17. Hayy ibn Yaqzan.

He kept up the fire with dry grass and a good supply of firewood, tending it day and night because it seemed such a wonderful thing. He liked it best at night when it took the place of the sun, giving warmth and light. It meant so much to him he fell in love with it and was convinced that of all the things he had, this was the best. Seeing how it always moved upwards, as though trying to rise, he supposed it must be one of those jewel-substances he saw shining in the sky.

Abu Bakr ibn Tufayl’s Hayy ibn Yaqzan (sometimes translated as “Alive, son of Awake”—though the title is the main character’s name) is a curious philosophical thought experiment from twelfth-century al-Andalus (which is today southern Spain). Hayy grows up on a paradisiacal island where he is the only human, and through his increasing powers of observation and rational thinking he manages to reinvent both philosophy and religion. Chris and Suzanne explore this tantalizing, almost science-fictional work, talk about how it places Hayy in relation to animals, stars, and the divine, and ask what it tells us about the relationship of philosophy and literature.

[content warning: violence towards animals.}

Show Notes.

Ibn Tufayl: Hayy ibn Yaqzan, translated by Lenn Evan Goodman.

Emily Wilson, who spoke with us about her translation of the Odyssey, just won a MacArthur “Genius” Award!

Andrew Marvell: On a Drop of Dew.

The qissa (or “qissa qasira”, sometimes transliterated as kissa) is a term used by some classical Arabic literary scholars that can translate very loosely as “short story”.

Our episode on Plato’s Symposium.

Our episode on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Avicenna [Ibn Sina]: The Canon of Medicine.

Bernardus Silvestris: Cosmographia.

David Markson: Wittgenstein’s Mistress.

Christine Brooke-Rose: Subscript.

The History of Philosophy without Any Gaps on Ibn Tufayl.

An overview of Hayy ibn Yaqzan by Marwa Elshakry and Murad Idris.

Murad Idris: Producing Islamic philosophy: The life and afterlives of Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy ibn Yaqzan in global history, 1882–1947.

Murad Idris recently gave a talk about politics in Hayy ibn Yaqzan, a transcription of which should soon be made available.

Next episode: Margaret Cavendish: The Blazing World [Gutenberg, Librivox].

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16b. Bonus: Michael Collins on Middlemarch.

Middlemarch is not necessarily interested in epistemology, but it absolutely is interested in the difference between objectively knowing a thing to be true and feeling the truth. And for most people the truth does not enter into their being until they have felt it.

As a bonus to our episode on Middlemarch, we invited writer, podcaster, and personal trainer Michael Collins to join us to talk about his favourite book. We discuss what keeps drawing him back to the novel—and which parts can be difficult to reread. We also finally get to talk about the opinionated narrator of the novel, as well as the striking life of its author, George Eliot.

Show Notes.

Michael Collins is on Twitter, and hosts the podcasts This Is Your Mixtape and Dear Reader. Some of his writings can be found on Medium.

The episodes of This Is Your Mixtape with Chris and Suzanne.

Julian of Norwich: Revelations of Divine Love.

George Eliot: Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.

Virginia Woolf: George Eliot.

For more information about the life of George Eliot, read Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, or watch a talk that Mead gave while writing the book.

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16. Middlemarch.

An eminent philosopher among my friends, who can dignify even your ugly furniture by lifting it into the serene light of science, has shown me this pregnant little fact. Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent.

We begin our cluster on Philosophical novels with Middlemarch, George Eliot’s massive and masterful “study of provincial life”. A sometimes overwhelming number of characters populate a small manufacturing town in the English Midlands around 1830—but the novel focuses on a few “later-born [Saint] Theresas”. People like Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate aspire to do some good in the world, but what does “doing good” look like? And can good be achieved in the world without a nuanced ethical relationship to the others who make up that world? Chris and Suzanne explore how these questions play out in Eliot’s characters, and also look towards Baruch Spinoza, who is quietly behind Eliot’s philosophy.

Show Notes.

Middlemarch. [Project Gutenberg. Librivox.]

The portrait of John Locke.

Chaucer: Man of Law’s Tale.

Teresa of Ávila.

Bernini: Saint Teresa in Ecstasy.

Eliot’s translation of Spinoza’s Ethics will be republished next year.

In the meantime, another translation of the Ethics.

In Our Time has a helpful episode about Spinoza, and they mention Eliot at the very end.

A.S. Byatt on Middlemarch.

Ibn Tufayl: Hayy ibn Yaqzan.

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15b. Bonus: Emily Wilson on the Odyssey.

This is a text which was composed by people who were alive for other people who were alive, which was alive in the mouths of those who were singing and performing it, and so it needs to feel alive again now for the new performances, the new experiences of it—and then also it has to have a sense of a long history, which is going to be enacted through the tools I have, which is the English language.

We are delighted to have Emily Wilson, professor and translator of the Odyssey (and other works), join us at The Spouter-Inn to talk about the task of the translator. When tackling a large work like the Odyssey, where did she begin? What decisions did she make about form, voice, and allusion? And is the finished project a poem by Homer? By Emily Wilson? Or is the situation a bit more complex than that?

A passage.

