The Modern Man

Day 51: Monday

Good morning Zak,

“I went to the museum where they had all the heads and arms from the statues that are in all the other museums.”

-Steven Wright


One of the so-called Elgin Marbles, British Museum

Do you ever wonder what’s with that?  Like, what on earth happened to about half the limbs on these statues?  Well, most of the damage can be accounted for by factors you would expect, like weather, other natural forces, accidents…  But not all of it.  Some of the changes to these statutes are the result of a very intentional human process: bowdlerization.

Dr. Thomas Bowdler was a physician and social activist of the 18th and 19th centuries.  He’s best remembered for his 1807 publication, The Family Shakespeare.  This was like the P.G. version of Shakespeare.  All the offensive material had been removed, making it appropriate for children.

Since then, Bowdler’s name has been turned into a verb: to bowdlerize, meaning “to expurgate, or censure inappropriate material.”  For example, the medieval church bowdlerized some classical statues by covering up or removing the private parts.

One day people will speak also of timothizing and zakifying things… I’m not sure what it’ll mean.

Anyway, here’s a question: what is the significance of bowdlerism from a purely artistic point of view?  Is The Family Shakespeare just as good as the original?  Or does it maybe lose something, inhibiting the full breadth of Shakespeare’s original poetic vision?

Shakespeare’s plays are of course heavily influenced by the plays of the ancient Greeks and Romans.  Those guys were a little more liberal than the Christian society of Bowdler’s 19th century England… especially when it came to things like sex, violence, nudity…  But sometimes we tend to think of the cultural difference too dualistically—as if the ancient Pagans were some kind of wild hippies compared to the restrained Christian society that followed.

The truth is, even the ancient Greeks had their forms of censorship.  Physical violence and other obscene acts were considered an abomination to Dionysus, the god of theater, and were not permitted to take place on stage.  On the other hand, Christians are not always so restrained.  Occasionally in Christian literature, poets will attempt to glue the missing genitals back on to our concept of man:

“Pleasant and fitting both their use will be
When time and mode and measure do agree,
Else withering from the root all lives would fail
And that old Chaos o’er the wreck prevail.
Conquerors of Death! they fill each empty place
In Nature and immortalize the race.”

-Bernardus Silverstris, De Mundi Universitateº

Other poets too have since tried to piece together our broken form:


One’s-self I sing, a simple separate person,
Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.

Of physiology from top to toe I sing,
Not physiognomy alone nor brain alone is worthy for the Muse, I say
the Form complete is worthier far, The Female equally with the Male I sing.

Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power, Cheerful, for freest action form’d under the laws divine, The Modern Man I sing.

-Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Until tomorrow,


º Ed. Barach and Worbel, Bibliotheca Philosophorum Mediae Aetatis, II.xiv.155

Blessed, with Responsibility

Day 30: Friday

Morning, Tim!

Depending on how you count it, we’ve been at it for a month! I figured I’d count it this way so that I could note it before you did (though you could have made a claim regarding “But February only has…” A missed opportunity…).

[…] Close our eyes and imagine somewhere we would like to be if we could be anywhere in the world.  When we opened our eyes he asked if the place anyone had imagined was room 312 YC high school.  I was the only one who raised their hand.  Maybe I was over thinking things, but if I really wanted to be somewhere else, wouldn’t I just get up and leave?

Decisions are a challenging thing. To be fair to your 14 year old classmates, I wonder if they really did have the power to go where they’d like. Perhaps some thought “man, I’d love to be at tacobell!” (depending on the hour of your class, perhaps Starbucks…). But others probably imagined the word Italy (it’s probably hard to imaging if you haven’t gone) or somewhere foreign – and where was a 14 year old to get the means to travel to Italy? Even getting up and leaving wouldn’t get them there. And so of course they sat in class, for that’s what they were told to do, many with the hope that life would be a long conditional. “If I do this [e.g. sit in school like I’m told], I’ll get to do that [e.g. go on vacation where I’d like, or perhaps even live there depending on my willingness to dream…]”

Or you could be an odd boy, realizing this train of thought, and….suggested that this was the place you wanted to be. I was that boy too…

Leaving your work would be an administrative decision that you make about the infrastructure of your life.  We don’t make those kind of decisions on a daily basis.

