what has been called by this author the “Core Four” Socratic Dialogues, beginning with Euthyphro, continuing with Apology and Crito, and ending with Phaedo.

This Dialogue opens on the last day of Socrates’ life. His friends have gathered around him in his jail cell, and are looking forward to speaking with him for a short time before he is executed via the imbibing of hemlock, a toxic drink made from a poisonous berry.

Most of Phaedo concerns Socrates positing and defending his positions on immortality and the soul—namely, the belief that human beings do in fact possess an immortal soul, and it is the duty of any good or just human being to recognize the inclinations of this soul towards beauty, justice, truth, temperance, and so on. This recognition allows for the practice of virtue, and in Socrates’ conception, pursuing the virtue of the soul in all its forms is the noblest cause any human being could strive for throughout their life.

Many of Socrates’ friends and students have questions they ask him regarding his positions on these subjects, and he gladly and calmly entertains them.

Eventually, the prison guard brings out the hemlock mixture, and Socrates drinks. His friends begin to weep, and before he goes, he asks his old friend Crito for a favor. He forgot to pay back a man named Asclepius, to whom he owes a chicken, and wonders if Crito will settle the debt. Crito says he will, and in a few moments after, Socrates dies.

-Why is it important?-

The modern reader may find the Phaedo unsuccessful as a philosophical work, mainly because it positions its entire argument on grounds which cannot empirically or logically be proven on all levels: namely, the existence of a soul.

This question, in the opinion of this author, cannot be answered satisfactorily by any one person or idea; perhaps that is somewhat the point.

But because of this, it is understandable as to why readers would find such a treatise somewhat frustrating. Though Socrates effectively proves in some way that the idea of immortality can exist, and that if the soul is indeed in existence, it would be immortal, his arguments can come off as somewhat myopic, operating in a closed-loop system of logic that only admits itself to the participant if they cross a threshold for which logic must momentarily be suspended. It makes for good debate and reading, but in terms of a practical application to life, at least when compared to other Dialogues, Phaedo falls short.

This author would argue that, in some way, this is possibly the point of the Dialogue.

Phaedo opens on Socrates composing a hymn for Apollo. This is an old man who, for all we know, has never written a song in his life, and his musical abilities are more likely than not average, perhaps sub-par—the evidence of this could be taken enough in what he has to say about poetry/art in The Republic.

And yet, despite the illogical nature of his action, Socrates is engaging in it. He says that he has had dreams his whole life compelling him to make music, and for a long time, he believed that in some way those dreams were related to him practicing philosophy. But given that he is close to the hour of death, he figured that he should give genuine composition a shot, for, “…being under sentence of death, and the festival giving me a respite, I thought that it would be safer for me to satisfy the scruple, and, in obedience to the dream, to compose a few verses before I departed.” (Phaedo, page 20).

There is something endearing about an old man who has never made music before trying to do so, trying something entirely new, before he dies. Most likely, Socrates composing his song would be somewhat crude, off-key, maybe even laughable, in a childish sort of way.

And it is here where the author believe a key point of the Dialogue is found—the practice of living, which often involves doing something new, as much as it involves accepting a sort of constant state found in the world.

Socrates, for his entire life, has preached philosophy. He has achieved great triumphs in logic, and reason, in his own field, for all people to one day read about—he has done enough. There’s no reason for him to believe he should ever try anything different.

But he does. He gets a guitar—lyre—some notebook paper—parchment—and under the window of the jail cell he’ll soon be put to death in, tries writing a song for the very first time.

Socrates engages in an act of faith by doing so. He knows, more likely than not, he will fail; but he pursues the action nonetheless, because the end is not the goal, but rather what occurs in the pursuit.

Though this meaning is certainly extrapolated, and idiosyncratic to the author, one can see support for it under-girding the Dialogue. Socrates paints a fantastical, almost Homeric, picture near the end of what life in the afterlife will be like for those who pass; but how could he know? As a man of logic and reason, he must have some intuition that he has no sense of what may really happen—so his entire talk leads one to believe that he is, in a way, not trying to prove immortality, or the existence of the soul, or what happens in the afterlife, to or for himself, but for his friends. He is trying to give them a kind of hope, even if it’s in a story, or a conversation, that doesn’t make much logical sense when you begin to look at it. He’s maybe trying to give them a different sort of sense. A sense of calm, and presence, and an acceptance of a normality that unifies the greatest and the smallest moments in life.

And the final scene lends itself perfectly, perhaps, to this point. Socrates’ final words are utilitarian, almost banal—he could have said that, and maybe did, at any point in his life. His last exit was not that of a supreme philosopher, an ascended master, a sacrificial messiah—he was a regular man, who lived and died in the way he did. And when it all comes down to the end, that’s perhaps one of the only really true things one could ever say about someone like him.

-Conclusion-

Though it may not appear as practical on a surface level as the other Dialogues in the “Core Four”, or other Socratic/Platonic Dialogues in general, Phaedo still has much to teach the discerning reader who is willing to look beyond what it being said in the story, and rather what is instead being lived.

-Bibliography-

“Phaedo.” Phaedo, by Plato, 29 Oct. 2008, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1658/1658-h/1658-h.htm.

Link to Phaedo Podcast – Spotify

Link to Phaedo Podcast – Apple Podcasts

Link to Phaedo Podcast – Libsyn

Crito Reading Recommendation

Street Canal of the Ideal City by Arthur Skizhali-Weiss

-Reading Recommendation-

Crito

-What is it?-

The Crito is a Platonic Dialogue that takes place a few days before the Athenian philosopher Socrates is executed for crimes of impiety and corruption against the state. It is set entirely in the jail cell Socrates occupies while waiting for his execution, and the main action of the Dialogue occurs when a friend of his, Crito, comes to visit him.

Crito wants to help him escape. He explains that he has ways of helping Socrates flee undetected, and says the old man shouldn’t worry for fear of capture, as Crito is willing to expend all the resources at his disposal to ensure the old philosopher’s freedom.

Socrates refuses, and explains to Crito why—he believes that to run from his judgment, even if he or other people believe it to be unjust, would do more harm than good. He believes that one cannot repay an unjust act with an unjust act, and to break the law of Athens, even if it is applied incorrectly or unfairly, would be an untenable action that would rob him of the possibility of discussing in any serious capacity virtue or the just way of living one’s life.

This is about all he has to say, and after explaining his motives, he asks Crito if his friend has anything to say. Crito replies that he does not.

-Why is it important?-

The discussion had in the Crito certainly seems to be able to apply to nearly any person who has suffered at the mercy of unjust laws, and it supplies an answer that is immediately frustrating and callous—deal with it.

At first, this proposed solution doesn’t seem to be a solution at all; it seems to be a surrender. In a sense, it somewhat is. But examining the logic of Socrates’ argument, within the context of his situation, it does make some degree of sense.

While self-preservation and the thwarting of an unjust sentence would be a relatively rational decision for Socrates, it is not the most good decision someone in his place could make. The offer is tempting, and more than that, it is in many ways justified—and there are few things more appealing, understandable, or quietly terrifying in the world than a justified temptation.

It’s worthy of note that Socrates doesn’t approach Crito’s proposition of escape any kind of moral aspersion-casting; rather, he looks at it from a reasonable point of view. If he is to conduct a good action, that action must prevent harm. Doing harm to another cannot be good, and therefore an action that mitigates or totally prevents harm is an action of the highest good. This means that even if someone is committing an action against you that is bringing you harm, or worse, committing harm against them is still not justified. As Socrates says, he will, “die a sufferer of evil not a doer of evil; a victim, not of the laws, but of men,” and by doing so, he is setting an example for those who come after. This is what happens when the law falls into the hands of those who don’t know, or don’t care, how they use it.

And if Socrates were to flee, he would be breaking the laws of Athens, and showing his true colors. Such an action would show that he only holds to the law when the weather is fair. Whenever it isn’t, he’ll turn and run.

As he said in the Apology, he believes in a kind of duty and obligation in life, and the shame in the desertion of that duty is worse than the pain of death. He would rather die than engage in such an action.

-Conclusion-

The Crito is a short but meaningful Platonic Dialogue that explores what it means to uphold the law, in all its forms, even when it is used against you unjustifiably. Though some of the ideas may appear outdated or even grossly antithetical to modern sentiments, there is a kernel of something admirable in the way that Socrates stands by the ideal he holds of his city, even if the reality is about to have him killed.

