Sunday, April 16, 2006

Lazy Long Weekend

We're into the third day of the Easter long weekend in Melbourne, and the weather's wonderful. Slight showers are followed by the sun coming out from behind the clouds. The night air is sharp and cool, and the whole city is calm. It's my kind of weather, alright. It might seem a bit odd to non-Australian readers, but if you ever experience the Australian summer - good for inducing sweats and rashes and attracting flies and mosquitoes; not good for comfort or relaxation - you might see why winter is my favourite time of year, and Melbourne is my favourite city.
We've still got a day and a half of the long weekend to go, and I plan to spend most of it reading. Suitably enough for this time of year, the two books I'm reading have a rather pious theme.

Phantastes is the first book written by George Macdonald, a Christian and mystic from Scotland who fell under the influence of the German romantics. It's a nineteenth century fantasy novel, with a free-flowing, dreamlike plot; a little like the Alice in Wonderland books, but written with a slightly more allegorical intent.
I first came across Phantastes on the seventh floor of Fisher library, an unlikely, gigantic, nine-and-a-half-storey bookshelf in the middle of Sydney University campus. I'm not sure how, exactly, I came across it; I think I'd read of Macdonald's name in connection with C.S. Lewis or G.K. Chesterton and went exploring for other books written by him. I have to say Phantastes was well worth finding.

The other book I'm reading might seem to go a little against the spirit of this weekend:

The Devil's Dictionary is, to my knowledge, the only book Ambrose Bierce ever wrote. I could be very, very wrong about that, though.
I've always been fond of fictional lexicons, and made up dictionaries (see as an example my latest Poet's Dictionary post), although I have to confess that comic writers today have overused the idea. Bierce's work may or may not have been the first 'satirical' dictionary; so if you like, you can blame him for starting it all. If only The Devil's Dictionary wasn't so damned good!
Bierce uses what appears to be a narrow idea - a book of definitions - to ridicule all the established piueties and opinions of his time. The book is compiled, like C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters, by an imaginary diabolic figure: probably Satan himself. And - again like The Screwtape Letters - it's best read with this in mind. It's full of cheery advice to the pious Christian on how best to land themselves in hell. Definitions are occasionally illustrated by short, satirical poems, mostly of Bierce's own invention.
The definitions are sharp and precise, but occasionally - very occasionally - they become fanciful. 'Chimpanzees' are defined as a 'species of pansy grown in Africa'; Abelians as a 'religious denomination' who unfortunately flourished at the same time as 'Canians, and are now extinct'. I guess Bierce's idea was to lighten the harsher satire with more fanciful passages; and it works well.

Perhaps the last word should be left with Bierce - or is it Satan?

Dictionary: A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic.

(Cross posted here.)


At 10:08 AM, Blogger TimT said...

It's been a very long weekend indeed ...

At 10:35 AM, Blogger Tim said...

Yeah, I'm pretty much on a permanent long weekend as far as this place is concerned.


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