On New Year resolutions, and a few other matters

After the festivities, the austerity. Several of my friends have committed themselves to going through the first month of the New Year without alcohol, penitent, it seems, for the sin of having enjoyed themselves earlier. Others have come up with New Year resolutions that seem designed to make life as unpleasant as possible: give up fried food, exercise more, go to the gym, and the like. (It never ceases to astonish me, incidentally, that those paying vast amounts for the privilege of exercising in a gym appear not to have figured out that taking a run round the park is free.) If Christmas was designed to brighten up the gloom of a bleak mid-winter, we seem intent upon returning to all that gloom and bleakness with a fanatic relish afterwards. As for myself, I must confess that, ageing sybarite that I am, all this mortifying the flesh to purify the spirit leaves me feeling distressingly alienated. For, in the words of Falstaff, he is but the counterfeit of a man who hath not the life of a man; and who in their right senses would consider a life purged of all its pleasures, and laden with various self-imposed vicissitudes, to be a life worth having – even for the single penitential month of January? Give me life, says I! If I can have it, so; if not, the gym comes unlooked for, and there an end.

Not that I haven’t made a few New Year resolutions myself, of course. Not perhaps New Year resolutions, since they had been formulated log before the New Year, but, all the same, resolutions for this coming year. I want to devote myself to the arts and literatures of Shakespeare’s times. To this end, I have lined up for myself the Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse – a large and forbidding tome with which I am determined to familiarise myself; the Longman edition (which is the most heavily annotated version I could find) of the poems of Donne, along with the Cambridge Companion to Donne, which, hopefully, will give me some critical insights that I could then pass off here as my own; various plays by contemporaries of Shakespeare – Kyd, Marlowe, Webster, Jonson, Ford, Middleton, Tourneur, Dekker, Heywood, and the like; and the collected essays of Bacon and of Montaigne. (The latter died when Shakespeare was still a teenager, but Montaigne seems so important an intellectual influence on Shakespeare, that it seems ludicrous for any self-respecting Bardolator not to know his works well.) And I want to read Don Quixote in a modern translation: my preferred translation till now has been the one by Tobias Smollett, who was, of course, a fine novelist in his own right, but, lively and ebullient thought that version was and still is, the more recent translations are, I am told, more accurate; and since we already have John Rutherford’s highly rated Penguin translation on our shelves (it is a favourite book of my wife’s), there seemed little point getting another one. On top of all this, I would like to familiarise myself with the art and music of that period: the last few weeks have been spent listening to some of the choral music of William Byrd, including the three magnificent masses (which, in those days in Protestant England, had to be performed discreetly behind closed doors), and also to some of the songs of John Dowland. I really am not at all familiar with music of this era, but I suppose repeated listening is the best way to familiarise myself.

My resolution to immerse myself in all this has, admittedly, been put on hold for a while by a couple of books presented to me for Christmas by my brother: Think by Simon Blackburn, an introduction to laymen such as myself to some of the major concepts and arguments of Western philosophy; and The Soul of the World by philosopher Roger Scruton, in which the author (and I am merely paraphrasing the blurb here on the jacket) argues for the importance in our lives of a sense of the sacred (a term, I presume, the author will define somewhere along the line), and, to anticipate somewhat, concludes that “despite the shrinking place for the sacred in today’s world … the paths to transcendence remain open”. My brother presented this book to me with the somewhat tongue-in-cheek comment that he thought I would like it because I was “into all that mumbo-jumbo”. He was referring to my fascination with Dostoyevsky, a writer for whose irrationality and religious fervour my brother has little patience: and he is right: I am, indeed, into all that “mumbo-jumbo” – at least, up to a point. The idea that I am more than the sum of my constituent physical parts is one to which I do find myself emotionally attached, despite all the arguments and the lack of scientific evidence that may be ranged against it. So I would be very interested indeed to know what a philosopher such as Scruton has to say in defence of this idea, irrational though it may well be. Well, let’s not pre-judge: I’ll write about all that once I have read the book.