-Bibliography-

“The Project Gutenberg Ebook Of Crito, by Plato.” The Project Gutenberg EBook of Crito, by Plato, 22 Mar. 2003, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1657/1657-h/1657-h.htm.

Link to Crito Podcast – Spotify

Link to Crito Podcast – Apple Podcasts

Link to Crito Podcast – Libsyn

Apology Reading Recommendation

George Costanza by Morgan Blair

-Reading Recommendation-

Apology

-What is it?-

The Apology is a Platonic Dialogue that details the trial of Socrates in the Supreme Court of Athens. It directly follows the Euthyphro, and in it, Socrates gives his self-defense for the charges that have been laid upon him by the court. These are mainly the charges of impiety, i.e. atheism/deifying gods that are not permitted by the state, and corrupting the youth through his teachings; as Socrates summarizes his accusers having said, “Making the worse appear the better cause.”

For the purposes of clarity and conciseness, the Apology will be broken down into five quick sections.

-Introduction-

Socrates says hello to the court and establishes his speaking style and background. He says he will not give a speech, as he believes the court has heard enough rhetoric for one day. Instead, he will speak off-the-cuff, and he implores the jurors to exercise what reserves of patience they have left with him, saying:

“If I defend myself in my accustomed manner, and you hear me using the words which I have been in the habit of using in the agora, at the tables of the money-changers, or anywhere else, I would ask you not to be surprised, and not to interrupt me on this account…. I would have you regard me as if I were really a stranger, whom you would excuse if he spoke in his native tongue, and after the fashion of his country:—Am I making an unfair request of you? Never mind the manner, which may or may not be good; but think only of the truth of my words, and give heed to that: let the speaker speak truly and the judge decide justly.” (Apology, page 11).

It’s also here where Socrates explains what he does for a living—walk from city to city, teaching youth and citizens alike about philosophy, for no charge. The reason he gives for his passion is that he believes he has been charged with a spiritual quest by a daimon, a spirit, from which he receives wisdom. What’s more, a close friend of his once visited the Oracle of Delphi, and asked the Oracle who was the wisest in Greece. The Oracle responded that there was no one wiser than Socrates; incredulous—one of his most famous paraphrased quotes was, “All I know is that I know nothing.”—Socrates set out to find one person wiser than himself. He has been on this quest ever since.

-The Cross-Examination of Meletus-

Meletus is one of Socrates’ accusers and also one of the three Judges presiding over the Supreme Court. In his cross-examination, Socrates covers many points very quickly, and the dialogue between him and Meletus becomes notable, not for what is necessarily being said, but how it is being said. Meletus consistently flips his opinions whenever challenged by Socrates. Socrates will confront him with a point, and Meletus will say, “Yes, that’s actually what I meant.” Socrates will confront him with a conflicting point, and Meletus will then say, “Actually, that’s also what I meant.”

The points Socrates is making aren’t really what’s important—it’s the demonstration of Meletus’ character. The man seems disinterested in any kind of conversation entirely. He doesn’t care at all about defending his position, or hearing out Socrates’ own. Over the course of his cross-examination, it’s driven home somewhat strongly that he has no conviction about the matter of Socrates’ trial either way; it seems as though he wants to wrap this up as quick as possible, and his behavior would possibly lead one to believe he’s already made up his mind as to the outcome of the trial. A wholly disreputable and unbecoming attitude for someone who occupies one of the highest seats of justice in Athenian society.

-The Duty-

After the cross-examination of Meletus, Socrates further explains why he feels it so necessary to pursue activities that have landed him in front of the Court. He relays the belief that a good man does not desert his duty for fear of death, and should hold firm to his post and obligation, lest he suffer the disgrace of abandonment. In Socrates’ conception, though he may be faced with death because of what he says and does, he believes in holding firm to what he sees as his duty—the teaching of philosophy and the inquiry of true justice, knowledge, beauty, and so on. It is here where one of his famous statements comes in, where he says that he believes himself to be the “gadfly” of Athens, motivating the state—which he compares to a great and noble steed, prone to slow movement because of its size—by reproach or questioning towards higher aspirations rather than lower ones.

-The Sentence-

Socrates is found guilty. He is presented with several options: he could spend the rest of his life in prison; he could leave Athens altogether in exile; or he could die.

The old man says that he has no money, and could not afford to pay the fees that it would take to keep him in prison. He also states that if he chose to leave Athens, he would spend his last remaining years going from city to city, and finding interest but no sympathy, for he would have shown himself to have deserted his character and the obligation to his state when it was most under duress. And again, he reiterates he is not afraid of death. He says, given his age, the Judges could simply wait, and death would come to him within a few years. But barring that, he would rather die than live an unrighteous life the rest of his days.

-The Goodbye-

The Judges condemn him to die. Socrates bids a goodbye to all the jurors in the audience, and uses the last of his time to elaborate this thoughts on what might wait in the afterlife.

No man, in his belief, can truly know what waits after death—so to be afraid of it, or to speculate with certainty, is asserting a position that is by the nature of the object discussed, untenable.

In his conception, there are two options: one, death is nothingness, a state of relative unconsciousness lasting for all eternity. He compares it to a great sleep, and says that if this is the case, people should rejoice, for all of eternity is but one long and restful night.

The other option is that death is the transference of the soul from one place to another. If this is the case, and there is some kind of an afterlife, Socrates paints a hopeful picture. He believes that such a place would involve the communion of great men and women from all across history—kings, queens, heroes, heroines, great artists and musicians and scientists and philosophers, and a whole number of others unknown—which the one who has died will be welcomed in to. Socrates says that if such a place exists, he cannot wait to ask questions and converse with all those who have come before him. It is a hope alone, and one unfounded at that, but one the old man seems to find contentment in.

Socrates eventually says goodbye to the jury, and before he is led down to the jail below the Court, where he’ll be held for several days before his execution, he departs with these last words:

“The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways—I to die, and you to live. Which is better, God only knows.” (28)

-Why is it important?-

The Apology is one of the most seminal texts in all of popular Western Philosophy. There are many reasons for this, and many opinions as well, and the author will detail two of his own below.

The first reason and/or opinion is the document sketches out a refined scene of speaking truth to power.

Quite a few of Socrates’ arguments are somewhat specious or unsupported. For example, he makes the case that someone who is unconscious of their wrongdoing should not be charged with a crime, and says that as this is the case with him, he cannot be charged. This is fair enough, to a point. Intention and action must be proven to constitute a crime, and the degree of both determines the justice that will be applied.

That being said, even if Socrates didn’t intend to corrupt youth or preach impiety, he still committed actions that led to those outcomes. Several of his students took part in destructive revolutions that evolved into tyrannies during his lifetime. His character is not entirely without blame, regardless of the extent to which his intention may have led him.

But his accusers are not bringing him into the Court to have a genuine discussion with him. They don’t care about finding the root causes of events, or investigating the truth the matters, or carrying out justice in any capacity. They’ve brought the old man in because he’s irritated them personally, and they are using the mechanism of the Athenian Court to dispose of him. In the Apology, the Judges are the constructed epitome of a naked abuse of power. These are men who will use their positions to settle personal debts. They have no sense of duty to anyone, or anything, other than themselves. While Socrates could certainly improve on certain things, the very event of the Trial proves that point he makes over and over again—that the Judges are just as, or possibly far more, guilty of impiety and corrupting the youth by reason of their conduct than Socrates.

The second reason and/or opinion that makes this document worthwhile is that Socrates knows this. It’s clear he has a sense of how the Trial is going to go before he begins speaking. He’s not laboring under any pretenses that he might be able to change the Judges’ minds—they’ve already been made up.

So the Dialogue becomes the portrait of a man who knows he’s going to die, and has chosen to make one last public speech before he’s taken away. He will take part in two other Dialogues after this—the Crito and the Phaedo—but those are more private events than this one.

Through this framework, the Apology becomes a kind of ideal example as to how one, when faced with injustice and the pain of death, can respond. Socrates delivers a defense—keep in mind, in ancient Greek, apology/apologia means, “to explain or defend”—that is both measured and passionate, sincere and ironic, improvisational and refined, and more than anything, authentic in the sense that he believes he is doing what is ultimately right. The strength of his conviction, while at times can make him appear ridiculous and out of touch, is somewhat endearing, if only in how genuinely he seems to believe in, uphold, and defend it.

