Friday, January 02, 2009

I don't know how people become "The Great."

Today is, among other things, the feast day of St. Basil the Great, which begs the question: what do you have to do to get those words "the Great" attached to your name, and why don't we refer to people that way any more?

"The Great" hasn't disappeared completely, to be fair. Catholics still like the tag, and the Diocese of Arlington's newest high school is called Pope John Paul the Great Catholic High School.

It sounds better in Latin, too. The Latin for "the Great" is "Magnus," as in Carolus Magnus, better known as Charlemagne. "The Great" is a designation that usually comes after someone dies, but not always; according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, people referred to Basil as "the Great" even before he died.

It's hard to imagine any living person getting the title in modern times -- except for absolute rulers, who get to call themselves anything they want. (Although, of course, these titles are officially bestowed by the people, as when the Turks hailed Mustafa Kemal as "Ataturk," the Father of Turks. The late Saparmurat Niyazov referred to himself as "Turkmenbashi," or Leader of Turkmens. Perhaps the Turkic languages lend themselves to titles like this? One more thing to add to the list of stuff I don't know.)

Anyway, I'm sorry that "the Great" has fallen out of use, and wish we could bring it back. I propose that we try, and I'll start with one of the sharpest losses of the New Year: the passage of Donald E. Westlake, on New Year's Eve. I consider it perfectly appropriate to refer to him as Westlake the Great, and plan to do so from now on.

What I Read This Week

The good news is that I got five books for Christmas. The bad news is that I'm trying to read them all at once, which means that I only finished two this week.

D.T. Max, THE FAMILY THAT COULDN'T SLEEP: A Medical Mystery. My sister Peggy gave me this book, knowing my weakness for nonfiction about deadly illnesses that I can add to my hypochondria. This fascinating book would give anyone sleepless nights; it's a history of the discovery of prion diseases, such as kuru, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, mad cow disease and the familial fatal insomnia (FFI) described in the title. These are diseases apparently created by not by viruses or bacteria, but by proteins, which are not alive and do not reproduce themselves. Instead, they trigger a reaction that mangles other proteins, creating physical holes in brain tissue. Terrifying, but the good news is that the human race's history of cannibalism seems to offer some people some protection from these diseases; one theory suggests that if it weren't so, mad cow disease would have devastated the British population. As it is, one of my New Year's resolutions is to switch to organic meats only. (Which, in practical terms, means eating much less meat.)

Alex Beam, A GREAT IDEA AT THE TIME: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books. A Christmas gift from my friend and client Joe Finder, who read the book and raved about it. I was especially interested, since Chris is a graduate of St. John's College, home of The Great Books curriculum. Once upon a time, and not so long ago, Americans actually aspired to be more cultured and intellectual, and the Great Books were promoted as tools for social and economic mobility. The men who created the program (yes, of course they were all men) were brilliant eccentrics who bickered among themselves like a group of middle schoolers, and this short book is a gleeful gossip report. Great fun, a priceless look at middlebrow culture (of which I'm proud to be a product) -- and it made me feel so much better about the things I haven't read. Chris, I'm passing this book along to you.


Max Weismann said...

Argumentum ad Hominem

The subtitle should have read, Every Negative Fact and Innuendo I Could Dredge Up

Although he was not particularly unkind to me in the book, I found virtually every page to be a smart-alecky and snide diatribe of the worst order against the Great Books, Adler, Hutchins, et al. Plus the book is replete with errors of commission and omission.

As an effective antidote, I prescribe Robert Hutchins' pithy essay, The Great Conversation.

If the Great Books crusade is as bleak as Beam purports, then happily, not many will read his invective book.

Max Weismann,
President and co-founder with Mortimer Adler, Center for the Study of The Great Ideas
Chairman, The Great Books Academy (3,000 students)

AnswerGirl said...

The book is certainly irreverent in tone, but in fairness, it did make me want to hunt down "The Great Conversation," and made me envy my son's education at St. John's (class of '07). And I thought Beam wrote of both Hutchins and Adler with admiration and affection, though the tone is often gently mocking.

Popular nonfiction is necessarily shallow and flawed, but I didn't take it as an attempt at real history. I actually think this book may send many people back to the Great Books, or at least to some of them, and I wouldn't be surprised if your group sees a surge in activity as a result.

norby said...

Did you know that Will Ferrell named one of his sons Magnus?

AnswerGirl said...

I did not know that -- that is cool. It's not an uncommon name in Scandinavia.

norby said...

I just looked at imdb-his wife is Swedish. Their younger son is named Matthias. I'm not sure many of his fans realize there is a Scandinavian link to it.