Thursday, January 24, 2013

Compendium Update

In a post in March of 2011, I discussed creating a compendium of Western thought. (For that list check out: At the time I had 94 inductees, and subsequently have increased it to 99.

It was 100 a week ago.

Since the 94 were posted I removed Aeschylus (new number of inductees: 93), More (92), Milton (91), Voltaire (90), Goethe (89), William James (88), Rabelais (87) Proust (86), Woolf (85), Locke (84), and even Eliot (83), and added De Beauvoir (84), Turing (85), Piaget (86), Aquinas (87), Ernst (88), Charles Mackay (89), Castiglione (90), Da Vinci (91), Christine de Pizan (92), Rimbaud (93), Sontag (94), Keynes (95), Herzl (96), Hegel (97), Oersted (98), and Boyle (99).

Notably I’ve not read Boyle’s work on chemistry. For those who paid particularly close attention in Chem class they may remember Boyle’s Law, stating an inverse relation between pressure and volume of gasses. The reason he’s included is because his work, ‘The Sceptical Chymist’, purportedly discusses atoms in motion, and the rejection of four elements. Nor have I read De Beauvoir, excepting her lesser known work ‘The Ethics of Ambiguity’ which is a sort of companion piece to Sartre’s ‘Being and Nothingness’. I have full faith ‘The Second Sex’, as the hallmark of second-wave feminism, merits the position tentatively granted it.

The 100th addition, likewise was put on there without reading. (For the record the rest of the above listed as new I have read.) I thought Dickens’ ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ would be a nice inclusion regarding the French Revolution. Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ is already on there, but is more focused on Napoleon than issues such as the Terror. I was wary of Dickens, having read Nickleby, Copperfield, and Expectations. But I didn’t care for Shakespeare’s formulaic nature of comedy and tragedy and am glad to have persevered and discovered his histories. So I encountered ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ optimistically.

Now compare the following lines:

“Indeed, Lydgate himself had come to the conclusion that if he must end by asking for a free loan, his relations with Bulstrode, more at least than with any other man, might take the shape of a claim which was not purely personal. Bulstrode had indirectly helped to cause the failure of his practice, and had also been highly gratified by getting a medical partner in his plans:—but who among us ever reduced himself to the sort of dependence in which Lydgate now stood, without trying to believe that he had claims which diminished the humiliation of asking? It was true that of late there had seemed to be a new languor of interest in Bulstrode about the Hospital; but his health had got worse, and showed signs of a deep-seated nervous affection. In other respects he did not appear to be changed: he had always been highly polite, but Lydgate had observed in him from the first a marked coldness about his marriage and other private circumstances, a coldness which he had hitherto preferred to any warmth of familiarity between them. He deferred the intention from day to day, his habit of acting on his conclusions being made infirm by his repugnance to every possible conclusion and its consequent act. He saw Mr. Bulstrode often, but he did not try to use any occasion for his private purpose. At one moment he thought, "I will write a letter: I prefer that to any circuitous talk;" at another he thought, "No; if I were talking to him, I could make a retreat before any signs of disinclination."”


“The sights he had seen there, with brief snatches of food and sleep by intervals, shall remain untold. The mad joy over the prisoners who were saved, had astounded him scarcely less than the mad ferocity against those who were cut to pieces. One prisoner there was, he said, who had been discharged into the street free, but at whom a mistaken savage had thrust a pike as he passed out. Being besought to go to him and dress the wound, the Doctor had passed out at the same gate, and had found him in the arms of a company of Samaritans, who were seated on the bodies of their victims. With an inconsistency as monstrous as anything in this awful nightmare, they had helped the healer, and tended the wounded man with the gentlest solicitude—had made a litter for him and escorted him carefully from the spot—had then caught up their weapons and plunged anew into a butchery so dreadful, that the Doctor had covered his eyes with his hands, and swooned away in the midst of it.”

Both of these were picked at random. The first is from Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’. The latter is the Dickens. By delightful coincidence both have the author addressing us, in a way. In Eliot the question is direct. In Dickens the narrator alludes to sights which he shall not share. I am quite fond of Eliot, and less so Dickens, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ now included.

It is not a bad book - I enjoyed reading it in the same page-turner way I enjoyed Harry Potter. It simply is not a novel for adult people. ‘Middlemarch’, ‘Mrs. Dalloway’, ‘Death Comes for the Archbishop’, ‘Brideshead Revisited’ – these are adult novels. Dickens doesn’t strike me as such.

So he has been struck from the Compendium, and I am at 99. On the short list to replace are Gibbon, Arendt, Burke, Fanon, Foucault, Robert Burton, Lenin and Leopardi, all unread. I own copies of Leopardi, Burke, Gibbon, Burton and Foucault. Since 2011, though, I’ve been prioritizing 20th century literature, so this project has been moving slowly. Still, I only have 13 chapters left to compile, including the unknown 100th inclusion, tempered by some 85 one-page introductions to the works and authors still needing to be written.

A definite back-burner project, but not an unpleasant one.

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