It is a sacrificial act, and in this moment, Socrates becomes a martyr for a greater cause. This is not necessarily to say that the only way, or the only end, to a great cause is martyrdom—but it does demonstrate an example of, if such an end is met on such a way, how one may choose to act when faced with such a moment.

-Conclusion-

The Apology is a groundbreaking piece of Western Philosophy and literature, and perhaps—forgive any hyperbolic intonation—one of the most important documents ever written. It is an excellent demonstration of what occurs when systems of power fall into the hands of those who are unfit to wield them, and how one can respond when they not only witness, but are directly subject to, injustice at the hands of these systems. More than that, perhaps, it is beautiful a portrait of how one may live and speak, knowing that one is going to die regardless. There is strength to be found in facing the unknown with such conviction and steadfast belief, while at the same time acknowledging that even those can provide no real certainty for what is to come. In the end, perhaps to know that you know nothing, to know that there some things no one can know, is a greater wisdom than most, even in the highest courts, would esteem.

-Bibliography-

“Apology.” The Project Gutenberg EBook of Apology, by Plato, Project Gutenberg, Feb. 1999, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1656/1656-h/1656-h.htm.

Link to Apology Podcast – Spotify

Link to Apology Podcast – Apple Podcasts

Link to Apology Podcast – Libsyn

Link to Apology Podcast – SoundCloud

Euthyphro Reading Recommendation

Photo by Unknown

-Reading Recommendation-

Euthyphro

-What Is It?-

The Euthyphro is a Socratic Dialogue written in the late 300s by the Athenian philosopher and writer, Plato. It is the first of what will be called in this series “The Core Four,” the four Dialogues written by Plato that detail the final days of Socrates’ life.

Socrates was the teacher of Plato, and he was a renowned itinerant philosopher, orator, and teacher in Athens for much of his life. He wrote nothing down himself, and so everything we know of him either comes from Classical Greek histories, or Platonic Dialogues. These Dialogues are written much like plays, and often feature Socrates as a central character, who is discussing some matter of politics, metaphysics, culture, or overall life with another individual or a group of individuals. Each Dialogue is meant to explore a specific philosophical idea or theme that was prevalent at the time in ancient Greece, and Socrates usually plays the part of both an ironic critic and a careful teacher, both deconstructing and asserting various philosophical and metaphysical points of view in conversation with the other characters.

The Euthyphro opens with Socrates sitting on the porch of the King Archon, the steps of the Supreme Court of Athens. He has been called to trial on the charges of impious action and corrupting the youth, and while he waits, he ruminates on how he will defend himself.

An answer appears in the form of Euthyphro, a young lawyer/diviner, who is coming from a case he brought to court himself. Socrates is ecstatic, not only because he knows Euthyphro, but because, after asking Euthyphro if the lawyer can help him build a defense, the man agrees.

Socrates and Euthyphro discuss throughout the Dialogue what makes an action pious or impious, and it becomes apparent that Euthyphro does not have a working definition. The actual points of the Dialogue are somewhat complex and beholden to context, but one of the most salient points is the idea that, to define the state of an object, an action must first be committed to render the object in that state. For example, in order to say an object is carried, the action of carrying must first take place; the reverse, that someone is carrying something because it is carried, is nonsensical.

This may seem obvious and convoluted, but it cuts to the a point Socrates continually drives home about the proper definition of a quality—namely, that it cannot be used to define itself. The question of why something is worthy of carrying, what makes someone want to carry it, can be tied to the idea of piety, where the central question Socrates asks is: is what is loved by the gods holy because it is loved by them, or is it loved by the gods because it is holy?

There is a microscopic but incredibly vital difference between these two ideas. Put a little more simply: is something made special because someone chooses to love it as such, or does someone choose to love something because it is special? How can you differentiate the two? Is one superior to the other? Are they equal? What are the situations that would determine them as one or the other?

And again, these are small tee-ups to the larger question at hand, one that goes unanswered by Euthyphro: what is piety? What makes an action pious? Can a working definition for the quality of piety, the isolated element, be found?

Unfortunately, at least in the Dialogue, it cannot. Euthyphro becomes overwhelmed by Socrates and says goodbye to him, rushing away to attend to other matters, and leaving the old man to sit back down on the steps and contemplate how he is going to defend himself at trial.

-Why Is It Important?-

This Dialogue, the first of the Core Four, provides a view into a major component of Socratic—and by lineage—Western Philosophy: what does meaning mean, and how do you define it?

To some extent, this question may have no real answer that is intelligible, or at least quantifiable, beyond a certain point. Socrates himself makes a point across many Dialogues to not provide many concrete answers, at least not in a definitive form; like the teaching style he developed, he preferred to let his students and listeners find their own conclusions, and acted as a sort of guide along the way to get them there. In all Socratic dialogue, there is an implicit intuitive faculty that is activated and exercised alongside the rational, one that forms a unique and indispensable part of his teachings. This is why, perhaps, his conversations are often girded with heavy frameworks of irony—he does not always mean what he says, and it is up the reader to determine when Socrates is making a sincere point, when he is asserting a caricature of his opponents, when he takes his opponents seriously, and when he has decided to make fun of himself.

That being said, there is a certain level to Socratic discussion that reads as incredibly hard-boiled and logical, one that was meant to convey a sort of universal, at least fundamental, line of thought. This sentiment especially comes through when Socrates is confronted with someone who wields a position of authority, power, or influence, either institutional, social, cultural, or otherwise, and he believes them to be in poor use of it.

And the Euthyphro presents such an example. Euthyphro himself is relatively harmless—he isn’t arrogant, or smug, or even really mean. Socrates even seems to somewhat like him.

But the young lawyer-priest does, in the Dialogue, act as a microcosmic representative for the greater Athenian legal system. If a lawyer cannot answer, in the definitive, the underlying meaning of a law—not only what makes it necessary, but moreso than that, what aspect of natural law it correlates to, what it actually means—and instead relies on the deployment of a subjective convention—“The definition of the law is doing as I am doing.”—then either that lawyer should not be practicing, or the overarching legal system is not doing its job of enforcing laws that have clear and definitive attributes.

A convention is fine in certain cases. Moral aphorisms, common sense, ironic expressions—these are all conventions, and they serve and important cultural and social role in dispensing basic wisdom.

But if a convention is allowed to exist in a legal setting—if the truth of a matter is not, or even worse, cannot, be investigated in the space that it is designed specifically to investigate truth, if the meaning of something is taken on name alone and nothing else—that is a flagrant abuse of the power of the law at the hands of those who are supposed to tend to it. At best, it’s a sign of lazy and indulgent ignorance or arrogance that is unbecoming of the highest courts and authorities; at worst, such an action points to potentially malicious corruption and willful manipulation of a system that is supposed to see for the good of all, and is instead in the hands of those who would use it for their own personal ends.

This thought is one that Socrates carries into the following Dialogue, the Apology, and it will be discussed in greater detail in the next recommendation.

-Conclusion-

The Euthyphro is a fantastic piece of both fiction and philosophy, and in this author’s opinion, an excellent starting point for anyone who is either interested in reading more of the Classical Canon, or who simply wants a piece that will make them think. It’s a relatively short work that manages to explore, in a brief but depthful manner, the idea of what meaning means in a society, and how we can begin to talk about it, so as to avoid the tragedies that occur when we don’t.

-Bibliography-

“Euthyphro.” Euthyphro, by Plato, Project Gutenberg, 23 Nov. 2008, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1642/1642-h/1642-h.htm.

Link to Euthyphro Podcast – Spotify

Link to Euthyphro Podcast – Apple Podcasts

Link to Euthyphro Podcast – Libsyn

Link to Euthyphro Podcast – SoundCloud

St. Patrick’s Day Special: The Wrens of the Curragh Reading Recommendation

Wrens of the Curragh by Unknown

-Saint Patrick’s Day Special-

The Wrens of the Curragh

-What is it?-

First and foremost, Happy Saint Patrick’s Day everyone! I hope anyone reading this has had the chance to celebrate in some way or another and cut loose on one of the best days of the year.