αὐτίκ᾽ ἔπειθ᾽ ὑπὸ ποσσὶν ἐδήσατο καλὰ πέδιλα,
ἀμβρόσια χρύσεια, τά μιν φέρον ἠμὲν ἐφ᾽ ὑγρὴν
ἠδ᾽ ἐπ᾽ ἀπείρονα γαῖαν ἅμα πνοιῇς ἀνέμοιο.
εἵλετο δὲ ῥάβδον, τῇ τ᾽ ἀνδρῶν ὄμματα θέλγει,
ὧν ἐθέλει, τοὺς δ᾽ αὖτε καὶ ὑπνώοντας ἐγείρει.
τὴν μετὰ χερσὶν ἔχων πέτετο κρατὺς ἀργεϊφόντης.
Πιερίην δ᾽ ἐπιβὰς ἐξ αἰθέρος ἔμπεσε πόντῳ:
σεύατ᾽ ἔπειτ᾽ ἐπὶ κῦμα λάρῳ ὄρνιθι ἐοικώς,
ὅς τε κατὰ δεινοὺς κόλπους ἁλὸς ἀτρυγέτοιο
ἰχθῦς ἀγρώσσων πυκινὰ πτερὰ δεύεται ἅλμῃ:
τῷ ἴκελος πολέεσσιν ὀχήσατο κύμασιν Ἑρμῆς.
ἀλλ᾽ ὅτε δὴ τὴν νῆσον ἀφίκετο τηλόθ᾽ ἐοῦσαν,
ἔνθ᾽ ἐκ πόντου βὰς ἰοειδέος ἤπειρόνδε
ἤιεν, ὄφρα μέγα σπέος ἵκετο, τῷ ἔνι νύμφη
ναῖεν ἐυπλόκαμος: τὴν δ᾽ ἔνδοθι τέτμεν ἐοῦσαν.
πῦρ μὲν ἐπ᾽ ἐσχαρόφιν μέγα καίετο, τηλόσε δ᾽ ὀδμὴ
κέδρου τ᾽ εὐκεάτοιο θύου τ᾽ ἀνὰ νῆσον ὀδώδει
δαιομένων: ἡ δ᾽ ἔνδον ἀοιδιάουσ᾽ ὀπὶ καλῇ
ἱστὸν ἐποιχομένη χρυσείῃ κερκίδ᾽ ὕφαινεν.
ὕλη δὲ σπέος ἀμφὶ πεφύκει τηλεθόωσα,
κλήθρη τ᾽ αἴγειρός τε καὶ εὐώδης κυπάρισσος.
ἔνθα δέ τ᾽ ὄρνιθες τανυσίπτεροι εὐνάζοντο,
σκῶπές τ᾽ ἴρηκές τε τανύγλωσσοί τε κορῶναι
εἰνάλιαι, τῇσίν τε θαλάσσια ἔργα μέμηλεν.

At once he fastened on his feet the sandals
of everlasting gold with which he flies
on breath of air across the sea and land;
he seized the wand he uses to enchant
men’s eyes to sleep or wake as he desires,
and flew. The god flashed bright in all his power.
He touched Pieria, then from the sky
he plunged into the sea and swooped between
the waves, just like a seagull catching fish,
wetting its whirring wings in tireless brine.
So Hermes scudded through the surging swell.
Then finally, he reached the distant island,
stepped from the indigo water to the shore,
and reached the cavern where the goddess lived.
There sat Calypso with her braided curls.
Beside the hearth a mighty fire was burning.
The scent of citrus and of brittle pine
suffused the island. Inside, she was singing
and weaving with a shuttle made of gold.
Her voice was beautiful. Around the cave
a luscious forest flourished: alder, poplar,
and scented cypress. It was full of wings.
Birds nested there but hunted out at sea:
the owls, the hawks, the gulls with gaping beaks.


Show Notes.

Emily Wilson on Twitter and on the web.

In addition to the links we provided with our episode on the Odyssey, you’ll find a list of other interviews on her website. Check them out!

We’ll highlight this interview on Women Translating the Classics.

A sample tweet about her recent translation of Oedipus Tyrannos (aka Oedipus Rex or Oedipus the King).

Lydia Davis’s translation of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.

Resolution and Independence” by William Wordsworth, about a leech-gatherer.

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15. The Odyssey.

“To outwit you 
in all your tricks, a person or a god 
would need to be an expert at deceit. 
You clever rascal! So duplicitous, 
so talented at lying! You love fiction 
and tricks so deeply, you refuse to stop 
even in your own land. Yes, both of us 
are smart. No man can plan and talk like you, 
and I am known among the gods for insight 
and craftiness. You failed to recognize me:             
I am Athena, child of Zeus. I always 
stand near you and take care of you, in all 
your hardships.”

Homer’s Odyssey tells us of a complicated man, Odysseus, who spent ten years away from his family during the Trojan War (for more details, read The Iliad) and spends another ten years trying to get home to his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus. But the Gods intervene, and Odysseus and his men get bounced from one marvellous island to another. Meanwhile, a gaggle of suitors are insisting that Odysseus has been gone so long he must be dead, and they’re going to keep bothering Penelope until she picks one of them to marry. When Odysseus finally gets home, he and Telemachus devise a brutal plan to solve the situation.

Suzanne and Chris have a conversation about how the poem depicts cleverness, home, manliness, and water—and what about it has inspired so many adaptations.

Show Notes.

The Odyssey, in a recent translation by Emily Wilson.

Wilson offers a pronunciation guide to several of the characters on her website.

Wilson has been interviewed by the Los Angeles Review of Books and the New York Times Magazine about her translation.

Suzanne was a guest on This Is Your Mixtape.

We made some ridiculous t-shirts based on The Tempest.

We talked a little about Tiresias in our episode on The Metamorphoses.

James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Dear Reader on Madeline Miller’s Circe and Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad.

Derek Walcott’s Omeros.

Vergil’s Aeneid.

Percy Jackson’s The Lightning Thief.

Our episode on Dante’s Inferno.

Lucian of Samosata’s A True Story.

Next episode: Middlemarch by George Eliot. [Free ebook and audiobook.]

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