Monthly Archives: April 2009

Mark Twain and the contents of the Book of Mormon

Roughing It contains Mark Twain’s famous review of the Book of Mormon (“chloroform in print”), with an oddly not-quite-right list of the contents:

The Mormon Bible consists of fifteen “books”–being the books of Jacob, Enos, Jarom, Omni, Mosiah, Zeniff, Alma, Helaman, Ether, Moroni, two “books” of Mormon, and three of Nephi.

This is mostly correct, except that there are actually four books of Nephi and no separate book of Zeniff. The record of Zeniff is contained within the book of Mosiah, comprising chapters 9-22 of that 29-chapter book. The omitted book, 4 Nephi, is tiny, consisting of a single chapter.

If some early Christian writer had given a similarly not-quite-right list of the Bible’s contents, we would take it as evidence that the Bible actually consisted of a different collection of books at that time, but in the case of the Book of Mormon there are so many surviving copies of the first and other early editions that we know that, while a few words have been changed from edition to edition, the list of books was never any different.

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Reading: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

I’ve read the following works by Goethe:

  • The Sorrows of Young Werther and Selected Writings, translated by Catherine Hutter (16 Jun 2007)
  • Faust, Part I, translated by Peter Salm (20 Jun 2007)
  • Goethe’s Faust, Part One and Selections from Part Two, translated by Walter Kaufmann (18 Nov 2007)
  • Faust (Part Two), translated by Philip Wayne (12 Apr 2009)

I’ve read three different translations of (parts of) Faust and can compare them. The following pivotal passage is from Part One, but it is quoted in the preface to Wayne’s translation of Part Two, so I have all three translators’ versions.


If ever I should tell the moment:
Oh, stay! You are so beautiful!
Then you may cast me into chains,
then I shall smile upon perdition!
Then may the hour toll for me,
then you are free to leave my service.
The clock may halt, the clock hand may fall,
and time come to an end for me!


If to the moment I should say:
Abide, you are so fair–
Put me in fetters on that day,
I wish to perish then, I swear.
Then let the death bell ever toll,
Your service done, you shall be free,
The clock may stop, the hand may fall,
As time comes to an end for me.


If to the fleeting hour I say
“Remain, so fair thou art, remain!”
Then bind me with your fatal chain,
For I will perish in that day.
‘Tis I for whom the bell shall toll,
Then you are free, your service done.
For me the clock shall fail, to ruin run,
And timeless night descend upon my soul.

Salm’s prose translation is presumably the most literal of the three, if a bit, well, prosaic. Of the two verse translations, Kaufmann’s is much closer to Salm’s than Wayne’s is. Based on that, and on what German I know (which is precious little, but even I know the difference between an hour and an Augenblick!), I’d say Kaufmann’s translation is the best of the three, retaining the poetry of the original (as Salm does not) without straying too far from the original meaning (as Wayne seems to). Unfortunately Kaufmann didn’t translate the entire play, and his “selections” from the second part are no substitute for the whole shebang. Although I’d consider it the worst of the three translations, Wayne’s Part Two was still a more intense aesthetic experience than either of the other two books, thanks to the content. Later I hope I can find an uncut translation as skilled as Kaufmann’s abridged one.

Other major works by Goethe that I want to read later:

  • Elective Affinities
  • Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship
  • Dichtung und Wahrheit

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Reading: Mozi

  • Mozi: Basic Writings, selected and translated by Burton Watson (8 Apr 2009)

Mozi is the anti-Confucius. Some of the main points of his philosophy are:

  • Benevolence should be universal and absolutely impartial. Even one’s own countrymen and family members should not receive preferential treatment. Confucius, in contrast, taught people to “treat relatives as relatives.”
  • Music, elaborate funerals, and anything else that consumes resources but is of no utilitarian usefulness to the people, should be suppressed. Music and ritual are of course central to Confucian thought.
  • The people should be actively encouraged to believe in and fear ghosts, because such a belief will motivate right behavior. Confucius refused to discuss ghosts or other supernatural entities.

In a lot of ways, Mozi was the proto-liberal, and while nearly everything about his philosophy feels wrong, it’s not always easy to figure out exactly why. I have a lot of notes and reflections on Mohism stored away on my computer, and one of these days I’ll put them together into a coherent post. I consider it a very important, very relevant philosophy.

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