The recommendation this St. Patrick’s Day is a little unorthodox, in the sense that it’s not one set reading recommendation, but more what I think is an interesting sub-historical topic that I stumbled across last St. Patrick’s Day while doing some morning research on Irish history. It’s also more than a bit of a downer, at least at first, but I’ll do my best to try and highlight the parts of the story that matter, not just the ones that are salaciously depressing.

The Wrens of the Curragh were a group of women who lived on the outskirts of Kildare—a moderately-sized Irish town—from about the mid-1840s to the early 1880s. Their home was the Curragh, a vast plain stretching for miles around Kildare, and they were called Wrens because, in place of homes, they lived in “nests”—essentially burrows of grass that they wove and patched together—in a small community near a military camp on the plain.

Many of these women were social outcasts—single mothers, prostitutes, women who had followed men from the camp, only to be abandoned, the poor who would rather live in a field than a workhouse, or simply runaways who needed somewhere to stay. Their population was usually between fifty and sixty at any given time, and more than a few of them would stay year-round, sticking out brutal summers and long, cold winters with nothing but a few items of clothing and their grass nests for shelter.

They received a little bit of support from the surrounding community—the military camp would let them come and shop at a market several times a week, as well as supply them with water, and there was a widow who owned a shop in Kildare who let the Wrens visit and pick up supplies like milk, bread, potatoes, and sometimes a delicacy, like bacon, or lavender.

But life was often, as one might expect, bleak. Many of the women, to keep warm in the cold, or simply to cope, turned to alcohol. In order to make ends meet, some of the women would knit items of clothing that others could sell at the nearby market—but for many of the women, prostitution quickly became a way of life. Because of this, disease was often quick to spring up between the Wrens, and because the doctors of the military camp refused to see them, they would either have to find treatment themselves, or, barring anything but an immediate emergency, beg the soldiers to have the sick taken to the hospital in Naas, nearly nine miles away.

The Wrens were not much welcome in the town of Kildare, either. There’s a story that’s often repeated of a priest who, finding a Wren in the town, flogged her until “…the blood spurted onto his boots.” The townspeople watched and said nothing.

After nearly half a century, the community slowly dissipated, and the Wrens quickly passed into the annals of old stories and folklore.

-Why is it important?-

These women were regarded as the lowest of the low, the absolute bottom dregs of society. They were practically caricatures of what happens when one strays from the good and moral dictums of the social structure and instead chooses to steep themselves in vice, forever languishing in a barren waste of the soul.

Honesty first—to call their life a hard one is an understatement as wide as the plain they used to call home. There is no sense in trying to ease the discomfort of hardship with an injection of false or pretentious nobility.

However.

These women, cast out from all forms of polite society, had the option to go back. They could have gone to a workhouse; they could have tried their luck with a soldier in the camp; they could have gone back into Kildare and begged for something, anything, to bring them back into regular life.

But they didn’t.

In an obvious sense, one could make the case that many of them were vagrants, the 19th century homeless who had no intention or motivation regarding their betterment, and were so sunk into their own depravity that the effort of rejoining any kind of decent society was so far beyond the pale of possibility that to even consider it for many of them would make them reach for a drink.

While I accept that this may have been the case for some, even a majority, I refuse to believe—on both a personal bias and what appears to be a repeat emergence of human decency, beauty, and will in even the most degraded of places—that the Wrens’ entire character could be reduced only to that of a hopeless wretch.

Instead, I find it, in a way, honorable in a sense that few often find the courage to practice in their own lives. They knew that they would face hardship one way or another, and they chose to face it on their own terms, and to try and make their own life, even if most of it was mired in misfortune. These women formed a community—they supported each other, for decades. There were children born to some of the Wrens, and many would help take care of the kids until they were either grown, or left with their mother. Many couldn’t read or write, so those who could would help them keep up a semblance of correspondence with family, loved ones, friends, and others. They helped each other cook meals. They took care of the sick. They did all of this without, as far as the records show, a formal leadership or institutionalized hierarchy of any kind. They did all these things because they either had to be done, or, given the circumstances, they were the right thing to do.

There is no argument that the material way the Wrens lived is no way to live at all—no human being should ever have to live in the way they did, at such a level. But there is perhaps something to be said in how they lived in such a bleak reality, and still found ways to try and make something of their own of it.

-Conclusion-

Though maybe not uplifting on a surface level, the Wrens of the Curragh paint a picture of people who, when subjected to misfortune and suffering, still found some way through it, in both each other, and the community they created.

If you want to read more, the Wikipedia article—trite, I know, but not always a bad place to at least begin research—is linked here.

There is also a series of articles written by James Greenwood, an English journalist writing for Charles Dickens’ journal The Pall Mall Gazette, who actually visited the Wrens’ camp and wrote down his thoughts and observations. It’s a fascinating first-hand account of the life these women lived, and maybe one of the only of its kind in existence. You can find them here.

I hope everyone has a great St. Patrick’s Day, and I wish you all good health and more than enough cheer. Sláinte!

-Bibliography-

“Wrens of the Curragh.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 8 Jan. 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wrens_of_the_Curragh.

Irish Origins, and Irish Origins. “The Wrens of the Curragh.” Irish Origins, 9 Oct. 2018, https://irishorigins.wordpress.com/2017/11/06/the-wrens-of-the-curragh/.

Link to Wrens of the Curragh Podcast – Spotify

Link to Wrens of the Curragh Podcast – Apple Podcasts

Link to Wrens of the Curragh Podcast – Libsyn

Link to Wrens of the Curragh Podcast – SoundCloud

The Scary of Sixty-First Review

The Scary of Sixty-First Promotional Poster

-Review-

The Scary of Sixty-First

-What Is It?-

The Scary of Sixty-First is a 2021 psychological horror film co-written, directed, edited by, and co-starring Dasha Nekrasova. The film follows two young women, an aspiring actress, Addie—portrayed with wilting neuroticism by Betsey Brown—and her friend, Noelle—portrayed with deadbeat charm by co-writer Madeline Quinn. The two friends have just moved into a New York apartment that they soon discover, one through direct contact, the other through an introduction to a conspiracy theorist researcher—portrayed with a manic pathos by Dasha Nekrasova—was previously owned by Jeffrey Epstein, and functioned as one of his many apartments across the city where he and his constituents raped, tortured, and perhaps even sacrificed young women. As the film progresses and the group of three women unravel more and more regarding not only the details of the Epstein case, but the lingering psyche of the apartment as well, the entire space becomes infected with a rancid carnal anima that reaches a fever pitch, and then, as quickly as it comes, snuffs.

-Why Is It Important?-

To those who have heard about this film through second or third-hand channels, and to the many who more likely than not have not, the premise may sound like some kind of independent common fare with a current events—though a few years past expiration date—novelty gimmick to draw in unsuspecting viewers who would pay no mind to a film of its kind without some kind of sensational hook to draw them in.

In this reviewer’s opinion, while there may be hints of that flavor in the film, the opinion stated above could not be farther from the truth.

For honesty’s sake, it must be said that The Scary of Sixty-First is messy, and not always in a way that is either endearing in the sense of artistic empathy, or in the sense of an orchestrated horrific movement. There are moments where amateur qualities do shine through—usually in short bursts of directorial or performative excess—and can momentarily bring viewers out of the scene, and remind them that they are indeed watching a debut first-effort feature film.

However.

This reviewer believes that those moments of mess and excess, while they should be noted in critique—and more likely than not have been detailed in excess by other critics, with little self-awareness as to the irony regarding said excess critiquing excess—are what make the film a beautiful imprint of a feature.

Nekrasova may not be a full-fledged professional yet, but her grasp of symbolic deployment, overall direction, and sense of suspense and timing is wildly and surprisingly developed for someone of both her age, and what is known of her exposure to all the disparate elements of filmmaking thus far. She has been a working actress for some time, this is true—but it is one thing to be part of a film, and it is another to make it, and compared to others of her class, she brings something vibrant to the table where others have either failed to show up, or stalled entirely.

