Tag Archives: literary oddities

7 Classical Heroes Who Visited the Underworld

Aeneas * Odysseus * Orpheus * Dionysus * Heracles * Psyche * Theseus

Virgil has Aeneas descend with the sibyl into the underworld at the Sulphur-ridden crater of Avernus near Cumae to speak to his dead father. Odysseus makes it as far as the banks of the River Charon. However, Orpheus succeeds in charming Pluto and Persephone with his music and almost succeeds in extracting his lover Eurydice from the gates of Hell but on his return to the light gives birth to a mystery religion complete with a transformational initiation rite, hymns, and a priesthood who remain poor outcast wanderers, renouncing their taste for meat and women.

Dionysus’s descent feels like an earlier episode in this same half-understood Orphic religion, though dance replaces music and Dionysus is successful in rescuing his mother Semele and placing her in the heavens. Hercules is in Hades on a mission to steal the hound of hell (Cerberus), but again seems to follow in the spiritual footsteps of Orpheus by descending into the underworld via Eleusis and its mystery cult.

Looking beyond the Aegean, and this list of seven, are the much older stories of Gilgamesh’s journey to Hell and the Sumerian-Babylonian goddess Inanna’s descent.”

Excerpted from: Rogerson, Barnaby. Rogerson’s Book of Numbers: The Culture of Numbers–from 1,001 Nights to the Seven Wonders of the World. New York: Picador, 2013.

Write It Right: Commencement for Termination

“Commencement for Termination. A contribution to our noble tongue by its scholastic conservators, ‘commencement day’ being their name for the last day of the collegiate year. It is ingeniously defended on the ground that on that day those on whom degrees are bestowed commence to hold them. Lovely!”

Excerpted from: Bierce, Ambrose. Write it Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2010.

The Algonquin Wits: Robert Benchley on the Standardization of American Life

“It takes no great perspicacity to detect and to complain of the standardization in American life. So many foreign and domestic commentators have pointed this feature out in exactly the same terms that the comment has become standardized and could be turned out on little greeting cards, all from the same type-form: ‘American life has become too standardized.’”

Robert Benchley

Excerpted from: Drennan, Robert E., ed. The Algonquin Wits. New York: Kensington, 1985.

Write It Right: Commence for Begin

“Commence for Begin. This is not actually incorrect, but—well, it is a matter of taste.”

Excerpted from: Bierce, Ambrose. Write it Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2010.

Book of Answers: The Death of Jack Kerouac

“How did Jack Kerouac die? The author of On the Road (1957) died at age 47 on October 21, 1969, of a massive gastric hemorrhage associated with alcoholism in St. Petersburg, Florida.”

Excerpted from: Corey, Melinda, and George Ochoa. Literature: The New York Public Library Book of Answers. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.

The Doubter’s Dictionary: Economics

Economics: The romance of truth through measurement.

An understanding of the value of economics can best be established by using its own methods. Draw up a list of the large economic problems that have struck the West over the last quarter-century. Determine the dominant strand of advice offered in each case by the community of economists. Calculate how many times this advice was followed. (More often than not it was.) Finally, add up the number of times this advice solved the problem.

The answer seems to be zero. Consistent failure based on expert methodology suggests that the central assumptions must have been faulty, rather in the way sophisticated calculations based on the assumption that the world was flat tended to come out wrong. However, streams of economists are on record protesting that they weren’t listened to enough. That the recommended interest rate or money supply or tariff policy was not followed to its absolute conclusion.

This ‘science’ of economics seems to be built upon a non-scientific and non-mathematical assumption that economic forces are the expression of a natural truth. To interfere with them is to create an unnatural situation. The creation and enforcement of standards of production are, for example, viewed as an artificial limitation of reality. Even economists who favor these standards see them as necessary and justifiable deformations of economic truth.

Economic truth has replaced such earlier truths as an all-powerful God, and a natural Social Contract. Economics are the new religious core of public policy. But what evidence has been produced to prove this natural right to primacy over other values, methods and activities?

The answer usually given is that economic activity determines the success or failure of a society. It follows that economists are the priests whose necessary expertise will make it possible to maximize the value of this activity. But economic activity is less a cause than an effect—of geographical and climatic necessity, family and wider social structures, the balance between freedom and order, the ability of society to unleash the imagination, and the weakness or strength of neighbors. If anything, the importance given to economics over the last quarter-century has interfered with prosperity. The more we concentrate on it, the less money we make.”

Excerpted from: Saul, John Ralston. The Doubter’s Companion. New York: The Free Press, 1994.

70 Cups of Poison

“The Seventy Cups of Poison are the various sorts of drugs, drinks, devilments and debaucheries available to man. The phrase appears in a description of a seventeenth-century parade in Istanbul: ‘comics, mimic, and mischievous boys of the town, who have exhausted seventy cups of the poison of life and misrule, crowd together day and night…they are divided into twelve companies, the first gypsy, the last Jewish, which included two hundred youths all tumblers, jugglers, fire-eaters, ball players, and cup bearers.’”

Excerpted from: Rogerson, Barnaby. Rogerson’s Book of Numbers: The Culture of Numbers–from 1,001 Nights to the Seven Wonders of the World. New York: Picador, 2013.

Mark Twain on Civilization

“Civilization is a limitless multiplication of unnecessary necessities.”

Mark Twain

Excerpted from: Winokur, Jon, ed. The Portable Curmudgeon. New York: Plume, 1992.

Rotten Reviews: On Robert Frost

“If it were thought that anything I wrote was influenced by Robert Frost, I would take that particular work of mine, shred it, and flush it down the toilet, hoping not to clog the pipes.”

James Dickey

Excerpted from: Barnard, Andre, and Bill Henderson, eds. Pushcart’s Complete Rotten Reviews and Rejections. Wainscott, NY: Pushcart Press, 1998.   

Write It Right: Combine for Combination

“Combine for Combination. The word, in this sense, has something of the meaning of conspiracy, but there is no justification for it as a noun, in any sense.”

Excerpted from: Bierce, Ambrose. Write it Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2010.