But the first two weeks of the January I have spent reading Blackburn’s book. I am still debating whether or not to write a blog post on it: of what value, after all, can the thoughts be worth of a not-very-knowledgeable layman regarding a book written by an expert on very profound and complex matters? Should I not merely restrict myself to saying that I found it illuminating and fascinating (and a few similar words looked up in the thesaurus) and leave it there? Anything more and I would merely be making a fool of myself! But this blog is as much a personal diary as it is a public platform, so perhaps a jotting down few words describing my own reactions to the book rather than presuming the critique the book may not be entirely amiss. I’ll see how confident I feel about it. And some time not too much later, I most certainly want to read Scruton’s book. And write something about that too, if I can pluck up the courage to do so.

But for now, I am going to immerse myself in Donne. By the end of the year, I want to count myself as one knowledgeable about this poet, of whose work I am currently aware only in a very haphazard manner. And may I wish everyone out there that your New Year resolutions – even if it is spending more time in the gym – brings you as much joy as mine promise to bring to me!

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11 responses to this post.

  1. Best wishes regarding your plans, Himadri, and a belated Happy New Year to you as well. If it’s any consolation, I “celebrated” this post before I was even aware of it this afternoon with a fried chicken sandwich, two beers, and no trips to the gym! P.S. Re: your question (“Of what value, after all, can the thoughts be worth of a not-very-knowledgeable layman regarding a book written by an expert on very profound and complex matters?”), please review away about anything and everything that catches your fancy. Fellow travelers don’t need an “expert” on any and every opinion about books; and if we did, most of us would have to close down shop!

    Reply

    • Thanks, Richard, for that. I probably will put up a post on the Simon Blackburn books some time – couched with disclaimers and declarations of pig-ignorance and the like! I have this terrible vision of people well-read in philosophy chancing across my post and shaking their heads at the various basic errors I am sure I’ll be making! 😉

      Cheers for now, Himadri

      Reply

  2. Posted by alan on January 18, 2015 at 9:51 pm

    “The idea that I am more than the sum of my constituent physical parts is one to which I do find myself emotionally attached, despite all the arguments and the lack of scientific evidence that may be ranged against it. “.
    If it is of any comfort to you, I do think that you probably are more than the sum of your physical parts, but this doesn’t necessarily mean you have any existence or continuity outside of those parts. However, I cannot share your particular existential problem and I think you understand that.
    We can empathise with each other because do share the same challenge. We are aware of our mortality, and that gives sufficient reason for being sensitive to each others feelings. However, if someone starts to tell me that ‘the truth’ has been revealed to them and that I must obey them because of their strong feelings about what they have been told, then I start to lose sympathy. The insecure believer gets psychological validation from the submission of others – the alternative is the introspective struggle of doubt.

    Reply

    • However, if someone starts to tell me that ‘the truth’ has been revealed to them and that I must obey them because of their strong feelings about what they have been told, then I start to lose sympathy.

      Yes, me too, me too…

      I similarly lose sympathy with those who tell me that I must in some way be intellectually deficient or intellectually dishonest or self-deluding (or something of that nature) because I refuse to jettison the possibility (no more) of the existence of something other than the material. Beyond that, as you know, I am not prepared to speculate.

      It does seem to me that there is too much certainty around, on all sides: perhaps a bit more doubt may not go amiss!

      Cheers for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

  3. Kyd, Marlowe, Webster, Jonson, Ford, Middleton, Tourneur, Chapman, Beaumont and Fletcher – yes, so good, so good. I made some substitutions. Same sentiment towards the music. Do you have plans for Thomas Campion, too? I hope so.

    Reply

  4. One can only applaud a resolution like this over the more penitential ones. I’ll be following your argumentative old gittiness with much interest this year.

    Reply

    • Thanks, Scott!
      I have a good friend who keeps urging me to comment more on political matters on this blog, but I shall desist. I do have to look after my blood pressure, after all! 🙂

      Cheers for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

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