What is perhaps most notable about the film is the construction of its story and its thematic framework. More specifically, The Scary of Sixty-First is arrayed throughout its run with referential signs and symbols, and they are stitched into the fabric of the film with surprising care and thought. From the opening shots of sculptures of cherubs and demonic figures etched in old stone across New York—overlaid with a relatively expected, but still wonderful to see, opening credit text a la the style of John Carpenter—to the scattering of Christmas lights, trees, and other symbols reminiscent of Eyes Wide Shut, to Tarot Cards, various artifacts of Epstein iconography, shots evocative of directors such as Polanski and Lynch, moments of modern online slang and parlance peppered, both successfully and not, throughout the dialogue, and more, much much more, Nekrasova’s story begs a repeat viewing. She has been able to infuse her film with a thematic structure that grounds it and adds depth, while also grafting on present-day forms and patterns that keep it relatively light on its feet and approachable. How much thought went into the aesthetic decisions and deployment of the symbolic-laden framework specifically will only become clear after further study, but it is at least indicative of a sensitivity and inclination to a level of storytelling that, though it may be in its adolescence, bears the hallmarks of potential maturation into something truly spectacular and perhaps even definitive.

It is because of the evidence of thought that was put into the basic construction of the story, and their balance with other more conventional elements that create a limpid equilibrium, that this reviewer believes Scary’s flaws, while they cannot be ignored, can be given some kind of relative reprieve. Rather than the result of holistic artistic arrogance, ignorance, or egoism, they appear rather to be the accidental missteps of an enthusiastic new director putting on her first show.

More than anything, what the film evoked in this viewer was perhaps partially due to bias. It is, admittedly, more than enjoyable, and wonderfully refreshing, to view a work of art from a relative generational contemporary that puts on display a perspective that is not only relatable from an intra-generational point of view, but also sincerely makes the effort, and in some moments genuinely succeeds in doing so, to converse with a larger artistic and aesthetic history and palette that many younger artists of a similar standing either appear unaware of, uninterested in, unable to reach, or consider themselves above. Such a leap into the unknown, with such abandon, energy, and poise, is more admirable than is really possible to express in so many words. All that can really and finally be said, from this reviewer, at least, is job well done, Ms. Nekrasova. And I cannot wait to see what you do next.

-Conclusion-

Despite some out-of-the-gate sloppiness and formal trip-ups that are more native to debut features as a whole rather than this film in particular, The Scary of Sixty-First promotes a young talent of intriguing promise with a film that takes what could be a tired premise and tackles it with fresh blood coupled with a surprisingly mature and promising thematic framework. Though the film or its maker haven’t reached the heights of the directors and artists they draw a clear inspiration from, there is an infectious energy to the micro-event this film has become, and the ripples it may continue to generate. All that can be done now is enjoy, or at least critique, the film for what it is, and wait to see what Nekrasova and her team’s next effort will be.

Amadeus Reading/Watching Recommendation

Amadeus, directed by Miloš Forman, written by Peter Shaffer

-Reading/Watching Recommendation-

Amadeus

-What Is It?-

Amadeus is a 1979 play by Peter Shaffer and a 1984 film by Miloš Forman, both based on the 1830 play Mozart and Salieri, written by the Russian Romantic Alexander Pushkin. Because the story is relatively the same across all three forms—exempting expansions/embellishments on the original 1830 piece by the other two—Amadeus from this point on will be used to refer to all forms as one combined tripartite story, rather than any singular version.

The story follows Antonio Salieri, the esteemed and pious Court Composer for the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, and his introduction to a young upstart composer named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a precocious, divinely talented, and in Salieri’s opinion, insipid and childish man whose gift for music is wasted in such an infantine form. Salieri develops a deep hatred for Mozart, who is able to compose beautiful, transcendent music that the Italian cannot help but fall in love with, thus revealing Salieri’s own mediocrity as a man and a musician. Over the course of the story, Salieri becomes more and more convinced that God is mocking him, with Mozart as his instrument, and makes it his mission to destroy the man at any cost.

-Why Is It Important?-

Amadeus, taken as a holistic story across its three variations, is a fascinating examination of one of the most fundamental relationships in art, and perhaps in nature: that of form and impulse. This is not solely, or at times even remotely, what the story is about, but it serves as a decent distillation through which greater themes can be extrapolated.

Salieri represents what some would call the Apollonian, or form. He is morally erect, studious, and has pursued art with a fervent discipline for his entire life. His main motivation for all this is that he wishes to experience a kind of Absolute—he wants to honor, and find, God in music, and hopes that through the path of his art, and his devotion to his faith and his craft, he will accomplish both. Of course, Salieri is shown to be somewhat duplicitous to himself and others in what he says. He may believe himself to be a man of God, but is shown across all three stories to be jealous, gluttonous, lustful, murderous, and often interested solely in high appointments of status and the maintenance of a respectable reputation. He is more fixed on what his faith and art can bring him, rather than performing it for love, for its own sake, to begin with. The man is innocent, to a degree, in his awareness of how his baser urges govern him—he even feels guilty, and says so many times, for the thoughts he has, though he carries out sinful actions regardless. Salieri, in all his attempts to become divine, is arguably the most human—for better and for worse—figure in any variation of Amadeus.

Mozart, on the other hand, is immediately shown, and in some cases flat-out stated, to be godless. He is vulgar, impetuous, childish, spoiled, erratic, and short of patience, though never short of appetite. The man is always in motion, always drinking, always talking, always laughing—he never stops, and any time he is confronted with having to stop, or wait, he becomes instantly and embarrassingly upset. However, despite these many shortcomings, he is also gifted with what could only be called sublime talent and insight. The music he makes often centers around places of ill repute—like brothels and boudoirs—but is graceful, elevated, even legendary in scope and design. He is capable of taking ordinary and uncouth situations, and revealing the humanity within them. Because of this, Mozart is illustrated as a kind of impish, Pan-type figure, a playful eternal rascal who has come down from Heaven to play songs that will shape humankind forever, only to return a few short decades later. He represents what some would call the Dionysian—the chaos, the wild drive, inherent within art and human beings.

Ultimately, Salieri is a student of discipline, and Mozart is a child of impulse. And it is in their opposition that they reveal much about each other and the various conditions they stand for. Salieri is, again, the human being—he believes himself to understand God, and therefore his own person, and is thrown into total disarray when confronted with what is taken to be a true instrument of God. Without Salieri, the story is not human.

Conversely, Mozart represents eternity—he is a vessel for divine creation, precisely because he does not care, and is therefore unaware, of the more lofty trappings, pretenses, and beliefs that men like Salieri hold. Without him, the story loses its Absolute. Salieri is fixed on what should be; Mozart is what is.

There is a moment, revealed in Peter Shaffer’s play, where Salieri is attending Mozart’s showing of The Marriage of Figaro. Near the end of the First Act, the song “Non Più Andrai” begins. This song, Salieri realizes, is a variation on his own “March of Welcome” a piece he composed for Mozart’s initial arrival to the Court of Vienna. Mozart even performed the variation now in the opera in front of Salieri on that day, experimenting with the composer’s march and changing and crafting it in real time. In the play, Mozart departs afterwards, saying, “Thanks for the march!”

Salieri, for all his assumed mediocrity, has had his own piece immortalized through one of the greatest composers to have ever lived, in one of the greatest operas yet written. For a moment, he has become God, and Mozart has become his instrument; but it is because of his devotion to presupposed form, and his rivalry with Mozart, that he is unable to see the opportunity for what it is. And Mozart, because he is all impulse, and has no sense of self-awareness or concern for anything greater than the immediate moment, is unable to make a greater connection with Salieri over this adaptation. It is in this little scene that the story takes on, in this author’s opinion, a truly tragic form. Here was a potential opportunity—granted, in fiction alone, but that doesn’t make it any less an opportunity—for two great men to form a bond that could have immortalized one, and saved the other from an early death. But because both are bound by their own impulses and forms, they miss each other.

-Conclusion-

Amadeus, like many great stories, has much to say, and the above analysis is one piece in a greater mosaic of theme and color that the piece in its disparate parts has to offer.

If anything, at all and finally, there is a part of the story that implores its readers and watchers to be able to recognize the eternal in each other, while accepting the human in themselves. To be able to grapple with, synthesize, and perhaps one day understand those truths is what could one day lead to a kind of Absolute humanity, and an effortless sort of eternity.

-Bibliography-

Pushkin, Aleksandr Sergeyevich. Mozart and Salieri: The Little Tragedies. Angel, 2002.

Shaffer, Peter. Amadeus: A Play. New American Library, 1984.

Forman, Miloš, director. Amadeus. 1985.

