Following the resolutions in my last post on reading, I've finally finished two of the heavier books that I'd started: The Art of Rhetoric by Aristotle, and The Kalevala, a cycle of Finnish epic poetry. Some reflections:
- I actually only read the first volume, which is the first twenty songs
- For what it is, it's surprisingly readable and engaging. Good stories, lots of vivid poetic images, even some humour
- The introduction compared it to other great ancient epics, such as the Iliad
- It's written in trochaic tetrameter (**tum**-ti-**tum**-ti-**tum**-ti-**tum**-ti) and translated that way too. That metre is particularly infectious and I found my internal monologue beating that way after reading a section - *The Song of Hiawatha* is written that way too, apparently inspired by *The Kalevala*
- I knew nothing about Finnish mythology and now I know next to nothing but here's some stuff: - There's no pantheon and not many obvious gods, just one high God, "Ukko" - Most of the characters don't seem like ordinary men and women. The translation says "heroes", which fits, but you need to think bigger than Odysseus or Achilles - Birch trees, some constellations, the moon and the sun all are persons, in some fashion - Mothers matter way more than fathers
- Really wish I knew more about its provenance. It's hard to tell how much is truly ancient, how much has been influenced by Christianity and how much was made up by the compiler.
- Lots of singing. If you hated Tom Bombadil or the *Silmarillion* (Mikey, I'm looking at you), then you should probably skip this one
- I'm probably not going to read Volume 2 any time soon
*The Art of Rhetoric*
This is the first Aristotle I've ever read. I'm really interested in the subject, initially because I wanted to be conscious of when I'm using rhetorical tricks and when they are being used on me.
The book is more than just a series of tricks. It's about the philosophical and psychological underpinnings of persuasive speech: what kinds of arguments there are; how to come up with them; which ones are best suited for which purposes; what things work regardless of what kind of speech you are making; how emotions fit into things and so forth. What I had previously thought of as rhetoric – rhetorical style – is a smallish bit at the end.
It's a really tough, technical read. Lots and lots of it didn't stick, and I am sure it would repay a deeper study. The translator tries his best, and his introduction was helpful, but even he tended to be cumbersome. He once described something as being "not inimitable". I don't know what that means.
Even though it's really tough and technical, I was impressed by Aristotle. When I was growing up, I mostly knew of him as the guy who got science completely wrong and helped screw up the Middle Ages. Reading this, he comes across as very sharp, creative and interesting. Also, since he and the translator frequently refer to his other works, he comes across as very prolific. It's amazing how many different fields he contributed to. I realize this isn't exactly news.
It also makes me realize just how much cool stuff was going on in Classical Greece, and how modern much of it seems to me. I guess I'm late to this game too, but when I read things like this I feel as if our culture has this super-interesting older cousin with an excellent music collection who we never talk to because we can't be bothered. Or something.
I wish I had a classical education, or at least that I could go off and study classics for a while. I really think I would learn things that would be useful today. Or perhaps our culture has absorbed everything that is useful or good or relevant about their culture and it would all be a mildly diverting exercise in academic self-gratification.