You don’t state it explicitly, but your discussion of decisions, infrastructure life decisions in particular, seems to lean toward an inability in at least some cases to truly make these changes. There are people who can make them (e.g. Jim Koch founded Sam Adams brewery after being fed up with consulting – but it was precisely because he was a management consultant that he was in a position to quit). In cases such as these, he describes them as scary but not dangerous; not dangerous because the other option was dangerous – looking back at 65 and wondering why he spent his whole life doing management consulting when that’s not what he wanted to do. I can appreciate this line of thought – I have been blessed with opportunities; while I work hard, I also know I’m lucky to be in the position I am.

In other cases, though, it is dangerous to make those infrastructure changes. For a single mom with three kids, there isn’t much room for adventure in the job market, nor to simply “get up and leave” because the consequences mount so high – hungry kids, an unpaid mortgage, utility bills mounting. Or, much worse, someone in a war-torn country who can’t leave because they literally can’t. They have nowhere to take refuge, no country to take them in.

Obviously you know all of this; I’m merely reflecting on decisions, infrastructure choices in particular. Reflecting on the choices I deliberate over…

I feel blessed to be able to even have the options I have in my choices. I also wonder what responsibility comes along with those options…

Until Monday,


p.s. I hope you chose to join the choir. Also if you do, I’ll anticipate a good picture of you doing some handshaking…

Unusual Uses and Usages

Day 11: Monday

Good morning Zak,

So here’s one for you: would words have meaning if there weren’t anyone around to read them?  This is an alternative version of the better-known riddle, “if a tree falls in the woods with no one to hear it, then do I still sound pretentious asking you this?”  Zak, you might feel confident about how to answer both of those questions, but as you’re reading this there’s probably a slight problem.  I’m guessing no one is around willing to hear your answer.

“No one,” by the way, makes a great nickname.  That’s why Odysseus told a cyclops his name was “Cleverness” that one time before he attacked it.  When the cyclops’ friends asked it if everything was okay, it shouted out, “No one is attacking me!”  Get it?

I guess you had to be there… in ancient Greece… where the word for “cleverness” sounded almost exactly like the word for “no one.”  A classic miscommunication.

Classicists are kind of funny people these days.  They’re like Harry Potter fans, only more hipster.  They all have basically the same quirky personality, some of them are under the impression that they’re descendants of gods, and they share all sorts of clever inside jokes and references that mostly just classicists get.  So more or less like Harry Potter fans.  If you, reader, happen to be a part of that niche little audience, maybe you’d like to indulge yourself with a quick poem by Hilda Doolittle.

But while reading out-dated poetry is great, if there are people around to hear you, I would recommend a more social activity.

One great way to spend a stormy evening is playing telephone with your friends.  If anyone is unfamiliar, telephone is a game of transmission: players gather in a circle, and one person discreetly whispers a particular message of some kind into the ear of their neighbor.  The message is then carefully transmitted all the way around the circle.  At that point the original version of the message is revealed for all to hear, shocking participants with how much it has changed.  The purpose of this exercise is evidently to make light of the fallibility of human expression.

But maybe you don’t agree that telephone is such a “great” activity.  That’s cool.  These days, plenty of people disagree about the proper usage of the word “great.”

There was also that time Odysseus was in the underworld and he met a crazy old dude named Tiresias.  Tiresias told him to carry his oar so far in-land that people would think it was a winnowing-fan for separating the wheat from the chaff.  He was assuming the people in the country were so domestic that they would hardly even recognize the accouterments of pirating.  It’s possible this has some kind of deep metaphorical meaning that made it worthy of entering the cannon of classical world literature, but it’s probably just a miscommunication.

“And I will give you a sign, clear indeed: when another traveler meets you and asks whether it is a winnowing-fan you carry on your shining shoulder, plant your handy oar into the earth and offer a sacrifice to lord Poseidon…” Homer

Really, I suppose there’s no reason you couldn’t use an oar as a winnowing-fan.  You could also use a hairbrush as a musical instrument.  Come to think of it, there are a lot of alternative uses for everyday objects.  Like fish, for example.

Until tomorrow,