Link to Amadeus Podcast – Spotify

Link to Amadeus Podcast – Apple Podcasts

Link to Amadeus Podcast – Libsyn

Link to Amadeus PodcastSoundCloud

Pride and Pulp: A Comparative Analysis of the Character Construction in Pride and Prejudice and Pulp Fiction

-Introduction-

1813 Meets 1994

Had Jane Austen ever gotten the chance to meet Quentin Tarantino, I have no doubt he would have appeared in one of her stories. Not only because Ms. Austen was well-known for placing people she had met or had known in her life into the characters of her novels—wholly, partially, or otherwise— but also because I believe she would have found him a wholly engrossing, if a crude and at times both shocking and banal, popular personality.

Likewise, if Mr. Tarantino had ever the opportunity to encounter Ms. Austen in person, I am equally convinced that he would have cast her, either in person or by cinematic allusion, into a role that would have cemented her, immediately and eternally, into the annals of American popular legend.

These two figures will never meet, and that makes me quietly sad.

For as oppositional as they may appear to be, after engaging with their respective works, I am moved, and more than that, I am convinced that they—one currently, another soon to be in time—have, do, and will for years to come, occupy an important cultural office.

Such a statement may seem obvious. Why wouldn’t either artist merit some kind of significant real estate in the culture, one of total and shining reverence, a place that celebrates unbridled genius, and honors technical commitment to craft? Both Austen and Tarantino possess these qualities and others in spades.

Those talents, however, are only partially the reason for this paper, and that particular kind of office is not the one I view them as occupying.

I believe their occupation to be less grand, and more one of fun and humble work. It is that of the Author, a character as much as they are an individual, a totalizing force as much as they are an atomic subject, a master and servant to their own world and the one they share with us—ultimately, an artist of uniquely unparalleled range, scope, fallibility, separation, and humanity, true, fun, light-of-touch and yet affirmational humanity, that few artists ever truly achieve in their work, much less their life.

Are Austen and Tarantino the greatest artists to ever live?

No. They are not.

But their relationship and their type, as illustrated in their work, bears examination, as they do not approach it with the mind or heart of an artist, but of a person first, and a craftsman and craftswoman second.

In this essay, I will examine two scenes, one from Pride and Prejudice, the other from Pulp Fiction, and through a comparison of the scenes, the characters, the patterns, and the authors themselves—with help from a simple theoretical model I have thrown together—I will make to demonstrate not only how and why Jane Austen and Quentin Tarantino are similar figures, but why they and the work they engage in is important, or at least worthy, to take note of, not only in the interest of our collective culture, but also of ourselves.

-The Model-

Before either story is examined and compared, it will be necessary to detail the perceived technique both employ that makes them each so memorable and, in the case of one and perhaps one day in the case of the other, timeless.

Both Pride and Prejudice and Pulp Fiction, like many other great works, tell their stories on multiple levels at the same time, though in different ways. Despite the difference in use, the technique is still the same.

A note before continuing: most stories, good and bad, are told on multiple levels, often at least two—text and subtext. This analysis is not a proclamation of discovery nor an attempt to assert Jane Austen or Quentin Tarantino as visionary heralds in a new era of storytelling. Rather, it is meant first to demonstrate an interesting, observed connection in craftsmanship between an older work and a younger work; and second, using such a demonstrated connection, sketch out a sort of rough and simplified cartographic key that may find use as an asset/tool for later audiences, critics, and artists alike. Again, none of this is really new, and most all of it is obvious—but the author has not yet seen a piece or writing anywhere that discusses this subject in such a way, and would like to add what he can to the conversation, as banal as it may reveal itself in time to be.

The technique found in the Pride and Prejudice and Pulp Fiction emerges, when distilled into one form, as such:

Base

Story

Authoreal

The terms “Base,” and “Story,” and, “Authoreal” are general by nature, as they’re meant to encapsulate recurring storytelling phenomena the modern viewer/reader/listener may be well familiar with, even if they don’t immediately recognize them. Therefore, other than the specific/contextual elements that individuate stories, it bears no severe or at least detrimental analytical significance if the Base/Story/Authoreal framework is applied to the story, to the characters, to both, to some third piece, or to a combination of them and others. In the author’s opinion, this framework is a basic pattern that is repeated across—perhaps not all—but certainly many stories. And though others before have described similar patterns, he finds it necessary to detail one that is simple and easy to determine for the modern person.

Note: the presence or knowledge of this technique does not connote a good story, and awareness of it does not at all grant one an all-access at-ease pass and ability to tell a good story. Much in the same way knowing a recipe does not grant one knowledge or ability to cook a meal that will taste good.

It is instead and again an observed framework, and an unestablished one at that. It is not meant to be taken singularly, and any good reader/watcher/listener/artist/person should possess a multitude of other works, theories, and perhaps most importantly, personal experiences, with which they can compare and contrast this framework against.

Below is a condensed summary of each step in the framework:

  • Base
    • The archetypal mold, the grounding for the story or character or other.
      • Ex: In Back to the Future, Marty McFly, before we see much of him, is immediately recognizable by his evident youth and how the camera—the story—follows him, as the prototypical teen and the archetypal protagonist. This much is obvious before we’ve seen less than a minute of him.
  • Story
    • The contextual shape of the story or character or other—namely, who or what they are and who or what we come to know them as an individual, as the story progresses.
      • Ex: Marty McFly, as we come to know him, isn’t exactly “cool”. He’s fidgety, sort of an airhead, and is very much in many ways still a kid. We learn he likes rock ‘n roll, plays guitar, has a girlfriend, and rides a skateboard. Despite some of his cruder qualities, he’s a good kid at heart, and we sympathize with him because he seems honest and well-intentioned.
  • Authoreal
    • The part/element of the author and their life—hence the portmanteau of author and real—that is both consciously and unconsciously put into the fictive body of the story. This can be the most difficult to identify, as it’s the most variable and at times indeterminate of the three, though one could make the argument it’s the most important. Because of this, it is also and unfortunately, and often all at once, the most ignored, and the most ill-used element of the framework.
      • Throughout his childhood, Michael J. Fox was an avid skateboarder. Even though a double was used for more complex shots and stunts throughout the film, there are still plenty of scenes and moments where Michael J. Fox is actually skateboarding in Back to the Future. This may seem trivial, and to a degree, it is—but his ability to authentically add to the film, in even the most granular way, lends a personal touch and quality, a certain level of intimate detail, that helps bring out the character into definition just a little more. For just a moment in at least one shot of Back to the Future, Marty McFly becomes real.

These three steps constitute a basic framework for storytelling and an objectively observable pattern that makes itself, if not visible, at least known in one manner or another, across many, many stories, regardless of age, narrator, or even quality.

Again and finally, this is only an observation, and while observations can be critical and crucial points in any analytic process, they are in some way ultimately subjective and therefore flawed and limited.

The author wants the reader to know he is well aware of this, and he asks for forgiveness if the propositioned framework appears provincial and really nothing more than the formulation of an obsessive personal fervor.

The author will now analyze Pride and Prejudice.

-Elizabeth and the Field-

To demonstrate the application of this model further, and to also perform the first part of this essay’s comparative textual analysis, a scene from Pride and Prejudice will be examined and analyzed.

But first, a brief summary.

Pride and Prejudice is a novel written and published by Jane Austen in 1813. The book follows Elizabeth Bennett, the second-eldest sister of five others, all of whom live with their parents of above-average, though—relative to their class—modest means in a small English country estate. Most of the book focuses on Elizabeth’s relationship with Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, a young gentleman of great means and severe character, and the questions, problems, and insights the two of them and their clash of personalities arise and create throughout their knowing each other. Throughout the novel, themes of class, the social and personal relationships between men and women, and what it means to truly care for and love someone, are explored in Austen’s trademark subtle and illustrative prose. It should be noted that, at the time, it would have been viewed as indecent for a woman to pursue writing as a serious interest, much less publication. For this reason, Austen’s name did not appear on the first print of the novel, and her only sources of feedback and critique were the members of her family, to whom she read her writing every night after dinner.

The subject matter of Austen’s books is heavily and unsurprisingly inspired by the events and contents of her own life. Like Elizabeth, she was born to an upper class family of modest means; she was pursued by and did pursue herself a variety of young gentlemen from different stations in life; and she—in some way or another—most likely felt alienated and isolated at times by the restrictions and expectations placed upon her by the contemporary culture of the time.

All these factors make Austen a fantastic subject for this comparative analysis and, in this author’s opinion, a wonderful counterpart to Tarantino, and there is a particular scene early in Pride and Prejudice that serves to demonstrate as much.

In the following scene, one of Elizabeth’s sisters has fallen ill while visiting the estate of a man who has been calling on her. Elizabeth, hearing the news, is resolved to go at once to see to her sister’s care. Her mother insists she wait for the family carriage—the Regency era equivalent of a beat-up, passed-around family car—to be prepared for her, as the walk is nearly over three miles of grass and muddy fields.

Elizabeth refuses and sets out for her sister.

“… Elizabeth continued her walk alone, crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles with impatient activity, and finding herself at last within view of the house, with weary ancles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise.” (Austen, pg. 33).

Now, beyond anything, the image alone of this small fragment is, in a way, wonderful: a young woman, most likely in full Regency dress, walking across miles of soggy green fields on a grey overcast day after a rain, all to see and be with her sick sister—beautiful. Beautifully written, beautifully imagined, and even if Austen herself never did something exactly like this, beautifully lived.

And it shows, in a small, crystallized form, both the ethos of Austen’s work, and perhaps Austen herself.

Here is where the model becomes useful.

Base: A young, wealthy—relatively—noblewoman confined by structures beyond her control, and who seeks something further beyond what she knows. The archetypal princess.

Story: Elizabeth Bennett is witty, sensitive, thoughtful, at times both naïve and cold, and extremely devoted and loving to and of her family.

Authoreal: Jane Austen grew up in a country estate, had to handle the strictures, achievements, and absurdities of Regency life, and was known to be both quiet at some times, and at others, witty and outspoken. Her life tracks much like Elizabeth’s, and though her work may not mirror her life in a full and autobiographical sense, without some inclusion of some of herself, her work would lose some of its depth, and perhaps even her life would have suffered as well.

So, why is this important at all? Yes, of course Austen, like many writers, artists, and people, puts herself into her work. Why does that matter? What difference does it make?

The scene of Elizabeth walking across the field is a moment in time preserved in an amber of ink. In one three line sentence, Elizabeth Bennet embodies and becomes a vessel for a singular and powerful feeling. Call it love, faith, courage, desire, passionthe essence remains the same. She becomes a real human being for just a breath, pursuing a blind fate with resolve, an elemental quality of life this author believes to be both universally resonant and true. In some way, a moment like this could be argued to demonstrate proof of a soul, or at least some eternal nature, living in the book.

And yet, at the same time, it is simply the description of a girl walking across a field.

This is Austen’s authoreal quality. That’s what she gives the story and her readers. Without taking what she’s known, experienced, been, and thought, and putting it, fashioning it, consciously and unconsciously, into some part of her story, Pride and Prejudice and all its moments simply would not be.

And it is the recognition, and the ability to discern this part, that elevates stories like Austen’s, and authors/artists/people like her who are able to accomplish this task, to something above the simply qualified and professional. It is her capacity for invention that distinguishes Austen and others like her from all the rest.

-From One to Another-

It may not seem like it initially, but Austen and her work share a number of similarities—if not aesthetic, then formal—with another author, well-known to many in the 21st Century: Quentin Tarantino.

Admittedly, and this must be said, the analysis between these two specific figures is only occurring in one part because of the author’s familiarity and enjoyment—both as a reader/viewer and a writer—of the two. In another part, however, there is a strong belief that these two people, despite apparent disparities, share quite a bit in terms of their approach to craft, and these shared qualities, which the author hopes to demonstrate on multiple levels across this comparison, are not simply confined to Ms. Austen and Mr. Tarantino, but instead and observably course throughout the work and lives of many others, both known, and not.

A scene from Pulp Fiction will now be analyzed.

-Vincent and the Restaurant-

For the sake of both clarity and an attempt of symmetry, there will be a brief description of both Pulp Fiction and Mr. Tarantino, followed by analysis.

Pulp Fiction is a 1994 crime film—this is the easiest label to use, though it does not at all do much justice in describing the movie in any real sense, much like calling Pride and Prejudice a romance novel does the book so little justice it need not be used for any reason other than utility—written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. The film follows several stories and the characters within them who weave in and out of each other’s lives, and the entire film itself is more a collection of short, loosely-related stories than a totally unified and chronologically consistent plot.

One of the stories, what could be argued to be the—relative—main focus of the plot, follows two black-suited gangsters—Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vega, played by Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta, respectively—as they run around Los Angeles performing various favors and errands for their boss, Marsellus Wallace, the mythic kingpin of the L.A. underworld. Throughout their vignettes, Jules and Vincent discuss and encounter many situations that are emblematic of the film’s major themes—love, fate, and faith, and how these all appear in and shape our lives, often from wildly unexpected places and in unforeseen ways.

Before the discussion continues, it is worth mentioning that Tarantino, much like Austen or any other author, approaches filmmaking with an incredibly specific and detailed point of view. His scenes, while many are vulgar and many more may seem sloppy—and a few of them most certainly are—are rarely unmotivated in their composition, whether in the writing of a scene, the framing of a single reaction shot, or the choice of casting a specific actor. With Tarantino, these decisions play towards and reflect a larger thematic goal or idea—they are not merely fun or entertaining window dressings on a movie, not that they can’t be, but are instead deliberate and intentional actions laid out and executed in what could only be called an authorial—an auteur, for others—style.

This is one of the reasons Tarantino and Pulp Fiction have been chosen for an analysis against Austen and Pride and Prejudice. His style, like hers, is noticeable, yet subtle, self-aware, yet immersive, and perhaps most importantly, has serious things to say, but still finds a means to present them in a light yet realistic way—simply put, his stories are fun.

Tarantino is a popular author with deeper sensibilities and sentiments than his detractors or his fans give him credit for, and also like Austen, Tarantino’s artistic impulses, whether he knows it or not, have led him to explore ancient and sacred territory in a few of his stories, and he even manages, once or twice, to bring back something that often feels forgotten or formerly lost, and frame it in his own way as something new, that puts him—again, alongside Austen—in a select pantheon of artists who achieved the very same.

There is a scene and sequence in Pulp Fiction that demonstrates this ability quite clearly—when Vincent Vega, John Travolta, takes Mia Wallace, Uma Thurman, the twenty-three year-old tired and adolescent wife of Marsellus Wallace, out to dinner.

Vincent is taking Mia out as a favor to the boss. She is younger than him, and it could be assumed from a quick and glancing perspective that all the young woman intends for her slouching underworld escort is nothing more than a night of jumping through various hoops for her amusement, all on the pain of her potentially making a bad report to her husband and Vince’s boss that the hitman did not, in fact, show Mia a good time.

She has Vincent bring them to a 50s novelty restaurant called Jack Rabbit Slim’s. He initially balks, and says he’d rather just go get a steak somewhere instead, but eventually gives in and follows Mia inside after some prodding.

Once inside, Mia and Vince head to the Maitre’D, a well-made-up Ed Sullivan impersonator, who takes Mia to their table.

Vince is rooted to his spot, though. He’s looking around, taking the restaurant, what little we can see, all in.

He begins to walk.

The restaurant is part patchwork themepark, part technicolor cinescopic heaven, part hustling bustling burger joint. The camera follows Vince, tagging along and behind with the distance of a quiet friend, as he walks past a 30-foot curving, swirling remote racecar track, groups of people—we can’t tell if they’re patrons who dressed up to come and eat, or waiters/waitresses who are so in-character and bear such a likeness to Mamie Van Doren or Buddy Holly they deserve their own byline in the credits—and multivariate sections neighborhooded with each other: outdoor tables with pastel umbrellas, booths that are full-body 1955 Oldsmobile Super 88s and other classic cars, a dark blue-lit bar occupied by customers being crooned to, or at, by a gaggle of Rat Pack-ers. On the walls, posters for Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, Machine Gun Kelly, Motorcycle Gang, Rock All Night. Vince walks past a Marilyn Monroe carrying a tray of milkshakes who gives him a look over with half-lidded dark eyes and a wink.

Mia eventually succeeds in getting Vincent’s attention, and still in a bit of a stupor, he sidles over to their booth—a 1959 Edsel—and takes a seat.

Mia asks him what he thinks.

“What do I think?” Vince looks around one more time. He turns back to her. “I think it’s like a wax museum, with a pulse.”

The rest of the scene is Vince and Mia talking, at first a little stiff, then slowly, but surely, bit by bit, more familiarly. At one point, even, Mia goes to “powder her nose.” Vincent watches her go, and his gaze after she disappears behind the bathroom door wanders to the Marilyn Monroe waitress, of whom we get a shot recreating her iconic pushing-the-white-dress-down-over-a-grate scene from The Seven Year Itch. Following film grammar and treating the perspective of the camera and what it’s showing us of Vince in this moment as a kind of narrator, it’s no stretch at all to assume that, perhaps, his feelings towards Mia are not as deferential, simple, or cold as they once were or have appeared to be.

There is more to the scene and sequence, but enough has been substantiated, in the author’s opinion, to support the subsequent analysis.

A quick point: it is apparent enough already, but one of the benefits of film is also one of its largest and heaviest detriments when it comes to analysis. Unlike a novel, as was seen with Austen, films—because of their unique production process—must pack whole chapters worth of plot, character, emotional, and thematic development into as compact and yet still artistically functional and palatable a space as possible. Whereas Elizabeth Bennett’s character has more time and more scenes to develop, allowing for more gradual, frequent, succinct steps, Vincent and Mia do not possess such luxuries. Their time and presence is present and fleeting, and has much left unsaid because of it, which lends to and almost requires a longer—though do not mistake length with a value-assertion of importance—analysis.

The previous model becomes useful again here, though it will be applied slightly differently because of the change in medium, and therefore, some context is required.

Vincent Vega will be the subject of analysis—so who is Vincent Vega?

Well, he’s a character, like any other in fiction, no different really from Elizabeth Bennett or any others in that sense. But unlike Elizabeth Bennett and like many film characters, Vincent is a creation of two people—the writer and the actor. Because of this, Vincent’s model will be broken down at the authoreal level into two distinct sub-categories.

Base Character: A hitman, a mobster, the archetypal criminal.

Story Character: Vincent Vega is a slouching, almost adolescent, but also tender hitman working for a Los Angeles crime boss. He likes heroin and loves his car. He kills as purposefully as he does accidentally.

Authoreal Character: This manifests in two parts.

  • Tarantino.
    • Vincent, like Tarantino at the time of the film’s release, is just returning from Amsterdam, is assumed to possess—even for a man of his time—a categoric knowledge of past pop-culture, enjoys quasi-Socratic conversations about nothing, and has a predisposition and niche, to be light, inferable attraction to feet.
  • Travolta.
    • Like Travolta, Vince is somewhat past his prime, something of an eternal teenager and, now older, belongs to, or feels like he does, an era that’s gone by. And he’s a pretty good dancer too.

Much like Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett, had these elements of Vincent’s character not been included, both the film and the character would have been stripped of something vital, the metaphorical pulse in the wax museum.

This is also why the location—and Travolta playing the character who is the focus of its scene—is so important. Keep in mind, at the time of release, Travolta was the biggest name in the film; he’s even the first to appear in the title credits.

However, the man was in a near-fifteen year career slump. After starring in late-70s popular period hits like Saturday Night Fever and Grease, John Travolta effectively fell off the map for most audiences. At the very least, it is easy to say and to see that he never again attained the critical or public high ground and attention he had held with those two films in that era.

Except when he starred in Pulp Fiction.

This is important for two reasons:

  1. It is another early example, Reservoir Dogs being the most popular first, of Tarantino’s marked inclination to cast actors and actresses with a sort of high-concept and sympathetic deliberation. As Austen used the members of her family and parts of their lives and personal histories in her own work, Tarantino too incorporates both the professional and personal stories and personae/characters of the actors he casts on some thematic level into the movies themselves. Put another way, Tarantino’s actors don’t simply play his characters—instead, he seems to cast them because in some way, they already are his characters.
  2. This may be why, in some way, watching Travolta—the fallen star of period hits like Saturday Night Fever and Grease—wander around a novelty fifties theme restaurant as a man fifteen years out of time, resonates on some level with an incredibly personal melancholy and tenderness. In the scene, we’re not just watching Vincent stumble through a place of by-gone memory and time that he was once a part of—we’re watching Travolta stumble through it too.

Much of this is no doubt obvious, certainly to the critic, student, and enthusiast, and perhaps even to the casual observer.

But the point of this analysis was not necessarily to prove anything new, but rather to sketch out what was already there, to show in some way how and why it works and why this piece and others like it are the things they are.

-Conclusion-

A Republic of Authors

In the classical treatise on political philosophy and the human soul The Republic, Socrates says that poetry—narrative writing of any kind, and by extension, art—can be divided into two categories: imitation and narration. Narration being the most common form, when a writer or artist is simply telling the story through the conventions of their craft; and imitation being when a writer or artist attempts to mimic something they’ve seen, done, heard about, felt, or been, in their art.

Socrates details later a belief that such imitation is dishonest, even dangerous, if the artist is not of a virtuous nature. The primary concern appears to be that, without rational guidance, the sentiments encouraged by art can overpower more practical faculties and arrest the possibility of a measured and logical process of thought, or even expel reason altogether in favor of feeling alone. This critique no doubt stems from Socrates’ view on poets such as Homer, who’s stories he appeared to view more as nothing more than fanciful and pretty words on paper. These stories, however, as time passed, quickly became the direct or indirect basis for much of Greek thought in regards to the customs and traditions of religion—and so Socrates seemed to believe that, without proper guidance, discipline, and at times, outright dissuasion, the arts could accidently infect and even corrupt the spiritual center of a people without anyone being the wiser.

His point is well-taken, and many would do well to observe the accuracy to which it has been rendered across history by the willing and unwilling alike. Art that is wielded carelessly, either from naiveté or ignorance, or both, is capable of annihilation on a scale that far exceeds the destructive capacity of any conventional weapon that has been or will be produced. To confuse art with reality, or vice versa, is a dangerous conflation of two entirely separate spheres of experience. Neither can fulfill the other’s purpose; if that was possible, there would only be one.

But there are moments where the two intersect—and it is in those moments where a kind of beauty exists, separate from either, and one that I believe is worthy of recognition.

Jane Austen and Quentin Tarantino are doing nothing new. Their use of personal histories and qualities in their work, extrapolated and expanded into a fictional paradigm, is arguably at the core of what many, many artists have done and are doing across time. In a sense, such a method is the only way that art of any kind gets made.

Rather, they have been selected because of their salience and influence in contemporary culture and the ease with which one can identify the basic artistic elements within their respective works.

Perhaps one of the most important and as of yet unmentioned qualities of both Austen and Tarantino is that their work is flawed. Sometimes, Austen’s prose runs too long; there are lines of dialogue that come off as stiff and unnatural in Tarantino films, and this is just the beginning. These accidental flashes of imperfection make their work human. It grants a sympathetic patina of childish enthusiasm with certain angles, and points in some way to an absorption, not with making art, but with living. And is these final fragments that complete the work and make it a whole experience, not just of itself, but of the person who made it, and in some way, the people who may come to experience it.

Phrased a bit more succinctly, there is something to be learned from that piece of a person and their singular experience, preserved in an amber of their own design, that bears and affords at least some study, if not for the sake of art, then for the sake of ourselves.

And this doesn’t necessarily just apply to art. Any kind of personal endeavor—cooking, brick-laying, auto-body repair and mechanics, listening to music, plumbing, sports, gaming, scientific study, politics, or simply the ability and desire to build a home—that one finds oneself drawn to, is a practice that, much like an artist’s own process and their work, can be examined, studied, refined, and ultimately lived alongside. We become our own Authors.

Through these pursuits, in finding the parts of ourselves in the things we enjoy and practice, often for reasons of which we have no real rational or idea, simply a feeling, we can begin to understand, on multiple and many—one hesitates, but could in, some way, say universal—levels not only each other and ourselves, but what we’re being told in our own stories, and, if there is such a way to grasp, for each of us, what they might just begin to mean.

-Bibliography-

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Penguin Books, 2014.

Tarantino, Quentin, and Lawrence Bender. Pulp Fiction. 1994.

Plato. The Republic. Black & White Classics, 2019.